Laurence Housman

In 2018, Prime Minister Theresa May unveiled a statue of the Suffragist leader, Dame Millicent Fawcett, in Parliament Square, London. Sculpted by Gillian Wearing, it honours the centenary of (some) women winning the right to vote. It is the first statue of a woman to stand in Parliament Square and honours not just Fawcett but 63 other people who supported women’s suffrage, too. The names are inscribed on the plinth next to a small engraving of each person, including four men. One of the men is Laurence Housman, an English playwright, writer, illustrator, and founding member of the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage and the Suffrage Atelier.

Laurence Housman was born on 18th July 1865 in Bromsgrove, Worcestershire, to Edward and Sarah Jane Housman. He was one of seven children, including Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936), who became a classical scholar and poet, and Clemence Housman (1861-1955), an author and illustrator. Housman’s father worked as a solicitor and tax accountant, but his mother passed away in 1871. Edward Housman remarried a cousin, Lucy.

Housman had a close relationship with his siblings, particularly Alfred and Clemence, with whom he enjoyed creative pastimes, such as putting on theatrical performances and creating a family magazine. Meanwhile, Housman’s father turned to drink as his business floundered, leaving the family in financial distress. Fortunately, the Housman brothers received scholarships to study at Bromsgrove School, a local boarding school that allowed day students.

In 1882, Housman attended an art class with his sister, Clemence. The following year, they each inherited £200 from a relative, which they spent on art courses at the Lambeth School of Art and the Royal College of Art in London. Housman’s interest in illustration led to positions at London publishing houses, where he produced the artwork for several books, including Christina Rossetti‘s Goblin Market (1893) and his sister’s novella, The Were-Wolf (1896). The latter was an erotic fantasy featuring a female werewolf.

Housman also dabbled in writing and published several poems, hymns and carols during the 1890s. By the turn of the century, Housman’s eyesight began to fail, so he concentrated entirely on writing. He had already published several fairytales, such as A Farm in Fairyland (1894), but his first major literary success was the novel An Englishwoman’s Love-letters (1900), which he published anonymously. The book initially caused a scandal until the public discovered it was written by a man rather than an Englishwoman.

Many of Housman’s works contained Christian undertones. Aside from novels, Housman penned plays such as Bethlehem (1902), Angels and Ministers (1921), and Little Plays of St. Francis (1922). Once again, Housman caused a scandal for depicting biblical characters on stage, and many plays were only performed privately. Another play, Victoria Regina (1934), caused problems because the Lord Chamberlain, Rowland Baring, 2nd Earl of Cromer (1877-1953), ruled that “no British sovereign may be portrayed on the stage until 100 years after his or her accession.” As a result, Victoria Regina could not be performed until the centenary of Queen Victoria’s accession on 20th June 1937, when it opened at the Lyric Theatre, London.

During his career, Housman published around 100 pieces of work, including an autobiography, The Unexpected Years (1937), in which he discussed his controversial writing. He did not mention much of his personal life in the book due to his homosexuality, which was illegal at the time. Despite this, Housman was quite vocal about his sexuality and invested time in helping homosexuals who were stigmatized by society. Housman joined the Order of Chaeronea, an underground organisation for homosexuals. Housman also founded the British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology, which later became the British Sexological Society.

Housman identified as a feminist and devoted himself to the women’s suffrage movement, for which he is remembered on the plinth of the Millicent Fawcett statue. In 1909, Housman and his sister Clemence founded the Suffrage Atelier with the artist and author Alfred Pearse (1855-1933), known under the pseudonym “A Patriot”. The Atelier accepted artists and illustrators, primarily women, who wished to use their skills to assist the campaign for women’s suffrage.

The Suffrage Atelier was not the only group producing artwork for the suffrage movement, yet it was the only one to pay its workers. Working as a studio rather than a party or union, the Atelier produced illustrations and designs, which they sold to groups of suffragists or suffragettes. The Suffrage Atelier primarily worked with the Women’s Freedom League, an offshoot of the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU).

One of the posters designed by the Suffrage Atelier emphasised how unfair it was to deny women the right to vote. At the time, women could run for mayor, work as nurses, doctors, teachers and factory hands, or be stay-at-home mothers, yet not vote in parliamentary elections. Conversely, men who had been convicts, “lunatics”, proprietors of white slaves, unfit for military service, or drunkards still retained their voting rights. This poster and many of the Atelier’s publications could be quickly reproduced and circulated using block printing, such as woodcuts and linocuts. Despite limited colours, the pamphlets, posters and banners helped spread the women’s cause across the country.

Housman allowed the Suffrage Atelier to use his house at No. 1 Pembroke Cottage Kensington in London as their base. The building also became a central hub for the suffrage movement, offering women writing lessons and hosting talks by motivational speakers. In 1911, Housman opened his doors as a safe house for women participating in the Census Boycott. Led by Emmeline Pankhurst (1858-1928), women declined to partake in the census by either refusing to fill in the census forms or staying out of the house on the designated night. Participants of the boycott used the slogan, “If women don’t count, neither shall they be counted,” to put pressure on the anti-suffrage Liberal Government.

In 1911, Housman compiled a book called An Anti-Suffrage Alphabet, using illustrations by several members of the Suffrage Atelier. Housman aimed to raise money for the suffrage movement through sales of the book, which mocked negative views of women with a short rhyme for each letter of the alphabet.

“R are the reasons why women can’t vote – Lord Carzon has plenty from which you can quote. “Irrefutable reasons,” but while you are quoting don’t mention the countries where women are voting.”

“W’s the washing which woman must do day in and day out, on polling day too. If she wants a day off you had better say “Bosh” and tell her such fanciful notions won’t wash.”

Housman also designed the “From Prison to Citizenship” banner, which the WSPU carried during a procession on 17th June 1911, a few days before the coronation of George V (1865-1936). Known as the Women’s Coronation Procession, the WSPU demanded women’s suffrage in the coronation year. The procession was “the largest women’s suffrage march ever held in Britain and one of the few to draw together the full range of suffrage organisations”. Around 40,000 people joined the march from Westminster to South Kensington, with Charlotte Despard (1844-1939) and Flora Drummond (1878-1949) leading on horseback. Housman’s banner was carried by the suffragettes who had spent time in prison for their militant actions.

Aside from the artwork Housman created, he began dedicating his writing to the suffrage movement. He also edited other people’s work to give it a feminist twist. Housman wrote several newspaper articles that urged women to join the campaigns and penned a series of poems for Votes for Women, the official newspaper of the WSPU. Housman set several of his fictional works in a future where the women’s campaigns, particularly the Census Boycott, were successful.

To persuade other men to support women’s suffrage, Housman formed the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage with several other writers and journalists, including Gerald Gould (1885-1935), H. N. Brailsford (1873-1958) and Israel Zangwill (1864-1926). The league produced a monthly paper through which they persuaded a handful of men to write “Votes for Women” on their ballot papers at the 1910 general election.

Housman frequently spoke at rallies and participated in protests, which resulted in his arrest on more than one occasion. At one rally, Housman read Rudyard Kipling’s (1965-1936) poem Tommy (1890), replacing every instance of “Tommy” with “Women”. ‘O it’s Women this, an’ Women that, an’ “Women, go away.”

Following the First World War, after women over 30 gained the right to vote, Housman and his sister left the capital and settled in Ashley, Hampshire. With less focus on women’s suffrage, Housman concentrated on writing novels, short stories and plays, as well as overseeing the recently established British Society for the Study of Sex Psychology. In 1921, Housman became the Vice-President of the Ethical Union (now Humanists UK), of which many members had belonged to women’s suffrage groups, including the Men’s League for Women’s Suffrage. The organisation aims to represent “people who seek to live good lives without religious or superstitious beliefs”. Housman, who had previously written about Biblical characters and hid Christian themes in his novels, may have seemed like a peculiar candidate for the Vice-President, yet his main focus was improving schools and education, which in some instances had been restricted by the Church.

In 1924, Housman and Clemence moved to Street, Somerset, which remained Housman’s home for the rest of his life. He continued to support the Ethical Union, remaining Vice-President until 1957. On 25th September 1929, Housman delivered a lecture at Conway Hall on The Religious Advance Towards Rationalism. He explained, “while society advances toward rationalism, it should also advance toward religion, but to a religion different from past forms. This religion will derive from human experience … Experience has actually led us, along the path of science, to perceive the limits of scientific understanding: to see that science cannot explain the origin of existence. Science leads, then, to a primordial sense of mystery, which can be called a religious sense. Also, the gospel story, whether historically true or not, advocates love, and love is permanently relevant to mankind.”

In 1945, Housman opened a bookshop in Shaftesbury Avenue, London. Although the shop shares his name, it was founded by the Peace Pledge Union (PPU) in his honour. The PPU promoted pacifism and was closely connected with the Ethical Union. Housman desired the shop to promote “ideas of peace, … human rights and a more equitable economy by which future wars, and all their inherent suffering, might be avoided.” The shop moved to Kings Cross, London, in 1959, where it remains one of the longest-running radical bookshops in the country. Over time, it has started stocking new and used books on feminism, anarchism, anti-racism, anti-fascism, LGBTQIA+ politics, socialism, and nonviolence. It remains a non-profit bookshop and is managed by a trust.

Housman and his sister continued living with each other in Somerset until Clemence’s health began to fail. Housman and his neighbours initially cared for Clemence at home until they had no choice but to send her to a nursing home in Glastonbury. Clemence passed away on 6th December 1955, aged 94. Housman continued to live in their house in Street without his lifetime companion, eventually passing away at age 93 on 20th February 1959.

Following Housman’s death, The Times posted an obituary describing him as an “idealist and iconoclast… a figure of versatile and idiosyncratic distinction.” Whilst Housman did not entirely reject Christianity, the newspaper portrayed him as agnostic. In Housman’s autobiography, he wrote, “One hears a good deal of talk nowadays about the decay of religion; and the Victorian age is spoken of as though it had been an age of faith. My own impression of it is that it combined much foolish superstition with a smug adaptation of Christianity to social convention and worldly ends.” Housman still believed in something, but not the form of Christianity imposed during the Victorian era and used against women’s suffrage campaigners and homosexuals.

Despite Housman’s decades-long campaign for reform, his fame diminished over time, although he has remained an inspiration for humanist organisations. The Millicent Fawcett statue has unearthed Housman’s name, but it is unlikely he will ever receive the same recognition as the suffragists, suffragettes and other campaigners.

Housman wrote at least ten novels, 25 short stories, 55 plays, and several poems and works of non-fiction, the majority of which are now out of print. Housman’s play, Victoria Regina, was adapted for American television in 1961, starring Julie Harris (1925-2013) as Queen Victoria and James Donald (1917-93) as Prince Albert. Unfortunately, there have been no revivals and adaptations of his works since.

I have had pleasures and disappointments; but though the disappointments are perhaps more numerous and present to my recollection than the pleasures, I continue to find life worth having.
– Laurence Housman, The Unexpected Years (1937)


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William Blathwayt of Dyrham

Situated in an ancient deer park near the village of Dyrham in South Gloucestershire, England, is a baroque English country house, once belonging to William Blathwayt (1649-1717). Since its takeover by the National Trust in 1961, the grounds, and more recently, the house, has been open to the public.

William Blathwayt, born in London in 1649, was the grandson of Justinian Povey (d. 1652), a former accountant-general to Queen Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). Blathwayt’s father, a barrister, passed away when Blathwayt was young, and his mother remarried. Fortunately, Blathwayt’s parents, and presumably step-father, came from wealthy backgrounds, allowing Blathwayt to train as a barrister, like his father. In 1665, he was admitted at Middle Temple, one of the four Inns of Court.

Blathwayt’s uncle, Thomas Povey (1613-1705), found him a diplomatic position in 1668 as Clerk of the English embassy at The Hague, the Netherlands. Blathwayt held the same appointment at the Embassy in Copenhagen and Stockholm in 1672 before touring several European countries. When Blathwayt returned to London, he became a Clerk of the Privy Council in Extraordinary and, in 1679, was promoted to secretary of trade and plantations.

During the 1680s, Blathwayt served as Secretary at War, effectively launching the War Office, and was responsible for establishing the charter of the Crown colony of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which later became the state of Massachusetts. Blathwayt was “very dexterous in business”, as John Evelyn (1620-1706) recorded in his diary, and promoted trade in America. During his career, he also served as the whig politician for Newtown on the Isle of Wight (1685) and Bath (1693-1710).

On 23rd December 1686, Blathwayt married Mary Wynter, daughter of John Wynter of Dyrham Park. When John Wynter died in 1688, Blathwayt gained possession of Dyrham Park, where he built a large mansion house. Using much of his wealth, Blathwayt furnished the building with paintings by Dutch Old Masters and lavish fabrics.

Blathwayt used an existing Tudor building as the basis for his mansion. He commissioned Samuel Hauduroy, a Huguenot architect, to modernise the west front during the 1690s, including an Italianate staircase leading from the terrace to the grounds. In 1698, Blathwayt added a stable block with enough room for 28 horses. The upper floor of the stable contained extra sleeping quarters for servants. Finally, in 1704, William Talman (1650-1719), the architect of Chatsworth House, removed the remains of the Tudor building by reconstructing the east front and adding a statue of an eagle – the family crest – on the roof.

The Blathwayt family continued to own Dyrham until 1956, during which time the majority of the interior decor remained largely the same, except for the addition of furniture by eighteenth-century designers. During the Second World War, Baroness Anne Islington rented the house as a home for evacuees. She redecorated several rooms, which the National Trust have worked hard to return to their original appearance.

Most rooms feature dark wooden panelling decorated with Delft tiles. Through Blathwayt’s royal connection as Secretary at War to William III (1650-1702), Blathwayt had access to a range of Dutch art, including delftware, furniture and paintings. Blathwayt commissioned a purpose-made state bed with crimson and yellow velvet hangings in the Anglo-Dutch style and purchased Dutch vases and such-like. Around the house are hung many bird paintings by Melchior d’Hondecoeter (1636-95) and still-life and landscapes by other Dutch masters, such as Abraham Storck (1644-1708) and David Teniers the Younger (1610-90).

In a doorway at the end of one corridor hangs A View Through a House (1662) by Samuel Dirksz van Hoogstraten (1627-78). The painting captures a moment in time, as though a door has just opened, and the viewer is seeing the interior for the first time. A dog and cat, mid-movement, glance at the viewer from the first room, while an open doorway reveals a couple more rooms of the fictional scene. In the middle room, two men and a lady sit beside a window, perhaps negotiating a marriage. On the other side of the glass, a ghostly figure peers in, which many interpret as the lady’s lover, about to interrupt the proceedings and declare his love.

When hung correctly, Hoogstraten’s painting creates the illusion of a long corridor within the house. Blathwayt’s uncle, Thomas Povey, either purchased or commissioned it for his home in Lincoln’s Inn Fields, London, where it attracted the attention of diarist Samuel Pepys (1633-1703). Blathwayt purchased A View Through a House from his uncle in 1693.

In 1701, Blathwayt added an orangery to the southeastern side of the building. This acted as a greenhouse for exotic plants and fruit trees. In 1800, the English landscaper Humphry Repton (1752-1818) added a glass roof to allow more sunlight into the room.

The orangery served more than one purpose; it helped hide the servants’ quarters from the main house. At the time, the servant quarters were not much to look at, but in the 1840s, they were modernised to make room for a kitchen, dairy, bakehouse and several larders. Servants ate separately from the rest of the house in the Servant Hall, where they were frequently joined by tenant farmers. William Talman, who constructed the east side of the house, added a new stable, which is now used as a tearoom for visitors.

The house is situated in 274 acres of gardens and parkland, which was once home to 200 fallow deer. Unfortunately, a tuberculosis outbreak in 2021 forced the National Trust to cull the herd. It is hoped that deer will eventually return to the park when it is safe to do so.

Walls, artificial lakes and cascades of water were added to the grounds during the late 18th century. The gardens behind the house were designed by George London (1640-1714), although some features, such as a Dutch water garden, were replaced in the late 18th century by Charles Harcourt Masters. Whilst Masters was a well-known architect during his day, London is famous for working on gardens at Hampton Court Palace, including the hedge maze, Chelsea Hospital, Longleat, and Chatsworth House.

Within the grounds of Dyrham Park is the Anglican parish church of St Peter. It was built during the 13th century, although it had a complete refurbishment in the 17th century to compliment the style of the mansion house. Although the church is small compared to other religious buildings in nearby cities, it contains a north and south aisle, chancel, south-west porch and a bell tower. The encaustic tiles in the south aisle come from the original church, but the font is Norman (11th-12th century), suggesting it was moved to the building from elsewhere.

Similar to many old buildings, Dyrham Park has been featured in several television programmes and films. Notable period dramas include the 1999 BBC mini-series Wives and Daughters, based on the works of Elizabeth Gaskell; Servants (2003), set in the 1850s, The Crimson Field (2014), which took place during the First World War; Jane Austen’s Sanditon (2019), and Poldark (2015-18), as the home of George Warleggan. Aside from period dramas, Dyrham Park was also the setting for one episode of Doctor Who (2010), in which an 8-year-old boy is terrorised by crude-looking dolls. The house was also the setting of The Remains of the Day (1993), starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

Due to ongoing restoration works, Dyrham House is currently only open to the public at weekends, but visitors are welcome to explore the grounds, gardens, tearoom, shops and basement. Entry costs between £12 and £16.50 for adults depending on what day they visit. Children cost between £6 and £8.30, although family tickets are available. Please note, ticket prices are due to increase from 1st March. National Trust members can visit for free.


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House of Frankenstein

When thinking about the city of Bath, the author that usually comes to mind is Jane Austen, but she is not the only writer celebrated in the city. A couple of doors down from the Jane Austen Centre on Gay Street is Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein, which explores the world of Mary Shelley and her best-known fictional character. Shelley briefly lived in Bath in 1816, but the city did not leave a significant impression or influence on her work as it did with Austen. Nonetheless, the interactive museum pays homage to the author and the impact her imagination has had on the world.

Mary Shelley was the second child of Mary Wollstonecraft, the British writer and women’s rights activist, who died shortly after Mary’s birth on 30th August 1797. Mary and her half-sister Fanny were brought up by her father, William Godwin (1756-1836), a political philosopher who endeavoured to keep his late wife’s achievements and memory alive. For the first few years of Mary’s life, her father fought to make ends meet, often leaving her in the care of the housekeeper, Louisa Jones. Eventually, Godwin’s financial situation forced him to look for a wealthy new wife.

In 1801, Godwin married Mary Jane Clairmont (1768-1841), who already had two children, Charles and Claire. Most of Godwin’s friends disliked his new wife, and Mary hated her. Godwin’s hope of avoiding debts also backfired. Godwin and his wife set up a children’s publishing firm called M. J. Godwin, but it did not make a profit. Godwin only avoided going to debtor’s prison through the help of some friends and devotees.

Mary’s father did not have enough money to provide her with formal schooling, but he tutored her in a range of subjects at home. The children spent a lot of time in their father’s library or talking to his intellectual friends, such as the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834). As Mary got older, Godwin started to feel guilty for not educating his daughters in the manner their mother would have wished. With the little money he had, Godwin provided his children with a governess and allowed them to read books from his failed publishing company, particularly Roman and Greek histories. In 1811, Mary spent six months at a boarding school to complete her schooling. By 15, she was “singularly bold, somewhat imperious, and active of mind. Her desire of knowledge is great, and her perseverance in everything she undertakes almost invincible.”

In June 1812, Godwin sent Mary to Dundee, Scotland, where she stayed with the radical philosopher William Baxter. Godwin instructed Baxter to educate her in philosophy, per her mother’s wishes. During the holidays, Mary returned to London and became acquainted with poet-philosopher Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who had agreed to help her father pay off his debts. When Mary moved home after her second trip to Scotland in 1814, Shelley, now estranged from his wife, had upset his family by denouncing the traditional models of the aristocracy. As a result, he no longer had access to the money he had promised Godwin.

Despite her father’s anger at Shelley, Mary began meeting the poet secretly in the churchyard of St Pancras Old Church, near her mother’s grave. Mary, then only 16, began to fall in love with the 21-year-old radical, and on 26th June 1814, they both declared their love for one another. When Godwin discovered the relationship, he attempted to put an end to the pair’s liaisons. Confused, Mary argued that Shelley was an embodiment of her parents’ liberal and reformist ideas and that Godwin had once said that marriage was a repressive monopoly. By this time, Mary had lost her virginity to Shelley, who was still legally married.

Unsure what else to do, Mary and Shelley eloped to France on 28th July 1814, taking Mary’s step-sister, Claire Clairmont (1798-1879), with them. Mary’s stepmother followed them, trying to convince Mary and Claire to return home, but they refused. For a few months, the trio travelled on foot, carriage and donkey through France to Switzerland, where they eventually ran out of money. With no other choice, they returned to England, landing at Gravesend, Kent, in September 1814. Godwin refused to have anything to do with his daughter, so Mary, now pregnant, and Shelley moved into Claire’s lodgings in London.

Mary suffered poor physical and mental health throughout her pregnancy, not helped by her lover’s growing infatuation with her stepsister. Although Mary believed in free love, she was jealous of Shelley and Claire’s relationship. Mary also disapproved of Shelley’s hints that she should begin an affair with his friend, Thomas Jefferson Hogg (1792-1862). Eventually, Shelley ended his love affair with Claire, who quickly found herself another lover, the poet Lord Byron (1788-1824). Unfortunately, Mary had no opportunity to feel happy about Shelley’s return because, on 22nd February 1815, she gave birth to a two-month premature daughter, who only lived for a few days.

Throughout the spring, Mary suffered from acute depression, often seeing ghostly visions of her deceased daughter. By the summer, she had conceived again, and the hope of a new child greatly improved her mental health. Around the same time, Shelley received some money from his late grandfather, so he treated Mary to a holiday in Torquay. Following this, Shelley rented a cottage in Bishopsgate, where Mary gave birth to a son, William, on 24th January 1816.

In the summer of 1816, Shelley, Mary and their son travelled to Geneva, Switzerland, to spend time with Lord Byron and his pregnant lover, Claire. The weather in Europe remained wet and dreary throughout the summer months, and the four friends spent many an hour sitting around a log fire at Byron’s villa, telling German ghost stories. Byron proposed that they write their own stories to share during the evenings. Mary initially struggled to think of a concept, but during a late-night discussion about galvanism, the theory that electricity could animate body tissue, Mary imagined using electricity to reanimate a corpse. Thus, Mary penned the first draft of her famous novel.

With encouragement from Shelley, Mary expanded her ghost story, which she published anonymously as Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus in 1818. Shelley provided the introduction for the first edition, which led many people to assume he had written it. Mary’s name did not appear on the cover until 1821, but it took much longer for readers to accept her as the author.

Returning to England in September 1816, Mary, Shelley, and Claire took up residence in Bath, where they tried to keep Claire’s pregnancy secret. While there, Mary began receiving desperate letters from her half-sister, Fanny. Fearing for her mental health, Mary sent Shelley to check on Fanny at her home in Bristol, but he arrived to find her dead beside a bottle of laudanum and a suicide note. Two months later, Percy Bysshe Shelley learned of the death of his estranged wife, who drowned herself in the Serpentine lake in Hyde Park, London. Wishing to assume custody of his children, Eliza (1813-76) and Charles (1814-26), Shelley’s lawyers advised him to marry Mary, which he did on 30th December 1816.

In March 1817, the court ruled Shelley was too morally unfit to take custody of his children. The Shelleys still lived with Claire Clairmont, who gave birth to a daughter, Alba, in January. Following the court’s ruling, the Shelleys and Claire moved to Albion House at Marlow, Buckinghamshire, where Mary gave birth to her third child, Clara. Soon, financial difficulties caught up with Shelley. Fearing he would lose Mary’s children too, he moved Mary, Claire and the children to Italy.

Lord Byron, who lived in Venice, agreed to help raise his daughter, Alba, so long as Claire stayed away. He also changed the child’s name to Allegra. Byron initially placed Allegra with a foster family but later moved her to a Roman Catholic Convent, where she contracted malaria and died aged 5. With one less child to worry about and believing Alba/Allegra would be safe in Byron’s hands, Claire remained with the Shelleys on their roving existence, moving from place to place without staying anywhere for long.

Tragedy struck the Shelleys again in 1818 and 1819, when both children, William and Clara, died within months of each other. The loss of all her children had a profound effect on Mary, who found solace in her writing. Mary wrote, “May you never know what it is to lose two only and lovely children in one year, and then at last to be left childless and forever miserable.” The birth of Mary’s fourth child, Percy Florence Shelley (1819-89), was the only thing that managed to lift Mary’s spirits.

While living in Italy, Mary Shelley wrote two novels, Matilda (1820) and Valperga (1821-23), and two plays, Proserpine (1820) and Midas (1820). The first of the two novels, Matilda, was not published until after Mary’s death, but the money she earned for Valperga helped alleviate her father’s financial difficulties. Despite the family rift, Mary still deeply respected her father.

In June 1822, Mary suffered a miscarriage that nearly killed her if it had not been for her quick-thinking husband. The doctor was too far away from the Shelleys’ residence on the Italian Riviera, so fearing Mary would die from blood loss, Shelley placed her in a bath of ice to staunch the bleeding. When the doctor finally arrived, he commended Shelley’s actions. Unfortunately, neither Shelley nor the doctor could prevent the depression brought on by the loss of another baby. To make matters worse, Shelley began spending more time with other women than his wife.

Mary remained devoted to her husband despite his many affairs and questionable behaviour. For years, Mary followed him around Italy without hope of settling down and tolerated his immoral behaviour. Whilst Mary suffered from depression following her miscarriage, Shelley found himself a new plaything – a sailing boat. On 1st July 1822, Shelley and his companions set off along the coast to Livorno to see Lord Byron. After staying there for a week, Shelley set off for home but never reached his destination. Mary did not know when Shelley planned to return, so she did not worry until she received a letter addressed to Shelley saying, “pray write to tell us how you got home, for they say you had bad weather after you sailed Monday & we are anxious.” Ten days after the storm, Shelley’s corpse washed up on the shore.

Following Shelley’s death, Mary lived with the poet Leigh Hunt (1785-1859) and his family in Genoa for a year. Mary spent time transcribing her husband’s poems, which she later published in 1839. Unfortunately, Mary’s financial situation prevented her from staying in Italy, so Mary returned to England with her son in 1823. Initially, she stayed with her father and stepmother in London until her father managed to find her some lodgings nearby. Mary also asked Shelley’s father, Sir Timothy Shelley, for help. The Baronet said he would only help if his grandson, Percy Florence, was handed over to an appointed guardian. Naturally, Mary refused to relinquish her only surviving child but persuaded Sir Shelley to provide an allowance of £100 a year. The amount increased to £250 following the death of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s son, Charles.

Mary continued to focus on writing for the remainder of her life. In 1826, she published the novel The Last Man and contributed to biographies about Shelley and Byron. Between 1827 and 1840, she wrote The Fortunes of Perkin Warbeck (1830), Lodore (1835), and Falkner (1837) and contributed to a ladies’ magazine. Her primary concern was the welfare of her son, which prompted her to sell the rights to Frankenstein for £60 in 1830. She also persuaded Sir Timothy Shelley to help pay for Percy Florence’s education. The young Percy attended the prestigious Harrow School before studying at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Percy Florence remained devoted to his mother and returned to live with her after completing his university studies. In the 1840s, mother and son travelled around the continent, gradually putting together the book Rambles in Germany and Italy in 1840, 1842 and 1843. The following year, Sir Timothy Shelley passed away, leaving his estate to Percy Florence, who became the 3rd Baronet of Castle Goring, Sussex. For the first time in her life, Mary was financially stable.

Now that she had some money, Mary became the target of blackmailers, who threatened to publish various letters that could ruin her reputation or the memory of her late husband. Mary purchased a few letters but ignored other claims, such as someone posing as Lord Byron’s illegitimate son. These threats did not appear to have too much of an impact on Mary’s life. She remained living with her son, even after his marriage to Jane Gibson in 1848. Unfortunately, Mary’s final years were blighted by illness, and she passed away on 1st February 1851, aged 53, from a suspected brain tumour.

Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein devotes one floor of the building to the life of Mary Shelley. Her history is crammed into four rooms, leaving the rest of the museum to explore Mary Shelley’s most famous creation, Frankenstein’s monster. Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus tells the story of Victor Frankenstein, a fictional scientist who is determined to create a sapient creature through unorthodox scientific experiments. Frankenstein stitches together the body parts of recently executed criminals to create a creature and brings it to life using electricity. Scared of the monster he created, Frankenstein runs away, and the beast spends years trying to find a place for itself in the world.

Frankenstein received mixed reviews after its publication in 1818. Some praised the author for introducing the science-fiction concept to the Gothic horror genre, but others wrote disparaging reviews about the novel. The novelist William Beckford (1760-1844), who lived in Bath, called Frankenstein “The foulest toadstool that has yet sprung up from the reeking dunghill of the present times.”

Despite some early criticism, there have been over 100 dramatisations of Frankenstein and several films. The first theatrical production, titled Presumption! Or, The Fate of Frankenstein opened in 1823. It included music and songs, and while it remained faithful to the storyline, the play was shown from the perspective of a new character, Fritz. In the show, Fritz was Frankenstein’s assistant, who later became the basis for the hunchbacked Igor in subsequent films. The monster, known as the Creature, was played by Thomas Potter Cooke (1786-1864), who wore a wig of wild hair and pale green face paint.

Since the first production of Frankenstein, the monster has usually appeared with green skin and scars, eventually developing a flat head held onto the neck with two bolts. The character is easily recognisable throughout the world and has become a commercial medium, with merchandise ranging from rubber ducks to flower pots. The monster or creature is definitely the most famous of Mary Shelley’s characters, leading to the frequent error that it is called Frankenstein, rather than that being the name of the scientist.

Mary Shelley never intended the monster to look like a green-skinned zombie. In the novel, Victor Frankenstein describes his creation as something quite different from the commercialised version. “His limbs were in proportion, and I had selected his features as beautiful. Beautiful! Great God! His yellow skin scarcely covered the work of muscles and arteries beneath; his hair was of a lustrous black, and flowing; his teeth of a pearly whiteness; but these luxuriances only formed a more horrid contrast with his watery eyes, that seemed almost of the same colour as the dun-white sockets in which they were set, his shrivelled complexion and straight black lips.” Shelley also revealed the creature was 8-foot tall (2.4 metres).

For the first time, a model of Mary Shelley’s monster has been authentically produced as she described. The formidable animatronic creature is located in the laboratory on the second floor, whilst other rooms feature unusual artefacts and vintage objects, which set the scene for the world’s first science-fiction novel. On the top floor, visitors are invited to watch a handful of short films showing the first few appearances of the monster on screen.

Those feeling brave can visit the basement, where they can probe dark rooms accompanied by the unnerving hum of electricity and screams of torture. The more daring visitors can enter “The Cage” and try to find their way to freedom through a twisted metal maze, where there is no choice but to push past the bodies of The Cage’s previous victims. This exhibit is not suitable for young children or those of a nervous disposition.

For an extra fee, Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein opens the doors to the attic, where families and friends can race against the clock to solve clues and escape from Frankenstein’s quarters. Based on the popular Escape Room games, visitors experience the mind of a madman who wants to harvest their organs to complete his latest maniacal quest. This feature is also included in the birthday, hen, and stag party packages.

Tickets to Mary Shelley’s House of Frankenstein cost £15.50 per person, although some concessions apply, including children and over 60s. The house is open every day but special attractions must be booked in advance.


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The Roman Baths

Once upon a time, around the 9th century BC, Prince Bladud contracted leprosy. His father, Ludhudibras, banished Bladud from the court and sent him to work as a country swineherd. Accepting his fate, Prince Bladud took good care of his pigs, noticing that when the animals wallowed in the steamy, muddy swamp at the bottom of the valley, they emerged cleansed of their warts and sores. Braving the mucky water, Bladud plunged into the stream and emerged without a blemish. His leprosy had vanished, and his father welcomed him back home. The news spread of the miracle, and soon, a small town developed around the thermal waters, building the foundations of the city of Bath.

The water that cured Prince Bladud is the same water that fills the city of Bath’s top tourist attraction. The Roman Baths or thermae date to around 60-70 AD, during the first few decades of the Roman occupation of Britain. These baths attracted people from far and wide who wished to sample the healing power of the water. The city became known as Aquae Sulis (Waters of Sulis) due to the Roman belief the hot spring that supplied the water belonged to the goddess Sulis Minerva. For this reason, the Romans also built a temple on the site.

As with most Roman buildings, the baths succumbed to the elements. Fortunately, parts of the original foundations survived, upon which 18th-century architects reconstructed some of the walls and columns. Today, swimming in the waters, which have turned green due to algae, is not possible, but the baths are open to the public as a museum. Next door, the Grand Pump Room sells samples of the curative water to taste – something that gets mixed reactions from visitors.

The water in the Roman Baths may be many hundreds or even thousands of years old. It originally fell as rain on the Mendip Hills and percolated down through limestone aquifers measuring a depth of 2,700-4,300 metres (8,900-14,100 ft). The deeper the water travelled, the higher the temperature rose, reaching between 64 and 96 degrees Celsius. Under the pressure of the limestone, the water eventually rises back up to the surface through cracks, forming heated springs. Scientists have studied this phenomenon to develop enhanced geothermal systems.

Around 1,106,400 litres of water rise every day to fill the baths. This is approximately 13 litres per second. It rises from the Pennyquick fault, which thanks to Roman engineering, flows directly to the bathing pools. There are an estimated 43 minerals in the water, including calcium, sulphates, sodium and chloride. There are also some traces of iron, which causes orange stains on rocks and stone. Sometimes, the water may appear to bubble. This is caused by gases escaping.

Archaeological evidence suggests the site of the baths was a worship centre for the Celts. They dedicated the springs to the goddess Sulis, a life-giving mother goddess, who the Romans associated with Minerva, the goddess of wisdom. When the Romans invaded, they kept the name Sulis, as seen in the name Aquae Sulis, but frequently referred to the goddess as Minerva-Sulis or Sulis Minerva. Before constructing the bathing complex, which took around 300 years, the Romans built and dedicated a temple to the goddess.

Builders began by creating a wooden foundation in the mud surrounding the thermal spring, then constructed a stone chamber lined with lead. In the 2nd century AD, a wooden barrel-vaulted ceiling enclosed the building, dividing it into several sections, including a caldarium (hot bath), tepidarium (lukewarm bath), and frigidarium (cold bath). Bathers usually started in the tepidarium, heated by underground lead pipes, which directed water from the spring into the baths. Here, the bathers acclimatised to the heat before moving on to the considerably warmer caldarium. The rich usually brought attendants to rub their bodies with fragrant oils before taking a plunge into the freezing water in the frigidarium to close the pores.

Bathing was not the only activity available at the baths. Alcoves provided spaces for business meetings, philosophical discussions, or a place to meet friends. Evidence suggests visitors played board games, gambled and consumed food and drink. In other areas, musicians performed while people received certain treatments, such as manicures and pedicures.

Many Roman towns contained a bathing house, but people travelled far and wide to experience the curative waters provided by Sulis Minerva. People with various ailments travelled to Bath to drink the water or submerge their ailing bodies. Others visited to ask the goddess for advice or vengeance. Over 130 lead or pewter curse tablets have been discovered, asking Sulis Minerva to punish a wrongdoer. Many of these relate to petty crimes, such as the theft of a towel. Often, the accuser did not know who committed the crime, but they believed the goddess would know and mete out punishment accordingly.

Excavation has also revealed thousands of coins, jewellery, dishes and cups, many containing a dedication to Sulis Minerva. When not asking the goddess for requests, people gave sacrifices and gifts. Unlike contemporary religions, where gods and goddesses are worshipped across the world, the Roman baths and temple became the point at which the human world could communicate with the presiding deity.

Not much remains of the Temple of Sulis Minerva, which stood next to the baths. During excavations and sewage works, a handful of artefacts have been unearthed, which are now in the Roman Baths museum. A gilded bronze head belonging to a statue of Sulis Minerva was discovered by workers in 1727. Its body has never been found, but it is believed it once wore a tall Corinthian helmet. Other items once belonging to the temple include a relief carving of the goddess wearing a gorgon mask and parts of a carved pediment, which may also feature a gorgon. According to Greek mythology, the hero Perseus killed the gorgon Medusa and gifted her head to the goddess Athena, the Greek equivalent of Minerva.

The baths remained popular for many years, permitting both men and women entry. At one time, men and women could not visit together, but further construction provided separate changing areas for the different sexes. Builders also raised the floors of the baths to escape the rising water levels caused by the frequent flooding of the nearby River Avon. These floods also sent mud into the water system, which accumulated in the Sacred Spring. The higher the bath floors, the further away they got from the underground heating, rendering it useless. The number of visitors dropped rapidly, and the inhabitants of Aquae Sulis gave up the losing battle against the floods. Eventually, mud and debris found their way into the temple, damaging the walls and causing the building to collapse. The baths suffered a similar fate, and the ceiling crashed into the swamp below, where people once bathed in the thermal water.

The story of the Roman Baths did not end there. During the 12th century, John of Tours (d.1122), the Bishop of Wells, built a new bath over the once-Sacred Spring. The pool became known as the King’s Pool and is where Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), the wife of King James I (1566-1625), bathed on 19th May 1613 on the recommendation of the court physician, Théodore de Mayerne (1573-1655). Anne returned in 1615 to bathe in the newly constructed Queen’s Bath, decorated with the inscription Anna Regnum Sacrum (Anne’s Sacred Kingdom).

During the 18th century, father and son architects John Wood, the Elder (1704-54) and John Wood, the Younger (1728-82), designed a new building to house the King and Queen Baths. Basing the design on the original Roman Baths, the neoclassical building also contains the Grand Bath, which the general public used. Next door, they built the Grand Pump Room, where visitors could “take the waters”, in other words, drink it, or attend social functions.

Further expansion of the baths continued during the Victorian era. During the late 19th century, statues of Roman Emperors and Governors of Roman Britain were placed on the open terrace surrounding the Grand Bath. Over time, the elements have eroded some features, particularly the faces, but a new protective wash prevents further damage. The statues represent Julius Caesar, Emperor Claudius, Emperor Vespasian, Governor Ostorius Scapula, Governor Suetonius Paulinus, Governor Julius Agricola, the Head of Roma (symbolising Rome), Emperor Hadrian and Emperor Constantine the Great. These men lived between 100 BC and 337 AD, and all had significant connections with Britain, or Britannia, as it was then known.

The Roman Baths stayed open until October 1978, when a young girl contracted naegleriasis and died. The fatal brain infection is caused by Naegleria fowleri, more commonly known as a “brain-eating amoeba”, which lives in untreated waters. The Baths closed for several years to tackle the microorganism, but it never reopened for public use. In 1979, the psychiatrist Herbert Needleman (1927-2017) documented the dangers of lead exposure. Lead interferes with the normal functioning of cells in the body, chemically displacing vital elements, such as calcium, zinc and iron. Although Naegleria fowleri still poses a risk, the lead piping delivering water to the baths is also a health risk.

In 1982, a new spring water borehole was sunk to provide safe, clean water for drinking in the Pump Room. This water also fills the pools at the nearby Thermae Bath Spa, which opened in 2006. Here, visitors can experience the effects of the healing waters in a modern environment and receive various treatments.

Although the waters at the Roman Baths are out of bounds, visitors to Bath can wander around the Grand Pool where people of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries once congregated, and before them, the people of Roman Britain. The entry fee also incorporates the Roman Baths museum, which houses artefacts from the Roman period. Objects include over 12,000 Denari coins and the gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva.

The museum building preserves the remains of the original Roman Baths. With the help of projections and CGI, the museum recreates scenes in the original changing rooms and saunas to help visitors understand how the original baths were used. The 1.6 metres deep frigidarium or plunge pool is also part of the self-navigated tour, as is part of the Roman drainage system.

Visitors should expect to spend a couple of hours at the Roman Baths. There are thousands of objects on display in the museum, spanning four centuries. Many of the items were found in the sacred pool and are presumably offerings to Sulis Minerva. Several metal pans, known as paterae, are inscribed DSM or Deae Sulis Minerva, suggesting people used them to make offerings of holy water. There are also many curse tablets on display, which are some of the earliest examples of prayer in Britain.

The Roman Baths is a very popular tourist destination, and it is not uncommon to see queues of people waiting in the courtyard outside Bath Abbey. For this reason (and the recent pandemic), visitors must book their tickets in advance. Ticket prices change throughout the year depending on school term time, bank holidays, and so forth. They also cost more at weekends. In November, for example, an adult ticket costs £20 on weekends and £17.50 on a weekday. Students and seniors (65 +) received £1 off their entry, and children cost between £10 and £12.50. Visitors can expect to pay at least £3 more during peak times.

For more information about booking tickets, visit the Roman Baths website.


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Alexander: The Making of a Myth

Alexander the Great built an empire that stretched across the world and rode across the sky on a flying chariot, or so the legends say. This winter, the British Library is exploring the myths surrounding one of the most famous figures of the ancient world. With objects and books from 25 countries, Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth examines the narratives that made Alexander a universal icon.

Alexander was born in Macedonia in 356 BC and died aged 32, by which time he had built a vast empire stretching from Greece to India. Legends about the great leader only began circulating after his death, making it difficult to extract the truth from the fiction. Even Alexander’s name does not remain constant in the legends and stories. In some cultures, he is called Iskandar or Sikandar, from which the anglicised “Alexander” developed. There are also many discrepancies in his appearance. A bust dating from the first or second century BC depicts Alexander as a beautiful youth. In contrast, an illustration in Johann Hartlieb’s Das Alexanderbuch (The Alexander Book, c.1444) shows Alexander with two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw.

Plutarch, a Greek historian, compiled one of the earliest biographies of Alexander around AD 100. Originally written in Greek, copies were translated into Latin and spread across Europe. From these, writers developed the “Alexander Romance”, which contains a largely fictional account of Alexander’s life. The text includes invented letters from Alexander to his teacher, Aristotle (384-322 BC), describing the fantastical beasts he met in the East.

The earliest surviving illustrated copy of the Alexander Romance dates to the 13th century. It was written an estimated 1,800 years ago in Greek before being translated into many languages, including Coptic, Arabic, Persian, Armenian, Syriac and Hebrew. By the publication of the first illustrated version, the lines between fact and fiction had long disappeared. One artwork in the Historia Alexandri Magni kept in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, shows Alexander entering Rome on horseback, with bowing senators welcoming him on one side and the public waving palm leaves on the other. Whilst it is plausible that Alexander received a hero’s welcome, the palm leaves suggest the writer or illustrator wanted to elevate Alexander to the same level as Jesus Christ, who received a similar welcome in Jerusalem.

Alexander’s parentage differs between stories. Today, the consensus is Alexander was the son of Philip of Macedon (382-336 BC), the 18th king of Macedonia. The Alexander Romance claims the serpent-magician Nectanebo tricked Alexander’s mother, Olympias (375-316 BC), a Greek princess, into bed by disguising himself as the dragon-like Egyptian god Amun. Nectanebo II ruled as the pharaoh of Egypt from 358 BC until his deposition in 340 BC. Yet, the Persians regarded Alexander as the half-brother of King Darius III (380-330), making Alexander the legitimate heir of the Achaemenid Empire. With at least three possible fathers, different cultures believed Alexander was the rightful heir to either Macedonia, Egypt or Persia. Incidentally, Alexander conquered all three places during his short life.

Another half-truth, half-fiction legend about Alexander involves his horse, Bucephalus. Many artworks depict Alexander riding into battle on a fierce war-horse, which not only symbolises Alexander’s victories but also his physical feats and training to become a military commander. When Alexander first met Bucephalus, named after a type of branding mark anciently used on horses, the horse was a savage, man-eating beast. According to the Alexander Romance, King Philip locked the animal in a cage, where 15-year-old Alexander later discovered him. Immediately, the horse bowed before Alexander, acknowledging him as his master.

An alternative story claims that whoever rode Bucephalus would be king of the world. Many had tried and failed to tame the beast before Alexander, who realised the horse was afraid of its own shadow. Turning Bucephalus towards the sun so that his shadow fell behind him, Alexander stroked Bucephalus soothingly before jumping onto his back. The tale suggests Bucephalus immediately became tame, but regardless of whether it was instant or took time, Alexander rode Bucephalus during all his military campaigns, including in Greece, the Middle East, and India.

It is not certain who tutored Alexander in the art of warfare and military leadership, but between the ages of 13 and 16, Alexander received an academic education from Aristotle. Philip considered other scholars, such as Isocrates (436-338 BC) and Speusippus (408-339 BC), before settling on Aristotle. For a classroom, Philip provided Aristotle with the Temple of the Nymphs at Mieza, in ancient Macedonia, and agreed to rebuild Aristotle’s home town of Stageira in place of payment. During Philip’s earlier campaigns, he raised Stageira to the ground and enslaved or exiled the inhabitants.

Alexander spent most of his school days in Mieza with other children of Macedonian nobles, such as Ptolemy (367-282 BC), Hephaistion (356-324 BC), and Cassander (355-297 BC). Known collectively as the “Companions”, these friends became Alexander’s future generals. Hephaistion was “by far the dearest of all the king’s friends; he had been brought up with Alexander and shared all his secrets.” Several writers refer to Alexander and Hephaistion’s relationship in a similar vein to the mythical Achilles and Patroclus, suggesting they may have been more than friends. Ptolemy became pharaoh of Ptolemaic Egypt and Cassander the king of Macedonia following Alexander’s death.

Aristotle taught Alexander and his companions about medicine, philosophy, religion, logic, and art. Alexander developed a passion for the works of the Greek poet Homer, particularly the Iliad, which references the aforementioned relationship between Achilles and Patroclus. Alexander also learned quotes from memory, such as lines written by the Greek playwright Euripides (480-406 BC). As for politics, Alexander picked up most of his knowledge by talking to Persian exiles at his father’s court. Philip granted Persian nobles protection after they opposed his enemy, Artaxerxes III (359-338 BC).

Philip of Macedon passed away in 336 BC, making his son the new king of Macedonia. Within ten years, Alexander expanded his empire and became the inspiration for many rulers over dozens of centuries. Alexander’s first major success was the defeat of the Persians at the battles of Granicus and Issus in present-day Turkey, followed by conquering Egypt and finally overthrowing King Darius in 331 BC. In Egypt, Alexander left his greatest legacy: the foundation of the city of Alexandria. This was the largest of the twenty-or-so cities named after Alexander throughout his empire. Stories also claim he erected the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which became one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.

When Alexander first set his sights on Egypt, it was under the rule of Persia. Although King Darius controlled all of Persia, he delegated areas to his governors. Alexander defeated the Egyptian governor, was greeted as a liberator and was crowned the new Pharoah. Naturally, Alexander’s actions riled Darius, who met Alexander in battle at Gaugamela in modern-day Iraq in 331 BC. This was the final meeting between Alexander and the Persian armies. Realising he was outnumbered, Darius fled from the scene, only to be injured by two of his men. According to legend, when Alexander caught up with Darius, he ordered the two men’s execution and comforted the mortally wounded king. During his final moments, Darius allegedly asked Alexander to look after his family, marry his daughter Roxana and preserve the Zoroastrian religion.

Despite Alexander’s supposed distress over Darius’ death, he continued to capture the remaining parts of the Persian empire. In 326, Alexander reached Punjab, India, where he defeated King Porus. Some legends claim Alexander spared Porus’ life, who then made Alexander a subordinate ruler as a way of thanks. Other stories allege that Alexander killed Darius and continued his journey to China, although some scholars do not believe Alexander travelled so far east.

Regardless of the outcome, all the stories about Alexander’s army in India involve facing colossal war elephants. A coin dating to 323 BC depicts King Porus sitting on the giant animal while Alexander, riding Bucephalus, attacks him from behind with a spear. Different versions of the story propose a variety of ways Alexander overcame the army of elephants. The Shahnameh (15th century), the longest poem ever written by a single author, suggests Alexander ordered his blacksmiths to build 1,000 oil-filled iron horses, which he set alight in front of the advancing Indian army. Terrified of the flames, the elephants fled, taking their riders with them. Das Alexanderbuch contains an alternative account in which Alexander used red-hot pokers to scare the elephants.

Alexander did not spend all his time fighting but also focused on spreading peace throughout his conquered lands. While in India, he met the Brahmans, a group of priests who believed “greed is the root of all evil and we will leave this world naked and without our possessions.” In many illustrated versions of Alexander’s history, the Brahmans are naked, while Alexander and his men dress in ornate clothing. Fictitious dialogues between Alexander and Dindimus, the king of the Brahmans, suggest the king convinced Alexander there was no point waging war when the Brahmans had no possessions to lose.

In China, if indeed Alexander reached the country, he defeated two champions, Tengu and Kanifu, the latter of whom turned out to be a woman. On his way home from China, Alexander received news that the Russians had captured Queen Nushabah of Persia, so he immediately changed his route to liberate the queen and defeat her captors. After seven violent battles, Alexander defeated the Russian leader and returned Queen Nushabah to her native country.

With so many countries now part of his empire, Alexander became associated with many cultures and religions. The Egyptians acknowledged Alexander as the son of the Egyptian god Amun or the former Pharoah Nectanebo. He also appeared in Christian, Jewish and Islamic texts. Despite promising King Darius to preserve the Zoroastrian religion, many Persians accused Alexander of destroying the religion. According to the Persian poet Nizami (1141-1209), Alexander tore down the temples, burned the sacred texts and introduced Islam to Persia.

In the Babylon Talmud, a primary source of Jewish law, Alexander bowed down before the High Priest, Simon the Righteous. Also known as Simeon the Just, the priest went to Antipatris to meet Alexander as he marched through the Land of Israel in 332 BC. Alexander’s men criticised their leader for bowing to the priest, but he assured them he had received instruction to do so in a dream. Alexander went on to demand a statue of himself placed in the Temple, but Simon explained this was impossible. Instead, the High Priest promised that all the sons born of priests in that year would be named Alexander.

According to the Sefer Alexandros Mokdon (Tales of Alexander the Macedonian), Alexander attempted to get into the Garden of Eden. After being told “No heathen or uncircumcised male may enter,” Alexander was secretly circumcised. This claim demonstrates Alexander wanted to conform to Jewish practices, or at least this is what the Jews chose to believe. Yet, in the 18th-century Ethiopian Zena Eskender (The Story of Alexander), the writer claims God chose Alexander to be a prophet. “For I have set thee to be a prophet unto Me by reason of the purity of thy body, and through thy prayers which have come unto Me.”

In the Qur’an, Alexander is associated with the story of Dhu’l-Qarnayn, whose name means “two horns”. The name coincides with the idea that Alexander had two prominent tusks rising from his lower jaw. According to the story, Dhu’l-Qarnayn (or Alexander) travelled to the end of the world, where he built a wall to separate the barbarous peoples of Gog and Magog from the righteous. Gog and Magog also appear in the Hebrew Bible, where they are viewed as enemies to be defeated by the Messiah.

Regardless of Alexander’s religious status, he believed in polygamy and had several wives, most notably Roxana and Stateira. Scholars also question Alexander’s sexuality, referencing his close relationship with his companion Hephaistion and a slave called Bagoas. During his campaigns, Alexander met many powerful women, including Queen Nushabah, who he rescued from the Russians, and Kanifu, who he defeated in China.

Alexander first met Roxana after the death of her father, Darius. Their marriage was celebrated across the empire, and some accounts claim Alexander was captivated by his new wife’s beauty. Soon after, Alexander married another of Darius’ children, Stateira. Roxana, besieged by jealousy, never got on with Stateira and killed her after Alexander’s death in 323 BC. Another story reveals Alexander received the daughter of King Kayd of Hind (India) as a tribute to avoid war. The author writes that Alexander married her “according to the Christian religion”.

Over time, Alexander’s legendary feats have become more mythical with the insertion of fantastic beasts, such as griffins and dragons. The Alexander Romance claims four griffins carried Alexander and his chariot across the sky, and a Persian poem by Amir Khusrau (1253-1325) describes Alexander’s adventure to the bottom of the ocean in a glass diving bell. To make this all the more unbelievable, a French version of the Alexander Romance reveals he travelled with a cockerel to tell him the time and a cat to purify the air. While submerged in the water, Alexander came face-to-face with monstrous creatures, including giants with sword-like horns. Various stories also tell of Alexander’s victory over a dragon, which he fed several poisonous cows.

Alexander desired to become immortal, but many oracles foretold his death, such as the Trees of the Sun and the Moon, which told him he would die soon and never see his mother again. While in Punjab, the risk of a mutiny urged Alexander to return to Babylon. On his arrival, the still-birth of a half-human, half-creature was taken as an omen of Alexander’s pending death. Soon after, Alexander fell terminally ill and passed away in June 323 BC, aged 32. No one knows the cause of Alexander’s death, although some suggest typhoid fever.

Different cultures and religions continue to debate over Alexander’s final resting place. According to Persian tradition, his funeral procession was conducted as per Alexander’s wishes, with one arm hanging loose to show that he went to the grave empty-handed. Other stories talk of an elaborate carriage that carried Alexander from Babylon to Egypt. Historians believe the original plan was to take the body to Macedonia, but for reasons unknown, the funeral procession took a different route. The Persians wanted Alexander’s body to be interred in Iran, but the Greeks insisted he should be brought to them. Finally, an oracle allegedly decided, “His remains belong in Alexandria.”

The Bibliotheca historical, written by the historian Diodorus Siculus between 60 and 30 BC, describes Alexander’s funeral carriage as having a golden roof, a net curtain, statues, and four iron wheels. Sixty-four mules pulled the carriage while roadmenders, mechanics and soldiers accompanied the procession to ensure it all went smoothly. Artists have used this description as a base for paintings, such as André Bauchant’s (1873-1958) Les Funérailles d’Alexandre le-Grand (1940), which depicted Alexander’s companion, Ptolemy, as a pharaoh at the head of the procession.

The whereabouts of Alexander’s body remains a mystery, despite many quests to find it. Historians and authors have professed many theories, including the mistaking of Alexander’s bones for St Mark, but there is no concrete proof. Writings about Alexander’s death and burial are largely fiction, as is the majority of his life. Yet, Alexander has been and remains an inspiration for many leaders, from Julius Caesar (100-44 BC) to Henry VIII of England (1419-1547) and Louis XIV of France (1638-1715).

For someone who conquered so much land during a short period, there is relatively little information about Alexander the Great. It is also debatable whether he deserved the epithet “the Great”. In capturing so many countries and defeating other rulers, he left a lot of destruction in his wake. In dying so young, Alexander did not have time to rebuild ruined cities and place his mark upon the world in the form of architecture. Nor did he dramatically change the various cultures and religions in his Empire, except for mythical stories, the majority of which appeared long after his death.

The British Library tells the story (or stories) of Alexander the Great through a range of media. Books and illustrations from the past centuries reveal the different cultural beliefs and varying histories of the young emperor. Videos and audio, such as George Frideric Handel‘s (1685-1759) opera Alessandro, demonstrate the impact of the legendary man up to the present day. For those who know very little about Alexander, the exhibition provides a wealth of information, but visitors may come away with more questions than answers.

Alexander the Great: The Making of a Myth is open until Sunday 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £19, although over 60s can visit for £9.50 of Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays (excluding holidays).


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Champollion le Jeune

Until 19th February 2023, the British Museum is exploring Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs in an exhibition supported by BP. Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt contains many examples of beautiful symbols that once represented a written and spoken language used in North East Africa. These symbols remained a mystery for thousands of years, although medieval Arab travellers and Renaissance scholars deciphered a few of their meanings. In 1799, an artefact was found by chance, containing the key to unlocking the ancient language. With the help of the French philologist Jean-François Champollion, the world has a much better understanding of one of Earth’s oldest civilisations.

In 1799, French soldiers, preparing for battle with the Ottoman Empire, decided to rebuild an old fort in Rasheed, Egypt. In doing so, they found a broken stone in the rubble that contained carvings of three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphs and another form of Egyptian writing (demotic). Realising the stone’s importance, the soldiers rescued it from the rubble. At the time, the Europeans knew Rasheed as ‘Rosette’, meaning ‘little rose’, which is why the artefact is known as the Rosetta Stone today.

After French forces surrendered during the Battle of the Nile, the Capitulation of Alexandria treaty stated the French must give any Egyptian antiquities to Britain. As a result, the Rosetta Stone travelled to England, where it remains in the British Museum.

From the Greek, scholars translated the inscriptions on the stone. It contains a priestly decree from 27th March 196 BC, drawn up by a council of Egyptian priests in Memphis. The text praises the acts and honours of Ptolemy V Epiphanes, the king of Egypt from 204 BC until 180 BC.

Jean-François Champollion was born on 23rd December 1790 in Figeac, in Southwestern France. His father, Jacques Champollion, was an infamous drunk, and his mother, Jeanne-Françoise Gualieu, does not feature much in her son’s biography. Instead, Champollion grew up under the care of his older brother, Jacques-Joseph (1778-1867). At the time, his brother was an up-and-coming archaeologist, so Champollion was often called Champollion le Jeune (the young). Champollion eventually lost this nickname after surpassing his brother in fame.

In 1802, Champollion attended the school of the Abbé Dussert, where he discovered he had a natural talent for languages. During his two years at the school, Champollion started learning Latin, Greek, Hebrew and other Semitic languages, such as Arabic. He also developed a keen interest in Ancient Egypt, which his brother and Abbé Dussert encouraged.

Champollion’s aptitude for languages caught the attention of Joseph Fourier (1769-1830), a French mathematician who accompanied Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) on his Egyptian expedition in 1798, during which the Rosetta Stone was discovered. Following the expedition, Napoleon entrusted Fourier with the Description de l’Égypte, which catalogued all the artefacts and hieroglyphs the French uncovered. Fourier invited 11-year-old Champollion to view the document and other Ancient Egyptian items. Champollion was instantly enthralled, especially after hearing that the hieroglyphs were unintelligible. From that moment on, Champollion determined to be the first person to decipher them.

In 1804, Champollion began attending a school in Grenoble, where he studied Coptic, a language similar to Egyptian. These studies proved useful during Champollion’s later attempts at translating the Rosetta Stone. From 1807 to 1809, Champollion attended a college in Paris, where he studied under Baron Silvestre de Sacy (1758-1838), the first Frenchman to attempt to translate the Rosetta Stone. Champollion also received tuition from the orientalist Louis-Mathieu Langlès (1763-1824) and former Coptic monk Raphaël de Monachis (1759-1831). Champollion divided his time between the Collège de France, the Special School of Oriental Languages, the National Library, where his brother worked, and the Commission of Egypt. So engrossed was he with his studies, that Champollion began dressing in Arab clothing and calling himself Champollion Al Seghir (the Arab translation of le jeune).

Champollion first began studying the Rosetta stone in 1808, when he was 17 years old. Around this time, he was starting to suffer from various health issues, including gout and tinnitus, most likely brought on by the unsanitary environments around Paris, yet his brother encouraged him to continue with his studies. To start with, Champollion relied on trial and error, changing his direction of research each time he hit a dead end. Like many other scholars, Champollion relied on other Egyptian artefacts, particularly papyrus, not realising there was more than one type of script. A cursive style known as Hieratic was the main script used in Egypt between the 3rd millennium BC and the first millennium BC. The Hieratic script could be read in any direction, depending on the circumstance. Conversely, the Rosetta Stone is written in Demotic script, which was only read from right to left.

Demotic script bridged the gap between Hieratic and Coptic, of which the latter came into use in the 3rd century AD. Another form of writing also developed between the two periods. Known as Sahidic or Thebaic, many early Coptic texts were written in this dialect, for example, copies of religious writings, such as the resurrection of Jesus. Champollion surmised that by studying Sahidic texts, such as the Askew Codex, containing translations of the Gnostic Pistis Sophia (teachings of the transfigured Jesus and his Disciples), he would notice similarities with the writing on the Rosetta Stone. He also looked for similar symbols, particular those representing place names.

Meanwhile, in England, Thomas Young (1773-1829), a 41-year-old Egyptologist, began working on the Rosetta Stone in 1814. Whilst Young and Champollion were rivals, Young’s efforts to decipher the text helped Champollion eventually crack the code.

Champollion and Young’s rivalry encouraged others to join the race to become the first person to decipher the Rosetta Stone. Egypt soon became a popular tourist destination, and many scholars and archaeologists visited the country to unearth more inscriptions to assist in the translation. These items, including drawings, proved useful to Champollion, particularly sketches of hieroglyphs by the copyist Frédéric Cailliaud (1787-1869).

Champollion agreed with Young’s theory that Demotic script consisted of words (or ideas) and phonetic signs. Earlier hieroglyphs may not have been read aloud, but the influence of the Greek language on the Egyptians encouraged them to include verbal language in their symbols. This observation proved to be the vital key to translating the Rosetta Stone. On 14th September 1822, Champollion excitedly exclaimed to his brother, “Je tiens l’affaire, vois!” (“Look, I’ve got it!”), and promptly collapsed from exhaustion.

Whilst Champollion had not translated the entire Rosetta Stone, he had identified and successfully deciphered several royal Egyptian names, such as “Ptolemy” and “Ramesses”. Testing this discovery on other symbols, Champollion found “Thutmose”, the name of a ruler often mentioned by classical rulers. He also found “King Taharqa”, who lived between 690 and 664 BC. Royal names were indicated by a particular symbol, and Champollion quickly discovered another sign to indicate common names.

Annoyed that Champollion was receiving all the credit, Young argued that Champollion relied on the work of other people to push him in the right direction. Young also claimed Champollion’s translations were inaccurate. For example, Champollion deciphered the names “Antiochus” and “Antigonus”, whereas the Greek text said “Antimachus” and “Antigenis”. Young thought this was proof that Champollion should not receive all the accolades but many scholars were happy to overlook Champollion’s errors. Despite Young’s protestations, Champollion continued to develop his ideas for the next five years before proclaiming on 1st January 1829 that he had nothing further to add. He had perfected his “alphabet” and could apply it successfully to all the monuments in Egypt. Unlike other scholars, Champollion grasped the structural logic of the language.

In 1828, Champollion finally had the chance to visit Egypt on an expedition with his friend and fellow Egyptologist, Ippolito Rosellini (1800-43). Champollion’s understanding of hieroglyphs made a fundamental difference, allowing far more insight than previous expeditions. A tomb discovered in 1817 was thought to belong to King Psamtek I, but with Champollion’s expertise, the name was correctly deciphered as “Sety”.

After a year, Champollion returned to France with at least 100 pieces for the Louvre Palace, now the Louvre museum. These objects left Egypt with the permission of the Ottoman authorities in Egypt, unlike the Rosetta Stone, which was taken from the French by the British. The true ownership of the Rosetta Stone remains a controversial issue.

Champollion did not limit himself to the translation of the Rosetta Stone. During his studies, he helped translate several monuments and inscriptions, including the fictional Teaching of King Amenemhat, which Champollion initially failed to realise was a work of fiction. Champollion was also the first modern scholar to identify King Ahmose as the founder of the 18th dynasty of Egypt (1550-1295 BC).

Champollion’s achievements not only deciphered a writing system but also uncovered one of the oldest written languages in human history. Aside from being able to translate hieroglyphs, scholars now understood how Egyptians measured time and years, commemorated ancestors, or in some cases, attempted to erase people from history. Whilst Champollion died young at 41, his legacy still lives on.

Champollion’s studies were all-consuming, but he also enjoyed life outside of work when he could. After two failed attempts at love, Champollion married Rosine Blanc (1794-1871), the daughter of a well-to-do family of Grenoblean glovemakers. At the time, Rosine’s father disapproved of the match but changed his tune after Champollion’s reputation grew. Champollion and Rosine had a daughter, Zoraïde, but Champollion’s work schedule prevented him from watching her grow up. Being away for weeks, months, or even years at a time put a strain on the marriage, yet they remained faithful to each other. Rosine and Zoraïde lived with Champollion’s brother, meaning Champollion did not need to worry about their well-being when he was away.

After returning from a second expedition in 1831, Champollion was appointed to the chair of Egyptian history and archaeology at the Collège de France by King Louis Philippe I (1773-1850). Unfortunately, Champollion only gave three lectures before illness forced him to give up the post. Exhausted by his labours during his scientific expedition to Egypt, on top of his chronic poor health, Champollion died after suffering a stroke on 4th March 1832 while in Paris. His burial took place in Père Lachaise Cemetery, the largest cemetery in Paris, where his grave is marked with a tall obelisk.

A lot of Champollion’s work was published after his death. His brother edited portions of Champollion’s papers and published his almost-finished Grammar and Dictionary of Ancient Egyptian in 1838. Controversy over Champollion’s decipherment claims continued for many years, but after Champollion’s work helped his student Karl Richard Lepsius (1810-84) successfully decipher the Decree of Canopus, dating from 243 BC, Champollion’s reputation as the true decipherer of the hieroglyphs was cemented.

In Figeac, Champollion’s birthplace, he is honoured with La place des Écritures, a giant reproduction of the Rosetta Stone by American artist Joseph Kosuth (born 1945). Yet, Champillion’s greatest legacy is the continuation of his work by contemporary Egyptologists. The British Museum has Champollion partly to thank for the amount of information they packed into the Hieroglyphs exhibition. Ancient artefacts can only tell scholars so much about the lives of the Ancient Egyptians, but being able to decipher hieroglyphs gives them access to thousands of years of information.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is not an exhibition about Jean-François Champollion, although he is mentioned a great deal. The British Museum comments on the information these hieroglyphs unlock, including poetry, international treaties, shopping lists, tax returns and many stories about ancient beliefs. Yet it is Champollion’s initial decipherment in 1822, exactly 200 years ago, that has inspired the exhibition, so he deserves as much attention as the objects on display.

Hieroglyphs: unlocking ancient Egypt is on view at the British Museum until 19th February 2023. Tickets cost £18 (or £20 at weekends) and must be purchased in advance. Members and under-16s can visit for free.


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The Astronomers’ House

In the back garden of 19 New King Street, Bath, a German-born British astronomer doubled the known size of the solar system when he discovered a new planet in 1781. Initially named Georgium Sidus after the King, the discovery earned the astronomer instant fame across Europe and the attention of King George III, who hired him as the astronomer of the Court. The man in question was William Herschel, and the planet is known today as Uranus.

In 1981, 19 New King Street opened as a museum about William Herschel and his family, exactly 200 years after he discovered Uranus. The house forms part of a terrace originating from 1764. Whilst it is not pretentious like some neighbouring buildings (the Royal Crescent and the Circus), the house has five floors, including a basement. Although very little documentation exists of the house’s original decor, careful research into the era revealed the style and fashions of the day, which the William Herschel Society used when returning the interior of the building to the 18th and 19th century. Today, the museum is open on Tuesdays to Sundays for those wishing to see where the astronomer once resided.

Born in 1738, Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel grew up in Hanover, Germany. He was the fourth of ten children born to Issak Herschel and Anna Ilse Moritzen. As a keen oboist, Issak encouraged his children to study music and enrolled a couple of his sons as musicians in the Hanoverian Guards regiment. When war with France seemed imminent, Isaak sent Wilhelm and another son, Jakob, to England, where Wilhelm changed his name to the English equivalent, Frederick William Herschel.

Known mostly by his middle name, William quickly learnt English and earned money playing the oboe, violin, harpsichord and organ. In 1761, he acquired the position of first violin in the Newcastle orchestra and started writing symphonies. He wrote a total of 24 symphonies and several concertos during his career as a musician. In 1766, Hershel took on the role of organist at the Octagon Chapel in Bath and encouraged one of his younger sisters, Caroline, and three brothers, Dietrich, Alexander and Jakob, to join him in the city. Together, they performed many concerts, with Caroline singing soprano solos. Later, in 1780, Herschel became the director of the Bath orchestra.

Herschel’s interest in music led to his fascination with astrology. After reading Harmonics, or the Philosophy of Musical Sounds (1749), by the mathematician Robert Smith (1689-1768), Herschel came across another work by the same author. Entitled A Compleat System of Opticks (1738), the book explained how to build a telescope, which led Herschel to seek more information on the subject. A local mirror-builder gave Herschel lessons, which helped Herschel develop light-gathering surfaces for use in his hand-built telescopes. He dedicated many hours of the day to grinding and polishing mirrors, often assisted by his brother, Alexander.

At the time of Herschel’s developing interest in astronomy, he and his sister, Caroline, lived at 7 New King Street, a few doors down from the current Herschel Museum of Astronomy. Caroline, who took on the role of housekeeper, despairingly wrote, “It was to my sorrow that I saw almost every room in the house turned into a workshop.” Although Herschel continued to practice music, giving students lessons in various instruments, he spent his spare time working on his telescope.

In 1774, Herschel and his sister moved to Walcot in the suburbs of Bath, where there was plenty of space to build a large telescope. Here, Herschel began studying the rings of Saturn and the Great Orion Nebula, noting his observations in an astronomical journal. Unfortunately, the location proved too far from the centre of Bath, where Herschel and his sister still performed in concert halls and churches. In 1777, they returned to New King Street, taking residence at number 19. The house had a larger garden than it does today, making it a perfect spot for Herschel’s telescope. Unfortunately, he also crammed his instruments into every room of the house, much to Caroline’s disgust. Since Herschel used horse dung for his telescopic mirror moulds, Caroline can hardly be blamed for her protestations.

In 1779, the Herschels briefly moved to 5 Rivers Street, although it is unclear why. Whilst it was closer to the Literary and Philosophical Society of Bath, where Herschel hoped to become a member, the house had no garden. Herschel set up his telescope in the street, where he quickly drew attention. Whilst some saw Herschel and his telescope as a fascinating landmark, horse-drawn carriages had difficulty navigating around him.

Herschel moved his telescope back to 19 New King Street in March 1781, where on the night of the 13th March, he made a discovery that changed the world. The discovery of Georgium sidus, later Uranus, earned Herschel the Copley Medal and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The following year, George III appointed him “The King’s Astronomer”. Herschel and Caroline moved to Datchet, near Windsor, to be closer to London, where he could focus on his astronomy career. By this time, Caroline was more than a housekeeper. In Bath, she became her brother’s assistant and helped him record his findings, which resulted in three catalogues of stars and nebulae. Caroline made a few discoveries of her own, using a telescope built for her by her brother. (For more information, see my blog about The Lost Heroine of Astronomy.)

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy explores William Herschel’s life in Bath and his achievements throughout his career. It also recognises Caroline as an astronomer in her own right and includes the work of John Herschel, William’s son. Herschel married Mary Pitt in 1788, with whom he had one son in 1792. John proved just as intelligent as his father and studied mathematics at St John’s College, Cambridge, where he won the Copley Prize in 1812. Despite embarking upon a legal career, John abandoned this in favour of his father’s passion, astronomy.

In 1820, John Herschel became one of the founding members of the Royal Astronomical Society, and after his father’s death in 1822, completed William Herschel’s catalogue of nebular stars with the help of documentation kept by his aunt, Caroline. John is also recognised for his pioneering work in the field of photography, in which he worked closely with William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-77) at Lacock Abbey. He coined the words “positive” and “negative” concerning photography and developed a fixing agent.

Like his father, John Herschel also had a passion for music and often played the flute or violin in concerts. Later in life, he became the Master of the Mint, a post once held by the scientist Isaac Newton (1642-1727). Failing health put an end to his career, and John passed away in 1871. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

John Herschel never lived at 19 New King Street, but his portraits currently feature on the walls of the ground-floor reception room. The room also houses illustrations by John, which he produced while using a camera obscura. Other objects include mirrors made by William Herschel and a model of the 40-foot telescope he made when living at the Observatory House near Windsor.

Also situated on the ground floor is the dining room. Handprinted wallpaper gives visitors the impression of 18th-century fashions, as do the framed maps and cartoons. The wooden table in the centre of the room was once part of a larger extending table from the Observatory House. At some stage, the table was divided by various members of the Herschel family, most likely during an inheritance dispute.

Not all the objects in the dining room date to the time of William Herschel’s time in Bath. A longcase clock made by John Roberts of Bath dates to the early 19th century, as does a stick barometer made by Jacob Abrahams. Nonetheless, Herschel likely owned similar items because they would have been of use during his nocturnal observations of the sky.

William Herschel used the first-floor drawing room as a study and workshop. It is also surmised that he slept in the room amongst his machinery and tools. Most of the items on display relate to astronomy and are on loan from the Greenwich Royal Observatory and the Royal Astronomical Society. A brass drum orrery made by George Adams around 1782 demonstrates the movements of the planets in relation to each other. This particular machine includes Uranus and its moons. Whilst some people, such as George III, used orreries as playthings, Herschel and other scientists found them useful for practical demonstrations during talks and lectures.

The drawing room leads into the music room, where scientific instruments resting on the harpsichord indicate Herschel’s fascination with astronomy encroached on his musical career. John Bernard (1756-1828), an actor who received singing lessons from Herschel, recalled, “His lodgings resembled an astronomer’s much more than a musician’s, being heaped up with globes, maps, telescopes, reflectors etc, under which his piano was hid, and the violoncello, like a discarded favourite, skulked away in a corner.”

The basement of the house features a typical Georgian kitchen, complete with an early 19th-century cooking range. With the help of a servant, Caroline prepared food here for her brother, whilst in the next room, Herschel used a furnace and smelting oven to make his telescopic lenses. When setting up the workshop, Herschel had the foresight to create two exits. According to Caroline’s diary, Herschel and one of his brothers attempted to pour 538 pounds of molten metal into a handmade mould, but the liquid splashed onto the ground, causing bits of stone flooring to fly in all directions. Both men survived after hastily escaping through separate doors. The cracks on the workshop floor are still visible today.

The basement leads out into the garden, which is below street level. It is hard to imagine a large telescope in the considerably shortened garden, but its original length is what initially attracted Herschel to the property. When the Herschels lived at 19 New King Street, they benefitted from an orchard at the back of the house. The current layout, designed by the Bath Preservation Trust, features cypress trees and maintained borders.

Within the garden is a statue of William and Caroline Herschel by Vivien Mousdell. Commissioned for the 250th anniversary of the birth of Herschel, the stone sculpture depicts Herschel gazing up at the sky whilst Caroline holds a quill pen in one hand and a piece of paper in the other, on which is drawn the solar system with Uranus at the centre. The statue was unveiled by Sir Patrick Moore (1923-2012), the president of the British Astronomical Association. Another sculpture, entitled Seedhead by Ruth Moillet, represents the position of Uranus in the solar system.

A small extension at the rear of the house contains a small exhibition and a few hands-on activities for children. These include simple arts and crafts and a toy version of an orrery. During half-term and end-of-term holidays, the museum hosts specific events targeted at children to teach them about the universe.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy provides an insight into Herschel’s life and discoveries. It also allows people to imagine life in 18th and 19th-century Bath. Whilst other museums in the city, for instance, No. 1 Royal Crescent, explore the lives of the rich and their servants, William Herschel’s former residence introduces the typical home of the general population. Yet, Herschel was by no means an ordinary man. His genius, passion and perseverance earned him a place in British and international history.

The Herschel Museum of Astronomy is open Tuesday to Sunday between 10am and 5pm. Tickets cost £9.50 for adults and £4.50 for children, except during the Summer Holidays (£11.50 and £5.50).


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Black Lives Matter (Part 5)

These articles were initially posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Believe Like Thurgood

Thurgood Marshall is famous for being America’s first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. As well as serving as a lawyer, Thurgood campaigned for civil rights, believing that racial discrimination went against the Equal Protection Clause of the US constitution. 

Born in Baltimore, Maryland on 2nd July 1908, Thoroughgood “Thurgood” Marshall learned how to debate from his father, William Canfield Marshall, who worked as a railway porter. At family meals with his father and mother, Norma Arica Williams, Marshall participated in discussions about current events, which fuelled his desire to become a lawyer. Marshall recalled his father “turned me into one. He did it by teaching me to argue, by challenging my logic on every point, by making me prove every statement I made.”

In 1925, Marshall graduated from the Frederick Douglass High School in Baltimore within the top third of his class. After this, he attended Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, where he became the star of the debate team. Marshall involved himself in sit-in protests against segregation and joined Alpha Phi Alpha, the first fraternity founded by and for blacks. During this time, Marshall paid little attention to his studies and found himself suspended twice for his behaviour.

Marshall’s attitude changed after he married Vivian “Buster” Burey (1911-55) in 1929. His wife encouraged Marshall to be a better student, and he graduated with a BA in American literature and philosophy the following year. To become a lawyer, Marshall enrolled at Howard University School of Law in Washington DC, for which his mother pawned her wedding and engagement rings to pay for the tuition. In 1933, Marshall graduated at the top of his class.

After graduating, Marshall began a private law firm in his home town and represented the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), which he joined in 1936, in various lawsuits. In one court case, Murray v. Pearson, Marshall represented black students who wished to attend the University of Maryland Law School, which at that time only admitted whites. Not only did Marshall win, but he also created a legal precedent making segregation in Maryland illegal.

At the age of 32, Marshall founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, which supported many civil rights cases before the Supreme Court. Of these cases, Marshall won 29 out of 32, most notably Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which paved the way for integration in schools. For some of the court cases, Marshall had the support of J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), the 1st Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). Marshall and the FBI particularly wished to discredit civil rights leader T. R. M. Howard (1908-76), whose policies went against the NAACP. Howard also believed in legalising prostitution, arguing that “man’s sinful nature made it impossible to suppress the sex trade”. 

In February 1955, Marshall’s wife Vivian passed away from lung cancer on her 44th birthday. Later that year, Marshall remarried Cecilia “Cissy” Suyat (b.1928), a civil rights activist of Filipino descent from Hawaii. They went on to have two sons, Thurgood Marshall Jr. (b.1956), who was the White House Cabinet Secretary under Bill Clinton (b.1946), and John William Marshall (b.1958), the longest-serving member of the Virginia Governor’s Cabinet.

Marshall’s successful career attracted President J. F. Kennedy (1917-63), who appointed him to the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in 1961. This was a new seat created by the president, which Marshall held until 1965 when President Lyndon B. Johnson (1908-73) appointed him as the first African American United States Solicitor General. This also made Marshall the highest-ranking black government official. Marshall called his position as Solicitor General “the best job I’ve ever had.”

Following the retirement of Tom C. Clark (1899-1977) in 1967, Johnson appointed Marshall as the 96th Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, the first black man to hold the post. When questioned about his success as an African American, Marshall said, “You do what you think is right and let the law catch up.”

Marshall served on the Supreme Court for 24 years, during which time he fought on behalf of black citizens. As well as civil rights, Marshall campaigned for abortion rights and the end of the death penalty. He also fought against anything that made women unequal to men. When Marshall retired in 1991, he expressed the wish that President George H. W. Bush (1924-2018) did not use race as a factor when deciding on his successor. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas (b.1948) to replace Marshall, the second black man to hold the position of Associate Justice of the Supreme Court.

Many accused Marshall of resigning over disagreements with the new conservative approaches of the Supreme Court, but in truth, his declining health was the reason for the decision. Less than two years later, Marshall passed away from heart failure on 24th January 1993 at the age of 84. The Supreme Court honoured Marshall with a lying in state at the United States Supreme Court Building in Washington DC, followed by a burial at the Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia.

There are several memorials dedicated to Thurgood Marshall, including an 8-ft statue in Lawyers Mall, Maryland. The airport in Baltimore renamed itself the Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport in 2005, and in 2009 the General Convention of the Episcopal Church added him to the liturgical calendar, designating 17th May as his feast day. Marshall’s life is the topic of the 2017 film Marshall, starring Chadwick Boseman (1976-2020) as the first black Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States. 

Challenge Like Rosa

Many people know Rosa Parks as the black girl who refused to give up her seat to a white person on a bus. Even Doctor Who portrayed the story in a recent episode, but how many people know Rosa’s background? How many people know more about her than the bus incident? She is a recognisable name in the Civil Rights Movement, but is that all – just a name?

Born Rosa Louise McCauley on 4th February 1913, Rosa grew up in Tuskegee, Alabama, until her parents, Leona and James, separated. Rosa moved to Montgomery with her mother and younger brother Sylvester, where she lived on her grandparents’ farm and attended the African Methodist Episcopal Church. Rosa’s mother taught her how to sew, and by the age of ten, Rosa had completed her first quilt. She continued to sew while studying academic courses at the Montgomery Industrial School for Girls, making herself dresses to wear. Although Rosa enrolled at a high school set up by the Alabama State Teachers College for Negroes, she dropped out when her grandmother became unwell.

In 1932, Rosa married the barber Raymond Parks, who belonged to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Rosa took on jobs as a domestic worker, but her husband encouraged her to complete her high school education, which she achieved in 1933. A decade later, Rosa joined the NAACP, becoming its first female secretary. For some time, she was also the only female member. As part of her role, Rosa investigated false rape claims against black men and the gang-rape of Recy Taylor (1919-2017), a black woman from Abbeville, Alabama. The Chicago Defender called the resulting campaign concerning the latter “the strongest campaign for equal justice to be seen in a decade.”

Rosa experienced “integrated life” while briefly working for the Maxwell Air Force Base, which did not condone racial segregation. This made her realise the extent of the differences between the lives of blacks and whites. Rosa also worked as a domestic and seamstress for Clifford (1899-1975) and Virginia Durr (1903-99), a white couple who encouraged and sponsored her attendance at the Highlander Folk School to learn more about civil rights in 1955.

To travel to and from work and school, Rosa used public buses, which since 1900 had specific seating areas for blacks and whites. The front four rows were for whites only, and blacks were encouraged to sit at the far end of the bus. Over 75% of passengers were black, which made the rear of the bus very crowded. Blacks also had to use the back door of the bus, but on one occasion, it was too crowded for Rosa, so she used the front entrance instead. After paying, the driver insisted she leave the bus and enter through the back door. As soon as Rosa had stepped out of the bus, the driver sped away.

Rosa avoided that bus driver until 1955 after a long day at work. She did everything right: she entered the bus through the back door and sat in the first row of seats designated for black people. During the journey, crowds of people entered the bus, meaning many people had to stand, including white people. Seeing this, the driver asked those in the first row of black seats to stand up so the whites could sit. Whilst three blacks got up and moved, Rosa remained seated. The driver demanded her to move, and when she did not, he called the police. The police arrested Rosa and charged her with a violation of Chapter 6, Section 11 segregation law of the Montgomery City code. The NAACP bailed her out of prison that evening.

“People always say that I didn’t give up my seat because I was tired, but that isn’t true. I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.” – Rosa Parks, Rosa Parks: My Story, 1992

Rosa Parks was not the first to refuse to give up her seat, but her actions inspired the NAACP to organise a bus boycott. On 5th December 1955, the day of Rosa’s trial, campaigners distributed 35,000 leaflets saying, “We are … asking every Negro to stay off the buses Monday in protest of the arrest and trial … You can afford to stay out of school for one day. If you work, take a cab, or walk. But please, children and grown-ups, don’t ride the bus at all on Monday. Please stay off the buses Monday.” That day, over 40,000 black people walked to work instead of getting the bus. Some had to walk more than 20 miles through the driving rain.

As Rosa’s trial continued, so did the bus boycott. For 381 days, black people in Montgomery avoided using the bus. Since they made up at least 75% of commuters, the bus companies suffered from a loss in bus fares, forcing the city to repeal its law about segregation on public transport. Rosa did not wish to take credit for this success, and Martin Luther King Jr agreed that Rosa was not the cause of the boycott but the catalyst. “The cause lay deep in the record of similar injustices.”

Although Rosa became an icon of the Civil Rights Movement, she suffered as a result. She received many death threats, disagreed with King’s approaches, and both she and her husband lost their jobs, prompting them to move to Hampton in Virginia in search of work. Rosa found a position as a hostess but soon moved to live with her brother in Detroit, Michigan. Her brother believed the discrimination against blacks to be less severe in the northern states, but Rosa failed to see any improvements.

When African American John Conyers (1929-2019) stood for Congress, Rosa gave him her full support and convinced King to do the same. After Conyers’ election, he hired Rosa as his secretary and receptionist, a position she kept until she retired in 1988. She visited schools, hospitals and facilities with and on Conyers’ behalf, plus attended Civil Rights marches across the country. During this time, she became an ally of Malcolm X. She later took part in the black power movement.

Rosa continued to support the Civil Rights Movement in various ways, although she never took a leading position. During the 1970s, she helped organise the freedom of several prisoners whose actions of self-defence had landed them in police custody. Unfortunately, Rosa could not contribute much later that decade due to the poor health of her family, although she donated what little money she could to the cause. In 1977, both her husband and brother passed away from cancer. Following these losses, she broke two bones after slipping on an icy pavement, prompting her to move in with her elderly mother in an apartment for senior citizens. Her mother passed away in 1979, aged 92.

With renewed vigour, Rosa returned to the Civil Rights scene, co-founding the Rosa L. Parks Scholarship Foundation to provide scholarships for college students. When asked to speak at various organisations, Rosa usually donated her speaking fee to her scholarship foundation. Later, she established the Rosa and Raymond Parks Institute for Self Development, which aimed to “educate and motivate youth and adults, particularly African American persons, for self and community betterment.”

In her later years, Rosa faced several challenges. At 81, a man broke into her house and demanded money. When she refused, he attacked her, landing her in hospital with facial injuries. Rosa suffered severe anxiety after the attack and moved to a secure complex. Whilst she felt safe there, her fragile mind made it difficult for her to manage her finances. In 2002, she received an eviction notice due to a lack of rent payment. When members of the public found out, the Hartford Memorial Baptist Church in Detroit raised funds to pay the rent on her behalf, allowing her to remain in her home for the remainder of her life.

Rosa Parks passed away at age 92 on 24th October 2005. Before her funeral, a bus, similar to the one on which she refused to stand, drove her casket to the US Capitol in Washington DC, where she became the first non-government official to lie in honour in the rotunda. At her memorial service, the United States Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (b.1954) said she believed that if it had not been for Rosa Parks, she would not be Secretary of State today.

At her death, Rosa left an extensive list of legacies, which continues to grow. Long before she passed away, places were named in her honour, such as Rosa Parks Boulevard in Detroit, and she received many medals and awards: Martin Luther King Jr. Award (1980), Presidential Medal of Freedom (1996), Congressional Gold Medal (1999), and several honorary doctorates. Since her death, the Rosa Parks Transit Center has opened in Detroit; Michigan renamed a plaza Rosa Parks Circle; the asteroid 284996 Rosaparks was named in her memory, and the Rosa Parks Railway Station opened in Paris. Americans also remember Rosa Parks with a statue in Montgomery, unveiled in 2019.


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Feminine Power

Throughout history, women have been sidelined in favour of men, who were believed to be the stronger, smarter sex. In the last couple of centuries, women have protested these traditional views of feminity and proved they can equal men in many areas of life. The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique (b. 1971) believes, “We need more feminine energy in the world today. We need more women in positions of power and influence.” Whilst this is the aim of many feminists in the 21st century, ancient history reveals that women once held such power and influence, particularly in religion. Until 25th September 2022, the British Museum aims to show visitors the significant role that goddesses, witches, female spirits and so forth have shaped the world today. With support from Siddique and other high-profile collaborators, the museum’s exhibition Feminine Power links the past with the present to prove that women have never been the weak, powerless individuals they were forced into being.

Pele

In Hawaiian mythology, Pele was the goddess of volcanoes. According to legend, she was one of six daughters born to Haumea, the Earth goddess and Kane Milohai, the creator of the heavens. Usually depicted with flaming red hair, Pele was known for her fiery temper, which resulted in her expulsion from her home island of Tahiti. According to one story, she had also seduced the husband of her sister Namakaokaha‘i, who chased Pele to the Hawaiian island of Kaua‘i. Angry about her fate, Pele made her home in the volcanoes, where her unpredictable and volatile temper continues to cause rivers of lava to devour the island.

Today, Hawaiians believe Pele resides in Mount Kilauea, an active volcano that has been erupting since September 2021. Residents frequently honour the goddess with offerings and dancing in an attempt to appease her and stop the eruptions. Many believe that speaking her name out loud is enough to anger Pele, as is eating the wild berries that grow near the mountain.

Sedna

According to Inuit mythology, Sedna is the goddess of the sea and marine animals. Several versions of the myth exist, recording Sedna as the Mother of the Sea and the ruler of the underworld. In one legend, Sedna grew so hungry that she attacked her father, the creator-god Anguta. Angry with her behaviour, Anguta banished Sedna to the underworld. In another version, Sedna disapproves of her father’s choice of men for her to marry, so marries a dog instead. After angering her father, she suffers the same fate and lives for the rest of eternity in the underworld.

There are several other versions of the Sedna myth, all ending in the same fate. In each story, when Anguta banished his daughter to the underworld, he took her out to sea in his kayak and threw her overboard. Attempting to save her life, Sedna held on to the edge of the boat, but Anguta cut off her fingers, forcing her to sink into the deep waters. Most legends agree that her fingers became the seals, walruses and whales that Inuit hunters regularly sought. If Sedna thought the hunt was unfair, she hid the creatures in her hair, forcing the Inuits to admit defeat and return to shore.

Lakshmi

Lakshmi, the goddess of abundance, money, wisdom and good luck, is one of the most widely worshipped Hindu goddesses. She is usually celebrated by Hindus during Diwali, also known as the Festival of Lights. In art, Lakshmi is usually depicted with four arms covered with jewellery. She is often seated on a lotus flower and surrounded by elephants.

According to myth, Lakshmi’s presence on Earth helped the warrior god Indra protect the world from demons. One day, a sage offered the god a garland of flowers, which he rejected and threw on the floor. This behaviour deeply upset Lakshmi, and she disappeared from the world. In her absence, the world became dark, and the people turned away from the gods. Desperate, Indra asked Lakshmi’s husband, Vishnu, protector of the universe, what he should do to rectify the situation. Vishnu advised Indra and the other gods to churn the Milky Ocean to regain Lakshmi and her blessings. The process took a thousand years, but eventually, Lakshmi rose to the ocean’s surface upon a lotus flower, and peace returned to the land.

Inanna/Ishtar

Inanna, also known as Ishtar, is a Sumerian goddess of love, beauty, desire, war and political power. She was worshipped widely across Mesopotamia, Babylonia, Akkadia and Assyria, who praised her with hymns and artworks. Nicknamed the “Lady of Heaven”, Inanna/Ishtar was respected as both male and female, although men tended to see her as a woman, particularly concerning matters of a sexual nature.

There are many myths about Inanna/Ishtar, including the Epic of Gilgamesh, in which the hero refuses her romantic advances, causing the goddess to let all fire and brimstone loose. In another myth, she chose a young shepherd called Dumuzi as her husband. Shortly after, Dumuzi died, and Inanna travelled to the underworld to arrange for him to return to Earth for half the year. From then on, male rulers (kings) were identified with Dumuzi and underwent a Sacred Marriage ceremony to declare their devotion to Inanna/Ishtar and legitimise their rule.

Sekhmet

In Egyptian mythology, the powerful goddess Sekhmet was sent by her father Ra to destroy humankind. Immediately regretting his actions, Ra dyed a field red with ochre and beer to trick his daughter into believing the people had already slaughtered themselves. The trick worked, and Sekhmet drank the fake blood, becoming too drunk to carry out her original task.

An annual festival in honour of Sekhmet, who the Egyptians depicted in their artwork with the head of a lioness to symbolise her ferocity and destructive power, aimed to appease and soothe the wildness of the goddess. Revellers danced and played music while drinking large quantities of wine to imitate the drunkenness that stopped the wrath of the goddess. Warriors and leaders, such as Pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. 1388-1351 BC), erected statues of Sekhmet in the hopes she would bring them victory and longevity.

Isis

Isis was the most important female goddess and the most worshipped across ancient Egypt. Unlike Sekhmet, who the Egyptians tried to appease, Isis had divine authority over wisdom, healing, and protection, both in life and the afterlife. According to myth, after her husband Osiris was murdered, she resurrected him to conceive their son, Horus. Their son grew up to avenge his father’s murder and became the god whom all pharaohs were believed to personify.

Statues of Isis often depict her with wings, with which she could shield the mummified body of Osiris from harm. Although she brought Osiris back to life, he kept one foot in the afterlife as its ruler. Isis had the power to protect people from death but also protect them after death. When the people of ancient Egypt died, they did not go straight to a place of eternal rest. Instead, the dead went on a journey full of trials and judgements, which they needed to pass before reaching their resting place.

On top of Isis’ roles as a goddess, she had duties as a mother to care for and nurture Horus. Figurines of Isis nursing Horus were popular in ancient Egypt because they symbolised her as a life-giver and protector, which, in essence, every woman with a child also embodies.

Aphrodite/Venus

The Greek goddess Aphrodite, known as Venus in Roman mythology, is a well-known name. Greek myths have become part of contemporary literature and films, and many instantly recognise Aphrodite as the goddess of love. Aphrodite/Venus embodied ancient ideals of beauty, yet she was not revered for her looks alone. People prayed to the goddess about love, but also about social and military success. The Greeks and Romans believed she had the power to bring about reconciliation and conflict depending on her mood.

There are several stories about Aphrodite’s origins, with some claiming she was a daughter of Zeus, the king of the gods. Other myths, such as that recorded by Hesiod in the 8th or 7th century BC, record Aphrodite’s birth from the sea foam at the location the titan Kronos threw his father’s castrated testicles.

Aphrodite’s beauty often caused the demise of many a mortal man. Reports of men making love to statues of the goddess reveal how beautiful the depictions of Aphrodite/Venus were when first created. Others saw past her physical appearance to claim her as their patron, placing her image on their coins to advertise their victories. Such practice was done by Julius Caesar in 44 BC, Lucius Cornelius Sulla around 84 BC and Marcus Aurelius between 161 and 176 AD.

Athena/Minerva

The Greek goddess Athena, or Minerva as the Romans knew her, was the goddess of war and wisdom. The Greeks and Romans saw her as an emblem of strength, intellect and order. They sought her wisdom in all areas of public life, from military and politics to the arts. Athena was both a peaceful and an angry goddess, depending on the circumstances. In many myths, she helped and supported men in battle, but those who upset her lived to regret it.

Athena was allegedly born fully grown and fully armed from the head of her father, Zeus. Learning of a prophecy that he would have a child more powerful than he, Zeus ate the pregnant mother, mistakingly believing this would kill the child. Instead, Zeus developed a terrible headache until Athena erupted from his skull.

In Roman Britain, Minerva, the Roman equivalent of Athena, was associated with the Celtic deity Sulis. Minerva-Sulis had power over justice and health, making her a popular goddess in the city of Bath, where the spring waters are said to have healing properties. People came from far and wide to have their ailments cured but also to ask the goddess to inflict pain and suffering on their enemies. Archaeologists have discovered lead sheets containing names, curses and pleas to Minerva-Sulis at the bottom of the Roman baths.

The human rights lawyer Rabia Siddique believes women should channel their inner Athena. “If you’re angry, harness that. If you’re frustrated, express that. If you’re more of a peacemaker and a quiet, persevering advocate, own that as well. It’s not about having to subscribe to any stereotypically masculine or feminine form.” Athena had both stereotypically masculine and feminine traits, but this did not make her more or less of a woman.

In a similar way to the ancient Greek and Roman rulers who used images of Aphrodite/Venus on their coins, Athena/Minerva appeared on coins and medals in more recent centuries. Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) and Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa (1717-80) were portrayed on medals alongside images of the goddess. Male military leaders also used Athena/Minerva’s image, including Napoleon Bonaparte (1769-1821) and the Duke of Wellington (1769-1852).

Hekate

In both Greek and Roman mythology, Hekate was the goddess of witchcraft. Some people, such as those participating in Wiccan or other modern pagan activities, believe Hekate was a witch rather than a goddess. Nonetheless, in ancient mythology, Hekate stood between life and death at the entrance to the underworld, also known as Hades. As a result, she was associated with entrance-ways and crossroads and often received prayers during transitions or uncertain journeys. Hekate is also associated with the moon and magic, which play roles in pagan rituals.

Sculptures of Hekate tend to depict a woman with three heads or three conjoined women. With each head facing a different direction, the statues symbolise the goddess’ ability to help people during various transitions in life and death. The journalist Elizabeth Day believes Hekate’s three faces represent that through suffering comes access to strength and wisdom. Some statues of Hekate depict her holding torches, symbolising the goddess as a light in the darkness, guiding people through difficult situations.

Circe

Unlike Hekate, who was the goddess of witchcraft, Circe was a witch or divine sorceress. She famously appears in Homer’s Odyssey (8th century BC), which tells of the troublesome journey of the Greek hero Odysseus on his way home from the war in Troy. On route, Odysseus’ ship lands on the island of Aeaea, where he sends some of his men to scout the area. Here, they discover Circe, who invites them or lures them with her beauty into her house and offers them a meal. Unbeknownst to the men, Circe poisoned the food with various potions and herbs, transforming them into pigs.

When Odysseus searched for his missing men, Circe attempted the same trick, but he had been warned by the gods about her use of magic. Instead, Odysseus convinced Circe to return his men to human form and help him with the next stage of his journey. Whilst this may suggest male dominance of the woman, Odysseus had the help of the gods and did not defeat Circe alone.

Throughout history, people have feared witchcraft. Whilst both men and women were persecuted or killed for allegedly using magic, the majority of the accused witches were women. Societies feared these powerful women, going as far as to burn them at the stake to prevent them from causing any harm.

Lilith

According to Jewish mystical texts, God created Lilith as Adam’s first wife. Like Adam, God created her from the earth, giving Lilith equality with her husband. God intended Adam and Lilith to live as equals, but attempts at sexual intercourse caused problems. Adam tried to dominate Lilith, causing her to flee Eden rather than subordinate herself to him. Lilith was punished for her actions, but in recent years, she has been celebrated as an icon of female independence.

Throughout history, Lilith is portrayed as a figure of defiance or a spirit that wreaks havoc and refuses to obey. In popular culture, she is often referenced as an evil character, such as in The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, in which she is the ancestor of the White Witch. Today, this dark side of Lilith is put to one side as feminists begin to view her as the first woman to stand up to male power.

Eve

In Christian tradition, Eve is the first wife of Adam. God created her from one of Adam’s ribs rather than from the Earth. The story of the first two humans created by God is widely known. God gave them the freedom to eat what they pleased, so long as they did not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The Book of Genesis in the Bible records a serpent convincing Eve to eat the forbidden fruit, which she did and gave Adam some to eat. This act became known as the Fall and resulted in Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

Although it is not mentioned in Biblical scripture, people have blamed Eve for her seductive powers for leading Adam into sin. Whilst some argue both Adam and Eve were to blame for their actions, Eve received the brunt of the accusations, resulting in the stereotypical opinion that women were temptresses. Regardless of the truth and various opinions, the story gives Eve, as a woman, enough power for men of the future to fear the actions of women. Unfortunately, this led to the oppression of women and lack of rights, which women have been gradually regaining since the 19th century.

Mary

In Christianity, Mary is perhaps the most important woman, although she is not usually described as powerful. Yet, over a billion Catholics worship her across the world, giving her a sense of power that other Biblical women do not receive. The Virgin Mary was chosen by God to be the mother of Jesus Christ, the Lord and Saviour of the world. The Bible describes Mary as a righteous woman favoured by God, but looking at the bigger picture, she was neither rich, important or famous.

Comedian and feminist Deborah Frances-White notes that the Bible is written through the eyes of men, so Mary’s devotion and protection of the Messiah goes unnoticed. Frances-White also points out that without Mary, there would be no Christian story, and this power must be respected.

Some Christian art depicts Mary as the Queen of Heaven. Although it is not written in the Bible, Roman Catholics believe that at the time of her death, Mary was taken directly to Heaven. This event is known as the Assumption and is celebrated in some Catholic churches. Some Christian denominations believe Mary appears before mortals in times of need to offer guidance and protection. Thousands of sightings are recorded, particularly at pilgrimage sites such as Lourdes in France. These claims elevate Mary to a similar status as ancient goddesses, who also appeared to mortals when necessary.

Maryam

Depending on the point of view, the highly revered Islamic Maryam is the same person as the Virgin Mary. Maryam is described as “the righteous one” and is favoured by God above all women. Her devotion and virtue are a model for all Muslims to follow. A chapter of the Qur’an is named after Maryam, which features stories about her life, including the miraculous virgin birth of her son, the prophet Isa (Jesus).

In the present day, Muslims feel connected to Maryam in various ways. For some, her faith and hope are inspiring, and others appreciate her strength, honesty and spiritual fortitude. In both Islam and Christianity, Maryam/Mary is a timeless model for all women.

These are only a handful of women and deities who feature in the British Museum exhibition Feminine Power. The selection provides different versions of power, both physical and emotional, intentional or not. These examples prove women can be powerful and on equal footing with men. They are not more powerful, nor are they described as being like men. Women have their own power, which is equally as powerful as the power men wield.

The British Museum does not try to claim that women are better than men; that is not the point of this exhibition. What it does do is challenge stereotypes and discuss the meaning of power. For some, power may look like physical strength, rage, anger and determination; for others, it is peaceful, loving and nurturing. Whether women are fighting battles or taking care of others, they are always powerful.

Feminine Power: the Divine to the Demonic is open until 25th September 2022. Tickets are priced from £15 and advanced booking is recommended.


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Black Lives Matter (Part 4)

These articles were initially posted on Gants Hill United Reformed Church’s blog in 2020.

This image has been doing the rounds on social media over the last couple of years. Each named person lived during times when skin colour was more important than intelligence and personality. Whilst racism is nowhere near as bad as it was half a century ago, many people with ethnic backgrounds still face adversity, particularly in the United States. This poster encourages those people to dream, lead, fight, think, build, speak, educate, believe and challenge like the many heroes of the past.

Speak Like Frederick

“I would unite with anybody to do right and with nobody to do wrong.” These are the words of American social reformer, writer, and statesman Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery in Maryland to become a national leader of the abolitionist movement. Many found it astonishing that such a successful orator was once a slave, proving false the misconception that slaves lacked the intelligence of independent Americans. Douglass believed everyone was equal regardless of their skin tone and heritage. He was also an active supporter of women’s suffrage.

Frederick Augustus Washington Bailey was born on a plantation in Maryland to Harriet Bailey, a woman of African and Native American ancestry. His father was white, possibly European, but Frederick never knew him or knew on which day or year he was born. Historians estimate his year of birth as 1818, and Frederick chose 14th February as the day to celebrate his birth. Separated from his mother at a young age, the infant Frederick lived with his grandparents, Betsy, a slave, and Isaac, a free man.

At the age of six, Frederick’s master transferred him to another plantation, but two years later, he moved again to a household in Baltimore. Despite being the property of Hugh Auld, his master’s wife Sophia ensured Frederick was well fed and clothed. When he was about 12 years old, Sophia taught him to read and write until her husband put an end to their lessons. Yet, Frederick continued to teach himself in secret, often observing the white children in the city. He believed “knowledge is the pathway from slavery to freedom.”

In 1833, Frederick went to work for Edward Covey, a farmer who repeatedly whipped him. Frederick attempted to run away, but his master caught him. In 1837, he met and fell in love with Anna Murray (1813-88), a free black woman who encouraged him to have another attempt at escaping. On 3rd September 1838, Frederick succeeded by sneaking onto a train to Harve de Grace dressed as a sailor. He then made his way to New York to meet up with Anna.

Frederick and Anna married on 15th September 1838, initially adopting the surname Johnson. Inspired by the poem The Lady of the Lake by Walter Scott (1771-1832), Frederick changed their surname to Douglass after the principal characters. They joined the independent African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, and Frederick became a preacher in 1839. Soon after, at the approximate age of 23, Frederick Douglass gave his first speech about his experiences as a slave at the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society’s annual convention.

From then on, Douglass involved himself with many anti-slavery protests and conventions, resulting in physical attacks from slavery supporters. One occasion caused irreparable damage to Douglass’ hand. He exclaimed, “I have no love for America, as such; I have no patriotism. I have no country. What country have I? The Institutions of this Country do not know me—do not recognize me as a man.” Yet, he continued to fight to put an end to slavery. As well as oration, Douglass published many works, including his first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave in 1845, My Bondage and My Freedom in 1855, and Life and Times of Frederick Douglass in 1881.

In 1845, Douglass travelled to Ireland and England, where he was amazed at the different treatment he received, not “as a colour, but as a man.” Focusing on the abolition of slavery, Douglass gave many speeches in churches and chapels, drawing large crowds. He met with Thomas Clarkson (1760-1846), who had campaigned for the Slave Trade Act of 1807. Most importantly, while in Britain, Douglass legally became a free man.

With £500 from English supporters, Douglass returned to the USA in 1847 and established his first abolitionist newspaper, the North Star. The paper adopted the motto “Right is of no Sex – Truth is of no Color – God is the Father of us all, and we are all brethren” to attract a diverse readership. Meanwhile, Douglass and his wife helped over four hundred slaves escape on the Underground Railroad network managed by Harriet Tubman.

Douglass was the only African American to attend the first women’s rights meeting in New York. Douglass said he could not accept the right to vote as a black man until women also had the opportunity. “Discussion of the rights of animals would be regarded with far more complacency…than would be a discussion of the rights of women.” Unfortunately, Douglass received criticism when he paid more attention to the campaign to allow black men the right to vote, but he maintained he was never against women’s rights. He feared linking black men’s suffrage with women’s suffrage would result in a failure for both; it was better to focus on one at a time.

During the Civil War, Douglass met with President Abraham Lincoln (1809-65) to discuss the treatment of black soldiers. This meeting led to the declaration of the 13th amendment, outlawing slavery. After the assassination of Lincoln, Douglass met with President Andrew Johnson (1808-75) on the subject of black suffrage. In 1868, the 14th amendment gave blacks equal protection under the law, and in 1870 they finally won the right to vote. 

Due to his achievements, Douglass received several political appointments, including president of the Freedman’s Savings Bank and chargé d’affaires for the Dominican Republic. In 1872, Douglass became the first African American nominated for Vice President of the United States, although he was nominated without his knowledge. The same year, he was the presidential elector at large for New York.

Douglass and Anna had five children during their marriage of 44 years. Their eldest, Rosetta Douglass (1839-1906), was a founding member of the National Association for Colored Women and also helped with her father’s newspaper business, as did Lewis Henry Douglass (1840-1908) and Frederick Douglass Jr. (1842-92). Their youngest son, Charles Remond Douglass (1844-1920), also helped with the papers and was the first African-American man to enlist in the military in New York during the Civil War. Annie Douglass, their youngest child, passed away at the age of ten.

Anna passed away in 1882, and two years later, Douglass remarried suffragist Helen Pitts (1838-1913). This caused controversy and upset Douglass’ children because Helen was twenty years younger than their father. She was also white. Douglass responded to criticism by saying his first marriage was to a woman of his mother’s colour and his second to someone of his father’s colour.

Douglass continued to speak at meetings across the USA and further abroad. In 1888, he became the first African American to receive a vote for President of the United States. President Benjamin Harrison (1833-1901) won the election and made Douglass the consul-general to the Republic of Haiti. 

On 20th February 1895, Douglass attended a meeting with the National Council of Women in Washington, D.C, where he received a standing ovation. That evening after returning home, he suffered a fatal heart attack. Thousands of supporters attended his funeral, and four years later, they erected a statue in his memory. He was the first African American to be memorialised in this way. Frederick Douglass continues to receive such honours today. Statues of Douglass stand in the United States Capitol Visitor Centre, Central Park, and the University of Maryland.

Educate Like W.E.B

W.E.B Du Bois was the leader of the Niagara Movement, a group of African-American activists campaigning for equal rights. Through his campaigns and essays, Du Bois documented the widespread racism in the United States of America. Ultimately, Du Bois wished to put an end to prejudices, and in the process, educated many people about the inaccuracies of American history that painted blacks in a bad light.

Born on 23rd February 1868, in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, to Alfred and Mary Silvina Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt Du Bois grew up in a tiny black population. His father left when Du Bois was only two years old, and his mother raised him alone. Fortunately, Great Barrington had a large European American community that treated Du Bois well, and his school teachers encouraged him to pursue his academic studies at Fisk University, a historically black college in Nashville, Tennessee.

Du Bois experienced little racism until his time at university, where he came face to face with the harshest bigotry. Fortunately, this had little impact on his education, and after Du Bois graduated in 1888, he attended Harvard College, paying his tuition by taking on summer jobs and accepting loans from friends. In 1890, Du Bois graduated with a degree in history. Yet, this was not the end of his education. After another year at Harvard studying sociology, Du Bois received a fellowship from the John F. Slater Fund for the Education of Freedmen to attend the University of Berlin. While in Berlin, Du Bois observed the differences in the treatment of black people. “They did not always pause to regard me as a curiosity, or something sub-human; I was just a man of the somewhat privileged student rank, with whom they were glad to meet and talk over the world.” Racism, he noted, was much worse in the USA. On returning home, Du Bois earned a PhD from Harvard University, the first black person to do so.

Following this extensive education, Du Bois received many job offers, including a teaching job at Wilberforce University, Ohio. After working there for two years, Du Bois married one of his students, Nina Gomer, on 12th May 1896 and moved to Pennsylvania to work as an assistant in sociology. Whilst there, Du Bois worked on the study The Pennsylvania Negro, which noted the treatment blacks received in the area. He rejected Frederick Douglass’ idea of blacks integrating into white communities, believing instead that they needed to embrace their African heritage while contributing to American society. He published the latter in his article Strivings of the Negro People in The Atlantic Monthly

In 1897, Du Bois moved to and accepted a job as a professor of history and economics at Atlanta University. The US government gave Du Bois a grant to research African-American workforce and culture, which he did alongside hosting the annual Atlanta Conference of Negro Problems. In 1900, Du Bois flew to London to attend the First Pan-African Conference, which implored the USA to “acknowledge and protect the rights of people of African descent”. Later that year, Du Bois attended the Paris Exposition, where he organised The Exhibit of American Negroes for which he won a gold medal.

By the early 20th century, Du Bois was a respected spokesperson for his race, second only to Booker T. Washington (1856-1915). Du Bois disagreed with many of Washington’s ideas, which asked blacks to submit to white supremacy in exchange for fundamental education. He expressed his criticism of Washington in The Souls of Black Folk in 1903. Du Bois believed blacks should fight for equal rights and opportunities. 

In 1905, Du Bois met with other civil rights activists in Canada, near Niagara Falls. Together, they established the Niagara Movement, which aimed to reach out to other black people through magazines such as The Horizon: A Journal of the Color Line. Unlike periodicals owned by or sympathetic to Washington, The Niagara Movement encouraged African Americans to stand up for their rights rather than submit to humiliation and degradation.

It was not just the Niagara Movement that changed the minds of the African American population. In 1906, President Roosevelt (1858-1919) dishonourably discharged 167 black soldiers for allegedly committing crimes. Following this, riots broke out in Atlanta, where black men received accusations of assaulting white women. Rioters attacked any man with dark skin, resulting in at least 25 deaths. 

Fuelled by these events and his growing support, Du Bois continued to write about the dangers of white supremacy. He was the first African American invited to present a paper by the American Historical Association. Unfortunately, most white historians ignored his work, and the association did not invite another African American speaker for three decades. 

In 1909, Du Bois joined the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and accepted the post of Director of Publicity and Research the following year. This entailed editing the NAACP’s magazine The Crisis, which denounced the US government and introduced the principles of the Socialist Party. Du Bois endorsed Democratic candidate Woodrow Wilson (1856-1924) in the 1912 presidential race, extracting from the future president the promise to support black rights.

When the First World War broke out, the NAACP established a camp to train African Americans to serve in the US Army. The government promised 1000 officer positions for blacks, but riots broke out across the country in opposition. Only 600 black officers managed to join the Army. Nonetheless, Du Bois saw this as a success and interviewed many African American soldiers during the first Pan-African Congress. Unfortunately, he discovered many officers served as labourers while the white men went out to fight.

Du Bois was more determined than ever to fight for equal rights. “But, by the God of Heaven, we are cowards and jackasses if, now that the war is over, we do not marshal every ounce of our brain and brawn to fight a sterner, longer, more unbending battle against the forces of hell in our own land.” Race riots continued to take place across the country, resulting in the deaths of hundreds of black people. As well as wishing to end this unnecessary violence, Du Bois wanted to educate black children about their heritage, teaching them that they did not deserve the racist treatment. As a result, Du Bois published the textbook The Brownies’ Book, which was full of black culture and history. 

After working with the NAACP, Du Bois resigned from his post in 1933 and returned to an academic position at Atlanta University. This allowed him to continue his research, documenting how black people were central figures in the American Civil War and Reconstruction. His magnum opus, Black Reconstruction in America, was published in 1935 and is still perceived as “the foundational text of revisionist African American historiography.” 

In 1936, Du Bois embarked on a trip around the world, where he received amicable treatment from people of all races. This was a stark contrast to the treatment of blacks back home. Du Bois admired the growing strength of Imperial Japan and was at first opposed to America joining the Second World War because he thought this would undo Japan’s fight to escape white supremacism. He was also disappointed that blacks only made up 5.8% of the US army.

Du Bois openly discussed his strong views in his books and papers, which eventually got him fired from his position at Atlanta University. Fortunately, scholars intervened, and Du Bois received a lifelong pension and the title of professor emeritus. Other universities offered Du Bois teaching positions, but he turned them down and rejoined the NAACP. Du Bois was one of three members of the NAACP to attend the 1945 conference in San Francisco, which oversaw the establishment of the United Nations.

The NAACP continued to fight for civil rights, submitting several petitions to the UN. Although the NAACP supported socialism, it made it clear the association had no involvement with Communism. Yet, Du Bois showed sympathy towards the Communist Party, resulting in the loss of his passport. He eventually regained his passport in 1958 and travelled the world with his second wife, Shirley Graham Du Bois (1896-1977), who he married in 1951. Nevertheless, when the US upheld the Concentration Camp Law in 1960, requiring all Communists to register with the United States Attorney General, Du Bois joined the Communist Party in protest. At this time, he was 93 years old.

In 1960, Du Bois travelled to Africa to celebrate the creation of the Republic of Ghana and to attend the inauguration of the first African governor of Nigeria. The following year, Du Bois took up residence in Ghana to work on the creation of a new encyclopedia of the African diaspora, the Encyclopedia Africana. By this time, Du Bois’ health was declining, and he passed away on 27th August 1963, not long after the US refused to renew his passport. On hearing of his death, thousands of Americans honoured Du Bois with a minute’s silence. Almost a year later, the US passed the Civil Rights Act of 1964, representing many of the things Du Bois campaigned for during his long life. 


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