Woolsthorpe Manor

The past year and a half has been challenging for everyone. For some, it has resulted in the death of loved ones, loss of jobs, ill health, depression and anxiety. Yet, for others, it has been an opportunity to spend time with family, take up new hobbies, redecorate the house, and learn something new. Perhaps someone has even made a scientific discovery. At least, that is what Sir Isaac Newton achieved during the Great Plague of 1665-1666. Known as his Annus Mirabilis or ‘Year of Wonders’, Newton spent lockdown at his childhood home in the countryside, where he filled his time learning and discovering new things about the world.

On Christmas day in 1642, Isaac Newton was born at Woolsthorpe Manor in Woolsthorpe-by-Colsterworth, near Grantham, Lincolnshire, to Hannah Ayscough (1623-79). Christmas day babies were special, but Newton was also considered blessed because he was born three months after the death of his father, also called Isaac. When Hannah remarried the rector, Barnabas Smith (1582-1653), from North Witham, three-year-old Newton remained at Woolsthorpe Manor with his maternal grandparents.

Woolsthorpe Manor was a yeoman’s farmstead, which principally reared sheep. While Newton was not adept at farming, the environment and landscape inspired his curious mind to observe and experiment with nature. His quiet, contemplative personality set Newton apart from other boys his age, particularly when he started attending the Grammar School in Grantham at the age of 12.

Rather than travel several miles to and from school, Newton lodged with Mr Clark, an apothecary. Mr Clark’s daughter remembered Newton as “a sober, silent, thinking lad who never was known scarce to play with the boys abroad.” Newton paid little attention to his lessons, preferring to study the workings of mechanical devices, such as the newly built postmill nearby. As soon as he had an opportunity, Newton constructed a working model of the postmill from wood.

Visitors can see an example of Newton’s postmill model at Woolsthorpe Manor, which now belongs to the National Trust. The house has been refurbished since Newton lived there, but recent discoveries suggest some sections remain as they were in the 17th century. On a wall in the kitchen, a faint carving of a postmill suggests Newton drew on the walls as a child. Other carvings have also been discovered around the room.

Newton’s notebooks reveal some of the experiments he undertook at school and home during his childhood. These included staring at the sun until he almost went blind and squeezing his eye-ball with a large blunt needle to see what would happen. He also had a keen interest in astronomy, time and mathematics.

At 17, Newton’s mother removed him from school and set him to work on the farm. Rather than look after the sheep, Newton spent his time reading or designing waterwheels and such-like. A disastrous nine months persuaded Newton’s mother to send him back to school, where he gained enough knowledge to enter the University of Cambridge. In June 1661, at the age of 18, Newton left his rural lifestyle behind in exchange for the city.

History books about the Great Plague tend to focus on London, but most major cities across England were affected. In 1665, Charles II (1630-85) tried to halt the spread of the plague by imposing a lockdown to prevent people from mixing. This was not too dissimilar from Boris Johnson’s decisions in 2020. Likewise, if someone came into contact with a plague victim, they had to quarantine for 40 days, painting a red cross on their door to warn others to stay away. Those who could, fled to the countryside where the population was much lower than in the cities.

Newton retreated to the safety of his childhood home in the summer of 1665. Despite being away from his university studies, Newton’s lockdown resulted in some of his best theories that changed the course of science. “For in those days, I was in the prime of my age for invention & minded Mathematics & Philosophy more than at any time since.” (Isaac Newton)

One of Newton’s aims was to understand how light worked. He observed that glass used in chandeliers sometimes changed white light into a rainbow of colours. With a glass prism, Newton experimented with light in his bed chamber. By boring a hole into the wooden shutters, Newton let a thin beam of light into his darkened room. When he placed the glass prism in the line of light, the colour changed, creating a rainbow pattern on the opposite wall. To ascertain whether the prism caused the light to change colour, Newton placed a second prism in the path of a single-coloured beam coming from the first prism. He noted the colour remained the same, thus proving that the glass had not altered it. From this experiment, Newton inferred that white light was made up of several colours: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, and violet.

Renovations to the house removed any evidence of Newton’s experiments, but his notebooks reveal the measurements of the room he used. Newton recorded the room had a width of “22 feet from the south-facing shutter to the wall”. Only one room in the manor house fits this description and has since been known as Newton’s chamber. For the benefit of visitors, the National Trust has filled the room with furniture from the 17th century and decorated the white walls with diagrams from Newton’s notes. Despite the carved drawings in the kitchen, it is unlikely that Newton wrote his findings on the wall. To demonstrate Newton’s experiment, a torch shines a light onto a prism, which produces a rainbow on the wall above the bed.

During his time at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton contemplated the workings of the universe. While sitting under an apple tree outside the house, he observed an apple fall to the ground. This incident sparked questions, such as, why did the apple fall straight down and not to the side? Many who have heard this story believe this was the moment Newton “discovered” gravity, yet gravity was hypothesised by Galileo Galilei (1564-1642) in 1604 and confirmed by Italian Jesuits, Grimaldi (1618-63) and Riccioli (1598-1671), in the 1640s.

The apple incident encouraged Newton to explore the theory of gravity in greater depth. He theorised that gravity was a key component in the working of the universe. Through numerous calculations, Newton developed a universal law of gravitation, which explained that all things with mass or energy are attracted to one another. Newton expanded upon theories suggested by Ismaël Boulliau (1605-94) and Giovanni Borelli (1608-79), who claimed the planets in the solar system are drawn towards the sun. Newton continued to explain that all planets, stars, galaxies, and even light are attracted to one another.

Newton did not tell the story of the apple tree until much later in life, leaving many people wondering if it actually happened or whether it was an example of gravity in action. Nonetheless, the incident was immortalised by Newton’s biographer, William Stukeley (1687-1765), who wrote, “the notion of gravitation… was occasion’d by the fall of an apple, as he sat in contemplative mood.” Legend or not, there is an apple tree standing by Woolsthorpe Manor, which has enticed pilgrims and tourists to the area since Newton’s death in 1727.

An apple tree has stood at Woolsthorpe Manor for at least 400 years. Many visitors ask if the tree is the same one Newton sat under, but the answer is not straightforward. In 1820, a storm blew the tree down, prompting many people, including students at Cambridge, to attempt to preserve it. Parts of the broken tree were used to make wooden trinkets and such-like, but the roots remained embedded in the ground. From these roots grew another tree, which remains at Woolsthorpe today. Dendrochronologists have determined it is technically the same tree, and the Tree Council has listed it as one of 50 Great British Trees.

Since the National Trust took over the property, the apple tree has been regularly pruned and looked after. It is a Flower of Kent tree, which produces green-red cooking apples. This type of tree was first mentioned in the 15th century and, despite its name, originated in France. At certain times of the year, the apples are used in the cafe at Woolsthorpe Manor.

Not only are these apples famous for their association with Isaac Newton, but they are also rather rare. After almost losing the tree in the storm of 1820, a graft was taken by Reverend Charles Turnor (1768-1853), who propagated the tree at Belton Park in Lincolnshire. During the 1930s, the Fruit Research Station at East Malling in Kent took grafts of the tree at Belton and gave them to the Cambridge Botanical Gardens. In the 1970s, Kew Gardens in London grew apple trees from the stock in Cambridge, one of which stands outside the Physics Department at the University of York.

Newton’s laws of motion and the law of universal gravitation, which derived from the incident with the apple tree, were recorded in his most important written work, Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica, first published in 1687. Shortened to Principia, the Latin document includes details about Newton’s experiments during lockdown and his further studies at Cambridge University. Whilst at Woolsthorpe Manor, Newton also produced three papers on calculus, which he continued working on once life returned to “normal”. Six months after returning to Cambridge, he was elected as a Minor Fellow of Trinity College. Then, two years later, he was appointed as the second Lucasian Professor. 

Principia is one of the most important books in the history of science and brought about the beginning of the Age of Reason. Yet, Newton usually kept to himself at Cambridge, almost in a state of self-isolation and rarely discussed his ideas with others. Without the prompting of one student and future astronomer, Edmond Halley (1656-1742), Principia may never have been printed. Halley coaxed Newton through the writing process by asking questions and demanding written proof. The young astronomer even paid for the publication of Newton’s work.

Although science has moved on since Newton’s era, Principia remains a respected piece of work. When asked to name his 2015 mission to the International Space Station, British Astronaut Tim Peake (b. 1972) chose Principia in honour of the famous scientist and mathematician.

“Not only does it have the link with space and gravity but also it’s a celebration of science and that is what the space station is about now.”
Tim Peake

As well as an English translation of Principia, Peake took seeds from the tree at Woolsthorpe Manor on his trip to the International Space Station. Peake and the seeds spent six months floating in microgravity before returning to Earth in 2016. Then the UK Space Agency, the National Trust and the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew took care of the seeds, nurturing them into saplings.

In January 2020, one of the “Space Saplings” returned to Woolsthorpe Manor, where Tim Peake planted it a few yards from the original tree. Many people have joked about potential alien DNA picked up by the seeds while in space, but chances are the sapling will grow into a normal Flower of Kent tree.

A competition was held to find homes for the remaining saplings. They have since been planted at the Eden Project in Cornwall, the Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre in Cheshire, the Brogdale Collections in Kent, the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre in Cheshire, Bushy Park in London, the Rosliston Forestry Centre in Derbyshire, and the United Nations Office for Outer Space Affairs in Vienna. To win the competition, the applicants demonstrated their commitment to science, physics, space and horticulture. As well as looking after the young trees, the centres are expected to encourage education, break down barriers to allow access to science for people of all ages, genders and abilities, and inspire potential future Isaac Newtons.

Whilst the apple tree is one of the greatest draws to Woolsthorpe Manor, the museum-like house provides an insight into Newton’s everyday life. By studying Newton’s diaries and letters from his family and friends, the National Trust has recreated Newton’s childhood home to the best of its ability. Newton had very few possessions and not much wealth of which to speak. From the outside, his home life appeared typical of the seventeenth century, yet Newton saw the world in a very different way.

The house reveals Newton’s human needs, making him appear no different from everyone else. Despite his genius status, Newton had his foibles and, according to a list of sins, quite a temper. Newton’s background did not reflect his achievements, which may give hope to many young visitors who feel their circumstances hinder them from reaching their full potential. In the barns and stables, hands-on activities demonstrate some of Newton’s ideas and discoveries. Not everyone can understand the workings of Newton’s mind, but seeing things in action certainly helps break Science down into manageable portions.

Woolsthorpe Manor is open from Thursday to Monday between 11am and 5pm. Access to the Manor House is by guided tour only, which can be booked online. Tickets cost £9.50 for adults and £4.75 for children over the age of five. National Trust members can visit for free.


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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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Lady Unknown

Many may have heard of Thomas Coutts (1735-1822), or at least the bank he founded, Coutts & Co., but how many know the name of his granddaughter? After Coutts and his wife died, his granddaughter Angela inherited his fortune, making her the wealthiest woman in Britain. Rather than spend the money on herself, Angela used it to help others in less fortunate circumstances. Whilst Angela may have been “the richest heiress in England”, she was also the most generous.

Angela Georgina Burdett was born on 21st April 1814 to Sir Francis Burdett, 5th Baronet (1770-1844) and Sophia Coutts (d. 1844), the daughter of Thomas Coutts. She was the youngest of six children, five girls and a boy called Robert, who inherited the baronetcy. Sir Francis was an English reformist politician and opponent of the prime minister William Pitt the Younger (1759-1806). He frequently came into conflict with parliament and was imprisoned for three months in 1820 for “composing, writing, and publishing a seditious libel” about the Peterloo Massacre. On his release, Sir Francis and the family moved into a house at 25 St James’s Place, London.

Sophia was one of three daughters of Thomas Coutts, nicknamed the “The Three Graces”. Due to her beauty, Sophia was sought after by a few painters, including Thomas Lawrence (1769-1830), the fourth president of the Royal Academy. She married Sir Francis in 1793, bringing with her a fortune of £25,000. Sir Francis and Sophia were very much in love and remained so for their entire marriage. When Sophia passed away on 13th January 1844, Sir Francis became inconsolable. After refusing to eat for several days, he died on 23rd January 1844.

When Angela’s grandfather died in 1822, his estate went to his second wife, Harriot Beauclerk, Duchess of St Albans (1777-1837). She thought carefully about the recipient of Coutts’ fortune upon her death and settled on Angela as her heiress. In her will, she stipulated three conditions: Angela’s 50% share in the bank must be held in trust; she must take the name Coutts; and thirdly, she must never marry a foreigner. So, she legally changed her name to Angela Burdett-Coutts.

Upon receipt of her inheritance, 23-year-old Burdett-Coutts became a subject of public curiosity. Many speculated about what she would do with the money, and many men made marriage proposals. For a while, Burdett-Coutts’ wealth elevated her to celebrity status, although she did little with her money during the first few years after receipt. So well known was she that the Reverend Richard Harris Barham (1788-1845) referred to her as “Miss Anja-ly Coutts” in a ballad written for Queen Victoria’s (1819-1901) coronation in 1837. The poem is part of The Ingoldsby Legends, named after the author’s pen name, “Thomas Ingoldsby of Tappington Manor”.

Burdett-Coutts began to donate money to various causes, prompting author Charles Dickens (1812-70) to write to her in 1846. He expressed his desire to open an asylum for “fallen women” where they could be rehabilitated, find jobs and gain property. Dickens was concerned about the growing number of prostitutes in London and wished to help them. He wanted to find a suitable property but needed funding, which Burdett-Coutts agreed to provide. The following year, Dickens purchased Urania Cottage in Shepherds Bush, which Burdett-Coutts helped him organise ready for opening that November. The home provided the women with food, shelter and education. They learned to read and write, and learn the trades of housekeepers, gardeners and seamstresses. Although the inhabitants did not pay to live there, they helped cook meals and keep the house clean. They also produced meals for the local poor relief.

As well as Urania House, Burdett-Coutts founded churches and schools around the country and in other areas of the British Empire. In 1847, she helped fund the bishoprics of Cape Town, South Africa, and Adelaide, Australia. Ten years later, she provided the same support for British Columbia, Canada.

In 1862, Burdett-Coutts erected a public fountain in Victoria Park in what is now the London Borough of Tower Hamlets. It was designed by the Mancunian architect Henry Astley Darbishire (1825-99), costing £5000 (approximately £647,000 today). Around 10,000 spectators turned up to witness the unveiling of the gothic-style granite fountain. Shaped like an octagon, it is 28 feet (8.5 m) wide with 60 feet (18 m) high red granite columns. Its purpose was to provide drinking water to everyone in the vicinity and was given a Grade II* listed status by Historic England in 1975. This means it is a structure of particular importance and interest. Since the refurbishment of Victoria Park in 2011, the fountain is no longer in public use and is now known as the Baroness Burdett Coutts Drinking Fountain.

Two years later, Burdett-Coutts donated £500 to fund the first Ordnance Survey of Jerusalem. Undertaken by Charles William Wilson (1836-1905), an officer in the Royal Engineers corps of the British Army, the survey produced the first accurate map of the city. Burdett-Coutts agreed to finance the project because she wished to help provide a better drinking water system for the inhabitants. Unfortunately, her wishes were not granted until the following century. Yet, the survey proved useful in other ways, such as helping the Church Mission Society collect information about place names, buildings and points of interest, which, in turn, helped scholars understand the geography of parts of the Bible. For the first time, archaeologists were able to explore the underground features of Temple Mount.

Turning her attention back to her home country, Angela Burdett-Coutts concerned herself with improving housing in the East End of London. This project received the support of Charles Dickens and resulted in the founding of Columbia Market in Bethnal Green to provide local people with affordable and nutritious produce. Burdett-Coutts purchased part of the slum area of Bethnal Green and paid for the construction of an undercover food market containing 400 stalls, which opened in 1869. She also constructed a gothic building called Columbia Dwellings, which was able to house dozens of families. The buildings have since been demolished, but traders continue to set up market stalls in the streets every Sunday.

During the 1860s, Burdett-Coutts also became a supporter of the London Ragged School Union. For two decades, the union had provided destitute children with free education, but it relied heavily on volunteers, many of whom had very little money to give. Considerable donations from Burdett-Coutts and other wealthy sponsors helped establish 350 more ragged schools by 1870, which coincided with the passing of the first Education Act. This resulted in the creation of School Boards and paved the way for compulsory free education for every child.

In recognition of Burdett-Coutts’ ongoing philanthropy, Queen Victoria bestowed upon her a suo jure peerage as Baroness Burdett-Coutts of Highgate and Brookfield in the County of Middlesex. Although her father was a baronet, Burdett-Coutts did not inherit the baronetcy because that always went to the first-born son. Usually, a woman only became a baroness through marriage or if her father only had daughters. Yet, the Queen had the power to give someone the title of baroness suo jure, which means baroness “in her own right”. Burdett-Coutts joined the relatively short list of suo jure titles, featuring Eleanor, Duchess suo jure of Aquitaine (1122-1204), and Anne Boleyn of England, Marquess of Pembroke suo jure (1501-36).

Following this honour, Burdett-Coutts became the first woman to be presented with the Freedom of the City of London at the Guildhall on 18th July 1872. Established in the 13th century, the Freedom allows recipients several obsolete privileges, including the right to drive sheep and cattle over London Bridge, the right to carry a sword in public, and the right to be sent home in a taxi rather than arrested for drunken behaviour.

Burdett-Coutts continued donating money to good causes during the 1870s. First, she founded the Ladies Committee at the RSPCA, which aimed to improve the welfare of animals by encouraging children to join a group called ‘Band of Mercy’. She realised education was needed to teach children how to look after animals and encouraged them to enter an essay competition titled Our duty to animals. Over 275,000 children took part, and Queen Victoria personally attended the award ceremony.

As part of her work with the RSPCA, Burdett-Coutts travelled the country giving talks to farmers about the welfare of their animals. On her travels, she learned of a Skye Terrier called Greyfriars Bobby (1855-72), who spent 14 years guarding the grave of his deceased owner, John Gray. Moved by the dog’s story, Burdett-Coutts commissioned sculptor William Brodie (1815-81) to make a bronze statue of the animal. Sadly, the dog died in January 1872 before the sculpture was complete, so it was unveiled as a memorial the following year near the entrance to the graveyard Greyfriars Kirkyard in Edinburgh. Reflecting Burdett-Coutts passion for providing accessible drinking water for everyone, the statue of Greyfriars Bobby sits upon a water fountain, once furnished with two bronze drinking cups attached by a chain. Today, there is no water supply, but the structure remains a memorial to the faithful dog.

In 1874, Burdett-Coutts became the first woman to receive the Freedom of the City of Edinburgh. The honour was likely in response to her generous donation of the Greyfriars Bobby memorial, which held her in high esteem with the people of Edinburgh.

Burdett-Coutts received another honour in 1877, this time for helping Turkish peasants and refugees during the 1877 Russo-Turkish War. After posting an advert in the Daily Telegraph, Burdett-Coutts raised £50,000 to form and run the Turkish Compassionate Fund. She volunteered her secretary William Ashmead-Barlett (1851-1912) to serve as Special Commissioner and oversee the organisation and administration of the charity, which helped thousands of refugees. Both she and Ashmead-Barlett received the Order of the Medjidiyeh by the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire. Only two women have received this honour since its institution: Burdett-Coutts and Queen Victoria.

With Ashmead-Barlett overseeing charity work abroad, Burdett-Coutts refocused her attention to issues closer to home. During 1865, the construction of the Midland Railway, which ran to St Pancras Station, caused damages to neighbouring areas, particularly the burial ground for St Giles-in-the-Fields. The Catholic graveyard was the preferred resting place of French émigrés, but their bodies were dug up and moved to make way for the railway. This project was overseen by the author Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), who at that time worked as an apprentice architect. Hardy later wrote a poem called The Levelled Churchyard, in which he imagined the ghostly voices of souls he dug up.

After the construction of the railway, only the grandest of tombs remained, such as those belonging to Sir John Soane (1753-1837) and his wife (d. 1815). In 1875, the remaining land was purchased by the St Pancras Vestry for use as public gardens, which officially opened in 1877. To coincide with this, Burdett-Coutts commissioned a memorial sundial to commemorate the graves disturbed by the railway. Designed by George Highton of Brixton and manufactured by H Daniel and Co., the granite and marble Gothic sundial features relief carvings of trefoils, St Giles and St Pancras, and two figures representing the sun and moon. Carved into a marble panel are the Beatitudes listed in the Gospel of Matthew 5:3-9.

The sundial features a dedication in “memory of those whose graves are now unseen, or the record of whose names may have become obliterated”. Three marble panels list the names of those whose graves were disturbed to make room for the Midland Railway. Names include Chevalier d’Éon (1728-1810), a French spy of questionable gender; Simon François Ravenet (1706-64), an assistant to the painter William Hogarth (1697-1764); and the British composer John Danby (1757-98). On the surrounding railings, a plaque honours Johann Christian Bach (1735-82), who is buried in a pauper’s grave in the vicinity.

Back in the 1860s, Burdett-Coutts gave financial aid to the southwest of Ireland, which continued to struggle with the aftereffects of the famine years between 1848 and 1849. She also established relief stores and encouraged the expansion of the fishing industry. Through the profits made, the Irish gradually repaid their debt to Burdett-Coutts. Unfortunately, in 1880 there were still many impoverished people. The money made from the fishing industry benefitted those in charge more than the workers. Burdett-Coutts suggested giving the British government £250,000 to supply Ireland with seed potatoes to help feed the poor and offer them an alternative means of income. This caught the attention of the Irish government who did not want to rely on the support of other countries. As a result, they agreed to improve the living and financial conditions of their people.

Ever since inheriting her fortune in 1837, Burdett-Coutts gained a never-ending list of marriage proposals. She continued to turn them down knowing they were only attracted to her wealth. Yet, in 1881, Burdett-Coutts surprised everyone by getting married. Not only was she 67 years old, the marriage broke the terms of her step-grandmother’s will, thus she forfeited three-fifths of her income to her sister. The will stipulated Burdett-Coutts could not marry a foreigner, yet she chose to marry her 29-year-old American secretary William Ashmead-Barlett. Fortunately, Ashmead-Barlett agreed to change his surname to Burdett-Coutts, since the rest of the will prevented Angela from changing her name.

Burdett-Coutts’ husband, who became the MP for the London constituency of Westminster in 1885, continued to act as her secretary and helped her organise and fund several charities. Despite having significantly less income, Burdett-Coutts did not lessen her philanthropic work. Her main concerns were for animal and children organisations, for instance, the British Beekeepers Association of which she was president from 1878 until her death.

In 1884, Burdett-Coutts co-founded the London Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children with Lord Shaftesbury (1801-85), which later became the National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children (NSPCC) in 1889. The society campaigned for a law to protect children from abuse and neglect, similar to the way the RSPCA fought for animal rights. The first child protection law was passed in 1889, which prompted the name change of the organisation. In 1891, the League of Pity was founded, which encouraged children to engage with the NSPCC and participate in fund-raising activities.

In recognition of Burdett-Coutts’ mission to “prevent and relieve sickness and injury, and to act to enhance the health and well-being of people anywhere in the world”, Queen Victoria made her a Lady of Grace of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem on 17th December 1888. This was the first year the award was initiated, so Burdett-Coutts is likely the first woman to receive the honour. Another notable recipient was Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) in 1904.

One of Burdett-Coutts’ final projects involved compiling a book called Woman’s Work in England for the Chicago Exhibition in 1893. Rather modestly, she made no mention of herself in the publication. To rectify this, the Duchess of Teck (1833-97) arranged for a second publication in which she included a section about Baroness Burdett-Coutts. “Great as have been the intrinsic benefits that the baroness has conferred on others, the most signal of all has been the power of example an incalculable quantity which no record of events can measure. She has ever sought, also, to increase the usefulness of women in their homes, to extend their opportunities of self-improvement, and to deepen the sources of influence which they derive from moral worth and Christian life.”

At the age of 92, Angela Burdett-Coutts contracted acute bronchitis and passed away on 30th December 1906. Over the next two days, approximately 30,000 people came to pay their respects, often leaving tributes on the street outside her house at 1 Stratton Street. Her funeral took place at Westminster Cathedral on 5th January 1907, where she was laid to rest in the nave. The thousands who attended the funeral ranged from the royal family to the poorest of people Burdett-Coutts supported during her lifetime.

Angela Burdett-Coutts used her considerable wealth to help a great number of people. Many of her contributions paved the way for charities and organisations today, for instance, the RSPCA and NSPCC. She made schools and education more available, both in England and abroad and did all she could to improve people’s quality of life, for instance, providing cotton gins in Nigeria and encouraging the fishing industry in Ireland. Providing clean water for the public was high on Burdett-Coutts agenda, and she even arranged a drinking fountain for dogs. Her money was also spent purchasing new bells for St Paul’s Cathedral, constructing buildings and commissioning memorial statues. She was keen on keeping the memories of the departed alive, hence the sundial, honouring those whose graves were destroyed.

Despite all her work and generosity, very few recognise the name, Angela Burdett-Coutts. She gave so much but received very little in return and is at risk of being forgotten entirely. This is, unfortunately, the case for many women of her era. In the 21st century, someone like Angela Burdett-Coutts would have celebrity status, yet instead, she is confined to the depths of the internet where only a few will stumble across her name.


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The Great Arctic Explorer

Question: Who was the first person to cross Greenland on skis?
Answer: Fridtjof Nansen

Who?

Norwegian-born Fridtjof Wedel-Jarlsberg Nansen was a polymath and Nobel Peace Prize laureate who led the first crossing of Greenland in 1888. Although he gained fame in his home country for achieving the feat, Nansen also had a reputation in the fields of science, diplomacy and humanitarianism. Yet today, Nansen is fairly unknown, and his achievements no longer celebrated.

Nansen was born in Store Frøen, near Norway’s capital city, Christiania (now Oslo), on 10th October 1861. He was the second child of lawyer Baldur Fridtjof Nansen and Adelaide Johanne Thekla Isidore Bølling Wedel-Jarlsberg, although his older sibling died in infancy. Despite living in Norway, his father’s family originated in Denmark, where his ancestor Hans Nansen (1598-1667) was a burgomaster and had close dealings with the Danish royal family.

Nansen in 1865 (age 4)

Store Frøen, despite being near the capital city, was a rural area and Nansen spent much of his early life swimming in the summer and skiing in the winter. He enjoyed exploring the forests where he pretended to be the castaway Robinson Crusoe from the novel by Daniel Defoe (1660-1731). Through these activities, Nansen became self-reliant, as well as a proficient skier and ice skater. Sadly, at the age of 15, Nansen had to leave his idyllic countryside for the city following the death of his mother. Fortunately, he continued participating in sports at school and broke the world one-mile skating record at 18.

The following year, Nansen took “…the first fatal step that led me astray from the quiet life of science.” The zoology department at the university proposed a five-month voyage aboard the seal-hunting boat Viking to study Arctic animals. Nansen jumped at the chance to travel and spent the trip searching for seals in Greenland and Spitsbergen, Norway. Before returning home, Viking became trapped in the ice near the unexplored territories of Greenland. Whilst he could not go ashore, Nansen envisaged a potential exploration journey across the Greenland icecap.

On returning to Norway, Nansen left university and started working as a curator in the zoological department of the University Museum of Bergen. He worked there for six years, except during 1886 when Nansen spent a 6-month sabbatical touring Europe. During this trip, Nansen met Gerhard Armauer Hansen (1841-1912), the physician who discovered a leprosy-causing bacteria. This meeting encouraged Nansen to continue the research he had recently begun on the neuroanatomy of marine creatures. Nansen published a paper of his findings at the end of his sabbatical and, the following year, he completed his doctoral thesis, The Structure and Combination of Histological Elements of the Central Nervous System.

While working on his thesis, two men attempted to cross the Greenland icecap: Finland-Swedish aristocrat Adolf Erik Nordenskiöld (1832-1901) in 1883 and American explorer Robert Peary (1856-1920) in 1886. Both set out from the western coast and traversed approximately 100 miles before turning back. Nansen, who had planned to return to Greenland since his university trip, analysed these previous attempts. He believed he could do better by starting the trek on the opposite side of the land. There were a few settlements on the west coast, and Nansen thought it safer to travel towards them rather than away from them into the unknown.

Unlike the previous explorers who brought a large team and heavy equipment with them, Nansen planned his expedition for a small party of six and purchased lightweight sledges to carry their belongings. The team needed suitable clothing, sleeping bags and cooking facilities, many of which were hand made to suit the Arctic climate. Norwegian critics expressed negative views about Nansen’s plans and claimed he only had a one in ten chance of surviving the trip. The Norwegian government refused to support Nansen financially, but Danish explorer, Augustin Gamél (1839-1904), came to his rescue with a considerable donation.

Ravna, Sverdrup, Nansen, Kristiansen, Dietrichson, Balto

As for his team, Nansen needed experienced skiers and began advertising in newspapers. The first to respond was Oluf Christian Dietrichson (1856-1942), a military officer skilled in plotting maps and determining distances. Soon after, Otto Sverdrup (1854-1930), a proficient skier and sailor, was recruited as the ship commander. No one else came forward, but Sverdrup recommended his friend, Kristian Kristiansen (1865-1943), a cross-country skier.

Nansen still needed another two recruits and consulted Nordenskiöld, one of the previous explorers to attempt the crossing, about who he should ask. Nordenskiöld suggested contacting the Sami people in Lapland, Finland because they were generally reliable skiers and familiar with frozen landscapes. After sending a telegraph to the country, Nansen found two suitable candidates, Samuel Balto (1861-1921) and Ole Nilsen Ravna (1841-1906). Finally, Nansen’s team was assembled.

Postcard featuring of the members of Nansen’s Trans-Greenland Expedition

Nansen initially considered using dogs or reindeer to pull the sledges but rejected the idea because neither he nor his team had used animals before. By redesigning the Norwegian skikjaelke (low hand sledge), Nansen made several sledges from ash wood, which is both lightweight and strong. The six explorers boarded a boat with their sledges, skis, reindeer-skin sleeping bags, tents, woollen clothing, cooking stove, pemmican (dried meat), biscuits, tea and coffee, and sailed to Edinburgh in Scotland. They then boarded a Danish mail boat to Iceland, where they awaited their ship to carry them to Greenland.

On 3rd June 1888, the Norwegian whaling vessel Jason picked up the team and their equipment from the Icelandic port of Ísafjörður. After a week of sailing, they finally spotted Greenland in the distance, but the number of icebergs made it impossible for the Jason to sail to the coast. Using several small boats, the men set out to traverse the remaining 12 miles. Unfortunately, severe weather conditions made it difficult to navigate, and they spent more time sitting out storms on icebergs rather than sailing. After two weeks of battling the waves, Nansen and his team eventually reached Greenland on 29th July, having travelled approximately 240 miles, 20 times further than intended. Too far south to begin their expedition, Nansen ordered his men to rest then return to the boats. Over the following 12 days, they fought their way north up the coastline, stopping to rest at an Eskimo encampment along the way. They eventually reached their intended destination, Umivik, on 10th August.

After resting for a few days and making their final preparations, Nansen and his team set off in a north-westerly direction on 15th August. They aimed to traverse 370 miles of frozen land, eventually reaching the town of Christianhaab on the other side of the island.

“…we advanced rather rapidly for two days; then we were stopped by a storm from the north, with heavy rain, and we had to stay in our tent lying down in our sleeping-bags for three days, while the ice melted rapidly under us, and the rain poured down above.”

The last ship was due to leave Christianhaab by mid-October, and Nansen feared they would not make it in time. Crevasses made skiing dangerous, and progress was slow. Several snowstorms also delayed the teams and made pulling the sledges difficult. Eventually, Nansen proposed taking a shorter route to the capital Godthaab, now known as Nuuk, on the western coast. The team readily agreed to the new plan, which shortened their journey by 93 miles.

Nansen was the first explorer to bring a camera on an expedition. He managed to take about 150 photographs, which documented their journey across Greenland. These images reveal the size of the sledges the men dragged along with them and the types of clothing they wore. They harnessed themselves to the front of the sledges and allowed the wind to help push them in the right direction. Going uphill was always difficult, but downhill was just as dangerous. They had to be careful they were not mown down by the falling sledges.

Despite the snowy weather, the men were blinded by the sun, which reflected off the white ground. Nansen devised some snow goggles with a narrow slit for each eye. Whilst this prevented direct sunlight and reflections from obscuring their sight, it stopped the men from seeing their feet. When wearing the goggles, the men needed to be extra careful to avoid crevices and uneven ground.

The men faced many trials during the journey, including snowstorms that buried them inside their tents. Fortunately, on 11th September, they reached the highest part of their journey, approximately 8,921 ft above sea level. From here on, the route was downhill, and the team were able to put their skiing skills to good use. They still needed to cope with freezing temperatures, which reached as low as −45 °C, but the quicker pace helped keep them warm, and they enjoyed skiing while the northern lights shone overhead. This leg of the trip was by no means less dangerous. They still had crevices to navigate and fresh snowfalls to dig through, but their spirits rose as they neared their destination.

On 26th September, Nansen and his team reached the Ameralik fjord, 50 miles away from Godthaab. The men rejoiced at seeing water again, but they looked warily at the mountains separating themselves from the capital. Nansen decided the remaining journey would be easier by sea, alongside the edge of the fjord. Using the sledges, the men built a boat, using a tent as sails. Unfortunately, it could only carry two people, so Nansen and Sverdrup left the others sheltering in the remaining tents and set off on 29th September, navigating around ice flows and other obstructions. Finally, on 3rd October, the two men reached Godthaab, thus ending their 49-day journey across the land.

Nansen and Sverdrup were warmly welcomed by the Danish town representative who invited them into his home. They were overjoyed to wash off the two months worth of black grease and dirt from their bodies whilst some of the natives set off to rescue the remaining four explorers. Dietrichson, Kristiansen, Balto and Ravna finally reached the city on 12th October. “The expedition was finished, and Greenland was crossed for the first time.” Unfortunately, they were still 240 miles away from their original destination and had no way of making it to the final ship home. A skilled kayaker managed to send news of their success to the ship before it embarked, along with letters from the men to their families and friends. With no more ships due until the spring, the team spent the next seven months living with the Inuits. Eventually, on 15th April 1889, the Danish ship, Hvidbjørnen arrived to take them to Copenhagen. “It was not without sorrow that we left this place and these people, among whom we had enjoyed ourselves so well.”

Nansen reached Copenhagen on 21st May 1889, where crowds greeted him and his companions as heroes. News of their landing spread quickly, and by the time they reached Christiania a week later, almost forty thousand people lined the streets. This was approximately one-third of the city’s population. The university offered Nansen the position of curator of the Royal Frederick University’s zoology collection, which he accepted, but spent the majority of his working hours writing up an account of his expedition. In the summer, the Royal Geographical Society invited Nansen to London, where he met the future King Edward VII (1841-1910). The society awarded him with the Founders Medal “for having been first to cross the inland ice of Greenland … as well as for his qualities as a scientific geographer”.

Fridtjof Nansen and Eva Nansen in autumn 1889

On 11th August 1889, Nansen announced his engagement to Eva Sars (1858-1907), a mezzo-soprano singer and pioneer of women’s skiing. They married the following month, on 6th September. Eva, like her husband, was a competent skier and became the first woman to cross the Hardangervidda mountain plateau in Norway on skis in 1892. She also campaigned for the right for women to participate in winter sports on equal terms with men.

Nansen had not been home for long before he started planning his next expedition, this time to the North Pole. He presented his ideas to the Norwegian Geographical Society in 1890, arguing that recent failed attempts were due to starting the trips from the west rather than the east. His proposition received similar reactions to his plans for crossing Greenland. Many members of the society were involved in the search for the missing Franklin expedition and viewed the potential trip as “an illogical scheme of self-destruction”. Nonetheless, Nansen’s fame worked in his favour, and he secured a grant from the Norwegian parliament.

For the journey, Nansen needed a suitable ship to navigate the icy waters. He commissioned the Norwegian naval shipbuilder Colin Archer (1832-1921) to construct a fast and manoeuvrable vessel, which he christened Fram, the Norwegian word for “forward”. Nansen advertised for people to join his expedition team and received over 1000 applications. From these, he selected a party of twelve, including Otto Sverdrup, who Nansen appointed as second-in-command.

Thousands lined the harbour to watch the Fram launch on 24th June 1893. The plan was to sail the ship as close to the North Pole as possible, after which they would complete the rest of the journey with dog sledges. They stopped for some time on the Norwegian island of Vardøya, which they eventually left on 21st July. Unfortunately, fog and ice made sailing difficult, and occasionally they came to a complete standstill. It was not until 10th September that they passed the most northerly point of the Eurasian continent, Cape Chelyuskin.

Despite their determination, the journey became tediously slow. The Fram began to drift in the wrong direction, and it took four months to turn the ship back on course. By 22nd March 1894, Nansen had predicted it would take the ship five years to reach the North Pole. The Fram barely travelled more than a kilometre per day, so Nansen felt compelled to devise a new plan. Using the dogs to help pull the sledges, Nansen suggested travelling over the icy sections on foot and use kayaks to navigate the stretches of water. Over the next few months, the men practised dog-driving on the patches of ice they passed while the ship made her painstakingly slow journey through the icy water. By November, Nansen was sure of his plans, and the crew spent the remaining winter months building kayaks and preparing clothing and equipment. Only Nansen and dog-driving expert Hjalmar Johansen (1867-1913) planned to travel overland. The rest of the team were to stay on board until the ship broke through the ice into the North Atlantic Sea.

Preparations for Nansen and Johansen’s polar trek, 14 March 1895

Nansen and Johansen began their journey on 14th March 1895. They had a 410-mile trip ahead of them, which Nansen predicted would take 50 days. Unfortunately, uneven surfaces made progress slow, and Nansen considered turning back. On 4th April, they decided to turn south and travel to Franz Josef Land, a Russian archipelago, instead of the pole. Progress was still slow, but they felt safer travelling towards civilisation rather than into the unknown.

After several stops and starts to repair equipment, they reached the edge of the pack ice on 6th August. By then, all their dogs had died, either from injury or necessity (i.e. food). “At last the marvel has come to pass—land, land, and after we had almost given up our belief in it!” To reach the distant land, Nansen and Johansen needed to travel over water in their kayaks. As they approached, Nansen identified it as Cape Felder on the western edge of Franz Josef Land, but they were still many miles off. The weather gradually turned colder, and Nansen decided to make camp on an uninhabited, small island for the rest of the winter. They erected a small hut from stones and moss, where they lived on bear, walrus and seal meat for the following eight months. Finally, the weather conditions began to improve, and they resumed their journey on 19th May 1896.

Staged photo of the Nansen–Jackson meeting near Cape Flora, 17 June 1896

The two men had to stop again on 17th June after being attacked by a walrus, an event that turned out to be serendipitous. They hauled their kayaks onto an island and were shocked to hear voices. They were surprised to come across British explorer Frederick Jackson (1860-1938), the leader of an expedition to Franz Josef Land, who revealed Nansen and Johansen were reported lost, presumed dead.

After taking a few days to recuperate at Jackson’s camp on the nearby island of Cape Flora, Nansen and Johansen boarded Jackson’s supply ship Windward and sailed to Vardøya. They hoped to hear about the safe return of the Fram but there was no news. Crestfallen, they began to make their way south, eventually reaching Hammerfest, the most northerly town on the Norwegian mainland on 18th August. Whilst they were there, they finally heard some news about the Fram. She was sighted heading towards Tromsø in north Norway, having failed to reach the pole. Nansen and Johansen immediately set out to reunite with their crew.

Despite failing to reach the North Pole, Nansen and his men were hailed as heroes at every port they stopped at on their homeward journey to Christiania. When they arrived in the capital, the harbour was packed with the largest crowd they had ever seen, and they were greeted by King Oscar II (1829-1907), who invited the men and their families to stay at the palace for several days as special guests. Although they had not achieved what they set out to do, the Fram expedition was deemed a success. No one had died during the journey, and Nansen had made “almost as great an advance as has been accomplished by all other voyages in the nineteenth century put together.” (Edward Whymper, 1840-1911)

During the months after his return, Nansen wrote 300,000 words about his journey, which was translated into English and published as Farthest North in January 1897. After this, he started accepted a professorship in zoology at the Royal Frederick University and became the director of the International Laboratory for North Sea Research. He also helped to found the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea and his recently published book helped some Italian explorers reach the North Pole.

Fridtjof Nansen Institute at Polhøgda

Before Nansen set out on the Fram expedition, his eldest daughter Liv was born. In the years after his return, Nansen and his wife had three more children, Kåre (1897), Irmelin (1900) and Odd (1901-73). To accommodate his growing family, Nansen used the profits from his expedition to buy a plot of land on the outskirts of the capital and designed a large house. The building, which Nansen christened Polhøgda (“polar heights”), featured a mix of styles, including Italian renaissance and English manor house. The family began living there in 1902, and Nansen’s fifth and final child, Asmund (1903-1913), was born the following year. The house is now the location of the Fridtjof Nansen Institute (FNI).

Although he was not a politician, the Norwegian government respected Nansen’s opinions. In 1905, Norway voted to become independent from Sweden, which was ruled by King Oscar II. Subsequently, Norway needed a new king and ally, so Nansen was sent to Copenhagen to persuade a Danish prince to take up the seat. Nansen’s quest was successful, and on 22nd June 1906, Prince Charles of Denmark became Haakon VII (1872-1957) of Norway.

Due to his success, the government appointed Nansen Norway’s first Minister in London. This involved spending considerable time in England, where he was popular with the people and the king. His main task concerned the Integrity Treaty, which would guarantee Norway’s position among the major European powers. The Treaty was passed on 2nd November 1907, and believing his work was complete, Nansen resigned from his post. At the invitation of King Edward VII, Nansen stayed in the country for a couple more weeks, but after receiving news that his wife was seriously ill with pneumonia, he rushed back to Norway. Sadly, Eva had passed away before he reached home.

Following a period of mourning, Nansen resumed working at the university but decided to focus on oceanology rather than zoology. Nansen participated in several oceanographic voyages, exploring the north Atlantic ocean, the North Polar Basin and the Kara Sea. He continued these trips until the outbreak of World War One when he declared his neutrality and became the president of the Norwegian Union of Defence. After the war, Nansen arranged for the repatriation of around half a million prisoners, of which 300,000 were in Russia, where civil war was rife. When seeing the physical and mental state of these people, Nansen said, “Never in my life have I been brought into touch with so formidable an amount of suffering.”

The Nansen passport allowed stateless persons to legally cross borders

Horrified by the suffering of Norwegian prisoners of war, Nansen determined to help other people in similar situations, particularly Russian refugees. Many of these people had no documents or passports, so Nansen devised the “Nansen passport”, which permitted refugees to cross borders. The passport was a success and adopted by more than 50 governments. He also helped to repatriate hundreds of thousands of refugees after the Greco-Turkish War of 1919-1922. In 1922, Nansen won the Nobel Peace Prize for “his work for the repatriation of the prisoners of war, his work for the Russian refugees, his work to bring succour to the millions of Russians afflicted by famine, and finally his present work for the refugees in Asia Minor and Thrace”. He donated all the prize money to international relief organisations.

Before winning the prize, Nansen married his life-long friend Sigrun Munthe in 1919. Unfortunately, his children resented this, and the marriage became strained. Throughout the 1920s, Nansen spent most of his time abroad, partly avoiding his wife but mostly helping victims of the Armenian genocide. Nansen also hoped to travel to the North Pole by airship, but the war resulted in a severe lack of funding. Instead, he kept his hand in politics, becoming a member of the anti-communist Fatherland League. This also involved many trips away from his hometown, speaking at rallies around the country.

In 1925, Nansen was elected Rector of the University of St Andrews in Scotland, the first foreigner to hold the honorary position. The students chose him from a list of candidates to replace the previous Rector, Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936). Rectors were invited to serve for three years, so Nansen held the position until 1928. At his inaugural address, Nansen encouraged the students to go out into the world. “We all have a Land of Beyond to seek in our life—what more can we ask? Our part is to find the trail that leads to it. A long trail, a hard trail, maybe; but the call comes to us, and we have to go. Rooted deep in the nature of every one of us is the spirit of adventure, the call of the wild—vibrating under all our actions, making life deeper and higher and nobler.”

Nansen remained a keen skier for the rest of his life and took several trips into the mountains in between his various duties and events. In February 1930, at the age of 68, he struggled to keep up with his friends on the slopes and tired easily. He returned home and spent several weeks in bed battling influenza. He had many visitors during this time, including King Haakon VII.

The illness left Nansen weak, and he never fully recovered. On 13th May 1930, he suffered a fatal heart attack, resulting in numerous tributes across the world. British lawyer Lord Robert Cecil (1864-1958) remarked that Nansen rarely put his interests and health first. “Every good cause had his support. He was a fearless peacemaker, a friend of justice, an advocate always for the weak and suffering.” Nansen received a non-religious state funeral, and his children spread his ashes under a tree in the garden of their childhood home, Polhøgda.

Nansen’s trips to Greenland and the Arctic helped shape future expeditions. He devised new methods of travel, for instance, the “Nansen sledge” and new cooking methods, the “Nansen Cooker”. His experience on the ice led to improved clothing and lightweight equipment, which made it easier for explorers to travel. Nansen also influenced the science world and is recognised as one of the founders of modern neurology and oceanographical science.

Due to Nansen’s work with refugees, he repatriated and found homes for around 1 million people. Those who continued with his work under the “Nansen Office” received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1938. Since 1954, the Nansen Refugee Award is given by the United Nations to an individual or group “for outstanding work on behalf of the forcibly displaced.” Winners include Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962), the “people of Canada”, Luciano Pavarotti (1935-2007), and Greek Volunteers of the Hellenic Rescue Team.

Many organisations have honoured Nansen by giving his name to several geographical features, including the Nansen Basin and the Nansen-Gakkel Ridge in the Arctic Ocean, Nansen Island in the Kara Sea, Nansen Land in Greenland and Nansen Island in Franz Josef Land. Unfortunately, outside his home country and Arctic areas, Fridtjof Nansen is not a well-known name, and his achievements are largely unrecognised. Yet, he is certainly a man worth learning about; not only was he the first man to cross Greenland, but he also helped save so many refugees. Nansen did not set out to become famous, his actions were usually selfless, and that is what makes him such a commendable individual.


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Ain’t I a Woman?

Sojourner Truth, 1870

Ain’t I a Woman? was the title of a speech given by the American abolitionist and women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth at a Women’s Rights Convention in 1851. Not only did Truth fight on behalf of women, but she also fought for the rights of African Americans. In her biography, Nell Irvin Painter wrote, “At a time when most Americans thought of slaves as male and women as white, Truth embodied a fact that still bears repeating: Among the blacks are women; among the women, there are blacks.” Truth was born into slavery but managed to escape, after which she set about improving lives for black people. Her determination won her a place in the “100 Most Significant Americans of All Time” listed by the Smithsonian magazine in 2014.

Born Isabella “Belle” Baumfree in 1797 on a slave trader’s estate at Swartekill, New York, Sojourner Truth was one of a dozen children born to James and Elizabeth Baumfree. Her parents belonged to Charles Hardenbergh, thus Truth and her siblings automatically became slaves at birth. When Hardenbergh died in 1806, Truth, known then as Belle, was sold to another slave owner, John Neely from Kingston, New York.

As a young child, Truth only spoke Dutch, but John Neely required his slaves to speak English. Neely was a cruel master and beat Truth and the other slaves daily. It was a welcome release when Neely sold her in 1808 to Martinus Schryver, a tavern owner in Port Ewen. Eighteen months later, Schryver sold Truth to the abusive John Dumont, who repeatedly raped her and made her life very difficult. As a result, Truth gave birth to two children, James, who died in infancy, and Diana (1815).

While working in the fields belonging to Dumont, Truth met a slave called Robert, who belonged to the owner of the neighbouring land. Robert’s master, the landscape artist Charles Catton the younger (1756-1819), forbade his slaves from having relationships with people belonging to other traders. Nonetheless, determined to be together, Robert sneaked over to visit Truth. Unfortunately, Catton discovered this and beat Robert to within an inch of his life. Truth never saw Robert again. Later, she met a man named Thomas, a slave belonging to her master. They married and had three children, Peter (1821), Elizabeth (1825), and Sophia (1826).

As well as picking cotton in the fields, Truth spent hours spinning wool and damaged her hand as a result. Dumont had promised to release Truth from slavery in 1826 “so long as she would do well and be faithful”, but he claimed her injury prevented her from being productive. Angry about this treatment, Truth plotted her escape and, taking her newborn daughter Sophia with her, walked away from the estate and never looked back. Truth knew that the emancipation of slaves would begin the following year and, so long as she was not caught, she would soon be a free woman. Unfortunately, her older children needed to work until they reached their twenties before being emancipated. She feared if they were caught escaping, the children would be beaten or killed, so she left them behind.

Issac and Maria Van Wagenen

Truth walked ten miles while carrying her daughter before she found someone willing to help her. Isaac and Maria Van Wagenen, a white couple from New Paltz, offered Truth and the baby a place to stay. Learning of her predicament, Isaac insisted on employing her until the state’s emancipation took effect. Whilst this made Truth the Van Wagenens slave, she and Sophia were safe. Grateful for the protection, Truth became a devout Christian.

After living with the Van Wagenens for some time, Truth learned that Dumont had illegally sold her eldest son Peter to a slave owner in Alabama. With the Van Wagenen’s help, Truth took the traders to court where, after a lengthy battle, seven-year-old Peter was returned to his mother. Never before had a black woman gone to court against a white man and won.

In 1829, Truth moved to New York City with Peter and Sophia, where she found work as a housekeeper for a Christian Evangelist, Elijah Pierson (1786-1834). Her boss often preached about God’s powers and, after his wife died in 1830, attempted to raise her from the dead. Despite failing to resurrect his wife, Pierson began referring to himself as “Elijah the Tishbite”, believing he was the biblical prophet and a miracle worker reborn. Through Pierson, Truth met and worked as the housekeeper for Robert Matthews (1788-1841), known as the “Prophet Matthias”. Matthews believed he was the resurrected Matthias from the New Testament who replaced the apostle Judas in the Acts of the Apostles. While working for Matthews, Pierson died from poisoning. Both Matthews and Truth were arrested but later acquitted of the murder.

Truth’s life took a turning point in the 1840s, beginning with the possible death of her son. Peter worked on a whaling ship called the Zone of Nantucket. When the ship returned to port in 1842, Peter was not on board. She never heard from him again. In 1843, Truth joined the Methodist church and officially changed her name to Sojourner Truth. She claimed on Pentecost Sunday that God spoke to her, asking her to speak the truth. She told her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go”, and packed a pillowcase of her meagre belongings and headed north.

While travelling through New York, Truth joined Millerite Adventist groups who followed the teachings of Baptist minister William Miller (1782-1849). Miller strongly believed Jesus would reappear before the end of 1843. He studied the Bible carefully and based his calculations on verse fourteen of the eighth chapter of Daniel, which said, “Unto two thousand and three hundred days; then shall the sanctuary be cleansed.” Miller assumed this cleansing referred to the events written about in the Book of Revelation. Sojourner Truth and many other millerites latched onto this belief, yet when Jesus failed to return as Miller had predicted, Truth and thousands of other members left feeling disillusioned.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry

In 1844, Truth travelled to Massachusetts, where she joined the Northampton Association of Education and Industry. The organisation supported women’s rights and religious freedom, which appealed to Truth. Most importantly, it was set up by a group of abolitionists. The organisation set up a commune looking after livestock and ran a sawmill and a silk factory. While living there, Truth helped in the laundry department and met several people who had also grown up in slavery, most notably the abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1817-95). She also befriended the abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison (1805-79). With their encouragement, Truth gave her first anti-slavery speech.

The Northampton Association of Education and Industry disbanded in 1846, and Truth found work as a housekeeper for George Benson (1808-79), the brother-in-law of William Lloyd Garrison. Around this time, she began writing her memoirs, which Garrison published in 1850 with the title The Narrative of Sojourner Truth: a Northern Slave. The book offers a glimpse into the world of slavery in northern states of America, which, unlike the southern states, remains largely undocumented. Truth recounted her separation from her family and the years spent travelling as a preacher. She also described her aims to counsel former slaves and end the struggles for racial and sexual equality.

Following the publication of her book, Sojourner Truth purchased her first home for $300 in Florence, Massachusetts. Growing in fame for her preaching talents, Truth was invited to speak at the first National Women’s Right’s Convention later that year. The meeting aimed “to secure for [woman] political, legal, and social equality with man until her proper sphere is determined by what alone should determine it, her powers and capacities, strengthened and refined by an education in accordance with her nature”. The convention was attended by over 900 women and men, both white and black. Truth’s friends, Douglass and Garrison, spoke on behalf of women, as did several other abolitionists and suffragists.

News of the National Women’s Rights Convention reached the United Kingdom and inspired British women to petition for woman suffrage and present it to the House of Lords. In 1851, female philosopher Harriet Taylor Mill (1807-58), the wife of John Stuart Mill (1806-73), wrote The Enfranchisement of Women. Later that year, Harriet Martineau, the first female sociologist, wrote to the organisers of the convention, saying, “I hope you are aware of the interest excited in this country by that Convention, the strongest proof of which is the appearance of an article on the subject in the Westminster Review … I am not without hope that this article will materially strengthen your hands, and I am sure it can not but cheer your hearts.”

In May 1851, Sojourner Truth attended the Ohio Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio, organised by Hannah Tracy (1815-96) and Frances Dana Barker Gage (1808-84). While there, Truth realised that many feminists and suffragists fought for the rights of white women and did not take into account the difficulties black people faced. This prompted Truth to stand up and give her most famous speech, now known as Ain’t I a Woman? Since the oration was unplanned, Truth did not have any written notes about the matter, and historians rely on accounts and transcripts by those in attendance, which contain many differences. Yet, they all agree that Truth demanded equal human rights for all women, both white and black. She spoke about her life as a former enslaved woman and combined her call for women’s rights with abolitionism.

The term Ain’t I a Woman stems from the phrase “Am I not a man and a brother?”, which British abolitionists coined during the 18th century. In the early 19th century, feminist abolitionists rewrote the phrase to read, “Am I not a woman and a sister?” It is likely Truth came across this saying in the American abolitionist newspaper Genius of Universal Emancipation, where it was printed alongside an image of a female slave. Alternatively, Truth may have heard speeches given by the African-American campaigner Maria W. Stewart (1803-79), who frequently used the term.

Truth’s speech inspired many people, and both the New York Tribune and The Liberator provided the general gist of Truth’s words a few days later. One attendee, Reverend Marius Robinson, printed a transcript of the speech in the Anti-Slavery Bugle, but it did not feature the phrase “Ain’t I a woman?” Twelves years after the event, Frances Dana Barker Gage printed another version of the transcript, which she likely embellished with ideas of her own. Gage frequently repeated the phrase, which in turn became the name of the speech. Gage also made Truth sound like a southern slave, but Truth was born in New York and spoke Dutch for much of her childhood, so she never picked up southern nuances.

Robinson quoted Truth as saying, “I have as much muscle as any man, and can do as much work as any man. I have ploughed and reaped and husked and chopped and mowed, and can any man do more than that?” Gage, on the other hand, wrote, “And a’n’t I a woman? Look at me! Look at my arm! I have ploughed, and planted, and gathered into barns, and no man could head me! And a’n’t I a woman? I could work as much and eat as much as a man—when I could get it—and bear de lash as well! And a’n’t, I a woman? I have borne thirteen chilern, and seen ’em mos’ all sold off to slavery, and when I cried out with my mother’s grief, none but Jesus heard me! And a’n’t I a woman?” Not only did Gage indicate a dialect that Truth did not use, but she also claimed Truth had 13 children, whereas official records suggest she only had five. Nonetheless, the speech is celebrated and often quoted as an example of black feminism.

Over the following ten years, Truth continued to speak at meetings of feminists and abolitionists. She frequently referred to Biblical characters, particularly Esther, to emphasise why women deserve the same rights as men. Truth used her experiences to demonstrate the unfair treatment of both women and slaves. “When Black women like Truth spoke of rights, they mixed their ideas with challenges to slavery and racism. Truth told her own stories, ones that suggested that a women’s movement might take another direction, one that championed the broad interests of all humanity.” (Martha Jones, 2020)

Sojourner Truth and President Abraham Lincoln photographed together for their one and only meeting

In 1864, Truth started working for the National Freedman’s Relief Association in Washington, D.C. She worked tirelessly to improve conditions for African-Americans and, later that year, she was honoured to meet President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65), who shared her aims to end slavery. Lincoln had issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing all slaves the previous year. He also passed the 13th Amendment in the Constitution that prohibited slavery or any involuntary servitude in the United States. Yet, many slave owners refused to obey these new laws and those who were freed found it difficult to integrate into society.

During the American Civil War (1861-65), Truth helped recruit black troops for the Union Army. She is credited with writing a song for the 1st Michigan Colored Regiment called The Valiant Soldiers. Written to the tune of John Brown’s Body, the song begins:
We are the valiant soldiers who’ve ‘listed for the war;
We are fighting for the Union, we are fighting for the law;
We can shoot a rebel farther than a white man ever saw,
As we go marching on.
Glory, glory, hallelujah! Glory, glory, hallelujah!
Glory, glory, hallelujah, as we go marching on.

In 1867, Truth gave a speech at an American Equal Rights Association meeting, where she received a warm reception. She spoke about the rights of black women, saying that the push for equal rights had led to black men winning new rights, and it was only fair that women received them too. She insisted, “We should keep things going while things are stirring,” fearing that it would take people longer to consider women’s rights if left. Truth focused on the lack of voting rights, pointing out that she owned a house and paid taxes just like men. She ended the speech by saying, “Man is so selfish that he has got women’s rights and his own too, and yet he won’t give women their rights. He keeps them all to himself.”

On New Year’s Day in 1871, Sojourner Truth spoke at the Eighth Anniversary of Negro Freedom. She talked about her own life, particularly her early years when she often questioned God why he had not given her good masters. She admitted to hating white people, but after escaping from slavery, Truth said she met her final “master”, Jesus Christ, who taught her to love everyone. She regularly prayed for the emancipation of slaves and felt it her duty to help out as much as she could. Truth felt her prayers were answered with the abolition of slavery but acknowledged the southern states had far to go before they became safe areas for people of colour. Later that year, Truth spoke at the Second Annual Convention of the American Woman Suffrage Association, arguing that women deserved the right to vote “for the benefit of the whole creation, not only the women, but all the men on the face of the earth, for they were the mother of them”.

In her later years, Sojourner Truth was cared for by her daughters, Elizabeth and Sophia. She had at least two grandchildren, James and Sammy, who lived with her in Michigan during the 1860s. In 1867, Truth moved to Battle Creek, Michigan, where she lived for the rest of her life. In 1883, a reporter interviewed Truth for the Grand Rapids Eagle, noting that “Her face was drawn and emaciated and she was apparently suffering great pain. Her eyes were very bright and mind alert although it was difficult for her to talk.” Sojourner Truth passed away a few days later, in the early hours of 26th November 1883, at age 86. Her funeral took place three days after her death at the Congregational-Presbyterian Church, which almost 1000 people attended. Frederick Douglass provided a eulogy, noting all her hard work and achievements. “Venerable for age, distinguished for insight into human nature, remarkable for independence and courageous self-assertion, devoted to the welfare of her race, she has been for the last forty years an object of respect and admiration to social reformers everywhere.”

Since her death, many memorials and statues have been erected in memory of Sojourner Truth across the United States. Near her home in Battle Creek, a stone memorial was placed in Memorial Park in 1935. To mark the centenary of her birth, a 12-foot tall bronze statue of Sojourner Truth was also added to the park. In Ohio, a stone marks the spot where Truth gave her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. There are also sculptures in California and Massachusetts that celebrate the former slave.

Meredith Bergmann sculpture of Sojourner Truth, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony in Central Park

New York State contains the most memorials to Sojourner Truth. A life-sized terracotta statue at the Women’s Rights National Historical Park Visitor’s Centre celebrates the 150th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, and a bronze statue of Sojourner Truth as an 11-year-old girl stands in Port Ewen, where she worked as a slave. The most recent statue of Truth was erected in Central Park in 2020 to mark Women’s Equality Day. Known as the Women’s Rights Pioneers Monument, the sculpture depicts Truth alongside Susan B. Anthony (1820-1906), and Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815-1902), who were pioneers in the battle for women’s rights.

Sculpture by Artis Lane Bronze 2009 Emancipation Hall, Capitol Visitor Center

Since 2009, a bust of Sojourner Truth sits in the Emancipation Hall in the Capitol Visitor Centre. Truth was the first African-American woman to be put on display in the Capitol. Designed by Black Canadian sculptor Artis Lane (b. 1927), the statue depicts Truth wearing her signature cap and shawl.

Several schools and libraries are named after Sojourner Truth, such as the Sojourner Truth Library at the New Paltz State University of New York. In 1969, a political group called the Sojourner Truth Organization was established to represent the left-wing black people of America. The 1997 NASA Mars Pathfinder was named Sojourner in her honour, as was the asteroid 249521 Truth in 2014.

On 4th February 1986, the U.S. Postal Service issued a commemorative, 22-cent postage stamp featuring Sojourner Truth as part of their Black Heritage. She has also been honoured with a Google Doodle and features on the lists of the top 100 Americans in history.

Sojourner Truth did not have an easy childhood. She grew up hating white people, but through her strong Christian faith, she learned to love everyone equally. Truth witnessed the injustices of the world first hand, both by being an African American and by being a woman. She believed that just as Jesus loves every one of us, all humans, no matter their colour or gender, should receive the same rights. While campaigning for the end of slavery and equal rights for black people, Truth also wanted women, including white women, to live on the same terms as men. Some civil rights activists caused trouble by implying black lives mattered more than white, but Sojourner Truth made it clear that all lives mattered. Despite everything she went through, Truth wanted everyone to live in harmony. If only there were more people like Sojourner Truth in the world today.


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The Phoenix of America

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz by Miguel Cabrera

All she wanted was to read, learn and write in peace without being dictated to by the misogynistic Mexican society. Juana Inés de la Cruz lived during Mexico’s colonial period when women were not allowed to attend university. Despite this, Juana educated herself through books and began writing her thoughts about love, feminism and religion. Yet, Juana could not avoid the advances of men who believed she should settle down and marry. She sought the safety of a nunnery, which allowed her to continue writing until her opinions upset (male) members of the clergy. This is the story of the first feminist in the Americas, the “Phoenix of America”, who rose from the ashes of “religious authoritarianism”.

Juana Inés de Asbaje y Ramírez de Santillana was born on 12th November 1648 in the village of San Miguel Nepantla near Mexico City. Although she had older sisters, Juana was an illegitimate child because her parents never married. Her father, a Spanish captain called Pedro Manuel de Asbaje, abandoned the family shortly after Juana’s birth. Her mother was a Criolla woman called Isabel Ramírez. The Corillo people were Latin Americans with Spanish ancestors, which gave them more authority in Colonial Mexico, which belonged to the Spanish Empire. Juana’s father was Spanish, and her maternal grandparents were Spanish, thus making her a Criolla.

Hacienda Panoaya in Amecameca, Mexico is where Sor Juana lived between 1651 and 1656

Despite the lack of care from her biological father, Juana grew up in relative comfort on her maternal grandfather’s Hacienda, the Spanish equivalent of an estate. Her favourite place was the Hacienda chapel, where Juana hid with books stolen from her grandfather’s library. Girls were forbidden to read for leisure, but this did not prevent Juana from learning to read and write. At the age of three, Juana followed her sister to school and quickly learned how to read Latin. Allegedly, by the age of 5, Juana understood enough mathematics to write accounts, and at 8, wrote her first poem.

By her teens, Juana knew enough to teach other children Latin and could also understand Nahuatl, an Aztec language spoken in central Mexico since the seventh century. It was unusual for those of Spanish descent to speak the native languages. The Spanish aimed to replace the Mexicano tongue with their Latin alphabet, so it was almost with defiance that Juana went out of her way to not only learn Nahuatl but compose poems in the language too.

Juana finished school at 16 but wished to continue her studies at university. Unfortunately, only men could receive higher education. Juana spoke to her mother about her aspirations, suggesting she could disguise herself as a man to attend the university in Mexico City. Despite her pleading, Juana’s mother refused to allow her daughter to attempt such a risky plan. Instead, Isabel sent Juana to the colonial viceroy’s court to work as a lady-in-waiting.

Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo

Under the guardianship of the viceroy’s wife, Leonor de Carreto (1616-73), Juana continued her studies in private. Yet, she could not keep her ambitions secret from her mistress, who informed the viceroy of Juana’s intelligence. Rather than reprimanding her, the viceroy Antonio Sebastián Álvarez de Toledo (1622-1715) took an interest in Juana’s education. Wishing to test Juana’s intellect, the viceroy arranged a meeting of several theologians, philosophers, and poets and invited them to question the young girl. The men quizzed Juana on many topics, including science and literature, and she managed to impress them with her answers. They also admired how Juana conducted herself, and she remained unphased by the difficult questions they threw at her.

News of the meeting spread throughout the viceregal court. No longer needing to hide her writing skills, Juana produced many poems and other writings that impressed all those who read them. Her literary accomplishments spread across the Kingdom of New Spain, which covered much of North America, northern parts of South America and several islands in the Pacific Ocean. Yet, female scholars and writers were an anomaly at the time, and rather than attract praise, Juana drew the attention of many suitors. After refusing many proposals of marriage, Juana felt desperate to escape from the domineering men. She wanted “to have no fixed occupation which might curtail [her] freedom to study.” The only safe place she could find where she could continue her work was the Monastery of St. Joseph, so she became a nun.

Universidad del Claustro de Sor Juana

Juana spent over a year with the Discalced Carmelite nuns as a postulant, then moved to the monastery of the Hieronymite nuns in 1669, preferring their more relaxed rules. The San Jerónimo Convent, which became Juana’s home for the rest of her life, was established in 1585 by Isabel de Barrios. Only four nuns lived in the building at first, but they soon grew in number, becoming one of the first convents of nuns of the Saint Jerome order. They based their role in life on the biblical scholar Saint Jerome (342-420), who translated most of the Bible into Latin. Known for his religious teachings, Jerome favoured women and identified how a woman devoted to Jesus should live her life. During his lifetime, Jerome knew many women who had taken a vow of virginity. He advised them on the clothing they should wear, how to conduct themselves in public, and what and how they should eat and drink.

Sor Juana, by Juan de Miranda (circa 1680)

Despite taking on the title “Sor”, the Spanish equivalent of sister, Sor Juana’s main aim was to focus on her literary pursuits. Whilst she followed the ways of the Hieronymite nuns, she spent all her spare time writing. Juana’s previous employers, the Viceroy and Vicereine of New Spain became her patrons, helping her publish her work in colonial Mexico and Spain. Sor Juana also received support from the intellectual Don Carlos de Sigüenza y Góngora (1645-1700), who shared her religious beliefs as well as her passion for literature. Sigüenza, who claimed, “There is no pen that can rise to the eminence … of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz,” also encouraged Juana to explore scientific topics.

Sor Juana dedicated some of her works, particularly her poems, to her patrons. Those written for Vicereine Leonor de Carreto often featured the name Laura, a codename assigned by Juana. Another patron, Marchioness Maria Luisa Manrique de Lara y Gonzaga (1649-1721) was “Lysi”. Juana also wrote a comic play called Los empeños de una casa (House of Desires) for Doña Maria Luisa and her husband in celebration of the birthday of their first child, José.

The first performance of Los empeños de una casa took place on 4th October 1683 and contains three songs in praise of Doña María Luisa Manrique: “Divine Lysi, Let Pass“, “Beautiful María” and “Tender Beautiful Flower Bud”. The protagonist, Doña Ana of Arellano, resembles the marchioness, who Sor Juana held in high regard. The play features two couples who are in love but cannot be together. Mistaken identities cause the characters much distress and the audience much hilarity. By the end of the final scene, everyone pairs up with the right partner, except one man who remains single as a punishment for causing the initial deception. In terms of theme and drama, Los empeños de una casa is a prime example of Mexican baroque theatre.

Another play by Sor Juana premiered on 11th February 1689 to mark the inauguration of the viceroyalty Gaspar de la Cerda y Mendoza (1653-97). Sor Juana based Love is but a Labyrinth on the Greek mythological story of Theseus and the Minotaur. Theseus, the king and founder of Athens, fights against the half-bull, half-human Minotaur to save the Cretan princess Ariadne. Although Theseus resembled the archetypal baroque hero, Sor Juana portrayed him as a humble man rather than proud.

Sor Juana also demonstrated Baroque literature in her poetry. Often full of philosophical ideas, Juana explored themes of the deceptiveness of appearances and female intelligence. In Hombres necios (Foolish Men), for example, the nun reveals the illogical behaviour of men towards women, treating them as objects of passion rather than human beings. In other poems, Juana wrote about the disillusionment of love and the pain it caused.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Arguably, Sor Juana’s best poem is Primero sueño (First Dream), 975-lines about the torturous quest of the soul for knowledge. As night falls and the body sleeps, the soul separates from the body and dreams. The soul contemplates the world and the existence of everything from flowers to human life, taking into account all the details and mysteries of each object. Yet, it fails to grasp the overwhelming abundance of the universe, and the sun rises once more, forcing the soul back into the body.

Critics interpreted Primero sueño as Sor Juana’s dreams or thoughts, which were highly philosophical compared to the average person. She explored themes of Neoplatonism, the idea that the world is divided into hierarchies, and Scholasticism, which combined Christian theology with classical philosophy, particularly that of Aristotle (384-322 BC). The latter believed every living organism had more than one purpose or cause, which Aristotle split into ten categories: substance; quantity; quality; relatives; somewhere; sometime; being in a position; having; acting; and being acted upon. It is likely Sor Juana came across Aristotle’s Categories during her studies, either in her grandfather’s library or the San Jerónimo Convent.

Sor Juana’s writings, poems and plays covered many of her interests, such as religion, philosophy, mathematics and science. She also enjoyed music and studied the theory of instrumental tuning, on which she wrote a treatise. Sadly, this work is lost, but evidence suggests she wrote some of her poems, intending to set them to music.

The first part of Sor Juana’s complete works, Madrid, 1689

Not all of Sor Juana’s writings were intended for public consumption. In 1690, Manuel Fernández de Santa Cruz (1637-99), the Bishop of Puebla, published Sor Juana’s critique of a sermon by the Jesuit priest Father António Vieira (1608-97). Titled Carta Atenagórica (Athenagorical Letter or a letter “worthy of Athena’s wisdom”), Juana expressed her dislike of the colonial system and her belief that religious doctrines are the product of human interpretation. She criticised Father António Vieira for his dramatic and philosophical representation of theological topics. Most importantly, Juana called the priest out for his anti-feminist attitude.

Alongside Sor Juana’s critique, the Bishop of Puebla published a letter under the pseudonym Sor Filotea de la Cruz, in which he admonished the nun for her opinions. Ironically, the bishop agreed with many of Sor Juana’s thoughts, but he ended the letter by saying Sor Juana should concentrate on religious rather than secular studies. Whilst the critique focused on a religious sermon, Sor Juana included colonialism and politics in her argument, which the bishop felt were inappropriate topics for a woman, let alone a nun.

Carta Atenagórica

“Sor Filotea expresses the admiration she feels for Sor Juana, but at the same time reproaches her for exercising her talent in profane subjects instead of devotional literature. Although Sister Filotea does not declare herself against the education of women, she does express her dissatisfaction with the lack of obedience that some already educated women might demonstrate. Finally, she recommends Sor Juana to follow the example of other mystical writers who dedicated themselves to theological literature, such as Santa Teresa de Ávila or San Gregorio Nacianceno.”

Sor Juana responded to Sor Filotea, the Bishop of Puebla, in which she defended women’s rights to education and further study. Whilst she agreed that women should not neglect their duties, in her case her obedience to the Church and God, Juana pointed out that “One can perfectly well philosophise while cooking supper.” By this, she meant women could balance their education and everyday tasks. She jokingly followed this with the quip, “If Aristotle had cooked, much more would have been written.”

In her response, Sor Juana quoted the Spanish nun St Teresa of Ávila (1515-82) as well as St Jerome and St Paul to back up her argument that “human arts and sciences” are necessary to understand sacred theology. She suggested if women were elected to positions of authority, they could educate other women, thus alleviating a male tutor’s fears of being in intimate settings with female students.

The nun’s controversial response caused a lot of concern amongst high-ranking (male) officials who criticised her “waywardness”. They were angry with Sor Juana for challenging the patriarchal structure of the Catholic Church, and for claiming her writing was as good as historical and biblical texts. As a result, the San Jerónimo Convent forbade Juana from reading and sold her collection of over 4,000 books and scientific instruments for charity. With no one on her side, Sor Juana relented and agreed to renew her vows. The convent also required Juana to undergo penance, but rather than signing the penitential documents with her name, she wrote: “Yo, la Peor de Todas” (I, the worst of all women).

From 1693 onwards, Sor Juana focused solely on her religious orders. Never again did she pick up a pen to write or a book to read. Instead, Juana spent her time either in prayer or tending the sick, which led to fatal consequences. After nursing other nuns stricken during a plague, Sor Juana fell ill and passed away on 17th April 1695.

Before she was silenced, Sor Juana penned over 100 works, the majority of which went unpublished. Unfortunately, many were lost, and only a handful remain. Those that survived were compiled into an anthology. Several writers, including the Mexican poet and diplomat Octavio Paz (1914-98), have studied Juana’s life and writings, focusing on the difficulties women faced while trying to thrive in academic fields. Several scholars argue that Juana’s advocacy of intellectual authority is one of the first recorded instances of feminism. Some liken her to the Mexican painter Frida Kahlo (1907-54), although Juana was ahead of her time – a protofeminist.

Monument of Sor Juana in Chapultepec.

Although Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz is almost an unknown entity in the non-Spanish speaking world, her work and reputation live on in Mexico, where she remains a national icon. Her former cloister is now the University of the Cloister of Sor Juana, which the Mexican government founded in 1979. During the renovations, builders discovered bones believed to belong to the nun. Due to a lack of ancestors, tests cannot be carried out on the bones to confirm the identity, but a medallion similar to the one depicted in portraits of Juana found in the same place is enough evidence for some.

Feminist movements of the past and present have adopted Sor Juana as a symbol, along with Frida Kahlo. Some also link both women to LGBT movements, although Sor Juana never disclosed her sexuality. Evidence suggests Sor Juana became a nun to avoid marriage, but others argue she was an “Indigenous lesbian”. As part of her penance, Juana cut her hair, which some interpret as an attempt to masculinise her appearance, likening it to Kahlo’s Self-Portrait with Cropped Hair (1940).

Statue of Sor Juana Inés in Madrid, Spain.

Sor Juana is also a religious symbol of Mexican identity, both in relation to Catholicism and Aztec beliefs. The latter is due to Juana’s choice to write some of her poems in the indigenous Nahuatl language. She also wrote a play, El Divino Narciso (Loa to Divine Narcissus), which features two Indigenous people named Occident and America, discussing their religious beliefs with two Spaniards, Religion and Zeal. Yet, her devotion to the Virgin Mary is evident in other work by Sor Juana, as is her decision to take her vows at the San Jerónimo Convent.

Juana Ines de la Cruz in art by Mexican artist Mauricio García Vega.

Sor Juana continued to inspire and influence people in Mexico and Spain in the 20th century. She appears as characters in literature, such as Yo-Yo Boing! by Puerto Rican author Giannina Braschi (b.1953), which debates the greatest women poets, including Sor Juana and Emily Dickinson (1830-86). In 1962, Telesistema Mexicano broadcast a mini-series based on Sor Juana’s life; and in 1990, the film Yo, la peor de todas (I, the Worst of All) premiered, based on Octavio Paz’s book about the Mexican nun.

In the 21st century, Sor Juana’s fame finally made its way into English speaking countries. In 2004, Canadian author Paul Anderson published a novel based on Sor Juana’s life called Hunger’s Brides, which won the Alberta Book Award the following year. In 2007, Margaret Atwood (b.1939) published a book of poems, including Sor Juana Works in the Garden. In the music world, American composer John Adams (b.1947) used two of Sor Juana’s poems in the libretto for the oratorio-opera El Niño (2000). In 2015, the Royal Shakespeare Company performed Helen Edmundson’s (b.1964) play The Heresy of Love as part of the Spanish Golden Age season. Finally, in 2017, Google honoured Sor Juana with a Google Doodle to mark her 366th birthday.

Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz has yet to earn her place among the greatest women in the world outside of Spanish speaking countries, but her ideas are gradually making their way into contemporary works. Sometimes referred to as the “The Tenth Muse” and “The Phoenix of America”, Sor Juana is an inspiration to everyone who faces adversity, particularly in terms of human rights and education. Fortunately, life for women has drastically improved since Sor Juana’s time, but the necessary changes only began 100 years ago. Sor Juana was not afraid to point out the inequalities in her society. Yet, with no one to back her up, there was nothing she could do to change things during her lifetime. If Sor Juana could see the world today, she would be pleased with our progress.


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The Greatest Composer of All Time

In 2019, BBC Music Magazine named Johann Sebastian Bach as the greatest composer of all time. The magazine asked 174 current composers to vote for their favourites, of which Bach came out on top. Igor Stravinsky (1882-1971) followed second, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) third, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-91) fourth, and Claude Debussy (1862-1918) a respectable fifth. Why does Bach stand head and shoulders above all the other composers that have been and gone throughout history? He came from a family that produced over 50 musicians in 200 years, yet J.S. Bach surpassed them all to become the nation’s favourite.

Johann Sebastian Bach (aged 61) – Elias Gottlob Haussmann

Johann Sebastian Bach was born on 31st March 1685 in Eisenach in the duchy of Saxe-Eisenach, Germany. He was the eighth and youngest child of Johann Ambrosius Bach (1645-95), the town musical director, and Maria Elisabeth Lämmerhirt (1644-94). Bach’s father taught him to play the violin from a young age, and his uncle, Johann Christoph Bach (1645-93), taught the young boy how to play the organ. Bach had several uncles and cousins who played various instruments and worked as organists or composers, all of whom had a great impact on Bach’s childhood. Sadly, his parents died when Bach was ten years old, leaving his older brother Johann Christoph (1671-1721) as his guardian.

Johann Christoph worked as the organist at St. Michael’s Church in Ohrdruf, where he also taught Bach everything he needed to know about the instrument. His brother also gave him lessons on the clavichord and introduced Bach to some of the top composers of the day, including Johann Christoph’s former tutor, Johann Pachelbel (1653-1706).

Whilst living with his brother in Ohrdruf, Bach attended a local school where he studied theology, Latin, Greek, French, and Italian. In 1700, Bach enrolled at St. Michael’s School in Lüneburg, which extended his music knowledge as well as providing a prestigious academic education. Bach joined the school choir and took organ and harpsichord lessons from Georg Böhm (1661-1733), a German Baroque organist and composer at the local church.

Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche

After graduating from St Michael’s School in 1703, Bach found a position as a court musician in the chapel of Duke Johann Ernst III (1664-1707) in Weimar. Still in his teens, Bach used the opportunity to develop his reputation as an organist. After seven months, rumours of his skill spread to neighbouring towns, including Arnstadt, located 19 miles from Weimar. A new protestant church in Arnstadt invited Bach to inspect their organ and give a harpsichord recital to mark the opening of the building. In August 1703, Bach became the official organist at the church, which until 1935 was known as New Church. Today, it is called Johann-Sebastian-Bach-Kirche because of its association with the composer.

As the church organist, Bach worked with other musicians and a choir. After a couple of years in the post, Bach grew from a teenager into a self-important man who was not afraid to raise his opinion. Bach disliked the singing standard of the choir and, on one occasion, described one member as a “Zippel Fagottist” (weenie bassoon player). The man retaliated by attacking Bach with a stick and, although Bach complained, the man was not reprimanded. Instead, the authorities advised Bach to lower his expectations of the choir.

Bach continued to assert his self-appointed authority on those who he deemed beneath him, including his employer. In 1705, Bach requested four weeks leave to visit the Baroque composer and organist Dieterich Buxtehude (1637-1707) in the city of Lübeck. This involved a 280 miles journey, which Bach mostly travelled on foot over several days. Bach failed to return after his allotted four weeks, returning after four months instead. The 21-year-old organist most likely lost his job as a result.

Portrait of the young Bach (disputed)

In 1706, Bach started working as the organist at Divi Blasii, a Gothic church in Mühlhausen. Bach received a higher salary and was no doubt pleased with the better quality of the choir. He also convinced the church to renovate the organ, a task that needed much fundraising. After four months in his new job, Bach married his 23-year-old second cousin, Maria Barbara Bach (1684-1720).

Whilst working in Mühlhausen, Bach composed a cantata for the inauguration of the new council held on 4th February 1708. Gott ist mein König (God is my King), consists of seven movements written for “four separate instrumental ‘choirs’, set against a vocal consort of four singers, an optional Capelle of ripienists and an organ.” The lyrics are based on Psalm 74, in which the author expresses the pleas of the Tribe of Judah in Babylonian captivity. Although Bach only intended the cantata for the festival, it became his first published work later that year. It is also Bach’s only known cantata published in his lifetime.

In 1708, Bach moved back to Weimar, where his wife gave birth to their first child, Catharina Dorothea (1708-74). Two years later, they welcomed a son, Wilhelm Friedemann (1710-84), who inherited his father’s talent. Unfortunately, Wilhelm earned very little for his future compositions and died in poverty. In 1713, Maria gave birth to twins Johann Christoph and Maria Sophia. Unfortunately, Johann died on the same day, and Maria passed away twenty days later.

Whilst in Weimar, Bach worked as an organist and composed many keyboard and orchestral works. Bach later compiled many of his preludes and fugues from this time to form The Well-Tempered Clavier. Each piece in the collection is in a different key, totalling 24 key signatures: C major, C minor, C sharp major and so on. The outcome remains one of the most important works in the history of classical music. Bach also studied Italian composers and transcribed some of Antonio Vivaldi’s (1678-1741) works for the organ and harpsichord.

In 1714, Bach welcomed another son, Carl Philipp Emanuel (1714-88), who almost surpassed Bach’s musical legacy. Haydn (1732-1809), Beethoven and Mozart admired his work greatly, particularly the latter who said, “Bach is the father, we are the children.” The same year as Carl’s birth, J.S. Bach became the Konzertmeister (director of music) at the ducal court in Weimar. His boss, Prince Johann Ernst of Saxe-Weimar (1696-1715), required Bach to compose one cantata each month for the court chapel service. Bach also transcribed many of Prince Johann Ernst’s violin concertos for the harpsichord and organ.

Bach’s sixth child, Johann Gottfried Bernhard (1715-39), was born in 1715, the same year that Prince Johann Ernst passed away. Bach continued working as Konzertmeister but soon fell out of favour with the musicians and choir under his command. In 1717, his employers tried to dismiss Bach from his position. After stubbornly refusing to leave, Bach found himself arrested and confined to the County Judge’s place of detention for a month. On his release, he begrudgingly accepted his discharge.

Despite Bach’s unfavourable dismissal, Leopold of Anhalt-Köthen (1694-1728) hired Bach as Kapellmeister. Prince Leopold had an ear for music and recognised Bach’s talents. Unlike his previous employer, Bach had a good relationship with the prince and made him the godfather of Leopold Augustus (1718-19), who sadly died in infancy. The prince paid Bach well but disapproved of elaborate organ music in churches. As a result, most of Bach’s compositions from his time in Köthen had a secular nature. Nonetheless, Bach respected his employer’s taste, saying, “He was a gracious Prince, who both loved and knew music.”

As Kapellmeister, Bach frequently joined the prince on his travels. In 1720, while away in Carlsbad (now Karlovy Vary, Czech Republic), Bach’s wife unexpectedly died. Bach described her untimely death as the worst event in his life. Fortunately, he found love again the following year with the soprano singer Anna Magdalena Wilcke (1701-60). She also worked for the prince, and the couple married on 3rd December 1721. Anna instantly took up the role of stepmother and raised Bach’s children as though her own.

Die Leipziger Thomaskirche 1749

In 1723, Bach accepted the position of Thomaskantor (Cantor at St. Thomas). This involved moving to Leipzig to direct the Thomanerchor, a choir of boys aged 9 to 18 who attended St Thomas boarding school. Bach’s employer also expected him to teach Latin but allowed the composer to appoint others for this task. Bach was also expected to compose cantatas for Sunday services, of which he produced more than 300. The majority of the cantatas reflected the Gospel readings in the weekly lectionary.

During his first six years in Leipzig, Bach fathered six children. Due to the lack of medical care, many of Bach’s children did not survive infancy. Christiana Sophia Henrietta (1723-26), for example, died at the age of three, Christian Gottlieb (1725-28) at two, Regina Johanna (1728-33) at five, and Ernestus Andreas (1727-27) shortly after his birth. Two of the six children lived to adulthood. Gottfried Heinrich (1724-63) learned to play the keyboard well and showed the potential of “a great genius, which however failed to develop”. Writings of the time suggest Gottfried had a mental handicap of some sort and relied on his sister, Elisabeth “Liesgen” Juliana Friederica (1726-81), for all his adult life. Liesgen married one of her father’s pupils, Johann Christoph Altnickol (1720-59), who worked as an organist, composer and teacher.

In March 1729, Bach took over as director of the Collegium Musicum, a musical society that specialised in secular performances. The position, which he held for ten years, allowed Bach to broaden his repertoire, which, until then, was constricted to liturgical compositions. The extra work did not prevent Bach from his Thomaskantor duties because of Bach’s proactiveness in producing six years worth of cantatas during his first three years in Leipzig. He also continued to grow his large family, although the child mortality rate remained high. Three babies born in the 1730s did not reach childhood: Christiana Benedicta (1730-30), Christiana Dorothea (1731-32) and Johann August Abraham (1733-33).

In 1732, Bach welcomed a son who managed to survive childhood and follow in his musical footsteps. Johann Christoph Friedrich (1732-95), known as the ‘Bückeburg’ Bach to differentiate him from his father, became a concertmaster in Bückeburg, where he was also a renowned harpsichord player. The Bückeburg Bach composed hundreds of pieces for the keyboard, as well as chamber music, choral work and symphonies. Unfortunately, a lot of J.C.F. Bach’s manuscripts were destroyed during the Second World War.

Johann Christian Bach – Thomas Gainsborough

Another of Bach’s sons earned the epithet “The London Bach” because he established his reputation in England as the music master to Queen Charlotte (1744-1818). J.S. Bach was already 50 years old at Johann Christian’s (1735-82) birth and did not live to witness his son’s success. Nonetheless, J.C. Bach’s talent emerged from a young age, and his father spent a few years teaching him how to play the keyboard. Later in life, J.C. tutored the 8-year-old Mozart in composition, who often credited the “London Bach” for his success. On hearing of J.C. Bach’s death in 1782, Mozart lamented, “What a loss to the musical world!”

In 1736, J.S. Bach received the title of “Royal Court Composer” from Augustus III of Poland (1696-1763), the Elector of Saxony. At this time, Bach was working on his first publication of German Organ Mass, which he eventually published in 1739. The collection includes a triple fugue in E flat major, which is understood to represent the Trinity. “The first fugue is calm and majestic, with an absolutely uniform movement throughout; in the second the theme seems to be disguised, and is only occasionally recognisable in its true shape, as if to suggest the divine assumption of an earthly form; in the third, it is transformed into rushing semiquavers as if the Pentacostal wind were coming roaring from heaven.” (Albert Schweitzer, 1905)

Following the birth of his final two children, Johanna Carolina (1737-81) and Regina Susanna (1742-1809), Bach’s music style shifted. He adopted stile antico from the 16th century and combined it with the music of his contemporaries, for instance, George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Handel and Bach were born in the same year, yet they never met. Bach attempted to visit Handel in 1719, but he had moved to London. Bach incorporated several of Handel’s arias into his version of the St Mark Passion, composed in 1747.

In mid-1747, Bach visited King Frederick II of Prussia (1712-86) in Potsdam, who introduced Bach to the fortepiano. This new instrument was an early version of the piano built by Gottfried Silbermann (1683-1753). Bach had come across Silbermann’s earlier constructions and criticised them heavily. Yet, the fortepiano impressed Bach and inspired him to write a collection of keyboard canons and fugues, which he published under the title The Musical Offering. Many musicologists consider this work one of the first piano compositions in history.

Although Bach continued to compose, often returning to and adapting older works, his eyesight rapidly deteriorated. He stubbornly refused to step down as Thomaskantor, but his employer made arrangements to hire another composer to start working “upon the eventual … decease of Mr Bach”. By 1750, Bach was almost completely blind due to cataracts and underwent eye surgery by the British eye surgeon John Taylor (1703-72). Unfortunately, Taylor was a charlatan and permanently blinded Bach as a result. He also blinded the composer Handel and up to 100 other victims. Sadly, Bach passed away on 28th July 1750 from complications due to the unsuccessful operation.

Not much is known about Bach’s funeral other than he was buried in an unmarked grave at Old St. John’s Cemetery in Leipzig. Yet, he did not die a poor man. An inventory drawn up at the time claims Bach owned five harpsichords, two lute-harpsichords, three violins, three violas, two cellos, a viola da gamba, a lute and a spinet. Whilst his funeral remains a mystery, Bach’s life is recorded in detail in a Nekrolog (obituary) written by his son Carl and one of his students, Johann Friedrich Agricola (1720-74).

Image of the Bach memorial erected by Felix Mendelssohn in Leipzig in 1843

During his lifetime, Bach was highly regarded amongst his colleagues. Yet, those outside his social circle were not so familiar with his compositions. As a result, only a limited number of people played Bach’s music. It is thanks to Felix Mendelssohn (1809-47), who conducted a famous performance of Bach’s St Matthew Passion on 11th March 1829, that Bach is popular today. Mendelssohn later erected a monument to the composer in Leipzig. Also credited with reviving Bach’s compositions is Bristol-born Samuel Wesley (1766-1837), the son of the famous hymnodist Charles Wesley (1707-88). At the beginning of the 19th century, Wesley, sometimes known as “the English Mozart”, occasionally performed some of Bach’s organ pieces in London concerts.

In 1850, the Bach-Gesellschaft (Bach Society) was founded by Moritz Hauptmann (1792-1868), a cantor of the St. Thomas Church, Leipzig, to promote Bach’s music. Around that time, musicians referred to Bach as one of the Three Bs, a term coined in the Berliner Allgemeine Musikalische Zeitung to represent Bach, Beethoven and Hector Berlioz (1803-69). Later, a German conductor replaced Berlioz with Johannes Brahms (1833-97), saying “I believe in Bach, the Father, Beethoven, the Son, and Brahms, the Holy Ghost of music.” (Hans von Bülow, 1880) Since then, the English composer David Matthews (b.1943) has proposed adding Benjamin Britten (1913-76) to the legacy, making them the Four Bs.

Bach’s popularity continued to rise during the 20th century with the appearance of several organisations and awards in his name. Choirs and orchestras, including the Bach Aria Group, Deutsche Bachsolisten, Bachchor Stuttgart, and Bach Collegium Japan, have developed and performed various Bach Festivals around the world. Every two years, the Bach-Archiv Leipzig holds the Internationaler Bach Wettbewerb Leipzig (International Johann Sebastian Bach Competition); and the Royal Academy of Music in London awards the Royal Academy of Music Bach Prize to “an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the performance and/or scholarly study of the music of Johann Sebastian Bach.”

So, why is Bach the nation’s favourite composer? Admittedly, it is a matter of personal taste, but Bach may come out on top due to his versatile style of compositions. Whilst Bach usually wrote for organ and other keyboard instruments, he also produced concertos for the violin and music for orchestras. Bach composed hundreds of religious works, making him popular in churches, but he also wrote secular music, which is enjoyed by people of all faiths and none. Bach wrote something for everyone, and it is this, alongside his expertise, that earns him the title “The Greatest Composer of All Time”.

Some of the compositions mentioned in this blog are available on YouTube through the following links:
Gott ist mein König (BWV 71)
The Well Tempered Clavier: Book I: Prelude and Fugue No.1 in C Major (BWV846)
German Organ Mass : Vater unser im Himmelreich (BWV683a)
Prelude in E-flat Major (BWV 552/i) – Representing the Trinity
Six-voice ricercar from The Musical Offering (BWV 1079)
Opening to St. Matthew Passion (BMW 244)


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The Queen of Science

When researching women of science, Mary Somerville is a name that frequently crops up. Since past societies often wrote women out of history, Mary Somerville must have been a scientist of some significance to feature so often in biographies of other women (and men). Mary Somerville receives a mention in two of my recent blogs about female scientists (Ada Lovelace and Caroline Herschel), so it is about time I focused on Mary’s life and achievements.

Mary Fairfax, Mrs William Somerville – Thomas Phillips

Born on 26th December 1780 in Jedburgh, Scotland, Mary was the second of four surviving children to Vice-Admiral William George Fairfax (1739-1813) and Margaret Charters. Despite her father’s position, his pay was meagre, and Mary grew up in poverty in her childhood home at Burntisland, Fife. To earn some extra money, Mary’s mother grew and sold vegetables and fruit and kept a cow for milk. Mary’s father spent much of her early life at sea, leaving her mother to give her a rudimentary education by teaching her to read the Bible.

When Mary was ten years old, her father returned from his recent voyage and expressed his discontent with Mary’s lack of education. After scraping together as much money as possible, Fairfax sent his daughter to a boarding school in Musselburgh for a year, where she learnt English grammar and French.

Over the following year, Mary developed a fascination with shells and small sea creatures, which she found while spending hours on the beach. When at home, her mother expected Mary to help around the house, but she often retreated to her father’s library to read. As a result, her parents sent her to a local school to learn the more feminine art of needlework. Mary expressed her contempt in her memoirs, admitting she “was annoyed that my turn for reading was so much disapproved of, and thought it unjust that women should have been given a desire for knowledge if it were wrong to acquire it.”

Mary Somerville as a Young Lady – John Jackson

Aware of her desire to learn, the headmaster of the village school paid home visits to Mary to teach her about geography. This came to an end after her 13th birthday when her mother sent Mary to writing school in Edinburgh, where she also studied arithmetic. In her spare time, Mary attempted to teach herself Latin, later seeking the help of her uncle, Rev. Dr Thomas Somerville (1741-1830). Mary also taught herself the Greek language and how to play the piano during school holidays and, instead of returning to the writing school, enrolled at an art school run by Alexander Nasmyth (1758-1840). Nasmyth also had an interest in astronomy and mechanical science, and he gladly became Mary’s tutor on the subjects.

In 1797, Mary’s father helped Admiral Adam Duncan (1731-1804) beat the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown while serving on HMS Venerable. For this, Fairfax earned a knighthood and became Colonel of Marines. The family’s income significantly increased, and they joined Edinburgh socialites at many social events, where Mary earned the nickname “the Rose of Jedburgh”. When at home, Mary’s parents expected her to play the traditional role of a daughter, but when not in public, Mary focused on playing the piano, painting and studying algebra. Sadly, the family’s good fortune was marred by the death of Mary’s older brother Samuel, who died while serving in the East India Company’s military service, aged 21.

Self Portrait – Mary Somerville

In 1804, Mary met a distant cousin, Captain Samuil Samuilovich Greig (1778-1807), a Russian Consul. The same year, Mary married Grieg, some claim by force and moved to London. In 1805, they welcomed a son, Woronzow (1805-65), named after a Russian diplomat. Their second son, George, soon followed, who Mary nursed while simultaneously trying to study science and mathematics. Grieg disliked his wife’s intellectual pursuits and actively tried to prevent her. The unhappy marriage came to an end in 1807 with the death of Grieg. Mary returned to Scotland with her sons, but sadly the infant George died the same year.

The money left by her late husband allowed Mary to pursue the intellectual interests that Greig had forbidden. She resumed her mathematical studies with the encouragement of the Church of Scotland minister and scientist John Playfair (1748-1819), who introduced her to William Wallace (1768-1843). Mary regularly wrote letters to Wallace, discussing her mathematical learnings, and he, in turn, suggested books to read. Gradually, Mary’s studies grew to include astronomy, chemistry, electricity, geography, magnetism and microscopy.

Mary practised her mathematical skills by solving problems posed in the journal of the Military College at Marlow, now known as Sandhurst. Several of her solutions featured in the Mathematical Repository under the pseudonym “A Lady”, but one particular result earned Mary a silver medal in 1811.

William Somerville c. 1840

When not studying, Mary spent time with her family, who introduced her to people of note, including her cousin Dr William Somerville (1771-1860), the inspector of the Army Medical Board. Somerville actively encouraged Mary’s ambitions and helped her learn about physical science. In 1812, Mary married William Somerville, with whom she had four children: Margaret Farquhar (1813-23), Thomas (1814-15; died in infancy), Martha Charters (1815-79) and Mary Charlotte (1817-75).

Mary’s husband was elected to the Royal Society, which boosted their reputation in society, acquainting them with many writers and artists, including J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) and Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832). In 1819, the Somerville’s moved to Hanover Square, London, so that Mary’s husband could accept the position of physician at Chelsea Hospital. Meanwhile, Mary began tutoring a friend’s daughter, Ada Lovelace (1815-52). At a scientific gathering, Mary met Charles Babbage (1791-1871), who was “making his Calculating-machines”. Mary later introduced Lovelace to Babbage, which sparked a significant professional relationship.

A German governess looked after Mary’s children, allowing her the freedom to mingle in society. She became well known by scientists and mathematicians, both in England and abroad. Together, the Somervilles travelled around Europe, meeting people of note, who often returned the visit. The only thing marring this idyllic lifestyle was the death of their eldest daughter Margaret in 1823.

In 1826, Mary published her first scientific paper, The magnetic properties of the violet rays of the solar spectrum, in the Royal Society’s journal. One reader, Sir David Brewster (1781-1868), declared she was “certainly the most extraordinary woman in Europe – a mathematician of the very first rank with all the gentleness of a woman.” Subsequently, Mary received a commission from Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham (1778-1868), to translate the Traité de mécanique céleste (“Treatise of celestial mechanics”) by Pierre-Simon Laplace (1749-1827) for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge (SDUK). Not only did Mary painstakingly translate the lengthy treatise from French to English, she embellished it with her knowledge about the mathematics behind the workings of the solar system, saying, “I translated Laplace’s work from algebra into common language.” This translation, published under the title The Mechanism of the Heavens in 1831, made Mary famous throughout the English speaking world. Cambridge University used the publication as a textbook until the 1880s.

Mary’s translation continued to garner praise over the next few years, particularly from “many men of science”. In 1834, Mary was elected an honorary member of the Royal Irish Academy, the Bristol Philosophical Institution and the Société de Physique et d’Histoire Naturelle de Genève. She also received an annual £200 civil pension from the British Crown, although spent most of her time in Italy. Despite this, the Somervilles faced a financial crisis in 1835 as the needs of their children increased as they neared adulthood. Money made from Mary’s book and future publications often saved them from bankruptcy, although Mary always maintained she only wrote for pleasure. Mary’s second book, On the Connexion of the Physical Sciences, published in 1834, sold over 15,000 copies, making it one of the biggest selling science books of the 19th century. In a review of the book, the polymath Rev Dr William Whewell (1794-1866) coined the word “scientist”. Until then, the term “man of science” was the usual description, but this did not befit a woman.

Mary Somerville – James Rannie Swinton

Due to her love of astronomy, Mary joined in the discussions about a hypothetical planet on the other side of Uranus. She wrote of her predictions in later editions of Connexion, which were fulfilled in 1846 by the official discovery of Neptune. Two years later, Mary published her third book, Physical Geography, the first English textbook on the subject. Mary described the structure of planet earth, including land, mountains, volcanoes, oceans, rivers and lakes. She also discussed weather, temperature, plants, animals and prospects of the human race. Setting the book apart from modern publications is Mary’s Victorian view that humans are superior to all other life forms. Physical Geography sold more copies than her previous books and earned her the Victoria Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. A decade later, she was elected to the American Geographical and Statistical Society.

Haliomma Echinaster, a marine phosphorescence.

Although Mary Somerville continued to study and join in mathematical and scientific discussions, it was not until 1869 that she published her fourth book. Molecular and Microscopic Science took ten years to complete and on several occasions Mary admitted she regretted the subject choice. “In writing this book I made a great mistake, and repent it. Mathematics are the natural bent of my mind. If I had devoted myself exclusively to that study, I might probably have written something useful, as a new era had begun in that science.” Nonetheless, the book proved successful and contained up-to-date information about atoms and molecules, plant life, and animals. It also contained 180 illustrations, which significantly increased the cost of the publication.

Shortly before the publication of her final book, the British MP John Stuart Mill (1806-73) asked Mary to be the first to sign a petition for female suffrage. Unfortunately, the petition was unsuccessful. In her autobiography, published posthumously from many letters to and from Mary, she declared, “British laws are adverse to women.” Throughout her life, Mary felt the effects of the male-dominated world, particularly in childhood when she could not study the same subjects as her brothers. Fortunately, she also saw positive changes, such as higher education establishments opening to women.

On 29th November 1872, Mary Somerville passed away aged 91 in Naples. Her husband predeceased her by 12 years, and Mary’s daughters helped to look after her for the remainder of her life. Mary was buried in the English Cemetery in Naples, and the following year, her letters and memoirs were published under the title Personal recollections, from early life to old age, of Mary Somerville. The book includes letters to and from family, friends and notable public people, including Ada Lovelace.

Mary Somerville lived on through her work and books, some of which universities continued to use until the 20th century. She has also been honoured several times over the past century and a half, including the naming of Somerville College at the University of Oxford in 1879, one of the first women’s colleges. Also named after the first person to be called a scientist is Somerville Square in her home town Burntisland, Somerville House boarding school in Australia, and Somerville Island in Canada.

Whilst it is true that many honours come after a person’s death, Mary Somerville received some during her lifetime. In 1835, when Mary was 55 years old, a ship named Mary Somerville set sail. Belonging to Taylor, Potter & Co., of Liverpool, the ship sailed to and from India and the West Indies carrying trading goods. The ship worked for 17 years until it disappeared after departing from Saint Helena in the South Atlantic Ocean on 18th October 1852. When she did not appear at her destination, she was presumed to have foundered, and all crew were believed dead. The ship may have nearly reached the British Isles because, on 11th January 1853, a chest belonging to the Mary Somerville washed up on Saint Michael’s Mount in Cornwall.

Mary’s legacy continued into the 20th century when an asteroid discovered on 21st September 1987 was named 5771 Somerville in her memory. This asteroid, the size of a minor planet, orbits the sun once every five years and seven months (2,029 days). The small Somerville crater on the eastern side of the moon also honours Mary Somerville.

Perhaps Mary Somerville’s greatest honour to date is becoming the face of the Royal Bank of Scotland’s £10 note. In February 2016, RBS held a public vote on Facebook to decide which Scottish figure should replace the nobleman Lord Ilay (1682-1761), who had appeared on the note since 1987. Wishing to change the material of the note from paper to polymer, RSB thought the public should have a say about the design. Voters had a choice between several notable people, including Mary Somerville, James Clerk Maxwell (1831-79) and Thomas Telford (1757-1834). The new note, featuring a young Mary Somerville on one side and a picture of two otters on the reverse became legal tender in Scotland on 4th October 2017.

Google Doodle 2nd February 2020

On 2nd February 2020, Mary Somerville received her most recent honour with a Google Doodle. For 24 hours, a cartoon version of Mary sitting at a desk was the first thing people saw when visiting the Google website. Doodle designer Alyssa Winans commented that she admired Mary’s “voracious appetite for learning”. Winans hoped “this Doodle will shine a light on Mary Somerville’s contributions, and people will feel inspired to explore a broad range of interests.”

Like Winans, I hope this blog has shone a light on Mary Somerville’s contribution to science and mathematics. She wrote several successful books at a time when being a female writer was challenging. Mary Somerville was also a vocal advocate for equal rights, and it is thanks to her, or at least a reviewer of her books, that the gender-neutral term “scientist” came into the English language.


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Chopin: The Man Behind the Music

Frédéric Chopin is remembered as a composer and piano player whose “professional technique […] was without equal in his generation.” With over 230 compositions under his belt, Chopin became one of the world’s first celebrities in the music industry. Influenced by composers such as Haydn, Mozart and Beethoven, Chopin combined new and old techniques to develop new genres of music that made him a leading symbol of the Romantic era. Yet, Chopin died young at the age of 39, robbing the world of his talents. Nonetheless, he left behind a hole that musicians have since tried and failed to fill. How did someone so young achieve everlasting fame and admiration?

Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin was the second child born in Poland to Nicolas Chopin (1771-1844) and Justyna Krzyżanowska. There is some discrepancy about his date of birth, which is either 22nd February or 1st March 1810, although the latter is generally accepted today. His father, a Polonised Frenchman, received a teaching post at the Warsaw Lyceum in the same year of his son’s birth, prompting the family to move to the capital. Chopin and his sisters, Ludwika (1807-55), Izabela (1811-81) and Emilia (1812-27), grew up within the grounds of the school where their father taught the flute and violin, and their mother the piano.

Although his parents were musicians, Chopin’s father arranged for his children to have professional music tuition. At the age of six, Chopin started receiving piano lessons from Wojciech Żywny (1756-1842), a Polish teacher who instilled Chopin’s love of Mozart (1756-1791) and Bach (1685-1750). His elder sister Ludwika also received lessons, and they occasionally played duets, but of the pair, it became apparent Chopin was the child prodigy. Chopin gave his first public concert to the Polish aristocracy at seven years old and composed two polonaises, a style of Polish dance. Unfortunately, these manuscripts are missing, so Chopin’s earliest known work is a polonaise in A-flat major, which he wrote and dedicated to his piano teacher in 1821, aged 11.

Fryderyk Chopin at the piano – Eliza Radziwiłłówna

In 1823, Chopin began attending the Warsaw Lyceum as a pupil. As well as academic instruction, Chopin received organ lessons from Czech musician Wilhelm Würfel (1790-1832). In 1826, Chopin enrolled at the Warsaw Conservatory to take a three-year music course under the tuition of Józef Elsner (1769-1854). During this time, Chopin focused on composition work, which he performed at many recitals in the city. Chopin wrote mainly for the piano, but in 1825 he was invited to try out a unique instrument: the aeolomelodicon.

The aeolomelodicon is an obsolete keyed wind instrument consisting of a keyboard and pedal, which when depressed triggered a set of bellows to produce a soft, ethereal sound. The designer, Fidelis Brunner, based it on the earlier, unsuccessful instrument, the aeolodion. The older instrument used steel springs to produce the sound, but Brunner used brass tubes and reeds instead, which proved more powerful. In May 1825, Chopin performed one of his compositions on the aeolomelodicon, for which he received great praise.

The success of Chopin’s performance on the aeolomelodicon led to the invitation to play for Tsar Alexander I (1777-1825) on another strange instrument: an aeolopantalon. Jozé Dlugosz of Warsaw, the inventor of the aeolopantalon, combined the earlier instruments with a piano, which played both in conjunction or separately from the bellows. Impressed with Chopin’s recital, the Tsar presented him with a diamond ring. Another concert was arranged at which Chopin performed his Rondo Op. 1., which subsequently became his first published work.

As a student, Chopin took the opportunity to visit other parts of Poland. He particularly enjoyed staying in the Polish village Szafarnia, where he discovered rural folk music. The atmosphere and traditions Chopin observed differed greatly to the city and made a significant impact on the young composer. Sadly, the death of Chopin’s youngest sister Emilia in 1827 put an end to these excursions, and he returned to his parents, who ran a boarding house for students of the Warsaw Lyceum.

Chopin plays for the Radziwiłłs, 1829 – Henryk Siemiradzki, 1887

In 1829, Chopin completed his education at the Conservatory. The same year, the governor of the Grand Duchy of Posen, Prince Antoni Radziwiłł (1775-1833), invited Chopin to Berlin. As visualised in a painting by Henryk Siemiradzki (1843-1902), Chopin performed for the Radziwiłł family and guests. Chopin also composed a piano and cello piece called Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major for the prince, an aspiring cellist. Yet, when Chopin officially published the manuscript, he dedicated it to the Austrian cellist Joseph Merk (1795-1852), who Chopin claimed was the only violoncellist he respected.

Later that year, Chopin made his debut in Vienna, where he premiered his Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”. These were variations of a song of the same name in Mozart’s Don Giovanni and received favourable reviews, although some commented that Chopin was “too delicate for those accustomed to the piano-bashing of local artists.” Yet, the performance drew attention to the young composer and he played at another concert before returning to Warsaw. When the up-and-coming German composer Robert Schumann (1810-56) heard Chopin play, he exclaimed, “Hats off, gentlemen, a genius.”

In 1830, Chopin set out “into the wide world, with no very clearly defined aim, forever.” (Zdzisław Jachimecki, 1937) Little did he know he would not see his home city again, which suffered damages during the November 1830 Uprising. Also known as the Polish-Russian War 1830-31, Polish rebels turned the capital into a military garrison, forcing the Warsaw Lyceum and Conservatory to close. Although Chopin expressed his nostalgia for his homeland, he did not return to the city to enlist in the army. Instead, he remained in Western Europe, performing in Vienna and Paris.

Chopin at 25 – Maria Wodzińska, 1835

Chopin arrived in Paris in 1831, inadvertently becoming one of the many expatriates of the Polish Great Emigration who fled from the uprising. To gain French citizenship, Chopin began using the French version of his name, Frédéric François Chopin, yet he always considered himself Polish at heart. While in Paris, Chopin became acquainted with many french composers and artists, including Hector Berlioz (1803-69), Franz Liszt (1811-86) and Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863). He also remained in close contact with his Polish friends, especially Julian Fontana (1810-69), who boarded with Chopin during their years at the Warsaw Lyceum. Although Fontana wanted to establish himself in England, his lack of success prompted him to become Chopin’s “general factotum and copyist”.

Chopin’s debut concert in Paris took place on 25th February 1832 in the salons de MM Pleyel, a virtuoso pianist and piano maker. Critics exclaimed, “Here is a young man who … taking no model, has found, if not a complete renewal of piano music, … an abundance of original ideas of a kind to be found nowhere else …”. Chopin earned the patronage of the wealthy Jewish Rothschild family, and by the end of the year, had a steady income from the publications of his compositions. He no longer relied on public performances or money from his family for day-to-day living.

In 1835, Chopin visited his family in the Slavic city Carlsbad. As it turned out, this was the last time Chopin saw his parents. On his way back to Paris, Chopin stopped in Dresden, where he met the Wodziński family with whom he had made the acquaintance during his student years. While there, Chopin became enamoured with 16-year-old Maria Wodzińska (1819-96), who painted a portrait of Chopin, which is considered the best likeness of all images of the composer. The following year, Chopin returned to Dresden, where he proposed to Maria. From there, he travelled on to Leipzig, where he composed many pieces, which he compiled into an album for his fiancée. Unfortunately, the gift did not receive the reaction for which Chopin hoped, and the relationship came to an end.

While living in Paris, Chopin befriended Franz Liszt, whom he performed with on at least seven occasions. Chopin dedicated 12 Études Op.10 to Liszt, but some historians suggest their relationship was often strained. In a letter, Chopin revealed his jealousy of Liszt’s skill on the piano, saying, “I should like to rob him of the way he plays my studies.” Chopin also forced Liszt to apologise after embellishing one of his nocturnes during a public performance rather than playing the music as written. Yet, Chopin continued to refer to “my friend Liszt” in his letters to other friends and family members.

Another reason for Chopin and Liszt’s unsteady friendship may involve their relationship with women. Liszt felt concerned that his mistress, Marie d’Agoult (1805-76), who wrote romantic novels under her pen name, Daniel Stern, gave Chopin too much attention. His jealousy heightened after Chopin dedicated 12 Études Op. 25 to d’Agoult, especially as the reason for this was unclear. Nonetheless, Liszt and d’Agoult had a lengthy affair, resulting in three children: Blandine Rachel (1835-62), Francesca Gaetana Cosima (1837-1930) and Daniel (1839-59).

Chopin and Sand [detail] – Delacroix, 1838

In 1836, Chopin attended a party held by Marie d’Agoult where he met the author George Sand (born Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin, 1804-76). At the time, Chopin was still engaged to Maria Wodzińska and thought little of Sands, saying, “What an unattractive person la Sand is. Is she really a woman?” Sand, on the other hand, admitted to her friends her infatuation for the composer. After discovering Chopin and Maria were no longer an item, Sand let her feelings be known to Chopin. By 1838, Chopin and Sands were lovers.

Sand had a reputation for having many lovers and had married, although now separated from Casimir Dudevant (1795-1871), which resulted in two children: Maurice (1823-89) and Solange (1828-99). Chopin appeared unfazed by Sand’s past and agreed to spend the winter of 1838 in Majorca with Sand and her children. Before travelling, Chopin complained of feeling unwell but hoped the Mediterranean climate would revive him. Unfortunately, the couple struggled to find lodgings on the island because the Catholic population disapproved of their relationship. In the eyes of the church, Sand was still married. As a last resort, Chopin, Sand and the children moved into a former Carthusian monastery in the Majorcan village of Valldemossa.

Chopin – Gratia, 1838

Chopin’s health failed to improve, and the prognosis given by three doctors did not make him feel any better. “Three doctors have visited me … The first said I was dead; the second said I was dying; and the third said I was about to die.” Despite feeling miserable, Chopin continued to compose music and completed several preludes, two polonaises, his Ballade No. 2, Op. 38, and worked on Scherzo No. 3, Op. 39. Chopin dedicated the ballade to Robert Schumann, who had recently dedicated a piano solo to Chopin.

The Mediterranean climate that Chopin hoped would cure him failed to materialise. Instead, poor weather ravaged the island, prompting the couple to move to Barcelona on the mainland, then to Marseilles in the south of France, where Chopin spent two months convalescing. Chopin’s health improved a little, and in the summer of 1839, he moved to Sand’s estate at Nohant in central France, much to Maurice’s disgust. The 16-year-old boy wished to establish himself as the man of the house and feared Chopin would take that role from him. Nonetheless, Chopin and Sand continued to spend their summers at Nohant until 1846.

During one of his stays at Nohant, Chopin composed Polonaise in A-flat major, Op. 53 (1842), which gained the nickname Polonaise héroïque (Heroic) during the Revolution of 1848. Many pianists find the piece physically demanding to play, although Chopin usually played it much more gently than most performers. When hearing the music played at the time of the Revolution, George Sand declared, “L’inspiration! La force! La vigueur! There is no doubt that such a spirit must be present in the French Revolution. From now on, this polonaise should be a symbol, a heroic symbol.”

Chopin’s health took a turn for the worse in 1842, the same year he composed the Héroïque. Although he gave solo recitals in Paris, he complained to a friend that “I have to lie in bed all day long, my mouth and tonsils are aching so much.” Soon, Chopin was declining more invitations than he was accepting, and on one occasion, he was discovered on the floor “hardly able to move, bent like a half-opened penknife and evidently in great pain.” The worse his health became, the less work Chopin could achieve. Usually, he wrote dozens of compositions each year, but in 1844, he only managed to complete Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor. Nonetheless, many consider this one of Chopin’s most technically challenging compositions.

The historian Adam Zamoyski (b. 1949) observes, “[Chopin’s] powers of concentration were failing and his inspiration was beset by anguish, both emotional and intellectual.” As well as his health, Chopin had problems with his relationship with Sand, who accused him of being more supportive of her daughter Solange than herself. Nonetheless, Sand continued to care for Chopin, becoming more like a nurse than a lover to the “beloved little corpse”, as she nicknamed him. In 1847, Sand published a novel Lucrezia Floriani, which featured characters based on herself and Chopin – a story that Chopin allegedly admired. Yet, by the end of the year, their relationship ended with an exchange of angry letters.

On 16th February 1848, Chopin performed his Cello Sonata in G minor, Op. 65 with the cellist Auguste Franchomme (1808-84), but felt too unwell to give any more performances. For a while, Chopin continued to take on pupils, but this soon became too difficult for him. To avoid the Revolution of 1848, Chopin visited England at the suggestion of his Scottish pupil Jane Stirling (1804-59), who arranged an introduction with Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and Prince Albert (1819-61). Chopin agreed to perform to the royals, much to the delight of the Prince, who eagerly watched Chopin’s fingers on the piano to observe his technique.

In August, Jane invited Chopin to stay with her family in Scotland, which sparked rumours about a romantic relationship. Whilst Jane desired to marry Chopin, he did not reciprocate her feelings. In letters to friends, he described Jane and her family as boring. Chopin also realised his health was deteriorating rapidly, writing, “They have married me to Miss Stirling; she might as well marry death.” Despite his illness, Jane took him to visit all of her relatives and arranged concerts in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Manchester. At the latter, which he performed on 28th August, Chopin was so weak he needed someone to carry him off the stage.

Chopin on His Deathbed – Teofil Kwiatkowski, 1849

In the autumn, Chopin returned to London with Jane, who continued to support her piano tutor despite his rejection of her romantic advances. On 16th November 1848, Chopin gave his final public concert at London’s Guildhall, even though he was critically ill. Jane continued to look after him and helped Chopin travel to Paris, where he gave the occasional piano lesson. His sister Ludwika came to stay in the city at Chopin’s request, and many of his friends visited him at his bedside, often entertaining him by playing music.

Frédéric Chopin playing at Paris’s Hôtel Lambert – Kwiatkowski

Jane commissioned the Polish artist Teofil Kwiatkowski (1809-91) to produce an oil painting of Chopin on his “deathbed”. He sits in bed surrounded by five guests, including his sister and a pupil, Princess Marcelina Czartoryska (1817-94). This was the artist’s second painting of Chopin, the first being a picture of him playing at a ball at Hôtel Lambert in Paris.

In the early hours of 17th October 1849, a visiting doctor enquired whether Chopin was suffering greatly. Chopin replied, “No longer,” and died shortly after, age 39. According to Chopin’s death certificate, he succumbed to tuberculosis, but more recently, other suggestions have cropped up. These include cystic fibrosis, cirrhosis and pericarditis. Due to Chopin’s popularity, his funeral was delayed until 30th October, and attendees needed to reserve tickets. Over 3,000 people were refused entry to the Church of the Madeleine in Paris, where the service was held, many of whom had travelled from other countries for the occasion. A choir sang Mozart’s Requiem and Chopin’s Preludes No. 4 in E minor and No. 6 in B minor were also played, followed by a rendition of the Funeral March from Chopin’s Piano Sonata No. 2 at his graveside.

Auguste Clésinger (1814-83), the husband of George Sand’s daughter Solange, sculpted Chopin’s tombstone, which sits in the Père Lachaise Cemetery, Paris. It features the muse of music, Euterpe, weeping over a broken lyre. Although Chopin’s body rests under the sculpture, his sister took his heart back to Poland as per her brother’s request, symbolising that he always considered himself Polish.

Chopin’s music is his long-lasting legacy. Preferring to play in salons rather than ballrooms, he adjusted well-established forms of music to suit the setting. His waltzes had faster tempos than those written for dancing, and he was the first composer to write ballades and scherzos as individual concert pieces. Whilst Chopin respected the style of Bach and Mozart, who he regarded as his greatest influences, Chopin also introduced Polish music. As one music historian puts it, “it was Chopin who put the mazurka on the European musical map.”

“Chopin’s unique position as a composer, despite the fact that virtually everything he wrote was for the piano, has rarely been questioned.” (J. Barrie Jones, 1998) Although Chopin’s work does not favour orchestras, his music remains popular and is regularly performed today. An International Chopin Piano Competition is held in Warsaw every five years by the Fryderyk Chopin Institute, which is devoted to performances of his polonaises, mazurkas and piano concertos.

To commemorate Chopin’s 100th birthday, Wacław Szymanowski (1859-1930) designed a sculpture of the composer to stand in Warsaw’s Royal Baths Park. Unfortunately, an argument over the design and the outbreak of World War One delayed the erection of the monument, but it was finally put in place in 1926. Sadly, the statue was blown up during World War Two by the Germans. Allegedly, on the following morning, a handwritten sign was found in the rubble, which said, “I don’t know who destroyed me, but I know why: so that I won’t play the funeral march for your leader.” The statue was rebuilt after the war and placed on a plinth featuring the inscription: “The Statue of Fryderyk Chopin, destroyed and plundered by the Germans on 31 May 1940, rebuilt by the Nation. 17 October 1946”. Also etched into the monument is a line from a poem by Adam Mickiewicz (1798-1855), which reads, “Flames will consume our painted history, sword-wielding thieves will plunder our treasures, the song will be saved…”

Although Chopin only lived for 39 years, his influence on the world through music is evident. Over 80 societies across the world dedicate themselves to the composer and musician, and more than 1500 videos of performances of Chopin’s works are on Youtube. You can listen to some of the music mentioned in this blog through the following links:
Rondo in C Minor, Op. 1
Variations on “Là ci darem la mano”, Op. 2
Introduction and Polonaise brillante in C major, Op. 3
Revolutionary Etude No. 12, Op. 10
Etude No. 2 in F minor “The Bees”, Op.25
Prelude in E Minor No. 4, Op. 28
Prelude in B Minor No.6, Op. 28
Marche Funèbre (Funeral March), Sonata Op. 35
Ballade No.2 in F major, Op. 38
Scherzo No.3 In C Sharp Minor, Op. 39
Heroic Polonaise in A Flat Major, Op. 53
Piano Sonata No. 3 in B minor, Op. 58
Sonata for Cello & Piano in G minor, Op. 65


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