The Empress from the Eton Wall Paintings. Her eyes have been deliberately damaged.
If you should happen to visit Eton College and enter the chapel there you will find the glorious range of medieval murals now known as the Eton Chapel Wall Paintings. Painted between 1479-87 and thought to be the work of at least four different artists they were whitewashed over by the College barber in 1560 as part of the drive by the Protestant Church to ban pictures of apocryphal miracles and largely forgotten until 1847 when they were discovered and finally, with the removal of stall canopies making it possible, restored in 1923.
The paintings on the north side of the chapel tell the story of the miracles of the Virgin Mary while those on the south the popular medieval story of ‘The Empress Falsely Accused‘ (for a synopsis of this story see below). Its the latter paintings I find the most intriguing not the least because I believe some of the portraits, particularly the Empress and the Emperor were based on actual members of the royal family at the time – namely Queen Anne Neville and King Richard III. Interestingly the Emperor and Empress have been painted wearing the closed crowns of Edward the Confessor and Queen Edith which are so recognisable in portraits of our medieval monarchs. It is this which caused me to take a closer look at the portraits.
The first facial representation of the Empress is the most detailed and with more of her personality shining through. Could this be a portrait of Queen Anne Neville? Compare it with the drawing of Anne from the Rous Roll. Rous’ drawing should be a good likeness as he would have known Anne by sight. Is it just wishful thinking on my part but I can see a resemblance particularly around the mouth although the eyes have been obliterated.
Queen Anne Neville from the Rous Roll wearing the closed crown of Queen Edith – almost identical to the crown in the Eton Mural.
Sadly the portrait of the Emperor, amongst others, has, with his livery collar been deliberately defaced. But we are still able to discern the hairstyle is one very similar to the hairstyle worn by Richard in his portraits.
Portrait of the Emperor from the Eton mural, Note the strong chin.
Portrait of Richard III Society of Antiquaries.
We do know Richard – no doubt sometimes accompanied by Anne – visited Windsor, which is but a short distance from Eton on numerous occasions ranging from 19th July 1483 to 16th May 1485 – the last visit shortly after Anne’s sad death 16th March 1485. Did they also visit Eton on some of their visits? If they did they would have seen the murals which were then a work in progress having been begun in 1479. Did the royal couple give their permission and were indeed pleased to see their portraits featured in the mural? OR was the legend tweaked and the portraits added after Richard’s death at Bosworth in 1485 to be used as another fine piece of mud to be thrown at the now dead king. Of course if this were the case then the likelihood of the portraits being those of the Yorkist King and his Queen grows more certain. It does seem a little odd that Richard would have no objections to being depicted as the Emperor who, to be honest comes across as a bit of a plonker and is portrayed assaulting his wife. Of course the legend predates the reign of Richard III and it’s just an unfortunate coincidence that it contains a couple of similarities with the false story – given out by Richard’s enemies and hostile historians – including a wicked brother who committed infanticide.
Furthermore I believe at least one more of the portraits may have been based upon another member of the Plantagenet royal family, that of Anne’s sister, Isobel. An interesting and plausible article found here has suggested that one of the ladies in the Luton Guild Book could be Isobel Neville, sister to Anne and wife of George Duke of Clarence. Can anyone else see the quite remarkable similarity between that portrait, shown below, and that of St Catherine in the Eton mural?
Possible portrait of Isobel Neville Luton Guild Book – thanks to The Dragonhound for their very persuasive article on this theory..
St Catherine Eton Wall Painting. A resemblance to the possible portrait of Isobel Neville in the Luton Guild Book?
Finally to summarise the legend – An Emperor goes on a pilgrimage leaving the running of his realm to his chaste and beautiful wife. After his departure his gittish brother, whom fancied her, tried to pursude her to be unfaithful to her husband. She indignantly refused and morever imprisoned him in a tower. After five years the Emperor returned. His brother who had been released just prior to his return went to the Emperor and accused the Empress of infidelity and treason. Whereupon the Emperor whacked his wife in the face when she came to greet him and ordered that his guards take her away into a forest and slay her. Just in the nick of time a noble knight who happened to be passing rescued her and took her to his castle although he was unaware of who she was. She took up the vacancy of the knight’s baby son’s nurse. The knight’s brother, another evil git – where do all these evil brothers come from? – tried to have his mucky way with her. She was having none of it and said evil brother, thwarted, plotted her ruin. He crept into her bedchamber, which she shared with baby, cut the infant’s throat and left the blood stained knife in the hand of the Empress. However instead of putting her to death, the knight took pity on her and put her on a ship whereupon the captain and the whole crew were tempted by her great beauty. So they marooned her on a little island just to be on the safe side. Here the Virgin Mary appeared before her in a dream and assured her all her travails would soon come to an end and showed her where a herb grew that was capable of curing leprosy. Gathering a supply of it she returned to the mainland where she proclaimed she was able to cure lepers. Her fame spread although no-one recognised her as to her true identity. The knight on hearing of this wonder took her back to his castle where none other than his gittish brother had contracted the disease. However despite the great harm he had done to her the Empress still agreed to cure him on the condition that he owned up to the heinous crime he had committed. This he did and was cured. Then the Empress returned to her homeland only to find that none other than her brother-in-law had also become a leper. Posessing a great heart she agreed to heal him if he too confessed to his sins. Which he did. Thereafter she revealed her true identity but, presumably really hacked off by men and their silliness refused to return to her old life/husband and took herself off into a convent to live out her life in perpetual chastity.
The Emperor draws his hand back in order to strike the Empress..lawks!
The Knight’s evil brother creeps into the bedchamber of the Empress to slit the throat of the baby..Yikes!
Eton Chapel. Photo etoncollege.com
Another view of the chapel. Unknown photographer Pinterest.
If anyone wishes to delve deeper into the story of Eton Chapel and its paintings I can recommend Wall Paintings of Eton.
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