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8 Mar 2021

Volunteer Views:
The Nine Worthies

The frieze in the Great Dining Room at Aston Hall has always captured my interest. Especially during my time there as a volunteer where I spent ages examining the figures around the room and wondering who is who and what the nine worthies stood for. Well if you have been wondering that too, look no further hopefully you’ll find the answers in this blog post.

The frieze in the Great Dining Room at Aston Hall

So, who and what are the nine worthies exactly? The idea itself was proposed by Jacques de Longuyon around 1312 in his poem Les Voeux du Paon, the vows of the peacock. Longuyon identified nine historical, biblical, and mythological figures whom he believed were the archetype of ideal behaviour. These individuals personified the ideals of chivalry including the virtues of courtesy, loyalty, prowess, honesty, and service to their church and country.

The nine are split into three distinct triads; Jewish, Pagan, and Christian. The Jewish traid recalls the story of God’s chosen nation and highlights the purpose of mankind. Whilst the achievements of the Pagan tradition helped to form the foundations of the Catholic civilisation. The Christian traid is the marriage of the two previous traditions; it adopts the Pagan ideology that God is ordained to rule the world combined with the Jewish idea that God ordered the protection of Holy Places and defended the religion of his people.

The Jewish triad consists of Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar. Hector was a Trojan prince who fought in the Trojan war and was later killed by Achilles. Alexander the Great was King of Macedon and arguably one of the greatest military minds to have existed. Finally, Caesar was a Roman army leader who eventually became Emperor. However, he was later assassinated by a group of men who believed he had become too powerful. Hector can be identified by two lions facing each other, Alexander a lion sitting upright holding a battle-axe, and Caesar has a Roman eagle.

Caesar Before Alexandria, 1724-25. By Gianantonio Pellegrini
Image: Caesar Before Alexandria, 1724-25, by Gianantonio Pellegrini.

The Pagan triad contains Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabeaus. Joshua was an apprentice of Moses and chosen to help lead the Jews to capture the city of Jericho, David is most remembered for his fight with the giant Goliath who he killed using only a slingshot and five stones. Finally, Judas defended his country after the King Antiochus IV who wanted to purge the Jewish religion. Joshua shield contains a sun, David a harp, and Judas two birds or his name in Hebrew letters.

The Battle of Beth-Horon - Joshua Commanding the Sun and Moon to Stand Still, 1863. By Sir Edward Burne-Jones

Image: The Battle of Beth-Horon - Joshua Commanding the Sun and Moon to Stand Still, 1863, by Sir Edward Burne-Jones.

The final triad of Christianity is made up of Charlmagne, Arthur, and Geoffrey de Bouillon. Charlmagne is most known for conquering most of Europe, earning himself the title of Holy Roman Emperor. King Arthur is possibly the most well-known figure of them all; a mythological British king who frequently is associated with the wizard Merlin. Geoffrey is the most recent addition to the worthies, suggesting that chivalry’s divine purpose was still progressing. Geoffrey fought and led the crusades, was crowned king of Jerusalem, and would later die in battle. Charlmegne can be identified by the double headed imperial eagle, Arthur two or three lions, and Geoffrey a cross potent between four crosslets.

Generosity: King Arthur, Unhorsed, is spared by his Adversary - Study for the Head of King Arthur, 1850-1855. By William Dyce

Image: Generosity: King Arthur, Unhorsed, is spared by his Adversary - Study for the Head of King Arthur, 1850-1855, by William Dyce.

That’s the Nine Worthies in a nutshell. I personally find them to be really fascinating and I think it is really cool to see how the concept has been adapted. The Nine Worthies are not only to be seen in Aston Hall or even just in Birmingham, the idea exists across the globe and to this day they are still a topic of discussion - a report given on the 22nd May 2002 by the Monetary Policy Committee even mentions them, but that’s a different story!

Now you know who and what the Nine Worthies are; when Aston Hall is open again be sure to have a look at them yourself or check them out using this 360° interactive photo below.  See Inside Aston Hall for more 360° photos.