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We thought it might be interesting for people to see what can be achieved with only a small group of Ricardians meeting informally in  members houses. We all take part in the discussions which form our programme, which is decided at our AGM.

Looking back as we begin our fifth year it is good to see how much we have achieved.  Thanks to Penny our secretary for her comprehensive repots.

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 ANNUAL REPORT 2016

We held our AGM in January where there was no shortage of ideas and suggestions of topics that we would like to know more about. In February we enjoyed a leisurely anniversary lunch in the 17th century surroundings of Sandbach Old Hall.

We then began on our chosen topics, the first of  which was the English claim to France. This we discovered had more complex elements than Edward III's claim through his mother, Isabella, daughter of Philip IV. The French invocation of Salic law was not initially to exclude Edward III but because Louis X's wife Margaret had been found guilty of adultery and her daughter, Joan, was of very doubtful paternity.  The confiscation of Aquitaine, the role of Robert of Artois and the "Vow of the Heron", also played a part in provoking the conflict. Quartering of the English lions / leopards with the French Fleur de lys was not abandoned until 1801.

Or next topic, Lollardy spanned two meetings. We looked at its origins in the scholarly writings of John Wycliffe, popular anti-clericalism and the political context of the schism. The "Good Parliament" of 1376, was held when England was at war with France and one of the two schismatic popes was resident at Avignon. This led to a succession of petitions being presented in the parliament complaining that, among other things, the Church was levying taxes on English benefices to finance the King's enemies and that papal legates were spies.The ending of the schism and Oldcastle's rebellion turned earlier tolerance to persecution, driving the movement underground. Among the semi-literate artisans, who could not access books, let alone Wycliffe's scolarly works, Lollard belief mixed with popular anti-clericalism and in some cases, some quite eccentric ideas. However, the survival, whole or in part, of some 150 Wycliffe Bibles shows that the desire to read the Bible was  quite widespread among those who could afford books, though to what extent this indicates Lollard sympathies is questionable (Richard III possessed one). "Lollardy" was not confined to England: Jan Huss, in particular, was very influential in spreading Wycliffe's theology in northern Europe, from whence it returned, at the time of the Reformation, to England, to become absobed into what we now call Protestantism.

We continued, (from last year) our efforts to sort out the Beaufort family, with a look at the life of the matriarch, Joan, daughter of John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford and grandmother of Edward IV, Richard III, Warwick the kingmaker, great-grandmother of Anne Neville. Her elder brother was John Beaufort, 1st Earl of Somerset. His second son, another John Beaufort, succeeded his childless elder brother, Henry, as 3rd Earl of Somerset in 1425, created 1st Duke of Somerset 1443. This latter John was the father of Lady Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII. Lady Margaret's mother, Margaret Beauchamp of Bletso, married three times and Lady Margaret remained on good terms with her half brothers and sisters, one of whom, John, 1st Viscount Welles, was given Edward IV's daughter (Joan's great-granddaughter)  Cecily, in marriage.

Our look at reports concerning the weather and natural disasters showed that it was the 14th century rather than the 15th which seems to have suffered the worst of these. The worst famine in England occured in 1316-7.  In 1318-19 a murrain killed many cattle. The harvest of 1321 was again disastrous due to continual rain. In 1326 the opposite problem occurred: in the long hot dry summer lakes dried up and the Thames was permanently salty.

1348 brought the horrors of the Black Death. "a third of the world died" wrote Froissart, quite accurately. On Saturday 15th January 1362, "around the hour of vespers", England was struck a great wind. " causing houses and buildings to come crashing down" recorded the Canterbury chronicler. Many buildings were left unrepaired for lack of workmen: less than a generation since the Black Death labour was still in short supply.

The 15th century does not seem to have been subject to disasters on the same scale, though the harvest of 1481 was the worst that England and Europe had known for many years and the following winter unusually harsh. Details of payments in the accounts kept by Master William Easingwold, clerk to the Mayor of Nottingham, indicate that the winter of 1485-6 was severe: he refers to "the great frost", in late November - early December and the year ended with "the great wind".

The chaotic battle of Barnet demonstrates the pivotal role weather conditions, in this case fog, could play in determining a political outcome.

The first of our summer visits was to an outdoor performance of "Othello" at Stafford Castle,

The play was set at the time of the "Cyprus Emergency", in the 1950s, which was quite in keeping with the text, in which Othello is sent to Cyprus because, "The Turk with a most mighty preparation makes for Cyprus", (Act II Sc.ii). It also worked surprisingly well with the remains of the castle keep rising above and behind the set. Afterwards we repaired to the Swan hotel in Stafford for a very enjoyable meal.

The second visit was to Muckleston and Norton-in-Hales. Margaret of Anjou watched the battle of Blore Heath from Muckleston church tower. Legend has it that when Queen Margaret realised the Lancastrians had lost and that she must flee, she had the local blacksmith, William Skelhorn, reverse the shoes on her horse to confuse those pursuing her.  In the churchyard is an old blacksmith's anvil, claimed to be William Skelton's - maybe. The church of St Chad, Norton-in-Hales, originated in 13th century but was extensively remodelled in 1860-70.  In the chancel are choir stalls made from the panels of a dismantled Jacobean bed. In the porch is the first known work by Inigo Jones: the effigy of Sir Rowland Cotton and his wife Frances, who is holding their infant daughter. It is dated 1606.

We also visited Chester Cathedral library, where the very learned Prof. Alexander introduced us to two 17th century polyglot Bibles: absolutely amazing works, especially when one considers both the scolarship and the fact that they were type-set by hand.. He joined us for lunch and treated us to more fascinating and stimulating conversation.

Travel was our next topic. The most basic way of travelling in the Middle Ages was, of course, to walk. Forensic examination of skeletons of the period has shown that people had strong legs and used to walk a lot. On horseback, a distance of thirty to thirty-five miles per day was usual for travellers and for a professional messenger riding his own horse, although a messenger riding post haste, changing horses every twenty miles, could cover fifty to fifty-five miles in day. Carts were cumbersome and were generally only used for carrying bulky loads short distances, as at harvest time when the cut corn was brought from the fields. For this reason, lanes leading from the fields to the village were often paved and survive as "hollow lanes". For longer distances pack horses were more often used and cross country routes were generally not hard-paved as this does no favours to the horse, which is more confortable on turf. Main routes were maintained especially by digging and clearing clearing ditches to provide drainage. The other important way of moving bulky goods was by water. Many of the rivers of England were navigable along at least some of their length and inland waterways like the Trent, were as important for transporting goods in the Middle Ages as the canals would later be to the industrial revolution.

In many parts of England parishes could be geographically very large and the dead had to be taken to the parish church for burial. This led to the existence of "corpse roads", many of which were used for little else. In Derbyshire, the dead from Edale were taken over Hollins Cross (on the ridge extending to Mam Tor) and down to Castleton, a very steep route.

There were maps in the Middle Ages but very few, not to scale and intended more for administrative purposes than for aiding travellers. Nevertheless it is is evident when looking at the conduct of military campaigns that armies were capable of manoevering around the country to confront or evade eachother and military commanders chose their battlegrounds with care, so clearly they had a good grasp of geography.

Pilgrimages would take people much further afield. Two very different pilgrims were Henry Earl of Derby, (the future Henry IV) and the eccentric Margery Kempe.  Henry travelled in great style while Margery Kempe's journeys were more haphazard to say the least. Yet surprisingly they both visited some of the same destinations in their extensive travels, including Danzig and Jerusalem.

Whether the author who called himself Sir John de Mandeville really had visited all the places he claimed is doubful in the extreme, not least because his "travelogue" includes such wonders as the blemmyae, (men with no heads and faces on their chests), the phoenix, Prester John, and the hills of gold that Pismires keep, as well as Constantinople and Jerusalem. The earliest known manuscript of Mandeville's work has been dated to 1371 and it was an international best-seller throughout the middle ages, demonstrating the keen interest medieval people took in travel and far away lands.

In December we looked at Christmas traditions and celebrations. Christmas trees of course were not introduced ntil the Victorian period but holly, mistletoe and Yule logs have an earlier tradition. The "First Footing" at New Year seems also to be older: the First Footer should bring bread and salt and a tradition that the first footer should wear green or carry a green branch perhaps has some connection with the Green Man whose appearance at King Arthur's court during the Christmas celebrations begins the tale of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Accounts of medieval feasts list a great variety of meat dishes and the surviving menu of a Lenten feast prepared for Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, shows as great a variety of fish: if it moved, they had a receipe for it! We accompanied our topic with a little "feasting" of our own.

                                        Penny Lawson Secretary

 

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 ANNUAL REVIEW 2015

In January we held our AGM and planned the year ahead. There was no lack of ideas. Our anniversary on 2nd February was celebrated as before, with a lunch that somehow lasted until tea-time. How time flies when you are enjoying yourself in good company.

For our March meeting, we had decided to take a dip into the huge subject of medieval women, in both literature and history. In chivalric literature women appear most often as damsels in distress, passively awaiting male rescue or the righting of their wrongs but they can also appear as powerful wicked enchantresses like Morgan le Faye. Female saints and other idealised women were held up, especially by the clergy, as examples of the way women should behave: the preservation of virginity  was an important aspect of their sanctity while for secular women, the cardinal virtue was, "meekness", obedience to male authority. The clergy condemned women as mentally unstable, driven by insatiable lust and the downfall of all men since Adam.  Christine de Pisan defended women against this clerical mysogeny and wrote of all the things a woman had to do and the skills required: medieval women had not only to be able to run a household but also to defend it if attacked during their husband's absence, skills demonstrated by women like Nicola de la Haye and the Paston women. Christine was highly respected for her scholarship and her work widely disseminated. Chaucer's Wife of Bath echoes, in much more earthly tones, some of Christine's arguments while his  Clerk tells the tale of Patient Griselda but in a later medieval form which reflects discomfort at the abuse to which she was subjected.

"Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote,"...  We acquainted ourselves with Chaucer's pilgrims, who  represent the different walks of life and social status that made up late medieval society but Chaucer's subtle satire and the interplay between them makes them more than just stock characters The tales allocated to them add further depth and complexity to their characters. The Wife of Bath tells the tale of Gawain and the Loathly Lady, who, at the end magically becomes young and beautiful, a poignant choice for a woman who recognises that she is middle aged and no longer as attractive as she was in her youth. The knight's tale is, on the surface, a typical chivalric tale but the two heroes become rivals for a women neither can have and who does not want to "be a wyf and goe with childe",while Chaucer's description of the temple of Mars the god of war, the knight's chosen profession, is full of horrors, not heroism. This often problematic enrichment is true of many of the other allocations of tales to tellers.

In May we explored May Day and other spring and summer festivals, their pagan origins, their Christianisation and continuation through the Middle Ages and up to the present. The Romans brought Flora but the Celts already had Beltane, a fire festival, when the cattle were taken to their summer pasture after being driven between fires to protect them from disease and the ashes scattered on the crops. The Romans sacrificed a dog to Robigus the god of crop diseases and scattered the blood on the fields. (Perhaps the smoke from the fires would be quite effective against some pests or fleas and wood ash and blood are both good fetilizers.) Christian Rogation Days or "Beating the Bounds" (Major Rogation 25th April and Minor on the three days preceeding Ascension in May), have clear links with these earlier pagan festivals. In the Middle Ages there were processions round the fields with candles, led by a priest wafting the smoke of incense and sprinkling holy water over the crops. Washing in the dew on the 1st May, especially the dew of the Hawthorn (May) blossom, was thought to bestow beauty. Aspects of the Queen of the May are found in both Guinevere and the Virgin Mary. The Christian feast of Corpus Christi with its processions and plays also took place in May.

Wells and springs, were decorated with offerings of flowers from May on through the summer and the tradition of well dressing continues today in the Peak District, where the offerings of flowers have evolved into the creation of elaborate flower pictures made from thousands of individual petals and leaves. So in June we visited the well dressings in two villages. Whatever their origins, well dressings today are opened by the local vicar, with thanksgiving for God's gift of water and other appropriate prayers. The flower pictures were very impressive and must require skills in design,  knowledge of plants, manual dexterity and patience. In both villages the primary schools displayed a well dressing made by the children, ensuring that the skills are passed on and the tradition continues (whether or not it is part of the National Curriculum).

A theme of the well dressings in both villages was the anniversary of Magna Carta and this was our theme for our June meeting. We considered both the English political context in which it was written and also the context of debate about the nature of kingship: theocratic "divine right" kingship or feudal "first among equals", kingship. English kingship was feudal and as the lawyer Bracton wrote only a few years later:"Quod principi placuit...", was "...  not what has been rashly presumed by the personal will of the king, but what has been rightly defined by the "consilium" of his magnates, by the king's authorisation and after deliberation and conference concerning it." We were struck by how practical many of the clauses of the Great Charter were, dealing with such issues as the protection of heirs, the responsibilities of their guardians, the rights of widows, the repayment of debts. The most famous and oft quoted clauses, 38,39 and 40 are those establishing the principles of justice but also important and still applicable today are clauses 17-19, establishing that courts will sit regularly in a fixed place and clause 20, that any fine imposed may not deprive a man of the tools of his trade. The Great Charter left a great legacy not only in England but throughout the world, particularly the United States where it is still held in the highest regard as the basis for their constitution and bill of rights.

Summer is our time for getting out and about a bit. We decided to let the train take the strain for an excusion to Ludlow, meeting up en route. Having first made our way to lunch, (as we do) we then explored the market before going on to the castle. We were impressed by the size and the green space inside the walls and thought that it would be a pleasant place to spend a medieval childhood. We certainly spent a pleasant afternoon there.

Our theme of traditional festivals continued with a visit in September to the Abbotts Bromley Horn Dance, a day long event in which the dance is performed at various locations around the parish. First recorded as far back as 1226, with later references in 1532 and 1686 testifying to its continuation through the centuries, the Horn Dance is undoubtedly much older even than that. The "horns" which the dancers wear, are six sets of reindeer antlers which have been carbon dated to around 1067. Again the "dance" is almost certainly a pagan tradition of sympathetic magic to ensure good hunting. The Saxon kings of Mercia had extensive hunting grounds in the forests of Needwood and Cannock Chase adjacent to Abbotts Bromley. It has acquired a (very thin) veneer of Christianity, in so far as that the Church now keeps custody of the "horns" and the day begins and ends with a service.

We commemorated the battle of Agincourt, 25th October 1415, by watching the two famous films of Shakespeare's play: those of Laurence Olivier and Kenneth Branagh, both of them directed and took the title role. The release of Olivier's was timed to co-incided with the Normandy landings and put heart into the British people. This clearly posed problems for while the Crispin Crispin's day speech was indeed just the thing to rouse the troops, the play's darker elements such as the Southampton plot and the hanging of Bardolf had to be cut and the weather minimised; seas of mud in Normandy was the last thing the British people needed reminding of in 1944. Olivier solved the problems by giving his film the quality of a legend, set against backdrops taken from the illuminations in the "Tres Riche Heures".  By contrast, Branagh's must be one of the muddiest films ever made. His "Henry V" is a coming of age film which explores the darker elements of the play, especially its themes of betrayal. The battle of Agincourt is a long drawn out slogging in a quagmire, Henry finally tramping exhausted across a sea of mud and slaughter, bearing the body of one of the baggage boys. Terrific performances from some of our greatest actors give the film a powerful emotional punch but it's easy to see why Olivier had to do something completely different in 1944.

November brought another look at a very big subject: "Financial Systems in the Fourteenth/ Fifteenth Centuries for the Non-Nobility". The paper considered the way in which people might earn money and so improve their social status. The majority of the population who worked on the land had very little money; payments, rents and the exchange of goods was often in kind. There were often problems with the supply of coinage. The Black Death was the principal engine for change in the social structure by enhancing the value of labour and the French Wars offered men like John Fastolf the opportunty for booty, advancement and wealth. For those with a little money, trade could offer the way to greater wealth and advancement: the de la Poles achieved an earldom. The Italian bankers mostly served the nobility but merchants could obtain lines of credit and were often a source of loans to others. Education became more widespread but was still highly valued and a means to social mobility and wealth, as for the Pastons. A big and wide ranging topic, very well researched and presented by one of our members.

The Beaufort family were chosen for our December meeting which began with a genealogical paper to sort out who was who and not least, to distinguish the different Margarets. A paper on Katherine Swynford took us back to the origins of the Beauforts in her relationship with John of Gaunt.  We also looked at the careers of their second son, Henry, Cardinal Beaufort, the powerful "Wily Winchester",a dominant figure in the minority of Henry VI and of his nephew, Edmund, Earl of Somerset 1444-55, whose quarrel with Richard Duke of York was the trigger for the so called Wars of the Roses. We have more Beauforts to look forward to in the new year.

                                                          Penny Lawton secretary

 

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 ANNUAL REVIEW 2014

We held our AGM in January, at which, having observed the proper formalities over tea and biscuits, we planned our activities for the forthcoming year.  Our anniversary in February was celebrated with lunch at the historic Pied Bull in Chester and so, appropriately, began another a year in which, in addition to our monthly meetings, we continued with our on-going research project: the best pub lunches.

Our March meeting focussed on the French wars and the conquests of Edward III and Henry V, the consequences of which were so important for our period. Three key passages from Froissart  illustrated the chivalric code of the period and provided the context for John Talbot 1st earl of Shrewsbury, who spent a large part of his lifetime attempting to defend the English possessions in France and died heroically at Castillon. A study of the families of nearby Wem and their Butler and Talbot interconnections completed the meeting. In April we turned our attentions to William Caxton, his early career as a merchant and diplomat and how the books he chose to print reflected the tastes of  his customers. We continued our themes in May with a look at Philip the Good's library and more of the Talbot family: Eleanor, Gilbert and (of course) the Talbot hound.

Summer is our time for getting out and about. In June, co-ordinating trains got us to York just after 11 o'clock with a day of perfect weather to spend enjoying all that York has to offer, including the Middleham jewel, the Minster and dining in a restaurant on the site of the Augustinian friary where Richard is known to have stayed. A hot day in July found us exploring the evocative ruins of Haughmond Abbey east of Shrewsbury, where the poet, John "the blind" Audelay spent his last years. In August we visited the very lovely old manor of Upton Cresset near Bridgenorth, which is of particular interest to Ricardians as the place where Edward V stayed on his way to the arranged meeting with Richard Duke of Gloucester at Northampton.

With autumn approaching we resumed home meetings. In September we read some of John Audelay's poems and looked at the career of Arthur Lord Lisle, Edward IV's bastard, who enjoyed the favour of Henry VII and Henry VIII. Back to war in October, this time more local battles: Ludford Bridge, Mortimer's Cross and a Victorian account Blore Heath which was a delightful period piece in itself.  In November it was, "Forget the Barretts of Wimpole Street; we have The Bagots of Blithfield"  (a few miles east of Stafford). A super paper gave us details of their estate management, their policy of consolidating their land holdings and their Bagot goats. A cosy Christmassy meeting with poems, carols and the kinds of "goodies" that were enjoyed in the late middle ages brought another year to a happy and satisfactory close.

 

                                                                            Penelope Lawton, secretary.

 

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A REVIEW OF OUR FIRST YEAR AS A GROUP 2013

It was only after we had chosen Saturday 2nd February as a mutually convenient date for our inaugural meeting, that we realised that it was the anniversary of  the battle of Mortimer's Cross. The date seemed auspicious and so it has turned out to be; our first year being both productive and very enjoyable.

We had decided that we wanted to know more about the Woodville/ Wydeville family who clearly played such an important yet still controversial role in the history of the period. With everyone chosing "their Woodville" to present and by sharing our books and raiding the Barton library (thanks librarians, for your help,) we had more than enough material for two meetings, one concentrating on the men and the other on the women. A fascinating study and a good way to cover a lot of material. We will definitely be repeating the "group study" approach.

The Woodvilles weren't the only subjects of our attentions this year: Henry VII and Louis XI were both visited. What it is it about Henry Tudor? His adventurous life, from exile to unlikely king could well be the stuff of romance and no doubt the Tudor propagandists did their best and yet, though we try to be open-minded, it seems even his biographers find it hard to like him. Thomas Penn's biography of Henry VII, "The Winter King" was certainly chilling.   Louis XI, the brilliant politician king who pieced together modern France was surely the great "Machiavellian" of the period, yet he seemed to us a more admirable character.

An investigation into our Staffordshire "neighbour", Ralph Rudyard, reputed regicide, also shed some light on the activities and movements of the Stanleys through Staffordshire in the week before the battle of Bosworth.

It wasn't all study though: we did get ourselves out of our armchairs and our noses out of books.

The Chester Mystery plays were a must for us. Beautifully staged in the nave of Chester cathedral, where a cast of 300 talented local people of all ages, children to grandparents; singers and actors; musicians, choirs and drummers, mixed the medieval script with modern elements to stunning effect: an emotional rollercoaster of tragedy, comedy and drama which left us more than ready for our tea and cakes.

A small group of us met at the Dog and Hedgehog in Dadlington, where, after admiring the view of the battlefield site from the pub car park, lunch and gossip about all things Ricardian, we took a look around the little church and the graveyard where some of the dead were buried, followed by a brief visit to the battlefield centre.

In Lichfield, where Dr. Johnson took his friend Boswell to experience "true civility" we were treated to an excellent tour of the cathedral in the care of our knowledgeable guide, Pat. Starting at the famous west front, she held us fascinated, telling us lesser known facts about the cathedral's evident glories and showing us some of the little gems we might otherwise have overlooked: angels, angels everywhere. Then, once Fiona the lock-picking verger had gained us entry into the library, we  found laid out for us some of their priceless medieval treasures:  an illuminated Canterbury Tales, a jewel-like Justinian codex and others.

We rounded off the year with a cosy meeting, sharing poems and ballads of and about our period.

Our Chairman's well prepared agenda ensured that all the business proper to an AGM was conducted in the proper form - informally, over coffee and biscuits.  We looked back over our first year with a great deal of satisfaction and quite a bit of pride.  There is only one problem that we can forsee for the coming year: there are so many things that we we want to do and look into, from romances to finances, that there are not nearly enough meetings in a year and already our ideas are overflowing into 2015. Watch this website!

                                                                      Penelope Lawton, secretary

 

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