Home » Articles posted by James Gordon Clark

Author Archives: James Gordon Clark

Archives

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

 

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

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

Research Postcard: Rebel Canons in the Lincoln Registers

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

St James, Louth

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

Lincoln Cathedral

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barlings Abbey, in ruin

James Clark

The Field of the Cloth of Gold and the West Country

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

 

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

Francois I

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

Exsurge domine

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

A contemporary representation of the pageant

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

The portcullis vestment

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

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

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

James Clark

New Year’s Gifts

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

Still life with citrus fruit by the Fleming Jacob van Hulsdonck

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

Greenwich Palace

 

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

Jocelin’s abbey of St Edmund at Bury

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

Anne of Cleves

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

James Clark

 

750th Anniversary at Westminster Abbey

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

The Confessor’s shrine at Westminster Abbey

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

Henry III, as depicted by Matthew Paris

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

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

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

The Litlyngton Missal

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

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

James Clark

Grandisson 650

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

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

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

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

 

Tomb of Pope Benedict XII at Avignon

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

Exeter Cathedral Minstrels’ gallery

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

 


The church of St Mary at Ottery

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

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

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

 

Grandisson diptych, British Museum

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

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

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

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

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

James Clark

 

River Hunting with the History Channel

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

Parch marks reveal lost buildings

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

Beau Ouimette

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tewkesbury’s Benedictine abbey

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

The firewarden’s helmet

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

The stone-block

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

River Hunters

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

James Clark

Research Postcard: An Exeter Life of Thomas Becket

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

Grandisson’s family arms as the frontispiece to his psalter

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

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

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

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

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

James Clark

Skip to toolbar