Grimsthorpe Castle

Rising majestically within a 3,000-acre park of rolling pastures is Grimsthorpe Castle, a country house in the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire. Managed by the Grimsthorpe & Drummond Castle Trust, the house and its gardens are open to the public from Sunday to Thursday. Visitors enjoy long walks around lakes and a woodland landscaped by famous gardener Capability Brown (1716-83). Whilst the Trust welcomes everyone to explore the park and building, it remains the home of Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. Grimsthorpe has been the home of the de Eresby family since 1516.

Grimsthorpe Castle is not a castle in the conventional sense of the word, but any buildings with crenellated towers had the right to apply for castle status. The impressive front of the house was designed by Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726), who is perhaps best known as the designer of Blenheim Palace. Yet, Grimsthorpe dates back much further than the 17th-century. During the 13th century, Gilbert de Gant, Earl of Lincoln (1126-56), built a defensive tower on the land, known as King John’s Tower. Since the dates of Gilbert de Gant and King John (1166-1216) do not match up, the name came later than the construction.

When Gilbert de Gant died in 1156, the tower fell into the hands of the Earl of Chester and Grimsthorpe. Ranulph de Blondeville, 4th Earl of Chester (1172-1232), who worked for the king, may have been the person to name the tower “King John’s Tower”. After this, the ownership remained obscure until the late 15th century, when it belonged to Lord Francis Lovel (1456-87). Lovel supported King Richard III (1452-85) during the War of the Roses. Legend says he was the king’s best friend and, after Richard was defeated by Henry VII (1457-1509), his property was confiscated by the crown.

In 1516, Henry VIII (1491-1547) granted Grimsthorpe to William Willoughby, 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby (1482-1526), as a wedding present. Willoughby had recently married María de Salinas (1490-1539), the lady-in-waiting to the king’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536). When Willoughby passed away, his only daughter, Catherine (1518-90), inherited the barony and the estate. Usually, prestigious titles could not pass down to female children, but baronies are one of the few English titles that can descend through the female line.

Catherine was only seven when her father died, yet she inherited Grimsthorpe and 90 other manors in Lincolnshire, Norfolk and Suffolk, worth around £900 per annum (approximately £500,000 today). She was one of the wealthiest heiresses of her generation, but at the time, too young to claim her estates. Catherine immediately became a Ward of Court, meaning she belonged to the king. In 1528, Henry VIII sold the wardship to his sister’s husband, Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk (1484-1545). Rumours claim Henry intended to make Catherine his wife, but after Mary Tudor (1496-1533), Brandon married her instead.

The Duke of Suffolk set about renovating his wife’s house at Grimsthorpe, using stone from the nearby Vaudey Abbey. The Cistercian abbey, founded in 1147, was demolished following the dissolution of the monasteries in 1536. After rushing to complete the building project, Grimsthorpe Castle was ready to welcome Henry VIII in 1541. The king only stayed one night on his way to York to meet his nephew, James V of Scotland (1512-42), the father of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87). The hastily constructed parts of Grimsthorpe Castle began to sink into the ground over the following centuries and required substantial repairs.

After Charles Brandon’s death, Catherine married Richard Bertie (1516-82), who formerly served as her Master of the Horse. The marriage was a love match, and many considered Bertie below Catherine’s status. Bertie was also a religious evangelical, which put the couple in danger when the Catholic Mary I (1516-58) came to the throne. Catherine and Bertie fled to the Continent to escape Mary’s persecution of religious reformers. They were among the 800 “Marian exiles” who fled to Protestant countries, such as the Low Countries, Germany, and Switzerland, between 1553 and 1558.

When Elizabeth I (1533-1603) succeeded her sister as queen, Catherine and her husband returned to Grimsthorpe in 1559 with their children, Susan (b.1554) and Peregrine (1555-1601). Peregrine Bertie was allegedly named for their peregrinations in exile. Susan left Grimsthorpe at the age of 16 when she married Reginald Grey of Wrest (1541-73), who later became the Earl of Kent.

In 1578, Catherine gave Grimsthorpe to her son on his marriage to the English noblewoman Mary de Vere (d.1624). He did not inherit the title of 13th Baron Willoughby de Eresby until his mother’s death two years later. Peregrine spent several years as a soldier, fighting in the Netherlands against the Spanish. He finally returned to England in 1598 but died three years later due to poor health. His eldest son, Robert Bertie (1582-1642), whose godmother was Elizabeth I, inherited Grimsthorpe.

In 1625, Robert Bertie was appointed Lord Great Chamberlain, which allowed him and his heirs to take unwanted furniture from the royal court as a form of payment. It is for this reason that Grimsthorpe Castle contains several thrones, such as those used by Queen Victoria (1819-1901) and the morbidly obese George IV (1762-1830).

In 1626, Robert Bertie was created Earl of Lindsey for his services to the king. During the Civil War, Lindsey fought on behalf of Charles I (1600-49). Whilst participating in the Battle of Edgehill in 1642, Lindsey received a shot through the thigh bone. Despite attempts to save his life, Lindsey died the following morning. The Earldom passed on to his eldest son, Montagu Bertie (1606-1666), who, at that time, was imprisoned in Warwick Castle.

As well as 2nd Earl of Lindsey, Montagu Bertie assumed the name Baron Willoughby de Eresby. He was released from prison 18-months after his father’s death and sold some of the timber from Grimsthorpe to support the Royalist cause. Montagu continued to attend to the king until Charles’s execution in 1649. Legend suggests the Earl of Lindsey was one of several men who tried to buy the king’s life with their own but were refused. Instead, Montagu and three other peers were responsible for burying Charles I’s body.

Parliament fined Montagu Bertie £647.13 for supporting the Royalist cause and a further £300 each year that he lived at Grimsthorpe during the Commonwealth. The 2nd Earl of Lindsey lived to see the monarchy restored and assisted as Lord Great Chamberlain at the Coronation of Charles II (1630-85). As payment, Montagu claimed the Indo-Portuguese bed, which the king used the night before the coronation. The bed still resides at Grimsthorpe Castle today.

Following Montagu Bertie’s death in 1666, his eldest son Robert became the 3rd Earl of Lindsey (1630-1701). Robert’s first marriage to Mary Massingberd provided the Earl with much-needed money, as did his second marriage to Elizabeth Wharton (d. 1669). In 1670, Robert married a third time to Lady Elizabeth Pope, who oversaw the rebuilding of the north front of Grimsthorpe Castle. She also arranged for the re-laying of the formal gardens.

In 1701, the Earldom passed on to another Robert (1660-1723), who received many titles during his lifetime. As well as the 4th Earl of Lindsey, Robert was styled as 17th Baron Willoughby de Eresby until 1706, after which he was made the 1st Marquess of Lindsey by Queen Anne (1665-1714). Following the queen’s death, Robert was created the 1st Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven. This honour could only pass down the male line, so if a future heir only had a daughter, the title would die out.

While living at Grimsthorpe, the Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven employed Stephen Switzer (1682-1745) to design a fortified garden, although little remains of it today. Robert Bertie also hired Sir John Vanbrugh (1664-1726) to create a baroque-style front to the house to celebrate his ennoblement as Duke. The design is Vanbrugh’s last masterpiece and encompasses the two-storey Stone Hall, State Dining Room, State Drawing Rooms and several bedrooms.

The Stone Hall, also known as the Vanbrugh Hall, features full-length paintings of English kings by Sir James Thornhill (1675-1734), which resemble statues standing in alcoves. The State Dining room is lit by an impressive Venetian window and the State Drawing Room contains a chimneypiece thought to be “one of the most elegant in England”. Vanbrugh also redesigned corridors at the south and west of the building, which now contain the thrones used by George I and Victoria, as well as many portraits of the Willoughby de Eresbys.

Vanbrugh died before the completion of Grimsthorpe Castle. It is not known for certain who took up the work, but it was not complete until 1730. When the 1st Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven died, the castle and title passed on to his second eldest son, Peregrine (1686-1742), who oversaw the remainder of the building work. The eldest son predeceased his father by 19 years.

In 1742, the 3rd Duke of Ancaster, also called Peregrine, focused on decorating the interior of Grimsthorpe Castle. He brought the decor up to date by introducing the Rococo style. He also employed Capability Brown to landscape parts of the park. The fishponds that the 1st Earl of Lindsey dug were landscaped into a lake, and a knot garden, hedged rose garden, and a terrace with herbaceous and shrub borders were introduced.

Robert Bertie (1756-79) succeeded his father as 4th Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven but died a year later. With no children, the Dukedom passed on to his uncle Brownlow Bertie (1729-1809). Brownlow had no male children, so the Dukedom became extinct on his death in 1809. His only daughter predeceased him, so the Barony of Willoughby de Eresby passed to the 4th Duke’s eldest sister, Priscilla (1761-1828).

When Priscilla, 21st Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, arrived at Grimsthorpe, she found that the various alterations over the past century had achieved little to improve the building. Vanbrugh’s style of architecture was no longer in fashion, but Priscilla opted to keep it and hired Samuel Page to carry out a sympathetic restoration. Unfortunately, this work removed much of the original features of the Tudor parts of the house.

In 1828, Peter Robert Drummond-Burrell (1782-1865) succeeded his mother as 22nd Baron Willoughby de Eresby. Eight years previously, on the death of his father, he inherited the title 2nd Baron Gwydyr. Peter was a Member of Parliament for Boston in Lincolnshire, initially for the Whigs but changed his allegiance to the Tories later in life. At the Coronation of Queen Victoria, Peter had the privilege of holding the queen’s crown. Through his marriage to Sarah Clementina Drummond (1786-1865), he became the owner of Drummond Castle in Scotland.

When the 22nd Baron inherited Grimsthorpe, his mother’s will stipulated that all the furniture must be sold, and the proceeds shared with his sisters. The majority of the ornate furniture in the house today was purchased by Peter from various locations across the continent with his portion of the money.

Albyric Drummond-Willoughby (1821-70) succeeded his father as both 3rd Baron Gwydyr and 23rd Baron Willoughby de Eresby but died childless. The Barony passed to his older sister, Clementina (1809-88), a 60-year-old widow. She made little use of Grimsthorpe, but her son, Gilbert Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby (1830-1910), used it for occasional winter shooting parties.

Gilbert became the 1st Earl of Ancaster, a title that passed to his eldest son, also called Gilbert (1867-1951). Finally, Grimsthorpe became a family home once more. The British Conservative politician and his American wife, Eloise Lawrence Breese (1882-1953), restored and modernised the house, which had been neglected for over 40 years. Arts and Crafts designer Detmar Blow (1867-1939) introduced bathrooms, electricity and central heating to the building.

When a relative passed away, Grimsthorpe received many furniture and tapestries. Many of the statues in the garden also come from the relative, whose estate at Normanton Park was sold and demolished in 1924. Eloise landscaped parts of the garden to accommodate the new stone arrivals.

During the First World War, the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force used Grimsthorpe Park as an emergency landing ground. The estate was also used during the Second World War by a company of the Parachute Regiment. While they were there, they whitewashed the walls of the Vanbrugh Hall and broke a pane of glass engraved with the names of James I (1566-1625) and his wife, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619). Fortunately, this was the only damage Grimsthorpe received during the war.

On the death of the 2nd Earl of Ancaster, his son James (1907-83) spent the post-war years putting the house back in order. He demolished the service block, which once occupied the courtyard. James’s wife, Nancy Phyllis Louise Astor (1909-1975), oversaw the redecoration of the interior. Her mother, Nancy Astor (1879-1964), the first female Member of Parliament to take her seat, spent her final years at Grimthorpe, passing away on 2nd May 1964.

James’s son and heir Timothy (b. 1936) disappeared at sea in 1962, so his daughter inherited the barony in 1983. Lady (Nancy) Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby (b. 1934) is the 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby. Lady Willoughby was one of the six Maids of Honour at the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth II (b. 1926). She created the Grimsthorpe and Castle Trust, which safeguards the house, its contents and park. Lady Willoughby never married and thus has no children. There are currently two co-heir presumptive: cousins Sebastian St Maur Miller (b. 1965) and Sir John Aird (b. 1940).

Grimsthorpe Castle remains an impressive building with beautifully landscaped gardens. On the east side of the house, a 19th-century copy of a Gladiator in the Borghese Gardens in Rome stands proudly amongst the carefully landscaped flowerbeds. Several more sculptures are located around the grounds, including those in the Old Walled Garden. Produced as part of an exhibition by the Lettering Arts Trust, the artworks celebrate the beauty of the hand-made letter.

One of the artworks in the Old Walled Garden was originally designed for installation in the Park at West Dean in West Sussex. Inspired by the artist David Crowe, 11-metre high chalk letters spell out the word “fragile”. The artist wanted it to appear carved into the ground to remind people that the world needs to treat the natural environment with care.

Nearby, a labyrinth made of turf and box plants represents medieval beliefs. Unlike a maze, which gives people choices of direction, the labyrinth twists and turns in coils until it reaches the middle. Ancient civilisations believed their lives were mapped out in the stars and that their fate was already decided.

For £7 (£3 for children), Grimsthorpe welcomes visitors to explore the extensive gardens and parklands. Those wishing to visit the house, as well as the gardens, can purchase tickets for £13 (£5.50). Photography is not allowed inside the house, but visitors have the opportunity to join a guided tour and learn all about the rooms and the long line of the de Eresby family.

Tickets must be purchased in advance on the Grimthorpe Website.


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Tudors to Windsors (Part Two, Georgians to Windsors)

Continued from Tudors to Windsors (Part One, Tudors to Stuarts)

To recap: The British Royal Family has been a source of interest for hundreds of years, both for people living in Britain and those abroad. Until the advent of television, most people never saw the reigning monarch except in paintings. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has partnered with the National Portrait Gallery to create a timeline of royal portraits from the Tudors until today. The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, features over 150 portraits of kings, queens, consorts and children, spanning 500 years and five royal dynasties: Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian and Windsor.

George I (reigned 1714-27)

According to the 1701 Act of Settlement, only a Protestant could succeed to the British throne. All of Queen Anne’s children predeceased her, leaving no heir. Since Anne’s nearest relatives were Catholic, Parliament traced the family tree back to James I, then invited the former king’s great-grandson to take the throne. George of Hanover (1660-1727) accepted the crown, although he did not speak much English.

George I was the first king of a new dynasty, and not many people knew what he looked like. It was necessary to produce several portraits to prepare for new coins to make him more recognisable as the country’s monarch. Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723), the Principal Painter to the Crown, produced a portrait of George I for the Royal Mint. It shows the king in profile wearing gold-edged armour draped in silk. Although George wore royal regalia in his coronation portrait to emphasise his power and status, Kneller presented him in military garb, indicating his determination to defend both his position and his faith.

George II (reigned 1727-60)

The public never quite warmed to George I, which was not helped by his frequent disappearances to the continent. Relations started to improve during the reign of George II (1683-1760), the son of the previous king. His coronation portrait was commissioned by the Corporation of London and painted in the studio of Charles Jervas (1675-1739), an Irish painter. The king’s power and majesty are evident in his clothing and the table with crown, orb and sceptre. Through the window, Westminster Abbey is visible, which is where George’s coronation service took place.

Like his father, George II spent months at a time abroad, but this was often due to warfare. He was the last British king to lead his troops into battle, where he defeated the French at Dettingham in 1743 during the War of the Austrian Succession. Two years later, a grandson of James II (1633-1701), nicknamed Bonnie Prince Charlie (1720-88), led an uprising in an attempt to reestablish the Catholic Stuart monarchy. George and his troops eventually defeated the rebels at the Battle of Culloden in Scotland.

Despite the wars, Britain prospered during the reign of George II. The country experienced rapid financial growth and political stability. This helped to increase the king’s popularity, resulting in the national anthem God Save the King. The author and composer of the anthem are widely debated, and the first line differed slightly from the standard version sung today.

God save great George our king,
Long live our noble king,
God save the king.
Send him victorious,
Happy and glorious,
Long to reign over us,
God save the king!

George III (reigned 1760-1820)

Following George II’s death, the Hanoverian line skipped a generation and welcomed the late king’s grandson to the throne. George II’s son, Frederick (1707-51), predeceased his father, so the crown passed down to the next in line, George III (1738-1820). Unlike his great-grandfather and grandfather, George III was born in England. He publicly celebrated his identity as the first British-born Georgian king, declaring that he “gloried in the name of Briton”.

One year into his reign, George met and married Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (1744-1818). George had never seen Charlotte before their wedding day, and she only spoke German, whereas George only knew English. Despite this, they formed a strong bond and had fifteen children. To celebrate their union, the Scottish artist Allan Ramsay (1713-84) produced a pair of State portraits, in which the sitters wear gold and ermine costumes, the same clothing worn at George III’s coronation. At 23 years old, George appears young, graceful and dignified, but by the end of his reign, the king became unrecognisable from the portrait.

George reigned for 60 years, during which time Britain lost the American colonies. George prefered to live like the “middling sort”, i.e. wealthy merchants and entrepreneurs. Although he did not associate with the lower classes, George received the nickname “Farmer George”, which his children rebelled against by embracing their royal status. George’s eldest son, the Prince of Wales (later George IV), for example, was known for his lack of self-restraint and often got himself into debt. The prince caused many problems for his father, which on top of the pressures that came with being king, proved too much for George III. The king’s final decade was plagued with mental illness and in 1811, the Prince of Wales was installed as Prince Regent.

George IV (reigned 1820-30)

As the Prince of Wales, George IV (1762-1830) caused a lot of trouble for parliament and the royal family. He was a womaniser and had many lovers, including Maria Fitzherbert (1756-1837). Mrs Fitzherbert was a Catholic widow, who George married in secret in 1785. The marriage was illegal because all heirs to the throne were forbidden from marrying outside of the Protestant faith. It was thus considered void, which soured the prince’s relationship with parliament.

A miniature painting of the Prince of Wales by Richard Cosway (1742-1821) is thought to be a love token for Maria Fitzherbert or another of George’s lovers. George wears a powdered wig and a masquerade costume, which reflects his love of partying. The painting is mounted in a gold locket measuring 2 3/4 in. x 2 1/4 in. (70 mm x 57 mm).

Before becoming king, George was persuaded to marry his cousin, Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821). This was a financial arrangement to help settle some of the prince’s debts, which he had accrued by purchasing an enormous collection of artwork. He did not love Caroline and abandoned her shortly after the birth of their daughter, Charlotte (1796-1813). The public was horrified with George’s poor treatment of his wife and placed their hopes on Charlotte coming to the throne. Sadly, Charlotte died in childbirth in 1817, leaving George IV without an heir.

William IV (reigned 1830-37)

By the end of his reign, George IV was obese and suffering from many health problems. Without an heir, Parliament looked towards George’s younger brother, William (1765-1837), as the next in line to the throne. William had spent most of his life as a naval officer, as he is depicted in a portrait by Sir Martin Archer Shee (1769-1850). He is depicted wearing the full-dress uniform of an admiral and was known for speaking like a sailor, rather than a member of the royal family.

With all eyes on him, William had to change his way of life, which involved ending his 21-year affair with the actress Dorothy Jordan, with whom he had ten illegitimate children. William was forced to marry Princess Adelaide of Saxe-Meiningen (1792-1849), after whom the capital of South Australia is named. William was not pleased about the match, writing to his eldest illegitimate son, “She is doomed, poor dear innocent young creature, to be my wife.”

In 1830, William IV became king following the death of his brother. One of William’s first roles as king was signing the Great Reform Act in 1832. The Act disenfranchised many British people and altered the method of selecting borough representatives. It largely benefitted Whig politicians and their supporters and emphasised that women were to play no part in politics. As a result, William had many enemies, and when the Houses of Parliament burnt down in 1834, Queen Adelaide believed it was divine punishment for passing the Great Reform Act.

Despite several pregnancies, Adelaide did not give birth to any living children. Once again, Britain had a monarch with no heir. William’s younger brother, Edward (1767-1820), had passed away, leaving Edward’s daughter as the next in line to the throne. On the 20th June 1837, William IV passed away, and his 18-year-old niece Alexandrina Victoria became queen.

Victoria (reigned 1837-1901)

Although born Alexandrina Victoria, the new queen chose to reign under the name Queen Victoria (1819-1901). English painter George Hayter (1792-1871) captured the queen’s youth in her coronation portrait, but also made her look the part of a powerful ruler. Victoria had the right to reign alone, and her husband, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha (1819-61), was not allowed to take the title of king. Traditionally, a king is more powerful than a queen, so no one could hold the position of a king while Victoria was on the throne. Yet, conventional gender roles at the time made life as a sovereign difficult for Victoria. Parliament rarely let the queen give her opinion on matters, and Prince Albert made many decisions behind closed doors.

Major changes occurred during Victoria’s reign, particularly developments in science and technology. New technologies invented during the Industrial Revolution of 1760 to 1820 increased the number of discoveries during the following century. Famous names, such as Charles Darwin, Charles Babbage and Charles Dickens, were on everyone’s tongues, inspiring others to join the scientists, mathematicians, authors, geologists, astronomers and philosophers in changing the world.

The British Empire expanded to encompass Canada, Australia, India and West Africa. The results of colonisation and enforced religion are still felt today, although most countries have declared independence from British Rule. Several wars took place in the 19th century, most notably the Crimean War (1853-56), which paved the way for modern nursing with the help of Florence Nightingale (1820-1910) and Mary Seacole (1805-81). Whilst the government gradually reduced the effects of the Great Reform Act, women were excluded from voting in parliamentary elections and other roles that were deemed masculine. Even Queen Victoria, who experienced the harshness of sexism, opposed women’s suffrage, describing it as a “wicked folly”.

A crucial development during Victoria’s reign was the advent of photography. This invention dramatically changed the way the public viewed the royal family. Previously, many people never physically saw the king or queen; they were only familiar with the monarchs’ painted portraits, which were not always accurate representations. Photography made it easier to distribute Victoria’s image across the country and capture moments far quicker than a painter. Initially, photographs were staged due to the complexities of the camera, but as technology improved, it became easier for members of the public to capture the queen on film. Soon, the royal family had no control over when or by whom photographs were taken.

When Prince Albert passed away in 1861, the devastated queen chose to permanently wear black. Nevertheless, she continued her duties as queen, reigning for a total of 64 years. As the queen aged, her health deteriorated. By the age of 80, Victoria suffered from rheumatism in her legs and cataracts. During the autumn and winter of 1900, she felt increasingly unwell and passed away on 22nd January 1901. Her eldest son Albert, who was present at her death, succeeded her as King Edward VII.

Edward VII (reigned 1901-10)

Sir Luke Fildes’s (1843-1927) state portrait of Edward VII (1841-1910) is more reminiscent of the Georgian era with the white ermine than Queen Victoria’s coronation portrait. Several copies of the painting were made for embassies across the world, and a team of artists were hired to produce them. Although Fildes painted the original, it is not certain whose hand produced the version belonging to the National Portrait Gallery.

Photography made the need for state portraits redundant, so there are very few paintings of Edward VII in comparison to his predecessors. Edward also had no interest in the arts, preferring sport. Edward had hoped for a military career and was awarded the rank of colonel on his 17th birthday. Queen Victoria discouraged his future with the British Army, preferring Edward to focus on his role as the Prince of Wales and heir to the throne.

As king, Edward VII reorganised the British Army, which finished fighting the Second Boer War in 1902. He was known as the “Peacemaker” for his attempts to better Britain’s relations with other European countries, most notably France. New technologies, such as the telegraph and telephone, made it easier to communicate with people around the country and abroad. It was also easier to travel from place to place in steam trains and motorcars. Unfortunately, Edward’s reign was short, and he passed away in 1910, aged 68.

George V (reigned 1910-36)

Until 1892, the future George V (1865-1936) had no notion of becoming king. Whilst his father was heir to the throne, George had an older brother, Albert (1864-92), who was second in line. Unfortunately, Albert died from pneumonia shortly before his 28th birthday. The following year, George married his deceased brother’s fiancee, Mary of Teck (1867-1935), with whom he went on to have six children.

In 1913, Sir John Lavery (1856-1941) painted a family portrait of the king with his wife and two of their children, the future Edward VIII (1894-1972) and Mary, Princess Royal (1897-1965). It was commissioned by the English printer Hugh Spottiswoode (1864-1915), but the royal family wanted to be involved with the painting’s development. As well as posing for the artist in the White Drawing Room at Buckingham Palace, the king and queen regularly visited the artist’s studio to keep an eye on his progress. On one occasion, they insisted on putting the finishing touches of royal blue paint to a Garter ribbon. The completed painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in 1913, where it was labelled a work of “romantic impressionism”.

Shortly after the completion of the painting, World War I broke out in Europe. George V and his family felt it was their duty to participate in the war effort. The king made at least 450 trips to visit British troops, as well as 300 visits to military hospitals. He also turned up at shipyards and munitions factories to thank the workers. Aware that the House of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha sounded German, George V announced in 1917 that all descendants of Queen Victoria would bear the name Windsor. He wished to make it clear that the royal family did not affiliate with the enemy. Windsor is a castle with a long association with the monarchy, which is one of the reasons for the choice of name.

Edward VIII (reigned 1936)

As Prince of Wales, Edward was forbidden from fighting in the First World War, despite being part of the Grenadier Guards. Instead, he visited troops with his father and was admired for his charming personality and good looks. Frank Salisbury (1874-1962), “Britain’s Painter Laureate”, painted Edward in uniform during a visit to the Western Front in 1917.

When George V died in 1936, Edward became king, but he reigned for less than a year. Edward VIII had a difficult decision to make. He wished to marry Wallis Simpson (1896-1986), a twice-divorced American socialite, but the Church of England did not allow divorcees to marry at the time. As king, Edward was also the head of the church, so could not go against its rules. After causing a constitutional crisis, Edward realised he could not marry Wallis and remain on the throne, so he chose to abdicate. Edward and Wallis married the following year and moved to mainland Europe. Although granted the titles Duke and Duchess of Windsor, they had little contact with the royal family.

George VI (reigned 1936-52)

George VI’s (1895-1952) favourite portrait was painted by British painter Meredith Frampton (1894-1984) in 1929, when the future king was still Prince Albert, Duke of York. Wearing the full uniform of a Royal Navy Captain, the photorealistic portrait commemorated Albert’s presidency of Dr Barnardo’s Homes, a charity set up to care for vulnerable children. The prince had no idea he would one day be king. He had grown up in his brother’s shadow, suffering from a stammer, which made his duties as Duke of York difficult.

Unlike his brother, Albert served in the navy and airforce during the First World War. Usually, the heir to the throne cannot participate in warfare, but no one imagined Albert one day becoming king. Albert was thrust into the limelight in 1936, when he reluctantly replaced his brother on the throne, assuming the regnal name George VI. It has since come to light that the late George V wished Albert was his heir rather than Edward, who he thought would “ruin himself in twelve months”.

Not long after becoming king, Britain was at war again. George VI, his wife, Queen Elizabeth (1900-2002), and daughters, Princesses Elizabeth (b.1926) and Margaret (1930-2002), visited sites affected by the Blitz, which the public appreciated. After the war, George oversaw the dismantling of the British Empire and the establishment of the Commonwealth. Whereas the Empire controlled other countries by force, the Commonwealth is a voluntary association of independent states.

The stress of war combined with heavy smoking paid a toll on the king’s life. During the late 1940s, he developed lung cancer and suffered from various problems with his arteries. In 1951, his left lung was removed, which severely limited his everyday activities. His eldest daughter, Elizabeth, took on many of George VI’s roles, including touring. Six days after waving the princess off at London Airport (now Heathrow), George VI passed away from a coronary thrombosis on 6th February 1952, aged 56.

Elizabeth II (reigning since 1952)

When Elizabeth was born in 1926, her parents never imagined she would one day be queen. Unlike her father, who had the throne thrust upon him, Elizabeth had 16 years to prepare for her succession to the throne. At the time of George VI’s death, Elizabeth was in Kenya with her husband, Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh (1921-2021). She immediately returned to Britain and picked up her duties.

Hundreds of photographs exist of Elizabeth II, far more than any British monarch. Due to the efficiency of the camera, there are far fewer paintings. Over the past two centuries, new art styles have emerged, and there are no painted portraits resembling the Queen’s ancestors in the 19th century. Yet, throughout the queen’s reign, artists have been commissioned to paint her likeness in their preferred style. Artists include Andy Warhol (1928-87), Lucian Freud (1922-2011) and Pietro Annigoni (1910-88).

Italian artist Pietro Annigoni first painted Elizabeth II two years after her coronation. In 1969, he was invited back by the National Portrait Gallery to produce another portrait. Rather than depict the queen in a royal setting, Annigoni chose a neutral background, emphasising the queen’s red clothing. He explained his decision saying, “I did not want to paint her as a film star; I saw her as a monarch, alone in the problems of her responsibility”.

Annigoni’s portrait symbolises Elizabeth II’s lengthy reign as a female monarch during an era more accepting of women’s roles in society. Unlike Queen Victoria, whose male family members and government attempted to overrule her decisions, Elizabeth has reigned in her own right. Admittedly, the queen has less power than her predecessors, but during a crisis, the country looks to her for reassuring words of comfort and support. She is a patron of over 600 charities and organisations and has regularly attended events and special occasions to celebrate their work.

Elizabeth II has ruled longer than any monarch in British history, and the majority of the population have never experienced having a king. Over the last few years, she has delegated some of her duties to her heirs, who have in turn grown in popularity, particularly her grandson, Prince William, Duke of Cambridge (b. 1982). At the time of writing, the heir to the British throne is Charles, Prince of Wales (b. 1948), with Prince William next in line, and his son, George (b. 2013), third.

By looking at 500 years of royal portraits, it is possible to notice the changes in art style, particularly in the later years, as well as the upkeep of certain traditions. Early monarchs were depicted in formal regalia, which gradually changed in preference to military uniform. Artists painted the kings and queens as the royal family wished to be seen by the public. Early rulers came across as self-centred and greedy due to the jewelled clothing and ornaments that signified their status. Since Queen Victoria’s reign, the paintings appear more modest, with the kings revealing their support of the country through their military garb. The increased use of photography also helps to make the royal family appear more human, caring, and deserving of respect.

The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, is open daily throughout October 2021 at the National Maritime Museum. Tickets cost £10 for adults and £5 for children, although members can visit for free.


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Tudors to Windsors (Part One, Tudors to Stuarts)

The British Royal Family has been a source of interest for hundreds of years, both for people living in Britain and those abroad. Until the advent of television, most people never saw the reigning monarch except in paintings. The National Maritime Museum in Greenwich has partnered with the National Portrait Gallery to create a timeline of royal portraits from the Tudors until today. The exhibition, Tudors to Windsors: British Royal Portraits, features over 150 portraits of kings, queens, consorts and children, spanning 500 years and five royal dynasties: Tudor, Stuart, Georgian, Victorian and Windsor.

Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509)

The oldest painting in the exhibition is a portrait of Henry VII by an unnamed Netherlandish artist. Henry was born in 1457 to Edmund Tudor, Earl of Richmond and Lady Margaret Beaufort. His mother was a descendant of the Lancastrian king Edward III (1312-1377) and believed her son had a claim to the English throne. After defeating the Yorkist king Richard III (1452-85) at the battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, Henry seized the crown. The following year, Henry married Elizabeth of York (1466-1503). The marriage united the York and Lancaster dynasties and put an end to the War of the Roses.

This portrait was produced after the death of Henry’s wife. The inscription along the bottom reveals it was painted on 29th October 1505 by the order of Herman Rinck, who worked for the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian I (1459-1515). Art historians suspect it was given as part of a marriage proposal to the Emperor’s daughter Margaret of Savoy (1480-1530). The proposal was unsuccessful, and Henry passed away four years later. Henry’s eldest son Arthur (1486-1502) predeceased him, and his second child was a girl, Margaret (1489-1541), so the throne went to his third child, Henry.

Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47)

Painted in circa 1520, this portrait of Henry VIII pre-dates versions by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497-1543), who started working for the king in 1535. The artist is unknown but probably came from the Netherlands. Henry’s pose and the gilded corners suggest it was one of two companion paintings. The missing half was most likely a portrait of Henry’s first wife, Catherine of Aragon (1485-1536).

Henry was only 17 when he succeeded his father to the throne. He immediately married his brother’s widow but divorced her in 1533 after failing to produce a son. This event involved rejecting the Catholic Church and establishing the Church in England. Henry’s second wife, Anne Boleyn (1501-36), also failed to produce a male heir. Rather than divorce Anne, Henry ordered her execution.

Edward, Henry’s only legitimate son, was born to Henry’s third wife, Jane Seymour (1508-37). Unfortunately, Jane died two weeks after the birth, and the king remarried for the fourth time. Henry disapproved of his new wife’s physical appearance, and the marriage remained unconsummated. He divorced Anne of Cleves (1515-57) in 1540 and married Catherine Howard (1523-42). After accusing Catherine of adultery, Henry had her beheaded and married his sixth and final wife, Catherine Parr (1512-48). When Henry died in 1547, he only had three legitimate children, Edward, and two daughters from his first two wives, so Edward succeeded the throne.

Edward VI (reigned 1547-53)

Born at Hampton Court Palace in 1547, Edward was Henry VIII’s “most noble and most precious jewel”. He was only nine when his father died, so reigned with the assistance of his uncle, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset (1500-52), and John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland (1504-53). Unfortunately, Edward never reached the age of majority, so never ruled the kingdom on his own. He caught a chill in 1553 and passed away at the age of 15.

Several portraits of Edward were painted during his childhood, including this one, completed the year before he became king. By this time, William Scrots (active 1537-55) was the court painter, but art historians believe one of his students completed this particular image. The colours have faded significantly over time, resulting in an unfinished appearance. The background was originally blue, and Edward wore a luscious red coat, befitting a future king.

Lady Jane Grey (proclaimed 1553)

Shortly before Edward VI passed away, he named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey (1536-54), as his heir. Jane was the granddaughter of Henry VIII’s youngest sister and was married to Guildford Dudley (1535-54), son of the Duke of Northumberland. They, like Edward, were Protestants and could carry on the Reformation in England, unlike his Catholic half-sister Mary. When Edward died, the Duke of Northumberland immediately seated Jane on the throne, but Mary and her supporters protested. Nine days later, Mary took the throne from Jane and threw Jane and her husband into prison for treason. After a rebellion in Jane’s favour, Mary had the nine-day queen beheaded.

Although the artist is unknown, analysis of the panel reveals Jane’s portrait was produced long after her death. It probably belonged to a series of paintings of Protestant martyrs, but it is impossible to tell how good a likeness it is because Jane’s portrait was never taken during her lifetime. Damage to the artwork suggests the painting may have been subject to an attack at some point in history, most likely by a rebellious Catholic.

Mary I (reigned 1553-58)

Mary (1516-58) was the only surviving child of Henry VIII and his first wife, Catherine of Aragon. She became the first crowned Queen of England at the age of 37 and restored the Catholic faith across the country. Those who refused to conform to the faith of the queen faced execution. As a result, she became known as “Bloody Mary”.

One year into her reign, Mary married Philip II of Spain (1527-98), who thus became a joint ruler of England. Despite this, Philip spent most of their marriage in Spain, and they produced no children. Miniature paintings of both Mary and Philip were produced to celebrate their union. They were given as gifts to notable courtiers and allies. Mary’s portrait is based on a larger painting by the Netherlandish artist Anthonis Mor (1517-77), which was commissioned by Philip’s father, Holy Roman Emperor Charles V (1500-58).

Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603)

When Mary I died childless, her 25-year-old half-sister inherited the throne. Elizabeth (1533-1603) was the child of Henry VIII’s second wife, Anne Boleyn. As queen, Elizabeth re-established the Church of England, once again removing Catholicism from the realm. Yet, she reigned in relative peace, except for the failed Spanish Armada in 1588. With Elizabeth’s permission, English explorers discovered new lands and established foreign trades, which brought new cultures to England.

Elizabeth remained unmarried, despite several marriage proposals. With no children and no legitimate siblings, the question of succession was ever-present. Elizabeth was also the first woman to rule alone without the help of a man, which was another reason some wished to find her a husband. Several portraits of the queen were painted, possibly to attract potential suitors. Instead, the portraits asserted Elizabeth’s power, despite being female.

This artificially staged portrait, known as The Ditchley Portrait, was requested in 1592 by Sir Henry Lee (1533-1611), who lived in Ditchley, Oxfordshire. Lee had recently retired from the role of Queen’s Champion but had fallen from grace after choosing to live with his mistress, Anne Vavasour. Painted by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger (1561-1636), the painting marks the occasion of the queen’s forgiveness of Lee. This is symbolised by stormy skies that retreat into the background, as though banished by the queen.

At the time of painting, Elizabeth was 59 years old, but, ignoring her mortality, Gheeraerts portrayed her as an iconic “Virgin Queen”, wearing the youthful clothing of an unmarried woman. She stands on a map of England, signalling her control over the nation. Her feet point toward Oxfordshire, where the painting was produced. On the right-hand side, the artist includes a sonnet about the sun, symbolising the monarch. Lee is the assumed author of the poem, in which he refers to Elizabeth as the “prince of light”.

James I (reigned 1603-1625)

The Virgin Queen died, and so ended the Tudor Dynasty. In 1603, her cousin, James VI of Scotland (1566-1625), acceded to the English throne, uniting England and Scotland for the first time. With James I came a new royal house, the Stuarts, whose rule resulted in significant changes across the country, not least civil war.

James I is perhaps the most scholarly of all past British monarchs. He wrote poetry, prose and arranged for the translation of the “King James” Bible. He and his wife, Anne of Denmark (1574-1619), were patrons of visual arts, including architecture. The Queen’s House, next to the National Maritime Museum, was intended for Anne, although she passed away before its completion. The king and queen also enjoyed the theatre, especially plays by William Shakespeare (1564-1616), who completed over half of his works during James’s reign.

Unlike his predecessor, James did not enjoy sitting for portraits. As a result, there are not many paintings of the first Stuart king. This portrait of James I wearing the robe of the Order of the Garter was painted by Dutch artist Daniël Mytens (1590-1648) in 1621. The inscription above his head reads, “Beati pacific”, which means “Blessed are the peacemakers”. Mytens included this in the painting to indicate James I’s peaceful reign.

Despite the king’s aim to be a peacemaker in Europe, he narrowly escaped death in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. He also accrued significant debts during his reign, which turned some of his supporters against him. James and Anne’s eldest son, Prince Henry Frederick (1594-1612), predeceased his father at the age of 18. Following James’s death, the throne passed to the next eldest son, Charles (1600-49).

Charles I (reigned 1625-49)

Charles I carried on his father’s patronage of the arts and became one of the greatest royal collectors of paintings. He employed painters, such as Anthony van Dyck (1599-1641) and Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640), to produce portraits of his growing family. Despite suffering from physical disabilities as a child, Charles overcame his issues to establish a successful marriage with Henrietta Maria of France (1609-69) and produced six children who lived beyond childhood.

The majority of the famous portraits of King Charles I are in the Royal Collection, but the National Portrait Gallery owns one by the Dutch painter Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656). It is fairly formal in comparison to grand paintings by Van Dyck, and historians believe it may have been a study for a larger painting at Hampton Court. Charles had commissioned Honthorst to produce a mural-like painting of the king and his wife as the Roman gods, Apollo and Diana, with other notable people as other deities.

Despite his eye for art, Charles was less adept at politics. He spent excessive money buying paintings, which he paid for by placing heavy taxes on the population. When Parliament complained, Charles dismissed them, which prompted the Puritanism movement within the Church of England. Many openly expressed their dissatisfaction with the king, which led to increasing civil and political unrest. Eventually, civil war broke out across Britain between the king’s supporters and the Parliamentarians, led by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658). The war came to a dramatic end with the execution of Charles I outside the Banqueting House in London on 30th January 1649.

Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of England 1653-58)

Charles I’s death resulted in a republic, which lasted until 1653. During this time, Parliament argued about how to govern the country. These disputes resulted in the installation of Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector. Cromwell had been one of the leading men during the civil war, which made him a natural choice for the protector of the realm.

Unlike the previous monarchs, who wore glamorous, ornate clothing, Cromwell was a puritan and refused any decoration. His portrait, based on an unfinished version by Samuel Cooper (1609-72), depicts Cromwell in shining armour, emphasising his position as Lord Protector, rather than a king. The dull background colours befit his purist ways and pious religious beliefs, which rejected anything ostentatious and unnecessary.

Cromwell died in 1658, and despite his wishes, his funeral effigy was crowned as though a king. His son, Richard (1626-1712), briefly took on the role of Lord Protector, but he had very little political or military support. Parliament began to crumble, and the only way to save the country from ruin was to re-establish the monarchy.

Charles II (reigned 1660-85)

Charles I’s eldest son, also called Charles (1630-85), was invited back from exile to become king in 1660. Life under Puritan rule had been difficult, so the people rejoiced to see the return of the monarchy. Charles reopened theatres, which Cromwell had shut down, and allowed women to act on the stage for the first time. Charles also established the Royal Society to encourage scientific enquiries into the workings of the world.

Despite his warm welcome, the first few years of Charles II’s reign were challenged by events beyond his control. In 1665, the Great Plague caused over 70,000 deaths in London and neighbouring cities. The following year, the Great Fire of London devastated 436 acres of the capital city. Eighty-seven of London’s 109 churches were destroyed as well as approximately 13,200 houses.

Charles II’s portrait, attributed to the English artist Thomas Hawker (d. 1699), depicts the king towards the end of his reign. He was around 50 years old but still looked striking in his royal clothing, which matched his charming personality. Many considered Charles as a party-goer, although he could often be cynical and lazy. Events during his childhood and the execution of his father greatly affected the king, and he tried not to make the same mistakes as Charles I. He wanted to make his people happy, providing them with many sources of entertainment. He held a certain degree of popularity with the public and felt at ease with “ordinary people”.

Despite his attempts to be a good king, Charles received criticism about his numerous mistresses, including actress Eleanor “Nell” Gwyn (1650-87). Charles had fourteen illegitimate children but failed to produce an heir with his wife, Catherine of Braganza (1638-1705). When Charles died in 1680, none of his children had the right to the throne, so it passed on to his younger brother James (1633-1701).

James II (reigned 1685-88)

Within months of James II’s accession, a rebellion was led against him by Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth. Despite defeating his nephew, the public distrusted James for his Catholic beliefs. Since the reign of Elizabeth I, Britain had been a Protestant country, and the population was not happy to reintroduce Catholicism.

James’s first wife, Anne Hyde (1637-71), with whom he is pictured in a double portrait by Sir Peter Lely (1618-80), was also a Catholic convert, but she did not receive the same hatred as her husband because she died before he became king. The portrait was painted when James was still the Duke of York. He met Anne while in exile on the continent and promised to marry her after getting her pregnant. The wedding took place in secret shortly after the coronation of Charles II, which upset many people. Not only was Anne Catholic, she was a “commoner”.

Anne and James’s first son, Charles (1660-61), died before his first birthday from smallpox. They went on to have seven children, but only two girls, Mary and Anne, survived infancy. Anne passed away shortly after the birth of their youngest child, Catherine (1671-71). In 1673, James married another Catholic, Mary of Modena (1658-1718). By the time James became king, all their children had died in infancy. At this time, James’s only heirs were Anne’s daughters, who had converted to Protestantism, but the birth of a son, James Francis (1688-1766), caused widespread anxiety throughout the kingdom. The public did not want another Catholic king.

To prevent Catholicism from prevailing, Parliament invited William of Orange (1650-1702), the husband of James’s eldest daughter, to invade England. William met little resistance, and the king, fearing for his life, fled to France. This Glorious Revolution resulted in the joint reign of Mary II (1662-94) and William III. They agreed to sign a Bill of Rights to make England a constitutional monarchy. This meant they had some power as head of state, but Parliament was entitled to make decisions about running the country.

Mary II (reigned 1689-94)

Mary and William reigned as joint rulers until Mary died in 1694. William spent the first couple of years in Ireland fighting against the Jacobites, who wanted James II returned to the throne. While he was away, Mary proved a wise ruler, establishing many charities, including the Royal Hospital for Seamen in Greenwich. The painted hall at the hospital features allegorical paintings of Mary and William on the ceiling, which are still much admired today.

Jan van der Vaart’s (1650-1727) portrait of Mary is based on an earlier painting by Willem Wissing (1656-87), which was produced when Mary lived in the Netherlands. Van der Vaart altered Mary’s dress to resemble royal robes and added a crown and sceptre in the background.

Unlike her husband and sister, Mary was a tall and healthy woman but contracted smallpox in 1694. After isolating to prevent the spread of infection, Mary passed away at Kensington Palace, aged 32. William was devastated but agreed to reign alone as King of England. Sadly, he no longer resembled the happy man who reigned with his wife; instead, he felt like “the miserablest creature on earth”.

William III (reigned 1689-1702)

William III’s equestrian portrait was painted after Mary’s death but honoured the king’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in Ireland four years earlier. William also fought in the Nine Years’ War (1688-97) against France, which he eventually lost to Louis XIV (1638-1715). Despite this, the French king recognised William as the King of England, which gave him an ally against the Jacobites.

Towards the end of William’s reign, England was at peace with France, but this came to an end with the War of Spanish Succession (1701-1714). England and France were again on opposing sides, but William was less involved in the physical fight. Instead, William broke his collarbone after falling from his horse, which had tripped on a mole’s burrow. The wound caused complications, resulting in pneumonia, and William passed away in 1702.

William and Mary had no children, which meant they had no heir. Traditionally, the next eldest brother had the right to the throne, but the Bill of Rights signed at the beginning of William and Mary’s reign agreed that England could only have a Protestant monarch. As a result, the crown passed to Mary’s sister, Anne (1665-1714).

Anne (reigned 1702-14)

Although Anne had several health problems, she had a successful reign as Queen of England. During her reign, England was victorious in the War of Spanish Succession and negotiated peace in Europe through the Treaty of Utrecht. When Anne succeeded the throne, she was crowned the Queen of England, but in 1707, following the Act of Union with Scotland, she became the Queen of Great Britain and Ireland.

Sir Godfrey Kneller (1646-1723) was the Principal Painter to Mary, William, Anne, and the next monarch, George I. Kneller produced this portrait of Anne in 1690 before she became queen, when she still looked young and slender. Later portraits of the queen depict her as a much larger woman, and she was known to suffer severe bouts of gout. She relied on a wheelchair to move around or a sedan when at royal events.

One of Anne’s claims to fame was having seventeen pregnancies within seventeen years. Sadly, only five resulted in live births, all of whom tragically died young. Only Prince William, Duke of Gloucester (1689-1700), reached double figures, but he passed away from unknown causes at age eleven. On the fourteenth anniversary of her son’s death, Anne suffered a stroke, which rendered her unable to speak. She passed away a month later on 1st August 1714 and was buried beside her husband and children in the Henry VII Chapel in Westminster Abbey.

Once again, a monarch had passed away without an heir. Determined to keep the Catholic Stuarts from the throne, Parliament looked for distant, Protestant relatives of the queen. They traced the family tree back to Elizabeth Stuart (1596-1662), the eldest daughter of James I. This made Elizabeth’s daughter, Sophia of Hanover (1630-1714), the heir presumptive to the throne of Great Britain, but she too died in 1714. As a result, her son, Georg Ludwig (1660-1727), was crowned George I of Great Britain. Anne’s death resulted in the end of the Stuart dynasty, and George’s coronation marked the beginning of the Georgian era.

To be continued…


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Woolsthorpe Manor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Nero: destroyer or builder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Making of a Saint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

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

Broadmead and Castle Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treasure Island Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Stamps: A Brief British History

The history of the British postal system dates back to the 12th century when King Henry I (1068-1135) appointed messengers to deliver letters to and from members of the government. Since then, the country has developed an efficient national service, which inspired countries around the world to do the same. Britain also takes credit for the first postage stamp, the Penny Black, which revolutionised the method of sending letters both in Britain and across the planet.

Monarchs followed in Henry I’s footsteps, utilising messengers to carry letters. Henry III (1207-72) gave his men uniforms to show they were on official business for the King. The general public could hire messengers, but these men had no distinguishing clothing. Many households sent kitchen boys or other servants to deliver notes across the city or to neighbouring towns.

Messengers often travelled for several days to deliver the monarch’s messages to recipients in other counties or countries. Although some went on foot, most had horses to speed up the journey. During the reign of Edward I (1239-1307), stations, later known as post houses, were set up in or between various towns where mounted couriers could change horses or rest for the evening. Centuries later, these establishments developed into post offices.

Although postage stamps did not emerge until the 19th century, post markings developed as early as the 14th century. Urgent letters often featured handwritten notes, such as “Haste. Post haste”, which let the courier know to make the delivery a priority. During the 16th century, the Privy Council of Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) developed a “gallows” symbol to indicate the degree of urgency. The contents did not necessarily concern the gallows or execution, but it let the messenger know it was a letter of extreme importance.

In 1516, Henry VIII (1491-1547) appointed Brian Tuke (d.1545) as the “Master of the Postes”, thus creating the Royal Mail. At this time, only the royal family and members of the court could use the postal service. Tuke oversaw all the post to and from the royal court and arranged for couriers to make several deliveries during one journey. For this, Tuke received £100 a year and received a knighthood. Tuke also served as High Sheriff of Essex and Hertfordshire and owned manors in South Weald, Layer Marney, Thorpe, and East Lee.

During the reign of Charles I (1600-49), the Royal Mail became available to the public. The King instructed chief postmaster Thomas Witherings (d.1651) to arrange “a running post or two to run day and night between Edinburgh and Scotland and the City of London, to go thither and come back in six days”. Thus, the Post Office came into being. Witherings also oversaw the construction of six “Great Roads” and employed a postmaster to take charge of each one. The postmaster’s duties included providing new horses at every two and a half miles for the couriers.

In 1661, Charles II (1630-85) replaced the “Master of the Postes” with the Postmaster General. The King appointed Henry Bishop (1605-91) as the first man with this title and gave him the responsibility to oversee the handling and delivery of the Royal Mail. Since the service was made available to the public, the number of people sending letters rapidly increased. As a result, it took longer for letters to arrive. After a series of complaints, Bishop devised the first postmark “that is putt upon every letter shewing the day of the moneth that every letter comes to the office, so that no Letter Carryer may dare detayne a letter from post to post; which before was usual.” This postmark, which was first used on 19th April 1661, quickly became known as the “Bishop Mark” after its creator. It consisted of a small circle of 13 mm diameter with the month abbreviated to two letters in the lower half and the day in the upper. Bishop also increased the delivery routes across the country, with post offices in each town. Eventually, unique postmarks developed for each area to show from whence the post came.

Letters and parcels were usually paid for by the recipient on receipt. Some people complained about the expense, particularly about letters sent over short distances. To improve the system, an English merchant, William Dockwra (1635-1716), with the help of his assistant Robert Murray (1635-1725), devised the London Penny Post in 1680, which allowed inhabitants of London to send mail across the city for one penny. To use this service, the senders took their letters to a local post office and paid the penny fee rather than relying on the recipient to pay the charge.

Whilst the London Penny Post was successful, the rest of the country were charged per distance, weight or amount of paper used in their letters. People came up with ways to avoid paying the steep charges, such as writing extra small or, if the letter was not prepaid, reading the message and handing it back to the postman. After many discussions, the Great Post Office Reform of 1839 and 1840 set about reversing the financial losses of the service as a result of this misuse. The Reform aimed to nationalise the penny post, a concept championed by Sir Rowland Hill (1795-1879). After much debate, Royal Mail adopted Hill’s suggestion of charging one penny to send an envelope of up to half an ounce in weight anywhere in the country or two pence if the fee was collected from the recipient.

The Post Office felt sceptical about lowering the price of postage to a fixed rate of one penny, but Hill rightly pointed out that it would encourage more people to send letters. This sparked the worry that post offices would soon become the busiest establishments in British towns and cities, which inspired Rowland Hill to devise a new means of sending mail. Rather than paying for each letter at a post office, Hill suggested selling prepaid adhesive labels to stick on envelopes. This meant people could buy several labels in one go and reduce the number of trips to the post office. Instead, they could place their letters in the provided post boxes. Thus, the world’s first stamp was born.

The world’s first stamp, the Penny Black, came into use on 6th May 1840 and allowed letters of up to half an ounce to be sent anywhere in the country. Rowland Hill first proposed the idea in 1837, although it took some time for the Post Office to agree to it. Eventually, Hill received permission to begin the project and announced a design competition for the new stamps. Over 2,600 people submitted entries, but they were all impractical. Finally, Hill chose a simple design featuring the profile of Queen Victoria (1819-1901).

Hill commissioned the engraver Charles Heath (1785-1848) to engrave the image of the Queen based on a sketch by Henry Corbould (1787-1844). The size of the stamp was 3/4 inch wide by 7/8 inch tall (19 x 22 mm), which allowed room for the portrait as well as the words “Postage” and “One Penny”. The two upper corners on the design featured the Maltese Cross, and the bottom corners denoted the position of the stamp in the printed sheet. A printed sheet held 240 stamps in 20 rows of 12 columns. The stamps on the top row contained the letters AA, AB, AC and so forth, and on the bottom row, TA, TB, TC etc. The stamps were printed in shades of black, hence its name.

Two days after the Penny Black came into use, the Post Office issued a Two Penny Blue for the postage of letters weighing up to an ounce. The stamps were an immediate success, but the Penny Black soon began to cause problems. After receiving letters, post offices marked the stamp in red ink to show it had been used. Due to the darkness of the Penny Black, the red ink did not show up well and was easily washed off. Learning of this, many people were able to reuse the stamps. By February 1841, the Penny Black had been replaced with the Penny Red, and post offices used black ink to mark used stamps.

Whilst purchasing several stamps on one sheet was useful, the only way to separate them was to cut them out with scissors. This inefficient method inspired printers to develop more practical ways, such as perforation, which became standard practice in 1854. Lines of small holes along the edges of each stamp allowed the user to tear them apart without causing any damage.

The Penny Red and Two Penny Blue were a great success, but people also wanted to send letters and parcels that weighed more than one ounce. Some letters arrived at their destination with more than one stamp affixed to the envelope. This encouraged the Post Office to issue stamps for higher values. Between 1847 and 1854, they produced three new stamps: 1 shilling (12 pence), 10 pence and 6 pence. They were green, brown and purple respectively, and featured a watermark with the letters V R. Unlike the red and blue stamps, these embossed postage stamps were octagonal and could only be printed one at a time.

In 1855, a new method of printing allowed for the production of cheaper stamps. Surface printing, which is still used today to print wallpaper, is an automated printing method that quickly transfers an image to the paper using very little ink. A large reel of paper is threaded through the machine, which in the 19th century resembled a Ferris wheel. Whilst the first stamp printed in this method was a 4 pence stamp, printers were soon churning out halfpenny and penny halfpenny stamps.

The first halfpenny postage stamp was the Halfpenny Rose Red, first issued on 1st October 1870. Nicknamed “Bantams” due to their small size, the stamps were only 17.5 mm × 14 mm (0.69 in × 0.55 in), half the size of a Penny Red. These were intended for the sending of newspapers and postcards, which usually weighed less than letters. The stamps featured the engraved portrait of Queen Victoria with “12d” printed on either side. They were printed 480 to a page and watermarked with the word “halfpenny”. After ten years, the Halfpenny Green replaced the Rose Red.

On the same day as the Halfpenny Rose Red, the Post Office issued the Three Halfpence Red, also known as penny halfpennies. Printed in a similar colour as the halfpenny, the Three Halfpence was suitable for sending letters that weighed more than half an ounce but less than one ounce. The stamps featured the profile of Queen Victoria surrounded by the words “Three Halfpenny Postage”.

Larger stamps, including 5 shillings (25p), 10 shillings (50p), £1 and £5 also appeared in the 1870s and 1880s. Around the same time, the contract with Messrs. Perkins, Bacon & Co, who printed the Penny Red, came to an end. The stamps were temporarily replaced by surface printed Penny Venetian Reds but new laws resulting from the Customs and Inland Revenue Act of 1881 necessitated the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” on the stamp, so the Post Office commissioned a new design resulting in the Penny Lilac.

The Penny Lilac broke with the traditional design of stamps, which had rectangular designs. The new stamp, whilst printed on perforated rectangles, featured the profile of Queen Victoria inside an oval containing the words “Postage and Inland Revenue” and “One Penny”. Early versions of the Penny Lilac had 14 dots in each corner, but later versions had 16. Unlike the previous stamps, the engraved design was printed in purple while the background remains blank. This meant the stamps could be printed with less ink, allowing Royal Mail to save on expense.

All the other stamps needed new designs due to the Customs and Inland Revenue Act. Printers decided to use the same colour purple for the lower valued stamps (1 12d, 2d, 2 12d, 3d) and green for the higher (4d, 5d, 6d, 9d and 1s). The choice of colours was chosen to prevent forgers from reusing the stamps. People frequently washed red and blue stamps to remove postmarks, but the new purple and green inks would fade in contact with water.

Many complained about the new designs because they were simple in comparison to the original stamps. This was due to the rush to create them after the 1881 Act. The 2d, 2 12d, 6d, and 9d stamps were a horizontal format, which also received complaints. Due to this, the Post Office considered revamping the designs.

The Post Office commissioned their designers to produce unique designs for each existing stamp from a halfpenny to one shilling. With Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee approaching in 1887, they aimed to print them that year in her honour. Collectively, these stamps are known as the “Jubilee Issue” and have a more elaborate design than the lilac and green stamps. Despite celebrating the Queen’s 50th year on the throne, they decided to continue using the original profile picture of the 18-year-old Victoria. Some of the stamp designs contained two different colours to make them easier to tell apart.

Happy with the new designs, the Jubilee stamps remained for the rest of Victoria’s reign. When her son, Edward VII (1841-1910), succeeded the throne in 1901, new stamps became necessary. By reusing the frames for the Jubilee stamps, the Post Office quickly issued new versions featuring the profile of the new king. To prevent people from reusing the stamps, they were printed on chalk-surfaced paper, which was designed to smear if anyone attempted to remove the postage mark.

When George V (1865-1936) became king in 1910, the stamp design remained relatively the same, but in 1924, the United Kingdom released its first commemorative stamp. Featuring the King’s profile on one half and a lion on the other, the stamps commemorated the British Empire Exhibition held in Wembley Park from 23rd April 1924 until 31st October 1925. Of the 58 territories in the British Empire, only Ghana and Gibraltar did not participate. Each country brought items to exhibit and sell based on their cultures, which they displayed in unique pavilions. Malta’s pavilion, for example, was modelled on a Maltese fort and the Australian pavilion displayed a 16-foot diameter ball of Australian wool.

The next major change in stamp design occurred after the death of George V. In 1936, Edward VIII came to the throne, prompting the Post Office to issue a set of four stamps ready for his coronation. Unfortunately, Edward VIII abdicated, and the stamps were only used for a few months. In comparison to previous designs, the Edward VIII stamp was rather simple, only featuring the profile of the king, a crown, the denomination and the word “Postage”. The design was suggested by 18-year-old H.J. Brown and the portrait of Edward was photographed by Hugh Cecil (1889-1974). To prevent forgeries, the stamp was watermarked with the symbol of a crown and “E8R”. The 12d green, the 1 12d brown and the 2 12d blue were issued on 1st September 1936, followed by the Penny Red on 14th September.

George VI’s (1895-1952) stamps were relatively simple in comparison to its predecessors, yet they were more ornate than Edward VIII. The new stamp featured an image of the King based on a plaster cast by Edmund Dulac (1882-1953). They were printed on a solid colour background with the words “Postage” and “Revenue” written on either side of the King’s profile. In the corners, a flower represented each of the countries that made up the United Kingdom: a rose for England, a thistle for Scotland, a daffodil for Wales and shamrocks for Northern Ireland. In 1937, the stamps became lighter in colour because the printers wished to save money on ink in anticipation of the Second World War.

In 1940, the Post Office released commemorative stamps to celebrate the centenary of the postage stamp. At double the size of the usual stamps, the centenary stamps featured the portrait of Queen Victoria and George VI side by side. A total of six different designs were produced, one for each of the denominations from 12d to 3d. Other commemorative stamps printed during George VI’s reign celebrated the king’s silver wedding, the liberation of the Channel Islands, the 1948 London Olympic Games, the Universal Postal Union’s 75th anniversary and the centenary of the Great Exhibition of 1851.

New stamps were once again needed when Elizabeth II (b.1926) succeeded her father in 1952. The image of the Queen was taken from a photograph by Dorothy Wilding (1893-1976), who had worked as a royal photographer since 1937. In the photograph, the Queen wears the State Diadem, which Queen Victoria wore in her portrait for the Penny Black. Over 75 designs were considered for the stamp before deciding upon five that resembled the much-loved stamps of the past. Eighteen different values of stamps were printed featuring the new Queen whose face was half turned to the viewer rather than in profile.

During Queen Elizabeth II’s reign, there have been hundreds of commemorative stamps, for example, the Coronation in 1953 and the World Scout Jubilee Jamboree in 1957. Yet, until 1964, the only people to feature on stamps were members of the royal family. In celebration of his 400th birthday, William Shakespeare (1564-1616) became the first “commoner” to have his face on a British stamp. A series of five stamps were designed for the occasion, one of which displayed the playwright’s face alongside the Queen. The other designs contained the Queen and an illustration portraying a scene from a Shakespeare play.

Whereas the profiles of previous monarchs were easy to reproduce as a silhouette to print on other items and commemorative paraphernalia, the Queen’s half-turned face caused problems. This prompted a redesign of British stamps in 1967 using a profile image made by English sculptor Arnold Machin (1911-99). Rather than an ornate design, the stamps were reduced to a coloured background, profile image of the Queen and the denomination in the bottom left-hand corner.

In 1970, the stamps needed editing again after Great Britain adopted decimal currency. New denominations appeared in the corners of the stamps, such as, 10p, 20p and 50p. In 1972, the Post Office issued £1, £2, and £5 stamps and later the odd values of £1.30, £1.33, £1.41, £1.50 and £1.60.

The new prices of stamps were confusing for many people, so the Post Office restricted the higher denominations to £1, £1.50, £2 and £5. In 1988, they issued four new designs featuring illustrations of castles from each country in the United Kingdom, based on photographs taken by Prince Andrew (b.1960). A small version of the Queen’s profile sat in the corner of each stamp alongside the image of Carrickfergus on the £1 green stamp, Caernarfon on the £1.50 brown, Edinburgh on the £2 blue and Windsor on the £5 brown.

Due to inflation, prices of stamps increased, which caused many difficulties for designers and printers. To work around the problem of fast-changing rates, the Post Office released non-denominated postage stamps, known as 1st class and 2nd class. These stamps remain in use today, and the prices can change without affecting the design. In 1993, self-adhesive stamps were printed, meaning people no longer needed to lick the back of a stamp to stick it to the envelope. In 2009, two ellipsoidal panels were added to each stamp to make them harder to remove and reuse.

Every Christmas, the Post Office releases festive-themed stamps, which always feature a small profile of the Queen in one corner. Hundreds of commemorative stamps are also printed each year, some of which cost more than the standard rate. People who have been commemorated include Princess Diana (1961-97), the Queen Mother (1900-2002), Winston Churchill (1874-1965), Inigo Jones (1573-1652), William Morris (1834-96), Roald Dahl (1916-90), Beatrix Potter (1866-1943), Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) and the gold medal winners of the 2012 Olympics. Significant events, such as the Queen’s Silver Jubilee and the millennium, received special stamps, as have the anniversaries of buildings and organisations, including Westminster Abbey, the NHS and Great Ormond Street. Even fictional characters have featured on British stamps, for instance, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter and Winnie the Pooh.

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A Ball of Wool

On my recent blog, The History of Postcards, published on 9th April 2021, I received a comment that said, “Hazel can make anything interesting, perhaps next week the history of a ball of wool!” Whilst this suggestion is undoubtedly a joke, it made me think. Is it possible to write an article about a ball of wool? Could it be an interesting topic to research? So after some thought and a few internet searches, my response to this comment is “Challenge Accepted!” 

From where does wool come? Most people will say sheep, which is true, but wool is also obtained from other animals, including goats, oxen, rabbits and camels. The history of wool begins around 6000 BC, where archaeological evidence in Iran suggests people kept sheep for their wool. Fragments of woollen garments dating to circa 3000 BC exist in the Middle East, but the animals arrived in Europe much later, where the oldest wool textile, found in a Danish bog, dates to c. 1500 BC.

To remove the woollen fleece from the sheep requires a pair of shears. These may resemble a large pair of scissors or, more recently, a power-driven toothed blade similar to human hair clippers. Yet, the first shears did not appear until the Iron Age (c. 1500-500 BC). Before then, people collected the wool by hand, either plucking it straight from the sheep or using sharp bronze combs.

Around the time of the Roman invasion in 55 BC, the British Isles had a thriving wool industry, which helped clothe the majority of people in the country. Soon, wool joined linen and leather as the most common clothing textiles in Europe. Other fabrics, such as cotton and silk, arrived later from India and China, and only the most wealthy could afford such luxuries.

By the 1st century AD, European people bred sheep specifically for wool production. As Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) explained in his encyclopedia Naturalis Historia (Natural History), some areas were already selectively breeding the animals to produce superior fleeces. Pliny claimed Apulian wool, collected from sheep in the heel of Italy, was the “most esteemed”, often used for making cloaks. He explained that although shearing sped up the wool collecting process, some countries still preferred to pluck it from the animal.

Pliny also described the various colours of wool found in different areas of the world. In Southern Italy, sheep tended to have white fleeces, but in the north, black sheep frequented the Alps, and Erythræan or red wool came from countries bordering the red sea. Wool gathered in Istria, a peninsula shared today by Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy, was not as suitable for making garments, whereas sheep in Egypt produced the best wool for embroidery. In Gaul, they used fleece to make carpets and felt. They also dyed the wool to create beautiful patterns, although black wool did not take any colour.

A fair in Champagne in the 13th century

With so many varieties of wool, the fabric soon became a tradeable commodity. In the 12th century, traders flocked to “Champagne Fairs” in the French county of Champagne, where they sold many textiles and spices. Usually, they held six fairs a year, with the first held annually on the 2nd January. The second took place on the Tuesday before “mid-Lent” and the third on the Tuesday before Ascension Day. The fourth fair, known as the “fair of St. John”, occurred on the Tuesday after St John’s Day (24th June), which celebrates the birth of Saint John the Baptist. The fair of St. Ayoul always took place on 14th September to mark the Exaltation of the Cross, and the final fair took place on All Souls’ Day (2nd November).

The Champagne Fairs made different qualities of wool available to other areas of Europe, and the trade became a serious moneymaker for much of the Southern continent. Italy remained the forerunner of wool production until the 15th century when English exports outranked them. As mentioned above, wool arrived on the British Isles with the Romans, but it was not until the 12th century that wool became Britain’s greatest asset.

Cistercians at work in a detail from the Life of St. Bernard of Clairvaux, illustrated by Jörg Breu the Elder (1500)

Cistercian Abbeys around Europe were instrumental in the success of the wool trade. Known for their “enterprise and entrepreneurial spirit,” they “were catalysts for development of a market economy” for much of the 12th century. Cistercians owned a lot of farmland on which they grew crops and bred animals, including sheep. England, in particular, was indebted to the Order for starting a successful wool trade with other countries. The Cistercians sent raw wool to cities in Flanders, where it was dyed and refined into cloth. The income from this industry was significant for the English Crown, which imposed an export tax on wool known as the “Great Custom”.

Maltolt, meaning “bad tax” in Norman-French, is the name given to a series of wool taxes between 1294 and 1297. Taxes imposed in 1275 granted Edward I (1239-1307) a half-mark customs duty per exported sack of wool, but when the Anglo-French War began in 1294, the price increased. All wool gathered in England belonged to the king who charged traders 40 shillings per sack. Unhappy with the “Great Custom”, a group of noblemen wrote a series of complaints or Monstraunces to the king’s government. They claimed the Maltolt had driven the country to poverty amongst other grievances, forcing Edward to cease the taxes.

The Woolsack

By the 14th century, the wool trade was of great importance to the economy of England. Wishing to symbolise this, King Edward III (1327-77) suggested his Lord Chancellor should sit on a wool bale whilst in council. Now known as the Woolsack, the tradition has passed down the centuries and is still used today. The bale has been replaced many times, but in 1938 the House of Lords discovered the Woolsack stuffed with horsehair. Since reupholstered and filled with wool, the Woolsack is covered with red cloth and includes a backrest for more comfort. Since 2006, it is the Lord Speaker who sits on the Woolsack rather than the Lord Chancellor.

Although England was one of the largest wool exporters, they relied on other countries to turn the wool into garments and so forth. During the 14th century, Flemish weavers fled to England to escape taxes in Flanders, bringing with them their knowledge of weaving. Under their expertise, England could turn their wool into cloth, thus being able to trade both raw fleeces and textiles. By the time of the Black Death (1346-53), the most fatal pandemic to date, England accounted for approximately 10% of the wool trade.

The plague halted wool production, but by the 15th century, trade picked up once again. The English wool industry far surpassed the continent, and the government began to discourage exportation. When the Huguenots, French Protestants, fled to England in the early 16th century, they brought their weaving knowledge and expertise. With their help, the English industry became self-sufficient, no longer needing to send fleece abroad to transform into cloth.

Determined to be more successful than Flanders and Italy, England outlawed wool exportation. Nonetheless, this did not stop people from trying to ship the material to France. Known as Owlers because they worked predominantly at night, participants smuggled 480,000 pounds of wool a year across The Channel. They usually set off from Romney Marsh, sparsely inhabited wetlands in Kent and East Sussex, but the government soon found out, and those caught lost their hands as punishment.

In 1699, William III (1650-1702) issued An Act to prevent the Exportation of Wool out of the Kingdoms of Ireland and England into Forreigne parts and for the Incouragement of the Woollen Manufactures in the Kingdom of England. The act aimed to squash the growing woollen industry in Ireland and the American colonies. It also forbade the use of foreign wool, meaning shopkeepers in England could only sell clothing made from the fleeces of English sheep. The government wished to profit from the English wool trade without any other country benefiting from sales. Naturally, several people opposed this rule and wool was transported overseas by Owlers and sold on the black market.

Queen Bertha of Burgundy instructing girls to spin flax on spindles using distaffs

Until the 18th century, the wool industry relied on manual spinning wheels and looms to create cloth. Known as the “cottage industry”, many did this from the comfort of their own homes. The homemade garments, usually produced by women, were made from raw wool supplied by a subcontractor. The subcontractor often employed many women and families to produce cloth for a small amount of money.

Harris Tweed

Manual labour in the cottage industry was slow, but subcontractors usually had several workers, allowing them to make a steady profit. One notable brand, Harris Tweed, began its life as a cottage industry in the Outer Hebrides of Scotland. Islanders living on Lewis and Harris, the Uists, Benbecula, and Barra made a living as crofters, weaving cloth for personal and practical uses. The islands were often cold, so the inhabitants needed thick clothing, but they also sold fabric to the mainland for income. Using only pure wool from sheep on the islands, Harris Tweed is easily identifiable from flecks of colour made from natural dyes. Although the Industrial Revolution in the mid-18th century sped up cloth production, Harris Tweed is still produced by hand. The fabric is often sought after in the fashion industry and is used by many companies, including Hugo Boss, Topman, Nordstrom, Dr Martens, and Nike.

Handloom weaving in 1747, from William Hogarth’s Industry and Idleness

The Industrial Revolution (1750-1850) brought radical changes to wool production, almost putting cottage industries out of business. Many inventors built devices to help speed up the textile making process. Machines, such as handlooms, worked better for cotton, which is finer than wool. Soon the cotton industry surpassed the wool industry with over 900 factories in Britain by 1797. At that time, cotton made up 2.6% of Britain’s textile output, which increased to 17% in 1801. Wool, on the other hand, only rose from 10% to 14.1%.

Until the 18th century, textile workers used man-powered spinning wheels to turn wool into yarn (balls of wool). To lessen the manual labour, English inventor John Kay (1704-79) patented the flying shuttle in 1733, which halved the production time. Operated by one person, the frame used a series of mechanisms to spin the wool into long strands. In 1764, Lancashire weaver James Hargreaves (1720-78) developed the spinning jenny, which allowed a single worker to spin up to eight spools of wool at a time. As technology improved, this increased to 120.

The first machine that did not rely on human power to work was the water frame, patented by Richard Arkwright (1732-92) in 1767. Initially used for cotton rather than wool, the machine’s mechanisms were powered by a waterwheel. Usually made from wood and fitted with buckets or blades, the wheels were attached to the walls of the mills and factories above a running stream. As the water flowed against the buckets or blades, the wheel turned, thus powering the machines inside. The downside to this invention was its reliance on water flow. They required fast-moving streams that would not dry up in the summer months. This requirement limited the number of places suitable for such mills.

A Roberts self-acting spinning mule

For places without access to suitable water streams, Samuel Crompton invented the spinning mule in 1779. Although this involved manual labour, each machine held 1,320 spindles, significantly increasing the output of the textile industry. By 1825, inventor Richard Roberts (1789-1864) improved production further by patenting the self-acting mule. After starting the mule by hand, each mechanism caused a chain reaction so that the machine continued moving for a length of time. The self-acting mule grew popular and gradually replaced the previous machines. Roberts invention was a vital piece of equipment until the mid-20th century when electric looms became favourable.

Engraving of Ned Ludd, Leader of the Luddites, 1812

Sadly, the introduction of machines cost many people their jobs. Factories needed fewer people to spin the wool, increasing unemployment. In 1812, a secret organisation called the Luddites protested against the Industrial Revolution, destroying textile machinery in the process. Led by Ned Ludd, a weaver from Leicester, the Luddites met at night on the outskirts of industrial towns to plan their attacks. After entering the town, they smashed machines and sent death threats to factory owners before escaping through secret getaway chambers.

“I have been in some of the most oppressed provinces of Turkey; but never, under the most despotic of infidel governments, did I behold such squalid wretchedness as I have seen since my return, in the very heart of a Christian country.” So said Lord Byron (1788-1824) in the House of Lords regarding the Luddite Riots. The British Army frequently clashed with the Luddites, arresting many participants who faced a mass trial in York in January 1813. Parliament passed the Frame Breaking Act, which made machine sabotage a capital punishment. At least 60 men were found guilty and sentenced to either execution or penal transportation. Fearful of this new law, the Luddite organisation disbanded.

Despite their methods of protest, the Luddites made a valid point about the Industrial Revolution. Traditional textile industries, particularly those in East Anglia, suffered greatly. Instead, large cities, such as York, developed into industrial areas, taking work away from people in small towns and villages. Transporting criminals to the colonies also backfired on the British economy. Those sent to Australia found jobs raising sheep and producing wool. By 1845, the Australian wool industry surpassed Britain, even providing wool for British factories.

The history of balls of wool or yarn is less precise than wool in general. It is assumed manufacturers first wound the spun wool into balls or skeins to avoid knots and snags many centuries ago, but it is uncertain when wool became commercially available in this manner. Today, balls of wool come in all colours and sizes and are used by those who knit for a hobby as well as clothing factories. Yet, knitting was not always a hobby but a necessity. Before cheap clothing stores, women made garments from scratch to clothe their families. The oldest knitted artefacts are socks dating from 11th century Egypt, although evidence suggests the technique predates archaeological evidence.

Madonna Knitting, by Bertram of Minden 1400-1410

Archaeologists have discovered knitting needles and crochet hooks in the Middle East dating back to the 3rd century AD. In Europe, the earliest evidence of this skill comes from 13th-century Spanish tombs in the royal Abbey of Santa María la Real de Las Huelgas. Records suggest Christians hired Muslim slaves to produce knitted garments, but in the 14th century, it became a respected skill amongst all women. Several paintings from the 14th and 15th century depict the Virgin Mary knitting clothes for her son, Jesus Christ.

Long before the Industrial Revolution, inventors found ways to speed up the knitting process. In 1589, English clergyman William Lee (1563-1614) devised the stocking frame, controlled by a series of pedals and levers. Unfortunately, Queen Elizabeth I (1533-1603) refused to grant him a patent because the woollen stockings were too rough for her royal ankles. This had no reflection on the machine but rather her preference for silk. Despite this rejection, Lee found success in France when King Henri IV (1553-1610) offered him financial support.

The Knitting Woman by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, 1869

Unlike the machinery invented during the Industrial Revolution, the stocking frame never found its way into factories. Instead, workers used them at home in their cottage industries, which only went out of fashion after the introduction of steam-powered knitting machines in the 19th century. Hand-knitting quickly declined in the clothing industry, but it increased in popularity as a hobby. Authors such as Jane Gaugain (d.1860) published books about this leisure activity, featuring many knitting patterns.

During the First World War, the government encourage women, men and children to knit clothing for allied soldiers. This included socks, hats, gloves and scarves because frostbite was as deadly as the enemy. The Red Cross published pamphlets to teach the unskilled how to knit. These were also sent to soldiers so they could repair damaged clothing.

After the war, knitting continued as a popular hobby, and knitted garments became fashionable. In the 1930s, families began knitting out of desperation during the Great Depression because it was far cheaper to make clothes than purchase them. Some knitters even sold their items to make money.

The Second World War sparked the Make Do and Mend campaign. As well as knitting for soldiers, the Ministry of Information published pamphlets encouraging households to limit waste at the height of rationing. The booklets provided instructions about darning socks, patching holes and making many items of clothing. Whilst this helped the country save on resources, it also boosted morale by making people on the “home front” feel they were doing their bit for the war effort.

During the 1950s and 60s, knitted clothing, particularly in bright colours, became haute couture. The government thought knitting was a useful skill and made it a part of the school curriculum, although only for girls. This changed after factories started using computerised knitting machines, allowing them to mass-produce knitted garments and sell them at low prices. By the 1990s, younger generations rejected the skill as an “old person’s thing”.

The 21st century is experiencing a resurgence in knitting, often inspired by celebrities and online craft blogs. The internet allows people to share their ideas and creations, which are far more inventive than the scarves and socks usually associated with the hobby. Magazines, websites, and videos provide everything beginners and advanced knitters need to know to create amazing outcomes, all of which start life as a simple ball of wool.

There ends the long and varied history of a mundane object. At first glance, a ball of wool may not seem an exciting topic, but after picking at the surface, a never-ending story unravels. So, dear reader, I hope I have lived up to your claim that I “can make anything interesting”.


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The History of Postcards

It has probably been a while since most of us have sent or received a postcard due to the Covid-19 restrictions across the world. Also, the increased use of smartphones has reduced the need to send “wish you were here” notes in the post when it is easier and cheaper to upload a photograph or message onto social media. Yet, as deltiologists (also known as postcard collectors) will tell you, postcards have an interesting history, which blossomed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Many cards purchased as souvenirs in the past are now collector’s items and have appeared in auctions since 1896.

Penny Penates postcard

The earliest known postcard was received in 1840 in Fulham by the composer and writer Theodore Hook (1788-1841). Known for his practical jokes, Hook likely sent the card to himself, either as an experiment or to poke fun at postal workers. The card, which bears a Penny Black stamp, features a hand-drawn caricature of postal clerks holding large pens. They are seated around an inkwell labelled “Official” with the words “Penny” and “Penates” on either side. Penates, or Di Penates, were household deities in Ancient Roman religion responsible for guarding the storeroom. Hook’s illustration suggests the post workers either looked after their pennies or the Penny Black stamps.

In 2001, a collector discovered the Penny Penates postcard and the British Philatelic Association confirmed it is the oldest documented postcard in the world. It is also the oldest card sent with a Penny Black stamp, which was only used between May 1840 and February 1841. In 2002, Penny Penates made history again, becoming the most ever paid-for postcard at auction, selling at £31,750 to a collector in Latvia.

Lipman’s Postal Card

The first commercially produced postcard appeared in 1861 in the United States of America, although manufacturers saw no need to decorate one side of the card with an image. Instead, the card, patented by John P. Charlton of Philadelphia, was plain on both sides – one for the message and the other for the recipient’s address. After selling the rights to Hymen Lipman (1817-93), the man credited for making the first pencil with an attached eraser, they added a border to the message side.

In 1870, commercial postcards began selling in the United Kingdom. These were also blank on both sides but featured a printed stamp, which the Post Office included in the price of the card. Only the Post Office had permission to sell postcards, which they sold in two sizes. The larger of the two eventually fell out of use in favour of the smaller due to ease of handling. Eventually, the Post Office introduced a standard size of postcard at 5.5 by 3.5 inches.

Other European countries adopted postcards slightly earlier than the United Kingdom, although the Prussian government worried about privacy issues. In 1869, the Austria-Hungary post office issued blank postcards, of which approximately 3 million were used in the first three months. When the Franco-Prussian war began in July 1870, soldiers saw the benefits of this inexpensive method of writing to people back home. Soon, post offices throughout Europe and further abroad agreed to the sale of postcards.

The claimed first printed picture postcard

In 1870, postcards began featuring a picture on one side with a small space to write a message. The reverse remained blank for the recipient’s address. Historians continue to debate over the origins of this idea, with the majority agreeing the first picture postcard was created by a soldier at Camp Conlie. Léon Besnardeau (1829-1914), the alleged inventor, resided at the training camp during the Franco-Prussian war, where he developed a lithographed design to print on postcards. This particular illustration featured two piles of military equipment topped by a scroll and the arms of the Duchy of Brittany. In French, the inscription reads, “War of 1870. Camp Conlie. Souvenir of the National Defence. Army of Brittany.”

Meanwhile, others argue the first picture postcard appeared in Germany three days before the outbreak of the Franco-Prussian War. August Schwartz, a bookseller from Oldenburg, is regarded as the illustrator of this card, which bears the postmark 16th July 1870. Yet, neither of these cards resemble the souvenir postcards of today, the earliest of which appeared in Vienna in 1871.

North Bay, Scarborough

In the United Kingdom, the first picture postcards appear in 1894 at the beginning of the “Golden Age of Postcards”, which lasted until 1914. The Post Office permitted other publishers to print the cards, which led to a rise in postcards of landscapes and scenic views. ETW Dennis and Sons of Scarborough were the first company to print postcards outside of the Post Office. Edward Thomas West Dennis (1847-1923), a Quaker, saw a commercial gap in the market and began producing postcards for seaside resorts, which consumers purchased as mementoes of their holidays or sent home to friends and family.

Despite permitting others to print postcards, the Post Office provided strict rules about the design. Regulations stated the back must only contain the address, and publishers could print up to five words on the front as well as an image, as long as they left space for the sender to write a message. Society thought it unseemly to write personal messages where anyone could see, so the limited space prevented people from divulging too much information. Nonetheless, some people tried to get around this by writing along the edges of the illustration as well as in the space provided.

When talking about postcards, the historian Steve Hillier likened them to “the text message of their time”. Due to the small message space, households often received several postcards from the same sender. This prompted the Post Office to reconsider its regulations. The outcome, released in 1902, was the Divided Back postcard, which allowed people to write a message on one half and the address on the other. On the front, the picture took up the entire space.

With the rate of sending a postcard at half a penny, many continued to favour postcards over letters. Whilst today postcards are generally received from people on holiday, early 20th-century publishers produced cards for villages and towns across the United Kingdom. For example, in 1910, an inhabitant of the village of Upminster in Essex sent a postcard to a friend in France, asking them if they had recovered from their recent cold. The postcard contains a photograph of The Bell Inn, which dominated the crossroads at the centre of Upminster for 200 years before its demolition in 1963.

During the First World War, postcards helped boost the morale of soldiers, but also remained an effective form of communication with friends and family in Britain. Some postcards contained lengthy updates, whereas others simply said, “meet me off the train at 2 pm tomorrow”, or something equally mysterious. Whilst today we cannot guarantee next-day delivery, even with a first-class stamp, postmen once delivered letters to houses twice a day, providing a near-instant method of communication.

Whilst the war halted the production of seaside and holiday postcards, the industry saw a rise in military postcards. Some of these contained photographs of regiments or individual soldiers, which are now collectors’ items. Publishers also printed humorous cards to keep people’s spirits up, particularly those on the front lines or the injured. These postcards usually featured a cartoon rather than a photograph and saw a revival during the Second World War.

After the end of the First World War, postcard production picked up once more, although it never achieved the popularity of the Golden Years. The price of postage increased to one penny in 1918, then one and a half pence in 1921. The latter caused public protest, so the price reverted to one penny the following year.

The 1930s saw a rise in cartoon-style postcards, many of which were labelled bawdy or saucy. These illustrations shocked those with strong British morals, but others thoroughly enjoyed the innuendos and double entendres. Cartoonists often poked fun at stereotypical characters, such as vicars, large women and unfortunate husbands. They also made inappropriate jokes about the private lives of the average person.

Synonymous with the saucy postcard genre is the English graphic artist Donald McGill (1875-1962), who eventually received a fine for breaking the Obscene Publications Act 1857. His career as a postcard designer began unintentionally in 1904 after drawing a humorous get-well card for a sick nephew. McGill’s family encouraged him to produce more illustrations, and within a year, he had a full-time occupation. He started taking risks with the content of his drawings, noting the more vulgar they became, the better they sold.

McGill earned the title “King of the Seaside Postcard”, but after the outbreak of the First World War, he produced anti-German propaganda postcards instead. His illustration style remained consistent, with bright colours and caricature figures, but the messages focused on bolstering British morale and insulting the enemy. As a child, McGill lost a foot after an accident playing rugby, so he could not physically fight. He saw his humorous postcards as his contribution to the war effort.

Throughout the war, McGill designed approximately 1,500 postcards. His early war illustrations focused on the soldiers but later turned to the Home Front, wives, families, female munitions workers and the Red Cross. McGill often included puns in his work, for example, a soldier hanging up his laundry with the caption, “A blow on the Hindenburg Line!” The Germans built the Hindenburg Line or Siegfriedstellung from concrete, steel and barbed wire as a form of defence, which after several attacks, broke in September 1918.

Whilst the majority of McGill’s wartime postcards involved humour, he also produced sentimental cards featuring poems, which soldiers sent home to their sweethearts. Yet, linking all his postcards together is British patriotism, which inspired other artists and printers to produce similar illustrations.

After the war, McGill began designing postcards for the International Art Company, formed by Robert and Louisa McCrum. For 17 years, McGill produced his usual standard of work, but as time went on, new rules and censorship issues put pressure on the artist. The company prevented McGill from drawing people with red noses or women with exaggerated cleavage, which he found ridiculous rules to follow. Eventually, McGill resigned and worked on a freelance basis for other companies. In retaliation to the censorship issues, McGill’s outcomes became more saucy and shocking.

The outbreak of World War Two in 1939 put a halt to postcard production. With paper in short supply, McGill took a temporary job as a clerk for the Ministry of Labour, but he could not refrain from drawing for long. In 1944, McGill started drawing for D. Constance Ltd, but the newly elected Conservative government of the early 1950s grew concerned about McGill’s immoral illustrations.

Although McGill was not the government’s only target, he was required to attend a trial in Lincoln on 15th July 1954. In his defence, McGill’s lawyers claimed he had no intention of creating innuendos in his postcard designs, of which he produced over 12,000 during his career. They also claimed the “double meanings” needed pointing out to the artist after the production. The court did not believe these arguments and fined McGill £50 for breaking the 1857 Obscene Publications Act. Whilst this does not seem a large sum, McGill also lost his income source because no reputable company wished to print his postcard designs.

Postcards of a similar nature to those by McGill also suffered from the government’s intervention. They issued strict rules about taste and decency in art and literature and censored approximately 167,000 books. Many protested against this censorship and appealed for an amendment to the Obscene Publications Act. In 1957, McGill supplied evidence before the House Select Committee, saying he felt “a national system of censorship would be open to the vagaries of individual interpretation.” The appeal resulted in the Obscene Publications Act 1959, which allowed the printing of McGill’s postcards and the publication of controversial books, such as Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930).

The revival of saucy postcards inspired bawdy films, such as the Carry On franchise, which ran from 1958 until 1978. McGill’s illustrations regained popularity, and by his death in 1962, surpassed 200 million sales. Printers continued producing McGill’s postcards until 1968 after phasing them out in favour of modern designs.

Postcards never regained their post-war popularity but continued to be a cultural aspect of the British seaside. Colour photography replaced illustrations, which allowed souvenir shops to sell depictions of resorts and towns, often in unrealistically sunny weather conditions. Photographers developed their careers in the postcard trade, for instance, John Hinde (1916-97), who found success in Ireland. In the 1960s and 70s, Hinde teamed up with Billy Butlin (1899-1980), the British entrepreneur, to produce postcards for the many Butlin Holiday Camps around Britain. Hinde employed three men, Elmar Ludwig, Edmund Nägele and David Noble, to help capture idealistic views of Butlin locations.

Hinde often enhanced some of the colours in his photographs to create the optimistic tone Butlin desired. He meticulously planned the snapshots to depict images of a fun-filled family vacation. Typical scenes included large swimming pools, amusement parks, recreational activities and indoor dining. Today, these overly bright postcards are considered kitsch by collectors and cost much more than the few pence Butlin’s charged.

Modern seaside postcards usually feature more than one high-quality photograph of the area. Developments in technology allowed photographers to capture realistic images of the resort without the need for enhancements. Postcards are available in most locations and countries, which thousands of tourists purchase to send home to their family and friends. Contemporary postcards have no value in collections, yet in the future, they may prove of some worth.

In the Smartphone Age, holiday postcards are fast becoming something of the past, but printing companies are fighting to keep them fresh and alive. Many online companies allow people to personalise postcards to send on a variety of occasions. People can chose generic images or upload digital photographs and include text in a variety of typefaces. Is this the beginning of a new chapter in the history of postcards?

Postcards from Donald McGill’s era may have no relevance in today’s world, but for deltiologists, they are worth hundreds of pounds. Some consider saucy postcards a form of art, and we can thank the artists for breaking censorship boundaries and allowing us to be more open and accepting of people’s lives. Whilst some people may dislike lewd comments and foul language used in television and literature, the amendment of the Obscene Publications Act has allowed people to discuss sexual health, mental health and other taboo subjects.

So ends the brief history of postcards in the United Kingdom. Who knows what the future holds for this method of communication?


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