bonæ litteræ: occasional writing from David Rundle, Renaissance scholar

The Relics of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester at St Albans

Posted in British History, Uncategorized by bonaelitterae on 19 November, 2018

One of the greatest pleasures among many of my line of work is being invited to give a public lecture. This is always thanks to the audience, who bring their own knowledge and interests to the event, often encouraging (and sometimes forthrightly challenging) you to rethink your own assumptions, and inviting you to present your research with a fresh perspective. It can also be because of the location — and there are few better than mine last Thursday: the crossing of St Albans Cathedral.

The title for my evening lecture was ‘St Albans and the Cult of Humfrey, duke of Gloucester’. I had been asked because news had reached there of my interest in the duke who, of course, is posthumously a local lad, being buried there with a fine chantry situated behind the high altar, just south of Alban’s shrine. My talk was necessarily an overview, considering, as I put it, ‘how Humfrey became Good’ and ‘how Humfrey became an Anglican’. That, though, is not how I began the discussion and it is that first section I want to discuss with you.

Humfrey tomb

Engraving of Humfrey’s chantry in George Sandford, A Genealogical History of the Kings of England (London, 1677)

I opened the lecture with the visit to St Albans in 1765 of David Garrick and his fellow actor, James Quin. They went to the abbey church and saw the duke’s chapel. They were particularly interested in the duke’s tomb which, as was rediscovered in 1703, lies beneath the monument, with a wooden coffin enclosing a lead one. It had been opened on its rediscovery to find that the duke had been embalmed, preserved in a ‘strong pickle’. The two visitors left the church to find lunch at the Christopher Inn on French Row (which in later years, it is said, was a brothel). Over their food and drink, they mused on what they had seen and Garrick was inspired to pen a short poem, entitled Quin’s Soliloquy, in which it was wondered what the use would be of being pickled when dead; much rather (Garrick claimed Quin proposed) to be pickled in Burgundy wine when alive.

For these two actors, the remains of Humfrey were a curiosity and a cause for merriment, but they did not, as far as we know, carry away any part of him — as did many other visitors. There are tales of the removal of bones and of other parts of the body. For instance, in later years, Elizabeth, countess of Moira, herself a proto-archaeologist, recalled a trip to St Albans in 1747, when she would have been sixteen. She recounted that ‘I took from the skull of Humphrey duke of Gloucester, in his vault at St. Alban’s, a lock of hair which was so perfectly strong that I had it woven into Bath rings’. Similarly, an antiquary named John Webster recorded that he owned Humfrey’s beard ‘which the archdeacon gave me leave to take away’.

This last example, incidentally, sheds a side-light on another element of the eighteenth-century interest in Humfrey. Horace Walpole was keen to have in his collection a depiction of the ‘Good Duke’ and believed that he had two. The first that he bought was said to come from the abbey Bury St Edmunds and to represent both the duke and his uncle and enemy, Cardinal Beaufort. In truth, neither identification has much foundation and that of Humfrey shows a bald old man who is also beardless. Either John Webster was duped or (more likely) Walpole had been over-enthusiastic in his identification.

Humfrey Walpole NPG

Print of the panel that Horace Walpole owned and identified as being Humfrey (National Portrait Gallery).

We do not know if Walpole himself was one of those who paid their homage to Humfrey at his monument, but the result of others’ reverence was the depletion of the physical remains, to the extent that only a few bones and his skull now are in situ. The skull was studied in 1830, with a cast being made, so that a phrenological investigation could be undertaken. By the time the report was published a couple of years later, the cast had disappeared.

There are two features that strike me in these tales. The first is that of the secular relic. That visitors could take away hair and bones, with the church’s connivance, might suggest that some payment was made and that this was a much-needed source of funds for an over-large building for the parish it then served (the former abbey was only to be raised to the status of a cathedral in 1877 and, at the point, much restoration was necessary). We might want to see it as the precursor to tourist tat, but that would surely to be misunderstand at least part of its attraction. The examples I have mentioned all suggest an antiquarian or ‘scientific’ interest related to the removals. There was surely also something else involved in these, as with Walpole’s fascination with Humfrey: a sense of association with a ‘great man’ that was best expressed by ownership of some tactile element of him.

We might well find that alien and our distance from this tradition is perhaps part of the explanation for the second element: the ephemeral nature of these relics. The cast was not available very soon after its production; neither piece of hair — to my knowledge — remains. If you happen to own some bodily part of the duke or know where one might be found, I would dearly like to hear from you. As our information stands at present, there is no such thing available to view in a present-day collection. That says much about how the style of interaction reflected in these tales has died. With it, of course, Humfrey has undergone something akin to a second death: the removal of his bones was a dispersal but it is later generations who bear the responsibility of their discarding and disappearance. We cannot but find odd a Protestant habit of seeking relics of such an unsaintly figure as the ‘Good Duke’ but we have also to recognise that our perplexity leaves us struggling to reconstruct not just one aristocrat’s body but a former culture’s apparatus of association in which even a piece of hair could have talismanic qualities. It leaves me wondering whether the eighteenth century would have been more comfortable with ‘actor network theory’ than some third millennium observers seem to be.

I opened with the visit to St Albans in 1765 of David Garrick and his fellow actor, James Quin. They visited the abbey church and saw the duke’s chapel. They were particularly interested in the duke’s tomb which, as was rediscovered in 1703, lies beneath the monument, with a wooden coffin enclosing a lead one. It had been opened in 1703 to find that the duke had been embalmed, preserved in a ‘strong pickle’. The two visitors left the church to find lunch at the Christopher Inn on French Row (which in later years, it is said, was a brothel). Over their food and drink, they mused on what they had seen and Garrick was inspired to pen a short poem, entitled Quin’s Soliloquy, in which it was wondered what the use would be of being pickled when dead; much rather (Garrick claimed Quin proposed) to be pickled in Burgundy wine when alive.

For these two actors, the remains of Humfrey were a curiosity and a cause for merriment, but they did not, as far as we know, carry away any part of him — as did many other visitors. There are tales of the removal of bones and of other parts of the body. For instance, in later years, Elizabeth, countess of Moira, herself a proto-archaeologist, recalled a trip to St Albans in 1747, when she would have been sixteen. She recounted that ‘I took from the skull of Humphrey duke of Gloucester, in his vault at St. Alban’s, a lock of hair which was so perfectly strong that I had it woven into Bath rings’. Similarly, an antiquary named John Webster recorded that he owned Humfrey’s beard ‘his which the archdeacon gave me leave to take away’.

This last example, incidentally, sheds a side-light on another element of the eighteenth-century interest in Humfrey. Horace Walpole was keen to have in his collection a depiction of the ‘Good Duke’ and believed that he had two. The first that he bought was said to come from the abbey Bury St Edmunds and to represent both the duke and his uncle and enemy, Cardinal Beaufort. In truth, neither identification has much foundation and that of Humfrey shows a bald old man who is also beardless. Either John Webster was duped or (more likely) Walpole had been over-enthusiastic in his identification.

We do not know of Walpole himself was one of those who paid their homage to Humfrey at his monument, but the result of others’ reverence was the depletion of the physical remains, to the extent that only a few bones and his skull now are in situ. The skull was studied in 1830, with a cast being made, so that a phrenological investigation could be undertaken. By the time the report was published a couple of years later, the cast had disappeared.

There are two features that strike me in these tales. The first is that of the secular relic. That visitors could take away hair and bones, with the church’s connivance, might suggest that some payment was made and that this was a much-needed source of funds for an over-large building for the parish it then served (the former abbey was only to be raised to the status of a cathedral in 1877 and, at the point, much restoration was necessary). We might want to see it as the precursor to tourist tat, but that would surely to be misunderstand at least part of its attraction. The examples I have mentioned all suggest an antiquarian or ‘scientific’ interest related to the removals. There was surely also something of Walpole’s fascination with Humfrey — a sense of association with a ‘great man’ that was best expressed by ownership of some tactile element of him.

For us, a bone is most likely to be considered just a bone, a witness to our shared humanity. In a culture where phrenology took the shape of the head to be revelatory of the inner workings of a character, there was a different sense of signification and significance. A parallel could be with the interest in autographs, where a person’s writing was not just a specimen but a potential window on their mind as the movement of the pen could be claimed to reveal that person’s thoughts and inclinations. One piece of evidence taken from their true self, in other words, could express their essence: they are immanent in their slightest remain.

We might well find that mindset alien and our distance from this tradition is perhaps part of the explanation for the second element: the ephemeral nature of these relics. The cast was not available very soon after its production; neither piece of hair — to my knowledge — remains. In fact, we would be hard pressed to find any bone or bodily part of the duke’s in a present-day collection, and that says much about how the style of interaction reflected in these tales has died. With it, of course, Humfrey has undergone something akin to a second death: the removal of his bones was a dispersal but it is later generations who bear the responsibility of their discarding and disappearance. We cannot but find odd a Protestant habit of seeking relics of such an unsaintly figure as the ‘Good Duke’ but we have also to recognise that our perplexity leaves us struggling to reconstruct not just one aristocrat’s body but a former culture’s apparatus of association in which even a piece of hair could have talismanic qualities. It leaves me wondering whether the eighteenth century would have been more comfortable with ‘actor network theory’ than some third millennium observers seem to be.

 

 

 

 

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