Book Review: The Midnight Library by Matt Haig

June 22, 2021
The Midnight Library

Are we living our best lives? If we could choose another version of reality and hop into that other us, would we be happier or more fulfilled or successful or are we ultimately bound to continue in the life we have now and strive to make it into our best possible existence?

Living, as we do, in an age of self-obsession and introspective self-assessment; it isn’t hard to see why this book has received a lot of media coverage and has been chosen for so many book club lists recently. Lockdown forced many of us to re-evaluate where we are and what we do and whether we were happy with our lot or secretly craving another way of existing. There is also a huge mental health ‘crisis’ or awakening depending on your viewpoint sweeping through society which inter-connects with the themes in this book and makes it an interesting springboard for wider discussion.

Nora, the protagonist, is about to kill herself because her life seems devoid of anything worth living for. Between life and death, she discovers a library in her mind; stocked with an infinite number of books which represent all the other versions of herself that she could have been depending on the choices she made and all the other lives she could have lived in parallel realities.

Guided by her old school librarian, Mrs Elm, she must confront the ‘Book of Regrets’ which she has filled up during the course of her first thirty-five years and then by a process of experiencing the alternative realities in each book, she must learn to re-evaluate her regrets and find her best life before time runs out.

Nora’s regrets weigh her down to the point of atrophy because she has spent a lot of time alone or in dysfunctional relationships and has interpreted other people’s reactions as a judgement on her own abilities or worth – a sentiment that many of us can relate to! However, In order to really engage with Nora’s angst, we need to empathise with her but her character is also a cipher for exploring our own internal world. In many ways she is ‘Curley’s Wife’ in ‘Of Mice and Men – a plot device rather than a character and that can make it hard to engage with her enough care about the ultimate outcome of the storyline.

At some point, whilst reading Nora’s stream of consciousness, the reader will think ‘Is it really that bad?’ Nora’s life hasn’t been ravaged by war or destroyed by disease. She had a controlling parent who died when she was still very young so she was never able to resolve her relationship with them and suffered the usual losses that most of us encounter through our journey. Her long-term boyfriend turned out to be self-obsessed and indifferent to her own personal journey; her brother drifted away from her and her early dreams of either becoming an Olympic swimming champion or member of a rock band dissolved, as most people’s do, into the mundanity of earning a crust to keep a roof over our heads.

Perhaps Nora is symbolic of the faint ‘dis-ease’ of modern life – a nebulous unhappiness about what we might have achieved, given that we aren’t fighting the French in a hundred years war of attrition or facing famine because our crops failed again. We are burdened with ‘glorious purpose’, as Loki might say, but purpose to achieve what exactly?

Fame, fortune, financial security? To raise a family that stays together and nurture the next generation to become mentally resilient, compassionate, eco-friendly and productive units in society? Women, in particular, are told we can ‘have it all’ by the media yet for so many of us, there is a void when we try to fill that ‘ALL’ shaped box with something meaningful because we are overloaded and fatigued by the 24/7 rolling life that babbles away around us along with the relentless doom-filled news channel.

Apathy is as much a by-product of sensory and emotional overload as under-stimulation. Matt Haig asks us to empathise with Nora’s emptiness yet for many of us, her lifestyle feels full of room for the things we can’t do. Loneliness is crushing but so is the frantic struggle to balance too many duties and responsibilities and she can’t even make a one-hour a week piano lesson or get to her job on time when she’s only looking after a cat (badly, as it turns out).

The ‘Quantum Leap’ jumping between lives is interesting up to a point – here she is successful in her career but driven and lonely; here she is living her partner’s dream rather than her own or experiencing quasi-motherhood and beginning to feel what it might be like to care more about another living soul than herself but it starts to become rather predictable and repetitive – just like life – when you see that there are always downsides to every existence. You get fame but not personal fulfilment; you get money but no time to enjoy it or a family but there’s still a hole at the heart of you that they can’t fill.

Nora’s problem is that she takes herself into each new life – not the person she is in that other reality but just the same person who can’t cope with being alive and so the resolution to the climatic moment when we finally reach it feels rather anti-climatic and unresolved. Ultimately, we are who we are and must make the best of it and it is only through unrelenting toil and incremental personal growth that we can make our own ‘best life’ and aim for contentment.

It remains statistically unlikely that we will win the lottery or marry a film star or write a great novel or any of those other pipe dreams that people nurse to overcome the crushing realisation that when you said you wanted to become an astronaut at school and your teacher nodded, they were just nodding and not endorsing that as a genuine possibility!

The author repeats several times that we do not have to understand how to live, just to live. Experience is the thing rather than theorising about it or bullet journaling it or analysing it. Get in there and get messy while you are still a sentient, living organism that can feel and touch and use your senses to respond to the world. It reminds me of ‘Why Don’t You?’ the 70’s TV show that I used to watch as a bored kid during the holidays – the message was stop watching the show and go outside and do something more interesting instead – a challenging concept to sell to the programme commissioner at the time but if only they had glimpsed the future of childhood where so many hours would be spent creating avatars to act out virtual adventures on screen, they might have run screaming from the studios.

In comparison, the book’s message seems to be, stop the introspective navel-gazing and the psychoanalysis and get on with living while you can, which is of course good advice up to the point when you look back and see that you’ve filled up the void with stuff or experiences or work but still feel empty at your core.

Scientists say that you can fool yourself into feeling happy by smiling because it releases chemical endorphins in the brain that make us feel better. They are experimenting with giving laughing gas to patients suffering from depression because the human body can be fooled into a state of ‘happiness’ via external stimuli. There’s something deeply depressing about that! Like putting a mirror in the Budgie’s cage to prevent it feeling lonely or chewing your meals slowly to stop hunger cravings. I can’t help feeling that if you have to trick yourself into feeling happy that doesn’t say much for human existence which really brings us back to the meaning of life and all that.

Are we here to push our DNA one coil further up the beach before we die or to produce something beautiful that will out-live us? Are we here to make the planet a better place through our efforts or to fight for a cause or a nation or a god or a philosophy? What will any of it count for when our sun implodes and drags the whole universe with it back to the moment of the ‘big bang’ and everything we have ever learnt or made or felt is re-wound to a single point of energy?

Like many philosophical discussions, it’s all been great fun but you’ve come full-circle and still don’t know the answer to the question that was originally posed.

Iona House Gallery: Winter Exhibition 23rd January – 28th February 2021

January 27, 2021

 ‘The Snowdrop and the Primrose our woodlands adorn and violets bathe in the wet o’ the morn’ Robert Burns

Delicate snowdrops in mixed media by Anna Perlin at Iona House Gallery

Anna Perlin ‘Snowdrops’ mixed media 15x15cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Snowdrops are a symbol of hope in the darkness of midwinter. Associated with the festival of Candlemas in early February and named ‘Candlemas Bells’ for their purity, they are also linked to the ancient Celtic celebration of Imbolc. The snowdrops arrive at the turning point of the year when winter starts to give way to the spring and the promise of new life quickens in the earth as lambing season begins. 

We have never needed the symbol of the snowdrop more than now as we battle the challenges of this particular winter and endure another lockdown through the worst of the winter. 

Art is a powerful tool for expressing hope and our Winter Exhibition brings together a collection of art which aims to throw off the bleak midwinter and let in the light.

Magnolia blooms against a blue sky by Anna Perlin at Iona House Gallery

Anna Perlin ‘Magnolia’ mixed media 76x60cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Anna Perlin’s delicate spring flowers and studies of blossom trees are quintessentially English. They capture the promise of a world waking up from its long dormant sleep and bursting into colour and life once more. The first flowers must weather floods and frost but they are tenacious and refuse to be beaten down by the winter storms. They endure and return year after year despite the struggle to survive.

Scintillating light on water and moored boats by Mike Hall at Iona House Gallery

Mike Hall ‘View of Mooring’ acrylic on board 36x30cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Remember the warmth of the sun on your skin and glittering light on water? Mike Hall’s lucid paintings of France take you far away from the gloom of January to a world of open windows and soft breezes, relaxation and the simple contentment of sitting outdoors in a chair in the sunshine.

Birds and flowers in soft green tones by Este MacLeod at Iona House Gallery

Celebrate the joy of birdsong in the hedgerows and the complex patterns woven as sunlight filters through branches and flowers peep out between the leaves. Este’s work seems to glow with an inner warmth and to embody the qualities of poetry in her subtle layering of imagery and hidden forms.

Soft dappled light on water by Pete Gilbert at Iona House Gallery

Pete Gilbert ‘Riverbank Reflections’ acrylic 56x50cm – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Stand, for a moment, by still water and watch the reflections of blossom trees in the cool surface. Pete Gilbert’s scintillating studies of the natural world seem to dance with light and gentle beauty. Inspired by the gorgeous landscape of his beloved New Forest, his work encapsulates the timelessness of this ancient corner of England.

Creativity is an act of hope because it invests in the future and gives permanent life to a moment in time or to something that we hold dear. Unlike the delicate snowdrops which bloom and fade back into the earth, art is a permanent record of beauty which allows the viewer to re-live many times over the pleasure of a particular experience; the light on a specific day, the little bubble of joy that rises when the sun comes out from behind a cloud and lifts our mood or a sense of a deep connection with nature.

We hope that you find joy in our collection and that art gives you hope in the weeks ahead. Spring will come again!

From the team at Iona House Gallery.

Winter Exhibition 23rd January – 28th February 2021 – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

Blog post by Katherine Newman

Geoffrey of Monmouth, Oxford Castle and King Arthur

January 19, 2022

King Arthur at the beginning of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain BnF, Latin 8501A, f. 108v

Geoffrey of Monmouth is thought to have been born between 1090 -1100 in Wales; possibly at Monmouth but no written evidence remains to verify this. Geoffrey also signed himself as Geoffrey Arthur in an earlier phase and some historians have linked these names to the Breton community living in this area of Wales after the Norman Conquest and suggest that he had Breton ancestors who were most probably part of William of Normandy’s Breton forces at Hastings in 1066 and later settled in the Welsh marches.

Geoffrey may have been educated abroad at a monastic centre such as Paris or Bec but there are six surviving charter signatures which place him in the Oxford area from 1129 -1151. The charters were drawn up under the instruction of Robert D’Oylly who’s family had held Oxford Castle since the reign of William the Conqueror and had set up the collegiate foundation of St George which was housed at Oxford Castle. The first Robert D’Oylly had begun new construction work on the pre-existing Saxon defensive site in 1074 under the orders of the Conqueror, to subdue the local area and provide a strong defensive stronghold at a strategically important location.

Oxford Castle and site of St George’s College of priests where Geoffrey was secular canon and teacher

Geoffrey’s signature as Geoffrey Arthur was accompanied by the word ‘magister’ which suggests he was a teacher as well as a secular canon at St George’s College and that he wrote his famous History of the Kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae) whilst at Oxford around 1135-1139. This is further strengthened by Geoffrey’s claim that the book was actually a translation from an ancient British text which was given to him by Walter, Archdeacon of Oxford, presumably when he was resident at the college.

200 copies of Geoffrey’s History of the Kings of Britain survive which attests to their popularity

There is much debate over whether this is true or a literary invention on his part, perhaps in the hopes of securing patronage from Walter, early in his literary career or to add veracity to his somewhat dubious historical account. Most modern historians reject the idea of a lost British text and suggest that Geoffrey drew on the works of the Venerable Bede (the Ecclesiastical History of the English People or Historia Ecclesiastica written around AD730) and Nennius (British History or Historia Brittenum written around AD 830) adding various lists of ancient kings and a large helping of his own imagination when constructing his History of the Kings of Britain.

Although Oxford had no university when Geoffrey lived there, St George’s College may have encouraged the development of scholastic learning and drawn educated scholars and priests to form a community where learning and writing could thrive during the reign of Henry I.

The C12th Renaissance provided a cultural backdrop to Geoffrey’s writings with a renewed interest in the classical past, it’s institutions, politics and legacy and encouraged interest in the writing of histories and chronicles. This can be seen in the work of contemporary writers like William of Malmesbury who wrote the widely acclaimed Deeds of the English Kings or Gesta Regum Anglorum (a later version of which was also dedicated to Robert, Earl of Gloucester) and the Historia Novella concerning the Anarchy. Henry of Huntingdon wrote The History of the English or Historia Anglorum (dedicated to Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln) among other works and Gerald of Wales wrote A Description of Wales or Descriptio Cambriae which praises the Welsh people in a similar vein to Geoffrey’s own work. There were also heavily-weighted biographies of kings such as the Gesta Stephani which were openly partial to their patron at the expense of his enemies. These historical chronicles shifted the emphasis onto the nature of human achievement and the meanings and patterns within history and were very popular with contemporary audiences.

C12th Renaissance saw many contemporary writers tackling historical chronicles and recording the deeds of kings such as William of Malmesbury and Henry of Huntingdon

The importance of patronage for writers, whether secured from a monastic institution or an aristocratic court was vital as the writer needed someone who would feed, clothe and house him but also stand as a protector in case he offended or fell on the wrong side of contemporary political developments and this can be seen in the three dedications that Geoffrey made at the beginning of his work which suggest the tumultuous world in which he lived and the dangers of committing thoughts to the page.

It seems likely that Geoffrey began his writing towards the end of Henry I’s reign, long after the White Ship disaster of 1120 when the question of the royal succession dominated politics at court. Henry I was left reeling in shock when his son and heir, William the Atheling was drowned, along with several close family members and many high-ranking Anglo-Norman aristocrats. Henry determined to bind his barons to support his daughter Matilda’s claim to succeed but there was much uncertainty over his decision, with many barons uneasy at the prospect of a female ruler, supported by an unpopular husband in the form of Geoffrey, Court of Anjou, and who was the mother of small children. Matilda had left Britain many years previously to be married to Henry Vth, The Roman Emperor and retained the title of Empress from her first marriage. She had only returned to her father’s court after his death and was, therefore, not as well-known as her popular cousin, Stephen of Blois. Stephen seemed like an attractive alternative to many of the Norman aristocracy, being a adult male with proven military experience and son of Henry I’s sister Adela and thus a grandson of the Conqueror. He was charming and affable but lacked the ruthlessness required of a medieval king which prove a weakness in the forthcoming period of civil war.

Stephen of Blois – rival claimant for the throne

There are some indications within the text that Geoffrey supported Matilda’s claim and was perhaps seeking to add weight to it in his writings. The first dedication that Geoffrey wrote was to Matilda’s half-brother, most staunch ally and defender, Robert Earl of Gloucester.

Robert might have been a candidate for the succession himself as he was a powerful Earl with many holdings in the Welsh marches and West Country and was a well-respected member of the court. Despite his illegitimacy, he could have made a play for the throne but decided to support his half-sister’s claim and remain loyal to his father’s wishes. Robert held Monmouth as a fief and therefore, if Geoffrey had been raised in Monmouth, Robert would have been his feudal lord and natural choice to approach for patronage and protection.

Both the other two dedications which were probably appended later to the work name Robert and appeal to him directly for patronage too.

Empress Matilda

In addition, there are four different queens mentioned in the History who provide positive examples of female rule and imply a precedent for female authority within British history – Glendolena, Cordelia, Marcia and Helena. In the case of Helena, she is also the sole heir of her father and parallels have been drawn between her inclusion in the text and the contemporary situation with Henry I and Matilda’s claim to the throne.

Historians have suggested that Geoffrey’s history was written as a propaganda piece in support of the Norman regime, in order to promote the newly-established Norman system of government and that Geoffrey was more interested in gaining patronage from the Norman aristocracy than partial to Matilda’s cause. The second dedication may provide evidence of this as Geoffrey spreads the net wider and includes a co-dedication to Waleran, Count of Meulan, a supporter of Matilda’s cousin and rival claimant for the throne, Count Stephen of Blois.

Geoffrey was certainly heavily influence by his own world-view in his treatment of the five races he describes in the book. His own Breton ancestry and admiration for the Welsh may have led him to present the ancient British race as the noble descendants of the Trojan heroes of classical antiquity though the notion that Brutus founded Britain pre-dated Geoffrey’s account. The Britons were a superior race, according to his History, who fell into arrogance which lead to invasions by Picts and Saxons. They were subsumed into the Roman Empire in name only, having a superior culture and technology to their attackers and were liberated from the barbarian Saxons by their Norman cousins who shared a similar glorious link to a Trojan foundation.

It is clear that Geoffrey sought to vindicate the conquest and subsequent establishment of Norman rule and to suggest that it was a fortunate chapter in British history which would re-establish the glories of her mythical past and expunge the violent, pagan incursions of the Anglo-Saxon migrations after the fall of the her greatest kings.

Geoffrey was also keen to promote the idea of Britain as a unified kingdom, under one monarch and to suggest that it was part of British destiny, as prophesied by Merlin the seer who advises King Arthur, that Britain would once more become a whole nation and thrive as such, regaining the glories of the Arthurian ‘Golden Age’ of conquest beyond her shores too.

Geoffrey projected contemporary chivalric codes on to his account of King Arthur and his court (later medieval manuscript)

This vision also played to the Anglo-Norman ruling class who held lands in Normandy and sought to establish a wider Norman ’empire’ with eyes on expansion into other regions of France. Any such aspirations were dependent on a strong, centralised government with a stable ruler at the helm and whilst Matilda’s gender may have weighed against her, it was Matilda, not Stephen who had occupied the imperial throne and proven herself to be a capable regent for her first husband, ruling over vast domains on the continent. Why couldn’t Britain regain the glories of Geoffrey’s Arthurian past when, according to Geoffrey’s account, he conquered Ireland, Norway, Denmark, Brittany and Gaul? There is almost a glimpse of what we know as the ‘Angevin Empire’ that Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would briefly establish in Geoffrey’s vision.

Geoffrey’s quasi re-invention of King Arthur, from the earliest mentions of him in Nennius’s C9th writings as a ‘dux bellorum’, a post-Roman Christian war lord to a legendary king presiding over a splendid court with a mythical sword (referred to as Caliburn rather than Excalibur at this point) may well have been partly his own invention and partly an exercise in flattery towards Henry I’s own style of kingship. Henry was a cultured king who encouraged poets and writers and was considered to be well-educated by contemporary standards. He may have been destined for the church as a younger son of the Conqueror and thus educated for high office as much as for warfare.

Geoffrey’s writings link Arthur’s court with the developing concept of chivalry and strong, centralised kingship, military success and expansion and Christian piety; all of which might have been held as a mirror to Henry I’s court but Geoffrey also introduces a mystical element to his history of Arthur in the form of the seer Merlin and his prophesies. Here the history takes a detour which Geoffrey asserted was due to the urgings of Alexander, Bishop of Lincoln, who Geoffrey also approached as a potential patron for his work, to include a long stream of Nostradamus style prophesies by Merlin about the future destiny of the British Isles.

Geoffrey would create a separate book, The Prophetie Merlini based on these writings which reinforce the idea of divine destiny and purpose running through the course of British history and may owe something to his Welsh roots and folk legends that he absorbed as a child growing up on the Welsh marshes.

Merlin and Vortigern

Some historians have suggested that Geoffrey never intended his work to be viewed as a serious history but rather a romance and history combined together with folk lore and prophesy. He may not have recognised the distinction between a historical account, based on source evidence, and his work certainly came under criticism from contemporary writers for it’s imaginative liberties.

Gerald of Wales suggested that, whilst the Bible would drive away demons, Geoffrey’s history was likely to draw more devils to it! William of Malmesbury was praised for his insistence on gathering eye witness sources for his writings as the same time as Geoffrey was inventing lost manuscripts and embellishing the legends of Arthur and Geoffrey seems to take a swipe at William and Henry of Huntingdon at the end of his book by warning them both not to attempt to write a similar history of the ancient kings of Britain as they lacked access to his unique source material. How much of that was the natural rivalry between scholastic writers and how much was tongue-in-cheek remains open to interpretation. They were all certainly vying with each other for patronage so there was clearly an element of professional one-upmanship going on too.

Whatever Geoffrey’s writings may lack in historical accuracy or gain from his attempts to weave a safe passage through the turbulent times in which he lived, his history was an instant hit and soon copies were being made across Europe. Henry of Huntingdon was amazed to find a copy at the Monastery of Bec in 1139, only shortly after it was first published and 200 copies of his work have survived to the modern day which is a testament to its popularity.

Geoffrey created a vision of the British Isles which left a lasting impression on readers; suggesting glorious mythical roots and a destiny that would see Britain become one of the most powerful nations in Europe. In a way, his writings predict what would become known as the Angevin Empire that would be established in the next generation and which grew out of the disruption and stalemate of the Anarchy which he lived through. He may have even been present at Oxford Castle during the fateful siege of 1142 and seen the Empress Matilda in the flesh during her time there but he would certainly have lived through the uncertainties and violence of the Anarchy when ‘God and his angels slept’ and no doubt experienced his fair share of fear and deprivation caused by the clash between the rival claimants to the throne.

Geoffrey’s signature is recorded on the Treaty of Westminster in his capacity as Bishop of St Asaph which concluded the terms at the end of the civil war and so he lived just long enough to see Matilda’s son become King of England which, I imagine, he was pleased to see come to fruition as it promised to usher in a period of stable government and peace for his country and the hope of expansion abroad through the marriage of Henry to Eleanor of Aquitaine and her vast holdings in the South of France.

His burial is unrecorded but I like to believe that Geoffrey’s remains may still be somewhere in Oxford, perhaps close to the site where he wrote his history and to all those later scholars who drew inspiration from his colourful writings.

List of useful links:

https://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/waleshistory/2012/07/geoffrey_of_monmouth_writer_teacher_cleric.html

https://www.britannica.com/biography/Geoffrey-of-Monmouth

https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/cambridge-journal-of-postcolonial-literary-inquiry/article/violence-memory-and-history-geoffrey-of-monmouth-and-kazuo-ishiguros-the-buried-giant/B4D2BAAD176E928800BE60436157C6A9

https://minds.wisconsin.edu/bitstream/handle/1793/61660/Berthold_John.pdf?sequence=2

https://d.lib.rochester.edu/camelot/text/geoffrey

https://www.ukessays.com/essays/history/renaissance-12th-century-culture-7895.php

Did Geoffrey even exist?

WAS HENRY VII A RELUCTANT BRIDEGROOM?

January 18, 2022

Interesting article which raises many questions about the motives behind the marriage and Henry’s careful balancing of conflicting opportunities and threats in the early period of his reign.

I think that Henry remained very insecure about his legitimacy and it was important for him to establish himself as the ‘rightful’ monarch without having to look to a marriage to secure his right to rule. Also in the early stages of his kingship he may have found it politic to leave the position of queen vacant in order to boost his international appeal. Elizabeth’s illegitimacy was a stain on her which he may have worried would cause problems down the line and could have caused him to delay any sudden move towards marriage – Edward IV had a fairly shady track record on secret marriages after all! Henry was probably also cautious of re-introducing the Woodville affiliation into any position of influence, knowing how unpopular this had proved to be during the reign of Edward IV and wanting to leave lucrative offices free to reward his own affiliation. The way in which he dealt with the Titulus Regius suggests that he was deeply concerned about the potential harm it could still do to his authority and at great pains to obliterate it completely. Personally I think it is telling that Henry took 3 weeks to get to London after Bosworth and he knew the princes were out of the equation. He couldn’t reveal this because it implied his association with their killer so he pretended to have no knowledge of their fate beyond the general rumour that Richard had shed innocent blood. He calculated that the majority would want stability and the return to ‘normal’ government after a generation of civil war and perhaps he used parliament to urge his marriage to Elizabeth of York so that he could be seen to assent to their advice, thus appearing benevolent and have their mandate to proceed with the marriage. He was certainly an astute political operator and may have judged that he stood a better chance of retaining Yorkist support by legitimising and marrying Elizabeth than in trying to negotiate a foreign marriage when the question of pretenders and rival claimants still hung over him – the same factors would cause him to execute Warwick years later in order for the Spanish marriage to go ahead between Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon after all.

A MEDIEVAL POTPOURRI

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Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. Their effigies in Westminster Abbey. Artist Pietro Torrigiano. Photo westminster-abbey.org

I was recently reading an excellent article in the Ricardian discussing Henry Tudor’s enthusiasm, or lack of it, for his marriage to Elizabeth of York by David Johnson entitled Ardent Suitor or Reluctant Groom?It’s pretty much an eye opener and is in two parts – part 1Ardent Suitorcovers the positives, if you can call them that - that is to try to understand why Henry, who in Rennes Cathedral on Christmas Day 1483 had vowed to marry Elizabeth of York, seemingly developed a serious case of cold feet in 1485 after his success at Bosworth. This seems a major volte-face from a man who was reported by Vergil as being ‘pinched by the very stomach’when rumours had reached him that Richard III was‘amynded’, having been recently widowed, to

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The HANDSOME Duke of Burgundy….?

January 16, 2022

murreyandblue

Philip of Habsburg (called the Handsome or the Fair) was Duke of Burgundy from 1482 to 1506

At the moment I’m trawling around medieval rulers in Europe. And lo! I’ve come upon this gentleman:

from Wikepedia

His contemporary likenesses aren’t much better, so why was he called Philip the Fair/Handsome? Was it tongue-in cheek? If you look through the various recreations of him in this link below, if they’re even halfway accurate you can be certain he was NOT handsome. Unless what was considered handsome then certainly isn’t what we’d call handsome now. It seems he was called “the Handsome” because of his fair hair and attractive grey-blue eyes. Well, if his hair was notably fair, his modern likeness certainly isn’t. But yes, his eyes are indeed blue-grey.

Now the Habsburgs weren’t renowned for their physical beauty, and this chap seems to confirm it. He was not only Duke of…

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Child Brides: Medieval girls and early marriage

December 30, 2021

Yesterday I read a report about interviews which have been conducted with teenage girls in Syria who have been married between the ages of 13 and 16, often to men much older than themselves.

Many of the girls who were interviewed talked about their despair at the lack of any personal choice in who they married. They longed to return to school and continue to learn and spoke about how their lives have been cut short by early, arranged marriages.

Some mention abuse at the hands of their husbands or their husband’s mothers and their revulsion at being forced to have sexual relationships with much older men before their bodies or minds are ready to take on this aspect of adult life. They fear pregnancy and domestic servitude which will be their lot for the rest of their lives and long for their lost childhoods. Many have already been traumatised by war and forced to flee their homes. Some have had to deal with bereavement as children as well and many are struggling to live in poverty.

We are told not to project contemporary views onto the past. There is much debate currently about the role of women in the middle ages and how many different interpretations can by made from the existing source evidence about the variety of opportunities open to women during this large and disparate period of history. There is constant reappraisal of the evidence available to us and debate about how much power, influence, freedom and constraint applied to various female figures who we do know a small amount about and how that might be projected onto the wider lot of girls and women in their societies, about which we often know far less.

marriage-1

We are encouraged by historians to set child marriage into the context of the times and the social mores of the societies in which it operated. People died younger and therefore child marriage was a practical response to ensure the next generation was born before the previous one died off. Early marriage provided security and stability for the girls as much as for their birth family as they were safely settled within a household before their parents died and freed other siblings from the burdens of providing for them if they remained at home and were not able to practice a trade themselves.

Girls were generally not educated in the same way as their male peers and therefore needed to find a husband who could provide for them through his profession or trade, outlets not usually open to a woman, while she counter-balanced this by keeping the household, rearing the livestock, preparing the food and bearing children. Many women also took on much more than this as part of their wifely duties, including brewing or running a grain mill, involvement in the preparation of goods and materials, keeping the household accounts, managing servants, running estates and defending the family property when their spouses were absent. Some even took up arms and organised troops and undertook much diplomatic work on behalf of their family, acting as intercessors and negotiators with neighbours and local landowners.

Many young brides in the mercantile class were also taught about the family business and involved in many aspects of this without any formal recognition or salary. This enabled their husbands to travel on business for sometimes extended periods in the knowledge that their core business was in safe and reliable hands and could feel confident that no secrets were being divulged or goods hived off because their wives were dependent on the business for their sustenance too and were working in common to raise the family up for the benefit of their children.

Poorer families tended not to marry their girls off at very young ages either. Many girls were fully grown women in their twenties when they married, rather than the child brides of the elite class.

Dynastic alliances were essential to the way that international politics functioned. Parents loved their children but often lived apart from them in the elite social classes and didn’t develop the same ‘bond’ that we think exists between modern parents and their offspring. Childhood is extended too far in modern western society – people coddle their children and continue to provide for them into their adult years which stifles their ability to stand on their own two feet and make their own way in the world etc…

Nobody thought the Edward III and Philippa were bad parents for sending their daughter Joan off to be married even if she contracted the Black Death on the way and died an agonising death, far from home and family and possibly deserted by her attendants as well en route. It was just a tragic combination of factors and the will of God.

”We have placed our trust in God and our life between his hands, where he held it closely through many dangers” wrote her grieving father to her prospective family shortly after her death.

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Joan of England who died of the Black Death aged 14 on the way to her marriage

I remember reading posts in a recent thread on social media concerning the marriage of Richard II to Isabella Valois when she was just six years old. Generally people were accepting of his relationship with her and the bond which developed between them but some were very uncomfortable about marriage between a fully grown man and a child who brought her dolls with her from France, even if there was no suggestion of intimacy between them. Isabella was a political pawn, without a doubt, but from what we can glean she was treated very well by Richard’s court and mourned his fall and death with a deep sense of personal loss. She was told that marriage to the English king would make her a very great lady and trained from her earliest years to expect just such a match. Her distress was magnified by her treatment at the hands of Henry Bolingbroke who wanted her to marry his son when still in mourning for her murdered husband and by her family who were desperate to get her back to France in order to arrange another dynastic marriage for her. Sadly she subsequently died in childbirth at an age that most of us would now regard as only just fully grown.

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Meeting between Isabella of France aged 6 and her husband, Richard II aged 29

Times were harder then and women’s expectations were set at the level of helpmate and consort, wife and mother. They didn’t think about their personal development as our generation has been raised to. They were content to be the vessel for other people’s ambitions and were instructed by the Christian church to submit obediently to their lot in life. There were often harsh penalties for wanting more. Women who challenged convention could face being ostracised, abused, imprisoned and sanctioned by the church. Cases of ‘witchcraft’ are often now seen as a social response to women who challenged the social order. A means of control through fear and superstition.

Women did not have any rights to their own bodies after marriage. The example of Margery Kempe speaks volumes for this silent burden borne by so many women. Margery wanted to remain celibate and follow her vocation of a religious life but her husband forced her to carry on having babies for years and years against her will.

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So what parallels can be drawn between the largely voiceless women of the past and the feelings of these modern child brides?

Firstly I was struck by the similarities of the social contexts within which these girls are living and the realities of medieval life. There is hardly a single era during the medieval period when war or the threat of war wasn’t hanging over a generation. Peace was a novelty for most people. For a child born into conflict and raised with the horrors of violence, dislocation, economic disruption and the trauma of fear, the same human responses apply regardless of the age in which they live.

Can we imagine that it was any less harmful for a medieval child to experience all this in their formative years than it is for these Syrian girls to have grown up during a time of war? It is easy to pass off the psychological traumas of war on medieval children. It was just the way things were. People didn’t know about PTSD but it still existed and had profound effects on those who struggled to live with it. It coloured their responses to threats and their relationships and it had a profound effect on their psychological outlook but it is difficult to say to what extent this should be taken into account when set against the experience of everyone else in society.

Imagine the conversation between a young daughter of the aristocracy and a peasant girl living at the same time. One might recount how sad she was to be parted from her mother and sold in marriage to a stranger in a foreign land at the age of 12 while the other might recall her terror of growing up in a village which was preyed on by the local lord’s men, of being cold and hungry and afraid of the next famine or the dangers of gathering firewood in the nearby wood.

However real and terrifying the prospects of childbirth were for all girls and women regardless of class, their male siblings also faced the horrors of war on the battlefield, the abuses of heavy-handed tutors and masters and the arbitrary judgements of the law if they were caught poaching.

The case of Margaret Beaufort springs to mind here. Most of us feel revulsion and sympathy for her facing a long and traumatic birth at the age of 13. Later she wrote advising that her own granddaughters should not be married too young for fear of the damage early pregnancies might inflict on their bodies. Just because a girl has had a period does not mean that her body is able to withstand the huge demand of pregnancy and childbirth. We know now that early pregnancy is more dangerous for both baby and mother and requires careful monitoring. It is impossible to know whether Margaret was a victim of her husband’s desire or, perhaps more likely, that he was desperate to get an heir and risked his wife’s long-term health by sleeping with her several years before most girls might expect to carry a child. The strain of being widowed at seven months pregnant and the political situation in which Margaret found herself probably did  nothing to ease her psychological state as she attempted to give birth to her only child either.

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Margaret Beaufort who gave birth to Henry Tudor at the age of 13

Similar stresses may well have contributed to the dreadful experience of Isabel Neville, who gave birth to a stillborn baby at sea off Calais as her family fled England during her father’s rebellion against Edward IV.  You would need a heart of stone not to feel empathy and sadness at the treatment of these young girls by the families who were supposed to protect and care for them. We can only guess at how many girls suffered like this during the momentous events which shaped the course of medieval history. Girls who found themselves in no man’s land between warring armies or deserted in plague villages, who were forced to abandon their homes and hide from chevauchee campaigns or caught up in sieges and starved and bombarded into submission whilst trying to carry a baby to full term .

Then there is the religious and social context. Tradition and religious doctrine may impose a particular set of rules and social mores but a child still thinks and feels and understands in a broadly similar way. The lack of personal testimony from medieval children shouldn’t negate our appreciation of their experience of confusion, fear, despair, frustration, anger etc… Does it really take such a leap of imagination to reconstruct their mental processes at being sold in marriage to a stranger who would control their every movement and have the power of life and death over their bodies? Many child brides were sent off on dangerous journeys through hostile territories and exposed to risks and threats before they even met their intended husbands. Their attendants were sometimes sent back leaving them isolated and vulnerable to the will of their new relations in a strange environment and without the comfort of friends and childhood contacts such as nurses or servants who they had developed relationships of trust with. Sometimes they didn’t even speak the language of their adopted country and were even more isolated.

Despite social conditioning and societal mores, don’t we all inwardly long to rebel and break free from the constraints of our own existence and wasn’t that always the case? How can we accept the mentality of the men and women who rose in rebellions or fought for better rights or were prepared to die a hideous death for their faith on the one hand yet fail to acknowledge a shared experience when it comes to an issue like child marriage?

We read the Declaration of Arbroath and feel the stirrings of national pride and personal liberty expressed so eloquently in the wording. If there were men then who felt so passionately about these things and were prepared to lay down their lives for them then didn’t their mothers and sisters and wives and daughters also share these emotions too even if they were swallowed up and silenced by convention and the tide of history?

Perhaps the answer is that we don’t want to acknowledge the realities of their experiences because it would be too painful, too desperate, too unbearably sad to contemplate, so we distance them and de-humanise their experience in order to ‘normalize’ it within the historical context. We do this all the time in our own society – look at the Jimmy Saville case for one example of how we are prepared to block out horrors within our own society so it seems perfectly possible that we do this at a collective level where it comes to the past.

There will be those reading this blog that will disagree with my views on child marriage. Some may see it as perfectly acceptable in their culture and I have to accept that as I believe in freedom of thought and expression. There will be others who disagree with any attempt at comparison between contemporary issues in our world and the experience of girls and women living more than 500 years ago. I have to accept that as well.

Comparative history is always problematic because there are as many ‘contrasts’ as there are comparisons. However, if the testimony of contemporary child brides is true and honest and yet their voices are not heard, their feeling not accounted for, their life experience not considered to be important then I would argue that the same applies to girls who lived long ago. They felt all those things but their experience was ignored and side-lined in just the same way by their own society and no one thought to ask them or listen to their stories.

We can’t do anything about their experiences now except bear witness to them and remember when we read about one of them, just what they might have been thinking and feeling about their lives.

http://womenofhistory.blogspot.co.uk/2007/08/medieval-marriage-childbirth.html

Misuse of the Word “Medieval”: Most Girls Married Old Guys

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Towton, 29th March 1461: The Bloodiest Battle in English History?

December 30, 2021

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Towton is regarded by many historians as the worst battle to ever be fought on English soil in terms of the number of combatants, casualty figures, conditions on the day and treatment of those captured during the rout.

It is always extremely difficult to gauge the reality of the medieval battlefield due to a number of factors. There were other, more ancient battles that were recorded in annals and chronicles which talk of massive numbers of combatants and bloody routs – Boudicca’s last stand on Watling Street in 60-1 AD, the Battle of Brunanburgh in 937 AD and the Battle of Hastings in 1066 for example but how reliable were the figures recorded at the time or later by chroniclers and historians?

Without reliable eye witness accounts and archaeological evidence of mass grave pits, it is difficult to establish exactly how many troops were present, how many were actually killed or maimed in the fight and how many got away or whether the sources were writing from a particular bias – inflating the figures of the enemy to make victory all the more impressive or over-exaggerating casualty figures and atrocities for political ends. This applies to Towton as  much as any other battle, recorded as it was, largely by second-hand sources and in a highly politically charged atmosphere.

In comparison with other battles fought during the Wars of the Roses, the accounts of the battle suggest substantially larger numbers of combatants than any of the other large engagements and massively larger than some of the more well-known battles such as Tewkesbury or Bosworth.

The political situation in the lead up to the battle had seen an escalation in hostility between the two warring factions at court. The Lancastrians, nominally headed by King Henry VI, but more realistically by his queen, Marguerite of Anjou and various high ranking noblemen were pitted against Richard, Duke of York and his allies, Salisbury and Warwick. There had already been several pitched battles between the two sides, with periods of stalemate and faint-hearted reconciliations over a period of six years. Neither side could achieve a decisive result either politically or militarily and the country was failing apart due to poor governance, instability and factional disputes between the great landowners.

The reasons for the much larger numbers probably comes down to time factors – both sides had time to recruit large bodies of men and the importance of recent political events. The Duke of York and his younger son had been killed at Wakefield in December 1460 which was a major blow to the Yorkist cause and also seen as an outrageous act during a period of truce over the Christmas period. York’s eldest son, Edward, now Duke of York, had been proclaimed as king earlier in March 1461 and therefore the country had two rival monarchs and a decisive showdown was brewing which would decide the fate of both claimants to the crown.

Edward wanted revenge for the death of his father and younger brother, Edmund. The circumstances of their deaths added to this desire and made it deeply personal. York’s body had been treated dishonourably after death. He’d been slumped on a ant hill and crowned with a paper crown in mockery of his ambitions to become the next king and their heads had been stuck on spikes on Michelgate bar in York. Lord Clifford had been responsible for the ‘murder’ of Edmund, who had been fleeing with battle with his tutor when he was cornered on a bridge. Despite begging for mercy, the 17 year old had been stabbed in cold blood. The Yorkists were in no mood to offer mercy to their enemies.

Both sides had spent weeks recruiting from their estates. The Lancastrian forces were mostly from the Duchy of Lancaster lands in the north of England and Percy held territories in Northumbria whereas the Yorkists drew their forces from their Southern estates, the London area and retainers in the Welsh marches. There was a real North/ South divide between the opposing forces.

The propaganda war which continued to rage around the two causes also emphasised this geographical divide, playing on the wildness of the northern troops and their atrocities against the civilian population on one side and the treachery and presumption of the rebels against their anointed king on the other. This may be another factor in the treatment of prisoners caught in the rout after the battle and the suspension of mercy shown to the defeated enemy.

How many men fought at Towton?

Several contemporary sources mention the figure of 50,000 combatants in total on the field of battle and possible casualty figures of up to 26,000 which was supposed to have been given by heralds shortly after the battle, who were assigned with the grim task of counting the bodies of the dead on both sides although some degree of estimation must have taken place.  This would equate to 1% of the entire population of the country at this time and is truly shocking.

Edward IV, writing to his mother, Cecily Neville, stated that 20,000 of the dead were Lancastrian which would have been a completely devastating result for their cause, including many leading aristocrats such as Lord Clifford and John Neville, Baron Neville and a bitter blow to the royal party, anxiously awaiting news in York.

The specific mentioning of these two names was no accident. Lord Clifford had been on Edward’s personal hit-list, in revenge for the death of his brother and John Neville had switched sides at Wakefield and perhaps been the cause of Edward’s father’s decision to engage the Lancastrians which had cost him his life. Neville was supposed to be bringing reinforcements but instead joined his enemies. Towton settled many old scores!

Of course, he may have been inflating the scale of his victory, and the account written by the Yorkist George Neville is also at pains to describe the personal bravery and leadership qualities displayed by the young king and his fellow commanders on the field, as you might expect. Nevertheless, the presence of the king on the field and the military skill of Warwick and Salisbury were important factors in the Yorkist victory and should not be under estimated at a time when the rank and file were inspired and encouraged by the example of their field commanders and warfare was up-close and personal.

Edward’s personal military renown was enormously strengthened by the success of Towton and King Henry VI’s weakness and absence from the field only thrown into starker contrast by the day.

Historians continue to debate whether 26,000 can possibly be the correct figure for the number of dead. Calculating the numbers of fighting men that could have been raised in levies and retained by the great noble families it might just to possible for both army to have reached something like 50,000 in total but it is unheard of for over half the total number of combatants to die on the day and this doesn’t even cover those injured but not killed outright.

We do have some hard physical evidence in the form of the Towton burial pit excavations, undertaken by archaeologists at the University of Bradford. A pit containing the remains of 37 men and boys was discovered under land next to Towton Hall during building work in 1996.

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Towton Hall stands about one mile away from the centre of the battlefield. Metal detector finds show a concentration of small finds like buckles, rings, horse harness and spurs in the valley area where contemporary sources said the main engagement took place. The pit at Towton Hall may suggest that the men were either caught fleeing from the battle at that point or taken to the site after death. They were piled into the grave, one on top of the other, packed in tightly and hurriedly with little care and had been stripped naked, either before or immediately after death.

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The remains show the sheer brutality of the carnage at Towton and are thought to be evidence of what we would now class as ‘war crimes’ most probably committed against Lancastrian troops during or after the battle. The skeletal remains show massive trauma injuries, especially to the head, with the victims having been literally bludgeoned to death. One skeleton had thirteen head injuries.

Archaeologists have speculated that these bodies could have been executed after they were captured and may have been tortured prior to their death. Some show marks which suggest that ears and noses had been cut off around the time of death and cut marks on forearms are consistent with wounds found of stabbing victims and suggest attempts to raise their arms to protect their faces and heads or grab at a blade after protective clothing had been removed.

The skeletal remains also indicate the fighting ages of these men – from 16 to 50 years old approximately. Clearly youth was no protection against the application of the pre-battle order that no mercy was to be shown to the defeated.

About one third of the remains were of men who had already experienced battle wounds and indicates the presence of veterans and experienced military professionals. The archaeologists were surprised at the extent of the healed injuries and the skill with which they had been treated which has lead to speculation that some of them men might have been liveried retainers of a noble household who had been trained for many years in the arts of war. (See the evidence of skeleton 16)

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About a quarter of the men had highly developed muscles in their backs and shoulders and bone development in their left arms which indicated that they were archers. We know from contemporary source evidence that both sides employed large numbers of archers who were extremely important in the initial stages of the engagement. The Yorkists were said to have used the cover of falling snow to sneak their archers closer to the Lancastrians and began the battle with a volley of arrows into their ranks, particularly targeting the opposing archers who were usually more lightly armoured than men-at-arms and more vulnerable to arrow wounds. A ten minute arrow storm could have killed between 8,000 – 10,000 and forced the Lancastrians to advance their men-at-arms into the valley.

The grave pit evidence is also complicated by later exhumations of bodies, on the orders of Richard III, who set up a chantry chapel near the site of the battle to pray for the souls of the dead and had many of the bodies removed for re-burial. It would be fascinating if other, undisturbed pits were found to add to our knowledge of what occurred at Towton in the future.

Dr James Ross’s talk (see links at the bottom of this blog) in 2011 describes how the Lancastrian army broke under the pressures of the day despite being larger in number than the Yorkists and on home turf. The Lancastrians even had the advantage of the terrain but as the battle lines swung around 90 degrees during the course of the engagement, they found themselves with the steep slopes of the hill running down to the swollen stream at their backs. This meant that escape was virtually impossible and many drowned in the Cock Beck stream or trying to cross the bridge further North of the battlefield.

Casualty figures might not have been anything like so high if the terrain had been different or the weather conditions not so favourable to the Yorkist forces. The driving sleet and strong wind severely hampered the initial Lancastrian archery volleys, blinding their archers and also hampering their ability to effectively hit targets within range.

Why is Towton relatively unknown compared with other battles fought on English soil?

It seems strange that a battle with such high casualty figures should not be better known to the general public. The site is not well marked – no visitor centre and shop, no café or banners on the hill and not generally marked as other such anniversaries by re-enactments although there is a cross which commemorates the site of the battle and which provides a focus for those who visit.

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Compared to the Medieval Festival weekend at Tewkesbury every year, the anniversary of Towton is only marked by stalwart Wars of the Roses enthusiasts and a small ceremony. Maybe the English climate is partly responsible for this? The battle itself was fought is sleet and snow on a bleak hillside after all!

Perhaps there is also a desire to bury the memory of so great a slaughter of Englishman by fellow Englishman though it does seem strange that it is not more widely known and talked about, especially on the anniversary week.

 

http://media.nationalarchives.gov.uk/index.php/the-battle-of-towton-a-550-year-retrospective-2/

https://www.historyanswers.co.uk/history-of-war/the-bloodiest-battle-fought-on-english-soil/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/this-britain/mass-graves-to-shed-light-on-britains-bloodiest-battle-2247057.html

http://news.bbc.co.uk/local/york/hi/people_and_places/history/newsid_8673000/8673322.stm

http://news.bbc.co.uk/today/hi/today/newsid_9439000/9439389.stm

http://www.historyextra.com/news/richard-iiis-lost-chapel-has-been-found

Andrew Boardman: Towton, The Bloodiest Battle, 2008

George Goodwin: Fatal Colours: Towton, 1461, England’s Most Brutal Battle

 

Jolomo: John Lowrie Morrison OBE

December 30, 2021
Jolomo scottish landscape with passing clouds and croft

Jolomo ‘Dawn Breaks over Isle of Gigha’ oil on canvas 25x46cm (10x16ins) Vivid landscapes saturated with rich colour and dotted with an impression of wild flowers. Passing storm clouds which brood over solitary crofts and distant, dramatic mountains fading into mist with the soft suggestion of a full moon.John Lowrie Morrison or JOLOMO, as he signs his paintings, is one of Scotland’s foremost landscape artists and his new work is always eagerly anticipated by those who have become addicted to his distinctive style and dramatic visual storytelling.

Seascape by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Big Breakers Mangersta Beach, Isle of Lewis 41x41cm (16x16ins)John’s paintings follow in the tradition of the Scottish Colourists – PeploeFergussonHunter and Cadell who drew inspiration from the revolution in art taking place in Paris in the early C20th and the influence of the Fauves in particular, in order to paint the Scottish landscape in a totally new way. Their use of colour and structure can be seen in John’s daring contrast of primary and complimentary pigments and vivid tones and his compositional framing of architectural and natural forms.  There is also a connection with their gestural approach and instinctive application of pigment and experimentation with colour which makes his work so striking and immediate. The Colourists were brave and sometimes considered ‘shocking’ in their choices and that confidence and fluidity of application is one of John’s great strengths as a painter and an intrinsic part of the appeal of his paintings. Painting directly from nature, absorbing the landscape and re-interpreting it in his own distinctive style; just as the Colourists learned to do from their experiences in France of painting ‘en plein air’, gives an immediacy and creates an emotionally charged response in the viewer.

Mull of Kintyre painting by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Eveninglight Over the Mull of Kintyre’ oil on canvas 41x41cms (16x16ins) Like the Colourists, John revels in the beauty of painting with pure pigments that bounce off each other and complement the subject matter to create visually stunning effects and celebrate the ever-changing landscape of his homeland.After completing training in drawing, painting and printmaking at The Glasgow School of Art, John spent many years teaching art in schools in Glasgow and Argyll. A visit to the Chagall  exhibition in Paris in 1969 proved to be influential on the development of John’s use of blue in his early work.  Chagall associated blue with The Virgin Mary and the colour of heaven – an expression of transcendence through pure colour. There is a very spiritual aspect to John’s paintings – the connection between the natural world and a deep human need for beauty and meaning in life and John is a lay preacher for the Church of Scotland, leading worship on a regular basis.

Croft scene with full moon by Jolomo at Iona HOuse Gallery

Jolomo ‘Moonlight on the Machair South Uist’ oil on canvas 30.5×30.5cms (12x12ins) The croft appears as a symbol of endurance against time and the elements; a metaphor for the human condition set against the backdrop of wild nature and eternal forces and this symbol re-occurs frequently in his work. Similarly, the full moon – like Turner’s red dot – has become a quintessential element of many of John’s paintings; a punctuation mark in the composition where the eye rests as it travels over the different elements of the work. The viewer is drawn onto the beach, through the tangled dune grasses and wild flowers by the diagonal line of the pathway and then across the sea to the distant mountains and up into the mass of cumulus clouds which echo the brightness of the sand and provide balance and contrast. The sea is calm and placid but ever-changing, reflecting the sky but also tinged with sea-greens and darker bands of midnight blue which compliment the shades in the grasses and softer, muted tones of the mountains.

Isle of Gigha with the Paps of Jura by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Summerlight Isle of Gigha, Looking to the Paps of Jura’ Oil on canvas 41x41cms (16x16ins) There is a great sense of energy in John’s painting technique – layers of smooth, rich oil paint contrasted with dots and thick impasto, quick mark-making and scratches made with the end of the brush. This style echoes the hurrying clouds and wind-tossed wildness of the Scottish Isles where the landscape is in a constant process of flux as it is buffeted by storms and changing light. These are rugged communities, set off the beaten track, lost in time and his work has an elemental quality which appeals so much to people. There is an other-worldliness to his pieces – both a real and imagined place of heightened colour and perception. John is painting what is and what we would like to be.  Sketching ‘en plein air’ and absorbing the natural energy of these locations and translating that for the viewer into a timeless composition gives his work both an authenticity and magical quality at the same time.

John’s new collection is now available to view on our website at John Lowrie Morrison OBE (Jolomo) – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery

The Empress and the Tower: A Daring Escape from Oxford Castle in 1142

December 29, 2021
Empress Matilda

The Oxford Castle and Prison complex drips with history. Tracing it’s roots back to Anglo-Saxon England and the world of Viking raids and fortified burghs when towns like Oxford faced waves of violence and destruction; the castle has endured sieges, held political prisoners and undergone numerous adaptations as the technology of warfare and defence evolved over the course of a thousand years. It has provided defence and succour to inhabitants, justice and punishment for transgressors, stood with the crown and against it and was a functioning prison until 1997.

There is one particular incident though that will always capture the imagination of the visitor and which provides a direct connection with an individual and their struggle for power in a time of lawless confusion and deep uncertainty – the story of the Empress Matilda and her escape from Oxford Castle, cloaked in white and hidden in a snowstorm across the frozen mill stream in the dead of winter which changed the course of English history.

St George’s Tower, Oxford Castle

In order to understand the context of what has become almost a legend, we need to unravel the political events of the preceding period and what led to this episode and to delve into the psychology of the main players during the period which we now call ‘The Anarchy’.

Matilda was the eldest, legitimate daughter of King Henry I (know as Beauclerc) and his queen Edith Matilda of Scotland. Matilda was raised for greatness and trained in the skills required of a medieval princess in order to make a spectacular marriage, advance her family’s interests, administer huge estates and breed future princes. She carried the blood of her Norman forebears, being a grand-daughter of William the Conqueror but also, through her mother, the bloodline of the ancient Anglo-Saxon kings which was to prove an important factor in her destiny.

Matilda was married at the age of eight to Henry Vth, the Holy Roman Emperor and set out to travel across Europe and learn the finer points of statecraft, religious patronage and how to rule as an imperial consort to one of the most powerful secular rulers in Christendom. She wouldn’t have expected to ever see her homeland again but the fates would create a stony path for Matilda to tread in life.

Henry I was a ruthless and effective medieval king. He had inherited his father’s political acumen and ability to seize control of a situation to his own advantage. He managed to engineer his coronation despite being the youngest son of the conqueror by outmanoeuvring his older brother and incarcerating him for life. There continue to be rumours that Henry may have had a hand in the accidental fatal shooting of William Rufus in the New Forest too though nothing has been proven.

Henry’s weakness lay in the succession. Whilst he had managed to produce numerous illegitimate children with various mistresses who he used to build useful marriage alliances among the Norman lords, he had two legitimate children – Matilda and her younger brother William ‘the Atheling’ (of the royal blood). Henry’s own rise to power proved that being the natural heir alone wasn’t enough to ensure success and the price for failure could be very high when there were other ‘interested’ parties vying for power.

Tragedy struck and changed the course of English history when William the Atheling was drowned in the infamous ‘White Ship’ disaster of 1120 which wrecked his father’s plans, stunned the Anglo-Norman court and sent the country into deep mourning, not only for William but many other victims among the ruling class. Was it a divine judgement on Henry’s rule? Who would the grieving king choose as his successor and was there any possibility of raising another son in time to succeed him or would he look elsewhere to a fit, young adult male of the royal line who could replace his heir?

The White Ship disaster of 1120

Many eyes slid sideways to Stephen of Blois, the son of Henry’s sister Adela and her husband, Stephen Count of Blois. Stephen had miraculously avoided the White Ship disaster by a last minute decision to disembark due to stomach pains and had witnessed the unfolding disaster that would claim the life of his cousin. Some might question this lucky turn of events, yet Stephen was held in high regard by many at court and Henry I seemed to turn to him as a trusted member of his extended family. Stephen would build a reputation for mercy and charming benevolence which perhaps suggests that he was an innocent bystander to events beyond anyone’s control yet it does seem convenient that he was saved at that particular flashpoint which would alter so many other destinies. Henry re-married, the young and beautiful Adeliza of Louvain and tried desperately to produce another son but the royal couple remained childless and Henry was aging.

Stephen of Blois

Meanwhile, Matilda’s destiny was about to be altered too. Having been a successful and respected co-ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, acting as regent for her husband in Italy and establishing herself as a competent ruler, Matilda found herself cast adrift when the emperor died in 1125. As Matilda had not had children and the new Holy Roman Emperor was a former enemy of her husband, she faced the choices of a nunnery or re-marriage to a lesser German prince or return to Normandy and her father’s court. Matilda choose this option and left the glory of her imperial past behind to put her future into her father’s hands.

Henry I expected unquestioning obedience from his now adult and experienced daughter and decided to re-marry her to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou for strategic reasons concerning his lands in Normandy but Matilda was less than delighted at this demotion in status and marriage to a much younger man with a reputation for rashness and even diabolical associations due to the legend of his family’s connections to Melusine, a shape-shifting sorceress! Geoffrey would prove to be a thorn in her side in more ways than one but she had little choice but to submit to the marriage, whatever her personal reservations were.

Geoffrey, Count of Anjou

Despite the marital difficulties and brief separation of Matilda and Geoffrey, she gave birth to a son called Henry after his royal grandfather and King Henry decided to finally concede defeat in the quest for a male heir. In a desperate attempt to secure the succession he compelled his Anglo-Norman barons to swear an oath to uphold Matilda’s claim to be his heir. Medieval oaths were serious and binding, especially when sworn by a feudal vassal to their overlord and Henry hoped that this would be sufficient to ensure that Matilda and her heirs would rule after him but again fate would intervene, for when Henry suddenly took ill and died a few days later at Lyons-la-Forêt in 1135, it was Stephen of Blois who was placed to sail immediately for England and seize the treasury while Matilda was heavily pregnant and unable to make a dash for the coast.

Possession being nine tenth of the law in this case, Stephen managed to pressure or persuade the Archbishop of Canterbury to crown him at lightening speed and garnered sufficient support amongst the barons to take the throne; no doubt arguing that as an adult male of the royal house he was the much better choice over a woman who was about to face the dangers of childbirth and was far enough away to be considered ‘out of the running’. Moreover, Geoffrey’s reputation was enough to caste doubt over his suitability to act as co-regent and many feared he would become the dominant partner, as a wife owed obedience to her husband in all things. Matilda was bound and gagged by the mores of her age, the implied ‘weakness of her sex’ and by the need for a warrior king who could lead his forces into battle despite her many skills, experience and attributes, her doubly royal blood and her strength of character.

It is a testament to Matilda that she fought back, after a very difficult and dangerous birth and Stephen’s seizure of the throne. Matilda may have been at a disadvantage but she still retained the loyalty and support of several key figures including her uncle, King David I of Scotland, her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester and Henry’s widow, Adeliza who offered her a safe landing place on English soil at Arundel in 1139. Matilda was determined to re-claim the throne and secure her position and prepared to risk her own personal safety to achieve it but it was a struggle that would also claim many innocent lives, de-stabilise the country and unleash a culture of violent lawlessness and breakdown in the law which enabled many unscrupulous barons to settle personal grudges, take what they could by force and ride roughshod over the people in the process.

Initial success at the battle of Lincoln in 1141 saw Stephen fall into Matilda’s hands and her victory looked secure but Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne was a powerful opponent and roused a force of Londoners to block Matilda, forcing her to flee the capital on the eve of her coronation; throwing the situation into a desperate race for cover once more. Following the ignominious Rout of Winchester in the same year when Matilda’s brother Robert was captured, she had no choice but to exchange him for Stephen and then in a further reversal of fortune she found herself encircled and under siege at Oxford in the winter of 1142.

After so many tragedies and triumphs, so many broken oaths and fractured relationships, what must Matilda have felt at this crucial moment in her life? She was the daughter of kings and conquerors, the widow of an emperor who had taken on the mantle of queenship and governed from her early years. Her father had been a forceful, astute, utterly focused monarch who had bent his subjects to his will and her mother had been a saintly figure, revered for her grace and piety. Matilda was an unhappy wife, far from any aid that her husband might offer her and separated from her young sons, who’s future depended on her success. She had almost achieved everything that she had longed for to see it snatched away within months and now she was encircled by her enemies in a war-torn country with only a few loyal knights to defend her against what looked like almost certain capture and capitulation. Stephen may not have been the ruthless ruler that her father had been and perhaps she didn’t fear for her actual life yet her mental state must have been desperately low at this moment. The castle couldn’t withstand a siege forever; supplies were running low and in the bitter cold of mid-winter and a ravaged landscape, how could Matilda alter the odds to fight on when she was cut off from relief by Stephen’s forces?

She made a daring plan to escape, making use of the recent snowfall and the castle’s location next to a mill stream which had frozen over. The traditional account and the most dramatic claims that Matilda was lowered down the side of St George’s Tower on knotted bed sheets and cloaked in white where she crossed the frozen stream on ice skates made from animal bones and accompanied by only a couple of her most trusted knights, slipped between the watch fires of Stephen’s forces while they drank the night away. Alternative versions suggest that she may have slipped through a postern gate at the rear of the castle but however she managed to evade capture, she fled to Abingdon and broke Stephen’s hold once more.

Later artist’s impression of Matilda’s escape over the snow in the winter of 1142

Some historians claim that this final effort against all the odds cost Matilda dear and her spirit was broken. There was certainly a stalemate between the two opposing sides that seemed impossible to break. Matilda’s forces were strong in the South-West, Stephen held the South-East and midlands. Neither figurehead could gain control over enough of the barons to secure a decisive victory and both figures had drawbacks attached to their claim. Stephen was considered to be weak and vacillating whereas contemporary chroniclers stressed Matilda’s imperious character and failure to show a proper ‘womanly’ submissiveness to her male advisors thought these were hardly qualities that would have fitted her for queenship but therein lay the problem – could a woman rule in her own right in C12th England?

Either way, Matilda returned to Normandy and concentrated on establishing her son’s claim and, working in conjunction with Geoffrey, to strengthen their holdings in Anjou and build a power base for the future. After all the struggles and bloodshed, economic impact and societal calamities of the Anarchy, when ‘God and his angels slept’, the country wanted a lasting peace settlement and so finally, after the death of Stephen’s son Eustace, Stephen agreed that Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would succeed him and thus end the cousin’s feud.

Had it not been for Matilda’s spirit and courage, her son would never have ushered in the Angevin Empire and English history would have followed a very different course. Henry FitzEmpress would do much to establish the English legal system as we know it. His spectacular marriage to Eleanor of Aquitaine extended the gains made by his great-grandfather from the borders of Scotland to the Pyrenees and his sons would carve out their own niches in history, for good or ill and change the relationship between the barons and the king forever.

So Matilda was, in some respects, the ‘might-have-been’ queen that England never knew. She never became more than ‘Lady of the English’ but she acted as a bridge to a new era and through her tortuous pursuit of her birthright, the country was set on a new course.

If the stones of Oxford Castle could speak to us they would tell a complex and dramatic tale of human history. There has been great suffering within those walls, moments of crisis and conflict, fear and uncertainty and many lives lived on the brink but none more dramatic in the telling than that of Matilda.

Oxford Castle today – St George’s Tower overlooking the prison block

Book Review: Matilda: Empress. Queen. Warrior by Catherine Hanley

July 6, 2021
Front cover image

Catherine Hanley has written an interesting and highly readable re-evaluation of Matilda’s life which does much to tackle to inherent double-standards and unduly critical scholarship which has accumulated over the centuries since she fought for her place in the English royal succession.

Matilda was born into a turbulent age; daughter of an autocratic and ruthlessly determined king who displaced and imprisoned his older brother to seize the throne and during a period of English history where being at the right place at the right time seemed more likely to win you a crown than the laws of primogeniture.

Much of her life was decided for her by others – her father sent her across the sea to be married to the Holy Roman Emperor at just eight years of age; ensuring that she would very see her mother or brother again and having spent her whole adult life in Germany, had her recalled to England after her husband’s death and uprooted from her adopted culture, language and significant personal authority only to bend her to his will once more in the form of another arranged marriage to a teenager of lesser status. Matilda was expected to yield to his wishes and she complied under pressure but in the hope of becoming his elected heir and successor to the throne.

The loss of Matilda’s younger brother, William Aethling in the White Ship disaster had propelled Matilda forward from Countess of Anjou to prospective royal heir as all King Henry’s other sons were illegitimate. Although William the Conqueror had also been famously illegitimate, this seems to have become more of a bar to succession than being female at this point. Robert of Gloucester proved to be exceptionally loyal to his half-sister and her claim and there never seemed to be any serious consideration that he might become king anymore than his other illegitimate siblings.

Although the succession was fluid during this period and there was room for an opportunistic candidate to slip past the front-runner, Henry I did compel the barons to swear an oath of loyalty to Matilda, as his chosen heir. He might have been better placed if he had had her crowned during his life time as the French Capetian kings preferred to do as oath swearing didn’t seem to count for much when it came to honouring those obligations and before Matilda had even heard of her father’s death, she was supplanted in much the same way as Robert Curthose had been in the previous generation by her cousin Stephen of Blois.

King Stephen of Blois

Much has been made of her pregnancy and gender; of her lack of authority and slow reaction to events when Stephen rushed to be crowned, yet Robert Curthose had been returning from crusade and on honeymoon when he was usurped by her father. The divide of the English Channel had played a highly significant part in the course of events in the preceding period of English history and it did so again in this case; slowing the dissemination of news and hampering response times and further, despite the poor timing of the pregnancy and birth, Matilda was in the process of creating another male heir who would, if anything, strengthen her hand in the long-term.

Her father’s choice of husband has been used as another criticism of Matilda’s candidacy and yet she made the best of the situation that was handed to her. Geoffrey of Anjou was certainly not her preferred choice of spouse. He was almost a generation younger than her, immediately alienated her father and put her in an invidious position, caught between loyalty to her father and her husband and was of far less exalted status than her first husband. Their marriage floundered and she tried to break away from his control but was forced to return to her wifely duties and get male heirs, which she accomplished far more easily than her own father had managed. Matilda has been criticised for the rift that Geoffrey created with her father in his final years, yet it was none of her making and she tried to act in the traditional and accepted female role of intercessor between them. Henry made his own problems here by compelling her to join with Geoffrey and failing to see that he would flex his muscles once elevated by the marriage.

Henry also seems to have over-looked how the Anglo-Norman barons would view Matilda’s husband and the role he might play as consort to her once she was Queen of England thus creating another impediment to the smooth transition of the succession which seems at odds with his usually considered and cunning approach to statecraft. Other than providing Matilda with male heirs, Geoffrey seems to have been more of a hindrance to her ambitions than a helpmate and showed little interest in her campaign to assert her claim to the English throne; preferring to carve out an expanded role for himself in Anjou and Normandy where he achieved much military success and proved himself to be a very competent political operator.

So, Matilda reached the crisis moment of her life impeded by the male relatives around her who should have assisted her, except for her half-brother, Robert of Gloucester who rallied to her cause and was to be a loyal and steadfast supporter for the rest of his life.

When Matilda finally sailed for England, she had most of the cards stacked against her. Stephen was a newly anointed king. He held the treasury and the ports. Although he was not ‘born in the purple’ like Matilda had been, he had enough of the Conqueror’s blood in his veins to be a plausible Norman monarch and he was a proven warrior who could fight in the field. In comparison, Matilda was a Countess, she was lacking in funds and soldiers, dependent on a few relatives for support to gain a toehold on English soil and female.

However, Matilda used gender to her advantage from the off-set. Claiming that she was merely visiting her step-mother, she was able to land at Arundel and stay initially with the Queen Dowager, Adeliza of Louvain and her husband and use her gender to prevent Stephen from forcibly seizing her into his custody. He made the decision to allow her to join her half-brother, granting her safe passage through his lands. It is hard to imagine a similar encounter if William Clito, the son of Robert Curthose, had claimed to be ‘just a house guest’ returning to England in the hopes of claiming his place in the royal succession.

Now Matilda was in England, re-united with her greatest supporter and safe in the heartland of his powerbase and in a position to strike out at Stephen who was already torn in several directions trying to put down small scale rebellions.

The problem for both Matilda and Stephen and even more so for the people of England who were about to become embroiled in the long-drawn out agony of the Anarchy was that they were so evenly matched. Neither side could strike the killer blow and establish their authority to rule. Both suffered defeats and sudden reversals of fortune. Matilda managed to win over enough support to raise an army but Stephen countered her with his own supporting barons and their forces. Matilda captured Stephen and appeared to be in the ascendant then had to release him in a exchange for Robert of Gloucester who she could not continue to fight without. Matilda issued charters and minted coins, held councils and demanded fealty; Stephen did the same and all the while England bled with lawlessness and famine and the people suffered with no end in sight.

Matilda was very nearly almost crowned at Westminster but was driven out by a force of Londoners who remained loyal to Stephen, she suffered defeat and rout and was in turn cornered at Oxford but managed a daring escape over the frozen river with a few supporters and got away to safety yet again.

Matilda’s escape from Oxford Castle

Both were worn down by their long battle for control and ultimately time decided the issue where force of arms and oaths and military manoeuvring had not. Despite having an adult male heir to succeed him, Stephen lost his son Eustace which opened up the possibility of a compromise deal whereby Matilda’s son, Henry FitzEmpress would become king after Stephen’s death.

Matilda had to face the bitter reality that she would never be recognised as Queen but could still exercise authority through her young son and Henry FitzEmpress relied on her advice and experience and her diplomatic skills during the early phase of his adulthood. She was to become a model for his own consort, Eleanor of Aquitaine of how a royal woman could administer huge tracts of land and act as a regent for a male relative, which medieval scholars and historians seemed to have no issue with; rather than appearing to rule her territories in her own right.

This is the crux of the issue concerning how Matilda was viewed in her own times and how, in turn, she has been evaluated ever since. Medieval men simply could not accept that a woman could rule in her own right. If she raised armies, laid sieges and defended against them, instructed scorched earth campaigns or instigated high-level diplomacy in the name of a male relative, they generally approved and praised her actions but as soon as she acted in her own name and sought to rule, then the same qualities they praised in a regent were condemned as unnatural and arrogant.

The ‘Gesta Stephani’ praises Stephen’s consort, Matilda of Boulogne for her rigorous actions in defence of her husband but castigated Matilda for exactly the same response to defending her own claims. There is a glaringly substantial double-standard at work here.

Queen Melisande of Jerusalem

The two contemporary female rulers in Christendom, Urracca of Leon and Melisande of Jerusalem were both compelled to marry so that their husbands could take nominal control as figureheads for their rule. They were urged to ‘act like men’ yet hampered from exercising full command and their personal achievements were veiled or actively subsumed in their husband’s actions.

Queen Urracca

Matilda’s training in Germany gave her vast experience of diplomacy and the exercise of power. Her first husband had been keen to train her for governance and entrusted her with huge authority when she was in her teenage years, acting as his regent in Italy. She had lived as an Empress and active consort to the most powerful man in Europe. She had travelled very widely and experienced the papal court in Rome; she had administered lands, governed and issued charters and been a patron and benefactor of the church. She had passed through the rigours of childbirth to ensure three healthy male heirs and achieved military victories which any contemporary male would have been praised for, yet she has been presented to posterity as an arrogant woman who was unsuited to rule England and failed in her attempts to oust the elected king.

I feel that Hanley is correct in her assessment that Matilda has been unfairly criticised and judged in away that her male contemporaries were not and that she is still suffering from those biased sources in the C21st. Whilst she was not without fault and clearly made errors of judgement, she did retain the loyal support of several key figures and ultimately she ensured that her direct bloodline would rule England for the next three centuries. England would have been far better off under her governance than it was under Stephen, despite being a very likeable personality. He would have made a very good lord under Matilda’s Queenship if he had not made the grab for power without having the necessary qualities to make a good king.

There could have been a more in-depth discussion about Matilda’s decision not to withdraw from Winchester when her forces came under attack from Stephen’s and also of why she refused to grant Eustace his estates which has been argued to have weakened her support from some of the barons.

In conclusion, I enjoyed reading this reassessment and would recommend Hanley’s biography which is well-researched and accessible. There is certainly room for more biographies of medieval women and I would like to read more about Stephen’s queen, Matilda of Boulogne, and think a dual assessment of both Matilda’s would be an interesting idea.

JOLOMO: John Lowrie Morrison

June 5, 2021
Jolomo scottish landscape with passing clouds and croft

Jolomo ‘Dawn Breaks over Isle of Gigha’ oil on canvas 25x46cm (10x16ins) Vivid landscapes saturated with rich colour and dotted with an impression of wild flowers. Passing storm clouds which brood over solitary crofts and distant, dramatic mountains fading into mist with the soft suggestion of a full moon. John Lowrie Morrison or JOLOMO, as he signs his paintings, is one of Scotland’s foremost landscape artists and his new work is always eagerly anticipated by those who have become addicted to his distinctive style and dramatic visual storytelling.

Seascape by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Big Breakers Mangersta Beach, Isle of Lewis 41x41cm (16x16ins)John’s paintings follow in the tradition of the Scottish Colourists – PeploeFergussonHunter and Cadell who drew inspiration from the revolution in art taking place in Paris in the early C20th and the influence of the Fauves in particular, in order to paint the Scottish landscape in a totally new way. Their use of colour and structure can be seen in John’s daring contrast of primary and complimentary pigments and vivid tones and his compositional framing of architectural and natural forms.  There is also a connection with their gestural approach and instinctive application of pigment and experimentation with colour which makes his work so striking and immediate. The Colourists were brave and sometimes considered ‘shocking’ in their choices and that confidence and fluidity of application is one of John’s great strengths as a painter and an intrinsic part of the appeal of his paintings. Painting directly from nature, absorbing the landscape and re-interpreting it in his own distinctive style; just as the Colourists learned to do from their experiences in France of painting ‘en plein air’, gives an immediacy and creates an emotionally charged response in the viewer.

Mull of Kintyre painting by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Eveninglight Over the Mull of Kintyre’ oil on canvas 41x41cms (16x16ins) Like the Colourists, John revels in the beauty of painting with pure pigments that bounce off each other and complement the subject matter to create visually stunning effects and celebrate the ever-changing landscape of his homeland.After completing training in drawing, painting and printmaking at The Glasgow School of Art, John spent many years teaching art in schools in Glasgow and Argyll. A visit to the Chagall  exhibition in Paris in 1969 proved to be influential on the development of John’s use of blue in his early work.  Chagall associated blue with The Virgin Mary and the colour of heaven – an expression of transcendence through pure colour. There is a very spiritual aspect to John’s paintings – the connection between the natural world and a deep human need for beauty and meaning in life and John is a lay preacher for the Church of Scotland, leading worship on a regular basis.

Croft scene with full moon by Jolomo at Iona HOuse Gallery

Jolomo ‘Moonlight on the Machair South Uist’ oil on canvas 30.5×30.5cms (12x12ins) The croft appears as a symbol of endurance against time and the elements; a metaphor for the human condition set against the backdrop of wild nature and eternal forces and this symbol re-occurs frequently in his work. Similarly, the full moon – like Turner’s red dot – has become a quintessential element of many of John’s paintings; a punctuation mark in the composition where the eye rests as it travels over the different elements of the work. The viewer is drawn onto the beach, through the tangled dune grasses and wild flowers by the diagonal line of the pathway and then across the sea to the distant mountains and up into the mass of cumulus clouds which echo the brightness of the sand and provide balance and contrast. The sea is calm and placid but ever-changing, reflecting the sky but also tinged with sea-greens and darker bands of midnight blue which compliment the shades in the grasses and softer, muted tones of the mountains.

Isle of Gigha with the Paps of Jura by Jolomo at Iona House Gallery

Jolomo ‘Summerlight Isle of Gigha, Looking to the Paps of Jura’ Oil on canvas 41x41cms (16x16ins) There is a great sense of energy in John’s painting technique – layers of smooth, rich oil paint contrasted with dots and thick impasto, quick mark-making and scratches made with the end of the brush. This style echoes the hurrying clouds and wind-tossed wildness of the Scottish Isles where the landscape is in a constant process of flux as it is buffeted by storms and changing light. These are rugged communities, set off the beaten track, lost in time and his work has an elemental quality which appeals so much to people. There is an other-worldliness to his pieces – both a real and imagined place of heightened colour and perception. John is painting what is and what we would like to be.  Sketching ‘en plein air’ and absorbing the natural energy of these locations and translating that for the viewer into a timeless composition gives his work both an authenticity and magical quality at the same time.

John’s new collection is now available to view on our website at John Lowrie Morrison OBE (Jolomo) – Art and Artists – Iona House Gallery