Friday, March 02, 2007

Beauchamp Chapel
Collegiate Church of St. Mary, Warwick

The exterior of the Beauchamp Chapel.

Today I took advantage of a bright, clear morning to walk to Warwick (9 miles round trip) to visit the Collegiate Church of St. Mary and its fifteenth-century lady chapel, the Beauchamp Chapel, which justly claims to be "the finest medieval chapel in England." The collegiate church was begun in the early twelfth century (the chancel stands over a Norman crypt), but the tower and nave were built in the early eighteenth century after the fire of 1694 destroyed the earlier structure. The church caught fire, the story goes, because townspeople sought refuge there and brought with them some of their smouldering belongings. The nave was quickly engulfed in flames, but the fire was forced back from the chancel and the lady chapel, which remain in all their medieval glory.

The blue-robed verger who met me at the door of the church was an elderly woman, originally from Yorkshire, who moved to Warwick when she and her husband (a retired sailor in the Royal Navy) moved into Lord Leycester's Hospital. You may recall from an earlier post (September) that Lord Leycester's Hospital was endowed in the fifteenth-century by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, as a retirement home for retired soldiers. We'll see Dudley's tomb in a moment.

The Interior of the Beauchamp Chapel.

The Beauchamp Chapel, completed in 1462, was endowed by the will of Richard Beauchamp, 13th Earl of Warwick, who died in Rouen in 1439. Beauchamp was the flower of English chivalry, famous for his deeds of valor in the Holy Land and in the France during the Hundred Years War. His friend Henry V made him the tutor of the future King Henry VI. He ended his days in Rouen, where he was the warden of the castle during the imprisonment of Joan of Arc. He was the father-in-law of Richard Neville, "the Kingmaker," and John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury, both of whom have prominent roles in Shakespeare's Henry IV and appear as gilt bronze "mourners" on the base of Beauchamp's Purbeck marble tomb—the centerpiece of the chapel.

Mourners on the base of Richard Beauchamp's tomb. Other mourners depicted on the tomb include Beauchamp's sons-in-law, Neville the Kingmaker and John Talbot, Earl of Shrewsbury.

The seventeenth-century tomb of Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, and Lettice Knollys, Countess of Essex and Leicester.

The chapel also contains the tombs of Ambrose Dudley, Earl of Warwick ("The Good Earl"), and Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester, along with his wife, Lettice Knollys, and their son, Robert Dudley ("The Noble Impe"), who died at age seven. Robert Dudley was a favorite of Queen Elizabeth I. He was also the lord of Kenilworth Castle, where the queen paid a famous visit in the 1570s—made famous by Sir Walter Scott in his novel, Kenilworth. Dudley's wife, Lettice Knollys, was the first cousin once removed of the queen, and was first married to the Earl of Essex. When Essex died in 1576, Lettice secretly married Dudley. When Queen Elizabeth learned that her favorite, Dudley, had married her beautiful cousin, the queen was furious. She called Lettice a "she-wolf" and banished her from the court.

Lettice Knollys, Countess of Essex and Leicester (1543-1634). She was so grand, and appeared in public with such an entourage, that she was often mistaken for the Queen.

One of the remarkable treasures that escaped the 1694 fire are the magnificent wood carvings around the east window, depicting saints and angels. These are some of the finest carvings from the fifteenth century. This detail is of St. Catherine (click to enlarge for more detail). The glass was, unfortunately, smashed by those darned Puritans. The glass in the east window is original medieval glass, pieced together from the smashed fragments. One of the figures in the glass is Richard Beauchamp kneeling in prayer. In the reconstruction, however, he has been given a woman's head!

In Tewkesbury Abbey, there is also a Beauchamp Chantry, endowed in 1425 by Isabel le Despenser in memory of her first husband, Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Worcester (1397-1422)—a cousin of the Richard Beauchamp, Earl of Warwick, who is buried here in Warwick, and who was the second husband of Isabel le Despenser. The grandparents of both of these Richard Beauchamps, Thomas Beauchamp and Katherine Mortimer, are buried in front of the high altar in the Warwick church, with fine fourteenth-century alabaster effigies.

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