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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!

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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 I cannot place the shield he holds. I recognize it, but cannot for the life of me identify it. Can anyone help?

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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