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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.

The Black Prince whitened at last….?

BAL2369

On 8th June 1376, Edward, the Black Prince, died. From then until 29th September his body lay in state in Westminster Hall, and then was taken to Canterbury Cathedral to be buried on 5th October at Canterbury Cathedral.

His passing was greatly mourned through the land, and lamented because the elderly monarch, Edward III, was no longer the man he had once been, and the new heir was a little boy, the eventual Richard II. Not a satisfactory situation, with the prospect of a minority rule, with all the dreadful prospects that entailed.

Black Prince - garter

No one knows why Prince Edward was nicknamed the Black Prince (or when) but if something said at the time, by the then Archbishop of Canterbury, Simon Sudbury, can be taken at face value, it wasn’t because the Black Prince was of dark colouring. Sudbury said that although Edward was dead, he had left behind a fair son, his very image, as heir apparent. Right, before you all rush to draw my attention to the ambivalence of the word “fair”, let me point out that I did mention something about “face value”. So, if Sudbury was speaking of colouring, and linking father with son (Richard II), dark doesn’t enter into it. We all know Richard II was fair, as in blond, with a complexion that flushed easily.

Richard II

Richard II- Wilton Diptych

Edward was idolized in his lifetime, and there was really only one thing that has always marred and dogged (blackened?)his reputation. That was at the sack of Limoges on 19th September 1370, when Edward was the ruler of Aquitaine. He is accused of ordering the slaughter of 3,000 inhabitants, and has always been vilified for this. Yet in every other way he was lauded and admired.

Sack of Limoges - 1370

However, it now seems that new evidence has come to light in France, from a French chronicle, that it wasn’t the English who committed the massacre, but the French themselves, who were enraged because Limoges supported the English.

 

Black Prince book

This new information has been brought to light in Black Prince, a new biography by Michael Jones. To read more about the discovery (and decide whether or not to spend the published price of £30 to read the book itself – cheaper elsewhere, e.g. Amazon) please go here.

Now, having said all that, I am pleased that new sources do appear from time to time, no matter how many centuries pass. So I have not given up hope that old documents, chronicles and rolls will turn up out of nowhere, proving that Richard III wasn’t guilty of all the crimes of which he’s accused. Not least the murder of his nephews. It’s waiting somewhere, folks. Don’t despair!

The little chapel in Westminster Abbey, beloved of Richard II….

CHAPEL OF OUR LADY OF THE PEW. Doorway from N. ambulatory

Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew, Westminster Abbey, opposite Tomb of Edward the Confessor

Tucked away off the north ambulatory of Westminster Abbey, so small it doesn’t seem possible it’s anything more than an entrance to the adjacent Chapel of St John the Baptist (which is also known as the Chapel of St Erasmus) is the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew. The original entrance to the St John the Baptist chapel was closed in 1524 to accommodate the tomb of Bishop Ruthall, and a way was knocked through from the tiny Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew instead.

It is situated opposite the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor, and is only 5’ square, so strictly standing room only. But there was once an important royal worshipper who went there alone. King Richard II knelt in prayer there, in front of the beautiful Wilton Diptych, which was kept on a ledge in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary. [Not the statue that is there now—the first image of the Virgin Mary was presented by Mary, Countess of Pembroke, who died 1377. The hooks and outline of this image still remain.]

OL_of_Pew

It is said that as a boy, Richard prayed here before riding out to face the Peasants’ Revolt at Mile End. As a man, he knelt to pray for the soul of his dearly missed wife, Queen Anne of Bohemia. And he would have been there countless times afterward.

The chapel has been described thus: “The vaulting has red stars on a white ground with a roof boss depicting the Assumption of the Virgin, who is dressed in red. The ribs have barber pole bands and rosettes and the walls are diapered over with pine-shaped designs, on each of which is a fleur de lys. This was a popular design in the late 14th century. The antlers and head of a white hart, a badge of Richard II, can still be made out.”

The name Our Lady of the Pew might have been taken from the French Notre-Dame-du-Puy, or, alternatively, from the original meaning of “pew”, a small enclosure. At the beginning of the reign of Richard II the chapel was even smaller than now! Little more than 4’ 9”.

There was at one time no access from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew into the Baptist’s chapel, but the two were probably joined by an aperture through the party wall to afford Richard II a view of the services held in the Baptist’s chapel. It must have been almost claustrophobic for him, but also how very private. He used it for his own personal devotions, and although it has been altered since his day, it somehow retains a sense of him.

Chapel St John Baptist, Westminster Abbey, showing narrow doorway knocked through from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew

Chapel of St John the Baptist, Westminster Abbey, showing in the centre the narrow doorway knocked through from the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew

Looking into the Chapel of Our Lady of the Pew  from the Baptist’s chapel, showing how very small it is. To the left, beyond the niche in the wall, is the way out into the ambulatory.

You will find a great deal more about this little chapel in Fourteenth Century England, Volume 3 by Chris Given-Wilson.

One thing puzzles me, however. If you stand outside the chapel, with your back to the shrine of the Confessor, you will see two “angels” on either side of the arched entrance. They are label- or head-stops, depicting what appear to be two young men with shields.

The one on the left seems very like Richard II, and his shield is definitely royal, with leopards and fleur-de-lis. His eyes seem like those of Richard as depicted in his tomb effigy. The one on the right has much curlier hair, but similar eyes, and holds the arms that have been credited to the Confessor.

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

 

 

 

 

Images of Power: Royal iconography during the Plantagenet period

Giaconda's Blog

Combining my two great loves, history and art, I want to look at some of the imagery used to depict Plantagenet kings during the period and taking a few examples examine what the visual language may be telling us about how kingship was viewed and how the kings themselves wanted to be perceived.

Imagery as propaganda – of course, imagery linked to concepts of status and power – certainly, imagery as a means of establishing a link with another age – well that’s much more subjective yet many of us might admit to studying the faces of those kings whether it be on their tomb effigies or in portraits which have survived and longing to understand them or to read something of their drives and motivations from the shading and stance, the lines on their faces and the expression of their gaze. This is a very understandable human response to the mystery…

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