Holding Hands for 600 Years

Observe, if you will, a line. A curve, drawn by a human being: the jaw of the Mona Lisa, a Chagall figure astral-flying, the horror of  Picasso’s Guernica- creatures.

The power of a line is indisputable. Each communicates something about its subject, and each about its creator.

I had cause to visit Chichester Cathedral last Tuesday, and a more wonderful casket of stories you would be hard put to find. But I was pushed for time, and had just 20 precious minutes to take in as much as I could before Evensong, and then darkness.

You cannot miss the Arundel Knight and his lady, glowing translucent in pale stone in the North aisle. They have not always lived here, but were shipped from Lewes Priory after it was dissolved in 1537. But they are ancient: the tomb was probably created after the knight’s death in 1372.

The knight is Richard Fitzalan, whose folks had once been  the counts of Dol and Dinan in Brittany, who followed William of Normandy to England. And his lady? His second wife, Eleanor of Lancaster.

The reason that I say you cannot miss them is that they are holding hands.

Surrounding this most un-English display of affection, petrified for more than six centuries, there is a storm of controversy. Surely such fidelity and open-hearted affection, here in the land of alabaster hearts, is not creditable?

Ever since the figures were restored by well-known sculptor Edward Richardson in 1842, it has been believed that the hands were just a Victorian piece of sentimentality added by its restorer.

But recent works seems to point to the hands being original.

There’s more: Mediaeval historians have identified a fashion which emerged fleetingly in the late 1300s. It is a fashion to show couples holding hands: a fashion, not more. Which make this pair shameless trend setters.

What was I saying about a line? Take a look at some other examples of the hand holding portrayals of the time.



To me – and this may be purely personal – there is something formal about these figures. The lines are carefully set to portray due respect from a wife to her husband.

The lines in Chichester Cathedral were enough to set one modern poet thinking. Philip Larkin wrote about what he saw, and the link for his poem is at the bottom of this post.

Now take a look at the rough photos I managed to capture in Chichester Cathedral on Tuesday evening. It’s my premise that this is a gesture of profound love and fidelity, and my only basis for this is the soft lines of the hands as they rest companionably with each other in death as in life. Of course, this may be due to the creator of the sculpture rather than its subjects. But I’m an old romantic at heart.

See what you think.


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You can read Philip Larkin’s poem here.

And for much, much more on the story of Richard Fitzalan and this beautiful tomb, try here


11 thoughts on “Holding Hands for 600 Years

  1. Being such brutal times, we tend to think that’s how everything was; obviously it wasn’t as I’ve since found from the English Historical Fiction Writers pages, which seems to deal more with the real thing than fiction..

    There are countless stories of very close, and tight, marriages, naturally only amongst the “rich and powerful”; the poor old serfs NEVER get a mention, But I’d imagine that in these lowly classes, the attachment between husbands and wives, were probably more close, and dependant upon each other, than the R & P’s

    1. Ah, the English Historical Writers, they are quite a bunch, Brian 😀 If you like those do check out one of the Georgian contingentTracey Boorman, who wrote about the lady who built the house I work in, Marble HIll. It is a fab read.

      Back to the Mediaeval, I seem to garner that genuine love matches happened just as much despite all that courtly love and hanky-dropping. It is worth noting that poor Richard was first married at seven to an eight year old; and later threatened with beating if he and she did not produce an heir. His second marriage seems to have been long and happy.

  2. Dear Kate, thank you for the link to the poem. At the end, all that really matters is love. Dulcy–the cat with whom I lived for 17 1/2 years taught me that. It is one of the truths I hold firm. Peace.

  3. Having another look at it, I find the animals intriguing. Is that a lion as a footrest for him and a pig for her? And what is piggy-wig doing up at the heads?

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