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, 21 June 2021

St Aloysius Gonzaga

Today is the Feast of St Aloysius Gonzaga, the patron of the church of the Oxford Oratory. Due to circumstances largely beyond my control I was unable to attend the Solemn Mass for this patronal festival as I had planned to do and had to rely on the livestream link to join my fellow parishioners.


St Aloysius Gonzaga
Painting by Carlo Francesco Nuvolone (1608/9-1661/2)

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Provost, Fr Nicholas, preached an excellent sermon making the point that the  extremes of penance practised by St Aloysius was of its time and very much of himself. It is not what would be expected or accepted today. This was a saint full of youthful fervour, but that, unlike so much youthful vigour today, St Aloysius got it right in that it was that rooted and centred in the love of God. With that all other issues fall into place as part of a total pattern that centres all things in the Divine and care for His creation.

Fr Nicholas also made the important point that St Aloysius has often suffered in his depictions in ecclesiastical art. The results are often very sentimental, and this question is discussed in in this post at The Real Saint Aloysius Gonzaga

St Aloysius said of himself he was a piece twisted iron and joined the religious life to be straightened out. His iron determination to join the Jesuits and firm resolve makes him an unlikely figure to be sentimentalised, yet far too often inferior artists have managed to do that to him.

A 17th-century painting of St. Aloysius Gonzaga.

St Aloysius Gonzaga
A seventeenth century painting 

Image: New York Times

Thinking about today in advance I recalled a discussion on the Medieval Religion discussion group a while ago. We are called to admire the Saints but not to directly imitate them. They reveal what God can do in one particular person, but it is not necessarily for us to seek to copy them, but rather to emulate them in find our own way to God. To copy St Aloysius austerities would doubtless by extreme and wrong for us. To recognise his commitment and to seek to emulate that in our own way and place is what we should seek to do.

St Aloysius Pray for us

Sunday, 20 June 2021

1381 and All That

This last week I have written several pieces on this blog relating to the Peasants Revolt of 1381. To round off the theme here is a slightly revised version of an article I originally wrote last year and hoped to publish in a magazine. That has not come about so I have decided to reproduce it here. It is an attempt to make serious points in a slightly tongue-in-cheek assessment of, well, shall we say, the ties that bind…

The Dowry of Mary - Then and Now

The rededication last year of England as the Dowry of Mary may appear as fitting and suitable, a restatement of long-standing traditional national devotion, an endorsement of pilgrimage and prayer to Our Lady. Some may see it as merely picturesque, a sentimental link to King Richard II’s action over six centuries ago, but not of significant political or ecclesial import today. Yet that decision by Richard in during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 was of very considerable ideological significance in its own day, and we may miss the contemporary parallels at some risk to our understanding.

That the England of 1381 was very different from that of 2021 is obvious. In other, less obvious, ways the discrepancies are perhaps less than might be imagined. Whilst parallels cannot be pushed too far there may be quite a lot which is common to both eras. So what has changed?

The fourteenth century was in many ways as conflicted as is the early twenty first. Its complexity should not be underestimated. Our Information technology conscious society might recall a very significant and comparable change six centuries ago - the rise of English as a language of elite literature and record. This development - there being as yet no internet - was to be embraced by heretical lollards to disseminate their ideas, but also by that champion of orthodoxy Henry V. 

Climate change is also nothing new. In the late fourteenth century the Northern Hemisphere was moving further into the so-called Little Ice Age, with a retreat from marginal lands, harsher winters and poorer summers becoming more likely and coastal inundations by the North Sea perhaps more frequent. The societal consequences of these changes were often far reaching and profound. Bad weather could be blamed on bad people and their actions or existence - political correctness is not new. Would a late medieval Greta Thunberg be a companion of St Bridget of Sweden or would she be burned as a witch?

Catholics may consider the late medieval period to have been an “Age of Faith”. Non-believers may consider it an “Age of Superstition”. Both may well be right, and equally both may well be wrong. Faith and superstition are often inextricably mixed or shackled together. That was true of England in 1381. It is not untrue of it in 2021.

Seeing it as an age of Faith may be wishful thinking, nostalgia for a reality that never really was. Certainly popular as well as elite devotion was widespread, strong and vivifying in a way that would seem remote or possibly incomprehensible to most modern Catholics, let alone others. The Church promoted, encouraged, supported a rich and varied spiritual life for the English, and manifested it in beautiful buildings, art and music. That quintessentially English gothic style we term Perpendicular was in its springtime producing masterpieces such as the cathedral naves of Canterbury and Winchester. Such projects and the production of devotional objects and furnishings must have formed a significant part of economic life.

Outwardly in 1381 the Church may have had confidence, but it also faced real uncertainties. Twenty odd years later Archbishop Arundel of Canterbury was scandalised when he witnessed members of the royal army turning away and ignoring the Blessed Sacrament as he carried it to sick troops when he was with the royal army at Worcester. Corpus Christi may have thrived as a devotion with active guilds and chapels - but clearly not everyone was engaged.

One person who undoubtedly had his reservations was the Oxford academic and heresiarch John Wyclif. Increasingly radical in his opinions he was eased out of Oxford in 1382 and died at the very end of 1384, and by now he was adding denial of Transubstantiation to his ever lengthening list of controversial and heretical opinions. Historians still seek to fully elucidate the transition from academic reflection to popular proto-protestant lollardy and to estimate its numerical strength. By 1395 these radicals were posting up their Twelve Conclusions in London, calling upon Parliament as it assembled to legislate. Succinct and shocking these were a full throated assault on most aspects of Catholic belief and practice. Papal authority, sacramental ordination, priestly celibacy, transubstantiation, sacramentals, secular work by the clergy, prayers for the dead, pilgrimages, private confession, military action, female celibacy and the use of images and the arts in the service of devotion are all condemned. Much of this was realised or became familiar with the sixteenth century assault on the Church, but modern cognates in the name of modernity, of ecumenism and in the wake of the abuse scandal spring readily to mind. For disendowment read the threats to charitable status and similar pressures.

Wyclif’s theology of Dominion - that only those who are foreknown to salvation or are spiritual can exercise lawful authority - has its modern secular equivalent in the frequent rush to condemn the politically incorrect for their perceived failings in meeting the latest contemporary mores.

Lollards may not have been the Liberation theologians of their day, but such a sweeping set of opinions was a novelty in England. This religious and political radicalism was seen by the influential historian K.B.McFarlane in the mid-twentieth century as the origin of English nonconformity. However it was usually more restrained in its millenarianism than contemporaneous movements on the continent. The communitarian and eschatological implications of Corpus Christi, which coincided with the rising, may indeed have fed into it drawing upon its themes to gather participants.

1381 was during the Great Schism which had erupted three years earlier with the election by the cardinals in 1378 of two rival Popes - Urban VI and Clement VII - and the consequent division on power-political lines of Europe between Urbanists and Clementists. That continued until 1417, and resolving the split spawned the Conciliar epoch, not to mention a period for a few years of three Popes competing for allegiance. Reunion with Byzantine Orthodoxy was a hope, and briefly attained in 1438-9. Today we have two Popes, even if they are in full peace and communion with each other, but union with Constantinople remains elusive.

Scandalous clergy, which alas there have always been, were and are naturally newsworthy and unduly prominent in records as their misdeeds were dealt with. A wide spectrum of predictable human misbehaviour emerges. Surprising in its perversity is the 1395 account given of his career and clerical contacts in and around London and Oxford by the transvestite prostitute John “Eleanor” Rykener (look him up on Wikipedia at 
John/Eleanor Rykener ) which might make many readers of modern tabloids blanch. 

We need not doubt that there were many good priests. Historians such as William Pantin, Robin Storey and Jonathan Hughes have revealed a clergy that was well educated and pastorally sensitive but, as today, that rarely makes the news. 

Radical clergy who did make the news in 1381 were those lesser clerics who were local leaders of revolt and who were to pay the ultimate price afterwards.

At a senior level the reaction to and of the hierarchy varied. Archbishop Sudbury of Canterbury, the Prior of the Hospitallers - both of them government ministers - and the Prior of Bury St Edmunds were beheaded by the rebels. Bishop Despenser of Norwich took an active part in suppressing the revolt by personally leading troops against them. 

1381 was clearly a time of national division. The country was recovering and adapting with no little success after the Black Death over thirty years before. Catastrophic as it had been, the recovery was perhaps like that after WWII. By 1381 there was a sophisticated court and aristocratic culture, reasonable prosperity and an expanding cloth industry. Nonetheless there were deeply felt grievances and the Peasants Revolt was unparalleled in English history. Later popular revolts such as those of 1450, 1497, 1536, 1549 and 1569 seemingly had more focused, if still far-reaching, objectives - and the reality and complexity of the events of the 1381 rising should be neither underestimated or overestimated. As a French historian has written peasant revolts were to agrarian societies what strikes are to industrial ones.  Sentimental simplifications should be avoided.

In 1381 popularism literally ran riot in London and a number of other towns. Today we have a newly confident political popularism as a legacy of Brexit. In 2019 the decisive votes in the General Election were in areas that felt they had been left behind and forgotten by the metropolitan elite. In 1381 the areas that rose in revolt were amongst the most prosperous and resented both the government’s fiscal interest in them and the lack of remedy for grievances. This was indeed a revolt by Essex man. The attitude to immigrants is instructive: when the peasants invaded London they targeted the Flemish traders - the failure to pronounce “bread and cheese” in the appropriate English way was likely to result in a cut throat.

Social tensions and strong regional differences are important in understanding the events of 1381. There was as yet no union with Scotland to be under threat, but in 1385 Richard II was to be the last English king to lead an invasion of Scotland. He was to pay two visits to his Lordship of Ireland in the 1390s, suggesting an engagement with it that few of his predecessors or successors were to show.
Image result for Richard II Wilton Diptych

King Richard II as he may have appeared in 1381
From the Wilton Diptych painted in 1397


Central to the defeat of the uprising and to the dedication of England as the Dowry of Mary is the fourteen year old King Richard II. Our view of him depends on how he is to be understood as a monarch and as a man. The auburn headed teenager with a slight speech impediment who faced down the peasants at Smithfield was certainly courageous. The fact that the peasants followed him may have convinced him of his appeal as a sacral figure. 

Richard sought the security of his position and his realm. Sanctification of both was his aim if we read correctly the implications of the Wilton Diptych, probably painted in 1397. Later in his reign he saw himself as the defender of religious orthodoxy.

What were Richard’s motivations in 1381 and what was his attitude to his subjects, high or low, whether rich or poor, powerful or powerless? Some historians have posited that he had ‘sympathy’ for the peasants. A more likely view is that he saw all his subjects as just that, and if they misbehaved it was his duty to bring them back into line. He was to find out within a few years that some of his relatives and nobles did not accept that view.

Was Richard misled by the peasants response to him at Smithfield? It may have confirmed his sense of regal invincibility. Should modern politicians be careful of the equivalent dangerous trap and was Richard in a ‘Westminster bubble’?

Chief Justice Cavendish had been lynched by rebel peasants near his Suffolk home in 1381. His successor fared worse. Richard’s questions about the extent of his prerogative powers to the judges at Nottingham Castle in 1387 helped precipitate the attack upon the King’s Court faction, including those judges, by the Appellants in the Merciless Parliament of the following year. Today there is considerable talk about the politicisation of the judiciary and the decisions handed down in judicial reviews. Unlike Chief Justice Tresilian in 1388 Lady Hale avoided being strung up at Tyburn at the behest of angry Brexiteers, or the fate of the rest of the bench, who were exiled to Ireland.

Other casualties of 1388 were several of the King’s Chamber knights, men attendant upon him who were the special advisors of their day.

Although Richard II sought peace with France he failed to achieve a settlement of the issues over his Duchy of Aquitaine. His pursuit of a deal with the French helped sour relations with some of the political leadership at home. He would not one suspects be favourable to the equivalent of Brexit - in his last years he appears to have considered seeking election as the prospective Holy Roman Emperor, an office held previously by his first wife’s father and brother.

Richard II and his 20x cousin Elizabeth II might share the view that troublesome relatives do sometimes have to be exiled or encouraged into self-imposed exile, although Her Majesty has not gone so far as to having an uncle smothered.

In the film “Kind Hearts and Coronets” the Rev. Lord Henry D’Ascoyne opines that the west window of his church has “all the exuberance of the age of Chaucer and none of the concomitant vulgarity.” The rededication of England as the Dowry of Mary links us again to that same age. We may ponder just how exuberant and just how vulgar we are today. 

Wilton Diptych

The Wilton Diptych - King Richard II kneels before Our Lady and the Christ Child


Saturday, 19 June 2021

Medieval Peasant Families

This week with the 640th anniversary of the 1381 Peasants Revolt has brought the world of the later medieval English peasant to a fairly prominent place in my historical consciousness. Given that fact I was all the more pleased to see on the site of Medievalists.net an article which seeks to summarise what we know or can establish about the size of peasant families, particularly in the high and later middle ages.

The results may surprise modern people with their apprehensions - or misapprehensions - of what life was like in the past and can be read at How Large were Medieval Peasant Families?

Friday, 18 June 2021

The Peasants Revolt - the latest research

Following on from my previous post the History Extra website has an article by the same group of academics who are engaged in the study of the prosopography of the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and who spoke online about the events in London 650 years ago. This feature gives many fascinating insights into the lives and possible motivations of the rebels, and of the way the movement spread. 

The article also has links to other features on the uprising and similarly available to subscribers. It can be seen at Revealed: the true identity of the rebels of the Peasants' Revolt

Other relevant articles on the Revolt from History Extra which describe its progress are Your guide to the Peasants' Revolt of 1381 and Why did the peasants really revolt? which in particular looks at the causes

A 2014 article from the same website by Juliet Barker that looks at the part played by King Richard II can be read at The Peasants’ Revolt: did Richard II side with the rebels?

This question of where King Richard’s sympathies lay is a much debated point, and I am not sure if I entirely agree with the author as to the young King’s attitude, but it is very well worth reading.

Tuesday, 15 June 2021

London and the Peasants Revolt in 1381

Today, June 15, marks the 640th anniversary of the culmination of the Peasants Revolt in London in 1381 and the decisive meeting at Smithfield between King Richard II and Wat Tyler the leader of the Kentish rebels who had swarmed into the City two days before on the Feast of Corpus Christi. The death of Tyler led to the collapse of the morale of this group of rebels when the fourteen year old King seized the initiative and diffused the tension.

Earlier this evening I was able to join through Zoom a seminar given by the members of a group drawn from the universities of Southampton, Reading, Oxford and Glasgow and led by Prof Anne Curry, who is also the Master of the Worshipful Company of Fletchers in the City of London who are celebrating their 650th anniversary. Prof. Curry always radiates an enthusiasm and zest for her research, and her colleagues were similarly committed to this in their narratives of those tumultuous days. 

Even now, not withstanding so many changes over the centuries the scenes of so many of these violent and terrifying events can still be not merely identified but visited and the drama of events conjured up.

This group project is combing archives for the names, lives and careers of those in any way involved in the events of June 1381, and aiming to see what such a prosopological analysis can reveal. So far they have 6.654 individuals on their files and some very interesting things are emerging as well as new discoveries of archive sources.

One point made was the number of men involved who had some military experience - disgruntled ex-soldiers - and this can be tied in with the database Prof. Curry has previously set up and developed on late medieval soldiers: www.medievalsoldier.org

The extent to which events were preplanned by the rebels looked highly likely - the idea of there being a “Great Conspiracy” that so alarmed the established order does look rather more credible, in some form or another, than a mere conspiracy theory. 

Similarly the response of the Lord Mayor and his colleagues and the loyal troops commanded by Sir Robert Knollys in the City  suggests planning on that Saturday as the King and others received petitions at the Warderobe and before the monarch made his prayerful visit and vow to Our Lady at Westminster. 

This seems to be in contrast to the seeming paralysis of the King’s councillors on June 13th, which may have led to the Tower being left open the next day and the resulting deaths of the Archbishops of Canterbury and of the Prior of the Hospitallers, and the rampage of the peasants through the royal fortress,

The speed with which news travelled as well as did some of the people released from the London prisons by the peasants and who then returned to their home areas and fermented uprisings was brought out.

Interesting also was the evidence of the involvement on the rebel side of some who were financially successful and in one case a former MP for Rochester. 

Family and hometown connections were also seen to play a bigger part than had hitherto been identified.

A point which had been previously but was perhaps brought out more was the extent to which the rebels could articulate political arguments. These were not yokels with pitchforks but in many cases men, and women. with agendas, bound by oaths and quite often with military experience. That their discipline collapsed should not probably surprise us, but their coherence in getting to and into London, their sense of purpose and of specific grievances suggests a more articulate and informed motivation that might once have been thought.

The early stages of the revolts may have been
marked by the burning of court rolls and later on of legal documents in London, yet equally the peasants were careful of documents that recorded grants and concessions to them - this was a far from illiterate  society, but was one that could be carefully selective as to what it wished to keep and what to destroy.

Long-standing grievances against figures such as Duke John of Lancaster ( fortunately for  him he was away campaigning on the Scottish Borders ) or the Knights Hospitallers, or in London dislike of particular officials, lawyers, religious houses or the unfortunate Flemish community were given full vent in those heady and disorderly days. Not only was there violence, but the violence was targeted,

Tensions within London itself, and in other cities and towns, between different sections of the population played no small part in these events. So too, afterwards, in rural areas were people trying to extricate themselves from their own involvement by becoming approved and denouncing their neighbours for what they had done. Pardons were distributed quite widely, but for the leaders and prominent rebels that was not to be. Parliament the following November might hear some talk of the fact that misgovernment had led to the uprising, yet  clearly it was important to restore order and cohesiyto a society that had been profoundly shocked by what it had witnessed.

The memory of the noise and clamour in the City that accompanied the slayings lived on in the minds and memories of writers such as Chaucer and Gower, and in popular perception as late as 1413 in distant Sussex.

The idea that the peasants saw themselves as loyal to the King anc to a sense of the ‘nation’ is not new, but was again brought out - they were there to reform, to cleanse the King of evil councillors …. Indeed one speaker drew a parallel with the events in the storming of the Capitol in Washington last January.
This was a fascinating “work in progress” report on a project that will run until 2023. I look forward very much to seeing more results of this project in book form or online.

Cooking the books in the Vatican

The well-known Catholic commentator on Church affairs John L. Allen has an interesting post on Crux about today’s anniversary of the founding of the Vatican Library by Pope Sixtus IV on this day in 1475. More particularly it is about the first Prefect, Bartolommeo Sacchi, better known by his pseudonym of Platina and his somewhat politically chequered and diverse literary interests, and especially in cookery.

The illustration which accompanies the article is the very famous one of the Pope appointing Platina to his new position and dates from 1478. I always cite it to give the lie to the oft cited claim that until Pope St Pius V the Pope wore red, and that then the Dominican Pius retained his white habit and thus established the tradition of the Pope wearing white. In this painting Popr Sixtus, himself a Franciscan, is depicted wearing white under his rochet, as are fourteenth century Popes in some manuscripts. Whilst there may not have been the consistency of more recent centuries it certainly looks as if Popes have worn white since at very least the later middle ages.

Monday, 14 June 2021

The call for chiropody in medieval Cambridge

The continuing research into medieval skeletons from Cambridge, which I have linked to before, has now revealed a consequence of men following the late medieval fashion trend for long, and longer, pointed shoes for men. Fashionable, if not always practical, they appear to have led to an increase, in contrast to earlier centuries, of men suffering from bunions in mid-life.

The article from the BBC News website about the study can be seen at Medieval pointy-toed shoes led to Cambridge bunion surge

It includes links to other studies by the Cambridge team, which in turn link to other reports from recent years from there and elsewhere, including Littlemore Priory in Oxford, regarding the analysis of excavated medieval burials.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Thomas and Gregory Cromwell and the suppression of Lewes Priory

Yesterday evening, thanks to Zoom, I was able to attend the Lewes Priory Trust’s fortieth annual Emil Godfrey lecture on the history of this major Cluniac foundation. The speaker was Professor Sir Diarmuid MacCulloch and his subject the very significant part played in 1537 by Thomas Cromwell in securing the dissolution of Lewes Priory and his acquisition of it as the proposed site of a house for his eighteen year old son Gregory and his new wife. Elizabeth, who was aged about twenty or twenty one.

Elizabeth was not just a new spouse but already a mother and the widow of a knight and hence Lady Ughtred. Much more significantly she was a younger sister of the Queen, Jane Seymour, with all that portended. Although the Queen died in October Gregory was uncle by marriage to the heir to the throne. Gregory appears to have been the apple of his father’s eye, fashionably educated and, in 1537, a young man with serious prospects.

Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein the Younger.
The miniature is from 1538 or later as he is schoen wering the Order of the Garter.

Image: Wikipedia 

Thomas Cromwell appears to have negotiated an arrangement with the Duke of Norfolk whereby the Lord Privy Seal gave up his interests in Norfolk in return for a free hand in Susssex where the Duke, owner of the dilapidated castle at Lewes had very few 
( Arundel had not yet been inherited and become part of the Howard portfolio )

Aerial view drawing of the Priory

Reconstruction of Lewes Priory

Image: copyright Andy Gammon 2010/ Visit Lewes

With the surrender of much the wealthiest Cluniac house in the country by a suitably accommodated ( i.e. bribed ) community the Italian born Giovanni Portinari was sent down to Lewes and recorded the blowing up of the priory church in his role as a demolition expert and, in his capacity as architect, doubtless set about planning a Renaissance residence in the style favoured by the Seymours for Gregory and Elizabeth, who arrived early in 1538 and apparently lived in the former Prior’s lodging

A miniature believed to be of Gregory Cromwell by Holbein

Image: Wikipedia

  • Holbein portrait believed to be Elizabeth Seym

  • Portrait believed to be of Elizabeth Cromwell by Holbein

    Image: Wikipedia 

    However the best laid plans do often go awry. Gregory, his wife apparently already pregnant when they married, now appears to have got involved in a serious and scandalous liaison that resulted in him being ordered to perform a public penance by words and s generous distribution of loaves on e Sunday after the main Mass in Chichester Cathedral. This agreed, Gregory refused to go through with it, to the shock of the Bishop, his cousin and mentor Richard Cromwell and probably Sir John Gage of Firle, who seems to have had a place as moral tutor to the erring youth. 

    The result was that Gregory and Elizabeth were rapidly re-located to Leeds Castle in Kent, and he rapidly became one of the two MPs for the county. Lewes as a project was abandoned and in 1540 Thomas Cromwell was toppled - by the Duke of Norfolk and others.

    Partially rescued by his wife by the end of the year he had been created Baron Cromwell in his own right ( not to be confused with the late medieval Cromwell barony, then in abeyance and revived about a century ago ). Gregory died at his father’s other landed acquisition from the dissolution, Launde Abbey in Leicestershire, in 1551. His monument in the chapel is an outstanding example of early Renaissance art.

    All this and more was presented in the elegant  and informed way that those of us who have had the privilege of hearing Sir Diarmuid lecture before have come to expect, Three years ago his four public lectures on Thomas Cromwell here in Oxford in advance of the publication of his magisterial biography were marvellous in their command of detail and the wider picture. At the end of his talk the Professor did say the whole story of the Cromwells and Lewes is to be found in that book. 

    In addition the Wikipedia account of Gregory is exceptionally detailed and fascinating in itself. It can be read at Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell