This weekend we met my family at Hornton, near Banbury in North Oxfordshire. We had lunch at the Dun Cow – amazing steaks – and went for a long walk. A brilliant afternoon. Between lunch and walk Dad showed us the wall-paintings in St John the Baptist’s Church there. Also this door. The porch is Fifteenth Century and so, he says, the door must be too. It is ancient.
The church was built in phases from the twelfth to the fifteenth century, large enough in the end to hold a parish of three hundred and fifty. And curiously that is the size of the modern population as well. A large North Oxfordshire village in the Middle Ages is a small North Oxfordshire village now.
The church is still entirely medieval. From the Seventeenth Century it was allowed to fall down and luckily not demolished and rebuilt by the Victorians. It was lovingly restored in 1915, when a whole series of wall paintings was revealed under whitewash. Traces of painting covered much of the walls, but most of it was in too poor a condition, and it was whitewashed over again. Sadly we don’t know who painted them. The guidebook says that the pigments are earth colours with charcoal for black and woad for blue, local colours. Perhaps the painters were local too. There are a lot of churches in the Cotswolds and there was a lot of money in wool.
The best surviving paintings are the Doom or Last Judgment over the chancel arch, more of that another time.
on the left side of the arch a painting of the Virgin of Piety, Mary holding the dead Christ, a rare subject in English medieval painting but popular in Italy. More of that another time too, because it’s been defaced by iconoclasts and that’s a subject in itself.
The painting I was really interested to see on the right side of the arch.
This is Saint George spearing the Dragon. And, as the Church Guidebook says, this painting enables us to date the paintings around the chancel arch. He is shown as a knight, and his armour can be dated to the decades around the mid-Fourteenth Century. The medievals imagined the past by projecting their own image backwards in time. Medieval art is always set in the present day.
St George is shown in the same style of armour as Sir Richard Pembridge KG (d.1375) one of the founder knights of the Order of the Garter, on his tomb in Hereford Cathedral.
Or, as the guidebook says, the tomb effigy at Canterbury Cathedral of Edward of Woodstock (1330 – 1376) son of King Edward III, better known as the Black Prince.
The guidebook points out that the background behind the Hornton figure is decorated with yellow fleur-de-lys, red coronets and white feathers with a motto scroll at the bottom.
These are Prince of Wales feathers. At this date they were the badge of the Black Prince. He was the first Prince of Wales to use the feathers badge, with three shown singly, as on his jousting shield, rather than joined together in a plume as they are today. As today, they have the Prince’s motto Ich Dien ‘I serve’ on a scroll underneath.
The same feathers appear in the background of the Virgin and Christ, without the fleur-de-lys and coronets.
The guidebook identifies the painting as a portrait of the Black Prince as Saint George, comparing the likeness with the Prince’s 1376 effigy in Canterbury Cathedral, and noting that the fleur-de-lys of France appears in his coat of arms. This is actually the Black Prince’s surcoat worn in battle, originally hung in 1376 above his tomb in Canterbury Cathedral
That’s an important argument. The medieval public was highly literate when it came to reading personal emblems, livery badges and heraldry. And badges and heraldry are very literal. They mean what they mean. They signified who owned what, who someone worked for, who was on your side in a battle, who you followed. So if you saw a background of painted white ostrich feathers with mottoes in 1370, you would think of the Black Prince. Some who saw this painting at Hornton would even have fought with him in France.
A portrait of the Black Prince. That is an interesting idea. I was boring and skeptical about it at first. A prince couldn’t be painted as a saint back then, portraits as such didn’t really exist yet, the emblems are meant to make you think of the Black Prince, it’s about him but it can’t be a portrait of him. There must be a Black Prince connection, but what is it? etc.
I’ve just changed my mind. I had discovered a likely Black Prince link. Sir John de Verdon Lord Verdon KG (d.1375) of Northamptonshire and Norfolk served in the First Division under the Black Prince at Crécy in 1346. He may have been riding the war horse called Grisel de Coloigne that the Prince gave him at the start of the campaign. Verdon’s stepson Sir John de Crophull (d.1383) married Margery de Verdun in 1348, heiress to Hornton and the neighbouring village of Horley, along with a quarter of the English and Irish estates of Theobald 2nd Lord Verdun Chief Justice of Ireland. Sir John de Verdon and Margery de Verdun were also distant cousins. They were all knights and they held their lands directly from the King. Here were great patrons who would want to honour and emphasise a connection with the Black Prince in one of their churches. But there’s something unsatisfying in this.
If the patrons – Margery Verdun and her family – wanted to honour and celebrate their connection to the Black Prince, would they, might they have got the painter to make Saint George look like him? They knew what he looked like. The Hornton Saint George is a good fit for the face in Canterbury. The moustache is a fashion and doesn’t narrow it down. But the hair colour is about right. There is only one colour portrait of the Black Prince, from 1390. He died in 1376, but this manuscript was made at Court in reign of his son Richard II, so the hair colour must be about right.
Richard II is an interesting case. He was unmilitary and didn’t joust. He was brave even heroic at first. He single-handedly stood down the Peasants’ Revolt. But he wasn’t a great king and shrewd judge of men like his grandfather or personally commanding or charismatic like his father. Instead he turned his Court into a cult of Christlike Majesty and he was deposed and murdered for it. His successors took notice, tho they kept the title of Majesty that Richard introduced for himself. Medieval princes couldn’t imagine they were saints. If they wanted to live. Behind the ritual the job was too difficult and too dangerous not to have both feet on the ground at all times. Richard II certainly didn’t have both feet on the ground. He might drop hints in conversation that he was just like Jesus – there were three kings present at his birth – but even he could still only be painted as a mortal. I’ve read somewhere that Richard got his exalted vision of kingship from his father. He also inherited his bravery. I wonder if the Black Prince did identify Saint George. And in that case, whether we are looking at a pretty fair likeness of him in the Hornton painting. It’s a question beyond art history but I can well imagine it. How would you get round the problem of it not being good form to be painted as a saint. A prince mingled with saints but that didn’t make him one of them.
Unless. Saint George could only be identified that closely with the Black Prince if the family thought it was appropriate. And that could only be so if they knew the Prince himself thought the same and echoed it with deep admiration.
Photography by ZCIM
Next time, another knight under the whitewash – another Prince of Wales’s feathers, the anchorite and the Edwardian Reformation at Hornton, the cinema turns into an exam.
and the Edwardian Reformation at Hornton