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Episode 53 - Lothair Crystal

The Lothair Crystal, depicting Susannah and the Elders (855 - 869 AD), probably from Germany

Royal divorces generally mean political trouble. The marital problems of Henry VIII plunged England into decades of religious strife and, as we all know, when Edward VIII wanted to marry a divorced woman there was a constitutional crisis that cost him his throne. The object in this programme is associated with a king whose protracted attempts to divorce his queen were, on the contrary, intended to safeguard the kingdom. His failure to do so probably killed him and it certainly led to the termination not only of his line but of his kingdom as well. The object, an engraved rock crystal, tells us his name. Written in Latin, it reads: "Lothair, King of the Franks, caused me to be made".

"This is the most stunning representation of a Biblical story, carved beautifully, meticulously and very, very finely." (Rosamund McKitterick)

"I think this crystal is an object of exceptional interest." (Lord Bingham)

The objects this week allow us glimpses into the intimate surroundings of the most powerful rulers of the world around 800 AD and, perhaps because we're in a private realm, it's not surprising that women feature prominently. In Mexico the Mayan queen served her husband and the gods by causing herself great physical pain; in Samarra the harem women served their Islamic masters with nothing but pleasure. Today we're in the heart of Europe, and once again we're at a point when power and personal life intersect, with enormous consequences.

I'm with the Susannah Crystal now. It's a flat disc about four and a half inches (11 cm) in diameter, and carved into it is a Biblical story in eight separate scenes, so if you think of a crystal cartoon, you're pretty close to what we're looking at.

We are in Babylon, where the beautiful, young Susannah is the wife of a rich merchant. While she is bathing in her husband's orchard, two older men intrude and try to bully her into having sex with them. She calls her servants for help, and the furious elders falsely claim that they saw her in the act of adultery. We then see Susannah being led away to almost certain death by stoning, but at that point the brilliant young prophet Daniel intervenes, and challenges the evidence for her conviction. Separating the elders, Daniel asks each of them one searching question, in a classic courtroom drama: under what kind of tree did they see Susannah having sex? The men give conflicting answers, their story is exposed as fabricated, and it is they who are stoned to death, for perjury. In the final scene Susannah is declared innocent and gives thanks to God. We asked Lord Bingham, formerly Britain's most senior judge, to give us a lawyer's take on the story:

"Daniel did what Rumpole at the Old Bailey would do if he thought he was cross-examining witnesses who were telling lies. One has to say that in real life Daniel would have been extremely lucky to have been thought to have demolished the witnesses, and to demonstrate their dishonesty by asking them one question each, but the principle is quite clear, and Daniel was clearly a very skilful cross-examiner."

Each scene on the crystal is a masterpiece of miniature carving, and in every scene, the artist has still found space for a small text in Latin, explaining what is going on. In the final scene is the ringing phrase, "Et salvatus est sanguis innoxius in die illa" - "And that day, innocent blood was saved".

The king who commissioned the Susannah Crystal was descended from one of the great figures of medieval Europe - Charlemagne. Around 800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, had created an empire that covered most of western Europe, including northern Italy, western Germany and modern France. This was the largest state that western Europe had seen since the disintegration of the Roman Empire, and the stability and prosperity of Charlemagne's empire allowed a great flourishing of the arts in the years after 800. Our crystal is a magnificent example of this so-called Carolingian Renaissance. This is a jewel that has always been valued and, for most of its existence, it was in the abbey of Waulsort in modern Belgium, in the centre of Charlemagne's empire. It was certainly there in the twelfth century, when the abbey's chronicle clearly describes it:

"This desirable treasure was made at the request of the famed King of the Franks. A beryl stone placed in the middle contains a depiction of how, in Daniel, Susannah was evilly condemned by the old judges. [The stone]... shows the skill of its art by the variety of its work."

It probably remained at Waulsort until French Revolutionary troops looted the abbey in the 1790s. Perhaps it was they who threw the crystal - clearly made for a hateful king - into the nearby River Meuse. When it was found it was cracked, but otherwise completely undamaged, because rock crystal is astonishingly tough. It is very hard and cannot be chiselled, but must be ground instead with abrasive powders. The whole thing would have taken an immense amount of time and great skill to work, which is why these crystals were such luxury objects. We don't know what the original purpose of our Susannah Crystal was, possibly it was an offering to a shrine, but it was in every sense an object fit for a king.

By the time the crystal was made, Charlemagne's empire had broken down, and the whole of north-west Europe was divided between three members of his squabbling and profoundly dysfunctional family. The squabbles ultimately resulted in the empire being divided into three parts: an eastern kingdom that would later become Germany, a western one that would become France, and Lothair's Middle Kingdom, called Lotharingia, which ran from modern Belgium down through Provence into Italy. But Lothair's Middle Kingdom was always the weakest of the three, forever threatened by wicked uncles on either side. Lotharingia needed to be able to defend itself. It needed a strong king. Here's Professor Rosamund McKitterick from Cambridge University:

"We know almost nothing about the court of Lothair II simply because most of our sources devoted to him are in two particular categories. One - narrative sources describing the vulnerability of his own little kingdom in the middle of the west and the east Frankish kingdoms, where his uncles, Charles the Bald on the west and Louis the German on the east, were in fact casting their greedy eyes upon his kingdom with the hope of taking it. The other category of information is much more pertinent to this crystal, in that it is concerning the attempts Lothair II made to get rid of his wife Theutberga. He appears to have married her very soon after he inherited the throne, even though he had a long-standing mistress called Waldrada, from whom he had two children, a son and a daughter. When he married Theutberga she had no children, and she continued to bear no children, and Lothair appears to have decided Waldrada would be a better bet. So he recruited his two bishops, of Cologne and Trier, to have the marriage annulled, on the grounds of incest with Theutberga's brother."

Lothair's bid to divorce his wife and marry his mistress was no self-indulgent whim; he needed to have a legitimate heir. It was his only chance to preserve his inheritance and his kingdom. But royal divorce, then as now, was political dynamite.

The bishops of Cologne and Trier had actually obtained confessions from the Queen - possibly through torture - that she had committed incest with her brother, but Theutberga appealed to the Pope, who investigated the case and declared her innocent. This was a huge dynastic setback for Lothair, but he seems to have accepted the Pope's decision. Although he continued to try to find another way of divorcing her, he seems to have acknowledged publicly that the claims against Theutberga were groundless, and that the slandered woman was entirely innocent.

Because of the strong parallels with the Susannah story, it's always been tempting to see the Lothair Crystal as connected to this royal drama - perhaps it was made as a present for Theutberga to show Lothair's sincerity in accepting that she was blameless. If so, it's a kind of private statement marking a temporary truce in their marital hostilities. But it is almost certainly something much more significant.

Two striking aspects of the way the final scene is treated suggest that this is in fact a public declaration of the central role of justice in the state. In this last scene, the artist abandons the Biblical text and shows Susannah being declared innocent by a king sitting in judgement, and the inscription specifically names Lothair. The message is clear: one of the key duties of the king is to ensure that justice is done. In short, the king must secure and respect the rule of law, even at great personal cost to himself. Justice is almost 'the' defining royal virtue. A treatise, probably written for Lothair himself, spells this out:

"The just and peaceful king carefully thinks about each case, and not despising the sick and poor of his people, speaks just judgements, putting down the wicked and raising the good." (Sedulius Scottus, 'De Rectoribus Christianis')

These ideals, articulated over a thousand years ago, are still central to European political life today. Here's Lord Bingham again:

"In the centre of the [Lothair] Crystal, one sees the king who commissioned it to be made in the role of judge, and this is of considerable interest and importance, because historically the crown and monarchy has always been regarded as the fount of justice. Interestingly, the Queen, when she took her Coronation Oath in 1953, swore - it's a very old oath prescribed by an Act of 1688 - but she swore to do justice and mercy in all her judgements. And this is exactly the role in which one sees King Lothair, in the role of actually personally administering justice which, of course, the Queen no longer does. But the judges who do it in her name are very proud to be called Her Majesty's judges, recognising that they're exercising their judicial functions on her behalf."

The Susannah Crystal was made for a king without an heir, in a kingdom without a future. In 869, when Lothair died un-divorced, his uncles did indeed partition his lands, and all that remains of Lotharingia today is the name of Lorraine. For over a thousand years, indeed until 1945, Lothair's Middle Kingdom was bitterly fought over by the successors of the wicked uncles, France and Germany. Stand today on the banks of the Rhine and imagine a powerful state separating the two. It's an odd thought.

But if Lothair had succeeded in divorcing his wife, and had a legitimate heir, Lorraine might now rank with Spain, France and Germany as one of the great states of continental Europe. Lotharingia perished, but the principle that Lothair's Crystal proclaims has survived. A central duty of the ruler of the state is to guarantee that justice is done, dispassionately and in open court. Innocence must be protected. The Lothair Crystal is one of the first European images of the notion of the rule of law.

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