Nero: destroyer or builder?

Until 24th October 2021, visitors to the British Museum have the opportunity to explore the life of one of Rome’s most infamous rulers. Nero: the man behind the myth tells Nero’s story through 200 ancient objects, many of which are lucky to exist today. As well as learning about Nero’s tyrannical rule, the items on display reveal the history and skill of an ancient civilisation. The British Museum allows individuals to admire the craftsmanship of statues, armour, coins and items of luxury. Sticking to the known facts, the museum encourages people to develop their own opinion about the Emperor Nero. Was he a destroyer of Rome or Rome’s finest rebuilder?

The exhibition begins with a marble statue of Nero as a boy, approximately 13 years old. Three years later, Nero would become the fifth Emperor of Rome and the final ruler of Rome’s first dynasty, the Julio-Claudians. Born on 15th December AD 37, Nero’s real name was Lucius Domitius Ahenobarbus. His father died when he was very young and his mother, Agrippina (AD 15/16-59), later married Emperor Claudius (10 BC-AD 54).

Eighty years before Nero became Emperor, his great-great-grandfather, Augustus (63 BC-AD 14), established a new form of government in Rome, known as a principate. Augustus was adopted into the Julian family by his great-uncle, Julius Caesar (100-44 BC), whose death sparked a civil war. When Augustus crowned himself Emperor, he ended the war, which resulted in a long period of peace and prosperity.

In 38 AD, Augustus married Livia (58 BC-AD 29), the mother of Tiberius (42 BC-AD 37), who became the next Emperor of Rome. Before Augustus died, he persuaded Tiberius to adopt his great-nephew Germanicus (15 BC-AD 19). Augustus wished Germanicus to be the heir to the throne after Tiberius. Unfortunately, Germanicus died prematurely, probably from poison, so the throne passed down to Germanicus’ son, Caligula (AD 12-41).

Caligula, to put it bluntly, was a tyrant. He banished his sisters, Agrippina, the mother of Nero and Livilla, for allegedly conspiring against him. To end his destructive rule, the Praetorian Guard assassinated him. Since Caligula had no children, his uncle Claudius, the brother of Germanicus, became the next Emperor. Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile and married her. Although Claudius wanted his son Britannicus to inherit the throne, Agrippina persuaded him to choose Nero as crown prince and heir.

Not everyone approved of Claudius’ decision, particularly the supporters of his previous wife Messalina, the mother of Britannicus. Even before Claudius recalled Agrippina from exile, Messalina feared Nero’s growing popularity. She allegedly sent men to kill Nero, but they were chased away by snakes hiding in the boy’s bedroom. Although Nero denied this story, he began wearing a gold bracelet containing the remains of a snakeskin.

To cement his claim as heir, Nero married Claudius’ daughter, Claudia Octavia in AD 53. According to rumours, Agrippina believed her son was ready to take over as Emperor, so she poisoned Claudius. To begin with, Agrippina acted as her son’s co-ruler and appointed Nero’s former tutor, Lucius Annaeus Seneca the Younger, as his chief advisor.

Seneca, along with the Praetorian Guard, tried to weaken Agrippina’s grip on her son. The Praetorians were established by Augustus as his personal guard, and they continued to support and protect each subsequent emperor. They swore allegiance to Nero the moment his mother crowned him as Emperor, but they disapproved of her constant meddling in empire affairs. Over time, Nero managed to push his mother away, eventually removing her from the palace after Britannicus’ death in AD 55. Agrippina’s waning power is evident when studying Roman coins. The first silver denarius issued after Claudius’ death shows a profile of Agrippina in a prominent position. Later coins contained the heads of both Agrippina and Nero, facing each other. In AD 55, a new design put Nero’s face in front of his mother’s, and the following year, Agrippina disappeared from coins altogether.

As well as the throne, Nero inherited the empire’s many problems, including tensions with rival powers. For years, the Parthians argued over the state of Armenia, but soon Nero directed his attention to Britain, where Boudica, Queen of the Iceni tribe, started a violent rebellion. Claudius captured parts of Britain in AD 43, and by AD 60, Boudica raised an army powerful enough to fight back. As well as the Iceni tribe, Boudica hired soldiers from the Trinovante tribe of Essex, totalling tens of thousands of people. They destroyed many Roman settlements, including Camulodunum (Colchester), Verulamium (St. Albans) and Londinium (London). The Roman General, Gaius Suetonius Paulinus, finally defeated Boudica in AD 61.

Following the war with Britain, Nero resumed focusing on Rome’s long-standing struggle for control of Armenia. Relations with Parthia grew worse when the Parthian king installed his brother Tiridates on the Armenian throne. After taking military action, Nero agreed to let Tiridates rule over Armenia on the condition that he let Nero crown him as king. With this compromise in place, the two empires finally experienced a period of peace.

When not worrying about the actions of his enemies, Nero concentrated on the people of the Roman Empire. He built many new buildings, including the Imperial Palace, baths and food markets. Nero improved the food system and implemented tax reforms to benefit the population. Unlike previous emperors, Nero also believed providing entertainment for his people was important. He encouraged public performances of plays and became the first emperor to act on stage – something that divided public opinion. Nero was also a keen musician, but his eagerness to perform in public provoked resentment among the senatorial elite who believed the Emperor should not mix with the plebs.

Nonetheless, Nero’s involvement with everyday entertainment made him popular with the people of Rome. Nero enjoyed chariot racing, despite the consensus that Charioteers were of low status. Racers competed in specific teams or factiones, each recognised by a different colour. Written evidence suggests Nero raced for the Green team because he often dyed the sand in the arena that colour. Nero’s passion for horse racing began as a child when he and his friends reportedly played with wooden chariots and toy horses.

According to Nero’s biographer, Suetonius (AD 69-122), Nero performed the roles of the mythical figures Orestes and Oedipus in tragedies on the stage. Based on Greek myths, Orestes killed his mother Clytemnestra to avenge his father, and Oedipus unknowingly committed incest with his mother. There is no physical evidence that Nero played these roles, and some suggest Suetonius deliberately made this claim to hint at crimes Nero committed against his mother Agrippina.

Nero ordered his mother’s death in AD 59 after he suspected her of plotting against him. He also exiled and executed his first wife for similar reasons. Actions such as these were not uncommon in the Roman Empire, and Roman princesses often faced accusations of conspiring against rulers. Nonetheless, Nero’s actions tarnished his reputation, particularly his act of matricide.

During her lifetime, wild tales of Agrippina’s sexual promiscuity spread across the empire, as did her alleged sexual relationship with her son. These may only be rumours made up by those who feared her power. Nero openly admitted to ordering Agrippina’s death but claimed she had planned to assassinate him. Whilst some celebrated Nero’s salvation, others soured towards the Emperor, despite previously disliking Agrippina.

In AD 62, Nero remarried to Poppaea Sabina, who soon faced the wrath of the senate, who distrusted women in power. Nonetheless, the public loved Poppaea, which they demonstrated with poems and writing scratched into walls: NeroPoppaenses.

“Poppaea sent as gifts to most holy Venus a beryl, an ear-drop pearl and a large single pearl. When Caesar came to most holy Venus and when your heavenly feet brought you there, Augustus, there was a countless weight of gold.”

Poppaea gave birth to Nero’s only child, Claudia Augusta, in AD 63. Sadly, the child died three months later. Poppaea passed away in AD 65 after suffering a miscarriage. Although Nero expressed his grief by honouring his wife with a lavish funeral, many believed her death was his fault, suggesting he had violent tendencies.

Both Poppaea and Claudia Augusta were deified, and a marble statue of the latter was produced, depicting what she might have looked like if she had reached childhood. The hairstyle resembles Nero’s at the time of her birth, and in her right hand, she holds a butterfly. This insect is a symbol of the soul, which flutters out of the body after death.

Following Poppaea’s death, Nero married a third time. Not much is know about his third wife, Statilia Messalina, other than she outlived him. The lack of information suggests the public did not warm to her as they had Poppaea, who they saw as the perfect wife for Nero.

It is hard to trust ancient documents, especially those concerning the Roman Empire because they often contain exaggerated facts or outright lies depending on the author’s opinion or feelings. Poppaea’s death is one such example, and another is the great fire of Rome in AD 64. Flames raged for nine days, destroying a large portion of the city. Although Nero helped reconstruct buildings and provided relief for citizens, many accused him of starting the fire. The myth claims Nero stayed in his palace and “fiddled while Rome burned”, yet other evidence suggests Nero was not in the city at the time of the fire.

Three of fourteen Roman districts were reduced to ruins by the fire, including the Imperial Palace. Fires were common in Rome, as they were in most major cities due to flammable building materials and the reliance on flames for light and warmth. Yet many suspected an act of arson and pinned the blame on Nero, who in turn accused a new sect of Jewish origin, later known as Christians. Natural disasters also impacted Nero’s reign, for instance, the earthquake in AD 62, which destroyed most of Pompeii.

Whilst Nero supplied aid for the rebuilding of Rome and Pompeii, he also started building a new palace to replace the one lost in the fire. Only a few traces of the old palace remain, but its opulence is evident from the surviving fragments of ornate columns. Nero wanted his new palace to be bigger and better and named it Domus Aurea, “Golden House”. Nero’s plans were ambitious, and the building remained incomplete by his death in AD 68. He imported yellow marble from North Africa, red and green porphyry from Egypt and Greece, and white and black marble from Turkey to decorate the floors and walls of the palace. Frescoes adorned the ceilings, and the walls featured intricate geometric friezes.

Nero planned to host large banquets in the Domus Aurea as a way of expressing his wealth and power. He owned many expensive items with which he could impress his guests, including an exceptionally rare cup made from the mineral fluorspar. Ancient historians claim Nero paid one million sesterces for this item. He also owned silver dining sets. Nero’s political enemies used the construction of Domus Aurea and Nero’s possessions to paint him as a tyrant, pointing out that his new palace sat on land that once belonged to the public.

During the aftermath of the fire and the death of his second wife, Nero was at the height of his power. This was also the turning point that led to his demise. Nero planned to expand the empire across the Black Sea by invading Ethiopia, but revolts in Judea, Gaul (France) and Spain forced him to abandon these ideals. He also had less support from the senate than he had in previous years.

Nero managed to suppress the rebellions in the outer areas of the empire and marked the end of a lengthy war with Pathia in AD 66 by opening the gates of the temple of Janus in Rome. These gates were symbolically closed during times of conflict and opened during times of peace. The last time the gates were open was during the reign of Augustus. Nero celebrated this victory by issuing coins to mark the occasion.

During a tour of Greece, Nero aimed to participate in all the Greek festivals, but some of his military campaigns prevented him. Nonetheless, he granted Greece freedom from taxation in AD 67 and used the 6,000 prisoners captured during the rebellion in Judea to start building a canal in Corinth. These acts made Nero popular with the people, but those in the elite classes began to despise him.

Many members of the Senate felt threatened by Nero’s love of the common people. They wanted the Emperor and Senate to tower above the rest of the empire, but Nero often stooped down to his people’s level – although his palace suggests this was not always the case. In AD 65, the senator Gaius Calpurnius Piso led a plot against Nero known as the Pisonian Conspiracy. When Nero found out, he ordered Piso and the other conspirators to commit suicide. Although the people of Rome rejoiced that Piso’s plot had failed, other senators started to turn against Nero, and more plots followed. By AD 67, Nero had few allies left in political and military positions. Knowing this, many senators and governors took the opportunity to rebel, including Gaius Iulius Vindex, the governor of Gaul.

As the rebellions gained momentum, the remaining members of the Senate declared Nero an enemy of the state and threatened him with execution. To avoid this degrading death, Nero chose to commit suicide in June AD 68 at the age of 30. His 14-year reign came to an abrupt end, leaving people torn between grief and joy. For some, Nero had been a saviour, and rumours spread that he would return from the dead. For others, Nero had been a tyrant and someone to fear.

The year following Nero’s death became known as the Year of the Four Emperors, where the elite classes fought over the throne. Nero had no children and no heir, so there was no obvious successor. The first man to claim the throne was Lucius Sulpicius Galba, the 70-year-old governor of Spain. He reigned for seven months but failed to gain popularity with the people, resulting in his assassination. Marcus Salvius Otho, the governor of Lusitania (Portugal), took Galba’s place but found it equally difficult to exert his power. After three months, Otho took his life.

Aulus Vitellius, governor of Germania Inferior (Lower Germany), took Otho’s place but failed to gain support. Although he tried to abdicate, he was executed by the Praetorian Guard. Finally, Flavius Vespasianus (Vespasian), a man from relatively humble origins, claimed the throne in December AD 69. He had supported Nero and fought on the Emperor’s behalf during the Jewish rebellion of AD 66. The people and Senate were happy with this final competitor, and Vespasian ruled for ten years until his death, after which his son Titus took the throne.

During the Year of the Four Emperors, many of Nero’s statues were destroyed. As a result, very few remain today. Nero’s enemies deliberately decapitated his stone portraits, and others were used to produce new statues of later emperors. A marble portrait of Vespasian, for example, was re-carved from a likeness of Nero. Traces of Nero’s signature hairstyle are evident at the base of the neck.

The Romans attempted to write Nero out of history, which adds weight to the stories about the tyrannical Emperor. The British Museum questions these beliefs by providing evidence to the contrary. The exhibition, whilst trying to stay impartial, leans towards a more positive description of Nero. Many of the negative connotations were written long after Nero’s death. These stories were likely distorted and exaggerated over the years. That is not to say there is no truth in those allegations, but the physical evidence reveals Nero rebuilt Rome after the great fire, achieved peace throughout the empire and had a large public following.

So, was Nero a cruel, ruthless tyrant or was he a young, inexperienced ruler trying his best in a divided society? Was he a megalomaniac, or did Nero try to do what was best for his Empire? Should we believe what historians of the past have written or make judgements based on evidence unearthed by archaeologists? Ultimately, we will never know the truth, but this exhibition reveals we cannot fully rely on anything to give us an accurate account of ancient history.

Nero: the man behind the myth is open until 24th October 2021 in the Sainsbury Exhibitions Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £20 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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The Making of a Saint

Until 22nd August 2021, the British Museum is finally hosting its Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint exhibition, which celebrates the 850th anniversary of Becket’s brutal murder. Having been postponed due to Covid-19, visitors can now discover the murder that shook the Middle Ages and learn about the life, death and legacy of Thomas Becket. The exhibition features objects from the British Museum’s collection and those on loan from Canterbury Cathedral and other locations around Europe and the United Kingdom. Each object, whether an illuminated manuscript, item of jewellery or a sacred reliquary, helps to tell the story of Becket’s journey from a merchant’s son to an archbishop, to a martyr and a saint.

Pendant with an image of Thomas Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, 15th century, England.

Thomas Becket was born in Cheapside, London in December 1120 to Gilbert and Matilda. Both parents were of Norman descent and may have named their son after St Thomas the Apostle, whose feast day falls on 21st December. Gilbert Becket was a small landowner who gained his wealth as a merchant in textiles. At the age of 10, Becket attended Merton Priory in the southwest of London. He later attended a grammar school in the city where he studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. At around 18 years old, his parents sent Becket to Paris, where his education expanded to include the Liberal Arts, such as arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.

After three years, Becket returned to England, where his father found him a position as clerk for a family friend, Osbert Huitdeniers. Shortly after this, Becket began working for Theobald of Bec (1090-1161), the Archbishop of Canterbury. At this time, Canterbury Cathedral was a place of learning, and Becket received training in diplomacy. Theobald entrusted his clerk to travel on several important missions to Rome. He also sent Becket to Bologna, Italy, and Auxerre, France, to study canon law. Following this, Theobald named Becket the Archdeacon of Canterbury and nominated him for the vacant post of Lord Chancellor.

Thomas Becket was appointed as Lord Chancellor in January 1155. He became a good friend of King Henry II (1133-89), who trusted Becket to issue documents in his name. Becket had access to Henry’s royal seal, which depicted the king sitting on a throne, holding a sword and an orb. For his work as Lord Chancellor, Becket earned 5 shillings a week. The king also sent his son Henry (1155-83) to live in Becket’s household. It was customary to foster out royal children into other noble families, so it was a great honour for Becket.

Following Theobald’s death in 1161, Henry II nominated Becket for the position of Archbishop of Canterbury. This was a strange choice because Becket had no religious education and lived a comparatively secular lifestyle. Nonetheless, a royal council of bishops and noblemen agreed to Becket’s election. On 2nd June 1162, Becket was ordained a priest, and the following day, consecrated as archbishop by Henry of Blois, the Bishop of Winchester (1096-1171).

It soon appeared Henry had an ulterior motive for selecting Becket as the new Archbishop of Canterbury. He wished Becket to continue to hold the position of Lord Chancellor and put the royal government first, rather than the church. This would place the church under Henry’s power, but his plan failed, and Becket renounced the chancellorship, which Henry saw as a form of betrayal. Despite his secular background, Becket transformed into an ascetic and started living a simple life devoted to humility, compassion, meditation, patience and prayer. Becket also started to oppose Henry’s decisions in court, which created significant tension between them.

The rift between Henry and Becket continued to grow throughout the two years following Becket’s archbishopric appointment. Their main arguments focused on the different rights of the secular court and the Church. Henry wished to punish churchmen accused of crimes at court, whereas Becket insisted this infringed upon the rights of the Church. Neither Henry nor Becket gave up their argument, and the issue was never resolved. Becket disagreed with many of Henry’s decisions and refused to endorse and sign documents.

On 8th October 1164, Henry summoned Becket to Northampton Castle to stand trial for allegations of contempt of royal authority and malfeasance in the Chancellor’s office. Despite Becket’s attempts to defend himself, he was convicted of the exaggerated crimes. Angry and fearing for his life, Becket stormed out of the trial and fled to the continent, where he spent six years in exile under the protection of Louis VII of France (1120-80).

At his coronation banquet, the Young King is served by his father, King Henry II (Becket Leaves, c.1220-1240).

Running away did not fully protect Becket from the king. Henry confiscated Becket’s land and wealth in retaliation for leaving the country without his permission. He also forced members of Becket’s family into exile. The king took the opportunity to go against the ways of the Church, knowing that while in exile, Becket could not prevent anything. On 14th June 1170, Henry II had his son Henry crowned as joint monarch at Westminster Abbey. By ancient rights, only the Archbishop of Canterbury could perform coronations, but the king undermined Becket by asking the Archbishop of York and Bishop of London to conduct the ceremony.

Learning of the “Young King’s” coronation, Becket approached Pope Alexander III (1100-81), who had previously forbidden the Archbishop of York from conducting such ceremonies. The Pope permitted Becket to excommunicate the bishops involved. This was a punishment reserved for serious offences.

Becket initiated a fragile truce with Henry II and returned to Canterbury on 2nd December 1170. At this time, Henry was unaware that Becket had excommunicated the bishops involved with young Henry’s coronation but soon learned about the act while at his Christmas court in Normandy. He reportedly flew into a rage and called Becket a traitor and “low-born clerk”. Four of Henry’s knights witnessed this outburst and hatched a plan to arrest Thomas Becket on behalf of the king.

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket

On 29th December 1170, the four knights: Reginald FitzUrse (1145-73), Hugh de Morville (d.1202), Richard Brito and William de Tracy (1133-89), arrived in Canterbury. They found Becket in the cathedral and informed him he had to go to Winchester to account for his actions. Becket refused and proceeded to the main hall for vespers. Meanwhile, the knights went away and returned with their armour and weapons. Seeing this, the monks tried to bar the doors to the cathedral, but Becket allegedly exclaimed, “It is not right to make a fortress out of the house of prayer!”

According to eye-witness reports, the four knights rushed into the cathedral wielding their weapons and shouting, “Where is Thomas Becket, traitor to the King and country?” Standing near the stairs to the crypt, Becket announced, “I am no traitor, and I am ready to die.” The knights attacked, severing a piece of Becket’s skull. “His crown, which was large, separated from his head so that the blood turned white from the brain yet no less did the brain turn red from the blood; it purpled the appearance of the church.” (Gerald of Wales, Expugnatio Hibernica, 1189)

Thomas Becket’s story does not end at his death. The exhibition at the British Museum uses objects to narrate the events in chronological order. Becket’s death occurs only one-third of the way into the narrative, suggesting the Archbishop’s legend had only just begun.

The spilling of Becket’s blood had defiled the sanctity of the cathedral. The monks needed to act quickly to clean up the mess. They placed his body in a marble tomb in the crypt and cleaned up the blood, which they kept in special containers. Due to the number of eye-witnesses, the news of Becket’s death spread quickly, so the monks closed the cathedral to the public to prevent people from entering out of morbid curiosity.

On hearing of Becket’s murder, Henry II was shocked but initially refused to punish his men. This implicated the king of the crime, and rumours soon spread that Henry had ordered his men to kill the Archbishop of Canterbury. Becket’s popularity grew, and Henry feared his people turning against him. The pope also suspected Henry of foul play, so to appease him, Henry performed penance twice in Normandy in 1172. Afterwards, the king travelled to Canterbury to acknowledged his involvement with the crime and asked the monks to punish him accordingly. Henry underwent public humiliation by walking barefoot through the city.

Cult-like worship of Thomas Becket began throughout the country before spreading to the continent. People travelled from far and wide to visit his tomb, which the monks eventually opened to the public. Soon, rumours spread of miracles that happened to those who visited the location of Becket’s remains, which drew thousands more to the cathedral. On 21st February 1173, the Pope officially made Becket a saint and endorsed the growing cult.

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.

Members of the Thomas Becket cult believed the saint’s blood held miracle properties. Becket’s blood-stained clothes were sought by those who believed touching them could cure them of many ailments. The monks also sold Becket’s diluted blood, known as St Thomas Water, to pilgrims in special flasks decorated to reflect the saint’s life. Many unwell people consumed the “water”, who claimed it healed them from their life-threatening illnesses. These flasks have been found as far as the Netherlands, France and Norway, indicating the distance people travelled to visit the saint.

A monk called Benedict, who witnessed Becket’s murder, undertook the task of recording all the miracles that occurred to pilgrims visiting Becket’s tomb. By 1173, he had recorded over 270 stories, and still, people continued to arrive at the cathedral in the hopes of receiving similar treatment. In 1220, Becket’s body was moved to a new shrine in Trinity Chapel, which helped accommodate the influx of visitors. This relocation marked the 50th anniversary of Becket’s death and was celebrated with a ceremony attended by King Henry III (1207-72), the papal legate, the Archbishop of Canterbury Stephen Langton (1150-1228), and large numbers of foreign dignitaries.

On loan from Canterbury Cathedral is a “miracle window” that reveals several experiences of pilgrims who visited Becket’s shrine. In 1174, the cathedral suffered a devastating fire, which destroyed most of the east side of the building. Over the next fifty years, stonemasons worked laboriously to repair the damage. During this time, they also built a new shrine for Becket’s body. The new chapel was decorated with stone columns and a marble floor. The stained-glass “miracle windows” completed the shrine.

“In the place where Thomas suffered … and where he was buried at last, the palsied are cured, the blind see, the deaf hear, the dumb speak, the lepers are cleansed, the possessed of a devil are freed … I should not have dreamt of writing such words … had not my eyes been witness to the certainty of this.” (John of Salisbury, Becket’s clerk and biographer, 1171)

The six-metre tall windows, twelve in all, only reveal a handful of the miracles following Becket’s death. The window exhibited at the British Museum is the fifth in the series and records people cured of leprosy, dropsy, fevers, paralysis and other illnesses and disabilities. Six panels of the window tell the story of Eilward of Westoning, a peasant accused of theft. He was punished by blinding and castration, but during the night, Becket visited him during a vision. When Eilward awoke, he discovered his eyes and testicles had regrown.

St Thomas’ popularity continued to grow during the next couple of centuries. The pilgrimage to his shrine became as famous as those to Jerusalem, Rome and Santiago de Compostela. Pilgrims arrived from as far north as Iceland and as far south as Italy to visit Becket’s shrine and experience his miracles. The cathedral began selling souvenir badges and other paraphernalia made from lead, resulting in one of the earliest gift shops in the world. The majority of the badges featured images of Becket as the Archbishop of Canterbury or with a sword in his scalp to indicate his murder.

One of these souvenirs is referenced in The Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer (1340s-1400), one of the world’s earliest pieces of literature. The book tells the story of an imagined group of pilgrims travelling from London to Canterbury. To pass the time on their journey to the shrine, each character competes to tell the best tale, for which the winner would receive a free meal on their return to the Tabard Inn in London. Chaucer’s characters are an eclectic mix of medieval pilgrims, such as a yeoman, a merchant, a shipman, a knight, a miller and a friar.

Pilgrimages to St Thomas’ shrine continued until the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547). English kings and their families respected the saint, often visiting the cathedral and commissioning spectacular commemorative items. Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536), did the same, but the king’s attitude towards Thomas Becket changed when he tried to file for a divorce. Pope Clement VII (1478-1534) refused to comply with Henry’s wishes, so he took it upon himself to reject Catholicism and create a new branch of Christianity, the Church of England. In the years following his self-appointment as the Supreme Head of the Church of England, Henry dissolved Catholic convents and monasteries, destroying buildings and their contents in the process.

On 5th September 1538, Henry VIII arrived in Canterbury, where he and his men set about dismantling the shrine of Thomas Becket. They stole the jewels and gold embedded into the tomb, then removed the saint’s bones. Following this act, Henry stripped Becket of his sainthood. Henry VIII’s allies supported his actions and condemned pilgrimages and denounced Becket as a traitor. They removed his name from books, and anything containing references to Becket was destroyed.

Those who opposed the crown continued to revere Thomas Becket. They also respected the former chancellor Thomas More (1478-1535), who shared a similar fate when he opposed the king. No longer able to collect mementos of Thomas Becket, people began treasuring objects connected with Thomas More. Similar acts occurred after the execution of the chancellor Thomas Cromwell (1485-1540) during the reign of Mary I (1516-58).

Devoted Catholics managed to keep Becket’s memory alive by worshipping him in secret during the reigns of Protestant kings and queens. Many items connected to the Archbishop survived due to the number of pilgrims and devotees on the continent. One of the rarest reliquaries to survive is a fragment of Thomas Becket’s skull. The bone rests on a bed of red velvet and is secured in place by a golden thread. It is protected by a silver and glass case upon which is written “Ex cranio St Thomae Cantvariensis”, meaning “from St Thomas of Canterbury’s skull”. It is likely someone smuggled the reliquary out of the country during the Tudor period.

Opinions remain divided as to whether Thomas Becket is a saint and martyr or a traitor and villain. Yet, for the majority of people, Becket is a name confined to school history books. There is no cult following or pilgrimage route, yet kiss marks have been discovered on display cases holding some of the most revered objects. Perhaps Thomas Becket still has a following after all!

Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint is open until 22nd August 2021 in The Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. Tickets cost £17 for Adults, but Members and under 16s can visit for free.


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Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part Two

Previously in Simeon’s life, the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has run around Castle Park searching for spies, learned about the connection between Treasure Island and Bristol, earned himself a certificate, and had a rejuvenating rest. Now he is ready to tell the world about some of his other favourite things to do in the city. So, all aboard the Simeon Tour Bus. Enjoy the ride!

Stop One: Bristol Museum & Art Gallery

Situated half a mile uphill from the city centre is the Bristol Museum & Art Gallery, which opened its doors to the public on 20th February 1905. The Edwardian Baroque building was built by the architect Sir Frank William Wills and funded by his cousin, Sir William Henry Wills (1830-1911). Some of the building suffered damages during the Second World War, but much of the original architecture remains. Initially, the museum intended to display antiquities and natural history, whilst a separate museum exhibited artwork. Due to lack of funds and the two world wars, a separate museum never materialised, and the building remains both a museum and an art gallery.

Expecting to see antiquities and natural history, Simeon was surprised to find a stone angel with a paint bucket over its head standing in the entrance hall. This is an artwork called Paint-Pot Angel by Bristol’s anonymous graffiti artist Banksy. It remains in the museum as a reminder of their successful Banksy versus Bristol exhibition held in 2009. If that was not confusing enough for the little gibbon, above the statue hung two frightening Chinese dragons. With fur standing on end, Simeon reassured himself they were not real but rather examples of carved wooden dragons used in Chinese temples during the Qing dynasty.

Further into the museum, Simeon discovered items from Ancient Egypt and Assyria, including amulets, weapons, masks and mummified cats. Many of these items were donated to the museum by Bristol-based travellers, such as, Amelia Edwards (1831-92), “the Godmother of Egyptology” who co-founded the Egypt Exploration Fund in 1882. Carved stone reliefs from the palace of King Assurnasirpal II (883-859 BC) of Assyria (now Iraq) found their way to the museum in 1905, but how they got from the Middle East to England remains uncertain.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery has a vast collection of taxidermy (stuffed animals), although as Simeon quickly pointed out, they lack a gibbon. Some of these are in the ground floor gallery opened by Sir David Attenborough (b. 1926). These animals are examples of wildlife found in the marine and freshwater habitats of the South West of England. Included in the display are owls, falcons, oystercatchers, gulls, auks and ducks. Simeon found more British animals on the first floor of the museum, including a hedgehog, a dormouse, foxes, badgers, otters and many birds.

In the World Wildlife gallery are specimens from all over the world. Some of these were shot by trophy hunters in the early 1900s, for instance, a tiger shot by King George V (1865-1936) in Nepal in 1911. Others were once residents of Bristol Zoo whose bodies were carefully preserved after death. For most visitors, this is the closest they will get to a sloth, an echidna, a duck-billed platypus, a koala, a chimpanzee and many more animals. Simeon was not sure whether to be disappointed or relieved that there were no gibbons on display.

The highlight of the World Wildlife Gallery is Alfred the Gorilla. In 1930, Alfred came to Bristol Zoo as a baby, where he entertained visitors by throwing snowballs, wearing woolly jumpers, and recoiling in horror at men with beards. Alfred also had a fear of aeroplanes. When he died in 1948, the Daily Mail jumped to the assumption that a passing aeroplane frightened the gorilla to death. In reality, Alfred suffered from tuberculosis, a disease previously thought to only affect humans. Alfred’s body was mounted in the museum shortly after his death, but in 1956, he briefly escaped from the museum. A group of university students stole the stuffed creature from the museum as a prank. Three days later, Alfred was discovered sitting in the waiting room of the student health centre.

Hanging above the museum cafe (which Simeon thoroughly enjoyed visiting), the little gibbon was horrified to come face-to-face with a hideous creature. With hair standing on end, Simeon learned this was Doris, a life-size model of a prehistoric marine reptile called a Pliosaurus. Palaeontologists do not know what Doris, named after a Greek sea goddess, looked like for certain, but she is based on fossil remains found near Westbury in Wiltshire.

Bristol Museum & Art Gallery owns several fossils of dinosaurs, including a Thecodontosaurus antiquus, which roamed Bristol and the surrounding areas about 210 million years ago. The museum also displays a pregnant ichthyosaur specimen. The bones of the baby form the smallest “sea dragon” found to date and prove that the creatures gave birth to their young rather than lay eggs. Also in the museum is a vast collection of minerals and rocks from Bristol and further afield.

The art gallery is located on the topmost floor of the museum. Initially, the museum wished to display local artists, but the collection quickly opened up to foreign artists from all eras. Paintings span from the Old European Masters of the 1400s, such as Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), through to the Impressionists and Pre-Raphaelites of the 19th century, including Alfred Sisley (1839-99) and Edward Burne-Jones (1833-98). The gallery also contains contemporary artworks and several ceramics.

Stop Two: Bristol Zoo

Having indulged in stuffed animals, Simeon thought it about time to visit the real things. So, next stop, Bristol Zoo. “Hurry!” shouted Simeon as he ran up the road towards Clifton. “We need to get there before they move all the animals to the Wild Place Project.” Bristol Zoo is closing in 2022 and moving to the Wild Place Project in South Gloucestershire

Bristol Zoo is the fifth oldest zoo in the world. It was founded on 22nd July 1835 by Henry Riley (1797-1848), a British surgeon and naturalist from Bristol who led the Bristol, Clifton and West of England Zoological Society. Many animals were shipped from across the world ready for the grand opening, but the first big attraction did not arrive until 1868. This was Zebi the elephant, who became well-known for removing and eating straw hats. Today, there are no longer elephants at the zoo, but Simeon did not mind; he was too enthralled by the lions.

Lions were first introduced to Bristol Zoo in 1900 when they erected a new house suitable for a family of large cats. Simeon admired the Asiatic lions from behind a wire fence, although they were not very active at the time. The female, Sonika, appeared to be fast asleep whilst Sahee watched over her. Asiatic lions are the most endangered large cat species in the world. They only live in the Gir forest in India, but Sonika and Sahee arrived in Bristol from other zoos rather than from the wild. Simeon was quick to point out that his fur was a similar colour to Sahee’s mane!

Simeon had already met Bristol Zoo’s first gorilla, albeit stuffed and mounted. Now the zoo is home to a family of eight western lowland gorillas. Jock the silverback, the dominant male, can make enough noise for people a couple of kilometres away to hear. Fortunately, he did not do that in Simeon’s presence. Three adult females, Kera, Kala and Touni, and three youngsters, Afia and Ayana and Hasani, live with Jock on Gorilla Island. In December 2020, Touni gave birth, taking the total of gorillas up to eight. The baby has yet to be named.

During the 1980s, Bristol Zoo developed several new exhibits. The Reptile House opened in 1981 and now houses a comprehensive list of reptiles and amphibians, including snakes, turtles, frogs, crocodiles, iguanas and tortoises. Simeon’s favourite tortoises were the Aldabra giant tortoises, which can live as long as 100 years and weigh up to 250kg. In 1983, the Monkey House opened, where mischief occurs daily. Simeon resisted the urge to play with the cheeky monkeys, macaques, lemurs and the two agile gibbons, Samuel and Duana.

Towards the end of the 1990s, the television presenter Professor David Bellamy (1933-2019) opened the Seal and Penguin Coast section of the zoo. The attraction provides the opportunity to view African penguins and seals both on land or underwater. Although penguins are very sociable animals, they were hiding during Simeon’s visit, but he enjoyed watching the seals swimming around the enclosure. The South American fur seals were almost hunted to extinction during the 20th century. Fortunately, they are now of least concern on the International Union for Conservation (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.

Simeon loved every aspect of Bristol Zoo, but if he was forced to choose a favourite animal, he would choose the meerkats. The charismatic mob of female meerkats, one of whom introduced herself to Simeon as Bubushka, frolicked in the warmth of their house, frequently coming up to the glass to greet visitors. Simeon admired the patience of the meerkat on lookout duty and was amused when two rested their heads on a ledge and appeared to fall asleep.

Relieved not to be mistaken for an escaping zoo animal, Simeon exited Bristol Zoo with dozens of lovely memories. Bristol Zoo allowed him to meet animals from all over the world, including red pandas, armadillos, flamingos, frogs, bats, stick insects, birds, sloths, mongooses, and so much more.

Stop Three: The New Room

The next stop on Simeon’s tour of Bristol is the “New Room”, which is actually very old. This is the oldest Methodist building in the world, dating to 1740. The building, which became a chapel, was built after two religious societies in Bristol asked the preacher John Wesley (1703-91) to create a new room where they could meet. Wesley arrived in Bristol in 1739 to continue the work of the evangelist George Whitefield (1714-70), who preached on the streets of Bristol. Today, the chapel has been restored to resemble how it looked in 1748, with the addition of pews, which were added in the 19th century. As well as a chapel, Wesley used the upper floors as his home. The space is now a museum dedicated to John and his brother Charles (1707-88).

On entering the chapel, Simeon was struck by the lack of windows on the ground floor. The only source of light comes from an octagonal skylight. Methodism, as the denomination became known, was not welcome by some people in Bristol. Mobs frequently attacked members of the congregation, so the lack of windows limited the amount of damage they could create during a service. The design of the building also made it difficult for anyone to reach the preacher. The pulpit is only accessible from the upper floor.

Services usually took place at 5 am before people went to work – far too early for Simeon! Worship began and ended with a song, usually written by Charles Wesley, who wrote an estimated 6,500 hymns during his lifetime. The organ in the chapel was given to the New Room in the 1930s. During the 18th century, congregations sang unaccompanied.

Wesley did not design the New Room as a church, nor did he intentionally separate from the Church of England. The term ‘Methodism’ was initially given to the group by those who disliked the religious society. The Methodist Church came into being after the death of John and Charles. As well as preaching, John Wesley aimed to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. He created food and clothing banks and argued for a national living wage. He founded affordable schools and encouraged uneducated adults to earn qualifications. Wesley also promoted cleanliness and taught people how to improve their health. He provided free medicine for the poor and improved the living conditions of those in prison. Wesley was a man before his time who campaigned against the slave trade and encouraged women to play a wider role in society.

Upstairs in the museum, Simeon explored the living quarters of John Wesley and his assistants. There were twelve small rooms and one large common room, which served as both a meeting space, dining area and study. Wesley only used two of the rooms for himself: a bedroom and a private study. Today, the rooms tell the story of the Wesley family, the start of Methodism, and life during the 18th century.

The first couple of rooms in the museum explain what life in Bristol was like before John Wesley arrived in 1739. Life for the poor was dismal in comparison to the rich. Simeon’s eyes widened, and his mouth salivated as he read how the rich used to dine. A meal typically lasted at least two hours, and each course consisted of between five and 25 dishes. Gentlemen always drank port with dessert, and the women drank sweet wine. For a brief moment, Simeon thought he would love to live like the rich of the 18th century, but the rest of the museum soon put that notion out of his mind.

Admittedly, Simeon felt a bit sceptical when he read John Wesley’s recommendations for a healthy lifestyle. “Abstain from all pickled, smoked or high-seasoned food.” (Simeon eyed his round little belly guiltily.) “Exercise is of greater service to your health than a hundred medicines.” (“But I only have little legs!” exclaimed Simeon.) “Those who read or write much should learn to do it standing.” (“I think not!” declared Simeon.)

The final few rooms of the museum focus on social injustices, particularly those concerning slavery, war, consumerism and politics. Wesley looked to God for inspiration and strength. He wished to promote equal treatment for women, care for animals, offer the best possible education, create a society based on values and not on profits, avoid engaging in wars, live simply and “be content with what plain nature requires”. (“What a good man,” said Simeon, admiringly.)

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

Stop Four: Tyntesfield

A week in Bristol is exciting, but sometimes it is nice to get away from the city crowds. So, Simeon travelled eight miles into the countryside to visit an ornate Victorian Gothic house called Tyntesfield and its extensive gardens. Due to Covid-19 restrictions, Simeon only had access to a handful of ground floor rooms, which failed to tell him much about the house’s history. Fortunately, Simeon is a resourceful gibbon and has learned everything he wished to know from the National Trust guidebook and website.

The estate, formally known as Tyntes Place, became the possession of William Gibbs (1790-1875) in 1843. (That’s GIBBS, Simeon. Not GIBBON!) Gibbs hired the architect John Norton (1823-1904) to double the size of the house in the High Victorian Gothic style. He also purchased neighbouring estates upon which he built homes for his sons. Following his death, his descendants made a few changes to the interior of the building, for instance, installing electricity and central heating. Richard Gibbs (1928-2001), the last member of the family to live at Tyntesfield, died without an heir and the house was left neglected. In 2002, the National Trust acquired the house and surrounding land. Following an ambitious conservation programme, they restored Tyntesfield to its former glory.

William Gibbs earned his money through guano trade with Spain and South America. Guano, as Simeon is keen to tell you, is the dried excrement of seabirds, a popular fertiliser in the 19th century. Although Gibbs spent a lot of his wealth on Tyntesfield, he also contributed to many charities. Both Gibbs and his wife Matilda Blanche (1817-87) were deeply religious and funded several churches, including the chapel at Keble College, Oxford. Towards the end of his life, Gibbs commissioned Sir Arthur Blomfield (1829-99) to build a chapel next to Tyntesfield, which the family used for daily prayers and Sunday services.

Simeon entered the house through the cloister, decorated with encaustic tiles. This led through to the centre of the house, designed to create a sense of awe and grandeur. Here, the main staircase leads up to the first-floor family bedrooms, but Simeon could not visit them on this occasion. Fortunately, Simeon was permitted to look in the library, which contains over 2000 books on several subjects such as theology, science, fine art, history, poetry and gardening.

Gardening was a favourite activity of the last inhabitant of Tyntesfield. After William Gibbs died, his son Antony did not continue the family trading business. Instead, he focused on arts and crafts. Likewise, the next heir, George, took a different profession and became an influential politician, earning him the title of 1st Lord Wraxall. By the time Richard Gibbs, 2nd Lord Wraxall became the owner in 1949, the family’s wealth had reduced considerably. After shutting up many rooms, Richard focused on maintaining the estate grounds, particularly the Kitchen Garden.

Simeon thoroughly enjoyed exploring the Kitchen Garden, which continues to grow many fruits and vegetables. The little gibbon also ventured through fields of cows to locate some of the other formal gardens on the estate. His favourite was the rose garden, which ironically contains very few roses. The local deer have eaten most of the roses, but a pink American Pillar rose continues to thrive on the iron pergola.

Stop Five: Floating Harbour

Simeon’s tour of Bristol concludes at the Floating Harbour, which covers 70 acres of the city. It is referred to as “floating” because the water levels remain consistent and are not affected by the tides. Simeon explored the harbour many times on his previous visit to Bristol, but he could not resist a few walks along the water, looking at all the boats.

Naturally, Simeon believes his tour of Bristol is far superior than anyone else’s, as I am sure you agree. Nonetheless, he insisted on travelling on the “Toot Bus” to get a glimpse of all the places he had not the time to visit. Bristol’s sightseeing bus tour starts near the floating harbour then drives up to Bristol Zoo, passing Clifton Down Station along the way. The bus passes under the Clifton Suspension Bridge, which Simeon bravely crossed on his last visit.

From the top deck of the bus, Simeon had a view of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s SS Great Britain, as well as the other boats in the Floating Harbour. Before returning to the first bus stop, the bus drove Simeon to Temple Meads Station, which opened in 1840 as the western terminus of the Great Western Railway – another of Brunel’s inventions. Finally, the bus came to a halt outside Simeon’s apartment, where he indulged in a well-deserved rest.

Of course, a trip would not be complete for Simeon without sampling several restaurants, no matter what John Wesley says about abstaining from rich food – although the New Room’s cafe makes a mean marble cake! For pizza lovers, Simeon recommends The Stable, situated on the harbourside. The laidback restaurant serves up seriously good pizza with a wide range of toppings, alongside pints of beer, cider and crafted drinks.

Another of Simeon’s favourite places to eat is Bar + Block, a steakhouse on King Street. Whilst they specialise in steak, there are plenty of other options on the menu. Other places with large menus include The Berkeley and The Commercial Rooms, both owned by J. D. Wetherspoon. The Berkeley is situated in a former shopping arcade and contains a stained-glass dome and a small whispering gallery. The Commercial Rooms were once a gentlemen’s club and meeting place for the city’s merchants. The foundations were laid in 1810, and the Rooms opened for business the following year. In 1852, following the completion of the Great Western Railway, The Commercial Rooms became the first telegraph office in Bristol. The Rooms were taken over by Wetherspoons in 1995.

Those wishing to experience Bristol’s ultimate fine dining need to visit Browns, housed in a building that once belonged to Bristol Museum. Simeon enjoyed eating in the sophisticated establishment against a backdrop of enormous arched windows and original stone pillars. By the end of the meal, Simeon felt well and truly stuffed – both literally and figuratively. (Don’t expect this treatment all the time, Simeon!)

This concludes Simeon’s tour of Bristol. We hope you have enjoyed the ride. Do come again soon.

Simeon’s Top Tips

  1. Book tickets for the attractions in advance. Most places are limiting the number of visitors due to Covid-19. (Generally, it is best to book to avoid disappointment)
  2. Do not fall in the harbourYou will get very wet.
  3. Watch out for people on bikes and electric scooters. Do not walk in cycle lanes.
  4. Do not feed the animals in the zoo. That is the zookeeper’s job.
  5. Be prepared for lots of walking. Bristol is not very car-friendly.
  6. Watch out for seagulls. They will try to steal your food.
  7. Be prepared for rainPack more than one pair of trousers.
  8. Pace yourself. There is so much to see. It is impossible to do it all in a day.
  9. Do not eat too much pickled, smoked or high-seasoned food. John Wesley would disapprove.
  10. Follow government guidelines regarding Covid-19. They are there for everyone’s safety.

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights
Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

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Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

Simeon the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please) has returned to the South Western city of Bristol for more adventures. On his last trip, he visited the cathedral, Clifton Suspension Bridge, the SS Great Britain, Bristol Aquarium and the M Shed, but there was still so much left to explore. After patiently waiting out another Covid-19 lockdown, the double-vaccinated gibbon made his great escape in the back of a Vauxhall Corsa. Having returned from his latest adventure, Simeon wishes to tell you everything he discovered.

Broadmead and Castle Park

Simeon’s favourite way of exploring a city is by taking part in a Treasure Trail. Last year, Simeon solved a murder mystery, but this time, he received instructions about a TOP SECRET spy mission. An Eastern bloc spy ring called the “Trojans” had attacked the computers of Bristol businesses and were demanding a ransom of £10 million. The only way to avoid paying the ransom was to discover a four-digit code. Agent Simeon, under the code name “Achilles”, immediately started searching for clues and discovered some interesting facts about Bristol along the way.

The trail began in Broadmead, a street in the shopping district of the city. Originally called Brodemede as far back as 1383, the name may mean “broad meadow”, referring back to its pre-city times. Alternatively, it may refer to brodemedes, a type of cloth once woven in Bristol. In the 18th century, a shopping arcade was built in Broadmead, but the area received significant damages during the Second World War. Rebuilding began in the 1950s, and today, Broadmead is home to a shopping centre called Cabot Circus, which opened in September 2008.

In 1227, a man named Maurice de Gaunt founded a Dominican priory called Blackfriars on Broadmead. Its name describes the black hooded cloaks of the friars who inhabited the building. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1538, the friars surrendered the buildings and contents to Henry VIII (1491-1547). Two years later, William Chester, the Mayor of Bristol purchased the buildings from the king.

During the reign of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), the Smiths and Cutlers Company bought the old priory and leased parts of the buildings to other organisations, for instance, a workhouse for poor girls. During the 17th century, the Religious Society of Friends acquired the premises and became known as the Quaker Friars. Only part of the original priory remains standing today. During the 20th century, the building housed the Bristol Register Office. In recent years, it has become home to a restaurant.

Llywelyn ap Dafydd (c.1267-1287), the eldest son of the then Prince of Wales, was buried in the priory grounds after a four-year imprisonment in Bristol Castle. This information confused Simeon because he could not see a castle anywhere. The matter was soon cleared up after Simeon carefully crossed the road to Castle Park.

Situated in Castle Park is the partially excavated remains of the stone keep and two preserved vaulted chambers of Bristol Castle. It was built in the Norman era to protect the walled city of Bristol from attack. The original castle, a timber motte and bailey, was presumably built on the orders of William the Conqueror (1028-87). It was strategically placed between the River Avon and the River Frome and surrounded by an artificial moat.

The castle was later rebuilt in stone and became the possession of Robert of Gloucester (1090-1147), the half-brother of Empress Matilda (1102-67), the legitimate heir to the throne. During Matilda’s fight with her cousin, Stephen (1092-1154) over the English crown, Matilda appointed Robert as her trusted right-hand man. Bristol Castle became a notable location in the war. Stephen was briefly captured and imprisoned in the castle but released in exchange for other prisoners. When Stephen became king, he thought little of the city of Bristol and the castle remained Robert’s property.

When Robert of Gloucester died, the castle and title passed down to his son William (1116-83). Unfortunately, William fell foul of King Henry II (1133-89), who confiscated Bristol Castle, making it a possession of the crown. As a result, the castle became one of the most important in the country. King John’s (1166-1216) sons received their education at Bristol Castle, including the future Henry III (1207-72), who added a barbican, gate tower and great hall during his reign.

By the 16th century, Bristol Castle showed signs of neglect, as recorded by the English poet, John Leland (1503-52). He wrote a description of the castle, noting its dungeons, church and domestic quarters, but revealed, “Many towers still stand in both the courts, but they are all on the point of collapse.” Bristol Castle had fallen into disuse and, after the civil war, Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) ordered the destruction of the castle in 1645.

The land on which the castle once stood is used as a public park today. In the centre stands the ruins of St Peter’s Church, which was bombed during the Bristol Blitz on the night of 24th November 1940. The church foundations date back to 1106, but the majority of the building was constructed in the 15th century. Excavations after the Second World War revealed St Peter’s may have been the first church built in Bristol.

The majority of the church walls are still standing, but the roof and interior suffered severe damages. Rather than demolish the rest of the building, the city maintains St Peter’s Church as a memory of the civilians who died during the Bristol Blitz. A plaque on the south wall of the church lists the 200 Bristolians who lost their lives on the night of the Blitz. Nearby, another plaque remembers the names of citizens from Bristol who died fighting against the Nationalist forces during the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939).

St Peter’s is not the only church destroyed during the Bristol Blitz. Temple Church in the Redcliffe district of the city, which Simeon visited towards the end of his trip, remains an empty shell and is protected by English Heritage. Fortunately, the unique bell tower survived the bombing. Constructed between 1441 and 1460, the tower leans towards the left due to subsidence. During the construction, builders noticed the lower sections sinking into the ground and attempted to correct it by building the upper section at a different angle. The reason for the subsidence was due to the soft alluvial clay beneath the foundations, which was compressed by the weight of the stone.

The destruction of the church revealed the foundations of a previous round nave from the 12th century. This belonged to the Knights Templar, who received the land from Robert of Gloucester. After the suppression of the Templars, the Knights Hospitaller took over the building in 1313. After the dissolution of the monasteries, the church became the property of the crown, but the Bristol Corporation managed to purchase it from the king in 1544.

Back on the spy trail, Simeon trekked through the Physic Garden running parallel to St Peter’s ruined nave. Replacing a neglected sensory garden, the Physic Garden was planted by the luxury fragrance brand Jo Malone London in 2015 as part of a global charity initiative to support people living with mental ill-health and physical disabilities. Designed to nourish and nurture, the garden is a peaceful haven for rehabilitation and recovery. Jo Malone London also supported the homelessness charity St Mungo’s to create the Putting Down Roots (PDR) programme, which encourages the homeless and jobless to help maintain the garden, earn qualifications in horticulture, and seek permanent employment.

Behind the church, Simeon was excited to discover a feature called Beside the Still Waters. Two Kilkenny limestone fountains sit in small ponds, which are joined together by a narrow channel of water. At one end, the carved stone resembles a pine cone, and at the other, the stone has a cinquefoil form, giving it the appearance of a garlic bulb. The feature was created by Peter Randall-Page (b.1954), who has public work on display in several locations, including London and Cambridge. Randall-Page focuses on the geometry of his designs, which he explains “is the theme on which nature plays her infinite variations”.

Simeon was intrigued to discover another sculpture nearby of a throne made of Normandy limestone. While inspecting it for clues for his spy mission, Simeon found giant footprints at the base of the throne. Simeon is now convinced that giants once roamed the city of Bristol, but this sculpture was commissioned in the early 1990s during the new landscaping of Castle Park. The sculptor is Rachel Fenner, who takes inspiration from ancient natural and archaeological sites of Britain.

With no time to worry about the existence of giants, Simeon hurried on through Castle Park – he had spies to catch! He even resisted climbing the five Silver Birch trees planted in memory of the five D-Day landing beaches, code-named Juno, Gold, Sword, Utah and Omaha. Nor did Simeon notice the memorial trees for Anne Frank and the victims of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

In the centre of the park stands another sculpture, which Simeon paused at to sniff for clues. Unveiled by the Bristol Civic Society in 1993 to provide drinking water, the bronze fish fountain was created by ceramic artist Kate Malone. The water spouts, which poured out of the mouths of the fish, were later turned off when they failed the updated Water Regulations Advisory Scheme. Plans to refurbish the fountain are underway, so hopefully Malone’s work will function once again.

Whilst combing through the rest of Castle Park for clues, Simeon spotted a couple more things of note, such as several bird and bug boxes hanging on a wall. Opposite this, an S-shaped footbridge takes people across the Floating Harbour to the Finzels Reach development. The bridge opened in 2017 and, in Simeon’s opinion, is far more attractive than some of the industrial-style bridges. Unfortunately, Simeon did not have time to cross the bridge – he had spies to catch – but he was able to enjoy the experience later in the week.

Situated on the harbour is a floating ballast seed garden called Seeds of Change. Ballasts were frequently unloaded from trading ships in the harbour between 1680 and 1900. They often contained seeds of plants from all the countries the ships had visited, some of which flourished after arriving in Bristol. In 2007, Bristol invited Brazilian artist Maria Thereza Alves (b.1961) to exhibit her work in an exhibition at the Arnolfini gallery. During her stay, Alves dug up some of the remaining ballasts and extracted the seeds, which she grew and displayed in the gallery.

In 2010, Bristol invited Alves back to the city to develop a permanent ballast garden. A disused barge in the Floating Harbour was selected as the location of the garden, and with the help of German designer Gitta Gschwendtner, Alves chose several plants grown from seeds by participating schools and organisations. These plants arrived in Bristol from all over the world and include figs, asphodels and squirting cucumbers. Admittedly, the Seeds of Change garden did not look all that impressive to Simeon, but many new plants may flourish between now and September. 

Having collected all the clues he needed from Castle Park, Simeon returned to Broadmead, where he enjoyed following a snake-like blue line along the pavement. Along the way, he rested his weary legs on stone spheres decorated with blue mosaic tiles. This installation refers to Bristol’s famous blue glass, produced in the city in the 18th and 19th centuries. ‘Bristol Blue’ glass was mostly used for medicine bottles, and the landscaping firm Reckless Orchard recycled many of these to create the blue bricks seen along Broadmead.

Great work, Simeon! You have managed to solve all the clues, worked out the code and stopped the Trojans. Simeon patted himself on the back and set off in search of some well-deserved tea and cake.

Treasure Island Trail

Being the adventurous little gibbon that he is, Simeon sought out another treasure trail to follow around Bristol. Put together by the Long John Silver Trust, the trail takes intrepid explorers around parts of Bristol’s harbour to celebrate the city’s connection with Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850-94) classic novel Treasure Island (1882). Simeon’s task was to locate eight wooden barrels, upon which he would learn a bit about both the book and the city.

Simeon located the first barrel outside the old Merchant Venturers’ Almshouses. Built in 1699, the houses accommodated many sailors, including William Williams, the first person to introduce a pirate treasure map in his book The Journal of Llewellin Penrose, a Seaman. Stevenson incorporated the idea for his novel, which involved pirates, treasure hunting and a young lad from Bristol.

Treasure Island begins at the Admiral Benbow Inn on the Bristol Channel, where an old sailor named Billy Bones warns the innkeeper’s son, Jim Hawkins, to keep a lookout for “a one-legged seafaring man”. On Simeon’s walk through Bristol, he came across the Llandoger Trow, a historic public house built in 1664. It is this building that inspired Stevenson to invent the Admiral Benbow Inn. It is also where English writer Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) met Alexander Selkirk (1676-1721), a Scottish privateer who spent four months stranded on an uninhabited island in the South Pacific Ocean. Intrigued by Selkirk’s story, Defoe wrote one of the first English novels, Robinson Crusoe. Selkirk may also be the inspiration for Stevenson’s character Ben Gunn.

In the book, a blind beggar visits Billy Bones to give him “the black spot”. This is a summons to share a map leading to buried treasure. Shortly after, Bones suffers a stroke and dies, and the beggar and other men attack the inn in search of the map. Jim finds the treasure map first and escapes. After sharing his find with Squire Trelawney and Dr Livesey, they secure a ship called the Hispaniola to seek the treasure, but first, they need to hire a crew. In a fictional Bristol pub called The Spy-Glass, they meet the landlord, Long John Silver, who offers his services as a cook. Jim is a bit wary because Silver only has one leg, and he recalls Billy Bones’ warning. 

Stevenson described The Spy-Glass as having a spy hole through which people could warn others of the presence of press gangs or slave traders. In Bristol, Simeon came across a pub called The-Hole-in-the-Wall, the only known pub in the country to have a spy hole feature. It is likely Stevenson based The Spy-Glass on this pub, which has other similar features, including doors leading on to separate streets so that patrons could make a swift exit. Fortunately, Simeon did not see any one-legged seafaring men in the area.

The Treasure Island Trail took Simeon to Redcliffe Wharf, where he learned of the many barrels loaded onto and taken off ships in the harbour. In the book, Jim Hawkins finds himself trapped in a barrel when he overhears Long John Silver’s plans to find and keep the treasure for himself. Simeon shuddered at the thought of getting trapped inside one of the barrels on the trail. Fortunately, they also function as plant pots, so there was no danger of Simeon falling in.

On the trail, Simeon heard about a real-life pirate who grew up in the Redcliffe district. Edward Teach (1680-1718), better known as Blackbeard, served on an English ship in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701-14), after which he became a notorious pirate. He attacked merchant ships and stole their goods, weapons and valuables. Fortunately, there is no record of Blackbeard killing anyone. (“Phew!” thought Simeon.) Blackbeard’s second-in-command, Israel Hands, also known as Basilica Hands, inspired Stevenson’s character of the same name, a villainous sidekick of Long John Silver.

Simeon thoroughly enjoyed the Treasure Trail spy mission and the Treasure Island Trail. It was a lot of walking for such a small gibbon but he learned a lot of information about Bristol. Simeon still had several days to enjoy in the city, but first, he needed a nice long rest. He will tell you about the rest of his trip next week. See you then!

Read about Simeon’s previous adventures here:
Simeon goes to Amsterdam
Simeon and the Bloomsbury Treasures
Simeon Visits Rainham Hall
Simeon, the Cliffs and the Sea
Simeon Encounters Antwerp
Simeon Investigates Covent Garden
Simeon and the Green Witch’s Treasure
Simeon Conquers York
Simeon’s Bristol Highlights


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How to Write a Book Review

There is no right or wrong way to write a book review. For some, writing “I liked this book” is good enough, but many writers prefer in-depth feedback and critique. A friend recently asked me for advice about writing book reviews, knowing that I have written many reviews, and new authors send me copies of their books in exchange for honest opinions. Admittedly, I do not follow a strict method of writing reviews, but I do try to include a few key points. At my friend’s request, I wrote the following instructions.

How to Write a Book Review

Firstly, write a brief description of the book. What is it about? Is it fiction or non-fiction? To what genre does it belong? Do not give anything away, especially the ending, but it is useful to tell potential readers a little about the narrative to entice them. Also, mention whether it is part of a series or a stand-alone. Is this the author’s first work, or are they a well-established writer?

For example:
Ancient Indian knowledge and wisdom have been expressed through storytelling for thousands of years. With this in mind, Limesh Parekh wrote his first business book Cracking the CRM Code in fiction format. CRM, which the author fails to define in the book, stands for Customer Relationship Management and is a useful process for businesses to interact with their customers.

What did you like about the book? Even if you did not enjoy it, try to find something positive to say. Was it well written? Did it contain interesting ideas or characters? What made you keep reading? Mention the emotions you felt, whether the author made you laugh or cry. Could you relate to the subject? Did you learn something new?

For example:
Many business books and manuals are nondescript and boring, whereas Limesh Parekh keeps the reader engaged with anecdotes, stories and quotes. Rather than learning how to use CRM, the characters show the process of purchasing and using the software, which is far more enlightening than a step-by-step guide.

For some, the hardest part of writing a review is mentioning the things they did not like. It is so easy to tell someone you liked their work rather than criticise them. Yet, even if it is unpleasant to hear, authors appreciate honesty and take on advice and comments in their future writings. If you found the book uninteresting, say so. Perhaps you were not the intended audience. Was the narrative easy to follow? Did you dislike any of the characters or ideas? Were there too many mistakes? (Be aware, typing errors are sometimes the fault of the editor and publisher rather than the author.)

For example:
English is presumably not the author’s first language, hence the sentences do not always flow, and the punctuation is far from perfect. At times, it is difficult to work out which character is speaking, making it a little confusing to follow.

Why should other people read this book? Did your reading experience benefit you in any way? Was it entertaining or educational, or was it a waste of your time? To whom would you recommend the book? Was it written for people with particular interests? Is it suitable for older or younger readers? Did it remind you of any other books you had read?

For example:
Cracking the CRM Code is written for business-minded people who understand the jargon and acronyms, many of which are unexplained. As a layperson, some of the information went over my head, but the fiction format helped hold my interest.

The final sentence of your review should indicate your overall impression of the book. You may have mentioned both positive and negative points, but which opinion comes out strongest? Some people find it easier to end their review with a rating out of 5 or 10 to indicate how much they enjoyed the book. 

For example:
Cracking the CRM Code has the potential to be a big hit with small business owners and business consultants. (3/5 Stars)


Below are a few examples of book reviews I have written over the past few months.

Larry, Bush Pilot by Jordan Mierek (2020)

Jordan Mierek, also known as Jordan Elizabeth, usually writes for young adults, but after many requests, she has published her first children’s book. Larry, Bush Pilot is a collaborative effort between Mierek and her father, Lawrence Mierek, who grew up on a dairy farm. Larry, a ten-year-old boy, also lived on a farm during the 1970s with his father, who owns an aeroplane. Despite his age, Larry’s father taught him to fly, which came in handy when his father suffered an accident in the middle of nowhere.

This short story loosely reflects Lawrence Mierek’s childhood. As a teenager, his father taught him to fly a plane on the airstrip behind their barn. The narrative is likely an imagined scenario, placing a young boy in a precarious situation, which many children would not have the means to solve. Only through extreme determination and courage is Larry able to rescue his father.

Larry, Bush Pilot is a short story intended for primary school children. The few illustrations between chapters make it an appropriate step between picture books and teenage novels. Larry’s life on the farm allows modern children to learn about the world before digital technology and the importance of a family working together. The story also tells the reader that if they believe in themselves and their abilities, they can achieve great things.

Jordan Mierek has stepped into the world of children’s literature and proved that she is more than capable of writing for several age groups. Larry, Bush Pilot is the first in a series called Flying Acres, and we look forward to joining Larry on his next adventure. (4/5 stars)

Home at Last: Your Journey of Faith in Challenging Times by Ruth Pearson (2020)

Ruth Pearson wrote Home at Last during the pandemic for those who have felt discouraged and afraid about the future. Suggesting Covid-19 could be a sign of the Second Coming, Pearson focused on three questions to prepare the reader for such an event. 1. How important is God in your life? 2. Do you have a personal relationship with God? 3. Where are you planning to spend eternity?

Using examples from the Bible, Pearson explores the idea of a journey of faith. Several characters in the Bible went on journeys that brought them closer to God. Pearson uses the Parable of the Prodigal Son to explain the notion of “coming home” to God. Readers may have drifted away from the creator, but He will welcome them back with open arms. The story of Ruth and Naomi explores faith, and the story of Joshua and Rahab features truth, about which Pearson also writes.

Whilst the ideas in the book are worth pursuing, the written narrative is poor. Pearson is either more confident verbalising her thoughts, or the English language is not her strong point. Frequent spelling and grammatical errors make the book difficult to read, and it is hard to follow the author’s thought process.

Pearson claims she wrote the entire book in 48 hours, and I believe her. Although some editing must have occurred, it needs a lot more work to make it a successful seller. It appears the author tried to conclude the narrative several times but thought of more to say. Chapter Nine ends by informing the reader that the next chapter is the last. Chapter Ten concludes the book, only for the reader to turn the page to find another chapter headed “Conclusion”.

It is a great shame the quality of writing lets the book down because the ideas could potentially help many new and old Christians. Although she does not reveal her denomination, Pearson’s beliefs suggest she is a Seventh-Day Adventist and emphasises the Second Coming. Some readers may be uncomfortable with this, but Pearson’s ideas are suitable for all types of Christians. (3/5 stars)

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline (2021)

Ollie’s Dad died. Richard had an incurable brain tumour, and before he passed away, he sent everyone a special present. He also told Ollie that “being alive was like a puzzle and it was all falling into place.” Ollie is autistic. He thinks his father left him a puzzle to solve. Could it involve the gifts? Why won’t anyone help him solve the puzzle?

This Shining Life by Harriet Kline is a heartbreaking tale about a family coming to terms with death. Told from several people’s point of view, Kline explores different portrayals of grief. Ollie’s mum wants to stay in bed; his aunt wants life to carry on; his maternal grandmother tries to exert control; his paternal grandmother wishes she could understand her grandson; and his grandfather has no idea what is going on. No one has time for Ollie and his obsession with his puzzle.

Before Richard’s death, Ollie dominated family life. Ollie had a strict routine, always had a few spare pairs of socks with him because he hated dirty ones, and had meltdowns if his parents used the “wrong” tone of voice. Without his familiar habits, Ollie’s life was a mass of confusion – an apt metaphor for the grief the rest of the family experienced.

With a contemporary novel such as This Shining Life, there is no “happy ever after”. People do not come back from the dead. There is no answer to the meaning of life. Grief is a long process and different for everyone. It causes depression, anger and confusion, but hidden under all these negative feelings is love.

Harriet Kline takes death and grief seriously but adds a touch of humour to the narrative for the reader’s benefit. It is not a light read, nor is it markedly profound. Instead, This Shining Life is painfully honest, and for that reason, it is beautiful. (4/5 stars)

Nine Ways to Die by Jordan Elizabeth (2021)

Fifteen-year-old January “Jan” hates the new town she has moved to but loves her new boyfriend, Jean. Her parents are never home, and her sister is in hospital, so she spends the summer days with her new friends. The only people she meets are around her age, and she never comes across any adults. The buildings are decrepit and old, almost like a ghost town. The more time Jan spends with her friends, the more peculiar the town, Memoir Falls, feels.

Nine Ways to Die is a short story by versatile writer, Jordan Elizabeth. The details about Jan’s past gradually emerge until Jan, along with the reader, discovers the truth about the strange town and its inhabitants. There are clues everywhere, but like Jan, readers fail to notice them until they come together in a sudden climax.

Through Jan’s eyes, readers experience the town as though they are also new inhabitants. Although it is a short story, there is so much on offer: suspense, romance, thrills, and the supernatural. For those familiar with Jordan Elizabeth’s work, this is a welcome addition to her vast collection of books. For newbie readers, this is a tempting taste of the author’s full potential. (4/5 stars)

Cracking the CRM Code by Limesh Parekh (2021)

Ancient Indian knowledge and wisdom have been expressed through storytelling for thousands of years. With this in mind, Limesh Parekh wrote his first business book Cracking the CRM Code in fiction format. CRM, which the author fails to define in the book, stands for Customer Relationship Management and is a useful process for businesses to interact with their customers.

Rather than produce a mundane manual about how to purchase and use CRM software, Parekh writes a story about four friends and their journey with CRM. Liladhar Shastri, a successful business owner, is encouraging his friends, Anubhav, Jagdeep and Irshad to consider using CRM to improve their businesses. What follows is a lengthy discussion about buying CRM, using CRM and getting the most out of the software.

As the Indian entrepreneur, Rashmi Bansal writes in the introduction, Limesh Parekh is “not a salesman but a friend.” The author gives advice through the voice of Liladhar, and the other three friends express the reader’s questions and concerns. The book is written for small businesses with the potential to grow with the help of CRM. The story analyses what the friends do wrong and what they need to change.

Cracking the CRM Code is written for business-minded people who understand the jargon and acronyms, many of which are unexplained. As a layperson, some of the information went over my head, but the fiction format helped hold my interest. English is presumably not the author’s first language, hence the sentences do not always flow, and the punctuation is far from perfect. At times, it is difficult to work out which character is speaking, making it a little confusing to follow.

Many business books and manuals are nondescript and boring, whereas Limesh Parekh keeps the reader engaged with anecdotes, stories and quotes. Rather than learning how to use CRM, the characters show the process of purchasing and using the software, which is far more enlightening than a step-by-step guide. Cracking the CRM Code has the potential to be a big hit with small business owners and business consultants. (3/5 stars)

The Boy I Am by K. L. Kettle (2021)

Imagine a world where women are safe from men. Imagine a world where women are in charge. Imagine a world where men no longer reduce women to something to flirt with or dismiss as beneath them. This is the way of life in K. L. Kettle’s dystopian novel The Boy I Am. War has left the Earth in ruins, and it is no longer safe to go outside, yet humanity is surviving in tall, secure tower blocks overseen by the Chancellor. Men and boys are confined to the basement floors as a punishment for their behaviour during the war. To earn their right to live on the upper floors, they must learn to behave like a gentleman, and never look at a woman’s skin without their permission.

The protagonist, Jude, is running out of time to earn the right to live amongst the women. If he does not gain a sponsor, he faces a future in the dangerous mines. Yet, Jude is not sure he wants to live with the women, who have demeaned him for his gender since his birth. He has seen another side to them and believes the Chancellor has killed his best friend. Jude wants to escape, risk the poisonous fog outside and search for a better life. To do this, the Chancellor must die.

The way women treat men and boys is uncomfortable to read. Female readers, in particular, may have experienced similar treatment at the hands of men. Feminists desire an equal world, but there is the risk of going too far the other way. Yet, as Jude discovers, it is not as black and white as Female versus Male. An underground gang of women known as Hysterics are also trying to escape. They want to save themselves and the boys from a society not run by women, but by the elite.

K. L. Kettle explains her intentions behind the novel in a letter to the reader at the end of the book. She quotes Lord Acton’s (1834-1902) proverb “absolute power corrupts absolutely” and questions if everyone is equal, does everyone have the ability to abuse the power they have? What may have seemed a good idea for humanity after the war, has become an oppressive state where no one is safe from those in power, not even the women. The Chancellor controls everyone, but Jude and the Hysterics are determined to take that power away from her.

Telling the story from Jude’s perspective highlights the faults in today’s societies. Many are unaware of the belittling behaviour happening around them, but when the roles are reversed, they are obvious. The Boy I Am is both thrilling and eye-opening, challenging gender roles and power dynamics in general. Those who have read books such as Noughts and Crosses by Malorie Blackman are guaranteed to enjoy K. L. Kettle’s novel. (4/5 stars)

In Picardy’s Fields by Hannah Byron (2020)

Told from two perspectives, In Picardy’s Fields is the story of two brave young women during the First World War. Set mostly in France, the two women put gender stereotypes to one side to help the allied soldiers. Baroness Agnès de Saint-Aubin, a young surgeon from Paris, follows her teacher, Dr Alan Bell, to the Château de Dragoncourt on the front lines in Picardy to help her friends, Jacques and Elle de Dragoncourt care for the injured soldiers. Meanwhile, the youngest Dragoncourt child, Madeleine, is determined to escape from her finishing school in Switzerland to play her part in the war effort.

The author, Hannah Byron, accurately describes the devastation and dangers the characters faced both in Paris and at the front. Flowing seamlessly from scene to scene, Byron paints a dark picture of life in war-torn France at the same time as weaving a captivating story. Agnès is a reticent but strong woman, a stark contrast from the stuck-up Madeleine, used to getting her way. Yet both characters develop, forced to face horrifying circumstances. While Agnès becomes more confident, Madeleine uses her head-strong determination to secretly help the allied soldiers, even if it means putting herself in danger.

Whilst the war is the main feature of the novel, the author weaves themes of friendship and romance into the narrative. Although only two people narrate the story, In Picardy’s Fields shows the importance of working together and putting aside prejudices. The undercurrent of a developing romance brings a sense of hope that everything will end happily, yet the reader also knows nothing is safe during wartime. With each turn of the page, disaster could befall the characters, which makes for a gripping read.

Hannah Byron admits she is not a medic or war expert, yet she undertook extensive research to make In Picardy’s Fields as accurate as possible. She also confesses it is unlikely a female doctor went to the front lines, yet as a work of fiction, this does not matter, especially as Agnès’s profession is key to the story.

Authors have written novels about the World Wars ad nauseum to the point that writing an original story seems impossible, but Hannah Byron proves this assumption wrong. In Picardy’s Fields feels almost modern in some respects, despite being set in the 1910s, which adds a freshness to the story. These women, these characters are just like you and me, living in a time we could not possibly understand.

In Picardy’s Fields is a fantastic debut novel and Hannah Byron is a writer to keep an eye on. (4/5 stars)

The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel by Amanda Hope Haley (2021)

“Finding Noah’s ark … would be fun, but it wouldn’t be instructive… wouldn’t teach us about God or each other.” This is the view of Amanda Hope Haley in The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel, a book about the author’s travels in the land of the Bible. As a Harvard-trained biblical archaeologist, Haley spent time in Israel excavating areas of land where Jesus once walked. Her goal was not to unearth evidence of Jesus but to discover what life was like for the everyday person during Christ’s time on Earth.

Only the first couple of chapters mention items and foundations Haley found on her digs. After that, Haley describes her holiday in Israel with her mother, father and husband. She writes honestly, admitting to tourist errors she and her family made. She describes the places she visited as though speaking to a reader who plans to make the trip too. Yet, it is far from a holiday diary.

In each location Haley visited, she describes the history of the place, the biblical references, the antagonism between the Jews and Muslims, and its current state. She discovers why Jesus chose to preach in certain areas, locates towns and cities mentioned in the Bible, and notes how much places have changed since the 1st century.

It is interesting to learn how the three religions, Judaism, Islam and Christianity, both merge and alienate each other. Haley visited areas that banned Jews, yet as a Christian, she could enter. She paints Israel as a dangerous place but also highlights its beauty spots.

The title, The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel, is misleading because there is little physical digging mentioned. Haley only documents a few of her finds, and readers do not learn a great deal from them. On the other hand, Haley’s metaphorical dig into the history of Israel proves fruitful, enhanced from her first-hand experience.

Those looking for a book about archaeology may be disappointed with The Red-Haired Archaeologist Digs Israel but those wishing to learn more about the biblical land of Israel, past and present, will appreciate Haley’s knowledge. For Christian readers, this book will enhance their understanding of the Bible. (4/5 stars)

The Diamond Courier by Hannah Byron (2020)

Twenty years have passed since the end of Hannah Byron’s World War One novel In Picardy’s Fields. It is now 1939 and the Second World War is just beginning, but all seems peaceful in Kent, England where the narrator, Lili Hamilton, lives with her parents. War is the last thing on Lili’s mind as she contemplates how to get out of an arranged marriage and pursue a career in journalism.

The surname Hamilton may be familiar to those who have read the previous book but Lady Madeleine has left her war achievements far behind in The Diamond Courier where she plays the role of a prim and proper lady of the house. Her daughter, Liliane, feels trapped by her sensible parents’ expectations who thwart her plans to be a political journalist. Yet Lili, encouraged by the handsome leader of the British Communist Party Leo Oppenheim, perseveres, thus estranging herself from her family.

Lili soon learns living in London with Leo is not the life she desired, but feels it is too late to back out, especially after witnessing the treatment of Jews on the continent. The Jewish community need someone to bring their precious diamonds to safety before the Germans get their hands on them, and they believe Lili is the best person for the job. Unless, of course, she gets caught.

The Diamond Courier is much darker than Byron’s previous book. Naturally, war is not a happy topic, but the sense of hope felt in In Picardy’s Fields is missing in this novel. The story is divided into two sections, “Leo” and “After Leo”. The former is lengthier, drawn-out, and not always pleasant to read. The latter, on the other hand, is packed with danger, excitement and adventure.

For Lili, Communism is something new and exciting, which she desires to pursue. The party has clear views about the war, with which all members must agree. Yet, when faced with the horrors of war, Lili realises she must cast aside her political opinions. Whether Communist, Jew, sympathiser or resistance member, no one deserves the terrible treatment delivered by the Nazis.

Although this is a work of fiction, Byron remains faithful to the true nature of the Second World War. She does not gloss over any of the atrocities and, whilst the reader keeps their fingers and toes crossed that Lili will get her “happily ever after” ending, this cannot be possible for everyone in the novel.

Aiming to show the strength of women living in a “man’s world”, Byron has created female characters of whom to be proud and respected. Whilst the storyline may not always be pleasant, it is a gripping narrative that immerses the reader into Lili’s life and experiences. Hannah Byron has a way with words that keeps the reader engaged throughout. She is an author to keep an eye on. (4/5 stars)


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