College of St George Archives Blog

College of St George Archives

Posts Tagged ‘Order of the Garter’

The 670th anniversary of the Battle of Crécy

Friday, August 26th, 2016

670 years ago today, on 26 August 1346, one of the most significant victories in English military history took place – the Battle of Crécy – where, against the odds, Edward III’s army defeated the forces of Philip VI of France. The battle formed part of the long running dispute between England and France, later known as the Hundred Years War, which had been instigated by the founder of St George’s College, Edward III, to assert his claim to the French throne. Following the victory, the English forces were able to capture the strategically advantageous city of Calais from their weakened opponents within a year.

Despite its importance to Edward III’s campaign, not many reports have survived from Crécy. The fullest and most contemporary account now known was produced by an Italian, Giovanni Villani, sometime before 1348.(1) Edward III is reported to have chosen a stand at Crécy to confront the French army who were pursuing him. Villani states that while the French had 12,000 knights and almost numberless men at arms, the English had just 4,000 knights and 30,000 English and Welsh bowmen. These numbers are almost certainly greatly exaggerated, but they do give an idea of the relative sizes of the two armies. The English king used his position and small numbers to the best possible advantage, ordering that the carts carrying their provisions should be arranged to protect the English forces and leave only a small area in which the troops could engage. Combined with the (in)famous longbows, this strategy rendered large parts of the French army useless: their hired Genoese crossbowmen did not have enough range to out-shoot the English while armoured and horsed French knights could be brought down from a distance, thereafter becoming obstacles for their own men. Such tactics were considered ‘un-knightly’ by the French and much scorned by their chroniclers.

One of several theories about Edward III’s reasons for founding the chivalric company, later known as the Order of the Garter, in 1348, was to reward those who had served him well in France and to secure their future loyalty. Of the twenty five men usually considered ‘Founder Knights’ of the Garter, well over half had been present that day at Crécy and many of them also at the successful siege of Calais which followed.

Notable among these was Edward III’s eldest son, ‘the Black Prince’, who at just sixteen years old commanded one of the three divisions of the English troops. He was supported in this by Sir Bartholomew Burghersh, Thomas Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, and Sir John Chandos, who would all become Founder Knights. Meanwhile, Sir James Audley, Sir Reginald Cobham, Sir John Lisle, Sir John Grey and Sir John Beauchamp fought in the king’s retinue, Beauchamp carrying the Royal Standard.

However, not all those gave distinguished service at Crécy, and other battles in the Hundred Years War, were chosen as ‘Founder Knights’. Some were appointed later in the 1340s and 1350s, notably Sir William FitzWaryn, Earl of Northampton, William de Bohun and Sir Thomas Ughtred. Meanwhile, Richard FitzAlan, the Earl of Arundel, who had been given command of one of the three divisions of the English army at Crécy, never rose to the distinction of Garter Knight, although he lived for nearly thirty years after the company had come into being. The early development of the Order of the Garter is lost in obscurity and this apparent omission, along with many other details, may never be fully understood.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

(1) A detailed analysis of this and other accounts can be found in Barber, R., Edward III and the Triumph of England (London, 2013).

A king five years ahead of schedule?

Monday, July 18th, 2016

On my third day of work experience at the College of St George’s archives on a two-week attachment, I was asked to catalogue the digital photographs which record the various sections of the ‘Tables’ of the Knights of the Garter, which hang in the Deanery at St George’s Chapel.

The ‘Tables’ are large hinged panels displaying the coats of arms of every individual appointed to the Order of the Garter since its foundation, arranged according to the reign during which they were appointed. They were moved from the main part of the Deanery to a room known as Mr Dean’s Upper Hall (later the library) in the 1920s by Dean Albert Victor Baillie, who feared their former position left them vulnerable to damage or theft.

Testing carried out on the paint and woodwork of the panels in the early 2000s suggests that these panels date from the seventeenth century, and indeed the central decorative panel is painted with the initials CR, presumably for Charles Rex, one of the two Charleses to reign during that century. There is strong documentary evidence that panels similar to these existed as early as 1400, but what became of those is unknown.

While examining the photographs, I noticed in one image from the collection an inscription which caused me something of a conundrum. I understood that it related to Edward III – Edwardus tertius – but some of the numbers did not add up.

The inscription surrounding Edward III’s coat of arms appeared to read ‘Began to Reigne Jan ye 25. In 1322 And He Reigned 1 years & 5 mon.’ This was very suspicious as the reign of Edward III is well documented as having begun on 25 January 1327, when he was crowned at the age of fourteen after his father was deposed by the Queen and the Earl of March. He reigned for a little over fifty years before dying in June 1377.

Fortunately, closer examination of the photograph showed one perceived mistake was just a mis-reading on my part. The painter had mixed Arabic numbers and Roman numerals and what had looked at first glance like a 1 was in fact an L – the Roman numeral for fifty.

Even so, Edward III’s date of coronation has indisputably been painted on the panel as 25 January 1322, when we know that it was 1327. Surely there was a reason why?

There was no answer to this question – it seems that the painter had simply included the wrong date. It leads to an interesting thought on how even those employed by the highest in society to work on material relating to kings and queens can make slips of the pen – or paintbrush – and how one must always keep an open mind when looking at any historical evidence.

Stuart Hemsley, work experience student, St George’s Chapel Archives

Researching medieval Garter robes

Monday, April 25th, 2016

To mark St George’s Day on Saturday, research project The Lexis of Cloth and Clothing in Medieval Royal Wardrobe Accounts published an article about the Order of the Garter. The Lexis of Cloth and Clothing is a project designed to encourage school-children, students and interested members of the public to engage with Britain’s medieval past, its language, manuscripts, and the clothing worn at the time.

An interview has also been published between Dr Charles Farris, project researcher, and Dr Euan Roger, who recently completed his PhD on the College of St George in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The interview was filmed in the St George’s Chapel Archives, where Dr Farris and Dr Roger were also able to inspect the sixteenth-century depiction of Garter Robes in the Black Book of the Garter.

The article can be read here. To watch the interview please click here.

The Longest Reign

Thursday, September 10th, 2015

On Wednesday 9th September 2015, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II became the longest reigning British monarch. This record was previously held by Queen Victoria, who reigned for 63 years and 7 months (or, to be precise, 23,226 days, 16 hours and 23 minutes) from her accession in 1837 at the age of 18 until her death in 1901.

Throughout her reign, which began on 6th February 1952, Queen Elizabeth has had a close association with Windsor – both the Castle and St George’s Chapel – and even prior to becoming queen, she and her sister visited Windsor often as young princesses.

These images, held in the photographic collections of St George’s Chapel Archives, illustrate some of the Queen’s involvement with St George’s throughout her reign. (Click once on the pictures to enlarge them.)

Princess Elizabeth and Prince Philip process through the Lower Ward of Windsor Castle with the other Companions of the Order of the Garter in 1948, the year of their installation to the Order and of the Order’s six hundredth anniversary.

At a Garter Day ceremony in the late 1950s the Queen passes the Galilee Porch of St George’s Chapel where her sister, Princess Margaret, and two eldest children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne are waiting to curtsy and bow to her.

Queen Elizabeth, Princess Anne, Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret leave the Deanery with Dean Hamilton, carrying bouquets presented to them after an Easter Day service in St George’s Chapel.

The Queen is saluted by the Military Knights of Windsor as she arrives with Dean Woods at the opening of St George’s House in 1966.

Queen Elizabeth II and Dean Fleming with other members of the Royal Family and Canons of Windsor on the west steps of St George’s Chapel following a service to celebrate the Chapel’s Quincentenary in May 1975. On the occasion of the Chapel’s 500th anniversary the Queen wrote to the Dean saying, “I join in thanksgiving to Almighty God for the building of St George’s Chapel. Over the centuries it has borne witness to God’s Sovereignty and to the Gospel of Christ,” and recalling “the many associations which my own family, at our home in Windsor Castle, has with this Chapel.”

Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh with Dean Mitchell at the fountain in the Dean’s Cloister. The Queen switched on the fountain, with its golden statue of St George, in 1998, marking 650 years since the foundation of the College of St George.

The Queen unveils a plaque at the official opening of the new building to house the Archives and Chapter Library of the College of St George in 1999.

A photograph of the Lay Stewards of St George’s Chapel with Queen Elizabeth and the Duke of Edinburgh, taken in 2006 to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the stewards.

Queen Elizabeth has continued the tradition which her father re-established in 1948 of celebrating the Order of the Garter every year. This photograph shows The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh leaving St George’s Chapel after the Garter Day service in June 2015.

An exhibition celebrating The Queen’s reign opens in the Dean’s Cloister from Thursday 10th September. Normal opening hours are Monday to Saturday 10am to 4pm; Castle admission charges apply.

The man behind the Black Book

Tuesday, August 18th, 2015

Illumination is a key feature of the Black Book of the Garter which, commissioned by King Henry VIII in 1534, documents the Knights of the Order of the Garter from its origin in 1348 until 1551.

Accounts of the household for the King contain regular payments to Lucas Hornebolte (an anglicised form of his real name: Horenbout), a Flemish painter described in the accounts as a “pictor-maker”. He was appointed King’s Painter, and worked as court miniaturist to Henry VIII from 1525 until his death, painting several famous miniature portraits including those of Henry’s wives and children. Horenbout’s miniature portraits appear to use a technique very similar to that in the illumination of manuscripts, thus it has been identified that Horenbout was the illuminator for the Black Book.

Lucas Horenbout was born in Ghent around the year 1490 and trained with his father, who was a manuscript illuminator. In the 1520s Lucas, along with his father, Gerard, and sister, Susannah, moved to England. It has been suggested that they moved to this country in order to help the attempted revival of English manuscript illumination, but there is no definite evidence for this. Nevertheless, Horenbout is considered by many as the founder of the English school of portrait miniature painting.

While the ensuing two volumes of the Register of the Order of the Garter are also decorative in keeping with a similar style, the Black Book is undoubtedly illuminated to a higher quality. Not only does it contain several pages on which the Sovereigns since the start of the Order are represented, surrounded by beautifully designed borders, but decorative initials are a continuous presence throughout.

Elaborately illuminated page for the start of King Henry VI's reign

On the whole, the use of the colours red, blue and gold are most prominent, with each initial of the start of each paragraph or title of Sovereign or Knight, written in gold and backed by a square of blue or red alternately.

Due to the highly decorative nature of the Book in comparison to the other registers of the Order, King Henry VIII may have commissioned it as a status symbol to display his wealth and power as King of England and Sovereign of the Order of the Garter. The ornate use of the colour gold throughout conveys the sense of wealth, and the more extravagant decoration for the Sovereigns sets Henry VIII’s pages apart from the rest of the book, suggesting its purpose wasn’t merely to document the statutes and the foundations of the Order. Likewise, toward the centre of the Book on a double page spread are four illustrations depicting a Garter procession and Henry VIII surrounded by the Knights of the Garter, further exhibiting his status, and emphasising his involvement in the creation of this first volume of the Register of the Order of the Garter. By comparison, all other monarchs who appear in the Black Book have only one small miniature portrait to mark the start of their reign.

Lucy Brown, Archives work experience student

Wanted: Garter robes

Wednesday, May 13th, 2015

In the 1860s Gerald Wellesley, Dean of Windsor, aided by the Chapter Clerk, Mr Thomas Batcheldor, embarked on a campaign to have the blue velvet mantles of former Garter Knights sent to St George’s Chapel.

The earliest known statutes of the Order of the Garter, compiled in 1415, stipulated that Knights of the Garter ought to keep one mantle at Windsor permanently, in case they needed to attend a ceremony at short notice.[1] After a Knight’s death, this mantle was to become the property of the Dean and Canons. There is evidence that these “hand-me-down” mantles were recycled and used to repair vestments and furnishings in the Chapel. Throughout the history of the Order, the Dean and Canons had difficulty persuading Garter Knights to comply with this requirement and it had to be reinforced regularly by decrees and statutes.[2] In 1834 William IV had passed a new statute declaring that the mantles of deceased Garter Knights should be given to the Dean and Canons,[3] but less than thirty years later they were clearly experiencing problems in acquiring them. A number of letters on this subject remain in the St George’s Chapel Archives [SGC I.E.4/171-183].

On receipt of the request from the Dean, most of the families were obliging and agreed to return their relatives’ robes. Henry 4th Marquess of Lansdowne, indeed, was anxious to make it clear in his letter of December 1864 that he would have sent the mantle of the late 3rd Marquess, who had died in January 1863, sooner if he had only known he was supposed to.

A number of the letters speak of the arrangements that were then being put in place to have the mantles and tassels delivered to Windsor. Enquiries were made about the preferred way to package such items, as well as requests for the sender to be notified when the parcel had been safely received by the Dean. In one case, a letter was written to the Chapter Clerk to say that if he would be so good as to “call at the Duke of Bedford’s house, No 6 Belgrave Square when you are next in London, Mr Stratton, his Grace’s valet, will hand to you the blue velvet mantle of the Garter for the Dean of Windsor.”

Not everyone that Wellesley and Batcheldor contacted in the first instance was able to help in the quest to locate the Garter robes. A rather curt note from a son of the late 4th Earl of Aberdeen states that the Dean’s message will be forwarded “to my brother the present Earl, who is the sole Executor to his father.” Likewise, the Marquess of Normanby was not in possession of any of his father’s Garter regalia – in fact he had never seen them and knew nothing about them or where they were. Accordingly, he promised to forward the request to the Dowager Marchioness, although he felt the need to warn Batcheldor that there would be some delay before a reply was received because at that time the Dowager Marchioness was in Italy.

Of all the letters relating to this matter that are now preserved in the St George’s Chapel Archives, only those of the Duke of Sutherland express outright an intention of not returning the requested Garter robes. In a letter dated 7 May 1861 Henry Wright writes on the 3rd Duke’s behalf “to inform you that his Grace declines to send the Mantle and Tassel worn by the late Duke to the Hon. and Very Reverend the Dean of Windsor.” His argument was that the late 2nd Duke had retained the robes that had been worn by his own father “and his Grace considers himself entitled to the same privilege.” This rather high-handed letter is followed a few months later by one written by the Duke himself in which he reasons that he would not have insisted on keeping the robe for himself, but that he knew his mother was very anxious to keep it. However, in this letter he does acknowledge that the right to the robe “has been so clearly established in your favour”. We can only imagine the correspondence that passed between the Dean and the Duke to convince him of this. George Granville Sutherland-Leveson-Gower, 3rd Duke of Sutherland, did eventually go on to be appointed a Garter Knight in his own right and so to be entitled to his own robes and regalia, but not until 1864.

Kate McQuillian, Assistant Archivist

[1] Begent & Chesshyre, The Most Noble Order of the Garter, p. 275

[2] Ibid., p. 275

[3] Ibid., p. 172

Charming the Emperor

Tuesday, April 14th, 2015

On 7th May 1416, a new member was admitted to the prestigious Order of the Garter at Windsor: Sigismund of Luxembourg, King of Hungary, King of the Romans and future Holy Roman Emperor. Sigismund first came to England in 1416, in the aftermath of the English victory at Agincourt, to seek a peace treaty between England and France. With Sigismund’s arrival in London on 3rd May, Henry V pulled out all the stops to impress him both in London and Windsor. The palace at Westminster was given over to the imperial retinue, while Henry moved to Lambeth. Sigismund was taken to view a session of Parliament and was also granted a Lancastrian collar by the King. He was particularly enamoured by London, and (according to one chronicle) the beautiful ladies of the city in particular, who had turned out in their finest gowns to greet him. The height of the celebrations came on 7th May when Sigismund of Luxembourg was installed as a Knight of the Garter at St George’s in grand fashion. Sigismund had not come empty-handed, and gave the college two prestigious relics: the heart of St George and a small piece of the saint’s skull. It is likely that he invested Henry into his own order at the same time, The Order of the Dragon, presenting him with a grand saddle with the Order’s insignia (now found at the Tower of London).

At Windsor, preparations for Sigismund’s installation had been underway since 1415, supplementing the choral staff and grandiose religious liturgy they performed in order to impress the foreign dignitary. Between 1415 and 1416, Henry V had given the college a statue of the Virgin Mary and eleven new service books, seized from a traitor, Baron Scrope of Masham. At the same time, efforts were made to recruit new vicars for the college, whose numbers had dropped from thirteen to as low as ten. Three of the college’s vicars, and one lay clerk, received payments for travelling to Oxford and the Midlands, looking for priests who were interested in becoming vicars. In order to attract the highest quality vicars in the kingdom for Sigismund’s arrival, new accommodation and a new communal hall were required. The college had been granted land within the Lower Ward by Henry IV in 1409, in an area called ‘Woodhaw’, and the first references to new buildings for the vicars came in the financial accounts for 1415-16 and 1416-17. Building works took place slowly – continuing until 1438 – yet efforts were clearly being made to impress the arriving dignitary with a grand religious spectacle at St George’s.

Sigismund was not a man to be easily influenced or cowed. Two years earlier, at the council of Constance, he had been corrected on his Latin by a Cardinal, only to reply (in perfect Latin) ‘I am King of the Romans, and above grammar’! It would appear, however, that in this case Sigismund was won over by King Henry’s generosity and the efforts of St George’s. Later that year, he signed the Treaty of Canterbury with England, promising his support against the French in battle, both offensive and defensive. The King had secured another important victory over the French, this time through diplomatic charm rather than on the battlefield, a victory which was in no little part thanks to the efforts of St George’s.

Euan C. Roger, Royal Holloway, University of London

Alice Chaucer: a survivor in hard times

Monday, 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)

Removing the banner of James II

Tuesday, 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

Thursday, 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)