One Day Colloquium: Fictions of Antiquity, CRASSH, 6 November 2014

Announcing our first event of the 2014/15 academic year, ‘Fictions of Antiquity: the biblical and classical past of the nineteenth-century novel’, taking place at CRASSH (University of Cambridge) on 6 November 2014.

Speakers include:

  • Professor Norman Vance, Sussex
  • Dr Brian Murray, CRASSH
  • Dr Victoria Mills, Cambridge
  • Dr Jan-Melissa Schramm, Cambridge

It is free to attend, but please do register through our website: Fictions of Antiquity website



Registration now open for Chosen Peoples, Promised Lands conference

This conference took place 14-16 July 2014. For more news and updates about Biblant project conferences, please join our mailing list or email

Registration has now opened for the Biblant group’s conference Chosen Peoples, Promised Lands taking place at CRASSH, University of Cambridge, from 14-16 July 2014.

Please visit the CRASSH website or our Facebook page for full details and a link to online registration.

If you are unable to book online, or require assistance please contact the project administrator: eeh39 [at]


Princes of the tribes of their fathers

For most visitors to the Chapel of St. George at Windsor Castle, the main attractions are the vaults containing tombs of British monarchs (including two Henrys, two Edwards, and four Georges). During the nineteenth century, the chapel was the venue for the weddings of several of Victoria’s children, including the future Edward VII and Princess Alexandra in 1863, when the couple knelt before Gilbert Scott’s lavish east window and reredos built in commemoration of Prince Albert (below). The choir also serves as the Chapel of the Most Noble Order of the Garter. Founded in 1348 by Edward III, the order currently boasts a rather cosmopolitan line-up –including the former King of Spain, Juan Carlos, and Emperor Akihito of Japan.


Given the transcontinental nature of the Europe’s ruling houses, it’s unsurprising to see monuments elsewhere in the chapel to figures like Victoria’s uncle, Leopold I of Belgium. A memorial inscription to ‘Napoleon’ however, provokes a slight double take in a space largely devoted to Hanoverian triumphs. This Napoléon, the Prince Imperial of France, was son of the exiled Emperor Napoleon III. A godson of Queen Victoria, Napoléon rose to the rank of lieutenant in the British Royal Artillery and was killed in South Africa during the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879. His remains lie in the Benedictine abbey of St. Michael in Farnborough, but the monument at Windsor represents him stretched out in his officer’s uniform, a modern imperial nod to the recumbent royal monuments elsewhere in the chapel.


General Frederic Thesiger had been entrusted with keeping the enthusiastic prince out of the firing line, but eager for action, Napoléon broke free of his protectors and was ambushed during an ill planned scouting mission into Zulu territory. Napoleon’s horse and his British comrades bolted, leaving the Prince at the mercy of the assegais-wielding Zulu warriors. G.A. Henty’s account of the Prince’s death in his novel The Young Colonists: A Story of the Zulu and Boer Wars (1885) invokes both popular sympathy for the tragic death of a promising young nobleman and the lingering sense of British guilt surrounding the incident.

A splendid career was open for the young prince, for there is little doubt that, had he lived, he would sooner or later have mounted the throne of his father, and there are few pages of history more sad than those which relate to his death in a paltry skirmish in a corner of Africa. To Englishmen the page is all the more sad, inasmuch as, had the men accompanying him acted with the coolness and calmness generally shown by Englishmen in a moment of danger, instead of being carried away by a cowardly panic, the Prince Imperial might yet be alive.

In a painting by the French artist Paul Jamin, the scene is elevated to an heroic martyrdom: the French prince goes down fighting amidst a throng of naked Zulus while his British comrades (and unfaithful steed) beat a hasty retreat in the background.

Napoleon Death

Paul Jamin, Mort du prince imperial (1882)

Remarkably, in the same year that the French imperial heir succumbed to the Zulus, the body of another foreign prince with African connections was brought to Windsor. Across the nave of the chapel, squeezed between a monument to Leopold I of Belgium and George IV’s daughter Charlotte, stands a bronze memorial plaque to a prince who possessed a more impressive lineage than any of his illustrious neighbors. Prince Alemayehu of Ethiopia, the eldest son of Emperor Tewedros II, claimed direct descent from King Solomon and the Queen of Sheba.


Near this spot

lies buried


the son of


King of Abyssinia:

Born 23 April 1861

Died 14 November 1879

This tablet is placed

here to his memory by

Queen Victoria

I was a stranger

And ye took me in.

The British expeditionary force led by Robert Napier conquered the Ethiopian capital of Magdala in a one-sided campaign launched after the unstable Emperor Tewedros [Theodore] had taken several British diplomats hostage in 1868. Alemayehu was taken into custody by the invading forces after the suicide of his father. The explorer and adventurer Captain Tristram Speedy – an enthusiast for the language and culture of Abyssinia – asserted his role as legal guardian of the prince against the will of Alemayehu’s surviving family and brought him back to England. In a rather disturbing photograph taken on the Isle of Wight in 1868 by Julia Margaret Cameron, the African prince is tellingly pictured amidst the spoils and souvenirs collected by Speedy during the campaign. Alemayehu was first sent to school at Rugby and later enrolled at Sandhurst. But after dropping out of the military academy aged 18, he died of pleurisy in a suburb of Leeds in 1879.


Julia Margaret Cameron, ‘Déjatch Alámayou, King Theodore’s Son’(1868).

The British expedition required 15 elephants and 200 mules to carry the confiscated ‘treasures of Magdala’ back to Britain. The loot included two illuminated manuscripts of the fourteenth-century Kebra Nagast, or The Book of the Glory of the Kings, a work which – in the words of its first English translator E. Wallis Budge – ‘has been held in the highest esteem and honour throughout the length and breadth of ABYSSINIA . . . it is believed by every educated man in that country to contain the true history of the origin of the Solomonic line of kings in ETHIOPIA’.

From early on there were doubts about the ethics of the Abyssinian acquisitions and in 1871 Gladstone (then Prime Minister) expressed his deep regret to the House of Commons ‘that those articles were ever brought from Abyssinia’. Selected items (including some manuscripts and icon paintings) were returned in response to appeals from the Ethiopian Emperor in 1872, yet many treasures remained in British collections, including the finest manuscript of the Kebra Nagast (which is still held by the British Library).


Thomas Jones Barker, The Secret of Englands Greatness(Queen Victoria presenting a Bible in the Audience Chamber at Windsor) (1863)

As many commentators have noted, Thomas Jones’s Barker’s The Secret of Englands Greatness (1863) offers a confident rendering of the much-vaunted connection between the British imperial project and Protestant evangelism. Yet it is interesting to note that this invented scene – Queen Victoria presenting a Bible to an anonymous African leader – takes place ‘in the Audience Chamber at Windsor’, that is, close to where the Abbysinian spoils would be triumphantly displayed a few years later. Given the controversial acquisition of Ethiopian manuscripts there are grounds for reading this royal gift exchange in reverse: the Queen snatching a volume of Solomonic lore from the hands of the suppliant African King.

The biblical motto on Alemayehu’s memorial, ‘I was a stranger, and ye took me in’ (Matt. 25:35) puts the parable of the Son of Man into the mouth of the Son of Solomon. And while on one level the passage offers a complacent endorsement of paternal imperialism – and its literal acting out in Captain Speedy’s ‘adoption’ – it also implies a judgment cast upon the imperial masters by their colonial subjects. When the judge of all nations pronounces his verdict at the end of days, will imperial Britain be ranked with the sheep or the goats? Like Kipling’s later ‘Recessional’, composed for Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, it gestures towards an inevitable era of decline, when all Britannia’s ‘pomp of yesterday | Is one with Nineveh and Tyre’.

Despite the residual ill feeling caused by the British Army’s theft of Abyssinian treasures, manuscripts, and people, this was not the end of friendly intercourse between the royal houses of Britain and Ethiopia. In 1954, the very last emperor of the House of Solomon, Haile Selassie I, was admitted as a ‘Stranger Knight’ to the Order of Garter and took up his private stall in the medieval choir of the chapel.


Copyright: The Dean and Canons of Windsor

Selassie’s personalised stall plate conveys his status through an interesting hybrid of British and Ethiopian heraldry. As Kelda Roe of the Chapel archives explains, the plate depicts the Lion of Judah (Rev. 5:5), one of the emperor’s official titles, striding before the throne of Solomon and flanked by two angels representing Menelik I and the Queen of Sheba. The royal arms are encircled by the garter of Edward III and topped with the imperial crown of Ethiopia.

In an account of a memorial service held in the Chapel after Haile Selassie’s death in 1974, the Times noted that it was fitting that the emperor should be commemorated in a chapel dedicated to St George, the patron of both England and Ethiopia: ‘Haile Selassie represented a tradition of Christian chivalry almost as old as that of the original St George and three times as old as St George’s Knights of the Garter’.

Brian H. Murray

Registration now open for ‘Persistence of the Past’ conference

Registration has now opened for the Biblant group’s conference Persistence of the Past in Nineteenth Century Scholarship taking place at CRASSH, University of Cambridge, from 19 – 20 June 2014.

Please visit the CRASSH website or the CRASSH Facebook page for full details and a link to online registration.

If you are unable to book online, or require assistance please contact the project administrator: eeh39 [at]

Persistence of the Past conference flyer

Gordon and the Garden of Eden

A fascinating blog post from Dr Richard Aspin at the Wellcome Library, on General Gordon‘s biblical but decidedly bizarre researches on Mauritius when posted there in the Royal Engineers (1881-2). Place names, conjecture and most importantly the flora convinced Gordon that the Garden of Eden had been in the Seychelles, that Breadfruit was the Tree of Life, and that the suggestively shaped Coco-de-Mer nut was the Tree of Knowledge offered by Eve to Adam, the Genesis Deluge having since flooded the land around. For the full story, follow the link…

Sewing Scripture

by Gareth Atkins

In recent months we’ve begun in our research group to work in earnest on the long-premeditated exhibition (the title remains under wraps, but watch this space). Materiality is currently a buzzword among cultural scholars, and alongside texts and images we’re also on the lookout for objects and artefacts that tell Bible-and-Antiquity tales. Serious and not-so-serious suggestions are very welcome!

Probably my favourite example so far is the horrible glass case of 43 stuffed birds shot by Sergeant Armstrong of the Royal Engineers during the Palestine Exploration Fund’s 1870s expedition, but this striking coverlet from the V&A runs it a close second. It was made in the early nineteenth century, and provides a tantalizing glimpse of how Bible stories were read and reimagined by the neglected many rather than the well-documented few. The coverlet’s creator was a Wiltshire milliner, and she signed it, embroidering ‘Ann West’s work, 1820’, ‘Forget me not’ and ‘Remember Me’.

UntitledIn some ways it reminds me of the fourteenth-century Macclesfield Psalter, acquired by the Fitzwilliam Museum in 2005 after a big fundraising campaign, whose margins are stuffed with jousting rabbits and hounds, grotesque creatures and a terrifying giant skate attacking an astonished man. The marginalia have little relevance to the Psalter’s text! The coverlet, too, displays humour and a lively imagination. Alongside the biblical scenes Ann included plenty of wryly observed contemporary vignettes, including rural weddings, earthy shepherds, posturing soldiers and the playful ‘Negro servant and master’ of the image below. In other ways, though, it’s very different: whereas the Psalter fitted in the palm of the hand, Ann West’s coverlet is 244 x 221cm. And while the Psalter was made for a rich patron, Ann, it seems, was sewing for herself.


Most other patchworks of this kind were made by male tailors: they focused on political campaigns and military heroes. This one is very different. The colours are so vivid because they were made of offcuts from military scarlet, fine blue-black cloth intended for tailored coats and a range of other products of the weaving industry that was so important in south-west England. This one is inspired by the Bible. At the centre is the Garden of Eden and around it, as well as 54 small patches showing contemporary characters, are fourteen other scenes, including Cain and Abel (top left), Moses in the Bulrushes (top right), Abraham and Isaac, complete with sacrificial ram caught in a thicket (bottom left) and ‘Christ talketh with a woman of Samaria’ (West’s own caption, bottom right).


This last is particularly interesting because it demonstrates the influence of printed Bible illustrations. Jenny Lister has shown the close resemblance between this panel and the portrayal of John 4:1-30 in Sarah Trimmer’s Prints from the New Testament, first published in 1790 by John Marshall and Co., a London firm who specialized in children’s literature and educational chapbooks. Intriguingly, though, Ann did not copy the image slavishly, showing Christ robed and haloed but updating the Samaritan woman by giving her the sort of cheap print gown and woollen skirt that most poor women would have worn in early nineteenth-century Wiltshire.

The subject matter raises intriguing questions about the purpose of the coverlet. Was it intended to be an evangelistic aid? A hanging for a Sunday school? Or was it all just an idle flight of imaginative fancy? Not much is known about its creator, either. Was she a stalwart of some local chapel in Warminster or Chippenham? She clearly had a conscience, depicting distressed widows and an unemployed ‘poor sailor’, but she had a sense of humour too. She also wanted to be remembered: recall how she signed her work. Yet it is the scene at the well that most intrigues me: by transforming the Samaritan Woman into one of her contemporaries, Ann West was literally sewing the first century and the nineteenth into one image. Her coverlet comes as a striking reminder that ‘reception’ of the Bible by ordinary men and women was seldom passive, and, whether textual or material, always involved layers of translation and cultural transposition.

All images © Victoria and Albert Museum, London