Gilt complex

3rd October 2003 at 01:00
Stuart Frost and Ruth Singer feast their eyes on the crown jewel of a Gothic art exhibition at the Victoria amp; Albert Museum

Children, and romantically inclined adults, can easily imagine this beautiful and delicate crown adorning the head of a fairy-tale princess.

The reality is much more complex and underlines how deceptive first impressions can be. The crown is made from a mixture of precious materials, including diamonds and pearls, but the main body is silver-gilt rather than solid gold. That it was made for someone of high status is obvious and students will also be able to deduce from its size - it has a diameter of only 125mm - that it was probably made for someone with quite a small head.

One of the central exhibits in the exhibition Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547 at the Victoria and Albert Museum, the crown exemplifies the rage for ever-more sophisticated art and artisanship which swept England in the late Middle Ages. Gothic is usually associated with pointed, decorated arches in churches (the "perpendicular" style); the term embraces a northern Europe bursting with creativity in architecture, art and music, as yet uninfused with the classical heritage of the Renaissance.

The inscription "MARGARIT(A) DE (Y)O(R)K" tells us that the crown was probably made for Margaret of York, but for which occasion and for what purpose is less certain. The initials C and M provide a clue but there are still three possibilities: lThe crown may have been made for the coronation of Margaret's brother who became King Edward IV in 1461. She was 15 at the time, so it is possible her head was small enough to wear it.

lIt may have been made for Margaret's wedding to Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy in 1468. The initials C and M, those of Margaret and her husband, suggest it was associated with her marriage at the age of 22, even if not made specifically for it. This is not conclusive as the initials could have been added later.

lThe crown may never have been intended for Margaret to wear at all. It may have been commissioned by her purely as an offering to the statue of Our Lady of Aachen (in Aachen cathedral, Germany) to which Margaret made a pilgrimage in 1474. The crown has been in Aachen cathedral treasury ever since, and is still placed upon the 14th-century statue for major feasts and celebrations. It fits the statue perfectly. Veneration of holy relics, such as the remains of saints, or statues with which miracles were associated, was an important part of medieval religious practice. Women often developed particular devotion to the Virgin Mary. The white roses on the crown are suggestive of this but also refer to the House of York, the aristocratic family into which Mary was born.

As the crown is such a complex object, it can be used to stimulate enquiry and debate. It shows how aristocratic status was expressed, highlights important aspects of the lives of women at this level in society and reflects the dominant artistic style of the period.

Women played a key role in international alliances, politics, and relations. Margaret's marriage to Charles the Bold, like most aristocratic marriages, was above all else a political alliance. Religious beliefs and practices were extremely strong in late medieval Europe, particularly pilgrimage and devotion to saints. Did Margaret, after her marriage, have her and her husband's initials added to the crown, commission a travelling case, and take the precious offering with her all the way to Aachen to show her devotion to the Virgin?

Although nobles and aristocrats could wear crowns, none would match the magnificence of those of monarchs. Apart from wealth, it was the act of coronation by priests that set the monarch apart from subjects; sovereigns emphasised royalty through a variety of symbols, expressions of magnificence and displays of authority. The symbolism of the crown and its place in the nature of royalty can be explored in English, history and art and design.

Shakespeare's history plays form a central part of the perceptions many people have of the later Middle Ages and the struggle for the crown: the fitness of the monarch to wear it and the nature of kingship are central themes in plays such as Richard III and Henry V. Henry's attempts to win the hand (and heart) of Katherine, princess of France, with the aim of uniting the English and French monarchies, resonates with the story behind Margaret of York's crown.

During the 19th century, there was a renewed interest in the Gothic style because it was perceived to be Christian and British, rather than pagan and foreign like the art and architecture of ancient Greece and Rome. As a result of this Gothic Revival, which gave birth to many new buildings like the Houses of Parliament, original medieval objects were often restored, as was this crown in 1865.

In addition to dazzling and pleasing the eye, Margaret's crown illuminates one of the most fascinating but misunderstood periods of England's rich history.

Stuart Frost and Ruth Singer are education officers at the Victoria amp; Albert Museum

TEACHING TIPS

Key stage 2

Art and design

Make and decorate crowns using distinctive Gothic features such as coats of arms, Gothic script, enamelling, the lavish use of gems and precious metals and the use of flower-like ornament such as fleur-de-lys.

History

Make a crown and use it for role play. Children can take on the role of Elizabeth I or Henry VIII and be interviewed by other pupils.For Victorian Britain, look at a church or other building in the Gothic revival style in your area or use photographs.

KS3

HiTORY:Britain 1066-1500

Objects are excellent sources of evidence and can develop good enquiry skills. What makes a king or queen regal and a successful ruler? Make a crown and use it for role play to explore the feudal system or the actions of particular monarchs.

KS34+

English

Discuss how a crown could be used as a prop in scenes of Shakespeare's plays. Alternatively, explore ways of expressing royalty without any props.

KS 3-5

Art and design

Use the crown to explore the characteristics of late medieval art and the Gothic style. Explore how head ornaments and rich materials are used to show power and status, and how this has been subverted in contemporary fashion.

Books

Gothic: Art for England 1400-1547

Edited by Richard Marks and Paul Williamson, pound;45

Medieval Life and Leisure in the Devonshire Hunting Tapestries

By Linda Woolley, pound;30

Both published by the Vamp;A

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