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Richard II: King of the White Hart

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When Richard II succeeded his grandfather, Edward III, he turned to alchemy to create a more pious ideal of kingship. Though his reign ended in failure, it left us one of medieval England’s most enduring and complex images. Jonathan Hughes explores its symbolism.

The exterior of the Wilton Diptych depicts Richard II's coat of arms impaled with those of Edward the Confessor. Opposite, the king's grieving white hart sits on a bed of rosemary. Perhaps the most mysterious and haunting image in English art is a chained white hart decked in pearls and wearing a golden crown. It adorns the back of an altarpiece, known as the Wilton Diptych, originally erected in a small chapel in Westminster Abbey during the late 14th century. This creature can still be seen on signs at public houses throughout the country. Its meaning and origins can be found in the reign of an equally mysterious king whose beauty, capriciousness and obsession with purity left traces in the satirical portraits of the vernacular literature written during his reign (1377-99), including some of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, in the Cheshire poems, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and Pearl, and in the 16th century in Shakespeare’s Richard II, which portrays a monarch familiar with alchemy.

In medieval symbolism the colour white was subservient to its opposite, red. In Grail mythology, originating in the 12th century, the status of Albion as a holy land came from the cruets brought by Joseph of Arimathea containing the red blood and white sweat of Christ. According to the Arthurian legends started by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his History of the Kings of Britain (1136) the nation was born when the red Celtic dragon overcame the white one of the Saxons, a conflict reflected in the domination of the white national flag by the red cross of St George.

The origin of the religious significance attached to these two colours lies in the writings of medieval Muslim alchemists who theorised that all matter was derived from red sulphur and white mercury. By the 14th century Latin writers in western Europe and England were adapting Arab alchemical texts in original compositions and claiming that the four elements were created from an incestuous and hermaphroditic union, the product of an assertion of the divine will in a descent of the divine spirit, or white mercury into the maternal waters of chaos to create red sulphur. Alchemists, by reducing the four elements to their primitive state, believed they were witnessing the very act of creation. The alchemical symbol for mercury, two horns on a circle, is at least 3,000 years old and its divine spirit was believed to be present in matter in the form of cinnabar or mercury sulphide, which was coloured red and white.

The paradox facing the alchemist was that mercury could only exist, or be fixed or congealed and given form, in a corporeal world by corrupt and earthy sulphur. It was believed that this divine force could be apprehended through the alchemical process of distillation and smelting in which impure sulphur released the pure spirit of mercury. These two primal forces were seen as powerful opposites: mercury, symbolised by the moon and indeed Christ, represented spirit, the female principle; sulphur, symbolised by the sun and implicitly by Lucifer, the bringer of light, represented the masculine principle and the powerful forces of nature. The union of sulphur and mercury, the alchemical marriage of the white queen and red queen, was the goal of the alchemist and could result in the fixation of the elusive and volatile spirit of mercury, the ultimate attainment of the Philosopher’s Stone. Mercury’s incarnation in impure sulphur meant it was trapped in the material world like a fugitive servant or stag and it could only be released as pure spirit when the alchemist subjected sulphur to a form of passion involving torture, burning and dismemberment. Such a process allowed the alchemist to provide what he believed to be scientific proof of the Incarnation and Passion of Christ (in the form of mercury). This became a powerful rationale in the 14th century for the crusading movement, ironically directed at the Muslim empire, the original source of alchemy. It was also a response to Lollard denials of the validity of the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

Sulphur, identified with the body, the humours of choler and blood and the passion and lust for power associated with the colour red, became an inspiration for Edward III (r. 1326-77), the recipient between 1326 and 1330 of a copy of the Majorcan Testamentum, a comprehensive philosophy of alchemy, and an illustrated copy of the Secreta Secretorum (a work of Syriac origins from the eighth century). Edward’s version contains in its margins such alchemical symbols as the pentangle seal of Solomon, the endless knot with the sun and moon in the middle and such symbols of sulphur as the sun and the dragon uroboros. The mythological recipient of the Secreta secretorum was Aristotle’s pupil, Alexander the Great, whose world conquests and assertion of supreme will were believed to have been inspired by the alchemical and political advice in his manual. Edward III followed in Alexander’s footsteps, launching his conquest of northern France with the use of cannons propelled by recently discovered gunpowder containing sulphur. Edward III’s long reign ended in senescence, sexual scandal, military failure and social and political unrest: he was the Fisher King, presiding over a wasteland, awaiting a youthful redeemer. This was the background to the high expectations placed on his 11-year-old grandson, Richard II.

Richard distanced himself as far as possible both from his grandfather and his heroic father, the Black Prince, by identifying himself with the mysterious, feminine, divine force of mercury. The circumstances of his birth encouraged such grandiose assumptions. He was born on the Feast of Epiphany, January 6th, 1367 and visited by three kings. He subsequently chose to live out the role of a magus and indeed the risen Christ. Richard’s elaborate coronation ceremony on July 6th, 1377 had alchemical resonances. London was transformed into the heavenly city: the conduits in Cheapside ran with red and white wine and in the middle of the king’s palace a hollowed out marble column with a huge winged eagle emitted red and white wines in four directions representing the four elements and four quarters of the kingdom. Children dressed as a virgin and angels scattered gold coins and offered the king a golden crown and the Bishop of Rochester urged the lords to abandon their vices and do devotion to the boy-king and model themselves on his innocence and purity.

On April 26th, 1384 John Doubelay, a minor court official, dedicated his Stella alchemiae to the young king, describing him as a Solomon (reputed in the Middle Ages to be a great magician). The Stella alchemiae is constructed around the symbol of the pentangle representing the four elements and the quintessence, which together constitute the five-part star of alchemy. It alludes to the connection between the king’s birth on Epiphany and his destiny to become a great magus by comparing the quintessence to the star leading the three wise men to Bethlehem. Doubelay fused alchemical and regal symbolism to appeal to the king:

The stone will multiply to infinity when it is dissolved in the original water of the Blessed Mary: the four elements are separated, re-joined and reduced and finally brought together and multiplied to infinity and then you have the ‘fugitive servant’ or ‘fugitive stag’, a king reigning over a hundred thousand nations, that is to say the turning of a hundred thousand part of every metal into his nature.

In the Stella alchemiae mercury is identified with the round, white and perfect pearl and the fugitive stag, connections made in 1330 by Petrus Bonus in his Pretiosa Margarita Novella (the New Pearl of Great Price). Richard chose this beautiful, mysterious beast as his personal emblem and distributed white hart badges among his followers.

By 1394 Richard retained a corpus of 700 Cheshire men, knights, esquires and archers wearing the white hart and of this number 300 were his personal bodyguard. Most were recruited by Sir John Stanley of Hooton, whose name is linked with the manuscript of the Gawain poet’s Pearl, a poem celebrating a heavenly court illuminated by the light of gold and pearls. Mercury, distinguished by its volatility and purity, was linked with youthfulness and playfulness and these aspects of Mercury were later celebrated in Shakespeare’s portrayal of Ariel in The Tempest (1610-11) and in the early years of his reign Richard identified with them. He surrounded himself with young courtiers, such as Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford, embracing ideals of youthful purity and innocence in contrast to the sickness, age and corruption at the courts of Edward III and the Black Prince. In his correspondence Richard frequently referred to his ‘tender youth’ and formed a close identification with virginal saints including the Virgin Mary and Edward the Confessor, whose fictive arms he formally impaled with his own during his first expedition to Ireland in the autumn of 1394. However Richard was forced to accept the council of older men when he was temporarily deposed in 1386. His court was purged of all the younger royal favourites and for one year the king was forced to accept the decisions of a ruling council that included his uncle Thomas Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester, and Richard FitzAlan, Earl of Arundel. His chief justice, Sir Robert Tresilian, was executed while vainly trying to protect himself with charms and amulets. Other judges and lawyers, who had suggested that the royal prerogative was identical to the divine force of mercury by decreeing that any criticism of the king amounted to treason, were exiled to Ireland in 1387. Richard’s response to the humiliating imposition of restraint on his kingship was to seek consolation and inspiration in the occult. Ireland, where many members of Richard’s court had been exiled, was the source of inspiration. In Bristol in March 1391 he requested his treasurer in Ireland, John Thorpe, to compile a Book of Divination (Bodley MS 581, the only surviving manuscript commissioned by him). This collection of texts included a tract on kingship, De Quadripartita Regis, extracts from the Secreta secretorum, a tract on physiognomy (the art of reading faces) and a book on the interpretation of dreams, known as The Book of Daniel. The bulk of the manuscript is occupied by Libellus Geomancie, an illustrated book of geomancy, which praises the king for his knowledge of the hidden arts.The figures of sulphur and mercury are decapitated by a serpent in the 15th-century Aurora ConsurgensThroughout the 1390s Richard became an isolated figure, convinced of the divinity of his ordained kingship, demanding exalted forms of address and exaggerated deference from his courtiers. In July 1395 Philippe de Mezieres, ambassador to Charles VI, King of France, delivered a letter to the recently widowed English king at his palace at Eltham. In it he addressed him in grandiloquent terms as an alchemical magus and urged a treaty between the two kingdoms to be cemented by a chaste marriage to the six-year-old Princess Isabella that would act as a balm healing the festering wound separating England and France. Richard was depicted as the lodestar or magnet directed towards the pole star, the one constant star in the sky, the star of the virgin. His magnetic powers would turn the warlike knights of Edward III’s generation away from iron and bloodshed and towards the star of the Virgin and of peace.

At the opening of Parliament in September 1397 the speaker, Sir John Bushy, imputed to the king and his statutes divine rather than human origins and found:

Strange fluttering words hardly suitable to mere mortals, so whenever he addressed the king, who was seated on his throne, he would extend his arms and supplicate with his hands as if he were praying to him, entreating his high excellent most praiseworthy majesty that he might concede those things.

Richard used the occult to assert his royal prerogative and create an autocracy in the face of the more traditional, baronial style of kingship favoured by the appellant lords who had tried to control him in 1386-87. His decision to strike against the appellants (he ordered the murder of his uncle, the Duke of Gloucester, in 1397) was preceded by their being ‘appealed’ (the bringing to power of great men above the ordinary means of justice) in the Revenge Parliament of 1397 by royal favourites wearing red robes with white borders powdered with letters of gold, perhaps to emphasise that this reassertion of the prerogative amounted to an alchemical transmutation, the conclusion of the great work. The sessions opened with a sermon from Edmund Stafford, based upon Ezekiel 37.27, on the absolute and inviolate nature of the king’s power. In the same year Richard wrote to Albert of Bavaria, Count of Holland, declaring that his arrest of the appellants was based on his Christ-like identity. These events were accompanied by the composition of the altarpiece known as the Wilton Diptych for the king’s personal use in the chapel of Our Lady of the Pew in Westminster Abbey, celebrating the regeneration and rebirth of his kingship.

In the alchemical vision of an English monk by John Dastin (written in 1328 and circulating during Richard’s reign) a king (a Christ-like mercury figure in the form of a young sun) asks his mother, Mercury (the primal maternal ocean), how he can redeem his six elder brothers (the six planets and six metals) from leprosy. She advises him to face the dragon (sulphur), an encounter that would involve his death and rebirth. This alchemical allegory of the resurrection of pure gold through the disintegration and torture of sulphur and the redemption achieved through mercury is applicable to the message of the recapturing of lost youth and innocence presented in the diptych. On the outside panel is a haunting portrait of the white hart, Richard’s personal badge, chained, crowned and lying on a bed of rosemary, symbolising the suffering, bereaved king mourning the loss in 1394 of his first wife, Anne of Bohemia. The inside panels provide a glimpse of the transmutation and resurrection of the kingdom into a New Jerusalem. The monarch, as the incarnation of the transmuted pure mercury, is shown in gold with stippled pearls on his crown and collar. He enters the court of heaven, greeting the Christ child and the Virgin, in an allusion to the Epiphany, the birthday he shared with the son of God. He wears a gown covered with white harts and is surrounded by burnished gold and pearls to suggest the alchemical transmutation of his realm, carnal mercury regenerated into pure gold or spirit, themes celebrated in Pearl. The Christ child and Virgin are surrounded by 11 angels, representing the king’s age at his coronation, wearing white hart badges. The Virgin hands Richard the cross of St George. The top of the flagpole is a small globe, representing the kingdom of England, the Virgin’s dowry and the philosopher’s stone, delivered into the hands of the lodestone, who will turn his people towards the pole star.

At the heart of the diptych is the notion of revenge for the Massacre of the Innocents (Westminster Abbey, where the diptych was housed, was consecrated on Holy Innocents Day), the loyal defenders of the royal prerogative from 1386 to 1389, including Simon Burley and chief justice Sir Robert Tresilian. The objects of Richard’s revenge were the lords appellant, who had denied the essence of his kingship, represented by the white hart. Inside the panel, with resplendent gold, we have the emergence of the young king as an 11-year-old boy. His coronation ceremony had become a source of occult power, before his crown was tarnished by the suffering and humiliations of 1386-87, receiving his mandate from Christ and the Virgin. The key symbol in this alchemical regeneration was the badge of the white hart worn by the Cheshire bowmen who intimidated the Revenge Parliament of 1397.

The diptych stands as a private, occult document, perhaps representing a vision of the king as he worshipped in the chapel of St Mary le Pew, revealing mysteries about a secret society or brotherhood, dedicated to upholding the prerogative, the king’s will. The sense that an occult power was being attributed to the white hart badge is indicated in a petition complaining about royal retinues: ‘The boldness inspired by their badges makes them unafraid to do those these things and more besides.’ If the inside panels proclaim the king’s triumph over his enemies, the outside panels when closed, showing only the royal arms and the white hart, proclaim Richard’s suffering and self sacrifice. The hart is chained to its crown, echoing the crown of thorns and implying the martyrdom of the king. When captured, mercury, like the hunted stag, was tortured. Its power was harnessed to serve mankind, becoming in its earthly incarnation a symbol of Christ. Richard II, like the white hart, is bound by a golden chain and his followers are the disciples of a king who was also to be the betrayed and martyred servant of man, a sacrificial Christ figure, a fate fulfilled when Richard was deposed and murdered at the turn of the century.

Richard’s identification with Christ may lie behind the claim of the Welsh chronicler Adam of Usk (c. 1352-1430) that a reason for Richard’s deposition was sacrilege. As a king he was ceasing to be a servant of God and keeper of the faith and instead asserted himself to be an object of the faith. This is the context of a late 14th-century debate on correct and incorrect uses of occult knowledge on which Richard II would be judged and found wanting. The Monk of Evesham, in his History of the Life and Reign of Richard II, portrayed him as an extravagant, inconstant tyrant dependent on sorcerers, pseudo-prophets, necromancers and young men instead of wise counsellors. Such a king, he argued, was as foolish and dangerous as Saul, who sought advice from the Witch of Endor. Usk, a canon lawyer, quoted decretals (papal letters), allowing for the deposition of such a king. Richard was seen in the 1390s as a Saul-like figure, one for whom the words of the Testament of Solomon rang true: ‘And the glory of God quite departed from me; and my spirit was darkened, and I became the sport of idols and demons.’ In Walsingham’s account of the last years of Richard’s reign it is alleged that the king showed an unhealthy regard for prophecies, omens and irregular sources of advice. Describing the events of 1397 he says the kingdom was thrown into confusion by Richard’s levitas (childishness and irresponsibility). Richard is said to have taken to hoarding his treasure and surrounding himself with pseudo-prophets, who spurred him on to his ambition to become Holy Roman Emperor and one of the greatest princes in the world.

Chroniclers perceived that the king’s dependence on the occult encouraged his grandiose, unrealistic schemes and exalted self-image. Evidence of Richard displaying the characteristic traits of a narcissistic personality out of touch with reality and his subjects can be seen in his obsession with his portrayal in statues and paintings (he is the first English king to have a lifelike image); his dependence on rituals, symbols and the trappings of power; his absorption in his childhood; his fragile sense of identity; and his inability to forgive or forget wrongs done to him.

The official indictment of Richard II, prepared by a committee of lawyers, besides accusing the royal favourites of taking advantage of the king’s tender age and innocence, stated that Richard was tainted by perjuries, unnatural crimes, sacrileges, sodomitical acts, lack of reason and incapacity to rule. There was also increasing alarm that some of those few trusted advisers were practitioners in the black arts. Usk claimed that Robert Tideman, who had gained purchase on the king’s affections for his knowledge of medicine and the occult sciences, ‘had been driven forth from his monastery for the evil arts of brewing charms and weaving spells’.

Another reputed to have a ‘noxious influence’ on Richard was the Dominican friar Thomas Rushook, appointed king’s confessor in May 1379 and described by the poet John Gower as a ‘tawny confessor and professor of evil who had long hidden under the wings of the king, a friar black within and without’. Walsingham suggests that Robert de Vere, through a friar in his service, exerted such an influence over Richard that he was unable to understand what was good or right. A king’s clerk, Richard Maudelyn, taken captive in 1399, was charged with possession of a scroll containing magical art. He denied any knowledge of its meaning, claiming it had been given to him by the king. According to Walsingham, when Richard was taken prisoner, there was found among his possessions a cloth festooned with pearls and occult writings and a scroll containing magic arts. When Richard’s tomb was examined in 1871 it contained fragments of twigs around which was wound a piece of light yellow string shaped like a reel with black lines around it, an Irish charm to dispel the power of unfriendly, otherworld or malevolent energies.

The hostility of Usk and others at the court towards Tideman and his fellow advisers of the king related to the growing conviction that Richard was using alchemy. His exalted sense of the royal prerogative ran counter to the traditional role of a king, which was to produce heirs, wage war successfully, and rule in a masculine, choleric way. Richard’s identification with mercury was too feminine, chaste and passive. The literature of his court reflects a growing interest in the occult and in its acceptable use. For Chaucer it was the host Harry Bailly and the life-giving sun that ruled the earth. The Gawain poet subtly attempted to reconcile the forces of mercury and sulphur into an integrated model of authority. Sir Gawain, with his shield decorated with the Virgin and the five-starred pentangle, represents the Ricardian ideal of youthful purity. Gawain saw himself as mercury setting out to behead the green knight, or sulphur. Yet he is forced to accept that his purity is an illusion: sulphur is a natural phenomenon and the passion and desire it represents needs to be integrated into the personality. The Arthurian epic is implicitly critical of both Edward III and Richard II as polar opposites and suggests that a king who wishes to approach the Arthurian ideal needs to marry sulphur and mercury (the red and white).

Another objection to Richard was that in his identification with mercury he was prepared to use the power it represented in an aggressive attempt to destroy anyone daring to criticise and oppose him. One of the charges against Richard was that he said the lives of everyone were his to do with as he pleased, as were his liege lands. On his tomb epitaph he chose to be remembered as one who was prudent (in contemporary terms, ‘sage’), who ‘threw down whoever violated the royal prerogative’. This extreme assertion of the prerogative was reinforced by Richard’s familiarity with the civil law, which was viewed with increasing concern. In one of the deposition articles (the charges explaining why the king should be deposed) Richard is accused of quoting the civilian adage ‘that the laws were in his mouth – or alternately in his breast’. The king’s conviction that he was divine was rooted in civil or Roman law, in the notion that the king had two bodies, his immortal royal line and his mortal body. The will of God could also be seen in the assertion of the will of the king, for human society was seen in similar terms to the natural world. By its very nature society is chaotic, lacking order and form until the will of the king is asserted to create the social order, the body politic (the body of Christ), a conjunction of mercury and sulphur. It is this royal will or spirit represented by the badge of the white hart that Tresilian asserted was a religious duty of Richard’s subjects to obey. In short, alchemy and the occult backed by the civil law had become instruments of Richard’s tyranny. Mercury (the will of God, which had created all life) was identified with the will of the king, his prerogative and the words of the Stella Alchemiae about the power of mercury, the fugitive stag or white hart had become truly prophetic: ‘It is that thing which kings do carry in their heads and through it are men gathered together and kings are slain.’

Richard was deposed in September 1399 and died in prison in February 1400 (probably murdered). At the conclusion of Shakespeare’s Richard II the forsaken king is the bound, chained hart of the Wilton Diptych. It is appropriate that in his moment of Christ-like despair, when he believes that he is forsaken, a faithful groom appears to the sound of sweet music and Richard responds:

Yet blessing on his heart that gives it me,
For ‘tis a sign of love; and love to Richard
Is a strange brooch in this all-hating world.

This brooch of love is of course the white hart badge, the mercury or the fugitive stag with which Richard so closely identified and which was the cause of his undoing.

The king’s death is acted out to the sound of heavenly music, perhaps the music of the spheres, and the white hart remains his only friend, symbolising his supposed unity with Christ.

Jonathan Hughes was Research Fellow at the Wellcome Institute in the University of East Anglia. He is the author of The Rise of Alchemy in Fourteenth-Century England: Plantagenet Kings and the Search for the Philosopher’s Stone (Continuum, 2011).



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