March 11th was my grandfather’s birthday – my mother’s father – and it is funny how these dates remain and live with one: in fact my son is named Edward after him. He had clear cut, chiselled features and was always very well dressed. He was particularly keen on manners and tried very hard to ensure that we, his grandchildren, had good ones. We were supposed to leap to our feet when our parents came in to the room and offer them our chairs (not a popular move when you were trying to hog a chair near the fire or the afternoon tea table), hold open doors for adults and of course mind our table manners to his exacting standards. Napkins, no elbows, ask your neighbour what they would like, eat slowly, don’t take the last thing and so on. I remember two of my sisters, Sarah and Lucy, deliberately picking up their plates one lunch time and licking them just to wind him up, which led to an enormous brouhaha, with my mother trying to keep the peace.
Courtesy defines our culture and society, from the family lunch to respect in the wider community. In the time of the 14th century writer, Geoffrey Chaucer, his poetry and behaviour at Court, though not necessarily in real life, reflected the code of ‘courtly love’, an ideal pattern of behaviour based on ideas of nobility and chivalry. Medieval literature is filled with examples of knights setting out on grand adventures and performing various deeds or services as exemplified by King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table.They left us the legend of an ideal world based on honour and good deeds and thus, by extension, good manners. I am not sure that King Arthur in fact even existed in reality – his story or ‘myth’ was first written up several centuries later in the 12th century in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s influential “Historia Regum Britanniae”, creating a native hero who vanquished the Saxons who were invading the Island of the Angles (England).
Seven hundred years later, in the 19th century, Jane Austen created other heroes, with or without manners, for us to fall in love with although I only have to mention Mr Darcy, that paragon of transformed manners, for my husband to change the conversation and walk away.
Apart from Mr Darcy, one of my favourite historical men who I think stands out in terms of humility and respect was William of Wykeham. Born a yeoman’s son, he rose to become adviser to King Edward III, Chancellor of the Exchequer and Bishop of Winchester. “Everything was done by him and nothing was done without him” wrote the contemporary chronicler, Jean Froissart. He was an architect, engaging in a diversity of large building projects, and an educational philanthropist who promoted those he thought had aptitude with both commitment and funds, always acknowledging his own debt to good schooling.
As Bishop of Winchester he spent considerable sums reconstructing his favourite episcopal houses among them, most significantly, the residence at Highclere which became a palace (the foundations remain under the present Castle) and the palace at Bishop’s Waltham, whose monumental ruins testify to this great architect. More importantly, he helped reconstruct both Windsor Castle and part of Winchester Cathedral and built and endowed both Winchester College (the school) and what is now called New College at Oxford University.
It is said that Wykeham had carved on a wall in Windsor Castle the motto ‘Hoc fecit Wykeham’. The King took umbrage leaving Wykeham to explain that it did not mean that he had made the castle, but that the castle had made him.
The motto, however, of both educational establishments is ‘manners makyth man’. This may, in fact, simply have been a proverb of his time since Caxton, in his Prologue to ‘The Book of Good Manners’ (1487), said “accordyng to an olde prouerbe he that is not manerd is no man, for maners make man”. However, like many mottos it gives pause for thought because, whilst it suggests how to conduct oneself in bearing, deportment and good manners, the morality is not explicit. Thus, a later warden at New College translated it into Latin as “mores componunt hominem”, which does suggest morals.
I think I rather prefer a proverb from 1605: ‘For thers an old saying: Be he rich, or be he poore, Be he hye, or be he lowe, Be he borne in barne or hall, Tis maners makes the man and all’. I am sure that my grandfather would have read such a proverb with approval, not least because he was always reminding us to close the door because “we did not live in a barn!”