Tag Archives: BBC

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens' Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. Even the hope of her gaining an immortal soul as she transformed into a Daughter of the Air failed to console me. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

My older self still has that childlike fascination and feeling of injustice at the Little Mermaid’s story, but mermaids also appeal to me more broadly because they embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing efforts to write A Cultural History of the Mermaid, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research manifested itself in a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my book comes closer to publication, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.

Mermaids: The Lure of Sirens’ Song

If you shut your eyes and are a lucky one, you may see at times a shapeless pool of lovely pale colours suspended in the darkness; then if you squeeze your eyes tighter, the pool begins to take shape, and the colours become so vivid that with another squeeze they must go on fire. But just before they go on fire you see the lagoon. This is the nearest you ever get to it on the mainland, just one heavenly moment; if there could be two moments you might see the surf and hear the mermaids singing. [J.M.Barrie, Peter Pan]

For as long as I can remember I’ve been enchanted by mermaids. One of my earliest memories is watching the Japanese anime version of Hans Christian Andersen’s The Little Mermaid. Released over a decade before Walt Disney’s movie, the anime film broke my heart by remaining true to the original ending of Andersen’s tale (published in 1837), in which the mermaid dies after sacrificing everything to gain the love of a prince she saved from drowning.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

Statue of The Little Mermaid in Copenhagen.

As a little girl who demanded a happy ending for the brave, faithful and selfless mermaid, I recall fleeing to the bathroom in tears as she perished and turned to sea foam. Even the hope of her gaining an immortal soul as she transformed into a Daughter of the Air failed to console me. From that moment I fell in love with mermaids and wanted to be part of their world as much as Andersen’s Little Mermaid wanted to be part of ours.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

Hylas and the Nymphs, John William Waterhouse.

My older self still has that childlike fascination and feeling of injustice at the Little Mermaid’s story, but mermaids also appeal to me more broadly because they embody mystery and duality: as hybrid creatures, they help to define what makes us human.

As part of my ongoing efforts to write A Cultural History of the Mermaid, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted character of the sea-maid and the element in which she dwells. Last year, part of my research manifested itself in a special edition of BBC Radio 3’s Words and Music, which is being repeated on Sunday 27 July 2014, 6.15pm (GMT). Produced by the brilliant Philippa Richie, my programme is inspired by the different ways in which mermaids have been a well-spring of creativity for composers and writers from diverse cultures across time. All kinds of sea maidens are included, from Dvořák’s tragic water sprite Rusalka, who asks the moon to tell her beloved how she feels in the famous ‘Song to the Moon’, to Gershwin’s ‘trollop’ Lorelei, whose liberty and sexual allure prompts the human singer of her tale to aspire to be a femme fatale of similar calibre. With dramatic readings by Toby Stephens and Amanda Root, I couldn’t have been happier with the result.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Detail of Mermaid from La Bibliothèque nationale de France.

The programme begins with the lively and colourful mermaid lagoon in Barrie’s Peter Pan, and an evocative piece of music inspired by one of the most famous and influential water sprites, Undine, or Ondine, whose name is first recorded in the alchemical writings of Paracelsus (1493-1541). Originally the name Undine defined the species of elementals inhabiting waterfalls and forest pools, but by the nineteenth century it had become the forename of a water nymph that fell in love with a human and married him to gain an immortal soul. Undine’s story became incredibly popular in the nineteenth century when the German Romantic writer Friedrich de la Motte Fouqué wrote a novella, Undine (1811), about her ill-fated marriage to a knight called Huldebrand. Her story is similar to The Little Mermaid, and it inspired the work of several composers, including Tchaikovsky, Debussy, and Henze.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Mermaid from Besançon, BM MS 69. Breviary, use of Besançon. Rouen.

Alluring and often deadly, we see a darker, predatory and sexual side of mermaids at the forefront of the extract taken from a thirteenth-century encyclopaedia, De Proprietatibus Rerum, written by the Franciscan scholar Bartholomeus Anglicanus, or Bartholomew of England.

Later, we hear how explorers like Christopher Columbus attempted to make sense of the new creatures and worlds that they encountered in the Age of Exploration. Columbus’s observation that mermaids ‘are not so beautiful as they are painted, though to some extent they have the form of a human face’ seems to imply that he saw manatees rather than the arousing, yet sexually unavailable fish-maidens conjured by imaginative sailors.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 1537. Jean Parmentier, La mappemonde aux humains salutaire.

By contrast, Haydn’s canzonetta, ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ (1794), offers a more playful rendition of the mermaid’s seductive call to ‘follow, follow, follow’ her beneath the waves. One of a small number of technically simple songs composed for performance in a drawing-room setting by a solo voice and keyboard, the expressive flourishes and unrelenting liveliness of the piano’s watery soundscape complements the simplicity of Anne Hunter’s charming lyric.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

A Mermaid, John William Waterhouse.

In Walter de la Mare’s ‘Sam’, a mermaid is used to contrast the self-doubt and inexperience of youth with the playful confidence and self-awareness that comes with old age, while T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’, uses the mysterious and uninhabitable underwater world to reflect the narrator’s feelings of sexual inadequacy and, more generally, the individual’s isolation in the modern world:

I grow old … I grow old … I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.

Shall I part my hair behind?   Do I dare to eat a peach? I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach. I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

I have seen them riding seaward on the waves Combing the white hair of the waves blown back When the wind blows the water white and black. We have lingered in the chambers of the sea By sea-girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown Till human voices wake us, and we drown. [T.S. Elliot, Extract from ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’]

Several of the pieces that made the final edit draw upon the mermaid’s lack of an immortal soul to explore love and difference. While Anderson’s The Little Mermaid is the most famous example, Oscar Wilde’s The Fisherman and his Soul (1891) turns the motif on its head to highlight the conflict between physical love and spiritual salvation, and individual happiness versus social expectation. The very form of mermaids – part animal, part female – is ideally suited to negotiating such tensions, a concept that is also brilliantly tackled in Daniel’s ‘Ulysses and the Siren’ (1605), as we find Ulysses (the Latin counterpart of Odysseus) impervious to the siren’s lure. Writing during a new wave of exploration, Daniel’s poem addresses the pursuit of honour and renown achieved through an active life, not averse to war, versus passivity and the pursuit of individual pleasures closer at hand. For Ulysses, the promise of fame is more attractive than the siren’s song.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

Sirens in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 764.

As time permits, and my book comes closer to publication, I’ll dive deeper into the legends associated with mermaids and the infinitely complex ways that mankind has used them over time. But for the moment, dear reader, I’ll leave you with an invitation to hear the mermaids singing on Radio 3 this Sunday

You can follow the progress of my work on mermaids on this blog and here.

The Appeal of King Arthur Across the Centuries

This is an illustrated transcript of The Appeal of King Arthur, a feature I wrote for BBC Radio 3. Broadcast on 24 June 2013. Downloadable as a BBC podcast here.

King Arthur returns his sword in British Library MS Additional 10294.

King Arthur returns his sword in British Library MS Additional 10294.

Picture the scene. Arthur, legendary king of the Britons, glances pensively across the glassy surface of a deep blue lake. The softest of ripples breaks the brooding silence as a glittering sword cuts the surface, flashes reflected sunlight, and thrusts towards heaven held aloft by a slender arm clad in shimmering samite, signifying that Arthur rules by divine providence. ‘Listen!’ interrupts Dennis, a medieval peasant rising from the dirt to mock Arthur’s investiture of Excalibur by the Lady of the Lake, ‘strange women lying in ponds, distributing swords is no basis for a system of government! Supreme executive power derives from a mandate from the masses, not from some farcical aquatic ceremony.’

This scene from Monty Python’s award winning Spamalot is part of a musical send up of the Arthurian myth that has appealed to audiences the world over. Its satirical irreverence makes it an odd bedfellow for other Arthuriana in the public imagination like Tolkien’s Fall of Arthur or the BBC’s Merlin, yet each retelling of the myth is testament to its enduring hold across the centuries. What is it that continues to draw us to Arthur’s story and why does it lend itself to such radically different treatments?

Monty Python's Spamalot

Monty Python’s Spamalot

Arthurian fiction has always flourished during periods of social and dynastic collapse. In the twelfth century, the first complete account of Arthur’s reign in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, furnished Britain with a national epic to mitigate a succession crisis. Fast forward eight centuries, to Kennedy’s assassination and we find his presidency idealised as the Camelot era, or, more recently, Merlin, running for five successful series throughout a global recession. In each example Arthur is a touchstone for strong leadership and accord, showing what society could achieve, but never does.

Merlin introduces Galahad to the Round Table. BnF Français 343.

Merlin introduces Galahad to Arthur and the Round Table. BnF MS Français 343, folio 3r.

Beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae

Beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, British Library Arundel 10, f. 2.

While Geoffrey uses the legend to reimagine British history as a series of seamless dynastic successions attuned to the imperialism of his Norman overlords, Merlin espouses a multicultural Britain, free of class distinctions, where magic, not race or social background, is a focal point for prejudice. Magic becomes a moral barometer reflecting popular anxieties and aspirations. While Morgana uses it for personal gain, Merlin’s magic is socially beneficial, helping characters like Arthur and Guinevere, the servant-come-queen, fulfil their potential for common good. As we sympathise with Merlin’s struggle to reconcile personal and public responsibility, his endless vigil for Arthur’s return parallels our contemporary desire for stability in social and economic adversity.

The BBC's popular Merlin series

The BBC’s popular Merlin series

Literature produced during the Wars of the Roses, similarly manifests the concerns of its original fifteenth-century audience. Written when aristocratic factionalism encroached on, and overturned, royal authority, Thomas Malory’s highly influential Morte Darthur depicts the desolation of the Arthurian kingdom as a constitutional crisis reminiscent of the struggle between the houses of Lancaster and York. Remarkably for a medieval romance, it articulates the voice of the lower born men facilitating the noble feud. The silent masses that ordinarily acquiesce to royal power grow weary of war and switch their allegiance to Mordred.

Brother against brother: the Destruction of Arthur's Realm. British Library MS Additional 10294.

Civil War: The Destruction of Arthur’s Realm as depicted in British Library MS Additional 10294.

While Malory leaves us in no doubt that the people are ‘new-fangle’, or inconstant, the text reflects genuine concerns about the role of large groups in maintaining or changing the status quo. Malory’s Arthur prompts its audience to ask persistently relevant questions: where does true power reside, how is it transferred legitimately, and what is the relationship between a leader and his people?

Detail of Thomas Malory's Morte Darthur, British Library MS Additional 59678, f. 35r.

Detail of Thomas Malory’s Morte Darthur, British Library MS Additional 59678, f. 35r.

Those questions also underpin Dennis the peasant’s rant in Spamalot, as the satirical collision of royal absolutism and proletarian power opens up serious debate about modern systems of governance under the guise of Arthurian parody.

As a narrative of nation and community exploring the human condition, Arthur’s rise and fall is the story of civilisation itself locked in an endless cycle of beginnings and endings. That is why Arthur has and always will be the once and future king.

Arthur stood on top of the names of all the kingdoms subject to his rule. British Library MS Royal 20 Aii.

Arthur stood on top of the names of all the kingdoms subject to his rule. British Library MS Royal 20 Aii.

Edward Burne-Jones's 'The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon'.

Edward Burne-Jones’s ‘The Last Sleep of Arthur in Avalon’, one of many popular Victorian depictions of Arthur .

‘Smale Stufe and Goodes’: Elizabeth Woodville’s Signature and Will

On Friday I posted about contemporary depictions of Elizabeth Woodville. Today, I’d like to share four other documents relating to her.

The first, British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, is a fourteenth-century book of Arthurian Romances. Originally owned by Charles V and VI of France, the book passed to John, duke of Bedford (the first husband of Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg) in the early fifteenth century.

British Library Royal 14 E iii, King Arthur's Court.

British Library Royal 14 E iii, miniature of King Arthur’s Court.

It was later owned by Sir Richard Roos of Gedney and his niece, Eleanor Haute, who inscribed ‘Thys boke ys myne dame Alyanor Haute’ on folio 162. However, it’s another name, ‘E. Wydevyll’, inscribed just above Eleanor’s that makes this manuscript so interesting. It may refer to Elizabeth’s brother, Edward Woodville, but it could equally be a reference to Elizabeth, perhaps even her autograph, from a time before she was queen.

'E. Wydvyll' in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 162r.
‘E. Wydevyll’ and Eleanor Haute’s inscription in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 162r.
The first folio of the book also contains the names of two of Elizabeth’s daughters, ‘Elysbathe the kyngys dowter and Cecyl the kyngys dowter’, providing a clearer connection between the book, the royal household, and the queen.
The names of Elizabeth's daughters in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 1.
The names of Elizabeth’s daughters ‘Elysbathe and Cecyl’ in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 1.

Another document that leaves us in no doubt what Elizabeth’s royal signature looked like is a letter from the queen to the Bishop of Lincoln dated 1477. A professional scribe copied the actual letter, but ‘Elysabeth’ signs it at the bottom.

Letter from Elizabeth, with her signature, to the Bishop of Lincoln.
Letter from ‘Elysabeth’ to the Bishop of Lincoln, 1477.
This autograph is almost identical to the one she signs in 1491, confirming receipt of her annuity from Henry VII.
Elizabeth's signature from 1491.

Elizabeth’s signature from 1491.

The following year, on 10 April 1492, Elizabeth made her will at Bermondsey Abbey, where she was residing. She had nothing of consequence to bequeath to her surviving children, so she left her blessings and instructions for her ‘smale stufe and goodes’ to be used to settle any debts ‘as farre as they will extende’:

‘In Dei nomine, Amen. The xth daie of Aprill, the yere of our Lord Gode MCCCCLXXXXII. I Elisabeth, by the grace of God Quene of England, late wif to the most victoroiuse Prince of blessed memorie, Edward the Fourth, being of hole mynde, seying the worlde so traunsitorie, and no creature certayne whanne they shall departe frome hence, havyng Almyghty Gode fressh in mynde, in whome is all mercy and grace, bequeath my sowle into his handes, beseechyng him, of the same mercy, to accept it graciously, and oure blessed Lady Quene of comforte, and all the holy company of hevyn, to be good meanes for me. Item, I bequeith my body to be buried with the bodie of my Lord at Windessore, according to the will of my saide Lorde and myne, without pompes entreing or costlie expensis donne thereabought. Item, where I have no wordely goodes to do the Quene’s Grace, my derest doughter, a pleaser with, nether to reward any of my children, according to my hart and mynde, I besech Almyghty Gode to blisse here Grace, with all her noble issue, and with as good hart and mynde as is to me possible, I geve her Grace my blessing, and all the forsaide my children. Item, I will that suche smale stufe and goodes that I have be disposed truly in the contentacion of my dettes and for the helth of my sowle, as farre as they will extende. Item, yf any of my bloode wille any of my saide stufe or goodes to me perteyning, I will that they have the prefermente before any other. And of this my present testament I make and ordeyne myne Executores, that is to sey, John Ingilby, Priour of the Chartourhouse of Shene, William Sutton and Thomas Brente, Doctors. And I besech my said derest doughter, the Queue’s grace, and my sone Thomas, Marques Dorsett, to putte there good willes and help for the performans of this my testamente. In witnesse wherof, to this my present testament I have sett my seale, these witnesses, John Abbot of the monastry of Sainte Saviour of Bermondefley, and Benedictus Cun, Doctor of Fysyk. Yeven the day and yere abovesaid’ [from J. Nichols, A Collection of all the Wills, now known to be extant, of the Kings and Queens of England, pp. 350-51].

Elizabeth died on 8 June 1492. Four days later, she was buried beside Edward IV at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

St George's Chapel, Windsor

St George’s Chapel, Windsor

 

'Smale Stufe and Goodes': Elizabeth Woodville's Signature and Will

On Friday I posted about contemporary depictions of Elizabeth Woodville. Today, I’d like to share four other documents relating to her.

The first, British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, is a fourteenth-century book of Arthurian Romances. Originally owned by Charles V and VI of France, the book passed to John, duke of Bedford (the first husband of Elizabeth’s mother, Jacquetta of Luxembourg) in the early fifteenth century.

British Library Royal 14 E iii, King Arthur's Court.

British Library Royal 14 E iii, miniature of King Arthur’s Court.

It was later owned by Sir Richard Roos of Gedney and his niece, Eleanor Haute, who inscribed ‘Thys boke ys myne dame Alyanor Haute’ on folio 162. However, it’s another name, ‘E. Wydevyll’, inscribed just above Eleanor’s that makes this manuscript so interesting. It may refer to Elizabeth’s brother, Edward Woodville, but it could equally be a reference to Elizabeth, perhaps even her autograph, from a time before she was queen.

'E. Wydvyll' in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 162r.
‘E. Wydevyll’ and Eleanor Haute’s inscription in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 162r.
The first folio of the book also contains the names of two of Elizabeth’s daughters, ‘Elysbathe the kyngys dowter and Cecyl the kyngys dowter’, providing a clearer connection between the book, the royal household, and the queen.
The names of Elizabeth's daughters in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 1.
The names of Elizabeth’s daughters ‘Elysbathe and Cecyl’ in British Library MS Royal 14 E iii, fol. 1.

Another document that leaves us in no doubt what Elizabeth’s royal signature looked like is a letter from the queen to the Bishop of Lincoln dated 1477. A professional scribe copied the actual letter, but ‘Elysabeth’ signs it at the bottom.

Letter from Elizabeth, with her signature, to the Bishop of Lincoln.
Letter from ‘Elysabeth’ to the Bishop of Lincoln, 1477.
This autograph is almost identical to the one she signs in 1491, confirming receipt of her annuity from Henry VII.
Elizabeth's signature from 1491.

Elizabeth’s signature from 1491.

The following year, on 10 April 1492, Elizabeth made her will at Bermondsey Abbey, where she was residing. She had nothing of consequence to bequeath to her surviving children, so she left her blessings and instructions for her ‘smale stufe and goodes’ to be used to settle any debts ‘as farre as they will extende’:

‘In Dei nomine, Amen. The xth daie of Aprill, the yere of our Lord Gode MCCCCLXXXXII. I Elisabeth, by the grace of God Quene of England, late wif to the most victoroiuse Prince of blessed memorie, Edward the Fourth, being of hole mynde, seying the worlde so traunsitorie, and no creature certayne whanne they shall departe frome hence, havyng Almyghty Gode fressh in mynde, in whome is all mercy and grace, bequeath my sowle into his handes, beseechyng him, of the same mercy, to accept it graciously, and oure blessed Lady Quene of comforte, and all the holy company of hevyn, to be good meanes for me. Item, I bequeith my body to be buried with the bodie of my Lord at Windessore, according to the will of my saide Lorde and myne, without pompes entreing or costlie expensis donne thereabought. Item, where I have no wordely goodes to do the Quene’s Grace, my derest doughter, a pleaser with, nether to reward any of my children, according to my hart and mynde, I besech Almyghty Gode to blisse here Grace, with all her noble issue, and with as good hart and mynde as is to me possible, I geve her Grace my blessing, and all the forsaide my children. Item, I will that suche smale stufe and goodes that I have be disposed truly in the contentacion of my dettes and for the helth of my sowle, as farre as they will extende. Item, yf any of my bloode wille any of my saide stufe or goodes to me perteyning, I will that they have the prefermente before any other. And of this my present testament I make and ordeyne myne Executores, that is to sey, John Ingilby, Priour of the Chartourhouse of Shene, William Sutton and Thomas Brente, Doctors. And I besech my said derest doughter, the Queue’s grace, and my sone Thomas, Marques Dorsett, to putte there good willes and help for the performans of this my testamente. In witnesse wherof, to this my present testament I have sett my seale, these witnesses, John Abbot of the monastry of Sainte Saviour of Bermondefley, and Benedictus Cun, Doctor of Fysyk. Yeven the day and yere abovesaid’ [from J. Nichols, A Collection of all the Wills, now known to be extant, of the Kings and Queens of England, pp. 350-51].

Elizabeth died on 8 June 1492. Four days later, she was buried beside Edward IV at St George’s Chapel, Windsor.

St George's Chapel, Windsor

St George’s Chapel, Windsor

 

Picturing The White Queen: Medieval Depictions of Elizabeth Woodville

The BBC’s new drama series The White Queen began on Sunday. Based on the Cousins’ War novels by Philippa Gregory, the series focuses on Elizabeth Woodville, Edward IV’s queen, who rose to power during a turbulent period of civil war in England known as The Wars of the Roses.

The coronation of Elizabeth, played by Rebecca Ferguson, in the BBC's The White Queen.

The coronation of Elizabeth (Rebecca Ferguson) in the BBC’s The White Queen.

White Queen Coronation

As a medievalist who specialises in this period, I’m delighted that the real life ‘Game of Thrones’ is finally taking attention away from the ever-popular Tudors. Sure, the TV series takes liberties with characterisation and plot – it isn’t for purists who want to learn the facts of the period, see historically accurate clothing, or discover how real medieval people spoke and thought – but it’s a way into some of the complex power relations, family ties and events that typified late fifteenth-century England.

This post is for those wanting to know more about what the real White Queen might have looked like and what she wore in contemporary, or near contemporary, images.

Portrait of Elizabeth at Queen's College Cambridge.

Portrait of Elizabeth at Queen’s College Cambridge.

The image of Elizabeth most commonly seen in books and online is that above, one of the three painted panels of her at Queen’s College Cambridge. In the painting, Elizabeth wears a black gown with patterned gold collar and cuffs. The style of her gown is typical of English dresses circa 1475-85. Commonly referred to as a ‘transitional’ dress, it bridges the gap between the V neck Burgundian gowns of the mid to late fifteenth-century and the square-necked early Tudor gowns. The shape of the wide collar is rounded, and it fits over a tight bodice. Her sleeves are tight-fitting with turned back cuffs. Elizabeth has a fashionably high forehead (thought to be beautiful in the Middle Ages) and her hair is pulled back and covered by a truncated henin and cointoise (veil). What looks like an extension of the veil beyond the back of the henin perhaps suggests that it is a butterfly henin, which had structured wires extending from either side to lift the veil higher.

Portrait of Elizabeth. Queen's College, Cambridge.

Portrait of Elizabeth. Queen’s College, Cambridge.

Portrait of Elizabeth from the Royal Collection, Windsor.

Portrait of Elizabeth from the Royal Collection, Windsor.

Portrait of Elizabeth in the Ashmolean Museum, c. 1500.

Portrait of Elizabeth in the Ashmolean Museum, c. 1500.

Almost all of the other oil panel paintings of Elizabeth are based on the same image and derive from the sixteenth century, but there are some beautiful contemporary images of the queen in late fifteenth-century manuscripts and stained glass.

In the window of Little Malvern Priory, Elizabeth is shown kneeling in prayer with her family. She wears a blue, fur-collared Burgundian gown with a deep V neck, revealing a golden kirtle and white partlet; accompanying the gown she has a red, ermine trimmed cloak, and a heart-shaped, or horned, headdress, with a padded roll and decorative jewel, matching the decoration on the lectern.

Elizabeth

Elizabeth and three of her daughters in the stained glass at Little Malvern Priory

A similar image occurs in Canterbury Cathedral (below). The pious Elizabeth is shown praying opposite her husband, Edward IV, with their children behind them. Her attire is different to that in Little Malvern Priory: here she is crowned and wearing a white and gold patterned gown symbolising purity beneath her purple cloak. A rosary and cross hang down from her belt.

Edward IV and Elizabeth in the Royal Window, Canterbury Cathedral.

Edward IV and Elizabeth in the Royal Window, Canterbury Cathedral.

The Luton Guild Book contains another pious image of the royal family, kneeling before Bishop Thomas Rotherham and the Trinity. Elizabeth wears a blue and gold Burgundian gown, with a brown fur collar, partlet, deep green girdle (belt), a purple and ermine trimmed cloak, and a black hood. The women behind her sport butterfly henins.

The Luton Guild Book. Frontspiece, circa 1475.

The Luton Guild Book. Frontspiece, circa 1475.

The purple cloaks in the last two images seem to nod to Elizabeth’s coronation attire, which William Ballard, a fifteenth-century herald, describes as ‘a mantyll of purpull’, that she later exchanges for a ‘surcote of purpull’. She is also shown wearing purple in a miniature in Lambeth Palace MS 265, which shows her brother Anthony Woodville, second earl Rivers, presenting a book to the royal family.

Anthony Woodville presents a book to Edward IV, Elizabeth and Prince Edward. Lambeth Palace MS 265.

Anthony Woodville presents a book to Edward IV, Elizabeth and Prince Edward. Lambeth Palace MS 265.

One of the most striking images of Elizabeth is in the Worshipful Company of Skinners’ Fraternity of Our Lady’s Assumption Book, which shows her in a stunning red and ermine trimmed surcoat, and a blue cloak trimmed with gold. As Joanne Laynesmith (née Chamberlayne) has discussed in her work on Elizabeth, medieval queens were traditionally virgins, so Elizabeth’s status as a mother and widow was deeply problematic. Whoever commissioned the image was clearly trying to address her unconventional status and align her with representations of the Virgin Mary: the ideal mother. Elizabeth’s hair is loose (a common way of depicting virgins, especially Mary), she wears a blue cloak associated with purity, and holds an orb and sceptre, just as Mary does in images presenting her as the Queen of Heaven. By constructing Elizabeth’s motherhood in ‘strikingly Marian terms’, the artist distances her ‘from ordinary women’.

Elizabeth in her coronation robes (Worshipful Company of Skinners Fraternity Book)

Elizabeth in her coronation robes (Worshipful Company of Skinners’ Fraternity Book)

Assumption of the Virgin Mary. London, Skinners' Company.

Coronation of the Virgin (loose hair and gown similar to Queen Elizabeth’s). Worshipful Company of Skinners’ Book.

Elizabeth wears the same outfit, minus the gold trim on the cloak, and has the same loose hair in one of my favourite manuscripts: Liverpool Cathedral Manuscript Radcliffe 6. Containing the Hours of the Guardian Angel, and still in its original textile binding, this incredible little book has an extremely rare miniature of a presentation scene between two women. The woman presenting the book, almost certainly Joan Luyt, presents the golden Guardian Hours to the queen ‘with euerlastyng ioy’.

Liverpool Cathedral MS Radcliffe 6, Hours of the Guardian Angel. Joan Luyt presents the book to Elizabeth Woodville

Liverpool Cathedral MS Radcliffe 6, Hours of the Guardian Angel. Joan Luyt presents the book to Elizabeth Woodville.

Though Elizabeth’s secret marriage to Edward IV caused great controversy in the 1460s because she fell short of the traditional standard of being an unmarried virgin of considerable status, we would not know this from contemporary depictions of her. The legacy left by the artists that immortalised her in painted glass, parchment and panels, is of a beautiful, powerful and pious individual, who could fulfil the role of mother to all Englishmen. While these images clearly convey an ideal, it’s worth remembering how medieval artists pictured Edward’s bride the next time The White Queen distracts us with inaccurate necklines and zips!

AHRC BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers 2013

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AHRC BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers 2013: Here we are at the Press Shoot at BBC Broadcasting House

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve been selected as one of the AHRC-BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinkers for 2013! I’m wildly excited about working with the BBC to turn my research and ideas about the Middle Ages into exciting programmes. Keep an eye on the website for information about forthcoming broadcasts…