A Blackmailer at Frogmore

Today’s virtual outing was with the National Archives again. James Travers, Cultural Property Manager, was promoting his new book on the “ghost” of Caroline of Brunswick, Queen of George IV.

The centrepiece of the book, and the lecture, was Thomas Ashe, whom the injured consort had commissioned to write her memoirs. His book The Claustral Palace was suppressed from publication, for it would have revealed the intimate life stories of her sisters-in-law who were confined at Frogmore House.

How much of the novel was true is unclear, but it put Ashe in conflict with the government as well as George IV’s brother the Duke of Cumberland (later Ernest Augustus I of Hanover).

Travers’s lecture was quite convoluted in its story, which combined with his soft way of speaking and some technical glitches at my end meant it wasn’t always easy to follow the plot, so reading the book itself is probably necessary to get a full understanding.

Power and pageantry: The coronation of King Richard III and Queen Anne

Another date with the National Archives, this time featuring Dr Sean Cunningham,the head of Medieval Records.

I was faintly amused when he brought up a still from The White Queen (2013) featuring Aneurin Barnard and Faye Marsay, if only so he could point out the inaccuracies. Then again, this coronation does not have many other televisual depictions to my knowledge.

Accessions and Assumptions

Today was another virtual double-helping. The first was a Teams presentation from The National Archives in which Dr Tracy Borman, Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces, plugged her new book Crown & Sceptre: a new history of the British Monarchy.

Borman gave a synopsis of her publication, which essentially amounted to a summary of English and then British royal history since 1066. That part I will not type out again. She called Elizabeth I a brilliant propagandist and “the greatest monarch of all time”. She thought less of Victoria, who spent so much time in retirement after Albert’s death that the institution of the crown was nearly disbanded. She also called Edward VIII’s abdication a lucky escape, noting the callous attitude he had both to the institution and his family members. She spotted a theme that the best monarchs were those never originally supposed to reign – including the present one. Another important point was that after the Civil War and the Glorious Revolution, Britain’s monarchs were reduced to ceremonial figureheads, focusing their efforts on charity and patronage instead of direct political power. This earned them mockery from other still-absolute monarchs at the time, but seems in the long term to have greatly contributed to outlasting them.

In the Q&A, I asked how much the present day royal family was influenced by the Scottish half of their pre-C17 ancestry, since her book was focused on the English side. Borman said that the constitutional model which Britain still has today (and has exported around the world) largely resulted from the absolutist attitudes of the House of Stuart clashing with the English parliamentary system, without which its seminal conflicts would likely never have happened.

While I enjoyed the presentation I am not sure that I will end up buying the book. While Borman claimed to be “inspired” by the Platinum Jubilee giving the opportunity to look back over the last millennium, I suspect it was more a matter of judging the point in the media cycle when such a book would get most sales. I am reminded of J. P. Nettl’s preface to his 1967 book The Soviet Achievement, beginning with “Anyone should have serious doubts before adding to the mountain of literature on the Soviet Union. The fiftieth anniversary of the October revolution provides an occasion, perhaps, but no automatic excuse.”, a sentiment that could apply equally well here.

The second event was a Zoom lecture by the Heraldry Society. Marcus Meer‘s talk “And No Recently Assumed Arms…” was about the display of, and attitudes around, heraldry in medieval German cities, and something of a sequel to his “Lest They Pass to the Peasants” lecture to the Scottish society in March.

Urban centres in the Middle Ages were festooned with heraldic marks of the municipalities themselves as well as the guilds, corporations and individuals resident within. They would be set in stained glass, carved into stone walls or moulded on cutlery. The use of such images was a shared focal point for citizens’ attention, helping to maintain communal stability. They were also used to demarcate sections of the urban space, and to claim control of said sections on behalf of their owners. Delegated authority was rendered visible as government officials wore the state or city’s badge, and armorial marks would be painted on items produced in the city as a sign of quality control. Heraldry was also a mark of power struggles – guilds would fight for precedence in civic processions and conquerors of a town would displace existing shields with their own.

Meer spoke of a departure in scholarship from analysis of heraldry as a fixed symbol of meaning, towards a study of medieval perspectives.

The Gossembrot Armorial of 1469 was an attempt by the author to shore up his family’s status against the threat from social climbers. It collected the arms of all the families into whom Gossembrots had married, but it omitted arms which had come into use too recently in favour of those long-established. Others would embellish their own heritage beyond plausibility, such as Ulman Stramer who, in his Book of my Lineage and Adventure (1360-1400), claimed that his ancestor Gerhart of Reichenbach was granted arms by King Conrad, even though Conrad reigned in an age before it became customary to have arms formally granted by a sovereign. In the fifteenth century there was a social distinction between arms officially sanctioned and arms privately assumed. Urban grantees, much like their contemporaries in England, sought to consolidate their status. Also similar to England, “confirmations” of supposedly-old arms were preferred to grants of clearly-new ones, for armigers wanted proof that they and their agnates had always belonged to the gentry instead of recently joining it. Sometimes grants were sought from foreign rulers, such as Henry VIII of England to Lorenz Stauber of Nuremberg in 1521.

There were accounts of legal disputes over heraldic ownership, such as unrelated armigers bearing the same shield, and the city authorities deciding that they must be long-lost family. A case study was the Church of St Anne in Augsburg, where Ulrich, Georg and Jakob Fugger had endowed a family chapel. When the male-line of the dynasty died out the female-line descendants were allowed to inherit the chapel but not the Fugger arms.

I asked Dr Meer what was the lowest social rank at which one could get away with assuming arms. He replied that there were no hard rules, and that at Nuremberg there is evidence of armigerous peasants, albeit probably the wealthier peasants. Emperors were known to complain of non-nobles assuming arms, but there wishes were not enforced.

10th June is International Heraldry Day (though as little recognised as all the other National Whatever Days) and the society was proud to unveil its new logo, courtesy of Quentin Peacock. Also today it was announced that Her Majesty had appointed two new members of the Order of the Thistle – former Lord Advocate Dame Elish Angiolini and former Presiding Officer of the Scottish Parliament Sir George Reid. Their arms, if yet they have them, will at some point be displayed at the High Kirk. Meanwhile, with just three days to go until the Garter service, I am still none the wiser as to the arms of Amos and Blair.

Henry and the Trackside Trees

Euan Roger (left) John Varley (right)

This week I got a little carried away with Eventbrite, and consequently this afternoon I attended two virtual talks in rapid succession – both on Teams rather than Zoom.

The first was All aboard a railway for people and wildlife by Women in Sustainable Rail. The session began less than formally with John Varley (Estate Director of Clinton Devon Estates) and Dr Neil Strong (Biodiversity Strategy Manager for Network Rail) getting carried away in a conversation about beavers. Varley spoke about the review he had done in 2018 for the Department of Transport, commissioned by then-minister Jo Johnson.  Varley concluded that the review was about nature and not just trees. He stated that in the 1950s there were fewer trees immediately bordering Britain’s railways than today, yet there was greater overall biodiversity. He noted that people tend to have a spiritual relationship with trees that is not extended to other plants. He delightedly recalled one day being given his own train in the North of England to go around inspecting the ground and interviewing the locals. He urged Network Rail to treat nature as an asset equal with its man-made infrastructure. The next speaker was Jane Dodds, Portfolio Head of Project at the Rail Safety & Standards Board. She told of the negative public perception surrounding Network Rail’s approach to managing vegetation around the lines. Strong then recounted the story of the implementation of the review. He showed photographs of a pilot scheme in Kent where a large row of trees was cut down from the side of the line, with the intention to plant a meadow there instead. He presented a long list of organisations with which he liaised over the course of the scheme. There was a question & answer session at the end which concluded in a similarly awkward fashion with the host offering to send slides and asking anyone still listening to email further questions. I couldn’t think of anything to ask (and wasn’t sure if my microphone worked) to ask so logged off sheepishly.

The second was event Readeption and Revenge: The final years of Henry VI by the National Archives. This detailed the later life of the last monarch from the House of Lancaster, though the lecturer Euan Roger included a brief overview of his early life, when he inherited the throne at aged nine months and was ruled by regents until coming of age. He founded Eton College and King’s College Cambridge, and was said to be overly generous with petitions, even granting the same estate to two people on the same day, to the point where his ministers began screening documents before the King was allowed to see them. The people perceived that senior officials were enriching themselves at the crown’s expense and that profligate royal pardons were undermining the rule of law. Henry’s reign took a serious turn for the worse in 1453 when his mental illness first appeared. He was barely lucid for much of the time, so unable to carry out duties of state. When he recovered he dedicated his life to religious pursuits instead of administrative or military ones. Roger noted, though, that reports of infirmity could have been exaggerated by those seeking political advantage. Without wishing to tell the whole story of the Wars of the Roses again, Henry was deposed by Edward IV in 1461. The new king eventually captured the old, but his imprisonment was relatively comfortable by the standards of the time. Contemporary documents referred to him as “Henry of Windsor” or “late by fact but not by right King of England”. One calls him “Henry Beaufort”, which Rogers suggested could be an attempt by the Yorkists to reframe his ancestry. A fall-out within Edward IV’s court saw the Duke of Clarence and Earl of Warwick depose him, restoring Henry to the throne as a puppet under their joint protection. The readeption only lasted six months before Edward IV had taken the throne again, and weeks later Henry died, officially of natural illness but more probably through blunt head injuries. Henry was buried at Chertsey Abbey, but in 1484 was relocated to St George’s Chapel, Windsor. For this lecture questions were asked in the chat box, but I waited too long to ask mine and so the session ran out of time to answer it.

EXTERNAL LINKS

I had wished to know why the Yorkists had killed Henry in such an obviously violent manner rather than poisoning him or denying him food, so that it would have been more plausible to claim that his death had been peaceful. Even Philippa Gregory’s version of events had him suffocated with pillows instead of beaten.

More Podcasts

For the whole of January I wondered when the third episode of the House of Lords podcast was going to arrive. On 10th February it finally did so. The Lord Patel, Chair of the Science & Technology Committee, was interviewed about healthy ageing. The Lord Cashman, former MEP and actor, recalled his role in founding Stonewall. I hope that new episodes will be produced more frequently in future so that momentum is not lost among potential listeners.

The Heraldry Society recently started a podcast of its own, the first episode being an interview of Quentin Peacock about Digital Heraldry. Peacock spoke about the time and difficulty of creating high-quality vector graphics. Notice was also taken of the growth of online heraldist communities in recent years.

Back on Wikipedia, I have spent the last week constructing another armorial page – that for Anglican Bishops of the Diocese of Chester. The bulk of the necessary information was found on the website of the now-defunct Cheshire Heraldry Society. The vast majority of the escutcheons (no crests or mottoes listed) were simple enough to recreate in a short time, so that it only took a few days to illustrate and upload the whole lot. Creating the list page itself was also quite easy, given that I am well used to the template by now. It is too early to say if the page will survive. At present no other editor appears to have noticed it at all. If it is accepted then I may go on to produce armorials for the more senior bishoprics of Canterbury and York, though so far I have not found the relevant information so conveniently assembled.

UPDATE (15th February)

Searching around I uncovered this presentation by Dr Adrian Ailes for the National Archives, recorded a decade ago.