Toggle menu

The Amberley Panels

Amberley Panels

Written by Karen Coke

These elegant, curious figures are painted clothed in fine linen, close-fitting and crimson velvet gowns, rich brocades decorated with golden bells, some with traditional head-wear and some with fanciful golden pageant head-dresses. They are the picture of idealised medieval femininity and it comes as something of a surprise to see they are also clad in pieces of armour, carry weaponry and bear shields of arms. To a modern viewer these contradictions represent a puzzle but to a cultured medieval European audience they would have been recognisable as the Nine Ladies Worthy, familiar from literature, pageant, and tapestry and to Robert Sherborn, Bishop of Chichester (1508-1536), it made perfect sense to have them painted on the wainscot of an upper floor reception chamber at his manor, Amberley Castle. He had no doubt read about them in the literature he had transcribed as a student at Oxford, and during his time as Henry VII's Ambassador to the Vatican seen similar figures, such as the mid-fifteenth-century frescoes in the Castello della Manta in Piedmont, as well as many series of 'Uomini Illustri',  'Famous men and Women' and sometimes groups of Sibyls, who were depicted on palace walls in Italy.

But who were these women, and why did Sherborn have them painted, when, and by whom?

The Nine Ladies Worthywere a late fourteenth-century development of an earlier male group known as the Nine Worthies, three Pagans, (Hector, Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar) three Old Testament figures (Joshua, David and Judas Maccabeus), and three Christians (King Arthur, Charlemagne and Godfrey of Bouillon), all were chosen because they represented Christian princely virtues, characteristics deemed worthy of emulation. Eventually they were joined by a changing grouping of virtuous women.  Thus, at Amberley, we see Sherborn's personal choice of three Amazon Queens, (Lampedo, Hippolyta, Menalippe), three Middle Eastern Queens (Sinope, Thomyris, Semiramis), the prophetess-princess Cassandra and one other, now unknown, figure; the ninth is sadly, now lost.  These women shared various characteristics, some were empire-builders, leaders of armies, monarchs in their own right, sometimes with bloody histories, yet also engaged with the more feminine attributes of charity, mercy, virginity and piety. In short, moral exemplars especially suitable to adorn the chamber of a princess.

In August 1526 Henry VIII made his summer progress through Sussex and lodged, for a few days, at Arundel Castle, from where he spent most of his time hunting. Arundel was close by Amberley, the bishop's hunting lodge. While there one of Henry's party, William Fitzwilliam, wrote to Thomas Cromwell, describing how the king had dined with the bishop and spoke of his house as containing  'sundry and diverse devises', which he had not seen elsewhere.  A 'device' in Tudor terms was an heraldic or curious design, a description that fits perfectly the apocryphal heraldry emblazoned on the shields carried by the Nine Ladies - heraldry with which Fitzwilliam was likely to be familiar and it is believed that Fitzwilliam was referring to Amberley and the panels and this gives us a tentative ante quem (limit before which) dating for the paintings.

Sherborn had just completed extensive alterations to the castle but a royal visit often led to a frantic redecoration, even rebuilding, to provide appropriate apartments for the royal party. The Amberley Panels may already have been intended to form part of the decorative scheme of the chamber or, as is believed, specifically provided in anticipation of Queen Katharine of Aragon's accompanying Henry. The chamber, since at least the 1630s, has been known as the Queen's Room (note the placing of the apostrophe) and its situation on the first floor above that of the king, was the normal site for a queen's use at this time; and the other and more interesting hint that the ladies were painted for Katharine's eyes, lies in the depiction of Hippolyta who is shown wearing a Tudor head-dress, grasping an empty bow and shouldering a quiver containing a single arrow,  an example of a favourite contemporary visual pun on Katharine's name 'arrow-gone'.

Katharine would have recognised the flattering reference to herself in the guise of a warrior queen both as a reminder of her frequently armour-clad mother, the uncompromising Isabella of Spain and of her own military career, when in 1513, as acting Regent during Henry's absence fighting the French, she was in titular command of the English armies when they defeated and killed Henry VIII's brother-in-law, the Scottish King James IV at Flodden. Unfortunately Katharine was never to see the chamber because she did not accompany her husband on that trip.

Sherborn, with his scholar's knowledge of history and literature, would have hand-picked his gallery of Ladies Worthy and directed his court-painter, Lambert Barnard to make sure they were shown bearing the armour and weapons and wearing jewels and colours, all resonant with Christian symbolism.

In his turn, for the figures, Lambert Barnard turned to Burgundian and Flemish depictions of gorgeously clad female saints for his inspiration. Executed in oil paint on the oak boards of the wainscot the figures were arranged as a frieze around the top of the wall with their backgrounds, alternating red and blue in traditional English fashion. Framed by a trompe-l'oeil classical arcade of round arches, and fronted by parapets painted to resemble stone, the figures also have the appearance of early Italian Renaissance portraits, an overall mix of European stylistic influences that is typical of Barnard's work. Descriptive verses in Barnard's distinctive black-letter script identify the individuals. Beneath them the wainscot was coloured a rich crimson, the stiles painted with barber's pole stripes in the Tudor colours of green and white and highlighted in silver. The wooden ceiling above them was carved with warrior's heads and at least one early commentator suggests they may have been accompanied also by images of male worthies although this is by no means certain. Other, now lost parts of the scheme indicate the lower wainscot carried more armorial designs and mottoes. He may have had to work quickly to complete them, but Barnard produced a scheme of impressive richness and one which is unique in England today.

Following Bishop Sherborn's death the castle was occupied by a succession of tenants and owners until in 1983 its contents were sold and the panels together with some fragments of its remaining painted framework were acquired by Chichester District Council with the aid of the National Heritage Memorial Fund. The Nine Ladies Worthywere exhibited for some years at Pallant House Gallery. Today they are displayed in the Sherborne Room of the Bishop's Place hanging, appropriately, beneath Barnard's colourful heraldic ceiling.

It is not the first time the panels have been on display in Chichester. Following a long-history

of neglect and relocation, three of the paintings were shown at the inaugural meeting of the Chichester Museum Society in 1853 where the 'ladies' generated a great deal of excitement among the gathered antiquarians. Since then the panels have been the subject of several necessary conservation interventions.  It is surprising that these, now understandably fragile, paintings have survived at all, a reminder of how open early Tudor England was to European thought and practice and how much of our Tudor heritage we might have lost to time.


Share this page

Facebook icon Twitter icon email icon


print icon