Thursday, January 28, 2016

With the whole world in his hand

by Anna Belfrage

Some kings peer out at us from the mist of history as rather forgettable characters. One such king, IMO, is Henry III. Yes, I realise he has the misfortune of being squished between the upheaval that characterised the reign of his father, King John, and the rather impressive persona of his son, Edward I, but all the same, Henry comes across as passive – and seriously inept, 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.

Henry must have been lonely. 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.

I have previously written a post about Westminster Abbey, and so as not to bore you to tears regarding my fascination for this place, today I thought we’d talk a bit about what drove Henry to invest such immense amounts in rebuilding the old and somewhat dark original abbey church into what it is today. And the starting point, I believe, is Henry’s determination not to be outdone by Louis IX of France.

St Louis
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. And they were both 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.

The two kings seemed to be involved in an unspoken competition, a determination to show the world just who was the most pious, devoted and Christian king around. So when Louis proudly paraded the True Cross through Paris, Henry did not rest until he’d acquired the Relic of the Holy Blood (and no, let’s not go there…) and could just as proudly carry the vial with its priceless content to Westminster Abbey.

Sainte-Chapelle Photo by Michael D Hill Jr
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. 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, determined to create something as magnificent and imposing as Louis had done.

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.

St Peter with the key to Heaven
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.

Divided into five panels, the retable was made of oak, decorated with enamels and jewels, meticulously painted using linseed oils. The frames of each panel was gilded, to the furthest left was St Peter, holding the keys to heaven, to the right St Paul, brandishing his sword. And in the central panel, decorated so as to resemble a gothic church, complete with stained glass windows, was, of course, Christ the Saviour, flanked by St John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.

The whole world in his hands...
I must admit to being 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…

It is somewhat of a miracle that the retable is still around. When the Reformation happened, churches were often 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.

These days, the retable is restored to a fragment of its original magnificence, but it is sufficient to conclude that the English (and French) craftsmen involved in its creation were true artists – and that the king who ordered it did not consider money a limiting factor.

Photo: Bede 735
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.

In 1272, Henry III died. He left behind a devoted and extremely capable son and a work of art. Not a bad legacy, for a man who began his days as a frightened child-king and grew up to be a rather deficient ruler. Not bad at all.


Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, In the Shadow of the Storm, was published on November 1, 2015.

Anna Belfrage is also the author of the acclaimed  The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, eight books tell the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.


  1. Great post - thanks Anna. Poor chap deserved his moment in the sun :)

  2. Thank you for this informative post, I like the way you talked about the rivalry between the two kings. Excellent.

    1. Thank you. Compared to other rivalries, this one had the benefit of being a competitionin who was the most "good"...

  3. An excellent post, Anna. Very interesting about the retable!

  4. I know the Welsh took advantage of the times to solidify their power in their own region, but I didn't know he started Westminster. Very cool!

  5. I enjoyed reading this very interesting article, but ... I can see that, as you say, "the world Christ is holding is round" - but I don't see any evidence that it is a sphere. The mediaeval world was round, and flat; and I think that is exactly what is depicted here.

    1. When you look closely at it, it resembles a sphere rather than a flat circle. And I lean towards believeing the learned people of the Middle Ages were aware the world is a sphere - it sort of goes hand in hand with advanced star-gazing :)

  6. Thanks for the informative history of the Abbey. On busy Bayswater Road in central London, stands a convent. there is a shrine to the martyrs and Perpetual Adoration of the Eucharist by the 25 cloistered nuns in the Tyburn Benedictine order. “They pray for the conversion of England,” as should all of us. We need England to return to The Holy Church.

    1. I imagine that is a matter of opinion, but the EHFA blog is not intended as a site on which to drive religious agendas.


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