Tag Archives: John Hardyng

Medieval Depictions of Stonehenge

The current controversy over plans to build a tunnel under Stonehenge has made me think about medieval depictions of the site again. Over the years, I’ve come across various descriptions of Stonehenge in medieval chronicles, but I haven’t thought seriously about them since preparing volume 1 of John Hardyng’s Chronicle. This post aims to gather together the earliest accounts and images of the stones.


A view of Stonehenge. Image taken by Sarah Peverley

Written and revised between 1129 and 1154, Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum, or History of the English, lists the stone circle as the second of four marvels in England. Henry’s brief but thought-provoking description conveys the sense of wonder and mystery that medieval people experienced when seeing the stones. Unsurprisingly, the response is the same for many visitors today.

Quatuor autem sunt que mira uidentur in Anglia […] Secundum est apud Stanenges ubi lapides mire magnitudinis in modum portarum eleuati sunt, ita ut porte portis superposite uideantur. Nec potest aliquis excogitare qua arte tanti lapides adeo in altum eleuati sunt uel quare ibi constructi sunt.

There are four wonders which may be seen in England […] The second is at Stonehenge, where stones of remarkable size are raised up like gates, in such a way that gates seem to be placed on top of gates. And no one can work out how the stones were so skilfully lifted up to such a height or why they were erected there.

Translation taken from Henry, Archdeacon of Huntingdon. Historia Anglorum, ed. and trans. by Diana E. Greenway, p. 23.

In addition to being the earliest medieval reference to the site, Henry’s account has the accolade of being the first to provide the name “Stanenges” or “Stonehenge”. The etymology of “Stanenges” is up for debate, but it  derives from either the Old English words for stone and gallows/hang (i.e. hanging stones), because the sarsen trilithons look like medieval gallows, or the Old English words for stone and hinge, because the lintels suspend, or hinge, on two standing stones.


Henry of Huntingdon’s Historia Anglorum. London, British Library MS Egerton 3668, ff. 2v-3r


At the same time that Henry of Huntingdon was composing the Historia Anglorum, a Welshman named Geoffrey of Monmouth, was writing the Historia Regum Britanniae, or History of the Kings of Britain (c. 1138). Geoffrey’s account of British history became one of the most influential works of the Middle Ages. It also provided a mythic origin for Stonehenge. In his account of the reign of Aurelius Ambrose, an early British king, Geoffrey describes how Aurelius sought a fitting monument to mark the burial site of the British chiefs slaughtered at Amesbury by Hengist, a tricksy Saxon leader. Merlin (of King Arthur fame) informs Aurelius of a structure in Ireland called “The Giant’s Ring” (aka “The Giants’ Dance” or “The Giants’ Carol”), an ancient stone circle with magical healing properties that will stand for all eternity if erected at the burial site. Merlin agrees to bring the stones to England (they are too heavy for normal men to lift!) and departs for Ireland with Aurelius’s brother, Uther Pendragon (King Arthur’s father), and Uther’s men. A battle between Uther and the Irish king ensues, during which the Irish are defeated. Uther’s men build devices to transport the stones, but they only work when Merlin employs his superior knowledge to improve the designs. The stones are taken to Salisbury and erected as a monument to the dead. Later, Aurelius and Uther are buried at The Giant’s Ring.

Here are the relevant extracts for those wishing to read Geoffrey’s account in full (skip ahead if the summary above is enough):

As Aurelius looked upon the place where the dead lay buried, he was moved to great pity and burst out in tears. For a long time he considered many different ideas about how to memorialise this site, for he felt that some kind of monument should grace the soil that covered so many noblemen who had died for their homeland […]  Merlin said to him: “If you wish to honour the grave of the men with something that will last forever, send for the Ring of Giants which is in now atop Mount Killaraus in Ireland. This Ring consists of a formation of stones that no man in this age could erect unless he employed great skill and ingenuity. The stones are enormous, and there is no one with strength enough to move them. If they can be placed in a circle here, in the exact formation which they currently hold, they will stand for all eternity.” […] “These stones are magical and possess certain healing powers. The giants brought them long ago from the confines of Africa and set them up in Ireland when they settled that country. They set the Ring up thus in order to be healed of their sickness by bathing amid the stones, for they would wash the stones and then bathe in the water that spilled from them; they were thus cured of their illness. They would even mix herbs in and heal their wounds in that way. There is not a stone among them which does not have some kind of medicinal power.” When the Britons heard Merlin’s words, they agreed to send for the stones and to attack the people of Ireland if they tried to withhold them. At last they chose Uther Pendragon, the brother of the king, along with fifteen thousand armed soldiers to carry out this business. Merlin was chosen so that they could be guided by his wisdom and advice. When the ships were ready, they set sail, and, with prosperous winds, made for Ireland. [Battle ensues and the Britons are victorious] Having achieved this victory, the Britons went up Mount Killaraus and gazed at the ring of stones in gladness and wonder. As they all stood there, Merlin came among them and said: “Use all of your strength, men, and you will soon discover that it is not by sinew but by knowledge that these stones shall be moved.” They then agreed to give in to Merlin’s counsel and, through the use of many clever devices, they attempted to dismantle the Ring. Some of the men set up ropes and cords, and ladders in order to accomplish their goal; but none of these things were able to budge the stones at all. Seeing all of their efforts fall flat, Merlin laughed and then rearranged all of their devices. When he had arranged everything carefully, the stones were removed more easily than can be believed. Merlin then had the stones carried away and loaded onto the ships. [The stones are transported back and celebrations are held…] the stones were set up in a circle around the graves exactly as they had been arranged on Mount Killaraus in Ireland. Merlin thus proved that his craft was indeed better than mere strength.

Extracts taken from Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain, trans. by Michael A. Faletra (Broadview Press, 2008), pp. 150-53.


An early copy of Geoffrey’s Historia. London, British Library MS Arundel 10, f. 2r

Geoffrey’s account of Stonehenge was repeated and adapted by chroniclers until the sixteenth century. The first to recycle and embellish it was Wace, who completed his Roman de Brut, a history of Britain, in 1155 and provided three names for the stones:

Bretun les suelent en bretanz
Apeler carole as gaianz,
Stanhenges unt nun en engleis,
Pieres pendues en francis.

In the British language the Britons usually call them the Giants’ Dance; in English they are called Stonehenge, and in French, the Hanging Stones.

Wace’s Roman de brut A History of the British: Text and Translation, ed. and trans. by Judith Weiss, pp. 206-07.

A fourteenth-century manuscript of Wace’s text in the British Library also contains one of the earliest visual depictions of Stonehenge.


Merlin building Stonehenge in London, British Library MS Egerton 3028, f. 30

Another early fourteenth-century illustration accompanies a copy of the Scala Mundi, or Ladder of the World, in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College (pictured below). The Scala Mundi is an anonymous diagrammatic chronicle covering world events from creation to the early fourteenth century. Its depiction of Stonehenge occurs, once again, in the reign of Aurelius Ambrose, next to the statement “Hoc anno chorea gigantum de Hybernia non vi set arte Merlini deuecta apud Stonhenges” [That year the Giants’ Carol of Ireland, not by force but by the art of Merlin, was conveyed to Stonehenge]. The text pictured across the stones reads: “Stonhenges iuxta Ambesbury in Anglia sita” [Stonehenge located near Amesbury in England]. The Scala positions Merlin’s removal of the stones within the broader context of world history by placing it in the same period as Pope Felix III and Emperor Zeno.


Stonehenge in a copy of the Scala Mundi in Cambridge, Corpus Christi College MS 194, f. 57

While the images above are recognisable as Stonehenge, the most accurate illustration  dates to around 1440 and can be found in another copy of the Scala Mundi (Douai, bibliothèque municipale, MS 803). It was rediscovered by Christian Heck in 2006.


Stonehenge in the Scala Mundi in Douai, bibliothèque municipale, MS 803, f. 55



Close up of Stonehenge in Douai, bibliothèque municipale, MS 803, f. 55

The image shows four trilithons in a circle, with tenons protruding from the lintels. While this configuration and the visibility of the tenons on the lintels is not entirely accurate, the image does appear to have been drawn by someone who knew what the stone circle looked like or had been given a technical description of how the lintels were fixed to the standing stones. But of course, not everyone was as well informed as this illustrator. The mystery and magical allure of Stonehenge and its construction continued into the fifteenth-century when the Northern chronicler John Hardyng commented on the stones:

Whiche now so hight the Stonehengles fulle sure
Bycause thay henge and somwhat bowand ere.
In wondre wyse men mervelle how thay bere .

[Which now are called the Stonehenge full sure
Because they hang and are somewhat bowing.
In wonder, wise men marvel how they keep from falling.]

John Hardyng. Chronicle, ed. by James Simpson and Sarah Peverley, 3.1915-17.

Writing towards the end of the Middle Ages, Hardyng captures the same sense of wonder that Henry of Huntingdon articulated over three centuries earlier. Today, almost nine hundred years since Henry put ink to parchment to record the name of the stones for posterity, the site still has the power to captivate and confound. Whatever happens regarding the proposed tunnel, we owe it to future generations to protect the integrity of the site and allow it to continue dazzling those who gaze upon it in all its awesome splendour.

For more on the terminology and building of Stonehenge, follow this link.

Lovers of stone might also enjoy Jeffrey Jerome Cohen’s wonderful book Stone: An Ecology of the Inhuman.


Medieval Maps of Scotland

Today Scotland votes on whether it should become an independent nation or remain part of the United Kingdom.

The issue of Scottish independence is an old one, dating back to the Middle Ages when various English kings attempted to claim dominion over the land through military and diplomatic campaigns. A Scottish succession crisis in the thirteenth century led to The Wars of Independence, which continued into the late fourteenth-century and were swiftly followed by the Anglo-Scottish Wars. The latter continued, on and off, until 1603 when Scotland and England became united under a single (Scottish!) monarch, James VI of Scotland, also known as James I of England.

Capture of Wark Castle in British Library Royal 18 E i.

Capture of Wark Castle in British Library Royal 18 E i.

For me, one of the most powerful representations of the historical conflict is the first map to focus solely on Scotland. It was produced during the Anglo-Scottish Wars of the fifteenth century by an English soldier called John Hardyng, who was sent to Scotland as a spy by Henry V. Hardyng’s mission was to obtain documentary evidence of English hegemony and map the country, finding the best routes for an invading army.

For three and a half years Hardyng gathered intelligence for his king, creating detailed maps, plans and documents to support England’s supremacy. Though Henry V never lived to use them, Hardyng later incorporated the materials into his Chronicle of British history and presented them to Henry VI and Edward IV. The map surviving in the earliest copy of Hardyng’s Chronicle, British Library MS Lansdowne 204 (which we can date to 1457), has the accolade of being the earliest independent map of Scotland.

Hardyng's Map of Scotland in British Library MS Lansdowne 204 (orientated with west at the top).

Hardyng’s Map of Scotland in British Library MS Lansdowne 204 (orientated with west at the top).

Though it’s compellingly accurate for an early cartographical representation of the realm, and is clearly informed by sound knowledge of Scottish topography, its function is largely symbolic. Accompanied by a detailed itinerary that outlines Hardyng’s invasion plan and offers information on distances and geographical points of interest, the map depicts Scotland as an attractive country, packed with impressive castles, religious houses and walled towns. Its purpose is to show Scotland as a prosperous realm that the English king would benefit from ruling.

Most interesting is the way in which Scotland is cut off from England. The sea surrounds the country on three sides and two rivers seem to sever Scotland from England near the Anglo-Scottish border (shown on the left of the image) .

Matthew Paris's map of Britain. British Library

Matthew Paris’s map of Britain. British Library Cotton Claudius D vi (f. 12v)

Matthew Paris's Map of Britain in British Library Royal 14 C vii (f. 5v)

Matthew Paris’s Map of Britain in British Library Royal 14 C vii (f. 5v)

Although Hardyng’s map is the first to chart Scotland by itself, representations of a physically independent Scotland, or one almost detached from England, are common in earlier maps. Matthew Paris’s famous depictions of Britain in British Library MSS Cotton Claudius D vi and Royal 14 C vii show ‘Scocia’ precariously balanced on top of ‘Anglia’, while the image of the British Isles on the stunning Hereford Mappa Mundi shows Scotland floating alongside its neighbour. Another fifteenth-century map in Harley 3686 separates the countries once again.

Britain on the Hereford Mappa Mundi (left).

Britain on the Hereford Mappa Mundi (Scotland separated left).

Britain in British Library Harley 3686 (f. 13).

Britain in British Library Harley 3686 (f. 13).

Even when Scotland is firmly joined to England, as it is below in British Library MS Harley 1808, medieval artists rarely added the kind of detail found south of the border, giving the country an empty or sparsely populated look.

Map of Britain in British Library Harley 1808 (the map is orientated with South at the top).

Map of Britain in British Library Harley 1808 (the map is orientated with South at the top).

This is presumably because few medieval people south of the borders had any real contact with, or knowledge of, Scotland to complete the gaps in earlier representations they might have seen. One notable exception is the incredible Gough Map in the Bodleian Library.

The Gough Map, orientated with east at top.

The Gough Map, orientated with east at top. Bodleian Library MS Gough Gen. Top. 16.

Even Hardyng’s map, which is to be treasured for the information it contains, depicts the Scottish highlands as terra incognita: wild, unknown territory best avoided by travellers or invading armies. The earliest version of the map shows this space empty apart from vegetation, much like Harley 1808, but later versions fill the extreme north with the image of a large castle representing ‘The Palais of Pluto, king of Hel, neighbore to Scottz’ [The palace of Pluto, king of Hell, neighbour to Scots].

Pluto's Palace of Pride in British Library MS Harley 661, f. 188.

Pluto’s Palace in British Library MS Harley 661, f. 188.

Blending various traditions that associate the devil with the north and Pluto with wealth, this cartographical feature takes us beyond real geography into the realm of anti-Scottish propaganda; Hardyng draws on the animosity that had grown out of centuries of conflict between the two nations to produce a map that speaks to the political and ideological concerns of his own troubled times.

For more on Anglo-Scottish relations in Hardyng’s Chronicle see my article in The Anglo-Scottish Border and the Shaping of Identity, 1300-1600, ed. by Mark P. Bruce and Katherine H. Terrell.

My short BBC film on Hardyng’s Scottish mission and why he incorporated the maps into his chronicle is here.

On His Majesty’s Secret Service: Henry V’s Spy and Scottish Independence

One of the highlights of being a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker this year has been making a short film with BBC Arts. The film offers a little taste of my work on John Hardyng, a fifteenth-century solider who fought in Henry V’s army during the Hundred Years’ War with France.

Three years after Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt, Hardyng was sent to Scotland to obtain evidence of English sovereignty over the realm, and to map out an invasion route, should the king wish to assert his claim of overlordship. My film explores the connection between Hardyng’s espionage and the Chronicle of British History that he wrote several decades later during the Wars of the Roses.

On His Majesty's Secret Service: Henry V's Spy and Scottish Independence

One of the highlights of being a BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker this year has been making a short film with BBC Arts. The film offers a little taste of my work on John Hardyng, a fifteenth-century solider who fought in Henry V’s army during the Hundred Years’ War with France.

Three years after Henry V defeated the French at Agincourt, Hardyng was sent to Scotland to obtain evidence of English sovereignty over the realm, and to map out an invasion route, should the king wish to assert his claim of overlordship. My film explores the connection between Hardyng’s espionage and the Chronicle of British History that he wrote several decades later during the Wars of the Roses.

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.


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.

‘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!’

Christmas at the Medieval Court

Though Christmas was very different in the Middle Ages, many of the pastimes and activities that we associate with it would have been familiar to medieval people. Feasting, playing games, singing, drinking around a fire, decorating the house with evergreens, and giving gifts, are just some of the traditions enjoyed in the medieval festive season.

The activities depicted at King Arthur’s Christmas court in the famous fourteenth-century romance Sir Gawain and the Green Knight provide a nice insight into the festivities at a late medieval court:

The king was at Camelot at Christmas time, with many a handsome lord, the best of knights, all the noble brotherhood of the Round Table, duly assembled, with revels of fitting splendour and carefree pleasures. There they held tourney on many occasions; these noble knights jousted most gallantly, then rode back to the court to make merry. For there the celebrations went on continuously for fully fifteen days, with all the feasting and merrymaking which could be devised; such sounds of mirth and merriment, glorious to hear, a pleasant uproar by day, dancing at night, nothing but the greatest happiness in halls and chambers among lords and ladies, to their perfect contentment […] While New Year was so young that it had just newly arrived, on the day itself the company was served with redoubled splendour at table. When the king had come with his knights into the hall, the singing of Mass in the chapel having drawn to an end, a loud hubbub was raised there by clerics and others, Christmas was celebrated anew, ‘Noel’ called out again and again. And then nobles came forward to offer good-luck tokens, called aloud ‘New Year gifts’ profffered them in their hands. [translation from W. R. J. Baron’s Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Manchester University Press]

As this passage illustrates, Christmas in the Middle Ages was a lengthy affair. Preparations and celebrations started well before 25 December, and continued long after. Though peasants returned to work after Epiphany (the twelfth day of Christmas or 6 January), the higher ranks might celebrate for longer, like Arthur’s hosting of tournaments and feasting over fifteen days. Truly extravagant festivities might even extend until Candlemas on 2 February.

A festive feast representing January in the Très Riches Heures of John, duke of Berry (fifteenth century)

A festive feast representing January in the Très Riches Heures of John, duke of Berry (fifteenth century)

The anonymous Gawain-Poet does not describe the individual dishes eaten at Arthur’s feast, but he does evoke the spectacle of a royal banquet, telling us that each course was brought out to ‘the blaring of trumpets’, ‘kettledrums’, and ‘pipes’, and that the dishes contained ‘the richest foods, fresh meat in plenty […] and various stews’; each couple shared ‘twelve dishes, good beer and bright wine’. Food served at a Christmas feast would include roast meats (especially wild boar), fowl, pies, stews, bread, cheese, puddings, ‘sotelties‘ (elaborate decorative dishes designed for entertainment, often with religious or political significance), and mince pies. Unlike the pies familiar to us, medieval mince pies, or shred pies, were bigger, rectangular shaped pastries (known as ‘cofins’), filled with minced meats like pork, eggs, fruit, spices, and fat. No specific recipes for them survive, but the Forme of Cury, a recipe book compiled c. 1390 by Richard II’s master cooks, contains a recipe for ‘chewettes’, which are similar, smaller versions of the medieval mince pie:

Chewettes on Flesch Day. Take the lyre of pork and kerue hit [carve it] al to pecys and hennes therwith and do hit in a panne and frye hit and make a coffyn [pastry] as to a pye smale and do therin and do theruppon yolkes of ayron [eggs] hard, pouder of gyngur and salt, couere hit and fry hit in grece [grease] other bake hit del and serue forth.

Forme of Cury Rylands MS 7

Recipe for Chewettes in The Forme of Cury. Manchester John Rylands Library MS 7

It’s easy to imagine Richard II’s court celebrating Christmas over many days like King Arthur, eating course after course of the dishes described in the Forme of Cury. An account book of 1377 records that twenty-eight oxen and three hundred sheep were eaten at the king’s Christmas feast, and the chronicler John Hardyng, describing the excess of the king’s household in the 1390s, notes that ten thousand people a day attended Richard II’s court and that they were provided with food and drinks by three hundred cooks and servants.

Celebrations in noble and gentry households were much smaller in scale, but nevertheless impressive. A letter from Margaret Paston to her husband John, written on 24 December 1459, includes a list of activities that their neighbour Lady Morley did and did not allow in her household the previous year when she was mourning the loss of her husband:

there were no disguisings [masques], nor harping, nor luting, nor singing, nor no loud pastimes, but playing at the tables [board games], and chess, and cards, such activities she gave her folk leave to play and none other [my translation]

Quieter pursuits, such as board games and cards were clearly suitable for a house in mourning, but louder and more spritely Christmas entertainments, such as singing, playing music and watching masques were not.

Board games from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

Board games from Oxford, Bodleian Library MS Bodley 264

So, as you sit down to eat your Christmas dinner, tuck into a mince pie, sing Christmas carols, or play a board game with your family or friends this year, why not share your knowledge of the medieval Christmas and exchange the medieval Christmas greeting recorded by the Gawain-poet too – ‘Noel!’