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When Kate Middleton walked down the aisle of Westminster Abbey, no doubt most of the audience of two billion assumed that this was a British tradition carefully followed for many centuries.
In that assumption, they would be quite wrong.
In fact, it was not until 1917 that George V, seeking to make his Germanic family seem more “British,” changed the family name from “Saxe-Coberg” to the more Brit-friendly “House of Windsor” and encouraged the royal family to marry in the Abbey with full Anglican pomp and ceremony.
It had been 500 years since the last royal wedding in Westminster Abbey, when in 1382 Richard II would marry Anne of Bohemia, a young woman whose passion for reformation was used of God to defend the Englishman Wycliffe, inspire the Bohemian Hus and change her world, and ours.
When young Anne first stepped on English shores, she entered a kingdom torn by civil strife. Wat Tyler’s Peasant’s Revolt that had fielded 100,000 men against the crown had been crushed by King Richard II, and those who had participated in the uprising trembled in fear awaiting punishment for their treason.
While many in such unfamiliar circumstances would shun controversy, Anne implored Richard to be merciful, going so far as to argue that their cause had not been without merit. Moved by her entreaties, Richard issued an edict of pardon, citing the wishes of good Queen Anne.
Richard had become king at the age of 10, upon the death of his grandfather, and already at the age of 13, he had taken notice of the young Bohemian princess. Anderson notes that when she turned 15, her family adjudged her competent to make her own decisions regarding matrimony. By providence, they both chose wisely, to the good of their respective nations and for the yet-future Reformation.
John Wycliffe’s writings had already made their way to Prague, and historians note that those who attended the young Princess to England were themselves adherents of the movement to breathe new life into a corrupt and corrupting church.
Anne’s words to Richard regarding the Peasants’ Revolt would not be the last time that the young Bohemian queen would give wise counsel to her husband to the saving of both church and realm, for indeed, they were perilous times.
They were also times of enormous opportunity, for the papacy was in turmoil. Gregory XI had died in 1378, and the cardinals had gathered to choose his replacement in Rome; however, a large majority of the cardinals were French, intent upon replacing Gregory with yet another French pope at Avignon. Under threat of violence, they chose an Italian instead, but once safely back in France, they renounced their decision and chose a competing pope.
“Trust we in the help of Christ on this point,” wrote Wycliffe, “for he hath begun already to help us graciously, in that he hath clove the head of Antichrist, and made the two parts fight against each other.”
While such fiery language was not uncommon during the later Reformation, to see language battle lines drawn so sharply at such an early date begs the question of when, exactly, “the Reformation” actually began. As the warring papal factions hurled invectives that make Wycliffe’s language pale by comparison, the English Reformer nevertheless used the interim to advance across a broad theological front.
Wycliffe denied that the bread and wine were physically changed into the body of Christ, that the Church of Rome held any special authority over the churches at other places and that Peter was granted greater authority than any other Apostle. He also boldly proclaimed that ecclesiastical persons of any rank should have neither prisons nor the power to put men into them.
Courtney, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was an implacable foe of Wycliffe and schemed endlessly against him. In this cause, he enlisted the support of Urban VI (the Italian pope with whom the English clergy had sided) and besieged Richard to take action.
For every dagger launched by Courtney, Anne used examples from the Scriptures to deflect the increasingly bitter attacks. The church authorities had not yet conceived of the idea of executing those accused of heresy – that would come far sooner than any could have imagined – but the church authorities had access to prisons enough to hold as many heretics as Courtney could prosecute. Anne’s hand was strengthened by the support of a fellow Wycliffe supporter, the king’s mother, Joan. Together, they worked quietly and effectively to protect Wycliffe and his labors.
Richard also found himself beset by political intrigue in the person of the Duke of Gloucester. Weakened by a series of poor decisions, Richard found himself unable to protect or defend his allies and friends, with a number of them suffering prosecution and execution.
Among those to die was Sir Simon Burley, the man who had been sent to Bohemia to escort the young princess to England, a task which earned him the admiration and friendship of both Anne and Richard. Sadly, it was to no avail, for, despite pleading on her knees for three hours, Anne was unable to prevail upon Gloucester to show mercy.
Even as Wycliffe approached the end of his years on earth, the younger Jan Hus was carrying forward his reforms in Anne’s home country of Bohemia. As Anne braved the ire of the papacy to defend Wycliffe and shield him from prosecution, the aged reformer was moved to share his appreciation and admiration with those on the Continent.
When assailed for his English translation of the Bible, Wycliffe would note that not only did his queen read the Scriptures in the vernacular, but she had actually translated the four Gospels into English! Her daily Bible reading gave her ready command of the Word, which permitted her to quickly and effectively call forth a biblical answer to every challenge that she, or her beloved husband, faced.
The English population was of two minds about their young queen. She bore no children, thus failing in the first duty of her office, according to the times, but her gentleness and many acts of kindness won the hearts of most. Despite her royal upbringing, she was a friend of commoners and the poor. In fact, her generosity was one of the “faults” with which her detractors sought to discredit her. When expenses of the royal family came under scrutiny, it was discovered that she was feeding no less than 6,000 of the poor daily at her tables.
It was not to be dukes, archbishops or popes that would end her young life, however, but rather the scourge of the age, the Black Death. Struck down by plague at the tender age of 28, Anne left a husband so broken by grief that he ordered the palace where she had died to be torn down, brick by brick. He ordered a tomb to be prepared that would someday hold both their remains, depicting the king and queen reposed peacefully, hand clasped in hand. He would join her in death a short five years later. Their tomb, now damaged over time, lies just down the way from where William and Kate spoke their vows.
The dust of Anne, the second Richard’s queen,
Lies now entombed beneath this spacious stone;
Her lovely form enchained wherever seen,
Her face with meek and radiant beauty shone.
Dear was her Saviour to her loving heart;
Her love and gentleness to all she showed;
In healing strifes she ever did her part;
With peaceful thoughts her heavenly bosom glowed.
To her the poor, with want and care oppressed,
Could look with hope for pity and relief;
With heart and hand she succoured the distressed,
Nor grudged to cost of want and pain and grief.
The lonely widow’s tears she wiped away,
And to the sick the healing draught she brought,
Whoever suffered found in her a stay;
To live for others – this she daily sought.”
Yet, even in death her role in the cause of purifying a sorely tarnished church was not concluded, for her attendants, after her death, returned to Bohemia, filled with a familiarity with the Scriptures and the writings of John Wycliffe, stoking the fires of the burgeoning Hussite movement.
To read more about Anne of Bohemia, please visit Leben’s website.