Charming the Emperor

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

The King's Free Chapel. The Chapel of the Most Honourable and Noble Order of the Garter. The Chapel of the College of St George.