February 12, 2024

Courtly Love

At this time of year, if you walk through the beech arches into the Wood of Goodwill and turn left, just ahead of you is a rather indeterminate green shrub which most people would barely even notice. It is planta genista (broom) which later on will be covered in masses of small, pea-like yellow flowers.

Growing freely and widely, it is said that, just before a great battle, Geoffrey of Anjou (1113 –1151) plucked a sprig of broom and tucked it into his helmet so his troops would recognise him. It became his emblem or crest and from 1154 to 1485, a period of 331 years, his descendants became known as the Plantagenet Royal family of England.

The 14th century is in some ways considered a golden age in England. Much of the century was dominated by the Plantagenet King Edward III who was an admired ruler and warrior. His reign was a time of remarkable architecture, literature and political success. His sons were successful soldiers and statesmen and his third son, John of Gaunt later Duke of Lancaster, became one of the wealthiest men in the country.

King Edward III sought to bolster the sense of community and idea of “nobility” amongst the aristocracy and squirearchy and in 1348 he created a new order of chivalry, the Order of the Garter. There was a new elegance to court life and a delight in elaborate ceremonies with a focus on manners and style. Great importance was placed on proper speech and visitors were entertained with “noble conversation”.

The main characteristics of courtly love – courtesy, humility and the “religion” of love – were almost entirely expressed in literature and speech and bore little resemblance to the realities of the time but it was a lovely ideal for the ladies to admire. Edward III is said to have written the following for his eldest son, the Prince of Wales:

Love ladies and maidens
And serve and honour them
in thought, word, and deed …
From ladies comes prowess,
Honors, and dignities …

Meanwhile his younger son was a close friend of the poet Geoffrey Chaucer. When John of Gaunt was eventually allowed to marry his mistress of nearly 30 years Katherine (de Roet), he became Chaucer’s brother-in-law as Katherine’s sister Philippa was married to Chaucer.

It is not known whether John of Gaunt or Chaucer visited Highclere but the Prince of Wales did reputedly stay here and enjoy some hunting whilst John of Gaunt’s second son with Katherine, Henry, Cardinal Beaufort 1375-1447, did become Bishop of Winchester and thus the owner of Highclere at that time.

During the 14th century, Highclere was a much-admired medieval palace and one of the several homes belonging to the Bishopric of Winchester. One of the most influential and respected churchmen of the time, and a previous Bishop of Winchester, was William of Wykeham. A simple yeoman farmer’s son born here in Hampshire, William of Wykeham became Chancellor of the Exchequer and the second wealthiest man in England after John of Gaunt. Both men moved in the same circles sometimes on better terms but at loggerheads at others.

I have long been fascinated by all these characters and have been an admirer and student of Geoffrey Chaucer since school. His language, poetry and characters live with us today, most famously in The Canterbury Tales, from the perfect chivalric gentle knight to the chattering Wife of Bath.

In the “Parliament of Fowls”, Chaucer was also one of the first recorded poets to write about “romantic” love: perhaps earliest known Valentine poem?

“For this was on seynt Valentynes day,
Whan every foul cometh ther to chese his make”

The distinction in his time was the conviction that courtly love was wholly admirable — that love was not only virtuous in itself but the very source and cause of all other virtues.

We will shortly be welcoming guests here for our Valentines Day celebrations, a Christian feast day in honour of a martyr named St Valentine.

During the 600 years or so since Chaucer’s time centuries, February 14th has developed into a significant cultural and, it has to be said, commercial celebration of romance and love in many parts of the world. Yet underlying it are the same desires and hopes as expressed by Thomas à Kempis 600 years ago:

“Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing higher, nothing stronger, nothing larger, nothing more joyful, nothing fuller, and nothing better in heaven or on earth.”