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It’s Alice Perrers’ biography, but the author puts the boot into Lionel of Clarence….!

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.

Detail from ‘Chaucer at the Court of Edward III’ by Ford Madox Brown

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.

Philippa of Hainault

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.

Lionel, Duke of Clarence, 2nd son of Edward III

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:-

Violante Visconti and her brother Gian Visconti, pre 1380

“…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’.”

Right.

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.

True? Or a myth?

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.

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Imagine a May Day tournament, but how do you know who is a knight, and who a cross-dressing lady….?

(A Merry May Yesterday to you all! But before I begin, let me confess that I have gathered information for this article from the work of others, and the relevant webpages/sites are listed in the text and at the end.)

joanofarc-01

woman in armour

Yes, one of the above illustrations is of Joan of Arc, perhaps the most famous cross-dresser in history. The other is from http://io9.gizmodo.com/what-kind-of-armor-did-medieval-women-really-wear-1502779338. The point of including these pictures is that they show woman in armour. That is, a woman in traditionally male fighting attire. Bear this in mind as you read on.

As the title of this article suggests, I wish you to imagine the following. A May Day tournament is in progress somewhere in 14th century England. It is a glorious day, with the fresh green leaves of late spring, and all the flowers of the season in full bloom. Children dance around a maypole, a fair is doing roaring business, as are hawkers, ale tents, pie-sellers and all the other traders who feature at such events.

Medieval tournament

Colour is a feast for the eye, and everyone, including the populace, is in their best clothes. Banners stream, music plays, polished armour shines, hooves thud, weapons clash, and the crowds cheer. Heralds announce their lords, blacksmiths’ hammers clang, and trumpets blare.

Clad in their costly armour and riding their richly caparisoned coursers, the knights enter the field. Each one is preceded by his squire, riding the courser and carrying his master’s crested helm and lance. Next comes the lord himself, in gleaming jousting armour, on foot, led on a golden chain by a lady on a palfrey. She wears her knight’s colours, as does the squire, and the courser is similarly garbed. Behind the lord come his minstrels. Finally, the lord mounts his great horse, making it prance and toss its head to show off his horsemanship. All is ready for the jousting to commence.

There are few spectacles more popular than this, and everyone from the surrounding towns and villages have flocked to watch the flower of nobility meet in ferocious combat.

tilting

Then, all of a sudden, the proceedings are interrupted, as reported in a complaint by Knighton in Chronicon: “…troops of ladies attended, sometimes as many as 40 or 50, dressed up in all sorts of extraordinary masculine attire. They were young, beautiful, and wealthy. They acted so bold that they were often called rude. They dressed in “diverse and wonderful male apparel, in parti-colored tunics, with short caps and bands wound round the head, and girdles bound with gold and silver, and daggers in pouches (scabbards?) across their body…they paraded about the lists on carefully chosen chargers or equine beasts of some other well-groomed kind, ruining both their bodies and their fortunes by their wanton and scurrilous behaviour…But they neither fear the anger of God nor blush at the comments of God-fearing citizens…” Good heavens above! I knew nothing of all this.

knightly cavalcade

(Please pretend these are beautiful ladies – I fear our medieval Amazons did not leave a picture for posterity!)

Female jousting

Tournaments were the sole preserve of the men; women were there to adorn the proceedings and gaze longingly at their chosen knights. Right? Well, wrong—if the above quote from Knighton is correct.

The two pictures above show us how women were usually seen at jousts. On the left is how we always imagine them, watching and sighing over their heroes. One such hero is the dazzling fellow on the right, who is—wait for it—Ulrich von Liechtenstein! Yes, for fans of the film “A Knight’s Tale”, starring the late Heath Ledger, such an Ulrich really did exist! But in the 13th century, not the 14th, as depicted in the film. The point of including Ulrich here is that on his helm he wears a large, warlike Venus. I have seen other illustrations where Venus is baring all. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ulrich_von_Liechtenstein

Above right is a drawing of women in men’s clothing, but above left it is men dressed as women. It seems that the latter situation often occurred at tournaments, and that for jousting men wore their armour beneath female clothes. They took part in hastiludes with the best of their opponents, eventually hurling aside their gowns to display their true masculine metal…er, mettle. So, looking at the illustration below, who is to say that it really is a woman carrying the distaff? Might “she”, at any moment, metamorphose into a burly knight who’ll be no pushover?

woman jousting with distaff

A “female” knight triumphantly revealing himself to be a man was apparently quite acceptable. But, the other way around…? I don’t think it ever happened, but what if, after achieving some notable points against an opponent, a “knight” changed into a woman? I doubt the poor defeated fellow, shamed for having been bested by a female, would ever recover. A soft lot, men, eh?

In the thesis indicated at the end of this article, the following passage is quoted. It concerns events in a French medieval tale entitled “Berengier au Long Cul”:

“Though the husband is a man and is knighted, he is not from noble blood and therefore the wife, though being a woman, can more easily succeed as a knight than he can. She has true chivalry running in her veins, and this is the reason that she is attested to be able to convince her husband that she is a valiant, successful knight. As he is not, he does not accept the knightly code and refuses to joust valiantly, instead submitting himself to the humiliation that his wife forces onto him.”

So, in order to carry off the pretence with any hope of success, the woman in question had, at the very least, to be of knightly blood. Anything less and she would fail abysmally. These tournament cavalcades of ladies dressed as men were therefore all blue-blooded.

To sum it up, I turn to Gael Stirler at http://stores.renstore.com/feminism-fashion-and-cross-dressing-in-the-14th-and-15th-centuries#.WNJgG7msmTN where it is stated that there was indeed a short-lived female tournament maiden movement (no further mention after the 14th century):-

“A century before Joan of Arc put on armor, cross-dressing women were not as rare as you may think. The clothing styles for men and women were similar except for length and headgear. Women occasionally wore short tunics when riding or traveling abroad on foot, as much for comfort as safety. Popular romances and saint’s biographies contained stories of young women who wore masculine disguises to move about society with the freedom of men. They wore men’s clothing as a sign of their celibacy, and willingness to defend it. Some even fell in love with women in these stories.

“Even earlier, Galvano della Flamma described “Amazons of Milan with golden girdles and hard masculine hearts” who wore masculine clothing in public. So it seems that there was a loosely organized, secular, feminist movement, perhaps fashion based, in the 14th century. Since little was written about it in its time, this movement probably had no strong leaders or role models, no philosophy like the Beguine movement, and seemed to only attract women when they were young.

“What we can surmise from these descriptions is that this wasn’t a few naughty girls who showed up at one or two tournaments but that it had to have been a movement made up of many well-born ladies who travelled all over to attend tournaments. They were not combatants, but were, somehow, allowed to parade with the knights on the list field. Imagine 40 or 50 beautiful ladies wearing elegant short tunics covered with embroidery, edged in fur, with glittering belts of gold and silver, their heads topped with marvelous liripipe chapeaus, all of them riding large, beautifully groomed horses. It would be a sight worth traveling to see.”

Indeed it would!

Hmm…and then there was the rise of the May Day Robin Hood plays. I suppose, Robin and his merry friends were chaps…weren’t they?

female Robin Hood

References:-

For medieval female cross-dressing, there is information at the following additional sites.

http://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/halsall/source/1395rykener.asp

http://www.fscclub.com/history/joust-e.shtml

For a thesis on the subject of female cross-dressing in general, go to

https://dspace.library.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/1874/279495/Transvestite%20Knights%20-%20Thesis.pdf?sequence=1

And for information about May Day itself, look at https://medievalisterrant.wordpress.com/2013/04/30/may-day-in-the-middle-ages/,

Further references:

Lewis, Katherine J. et al, editor, Young Medieval Women, St. Martin’s Press, New York, 1999.

References about Tournament Maidens:

Brook, Iris, English Costume from the Early Middle Ages Through the Sixteenth Century Dover Publications, Mineola, 2000 reprint of 1936 original.

Newton, Stella Mary, Fashion in the Age of the Black Prince:A study of the years 1340 to 1365, Boydell Press/Rowman & Littlefield, Suffolk, 1980.

Another Maligned King – or Propaganda Strikes Again

Richard_II_of_England

This portrait of Richard II in Westminster Abbey is familiar. What is less well-known is that it is heavily ‘restored’ over the years, most recently in 1866. In Richard II, Manhood, Youth and Politics, 1377-99, Christopher Fletcher reveals that when examined under infra-red reflectography the king’s beard was much more developed, covering much of his face, the line of his jaw was much more defined, the lips were less full. In other words, Richard’s image has been deliberately ‘feminised’ to match his reputation – or more precisely, the reputation Lancastrian propagandists attached to him as they went about distorting his character.

The fact is that only one contemporary Chronicler, that of Evesham Abbey, makes any reference to Richard appearing in any way feminine. He wrote that Richard had ‘fair hair, a white, rounded and feminine face, occasionally corrupted by a phlegmatic humour.’ But as this writer could not even get so basic a fact as the king’s height correct, one is left to wonder whether he actually set eyes on Richard. In any event, the description was set down after the king’s fall, and may well have been influenced by the propaganda of the new Lancastrian government.

So whence does this reputation proceed? As Fletcher explains, the medieval concept of manhood (based on classical tradition) held that women (and youths) were imperfect men. In particular they lacked the reason of men, were inconstant and apt to tell lies. These alleged defects are among those attributed to Richard, and help to explain why he is often spoken of as a ‘youth’ or ‘youthful’ or influenced by overly young advisers, even when it is obvious that (at least in the later part of his reign) Richard was not a youth – by our standards, let alone medieval ones – while even a casual examination of the facts will reveal that the majority of his advisers, throughout his reign, were his seniors, in some cases by many years.

In short, what medieval people meant by ‘youthful’ or ‘female’ was something different to what we mean by these terms, and implied a character defect. It did not necessarily mean that Richard was (in our terms)  young in years or feminine in his ways, or that his advisers were literally youths.

It is interesting to note that in his speech to Henry IV’s first Parliament, Archbishop Arundel stated that England had been ruled by youths by the counsel of widows. This sounds very much as though there was a suspicion that Richard had ignored his formal council and had in effect been advised by a sort of informal cabinet council in which women had their say! That he kept women at court in some numbers is undoubted. But did they really have political influence?

Arundel’s comment may be nothing more than a party political swipe to justify the overthrow of Richard’s government, but it is a good example of the conservative attitude towards the rule of women in England, which Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville were to face in years yet to come.

Although we are told not to judge by appearances, it is an unfortunate fact that appearances do influence opinion, even the opinions of professional historians. If Richard II’s portrait had not been ‘adjusted’ one wonders whether the king would have been referred to as ‘slightly epicine’ by Nigel Saul in his 1997 biography, or whether Saul would have dwelled on his ‘narcissistic’ personality.

The irony is that on three separate occasions in the 1380s, Richard proposed to lead an army to France in person. What stopped him from being a putative Henry V was that Parliament would not, or could not, supply the necessary funds. (A tale so familiar in later 15th Century history!) Richard was in fact keen to prove himself in the traditional ‘manly’ way, and it was scarcely his fault that there was no money available for the purpose. (By the way, at this point he was spending less on his household than Edward III had done, so  wild expenditure on pretty clothes and favourites cannot be blamed.) In 1385, he actually did invade Scotland – with one of the largest English armies assembled in the middle ages. He gets little credit from English historians for this – unfortunately his opponents ran away and there was no set-piece battle – but apparently Scottish and French historians are rather more impressed.

Contrary to popular opinion, Richard also appeared in tournaments, and won honours on occasions. Of course, one must also put an asterisk against tournament honours won by kings, but he certainly took part. He also rode right through the night on one occasion in his haste to get to London. Was this a physical weakling?

The final irony is that Richard’s burning, relentless determination to avenge himself on his enemies, to avenge his honour as he saw it, was the very epitome of noble masculinity as it was defined at the time!

This article is heavily influenced by and could not have been written without:-

Richard II, Manhood Youth and Politics 1377-99, by Christopher Fletcher, Oxford University Press 2008

 

 

 

 

Why put Richard III (or anyone else) in white armour….?

Illustration from the tournament book of King René of Anjoufrom King René’s Tournament Book

The only thing I am concerned with here is what is actually meant by the term “white armour”. And I do not refer to the star trooper that is supposed to be Richard III. Plus, I am definitely not an armour buff, but just trying to fathom some of the finer points.

White armour was made of polished steel. There are numerous references to it, mostly with praise and admiration, as it was (supposedly) more precious and admirable than field armour, which was not polished.

Anne Wroe mentions it as follows (concerning Perkin Warbeck):-

Other things, too, were going on in Cork at the time. The confession mentions a Yorkist refugee, John Taylor, as one of the kidnappers loitering on the dockside. But Taylor was not there by chance. He was in charge of a small fleet, equipped and paid for by the King of France, which had been sent apparently to fetch a Yorkist prince, or an imitation of one. Taylor hoped thereby to foment a rebellion in favour of the Earl of Warwick, but the prince who had arrived was already, it seems, proclaiming himself as the Duke of York. Some debate may have followed about which name the young man was to take, if he was not truly the prince. But in the hold of one of Taylor’s ships lay a suit of precious white armour already made for him. In short, he was expected.

http://www.richard111.com/perkin_warbeck__imposter_or_pri.htm

I have found other references too, including that Tudor, on arriving in Wales, would undoubtedly strike awe into everyone in his dazzling white armour. There are many more in a similar vein, but I will not overload you with them. Suffice it that if you wore white armour, the implication was that you were the bee’s knees.

Now I have been looking through a large book entitled Jousting in Medieval and Renaissance Iberia by Noel Fallows. On pages 80-81 it states:-

. . . As clarified by Amadis de Gaula, in medieval Castile white armour denoted a certain level of skill since it was typically worn by novice knights . . .

and

. . . “I told him I would take the horse, because it was very good, and the cuirass and the helmet; but that the other arms were to be white as is fitting for a novice knight.” . . .

and

. . . fought by two of the least skilled knights, who are pointedly described as wearing white armour. White, polished armour would still have been expensive and of high quality . . .

Aha, do I hear you cry? What is she waffling about? This book only refers to jousting, not to battle circumstances. And in Castile, not England and Wales. I agree, but these knights went all over Europe attending tournaments. Just think of the film A Knight’s Tale, starring Heath Ledger. And this is where my problem arises. What did white armour signify in the real world, i.e. not the glamour of the tournament? Did it suddenly become very desirable indeed to appear in highly polished steel? Or did it still indicate the novice? So, in a tournament, an experienced knight would never challenge, or accept a challenge from, a less skilled knight in white. But on the battlefield . . . ?

Perkin Warbeck would clearly have been a novice . . . and maybe the same could be said of Henry. He was no warrior, and I have never read of him appearing in a tournament on the continent, or anywhere else. I know, I know, he was under house arrest and therefore couldn’t, but the end result is the same, he had no experience. Then again, I cannot imagine he would draw attention to his lack of skill and experience by strutting around in white. He was too canny for that.

So, am I right to think that white armour indicated one thing in jousting, but quite another in real combat? And one thing in Castile, but quite another in England? I am sure someone out in WordPressland is going to tell me.

 

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