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.

Tuesday 31 January 2017

Fourteenth century alabaster Virgin and Child

I saw on Medievalists.net on Tumblr the following report of the acquisition by the British Museum of an Engliah alabaster statue of circa 1350 of the Virgin and Child and am reproducing it below, with some additional images.


Image:Art Fund

The British Museum has acquired an outstanding fourteenth-century English alabaster figure of the Virgin and Child which is the best-preserved of its kind on display in a UK national collection.

The sculpture probably originates from the Midlands and provides a precious insight into carved alabaster from the period that was otherwise largely destroyed, hidden or sold abroad during the English Reformation. The fourteenth-century artists who worked alabaster of this quality attracted the attention of King Edward III, who ordered a carved alabaster altarpiece from Peter the Maceon of Nottingham in the late 1360s. The altarpiece he commissioned for the chapel of St George at Windsor, along with the totality of comparable pieces in situ, were destroyed, buried or sold abroad during the English Reformation. This statue of the Virgin and Child is a rare survivor that escaped this wave of destruction triggered by Protestantism, having perhaps been exported to the continent at the time of its manufacture, or sold off when imagery of this sort was no longer allowed.

Image result for British Museum alabaster Virgin and Child


The unknown British sculptor demonstrates great skill in suggesting both the divinity of the Virgin and her role as loving mother. The viewer is encouraged to identify with the tender relationship between the mother and her son. This interactive object has been touched and kissed by the faithful with the face of the Virgin and the foot of Christ worn through adoration. The standing Virgin is crowned as Queen of Heaven. The Christ Child is seated on her right arm and holds an orb in his right hand and, with his other hand, touches the Virgin’s chest.

The sculpture is in remarkable condition and is extraordinary in having suffered no major breakages. Even rarer is the survival of large portions of the original decoration, including gilding and imitation jewels which decorate the chest of the Virgin. There are traces of original red and green painting and substantial gilding across the sculpture. The figure has a sophisticated sway emphasising the relationship of mother and child. The reverse of the sculpture is uncarved, suggesting that the figure was originally positioned against something within a tabernacle or architectural niche.

The alabaster figure was purchase by the British Museum from the dealer Sam Fogg with support from the Art Fund, National Heritage Memorial Fund and private donations.

The sculpture is now on display in the Sir Paul and Lady Jill Ruddock Gallery of Medieval Europe (G40).

 Image result for British Museum alabaster Virgin and Child

Image: The Guardian

The British Museum website itself reports on the statue at British Museum acquires outstanding alabaster Virgin and Child, together with a set of views of another statue already in the collection featured at British Museum - Image gallery: statue

There are other website articles about the statue from the Guardian at Medieval statue that survived persecution is back on show at British Museum acquires rare alabaster of the Virgin and Child
from the Art Fund and in an article from the Catholic Herald at 'A haunting glimpse of what we lost'

 Image result for British Museum alabaster Virgin and Child

Image: Catholic Herald

Friday 27 January 2017

The Birth of Kaiser Wilhelm II

158 years ago today there occurred in Berlin the birth of that fascinating and still much misunderstood figure the future Kaiser Wilhelm II.

The other year I read J.G.Röhl's massive Young Wilhelm: The Kaiser's Early Life 1859-1888 - the first part of a three volume biography, and which covers his life down to his accession in 1888. 


Image: Amazon
Prof. Röhl has trawled through vast amounts of correspondence and other sources to produce his book, and it is an invaluable source as well as being full of interest and elegant diversions. One surprise was that Wilhem's best friend whilst he was at school in Kassell was not only Jewish but was to turn out to be the grandfather of the historian G.R. Elton.

I have to say that personally I do not agree with Röhl's basic premise about the Kaiser, and would follow much more the line of Christopher Clark in his biography - which should be read as well - but Röhl is necessary and fascinating reading for anyone interested in the Hohenzollerns in that period, in their relations with the British Royal House, or just keen to know more about the era.

Image result for Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II

Queen Victoria and Wilhelm in 1864


The book begins with forty pages on the circumstances of the birth of the Prince in 1859 - as a reviewer commented  how many other people get such detailed attention paid to the circumstances of their birth in a biography - but of course the wrenching of the baby's left arm during his delivery led to its permanent damage and is crcial to many arguments (in both senses) about the Kaiser.

Wilhelm II.

Prince Wilhelm of Prussia at the age of 10

His physical handicap of his damaged left arm, and underdeveloped left facial features at that time led to the photograph being suppressed by his father. One copy alone survives.

Image: fkoester.de

His mother's sense of guilt about that developed into a hypercritical attitude to her eldest son who she was determined to mould on what she considered the right lines. Reading the book made me very thankful not to have had a mother anything like the Crown Princess/Empress Frederick. She seems at times quite monstrous, busy bullying her husband and making a favourite of her latest child. On one occasion she complained that young Wilhelm's letter's home were badly written for a boy of his age - he was having to write with only one usable arm and with the paper sliding around on the polished surface of a table... No wonder as a 22 year old he was anxious to marry the placid, indeed boring, Augusta Victoria of Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Augustenburg just to get away from home.

Image result for Queen Victoria and Kaiser Wilhelm II

Crown Princess Victoria and her eldest son

Image: Independent.co.uk

Most British biographies of the Kaiser's mother are sympathetic to her, but in Röhl's pages she emerges as a difficult woman to say the least. She also emerges as an ill one at times - Prof. Röhl shows that she, and certainly her eldest daughter Princess Charlotte, suffered from porphyria, which can be traced back through the Hanoverians to the Stuarts and earlier.

Given his mother's forceful nature ( and peristent and tactless Anglophilia when in Prussia ) it is not, I think, surprising that in the 1880s Wilhelm displayed little love for his mother's home country, or referred to his grandmother as the Empress of Hindoostan. Unlike the implicit tenor of some of  Röhl's comments I do not think however that those ideas counted at all in the years leading up to or in 1914. The impression I formed was one of a young man affected by his disability, destined for a throne, but in many ways engagingly human with the weaknesses anyone in such a position might have to cope with or succumb to. One point that might have been explored my sympatheically were Wilhelm's religious opinions - that seems to have been more important than many might think with hindsight. 

I read the book in hardback and carrying it around Oxford was almost enough to wrench my arm out of its socket. It is now available in paperback together with the other two volumes by Prof. Röhl covering the Kaiser's life from 1888-1900 and 1900-1941.  The problem is finding the time to read them.

Thursday 26 January 2017

Brexit before Brexit?

I came across this poster on Pinterest the other day and it somehow seemed rather topical as to attitudes in the context of the post-Brexit vote discussions...

Image result for Pinterest British Empire Union poster


Thursday 19 January 2017

Empress Carlota

Ninety years ago today there occurred the death of the Empress Carlota of Mexico. Born on June 7 1840 Princess Charlotte ( Marie Charlotte Amélie Augustine Victoire Clémentine Léopoldine ) of Belgium she married Archduke Maximilian of Austria, in preference to King Pedro V of Portugal, and when Maximilian accepted the proffer of being Emperor of Mexico in 1864 she became the Empress Carlota.

Their story as rulers of Mexico and its terrible end - a firing squad for Maximilian and insanity for Carlota is well known. There is a biography of her at Carlota of Mexico and at The Mexican Adventure: Empress Carlota of Mexico. That raises the point about the varying state of her mental health in that long widowhood. At its beginning she said she would waut for her husband for sixty years, and more or less she did.

At her death at Meise as the Mad Monarchist pointed out in a blog post her coffin was escorted to burial at Laeken by the few elderly survivors of the Belgian Legion, the Empress Carlota Guards, who had fought for her in Mexico.


Empress Carlota in old age, with her attendants.
The Empress Carlota on her death bed.
 Images: godsandfoolishgrandeur.blogspot.co.uk

That was in 1927 and the events of 1867 must have seemed very remote then to almost everyone except the widowed Empress and her few faithful followers.

However it is worth pointing out that the Empress is not quite as remote a figure as might at first be thought. She was remembered by her great-neice, the late Queen Marie-Jose of Italy, who died in 2001 - and lived at one time in exile in Mexico - as can be read at Marie Jose of Belgium On Her Great-Aunt Empress Carlota of Mexico

When the Empress died it was in the lifetime of her first cousin four times removed, who had been born the previous year, and is now Queen Elizabeth II, and the Empress' great great great nephew is the present King of the Belgians.

Thursday 12 January 2017


Yesterday evening I had supper with a friend and whilst at his house I was skim reading parts of the book he is currently reading, D.R.Thorpe's Supermac: The Life of Harold Macmillan  published by Chatto and Windus in 2010.


Image: Amazon

This is an immensely readable biography - indeed it made me somewhat anti-social as I delved into it ( though not to my friend's surprise or discountenance ) - and full of vignettes of Macmillan's life, contemporaries and times. Archbishop Fisher in 1961 on the requirements for an Archbishop of Canterbury is a joy to read, as is Macmillan telling Roy Jenkins of their shared working class roots as opposed to the lower-middle class Margaret Thatcher, and the scene at the Silver Wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire when Uncle Harold made his entrance down the stairs into the Painted Hall at Chatsworth leaning on the arm of another former party leader and the Duchess' brother-in-law, Sir Oswald Mosley...

Macmillan is the first Prime Minister I remember and I think he is in many ways under-rated these days. As a student at Balliol on the eve of the Great War he used to serve then Anglican Ronald Knox's celebration of the Roman Rite in a chapel at the convent of the St Thomas Sisterhood which was just in front of my kitchen window.

This is a book I really must try to read fully, and one I would heartily recommend to anyone interested in the man or his era.

Friday 6 January 2017

Surge illuminare

" Surge illuminare"  - Rise your light has come [Isaiah 60 v.1] - is a text traditionally used at the feast of the Epiphany and provided the text for the first sermon preached by Richard Fleming as a member of the English delegation before the Council of Constance on this day seven centuries ago in 1417.

council of constance

Meeting of scholars, bishops, cardinals and Pope John XXIII (antipope) in the cathedral of Constance i.e. before John's deposition in May 1415.

Image:indianapublicmedia.org/Fb78 (wikipedia)

Chronicle of the Council of Constance [1414-1418] by Ulrich Riechental, Fol. 007r, c.1470s

A procession of clergy and religious at the Council of Constance
From the Chronicle of Ulrich von Reichental ( MS of c.1470)

Image: Pinterest

At that stage in the Council celebrating the liturgy and listening to sermons whilst they manoevered behind the scenes appears to have been th emain occupation of the Council Fathers. For Fleming this was his first, but by no means his last as a preacher in the cathedral. 

There is an account of the building in which the Council met and of its subsequent development and history at Konstanz Minster

The romanesque nave with its pillars of the basilica was built between 1052 and 1089, is the core  of the cathedral. Over the centuries the cathedral was altered and enhanced. In 1435, the side aisles of the nave were vaulted, followed by the main nave in 1680. In the baroque era, the middle choir was plastered and gilded. In 1856 the western Gothic tower pyramid was built.


 The interior of the cathedral today


The west front of Constance Cathedral before the restoration of 1856

Image: Godzdogz 


The cathedral today

Image: Wikipedia

Birth of King Richard II

On January 6th 1367, 650 years ago, the future King Richard II was born in Bordeaux. He was the second son of Edward Prince of Wales and his wife Joan of Kent.

Their elder son, Edward of Angoulême, born in 1365 died in 1370, and thus Richard became heir to the throne after his father. There is a useful online account of the elder brother at Edward of Angoulême ( though I think few now believe the idea that he is depicted in the Wilton Diptych as the Christ Child ) and more about his date of death at Edward of Angoulême.

Image result for Wilton Diptych

King Richard II from the Wilton Diptych


This day is, of course the feast of the Epiphany and imagery of the Magi figured in later orations to Richard as well, by implication, in the Wilton Diptych of 1397 (or thereabouts) which shows him with St Edward the Confessor and St Edmund in adoration of the Christ Child.


The Wilton Diptych


The connotation of the link with the Magi was further brought out by the fact or tradition that three kings were present at Richard's baptism - those of Majorca, Armenia and the exiled ruler of Castile.
The presence of St John the Baptist in the Wilton Diptych and a saint to whom Richard showed especial devotion - as he records on the inscription he prepared for his tomb - is another link to the future king's birth and baptism. As his birth he was first named John by the midwives and only received the name Richard at his formal baptism, and the Epiphany is also the traditonal day on which the Baptism of Christ was recalled as well as the visit of the Magi and the miracle at Cana.

Richard was baptised in the cathedral of St Andre in Bordeaux


Bordeaux Cathedral from the north-east

Image: touropia.com 

Bordeaux Cathedral from the north-west

Image: linedwithtrees.wordpress.com

The interior looking east


The interior looking west


There is an online account of the history and architecture of the cathedral, with a plan and photographs, here.

There are illustrated online accounts of the Ombrière, the administrative centre of English rule in Aquitaine - Guienne, at The Ombrière Palace and, in French, at Palais de l'Ombrière.

Sunday 1 January 2017



The Duke of Berry (1340-1416), of whom there is an online biography here, is depicted dressed in blue and wearing a livery or chivalric collar and seated to the right, and wearing a handsome fur hat to indicate his status, celebrates the Christmas and Epipany seasons. There appears to be the exchange of gifts - New Year or Epiphany ones - and a cultivated and splendid lifestyle. This is a pattern which would have been replicated or emulated across Europe in royal and aristocratic households.

The importance of the Duke is further indicated by the canopy and cloth of estate with his arms above his head. The tapestries or hangings with their battle scenes which decorate the room are a further sign of wealth. They would have travelled with the household and been hung to decorate whichever residence was in use at the time. What today might appear the rather stark interior of later medieval residences  could have rapidly been transformed by such wallhangings - which also would have provided insulation. A superb contemporary set which depicts the Apocalypse have survived and can be seen at Angers in the castle. In a similar way the trestle table once covered with a fine linen cloth assumes far greater dignity.

The firescreen is also an interesting feature, as is the woven rush matting - rushes on the floor clearly did not mean a strewn hay stack as one might be led to believe, but a fitted covering in such a grand household. Similar floor coverings can be seen today in some National Trust properties such as Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire.

On the left is a sideboard or buffet with a display of gold plate as was expected on such occasions to display princely magnificence, and other splendid plate is in use at the feast, as well as an aquamanile for washing the hands of those dining at the table. The pieces shown are very similar to the relatively few surviving examples from the period in museums and collections such as those of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges. My post The Royal Gold Cup is about another surviving piece, now in the British Museum, of such splendid plate which is specifically linked to the Duke and his nephew King Charles VI.

The whole scene is redolent of courtly life, well mannered, polite, fashionable and stylish - even the greyhound has an air of elegant langour.

The painting is attributed to the artist identified as the 'the courtly painter'. 

The effigy of the Duke in the cathedral of St Etienne in Bourges by Jean de Cambrai shows a great similarity to the figure of him in the illumination:

Tomb of Jean, Duc de Berry


Duc de Berry.jpg


The Duke was a major player in the French political system both a member of the Royal family, being son of King Charles V, and as a grand seigneur with his appanage of Berry.  That so much of French  politics hinged on the rivalries between Royal Dukes such as Orleans, Burgandy and Berry when King Charles VI was periodically incapacitated by mental illness raised tensions and weakened the ability to respond to the potential threat posed by King Henry V.

Hoever at the beginning of January as the Duke and his court feasted they cannot have imagined the scale of that threat, or of its impact within the coming year.


The Très Riches Heures Calendar pages

I have decided to post once again this year, as I did five years ago and two years ago, the appropriate monthly calendar page from the Très Riches Heures of Jean, Duc de Berry. There is an article about this, probably the most famous Book of Hours here, which has links to articles on the artists involved. 

The manuscript was begun by the Limbourg brothers Herman (b. 1385), Paul (b.1386 or 7) and Jean (b. 1388) in 1412, but left unfinished when they all died, probably of plague, in February 1416. The Duke died that same year and the Hours were completed by other artists, later in the century, in a recognisably different style. The majority of the calendar pages are by the Limbourgs themselves, and include marvellous views of the ducal and of other royal residences in France. 

What they do not indicate in their idyllic representations - and, given the nature of the book, why should they I might add - is that they were produced against the background of civil conflict between the Armagnacs and the Burgundians, as detailed so graphically in the Journal of the Bourgeois of Paris, and, in 1415, King Henry V's invasion and his spectacular defeat of the French at Agincourt, followed by his conquest of Normandy in 1417-19.

I will post each Calendar page separately on the first day of the month with revised notes about the scene and places depicted. This is the period of history in which I might claim to specialise  - it is the one that brought me to Oxford - and I am always keen to share my enthusiasm for it.