Book Review – “The Coronation of Richard III: the Extant Documents” by Anne F. Sutton and P. W. Hammond
The date was the 5th of July, in the year 1483, and the City of London played host to one of the most remarkable displays of pomp and circumstance seen in recent memory. Amid much bustling at the Tower, there emerged a procession led by minstrels and trumpeters in red liveries, heralds wearing coats of arms in beaten gold, and sergeants of arms, yeomen and grooms sporting the device of the new King: the white boar. The Mayor, aldermen and councilmen of the City had completed their preparations in the wards through which the procession was to pass, and they took up their positions, wearing their scarlet finery. Shop boards had been taken down, gutters cleaned, and new gravel laid on the streets. City monuments such as the Standard and Cross in Cheapside shone with fresh coats of paint and gilding. Conduits spouted with wine. Choirs of children gathered at various points, their high fluting voices joining with the sound of shawms and sackbuts. Householders along the route hung out violet and scarlet banners, fine tapestries and cloths of gold and silk, and packed themselves into their front windows and galleries to see the spectacle.
They waited to see King Richard III on his steed, dressed in blue cloth of gold wrought with “nets” and “pineapples” under a riding gown of purple velvet, heavily furred with ermine and sewn with over 3000 ermine tails. On his heels he wore a pair of gilt spurs, around his neck a rich jeweled collar, and on his left leg a garter of the Order of St. George. He went bareheaded and four knights carried a canopy of red and green baldachin over his head. Following the King, came the procession of Queen Anne, who sat in a “litter” of white cloth of gold and damask, her hair loose over her shoulders, and a rich circlet inlaid with pearls and precious stones around her head. The procession wound its way from the Tower to the palace at Westminster, where the king and queen would sleep for the night.
It was the first double coronation to be conducted in England since 1308, when Edward II and Queen Isabella were crowned. Not even France had seen a double coronation since that of Charles V and Jeanne de Bourbon in 1364. What followed were two days of pageantry, a solemn crowning of the new monarch and his queen with all the holy relics and regalia that accompanied a tradition dating back for hundreds of years, and culminating in a joyous feast where 49 dishes were prepared for the 3,000 nobles, gentry, knights, and prominent common people in attendance.
And, amazingly, all of this was planned and executed in a matter of ten days.
It is to the 73 tailors and 91 skinners who worked a combined 1,209 days in man-hours, and all the other men and women who labored to prepare a double coronation in less than two weeks, that Anne F. Sutton and P.W. Hammond dedicate their text “The Coronation of Richard III: the Extant Documents”, first published in Great Britain in 1983 and the United States in 1984. The book not only is sumptuous in its detailed descriptions of the pageantry and its players, but it also provides primary source materials for the history student. Included are five documents: the accounts of the Great Wardrobe, records of the barons of the Cinque Ports who held hereditary rights to participate in the coronation, a manuscript of the Little Device of Richard III, a description of the coronation, and texts relating to the post-coronation banquet which describe the enormous amounts of spices and victuals required for such an affair. A General Introduction summarizes the highlights and the theses of the book; an annotated chronology from 9 April-13 July 1483 gives a context for the political maneuverings leading up to the grand events; and biographies are provided of all the notable personages involved. Rounding this out are chapters on the royal regalia and the Court of Claims held on 3 July, and a twenty-page bibliography of resources. In short, it is hard to imagine a more comprehensive treatment of Richard III’s double coronation. This text should prove invaluable to anyone curious about the English coronation tradition as well as the mysteries and controversies that continue to surround the reign of this oft-misunderstood monarch. What emerges is a figure from history that is more nuanced than that portrayed by Shakespeare.
From the Great Wardrobe accounts, the authors are able to reconstruct precisely what Richard and Anne wore during the Vigil procession on the 5th of July and the coronation ceremonies the following day, how horses were trapped, what banners were carried. Besides the great quantities of cloth of gold and damask ordered from the wardrobe, and the vast number of dishes prepared for the banquet, one of the more charming aspects is that the authors tease out individuals who might otherwise be overlooked by the casual reader of Ricardian history. For instance, we learn about William Melbourne, one of the King’s painters, whose job included applying his skills to trumpet banners, the heralds’ coats of arms, the cognizances of the white boar, and the flags of the Trinity, St. George and St. Cuthbert. He prospered well and went on to become a draper, a merchant, and a chamberlain of the City of London. The fact that he could supply 13,000 boar badges made of fustian to Richard III, all “of his store”, indicated that he had a sizeable workshop in 1483. Other individuals, such as Christian Colborne and “Nichodemus”, the former a painter from “Almain” and the latter a trumpeter from Rome, reveal the contributions of aliens and immigrants.
The authors also address some of the misconceptions and debates surrounding Richard III’s coronation. They convincing argue that Richard and Anne were not crowned simultaneously, as that would have required a significant deviation from both the Liber Regalis and Little Device, and would have required a complete re-ordering of the prayers as laid out in the Fourth Ordo. Rather, it is much more likely that Richard and Anne were crowned, one after the other, followed by a Mass. They explain that Richard and Anne were likely not naked from the waist up during the anointing ceremony, but rather – as the Great Wardrobe accounts show – special undergarments were made for this part of the ceremony. The belief of nakedness derives from a modern misconception of the word “naked” or “bare-footed”. Richard likely did not enter the Abbey bare-footed, but rather in his hose. They also convincingly make the case that Richard was the first known king of England to take his coronation oath in English, although there is no evidence as to what language was used between 1399 and 1483. Some speculation is supplied as to why Richard used the vernacular language; perhaps it was because he was not fluent in French as he never lived there, or – according to the authors – it was important to him for publicity and propagandistic purposes, given how many times he subsequently referred to the oath in missives and letters.
Because this is such a long text, over 500 pages including the index, it is unsurprising that there are some typographical and grammatical errors, but they are not glaring or distracting. Perhaps one of its weaknesses is the authors’ tendency to make redundant observations. It is hammered home that the 1483 coronation was the first double one since 1308, perhaps a little too vigorously. We are informed on multiple occasions of the English desire to simulate the French coronation, for example by using the chrism of St. Becket’s holy oil for anointing the king, imitating the French use of sacred Clovis oil. In their desire to be comprehensive and fair to all sides of a debate, the reader can get so caught up in the many details and counter-opinions that one sometimes struggles to find the authors’ ultimate conclusion. And sometimes outdated theories, such as Horace Walpole’s theory that Richard III only planned to hold the throne temporarily until Edward V obtained the age of 24, are brought to the analysis. There are also very few plates and illustrations – a total of only nine plates – but this reviewer particularly enjoyed seeing the indenture made by Richard III concerning the holy oil of St. Becket, by which he ordered it be stored by the monks at Westminster Abbey along with St. Edward’s crown and other royal regalia, and that it should be delivered to him upon request.
Some might question why a review of an out-of-print text from 1983 is warranted or even worthy, when so many other books are being published in the wake of the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton. Actually, it is for that very reason that an assessment of past texts may be warranted. Presently, there seems to be such a flood of blogs, books (both fiction and non-fiction), newspaper articles, Facebook discussion boards, etc., that we may lose sight of gems from the past. “The Coronation of Richard III” is such a gem, and deserves to be on the bookshelves of Ricardians and history buffs alike. Through all those cloths of gold and damasks, all those dishes of salted river lampreys, all those elaborate liturgical prayers and processes, a picture definitely emerges that Richard III knew how to use the spectacle of monarchy to its fullest political and symbolic extent.