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Epiphany – medieval and now….

The Adoration of the Magi
Tapestry executed by William Morris, after Sir Edward Burne-Jones

According to the Oxford Dictionary, the following two definitions refer to the use of the word epiphany:-

  • The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles as represented by the Magi (Matthew 2:1–12). Definition (1)
  • A moment of sudden and great revelation/realisation. Definition (2)

Epiphany has been a recognised feast of the Western Church since the 5th century, but these days we generally associate the Magi/ Three Wise Men with our modern Christmas Eve/Day. They appear on our Christmas cards. Yet there are—and always were—Twelve Days of Christmas, with Twelfth Night marked as Epiphany Eve or sometimes Epiphany itself, depending upon which precise moment you begin to calculate the commencement of the season. For an explanation, this is a good place to start.

Souvenir of Shakespeare’s “King Richard II.” Produced by Mr Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre September 10th, 1903. By Charles Buchel (Karl August Büchel) National Portrait Gallery.

If ever there was a King of England who revered Epiphany (1), and all that went with it, that king was Richard II, who reigned 1377-1399. He was still a small boy, but when the Yule logs were brought in for the first Christmas of his reign, they must have been kindled with hope and excitement that he would bring healthy, wealth, happiness and prosperity to his new realm. If this was indeed the hope, there would eventually be some very unhappy people, because he was plagued by rebellions and resentful lords. And his habit of turning to a coterie of close friends, twinned with his own questionable decision-making, did not really create the best circumstances. But, initially, there was hope, and those first Yule logs of 1377 will have burned brightly. The flames would have danced and roared.

That fanciful thought aside, it is my opinion that in June 1381, when as a boy of only fourteen Richard faced a thousands-strong army of peasants at Smithfield, he underwent an epiphany (2). He rode out at the head of his retinue to face a ragtaggle peasant army led, among others, by Wat Tyler. We all know the famous scene. Tyler was cut down in front of everyone by Sir William Walworth, Mayor of London, and out of nowhere the moment became electrifyingly dangerous. Pitched battle was on the very lip of breaking out, but then Richard rode his horse forward calmly and promised to do all he could to grant the peasants’ their demands (which we today think were more than justified).  It worked and the peasant army broke up to return to their homes.

Richard later went back on his word (something he was prone to do throughout his reign) but at that precise moment he’d displayed astonishing courage, and split-second decision-making. No one else in his entourage had done anything but freeze. Many things about the adult Richard II were to be criticized, but never again would his courage be questioned. Did he have an epiphany, as described in (2) above?

From Richard’s portrait in Westminster Abbey – believed to be the first true likeness of a King of England.

Certainly he was always to honour Epiphany above all other Church festivals. To begin with, he was born on that day in 1367. Another King of England who was buried on that day in 1066 was to become Richard’s favourite and most cherished saint. That king was St Edward the Confessor, whose feast day is 6th January/Epiphany, and whose great tomb in Westminster Abbey can still be seen. It’s now a shadow of its former glory because all the jewels and other decorations that once adorned it have been gradually stolen over the centuries by all forms of souvenir-seeker. But it must once have been a glorious sight, as was St Thomas à Becket’s tomb in Canterbury, which has been similarly denuded.

The Confessor’s Shrine, Westminster Abbey – source of illustration unknown.

The Confessor had been England’s national saint until 1350, when he was supplanted by St George, and on Epiphany every year, Richard II went to worship there, usually leaving a costly gift. Such occasions must have been very impressive and colourful. Richard also had a separate little chapel built nearby, where he would worship. It is still called the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew, and contains a niche in the wall where it is said the wonderful Wilton Diptych was placed for Richard’s prayers.

The Wilton Diptych

The diptych shows Richard as a child king, with St John the Baptist, St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund standing behind him as he kneels before the Virgin and Child. At the entrance of the chapel are two carved headstops of angels, one holding Richard’s royal arms, the other those of the Confesser. (Pingback https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/2017/07/15/the-little-chapel-in-westminster-abbey-beloved-of-richard-ii/)

The one on the left, with the royal arms, has always looked very like Richard himself to me. Source of photographs not known.

According to  https://www.britainexpress.com/History/medieval/christmas.htm , another link between Richard II and Epiphany occurred on Twelfth Night, 1392. The citizens of London, who were not on good terms with him at the time, attempted to bury the hatchet by bestowing upon the king and queen “a one-humped camel and a pelican, novelties for the royal menagerie at the Tower of London”. Another source adds that there was a boy on the dromedary.

Richard and his much loved queen Anne of Bohemia would eventually be laid to rest together close to the Confessor. In the latter part of his reign, Richard had even had his own coat-of-arms impaled with the supposed arms of the Confessor, so there is no doubt at all that Richard II truly esteemed Epiphany and the Confessor, with whom he felt a close connection.

To the less religiously minded people of today, Epiphany is Twelfth Night, a time to party and take the Christmas decorations down – if they haven’t been removed already! The more devout will still associate it with the Magi and the Confessor.

Of course, the calendar has changed from Julian to Gregorian, and dates have moved with it. Old Twelfth Night was celebrated on 17th January. Many wassail traditions, such as the wassail cup and wassailing the cider apple trees, are associated with Twelfth Night. The Yule Log, so bright with flames in the image above, needs to burn from Christmas Eve until Twelfth Night. Charcoal from it was kept to kindle the following year’s log, and also to protect the house from thunder and lightning. There were also many delicious foods that were associated with that night, including a special cake.

Mary Berry’s Twelfth Night Cake from https://www.bbc.co.uk/food/recipes/twelfth_night_cake_53367

In many places across the land older customs have been resumed in recent years. I don’t know when in the past they began to wassail the cider apple trees, in the hope of ensuring a supply of cider for the next harvest. Does it go back to the medieval period? Yes, according to this article

“….There are two distinct variations of wassailing. One involves groups of merrymakers going from one house to another, wassail bowl in hand, singing traditional songs and generally spreading fun and good wishes. The other form of wassailing is generally practiced in the countryside, particularly in fruit growing regions, where it is the trees that are blessed….”

“….The practice of house-wassailing continued in England throughout the Middle Ages, adapting as a way by which the feudal lord of the manor could demonstrate charitable seasonal goodwill to those who served him, by gifting money and food in exchange for the wassailers blessing and songs….”

Wassailing the Cider Apple Trees, from https://chawtonhouse.org/whats-on/evening-orchard-wassail-2/

Singing from house-to-house eventually became the carol-singing of today, but at the end of the season, not the beginning. As happens now with the Three Wise Men, who appear of Christmas cards, but are actually associated with Epiphany.

Now, to go back to the very beginning of this article, and the epiphany (2) that I feel certain happened to the young Richard II in June 1381. Until that day in Smithfield he had been confined and controlled by his uncles and government, but when Tyler was cut down in front of everyone and things turned very nasty indeed, Richard stepped into the breach by calmly taking charge.

From where did that sudden steely resolve come? He hadn’t displayed any such thing before, but….did he think of Epiphany? His day? When the Magi took gifts to the Christ Child? Did he suddenly see himself as a Christ Child too? Born to reign over all? Did he begin to understand that it was his God-given right by blood to cast aside the oppressive rule of his uncles and their government? Might such a heartstopping moment of insight been the reason for the Wilton Diptych, which shows him as a boy (when he was adult by then) anointed and royal, reaching out to accept something from the Christ Child. The reins of his kingdom, perhaps? Was this his epiphany (2)? Albeit in June.

Afterwards, in quiet moments, did he sit alone and pensive, considering who he was and how he should face the future?

It was to be another eight years before he was finally able to strike free of those who sought to keep him under their control, but I believe his first realisation of his true destiny was born that day in Smithfield.

from an unknown painting from the Jerusalem Chamber, Westminster: illustrator unknown: the engraver is S.Sly

Epiphany had one more vital role to play in Richard’s life, and that was in 1400, just after his cousin, Henry of Lancaster, had usurped the throne and consigned Richard to captivity in Pontefract. Epiphany was the date chosen by Richard’s desperate supporters to fight against the new regime and restore him to his throne.

Richard II’s Funeral Procession, from https://picryl.com/media/funeral-of-richard-ii-from-bl-royal-18-e-ii-f-416v-33b74d British Library.

Known as the Epiphany Rising, this revolt was doomed to defeat because of treachery within its ranks. And the eventual result was Richard’s probable murder at Pontefract, to prevent any more attempts to restore him. At least he didn’t die on Epiphany as well, but he was laid to rest on the 6th…of March, 1400.

His Twelfth Night was at an end. The bright Yule log had finally run its course, flickered and faded.

Here’s to the successful rescue of Becket’s Well in Derby….

“This isn’t quite Richard III under a car park but a 12th century holy well attached to St Thomas Becket is still a rare survival.”

Indeed it is, and I do hope the excavations in Derby lead to the well’s permanent restoration. It’s dreadful how we’ve allowed our precious past to be destroyed, but better late than never. Derby will be proud of its “new” acquisition! At least, it will if the well is saved!

Be honest, if the planned new development—called Becketwell—will in its present form destroy the well’s remains forever, why not change it in order to include the actual holy site and thus make it complete? I’m sure architects and planners can redraw everything to include the well! If they can’t, then they aren’t worth their salaries!

To read much more, go to the Derby Telegraph

Britain’s Most Historic Towns (2)

This excellent Channel Four programme, presented by Professor Alice Roberts, with Dr. Ben Robinson in the helicopter, has returned for a new series. The early venues were Dover (World War Two, visiting the underground base, concentrating on the retreat from Dunkirk and subsequent Channel defence, meeting some survivors, wearing ATS uniform and riding in a tank), her home city Bristol (Georgian, with slavery, gin, chocolate and great architecture featured) and Cardiff (where coal and the Marquess of Bute brought much prosperity in the Edwardian era, before it could supplant Machyllenth as Wales’ capital).

The series then moved on to Oxford to illustrate the Civil War sieges, where Alice Roberts’ Worsleyesque love of dressing up saw her in New Model Army uniform, playing real tennis and viewing Charles I’s ersatz capital. Episode five illustrated Plantagenet Canterbury, featuring St. Augustine, Becket, Chaucer, the Black Death and Peasants’ Revolt. We were also shown a copy of the Magna Carta. The last show was about Stewart Stirling, where she visited the Castle and walls, brewed beer, played with a replica antique football and visited a well, illustrating how individual Stewart monarchs were vulnerable, even to internal opposition, but the line was secure.

RETURN OF THE TURBULENT PRIEST’S TUNIC

In 2020 there are planned commemorations of the martyrdom of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral. King Henry II blew his top, shouted words to the effects of ‘Who will rid me of this turbulent priest? and four knights clunked off towards Canterbury, thinking the King would reward them well if they disposed of Thomas. The rest, as they say, is history. Henry  was publicly flogged for his part in the crime and Thomas Becket became a popular saint, in fact one of the most popular saints of the Middle Ages.

As part of the commemorations, Canterbury has applied to the Vatican to have Becket’s blood-stained tunicle returned to England for a time. Apparently,  rumour has it that Henry VII gave the relic to Rome as part of a trade off in 1485, hoping that if they got the bloodied vestments, they in turn would make the Lancastrian Henry VI  a saint.

His ploy didn’t work. Henry VI remained un-beatified and the Vatican kept the tunicle, which most likely saved it from destruction when Henry VII’s son Henry VIII had the saint’s shrine destroyed.

A few years ago, the item was examined by forensic specialists who believe it is indeed authentic, unlike many other relics.

BECKETSBLOODYTUNICRETURNS (click for article)

 

 

Dyer or Dire?

Many of you will remember the episode of “Who do you think you are” in which Danny Dyer was revealed as a descendant of Edward III. In this new two part series, he “meets” a few prominent ancestors, some even more distant.

The first episode began with Rollo, ancestor of the Dukes of Normandy, which saw Dyer visit Sweden, although Danes and Norwegians also claim that Viking dynast, to learn sparring with a sword and shield. Then he went to the Tower to talk about William I and Dover Castle for Henry II, discussing his rebellious sons and his mixed relationship with Becket. At every stage, riding a horse, jousting or dyeing (Dyeing?), he was accompanied by a professional genealogist (Anthony Adolph, in a cafe opposite Buckingham Palace) or a historian, if not one of television’s “usual suspects”. At the end, Dyer visited France to learn of a slightly different ancestor – St. Louis IX, although Margaret of Wessex is another canonised forebear.

The second episode did feature some real historians: Elizabeth Norton, Chris Given-Wilson, Tobias Capwell and Tracy Borman. The opening scene had Isabella on the Leeds Castle drawbridge shouting at Edward II (Dyer): “Git aht ov moi carsel” (you may need Google Translate, but not from French). We were shown an image of Hugh le Despencer’s grisly execution, without pointing out that there were two of that name, followed by Edward’s confinement in Berkeley Castle, forced abdication and the legend of his even grislier end. Henry “Hotspur” Percy, who died in battle at Shrewsbury, followed as Dyer tried on late mediaeval armour. The next scenes concerned Sir John Seymour at Wolf Hall, inveigling his daughter into Henry VIII’s world, as Dyer dressed up and tried “Tudor” dancing. We then moved on to Helmingham Hall as Catherine Cromwell married Lord Tollemache, whose successor met Dyer, his cousin, again. The series concluded with a “sugar banquet” as the star’s family joined in, dressed as Elizabeth I’s contemporaries.

Both programmes were informative about mediaeval life, such as the “silver pennies” bearing Dyer’s image and the West Ham badge, although his stereotypical East London patois grates a little. It brought to mind Ray Winstone as Henry VIII (“I have been betrayed!”) or Nick Knowles‘ egregious Historyonics.

HISTORICAL CORRECTIONS-THE MYSTERIOUS DEATH OF ST THOMAS BECKET

Well, folks, even in 1170 it seems they were hell-bent on  giving out improbable excuses!

(This amusing cartoon parodying the recent events in Salisbury made me smile.)

 

knights

The Regale of France ruby: from a French king to Becket’s tomb to Henry VIII….and then lost.

Becket's tomb as it was in medieval period

Whatever the truth about this amazing ruby, it must be (still is?) one heck of a precious stone. It belonged to a French king, and leapt from his ring to attach itself to the tomb of Thomas Becket, who was born 900 years ago today, in Canterbury. The ruby then ended up belonging to Henry VIII (who had it removed from the tomb and put in a thumb ring for himself). George IV then had Henry’s tomb opened up, in the belief the ruby would be inside, but it wasn’t. So where did it go?

Was Sir Gawain’s head still displayed in Dover Castle in 1485….?

Arthur-Pyle_Sir_Gawaine_the_Son_of_Lot,_King_of_Orkney

One of the greatest of Arthur’s knights was Sir Gawain, hero of (among other legends) the tale of the Green Knight. There is some very interesting information about Gawain here:

Gawain and Green Knight

I always knew that the Welsh tradition has Gawain (Welsh – Gwalchmai) buried as follows:-

“The grave of Gwalchmai in Peryddon, as a disgrace to men, In Llanbadarn – the grave of Cynon.”

“[John K Bollard, Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves), Carreg Gwalch, 2015]

“The location of Perrydon has caused much debate as it is the name of several rivers; first and foremost Perrydon may have been an alternative name for that great Welsh river the Dee. Geoffrey of Monmouth mentions a ‘fluvium Perironis‘ which is rendered as Afon Perrydon in early Welsh translations. The early 12th century Book of Llandaf references a charter which locates Aber Periron in the area of Rockfield near Monmouth, Geoffrey’s home town, where the stream known as Nant Gwern joins the Monnow. This is probably the same Aber Peryddon recorded in the 10th century prophesy Armes Prydain, which was crossed on the journey into Wales.

“Peryddon may also have been an early name for the stream at Sandyhaven Pill in Rhos, Pembrokeshire which runs down from Castell Gwalchmai (Walwyn’s Castle) into the estuary at Milford Haven. William of Malmesbury confirms that his grave was discovered in Ros in the late 11th century: “At that time [1087], in a province of Wales called Ros [Rhos] was found the sepulchre of Walwin, the noble nephew of Arthur…..He deservedly shared, with his uncle, the praise of retarding, for many years, the calamity of his failing country. The sepulchre of Arthur is nowhere to be seen, whence ancient ballads fable that he is still to come. But the tomb of the other [i.e. Walwin], as I have suggested was found in the time of King William, on the sea coast, fourteen feet long….” – [John K Bollard, Englynion y Beddau (Stanzas of the Graves), Carreg Gwalch, 2015] “Walwin is the Latin rendering of Gwalchmai. Rhos in Pembrokeshire is probably a reference to St. Govan’s Chapel with whom Gawain is often confused. Saint Govan was a 6th century hermit who lived in a fissure on the side of a cliff near Bosherston, just along on the Pembrokeshire coast from Milford Haven. . .”

St Govans chapel

Confused? It’s not surprising when so many languages render the same name in vastly different spellings.

Anyway, regarding Gawain/Gwalchmai/Walwyn/Walwin, what I did not know is that he is also supposed to have been buried in a chapel in Dover Castle, where (according to Malory) his head and mantle were on display for some time:-

“And so at the hour of noon Sir Gawaine yielded up the spirit; and then the king let inter him in a chapel within Dover Castle; and there yet all men may see the skull of him, and the same wound is seen that Sir Launcelot gave him in battle.”  [Thomas Malory, Le Morte d’Arthur, Book  XXI, Chapter 2. Published by Caxton in 1485]

According to clasmerdin’s blog, “Malory also describes Gawain’s burial at Dover, the hero is interred in a chapel at the castle, and he claims that the skull still showed evidence of the head wound. The medieval castle at Dover has two chapels, no one is sure in which Gawain is supposed to be buried, although some favour the lower chapel. All we can say with any certainty is that from Caxton’s ‘Preface‘ we can only assume a skull was on display at Dover castle, and had been for over a century, and that in his day it was popularly believed to be that of Gawain.”

I only happened upon any of this because I was doing some research which led me to The Journey of Viscount Ramon de Perellós to Saint Patrick’s Purgatory. This journey to Ireland commenced in September 1397. See here

 

A century before Malory, according to Ramon de Perellós:-

“The Earl of March [23-year-old Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl, who was Lieutenant of Ireland and had received the viscount on his arrival in Ireland] had gone to England and leaving there we arrived at Dublin  where we embarked to cross to England. And in that city I was most honorably received by the noblemen and clergy. And out of there I crossed the sea and we arrived Wales before a harbor called Holyhead and thence by daily stages we arrived in England, where I found the king [Richard II] in a town called Chester where there is a most beautiful abbey of Benedictine monks where the king was staying; the queen [Isabella of Valois, Richard’s second queen] was also there and I was notably received. And from there by daily stages I crossed the island of England and passing through London I reached the port of Dover where I saw Sir Gawain’s head — for here he died — and also La Cote Mal Taillée for the knight who wore it was so called. And they kept this in the castle for their great chivalry. And there I embarked and crossed to Calais. . .”

 

So, where was Gawain actually buried? And what happened to the head and mantle at Dover Castle? How long had they been there? If not Gawain’s, whose were they?

And, of course, was there ever a Sir Gawain in the first place? That is something we might never know. Or prove.

Footnote: I have been unable to pinpoint exact when Ramon de Perellós was in Ireland/Chester/Dover. The given date of September 1397 seems specific, and yet according to my research, Richard II did not visit Chester at all in 1397, let alone in September. Richard was in Shrewsbury in January/February 1398, but even then I cannot find that he also went to Chester. Even if he had been there in the September of 1398, the date would not work because Roger Mortimer, 4th Earl of March had been killed in Ireland in the July. De Perellós would surely have recorded this, and yet he speaks of Mortimer as very much living. Richard was in Chester in 1387 and again in early 1399. If he went there in between those dates, I have not come across a reference.

De Perellós states that Roger Mortimer had returned to England when he, de Perellós, arrived in Ireland. According to Saul, Mortimer was in England for the first half of 1397. He returned to Ireland before the end of July 1397, and then visited England again in January 1398. So Mortimer might indeed have met Ramon de Perellós in September 1397, in Ireland. But that still leaves the impossibility of meeting Richard and Queen Isabella in Chester in that same year. They simply did not go to Chester at all. According to Saul, the furthest north Richard travelled in 1397 was Nottingham. In September he was in Westminster and Kingston-upon-Thames. Very definitely nowhere near Chester.

So, either de Perellós is wrong about the date, or about it having been Chester, which does indeed have the lovely Benedictine abbey—now Chester Cathedral—to which de Perellós refers and where Richard did indeed stay when visiting the town.

If my reasoning for all this is flawed, please tell me. It has no impact anyway upon the story of Gawain’s head being at Dover. I am just curious about where and when the meeting with Richard and his queen actually took place.

 

 

 

 

 

 

KEEP ON DIGGING….

Recently the infamous ‘David’ has popped up yet again, this time stating that Northampton’s large medieval  fair, which began on St George’s  Day, lasted for ten days and may have provided a legitimate reason why Anthony Woodville, Earl  Rivers, bypassed the town and went straight on to Stony Stratford with young Edward V,  instead of meeting the Duke of Gloucester  as arranged.

However, there is a problem with this theory. Although there was indeed a fair held in Northampton,  a rather famous one which attracted traders from all over the Midlands, it was only in 1495 that Henry VII granted an extension to the days it was held, increasing them to eight. It would appear that the original fair was only about three days long.

Even had the fair been eight or ten days long, this was unlikely to prove terribly problematic as far as accomodation went. Northampton was an important centre (although it had been in decline since the Black Death in the 14th c) and had seen during its history several parliaments and the trial of  Thomas Becket. There was even a crusade called at one of the town churches. It had every manner of religious house, scores of inns, and several hospitals. In the 15th c many high-ranking nobles had their own townhouses there; the Dukes of Buckingham had one such residence on Derngate, for instance.

If the fair was seen as a possible deterrant to Rivers entering the town with Edward V, surely Anthony, more than anyone, should have known the situation in advance, being  from a Northamptonshire family, with the Woodville home at Grafton Regis  little more than ten miles from Northampton! Why then agree to a date that would cause some kind of problem with overcrowding? Why not tell the Duke of Gloucester to meet him and the young king elsewhere? (It is also highly unlikely that Richard himself was unaware of the existence of this large, well-attended fair.)

Lastly, regarding room in the town, it seems that Gloucester, Buckingham, and their men, totalling about 600, had no problem finding their own lodgings in Northampton, fair or no fair.

*’David’ may think the content of this post is ‘un-fair.’*

 

medievalNorthampton

map of medieval Northampton

 

 

The ten worst Britons in history?

This is a very entertaining and well-illustrated 2006 article, choosing one arch-villain for each century from the eleventh to the twentieth. The all-male list includes just one King but two Archbishops of Canterbury.

So what do you think?

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