Anne Gardom on the style that remains

The Gothic exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum is almost bewildering in the variety and complexity of the displays. Shakespeare’s great history plays, Henry V and Richard III relate to this period, and the wealth, power and unrest of the time is brilliantly displayed in the artifacts and layout of this exhibition.

It is divided into themes and covers about 150 years from 1400 to 1547. Wars, the passage of time and the Reformation mean that only a fraction of the jewellery, books, pictures, church furnishings and armour have survived but there is enough to give us an idea of the extraordinary confidence and vigour of the time. Prosperity and patronage was not for the church and state only but embraced the well-to-do merchant and middle class as well. It was a turbulent and unsettled period, a time of international and internal conflict. This meant that the display of wealth and power was vital to survival.

As you enter the exhibition you are greeted by the recently acquired Dacre Beasts – four large heraldic creatures (one is a fish) designed for display in the ancestral halls of Cumbria to impress upon visitors the aristocratic lineage of their owners. Nearby is the lovely little crown of Margaret of York, exquisitely jewelled, with its own small hatbox. It is surely too small for any human head and was probably a rich and impressive gift for the Virgin in Aachen Cathedral.

The monarch was, of course, extremely important in the power struggle, but most people never saw him and had no idea what he looked like. Pictures, medals and stained glass windows were therefore very important in keeping an iconic image before the hopefully loyal populace. The King’s heraldry was widely used and would have been instantly recognizable. The Royal Window at Canterbury, displayed here in part, with its kneeling royal figures shows how many people would have seen their king. Coins, medals and seals have survived, powerful symbols of monarchy rather than actual portraits of the monarch himself.

Where the King was hugely influential and important was in the matter of royal patronage. The reach and scope of his power and possessions show that England was very much part of the international scene and a player in the game of European politics. There are wonderful illuminated manuscripts from France and the South Netherlands. The Duke of Bedford, brother of Henry V, owned one of the largest private libraries in Europe and his magnificent Salisbury Breviary is re-united with his Bedford Psalter and Hours for the first time in 600 years. These impressive books were intended for display rather than personal devotion. They were a statement of power and wealth, and as such gleam with gold and brilliant colours.


The Church was a powerful and wealthy patron too, and was one of the few areas of public life where it was possible to rise from obscurity to the highest office. Archbishop Chicheley of Canterbury and Bishop Fox of Winchester both came from such backgrounds and had access to great political power and huge wealth. The fabulous silver gilt crozier that belonged to Bishop Fox gives us some idea of the quality of work being commissioned, and of which so much has been lost. On a more intimate level is a beautifully preserved small portable altar, complete with jewels and delicate little statues. It is English made, and decorated with the formal blue and white forget-me-nots of Henry IV.

The constant struggle for power meant, of course, wars abroad and at home. On one wall there is a useful Battle Time Line clarifying a period of continuous international and domestic conflict. But it was not all battles, there were displays and tournaments too. The famous Field of the Cloth of Gold was an occasion when France and England put on a show for each other and the rest of Europe. A magnificent set of Henry VIII’s tournament armour is on display as well as a set of horse armour, lavishly embossed with the heraldic pomegranates of Katharine of Aragon. There are chains, decorations and jewels given to those who served their King well.

The aristocratic families vied with each other in magnificent displays of wealth and taste. Elaborate charts of lineage, beautifully illustrated and decorated, show how important it was to make clear who you were and where you came from. This was especially so in the pomp and ceremony of living and dying. Wealthy and aristocratic homes were hung with expensive foreign tapestries and silver and gilt cups and plates were displayed on elaborate ‘cup-boards’. The domestic ornaments and decorations that have survived give us an idea of the huge wealth of these powerful families. There is a very large and beautifully preserved Belgian tapestry of a hunt, full of movement and vitality, which seems to symbolize and embody this lavish domestic display. It hung in Hardwick Hall, surely one of the most sumptuous houses of the period.

Death and Glory

Funerary monuments and family chapels also underlined the importance of aristocratic and royal families. This is symbolized by the huge gilt effigy in full armour of the Earl of Warwick from St Mary’s, Warwick. But there are brasses, tombs, monuments, cadavers and effigies, all of which as well as commemorating the dead make clear statements of their importance during their lives. There is a series of lovely wooden effigies – quite moving in their elegant simplicity.

The Reformation destroyed many of the church treasures and interiors, but the statues, reliquaries, gold and silver, amazingly well-preserved vestments and stained glass give us an idea of the colour and richness that would have graced the cathedrals and parish churches. There is a wonderful window showing the Transfiguration, from Fairford in Gloucestershire, a church which still has a complete set of medieval windows.

At the end of the exhibition is a short film showing Gothic buildings and interiors. Some of them are well known such as King’s College, Cambridge, and Westminster Abbey, but there are lovely shots of lesser known buildings, including secular and domestic architecture. It gives some indication of the wealth of medieval buildings in this country.

At the end of the exhibition is a large blown-up picture of Henry VIII’s magnificent Nonsuch Palace – a marvel in its time and now no more – a symbol perhaps of the mixture of wealth and acquisitiveness, faith, creativity and conflict that distinguished life in this country six centuries ago.

At the Victoria & Albert Museum, London till 18th January 2004.

Entry £8
Concessions £5
Under 18: free

Anne Gardom is Art Critic for New Directions.