Channel Five’s reputation for history programmes has risen greatly over the past few years. At the heart of this, first in a Great Fire of London series with Suzannah Lipscomb and the ubiquitous Dan Jones, has been the “engineering historian” Rob Bell, who has toured bridges, ships, buildings and lost railways in his own amiable, enthusiastic but authoritative style.
Now, only four days after completing series two of Britain’s Lost Railways, Bell is back, touring some of our great battlefields. The series, initially shown on 5Select, starts at Bannockburn, progresses to Hastings, Watling Street, Bosworth and Naseby, as well as Kett’s Rebellion. Perhaps the six episodes could have been shown chronologically by the battle years?
The third, fourth and fifth shows, however, do form a neat triangle in the East Midlands, if you accept the suggested location of the Battle of (the very long) Watling Street. Featuring historians such as Matthew Lewis, Julian Humphreys and Mike Ingram, the hangun (or arquebus) is described with respect to Bosworth, as is the evolution of the musket to the forms used at Naseby, together with commanders such as Fairfax and the Bohemian brothers: Rupert and Maurice.
Reconstruction of a Medieval Painting from St Stephen’s Chapel. Possibly Queen Philippa with her daughter. Ernest William Tristram c.1927. Worked from original drawings made by the antiquarian Richard Smirke 1800-1811 before the fire of 1834. Society of Antiquities. Parliamentary Art Collection
St Stephen’s was the medieval royal chapel of the Kings and Queens of England and part of the old Palace of Westminster. What a jewel in England’s crown and what a loss. Destroyed by a fire in 1834 that also destroyed what was left of the old palace, which had already lost its royal apartments in a fire in the 1530s. King Stephen is said to have built the original chapel, first mentioned in the reign of King John 1199-1216, with Edward lst beginning a major refurbishment in 1292. The architect was Michael of Canterbury who also designed the beautiful Eleanor Crosses. On two levels the rebuild took over 70 years to complete which seems to have been because of the ebb and flow of the finances of the first three Edwards. The top level was for the use of the Royal Family and a door south of the altar lead to the royal apartments. It must have been a sight to behold…with it ceiling painted in azure and thousands of stars of gold. The lower chapel, darker because it was slightly below ground level, was known as St Mary Undercroft, and after being used for numerous purposes over the centuries , including some say Cromwell stabling his horses there, has managed to survive to this very day and back to its original use, that of a chapel.
Kings and queens who happened to die while residing in Westminster Palace were taken to the chapel to lie in repose. Among those to lie there before their burial, usually in the Abbey, was the ‘seemly, amiable and beauteous’ Queen Anne Neville, daughter of Warwick the Kingmaker and consort to King Richard III (1). On a happier note St Stephen’s may also have been where their wedding took place. Several royal weddings did take place there for certain including that of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia and also Edward IV’s youngest son Richard of Shrewsbury and Anne Mowbray. Anne was only 4 years old at the time, the groom being even younger at 3, and Richard Duke of Gloucester led Anne by the hand into the chapel.
The chapel was dissolved at the Reformation in the time of Edward VI and thereafter it became the first permanent home of the House of Commons. Certain abuses of the Chapel begun from then on including the removal of the beautiful soaring upper celestery by Wren. The final fire took hold at around 6 pm. on the evening of 16th October 1834. The final destruction by fire begun with the burning of two cartloads of wooden tally ‘Exchequer’ sticks which caused a furnace to overheat. Warnings of the danger of fire had been ignored by a ‘senile housekeeper and a careless Clerk to the Works’ leading to the Prime Minister to declare the disaster was one of the ‘greatest instances of stupidity on record’. During the course of the conflagration medieval paintings and decorations that had been hidden over the centuries were once again revealed and gawping crowds flocked to see them.
Wooden tally or Exchequer sticks. The burning of two cartloads of these caused a chimney to overheat which led to the destruction of Westminster Palace including St Stephen’s hall.
We are very fortunate that 30 years prior to the disaster life sized copies were made of the most important medieval paintings, which would have been to the east of the chapel where the alter was, while the chapel was being renovated by an antiquarian Richard Smirke. The art historian and conservator, Ernest William Tristram (1881-1952) meticulously reconstructed Smirke’s drawing in a collection of 20 paintings. The British Museum now holds fragments from the paintings and decorations salvaged from the fire and from them can be gleaned an impression of the quality and beauty of the lost works.
The new building, now called St Stephen’s Hall, was rebuilt in Neo Gothic style on the footprint of the old Chapel carefully adhering to the same measurements, 95ft long and 30 ft wide. Brass studs now mark where the Speaker’s Chair which in turn would have marked the place where the high alter once stood.
King Edward’s Sons. Reconstruction of medieval wall painting St Stephen’s Chapel. Ernest William Tristram. Worked from the original drawings by Richard Smirke.
King Edward and St George. Ernest William Tristram. Reproduction of medieval wall painting from St Stephen’s Chapel. From the original drawing by Richard Smirke.
Some of the 17 fragments of wall paintings salvaged from the fire and now in the British Museum. All came from the east end of the north wall.
Upon Westminster Hall. George Scharf. The intrepid Mr Scharf made this painting over four days after climbing on to Westminster Hall’s roof for a better view of the destruction of the chapel and palace..
The smaller chapel on the lower level. Known as St Mary Undercroft. Survived the fire and is once again in use as a chapel. Watercolour by George Belton Moore.
Another watercolour by George Belton Moore picturing a demolition of a doorway next to St Stephens. Ive been unable to ascertain where this doorway was situated.
The Ruined St Stephen’s from the East prior to demolition. Parliamentary Art Collection.
I am indebted to Sir Roy Strong’s book Lost Treasures of Britain for some of the above information.
Who do you think you are? is always an interesting programme and is disappointing to see only eight episodes in the series. In the past, Sir Matthew Pinsent, Frank Gardner, Danny Dyer and Clare Balding have all been revealed as proven descendants of Edward I. That has not happened in 2019 and few lines have gone back as far as the eighteenth century, so I hoped that the concluding episode’s research could beat that.
As it turned out, it did go back a long way. The subject was Mark Wright – not the red-haired central defender (left) who scored against Egypt in 1990, heading home a Gascoigne free kick, but a “reality show” star and former semi-professional full-back who was born only three years before that, who had a feeling that his complexion pointed to some Italian ancestry. This Mark Wright (right) was accompanied in the earliest scenes by Eddie, his paternal grandfather, who had collated his knowledge in advance, particularly about his own grandfather and namesake.
Edward Wright senior was a builder whose materials occasionally fell off the back of carts and was imprisoned for this on one occasion. On another, he was said to have left for America after another conviction and passenger lists proved that this really happened as opposed to being a cover for another “stretch”. With the help of Mark Smith (left), the arms and militaria expert from Antiques Roadshow, he proved that Edward Wright sourced horses for the British Army before signing up after reducing his age to serve in the First World War.
Next, Mark discovered that his grandfather’s mother came from a Jewish line named Simons/ Simmons, through which he was able to visit the 1701 Bevis Marks synagogue (right), built for the Sephardi (Iberian and North African) Jewish community whom Oliver Cromwell had allowed back into the British Isles.
Further research took him to Spain, in particular Jaen in Andalucia, where his ultimate known ancestor Antonio de Castro/ David de Mendoza, a fencing master, was born in 1661 and then brought up there. This was a family of “conversos”, but frequently came under suspicion from the Inquisition. Antonio, as he was known, was arrested and tortured, tried, convicted and imprisoned before escaping to Amsterdam with his wife and children, where they resumed an overt Jewish life. His nephew Miguel was then arrested and, possibly because of Antonio’s activities, burned, a fate he shares with an ancestor of Simon Sebag Montefiore, her brother and sister. On a brighter note, Mark was able to meet a distant cousin who is also a Mendoza descendant.
“Mordecai Mendoza”(Bernard Cribbins)
Wright actually showed a real flair for genealogy, enthusiastically drawing up tables on paper and spotting the religious significance of the name Mendoza. Might we hear more about his family some time?
This bed is far too beautiful for Henry VII. In my opinion, anyway. As to finding it in a hotel…well, what if you were snuggled there, anticipating your cooked breakfast next morning, when Henry’s ghost clambers in beside you???? Lawks!
Given her huge notoriety at the time, it’s odd that Edward III’s mistress, Alice Perrers, has (as far as I can ascertain) only garnered one biography. This is Lady of the Sun by F George Kay, 1966 (and seemingly never reprinted). There are no surviving contemporary likenesses of Alice, nor even a description of her. Her birth and death dates are not known, except that her will was dated 20th August 1400. She was buried at an Upminster church which has now disappeared, courtesy of Oliver Cromwell. All of which seems very strange, given her importance at the end of Edward III’s long reign.
The title of the book is due to an event on 9th May 1374, when Edward put his mistress on full, inordinately expensive display. The occasion was a tournament at Smithfield, when Alice, dressed entirely in gold as the Lady of the Sun, was driven through the streets of London on a golden chariot. All the knights and ladies of court were there too, including Edward’s sons and their wives. They all swallowed their fury and displayed fixed smiles.
I had great hopes of finding a lot of new information about Alice in Lady of the Sun, and certain incidents in which she was involved, but I fear the hope was vain. It was soon clear why this was the only biography. There is simply not enough known about her, so a lot of the book is just a retelling of the history of England at the time, and in particular Edward III’s marriage to Philippa of Hainault, who had Alice as one of her ladies.
Now that I’m about halfway through the book, I have paused to consider whether it is worth finishing it. I have also paused because of an astonishing attack by F George Kay upon Lionel of Clarence. I confess, I had never found anything before that suggested Lionel was all but a monster—and I’m not talking his height, which was indeed great.
Here is what the author has to say about Lionel:-
“…Lionel was the least attractive of all Philippa’s (the queen) children. He was lazy, cruel and vain. His good looks had ensured from childhood that there was always a woman to spoil him—first his mother and later his wife and various mistresses. King Edward sent Lionel to Ireland in 1361 as Lord Lieutenant. He envisaged his son becoming a sort of vassal king of the country, thereby settling once and for all the troubles of keeping Ireland in order.
“…Lionel personified a type of Englishman who have so regularly in history sown the seeds of hatred among the Irish. He ruled with all the ruthlessness of his elder brother, the Prince of England [Edward of Woodstock—Prince of Wales to most of us!] in the English dominions of France, but without the latter’s chivalry and quirks of generosity.
“…No native Irishman was permitted to approach his person either in the Castle of Dublin or when he moved around the town. He lede the country white with taxes and never appeared without a massive bodyguard, which he permitted to rape and pillage as they wished. They were, indeed, almost forced to loot to maintain themselves. The generous revenues apportioned to Lionel for the maintenance of an armed forced were largely directed into the pockets of his cronies and himself.
“…The Statute of Kilkenny, passed by a special Parliament held in Ireland, represented Lionel’s most infamous—and fortunately final—act of repression. It prohibited every kind of connexion through marriage, the care of children, or in other ways, between the English and the Irish. It was a policy of complete separation between the rulers and the ruled.
“…Lionel returned home soon afterwards, fearful for his life. His father greeted him with scarce-concealed contempt; his mother, of course, was full of comforting excuses for his disastrous actions…”
Then, a little later:-
“…Nonchalantly Lionel set off to wed his second wife [Violante Visconti]. He left Windsor with a vast and expensive retinue of knights. The Queen and her ladies watched from the great round tower of the castle while the horsemen rode along the banks of the Thames toward London and the Kent coast. Philippa was never to see her son again. He indulged himself in feasting and excessive drinking on a leisurely, spectacular progress across France and married Violante in Milan Cathedral on June 5 [1368 – and maybe it was May 28]. He was dead four months later, having ‘addicted himself overmuch to untimely banquetings’.”
I have not been able to find out much about F George Kay, except that he was born in 1911 and is now 108. I don’t know his nationality or place of birth, but his other works include books about the Royal Mail and railway locomotives. The covers for the latter books show British locomotives, so I imagine he is British. The F apparently stands for Frederick.
What I do know is that where Lionel of Clarence is concerned, this author comes out with all guns blazing. All I can say is that I’ve never come across Lionel in this light before. Is it true? Well, if so, why has no one else leapt upon it?
As for poor Alice… It is her biography after all. She gets a good press from F George Kay. Her avarice and spite was down to fear and self-protection, and the story of her stealing the rings from the dying Edward’s fingers is just a myth. The general opinion of her affair with Edward is that it commenced when poor Philippa of Hainault was still alive. F George Kay rather glosses this, with the suggestion that it began only after the queen’s death. I don’t know, of course, not having been a fly on the royal bedchamber wall.
Alice eventually died in obscurity, having been one of those comets that light the sky for a while and then disappear. She certainly made the old king’s last years far happier than he could otherwise have hoped, but it’s sad to think that she might have been with him solely for her own gain. He was fading, a shadow of the great king he had once been, and his mind was beginning to fail him. I do hope she loved him as he deserved.
Alice Perrers has been blackened across the centuries (oh, we Ricardians know about that, do we not?) but whether such condemnation is deserved or not, we may never know.
PS: F George Kay doesn’t like Joan of Kent either. According to him she was ‘a hot-tempered, intolerant snob’. Really? Another first-time-I’ve-read-that moment for me. She always seemed the very opposite to me.
The above illustration is of the British Crown Jewels as we know them now, but there were predecessors, long gone now, thanks to the efforts of Oliver Cromwell, who had no truck with such baubles.
We are inclined to forget that there was a Welsh crown too, until it was seized by Edward I in 1283. The picture immediately above is of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, Prince of Wales, crowned and seated beneath his arms. It is not contemporary, but is set when he paid homage to Henry III in 1267.
The next illustration above is from the 16th century, and shows the arms of Wales, surmounted by a crown of unusual design. Llywelyn’s crown was still around at this time (pre-Cromwell) and so this may well be an accurate depiction of the crown that Edward I seized in 1283.
Llywelyn’s crown (Talaith Llywelyn) was left at Cymer Abbey (together with other priceless items) at the start of Llywelyn’s final campaign, but was seized by Edward I when Llywelyn was killed in 1282.
Taken to Westminster Abbey, it was presented to the shrine of Edward the Confessor as a symbol of the crushing of the Welsh. Before this presentation it was coated in gold to make it look more impressive, which the contributor to Wikipedia thinks is an indication that the original was perhaps made of iron.
It remained in Westminster Abbey, until transferred to the Tower of London at the beginning of the 14th century. It remained in English hands until Oliver Cromwell came along, warts and all. Or rather, it does not appear to have still been present when he melted down the Crown Jewels. Where had it gone? And when?
Tapestry showing Arthur, circa 1385
No one knows the age of this lost crown, or what else was left with it at Cymer Abbey. However, when it was all seized by Edward I, the crown of King Arthur was said to have been among it. This latter crown was believed to have been forged much earlier. Now, whether the “crown of Arthur” is a general term for principality of Wales, or refers to the actual crown of King Arthur is not known. And there is some confusion as to whether this crown of Arthur was actually the same item as Llywelyn’s crown. One and the same crown. If it was indeed the crown of King Arthur. It was truly priceless.
This link will take you to a very interesting and information article about Richmond Palace, which was formerly the Palace of Sheen. It led a very chequered life, being destroyed by a king’s grief and then by fire. It was also the scene of Henry VII’s death.
When he is a hereditary head of state under a different title, of course. There are such people around the world today but Britain had them for a few years.
The first was Oliver Cromwell, the great-great-great-nephew of Thomas Cromwell. As he was finalising the execution of Charles I in 1649, he announced that “the office of King is hereby abolished”. Four years later, he accepted the title of Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm, previously only held for three under age Kings by their closest adult male relatives, of whom Richard of Gloucester was one. When Oliver Cromwell died in 1658, he was succeeded by his son Richard, whom he had evidently nominated in advance.
This article reminds us that the three kings named Richard all died of violence or intentional neglect at an early age. Richard Cromwell, although he was only a de facto monarch for about nine months before resigning (abdicating?) but lived on until 1712 when he was eighty-five, spending all but twenty years of his retirement in his own former realm, but his royal connections may not end there. His mother was Elizabeth Bourchier and is likely to be connected to the original noble family by that name, into which Richard’s aunt had married .
This interesting article shows how John Shakespeare, as Bailiff of Stratford-upon-Avon, was forced to paint over some mediaeval murals. As a clue to what really happened, remember that Michael Wood thinks both John and William Shakespeare to have been Catholics.
Let me reassure you that Henry VIII wasn’t still King sixteen years after he died, nor was William Shakespeare born thirty-eight years after he died – and long after his father died. The murals are so truly stunning that they are worthwhile despite the errata.