The New World history painting meets the Old World – Benjamin West

Benjamin West – the Death of General Wolf.

When I was at school history was divided into the study of Old World History and the New World – as in The Americas – when I was a child nothing much happened there before 1492 in the new world, apart from the occasional episode relating to bloodthirsty Aztecs. Africa, Europe and Asia came under the Old World heading as those continents had been known since antiquity. Of course, the truth is that the continents all the same age, it was simply that when Columbus turned up, if we discount the Vikings, the Americas were new to the explorers.

In time the inhabitants of the so called New World started to interpret events in the Old World. Benjamin West was born in Pennsylvania but eventually settled in London when two wealthy families paid for him to travel to Europe. In time he would teach a generation of American artists who travelled to London and then returned to America.

He learned to make paints from a group of Indigenous Americans when he was a child and between 1746 and 1759, having taught himself how to paint, worked on portraits. From there he travelled to Europe and studied the works of the great Italian artists. Finally in 1772 King George III (yes the mad one) appointed him as the court historical painter – demonstrating if nothing else that the Victorians didn’t invent the genre despite appearances to the contrary.

Remember at this time history painting is effectively Biblical or mythological – the stories come from the classical past and the style is Neo-classical.

West was commissioned to depict the life of King Edward III for Windsor Castle but in the end he painted about sixty works for the Crown – they include portraits, interpretations of Biblical tales and works relating to England’s history. His work is still part of the royal collection. Why not search the collection here:

Then in 1770 created the painting depicting the death of General Wolfe which was exhibited in 1771. Wolfe died in 1759 – so not set in the mists of time. Other artists were horrified by the idea. it just wasn’t the done thing. West wanted to paint something real…except of course because it was a narrative piece there was quite a lot of dramatic licence. And the most famous dead person in art was Christ – so that’s who Wolfe is modelled on – well, on the artistic renderings of Christ that West was familiar with. The depiction turned him into a military saint and, as a result, our understanding of the event and its history was well and truly skewed.

It was very popular, although more by way of current affairs at the time as were his depictions of the French and Indian Wars – which Churchill described as the first true world war. In 1806 he produced the Death of Nelson in the same mould as the death of General Wolfe. In 1818 he painted Robert Clive and Emperor Shared Alam signing the Treaty of Allahabad. Today of course, to us they are historical paintings.

And, of course because he was the first, prolific and well paid, West set the rules for historical painting in America.

Interpreting King John – Painting History.

Buchel, Charles A.; Herbert Beerbohm Tree (1852-1917), as King John in ‘King John’ by William Shakespeare; Theatre Collection;

History paintings first became popular in the 17th century but they were associated with classical history, the Bible and mythology rather than British history or more recent subjects. Gradually the genre expanded – inevitably scenes of battles began to become popular.

History paintings usually tell a story so they could also be described as narrative art. There’s also a degree of theatricality about many depictions of history – perhaps it’s inevitable given Shakespeare’s impact on popular interpretations of history.

So, today, meet King John – well meet Herbert Beerbohm Tree a Shakespearian actor portrayed by Charles Buchel. He certainly looks the part – wealthy and rather troubled…or possibly decidedly shifty. It’s entirely up to you.

Tree was also a manager and the man who employed Buchel for sixteen years providing him with illustrations for various aspects of theatrical advertising. King John was performed in London at Her Majesty’s Theatre 1899-1900. Apparently the production was noted for its rather spectacular scenery and costumes. Some circuits thought that it was too elaborate (I wonder what they would make of modern film productions). It was also the point at which fictional interpretations of history moved from stage and page to film – it can be viewed on YouTube here:

The question is, how do Shakespeare’s plays and their interpretation impact on our understanding of historical events and people? After all, it’s not just a retelling of history -or even educating us about the past- there is a much more emotive response.

And yes, for those of you who know me well, I can’t actually think of the historical persona of King John without summoning this version of him to mind… I apologise – I know it shouldn’t but it just pops into my head perhaps because it was my first encounter with the youngest son of King Henry II. It’s a thought – how many of you have an image of a historical persona in your mind that is not drawn from primary sources but from a fictional rendering? And how does it impact on the way you perceive that persons’s actions and impact on history?

Daniel Maclise and Aoife of Leinster

Daniel was born in Cork but lived most of his life in England where ehe made his living as an artist and illustrator. He illustrated several of Charles Dickens’ Christmas books for instance. In 1858 he was commissioned to make two paintings; one depicting Wellington, the second Nelson. He was chosen because of his picture in 1854 of the marriage of Strongbow to Aoife of Leinster. His works were huge and very detailed. His health suffered and he died on 25 April 1870.

Maclise would have been able to refer to Gerald of Wales for information about the wedding as it provides an account of the Siege of Waterford which took place before the wedding. To all intents and purposes the images looks like a monumental depiction in a neoclassical tradition using all of the theatricality which can be associated with Victorian history paintings. The light falls upon Aoife, an innocent, about to marry Strongbow fully armed and clad in black armour. There’s a reason why the old westerns placed white hats upon the goodies and black ones upon the heads of the baddies! it would be rather unexpected for a parliamentary painter descended from Scottish ancestors to start expressing Nationalist sympathies but there must be a reason why Strongbow also has his foot on top of a fallen Celtic cross.

For a closer look at the painting and to make your own mind up about whether Maclise was simply presenting us with a table from Irish history or using all the theatricality of his art to express sympathy for the Irish cause why not head across to the National Gallery of Ireland:

Abergavenny – St Mary’s Priory Church

St Mary’s was founded in 1087 for a prior and twelve monks. There’s not much left of the Norman building but it is now apparently one of the largest parish churches in Wales. Most folk go to the church to look at the huge wooden carving of Jesse – who should lay at the base of a Jesse tree depicting the lineage of Christ. He’s the only wooden figure like this left in England or Wales – whether there were many more is a matter of debate. Suffice to say that the bonfires of the reformation probably carried several works off in smoke and ash. Usually we think of Jesse windows in stained glass – What Thomas Cromwell’s thugs didn’t carry out his three times great nephew Oliver’s men completed. A new Jesse window now looks resplendent above the carving of Jesse.

The Herbert Chapel (its the St Benedict Chapel now) is packed with alabaster effigies the most important of which is William ap Thomas and his wife Gwladys – who are the ancestors of the Herbert Earls of Pembroke. However, my favourite effigy is of Sir Richard Herbert of Ewyas and I couldn’t even see the original part of the carving that I think is so wonderful. His feet are resting on a lion – the head pokes around the corner of the niche that Sir Richard fits very neatly into with an ornate canopy over his head – but under is left foot is a monk telling his beads. Just a reminder that in the pre-reformation world the wealthy paid for prayers to be said for their souls to speed them from Purgatory to Heaven. Sir Robert is the illegitimate son of the 1st Earl of Pembroke.

The 1st Earl of Pembroke who was Edward IV’s friend William Herbert isn’t in Abergavenny – he fell foul of Richard Neville, 16th Earl of Warwick having come to prominence in Wales after the Battle of Towton in 1461. It was he, who having fought by Edward’s side at Mortimer’s Cross, who was given custody of Henry Tudor and Jasper Tudor’s Earldom of Pembroke. Herbert planned to marry his ward to his own daughter Maud but before that could happen Warwick, who was keen to get his hands on some of Herbert’s estates and administrative roles, rebelled against Edward. The Battle of Edgecote Moor on 24 July 1469 was not a good day for Edward IV or the Herbert family. Having lost the battle and fled Herbert and his brother Richard were captured and executed on Warwick’s orders.

The bodies of the 1st Earl and his brother were being transported home when the Cistercians of Tintern Abbey hijacked them and buried them in their abbey…the things some monks would do to ensure extra patronage!

Raglan Castle and the Herberts

Raglan in Gwent was, apparently, one of the last medieval castles to be constructed in England and Wales. The site was granted by Strongbow de Clare to his man Walter Bloet. The Bloets continued to hold Raglan until the fourteenth century at which point it was transmitted to the Berkeley family when Elizabeth Bloet ‘ The Lady of Raglan’ inherited her father’s estates. Sir James Berkeley died and Elizabeth married for a second time to Sir William ap Thomas – and he’s responsible for the building as it stands today. And that takes us slap bang into the fifteenth century and the Wars of the Roses.

By 1441 ap Thomas was steward for the Lordship of Abergavenny which is, of course, associated with the Neville family. He was also Richard of York’s steward in Wales – Richard was Lord of Usk by descent from Lady Elizabeth de Burgh making him a descendent of William Marshal and Isabel de Clare. William’s service to Richard let to him being called the ‘Blue Knight of Gwent’. Anyway, that aside after Elizabeth Bloet died William ap Thomas became a tenant to his Berkeley step-son. James Berkeley. In 1432 William purchased Raglan from the Berkeley family which comes as a relief because I was a bit concerned I was going to have to untangle the Berkeley family tree and its various feuds. Just a quick reminder Berkeley Castle is on the opposite side of the River Severn.

When William died in 1445 his son also named William adopted the name Herbert – I think it was because it was chosen because of a Norman ancestor but I’m not totally sure – given that he would have been styled William ap William or Gwilym ap Gwilym. In 1461 William Herbert was with Richard of York’s son Edward at Mortimer’s Cross where he commanded the left flank. In July Edward, now King Edward IV, awarded Herbert a barony and he replaced Jasper Tudor as Earl of Pembroke and gained wardship of Henry Tudor. Essentially William was Jasper’s main Welsh rival during the Wars of the Roses which may be a bit of a simplification but it helps make sense of the politics. The plan was for Henry to marry one of Herbert’s daughters – Maud who eventually married into the Percy family. But having served the Yorkists loyally Herbert fell foul of the Earl of Warwick when he rebelled against King Edward IV in 1469. William and his brother Richard were executed in the aftermath the Battle of Edgecote Moor. William’s eldest son, another William, was married to Mary Woodville a sister of Edward IV’s queen Elizabeth Woodville.

Running a medieval baronial household

Bishop Grosseteste, window on the South transept Westernmost. St Paul’s Parish Church, Morton, Near Gainsborough.

In 1240 Bishop Robert Grosseteste wrote a set of rules to help his recently widowed friend Margaret, Countess of Lincoln to run her household efficiently. Her dower rights included four manors from her husband John de Lacy of Pontefract who became Earl of Lincoln by right of his wife, the earldom of Lincoln and the honour of Bolingbroke both of which she inherited from her mother Hawise of Chester. She would acquire further dower rights after the death her second husband.

Grosseteste began by explaining that it was essential for a widowed lady to know everything about the manors they held from the land and rent to customs, usages and fees. The lady did not need to tramp around all the fields notebook in hand but she should request a survey from a trusted freeholder or villein – and the information was to be written down for future reference. Not only should the steward have a copy of the final record but the lady should have one as well because in cases where justice needed to be served it was important that the lady could check the facts before reaching a decision. For manors to be run effectively a woman should make sure she employed trustworthy and reliable representatives. The sale of excess crops, the value of rents and fines as well as the sale of stock animals should cover the cost of purchases from wine to clothing to jewellery. As if that wasn’t enough the lady was also required to audit the accounts to make sure she wasn’t being cheated; oversee the religious devotion of the household leading by good example; ensure honesty and loyalty; punish those who deserve it; be a good hostess; make sure that liveries are kept in good condition; keep a good table; each Michaelmas plan the next year’s sojourn; buy things at the best time of year.

All of which makes me wonder how exactly the medieval legal system and the Church could suggest that a woman was legally, morally and intellectually inferior to a man? Margaret was regarded as one of two very important women of the period given that she was a close personal friend of Henry III’s queen Eleanor of Provence as well as being incredibly wealthy.

 Walter of Henley’s Husbandry, together with an Anonymous Husbandy, Seneschaucie, and Robert Grosseteste’s Rules, ed. and trans. Elizabeth Lamond, with an Introduction by W. Cunningham (London: Longmans, 1890), pp. 121-145 (English translation only). The modern scholarly edition of these texts is that of Dorothea Oschinsky, Walter of Henley and Other Treatises on Estate Management and Accounting (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).

Mitchell (2003), Linda Elizabeth, Portraits of Medieval Women: Family, Marriage, and Politics in England 1225-1350, Palgrave Macmillan

Usk Castle

Usk lays on the edge of Norman Gwent and the Welsh kingdom of Caerleon. Orders for the motte and bailey Norman castle to be built there were given by Roger FitzWilliam, the son of William FitzOsbern the first lord of Striguil and the Conqueror’s standard-bearer. Unfortunately Roger got himself tangled up in the 1075 rebellion against King William and lost his estates which were taken back into crown hands until King Henry I gave the lordship away to Walter de Clare who also became the Lord of Striguil, Netherwent or Chepstow depending on what you want to call it.

After Walter’s death the Welsh reclaimed Usk Castle and it was only regained by the de Clare family briefly in 1170. Strongbow gave orders for a stone keep to be built in place of the wooden motte but it availed the Normans little as it was back in Welsh hands by 1174 – Strongbow being occupied in Ireland and Henry II being occupied by his family revolting.

The castle was back in Norman hands by 1185 – as was the priory down in the town which Strongbow had founded on the site of the Roman fortress of Burrium. The Crown held the castle for Strongbow’s daughter Isabel de Clare who was a sole heiress. In 1189 very shortly after Richard I became king William Marshal claimed her as his bride and Usk became part of his responsibility. In about 1212 he upgraded the fortifications with the so-called garrison tower which was round and built on French principles into the curtain wall. He also added some more comfortable domestic buildings including a solar and chamber – which Isabel may well have appreciated when she visited the castle.

After the death of William and all five of his and Isabel’s sons Usk passed into the hands of Richard de Clare the 6th Earl of Gloucester by right of his mother Isabel Marshal (yes a dispensation for the marriage between Isabel and Gilbert de Clare 4th Earl of Hertford was required.). The de Clares continued the building programme in 1289 when the North Tower was added to the castle but the new grand domestic dwellings were not completed before the death of Gilbert de Clare, 8th Earl of Gloucester in 1314 at Bannockburn.

Usk fell to the portion of the 8th earl’s youngest sister Elizabeth de Burgh who was married at the time to Edward II’s favourite Roger Damory. They continued the building work in the castle to make it more comfortable. Unfortunately in 1321 the whole edifice was given to Edward’s favourite Hugh Despenser the Younger whilst Elizabeth and her children were imprisoned at Barking Abbey. Following Despenser’s execution the castle was returned to Elizabeth in 1326. Just to round things off the castle eventually ended up in the hands of the Mortimer family through marriage. Eventually the castle passed from the Mortimers, by female inheritance, into the hands of Richard Duke of York (the one who gave battle in vain at Wakefield) – turning the castle into a royal property thanks to his sons Edward IV and Richard III. In time it passed into the hands of Prince Arthur (Henry VII’s eldest son) and then into the property portfolio of Katherine Parr.

The castle was a ruin by 1587 and being used as a quarry for dressed stone.

Striguil Castle – medieval power and conflict

Striguil or Chepstow Castle sits between the Rivers Usk and Wye. In the aftermath of the Norman Conquest, William the Conqueror pursued a policy of containment with three earldoms at Shrewsbury, Chester and Hereford. The man William chose for Hereford was William FitzOsbern who was known to have been at the Battle of Hastings. Like so many of William’s trusted companions and barons FitzOsbern was part of the king’s extended kinship network.

FitzOsbern became Earl of Hereford in 1067 but it was only in the aftermath of Edric the Wild’s rebellion which was crushed in 1069 that FitzOsbern began to encroach into Gwent. Prior to this his main residence was on the Isle of Wight – it was he who began building Carisbrooke Castle. In the marches he was responsible for fortifications at Monmouth and at Chepstow as well as other key locations including Hereford and in Shrewsbury itself. He died in 1071 whilst on campaign in Flanders.

Unfortunately for FitzOsbern’s legacy his eldest son wasn’t as loyal to William as he had been. In 1075 the new lord of Striguil was part of the plot to overthrow William. Inevitably the family estates were forfeit to the Crown when the uprising came to nothing.

In 1115 King Henry I granted Striguil to Walter de Clare the son of Richard of Tonbridge and his wife Rohese Giffard. Walter founded the Cistercian abbey at Tintern. Walter died without direct heirs so the lordship passed to his nephew Gilbert and from there to his son Richard de Clare better known as Strongbow. Strongbow had only one surviving child – a daughter Isabel de Clare so the lordship passed into the hands of her husband William Marshal. The Marshals did rather a lot of castle improvement – the keep even in a ruinous state screams wealth and status – as well as dominating the landscape around it. Quite remarkably the original castle doors are still in the castle – they date to no later than 1190 …just imagine Isabel de Clare and William Marshal passing through them with their entourages.

After all five of William Marshal’s sons inherited Chepstow in their turn the castle became the property of Roger Bigod Earl of Norfolk by right of his mother Maud Marshal, the eldest of Isabel and William’s daughters. When he died in 1270 his nephew inherited the castle- easy to remember his name – it was another Roger Bigod. It was he who turned Chepstow into an even more magnificent residence. He died in 1306 without heirs and the castle returned to Crown hands – King Edward I died within the year and the property became part of King Edward II’s estates. Edward promptly gave the castle and the lordship to his half-brother Thomas of Brotherton but in 1324 Hugh Despenser got his hands on the lordship. Two years later he and Edward II paid a surprise visit when Edward fled his wife Isabella of France and her lover Roger Mortimer – Despenser and Mortimer were Marcher lords with a history. The castle was prepared for a long siege but Edward chanced his hand with a voyage to Ireland. It didn’t go well and they were forced to land back in Wales – the rest is, as they say, history.

By the beginning of the fifteenth century the castle was in the hands of the Mowbray Earls of Norfolk. During the Wars of the Roses, The Kingmaker arrived at the castle gates and the garrison promptly handed over Richard Woodville Earl Rivers and his son John – they were swiftly removed to Kennilworth Castle and executed.

As with many castles in England and Wales the seventeenth century saw Chepstow face action once more. It was a royalist garrison. In 1648 Cromwell demanded its surrender and yes, Chepstow is a castle that Cromwell knocked about although within two years Parliament paid for some repairs to be carried out so that William Marshal’s former stronghold should become a prison.

Medieval hostages

William Marshal

I’m currently working on Isabel de Clare and her family. Her husband William Marshal was famously a hostage during the Anarchy whilst a very young child and was very nearly hanged when his father John failed to comply with King Stephen’s demands – it appears that William’s touching candour and the king’s kind heart saved the little boy from an early death. Isabel’s two eldest sons became hostages of King John when he began to distrust Marshal. This possibly accounts for why William Marshal the Younger sided with the barons in the First Barons’ War rather than with the king. The Marshal’ friend and fellow Marcher baron William de Braose fell foul of the king when his wife Matilda, who sounds like a truly formidable woman, refused to hand her sons over to the men sent to collect them when de Braose failed to pay the Exchequer instalments on the debt he owed to the king for the grant of Limerick. Matilda and her son William were starved to death in Corfe Castle – to cut a long story short. And before I finish this particular paragraph one of Isabel’s Irish uncles was killed whilst he was a hostage and another was blinded – so Isabel and her husband were all too aware of the risks of giving hostages.

Oh yes and her grandfather Gilbert De Clare, Lord of Striguil also known as Gilbert Strongbow fell out with King Stephen when Stephen imprisoned Striguil’s nephew Gilbert Earl of Hertford and confiscated all of his castles when Hertford’s kinsman Ranulph Earl of Chester attacked Lincoln contrary to the agreement he made with the king and to which Hertford was surety. I should add that Striguil didn’t become grumpy with Stephen because of the unjust incarceration of his nephew or even the confiscation of the estates – he threw his toys out of the pram when the king wouldn’t give everything he’d just bagged to Striguil – no one comes out of the Anarchy particularly well behaviour-wise it would have to be said.

So – hostages-what exactly were they? A hostage, in medieval terms, was the physical embodiment of an agreement’s guarantee. A political or even a financial agreement required a demonstration of submission or good faith until a particular set of terms or conditions were met. It meant that the hostage or hostages had to have value to the person making the agreement – no point in accepting a fourth or fifth cousin it had to be a close family member. The hostage taker was also able to demonstrate his or her authority over the person required to offer a hostage or hostages as surety.  Anyone could become a hostage – the Scottish princesses Margaret and Isabella sisters of Alexander II were held as hostages from 1209 onwards to ensure that the Scots complied with the Treaty of Norham. it brings to mind the fact that international treaties were often cemented by a marriage treaty. This instance reflects the fact that hostage giving and taking was part of the arsenal available to medieval diplomats where marriage agreements weren’t an option.

King John was demonstrating his feudal overlordship of the Marshal family and therefore reminding the rest of his barons to behave themselves – in fact John was notorious for demanding both hostages and large sums of money. The hostage was often a guarantee that a fine or amercement would be paid to the Crown and an insurance policy on the king’s part that the fine wouldn’t be ignored. Having lost his Continental domains in 1204 he used it as a method of levying funds. When Maud de Braose and her son were captured having fled from Ireland to Scotland John initially incarcerated them in Bristol Castle. He came to agreement with William de Braose that he could have his family back for the staggering sum of 40,000 marks. In this instance the hostage taker was effectively ransoming his hostages – which is more akin to our modern understanding.

In fact hostages and hostage taking varied throughout the medieval period depending on the situation. For instance men captured in battle might arrange that their place was taken by hostages as surety of their intention to return with the ransoms that their captors demanded of them. One of the main difference between medieval hostages and modern hostage situations was that in medieval times hostages were given rather than taken (not that the de Braoses handed themselves over willingly but if nothing else it demonstrates the complicated nature of the whole business.)

 The situation in which hostages found themselves being kept might have been more akin to ward, foster child or guest rather than prisoner depending on the circumstances in which the arrangement was made. And of course, hostages received in good faith might find that if the hostage giver didn’t meet his/her obligations that life could become very painful, very short or possibly both. You’ll all be delighted to hear that I have no intention of running a series of posts about the demise of some of history’s more unfortunate hostages.

Kosto, Adam J., Hostages in the Middle Ages

Mercator projections – changing navigation

Gerardus Mercator

Gerardus Mercator was a sixteenth century Belgian cartographer. In 1569 he created a world map based on straight lines of contstant course known as rhumb lines. He successfully presented a three dimensional object (the world) on a two dimension piece of paper. For the mathematical minded amongst you its a line that creates an arc on a constant course – I tend to think of it as cutting the world into sections straight through the middle of the planet like so many slices of cake at a constant angle (its not a right angle) but I have the feeling that I have horribly over simplified and may have become fixated on the cake part of the equation…but you get the gist.

Essentially Mercator used the rhumb lines which were constant to draw his charts and maps. He imagined the world, or a chart, as a piece of paper which was rolled into a scroll. This enabled him to link all the lines of latitude (east west lines) that we imagine going around the world. So far so good and on a small scale it works well. But a problem arises because the world is not a cylinder – it’s a sphere. This means that the lines of longitude (the north south lines) are distorted and if you draw countries based on the straightened out lines the countries at the top of the map like Antartica and Siberia look much bigger than they really are unless you draw the segments so that the top of the world looks like a series of fingers with white paper between them – which isn’t great if you’re trying to navigate somewhere. So having ruled that option out the Mercator projection makes Greenland looks huge – bigger than Africa and that folks is just not true! But Mercator was creating charts for sailors – the oceans needed to be right for them to make navigational decisions not so they could compare the relative size of land masses. Nor does it help that the world is ‘Old World’ centric – the sailors were setting off from the known world into the New World. Basically a world map based on Mercator Projections sees its priorities through sixteenth century eyes.

Essentially, anything past 70degrees latitude isn’t quite the right shape on a map created using Mercator’s projection. Corrections were made even in the sixteenth century but we’re not going there today because that’s more than enough for my brain to cope with in one go. Suffice it to say at the time it was an excellent step forward because it made navigation by mathematical means far easier.

Robert Dudley, calling himself the Duke of Northumberland and the Earl of Warwick was the first Englishman to create an atlas of the sea using mercator’s projections. It was published in 1646-1647 in Florence. It contained more than 100 beautifully engraved maps.