The Portable Altar in Netflix’s “The King”

About an hour and 20 minutes into Netflix’s The King, the young Henry V kneels in prayer inside his tent. It’s a short visual scene, meant to showcase the King’s piety and his continued devotion while on military campaign. But for such a brief moment of film, the set is incredibly accurate. Henry prays before a table which holds two candlesticks, a cross, a devotional book, a chalice and paten, and a golden, box-like object. This last item is a portable altar, and I literally screamed when I saw it on my laptop screen.

Screenshot from Netflix’s “The King” (copyright Netflix 2019)

When Hollywood Gets It Right

For medieval Christians, the Mass and prayer were meant to take place inside a church: a permanent structure built of wood, stone, brick, or other materials. Although existing churches were the preferred location for such religious ritual, finding a permanent church while on military campaign was often difficult. Christian clergy often constructed temporary sacred spaces in which to perform the Eucharist while in camp. And in the absence of a permanent church altar, priests placed the chalice and paten on “traveling altars” during the Mass.

A brief look at the most well-known and widely circulated crusade chronicles reveals evidence for the use of portable tent chapels on campaign to the East. Fulcher of Chartres mentions the Mass of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary took place “in the tent of the king” and later states how altars were carried around the walls of Jerusalem, echoing the Israelites’ procession around Jericho.[1] Between battles, Jean de Joinville sat with his dying priest in his chapel tent. He even admonished a group of soldiers, “Because they were speaking in a loud tone of voice in my chapel and disturbing the priest, I went up to them and told them to keep silent, and said it was most discourteous on the part of knights and gentlemen to talk while Mass was being sung.”[2] Guibert of Nogent records how, in Peter the Hermit’s camp, “they found a certain priest performing Mass, and they killed him in the very act of completing the sacrament; while he was sacrificing to God, they sacrificed him at the same altar.”[3]

These are just a few of the existing textual examples that reveal the presence of portable altars on medieval military campaigns. As Stephen Fliegel states, “liturgical practice of the medieval church required basic sacral objects,” and performing the Mass on the move necessitated the same objects found in the permanent churches of Europe.[4] In Netflix’s The King, when Henry kneels before the important objects of his faith in his makeshift chapel tent in foreign territory, it’s incredibly realistic.

So, what is a portable altar?

The identity of medieval portable altars is simultaneously extremely simple and very complex. There is no definitive object typology of portable altars, although there are several individual studies and a few art historical inventories. For the purpose of discussing Henry’s altar in The King, I offer the most basic criteria for what constitutes a portable altar: it contains saints’ relics, it’s flat, and it serves a devotional purpose. (*This definition can, of course, apply to reliquaries, some liturgical books, etc. Like I said, #ItsComplicated.)

The earliest surviving medieval portable altar, dating to the 7th/8th centuries, resides in Durham Cathedral in England. Portable altar production exploded on the European Continent between the 11th and 13th centuries, but their popularity gradually faded in the 1300s. I’m still figuring out why, but my hunch is that portable altars were slowly replaced with altar retables and larger adornments during the Mass.

Henry’s altar in “The King” looks remarkably similar to two surviving medieval portable altars, both made long before the Battle of Agincourt (1415) and in what is now Germany. Still, Henry’s altar has embossed figures around the sides, made of either gold or bronze sheets on wood. These panels typically featured standing saints or Biblical narrative scenes.

Portable Altar made c.1075 in Lower Saxony

Inv. W2 in the Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin (photo: Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin)

Portable Altar made 11th-12th cent. in Lower Saxony

Inv. 53-77 in the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore (photo: Walters Art Museum, Baltimore)

Screenshot from Netflix’s “The King” (copyright Netflix 2019) My apologies for the potato-quality…

Maybe Henry was gifted the portable altar as an heirloom from German cousins, or maybe it was looted at some point between its creation and its on-screen appearance. In any case, the presence of a portable altar in Henry’s campaign tent is remarkably historically accurate and not just a random prop. It signals the need for portable devotional objects in medieval Europe and attests to their usage. Kudos to the set designers and their attention to detail, and my thanks for making my dissertation topic appear on-screen!

Want to follow my portable altar adventures and learn more about these fascinating objects? Have a question about them? Spotted a medieval portable altar in the wild? Find me on Twitter (@salu1292)!

[1] Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 160.

[2] Jean de Joinville, “The Life of Saint Louis,” in Chronicles of the Crusades, 238.

[3] Guibert of Nogent, The Deeds of God through the Franks, 51.

[4] Stephen N. Fliegel, Resplendent Faith: Liturgical Treasuries of the Middle Ages (Kent (OH): Kent State University Press, 2009), 16.

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