Monday, January 18, 2010

If clothes maketh the man, can hair maketh the virgin?

Or more specifically, could an image of a queen with her hair worn down but simply plaited be interpreted as a marker of virginity? I ask because in the course of my research on Richard II, I’ve found myself pondering the possible meanings of a suggestive image from his charter to Shrewsbury in 1389. Unfortunately, I can’t find an image of the manuscript illumination, but it features Richard II sitting all kingly on his throne, while Queen Anne kneels beside (and slightly below) him, depicting her classic intercessory role as mediator between the king and his subjects. Anne is crowned but otherwise her hair is uncovered and it is shown hanging down her back in a long plait.

I know that ‘unbound’ hair was used as a symbol of virginity, for example in the coronation rituals for new queens and for nuns taking final vows. The picture to the left is from the Liber Regalis, a 14th century coronation ordo, and you can just see the queen’s hair falling down her back. But does the concept ‘unbound’ always mean fully loose, as it is shown here, or could it include plaited but not otherwise pinned up or covered?

I’m aware that image does not necessarily (or even frequently) reflect reality. This portrayal of Anne on her knees, pleading with her husband/king for the liberties of the town, should most obviously be read as a representation of her symbolic role as queenly intercessor - mirroring the Virgin Mary’s intercession with Christ on behalf of humanity. But at the same time, I wonder if there is a more subtle message being conveyed. If plaited hair can carry the same connotations as fully unbound hair, could it also be read as an allusion to the possibility that Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage? This is something that has been suggested by a few historians as an explanation for their failure to have children. (By 1389, they had been married for seven years and Anne was 21 - getting on a bit in the child-bearing stakes by late medieval royal/aristocratic standards.) It’s curious, too, that despite Richard’s deposition and the opportunities opened up by subsequent noble rebellions and rumours of his imminent return, no ‘pretender’ ever emerged who claimed to be his son (legitimate or otherwise) and heir.

The possibility that Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage is one of those ‘arguments from absence’ that can be so difficult to sustain (and indeed, the articles I’ve read so far that discuss the possibility stretch the available evidence rather thin). Richard certainly portrayed himself as a model of orthodox piety and ‘hammer of heretics’ - it was even reported that he processed barefoot with the monks of Westminster. By the late Middle Ages, chaste marriage had emerged as an attractive model for pious laypeople who, for whatever reason (including an arranged marriage), had been unable to take up a formal religious occupation. Perhaps the most notorious example was that of the married mystic Margery Kempe, who basically bought off her husband by agreeing to cover his (considerable) financial debts if he would discharge her ‘marriage debt’ and agree to stop having sex with her.

Richard and Anne’s childlessness contributed to the instability of Richard’s reign as the lack of an heir of the body arguably made it that much easier for Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) to establish his claim to the throne. Strangely, though, none of the chronicle sources make much of this apparent failure at one of the fundamental obligations of kingship. If Richard and Anne’s marriage was indeed chaste, one would expect more rumour and gossip, as they weren’t just any couple but the king and queen of England. On Anne’s death, one would also have expected more criticism of Richard’s decision to take as his second wife a girl of six years old, meaning even the potential for an heir would be postponed by canon law for at least six years. Whether Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage or there was some other reason they didn’t reproduce, consideration of the apparent ‘failure’ of this royal marriage (and of Richard as a man) from a political perspective also marks an odd lacuna in many modern interpretations of Richard’s reign.

9 comments:

Steve Muhlberger said...

Richard was subject to a lot of abuse, especially after he was dethroned. There was a huge indictment of many points presented to/adopted by Parliament when Henry made his case for his own legitimacy. I've read it and don't recall anything about his marriage or the succession. Definitely worth checking out.

Bardiac said...

Interesting! (All I know about R2 is what Shakespeare plagiarized.)

Bavardess said...

Steve, you're right. I've been reading the Articles of Deposition and other material (including blatant Lancastrian propaganda) produced to legitimise Richard's deposition and Henry IV's usurpation, and his marriages (both of which seem to have been rather unpopular with the political community in general) don't really get a mention. Even odder in this context, a number of these sources make subtle and not-so-subtle allusions to Richard's sexuality (implying that - as with Edward II - his relationships with his male favourites were more than platonic), but none of them connect this directly to his failure to produce an heir.

Bardiac - it's surprising how many historical works on RII still start with quotes/discussions of Shakespeare's interpretation of his kingship. I haven't read the play for a long time, but I must go back and see if Shakespeare had anything much to say about Richard's marriages. I would think the childless angle might be quite relevant - if politically risky - for Elizabethan audiences.

Bardiac said...

I don't remember the childless thing being brought up, but I haven't read R2 for a couple years. Soon, though!

Ink said...

So very, very interesting. The iconography of dress is one of my particular interests. I think you're on to something with the suggestion of a chaste marriage. Because "unbound" would seem to suggest loose hair. And pinned up the opposite. But plaited...in between?

Or...is there possibly a connection between the maiden (loose), mother (plaited), crone (up) triad? With the plaited suggesting hope for children?

How is the Virgin Mary's hair usually presented?

Bavardess said...

Ink - that's a very interesting suggestion re: the hope for children. Re: the VM - in the Wilton Diptych, which was commissioned by Richard II ca. 1395, the VM is shown with her hair completely covered by a veil, which was the standard 'dress code' for this time for English mothers/matrons. A quick Google image search brought up a number of later medieval depictions of queens (or VMs) wearing crowns over veils (so hair still completely covered), but none with plaited hair. I need to do some more research on this...

how to bowling said...

I believe that Richard and Anne did not sustain their abstinence, I feel that the arguments are not clear with this issue we could discuss abstinence blogs of blogs, but this one in particular caught my attention because of the history between Richard and Anne

Bavardess said...

@ bowling - having done some more reading around this subject since I wrote this, I agree with you that the theory Richard and Anne had a chaste marriage is not really supported by the evidence. I read an interesting article recently by Katherine Lewis, in which she argues that Richard's decision to present his childless marriage as chaste and himself as a virgin king (by associating himself with Edward the Confessor) was a retrospective strategy to bolster his authority after Anne died (quite young) in 1994.

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