Sewer Extraordinary

King Richard II (6th January 1367 – 14th February 1400, enthroned 1377, deposed 1399; starved to death) is appearing as Simon Russell Beale at the Almeida Theatre until February. He’s on my mind because I am a patron for the night of the White Hart, Kingston upon Thames.

The town enjoys many valuable privileges and immunities by royal charter, by courtesy of King John, Henry III, and Edward III. Kingston offered Edward II four (armed) freemen; Richard II, son of the Black Prince, gave them a shop and eight acres of land, towards paying their fee-farm-rent, and confirmed the charters of his predecessors.

The Wilton Diptych is the earliest painting from Northern Europe in the collection of London’s National Gallery.  Kept at Wilton House until 1929, it now hangs in its own secluded alcove. (In the Spectator’s Christmas 2018 issue, Mervyn King was among those invited to “Pick a Painting”. He responded: “In the centre of our drawing-room, I would install the “Wilton Diptych”….the mystery is reinforced by Dillian Gordon’s discovery that the orb on the English banner contains a tiny image of a green island set in a silver sea. Shakespeare’s “Richard II” portrays England as “this precious stone set in the silver sea”.”.)

The portable altarpiece was painted for Richard II by an unknown artist, probably during the last five years of his reign. It is an extremely rare survival of a late Mediaeval religious panel painting from England and an outstanding example of the International Gothic style. This donor painting shows Richard kneeling before the Virgin and Child, presented to them by his patron saint, John the Baptist, and by the English royal saints, Edward the Confessor and Edmund the Martyr.

The scene makes reference to Richard’s birth on Epiphany, when Christ was adored by three kings, and to the Baptism of Christ, which at the time of painting was celebrated on the same day. It’s thought that Shakespeare may have seen the painting when it was still in the Royal Collection, as his lines precisely reflect the liveried angels, iconographically very unusual, of one panel:

“For every man that Bolingbroke hath press’d

To lift shrewd steel against our golden crown,

God for his Richard hath in heavenly pay

A glorious angel: then, if angels fight,

Weak men must fall, for heaven still guards the right.”

(“Richard II”: Act III, Scene II)

The identity of the kneeling king is certain, because he and the angels surrounding the Virgin are wearing badges with Richard’s livery, the White Hart, which also appears in the brocade of the left panel and the outside of the diptych. The king also wears a collar representing the linked pods of the heraldic broom plant.

Livery badges had apparently begun relatively harmlessly in the reign of Richard’s grandfather, Edward III, in a context of tournaments and courtly celebrations. By Richard’s reign they had come to be seen as a social menace, as they were used to denote the small private armies of retainers kept by lords, largely for the purpose of enforcing their lord’s will on the less powerful in his area.

Sir Thomas Wyatt was a 16th Century English politician, ambassador to the court of Charles V, and lyric poet, credited with introducing the sonnet (as an English form of the Petrarchan sonnet) to English literature. He followed his father, Sir Henry Wyatt, to the court of Henry VIII, first entering Henry’s service in 1515, aged thirteen, as “Sewer Extraordinary”. The term sewer then referred to a servant who waited at table.

Carol Rumens has written that “The Petrarchan sonnet presented Wyatt with a matrix for revelation within concealment.”. She goes on:

“Wyatt did not merely translate his originals: he transformed them, as in (the) poem, “Whoso List to Hunt”.”. (The originary is Petrarch’s “Una Candida Cerva”.)

The penultimate line runs,

” “Noli me tangere, for Caesar’s I am,”….: according to Solinus, white stags were found 300 years after Caesar’s death, their collars inscribed with the command: Noli me tangere, Caesaris sum – Do not touch me, I am Caesar’s.

On 4th December 1935, England played a friendly football match against Germany, where the National Socialists had been in power for two years, at the White Hart Lane ground in North London, amid a storm of protest from Jewish groups. In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws had stripped Germany’s Jewish citizens of many of their basic human rights. Catholics and Trade Unionists – suffering under the regime since Hitler had seized power in 1933 – also protested.

The Nazi “Strength through Joy” movement organised and funded ten thousand German fans to travel to the match on the day, and security was tight. The German fans were fed on roast beef and Yorkshire pudding, plus cabbage “cooked in German fashion”. Their caterers? “A Jewish concern which good Nazis should not patronise” : Lyons and Co.

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