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A feast-day fit for a king?

This is the season of Saint Alban. The feast-day falls on 22 June. Medieval England knew him as their ‘protomartyr’, that is the first of all their Christian people to face death in defence of their faith. They spoke of Alban as an alter Stephen, the first in all the Church’s history to be put to death purely because they were a follower of Christ.

The martyrdom of Alban (Trinity College, Dublin, MS 177, fo. 38r)

According to a legend whose main features were settled by the end of the twelfth century, Alban was a prominent citizen of the Roman city of Verulamium. He was converted to the new cause of Christianity when he sheltered a travelling priest trying to escape the persecution of the pagan authorities. Soon discovered, Alban was condemned to suffer the same mortal punishment that awaited the priest unless he threw off his new faith. He refused and was executed with his priest mentor, on a hillside outside the city’s walls.

The abbey of St Panteleon, Cologne, which claimed to hold relics of St Alban

His cult enjoyed an exceptionally long, if not quite continuous history: it was first witnessed around the third decade of the fifth century by the missionary bishop, Germanus of Auxerre (c.378-442×448 CE); the shrine containing the principal relics still attracted donations from the town of St Albans in reign of Henry VIII eleven centuries later. The cult was also carried beyond England to Cologne and Odense, aided by the reach of relics – or at least objects alleged to be relics – taken from the original shrine. The feast-day was among those of the earliest saints of England – Cuthbert, Edmund, Edward the Confessor – to be recognised in the calendar of the Sarum rite which became the most widely followed in England between the Black Death and the Break with Rome.

Offa of Mercia, legendary founder of the church of St Alban, shown in the abbey’s book of benefactors (British Library, MS Cotton Nero D VII, fo. 3v)

The antiquity and celebrity of Alban, protomartyr of England, were acknowledged but often he seemed to be eclipsed as a saint for the nation by the pre-Conquest figures who also featured in the calendar of Sarum. In particular, his cult struggled to capture the devout attentions of the English monarchy. Of course, although he was adopted as a saint for England, his own history was rooted in Roman Britain, a time long before the formative years of English kingship. By legend Alban’s relics had been rediscovered by Offa of Mercia (reigned 757-96 CE) who built a basilica to house them. But it had not been the beginning of a lasting tie to the crown. From the Normans to the first of the Tudors, Cuthbert, Edmund and Edward the Confessor never lost their place of priority in the public devotions of royalty. For the custodians of Alban’s relics, the monks of the Benedictine abbey established close by his Roman city, it appeared that even the passing attention of the reigning royal family was always hard-won.

After a slow start, the monks did invest in the fabric of the protomartyr’s shrine. Apparently by the Tudor period it even boasted a mechanical statue which, operated like a giant marionette, could be made to bow to pilgrims.

Matthew Paris’ self-portrait (British Library, MS Royal 14 C VII, fo. 6r)

But above all, to raise the profile of their saint the monks exploited their best asset, their almost unrivalled skills in original writing and the production of books. From the 1170s they transformed the written records of the saint and his cult: new lives of Alban and his co-martyr were composed in prose and verse and a collection was compiled of the reports of miracles witnessed at the shrine. After a forced interruption in the First Barons’ War (1215-17), and an ambitious re-development of the abbey church, their efforts were continued from the end of the 1230s, just as the king, Henry III (1216-72), began his personal rule.

Now, the greatest of all of the abbey’s book craftsmen, Matthew Paris (d. c. 1259) made a beautiful anthology of Alban-alia, bringing together both versions of the saints’ lives in Latin together with another in French verse which is generally thought to be by Matthew himself. He accompanied the French poem with a sequence of fifty-four painted panels which filled the top half of each page.

The shrine of St Alban (Trinity College Dublin MS 177, fo. 61r)

From the outset, there can be no doubt that the book was meant to be in the sight-line of those outside the community of monks.

Trinity College Dublin Library

This week, this remarkable manuscript, which has become known as the ‘Book of St Albans’, will be fully and freely accessible in a high-resolution digital copy thanks to the efforts of its’ custodians, the library of Trinity College, Dublin. A virtual exhibition is also showing on Google Arts & Culture.

Henry III, remembered for his patronage of St Alban’s Abbey (British Library MS Cotton Nero D VII, fo. 6r)

When the ‘Book of St Alban’ was first made there were promising signs of rising royal interest in Alban and his shrine. Matthew Paris himself in the contemporary history called Chronica maiora recorded a succession of royal visits, first, in 1240, Richard, earl of Cornwall (1209-72), the king’s brother, on route for Crusade, and then of King Henry himself. In 1244 Henry III visited on 11 June, just eleven days ahead of the feast, and he returned to the abbey six months later, on 21 December. In September 1247 Matthew proudly recorded that the king had made a special appeal to the monks to pray for the recovery from illness of his eldest son, Prince Edward (b. 1239), the future king. Henry III returned to St Albans in September 1251 and made unspecified offerings at the shrine. He came again in August 1252, then in the company of Prince Edward and presented a robe, two necklaces, two gold rings and twelve gold coins. From 1255 to 1258 Henry came each year, twice in Lent, then in August and November. On each occasion he adorned the shrine of Alban and his co-martyr with new decorations, textiles and jewels.

The monks surely felt a certain pique that in spite of their attentions, still the royal family did not come to the St Albans on the feast-day itself, 22 June. Even Matthew Paris’ beautiful book could not distract them completely from the attractions of other cults and their shrines. In his Chronica maiora Matthew noted the lively activity now stirring at monasteries and cathedrals across the kingdom. Thomas Becket’s relics at Canterbury had been re-set after the years of war; there were new cults associated with contemporary churchmen – Richard of Chichester, Edmund of Canterbury, Stephen Langton. Matthew himself gathered news of them in the hope that his own church might catch hold of their proverbial coat tails. But the fickle favour of patrons was obvious even in the ‘Book of St Alban’ itself. There is a faint note recording that the texts of two other saints’ lives – Edward the Confessor and Thomas Becket – had been shared with a noblewoman, apparently Isabel de Warenne, countess of Arundel; a bitter irony for Matthew Paris that it should be noted in the book he made to proclaim the protomartyr’s primacy. Alban’s rivals showed no signs of retreating.

Henry VI, commemorated in the St Albans book of benefactors (British Library, MS Cotton Nero D VII, fo. 73r)
Catherine de Valois from her funeral effigy at Westminster Abbey

The monks’ courting of the crown continued undeterred. Henry III’s grandson, Edward II, came to St Albans at Palmtide 1314. When, later in the fourteenth century, the monks created a confraternity in honour of St Albans, the wider royal family and the courtier nobility came in large groups to be inducted as members. These ceremonies are recorded in the abbey’s first surviving book of benefactors (now British Library MS Nero D VII). The last of the Plantagenets, Edward III, and his grandson, Richard II, were claimed by the monks as generous patrons to their church, although the only record of a visit by either, is of King Richard in the wake of the Peasants’ Revolt (1381), when he witnessed the execution of the rebellion’s priest provocateur, John Balle (15 July). The monks also commended the first of the Lancastrian monarchs, Henry IV and Henry V, but again there is no account of their visits. Their dowager queens, Joan de Navarre and Catherine de Valois did come to the shrine, the former just days before the feast of the martyr in 1427, the latter, after Easter 1428. Henry V’s youngest brother, Humfrey, duke of Gloucester (1390-1447) and his wife, Eleanor Cobham, made their devotions at the shrine around the octave of the feast in 1431.

And then, finally, in 1458, two hundred years after the last of Henry III’s series of visits, the king himself, Henry VI came to St Albans to keep the feast. He arrived at the abbey on 20 June and stayed for six days. In fact, this was the king’s second visit in scarcely two months.

It may have been at the earlier visit in April that he was shown Matthew Paris’ ‘Book of St Albans’. A memorandum on the lower margin of fo. 1v notes that it was seen by the king on his departure from a meeting of his Great Council in Westminster, which had been convened in February.

James Clark

 

 

 

Research Postcard: Saint Urith and the survival of Saxon saints in late medieval Somerset

Francis Douce

The Douce manuscripts and printed books, held in Oxford’s Bodleian Library, are one of the most remarkable medieval collections to have been put together by a single bibliophile. In the first place the collection is striking simply because of its date: Francis Douce (1757-1834) found these 420 medieval books on the open market in the decades either side of 1800. It is astonishing to think that so many British and European codices and early imprints should have remained in circulation outside the leading libraries some three centuries after the Reformation. The collection is also unusual for its exceptional examples of scribal skill and decorative art. Douce recovered the Ormesby Psalter, perhaps the finest of all the extant service books written and decorated in late medieval England, which was a source of inspiration for the Pre-Raphaelites, William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones; and the Apocalypse now named after him (MS Douce 180), which may have been the commission of the Plantagenet royal family, initiated by Henry III (1216-72) and completed by his son, Edward I (1272-1307).

Yet the books are equally fascinating for what they reveal of the research interests of Francis Douce himself. He set out to collect manuscripts and early print that could illustrate the ‘manners, customs and beliefs’ of the people of the Middle Ages. He was drawn especially to imaginative literature and to the images and texts that reflected, as he understood it, popular religious beliefs and customs.

Douce MS 270 is a rare example of a medieval book which can be fixed very precisely in time and place. On the verso of its second front flyleaf is a French inscription ‘Lan del encarnation nostre seignur M C XCVII le ior de la tephaine furent sor le fiertre saint Cuthbert’, which would seem to locate the book at Durham Cathedral Priory,

Durham Cathedral Priory

which held the relics of St Cuthbert, at the time of Epiphany (6 January) 1197/98. The book contains a copy of the Latin sermons of Maurice of Sully, bishop of Paris (1160-96), and is fronted by a liturgical calendar originally written to record the feast days celebrated at Durham.

St Martin’s Church, Kingsbury Episcopi
St Peter & St Paul Church, South Petherton

But the book is rarer still because it can also be connected to another time and place far distant from this great cathedral of the north. The calendar carries annotations, in scripts dating from the thirteenth to the late fourteenth centuries, which then locate the book in the West Country. Within three quarters of a century of that January day in reign of Richard I (1189-99), the book had travelled more than three hundred miles south to Somerset. There, it was in the possession of priests connected with the parishes of Kingsbury Episcopi and South Petherton.

The obits – calendar dates of death – of the incumbents of these churches were now entered into the old Durham calendar.

Douce 270, fo. 5r. © Bodleian Library

Also added were the feast days of saints whose cults were known almost exclusively in the South-West of England. One was the Celtic St Petroc, evangelist of Devon and Cornwall, whose cult was well-established in the region long before the Norman Conquest. The others were Anglo-Saxon, the royal sibling saints, Edith of Wilton (d. 984×987) and Edward, king and martyr (d. 978); and Urith of Chittlehampton (North Devon) whose shadowy story of martyrdom may stem from the eighth century.

Douce 270, fo. 6v. © Bodleian Library

The appearance of Urith’s name in the calendar is especially eye-catching. Interestingly the muddled annotator has entered her name on the wrong page, on the 8 Kalends of July (24 June) rather than 8 July, the feast day itself. Clearly, they knew the feast day but slipped up in handling this stained and rubbed calendar that was already two hundred years old.

St Hieritha’s [i.e. St Urith’s] Church, Chittlehampton
The cult centre was the church of Chittlehampton, five miles west of South Molton. The feast day is also recorded in a surviving calendar from Tawstock, a little over seven miles away from Chittlehampton but not in those that survive from any greater distance such as Pilton, near Barnstaple, or Buckland, near Tavistock.

There are only fragments of evidence suggesting knowledge of Urith and her cult in Somerset. The remains of two prayers to the saint appear in a fifteenth-century anthology compiled by a monk of Glastonbury (Cambridge, Trinity College MS O 9 38);

Urith and Chittlehampton invoked in prayer at Glastonbury (Cambridge, Trinity College MS O. 9. 38 fo. 87r)

Urith’s image is found in stained glass at St Mary’s parish church at Nettlecombe on the eastern edge of Exmoor.

St Urith depicted in 16th-century glass at Nettlecombe.

Now, the Douce calendar shows that her name also reached into the south east of the county, not far from the Dorset border.

The attachment of the clergy and people of parishes in Somerset to these saints as late as the fourteenth century is valuable evidence of the presence and persistence of the oldest English cults. It may be the result of the continuing commitment of the region’s monasteries. The women of Shaftesbury Abbey still processed the relics of Edward the Martyr in the sixteenth century, a commitment recorded in the Valor ecclesiasticus (1535). Their Benedictine sisters at Wilton Abbey made a new English history of Edith, their patron saint, in c.1420, for ‘For mony a meracle he hathe seythe ywrouht’ although they worried ‘For nomon nyl leve no meracle now’. The calendar of the Benedictines of Muchelney Abbey was marked with each of these saints except Urith.

The Glastonbury ‘Magna Tabula’ Oxford, Bodl. MS Lat. hist. a 2

Perhaps most influential of all was Glastonbury itself. The famous ‘Magna Tabula‘, a display panel describing the Celtic and Saxon saints whose relics and histories were preserved at the abbey, presents each one of the Saxon names found in the Douce calendar. It is very plausible that the priests from Kingsbury and South Petherton who took possession of the book had passed through Glastonbury and had seen the Magna Tabula and learned its legends for themselves.

James Clark

The upside of virtual research

Just when Lockdown 1 began I’d started to think about the acknowledgements I would include at the front of my new book, The Dissolution of the Monasteries. A New History. Already I had a long list of names in mind.

Then the implications of a complete suspension of research life became clear. Campus and library were closed, and for long weeks there was no prospect of access to the office where I keep most of my academic books. Now I faced the task of completing the final edit of the book and finding 30+ illustrations with all of the usual resources – British Library and its imaging studio, National Archives, regional archives, Inter-library Loan – shut down for the foreseeable future.

I’ve lost count of the times over this past year that well-meaning people have said to me: ‘Of course, for the kind of research you do, I imagine it’s not so bad because pretty much everything you need is online!’. Er, pretty much not, in fact. Even the medievalist with an interest in Britain’s abbeys, cathedrals and other well-documented foundations will find that open-access sources are thin on the ground, despite the best efforts of Internet Archive to dig up long-forgotten nineteenth-century editions.

But what is free-to-access online is an extraordinary community: even via organisations’ official homepages and, of course, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, personal blog sites and good, old-fashioned email. As all the familiar avenues remained closed off my relationship with this virtual network was steadily transformed.

Now that the long disruption to research facilities is coming to an end, and a visit to the BL promises to be a little less like buying a ticket to the Glastonbury Festival, it is worth marking how the virtual world has helped research to carry on.

Rushen Abbey

I was able to reach archivists at city and county heritage centres – for example, London Metropolitan; Hereford – who were only too glad to lift the gloom of their reader-free search rooms for a moment to snatch a phone image of that one Dissolution deed I’d been counting on before research facilities were closed off.

The Manx mail plane lands at Ronaldsway

Contact through the homepage of the Isle of Man Natural History & Antiquarian Society connected me to the intrepid Dave, whose DM told me he would take advantage of the empty roads to catch the last mail plane of the day to be sure that hard-to-find monograph on Rushen Abbey (Mannishter Rushen) – the last Cistercian house of all to fall (in June 1540) – was in my hands by the next day. Parcelforce presented it to me the next morning at 10am.

Brass for Ann Boroeghe at All Saints, Dingley

The lively virtual noticeboard of the tiny village of Dingley, Northamptonshire (a population of 194) put me in touch with Tony, keyholder of All Saints parish church, who generously agreed to redirect his one permitted period of outdoor exercise, open up the building and capture in close-up the beautiful memorial brass of Ann Boroeghe, former nun of St Mary’s Priory, Clerkenwell. She settled there after the Dissolution, apparently attracted by traditional sympathies of the new proprietor of the old Hospitaller Preceptory nearby.

The Urswick family brass, SS Peter and Paul, Dagenham

Parish churches scarcely had a chance to consider even a partial reopening before Lockdown 3 but a post on the Vicar’s page of St Peter and St Paul, Dagenham, brought another against-the-odds plan from the verger, Steve, to follow the maintenance men into the building to take some fine IPhone images of the Urswick family brass, which, perhaps uniquely, shows the eldest daughter at the head of her sisters, in the habit of her nun’s profession. The patriarch, Sir Thomas Urswick (d. 1479), was Recorder of London and Chief Baron of the Exchequer and father of thirteen.

These ‘drop-everything’ responses and publication-standard photos were far more than I expected; and then I stepped into the middle of another network: Flickr. Of course, Flickr’s members are instinctive illustrators: they document their professional and personal lives in picture albums. They also like to show and share their talents. From across the community, they responded rapidly to my strange requests for very specific viewpoints of this gatehouse and that tomb effigy with wonderful images that spoiled me for choice. Very soon, the book’s illustration slots were all filled; and the quality was immeasurably raised. The last plate of all in the book is a Flickr close-up of the cadaver image of William Weston, Prior of the Hospitaller’s principal priory at Clerkenwell, the last leader of the medieval religious orders to be toppled by crown. It was said that he died on the very day that the congregation’s properties were seized by parliamentary statute.

Cadaver effigy of Prior William Weston (d. 1540)

My research address book and browser bookmarks are a good deal more diverse than they were twelve months ago.  The book is about to appear (publication date, 12 October). The acknowledgements page has more than doubled in length. Research of this kind can continue under pandemic conditions, but like so much of life in Lockdown, it is a matter of people, not things.

James Clark

 

In conversation with… Alice Taylor, Part II: “Culture Wars”, the State, and Overlordship in Twelfth-Century Scotland

This is the second part of the students’ interview with Alice Taylor, an expert on medieval Scotland. This part of the discussion covers the concept of “culture wars”, the impact of an increasing literate mentality on the state, and the dynamics of overlordship.

Stuart Pracy is the chair and we rejoin the conversation with a question from Jamie Hodgskin.

***

JH: You were talking to Damien earlier about the Forth and how it was such a conspicuous border between the north and south… Do you think there was a sort of culture war between the incoming Anglo-Normans and the existing Gaelic magnates?

Alice Taylor: I think it’s a really difficult question to answer. First of all, the term “culture wars” is something that is located from the 1970s onwards… If you’re interested in this, there’s a very interesting book by two American historians called Fault Lines, which talks about when and how the idea of culture became part of contemporary politics and why – just FYI, super interesting! But in terms of politics being led by perceived cultural difference, I think there’s a very rich vein of potential inquiry here. There are some very oft-quoted examples, like the one from the early thirteenth-century Crowland chronicler where he says the king of Scots, at this point William, doesn’t like his own people and only listens to Frenchmen. And you’ve got the wonderful chronicle of Jordan Fantosme on the 1173-74 rebellion where he says pretty much the same thing: William doesn’t like listening to his own people. So there is an idea that there is a separation in Scotland between native counsellors and incoming counsellors, and that the king is listening only to his own men, a small cabal of people speaking a different language. There’s also some very interesting Gaelic poetry translated by Thomas Clancy in The Triumph Tree, where it’s said how bad it is that David has divided us from Alexander, i.e. David’s brother Alexander I. There’s this sense that, in the early twelfth century, Alexander was someone who didn’t make linguistic divides a thing versus David, who did…

And in the twelfth century, we also have the transformation of an elite language from Gaelic to French. But we don’t know whether that’s actually happening in Scotland, because we’ve got the issue of English here. Lothian, the heart of the kingdom, is an English-speaking area – it’s not Gaelic-speaking. So this idea of a Gaelic/French or Gaelic/English divide – these are not easy divides to talk about. You also have the methodological issues of how far linguistic differences equal cultural differences. Again, we don’t know these things. So this is a long way of saying you are looking at a period of profound change where it is possible to reframe these questions along cultural and linguistic lines. But we do not really know whether this was done, because of the difficulties in our evidence.

And there are other sorts of fault lines as well about Highland and Lowland that we begin to see playing out in the difference between Galwegians (the people of Galloway) and Scots. There’s a lot of stuff about the awful Galwegians and how dreadful they are. So when a French romance is written called the Romance of Fergus of Galloway, which is hilarious in many ways, the story is how this Lord Fergus becomes more “civilized”. He moves from Galloway, goes on a quest in Scotland, north of the Forth, and then is so changed by the experience that he is able to become a lord of Lothian! So that’s his journey from Galloway, Scotland, north of the Forth, to Lothian – and that’s a journey of civilizing.

So the short answer to your question is that you can’t say precisely, yes, “culture war” is the way to think about this – but it is a way into thinking about something. Even if the term doesn’t really fit, it is nonetheless interesting to think with it.

Gigi Roxburgh: The work we’ve read of yours was talking about the relationship between the Scottish royalty and the aristocracy, and I was wondering how that relationship changed in a time when there was a growing literate mentality?

AT: It’s a really good question. Let me take a few steps back… One of the big issues when looking at government in this period is the heavy hand of a much bigger historical narrative about the rise of the modern nation state. It’s been a huge pressing historical question: how do you explain the modern state? When did it emerge? Why did it emerge? And why did it emerge in Europe? In some ways, these are questions of political theory and political thought, but they are told historically, they’re told through history. One of the big changes that has been posited here, by the sociologist Max Weber and others, is the idea of the bureaucratisation and the institutionalisation of relationships of power. So you basically move from a scenario which Weber calls patrimonial power, where you can exercise power based on who you are and your inherited position, versus a scenario where power and authority are exercised through officers, as in it shouldn’t matter who I am, I’m the King, and it shouldn’t matter who you are, you’re the justice – and you fulfil that role. It’s what Weber calls the “disenchantment of modernity”. So when you’re looking at that in relation to governments in medieval states, the central Middle Ages is the first time in European history since the Roman Empire that you can begin to see the bureaucratisation of power. And this is reflected in the rise in the survival of documents as the way in which you do business. This is discussed in, sadly, the late Michael Clanchy’s extraordinary book From Memory to Written Record, where he talks about how the use of documents trumps literacy. He also said you don’t need state-sponsored education to promote literacy. You can do this through interaction with documents: pragmatic literacy.

To get it back to Scotland, there are two issues here. One is the idea that in order to have a state, you can’t have patrimonial power. In the twentieth century, this created a lot of narratives of state formation that essentially said the way in which we understand the rise of the state is the declining power of the aristocracy – that if you’ve got state formation, you necessarily have to exclude aristocratic power first. In the Middle Ages, you’ve got these moments of transition. You give out fiefs to the aristocracy and then, through bureaucracy, you take lordly power away from them and you give it to government or to the judicial system. And the big conflicts of the later Middle Ages are primarily about this: the aristocrats are cross that power is being taken away from them and the state is happy because they’re taking away power from aristocrats. And how well a state does that affects its later trajectory. So the narrative goes that the French didn’t do it well enough and that’s why you have the French Revolution. That’s the big, big historical question there.

Now in Scotland it’s much more complicated because you don’t have an end-point of a “modern nation state” because Scotland doesn’t develop into an autonomous “bureaucratic” state in the seventeenth century – it becomes part of the Union of Crowns. It retains its own distinct legal system, but it becomes incorporated into a British state. And, as a result, for a long time Scottish statehood wasn’t a pressing historical question – because there was nothing to connect it with the modern age, if that makes sense. A lot of the work that was done in the twentieth century on medieval states was very much about that longue durée idea of connection, the rise of parliament, for example, or the growth of representative institutions. So if you don’t have that modern connection, it means that scholarship gets stymied – and that’s what happened in Scottish historiography. So my book was basically about trying to write that history, i.e. what was the Scottish state?

And the second point is that it’s a really interesting example of a state where you don’t have state formation produced by this battle between aristocratic and royal interests. They kind of progressed together with aristocrats running the state in a different context. In a way, that’s quite surprising! It’s different from England and actually resembles something that’s much more like France.

So the rise of thinking about literacy is, in some way, a spur to thinking about statehood and how to understand embedded elite power in statehood. I think it’s a pressing historical question and that’s what the book was trying to do for this one polity.

Stuart Pracy: I think it’s really interesting to place your book in that longue durée discussion – and to make that idea of the bigger framework really explicit. Has anyone got any remaining questions that they want to ask?

Harry Fayter: My question ties in with my sources essay… When Scottish kings are put under subordination by English kings, to what degree did they remain loyal to the English king? Or to what degree did they try and undermine their authority?

AT: It’s a fantastic question because this is the idea behind your module ‘The Celtic Frontier’ – the idea of the creation of a frontier and what that frontier is defined in relation to. Here the rise of English kingship and its attempts to impose dominance over the remaining parts of the British Isles and Ireland is the key narrative.

To what extent do Scottish kings try to subvert this overlordship, to resist it, to accept it? In 1175, when William has been captured and the Treaty of Falaise is imposed, it’s devastating for everybody and, you could arguably say, leads directly to political conflict in Moray and in the north. It also leads to the intensification of royal government there, and it poses internal political problems for William. Partly, this is because the flipside of overlordship is protection: he is protected through his subordination. And that dynamic between resistance, domination, and protection is a dynamic we can see playing out in different ways in different contexts, i.e. with relations between Welsh princes, Irish kings, Irish lords etc. There’s been this extraordinary discovery by David Carpenter of the text of the Treaty of Norham in 1209, in which William submits to overlordship by King John. And we might ask why? In some ways, it’s because he doesn’t have a choice: when you are dealing with insurrections all the time (as William was), you probably think that you’re just going to have to commit yourself to this more powerful person.

‘the flipside of overlordship is protection’ 

My advice for your essay would be to look at the language of lordship that is being used in treaties, to look at the circumstances in which they were imposed, and to treat each case as participating in a similar kind of rhetoric, i.e. the language of liege lordship or overlordship. And think about the capacity of those words to bestow sometimes very heavy obligations, as in the Treaty of Falaise, and sometimes very light obligations, as in some of the early treaties with the Welsh. But then again, you’ve got to remember that they basically tear up most of these treaties after a few weeks! Like the Treaty of Windsor with Henry II – it lasts six months! You’ve also got to think about it in terms of the symbolic power of these treaties, rather than actually wanting to enforce them to the letter.

SP: Alice, thank you so much for your time. Before you go, are there any last remarks you want to make?

AT: I think the twelfth century is a really profound period for changing relationships in the British Isles and Ireland, and it’s a past that continues to be felt today. It’s still being contested, it’s still being worked out – it is very much part of current discussions! So it’s a very important time to be studying these sorts of questions.

 

In conversation with… Alice Taylor, Part I: Scottish Identity, Intermarriage, and “Revolts”

Dr Alice Taylor on-call and mid-flow!

Last month, students on the Special Subject module ‘The Celtic Frontier: Post-Conquest England and her Celtic Neighbours’ were given the opportunity to interview Dr Alice Taylor, an expert on medieval Scotland and author of The Shape of the State in Medieval Scotland, 1124-1290 (Oxford, 2016). The students’ questions focused on the long twelfth century and ranged from Scottish identity and culture to elite politics. After 50 minutes (!!) of grilling, we finally let Alice go…

This blog post and the next provide the highlights of our discussion. They are must-reads for students working on Scotland in the twelfth century – we are very grateful to Alice for both her time and her full responses!

The session was chaired by Dr Stuart Pracy with students on the module posing the questions. We begin with a question from Damien Welham.

***

DW: I’ve got a question on Scottish identity… It’s quite broad, but how did the coming of Anglo-Normans shift what it meant to be Scottish? And what would you say were the main problems that they caused?

Alice Taylor: Goodness, Damien, that’s a big question! So the question ‘how does elite settlement into Scotland over the twelfth century change political culture’ is, basically, the question that has preoccupied historians of medieval Scotland for about 200 years – and there have been many different ideas about it.

There are people who would call it the ‘Normanization’ of Scotland, that what happens to Scotland is the same as what happens to England following the Norman Conquest. So you have the imposition of fiefs, you’ve got the rise of French as the dominant language of the elites, you’ve got castle-building… It’s what happens to England in miniature. And if you were reading a book in the 1950s then this would be what you would read.

Now, there have been a number of people who have been working since the 1950s who are like, ‘hold on a second!’ Because what’s happened over the last 70 years is, essentially, a kind of cultural limitation of the effects of Anglo-Norman settlement. A lot has been done in terms of reframing. What’s the biggest shift in the geopolitics of north Britain? Rather than Anglo-Norman settlement, it’s the shift of the kingdom of Alba from north of the Forth to south of the Forth.

The Firth of Forth is a really, really big divide, even in Scotland now. And until the Forth Bridge was built, it was really difficult to get over. So in the thirteenth century and, indeed, before, people would call Scotland north of the Forth an island. If you look at the maps of Matthew Paris from the thirteenth century, he presents Scotland north of the Forth as being only connected to the rest of Britain by a bridge. And this area north of the Forth was called ‘Scotland’ – so the Kingdom of the Scots was much bigger than the area of ‘Scotland’.

Northern Britain as depicted by Matthew Paris ©BL

So, in a way, the big transition is the eleventh-century shift in the centre of power of the Scottish kingdom and Scottish kings to being within the area now called Lothian. That’s the area that contains Edinburgh, Roxburgh and (then) Berwick – kind of urban settlements. The incorporation of Lothian as the centre of Scottish kingship is a more profound shift for the geopolitics of Scotland because, if you think about it, if your centre is in the north, then who are you most interested in? Essentially, Norway and Denmark – not the kingdom of England! Whereas what happens in the late eleventh century is you’ve got a new dynasty, which is situating itself as being the rightful kings of England, in a way, and looking much more to the south as the primary area of diplomatic engagement. And so the settlement of the Anglo-Normans needs to be seen in that context, which is a cultural shift seen in the kings of Scots themselves. So you can absolutely see big changes because you have the replacement of an elite! But those big changes need to be seen in the context of a much broader shift that is being led by kings, rather than being led against kings, if that makes sense.

DW: Thank you very much! This week I’ve read quite a lot about this Forth divide and that I found that quite interesting.

AT: It is! It is really interesting because it’s also this idea of the symbolic power of Scotland north of the Forth. There’s this extraordinary source called On the Location of Alba which was written in the late twelfth century and talks about the symbolic division of the kingdom of the Scots into seven – and the earliest division is the area north of the Forth. So there’s the question of whether or not the south is Scottish… At this point, the monks of Melrose, an abbey in the modern Scottish borders, are still writing about themselves as though the Scots are other people. They only start seeing themselves as being part of the kingdom in the thirteenth century – Dauvit Broun has written about this.

We always like to complicate things as historians, but even talking about Scotland is a kind of later imposition on what is actually a much more complicated polity that these elites are entering. And they’re thinking ‘well, this is very different from my fief in Shropshire’… Which it is! If you were Walter FitzAlan and you were given Ayrshire you might have been like ‘my lordship in Shropshire has not really prepared me for this…’ That would be how I would certainly feel if I were him!

Stuart Pracy: I’ve been to both Scotland and Shropshire and they are very different – so I will back you up on that! It’s definitely different.

AT: And it’s different strategies of lordship. That also puts a very different spin on the idea of intermarriage. You know the imperative, the need to intermarry, because what you’re marrying into is knowledge. What does it mean to be an Anglo-Norman lord in Angus? It’s very, very different from Sussex. And the kinds of social relationships that you’re entering into… marriage is a really, really useful tool for that.

SP: Hanife, it looks like you have a question you want to ask that follows on from this.

Hanife Hursit: Yes, my question was actually in relation to intermarriage, and I’m interested in the role that women played. Unfortunately, I’ve not been able to find much information on it, I guess because it’s the medieval period. But my question was going to be on the importance of intermarriage in Scottish politics and the wider role that women played – and your take on that.

AT: It’s a really interesting question – and in some ways the example of Scotland only highlights some of the issues that we have looking at the twelfth century in particular. Most of the evidence from medieval Scotland in this period survives from charters. You might have been introduced to the People of Medieval Scotland database (POMS), which contains information about all the people who are mentioned in the Scottish charter corpus. And it’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women! The materials that we have to study even just aristocratic women are based on what we can garner from charters, because there’s not much in the way of a chronicle tradition in this period…

‘It’s both a funny and sad fact that for about 200 years there are more people in that database called William than there are women!’

We know that there are hugely powerful heiresses, women who exercise vast amounts of power and authority, particularly in the west, and who we know are acting as these key nodes of lordly patronage and lordly networks – but we don’t really know anything more than that. We also know that there are large numbers of intermarriages not just through the existing Gaelic-speaking aristocracy but also, for want of a better word, Anglo-Norman women who are marrying major mormaers (regional rulers). We also know a lot about women’s patronage, what they give land to. But it is very, very difficult to look at the political role of women here because there’s just not a lot of twelfth-century evidence, even though we know intermarriage is the way in which these incoming lords must have embedded themselves.

So, an example is my totes fave Eschina, lord of Mow in Roxburghshire, who sometimes calls herself Eschina of London – and she is somebody whose marriage patterns you can actually track! Eschina of Mow/London marries Walter FitzAlan, her first husband, and it’s also possible that she is related to the mother of William the Lion’s high-profile illegitimate son Robert of London. Her marriage alliances are, essentially, ways in which she starts exercising firstly, her power over southern Scotland through her marriage to Walter FitzAlan and, secondly, embeds herself in that south-easterly lordship of Roxburgh, which is the richest area of the kingdom at this time. But you have to do that work yourself… That’s the annoying thing about studying aristocratic women in Scotland – and that’s where POMS is really helpful. So you can type in Eschina’s name into POMS and immediately you get all the known information about her. She’s somebody who doesn’t appear in chronicles and we wouldn’t know anything about her were it not for charters. But it is very clear that in the second half of the twelfth century she is this key node that allows for a lot of other people to gain status through her. I’d say Matthew Hammond is probably the best person to read on women in the adoption of charters. I don’t know if that answers your question!

SP: It’s a very, very thorough answer and I think it covered everything and more, didn’t it?! Do we have another question?

Evan Shingles: My question’s on Scottish royal relationships with the kings of Man and the Isles. I wanted to know how the Scottish kings related to them in the twelfth century: was it always hostile? Was it sometimes positive?

AT: It’s a really interesting question – and the short answer is a bit of both. Incursions from the west start early in the reign of Mael Coluim IV, when he’s young and everyone hates him. There’s been a way of writing until very, very recently (possibly spurred on by devolution) that considers these incursions overwhelmingly in national terms. So anything that looked like an incursion against royal authority would be written as a ‘rebellion’, for example, you’ve got a ‘rebellion in Moray’. It’s the idea that somehow these Scottish kings have natural authority and anything that is against them is understood in the words of rebellion. The last of this tradition is probably Andrew McDonald’s Outlaws of Medieval Scotland, where you are looking at people who are “revolting” and then writing about them as though they are rebels.

And Somerled is very interesting because Alex Woolf has written a really nice piece about a text called the Song of the Death of Somerled. He has this beautiful reading where he basically rewrites the entire history of these incursions from the west in the reign of Mael Coluim and reframes them by saying these aren’t incursions, these aren’t rebellions, these aren’t attacks. This is actually a large diplomatic alliance, which has different people leading at different points and which Somerled is part of. It’s a different option that’s going on in Alba, i.e. Scotland north of the Forth, basically in direct opposition to the kingship of Mael Coluim. So when we’re looking at these relationships it’s sometimes hard to find literature that actually speaks about them in the way that they should be spoken about. Richard Oram in his Domination and Lordship book writes about the reign of Mael Coluim IV very well here, based on the work of the late Alasdair Ross. But that’s very, very recent – that’s in the last 10 years!

And so when we’re thinking about the relationships with the kings of Man and the kings of the Isles, it’s very, very important to see them as being part of a diplomatic alliance in which the authority and legitimacy of kingship is not secure. There are other options, there are other ways of thinking about Scottish kingship, particularly in that middle period of the twelfth century. You could be looking at a very, very different kind of polity which just essentially leaves southern Scotland and Northumberland to the remnants of Mael Coluim III and Margaret’s dynasty, and actually sees a much broader-based alliance between what’s now central and eastern Scotland and the west…

SP: I think that’s a really interesting idea, because your book is all about how Anglo-centric viewpoints on Scotland are problematic. But it’s interesting to see the regional historiographical issues with revolts in the area – an interesting breakdown of historiographical problems within broader historiographical trends!

***

See our next blog post for ‘Part II: “Culture Wars”, the State, and Overlordship in Twelfth-Century Scotland’

Podcast on the Albigensian Crusade

London, British Library, ms. Royal 16 G VI, fol. 374v

Have you ever come across mysterious references to medieval heretics and their violent repression and wished to know more?  Have you ever wondered about those signs welcoming you to the pays cathare as you travel through the south of France?

If so, you may be interested in my recent conversation with Dr Sophie Ambler of Lancaster University for the Centre for War and Diplomacy.  Dr Ambler and I discussed the Albigensian Crusade (1208–1229) that was called to exterminate heresy from the Midi and why an armed campaign under the sign of the cross was believed an appropriate remedy to the perceived problems of the region.  We also talked about my work on Simon of Montfort, the captain of the first phase of the crusade and until his death before the walls of Toulouse in 1218.

The Statutes of Pamiers (Paris, Archives nationales, AE II, no 207)

A defining moment in Simon’s assumption of princely power in the region was the promulgation in 1212 of the Statutes of Pamiers, a set of customs for the reform of the Midi.  Dr Ambler and I question whether this really was a simple exercise in northern French colonialism, as the Statutes have often been understood, or if it reflected a deeper commitment to good government.  What does the combination of violence, persecution, justice, and reform tell us about the way authority and order were imagined in the Middle Ages?

I hope this podcast episode may challenge some of our assumptions around these issues generally and the Albigensian Crusade in particular; do let us know what you think in the comments!

Gregory Lippiatt, Lecturer in Medieval History

Study Abroad before Erasmus

As the present benefits of study abroad (and the Erasmus programme in particular) are in the spotlight, it is worth considering a past example: a beautiful manuscript book copied and annotated by an English student at Ferrara in 1460 where he was taking a break from his degree course at his home university to attend classes in Latin rhetoric taught there by the leading master of the day.

BL MS Harley 2485

The book (now, British Library MS Harley 2485) contained the texts of the Seneca the Younger’s Tragedies, works especially valued by readers and writers with an enthusiasm for classical culture, as a template for the dramatic art and a treasury of ancient myth. Complete copies were rarely seen in England and it is no surprise that finding an exemplar was a priority for this student visitor on arrival in Italy. He was John Gunthorpe, who had come to Ferrara directly after completing the arts course at Cambridge.

University of Ferrara

 

Guarino da Verona, depicted in profile on a contemporary medal

His formal purpose was to follow the lecture course of Guarino da Verona, Ferrara’s most acclaimed professor, an authority both on classical Latin auctores such as Persius, Seneca’s contemporary and fellow stoic, and on Greek: at this date such expertise was scarce in England.

It was another thirty years before the teaching of Greek was available to students within Cambridge or Oxford. Although Gunthorpe cannot have known it, this year was to be the last performance of Guarino’s lectures. He died in the city on 14 December 1460.

English students had pursued periods of study in the principal schools of mainland Europe from the first moment they had developed a settled pattern of teaching. Three quarters of a century before the Paris schools found formal recognition as a university (1215), John of Salisbury – then about the same age as Gunthorpe at Ferrara – had gone there to study theology under the celebrated master, Gilbert of Poitiers.

As university institutions grew, their faculties formed and their syllabuses formalised, it became increasingly common for the English to travel in the course of their student careers. Like John of Salisbury in the twelfth century, as much as John Gunthorpe in the fifteenth century, generally they turned to the mainland at the end of their initial training in arts, to lay the foundations for advanced study, as postgraduates.

The greater size, space and status of Paris in the thirteenth and early fourteenth centuries proved a powerful draw. For England’s student monks and regular canons there was also the compelling practical consideration that dedicated houses-of-study for members of their orders were established there long before they were set up at England’s universities. Even after they acquired their own college at Oxford, the student monks of Christ Church Priory, Canterbury continued to take periods of study at Paris. There were Canterbury students there in the shadow of the Dissolution itself.

English students also responded to the European universities’ disciplinary specialisation. If Paris was pre-eminent in theology, Bologna was the obvious destination for those intending to study in either of the laws, canon and civil. From the early fourteenth century English lawyers also spent time at Orléans, the status of which was raised by the patronage of two canonist popes, Boniface VIII and Clement V. While the English crown governed Gascony, students of the theology also passed through Toulouse, the city where the presiding genius of their syllabus, the Angelic Doctor Thomas Aquinas, lay buried.

Aquinas’ tomb at Toulouse

By the middle years of the fifteenth century, the commitment of the northern Italian universities to a classicised curriculum attracted English students also to Ferrara, Florence, Padua, Pavia and Siena.

The typical periods of undergraduate and postgraduate study were lengthy, and, to fulfil the formal degree requirements might take as much as fifteen years. It followed then that the time spent in study abroad was rarely less than one academic year. By the fifteenth century English students stayed in the academic communities at Bologna long enough to be chosen to be rector of their constituency of scholars which were organised into national groups, called ‘nations’. Gunthorpe cut short his time at Ferrara only because of Guarino’s death; he remained at his studies in Italy for another five years.

Despite their continuing institutional development, and the rise within them of self-governing college foundations, the late medieval universities remained receptive to such international student traffic. There can be no doubt that the opportunity was dependent on the means of the individual: after Ferrara Gunthorpe continued his studies in Italy because he found employment in the papacy and, ultimately, secured the valuable preferment of a papal chaplaincy. Those Englishmen known to have stayed at European universities long enough to have held rectorships were from well-funded gentry families: Reynold Chichele, Ferrara’s rector of Ultramontane scholars in 1448-9, was no less than the great-nephew of the archbishop of Canterbury.

Still, it may be that it was gainful employment rather than the advantages of birth that was the passport to study abroad. It was possible for the least well-connected clerks, those at the opposite end of the career track to Rector Reynold, to aspire to be a visiting student. As the incumbent of a parish benefice, they might apply for a licence to absent themselves for a period of years to study at a university or another studium supported by the income of their own living. Ralph Hyckys, rector of Calstock (Cornwall), received licence in 1435 for a two-year leave of absence to pursue his studies in canon law at Rome.

St Andrew’s Church, Calstock

The return on such investment in study abroad was both intellectual – as Gunthorpe’s book bears witness – and professional. After his years of study in Italy he soon picked up royal patronage; in 1466 he was appointed chaplain to Edward IV; he then served as his almoner and under his brother, Richard III, he was Keeper of the Privy Seal. He was not displaced at the Tudor succession and in 1485 he was appointed dean of Wells Cathedral. Ralph Hyckys also found his own reward for his perseverance at canon law, securing a second parish church living at Phillack in the far west of the county.

 

James Clark

Medieval Books and Harry Potter at the 2020 ‘Being Human’ Festival

Being Human is an annual festival in celebration of the humanities, organised by the School of Advanced Studies at the University of London. Exeter’s medieval studies community has a history of organising engaging events for this wonderful project, including last year’s memorable guided tour of Exeter Cathedral; sadly, however, events such as this were no longer viable in 2020 as a result of the coronavirus pandemic. This didn’t stop the organisers of the festival, however, who this year worked around the clock to put in place a virtual series of events that captured the breadth of humanities research up and down the UK. At the time of publication, the festival is still ongoing, and can be explored further on its website.

For us at ‘Learning French in Medieval England‘, the online format of this year’s event proved both a challenge and a unique opportunity. Having originally planned to run a workshop on our project in-person as part of the festival, we found ourselves having to reconsider the format and scale of what we were preparing at fairly short notice, as our venue shifted from Exeter Central Library to … well, Zoom. In-person interactivity was suddenly off the table, and our original plan of using paper slips to give attendees a chance to do digital editing for themselves – an idea adapted from Dr. Charlotte Tupman and Dr. Elizabeth Williamson’s introductory XML sessions in our Digital Humanities Lab – had to be replaced with a new format that would be suitable for audiences at a distance, and from across the world. Our challenge, in short, was to give our diverse audience members – many of whom had never seen a medieval manuscript before, let alone considered how one might be edited – an introduction to questions of medieval textuality, digital scholarship, and critical editing.

Our solution was to seek help from a certain well-known boy wizard. Specifically, we opened the workshop by giving participants a lightly-adapted version of the opening lines to Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, and asking them simply to copy it out by hand. What we didn’t tell them was that we had made a few subtle changes to the original text. Here’s our extract in full: how many can you spot? (Answers at the bottom of the page.)

Medievalists reading this page will likely have realised the point behind this exercise: the ‘errors’ that we introduced into the Harry Potter text in fact reflect many of the alterations that medieval texts underwent during the scribal copying process, from unwitting metathesis (alterations in word or letter order) to deliberate acts of editorial intervention. There was, of course, no single ‘right’ way for our participants to copy out the extract, and some participants retained the changes that we’d made, while others adapted them (most notably seen in the minority of participants who underlined the passage that was italicised) and others still simply ‘corrected’ them. In choosing a text that many audience members would be familiar with, we’d hoped to elicit precisely this range of responses, and we were thrilled to see how fascinated participants were as they came to realise the sheer range of decisions, both conscious and subconscious, that are made when copying a text by hand.

Of course, many of the key elements of our one-hour workshop didn’t require such a drastic degree of alteration for online delivery. Tom Hinton’s introduction to the editorial history of the Tretiz, and to critical editions more generally, provoked a great deal of interest, as did our joint exploration of how medieval manuscripts are represented in popular culture (via Disney films, Shrek, and notions of parody). Most excitingly, however, the online-only format allowed us to massively expand the capacity of the event, and we were delighted to welcome over eighty attendees from around the world. The event also generated a considerable amount of interest on Twitter, as you can see from the selection of Tweets provided below. A video recording of the event is available to watch in full on Vimeo.

Learning French in Medieval England is an AHRC-funded project at the University of Exeter’s Department of Modern Languages, and aims to produce the first digital critical edition of all extant manuscripts to Walter de Bibbesworth’s thirteenth-century rhyming French vocabulary, the Tretiz. More information about the project is available on its website and Twitter page; earlier blogs from project members are available here, here, here (external link), and here.

‘Alterations’ made to Harry Potter text
Full stop after ‘Mrs.’ removed, ‘Drive’ un-capitalised (l. 1); italics added to ‘thank you very much’ (ll. 2-3); ‘involved’ respelled to ‘invovled’, comma replaced with semicolon (l. 4); word order altered, with ‘just didn’t hold’ becoming ‘didn’t just hold’ (l. 5). Many other variants were also introduced, of course, most notably surrounding line-breaks (most did not respect line-breaks after ‘were’, ‘you’, and so on), the colour of the ‘ink’ (we’d chosen brown), and letter-forms (understandably, almost no-one attempted to replicate the distinctive shape of 16pt Arial).

Edward Mills

The Ghosts of King John

Today, Tynemouth Priory looks a likely place for a haunting. The ruin stands tall and gaunt at the high point of the windswept Northumberland coastline. Advancing towards its hollow east end is a wave of weathered gravestones. There was no gothic cemetery outside when it was a living community of monks (Benedictine) but the medieval residents may well have felt a chill over the burials within. This monastic church carried the macabre distinction of being, for a time, the resting-place of two murder victims, both of them monarchs: Oswine of Deira (d. 651), in whose name the church was dedicated; and Malcolm III. king of Scots (d. 1093).These monks were the custodians of spilled blood and stolen lives.

King John’s Tomb Effigy

Perhaps it is no surprise then to find that Tynemouth was the scene of a unique medieval ghost story, recounted only by the thirteenth-century chronicler, Matthew Paris (d. c. 1259). One night in 1224, a monk, Reimund, awoke in his bed to see an apparition of King John (r. 1199-1216) standing before him. He was dressed like a king, in a robe ‘commonly called imperial’, Matthew says. Recalling that the king was dead, Reimund asked him, lamely, how was it with him. Worse than any man, the monarch replied, explaining that his robe was of an unbearable weight – more than any man of the living world might lift – and its imperial glitter was in fact a perpetual fire. Yet, he confided, he trusted in God that he might be released from his suffering by the intercessions of his son, Henry, his alms giving and his reverence for Christian worship. He has shown himself and his awful suffering to deliver a message, through this monastic community, to his old partner-in-crime, Richard Marsh, bishop of Durham (d. 1226), a prelate, by no coincidence, who was the avowed enemy of the monks of Tynemouth. Richard must be warned that his own seat in hell had been prepared, and he would surely take it soon unless he change his shameful ways, and did penance. The ghost then offered two proofs of his identity, one for the monk in front of him and one to be presented to the bishop: first, he described a ring which the king had given to the priory as a votive offering; then he related an instance when the bishop had counselled him on how to cheat the Cistercians of their year crop of wool. Then, he disappears.

Warnings from the domain of dead to the living world were not uncommon in medieval dream visions but this encounter has the different characteristics of a classic ghost story. Reimund is awake, and the ghost of John steps into his world; he even closes the distance between them by speaking of objects and people on the monk’s own horizon. Six hundred years before the publication of DickensChristmas Carol (1843) this ghostly John seems to anticipate the character of Jacob Marley. Like Marley, John is a soul in torment; he too carries the burden he made for himself, the robe he wove in life. Bishop Richard is his Scrooge, albeit his heart is black, not merely cold.

Beyond Matthew, there is no other telling of this ghost story. But it is not the only story of apparitions associated with King John and his death at Newark Castle (Notts.).

The chronicle compiled at Coggeshall Abbey (Essex) remembered that the night of the king’s death – 18-19 October 1216 – was haunting indeed. In the middle of the night there was such a shattering wind and storm that the townspeople feared that their houses would fall. Many spoke of the horrific and supernatural apparitions (horribiles et phantasticae visiones) that came to them. By implication at least, they were terrifying, for the chronicler would not say what they were (hic describere supersedimus).

King John is poisioned at Swineshead: BL MS Cotton Vitellius A XIII

John had been sick for some weeks before he died. He had been campaigning across the middle of the kingdom, through Suffolk and Norfolk into Lincolnshire, and it is possible he succumbed to dysentery, the soldier’s disease. Yet stories soon circulated of suspicious circumstances. Before the end of the thirteenth-century, an Anglo-Norman verse chronicle (now BL MS Cotton Vitellius A XIII) had taken up a tale of John’s death being the result of a poisoned draught he had been given at Swineshead Abbey, where one of the monks had been determined to end his oppressions of the church. Half a century later in his Polychronicon, Ranulf Higden (d. 1364) had worked the story into a vivid vignette. While John still lived a portent was spoken that he would meet his end at Swineshead. The king responded with an oath that he would retaliate if he lived another year and raise the price of bread from a halfpenny to twelvepence. A lay brother of the house mixed a poisonous brew and coaxed him into drinking it. Higden relished the tale but also held it at arm’s length, offering it to his reader only after he had recorded that the king had died from dysentery.

The macabre fascination with the dead King John was more than a literary trait. In 1239, scarcely a decade into his personal rule, his son Henry III went to his tomb at Worcester Cathedral to see the sarcophagus opened, to look in the face the father he had last seen as a boy of nine. Some 290 years later, the tomb was opened again, and the former Carmelite friar, Reformation provocateur and antiquarian, John Bale (1495-1563), described the sight in uncompromising detail in his commonplace book.

King John’s open sarcophagus

The encounter pressed on Bale’s imagination. In his play Kynge Johan, first written and performed around 1538, the eponymous subject is again represented as the victim of a conspiracy. Simon of Swynsett (i.e. Swineshead) offers him a ‘marvellous good pocyon…a better drink is not in Portugal or Spain’. At once the king is stricken, ‘my body me vexeth, I doubt much of a tympany’. John dies, declaring, ‘There is no malice to the malice of the clergy!’. Then, the final act of the play opens to the spectacle of a supernatural apparition, named as Imperyal Majestye. A spectre of John, or of England’s kingship itself? Whichever it is, he arrives to deliver judgment on the living. The persons of ‘Commynaltye’ and ‘Nobility’ are summoned, to know ‘Ye are much to blame’. ‘Thu playest such a wicked parte’, Majestye’s minister, Veryte, condemns them, warning ’…thy great parell and exceedynge ponnyshment’. He commands, ‘Bowe to Imperyall Majeste. Knele and axe pardon for yowr great enormyte’. Once again, John’s own death and his ghostly presence are pretexts for exposing the wickedness of the world.

The link between the legend of King John and ghostly apparitions was revived in the Victorian period. Martin Tupper (1810-89), philosopher and popular poet, created a new tale of a haunting in which John played a pivotal role. In his historical novel, Stephan Langton (1858), he narrated a story of the king’s abduction, abuse and murder of the daughter of a woodman living in the lee of the Surrey Downs south east of Guildford. John was said to have drowned the girl a spring-fed lake known as the Silent Pool. Ever after, her ghost may be seen at midnight rising from the middle of the pool. By the early 20th century, the Silent Pool had become a site of tourist interest.

King John’s reputation, the manner of his end and even his corrupted corpse have been an enduring source of inspiration for ghoulish reflections on life and death, good and evil, shaping the contemporary response to the traumas of his time, and still, post-medieval representations of that world.

James Clark

Congratulations, Prof. David Bates! Distinguished Alumnus Wins Prestigious Prize

David Bates, who received his PhD from the University of Exeter in 1970, has been awarded the prestigious Prix Syndicat national des Antiquaires du Livre d’Art 2020 for the book La Tapisserie de Bayeux published in 2019 and co-authored with the art historian Xavier Barral i Altet.

The book gained the prize against competition from twenty-three other books from all historical periods. In September 2018, the two authors were invited to submit a proposal for the book by the authorities in Bayeux responsible for the Tapestry to Citadelles & Mazenod who are widely regarded as the leading Art History publisher in France. The authors wrote independently within their fields of expertise, sometimes disagreeing, notably on the subjects of the date and commissioning of the Tapestry. The result is a lavishly illustrated volume containing the two authors’ commentaries accompanied by a magnificent half-size leporello reproduction of the Tapestry (i.e. a pull-out version folded concertina-style). However, such high-end production values come at a cost: the book is priced at €690.00 – making it more suited to institutional than personal budgets! Fortunately, a cheaper version of the commentaries is also available: it costs €29.00 and includes illustrations but not, alas, the leporello reproduction.

Odo of Bayeux as portrayed on the Bayeux Tapestry

The book has a strong connection to David’s doctoral studies in Exeter. David’s PhD, completed under the supervision of Professor Frank Barlow, was a biography of Bishop Odo of Bayeux, the man widely regarded as being in some way ultimately responsible for commissioning the Tapestry. Since then, the Tapestry has been ever-present in David’s professional life, even though this is his first direct publication on the topic. The book required him to revisit subjects that interested him enormously when he worked on his thesis, namely, the nature of Odo’s wide-ranging intellectual patronage and his relations with the Kent churches, notably the abbey of St Augustine’s, Canterbury, the monastery where David and many others believe that the Tapestry was made.

David found writing the book on such a famous subject challenging, particularly given the huge literature published on the Tapestry and the broader issues of artistic creativity, historical accuracy, and authorial motivation. But it also revived memories of the excitement of doing the PhD, of the many people with whom David made contact when writing it, and of the many avenues opened up by studying Odo. Looking back on those times, David also remembers the help given to him by one of Frank Barlow’s earlier research students, Graham Duncombe, who studied the society of post-Conquest Kent, worked for the Victoria History of the Counties of England, and was tragically killed along with other members of the VCH staff in a car accident on the M2. It was Graham who also made many of the introductions that shaped David’s later career during his first prolonged period of work at the Institute of Historical Research, of which David was Director from 2003 to 2008.

The Centre for Medieval Studies sends it heartfelt congratulations to David and thanks him for sharing this good news with us – particularly welcome in these difficult times!

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