Thursday 6 October 2011

Pilgrimage to Constantinople

One of the places I would love to visit, as a sort of pilgrimage, is Istanbul. I’d like to see an object in the collection at the Archaeological Museum there of a unique gravestone. It was placed over the graves of two men who died in 1391. Nowhere in the world is there another like it. It depicts their coats of arms in the manner of husband and wife (my own coloured interpretation is shown here). The lives of these men supports the widely held belief that they were a “gay” couple.

The men’s names are Sir William Neville and Sir John Clanvowe. I first came across this couple when I worked at Nottingham Castle and did research for the guided tours I gave of the underground passageways. Sir William was Constable of Nottingham Castle and Keeper of Sherwood Forest from 1381. He and Sir John were the same age and probably first met during the English campaigns in France in the 1370s. After that their lives became intertwined and were rarely mentioned separately in medieval records.

Sir John was also a poet. Both he and Sir William were friends of Geoffrey Chaucer and testified in his defence at his rape trial. Indeed, it is Sir John who seems to be the first to call Chaucer the “Father of English poetry”. Chaucer was also a member of the royal court, and in his role of Clerk of the Works came to Nottingham castle during Sir William’s and Sir John’s time there to supervise repair work.

Sir William married a Yorkshire heiress in 1366, and it is through her connections that I believe inspired Sir John to write the original version of “The Geste of Robyn Hode” in the late 1380s. This ballad is the oldest ballad in terms of origin, and almost every character and event can be traced to the family backgrounds of Sir William and his wife, even down to the identity of some of the Merry Men – including some of the minor ones. But that’s a subject for a whole entry in itself. Back to William and John.

Both men were Lollard Knights, influential members of the court who supported the church-reforming views of John Wycliff. Sir John wrote a lengthy treatise in defence of Lollardy. The Archbishop of Canterbury wasn’t too enthusiastic and banned its preachers, including one who was arrested in Nottingham and imprisoned in the castle. But, as Sir William was the Constable and a Lollard Knight it will come as no surprise to learnt that the preacher mysteriously escaped. The Archbishop of Canterbury was helpless to punish Sir William, mainly because Nottingham was under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of York – who just happened to be Sir William’s brother!

During the reign of Richard II both men became Knights of the King’s Chamber, trusted courtiers who were privy to the king’s private thoughts. As such they were sent on diplomatic missions together on the continent. One of these was to Constantinople in 1391. No-one knows the actual reason why they went, but they arrived at a bad time. The city had been ravaged by a plague the year before and some of it lingered. Sir John Clanvowe succumbed to the plague on this day, 6th October, in 1391. The companions and colleagues on the mission sent news back to London of what happened – and what happened next. The Westminster Chronicle (a medieval manuscript not a newspaper) written shortly afterwards from eye-witness accounts says that Sir William died 4 days later – not of the plague, but of a broken heart. And it is perhaps these eye-witnesses who ordered the placing of a marble gravestone with their joint coat of arms to be placed over their graves in Constantinople.

At that time there was a ceremony in the Catholic church called “wedded brotherhood” which was identical to marriage but for 2 men. With references to William and John as “brothers” in so many documents, and their apparent inseparableness, makes it possible that William and John were “wedded”.

Perhaps in a few years time I can make that pilgrimage to see their gravestone on the 625th anniversary of their death in 2016.

1 comment:

  1. If you go, it would be great if you could upload a picture of the tomb on Wikimedia Commons! I hope to see it one day too.