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.

Monday 31 October 2022

A sister ship to the Vasa

As a boy I recall being fascinated by reports of the salvaging in 1961 of the Vasa from Stockholm harbour where it sank in 1628 on its maiden voyage, and of getting the book about the ship and its contents.

Now something like sixty years later a sister ship of the Vasa has been found. The Äpplet was constructed in 1629, learning the lessons of the fate of the Vasa and served until 1659 when it was sunk as a defensive measure to block one of the approaches to Stockholm harbour.

An online article from Popular Mechanics outlines the history of the ship and its discovery in December 2021 and also the complex problems posed in any attempt to raise and conserve its remains. I would hope these issues can be resolved and that such a project can be undertaken. 

Wreck reveals Baltic trade of the early fifteenth century

Medievalists.net has an interesting report about research work on a fifteenth century wreck discovered in 2003 off the western coast of Sweden. 

When the vessel sank in 1443 or soon after, based on the age of the timber of which it was built and was carrying, it was still a new ship. The cargo and location where it foundered would strongly suggest that it was sailing from the port of Gdańsk ( Danzig ) to Bruges.

The cargo of building materials illuminates the trade patterns and links between not only the Baltic lands and the Low Countries but also to links much further inland, to what is now Slovakia, but was then northern Hungary, as the source of the copper ingots found in the ship’s hold.

The article, which includes links to two more detailed accounts of the ship and its cargo, can be seen at Medieval shipwreck's cargo revealed by researchers

King Henry VIII’s Psalter

The British Library’s Medieval Manuscript Blog always makes for interesting reading and it has recently published an article about the personal psalter of King Henry VIII which has been lent by the Library to a major New York exhibition on portraits of the King and his family. The work of a French artist the psalter dates from 1540. It is from a time when the now aging or tiring King had broken with Rome and dissolved the monasteries. He was seeking to create or sustain his own, idioscyncratic brand of national Catholicism in a time of uncertainty and factionalism. It is therefore traditional but also takes on its own Henrician identity, reflecting the King’s view of himself as a Godly Ruler informed by humanist ideas of reform or renewal and Biblical analogies.

Rather than being designed for public viewing, as it actually is today the manuscript volume was very personal to the King and his devotional life. His vision of his Henrician church is implicit in the illuminations. Two of them often reproduced in books on the King  - that of the King reading the psalms in his bedroom and that of him playing the harp with his fool Will Somers in attendance - but the other two are not well known, depicting the King as slaying the Goliath who wasPipe Paul III and as a penitential Davidic figure amongst ruins. Extraordinary as they are these deserve to be better known are. In addition there are also the King’s own added marginalia - insight indeed to his thoughts and self-image.

The King’s view of his role in the tradition of Davidic monarchy was expressed in some public imagery, but its appeal was perhaps limited. King David as recorded in the Old Testament may be a great hero of Israel, and presented, rather than King Saul, as the founder of the monarchy but the events of his reign include not a few episodes which make him less than a paragon. That does not seem to have troubled King Henry. David as a youth fighting Goliath could be appropriated as a figure of Republican Idealism and Independence in Florence and again as the harpist author of the psalms by the aging King Henry in England a few decades later. Previous monarchs had perhaps tended more to identify with King Solomon as a regal ideal - most notably in the singing of “Zadok the Priest”, long before Handel provided a new setting in 1727, during the anointing of a new monarch. It is not Samuel anointing Saul or David, but rather the established spiritual authorities anointing the designated, hereditary heir in the youthful Solomon. As does his father David Solomon appears on one of the enamelled panels of the Ottonian crown of the Holy Roman Empire, and it was twisted Solomonic pillars that were used symbolically by both Church and monarchs to suggest their continuity with the Old Dispensation whilst being part of the New.

The splendidly illustrated post about the Psalter can be seen at https://blogs.bl.uk/digitisedmanuscripts/2022/10/king-henry-psalter.html

Friday 28 October 2022

Medieval Childhood and Youth

Recent decades have seen a considerable amount of research into the experience of childhood and youth in medieval and early modern societies. 

Drawing upon academic work of this sort History Extra has an article which provides a useful A-Z of aspects of life for the young in the middle ages. It corrects several modern misconceptions about life in the past and makes one see the nature of childhood and adolescence, however different it was from today, as nevertheless less unfamiliar than we might have thought.

The article can be viewed at Medieval childhood: a historical A-Z

Thursday 27 October 2022

Not one in the eye for King Harold II

By my calculations today October 27th equals October 14th OS - ie in the Julian Calendar and is thus technically the actual anniversary of the battle of Hastings 956 anniversary of one of the two most important events in the history not only of England, or Britain, or the British Isles but of the English speaking world in the last thousand years. The other event of comparable import is the break with Rome in the sixteenth century.

The battle was over with the death of King Harold II. Setting aside later stories of him surviving and living out his later years in anonymity as a hermit his death is a given fact. However the story that it was caused by an arrow in his eye which has become part of the national consciousness is one which historians have for many years questioned, disputed and rejected that ‘fact’.

Recently the Medievalists.net website reposted an article by Michael Livingston from Medieval Warfare which looks at the evidence for King Harold’s death. The contemporary or near contemporary texts are set out clearly and cogently. So is the testimony of the Bayeux Tapestry, both as it is now and as it was recorded by eighteenth and early nineteenth century draughtsmen before it was restored. This lucid, well illustrated article, together with its bibliographic links, can be accessed at The Arrow in King Harold's Eye: The Legend That Just Won't Die

William of Malmrsbury’s account of King Harold’s wounding and death is interesting in that it is very circumstancial. Perhaps it is too much so in that doubtless most if not all of those around the King doubtless perished with humans did not survive to recount events. If Malmsbury had seen the designs for the Tapestry he could well, as a skilled writer, have constructed his narrative in a way often used by historians before the emergence of modern concerns with sources and fidelity to strict factuality. It remains noteworthy in that it does say that King Harold received a wound in the eye, although when William was writing the Tapestry would not have shown that.

One bit of trivia that the article brings out is that King Harold is depicted as left-handed. Is that a genuine fact otherwise unrecorded or was it shown to suggest his not being the rightful ruler?

Wednesday 26 October 2022

Medieval Peasants and the reality of their lives

Medievalists.net has an article which is a useful survey by Duncan Hardy and in which he challenges popular modern misconceptions about the lives of the medieval peasantry. In contrast it sets out something of the variety over time and place, and within particular communities, of life for individuals who might be grouped together as peasants or as being of the peasant class. 

Whilst this would not be news to those with knowledge of the centuries surveyed the article  does give an excellent summary to counter the stereotypes seen in films and which lie in the popular imagination. Studies which do open up surviving records can indeed be a revelation to those who are aware of the complexities of medieval daily life for the majority. It can be surprising to anyonesee how little human temperaments change, how strikingly familiar even in a very different milieu people from the past can be revealed to have been, and how diverse were individual experiences and expectations. This article is a good way to approach that understanding by pointing to the evidence and to what should, but often is not, be obvious.

The article itself, which will be in the November edition of the BBC History Magazine can be read at Why there’s no such thing as a typical medieval peasant

Monday 24 October 2022

A famous late medieval Swiss pilgrim to Jerusalem

Medievalists.net has an interesting article that links a prominent late medieval Swiss knight, or his son, to a surviving graffito in Jerusalem.

Adrian von Bubenberg, of whom there is an account on Wikipedia at Adrian von Bubenbergwent on pilgrimage to the Holy City in 1466 and it is thought that he left a charcoal inscription at the Tomb of David. If it was not him then the writer was presumably his son who also made the pilgrimage in later years. 

The survival of so fragile an inscription that can be linked to an historical figure is fascinating. Bubenberg was a principal player in the maintenance of that fearsome Swiss military tradition which defeated Duke Charles of Burgundy and made the Alpinr cantons a source of fearsome fighting men.

The Jerusalem pilgrimage was extremely popular to a wide selection of intrepid travellers and offered a sea voyage from Venice through the Adriatic and the eastern Mediterranean, and supervised visits to Jerusalem. Amongst those who made the journey were the formidable St Bridget of Sweden in the fourteenth century, and, amongst English pilgrims in these years, there were the future King Henry IV, his rival Thomas Mowbray Duke of Norfolk, the King’s half-brother the future Cardinal Beaufort, that incorrigible pious traveller the King’s Lynn businesswoman and housewife Margery Kempe, and John Tiptoft, Earl of Worcester ( who may have learned from the Turks and the Hospitalers en route the potential delights of impalement as a means of punishment …. )

How tall were medieval Norwegians?

Medievalists. net has a summary of a study of 277 skeletons from sites in medieval Norway, dating from the eleventh to the sixteenth centuries and which has looked at the height of the individuals and at that in relation to their social status, as inferred from their places of burial.

I will say that I do wish in studies like this the compilers would use feet and inches as well rather than just centimetres - I cannot visualise someone as just a total of centimetres, whereas I can immediately envisage someone in feet and inches.

As with other such studies, and in contrast to some popular presentations of the past, what is striking is that, given more advanced nutrition and childhood healthcare today, is that medieval people were, on average, only slightly shorter than their descendants and successors today. Average and actual height is known to have notably increased in the western world during in the twentieth century. This has been more obvious in some countries than others. I can well imagine that an affluent country like Norway would be well up the list in such statistics, perhaps not far behind The Netherlands, which has I think the most striking increase in individuals’ height. The downside of this is an increase in back problems, especially earlier in life than might be expected, in taller men. 

Saturday 22 October 2022

Seeking to know more about the ‘Mary Rose’

The Daily Express website has an unusually informative article about hopes to raise the remains of the bow castle of the ‘Mary Rose’ from where it still lies in the silt of Portsmouth Harbour. Not only would this make more of the wreck available both for understanding the ship and for presenting the vessel to modern eyes but, it is thought, might also provide evidence as to why the ship sank so rapidly on July 19th 1545.

The article also uses material generated by the DNA and isotope analysis evidence from eight of the three hundred skeletons found on the ship. This has shown that four out of the eight sailors originated in the region of the Mediterranean rather than in England and revealed a lot about their health and changes to their physiology consequent upon their military service.

The ethnic background to the crew as indicated by the DNA and isotope analysis is also covered in a useful article, which includes facial reconstructions, and was published in 2021. It is from the Smithsonian Magazine and can be seen at Ethnically Diverse Crew of Henry VIII's Flagship Hailed From Iberia, North Africa

Friday 21 October 2022

More on Hipparchus’ star map

I posted the other day in An Ancient Greek star map revealed about reports concerning the identification of a portion of the text of the star map created in the second century BC by Hipparchus in a manuscript from the library of St Catherine’s monastery in Sinai. In it I linked to two articles about the palimpsest and the  place of the star map in the life of Hipparchus and its place in astronomical thought.

I have now come upon another article about the identification of the fragment on the website of Live Science. This is useful in its description of how making the map came to Hipparchus’ mind. It can be seen at World's oldest complete star map, lost for millennia, found inside medieval manuscript

The Black Death and its genetic legacy

Research continues into the impact and legacy of the mid-fourteenth century Black Death and its various recurrences through the following centuries.

The latest research has indicated there was a 40% enhanced survival rate for those with a certain genetic pattern. Having survived they went on to marry in all likelihood similarly genetically strong people and over only a few generations the ascendancy of that gene rapidly becomes entrenched in their descendants, right down to today.

However this was not entirely beneficial in that the relevant gene carries the risk of increasing vulnerability to auto-immune conditions.

The BBC News website has a report about the research, which used skeletons from England and Denmark, and it can be seen at Black Death 700 years ago affects your health now

Sky News also has an article about the research project which gives a good summary of the work and it can be seen at How the Black Death shaped how our bodies tackle today's diseases

Thursday 20 October 2022

A not so tall story shown to be a tall story

Notes from Poland recently had a report about research undertaken in the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow at the tomb of King Władislaw I the Short, the “Elbow high” or “Little Ell”. As his nickname implies the King was noted for his lack of physical stature. That was in sharp contrast to his very considerable stature as the re-unifier of the various Piast principalities which made up Poland at the beginning of the fourteenth century and the re-creation of the Polish monarchy. He reigned as King of Poland from 1320 until his death in 1333. Wikipedia has an account of his life and reign at Władysław I Łokietek

The effigy of King Władislaw I in the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow

Image: posztukiwania

Popular report had it that the King was only 3’11” tall, which would more or less make him handicapped by dwarfism. However the latest investigation with an endoscopic camera of his remains in his tomb suggests that he was 5’ to 5’1” tall, which does seem much more credible. As the article suggests if the average height at the time was around 5’5”” or 5’6” then he was still short but not extremely so. I would add that there is quite considerable disparity in evidence from medieval burials as to height by region, by social status, occupation and by age. The article also stated that some historians have thought the reference to his small stature was a political satire on the pretensions of an initially ambitious prince with few resources. That seems a not unreasonable suggestion of how contemporaries might have viewed a short man with big ideas …. As it turned out King Władislaw and his son King Casimir III were to prove good examples of the later medieval ‘state builder’ like their contemporaries King Charles Robert and King Louis I in Hungary or King Edward I and King Edward III in England, the later Capetians in France and, as Angevins, in Naples and several Iberian monarchs.

The article about the investigation of the tomb can be seen at Poland's "Elbow-High" king was taller than believed, finds camera probe of tomb

File:Władysław Łokietek seal 1320.PNG

The Great Seal of King Władislaw I of Poland

Image: Wikimedia 

An Ancient Greek star map revealed

Just as our knowledge of the stars of the Universe expands so too does our knowledge of what our ancestors knew and discovered in their times about the heavenly bodies.

The monastery of St Catherine in Sinai has defied time and circumstance to preserve an astonishing treasure house of early manuscripts in its library. It is one of these codices, which is now in the Museum of the Bible in Washington DC, which has yielded a fascinating story. The Syriac codex is a palimpsest. In the tenth or eleventh century a Syriac text was written on top of a collection of fifth or sixth century astronomical material. 

This then yielded part of a star catalogue that can be assigned, because of the Earth’s precession, to the time of Hipparchus in the second century BC. Although Hipparchus was believed to have made such a star catalogue its text had not, it was thought, survived. Here
appears to be clear evidence that it did exist, was still being transcribed centuries later, and that part at least still exists.

Hipparchus, of whom there is a lengthy Wikipedia account at Hipparchushas been seen as one of the greatest astronomers of all time, a Greek who drew upon Babylonian records for his work.

This latest manuscript discovery is set out in an article in Nature which can be seen online at  First known map of night sky found hidden in Medieval parchment

That article is reprised in an article in Greek Reporter which gives a little more context to the career of Hipparchus and can be seen at Ancient Greek Map of the Sky Discovered at Orthodox Monastery

Glimpsing the Viking sense of history

Two graves in Norway, something like seven centuries apart in date, one contemporary with the era of the Roman Empire, the other from the Viking age can be seen to have clear similarities. A report on phys.org sets out the evidence. The earlier one appears to mark a significant change in dealing with the dead in that it is a burial not the remains of a cremation, which had hitherto been the practice whilst the second is seen as a conscious imitation of the older grave to convey a sense of continuity. Both burial mounds are created to look older than they actually are, to look back to a past era.

This, it is argued, suggests a society where tradition - define it as you choose - was valued, where identifying with past practice was important. 

The use of the the word Roman is slightly curious - I assume it is used in the sense of contemporaneous with rather than implying Roman rule in Norway, although there were doubtless some commercial contacts and just maybe intrepid Norwegians who served as Barbarian feodorati in the later centuries of Rome. 


Wednesday 19 October 2022

Royal prayers to St Frideswide in 1518

Those of us bloggers with an Oxford connection seem to be very busy today honouring the feast day of St Frideswide. In his virtually inimitable way Fr Hunwicke brings an illuminating vignette from the past to life in his post about Queen Catherine of Aragon seeking the intercession of St Frideswide in 1518. 

Shrine of St FrideswideThe base for the 
shrine of St Frideswide as restored to its original position in recent years in Christ Church
Cathedral. To the right can be seen the watching loft to supervise the safety of the chapel and relics.

Image: Christ Church Oxford

An apparently Roman ford in Worcestershire revealed

Arkeonews has a report about the discovery in Worcestershire of what appears to be a paved Roman ford near Evesham. If it does turn out to be what it appears to be then it is a further glimpse of the infrastructure of Britannia, and it helps us to understand more accurately how life was lived in those centuries. It is of interest therefore for the history of a particular locality and also contributes to our appreciation of the wider picture of life under Roman rule.

I will just add that I would describe the road surface as paved - cobbled implies the use of cobblestones, which do not produce so smooth a surface. Indeed these Roman paving slabs would - and should - put many modern
local authorities to shame.

A door for St Frideswide

Today is the feast day of St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford.

My friend Tony Morris has, to mark the day, an article on his always interesting Morris Oxford blog about the carved door in the Victorian St Frideswide's church on the Botley Road in the city. The door has been claimed to have been carved by Alice Liddell - Alice in Wonderland herself - but as he shows this attribution is wrong. The door is in fact the work of two of her sisters. It was made for the church of St Frideswide in Poplar, a Christ Church mission in London’s East End. That church was a casualty of the Blitz but the door survived and came eventually to St Frideswide’s in Oxford, where it can still be seen.

Tony’s post can be seen at St Frideswide’s Door

I think Pevsner is a bit unfair in what he says about the Oxford church - but as he pointed out when I heard him speak many years ago The Buildingd of England surveys were, of necessity done quickly. The proposed tall octagonal tower was never built due to the low-lying marshy site being close to the river and canal, and, like the never undertaken carving, presumably also not done to save costs. St Frideswide’s was the creation of the great High Churchman Canon Chamberlain, incumbent of the original parish of St Thomas’ just to the east, and he appears to have impoverished himself by funding the erection of the church. He built it to counter the presence of the Baptists on Osney Island, the first part of the area to be developed as housing for ordinary working families.

The church he built with its attached Vicarage - they are connected by a long corridor - was designed by Samuel Sanders Teulon (1812-73). A prolific architect who is not very famous today his life and works are set out by Wikipedia at Samuel Sanders Teulon

The church was built in 1870-72 at the end of Teulon’s life. The vicarage was added later and its architect Harry Drinkwater then produced a design for the tower in 1878 which was unfortunately not carried out. It can be seen illustrated at 1878 – St. Frideswide, Osney, Oxfordshire

St Fridewides church - geograph.org.uk - 1102510.jpg

St Frideswide New Osney from the east

Image: Wikipedia 

As the examples illustrated in the Wikipedia article, and indeed as St Frideswide’s also shows, Teulon’s muscular assertive buildings are replete with Gothic detail but are unmistakably and uncompromisingly of the mid-nineteenth century - there is nothing of the Pugin and Wardell, or Pearson, Bodley and Comper striving to recreate the English middle ages.

The Wikipedia account says he was of Low Church sympathies as were many of his patrons. I am not sure if that is true of the then Duke and Duchess of St Albans at Bestwood  near Nottingham and certainly not of Chamberlain who was anything but Low Church. 

In my time at St Thomas’ when I visited St Frideswide's, then united as a benefice, I used to think that its design, with a wide nave and open space under the crossing was very well suited to a modern Catholic style of worship. 

Interior image of 627218 Oxford St Frideswide

The interior of St Frideswide
The Liddell door is on the left side of the tower arch

Image: Joseph Elders/Church of England.org

Sunday 16 October 2022

Oxford in the Civil War

Earlier this year I was helping a friend with a project he was working on about life in Oxford when it was the Royalist capital during the English Civil War. One of the things we used as a point of reference was a good article by Simon Thurley about the topic. 

I now see that a slightly expanded, and handsomely illustrated, version of that article by Simon Thurley has now appeared in Country Life. It can be seen at Oxford's forgotten history as the capital city of Britain

St Edward the Confessor

October 13th was the feast day of St Edward the Confessor. This was the date of the elevation and translation of relics at the time of his canonisation in the reign  of King Henry II.
Bayeux Tapestry scene1 EDWARD REX.jpg

St Edward as depicted at the beginning of the Bayeux Tapestry

Image: Wikipedia 

St Edward is going to be more in the public consciousness in coming months as the Coronation approaches - it is his crown, his chair, his staff, his sapphire and his foundation at Westminster with his shrine that will be central to that, Of those items only the sapphire in the Imperial State Crown can be now directly linked to him as a secondary relic, the others are replacements or named after him.

Medieval centuries held him up as a pattern of kingship. Thus the use of his regalia, of his image which appears to have been painted on the back of the Coronation Chair, the use of a Coronation oath to secure adherence to the good laws of King Edward were a pledge of good governance from a new monarch. What those medieval kings, let alone modern governments would think of the tradition of his abolition of taxes because they were an occasion of sin is a question to reflect upon. One legacy of that was the royal bargain with the Cinque Ports to provide ships when needed to defend the Narrow Seas rather than fund a navy through taxation. How the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Defence Secretary might re-work that today I leave for your consideration. That bargain however presumably underlies the right of the barons of the Cinque Ports to bear the canopy over the monarch on their way in procession to be crowned. The canopy was last used in practice in 1821, but the barons still retain the right to do so and are present at the Coronation.

The apogee of the cult of St Edward was achieved in the reign of King Richard II, a munificent patron of Westminster. a devotee of the sacral kingship expressed in the cult of St Edward and who in his latter years impaled the  arms assigned to the Confessor with his own, suggesting spiritual union or close indentification.
Edward the Confessor

St Edward the Confessor from the Wilton Diptych circa 1397

Image: historylearningsite.co.uk

St Edward along with St Stephen of Hungary, St Olav of Norway, St Wenceslaus of Bohemia, and, slightly later, St Louis in France is one of those saint-kings whose cult helped define and shape the exercise of royal authority in succeeding centuries and to legitimise it through relics and symbols.

St Edward Pray for The King and his realms

Saturday 15 October 2022

St Wilfrid

October 12th was the feast of St Wilfrid the great seventh century northern bishop and missionary. Born c.633, probably in Deira ( more or less the historic county of Yorkshire ), he died in 709/10 in his mid-seventies after a remarkable and productive career as monastic founder, bishop, evangeliser and the exercise of ecclesiastical influence.

Almost certainly aristocratic by birth as witnessed to by his confidence as a young man and throughout his life, he was indefatigable in his actions and resolve. Energetic and tireless he made three journeys to Rome in pursuit of his rights and claims. He was not just Northumbrian in his actions. Whilst in exile he evangelised Sussex, establishing at Seles what became the diocese of Chichester, and from thence was a missionary to the Isle of Wight. In his later years he worked in the East Midlands, possibly based in Leicester and it was there that he died at  Oundle. On a visit to the continent he attempted to convert the Frisians, a task later resumed by St Willibrord, a Wilfridian trained monk, and later still by St Boniface.

He was a cosmopolitan figure, influenced by what he witnessed in Gaul and Italy, the antithesis of provincialism and insular localism. By his life and actions Wilfrid, like other Northumbrian contemporaries bound his home region into the wider world of Latin Christendom.

Wikipedia has, as it usually does for lives and topics from the Anglo Saxon period, a detailed and well researched account of his life and times which can be seen at Wilfrid

This discusses inter alia how Wilfrid was recorded by Bede as a possibly critical, if not hostile, historian.

Eddius Stephanus’ Life of Bishop Wilfrid, which is clearly positive in its assessment of the man, as edited by Bertram Colgrave for Cambridge UP, can be read online at The Life of Bishop Wilfrid

There is a cut-away reconstruction of the church built by St Wilfrid at Hexham on the website of the York Centre for the Study of Christianity and Culture at Hexham Abbey

Hexham Abbet ( recte Priory ) is a treasure house of late medieval ecclesiastical furnishings, notably panel paintings, in addition to the crypt and sculpture from the Wilfridian era. The church’s website has material on St Wilfrid and a reconstruction drawing of his church which can be seen at Wilfrid

No contemporary descriptions let alone portraits of St Wilfrid survive. Amongst later depictions there is a fifteenth century panel now in the choir of Hexham. It has been suggested that this was originally in the refectory for the medieval Augustinian canons. Together with the other figures on the panel it is similar to rood screen images elsewhere and the stained glass in the early fifteenth century choir windows of York Minster. A drawing of it is Illustrated in the Hexham Abbey link above.

St Wilfrid Pray for us

Renovating Mortimer’s Hole

One of the few visible remains of the medieval castle at Nottingham is Mortimer’s Hole, the network of passageways through the Castle rock by which on October 19th 1330 the eighteen year old King Edward III and his companions made their way into the innermost part of the fortress and seized effective political power from his mother Queen Isabella and her lover, Roger Mortimer Earl of March.

Queen Isabella

Image: Tea at Trianon. blogspot 

There are far better probable portrait heads of Queen Isabella in Beverley Minster and in the nave at St Albans Abbey. Unfortunately there do not appear to be reproducable images of these available online.

The BBC News website has a report about the completion of restoration work on the network of passages that worm their way through the Castle Rock at Nottingham which can be seen at Tunnel used to capture queen and lover is restored

The Wikipedia account of the history of the castle can be seen at Nottingham Castle

The history of the site is also set out by the current Castle Trust website at Nottingham Castle

These both illuminate the rich history of the castle as both a royal residence and military stronghold. 

There is an online article with plans illustrating the development of the castle and used in connection with the making of a reconstruction model at Nottingham Castle

I visited Mortimer’s Hole on my first visit to Nottingham when I was about ten and it was fascinating to walk through this remarkable network of underground passageways. The caveat about it not being suitable for all visitors reminded me of my mother’s memory of how treading carefully on the smooth rock with a sandy overlay stiffened her joints up for the next day or two.

Nottingham has other such caves and passages cut into the rock on which the old city stands as well as part of the railway approach to the station(s).

Wednesday 12 October 2022

Dr Dee’s ‘Spirit Mirror’

Yesterday’s announcement of the date for the Coronation was apparently made following discussions so as to avoid a clash with religious and secular festivals and celebrations or major sporting events. I doubt however if the date was chosen with the help of a Magus and his forecast based on studying the King’s horoscope. However in 1558-9 that was exactly how Queen Elizabeth I came to choose her Coronation date of January 15th. The horoscope was the work of her astrologer, Dr John Dee. Several of his pieces of equipment and manuscripts survive in the British Museum and the collections in Oxford..

One of his surviving instruments - indeed possibly the most famous - is his “Magic Mirror” or “Spirit Mirror”, that is, his scrying glass for making prognostications. It is now in the British Museum.

This has now been shown to have originated in pre-Conquest Mexico and to be similar to other Aztec obsidian ‘mirrors’. Dee at have acquired it in the 1580s whilst he was at the Habsburg Court of the Emperor Rudolf II in Prague.

The Archaeolgist has an illustrated article about the mirror which can be seen at Obsidian ‘Spirit Mirror’ Used by Elizabeth I’s Court Astrologer Has Aztec Origins

Wikipedia has an account of the extraordinary life of this most famous English Court astrologer at John Dee

For more information about him and his milieu I would recommend Benjamin Woolley’s very readable The Queen’s Conjuror: The Life and Magic of Dr Dee.

Tuesday 11 October 2022

Uncovering trouble on the Anglo-Scottish border in 1545

On the day that the Westminster and Holyrood governments start to set out their respective cases before the Supreme Court as to the competence off the Scottish Parliament to legislate for a possible referendum on Scottish independence it is perhaps not totally inappropriate to look back some 470 or so years to a different type of Anglo-Scottish conflict over the border and possible union.

The BBC News website has a report about archaeological excavations in the Rule valley in the borderlands between England and Scotland which are yielding evidence of fighting on a raid there in September 1545.

The raid was part of what is usually known as the “Rough Wooing” when the English government over several years unsuccessfully tried to persuade, then coerce and finally force the Scots to agree to the marriage of the young King Edward VI to the even younger Queen Mary I of Scots. The result was to drive the Scots more firmly into the French alliance and eventually to the marriage of the young Queen of Scots to the future King Francis II. Mutatis mutandis this seems reminiscent of current debates about the future for Scotland.

Border raids were for several centuries of course part and parcel of life in the region with defensive tower houses in most settlements. On occasion these raids escalated into war between the two kingdoms.

The current excavation is at Bedrule Castle, which was apparently destroyed, or rendered untenable, by a sizeable English raid along with other defensive structures in the valley on September 16th 1545. It is part of a wider project to make the story of the raid better known.


Monday 10 October 2022

Planning the Coronation

The Mail on Sunday has a report, much of which has been trailed before in that paper, about plans for a “slimmed down” Coronation for the King and Queen. The article can be seen at The secrets of King Charles III's slimmed down coronation revealed and I suggest readers look at it before perusing my reflections below. 

The story has been picked up by some other papers, including a riposte from Melanie McDonagh in the Daily Telegraph which can be seen at Give us ermine and coronets, not a downbeat coronation

The Daily Mail today was a critical response by the historian Andrew Roberts which can be seen at Row over cut-price Coronation plan

I am reminded of the oft quoted line of Walter Bagehot that there are arguments for having a splendid monarchy and arguments for having no monarchy but that there are no arguments for having a mean monarchy.
In commenting on the report I would want to begin by sounding a ( hopefully) somewhat sceptical note. We have seen thiers ideas, more or les, before and it is only really at this point that serious planning begins. The source for this story is presumably a ‘working document’ from the Golden Orb committee and plus some input from Lt Col Anthony Mather, who was a principal figure in organising the late Queen’s funeral. No-one could dispute that was a very splendid yet sombre occasion, meticulously planned and carried out, with variables resolved over long planning. Its dignity and order were acknowledged worldwide. The Coronation is different. It has far more fixed points of practice and reference, and is far more ancient as a Rite. It is another occasion on which the transmission of authority can be symbolically enacted for the benefit of the King’s people and realms, and to convey that sense of a dynamic living tradition to them and to the wider world.

That allowances may have to be made for the fact that the King and Queen are in their mid-seventies as were made for the recuperating 61 year old King Edward VII in 1902 is reasonable. That said no-one could fail to be impressed by the stamina displayed by the new King and Queen in the first ten days of their reign.

It is also sensitive and sensible to bear in mind the current economic situation for the country, although 1953 was not yet a time of affluence for many, and such rationing as still existed was largely phased out to mark the Queen’s Coronation. Vast espenditure might well be tactless, yet a reasonable amount could both encourage the economy, and raise national morale - unless someone is really determined to be miserable.

The plan to reduce numbers in Westminster Abbey may not be such a bad thing. Obscuring the interior with tiered seating hides the beauty of the building - and at some Coronations in the nineteenth century seating went right across the top of St Edward’s Chapel. Giving seats to all of the Lords and the Commons may indeed not be necessary, nor to the perceived ‘great and good’ who were there in the past to represent the nation. Now, much more even than in 1953 television can bring the ceremony into the homes and the internet of all who want to watch.
The changes in the composition of the House of Lords in 1958 and 1963, and the removal of most of the hereditary peers in 1999 have certainly changed the composition of the Lords, and seating all, together with their spouses,  would be very difficult without some balloted reduction.

The suggestion that the Court of Claims might not meet would be a serious loss of an institution that goes back at least to 1377. At recent Coronations it has ruled that claims disallowed on previous occasions would not be reconsidered. So simply to apply the 1953 rulings might save a bit of time, but it should be retained as a process.

Thus far the suggested plans are therefore not unrealistic and reflect changes that have occurred over the past seventy years.

When it comes to the matter of Peers robes it could, of course, be said that they are a relatively modern invention, dating only from the 1685 Coronation of King James II. The Parliamentary robes date from at least the early fifteenth century. That said Lt.Col Mather may want to consign them to a museum but what, on that basis, would he say if he was told that the Household Dvision were to wear battle dress for the Coronation?

As to those attending wearing morning dress or lounge suits takes us back to the Privy Councillors at the Accession Council. Some wore full morning dress, others dark lounge suits. To my eye who wore what was indicative of their attitude. I was pleased to note that the one Privy Councillor whom I know as a friend was in full morning dress - but as I am not a name-dropper he shall retain his anonymity. None, alas, were wearing Privy Councillor’s uniform. Not to wear at least morning dress would be disrespectful to what is going on at a Coronation. These days morning dress is ever more frequently seen at ordinary weddings, so it should certainly be for a unique, national event. Better of course white tie or Court dress.

It would be a grave and tragic mistake to lose parts of the traditional ceremony. This happened with the pruned back ceremony for King William IV’s Coronation in 1831. Virtually none of that has been restored. 

In 1953 Queen Elizabeth II expressed her wish to restore missing aspects of the liturgy. One result was inpposition of the armils for the first time since the Coronation of King Charles I in 1626 - new ones being provided by the Commonwealth realms as those made in 1661 were too large for Her Majesty’s wrists.

I find it very hard to believe that the  King, who has been notably punctilious and traditional in many aspects of ceremonial, religious observance and with regard to many projects such as saving and restoring Dumfries House and supporting historical endeavours such as raising the Mary Rose would wish to see a mutilation of the most important event and day of his reign.

It leads me to ask, as a medievalist, if this is really from the King - or from his “evil councillors”? If the latter what do they know about the havoc they seek to wreck? Are they akin to the modernist liturgists unleashed with blinkered historical understanding on the Catholic liturgy in the 1960s. The “brains” behind what is apparently being proposed seem to want to create a colourful pageant rather than a profoundly spiritual liturgy that links the monarch, his consort and his people one to another, to the centuries that have gone before and to the future.

It is said that the intention is to perform the ceremony in something like an hour. Frankly it is difficult to see that as possible at all without completely mutilating the ritual. Absolutely necessary parts of the ceremony include the Oath, the anointing, the actual coronation of the King and then of the Queen, and, presumably, the Eucharist - unless like 1685 it is omitted. Then at least it was because the King and Queen were devout Roman Catholics, not in order to save time. To do so would, especially in this secular age, rob the occasion of its sacramentality and of its ability to speak of faith to the national communities.

This is surely where Anglican liturgical scholars like E.C.Ratcliff in 1953 need to make a serious case. One might wonder if Archbishop Welby is up to doing that himself, but he owes it to the rights and privileges of the See of Canterbury and of the Church of England to make sure it is made. At very least the ghosts of Archbishops Lang and Fisher should trouble him if he does not.

Indeed the Mail on Sunday article speaks of the central rite of anointing almost as if it is a pretty custom which has managed to avoid the cut - do the authors of such articles understand anything about what will take place and the significance of the King’s chrismation? Patently not.

Similarly the gold wedge traditionally offered by the monarch is to be jettisoned because of some idea that this will resonate badly in current circumstances. It is of course part of the offertory, as in any public eucharistic act. Why pick on that? Clearly the Coronation will cost something. In the totality of government spending it is a trifling sum. If people are so  pathetically money-minded they should bear in mind the positive economic benefits generated by Coronations in terms of manufacturing and the loner term revenue generated by visitors, and, as with the late Queen’s funeral of “soft power” for the country.

This is not a done deal and I suspect, indeed hope, will initiate a serious and scholarly debate - hopefully not in the popular press.

I know discussions went on a long time in planning the 1953 Coronation. It is still barely only a month since the King’s accession. A lot can happen between now and a likely Coronation Day next June.

If - and if is the word - and this report is not a kite being flown - this turns out to be what is proposed then those who believe in maintaining our traditional constitutional arrangements as a living one, sensibly adapting to changed circumstances as need be, should speak up. Loudly and clearly. We do not want or need a mangled or truncated rite. There is only one chance to get this right.

Friday 7 October 2022

A numismatist’s critique of the new coinage for King Charles III

I posted recently in The first new coins to be issued for King Charles III about the designs of the first two coins that are to be issued with the portrait and name of the new King. In that I commented that the monarch’s name is not rendered as Carolus to match the rest of the Latin inscription of his title but as Charles. I should perhaps have suggested that I regretted this change, but the late Queen was always named on her coins as Elizabeth not Elizabetha. 

Today the Special Correspondent alerted me to a pretty scathing letter about the Royal Mint in The Times from Gregory Edmund the director of numismatics at the prestigious London coin and medal specialists Spink and Son. In it he criticises the Mint both for producing coins before the Coronation - to literally cash in on Christmas sales - and in using English rather than Latin for the Sovereign’s name. The same points are raised in an article in The Daily Telegraph, which quotes Mr Edmund’s forceful criticism as well as a response from the Royal Mint. 

It should be pointed out that the obverse of the new coins carries the value, fifty pence and five pounds, in English behind the King’s head. Although the designs are good Iwould prefer to have the value on the reverse of a coin rather than the obverse. This would inter alia avoid or reduce the mixing of Latin and English.

Wednesday 5 October 2022

The Royal Hall at Rendlesham

Several websites today have reports about the immensely significant discovery by archaeologists of an early Anglo-Saxon hall of very considerable size at the site of the royal vill at Rendlesham in the Deben valley of south-east Suffolk. 

The excavations at Rendlesham are part of an ongoing project examining this admistrative centre linked to the burial ground at Sutton Hoo and which was one of the centres of royal authority in the Kingdom of the East Angles. Rendlesham was a place known of by Bede when he wrote his Ecclesiastical History. 

The BBC News report about the excavation can be seen at Ancient royal hall unearthed on private land and that from the ITV website is at Ancient 'Hall of Kings' dating back 1,400 years unearthed

There is an article from Heritage Daily which can be read at Royal hall of the first Kings of East Anglia has been discovered in Suffolk

The excavation is also reported upon by the Daily Express at Archaeology: Royal Hall of the first East Anglian Kings unearthed in Suffolk

The East Anglian Daily Times gives an account at Dig uncovers Anglo-Saxon royal palace in Deben Valley

I am sure there will be more in coming days about this latest discovery at Rendlesham and if I see any further useful links I will post them. 

This is an archaeological site that will doubtless continue to be seen as of great importance to our understanding of seventh and eighth century governance and society and of the development of what we think of as the Anglo-Saxon era. The age of the Heptarchy  feels that bit more tangible, that bit more real as a result of such discoveries.

More on thirteenth century faces from Whithorn

I wrote recently about three facial reconstructions from the skeletons discovered during excavations in the ruins of Whithorn Cathedral in Thirteenth century faces from Whithorn

Now Live Science has another article about this work with illustrations of all three faces, including that of Bishop Walter, who held the diocese of Galloway from 1209-35, and who is the only one who can be specifically identified. The article concentrates on the way in which the reconstructions were made and the results are amongst the best I have seen of such work.

The Daily Express also has an illustrated and informative article about the facial reconstructions and the wider context of the burials in the cathedral. This can be seen at Archaeology news: Faces of three medieval Scots revealed in stunning reconstructions

Monday 3 October 2022

Good news from Nottingham Cathedral

The BBC News website has an article about funding being allocated by the National Lottery Heritage Fund for the uncovering and restoration of the Pugin decoration in the three eastern chapels of Nottingham Cathedral.

Nottingham Cathedral

Image Wikipedia

I have never visited the cathedral and only ever seen it once as a boy with my mother when being driven past by friends with whom we used to stay in the city. That was fifty odd years ago when it was still smoke blackened and before it was cleaned. I do recall the devout Anglican son of our friends being rather dismissive of it. That was the 1960s when Victorian architecture was very much at a discount.

St Barnabas was built to Pugin’s design in 1841-44, before the re-establishment of the hierarchy and is somewhat unusual amongst Pugin’s works in that it is Early English rather than Decorated in style. So it has a rather plain exterior to the nave and transepts with single lancet widows but is completed by a splendid tower and spire. It is perhsps, and this is obviously influenced by what has survived, closer in style to medieval Scottish and Irish great churches than those of medieval England.

It appears, like so many Catholic churches, to have suffered wrecknovation in the 1960s - this is chronicled in part in the Wikipedia history of the cathedral which can be seen at Nottingham Cathedral and also in the reminiscences of another Nottingham raised friend who once worshipped there. The article also indicates that moves have been made in recent years, as tastes have changed, to restore some of Pugin’s work and vision for the building.

What survives of the original Pugin decorative scheme is the splendid work in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel as shown below:

Image: Wikipedia 

This new and very positive project involves removing the overpainting of the eastern chapels to reveal the decorative scheme underneath. It looks as if it will also give the opportunity for young people to be trained in conservation work, which of itself is a very good thing.

Taken alongside the continuing restoration of Pugin work at Shrewsbury Cathedral and conservation work at St Chad’s Cathedral in Birmingham this demonstrates a praiseworthy concern for great ecclesiastical art, and great Victorian art. A splendid turnaround to have seen in one’s lifetime.

The report about the work can be read at Cathedral work awarded £800,000 Lottery cash