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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 is now showing on The History Channel, Mondays, @ 9pm.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 Murrayfield – Braveheart (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 Glasto – A 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
An early translation of the Rule of St Benedict
Among them is a French translation of the Regula Benedicti, itself 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.
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
In just a few years, family history research has become something of a cultural phenomenon. Proof of this will be apparent to any professional researcher arriving at the National Archives or – perhaps more especially – at a regional record office or heritage centre. Now they will find themselves explaining to the staff that unlike their typical visitor they have in fact called up this charter or that diocesan register for its own intrinsic interest and not simply because of some passing reference to a presumed ancestor. Of course, this surge of interest in family research might fairly be said to have been the salvation of county and city archives, which have seemed ever more vulnerable in face of local authority austerity. In fact the courage of some to cut loose from the direct control of councils owes much to the foot-fall they have seen from self-taught researchers of all ages with a passion discover more about their own past.
The origins of family history
The fashion for family history and its place in prime-time TV may be a recent development but, of course, the tracing of family lines does have a long… pedigree. In England its origins as a subject of scholarly enquiry are usually traced to the years between the Break with Rome (1534) and the outbreak of the Civil War (1642). The early anxieties and later ambitions of the Tudor monarchy gave rise to statutory measures for the regulation of social status and the use of a growing governmental bureaucracy to subject the political nation and the authority they exerted in their own provinces to ever closer, central scrutiny. Henry VIII initiated a cycle of heraldic visitations which continued at regular intervals – with the exception of the years of civil war – until the Glorious Revolution. The crown’s heralds held local elites to account for the arms, and, of course, the titles to which they were accustomed to lay claim. The coming of the visitors caused families to recover their records, create a synthesis and in many instances, to commit them to parchment in a genealogical roll. They were helped in their response by new forms of national and regional history: William Camden’s Britannia (1586) brought the histories of the nation’s counties into focus for the first time; John Weever’s Ancient funeral monuments (1631) gave its readers a glimpse of a distant ancestry which might be their own; in Monasticon Anglicanum (1655-73) William Dugdale and Roger Dodsworth pieced together the testimony of old monastic cartularies and chronicles still widely scattered in the libraries of provincial gentleman.
Family history in the late Middle Ages
Before the relationship between crown and political nation was challenged, and changed, in these years, it is generally assumed that ideas of family identity were not so well focused and that noble and gentry society did not demonstrate the same enterprise in the recording of its own history. The adoption and use of (coats of) arms remained fluid until the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The proof of the right to particular arms or indeed to an inheritance as a whole might be mustered ad hoc but was not a routine feature of noble or gentry discourse. Genealogy as a concept was well understood but was pursued for the most part only in clerical contexts where the descent of emperors, kings, and pontiffs provided a chronological framework for a chronicle narrative, and a narrative of the founder of the monastery and their family line offered a degree of institutional security to a convent community. It has often been suggested that the very first sign of these impulses passing over into lay circles was the making of the Rous Roll, the genealogical history compiled by John Rous, perhaps for Anne Neville before the Battle of Bosworth (1485).
Family history research in fifteenth-century Devon
Yet a manuscript from the Courtenay archives at Powderham Castle, near Exeter, now digitised by specialists from Exeter University’s Digital Humanities team, Charlotte Tupman and Graham Fereday, may present something of a challenge to this conventional view. The Courtenay cartulary has only recently been returned to Powderham and has not been available to researchers for nearly forty years.
It was first brought together in the third quarter of the fourteenth century and its principal contents track the Courtenay family’s acquisition of the old Norman barony of Okehampton which became the mainstay of their medieval earldom, and their commercial development of new towns at the east – Colyford – and the west – Kennford – of their domain. Perhaps as much as fifty years after the manuscript was begun, c. 1400-1425, quires were added at the front containing a family tree and family chronicle. Unusually at this date, the structure of the tree is formed not only of lines and roundels but also with the stem and branches of a tree, formed with broad strokes of a bright green paint. It begins not with the Courtenay family themselves but with the forebears they claimed, with the earldom, the Norman families of De Brionne and De Redvers who held respectively the shrievalty and nascent earldom of Devon in the first generations after the Conquest.
The tree follows the Courtenays from their arrival in England from their original French home at Chateau-Renard in the Val de Loire, their intermarriage with these Norman baronial lines and their claim of the earldom finally recognised by Edward III in 1340. It continues with the succession of Earl Hugh III de Courtenay (d. 1377) who married Margaret de Bohun (d. 1391), granddaughter of Edward I, whose marriage portion included Powderham. Their fourth son, Sir Philip Courtenay (d. 1406), built the castle and it is his descendants who recovered the earldom. The family chronicle expands this narrative and is illustrated with the blazons associated with each generation of the Courtenays and their forbears.
The research of these fifteenth-century Courtenays was based largely on the foundation history of the Cistercian Abbey of Forde, of which they were patrons. The text that is woven around the tree, and continues on into the cartulary not only records the names of each generation, their marriages, issue, obituaries and their place of burial; it also includes passages from the (now lost) longer narrative of the fortunes of the Forde colony of monks from their first settlement at Brightley near Okehampton in 1133 down to the beginning of the fourteenth century. While a number of Cistercian houses compiled genealogies of their founders, it is rare to be able to demonstrate their direct transmission into the records and books of a lay household. Without the monastic original how far the Courtenays copied a Cistercian manuscript is unclear but it seems likely that the visualisation of their tree and the arms in their lineage – each finely painted and picked out in gold leaf – represent their own creative input. In doing so, the corporate, institutional identity which charged the Cistercian narrative was overlaid with its precise counterpoint, an expression of dynastic lordship. Interestingly, the territorial outlook of the original, which represented the White Monks reaching out across the West Country, was retained more-or-less verbatim no doubt because its tone of seigniorial ambition was well-suited to the Courtenays’ own purpose.
Reformation reception of Cistercian history
Remarkably, there is a second manuscript in the Powderham archives which bears witness to the appropriation of Cistercian narrative for the purposes of lay family history. A parchment booklet written in the first half of the sixteenth century contains another copy of the foundation narrative and later history of Forde.
The booklet carries a dated ownership inscription naming William Strode (d. 1579), a major landowner in Somerset and Devon who was energetic in buying up estates at the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Perhaps the pinnacle of Strode’s rise to regional power was his marriage into the Courtenay dynasty. It was his entry into the hold monastic heartland and into the region’s noble lineage which persuaded him to assimilate the same dynastic narrative – already re-purposed once, in the fifteenth century – as his own. More than a decade after the Cistercian community had itself been driven from Forde, their pioneering work in genealogy provided a template for fashioning the identity of an up-and-coming family.
New exhibition at Powderham Castle
The Courtenay family tree, the cartulary and William Strode’s book form part of an exhibition now open to visitors to Powderham Castle curated by Exeter’s Digital Humanities team together with James Clark and Henry French from Exeter’s Department of History.
James Clark, Professor of Medieval History
At the opening and closing the BBC’s adaptation of Wolf Hall I was asked to share my thoughts on Thomas Cromwell with presenter Simon Bates on BBC Radio Devon’s ‘Good Morning Devon’ Breakfast Show. Hilary Mantel’s novels have challenged the conventional casting of the familiar Reformation drama making Chancellor More the grim-faced obstacle in the path of our new hero, ‘Mr Secretary Crumwell’.
The Wolf Hall phenomenon, of course, owes much to the general appeal of the Tudors and a fair number of the 3 million viewers that switched on to the TV adaptation were drawn purely by the promise of witnessing once more the marital melodrama of Bluff King Hal. Yet the summons to Wolf Hall has resounded far further than any other of the recent retellings of Henry’s serial monogamy. For those that profess to select their reading from the Man Booker shortlist, Philippa Gregory is generally a guilty pleasure to be left on the holiday cottage’s communal bookshelf. But Mantel’s books have returned historical fiction to the Paperwhites™ and Book Groups of these Readers of Literary Novels and to the Public Critics – the Frostrups and the Naughties – who guide them. Part of it, of course, is her painstaking authenticity. As an early reviewer trilled, you can almost scent the damp wool of Cromwell’s cloak as he steals across the outer court of old Austin Friars, and the Readers of Literary Novels need to know that their fare has been lovingly prepared through long hours in the BL reading room. But the root of Mantel’s success, I suspect, lies not in her careful recreation of an old reality but in her subtle fashioning of a new one; for what might at first appear to be simply another strain of the timeless chant, ‘divorced-beheaded-died’ – which the self-conscious literati would spurn – in fact recasts the story to fit the historical imagination de nos jours. Mantel’s Tudor England is no stock-image of that generic ‘past’ which we want served up in colour and drama but not in detail. No, these Tudors have been photo-shopped to suit our new historical aesthetic; above all, to satisfy our ultra-relativism.
So it follows that neither one nor t’other Boleyn girl is now our hero, still less Lord Chancellor More, a man whom Mantel seems on the brink of mocking for his Brownian ‘moral compass’. No, it is Thomas C. who must be the man for our seasons. Thomas of the troubled childhood, the victim of an abusive father for whom he harbours hope of formal justice into middle age; Thomas of the exemplary work-life balance, as likely to be found working-from-home and even contemplating home-schooling his clever daughter than to play the monarch’s minion. The case for home-schooling, of course, is as clear as day to the auto-didact Thomas, the University-of-Life man whose internship with Wolsey propels him further and faster than the smug graduates which surround him. Thomas is a man of new science, not old books, a champion of the communications revolution coming with the printing press, now poring over the tablet-sized page-proof of Tyndale’s dangerously Smart Testament. Thomas learns quickly the truth of our preferred clichés about politics and public life, the greasiness of the pole, the venality of those that make the climb, and that money and sex that always drive them. These each serve to make Thomas a recognisable, sympathetic figure but what brings him wholly onside is that in his progress to Wolf Hall he exposes the always narrow, often wicked world view of the old establishment. This is the view represented not only by Wolsey – the figurehead of a hierarchical church securing privilege and sustaining inequality through fear and superstition – but also by the urbane More, whose Christian Humanism is equally if not more insidious since it cloaks a creed of cultural and social elitism in the promise of Utopia. Here, curiously, as well as a Thomas Cromwell-for-our-time, Mantel would seem to want to breathe new life into the oldest Tudor myth of all, of the Reformation as a definitive step towards the rational, liberal uplands of the modern world.
Now, you might well say that it hardly matters if through the doors of Wolf Hall we glimpse a grotesque distortion of the Henrician Reformation: these days surely it is something that only animates us academic historians, and every other reader and viewer will be well satisfied as long as Anne does lose her head at the appointed time, with the right sort of weft showing in her worsted cloak. Well, maybe so. You might also be inclined to argue that bringing Thomas and his world closer to our own can only be a good thing: empathy and relevance should not be dismissed, otherwise, before long you will be in danger of questioning the spectacle of ceramic poppies outside the Tower. But if we continue in this direction, isn’t there also a danger that we will narrow our historical imagination to the point of closure? If that happens, it won’t only be our understanding of something with apparently such low stakes as the Reformation that will be in peril. We must cultivate the curiosity – and at the same time, perhaps, suppress the instinctive self-obsession – to explore a world whose views on childhood, family, education, work, technology, and the power of ideas – were far removed from our own. In looking on the past it is high time we rediscovered the virtue of difference.