Edward the Confessor features in a wide range of medieval texts encompassing the categories historiography, hagiography and liturgy. Also when it comes to art, the depictions of the Confessor are highly varied and present an interesting repository for how he was imagined in medieval times. It is, however, not quite as substantial as his literary legacy, nor has it survived equally well. This repository includes his personal sigil, the Bayeux tapestry, Abbot Richard Barkyng's hangings in Westminster Abbey (mid-13th-century), a stained glass series in Fécamp Abbey Church (early 14th century), the Wilton Diptych (1390s), a selection of manuscript illuminations from the mid-11th century onwards and a few odd pieces here and there whose fulness has yet to be established.
I was very kindly notified of one of these odd pieces by Margaret Hiley, who proofread my MA thesis back in the days, and I was immediately thrilled to learn of it. The oddity in question is a mural ostensibly depicting Edward the Confessor in St. Andrew's Church, Lyddington in Rutland, and it presumably dates from the 14th century as this is the date of the oldest sections of the church. We do not know for certain that it is Edward adorning the wall at Lyddington, but as the church was given to the jurisdiction of Westminster by Edward himself, it seems a plausible conjecture. In this blogpost I aim to see how well the conjecture holds up by looking closely at the few details available, and comparing this mural with other 14th-century depictions.
Before embarking on a detailed investigation of the mural, it may be proper to give a brief account of Edward's general standing in 14th-century England. After Henry III, Edward's most enthusiastic devotee, there was a shift in devotional focus for the kings of England. Henry's son, King Edward I, showed his namesake saint due veneration and placed spoils from the Scottish campaign at the saint-king's tomb, but towards the end of the 13th-century the royal family became more interested in the cult of Thomas Becket. In addition, Edward hailed the legendary Arthur as a saint in order to bereave the Welsh of their hope of Arthur's return, although how much this affected his pious observances can not be stated with great certainty.
With the militant reign of Edward III there came an upsurge in devotion towards St. George, who eventually was pronounced the patron saint of England in 1351. In 1381, however, King Richard II embraced the cult of Edward and his veneration appears to have resulted in a widespread improvement in Edward's standing in the realm - at least among the upper echelons - and both Langland and Chaucer make references to St. Edward in their works. The historian Jean Froissart stated that Edward was generally venerated throughout all England, and particularly in Ireland. He further claims that Richard's veneration was a way of placating the Irish, but neither of these claims can be corroborated. It was Richard's enthusiasm which resulted in the Wilton Diptych in the mid-90s, which can be seen below.
In other words, it is not unlikely that the mural in question may be a rendition of Edward the Confessor given the historical circumstance. We must now turn to the details of the work for further investigation.
Image taken from this website.
As we see from the images above, the man in the mural wears a reddish robe and an ermine-coated cape, both very expensive accoutrements. In art, expensive and fine clothing is of course a very effective way to convey high standing in society, and it is very likely that this depicts some royal saint. Another piece of evidence to suggest this is the fact that he wears gloves, possibly hunting gloves, which clearly demarcates a man of the upper echelons.
In the literature pertaining to Edward the Confessor, he is often portrayed as a man of fine clothing. In the first biography of the king, Vita Ædwardi qui apud Westmonasteriam recquiescit (1065-75), it is stated that Edward's wife Edith was very skilled with the needle and made him beautiful and richly adorned clothes, which he wore without pride. Edward's clothing becomes a way for the author, of whom little is known beyond his Flemish origins, to emphasise the disparity between the outer and the inward man: despite his regal appearance, Edward was a humble man on the inside who valued the law of God above all other things. This is a common topos in the depiction of medieval kings, and royal saints were usually portrayed in rich clothing. In 14th century painting, however, Edward appears to be dressed in more sumptuous clothes than previously were the case, as we can see both in the Lyddington Mural and the Wilton Diptych below. Whether this was a consistent trend we can not say given the scant evidence, but both the mural and the diptych are very different from illuminations of the same century.
The gloves are another issue. As we see in the picture above, Edward of the Wilton Diptych has bare hands. The gloves may suggest hunting, which of course was a popular pastime among royals, and one which was stated to be Edward's favourite - second to praying - in Vita Ædwardi and, drawing on this biography, in William of Malmebury's Gesta Regum Anglorum (1120s). However, in the mid-12th century John of Salisbury spoke very harshly of hunting as a pastime unfit for Christians, and this view - which appears to have been common in clerical circles - can be seen reflected in the more sedate renditions of Edward in the hagiographies. Whether John of Salisbury's condemnation carried any weight into the 14th century I do not know. Nor do I know how widespread this view was. In other words, although St Edward traditionally - as a saint - was not depicted as a huntsman, this is no impediment to the possibility of such a depiction in the 14th century.
The Wilton Diptych
The face of the mural is to a great extent worn away, but we see outlines suggesting a bearded face. From 11th century and onwards Edward the Confessor has been described as a man of perpetual old age, having white beard at a time when he was only about thirty or forty. This is again a common topos of medieval literature, and a similar case can be seen in the depiction of Charlemagne in The Song of Roland. White beard conveyed the wisdom of old age, and emphasised the prophetic abilities of Edward the Confessor. Furthermore, in the mid-12th century, the swan-white beard - which was said to be as beautiful in the grave as in life - became a symbol of Edward's virginity, another of his prime characteristics. As we see in the Wilton Diptych, this was retained in the 14th century.
From what remains of the mural there are two items of royal paraphernalia suggested by the heavily worn outlines. In his left hand the saint-king is holding what appears to be some circular object, possibly the royal orb or the ring he allegedly received from John the Baptist - his particular saint according to hagiography - which can also be seen in the Wilton Diptych.
The other item appears to be a sword, suggested by the yellow-golden hilt at the figure's left flank. This is the most unusual aspect of this mural in the traditional depictions of Edward the Confessor, as this is the only representation I've come across where the saint-king is armed. In the catalogue of artistic portrayals, the sceptre, the orb and the crown are all common items and emphasising the peaceful aspect of monarchy for which Edward was famous. The sword is, in other words, unprecedented, and this may be due to its 14th-century provenance, which, as we have seen, was a period when martial saints were more popular - and more expedient, if we can talk so cynically about religion - than a solomonic peacemaker like Edward.
The final aspect of this investigation is slightly tenuous, but it is crucial to the matter at hand. Just beside the hilt of the saint's sword we can see what appears to be the pattern of the cape. It is impossible to make out the pattern properly, but from the pictures it looks very much like the cape is coloured in gold and azure. If this indeed is the case, there is a strong possibility that the cape is decorated with the arms of Edward the Confessor - invented long after he had passed away - which were adopted into the arms of Richard II sometime in the 1390s. The arms of Edward the Confessor, as seen below, is a golden cross surrounded by five golden martlets on an azure background, strongly reminiscent of the palate seen in the cape at Lyddington. If this really is the case - which may never be subject to certainty - it can be proved beyond reasonable doubt that this really is a representation of Edward the Confessor.
To sum up, there are several pieces of evidence which suggest the mural depicts Edward the Confessor. It fits with the traditional representations of him in both art and literature, although some aspects are unusual, but that definitive proof mentioned at the end is still solely a matter of conjecture. Nonetheless, I feel comfortable including this mural in the existing canon of medieval portrayals, and if it really is the case, the art history pertaining to the Confessor has been more diverse than hitherto believed. Now it only remains for me to visit St Andrew's, Lyddington and behold this mural with my own blue eyes.
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