Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Wednesday, 30 November 2022

A medieval Norwegian woman

Live Science has an article about the reconstructed appearance of a medieval Norwegian woman which has been installed in a museum in the city of Trondheim. Her skeleton was found in a churchyard in Trondheim and her date of birth assigned to the late 1200s. It is thought she attained an age of about 65. 

This appears to me to be one of the most credible of such reconstructions and the thinking associated with it as set out in the article is to be commended.

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

Dunkeld Cathedral discoveries

Medievalists.net has a brief report about the discovery of a number of sculpted figures behind a tomb in the choir of Dunkeld Cathedral in Perthshire.

Less survives in Scotland than in England not only of actual medieval churches but also of their internal decoration and furnishing. Thus at Dunkeld the northwest tower and nave of the cathedral are in ruins but the choir still serves as the parish kirk. 

It was in 1600 that the choir was reroofed and I would suggest that it was at that time that the freestanding tomb of Bishop Robert de Cardeny was moved and built into the wall, thereby immuring the other carvings. There is a well illustrated account of the remains of the cathedral from Wikipedia at Dunkeld Cathedral
The article has a list with links of burisls at the cathedral. These include Alexander “The Wolf of Badenoch” (d.1405) and son of King Robert II, whose tomb in the cathedral is one of the few surviving medieval Scottish royal effigies and Count Charles Edward Roehenstart (d.1854) the grandson of Bonnie Prince Charlie.

Although not one of the largest or most impressive of medieval Scottish cathedrals Dunkeld was deemed to be the third in rank after the two Archiepiscopal sees of St Andrews and Glasgow. The somewhat complicated of episcopal succession both before and after the reformation of 1560, as well as after 1689, and the restored Catholic diocese after1878 is set out, again by Wikipedia at Bishop of Dunkeld

Wikipedia has a short biography of Bishop Cardeny, the longest serving holder of the diocese of Dunkeld, at Robert de Cardeny

The description of these latest discoveries can be found at 15th century carvings discovered at Scottish cathedral

Monday, 28 November 2022

Cleaning medieval art

Following on from my post More controversy over the restoration of Notre Dame about cleaning the interiors of the cathedrals of Notre Dame in Paris and Chartres by happenstance I came upon a recent post from Medievalists.net about the Toledo Museum of Art in the US and their recent exercise of cleaning stained glass, sculpture and textiles as well as the rebuilt cloisters in their collection. Looking at the images used to illustrate it I do not think anyone could doubt the aesthetic benefits of such conservation work.

The Household Accounts and the Crosses of Queen Eleanor of Castile

Yesterday I posted in connection with the anniversary of the death in 1272 of King Henry III. Today is the anniversary of the death in 1290 of his daughter-in-law Queen Eleanor of Castile, the first wife of King Edward I. 

There is an illustrated introduction to her life from the Historic-UK website at Eleanor of Castile
The British Library Medieval Manuscript blog recently featured an article about her expenditure in the last year of her life as recorded in her Wardrobe account from September 1289 to December 1299 which can be read at The expenses of Queen Eleanor of Castile

The Queeen died at the village of Harby in Nottinghamshire on November 28th 1290 and her body was taken to Lincoln for embalming. Her viscera were buried in the recently completed Angel Choir of the cathedral with a tomb chest to mark the site. 

Along the route of her funeral procession to Westminster her sorrowing husband was to commission the famous series of Eleanor Crosses of which there were twelve, beginning at Lincoln, then at the places the cortège rested overnight at Grantham, Stamford, Geddington, Northampton, Stony Stratford, Woburn, Dunstable, St Albans, Waltham, Cheapside in London and finishing at Charing Cross. Unique as a tribute in England I understand that twenty years earlier a similar set of crosses were set up to mark the resting points of the funerary procession of the King’s uncle, St Louis on its return to France from North Africa.

English Heritage has a website piece devoted to the Eleanor Crosses which can be seen at The Eleanor Crosses: A Journey Set in Stone

The History Press also has an online account of the crosses which can be viewed at The Eleanor Crosses: Longshanks’ love set in stone

Queen Eleanor’s nephew, the illegitimate son of her brother the Infante Enrique, was Master James of Spain who spent most of his life in Oxford, was the recipient of royal patronage and where, it has now been shown, he was an important writer on music theory. In his last years he agreed to give his house in Oxford, La Oriole, to the new college, the House of Blessed Mary the Virgin in Oxford, which has been established more or less on his doorstep. Thus his sizeable house was to give its name to the new college - Oriel. As part of the arrangement Master James was in effect made an Honorary Fellow and he and his aunt Queen Eleanor were to be prayed for after their decease by the College. Somewhere along the historic line Queen Eleanor was omitted from the list of benefactors in the College Prayer. When I was Head Bible Clerk at Oriel I got her name included once more.

Sunday, 27 November 2022

Decoding the Emperor Charles V

Several websites have carried the story of the decoding of an encrypted letter from the Emperor Charles V to his ambassador at the French court early in 1547. The letter itself is in the archives at Nancy. 

The first report I saw about this research was on the phys.org website at Emperor Charles V's secret code cracked after five centuries

The Guardian also had a report about the letter which can be seen at Emperor Charles V's secret code cracked after five centuries

There is a longer and fuller account on the BBC News site which places the letter in the immediate context of when it was written, just after the death of King Henry VIII, and also into the rather wider picture of the shifting fortunes of the Habsburg and Valois monarchies as they jockeyed for position and advantage amidst the political and confessional uncertainties of the time. It also shows that part of the letter was written en clair so that were it to fall into opponant’s hands it could still be useful in shaping diplomacy. This report can be seen at Charles V: French scientists decode 500-year-old letter

Rediscovering a sketch of King Henry III

750 years ago in 1272 there occurred the death on November 16th of King Henry III. This was followed by his burial on November 20th in the former tomb of St Edward the Confessor in Westminster Abbey, the rebuilding of which had been since 1245 one of the principal concerns of King Henry. Subsequently his body was moved to the splendid tomb created for it in the space around St Edward’s new shrine.

The Special Correspondent drew my attention to a post on the National Archives blog which commemorates this anniversary and also both draws attention to the treasure the NA holds and to the second volume of David Carpenter’s magisterial biography of the King.

The post arose from Prof Carpenter’s search for a doodle on the Exchequer Memoranda roll cover for what turns out to be 51 Henry III (1266-7) as an illustration for his new book. The article considers these doodles or sketches of prominent figures and their significance as well as their importance as a record of their subjects actual appearance.

The result of this, with the aid of modern technology, is that we are brought face to face with a quick sketch of the King, done by someone who would have seen him regularly at Westminster and who sought to depict the distinctive drooping eyelid recorded elsewhere.

So alongside the formal image conveyed by beautiful and elegant tomb effigy in Westminster Abbey and various label stops in other churches we can see King Henry as one of his clerks did. It is the medieval equivalent of a snapshot of the King aged sixty or thereabouts, able to resume his great project at Westminster after the upheavel of the baronial revolt spearheaded by his brother-in-law Simon de Montfort. Earl Simon’s defeat and death in a suitably apocalyptic thunderstorm at the battle of Evesham had restored the King’s freedom of action. An older, sadder perhaps, maybe wiser monarch in the autumn of his reign.

E 159/41, memoranda roll 51 Henry III, cover, showing sketch of King Henry III under ultra-violet light, false colour
Image: National Archives

The article about the drawing can be viewed at

More controversy over the restoration of Notre Dame

The Art Newspaper has a report about the latest stage - and controversy - in the restoration of Notre Dame. This is the use of latex paste, press on thr interiot stonework and then, having been left to dry, peeled off to reveal freshly cleaned masonry.

This is controversial for two reasons. The first are health and safety issues in connection with the compound being applied to the walls and pillars. That should be regulated by the competent authorities. The second appears to be a debate which has occurred elsewhere in recent years at the cathedrals of St Paul in London and at Chartres about whether restorers should attempt to restore such great buildings to their original colour scheme.

I recognise the inconsistencies in my own views about those two schemes. That at St Pauls which is referred to in the article resulted in an essentially white interior with gold detailing. That is different from Wren’s scheme which painted the walls ochre and left the vaults plain, other than Thornhill’s painting of the dome. The Victorian age introduced mosaics to the cathedral. Personally I prefer the modern scheme to the rather dour one conceived by Wren.

I visited Chartres many years ago before the controversial cleaning and redecoration of recent years. I have posted about that in 2012 at Restoration at Chartres and in 2014 at Repainting Chartres Cathedral.

The debate about the project, indeed the passions aroused, can be sampled at, from those opposed, The Destruction of Chartres Cathedral fron 2014, in A Petition to Stop "Irresponsible" Restoration of Chartres Cathedral from 2015 and A Controversial Restoration That Wipes Away the Past from 2017.

It is interesting that this criticism seems to come from the US. North American enthusiasm for Chartres is long established but is perhaps a rather romanticising tendency. I do wonder if these authors linked to above are aware of the serious proposal in 1944 by the US military, when Chartres suffered in any case very badly in the fighting after D Day, to blast the cathedral in case there were any German snipers in the north west tower, and of how Airey Neave volunteered to go and see if, as it was, deserted, thus saving the cathedral?

Apollo commissioned a pro and con discussion about the restoration at Forum: Does the restoration of Chartres Cathedral deserve praise? and my good friend Fr Ray Blake offered a balanced appraisal of the situation at How far do you go? Chartres' Restoration

Not having seen the renovated interior it is difficult to pass judgement but as I said ten years ago I recall Chartres as rather dull and grimey inside, with that slightly uncared-for quality of many great churches in France. Whilst I see the point about not choosing a point in the past and aiming for that as an ideal  I do think that it is better to present Chartres as it was in the time of St Louis rather than as it was when I visited in 1993. Those who complain appear to be those who feel ‘their’ aesthetic experience has been diminished by the cleaning and redecoration. Do they apply that rule of thumb at home to housework and redecoration?

Chartres in 1993 largely felt like a museum with prayers anf flowers tolerated round the statue of Our Lady. Rouen in 2004 and certainly Reims in 2014 felt like cathedrals with an active liturgical and prayer life.

Restoration work at Notre Dame is proceeding apace so as to be more or less complete for the 2024 Olympics ( pagan in origin, pagan in practice ) in Paris - the work restoring Viollet le Duc’s spire will come after that.

There are links in the article to reports on other controversies over the restoration - notably how the ecclesiastical authorities wish to arrange and decorate the interior given that the French state has apparently given them carte blanche in that respect. In this case the regrettably and emphatically secular French state just might have had better ideas about Notre Dame than the regrettably and post-Vatican II French church establishment. I bet SSPX would make a better job of it.

Friday, 25 November 2022

Planning for the Coronation

My Oriel friend the Rev. Marcus Walker, who is now the incumbent of St Bartholmew the Great in Smithfield, has a good article in this month’s edition of The Critic about the planning of the forthcoming Coronation. As I would he takes what might be termed a traditionalist position and argues the case for splendour rather than misguided ideas of frugality and so-called modernity or “relevance”.

The arguments he advances in that cause are good and coherent, and as he argues, consonant with the experience for so many millions of observing the late Queen’s funeral.

I recommend his piece which can be seen online at Make a spectacle of oneself