Archive for December, 2015

Selective Memory: How does contemporary culture influence what we focus on from the past?

December 10, 2015

‘Memory studies is a new field, focused on how nations and groups (and historians) construct and select their memories of the past in order to celebrate (or denounce) key features, thus making a statement of their current values and beliefs. Historians have played a central role in shaping the memories of the past as their work is diffused through popular history books and school textbooks.

Some events in history are so momentous and so imbedded in the cultural framework of society that they will always have a relevance and remain ‘popular’ topics for debate. In British history over the last thousand years we might think of examples such as the Norman Invasion, the Black Death, The Reformation, The Glorious revolution, Empire etc… Although these topics are likely to be relatively well-known by most people interested in British history generally, our perspective on these events is likely to change depending on our particular cultural values and belief systems and also to be discussed and re-evaluated in relation to specific anniversaries or events which seem to share broadly similar patterns.

Online searches suggest a resurgence of interest in ‘The Black Death’ when we experienced the fear of the recent Ebola outbreak  in Africa. How are discussions about medieval pandemics influenced by current social and cultural trends related to globalisation and ethnicity for example and how might those colour our response to the C14th outbreak of Bubonic plague? Our understanding of science and medicine impact on how we view the actions of those caught up in those dreadful events even at a sub-conscious level. Our personal belief system will have a massive impact on how we view plague as a manifestation of divine will or fate or a mutated virus.

The study of history is as subjective and prone to altered interpretation as literary theory or cultural studies despite the pretence of seeking to record events with impartiality and balance which many historians continue to uphold as their core motivation.

Historiography is a fascinating area of history which tends to be ‘invisible’ in much of ‘mainstream’ history yet which underpins every book that we read, ever approach that we make to the past and yet which is not often discussed on blogs and forums or alluded to by historians in their prefaces although they may see themselves as the natural heirs of Macauley or Gibbon or following in the tradition of the Annales School etc…

How much of our individual approach to particular aspects of history or specific events and personalities derives directly from ‘memory studies?’ Are we conscious of making particular choices in what we study based on our value systems?

I would like to open this discussion up to anyone interested in looking at why they take a position or support a historical cause etc… as a bit of fun.

Do you read the Declaration of Arbroath and feel a swelling of national pride (whether you are of Scots origin or not) or see it as the statement of a group of hopeless idealists or even as a dangerous call to arms from traitors to their feudal lord who sought to de-stabilize the state?

‘For as long as but a hundred of us remain alive, never will we on any conditions be brought under English rule. It is not for glory, nor riches, nor honours that we are fighting, but for freedom — for that alone, which no honest man gives up but with life itself.’
From The Declaration of Arbroath 1320.

Declaration of Arbroath

Declaration of Arboath

Do you automatically see through the eyes of the ‘other’ in the historical record? Do you side with the under-dog, form an attachment to the doomed historical figure? Seek ‘justice’ for the wrongs of imperialism?

Thinking back to the way that history was taught  in school in the last generation, do you welcome the changes of approach that have been made and the way that we now view events like conquests and invasions? How much has the Peace Movement changed our view on warfare in the last century? Perhaps you feel that the counter-swing has gone too far now in favour of inclusion and applying modern concepts such as feminist thought to other ages and that this is anachronistic and ‘untrue’? I have taken part in numerous on-line discussion groups and forums where the term ‘political correctness’ has been applied to historical situations. People are often critical of applying C21st values to historical situations yet the same people sometimes use original sources and fail to weigh the bias or prejudice contained within. There is a strong case for saying that what we criticise in others may be our own greatest fault too!

Can you see that you are interested in, say, broader social movements or class and gender issues as a direct result of cultural and social trends within the C20th and C21st which have informed or challenged your views?

The influence of the Annales School of French historians has had a tremendous effect on the way we look at particular events rather than focusing on ‘great men’ and it is interesting to see how many people who post on forums like the FutureLearn courses express more of an interest in the lives of the ordinary people than in the deeds of the kings and nobles.

Advances in archaeology have enabled us, especially through tv documentaries, to get much closer to the lives of people in the past by looking at not only objects and artefacts but also sampling food remains, soil deposits and using DNA information to look at diet and health issues. This has given us unprecedented access to the past beyond blowing the doors off and looting the treasures for great collections as they did in the C18th and C19th.

One of the earliest examples of this type of archaeological impact was the discovery of the Pompeiian forms by Giuseppe Forrelli in 1863. He realised that the volcanic ash held the form of the human victim long after their decomposition so that if he made a small hole in the outer casing and filled this with plaster he could make a cast of the vacuum within the ashy shell, so detailed that we can even make out the folds of cloth on the figures. The use of plaster casts to capture the last agony of those unfortunate souls brought people face to face with the ancient world in the most dramatic and poignant of ways. They add immeasurably to Pliny’s eye witness account of the eruption or to walking though the excavated streets and ruined villas of the town itself because they provide the ‘human interest’ story. The plaster casts are the equivalent of the live footage we have come to expect from rolling news channels whenever there is a disaster or an attack around the world. There is a sense of prurience or voyeurism about looking at these images yet they haunt our imagination and pique our interest too because we are able to reach out to distant lives and make a connection.


Forensic archaeology also gives us the opportunity to reconstruct the faces of specific individuals which perhaps reflects our fascination with ‘image’ as much as the scientific capability to make realistic projections about what someone may have looked like hundreds or thousands of years ago. There is a drive towards the personal in history, in getting under the skin of the individual and an emphasis on psychological profiling which is greatly influenced by the fields of psycho-analysis and psychiatry.

In the opening statement about ‘memory history’ it used the example of nations and wider groups as well as individual historians viewing the past in a particular way for social or political reasons and of course through history this has been done both consciously and sub-consciously for propaganda purposes by successive regimes.

One example might be the cult of King Arthur which came to prominence in the late C15th in England due to a number of factors and coincided with the accession of Henry Tudor to the English throne. There were many reasons why he actively promoted interest in the Arthurian legends and he was not the first medieval monarch to seek to link their regime with this earlier and mythical ‘Golden Age’ of English history. Edward III had also made direct references and allusions to Arthurian chivalry when he formed the Order of the Knights of the Garter in the C14th and held Arthurian inspired tournaments at his court.

Henry Tudor had a shaky hereditary claim to the throne and in referring back to King Arthur he was able to link his own ‘prophetic’ rise with not only the most famous legendary hero-king of English folk lore but also to his most successful and widely esteemed Plantagenet forebear as well. Edward III’s reign was the last beacon of kingship before the slide into disaster and usurpation that started the Wars of the Roses. Henry named his first born son Arthur and insisted on his birthplace at Winchester, the ancient capital of Wessex. His Welsh ancestry fitted well enough with the mystical nature of Arthur’s kingship and the bardic traditions which ran all the way back from his banner of the red dragon to the equally mythical  Cadwallader but the interest in all things Arthurian was a wider movement in society at that time.

The printing revolution meant that Mallory’s ‘Morte D’Arthur’ reached a much wider audience when it was published by Caxton in 1485 and it’s eternal themes of good kingship, justice, love and betrayal, loyalty, brotherhood and the fight between good and evil would always have been popular. However, it may also be significant that it was published in the same year that saw the end of the Plantagenet line of kings, the last king to die on the field of battle and in the era of ‘bastard feudalism’. The chivalric values of the medieval age were in transition and so perhaps it also reflected wider concerns about how to govern and what codes of conduct to emulate.

Caxton was no lover of Richard III as he seemed to have strong links to his patron Sir Anthony Woodville and perhaps to have held a personal grudge against the Ricardian regime despite his earlier relationship with the House of York.

It is interesting to speculate whether Richard might not have utilized the opportunity of the publication of the Morte D’Arthur for his own propaganda purposes if he had survived Bosworth, especially given his interest in literature and chivalric romances. He might well have employed the allusions to prophecy and a new age to his own advantage in a similar way if the story worked on the popular imagination of the times.

As much as the establishment and wider society draw on history for comparisons and emphasize a specific event or personality at certain key moments, it is also true that we can see examples of the suppression of other historical facts which cast a less favourable shadow on contemporary events.

We are perhaps more open to questioning everything than ever before and more willing to argue from all perspectives but it would be interesting to discuss some examples of deliberate or sub-conscious suppression.

Are 50% of the population represented by 50% of the historical narrative in any field of history except feminist theory? It is not so much the bias towards how we view individual female figures in history but the more pervasive sense of absence that we find in wider commentary about events.

One example might be the role of women in the lead up to the Agincourt campaign. Most historians stress the exclusively ‘male’ composition of the Henry’s army and the strict regulations of his campaign which forbade women to follow the army altogether yet women were involved at every strata of society from Princess Catherine down to who actually collected the goose feathers required for the arrows being made in the Tower of London. There is Meg, the blacksmith and armourer who worked alongside her husband William to make weapons and equipment for the campaign. In a tiny aside I read recently that it was common for blacksmith’s wives to work alongside their husbands and that in medieval manuscripts it was often a woman who was called on to make the nails for the crucifixion because her husband baulked at the task.

It is usually presented that Henry and his ‘band of brothers’ went off to war leaving the country behind in the capable hands of his brother John, Duke of Bedford but the day-to-day reality was that the men were only free to take part in these expeditions because their wives and sisters and mothers kept the family business running and defended their property and livestock and reared their children with capability and talent yet without recognition or reward. We still de-value that contribution if we fail to comment on it today or to acknowledge that we might apply the same argument to the Viking raids or the Crusades as well. Men’s relative ‘liberty’ to indulge in war is a direct result of the work of women and always has been. Women regularly worked alongside their husbands, fathers and brothers in many industries and contributed directly to the economy and infrastructure of society yet few history books even comment on their vital importance.

There is a debate raging today about whether ‘women’s history’ or ‘feminist thought’ should be kept separate or integrated into the teaching of history and politics. Some argue that we must study these areas in isolation because of the general trend to sweep over women’s contributions but others demand an integrated approach. Which is more reflective of our current value system? Why should it still even be necessary to debate these points if history is supposed to be inclusive of all aspects of society?

The suppression of particular historical events, like the air-brushing of photographs by the Stalinist regime in Russia during the C20th, speaks volumes about the political motivation of the people actively engaged in the suppression but also about the level of ‘propaganda’ attached to all history. We form our opinions of the past based on sifting through all the available evidence and by weighing the arguments presented to us but what if that evidence has been tampered with or the arguments are selective to begin with? This makes us question the foundations of our knowledge and our capacity to unravel the layers and find anything true at the core.

I have deliberately left many questions unresolved because I am interested in debate and the input from others about their experiences of studying history and their understanding of ‘memory studies’ and what the implications are for our ‘take’ on history.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts….















Jung’s ‘archetypes’ and their function in medieval history.

December 9, 2015

Jungian archetypes

I’ve been interested in ‘archetypes’ for a long time as I am very drawn to myth and to aspects of Jungian psycho-analysis particularly with regard to how we analyse the personalities and character of historical figures.

Often ‘myth’ is classified as something unreal or untrue yet myths also contain the essence of experience and accumulated wisdom or truth carried down for generations and that is why they retain their power to fascinate us. Myth goes hand in hand with the concept of ancient models which are carried in our sub-conscious and applied to our analysis of characters.

‘The term “archetype” has its origins in ancient Greek. The root words are archein, which means “original or old”; and typos, which means “pattern, model or type”. The combined meaning is an “original pattern” of which all other similar persons, objects, or concepts are derived, copied, modeled, or emulated.’

Historical characters can often become ‘mythic’ even within their own life times and many have gone to considerable effort to project a particular image of themselves which can transcend their individuality and make powerful statements about themselves as symbols. One example might be the ‘warrior-king’ which has powerful associations with a patriarchal figure, often a defender of their people and seen as strong, powerful and successful. Secondary associations might be that we view success as a sign of moral judgment; a good king is one who wins wars, protects his realm, destroys his enemies or conquers the lands of others and extends the wealth of his people. Some of us might sub-consciously also equate these attributes with ‘divine favour’ or even something as nebulous as ‘luck’.

These are the positive associations but Jung also thought that there were shadow associations or counter-qualities to each archetype so the ‘warrior-king’ might also conjour up negative feelings of dominance, arrogance, control, oppression or cruelty especially if you view that figure from the perspective of someone who suffered under their rule or who’s land was taken by their expansionist agenda.

ed 1 image

Edward I – the archetypal ‘warrior-king’ but also ‘the hammer of the Scots’

We make a value judgment on whether the ‘warrior-king’ was a defender or an aggressor, whether his cause was just or spurious, whether the level of violence he unleashed in his campaigns was justifiable or not based on which side of the archetype we choose to apply. Ian Mortimer’s books on ‘Edward III: The Perfect King’ and ‘1415’ seem to take the two sides of the warrior-king over the same issue of prosecuting English claims in France. Edward III comes out as the epitome of medieval kingship because of his success in taking lands in France which he claimed were his by right of his mother’s bloodline. He showed sound judgement, clear leadership and inspired loyalty and devotion from his court. He is eulogized for his military victories on the field of battle at Crecy and Poitiers and at Sluys despite the fact that subsequently it became impossible to hold those territories gained and he bankrupted the crown in order to finance his ambitions. The terrible atrocities committed by English troops in France are glossed over. In a similar situation, Henry Vth’s decision to pursue his due and rightful ancestral claims in 1415 which derived from the treaty drawn up during Edward III’s reign are viewed more negatively. Mortimer disputes whether his claims were just and whether he was a war-monger throughout the negotiations with the French in the lead up to the Agincourt campaign.  The same attributes which make Edward great are seen as negative qualities in Henry. He is single-minded and driven, he is ruthless and inflexible and  associated with the expulsion of women and children from Harfleur and their fate thereafter. There seems to be a double standard in the reception of the two kings by this author based on value judgments and the interpretation of the basic factual evidence of their reigns.

Certainly individual reputation becomes overlaid with mythical additions and distortions over time and especially so in the case of controversial figures who’s lives have been analysed again and again by historians, play-wrights, commentators and the general public for many generations. We often see two very divergent views form of these controversial figures. One takes the positive attributes of their archetype and the other forms a reactionary response which sees them from the shadow perspective or vice versa. Heated divisions rage between historians and interest groups, both using the same source evidence to prove their version of the ‘true’ personality of the figure as seen in the recent explosion of debate over Richard III which has stormed through the academic community, the media and social forums. The responses are often emotional, inflexible and unwilling to even consider the possibility of error or uninformed and based on basic presumptions. The most obvious example, in the case of Richard III, being a supposed link between physical deformity and evil which still colours the viewpoint of many, many people today despite all the social advances in the way in which disability or deformity are viewed and talked about in C21st culture. He is defined as the ‘hunchback king’ and that label carries with it a host of unconscious negative associations.

We don’t usually refer to Henry VII as the ‘squint-eyed king’ or to Henry Vth as the ‘Scar-faced king’ so why do so many historians and journalists continue to give such prominence to a physical description of Richard III as if it adds weight to their argument that he was a bad king?

Epithets are extensions of archetypes – ‘Charles, the Bold’, ‘Henry the Law-maker’, ‘Rosamunde, the Fair’, ‘Good King Hal’. These terms are brands applied to the individual in question and hard to shake off. They go beyond the archetypes but are related to them because we form instant value judgments in our reaction to these people and colour our initial understanding of who they were before we have even studied them.

Jung argued that we all carry an unconscious set of archetypal characters in our heads and when we listen to stories or historical narratives we unconsciously associate the descriptions of certain figures with one or more of these. We begin to build this gallery of archetypes from our earliest childhood experiences of processing the information contained in fairy tales, folk legends and nursery rhymes and we need to try and make these unconscious connections because we are striving for order in a complex and difficult world. These unconscious archetypes reside in the more primitive part of our consciousness, possibly because they are associated with other basic drives like attraction and fear which have kept our ancestors alive for thousands of years. In the same way as we make unconscious and immediate judgments based on appearance and then aural feedback and only a factional 10% on the actual content of the information being given due to need to make quick decisions about whether to trust a stranger, whether you should flee or fight. Whether we should trust or dis-trust.

‘The archetypes form a dynamic substratum common to all humanity, upon the foundation of which each individual builds his own experience of life, colouring them with his unique culture, personality and life events. Thus, while archetypes themselves may be conceived as a relative few innate nebulous forms, from these may arise innumerable images, symbols and patterns of behavior. While the emerging images and forms are apprehended consciously, the archetypes which inform them are elementary structures which are unconscious and impossible to apprehend.’

So, beyond the basic archetypes we need to take account of variations and additions based on our own cultural, political or religious background too and of wider social stereotyping as well which all feed into our collective unconscious.

To take one example which has been applied to female rulers during the medieval period, we can see how the term ‘she-wolves’ has influenced the way in which these women are perceived by historians, journalists, commentators, and society in general. Would there be a similar term for male rulers during the medieval period? Why not? What does the term unconsciously summon up and what associations might we immediately make based on reading or hearing this term when we make initial judgments about the way in which these individual women are grouped together? Does the power of the term over-ride other archetypes which these women might have fitted into and why do historians continue to use these terms if they purport to want to look at the person in a rounded and impartial way?

Helen Castor’s book ‘She-Wolves’ is a fantastic read and she makes a strong case for the need to question our perceptions about a small group of women who have all been labelled and classified in this way because the term clouds our judgement in relation to how we view their actions or even their physical appearance. She also stresses that the original source evidence that is used by historians to build a picture of them is distorted to a significant degree by contemporary archetypes and therefore must be weighed as fundamentally biased and unsound. Are the archetypes intrinsically sexist? I think there is undoubtedly a gender-based inference to most of them – the maiden, the hero, the magician etc…. Therefore if we see a woman in a traditionally male archetype does that throw out the shadow qualities – what was positive in a male ruler – strength, judgement, decisiveness becomes negative in a female one – dominant, opinionated, hasty. Look at the case of the Empress Matilda and you see contemporary chroniclers criticizing her for acting like a man, failing to take council, making decisions for herself and demanding respect. How else do you rule in the C12th yet because of her sex she has been seen through C12th male eyes ever since.


The Empress Matilda, judged for displaying the negative shadows of positive male attributes linked to leadership and power

On the flip side look at Henry VIth. Compared to other male rulers he is seen as weak, unsuited to authority, emasculated yet if he had been a queen consort history might have judged him very differently. His gentle spirit and desire for modesty and peace would have been lauded as suitably mutable qualities in a medieval female though his lack of offspring would certainly have been held against him if he had been a royal wife! By contrast, Marguerite of Anjou, his queen who took on running the Lancastrian regime due to his incapacity to rule through mental illness has been lambasted for displaying the negative side of leadership. She is the corrupt harpy, the arrogant, shrewish woman who should have left it to the men to govern. She is often portrayed as ‘cruel’ when male counterparts ordered equally terrible executions or presided over destructive armies but are viewed less negatively. This is partly due to contemporary bias in the sources, partly due to a very deeply held belief that women should be nurturing and merciful, intercessors and diplomats not military strategists or political figures and even that vengeance is a less negative quality in a man than in a woman.

Royal 15 E VI  f. 2v  Presentation scene

Marguerite of Anjou – ‘She-wolf’ or leader?

Archetypes are pejorative – they cause us to make assumptions or to defend the individual against these and that immediately colours the way in which we view them and the actions which we believe they took in life.

The duality implied by each archetype and shadow narrows our capacity to see a ‘rainbow’ interpretation of a particular figure which is probably the closest we can ever get to the reality of their true personality. People are a complex prism of different drives and emotions and we seek to categorize and label in order to try and find order in what is usually a very dis-ordered and contradictory set of character traits and motivations.

Jung’s theory goes deeper than one archetype per person:

Jung’s main archetypes are not ‘types’ in the way that each person may be classified as one or the other. Rather, we each have all basic archetypes within us. He listed four main forms of archetypes:

The shadow –

We may see the shadow in others and, if we dare, know it in ourselves. Mostly, however, we deny it in ourselves and project it onto others. It can also have a life of its own, asthe Other. A powerful goal that some undertake is to re-integrate the shadow, the dark side, and the light of the ‘real’ self. If this can be done effectively, then we can become ‘whole’ once again, bringing together that which was once split from us.

Our shadow may appear in dreams, hallucinations and musings, often as something or someone who is bad, fearsome or despicable in some way. It may seduce through false friendship or threaten with callous disregard. Encounters with it, as an aspect of the subconscious, may reveal deeper thoughts and fears. It may also take over direct physical action when the person is confused, dazed or drugged.

The Anima and Animus –

The second most prevalent pattern is that of the Anima (female) / Animus (male), or, more simply, the Soul, and is the route to communication with the collective unconscious. The anima/animus represents our true self, as opposed to the masks we wear every day and is the source of our creativity.

These archetypes may appear as someone exotic or unusual in some way, perhaps with amazing skills and powers. In fiction, heroes, super-heroes and gods may represent these powerful beings and awaken in us the sense of omnipotence that we knew in that very early neonatal phase.

Anima and animus are female and male principles that represent this deep difference. Whilst men have a fundamental animus and women an anima, each may also have the other, just as men have a feminine side and women a masculine. Jung saw men as having one dominant anima, contributed to by female members of his family, whilst women have a more complex, variable animus, perhaps made of several parts.

Jung theorized the development of the anima/animus as beginning with infant projection onto the mother, then projecting onto prospective partners until a lasting relationship can be found.

The Self –

For Jung, the self is not just ‘me’ but God. It is the spirit that connects and is part of the universe. It is the coherent whole that unifies both consciousness and unconsciousness. It may be found elsewhere in such principles as nirvana and ecstatic harmony. It is perhaps what Jaques Lacan called ‘the real’.

Jung described creation of the self as a process of individuation, where all aspects are brought together as one. Thus ‘re-birth’ is returning to the wholeness of birth, before we start to split our selves into many parts.

As an experiment we may imagine a series of royal images around the outside of a circle with a series of archetypes attached to a spinner in the centre. Imagine we have some of the key players in late C15th English politics around the outside – Marguerite of Anjou, Margaret Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville, Cecily Neville, Elizabeth of York. All female so that we remove the need for gender-application between each individual but apply gender influenced archetypes and then we spin the archetypes – mother, maiden, seeress, the innocent, the care giver. Where the spinner stops try and see the individual from the positive perspective of their assigned archetype, then from the shadow perspective. Now apply a series of ‘male’ archetypes, hero, sage, rebel, the explorer etc…and do the same. Have your perceptions been challenged and can you find sufficient ‘evidence’ to attach to each archetype if you look for it closely enough in the source evidence? Are some figures stuck in a particular archetype due to how long they lived or what we most associate them with? All these women were maidens once, all became mothers yet some seem to often be defined by a particular stage in their life.

But aren’t the archetypes an unhelpful constriction, nebulous though Jung admitted them to being? By applying these rules to the way in which we view historical figures aren’t we in danger of creating pantomime characters rather than rounded human souls? Isn’t it possible to take a more sophisticated and multi-dimensional approach in the C21st? Surely we’ve done ‘Marxist history’ and ‘Whig’ history and ‘Total history’ and ‘Feminist history’ and even talked about the ‘end of history’ as we approached the millennium so shouldn’t we be moving beyond the narrow application of any one set of types or political agendas in the way that we approach viewing the past?

How far can anyone born in the C20th truly understand a C15th mindset when our experience of the world is so incredibly different? Our exposure to science, our relationship with faith and society, our links to nature and understanding of mortality are all so fundamentally different. None of us act in a vacuum and therefore to understand each other we also need to account for the people close to us who formed and shaped us and reacted to us throughout their lives.

In order to understand historical figures we need to know what was whispered into their ears when they fell asleep as children, what nightmares haunted them in the dark hours, which saints protected them, who bullied them and who inspired them. Where did they turn for comfort or security and how afraid were they of what lay beyond the final threshold?

Any historical analysis which fails to grasp the essential ‘humanity’ of their lives fails at the most basis level and therefore we must approach each of them intuitively, cautiously, as we might a traumatized child who we seek to understand and assist. There is always room for compassion and empathy but not for white-washing or hero-worship. Judgments are usually flawed because we can not know what other factors weighed in the original decision and may very well be overlooking a crucially important piece of information which is now lost to us or even something as inconsequential as a moment of lost concentration or physical impairment. Sometimes we all snap because we are over-tired or fail our friends because we are pre-occupied with a random thought. These lapses are magnified when the stakes are high and yet can we blame and judge others when our own mistakes do not have such enormous consequences?

For every action we could write multiple analyses of why each character acted or reacted as they did. Reaction is often overlooked in the desire to write historical narrative – some take the example of the death of Edward IV in April 1483 and create a ‘plausible’ narrative which sets Richard of Gloucester as the prime ‘actor’ while others see him as a passive reactionary figure which completely changes the way in which we construe the course of events. Some see him as the motivator – using Hastings and Buckingham to his own advantage, others see them as the motivators – the author of the letter which urged him to intercept the prince, the supporter who offered to bring troops with him to combat the Woodville threat etc… Cause and effect, aggressors and defenders, movers and pawns. It all depends on your perception of events and most historians want to connect facts with argument so they choose a perspective and stick to it whereas the reality may well have been much more muddled and conflicted.

Fear and desire, chance and bad luck all play a part in what lead those people to their fates. Historians need the wisdom to understand that lives are inter-woven with these core drives beyond the control of those caught up in events and that all of the players were as subject to external forces which made them struggle and doubt and despair and hope and connive in equal measure as we all do in our daily lives.

Are we able to over-ride our primitive brains and see a ‘rainbow’ of attributes and characteristics? Are we able to disentangle the source evidence from layers of bias and preconceptions and weigh the evidence that it gives us with impartiality and balance? Are we able to see both the context in which a person operated and at the same time free them from the constraints of their age and our own?

These are huge challenges for the historian because they take us to the roots of how we all experience the world. They ask us to question our core reactions and to juggle a mass of conflicting and contradictory information and most crucially of all, they demand that we are humble enough to admit to uncertainty and error and often the absence of a clear argument or answer to a question but at least we would approach the study of history with honesty and endeavor to search for the ‘truth’, whatever that might turn out to be!




Images of Power: Royal iconography during the Plantagenet period

December 4, 2015

Combining my two great loves, history and art, I want to look at some of the imagery used to depict Plantagenet kings during the period and taking a few examples examine what the visual language may be telling us about how kingship was viewed and how the kings themselves wanted to be perceived.

Imagery as propaganda – of course, imagery linked to concepts of status and power – certainly, imagery as a means of establishing a link with another age – well that’s much more subjective yet many of us might admit to studying the faces of those kings whether it be on their tomb effigies or in portraits which have survived and longing to understand them or to read something of their drives and motivations from the shading and stance, the lines on their faces and the expression of their gaze. This is a very understandable human response to the mystery of their real personalities and the desire to understand the psychological influences which formed them as human beings.

How much of our relationship with these kings is influenced by visual representations which have survived even at a sub-conscious level? Has our relationship with image changed so much over time?

We are told that the medieval period was highly ‘visual’, many could not read or write and therefore the language of imagery held a special significance and power whether that be in terms of religious experience, daily life, in warfare or in death.

People drew comfort and solace from meditating on images of saints and holy figures in stained glass, painted wall art, statuary or textiles or in pouring over the images of illuminated manuscripts and books of hours among the elite class and understood and experienced the imagery of religious art at both a collectively spiritual and deeply personal level.

King York

Medieval king in stained glass, York Minster

Pagentry and ‘show’ were essential as demonstrations of status and power and even routine events like serving dinner became ritualized visual spectacles with symbolic meaning. Power and patronage were inextricably bound up with the visual, from salt cellars and coats of arms to particular colours chosen to adorn the room or the persons of the guests. Elaborate food presentation, elaborate visual courtesies and allegory were woven into the fabric of life.

Richard II Feast

Richard II dining with the dukes of York, Gloucester and Ireland

On the field of battle too there were visual signs to be read and absorbed everywhere. Recognizing heraldry and being awed by the visual display of armour and weaponry were essential to the whole procedure of war and visual symbols became imbued with multiple layers of meaning and significance for those taking part. Personal badges, like mottos, were chosen for their significance and yet their meaning was also ambiguous and personal to their owners. Servants wore the livery badge of their lord or king and affiliations grew up around these powerful figures who were identified by these symbols as well as by their names and heraldic coats of arms.

Edward III and Black Prince

Edward III and the Black Prince, wearing crowns and the royal arms including the lillies of France, depicted as warrior princes

Kings were represented in many forms – on seals, coinage, in manuscripts, as sculpture, on altarpieces, in books of hours, in tapestries and formal portraits and occasionally as caricatures. They were sometimes so symbolic as to be interchangeable; images of kingship which transcended the particular person holding the office and at other times intensely personal, as on their tomb effigies, yet almost always recognizable by the trappings of royalty, whether that be the crown, orb and sceptre, kingly armour or robes of state which they wore.

doom image

Doom painting depicting a mixture of social orders including kings and bishop being dragged down to Hell

Visual language remains a complex area of human experience, open to many interpretations. There is a mystical element in deciphering exactly what was intended by the creator or how it may be interpreted by the viewer and given the passage of hundreds of years of changing perceptions it is debatable how closely we can ever look with the eyes of those who first saw and absorbed these visual images. For all our knowledge of allegory and allusion, our understanding of christian teaching and ability to relate specific spiritual references to individual kings, it is this mystery at the heart of imagery which makes it so tantalizing and fascinating to study. We must ‘feel’ our way towards understanding intuitively and acknowledge the subjectivity of our approach.

We are also a very ‘visual’ age, we absorb multiple images at breakneck speed,  zigzagging between emotional responses and conflicting mental processes often with alarming and unsettling consequences for our personal well-being. Few of us today have the luxury of meditating upon one image as we imagine they did or noticing the subtle visual language of the world as we try to process the mass of visual information around us, cluttered with commercial advertising and political propaganda and  viewed through multiple media formats yet we still produce artists who work in intricate detail and poets who stop to look at the ivy on the wall and distill their experience into a few apt words.

In our efforts to bridge the great divide between their world and ours, perhaps we are able to catch brief glimpses which illuminate our understanding and also allow us to question preconceptions about how medieval people saw and processed what they saw and what that tells us about the iconography of medieval kingship.

Medieval Kingship as ‘symbol’:

Edward I seal

This is Edward I’s great seal. He stands on royal lions or leopards and holds an orb and sceptre whilst being seated on his throne as  symbol of his authority and judgement.

Edward III seal

This is Edward III’s great seal. The king is shown in armour with a drawn sword which symbolizes both justice and the rightful defense of his realm.

The format of these great seals remained unchanged throughout the period. The seal was two sided, representing the two core responsibilities of kingship; namely to dispense justice and uphold the law; represented by the seated king on his throne with the orb and sceptre and to defend their kingdom on the field of battle; shown as a warrior leader on horseback with sword and shield and great helm. The wording running around the edge of the seal holds the key to which particular king is being represented but other than stylistic variations which might allow the viewer to date the image, the kings could be interchangeable. This is symbolic kingship through visual imagery representing continuity and permanence, divinely appointed authority and a pact made between the ruler and his people. Seals were a visual and legal affirmation of the king’s will and consent but always represented through images of authority and leadership.


Illuminated manuscript showing King Stephen, Henry II, Richard I and King John as patrons

In this manuscript image we have four kings holding models of building projects that they were associated with. There is no attempt to depict each king distinctly, they are again symbolic representations of kingship in an idealized format. Just as with the seals these are kings enthroned and crowned, pious and ordered, responsible for constructing beautiful buildings to the glory of God and symbols of permanence and durability, stability and civilization. They are patrons and benefactors as good kings should be. They are models as much as the buildings they are holding of values and relationships which transcended a particular individual although each king favoured his own projects and developed a personal connection with specific locations and monastic orders.

Of course in an age before photography many of the artists who depicted a particular king may never have seen him in the flesh or even been alive at the same time as some of the rulers they were painting so a certain amount of ‘artistic licence’ must be accounted for in how they chose to portray a specific individual monarch. They might attempt to show a particular fashion – many portraits of Richard II show him with a forked beard including his tomb effigy – yet the facial features are so indistinct as to be interchangeable with any other figure in the same manuscript. Illuminators each had a ‘house style’ which becomes instantly recognizable to the trained eye – a Froissart illustration, for example, or a scene from the Luttrel Psalter is instantly identified by the style of the illustrations in the margins as well as the colour palette used. We know who is being depicted by the context, the clothes they wear, the setting in which they appear etc rather than by any attempt at realistic ‘portraiture.’

Similarly in coinage it would be hard to name the specific monarch without the presence of lettering or some other means of identifying the individual. Plantagenet kings remain wearing the same open crown and curly haired ‘bob’ for hundreds of years on groats and pennies.

ed 1 groat

Edward I groat

HVI groat

Henry VI groat

Heraldry is another way in which we are able to identify particular kings as they are associated with particular heraldic coats of arms or badges. One example is the image of King Richard II on the Wilton Diptych. He is shown as a young king around the time of his coronation, surrounded by saints who are associated with him because they held a particular significance for him personally and in the case of St Edward the Confessor because he was also a King of England. Richard kneels in adoration before the Virgin Mary and Christ child who are surrounded by angels. Each angel wears Richard’s personal badge of the white hart as does the king himself at the neck of his ornate gown. The imagery seems to suggest that there is a harmony between Heaven and Earth, between the king and his heavenly intercessors. As the format of a diptych proscribes, there is a balance between the two panels, between kingship and divinity, between those who have lived on Earth and those who dwell in heaven. Richard’s livery badge is symbolic on several levels, as a personal emblem but also as an indicator of affiliation. The angels are affiliated with the king as they bow around the Holy Virgin and Child and present Richard to her thus demonstrating his divine favour. The saints line up behind him too as an expression of his piety and their support and St Edward holds up the royal ring, the symbol of the union between the king and his people under God. The flag of St George is a further visual symbol which implies that heaven favours England in particular as well as specifically Richard as king. The golden background on both panels suggests that all those present are removed from the temporal world and elevated into the heavenly world of golden light.


Richard II and the Wilton Diptych

If we compare this image with Richard II’s tomb effigy there are some interesting points. This double effigy was commissioned during his lifetime around 1395 to represent himself and his first queen, Anne of Bohemia, and was to be modeled on the ‘corps’ or body of the king, so therefore presumably as close to lifelike as possible in representing the mature king shortly before his death. Richard wears no crown which might strike us a little surprising for a king who seemed at great pains to demonstrate his royalty whenever he was portrayed. The link below discussed the other famous portrait of him which is kept at Westminster Abbey and depicts him crowned and enthroned with orb and sceptre and notes the story that he would sit ‘ostentatiously’ on his throne in full majesty and command anyone who his eye fell upon to kneel before him. Edward III’s effigy also shows the king bareheaded so perhaps Richard was influenced in his decision by that striking and strangely ‘mystical’ representation of his grandfather which gives Edward III the feeling of a wizard as much as a king. Richard’s usurper, Henry IV, certainly made sure he was wearing a crown for all eternity on his effigy tomb at Canterbury.

Majesty with humility. Both images indicate his status by the rich robes he wears and the crown on the kneeling Richard but both are also pious before the greater authority of the divine. Whether Richard is physically kneeling or staring up at a canopy where there are symbols of divinity, it is essential that the image of the king is presented as both majestic and yet suitably awed before the Kingdom of Heaven.

Richard came to the throne as a child and therefore it is not unsurprising that the Wilton image has a very boyish flavour. He looks delicate and almost feminine with long fingers and rosy cheeks and appears smaller than the supporting saints behind him. In contrast the tomb effigy should represent him as a grown man yet there is still a lack of virility in the image despite the wider face and forked beard. How much of our ‘reading’ of the image in overlaid with our knowledge of his kingship and fate and how would contemporaries have viewed this effigy both before and after his deposition and death?


effigy tomb of Richard II and Anne of Bohemia in the Shrine of St Edward the Confessor, Westminster Abbey

Plantagenet kings chose to be clothed in robes of state in death rather than in armour despite the martial achievements of many of them. Edward I has no effigy, just a slab top tomb inscribed with –  “Edwardus Primus Scotorum Malleus. Pactum Serva” (Edward the First, Hammer of the Scots. Keep Troth) but Edward III and Henry Vth both have effigies without armour. Probably the closest armoured effigy tomb to the actual throne is of ‘The Black Prince’ again in Canterbury with his achievements hung over his tomb. In contrast with the royal tombs at Westminster he looks both impressively martial and uncomfortable lying stiffly in full harness with his finger tips touching beneath his studded gauntlets.

black prince

The Black Prince at Canterbury

The royal effigies are remarkable for their lifelike quality and in the details of the gently flowing drapery of their figures. Great kings were above the knightly class who gloried in intricately detailed renditions of their costly harness as a means of demonstrating their status and military accomplishments in life. Kings were closer to the saints and to God and perhaps wanted to rest for eternity in greater style and comfort in their coronations robes like Edward III. The significance of the coronation as the defining moment of their lives can not be underestimated nor the compulsion to refer back to it again and again in the iconography of kingship. The throne, the orb and sceptres as well as the crown and robes appear over and over again in the images which we associate with these kings as a means of defining them and giving credibility to their authority.

Edward III tomb effigy, WEstminster Abbey

Edward III in his coronation robes. His effigy may have been modeled on the wooden funeral effigy taken from a death mask

Edward III’s effigy is fascinating because it shows the king in age with a lined face. We still have the wooden funeral effigy which was made to top his coffin on it’s last journey to Westminster and was modeled on his death mask. The drooping line of his mouth suggest that he may have suffered from a stroke (probably a series of strokes according to accounts of his last days). The modelling of the brow line and eyes certainly seems to follow the form of the wooden effigy and therefore may again be pretty realistic even though the treatment of his hair is stylized as with the other royal tomb effigies.

Edward III funeral effigy head & shoulders, Westminster Abbey Mu

This link gives more detail on Edward III’s tomb effigy at Westminster

The design of royal tombs within the shrine of St Edward the Confessor conform to a similar style of presentation even allowing for individual representations in order to give a sense of harmony in the space and also again a feeling of unity and continuity among Plantagenet kings. To be included in this most holy and significant of places was a fitting honour for those who shared a bloodline and the burdens of kingship so it was fitting that their tombs should echo one another even within the conventions of their age.

Portraiture is the most obvious source of royal imagery and yet beset with problems when it comes to reaching out to the person of the king. The Golden Age of court portraiture was yet to come. The breathable portraits of Hans Holbein would have been a wonderful resource for us if he had been able to sketch the Plantagenets but sadly those portraits that survive are usually later copies of originals that are now lost to history and often frustrate as much as they tantalize us. They seems irritatingly two-dimensional and unsatisfying compared with tomb effigies. More like pub signs than windows into the king’s soul. Here are a few examples:


Henry IV


Henry Vth


Henry VIth

These three Lancastrian rulers wear chains of office, one holds a sceptre, much is made of fine hands and rings, only Henry IV makes eye contact with the viewer which feels like a challenge. Henry Vth may have been painted in profile to disguise the jagged scar beside his nose which he received at the Battle of Shrewsbury. Many read into this portrait the outward signs of his determination of character in the lantern jaw and passionately thickset lips. Henry VIth seems gentle and passive but how much of that is due to overlaid reading based on our knowledge of his character and ultimate fate and how much due to the wide-eyed vacancy of the image and parted lips? If we knew nothing about him would we view the image differently? Would we even know he was a king by the clothes and jewellery that he is wearing?

Later portrait artists created whole sets of royal images, usually based on a few lost originals to decorate the panelling of stately homes and the houses of the ‘noveau riches’ families who sprang up during the Elizabethan and Stuart monarchs. Many of these images now pop up when you search online or appear on the cover of historical biographies as if they represent the true character of the kings they seek to portray yet most are, at best, a poor copy of a copy of an original and how close were those original portraits to the reality of the person they portrayed? Kings liked to be flattered and portraits were often commissioned for a  specific purpose – to be seen by a specific audience for a specific reason such as during marriage negotiations when the king might be forgiven for wanting to look his best! Are they any less formal or ‘symbolic’ in nature than other images of kings or seals or coinage?

I think it is fairly safe to assume that later artists altered some of the images of medieval kings as well. The most obvious example of this with heavy overtones of political propaganda is the portraiture of Richard III which we know was altered significantly after his death by Tudor painters in order to give him a noticeable hunchback and sometimes the suggestion of a withered or distorted arm. X-ray photography allows us to see where the line of his shoulder has been heightened and his fingers made to look distorted but also there are more subtle details like the lines around the mouth and thinning of his lips to make him look both older and more stern.

R III back

Richard III with distorted shoulder which was over-painted after the original portrait was completed

This painting which is housed in the National Portrait Gallery has been tree-ring dated to the late C16th but may be based on an original which is now lost. Like the painting of Richard shown below the collar of his robe has the same pattern of circular rings though his cap badge is not the same yet the visual impression is completely different. It is, of course, possible that one was painted before he became king and the other later when grief and the burdens of kingship had taken their toll but as he died at the age of 32 it would appear that someone was at pains to age him in these later Tudor portraits.


Portrait which shows a more youthful and open expression on his face

This link to the Richard III Society page goes into more detail about the way in which portraits of the king were later distorted for political purposes.

This recently restored portrait may be closer to the reality of Richard as he was at the end of his life. He appears slight and there is a suggestion of irregularity in the shoulder line but he looks young though pale and drawn. It is thought that this portrait may have been specifically commissioned by Richard after the death of his queen, Anne Neville, as part of negotiations for a Portuguese marriage alliance.


Recently restored portrait of Richard III which may have been commissioned as a negotiation aid for a potential marriage alliance with Portugal

The recent discovery of his skeletal remains and reconstruction based on his skull gives us the rare opportunity to compare a 70% accurate representation with contemporary portraiture and there are some striking similarities.


Looking at Richard’s skull we can see that the National Gallery portrait does prove a good match with his jawline and eye setting. The reconstructed head also matches these features though the nose had to be constructed based on approximate measurements as soft tissue is lost over time. Like the death mask of Edward III it is close enough to be recognizably the likeness of the person even given variables of eye and hair colour.

recon head

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So perhaps some of the likenesses we have are close enough to the reality of the kings they represent for us to pick them out in a room yet still tantalizingly opaque when it comes to inference. Do we see what we want to see and wasn’t that always the case? By the end of the Plantagenet period the ideology of the Renaissance was having an impact on the way in which portraits were painted. Not only was there greater emphasis on realism in skin texture, cloth and form and perspective but also the ideals of humanism were changing the way in which portraits were being painted. Perhaps we can allow a tiny element of this desire for ‘artistic truth’ to colour our response to how Tudor painters thought Richard III should be depicted based on what they believed to be the real nature of his physical appearance in the same way that Henry Tudor was portrayed with a squint in his eye even by his court artist. The king as an ‘icon’ was starting to give way to the king as both a man and a majestic presence. These kings wear soft caps and chains of office but their kingship is not immediately obvious. They look pensive and care worn and perhaps less invincible than the images of their predecessors but are even more fascinating for the complexity of their imagery.

Of course these kings would probably have been horrified at any suggestion of implied ‘weakness’ or transparency in their portraiture. A king needed to assume a public ‘mask’ in order to impress and awe his subjects. We are told by a court ambassador how Henry VII created an aura of majesty about him by his stillness and composure combined with wearing very expensive jewels and rich robes. Whatever he may have lacked in personal charisma he was at pains to compensate for by assuming a regal countenance and bearing.

In the Tudor period we see how reality and symbolism took on a new level of definition in the portraits of Henry VIII. The tyrant is clearly in the room but it is dressed in such magnificence that no-one would dare to look directly at it for fear of being blinded. Henry may not always wear a crown but his bestrides the canvas like a God. When you analyse his facial features we can see that the painters were true, he is fat and his mouth is pinched. His face is puffy and unhealthy and his eyes increasingly narrowed but he is presented in such a package of splendour and opulent display that the man is lost in the illusion of power.

So then, images of medieval kingship across a range of media, all deeply influenced by the nature of power and the relationship between the office of monarch and the visual imagery of their times. Kings as icons and symbols, kings as mediators between the unknowable realm of heaven and Earthly mortality, kings as patrons and benefactors, as law givers and warrior leaders, kings as symbols of continuity and permanence and sometimes just glimpses of the real men beneath the majestic facade.

We can never know what their images meant to their contemporaries, how much their subjects revered or despised their iconography, how much people thought about their kings as real people rather than as leaders or semi-divine presences on Earth. The fascination remains though with every depiction of our Plantagenet kings, the niggling desire to look at the devil in the detail and try to make connections with men who we have read so much about and yet who still remain such enigmas.