Two kings and their ostentatious piety
I’m going to come clean right at the start and say I am not a fan of Henry III. Through the centuries that separate us, he comes across as petty and ineffectual, and yes, I realise he has the misfortune of being stuck between the exciting (?) turmoil that defined the reign of his father, King John, and the rather impressive persona of his son, Edward I, but still, Henry was in many ways a most inept king – as demonstrated by the rebellion of men like Simon de Montfort.
To be fair to Henry, he did not have an easy start in life. Becoming king at the tender age of nine, with your kingdom invaded by French mercenaries, your barons at each other’s throat, and your father vilified by every man around, cannot have been easy. Things were probably not made better when his mother, the famously beautiful Isabella, Countess of Angouleme, decided she was not cut out to play the part of grieving widow. In 1217, a year after Henry had lost his father, Isabella chose to return to her native Angouleme where she subsequently married Hugh de Lusignan and went on to present Henry with nine half-siblings. It is testament to how much Henry desired to be loved that he would make his Lusignan half-brothers more than welcome in England, despite the protesting grumbling of his barons.
So: our little Henry must have been lonely. A dead father, a mother who abandoned him. Yes, he had a brother he loved dearly, and yes, he definitely had older men who acted as regents in his name, but ultimately he was still a child, however much a king he was expected to act. In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising if Henry grew up to be reserved, turning inwards rather than outwards. Neither is it a surprise that he found solace in his faith – Henry is described as being a most pious king. And here, dear readers, lies the seed to the magnificent legacy Henry III did leave us: Westminster Abbey.
Westminster Abbey qualifies as one of my favourite places. I don’t go there to gawk at the headstones and effigies of the famous, I go there to imbue the atmosphere, to sit in the Chapter House, peek at the cloister gardens. I go there to rest my head against the stone and listen to the sounds of all those who’ve walked here before me, a silent shuffling and rustling as shadowy monks, richly dressed magnates, the odd veiled woman pass by. Yes, yes: of course I know I’m imagining things – or am I?
Westminster Abbey is first and foremost a church, built in testimony of deep faith. Two English kings were to spend the equivalent of a major fortune on this their favourite church – one of whom is today’s protagonist, Henry III – but the origins are far older than that. In fact, we probably have the Romans to thank for the original settlement on what was then known as Thorn Ey (Island of the brambles), a small patch of solid land in the marsh that abutted the northern shore of the Thames. You see, the Romans had a logistic problem: somehow they wanted to join up Watling Street with Dover Street, and the self-evident intersection was round Thorn Ey, where the Thames was fordable at low tide.
As to the abbey, its roots are lost in antiquity. As per one legend, the Romans built a temple to Apollo on the present day site of the abbey. Out went the Romans, in came the barbarous Saxons, and the temple was razed to the ground, a forgotten ruin, no more, until King Sebert of Essex (a gentleman who lived in the 7th century) saw the light and decided to build a church on top of the Roman ruins to celebrate his conversion to Christianity.
Unfortunately, there is little proof of this ancient church. The Westminster monks went a bit wild and crazy in the 11th century, producing a number of skillful forgeries in their attempts to substantiate Westminster Abbey’s claim to be the oldest Christian abbey in England. In the event, Glastonbury won that particular fight after having produced their own legend, that of Joseph of Arimathea, come to England in the aftermath of Jesus’ death with the Holy Grail and a staff that was to take root and become the Glastonbury thorn. Whether true or not, I leave to you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.
The 11th century ushered in a Danish dynasty and Knut (Canute), son of Sven Tveskägg became king of all of England in 1016. He rather liked Westminster, despite having issues with the temperamental tides of the Thames, so he decided to build a royal palace next door to the monastery. In doing so, Knut indirectly forged the first of several links that would forever tie the future abbey to the English royals.
By then, Westminster had grown into one of the more important monasteries in England. Several years of royal patronage had resulted in a wealthy monastery, and an impressive collection of relics ensured a steady stream of eager pilgrims.
The Danish dynasty was to be one of the more short-lived in England, and in 1043, Edward the Confessor (of Wessex royal blood) became king. He expended a fortune on Westminster Abbey, as per tradition because he’d promised to make a pilgrimage to St Peter’s grave in Rome should he ever regain his crown from the Danes. Once crowned, he was reluctant to leave his kingdom, and he instead promised to build – or enlarge and restore – a monastery dedicated to St Peter. Somewhat coincidental, all this, seeing as just opposite the royal palace in Westminster was a monastery dedicated to…taa-daa…St Peter.
The church Edward built was,by all accounts, magnificent, and people gawked and exclaimed as stone by stone, the building rose towards the heavens, testament to Edward’s faith and unswerving determination to build one of the finest churches in Christendom. Unfortunately for Edward, he never got to enjoy his finished church. He sickened some days after Christmas of 1065, was incapable of attending the consecration and instead was buried in Westminster Abbey – in front of the altar in early January 1066. A not so auspicious start to that particular year, one could say…
Anyway: as we all know, William the Conqueror defeated Harold in October of 1066, had himself crowned in Westminster Abbey, and as of that day the kings of England were Norman. Henry III was the great-great-great-grandson of William but shared few characteristics with his bellicose and determined ancestor. Where William was more into world dominion, Henry was more into the arty stuff in life, which to some extent explains why he chose to invest such immense amounts in rebuilding the old and dark Westminster Abbey church into what it is today. Plus, of course, Henry was determined not to be outdone by Louis IX of France.
The two young kings were of an age – Henry was born in 1207, Louis in 1214. They were also brothers-in-law, both of them married to daughters of the Count of Provence. Both were pious – very pious. If Henry went to mass every day – so did Louis. Louis fed hundreds of orphans – so did Henry. One gave alms – so did the other. If Henry went on pilgrimages, chances are Louis would also go. When Louis washed the feet of lepers to show his humility, very soon after, Henry was also washing leprous feet. A competition in being the most Christian king, one could say, a determination to show the world just who was the most pious, devoted and Christian king around. So when Louis paraded the True Cross through Paris, Henry did not rest until he’d acquired the Relic of the Holy Blood to proudly carry the vial with its priceless content to Westminster Abbey.
Then, of course, Louis went ahead and started building Sainte-Chapelle – he needed an adequately beautiful church to store all those precious relics of his. Sainte-Chapelle was (is) a work of art and light. The upper part of the chapel was given fifteen huge stained glass windows, allowing light to stream in and illuminate the magnificently painted walls, the resplendent fabrics, the life-size statues of the apostles, and, of course, the huge silver chest in which Louis stored his precious relics.
What did Henry have that could match this? Nothing. Nada. Yes, Westminster Abbey was steeped in history, but did it have a lofty nave, did it invite the heavens to come within? Nope. So Henry rolled up his sleeves – figuratively speaking – and decided to rebuild, to create something as magnificent and imposing as Louis had done. (Okay, so it wasn’t only because of Louis – after all, Henry had always had a major interest for art and architecture…)
Henry had a trump card: within the abbey was the shrine to St Edward the Confessor – Henry’s patron saint – and Sainte-Chapelle had no such shrine, no such saint. (Although, to be honest, I find it difficult to understand why Edward was ever canonised. Neither here nor there…)
The shrine was remodelled. It was decked out with paint and gold-leaf, it was so adorned it immediately drew the eyes of any visitor, rising huge beyond the altar. The nave was rebuilt, rising to new heights. Light streamed in – not, perhaps, as much as in Louis’ chapel, but substantially more than before. And then Henry turned to the decoration within.
We may be excused for believing medieval churches were austere, mostly whitewash and wood – modern man has a tendency to equate starkness with piety. In truth, entering a medieval church was an assault on the senses, and especially that of sight. The walls were painted with scenes from the bible, statues glowed in blues and reds and golds, pillars rose towards the ceiling decorated with stonework and colour. Candles cast further light on gold decorations, glimmered off priceless church silver. Sunlight streamed through stained glass windows, dappling the floor with coloured reflections. A bit, I imagine, like entering a full-size kaleidoscope, with so much to see, so much to gawk at.
This was the reaction Henry strived for. He wanted people to enter and stop, amazed at what they saw within. So not only did he lift the nave, order the walls to be painted and decorated, St Edward’s shrine to be adequately highlighted and gilded, he also added a magnificent floor just before the shrine, and to top it all off, the high altar was adorned with a magnificent retable.
Amazingly, the Westminster Retable is still with us. Close to eight centuries old, badly damaged and scuffed, it is still there, still retains sufficient traces of the images that must at one time have had people going ‘ooooo’ and ‘aaaa’. To be frank, it is difficult not to do the ‘ooo’ and ‘aaa’ thing now as well – assuming you’ve taken the time to find the retable, which relatively few visitors to the abbey do, seeing as they never feel sufficiently motivated to visit the museum.
I, of course, have found my way to the museum – and will gladly admit that I’m somewhat in love with the retable. Specifically, I am intrigued by one image, that of Christ holding the whole world in his hand. Because you see, dear readers, the world Christ is holding is round. It’s a sphere. On a work of art from the 13th century. I shall leave you to mull that one over…
As an aside, it is somewhat of a miracle that the retable is still around. When the Reformation happened, churches were stripped of what was considered as excessively popish decorations, wall paintings were hidden under whitewash, statues of saints and the Virgin destroyed. And then, during the English Civil War, the Puritans had a tendency to go wild and crazy when it came to what they perceived as idolatry. The retable was not destroyed. It was just bundled off into storage somewhere, and in the 18th century someone came up with the bright idea to use the ancient thing – newly painted – as a cask for William Pitt the elder’s wax effigy.
It is, I suppose, an open question which king succeeded in best demonstrating his piety to the world. In their constant competition, they left the world two marvels, the pure gothic beauty of Sainte-Chapelle and the somewhat more grounded Westminster Abbey, its ancient roots still visible. And as to which one of them was the most devout, that too must remain an open question, although Louis would probably sniff and tell me not to be an idiot: after all, there is no St Henry while there most definitely is a St Louis – and by all accounts, deservedly so.