Go back to article: The Panstereomachia, Madame Tussaud’s and the Heraldic Exhibition: the art and science of displaying the medieval past in nineteenth-century London

The Heraldic Exhibition of 1894: preserving Britain’s national heritage

A third exhibition, the Heraldic Exhibition, illustrates a growing desire at the end of the nineteenth century to preserve medieval artefacts as important parts of Britain’s national heritage. From 31 May to 13 June the Society of Antiquaries of London held a Heraldic Exhibition at Burlington House. The exhibition focused on English heraldry and included a wide range of objects from armour, textiles and pottery to medallions, illuminated manuscripts and playing cards. While the exhibit featured objects from the Middle Ages to contemporary times, medieval objects played a prominent role. The exhibition captivated the public and engaged a number of prestigious guests including the Prince of Wales, Albert Edward and his brother Prince Alfred (1894; 1894a). One of the highlights of the exhibition was the Black Prince’s relics (also known as his achievements) – his helm, crest, gauntlets, shield and jupon – which were on loan from Canterbury Cathedral (1894; 1894a). This was the first time the Cathedral had allowed them to be moved since their installation above his tomb after the Black Prince’s death in 1376 (Society of Antiquaries of London, 1896, Plates I-III; 1894a). The Black Prince’s relics were placed in a prominent position on the ground floor next to the shield of another famous English warrior, Henry V, on loan from Westminster Abbey (Society of Antiquaries of London, 1896, p 1; Society of Antiquaries of London, Catalogue, 1894, p 8). The exhibition drew public attention to the state of decay of the Black Prince’s relics, especially the jupon or coat-armour.

While there had been much antiquarian interest in the Black Prince’s tomb from the seventeenth to the early nineteenth centuries, by the late nineteenth century, discussions increasingly focused on the desire to protect Edward’s achievements. In 1890, Albert Heuthing (a member of one of the many London antiquary clubs) wrote a letter to the Dean of Canterbury Cathedral asking the Cathedral to consider removing the military achievements from above the prince’s tomb and placing them under glass to stop their decay. Heuthing argued that there were few examples of military accoutrements existing from the fourteenth century and he appealed to the Cathedral about the national significance of Edward’s military possessions, suggesting that the achievements were likely ‘worn by [the Black Prince] at the scenes of his prowess’.[21] This was not the first time that Heuthing had expressed concern about the prince’s tomb. In 1872 he had written a letter which was published in The Times after a fire had broken out in Canterbury Cathedral.[22] In it, he stressed the significance of the tomb as the chief memorial to Edward and his victories, proclaiming it the ‘one great historical monument’ where viewers could go to celebrate the English victories at Crécy and Poitiers (1872).

The campaign to preserve the Black Prince’s relics gained national attention in the lead up to the Heraldic Exhibition when the Society of Antiquaries took up the cause. Upon seeing the relics first hand, the Society began to campaign for their restoration and preservation, citing their historical significance as ‘national heirlooms’.[23] Thus, the Heraldic Exhibition was not just about the display of the relics, but also about bringing them to London so that they could undergo conservation efforts.

Figure 8

Black and white photographs of a jupon with the arms of Edward Prince of Wales a shield with the arms of King Edward third and the Black Princes helm crest and gauntlets

Clockwise from top: Jupon with the Arms of Edward, Prince of Wales; Shield with the Arms of King Edward III; The Black Prince’s Helm, Crest and Gauntlets. All from the Illustrated Catalogue of the Heraldic Exhibition, Burlington House, 1894 (published 1896)

The Society was well aware of the decay of the relics; in a letter from W H St John Hope (assistant secretary of the society and expert on heraldry) to Canon Holland, Hope noted the poor condition of the beam above the tomb that held the relics, noting that ‘worms may have eaten’ it.[24] He also expressed his fears that the surcoat needed immediate attention to see if it had moths due to its poor condition: ‘It is perfectly certain that unless something is done and soon to preserve these priceless relics from further rapid decay, they will inevitably fall to pieces at no distant date.’[25] When discussing the transfer of the relics to London, Hope informed the Cathedral that having the relics in London would also enable the society and experts to assess the relics for damage: ‘they would receive the best treatment’ from experts at the British Museum and the South Kensington Museum’ and he pressed the importance of conservation efforts ‘so that these historical relics at Canterbury be preserved to charm and interest future generations’.[26]

Once in London, repairs to the relics were done under the auspices the Society of Antiquaries. Much of the work centred on the jupon, which was missing parts, and was faded and fragile. A ‘fine pure silk net’ was used to conserve the piece by supporting the remaining fabric.[27] A 1923 ‘Report upon the Present Conditions of the Achievements’ described the 1894 repairs, noting the introduction of tacking to prevent the wool stuffing from falling out. Repairs to the Black Prince’s relics were executed to keep the ‘more ragged parts of several items in position’ while stitches and brass nails were used in the jupon to hold things together.[28] Here, the society used old and new conservation techniques in order to preserve the past for future generations. Both the Society and the Cathedral noted the importance of preserving these artefacts, an early example of a jupon representing a significant part of British heritage through its association with England’s hero, the Black Prince.

The Society of Antiquaries also campaigned for the relics to be placed under glass on their return to the Cathedral.[29] In a letter to the Dean of Canterbury, Society secretary Charles H Read mentioned that the plan even had the support of royalty – with ‘The Prince of Wales and the Duke of Saxe Coburg (Prince Alfred) being particularly interested in [Edward’s relics], and expressing hope that they might be protected from further injury…the Prince…was strongly in favour of the plan…that these national heirlooms should be placed under glass, so as to prevent the possibility of further damage’.[30] The Society’s insistence on a glass case for the relics may have been about preservation; it was especially concerned about the amount of dust on the relics. However, advocating placing the items under glass may have also been to preserve the artefacts in another way: to protect them from Victorian souvenir thieves keen to take home a piece of history. Indeed, in a letter to the Cathedral, Read expressed fears that the items would be ‘lost’.[31]

The Cathedral allowed for restoration of the Black Prince’s relics but resisted removing them from their place above Edward’s tomb once they had returned from London. The relics were not placed under glass until the late twentieth century, and today replicas are in their place above the tomb. From letters and reports by the Cathedral into the early twentieth century, it is apparent that they felt that removing the achievements from their original position above the prince’s tomb would take away from the overall impact of the monument. In the late nineteenth century, the Cathedral’s desire to display the Black Prince’s relics in their original position – allowing viewers to experience them ‘authentically’, as visitors would have since the fourteenth century – came into conflict with the Society of Antiquaries, who lobbied to remove them from above the tomb and preserve them under glass.[32]

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/181011/004