North Mymms Park
A short history
The recent discovery of the wall-paintings known as The Nine Worthies at North Mymms Park has rightly been called ‘one of the most significant and exciting art finds of the Century’. It came about in the following manner.
By the time Courage acquired the house in 1987 it had fallen into a sad state of disrepair. The previous owners had taken little interest in it and never lived there. On their departure they failed to secure at least one major water outlet and for the many months that the house stood empty water was dripping through the building unchecked.
Not surprisingly, when the property was opened up to begin renovations there was evidence of dry rot. The problem had been chronically exacerbated by the months of dripping water. One afternoon - and quite without warning - the great central beam of the house broke in two, sending, as one witness remembers, ‘a great shudder through the whole mansion’.
One result of this convulsion was to send the floor of the Mymms Room crashing through the ceiling of the billiard room below, ripping away a part of the fine Edwardian pine panelling in its descent. This was at first thought to be a great tragedy. It ultimately proved a blessing.
One day, shortly after repair work got under way, a workman removing lathe and plaster underlay, said ‘There’s a face looking at me from the other side of the wall’. One of the Nine Worthies - Godfrey of Bouillon - was about to emerge from his hiding place for the first time for many years.
How he and his companions came to be painted or why they were afterwards covered over ... nobody knows. They are certainly very old and probably as old as the house itself, which was constructed about 1595.
Painstaking clearance, sometimes no more than an inch at a time, ultimately revealed a frieze banding the entire room, depicting twelve figures painted on dry plaster. The degree of damage varied greatly. There had been a serious loss of plaster where wedges had been driven into the walls to secure the former panelling. There were also instances where the plaster appeared to have been forcibly ripped from the walls.
Why the paintings had been covered up - and with such apparent lack of care -remains a complete mystery. Equally mysterious is the total lack of information regarding the murals either in documents referring to the house or in books on English wall paintings.
Preserving them for future generations proved a major undertaking fraught with potential disaster at every turn. In the years since their concealment all the paintings, executed on a base of coarse lime and sand, had accumulated a considerable amount of surface dirt. Due to the combination of damp, and the failure of the original binder, the pigments were fragile, sensitive to touch and liable to crumble under the slightest pressure.
The successful restoration work took six months to complete. The operation involved removing the surface dirt, stabilising the fragile pigments, filling in the missing sections of plaster to match the original colour and texture, and retouching and reconstructing the damaged and missing sections.
The Nine Worthies
The idea of the Nine Worthies is almost as old as time - a band of men, often widely different in outlook and belief, but heroes all. They fall, traditionally, into three groupings:
The Three Pagans
Hector of Troy, who as the ‘aldest of tyme’ was leader of the Worthies
The Three Jews
The Three Christians
Because they are not represented here within these groupings, we must look both at the painting and the life of each Worthy as we encounter them, beginning with Charlemagne who has here usurped Hector’s place and leads the Worthies. The text from this point deals with each of the paintings by turn, beginning with Charlemagne.
Charlemagne (742 - 814)
In this depiction, Charlemagne is shown with a full beard. He wears an ermine-lined over mantle, richly decorated, which also covers the rear of the horse. In his left hand he holds the sceptre denoting kingship. In his right hand he holds the sword ‘La Joyeuse’.
Charlemagne is one of the immortal figures of history - a conqueror, a law-giver and an Empire-builder. Standing as he does at the watershed of time - where classical civilisation ends and Middle Ages begin - he casts a long shadow over eleven centuries.
Since the fall of the Roman Empire three centuries earlier, Western civilisation had been without a rudder. It had slowly drifted into barbarism and anarchy. Charlemagne changed all that. The son of Pepin the Short, who had seized the throne of the Franks from the ‘do nothing’ Merovigian puppet kings, Charlemagne proved a tireless warrior, one moment overthrowing the kingdom of Lombardy, the next suppressing an insurrection in Italy. In 800 he lent his support of Pope Leo Ill against the rebellious Romans and on Christmas Day 800 was crowned by the Pope Emperor of the Romans.
The remaining fourteen years of his life were spent in consolidating his vast empire. From the Baltic Sea to the Spanish marches, from the tip of Brittany to the lower Danube, the Emperor of the West held sway. He was, however, a great deal more than a soldier, he was a great Christian king.
With a sword in one hand and a cross in the other, he sought to banish ignorance and superstition, greed and treachery. He was patron of the arts and took a keen interest in the causes of agriculture, education and commerce. Learned men were encouraged to come to his court and he himself spoke Latin and read Greek. His fame ultimately spread to all parts of the world.
His great and noble attempt to civilise the countries of the West ultimately came to nothing. He was succeeded by fools and weaklings and the empire he built crumbled to dust
King Arthur (6th Century)
The half-legendary King of the Britons is shown here looking ahead, but with his body twisted to his right. He carries a pennon which unfurls behind him. The horse has its front leg raised and the hind legs extended, as though in a gallop.
Perhaps the most romantic figure in English history, King Arthur stands, like Charlemagne, as a symbol of chivalrous Christian resistance to the barbarian hordes. A multitude of fascinating legends have become associated with his person, notably those of Camelot, the Round Table and the Holy Grail. He is first mentioned by Nennius in the 9th Century. ‘The warlike Arthur with all the kings and armies of Briton fought the Saxons. Many were nobler, but he was twelve times chosen general, and triumphed twelve times’.
Arthur was ultimately slain in battle by his treacherous nephew, Mordred. His body was mysteriously transported to the island of Avalon from whence - it is said - he is one day expected to return to restore ‘the rule of right’.
Whether he ever really lived is a vexed question. Perhaps all that can really be said (in the words of one old writer) is that it is ‘not all a lie nor all true, not all fable nor all known - so much have the story-tellers told and the fablers fabled, in order to embellish their tales, that they have made all seem fable’.
Julius Caesar (102BC - 44BC)
In the painting here, Caesar holds a pennon in his right hand showing the Imperial Roman eagle on an argent field. In his left hand he holds the metal studded reins of his horse. The saddle has a high cantle, firmly holding the rider in place. The breastplate is little more than a simple medallion. The helmet is a classicised burgonet with plumes.
Like Charlemagne, Julius Caesar could be said to have laid the foundations of Western civilisation. By birth a patrician, he was perhaps the greatest genius Rome ever produced. Having begun life as an advocate, he later turned to politics and was elected governor of Farther Spain. He was elected to consul in 59BC and in the course of the following nine years waged war against Gaul.
In 49B0 he was ordered to disband his army. Instead of doing so he led his faithful Legion across the little river Rubicon which separated his Gallic province from Italy. In doing so he committed himself to an irrevocable course of action and ‘to cross the Rubicon’ has since entered the language as a synonym for making a commitment from which there can be no withdrawal.
Fortunately, Caesar was successful. His personal magnetism was strong. Although he is often represented as an unpleasant man of vaulting ambition, he was immensely popular with the Roman people who valued his liberal reforms. A scholar and a writer of the first rank, a statesman blessed with wonderful insight, he unquestionably saved Rome from decay. But when he sought to build an even stronger order by declaring himself dictator for life - thus ensuring that supreme power would be concentrated in the hands of one capable man - he was assassinated by a group of senatorial conspirators led by Marcus Brutus
Judas Maccabees (161 BC)
Following Julius Caesar is the Jewish Champion, Judas Maccabees (or Macabeus), seated in a saddle comparable to Caesar’s. He carries a pennon with four tails showing argent two crows sable. He is full bearded. His cloak hangs out from his shoulders. Details of the boot are lost, except for the thick protective leather top.
Judas Maccabees came from a celebrated Jewish family. When his father, Mattathias, an aged priest, took to the mountains following Antiochus Epiphanes’s attempt to impose the Greek religion on the Jews, Judas became a guerilla leader. He proved to be a military genius. He eventually repulsed the enemy, reconquered Jerusalem, purified the temple and re-inaugurated the Holy service, a deed celebrated to this day in the Jewish festival of lights, ‘Hannuka’.
When Antiochus died, the Jews were offered freedom of worship. Judas Maccabees chose to fight on, hoping thereby to gain political freedom for his people as well. He was killed in battle in 161 BC, but his younger brothers took over the fight and ultimately secured independence for Judaea.
Outside the Jewish community, Judas Maccabees is best remembered today for his immortalisation by Handel, who in 1746 composed the oratorio, ‘Judas Maccabeus’. Not discounting the ‘Messiah’, it was the first of the composer’s works to find complete popularity in England. It won him great favour and he died - loaded with honours - thirteen years later, in 1759, aged seventy-four.
Alexander The Great (356 BC - 323 BC)
Moving on to the south wall we come to Alexander the Great, King of Macedonia, seen here wearing a turban and carrying a pennon featuring a golden lion seated in a chair. He is riding his famous charger, Bucephalus.
Alexander had an early introduction to statesmanship being only sixteen when his father, King Philip, marched on Byzantium, leaving Alexander behind as Regent. Four years later Philip was assassinated and Alexander succeeded to the throne.
Having crushed the rebellious lllyrians and razed Thebes to the ground, he won a great victory over the Persians at the River Granicus. Despite inferiority of numbers, he next met and utterly defeated Darius. After seven long months he took Damascus and destroyed Tyre, perhaps his greatest military victory.
He then made a triumphal progress through Palestine. The Egyptians - who had never taken kindly to Persian rule - hailed Alexander as a deliverer and here in 331 BC he founded the city of Alexandria.
Babylon and Susa, the great treasure houses of the East, opened their gates to him and in 329 BC he overthrew the Scythians on the bank of the Jaxartes. In 326 BC he proceeded to the conquest of India, until that date a totally unknown continent. After marching through the Punjab, establishing Greek colonies, he fought his way to the ocean, losing three quarters of his force in the process.
One of the greatest generals that ever lived, Alexander was still making gigantic plans of conquest when in 323 BC, at Babylon, he was taken ill following a gargantuan eating and drinking bout. He died eleven days later and was laid to rest in a golden coffin at Alexandria. He was just thirty-four years old.
As with the Emperor Charlemagne, his empire did not long survive his passing. It was quickly divided up between his generals, none of whom possessed either their master’s military capability or his talent for colonisation.
Following Alexander is David, the first king of the Judean dynasty of Israel, who in youth distinguished himself by slaying Goliath. He is depicted here looking downwards, carrying in his right hand a pennon, the sharpened end of which doubles as a lance. He wears a spiked crown and his cloak swirls out behind him. The saddle is like those seen before.
Having begun life as an aide to King Saul, Israel’s first king, David’s abilities were quickly recognised. Saul appointed him to a military command and gave him his daughter, Michal, for a wife. However, the very abilities which had raised him to prominence soon began to arouse the jealousy of Saul. Fearing for his life, David fled to the coastal plain where for some time he lived the life of an outlaw, commanding a troop of four hundred freebooters. He found favour with the local populace by protecting them from other bandits and won the good opinion of many Judean elders by various political gestures. He also managed, very shrewdly, to retain throughout this time his status as a patriot in the eyes of the common people.
Consequently, when Saul was killed in battle David was invited to become king. He ruled jointly with Saul’s son, lshbaal. When Ishbaal was murdered by his own courtiers, David became sole ruler of Judea. He conquered the then independent city of Jerusalem, establishing his palace on its highest hill, Zion, (or the ‘City of David’). He also placed here the Ark of the Covenant, under a tent.
In the course of his thirty-two year reign, King David won a number of important military victories, but his last years were marred by the constant efforts of his two sons to overthrow him. The greatest of the Kings of Israel, he died about 1,000 BC. He was an accomplished composer and wrote at least some of the psalms which we still sing today.
Hector Of Troy
‘Glorious Hector, the eldest son of King Priam and the ideal hero of the Trojans, should be the leader of the Worthies. His helmet, a classicised burgonet, is presumably the one which, during the siege of Troy, so frightened his infant son, Astyanax.
According to the ‘Illiad’, Hector’s wife, Andromache, had come with the child to try and persuade Hector not to return to the fray. Hector could not agree, but in a gesture of conciliation stretched out his arms to his infant son. Frightened by the gleaming bronze of his fathers muscled armour, and the horsehair crest which nodded fiercely from his helmet, Astyanax shrank back in tears. Laughingly, the great warrior swept the helmet from his head, took his son in his arms, kissed him ‘and prayed to the Gods that he might grow to be a great man’.
Unfortunately - at least for Hector - the Gods were not on the side of the Trojans that day. he had an initial success when in a skirmish he killed Patroclus. But Patroclus had been a much-loved friend of Achilles, the greatest of all the Greek warriors, who immediately swore revenge.
Achilles re-entered the fight with renewed vigour. The tide turned against the Trojans who fell back upon their beleaguered city. The massive portals closed and all the Trojans were safe inside save Hector, who stood outside the wall awaiting the coming of his greatest enemy.
Hector was unquestionably the finest of the Trojan warriors. He was no match for Achilles. Following an ndignified chase around the walls of the City he was killed by a single thrust of his opponent’s sword.
To take full vengeance for the death of Patroclus, Achilles fastened the body of Hector to his war chariot and ragged it round the wall of Troy (and past the tomb of Patroclus). Andromache fell fainting into the arms of her maidens as she stood on the wall and looked upon the dishonour done to the body of her husband.
Although Achilles was disinclined to give up his trophy, he was ultimately persuaded to do so in return for ‘gold rugs, mantles and cloaks and cauldrons. The two sides then entered upon a nine-day truce during which the Trojans mourned their fallen hero. They burned his body on a lofty pyre and buried the bones beneath a great mound of stones.
So passed the chief warrior of the Trojan army - a good son, a loving husband and a trusty friend. At one point he actually managed to drive the Greeks back to their ships and almost succeeded in burning them. Had he not encountered Achilles - a veritable superman - the outcome of the siege of Troy might have been very different.
Although only the word ‘DUX’ is decipherable in the next painting, we know that this refers to the prophet, Joshua, a charismatic warrior, who during the forty years’ wanderings of the Israelites in the wilderness, acted as ‘personal assistant’ to Moses and - after Moses’ death - was expressly charged by God to lead the Israelites into Canaan following the Exodus from Egypt.
The biblical Book of Joshua provides a narrative account of the settlement of ‘the Twelve Tribes’ in Canaan under his leadership.
Godfrey Of Bouillon
The last - but no means least - of the Worthies, is the crusader Godfrey of Bouillon (alternatively Godefroi De Bouillon). He is in many respects the odd man out. He is depicted travelling in the opposite direction to his companions; he holds his sword in a manner which suggests that he is in the midst of a battle, and he looks out in a way that almost invites us to participate. Unlike his companions, he wears clothing of a later period. This has led to the theory - impossible now to substantiate - that he may have been fashioned in the image of the owner of the house, the commissioner of the fresco.
The real Godfrey of Bouillon was also something of a misfit. Born about 1060 in Lower Lorraine, the son of aristocratic parents, he was impelled by a strong religious urge, a craving for adventure and his failure to adapt to the life of an administrator of family estates to join the first crusade in 1096.
Tall, handsome and fair-haired, he was by coincidence a descendant of another Worthy - Charlemagne. When Raymond of Toulouse - the lay leader of the crusade - declined to become King of Jerusalem, Godfrey accepted the crown in his place. However, he refused the title of king and was called instead ‘Defender of the Holy Sepulchre’. Despite his weakness as a ruler he was later idolised in legend as the ‘perfect Christian knight, the peerless hero of the whole crusading epic’.
The three remaining paintings which complete the wall frescoes are difficult to decipher. The tenth male figure, complete with 16th Century armour and a ruff, has not been identified. Like Godfrey of Bouillon, he may be the owner of the house. Despite the anachronistic apparel, he may also be the shadowy Guy of Warwick, a hero incoherently embodied in several Anglo-Saxon traditions of the tenth and eleventh Centuries.
Guy Of Warwick
The son of Wigod, cupbearer to Edward the Confessor, Guy of Warwick is in every sense larger than life. For many years his ‘porridge bowl’ was displayed at Warwick Castle. It had a capacity of twenty gallons.
In Hampole’s prologue to ‘Speculum Vitae (c.1350) he is described as ‘Sir Gye of Warwike a knight of grete renowne’. In order to win his bride, Felice - a daughter of Rohand, Earl of Warwick - who doubted his valour, Sir Guy fought the Saracens at Constantinople, slew a dragon laying waste to Northumberland and despatched the Viking giant, Colbrand.
Rather surprisingly (given that he had gone to all this trouble) he retired shortly after his marriage to a cave in the woods of Arden to lead the life of a hermit. He kept his whereabouts secret from his wife who only tracked him to his lair - as he lay on his deathbed - by means of a ring given to her by a herdsman. She survived her husband just fourteen days.
According to legend, Guy’s descendant, Earl Richard of Warwick, identified the hermit cell and converted it to a shrine.
This tenuous connection with the later Earls of Warwick may have given rise to the unlikely theory that the tenth figure in the Worthies procession was not Sir Guy of Warwick but John Dudley, Earl of Warwick and Duke of Northumberland (1502? -1553), who on the death of the boy-king Edward VI encleavou red to secure the succession to his own family by placing his fifteen year old daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Grey, on the throne of England. He was outwitted by the righfful Queen, Mary Tudor, and paid for his presumption with his life.
Chapter 4 - Fortune and Fame
Index North Mymms Park - A short history