Vivat Regina

On September 10, 2015, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will become the longest-reigning British sovereign in history, exceeding the tenure of her great-great-grandmother Queen Victoria, who reigned from 1837 to 1901 for a total of 63 years and 216 days. Elizabeth, at age 89, is already the oldest monarch to have occupied the throne, and if she lives as long as her own mother did (who died in 2002 at age 101), we may celebrate the first ever platinum jubilee in 2027.

To mark this auspicious occasion a new portrait of the Her Majesty has been unveiled. It was commissioned by Illustrated London News Ltd (ILN), collaborating with The Queen Elizabeth Scholarship Trust (QEST) and the Royal Warrant Holders Association. It was painted by 28-year-old portrait artist Alisdair Barford, a QEST and Leverhulme Scholar, who had just completed his scholarship at the renowned atelier of artist Charles H. Cecil in Florence. According to the Daily Mail the artist “was given just 10 minutes to make his preparatory sketches for what was his first commission.”

It’s quite nice, but perhaps the speed at which Mr. Barford had to work explains the fact that HM’s Garter star is shown rotated ninety degrees to the left. Or maybe there is an artistic reason for this detail, who knows? Is he suggesting that the Queen is tipping over, parallel to the way that artist Nelson Shanks inserted a Lewinsky reference in Bill Clinton’s official portrait? This is certainly something that Stephanie Trigg would have included in Shame and Honor: A Vulgar History of the Order of the Garter (2012).

The Princes in the Tower

One of the more evocative episodes in English history is the story of the “Princes in the Tower,” that is, the two sons of King Edward IV (d. 1483). Edward V (aged 12) and his younger brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York (aged 9), took up residence in the Tower of London in May 1483, but they subsequently disappeared, and their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, seized the throne as King Richard III. He may have enjoyed some initial support in this move (no one wanted a child monarch), but it didn’t go over well in the medieval equivalent of flyover country, giving Henry Tudor the opening he needed to get an invasion force together and defeat Richard at Bosworth in 1485.

From Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, *How to be Topp* (1954), chapter on “Uncles.”

But were they actually killed? Of course there would be rumors that the princes were still alive, and of course people would claim to be them, in the mode of the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn – thus Perkin Warbeck, a pretender who appeared during the reign of Henry VII. Workmen in the Tower uncovered a coffin containing two children’s skeletons in 1674; on the presumption that they were the remains of the Princes, Charles II had them buried in Westminster Abbey.

But their true fate remains a Mystery. Enter Philippa Langley, the finder of Richard III’s remains in 2012, who has embarked on a new quest to determine it. The Independent reports that she has:

“three key lines of investigation – two that have never been investigated before,” she said. “There are a couple of European lines of inquiry that are looking very interesting. We do know that [Richard III’s successor] Henry Tudor tried to destroy all copies of Richard’s legal right to the throne, the Titulus Regius. What we don’t know is how much of the other paperwork he destroyed quietly behind the scenes. So, we’re hoping that further [destruction] might not have taken place on the Continent. There might be more information available over there.”

Some British families with private archives dating to the Plantagenet and Tudor periods are also coming forward to open their doors to Ms Langley and her research team.

“We now have this incredible network of specialists around the world who are willing, ready and able to start new research into the princes. They just need to be told when, where and how and they’re ready to get on with it.

“This is a pure research project and it’s exciting in that we can go into it with a focus on this particular mystery.”

Ms Langley said she will be teaming up with professional cold case investigators, some of whom work with the police on unsolved murders.

“When you keep the paper historians out of it and ask those whose job it is to look into cold case histories, like the police, lawyers and private investigators they all say the same thing: that’s it’s very questionable whether there was a murder at all, considering what happened with all the pretenders that arrived under Henry Tudor’s reign; and second, that Richard III is not their prime suspect – because they go on motive, opportunity and proclivity.

“I’ll be using cold case history specialists because this project needs to go in places it has never gone before.”

My back gets up at her denigration of “paper historians” but hey, if she finds out what really happened, good for her. (But I guess that her attempt to discover Henry I didn’t pan out?)

UPDATE: From the article:

One area where no researcher will be allowed to investigate is the Henry VII Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey – where the bones said to belong to the princes were interred by Charles II four years after the discovery in 1674 of two children’s skeletons. The remains were found by workmen 10ft under the staircase leading to the chapel of the White Tower.

The Church of England, supported by the Queen, has repeatedly refused requests to exhume the remains so that forensic tests can be carried out.

The point of this is to make the Queen look obtuse, but the article does not mention that the bones were already exhumed in 1933, with a report published in Archaeologia in 1935. (I gleaned this information just now from Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower.) After examining the bones, Lawrence Tanner (archivist at Westminster Abbey) and William Wright (dental surgeon and president of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain) certainly came to believe that they were most likely the remains of the Princes. (Whether Richard III was directly responsible for their deaths is another question, of course, and perhaps the more contentious one: the Richard III Society has for years insisted that their namesake didn’t do it.)

William IV

From the Facebook feed of the Canadian Heraldic Authority:

Today marks the 250th birthday of King William IV, who reigned from 1830 to 1837. Our illustration of his arms comes from a Canadian source, the Proclamation of the Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada announcing a reward for the apprehension of William Lyon Mackenzie, the leader of the unsuccessful rebellion in Toronto in 1837. The document was issued in the name of the new monarch, Queen Victoria, yet it still used William IV’s royal arms. Can you spot the difference?

King William died on June 20, 1837; William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebellion took place in October, November, and December of that year. The Proclamation for his capture is dated December 7.

The difference, of course, is the inescutcheon at the fess point, consisting of the Hanoverian arms (of Brunswick, Lüneburg, and Westphalia). Victoria, being a woman, could not inherit these territories, so they went to her uncle, Ernest Augustus I. The Hanoverian arms were then removed, leaving the British Royal Arms in the form they are found today (1 & 4 England, 2 Scotland, 3 Ireland).

Via Wikipedia, a color rendition of the Hanoverian inescutcheon, which itself has an inescutcheon featuring the Imperial Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, for the office of archtreasurer of the HRE.

Via Wikipedia, an engraving of the Royal Arms from the Order of Service for the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II, by Reynolds Stone.

I like the nineteenth-century custom of showing the supporters leaping out from behind the shield.

State Capitols

My wife and I like to visit state capitols. We find that they usually contain a lot of interesting historical information, and often have a good state history museum within walking distance. On our recent trip we saw three:

1. Vermont State House, Montpelier, Vermont:

Fun fact about Montpelier: it is the smallest capital city in the Union (some 2,000 souls). The Vermont State House, the third one on the site, was constructed in the 1850s. We admired the portraits of Calvin Coolidge and Howard Dean.

2. Maine State House, Augusta, Maine:

The legislature was in session when we visited, so we got to do some lobbying. It was built in the 1830s, following Maine’s secession from Massachusetts in 1820. There was a great State Museum nearby. We quite enjoyed all the nineteenth-century industrial cloth-production machines they had on display (really!).

3. Virginia State Capitol, Richmond, Virginia:

This was the best picture I took on a rather cloudy day; unfortunately it doesn’t convey the full extent of the building. This capitol is probably the most historically significant of the three we saw; it was designed by “Mr. Jefferson” (as they kept calling him), and served as the capitol of the Confederate States of America after Virginia seceded from the Union in April, 1861. The original building is essentially the Maison Carée in Nîmes, and in 1904 wings were added for the enlarged House of Delegates and Senate (pictured is the wing on the northern/western side, for the Senate). Speaking of which, I had forgotten that the Virginia Senate is actually armigerous! Its letters patent is on display as you walk into the chamber.

This is document represents a devisal of arms from the College of Arms in London and dates from 1979. Normally the College grants arms on behalf of the Queen, but only to her subjects; however, if you are not a subject, you can still pay the College to devise arms for you which, while not granted as such, are entered into the records and never granted (or devised) to anyone else. Thus the three coats of arms across the top, which are those of Clarenceux King of Arms, Garter King of Arms, and Norroy & Ulster King of Arms, the three executive officers of the College who are here acting on their own authority (on a proper grant, the arms across the top are those of the Earl Marshal, the Queen, and the College of Arms).

The arms themselves are a reference to the arms of the Virginia Company:

From Eugene Zieber, Heraldry in America (originally published 1895).

Alas, the House of Delegates is not quite as heraldically advanced!

To return to the original building: the primary attraction there is the only statue that George Washington posed for during his lifetime, complete with fasces.

In the background, in the original House of Delegates chamber, you can see the back of a statue of Robert E. Lee, who was not a Confederate politician as such but who did hail from Virginia.

I liked their custom doorknobs, featuring the seal of the Commonwealth of Virginia, which shows, in an interesting sexual dynamic, “Virtus, the genius of the Commonwealth, dressed as an Amazon” and stepping on “Tyranny, represented by the prostrate body of a man, with his fallen crown nearby.” Thus always to tyrants!

But don’t let this fool you into thinking that all Virginians hate all monarchs all the time! The Queen and Prince Philip came to visit in 2007; a picture records this event, and one of the guides was waxing rhapsodic about it.

But, you ask, what about Mr. Jefferson? For him, we must return to the entrance. Since 2007, the tourist entrance to the State House is far away, at the base of the hill that the house is on. After passing security, one travels a long underground corridor housing a gift shop, a cafe, and exhibits on Virginian history, before arriving at a rotunda in honor of Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, founder of UVA, governor of Virginia, and third president of the United States.

La Sainte Chapelle

From the Guardian:


Laser surgery restores Sainte-Chapelle stained glass window to Gothic glory

Seven years’ work on Gothic chapel in Paris finished to mark anniversary of birth of Louis IX who commissioned it to house his collection of religious relics.

One of the Gothic wonders of the medieval world, the stained glass windows at Sainte-Chapelle in central Paris have been restored after seven years of painstaking work.

The restoration was finished to mark the 800th anniversary of the birth of King Louis IX, who commissioned the chapel in the mid 13th century to house his collection of religious relics, including what was believed to be Christ’s crown of thorns and part of the cross.

The work involved dismantling the huge windows into small panels and cleaning them with lasers. An outside “skin” of glass has been moulded on to the original windows to protect them from traffic pollution, without altering their look.

The chapel is one of the earliest surviving buildings of the Capetian royal palace on the Ile de la Cité, along with the Conciergerie.

The two-level building, which was built in just seven years in the 1240s, is a small but spectacular example of the Rayonnant style of Gothic architecture, with little stonework and 15 huge stained glass panels and a rose window added a century later.

The 6,458 sq ft of stained glass windows in the upper chapel illustrate biblical scenes from both testaments. Overwhelmingly deep red and blue, they depict 1,130 biblical figures.


More at the link.

Magna Carta

Turns out Magna Carta is not as significant as everyone thinks!

“Did Magna Carta make a difference?” [historian David] Carpenter asks. Most people, apparently, knew about it. In 1300, even peasants complaining against the lord’s bailiff in Essex cited it. But did it work? There’s debate on this point, but Carpenter comes down mostly on the side of the charter’s inadequacy, unenforceability, and irrelevance. It was confirmed nearly fifty times, but only because it was hardly ever honored. An English translation, a rather bad one, was printed for the first time in 1534, by which time Magna Carta was little more than a curiosity.

Then, strangely, in the seventeenth century Magna Carta became a rallying cry during a parliamentary struggle against arbitrary power, even though by then the various versions of the charter had become hopelessly muddled and its history obscured. Many colonial American charters were influenced by Magna Carta, partly because citing it was a way to drum up settlers. Edward Coke, the person most responsible for reviving interest in Magna Carta in England, described it as his country’s “ancient constitution.” He was rumored to be writing a book about Magna Carta; Charles I forbade its publication. Eventually, the House of Commons ordered the publication of Coke’s work. (That Oliver Cromwell supposedly called it “Magna Farta” might well be, understandably, the single thing about Magna Carta that most Americans remember from their high-school history class. While we’re at it, he also called the Petition of Right the “Petition of Shite.”) American lawyers see Magna Carta through Coke’s spectacles, as the legal scholar Roscoe Pound once pointed out. Nevertheless, Magna Carta’s significance during the founding of the American colonies is almost always wildly overstated. As cherished and important as Magna Carta became, it didn’t cross the Atlantic in “the hip pocket of Captain John Smith,” as the legal historian A. E. Dick Howard once put it. Claiming a French-speaking king’s short-lived promise to his noblemen as the foundation of English liberty and, later, of American democracy, took a lot of work.

Read the whole thing.

Bone Rush is On

After the exciting discovery of the remains of Richard III, the search is on to discover the remains of other lost monarchs. King Henry I (reigned 1100-35) and King Stephen (reigned 1135-54) were buried in Reading and Faversham Abbeys respectively, both of which were dissolved under Henry VIII. One would think that the bones of dead kings would have been reinterred elsewhere, but I suppose in the 1530s that such a practice might have reminded people too much of the veneration of saints’ relics. So the monasteries were turned into ruins, along with any graves within them (this is what also happened to Richard III’s grave). But now Philippa Langley (finder of Richard III) is leading a quest to look for Henry I’s grave at Reading using Ground Penetrating Radar, and Brian Philip of the Kent Archaeological Rescue Unit proposes to dig under the playing fields of Queen Elizabeth’s School in Faversham to find King Stephen. It needs to be said, however, that Richard III had some identifiable skeletal deformities and living descendants whose DNA provided a match; one wonders how the archaeologists will set about proving the identity of any remains they may find.


I reproduce the text of my talk yesterday at the University of North Georgia. I’ll post some pictures later.


The Bayeux Tapestry is not a tapestry, nor was it made in Bayeux, but history is full of such misnomers. It is a remarkable survival – anything organic, and especially anything made of fabric, tends to disintegrate over time, but the vast majority of the original Tapestry can still be seen today in the Norman town of Bayeux. Its survival would be interesting enough, but the subject matter is even more significant: the Tapestry was produced to justify the Norman claim to the throne of England, and to celebrate the vindication of that claim. As every English schoolboy knows, Duke William of Normandy defeated King Harold Godwinson at the Battle of Hastings in October of 1066. William the Conqueror was crowned King William I of England at Westminster Abbey on Christmas Day of that year, and all subsequent monarchs are numbered starting with him – 1066 in many ways is “year zero” in the history of England, and English people are proud to claim that this was the last successful invasion of their country. They are less likely to celebrate the effects of that invasion: William and his French-speaking Norman cohort dispossessed the native English landowning aristocracy, sometimes quite violently, and introduced a sharp linguistic distinction between rulers and ruled. By the time that English reemerged as a written language in the fourteenth century it had undergone a great deal of change under the influence of French. Even today words that derive from French are often seen as more refined than their Germanic synonyms: consider “dog” vs. “canine,” or “think” vs. “ponder,” or the fact that in English the name of the animal is often Germanic, while the name of its meat is French – as in “cow” and “beef,” or “sheep” and “mutton,” pointing to a certain medieval linguistic and class division: the English peasants got to raise the animals, the French lords got to eat them.

All this would not have come to pass had King Edward, now known as “Edward the Confessor,” actually done his job and provided the kingdom with an heir. Edward was the son of King Aethelred II of England and Emma, sister to Duke Richard II of Normandy. Edward took refuge in Normandy in 1016 following the death of Ethelred, and remained there for the next quarter century while the Danish King Cnut, followed by his two sons, Harold Harefoot and Harthacnut, ruled over England. When the last of these died in 1042, the Witan (an assembly of the king’s counselors) recognized Edward as king, although he had to accept the protection of the powerful Earl Godwin of Wessex, marry Godwin’s daughter Edith, and promote Godwin’s sons Harold and Tostig to earldoms. Throughout his reign Edward employed considerable cunning to escape this family’s influence, including by spending as much time away from his wife as possible – thus the reason why he produced no heir. His latter days were occupied with the reconstruction of Westminster Abbey, slightly upriver from London, where he was buried following his death on January 5, 1066. Since there was no obvious heir, fighting over the kingdom began: Edward’s brother-in-law Harold Godwinson seized the throne, while King Harald Hardrada of Norway claimed it through his relation to King Harthacnut, and William, duke of Normandy also claimed it through his great aunt Emma, and on the premise that Edward had promised it to him (perhaps due to his cultural Normanness, and his dislike of Godwin and his family). Harold Godwinson defeated an invasion led by Harald Hardrada at Stamford Bridge in Yorkshire in September of 1066, but was defeated and killed by William the following month at Hastings in Sussex. Among William’s followers was his half-brother Odo, bishop of Bayeux, who was named earl of Kent following the invasion, and who became a powerful and trusted royal advisor.

Odo, it is widely believed, was the one who commissioned the Bayeux Tapestry (which of course is really an embroidery – the design is stitched into a linen backing, not woven directly into the fabric on a loom, as is a true tapestry). In his capacity as earl of Kent, Odo would have been in a position to patronize a school of needlework at Canterbury. The Tapestry would then have been shipped back across the channel to serve as decoration for Odo’s cathedral at Bayeux, which was consecrated in 1077, and indeed the Tapestry was displayed around the interior of the building annually until the eighteenth century. It measures 20 inches by 230 feet, and is meant to be read as a long comic strip, with different panels labeled with simple Latin captions. It is fairly easy to follow, although the Tapestry occasionally alludes to events that are now forgotten, and occasionally highlights what appear to be inconsequential details. At the top and bottom of the Tapestry, two narrow borders feature secondary decorative elements that may comment on the action taking place in the main frieze; sometimes the action of the frieze overflows into the borders, especially during the most dramatic scenes.

It is a cliché that history is written by the winners; in this case it was certainly embroidered by them. Throughout the Bayeux Tapestry, Harold is portrayed as a usurper, and William justified in his claim. The action begins when Edward the Confessor sends Harold across the channel, presumably to promise the throne to William; Harold is then captured by Guy, count of Ponthieu, and then rescued by William of Normandy. Together Harold and William travel to Brittany to bring Conan, duke of Brittany, to heel. They are successful, and for his help in this expedition, William bestows arms on Harold, and before departing for England, Harold gives an oath to William, presumably to uphold William’s claim to the throne of England. When Edward dies, Harold is immediately crowned king, although he subsequently is disquieted by the appearance of Halley’s Comet. When William finds out about these events he springs into action, gathering troops and materiel, transporting them across the channel, digging in at Hastings, and defeating the English (and killing Harold) in a superior display of horsemanship. The final panels are missing, but presumably they would have recorded the coronation of William as king, in a parallel image to King Edward enthroned at the beginning. Here is an envisioning of that scene produced recently on the Channel Island of Alderney.

So we can see that Harold deserved it. According to the Tapestry, Harold violated the wishes of King Edward, and he violated his oath to William, in addition to being ungrateful for his rescue from Guy and for the arms William bestowed on him. Other sources confirm this narrative with greater force and in greater detail. William of Poitiers and William of Jumièges, two Norman historians, claim that Edward had made William his official heir as early at 1051, when William visited England. Harold’s mission to Normandy was to confirm this promise, and Harold’s acceptance of William’s arms was a declaration of homage, meaning that not only did Harold unjustly seize the crown, he did so in direct contravention of his feudal ties of loyalty. Furthermore, these chroniclers remind us, William’s invasion had the blessing of Pope Alexander II, who gave William a banner signifying the holiness of the campaign against a wayward English church. No wonder Harold lost.

But is all this actually true? Is there another side to this story? Of course there is, and one does not have to look too hard in English chronicles to find it. William of Malmesbury, writing some sixty years after the Conquest, reported that some people believed that Harold had gone out fishing in the Channel, when a storm arose and blew him to the continent accidentally, where he was captured. Eadmer of Canterbury, writing around the same time, reports that Harold was forced to give an oath to William as a condition of his release, and was reproved for this upon his return to England. Sources closer to the events in question, most notably the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Chronicle of John of Worcester, claim that King Edward bequeathed the kingdom to Harold on his deathbed, an action ratified by the Witan and consecrated by a coronation ceremony performed by Aldred, archbishop of York (not the excommunicated Stigand, archbishop of Canterbury, as the tapestry portrays it). John of Worcester claims that Harold “protected churches and monasteries, cherished and reverenced bishops, abbots, monks and clerks, and showed himself kind, humble, and courteous to all good men, while to malefactors he used the utmost rigour.” At the battle of Hastings he “defended himself with such courage and obstinacy, that the enemy almost despaired of taking his life, but when numbers had fallen on both sides, he, alas, fell at twilight.” After his victory, “William laid waste to several counties, and ceased not from burning villages and slaughtering the inhabitants” something his troops continued to do even after he signed a peace treaty with the leading nobles of the realm. In other words, Harold was good, and William was bad, and had no legitimate claim to the throne, and only won because “God granted him victory for the sins of the English nation,” as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle put it.

So, as ever, and as with many other events in history, we have conflicting accounts, and the historian is left to puzzle out where exactly the truth lies. And as with many other events in history, we will probably never know with certainty. Moreover, the more we look at it, the more the Bayeux Tapestry seems to embrace the ambiguity. Superficially, it does celebrate William’s conquest. But it never spells out the reason why Edward sent Harold to the continent, or what exactly the meaning of William’s bestowing arms on Harold was, or what the content of Harold’s oath to William was. Harold is shown rescuing two of William’s knights from a river in Brittany, he is shown being offered the crown by two people (presumably members of the Witan) as opposed to grabbing it himself, and he is designated “King” Harold after his coronation. In other words, this is no blunt-instrument propaganda piece. In fact, the ambiguities and extraneous details inspired a recent book to propose that the Tapestry’s English designers and seamstresses inserted hidden pro-English messages into it, beneath the noses of their French patrons, in order to undermine them. That is probably going too far, but Howard Bloch’s idea that “the Tapestry is a weaving together of the disparate cultures after the trauma of 1066, and a treaty of peace and a social contract between the warring parties of a great territorial dispute” probably has some merit. In this sense the Bayeux Tapestry acts like the cult of Edward the Confessor, who was venerated at Westminster and canonized as a saint in 1162. (A perception had formed that his childlessness was not because he disliked his wife, but because he was so holy that practiced a chaste marriage with her!) Ostensibly this celebration of an Anglo-Saxon king was a rebuke to the Normans, a reminder of the good old days before they came over. Yet one must also remember that the Normans traced their legitimacy to Edward, who possessed a good deal of Norman blood and culture himself. Thus the cult of St. Edward, like the Tapestry itself, became a space of reconciliation between disparate groups. This is especially true if we accept Elizabeth Pastan and Stephen White’s recent theory that Odo did not commission the Tapestry at all, that it was the work of St. Augustine’s monastery at Canterbury under its new Norman abbot Scolland.

None of this addresses the question, why was it embroidered on fabric in the first place? Why does the Tapestry not exist as an illuminated manuscript, or as a wall painting? That it is an embroidery does support Pastan’s theory of an ecclesiastical origin – even today churches often use fabric in their decoration. The long, thin strip, when hung around the interior of a room, allows people to follow the action fairly easily and at a uniform height (unlike, say, with the spiral narrative that runs all the way up Trajan’s column). As an object the Tapestry is portable, and can be displayed in different places, or put up and taken down for specific occasions. Fabric may be delicate, but in this case the occasional use of the Tapestry may have been one of the things that saved it, by limiting its exposure to light and smoke. Of course, it has also meant its near-loss on a couple of occasions (once during the French Revolution, when it was requisitioned to cover military wagons, and once during the German occupation of France in World War II, when it was of great interest to the SS). But luck or fate intervened, and now the Tapestry is displayed in conditions of the utmost security and climate control in the Bayeux Museum. One wonders just how many other embroideries did not make it, the victims of fire, looting, or disintegration, and we can be thankful for this lone survival. And imitate it. Because it is unique, it has a unique style, eminently suitable to portraying other invasions or whenever one wants an amusing juxtaposition of the medieval with the modern.