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.

Friday 31 January 2014

The Dominican Spirituality of preaching

The Anglican parish church of St Giles here in Oxford has an establishe dtradition of offering a series of talks each Thursday lunchtime during the University term which look at religious themes and usually draw upon the academic community in the city to give these addresses, so they are usually of a high standard.  The other year they gave term over to considering with monks from Belmont abbey the Benedictine tradition and this term they are looking at the Dominicans with lectures by members of the Oxford Blackfriars community.

The Perugia Altarpiece, Side Panel Depicting St. Dominic.jpg

St Dominic
As depicted in the Perugia Altarpiece of 1437 or 1438 by Fra Angelico


Last week the first talk in the series was an illustrated one given by Dr Nicholas Gendle on Fra Angelico, but unfortunately I had to miss that.

Yesterday the speaker was Fr Simon Gaine O.P., Regent of Studies at Blackfriars in Oxford. As one would expect it was a clear, cogent and insightful talk on the Dominican spirituality of preaching. He defined spirituality as one of the ways by which the individual make stheir way to God, and that for Dominicans, the Order of Preachers, preaching was at the centre of this process.

When the Order was established, about 1216 this was novelty - preaching was seen as the responsibility of Bishops, and not of the parochial clergy. It had been about 1203 when travelling with his Bishop, Diego, through southern France on a diplomatic mission to Scandinavia, that Dominic, a canon of Osma, encountered the Albigensians with their Cathar beliefs. Realising the need to proclaim a view of the world as essentially good and created by God, a God who had become Incarnate, Dominic began to seek to convert them. Hi sown prayer is recorded as involving his own material nature, bowing, kneeling, genuflection and prostration.

In his mission Dominic saw the need to assert the Truth against error , not to stir up debate in itself but to discover it and set people free from falsehood.

This search for Truth was linked to compassion - it is after all an action of mercy to share the Truth. Dominic's own compassion can be seen in his sale of his books as astudent to provide food for the hungry during afamine and in his wish at one point to sell himself into slavery to redeem other Christians captured by Muslim slavers.

The Order was conciously founded for others, not to establish a safe place for its members to live and pray as with enclosed orders, but to be useful for others. In a dream St Dominic saw other monastics crossing a river on boats whilst the Dominican had to swim across turbulent waters dragging a boat with others in it.

By now Dominic was aware not only of  the heretics in southern France nut also ofpeoples such as the Tartars who had not heard of Christ. By about 1215 he and his recruits had a house in Toulouse, but from 1216 they were recognised as an Order by the Papacy and the founder had a vision when in Rome of St Peter and St Paul which made clear the need for a universal mission for his community, and taht this required mobility. In the light of the regulations enacyed by Lateran IV the community adopted the Rule of St Augustine for Canons - something Dominic himself was - and as it was the shortest of the Rules, they were able to add on to it their own constitutions.

Preaching was not just to be homiletics but also study and debate in the quest for Truth. Engaging in debate with the Cathars St Dominic and his opponants on one occasion could find no means of agreement but resorted to a trial of their books by fire - and Dominic's books leapt out of the flames:

File:Pedro Berruguete - St Dominic and the Albigenses - WGA02083.jpg

St Dominic and the testing of books by fire with the Albigensians
Pedro Berruguete (1450-1504) circa 1495

Note in the upper centre the orthodox book flying up out of the fire

Image: Wikimedia.commons

Fr Gaine added that he had seen depictions of this story captioned as St Dominic burning heretical books rather than the actual story of resolving by extraordinary means a scholarly debate.

The tradition of debating to ascertain the Truth attracted Dominicans to the universities of medieval Europe - Bologna, Paris and in 1221, just at the time of Dominic's death, to Oxford. In these scholastic debates points were refined to determine the genuine differences of opinion and to seek agreement. In later centuries the Dominicans developed a tradition of public debate between members to elucidate points of doctrine.

At the time of the oundation of the Order the call to an Apostolic life of poverty was strong and this was adopted by St Dominic - the Albigensian perfecti attracted followers by their own austere lifestyle an dthis had to be matched by their opponants. A group of Cistercian abbots who preached against th heresy found they made no impact in that they were seen as too remote and who having onc epreached rode away. Dominic and his followers engaged with individuals and travelled on foot. From the perfecti
Dominic took over the distinctive black cappa, which gave the order its appellation of Blackfriars. However  the issue of a mendicant lifestyle did not pose the problems for the Dominicans that it was to do for the Franciscans and their concern for absolute poverty. St Dominic had no problem with the friars owning their own priory, but insisted there should be no rental income, and in 1217 they renounced receiving tithe payments, and further consolidated their position in 1219. This system had to be adapted after the Black Death, but they still essentially subsist on offerings.

In the thirteenth century the Order attracted such luminaries as St Albert the Great and St Thomas Aquinas, whose Summa Theologica was intended as a guide  for the central task of preaching. This saw all knowledge as a unity, an indication of that Truth which the Order exists to serve.

This was a really very fine talk by Fr Gaine, and one which I hope served to introduce the Dominican tradition and ideal to members of other Christian traditions.


Thursday 30 January 2014

Blessed Sebastian Valfrè C.O.

Today is the feast of Blessed Sebastian Valfrè, C.O. (1629 –1710) who was an Oratorian in Turin and is known as the Apostle of that city.

Image: liturgialatina

There is an online life of him here and the Oxford Oratory website has an account of him which can be read at Blessed Sebastian Valfrè. There is another one, with illustrations, from the Manchester Oratory, which can be seen here.

Following the 6pm Mass at the Oratory this evening we shall have Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament to mark the feast.



It was on the morning of January 30th 1889, 125 years ago today, that the staff of Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria-Hungary discovered the bodies of the heir to the throne and his teenage mistress Mary Vetsera in their bedroom at the hunting lodge at Mayerling in Lower Austria.

 The hunting lodge at Mayerling as it appeared in 1889

Image: Wikipedia

Immediately shrouded by the Imperial household and government to conceal what had actually happened the story remains mysterious and not fully explained to this day. From members of the Imperial family downwards there have been theories some more or less far-fetched to explain the events of that night and the attempts to present what had happened in as favourable light as possible given the dreadful circumstances.

File:Crownprince rudolf 1889.png

Crown Prince Rudolf

This photograph apparently is from 1889, and shows him clean shaven apart from his moustache, as in the photograph of his corpse below. The side-whiskers and beard which he is often shown wearing in photographs appear to have been a fashion he had in earlier years but had abandoned by the time of his death.
He is wearing the Order of the Golden Fleece and the star of the Order of St Stephen.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

There is an online life of the Crown Prince which can be read at Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria 
abnd one of his wife, who diedin 1945, at Princess Stéphanie of Belgium. The unconventional life of their daughter, who died in 1963, can be read at Archduchess Elisabeth Marie. There is an online life of his mistress which can be read at  Baroness Mary Vetsera.

File:Baroness Mary Vetsera.jpg

Baroness Mary Vetsera
 Image: Wikipedia


The last photograph taken of Baroness Mary Vetsera (at right), wearing the dress in which she was buried. On the left is Countess Marie Larisch, cousin of Crown Prince Rudolf who arranged assignations between him and Vetsera. Her memoirs My Life are usually regarded as a very unreliable account of her part in the story. They are, incidentally, a source for T.S.Eliot's The Wasteland

Image: Wikipedia

The events and theories which seek to explain what happened are set out in this online article which can be read on the Mayerling Incident.

From what I have read over the years of the story I am inclined to believe the simplest, that Rudolf, for whatever reason, killed Mary Vetsera and then, some hours later, shot himself, rather than elaborate theories of a French plot - as apparently was the opinion of the Empress Zita - or that he was assassinated by Austrian special forces as an embarrassment and threat - as in Judith Listowel's biography of the Archduke. Other theories and possibilities are discussed in the last link cited above.

The events of that night still have the power to shock, and it is not surprising they have spawned and inspired so many explanations and also so many films, dramas, a ballet and books.

Crown Prince Rudolf placed in a bed for private viewing by his family at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. His head had to be bandaged in order to cover gunshot wounds. When he later lay-in-state, his skull was reconstructed using wax so that his appearance appeared normal.

Image: Wikipedia

There is an account of Mayerling as it is today here. The hunting lodge was turned by his parents into an enclosed Discalced Carmelite convent of nuns to pray in perpetuity for the soul of the Crown Prince, and it remains that to this day, and that seems as appropriate way as any of marking the anniversary.

mayerling schloss castle jagdschloss alland

The memorial church constructed by the Emperor and Empress at the convent at Mayerling


** I have seen one curious, indeed bizarre, modern memorial the events of 1889. It is a modern house in the village of Wressell in the East Riding near the remains of the medieval castle and which bears in large letters the name "Mayerling". What a name to choose for your home.

The Royal Martyr

Some months ago a former student of mine from the US asked me in an e-mail my views on the cult of Charles King and Martyr. To mark the anniversary of the King's death in 1649 here is a reworked version of my replies to my American friend:

Essentially I still endorse it, despite my no longer being an Anglican. Without the King's principled resistance England might well have become a Calvinist country as happened in Scotland, and thus the possibilities raised by the Oxford Movement, and all that engendered, have been far less likely. 

Similarly by not compromising on his royal authority, and by the questions he raised at his show trial he saved the institution of the Monarchy from becoming a cypher for politicians - then, or even now. Let us be clear  - there is nothing very democratic, or constitutional about Pride's Purge, which was part of a military coup against the existing Parliament, and as the King pointed out, where were the people of England at his trial? 

As to the whole conflict of the Civil Wars - it started with one faction disliking the one in power and trying to unset it over matters of religion as much as over taxation, let alone lofty ideas about Parliamentary rights. There is one view which sees the English conflict as originating in the last noble revolt against the Crown (unless you include 1688 and the seven Earls ...), and I suppose both the Scottish and Irish revolts can be seen in that light as well as being a religious war in the first case, and a religio-socio-ethnic one in the latter. 

King Charles I and his aides may well have been insensitive to the realities of English and Scottish opinion and practicalities, but what they sought to do was no more or less "democratic" than their opponants' aims, and were, in the main, more inclusive in their intention. They, like their opponents, were seventeenth century people, and it would be wrong to expect in them ideas or attitudes other than those possible for men and women of the time. 

His opponents are not, in the vast majority, an attractive or likeable bunch, and, not infrequently, far from the models of radical rectitude their later admirers have thought or made them out to be.

King Charles certainly had his limitations as a ruler, and made disastrous mistakes of judgement, but he was not necessarily wrong in what he sought to do, nor was he failing to seek to act in the common good.

There is no small element of classical tragedy in the story of the King - a man not born to rule who perhaps, as I have suggested before, spent his adult life wondering what his elder brother would have done in the situations he found himself, a man of genuine convictions  and firm beliefs, but unable to live up to the greatness they might have evinced on crucial occasions, stubborn rather than resolute at times, not always a good judge of men and situations, yet who in defeat and facing death rose to the occasion and won the moral victory over his killers. In that, and to which contemporary writers opposed to him bear witness,  he secured a triumph, the triumph of a martyr for his beliefs. In securing his death the regicides slew their own cause, not his.

The frontispece to the Eikon Basilke


Fr Hunwicke has, as usual, some interesting thoughts on today's anniversary and on the beatification of one of King Charles I's descendents last week in his post today on blessed Charles Stuart. A Beatification last Saturday.

Tuesday 28 January 2014

The Triumph of St Thomas Aquinas

Today is the novus ordo feast day of St Thomas Aquinas, circa 1225-1274, the date of the translation of his relics, as opposed to the traditional one on his death, March 7th.

aquinas_aristotle_plato.jpg (181069 bytes)

Triumph of Saint Thomas Aquinas - by Benozzo  Gozzoli
  Musée du Louvre, Paris 

The Inscription beneath the Glory containing Christ, accompanied by St Paul and Moses and with the Four Evangelists, expresses His Agreement with the Theological writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas: BENE SCPSISTI DE ME, THOMMA ("You have written well about Me, Thomas"). 
The Saint is enthroned in the centre between Aristotle and Plato. At his feet lies the Arabic scholar Averroes, whose writings he refuted and the inscriptions VERE HIC EST LUME. ECCLESIE and HIC ADINVENIT OMNEM VIA. DISCIPLINE
In the lower part of the picture a group of clergy, religious and academics can be seen with the Pope, who, according to Vasari, is Pope Sixtus IV(1471-84).


A photograph of the painting in a larger resolution can be seen here.

Medieval cat and mouse

John Shinners posted this piece on the Medieval Religion discussion group the other day as part of a continuing discussion about medieval felines and evidence of their various, usually unfriendly, activities in medieval manuscripts. It comes from the Medievalfragments blog for this time last year and I thought I would copy and paste it in its entirety. The original link is here. Whether you are an animal lover or not the examples given are rather entertaining and enlightening:

Today’s blog is a guest post from Thijs Porck, a lecturer in the Department of English Language and Culture, Universiteit Leiden. 

This week Erik’s tweet on cat-paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript went viral across facebook and the twittersphere when it was shared and commented on by thousands. Follow @erik_kwakkel  today for more animal-themed tweets #manuscriptzoo

Everyone who has ever owned a cat will be familiar with their unmannerly feline habit of walking across your keyboard while you are typing. One of the manuscript pictures tweeted by @erik_kwakkel (http://twitter.com/erik_kwakkel/status/303614922103865346/photo/1 ) revealed that this is nothing new.

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript (photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Cat paws in a fifteenth-century manuscript 
(photo taken at the Dubrovnik archives by @EmirOFilipovic)

Although the medieval owner of this manuscript may have been quite annoyed with these paw marks on his otherwise neat manuscript, another fifteenth-century manuscript reveals that he got off lucky.  A Deventer scribe, writing around 1420, found his manuscript ruined by a urine stain left there by a cat the night before. He was forced to leave the rest of the page empty, drew a picture of a cat and cursed the creature with the following words:

“Hic non defectus est, sed cattus minxit desuper nocte quadam. Confundatur pessimus cattus qui minxit super librum istum in nocte Daventrie, et consimiliter omnes alii propter illum. Et cavendum valde ne permittantur libri aperti per noctem ubi cattie venire possunt.”

[Here is nothing missing, but a cat urinated on this during a certain night. Cursed be the pesty cat that urinated over this book during the night in Deventer and because of it many others [other cats] too. And beware well not to leave open books at night where cats can come.]

Caption: Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! (Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Cursed be this cat for peeing over my book! 
(© Cologne, Historisches Archiv, G.B. quarto, 249, fol. 68r)

Given their inclination to defile beautiful books, why were cats allowed in medieval libraries at all? A ninth-century poem, written by an Irish monk about his cat “Pangur Bán”, holds the answer:

I and Pangur Bán my cat,
‘Tis a like task we are at:
Hunting mice is his delight,
Hunting words I sit all night.

(You can read the full poem here.  Other musings on this poem from this blog can be found here)

The cats were there to keep out the mice. For good reason, because a medieval manuscript offered a tasty treat for the little vermin, as this eleventh-century copy of Boethius’s De consolatione philosophiae illustrates. The manuscript has been all but devoured by rats and mice and every page shows the marks of their teeth.

A mouse ate my Boethius! (Cambridge, Corpus Christi College, MS 214, fol. 122r)

A mouse ate my Boethius!
(© Corpus Christi College Cambridge, MS 214, fol. 122r)

Aside from their book-endangering eating habits, mice could be an annoying distraction, as illustrated by the twelfth-century scribe Hildebert. The illustration shows how a mouse has climbed up Hildebert’s table and is eating his cheese. Hildebert lifts a stone in an apparent attempt to kill the mouse. In the book that he was writing, we find a curse directed at the cheese-nibbling beast: “Pessime mus, sepius me provocas ad iram; ut te deus perdat” [Most wretched mouse, often you provoke me to anger. May God destroy you!]

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. (© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

Hildebert distracted by a mouse. 
(© Prague, Capitular Library, codex A 21/1, fol. 153r)

So, while at least two cats are responsible for leaving their unwanted marks on manuscripts, the cat’s mouse-catching abilities may have saved a large number of manuscripts from ending up in a mouse’s belly and may have enabled many a scribe to focus on his work, knowing that his lunch would remain untouched.

Monday 27 January 2014

Costly fabrics

Those of you who read my post last week about the sale of here in Oxford of some medieval vestments reworked to form two altar frontals in Medieval textiles for auction in Oxford may be interested to learn that the first one, made from anumber of vestments of thirteenth to fifteenth century date, sold for £10,500, and the second, made from what was once a handsome blue cope embroidered in silver and belonging, by all reasonable hypotheses, to Cardinal Morton(d.1500) sold for £40,000.

Portrait of Bl.Salvio Huix-Miralpeix for the Oxford Oratory

Following the 11am Mass at the Oxford Oratory yesterday there was the unveiling in the parish social centre of a painting of Bl. Salvio Huix-Miralpeix, beatified last year, and the first Oratorian to be formally recognised as a martyr. The portrait has been commissioned by the Fathers of the Oratory for the church.


The portrait on its easil

Image: Oxford Oratory

The artist is Alvin Ong who is studying here in Oxford at the Ruskin School of Art. He worked from a photograph, but instead of full choir habit depicted the Bishop in habitus Piano and added the palm of martyrdom. The pectoral cross and ring are those of Bl. Salvio, who had sent them to Pope Pius XI in anticipation of the fate which befell him in 1936.

There are more pictures of the occasion and information about the artist and the picture on the Oratory website at New painting unveiled.

Saturday 25 January 2014

Fr Robert Barron's "Catholicism"


Image: Oxford Oratory/Catholicism

Following the popularity of the Evangelium course last year the Oxford Oratory is showing the highly-acclaimed film series Catholicism presented by Fr Robert Barron, on Saturday mornings at 11am. This started last week, when I was unable to attend, but after Mass this morning I did manage to get to see the second installment, which was on Our Lord's teaching and words.

The programme was very well made, with some fine camera work, and Fr Barron's presentation and xposition clear and coherent.  There was so much in it that at time one felt it needed to go a little more slowly to take in all he was saying. I think to get the most out of the series you would want to watch the films more than once, or watch at home and press the pause button as necessary to take in what is being presented to you.  To British ears there were perhaps a few Americanisms that grated a little, but the overall result is impressive and thought provoking. I am not sure if I can get to all the sessions, but I will certainly aim to get to as many as I can. On the basis of what i have seen this morning I would recommend it to groups and individuals.

In addition to the DVDs there is a book to accompany the series. There is an introduction to Fr Barron himself here.

There are ten DVDs which will be shown in Oxford weekly up to  Saturday 22nd March. Each session will conclude with questions and a discussion. As with Evangelium there will be tea and coffee served in the Parish Centre from after the 10am Mass until 11 o'clock.

Bishop Fleming and his church

Today is the anniversary of the death of Bishop Richard Fleming of Lincoln - the original clever boy of this blog's title and the subject of my thesis - and a date on which I make a special effort to remember him. In fact seeing him as a benefactor I remember him daily in my prayers, but today is his obit.

Following his return to the see of Lincoln in 1426 he engaed in a number of charitable acts - founding Lincoln College in Oxford, attempting to establish a collegiate structure for his former parish church in Boston and rebuilding the parish church of the village in which he had been born in 1385. This is Crofton, which lies just east of Wakefield on a hill overlooking the Calder valley and with a view westwards to the Pennines.

Such a rebuilding by a late medieval bishop of the parish church of his native place was not unique - in the East Riding there is the beautiful early perpendicular church at Skirlaugh built by Walter Skirlaw, Bishop of Durham (d.1406), and at Wye in Kent the remains of the collegiate church established by Cardinal Archbishop John Kemp (d.1454) in his birthplace.

Until the seventeenth century there was glass in the church at Crofton showing Fleming preaching - he was, after all a noted homilist and this can be seen as an expression of how he saw himself - and an inscription recording his rebuilding and consecration of the church.

Crofton, All Saints Church

 All Saints Church Crofton

   Image:© Copyright Bill Henderson and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The church is simple in plan, cruciform with an unaisled nave, transepts and chancel with a central tower and built in the local sandstone - hence its rather soot-blackened exterior today. Inside it has retained no original features beyond the actual structure, but it is spacious and gives an idea of what Bishop Fleming thought appropriate for his villagers, and what he could afford - despite holding one of the greatest bishoprics in England he was short of funds in these years.


The church from the south-east

Image:woodytyke on Flickr

It is not an elaborate or showy building, but practical and serviceable - there has been no need to extend it, and hence it is very much in plan as Bishop Fleming planned and left it. For all that it has lost such personal touches as the glass depiction of him preaching, let alone the furnishings and decoration he would have provided or expected, it is still a point of contact with the clever boy from Crofton who went to Oxford, to the Council of Constance and the Papal household, to the see of Lincoln and, almost, the archbishopric of York  - but all that is for the thesis.

Friday 24 January 2014

Ernest Nicholson obituary

Following on from my post Ernest Nicholson earlier this month about the death of the former Provost of Oriel the text of the obituary published in the Daily Telegraph of Prof. Nicholson last Wednesday can be read on the Telegraph website at Ernest Nicholson. I see that the author gives a very similar assessment of him to my own.

Saints of the Week

This week the liturgical calendar has been quite busy with saints days and I thought I would provide links to previous posts which touch on the lives of some of them.

Monday was the feast day of both St Fabian and of St Sebastian, depictions of both of whom I posted about in 2011 in St Fabian and St Sebastian.

Tuesday was the important feast of St Agnes, and that evening we had an interesting reflection from Fr Jerome at the meeting of the Brothers of the Oratory on the liturgical significance of her feast - she has proper antiphons for the Offices in both the Tridentine Breviary and the moderrn Divine Office, and it is the feast on which the lambs whose wool will be used for this year's pallia are blessed in Rome - and on the unique Christian concern for virginity and the consecrated lives of women as Sisters or enclosed Nuns. This is an ancient part of the Church's life, being clearly established by the time of St Antony in the later third century. Indeed it can be traced directly to the Virgin Mary's response to the Archangel at the Annunciation. The concept of St Agnes or other young women preferring the life of a spouse of Christ was incomprehensible to the Jews and the Romans, and indeed to much of the modern world, yet it has inspired much selfless and holy work over the centuries.

I have posted about depictions of her and the widespread cult of St Agnes in The Royal Gold Cup in 2012 and in St Agnes last year.

Wednesday was the feast of St Vincent of Saragossa, and I have posted about some of the superb late medieval Iberian images of him in St Vincent in 2011, and linked to it a post Another red pileus in 2012, and also in 2012 in Conferring the Diaconate and last year in St Vincent of Saragossa.

Yesterday was the feast day of the Oxford born Jesuit lay brother and constructor of priest holes St Nicholas Owen, who died after torture in the Tower of London in March 1606. My previous posts about him can be read at St Nicholas Owen from 2011 or in a slightly revised form at St Nicholas Owen from 2012.

Today is the feast of St Francis de Sales, erstwhile Oratorian, and later Bishop of Geneva. My account of my visit last July to his shrine church in Annecy and other places in the city connected with him can be read at Over the hills to Annecy and back.


Thursday 23 January 2014

The Earliest English Royal Books

I have been meaning to finish writing this post for ages, and over the Christmas and New Year holiday I have found both my notes and the opportunity - and could just about decifer my handwriting on several scraps of paper. Last year in January I went to meeting of the Oxford Bibliographical Society to hear a lecture on "The Earliest English Royal Books" given by Prof. Richard Gameson from Durham University, and it was one of the most interesting and insightful lectures I have ever had the good fortune to hear.

The topic had arisen as a presentation he had made to the British Library in connection with the planning of their recent exhibition on the Old Royal Library, presented by King George III to the British Museum, and in it Prof.Gameson had outlined the importance of royal patronage of books in the Anglo-Saxon era. This he now presented to his hearers in Oxford with clarity, profound knowledge and understanding, as well a delightfully eccentric line in humour.

He began by referring to the earliest surviving catalogue of English Royal books, that of 1535, when the Royal library of 143 books was at Richmond Palace, and was a collection stemming from 1479 when it was inaugurated by King Edward IV. This leads to questions as to whether such catalogues do record the real range of books available to medieval monarchs and princes, and how books were categorised.

With the Anglo-Saxon world we have no Ex-Libris or library lists, and on a palaeographic approach the historian is more concerned with the scriptorium than with the owner. Furthermore there is a poor survival rate for books from this period.

The earliest English royal books of whose existence we can be certain are the service books of the chapel established about 580 for the Christan Queen Berth when she married the still pagan King Ethelbert of Kent. In the context of the life of the royal household such establishments did not necessarily mean that the kings were literate, but rather, as with the early law codes, that this was a society that was using the written word.

In the following century the scholarly King Aldfrith of Northumbria (685-704/5)possessed books, and collected them - we have record of his exchanging land for a Codex. With St Aldhelm (639-709) we have an intellectual of royal birth who goes into the Church, became an Abbot and then Bishop, and it is possible to reconstruct his library from references in his works, although none of his own manuscrpts survive.

Bede sent books to his King  and the court was a clearing house for such things. The King of East Anglia commissioned Felix's Life of St Guthlac. King Offa gave a Bible made at Jarrow to the cathedral at Worcester. Kings redistributed books around their realms.

Queen Osburgh is said to have encouraged the literary interests of her most famous son King Alfred (871-899), and he was certainly personally literate in later life. As King he gathered scholars around him and encouraged the copying and distribution of texts.

By his time it is possible to distinguish three classes of royal manuscripts - personal possessions for prayer and study or a life such as that by Asser, official texts such as law codes in Latin or Old English which were central to governance, and manuscripts that came into and went again from the king's possession.

Asser records that King Edward the Elder (899-924) owned books and learnt the psalter, and carried the collection forward to the next generation.

From the reign of his son King Athelstan (924-939) two manuscripts are known from his court, and we know of six or seven gifts he made to monasteries where they survived.

Unfortunately the Cottonian fire of 1731 claimed one with an illumination of the King with St Cuthbert, but the other example happily survives:


King Athelstan  and St Cuthbert


In the painting the saint is shown blessing the King who is reading - rather than presenting the book to Cuthbert - and the King is shown as literate, a man well able to exercise rulership.

I should add that Prof Gameson did offer an alternative interpretation of the picture - King Athelstan is offering a box of chocolates to the saint and saying "Personally I don't like the strawberry cremes" - I think that academic joke is now inextricably fixed in my mind with this famous depiction of Anglo-Saxon kingship.

To return to serious matters - the suggestion was made that King Athelstan saw books as diplomatic currency, and that it was the role of the King to give such books away to those who would use them.

His nephew King Edgar (957/9-975) is known to have presented a Gospel Book to the monastery at Ely and the two illustrated Canterbury copies of the Regularis Concordia are probably royal dedication copies:
King Edgar and St Dunstan

King Edgar and St Dunstan from the Canterbury Regularis Concordia


The other famous contemporary manuscript depiction of King Edgar is the Winchester New Minster charter, probably commissioned by Bishop Aethelwold, but with the King's approval:

Circa 966: Cover from Charter for the dedication of New Minster, a Benedictine Abbey in Winchester England - King Edgar in supplication before Christ in majesty

The New Minster Charter circa 966
King Edgar offers prayers to Christ in Glory


No books are recorded from the household of King Ethelred II (978-1016), but his eventual successor and supplanter King Cnut had a sacraments and psalter which was given to him by a monk of Peterborough, and which the King gave to Cologne. Emma of Normandy, Queen to both these Kings is known to have owned books and was the recipient of the Enconium Emma Reginae, as can be seen here:


Queen Emma is presented with the Enconium Emma Reginae
Her two sons, the future King Harthacnut and King Edward the Confessor, are peering round the curtain

Image: anglo-saxon.net

Queen Edith had a life of her husband King Edward the Confessor, Kings William I and William II are known to have given books to continental monasteries and King Henry I gave books to Waltham abbey, including one by Adelard of Bath.

Prof. Gameson then proceeded to look analytically at these books. In terms of quantity he had looked at eighteen individuals at fifteen courts, and he considered the evidence far from negligible as to royal ownership of books and comparable to what is known from the continent for the period. Given the passage of time this was not a bad survival rate for acytual manuscripts or for knowledge of books which no longer survive. King Aldfrith and King Alfred may have been exceptional but royal books were significant throughout the period.

The range was not easy to assess. Church books one would expect and they would be valued for their importance and quality. He believed there would have been a wide range of others, if only we could identify them. The Exeter Book from the reign of King Edgar is the type of book one might expect him to have had and the court or the Church a likely source.

Where these  royal books were made is unclear - as on the continent there is little evidence. Charlamagne and Lothair had a court scriptorium. There is nothing to distinguish such a source from a monastic one. King Alfred may have had such an institution in the latter part of his reign and King Athelstan had ascribe who wrote books. Much of the products of such work would have been legal texts, handbooks and also annals.

Royal imagery has survived in some manuscripts such as the New Minster charter depiction of King Edgar whilst the image of Queen Emma from the Enconium was rarer. The earliest known is that of King Athelstan with St Cuthbert, and that was sixty to seventy years earlier than continental examples. These all suggest royal appreciation of the importance of books and can be seen as part of the Alfredan inheritance.

One of the key points made was that royal books were regularly given away, and we know of these gifts from the records of the recipient monasteries. It was of the nature of royal collections for their contents to be transitory. It was seen as a charitable and pious thing to make texts available to those who could use them - the King was an educational benefactor by giving books to monks and churches. This approach may well have lain behind the great Library of King Charles V of France (1364-80) whose more than 917 volumes were later transferred by John Duke of Bedford to London and dispersed. I would add that that would also be a motivation for Duke Humphrey's great gift to Oxford of the latest classical texts in the 1430s - they were collected to be passed on for wider use, not hoarded as a private collection.

Anglo-Saxon royal books can be classified by type. Firstly there are those from the chapel - missals, homilies, both old and new, and which were in the care of the chaplains. Secondly there were reference works - law books, the text of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, educational texts such as those copied under King Alfred. Thirdly there were individual possessions, which would obviously would vary with the different interests of individual owners. Fourthly there were royal gift books of high prestige - including ones which might have been encouraged an outside scriptorium to produce.

We may have little hope of identifying individual manuscripts as parts of an Anglo-Saxon royal collection. For later centuries there is more hope of identifying owners, but Prof Gameson considered what had once existed as significant as later collections, and maybe more important than that of the Norman kings. The importance of the King and court as a centre of textual distribution was striking. it is difficult to measure the success of such gift giving, but distribution was seen as preferable to hoarding.

All in all a wonderfully stimulating and informative lecture, which I hope I have done at least some justice to in these notes.

Wednesday 22 January 2014

Medieval textiles for auction in Oxford

The other day Fr Tim Finigan had a post about Campaign to buy Sawston Hall and make it a Catholic heritage centre, which seems to be a very worthwhile project. Yesterday I found out, coincidentally, that two embroideries once at Sawston are on sale today at an aution at Mallams, the long established Oxford auction house.  They now form altar frontals but are made from old vestments, and I hope they will be secured for a suitable public or church  collection. Here is the description taken from Mallam's online sale catalogue - with additional comments by myself in []:

An Altar frontal made up of embroidered orphries with saints in arcades and a large cross-orphrey with a Crucifixion; the embroideries range from the late thirteenth century to the sixteenth century. They are mounted on red silk, and bordered with two different widths of later, possibly eighteenth century, silver lace, 92 cm x 166 cm (through glass) in a gilt display case with removable front, 114 x 186cm. 

Provenance: Sawston Hall, Cambridgeshire and thence by descent. 

In the centre: At the top: The Virgin and Christ Enthroned. Both Christ and the Virgin, dressed in gold mantles, wearing crowns, fifteenth century. Christ is blessing the Virgin with his right hand (this is not a representation of the `Coronation of the Virgin` as Mary is already crowned). Two gold crowns are visible on Christ`s head, and it is possible that he originally wore a triple-crown tiara, but the top of this scene has been cut down. One unusual feature of the iconography is that Christ wears the crown of thorns beneath his gold crowns. 

Middle: on a deep burgundy velvet ground, the Crucifixion: Christ on the Cross with angels catching the blood flowing from his wounds in chalices, fifteenth century. At the foot of the cross, on either side, there are two embroidered figures of the Virgin Mary and St John the Evangelist. They are finely embroidered, and come probably from a cope or altar frontal with a design of figures set within barbed quatrefoils frames, as traces of a frame can still be seen. Part of a scrolling leaf design can be glimpsed above each of the figures. These two figures are finely embroidered in silk, with tiny, form-following stitches, set on a ground of underside-couched, very worn metal thread. These are the earliest fragments of embroidery on this altar frontal, possibly dating from the late thirteenth century. 

Bottom: the lower portion of an embroidered orphrey panel, representing a flowery, grassy meadow. 

On either side of the Crucifixion: Outside edges: two portions of a single cope orphrey, early sixteenth century. Left (top to bottom): A prophet; a bearded saint, possibly St James Major; a prophet. Right (top to bottom): A prophet; St John the Evangelist; a prophet. Next: two portions of a second cope orphrey, third quarter of the fifteenth century. Left (top to bottom): St Paul holding a sword; prophet holding a scroll (Elijah?; St Longinus holding a spear. Right (top to bottom): St Peter; a prophet; St Bartholomew holding a book and a knife. Nearest to the Crucifixion: narrow strips, consisting of separate pieces of embroidery used as infill, to bring the altar frontal up to the desired width. There are half-figures of cherubim holding scrolls, two whole figures, and portions of architectural frames. 

On the velvet cross-orphrey: Crucifixion: The figure of Christ, embroidered in coloured silks, with gold thread details in his Crown of Thorns, is applied to a cross which has couched laid gold thread, forming a pattern more often seen on the background of embroideries. Above the Crucifixion: the Holy Spirit in the form of a Dove, in laid and couched silver filé thread, outlined in silver filé twist. There are also radiances of light, formed of couched gold thread, with gilt spangles. Above and below the cross-bars of the Crucifixion: Left: a white-haired bearded saint, holding a book in one hand and possibly some keys (hard to see) in the other, possibly St Peter, third quarter of the fifteenth century. Below him: the Virgin and Child enthroned. Right: an unidentified saint, holding a branch (or small tree?) and below, a prophet. At the bottom edge of the altar frontal: spaces have been in-filled with portions of embroidered grassy meadows, taken from orphrey panels. 

An Altar frontal made from fragments of a deep blue velvet cope, with embroidered motifs in coloured silks and couched gold and silver thread, 156 x 101 cm (through glass) in a pine display case with removable front, 122 x 178cm.

Provenance: Sawston Hall, Cambridgeshire and thence by descent.

The embroideries represent: a large, central Lily Crucifixion, with God the Father above, surrounded by motifs of waterflowers, fleurs de lis, roses en soleil, part of two cherubim, and rebuses consisting of a falcon on a barrel, with a large letter M framing smaller letters D and R. This could possibly refer to a `Dr Morton`, from Mors, Latin for falcon, on a tun or barrel. [I would suggest it is the eagle of St John the Evangelist standing on top of the letters Mor and a tun as a rebus for John Morton - Clever Boy] May this rebus refer to the future Cardinal John Morton (d. 1500), in his early career, as Dr John Morton (i.e. as a doctor of Law, before he became a bishop?). He was educated at Balliol College, Oxford, where he graduated in law; among many other ecclesiastical preferments, he became Archbishop of Canterbury in 1486 and Cardinal priest of S. Anastasia in Rome in 1493. Because of the presence of the rose en soleil badge of Edward IV, the cope may have been commissioned during the period in which Morton was in the service of Edward IV (he was, for example, sent as ambassador to the French court by Edward IV 1477; it was under Edward IV that he became Bishop of Ely in 1479). [ Sawston is, of course, in the diocese of Ely - Clever Boy]

The Lily Crucifixion. This altar frontal offers an important example of a Lily Crucifixion, whose iconography arose from a conflation of the iconography of the Annunciation, in the form of the pot of lilies, with that of the Crucifixion. The Feast of the Annunciation (25th March) and Easter, sometimes fell on the same day, and during the Middle Ages, a belief arose that Christ`s actual Crucifixion took place on the same date as the Annunciation. In Christian iconography, the Annunciation is often represented with attendant portents of Christ`s Crucifixion, pointing, by implication to our redemption through his Resurrection. In this embroidered Lily Crucifixion on the frontal, the significance of the Annunciation, heralding the incarnation of Christ, is emphasised by the inclusion, above the Crucifixion, of God the Father blessing, represented as a half-figure emerging from a cloud.

[There are early fifteenth century paintings of the Lily Crucifixion in the church at Godshill in the Isle of Wight, in the church of St Helen in Abingdon and in St Michael at the Northgate in Oxford - Clever Boy]

The descriptions of the two preceding lots are taken from notes prepared by Lisa Monnas of the Victoria and Albert Museum to whom we express our gratitude. We also offer our thanks to Dr Jon Whiteley of the Ashmolean Museum for his assistance in this matter.

Text and images: Mallams

Tuesday 21 January 2014

Commemorating King Louis XVI

Today is the anniversary of the guillotining of King Louis XVI in 1793. French Royalism has had a somewhat chequered history ever since 1830, but it retains perhaps more vitality than many outside the country might credit it with. Last year the Radical Royalist blog had a post with a link to a list of the many Masses offered in France and elsewhere for the King on or close to the anniversary. It can be read here.


King Louis XVI in 1786 
Portrait by A-F Callet

Image: fr.wikipedia.org

King Louis XVI faced an almost impossible task in governing a country with so many vested interests as Ancien Regime France. Most people saw the need for some kind of reform, from the King (and indeed his grandfather King Louis XV) downwards. The problem was that no-one in the establishment wanted their particular privileges removed or diminished and, once cracks appeared in the facade of the system, the Third Estate - which was hardly a unified set of interests  - could, and were, manipulated to more and more radical solutions by a section of the political intelligentsia.

Reform on the lines adopted by so many other eighteenth century monarchs, usually misnamed Enlightened despots - they were neither, but rather reformist monarchs formed in a traditional model of social organisation - was needed in France. The realm had become complacent and the system increasingly ossified; what had worked under King Louis XIV no longer worked as well under his great-great-great grandson. Trying to achieve such reforms as the revolutionaries attempted to do so rapidly in such sweeping changes was illusory and destabilising. Ironically Queen Marie Antoinette's brother the Emperor Joseph II pursued an often radical agenda in his reforing urge to change his domains, and there the conservative forces eventually put a brake on him. The Emperor in some of his rhetoric and actions looked at times very like the more moderate French revolutionaries. In other words the urge to reform was strong, but the issue was how who was in charge and how they responded to the situation facing them.

What was no doubt needed from King Louis XV and King Louis XVI was a commitment to reform they, it must, be admitted, did not possess to the extent that was needed, and able ministers who were backed by the Crown. 

What most certainly was not needed was the loss of control and the rapid and chaotic spread of revolutionary and millenarian ideas as happened from 1789, and the destructive mania that destroyed so much of value in the frequently vain quest for a new dispensation.

King Louis XVI might not in even different circumstances have been a great King, but he, and his family and realm, most certainly did not deserve the fate which overtook him and them, and which still scars the country. Like King Charles I in England or Bl. Charles of Austria he acquired a dignity in his fate which impressed contemporaries and should impress us now.

Monday 20 January 2014

Oxford Pro-Life Witness - this coming Saturday

This coming Saturday afternoon there will be the monthly Pro-Life Witness outside the entrance to the John Radcliffe Hospital on Headley Way in Oxford from 3pm until 4pm. Please meet at the nearby Church of St Antony of Padua for the Witness which consists of the recitation of the Rosary and silent prayer. Prayers are offered for the unborn, their parents and all those involved in providing abortion services.

Refreshments are available afterwards.

Recently there have been some attempts by opponents to disrupt or be provocative at this event, as has been reported on other Catholic websites, so dignified support for the Pro-Life Witness would be greatly appreciated.