Monday, 10 January 2011

Conjecture in black and woite (2)

When my mother bought St Margaret's, a great house on the edge of the Hampshire village of Titchfield, one of the first things she did was commission a stained glass window by an artist called Donald Brookes. The window, installed in the porch beneath the tower, showed St Margaret surrounded by flames. There are several St Margarets in the lists of saints, so which St Margaret my mother or Donald Brookes had in mind is a guess.

My money goes on the earliest, St Margaret of Antioch, who belongs in the same Apocryphal Saints Club as St George and St Nicholas and many others. She appears to be the same person as St Marina or St Pelagia. Maybe there's some kind of sea element here: the word 'Margaret' means pearl, 'Marina' speaks for itself and 'Pelagia' is a Greek word for marine. According to the legend the first St Margaret, a devoutly Christian shepherdess, received an offer of marriage from a Roman notable, on condition that she renounce her faith. She refused. She was tortured in an attempt to make her change her mind, and was eventually done to death, burnt, maybe. She worked various miracles involving dragons during her torture. Virgin and Martyr, she became the patron saint of childbirth and pregnant women, shepherdesses, those falsely accused, exiles and, curiously, those suffering with kidney problems. She became a Christian cult figure in England at the time of the crusades, roughly 1100-1250.) In essence she is a personification of courage, determination and faith.

Almost exactly 500 years before Donald Brookes' window was commissioned and installed, another Margaret, much less shadowy, comes into the picture. In the early 1440s King Henry VI, aesthete and slightly unbalanced son of the victor of Agincourt, was looking for a queen. The choice fell on Margaret of Anjou, a French princess with strong continental dynastic connections. Margaret was sent for from her home in Lorraine (she was born in Pont à Mousson, now an ironworks town known to every Frenchman because the name is cast on innumerable manhole covers), she sailed across the Channel and put in at Titchfield Haven, then a small port on Southampton Water. From Titchfield Haven she rode the four miles inland to Titchfield, where she was due to be married the next day, April 23rd 1445, to the 23-year-old Henry VI.

The wedding venue was the chapel of Titchfield Abbey, a Premonstratensian monastery by the banks of the river Meon. The Titchfield Abbey lands (I expect 'messuages' is the correct term) included a guest house or just possibly a small convent on the hill to the west of Titchfield village. Or maybe St Margaret's was just one of the eight manors with which Abbey was endowed. However it might have been, this was where Margaret of Anjou spent the night before her wedding. Maybe it was in her honour that the house (or its predecessor) that we lived in half a millenium later was called St Margaret's.

Margaret of Anjou was a month past her fifteenth birthday. The historian Paul Kendall describes her as 'already a woman: passionate and proud and strong-willed'.

(To be continued. Sorry, Vicus.)

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