King Richard III: the origins of the "Paston" oil painting

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Did you know?

In 2009, the Society of Antiquaries Paston portrait of Richard III was cleaned and restored. The same year, John Ashdown-Hill commissioned an oil-on-canvas copy.

In 2011, John met the then Dean of Leicester Cathedral - Viv Faull - and presented his copy of the portrait to Leicester Cathedral.

In the course of all the Richard III publicity, following the 2012 dig and the recovery of Richard's remains, images of the portrait John commissioned and presented have been extensively used, in Leicester and in the media. But in spite of this, most people seem to be completely  ignorant regarding the origin of the painting - and of how it arrived at Leicester Cathedral!

First pictures of Richard III's Funeral Crown

Why am I having a crown made for Richard III’s reburial? Well, in the middle ages the norm at a royal funeral was for an effigy of the dead person to be placed upon the coffin. That effigy would have been royally robed – and, of course, crowned. But the modern practice is simpler. For the last few centuries the norm, throughout Europe, has just been for a royal crown, placed on a cushion, to be borne upon the coffin of a sovereign during the lying in state and the burial rites. In the UK we last witnessed this practice in 2002 at the funeral of HM Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother.

Funeral Crown of Louis XVIII

Funeral Crown of Louis XVIII

In Britain the norm, on such occasions, nowadays, is to use a crown from the royal regalia (‘crown jewels’). Thus, at the Queen Mother’s funeral the crown on her coffin was the same one with which she had been crowned queen consort at Westminster Abbey in 1937. Elsewhere, however, special funeral crowns were sometimes made. For example, at the Basilica of St Denis, in Paris, you can still see the special funeral crown made in 1824 to be carried on the coffin of King Louis XVIII.

For the reburial of Richard III, it would be difficult to use a crown from the royal regalia for two reasons. First, whether or not one thinks this is right and proper, the arrangements for the reburial of Richard III don’t, at present, seem likely to be in the hands of the Royal Household. (Personally I don’t think this is correct procedure.) Second, every crown in the Royal Regalia today dates from a period long after the reign of Richard III.

It was for these two reasons that I suggested, after his remains had been found, that a special funeral crown should be made for Richard III’s reburial. The idea first came to me in September 2012, while I was carrying the box containing his bones from the Greyfriars site to the vehicle which was to take the bones away for scientific examination. And I offered to pay for the crown myself, because, having carried him, I can’t help feeling close to Richard III.

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I discussed the design for the crown with the jeweller who is now making it, and also with all the interested parties I could think of. The design chosen is an open crown, like the one Richard III wore around his helmet on the last day of his life. The frame of the crown has now been completed. It is made of base metal. In the coming weeks it will be polished, plated with gold, and finally set with enamelled white roses, garnets, sapphires and pearls. The idea of putting white roses on the crown was derived from the surviving crown of Richard’s sister, Margaret Duchess of Burgundy. Margaret’s is a small, very feminine crown, and it’s preserved in the treasury of Aachen Cathedral, because Margaret herself presented it to the image of the Blessed Virgin there. (You can see a picture of Margaret’s crown on the cover of my book Eleanor the Secret Queen.)

Update 10th February 2014:

What will happen to the crown when it's finished? Well, my plan was that it should lie above Richard III's remains while he is awaiting his reburial (assuming that the Looking for Richard Project Team's original agreement to place his bones in a house of prayer is finally honoured). And that it should lie upon his coffin during his reburial service.

In the Middle Ages funeral crowns were sometimes buried with their kings or queens, but the more recent practice has been not to bury the funeral crown but to display it near the tomb. Leicester Cathedral appears to assume that it will have the crown in the end - though I have certainly never stated that. Of course everything depends on where Richard III is finally interred. Also, after his reburial there may be a period of time while the tomb itself needs to be completed, and a secure display place for the crown, prepared. During that time I should like the crown to be displayed briefly in Colchester Castle Museum. If there are other places in the country where people would like to see it, I'd also be happy to consider a short 'crown tour' before the crown is finally placed near Richard III's tomb.

Nerdalicious: Fit for a King interview with John Ashdown-Hill


What did you have in mind when you were designing the crown?

Well, obviously the modern kind of crown would look a bit inappropriate, so the first thing was to try to get at the kind of crown Richard would have worn. Unfortunately the fifteenth century was a time of change in terms of English royal crowns. Previously they had all been open crowns, but in the fifteenth century, closed (arched) crowns were coming into fashion, and Richard III probably wore one of those on occasions. But at his crown-wearing at Leicester, prior to the battle of Bosworth, and during the battle itself, I think he must have worn an open crown over his helmet. So I decided to go for an open crown, and took the basic design from Anne Neville’s open crown depicted in the Salisbury roll.

The crown commissioned by John Ashdown-Hill

The crown commissioned by John Ashdown-Hill

The next thing was the size and shape of the crown. Since Richard III’s facial reconstruction has hats to wear, details of his head size are obviously now available, so I got the measurements from Phil Stone, and ordered a crown of the right size and shape – so that, if he wanted to, Richard III could actually wear it. (But of course, he never will.)

The ornamentation of the crown was inspired by the surviving crown of Richard’s sister, Margaret, Duchess of Burgundy. That’s a very pretty, very feminine little crown. Obviously a copy of that wouldn’t really be appropriate for Richard. But we borrowed the idea of setting the jewels on top of enamelled white roses, because that’s how the jewels are set on Margaret’s crown. As for the jewels, themselves, the jeweller who is making the crown suggested sapphires and garnets, with pearls in between. I’m not certain why he proposed sapphires and garnets, but I jumped at his suggestion, because murrey and blue were the livery colours of the royal house of York.

Read the full interview here