25 April 2023
Inventing a royal past
Greenwich Palace was a favourite of England’s Tudor monarchs. Beside the palace stood the church of the Observant Friars, founded in 1482. Being so close to a royal residence, the church played a regular part in royal ceremonies — Henry VIII, Mary I and Elizabeth I were all baptised there. This church had political and religious importance, which is reinforced by two manuscripts digitised for the Library’s Medieval and Renaissance Women project. Egerton MS 2341/1 and Egerton MS 2341/2 contain instructions for the glaziers creating the stained glass for the church’s East window. These instructions demonstrate how that window was designed to strengthen the new Tudor dynasty.
Probably originally a single roll, the two manuscripts are undated. They must have been written after 1489, when Margaret Tudor was born, as she is one of the individuals to be depicted in the window. In turn, they presumably pre-date the death of Elizabeth of York, Henry VII’s queen, in February 1503, as the text refers to her in the present tense. They may have been made in the early 1490s, and before the church was consecrated by April 1494.
Part of the roll describing the images of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York: Egerton MS 2341/2, membrane 2
The window was to depict Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, his wife, each holding the other’s hand. It would also feature Margaret, their daughter, and Margaret Beaufort, Henry’s mother. Next, there would be several figures widely revered in late medieval England, including Charlemagne, the mythical Constantine (father of the historical Constantine the Great), St Thomas de Cantilupe, and the Saxon saints Edward the Confessor, Edmund the Martyr and Oswald. The choice of these figures is not surprising. What is unusual is the choice of the women to feature on the window.
The window was to include nine saintly women, each of royal blood. The most famous of these was St Helena, who discovered the True Cross and many other relics in Palestine and was the mother of Emperor Constantine. While not a princess, the manuscript describes Helena as ‘daughter to Coyle Kyng of Britaigne’, the Old King Cole of the nursery rhyme, repeating a mythical ancestry popularised by the medieval chroniclers Henry of Huntingdon and Geoffrey of Monmouth.
St Helena’s discovery of the True Cross: Add MS 17275, f. 290v
Another famous saint to be featured in the window was Margaret of Scotland, the granddaughter of Edmund Ironside and wife of Malcolm III, king of Scots. Their daughter, Maud (or Matilda), married Henry I of England, while Margaret’s great-grandson himself became king as Henry II. In an interesting historical parallel, Margaret, Henry VII’s daughter, who was to appear in the pane below St Margaret, would marry a Scottish king, like her saintly namesake, and have a great-grandson who would become king of England: James VI and I.
The next well-known figure was St Winifred. She was descended from a Welsh princely family and became an important saint in Wales and Shropshire, with cult sites at Holywell and Shrewsbury.
A prayer to St Winifred in a 15th-century devotional: Harley MS 955, f. 67v
The remaining six female saints were all Saxon royal women and ranged from the lesser known to the outright obscure: Æthelthryth or Audrey, daughter of King Anna of East Anglia; Edith, daughter of King Edgar of England; Æthelburh, daughter of King Æthelberht of Kent; Eormenhild, daughter of King Eorcenberht of Kent; Blitha, a relative of Æthelred the Unready and Edmund Ironside; and Mildrith, daughter of King Merewalh of Magonsæte, a Mercian sub-king.
Why was the window to include such individuals? Henry VII’s claim to the throne was not especially strong. Although he was a descendant of Edward III, his royal ties were through an unlicensed marriage on his father’s side and illegitimacy on his mother’s. There were other nobles in England who had stronger claim to be king, like the children of George, duke of Clarence, or the Stafford dukes of Buckingham, both families descended legitimately from Edward III. In these two rolls we can see an attempt to bypass this issue by going far back into England’s past to create legitimacy for the fragile new Tudor dynasty.
By focusing on royal women from before the Norman Conquest, the window placed Henry, his queen and his daughter among a cohort of royal women stretching back over a thousand years. He could claim direct descent from St Margaret, the ancestor of every English king from Henry II onwards. She, in turn, was linked to several of these Saxon saints. This window presented a Tudor history that looked beyond the dynastic squabbles of the 15th century, using these women to emphasise Henry VII’s link to a more distant and less contentious Anglo-Saxon past.
We are extremely grateful to Joanna and Graham Barker for their generous funding of Medieval and Renaissance Women.
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