On a whim, I acquired a copy of The Medieval Mystical Tradition in England, edited by Marion Glasscoe. It concerns the papers that were the proceedings of the Exeter Symposium IV: Dartington 1987. And the first of these papers concerns The Mystics and the Early English Printers, and is by George R. Keiser.
I confess this is not my usual territory, but I found it all very interesting. The objective of this particular paper is to argue about points regarding Wynkyn de Worde’s significance in printing in England. Wynkyn was a Dutch emigrant who first worked with Caxton, but in 1500 set up on his own to approach printing from his own perspective. Caxton was apparently not much inclined to print in English, but Wynkyn de Worde did just that.
That is not my interest here, because my Ricardian leanings take me down a side road. By that I mean, a little delve into the literacy, or lack of it, of the royals of the late 15th century.
Caxton had done well under the Yorkist kings. There is a famous Victorian painting of Edward IV and his family visiting Caxton’s printing press, and according to Weiser, it is generally accepted that the kings who preceded Henry VII were well educated and prepared for their royal role. According to me, this is especially true of Richard III, Edward’s youngest brother, who was particularly literate.
Strangely, he doesn’t get a mention. I know he only reigned for two years, but that is no excuse for eliminating him, so I will rectify the omission by directing you to http://www.richardiii.net/2_1_0_richardiii.php where the section on his books reveals him to have been unusually steeped in literature. So, far from having little to do with printing, he was quite clearly very interested and involved. And he possessed a copy of the Bible in the English language.
Flourishing under the Yorkists meant life was not so easy after Bosworth, of course, and both Caxton and Wynkyn rather cannily approached Margaret Beaufort, who, whatever we may think of her, was a very literate woman. Wynkyn eventually styled himself “Prynter vnto the moost excellent Pryncesse my lady the Kynges mother”. She and Elizabeth of York were often approached together, and appear to have commissioned a number of book editions to give to their friends. It is not so well known how literate Elizabeth of York was, but there is, apparently, a surviving print book that contains the signatures of both ladies.
That the printers approached the ladies rather than King Henry VII might be explained by the following passage from Keiser’s paper: “…The new king had apparently come to the throne without the education and training that his predecessors had enjoyed (Chrimes Henry VII). Whether he had the literary, chivalric and devotional interests that might have inspired his patronage of the press remains an unanswered question; so too does the question why the new dynasty did not seize the opportunity to exploit the press for propaganda purposes…”
Huh??? Henry missed a chance for more propaganda? Hard to believe.
But I must be fair to Henry regarding his literacy. He spoke a number of languages, and was a highly intelligent man! Mind you, I must say that it is easier to speak a language than to write it. Even so, I have always regarded him as well educated, if not exactly well prepared to be king.
Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, (mother of Edward IV and Richard III, and grandmother of Elizabeth of York, and Henry’s grandmother-in-law) was particularly distinguished for her pious life and collection of devotional writings which she bequeathed to various granddaughters.
So the royal ladies of the late 15th century were educated and literate, a fact that is often overlooked. The men are credited with being as deft with the quill as they were with the sword, while the women did nothing in particular. Is that not the usual image with which we are presented?
Finally, a rather favourite of lady of mine; indeed, the lady after whom I called myself ‘viscountessw’. Cicely, Viscountess Welles, was Elizabeth of York’s next sister in age, and therefore another daughter of Edward IV. She became the wife of John Welles, Viscount Welles, who was Margaret Beaufort’s half-brother. Thus Cicely was also Henry VII’s sister-in-law…and his aunt by marriage was well! A very highly connected lady.
Above is an example of her signature, which has been described as ‘barely literate’. It has always grieved my modern self to think this description might indeed be appropriate. However, today, in this newly acquired book, I found the following:- “…A book-list preserved in British Library MS. Royal 15.D.2 attests that yet another of her [Cecily Neville’s] grand-daughters, Cicely Welles, had an extensive library of chivalric and devotional writings, some of which must have been printed books…”
Here is a transcript of the BL MS:-
“…Origin: England. Lionel de Welles (b. c.1406, d. 29 March 1461), 6th Baron Welles, perhaps owned by him (see M. Hamel, ‘Arthurian Romance’, Modern Language Quarterly, 51(1990)). John Welles, Viscount Welles (d. 1499), soldier and administrator, perhaps belonged to him: a list of woods sales mentioning John’s property in Well (now Welle Park, Lincolnshire) and other places in the proximity of his properties in Well and Belleau, including a reference to a personal property ‘a nacur in my nawn manour in modurwode [Motherwood, near Alferd]’, (f. 215v) (see Egbert, ‘The So-called “Greenfield” La Lumiere as lais’, Speculum, 11 (1936), pp. 446-48); and a list of books in English, written probably in the same hand, including the present manuscript: inscribed, ‘In primus a boke in France clakld pokelypse / A boke of knghte hode / A boke of Caunturbere tlase / A boke of Charlman / A boke þe lyfe of our ladys lyfe / A boke the sheys of Thebes / A boke cald vita mixta / A boke cald þe vii poyntes of true love / A boke cald þe sheys of Jherusalem / A boke cald mort Arthro / A boke cald dyuys et paupar / A boke cald cronackols / A boke cald legend aure / A boke cald facekelus temporum [perhaps a text by the Carthusian Rolevink, printed in 1475]’, end of the 15th century (f. 211r).Cecilia Welles (d. 1507), daughter of Edward IV, king of England, wife of John Welles: inscribed with her name ‘Ciecyl Welles’ (now effaced…”
Well, the above paragraph does not say all the books were inscribed with Cicely’s name…or does it? I’m not quite sure. And yes, she may simply have liked looking at them, but on the other hand, perhaps she could read them perfectly well. I hope so. She became very close to Margaret Beaufort, which perhaps would not have been the case if Cicely had been an uneducated nitwit.
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?
It is always a pleasure to visit the sumptuous J. Pierpont Morgan Museum and Library located in the Murray Hill section of New York City. Built in 1906, designed by the esteemed architectural firm of McKim, Meade and White, it is breathtakingly beautiful as well as a unique source of medieval riches, housing one of the smallest yet select collection of illuminated manuscripts and medieval art. Every once in a while, the curators dip into this archival treasure trove and fish out something that makes spending the exorbitant exhibition costs well worth it! This year, they have given us a tiny but interesting group of printed manuscripts from the late 15th century produced in Ghent and London from the printing press of English merchant and diplomat, William Caxton. Caxton came twenty years after Johann Gutenberg but apparently wasted no time learning the craft and using his knowledge of English, Latin and French to produce key works of literature, ranging from the Bible to Chaucer and Malory, an early encyclopedia as well as the first illustrated English book, “The Mirror of the World” published in 1481.
In this, of course, he was helped along by those highly intelligent royals – The Plantagenets – starting with Margaret of York (Duchess of Burgundy) who patronized the finest book artists in Europe. On display is one of her illuminated manuscripts called “Apocalypse” written or translated by the scribe, David Aubert, and published in 1475.
In 1476, probably encouraged by Margaret,Caxton set up a press at Westminster Abby with illustrious clients such as Earl Rivers and the future Richard the Third. Sadly, while much emphasis is placed on Margaret’s and Edward IV’s encouragement of Caxton, there is no mention of Richard the Third in the exhibit. As Ricardians know, Richard had a library of his own and was a great champion of the English language as well as a patron of Caxton. Two books on display – one an unusual Canterbury Tales with woodcuttings and a volume simply called”The Royal Book,” a much-used edition with a leather embossed cover and rubricated lettering, date directly from his reign (1483).
Perhaps the most interesting, and certainly the most intimate exhibit is a printed indulgence from the workshop of Caxton requesting that Richard Hopton, headmaster of Eton College, be forgiven for promoting war against the Ottomans. Included is the papal seal of Pope Innocent VIII – a blood-red wax replica of what looks like a mitre worn by a bishop. The seal was so carefully broken that it retains a perfect shape.
Perhaps the most important takeaway of this exhibition is Caxton’s work to help stabilize the English language by promoting one dialect – the so-called London dialect – which went on to form the basis of modern English.
The Exhibition last through September 20, 2015.