I have been fascinated by the king from the Wilton Diptych since I saw the BBC’s 2012 production of Shakespeare’s Richard II. Ben Whishaw played the hubristic monarch doomed by the turning wheel of fortune with mesmerising pathos. I was only 12 when I saw it, so much of the language went over my head, but I was captivated by the beautiful, melancholy atmosphere of the film.
In 2015 my dad took me to see a production of Richard II at the Globe, with Charles Edwards as Richard. The set was painted gold, and when Richard walked on, golden confetti fell from the gods as if falling on Danaë. Richard II is always a king I think of in terms of gold – the Wilton Diptych, where he kneels in the company of saints and angels, has a backdrop of pure glistening gold. Whishaw’s Richard wears golden armour in a desperate attempt to assert his divine right; in the ‘deposition scene’, where he is stripped of his power, his white robe is – perhaps defiantly – embroidered with gold. Richard’s own identity is alike to gold leaf covering a base metal: he exposes the superficiality of his supposed regal divinity. “Not all the water in the rough rude sea can wash the balm from an anointed king” he says in Act 3 Scene 2. Later in the scene this megalomaniac confidence is stripped away; he tells those present, “I live with bread like you, feel want, / Taste grief, need friends: subjected thus/ How can you say to me I am a king?”
Of course, behind the painting and the play is the real Richard II, who is now half-forgotten in the shadow of his infamous namesake, Richard III. Richard II’s tomb is in Westminster Abbey, and I was able to see it when I visited last year. His effigy has the cropped hairstyle and elegant features recognisable from the Wilton Diptych and the portrait on display at the Abbey – also on a backdrop of shining gold. Looking at the tomb, I had that eerie, magical feeling of experiencing a real link to the past. Here in front of me were the bones of the man who would have knelt in front of the Wilton Diptych in prayer, gazing at that semi-divine image of himself. It is an example of how art can powerfully enrich our experience of history.
Richard became king of England aged just 10. He was the first monarch to have a coronation procession – as a child he would have become aware of the power of pomp to exert an image of infallible kingship. He inherited a country seething with resentment from land enclosure, corrupt landlords and attempts to cut wages in the aftermath of the Black Death. The imposition of a poll tax led to the Peasant’s Revolt of 1381, and Richard, aged only 14, confronted the rebels himself.
In the years that followed, his reign continued to be deeply unsettled – an opposition group known as the Lords Appellant came close to deposing him in 1387. But the real trouble began in 1399, with the death of John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster. Richard confiscated Gaunt’s lands and wealth for the Crown, leaving his son Bolingbroke empty-handed. Returning from exile to claim his birthright, Bolingbroke amassed a rebel army and forced Richard to surrender and abdicate. Bolingbroke became King Henry IV, and Richard died, probably of starvation, in Pontefract Castle in 1400.
The Wilton Diptych is best understood in the context of this turmoil. Richard was a king who asserted and abused his divine right to rule. Parallels of his unlawful seizure of Gaunt’s possessions can be seen in 1392, when he removed the Mayor of London and fined the citizens £100,000 for refusing to loan him money. After the defeat of the Lords Appellant, he waited for revenge, building up a royalist party. In 1397, one Appellant was executed, one murdered and one imprisoned – and Richard was granted revenues for life. He thrived on ceremony and flattery; Holinshed’s chronicles (which were used by Shakespeare as a template for many of his history plays) reports: “Richard was prodigal, ambitious, and much given to the pleasure of the body… every day there was a devising of new fashions, to the great hindrance and decay of the commonwealth.”
So the Diptych’s powerful claims to divine kingship – with the angels all wearing Richard’s royal badge – strongly relate to Richard’s own actions as king. At the same time, it is fascinating to think of Richard himself praying in front of this image, looking straight at the portrayal of himself kneeling before the Virgin Mary. He would have been able to imagine himself into that divine world, a world where Jesus reaches out to bless him and John the Baptist has his hand on his shoulder. The diptych becomes a form of delusional escapism from the burgeoning dissent in Richard’s England.
I am reminded of a point that Mary Beard made in the Civilisations episode How Do We Look?. Beard said that the monumental statues of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II (that were made for a part of a temple not open to the common man) were produced in order to convince Ramessess himself of his own power and status, so he could fully believe in himself as a divine ruler. I think that the depiction of Richard in the Wilton Dipych follows this same principle – the painting, like the statues, offers a heightened, perfected form of reality to the powerful ruler. Richard, imprisoned and dying in Pontefract Castle, would have been comforted by the thought that in that gold-bedecked image he will be forever in the company of angels, saints and Christ.
Langmuir, Erika (1994) The National Gallery Companion Guide National Gallery Company.
Morgan, Pip (Chief Editor) (2011) History of Britain and Ireland Dorling Kindersley pp.104-115
Shakespeare, William. Editor: Watts, Cedric (2012) Richard II Wordsworth Classics
Globe theatre programme for Richard II, 2015
The Wilton Diptych: http://theamericanreader.com/regarding-diptychs/
The Globe production photo: https://www.theartsdesk.com/theatre/richard-ii-shakespeares-globe
Westminster portrait of Richard: http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/richard2.htm
Richard confronting the peasants: https://www.awesomestories.com/asset/view/Richard-II-and-the-Peasant-Revolt-of-13810