College of St George Archives Blog

College of St George Archives

Alice Chaucer: a survivor in hard times

December 15th, 2014
In the beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin, Ewelme, in Oxfordshire, there is a tomb and alabaster effigy which attracts visitors from all over the world.  Within the tomb lies Alice de la Pole, late duchess of Suffolk (and lady of the Garter), but her posthumous “fame” derives from her maiden name, which was Chaucer. Alice was born c.1404, probably at Ewelme, the only child of Thomas Chaucer (c.1367-1434) and his wife Maud Burghersh (c.1379-1437). Thomas was the son of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer (c.1343-1400), and he was a man who mattered. His marriage had brought him estates throughout southern England, he was MP for Oxfordshire fourteen times, and was chosen to be Speaker of the House of Commons on five occasions, a record which stood for three hundred years. So, Alice’s background was a very comfortable one, and as an only child she could expect parental favour.

Alice lived her seventy and more years during the turbulent 15th century, and her own life reflects something of the political and dynastic upheavals which afflicted England. We know little about her early life, but aged only eleven, she was married to Sir John Phelip (c.1380-1415). It was not unusual for girls of this age to be betrothed or married, but this was to be a very short marriage, for Sir John died within the year. Alice’s second marriage was to a leading nobleman, Thomas de Montacute, 4th earl of Salisbury (1388-1428), but they had no children and he died when she was still in her mid twenties.

Alice’s third marriage, in 1430, was the one which propelled her to prominence, influence and wealth.  Her new husband was William de la Pole, 4th earl of Suffolk (1396-1450), who later became duke of Suffolk and one of the realm’s mightiest subjects. He’d been made a knight of the Garter in 1421, and Alice herself was first granted Garter robes in 1432 and then again in the years 1434-36 and 1448-49. They had one son, John de la Pole (1442-92). In 1445, she was chosen to accompany Margaret of Anjou (1430-82) to England prior to her marriage to Henry VI, and the two women became friends, at least for the time being. Alice became a leading figure at Henry VI’s court, but eminence fosters jealousy and some saw her influence as malign. This led to demands from parliament for her removal from the royal household.

1450 proved to be the crunch year for Alice and William. The latter was the king’s favourite and had been the chief power in the land, but his policies were increasingly unpopular and his authority was crumbling. Associated with defeat in France and corrupt government at home, he was impeached by the Commons, then sent into exile by Henry VI, mainly for his own safety. However, news of his ‘release’ sparked public anger, and his enemies were not going to let him escape final justice. So, as William was sailing across the channel, his boat was intercepted by another, and the hapless duke was seized, given a mock trial, and summarily executed. Later, his body was found washed up on the sands near Dover.

Her husband’s brutal demise put Alice in a potentially perilous position, and for a time there was danger around her. In a chilling echo of William’s downfall, Jack Cade’s rebels arranged a mock trial of her in London in the summer of 1450. Had the rebellion not fizzled out the outlook for her could have been grim. There were also private attacks on her estates in the 1450s. Yet she survived and went on to prosper. She inherited William’s properties (which included the castle and honour of Wallingford), and was now a wealthy landowner with property in twenty-two counties. Five years after William’s death, the Wars of the Roses began. Perhaps sensing which way the wind would veer, Alice abandoned her Lancastrian allegiance, and switched her loyalty to the Yorkists. Having backed the right horse, by a twist of irony she became custodian in 1471 of Margaret of Anjou, her former friend and patron.

As befitted the granddaughter of Geoffrey Chaucer, Alice had an interest in the literature of her time. In particular, she was one of a host of patrons of the Benedictine monk and prolific poet, John Lydgate (c.1370-1449). Lydgate was considered to be the equal of Chaucer in his time, but posterity has not been kind towards his output. It seems he was a master of saying nothing very much to excessive length.

Alice de la Pole, duchess of Suffolk, died in 1475, the year in which Edward IV founded the present St George’s Chapel, symbol of the Yorkist ascendancy which she came to embrace. Her life may not be as well documented as we would wish, but we know enough to see her as one of the formidable women of late medieval England.

Simon Harrison  (Archives volunteer)

Thomas Willement’s royal windows

November 17th, 2014

Thomas Willement (1786–1871) was, to quote from his entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, “pre-eminent among a small group of stained-glass artists, who, in the early nineteenth century, utilized the medieval method of making a stained-glass window from separate pieces of coloured glass bound together with lead strips, rather than, as with eighteenth-century artists, using coloured enamels to paint pictures on glass”.1

In July 1840 the Dean and Canons of Windsor commissioned Willement to design and install four heraldic windows in the Quire in honour of the Knights of the Garter, two on the south side and two on the north, continuing the sequence of windows commenced by Francis Eginton in 1781. Willement,  who was an expert in heraldry as well an accomplished stained glass artist, was an ideal choice for the work, although he made it clear that he wished to design the windows himself, rather than following Eginton’s plainer eighteenth century style. Indeed he made this a condition of his involvement, writing to Canon Cust, the Canon Steward, on 17 July 1840:
Pray use your powerful interest that the Dean’s proposition that the new windows should match the old may not be put into practice, as it would totally prevent me from having anything to do with [the] job- which I am most anxious for, if it can be done by work which will not hurt my reputation.2

The Dean and Canons must have agreed to his terms, for Willement was employed by them for over twenty years, from 1840 to 1861.   During this period, he designed and completed a total of thirty new stained glass windows – ten in the Quire Clerestory, fifteen in the Quire Aisles and five in the Lincoln Chapel –in addition to his restoration of the Great West Window and of several windows in the Oliver King and Beaufort Chapels. All but one of these new windows – the east window in the South Quire Aisle depicting “The Carrying of the Cross” – remain intact.

The series of fourteen windows in the North and South Quire Aisles, of which Willement claimed to be proudest, is of particular antiquarian interest. Depicting members of the English monarchy from the reign of King Edward III (1327-1377) to King William IV (1830-37), Queen Victoria’s immediate predecessor, the sequence emphasised the legitimacy and religious orthodoxy of the English Crown; significantly omitting the last Yorkist king, Richard III, and the post-Reformation Roman Catholic monarchs, Mary I and James II.  A manuscript notebook held in the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC XVII.9.9], which was compiled by Willement during his employment at Windsor, indicates the wide-ranging sources he used as models for the stained glass royal portraits, whilst his meticulous heraldic research is evidenced by the accuracy of the coats of arms used in his windows throughout the Chapel.

The designs for the “royal windows” in the North and South Quire Aisles follow a similar pattern although they were completed over ten years, from 1844 to 1854.3 The first window installed, in 1844 in the South Quire Aisle, depicts King Henry VI and his Queen Consort, Margaret of Anjou in the central panels of the central row of the three layered window, supported by St George and St Margaret on either side. The top row includes heraldic badges and coats of arms of both the King and Queen, whilst the bottom row windows contain references to the religious and educational activities of the King, including the arms of Eton College and King’s College, Cambridge. The neighbouring window, completed in 1846, centres on portraits of King Henry VIII and his favourite Queen, Jane Seymour, with their son Edward, Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VI) to their left and Henry VIII’s younger daughter, Elizabeth (later Queen Elizabeth I) on their right. The top row windows depict their arms and heraldic badges, whilst the bottom range includes the arms of the six bishoprics founded by the King Henry VIII, an open Bible and the arms of Trinity College, Cambridge. The omission of King Henry VIII’s eldest child, Princess Mary, from the window is deliberate. The final window to be installed , in 1854 in the North Quire Aisle, commemorates the reign of King William IV and his Queen Consort, Queen Adelaide.

The nature and significance of Willement’s stained glass in St George’s Chapel has been assessed in an seminal article by Sarah Brown.  A visit to the Chapel reinforces her enthusiasm for the skilful work of this “under-rated artist”.4

1 Stanley A Shepherd, Willement, Thomas (1786–1871)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004 [http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/article/29440, accessed 20 Oct 2005]
2 SGC M.166/1
3 A description of the North and South Quire Aisle windows in contained in an article by Clive Wainwright, ‘Thomas Willement’s Stained Glass Windows in the Choir Aisles’, in the Annual Report of the Society of the Friends of St George’s and Descendants of the Knights of the Garter, 1972.
4 Sarah Brown,  ‘“So Perfectly Satisfactory”: The Stained Glass of Thomas Willement’, in A History of the Stained Glass of St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle ed. S Brown (2005) p.111

The letters of Sir Henry Ponsonby

October 17th, 2014

Sir Henry Ponsonby fulfilled the role of Private Secretary to Queen Victoria from 8th April 1870 until his death in 1895 and in doing so became the main source of communication between Her Majesty and those who wished to seek her opinion or permission with regards to certain state affairs. Given the duration of his service in this position, and the level of responsibility devolved to him by the Queen, an analysis of Ponsonby’s work provides a fascinating insight into the workings of the Royal Household and its coordination with other significant bodies during this period.  In 1942, Ponsonby’s son Arthur capitalised on the wealth of information stored in their family records and compiled a biography of his father’s life based on the letters of his time in office.[1]  On completing his publication, Ponsonby the younger passed the documents of Windsor interest to the archives here, describing them as “essentially a St George’s matter”.

Ponsonby’s role was significant in managing the expectations of the Queen herself and those who wished to communicate with her. The letters provided to the archives of St George’s Chapel by Arthur Ponsonby clearly reveal the delicacy required in situations where this communication was paramount to the success of the Queen’s public image. Letters from Randall Thomas Davidson, Dean of Windsor from 1883 to 1891, in particular demonstrate the significance of Ponsonby’s role in serving as his advocate. Wishing to communicate his devotion to the Queen’s wishes, Davidson completes each of his letters without failing to include a line such as “of course, if the Queen has the slightest objection, I will rewrite it in some other way.” [SGC XVII.33.45.29]

The greatest controversy revealed through Ponsonby’s correspondence is undoubtedly that which surrounded the aftermath of the death of Napoléon, the Prince Imperial, who died while serving with the British Army in South Africa in a brutal close-hand attack by Zulu warriors, and the decision to create a memorial to commemorate this shocking event. As A.P. Stanley, the Dean of Westminster, writes to Ponsonby, the gravity of such a situation requires the appropriate action from the monarch in order to “gratify the public feeling of the country” [SGC XVII.33.45.20]. The dangers of separate bodies who manage situations such as this becomes apparent through Wellesley’s comment that “the little Dean, besides, had far too much pluck for this” [SGC XVII.33.45.24] thus demonstrating that, in acting without the coordination of superior figures, great controversy has been caused over a matter of extensive national and international significance. Wellesley writes of the need to show “the personal and private affection of the Royal Family towards [the Prince Imperial]” [SGC XVII.33.45.24], while appreciating the objection of many to the idea of a monument specifically dedicated to a member of  the (exiled) French royal family being erected in Westminster Abbey.

Ponsonby’s significance in such difficult circumstances becomes clear as he coordinates the recovery of this mistake made by the all “too plucky” Dean of Westminster. In serving as the Queen’s secretary, Ponsonby managed those involved and their decisions which aimed to resurrect the initial error of judgement. As Dean Stanley tells Ponsonby, “I wrote immediately a note to Sir Stafford Northcote offering to withdraw permission if the government thought it contrary to the public interest, or else if they wished to take no part in the question to undertake the whole responsibility” [SGC XVII.33.45.20], thus offering to salvage the reputation of the governing body by himself accepting blame. Once again, the delicacy of the situation and the necessity of Ponsonby’s role as the mediator becomes apparent as the Dean tells him, “of course if the Queen decided that it should be stopped and yet did not wish her name to appear in the matter I could then undertake the refusal.” [XVII.33.45.20] Here, Ponsonby acts as the master of communication, coordination and protection of Her Majesty’s public image. In the end, the matter was resolved when it was agreed that the monument to the Prince Imperial should go to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. Initially installed in the Bray Chantry Chapel in 1881, it was relocated to its present position on the south side of the Nave in 1985.

These letters provide a fascinating insight into the workings of the Royal Household and most specifically the role of Sir Henry Ponsonby in his position as Private Secretary to the Queen. Despite the need to battle through the inadequacies of nineteenth century handwriting in order to unravel the intricacies of this relationship, the treasures hidden within the many (almost) illegible pages are well worth digging up.

Ros Leather, work experience student.

[1.] A. Ponsonby Lord Ponsonby of Shulbrede, Henry Ponsonby, His Life From His Letters, London Macmillan & Co. Ltd, 1942

A Surprising Wife

September 18th, 2014

Amongst the thousands of people who have formed part of the community of St George’s College since its foundation have been, to date, more than six hundred and fifty army veterans. They appear in the College Statutes as alms receivers called the Poor Knights and are now known as the Military Knights of Windsor and have lived in the Castle in groups of between three and twelve since 1348. The group was established by Edward III to be live-in counterparts for his Knights of the Order of the Garter, their duties being to attend Chapel four times each day and pray for the Sovereign and Knights of the Order. (This was later amended to attending every Sunday morning and also on certain specified occasions, including St George’s Day and the Monarch’s birthday.)

In April 1901 a Major Charles Grantley Campbell Norton was admitted as a Military Knight and came to live at Windsor. He was sixty-five years old, had been an officer in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers and was a veteran of the rebellions at Lucknow and Cawnpore. With him came his wife, Mina, a professional guitarist and singer, famed for leading a large Anglo-Spanish guitar band, for her ability to compose and sing in eight languages and for her habit of enhancing her performances by wearing the national dress of the countries her music was native to. In an England barely emerged from the formality and propriety of the Victorian era it seems surprising that a respected army officer placed into a distinguished position should have a wife with any profession, let alone such a public-facing one.

The Statutes governing the Poor Knights originally stipulated that the Knights should not be married at all and that if they were to marry after their appointment they would lose their place. However, by the twentieth century it had become quite common for dispensation to be granted to the Military Knights allowing them to be married, either before the appointment or after it. In the present day, this part of the Statutes is ignored and Military Knights are actually required to be married before they are appointed.

By the time of his appointment, Major Norton had already been married to Mina – his second wife – for fifteen years. His first wife, Katharine McVickar, daughter of a wealthy American stockbroker, allegedly deserted him for his own cousin, John Norton, the 5th Baron Grantley, in 1879.

However unconventional Major Norton’s second choice of wife may have been, there seems little doubt that they were deeply in love and very happy. A collection of Major Norton’s papers held in the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC ACC/2014/002] includes a scrap-book that contains many press releases and programmes relating to his wife’s performances from 1894 onwards. There is also a booklet of songs dedicated as follows:

To Charlie..

What care I for all your singing

Songsters of the grove!

Sweetest song, and sweetest singing,

Is the voice I love.

From Mina

Xmas 1915.

It contains the lyrics to dozens of songs, handwritten both by Mrs Norton and by the Major, many of them love songs.

In the scrap-book an extract from The Gentleman’s Journal, dated 1st April 1895, tells how Mina came to be a professional musician: “Well, Colonel [sic.] Norton is so often away from home that, being well known as an amateur, music being also my greatest pleasure, I adopted the profession as an occupation since my marriage.” A number of the programmes and reports of her performances mention that she had had the honour of performing for H.R.H The Princess of Wales and the Princesses Victoria and Maud in 1894. Major Norton also kept a letter sent to Dean Baillie in March 1921, stating that the King had been “very sorry to hear of Mrs Norton’s death” and asking that the King’s sympathies be passed to Major Norton.

Major Norton lived only for a month after his wife had died. An obituary for him stated that “he never afterwards seemed to recover from the shock.” Likewise, some letters from his family about “Uncle Charlie”, also found in the collection in the Archives, make it clear that they thought it was a mercy that he did not have to face the loneliness of life without her for very long.

Kate McQuillian (Assistant Archivist)

A genealogical enquiry

August 15th, 2014

The investigation of family history is popular among the users of St George’s Chapel Archives; we often receive enquiries from people who believe they have an ancestor buried here, or who know that some past member of their family held one of the roles within the Chapel – Canon, Lay Clerk or Virger, for example. It is always a great pleasure to help people to find out a little more about their own personal history. However, we recently discovered a letter containing an enquiry about family history with a very different motivation.

On 11th December 1935, the rector of Great Haseley, Reverend P.H. Bown wrote to St George’s Chapter Clerk, Lewis Stainton, with an urgent request [SGC XVII.57.19]. A Dr Benary had written to Reverend Bown from Germany, begging him to procure “with all possible speed” baptismal certificates for members of his family. These documents were so urgently necessary to Dr Benary “to enable him to satisfy the German authorities that he has no Jewish blood in his veins”.

Specifically, Dr Benary was looking for the baptismal certificates of his great-grandfather, William Birkett, a former rector of Great Haseley, his son Henry Augustus (Benary’s grandfather) and each of their wives.

Reverend Bown knew that William Birkett had come to Great Haseley as curate-in-charge in 1832 and become rector in 1846. He wrote to the Chapter Clerk on the chance that there might have been some information in the records at Windsor on Birkett’s wife and on her origins that help Dr Benary to prove his own background.

At the time that William Birkett was rector of Great Haseley, the parish was one of the livings of St George’s Chapel and to this day the Chapel Archives holds records relating to the transfer of land ownership and the appointment of incumbents in many of its former livings. However, Mr Stainton, the Chapter Clerk, was able only to confirm the date of Reverend Birkett’s appointment by Vote of Chapter as rector of Haseley; no information relating to Mrs Birkett could be found.

Jill Hume, Archives Volunteer

The Pilgrims’ Corner

July 18th, 2014

As many who have visited St George’s Chapel will know, at the far end of the south quire aisle is a spy-hole that looks down from the ceiling into the Chapel. It is a sizeable hole, bored right through the stone, and coming out on the other side at floor level in the first-floor room of the Schorn Tower. From it, if you were to squat down and peer through, you would have a good view of the tourists making their way down the aisle and of the tomb of King Henry VI.

This has been assumed to be its purpose: Nikolaus Pevsner describes the feature in his architectural guide to Berkshire, saying of it, “This is presumably connected with the years of the cult of Henry VI and control over pilgrims.” Spy-holes in other churches and chapels have been used as security-measures and as Henry VI’s tomb was surrounded by his heraldic achievements and relics and a money box for the pilgrims’ donations, it seems probable that the Canons of Windsor would have wanted to keep a close eye on it.

Pevsner’s hypothesis, however, cannot quite be correct. Construction of the present Chapel, complete with spy-hole, began in 1475 under the instruction of Henry VI’s long-term enemy (and, by some, alleged murderer) Edward IV. During this time Henry VI remained buried a short distance away at Chertsey Abbey, where he had been quietly and unobtrusively interred following his death in 1471. In later years the cult of the “saintly king” grew and his body and relics were eventually moved to Windsor, where they were visited and venerated by many thousands of devoted pilgrims, but this was not until the reign of Richard III.

The relics of Henry VI, however, were not the first to bring pilgrims flocking to that corner of St George’s Chapel. This year marks the seven hundredth anniversary of the death of Master John Schorn, a vicar from the near-by parish of North Marston. Like Henry VI, he was never officially recognised as a saint by the church, but was venerated and treated like one by many people in England. During a drought Schorn had struck the ground with his staff, bringing forth a spring of water, which was later discovered to have healing properties. He was particularly famed for having trapped the devil inside a boot. The boot would be produced during sermons and he would allow glimpses of the devil to his parishioners, presumably to further encourage their good behaviour.

After Schorn’s death his shrine in the church at North Marston became a popular site for pilgrims who believed that visits to his shrine would grant them healing and answers to prayer. This, however, was not to be his final resting place as in 1478, as building work on the quire and quire aisles of St George’s Chapel was completed, Edward IV arranged for Schorn’s relics to be transferred to Windsor, to the site at the far east end of the south quire aisle that is now occupied by the Lincoln Chapel. Schorn’s presence gave his name to the tower that stands above this corner of the Chapel and at the base of which the spy-hole is found.

The transfer of relics was authorised by a papal bull of Pope Sixtus IV, and is believed to have been arranged to increase the revenue of the Chapel, which was necessary following the king’s great expenditure on building works. In support of this theory, the St George’s Chapel Archives holds a fifteenth century bill, “for makynge off iij. hoops for a [money] box for Maister John Shorn” and “iiij loks to the said box with the keys and with the hed of the box and the key hols keuered with iiij plates”, for which the Dean and Canons paid twenty three shillings [SCG XI.D.28]. The money box would have collected the donations of grateful pilgrims.

Offerings made by the many pilgrims who came to pray before these shrines would have amounted to a significant sum, not to mention that the relics themselves were priceless and the Dean and Canons would surely have wanted to protect them. The spy-hole would therefore have been an invaluable vantage point from which to monitor the pilgrims’ progress and behaviour.

Today, only Henry VI’s tomb remains of the early pilgrim sites in the south-east corner of St George’s Chapel. Another early relic once held at St George’s, the Cross Gneth, is represented only by a decorative roof boss and although John Schorn’s remains presumably still rest there, the space was reconstructed as the tomb of Edward Clinton, 1st Earl of Lincoln, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. The spy-hole itself, of course, is also still in place, looking down over Henry VI and providing a talking point for the tourists and stewards in the south quire aisle.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

A broken promise?

June 13th, 2014

In the 1520s, a disgruntled courtier named Sir Richard Weston, brought a case against the Dean and Canons before the Lord Chancellor, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey. His supplication to Cardinal Wolsey survives amongst the records of Chancery at The National Archives [TNA C 1/594/5]. Weston appealed to the Lord Chancellor to summon the Dean and Canons before the Court of Chancery to receive a judgement in equity since he had been unable to find a remedy in the common law.

Sir Richard Weston, who had been appointed lieutenant of Windsor castle and forest in 1508 and keeper of the swans on the Thames in 1517, complained to Wolsey that the past Dean, John Veysey [Dean of Windsor, 1515-1519], and the Canons of Windsor had accepted his suit “to have the office of the feren stewardship” of the College of St George, with its profits and fees, after the death of Sir Thomas Lovell. However, now that Sir Thomas Lovell had died, the present Dean and Canons were refusing to honour the promise. The supplication is undated, but must date from between 1524, when Lovell died, and 1529, the year of Wolsey’s fall.

The “feren stewardship” was presumably the office of High Steward of the College of St George, which seems to have been created in the late 15th or early 16th century in order to secure influential patronage at the Royal Court. The office holder was rewarded with a quarterly fee and some opportunity for profit and Weston’s anxiety to secure it suggests that it was a lucrative position. However, a Chapter record indicates that the Marquess of Exeter, who was appointed Constable of Windsor Castle in 1525, was chosen to replace Sir Thomas Lovell in 1526. Sir Richard Weston’s suit was clearly unsuccessful. However, he went on to become Treasurer of Calais in 1525 and sub-Treasurer of the Exchequer in 1528. He died in 1541.

Clare Rider, Archivist and Chapter Librarian

On the reading habits of canons

May 9th, 2014

It is perhaps to be expected that the majority of the books that make up the Chapter Library of the College of St George should be serious texts, concerning the great academic and theological issues of their respective times.

More surprising to most people, in this collection of books belonging to a religious community, are the fictional tales and romantic novels. One such is the twelve-volume edition of seventeenth-century novel Cléopatre by Gautier de Costes de la Calprenede. Its author was a Frenchman, known for his sentimental, adventurous, pseudo-historical romances that were immensely popular – apparently even with the Canons of Windsor!

As a young man, Calprenede moved to Paris and entered the regiment of the guards. It is rumoured that he had such a humorous manner that when he was on duty at the palace he would tell stories so funny that the ladies of the court and even the Queen’s ladies-in-waiting would neglect their duties in order to come and listen to him.

Cléopatre, which was first published in 1648, tells the story of Cleopatra’s alleged daughter by Mark Anthony. It was nearly never finished because of arguments between Calprenede and his publishers. However, Calprenede fell in love with a rich young widow, Lyée Madeleine, Dame de Saint-Jean-de-Livet and Coudray, who was a great admirer of his novels. She agreed to marry him but only on the condition that he, in turn, agreed to finish Cléopatre. They were married in 1648 and the obligation to finish the novel became one of the articles of the marriage contract. As with many of Calprenede’s other novels, it found immediate favour and continued to be popular to the end of the 18th century.

The novel also seems to have proved popular in the here and now; almost all of its twelve volumes have been adopted as part of the Archives and Chapter Library’s Adopt a Book scheme. Doubtless in appreciation of the interesting story behind it, more than half of these have been in celebration of marriages or significant wedding anniversaries, but there are also some in memory of old friends and one chosen simply “because books are priceless”.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

Removing the banner of James II

April 22nd, 2014

The documents that are kept in the St George’s Chapel Archives arrive here from a huge variety of sources, both internal and external to the College of St George, and for a huge variety of reasons. In the case of the order given and signed by William of Orange for removing the Garter banner and achievements of the former King James II from St George’s Chapel [SGC M.1142], a copy found its way into the Archives almost by chance.

In 1984 a series of letters were written between the Windsor Castle Librarian and the Dean of Windsor and an academic living in New York. These letters are now kept in the Archives with a photocopy of the document they discuss. In August 1984 the Procedure for Removing the Banner of the Sovereign had been “recently acquired” by the American academic who sent a photocopy of it to the Windsor Castle Library, enquiring if it was of any interest to them, given that it referred to the “Chapel Royall of Windsor”. The librarian passed this on to the Rt. Revd. Michael Mann, then Dean of Windsor, who acknowledged that the document was of some interest to the College of St George because of its connection with the Order of the Garter. The final letter in this series is an offer to sell the document to St George’s for $1250 (then approximately £1000). Scribbled at the foot of this is a handwritten note: “Archivist, Is it worth it? MAM” and as no more is known of the fate of this record than that it is not held in the St George’s Chapel Archives, we can only assume that the archivist’s answer was “No.”

While perhaps not worth an expenditure of £1000, the document in question is quite significant. It represents actions taken at an unusual juncture in the history of the British Monarchy. That is, following the overthrow of King James II by his son-in-law and eventual successor, William of Orange, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688. The actions taken by William, a confirmed Protestant, were prompted by English nobles who feared that James II had been going to found a new Roman Catholic dynasty in England. The document is dated 18th April 1689, two months after James II was declared to have abdicated the throne by his attempt to flee the country and only one week after William and James’s daughter, Mary, were crowned joint monarchs at Westminster Abbey. It is signed at the top “William R” (the R stands for Rex, the Latin word for king) and gives orders that “the Banner and other Atcheivements of King James the second late Sovereigne of the Most Noble Order of the Garter are to be taken downe and Ours placed in there Room”. At this date, James II was living in exile in France. According to Peter Begent’s work on the Order of the Garter, he continued to act as Sovereign, or head, of the Garter while over there and even created a number of supposed Garter Knights at his court in St Germain-en-Laye.

However, this document clearly demonstrates that although James II was never officially degraded from the Order, his position was considered terminated from the time that Parliament declared he was no longer king. The “Atcheivements” referred to in this order would have been the helmet, crest, mantling and sword that were set up above the Sovereign’s stall for King James II along with his banner. It is usual for these achievements to be taken down following the death of a Knight of the Garter, as they then cease to be a member of the Order, but in this case the action was taken more than a decade before James II’s death in 1701. The position of Sovereign of the Garter was then surrendered to William of Orange, as were all of the symbols of kingship of England.

It is not known to us what became of the original document after 1984, though it probably now forms part of a private collection. The photocopy has been kept here because it is in itself a useful document from which information can be gained that provides insight into events at a period of change and turmoil in British royal and political history.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

When Samuel met Catherine

January 23rd, 2014

Samuel Pepys, as we know from the pages of his diary, had an eye for attractive young ladies, and was not averse to recording his amorous adventures in London, albeit in coded language.  Perhaps his most strange one to one encounter was with a French queen consort of England, who was also one of the medieval ladies of the Garter.  Impossible?  On the face of it, yes, but as we shall see, it really did happen.  But first, a resume of the life of the lady in question: Catherine of Valois.

Catherine was born at a Parisian royal palace on 27 October 1401.  She was the youngest daughter of Charles VI of France (1368-1422) and his consort Isabella of Bavaria (c.1370-1435).  When she was still a child there was talk of marrying her off to the English King Henry IV’s son, Prince Henry, but the king died, in 1413, before any serious bargaining could begin.  Henry V, however, had his eyes on France in more ways than one; he invaded in 1415 and won a stunning victory against the odds at Agincourt in October.  Shakespeare’s play portrays Henry’s subsequent amorous wooing of Catherine, and theirs seems to have been a genuine love match.  However their wedding did not take place until 2 June 1420 (probably in Troyes Cathedral), nearly five years after Agincourt.  Owing to Henry’s military commitments in France, their “honeymoon” was mainly spent at a succession of sieges.

On 23 February 1421, Catherine was crowned queen consort in Westminster Abbey, and on 6 December 1421 gave birth to Prince Henry (later King Henry VI) at Windsor.  Sadly, her time as queen consort was to be brief.  In August 1422, Henry V fell ill with dysentery, and died short of his thirty-sixth birthday.  Catherine was not quite twenty-one, so would be expected to find another husband.  Surprisingly perhaps (at least to those in court circles), she fell for a young Welsh squire named Owen Tudor (c.1400-1461).  Sometime between 1428 and 1432 she married him, though doubts have been cast on the marriage’s legality.  Yet it was to be a match of huge dynastic importance.  Edmund Tudor, one of their three sons, was to marry Margaret Beaufort, and their son Henry of Richmond was destined to become king in 1485.

Like her first husband, Catherine only lived to be thirty-five.  She passed away at Bermondsey Abbey on 3 January 1437 shortly after childbirth, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.  So she did not live to see her adopted country torn apart by dynastic warfare.  Owen, her second husband, was to be executed by the Yorkists in 1461, and of course her only son Henry VI was murdered in 1471 after a troubled life and reign.

And so to Catherine’s posthumous “fame”.  It seems her body was embalmed before interment, and sometime in the reign of Henry VII her coffin lid was accidentally raised, revealing her intact corpse.  As a result, between the 16th and 18th centuries, she was often put on display for visitors to the abbey. Only in Queen Victoria’s reign were Catherine’s remains properly re-interred.  On Shrove Tuesday 1669, Samuel Pepys, curious about so many things, went along to the Abbey to see the embalmed Catherine.  And as he records in his diary, this is how he paid his respects:

…I to the Abbey went, and by favour did see the body of Queen Catherine of Valois, and had the upper part of the body in my hands, and I did kiss her mouth, reflecting upon it I did kiss a Queen: and this my birthday and I thirty-six years old and I did kiss a Queen.

The display of a body in this way as a tourist attraction seems utterly foreign to our culture, and we may be repelled or shocked by Samuel Pepys’s physical “intimacy” with Catherine’s embalmed corpse.  But then again he was living in an urban society in which early or sudden death was an everyday reality (it was only four years after the great plague of London).  So perhaps we can excuse his fascination with a beautiful medieval princess and queen who passed from the earth in the prime of her life.

Simon Harrison  (Archives volunteer)