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.

Saturday, 14 May 2011

Royal Wedding - Westminster Abbey

Watching the Royal Wedding on television I was struck by the thought that King Henry III might well be pleased with the fact that his great creation of Westminster abbey looked so splendid on the occasion - despite the damage inflicted upon the fabric over the centuries in the name, at least, of some of his descendants. What he would have made of the trees in the nave I am not so sure - they were, well, different, and one up on the average flower arranger.

Westminster was a far more suitable choice than St Pauls, quite apart from the risk of evoking memories or comparisons with the Prince's parents' marriage there. Westminster abbey speaks of the sacral nature of English and British monarchy, and it is a potent, living link with and reminder of past generations of the royal house since the death of St Edward. As was pointed out in the television commentary it is there that the Duke and Duchess will, in the fullness of time, be crowned. It is also a very beautiful building, which, in my opinion, for all its architectural importance, St Paul's is not. As a medievalist I know I regret the loss of the previous St Paul's in 1666 (not withstanding the fairly bizarre Carolean attempts to modernise it by Inigo Jones or proposed by Christopher Wren), and the present cathedral, despite all its historic and iconic associations, remains, to my mind, cold and lifeless. It was said that the Duke and Duchess chose Westminster because of its beauty, and for the wedding the abbey church displayed both that and was in itself a reminder of the historic dimension of the occasion.

The practice at the abbey of displaying their spectacular altar plate on these occasions either on the altar or on the side of the sanctuary appears reminiscent of the way in which medieval nobles showed off their plate on grand occasions on sideboards - as in the picture of the Duke of Berry at table in the Tres Riches Heures. However I wondered if the origin of the practice at the abbey is not so much a desire to show off their treasures or wealth as such, but a memory of the pre-Reformation practice of displaying relics and statues of the saints on festal occasions. Thus at York in 1483 when King Richard III created his son as Prince of Wales in the Minster the altar was decorated with silver gilt figures of the Twelve Apostles. I do not know, but thought it possible, that, after the loss of such reliquaries and votive figures, the memory lingered that on great occasions the altar should be decorated with something in silver or gold, and in default the alms dishes and such like were displayed.

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