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Research Postcard: Rebel Canons in the Lincoln Registers

On 1 October 1536 a crowd of worshippers which had just spilled out from the parish church of St James at Louth (Lincs.) was stirred into shouts of angry protest at the Westminster government’s interference in their lives. Their cries included some of the familiar complaints of the pre-modern commons: that evil counsellors held the king in their clutches; that the policy of his government punished the many for the profit of the few; that the livelihood of loyal subjects was being drained away by levies that knew no precedent. But their anger also targeted a new theme: the government’s interventions in the institution of the church and customary religious practice. In particular, they expressed their fury at the forced closure of dozens of religious houses in their region under an act of parliament issued six months before. They had watched this compulsory suppression slowly but steadily advance across the county since the summer. Only now did they voice their reaction, encouraged by the general climate of agitation; and also by the presence among them of several professed canons and monks from monasteries nearby, including some of those whose houses had just been seized and their communities dispersed.

St James, Louth

What followed the sudden outcry at Louth is very well known to historians. A band of laymen and clergy – canons and monks among them – hurriedly mustered and set off on a march to the cathedral city of Lincoln to win formal and public recognition for their cause. There, they stormed into the cathedral church and took armed control. Its chancellor was cut down in the melee. In just two days they were driven out, some killed, many captured. But their fury reverberated and in barely a week there were copycat uprisings north of the Humber. The reformation rebellion known as the Pilgrimage of Grace had begun.

Lincoln Cathedral

The involvement of the religious orders in the Lincolnshire rising has long been debated. The principal primary sources are the statements of the captured rebels, which carry all the contradictions and self-conscious evasions of testimony taken under duress. There were certainly canons and monks in the crowd at Louth. Some of them joined the march to Lincoln. Among those taken, questioned and, in due course, executed were professed men from the Cistercian abbey at Louth and Kirkstead, the Benedictine abbey at Bardney and the Premonstratensian abbey at Barlings. The most consistent story taken from them when captured was of their being pressed to join the rebel band by force and under threat of violence to them and their houses. The statements of secular clergy and laymen captured with them told it differently: it was some of these monastics who had stirred the crowd. The men from Barlings in particular were remembered as prominent captains in the field.

Lincolnshire Archives, DIOC/REG/26, fo. 52r. Reproduced with permission.

The witness statements say very little about these men except their names and in some cases their office in their monastery. Now, thanks to a neglected entry in the register of the Bishop of Lincoln, held in Lincolnshire Archives, it is possible to know a little more. Three of the canons from Barlings apprehended, and ultimately put to death for their part in the risings, appear standing together at an ordination ceremony in Magdalen chapel at Lincoln Cathedral just six months before. William Eversam, James Warton and William Kendall were presented as candidates for priesting at Easter 1536.

Their ordination to the priesthood on the same day provides several insights into their identity as canons. Monastic and mendicant candidates were progressed from minor orders to priesthood in cohorts, according to the timing of their initial entry into their house. By the sixteenth century, it was typical for priesting to coincide with the conclusion of the formal noviciate. The minimum age permitted under canon law to enter priest’s orders was twenty-four; for generations, religious houses had kept close to this minimum (and sometimes contravened it) because of their need for qualified priests. It may be safe to say that these three future rebels – executed as felons a year after their examination by the bishop’s suffragan – were newcomers to the religious life; young men; and they had been bound together for as long as they been at Barlings, because date of entry and placement in a cohort were the defining features of any monastic society.

The three canons of Barlings presented for priesting. Reproduced with permission from Lincolnshire Archives

Knowing this raises further thoughts about their involvement in the rising. They were a cohort, already confederates as they made their way as new canons of their community. They might have been pushed into the rebel band at the point of a pikestaff; but they might have made a collective decision to join it. They had lived together as novices, perhaps for eighteen months or more before that fateful October day. They knew each other’s mind. Certainly, they acted in defence of a way of life they had only just begun.

Their recent entry into the monastery and their (apparent) youth offers an important reminder about the state of the religious houses after the Henrician reformation was underway. In spite of the best efforts of the king’s commissioners, the monasteries and friaries continued to take in recruits. Ordination records show that incoming cohorts were still making their way in holy orders as much as three years after the Lincolnshire rising. The surrender deeds of the last monasteries standing in 1539-40 record the presence of novices who had not yet concluded their probationary term. The monastic estate that confronted the kings reformation, and in some locations resisted it to the death, included a rising generation, like the Barlings three, only just coverted to life in the cloister.

Barlings Abbey, in ruin

James Clark

The Field of the Cloth of Gold and the West Country

Five hundred years ago this week the monarchies of England and France met in the meadowland of the Pas-de-Calais. Today these flatlands are largely nondescript for the traffic that flashes past them on the A26, ‘l’Avenue des Anglais’, but even now the fields six kilometres to the east of Guînes, on the edge of the village of Balinghem, carry the sign ‘le camp du drap d’or’, or, changed somewhat in translation, the Field of the Cloth of Gold.

 

Here Henry VIII of England and François I of France, and the clerical and seigniorial hierarchies with which they governed, faced one another for a formal encounter that continued for a fortnight. It was the first meeting of these young monarchs – François was 26 and Henry was 29 – whose kingdoms had been in a state of war with one another for most of the past decade.

Francois I

It was a conceived as a point of departure and certainly for François whose first years of rule had seen the successful extension of his military might beyond his borders, he surely anticipated this as the first stage on which he would be recognised unequivocally as a broker of Europe’s balance of power. Yet it was also the fulfilment of a rapprochement to which the ministers of both sides had applied themselves with serious purpose already for two years. At a diplomatic summit convened in London in October 1518 a pact pledging non-aggression had been agreed by the ambassadors of both kingdoms, and those of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V and the Papal States. The rhetoric of this pact reached for a yet higher purpose, a universal peace for Christendom to protect its integrity from the advance of the Ottomans at its eastern frontier. But the realpolitik was the common imperative for a pause in the costly competition for continental overlordship. Money and conflict within the political nation were the inherited problems of the last late medieval rulers; now there was another threat, by June 1520 (when Martin Luther was the subject of the papal bull Exsurge domine) clearly focused on the horizon: a schism in the institutional church.

Exsurge domine

What both kingdoms hoped to carry away from le camp was something more than a pledge, a substantive treaty that might at least spare them from conflict on one of their frontiers. But common ground of such a pragmatic kind is rarely sufficient between ambitious heads of state to secure a settlement for the long term and their two-week interlude at their common border yielded no treaty. Rather, its tangible effect was to inscribe the self-image of the two reigns, still at the beginning of their course. This was a political summit performed as a pageant: in their trains, François and Henry paraded nobility, knighthood, prelates and clergy, the two presiding estates of their kingdoms; and the third, productive estate was a palpably present, in the hundreds of household staff attendant on each one of the principals, and in the machinery that supported them, manmade and land-raised, horses (for war and for carriage), hunting dogs and hawks.

A contemporary representation of the pageant

The vast supporting cast was staged for presentation to either side with visual and aural accompaniment that self-consciously demonstrated the kingdoms’ claim to cutting-edge artistry. The choristers that performed with the English prelates wore the portcullis pattern vestments which Henry’s father, Henry VII, had provided for the Tudor family chantry – configured as a Lady chapel – at Westminster Abbey, new in 1520 and the costliest architectural and artistic project witnessed in living memory.

The portcullis vestment

The pageant was an expression of the nations’ magnificence, but in the English party there was a painstaking effort to represent the regions of the Tudor kingdom. Here, perhaps, was an early indication of Henry’s notion of an imperial monarchy which would take shape over the next decade, as the leading lordships of provincial England were summoned to stand foursquare with their king. For the West Country, there were six delegates: Sir John Arundell and Sir Piers Edgcumbe representing the far west; John Bassett and John Bourchier standing for the north of the region (from Umberleigh to Bampton); Sir William Courtenay of Powderham and Henry Courtenay, earl of Devon, whose anchorhold was the region’s only city, Exeter, its estuary and its eastern march. Earl Henry, aged just about twenty-two, was already remarkably close to the centre of royal power and serving as a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber. Alone among the West Country men he was positioned in the principal royal train as they took the field at Guînes. A sequence of tournaments punctuated the programme there, and in the lists the earl excelled; he was one of the only English knights to emerge undefeated from each one of his jousts. His conspicuous prowess can only have further burnished the king’s favour and scarcely a year later he received a portion of the attainted lands of the Yorkist traitor, Edmund Stafford, duke of Buckingham. In 1525, Henry conferred on Courtenay the title of Marquess of Exeter.

Henry Courtenay (second from left), current earl and future marquess as depicted in the Black Book of the Garter Knights
Cloth of pink: perhaps a tent from that very Field

The west of England still carries some trace of its part in the performance five hundred Junes ago: some of the personal archives of Earl Henry and Sir William Courtenay remain in the Powderham collection. At Berkeley Castle, there is a fabric fragment believed to be from one of the very tents that were pitched on the field.

James Clark

New Year’s Gifts

Five hundred years ago, Henry Courtenay, earl of Devon (d. 1539), marked the coming of the New Year with a rare and costly gift for his king, Henry VIII: oranges (Earl Henry’s accounts do not record how many). Oranges were not unknown at the royal table – indeed Henry is known for his fondness for marmalade, then a rare Portguese treat which the king secured from an importer in Exeter – but they were an undoubted luxury, shipped from Iberia.

Still life with citrus fruit by the Fleming Jacob van Hulsdonck

The Courtenay accounts do not tell how much the earl paid for them but he was clearly anxious over his investment as they do show the chain of paid assistants who saw to it that the precious cargo was carried down river to Greenwich Palace without mishap. Earl Henry, who was in the early stages of his rise to the status of royal favourite (which would culminate in his creation as Marquess of Exeter in 1525) was evidently determined to make this the most memorable of New Years. So solicitous was he of the twenty nine year old Henry’s enjoyment, he even paid a passerby to give up his cap, so that the royal head might be spared during a bout of snow-balling.

Greenwich Palace

 

The giving of gifts at the new year was a well-established custom among the social elite in England long before the coming of the Tudors. Jocelin of Brakelond, monk of Bury St Edmunds, recalled at the turn of the thirteenth century that gift-giving at the Feast of the Circumcision (calculated in the Julian calendar as 1 January) was a ‘custom among the English’. In an account which to modern readers might carry a much later seasonal echo, Jocelin thought of his own abbot, Samson of Tottington (1180-1212), and asked himself ‘What can I give him?’. His choice was characteristic of a medieval Benedictine: he compiled an inventory of the churches held by the abbey showing their rentable value. Samson, Jocelin reported, was ‘very gratified’.

Jocelin’s abbey of St Edmund at Bury

By the mid-thirteenth century the presentation of New Year’s gifts was conspicuous in royal circles. On one occasion, Henry III purchased 307 rings for distribution on 1 January. In 1242 he presented Beatrice of Savoy (c.1198-c.1267) with the figure of an eagle set with precious stones at a cost of £100, perhaps the equivalent of upwards of £70000 by today’s values. Although by no means routinely recorded, magnates and prelates in pursuit of royal favour adopted the custom, conscious of its currency. In mainland European courts it had become an established part not only of ceremonial practice but also of its political power-play. In the French court of the Valois monarchs the custom was refined as the étrennes, the giving of gifts to start the year with an element of surprise. This seems to have passed into the English royal court with the coming of the Tudors, perhaps another of the French and Burgundian tools of royal authority absorbed during his exile by the first Henry Tudor.

Anne of Cleves

In the reign of his son, Henry VIII, the politics of New Year’s gifts reached a new intensity. The king’s accounts of his purchases and presentations are a precise index of who was present in – and conspicuously absent from – his favour. In their turn, those courtiers, magnates and churchmen aiming to turn the increasingly factional climate to their advantage gave New Year’s gifts a permanent place in their armoury. Never more so than after 1534, in the struggles to profit, and not to lose, from the King’s Reformation. At the decade’s end, after the deaths of two queens, the dissolution of most monasteries, and popular rebellion, the anxieties at the turn of the year were feverish. Henry Courtenay himself fell foul of the court politics at the year’s end in 1538 and was executed in the first week of January 1539. As it happened, Bishop John Vesey (1519-54) had been among the king’s company during that New Year and royal largesse extended to the bishop’s cohort of servants. One of the last monastic superiors still standing at this time, Thomas Goldwell, prior of Christ Church, Canterbury, sent £20 of gold as his New Year’s gift to the king on 15 January 1540 just eight weeks before he was compelled to surrender his ancient monastery into the king’s hands. Thomas Cromwell’s final and most fateful gift to his king on what turned out to be the last New Year’s Day he would see was his first meeting with Anne of Cleves (c.1515-57). Sadly for Cromwell, the king found he ‘liked her nothing so well as she was spoken of’. On 30 June 1540, writing from the Tower of London as the king’s ‘most miserable prisoner and poor slave’, he tried to persuade his master to remember the encounter differently. To no avail. Cromwell was executed at Tower Hill days later.

James Clark

 

750th Anniversary at Westminster Abbey

This week marks the 750th anniversary of the last translation of the relics of Edward the Confessor at Westminster Abbey, in 1269, to the new shrine created at the direction of Henry III.

The Confessor’s shrine at Westminster Abbey

The new shrine was the centrepiece of the scheme for the elaboration and beautification of the abbey church in which King Henry had invested for more than twenty-five years.

Henry III, as depicted by Matthew Paris

The ceremony, conducted on the liturgical feast of the translation, 13 October, drew only modest attention in contemporary annals, although the compiler of the Flores historiarum reported the immediate cure of two supplicants at the shrine, Benedict, a clerk of Winchester, and John, an Irish layman, suffering from diabolical possession.

On 15 October 2019, the Dean & Chapter of Westminster led a commemorative service in the presence of Her Majesty the Queen.

Artefacts of the Abbey’s medieval history, an early witness to the Confessor’s foundation charter, and the magnificent illuminated Missal of the fourteenth-century abbot, Nicholas Litlyngton (1362-1386) were processed through the nave to the chancel steps for display at the High Altar. The Queen presented roses to be placed before the shrine of St Edward.

The Litlyngton Missal

Timed to coincide with the 750th anniversary a new history of Westminster Abbey, Westminster Abbey: A Church in HIstory, has been published by Yale University Press in association with the Paul Mellon Centre.

The book explores the origins of the monastic church, its early post-Conquest history, its Plantagenet preeminence and its successive reinventions, before the Reformation as the lynchpin of a network of Tudor chantries, subsequently its brief term as a post-Reformation cathedral, reaching right up to its contemporary role as a church for the nation and the Commonwealth. James Clark, in Exeter’s Department of History, has co-authored the chapters on the high and later Middle Ages with Paul Binski (Cambridge). The book is edited by Sir David Cannadine.

James Clark

Grandisson 650

John Grandisson depicted in a corbel at the church of Ottery St Mary

Tuesday 16 July 2019 marks the 650th anniversary of the death of John Grandisson (1292-1369), Exeter’s longest-serving bishop. The cathedral and the diocese have been shaped by many hands over many centuries but arguably it is Grandisson, who led the diocese for forty-two years from 1327, whose imprint has proved the most enduring.

Before his tenure, Exeter was seen as something of a poor relation among the cathedrals of medieval England. When he arrived the cathedral church itself was unfinished, building work having stalled repeatedly due to the shortage of funds. By the time of his death, its appearance, and its reputation, were transformed. Exeter Cathedral had become a beacon for worship in the west of England, and the cultural and creative centre-point of the city, county and diocese.

Grandisson was born to be a leading figure in public life. His family were aristocrats from Herefordshire with blood ties to many of England’s greatest noble dynasties; they could even claim a connection with the Plantagenet royal family. His background would have ensured his rise to the top in any walk of life but as a boy John was recognised for his intellectual talents and he was sent to study at Oxford and Paris, then the most prestigious university in Latin Europe. At Paris Grandisson came under the influence of one of the leading minds of the time, Jacques Fournier, whose own career as a churchman was one of the most significant of the age, leading the battle against the notorious Cathar heretics and culminating in his election as Pope Benedict XII in 1334.

 

Tomb of Pope Benedict XII at Avignon

From university John moved on to the city of Avignon in southern France, then the capital of the Roman papacy. He was set fair for a career in the papal court but his talents marked him out as a potential leader of the church in England and in 1327 Pope John XII appointed him to the bishopric in Exeter. It was something of a back-handed compliment: his predecessor, Walter de Stapledon had just been murdered by a London mob leading an uprising against the government of King Edward II (1307-27). Exeter was well-known for its poverty, the poor state of its buildings, and its remote position at the outer reaches of the realm. It was a far cry from the cultivated world of princes and prelates Grandisson had known all his life. ‘I find myself not only at the ends of the earth’, he wrote, ‘but in the very end of the ends thereof’.

Exeter Cathedral Minstrels’ gallery

Grandisson’s first priority was to finish the cathedral church. Making use of materials which had been stockpiled, he oversaw the completion of the nave, including the vaulted ceiling with its bosses carved with vivid images still in situ today. He also added new features which had not been envisaged by his predecessors, probably the Minstrels’ Gallery on the nave’s north wall, and a chantry chapel which he intended for his own tomb.

 


The church of St Mary at Ottery

Grandisson not only completed the cathedral church but also invested in a dramatic re-development of the church of St Mary at Ottery, turning it into a collegiate church. Just about a dozen miles east of Exeter, Grandisson made Ottery St Mary a grand gateway to his diocese. His mitred head can still be seen on a corbel stone at one end of a nave arch.

Grandisson also invested in the working life of the cathedral. He provided books for the use of the cathedral canons, liturgy and music to assist them in their worship and learned texts of theology, canon law and science to ensure they could meet the demands of their ministry in the city and diocese. The books were placed in a purpose-built library, the first in the cathedral’s history, and perhaps the first in the west of England – it was another hundred years before there was a library at Wells Cathedral in Somerset.

Grandisson’s cosmopolitan early years had given him a love of stylish furnishings and during his career at Exeter he commissioned many remarkable artworks. An ivory diptych now in the collection of the British Museum depicts a finely carved images of the crucified Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

 

Grandisson diptych, British Museum

An exceptional set of Mass vestments were made for him: an orphrey, an ornamental border cloth, now in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and a chasuble, now kept in the museum of the church of St Sebastian at Ponta Delgada in the Azores display some of the very finest embroidery in gold and silver-gilt thread, known as Opus Anglicanum or English work because the skill was unmatched anywhere in Europe.

Grandisson Orphrey, Victoria & Albert Museum
Becket boss, Exeter Cathedral

More important than building work or the furnishings, Bishop John applied his genius to the practice of worship in the cathedral. He was fascinated by the long history of the church and the lives of the saints whose feast-days filled the calendar. He made his own collection of these histories to be used in the cathedral, finely copied in a folio manuscript which is still kept in the Library & Archives. The life-story that fascinated him most was that of Thomas Becket, archbishop of Canterbury under Henry II (1162-70), whose determination to keep the church independent from the king and his government led to a long dispute, exile and finally roused four of Henry’s knights to murder him in his cathedral. Becket had turned his back on his career as a courtier, its privilege and political influence, and committed himself to his church and the people it served. For Grandisson he was the perfect role model.

Grandisson was also interested in the sight and sound of worship. He created a new Ordinal for the Cathedral, that is the manual that set out how the clergy were to process, where they were to stand, and what parts of the liturgy were to be spoken and sung. Today, the Cathedral Choir still turns to Grandisson’s guidance for the Christmas Eve service that carries his name.

At 5.30pm on 16 July Exeter Cathedral will perform a requiem mass in honour of their great bishop. In the following months further events will recall his contributions in different dimensions of church life including decorative art, the customs of worship in liturgy and music and education, learning and the making of books. Related exhibits will display some of the artefacts connected with him still held in the Cathedral Library & Archives.

James Clark

 

River Hunting with the History Channel

The scorching summer of 2018 was a great gift for archaeologists. For the first time in almost two decades an unbroken dry spell brought features below the surface of the landscape clearly into view. These ‘parch marks’, visible only for as long as the weather holds, provide the very fullest evidence of the foundations of earthworks, buildings, roadways not only of a medieval date but reaching back across the whole timespan from the Industrial Revolution into pre-history.

Parch marks reveal lost buildings

It seemed counter-intuitive then to take a call from a TV researcher developing a new series devoted to underwater archaeology. In fact, there was good reason why The History Channel had chosen this moment to schedule the filming of their new series aiming to show that a stretch of inland waterway is as rich in hidden archaeology and history as any expanse of ocean. If not carrying quite the same decompression risk of diving the naval wrecks off the coastlines of Africa or Australia, you’d be best advised not to wade very far into the Avon, Severn or Ouse except when the rainwater table was at an all-time low. The series, River Hunters, takes its inspiration from the USA where searches of the waterways close to Civil War battlefields have uncovered some remarkable artefacts. Arguably the trend-setter is Beau Ouimette, whose self-produced shows on You Tube are on the brink of becoming a global phenomenon. Producers persuaded Beau to bring his unique brand of wading to Britain, to sift the course of some of our most historical significant watercourses.

Beau Ouimette

Beau’s passion is battlefield history and it was hardly surprising that his schedule should take in Tewkesbury, where tributaries of the Avon and the Severn frame the site of the Wars of the Roses battle where the Lancastrian cause was decisively defeated in 1471.

Tewkesbury’s medieval centre
King John’s bridge: Tewkesbury’s medieval river-crossing

Tewkesbury was not as large a battle as Towton (1461), seeing combined forces of no more than 10,000; nor did it bring a virtual blitzkrieg to the town as occurred at both the first (1455) and second (1461) battles of St Albans.

The 1471 battle of Tewkesbury, annually re-enacted in the town’s medieval festival

But it did represent no lesser watershed moment: the Lancastrian interest was all but destroyed. Leading Lancastrian nobility lay dead, among them, John Courtenay, earl of Devon, who had only just returned to the royalist fold. Henry VI was captured and then killed; his son and heir, Edward of Westminster, died in the melée; Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who had led his the cause for the best part of twenty years, was forced to return to France.

The river tributaries played a central and decisive role in the battle. They were the reason that battle was drawn at Tewkesbury: the Lancastrian army had hoped to cross the Severn at Gloucester but the Yorkist force stood in their way, so they had tried to pass ahead of them by pressing further north. When the Lancastrian battle-formation was broken and the Yorkists set about a rout, the remnant of King Henry’s force fled for the Severn bank knowing that if they crossed it they might fight another day. Most were cut down by the waterside, or were drowned. The battlefield also lay in the shadow of the Benedictine abbey of Tewkesbury its own precincts bordered by the same river tributaries. In the rout some struck out for the abbey, although for the Lancastrians the only sanctuary they found was a burial place on sacred ground.

Tewkesbury’s Benedictine abbey

So Beau and team came in search of both the Wars of the Roses and the monastic tradition. It was the last truly hot weekend of the summer and they waded into the Swilgate south of the abbey grounds with the excitement of a day at the seaside. Perhaps those Civil War sites are very willing with their secrets but here it was slow going. By the half-day mark, the low-lying murky water had offered up only some very eclectic signs of twentieth-century life: a roadworker’s lantern and a cache of printers’ letterpress type. Early afternoon took us no further back in time but gave us the basis for a narrative: a World War 2 era firewarden’s tin helmet, a testament to the six-year vigil that watched over the abbey tower.

The firewarden’s helmet

Predictably perhaps, it was only as the light finally began to fade, and even the ebullient Beau looked less than comfortable seven hours into his wet-suit, that the river offered a tantalising hint of medieval Tewkesbury. Pressed deep into a wedge of silt, the detector led to hand-worked pins and studs surrounding the remains of leather strips – straps? – of early date. Naturally, given it was now past 7pm, there was an immediate and unspoken agreement to interpret them as battlefield artefacts. An archer’s arm-guard: sure thing! For this monastic historian, it was the less romantic but (much) more plausible provenance of a block of dressed stone we also recovered that almost made the wait worthwhile.

The stone-block

Here there was evidence of the monastery’s development of water meadow south of their precinct, and perhaps of the fishery that fed the community, and kept them, more-or-less, within the letter of chapter 39 of their Rule, On the measure of food.

River Hunters

River Hunters is now showing on The History Channel, Mondays, @ 9pm.

James Clark

Research Postcard: An Exeter Life of Thomas Becket

John Grandisson, the bishop who presided at Exeter in the turbulent middle years of the fourteenth century – the age of the papacy’s Avignon exile, the Black Death and the bloodiest battles of the Hundred Years War – has long been celebrated as a man of learning whose love of books brought some of the finest illuminated manuscripts into the Cathedral Library. He left his mark – that is to say, his ownership inscription and many marginal notes, underlines, comments and corrections – on a wide variety of books, including those still at Exeter.

Grandisson’s family arms as the frontispiece to his psalter

Yet surprisingly there is only one text that is attributed to him as his own work. Oxford, Bodleian Library MS 493 (fos. 1r-50v) contains a Latin life of Thomas Becket which is described in its original red-ink rubric as having been curated usefully and historically (compendiose et historice…collette) by John de Grandisson, bishop of Exon. Arranged in four parts, the text narrates the martyr’s progress from birth to death and canonisation, from the city of London which he honoured (decoravit) as his family home, to his final reward from Pope Alexander III of his name being added to the catalogue of martyrs (martyrum cathologo addendum decrevit), after which his feast was always celebrated. As the colophon acknowledges, the life is not an original composition. The text is founded on the Quadrilogus, the composite life of the archbishop first compiled by Brother E – his name may have been Elias – a monk of the Benedictine abbey of Evesham, which attempted at a synthesis of the accounts of Becket’s chapter colleagues at Canterbury, William and Alan of Tewkesbury, and his friends, Herbert of Bosham and John of Salisbury.

Becket’s murder as depicted in a ceiling boss at Exeter Cathedral

The cult of saints was the meeting-point of Grandisson’s interests as a prelate and a scholar: it was a means of stability and spiritual nourishment for the faithful facing the uncertainty of present times; for church and clergy it was a link with an illustrious past and a source of inspiration. Perhaps his greatest gift to his cathedral was a vast, two-volume Legendary which drew together the narratives for the feasts celebrated throughout the year. His Becket life appears to have been an early step towards this project, possibly compiled in his first decade at Exeter, or even before. He made reference to it in an exchange with his old master and mentor, Jacques Fournier, who ended his career as the Avignon Pope Benedict XII and died in 1342.

The tomb of Pope Benedict XII, Grandisson’s mentor
William de Tracy’s grant of Doccombe to Canterbury, dated after 21 February 1173

It is conceivable that his compilation passed into Curial circles: a Vatican manuscript of the fifteenth century (BAV Lat. 1221, fos. 1r-27v) contains an anonymous account of Becket’s life that opens with the same incipit. There was a confirmed copy in Italy in 1492, recorded in the inventory of the library of the English College at Rome. Surely Grandisson first turned his attention to Becket because of his place in the history of the church in England but at Exeter he can scarcely have been unaware of the special resonance of the story in the western diocese. William de Tracy, one of the four assassins of the archbishop, was baron of Bradninch and lord of the manor of Moretonhampstead. His Devon lands were the focus of his penitential gift to the monks of Christ Church, Canterbury: Doccombe and adjoining lands to the value of 100s were presented to the Cathedral Priory in c. 1173. He requested commemorative masses for himself and for the new saint he had inadvertently created.

James Clark

Medieval History on screen: Consulting on White Princess

Eminent Churchillians have been all a-quiver. Darkest Hour has carried their subject far beyond his familiar home in the Culture pages of the serious newspapers to set him trending, everywhere. And the academic eminences have themselves been pulled into the spotlight, called on to share their expertise in every media forum, from the Today programme, to the Chris Evans’ Breakfast Show, just in case any of us had forgotten how Britain found itself in the spring of 1940.

But this flurry of attention has left them conflicted. They have been in awe at the spectacle of Neville Chamberlain’s gaunt, grey profile reanimated so perfectly that it might be an original newsreel, remastered in HD. But then they have been deeply troubled to see cabinet meetings convened in the War Rooms in May 1940 when everyone – of course, literally, everyone – knew they did not move there until September when the bombing started. And the spectacle of their Grand Old Man stepping on to the Tube to focus-group with the Great British Public has left them positively queasy.

Churchill on the tube: the much-discussed scene from Darkest Hour

Watching their discomfort, the medievalist might be heard to mutter, ‘Welcome to our world!’. Conscious anachronism for dramatic effect – the PM reaching out to ordinary people in their time of peril his people in time – is often the least of our worries when our period makes it on to the screen. Apparently the Middle Ages are so remote from anything that the viewing public knows (or cares to know) that there is no question of trying to recreate it as it was. On the contrary, as a Lost World, there is a licence wholly to reinvent it. So the Benedictines of 13th-century Italy become Mafiosi in a mountainous redoubt – The Name of the Rose (1986) – the battling of Bruce, Balliol, Wallace and Edward I becomes a Six Nations match at MurrayfieldBraveheart (1993) – and the professional tournament circuit between Crecy and Poitiers is recast as something akin to a mad, muddy summer of festivals, from the Big Weekend, to V, via GlastoA Knight’s Tale (2001).

And now, in the pursuit of Box Office (or Box-Set) success, it seems there is a determination to make the medieval truly out of this world. Judging from the messages in my inbox, it does seem that there are viewers of Game of Thrones who are quite satisfied that its medieval vision, more Middle Earth than Middle Ages, has more to offer than the other one, so tiresomely grounded in, erm, history.

So, it was with no small scepticism that I responded to an approach to act as historical consultant for the filming of a mini-series of Philippa Gregory’s The White Princess, her novelised account of the union of the houses of York and Tudor after 1485. The BBC TV series based on the prequel novel, The White Queen, had met sharp criticism for its sense of period which was flimsy even by the usual standards and was a poor reflection of Gregory’s own commitment to research.

Meeting the producers and directors, I was struck immediately by their up-front acknowledgement that the screen has generally got the Middle Ages wrong. I was also impressed by the research they had already done. The producers and I digressed very happily on Cardinal Morton and the pre-Reformation church. The director slated to supervise the Battle of Stoke (1487) displayed a disarmingly detailed knowledge of the formation of the battles, that is the deployments of force mobilised by Henry Tudor and the Yorkist rebels. She also knew a good deal about the German musketeers and their legendary leader, Martin Schwartz. I have to admit it was difficult not to be enticed by the prospect of bringing to an audience an historical moment in which we glimpse the coming Military Revolution, archers rendered obsolete by the handgun. Their grasp of the dynamics of the period was matched by an awareness of the landscape and environment in which it was played out. Before I became involved, buildings that were right for a fifteenth-century story had already been chosen as locations, Sudeley Castle, Gloucester and Wells cathedrals. I was especially pleased to find that the production team were well aware of the role of Gloucester in the short life of Henry Tudor’s eldest son, Prince Arthur, who for a time was entrusted to the tutelage of the abbot of the Benedictine monastery.

Arthur, prince of Wales

I agreed to take on the consultant role and soon found myself following the crew on their tour of these West-Country locations to give the nod – and certainly the occasional critique – to the scenes they were staging. Of course, White Princess is above all a portrait of a marriage and the bread-and-butter filming had no need of my watchful eye, as Lizzie (i.e. Elizabeth of York) and Henry Tudor played out their lively relationship framed only by flickering candlelight and the faint suggestion of linenfold panelling. But the story also tells how that relationship weathered the storms of a realm still profoundly unsettled after the Battle of Bosworth. The team were eager to show the armed rebellions that repeatedly cut through the connubial calm of Mr and Mrs Tudor. By far my longest day on location was spent at a picnic bench in Bradford-on-Avon taking the director through each turn and twist of the day’s fighting at Stoke. I also did my best to talk her out of representing Warbeck’s hastily abandoned stand-off at Taunton as a battle. Ever with an eye to diversity, she warmed to the reality of cosmopolitan armies. Now I was called on to check the accuracy of the non-English dialogue, and after verifying the insults with which Schwartz and his men showered their opponents, I was also given charge of the exchanges at the Burgundian and Spanish courts.

Battling it out at Stoke

The team were excited by the prospect of staging battles but the other set-pieces that punctuate the drama, the ceremonial of coronation and marriage, made them strangely agitated and anxious. Above all, it was the fact that these were conspicuously sacred acts that seemed to unsettle them, that they would now be obliged to orchestrate priests and their liturgy. Of course, it was no problem to establish the rite used for the first Tudor coronation; Henry and Elizabeth’s marriage ceremony is also well-documented. The greater challenge was condensing it to a handful of scenes, significant in the context of the ceremony itself but suited also to the dramatic pitch the director had determined for this episode. Here too there was a problem of language, or at least for the actors. Of all the tasks I took on, the strangest was surely speaking the Latin into my phone’s voice recorder and emailing it across so that Kenneth Cranham – playing Cardinal Morton – could capture the fifteenth-century enunciation.

This at least was a little less out of my research comfort zone than my final task, poring over the fabrics in the costume department to pronounce on the colours and textures that were right for Lizzie and wrong for Lady Margaret Beaufort. In fact, the King’s Mother’s wardrobe is as well-documented as her personal piety. By the 1490s, it appears the only colours she could countenance wearing were ‘tawny’ and black. The costumiers took this message to heart, although their designs evoked somewhat less of a sense of late medieval contemptus mundi piety than they did of Maleficent.

Lady Margaret  Beaufort (far right): contemptus mundi
Maleficent (left): contemptus omnium

 

 

 

 

 

 

There was also a moment’s tension over how to clothe a cardinal (Morton). They seemed to have bulk-bought purple chenille before I came on board so it was a battle to bring them to an acceptance that Morton’s generation was the first to be dressed in the classic red costume.

A purple cardinal approaches…

Of course, the predictable result was that many of the pains that I and others took over six months did not make the final cut. The ceremonial suffered especially, snipped and trimmed between close-ups with the liturgy consigned to a dimly audible backtrack. What aired, first in the US in April 2017, and in the UK in November, showed much more of the personal than the historical drama. But it did succeed in challenging at least some of my preconceptions. There was a genuine interest on our Middle Ages in the team – producers, directors, actors – that suggests that all is not yet lost to the likes of John Snow and Tyrion Lannister.

James Clark

An Abbot Returns

‘We’ve found a body. We’d like you to help us with our enquiries’. An unnerving telephone message to pick up amid the usual end-of-term pressures, but as it turned out I was wanted only as a witness at a distance of some 550 years.

Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Canterbury Archaeological Trust have been leading an excavation at St Albans Cathedral as a prelude to the construction of a new welcome centre which is the centrepiece of their project, Alban, Britain’s First Saint, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund.

St Albans Cathedral

The dig has already offered up fresh insights into the early history of the Benedictine Abbey, uncovering the footings of the apse chapels that were a central feature of the devotional scheme of the Norman church built by Paul of Caen, the Norman monk entrusted with the revival of the old Saxon monastery by Archbishop Lanfranc of Bec. Paul’s abbey was quite different from the St Albans known from later medieval sources, not least in the attention given to saints’ cults other than the so-called protomartyr, Alban. The Norman church was made ready to receive altars and relics of the then more modish English saints, Cuthbert and Wulfstan.

Lanfranc of Bec, depicted in Oxford, Bodl. MS Bodley 569.

The unidentified burial has been revealed after clearing a sequence of much later burials, of those citizens of St Albans who worshipped at the former abbey in the eighteenth century when it served as the town’s parish church. Beneath these remains the archaeologists have uncovered the traces of a substantial rectangular structure which would have projected southwards from the abbey’s presbytery. At its centre they have found a brick-lined tomb chamber still holding its original incumbent. The skeleton is of a male in advanced old age. To find a medieval burial intact was surprising in itself since earlier excavations have shown that the site has had a long history of the disturbance – and robbing out – of the higher status pre-Reformation graves. Even more unusual was the presence with the skeleton of three papal bullae.

Image courtesy of Canterbury Archaeological Trust

Each one bears the inscription of Pope Martin V (1417-31), the pontiff whose election at the Council of Constance ended the Great Schism which had divided the Latin church at the height of the Hundred Years War.

Pope Martin V

While the presence of the bulls allowed the burial to be placed loosely on the abbey’s timeline, there was nothing more in the material evidence to suggest an identity.

So it was time to turn back to the texts. St Albans Abbey is well known to medievalists for its historical writing and a rich seam survives from the fifteenth century. For the period of Martin V’s pontificate in fact there are three substantial texts, an annal, a book of benefactors and a biography of an abbot. Each of these recount how Abbot John Whethamstede journeyed over the Alps in 1423 to attend the ecumenical council at Pavia.

Pavia

While in Italy, he also made the journey to Roman Curia in the hope that he might secure an audience with the pope. On arrival he was struck down with a mortal illness and since plague was raging through the peninsula, causing the council delegates to swap Pavia for Siena, it was assumed that he would die. Pope Martin offered him the aid of his own physicians and when no cure could be worked, sent one of his officials to administer extreme unction. When all hope was lost, the abbot experienced a vision of St Bernard of Clairvaux, and on waking his recovery began.

When he was restored to full strength, he finally secured his hoped-for papal audience and, thankful for his survival, determined to do his best for is abbey by requesting three significant privileges from the pope. He was amply rewarded: Martin assented to his request and issued three bulls which the abbot hoped would distinguish St Albans from its Benedictine peers: to dispense the monks from the traditional abstention from meat during Lent; to permit the use of a portable altar at the monastery’s studium at Oxford and at their hostel in the city of London; to allow the abbot and convent to farm the income from the churches under their jurisdiction to laymen. Abbot Whethamstede gathered up his bulls and promptly returned home to St Albans.

Abbot Whethamstede as depicted in the St Albans Book of Benefactors, BL MS Cotton Nero D VII

Martin V’s bulls were an early success in a long career. Whethamstede held the abbacy twice, stepping out of office in 1441 when his health again failed but returning in 1452 and remaining then until his death in 1465, when he was probably at least 75 years old. He is remembered now for his achievements as a scholar and bibliophile, for his pioneering interest in Italian humanism and for his friendship with Humphrey, duke of Gloucester, younger brother of Henry V, and Protector during the minority of Henry VI. Yet his monks always remembered his audience with Pope Martin and in the biographical sketch they entered in their book of benefactors, they made much of his ‘three-fold’ character, surely a nod towards the bulls he had brought them all the way from Italy.

Certainly, the episode was well enough remembered for the abbot to be laid to rest with these trophies, and the biography tells us that the chapel Whethamstede built for himself was, yes, projecting southwards from the presbytery.

A fitting reburial is planned. And so, unexpectedly, it seems the first to be welcomed across the threshold of the abbey’s new welcome centre will be one of its own abbots.

James Clark

James Clark in Champaign, IL: A French Noblewoman Makes her Monastic Vows

In the heart of the American Mid-West, two and a half hours from Chicago, in the University twin town of Urbana-Champaign is a rare gem of a collection of medieval manuscripts.

MainLibrary_Urbana_Illinois_4582
Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL

 

An early translation of the Rule of St Benedict

UIUC MS 98
UIUC MS 98, fo. 1r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, IL

Among them is a French translation of the Regula Benedictiitself a relatively rare survival, particularly from such an early date (c. 1270), although vernacular versions of the rule were widely attested. The translation is also distinguished by an opening illumination (fo. 1ra) with an unusual depiction of Benedictine sisters gathered before the sainted father of the order and maker of the rule, clutching what would appear to represent their profession statements.

 

A nun’s vows

Pasted on to the lower margin of Chapter 58, ‘On the manner of receiving sisters’, (fo. 25r), is an original profession statement, written out in a formal textura hand on a separate slip of parchment (now trimmed). The statement is in the name of one Claudia de Brilly, who identifies herself as making her profession of vows to become a sister of the abbey of St Sulpice and St Glossinde at Metz in the presence of Abbot Benedict of the abbey of St Arnould in the same city. The family of Brilly were lords of Touffreville and Villers-Bocage.

UIUC MS 98 2
UIUC MS 98, fo. 25r. Photo courtesy of the Rare Books Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

This Benedict can be identified as Benoit Juville who held the abbacy of St Arnould between 1545 and 1566, defending the ancient abbey church even as the Emperor Charles V laid siege to Metz in 1552. Abbé Benoit was forced to lead his brethren to the relative safety of the city’s Dominican convent, although the Imperial siege ultimately proved unsuccessful. The sisters of St Glossinde, however, held firm and, for all the tensions outside, young Claudia’s early years under vows were uninterrupted.

 

A symbol of continuity

In several different ways the manuscript represents continuities in medieval monastic history: the remarkable resilience of female observance at Metz, which began in the 7th century and persisted until August 1792; the enduring role of Metz, once the crucible of the Gorze reform, as a monastic hub; and the survival of the ceremonial of profession, and the materiality of the rule within it, even as the boundaries, indeed the polities of the old European Christendom came apart at the seams.

Prof. James G. Clark, at Champaign, IL

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