Monthly Archives: April 2013

Crowns, wreaths and warts: Oliver Cromwell in the ‘King’s Bench’ Rolls

A future project, now that I have looked at most of the medieval and Tudor KB and CP rolls initial membranes, is an examination of the rolls of the ‘Interregnum’. From the photographs which are available on the ever-useful  AALT ( ), it is clear that there is much of interest, particularly in the rolls of the Upper Bench.
The clerks seem to have been a little unsure how to alter the format of the initial membrane to reflect the new political settlement. For more than 100 years, the first membrane of King’s Bench rolls (KB 27) had featured a picture of the monarch(s), a crown and a form of words indicating the regnal year. How should that be altered once there was no longer a king or queen?
As far as the crown was concerned, old habits clearly died hard, and it featured, as usual, over the P of ‘Placita’ (Pleas) in 1653 (KB 27/1750 m.1 – from Hillary term, and thus before Cromwell became Lord Protector).  Once he had become Protector, a wreath replaced the crown in some rolls ( KB 27/1760 and 1763), suggesting a view of Cromwell as a leader in the classical republican tradition,  but, interestingly, the crown is back from  KB 27/1764 onwards. There is neither crown nor wreath in KB 27/1784, (1756) and this becomes the new norm, even during 1657, when there were moves to have him crowned.  The rolls do not generally go as far as including a portrait of Cromwell in the P. (though there is one rather unflattering, crowned, sketch of the Protector in the P in 1656 (KB 27/1789 m.1) -iIf this was not, in fact, sketched in at some point after the Restoration, then the ‘artist’ was taking something of a risk). The to-ings and fro-ings with regard to inclusion (or not) of a crown and the general omission of depictions of Cromwell  are interesting comments on the perceived role of Cromwell in the evolving polity.

P is for profile: Henry VIII in the rolls of the Common Pleas

One of the great benefits of the massive scanning project undertaken for the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website is that it is now considerably easier than before to compare a number of different manuscripts. Recently, I have found it particularly interesting to compare the use made of the initial letter on plea rolls (a ‘P’ for ‘Placita’). The King’s Bench rolls are the more decorative – more on them later – but there are also some interesting images in the Common Pleas rolls.

Things start off under Henry VIII much as they had ended under Henry VII, in a not terribly interesting fashion, with rolls until 1521 being rather workaday manuscripts, without illustration (though ‘titles’ are emphasised with some decorative lettering, and a couple have religious inscriptions). Thereafter begins the Common Pleas tradition of portraying Henry VIII in profile, looking away from the lettering, to the reader’s left. Some of these images are rather sketchy,e.g. CP 40/1031 m.1;  but by the late 1520s, they are more finished

In CP 40/1032A m.1, the king is spewing foliage in a rather ‘green man’ depiction – certainly something to consider alongside the many discussions of the presence of such images in ecclesiastical contexts. In CP 40/1035, he is in ermine, reminiscent of the standard King’s Bench regal image. In CP 40/1055, CP 40/1057, CP 40/1063, Henry is clothed in courtly fashion, with a hat. By 1530, however, the conventional Common Pleas portrait of (what I assume is) him is more martial. He appears to be wearing decorative Greenwich-style armour and a helmet,  open to show his face and beard.  The facial expression changes, as does the colour of the beard and the style of the moustache, but this is clearly a standardised image, present from 1530 to the end of the reign.

Obviously, it is difficult to draw conclusions as to the ‘meaning’ of this portrait – all the more so because the artist(s)  is or are unknown, and the rolls were not intended for the king’s entertainment, nor for the general public’s consumption, so that the purpose of such portraiture is somewhat problematic. Nevertheless, it is interesting that Henry VIII was portrayed in this ‘heroic’, martial (and lean) fashion in such a large number of manuscripts from 1530 until the end of his reign.  The contrast with the ‘regal’ KB portraits, the portly coin images of the later years of his reign and, of course, the famous Holbein portrait, is noteworthy.

It should also be noted that the armoured man image persists throughout the Common Pleas plea rolls of Edward VI, with the exception of his very last roll. This could be taken as evidence that it is not supposed to be Henry at all, but it seems to me more likely that the portrait of Henry was included during Edward’s minority, because the king’s father still overshadowed his heir. The image disappears from the rolls with the accession of Mary.

Mary I Biography, iconography

Just finished reading Anna Whitelock’s Mary Tudor: England’s first queen. A very well written book, walking the very difficult tightrope between academia and popularity. Still find it very hard to get to grips with Mary I as a person, but this probably does as much as can be done in the way of humanising her. A couple of points to think about in terms of legal history, in terms of constitutional law in the (novel) situation of a queen regnant, and then the ramifications of a the doctrine of unity of persons in the context of a married queen.

Recently, I have been studying plea rolls for illustrations (serious and humorous). My ‘patch’ is the medieval rolls, but I have enjoyed having a look at some of the depictions of Mary (alone and with Philip) on the first membrane of legal rolls. These range from the cartoonish (CP 40/1170 m.1 – cartoonish profile) to the lavish, coloured and gold-blinged (see, e.g. KB 27/1172 – also featuring Philip with a rather phallic symbolish sword). Most of the KB 27 images are standardised, those at the beginning of the reign bearing close resemblance to those of Edward VI. Like her brother, who, until  his very last roll, (KB 27/1167 m.1) was not depicted with a state sword, Mary generally holds the less masculine orb and sceptre.Her first roll, KB 27/1168 (1553), however, shows her with a sword. Perhaps this appeared fitting, given her then-recent heroic efforts to gain her crown. She also has a sword in KB 27/1188 – her very last roll, in 1558, in which, intriguingly, Philip is not depicted.  On all other occasions after their marriage, Philip has the sword.

One can imagine that a lot of thought went into just how to portray Mary and her husband without giving offence to either in terms of precedence. At first, Philip is on the right, the dominant side, as on the coins which were circulated,  though positions are switched from KB 27/1180 m.1 (Michaelmas 1556) onwards – an interesting change which it is tempting to tie to an abandonment of hope for an heir and Philip’s absence from his wife (note though that his reappearance in 1557 did not change the positions).  The spouses are usually shown looking at each other, though never very happily. Mary, in fact, comes closest to looking happy in the triumphant first membrane of KB 27/1168 (1553) – which has a beautiful colour picture of her with angels and a dove.

Those responsible for decorating the Marian KB 27 rolls show none of the medieval humour – we look in vain for grotesques and chimeras. There is a touch of subversive fun on some Common Pleas rolls – e.g. CP 40/1170 m.1 has a cartoon profile of the queen, and there is a splendid demonic creature on CP 40/1174 m.1, but, generally, it looks as if the mood of the times was not conducive to visual wit and humour.