Across the front pages of newspapers all around the Western world on Wednesday was news of an English royal wedding. In the excitement, some readers may have missed last week’s other big royal story: the discovery of Richard II’s glove.
The royal wedding is of course the one to come next year between Prince William, grandson of the queen and likely one day to be king, and Catherine Middleton, a “middle class” girl whose parents, the papers say, run a mail-order business called Party Pieces, selling supplies for children’s parties. (All agree that the Middletons are millionaires.)
The Richard II news is more 14th-century, and it is that the fragment of what was almost certainly a glove belonging to that controversial king has been discovered in what looks like a cigarette box in the basement archive of the National Portrait Gallery in London’s Trafalgar Square.
The glove was not accidentally dropped by King Richard on his way to Westminster Abbey. It was looted out of his royal coffin in Victorian times, when grave-robbery was not condemned so seriously by archaeologists as it might be now. The scrap of glove (How odd to wear gloves in your coffin. One wonders if everyone did.) was pushed into the cigarette box and has lain beneath the pavement round St. Martin in the Fields for all these years.
That’s to say, in the very bowels of the city. Where it stayed while the ground above was bombed to rubble during the blitz, torn apart to accommodate more traffic and recently redesigned to accommodate less. It was there beneath the red buses, the singing crowds, the buskers, the pavement artists and the National Portrait Gallery restaurant, where you can push along a plastic tray to put your lunch upon.
A single glove. The glove of a king. A 14th-century king. Chaucer’s king. The king whom Shakespeare made drive everyone mad with his meditation on kingship, the king whose portrait shows a plain, young, bewildered-looking fellow who at any moment may burst into tears.
Nothing is a better illustration of the English monarch than Richard’s lost glove. Turning up just as the bells ring out from the steeples announcing that another king to be is marrying and hoping to continue the line. It tells us that kings and queens may change, but the institution of the crown remains much the same. And that’s the way we like it.
Down the road from the glove is the Banqueting House in Whitehall, where King Charles I stepped out to his execution above the crowd, wearing an extra shirt. It was a cold day and he did not want to shiver in case it was thought he was afraid. I can’t enter the Banqueting House with its glorious Rubens ceiling without tears. Oh — poor William, poor Kate Middleton.
Thanks be, we don’t do that sort of thing anymore. But still, they will be pursued by the same old hyenas of the press. The royal family today is in some ways more remote from us than then. In other ways they seem “just like us.”
I don’t know if this affinity with the crown is a particularly English characteristic or not. But last Christmas my German au pair and her husband rose to their feet when the television played “God Save the Queen.”
“They are partly the German royal family too,” she explained. My family was embarrassed.
At the same time, I don’t believe that the tyrannical Scottish Stuarts were ever for one moment thought to be “just like us.” And we still fear the horrible Tudors. It is said that nobody visiting the Tower of London will touch Henry VIII’s huge suit of armor. It is thought to be contaminated with evil — and maybe syphilis.
It is a strange, but not unhappy thought, that Kate Middleton will continue these lines. Her strength is that she is not an aristocrat. Her grandfather was a miner, and miners are some of the bravest people in the world. Also, she is clever. The University of St. Andrews, where she and Prince William met, is hard to get into unless you are. And although she obviously had the time of her life, she endured the rigors of the final examinations and passed them. And so did the prince.
In my novels I write about the “old world,” my parents’ world, where people wore hats — and gloves. I’m usually more interested in the law than in kings and coronets. I did once get quite caught up with Old Queen Mary, but Evelyn Waugh did, too, so I’m in splendid company. And last year when Prince Charles presented me with an Order of the British Empire, a rank of chivalry, and appeared to know me, although I’m sure he has never read me, I came over all of a tremble before my curtsy. (“If Granny falls over,” said my granddaughter, who was in the audience with her father, “it is going to put an awful downer on the lunch!”)
I left the palace a royalist, reminded that the old world is not so far away from this one. And remembering too that English law was first put together by a king in the Dark Ages: King Alfred, who was a man of the people. So they say.
May the happy couple be always as well thought of as he is.
Jane Gardam, the author of Old Filth and, most recently, God on the Rocks.