Piety and Chivalry St George's Chapel Windsor: Nigel Saul Looks at a Building Which Embodied Much of England's Religious and Political Life in the Later Middle Ages, and Which Stages the Blessing the Prince of Wales's Marriage on April 8th
Saul, Nigel, History Today
FROM THE WEST AND NORTH, the views of Windsor are dominated by the unmistakable silhouette of the great castle. The jagged outline of towers and battlements rises slowly but forcefully up the chalk bluff overlooking the Thames. Occupying a dominant position in the centre is the Round Tower, the castle's shell keep, which was raised in height in the nineteenth century. Higher up, commanding the best views over the surrounding country, are the state apartments of the Upper Ward. Nearer to the town and further down is the Lower Ward, the preserve of the dean and canons of Windsor. In this part of the castle the silhouette is dominated by the long, horizontal, whaleback skyline of St George's Chapel. This is a chapel as big as a cathedral. In the vast fortress that is Windsor nothing is done by halves. In Europe's largest royal castle we have Europe's largest royal chapel.
The turning point in the history of the chapel came in the reign of Edward III (r.1327-77). The present chapel, however, is a creation of the Yorkist and early Tudor kings. The building we see today was begun in 1475 and completed, for the most part, by 1509. A central tower was projected but never built. The chapel attests to the chivalric ambitions of Edward IV (r.1461-83), who initiated the rebuilding. Edward's idea was to graft a magnificent new royal mausoleum onto the existing castle chapel.
For well over a century, the chapel had served as the annual meeting place of the Order of the Garter, founded in 1348. This earlier chapel was a much smaller building than its grandiose successor. It occupied approximately the site of the present mainly nineteenth-century Albert Memorial Chapel. What it lacked in architectural magnificence, however, it more than made up for in liturgical and institutional significance. Around the chapel's walls the banners of the Garter knights were hung, and on a knight's death his armorial plate was placed on the stall by his seat. Here, to a greater extent than in any other English church, the worlds of piety and chivalry so characteristic of the late Middle Ages were brought into visible harmony. In raising the chapel's status in the 1470s, Edward IV wanted to make this mix richer still. In the exotic ambience of Burgundian-style chivalry which he created at Windsor, Edward could feel at home. Unsurprisingly, it was here that he chose to be buried.
Edward's rebuilding formed part of a much larger scheme to revive and re-endow the collegiate establishment that Edward III had called into being. The first recorded chapel in the Lower Ward had been built in the 1240s by Henry III, and dedicated to the King's patron saint, the last legitimate Anglo-Saxon king, Edward the Confessor. In 1348, however, Edward III reconstituted this as a college, or community of secular canons. At the same time, he established a sister college in the chapel of St Stephen at Westminster. The Windsor chapel was now rededicated to St George, a saint who stood for and legitimised martial values.
Edward arranged for each of the new foundations to be served by a dean, twelve canons and thirteen vicars. St Stephen's developed a close association with the institutions of government at Westminster, with many of the canons involved in administration. At St George's, however, the community's links were with Edward's new order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter. From the beginning, St George's was to be one of the most remarkable and distinctive foundations of late medieval England. It was also, in many ways, to be one of the most influential.
The role which St George's played as the spiritual home of the new Order made it unlike any other castle chapel in England. In effect, the chapel was the institutionalised focus of the social and religious activities of an elite knightly brotherhood. Not only did the Knights of the Garter gather within its walls in April each year on the patron's feast day to celebrate Mass; from the later fourteenth century, if not earlier, they made it their locus of memorialisation. When a companion knight died, his insignia--his mantle, helm and sword--were deposited in the chapel, while his arms and crest were displayed on his stall plate. The stall plate, still in place on the south side, of Ralph, Lord Bassett of Drayton is a remarkable survivor from this period.
The close tie between a knightly order and a designated chapel was to be a common feature of chivalric practice in late medieval Europe. It is possible that John II of France (r.1350-64) had actually conceived the idea before Edward: John had intended that the chapel of his manor of Saint-Ouen-les-Saint-Denis, near Paris, would serve as the spiritual centre of his Order of the Star (c. 1344). The French king's ambitious plans, however, never came to fruition; they fell victim to his capture by the English at Poitiers in 1356. Those later Orders which provided for a link with a chapel--a notable example being the Order of the Golden Fleece in Burgundy, founded in 1430--were almost certainly following Edward III's model at Windsor.
The association between the castle chapel and the Order highlights an important characteristic of later medieval England--the role played by the Church in the creation of what may be termed a national chivalry. Edward III regularly courted the intellectual and institutional support of the Church for his campaign to vindicate his rights in France. He drew on the canonical doctrine of the Just War to secure the legitimacy that he needed for his campaign for the French crown, and enlisted the services of prelates, preachers and monks in the propaganda effort for his cause. Between the 1340s and the 1370s writs poured forth from the royal chancery requesting archbishops and bishops to order prayers in every parish for the King. High-ranking preachers were called on to explain, in public and private sermons, the justice of the King's claim to the French crown and his efforts to avoid conflict. In 1346 Archbishop Stratford was ordered to read to the clergy and laity assembled in St Paul's churchyard a Franco-Norman plan to invade England, and publication was to be accompanied by a sermon and a solemn procession. The Church was as involved in Edward III's war effort as were any of his ministers or administrative officials. As Peter Heath has put it, the Church served as ministry of information and propaganda.
In Edward III's view, as in Henry V's later, the English cause in France was to be fought by spiritual, as well as by earthly, forces. The deployment of manpower and the effective mobilisation of resources might allow the King to put an army into the field and to sustain it there. Appeals to supernatural support, however, would be needed if the English were to be confident of winning victory in battle. The Almighty's backing had to be worked for. Accordingly, the resources of the Church had to be deployed in the national interest alongside those of the state.
At this point Edward's plans for St George's fitted into a broader scheme of national religious renew al. Edward had in mind an active role for the liturgy in securing the active support of the Almighty. The liturgy gave visual and sung expression to Man's dependence on God and need for God's help in recovering the wholeness he had lost when driven from the Garden of Eden. The Mass mediated God's grace to the congregation of the faithful. Edward therefore wanted an 'increase in divine service'--in the sense of increasing the number and magnificence of the Masses celebrated in the nation's churches. In England, which had a particularly extensive network of monasteries and secular churches, the benefits of worship and intercession were already widely dispersed. The celebration of the liturgy across a range of centres could help secure good order and, for the King and nobles, success in their pursuit of a just cause. Investment in the liturgy could hardly be other than profitable to the faithful. Where, however, as in England, the Church's interests were so closely linked with the crown's, the gain to the crown itself would be incalculable. A counter would be provided to the French political theology which focused on France as 'God's favoured realm'. England itself in some sense would be sanctified.
In 1348, therefore, when Edward established his twin foundations of St George's and St Stephen's, Westminster, he was thinking to some extent of the conflicts to come. It is true that he was also giving thanks for past victories, implicitly acknowledging God's help at the triumphs of Crecy (1346) and Calais (1347). Nonetheless he was also investing in storehouses of prayer, for use in future emergencies. For this reason, he took particular care to ensure that the canons at Windsor attended to their liturgical duties. He structured their emoluments in such a way as to ensure that, if they were to enjoy their full value, they would have to be near-permanently resident. A payment of 40 shillings per annum was made to each canon whether or not he was resident at St George's. If, however, the full potential of 'cotidians', the daily distributions at service, was to be realised--and they could be worth as much as 20 [pounds sterling] annually--the canon would have to be present at the services. Canonries at Windsor could not be combined with regular employment elsewhere in government, unlike in most comparable institutions.
Edward's interest in the 'increase in divine service' is evidenced by the number and range of his own religious foundations. St Stephen's at Westminster, like St George's, had originally been founded as a chapel royal in a palace. Edward now reconstituted it as a secular college and provided it with a new endowment. He also founded two substantial regular houses--the house of Dominican nuns at Dartford (Kent) and the Cistercian abbey of St Mary Graces, on the eastern periphery of the city of London. At various points in his reign he also provided many ad hoc benefactions, especially to the friars.
The influence of his foundations can be seen in the number of similar foundations made by his courtier friends and members of the nobility. It is striking how many of the King's comrades-in-arms followed him in establishing their own religious houses in the late fourteenth century. In the thirteenth century and earlier, when noblemen had wished to found a house, they had generally favoured monastic establishments. Now, though, they transferred their patronage to secular colleges, following Edward's examples at Windsor and Westminster. A major attraction of the secular college was the opportunity which it afforded the founder to shape the character of his foundation, as he was not confined by the sometimes constricting requirements of the monastic order. He could lay down exactly what he required of his body of clergy. Typically, he would charge the clerks with praying in perpetuity for his good estate, while he lived, and for the safety Of his soul and the souls of those he named, after his death. He could prescribe the daily regimen and manner of life of the community. In secular colleges a fluidity of provision was possible which the monasteries could scarcely match.
Colleges did not suddenly spring into being in Edward III's reign. By the fourteenth century they had at least two centuries' institutional history behind them. Around the 1150s, for example, Bishop Henry de Blois, King Stephen's brother, had founded a college at Marwell, Hampshire. It was in the mid-fourteenth century, however, that colleges really came into their own. In 1355 Henry, Duke of Lancaster, a founder Knight of the Garter, transformed the hospital of the Blessed Virgin Mary of the Newarke, Leicester, into a secular college. Seven years later, in 1362, John, Lord Cobham, another courtier lord, established a college for five chaplains, later increased to eleven, at Cobham, Kent, where the form of the college buildings--timber-framed ranges around a garth--owed a particular debt to Windsor. In 1387 the Earl of Arundel founded a college for a master and twelve chaplains in the church of St Nicholas at Arundel. Seven years after that, Arundel's fellow Appellant, Thomas, Duke of Gloucester founded a college at his castle of Pleshy, Essex, for a master, eight priests, two clerks and two choristers. Other examples of prestigious institutions could be cited--Edward, Duke of York's college of Fotheringhay, Northamptonshire, notably, from the early fifteenth century. The leaders of this movement were all courtier magnates. Where the King provided a model, his companions-in-arms were shortly to follow.
A crucial element in the 'increase in divine service' was the musical accompaniment to the liturgy. At Windsor, Edward took care to amplify the volume of universal worship rising to the Almighty from below. Music was one of the principal means by which the efficacy of the liturgical service was enhanced. From at least the time of the 1352 statutes, St George's had been served by a strong musical establishment. The choir was made up of three categories--thirteen vicars choral, all of them in priestly orders, four clerks in the order of deacon or subdeacon, and six boy choristers. The first of these groups were to be the clerks of the upper form of the stalls, the second the clerks of the second form, and the choristers the lowest form, sitting in front. The task of the choristers was to provide an appropriate musical accompaniment 'as is accustomed to be done in cathedral churches'--which, in the case of Windsor, meant the cathedral of Salisbury, the so-called 'use of Sarum'. A good supply of books and vestments was provided in the chapel to ensure that the choristers were able to discharge their duties to the best of their ability.
At the turn of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, a significant change occurred in musical performance, in which St George's was to play a major part. Until this time, the musical accompaniment to the liturgy had taken the form of monophonic plainsong. Now, however, variety was introduced by the singing of settings of texts in polyphony. John Aleyn, a canon of St George's in the 1360s, played a key role in the early development of polyphony. He was the likely composer of both the texts and the music of Sub Ar[c]turo plebs vallata, one of the most complex isorhythmic motets of the day. When he died in 1373 he bequeathed to St George's a roll of polyphonic music which is listed in the inventories of 1384 and 1409.
In the early fifteenth century, however, the momentum for the development of polyphony was slowed by the effects of plague on the pool of manpower in which musical talent was tapped. The many later plague visitations--those of 1390, 1400, 1405-7 and 1413--disproportionately afflicted the younger age group. Fewer and fewer aspirants were being recruited to the priestly order; and in nearly every great church or cathedral the choir was falling below strength. As a response to this challenge, a new class of musician was brought into being. These were the clerks in minor orders who sang in the choir, often for a lifetime, but had no ambition of entering major orders--in other words, the future 'lay clerks', the backbone of English cathedral choirs. St George's is one of the very first institutions at which the introduction of the new class of chorister can be traced.
By 1400, then, in response to the plague visitations, the dean and canons had abandoned the old promotional track for choristers from clerk to vicar to priest, and from now on the bottommost rank of clerk was open to youths who could serve in it for as long as they wanted. One such chorister in this new class was John Plummer, a member of the chapel royal and a resident of Windsor (d. c. 1483), whose motet Anna mater matris Christi is one of the finest pieces of its kind to have come down to us.
St George's Chapel, Windsor, was therefore an institution of wide influence in all sorts of ways. Even before it was re-established by Edward IV in the late fifteenth century, it was serving as a model for other institutions of its kind. Like the castle of which it formed a part, it played a key role in the history of England. In 1834 St Stephen's Chapel, by then the seat of the parliamentary Commons, was destroyed by fire. St George's, with its continuing association with the royal family, attests Edward III's ambitions to this day.
FOR FURTHER READING
N.E. Saul (ed), St George's Chapel, Windsor, in the Fourteenth Century (Boydell, 2005), in particular the chapter by Clive Burgess; C. Richmond and E. Scarff (eds). St George's Chapel, Windsor, in the Late Middle Ages (Windsor, 2001).
FROM THE HISTORY TODAY ARCHIVE
Richard Mullen, 'The Last Marriage of a Prince of Wales, 1863' (June 1981); Samantha Riches, 'Seynt George, on Whom Alle Englond Hath Byleve', (Oct 2000); P.J. Hogarth, 'St George: The Evolution of a Saint and his Dragon' (April 1980); Juliet and Malcom Vale, 'Knightly Codes and Piety' (Nov 1987); Jane Geddes, 'The Search for John Tresilian, Master Smith to Edward IV' (April 2002); Maurice Keen 'Heralds in the Age of Chivalry' (March 1984); Eric Ives, 'Marrying for Love: The Experience of Edward IV and Henry VIII (Dec 2000). For access to these and other related articles see www.historytoday.com and click 'Editor's Choice'.…
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Publication information: Article title: Piety and Chivalry St George's Chapel Windsor: Nigel Saul Looks at a Building Which Embodied Much of England's Religious and Political Life in the Later Middle Ages, and Which Stages the Blessing the Prince of Wales's Marriage on April 8th. Contributors: Saul, Nigel - Author. Magazine title: History Today. Volume: 55. Issue: 4 Publication date: April 2005. Page number: 19+. © 2009 History Today Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2005 Gale Group.
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