The Tower is a very tall and stately structure, and it is hard to believe it was begun in the period 1309/10.
The wall paintings are thought to have been added in the period 1320-1340.
Visitors often ask who was the King of England during these periods in the Tower’s history. They are thinking, how was this upstart family, peasants as recently as 1200, able to rise so high? And some ask, was the Tower a defensive building, was it needed as a refuge during the turbulence and violence of these centuries?
This is my History Ruler, which I have kept since my children were at Primary School, over a quarter of a century ago. Still in very good condition, not chewed, or splintered!
The Kings (and later the Queens) of England are listed in chronological order.
Our records first show the existence of the Thorpe family as peasants, tenants of the Watervilles (Norman Knights) as early as 1175.
This was during the reign of Henry II. Henry was a strong and vigorous king, who fathered many sons, the prime duty of any king being to provide an heir to ensure the stability of the kingdom.
King Henry’s first two sons died. Firstborn William died aged 3, and second-born Henry, the Young King (uniquely crowned as Young King during his father’s lifetime) died a sordid death of disease in France, aged about 27.
Henry II’s fourth son, Geoffrey, also predeceased his father, again in France, at the age of 28. Mortality rates were high in the Middle Ages, even for those born with the advantages of royalty.
Richard, the third son, survived to become King Richard the Lionheart, but died childless. On his death he was succeeded by his brother, Henry II’s youngest son, John. If King John were to have a further tag to his name, it would be John the Bad, as he is widely recognized to be England’s worst ever king. It was during his reign that Thurstan Thorpe, the ancestor of the Robert Thorpe who built the Tower, was made a free man, in 1212.
As a marker of reference on the Timeline, Magna Carta was signed in 1216. The ‘Great Charter’ was largely concerned with the rights of the Barons and other privileged and land-owning classes. It has since been immortalised as a beacon of universal human rights, but that was not how it started out. The Barons, the only class which had the power, collectively, to challenge the King, were sick of his tyrannical behaviour. They set out to force him to come to the negotiating table, and Magna Carta was the result.
John’s lawless and self-indulgent rule included seizure of his subjects’ lands, dispossession, imprisonment and physical violence. John extracted extortionate fines from anyone who opposed him, and was known to starve his enemies to death. In a chilling foreshadowing of later stories, he allegedly murdered his nephew, Prince Arthur. Arthur was the son of John’s older brother Geoffrey, and therefore had a better right to the throne than John.
“He kept his prisoners in such a horrible manner, and in such abject confinement,” wrote the author of the 13th-century History of William Marshal, “that it seemed an indignity and a disgrace to all those with him who witnessed such cruelty.”
The chronicler ‘Anonymous of Bethune’ wrote:
“He was a very bad man, more cruel than all others. He lusted after beautiful women and because of this he shamed the high men of the land, for which reason he was greatly hated. Whenever he could he told lies rather than the truth… He was brim-full of evil qualities.”
“No man may ever trust him,” according to the troubadour Bertran de Born, “for his heart is soft and cowardly.”
A very dark period in English history befell the middle period of John’s rule. On 23rd March, 1208, the Pope laid an interdict over the whole of England. This was a punishment directed straight at the King, in retribution for John’s failure to agree with the Pope’s choice of the new Archbishop of Canterbury.
Arguably, the punishment fell far heavier on the people of the country than on its King, who appeared undisturbed, and in fact accrued great financial benefit by confiscating church property and revenues.
To the people, it must have appeared that a dark cloud had fallen over the land. The church doors were sealed, and the congregation kept out. No burials were permitted within consecrated ground, and no-one was allowed to celebrate the Mass. No sacraments were permitted except the baptism of infants, and the penance of the dying. Many must have felt that they were descending into Hell.
The nearest equivalent I can imagine today is having all the supermarkets shut down, and the cinemas and TV turned off permanently. The church was as central and fundamental to medieval life as these things are to us today.
John took no notice, so the Pope went further, and in November 1209 he excommunicated John.
All the monastic chroniclers report the seizure or confiscation of church property. John appointed local men to take control over the barns and farm produce formerly controlled by the monasteries. They took the place of the monastic officials who had previously carried out the role.
In each parish or “vill”, four villagers, “rustici” were appointed in the king’s name to take charge of and administer the clergy’s barns. These men, taking church property, lived in fear of excommunication. They had to humbly appeal for absolution once the church was restored. Reference source:
The interdict went on for six years, and was finally lifted on 2nd July 1214.
In the middle of this period, we are told that the ancestor of the Thorpes who built the Tower, Thurstan de Thorpe, was made a free man. It is tempting to wonder how much the chaos and breakdown of normal rules of society had to do with this unusual event. In the medieval period, it was extremely difficult to move between social classes. I have written about this topic in my posts on the Pastons.
It is also tempting to wonder whether Thurstan de Thorpe obtained his freedom by taking on the spiritually dangerous and unpopular task of the “rustici”. Those who took on this work must have been compensated in some way.
Our records indicate that the Knight to whom Thurstan owed his tenancy was short of cash, after going on Crusade. The records indicate that Thurstan paid the Knight to obtain his freedom. Could the money have come from work done on the King’s business, taking care of produce from Church barns?
This unsettled and dangerous time was a good opportunity for an ambitious family to advance.
Effigy on King John’s Tomb, Worcester Cathedral:
The tomb was opened in 1797, and an account of the opening can be found on the British Library website.
Image: British Library
The ducal tower of Siedlęcin, Lower Silesia, Poland. Photo courtesy of Artur Wosz – see link below for origin
I was struck by this interesting post about wall paintings in Poland.
Part of our training at Longthorpe as volunteers includes telling visitors about the significance of numbers to the Medieval mind.
We have the Three Living and the Three Dead:
The Wheel of the Five Senses:
and the Seven Ages of Man. We also have the Twelve Apostles, and the Twelve Labours of the Month. What we don’t have is the Nine Worthies.
The blog from Freelance History Writer explains that the Nine Worthies were a group of nine powerful rulers and the greatest conquerors who ever lived. They included three classical pagan heroes (Alexander the Great, Hector, and Julius Caesar), three Jews (David, Joshua and Judas Maccabeus), and three Christians (Charlemagne, Arthur and Godfrey de Bouillon). In medieval art, architecture and illuminations the Nine Worthies motif became enormously popular. Some of the finest examples have survived until today, most notably in Italy, but also in Central Europe.
The blog explores some sites in Poland. One is a Medieval Tower, dating, we are told, from 1313 – 1316. This is almost contemporary with Longthorpe Tower. It’s grander, though, since it was “probably built by Duke Henry I of Jawor. In the 1320’s/1330’s, the said duke commissioned what is considered its greatest treasure. According to recent research it was then that the southern wall of the Great Hall was adorned with paintings depicting the marvelous exploits of Sir Lancelot of the Lake.”
The addition of the wall paintings follows a similar timeline to the addition of the wall paintings at Longthorpe.
Our timeline explains that Longthorpe Tower was built by Robert Thorpe, Steward to the Abbey of Peterborough in about 1309/10, and the paintings were added somewhere between 1320-1340. Extremely close in dates! Could it be that this was an international fashion trend?
Even more exciting – the ducal tower has a window seat inside which reminded me of the window seats on our upper floor. I wonder, could the enlarged Jacobean window behind our till on the first floor have once looked like this?
The Great Hall of the ducal tower of Siedlęcin with the unique set of the wall paintings depicting the marvelous exploits of Sir Lancelot of the Lake. Photo courtesy of Artur Wosz
A similar window on the upper floor of Longthorpe Tower. Photo author’s own.
I was very excited to see how similar these windows are in construction and outline. It appears that there was an international fashion for this type of construction.
Paintings, too, seemed to be the height of fashion and a mark of status.
Were these decorative features following a trend set at a Royal level?
The Painted Chamber, Westminster was commissioned by Henry III (reigned 1216 to 1272) and the paintings took place over a lengthy period.
More information can be found here,
Extracted from British Library Medieval Manuscripts site,with annotations:
Calendars with illuminations and other miniatures are often found in manuscripts from the medieval era.
Along with listing important dates, many medieval calendars (particularly later ones) include a miniature of the relevant sign of the zodiac, as well as a scene of the ‘labour of the month.’ These ‘labours’ were fairly standardised, and would have been instantly recognisable to a medieval audience, although they can often require a bit of explanation for the readers of today. Each month depicts a different endeavour appropriate to that particular time of year, and these images are often some of the best evidence of the work and leisure activities of the non-nobility.
An excellent illustration of a medieval calendar can be found in the British Library’s ‘Isabella Breviary,’ created for Queen Isabella of Castile (1451 – 1504). Isabella is perhaps better known as the mother of Catherine of Aragon, buried here in Peterborough Cathedral. A breviary is a book of prayers, hymns, and other readings designed to be read daily in accordance with the canonical hours. BL says “This magnificent example was produced in the late 1480s in Bruges, with illustrations by a number of prominent artists of the time.”
Here is the manuscript page the British Library published for January. At the bottom is a picture associated with the labour of the month for January – sitting warming oneself by the fire, as shown in Longthorpe Tower. (But showing as February on the font at St Mary’s Church, Burnham Deepdale). The picture also shows feasting, (shown as December on the church font. There are 300 years between the Norman font and these beautiful late 15th century manuscripts. The Tower pictures, circa 1320 -1340, fall in between.
February’s manuscript picture:
attribution BL: February, from a geographical collection, England (Canterbury? Glastonbury?), mid-11th century: Cotton MS Tiberius B V/1, f. 3v
It shows workers clearing away vines. Above, their tools are depicted in detail and may reflect actual 11th-century agricultural practices. The men wield curved knives. Below, the man on the furthest left holds a bigger, curved blade attached to a longer handle.
Pruning vines took place in April in the stone font carvings at St Mary’s Church.
I wrote last year about the 600th anniversary of The Paston Letters, which will be celebrated in 2018.
An ideal introduction to this medieval family can by found in a post on a Norfolk medievalist’s blog, in a post entitled “The Pastons in Norwich”
The blog is beautifully illustrated, and contains ample reference material. To whet your appetite, here’s the opening paragraph, with illustration:
“The story starts with Clement Paston (d1419), from the village of Paston about 20 miles north-east of Norwich. He was “a good, plain husband” whose lowly station in life was illustrated by the fact that he had to ride, “to mill on the bare horseback with his corn under him” [quote from The Paston Letters]. Clement’s humble origins, probably as a bondman not entitled under feudal law to own land, were to be used against his descendants as they rose to prominence.
Lovely, isn’t it!
The post goes on to illuminate how the Pastons rose to great heights from humble beginnings, only to fall again in later centuries.
In similar fashion, the Thorpe family achieved eminence, only to fade away. The Thorpes died out in 1392, when the Tower passed to a cousin. By 1502, this branch of the family sold the Tower in 1502 to the Fitwilliam family.
Image: Courtesy BL Harley 3244
On the subject of the twelve labours of the month, we are used to telling our visitors that the final picture of the series, only just visible, shows December, killing the pig. For Christmas, of course.
December is confirmed as the month of killing the pig on this wonderful site, provided by the library of Trinity College Cambridge. We can read detailed information about each of the Labours of the Months, and see pictures of what some of the wall paintings would have shown. December shows the raised arm we can faintly see in the Tower painting, and the fat pig, about to expire.
One day, a visitor came in on my shift, who was more than usually attentive and interested in the Labours. She informed me that she was a lecturer in Medieval Studies and that the pig would have been killed in November. There would have been no food for it in December, and it would need to be cured and prepared.
I was intrigued, but pointed out that there was no room on the arch for a further month to be inserted below the one we call December.
The idea stuck in my mind, however.
On a trip to Norfolk earlier this year, I visited St Mary’s Church, Burnham Deepdale.
The church has a Norman font, depicting in stone the Twelve Labours of the Months.
Below shows, from right, January – drinking from a horn, February, sitting by the fire, March, digging with a long-handled spade, and April, pruning a vine.
This side of the font (below) shows, from right, May, June, July and August. May is explained as waving a banner at a Rogation-tide festival. June shows weeding out thistles with two implements. July mowing hay with a scythe, and August binding a sheaf of corn.
Below, from right, October, November, and December. (September just off, to the right).
The first picture reading from the left shows four figures feasting at a table. This is explained as being the month of December. The middle picture is killing the pig (November) and the right-hand one shows October, themes connected with the harvest. It is thought to be either grinding the corn, or pouring the fruits of the grape harvest.
The picture below shows the pig more clearly, and also September, threshing with a flail. So that’s the complete twelve months, on three sides of the font.
More information can be found on this website.
Below is the information provided in the church itself.
In St Mary’s font, November, the eleventh month, shows the pig indeed being killed. There is also a different January from the one at Longthorpe Tower, showing a man drinking from a horn. Not until February is he warming his feet at the fire. There are thus two additional pictures, which would create a symmetry if they were hidden below what we see as January and December.
The font certainly casts an interesting new light on the Twelve Labours. We would all love to see the missing items damaged and no longer visible in the Tower.
The Pastons were a Norfolk family, who thrived in the medieval period. They are best known for their surviving letters, which are a unique and fascinating record of the time as expressed in family communications.
Many histories of the Wars of the Roses include references to the Paston Letters in their bibliographies. A King was at Walsingham, a Duke was at Caistor. A draft was requested for the Battle of Bosworth.
It’s often said that history is written by the winners, but there is no bias in a family letter never intended for wider circulation.
The earliest letter dates to 1418, so it is the 600th anniversary is next year. The British Library is celebrating with a digital release of many of the letters which can thus be read in full online.
Other celebrations will take place tracking Paston sites in Norfolk.
What relevance does the Paston archive have for Longthorpe Tower volunteers, other than the medieval timeframe?
The answer is found on the BBC History website. Here’s a quote: “The Paston family rose from the peasantry to the aristocracy within just two generations. This is the story of how they did it.” The full page can be found here.
Just like the Thorpe family, although a bit later in the period, the Pastons rose from the peasantry, largely via education, to senior positions in the legal field, and aquired land and titles as they advanced.
Visitors to the Tower sometimes ask how the Thorpe family rose from its humble background to the gentry in a period when social mobility was virtually non-existent. Indeed, it was actually illegal to pass yourself off as gentry if you were from a humble background.
Clearly education was key. The themes of education in our Tower wall-paintings are usually cited.
Less well-known is the significance of having a private chapel. We know that what is now Longthorpe Parish Church was moved, in its entirety, from a location about a mile away, in approximately 1263.
The Paston family had to defend themselves against the charge of being”base villeins” passing themselves off as gentry.
Here’s part of the court record of how they defended themselves:
…….. Also they shewed divers deeds and grants before time of mind, how that their ancetors had licence to have a chaplen and have divine service within them. And that divers of their ancetors had given lyvelyhood to houses of religion to be prayed for, and confirmacions under the Great Seale of our noble ancestor Kinge Henry the Third, son of Kinge John, confirming the same grants.
Letter 643, Project Gutenberg
The key link is “licence to have a chaplen” – a private means of worship.
It would appear that the moving of the chapel to a location next door to the Thorpe family residence may have had more significance than mere convenience.
Our timeline tells us that Longthorpe Tower was built in 1309/10. This was during the reign of Edward II. It was a time of national unrest and upheaval, largely caused by the total unsuitability of his personality and the divisiveness of his actions as King. He was followed by his son, Edward III, who reigned from 1327 to 1377. During this reign the paintings were added by Robert Thorpe, steward to Peterborough Abbey.
In Canterbury Cathedral the tomb of Edward III’s son may be found. He was known at the time of his life and death as Edward of Woodstock, Prince of Wales. The awe-inspiring title “The Black Prince” came much later.
The Prince died just one year before his father, of a lingering infection picked up on campaign in Spain, thought to be dysentery. His will requested that the epitaph inscribed on his tomb should be these words:
Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
On earth I had great riches
Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone
As Tower volunteers we are very familiar with the first two lines – the words of a French poem which explain the motif of The Three Living and the Three Dead.