‘To my Lady Pembroke’s,” as Dr Johnson might have written, for a thoroughly jolly post-lockdown evening of champagne and canapés to celebrate the launch of John Martin Robinson’s eponymous history of Wilton House (Rizzoli Electa, 2021). The famous Double Cube Room would look over-the-top anywhere else; at Wilton it makes perfect sense as the heady culmination of the house’s magnificent 17th-century piano nobile.
Successive Earls of Pembroke have remodelled the building since it first came into the Herbert family in the 1540s. William Herbert was a favourite of Henry VIII, and the estate at Wilton was originally monastic. Wilton Abbey was no ordinary convent, however, even in the days when religious houses proliferated.
The abbesses of Wilton were among the most powerful women in the land; they ranked with the barons in their dignities and obligations. For centuries, the abbey played a full and powerful part in the politics of the day; over time the abuses that inevitably accrued to its account were legion. The last abbess, the well-connected Cecily Bodenham, seems to have simply bribed her way to election in 1534.
Five years later, Bodenham could scarcely hand her keys over to the Commissioners fast enough. While the Abbot of Glastonbury’s quarters rotted on spikes all over Somerset, in neighbouring Wiltshire one of the Wilton nuns complained that “the Abbess hath a faint heart and doth yield up our possessions to the spoiler with a not unwilling haste”. She lived out her earthly days in comfortable and well-pensioned retirement.
Of the original buildings, next to nothing survives, but James Wyatt’s glazed neo-Gothic gallery around the first floor of the central courtyard unmistakeably evokes a cloister. Wyatt’s light space once again houses Wilton’s important sculpture collection; it had to be reassembled after the Second World War, having been displaced by an army of stenographers working on Operation Overlord after the house became the headquarters of Southern Command.
Succeeding Pembrokes expressed their status in the commission and acquisition of art; over the years Wilton became packed with masterpieces. What was once the cream of the collection is no longer in the family’s possession, however, although the connection remains unbreakable. Acquired by the National Gallery in 1929, it now sits in solitary splendour a hundred miles away in a little apsidal chapel just off Room 51: the Wilton Diptych.
I was first introduced to this glorious piece of art through the enthusiasm and expertise of the wonderful Sheridan Gilley, a full two decades ago. It was then one of the most captivating things that I had ever seen; even now it remains exhilarating. Dating from the late-14th-century, it speaks boldly of the young Richard II’s piety and kingly confidence – misplaced as it ultimately may have been.
The characters are identifiable easily enough. On the golden left-hand panel, Richard kneels in front his patrons; on the azure right-hand panel stands the Blessed Virgin Mary, surrounded by angels wearing badges of white harts (Richard’s personal emblem) and necklaces made from Plantagenet broom-cods (a pun on planta genista). The Child in her arms reaches out and blesses a banner, which the kneeling teenager is about receive in his open hands.
The banner is that of St George; in its finial it is just possible to discern a white tower on a tiny green island, and the waves in which it sits would have originally been silver. Professor Stuart Sillars insists, in Shakespeare and the Visual Imagination (CUP, 2015), that the bard must have seen the Wilton Diptych before he wrote Richard II. Certainly it is all rather John of Gaunt, sickening at Ely House: “This precious stone, set in the silver sea”.
Another voice also speaks, which would have been obvious to contemporary viewers. Christ blesses Richard as he hands England back to him on behalf of his Mother; even the decorated angels have been recruited to the king’s cause. The Wilton Diptych dates from just the time when the idea of England as “Mary’s Dowry” was gaining popular traction, and Richard wanted in on the latest trend.
Richard II sought to strengthen his throne through demonstrable and expensive piety that allied himself directly with the courts of heaven. This was hardly unusual at the time; it was often a well-trodden path to success. Alas, Richard was deposed in 1399 at the age of 32 and a few months later starved to death at Pontefract. The old adage rings true down the ages: if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans.
Image caption: Wilton House, By John Goodall, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1156572
This article first appeared in the November 2021 issue of the Catholic Herald. Subscribe today.
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