A Great and Terrible King: Edward I and the Forging of Britain by Marc Morris (2008)

This is a really good book about a key figure in medieval history: it feels deep and rich, comprehensively researched, and consistently thought-provoking. It provides a long, thorough and convincing portrait of this ‘great’ medieval king, with lots of insights into the culture and society of his time, not only of England, but of Wales and Scotland too. Above all, ploughing through this detailed account of the challenges Edward faced gives you a profound understanding of the sheer difficulty of being a medieval king.

You can read a good account of Edward I’s reign on Wikipedia. From Morris’s book a number of themes and ideas emerge over and above the basic facts:

The name ‘Edward’

Edward was an odd and unfashionable name for a Plantagenet king. It is a Saxon name from the same stable as Egbert and Aelfred – starkly different from the French names Norman aristocracy and royalty were used to – Guillaume, Henri, Jean, Richard and so on. This was because Edward’s father, Henry III, a feeble king, grew increasingly obsessed by religion and in particular with the last king of Saxon England, the saintly Edward the Confessor. Henry went so far as to have the Confessor’s bones dug up and reinterred in Westminster Abbey, which Henry also had rebuilt to the Confessor’s greater glory. And this is why he named his first-born son Edward.

Young manhood and education

Born in 1239, Edward grew up amid the chaos of the reign of useless father, Henry III. A major contributing factor to the chaos was the corrupt and violent behaviour of Henry’s in-laws, the French de Lusignan family (relatives of Henry’s scheming wife, Eleanor of Provence).

Discontent erupted in 1258 when a group of Henry’s senior nobles staged what was in effect a coup, forcing the king to expel the de Lusignans and to agree a comprehensive reform programme known as the Provisions of Oxford. From this high point the barons’ coup then slowly crumbled from within as they squabbled among themselves, but Henry was unable to regain full control of his kingdom and the ongoing instability led to another eruption in 1263, named The Second Barons War.

The rebel barons were led by the religious fanatic and land-grabbing baron Simon de Montfort. There’s quite a back story here, because earlier in his reign the impressionable Henry had allowed the charismatic and overbearing Montfort to marry his sister (against a lot of courtly opposition), so the rebel leader was in fact Henry’s own brother-in-law.

The rebels won the bloody Battle of Lewes in 1264, taking Henry and prince Edward (aged 25) prisoner. Edward was moved to a ‘safe’ castle in the west of England and generously given free reign which proved to be a mistake because one day he escaped on horseback to rejoin his royalist colleagues. The regrouped royalists brought the rebels to battle at Evesham in the West Midlands, killing the leading rebels including de Montfort.

Henry III was restored to a shaky sort of power, but now limited by the charters and rules he’d been obliged to comply with – the rough outlines of a ‘constitution’. For example, it was agreed that there would now be regular meetings of his nobles, the knights of the shires and burgesses from the major towns and cities. The new word ‘parliament’ began to be applied to these triannual meetings.

Henry III at first fiercely punished the rebels, confiscating their lands, imposing massive fines – but slowly discovered that this only drove the scattered rebels into further confrontation. Soon there were so many of them they acquired a name, ‘the Disinherited’, and hid out in remote parts of the realm such as the Isle of Ely, where they were difficult to defeat.

Edward learned a lot from all this.

a) In the initial stages of the rebellion he had (unbelievably) sided with de Montfort; only later, when push came to shove, did he rejoin his father’s party. Because of this he acquired a reputation for deceit and flipping sides which, as king, he was determined to rise above, by making clear and consistent decisions.
b) He realised it is a bad tactic to fiercely crush the defeated (cf the Allies’ behaviour to Wilhelmine Germany after the Great War) – you only sow the seeds for further conflict. Much better is the grand magnanimity and forgiveness practiced by his great-grandfather, Henry II, who repeatedly forgave his rebellious sons and other nobles (or America’s astonishingly forgiving attitude to defeated Japan in 1945).
c) Regular parliaments are an excellent way of letting disgruntled citizens state their problems. Right from the start of Edward’s reign he instituted regular meetings of the ‘parliament’ and he made a point of following up problems of corruption and out-of-date laws.

Crusade

If his father was besotted with the historic figure of Edward the Confessor, Edward developed a cult for the legendary King Arthur. Morris has some amusing pages explaining the rise of the legend of Arthur and the key part played in it by the fraud Geoffrey of Monmouth whose History of the Kings of Britain (written about 1136) is a farrago of fantasy and tall stories, but which devotes 60 or so pages to this King Arthur, providing a ‘factual’ basis which later writers spun out into extravagant stories.

So the first thing Edward did after marrying Eleanor of Castile was take his new bride to Glastonbury to see the (alleged and certainly faked) burial caskets containing Arthur and Guinevere. Edward was always to understand the importance of managing public events connected with the monarchy with high drama and theatrical trappings so as to imbue them with the maximum meaning and power.

He made a grand ceremony of ‘taking the cross’ to go a-crusading in 1268, in his father’s waning years. Morris shows in detail how he then set about mulcting the kingdom for the money he would need to lead his pack of knights and hangers-on to the Holy Land. Part one of the route was to head to the South of France to rendezvous with the senior partner in the crusade, King Louis IX of France. But on arrival at the Mediterranean he was dismayed to discover that Louis had been persuaded by his brother, Charles of Anjou, King of Sicily, not to sail to the Holy Land, but to Tunis in North Africa, to put down pirates who were causing Charles trouble. By the time Edward arrived in Tunis, Louis had made a peace treaty with the local emir so there was no fighting to be done.

The two fleets then sailed to Sicily but here a massive storm wrecked the French fleet, anchored on one side of Sicily, and the French king decided to go home. Edward continued with the English fleet – safely anchored on the other side of Sicily – to the Holy Land. His time here wasn’t quite a fiasco but it wasn’t a stunning success: Jerusalem had fallen fifty years earlier and the Crusader ‘kingdom’ more or less amounted to the town of Acre and a slender stretch of coastline. This was menaced by the Mamluk Muslims under their canny leader Baybars. A pointless foray to attack some Arab villages led to ferocious counter-measures.

The Crusaders’ best hope was to make an alliance with the new threat from the north, the Mongols, who had swept out of central Asia in the late 1100s and now held territory right across Asia, including to the north of Palestine in modern Iran. For various reasons the alliance didn’t come off. Edward realised the futility of his presence when Hugh II, king of Jerusalem, was forced to sign a peace treaty with Baybars, and all offensive operations were cancelled.

The most dramatic thing that happened to Edward in the Holy Land was an assassination attempt by a lone killer sent from Baybars, who made his way into the royal chamber and then attacked Edward with a knife. He managed to wound the king in the arm before Edward overpowered and killed him. The wound took some time to heal, but eventually Edward was well enough to pack up and set off back to England.

It was en route, in Sicily, that he learned that his father had died, in November 1272. Surprisingly, he didn’t rush home, but took his time, visiting his lands in Gascony, south-west France, and then making a point of visiting the French king and renewing his father’s fealty to him i.e. confirming the arrangement that Edward ‘owned’ Gascony on behalf of the French king.

It is a forlorn theme of the rest of Edward’s life, which Morris brings out, that he repeatedly made massive efforts to raise the money to go on a further crusade – but every time his preparations were stymied by the outbreak of conflict nearer to home and the money and troops raised to free the Holy Land were repeatedly decoyed into the never-ending conflicts in Wales or Scotland or France.

France

Edward’s father, the weakling Henry III, had been compelled in 1259 to travel to Paris and kneel before King Louis IX. Under the Treaty of Paris, Henry gave up any claim to his family’s lands in the north of France – this represented the final irrevocable loss of Normandy, Brittany, Anjour, Maine – all the territories his father (John) and uncle (Richard) and grandfather (Henry II) had laboured so long and hard to preserve. In return, though, Henry – and Edward after him – were confirmed as the legitimate rulers of Gascony, the rich wine-growing region in south-west France – so long as they did homage and recognised Louis as their feudal lord for these possessions.

Although it was an unstable arrangement, Edward had good personal relations with the French kings of his day, travelled to Paris more than once to confirm the arrangement and so – eerily – we were at peace with France for the first half of his reign.

This changed abruptly in Edward’s final, troubled decade, with the advent of a new French king, Philip IV. The French encouraged their merchant ships in the Channel to clash with English ships, with casualties on both sides. When Philip requested Edward to attend in person in Paris to discuss these and other minor skirmishes, Edward was too busy in Scotland to attend and so the French king declared Gascony forfeit.

Outraged, for the next ten years Edward tried to organise a major reconquest of Gascony but kept getting derailed by his troubles in Wales and Scotland. Some expeditionary forces were sent to the province, but generally were defeated or made small gains which were overturned by the much larger French forces. In the end it was the pope who came to Edward’s aid, demanding a peace between the two Christian kings and the restoration of the province by the French under pain of excommunication. We regained Gascony thanks to the pope.

Wales

The leading figure in late 12th century Wales was Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. He was based in the core Welsh territory in the north, Gwynedd, which included the Isle of Anglesea. During the turmoil of Henry III’s reign, Llywelyn – via the 1267 Treaty of Montgomery – had expanded his territory to include the Four Cantrefs of Perfeddwlad and was recognised in his title of Prince of Wales.

Morris explains how different Welsh laws and customs were to English ones. The Welsh regarded themselves as heirs to the Britons who once inhabited all of Britain but had been disinherited twice over – once by the invading Anglo-Saxons from the 500s  and then by the Normans after 1066. Successive English kings had allotted the lands along the border with Wales to their strongest nobles. The border was known as the March and the nobles collectively as the Marchers. March lands had their own laws and customs and the Marcher lords liked to think that they were bounden to neither Welsh nor English laws. Low-level conflict between the Marcher lords and the Welsh was almost permanent.

English estates were passed on through primogeniture i.e. the eldest son inherits the entire estate. This has the merit of keeping grand estates united, making clear who the heir is, and has the spin-off effect of motivating younger sons to go and do something worthwhile like fight for the king or go on crusade. The Welsh had a completely different system of partitioning the estate of a dead man among all his male heirs. This led to the continual fragmentation of Welsh territory into small, relatively powerless estates, and to continual conflict between male members of families, and their allies.

So it was that Llywelyn’s fiercest enemies weren’t the English Marcher lords, but his own family, specifically his younger brother Dafydd. In 1274 Dafydd and Gruffydd ap Gwenwynwyn of Powys organised an assassination attempt against Llywelyn. It failed and they defected to the English, promising to fight for Edward in return for part of Llywelyn’s land. Morris enumerates the numerous minor incursions and skirmishes between English and Welsh in these years – but the snapping point came when Llywelyn announced his intention to marry Eleanor, daughter of Simon de Montfort, the great enemy of his father. The alliance of his Welsh enemies with the powerful de Montfort family on the Continent was too dangerous to be allowed. In November 1276 Edward declared war on Llywelyn and invaded with a massive force of 15,500 – of whom 9,000 were Welshmen. There wasn’t any single major battle, just skirmishes, the Welsh making hit-and-run guerrilla attacks on the larger force then running back to the hills.

(In fact it’s a characteristic of medieval warfare that there were very few battles; campaigns consisted of armies making great marches destroying, burning and pillaging everything in their path. It’s startling to read that, when King Edward finally brought William Wallace to battle at Falkirk on 22 July 1298, it was the first battle Edward had been involved in for 33 years, since the Battle of Evesham in 1265!)

Edward reinforced his advance by setting masons to build castles at key defensive points on his march into Llywelyn’s heartland. While his military campaign squeezed the Welsh into more remote fastnesses, the castles were built to protect Edward’s rear and to provide a permanent means of controlling the region. Llywelyn was forced to surrender. By the Treaty of Aberconwy in November 1277, Llywelyn was deprived of all his conquests of the previous twenty years, and left only with the core heartland of Gwynedd, and the rather empty title of ‘Prince of Wales’.

Edward pressed on with his castle-building. Most of the castles which the Welsh Tourist Board invites you to come and marvel at are in fact symbols of their nation’s subjection by the English.

But the insensitive imposition of English law and practices turned many minor Welsh nobility who had been neutral in the Llywelyn war against the settlement, and in 1282 war broke out again, led again by the difficult Dafydd. This time Edward was angry at the breach of the peace treaty, and invaded in full strength determined to take no prisoners. Llywelyn was killed at the Battle of Orewin Bridge in December 1282. In June 1283 Dafydd was also captured, taken to Shrewsbury, and hanged, drawn and quartered. The heads of the rebellious brothers were sent to London to be exhibited on spikes.

But peace in the Middle Ages never lasts long. There were further rebellions in 1287–88 and, in 1294, a serious uprising under the leadership of Madog ap Llywelyn, a distant relative of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd. Edward successfully suppressed both, but at some cost, and causing disruption to his other plans (the Holy Land, Gascony).

Edward was determined to stamp complete control on Wales. By the 1284 Statute of Rhuddlan, the Principality of Wales was incorporated into England and was given an administrative system like the English, with counties policed by sheriffs – ‘coins, laws, towns and charters’ as Morris sums it up. Edward embarked on the full-scale English settlement of Wales, creating new towns like Flint, Aberystwyth and Rhuddlan. The inhabitants of these towns were to be solely English, with the Welsh banned from living in them. Morris doesn’t hesitate to call this a form of apartheid.

(A fascinating aspect of these new towns or bastides is that, contrary to popular belief that the Middle Ages built everything in quaint windy lanes, they were laid out on a rigid grid pattern as this aerial view of Winchelsea, one of Edward’s English new towns, makes clear.)

Castles

The main medieval strategy for securing a conquered territory was to build castles. We are lucky in having the name of Edward’s master mason, an Italian he recruited in his slow journey back from the Ninth Crusade – Master James of Saint George.

Master James built the castles of Beaumaris, Caernarfon, Conwy and Harlech, which were intended as both fortresses and royal palaces for the King. These strongholds made a strong statement about Edward’s intentions to rule North Wales permanently. They drew on imagery from both the Byzantine Empire (in the shape and coloration of the buildings) and the legend of King Arthur, to assert the legitimacy of Edward’s rule.

In 1284 King Edward ensured that his son Edward (later Edward II) was born at Caernarfon Castle – another deliberate statement about the new political order in Wales. In 1301 at Lincoln, the young Edward became the first English prince to be invested with the title of ‘Prince of Wales’ – a tradition which continues to this day – and was granted land across North Wales with a view to permanently controlling the region.

Scotland

Morris has an interesting few pages about 13th century English racism i.e. the firm conviction that the Welsh, Irish and Scots were semi-human barbarians. This was based on their poverty relative to lush fertile England, to their chaotic social structures (the hosts of petty ‘kings’ always fighting each other), to their different attitudes to sex and marriage, and to their traditions of Christianity, alien in many ways to the orthodox Catholicism of the English and especially of the Europeanised Norman kings.

But within this general observation there are fascinating insights.

For example, the Welsh were ethnically very unified, descendants of the Britons, the original inhabitants of the island, who had been pushed west by the Romans, more so by the Angles and Saxons, and then again by the Norman invaders. Yet, partly because of their tradition of partitioning estates at the death of their owner among all adult males, the country was in a permanent state of infighting among a host of petty lords.

This contrasted strongly with 13th century Scotland, which was a surprisingly multi-ethnic society: in the south-west were the original ‘Brittonic elements’, but the south-east was mostly populated by English, remnants of the extensive Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria; in the west the inhabitants were of Gaelic stock, having immigrated from Ireland during the Dark Ages; and all around the coast, especially in the islands, lived people of Norwegian (Viking) stock (p.241). Then, after the Conquest, numbers of Norman knights settled in Scottish lands and, in the mid-12th century, there was a large influx of Flemish settlers.

Yet despite this multi-ethnicity, ironically the Scots had a more unified political culture than the Welsh, mainly because they had adopted the European idea of primogeniture, which ensured the maintenance of a strong central power. There were still civil wars and rebellions, but behind them all was always the established idea of one king of Scotland, in a way that there wasn’t an accepted idea of one central king of Wales.

It’s interesting to learn that around the end of the 11th century Scotland underwent a significant ‘anglicisation’. It is usually dated to the rule of Scots King David I. David had been brought up at the court of Henry I, around 1100, where he imbibed the courtly and urbane manners of European culture. As Morris points out, before this Scots kings had generally had Gaelic names, like Malcolm (Máel Coluim); afterwards they tended to have classical, Biblical or Norman names – Alexander, William, David. In fact, so sweeping were the changes that medieval scholars refer to them collectively as the ‘Davidian Revolution’:

The Davidian Revolution is a term given by many scholars to the changes which took place in the Kingdom of Scotland during the reign of David I (1124–1153). These included his foundation of burghs, implementation of the ideals of Gregorian Reform, foundation of monasteries, Normanization of the Scottish government, and the introduction of feudalism through immigrant Norman and Anglo-Norman knights. (Wikipedia)

All this meant that the kings of England tended to have much more respect for the King of the unified Scots than for the prince of the squabbling Welsh. They were more their idea of what kings should be. Edward I had been on good terms with the Scots king of his day, Alexander III (reigned 1249 to 1286), who paid him homage for the English lands he held of him (much as Edward paid the King of France homage for his territory of Gascony).

But when Alexander’s two sons and daughter all died young, and then Alexander himself died in 1286, and then his grand-daughter, seven-year-old Matilda, died while sailing back from Norway (where she’d been born) in 1290, there were no blood relatives left – the line of Alexander became defunct. This led to a massive succession crisis known in Scotland as ‘The Great Cause’.

There was a wide range of candidates to succeed and so an independent arbiter was needed. The nobles in charge of the process, the so-called ‘Guardians’ of Scotland, decided to ask King Edward to adjudicate the various claims. But Edward promptly horrified the Scots nobles by claiming complete sovereignty over Scotland. This set off a long train of highly legalistic disputes, claims and counter-claims. Morris details the complex negotiations whereby both sides tried to reconcile their conflicting views.

In fact a distinguishing feature of this book is the detail Morris goes into to show how legalistic so many of these disputes were in origin and enactment. I.e Edward was generally at pains to establish his right to a territory or cause; in the case of the Scots legalistic attempts to establish the next king dragged on for years before there was any hint of violence and many of the details are illuminating and amusing, for example the refusal of the Scots nobles to pay homage to Edward on English soil, leading to a lot of toing and froing over the bridge over the Tweed which formed the border between the two kingdoms.

On a high level, the legal approaches broke down and led to open warfare, which dragged on for the rest of Edward’s reign. The English beat the Scots, the Scots beat the English – either one of the two main contenders for the throne – Robert the Bruce or John Balliol – alternately allied with Edward then turned against him. Stirling castle was lost, then won again, then lost again.

In a way these wars are like love stories – ‘boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy finds girl again’ is the famous summary of all Hollywood love stories – similarly, ‘King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England loses Scotland (or Wales or Ireland), King of England conquers Scotland (or Wales or Ireland) again’ is the high level summary. the interest is in the detail, and a lot of the detail in fact comes down to money.

Taxes

In his preface Morris says this is the first full-length biography of Edward for a century. I would guess that some of the biggest changes since the last one would be a more politically correct, culturally aware sense of the impact of English rule on the other nations of Britain (described above). But I also imagine this book goes into much greater detail about the economics of kingship.

These kings lived in a state of permanent financial crisis. The uprising against Henry III was prompted partly because of the corrupt influence of foreigners at court, but also because of Henry’s arbitrary and fierce levying of taxes on his subjects. The single biggest theme in Morris’s book isn’t war or King Arthur or Scotland – it is Edward’s permanent struggle to find enough money to pay for everything.

Crusades, building castles, fighting the Welsh, fighting the Scots, defending Gascony – they all cost money, drained the royal coffers, and Morris goes into exacting detail about Edward’s finances. Broadly speaking, in the first half of his reign Edward went out of his way to appear constitutional, to confirm the annual calling of parliaments, to confirm Magna Carta and the Charter of the Forests, to review grievances and issues all around his kingdom, to tour his lands and listen to local sheriffs and knights. Morris details the clever arrangement Edward devised with his Italian bankers, the Riccardi family from Lucca, whereby Edward swore over to them a fixed annual percentage of his wool tax in return for loans.

But in the 1290s this system broke down under the pressure of multiple threats, in Wales, Scotland, Gascony and then the brief intense threat of invasion from France (French ships raided and burned some of the Cinque Ports on the South Coast). Edward was forced by the huge expenditure required by these simultaneous wars to break many of the good practices of his early reign, by imposing a bewildering range of clever and onerous taxes, on towns and merchants, on the entire wool trade, on nobles and barons, and a punishing set of taxes on the (very wealthy) English church. Among many other things, the book is a thorough introduction to the world of medieval taxes, to maltotes and prises, to scutage and tallages and fifteenths and thirtieths.

The last quarter of the book describes how Edward threw away much of the goodwill generated by 20 years of good kingship, and comprehensively alienated every element in society, prompting armed insurrection by a number of leading nobles (most frequently the earls of Norfolk and Hereford, Roger Bigod and Humphrey de Bohun). In the legalistic way of the age (and of Morris’s account) this led to numerous parliaments and confrontations – but by 1300 England teetered on the brink of a civil war, with church and nobility allied against the king, which hadn’t been seen since the bad days of King Henry in the 1250s.

Luckily, this very moment saw the eruption onto the scene of the Scottish nationalist William Wallace, who raised forces in the west of Scotland and went onto win a series of devastating victories against the (badly supplied) English garrisons. As news of these reached England, the crisis (temporarily) united king and aristocracy into a determination to defeat Wallace.

But even though the nobility closed ranks, Morris’s account is fascinating in showing just how hard it still was for Edward to persuade his nobility to fight at all – many of them refused the call to rally to the king’s standard or marched north only to hesitate and pull out at the last moment. Time and again Morris shows how the initially impressive levies of infantry quickly melted away once they’d crossed the border, basically because the king ran out of money and couldn’t afford to pay them. Edward’s letters to his Exchequer survive and record a king driven to mounting rage and frustration at not being sent enough money to pay  his troops, which melt away just at vital moments of the campaign.

I came to this book knowing that Edward was known as ‘the Hammer of the Scots’ but come away with a much more informed sense of the difficulty of funding medieval kingship and the really immense challenge of raising enough money to fund even a single military campaign.

In a telling symbol, Morris points out how Master James the castle builder had thousands of pounds in the 1280s to build edifices like Caernarfon out of solid stone, but by the late 1290s the money had slowed to a trickle and he was being paid only £20 a week to build the final castles of the reign, Linlithgow and Selkirk – and in wood!

The last seven years of his reign (to his death in 1307) involved more fighting against the Welsh and Scots and French but none of these was brought to a final resolution and he handed over the conflicts, the dire state of royal finances, and a nobility and church very disgruntled at being repeatedly fleeced and mulcted, over to his son, Edward II.

Wife and children

When he was 14 Edward was married off by his father to 13-year-old Eleanor, the half-sister of King Alfonso X of Castile. The idea behind this alliance was to make the southern borders of Gascony safe from attack. In this respect it worked but also, unusually for a medieval royal couple, Edward and Eleanor fell deeply in love. For their entire adult lives they were inseparable.

When Eleanor of Castile died, aged just 49, in 1290, Edward’s grief was immense and sincere. He built the largest funerary monument ever created in England – separate tombs, at Lincoln and Westminster. And a series of twelve large stone and marble crosses to mark each of the resting points of her corpse as it was carried from Lincoln to London – the last one being in central London at the station now known as Charing Cross (corrupted from the French chère reine or ‘dear queen’).

Eleanor of Castile had borne Edward 15 or 16 children (the precise number is uncertain). Only four of these were boys and so able to inherit the throne, but two died very young, John aged 4 and Henry aged 6. The succession then passed to the third son – Alfonso. Alfonso. There could have been an English king named Alfonso! But in the event, prince Alfonso also died relatively young – aged just 9 – and the throne was to pass to Edward and Eleanor’s 12th child and 4th son, also named Edward.


Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

King John by Marc Morris (2015)

I loved Marc Morris’s History of the Norman Conquest because it gave such a thorough explanation of the background, build-up, events and consequences of the most famous moment in English history, so I was looking forward to reading this book and it is certainly good – but not as good as the Conquest one, and I spent some time, as I read it, trying to figure out why.

1. The long historical build-up to John’s reign

I think the main reason is that the central feature of King John’s reign (1199 to 1216) is the complete collapse of the huge and elaborate ’empire’ created by his predecessors – Henry I (his grandfather), the great Henry II (his father) and King Richard, his swashbuckling brother.

The pressures John faced trying to hang on to the south (Aquitaine), the middle (Anjou) and the north (Normandy) of France, along with the large and fractious realm of England, as well as managing relations with Scotland, Wales and Ireland – all these only make sense if you have a good grasp of how this patchwork ’empire’ had been slowly and effortfully acquired by his father and brother in the first place.

So anyone describing John’s reign would have to give a fair amount of space to this ‘back story’. Thus Morris has to start his story with the advent of Henry I (1100) and explain how his son and heir, William Aetheling, was lost in a disastrous shipwreck (1120) which – since Henry had no other sons – led him to the desperate expedient of trying to impose his daughter, Matilda, as his heir on his reluctant nobles. When Henry I died in 1135 Matilda’s claim was immediately contested by her cousin, Stephen of Blois, who managed to secure the throne of England and ruled as King Stephen (1135 – 1154) but under constant assault from the forces loyal to Queen Matilda in the west and north of England leading to 20 years of exhausting civil war.

Eventually, in the event-packed last few years of his reign, Stephen’s own son and heir, Eustace, died young (in 1153) and Stephen was forced to accept the son of Matilda and her husband, Geoffrey Count of Anjou, Touraine and Maine, Henry, as his heir. Geoffrey enjoyed the sportive nickname of Plantagenet, and so this name was also given to his son, Henry.

The very next year Stephen himself died (1154) and young Henry Plantagenet assumed control over a complex web of territories – England from Stephen, Normandy via his grandfather the Conqueror, Anjou, Touraine and Maine from his father and, via his shrewd marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine in 1152, possession of Aquitaine, a huge slab of south-west France, maybe a third the land area of the present-day France.

Because Henry’s central inheritance (from his father, Geoffrey) was of the Duchy of Anjou, the ’empire’ is often referred to as the Angevin Empire, Angevin being the adjectival form of Anjou (as Poitevin is the adjectival version of the neighbouring region of Poitou).

Just holding on to control of these far-flung territories needed every drop of this remarkable man’s confidence, aggression, cunning and ruthlessness. But it is only by understanding how the ’empire’ came about, almost by accident, that we can understand the context of problems which he and his sons – first Richard (1189-99) and then John (1199 to 1216) – would inherit:

  • How to maintain the disparate French possessions in the face of continual uprisings by local counts and lords?
  • How to fight off the continual attacks and threats of successive French kings – Louis VII and Philip II?
  • How to keep the aggressive Scottish kings bottled up in Scotland?
  • How to secure more land in Wales?
  • How and when to interfere in the troublesome island of Ireland?
  • How to manage relations with the pope, especially when you seem to be at loggerheads with one or other of your archbishops? (England has two archbishops – of Canterbury and of York)
  • How to pay for it all by raising the maximum amount of taxes but not alienating the fractious competing nobles of England?
  • And, above all, how to manage all this while coping with all the adult members of your family politicking and conspiring against you?

This context, this historical backdrop, the events of the 60 or 70 years prior to John’s accession (in 1199) are key to understanding John’s predicament.

2. Use of flashbacks

Rather than deal with this long historical run-up in a straightforward chronological account, Morris takes the risky decision to start his narrative in the middle of John’s reign, starting with a detailed account (along with pictures and two maps) of the French King Philip II’s siege of the Plantagenet castle of Château Gaillard, on the River Seine, 20 miles south-east of Rouen in 1204.

Having painted this scene, in chapter two Morris jumps all the way back to the birth of the family empire in the early 1100s (as outlined above). Chapter three returns us to the Château Gaillard siege (which turned out to be one of the longest and most gruelling in medieval history). Chapter four jumps back again, to 1189, when Henry II died and his son Richard succeeded.

This chapter takes us through the first half of Richard’s ten-year reign – his adventures on the Third Crusade (1189-92), his capture on his return through Europe, his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI and his final release after his regents in England had raised an enormous ransom for him in 1194 – then abruptly stops.

The next chapter picks up the thread of John’s reign in 1205 after the end of the Château Gaillard siege and the humiliating failure of his English nobles to join an armed flotilla designed to attack King Philip of France, then follows events of the ‘campaigning season’ of the following year, 1206.

We are just getting our head round this context when the next chapter whisks us away from all that, to pick up the second half of King Richard’s reign from 1194 and carry it on through to the first years of John’s reign, 1202.

And so on. For well over half its length the book flicks back and forward between a ‘present’ narrative and historical flashbacks. I think I can see why: he didn’t want to start his book with 60 or 70 pages of solid exposition before he gets to John’s coronation. But, for me, it doesn’t work.

Comparison with Dan Jones

It just so happens that I read Morris’s book  in parallel with Dan Jones’s jaunty, boys-own-adventure account of the entire Plantagenet dynasty. This tells the story outlined above but in a traditional chronological order and a direct comparison between the two suggests that, although Morris’s book is more scholarly and nuanced, Jones’s narrative is not only easier to read but gives you a much better cumulative sense of the issues at stake for all these rulers:

  • how the Angevin empire was originally created
  • the tremendously complex shifting alliances it required to keep it together
  • the history of the other major players involved, like Eleanor of Aquitaine, like Henry II’s rebellious children, like the pesky kings of France
  • as well as the litany of difficulties Henry, Richard and John all encountered while trying to tax the bolshy nobles of England
  • and the challenges of keeping the bloody church and interfering pope onside

To put yourself in the place of these (horrible) rulers you have to understand the constant pressure they were under from all sides (and the constant pressure they themselves exerted in the never-ending conflict which was medieval high politics). And the only hope you have of understanding why William of Scotland or Llewylyn of Wales or Louis of France attacked when and how they did, is to have a sense of the cumulative relationships between them and Henry or Richard or John, and the accumulated grudges or alliances or betrayals which feed into their behaviour.

It is hard enough to follow when presented clearly and simply so, for me, Morris’s approach made it hopelessly confusing. I quite quickly decided to read the chapters of his book out of the textual order he’s placed them in (reading chapters 2, 4, 6, 8, then 1, 3, 5, 7).

Detail

Dan Jones is shrewd to start his 600-page account of the Plantagenets with the sinking of the White Ship in 1120, which really seems to be the mainspring of the whole Plantagenet story. But his chronological approach also allows him to give events a properly detailed treatment as they occur – logically enough, there is a set of chapters devoted to Henry II and Richard I, before we get to the birth and youth of John.

Morris, by contrast, often skips over these earlier events in order to get to the ostensible subject of his book the quicker. He has to tell us something about the events of earlier reigns because John grew up under them and spent most of, for example Richard’s reign (1189-1199) politicking and conspiring against his brother – but he tends to skimp on details of Richard’s activities.

Thus he tells us simply that, en route to the Holy Land in 1191, Richard conquered Cyprus, in one sentence (p.72). Jones goes into much more detail, giving us a full description of Richard’s two-pronged assault on Cyprus (pp.118-119) and giving a typical snapshot that, once he’d conquered, Richard forced all Cypriot men to shave their beards off!

Similarly, Morris skips very briskly over Richard’s time in Palestine to focus on John’s scheming back in England. But we need to understand the detail of Richard’s activities in Palestine in order to understand how and why he managed to alienate so many of his Christian allies with such parlous consequences: we need to know that he scorned Philip of France so much that Philip eventually packed up and returned to Paris. And when the vital city of Acre was finally taken from the Muslims after a prolonged siege in which many Christian knights died of fighting or sickness (1191), Richard managed to infuriate Leopold Duke of Austria. Leopold had been involved in the siege for a year before Richard arrived and had demanded an equal place at the front of the victorious Crusader army as it rode into the fallen city along with Richard – but Richard rejected this request and added insult to injury by having Leopold’s flag torn down from the ramparts of Acre.

These details are vital because both Philip and Leopold returned to Europe before Richard and spread the blackest possible rumours about Richard’s treachery, lack of chivalry and so on, to anyone who would listen. When Richard finally decided to abandon the Crusade and return to England (prompted by news of the ruinous feud which had grown up between his chancellor William Longchamps and his enemies supported by John) Richard discovered that he was now a wanted man across most of Western Europe. So that when his ships were blown ashore in north Italy and he tried to make his way in disguise through Austrian lands, Richard was soon recognised, arrested and taken to the court of the very same Leopold who he had so fatefully insulted in Palestine – who promptly threw him into prison.

For sure Richard’s imprisonment, and the vast ransom demanded for his release, are all dealt with by Morris because they all impinge on the state of England and on John’s scheming (John was in his late 20s during the ransom crisis) – but the story makes much more sense, acquires a fuller depth of meaning, if you’ve been given a really good account of Richard’s activities in Palestine, and this Jones does better than Morris.

King John

King John

Notable aspects of John’s reign

It is in the second half of Morris’s book (chapters 9 to 14) – once he drops the flashback structure – that it becomes measurably more detailed and immersive than the Jones account. Having had a run-up of 150 pages or so you begin to have a feel for certain key players in the story – the ill-fated William de Brouze who John hounded into exile, imprisoning and starving to death his wife and son – or the remarkable William Marshall, 1st Earl of Pembroke, whose career spanned five monarchs, and who managed to survive accusations and punishments from the erratic John and went on to become guardian and regent for John’s young son, Henry III, when he succeeded in 1216.

And you get a feel for the relentless turnover of events: every year sees all the players on the board – the Scots, the Welsh, the numerous Irish and Anglo-Irish, the King of France, the nobles of Normandy, Brittany, Anjou, Main, Poitou, Angouleme, Gascony and so on, all girding their loins and setting off to fight each other, in a bewildering blizzard of alliances which shift and change at the drop of a hat. This second half of Morris’s book becomes really gripping, providing much more detail than Jones’s limited space can, and judiciously weighing evidence, balancing the accounts of the different contemporary chroniclers, as he gives a week by week account of John’s difficult confusing reign.

Some highlights

His reign lasted 17 years (1199 to 1216).

John Lackland While a boy under King Henry II John acquired the nickname ‘Lackland’ because his older brothers were all given substantial provinces to rule except for John, who was too young. Towards the end of his reign, the nickname was ironically revived to describe the way he had lost most of the Angevin Empire.

The loss of Brittany Arthur, Duke of Brittany From the very start of John’s reign there was an alternative ruler, Arthur, son of John’s elder son Geoffrey (who himself had died in 1186). Arthur was born in 1187 and so was 12 when King Richard died in 1199.

Arthur inherited from his father the title of Duke of Brittany, and his Breton nobles proved remarkably loyal to him, while Arthur himself sought help and advice from French King Philip II. The situation was worsened by the fact that back in 1190 Richard had officially declared the infant Arthur his legal heir (during his peace negotiations with Tancred of Sicily, p.67). On his death-bed Richard changed his mind and proclaimed John his heir, fearing Arthur was too young for the job – but the Bretons, and everyone opposed to John, took Arthur as a figurehead for their cause.

The to and fro of successive alliances and peace treaties whereby Arthur allied with Philip, then John, then Philip again, came to an end when, in one of the rare military successes of his rule, John captured Arthur, who was leading a force besieging his grand-mother, Eleanor, at the Château de Mirebeau in Anjou.

John sent his nephew to a series of castle prisons. The contemporary chronicler Ralph of Coggeshall reports the story that John sent two knights with orders to mutilate the duke but that his gaoler, Hubert de Burgh, refused to let them – a legend which quickly spread and later provided the central plotline of Shakespeare’s play, King John, as well as heaps of wonderfully sentimental Victorian illustrations, like this one.

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Prince Arthur and Hubert de Burgh by William Frederick Yeames (1882)

Young Arthur was moved to Rouen prison in 1203 and never heard of again. Quickly the rumour got about that John had had Arthur murdered, though whether getting others to do it or, in one version, murdering his nephew himself in a drunken rage, has never been confirmed. The rumour was enough for many people, nobles and commoners alike, throughout his realm, and John became known as the nephew-killer. In response the nobles of Brittany rebelled against John and he never regained their trust.

The loss of Normandy Meanwhile in 1204, to the East, King Philip II of France began a major offensive against Normandy, bypassing the stronghold of Rouen and picking off smaller towns – Falaise, Cherbourg. Rouen begged John (in England) for reinforcements and John tried to mount an armed expedition to help them, but was stymied by the reluctance of his own nobles, who showed up late or not at all. When it became clear that no help was coming from England, Rouen surrendered to King Philip and the remaining strongholds of Normandy followed suit. The 139-year union of England and Normandy, created by William the Bastard in 1066, came to an end in 1204.

The loss of Aquitaine In April 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine died, old and full of years (a little over 80). With her died the loyalty of most of the dukes and counts of the massive region to the Plantagenet regime in the form of the unattractive John. They rose up, seized whatever strongholds remained loyal to John and, within months, the largest part of the Angevin Empire was lost.

Tough taxes With the loss of most of the Empire, John’s sphere of activity was vastly reduced and now confined to the British Isles. Here he became famous for instituting ferocious new taxes. At that time many simple activities of the nobility traditionally required permission and a nominal fee to be paid to the king, for example for the smooth succession of an heir or the arrangement of a new marriage. John pushed these customary dues much deeper into every aspect of noble life and hugely increased the fees, by up to 1,000%. Anyone who questioned his right to do so was arrested or forced into exile and their lands confiscated. There was a ‘forest tax’ for anyone found breaching the rules of the Forest. John hiked these and extended the definition of ‘forest’ to include agricultural land and even towns. There was a tax known as ‘scutage’, which knights could pay if they didn’t want to answer the king’s call to join an army: John hugely increased this and applied it for new purposes. He applied another tax known as the Thirteenth, and in 2008 another tax, known as the tallage (p.182). He relentlessly mulcted everyone and everything throughout his reign.

The failed 1205 invasion In 1205 John used this money to organise a massive invasion of Normandy, recruiting thousands of knights and soldiers and building (or hijacking) enough ships to create a war fleet of 1,500 vessels. But – at the last minute his leading nobles and knights backed out – afraid of chaos in the realm if John were killed (he had no heir), afraid they would find no support in the French realms which had so solidly gone over to King Philip, afraid of losing their lives and remaining goods.

And so John was left to gnash his teeth and weep tears of frustration. In fact John did mount several expeditions to France later in his reign, in one of them landing in Bordeau and marching inland to seize castles in his traditional heartland of Anjou. But always he had to retreat before the superior forces of King Philip II, or the Bretons or Normans or the Gascon nobles, sometimes reinforced by armies from over the border in Spain.

Two wives King John had two wives, both named Isabella. In 1189 Henry married John off to Isabella, Countess of Gloucester, when he was 23 and she was 16. In fact they were half-second cousins as great-grandchildren of Henry I, and thus within the prohibited degrees of consanguinity, and on this basis John had their marriage annulled by the Church in 1199, just before he acceded to the throne. He then married Isabella of Angoulême in 1200, when she was just 12 years old. The marriage gave him possession of lands in the centre of Aquitaine but also, unfortunately, led to the enduring enmity of Hugh IX le Brun, Count of Lusignan, to whom she had been betrothed and who John was widely seen as stealing her from. The enmity of the de Lusignan family and their allies was a contributory factor to the loss of Aquitaine in 1204 when Eleanor died.

The Papal Interdict Archbishop Hubert of Canterbury died in 1205 and the monks secretly elected one of their own as his successor. King John and the English bishops refused to accept their choice and appointed John’s favorite, John de Gray, in his place. Pope Innocent III (1198-1216) refused to accept either candidate and instead arranged the election of his friend Stephen Langton, in 1207. Furious, John expelled the monks of Canterbury who fled to France. The pope responded by placing England under Interdict in 1208. The interdict suspended Christian services and the administration of sacraments (except baptism, confession, and last rites). Even the dead were denied Christian burial. Ordinary people would have experienced an eerie phenomenon – for the first time in their lives church bells – which rang at numerous times of day for various services – fell silent and remained silent. John in fact turned the situation to his advantage, imposing lucrative fines and threatening imprisonment to bully the clergy. Innocent III retaliated by excommunicating John and eventually declared John ‘deposed’ in 1212, absolving his subjects of their allegiance to him.

In fact John, at a low point in his fortunes in 1213, made the shrewd move of completely and totally humbling himself to the papal legate, declaring England as the pope’s belonging and himself only a humble vassal. Innocent II was delighted and from that point onwards (for the last three years of his life) treated John with notable indulgence and favouritism. The interdict was lifted and after five long years, the church bells of England were allowed to ring again.

The Jews There were probably only a few thousand Jews in all of Britain, but they were in a vulnerable position. They were allowed to carry on the business of lending money – forbidden to Christians – but only on the king’s sufferance. The crusading fervour at the very end of Henry’s rule led to violent anti-Jewish pogroms on the day of Richard’s coronation and for weeks afterwards, leading to the horrible climax of the entire Jewish community of York being hounded into York castle and preferring mass suicide to facing the baying mob outside. In 1210 John imposed a massive tax or ‘tallage’ in 1210, extracting some £44,000 from the community. At first he wanted only a percentage of their loans but this escalated to become a percentage of all their possessions. Roger of Wendover tells the gruesome story of a Jew of Bristol who was imprisoned and had one tooth knocked out every day until he gave in and handed over all his wealth to the king. Leading Jews were hanged as an example. And then, in John’s last full year of 1215, there were further attacks on the Jews, extracting money under torture. It took the Jewish community a generation to recover population and belongings after this onslaught.

Scotland When he came to power John turned down King William the Lion of Scotland’s demand to have the province of Northumbria returned to him. The two remained on reasonable terms until in 1209 John heard rumours that William planned to ally with King Philip of France. John invaded Scotland and forced William to sign the Treaty of Norham, which gave John control of William’s daughters and required a payment of £10,000.

Ireland John was made ‘Lord of Ireland’ by his father as long back as 1177, when he was just 11. When just 19 he was sent there by his father but, along with his youthful courtiers, created a very bad impression, making fun of the local nobles’ long beards. During his reign there was conflict not only between the caste of Anglo-Irish rulers who had settled in Ireland since the Conquest, and the native lords, but also among the natives themselves. John played all sides off against the other, and in 1210 led a major expedition to Ireland to crush a rebellion by the Anglo-Irish lords and impose English laws and customs.

Wales was divided into roughly three parts, the border or ‘marcher’ regions with England, ruled over by a handful of powerful Anglo-Norman lords, south Wales/Pembrokeshire owned by the king directly, and wilder North Wales. The leading figure was Llywelyn the Great, to whom John married off one of his illegitimate daughters, Joan, in 1204. In 1210 and 11 Llywelyn launched raids into England. John retaliated by supporting a range of Llywelyn’s enemies in the south and in 2011 launched a massive raid into North Wales. However Llywelyn’s forces retreated and John’s army was reduced to near starvation in the barren lands around Snowdonia. But the next year he came back on a better planned attack, ravaging Llywelyn’s heartlands, burning villages, towns and cities, until Llywelyn sent his wife, John’s daughter, as emissary to beg for peace. Peace was signed at, of course, a steep price, then John sent his mercenary warlords into South Wales to secure the territory and build defensive castles.

By 1212 John had lost almost the entire continental empire, but solidly secured the grip of the English crown over the neighbouring British countries. But all mention of peace is deceptive, even inappropriate in the context of the Middle Ages. The very next year John had to go to the aid of William of Scotland who faced pressing danger from a usurper and had barely finished doing this before Llywelyn led a concerted attack to reclaim his lost territory in north Wales, along with uprisings by lords in central Wales.

Basically, every year there was conflict – and in more than one theatre of war – with players shifting alliances from year to year based on short-term strategy. This is what makes medieval history so difficult to follow in any detail.

The Battle of Bouvines I’d never heard of this battle, but both Jones and Morris says it has a similar talismanic importance in the history of France as the Battle of Hastings has for England. It was the climax of the series of incursions John made into French territory in the previous few years. John had amassed a force of English nobles and foreign mercenaries (all paid for by his brutal taxation) and was campaigning in central France, while his allies – a force of German, English and Flemish soldiers – was being led by Otto IV, Holy Roman Emperor, in the north. John’s plan was for his forces to draw King Philip II south while his German allies took Paris, leading to the decisive crushing of King Philip, for him to regain all his lost French land and the Emperor Otto to seize the Low Country.

In fact John had already suffered a defeat when he was forced to abandon the siege of La Roche-au-Moine due to the reluctance of his Poitevin allies to engage in a pitched battle against King Philip’s son, Louis. In the retreat his infantry were badly mauled and he only just made it back to La Rochelle, losing all the gains of the campaign to the French.

So everything now depended on the northern army of the Emperor. This caught up with Philip’s main army on 27 July 1214, and rapidly attacked. The battle turned into confused mayhem but slowly the cavalry charges of the French began to tell. By the end of the day the Emperor had fled, his army was defeated, and a collection of rebel nobles had fallen into Philip’s hands.

From the French point of view, their strongest enemies had created their strongest possible alliance and thrown everything against the French – and failed. A chapel was built, Masses were sung everywhere, the students of Paris danced in the streets for a week, according to one chronicler. The Battle of Bouvines confirmed the French crown’s sovereignty over the Angevin lands of Brittany and Normandy, and lost them forever to the English crown. It was the climax of John’s decade of brutal taxation and war plans: and it was a complete failure.

A few hours of bloody mayhem at Bouvines had confirmed that [John]’s loss of Normandy, Brittany and Anjou would be permanent. (p.235)

Magna Carta

The barons’ rebellion The failure of this campaign tipped many of England’s nobles over into open rebellion. Morris says there were about 160 barons in England and now most of them openly denounced and defied John. For several years there had been calls to return to the good old days of Henry II or even before, embodied in calls to restore the charter Henry II issued on his accession. Numerous hands – probably involving the archbishop – were involved in creating a draft document which started with traditional calls for good rule but then went on to address specific issues of John’s reign. The climax of the Barons’ Rebellion came when one of their forces – a self-proclaimed ‘army of God’ – seized London ahead of John’s representatives in May 2015. Now they had access to all his treasure and the taxation rolls of the Exchequer.

John camped with his forces at Windsor and representatives of both sides met half way, in the meadows at Runnymede. Here the document we call Magna Carta took shape and was swiftly stamped and agreed by John.

The key thing about Magna Carta is that it was a peace treaty between the two armed sides; and that it failed. Within weeks open conflict broke out again and John took his foreign mercenaries on a rampage through East Anglia, killing and raping all the supporters of the rebel barons, destroying crops in the fields, burning everything. It was on this last final orgy of destruction that he decided to take a short cut across the Wash into Lincolnshire but was caught by the tide and lost his entire baggage train, including all his jewellery and treasure, the crown of England and his priceless collection of Holy Relics. And he got dysentery. It was a blessing for everyone when he died on 19 October 1216.

There is no doubting John was a wicked, evil man, a coward who screwed his country and tortured countless victims in order to extract a vast fortune from his subjects which he then squandered on mismanaged military campaigns. He lost almost the entire Angevin Empire which he’d inherited, and he left his country in a state of bitter civil war.

Morris’s book includes at the end a full translation of the Magna Carta into English but that is all. Obviously his preceding historical account gives a blow-by-blow description of the events leading up to it, and to the issues raised by John’s misrule, which the charter seeks to address and limit. And briefly describes how the charter – a failure in its own day – was reissued under later kings, widely distributed, and became a set of standards to which medieval kings could be held to account. But somehow just stopping with the translation and nothing more felt a bit… abrupt.

Plantagenet trivia

  • King Henry I carried out a brutal recoinage of the realm’s money in 1125 in which he ordered the mutilation of all his moneyers – the people who had official permission to mint coins, namely the removal of their right hands and genitals
  • Right at the end of his life Henry II took the Cross with a view to going on Crusade and recapturing Jerusalem. In 1188 he instituted ‘the Saladin Tithe‘, a levy of 10% on all revenues and movable properties across England. In the end it raised some 100,000 marks, though Henry died before he could go on Crusade. The administrative machinery created to claim the tithe was used four years later to raise the enormous ransom required to free Richard I from his imprisonment by the Holy Roman Emperor.
  • King Richard founded Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard.
  • Richard in his usual impetuous way, finding himself in negotiation with Tancred ruler of Sicily, promised to betrothe Arthur (then aged 4) to one of Tancred’s daughters (aged 2), though the wedding never took place.
  • In his passion to go on crusade, Richard weakened the Crown by selling off or mortgaging a huge number of Crown lands and goods. He is said to have quipped, ‘I would have sold London if I could find a buyer.’
  • King John founded Liverpool in 1207.
  • the word Exchequer derives from the large chequered cloth laid out a table on which debts were counted out using a device like an abacus (p.167).

Glossary

  • amercement – a financial penalty in English law, common during the Middle Ages, imposed either by the court or by peers
  • castellan – the governor or captain of a castellany and its castle
  • distrain – seize (someone’s property) in order to obtain payment of rent or other money owed
  • interdict –  in the Roman Catholic church a punishment by which the faithful, while remaining in communion with the church, are forbidden certain sacraments and prohibited from participation in certain sacred acts
  • forest eyre – the main court of the Forest Law in the medieval period was the Forest Eyre, which was held at irregular intervals by itinerant justices
  • Forest Law – laws separate from English Common Law designed to protect game animals and their forest habitats from destruction. Forest Law offenses were divided into two categories: trespass against the vert (the vegetation of the forest) and the venison (the game).
  • justiciar – a regent and deputy presiding over the court of a Norman or early Plantagenet king of England
  • moneyer – any private individual who is officially permitted to mint money
  • scutage – also called shield money (from the Latin scutum meaning ‘shield’) in feudal law payment made by a knight to commute the military service that he owed his lord
  • tallage – a form of arbitrary taxation levied by kings on the towns and lands of the Crown

Related links

Reviews of other medieval books

The Waning of the Middle Ages by Johan Huizinga (1919)

There is not a more dangerous tendency in history than that of representing the past as if it were a rational whole and dictated by clearly defined interests. (p.91)

I’ve recently been looking at paintings from the ‘northern Renaissance’, namely works by Robert Campin, Rogier van der Weyden and Jan van Eyck. This trio are often credited with introducing a new more realistic and sensual style into painting in the first half of the fifteenth century.

This prompted me to dust off my old copy of this classic text on the period, The Waning of the Middle Ages. The book was originally published in Dutch by the historian Johan Huizinga in 1919, then translated into English in 1924. Its subtitle is: ‘A study of the forms of life, thought and art in France and the Netherlands in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries’.

The most important thing about this book is that it is not a chronological history of the period. Very much the opposite, as it skips from one incident to another, across decades, between countries, taking excerpts from contemporary chroniclers, philosophers, writers and poets as required, to build up a mosaic of sources to exemplify the theme of each of the 23 chapters.

These have titles like ‘The violent tenor of life’, ‘Pessimism and the ideal of the sublime’, ‘The vision of death’, ‘Types of religious life’ and so on. As we process through these themes and ideas, anecdotes and quotes, slowly a composite ‘portrait’ of the culture of fifteenth century northern Europe emerges.

In fact, I’d forgotten that there is a direct connection to van der Weyden et al because, in the Preface to the English edition, Huizinga explains that his study originally started as a systematic attempt to understand the cultural and social background to the art of the van Eyck brothers and their contemporaries – precisely the artists I’ve been reading about in Craig Harbison’s excellent introduction to The Art of the Northern Renaissance (1995).

Burgundy and France

When I first read this book as a student in the 1980s I found it bracing to read a work about the Middle Ages which emphatically wasn’t about England or Britain. Instead the focus is very much on the kingdoms of France and especially the Duchy of Burgundy, and mostly during the 15th century. As it happens, I’ve just read a few pages summarising the history of the Duchy of Burgundy in a book about the Flemish painter Rogier van der Weyden. The most obvious thing about it during this period was that it was extremely fragmented, divided roughly into the area which is still called ‘Burgundy’ in modern France and is down towards Switzerland – and a northern coastal region comprising most of modern-day Holland and Belgium.

The other thing I took from my first reading all those years ago was the comedy names of the rulers of Burgundy in this period:

  • Philip the Bold (1363-1404)
  • John the Fearless (1404-19)
  • Philip the Good (1419-67)
  • Charles the Bold (1467-77)
  • Mary (1477 – 1482)
  • Philip the Handsome (1482-1506)

This time round I much more understand the context of Huizinga’s point that one of the purposes of giving these rulers grand surnames was to incorporate them into the only social theory the age possessed – Chivalry; that the names are ‘inventions calculated to place the prince in a nimbus of chivalrous romance’ (p.92).

Permanent war

Europe was almost continually at war. There were no real nation states in the way we’re used to today. Britain, for example, was a very fractious country. For the earlier half of the century the English were in a state of permanent war with the kingdom of France, the latter stages of the so-called Hundred Years War. The cause of the war was simple: successive kings of England claimed the throne of France; successive French kings rejected the claim.

The war’s high point, from the English point of view, was the Battle of Agincourt, fought on 25 October 1415, a famous victory for young King Henry V. Sadly Henry failed in a king’s main duty to rule long and leave a male heir. He died aged 35 in 1422, leaving the kingdom to his baby son who grew up to be the hapless and mentally unstable Henry VI. This explains why, despite rallies and counter-attacks, after Henry V’s death the tide of the war was broadly in favour of the French and they had eventually won back all their territory from the English (with the tiny exception of the coastal town of Calais) by the time a final peace treaty was signed in 1453.

In fact, it was complaints about the huge losses of lands in France suffered by many ‘English’ aristocrats as a result of these territorial losses that helped destabilise the English throne and trigger the series of dynastic disputes which we refer to as ‘the Wars of the Roses’. These were in reality a series of conflicts between dynastic nobles scattered between 1455 and 1487. And also, throughout the fifteenth century, the English (as in centuries before and after) suffered intermittent attacks from the Scots, who periodically invaded and ravaged the North of England – though this doesn’t feature much in this study of the Continent.

Instead Huizinga’s book is dominated by the conflict between the fragmented kingdom of France and the rising Duchy of Burgundy. From 1380 to 1422 France was ruled by Charles VI who, in 1392, went mad, without warning murdering four of his knights and nearly killing his brother. He became convinced he was made of glass and that his enemies were out to shatter him. Power devolved to competing cabals of nobles and France fell into anarchy. (The plight of France helps explain Henry V’s victories.) France’s ongoing misrule was exacerbated by the Hundred Years War which amounted, in practice, to unpredictable attacks and destructive rampages across the land by brutal English armies.

No wonder the Duchy of Burgundy, located away from England in the East, was able to rise to relative power, by allying or at least declaring peace with England, and protecting the trading wealth of its coastal ports in what is now Holland.

Two theories

Medieval society had broadly two theories to explain the world: Christian dogma and the code of chivalry. That was it. No science, no medicine, no economics, no political science, no sociology or linguistics or anthropology, no hard or social sciences at all. Again and again Huizinga emphasises the sheer ignorance of the age.

1. Christianity Christian teaching gave a comprehensive account of the creation of the universe, of the nature of the world, of all life forms and of the human race, along with a timeline which extended back to the Creation and forward to the End of the World when Jesus will rise to judge the dead, who will be consigned to Heaven or Hell for all eternity. In order to escape an eternity of hellfire you had to devoutly follow Christian teaching. It was a complete and imaginatively convincing cosmology.

2. Chivalry As to everything else people saw around them, the behaviour of human society, this could be summarised in the other major theory of the time, Chivalry. Huizinga quotes from a wide selection of 15th century poets, historians and chroniclers, and goes on to point out that:

The conception of chivalry constituted for these authors a sort of magic key, by the aid of which they explained to themselves the motives of politics and of history. The confused image of contemporaneous history being much too complicated for their comprehension, they simplified it, as it were, by the fiction of chivalry. (p.66)

At its broadest chivalry taught that everyone was born into a fixed position in an unchanging society made up of minutely defined orders or ranks or ‘estates’. The peasant majority existed solely to produce the food eaten by the myriad employees of the Church, and by the aristocracy and the king. The ‘middle classes’, the burghers and business men in the newly expanding towns, had no exact place in this ancient schema and were seen as a reluctant necessity of life; to some extent they had forebears in the merchants described in the Bible, but they had to be kept in their place. This was done, for example, by strict sumptuary laws which defined exactly what they and their wives were or were not permitted to wear. Because the best clothes, food, living quarters, art and lifestyle were – self-evidently – restricted to the most noble, virtuous, dignified and deserving in society – the aristocracy and the court.

But, as part of the intricate interlacing of ideas so typical of the late medieval mind, the court, in exchange for these obvious material benefits, had to be paragons of nobility and display for everyone the courtly virtues of dignity, charity, kindliness, forbearance and so on.

As the Middle Ages – say from 1100 to 1500 – proceeded, the depiction and understanding of these virtues (as of so much else in medieval thought) became more and more elaborate, defined in courtly protocols and etiquette which were enhanced and added to by each generation of writers until there were written rules prescribing every possible type of behaviour and clothing and speech which should be used on almost every conceivable occasion.

The lack of theory

Maybe the most though-provoking idea in the book (for me) was this notion that, Chivalry was all they had to think about society with. Lacking any other notions of human nature, lacking our modern ideas of biology or evolution, lacking the post-Enlightenment idea that there have existed numerous and hugely varied societies which themselves have changed and evolved over time, lacking the post-Industrial Revolution idea that technology drives social change with ever-new gadgets leading to ever-rising standards of living — all these modern ideas are predicated on CHANGE. But the central determinant of medieval thought is precisely that THERE IS NO CHANGE. God has made the world as perfect as it can be. Bible chronology explains the entire history of the world right up to its apocalyptic end. Christian teaching is all you need to live well and proceed to Heaven.

This explains why, for example, when medieval artists paint Bible scenes and stories, the characters are always wearing medieval clothes. Because the world HAS NOT CHANGED. The medieval mind can imagine no change, it has no theory of the gradual evolution of society and manners. People must always have dressed like they do today. (Huizinga makes the interesting point that it is only with the Italian Renaissance that artists began to depict the saints in classical togas, thus for the first time setting them aside and apart from the everyday familiarity they had enjoyed during the Middle Ages. In medieval art Roman martyrs and saints had worn medieval costume.)

The one glaring exception to this idea was the age-old one, as popular in the late Classical world as in the medieval world, which is the notion of steady decline from the first, primordial perfection of the Garden of Eden to the present sad and lawless days. The world hasn’t changed but Oh how behaviour and morality has lapsed and decayed!

Profound misunderstanding of their own times

Lacking any modern understanding of human nature and social dynamics, medieval thinkers, artists and writers were astonishingly dim about the world around them. So, for example, Huizinga makes the fascinating point that, lacking any theory of technology, commerce or economics, the chroniclers of the Duchy of Burgundy explained the notable wealth and success of the court of Burgundy not through the (to us obvious) point that the coastal towns of Antwerp and Bruges and so on were at a geographic nexus between Britain to the West, the Baltic to the East and France to the South and so the merchants there made fortunes as middlemen for vast matrices of trade, fortunes which the Duchy then taxed and lived off – none of this could be understood by contemporaries. Instead, every single chronicler accounts for Burgundy’s wealth in terms of the nobility and virtue of its ruler. Chivalry, nobility, Christian morality – these and these alone are what accounts for an entire nation’s rise or fall.

The chroniclers of the fifteenth century have, nearly all, been the dupes of an absolute misappreciation of their times, of which the real moving forces escaped their attention. (p.56)

And this explains why all the chroniclers and historians and priests, in their sermons and pamphlets and books and works have one message and one message only – since the world depends for its continued wealth and stability on the virtue of the prince, of the noble ruler – ALL of these books without exception start, focus on and end with earnest, heart-felt pleas to the ruler and prince to be Noble and Virtuous and to Rule Well. We are all depending on you.

It is the one political idea in the entire culture.

Chivalry as psychological protection

Chivalry was a kind of mass wish-fulfilment, the casting of all human behaviour into stereotyped and idealised patterns, which had tremendous psychological importance for all educated people of the time and many of the commoners. For Chivalry’s exaggerated formality and romantic ideals attempted to hold at bay what most people actually saw around them – which was appalling random acts of violence, sickness and death.

Only by constructing a system of forms and rules for the vehement emotions can barbarity be escaped. (p.105)

With no effective medicine, anybody could fall ill at any time, or suffer a scratch or wound which became infected and they died. Countless women died in childbirth. Countless children died pitifully young. Countless millions starved to death unrecorded and unlamented. Millions died horribly in the repeated epidemics of plague which swept across the known world. And countless millions lived in villages or towns where any day, out of the blue, soldiers in armour arrived and started killing, raping and burning everything, for reasons concocted in the faraway courts of London or Paris or Dijon, and which the victims would never hear about or understand.

For the rude and common people, only the incredibly ornate and complex set of Christian customs, practices, beliefs, festivals, penances, sacrifices, masses, saints and relics was all that stood between them and the constant spectre of complete disaster. Huizinga mentions a host of medieval superstitions – that you couldn’t fall ill on any day when you heard Mass (quite a strong motivation to attend as many as you could) or that any patron saint sighted during the day would protect you for that day (and hence the outside and the porches of churches being crammed full of statuettes of saints.) I particularly liked the idea that you don’t actually age during the time it takes to attend a Mass – the more you attend, quite literally the longer you will live.

The same was of course true for the educated aristocracy, but overlaying the boggling complexity of Christian teaching was this idea that the nobility should also aspire to Perfect Ideals of Gentlemanly and Courtly behaviour. Almost nobody did, and many rulers were instead paragons of greed, unpredictable rage and the most primitive rivalries and revenge. But the increasingly convoluted protocols of Chivalry which came to determine almost every element of an aristocrat’s life and thought and behaviour, were all the ruling class had to call each other to account, and to try and restrain themselves with.

(In a typically illuminating aside, Huizinga points out how the worlds of chivalry and theology overlapped in the figure of the archangel Michael, who is generally portrayed in armour, wielding a sword against the rebel angels. As the leader of the loyal army in heaven, he was the first knight – and thus the two worlds of divine angelology and worldly knighthood were neatly merged.)

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Saint Michael Triumphs over the Devil (1468) by Bartolomé Bermejo

Complexity as a defence mechanism

This explains why forms, patterns, orders, ranks and definitions ramified all over medieval society like weeds. Everything had to be nailed down with a meaning and a place in what was aspiring to be the Total System. Numerology played a large role in all this, numbers conveying a potent magic power, especially if they invoked any of the myriad numbers from Holy Scripture: the three of the Trinity recurs in all sorts of contexts: the human body is seen as made of four humours for each of which there is a key bodily fluid which determines one of the four human character types; all of the colours are given multiple religious symbolism, eventually becoming so complicated entire books can be written about them. Saints multiply like rabbits until every day in the year was the Special Day of at least one saint if not several.

I remember laughing years ago when I read an early medieval sermon which asserted that there needed to be two holy testaments (the old and new) because humans have two eyes, two ears, two nostrils, two arms, two legs so – you know, there just have to be. Like so much medieval reasoning, it has a sweet and childish flavour. The Middle Ages took the many numbers present in Holy Scripture and vastly expanded them:

  • the One God who created the world and all things in it
  • the two-persons in the duality of Jesus, man and God together
  • the Holy Trinity, the three theological virtues (Faith, Hope and Charity)
  • the four cardinal virtues (prudence, temperance, fortitude, justice), the four Last Things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell), the four points of the cross, the four seasons, the Four Evangelists, the Four Elements and their summation – the fifth or Quintessence
  • The Five Wounds Christ received on the Cross (one each in hands and feet and the spear in his side), the Five Planets of the Solar System (plus Sun and moon makes seven)
  • the seven supplications in the Lord’s Prayer, the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven Beatitudes (from the Sermon on the Mount), the seven penitential psalms, the Seven Deadly Sins which are represented by seven animals and followed by seven diseases, the seven attributes, the Seven Sages of antiquity
  • the Nine Worthies were nine historical, scriptural, and legendary personages who personified the ideals of chivalry, typically divided into three groups of three – three pagans (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar), three Jews (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus) and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon)
  • the Twelve Disciples, the twelve months of the year, the Twelve Signs of the Zodiac, the twelve companions of Lady Rhetoric (as devised by George Chastelain, historian of Philip the Good in the 1460s)
  • the Fourteen Auxiliary Saints, the 14 Stations of the Cross
  • 33 is the estimated age of Jesus when he was crucified. Stephan Kemperdick’s book about the Netherlandish artist Rogier van der Weyden informs me that one strand of medieval theology thought that 33 is the age that all the dead would be when they are resurrected on the Last Day. If it was the optimum age for the Son of God so, by analogy, it must be the optimum age for a human being.

In fact Huizinga, in his brilliant chapter on ‘Symbolism in decline’, makes the harsh but true point that numerology is actually pretty boring. It is the deeper and often vaguer symbolic correspondences which the medieval mind loved to make between almost every aspect of the natural world and some part of Christian Theology or the Christian story, which are more accessible and more profound.

For example, consider the holly and ivy which grow in northern Europe (I have an abundance of both in my own garden): the prickly leaves represent the crown of thorns that Jesus wore when he was crucified and the berries are the drops of blood they caused. The beauty and simplicity of much of this kind of symbolism lives on to this day, especially when it is about the natural world.

Everyday things like plants and flowers, as well as classical stories and pagan myths, legends and imagery, all of it was easily taken over and incorporated into the vast system of Christian concordances because, to the medieval mind, everything was connected – because it all shines forth the wonder of God. A medieval author explains how the walnut symbolises Christ: the sweet kernel is his divine nature, the green and pulpy outer peel his humanity and the wooden shell between is the cross (p.198): there is no end to the ability of the medieval mind to find a religious symbol or analogy in everything around us.

Thus every day was marked out and divided, for the ever-growing number of religious orders of monks and nuns and so on, by precise hours at which their rituals had to be carried out. On the professional side, this gave rise to countless Rules for the different religious orders prescribing their behaviour for every minute of the day. The secular equivalent is the innumerable ‘Books of Hours’, beautifully illuminated manuscripts whose purpose was to give meaning and resonance to every hour of every day.

Huizinga explains the nature of what was known at the time as ‘Realist’ philosophy (but which we would nowadays called Idealism). This amounts to the notion that every idea is Real, has a precise definition and a place in an infinitely complex hierarchy, all underpinned by theology and, ultimately, God the Creator.

The creative result of this mind-set is a symbolical way of thinking, where almost every everyday occurrence or object can be related to deeper (or higher meanings). His explanation of the internal logic of this approach is fascinating enough – but it is riveting when he then goes on to draw out the connections between this mindset and the prevalence of proverbs (which crystallise everyday behaviour into idealised patterns), to the emblems and mottos chosen by aristocratic households, and their connection of all these with the complexity of heraldry, which had a more-than-decorative purpose for the aristocracy which commissioned it. For them it was a visible embodiment of the ancestors, of their family and its values and achievements. Their world is made up of a dizzying array of vertical hierarchies of meaning.

Wherever it looked the medieval mind constructed a vast and intricate ‘cathedral of ideas’ (p.194). Lacking any ability to genuinely understand the world or to change it, the medieval mind delighted in finding (spurious) patterns everywhere in the natural world, and in creating dizzying edifices of intellectual patterning to fill their (otherwise empty) heads.

Scholasticism

Hence the mind-boggling complexity of medieval theology which, over succeeding generations, set out to codify and order every conceivable thought anyone could possibly have about any aspect of Christian theology, the ceaseless multiplication of saints, feasts and festivals, religious orders, shrines, relics and so on. The late medieval world overflowed with meaning all of it, fundamentally, spurious.

It was this tendency to over-elaboration that later generations satirised with examples of the great debates which were held over ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’, and dismissed as barren ‘scholasticism’. Much of this was gratefully abandoned even by the Catholic Church in light of the great Reformation which came in the early 16th century.

The gap between theory and reality

But for Huizinga what is entertaining is the vast gap between the theory of Christianity as pursued into endlessly remote corners of mental complexity – and the reality of a Church which was in a parlous state. At the top the Catholic Church was tearing itself apart, beginning with the period of the so-called ‘Babylonian Exile’ from 1309 to 1377, when seven successive popes ruled from Avignon in the South of France. When Pope Gregory XI ended the exile and moved back to Rome, half the Curia (most of the French cardinals) refused to go with him and set up a separate Pope of their own. This period became known as the ‘Great Schism’ of 1378 to 1417 when two, and then three, separate popes claimed God-given rule over the church, while merrily excommunicating and damning their opponents.

On the ground all across Western Europe, peasants and town-dwellers, dismayed by this perplexing collapse of central authority, mainly experienced the Church via the immense corruption of an institution devoted to fleecing them with all kinds of religious taxes, penances and indulgences – one of the great themes of the literature of the age.

Courtly Love

The will-to-complexity explains the gorgeous edifice of Courtly Love which grew up intertwined with the complex ideas of Chivalry. Courtly love, or the ars amandi, applied the same medieval technique of intricate elaboration which had produced scholasticism and the codes of chivalry, to relations between the sexes. The cult of Courtly Love grew into a highly complex, ritualised, ornate and delightful cornucopia, a delicate Gothic tracery of manners, behaviours and modes of address.

Just as scholasticism represents the grand effort of the medieval spirit to unite all philosophic thought in a single centre, so the theory of courtly love, in a less elevated sphere, tends to embrace all that appertains to the noble life. (p.105)

Works of courtly love grew bigger, longer and more complex as they redefined all aristocratic behaviour in light of the knight’s reverence for his distant and unattainable Lady. Thousands of books, tens of thousands of poems, were devoted to elaborating and curlicuing this one subject, the more elaborate it became the more remote from the often brutal reality of rulers selling off each other’s daughters in order to make strategic alliances.

Anxiety and hysteria

The terrible realities of a life without any medicine or science were compounded by the awful fear of the living hell awaiting almost everyone after death. Everyone was badly stressed by this appalling plight. And this helps to explain why, when anybody anywhere was seen to threaten the controlling orderliness of Christianity and Chivalry, they acted like a kind of lightning rod to the anxieties of an entire culture. For a threat to any part of the fixed and repressive structures of medieval society was a threat to ALL of it and therefore a threat to the entire mental and psychological paraphernalia which was all these people had to stave off bottomless fear and anxiety. Threatening complete collapse.

It is this extremity of anxiety which they felt all the time which explains the (to us) extraordinary hysteria which was let loose in the various witch hunts and trials. Helpless old women or sassy young women who stepped out of line, or in fact had often done nothing at all, could quickly find themselves short-circuiting the anxiety of an entire culture, instantly blamed for every bad harvest, illness and death which had happened anywhere near them. And not just blamed a little, but immediately transformed into omnipotently evil associates of Satan and his demons, complete with magic spells and malevolent familiars. Huizinga mentions the ‘vauderie d’Arras’ from 1459 to 1461 in which 29 townsfolk were accused of witchcraft (10 of them women) of which 12 were executed (8 women).

The same went for heretics, for anyone who dissented from the crushing orthodoxy of the Catholic Church. Once again a threat to any part was a threat to the whole ornate edifice of belief which sustained everyone and so even a small threat prompted hysterical over-reaction.

And for such a complete subversion of the fragile state of things, only the most extreme form of punishment was suitable – something so terrible that it would terrify anyone who witnessed or heard of it to go anywhere near this kind of transgressive behaviour. Heretics were hunted down, entire communities wiped out, and, like the so-called witches, their leaders very publicly burned at the stake.

Waning and decay

The terrible conditions of life, the almost continual warfare, the terror of hell, the ubiquity of witches, heretics and enemies of society, the only certainty being early death and a strong possibility of an eternity of hellfire – explain Huizinga’s title.

Huizinga doesn’t see this as a society on the brink of the exciting ‘rebirth’ of the Renaissance as we latecomers, looking back over the centuries, are tempted to see it – but as an age which was exhausted with permanent war and religious terror. An era of fathomless pessimism and permanent nostalgia for the olden days which must, must surely have been better than this. And an age, above all, which has thought itself out. Every detail of life has been cemented into the vast cathedral of analogies and concordances, of symbolic types and correspondences which crust the whole thing together so that no new thought is possible.

Early on he makes the brilliant point that the two are connected – that writers of the Middle Ages were so damn pessimistic precisely because they couldn’t see any way out of the dead end of dried-out theology and tired literary forms (all those thousands of allegory and romance).

We ‘moderns’ have two hundred years of accelerating technological change behind us giving us the near certainty that things will always be changing (and at an accelerating rate) – better medicines, laws, technologies, the spread of human rights, equality, feminism etc.

But the medieval mind not only had no theories of social change, their political ideas – such as they were – forbade social change of any kind, because Society – along with its ranks and positions – had been laid down for all time by God. Change was not only subversive, it was blasphemous.

Thus they not only had no mental wherewithal to envision a better future, at a deep level they weren’t allowed to; in their future there was only the certainty of continuing decline from the former Golden Age, combined with fear of the end of the world and the threat of an eternity of hell. No wonder the age was so pessimistic!

Unexpectedly critical

Maybe the biggest surprise about the book is how critical it is of medieval society, thinkers and rulers. You expect a scholar who’s devoted his life to a subject to be enthusiastic about it, but Huizinga is bracingly critical, if not downright insulting, about the culture as a whole and many of its leading thinkers and writers.

The mentality of the declining Middle Ages often seems to us to display an incredible superficiality and feebleness. The complexity of things is ignored by it in a truly astounding manner. It proceeds to generalisations unhesitatingly on the strength of a single instance. Its liability to wrong judgements is extreme. Inexactitude, credulity, levity, inconsistency, are common features of medieval reasoning. (p.225)

The ideal of chivalry tallies with the spirit of a primitive age, susceptible of gross delusion and little accessible to the corrections of experience. (p.125)

Most of the authors of the fifteenth century are singularly prolix. (p.268)

And he has harsh words for many of the writers he quotes so liberally. Eustace Deschamps is only ‘a mediocre poet’ (p.102); most of the poets of the age were ‘superficial, monotonous and tiresome’ (p.262); ‘Froissart is the type of this extreme shallowness of thought and facility of expression’ whose mind is marked by ‘poverty and sterility’ (p.283).

Comparison of late medieval literature and art

It is only towards the end of what feels like a long, dense account of the culture of the late Middle Ages, that Huizinga finally arrives at the subject which, apparently, triggered it – a consideration of the art of van Eyck, Rogier van der Weyden and their contemporaries. Why is their art so good, so beautiful, if so much of the rest of late medieval culture is tired, clapped-out and formulaic?

For two reasons:

1. It is newer. Written literature stretched back to the Romans. Literary genres like history, chronicle, play, poetry, epic, lyric, satire and so on had been going for nearly 2,000 years. In medieval hands every logical possibility within these genres had been explored and done to death. Hence Huizinga’s rude comments about the poets and even prose writers of the age. The medieval intellectual system had systematised everything and all that was left was repetition without invention.

By contrast, painting was new. It had only emerged out of flat devotional panels and icons in, say, the 1200s. There was still a great deal of scope for individuals to compose and arrange even the most hackneyed of subjects – the Annunciation, the Crucifixion etc. And in subjects free of Christian content, the world was their oyster, and European painting would continue to develop at an astonishing rate for another 500 years. Thus Huizinga points out that whereas there had been erotic literature for thousands of years, there was little or no genuinely sensual erotic imagery. There’s little or no erotic imagery in the late medieval art (which has survived) but what there is has a fantastic sense of freshness and innocence. We can still sense – 500 years later – the excitement of innovation and experimentation in their paintings.

2. There is (obviously) a fundamental difference between written literature and painting. In the Late Medieval period in particular, both succumbed to the era’s obsession with detail, but with widely different results: so much of the literature, whether religious or secular, routinely turns into lists of vices and virtues – Huizinga really dislikes allegory because it is such a superficial, sterile way to ‘create’ characters out of often flat and empty ‘ideas’, little more than words.

Imagination, both literary and artistic, had been led into a blind alley by allegory. (p.303)

He quotes reams of poets and prose writers whose texts are long lists of the angels or personified Virtues they encounter, and their entirely predictable attributes and oh-so leaden dialogue. Their realism ‘remains enslaved by conventional forms and suffocated under a heap of arid rhetoric’ (p.276).

But in the painters of the day, the obsession with complexity and detail is transformed into the goal of decorating every surface, with rendering every stitch and jewel, with capturing nuances of facial expression and emotion – and this is something entirely new in the history of art.

In a fascinating passage (chapter 20, ‘The Aesthetic Sentiment’) Huizinga quotes one of the few recorded opinions of this art made by a contemporary, the Genoese man of letters Bartolommeo Fazio who admires in the paintings of van Eyck and Rogier the realism and the detail: the hair of the archangel Gabriel, the ascetic face of John the Baptist, a ray of light falling through a fissure, beads of sweat on a woman’s body, an image reflected by a mirror.

It is precisely this love of detail and its exquisitely realistic rendition, which we know aristocratic patrons of the day enjoyed, and which to those of us who love it, is precisely one of the strengths and appeals of medieval culture: its creation of wonderfully rich and decorative patterns in not only the visual arts but all other aspects of intellectual life: the rich detail and dense symbolism to be found in all medieval arts – of tapestry, illumination and painting.

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden

The Crucifixion Triptych by Rogier van der Weyden (c.1430)

Fascinatingly, we have the opinion of Michelangelo himself on Netherlandish art, recorded by Francesco de Holanda. Michelangelo credits the technical achievement of the northerners but then criticises them for having too much petty detail and not enough of the grand sculptural simplicity which he, of course, achieved so spectacularly.

Though the eye is agreeable impressed, these pictures have neither art nor reason; neither symmetry nor proportion; neither choice of values nor grandeur. In short, this art is without power and without distinction; it aims at rendering minutely many things at the same time, of which a single thing would have sufficed to call forth a man’s whole application. (Michelangelo, quoted p.254)

What he dislikes is the late medieval tendency to get lost in a maze of details (reflecting the complexities of the mazes of theology and chivalry). For Michelangelo all this has to be swept aside to make way for enormous, grand, simplified and epic gestures.

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

The Creation of Man by Michelangelo (1512)

Gone are the flowers, the trees, the landscape, the roofs and towers of the distant town, the colour symbolism and elaborate folds of the stiff clothes, the sweet douceur of the faces and the sentimental tears of the mourners. But these are precisely what I like so much about the art of the northern renaissance.

Conclusion

The above is a summary of just some of the many themes discussed in this brilliant book. It is a really rich, profound and insightful account, which repays repeated rereading, even after all this time still offering up new connections and shedding fresh light on time-honoured subjects.


Credit

The Waning of the Middle Ages was published in 1919 Herfsttij der Middeleeuwen and translated into English in 1924 by Frederik Jan Hopman. All references are to the 1976 Penguin paperback edition as reprinted in 1982.

Related links

Opus Anglicanum @ the Victoria and Albert Museum

From the 12th to the 15th centuries England had an international reputation for the quality of its luxury embroideries, often referred to as ‘Opus Anglicanum’ (English work).

The Syon Cope (1310-1320) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The Syon Cope (1310-1320) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

These luxury embroideries, featuring silk, velvet, gold and silver thread, were designed and woven by craftsmen and women in London, in a neighbourhood close to old St Paul’s cathedral – hanging from the roof in the second room is a sort of enormous rectangular lightshade which bears the names of the men and women embroiderers whose names have come down to us. Early on a display case shows the tools used in the craft and a video shows modern embroiderers at work to explain the process of creation.

Opus Anglicanum was bought by monarchs and churchmen across Europe and in the first room is a map of Europe showing locations where Opus Anglicanum have survived, scattered right across the continent. Hardly any of the secular embroideries – the ones commissioned and worn by kings, aristocrats, knights and so on – have survived, so almost all the examples in the exhibition are religious, vestments i.e. items of clerical clothing, worn by bishops and priests.

 The Syon Cope (detail) (1310-1320 ) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Syon Cope (detail) (1310-1320) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

However the exhibition addresses this lack by including paintings, stained glass, illuminated manuscripts and a number of striking full-length brass rubbings of dead knights, to show what contemporary secular embroidery would have looked like, and also to highlight the overlap in design and motifs between the different media of the times.

 The De Lisle Psalter (detail) (ca. 1320) © The British Library Board


The De Lisle Psalter (detail) (ca. 1320) © The British Library Board

The whole tradition came to an abrupt end with the comprehensive abolition of Catholic ritual, images, relics, statues, church furniture and apparel in Henry VIII’s Reformation in the 1530s. Many of the richest vestments were hidden or chopped up and used as more modest clothing and some of the items on display have been recreated from strips of embroidery which survived the centuries and, in our time, have been re-assembled. A fascinating video shows how this was done for a classic example, the Steeple Aston cope.

The V&A holds the largest collection of these works in the world and the show features works borrowed from across Europe (e.g. the Vatican, Toledo cathedral) – so this is a once in a lifetime opportunity to see such a rich collection of medieval embroidered work in one place. It is a sumptuous and rich exhibition, modest in scale, in just six rooms, but full of beautiful works you’d love to be able to touch and run your fingers over (and wear!)

Installation view

Installation view

The exhibition introduced me to terms for ecclesiastical garments I’d never heard of before:

  • armice
  • burse – a flat, square, fabric-covered case in which a folded corporal cloth is carried to and from an altar in church
  • chasuble – an ornate sleeveless outer vestment worn by a Catholic or High Anglican priest when celebrating Mass
  • cope – a large semi-circular garment to be worn in church services.
  • dalmatic – a wide-sleeved long, loose vestment open at the sides, worn by deacons and bishops, and by monarchs at their coronation
  • orphrey – decorative strip that ran along the straight edge of the cope)
  • stole – a priest’s silk vestment worn over the shoulders and hanging down to the knee or below
  • maniple – a vestment formerly worn by a priest celebrating the Eucharist, consisting of a strip hanging from the left arm
  • vestment – a chasuble or other robe worn by the clergy or choristers during services.

All of them repay close investigation; the more you look, the more you marvel at the fineness of the needlework and detail. For no special reason I ended up loitering by the The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble (1398 – 1420). On reflection I think it’s because there are no people in it. In the central vertical band the coats of arms are supported by swans holding each shield with their beaks. In the blue sections to either side, there are diagonal bands filled with what look like peacocks (?) alternating with floral bands decorated with what look like little white roses and a purple thistle (?).

The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble, 1398 – 1420

The Butler-Bowdon Chasuble, 1398 – 1420

It would have been good to confirm my guesses about these details; the wall labels aren’t as full as they could be, although there are a few large-print booklets available which give a bit more information. Presumably there is more in the book, but what you want is really a detailed explanation of the imagery and iconography of each item. For example, up either side of The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (below) there seems to be pairs of intertwining trunks sprouting leaves – are they vines? And they are punctuated at top and bottom with faces – What of? Demons? Lions? And why?

The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (ca. 1335-45) © 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

The Chichester-Constable Chasuble (ca. 1335-45) © 2016 The Metropolitan Museum of Art/Art Resource/Scala, Florence

All the human figures have that sweet medieval look. They are elongated. The top of the body is often swaying backwards with the neck and head bending forwards in a kind of counter-balance. The heads are simple/naive with strongly outlined eyes. Also, as in the example, above, the figures are often holding out their arms and hands in highly stylised positions, clearly pointing towards important incidents or making obviously significant gestures. Someone somewhere must have made a lexicon of these gestures which are clearly important but remain, to the uninstructed viewer, for the most part obscure.

 The Steeple Aston Cope (detail) (1310-40) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London


The Steeple Aston Cope (detail) (1310-40) © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

This installation view of the exhibition shows a faded brown cope to the left, below it a reliquary containing a relic of St Thomas a Becket (looking a bit like a 1930s radio), at the back in the centre a scarlet cope with two stained glass figures above and to the right, with several brown orphreys hanging to the right of them, and in the foreground a case showing three medieval illuminated books demonstrating how similar patterns were used in medieval embroidery and illumination.

Installation view

Installation view

The cases showing how similar decorative motifs were used for secular clothes introduced me to a few new terms for items of clothing worn by knights and their horses:

  • horse trapper – a cloth covering laid over a horse or other animal for protection and decoration also known as a caparison
  • surcoat – a loose robe worn over armour
  • tabard – a sleeveless jerkin consisting only of front and back pieces with a hole for the head
Part of a horse trapper probably made for Edward III’s Court (detail) (1330-40) Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de Cluny – Musée National du Moyen Âge) / Franck Raux

Part of a horse trapper probably made for Edward III’s Court (detail) (1330-40) Photo © RMN-Grand Palais (Musée de Cluny – Musée National du Moyen Âge) / Franck Raux

This is a rich and wonderful exhibition, full of detail and beauty and, above all, inspiring awe at the thousands of hours of humble patient hand work which went into creating each of these marvellous objects.

Advice

The beauty of the works is partly in the initial impact they make of sumptuousness and size (a cope is a big item of clothing). But mostly in the details and there are three problems here.

1. In something like the Syon Cope (top image in the blog post) I am not really clear what I’m looking for. I know how to read a painting. I don’t know how to read a medieval piece of embroidery. Some kind of guide to what to look for and enjoy in every piece would be extremely helpful.

In this respect the V&A has produced an excellent interactive page explaining details of The Butler-Bowdon Cope. I suppose it’s financially impractical, but in an ideal world every single one of the objects here would have just such a detailed guide to each of the figures, their histories, gestures, postures and meanings.

2. Understandably, the light is quite dim throughout to preserve these old fabrics. Also a lot of the detail is quite small. Not minute, just not very big. Ironically, I have enjoyed examining the detail of the dragons (above) and the angel on horseback playing a lute (three images above) more from these high-resolution photos on the V&A website, than when I was actually looking at them in real life.

My advice would be to read as much as you can about the exhibition on the V&A website and any reviews before you go, so that you’ve got a good idea what you’re going to see and which bits of it you are particularly interested in (the embroidery techniques and fabrics; the religious iconography; the floral and decorative designs; the histories of the noble families who often commissioned the works and whose coats of arms or heraldic symbols are woven into them, etc etc).

And consider taking a magnifying glass or pair of strong glasses so you can really enjoy the delightful details which the size and complexity (and the sheer number) of the designs sometimes obscure.


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The Wars of the Roses by John Gillingham (1981)

This book is 35 years old but is still, apparently, influential for the approach it takes to the subject. It amounted to an attack on the prevailing opinion about the wars and his critique of that attitude remains influential to this day.

Gillingham’s arguments are summed up in the brief but powerful opening chapter.

The prevailing view

The Middle Ages are conventionally dated as coming to an end around 1500. Therefore, the fact that England was subject to civil wars between various claimants to the crown from 1455 to 1485 was taken as indicating the general bloodiness of the whole 15th century, and an indication that the entire Plantagenet line of kings was worn out.

On this view the wars of the roses represent the ‘decline’ of the Middle Ages into chaos and bloodshed, reaching a nadir with the short brutal rule of King Richard III (1483-1485), whose injustice and harshness prompted yet another rebellion, this time led by a Welsh nobleman, Henry Tudor, which culminated in the decisive Battle of Bosworth, where Richard was killed and his army defeated.

The victorious Henry – crowned Henry VII – established the Tudor line of monarchs which proceeded through Henry VIII, Mary Tudor, Edward VI, to the glorious reign of good Queen Elizabeth I, marking the transition from an exhausted medieval dynasty to the ‘early modern’ period.

Gillingham’s counter-arguments

The myth of periods Historians know they shouldn’t divide history into periods, but they do. They shouldn’t because time is a seamless continuum and dividing it up into chunks is highly misleading.

Defining periods has two drawbacks: having defined a block of time as the ‘so-and-so period’, the temptation is to give this random era a beginning, middle and end. And ends, in the organic world, tend to be the result of age and decline. Thus the recurring vice of historians: inventing periods and then spending careers accounting for their rise and fall.

The myth of the middle ages But these are totally misleading metaphors. In reality there were no ‘middle ages’. The phrase was invented in the ‘Renaissance’ to characterise the period between the peak of the ancient Roman world the revival of learning which Renaissance authors were very aware of in their own time. But for a generation or more scholars have been fighting the ‘myth of the middle ages’ in all kinds of ways, for example by explaining that Rome didn’t ‘decline and fall’ as fast or as thoroughly as the myth demands. This is the thrust of Chris Wickham’s magisterial study, The Inheritance of Rome which shows the legislative, linguistic, religious and administrative legacy of Rome continuing for centuries after the last emperor (450), strongly enduring into the era of Charlemagne (crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800).

The myth of violence Moreover, England wasn’t a specially violent or bloodthirsty place in the later 15th century. The reverse. All the evidence is that England was unusually peaceful among comparably sized European states. Gillingham gives a lot of evidence for this.

  • A long explanation of military technology shows how the widespread development of powerful cannon led to the equal development of fortifications which could resist them, specifically the creation of bulwarks sticking out from the curtain walls of town or castle walls, to be used as platforms to bombard attacking forces. Almost all European towns and cities built them because the continent existed in a state of almost continuous warfare; there are hardly any in England because they weren’t needed.
  • Foreign observers commented on the peacefulness of England and pointed out one simple reason: the Channel. All nations in continental Europe were liable to be attacked at any moment by any other. Nobody could attack England. Raids there were, for example on the Cinque Ports on the south coast – but these merely prove Gillingham’s point because these were the only places which built ‘modern’ defensive walls. The entire rest of England didn’t need them.

On the contrary, Gillingham adduces evidence that the wages of labourers were at their highest point during the period. And – something he doesn’t himself mention but which I know independently – the period from 1450 saw the flourishing of the late medieval style of parish church design known as ‘Perpendicular’ – new, larger-than-ever churches built across the country and representing the wealth that comes from economic and social stability. It was the heyday of medieval church building.

So far from being the bloodbath which later tradition made it out to be, Gillingham in fact pithily sums up the period of disorder which later generations called the wars of the roses as merely ‘a few disturbances of the aristocratic establishment’ (p.11).

The Tudor myth

So why is there this myth in the first place?

Because when Henry Tudor defeated Richard III he commissioned writers to prove that he was a hero, restoring order and peace to a nation brought to its knees by incompetent rulers, weltering in blood and chaos, all leading to the acme of evil – the wicked king Henry overthrew, black Richard III, the evil hunchback.

His son (Henry VIII) perpetuated this version of history and so did his sons and daughters (Edward VI, bloody Mary, Elizabeth I). Chroniclers, teachers, historians – everything they wrote and published using the power of the new printing presses (which began to spread precisely during Henry VII’s reign) was first vetted and approved by government censors. And the government used the power of the press to promulgate the Official Version of a state brought to the brink of chaos and redeemed by the heroic Tudor dynasty.

100 years later Shakespeare – whose history plays are sometimes credited with being the biggest single influence on the English’s view of their own history – sealed and cemented the myth in the series of six ‘history’ plays he wrote about Henry IV, the hero Henry V, and the sad decline of Henry VI (the incompetent, possibly mentally defective king under whom the wars broke out).

Later historians accepted the official Tudor myth at face value and the story of chaos climaxing in the wickedest king in our island history was repeated over and again.

Only in the 1980s and since, has a revisionist version of the period taken hold: one that doesn’t represent it as a period of decline and fall into inevitable violence, but of surprising peace and stability upset only by dynastic quarrels right at the top of society which had surprisingly little impact except on the poor individuals press-ganged into fighting or in whose vicinity battles – generally quite small-scale battles – took place.

Full of meat and ideas

Lots of history books are full of dates, events and pernickety interpretations of them, but Gillingham’s book is riveting for the way it defines the big issues and tackles them head on. It is packed with logical arguments and insights.

It is, for example, fascinating to read that the biggest problem for any armed force in the field was provisions. Even living off the land was only a viable option for a limited period. In a war of foreign conquest part of the process of cowing the opposition was ravaging and destroying the land. But in a civil war, especially when you were claiming the throne and looking for people’s loyalty, the opposite was true – you wanted to present yourself as the enforcer of peace, law and stability. You wanted to rein in your followers and limit damage as much as possible.

These reasons explain why the Hundred Years War – fought mainly in France a generation or two earlier – and the other continental wars of this period, often settled down into long and destructive sieges, with land around the besieged cities ravaged and laid waste. Whereas the Wars of the Roses are characterised by the opposite, an unusual number of pitched battles, battles which didn’t last long and were usually decisive. Neither side wanted to destroy the very kingdom they were fighting to inherit.

This isn’t the place to summarise the actual wars (there were three distinct periods of violent conflict with periods of peace and manouvering between them). You can read summaries of the events on Wikipedia or any number of other websites. Suffice to say that in his opening chapters Gillingham’s book gives a host of fascinating, logical and persuasive arguments for rethinking our understanding of the entire period.

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The Black Arrow by Robert Louis Stevenson (1888)

This is unashamedly a children’s book. It was published as a monthly serial in Young Folks; A Boys’ and Girls’ Paper of Instructive and Entertaining Literature from June to October 1883 under the pseudonym ‘Captain George North’ (the same pen name Stevenson used for Treasure Island). Still, I am reading and experiencing it as an adult.

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

Cover of The Black Arrow illustrated by N.C. Wyeth

The Wars of the Roses

The story is set against the backdrop of the Wars of the Roses, a confusing conflict when the weakness and mental illness of King Henry VI allowed a major civil war to develop between followers of two large noble families – York and Lancaster, each fighting for the crown – which dragged on for a generation, from 1455 to 1485. (Hence the novel’s sub-title, A Tale of the Two Roses.)

There is no high-level explanation of any of this in the novel, and no date given to help the reader orientate themself. We see the conflict not from the vantage of courts and kings, but reflected in the microcosm of what seems to be a small area of the Fenland i.e East Anglia, around the fictional village of Tunstall, with its Moat House and nearby Holyrood Abbey.

The novel opens with a confused throng of villagers, the publican, the local parson Sir Oliver Oates, the lord of the manor Sir Daniel Brackley, and his ward the young teenager Dick Shelton, as they get confused reports of a battle, or at least of another nobleman in some kind of warlike trouble, nearby.

Things are further confused when Brackley’s man, Bennet Hatch, takes Dick to go and talk to old Nick Appleyard, the oldest man in the village who saw service under Henry the Fifth. Hatch wants to ask him to form a small troop to defend the village while the other men ride off to the battle. But they’ve barely started talking before out of nowhere a big arrow whizzes past them, embeds itself between Appleyard’s shoulders and, after a few, shudders, he dies. There are enemies in the woods across the valley. But who? Why?

Brackley is rallying his men outside the village pub when some of them spot a figure fleeing from the churchyard across fields and into the nearby woods. Dick runs over to the church and finds a parchment nailed to the door which promises revenge against oppressors and is signed ‘Jon Amend-All of the Green Wood, And his jolly fellaweship’. It is in the form of doggerel verse:

I had four blak arrows under my belt,
Four for the greefs that I have felt,
Four for the nomber of ill menne
That have opressid me now and then.

it goes on to name four specific individuals who it threatens with death for their ‘crimes’.

One is gone; one is wele sped;
Old Apulyaird is ded.

One is for Maister Bennet Hatch,
That burned Grimstone, walls and thatch.

One for Sir Oliver Oates,
That cut Sir Harry Shelton’s throat.

Sir Daniel, ye shull have the fourt;
We shall think it fair sport.

It seems to be blaming all four for taking part in the murder of Harry Shelton (Dick’s father) and the burning down of his house. When, in the next scene, we see the slippery and corrupt Sir Daniel Brackley extracting money with menaces i.e. doubling his tenants’ rents to him or else promising to hang them, we quickly come to suspect the poetic accusation is correct. Brackley has brought Dick up, harsh but fair, but the poem seems to implicate him in the murder of Dick’s father when Dick was a small child, and the burning down of his family’s house, Grimstone. You don’t have to be a genius to suspect that young Dick will find himself falling out with his guardian and in with Jon and the romantic woodland ‘fellaweship’.

Adventure and excitement

Stevenson possesses in abundance the boys adventure skill of creating tense moments which set the pulses racing and inflame the teenage mind in all of us. When Brackley (not suspecting the boy’s growing suspicions) sends Dick on an errand to nearby Tunstall Moat House, he finds himself falling in with another young lad who was at the inn and is (for some reason) also going the same way. Once they’ve identified themselves to each other, they carry on through the snowy woods (the novel is set in the depths of winter).

In this scene, the boys have arrived at the ruins of the burnt-out mansion, only to realise there are other people around in the neighbourhood, then realising it is the ‘woodland fellaweship’. They climb warily through the debris and look out through a ruined windowframe:

Peering through this, they were struck stiff with terror at their predicament. To retreat was impossible; they scarce dared to breathe. Upon the very margin of the ditch, not thirty feet from where they crouched, an iron caldron bubbled and steamed above a glowing fire; and close by, in an attitude of listening, as though he had caught some sound of their clambering among the ruins, a tall, red-faced, battered-looking man stood poised, an iron spoon in his right hand, a horn and a formidable dagger at his belt.
(Chapter IV – A Greenwood Company)

The story is chock full of such moments of suspense, confrontation, escape, fights, battles, storms at sea – Stevenson threw everything he could think of and the kitchen sink into the plot.

Fast-moving plot

This other lad Dick has teamed up with is called John Matcham. They watch the outlaws interrupt their meal in the clearing to go off and attack a line of Brackley’s men who are wending through a different part of the woods. Continuing on their way, they encounter a strange leper slowly ringing a mournful hand bell, who reveals himself to be Brackley in a disguise he’s adopted to navigate the dangerous woods. All three finally make it to the safety of Tunstall Moat, Brackley’s base.

Book II – the Moat House

Here, Dick confronts Brackley with his suspicions and makes him swear he had nothing to do with murdering his (Dick’s) father – which he does with easy fluency. But the parson also named in the doggerel accusation, Sir Oliver Oates, can’t bring himself to take an oath, stuttering and hesitating and turning red, pretty much incriminating himself.

Moreover, one of Brackley’s men brought wounded to the Moat House after the attack on them by the outlaws which Dick and John witnessed, and who is now dying – one John Carter – more or less confesses to the murder and implicates Brackley.

Right. So we have established that Sir Daniel Brackley is the man who helped or was responsible for murdering Dick Shelton’s father and burning down his ancestral home, years ago, but who then adopted and raised Dick. The scales fallen from his eyes, Dick and John decide to escape from the Moat House. But this proves easier said than done since it is a medieval fortress and full of Brackley’s men on high alert for an attack. There is a lot of creeping along spooky, dark castle corridors holding only a rushlight.

Illustration for The Black Arrow by the wonderful N.C. Wyeth

Illustration for The Black Arrow by N.C. Wyeth (1916)

Eventually they are discovered and flee into a vacant room, barricading themselves in against attackers. After repelling an attack through an unsuspected trap door – John Matcham finally reveals that ‘he’ is a maid in disguise. ‘He’ is Joanna Sedley, heir to a fine estate etc etc. whose family are all dead and so has spent her life being held hostage by a number of great lords, all planning marriage deals for her.

Now Brackley has possession of her and wants to marry her off to another lord who will pay a fine price. There is just time for Dick and Joanna to realise they are in love with each other! before the door is forced open by Brackley’s men who seize Joanna and almost grab Dick, who wriggles free, plunges out the window into the moat below, swims across it and scrambles to safety under cover of darkness. Phew!

Book III – My Lord Foxham

Several months have gone by and the House of Lancaster is in the ascendant with the Yorkists defeated – the small port of Shoreby-on-the-Till is full of Lancastrian nobles including Brackley, sucking up to the new masters of the land.  Now we learn that Dick has been hiding out all this time with the outlaws in the forest and that their leader is called Ellis Duckworth. He has loaned Dick some of his cut-throats, criminals and deserters to tail Brackley to Shoreby and now the chapter opens with them hiding out, drinking and grumbling, in a low pub.

One of their spies comes in to report that Brackley is going to a midnight assignation at a house by the sea – Dick and his men follow, Dick climbs over the wall and peers through the window and sees the house contains Joanna Sedley, now magically transformed from the ‘boy’ he shared adventures with in book one into a tall, stately, womanly figure – he is even more in love with her, though a little daunted by her fine womanhood.

Other figures are seen moving suspiciously around the walls and so Dick’s men attack them, leading to a scrappy fight. Dick kills one then tackles a good-sized man in a fight which spills into the sea – Dick manages to trip him, get him under the waves and forces him to yield. It turns out to be Lord Foxham, himself no friend of Brackley, himself come to spy on Joanna. Realising they’re on sort of the same side, Dick and Foxham arrange to meet next day at St Bride’s Cross, just outside Shoreby, ‘on the skirts of Tunstall Forest’. Here Lord Foxham confirms his identity and that he is the rightful protector of the fair Joanna Sedley. Dick’s passionate protestations about her safety persuade Foxham that Dick truly loves her, and he declares that Dick shall marry her. Only the slight problem that she is held captive by Brackly and betrothed to Lord Shoreby stands in the way.

So Dick resolves to rescue fair Joanna from the house by the sea. Since his fight with Foxham’s men the night before was pretty conspicuous, Brackley has doubled his guard, placing armed men round the house and knights on the approach roads, so Dick has the bright idea of approaching by sea. In a series of rather contorted events which are typical of the novel’s contrived storyline, Dick commissions his pack of criminals to steal a ship, which they do by hailing the master of a boat newly arrived in the port of Shoreby, as he comes ashore, then plying him with so much drink that he is easy to lure outside, mug and tie up. Then the gang row back out to the ship – the ironically named Good Hope – take command of it and sail it to a rough pier not far from the isolated house where Joanna is being held.

But when our men leave the ship and walk along the rough pier they find themselves instantly attacked, coming under bow and arrow fire, killing and injuring many, the whole crew panicking and rushing back to the ship, some falling into the water and drowning, others expiring on the deck. Quite a bloody scene.

Even Lord Foxham, who we only met ten pages earlier, is wounded, and carried to a cabin below decks. Here, once the ship has weighed anchor, he tells Dick that he was scheduled to meet the young Duke of Gloucester (the future King Richard III) of the house of York, with notes about the deployment of the Lancastrian forces around Shoreby. Dick must now undertake this mission. And Foxham names Dick the rightful husband of Lady Joanna in the letters he asks Dick to bear – but it is up to him to actually secure her.

In further melodrama the ship is now driven by heavy seas to shipwreck on the sand not far from Shoreby. Once the tide has gone out all the survivors of the vain attack on Brackley’s house struggle ashore and traipse inland, but not without – in yet more action – briefly coming under attack from a platoon of men apparently place there to defend the coast. But they escape without any more casualties.

All of this, by the way, takes place in the depth of winter, with darkening stormy skies, high seas, and snow storms. It is all very atmospheric and well described but the underlying scenario is too far-fetched for the reader to buy into.

Book IV – The Disguise

Dick pays off the motley crew, all too happy to leave their unlucky (and very young) leader, and elects to stick with Lawless. This outlaw has emerged with higher stature then the other cut-throats: it was he who Dick saw in the clearing cooking the outlaws’ meal; it was he who took control of the Good Hope‘s helm, steered it through the storm and ensured it survived the wreck. Now Lawless takes Dick through the snow-struck forest to his secret lair in the woods, a warren created when a tall beech tree was blown over, with the sides shored up with earth and turf and the entrance covered with brushwood.

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

Lawless leading young Dick to his den in the woods, illustration by N.C. Wyeth

It is, in other words, a fantasy version of a boy’s den in the woods. Inside it is surprisingly warm and snug, especially after Lawless lights a fire, they cook and eat some food and share some sweet wine, and Dick tells his story. ‘You want Lady Joan?’ Lawless asks Dick. ‘Let’s go and get her.’ So Lawless opens one of the several trunks stashed round his den and gets out several friar’s cassocks, complete with rope belts. And a tray of make-up pencils (a sort of indication of the theatrical origins or references of much of the language and plot of the novel). He gets Dick to put on the friar’s costume and then applies make-up to make him seem older, a wise old wandering friar. They head off through the snowy woods, back towards Sir Daniel Brackley’s residence in Shoreby.

Here, in the chaos of an over-packed lord’s house, Dick sees two fine ladies heading upstairs and follows them, till he encounters Lady Joan again, in the company of her serving lady. But oh alas and alack! Joanna reveals that she is to be married next day to Lord Shoreby. She and the lady must go back downstairs to the marriage feast while Dick stays hidden. Off they go but only a few minutes later a malevolent dwarf-jester comes snooping around and, as he discovers evidence of Dick hiding, Dick leaps out, they tussle, and Dick stabs him to death with his poniard. (For the hero of a children’s story Dick kills quite a few people – he killed one of Foxham’s men in the fight by the sea, he kills the dwarf – and all this pales next to the slaughter in book V. It’s a surprisingly violent book.)

When the dwarf’s body is discovered by servants there is much alarm and shouting but Dick stays hidden in Lady J’s room, when she returns for a further clasping of hands and bosoms and protestations of love – all watched by the ironic lady-in-waiting, before Dick tries to make his escape.

Since he is still in his disguise as a friar, he tells the house guards that he is going to the nearby church to pray for the dwarf’s soul (his body having been laid in state there), but the guards take him at his word and frog-march him to the church. Here he is no sooner introduced to the parson, Sir Oliver Oates, who begins to recognise him through is disguise than Dick throws himself on his mercy. In an unguarded moment the parson, for his part, admits that he was used as a decoy to lure Dick’s father to his death all those years ago, but swears he didn’t know that was what was going to happen. The soldiers are sitting in the pews watching him suspiciously so there’s no way Dick can escape the church, and so he spends the night next to Sir Oliver, pretending to mutter prayers for the dead dwarf.

Next morning they are woken early by the grand procession for the wedding of Lord Shoreham to Lady Joanna. But barely has the fine lord entered the church, richly caparisoned and accompanied by his fragrant retinue than a brace of arrows ring out, shooting him dead on the spot, injuring Brackley, creating hysteria and panic among the attendants and ladies.

This is stilled by the imperious voice of Lord Risingham, the noblest man present. To Dick’s dismay the parson immediately betrays him and Lawless (his fellow fake friar) and they are dragged before Risingham and all kinds of accusations thrown at them of being in league with the fellowship of the Black Arrow and therefore involved in this sacrilegious outrage.

Brackley is incensed and wants to drag Dick off and torture him to death, but Lady Joanna intercedes to say she never wanted to marry Lord Shoreby and loves Dick, and her (cheeky) lady in waiting backs up the story and so Risingham, who has seniority, has Dick taken by soldiers to his own chambers to judge.

Here Dick saves the day by admitting that he guilty to some extent of falling in with the fellowship of forest crooks, but he only did so after learning that Brackley murdered his father. He clinches his case by handing over to Risingham a letter he had conveniently found on the murdered dwarf in which the villain Brackley plots to overthrow the Yorkist interest – which includes Risingham – and then hand over Risingham’s lands to Lord Shoreby. Risingham is incensed and instantly releases Dick, making him swear to mend his ways.

So Dick finally gets to escape the house and trouble and is walking free across Shoreby when, of all the bad luck, as he is passing one of the inns on the dockside, out of it stumble some very drunk sailors which include Arblaster, the unfortunate captain who Dick’s men got drunk, mugged and then whose ship they stole and wrecked. He doesn’t recognise him but his wretched dog does, coming barking up to him and lawless, still in their silly friar disguises. The drunks grow in suspicion and when he tries to bolt, grab him, tie him up and drag him back into the pub. Here Dick spins a long cock and bull story, admitting he is one of the outlaws but has grudges against them, and that the outlaws have a vast pile of treasure in the woods, and persuading Arblaster and his mates that he’ll lead them to it. In its way this is a curious and flavoursome scene. They are by this stage very drunk and Dick makes them show him the only possession of his which they found and therefore took off him – Lord Foxham’s signet ring with which he was to identify himself to Richard of Gloucester – when Dick snatches it, up ends the tables in their faces, and scarpers out the door and along the quayside into the night. Phew.

Book V – Crookback

Though as convoluted in detail as the others, this is in some ways the simplest book. If you remember, Dick had promised Lord Foxham he would rendezvous with Richard Duke of Gloucester and give him Foxham’s writings on the disposition of enemy (Lancastrian) forces in Shoreby. Now, Dick hid those papers when he was at Lawless’s den in the woods, which is why Arblaster and his drunk shipmates didn’t find them when they searched Dick the night before.

Now, the next morning, Dick is on his way through the woods back to Lawless’s den to get them, when he comes across a man defending himself against several attackers. Dick throws himself into the fray, coming to his defence, and together they beat the men off. At which point the other blows his horn and a brace of horsemen arrive and quickly identify the man he’s saved as Richard Duke of Gloucester, known as Crookback and as every schoolboy in 1888 knew, the man who would become King Richard III, according to legend the most wicked monarch in England’s history.

At this point, if it hadn’t been obvious before, the reader realises that this is a novel not only about two roses but about two Richards. For immediately the duke of Gloucester reveals the manic glint in his eye and the intensity of his ambition.

Gloucester explains to Dick that he is about to attack Shoreby and Dick gives him an eye-witness description of the Lancastrian forces every bit as good as Foxham’s. Gloucester knights Dick on the spot, from this point onwards Sir Richard Shelton. But says now he must command a troop during the forthcoming battle of Shoreby.

The (fictional) Battle of Shoreby is described across two chapters in impressive detail. The reader feels this is what it must be like to attack a medieval town through narrows streets and, as Dick does, command his men to raise a barricade with furniture looted from the rickety houses and then withstand attacks from massed archers and from armoured knights on horseback. It is rip-roaring exciting stuff.

Eventually the battle is won and Richard asks permission to ride and rescue his lady love, and Gloucester gives him a troop of men. Off they go trailing Brackly and his forces through the forest. After various delays and losing of the tracks, Dick and his men creep up on Brackley’s party gathered round a fire which includes Lady Joanna. They gather and attack, but Brackley’s men were waiting for them and mount a a surprise counter-attack. Joanna runs to Dick in the confusion and they escape the confusion of battle into the dense forest.

(It’s worth noting that although the novel is made of clichés, there keep coming unexpected complications and rebuffs, which give it a sort of realistic but also quite a frustrating feel. When Dick and his gang stole the ship and sailed it round to attack Brackley’s house by the sea I thought it would be a storming triumph, so was very surprised when they are beaten back and many killed or injured by bowfire before they’ve barely got off the jetty.)

Briefly, Dick and Joanna make it back to the safety of Lord Foxham’s house. There is a further encounter with Gloucester where Dick displeases the great man with a notable request. Gloucester says he will give Dick anything he desires, and at that moment – as it happens – amid the chaos of post-battle Shoreby, some troops come past hustling some captives who Gloucester, barely bothering to look, orders to be hanged. And Dick recognises among them Arblaster, the wretched sea captain who Richard has twice wronged, stealing his ship and ruining his livelihood, then throwing a table at him in the quayside pub. Now Dick sees a way to atone for his past sins and asks Gloucester to spare this man’s life. Irritated at the triviality of the request, Gloucester agrees to do so – since he has given his word – but fiercely tells Dick that he can’t expect to rise in his army, in his cause, if he throws away favours on trifle. And so Gloucester gallops off.

Next morning Dick is up betimes, accoutred and arrayed in the finest regalia Foxham can provide, ready for his wedding to Lady Joanna. He strolls around the town, surveying the triumphant Yorkist troops, before straying further afield and ends up walking through the (by now very familiar) snowy woods.

And it is here that the psychological climax of the book comes, when Dick disturbs a figure lurking in the woods in disguise and it turns out to be none other than Sir Daniel Brackley. They argue. They nearly fight but Dick refuses to shed blood on his wedding day. In fact he admits – to Brackley, to the reader, to himself – that he has done too many bloody deeds recently, spilled too much blood. Although he has all the justification for it, he will not harm Brackley. He tells him to go before he calls the guards. And so Brackley shuffles off, suspiciously.

At which point there is the twang of a bow and from a nearby thicket an arrow is despatched which embeds itself in Brackley, who falls to the ground. Dick rushes to him and just has time to tell him that, yes, it is a Black Arrow, when Brackley expires. And Ellis Duckworth comes from the thicket holding his bow. He heard Dick forgive Brackley, but he can’t forgive. He asks Dick to pray for his soul. And Dick notes that vengeance hasn’t made Duckworth feel good, in fact he feels sick and guilty. Give it up, says Dick. Hatch died in the Battle of Shoreham. So three of the four mentioned in the original verse threat are now despatched. Dick asks forgiveness for the parson and Duckworth, reluctantly agrees.

‘Be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore—the fellowship is broken.’

“But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore”. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

‘But be at rest; the Black Arrow flieth nevermore’. Illustration by N. C. Wyeth

In the short conclusion to the book, Dick marries his Joan. Richard Crookback makes a last appearance riding by with the long train of his armed men, going towards the next battle, and parries banter with Foxham, Joan and Dick, offering Joan the husband of her choice. Of course she cleaves to honest Dick, and Gloucester pshaws, turns his horse and gallops off towards his destiny.

And in the last few sentences we learn that Dick and Joan lived out their lives in peace and happiness far from the wars and that two old men – Arblaster the shipman and Lawless the rogue – also live out their lives in peace. Dick has, in some measure, atoned for his youthful bloodthirstiness, by at key moments, interceding and saving both their lives. And with that thought, or moral, the book ends.


Reasons for The Black Arrow’s relative failure

The relative failure and comparative neglect of this novel makes you appreciate the elements which made the classics Treasure Island and Kidnapped such successes. I identify four reasons:

1. In those novels there is one boy hero (Jim Hawkins, David Balfour) – clearly identified in the first sentence – and you are thrown immediately into his plight – which is also described clearly and obviously. In The Black Arrow the picture is much more confused: it takes fifty pages or more to become really clear that the story is about a young lad, Master Richard (‘Dick’) Shelton, the ward of the wicked Sir Daniel Brackley, and this is because quite a few characters are introduced in the confused and busy opening scenes.

2. The successful tales are first-person narratives, throwing you directly and immediately into the adventure at first hand. The Black Arrow has a third-person narrator who is not, for some reason, very believable, partly because of the confusion of plot which dogs a lot of the story.

3. Good guys and bad guys In his classic works you know who they are – the pirates in Treasure Island, the ship’s crew and then the loyalist British army in Kidnapped. In this book it is much harder to tell for several reasons:

a) it’s a civil war so there’s no immediate way of knowing who’s on whose side, except by asking
b) characters change sides, including the hero who is not wholeheartedly for either side

4. A charismatic anti-hero When Richard Crookback appears in the fifth act, the reader realises that this is the fourth reason why this novel isn’t as successful as Kidnapped or Treasure Island – the presence of a charismatic baddy.

Both those stories introduce fairly early on a hugely charismatic, charming, threatening, adult hero who enthrals the boy narrator and comes to dominate the story – namely Long John Silver and Alan Breck Stewart. Their presence, their charming rogueish amorality, lifts both books onto a completely different level.

In this book, the dangerous charismatic adult is Richard Crookback – he immediately captures our attention by his spirited self-defence against four or five attackers, and then with his arrogant nonchalance as soon as he starts talking to Dick. From now to the end of the novel the story lifts and sails whenever he is present – he is a pantomime villain like Alan Rickman’s Sheriff of Nottingham in the movie Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. But his arrival makes you realise that he is what the preceding four-fifths of the book have been missing.


Medieval vocabulary

Apparently Stevenson used the Paston Letters, a collection of authentic correspondence from the period, as his model, and – as someone who studied medieval literature at university – I did feel it had some of the tang and hempen antiquity of the older language, albeit interlarded with what I thought were Shakespearian useges from 200 years later, and some speeches which had a Scots ring to me. You have to be prepared to enjoy exchanges like this:

She was groping for the bolt, when Dick at last comprehended.
‘By the mass!’ he cried, ‘y’ are no Jack; y’ are Joanna Sedley; y’ are the maid that would not marry me!’
The girl paused, and stood silent and motionless. Dick, too, was silent for a little; then he spoke again.
‘Joanna,’ he said, ‘y’ ’ave saved my life, and I have saved yours; and we have seen blood flow, and been friends and enemies—ay, and I took my belt to thrash you; and all that time I thought ye were a boy. But now death has me, and my time’s out, and before I die I must say this: Y’ are the best maid and the bravest under heaven, and, if only I could live, I would marry you blithely; and, live or die, I love you.’
She answered nothing.
‘Come,’ he said, ‘speak up, Jack. Come, be a good maid, and say ye love me!’
‘Why, Dick,’ she cried, ‘would I be here?’
‘Well, see ye here,’ continued Dick, ‘an we but escape whole we’ll marry; and an we’re to die, we die, and there’s an end on’t.’ (Chapter III The Room Over The Chapel)

On the other hand, one of the pleasures of reading old literature, especially something as conventional in its way as this ripping yarn, is the logical habits of mind of writers brought up in previous ages. There is a lovely logic to the deployment of the material in the opening of the chapter ‘In Mine Enemies’ House’ – the way the place is identified, then described, then the attitude behind its busy state, then a specific setting in time given, and then the weather: the whole impression being rounded up and summarised in the witty sentence about the eye of the modern.

Sir Daniel’s residence in Shoreby was a tall, commodious, plastered mansion, framed in carven oak, and covered by a low-pitched roof of thatch. To the back there stretched a garden, full of fruit-trees, alleys, and thick arbours, and overlooked from the far end by the tower of the abbey church.
The house might contain, upon a pinch, the retinue of a greater person than Sir Daniel; but even now it was filled with hubbub. The court rang with arms and horseshoe-iron; the kitchens roared with cookery like a bees’-hive; minstrels, and the players of instruments, and the cries of tumblers, sounded from the hall. Sir Daniel, in his profusion, in the gaiety and gallantry of his establishment, rivalled with Lord Shoreby, and eclipsed Lord Risingham.
All guests were made welcome. Minstrels, tumblers, players of chess, the sellers of relics, medicines, perfumes, and enchantments, and along with these every sort of priest, friar, or pilgrim, were made welcome to the lower table, and slept together in the ample lofts, or on the bare boards of the long dining-hall.
On the afternoon following the wreck of the Good Hope, the buttery, the kitchens, the stables, the covered cartshed that surrounded two sides of the court, were all crowded by idle people, partly belonging to Sir Daniel’s establishment, and attired in his livery of murrey and blue, partly nondescript strangers attracted to the town by greed, and received by the knight through policy, and because it was the fashion of the time.
The snow, which still fell without interruption, the extreme chill of the air, and the approach of night, combined to keep them under shelter. Wine, ale, and money were all plentiful; many sprawled gambling in the straw of the barn, many were still drunken from the noontide meal. To the eye of a modern it would have looked like the sack of a city; to the eye of a contemporary it was like any other rich and noble household at a festive season.

There is a pleasure and a seduction in the logical disposition of the material, a pleasing old-fashioned storytellingness. As a thread through the reading, I made a note of sundry medieval words which, although I’ve often read before, I don’t actually fully understand.

  • arbalest – a crossbow with a special mechanism for drawing back and releasing the string
  • baldric –  a belt worn over one shoulder to carry a weapon (usually a sword) or other implement such as a bugle or drum
  • brigandine – a cloth garment, generally canvas or leather, lined with small oblong steel plates riveted to the fabric
  • buckler – a small shield, up to 18 inches in diameter, held in the fist with a central handle behind the boss
  • cresset – a metal cup or basket, mounted to a pole, containing flammable substance like oil, pitch or a rope steeped in rosin, burned as a light or beacon
  • gyves – a shackle, especially for the leg
  • losels – a worthless person or scoundrel
  • lout – verb: to bow or stoop
  • murrain – a plague, epidemic, or crop blight
  • poniard – a small, slim dagger
  • pottage – a thick soup or stew made by boiling vegetables, grains, and, if available, meat or fish
  • sallet – a light medieval helmet, usually with a vision slit or a movable visor
  • shaw – a coppice or thicket of trees
  • tippet – a scarf-like narrow piece of clothing, worn over the shoulders
  • tucket – a flourish on a trumpet
  • windac – a piece of equipment to pull back the tight string of a crossbow

Related links

A Stevenson bibliography

1878
An Inland Voyage – An immensely entertaining, witty and thoughtful account of Stevenson’s trip by canoe, with a friend, along the canals of Belgium and south into France, observing rural life and types along the way.
1879
Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes – More gritty than the Voyage, the Travels record 12 days walking with a recalcitrant donkey through south-central France in a book which has moments of freewheeling nature worship but comes to be dominated by Stevenson’s interest in the bloody Protestant revolt which took place in the region a century earlier.
1881
Virginibus Puerisque and Other Papers – Essays including: Virginibus Puerisque i-iv including ‘On Falling in Love’, Crabbed Age and Youth, An Apology for Idlers, Ordered South, Aes Triplex, El Dorado, The English Admirals, Some Portraits by Raeburn, Child’s Play, Walking Tours, Pan’s Pipes, A Plea for Gas Lamp.
1882
The Old and New Pacific Capitals – Essays on the climate and history of Monterey and San Francisco.
Familiar Studies of Men and Books – Essays on: Victor Hugo’s Romances, Some Aspects of Robert Burns, The Gospel According to Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau: His Character and Opinions, Yoshida-Torajiro, François Villon, Student, Poet, Housebreaker, Charles of Orleans, Samuel Pepys, John Knox and his Relations to Women.
New Arabian Nights – A sequence of thinly-linked and not too impressive short stories.
1883
Treasure Island – One of the most famous adventure stories of all time. Andrew Lang says it single-handedly established the financial viability of a new type of short, action-packed story and inaugurated a golden age of adventure yarns from the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle and Henry Rider Haggard.
The Silverado Squatters – Another travel book, following immediately after the Atlantic crossing described in An Amateur Emigrant and the trans-America train journey described in The Open Plains, this one describes Stevenson and new wife Fanny’s honeymoon in an abandoned mining camp high on the flanks of Mount St Helena, north of San Francisco.
1885
Prince Otto – An action romance set in the imaginary Germanic state of Grünewald.
More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter – co-written with Fanny Van De Grift Stevenson
A Child’s Garden of Verses Classic volume of children’s poetry.
1886
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde – One of the most famous fictions of all time about an Edinburgh scientist who devises a potion which releases his unconscious urges, his animal self, an alter ego which threatens to take over his personality.
Kidnapped – Gripping historical novel about young David Balfour plunged into a series of adventures in the aftermath of the Jacobite Rising of 1745.
1887
The Merry Men and Other Tales and Fables – Six short stories: The Merry Men, Will O’ the Mill, Markheim, Thrawn Janet, Olalla, The Treasure of Franchard.
On the Choice of a Profession – An essay.
Underwoods (poetry)
Ticonderoga: A Legend of the West Highlands (poetry)
1888
The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses – Historical adventure novel set during the Wars of the Roses as young Master Richard Shelton escapes from his wicked ‘uncle’ and rescues the girl he loves, young Joanna Sedley.
1889
The Master of Ballantrae – Two brothers end up on opposite sides of Bonny Prince Charlie’s rebellion of 1745, the Master being the one who goes into exile and adventures in America and India before returning to haunt the stay-at-home brother, until both are driven to a macabre and gruesome fate in the New World.
The Wrong Box – Comic novel mostly written by his step-son Lloyd Osbourne, but revised by Stevenson.
1890
Father Damien: an Open Letter to the Rev. Dr. Hyde of Honolulu Stevenson’s angry defence of Father Damien, Catholic priest to the leper colony on the island of Molokai, against a detractor.
1891
The Bottle Imp – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a magic bottle and the love of two South Sea island natives.
Ballads – poems
1892
The Wrecker (co-written with Lloyd Osbourne) – An immensely long rambling narrative telling the life story of American Loudon Dodds, from his days as a failed art student in Paris, to his business ventures with brash Jim Pinkerton in San Francisco, to the long puzzling case of the shipwrecked Flying Scud whose mystery dominates the second half of the book and, in the final pages, reveals a gruesome and bloody tragedy at sea.
The Beach of Falesá – (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) A powerful short story about a rough white trader and the harsh revenge he takes on the fellow trader who tries to get him expelled from the island.
A Footnote to History, Eight Years of Trouble in Samoa – factual history
Across the Plains – Travelogue following straight on from The Amateur Emigrant (which describes RLS’s 1879 journey by steamship from Glasgow to New York) and describes his ongoing journey by train from New York to California.
1893
The Isle of Voices – Short story (collected in Island Nights’ Entertainments) about a lazy South Sea islander who falls foul of his father-in-law who is a warlock with magic powers.
Catriona, aka David Balfour – A sequel to Kidnapped.
Island Nights’ Entertainments (aka South Sea Tales) – Contains the three stories referred to above.
1894
The Ebb-Tide – A novella, the third collaboration with Lloyd Osbourne, describing the ill-fated trip of three beach bums at the ends of their tethers, who unexpectedly get the opportunity to crew a schooner, plan to steal and sell it, but then meet their nemesis in the shape of a supernaturally powerful white trader.
—-December 1894 Stevenson dies, aged 44, on the South Sea Island of Vailima—-
1895
Vailima Letters – 44 letters Stevenson wrote to his friend Sidney Colvin, who published them with a preface and epilogue.
The Amateur Emigrant – A short intense account of Stevenson’s journey across the Atlantic in 1879, with descriptions of the squalid conditions of ‘steerage’ class passengers and reflections on the condition and character of the British working classes.
1896
Weir of Hermiston – Unfinished at Stevenson’s death, this fragment of nine chapters describes the childhood and young manhood of Archie Weir, sensitive son of the hanging judge old Adam Weir, how his father removes him from Edinburgh University for his subversive views and exiles him to the country estate of Hermiston where he falls in love with a local beauty, Christina Elliott – at which point a student acquaintance comes to stay, who it is hinted will become Archie’s bitter love rival – and the manuscript breaks off. Contains much mature and insightful portrayal of its characters especially, for the first time in Stevenson’s fiction, of its women characters.
In the South Seas – A collection of articles and essays describing Stevenson’s travels in the Pacific islands.
Songs of Travel and Other Verses – Poetry.
Records of A Family of Engineers – A personal history of his own family of lighthouse-building engineers, unfinished at his death.
1897
St. Ives: being the Adventures of a French Prisoner in England – A long novel which Stevenson had almost completed and was finished after his death by Arthur Quiller-Couch.

2005
Robert Louis Stevenson: A Biography by Claire Harman

Medieval and Renaissance art at the Victoria and Albert Museum

The Victoria and Albert Museum’s Medieval and Renaissance collection is scattered over different floors and different parts of the building. (See the V&A floor plan to understand what follows.)

If you enter the main entrance on Cromwell Road, turn immediately right, then left down the narrow steps (past the men’s loo) into rooms 8, 9, 10, 10a, 10b and 10c, to begin at the chronologically earliest part of the display, covering the years 300 – 1500.

Stairs at the end take you up to level 2, where rooms 62 to 64 continue ‘Medieval & Renaissance 300-1600’. From this balcony level you can descend back to ground level and to the huge east hall (probably the first thing you see when you’re buying tickets or asking for information in the entrance lobby) this hall comprising rooms 50a, 50b, 50c and 50d, which house monumental sculptures and a vast stone church screen.

Also on the ground floor, though in the opposite wing, is another huge room 48a, which houses some Raphael cartoons and, in the corridor beside the main bookshop, rooms 16a, 26 and 27, which house a series of sculptures from 1300 to 1600. Close to this are the two large rooms 46a and 46b, which contain casts of Renaissance sculptures, the so-called ‘Cast Courts’.

Early medieval

A visit to all of these rooms confirmed me in my sense that I prefer art from what used to be called the Dark Ages and the early Medieval period, and my interest falls away during the religious revival of the 14th century – although I still like its humanistic medieval approach – and then falls off a cliff as the technically perfect artists of the Renaissance put their gifts to the service of hundreds of horrible Italian princes and the manufacture of countless pastiche classical statues, or gold-larded altars adorned with simpering Madonnas and halo-happy saints.

Why visit galleries or museums?

You visit museums or galleries not only to learn about the ostensible subject matter of what you’re seeing, but also:

1. Visiting helps you find out what you like and don’t like and so helps you define your tastes and preferences – helps inform and improve those tastes and preferences. In this day and age you don’t have to conform to pre-set canons of taste, but how do you know what you like till you try it?

2. It is also a form of therapy. By clarifying what you like and don’t like you find out who you are, the kind of person you are – an art lover, a science lover, a weapons lover, a photograph lover: there are museums and galleries for every taste. And finding out what you like is part of understanding who you are.

3. Exhibits are not only data for value judgements they are witnesses to the past and since all art is produced in some part of the past, it is difficult to avoid engaging with history, in one or other sense of the word. And understanding fragments of the past may help you better understand the troubled present.

Personal prejudices

If I ask myself why I like the pieces I warmed to, it is for one of two reasons:

1. Real Dark Age art is original, weird and different from the Classical or Renaissance periods which bookend it. It speaks of pagan mysteries, the Teutonic forests, a northern ecosystem, a barbarian bestiary of ravens, foxes, gargoyles, green men and grotesques, not laid out in expensive open perspectives, but crammed together into constricted spaces which make them adopt strange stylised postures.

In its avoidance of the the perfection of classical statuary, in its interest in energy compacted into a stylised space, it has obvious similarities with the Modernist art, especially from the period of the Great War, which I also love.

2. When the art of painting revives from the 1200s onwards, I dislike almost all religious ie Catholic, subject matter, and warm to the depiction of people in their own right, for their humanity, for the love of suffering humanity which they evoke. Linked to that view, I warm to animals, flowers, trees and all the indications of a lush, fertile northern environment, and am almost physically repelled by the harsh, barren, rocky landscapes under a pitilessly blue sky, which characterise so much Italian Renaissance painting.

Personal highlights

So this isn’t an attempt to be definitive or authoritative; it is a very personal list of highlights.

Rooms 8 to 10

  • Ivory Last Judgement and Transfiguration (800, recarved 860) I liked the very literal way the coffin lids were coming off in the middle of the image and how, at the bottom right, a big devil’s head is swallowing naughty sinners.
  • Elephant ivory comb (875) Ceremonial combs were used to comb the hair of a priest before he conducted the Mass. Combing was a symbolic process, which established bodily order. It also stopped unruly hair falling in the communion wine.
  • Tabernacle with deposition (1150) I liked the polished crystal in the base, the cartoon bendiness of the human figures and the way they blend into the crucifix which, unusually, has the form of an actual, organically growing tress, rather than the usual straight planks.
  • non-classical animals, bestiaries
  • Relief of the Virgin and Child in orange-red Verona marble (1160-80). The flat smooth expressionless faces remind me of Modernist sculpture, maybe of the Eric Gill reliefs on display at Tate Britain.
  • Grotesque corbel, made from carved sandstone between 1125 and 1150. Corbels stick out from walls to support other features. Why were grotesques and gargoyles so common on medieval buildings?
  • The Becket Casket (1180-90) I liked the stylised hieratic figures, especially the dancing knights beheading the saint, and the prominent polished rock crystals.
  • Virgin and child with goldfinch (1280-1300) made from elephant ivory. What caught my attention was the way Jesus is holding a bird like a toy. It is a goldfinch, symbolic of the crucifixion because it (supposedly) eats seeds of thistles, prickles, thorns.
  • Morse ivory fragment with the Deposition (c. 1190-1200) The humanity of the effort, the closeness, the physical intimacy of the task.
  • Relief of Saints Philip, Jude, and Bartholomew (1150) from limestone. I like the flat stylised effect. Again, like modern art.

There were two touchscreen information panels (complete with a quiz to take after you’ve read the content) about the Romanesque and Gothic.

Romanesque 1000-1200 (so named in the 1820s to refer to a ‘debased Roman style’.) Round arches lined by chevron or dogtooth patterns, scrolling plants, the human form more decorative than realistic, imaginary creatures. Characteristic buildings: Durham Cathedral. People: Henry of Blois, brother of King Stephen of England.

Gothic 1200-1500 (used by the 16th century Italian Renaissance critic Vasari to refer to the ‘barbarous German style’ which defeated and repressed good classical taste until the revival of classical style in the 15th century.) Pointed arches, flying buttresses, curving human figures, naturalism of detail eg leaves, expressive emotion. Key buildings: Notre Dame Paris, York Minster (still the largest building in York, it took 250 years to build).

  • The Devonshire Hunting Tapestries; Boar and Bear Hunt (1425-30) This fills one big wall and has an audioguide of its own with a touchscreen which allows you to pick out particular details and hear them interpreted. Ever since I read the wall labels for the wall painting of Nebamun at the British Museum, I’ve realised the symbolic importance of hunting scenes: they may have value as naturalistic depictions, but their primary purpose is to assert the hierarchies of authority in a society, to show the ruling classes enacting, imposing and creating order in the natural world and, by extension, in their culture.

Rooms 50a, 50b, 50c, 50d

Nothing. I disliked everything in this huge space, the flawless pastiches of classical statues, the vast oppressive ‘s-Hertogenbosch Choir Screen which covers one wall, the numerous heavy, threatening church features such as pulpits, fonts and screens, all done with a leaden, heartless perfection.

Rooms 62 to 64

  • The huge timber staircase from Morlaix in Brittany (1530) redolent of Henry IV and Falstaff’s tavern scenes.
  • Room 1 at the British Museum has an extended explanation of the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ as created by collectors in northern Europe. One room here contains a small but striking collection of luxury items from the Cabinet of Curiosities or Kunstkammer of the Holy Roman Emperor Ferdinand I (1503-1564).
  • Towel holder (1520-25) The missing arms would have held a pole over which a towel would have been draped. Apparently, the fool towel holder was a common feature.
  • Virgin and very ugly Child by Carlo Crivelli (1480) Note the fly on the parapet. And the carnation and two violets.

In the eight rooms on this level, by far the best, the most stunning, original, powerful and sophisticated exhibit was a Benin bronze on loan from the British Museum, demonstrating the sophistication of other cultures as the Europeans began faring forth to discover and then colonise the world.


Related links

Other museums

Twelfth century chroniclers

The 12th century was rather a golden time for chroniclers and historians:

Orderic Vitalis (1070-1142) a Benedictine monk who wrote a Historia Ecclesiastica in eight books. Books I and II are an unreliable history of Christianity from Jesus onwards which, by the 800s, has deteriorated to a simple list of Popes and their dates. Books III to VI are a history of the monastery in France where he lived, but contains a long and important digression on the life of William the Conqueror: the first part copies the extant Gesta Normannorum Ducum by William of Jumieges, but from the 1070s onwards Orderic is a unique source. Books VII to XIII cover the events of his own time, focusing on the three sons of William the Conqueror:

  • Robert Curthose, Duke of Normandy who tried and failed to gain the throne of England
  • King William Rufus (1087-1100)
  • King Henry I (1100-1135)

and going on into the period known as the Anarchy, when the heirs of Henry I fell out and England was torn between Stephen of Blois, son of King Henry’s sister, who aggressively seized the kingdom upon Henry’s death, and Matilda, Henry’s daughter ie more directly in line to the throne but a) a woman b) married to Geoffrey count of Anjou, a family and region traditionally at odds with the Norman aristocracy. The conflict between the two heirs, their followers and the thousands of mercenaries they imported into England kept the country in ruinous anarchy for nearly twenty years (1135-1154).

John of Worcester (1080?-1140?) A monk and historian who worked at Worcester Priory, John is credited with being the author of the Chronicon ex chronicis, a world history which begins with the creation and ends in 1140.

Henry of Huntingdon (1088-1156) archdeacon of Huntingdon and author of the Historia Anglorum or History of the English from the earliest times to the author’s day and age. Especially valued for the last three books which cover the period from Aethelred the Unready through the conquest of Cnut, Edward the Confessor and the Norman Conquest and the rule of the Conqueror’s successors, William II, Henry I, through to the Anarchy of King Stephen’s reign. His history ends with a paean to the newly-crowned King Henry II, hoping he will bring peace to an exhausted nation.

William of Malmesbury (1095-1143) credited as being possibly the most learned man in 12th century Europe! Inspired by Bede, he amassed a great collection of historical and theological texts and in 1125 produced his Gesta Regum Anglorum or Deeds of the English Kings.

That same bishop Alexander of Lincoln who had commissioned Henry to write his history, a little later, in the 1130s, asked Geoffrey of Monmouth (1100-1155) to translate the prophecies of Merlin into Latin from Welsh. Geoffrey incorporated them into a longer work, his Historia Regum Britanniae or History of the Kings of England, an almost farrago of myths and legends from the legendary Brutus down to the death of King Caedwalla in the 600s.

Gesta Stephani or The Deeds of King Stephen is an anonymous history of the reign of Stephen (1135-1154) and is one of the main sources for this period in English history. It consists of two books which a leading scholar reckons were written: Book I in about 1148, Book II up to the accession of Henry II, after 1154.

John of Salisbury (c. 1120–1180) was an English author, educationalist, diplomat and bishop of Chartres, whose chief works – Policraticus, sive de nugis curialium et de vestigiis philosophorum and the Metalogicon – are concerned with theology and philosophy but also contain references to contemporary courtly life and politics.

Ralph de Diceto (c.1125-c.1202) archdeacon of Middlesex, dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and author of two chronicles, the Abbreviationes chronicorum and the Ymagines historiarum, the former a history of the world since its beginning, the latter containing original material after 1170 and becoming a useful contemporary record from 1181.

William of Newburgh (1136?-1198?) was an Augustinian monk who lived in Bridlington, Yorkshire, where he published his major work, the Historia rerum Anglicarum or History of English Affairs, a history of England from 1066 to 1198. He is entertainingly critical of Geoffrey of Monmouth, who he accuses of publishing ‘shameless lies’.

Roger of Hoveden or Howden (fl. 1174–1201) was a 12th-century English chronicler who served as a diplomat for Henry II and went on the Third Crusade with Richard I. He wrote a history of the reigns of the two kings whose courts he knew well, Gesta Henrici II et Gesta Regis Ricardi, and later in life a Chronica, a history of England from 732 to his own time, which is mostly derivative but for the period 1092 to 1201 (when it breaks off) is a unique source.

Walter Map (1140-1210) a cleric who was a courtier to Henry II before holding various positions at Lincoln, St Paul’s and Hereford. He is known for one work, De nugis curialium or Trifles of courtiers, a series of gossipy, scandalous anecdotes about contemporaries or notable people from the recent past, from Saladin at the fall of Jerusalem to St Anthony meeting a unicorn, from the character of Godwine the Saxon noble to the character of mermaids! It contains some of the earliest recorded tales about vampires. Sounds like an entertaining gallimaufry.

Gervase of Canterbury (c. 1141 – c. 1210) was a monk at Canterbury. He helped bury the murdered Thomas a Becket (December 29 1170) and went on to serve succeeding archbishops. He wrote The Chronicle, covering the period from 1100 to 1199 and the Gesta Regum, in part an abridgment of the earlier chronicle but from the year 1199 an independent source for the early years of King John’s reign.

Gerald of Wales aka Giraldus Cambrensis (c.1146-c.1223) a monk of Welsh and Norman descent, who spent time studying in Paris and England but is most known for his books about Wales and Ireland, specially the Itinerarium Cambriae or Journey through Wales (1191). This was the result of accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury, Baldwin of Forde, on a tour of Wales in 1188 to drum up support for the Third Crusade, and was swiftly followed by the Descriptio Cambriae in 1194, two vital sources of information for the Welsh history and culture of the time.

Historia Anglorum by Henry of Huntingdon (1154)

It is my considered opinion that the sweetest relief from suffering and the best comfort in affliction that this world affords are to be found almost entirely in the study of literature. (Prologue to The History of The English People)

Henry was born around 1088 to a Saxon mother and a Norman father, who was archdeacon of Huntingdon. Aged 12 he was sent to the school at Lincoln Cathedral where he received a thorough grounding in the medieval subjects of grammar, rhetoric and logic, but most of all, the mother of all knowledge, Theology. He lived in the household of the Bishop of Lincoln, Robert Bloet, who had been chancellor to King William II (William Rufus 1087-1100) and was one of Henry I’s closest advisers. So he was an eye-witness to the lifestyle and culture of the Anglo-Norman aristocracy and court of the time. When his father died he was awarded the archdeaconry of Huntingdon and canonry of Lincoln, posts he would hold until his death in 1156.

Nothing is more excellent in this life than to investigate and become familiar with the course of worldly events. Where does the grandeur of men shine more brightly, or the wisdom of the prudent, or the discretion of the righteous, or the moderation of the temperate, than in the context of history? (Prologue. 1)

The history

A new bishop of Lincoln was appointed in 1123 and soon discovered that his canon (Henry) was a diligent, intelligent and widely read man, who had already composed some letters on moral subjects and poetry. Around 1124 the bishop commissioned Henry to write a history of England and its people from the earliest times to the present day. This Henry promptly set about doing, producing after ten years a long detailed chronicle starting with the legendary – and widely believed – founding of Britain by a refugee from the Trojan War, the completely fictional Brutus, down to the reign of King Henry I (1100-1134). For the earlier parts he leaned heavily on the Venerable Bede’s magnificent Ecclesiastical History (732), and subsequently relied on versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which Henry knew and understood well enough to translate into Latin.

But Henry’s maturity happened to coincide with a vital period of medieval history, the Anarchy during the reign of King Stephen (1135-1154). Luckily for us Henry continued to update his History, adding new books filled with eye witness accounts or reliable information about all the key events of the period. New versions of the history were issued until just before Henry’s death in 1156: at that point the Anarchy had come to an end with the coronation of King Henry II and Henry’s History, in its final version, ends with a hymn of praise to the new ruler.

Latin

Henry’s History was written in Latin though, apparently, a Latin which was deliberately simple and easy to read yet also stylish and exciting. He wanted to write for the widest possible (educated) audience and there is evidence that many copies were made and his history widely read and praised.

Rhetoric not history

Henry’s concept of history was different from ours. Although it contains many facts and stories found nowhere else, that wasn’t his prime purpose in writing his History. These were threefold: first, to demonstrate his grasp of the classical arts of rhetoric. The most striking and enjoyable aspect of Henry’s history is the stirring speeches he gives leading nobles and kings on the eve of the various battles. These are completely invented and follow a set pattern laid down in manuals of rhetoric, but that doesn’t stop them being extremely powerful, especially if read out, no – declaimed – in a Laurence Olivier or even Winston Churchill voice.

History as God’s will

The recorded deeds of all peoples and nations… are the very judgements of God. (Prologue. 3)

The second and main aim of Henry’s History was to praise God and show His workings in the world. Throughout the book, on every page, he asserts that this or that incident was deliberately deigned by God to show that the wicked will be punished and the virtuous rewarded, that those who enjoy God’s grace will triumph and those who ignore God will fail. Henry’s God is the medieval God, not some remote Ultimate Being of later centuries and other traditions, but a strong-minded, earnest and often angry God who intervenes at all levels of society and the universe, making castle walls bleed, making comets in the sky go backwards as evil omens, intervening to help the righteous crusaders win against the infidel Muslims, or overthrowing proud kings like Henry I.

A number of kings or dukes or earls die suddenly at the height of their powers. Instead of attributing this to chance and the complete absence of medicine, as we do, Henry generally points out that the deceased had just committed some deed of wickedness exorbitant even by the standards of the time eg conquering a town and massacring all its inhabitants before burning it to the ground. His mind is always looking to the deeper meaning, the revelation of God’s plan, which he is convinced is implicit in all human history.

History as morally improving

Which brings us to the third of Henry’s purposes, to teach morality. God has arranged all human history so as to make it a series of lessons in good and wicked behaviour, and therefore it is the historian’s duty to bring this out, to point out the virtue of the virtuous and the wickedness of the evil, in order to raise and improve the reader.

In this work the attentive reader will find what to imitate and what to reject, and if, by God’s help, he becomes a better person for this emulation and avoidance, that will be for me the reward I most desire. (Prologue. 4)

Thus the central event of the history – the Norman Conquest – is not just a calamity but Henry sees it – arguably, given his profound Christian faith, can only see it – as part of God’s plan; and if the demonstrable sufferings imposed on the English are part of God’s plan, they must have the same meaning all suffering has in Christian theology namely, a punishment for the sufferer’s wickedness, a purging of sin, a cleansing of evil. For Gildas in his De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae, for Bede in his Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum, for Henry in his History – when bad things happen to people it is because the people are bad and deserve it. God cannot be wrong. And all History is controlled by God. Therefore the wrong resides in the victims: the victims are themselves to blame.

Behold the glittering vengeance of God!

It is a theology drenched in the Old Testament and, like the ancient Israelite authors, it narrates the deeds of mighty men in order to show a fierce and vengeful God smiting his enemies and raising those who worship and fear him; while the godly scribe/prophet/archdeacon records it all for the edification of future generations.

Henry gives a particularly long account of the trials and tribulations of the First Crusade, every victory a proof of the godliness of their cause, every defeat caused by the lack of faith or wickedness of one or other leader. The remoteness of his attitude to our modern one is typified by the notorious capture and sack of Jerusalem, three days of murder and looting in which the Western soldiers decimated the population, killing Muslims, Jews and Christians, raping women, looting everything they could remove, until the streets were piled with corpses. To the modern reader this is a disgusting holocaust, a massacre, not only wicked in itself but having a disastrous affect on the reputation of the Franks, the Latins, the entire West for generations afterwards. For Henry it is a famous victory and ‘the sons of God cleansed the holy city from impure nations’.

Henry’s record of events is interesting. His set piece speeches are invigorating. His anecdotes are entertaining and colourful. And his untempered, unquestioningly Old Testment Christian moralising is bracing, terrifying and gruesomely fascinating.

This edition

This Oxford University Press edition is not the text of the entire history. It is a selection which mainly amounts to the final three books of the history, covering the period from 1000 to 1154 ie the build-up to the Conquest, the Conquest and its aftermath, the reign of brutal King William Rufus, wise King Henry I, and then the lamentable anarchy of King Stephen’s reign – 96 paperback pages, in all, fairly short. It also includes Henry’s short letter On Contempt For The World, Drawn From my Own Experience and a short essay on The Miracles of the English.

The edition was prepared by Diana Greenway, Professor of Medieval History and the Institute for Historical Research, University of London. She is the author of the Oxford Medieval Texts version of the full Latin text of the History, along with a complete English translation (1996) which I would dearly like to read but which, alas, currently retails for £225.

This paperback edition has an informative introduction, useful maps and family trees (vital for this period) as well as copious notes, especially good at pointing out where Henry was wrong and misleading in his account. Altogether this is a very attractive, useful and thought-provoking paperback edition of this riveting and enlightening work

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