Tag Archives: King Henry VIII

For All Saints’ Day: Henry Chichele’s Tomb at Canterbury


Today, November 1, is All Saints’ Day, when the Christian calendar honors the departed, saintly and otherwise. After the rollicking party atmosphere of the American “Halloween,” when everyone pretends to be scary and scared, I thought of something truly scary (at least to me).  Last spring I saw the “cadaver tomb” of Archbishop Henry Chichele, who died on the 12th of April, 1443. But the Archbishop had been contemplating his own death for many years. He had his own tomb built many years before he died.  It’s elaborate and colorful, but still it’s the very opposite of vain.


Under the brightly painted effigy of the Archbishop dressed in his finery and clasping his hands in everlasting prayer, there’s another effigy.  The lower effigy shows the good Archbishop as a decaying corpse, naked and bony.


The archbishop not only paid for this jarring reminder of his own mortality, he forced himself to contemplate it often.  The tomb where he would someday be buried was directly opposite his ornate Gothic pulpit. The inscription reads, “I was pauper-born, then to primate raised.  Now I am cut down and served up for worms. Behold my grave.”  If that isn’t scary, I don’t know what is. But the Archbishop’s intent was to be ever-aware of the brevity of life.


Henry is just one of many historical figures honored in Canterbury Cathedral. Another is Archbishop Thomas a Becket, murdered at the direction of King Henry II in 1170.  The exact spot where assassins surprised him at prayer is still a much-visited place of pilgrimage. Above the small altar, there’s a menacing modern sculpture of the weapons that left Thomas bleeding onto the cathedral stones. Unfortunately, King Henry VIII ordered Thomas’s tomb destroyed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries.  (I didn’t realize Henry VIII had done this particular deed.  He has a lot to answer for). Today, the approximate burial place of the sainted Thomas is underneath a dark, empty chapel decorated only with a single candle left burning.


Canterbury Cathedral, dating back at least as far as St. Augustine in 576, is one of the most interesting of all the many churches in England. I was lucky enough to attend Evensong in this ancient place of worship and history. I’d love to return.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

A Knight in Shining Armor—Wearing a Skirt

A couple of months ago in Vienna, I wandered into the Arms and Armour section of the Kunsthistorisches Museums–included with my museum pass, but not something that usually interests me much.


But whoa!  What was up with this extremely scary suit of armor with a skirt? Were there actual women requiring feminine suits of armor? The waist seems small enough for a woman.  The helmet has a devilish look, male or female. Was this suit designed to get the enemy wondering exactly what he was up against?

The series Game of Thrones features a fearsome female knight, Brienne of Tarth.  Would she have worn something like this? On the show, she wears some skirt-like pads for swordfighting, but nothing like the getup above.

Brienne of Tarth, photo from LA Times article cited below

a Brienne of Tarth, photo from LA Times article cited below

I had trouble deciphering the German museum caption, and the photo I took of the caption didn’t turn out.  The next day, I thought I’d pop back into the museum to investigate further.  But the museum was closed. So I posted my mystery photo to one of the history Facebook groups I follow. Within minutes, people with a lot more knowledge than I had answers.

Armor like this dates from about the 1500s.  King Henry VIII of England had a set like it.  It was not made for a woman, but for a man planning to engage in ground combat. The skirt would protect his legs better than traditional pants-style armor.  Form-fitting armor needs joints that bend.  Joints mean there are gaps that a sword or axe or spear could penetrate. A strong skirt, covering the knees, might look unwieldy to us, but we might be glad enough to reach for one if we were faced with hand-to-hand combat.

The fluted design of the skirt was not just a fashion statement.  The folds made the armor plate stronger.  But it was still not strong enough to block musket fire, which was slowly taking over the battlefield.  Fancy suits of armor went out of vogue on the battlefield by the 1700s, although kings and princes sometimes  wore them into battle as marks of status, much as they sometimes wore battlefield crowns. This seems ill-advised to me–why make oneself an obvious target? Still, there are examples of elaborately decorated skirted suits designed to be worn on horseback.


Anyway, skirted suits eventually became obsolete on the battlefield, but the nobility still wore them for jousting–an extreme sport for the rich in the Renaissance.  Hans Holbein the Younger, among other highly paid artists, designed armor for noblemen to show off in.


Later in Vienna, I came upon this store window, in a lingerie shop.  Window display is an art.  I have to think the display designer, like many Viennese, was a regular visitor to the Kunsthistorisches.