Tag Archives: Guy Ritchie

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 .

Medieval Christmas

This is an illustrated transcript of Medieval Christmas, a feature I wrote for BBC Radio 3 Nightwaves. Downloadable as a BBC podcast here or here.

It’s cold outside. Inside a large fire burns brightly filling the room with intense warmth. The occupants inhale the scent of decorative evergreens, drink sweet wine, and tuck into a hearty meal. Later they play games, listen to music, dance, sing carols, and exchange seasonal gifts and greetings. For many of us, this scene feels like a snapshot of the celebrations to come on the 25th, but it’s not. It’s Christmas in the Middle Ages.

Calendar page for February in British Library MS Additional 24098 'The Golf Book'.

Calendar page for February in British Library MS Additional 24098 ‘The Golf Book (Sixteenth Century)’.

If we could go back in time just over six hundred years, the festive season would be both familiar and strange. Then, just like now, Christmas preparations began weeks in advance, but what people busied themselves with before celebrating the birth of Christ was very different. Advent was a time for fasting, slaughtering and salting animals that wouldn’t survive winter, and participating in irreverent customs like the Boy Bishop ceremonies held on the Feast of St Nicholas, when children would be elected to preside over all the tasks assigned to real bishops, except mass. Effectively in control of the bishopric, the boy bishop and his attendants would travel throughout the diocese offering blessings, declaring holidays, singing, and dispensing treats. In return they’d receive gifts, hospitality and entertainments.

Christmas preparations on a calendar page for December in 'The Golf Book'. British Library MS Additional 24098.

Christmas preparations on a calendar page for December in ‘The Golf Book’. British Library MS Additional 24098.

Preparing for Christmas. 'The Golf Book', British Library MS Addition 24098.

The Winter Season. ‘The Golf Book’, British Library MS Addition 24098.

Rituals like this, and the election of Lords of Misrule to oversee the festivities in noble households, were part of the popular carnival entertainments associated with the season. Temporarily letting the underdog have his day, by throwing aside the normal order of things in a controlled period of misrule, was incredibly popular and made the peasants more accepting of the feudal system that restrained them for the rest of the year.

Feasting in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Feasting in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Mummers from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Mummers from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

Christmas Day marked the start of an indulgent period of at least 12 days of feasting, though truly extravagant festivities in royal and noble households might extend for 40 days beyond Christmas to Candlemas in early February. The lengthy nature of the celebrations was due to several factors, the most practical being the difficulty of travelling in the winter season, the abundance of fresh meat, and the fact that there was little agricultural work in the dark winter days.

And it wasn’t just the length of the celebrations that were staggering by modern standards, but the volume of guests that were catered for by the wealthy. In the 1390s Richard II hosted the most lavish banquets, employing 300 cooks and servants to feed 10,000 people with 28 oxen, 300 sheep and innumerable fowl served up each day.

The romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, vividly evokes the spectacle of a royal banquet, telling us that each course was brought out to ‘the blaring of trumpets’, ‘kettledrums’, and ‘pipes’, as each couple shared ‘twelve dishes, good beer and bright wine’. Food would include wild boar, fowl, pies, stews, bread, cheeses, puddings, and large rectangular shaped pastries filled with minced meats like pork, eggs, fruit, spices, and fat, the precursor of our mince pies. Before and after the hubbub and splendour of the banquet, raucous revels like tournaments, dancing, and playing games, would occupy guests.

Feasting at King Arthur's Court in British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.

Feasting at King Arthur’s Court in British Library MS Royal 20 D iv.

Celebrations in noble and gentry households were much smaller in scale, but just as impressive. A letter from Margaret Paston to her husband John, written on 24 December 1459, outlines festive activities that their neighbour Lady Morley had banned the previous year when mourning the loss of her husband: ‘there were no disguisings [masques],’ she said, ‘ nor harping, nor luting, nor singing, nor no loud pastimes’ only ‘playing at the tables, and chess, and cards’ was allowed.

Dice games in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

A dice game in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

At the lowest end of the social spectrum, peasants celebrated with dancing, singing, dice games, and mummings, where participants would don masks and visit local households singing and asking for Christmas charity. Christmas day was a quarter day, which, rather miserably, meant that peasants had to pay rent to their lord, but they received gifts of food, ale, clothing, and firewood in return, and this was one of the rare times that they would get to eat meat. They too celebrated for the duration of the twelve days of Christmas, returning to work after the feast of the Epiphany on 6 January.

tres riche feb

February as depicted in the Tres Riches Heures of the Duke of Berry.

It’s through the poorest people that we see the true essence of Christmas in the Middle Ages: a spirit that speaks to our own age of austerity. For them, Christmas was about simple inexpensive pleasures, spiritual contemplation, and spending time with family and friends free from the obligations of work and rank.

***

Another post on Medieval Christmas, including a fourteenth-century recipe for the precursors of our mince pies, is available here.

View more of ‘The Golf Book’, one of the books used to illustrate this post, here. Technically it’s not ‘medieval’ as it was produced in the sixteenth century, but it gives a nice sense of the Christmas season.

For more images from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264, a medieval copy of The Romance of Alexander, click here.

The Real Game Of Thrones – Power In 15th-Century England

On 26 October 2013 I had the honour of presenting a paper at BBC Radio 3’s Free Thinking Festival. The theme of the festival was ‘Who’s in Control?’. Below is a transcript of the paper that I gave. It can be listened to, or downloaded as podcast, here.

The TV series Game of Thrones, based on George R. R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice novels has taken the world by storm. Following the political intrigues and battles of several noble families wrestling for control of the kingdom of Westeros, the series’ heady mix of sex, violence, betrayal, and chivalry, has captured the hearts of all who love a good old yarn about politically astute dwarves, bearded men brandishing swords, and women in floaty dresses riding dragons.

Game-of-Thrones-game-of-thrones-20131987-1680-1050

Quite incredibly, the inspiration for Martin’s epic fantasy is a real medieval civil war known as The Wars of the Roses; even the dragons of Daenerys Targaryen, draw upon the heraldic devices of Henry VII, the first Tudor king, with whom she’s partially aligned. Just as Martin looked to the past and reshaped the events he found there to appeal to a twenty-first-century audience, so people living through the fifteenth-century war used the stories of the past to discuss power and promote peace among their contemporaries.

In November 1457, John Hardyng, a 79 year-old veteran of Agincourt, made his way from Lincolnshire to London to deliver a unique account of British history to King Henry VI. The huge book that Hardyng carried provided details of every monarch that had ruled Britain, real and mythical. Opening with a gripping account of ancient queens attempting to rule independently of their kings, and aggressive giants dominating a land racked with civil war, Hardyng composed the text in response to the weak governance, increased lawlessness, and aristocratic factionalism that triggered the Wars. Using the lens of historical narrative to focus on Henry VI’s lack of control, Hardyng hoped that the good and bad examples of kingship in his book, and the historic desolation caused by civil unrest, would inspire the king to reassert his authority and restore peace.

The unique manuscript of the Chronicle Hardyng wrote for Henry VI. British Library MS Lansdowne 204, f. 168v.

The unique manuscript of the Chronicle Hardyng wrote for Henry VI. British Library MS Lansdowne 204, f. 168v.

Composed in the twilight years of Henry’s reign before Yorkist propaganda rewrote history to legitimise Edward IV’s seizure of the throne, Hardyng’s text offers a unique snapshot of how men of middling rank like him, perceived kingship and the exercise of sovereign power on the cusp of wars. Though the end of this real-life Game of Thrones with the death of Richard III and the accession of Henry Tudor has traditionally dominated the popular imagination, it’s the origins of the wars that reveal the most about how late medieval people understood power and who was in control.

Hardyng, like other Englishmen, believed that kings were divinely-appointed to protect the interests of their people and kingdom. Ordinarily kings could only be judged by God, but in exceptional circumstances, when a monarch neglected the common good, the voice of the people could be viewed as the voice of God and a king could be ‘unkinged’ by his subjects, as Richard II had been in 1399. Traditionally the nobility provided wise counsel to the king and he made judgements based on that advice and his own personal will. However, the unique circumstances of Henry VI’s reign forced the Lancastrian government to redefine how royal power worked on more than one occasion.

The trouble with Henry VI’s reign started before he was born. His father, Henry V, was a strong ruler, who governed effectively and pleased his people with great military victories during the Hundred Years War. When he died prematurely at 35, the dual monarchy of England and France passed to the nine-month old son that he had never seen. A council made up of family members and other nobles, similar to the small council set up to advise Joffrey Baratheon in the Game of Thrones, governed for the baby king until he was able to rule independently.

Henry V (National Portrait Gallery)

Henry V (National Portrait Gallery)

The council took great care to uphold the notion that true power resided in the king alone, despite the fact that he couldn’t articulate his own wishes. Little Henry’s presence was required for all formal acts and public ceremonies to legitimise decisions made in his name.

Unfortunately, the length of Henry’s minority meant that some of the king’s relatives grew rather too accustomed to the power that came from managing Henry’s sovereignty and, like Tyrion and Cersei Lannister in Martin’s fantasy, found themselves vying for control of the young king. Henry too grew so dependent on others that when conciliar rule ended he frequently failed to assert his own will and was easily manipulated by those closest to him. This led to factionalism between those who had the king’s favour and those who didn’t.

By 1450, losses in France, financial difficulties at home, corruption in local courts, and unchecked violence between noblemen, culminated in a public uprising. The protestors issued bills criticising the ‘evil’ councillors that encroached on royal authority, and called for the king to empower ‘honourable knights and honest judges’ to remove those who had acted for personal gain instead of the common good.

Similar bills would be issued throughout the decade, most strikingly by Richard, duke of York, the father of Edward IV and Richard III, who used the theme of bad counsel to increase his own political role and disempower his rivals. By aligning his own grievances with those of the common English men, York eventually found himself elected Chief Councillor and Protector of the Realm when Henry VI suffered a mental breakdown was unfit to rule.

Though York held things together while the king was incapacitated, providing the strong and arguably fair leadership that the country had lacked for so long, the new arrangements for administering royal power only served to undermine the king’s authority in the longer term. York’s protectorship alienated Henry’s queen, Margaret of Anjou, who gave birth to Henry’s heir, Prince Edward, in October 1453 and sought to act as regent while her husband was compromised.

Richard, duke of York, and his son Edward IV. Ludlow Church.

Richard, duke of York, and his son Edward IV. St Laurence Church, Ludlow.

Even when the king recovered his wits, he continued to be an uninspiring figurehead doing little to control the problems afflicting his realm. While the duke of York quietly seethed as many of his decisions as Protector were overturned, Queen Margaret and others continued to mitigate Henry’s inadequacies by redefining sovereign power as a tripartite entity encompassing king, queen and prince. This was especially important after the battle of St Albans, when the duke of York and his supporters took control of the king from their political rivals.

John Hardyng’s unusual dedication of his book to, as he puts it, the ‘thre rials in unite’, demonstrates that he understood and absorbed this new association of Henry’s royal authority with the young prince and queen, but, like the duke of York, and other contemporaries, Hardyng saw imminent danger in the king’s inability to assert his will and take control of the kingdom’s governance. For all the emphasis on the sovereign trinity of Henry, Margaret and Edward, nothing could alter the simple fact that true power lay solely in the person of the king and it was the king that needed to end the aristocratic feuds that were damaging the stability of the realm.

Hardyng’s repeated use of historical exempla in his book to encourage the king to chastise lawbreakers and imitate strong leaders like Henry V makes for an interesting comparison with the less tactful observations of his contemporary Robert Burnet. As Hardyng arrived in London with his history, Burnet was being indicted for treason for saying he wished the king had died at the Battle of St Albans. Burnet complained that the king slept too much, while the queen was organising men to fight overseas, a manly activity that was Henry’s task, not hers. While Hardyng gave similar advice in his chronicle, suggesting that lawbreakers in England could be sent to fight for the king’s rights in France, he differed from Burnet in believing that Henry could still exercise royal power effectively and restore order.

As Hardyng arrived in London and prepared to submit his book, things had reached a critical juncture. The king’s Great Council convened at Westminster ‘to tackle the pressing political problems of the kingdom,’ particularly, it seems, to tackle the threat of foreign invasion, and the on-going hostilities between the Yorkist lords and the heirs of those killed at the Battle of St Albans in 1455. When discussions could not be “fully concluded,” Henry VI arranged for the meeting to reconvene in January because the ‘wele’, or good, of the land and people remained ‘in great jeopardy.’

We cannot know for certain how Henry VI reacted to Hardyng’s Chronicle; the fact that Hardyng was rewarded with an annuity several days after meeting with the king’s treasurer, Sir John Talbot, does not, unfortunately, prove that the king was delighted with the work, or that he even read it. Nevertheless, the timing of Hardyng’s presentation is crucial to our understanding of how topical the text was and how it might have represented popular opinion. According to the Abbot of St Albans, John Whethamstede, the king was inspired to seek peace between his magnates after reading several books of advice and Scripture. The theme of his address to the lords when the council assembled once again was based on the gospels’ warning that “Every kingdom divided amongst itself shall be made desolate.” In his speech Henry aligned his own desire for order with that of God, citing examples of historic and recent kingdoms ruined through civil division, and emphasising the susceptibility of war-torn realms to invasion. It wasn’t easy, but Henry obtained a settlement between the lords in March 1458, and on the Feast of the Annunciation (traditionally marking the start of the medieval new year), the citizens of London witnessed one of the most incredible spectacles of the fifteenth-century. York’s supporters and the heirs of the Lancastrians slain at St Albans processed hand in hand around London in a public display of unity. Led by the king, who walked in front wearing his crown and ceremonial robes, the queen and the duke of York walked together, symbolically showing their subservience to sovereign power.

Henry VI (National Portrait Gallery)

Henry VI (National Portrait Gallery)

Though Whethamstede may have been indulging his poetic licence by claiming that the king was inspired to take control by books of advice, the events in November 1457 and the following four months highlight the social and political currency of Hardyng’s Chronicle and the hope, however remote, entertained by men like him that the king could restore stability.

Embodying all of the topics touched upon in Henry’s speech to his council, Hardyng’s perception of royal power and the difficulties associated with others acting in the king’s name could only have been borne out of the crises that troubled Henry’s reign. Hardyng’s history is precisely the sort of book that Whetehamstede had in mind when he imagined Henry contemplating the troubles of the kingdom, and it’s precisely the sort of book that Henry might have drawn examples from in his speech to reiterate the perils of civil war and assert his own will.

Sadly, Henry’s action was too little too late. York made a move for the throne the next year and this time, he didn’t attempt to define or locate the root of the king’s impotence: he simply put forward his own superior claim to sovereignty as a descendent of Edward III through the Mortimer and Clarence line. As Prince Edward was disinherited and the succession was settled on York and his heirs, Hardyng began rewriting his history again for the king-to-be, redefining what it meant to have control of the kingdom. Though he was now writing for a strong leader, his narrative was essentially the same: there were lessons to be learnt from the past and knowledge of how previous kings had protected or failed their kingdoms was power.

In this too, the real-life Game of Thrones parallels Martin’s series. Just before civil war breaks out in Westeros, Tyrion Lannister, is asked why he reads so much. He replies: ‘I have a realistic grasp of my own strengths and weaknesses. My mind is my weapon. My brother has his sword… and I have my mind… and a mind needs books as a sword needs a whetstone, if it is to keep its edge. That is why I read so much!  Tyrion, like Hardyng, understands that true power comes from a sharp mind using shrewd politics to control the men with swords. Henry VI lost his throne because his mind was weak and his will was too easily controlled by others.

Medieval Babies

To celebrate the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s new royal prince, here are a few images of medieval babies being born and cared for. I tweeted many of them last year in the #MedievalBabies series, but they give such a touching insight into the world of the medieval family that they are worth presenting again.

Some of the most common images of childbirth depict the unusual circumstances of Caesar’s arrival, as he is cut from his mother’s womb:

Birth of Caesar, British Library Royal 17 F II, f. 9r.

Birth of Caesar, British Library Royal 17 F II.

Caesarean Section, British Library, Royal 16 G VII

Caesarean Section, British Library, Royal 16 G VII.

Birth of Caesar, British Library, Royal 16 G VIII, f. 32.

Birth of Caesar, British Library, Royal 16 G VIII.

Others poignantly capture, and even graphically depict, the suffering of the mother struggling with a natural birth.

Birth of Jacob and Esau in Hague MMW 10 A 11.

Birth of Jacob and Esau in Hague MS MMW 10 A 11.

Unusually graphic depiction of childbirth in Codex Series Nova 2641, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna

Childbirth, Codex Nova 2641, Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna.

In contrast to the pain and suffering of the birthing process, the aftermath of childbirth is often shown as tranquil. Mother relaxes exhausted in her birthing chamber as her maidens and midwives attend to baby with clean sheets and a freshly prepared bath.

Preparing a bath for baby, Saint Jean-Baptiste Heures d'Étienne Chevalier.

Preparing a bath for baby, Saint Jean-Baptiste Heures d’Étienne Chevalier.

Birth scene in a Book of Hours, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 112.

Birth scene in a Book of Hours, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 112.

Birth of Alexander the Great, British Library Royal 20 C III.

Birth of Alexander the Great, British Library MS Royal 20 C III.

Birth of Alexander the Great, Oxford Bodleian Laud Misc. 751.

Birth of Alexander the Great, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Laud Misc. 751.

My favourite images are those that show little children learning to walk with baby walkers or parents carrying their children around in ingenious carriers, not unlike modern baby equipment.

Christ learns to walk in the Hour of Catherine of Cleeves

Christ learns to walk in the Hour of Catherine of Cleeves.

Baby Walker in BnF NAL 392

Baby Walker in BnF NAL 392.

Baby Walker and crib in Oxford, Bodleian Library, Douce 276.

Baby Walker in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 276.

Baby walker in Oxford, Bodleian Library Douce 353

Baby walker in Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Douce 353.

The Ages of Man, BNF, département des Manuscrits, Français 134, fol. 92v.

The Ages of Man, BNF, Français 134.

Seven Ages of Man, BnF Fr. 218, fol. 95.

Seven Ages of Man, BnF Fr. 218.

Carrying twins in the margins of the Romance of Alexander, Oxford, Bodleian Library Bodley 264.

Carrying twins in the margins of the Romance of Alexander, Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264.

And finally… what happens to baby when the parents have to work? It goes with them!

New York Pierpont Morgan Library, MS G.24 fol. 10r.

New York Pierpont Morgan Library, MS G.24.

Multitasking mum breastfeeds, walks on stilts and balances pot. British Library Royal 10 E iv.

Multitasking mum breastfeeds, walks on stilts and balances pot. British Library Royal 10 E iv.

Working parents in July. Jean Colombe, Heures de Louis de Laval, BnF, Latin 920, fol. 11.

Working Parents. Jean Colombe, Heures de Louis de Laval, BnF, Latin 920.

‘Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!’: Saint George in Late Medieval England

The twenty-third of April is the feast day of Saint George, patron saint of England.

English interest in St George arose in the fourteenth century under Edward III, who created the chivalric ‘Order of the Garter’ in his honour in 1348. The king’s special affinity with the military saint, and his notable success in the Scottish Wars of Independence and the Hundred Years’ War, may have helped to establish St George as the patron saint of England. Banners displaying St George’s arms (a red cross on a white background) were carried into battle at Halidon Hill (1333) for example, and, according to the fourteenth-century chronicler Jean Froissart, the English used the saint’s name as a battle cry before defeating the French at Poitiers (1356).

The Garter King of Arms Kneeling before St George in British Library MS Stowe 594, f. 5v.

The Garter King of Arms Kneeling before St George in British Library MS Stowe 594, f. 5v.

In the fifteenth century, Henry V’s personal devotion to St George continued to enhance English enthusiasm for the saint. In 1415, English soldiers carried banners depicting St George’s arms into battle against the French at Agincourt and emerged victorious. The saint’s feast day was declared a double holy-day and Archbishop Chicheley ordered that it should be kept as solemnly as Christmas, which meant, among other things, that people didn’t have to work.

By the late fifteenth century, St George was sufficiently aligned with military success, chivalry and national pride, for one chronicler to create a unique mythology for the arms, linking the best kings and knights from Britain’s legendary history with contemporary sovereigns and their chivalric orders.

Completed during the civil conflict known as the Wars of the Roses, the two chronicles composed by John Hardyng begin their account of St George’s ‘red cross’ with material adapted from the Vulgate Cycle of Arthurian romance. Hardyng explains that the ‘armes that we Seynt Georges calle’ originated with Joseph of Arimathea. Joseph is said to have given a shield to Evelac, pagan king of Sarras, upon his conversion, which bore a cross of blood in token of the blood spilt at Christ’s Crucifixion. The same device, we are told, was later adopted by the legendary Christian kings, Saint Lucius and Constantine the Great, by the Grail Knight Sir Galahad, who finds Evelac’s shield before achieving the Holy Grail, and by King Arthur, who is presented with a reliquary containing Galahad’s heart in the same way that the Emperor Sigismund presented Henry V with a reliquary containing St George’s heart in 1416.

St George Killing the Dragon in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3

St George Killing the Dragon in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3

Hardyng uses the continuity of the arms throughout the ages to connect the monarchs and knights from Britain’s past to the English kings and subjects who have fought under the saint’s banner in his own times. Attributing part of his information to an enigmatic prophet named Melkin associated with Glastonbury Grail lore, Hardyng claims that, long before St George was born, the arms were used to identify the British so that each man would be able to tell his countrymen from his enemies in battle:

These armes were vsed in alle Britayne
For comon signe, eche man to knowe his nacion
Fro his enmyes, whiche nowe we calle certayne
Saint Georges armes, by Mewyus informacion,
Ful long afore Saint George was generate
Were worshipt here of mykel elder date.

Elsewhere, he states that the arms are worshipped throughout the realm, especially by kings, who take them into battle and always emerge victorious. As a veteran of Agincourt, Hardyng doubtless had the victories of Henry V in mind and wanted to suggest that his glorious military success could be repeated again if his king (first Henry VI and later Edward IV) could bring an end to the civil conflicts plaguing contemporary Englishmen and reunite them against a common foreign enemy, such as Scotland or France.

St George in British Library MS Royal 2 A XVIII

St George in British Library MS Royal 2 A XVIII

In Hardyng’s history, the arms of St George are a rallying point for all loyal Englishmen, who are encouraged to support their king and emulate the Chronicle’s best proponents of chivalry. It is no coincidence that Hardyng ends the first version of his text with a eulogy for his former patron, Sir Robert Umfraville, a Knight of the Garter under the protection of St George, who is cast as the most courageous, kindest and just knight of his generation.

It is coincidental, but nevertheless fitting, that a century after Hardyng penned the last datable reference in his chronicles (1464), William Shakespeare, the author of the most famous quotation depicting Medieval England’s love affair with St George, is believed to have been born, and would later die, on the saint’s feast day: ‘Cry God for Harry, England and Saint George!’

‘I am already sick of love’: Medieval Valentines

The earliest expressions of love linked to St Valentine’s Day are found in the Middle Ages. The most famous is Geoffrey Chaucer’s reference to Valentine’s Day in The Parliament of Fowls, which depicts birds choosing their mates on the feast day: ‘For this was on Seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make’ [For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes to choose his mate, lines 309-10]. Less well-known is the fact that several of Chaucer’s contemporaries – Otton de Grandson, John Gower, Sir John Clanvowe, Christine de Pisan and John Lydgate – also wrote about Valentine’s day and helped to further its connection with romantic love.

Venus collecting medieval hearts in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 606.

Venus collecting medieval hearts in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 606.

In the early fifteenth century, Charles d’Orléans, an important member of the French aristocracy and prisoner of the English since the battle of Agincourt, addressed the earliest ‘Valentine’ poem to a lover during his imprisoment in the Tower of London:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                               I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,                                 My very gentle Valentine,
Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,                     Since for me you were born too soon,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.                    And I for you was born too late.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené                             God forgives him who has estranged
M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.                       Me from you for the whole year.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                              I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,                                My very gentle Valentine,
Bien m’estoye suspeconné,                               Well might I have suspected
Qu’auroye telle destinée,                                   That such a destiny,
Ains que passast ceste journée,                       Thus would have happened this day,
Combien qu’Amours l’eust ordonné.                How much that Love would have commanded.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                             I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée.                                My very gentle Valentine.

Charles d'Orléans writing in the Tower of London, British Library Additional MS Royal 16 F II, f. 73

Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower of London, British Library Additional MS Royal 16 F II, f. 73

The oldest known love letter associated with Valentine’s Day in the English language also survives from the fifteenth century. Preserved in the British Library, it is part of a larger collection of letters written by members of the Paston family of Norfolk. The Valentine letter, written in February 1477, was sent to John Paston by Margery Brews, who swiftly followed it up with another message in reply to Paston’s lost response. In the two documents she tells her ‘welbelouyd’ [well-beloved] John that she has asked her mother to encourage her father to increase her dowry, but that an increase may not be possible, so, if he loves her, he should be prepared to marry her without the pledge of more money. Her remarks about feeling wretched and longing to see John strike a particularly poignant and timeless note, as does her request that ‘non erthely creature safe only your-selfe’ [no earthly creature but yourself] see her letter. Since Margery and John did eventually marry – presumably making Margery the ‘meryest mayden on grounde’ [the happiest maiden on Earth] – her letters are offered below as a testament to the power of love and the emergence of Valentine’s Day in medieval England.

From Margery Brews to Sir John Paston

Vnto my ryght welbelouyd Voluntyn John Paston, squyer, be this bill & delyuered, &c.  Ryght reuerent and wurschypfull and my ryght welebeloued Voluntyne, I recommande me vnto yowe full hertely, desyring to here of yowr welefare, whech I beseche Almyghty God long for to preserve vnto hys plesure and yowr hertys desyre. And yf it please yowe to here of my welefare, I am not in good heele of body ner of herte, nor schall be tyll I here from yowe; For ther wottys no creature what peyn that I endure, And for to be deede I dare it not dyscure. And my lady my moder hath labored the mater to my fadure full delygently, but sche can no more gete then ye knowe of, for the whech God knowyth I am full sory. But yf that ye loffe me, as I tryste verely that ye do, ye will not leffe me therfor; for if that ye hade not halfe the lyvelode that ye hafe, for to do the grettyst labure that any woman on lyve myght, I wold not forsake yowe. And yf ye commande me to kepe me true whereeuer I go iwyse I will do all my myght owe to love and neuer no mo. And yf my freendys say that I do amys, thei schal not me let so for to do, Myn herte me byddys euer more to love yowe truly ouer all erthely thing. And yf thei be neuer so wroth, I tryst it schall be bettur in tyme commyng. No more to yowe at this tyme, but the Holy Trinité hafe yowe in kepyng. And I besech yowe that this bill be not seyn of non erthely creature safe only your-selfe, &c. And thys lettur was indyte at Topcroft wyth full heuy herte, &c. Be your own M. B.

Margery Brews, Valentine Letter, February 1477, London, British Library, MS. Additional 43490, f. 24

Margery Brews, Valentine Letter, February 1477, London, British Library, MS. Additional 43490, f. 24

Margery’s second letter to Sir John Paston

To my ryght welebelouyd cosyn John Paston, swyere, be this lettur + delyueryd, &c.  Ryght wurschypffull and welebelouyd Volentyne, in my moste vmble wyse I recommande me vnto yowe, &c. And hertely I thanke yowe for the letture whech that ye sende me be John Bekurton, wherby I vndyrstonde and knowe that ye be purposyd to com to Topcroft in schorte tyme, and wythowte any erand or mater but only to hafe a conclusyon of the mater betwyx my fadur and yowe. I wolde be most glad of any creature on lyve so that the mater myght growe to effect. And ther as ye say, and ye com and fynde the mater no more toward then ye dyd afortyme ye wold no more put my fadur and my lady my moder to no cost ner besenesse for that cause a good wyle afture, weche causyth myn herte to be full hevy; and yf that ye com and the mater take to non effecte, then schuld I be meche more sory and full of heuynesse. And as for myselfe, I hafe don and vndyrstond in the mater that I can or may, as Good knowyth. And I lete yowe pleynly vndyrstond that my fader wyll no more money parte wyth-all in that behalfe but an c li. [£100] and l [50] marke, whech is ryght far fro the acomplyshment of yowr desyre. Wherfor, yf that ye cowde be content wyth that good and my por persone, I wold be the meryest mayden on grounde. And yf ye thynke not owr-selfe so satysfyed, or that ye myght hafe mech more good, as I hafe vndyrstonde be yowe afor, good, trewe, and lovyng Volentyne, that ye take no such labure vppon yowe as to com more for that mater; but let it passe, and neuer more to be spokyn of, as I may be yowr trewe louer and bedewoman duryng my lyfe. No more vnto yowe at thys tyme, but Almyghty Jesus preserve yowe bothe body and sowle, &c. Be your Voluntyne Mergery Brews

'I am already sick of love': Medieval Valentines

The earliest expressions of love linked to St Valentine’s Day are found in the Middle Ages. The most famous is Geoffrey Chaucer’s reference to Valentine’s Day in The Parliament of Fowls, which depicts birds choosing their mates on the feast day: ‘For this was on Seynt Valentynes day, Whan every foul cometh there to chese his make’ [For this was on Saint Valentine’s Day, when every bird comes to choose his mate, lines 309-10]. Less well-known is the fact that several of Chaucer’s contemporaries – Otton de Grandson, John Gower, Sir John Clanvowe, Christine de Pisan and John Lydgate – also wrote about Valentine’s day and helped to further its connection with romantic love.

Venus collecting medieval hearts in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 606.

Venus collecting medieval hearts in Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 606.

In the early fifteenth century, Charles d’Orléans, an important member of the French aristocracy and prisoner of the English since the battle of Agincourt, addressed the earliest ‘Valentine’ poem to a lover during his imprisoment in the Tower of London:

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                               I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,                                 My very gentle Valentine,
Car pour moi fustes trop tart née,                     Since for me you were born too soon,
Et moy pour vous fus trop tost né.                    And I for you was born too late.
Dieu lui pardoint qui estrené                             God forgives him who has estranged
M’a de vous, pour toute l’année.                       Me from you for the whole year.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                              I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée,                                My very gentle Valentine,
Bien m’estoye suspeconné,                               Well might I have suspected
Qu’auroye telle destinée,                                   That such a destiny,
Ains que passast ceste journée,                       Thus would have happened this day,
Combien qu’Amours l’eust ordonné.                How much that Love would have commanded.

Je suis desja d’amour tanné,                             I am already sick of love,
Ma tres doulce Valentinée.                                My very gentle Valentine.

Charles d'Orléans writing in the Tower of London, British Library Additional MS Royal 16 F II, f. 73

Charles d’Orléans writing in the Tower of London, British Library Additional MS Royal 16 F II, f. 73

The oldest known love letter associated with Valentine’s Day in the English language also survives from the fifteenth century. Preserved in the British Library, it is part of a larger collection of letters written by members of the Paston family of Norfolk. The Valentine letter, written in February 1477, was sent to John Paston by Margery Brews, who swiftly followed it up with another message in reply to Paston’s lost response. In the two documents she tells her ‘welbelouyd’ [well-beloved] John that she has asked her mother to encourage her father to increase her dowry, but that an increase may not be possible, so, if he loves her, he should be prepared to marry her without the pledge of more money. Her remarks about feeling wretched and longing to see John strike a particularly poignant and timeless note, as does her request that ‘non erthely creature safe only your-selfe’ [no earthly creature but yourself] see her letter. Since Margery and John did eventually marry – presumably making Margery the ‘meryest mayden on grounde’ [the happiest maiden on Earth] – her letters are offered below as a testament to the power of love and the emergence of Valentine’s Day in medieval England.

From Margery Brews to Sir John Paston

Vnto my ryght welbelouyd Voluntyn John Paston, squyer, be this bill & delyuered, &c.  Ryght reuerent and wurschypfull and my ryght welebeloued Voluntyne, I recommande me vnto yowe full hertely, desyring to here of yowr welefare, whech I beseche Almyghty God long for to preserve vnto hys plesure and yowr hertys desyre. And yf it please yowe to here of my welefare, I am not in good heele of body ner of herte, nor schall be tyll I here from yowe; For ther wottys no creature what peyn that I endure, And for to be deede I dare it not dyscure. And my lady my moder hath labored the mater to my fadure full delygently, but sche can no more gete then ye knowe of, for the whech God knowyth I am full sory. But yf that ye loffe me, as I tryste verely that ye do, ye will not leffe me therfor; for if that ye hade not halfe the lyvelode that ye hafe, for to do the grettyst labure that any woman on lyve myght, I wold not forsake yowe. And yf ye commande me to kepe me true whereeuer I go iwyse I will do all my myght owe to love and neuer no mo. And yf my freendys say that I do amys, thei schal not me let so for to do, Myn herte me byddys euer more to love yowe truly ouer all erthely thing. And yf thei be neuer so wroth, I tryst it schall be bettur in tyme commyng. No more to yowe at this tyme, but the Holy Trinité hafe yowe in kepyng. And I besech yowe that this bill be not seyn of non erthely creature safe only your-selfe, &c. And thys lettur was indyte at Topcroft wyth full heuy herte, &c. Be your own M. B.

Margery Brews, Valentine Letter, February 1477, London, British Library, MS. Additional 43490, f. 24

Margery Brews, Valentine Letter, February 1477, London, British Library, MS. Additional 43490, f. 24

Margery’s second letter to Sir John Paston

To my ryght welebelouyd cosyn John Paston, swyere, be this lettur + delyueryd, &c.  Ryght wurschypffull and welebelouyd Volentyne, in my moste vmble wyse I recommande me vnto yowe, &c. And hertely I thanke yowe for the letture whech that ye sende me be John Bekurton, wherby I vndyrstonde and knowe that ye be purposyd to com to Topcroft in schorte tyme, and wythowte any erand or mater but only to hafe a conclusyon of the mater betwyx my fadur and yowe. I wolde be most glad of any creature on lyve so that the mater myght growe to effect. And ther as ye say, and ye com and fynde the mater no more toward then ye dyd afortyme ye wold no more put my fadur and my lady my moder to no cost ner besenesse for that cause a good wyle afture, weche causyth myn herte to be full hevy; and yf that ye com and the mater take to non effecte, then schuld I be meche more sory and full of heuynesse. And as for myselfe, I hafe don and vndyrstond in the mater that I can or may, as Good knowyth. And I lete yowe pleynly vndyrstond that my fader wyll no more money parte wyth-all in that behalfe but an c li. [£100] and l [50] marke, whech is ryght far fro the acomplyshment of yowr desyre. Wherfor, yf that ye cowde be content wyth that good and my por persone, I wold be the meryest mayden on grounde. And yf ye thynke not owr-selfe so satysfyed, or that ye myght hafe mech more good, as I hafe vndyrstonde be yowe afor, good, trewe, and lovyng Volentyne, that ye take no such labure vppon yowe as to com more for that mater; but let it passe, and neuer more to be spokyn of, as I may be yowr trewe louer and bedewoman duryng my lyfe. No more vnto yowe at thys tyme, but Almyghty Jesus preserve yowe bothe body and sowle, &c. Be your Voluntyne Mergery Brews