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A tale of monarchs and national anthems

Anyone who has watched a Scottish rugby or association football match will be familiar with the Corries’ folk song O Flower of Scotland, which is played before their matches. The second line of the chorus (“Proud Edward’s army”) refers to Edward II, defeated at Bannockburn so that he never actually ruled Scotland although he may have technically been their King by marriage. I have chosen Barbara Dickson’s version.

The Netherlands’ national anthem, the Wilhelminus, is named after William the Silent, a Protestant monarch assassinated in 1584 during an ongoing independence war against the Spanish forces. Paradoxically, perhaps, it is sung lustily among a sea of orange flags at football internationals.

Can you think of any other monarchs mentioned in anthems?

My versions of mediaeval Kings

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?

Medieval kings needed their queens emotionally and physically….

Royal, f. 375 detail

We are always being told that medieval aristocratic marriages (and indeed most medieval marriages) were arranged and did not feature love. The object was to increase property and lands, enhance a family’s reputation and produce as many heirs as was humanly possible. I pity those women who had a child a year throughout their married life. No modern medicine should anything go wrong, just a sad demise and a husband immediately seeking a replacement.


Was it like that? Looking at records you’d certainly think so, yet there are some very famous examples of kings and magnates who fell apart when they lost their queens. I have chosen three  such men, Richard II, George of Clarence and Henry VII . Their marriages were dynastic, or at least arranged for profit, yet the brides seemed to have won these men’s hearts and dependence.


Anne of Bohemia wasn’t much of a catch as far as Richard II was concerned, but he chose her over a much wealthier Visconti bride who would have brought a huge dowry and a lot of influence in Italy. Anne, on the other hand, had to be purchased from her brother! She was not a popular choice in England, but by choosing her, it’s almost as if Richard sensed she was the one for him. Yes, a fanciful notion on my part, but the pair were happy together, seemingly from the outset, and when she died he tore down the palace where she had breathed her last. It’s said he would not go anywhere he had been with her, although I think that is probably a myth. He could hardly refuse to go into Westminster Abbey, for instance.

Richard’s interests were in the arts, not warfare, and throughout his life, from being a boy king, he was surrounded my warlike barons and grasping uncles. He was, as the old song goes, “a lonely little petunia in an onion patch”. And those onions were big and generally hostile.


English history would have been very different if Anne had given him heirs. He certainly crumbled when she died suddenly, descending into a state that is always referred to as a tyranny. The petunia grew gigantic and poisonous, developed thorns and began to weed out the onions, spreading itself swiftly into their vacated places. But Richard went too far. His word was never to be trusted and he made some unbelievably bad decisions, so that he eventually lost his kingdom to his cousin, who became the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV. Had Anne’s gentle influence kept Richard in check? I would guess so. Without her, he went haywire.


I would also guess that Isabel Neville had the same soothing effect on George of Clarence, whose notoriously unpredictable and rash temperament eventually led to his death in the Tower, branded a traitor by his brother, Edward IV. The legend of George being drowned in a butt of malmsey may be just a legend, or it might be founded in truth. Did George have a drink problem?

He was certainly a very unhappy man, the middle brother, angry and resentful…and maybe possessed of the knowledge that his elder brother’s marriage was bigamous. That would make George the next trueborn heir to the throne. But the truth never came out, and although he’d misbehaved considerably before Isabel’s death in childbed, he certainly imploded when she was no longer there.

He had married her to get at the enormous inheritance of her father, the Earl of Warwick (whom he also hoped would help him to the throne) but Isabel proved to be good for him. Maybe you will not agree with my assessment of George, but the fact remains that he was never the same again after losing her.


Finally there is Henry VII. He was obliged to marry Elizabeth of York. He’d made a vow before invading England that he would unite the warring houses of York and Lancaster through marriage, and once treachery had made him king, he resented the thought of having a Yorkist bride forced upon him. He delayed as long as he could, until he was told to get on with it. So they were married. What that wedding night was like we will never know, because he was a resentful groom, and she was probably an equally resentful bride. But a son and heir was born eight months later, so they didn’t lie back to back until the morning.

Like Richard II and George of Clarence before him, Henry came to rely on Elizabeth’s gentle influence, and their marriage was certainly successful. She wasn’t the first lady of his realm, his mother had that honour, but Elizabeth was the one who shared his bed…and perhaps his confidences. The one with whom he could relax and enjoy a little welcome privacy.

When she died, he went to pieces. He shut himself away for weeks on end, broken with grief. He was never an easy man, but she had won his heart and his trust, and now he had lost her. The Henry who emerged from hiding was not the same man. All the worst aspects of his character, seemingly held in check when Elizabeth was there for him, now came to the fore with a vengeance. He was cruel, rapacious, spiteful, grasping and hated, and the populace believed he had nothing more on his mind than planning how to screw more money out of them. The royal coffers bulged. The illustration below is probably not far from the truth. He and his notorious henchmen, Empson and Dudley, putting their heads together in some new royal skulduggery or other.


Very few mourned Henry when he finally passed away, leaving England in the tender clutches of his son and heir, Henry VIII, from whom all women should have been immunised!

Now, I do not deny that there were love matches in the medieval period—of course there were—but I do not think they were the majority. Most marriages were a case of gradual respect, affection, and if they were lucky, of love itself. I believe Richard II, George of Clarence and Henry VII loved their wives, and once those ladies had gone, the inner demons took over.


Richard just HAD to be one of the seven….!

13c manuscript depicting coronation - believed Edward II

Richard HAD to be one of the seven. He may have only reigned for a couple of years, but what years they were. And if he’d won at Bosworth, what a wonderful age his reign would have been. The legislation passed at his parliament was a mere taste of what he wanted to do for England. A great king murdered by feckless traitors, who by their betrayals opened the door for the blood-stained House of “Tudor”.

Biased? Moi? Yes, of course, but that doesn’t make me wrong.

A Bawdy Book about Bawds . . . !


 For Hale Review - stews of Bankside at time of coronation of Edward VI - 15th February 1547

The above picture shows the stews of Bankside on the occasions of Edward VI’s coronation.

THE BISHOP’S BROTHELS by E.J. Burford (Hale, ISBN 978-0-7198-1657-4) is concerned with the Bankside whorehouses—the Bishop’s Brothels—and a fascinating book it is. I had always known of the stews of Southwark, but not that the licensed brothels were originally fine houses with gardens. Eventually the houses were divided, or pulled down, and the land subdivided until it was a warren. Now, I can imagine those dark, filthy alleys, with men risking life and limb to lie with a whore who might have fifty or more customers in a day. Those unfortunate women worked until they died of exhaustion or disease . . . or were too old to appeal.

The descriptions of the area and its denizens are wonderful, and the plight of the women is drawn with great sensitivity. It was not easy to be female in those days, and far too many had no option but to sell themselves. Without that, they could not live, or provide for their families. But even though at times, women outnumbered men by 7 to 1, supply could never meet demand. 

Thinking of the infamous ‘stews’ (brothels) of the Bankside in Southwark—which, incidentally, were providing a very nice profit for the Bishop of Winchester, on whose land they proliferated—does not usually make one also think of which king happened to be on the throne at which time. But it is a fact that the sexual mores of each king had a direct impact on the stews. A licentious monarch usually meant leniency for the inhabitants of the brothels, whereas a pious king would be likely to impose restrictions. One notable exception to this rule was Henry VIII, who had an abundance of wives and mistresses, but who closed the Bankside whorehouses down when he eschewed the Catholic Church and commenced the Protestant Church of England. Why did he do it? Because the Pope would not give him a divorce from Katherine of Aragon and he wanted to marry Anne Boleyn instead. He was a hypocrite of the first order, methinks.

Of the other kings, William II (‘Rufus’) is described as licentious, so the Bankside whorehouses prospered, as they had not under his gloomy father, the Conqueror. Henry I was sexually profligate – Bankside did even better. Henry II—‘given to fleshly lust’—gave the brothels a new status that was to last for 400 years. Richard I (‘Lionheart’) whored around, John was guilty of ‘unbelievably immoral behaviour’. Henry III was ‘continent’, yet a source claims he died from syphilis. Edward I was ‘of puritan disposition’. Edward II built himself a ‘retreat’ at Bankside, which says all that needs to be said. Edward III liked to put it about, as the saying goes, and eventually died (it is suspected) of ‘an enlarged prostate infected with gonorrhoea’.

Richard II was faithful to his wife, and when she died he went to pieces, eventually being deposed by his first cousin, Henry IV, who died ‘in a syphilitic condition’. Henry V died young, it is believed of dysentery, but had led a high old life in his youth. Just ask Shakespeare. Henry VI was pious, and often imbecilic, and died when he became inconvenient to his successor, Edward IV. Edward was profligate. Full stop. He liked women and had as many of them as he could. He was also cruel in his treatment of them. The Bankside flourished greatly! Edward V, a mere boy, did not live long enough to be anything. Richard III was known to be a faithful husband. Henry VII was the same, and not very well disposed towards whores. Then came Henry VIII, whose effect on the brothels has already been mentioned, and who died of, among other things, syphilis. And so on through the rest of the Tudors and Stuarts.

So, it was the character (or not) of each king that most influenced the activities of the Bishop of Winchester’s ‘geese’. Before prostitution was made illegal, there were eighteen licensed whorehouses—and many more unlicensed—at the Bankside, all on the Bishop of Winchester’s land, all supplying him with a goodly income. A clash of principles? Apparently not, because the Church was notorious for its duplicity in this respect, with priests and bishops fornicating with the best of them. So, on the one hand the Church fulminated against the sin of whoring, while on the other it pocketed the proceeds.

Southwark lay across the river from London, and was outside its jurisdiction, which was why all the fun and games were to be had there. Men poured across London Bridge to enjoy some debauchery, and most probably ended up with the clap, or worse. Venereal disease reached epidemic proportions, and it was known that sexual intercourse was how it was spread. There were no condoms in England until the time of Charles II. Unwanted pregnancies abounded, and syphilis wrought havoc, misery and, ultimately, death. Yet still they patronised the stews in their thousands. It was only when the Great Plague decimated the population in 1665, and the Great Fire of London of 1666 destroyed so much that the Bankside ‘pleasure’ ground finally bit the dust, so to speak. Not that prostitutes and whoremasters disappeared, of course, they merely moved elsewhere and carried on as before. By 1700, the whole area had become a bleak place of warehouses and wharves.

I really enjoyed this work. There are one or two odd errors, such as Edward II dying at ‘Kerkelsey’ instead of Berkeley, and St Anthony’s Fire being confused with syphilis. Another is that Henry VII had Mary Boleyn as his lifelong mistress. Henry VII didn’t have any known mistress, and if he’d bedded Mary throughout his reign, she’d have been a bit long in the tooth by the time his son got around to her and her sister, Anne Boleyn. But these are minor matters, because it is the wealth of information about the Southwark stews themselves that is at the heart of everything.

Read it and enjoy its bawdiness, for a book about bawds cannot help but be bawdy. It is entertaining and informative from beginning to end, and a treasure well worthy of high praise. Thoroughly recommended, although verification from another source might not be a bad idea if you intend to use the data for anything other than just enjoyable reading.

Sandra Heath Wilson

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