Royal Supremacy in the Middle Ages

See also: The Primitive Church.

By the time of Christ, the Roman Empire had conquered Europe from the Black Sea to the Atlantic. In AD 395 its territories were divided between a western realm, based in the city of Rome, and an eastern or Byzantine realm, based in Constantinople, with two emperors sharing power. The Western Empire collapsed in the year 476. Its colonies in Western Europe were abandoned and Roman government in the Italian peninsula itself was overthrown by the Visigoths. The Eastern Empire retrenched in Greece, Asia Minor, the Balkans, and the Levant. In the West, Christian kingdoms were founded in Britain, in the vast Frankish lands that became Germany and France, and in the Iberian peninsula. The conversion of Europe to Christianity coincided with these developments.

Christian church polity during the first millennium was organized around the office of bishop. The title comes from the Greek word, epískopos, meaning “overseer.” Bishops ordained parish priests or presbyters and governed the churches within their individual jurisdictions, which we now call dioceses. 

The order of bishops was a peerage not a hierarchy. All bishops were co-equal, every diocese sovereign.1 Writing in the third century, Cyprian of Carthage described the episcopal system as it existed in the early church. “For none of us makes himself a bishop of bishops,” he reported, “or by a tyrannical terror compels his colleagues to a necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the license of his own liberty and power, hath his own freedom, and can no more be judged by another, than he himself can judge another.”2 Cyprian’s testimony is confirmed by contemporary writers.3 In later centuries, national or regional churches made up of multiple dioceses would appoint an archbishop or patriarch to represent that church, with appropriate precedence and duties, but no power of command over his fellow bishops. 

The Bishop of Rome, called pope or patriarch, had none of the special authority claimed by his medieval successors. In a dispute with Constantinople at the turn of the seventh century, Pope Gregory I of Rome wrote, “I confidently say that whosoever calls himself universal bishop, or desires to be so called, does in his elation forerun Antichrist, because he proudly places himself before others.”4 The government of bishops was therefore local in the individual and universal in the corporate body. 

The church was multipolar. This allowed it to integrate with the culture and institutions of state in diverse realms without being divided. The creation of archbishoprics, papacies, and patriarchates was a reflection of political boundaries, not ecclesiastical hierarchy. Multiple dioceses within a realm ruled by the same king were grouped together as distinct national churches. An empire consisting of multiple nations would have multiple national churches represented by patriarchs.

In the Byzantine East the emperor was both head of state and supreme head of the church. It was his privilege to appoint the Patriarch of Constantinople and to call episcopal councils. The Western Empire had been governed according to the same arrangement. Both pre-Christian and Christian emperors held the title pontifex maximus: high priest.5 The double-headed eagle portrayed in Roman heraldry symbolized the emperor’s dual authority.

Royal supremacy was the norm in Western Europe during the first millennium. In the ninth century the Bishop of Rome put himself under the protection of the Frankish kings. On Christmas Day in the year 800, Charlemagne was crowned Western Roman Emperor. He was the first man to hold that title in over three hundred years. The arrangement did not restore the territories of the old empire. The new Holy Roman Empire was no more or less than the Frankish kingdom. Although Charlemagne and his successors rarely controlled the city of Rome itself, they possessed the traditional rights of the Roman emperors vis-à-vis the Church of Rome. As John Marion Riddle writes, Charlemagne was “head of the church in name and practice.” The Bishop of Rome “prostrated himself before the new emperor” at his coronation. “High-church appointments Charlemagne made himself, and he called church councils.” Official documents referred to him as rex et sacerdotus: king and priest.6 Royal oversight of the church had a corollary in aristocratic oversight at the local level. Charlemagne and his successors oversaw the spread of Christianity in Germany through the model of the eigenkirche, or proprietary church. These were parish churches founded by the lord of a village. The lord retained certain rights in the appointment of clergy and the administration of parish resources.7

The kings of England exercised the same powers as the Byzantine and Frankish kings. In England as late as the twelfth century, writes Roger Wickson, the official language “used at a bishop’s consecration stated that he was elected by our pious lord the king of the English, with the consent of the clergy and people.” The latter participated publicly in the process. “Once a bishop was elected he appeared before the king. He was now one of the king’s greatest tenants and had to perform homage to the king in the same way as any great lay magnate.” It was the king who invested him “with the ring and staff, the symbols of his spiritual office.” Thereafter he would be consecrated by bishops of the English church.8

The special status accorded to the institution of monarchy in the Christian social order relates to the universal kingship of Jesus Christ. The risen Christ is revealed in Scripture as a universal emperor who delegates authority to earthly governments. He is described in the First Epistle to Timothy as “the King of kings and Lord of lords,”9 and in Revelation as “the ruler of the kings of the earth.”10 Human monarchies partake of the divine monarchy, reflecting it and symbolizing it. Through the institution of monarchy, the human social order is made to reflect the divine order. This is the context of Psalm 82, wherein God addresses the kings and authorities of the world, telling them, “I have said, Ye are gods…But ye shall die like men.”11

A mystical illustration of this doctrine can be found in Arthurian legend. The story of the Holy Grail was first recorded in the twelfth century, in the chivalric romance, Perceval, le Conte du Graal, by Chrétien de Troyes. It was expanded upon by subsequent poets over the following century. The legend tells of a young knight who happens upon the castle of a dying king. The king has suffered a dolorous blow to the thigh, or groin. The wound will not heal. Neither is it limited to his person. Like an extension of the king’s body, the kingdom itself is dying. Once-fertile countryside has become a wasteland. The fields are fallow. The forest is bare. The rivers have run dry. At the castle the knight is shown a procession of mysterious objects: a lance that bleeds from the point; a pair of candelabra; and a shining dish or chalice, the Grail. That night he dreams of the land brought back to rich and verdant life. In the morning he finds the castle empty and in ruins. He later learns that he could have healed the king and the kingdom if only he had thought to ask the meaning of the Grail. Though the young knight embarks on a quest to recover the lost treasure, his fate is unknown. Chrétien died before he could finish the story. The Grail legend suggests that some nourishing grace passes from God to a people through the institution of monarchy.12

Of course, the relationship between king and clergy was reciprocal. The king invested the bishop with his crozier and the bishop crowned the king. This reciprocity was present in all dimensions of society. The historian Norman Cantor described it as “the interpenetration of ecclesia and mundus”.13 The modern preference for the separation of church and state, whether de facto or de jure, would have been alien to previous generations, including the early Christians and the Protestant Reformers. Church, state, and society were a single unit. The church was not defined as a hierarchy of the clergy set apart from the laity. It was, as the apostles taught, the corporate body of all baptized Christians. The monarch and the nobility were representatives of the laity in the government of the church at the archdiocesan and parish levels respectively.

This wholistic model of society was the status quo in Europe until the eleventh century. In the 1050s an ambitious cabal formed within the Roman Church centered around Pope Gregory VII. The papal party sought a radical reorganization of the universal Church, placing the Pope of Rome in an exalted position above all bishops and kings. To this end Gregory issued the Dictates papae in 1075.The document claimed twenty-seven new powers and privileges for the pope: to be called universal bishop, to teach infallibly, to make laws, to judge all important questions of doctrine, to depose any other bishop, to depose emperors and absolve subjects from their fealty to the state, to have princes kiss his feet, to preside over General Synods, and, significantly, to use the Imperial Roman insignia.

It is impossible to overstate the scandal of the Gregorian Reforms. The Gregorian Papacy had no basis or precedence in the thousand year history of Christianity. The usurpations of the Dictates papae were exponentially more outrageous than the claims of ecumenical primacy that Pope Gregory I condemned as a sign of Antichrist. When the Protestant Reformers denounced the pope as Antichrist, they did so using a predecessor’s own words. Nor did these enormities go unremarked at the time. The first assertions of papal supremacy had caused the Great Schism of 1054 at which the churches of the East severed communion with Rome. The codification of papal supremacy two decades later provoked a centuries-long civil war in Italy.

To be clear: the universal ruler of the Church is Jesus Christ. No one bishop can claim to govern on His behalf or to sit on His throne in absentia because Christ is not absent. The risen Christ sits upon his throne now.

The papal party defended its innovations with two arguments, neither credible. The first appealed to a document called the Donation of Constantine, which purported to be an Imperial Roman decree, by which the Emperor Constantine had given the empire over to the papacy in the fourth century. On the authority of this document Gregory VII had claimed the right to depose emperors and to bear the imperial insignia. The Donation of Constantine is now universally acknowledged to be a forgery. Its provenance was disputed from the time of its appearance in the Middle Ages. It was proven to be a forgery—and a rather crude one at that—in the fifteenth century by Italian priest and humanist Lorenzo Valla who undertook a philological study of the text. In the sixteenth century Cardinal Caesar Baronius acknowledged the fraud on behalf of the Roman Church in his official Annales Ecclesiastici.

The second argument of the papal party appealed vaguely to Scripture. To this day the papal system in the Roman Church rests upon a post hoc ergo propter hoc reading of one verse from the Gospel According to Matthew. Christ addresses the disciple Simon Peter: “And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it.”14 The papal party argued that because Christ showed special affection for Peter among his disciples, and because unsubstantiated legend identified Peter as the first Bishop of Rome, all subsequent Bishops of Rome should be entitled to extraordinary powers that Christ specifically did not bestow upon Peter at the Great Commission of his disciples to evangelize the nations of the world.15

A succinct and thorough debunking of the Petrine defense of the papacy was written by Walter Herbert Stowe, an Anglican clergyman of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States. Stowe observed that:

(1) There is no evidence in Scripture or anywhere else that Christ conferred these powers upon St. Peter; (2) there is no evidence that St. Peter claimed them for himself or his successors; (3) there is strong contrary evidence that St. Peter erred in an important matter of faith in Antioch, the eating together and social intercourse of Jewish and Gentile Christians affecting the whole future of the Church and the Christian Religion, and this lapse was so serious that St. Paul withstood him to the face; (4) he did not preside at the first Council of the Church in Jerusalem and did not hand down the decision of the Council; (5) he was Bishop of Antioch before he was bishop anywhere else, and, if the papal claims are in any way true, the Bishop of Antioch has a better right to hold them; (6) that St. Peter was ever in Rome is disputed, and the most that can be said for it is that it is an interesting historical problem; (7) there is no evidence whatsoever that he conferred such powers upon his successors-to-be in the See of Rome; (8) there was no primitive acceptance of such claims, and there never has been universal acceptance in any later age.16

To the extent that the papacy was successful in consolidating power and support for its claims across a wide swath of Christendom during the three centuries that followed the Gregorian Reforms, that success accrued from an audacious gambit by Pope Urban II: the launching of the Crusades. In 1095, a mere two decades after the invention of the Gregorian papacy, Urban tested the still-hypothetical powers of his office. He announced a general absolution of sin to anyone who would take up arms against the Islamic Turks of the Seljuq Empire. Urban must have been pleased with the result. The initial response to his appeal was comical and tragic, but no less impressive for that. The following year tens of thousands of untrained and insufficiently armed civilians, including women and children, sparsely reinforced by professional soldiers, advanced upon the armies of Islam. This peasant’s crusade was destroyed almost to a man at the Siege of Xerigordos and the Battle of Civetot in Asia Minor. The few survivors converted to Islam in exchange for their lives.17 Urban’s appeal had been heard by cannier men than these, however. An alliance of noblemen enticed by the treasure-houses of the Orient18 raised a formidable army of knights and infantrymen. It advanced not only through Asia Minor but all the way to Jerusalem. By the summer of 1099 the crusaders had captured the holy city from the Fatimid Caliphate. A Christian kingdom was established in Jerusalem.

Urban died shortly before the news would have reached him, but his immediate successors could bask in the knowledge that the papacy had sent an unmistakable warning to its enemies. Those enemies were not the Turks or Fatimids, but the Christian kings of Europe. A mere word from the pope had mobilized a small but fanatical segment of European society, drawn from all classes, to war. A king who defended the traditional ecclesiastical order against the papacy might well find civil war stoked in his own realm by the same means. Protestant kings at the time of the Reformation faced precisely this form of terrorism from the papacy and its partisans.

The first victorious years gave way to centuries of defeat for the crusaders. By the fourteenth century almost every territorial gain had been lost. Jerusalem was surrendered to Islamic forces under Saladin in 1187. The city of Acre was surrendered in 1291 marking the end of the Crusades in the Holy Land. At one point the beleaguered crusaders attacked the Byzantine Empire instead of the Sultanate, looting the Christian city of Constantinople to enrich the coffers of Rome and Venice. The weakened Byzantine Empire was conquered by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

Even during the period of the Crusades when the papacy was at its most powerful, and commanded its widest allegiance from European princes, the legitimacy of the institution was never universally accepted.

In 1066 the Normans under William the Conqueror invaded England. William carried a commission from Pope Alexander II. But this was a decade before the Gregorian Reforms. William’s stated objectives were in direct opposition to the later Dictatus. Harold J. Berman writes, “William asserted that the king…has the power to determine whether or not a pope should be acknowledged in Normandy and England; that the king makes canon law through church synods; and the king has a veto power over ecclesiastical penalties imposed on his barons and officials.”19 As kings, William and his sons “successfully opposed papal claims to supremacy over the church in their dominions” following the Gregorian Reforms.20

In the twelfth century, during the de facto reign of King Stephen, amidst a civil war between his factions and those of Empress Matilda, the papal party gained significant ground in the Church of England. But Matilda’s son King Henry II reasserted royal supremacy and the traditional independence of the Church of England. This was not without difficulty, however. The reforms had introduced factions into the church. Those loyal to the pope became, in the words of Howard Bloom, “virtual foreign agents.”21 Thomas Becket, who served as Archbishop of Canterbury during the reign of Henry II, belonged to the papal party. He wanted the clergy exempt from English civil law, specifically criminal prosecution. In 1164 Henry II issued the Constitutions of Clarendon, which restored many of the king’s rights in the church. A bitter political feud between monarch and archbishop ensued. Becket excommunicated clergy and nobility who sided with the king. The conflict culminated in the assassination of Thomas Becket by four aggrieved knights. Afterward the king negotiated a settlement with the Church of Rome that left the larger questions of autonomy and supremacy unsettled. Nor would these questions be settled during the subsequent reign of the Plantagenet dynasty. But there can be no doubt that the king was representing tradition while Becket and the pope were the revolutionaries. As Berman asks, rhetorically, if “the reign of Stephen was the period when the Papal Revolution finally asserted itself in England, should not Henry II’s claim to the customs of his grandfather be considered counterrevolutionary?”22

The papacy became a diplomatic vector that each monarch negotiated with or against depending upon the exigencies of his reign. The French sons of Henry II thought little of their English inheritance. Richard tried unsuccessfully to sell the kingdom to the Holy Roman Emperor to fund a crusade. His brother John, in a position of political crisis, gave the kingdom to the pope in 1213, receiving it back as a fiefdom. This act represented the only formal historical union between England and the Church of Rome. It earned John his role as villain in the Robin Hood legends. The act was also formally annulled, in a process that gives insight into the Church of England in the Middle Ages.

John’s successors Edward I and Edward II refused to pay tribute money to the pope. King Edward III, who took the throne in 1327, resumed the policy of royal supremacy championed by Henry II. During his reign in 1365, the arrangement between John and the papacy was finally adjudicated in Parliament, where it was declared void. The reason the act had not been valid, Parliament decided, was that it had been done without the assent of the bishops.23 The bishops (and thus the Church) of England had a right to autonomy dating back to the foundation of the episcopal system as described by Cyprian of Carthage. It was beyond John’s power as a Christian prince to subordinate them to another bishop.

In Italy the papacy faced a more proximate and embarrassing opponent: the Holy Roman Emperor. The successors of Charlemagne had continued to exercise royal supremacy over the Church of Rome. Now the papacy was overturning the arrangement: asserting episcopal supremacy over the empire including the Frankish lands themselves. The controversy led to five decades of open warfare between imperial and papal factions. In 1122 the papacy won concessions from Henry V, the last emperor of the Salian dynasty, who renounced his right to invest bishops with ring and crozier. The emperors of the subsequent Hohenstaufen dynasty in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries proved more formidable. Emperor Frederick Barbarossa and Pope Alexander III denounced one another, with the emperor recognizing a succession of challengers to the papacy. Although they were later reconciled by treaty, their successors continued to struggle. Barbarossa’s grandson, Frederick II became emperor in 1220. He faced unrelenting opposition from Pope Innocent IV. The pope excommunicated Frederick II as a heretic, a “friend of Babylon’s sultan,” with “Saracen customs,” “provided with a harem guarded by eunuchs,” declared him deposed, fomented civil war by encouraging a rival landgrave to seize the throne,and ordered Frederick’s supporters massacred under the flag of truce at Viterbo. Throughout all of this Frederick II maintained power. He advanced an early Renaissance in art, law, and science. He led a crusade to Jerusalem, while excommunicated, recapturing the city and briefly holding it, making him the last Christian King of Jerusalem to set foot in that realm. The emperor’s English contemporary and admirer Matthew Paris described him as Stupor mundi, “the Wonder of the World.” The nineteenth century Oxford historian Edward A. Freeman wrote that, “in mere genius, in mere accomplishments, Frederick was surely the greatest prince that ever wore a crown.”24 The Reformed theologian Paul Schaff described him as “the most conspicuous political figure of his own age and the most cosmopolitan of the Middle Ages. He was warrior, legislator, statesman, man of letters.”25

Frederick II died in 1150, unreconciled with the pope but conciliatory toward the church, with last rites performed by his loyal Archbishop of Palermo. Upon hearing news of the emperor’s death, Innocent IV responded with characteristic pettiness, “heaven and hell rejoiced of it.”26 While Frederick was able to keep the Holy Roman Empire together during his lifetime it proved impossible to elect a successor. Upon his death the empire fell into a period of long interregnums and aborted restorations until the eve of the Protestant Reformation when the ambitious Habsburg family accepted the title however the papacy chose to define it.

The Hohenstaufen were not forgotten in later centuries. Regional conflicts between city states that were loyal to the emperor and those that were loyal to the papacy continued through the period of the Renaissance in Italy. The imperial faction were called Ghibellines, the papal faction were called Guelphs. The poet Dante Alighieri was famously exiled from Florence at the turn of the fourteenth century for his Ghibelline sympathies. In Germany the memory of the Hohenstaufen transcended history, becoming part of an earlier myth.

The king in the mountain is one of the great archetypal myths: a king who presided over a past golden age is said to have retreated with his warriors into a mountain cave where he waits, sleeping but not dead, one day to return. It is most famously associated with King Arthur at Avalon. After the death of Frederick II rumor spread in Italy that he had not died but gone to sleep in Mount Etna, and in Germany that he had gone to sleep in Kyffhäuser Mountain. During the sixteenth century the identity of the sleeping king was gradually transferred from Frederick II to his grandfather Frederick Barbarossa.27 Professor D.L. Ashliman has catalogued a number of related myths in his bibliography of folktexts at the University of Pittsburgh.The most famous account comes from the Deutsche Sagen by the Brothers Grimm:

Many legends are in circulation dealing with [Emperor Frederick Barbarossa]. They say that he is not dead, but that he shall live until the Day of Judgment, and also that no legitimate emperor shall rise up after him. Until that time he will remain hidden in Kyffhäuser Mountain. When he appears he will hang his shield on a dead tree, and leaves will sprout from the tree, and then better times will be at hand. From time to time he speaks to those who find their way into the mountain, and from time to time he makes appearances outside the mountain. Generally he just sits there on a bench at a round stone table, asleep with his head in his hands. He constantly nods his head and blinks his eyes. His beard has grown very long, according to some it has grown through the stone table, according to others it has grown around the table. They say that it must grow around the circumference three times before he awakens. At the present time it has grown around the table twice.

In the year 1669 a peasant from the village of Reblingen who was hauling grain to Nordhausen was taken into the mountain by a little dwarf. He was told to empty out his grain and allowed to fill his sacks with gold in its place. He saw the emperor sitting there entirely motionless.

In addition, a dwarf led a shepherd into the mountain who had once played a tune on his flute that had pleased the emperor. The emperor stood up and asked: “Are ravens still flying around the mountain?” When the shepherd answered “yes,” the Kaiser responded: “Then I must sleep for another hundred years.”28

A monument to Barbarossa was erected in the Kyffhäuser range in the 1890s. It depicts him awakening. On a plinth above him stands an equestrian statue of Emperor Wilhelm I, connecting the legend to German unification under the Prussian monarchy in the nineteenth century. Artist Bruno Schmitz successfully captured the metaphysical subtext of the story recorded by the Grimms. As the head of a Protestant national church, Wilhelm was the first king of the German Reich since the Hohenstaufen to stand in correct alignment with the ecclesiastical order. That “no legitimate emperor” would rise up after the Hohenstaufen was a repudiation of the Habsburgs who ruled as Roman Catholics during the period when the legend told to the Grimms likely originated. In the symbolism of the monument Wilhelm represents the waking Barbarossa, or vice versa.

The Protestant Reformation was a reaction to the encroachment of the papacy against the traditional Christian order in both its political and theological dimensions. Because this encroachment first impacted the political order we find the earliest antecedents of the Protestant Reformation in Medieval opposition to the Gregorian Reforms. What had been the status quo throughout Christendom before roughly AD 1080 was defended by arms through the thirteenth century and maintained in open protest thereafter.


  1. Johann Karl Ludwig Gieseler; Francis Cunningham (trans.), Text-book of Ecclesiastical History. Philadelphia: Carey, Lea, and Blanchard, 1836; 1:153-155.
  2. William Cathcart, The Papal System: From Its Origin to the Present Time. Aurora: The Menace Publishing Company, 1872; 61.
  3. Cathcart, 1872; 61-70.
  4. Cathcart, 1872; 69.
  5. Alan Cameron, “The Imperial Pontifex.” Harvard Studies in Classical Philology Vol. 103 (2007); 341-384.
  6. John Marion Riddle, A History of the Middle Ages, 300-1500. Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2008; 200.
  7. George William Outram Addleshaw, The Development of the Parochial System from Charlemagne (768-814) to Urban II (1088-1099). London: St. Anthony’s Press, 1954; 4-5.
  8. Roger Wickson, Kings and Bishops in Medieval England, 1066-1216. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015; xxiii-xxiv.
  9. KJV, 1 Timothy 6:15.
  10. KJV, Revelation 1:5.
  11. KJV, Psalm 82:6-7.
  12. Nigel Bryant (trans.), The Complete Story of the Grail: Chrétien de Troyes’ Perceval and its Continuations. Cambridge: D.S. Brewer, 2015.
  13. Norman F. Cantor, The Civilization of the Middle Ages. New York: Harper Collins, 1993; 395.
  14. KJV, Matthew 16:18.
  15. KJV, Matthew 28:16-20.
  16. Walter Herbert Stowe, The Essence of Anglo-Catholicism. New York: Morehouse-Gorham Co., 1932; 15.
  17. Steven Runciman, The First Crusade. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1951, 1980; 58-61.
  18. Martin Hall; Jonathan Phillips, Caffaro, Genoa and the Twelfth-Century Crusades. London and New York: Routledge, 2013; 9-10.
  19. Harold J. Berman, Law and Revolution, the Formation of the Western Legal Tradition. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983; 255.
  20. Berman, 255.
  21. Howard Bloom, The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition Into the Forces of History. New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1995; 120.
  22. Berman, 258.
  23. Thomas Erskine May, A Treatise on the Law, Proceedings, and Usage of Parliament. Eleventh Edition. London: William Clowes and Sons, Ltd., 1906; 3.
  24. Edward A. Freeman, Historical Essays. London: Macmillan and Company, 1896; 293.
  25. Philip Schaff, The History of the Christian Church, Volume V Part 1: The Middle Ages. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1923; 196.
  26. Schaff, 299.
  27. Norbert Kamp, “Federico II di Svevia, imperatore, re di Sicilia e di Gerusalemme, re dei Romani”. Dizionario Biografico degli Italiani Vol. 45 (1995).
  28. Jacob Grimm; Wilhelm Grimm, Deutsche Sagen. Munich: Winkler, 1965; 49-50. Translation: D. L. Ashliman, “Sleeping Hero Legends,” Folklore and Mythology Electronic Texts. (1999) University of Pittsburgh. See also: Juleigh Howard-Hobson, “The Mountain Kings.” Counter-Currents (August 16, 2011)

The Primitive Church

A legend of great antiquity connects the foundation of the Church of England to Joseph of Arimathea. What little we know for certain about this figure comes from the canonical Gospels. Matthew described him as “a rich man” who was a disciple of Jesus Christ.1 Mark elaborated that he was an “honourable” member of the church council who “waited for the kingdom of God.”2 When Jesus was crucified it was Joseph who approached the Roman magistrate Pontius Pilate requesting “that he might take away the body of Jesus: and Pilate gave him leave.”3 Joseph “bought fine linen,” prepared the holy body for burial, “and laid it in a tomb that had been hewn out of the rock.”4 According to Matthew it was the tomb that Joseph had prepared for himself.5 This is all that can be said with the authority of Scripture, but we can assume that he was among the disciples to whom Jesus appeared, when Jesus emerged from the tomb resurrected to life.

In the generation or two that followed the events of the New Testament, a wealth of biographical material and legend concerning Joseph was recorded. Extracanonical details appear in the writings of Irenaeus, Hippolytus, Tertullian and other Christian historians of the second and third centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages a folk memory persisted in England of Joseph having established a missionary church in Somerset or Cornwall on the southwest coast.

The Anglican clergyman Sabine Baring-Gould relates a very old Cornish story that, “Joseph of Arimathea came in a boat to Cornwall, and brought the child Jesus with him, and the latter taught him how to extract the tin and purge it of its wolfram.”6 The visionary poet William Blake made reference to this legend when he wrote, “And did those feet in ancient time, / Walk upon Englands mountains green: / And was the holy Lamb of God, / On Englands pleasant pastures seen!”7

Valuable metals have been mined in Cornwall for thousands of years. High demand for tin used in the manufacture of bronze led to the establishment of trade routes between Cornwall and Greece, Rome, and the Middle East in antiquity. Sources from the fifth and sixth centuries attribute Joseph’s wealth to the tin trade, identifying him either as a merchant or a “noble decurion” in charge of mining operations.8

But why would Jesus have been traveling with him? It is suggested by Lionel Smithett Lewis, who was vicar at Glastonbury in the early twentieth century, that Joseph of Arimathea was a member of the holy family. He cites “the Eastern tradition” that Joseph was the uncle of Mary and so the great-uncle of Jesus.This is pure speculation but it might explain why the body of Christ was given over to Joseph, and why Joseph performed the ritual preparations for burial, which were the duties of a family member.

In the Middle Ages it was considered a matter of historical record that Joseph of Arimathea returned to Britain as an apostle after the passion, resurrection, and ascension of Christ. William of Malmesbury, in his history De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie, written around 1135, claimed that the apostle Philip “sent twelve of his disciples into Britain to teach the word of life. It is said that he appointed as their leader his very dear friend, Joseph of Arimathea, who had buried the Lord. They came to Britain in 63 AD”.10 As the title suggests, they established a church at Glastonbury in Somerset. It is believed by modern historians that the name of Joseph of Arimathea was interpolated by scribes who copied the manuscript several decades after it was written. But the description and date of the apostolic mission is original to William’s careful account. Moreover, the identification of Joseph is given context by the much earlier testimony of Maelgwyn of Llandaff, who wrote around 450 AD, that “Joseph of Arimathea, the noble decurion, entered his perpetual sleep with his XI companions in the Isle of Avalon.”11 Avalon is generally identified as Glastonbury Tor, which was formerly an island.

The English were sufficiently confident in the antiquity of their church that they asserted its seniority at multiple church councils in the fifteenth century. At Pisa in 1409, Constance in 1417, Siena in 1424, and Basel in 1434, the English delegations contended that, “the Churches of France and Spain must yield in points of antiquity and precedence to that of Britain as the latter Church was founded by Joseph of Arimathea immediately after the passion of Christ.”12

Is it true? Did Joseph of Arimathea convert the Britons? We do not know. It is a matter of legend, neither provable nor disprovable. But someoneconverted Britons to Christianity during the apostolic period. Before Patrick preached to the Celts in the fifth century, and long before the Church of Rome sent Augustine of Canterbury to Kent, at the turn of the seventh century, the Church of England was an autonomous ecclesiastical polity. Tertullian, who lived between 155 and 240 AD wrote, “the extremities of Spain, the various parts of Gaul, the regions of Britain which have never been penetrated by Roman arms have received the religion of Christ.”13 Eusebius, who lived between 260 and 340 AD, testified that, “The Apostles passed beyond the ocean to the isles called the Britannic Isles.”14 John Chrysostom, the great liturgist and Patriarch of Constantinople in the late fourth century, wrote that, “even the British Isles, which lie outside the boundaries of our world and our sea, in the midst of the ocean itself, have experienced the power of the Word, for even there churches and altars have been set up.”15

During the Reformation, English Protestants revived the history and legends of Primitive Christianity in Britain. As the Church of England purged itself of Medieval corruptions and innovations, the model of a pure and primitive church served as a symbol of the Anglican project.


1. The Holy Bible: Authorized King James Version,Cameo Reference Bible. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010; Matthew 27:57. 
2. KJV, Mark 15:43.
4. KJV, Mark 15:46.
5. KJV, Matthew 27:60.
6. Sabine Baring-Gould, A Book of The West: Being An Introduction To Devon and Cornwall; A Book of Cornwall.London: Methuen Publishing, 1906; 57.
7. William Blake; David V. Erdman (ed.), The Complete Poetry and Prose of William Blake, Newly Revised Edition. New York: Anchor Books, 1988; 95.
8. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. (Pamphlet.) London: Covenant Publishing Company, 1927; 32.
9. Lionel Smithett Lewis, St. Joseph of Arimathea at Glastonbury: Or, The Apostolic Church of Britain. London: James Clark & Co, 1955; 52.
10. William of Malmesbury; John Scott (ed.), The Early History of Glastonbury: An Edition, Translation, and Study of William of Malmesbury’s De Antiquitate Glastonie Ecclesie. Rochester: Boydell Press, 1981.
11. Lewis, 1955; 18.
12. Lewis, 1927; 32.
13. Tertullian, Adversus Judaeos, ch. 7, v. 4, quoted in R.W. Morgan, St. Paul in Britain: Or, The Origin of British as Opposed to Papal Christianity. Oxford and London: James Parker and Co, 1880; 195.
14. Eusebius, De Demonstratione Evangelii, lib. iii, quoted in Morgan, 1880; 189.
15. William Richard Wood Stephens, Saint Chrysostom: His Life and Times: a Sketch of the Church and the Empire in the Fourth Century. London: John Murray, 1872; 129.

The Waterhouse Muse


John William Waterhouse was among the last artists to make use of the Pre-Raphaelite style in direct continuity with the first generation of Pre-Raphaelite painters. He was not strictly a Pre-Raphaelite. His interest in Classical and mythological subjects placed him, with Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, somewhat out of the mainstream of the genre. However a series of Arthurian, Shakespearian, and Christian paintings in the 1890s are boldly Pre-Raphaelite in style.

Beginning in the 1890s, and continuing until his death in 1917, Waterhouse worked primarily with one female model. Her likeness appears in his most famous works: La Belle Dame sans Merci (1893); A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph (1893); Ophelia (1894); The Mermaid (1901); and Tristan and Isolde (1914). In perhaps his most famous painting, Hylas and the Nymphs (1896), she appears duplicated as multiple figures.

For many years there was a mystery surrounding the identity of this model. “Who was she?” Christopher Wood asked in his 1981 book, The Pre-Raphaelites. “One cannot help speculating about the identity of the mysterious and beautiful model who reappears so often in…Waterhouse’s pictures…It remains one of the few Pre-Raphaelite mysteries, and one that will probably never be solved.”

The “Waterhouse Girl,” as she was long known, is a striking and prepossessing beauty. Her looks are characterized by doe-like eyes, celestial nose, a modest sensuality about the lips, and the long reddish-golden hair associated with Pre-Raphaelite models since Rossetti’s early paintings of Elizabeth Siddal. Peter Trippi writes that, “given their three decade relationship,” she “surely functioned as the artist’s muse.” We see her age over time from a young seductress in the earliest works to a woman of dignity and adult beauty in later paintings such as The Soul of the Rose, or My Sweet Rose (1908) and The Annunciation (1914). That Waterhouse changed his themes and approach to suit his model, rather than the other way around, is a tribute to her profound influence on his work.

The mystery of the model’s identity was at last solved. In 1988 a pencil study by Waterhouse for his 1905 painting Lamia was bequeathed to the Yale Center for British Art in New Haven, Connecticut. It depicts the upturned face of the model. Her name is inscribed by Waterhouse on the paper: Miss Muriel Foster.

We are fortunate to know her name, not as a mere piece of trivia. Waterhouse’s best work had for its foundation one of the most successful partnerships between artist and model in the history of painting. Muriel Foster’s contribution to that partnership comes through to us as viewers today. As Rossetti wrote in another context, “Beauty like hers is genius.”

La Belle Dame sans Merci, by John William Waterhouse, 1893.
A Naiad, or Hylas with a Nymph, by John William Waterhouse, 1893.
Ophelia, by John William Waterhouse, 1894
Hylas and the Nymphs, by John William Waterhouse, 1896
The Soul of the Rose, by John William Waterhouse, 1908
The Annunciation, by John William Waterhouse, 1914


Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (Fall 1999) “Miss Muriel Foster: The John William Waterhouse Model,” in The Journal of Pre-Raphaelite Studies. New Series 8.

Baker, James K. Baker, Kathy L. (2004) “The Lamia in the Art of John William Waterhouse,” in The British Art Journal. Vol V, No 2.

Rossetti, Dante Gabriel. Rossetti, William Michael (ed). (1895) The Poetical Works of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. London: Ellis and Elvey.

Trippi, Peter. (2003) “John William Waterhouse,” in Pre-Raphaelite and Other Masters: The Andrew Lloyd Webber Collection. London: The Royal Academy of Arts.

Wood, Christopher. (1981) The Pre-Raphaelites. New York: The Viking Press.

The ‘Bristol Merlin’

Fragments of a thirteenth century Arthurian manuscript were discovered bound into sixteenth century books at the Bristol Central Library in England. The seven manuscript pages had been recycled as fly leaves in the later volumes. They come from a long-lost version of the Estoire de Merlin containing unique details about characters and events not found in other copies. A press release from the University of Bristol explains:

The seven leaves represent a continuous sequence of the Estoire de Merlin narrative (though they are bound ‘out of chronological order’ in their current form)—specifically in a section known as the ‘Suite Vulgate de Merlin’ (Vulgate Continuation of Merlin).

Events begin with Arthur, Merlin, Gawain and assorted other knights, including King Ban and King Bohors preparing for battle at Trebes against King Claudas and his followers.

Merlin has been strategising the best plan of attack. There follows a long description of the battle. At one point, Arthur’s forces look beleaguered but a speech from Merlin urging them to avoid cowardice leads them to fight again, and Merlin leads the charge using Sir Kay’s special dragon standard that Merlin had gifted to Arthur, which breathes real fire.

In the end, Arthur’s forces are triumphant. Kings Arthur, Ban and Bohors, and the other knights, are accommodated in the Castle of Trebes.

That night Ban and his wife, Queen Elaine, conceive a child. Elaine then has a strange dream about a lion and a leopard, the latter of which seems to prefigure Elaine’s yet-to-be-born son. Ban also has a terrifying dream in which he hears a voice. He wakes up and goes to church.

We are told that during Arthur’s stay in the kingdom of Benoic for the next month, Ban and Bohors are able to continue to fight and defeat Claudas, but after Arthur leaves to look after matters in his own lands, Claudas is once again triumphant.

The narrative then moves to Merlin’s partial explanation of the dreams of Ban and Elaine. Afterwards, Merlin meets Viviane who wishes to know how to put people to sleep (she wishes to do this to her parents). Merlin stays with Viviane for a week, apparently falling in love with her, but resists sleeping with her. Merlin then returns to Benoic to rejoin Arthur and his companions.

In the newly discovered fragments, there tend to be longer, more detailed descriptions of the actions of various characters in certain sections – particularly in relation to battle action.

Where Merlin gives instructions for who will lead each of the four divisions of Arthur’s forces, the characters responsible for each division are different from the version of the narrative we know.

Sometimes only small details are changed—for example, King Claudas is wounded through the thighs in the known version, where in the fragments the nature of the wound is left unsaid, which may lead to different interpretations of the text owing to thigh wounds often being used as metaphors for impotence or castration.

Doré in Camelot

From The New Arthurian Encyclopedia, edited by Norris J Lacy:

[Gustave] Doré’s most significant contribution to Arthurian art was his illustration of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King. Already famous for his editions of Dante, the Bible, Cervantes, and others, Doré was commissioned by Moxon & Co., Tennyson’s publisher, to provide thirty-six wash drawings for the immensely popular 1859 Idylls, nine for each of Tennyson’s four poems: “Enid,” “Vivien,” “Elaine,” and “Guinevere.” His work was then copied by English steel-engravers rather than being carved into wood blocks, Doré’s usual practice. The illustrated poems were issued separately in folio editions from 1867 to 1868 by Moxon in London and by Hachette in Paris (trans. Fransique Michel). In 1868, the separate editions were gathered into one volume, for which Doré added a frontispiece depicting Tennyson surrounded by his Arthurian characters, with some creatures of Doré’s invention. The illustrations were popular, especially in England, and went through several editions.

Edyrn with His Lady and Dwarf Journey to Arthur’s Court

Yniol Shows Prince Geraint His Ruined Castle

Viviane and Merlin

Geraint Slays Earl Doorm

King Arthur Discovering the Skeletons of the Brothers

The Sea Fight

The Cave Scene

Wyeth in Camelot

I have previously noted my affection for the golden-age American illustrator Newell Convers Wyeth (1882-1945). His luminous interpretations of boys’ adventure novels from Treasure Island to The Last of the Mohicans have been imprinted on the imagination of several generations.

Wyeth did his best work illustrating Medieval romances, which is not surprising given that his mentor Howard Pyle specialized in the genre. In 1917 Wyeth followed up his breakthrough edition of Treasure Island with a subject previously popularized by Pyle himself: the adventures of Robin Hood.

Robin Hood And His Merry Men

Robin and His Mother Go to Nottingham Fair

Robin Meets Maid Marian

Robin Hood and His Companions Lend Aid to Will o’ th’ Green

Little John Sings a Song at the Banquet

The Passing of Robin Hood

The same year Wyeth tackled the great chivalric subject: King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The Boy’s King Arthur was a loose adaptation of Malory by the American poet Sidney Lanier, first published in 1880.

Today the book is mostly remembered for Wyeth’s illustrations. One can see the lingering influence of the Pre-Raphaelite artists on Wyeth via the Brandywine School where Pyle taught.


So the child was delivered unto Merlin, and so he bare it forth

And when they came to the sword that the hand held, King Arthur took it up

I am Sir Launcelot du Lake, King Ban’s son of Benwick, and knight of the Round Table

It hung upon a thorn, and there he blew three deadly notes

The lady Lyonesse … had the dwarf in examination

“Oh, gentle knight,” said la Belle Isoud, “full woe am I of thy departing”

Sir Mador’s spear broke all to pieces, but the other’s spear held

Then the king … ran towards Sir Mordred, crying, “Traitor, now is thy death day come”

In 1922 Wyeth illustrated The Legends of Charlemagne, one of three titles written in the 1850s and 1860s by Thomas Bulfinch, later compiled as Bulfinch’s MythologyThe Legends of Charlemagne collects tales of the twelve Paladins.

The majority of the stories are drawn from the sixteenth century Italian epic Orlando Furioso, which includes many fantastic elements: a sea monster and flying horse among them.


The Midnight Encounter

Prince Leo Presents Rogero to Charlemagne

Orlando and the Giant Ferragus

The Fight on the Bridge

The Winged Horse

Angelica and the Orc

Death of Orlando

Ogier and Morgana

Lord Tennyson in Camelot

Alfred Tennyson with book, by Julia Margaret Cameron, 1865

Alfred, Lord Tennyson spent most of his career as a poet in the realm of Arthurian legend. It was not by any means his only subject, but it was one to which he returned again and again. His definitive treatment of the rise and fall of Camelot, the book-length cycle, Idylls of the King, was written over a quarter of a century between 1859 and 1885. But much earlier, at the outset of his career, Tennyson identified the unrealized potential in this iconic British mythology, writing that, “most of the big things except ‘King Arthur’ had been done.”

Previous generations of Romantic poets had consciously rejected the subject. “As to Arthur…What have we to do with him,” asked Coleridge. Lord Byron was likewise disinterested. “By the by,” he wrote, “I fear that Sir Tristem and Sir Lancelot were no better than they should be…So much for chivalry. Burke need not have regretted that its days are over.” Yet Tennyson dared to assert the relevancy of the Arthurian tradition to the modern world, and in so doing, achieved not only a masterpiece, but a renewal of the Victorian imagination.

Tennyson first read Sir Thomas Malory’s fifteenth-century prose epic, Le Morte d’Arthur, in his youth. “The vision of Arthur as I have drawn him,” he later told his son, “came upon me when, little more than a boy, I first lighted upon Malory.” Tennyson understood the character as “a man who spent himself in the cause of honour, duty and self-sacrifice, who felt and aspired with his nobler knights, though with a stronger and clearer conscience than any of them.”

It was not immediately clear to Tennyson how to approach the subject. In the 1830s he wrote four different poems that dealt with Arthur and Camelot in various ways. He also experimented with treatments and arrangements of the material in four outlines written during the same period.

The outlines were composed in the early 1830s, probably around 1833. The first describes the landscape of Camelot in prose, focusing on the mountain where Arthur’s hall was built: “The Mount was the most beautiful in the world…but all underneath it was hollow, and the mountain trembled…and there ran a prophecy that the mountain and the city on some wild morning would topple into the abyss and be no more.” The second outline records the symbolism that the young Tennyson attributed to various characters: the two Guineveres represent primitive Christianity versus Roman Catholicism; Mordred, the skeptical understanding; Merlin, science; the Round Table, liberal institutions; Excalibar, war. Another outline arranges the cast of characters based on their relationships to one another. The last is a proposed sequence for a five-act narrative connecting the legends. While none of these early sketches exactly predicted the form that Tennyson’s mature work would take, they give a sense of the systematic approach he used to arrive at it.

The most famous of the poems from this period was The Lady of Shalott. It was based on a medieval Italian novelette from the thirteenth century collection, Cento Novelle Antiche. Tennyson was, at the time, unfamiliar with Malory’s version of the tale and later said, “I doubt whether I should ever have put it in that shape if I had been then aware of the Maid of Astolat in Mori Arthur.” The subtext in Tennyson’s rendering is the movement of the artist from isolation and imitation of the world into experience of the world—in Tennyson’s words, “out of the region of shadows into that of realities.” To develop this theme, Tennyson modified the story substantially. Several important elements, like the Lady’s mirror, are his invention, not present in the original source.

The other three poems were Sir Launcelot and Queen GuinevereSir Galahad, and the Morte d’Arthur. In all of them Tennyson pays close attention to imagery, often expanding upon depictions in Malory’s narrative for heightened emphasis. For example, he turns Malory’s fairly straightforward image of Excalibur as a sword decorated with precious stones into a sword that “twinkled with diamond studs, / Myriads of topaz-lights, and jacinth-work / Of subtlest jewellery.” But he also drew out and expanded the interior life of the characters. The dramatic last words that Tennyson gives to Arthur, while of his own invention, add to Malory rather than contradicting him. The emphasis of Arthur’s speech in the Morte d’Arthur is on prayer; Arthur says, “More things are wrought by prayer / Than this world dreams of.” The entire speech reflects Tennyson’s skill at weaving his own moral vision into a poem that remains relatively faithful to the source material.

By the 1840s Tennyson had found in King Arthur a figure who could represent idealism and faith for Victorian society. His early experimentations would bear fruit in the Idylls of the King. In that work Tennyson navigated the knife’s edge between the heroic and tragic, achieving something sublime. In the end Arthur slays the traitor Mordred in battle but is left “all but slain himself,” his kingdom fallen. As in Malory, he is last seen taken by boat toward the mythical island of Avalon, “Somewhere far off, pass[ing] on and on, and go[ing] / From less to less and vanish[ing] into light.” To cite Tennyson’s own early symbolism: faith and virtue overcome materialism and doubt, but not without a cost. And indeed, the Victorian faith—Tennyson’s own faith—was even then retreating into mystery and mysticism. But this was not a final retreat. Arthur is an inherently Christlike figure, destined to “come again / To rule once more.” The Idylls end with another beginning: “And the new sun rose bringing the new year.”

Writing about the Victorian period at the turn of the millennium, philosopher John Michell recalled,

In my childhood some sixty years ago the code of behaviour one was supposed to live by was properly called Victorian. One source of that code was the Bible, and another was the romance of King Arthur. Putting them together, the Victorians conceived an ideal type of modern human being, the fair, kind, and honourable Christian gentleman.

Tennyson is in part to thank for that wonderful ideal.

Remembering Arthur Machen

arthur-machen (1)

Arthur Llewelyn Jones-Machen was born in Caerleon, Wales in March of 1863 to the Anglican clergyman John Edward Jones and his wife, Janet. The shortened form of Machen, which Arthur used for most of his life, was a surname from his mother’s side of the family. He grew up in Llanddewi Fach, a rural parish outside of Caerleon, where his father was vicar. The area had a rich history intertwined with Welsh myth and folklore. The earliest legends of King Arthur placed the seat of his kingdom not in Camelot but in Caerleon. The landscape would influence Machen’s future work in fantasy and weird fiction.

In the 1870s, archaeologists began to uncover remnants of Roman settlements in the region: stonework and pagan idols. Machen’s own grandfather, who had been the vicar of Caerleon, was a well-regarded local antiquary, who had discovered Roman stones in his own churchyard. The sense that strangeness and the supernatural permeated the very land would remain with Machen. That countryside with its Roman ruins and fairy glens would reoccur often in his fiction. Much later, he wrote:

I shall always esteem it as the greatest piece of fortune that has fallen to me, that I was born in that noble, fallen Caerleon-on-Usk, in the heart of Gwent. . . . For the older I grow the more firmly I am convinced that anything which I may have accomplished in literature is due to the fact that when my eyes were first opened in earliest childhood they had before them the vision of an enchanted land.

As a boy, Machen was intelligent, reserved, and solitary. Fred Hando, in his volume of local history, The Pleasant Land of Gwent, attributes Machen’s interest in the occult to an article about alchemy that he read in an old issue of Charles Dickens’s magazine, Household Words, when he was eight years old. Hando elaborates on Machen’s youthful reading habits: “He bought De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater at Pontypool Road Railway Station, The Arabian Nights at Hereford Railway Station, and borrowed Don Quixote from Mrs. Gwyn, of Llanfrechfa Rectory. In his father’s library he found also the Waverley Novels, a three-volume edition of the Glossary of Gothic Architecture, and an early volume of Tennyson.” By the time he was sent to study at Hereford Cathedral School at the age of eleven, he showed an interest in history and literature. His family might have sent him on to Oxford, where his father had studied, but they lacked the resources. Instead, he decided to pursue a career in journalism.

Machen moved to London in the early 1880s. He did not immediately attempt to establish himself in Fleet Street. Instead he lived on little and spent his time wandering and exploring the city. He observed the strange juxtaposition of old and new, as Victorian development encroached upon the often dilapidated remains of ancient London.

In 1881, shortly before moving to London, he published Eleusinia, a poetic treatment of the Greco-Roman mystery cult. He published his second book, The Anatomy of Tobacco, in 1884. This was a whimsical appreciation of pipe-smoking. Through his publisher, George Redway, Machen was hired as an editor at the magazine Walford’s Antiquarian. During this period he undertook several translations from French literature, including a multi-volume edition of Casanova’s Memoirs, and produced his first novel, The Chronicle of Clemendy.

In 1887, at the age of twenty-four, Machen married a young music teacher named Amy Hogg. His father died the same year, leaving an inheritance that allowed Machen to write full time. He had developed a mature style of prose by the end of the decade. His writing reflected a sense of nostalgia and an interest in supernatural and occult themes. His first major achievement was a short novel, The Great God Pan, for which he is still best known. The story, about a woman born of pagan ritual and occult science, caused a stir with its suggested horrors and perverse sexuality. The Great God Pan was published by John Lane in 1890 as part of the “Keynotes” series. It marked Machen’s arrival as a member of the literary Decadent movement. He became acquainted with other major figures of the genre, including Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. He and Amy were living in a cottage in the Chilterns in southeast England. There he wrote another book, The Three Imposters, which was also published by Lane. It is a portmanteau novel which follows two bohemian friends as they try to learn the identity of a young man in spectacles who was seen throwing a Roman coin—”the gold Tiberius”—into the street as he ran terrified into the night. Along the way they hear many strange stories.

Machen’s rise in the literary world was cut short by a scandal that did not involve him. The Decadent Movement was widely repudiated in the mid-1890s when Oscar Wilde was put on trial for sodomy and gross indecency. Machen continued to write over the next decade but did not publish. Fortunately, he still had his inheritance to live upon. He wrote two novellas, The White People and A Fragment of Life, both of which evoked the mystical Welsh countryside of his childhood, as well as a novel, The Hill of Dreams, during this period. He also wrote a series of prose poems, which were later collected in Ornaments of Jade. In addition to writing, Machen took an editorial position at the magazine Literature in 1898. Though he did not remain there long, he had the opportunity to develop his own ideas on the subject of literary theory, which he outlined in the book, Hieroglyphics, in 1902.

The Hill of Dreams, which was written between 1895 and 1897, but not published until 1907, was his last word in the Decadent genre. It is widely regarded as his finest work, a judgment that he did not dispute. Machen told the writer E.H. Visiak, “I should think that on the whole The Hill of Dreams is my most successful experiment in literature.” An annotated bibliography prepared by The Friends of Arthur Machen describes the haunting and ambiguous story as follows:

Lucian Taylor, the hero, is damned, either through contact with an erotically pagan ‘other’ world or through something degenerate in his own nature, which he thinks of as a ‘faun’. He becomes a writer, and when he moves to London he becomes trapped by the increasing reality of the dark imaginings of this creature within him, which become increasingly real. Machen drew copiously on his own early years in Wales and London, and the book as a whole is an exploration through imagination of a potential fate which he personally avoided. One of the first explorations in fiction of the figure of the doomed artist, who is biographically so much a part of the decadent 1890s.

As the turn of the twentieth century approached, Machen suffered a terrible loss. After a long illness, his wife, Amy, died of cancer in 1899. Machen was overwhelmed with grief and suffered a nervous breakdown. Friends encouraged him to recover by cultivating his spiritual life. Through Arthur Edward Waite, he joined the occult society, the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn. Though Machen shared the group’s interest in the Western Mystery Tradition his own spiritual awakening was leading him in a different direction.

Machen was a lifelong Anglican Christian. Following the death of his wife, he experienced a religious epiphany. He would later write that during the “autumn of 1899-1900 . . . the two worlds of sense and spirit were admirably and wonderfully mingled, so that it was difficult, or rather impossible, to distinguish the outward and sensible glow from the inward and spiritual grace.” He was a high churchman who favored the catholic inheritance of the Church of England over the reformed inheritance. But he identified the catholicity of Anglicanism with a Celtic Christianity that predated the arrival of missionaries from the Church of Rome.

He found other ways to work through the heartbreak of Amy’s death as well. In 1901, he made the perhaps unexpected—but to anyone who knows the healing potential of theater, not surprising—decision to become an actor. He joined Frederick Benson’s theater company. Touring and performing gave Machen a source of optimism and confidence, which spilled over into the rest of his life. Though previously extremely reserved, he now became more outgoing and gregarious.

Four years after Amy’s death, Machen married for the second time, to Dorothie Purefoy Hudleston. Purefoy, as she was called, was a fellow member of Benson’s company. The couple frequently toured with the troupe and enjoyed a rather bohemian lifestyle. Purefoy encouraged Machen in both his faith and his writing. In 1906, at last, he published a collection of old and new pieces, The House of Souls. The following year, he published his a masterwork of literary Decadence, The Hill of Dreams. However, the times had changed, as had Machen himself. He largely abandoned the themes of paganism and evil that had characterized his works of the fin de siècle.

A new purpose appeared in his writings from the early 1900s onward. His interest in Celtic Christianity and mysticism came to define his work. He began to write for The Academy, a conservative literary journal, run by Lord Alfred Douglas, in which Machen explored the legends of King Arthur and the Holy Grail, placing them in the context of Celtic Christianity. Machen’s writings on religion emphasized ritual and the imagination. During this time, he translated his interest in the Holy Grail to fiction in the novel, The Secret Glory, about a young orphan who achieves salvation and martyrdom on a modern quest for the Grail.

Toward the end of the decade, Machen ran into financial difficulties. To make ends meet, he returned to a career in journalism. He joined the staff of the Daily Mail in 1908 then transferred to The Evening News in 1910. As an experienced writer, he was asked to report on a variety of important subjects, including the funeral of renowned explorer Captain Robert Falcon Scott. Most of his regular pieces, however, focused on religion or on the arts. Though The Evening News offered Machen a good, reliable income, he chaffed at the constraints of full-time employment.

Despite his dissatisfaction with the job, it gave him his first real taste of fame. In August of 1914, at the outset of the First World War, the British and German armies fought at Mons in Belgium. The battle ended in a strategic retreat by the British, a demoralizing opening gambit to the war. Machen responded with a newspaper story that combined fiction and fact, imagining that angelic archers had appeared over the battlefield and fought alongside the British. This piece, “The Bowmen,” soon caused mass confusion. Machen’s previous stories for the paper had not included fiction, and the piece resembled the first-person accounts of soldiers frequently published by The Evening News. On top of this, censorship from the battlefield made it difficult for those at home to know exactly what had really taken place at the front. Many people believed that the story was true. Machen always maintained that it was a fiction. Nevertheless, the story of the “the Angels of Mons” spread and became legendary, with soldiers confirming that they had seen the vision with their own eyes, and readers refusing to believe that Machen had made it all up.

The story was published in a collection of wartime fiction, which sold very well. Machen was encouraged to turn his attention back to creative writing, publishing a number of new stories. The relative financial security that he enjoyed at this point helped support a growing family. He and his wife had two children. But his career in journalism ended abruptly in a bizarre episode in 1921. That year he published an obituary of his former editor at The Academy, Lord Alfred Douglas. In the obituary he alluded to the homosexual affair between Lord Alfred and Oscar Wilde, which had been the cause of Wilde’s trial and disgrace. Awkwardly for Machen, Lord Alfred was not, in fact, dead. He sued The Evening News. Machen was fired. He responded to his exile from Fleet Street with a quotation from the Psalms in Latin: “Eduxit me de lacu miseriae, et de luto faecis” (“He brought me up also out of an horrible pit, out of the miry clay,” in the King James Version). One has to wonder whether he sabotaged his own career intentionally, or at least subconsciously.

Machen saw a resurgence in the popularity of his early fiction in the 1920s. His horror stories had been discovered in the United States. This led to a reappraisal of his work in Britain. He was frequently republished on both sides of the Atlantic throughout the decade. During the 1920s the Machens lived in St John’s Wood where their house was the center of a literary salon and many parties. In the 1930s Arthur and Purefoy moved out of London, retiring to Amersham in Buckinghamshire, where they lived peacefully until Machen’s death in 1947.

The importance of Arthur Machen and the range of his influence cannot be overestimated. Every significant writer of weird fiction in the twentieth century was influenced by him. H.P. Lovecraft considered him one of the very few “modern masters” of the genre. As a Christian thinker he had a profound influence on the Anglican mystic Evelyn Underhill. His book, The Secret Glory, read as a teenager, inspired the Christian faith of Sir John Betjeman.

“Here then is the pattern in my carpet,” Machen once wrote, “the sense of the eternal mysteries, the eternal beauty hidden beneath the crust of common and commonplace things; hidden and yet burning and glowing continually if you care to look with purged eyes.”

See also: The Only Known Recording of Arthur Machen.


Anderson, Douglas A. (May 23, 2015) “Best Books,” Wormwoodiana.

Hando, Fred. (1945) The Pleasant Land of Gwent. Newport: R H Johns Ltd.

Machen, Arthur. (1923) The Works of Arthur Machen (Caerleon Edition). London: Martin Secker.

Machen, Arthur. (1924) The London Adventure, or The Art of Wandering. London: Martin Secker.

Sweetster, Wesley; Goldstone, Adrian. (1960) Arthur Machen. Llandeilo: St Albert’s Press.

Valentine, Mark. (1995) Arthur Machen. Bridgend: Seren Books.

Wilson, A.N. (June 6, 2005) “Angels were on his side,” The Telegraph. London.

“The Life of Arthur Machen.”

“Arthur Machen’s Writings: Annotated Bibliography.”

The Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood

The Tune of the Seven Towers 1857 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
The Tune of the Seven Towers, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1857

In the late summer or fall of 1848, John Everett Millais, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, and William Holman Hunt met to discuss their common interest in art. They had already begun this dialogue as students at the Royal Academy, and as members of a sketching circle, the Cyclographic Club. Nineteen year old Millais was by far the most accomplished, having entered the Royal Academy Schools in 1840, at the age of eleven. There he earned a string of prestigious prizes. Rossetti, a year older than Millais, but lacking his precocious talent, was still developing technique. His commitment to a career in the arts was often distracted by a calling to poetry. Nevertheless he studied painting first at Sass’s Academy, then at the Royal Academy, before dropping out in March of 1848, to join the atelier of Ford Madox Brown. Holman Hunt was admitted to the Royal Academy Schools in 1844 on his third attempt. There he befriended Millais and with him shared certain frustrations with the way painting was taught.

Millais and Hunt believed that English art as practiced under the auspices of the Academy was too often lax in detail, removed from nature, and clichéd in theme and composition. This they attributed to the rigid Neoclassicism of the curriculum. The Academy’s late founder, Sir Joshua Reynolds had, according to Hunt, “thought it expedient to take the Italian School at its proudest climax as a starting-point for English art.” Hunt believed that this focus deprived young artists of “the training that led to the making of Michelangelo.” Instead of learning to draw precisely from nature, students learned to repeat certain formulas and compositions.

The method of instruction practiced at the Academy came from the Mannerists of the Italian High Renaissance who learned by copying Raphael and, in turn, systematized Raphael’s intensely personal style into a school of art. Even in nineteenth century England, Raphael’s dramatic poses, dynamism, elongated and simplified forms, and distorted perspective were standards of narrative painting. Millais and Hunt believed this method to be entirely artificial, producing inferior copies of copies, deprived of the genius that had animated the original.

Hunt was quick to emphasize that “Pre-Raphaelitism is not Pre-Raphaelism.” The genius of Raphael himself was not in question. Nor, for that matter, was the genius of Reynolds, who had been the preeminent portrait painter of his day. Reynolds is often remembered as a bête noir of the Pre-Raphaelites, but their objection was more to his pedagogy than his art. “The rules…which he loved so much to lay down were no fetters to him,” Hunt wrote, “because he rose superior to them when his unbounded love of human nature was appealed to.” What they rejected was the notion that the genius of an artist or an art form could be broken down into certain axioms or stereotypes and thus learned by rote. Hunt’s criticism of Reynolds and the Royal Academy was that the “independent genius of the first President could not be transmitted, but his binding rules were handed on.”

Neoclassicism had been the universal language of high art in Europe since the Renaissance. With its simplicity, grandeur, and strict geometry, it had supplanted the more personal, decorative, variegated art of the Middle Ages. Medieval art had possessed its own universal language, Gothic, but it also accommodated the vernacular. High art and low art were woven together with golden threads of sanctity, earthiness, Christian piety, color, abundance, light and darkness, strangeness, whimsy, mystery, transcendence. The rational, top-down, organizing principle of Classicism, for all its beauty and orthodoxy, rarely acknowledged the vernacular or the local, or touched the roots of a culture. The English gardens and terraced houses of the Georgian period are two fine examples of Neoclassical vernacular.

Writing at the end of the nineteenth century, the French art critic Robert de la Sizeranne observed that, “Until 1848, one could admire art in England, but would not be surprised by it. Reynolds and Gainsborough were great masters, but they were eighteenth-century painters rather than eighteenth-century English painters. It was their models, their ladies and young girls, rather than brushwork, which gave an English character to their creations.” In looking back to an earlier art form it is clear that the Pre-Raphaelites were seeking a technique and aesthetic that would give expression to the English imagination. Hunt was unequivocal in later life, writing, “every student of art in past was loyal to his own nationality, and that in these days men of British blood, whether of insular birth or of the homes beyond the seas, should not subject themselves to the influence of masters alien to the sentiments and principles of the great English poets and thinkers.” It was Rossetti more than either of the other founders of the Pre-Raphaelite movement who advanced Medievalism as a vehicle for spiritual, local, and personal revelation.

In 1847 Holman Hunt had his painting, The Eve of St Agnes accepted by the jury for the Royal Academy Exhibition. At the show, Rossetti approached him, as Hunt later recalled, “repeating with emphasis his praise, and loudly declaring that my picture . . . was the best in the collection. Probably the fact that the subject was taken from Keats made him the more unrestrained, for I think no one had ever before painted any subject from this still little-known poet.” Hunt invited Rossetti to his studio where Hunt showed him his latest paintings and drawings. “I rejoiced to display [them] before a man of his poetic instincts,” Hunt wrote, “and it was pleasant to hear him repeat my propositions and theories in his own richer phrase.” He showed Rossetti a painting inspired by Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s novel Rienzi in which Hunt was “putting in practice the principle of rejection of conventional dogma, and pursuing that of direct application to Nature for each feature.”

The Flight of Madeline and Porphyro, or The Eve of St Agnes, by William Holman Hunt, 1847/8

The seeds of the Pre-Raphaelite aesthetic were thus established before the three artists decided to form a group. To their first meeting they invited the writer William Michael Rossetti, Dante’s younger brother, who was to be the chronicler and organizer of the group; Thomas Woolner, a sculptor; and the painters James Collinson and Frederic G. Stephens. It is unknown if the seven young men attempted to establish a credo or manifesto at their first meeting. They did produce a broad statement of principles:

1: To have genuine ideas to express.

2: To study nature attentively, so as to know how to express them.

3: To sympathize with what is direct and serious and heartfelt in previous art, to the exclusion of what is conventional and self-parading and learned by rote.

4: And most indispensable of all, to produce thoroughly good pictures and statues.

This rather vague manifesto suggests that at the beginning the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood lacked a uniform direction. The members had diverse approaches to art, varying depths of familiarity with art history, and unequal technical skills. They all, as William Rossetti noted, “belonged to the middle or lower-middle class of society.” None of them with the exception of William and Dante Rossetti had the kind of liberal education which included the study of Latin and Greek. During their monthly meetings, which were held with some regularity from late 1848 to the middle of 1850, they discussed their opinions on art with as much clarity as could be expected from individuals who were then just beginning to frame the general outlines of their practices. The most voluble of the three principle members, and the most adept at formulating his ideas, was Dante Gabriel Rossetti. He had, so his brother recalled, “an abundance of ideas, pictorial and also literary, and was fuller of ‘notions’ than” Millais or Hunt, with a “turn for proselytizing and ‘pronunciamentos.’” He was the most defiant of the group, according to William, and, with a kind of adolescent verve, he held “art-sympathies highly developed in one direction, and unduly or even ignorantly restricted in others.”

At the first meeting of the Brotherhood, Millais exhibited a book of engravings that he kept in his studio. It contained poorly drawn reproductions of the frescoes at the Campo Santo in Pisa. Despite their limitations the engravings allowed the young artists to acquire some knowledge of fourteenth century Italian painting. This they supplemented with trips to the National Gallery, to view its collection of thirteenth and fourteenth century paintings, and no doubt by reading Anna Brownell Jameson’s Memoirs of the Early Italian Painters, recently published in 1845.

Another volume that Millais shared with his colleagues was perhaps even more important to their project. This was a book of engravings by Joseph Ritter von Führich, illustrating the dramatic poem, Life and Death of Saint Genevieve, by the German Romantic poet, Ludwig Tieck. The Medieval style and themes would have stirred the interest of all who attended the meeting. Von Führich was a member of a group of German painters who styled themselves, the Brotherhood of St Luke. They were known also as the Nazarenes. They established themselves in Rome in 1810, where, dressed in biblical costume, the “brothers” lived communally in an abandoned monastery. Like the nascent Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood they abandoned Neoclassicism for the spiritual values and aesthetics of the Late Middle Ages and the early Renaissance. Although the Pre-Raphaelites did not formally pattern themselves after the Nazarenes, the influence of the latter on the former is visible in early Pre-Raphaelite drawings. Examples of this influence can be seen in Millais’s Two Lovers by a Rose Bush, and Rossetti’s drawing, The First Anniversary of the Death of Beatrice.

The three principle members of the newly formed Brotherhood began to prepare works for exhibition in 1849, Millais and Hunt at the Royal Academy, Rossetti at the Free Exhibition. Rossetti chose as his subject The Girlhood of Mary the Virgin. None of the young artists had sufficient funds to hire models at this point so Rossetti turned to his mother, Frances, and sister, Christina, to sit for St Anne and the Virgin, respectively. They modeled for him periodically at Holman Hunt’s studio, which Rossetti shared. This working arrangement was fruitful, though it necessitated some measure of compromise. Hunt liked people around and Rossetti preferred solitude. Both profited from discussions on art and pursued their goals independently.

The Girlhood of Mary Virgin 1848-9 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
The Girlhood of Mary Virgin, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1849

For his piece, Hunt completed the scene from Bulwer-Lytton that he had earlier previewed for Rossetti, titled, Rienzi vowing to obtain justice for the death of his young brother, slain in a skirmish between the Colonna and the Orsini factions. Hunt’s composition followed a tradition of heroic battlefield death scenes established in the eighteenth century by Benjamin West in his Death of General Wolfe.

Millais was the second of the group to try his hand at illustrating a scene from the poetry of John Keats. His painting, Lorenzo and Isabella, was an adaptation of Keats’s poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil, itself an adaptation of a story from Boccaccio’s Decameron. Both poems concern a young woman from a wealthy family, Isabella, who falls in love with one of her brothers’ retainers, Lorenzo. Her brothers, who plan to marry her to a rich man, learn of the romance. They lure the hapless Lorenzo to an out-of-the-way place, and there, murder him. Lorenzo appears to Isabella in a dream and leads her to his body. She digs it up and cuts off the head, which she plants in a pot of basil. Watered by her tears, the plant thrives. Her brothers grow suspicious and steal the pot, only to discover the rotting head of their victim. Horrified by what they have done the brothers leave Florence in self-imposed exile. Isabella, having lost both her lover and the solace of the pot of basil, descends into madness and dies.

For his painting, Millais chose to depict the moment that the brothers become aware of the romance. The scene is set around a table, at which Isabella, her brothers, and their guests are dining. Lorenzo is seated beside Isabella. He offers her a blood orange, cut in half, as if to foreshadow his own severed head, while the brothers watch from across the table. There are two focal points in the composition. The first is the young couple: Lorenzo, bowing to offer his plate, regarding his lover with gentle, even reverential, concern, but also conspiracy, and the hardness of resolve; Isabella, accepting the orange, but looking down, aware of the danger, resisting the urge to acknowledge him, her body tense with the effort of self-denial. The other focal point is one of her brothers, seated in the foreground, across from them. He is an extraordinary, brutish character, leaning forward to kick a dog who cowers in Isabella’s lap. In an outstretched hand he cracks a nut with a levered nutcracker.

Curator Carol Jacobi, in a 2012 essay on the painting, draws attention to a shadow cast on the table by the brother’s arm. It appears to rise diagonally from his groin in the place of a phallus. Jacobi connects this to the “salt cellar spilling its contents,” which, together with the “shadow and groin,” she describes as “an unambiguous equivalent for ejaculation.” Millais has created a sort of moral manifesto, contrasting these two models of manhood: the chaste, modest, chivalrous Lorenzo with the vulgar, murderous, and sexually incontinent brother.

Isabella, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1849

All three paintings revealed a Medieval influence, whether in subject matter (Hunt’s Rienzi), style (Rossetti’s Virgin), or both (Millais’s Isabella). Rossetti in particular captured elements reminiscent of an altarpiece in his domestic scene. Despite the ambiguousness of their initial statement, the clear meaning of the Brotherhood’s name was reflected in each contribution.

The initials P.R.B. appended to the signatures of Millais, Hunt, and Rossetti, apparently went unnoticed on the paintings they exhibited at the Royal Academy and elsewhere in 1849. This was not the case the following year when they caught the attention of Charles Dickens. The meaning of the enigmatic letters had been revealed to the public before the opening of the Royal Academy show. On May 4, 1850 a columnist, who was not an art critic, wrote in The Illustrated London News, that for those confused by the letters P.R.B., the secret was that they stood for the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of “ingenious gentlemen who profess themselves practitioners of Early Christian Art.” Dickens wrote a scathing critique of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings for his journal, Household Words. In the edition of June 15, 1850, Dickens began his review of the annual Royal Academy show with a warning: “You will have the goodness to discharge from your minds all Post-Raphael ideas, all religious aspirations, all elevating thoughts, all tender, awful, sorrowful, ennobling, sacred, graceful, or beautiful associations, and to prepare yourselves…for the lowest depths of what is mean, odious, repulsive, and revolting.”

The target of this criticism was a painting by Millais, Christ in the House of His Parents. As the title suggests, the work depicts a scene from the boyhood of Jesus. The setting is Saint Joseph’s workshop, which Millais based on a real carpenter’s shop on Oxford Street in London. The composition is rich in Christian symbolism. Jesus has cut His hand on a nail. Blood runs from the center of His palm to the foot beneath it, prefiguring the wounds of the crucifixion. The Virgin Mary kneels before Him, as though at the foot of the cross. A young John the Baptist brings water to clean the wound, foreshadowing his baptism of Christ. A white dove, the symbol of the Holy Spirit, watches from a ladder in the background. A triangle on the wall above Christ’s head suggests the Trinity. Outside a flock of sheep is gathered, anticipating His mission as shepherd of men.

Christ in the House of His Parents, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1850

If Dickens saw any of this he did not recognize it. He accused Millais of portraying the savior as “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy,” and the Virgin Mary as a “Monster” who would stand out “in her ugliness” from the company of “the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest ginshop in England.” Sweeping the rest of the company into his critique, he wrote, “Wherever it is possible to express ugliness of feature, limb, or attitude, you have it expressed.”

When we look at the painting today we see none of the depravity that Dickens portrays. The religious subject is treated with reverence. The figures are rendered with great tenderness. The naturalism, though striking, was hardly novel, having a precedence going back to Caravaggio. What could possibly have elicited such contempt?

Dickens was clearly reacting to something other than the technical merits of the painting when he wrote his review. We do not have to search far to learn what that was: Dickens found the notion of a backward-looking art movement plainly shocking. He compared the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood to a hypothetical “Pre-Newtonian Brotherhood” for those who objected to being bound by the laws of gravity, a “Pre-Galileo Brotherhood” for those who “refuse[d] to perform any annual revolution round the Sun,” a “Pre-Gower and Pre-Chaucer Brotherhood” for those who would revive the old idiosyncratic English spellings, or a “Pre-Laurentians Brotherhood” for those who would abolish printed books in favor of painstakingly copied manuscripts.

The progressive outlook which dominated liberal thought in the Victorian period, as it does today, held that the arrow of time moves only and ever forward toward a distant perfection of human society. The suggestion that we might restore modes of life from the past threatened the idealism that underpinned so many of the endeavors of nineteenth-century modernity. A progressive like Dickens would have understood the conservative implications of Pre-Raphaelitism perhaps better than the young artists themselves.

Holman Hunt’s contribution to the Royal Academy exhibition was intended as a companion piece to Millais’s, and was, in composition, even more ambitious. The subject, and title, was, A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids. In the foreground Hunt depicted the interior of a simple wooden fisherman’s shed on a riverbank, where the titular missionary has collapsed into the arms of the mother of the family, while the men guard the door, and the children succor him. In the background, seen in part through the windows at the top of the hut, a mob of pagans, commanded by a Druid priest, chase down a second missionary to his inevitable martyrdom. Although the scene has its own dramatic narrative and tension, Hunt’s composition suggests an episode from the Gospels: the Deposition of Christ, when the Savior’s body was lowered from the cross. Here the postures of the missionary and the woman holding him from behind clearly evoke the Pietà, the traditional artistic representation of Mary cradling the body of Jesus. On the wall above them is a red cross roughly drawn by the persecuted Christians for their worship. One of the daughters removes a thorn from the missionary’s robe, representing the crown of thorns, while another prepares to bathe his face with sponge and water.

A Converted British Family Sheltering a Christian Missionary from the Persecution of the Druids, by William Holman Hunt, 1850

Exhibited together, the relationship between Hunt’s painting, and Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, would have been readily apparent. Both works depicted a primitive Christianity. Both employed traditional, iconographic details. In portraying scenes from Christian history before and after the crucifixion, both placed Christ’s passion at the center of the narrative. Hunt judged his painting to be among the best of his own work. Appraising it more than two decades later, he wrote to Edward Lear, “sometimes when I look at the Early Xtians I feel rather ashamed that I have got no further than later years have brought me, but the truth is that at twenty—health, enthusiasm and yet unpunished confidence in oneself carries a man very near his ultimate length of tether.”

Both Hunt and Rossetti had benefitted in their education from a trip to the Continent in the fall of 1849. They visited France and Belgium. In Paris they toured the large public galleries, studying canvases by Titian, da Vinci, Veronese, and van Dyck. At the Louvre they were awestruck by The Coronation of the Virgin by Fra Angelico, which was, according to Hunt, “of peerless grace and sweetness in the eyes of us both.” In Antwerp they admired the paintings of the Early Netherlandish artists, Jan van Eyck and Hans Memling, as well as those of Rubens and van Dyck. They were prepared for their encounter with the brilliant, detailed works of the Early Netherlandish painters, having already studied van Eyck’s 1434 work, Portrait of Giovanni Arnolfini and his Wife, at the National Gallery. It was the graphic quality, almost brittle composition, and absence of free, painterly brush strokes in the paintings by van Eyck and his followers that became the goal of Hunt and Rossetti for their own works.

Of all the paintings exhibited by members of the Brotherhood in 1850, the most influential on the development of Pre-Raphaelite style and technique, was Rossetti’s Ecce Ancilla Domini (The Annunciation), shown at the National Institution, formerly the Free Exhibition. The painting had begun with a preliminary sketch in late November of 1849. This process was recorded by Rossetti’s brother William in his journal. He described the work-in-progress as depicting the Virgin in bed, “without any bedclothes on, an arrangement which may be justified in consideration of the hot climate, and the Angel Gabriel is to be presenting a lily to her.” The painting was to be almost entirely white, with contained uses of one color at a time: a red embroidery in the foreground, a blue curtain in the background, yellow halos, a window opened on a blue sky.

In mid-December, Rossetti began to paint the Virgin’s head, using his sister Christina as a model, and later in the month drew the head of the Angel, with his brother William modeling. By mid-January he was busy working on the drapery and in early-February had moved on to the red cloth embroidery in the foreground. On March 29, William recorded that his brother had painted the feet and arm of the Angel from a model, had another, Miss Love, sit for the Virgin’s hair, and a third to finish the Angel’s head. The execution was a protracted process as Rossetti, now working in the studio of Ford Madox Brown, struggled to achieve the level of technical mastery possessed by his colleagues. The finished product was a painting of exceptional tenderness and beauty, in some ways less mature that Hunt’s or Millais’s work, but in others, particularly the figure of the Virgin, entirely developed.

Ecce Ancilla Domini! (The Annunciation) 1849-50 by Dante Gabriel Rossetti 1828-1882
Ecce Ancilla Domini, by Dante Gabriel Rossetti, 1850

With this painting Rossetti introduced what would become a signature Pre-Raphaelite technique. Whereas most artists prepared their canvases with a coat of neutral, solid color, called a toned ground, Rossetti painted his canvas bright white. As one modern curator writes, “The particularly luminous white ground…made the pure colors brushed over it seem illuminated.” Beginning in 1850 both Millais and Hunt adopted this practice, amplifying the effect by using a wet white ground. Millais used the technique to depict sunlight on faces in his painting, The Woodsman’s Daughter, completed the following year. Its application can be seen to great advantage in Hunt’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s Two Gentlemen of Verona, titled, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus, also completed in 1851. In this painting particularly, Hunt achieved what has been described as “an almost preternatural luminosity.”

Experimentation with color had been an ongoing interest of all three artists. Hunt recalled a visit to the Royal Academy by the painter Claude Lorraine Nursey during one of Hunt’s first terms there. Nursey had given a lecture and then stayed to watch the students work. At the time Hunt was copying Sir David Wilkie’s painting, The Blind Fiddler. Nursey had once been a pupil of Wilkie and explained the latter’s practice of applying all his paint, whether for a section of a painting or an entire work, in one sitting. In this way he never painted over dried paint, as most artists did, which tended to dull the colors. For Hunt this had been a revelation. “I tried the method,” he wrote, “and I now looked at all paintings with the question whether they had been so executed. I began to trace the purity of work in the quattrocentists to the drilling of undeviating manipulation with which fresco-painting had furnished them, and I tried to put aside the loose, irresponsible handling to which I had been trained, and which was nearly universal at the time, and to adopt the practice which excused no false touch.” Hunt seems to have arrived at the technique that he used in Valentine Rescuing Sylvia by combining the innovations of Rossetti and Wilkie. By painting on a wet white ground he was able to achieve more luminous colors even than Rossetti had, but only because he had rigorously adopted Wilkie’s constraints. As Hunt observed, “Painting of this kind cannot be retouched except with an entire loss of luminosity.”

Millais had been experimenting with similar methods around this same time. Hunt remembered both Millais and himself arriving at the use of a wet white ground independent of one another. This would seem to suggest that the various influences that informed the technique were being discussed among the members of the Brotherhood during their meetings leading up to the various individual applications. Once it had been perfected, Millais proposed that they should keep the process “as a precious secret” amongst themselves, which they did. When Millais and Hunt revealed the secret to Ford Madox Brown, years later, Brown recognized it as a technique of the late-Medieval and early-Renaissance fresco painters. According to Hunt, Brown “enlarged on the mystery as nothing less than the secret of the old masters, who thus secured the transparency and solidity…valued so much in fresco, the wet white half dry forming an equivalent to the moist intonaco grounds upon which the master had to do his painting of that day while the surface was still humid.”

The subject matter of the Pre-Raphaelite pictures varied from artist to artist but clear commonalities were visible by the time they had submitted their works for exhibition in 1851. In addition to shared techniques, the artists shared a preference, though not exclusive, for Biblical and Medieval themes over Classical and mythological, for character and mise-en-scène over landscape, and for bright color over the popular preference for smoky browns. Within this broad consensus was a great range of influences. Rossetti was particularly fascinated with Dante and Medieval devotional art; Holman Hunt with Biblical themes; Millais was more or less encyclopaedic in his references, sometimes turning to Shakespeare, at other times contemporary daily life, the Bible, English history, or contemporary Regency and Victorian poetry.

Millais produced three pictures for the Royal Academy show in 1851: Mariana, The Return of the Dove to the Arc, and The Woodsman’s Daughter. The first was taken from a poem by Alfred, Lord Tennyson based on Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. In Millais’s rendering, the character of Mariana looks plaintively out of large Gothic windows. She has been rejected as a bride because of the loss of her dowry in a shipwreck. The caption to the picture is from Tennyson’s 1830 poem:

She only said, ‘My life is dreary, / He cometh not,’ she said; / She said, ‘I am aweary, aweary, / I would that I were dead!’

Tennyson was a particular favorite of the Pre-Raphaelites. Undoubtedly the finest English poet of his generation, Tennyson had been appointed Poet Laureate in 1850, with the support of Prince Albert, an early admirer. The same year Tennyson published “In Memoriam,” a tribute to his late friend Arthur Henry Hallam. The work was a sensation. William Rossetti, as a reviewer for The Spectator, received an advance copy. Upon reading it he rushed home and passed the book to his brother. Although it was after midnight Dante read the entire poem aloud. Thereafter the Pre-Raphaelites hung on Tennyson’s every word, illustrating many of his works, most notably episodes from his Arthurian cycle, Idylls of the King.

Mariana, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1851

All three of Millais’s pictures in the Royal Academy show of 1851 were accomplished with deftness of drawing, flatness of surface, and minimal use of modeling in the three dimensional forms. The same may be said of Holman Hunt’s submission, Valentine Rescuing Sylvia from Proteus. Hunt drew his subject from the climax of Two Gentlemen of Verona. In Shakespeare’s early comedy, Valentine and Proteus both love Silvia, though her heart belongs to Valentine. After rescuing her from outlaws, Proteus threatens to rape Silvia, if she will not consent to love him. Valentine intervenes. Proteus repents and gives his love to Julia who has disguised herself as his page boy.

Reviewing Hunt’s adaptation for The Spectator, the Rossetti brothers were, of course, effusive, calling it, “the finest we have seen from its painter.” Dante drew the reader’s attention to the two female figures. Silvia, he wrote, “nestles to her strong knight, rescued and secure; while poor Julia leans, sick to swooning, against a tree, and tries with a trembling hand to draw the ring from her finger. Both these figures are truly creations, for the very reason that they are appropriate individualities, and not self-seeking idealisms.” William used much of the column to rebuke the hanging committee of the Royal Academy for its poor job in highlighting such an important work.

The paintings of the Pre-Raphaelites and their associates at the Royal Academy show of 1851 received largely negative reviews. The critic of The Times condemned them for “the puerility or infancy of their art,” their “monkish style” and “monkish follies.” A “morbid infatuation” with ancient art, had, he wrote, caused them to sacrifice “truth, beauty, and genuine feeling to mere eccentricity.” Clearly Charles Dickens had set the tone and terms of public debate in his review of the previous year. Detractors of the new movement shared a common rhetoric and a few common points of opposition.

The seemingly impenetrable wall of critical resistance to the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood would soon break, however, with the emergence of an extraordinary ally. John Ruskin was a formidable art critic whose opinions held great weight among both scholars and collectors. The first two volumes of his monumental work, Modern Painters, had been published between 1843 and 1846. In them, Ruskin laid the philosophical groundwork for an art closer to nature. He idealized late-Medieval and Renaissance art in terms of the convergence of truth, beauty, and religion. Ruskin argued that the job of the artist was to convey “truth to nature,” by which he meant “moral as well as material truth.” By this measure he judged the contemporary landscape painter J.M.W. Turner to be the greatest artist who ever worked in that field, elevating him above the Old Masters of the Baroque period. He was deeply critical of the contemporary historical painters who, he wrote, were “permitted to pander more fatally every year to the vicious English taste, which can enjoy nothing but what is theatrical, entirely unchastised, nay, encouraged and lauded by the very men who endeavor to hamper our great landscape painters with rules derived from consecrated blunders.” Here was the very language that the young Pre-Raphaelites were using to articulate their dissatisfaction with the prevailing wisdom of the Academy. If anyone could understand the aims of the Brotherhood, they had to hope it would be Ruskin. Indeed, his defense, when it came, was swift, authoritative, and generous.

On May 13, 1851, The Times published a signed letter from Ruskin expressing “regret” that the “tone” of the paper’s critique of the Pre-Raphaelite paintings had been “scornful as well as severe.” He wrote that the “labour bestowed on those works, and their fidelity to a certain order of truth (labour and fidelity which are altogether indisputable) ought at once to have placed them above the level of mere contempt.” He insisted that the young artists were “at a turning point, from which they may either sink into nothingness or rise to very real greatness.” On May 30, Ruskin followed up with a second letter, in which he concluded that the Pre-Raphaelites, “may, as they gain experience, lay in our land the foundations of a school of art nobler than has been seen for three hundred years.” With these words the fortunes of the members of the Brotherhood changed forever.

The Pre-Raphaelites were emerging as integral drivers of the Medieval artistic revival that would come to define the Victorian age, largely thanks to the advocacy of two men: Ruskin and His Royal Highness Prince Albert.

The same year that Ruskin penned his defense of the Pre-Raphaelites he published the first volume in his monumental study of Venetian Gothic architecture, The Stones of Venice. Here he began to lay out a philosophy of Gothicism over and against the prevailing Classicism. In subsequent volumes he would elaborate on this philosophy, defining six characteristic elements of Gothic design: savageness, changefulness, naturalism, grotesqueness, rigidity, and redundance. Ruskin wrote with irresistible enthusiasm, praising Gothic ornament for its “prickly independence, and frosty fortitude, jutting into crockets, and freezing into pinnacles; here starting up into a monster, there germinating into a blossom; anon knitting itself into a branch, alternately thorny, bossy, and bristly, or writhed into every form of nervous entanglement; but even when most graceful, never for an instant languid, always quickset; erring, if at all, ever on the side of brusquerie.” This was not the language of archeology. Ruskin was not describing relics or museum pieces. In his poetic prose he conjured a vital, living, irrepressible, even inevitable art form.

No one did more to midwife that art form than Prince Albert. When he married Queen Victoria in 1840 the young German prince became an influential patron and advocate for the arts in Britain. One of his first official duties was to lead the Royal Commission tasked with designing the interior of the new Houses of Parliament. He brought to this appointment a vision entirely sympathetic with the Gothic Berry-Pugin architecture. The Prince possessed an informed taste for Medieval and Medieval-revival aesthetics. He collected everything from Tuscan trecento primitives to contemporary German romantic painters. Under his guidance, Clare Willsdon writes, “the wall-painting, sculpture, and stained glass used as a matter of course by the medieval builders” were adopted for the new building. Prince Albert advised the artist William Dyce to draw from Arthurian legend for the murals of the Queen’s Robing Room.

To a certain extent the Prince became involved in arts and culture because he lacked a formal outlet for his talents. Parliament had been opposed to granting any political power to a foreign prince. Not only was he denied the title of King Consort, he was also denied peerage and military rank. Although in time he did take on responsibility for the affairs of state, it is a credit to his genius that, for most of his short career, he had a greater influence on British culture than any other man of his age, despite having little practical power.

Beginning in 1850, the Prince, together with members of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, organized what would be the first World’s Fair. The Great Exhibition, as it was known, opened in 1851 in the Kensington district of London, housed within a custom-built “Crystal Palace” of cast-iron, steel, and glass, large enough to enclose full-grown trees. The exhibition showcased rich displays of traditional culture and ultra-modern technology side by side. Visitors encountered the Koh-i-Noor diamond from India and the Daria-i-Noor from Persia; a stuffed elephant bedecked in the livery and howdah of an Indian rajah; porcelain, tapestries, and silk from France; decorative arts, furs, sledges, and Cossack armor from Russia; an Egyptian Court with towering statues and pillars, mummies, and antiquities. At the same time they could marvel at Stevenson’s hydraulic press, adding machines, a state-of-the-art printing press, folding pianos, carriages, and velocipedes.

To represent Britain in this grand evocation of the Victorian future, Prince Albert invited A.W.N. Pugin to create a Medieval Court. Pugin had previously collaborated with Sir Charles Berry on the Gothic Revival design of the new Houses of Parliament. He was now in the last year of his life. This would be his swan song, what Paul Atterbury called, “his final consuming project.” Pugin designed stained glass, furniture, sculpture, and textiles in the Gothic Revival style. He had these fabricated by the various firms of craftsmen with whom he had long collaborated, in what Jeffrey Auerbach describes as a “preview of the team-oriented craftsmanship that would characterize William Morris’s Arts and Crafts productions.” The effect, in the words of one art historian, was “to create a phantasmagoric realm for spectators.”

The Medieval Court, by A.W.N. Pugin, at the Great Exhibition

As the Pre-Raphaelites became part of a broader Medieval revival the Brotherhood itself became somewhat redundant to their needs. The last public exhibition of their works as a group occurred in 1852. Two of Millais’s pictures hung in the Royal Academy Exhibition that year: A Huguenot and Ophelia. The former depicts a young couple in France meeting in a garden during the St Bartholomew’s Day massacre, when Roman Catholics killed tens of the thousands of Protestant Huguenots, over several weeks in 1572. The girl is pleading with her Protestant beau to wear an armband signifying he is a Roman Catholic so that he can escape the slaughter. While he holds her, gazing tenderly into her worried eyes, he gently removes the armband that she has tied around him, choosing martyrdom over even pretended apostasy. Millais had initially sketched this scene as a simple meeting of lovers in a brick-walled garden but on the advice of Holman Hunt he added the historic context, which he took from Mayerbeer’s opera Les Hugenots.

The wonderful, meticulously rendered flowers and foliage in the garden are typical of the kind of botanical illustration that was immensely popular, particularly among watercolorists, in the Victorian era. The most famous of these was Marian North whose skill at rendering flowers was honoured with the opening of a gallery in Kew Gardens permanently dedicated to her works in 1882. Millais’s passion for setting his subject in rich, verdant, floral surroundings is nowhere more apparent than in his Ophelia.

Drawn from Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the tragic story of Ophelia was ideally tailored to fit Victorian and specifically Pre-Raphaelite sensibility. Spurned by Prince Hamlet, she has fallen into a river, while picking flowers, and as she floats away, temporarily buoyed by the air trapped in her clothing, she sings. But as her clothes become saturated, the weight of the water pulls “the poor wretch from her melodious lay” down to a muddy death. In his depiction of the scene, Millais painted flowers mentioned by Shakespeare floating downriver with Ophelia, but he added a red poppy as a symbol of sleep and death. Millais based his gorgeously overgrown riverbank on the Hogsmill River in Surrey where he painted for several hours a day, six days a week, for five months to capture the background. In the end he had to work inside a kind of duck blind to protect himself from the cold weather.

Millais finished the painting over the winter at his studio on Gower Street in London. He based the figure of Ophelia on the newly discovered model Elizabeth Siddal, who would go on to sit for, and later marry Dante Gabriel Rossetti. She would also become an artist in her own right. Ophelia remains one of the most iconic of all the Pre-Raphaelite paintings. It hangs today in the Tate Britain in London and must be seen in person to be fully appreciated. Even the most detailed reproduction does not convey the awesome effect of glittering light captured by Millais, in particular where the lace of Ophelia’s dress floats on the surface of the water.

Ophelia, by Sir John Everett Millais, 1852

Holman Hunt’s painting for the 1852 exhibition was The Hireling Shepherd. Its subject was the neglect of duty, in this case by the titular shepherd, who ignores his flock to woo a pretty red-haired maid, showing her a death’s head hawkmoth. Hunt meant to symbolize the retreat of churchmen into theological debate while their flocks were led astray for lack of moral guidance. The title is a reference to the Biblical allegory of the Good Shepherd. Hunt achieved considerable success with this painting as it was awarded a prize when exhibited at Birmingham in 1853 and sold to a collector for 120 pounds. Hunt later observed that with Millais’ picture of the Hugenots also winning a prize at an exhibition in Liverpool, “the double success of our School . . . [indicated that] the recognition of our claims was thus proved to be growing.”

The Hireling Shepherd, by William Holman Hunt, 1852

After the amicable dissolution of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, the three artists who had been the primary force behind it, continued to discuss art with each other and to explore common aesthetics, but they pursued their careers separately. They began to inspire a number of other artists. These included Edward Burne-Jones, Arthur Hughes, William Morris, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, Frederick Leighton, Frank Dicksee, Frederick Sandys, Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Simeon Solomon, and John William Waterhouse, among others.

The Pre-Raphaelite conquest of the Victorian and Edwardian art world was eventually formalized with honors. Millais and Burne-Jones were given baronetcies; Leighton was given a barony; Holman Hunt received the Order of Merit as a personal gift from King Edward VII; Dicksee and Alma-Tadema were knighted.

In fact, there had long been affection for the Pre-Raphaelites at the palace. In the midst of the early controversy surrounding Millais’s Christ in the House of His Parents, Queen Victoria had arranged for the painting to be shown privately for her at Windsor Castle. This was unprecedented. “I hope that it will not have any bad effects upon the Queen’s mind,” Millais joked nervously to Hunt. Gordon Fleming in his biography of Millais suggests that it did not. The following year Prince Albert gave a speech to the Royal Academy in which he reminded the members of their obligation to encourage developing artists in terms unmistakably similar to Ruskin’s defense of Millais.

A more private, but in its own way equally momentous, embrace of the Pre-Raphaelites came earlier, in 1855. In January of that year, Millais and Charles Dickens met for the first time at a dinner party given by their mutual friend, Wilkie Collins. After dinner they had a long conversation. The following day, Dickens wrote Millais a letter, and sent it, along with an article from Household Words, about the London fire brigade, which was the subject of Millais’s work-in-progress, The Rescue. The letter read:

If you have in your mind any previous association with the pages in which [the article] appears (very likely you have none) it may be a rather disagreeable one. In that case I hope a word, frankly said, may make it pleasanter. Objecting very strongly to what I believed to be an unworthy use of your great powers, I once expressed the objection in this same journal. My opinion on that point is not in the least changed, but it has never dashed my admiration of your progress in what I suppose are higher and better things. In short, you have given me such great reasons (in your works) to separate you from uncongenial association, that I wish to give you in return one little reason for doing the like by me.

Millais accepted the olive branch. Thereafter they became true friends. When Dickens died in 1870 it was Millais who was summoned to his death bed to draw the final portrait of the great author.


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