Tag Archives: medieval expert

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 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!

‘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!’

Last Things and End of Days

For most of us, tomorrow – 21 December 2012 – will pass like any other Friday before Christmas; finishing work for the holidays, having a few drinks with friends, doing last minute shopping, or wrapping presents, will be the most eventful things we do. Yet some of Earth’s citizens will wait with bated breath to see if predictions associated with the 2012 Phenomenon come true.

Over the last few decades, the idea that the world will end or transform on this day has been advanced by numerous films, documentaries, books, news reports, advertising companies, and internet media. Whatever our individual response to the ‘end of days’ hype, the prophecies about 21 December reflect mankind’s long-standing fascination with Last Things, Apocalypse and Doomsday.

In the Middle Ages, it was commonly believed that 15 signs would herald Christ’s Second Coming and warn of the impending ‘domesday’*, when all men would be judged and sent to heaven or hell. The signs generally include (with some variation): 1) The sea rising; 2) The sea receding; 3) The sea returning to normal; 4) Sea monsters rising up and making hideous noise; 5) All water burning; 6) Trees and plants sweating blood; 7) Earthquakes toppling buildings; 8) Rocks and stones clashing together; 9) Hills and mountains turning to powder; 10) Men leaving their hiding places in fear and silence; 11) The bones of dead men rising; 12) Stars falling to earth from heaven; 13) Death coming for the living; 14) Heaven and Earth burning; 15) Heaven and Earth being made new and the dead rising to be judged.

Linked with St John’s Revelations, and spuriously attributed to Saint Jerome, these portents  appear in texts, such as the Pricke of Conscience, Cursor Mundi, and Legenda Aurea, in the Chester cycle of mystery plays, in sermons like John Mirk’s Festial, and as images in illuminated Books of Hours and Apocalypses. It is possible that many of England’s churches were once adorned with representations of the portents in paintings, carvings and stained glass, but only two examples survive today: a window in All Saints’ Church, North Street, York, and an alabaster altarpiece now in the British Museum.

All Saints Monsters2

Fourth sign of Doomsday: Monsters rise from the oceans and make hideous noise

All Saints Earthquake

Seventh sign of Doomsday: earthquakes. All Saint’s Church tumbles down

All Saints Donors2

The terrified donors of the window watch the end of days at the bottom of the window.

All Saints Death

Death arrives to take ‘childe, man and woman’

The signs were designed to encourage sinners to reflect upon the state of their soul and be mindful that the last days would be ‘cruell’, ‘ferdfull and horrybull’ (Mirk, Advent Sunday Sermon). They frequently accompany descriptions or images of Judgement Day itself, which in Christian iconography is easily recognisable. Christ is often seated on a rainbow (a nod to the rainbow sent to Noah after the deluge), displaying his freshly bleeding wounds, and accompanied by saints and angels, who hold the tools of the crucifixion (the cross, nails, crown of thorns, spear etc.) and trumpet to announce the Judgement. The dead are shown rising from their graves, and heaven and hell appear, with attendant angels and demons.

Judgement Day in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 32v

Judgement Day in British Library MS Yates Thompson 3, f. 32v

The basis of all judgement scenes is the description of Doomsday found in Matthew 25: 31-46. This account describes what is popularly known as the separation of the sheep and the goats, representative of good and bad souls; the (good) sheep are placed on the right of Christ, or the left of the image being viewed, and the (bad) goats are placed on his left, the right of the image.

Hans Memling's Last Judgement, 1467-71

Hans Memling’s Last Judgement, 1467-71

So, if you notice the earth trembling, sea monsters making a lot of noise, or a red dew on your plants tomorrow, make sure that you’re standing on the right of the man on the rainbow and prepare for doomsday medieval-style.

* ‘dome’ means ‘judgement’ in Middle English

The Parchment Mirror: Reflections of Medieval Life in Literature and Art

Welcome to my occasional blog – The Parchment Mirror.

This is where I will share my fascination with the material remains of the Middle Ages, the manuscripts, literature, art, music, and other precious artefacts, that bring history to life and illuminate medieval culture in thrilling and often unexpected ways.

The inspiration for this blog came from a series of ‘Medieval Entertainment’ tweets that I shared on Twitter a few months ago. I originally envisaged the series comprising approximately ten tweets about the different forms of entertainment available to people in the Middle Ages, but the more I explored the various pastimes illustrated in contemporary manuscripts, the bigger the series grew. I ended the series at fifty-six tweets (across two weeks), but I could have gone on, especially if I’d dedicated more than one tweet to the games that I grouped together under the headings ‘ball games’ and ‘board games’. This blog will allow me to revisit the various forms of entertainment I tweeted about and expand on those activities that my Twitter followers and I found most interesting. It will also allow me to share some of the incredible reflections of the medieval world contained within the literature and manuscripts of the period. Watch this space.

To officially launch my blog, it is only fitting that I should say a few words about the manuscript that inspired the title and featured in my entertainment series: the famous Luttrell Psalter.

The Psalter, otherwise known as British Library Additional MS 42130, is one of the British Library’s greatest treasures; it was made in the first half of the fourteenth century (c. 1325-35) for Sir Geoffrey Luttrell (1276-1345), lord of Irnham in Lincolnshire. Psalters were devotional books that contained the Book of Psalms and other liturgical items, such as calendars, which marked important feast days and often represented medieval life though the ‘Labours of the Month‘. The Luttrell Psalter is particularly special because in addition to containing illustrations typically found in psalters – scenes from the life of Christ and images of the biblical king David, who was believed to be the author of the psalms – the margins of the text are brimming with depictions of daily life in medieval Irnham. From images of low-born peasants tending the fields to striking representations of Geoffrey Luttrell and his noble family feasting and travelling, the psalter offers an exceptional peak at life at both ends of the social spectrum.

Luttrell2As we turn the pages of the psalter, moving through the seasons, we are rewarded with representations of contemporary fashion, rural life, feudal obligation, and fourteenth-century humour. Alongside images of work and play, we also find fantastic grotesques and hybrid creatures drawn straight from the imaginations of the psalter’s artists. Extraordinary drolleries like this commonly inhabit the margins of devotional texts like the Luttrell Psalter and scholars believe that they represent the chaos that lurks beyond the borders of established medieval structures and rule.

As the proud owner of both the British Library facsimile and ebook editions of the psalter, I never tire of looking at the wonderful scenes. They capture my imagination precisely because of the intimate relationship that emerges between the manuscript’s creators and the landscape the artists chose to depict.

To turn the pages of The Luttrell Psalter visit The British Library’s ‘Treasure’ website here. If you fancy time travelling back to fourteenth-century Irnham, watch WAG Screen‘s stunning film based on the Luttrell Psalter below.

To learn more about the psalter’s representation of medieval life see the book that inspired the title of my blog: Michael Camille’s Mirror in Parchment: The Luttrell Psalter and the Making of Medieval England.