Tag Archives: iconography

The Art of Law: important article on images in rolls of the late medieval Court of Common Pleas

An area in which many legal historians have become increasingly interested in recent years is the visual composition of legal records. I gave a paper on this at the British Legal History Conference in 2013 (http://www.gla.ac.uk/media/media_282282_en.pdf ), highlighting the need to integrate the images from the Common Pleas rolls into the King’s Bench-dominated view acquired from Erna Auerbach’s work, and have also made some comments on visual material in this blog (http://vifgage.blogs.bristol.ac.uk/2013/04/07/p-is-for-profile-henry-viii-in-the-rolls-of-the-common-pleas/ ). The appearance of a thought-provoking study of the visual material in the CP rolls in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries is a welcome addition to this area, and certainly one for reading lists in medieval legal history.

Elizabeth A Danbury and Kathleen L Scott, ‘The Plea Rolls of the Court of Common Pleas: an unused source for the art and history of later medieval England. 1422-1509’. The Antiquaries Journal, 95  (2015), 157-210 looks at the rise of decoration and illustration in the CP rolls in this period, and explored the iconography of the images and the meanings of words and mottoes associated with them. There is much of interest in the identification of particular kings and other characters, and the discussion of the way in which particular images fit in with contemporary political events. I am also intrigued by the mysterious popularity of dragons in these records. Helpfully, there are several good-quality photographs of key images.

Medieval historians are naturally drawn to the political ramifications of the images. I think that legal historians can and should also consider the implications of the illustration and decoration which relates to the image or self-image of particular courts. Auerbach’s work saw the inclusion of loyal, royal pictures in the KB rolls as something which flowed from the particular connection of the monarch with that court. Noting that the CP also included such images makes that conclusion less secure. There is also the issue of the inclusion of decoration and mottoes associated with the names of judges, which deserves some consideration in connection with the image they were trying to project. Finally, there is the intriguing issue of the expected ‘consumers’ of these images: who would have seen them? Did our ‘clerk-illustrators’ imagine that they were drawing only for their immediate colleagues and contemporaries, or for posterity?

Gwen Seabourne

11/12/2015

P is for profile: Henry VIII in the rolls of the Common Pleas

One of the great benefits of the massive scanning project undertaken for the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website is that it is now considerably easier than before to compare a number of different manuscripts. Recently, I have found it particularly interesting to compare the use made of the initial letter on plea rolls (a ‘P’ for ‘Placita’). The King’s Bench rolls are the more decorative – more on them later – but there are also some interesting images in the Common Pleas rolls.

Things start off under Henry VIII much as they had ended under Henry VII, in a not terribly interesting fashion, with rolls until 1521 being rather workaday manuscripts, without illustration (though ‘titles’ are emphasised with some decorative lettering, and a couple have religious inscriptions). Thereafter begins the Common Pleas tradition of portraying Henry VIII in profile, looking away from the lettering, to the reader’s left. Some of these images are rather sketchy,e.g. CP 40/1031 m.1;  but by the late 1520s, they are more finished

In CP 40/1032A m.1, the king is spewing foliage in a rather ‘green man’ depiction – certainly something to consider alongside the many discussions of the presence of such images in ecclesiastical contexts. In CP 40/1035, he is in ermine, reminiscent of the standard King’s Bench regal image. In CP 40/1055, CP 40/1057, CP 40/1063, Henry is clothed in courtly fashion, with a hat. By 1530, however, the conventional Common Pleas portrait of (what I assume is) him is more martial. He appears to be wearing decorative Greenwich-style armour and a helmet,  open to show his face and beard.  The facial expression changes, as does the colour of the beard and the style of the moustache, but this is clearly a standardised image, present from 1530 to the end of the reign.

Obviously, it is difficult to draw conclusions as to the ‘meaning’ of this portrait – all the more so because the artist(s)  is or are unknown, and the rolls were not intended for the king’s entertainment, nor for the general public’s consumption, so that the purpose of such portraiture is somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Henry VIII was portrayed in this ‘heroic’, martial (and lean) fashion in such a large number of manuscripts from 1530 until the end of his reign.  The contrast with the ‘regal’ KB portraits, the portly coin images of the later years of his reign and, of course, the famous Holbein portrait, is noteworthy.

It should also be noted that the armoured man image persists throughout the Common Pleas plea rolls of Edward VI, with the exception of his very last roll. This could be taken as evidence that it is not supposed to be Henry at all, but it seems to me more likely that the portrait of Henry was included during Edward’s minority, because the king’s father still overshadowed his heir. The image disappears from the rolls with the accession of Mary.

Mary I Biography, iconography

Just finished reading Anna Whitelock’s Mary Tudor: England’s first queen. A very well written book, walking the very difficult tightrope between academia and popularity. Still find it very hard to get to grips with Mary I as a person, but this probably does as much as can be done in the way of humanising her. A couple of points to think about in terms of legal history, in terms of constitutional law in the (novel) situation of a queen regnant, and then the ramifications of a the doctrine of unity of persons in the context of a married queen.

Recently, I have been studying plea rolls for illustrations (serious and humorous). My ‘patch’ is the medieval rolls, but I have enjoyed having a look at some of the depictions of Mary (alone and with Philip) on the first membrane of legal rolls. These range from the cartoonish (CP 40/1170 m.1 – cartoonish profile) to the lavish, coloured and gold-blinged (see, e.g. KB 27/1172 – also featuring Philip with a rather phallic symbolish sword). Most of the KB 27 images are standardised, those at the beginning of the reign bearing close resemblance to those of Edward VI. Like her brother, who, until  his very last roll, (KB 27/1167 m.1) was not depicted with a state sword, Mary generally holds the less masculine orb and sceptre.Her first roll, KB 27/1168 (1553), however, shows her with a sword. Perhaps this appeared fitting, given her then-recent heroic efforts to gain her crown. She also has a sword in KB 27/1188 – her very last roll, in 1558, in which, intriguingly, Philip is not depicted.  On all other occasions after their marriage, Philip has the sword.

One can imagine that a lot of thought went into just how to portray Mary and her husband without giving offence to either in terms of precedence. At first, Philip is on the right, the dominant side, as on the coins which were circulated,  though positions are switched from KB 27/1180 m.1 (Michaelmas 1556) onwards – an interesting change which it is tempting to tie to an abandonment of hope for an heir and Philip’s absence from his wife (note though that his reappearance in 1557 did not change the positions).  The spouses are usually shown looking at each other, though never very happily. Mary, in fact, comes closest to looking happy in the triumphant first membrane of KB 27/1168 (1553) – which has a beautiful colour picture of her with angels and a dove.

Those responsible for decorating the Marian KB 27 rolls show none of the medieval humour – we look in vain for grotesques and chimeras. There is a touch of subversive fun on some Common Pleas rolls – e.g. CP 40/1170 m.1 has a cartoon profile of the queen, and there is a splendid demonic creature on CP 40/1174 m.1, but, generally, it looks as if the mood of the times was not conducive to visual wit and humour.