For most visitors to the Chapel of St. George at Windsor Castle, the main attraction 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.
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
the son of
King of Abyssinia:
Born 23 April 1861
Died 14 November 1879
This tablet is placed
here to his memory by
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 their 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 England’s 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 England’s 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