Last Sunday people stopped, stood silently for two minutes in honour of those who died in World War I and in more recent conflicts. People remembered the names of those who had died: the names carved on War Memorials or told in family stories whether in Britain or elsewhere.
This History Girls post is a personal story about name and identity and the aftermath of war: the subject is my mother’s oldest brother, named Herbert, who was born in India in 1910.
His father was true army, both as an orphaned boy-soldier and as a man. His mother was the sixth of seven children of another Indian Army officer and, in that time and climate, both would have been familiar with death. They brought the boys to England sometime around 1914. Herbert and his two brothers would have been far too young to serve but perhaps they travelled on the troopships bringing the Indian soldiers to Suez and on to France.
Herbert was the oldest son: however he did not want to be a soldier. Studious and sensitive, he took a clerical post and became interested in the church and books and amateur dramatics.
Then, aged around twenty, along with a close friend, he converted from Anglicanism to the Catholic Church and took a new name: Michael.
Saint Michael the Archangel, venerated in Christian and other faiths, is depicted with the sword he used to defeat Satan. In another role, as the Angel of Death, he offers redemption to dying souls and is therefore a rather useful devotion for anyone involved in battle.
A good soldierly name, but his father did not welcome the religious conversion. Herbert’s mother wanted to follow but that caused so marital trouble that she took it no further.
Not long after, Michael chose to pursue his vocation. He went to Begbroke Priory in Oxford, the Novitiate House of the Servants of Mary. I do wonder what had happened in his life that had made him so devoted to Our Lady of the Seven Sorrows?
Had he seen disabled soldiers on the London streets? Or lost friends in the Flu Pandemic? Had his mother's and little sister's illnesses driven him to a deeper faith? Was any unknown sibling lost on the way? Something made Herbert Michael take a different direction but I do not know what.
On his ordination to the priesthood, he chose another military name: Martin.
Saint Martin was a soldier in the Roman army. As he approached the gates of the city of Amiens, he met a half-naked beggar. Martin tried to give him his thick army cloak, but the beggar refused, saying that would leave Martin without one. Martin declared he could not leave the beggar to face another cold night. Impulsively, Martin slashed his cloak in two, gave one half to the beggar and went on his way. That night Martin saw a vision of Jesus, wearing the half-cloak he had given away. Martin became a revered priest, bishop and saint and his half-cloak was kept as a precious relic in Tours cathedral.
His order sent Father Martin to Salford during the war years, working in the Manchester slums. He was rarely able to visit home. On his annual visit to the Servite Mother House in Fulham, London, Father Martin could visit his mother for an afternoon. Sometimes he brought a troop of Scouts south to a Jamboree in Gilwell Park, near Epping so we could visit him there. But mostly he stayed away.
He led what seemed to me to be an odd but culturally rich life. We had some of his now unwanted books around: books of poems and plays and Lake District walks and watercolours. He sent me letters with amusing drawings and introduced me to the Victoria and Albert and the British Museum. I adored him from an awkward distance, for he could have a terrifying temper.
A sense of separation was inevitable, I suppose. Despite various vicar-detective tv fantasies, strict religious observances kept faiths apart during those decades.
Catholicism was seen as a faith of foreigners, with sins told in secret. The Church liturgy was not straightforward but recited in Latin with bells and even the daily practice was full of precise rituals and prayers. Communicants fasted from the evening before Mass, both the rich and those who had little food in their bellies in those hungry times and there was all that fuss about fish on Fridays. Divorce was impossible and Catholics could not attend any service – even a marriage or a funeral – in the church of another faith without permission, and those who entered the religious orders were encouraged to view the order as their family, rather than real relatives.
Maybe more than all that, as I grew older, I picked up another problem. His younger brother fought in the Second World War and came back from Dunkirk with his hair turned white. My father, who flew in bombers, returned with headaches and violent mood swings.
Whenever they got together, and Uncle Michael was mentioned, there was a slight, silent accusation in the air that, for all his soldierly names and his good work in the slum parishes, the beloved man was a soldier’s son who never served in the war. It was one of those unspoken silences that echo on and on in the wake of war.
In a previous post, I described the genesis of my new novel, Glass Town Wars. In that post, I hadn't got much further than the initial idea. All writers know that, no matter how good an idea is, the proof of the pudding is in the writing.
To re-cap, for those of you who either missed my post or who can't be bothered to click on the link, I'd had an idea for a book which would take a boy from the present and pitch him into the fantasy world of the Brontë siblings, a world which they called The Glass Town Federation and then Angria. I had a device for getting him there and I knew what I wanted to happen (he would meet the young Emily Brontë) but didn't have much beyond that. Crucially, although I knew something of Glass Town, Angria and Emily's later world of Gondal, I had yet to study the juvenilia in any detail. Cowardice on my part. I didn't want to discover that the idea wouldn't work and that I'd have to scrap it, especially as I'd more or less sold it to a publisher.
I had my set up. So, now it was time to address the juvenilia. The Brontë siblings' early writing is contained in a number of tiny little handmade books (see my post, 18th October). Luckily, these have been collected, deciphered, edited and published in handy volumes, like Christine Alexander's Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal.
I began to read and found a world that was precociously brilliant, brimming with creative exuberance and dazzling, instinctive, natural talent: fascinating, elaborate, complex - and completely crazy. The Brontë siblings wrote from childhood into adolescence and young adulthood and they wrote a lot. They drew on anything and everything to make the worlds they were creating: current newspaper stories, events local and historical; they filched wholesale from writers they admired and liberally incorporated stories that they had heard: local legends and folk stories, fairies, ghosts, ghouls and witches. They peopled the world with whoever they wanted in it: dukes and duchesses, friendless young women and cigar smoking gentlemen, pirates, low life thugs and body snatchers, doctors, journalists and printers. Everything, anything, they wanted to happen, happened. One of their earliest inventions were the mile high Genii who could build cities in the middle of no-where, preside over the rise and fall of empires – the Genii, of course, were the Brontës themselves.
Branwell's Map of Glass Town Federation and Angria
They founded their world at the mouth of the River Niger in Africa with Glass Town as its capital, yet less than a day's ride away, Parrysland (Emily's territory) was suspiciously like Yorkshire, Rossland (Anne's territory) was like Scotland because they admired the work of Sir Walter Scott. And so on. Across their world, wars raged, revolutions erupted and were suppressed, characters were killed off and resurrected, love affairs conducted, marriage vows made and broken. All of this was written, not in story form but in reports, articles, announcements, poems and advertisements in tiny volumes that are really magazines and newspapers, written for, about and by the citizens of Glass Town. The whole complex fantasy grew from a box of wooden soldiers given to Branwell on his ninth birthday. The size of the miniature publications had been carefully calculated by him so that they were the correct dimensions for the original wooden soldiers. The body of writing changed as the siblings grew older but the books containing it were always small, the writing always tiny because this was a secret world. They were writing for themselves, not for anyone else.
I found much to admire. I particularly loved the different forms their writing took but the anarchic nature of much of it meant the fantasy world lacked any kind of cohesion, internal logic, or discipline. They were children, writing like all children do, without hindrance and constraint, simply writing about what they wanted to write about, what they wanted to happen, as children might write fan fiction now. They were writing to please themselves, not an external reader. All young writers tend to have this is common and this way of writing often continues on through adolescence to young adulthood as it did with the Brontës, although that is probably the subject of a different blog.
Page from Branwell's notebook
I admit to being a bit foxed. Even in fantasy there has to be internal logic within a story and there was none here. The only way forward, other than abandoning the enterprise altogether, was to embrace the craziness. Tom, my modern character, is my commentator: it doesn’t make sense to him, either. I looked past the writing to the young authors themselves. There was conflict there, especially between Branwell and Charlotte. As they grew older, their vision diverged sharply. They wrote against each other in rival Glass Town publications. Branwell's focus was on politics, war and fighting, Charlotte preferred palace intrigue and romance. I also detected rebellion in the ranks. At some point, Emily and Anne must have tired of being bossed by the older two and decided to found their own world of Gondal. That was the point where I would introduce Tom. Nothing written by Emily or Anne has survived, apart from some poems, so I had carte blanche. Rebellion would mean war in Glass Town and out of it.
The young Brontēs had given me a fascinating world, not least the Great Glass Town, beautifully described in detail - they were talented writers even as children - and a fabulous cast of characters from the Dukes Wellington and Douro to Branwell's lowlife 'rare lads': D'Eath, Sneaky, Tom Scroven, Dick Crack-Skull and Richard Naughty. A perfect villain in the person of the Duke of Northangerland aka Rogue. Haughty dark beauties, like Lady Zenobia Ellerington and the passionately independent Augusta Geraldine Almeida, A.G.A., Emily's character who will become Queen of Gondal.
Northangerland aka Rogue
I'd take my cue from the Brontës - anything goes. In the background is the gaming that got Tom into this in the first place. Got him in, but can’t get him out again. Fantasy Past meeting Fantasy Present. But fantasy doesn't exist in time and space. So if a character from one world can enter another, why not the other way round? Anything can happen, right? So if a boy from the present can go to Glass Town, why not take Emily Brontë into our fantasy worlds: Apocalypse, Zombies, Grand Theft Auto, Gotham City? I don't think she'd have been phased by it, not one little bit.
The Roman biographer Gaius Suetonius Tranquilius was born in 69AD, probably in North Africa. A friend of Pliny the Younger, Suetonius wrote several notable works. His most notable and most notorious is The Twelve Caesars. This was a collected biography of twelve ruling Caesars from Julius Caesar to Domitian. As an employee of the Emperor Hadrian Suetonius had access to the Imperial archives and he used materials from there to pepper his work. Pepper his work with SAUCE, that is. Yes, Tacitus is a brilliant writer and oh so very quotable. Yes, Virgil wrote an epic poem that apparently is so good first year ancient history BA’s are forced to write essays on it two thousand years later. Yes, some people think Livy wrote good histories. But NONE of them have a patch on Suetonius. For Suetonius is the master sauce merchant. There is no scurrilous rumour too unlikely for him to commit to papyri. We thank him for being a gleaming light of entertainment sandwiched betwixt the Aeneid and those books that Livy wrote on stuff.
So to give him his due I have elected to celebrate his work with a competition we, (or rather I) like to call THE SAUCE FACTOR!
I have read each of Suetonius’ 12 chapters on emperors and rated each one according to their sauce level. I have also added in a category for omen/portent-ability. The Romans were heavy believers in the Gods transmitting their will via freak weather events, odd occurrences, dreams and the eating habits of chickens of the sacred variety. I shall be picking out the most incredible omen associated with that emperor and giving it a score. Settle down with a large glass of wine, set your mind to boggling and your eyes to goggling because we are going in.... Welcome to the Sauce Factor!
1) Julius Caesar
He wasn't actually an emperor but we'll overlook that. Lover of many ladies, fighter of pirates, destroyer of the Republic.
Top Omen– There was a long steady string of what Suetonius calls ‘unmistakable signs’ before his assassination. The Gods were very much trying to SAY something. If only he’d LISTENED. Which is Caesar’s tragedy in a much shorter form than Shakespeare managed. Ha! The best of these unmistakable signs is undoubtedly the horses that couldn’t stop crying. Omen Rating: 4/5 for sheer quantity.
Top Sauce - Definitely an affair with the King of Bithynia that earned him the hardly original nickname, “The Queen of Bithynia”. Frankly everyone could have done better on that one. Sauce Rating: 3/5
2) Augustus Now Augustus was definitely an Emperor.
He Instituted laws against adultery whilst putting it away all over the place himself, was debauched by Julius Caesar and possessed a cruel & ruthless streak as streaky as Danish bacon.
Top Omen– Augustus’ life must have been very tiring what with all those portents/omens flashing all around him constantly. A one man weather magnet he was frequently accompanied by lightening (very, very frightening. No genuinely, Augustus had a fear of thunderstorms) and rainbows. The most notable of the young Augustus’ constant brush with portents was undoubtedly: The Silencing of the Frogs. The toddler Augustus annoyed by the constant croaking around him order the frogs to cease. They did. And never ever croaked in that area ever, ever again.
Omen Rating: 5/5
Top Sauce - Deflowering maidens gathered by his wife. Sauce rating: 3/5
3) Tiberius. Forced to divorce the wife he loved, so fed up with Augustus he ran away to Rhodes in a sulk, terrible judge of character *cough* Sejanus *cough* . Tiberius did not have the happiest of lives. But it really all kicks off when he retired to Capri, where despite being in his mid 70s he partook in debaucheries that would have killed a lesser man. Possibly he gained such stamina in his youth as a successful general in the provinces. Or possibly it was all made up. Suetonius refuses to take sides on the debate and instead lovingly records every gruesome detail so that we may make up our own minds (once our eyes have popped back in our skulls).
Top Omen– Tiberius had no deep regard for the Gods and clearly they had not a lot for him because portents/omens are thin on the ground. The best Suetonius can find is an earthquake on Capri shortly before he died which destroyed a light house. Omen Rating: 1/5
Top Sauce - Retiring to Capri & partaking of activities 'too vile to discuss'. Which Suetonius then lists. Sauce Rating: A deserved OMG 5/5
4) Caligula. Suetonius does a nice quotable bit on Caligula which is worth memorising and repeating every time someone annoys you. “So much for the man. Now for the Monster.” Suetonius
Photo by Clio20
then has great fun listing all of Caligula’s monstrous acts including incest with all 3 sisters, wearing *the horror* silk robes, snuggling up with the actor Mnester, inviting people to dinner then nicking their wives and a thing with Valerius Catullus, who announced to all “that he had buggered the Emperor, and quite worn himself out in the process”
Top Omen– Much like Julius Caesar Caligula was plagued with signs of DEATH before his brutal murder. The best of these is the statue of Jupiter that burst into laughter. Omen Rating: 4/5
Top Sauce - Summoning three terrified Senators in the dead of night solely to perform a dance for them. Sauce Rating: 5/5 for effort & speed of sauce given he only ruled for 3 years.
5) Claudius. Not as kindly as Robert Graves would have you think. Married four times, Suetonius intriguingly tells us Claudius divorced his first wife for scandalous behaviour and suspicion of MURDER. Then infuriatingly does not elaborate any further.
Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen
Top Omen– Claudius unlike Caesar and Caligula actually paid attention to the Gods and was all over omens like a slobbering rash. One night Claudius’ attendant Narcissus had a terrible dream that the emperor had been murdered by a certain Appius Silanus. When Claudius told this to his wife she revealed she had had the EXACT same dream. Now this was clearly a sign that needed LISTENING to. So Claudius had Silanus executed. Only it was actually a FAKE omen dreamed up by the Empress and Narcissus to get rid of Silanus.
Omen Rating: A pathetic and fake 0/5
Top Sauce - Making it legal to marry your niece. So he could marry his niece. She later had him poisoned Sauce Rating: 3/5
6) Nero. Fabulous at getting rid of family members including his wife, his step brother & most shamefully his mother, Nero lived life LARGE. So large he had to take himself over to
Greece to accommodate his growing ego. Suetonius informs us sagely that Nero practised every kind of obscenity. But this time, unlike with Tiberius, he leaves it to our imagination. After that Tiberius chapter my imagination has descended hitherto unknown depths, so I’m confident they were horrifically obscene.
Top Omen – Suetonius has several bad omens at the birth of Nero including the words of his own father that any child of his and Agrippina’s was bound to have a detestable nature. Which when you think about it is more of an informed comment than an omen.
After this the best Suetonius can do is to record the people who post Nero’s death remembered that the Emperor had during his artistic career played various characters who met unfortunate ends. But given Nero acted in Greek Tragedy this is not terribly surprising. Though Nero’s death was short on omens the end of the Julio Claudian dynasty begun by Augustus was predicted by a bolt of lightening that hit the Capitol and decapitated all the statues. So we’ll give him points for that.
Omen Rating: 2/5
Top Sauce - Toss up between marrying his eunuch Sporus as a groom & marrying his ex-slave Doryphorus as a bride.
Sauce Rating: 4/5 for being ever the bride and the groom
7) Galba. The first of the four emperors that ruled in a single year, Galba reigned but a short time. During that whole time there were omens everywhere predicting bad things. Or perhaps that was all the work of a certain Otho who organised the coup that deposed Galba.
Top Omen – So many, so lovingly recorded but my personal favourite is when Galba went to read the auspices. His garland fell off and scared the sacred chickens, who flew away. I like it because it’s the sort of thing that would happen to me. Omen Rating: 2/5
Top Sauce - A preference for mature & very sturdy men.
Sauce rating: 2/5
8) Otho. He reigned even shorter than Galba who he overthrew in a very bloody coup. Otho wore a toupee so good that nobody knew about it, says Suetonius 70 years later. He also used to
prevent beard growth using moist bread & shaved his entire body of hair.
Top Omen– Otho owed his entire position to his astrologer Seleucus who convinced him that not only would he outlive Nero but also that he would become Emperor. Having dispatched Galba, Otho arrived at the palace to find that Vitellius had declared himself Emperor in Germania and was on route with a massive unbeatable army. Which rather served Otho right. Suetonius does not record what happened to Seleucus.
Omen Rating: Because history would have been very different if Otho hadn't listened to his astrologer 4/5
Top Sauce - A threesome with Nero & his wife Poppaea
Sauce Rating: 3.5/5
9) Vitellius Suetonius says Vitellius' main vices were extravagance & cruelty. So the sauce is literal sauce.
Photo by Luis García
Top Omen– When he was at Vienna a rooster perched first on his shoulder and then on his hand. As Vitellius was later overthrown by the advance of General Antonius Primus, whose childhood nickname had been Roosters’ Beak, this was seen as a very good premonition. Though the big question is surely what part of Primus was shaped like a rooster’s beak to gain him that nickname?
Omen Rating: 3/5
Top literal sauce - So greedy he nicked meat off the altar during sacrifices.
Sauce Rating: Probably garum but we'll give him 1/5
10) Vespasian. Picked up Rome after the civil wars of 69ad. Very lacking in sauce. But positively awash with omens! So it’s not all bad. The Gods were super keen to alert all that Vespasian would be emperor. They repeatedly threw odd events his direction to signal this. But much like
Attributed to Shakko
nobody can quite see that Clark Kent and Superman are clearly the same guy, everyone seems to have just accepted that weird things kept happening to Vespasian and thought no more of it. After Nero died the omens trebled in number and poor Vespasian couldn’t walk down a street without the statues turning round or random passersbys declaring he would be ruler. In the end it would have been rude not to declare himself emperor, so he did.
Top Omen– So, so many to choose from but my favourite is the dog that deposited a human hand on Vespasian’s foot. This was apparently a sure sign he would be emperor. Though the bigger question is where did the hand come from? And shouldn’t someone have gone and found out?
Omen Rating: 5/5
Top Sauce - Treating his long term mistress Caenis as his wife.
Sauce Rating: Sorry Vespasian that's nowhere near saucy enough, it's a 0.5/5
11) Titus. He had a love affair with Queen Berenice of Judaea & declared that he had only one regret in life. Possibly his inability to finish sentences, because he never finished that one.
Top Omen– Titus’ reign ought to be one of terrible omens given he presided over the eruption of Vesuvius, another devastating fire in Rome and an outbreak of plague. Annoyingly Suetonius does not attribute the Gods’ displeasure to any of these events and Titus gets off scot free. Apparently he was“an object of universal love and adoration.” I hate him.
Omen Rating: Pah! Only 1/5 because nobody recognised the Gods hated Titus and were desperately trying to tell everyone so.
Top Sauce - Owning a troop of dancing boys who he released into the wild on becoming emperor. Sauce Rating: 3/5
12) Domitian. Domitian is an excellent study in paranoia and also how to induce it in others.
He was so paranoid he had his floor polished to glass like standards so he could see anyone sneaking up on him. Which still didn't prevent his assassination.
Top Omen- Domitian's paranoia is probably explained by the fact that astrologers had long predicted the day and hour of his death. Something his father, Vespasian, used to joke about over breakfast. Then lunch. Then Dinner. Then just before he read young Domitian his bedtime story. Domitian did not find this remotely amusing. Amongst a barrage of freak weather, including a hurricane, the top omen is surely the raven that perched on the Capitol and declared “All is well.” Suetonius points out helpfully that the raven was speaking in the future tense and all would be well once Domitian was dead Omen Rating: 4/5 for knowing his WHOLE life exactly when he would die. One has to appreciate the specifics of it.
Top Sauce - An affair with his niece Julia. Which isn't that saucy given Claudius had made relationships between uncles and nieces legal. Sauce Rating: 3/5 The Results Well, it's been a pleasure and I can now exclusively reveal (after a ten minute pause inserted to create tension) that our top Emperor for Suetonian Sauciness is a joint affair between..........drum roll............. Tiberius and Caligula!!!! And our emperor who produced the most impressive omens is....well would you believe it....it's another tie! This time between Vespasian and Augustus. Well done to all our losers also. Try not to take it too badly.
L.J. Trafford is the author of The Four Emperors Series. With the fourth book in the series being released on 1st December 2018.
I've been delving once more into the history of plague in the fourteenth century, in preparation for writing the fourth book in my novel series, the Meonbridge Chronicles. In my reading, I came across a reference to the story of “the three living and the three dead”, and to the images of these unhappy characters that abound in European churches, including many in England. I’ve known about this trope for years, but I was prompted to revisit briefly what I had read before about the effect of the Black Death on art in Europe, simply out of fascination! I apologise in advance that this is not going to be a very cheery little piece!
There are three types of art that I am looking at in this context: images of the “three living and three dead”, in manuscripts and on church walls throughout Europe; cadaver or memento mori tombs, and portrayals of the dansemacabre or Dance of Death.
The three living and the three dead
The three living and three dead was a common theme in paintings prior to the arrival of the Black Death in the mid fourteenth century (1348-50 in the UK). But it seems that, after the Black Death, the images became even more plentiful and more shocking and realistic in their presentation.
The British Library blog tells us a little more about the Three Living and Three Dead trope. The tale was clearly commonplace in Europe, especially in France and England, and dates back at least to the 13th century. The basic story is that three wealthy young men are out hunting when they meet three corpses, in various states of decay but which can nonetheless talk, and they remind the young men of the transience of life and the need to mend their dissolute ways.
This page from the early 14th century Psalter of Robert de Lisle, from East Anglia, which is held in the British Library, has three kings meeting the three corpses, and underneath are lines from an Anglo-Norman poem Le dit des trios morts et trios vifs. Some of the words are familiar enough: “I was well fair” (Ich wes wel fair) say the corpses, and “Such shall you be” (Such schel tou be). We will meet these sentiments again.
By “De Lisle Psalter”. British-Library-Arundel-127. [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
And here is similar image, from the manuscript of the Roman de la Rose, held in the Bibliothèque nationale de France:
By Variés XIIIe (BnF Ms 378 Roman de la rose). [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
I am struck by how, in both these manuscripts, the corpses look so very cheerful, as if they are saying “yah sucks to you”!
An Italian fresco in the Camposanto Monumentale in Pisa, painted by Buonamico Buffalmacco probably in 1338-39, roughly a decade before the Black Death spread across Europe, shows The Three Dead and the Three Living, as well as the Triumph of Death, the Last Judgement, and Hell. It is a bit more serious in tone than the two manuscripts. A group of youths are enjoying themselves in the garden while angels of Death collect corpses over their heads. The painting is thought to have inspired the setting of Boccaccio’s Decameron, written a few years after the Black Death and, apparently, Buffalmacco himself is depicted in three of the Decameron’s stories as a merry prankster. How very curious!
Fresco by Buonamico Buffalmacco in Pisa. [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
Images of the three living and three dead abound on church walls throughout Europe, including many in England. Of the English examples, I’ll show two, both 14th century and both from Norfolk: one from the church of St Margaret and St Remigius in Seething, and another from St Andrew’s Church in Wickhampton.
Part of the mural in Seething.Evelyn Simak / The church of SS Margaret and Remigius, in Seething - Three Living and Three Dead - CC BY-SA 2.0.
Part of the mural in Wickhampton.
By David from Colorado Springs, United States
(St Andrew’s church Wickhampton Norfolk).
[CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons]
Again, how very cheerful those grinning corpses are, presumably having a huge laugh at the expense of the living!
Much less jolly-seeming, however, are the cadaver or memento mori tombs, which became popular, if that can be the right word, in the 15th century. An understanding of the inevitability of death and the ultimate futility of wealth, power or beauty is depicted clearly in the gruesomeness of their sculptures.
A cadaver tomb is a type of gisant, a recumbent effigy tomb, which has an effigy of a decomposing corpse, often shrouded and sometimes complete with worms, either on its own or together with an effigy of the living (in a “double-decker” tomb). Memento mori (“remember (that) you will die”) is a medieval reflection on the vanity and transience of earthly life.
The “before” and “after” images of the deceased on these tombs are reminiscent of the three living and the three dead.
Cadaver tombs were of course only for high-ranking people because one had to be rich to afford to have one made, and powerful enough to be allotted space for it in the church. Which is rather ironic given the nature of the memento mori premise...
Examples in England include the tomb and effigy of John FitzAlan, 14th Earl of Arundel, who died in 1435, in the Fitzalan Chapel at Arundel, West Sussex, which I have seen. The sculpture of the corpse is hideously realistic.
The Earl of Arundel’s tomb. By Lampman. [CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons]
Another example is this one in Fyfield Church in Essex, of John Golafre (died 1442), an English courtier and Member of Parliament. Again, the cadaver sculpture below his armoured effigy is one of the more realistic products of this macabre late-medieval tradition.
John Golafre’s tomb in Fyfield. By William M. Connolley. [CC BY-SA 4.0, from Wikimedia Commons]
John Baret, a wealthy burgess from Bury St Edmunds, Norfolk, who died in 1467, doesn’t have a “living” effigy on his tomb, but just a cadaver, and again horribly realistic. And, grimly, the inscription says: “Miserable one, what reason have you to be proud? Soon you will be as we / a fetid cadaver, food for worms.” Indeed!
That Death is contemptuous of rank and wealth was an egalitarian message that found further expression in late medieval Europe with the images of the danse macabre or Dance of Death. The message of these paintings, on walls and on canvas, is the same: what point is there in wealth, power, gentle birth, beauty etc etc, when the end is the same for all? This populist theme of Death as the Great Leveller was taken up everywhere in 15th century art.
In a late medieval poem, Disputacione betwyx the Body and Wormes (c1440), the poet has seen a cadaver tomb of a young noblewoman, her effigy shown as both “living” and “dead”. In his reflection upon her death, the poet has Worms argue with the Body that their role is not to consume her once fresh Body “with ane insaciabylle and gredy appetyte”, but in fact to devour her rotting flesh quite selflessly, generously even! As “we hafe to do”, the Worms say, “with alle that wer myghty”, just as the young woman herself once was.
In the danse macabre images, one or more personifications of Death summon representatives from all walks of life to dance to the grave. A splendid example of this is a mural in a church in Hrastovlje, Slovenia, painted at the end of the 15th century. It shows men and women of every rank and station being led, again by grinning skeletons, towards a grave. (I have had to chop this image in half to enable you to see it moderately clearly...)
Mural in Hrastovlje, Slovenia. Top: Left half; Bottom: Right half. National Gallery of Slovenia. [Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons]
The leftmost section of the Hrastovlje mural.
Bibliofil at cs.wikipedia [CC-BY-SA-3.0 or CC BY-SA 2.5, from Wikimedia Commons]
Edward of Woodstock (the Black Prince) was the eldest son of Edward III, but died before his father and so it was his young son, Richard II, who succeeded to the throne. Nonetheless, Edward was revered as one of the most successful English commanders of the Hundred Years’ War, and was thought by his contemporaries to be one of the greatest knights of his age.
Despite, or perhaps because of, his elevated status, Edward evidently thought it right to show humility in death. He died of dysentery (perhaps) in 1376, and was buried with great state in Canterbury Cathedral.
The tomb of the Black Prince, in Canterbury Cathedral. By Jerrye & Roy Klotz, MD. [CC BY-SA 3.0, from Wikimedia Commons]
But his epitaph, inscribed around his effigy, includes these humble, knowing, lines:
Such as thou art, sometime was I.
Such as I am, such shalt thou be.
I thought little on th’our of Death
So long as I enjoyed breath.
On earth I had great riches
Land, houses, great treasure, horses, money and gold.
But now a wretched captive am I,
Deep in the ground, lo here I lie.
My beauty great, is all quite gone,
My flesh is wasted to the bone.
Sentiments that we have met before in this little review of the medieval art of death.
I’m delighted to join the History Girls and hope you’ll enjoy learning a little of the history behind the Etruscans whose society has fascinated me for over twenty years of research. Compared to other ancient civilisations in the Mediterranean such as Rome and Greece, the Etruscans afforded independence, education and sexual freedom to their women which intrigued me. This liberal, mystical and cosmopolitan society inspired me to write the Tales of Ancient Rome saga which chronicles the events of a ten year conflict between Republican Rome and Veii, a city described as the ‘jewel in the crown’ of the Etruscan world. It is the tale of two lovers who are blamed for starting a war, and the journey of three women to survive a siege.
C5th BCE Etruscan Jewellery set
Gold, rock crystal, agate, carnelian
When ancient Italy is mentioned most think of Rome as the dominant culture. Yet the Etruscans had built a sophisticated and extensive civilization well before the Romans were fighting turf wars with other Latin tribes. According to legend, three Etruscan kings ruled Rome until the evil Tarquin the Proud was expelled for raping Lucretia, a virtuous Roman matron, which led to the foundation of the Roman Republic. In fact, at its height, Etruria and its settlements extended throughout the modern regions of Umbria, Emilia-Romagna, Tuscany, Lazio and part of Campania and also dominated trade routes stretching from the Black Sea to northern Africa. The civilisation lasted for centuries with first settlements dated from early Iron age 1100 BCE throughout Archaic, Classical and Hellenistic periods before finally ‘dying out’ around 100 BCE as a result of conquest and assimilation by first Greece and then Rome. During this immense span of history Etruscan fashion, jewellery, furniture and utensils changed, but one constant remained throughout each era - the Etruscans loved beautiful things. The more glittering and glamourous the better.
Etruscan Earring types- disc, pendant, 'grape' and baule
One of the more enjoyable aspects of my research was to imagine the jewellery my characters would wear, and the objects that surrounded them. And what an amazing treasure trove I discovered.
Etruscans decked themselves with pectorals, torques, fibulae brooches, necklaces, rings, bracelets, lockets and hair ornaments. Most magnificent of all were elaborate headdresses crowned with clusters of golden or silver leaves. Sophisticated techniques that involved filigree, engraving, repousse (hammered relief decoration) and granulation (where tiny grains of gold were soldered to cover the surface of an object) were all employed by gold smiths to stunning effect. Amber was popular and of course – gold.
Earrings were delicate or ostentatious with some pendant earrings dangling four inches long. Others were shaped in heavy grape clusters. Bauletto ‘little bag’ earrings were cylindrical in shape and were often suspended on hooks made from fine gold filigree wire. Others consisted of rosette discs with tiny gemstones within elaborate floral motifs.
Etruscans were particularly fond of wearing hollow ‘bulla’ lockets which could contain perfume or a charm to ward off ill luck. Roman boys wore a bulla until they reached manhood whereas Etruscan men wore bullae throughout their lives. Greek critics condemned Etruscan men for their hedonistic lifestyle and their great love of luxury but such criticisms belied their ferocity and skill as warriors. It is said that the Romans learned the art of phalanx warfare from this foe.
Bulla, Wreaths, Pectoral and Amber pendant
And where was this finery stored? In cylindrical containers known as cistae which could also be divided into compartments where mirrors, combs and perfume bottles were kept. There is a particularly fine example of a cista from Praeneste, a site in Latium that was heavily influenced by Etruscan culture. The body of this container is decorated with scenes from the most infamous couple of ancient times, that of Helen of Troy and Paris.
In addition to jewellery, the Etruscans loved highly decorated jugs, cookware, utensils and furniture. The most stunning examples came from the era known as the ‘Orientalizing’ period from ca. 720-575 BCE. This was a time when Phoenician and Greeks were attracted to Etruria due to its rich metal deposits. The Phoenicians were a sea faring people with extensive trading interests across the ancient world. Originally from the area we now know of as Lebanon, they also set up a colony in Carthage (modern Tunisia).Through their trading links, goods from Egypt and Assyria were imported into Etruria and graced the houses of the wealthy.
Praenestine cista and bronze incense burner
Enormous bronze and silver mixing bowls were decorated with mortal and mythical animals: scarabs, panthers, winged lions, chimeras and sphinxes.Ivory inlaid boxes were popular as well as faience vases (tin glaze on earthenware) and even decorated ostrich eggs (a symbol of fertility). Huge chandeliers with wick holes were fashioned with the Gorgon faces. Satyrs and maenads graced wine jugs. Incense burners, balsarium perfume holders, handles, and furniture feet were produced in anthropomorphic shapes. Such highly ornamental and often grotesque designs continued to be used throughout the entire duration of Etruscan civilisation. So when you think of designer jewellery—the Etruscans paved the way—although their home wares may not be considered stylish to our modern tastes!
Bronze balsarium (perfume holder) and offering dish handle
Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the Tales of Ancient Rome saga. Learn more at www.elisabethstorrs.comMore examples of Etruscan jewellery can be found on her Pinterestboard.
Images are courtesy of The Met Project and Wikimedia Commons
November's commemorations of the end of World War One have had a particular poignancy this year. Not only is it the centenary but the hundreds of acts of remembrance have taken place against a backdrop of Brexit and the break-up of Europe, possibly also the break-up of the Union. This isn't the place to get political but, for those of us with strong connections to our wider European community, there were extra reasons to shed tears this month as we watched the nations coming together to lay their wreathes. It seemed fitting therefore that I got a chance to see Neil McPherson's wonderful play It Is Easy To Be Dead, recently in Glasgow. This tells the story of forgotten war poet Charles Hamilton Sorley who was born in Aberdeen, educated at Marlborough and killed, aged 20, at the Battle of Loos in October 1915. In his very short life he wrote 38 poems, spurred on, in his own words by his mother's "badgering". Although his name is included on the War Poets' memorial in Westminster Abbey, you'll rarely find him mentioned now, or taught, but at his death the Poet Laureate John Masefield called Sorley "potentially the greatest poet lost to us in that war".
Charles Hamilton Sorley
That we don't know him as well as we should is a great loss - his poems are unsentimental, compassionate and filled with a concern for humanity that belies his young age. They were first published in 1916, by his parents, together with a collection of his letters written both from the front and during the lengthy period he spent as a student in Germany in 1914. A trip cut short when Britain came into the escalating conflict in the August of that year. It is this experience I think which marks his work out from his better-known contemporaries - it has certainly been cited as the reason why he does not fit well in the war poets' canon. Sorley did not see the war through patriotic eyes and there is none of the jingoistic language in his work that was more commonly found in early WWI poetry. His letters suggest that he identified more strongly with German values than he did with English ones - while this may be no more than the enthusiasm of a young man on his first trip abroad, it certainly gave him a sense of fellow-feeling. He spoke fluent German and was enamoured with the country and its culture - his poem To Germany written on the eve of the war addresses the common bond he shares with the young Germans about to be plunged, like him, into a madness not of their making:
You are blind like us. Your hurt no man designed,
And no man claimed the conquest of your land.
But gropers both through fields of thought confined
We stumble and we do not understand.
He was under no illusions about the cost of the coming war in terms of the misery it would bring - the poem's last line reads: "until peace, the storm, the darkness and the thunder and the rain." As his father, a professor of moral philosophy at the University of Aberdeen, said of his son in the preface to the volume of letters and poems: ‘He looked on the world with clear eyes and the surface show did not deceive him.’
The title of the play, It Is Easy To Be Dead, comes from perhaps Sorley's best known poem and his last one: When You See Millions of the Mouthless Dead. It was written shortly before his death and found with his kit. It is a beautiful poem; that a twenty-year old had learned to be so aware of the reality of war and the ultimate futility of weeping for the dead makes it a heart-breaking one.
When you see millions of the mouthless dead
Across your dreams in pale battalions go,
Say not soft things as other men have said,
That you'll remember. For you need not so.
Give them not praise. For, deaf, how should they know
It is not curses heaped on each gashed head?
Nor tears. Their blind eyes see not your tears flow.
Nor honour. It is easy to be dead. Say only this, 'They are dead.'
Then add thereto, ‘Yet many a better one has died before.'
Then, scanning all the o'ercrowded mass, should you
Perceive one face that you loved heretofore,
It is a spook. None wears the face you knew.
Great death has made all his for evermore.
Sorley didn't live to see what came next - as we remember those who died in a frighteningly divided world, let's hope we don't live to regret what's coming next for us.
In WW1, the use of weapons such as grenades, flamethrowers and howitzers meant that war was waged on a vicious industrial scale. Those lucky enough to survive their injuries were often maimed or facially disfigured and returned to ‘Blighty’ both physically and emotionally scarred.
My own great grandfather, who suffered a terrible head wound that required a trepanning operation, was greatly affected by his injury. The metal plate that covered the hole in his skull caused agonising headaches and he became irascible and depressed. Like many returning soldiers, he found it difficult to adapt once more to civilian life. He couldn’t work; his life could not be as it had been before the war. He had seen and experienced too much. He no longer felt like the same person.
This sense of lost identity, felt by many returning soldiers, was a subject I wanted to explore in my book ‘The Moon Field’. I chose to write about facial disfigurement in particular - what the French called ‘gueules cassées' – broken faces. What could be more apt as a symbol of lost identity than the loss of one’s own familiar face?The public treatment of these war veterans was mixed. In parks, benches were set aside for disfigured soldiers and painted blue so that other people could avoid them. Whilst this may have been a well-intentioned effort to give the men some privacy, it also isolated them further, making them feel as if they were monsters. In my research I came across references to them as ‘droolers’ and stories of job vacancies swiftly withdrawn, café owners ushering the men to seats well away from the windows and even the throwing of stones. In my novel, the character with the broken face retreats to a ‘back room’ job as a cinema projectionist, withdrawing to the safe cocoon of darkness. It was my task, as writer, to take him on a journey back to the light.
At the start of the war, before the invention of the techniques that became the forerunners of modern plastic surgery, disfigured men were fitted for masks. The hospital units concerned became known, with gallows humour, as ‘the tin noses shop’. The metal masks could be taken on and off, with arms that fitted over the ears as with spectacles but which were also fixed securely at the back of the head with a wire fastening.
Men and women, who had been genteel sculptors who carved statues and fountains before the war, became instead shapers of men’s faces. One such, Anna Coleman Ladd, in a startling juxtaposition of the two worlds, described the galvanised copper of a mask as being ‘as thin as a visiting card’. They took enormous care to make the masks realistic: real hairs were laid on one at a time to make the eyebrows; the man’s skin tones were matched as nearly as possible and even a slight blue was added to replicate the effect of a ‘five o’clock shadow’.
Making a mask began with laying bandages soaked in plaster across the face to make a cast. Holes were left at the nostrils for the patient to breathe through but nonetheless it was a rather suffocating experience that had to be carefully timed, as the plaster became hot as it dried. A clay ‘squeeze’ would then be taken from the cast and the sculptor would copy the ‘good’ side of the face to create a mirror image, so that the mask modelled on it would restore the symmetry of the face.
For men who had been so badly disfigured that they experienced people recoiling from them, sometimes even their own children running from them in fear, having a mask could return to them some dignity. Despite the fact that their expression was inevitably fixed and ‘doll-like’, being able to show the world a recognisably human face meant that they had the freedom to go out in public again. I found it heartbreakingly poignant to read the words of a grateful patient, in a letter sent to Mrs Ladd: ‘My wife no longer finds me an object of revulsion, as she had every right to do’.
Some men who wore masks were able to return gradually to a more socially integrated life, particularly when supported by close family. Others seemed to create new ‘families’ through congregating with others who had been similarly damaged: a community was set up in France by the Union des Blessés de la Face (the Union of the Facially Wounded) where disfigured men turned away from the outside world and lived and farmed together. At last, new identities were forged and the men often felt that their mask became so much a part of them that they asked, in their wills, to be buried in them.
Roger Bigod, Earl of Norfolk is the male protagonist in my novel The Time of Singing - titled For The King's Favor in the United States.
I set out to write about him after being made curious by a remark in a reference work mentioning that his career path was in many ways similar to that of the great William Marshal. They were both self-made men, if for different reasons. Both had clawed their way up Fortune's ladder. Both had been born in troubled times and had cut their political teeth at the courts of the Angevin kings and their familiars, Each of them was to marry an heiress in the king's gift, and wield great power that would help to shape England's future.
William Marshal is fortunate and almost unique in having a history of his life written shortly after his death and his deeds and life story have, in a greater part, been preserved for posterity. Roger Bigod has no such history to track his days. Even so there are traces of his tale in chronicles and charters and these can be pieced together to make a larger body of knowledge. Roger's son and heir, Hugh, married Matilda, William Marshal's eldest daughter and so we get a brief glimpse of him in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, where Roger is called 'a man who was never very slow in doing what was to his advantage and honour, when it was appropriate for him to do so.'
So, what was Roger Bigod's story? What kind of man was he, and what sort of life did he live?
Roger Bigod has no known birth date or year, but was probably born some time between 1140 and 1146. He came from a family of obscure origins, although we know they were vassals of the Bishop of Bayeux prior to the Norman Conquest and haled from the Calvados region of Normandy. An ancestor called Hugh Bigod who was very likely Roger's great grandfather was described by Wace in his Roman de Rou as the 'lord of Montfiquet' and was apparently a forester and a steward to Duke William of Normandy. 'He was small in stature, but very bold and valiant.'
Roger's ancestors followed their overlord to England and settled there, although they still held onto their Norman lands. Roger's grandfather, also called Roger, was one of the mainstays of the Norman government. Although not at this stage made the Earl of Norfolk, he was sheriff of the county and was apportioned vast lands there and in Suffolk and Essex. The Bigod family (pronounced Bee-go) basically became the rulers of what had once been the kingdom of the East Angles. The first Roger Bigod founded a priory of Cluniac monks at Thetford and built the first castle at Framlingham. He married twice and had three daughters and two sons by his wives. The eldest son, William, was born of the first marriage. The younger son, Hugh, was born to his second wife, Alais. When William drowned in the White Ship disaster the second son, Hugh, inherited everything.
Hugh Bigod does not have a good reputation in history. He had an eye to the main chance and a determination to get to the top which left little room for courtesy or finesse. By changing sides to his own advantage he did very well out of the civil war between King Stephen and Empress Matilda and at this time was created Earl of Norfolk. Like his father, Hugh Bigod married twice. His first match was to Juliana de Vere, sister of the Earl of Oxford, and it was from this match that Roger Bigod II was born, probably at Framlingham.
For reasons now unknown, Hugh divorced Juliana at some point before the early 1150's and married instead Gundrada, sister of the Earl of Warwick. By Gundrada, Hugh had two more sons - Hugh and William.
Roger, the firstborn, would have been raised at the family home of Framlingham, but would have been without his natural mother from mid-childhood and instead grew up with his stepmother Gundrada and his two half brothers. Roger would have been educated in the knightly arts and those pertaining to the pen. From his later career we know that he had a sound knowledge of the law and was frequently used by the king as a judge on the bench and was familiar with the judicial workings of the country from young manhood. Around the time that young Roger was receiving his grounding in the law, William Marshal was setting out to serve his uncle Patrick, Earl of Salisbury, as a hearth knight in Poitou.
In 1173, King Henry's sons rebelled against their father. Roger's own father, Hugh, threw in his lot with the rebels. Henry II had sought to limit Hugh's power in East Anglia and had a built a dominant castle at Orford to oppose Hugh's castles at Framlingham and Bungay. Hugh was disgruntled at this restriction and rebelled against it with his sword. Roger Bigod took a different path to his father and remained loyal to King Henry. It seems rather ironic that Hugh of Norfolk, now well into his seventies, supported Henry's heirs, whereas Roger, a young man, threw in his lot with the Henry II. We don't know when Roger and Hugh parted company, but father and son ended up on opposite sides of the divide. I suspect from what we know from the historical record that it was a case of genuine disagreement between them rather than crafty playing the odds.
Matters came to a head as the country rose in rebellion against King Henry. The Earl of Leicester and Hugh of Norfolk forged an alliance and imported Flemish mercenaries to fight for their cause. The royalists, led by the justiciar, Richard de Luci and by Robert de Vere, Earl of Oxford and Roger's uncle, were hard pressed but contained the rebellion. Having defeated and turned back the Scots who had joined in on the rebel side, de Luci turned his troops southwards to deal with the rebels in East Anglia who were now branching out into the Midlands. Roger joined the royalist army as they prepared to meet the advancing rebel contingent at the bridge over the River Lark at Fornham St Genevieve, in October 1176. Roger was given the privilege of bearing the banner of Saint Edmund into battle. The Bigod family owed service to the Abbey of Ste Edmund, which at the time was a major place of pilgrimage with a fabulous shrine covered in beaten silver panels. To bear its banner was a great honour for the young man.
The royalist army was outnumbered four to one by the rebels. However, the latter consisted of hired men, many of them out of work Flemish weavers. They were not seasoned troops. To get to the bridge across the River Lark they had to cross marshy ground and the effort split and scattered their forces. In contrast, the core of de Luci's army were hard-bitten troops. They were joined by the locals, who were no more qualified to fight than the weavers, but their homesteads were at risk and they considered the enemy to be foreign parasites.
The battle was a disaster for the rebels and a triumph for the royalists. The Earl of Leicester was taken prisoner and so was his wife, Petronella, who is supposed to have been captured wearing a hauberk. When the royalist men closed in on her, she supposedly stripped her rings and cast them into the river, saying that she would rather thrown them away than have them taken as booty.
Following the battle, the rebel leaders were taken prisoner. Roger's father had to pay a fine of 500 marks and the defences at Framlingham, the seat of his earldom, were torn down and his castle at Bungay was seized. A broken old man, he was dead by the spring of 1177. There is a rumour that he died on crusade, but it seems to be unreliable and he likely died at home.
The moment he was dead, a dispute arose between his three sons as to who inherited what. Hugh had not divided his lands between them and the whole should have gone to Roger. However, Roger's stepmother contested his right, saying that her own eldest son was due all the land that Hugh Bigod had acquired while he was Earl of Norfolk.
The dispute came before King Henry, who played it to his advantage. Although the case was set in motion, he deferred judgement pending further investigation and kept the lands in his own administration. However, recognising in Roger, a dynamic young man who could both fight and administer, he utilised Roger's skills and Roger was often present at court, involved in legal administration and military service. Not to be outdone, his stepmother kept her cause alive by marrying Robert de Glanville, a court lawyer whose brother was the royal justiciar who ruled the country during Henry's absences.
Henry refused to grant Roger the Earldom of Norfolk that his father had held. As well as milking the revenues of the earldom for himself, Henry was also being cautious. While he valued Roger, he did not entirely trust him. Having just dealt with the rebellion of his own sons, he was cautious about ambitious young men, especially one that had defied his own father, even if it had been on Henry's side.
Tomb of William Longespee, son of Ida de Tosney and Henry II. Salisbury Cathedral
At this time, Henry had a new young mistress. Her name was Ida de Tosney and she was one of his wards and had probably become Henry's mistress in her mid teens. She bore Henry a son - William Longespee, future Earl of Salisbury.
From charter evidence we know that Ida married Roger Bigod around Christmas time 1181. Had Henry grown tired of his poppet and moved on? Was Ida a reward to Roger? Was there a mutual attraction between the young would-be Earl of Norfolk caught in limbo, and this young royal concubine? We cannot say, although I have speculated in my novel The Time of Singing. We do know that Henry released several of the disputed Bigod manors to Roger as part of the bride's marriage portion. It is not recorded what Gundrada and her sons thought of this, but they can hardly have been thrilled about it. What is also known is that Roger and Ida's firstborn son, Hugh, was born within a year of the marriage, which was a fruitful one. Hugh was joined by siblings Marie and Marguerite, and three more brothers, Roger, William and Ralph.
Henry still had no intention of restoring the Earldom of Norfolk to Roger, but continued to work him hard. Toward the end of Henry's reign in 1187, Roger was serving at the King's Court (Curia Regis) at Westminster and hearing pleas.
Henry died in 1189 and Richard I became King. Richard needed funds for his crusade and he also needed a firm government to rule the country during his absence. For a payment of a thousand marks he was willing to restore the Earldom of Norfolk to Roger and permit him to rebuild Framlingham Castle.
The shell of the castle still stands today with its thirteen great towers. Visitors can also view the remains of the hall where Roger and Ida lived in the early years of their marriage. The second, grander hall, where they lived in the later years of their marriage has largely gone, but small parts remain as a section of the visitor centre. Ed Sheeran's song Castle on the Hill references Framlingham.
Once Roger became Earl of Norfolk the hard work began in earnest. Not only did he have a new castle to built and a growing family to raise, but Richard sent him out travelling on the judicial circuit, hearing pleases and making judgements up and down England. The pipe roll of 1190-91 shows him busy in Essex, Hertfordshire, Norfolk, Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire and Wiltshire. During this time he was given custody of Hereford Castle. In 1194 he was in Yorkshire, Cumberland, Westmorland and Lancashire. In 1195 he covered nine counties with two more added in 1197. On top of this he had to support the appointed justiciars in Richard's absence and try to keep the peace. The King's brother, John, had made a play for his brother's throne and Richard's chancellor, William Longchamp who was opposing John, was hated by the barons. Roger, together with men such as William Marshal and the Archbishop of Rouen, had to find the strength, the tact and diplomacy to deal with the situation, maintain stability, and manage their own lives.
On his way home from crusade, Richard was captured crossing enemy territory in Austria and was taken prisoner by the Emperor of Germany. A great ransom was negotiated but Richard had to provide sureties for the delivery of the ransom installments. Various nobles from England came to his aid and Roger Bigod was on the shipping list. There is no concrete evidence of his actual presence in Germany, but we do know he was preparing to go and it seems likely, given his knowledge of the law.
Back in England, Richard discovered that his brother John had risen against him - and then run away to France, leaving his castellans to ride it out as best they could. Richard swiftly dealt with the pockets of rebellion, including one at Nottingham. Roger Bigod was with the King at the taking of Nottingham Castle.
When Richard died in 1199 and John came to the throne, Roger offered him his loyalty. He visited Scotland for him as an envoy to King William and was in frequent attendance at court. He helped the town of Ipswich in which he had a firm trading interest, to secure a charter of liberties from John in 1200. For his assistance, Roger was admitted as the first foreign burgess of the town. In token payment he gave one ox, one bull, two quarters of corn and two of malt. For this, he and his heirs were then exempt on paying tolls in the town on the corn and grain reaped on their demesne lands.
Roger once again went on the judicial circuit in John's reign in 1201, but this was his final time on Eyre - as the circuit was called.
Roger was a cautious, canny operator. His family had always been stewards to the royal family - also known as dapifers. One of Roger's hereditary tasks and of ceremonial prestige, was to set the first dish Before the king at official banquets and also to bear one of the ceremonial swords at the coronation. However, the Earl of Leicester thought he should have this privilege too and disputed the position. Roger had a think and decided to settle the matter amicably. He would renounce the title providing Leicester gave him ten knights' fees. Leicester agreed to do so and Roger gave up the stewardship. He did have some follow-up problems - getting Leicester to agree was the easy bit. Making him disgorge the manors was a different matter entirely. And even after Roger's death in 1221 the dispute rumbled on because Leicester had only paid seven and a half of the fees.
In 1207 Roger consolidated his family's prestige by marrying his heir, Hugh, to Mahelt, William Marshal's eldest daughter. When she became the last surviving Marshal child, the title of Marshal came down to her and was passed on to her eldest son, Roger.
Throughout the early and mid part of John's reign, Roger served the king faithfully. He answered the summons to battle campaigns, performed necessary stints at court and generally led a steady life. In 1213, the King visited him at Framlingham and all seemed well between them. However, as the political problems facing the King escalated and John's behaviour deteriorated Roger and his eldest son Hugh, has second thoughts about their support. At the time of the Magna Carta crisis in 1215, Roger renounced his support of John and joined the rebel barons. The rebels were probably delighted to have him among their number, because he was a consummate lawyer and could help oversee the wording and drafting of their demands. Why did Roger rebel against King John? Conventional history does not tell us. He didn't change sides until late in the day, but once he made up his mind, he stayed on the opposing side until after John was dead. Having turned rebel, he faced both excommunication and hostility toward his magnificent 13 towered castle at Framlingham.
Framlingham. The ruins of the hall where Roger and Ida would have lived. Norman chimneys are still in situ.
The Royal Army came to Framlingham in March 1216, and prepared to lay siege. Although the castle was a state-of-the-art fortress and the garrison boasted deadly crossbow men among its numbers, Roger obviously preferred not to test his defences, and after only two days, the fortress was yielded to King John by Roger's castellan. Roger himself was in London at the time, because his huntsman and dogs were apparently sent there to join him. Unfortunately, his young grandson was at Framlingham and was taken hostage by King John. This fact didn't bring Roger to heel and he continued in rebellion.
John died in October 1216 but Roger did not come to terms of peace with the royalist government until September 1217 when he was finally restored to his earldom and Framlingham was returned to the family. By yielding the castle rather than putting up a fight, Roger secured the inheritance for the next generation. His hostage grandson was also the grandchild of William Marshal and this probably helped to secure the child's safety during the ongoing hostilities, particularly after the Marshals was named regent following John's death.
Roger died somewhere between the end of April and August 1221. He was well into his 70s and his son Hugh had taken over many of the duties by then. His wife Ida had predeceased him because there is no mention of any provision being made for her widowhood. It is not known where she is buried.
Like his contemporary William Marshal, Roger Bigod has been born into an uncertain times during the regnal battle between Stephen and Matilda. He had learned statecraft at the court of Henry II and survived the often difficult reigns of Richard and John. History leaves us quiet traces of a man capable, firm and honourable. An understated man in his personality, who nevertheless, knew and appreciated the value of display. The thirteen towers at Framlingham Castle still stand today and also the remains of the stone hall he shared with Ida, a testament to both traits of Roger's personality unsung but shining. Visitors to the House of Lords will also find his statue looking down from the gallery in the company of William Marshal and his stepson William Longespee among others. His memory can also be found in less exalted places!
A short note of reference works.
The Bigod family: An Investigation into their Lands and Activities 1066 – 1306.
Ph.D. thesis by Susan A.J.Atkin University of Reading.
The Bigod Earls of Norfolk in the 13th century by Marc Morris/Boydell
History of William Marshal, volume 2/Anglo Norman text Society.
The History of the Norman People: Wace's Roman de Rou
From the glitz and yachts of Cannes it’s a fifteen minute boat ride to the tiny, idyllic island of St Honorat, one of the astonishingly unspoilt Lerins islands. On a sunny afternoon in late October it was almost deserted and we walked around its coastline in about forty minutes; clean blue water and rocks on our left and, on the other side, vineyards, rosemary bushes, jasmine, olive and pine trees, all of which gave out a deliciously intoxicating perfume. No hotels, cars or bikes are allowed on the island. We passed a few small ruined buildings, a well restored fort and a World War Two gun emplacement before we came to a simple church surrounded by beautifully tended gardens. There’s also a gourmet restaurant and a shop selling wine, liqueur and chocolate (at Côte d'Azur prices) made by the Cistercian monks who live in the monastery. There are now about thirty and we passed a few of them, dressed in cream and black robes and sandals, looking busy and healthy.
The vines in the centre of the island are protected from the salty sea air by a fringe of pine trees. A large colony of pheasants shares this romantic island with the monks and, apparently, eat many of the Chardonnay grapes used to make the monks’ famous wines.
The tourist brochures claim that monks have lived on this island since the 5th century but in fact there have been periods when they had to leave. St Honorat has had a turbulent history although it feels so sheltered and peaceful now.
The monastery was founded by Honoratus, the son of a Roman consul, who converted to Christianity as a young man and later became Archbishop of Arles. He intended to live as a hermit on his remote island but was soon joined by disciples. According to legend, the island wasn’t always so hospitable. When Honoratus first arrived, it was overgrown by a dense forest full of poisonous snakes and spiders. After Honoratus and the other monks finished building their first monastery a tidal wave hit the island, obligingly washing away all these obnoxious creatures but leaving the monks safe in their stone tower,. This had become "an immense monastery" by 427, according to a contemporary writer. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, is thought to have studied at the monastery in the fifth century. St Honorat is rather like Lyndisfarne, in that it became a great centre of religion and culture after the Roman Empire collapsed (but it has a much better climate).
The monks were constantly attacked by Saracen pirates and in about 732 many of the community, including the abbot, Saint Porcarius, were massacred. In medieval times, many pilgrims came to the island, attracted by its beauty and by La vie de Saint Honorat, a popular book by Raymond Féraud , who is variously described as both a monk and a troubadour.
The fortified monastery was magnificently restored by Viollet-le-Duc in the 19th century. For centuries the monks needed to defend themselves because their island was in an important strategic position. This tower was built over many centuries , beginning in 1073, as a place of refuge for the monks in case of sudden attack. Inside, there are cloisters and chapels. At the end of the 15th century, the monumental center of the abbey shifted to this Monastery Tower and later the upper floors were occupied by soldiers who came on the orders of the king to defend the coastline.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the island played an important role, in the wars between France and Spain. In 1635 St Honorat was captured by the Spanish and the monks were expelled but returned from exile two years later when the island was retaken by the French. The monastery continued to be attacked by the Spanish and the Genoese and the number of monks dwindled to four. One of the ruined buildings we passed on our walk was a Napoleonic oven used for heating cannon balls to a high temperature. 1707 the Lérins Islands were captured and occupied by the English navy, under the command of Sir Cloudesley Shovell.
After the French Revolution the church and monastery were deconsecrated and the island was sold to a wealthy actress from Paris,Mademoiselle de Sainval . She lived there for twenty years and is thought to have been a lover of the painter Fragonard, who lived in Grasse, up in the hills behind Cannes.
In 1859 the island was bought by the Bishop of Fréjus, who established the present religious community there. Between 1942 and 1945 the Fort was occupied by Italian soldiers, and then by the German army, who built the gun emplacements we passed on our walk. In 1993 the city of Cannes bought the Fort and made it possible to visit this stunning island.
Metz is a city in the northeast of France, Le Grand Est, capital of the Lorraine region, and one that I had never visited before last weekend. It sits alongside the winding Moselle river and is surprisingly inspiring.
I was in town because my husband, Michel Noll, was inaugurating a film festival. The festival, titled Ma Planete, is dedicated entirely to films which, from one aspect or another, are concerned with the environment. Why Metz? I had asked him.
Jean-Marie Pelt, was his answer.
Jean-Marie Pelt 1933 - 2015
Jean-Marie Pelt was a highly respected biologist, botanist and ecologist. He was professor at the University of Lorraine specialising in medicinal plants and traditional pharmacopeia. He was the author of several books on pharmaceutical plants, plant biology and urban ecology, and was the founder in 1972 of the European Institute of Ecology and in 1987 founded the French Society of Ethnopharmacology, which is based in Metz. http://www.ethnopharmacologia.org
Michel worked with Professor Pelt on a television series, Les Aventures des Plantes. They were in the early stages of a follow-up series when Pelt died. This festival, Ma Planete, is in its way a continuation of the work Michel and Pelt were collaborating on. It is also a homage to his brilliant and much-missed colleague.
The opening night of the Ma Planete Festival. Michel Noll, co-founder and artistic director, is right of image. The auditorium holds 250 spectators and it was packed to the rafters.
Along with Simone Weil, Jacques Delors and other leading figures, Pelt was a prominent member of the Committee of 21. They were committed to implementing Agenda 21 which was a product of the Earth Summit held in Brazil in 1992. Agenda 21's aim is to achieve global sustainable development for the 21st century, for the planet. One of Agenda 21's objectives is that every local government should draw up its own plans and goals, its own understanding of urban ecology. People living and working together and keeping the carbon footprint light.
Walking round the small city of Metz during these those few days I was taken by its evident commitment to the ideals of Pelt. His philosophy of urban ecology, which, broadly speaking includes that scientists, scholars of all disciplines should be working in collaboration with decision makers. Urban ecology is growing as a field that integrates social, biophysical and engineering sciences. It links directly into practices such as urban planning and urban design. Cities do and must play an increasingly important role in each of the three main pillars of sustainability: social, economic and environmental and their impacts need to reach far beyond their boundaries.
Thanks to Pelt, Metz boasts that it is the birthplace of urban ecology. The city also claims that there is 45 square metres of green space for each inhabitant.
Metz, with Moselle in distance
The city centre is pedestrian - its tram and bus services are exemplary. You can get anywhere without traffic jams, without congestion, both swiftly and economically. Steps away from the many cafés and shops is the river. The banks of the Moselle offer walks, places to sit and reflect, opportunities to picnic, congregate, read beneath the shade of trees, river cruises.
The old city also offers gems to visit too.
Saint Stephen's Cathedral is a gothic splendour. Its stained glass windows constitute the largest expanse of ancient stained glass in any single building in the world and for that reason the cathedral is known as the "Good Lord's Lantern". These windows stop you in your tracks. It was a cold bright Sunday morning when I ventured inside the cathedral. The sun was shining through in a rainbow of brilliant colours offering radiance, light and warmth to the lofty austere interior.
The earliest of the stained glass was made by the master craftsman Herman von Munster in the fourteenth century. Later, in the sixteenth, Valentin Bousch signed his skills. Between 1958 and 1968, nineteen windows were designed by Marc Chagall. They are a must see. Chagall also designed stained glass windows for the Cathedral of Reims. If you are travelling in northeastern France, I really urge to visit both.
Marc Chagall designed windows in Metz Cathedral
There are sections of the glass that still require work and I read that the artists Roger Bissière and Jacques Villon (pseudonym of Gaston Duchamp, brother of Marcel Duchamp) had both provided further sets of designs.
The cathedral and many of the city's most impressive buildings are built with yellow Jaumont stone. Pierre de Jaumont is a sand/lime stone, 175 million years old, from the commune of Montois-la-Montagne, in Lorraine.
My stay was far too short. There will be more films - a one-night-a-month-screening initiative is being put into place beginning in January 2019, offering thought-provoking environmental films throughout the year, running alongside the cinema's more commercial offerings. festivalmaplanete.fr
I will return soon. There are exquisite churches to explore as well as a recently-opened Centre Pompidou, which is a short bus ride beyond the city's centre.
Only one treasure I found, on the wall of one of the lovely sandstone buildings, made me shed a tear given the current Brexit controversy. This one:
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill visited Metz in 1946. 14th July 1946. The first liberated Quatorze Juillet post WWII. Churchill began his speech by saying: "Take warning, I am going to speak to you in French," which he did. He went on to speak of the dream of a united, peaceful Europe. He stressed the importance of uniting Europe in this post-war period, urging France to take the initiative in order to advance Franco-German relations and peace within Europe.
It pre-dated his famous September 1946 speech made at Zurich University when he finished with the words""Let Europe arise!"
On 15 July 1946, the front page of the French daily newspaper Le Courrier de Metz illustrates the historic visit of British Prime Minister Winston Churchill to Metz and emphasises the importance of his speech in favour of European unity.
Do take a look at this marvellous short video of his visit. You can see the local costumes and the attractive sandstone buildings as well as the cathedral. This little film captures a corner of France celebrating victory, looking to its future.
Metz has been under German or French control at different times in its history. The frontier has been re-delianated on several occasions. Today, it is French and it is proudly European, forward-looking and is committed to a safer, cleaner world, to responsible urban living.
During the last four years we have seen the First World War from many angles. But how did the French see it? A few years ago I found two large-format bound volumes of the magazine L’Illustration in the street with a notice ‘Take Me’. Being an obedient citizen, I did. And then wondered what to do with them. Now I am glad I did not throw them out. My school French can read the titles and the subject matter but not the detail. So I share with you some of the 100s of illustrations, drawn and photographed.
A fictional village in Alsace the day after German occupation - suddenly the residents are very patriotic
French soldiers crossing the Canal d'Yser under fire....
..while officers of several armies enjoy life in the Café du Paix in Paris...
...and their daughters play in the Bois de Boulogne...
...and refugee children from the North hope for morsels of food.
Aeroplanes were a new weapon of war..
...but the French Army relied on donkeys for transport in the trenches.
...and reinforcements from the 43rd Battalion of Senegal.
L’Illustration dealt with subjects other than war, including the dangers of high heels (with X-Rays of damaged ankles to prove it); how to bottle apples; and the Russian Revolution (the editor ofL’Illustration did not seem to like the Bolsheviks). In December 1918, advertisements reappeared on the back page.
At the end of the war, there were celebrations across France.
..while German prisoners-of -war wondered 'What next?' Nearly 130,000 prisoners were taken at La Somme in August 1918.
France, depicted as a lovely woman, thanks a French soldier for saving her....
..while a surprised 'America' glares at a conquered 'Germany'.
After the war, soldiers rescued a bronze sculpture of Eve, made by Auguste Rodin in 1881 and buried in a garden in Douai, northern France
The British Prime Minister Lloyd George was awarded a double-page portrait on the last page of L'Illustration 1918.
If you’ve ever been left on the phone listening to tinny music and assurances that “Your call is very important to us,” then spare a thought for the outraged trader whose draft letter of complaint turned up near Hadrian’s Wall a few years ago.
Parts of the letter are missing but there’s enough to piece together most of the story. The man seems to have got into a fracas with some soldiers who threatened to tip his goods down the drain, and subsequently beat him with sticks. When he objected, they beat him again.
Then, to make matters worse, nobody wanted to listen to his complaint.
He tried the men’s Commanding Officer, but the great man was off sick.
He tried the Commanding Officer’s assistant but got nowhere.
He tried various other centurions, but none of them wanted to know - and finally he’d had enough.
We don’t know exactly which “Your majesty” the letter was intended for, but Hadrian was touring Britain at about the time it was written and, since in theory any citizen could appeal to the Emperor, it’s possible that the victim decided to go right to the top.
As he explained, he was not only an innocent man with a good reputation, but a man from overseas. And now he’d been beaten until he bled, as if he were some sort of criminal!
It’s hardly surprising that he claimed to be innocent and honest, but the third reason for his outrage is more interesting – he was an expat. He was more or less saying, “I’m one of your own people!” as opposed to being a native Briton. Giving a beating to a Briton, he implied, would have been perfectly acceptable.
There are long decades of history during which we know very little of how the Britons and the Romans rubbed along together. British names appear in trading documents (and on curses!) from the relatively peaceful south of England, but the military letters that have turned up on Hadrian’s Wall barely mention the locals. There’s a disparaging report on their fighting skills that refers to them as “wretched little Brits” (Brittunculi), but that’s about it.
There is other evidence, though. The other day I did one of my on-the-way-to-somewhere-else whistlestop tours of a museum – the sort where I rush around glancing at my watch, taking hundreds of photos and not stopping to read anything. Suddenly the rush came to a halt. I was in the Corinium museum in Cirencester, but wasn’t that the same tombstone I’d seen at Corbridge, miles away on Hadrian’s Wall?
It wasn’t until I got home and compared the photos that I realized it was the same design, but commemorated a different cavalryman. I’ve no idea how many stones there are like this, but here are the ones honouring (from left to right) Dannicus, Genialis and Candidus. Each man is shown valiantly brandishing a weapon from the back of a prancing horse. You have to look a little more closely to spot the natives.
In case you can’t make them out, I’ve highlighted them in red below. Greater minds than mine may be able to tell you if they represent the fallen from a specific battle or just generic barbarians, but either way, it’s pretty clear where Candidus’s boot is pointing. Hardly a design calculated to win the hearts and minds of the locals in an occupied country.
So did our outraged expat get justice, or was he left to seethe at being beaten like a lowly native? We don’t know. All we have is a draft of the letter, so perhaps a fair copy reached the Emperor and justice was done. On the other hand, that draft was found in the quarters of a centurion – so maybe it was intercepted before it got anywhere, and all the man got for his trouble was another beating.
November's guest is very special. Not only is he a History Boy, he is the only guest we've ever had who lives inside one of the oldest historical spots in the UK. Meet Chris Skaife, a modest man with a very unusual job, who has recently become a bit of a media star. You'll find out why below.
Before becoming Yeoman Warder and Ravenmaster at the Tower of London, Chistopher Skaife served in the British Army for twenty-four years, during which time he became a Drum Major as part of a specialist machine gun platoon. He has been featured on the BBC, the History Channel, PBS, BuzzFeed, Slate, and other media. He lives at the Tower with his wife, his daughter, and, of course, the ravens. Follow him on Twitter at @ravenmaster1.
Credit: Historic Royal Palaces
I have what is often described as the oddest job in Britain.
The best? Definitely.
My name is Chris Skaife and I am the Ravenmaster at the Tower of London.
My official title is Yeoman Warder Christopher Skaife, of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London, and member of the Sovereign’s Body Guard of the Yeoman Guard Extraordinary – that’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it!
All of us Yeoman Warders are former servicemen and women with at least twenty-two years of unblemished service. We are the ceremonial guardians of the Tower of London. In principle we’re responsible for looking after any prisoners at the Tower and safeguarding the Crown Jewels. In practice, we act as tour guides and as custodians of the rituals of the Tower.
As the Ravenmaster, I have the added responsibility for the safety, security and welfare of the ravens in my care. Without the ravens, so the legend goes, the Tower itself will crumble into dust and great harm will befall the kingdom.
The legend of the ravens at the Tower of London is as strange and perplexing in its way as any of the great legends of the raven from around the world.
What follows is my take on the legend of the ravens at the Tower.
The story goes that Charles II was once visiting the Tower of London after the restoration of the monarchy to survey a new building. At the time, a young astronomer named John Flamsteed was using a room in the round turret house at the top of the White Tower for his observations of the stars and the moon, but he had found that the nesting ravens rather obstructed his view and interfered with his work. Flamsteed asked Charles II if he might be able to get rid of “ those confounded ravens.” Charles, being a decent sort of a king, readily agreed, until someone pointed out that the birds had always been at the Tower and were an important symbol of the city and the monarchy and that getting rid of them would therefore seem like rather a bad omen. Mindful no doubt that both the city and the monarchy had had a bit of a run of bad luck recently, what with his father Charles I having been executed and there having been a terrible plague in London in 1665 and then the Great Fire of London in 1666, Charles promptly issued a royal decree, commanding that instead of banishing the birds, at least six ravens should be kept at the Tower forevermore.
But in all my research over the years, assisted by the incredible resources of the Tower’s library and my archives, in all the years I’ve been looking and searching, and with all the experts I’ve consulted. I have been able to find no mention whatsoever of the legend of the ravens at the Tower before the late nineteenth century.
Let me just say that again, no mention of the legend of the ravens at the Tower until the late nineteenth century.
Nothing, nada, zilch. Not a croak.
Nothing about Charles II and his decree. Nothing about Flamsteed and the confounded ravens. Nothing about the kingdom falling if the ravens should ever leave the Tower. The truth is that there was no Royal Decree protecting the ravens issued by Charles II, though there was admittedly a Royal Warrant issued in June 1675, which provided John Flamsteed, who became the first Royal Astronomer, with the funding to set up a proper observatory in Greenwich.
So it’s possible that the confounded ravens played a small part in the history of astronomy and navigation in this country simply by being so bloody annoying that Flamsteed had to move out to Greenwich to get away from them!
Not only is there no evidence of ravens having played an important part in the history of the Tower before the late nineteenth century, there is barely any mention of the ravens at the Tower in the historical records before then at all.
Take the old Authorised Guide to the Tower of London by W. J. Loftie published in its second edition in 1888. Any mention of the ravens? No, Nothing.
The ever popular and magisterial Her Majesty’s Tower, by William Hepworth Dixon, first published in 1869? Nothing. Even William Benham’s The Tower of London, published in 1906, mentions not the mighty raven.
One of the first official Tower guidebooks to mention the birds is Colonel E. H. Carkeet- James’s His Majesty’s Tower of London, which wasn’t published until 1950, and even then the birds are seen largely as an annoyance.
“They are not popular with the residents of the Tower,” according to the Colonel. “They tear up the grass, flowers create an urge to destroy, they pick out the putty from windows and the lead from the diamond leaded lights in the Chapel Royal of St. Peter ad Vincula. Few motor cars are safe from their marauding and they find a strange fascination in ladies’ silk stockings.”
As far as I’ve been able to ascertain, from my own research and from the work of various historians and scholars, the first significant depiction of the ravens at the Tower wasn’t until 1883 in an article in the Pictorial World newspaper on July 14, which has a drawing of what certainly looks like a raven by the entrance to the Chapel of St. Peter ad Vincula, near the plaque commemorating the executions on Tower Green.
In the same year there was also a children’s book, London Town, by Felix Leigh, illustrated by Thomas Crane and Ellen Houghton, which tells the story, in verse, of a young girl named Prue touring London with her parents.
The book includes a drawing of Prue and her parents at the Tower, observing a little girl outside Beauchamp Tower, looking rather frightened at the sight of two ravens and clinging to a Yeoman Warder. The text accompanying the drawing seems to be the first significant mention of the ravens at the Tower.
Among the sights of London Town Which little visitors wish to view, The Tower stands first, and its great renown Has, you will notice, attracted Prue.
At a well- known spot, to Miss Prue’s surprise, some fine old ravens are strutting about. If upon the picture a glance you cast, you will know the ravens next time, no doubt.
The red-coated guard who’s watching her Is called a Beefeater— fancy that! And Prue discovers, as she draws near, A child by his side who is round and fat.
“ Father and Mother… pray come here,” In tones so pleasant, laughs lively Prue: “ You’ve shown me things that are odd and queer, A Beefeater’s baby I’ll show you!”
After Prue and her parents, the accounts of the ravens at the Tower start to proliferate… There is raven contagion!
In Birds in London, published in 1898, W. H. Hudson claims,
“For many years past two or three ravens have usually been kept at the Tower of London.” And so the stories begin to grow. You can see the beginnings of the legend of the ravens growing and blossoming before your very eyes in the work of Major-General Sir George Younghusband, of the Guides Cavalry, a formidable soldier who served in the Second Afghan War, the Mahdist War, the Third Burmese War, the Second Boer War, and the First World War, and who was appointed Keeper of the Jewel House at the Tower in 1917.
In his book The Tower from Within, Younghusband provides a comprehensive guide to life at the Tower, its history and traditions as understood at the beginning of the twentieth century.
According to Younghusband:
"Round and about the site of the ancient scaffold, or sitting silent on a bench nearby, may be seen the historic ravens of the Tower. No doubt when forests grew close up to the moat the turrets of the old Tower made an ideal place in which ravens could build their nests, and rear future generations of Tower ravens. But as the city grew around and the forests receded, and with them fields for forage, the ravens would no longer nest or breed in their old haunts. They have therefore since then from time to time had to be replaced by new blood from outside.
The present birds were given to the Tower by Lord Dunraven, and one of them is now of considerable age. It would be of historic interest if those whose ancestors have suffered at the Tower would send from their homes successors to the old ravens, as they die off, and thus maintain a very old tradition in a manner well in keeping."
It seems likely that the “very old tradition” that Younghusband mentions was no more than thirty or forty years old at the time. Nonetheless, a few years later, in 1924, when he published another book about the Tower, A Short History of the Tower of London, he elaborated upon the theme of the Tower’s ancient raven traditions:
"Walking about on the Tower Green, or perhaps perched on the steps of the White Tower, may be seen a few ravens, three or four, sometimes five. These are the Ravens of the Tower and as much part of it as are the Yeomen Warders. What their origin may have been is lost in the mists of antiquity, but possibly when the Tower stood alone— a rock- like edifice amidst the fields and forests which then surrounded it— ravens built their nests in its high turrets. An historian mentions that they were gazing on the scene when Queen Anne Boleyn was executed. Perhaps after the ravens ceased to nest in such unquiet surroundings as the Tower they formed part of the menagerie maintained by Kings of England in the Tower as one of their regal fancies. Whatever their origin may have been, they are now maintained on the strength of the garrison… are duly enlisted— having an attestation card as has a soldier— and daily receive their ration of raw meat and other delicacies issued by the Yeoman Warder in whose charge they are placed. [. . .] A whole chapter could be filled with stories about the Tower Ravens and their adventures and escapades and amusements, and these can be gathered from any of the kindly Yeoman Warders whom the visitor may meet, but here unhappily there is no more space for them."
Personally, I have no doubt that ravens have long been present here. The White Tower was for many centuries one of the tallest buildings in London, and what with Smithfield Market nearby, and the amount of rubbish and decaying flesh that would anyway have been bobbing its way downstream in the River Thames, the Tower would have been an ideal spot for ravens to congregate and nest.
In a letter written by Sir Walter Raleigh to Robert Cecil, 1st Viscount Cranborne, in the winter of 1604–1605, while he was imprisoned in the Bloody Tower, Raleigh implores his friend to “save this quarter which remaineth from the ravens of this time which feed on all things.” Poor Sir Walter was clearly having a bad day when he wrote the letter, though the good news is that he survived his imprisonment in the Tower and was in fact pardoned by the King in 1617 and granted permission to go off in search of El Dorado — though he was then admittedly beheaded in the Old Palace Yard at the Palace of Westminster in 1618!
Anyway, his plea to Robert Cecil to save his wasted body from the ravens suggests that there were indeed ravens in and around the Tower at the time.
What we know for sure is that the ravens only became a notable and remarkable feature at the Tower sometime in the late 1800s. Perhaps it was simply because the raven population throughout the rest of the country had declined so sharply having been hunted down and killed as vermin that the few remaining birds at the Tower became worthy of comment.
But I think there’s more to it.
Here’s what I think happened. This is the unproven and untested Skaife Theory about the creation of the legend of the ravens at the Tower, derived from many years of research and experience working at the Tower: you could also call it the Yeoman Warder Theory.
The Yeoman Warder Theory is based on an understanding not only of the nature and behaviour of the ravens, but also on the nature and behaviour of human beings. The Yeoman Warder Theory is that it was the Yeoman Warders themselves who had a hand in inventing the legend of the ravens at the Tower and probably for their own profit.
Credit: Mickayla Skaife
Imagine the scene: It’s the 1880s. The Tower has begun opening its gates to ever greater numbers of the general public, to the great unwashed, accepting paying visitors to the most notorious prison and fortress in the land, with its gruesome history of murder, executions, and torture. And here you are among them— washed, unwashed, whatever— waiting in anticipation for the Tower’s ancient wooden gates to open and your Beefeater guide to meet you.
Slowly the gates begin to part, creaking and groaning from almost a thousand years of use. From behind the great gate appears an old man leaning on a twisted wooden cane, wearing a dirty dark blue uniform decorated with scarlet and braid, an odd medal or two pinned to his chest. On his head is a curious hat, set at a jaunty angle. There’s a strong whiff of gin and stale tobacco about him.
“Give me a shilling and you can come in,” he growls. “And I will tell you our dark, dark secrets.”
You hand over your coin, he shoves it in his pocket, and then he turns and hobbles back inside the Tower. “Follow me!” he cries. “And keep up!” So you enter through the gates and follow him as he begins to recount his dreadful tales of the Tower’s history.
As you reach the Traitor’s Gate, he stops and turns. “Do you dare to go farther inside?” You nod, fearful and excited, and he rubs his fingers together. “In which case, I will need another coin or two.”
He scowls. And so it goes— the deeper you penetrate inside the Tower, the deeper his pockets are filled with your hard- earned cash. Until at last, at the scaffold site on Tower Green, the old Yeoman Warder claims actually to have seen the ghost of Anne Boleyn! And to have heard the pitiful whimpers of the two boy princes murdered deep within the Bloody Tower. And to himself have felt the shudders as the murdered Queens of England laid down their heads and the sharp edge of cold metal fell upon their dainty necks!
And there—he points finally, triumphantly are the ravens, reminders of our dark past, souls of the departed, the very souls of those who were executed on the private scaffold site on Tower Green!
“Witness the ravens! Here since the beginning of time! Here since Anne Boleyn herself was executed!”
What a way to enhance the story! Living, breathing representations of the life of the Tower.
And all it would have taken would have been to trim the feathers of a few ravens and feed them the occasional scraps and that’ll be another penny, Madam!
(All images author's own except where otherwise credited.)
Thanks so much for visiting, Chris, and telling us your convincing theory!
Followers – don't forget to visit tomorrow, when you'll get an opportunity to win a copy of Chris's book.
A few months ago I wrote on this blog about an ending for me – finishing my life as a civil servant. Today is another ending – and, excitingly, a new beginning – because today I’m leaving London, and moving to Brighton.
I’ve lived in London all my adult life and in Crystal Palace for nearly fourteen years. It has been a wonderful place to live. I’ve always loved its history and the sense of community and shared identity that brings, and I’ll miss it very much.
Me on Dinosaur Island, Crystal Palace Park
Photo: L O'Sullivan
Crystal Palace wasn’t always known as such. But after the success of the Great Exhibition in 1851 it was decided to rebuild Joseph Paxton’s masterpiece on a permanent site, and run it as a commercial enterprise. A commanding position on top of a ridge in south London on the borders of Upper Norwood, Penge and Sydenham was chosen, the Palace rebuilt and a new identity forged.
It became the defining feature of the area, bringing millions of people to visit and live over the next 80 years and changing it forever. Two train stations were built to manage the influx of visitors. Many of the bus routes in south London end in Crystal Palace even now because of the number of people who wanted to get to the attraction. And, as across London, huge numbers of houses were built, but in this case many of them were large and beautiful villas for the well-to-do, wanting to live in this now-fashionable spot.
The Crystal Palace burned down in a catastrophic fire in 1936. The site of the Palace and grounds is now the local park. You can see the foundations of the Palace at the top of the hill, complete with a few of the original statues. There are two more complete reminders of the heyday of the Crystal Palace, however, which I have especially loved while living here:
The Megalosaurus, striding through the
autumn foliage. Photo C. Wightwic
1) The Dinosaurs. I’ve written about them before, but I make no bones (boom boom) about doing so again. Declaring an Interest, I’m now on the Board of the charity that works to promote and conserve the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs (most of which aren’t actually Dinosaurs, but hey…) They were built in the 1850s as an attraction in the grounds of Crystal Palace and were the first ever life sized sculptures of dinosaurs (and other extinct creatures) anywhere in the world. The sculptures were created at the dawn of dinosaur palaeontology, taking into account the cutting-edge science of the day. We obviously know much more now, so many of them look weird and ‘wrong’ to our eyes. From the point of view of the history of science, therefore, they are a testament to how our knowledge changes and grows with each generation. For the general viewer today, their ‘wrongness’ adds to their charm.
2) The Subway. This gorgeous subterranean space isn’t often open to the public, although the Friends of the Subway are doing an amazing job to provide occasional access days. One of the last remnants of the Crystal Palace and its associated infrastructure, the subway was the passageway between the ‘high level’ train station and the great Crystal Palace itself. The red-and-white patterned space is all that remains of the high level station, but gives an impression of the grandeur and excitement of a visit to one of the greatest spectacles of the age.
The Subway in 2017. Photo: C.Wightwick
So, what to take to Brighton as part of my ever-expanding Cabinet of Curiosities? Well, the Ruling History Girl wasn’t very impressed a few months ago when I tried to bring a life-sized sculpture of a naked man into the Cabinet (apparently he wouldn’t fit) so I don’t suppose I can get away with a life-sized Dinosaur either. And I wouldn’t want to take them out of their natural habitat, even virtually. In designing the Dinosaurs, smaller maquettes were made, about 1/8th size of the final pieces. None of them survive, to our knowledge. But if they did, maybe I could fit one of those into the Cabinet?
I was in Brunswick Square a couple of weeks ago, to visit an exhibition at the Foundling Museum. It told a story I knew nothing about. I had, of course, heard of Thomas Coram, its founder, but knew nothing of the struggle he had experienced in getting his philanthropic venture off the ground.
In the early 1700s, when Thomas Coram returned to England after eleven years in America, the London poor were in a bad way, especially their children. Mortality in the under-fives was running at 75%. it was even worse in the workhouses, where the rate was 90%. It was the time of the gin craze and many poor women who couldn't feed their children adequately gave this cheap spirit to them to suppress their appetite, not realising the dangers. Thousands of children died from alcohol poisoning.
About a thousand children a year were abandoned in the streets by desperately poor families who couldn't provide for them. Illegitimacy also bore a stigma and many abandoned babies were those who had been born out of wedlock. And yet there was no provision in London for the care of such "foundlings."
In this way we lagged behind provision in Europe, where there was the Hopital des Enfants-Trouvés in Paris in the late 17th century. Italy was even better provided, having had the Ospedale degli Innocenti (designed by Brunellechi) in Florence since 1491 and the even earlier Conservatorio della Ruota in Rome in the 13th century. The "ruota" was the wheel, also used in Florence, in the wall of the building, where desperate women placed their babies and turned the handle to deliver them inside, into the care of nuns.
In Britain, there was a fear that having somewhere to leave the results would encourage extra-marital or pre-marital sex.
Into this scene stepped Thomas Coram, a man of such determination that he spent seventeen years getting the Foundling Hospital up and running.
Thomas Coram in front of his hospital
Born to a humble family in Lyme Regis, Thomas Coram went to sea and ended up in Boston in America as a shipbuilder. He was evident a blunt and outspoken man, who made enemies in America, and eventually returned to his native country. He continued to do well as a shipbuilder and became quite wealthy. But he was appalled at the situation of abandoned children in London and the absence of any provision for them. He had no children of his own but was determined to do something to look after the unfortunate offspring of others.
To establish a foundling hospital, he had to get a Charter of Incorporation from the king but he had no idea how to secure one. So he decided to start a petition and made extensive lists in his pocket book of the names of all the churchmen, nobles and other dignitaries he could think of. Then he tramped the streets of London trying to get these influential people's support. This was to little avail.
Coram decided on a another approach: he would approach the women, the wives of the great and the good, and appeal to their compassion. The first woman to sign his petition was Charlotte, the Duchess of Somerset in 1729, the first of eventually twenty-one "Ladies of Quality and Disctinction" to do so. That's her, on the left, below:
Where one noble lady led, others followed. The exhibition currently at the Foundling Museum, shows portraits or copies or photographs of paintings of all twenty-one, because women of their rank would have sat to have their images preserved. Some paintings show them with their families, some alone. Here is Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, who signed in 1730, with her husband, the Earl, and their children Selina and Henry.
Ann, Duchess of Bolton
Many of these women were remarkable in their own right. Countess Selina, for example, in 1737, leading a group of titled women, broke into the House of Commons gallery and shouted comments, after they had been excluded from a debate on Spain.
Each "lady" has her own story and I recommend visiting the exhibition to explore them all.
When they had all signed, the petition was presented to the king in 1735 and there followed two years of gentle persuasion of husbands and kinsmen, until a second petition was presented, of "Noblemen and Gentlemen," which included "25 dukes, 31 earls, 26 members of the peerage and38 knights, along with the entire Privy Council, which included the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, the Speaker of the House of Commons andthe Justices of the Peace, 375 signatures in total."
Such a plea could not be ignored and, in 1739, King George ll signed the charter and the Foundling Hospital had its green light. Thomas Coram, now 70 years old, presented it to the Duke of Bedford, who was made its first President. 172 men from the age of 21 to 80, were appointed its first governors. (Anyone who donated £50 was eligible).
Now all they had to do was raise the money. A committee of 50 governors was chosen by lot and they met every two weeks to discuss fund-raising and other matters. In 1740 a lease was taken on a house in Hatton Garden, to provide a home for sixty children. But it wasn't until 1753 that permanent premises opened, with half the cost of building (£2,000) donated by the king.
From 1742-55 there was an admission system of lottery, using coloured balls. This was becaiuse there were always more babies that places. A white ball meant a definite admission subject to medical examination, a black ball meant there was definitely no place for the child and a red ball meant a reserve place if any of the accepted children failed the medical.
Every child came with a token from its mother, which could be as simple as a piece of cloth, in the event that a child might be taken back at a later date when the parents could afford to support it. Infants were taken into the country to foster mothers until they were four years old. One of the inspectors of these foster-homes was the artist William Hogarth.
Self-portrait with pug
He was one of the original governors of the Foundling Hospital and he and his wife Jan, although childless themselves, fostered several foundlings themselves. He donated his portrait of Thomas Coram to the hospital.
Coram himself was chucked off the committee within a year. He was obviously no easier to get along with than he had been in America. But obstinacy can be a good quality, as his perseverance shows.
But he couldn't have succeeded without the support of his Ladies of Quality and Distinction. Some were happily married, like Elizabeth, Countess of Cardigan, whose husband wrote he was "the happiest man in the whole world by being married last Thursday to my Lady Betty Bruce." They had six children, two of whom are in this painting:
Elizabeth, Countess of Cardigan
Others were not so lucky, like Anne, Duchess of Bedford, whose first husband was the "intellectually weak" seventeen-year-old 3rd Duke of Bedford. Anne, the granddaughter of Sarah Churchill, the uchess of Marlborough, was six years older than her pathetic teenage husband, who didn't fancy her and wouldn't perform his marital duties. He was also gambling away hisfamily fortune.
Grandma stepped in and suggested he might travel abroad, where he conveniently died in his early twenties. Anne swapped her title for the lesser one of Countess of Jersey a year later and had a happy second marriage. She signed the petition while her first husband was still alive.
Anne, Duchess of Bedford
It was a story I knew nothing about, all these duchesses and countesses, who lent their names to the great venture that was to become the Foundling Hospital and rescue so many children, although of course many more were lost. Not only did it help the ones who were fortunate in the lottery but it helped to change society's view of illegitimacy.
(And the Hospital inspired two great children's books: Jamila Gavin's Coram Boy (2000), which won the Whitbread Prize and Jacqueline Wilson's Hetty Feather, which was turned into TV series in 2015)
Many thanks to volunteer Jane King for showing us around the museum.
With acknowledgmentsto the exhibition brochure and The Foundling Museum: an Introduction by Caro Howell et.al. (2014)
One of the reasons I went to France earlier this year was to check for myself what happened in the Somme region after World War I. I read many accounts, but they couldn’t tell me what I needed to know. What did I need to know? The cultural impact of war.
Historical fiction builds culture. It gives so many of us pathways into understanding how our world sees its past and how people might have lived in it. As fiction, it has fuzzy boundaries, and this is an important part of creating that wonderful past. Some writers use the fuzzy boundaries to create adventure, and some use it to create small private worlds that readers feel they can step into. Some use it to create trauma and let us see the horror of the past. Whatever the writer chooses, they are adding to culture.
I used to think that war added to culture, too. This is because some aspects of war do precisely that. We’ve just had a flurry of memory of poets who died in World War I. Those terrible, beautiful, simple rhymes came from horror and represent death. Exquisite and agonising, they are a core part of how we see that war.
There is a Somme tourism that specialises in military matters. In July, I met a few of the tourists along the Somme, they ere following the routes and visiting the sites and the museums. There were so many Australians. I talked with some of them. A few were there for family who died. They wanted to see a piece of paper or find out more about the man or where he died. Another group was there because they want to commemorate the war in this hundredth year. A few were there to remind themselves that they vowed “Never again.”
This is also cultural creation. These personal reactions to damaged lives and to a damaged landscape are part of our healing, and we talk about that, but they’re also part of the act of cultural creation. We create a culture of memory when we engage in war tourism. We’re remembering the war and giving it sets of values. Culturally, it’s how we connect past to future.
This doesn’t simply roll into historical fiction. Most historical fiction writers will take the emotions that rise from seeing death and the culture we use to explain those emotions and that death, and will weave it into the fabric of their novel. Thus one type of cultural creation feeds into another type. It can be beautiful. It can be sensible. It can be tragic. From any direction, however, it’s cultural creation, often of a powerful kind. It has the power of drawing from several cultural elements and bringing them together and triggering emotions.
None of this is the opposite of historical fiction. The opposite of historical fiction is not the scarred landscape, nor is it the scarred lives. We’ve given them story. We’ve created culture for them and we’re very busy creating culture for them every day.
The opposite of historical fiction is the past that never makes it into story. One of the reasons humans commit genocide is to wipe the stories of people, their cultures, their memories, their very existence from the planet. This is an aspect of culture that’s so hard to talk about that we often dump the story and add numbers together to turn it into data.
This is a terribly difficult subject, for so many reasons, so I’m going to give you just two examples of how these things are the opposite of history. If there’s enough interest, I can post more on it, for it’s part of my research into cultural fabric. Only if there are readers who want, however, or it’s a difficult subject to write about.
My first example will concern World War I and my second, World War II.
In and around Amiens, I talked with people and I took pictures of places and I visited museums. I needed to understand how families from the region recovered after the war. A man I spoke to was from a town that no longer exists. He told me that his family lost everything and that, a hundred years ago, they moved to Amiens to start again. He is a ceramicist and I bought a salt shaker to remind myself that every single bit of the physical culture for that family had to be re-created.
We don’t think of locals who never travel more than 20 miles from the place of their ancestors as refugees, but some of the losses the ceraicit's family suffered are the same as the losses refugees suffer. The family didn’t lose their country, or their language. Some of the culture could be re-created and all the oral culture and the cooking and the family stories survived… unless they were linked to physical items. The destruction of private property was so immense that families are still trying to rebuild their physical heritage. They will never get all of it back. It's gone.
Local heritage for that region has big holes. The opposite of historical fiction. Not lack of evidence. Destruction of all the objects that link us to the past. If someone had a mourning brooch… it’s gone. If someone had a chair passed down from the Middle Ages and carefully preserved... it’s gone. No number of salt cellars can replace the loss of the family kitchen, in the house the family had lived in for as long as records exist. The house itself is gone.
This is not restricted to the Somme. It’s everywhere where towns are destroyed and people are forced to move. Culture is simplified in a brutal way and when it is rebuilt, it’s not the same.
My second example is represented by the one book I hoped was stolen when 1209 books were taken by thieves. It’s the cookbook I’ve not had the courage to cook from.
We all know stories about World War II. We (the broader cultural 'we') don’t tend to read a lot about the women sent to the concentration camps and the death camps. Several groups of women, historians have discovered, sat around talking food. We know (for historians have investigated) that some of these women starved to death while they were remembering recipes and dinner parties. How do we know they were talking food? There are manuscripts, written down on whatever material they could obtain and hidden so that even if they died, people would know who they are. So that their families might have their recipes. So that there was memory. So that their history lived.
I can give you any number of reasons why the recipes might have been written down in such terrible circumstances, but that’s guesswork. That’s me trying to re-create the culture that has been destroyed. All we have are the recipes and any notes the recipe-writers gave us.
One of these collections has been translated into a cookbook. In Memory’s Kitchen. This is the book I needed to understand. The one that hurts when I see it.
It hurts right now, because it’s on my desk because researching the Somme and writing this blogpost has brought me to a realisation. When the recipes of these murdered people sit unread on shelves in libraries, they’re part of the culture death those who killed them so desire. We know that Jewish women on the verge of death wrote down their favourite recipes. That’s all we take into our culture.
Yet these amazing women gave us a gift. Something that ought to be wiped from the planet with the people that lives, sits right now on my desk and tells me, “We do not have to accept such destruction. We can remember this group of women through what they have given us.”
I need to make something from that cookbook, soon. I need to remember these women and their culture and not share in the erasure of people from the planet.
There’s a Jewish festival that starts tonight. This is a good moment to make that impossible step and to move one small part of a destroyed past into living culture.
The Turn of the Screw opens on Christmas Eve with a group of guests sitting around a fire listening to a story that is said to be, 'gruesome, as, on Christmas Eve, in an old house, a strange tale should essentially be'.
Henry James was alluding to the tradition of telling ghost stories during the dark winter months, a practice which goes back thousands of years to when people, lacking iPads and Netflix, would gather at the fireside to share folk tales of spirits and ghouls. ‘A sad tale's best for winter,’ Maximillius says in The Winter's Tale. ‘I have one of sprites and goblins.’
A little help from the Victorians
From A Christmas Carol, 1938
So when in 1843 Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol– in which Scrooge is tormented by a series of ghosts on the night before Christmas – he was building on an age-old custom. However, it was one that he and other Victorians did much to consolidate and commercialise. The Christmas issues of the magazines Dickens edited (Household Words and All the Year Round) often included ghost stories. Indeed, it's believed that it was the rise of the periodical press that released the ghosts. Publishers wanted short, cheap, generic stories that could pull an audience, and ghost stories did just that.
The best known of the 19th century ghost story glut are perhaps the stories by Sheridan le Fanu, Wilkie Collins, Elizabeth Gaskell and of course the masterful M R James, whose Lost Hearts was published in 1895, but there are many, many more. Ghosts also proliferated on the stage, in spirit photographs and in drawing room séances. It was in 1848 that the Fox sisters heard the rappings they claimed were spirit communications, and so spiritualism began.
By the 1890s, Jerome K. Jerome was able to write: ‘Whenever five or six English-speaking people meet round a fire on Christmas Eve, they start telling each other ghost stories. Nothing satisfies us on Christmas Eve but to hear each other tell authentic anecdotes about spectres. It is a genial, festive season, and we love to muse upon graves, and dead bodies, and murders, and blood.’
After the turn of the century, some of the ghosts floated from Christmas to Halloween, influenced by the US where Scottish and Irish communities brought with them the customs of Samhain.
As late as 1915, Christmas annuals of magazines were still dominated by ghost stories. However, by the middle of the century the magazine ghosts had mostly been sidelined in favour of consumerism and wholesome cheer.
But, in England at least, the Christmas ghost story has never really gone away. It has lingered in our fiction, our TV, our theatre, our storytelling. Like The Turn of the Screw, Susan Hill's The Woman in Black begins on Christmas eve. Other Christmas ghost stories of the 20th century include those by Edith Wharton, JB Priestley, L.P. Hartley, Algernon Blackwood, Robert Aickman, Stephen King and Robertson Davies, whose High Spirits is a compilation of the ghost stories he told at his university's annual Christmas party. Andrew Taylor's Fireside Gothic features a brilliant story in the style of M R James that takes place over Christmas. The title story of Tom Cox's Help the Witch is set during the Christmas period.
Adaptations of M R James’s and Dickens' ghost stories have been aired on British TV and radio over Christmas since broadcasting began (with people such as Mark Gatiss injecting new energy into the tradition), and ghosts have had a habit of making appearances in Christmas specials of various series including Downton Abbey, The Bill and, apparently, Bergerac.
Many people say that they still read ghost stories on Christmas eve, either alone or with their families, and many attend live storytelling events in churches, graveyards and haunted halls.
A ghostly upsurge
My entirely unscientific research suggests that the Christmas ghost story is on the up. There seems to be a surge in ghost story events this year, with storytellers serving hot toddies and chilly stories across the UK.
Professional storyteller Kirsty Hartsiotis says, 'ghost stories are part of my stock in trade at Christmas time - people want them more now than at Halloween, in recent years'.
This perhaps ties in with the rise of the Gothic and the supernatural. Witches and vampires have been swooping across our screens and a host of Gothic and ghostly novels have been published in the past year (Melmoth, The Corset, A House of Ghosts, House of Glass, The House on Vesper Sands, The Lingering and my own novel The Story Keeper to name but a few). November saw the release of Vanessa Lafaye's Miss Marley: A Christmas ghost story - a prequel to A Christmas Carol. In troubled times, we reach out for the fantastical.
I for one would far rather be telling ghost stories to my family on Christmas eve than scrambling to wrap up their presents. Perhaps this Christmas I’ll try replacing Home Alone with The Haunting of Hill House and see if anyone notices.
In Lady Wilde’s ‘Ancient Legends of Ireland’ there’s a story about a young man, a poet, who attempts to seduce a farmer’s daughter. He’s used to having his wicked way with girls, for we're told that Irish poets were known for possessing ‘the power of fascination by the glance … so that they could make themselves loved and followed by any girl they liked.’
With this particular girl, however, the power doesn’t seem to work very well at first. The poet arrives at her farm and begs for a drink of milk, but the young woman happens to be on her own in the house – the maids are busy churning in the dairy – so she refuses to let him in. Annoyed by this, the poet takes action. Lady Wilde continues:
The young poet fixed his eyes earnestly on her face for some time in silence, then slowly turning round left the house and walked towards a small grove of trees just opposite. There he stood for a few moments resting against a tree, and facing the house as if to take one more vengeful or admiring glance, then went his way without once turning round.
The young girl had been watching him from the window, and the moment he moved she passed out of the door like one in a dream, and followed him slowly, step by step, down the avenue.
As the girl passes through the farmyard, the dairymaids notice her entranced state. They raise the alarm and her father comes running from his work, shouting for her to stop, but his daughter doesn’t seem able to hear. The poet does, though,
…and seeing the whole family in pursuit, quickened his pace, first glancing fixedly at the girl for a moment. Immediately she sprang towards him, and they were both almost out of sight, when one of the maids espied a piece of paper tied to a branch of the tree where the poet had rested.From curiosity she took it down, and the moment the knot was untied, the farmer’s daughter suddenly stopped, became quite still, and when her father came up she allowed him to lead her back to the house.
Recovering, the girl tells her family how she’d felt impelled to follow the young man ‘wherever he might lead’, only coming to her senses when the spell was broken. But what was the spell?
The paper, on being opened, was found to contain five mysterious words written in blood, and in this order:
These letters are so arranged that read in any way, right to left, left to right, up or down, the same words are produced; and when written in blood with a pen made of an eagle’s feather, they form a charm which no woman (it is said) can resist…
(In a sceptical aside, Lady Gregory adds, ‘but the incredulous reader can easily test the truth of this assertion for himself.’)
The Sator, Rotas, or Rotas Sator Square as this acrostic is called, is both very old and tantalisingly obscure; at any rate, no one has yet succeeded in explaining to everyone else’s satisfaction exactly what it means. Carved in stone or painted on walls, it crops up all over the place, at sites in Italy, Britain, Sweden and even Syria, ranging in date from Roman to medieval to near-modern. The words are obscure in themselves and have given rise to various tortuous interpretations (explored in this interesting article by Duncan Fishwick MA, "An Early Christian Cryptogram?"), which range from the reassuringly rural though still opaque, ‘The sower Arepo works the wheels with care’ – to Satanic invocations.AREPO is a nonsense word, and it seems that the rest, though they may resemble Latin words, are so ungrammatical as to be pretty much nonsense too.
However, back in the 1920s two German scholars discovered (or re-discovered) that the Square hides an anagram: it can be arranged as the word PATERNOSTER written twice in a cruciform order which uses the N only once, and leaves four letters over: two As and two Os – Alpha and Omega.
There’s really no chance that this is not deliberate, but to assume a Christian solution is problematic. The earliest known examples of the SATOR square are two graffiti from Pompeii which predate the Vesuvian eruption of AD 79.Duncan Fishwick summarises the difficulties thus: there's no convincing evidence of any Christians in Pompeii before it was destroyed; the Cross is not found as a Christian symbol before about AD 130; Christians of the First Century used Greek not Latin for teaching and liturgy; the Christian use of Alpha and Omega as symbols for God was inspired by verses of the Apocalypse, which by AD 79 had not yet been written; finally, ‘cryptic’ Christian symbols first appear only ‘during the persecutions of the third century’ when overt Christianity had become politically unsafe.
But as various graffitti testify, there a Jewish population living in and around Pompeii, and Fishwick suggests that rather than Christian, the Sator Square may have been Jewish in origin. The Alpha and Omega may derive their significance from Old Testament passages such as Isaiah 44, 6 in which God declares, ‘I am the first and the last’, while as for the Paternoster anagram, Fishwick explains that, ‘Far from being a Christian innovation this form of address [eg: 'Our Father'] has its roots in Judaism’, citing various Judaic prayers. He concludes that the Square may likely have been a charm constructed by Latin-speaking Jews, the magic of which resides in its satisfying symmetry and the concealed invocation which, revolving around the single letter N, hints at the unspoken nomen or name of God. Another scholar, Rebecca Benefiel, points out in a fascinating article,"Magic Squares, Alphabet Jumbles, Riddles and more: The culture of word-games among the graffiti of Pompeii,"that the Sator Square is only one of many different word-squares found at Pompeii.
Even if not Christian in origin, the Square was soon adopted as a Christian charm and invested with more specifically Christian symbolism: a belief arose that the five 'words' of the palindrome were the names of the five nails which fastened Christ to the cross. And it went on from there to enjoy a long subsequent history as a potent magical spell. It was used in the 12th century, according to medieval scholar Monica Green (quoted by Sarah E. Bond in a post, 'Power of the Palindrome', in her blog History from Below), as a charm which could be written on butter and eaten, to help women who had miscarried. At some time in the 18th century the Sator Square was brought from Germany to America: in the Pennsylvanian Dutch example shown below, dated circa 1790, you can see that mistakes have been made in the lettering, so that it becomes simply a piece of magical gibberish. One wonders how early any awareness of the Paternoster anagram had vanished.
In 1820 printer and chapbook seller, Pennsylvanian John or Johann Hohman published German and English versions of a book of spells, charms and remedies called 'The Long Lost Friend' or 'The Long Hidden Friend'. On the page reproduced below, we find in charm number 121 the Sator Square, used 'To Quench Fire Without Water':
It's clear that people tried it. The photo above, from the Oberhausmuseum in Passau, Bavaria, shows 'a plate with magic inscription, used as a fire fighting device to expel the evil spirits of fire.' Perhaps people prepared them in advance? I suppose it might even have worked to damp out a very small fire, but one hopes those who tried this charm were busy stamping out the flames at the same time. (At least it's fairly brief, unlike the elaborate spell Hohman provides for 'Preventing Conflagration' which involved throwing into the fire a bundled-up sheet stained either with the menstrual blood of a chaste virgin, or the blood from child-birth.)
A charm written on wood, intended to put out fires
In fact 'The Long-Hidden Friend' itself had a long history as a popular folk-magic text: as late as 1904, Carlton F. Brown wrote in The Journal of American Folk-lore (Vol. 17, No. 65, Apr. - Jun., 1904, pp 89-152) that 'in eastern Pennsylvania whole communities, even whole counties, firmly believe in the realities of "hexing", and protect themselves from its influence by the charms and incantations of witch doctors.' Subsequent investigation by the Berks County Medical Society into the practices of the witch doctors showed that 'the principal source of the charms which they were using was this very book of Hohman's.' And they charged high prices for their services.
Who would have thought that a word puzzle dating from at least as early as first century Pompeii would still be in use as a popular charm in 19th century America, and appear in a 19th century Irish folk tale? Whether Judaic or Christian, Roman or medieval, European or American – whether religious symbol, magical aid for women in childbirth, a charm to put out fires or a spell to lure young Irishwomen away – the Sator Square will surely continue to puzzle and intrigue.
Fair Rosamund, by Arthur Hughes, 1854. (So no real connection with Lady Wilde's story, but a sweet young woman in a summer garden with something doomful looming.)
Rotas square from St Peter ad Orotarium, Capestrano, photo by Poecus, at Wikimedia Commons
Photographs and film footage from the past are always evocative, now matter how shaky or blurred. Recently, advances in technology are being applied to them, partly in the name of preservation and partly as a way of bringing them even more vividly to modern audiences.* Have a look at A Trip Through Paris, France below -
Instead of the jerky movements we're used to seeing in early film, the footage has been slowed down to a more natural pace. Instead of adding a (sometimes really dire) music sound track, there are the noises of horse traffic, bicycle bells and people talking. Watching this, I had a real sense of people wearing clothes, not people in costume. I loved the kid who stood right in front of the camera until poked out of the way with an umbrella. And those moving walkways in the snow - if I had seen this before writing Slightly Jones and the Case of the Hidden City, set in 1890s Paris, I would definitely have found a way to include them in the story! * Peter Jackson's piece They Shall Not Grow Old, done as a commission from the Imperial War Museum, is another example, though I haven't summoned up the courage to watch it yet. (There's a short news report on it here.) Joan Lennon's website. Joan Lennon's blog. Slightly Jones and the Case of the Hidden City.
In just over a week, on 14th December 2018 it will be the centenary of the election where some women in Britain and Ireland had the right to vote for the first time in a parliamentary election.
Last week in Dublin I saw commemorative posters of Constance Markievicz on almost every lamp-post. Markievicz was of course the first woman elected to Westminter, though as an Irish Republican she never took up that seat, recognising Dáil Eireann instead. I knew then that I’d have to find something fresh to say about the 1918 election for my upcoming History Girls post.
commemorative posters in Dublin
Fresh? How? I’ve been living with this date for over two years, since I started writing my 2017 novelStar By Star which focuses on that election. I’ve done suffragist-themed events from Aberdeeen down to London, and from Derry to Kerry. I've written lots of relevant articles and blogs. I’m pretty much electioned-out, especially as during that time I also found myself campaigning in real life during both NI Assembly and UK Westminster elections.
So today I’m thinking not of Constance Markiewicz, not even of Winifred Carney, who stood for Sinn Féin in an east Belfast seat she hadn’t a hope of winning, but of an obscure woman in a terraced parlour house in that same East Belfast electoral ward.
Fanny Duff was my great-grandmother. I know very little about her. She was, according to my grandmother, her daughter Frances, a gentle and quiet woman. She brought up a large family. She saw her sons off to good skilled shipyard jobs like their father, and one to emigration. Two daughters went into shirt factories, and one died in her teens. Fanny was widowed young, and took in sewing to help provide for the family. She died suddenly in 1936, the day after my grandmother's 28th birthday.
Was Fanny eligible to vote in 1918? I assume so. She was over 30, and married to the householder of a respectable three-story terrace house whose rateable value would have been over the necessary £5 threshold.
She lived in an area that was then more mixed than it is today, but even so it was a safe unionist seat and Fanny’s family were unionists. The newspapers -- it is most likely the Duffs read The News Letter -- were full of exhortations to vote and instructions on how to do so. I love the idea of her defying family tradition – and possibly her husband, James, and casting her vote for a woman, feminism trumping tribal identity, but that was even less likely in 1918 Belfast than it would be today, and there is no evidence that Fanny was a feminist.
Maybe she didn’t vote at all. In December 1918 the flu pandemic was still raging. It affected both the election campaigns and turnout. Fanny may have been nursing one of her children, or have been ill herself. Or she may have been well but reluctant to queue up at a crowded polling station and risk infection.
I talked to my own granny a lot about what we both calledthe olden days. But I never asked about that election day when she was ten years old. I never asked if her mother went to vote or if politics was talked about in the house. There can be nobody alive now who remembers Fanny Duff, who died in 1936. She’s just one more working class woman who may, or may not, have played a part in that historic election. But she was my great-grandmother, and next Friday, on the 14thDecember, I choose to think of her striding proudly down Beechfield Street, perhaps on her husband’s arm, perhaps alone or with a group of neighbours, ready to cast her vote for the first time.
Below is a photograph of the book I'm reviewing today. It's not in the same class as all the other pictures on this post, which were taken by Jane Brocket, the author of How to look at stained glass. However, it has the advantage of showing a glimpse of the back cover.
Jane Brocket knows a great deal about a great many things. I came to her blog (link in the author biog below) because it was beautiful. She posted photos of flowers, cakes, knitted socks, and the creative nail polish choices of her teenage daughter. She travelled and noticed things as she went and drew them to her readers' attention. She is someone who's endlessly curious about many things and who moreover makes a point of becoming enormously well-informed about everything she intends to write about.
She's originally from Stockport and the first time I met her was in a café in Didsbury, Manchester. Now she's moved to Cambridge, I have met her all over again. My attention was drawn to this book when I read an wonderfully-illustrated article in the Daily Telegraph. It was only at the end of the piece that I noticed that the book in question was by Jane Brocket. I was amazed and delighted but not in the least surprised.
Stained glass interests me. I love it, of course. Most people do. But I lived for a very long time in a house in Manchester which had 1910 stained glass panels in every window and even in the glass on the doors inside. If Jane had lived in my house she'd have found out the name of the firm that installed it and probably also the name of the person who designed it...she's that sort of person. I just stared at it over years and wrote the odd poem about it.
When I moved to Cambridge, I went to visit Ely Cathedral and there's a brilliant stained-glass museum there. And just recently, I had two stained glass experiences. The first was a visit to the Sainte Chapelle in Paris where the windows are miraculously beautiful and glorious in every way, and the second was an Imagine programme on the BBC which was about the dazzling window David Hockney designed for Westminster Abbey, at the Queen's invitation.
By the brilliant Irish designer Harry Clarke. In St Mary, Sturminster Newton, 1921
You're actually going to need two copies of this book. The first can sit on a convenient table where people can pick it up and look at it carefully, reading some of the witty, entertaining and hugely informative text. The second has to be kept in the car if you're travelling round the country, so that you can look up your county in the index and check to see if there's a convenient church you can pop into, in order to admire the stained glass.
The only windows by Marc Chagall in England are in All Saints, Tudeley, Kent. Amazing set of windows - this is a detail (1985).
This book is very well-organised. There's a list detailing what's in the illustrations, a list of 50 churches to visit, an index of churches arranged in counties, and so on. Best of all, the book is divided into short chapters (you don't want to be reading endless screeds when you're looking round a church on a day out) under headings such as Angels, Grisaille, zzzz (for people sleeping) and so on. Dogs and cats, flowers, fire, insects, lead, textiles, saints, restoration, science, feet, crowns, etc. Brocket has encompassed almost everything a person can imagine being depicted in glass. This method of classification things makes it easy for anyone to look out for what particularly interests them. Also, it encourages a search for specific things when you're standing in front of a huge window whose details may at first seem too much to take in.
Lovely semi-abstract glass in Manchester Cathedral by Anthony Hollaway, 1980.
The friendly and approachable tone can't hide the enormous knowledge of the subject that's on display. Brocket explains a great deal about the processes, history and present-day state of stained-glass. She knows the artists. She knows the glass makers. She knows how all the varied strands of stained glass history come together.
In Christ Church in Southwark, which was flattened by bombs in WW2 and rebuilt in late 1950s. By FW Cole, 1961.
It strikes me that this book is a kind of literary stained-glass window. The separate elements are bound together into a satisfying whole, and you can look at bits of it, one at a time, as you're looking at the actual glass. Or you can do what I did for the purposes of writing this post...start at the beginning and read all the
way through to the end.
Detail of vast scheme of windows by Heaton, Butler & Bayne (1860s and 1870s) in St Mary, Banbury.
I'm now fired up to go and explore the Cambridge churches that are mentioned in the book. And I will henceforth know what I'mlooking for when I go anywhere where stained glass is part of the building.
By Joan Howson and Caroline Townshend (1940). In St Credan, Sancreed. (Cornwall, hence Cornish tin miner.) Three of my favourite books are The Gentle Art of Domesticity and The Gentle Art of Knitting and Vintage Cakes. Brocket has written lots of others, too, but this one will take its place on the shelf and give me pleasure for years to come.
I'm going to end with a quotation from the book, taken from the section on Beards, to give you a flavour of Brocket's tone and style. I am certain there are many, many people out there who would love to find it under the tree. Merry Christmas!
"Young, virile, heroic saints such as St George and St Michael are usually clean-shaven, the better to show off their remarkably strong jawlines, but older saints, such as St James the Greater and St Peter, who have come through a long life or martyrdom, are often depicted with unruly, unkempt beards, in keeping with a long pilgrimage or an earlier life as a fisherman."
Jane Brocket is an author, blogger and Master of Wine. In 2005, after an MA in Victorian Art & Literature at Royal Holloway, she created her well-known blog, yarnstorm https://www.yarnstormpress.co.uk/in order to write about knitting. Discovering very quickly that she couldn’t knit fast enough to produce enough material for frequent posts, she widened her subject matter to include all things domestic, plus plenty of buns, bulbs and books. She has subsequently written eighteen books on a variety of creative and cultural themes, the latest of which is How to Look at Stained Glass. Jane is married to Simon; they live in Cambridge and have three grown-up children.
Situated 436 metres above sea level, St Michael and All Angels in Princetown, Devon is one of the highest locations for a church in the country. But it is also unique in being the only church in England to have been constructed by American prisoners of war. Most British people know that Napoleonic prisoners were incarcerated in England, but we often forget that American POWs were also imprisoned in England at the beginning of the 19th century.
The granite church sits on the top of windswept and wild Dartmoor, close to the notorious Dartmoor Prison. The building of the church began in 1812, by French prisoners and was completed in 1815 by American POWs. The prisoners had to quarry the hard stone in all weathers, summer and winter, shape them and then transport the great blocks to the site, before each piece could be hoisted in place.
During the war of 1812 between Britain and America, which lasted 32 months, many American prisoners of war were captured during sea-battles They were initially held on the prison ships in Plymouth, ironically, where the Pilgrim Fathers had sailed from, but after riots on board, the authorities decided to move them to the remote and grim prison at Princetown on Dartmoor. In groups of 250, they were marched a gruelling 17 miles up onto the moors, to Princetown, often swathed in mist and rain, surrounded by forbidding tors and deadly sucking mires.
Dartmoor Prison in the Mist
Photographer: Rob Purvis
The prison had been built between 1806-1809 to house 10,000 men. Between 1809 and 1812, 8,000 Napoleonic prisoners had passed through it’s gates, and 6,500 US sailors were imprisoned there in the years between 1813-1815. Conditions were bleak and harsh, with frequent floggings, though these were often ordered by the prisoners’ own courts. But in contrast, there are reports of music and plays being performed by the prisoners. Sadly, more than 280 Americans died in prison from food poisoning, measles, pneumonia and small pox. The stained-glass east window in the church was eventually installed as a memorial to them.
Perez Drinkwater, from Maine, a lieutenant on the schooner Lucy, was captured by the British Navy in 1813. He wrote to his brother in 1814, one of the few letters ever to make it out of Dartmoor Prison.
'We arrived in Plymouth on 20th January was put on board the prison-ship Brave on 24th and landed from her on 31st and marched to this place in a snow storm. The prison is situated on one of the highest places in England and it either snows or rains the whole year round and is cold enough to wear a great coat the whole time. There is 10,000 men here now but the French are about going home … we have but 1lb and a half of black bread and about 3 ounces of beef and a little beef tea to drink and all that makes us one meal a day.
Interior of St Michael's Church with the British, American
and French Flags.
He also complains about getting little peace between the ‘Englishmen’ and ‘creepers’ (lice and bedbugs) which force them up in the mornings. What seems to have been worse for him is that he had nothing to do or think about except his imprisonment. Working on the church, for some of the prisoners at least, must have at least got them outside those high walls for a few precious hours.
At the end of the war in 1815, there was a delay of some months in releasing and repatriating the prisoners. That and food shortages, led to what some reports called a ‘protest’, others called an ‘uprising’ or ‘riot,’ which was quelled with armed forced. Tragically, seven American prisoners were shot dead and somewhere between 31 and 60 were wounded according to differing accounts.
Some of the small granite stones
marking graves of prisoners
The churchyard of St Michael's contains over 1,000 burials. When Dartmoor prison was reopened for convicts in 1850, prisoners were buried anonymously in their own area in the churchyard and without a grave marker, unless their families could pay for one. Now, thanks to local researchers their names and history are recorded inside the church. By 1900’s, prisoners were allowed a small granite marker with just their initials and date of death, though when I examined these rows of little stones, even these scant details seem largely unreadable now. There is, however, a large granite cross, with an arrow on each corner, carved by the prisoners themselves to remember all their fellow inmates who lie in unmarked graves.
But it was not just prisoners who had no grave stones. A large empty area between the gates and the cross is where the local people are buried who could not afford a stone, especially during the measles and typhoid epidemic in which some families in Princetown lost several of their children, siblings dying within days or even hours of each other.
I visited the church just before Armistice day, when like so many across the country, it had been decorated with the transparent outlines of soldiers in the pews. Somehow, these ghostly figures seemed even more poignant inside St Michael’s one of England’s most stark but haunting churches, a moving memorial to the French and Americans POWs who created it.
Poppies and the transparent outline of the solider
who never returned in the pew in St Michael's church.
by Caroline Lawrence For many years, my motive for studying Classics and writing historical fiction has been an intense desire to know what it would really have been like in the ancient world of Greece and Rome. So when I was invited to a Saturnalia banquet in Bedford around this time last year, I jumped at the chance. Steve Cockings is a re-enactor who loves to collect real and replica artefacts. He is a stickler for detail and has read several early drafts of my books, always coming back with valuable corrections.
Alisa, Simon, Caroline and Elizabeth
Alisa fights in many countries
There were five of us in all. Steve, his wife, gladiatrix Alisa and her husband Simon, also a re-enactor. We all dressed up in Roman garb. Although we didn't recline and there were no frescoes on the walls, we ate recipes from Apicius off real Samian plates with antique Roman spoons to the flickering light of oil-lamps. Roman music played softly in the background and Steve had prepared Saturnalia gifts for each of us: epigrams of the poet Martial, translated into English, written on papyrus, wrapped around a candle and tied with a thin strip of red-dyed leather.
hard boiled eggs in sauce
The three course meal consisted of: 1) Gustatio (Starter) • Hard boiled eggs in a sauce of honey, fish sauce, ground pepper, celery seed and chopped almonds. 2) Mensa Prima (Main Course) • Chicken in Thyme (chicken, ground pepper, thyme, cumin, fennel, mint, rosemary, wine vinegar chopped dates, honey and olive oil) • Leeks with Celery in a pepper honey sauce. • Mushrooms with a Rich Sauce of honey, olive oil, ground pepper and celery seed. 3) Mensa Secunda (Dessert) • Poached Pears in a sauce of cinnamon, cumin, honey, sweet white wine, olive oil, egg yolks and nutmeg • Walnut Cake • Figs, grapes and apples
pears poached in sauce of honey, wine, olive oil and spices
The experience was illuminating in many ways. I saw what felt right. I saw what was very un-Roman. I saw what might have been improved. It is traditional to give gifts on the Saturnalia. Next time I attend such a dinner I’ll know what gifts to bring.
a thirsty bronze double-flame oil-lamp
I. Olive oil Oil-lamps guzzle oil and need to be refilled fairly often. I took one of my own replica oil-lamps one with a chariot design bought from the British Museum gift shop perhaps a decade ago. I had a piece of twine in it but Steve said it should be plaited linen. The thicker the wick, the brighter the flame. At one point I tried to ‘trim the wick’ with a tiny pair of real Roman tweezers and sent a shower of angry embers onto the linen tablecloth.
II. Linen wicks I should have brought some proper linen wicks. You can order them on Amazon, mainly in cotton. They are intended for use with kerosene lamps. III. A fan Every time a wick was replaced or oil replenished I got a lungful of smoke. A papyrus or silk fan would have discreetly dispersed the offending miasma.
A loom woven linen napkin from Naples
IV. A napkin Even using my dual-purpose Roman spoon (one end pointy, one end spoonish), my fingers quickly became very sticky. Most ancient Romans carried a napkin down the front of their tunics. This multi-purpose item can be spread over your clothes to avoid stains, used to wipe mouth and fingers, as a handkerchief for a runny nose and as a personal doggy bag.
real and replica glass vessels
V. Wine You need wine to wash down those strange Roman dishes. I bought the cheapest, blackest wine I could find: a £4 bottle of Australian Shiraz from my local Co-op. It was fabulous. VI. A replica beaker or jug In Roman times it was considered barbaric to drink wine neat. What with watering down the wine, you need as many beakers and jugs as possible.
Saturnalia scene from The Roman Mysteries TV series
VII. Pillei Professor Llewelyn Morgan, an illustrious Oxford Latinist, saw my tweets and asked, ‘Where are your pillei?!’ And he’s right. We should be wearing the conical hats that show we are free from the usual restrictions. A real pilleum would have been made of coloured wool or felt. For a cheap one buy a Santa hat at Poundland and take off the fake fur trim. After all, the origin of Santa hats are the Saturnalia.
clay figurines of girls dicing
VIII. Dice I should have brought dice. They can make everything fun. Roll the dice to see who gets the real Samian ware plate. Roll the dice to see who gets the antique Roman spoon. Roll the dice to see who gets the last poached pear in a sauce of honey, cinnamon and olive oil.
CD of Roman Music
IX. Music Ideally a live performance of lyre, tambourine, pan-pipes and aulos. But re-imagined Roman music will do nicely. Our host was playing the very well-researched CD Musica Romana Pugnate on a vintage boom box hidden behind a tapestry. But you could play tunes curated by Armand D'Angour as well, easily found on YouTube. X. Epigrams of Martial It is my personal theory that these were the origins of the mottoes in Christmas crackers. A little two-line poem that also served as a gift tag. Ideally on papyrus in both Latin and English.
Epigram of Martial on papyrus
And speaking of Martial, here is one of his Saturnalia poems: Unctis falciferi senis diebus regnator quibus imperat fritillus versu ludere non laborioso permittis, puto, pilleata Roma. In these well-oiled days of scythe-bearing Saturn When the dice box is king of all I pray that all you cap-wearing Romans Will permit me some playful poems... (Martial XI.6)
On many afternoons, over many years, I’ve stood wistfully outside this 1644 building at San Marcuola and tried to imagine what it was like inside. It was always closed. Until I could see the interior for myself, I could not use it in my latest novel.
My interest was regenerated when I came across this strange painting at the tiny museum above Sant’Apollonia. It shows the Company at work, accompanying a corpse, dressed in extraordinary and rather terrifying costumes. (Apologies for the bad photograph, snatched against the rules.)
Then, on a recent Saturday afternoon, I limped off the vaporetto at San Marcuola. I was tired, full of notes that desperately needed transcribing (before even I myself would be unable to decipher my doctor’s-daughter scrawls). But, for some reason, instead of turning right towards home, I wandered off to the left. And so I came across the entrance of the scuola– not only open for the first time in my experience, but also bedecked with intriguing objects.
The scuola had been opened for a charity sale to support the parish.
The items for sale would be described in Italian as 'cianfrusaglie' - stuff/bits & pieces. A judgmental person might translate 'cianfrusaglie' as 'junk' or even 'frippery'. I am not that person.
You can guess how fast I scampered inside, and how earnestly I asked for permission to take photographs. Here they are.
Surely these are the processional lamps brandished by the Company in the painting above left?
The building’s interior appears greatly foreshortened – there are two rooms and a staircase behind the altar. Surely these steps (below) lead up to the chambers where the bodies were laid out and prepared for burial. What remained up there? I was shooed away from a full inspection when I dared to open the doors for this tantalizing glimpse.
Now my imagination needs to declutter the space and find my way to its original state, with at least three important paintings on the wall, the candle-holders arrayed with fragrant wax and disposed with dignity, men quietly praying.