Why is it that one particular image will capture the perceived essence of a medieval king in one’s mind?
When one hears music for the first time, it will be that first rendition/interpretation that stays, and by which one will judge all others. At least, that is how it is with me. No matter how many recordings of Max Bruch’s incomparable Violin Concerto No. 1 in G Minor I hear, the only one that will always be ultimate perfection is by Jascha Heifetz, who passed away in 1987. The recording I have is on vinyl, from the very early 1960s. It is matchless, and reduces me to tears every time I hear it.
I am not saying that images of medieval kings do the same, just that there will always be one that stands out and cries, “Here I am! This is how I really was!” Except The above likenesses are not from the kings’ actual periods, because most medieval illustrations are standardised and give nothing away of the real men within. So my impressions are gained from paintings or performances that arrest my attention.
Above you will see some of them. You may not agree with my choice, but that is the point. They are my choice. Edward I will always be Patrick McGoohan to me. A face like handsome granite, and a voice like gravel. The ultimate in strong kings.
Blake Ritson in ‘Pillars of the Earth’ epitomised my idea of the young Edward III, dashing and flirtatious, yet incredibly brave and a brilliant warrior. This performance brought Edward to the fore for me. Loved it. It was because of this Edward that I bought Ian Mortimer’s ‘Perfect King’, which is a great biography.
Alan Howard’s Richard II was visually perfect – as the real Richard II, not from anyone’s play. Richard II is perhaps one of the most complex kings to ever rule England. He fascinates, but never gives his inner self away. A monarch who really believed he was on the throne by divine right.
Tom Hiddleston created Henry V for me. This king has never inspired me, even though he did amazing things on the battle field. He just doesn’t do it, if you know what I mean. But if I think of him, I think Tom Hiddleston. One thing that is not in Henry’s favour, of course, if that he selfishly and thoughtlessly died young! If he hadn’t done that, his widow would never have become embroiled with someone called Tudor! So, it’s Henry V’s fault.
The painting of Edward IV and his family with Caxton was riveting from the first moment. There he is, larger than life and absolutely gorgeous in red with white fur. He is the Sun in Splendour. No wonder the fair sex fell at his feet. What an attractive, commanding figure he must have been. Such a pity that he deteriorated into a blob. I’m reminded of Elvis Presley, so fit and lithe as a young man, but an overweight parody toward the end. Edward IV, in his prime, is this image for me. Let’s not think of what he was to become.
Then we have Richard III, of course. Graham Turner’s painting says it all for me. This Richard should have won, and skewered Henry Tudor in the process. He was cheated of victory, but in these captured moments before the battle commenced, he is magnificent. Handsome, tragic, noble, trapped by circumstances that were created by others and forced upon him like millstones. No getting old and perhaps ugly for him, he will be young forever, and matchless forever. No wonder he still inspires such loyalty.
Finally there is the Whitehall mural of Henry VII, which was painted in the 17th century, after Holbein. Henry is tall, almost willowy, and definitely serpentine. Now that I have seen a picture of his funeral effigy here, I believe he really did look like this. Almost as if his limbs were on the point of disconnection. A real clothes horse. He wasn’t dressed, he was draped with kingly finery, and I am sure he didn’t walk, he glided. A flicking forked tongue as well? Probably not, but the last thing the unwary would ever hear would be a hiss…
Yes, I’ve missed some: Edward II, Henry IV, Henry VI…perhaps because I have yet to pinpoint them. I don’t think Henry VI will ever take shape for me, but I’d like to have a mental picture of Edward II and Henry IV. We know so much about them, but their physical appearance remains mysterious. To me, at least. They still swirl around in the ether of my mind, and will maybe drop down into place soon.
So, there you have some of my kings. What would your choice be?