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On Daemons in Royal Portraiture

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From the Palmerian Professor’s Introduction to the Exhibition Catalogue


It has been difficult to determine precisely how and why the profusion of heraldic daemons characteristic of mediaeval monarchs gave way to more ordinary forms. There are those who claim that the accession of Pope John Calvin and the shift in Church power from Rome to Geneva caused not just political and cultural disruption, but also metaphysical disruption, forever changing what forms daemons could and could not take, but these claims were, until recently, derided as purest heresy.


The last Brytish monarch to possess a heraldic daemon was Queen Elizabeth I, whose daemon, Arcturus, was a phoenix. Upon her passing, nearly all of the extant chronicle sources record some sort of aëtherial phenomenon not unlike the Aurora Borealis--although it is difficult to unravel the exact nature of this phenomenon from the many superstitious assumptions surrounding it--that appeared over the city of London. Doctor John Dee’s account is perhaps the most useful in this regard.


Vpon the passing of hir Maiestie Oure Gracious Ladye Queene Elyzabeth there appeared in the sky aboue the Paleys of Westmynstre a great blue Phoenixe composed all of Light. Wise menne did whisper that it betokyned the Glorye of This Oure Realme of Yngelonde, while fooles did cry vpon the ende of the Worlde...*


What we do not--and indeed cannot--know is whether the monarchs preceding the Tydders did in fact manifest heraldic or otherwise extraordinary daemons, or if those are meant to represent the power and authority of the monarchy rather than any individual. In the case of Queen Elizabeth, we possess not only contemporary portraits but also eyewitness accounts of her daemon’s unique and sometimes terrifying properties. Accounts of earlier monarchs make peculiar reference to these types of daemons--Henry VII, it is said, had a red dragon daemon who he called Myrddin, but he does not appear in any of the extant portraits, and those sources hostile to the Tydders claim he was a mere salamander. His tomb in Westminster Abbey does feature a large dragon curled at his feet, but it is unclear if Torrigiano was merely following orders or if his sculpture of the daemon, like that of the king himself, was truly drawn from life.


The Plantagenet line was known for daemons derived from the golden lioness of King Henry II and the exceptions proved the rule. King Henry’s son, Richard I, also had a lion as his daemon—ironic, given his hostile relationship with his father, but whose prowess on the battlefield gave him the sobriquet Richard the Lionheart. The daemons of the first and third King Edwards were also lionesses, whilst the Black Prince’s notorious Richeldis was a fearsome ‘pard. In contrast, King John’s daemon was, supposedly, a hunting hound, and that of the Black Prince’s doomed son Richard II was a greyhound by the name of Mathe. The many sons of Edward III led to a diffusion of daemons within the royal family. Henry IV and his descendants had daemons that took the form of different birds, if Froissart and others are to be believed, and those of the House of York were especially unusual—Edward IV’s black panther Mélusine and the raven of Richard III, Erichto, whose feathers were as black as that king’s heart...



* Oxon. MS. Ashmole 1788, fol. 150r. Ellipses denote a torn leaf, and Ashmole’s transcription in MS 1790 offers no further illumination of this fascinating event.




Here follows a selection of works on display in the Exhibition.




N° 1. Scene from the Bayeux Tapestry.


The so-called Bayeux Tapestry is an invaluable record of the Norman Conquest of Brytain, from the death of Edward the Confessor to the end of the Battle of Hastings. This scene is labelled ‘The Death of Harold’ (HAROLD.REX.INTERFECTVS.EST), and whilst it is not clear which of the fallen knights represents Harold Godwinson, the presence of his half-dissolved hawk daemon in the upper section of the tapestry is further confirmation. Equally of note is the figure half-obscured on the right-hand side, who is almost certainly William the Conqueror, as the daemon beside him is a panther incensed, looking more dog- than cat-like and breathing fire.




N°s 6-9. From Historia Anglorum of Matthew Paris. St Albans, c. 1250. Brytish Library MS Royal 14 C. VII.


This is one of the few surviving manuscript of Matthew Paris’ famous chronicle of England under the early Plantagenets that was almost certainly produced within his lifetime. What impact that has on the accuracy of the illustrations is, of course, entirely up to question. This two-page spread features portraits of eight Plantagenet kings: William I, William Rufus, Henry I, Stephen, Henry II, Richard I, John, and Henry III. While all eight monarchs are depicted holding miniature models of religious institutions they founded, only three are shown with their daemons and it is not clear what prompted this particular stylistic choice. Henry II’s lioness is seated at his feet, as is the similar daemon attributed to his son Richard the Lionheart. King John’s greyhound daemon, supposedly named Ysa (although the single source for that name is an account of his death), is perched on the arm of his throne. Henry III’s daemon is not pictured, perhaps owing to the fact that, when the manuscript was produced, that king was still alive.




N° 13. From Grand Chroniques de France. Paris, 1375-80. Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS fr. 6465.


This beautiful manuscript of the Grandes Chroniques de France dates from the reign of King Charles V, who was particularly renowned for his patronage of the arts. Several copyists and artists who had previously produced exquisite works for this king had a hand in copying the anonymous chronicle, which comprises three volumes in total. This particular image is of Queen Isabella of Valois, daughter of King Philip IV, who married the unfortunate Plantagenet King Edward II only to rise in rebellion against him on behalf of their young son, the future King Edward III, and it shows her leading a great army against her husband. The records of royal daemons in France are clearer than ours, and there are several striking images of King Philip’s enormous black wolf daemon that struck fear into so many hearts during his reign. Of his four children, only Princess--later Queen--Isabella appears to have inherited that particular daemon form, albeit in white rather than black, and he can be seen just to the right of the army’s leaders, seated and watching the events unfold.




N° 16. From Froissart’s Chronicles, Book 1. Bruges, c. 1480. Brytish Library MS Royal 18 E. I.


This manuscript of Froissart dates from the late fifteenth century and can be traced to a workshop in northern Burgundy. It is thus beautifully detailed and painstakingly produced as characterise such jewels of Burgundian craftsmanship. This particular image, however, is perhaps one of the most controversial produced of a member of the royal family and his daemon, as it depicts the ‘pard of Edward the Black Prince, listed in heraldic and chronicle accounts as Richeldis, devouring a baby as the city of Limoges erupts in flames behind her. This is, of course, the gravest of taboos writ large, and is all the more striking since we have no proof that it actually happened. Limoges was burnt to the ground by soldiers under the command of the Black Prince in the year 1370, and we surely cannot blame Froissart if he chose to embroider upon this infamous event.




N° 18. From Froissart’s Chronicles, Book 3. Bruges, c. 1480. Brytish Library MS Royal 18 E. II.


This image, from the third book of the same Froissart manuscript described in Nos. 16 et passim, depicts the submission of King Richard the Second in the year 1399 to his royal rival and cousin Henry of Lancaster, specifically that of King Richard’s greyhound daemon Mathe pressing herself against the Duke of Lancaster’s leg while the future King Henry’s own daemon, the heron Hildegrin, flaps her wings in alarm. The detail is such that it is also possible to discern the following daemons of the greater nobility: the ferret of Lord Henry ‘Hotspur’ Percy, for instance, and the horse of Duke Edmund of York.




N° 22. From Wavrin, Chronicles of Brytain. Lille, c. 1475-80. Brytish Library MS Royal 14 E. IV.


This beautiful manuscript of Burgundian historian Jehan de Wavrin was presented to King Edward IV late in his reign, as per the presentation portrait in the first volume. Like the Froissart, it dates from the latter fifteenth century and thus reflects the fashions and mores of that period, rather than the earlier times it depicts. In this image, we see the coronation of King Henry VI, who was, historically, a babe in arms when he ascended to the throne in 1422, but appears here to be a child of at least ten. As such, it may in fact depict his coronation as King of France, which occurred when King Henry was in his teens. What sets this image apart from others of the king, including the single extant portrait from later in the century, is that this is the only image we have of his daemon Ursula, a white dove. Given the implications of such a daemon and the King’s violent death in 1471, it is perhaps not surprising that his distant successor, Henry Tydder, petitioned the Pope to have him canonised as a martyr.




N° 23. From Chastellain, Le Temple de Bocace. Bruges, c. 1465. Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS fr. 1226.


This small yet exquisite manuscript appears in this exhibition with gracious permission of the French National Library in Paris, though it originally belonged to, and was likely commissioned by, a wealthy merchant of Bruges in the mid-fifteenth century. The image is said to be of the wife of King Henry VI, Queen Margaret of Anjou, and she is depicted here with a man one can only suppose is the treatise’s narrator, the poet and historian Georges Chastellain. His daemon, a finch of some kind, is perched on his shoulder, whilst hers is seated beside her. It is the only image we have of the truly impressive and frightening daemon attributed to Margaret of Anjou, immortalised in the play of William Shakespeare as ‘that tyger’s heart wrapt in woman’s hide’. How a young lady of the house of Anjou came to manifest a Bengal tiger as a daemon is a mystery to all, but it is known that her father Duke René was a great collector of bestiaries and beasts alike, and given our scant knowledge of how daemons were formed prior to the foundation of the Church as we know it, we can only speculate.




N° 24. From Wavrin, Chronicles of Brytain. Lille(?), c. 1475-80. Bibliothèque Nationale de France MS fr. 79.


This volume of Wavrin’s Chronicles of Brytain also comes to this exhibition from the French National Library in Paris. The striking similarities in style between this and the presentation copy of Edward IV have led scholars to propose that both may have come from the same studio in Lille before their paths diverged. This image depicts the marriage of King Edward IV and the Lady Elizabeth Wydeville, and while there are several aspects of the image that contradict written sources, it is the only image where both of their daemons appear together. The absence of their daemons elsewhere is peculiar, but most probably reflects space and material constraints, as both of their official portraits (N° 25) include at least partial images of their daemons. The king’s black panther--an ordinary panther, as opposed to more fanciful versions found in images of eleventh- and twelfth-century monarchs (c.f. N°s 1-2, 4)--is seated with its front paws draped over what is clearly a blue-eyed white cat with a bottlebrush tail. The questionable elements in this image include the cardinal performing the marriage, the fact that it is taking place in what appears to be a cathedral church, and the presence of no fewer than eight witnesses. According to most accounts--and indeed to the Titulus Regius of Richard III--the marriage took place in a small chapel with perhaps one witness (the lady’s mother), and may not have been performed by a priest at all.




N° 26. Portrait of King Richard III. Oil on panel, late 16th century. NPG 148.


This portrait appears with gracious permission of the National Portrait Gallery and dates from the early sixteenth century, and thus some thirty years after the death of King Richard in 1485. Perched on the higher of his two shoulders is his daemon, a raven labelled ‘ERICHTO.’ This is the only extant portrait of his daemon, although she is mentioned in the accounts of John Rous, Polydore Vergil, and Sir Thomas More as having been a driving force in his decision to murder his nephews and claim the throne of Brytain.




N° 27. Engraving showing the joint tomb of King Henry VII and Queen Elizabeth of York in Westminster Abbey, sculpted by Pietro Torrigiani.


This magnificent bronze sepulchre is one of the earliest examples of Renaissance sculpture to appear in Brytain, and is reputed to be an accurate likeness of both King Henry and Queen Elizabeth. Given the likeness of the monarchs themselves, it has long been assumed that both daemons--King Henry’s Myrddin and Queen Elizabeth’s Lucretia--are equally accurate, but this theory was repeatedly challenged during the past century by those who believed the previous king Richard III to have been falsely maligned by historians in the pay of his successor, and that Myrddin was not in fact a red dragon but a salamander, or some other sort of lizard. Those particularly opposed to this king even suggested a newt. Irrespective of accuracy, these nonetheless rank amongst the finest depictions of royal daemons in the entire realm of Brytain.




N° 29. Portrait of Queen Mary I as a princess, attr. to a Master John. Oil on panel, 1544.


Queen Mary I was the last of the Brytish monarchs to espouse the Roman religion. Eldest daughter of King Henry VIII and Catalina of Aragon, her daemon manifested as a golden eagle--thus comingling the golden lion and black eagle of her mother’s arms. In light of her royal father’s treatment of his first queen, it is perhaps less than surprising that then Princess Mary’s daemon settled in a form that emphasised her connection not just to her mother, but to Hispania and to the Roman Church. Much ink has been spilt on her follies and her faults, but it is our hope that recent events will allow for some re-evaluation of her reputation.




N° 30. The ‘Rainbow’ Portrait of Queen Elizabeth I, attr. to Isaac Oliver


Considered the crown jewel of the royal collection, this massive canvas attributed to one Isaac Oliver and likely painted around 1600 depicts a seemingly ageless and preternaturally glorious Queen Elizabeth I, her fingers curved around a rainbow, under which can be seen the head and wings of her daemon Arcturus. The exact nature of her daemon has been the subject of considerable debate, with her detractors insisting that it must have simply been some sort of exotic bird, whilst her defenders point to the numerous references in chronicle, archival, and heraldic sources, as well as several extant portraits that feature what is clearly a phoenix. Nearly all accounts of her accession to the throne in 1559 include the anecdote that Arcturus appeared to have been ailing, but when word arrived of Queen Mary’s death, he reappeared beside the new Queen in a burst of golden flame. This supposedly happened a second time following the attempted invasion from Hispania in 1588, although there is some debate over whether or not that account suffers from an overabundance of patriotic fervour.


Since her reign, no member of the royal family has manifested such an unusual daemon. Her successor, King James I, claimed that his daemon, Astraea, was a lynx, but there is no proof to support that assertion. It is the hope of all the scholars involved in this exhibition that recent events will allow the study of these unusual and extraordinary daemons to once more take place within Oxford’s walls.




This was their third visit to the Ashmolean since the exhibition of royal portraits had been unveiled, and each time, Lyra and Pan had found themselves standing before the enormous Rainbow Portrait of Queen Elizabeth.


“She reminds me a little of Mrs Coulter,” whispered Lyra with a brief shiver. Pan wrapped himself more tightly around her shoulders. “Beautiful but dangerous.”


“She was a queen,” replied Pan. “Mrs Coulter would have enjoyed being a queen.”


They stood in silence for a few moments before Pan sighed. “I think I’d have liked to be a dragon or a phoenix. Don’t you agree?”


“I didn’t know you could have daemons like that,” mused Lyra. “It could have been fun. Can you imagine how many people we could have scared?” They smiled at one another. “It just never occurred to me.”


“I wonder why.”


“Do you think it was the Church? They probably didn’t want anyone having magical daemons. They didn’t like Queen Elizabeth, after all. Not in the end. Even though she agreed with them.”


“She was too powerful. They never liked people who could say no to them.”


It was strange to talk so openly about what had once been heresy. She and Pan still glanced round the room, relieved to see that nobody was paying them any mind. Even the docents who had indulgently smiled at Lyra when she entered the exhibition were speaking to other visitors.


Lyra unwound Pan from her shoulders and hugged him. “I don’t need a dragon or a phoenix. I have you, Pan, and that’s all I need.”


It wasn’t entirely true. But it was true enough. And for Lyra Silvertongue, true enough was nearly as good.