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.

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

Wednesday, 23 November 2022

Excavating a grange of Rievaulx Abbey

The Yorkshire Post website has a report about the excavation of a grange near Helmsley which had been established by the Cistercian monks of Rievaulx Abbey in Yorkshire. As is pointed out in the article few such sites have been investigated by archaeologists. This one appears to have been quite sophisticated, but it was obviously close to the main abbey, which lies just outside Helmsley and had was under the patronage of the lords of the castle there.

Cistercian houses like Rievaulx and its sister houses in Yorkshire and Lincolnshire are those most associated with farming using granges as their administrative bases. Consciously placing themselves outside the mainstream of society the Cistercians, unlike the older Black monk Benedictines, avoided manorial ties and drew their income in large part from sheep rearing on upland pastures and the sale of the wool to the home and export markets. 

The evidence for metal working at this particular site reminded me that we have documentary evidence for such commercial activities by Rievaulx on their Pennine estates in the West Riding. This was also done by other Yorkshire houses often close to the main monastery, and this was also done with tanning, as has recently been revealed at Fountains.

Monastic life in these houses was supported by agricultural and industrial endowment and enterprise. Ora et labore was indeed the order of the day.

The original Cistercian impulse for a reformed monasticism based on abbeys removed from the commercial and tenurial system of the early twelfth century ironically gave rise to massive sheep farming that served the main English export market and a significant source of government revenue through customs and loan securities, and also the beginnings of industrial enterprises, some of whose successors are still functioning today. The beauty of the setting of these Cistercian monasteries in the Yorkshire Dales belies the financial acumen of the monks and lay brothers. Their “seeds of contemplation” ( to quote the twentieth century Cistercian Thomas Merton ) were also seeds of trade and industry.

If readers are interested in more about monastic granges then I think the book to go to is Colin Platt’s The Monastic Grange in Medieval England and also his Abbeys of Yorkshire and, more generally, The Abbeys and Priories of Medieval England. The Yorkshire Cistercian monasteries have attracted a lot of studies - the most recent is probably David H Williams The Tudor Cistercians. He has written extensively about medieval Cistercian life, as can be seen on Amazon.

Monday, 21 November 2022

The Newfoundland fifteenth century gold coin

The recent announcement of the discovery of a gold quarter noble of the reign of King Henry VI on the coast of Newfoundland continues to generate articles in the media. 

The website Ancient Origins has a piece about the coin and its possible implications for contact by someone from England before the arrival of the Cabots. The suggested hypothesis is that it was the quest for the ‘Island of Brasile’ which had brought Bristol sailors who found cod in profusion on the Grand Banks that had brought English sailors to the island. 

The tradition of islands in the Atlantic to the west included what is now known as Madeira  and another called Brazil was well established long before what is now actually known as Brazil was discovered and settled in 1500 by the Portuguese. Was the idea of the island a folk memory of the findings of earlier explorers? It also appears likely that early Portuguese navigators concealed or limited knowledge of their discoveries to safeguard their commercial and, indeed, political interests with early maps progressively showing less rather than more of the newly discovered coastlines of the mid-Atlantic. Similarly English navigators might well have been chary of publicising new and rich fishing grounds.

In this case absolute certainty will probably always elude us even if more archaeological evidence were to be revealed, and always assuming that there has been no modern interference. More dateable material could well confirm contact earlier than has been hitherto believed but the names of any of those involved are doubtless unrecorded beyond what is already known about the 1481 voyage mentioned in the article.

Sixth century church life in Galilee

The online website of Haaretz has an article about the continuing excavations at the site of the abandoned Roman and Byzantine city of Hippos in the Decapolis above the eastern shore of Lake Galilee.

The site has already yielded a rich collection of seven early churches and the recent excavations in one of them, the Martyrion of Theodoros, have now revealed mosaics with memorial inscriptions which offer something of the personal history of those being commemorated. In some instances they give the year, according to the local calendar, of the 
construction of the churches which clearly adds further information about the history of the community.

These discoveries provide a fascinating and stimulating glimpse of church life in the sixth century, one that was lively and which we can comprehend. There are as well indications of links to mainstream Byzantine culture and the place within it of a provincial artistic style and also the emergence of a local patois, displacing to some extent the Greek of more formal usage.

The illustrated online post, which has links to other related articles about the excavations at the site of Hippos, can be seen at new-inscriptions-in-roman-city-in-israel-shed-personal-light-on-early-christians

Sunday, 20 November 2022

Mary Queen of Scots’ embroideries return to display at Oxburgh Hall

The online Eastern Daily Press carries a report about the return to display at Oxburgh Hall in Norfolk of a number of embroideries created by Mary Queen of Scots during her captivity in England.

Extensive restoration work at Oxburgh in recent years meant that these textiles from the collection were put into storage while this major project was carried out.

The embroideries are not only worked by Queen Mary but were often political allegories to try to advance her cause for recognition as heiress to Queen Elizabeth I, or to surplant her.