Walter Sickert

Until 18th September 2022, Tate Britain is exhibiting the works of Walter Sickert, one of Britain’s most influential artists of the 20th century. Taught by James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903) and influenced by Edgar Degas (1834-1917), Sickert became a prominent figure in the transition from Impressionism to Modernism. As painting techniques developed in Britain, so did Sickert’s artwork, and he was not afraid to depict the lives of ordinary people and places rather than the idealised scenes of yesteryear.

Walter Richard Sickert was born on 31st May 1860 in Munich, Germany, although neither of his parents were German. His father, Oswald Sickert (1828-85), was a Danish painter of landscapes and genre scenes who travelled to Munich for his studies. Sickert’s mother, Eleanor Louisa Henry, was the daughter of the English astronomer Richard Sheepshanks (1794-1855). Following the German annexation of Schleswig-Holstein when Sickert was eight years old, the family moved to London and obtained British nationality.

Sickert initially attended University College School, an independent school in Hampstead established by the philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), but transferred to King’s College School in Wimbledon at the age of 11. Despite his father’s artistic influence, Sickert initially pursued a career in acting and joined Sir Henry Irving’s (1838-1905) company. After taking on minor roles in a few productions, Sickert switched to studying art.

After a short attendance at the Slade School of Art in 1882, Sickert left to become a pupil and assistant of James Whistler. Many of Sickert’s early works were influenced by Whistler, particularly the art of painting alla prima (literally “at first attempt“), which meant layering wet paint upon wet paint rather than waiting for individual layers to dry. The technique allowed Sickert to paint from nature and capture images quickly.

Sickert’s painting technique changed after he travelled to France in 1883 and became the mentee of Edgar Degas, who encouraged him to plan his paintings with preliminary drawings. Sickert began using a grid system and leaving layers to dry between coats.

Under Degas’ guidance, Sickert’s paid attention to individual components of a painting, resulting in precise details rather than the blurred outlines of his earlier work. Sickert preferred sombre colours, although Degas tried to persuade him to introduce brighter tones. Sickert’s previous training focused on Impressionism, a style often painted en plein air, but Degas persuaded Sickert to work with drawings and memory in a studio to focus more on the artwork’s details. Sickert took this advice on board, and many of his future works were created in a studio, sometimes using photographs as a reference.

In 1888, Sickert joined the New English Art Club (NEAC), an alternative organisation to the Royal Academy, influenced primarily by French artists. Founded in 1885, the NEAC held annual exhibitions at the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly, London. Whilst the Royal Academy preferred traditional painting methods, the NEAC embraced Impressionism and other figurative styles. Ironically, the NEAC continues to exhibit similar artworks at the Mall Galleries, whereas the RA has embraced abstract and conceptual art. Some of the artists belonging to the NEAC included John Singer Sargent (1856-1925), Thomas Benjamin Kennington (1856-1916), William Orpen (1878-1931), and Neville Bulwer-Lytton (1879-1951).

Inspired by his previous career ambitions, Sickert’s first major works after joining the NEAC focused on the stage, including theatres, music halls, café concerts and the advent of cinema. One example, which Tate Britain used for the exhibition’s promotional material, is Little Dot Hetherington at the Bedford Music Hall (1888-9). Sickert frequently depicted the Old Bedford on Camden High Street in his paintings. In this scene, Sickert captured Hetherington singing The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery, a music hall song written in 1885 by George Ware (1829-95).

Sickert also painted other examples of entertainment, including the circus. The Trapeze (1920) depicts an acrobat from the Cirque Rancy preparing to start her performance. Established by Théodore Rancy (1818-92) in the 19th century, the Cirque Rancy was a group of travelling circus acts across France. Still existing today is the Cirque Jules-Verne of Amiens, established in 1889 under the presidency of French writer Jules Verne (1828-1905). Sickert probably experienced the delights of the circus while living in Dieppe.

Other examples of entertainment in Sickert’s artwork include British Pierrots at Brighton, providing tourists with wartime relief, and orchestras performing from the pits of theatres. In the early 20th century, some music halls became early forms of cinemas, such as Middlesex Music Hall on Drury Lane, London. Using projectors and large white sheets or screens, the Old Mogul, as the hall was nicknamed, occasionally played films during their evening schedule. Sickert’s painting Gallery of the Old Mogul (1906) depicts men clambering to see the screen from the gallery. Only a tiny portion of the film is visible in the painting, but art historians believe it was one of the first Westerns ever shown. It could potentially be The Great Train Robbery (1903), which is generally considered the first of the genre.

During the 1880s, Sickert spent a lot of time in the French commune Dieppe on the coast of the English Channel. It is suspected that Sickert kept a mistress in Dieppe and potentially an illegitimate son. Artists at the time were known for having numerous mistresses, but Sickert also had three wives. He married his first wife, Ellen Cobden, in 1885 but divorced her after four years. He married his second wife, Christine Angus, in 1911 and remained with her until she died in 1920. In 1926, Sickert married the artist Thérèse Lessore (1884-1945), with whom he was still married at his death in 1942.

While in Dieppe in the 1880s, Sickert produced landscapes of the streets and buildings, including the church of St Jacques. Inspired by Claude Monet, Sickert painted the same scenes at different times of the day, exploring the effects of daylight on the architecture. In 1902, the owner of L’Hôtel de la Plage commissioned a series of paintings, which included a scene depicting bathers on the nearby beach. For reasons unknown, Bathers, Dieppe was never installed at the hotel. Instead, Sickert exhibited it at the Salon des Indépendants in 1903.

Between 1894 and 1904, Sickert visited Venice several times. During these trips, he focused on painting the city’s topography. He was particularly fascinated with St Mark’s Basilica, which like the church in Dieppe, he painted several times. Due to inclement weather during his last trip, Sickert began painting indoor scenes featuring groups of people. He continued exploring this theme on his return to Britain, using friends, professional models and possibly prostitutes to create tableaux from which to paint.

In the early 20th century, Sickert started painting nudes. Rather than depicting the idealised female body, he painted working-class women in dimly-lit rooms with crumpled bed sheets. Instead of glamorising nudity, Sickert’s artwork suggested poverty. When he first exhibited these paintings in Paris in 1905, they were well-received, but at the British exhibition in 1911, critics objected to the subject matter.

In 1907, Sickert became fascinated with the Camden Town Murder Case. In September of that year, the part-time prostitute Emily Dimmock was murdered in her bed by a client or lover. After having sex, the man slit Dimmock’s throat while she slept. Her body was discovered by her partner and the murder quickly became a press sensation. Causing controversy, Sickert renamed four of his previous nude paintings The Camden Town Murder. Each artwork featured a naked woman and a fully-clothed man, and although there were no signs of violence, the new titles gave the scenes a new interpretation. One painting shows a woman asleep on a bed while a man bows his head in thought. Originally called What Shall We Do for the Rent, the audience perceives the man as worried about money troubles; yet under the title The Camden Town Murder, the man may be psychologically preparing himself for the horrible act.

Shortly before the First World War, Sickert founded the Camden Town Group of British painters, named after the area of London he resided in at the time. Members met regularly at Sickert’s studio and mostly consisted of Post-Impressionist artists, including Lucien Pissarro (1863-1944), Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957), Spencer Frederick Gore (1878-1914), and Ethel Sands (1873-1962). The artists were influenced by the work of Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903), who worked in heavy impasto. Sickert’s paintings of nudes are evidence of this style of art.

From 1908 to 1912 and 1915 to 1918, Sickert taught at the Westminster School of Art. The school was originally based in the Deans Yard, but by the time Sickert joined the staff, it had merged with Angela Burdett-Coutts‘s (1814-1906) Westminster Technical Institute in Vincent Square. Between Sickert’s two spells at the school, he established the Rowlandson House in London and another in Manchester. Unfortunately, they closed due to the outbreak of the First World War.

Following the death of his second wife, Sickert spent some time in Dieppe, concentrating once again on buildings and groups of people, particularly in cafes. After returning to England, Sickert became an Associate of the Royal Academy in 1924 and married Thérèse Lessore in 1926. Shortly after his marriage, Sickert became unwell, potentially suffering a minor stroke. The illness marked a change in Sickert’s artwork, and he also decided to go by his middle name Richard rather than Walter.

Sickert stopped drawing from life and began painting photographs taken by his wife or those found in newspapers, such as King Edward VIII (1894-1972) arriving at a church service in 1936. Most cameras only captured images in black and white, so the colours in Sickert’s paintings are based on memory or imagination. He used the tonal contrasts in the photograph to determine colour hues and shadow.

Although Sickert only worked from photographs, he continued to receive commissions, such as from Winston Churchill (1874-1965) and his wife Clementine (1885-1977). Sickert met Clementine in Dieppe when she was only 14, where she was struck by Sickert’s handsomeness. Before she could act on her attraction to Sickert, Clementine’s family returned to England, but she remained in touch with Sickert and his family. After introducing Churchill to Sickert, Clementine’s husband commissioned an informal portrait and asked Sickert for advice about painting.

Sickert’s passion for the theatre never left him. Using photographs from newspaper reviews or promotional materials, Sickert painted several actors and scenes from shows. In 1932, Sickert depicted the British actress Gwen Ffrangcon-Davies (1891-1992) as Isabella of France in the play Edward II by Christopher Marlowe (1564-93). Sickert included the photograph’s caption La Louvre, meaning “the she-wolf”, which describes the fierce character of King Edward II’s wife.

Other theatre scenes Sickert painted included Edith Evans (1888-1976) as Katherine and Leslie Banks (1890-1952) as Petruchio in William Shakespeare‘s (1564-1616) The Taming of the Shrew. The play opened in London in 1937 at the New Theatre, which is now called the Noël Coward Theatre. Sickert based his painting on a press photograph. He also painted stills from films, such as High Steppers, based on the story of the Tiller Girls dance troupe.

In 1932, Sickert painted Miss Earhart’s Arrival, which shows Amelia Earhart arriving during a thunderstorm near London after flying solo across the Atlantic. Earhart completed her challenge when she landed in Northern Ireland in May 1932, but only a couple of people witnessed it. Sickert’s painting of the press photograph shows crowds of people welcoming the American woman to England the following day. Sickert cropped the image to focus on the people and weather rather than the plane in the background.

During the final decade of Sickert’s life, he relied heavily on assistants, particularly his wife, to help complete his paintings. These paintings included portraits of close friends, such as Lord Beaverbrook (1879-1964) and the novelist Hugh Walpole (1884-1941). Sickert also painted landscapes of Bath, where he and his wife moved at the end of the 1930s. On 22nd January 1942, Sickert passed away at the age of 81 and was buried at the Church of St Nicholas in Bathampton.

Sickert’s art style changed throughout his career. Firstly, he imitated Whistler and Degas before adopting an impasto technique. His final works were smoother but still fell under the Post-Impressionism umbrella. Several people criticised Sickert for using photographs and suggested it showed his decline as an artist. In hindsight, these were some of Sickert’s most forward-looking paintings, which went on to inspire many artists and the Pop Art movement.

Due to Sickert’s fascination with the Camden Town Murder, some people have speculated his connection to Jack the Ripper, who murdered at least five women in London in 1888. Despite evidence suggesting Sickert was in France at the time, several authors named Sickert as a potential culprit. Although Sickert was not in the country, he did find the murders intriguing and painted Jack the Ripper’s Bedroom in 1905. Sickert based the painting on a room he lodged in after the landlady told him her suspicions of a man that stayed there a few years earlier.

In 2002, crime writer Patricia Cornwell (b.1956) adamantly claimed Sickert was Jack the Ripper in her book Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper—Case Closed. Years earlier, Stephen Knight (1951-85) suggested Sickert was an accomplice in Jack the Ripper: The Final Solution (1976), although his sources of research were later discovered to be a hoax. All the information collected by Knight and Cornwell has since been scrutinised, and the consensus is any claim that Sickert was Jack the Ripper is fantasy.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is the first major retrospective of Sickert at Tate Britain in over 60 years. It explores Sickert’s approach to art and his changing styles and subject matter. Although it features The Camden Town Murders series, Tate does not allude to the rumours about Jack the Ripper. The exhibition is a celebration of Sickert’s work and the impact he had on future artists. It also honours the 80th anniversary of the artist’s death.

The Walter Sickert exhibition is open until 18th September 2022. Tickets cost £18 and must be purchased in advance.


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The Strange Case of Robert Louis Stevenson

Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are among the top stories of the 19th century. After selling hundreds of thousands of copies since their first publication, the name Robert Louis Stevenson is recognised by a significant number of people. Despite being a popular author, Stevenson’s novels are better known than his own life, which proves just as interesting for those who take the time to read about him.

Robert Lewis Balfour Stevenson was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, on 13th November 1850 to Thomas Stevenson (1818-87) and Margaret Isabella Balfour (1829-97). On reaching 18, Stevenson changed the spelling of Lewis to Louis, then in 1873 dropped Balfour from his name. Thomas Stevenson worked as a lighthouse engineer, and his father, Robert Stevenson (1772-1850), after whom Robert Louis Stevenson was named, built several lighthouses around Scotland. The Stevenson family had a long history of lighthouse work, but the young Robert Stevenson chose not to follow that profession.

As an only childhood, Stevenson grew up under the protection of his nurse, Alison Cunningham “Cummy”. Stevenson inherited weak lungs from his mother’s side, and Cummy nursed him through several childhood illnesses, telling him stories from the Bible. Stevenson dedicated one of his future stories to Cummy, calling her “My second mother, my first wife. The angel of my infant life.”

Stevenson found it difficult to fit in at the local school, and because of his many illnesses, he did not learn to read until he was seven years old. Nonetheless, he loved to hear stories and frequently dictated his own to his nurse or parents. As soon as he could write, Stevenson compulsively composed stories throughout his childhood, an activity his father encouraged. At 16, Stevenson’s father helped him publish his first work, The Pentland Rising: A Page of History, 1666, which gave an account of the Covenanters’ rebellion. This was a tale recounted by his nurse many times during his bouts of ill health.

In 1867, Stevenson began studying engineering at Edinburgh University. Despite his love of writing, Stevenson’s father expected him to join the family business, but Stevenson showed no enthusiasm and avoided attending lectures. Instead, Stevenson joined The Speculative Society with other students at the university. The society predominantly focused on debates and public speaking, and Stevenson made friends with several people who encouraged his passion for storytelling.

To encourage his son to take his studies seriously, Thomas Stevenson took him on trips to various lighthouses during the summer months. This backfired when Stevenson enjoyed the experience because it gave him more writing opportunities, rather than evoking an interest in the engineering work. Although disappointed, Stevenson’s father agreed he could pursue a life of letters but insisted his son earn a degree in Law to provide some security.

As well as turning his back on engineering, Stevenson rejected religion, declaring himself an atheist. This decision appalled his parents, causing his father to proclaim, “You have rendered my whole life a failure.” Stevenson shocked them further by choosing to wear Bohemian clothing and grow his hair long.

In 1873, Stevenson visited his cousin in France, where he met Sidney Colvin (1845-1927), an art critic who became Stevenson’s literary adviser. Colvin set Stevenson on the path to fame by posting his article Roads in The Portfolio, a British art magazine. After returning to Great Britain, Stevenson spent time getting to know writers in London, including poet William Ernest Henley (1849-1903), who had an amputated left leg. Henley inspired Stevenson’s most famous character, Long John Silver (Treasure Island).

Toward the end of 1873, Stevenson returned to France to recuperate from an illness in Menton on the French Riviera. While in France, he spent time in artists colonies and visited many galleries and theatres. Back in Scotland, Stevenson qualified for the Scottish bar in 1875 but never practised law. Instead, he continued writing and travelling.

In 1876, Stevenson took a canoe voyage through Belgium and France with Walter Simpson, who he met at The Speculative Society in Edinburgh. The trip finished in Grez, North France, where he made the acquaintance of the American magazine writer, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne (1840-1914). She had recently moved to France with her children, Isobel and Lloyd, after separating from her husband. When Stevenson returned home, he could not stop thinking about Fanny, so went back to France the following year.

Fanny returned to America in 1878. That year, Stevenson conducted a lengthy walking trip, which he wrote about in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes (1879). Over twelve days, Stevenson walked 120 miles in the barren Cévennes mountains in south-central France. Several hikers have retraced Stevenson’s route, beginning in Le Monastier-sur-Gazeille and finishing at Saint-Jean-du-Gard. The journey, which Stevenson completed alone, cost him his health, although this did not prevent him from travelling on the steamship Devonia, to join Fanny in California.

Stevenson’s health deteriorated during the crossing of the Atlantic. Approaching death, local ranchers in Monterey, California, nursed him back to health until he felt fit enough to make his way to San Francisco, where Fanny lived. Unfortunately, Stevenson did not have much money and lived “all alone on forty-five cents a day, and sometimes less, with quantities of hard work and many heavy thoughts.” When he eventually reached the city, Stevenson was once again at death’s door. This time, the newly-divorced Fanny nursed him back to health.

In May 1880, Stevenson married Fanny. Whilst he had regained some of his health, he declared he felt like “a mere complication of cough and bones, much fitter for an emblem of mortality than a bridegroom.” For their honeymoon, the couple spent the summer at an abandoned mining camp on Mount Saint Helena. Today, the area is known as Robert Louis Stevenson State Park. Stevenson’s parents were not overly pleased about the marriage, but after several trips to Britain, Fanny helped patch up the relationship between mother, father and son.

In 1884, Stevenson and his wife settled in Bournemouth, Dorset, where they purchased a cottage called Skerryvore. Still poorly, Stevenson spent a lot of time confined to his bed but enjoyed regular visits from the neighbouring author, Henry James (1843-1916). Despite his physical health, Stevenson felt able to write and produced many of his well-known works during his three years of bed rest.

Before settling in Dorset, Stevenson wrote, serialised and published one of his popular stories, Treasure Island. It is a story about pirates and a treasure hunt on a tropical isle. The story begins at the Admiral Benbow Inn in Bristol. Stevenson also mentioned other Bristol buildings, including Spyglass Tavern, which may be the present-day Hole in the Wall pub, and the Llandoger Trow, an historic public house dating from 1664. Stevenson aimed Treasure Island at children and started publishing chapters in the Young Folks magazine. Once all the chapters were written, it was printed as a book in 1883 by Cassell & Co. To date, it remains one of the most dramatised and adapted novels in history.

Also published in the Young Folks magazine from May to July 1886 was Kidnapped, a novel set during the aftermath of the Jacobite rising of 1745. The full title of the story is Kidnapped: Being Memoirs of the Adventures of David Balfour in the Year 1751: How he was Kidnapped and Cast away; his Sufferings in a Desert Isle; His Journey in the Wild Highlands; his acquaintance with Alan Breck Stewart and other notorious Highland Jacobites; with all that he suffered at the hands of his Uncle, Ebenezer Balfour of Shaws, falsely so-called: Written by Himself and now set forth by Robert Louis Stevenson, yet that is a bit of a mouthful. Critics suspect Stevenson loosely based the story on James Annesley (1715-60), who was kidnapped by his uncle Richard and shipped from Dublin to America.

Another work written during Stevenson’s period of bed rest was the Gothic novella Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Aimed this time at adults, it is a short story about a lawyer investigating the strange occurrences surrounding his friend Dr Henry Jekyll and a sinister man called Edward Hyde. The book led to the turn of phrase, “Jekyll and Hyde”, to refer to someone with a dual nature: good and evil.

Critics continue to speculate the meaning behind Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. Some interpret it as the examples of humanity versus animal or civilisation versus barbarism. Others suggest it demonstrates the difference between God and the Devil, or even the debate between Scottish nationalism and the union with England and Wales. The story also deals with the evils of addiction or substance abuse, which can corrupt a man. Stevenson left much of this up to the readers’ interpretation but said he had always been intrigued by how human personalities reflect both good and evil. He named one of the titular characters after his friend, Reverend Walter Jekyll (1849-1929), the younger brother of the renowned gardener, Gertrude Jekyll (1843-1932).

Following his father’s death in 1887, Stevenson took his doctor’s advice and moved to a different climate. Taking his mother and family with him, Stevenson headed for the United States, where he spent the winter in the Adirondacks, New York. The Stevensons resided in a “cure cottage” intended for sufferers of tuberculosis. Now serving as a museum called Stevenson Cottage, Stevenson wrote some of his best essays while residing there on the Saranac Lake.

After not showing much sign of improvement, Stevenson decided to try a warmer climate. He set sail from New York in 1888, stopping first in Hawaii, where he befriended King Kalākaua (1836-91). Kalākaua, sometimes referred to as “The Merrie Monarch”, ran a choir called Kalākaua’s Singing Boys, who enjoyed performing for Stevenson and his family. Kalākaua also played the ukulele and was inducted into the Ukulele Hall of Fame in 1997.

Stevenson returned to Hawaii several times while sailing around the Pacific on his hired yacht, Casco. When not in Hawaii, he visited the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Samoan Islands. Stevenson recorded his experiences in letters, which were published after his death. He also spent time completing a novel, The Master of Ballantrae: A Winter’s Tale, and a short story, The Bottle Imp. The latter is set in the Pacific, but the novel contains themes of piracy and the Jacobite rising of 1745.

During his voyages, Stevenson met several notable people, including Tembinok’ (1878-91), the High Chief of Abemama in the Gilbert Islands. The tyrannical chief allowed Stevenson and his family to stay on the island on the condition that they did not give or sell money, liquor or tobacco to his subjects. In his letters, Stevenson described Tembinok’ as “greedy of things new and foreign. House after house, chest after chest, in the palace precinct, is already crammed with clocks, musical boxes, blue spectacles, umbrellas, knitted waistcoats, bolts of stuff, tools, rifles, fowling-pieces, medicines, European foods, sewing-machines, and, what is more extraordinary, stoves.”

On Stevenson’s final trip from Australia to Samoa, he met “Tin Jack” Buckland (1864-97), a trader in the South Pacific. He told the family all about his adventures and almost set fire to the ship after some fireworks in his luggage accidentally went off. Stevenson used Tin Jack as the basis of a character in his novel The Wrecker (1892), which he wrote with his stepson, Lloyd Osbourne (1868-1947).

In December 1889, the Stevensons arrived in Samoa, where they purchased 314¼ acres of land in the village of Vailima. They built the first two-storey building on the island and invited their extended family to live with them. Stevenson immediately immersed himself in the country’s culture, renaming himself Tusitala, which meant “Teller of Tales”. He collected stories from the locals in exchange for his own, which were translated into Samoan.

The more Stevenson learned about the Samoans, the more he understood the risk of colonisation by foreigners and higher powers, such as Britain, Germany and the United States. Putting his storytelling to one side, Stevenson used his knowledge of the law to write letters to The Times about European and American misconduct. He expressed his concern for the Polynesians, who feared the loss of their culture to foreign influences. For most of his life, Stevenson avoided politics, but after experiencing the situation in Samoa, he openly allied himself with chief Mata’afa Iosefo (1832-1912), whose rival Susuga Malietoa Laupepa (1841-1898) was supported by the Germans.

During his time in Samoa, Stevenson wrote over 700,000 words, completing several short stories and novels, including The Beach of Falesá (1892); Catriona (1893), the sequel to Kidnapped; and The Ebb-Tide (1894). Many of his works from this period reflect life in the South Pacific, although critics find many parallels with his earlier works. In 1894, he began working on Weir of Hermiston, about which Stevenson exclaimed, “It’s so good that it frightens me.” Whilst the story is set in Scotland during the Napoleonic Wars, Stevenson incorporated examples of Samoan culture. Although he felt it was his best work, Stevenson never had the chance to finish it.

On 3rd December 1894, Stevenson turned to his wife and exclaimed, “What’s that? Does my face look strange?” and promptly collapsed. Within a few hours, he passed away from a cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 44. The Samoans insisted on guarding his body through the night and carrying him on their shoulders to Mount Vaea for his burial the following day.

As per Stevenson’s request, his tombstone was inscribed with his own words:

Under the wide and starry sky,
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me:
Here he lies where he longed to be;
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

The epigraph was translated into Samoan and sung as a song of grief.

Stevenson was a celebrity of his time and admired by many authors, including Rudyard Kipling, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.M. Barrie and Ernest Hemingway. G. K. Chesterton, the creator of the fictional priest-detective Father Brown, declared that Stevenson “seemed to pick the right word up on the point of his pen, like a man playing spillikins.” Spillikins is another name for the game Pick-up Sticks. Unfortunately, as time passed, a lot of Stevenson’s work was forgotten, with only Treasure Island and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde remaining popular. He was excluded from the first seven editions of The Norton Anthology of English Literature until his name was resurrected in 2006.

Since its publication, Treasure Island has been labelled a children’s book, yet American film critic Roger Ebert wrote in 1996, “I was talking to a friend the other day who said he’d never met a child who liked reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. Neither have I … But I did read the books later, when I was no longer a kid, and I enjoyed them enormously …The fact is, Stevenson is a splendid writer of stories for adults, and he should be put on the same shelf with Joseph Conrad and Jack London instead of in between Winnie the Pooh and Peter Pan.” After reevaluating Stevenson’s work in the late 20th century as adult literature, critics declared his writing superb, ranking him the 26th-most-translated author in the world, coming just below Charles Dickens in 25th place.

Robert Louis Stevenson is commemorated across the world for his contribution to literature and his insight into Samoan politics. The Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh devotes an entire room to the author, which is filled with some of his possessions. Other memorabilia is located at Stevenson House in California and the Robert Louis Stevenson Museum, located in his former home in Samoa.

In 2013, the Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin unveiled a statue of Stevenson as a child with his dog outside Colinton Parish Church. There is also a bronze relief memorial to Stevenson in St Giles’ cathedral. Another statue is located in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, and six US schools bear his name. To mark the 100th anniversary of Stevenson’s death in 1994, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a series of commemorative £1 notes.

Robert Louis Stevenson is no longer forgotten, at least in name, and his books are widely read across the globe. Yet, as is the case with many well-known names, Stevenson’s life proves just as interesting as his stories. He touched many lives in his relatively short life and achieved more than the average person despite his many illnesses. For that, he should receive as many accolades as his written work.


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Poussin and the Dance

Until January 2022, visitors to the National Gallery in London have the opportunity to view several paintings by the leading painter of the classical French Baroque style, Nicolas Poussin. Each artwork demonstrates Poussin’s unique methods of depicting the movement of dance whilst also bringing to life the classical world of the Olympian gods. Contemporary wax-work models attempt to replicate the evolution of Poussin’s ideas and provide an insight into his love of ancient marble sculptures.

Before the advent of Impressionism in the 19th century, Poussin was the most important artist in French history. Born near Les Andelys in Normandy in 1594, Poussin grew up learning Latin but spent much of his schooling drawing in his sketchbooks. Although his parents disapproved of a painting career, Poussin ran away to Paris in 1612 to search for work as an artist. At first, Poussin could not get a job as a painter because he did not belong to the guild of master painters and sculptors. Fortunately, his early work caught the attention of the Flemish painter Ferdinand Elle (1570-1637), who invited Poussin into his studio for three months.

After leaving Elle’s studio, Poussin found a position in the workshop of the French artist Georges Lallemand (c.1575–1636). Here, he studied anatomy and perspective but preferred to work alone and at his own pace rather than follow Lallemand’s instruction. While in Paris, Poussin had the opportunity to visit the Royal Collection, which introduced him to paintings by the Italian artists Giulio Romano (1499-1546) and Raphael (1483-1520). This sparked within Poussin the longing to visit the Italian capital, Rome.

Poussin attempted to travel to Rome in 1617 but only made it as far as Florence. He thus returned to France and made another attempt in 1622, this time not even making it out of the country. Back in Paris, Poussin received his first major commission from the Order of Jesuits to paint a series of paintings to honour the canonization of the order’s founder, Saint Francis Xavier (1506-1552). Now making a name for himself, Poussin received further commissions, including illustrating Ovid’s Metamorphoses for the court poet Giambattista Marino (1569-1625) and decorations for Marie de Medici’s (1575-1642) residence, the Luxembourg Palace.

At the age of 30, Poussin finally made it to Rome, the artistic capital of Europe, in 1624. He joined the Academy of Domenichino and the Academy of St Luke to study the art of painting nudes and took many opportunities to visit churches to examine the works of Raphael, Caravaggio (1571-1610), whose work Poussin hated, and other well-known Italian painters. Poussin fell in love with the architecture and statues around Rome, particularly the figures on ancient marble friezes.

One of the antiquities Poussin most admired was The Borghese Vase, also known as Krater with a Procession of Dionysus (1st century BCE). Sculpted in Athens from marble, the monumental vase became a garden ornament in Rome. A procession of dancers winds around the vase, overseen by the Greek god Dionysus. Many of the movements and fluidity of the characters are replicated in Poussin’s work, as are other ancient sculptures and friezes.

In 1626, Poussin found lodgings with the French sculptor François Duquesnoy (1597-1643), whose work also inspired Poussin. Before his death, Giambattista Marino, Poussin’s patron, frequently found him commissions from notable Italians, including Cardinal Francesco Barberini (1597-1679), the nephew of Pope Urban VIII (1568-1644). Yet, after Marino died, Poussin found it difficult to establish himself in the city.

Not only did Poussin lose Marino, but the Cardinal also moved to Spain as a papal legate, taking with him some of Poussin’s other sponsors. Poussin fell ill with syphilis and could not paint for several months. He survived by selling some of his old paintings until the French Dughet family took Poussin in and cared for him until he recovered. Poussin regained most of his health by 1629 and married Anne-Marie Dughet the following year. Her brother, Gaspard Dughet (1615-75), became Poussin’s pupil and signed his paintings “Gaspard Poussin”.

During the latter stages of his illness, Poussin completed a few commissions, which helped him afford to purchase a small house on Via Paolina. The Cardinal returned to Rome and Poussin painted several artworks for him, starting with The Death of Germanicus in 1627. Following the success of this work, Poussin gained many patrons, including the art dealer Fabrizio Valguarnera for whom he painted The Realm of Flora between 1630 and 1631.

The National Gallery displayed The Realm of Flora, which usually resides at the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, next to Poussin’s pen-and-ink study for the painting. Both painting and drawing show Flora, the Roman goddess of flowers, holding her skirts and dancing with putti (winged infants). Within her kingdom are several characters from Roman mythology, including Narcissus, who gazes at his reflection in a vase while Echo sits beside him. According to the Roman poet Ovid (43 BC – 18 AD), the handsome youth Narcissus fell in love with his own reflection and rejected the amorous advances of anyone else. This was his punishment for spurning the nymph Echo, who attempted to talk to Narcissus but could only repeat the words he said. 

Other characters in The Realm of Flora include the warrior Ajax falling on his sword, the athletic Hyacinthus, the beautiful Adonis, the mortal Crocus, the nymph Smilax, and the water nymph Clytia gazing at the sun. According to the myths, all these figures turned into flowers after their deaths. The physiology of each mythological person resembles the style of sculpture from the first century BCE that Poussin so admired.

As well as studying ancient sculptures, Poussin fashioned figurines out of wax, moulding them into the desired pose. While lodging with Duquesnoy in 1626, Poussin learnt a lot about modelling and frequently used wax figures when live models or classical sculptures were unavailable. Later in his career, Poussin modelled entire scenes from wax, placing the figures in a grande machine, a large box that resembled a toy theatre. Holes in the box allowed Poussin to control the lighting, which helped him choreograph his painted outcome. 

Unfortunately, none of Poussin’s wax models survive, but the National Gallery commissioned modern reproductions for the exhibition. These examples demonstrate how Poussin studied the movement of the body, proportions and the effects of lighting. Other artists also used this technique, but historical evidence suggests Poussin was devoted to using wax figures more than anyone else.

Evidence of Poussin’s studies of wax models and Borghese sculptures are in his preparatory sketches for many of his paintings. Several of Poussin’s paintings feature dancing figures, such as The Adoration of the Golden Calf (1633-4), which depicts an Old Testament scene. The Israelites are dancing around and worshipping the golden calf made by Aaron in chapter 32 of the Book of Exodus. Moses went up Mount Sinai, and the people feared he would not return, so Aaron made them a new idol to worship. In the distance, a furious Moses smashes the tablets containing the Ten Commandments he has just received from God.

The Adoration of the Golden Calf was one of two paintings commissioned by the Marchese di Voghera of Turin. The other painting, The Crossing of the Red Sea, was separated from its pair in 1945 when it was purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in Australia. The National Gallery in London bought the Golden Calf for £10,000 and it has remained in the collection ever since.

Another example of Poussin’s study of classical sculpture and wax figures is A Bacchanalian Revel before a Term (1632-3), which the National Gallery purchased in 1826. The term is a carved bust of a bearded and horned man around which wild men and women dance. Dancing revellers were often depicted in classical art concerning the rites of Bacchus, the god of wine. Poussin was familiar with the ancient Roman symbols for the god and festivals, including grapes and dancing.

Poussin’s painting can almost be read from left to right, as though a sculpted frieze. On the left, a woman squeezes juice from a bunch of grapes into a small dish held by a putto, and on the right, a woman has stumbled, presumably intoxicated with wine. A lustful satyr draws the woman into an embrace. Whilst these figures resemble classical art, the landscape contains similarities to other artists Poussin admired, such as Titian (1488-1576) and Giovanni Bellini (1430-1516).

As Poussin’s reputation grew, he gained patrons and admirers, including from his home country, France. One of his most prestigious clients, Cardinal de Richelieu (1585-1642), worked for Louis XIII (1601-43), who was one of the most powerful people in Europe. In 1635, Richelieu commissioned Poussin to paint three TriumphsThe Triumph of PanThe Triumph of Bacchus and The Triumph of Silenus. Several preparatory drawings exist for The Triumph of Pan, which reveal Poussin experimented with different poses, presumably manipulating wax models until happy with the composition. Many of his figures also resemble characters on The Borghese Vase.

Although titled The Triumph of Pan, there is some discussion whether the red-faced statue represents Pan, the Greek god of shepherds and herdsmen, or Priapus, the god of gardens. The shepherd’s crook and musical pipes attributed to Pan are in the foreground, but the statue wears a floral garland and exposes its genitalia, which usually symbolise Priapus. Nevertheless, both gods were followers of Bacchus, and the painting depicts a traditional Bacchanalian festival.

The muscular figures and draped garments recall ancient statues and the frieze-like arrangement make the scene look like actors on a stage. The painting is similar to the work of Renaissance artists studied by Poussin, particularly the tranquil landscape and distant mountains that may represent Pan’s native land of Arcadia.

Of Poussin’s surviving sketches, his preparatory drawing for The Triumph of Pan is his most detailed. Unlike other sketches that reveal the bare bones of the final painting, Poussin tried out the full effect of the composition with the figures in their final positions. There are a few minor differences between the sketch and the painting. The proportions of the artwork also changed, forcing Poussin to compress the group into a tighter huddle.

Whereas the figures dance around a statue in The Triumph of Pan, the rowdy revellers form part of a procession in The Triumph of Bacchus. Half-human-half-horse creatures called centaurs pull Bacchus’ chariot as he makes his way back to Rome after his triumphant victory in India, where he successfully taught the people of Asia how to cultivate the vine and make wine.

Poussin conveyed as much dynamic movement as possible in The Triumph of Bacchus with rearing centaurs, dancing women and other mythological characters playing instruments. Amongst the figures is Pan playing his pipes, and the muscular Hercules. In the background, Apollo, the sun god, drives the sun across the sky. In the bottom right corner, a river god lounges on the ground, watching the procession. He is a representation of India and the River Indus.

With one leg slung over a tiger, the naked Silenus partakes in a drunken celebration in Poussin’s The Triumph of Silenus. Silenus, the old god of wine-making and drunkenness, was the foster-father of Bacchus. Silenus was once captured by King Midas, but instead of being used as a slave, Midas treated the old man with hospitality. Bacchus rewarded the king by granting him the ability to turn everything he touched into gold. Poussin depicted Silenus as described in Greek and Roman myths: bald and naked.

Many of the dancers are naked or in the process of removing their clothes. Their muscular bodies are similar to those of Greek statues, and the setting is similar to works by Titian. Parts of the scene, such as the wreath lowered onto Silenus’ head, are mentioned in the Eclogues, a series of poems by Latin poet Virgil (70-90 BCE).

The highlight and final artwork in the National Gallery exhibition is Poussin’s painting A Dance to the Music of Time (1634). It is on loan from the Wallace Collection for the first time and is Poussin’s most celebrated dance scene. It was commissioned by Giulio Rospigliosi (1600-69), who later became Pope Clement IX. Rospigliosi requested a painting containing four dancers representing Poverty, Labour, Wealth and Pleasure. The four allegorical figures are dancing to the music of the lyre played by Time in the right-hand corner.

Each of the four dancers is dressed appropriately for their station in life. Poverty, the only male dancer, is barefoot and dressed in green. Labour wears a simple orange gown, whereas Wealth wears pearls in her hair and golden sandals. Finally, Pleasure wears luxurious blue silk and a floral crown. Time, on the other hand, wears nothing, revealing his elderly but muscular body. Beside him, a putto holds an hourglass, and on the other side of the painting, another putto blows bubbles, representing the fleeting nature of life.

As well as the figures in the foreground, Poussin includes mythological characters in the sky, including the sun god Apollo. Before Apollo’s carriage flies the goddess Dawn, and behind the carriage are the Hours or Horae, who represent the seasons. Some interpretations of the painting mistook the four dancing figures as Autumn, Winter, Spring and Summer. As a result, when it was sold to Sir Richard Wallace’s (1818-90) father in 1845, it had the title La Danse des Saisons, ou l’Image de la vie humaine (The Dance of the Seasons, or the Image of Human Life).

Although A Dance to the Music of Time does not depict a Bacchanalian revel like Poussin’s other paintings of dancers, his figures still resemble those on Greek friezes and statues. His preparatory drawings look similar to his other sketches, and infrared reflectography has revealed the same style of figures under the layers of paint. Poussin tended to draw naked figures from marble sculptures then add clothing and draperies during the painting process, presumably after studying his wax models. As well as using wax, Poussin wrapped his models in silk cloth to examine the way the fabric draped over the body.

The National Gallery does not venture into Poussin’s later years, during which time he stopped painting Bacchanalian scenes in favour of religious themes. In December 1640, he briefly returned to Paris to take up the position of First Painter to the King. He soon found himself inundated with commissions, which he struggled to complete. Poussin preferred to paint slowly and carefully, so he found life in the royal court overwhelming. In 1642, he returned to Rome.

With fewer patrons, Poussin lived a comfortable life, working at his preferred pace. French painter Charles Le Brun (1619-90) joined Poussin in his study for three years, learning and adapting Poussin’s style. In 1650, Poussin’s health began to decline, and his drawings suggest he had a tremor in his hand. Nevertheless, Poussin continued painting, returning to mythological themes. He continued working until 1664, the same year his wife died. The following year, on 19th November, Poussin passed away and was buried in the church of San Lorenzo in Lucina, Rome.

The exhibition Poussin and the Dance focuses on Poussin’s ability to depict dancing figures, expertly demonstrating movement and revelry. Today, cameras allow artists and photographers to capture physical actions, but artists during the 17th century did not have access to futuristic technology. Studying sculptures, friezes and wax models was Poussin’s only option, and it certainly paid off. Whilst all his figures may appear to have stepped out of ancient Greek and Roman art, Poussin’s paintings are delicate, precise and beautiful.

Poussin and the Dance is open until January 2022. Standard admission tickets cost £12, but members of the National Gallery can visit for free. Tickets must be booked in advance. 


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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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Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield

“Innovative, accessible, and psychologically acute,” is how the Poetry Foundation describes the short stories of Katherine Mansfield. Highly regarded in the 20th century, although less known today, Mansfield experimented with modernism and brought new genres to the short story format. Writing about relationships, sexuality, the middle class, war, and everyday life, Mansfield was welcomed by members of the Bloomsbury Group in London. Sadly, her untimely death at the age of 34 prevented Mansfield from rising to the celebrity ranks of her friends, such as D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941).

Born into a wealthy family on 14th October 1888, Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp (Katherine was a pseudonym) grew up in Wellington, New Zealand, with her four siblings: two older sisters and a younger sister and brother. Her father, Sir Harold Beauchamp (1858-1938), was a successful businessman and, later in life, the chairman of the Bank of New Zealand. Katherine’s grandfather, Arthur Beauchamp (1827-1910), briefly stood as a Member of Parliament, and her cousin, Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941), became a well-known author and, briefly, conducted an affair with H. G. Wells (1866-1946).

Mansfield’s happy childhood memories made their way into several short stories, which she began writing in the late 1890s. Her first written works appeared in the magazine of Wellington Girls’ High School, which she attended until 13 years old. In 1900, Mansfield submitted a story to the children’s page of the New Zealand Graphic and Ladies Journal, which they published the day before her 12th birthday. The tale, His Little Friend, described the relationship between a man and a young child he met on the road. The man, John, came from a wealthy background, whereas the little boy lived in poverty and had nothing to eat. John gave the child food from his garden, but it was not enough to save the boy from a fatal illness. The sad story revealed Mansfield’s awareness of her parent’s wealth and the poverty of the working-class members of society.

As a child and teenager, Mansfield kept a private journal, in which she jotted down personal experiences and story ideas. They reveal her infatuation with the son of her cello teacher, who did not reciprocate her attention. As she got older, she wrote about the mistreatment of the indigenous Māori people, who she believed were repressed by society. To counteract this, Mansfield portrayed the Māori in a positive light in her stories. On these occasions, she painted white people in a negative light.

Katherine and Ida

In 1903, Mansfield travelled to London with her sisters to attend Queen’s College, an independent school for girls aged 11 to 18. As well as academic studies, Mansfield focused on practising the cello, which she dreamed of playing professionally. Her aspirations soon changed after contributing to the college magazine, which she later edited. Many commented on Mansfield’s aptitude for writing, particularly her friend Ida Baker, who also loved to write.

After completing her schooling, Mansfield returned to New Zealand, where she concentrated on writing short stories. Many of these appeared in the Native Companion, for which she received payment, thus cementing her ambition to be a professional writer. She published these works under the name “K. Mansfield”, her first initial and middle name. 

Mansfield’s journals from 1906 to 1908 suggest she had many romantic relationships. Whilst the majority were male, Mansfield wrote about two women and her conflicting feelings towards them. Same-sex relationships were illegal, but Mansfield felt unable to repress her feelings. On one occasion, she wrote, “I want Maata—I want her as I have had her—terribly. This is unclean I know but true.” Maata Mahupuku (1890-1952) was a Māori woman who Mansfield knew from childhood. They became close after Mansfield’s return to New Zealand, but their relationship ended when Maata married in 1907. The other woman Mansfield wrote about was called Edith Kathleen Bendall, but there is very little information about her.

Growing wearing of life in New Zealand, Mansfield returned to London. Her father agreed to send her an annual allowance of £100, although she quickly took up a bohemian lifestyle. After moving from place to place, Mansfield decided to seek out the son of her cello teacher, Arnold Trowell. Just as before, Arnold did not return Mansfield’s advances, but his brother, Garnet, did. After a brief but passionate affair, Mansfield realised she was pregnant. Sadly, Garnet’s parents, who disapproved of the relationship, forced them to split up.

Not wishing to have a child out of wedlock, Mansfield hastily accepted a marriage proposal from George Bowden, a singing tutor. They married on 2nd March 1909, but regretting her decision, Mansfield fled shortly after the service. For a while, she found solace at the house of her friend Ida. When her mother, Annie Beauchamp, arrived in England after learning about the failed marriage, she blamed her daughter’s “lesbian relationship” with Ida. Angrily, Annie packed her pregnant daughter off to the spa town of Bad Wörishofen in Bavaria, Germany, and cut Mansfield from her will.

While in Bad Wörishofen, Mansfield suffered a miscarriage. After recuperating from the trauma, she returned to London in 1910. Mansfield’s experiences in Bavaria, which included learning of various European authors, prompted her to start writing again. Before her marriage to Bowden, Mansfield only published one poem and one story in London. Her new literary outlook resulted in a dozen short stories, which she submitted to The New Age, a socialist magazine owned by Alfred Richard Orage (1873-1934). Through Orage, Mansfield met the English writer Beatrice Hastings (1879-1943), with whom she developed a close, possibly romantic, relationship.

In 1911, Mansfield published a series of short stories about life in Germany under the title In A German Pension. Some of these tales reference her plight, but most satirically represent the habits of German people and the state of their unhealthy sewage system. On occasion, Mansfield mentioned the misrepresentation of women and how men exploit them.

Mansfield in 1912

For some time, Mansfield attempted to get her work published in the literary, arts, and critical review magazine Rhythm. The editor rejected her first attempt for being too “lightweight”, so she responded with a darker, Fauvist story titled The Woman at the Store. Set in the desolate New Zealand countryside, three friends stop to rest at a store owned by a mentally deranged woman. Whilst the woman attempts to woo the visitors, her neglected daughter reveals to them through her drawings that her mother killed her father.

In 1912, Mansfield joined Rhythm as an associate editor. She developed a close relationship with the main editor, John Middleton Murry (1889-1957), and they had an on and off affair, which inspired the characters Gudrun and Gerald in D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love

Mansfield and John Middleton Murry

Rhythm magazine folded in 1913 after the publisher Charles Granville absconded, leaving them with many debts. Around this time, Mansfield experienced bouts of ill health. A friend persuaded Mansfield and Murry to rent a cottage in Cholesbury, Buckinghamshire, where Mansfield could recuperate. When her symptoms did not alleviate, they moved to Paris, hoping a change of setting would boost Mansfield’s health or at least inspire her to write again. Mansfield succeeded in writing a short story titled Something Childish But Very Natural, but it was not published until after her death.

In 1914, Mansfield and Murry briefly split up when Murry returned to London to declare bankruptcy. Remaining in France, Mansfield conducted an affair with the French author Francis Carco (1886-1958), which she narrated in her short story, An Indiscreet Journey. The tale describes the journey of an English woman on her way to meet her lover on the front line during the First World War, and the people she met along the way. 

Mansfield and Murry reunited in 1915, but Mansfield’s outlook on life changed after receiving the news of the death of her younger brother Leslie. While serving with the British Expeditionary Force in Ypres Salient, Belgium, Leslie suffered fatal wounds during a grenade training exercise. His death made Mansfield nostalgic about her childhood in New Zealand, which she reflected in her writing.

Katherine Mansfield

In 1917, Mansfield and Murry split once again. Mansfield purchased an apartment where she lived for a time with her friend Ida, who she referred to as “my wife”. Although no longer together, Murry visited Mansfield regularly and eventually won back her heart. During this time, Mansfield wrote prolifically, often on themes of marriage or lost love, and published many stories in The New Age Magazine.

Later that year, Virginia Woolf and her husband Leonard (1880-1969) approached Mansfield to ask for a story. They needed writers for their new publishing company, Hogarth Press, and Mansfield happily presented them with her work in progress, Prelude. Woolf encouraged her to finish the story, which Mansfield based on her childhood, particularly the family’s move to Karori, a country suburb of Wellington, in 1893. Eventually published by Hogarth Press in 1918, Prelude encompasses themes of feminism, isolation, freedom, servility and familial relationships.

Katherine Mansfield Portrait

In December 1917, Mansfield received a diagnosis of pulmonary tuberculosis. For the rest of the winter and following spring, she stayed with the American artist Anne Estelle Rice (1877-1959) in Looe, Cornwall, hoping the sea air would aid recovery. While there, Rice painted Mansfield’s portrait, which the author requested in vivid red. The painting now lives in the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington, New Zealand.

Mansfield’s health continued to worsen, but she refused to enter a sanitorium. Instead, she moved to Bandol in southeastern France, where she resided in a quiet hotel. Whilst feeling isolated and depressed, Mansfield focused on her writing, producing short stories, such as Je ne parle pas français and Bliss. The latter became the title story of her collection Bliss and Other Stories, published in 1920.

In March 1919, Mansfield suffered a lung haemorrhage, which prompted Murry to urge her to marry him. As soon as her divorce papers came through from Bowden, the couple married in April in London. Murry’s financial situation had much improved, and he worked as the editor for the literary magazine The Athenaeum. Mansfield contributed over 100 book reviews to the magazine, and many well-known authors submitted short stories and poems, including T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Aldous Huxley (1894-1963), and Virginia Woolf. 

Mansfield travelled to San Remo, Italy, with Ida to avoid the harsh English winters. Murry joined them for Christmas but returned to London soon after. It became normal for Mansfield and Murry to live apart, which Mansfield used as the basis of her story The Man Without a Temperament. Swapping tuberculosis for heart disease, Mansfield wrote about a man who is scorned for leaving his poorly wife behind while he goes for a walk. 

In May 1921, Mansfield and Ida visited the Swiss bacteriologist Henri Spahlinge in Switzerland in search of tuberculosis treatment. In June, Murry joined her, and they rented a chalet in the canton of Valais. While undergoing treatment, Mansfield wrote rapidly, fearing she had little time left. The majority of her short stories from this period were published in The Garden Party and Other Stories in 1922. This publication received mixed reviews from critics. Some argued it left them cold, and others claimed it to be a selection of her best works.

One story, The Daughters of the Late Colonel, is regarded as Mansfield’s finest work. It concerns the lives of two sisters, Josephine and Constantia, who are trying to come to terms with the death of their father. Mansfield emphasised that middle-class women brought up in old-fashioned ways do not know how to fend for themselves. Their father always made decisions about their lives, and without him, the sisters are lost. Readers have interpreted the story differently. For some, this is the sisters’ chance to live their life as they wish; for others, the sisters face perpetual misery, unable to live without their father. Although she did not make it clear in her writing, Mansfield favoured the latter outcome, saying to a friend: “All was meant, of course, to lead up to that last paragraph, when my two flowerless ones turned with that timid gesture, to the sun. ‘Perhaps now’. And after that, it seemed to me, they died as truly as Father was dead.”

In early 1922, Mansfield gave up on tuberculosis treatment in Switzerland and searched for alternative methods. A form of x-ray treatment in Paris caused her painful side effects and failed to improve her condition. Mansfield and Murray briefly returned to Switzerland, where Mansfield finished her final short story, The Canary. After this, they visited London before moving permanently to Fontainebleau in France. Here, Mansfield lived as a guest at the Institute for the Harmonious Development of Man under the care of Olgivanna Lazovitch Hinzenburg (1898-1985), the future wife of American architect Frank Lloyd Wright (1867-1959).

Katherine Mansfield’s Tombstone at Cimetiere d’Avon in Avon France

On 9th January 1923, after running up a flight of stairs, Katherine Mansfield suffered a fatal pulmonary haemorrhage. Her husband failed to pay for her funeral expenses, so she was buried in a pauper’s grave until he rectified the situation. After this, Mansfield was interred at Cimetiere d’Avon, Avon, near Fontainebleau.

Many of Mansfield’s stories remained unpublished at the time of her death. Gradually, Murry compiled them into volumes and printed them as The Dove’s Nest in 1923 and Something Childish in 1924. He also published a collection of her poems (The AloeNovels and Novelists), letters and journals.

Despite spending half her life in Europe, Mansfield is most known in her home country. About ten schools in New Zealand have a school house named in her honour. Her birthplace is preserved as the Katherine Mansfield House and Garden, which is open to the public. There is also an award called the Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship, which allows a writer from New Zealand to work in one of Mansfield’s former homes in France.

In the 1970s, the BBC serialised Katherine Mansfield’s life in a miniseries called A Picture of Katherine Mansfield, starring Vanessa Redgrave (b.1937). Apart from this, little is done to keep the memory of Katherine Mansfield alive in Britain. For such a prolific writer, she remains unknown to many. If Mansfield had lived longer than 34 years, she would easily have exceeded the number of works by some of today’s most loved writers. 


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Victor Hugo

Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which it is impossible to be silent.

Victor Hugo
Hugo by Étienne Carjat, 1876

When Victor Hugo sat down to write one of his novels, little did he know it would inspire the greatest musical of our time, Les Misérables. He did not intend his novel for the stage, but as the above quote suggests, Hugo understood the importance of music. During his literary career of over six decades, Hugo wrote lyrics, poems, satires, essays, speeches, funeral orations, letters, diaries, plays and novels. As well as Les Misérables, Hugo is famous for The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, which Walt Disney Pictures transformed into an animated musical in 1996. Through musical adaptations, millions of people know Victor Hugo’s work; it is time to learn about the author.

General Joseph-Leopold Hugo, father of Victor Hugo

Victor-Marie Hugo, born on 26th February 1802 in Besançon in Eastern France, spent his first year travelling from place to place due to his father’s career in the Napoleonic Army. Joseph Léopold Sigisbert Hugo (1774-1828) enlisted in La Grande Armée at the age of 14 and had worked his way up the ranks to General by the birth of his youngest son.

Sophie Trébuchet (1772-1821), a French painter, gave birth to two sons before Victor: Abel Joseph (1798-1855) and Eugène (1800-1837). His father claimed Victor’s mother conceived him on a peak in the Vosges Mountains in Eastern France on 24th June 1801. Victor Hugo later used this date as the prisoner number of Jean Valjean, the protagonist of Les Misérables: “24601”. After Victor’s first birthday, Sophie grew tired of the frequent upheaval of army life and settled in Paris with her sons. While there, Sophie regularly met with her youngest son’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie (1766-1812), with whom she may have had an affair. She soon learnt her husband, now a Colonel, also had a secret liaison, although he returned to the family in 1807. 

Joseph Léopold spent less than a year with his sons before being called to Spain to fight in the Peninsular War. Sophie and her sons moved into an old convent at the edge of Paris. Victor’s godfather, Victor Fanneau de La Horie, lived in hiding in a chapel on the estate from the Revolutionary Army who wished him dead due to his political beliefs. Sophie, who secretly shared these ideas, allowed Fanneau de La Horie to mentor her sons until they moved to Spain in 1811. The Spanish king Joseph Bonaparte (1768-1844) had honoured her husband with the title Count Hugo de Cogolludo y Sigüenza.

Abel Joseph, Eugène and Victor were sent to the Real Colegio de San Antonio de Abad in Madrid for a proper education, but Sophie wished to return to France. Joseph Léopold overruled his wife’s wish to take the boys with her, so she returned to Paris alone, officially separated from her husband. Whether she returned to her lover, Fanneau de La Horie is uncertain, but records state the Revolutionary Army arrested and executed him in 1812. To prevent his sons returning to their mother after their schooling, he enrolled them at a private boarding school in Paris where they remained for three years.

Adèle Hugo as a young woman, by Louis Boulanger

During his time at the school in Paris, where he also attended lectures at Lycée Louis le Grand, Victor Hugo developed a passion for writing. In 1817, he received an honourable mention for a poem he had written, and many Academicians refused to believe he was only 15 years old. After leaving school, Hugo moved in with his mother and started attending law school. Going against his mother’s wishes, Hugo began dating his childhood friend, Adèle Foucher (1803-68). A year after his mother died in June 1821, Hugo and Adèle married.

Hugo started his writing career with his brothers who established the periodical Le Conservateur littéraire (“The Literary Curator”). The magazine allowed writers to express their royalist views but had little success in liberal France. In 1822, the year of his marriage, Hugo wrote a book of poems, which earned him a royal pension from Louis XVIII (1755-1824), and the following year, he published his first novel, Han d’Islande.

Victor Hugo’s daughter Léopoldine on the day of her first communion.

Hugo and Adèle celebrated the arrival of their first child Léopold in 1823, but sadly he died before his first birthday. The following year on 28th August, they welcomed their second child Léopoldine (1824-43), followed by Charles (1826-71), François-Victor (1828-73) and Adèle (1830-1915). His children did not hinder Hugo’s career, and he published five volumes of poetry between 1829 and 1840. The year before his youngest daughter’s birth, Hugo wrote his first mature novel, Le Dernier jour d’un condamné (“The Last Day of a Condemned Man”). The story expressed Hugo’s negative feelings toward the death penalty in France. Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81) praised the book as “absolutely the most real and truthful of everything that Hugo wrote.” The story also influenced British writers, such as Charles Dickens (1812-1870).

Victor Hugo in 1829, lithograph by Achille Devéria

By the late 1820s, Hugo had a reputation as the figurehead of the Romantic literary movement. Several plays boosted his popularity and, in 1831, he published the hugely successful Notre-Dame de Paris (“The Hunchback of Notre-Dame”). Set in 1482 during the reign of Louis XI (1423-83), the story focuses on the deformed character Quasimodo, who rings the bells at the Catholic cathedral. The novel prompted the City of Paris to repair the neglected Cathedral of Notre-Dame and appreciate the other pre-Renaissance buildings in the city.

Whilst Hugo experienced success in his career, his family life suffered. Both he and his wife conducted affairs, although they continued to live with each other and never divorced. Between 1830 and 1837, Adèle had a rendezvous with Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1804-69), a French critic and friend of the Hugo family. Possibly in retaliation, Hugo began seeing the French actress Juliette Drouet (1806-83) in 1833. As well as his mistress, Drouet acted as Hugo’s secretary and travelling companion. It is evident from letters that Drouet devoted her life to Hugo, but he did not treat her with similar respect.

Hugo’s celebrity status earned him friendships in many circles, including amongst composers and musicians. Hector Berlioz (1803-69) and Franz Liszt (1811-86) were among his closest companions and the latter regularly played for Hugo in private concerts. Liszt also taught Hugo to play his favourite piece by Beethoven (1770-1827) on the piano, albeit with only one finger. Another musical friend, Louise Bertin (1805-77) based an opera on Hugo’s Notre-Dame de ParisLa Esmeralda premiered in 1836 but closed after its fifth performance. Despite the flop, Hugo’s various works have inspired thousands of musical compositions, including over 100 operas. Giuseppe Verdi’s (1813-1901) Rigoletto, for example, is based on Hugo’s play Le roi s’amuse, and Amilcare Ponchielli (1834-86) based La Gioconda on the historical work Angelo, Tyrant of Padua.

As well as writing for pleasure, Hugo used his skills to tackle political issues. He joined the Académie française in 1841, but briefly withdrew from the scene in 1843 following the death of his eldest daughter. At just 19 years old, Léopoldine drowned in the Seine after a boat overturned, leaving her father devastated. He did not learn of her death straight away because he was travelling in the South of France. The first he knew of the incident was in a newspaper that he read while sitting in a cafe. He expressed his grief through poetry and used his daughter as the subject of many of his future works.

Hugo returned to the political scene in 1845 when King Louis-Philippe (1773-1850) nominated him for the Higher Chamber as a pair de France (Peerage of France). He took the opportunity to speak out against social injustices and the death penalty. His strong opinions were known across Europe, especially after joining the National Assembly in 1849. Around the same time, he began an affair with the author Léonie d’Aunet (1820-79), which lasted approximately seven years. Due to his peerage, Hugo avoided punishment for his adultery. Unfortunately, d’Aunet faced two months in prison and a further six in a convent. Hugo promised to support her financially for the rest of her life, but he continued to conduct affairs with other women. 

When Napoleon III (1808-73) seized power in 1851, Hugo openly called him a traitor for his anti-parliamentary ideas. As a result, Hugo gained many enemies, prompting him to flee to Belgium and then the Bailiwick of Jersey, the largest Channel Island. Hugo’s politics caused problems in Jersey, most notably his support for an anti-Queen Victoria newspaper. In 1855, Jersey expelled Hugo from the island, and Hugo spent the next 15 years in exile on the Bailiwick of Guernsey. His family joined him the following year at Hauteville House in Saint Peter Port.

Portrait of “Cosette” by Emile Bayard (1862)

While in exile, Hugo continued to attack Napoleon through political pamphlets, such as Napoléon le Petit and Histoire d’un crime. France banned these works, but many copies found their way into the country, smuggled in bales of hay and tins of sardines. Hugo also produced three poetry collections while on the island, but his most notable work from the period is his novel, Les Misérables. Although published in 1862, Hugo started planning the story as early as the 1830s.

“My conviction is that this book is going to be one of the peaks, if not the crowning point of my work.”

Victor Hugo, 23rd March 1862

The inspiration for the main character in Les Misérables came from an incident Hugo witnessed in 1829. Hugo saw a policeman arrest a man for stealing a loaf of bread. At the start of the story, the protagonist Jean Valjean is in prison for stealing bread. Hugo also took inspiration from the ex-convict Eugène-François Vidocq (1775-1557) for Valjean’s character. Vidocq’s criminal actions had landed him in prison, but on his release, he changed his ways. Vidocq became the father of modern criminology and was also the world’s first private detective.

Hugo’s diaries record many scenes that he later wrote into Les Misérables, including the attempted arrest of a prostitute. Hugo stepped in to defend the girl and recorded his speech in his diary, which, in turn, made it into his novel. This scene inspired the character Fantine, whose only means of earning money to look after her daughter Cosette was prostitution. Many real-life figures Hugo met or observed appear in the story. Examples include a street urchin (Gavroche) and French republican students fighting during the 1848 Paris insurrection (Enjolras and Les Amis de l’ABC). 

Victor Hugo wrote Les Misérables as though he is narrating the story rather than a character. He includes factual information to make the story seem less fictional, often referring to recent events. At one point, he even addresses the reader: “The author of this book, who regrets the necessity of mentioning himself…” Hugo also hid personal information in the novel. Examples include, the date his parents conceived him for Jean Valjean’s prison number “24601” and the date of (spoiler alert) Marius and Cosette’s wedding night is 16th February 1833, the same day Hugo first met his mistress Juliette Drouet. 

Due to his popularity as a poet, many people had high expectations for Hugo’s forthcoming novel. Hugo forbade his publishers from summarising the story before its publication. Instead, he asked them to focus on his past successes as a means of publicity. For example “What Victor H. did for the Gothic world in Notre-Dame de Paris, he accomplishes for the modern world in Les Misérables.” Rather than printing the entire novel, the publishers released Les Misérables in five volumes, the first of which they released in Brussels on 30th March 1862. The second volume appeared the following day, but sales of the remaining volumes did not start until 15th May.

Compared to Notre-Dame de Paris, Hugo’s new novel received a lot of criticism. Many found the subject matter immoral, artificial and disappointing. Some people expressed contempt about Hugo’s support of revolutionaries. On the other hand, the French poet Charles Baudelaire (1821-67) praised Hugo for drawing attention to social problems of the time. Despite the initial criticisms, Les Misérables sold well and remains a popular book today. During the same year of its publication, copies appeared in other languages, including Italian, Greek and Portuguese. Before long, people all over the continent knew the story.

Les Mis Poster

Since its publication, Les Misérables has been adapted for eight films, a radio production, three television programmes and an anime series. Of course, the most famous adaptation is the 1980 musical by Claude-Michel Schönberg (b.1944) and Alain Boublil (b.1941). Although originally performed in French, Les Misérables is the longest-running musical in the West End, running continuously since October 1985.

After the publication of Les Misérables, Hugo turned his attention to other social matters, particularly slavery. Although he believed colonialism would help to civilise “barbaric” nations, he called for an end to the slave trade.

“Only one slave on Earth is enough to dishonour the freedom of all men. So the abolition of slavery is, at this hour, the supreme goal of the thinkers.”

Victor Hugo, 17th January 1862

As well as campaigning against slavery, Hugo called for the abolition of the death penalty. Before his exile, Hugo declared “You have overthrown the throne… Now overthrow the scaffold.” Whilst he successfully influenced Geneva, Portugal and Colombia, he had little impact on the French government. In 1859, Napoleon III granted amnesty to all political exiles, but Hugo refused to return to Paris until Napoleon fell from power in 1870.

Shortly after his return to the French capital, the Siege of Paris began. This resulted in the capture of the city by Prussian forces. During this time, Parisians, including Hugo, were reduced to “eating the unknown” meat supplied by the Paris Zoo. Following the siege, Hugo temporarily moved to Brussels where he observed the goings-on in Paris through newspapers. Between March and May 1871, radical socialists created a short-lived revolutionary government. Writing for the Belgian newspaper l’Indépendance, Hugo expressed his support for the rebels, which angered many people. That evening, a mob of sixty men attempted to break into Hugo’s home, shouting “Death to Victor Hugo! Hang him! Death to the scoundrel!”

In 1872, Hugo attempted to encourage Parisians to re-elect him to the National Assembly, stating in his diary, “Dictatorship is a crime. This is a crime I am going to commit.” Despite people hailing Hugo as a national hero, he lost his bid. Nonetheless, he continued to express his views, prophesying that by the 20th century there would be no more war, no death penalty and no hatred. He believed Europe should unite as the “United States of Europe” to make the continent a peaceful place.

Avenue Victor-Hugo in Paris

Victor Hugo’s health started to go downhill from the mid-1870s after he suffered a mini-stroke. By this time, his wife Adèle had died, and his sons passed away soon afterwards. His remaining daughter Adèle lived in an insane asylum, so it fell to Hugo’s mistress Juliette Drouet to care for him. In 1878, Hugo suffered another mild stroke, yet he continued to inspire the people of Paris. For his 80th birthday, the city presented him with a Sèvres vase, an item traditionally reserved for sovereigns. Following this honour, the longest parade in French history took place, lasting 6 hours. Hugo watched the paraders from his house on the Avenue d’Eylau, soon renamed Avenue Victor-Hugo.

In 1883, Juliette Drouet passed away. Although they lived as lovers since the death of Hugo’s wife, they never married. On 22nd May 1885, at the age of 83, Victor Hugo breathed his last after suffering from pneumonia. The whole of France mourned his death and, although he requested a paupers funeral, he received a state funeral attended by over two million people and his final written words, “To love is to act”, became immortalised. His body rests in the Panthéon along with the writer Alexandre Dumas (1802-70).

“I leave 50,000 francs to the poor. I wish to be buried in their hearse. I refuse [funeral] orations from all Churches. I demand a prayer to all souls. I believe in God.”

The Will of Victor Hugo
Town with Tumbledown Bridge, Victor Hugo, 1847

After his death, it came to light that Hugo drew and painted as a hobby. He produced over 4000 drawings but never revealed them to the public for fear they would detract from his literary work. His family and close friends knew about his artistic skills and often received handmade cards from the author, particularly during his exile. A few painters of the time tried to encourage Hugo to seriously consider working as a professional artist, including Eugène Delacroix (1798-1863), who believed Hugo had the potential to outshine the artists of their century. Vincent van Gogh (1853-90) also admired Hugo’s work.

Marble bust of Victor Hugo by Auguste Rodin

Hugo’s legacy lives on in many ways, not just through the award-winning musical Les Misérables. In Guernsey, Jean Boucher (1870-1939) erected a sculpture of the author to commemorate his stay on the island. Several shops and cafes in Paris honour Hugo’s name, as does the school Lycée Victor Hugo, founded in the town of his birth. Hugo’s fame also spread across to America where he is remembered by street names in Quebec and San Francisco, and a city in Kansas. In 1929, the Vietnamese religion of Cao Đài venerated Hugo as a saint. 

Who is Victor Hugo? Most people answer “the author of Les Misérables“, but his biography proves this is just one of his many achievements. Victor Hugo was a poet, novelist, dramatist, politician, peer of France, drawer and painter. He has hundreds of works to his name and, in France, he is remembered for his radical thinking and opinions. As the crowds at his funeral show, Victor Hugo had many fans and his greatest works will live on through modern adaptations forevermore.

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Unfinished Business: Mary Wollstonecraft

Mary Wollstonecraft – John Opie

Mary Wollstonecraft received a mention in the Unfinished Business exhibition held at the British Library for her publication, A Vindication of the Rights of Woman (1792). In this book, Wollstonecraft argued women only appeared inferior to men because they did not receive the same education opportunities. She encouraged her readers to treat both men and women equally as rational beings.

Whilst the Library praised Wollstonecraft for her philosophy, it said nothing about who she was as a person, other than the obvious: Mary Shelley’s (1791-1851) mother. Her daughter indeed is the more famous of the two women, but we ought to remember Wollstonecraft as a person, a philosopher, an advocate of women’s rights and a writer, not just a mother.

Born to Elizabeth Dixon and Edward John Wollstonecraft on 27th April 1759 in Spitalfields, London, Mary had a comfortable life until her father lost his money through risky investments. The family relocated several times to cheaper locations, but they never had enough money to live comfortable lives. What little money they did have, her father spent on drink, often coming home in drunken rages. At night, Mary slept outside her mother’s door to protect her from the violent drunkard.

Wollstonecraft found solace through her friendship with Jane Arden (1758-1840), who she met while living in Yorkshire. The pair enjoyed reading and often attended lectures given by Arden’s father about science and philosophy. These intellectual opportunities inspired Wollstonecraft to think of and form ideas of her own. Another friend, Fanny Blood (1758-85), is credited with opening Wollstonecraft’s mind. They made plans to live together and support each other emotionally and financially, but reality got in the way of their dreams.

To escape her unhappy family home, Wollstonecraft found a position as a lady’s companion in 1778. Unfortunately, she did not get on well with the elderly widow and left two years later when her mother became seriously unwell. After Wollstonecraft’s mother passed away, she left the family home for the second time, moving in with Fanny Blood and her brother Lieutenant George Blood (1762-1844). To make a living, Wollstonecraft and her sisters Everina and Eliza attempted to help Fanny Blood set up a school and boarding house in Newington Green. The school failed to take off, and Fanny relocated to Portugal with her new husband Hugh Skeys. Wollstonecraft followed a few months later to care for her pregnant, but poorly friend. Sadly, Fanny passed away during childbirth.

Engraved frontispiece for the 1791 edition of Original Stories, by William Blake

After Fanny died in 1785, grief-stricken Wollstonecraft obtained a governess position for a family in Ireland. She did not get on well with the lady of the house, but the children adored her. Many of Wollstonecraft’s experiences as a governess made it into her children’s book, Original Stories from Real Life (1788), later republished with illustrations by William Blake. The stories describe the education of two fictional girls, Mary and Caroline. Rather than focus on Accademia, Wollstonecraft describes the girls’ moral and ethical education as they grow up to be mature adults. Around the same time, Wollstonecraft wrote the feminist novel Mary: A Fiction, loosely based on the death of Fanny Blood.

Although Wollstonecraft enjoyed teaching her Irish pupils, she lamented the lack of job opportunities for women in her position. After only a year of working as a governess, she decided to try a career as an author. Wollstonecraft moved to Southwark in London and, with the radical publisher Joseph Johnson (1738-1809), produced her first two books. To aid her writing career, Wollstonecraft learnt French and German, earning money by translating texts. She also wrote reviews of novels for the periodical Analytical Review.

Wollstonecraft in 1790–91 – John Opie

By attending dinners with Johnson, Wollstonecraft met many radical celebutantes, including the Swiss artist Henry Fuseli (1741-1825). Attracted by his genius, Wollstonecraft began an affair with Fuseli, knowing full well he was already married. When Fuseli’s wife learnt of the relationship, he broke it off with Wollstonecraft, who fled to France to avoid humiliation. Around this time, she wrote the political pamphlet A Vindication of the Rights of Men, in a Letter to the Right Honourable Edmund Burke; Occasioned by His Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) in response to the critique of the French Revolution written by Irish statesman Edmund Burke (1729-97). Initially, Wollstonecraft published the argument anonymously but a second edition revealed her name, making her famous overnight.

Unlike Burke, who supported the French royal family, Wollstonecraft believed the French Revolution to be a “glorious chance to obtain more virtue and happiness than hitherto blessed our globe.” Burke called the women of the revolution “furies from hell, in the abused shape of the vilest of women”, to which Wollstonecraft responded, “you mean women who gained a livelihood by selling vegetables or fish, who never had any advantages of education.”

Wollstonecraft followed her pamphlet, A Vindication of the Rights of Men, with an 87,000-word booklet about women’s rights to education. A Vindication of the Rights of Woman: with Strictures on Political and Moral Subjects (1792) is one of the first books about feminism published in the 18th century. Wollstonecraft believed women should receive an education that befitted their social class because society often expected women to educate their children. She argued that women were not possessions or property, but human beings with the same rights and needs as men. Wollstonecraft called for equality in particular areas, but some traditional stereotypes continued to cloud her judgement in other spheres.

Against advice, Wollstonecraft moved to Paris in December 1792, where she witnessed first-hand the French Revolution. She witnessed the trial of Louis XVI (1754-93) before the National Assembly and, despite supporting the revolution, found “tears flow[ing] insensibly from my eyes, when I saw Louis sitting, with more dignity than I expected from his character, in a hackney coach going to meet death, where so many of his race have triumphed.” Shortly after the king’s execution on 21st January 1793, France declared war on Britain. Fearfully, Wollstonecraft attempted to travel to Switzerland, who denied her entry.

Wollstonecraft’s support of the revolution did little to protect her in war-torn Paris. The French forbade all foreigners from leaving the country and kept them under police surveillance. They also needed to apply for a residency permit, which involved producing six statements from French citizens to prove their loyalty. Some of Wollstonecraft’s friends in France lost their heads for supporting the Girondins rather than the Jacobins, who were currently in power. Having shared similar sentiments to her friends, Wollstonecraft feared for her life.

During the Reign of Terror, foreigners tended to band together, which is how Wollstonecraft met the American businessman Gilbert Imlay (1754-1828). Despite dismissing sexual relationships in A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Wollstonecraft fell in love with Imlay. Sleeping with Imlay out of wedlock challenged conventional practices concerning marriage, yet their relationship proved to be Wollstonecraft’ saving grace from the guillotine. Wollstonecraft refused to bow down to Jacobin-rule, which denied women equal rights to men. This put her under suspicion, and her family back home in Britain feared she would lose her head. By October 1793, the Girondin leaders were dead, and their followers were the next targets of the government. To protect her from arrest, Imlay claimed to the authorities that he had married her, making Wollstonecraft an American citizen.

“It is impossible for you to have any idea of the impression the sad scenes I have been a witness to have left on my mind … death and misery, in every shape of terrour, haunts this devoted country—I certainly am glad that I came to France, because I never could have had else a just opinion of the most extraordinary event that has ever been recorded.”

Mary Wollstonecraft in a letter to her sister, Everina

On 14th May 1794, Wollstonecraft gave birth to a baby girl, named Frances “Fanny” (1794-1816) after her late friend Fanny Blood. Imlay initially adored his daughter but soon got bored of domestic life and left, promising Wollstonecraft he would eventually return. In his absence, Wollstonecraft wrote An Historical and Moral View of the French Revolution, which she sent to London for publication. Imlay never returned.

The Jacobins fell in July 1794, but life remained difficult for Wollstonecraft. A harsh winter plagued the continent; rivers froze over, preventing deliveries of much-needed coal and food. Many people died from starvation in the French capital, but Wollstonecraft managed to survive, holding on to hope that Imlay would return. After the winter thawed, Wollstonecraft left France for England, arriving in April 1795.

In London, Wollstonecraft located the missing Imlay who made it clear their relationship had ended. In her distress, Wollstonecraft attempted suicide, but Imlay saved her. Mistaking his actions for affection, Wollstonecraft travelled to Scandinavia on his behalf to conduct business negotiations. She believed Imlay would be pleased with her and wish to rekindle their romance. Taking her daughter Fanny with her, Wollstonecraft embarked on a hazardous trip across northern Europe, which she recorded in Letters Written During a Short Residence in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, published in 1796. The book of twenty-five letters inspired many poets and writers, such as William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834).

On her return to London, Wollstonecraft realised there was no hope for her relationship with Imlay. She wrote a letter to Imlay saying, “Let my wrongs sleep with me! Soon, very soon, shall I be at peace. When you receive this, my burning head will be cold … I shall plunge into the Thames where there is the least chance of my being snatched from the death I seek. God bless you! May you never know by experience what you have made me endure. Should your sensibility ever awake, remorse will find its way to your heart; and, in the midst of business and sensual pleasure, I shall appear before you, the victim of your deviation from rectitude.” Fortunately, a passing stranger pulled Wollstonecraft out of the Thames, saving her life.

William Godwin – James Northcote,

For some time, Wollstonecraft focused her attentions on her daughter Fanny until she felt able to return to the literary circle. Through her publisher, Wollstonecraft met the novelist and critic William Godwin (1756-1836) who said of her Letters Written in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, “If ever there was a book calculated to make a man in love with its author, this appears to me to be the book.” Godwin did, indeed, fall in love with Wollstonecraft and she soon fell pregnant. Godwin and Wollstonecraft married on 29th March 1797 so that their child would be legitimate. Godwin also adopted Fanny, who believed him to be her real father until she learnt otherwise nine years later. 

The Godwin’s moved to Somers Town in North West London where they spent a few months in a happy, stable relationship. Godwin rented a nearby apartment, so that both he and Wollstonecraft could focus on their work without distraction. Heavily pregnant, Wollstonecraft had little opportunity to complete any of her writings.

On 30th August 1797, Wollstonecraft gave birth to her second daughter Mary (1797-1851), the future Mary Shelley. Initially, all went well, but the placenta had torn during the delivery, causing an infection. Wollstonecraft lay in agony for over a week, passing away from septicaemia on 10th September. Speaking of her death, Godwin wrote “I firmly believe there does not exist her equal in the world. I know from experience we were formed to make each other happy. I have not the least expectation that I can now ever know happiness again.” He expressed his grief through his publication Memoirs of the Author of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, which went into great detail about his wife’s life and personality. The book received a lot of criticism from those who thought wrong of Godwin to expose her unladylike qualities. This was not Godwin’s intention; he wished to celebrate the life of a woman who had overcome hardships to become a successful author.

Unfortunately, Godwin’s memoirs ruined Wollstonecraft’s reputation, and her work fell out of favour. Satirists mocked her ideas, and some writers used her as an example to teach their readers a moral lesson. On the other hand, one writer respected Wollstonecraft and used several of her views in her novels. Although she never mentioned Wollstonecraft by name, Jane Austen (1775-1817) respected her opinions and scholars have found comparable traits in Austen’s characters. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet speaks of female accomplishments, and Sense and Sensibility contains similar themes to Wollstonecraft’s novel Mary. Mansfield Park draws attention to the treatment of women in society, and Anne Eliot, in Persuasion, is better qualified to look after the family estate than her father.

As feminism movements developed, Wollstonecraft’s popularity began to grow once more. Authors, such as Virginia Woolf (1888-1941), openly declared their respect for Wollstonecraft’s ideas. Millicent Garrett Fawcett (1847-1929), leader of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies (NUWSS), claimed Wollstonecraft as the foremother of the struggle for the vote. By the 1960s, Wollstonecraft’s books were back on the shelves, and many women have found comfort in her writing. The former Muslim author Ayaan Hirsi Ali (b.1969) wrote she felt “inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, the pioneering feminist thinker who told women they had the same ability to reason as men did and deserved the same rights.”

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London

Over time, plaques have appeared on or near buildings where Wollstonecraft once lived. This year, British artist Maggi Hambling (b.1945) unveiled a statue of Wollstonecraft in Newington Green, London. This is Hambling’s second sculpture to appear in London, the other being A Conversation with Oscar Wilde near Trafalgar Square, but this latest addition has caused controversy. 

A Sculpture for Mary Wollstonecraft features a naked female figure emerging from “a swirling mingle of female forms”. On the plinth, an inscription quotes Wollstonecraft: “I do not wish women to have power over men but over themselves.” Hambling intended the female figure to represent all women, but many critics assumed it to be a likeness of Wollstonecraft. They were critical of its nudity, including pubic hair, but Hambling maintained she wanted to move away from the traditional depiction of the female body and produce something more realistic instead. “Statues in historic costume look like they belong to history because of their clothes. It’s crucial that she is ‘now’.”

Wollstonecraft will soon feature in the library of Trinity College Dublin, which, until now, has been home to forty busts of literary men. Wollstonecraft is one of four women to join the marble collection. The other women are the scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920-58), the dramatist Augusta Gregory (1852-1932), and the mathematician Ada Lovelace (1815-52). They were chosen from a list of 500 pioneering women.

Gradually, Mary Wollstonecraft’s work is gaining more popularity than her unsavoury reputation at the time of her death. She is more than Mary Shelley’s mother; she is a woman who dared to speak out against gender stereotypes and equality. She is the first of many women to start the ball rolling for women’s rights, and for that, we should be eternally grateful.

Other blogs in the Unfinished Business series:
Vesta Tilley
Harriet Martineau
The Edinburgh Seven
Mary Macarthur

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The Scottish Queen

Many schools teach the Tudors as part of their history curriculum, therefore, most people have heard of Mary, Queen of Scots who got her head chopped off for supposedly plotting against Queen Elizabeth I. At schools in England, this is more or less all that is taught about the Scottish queen, however, in Scotland she plays a much bigger part in history. Even today, the National Galleries of Scotland continue to celebrate the queen’s life with exhibitions, such as The Life and Legend of Mary, Queen of Scots, which was put online for all to view. Mary’s life was fraught with conspiracy and treason but not necessarily of her own making. In some ways, as the National Galleries of Scotland portray, Mary became a romantic heroine in a heartbreaking story that has inspired artists, poets and writers for centuries.

Mary was born Mary Stuart on 8th December 1542 at Linlithgow Palace, Scotland and was the only legitimate child to survive her father, King James V (1512-42), who died six days after her birth. He allegedly collapsed due to stress after the Battle of Solway Moss on the Anglo-Scottish border. Following her father’s death, Mary became the Queen of Scotland, although the country was ruled by a couple of regents until she became an adult. James Hamilton, Duke of Châtellerault, 2nd Earl of Arran (1519-75) ruled as regent until 1554 when he was replaced by Mary’s mother, Mary of Guise (1515-60).

From her baptism at the Church of St Michael onwards, decisions were being made for the young queen that would shape her future. Not only did the regency control Mary’s life, the King of England, Henry VIII (1491-1547), also interfered. Mary’s paternal grandmother, Margaret Tudor (1489-1541) was Henry’s sister, making Mary his great-niece. Taking advantage of the regency, Henry proposed marriage between Mary and his son Edward (1537-53), hoping that when Edward became king, Scotland and England would be united.

When Mary was only 6 months old, the Treaty of Greenwich was signed, which declared “Prince Edward, eldest son and heir apparent of Henry VIII, now in his sixth year, shall marry Mary Queen of Scotland, now in her first year.” Whilst this would unite the two countries, the treaty also stated they would remain legally separate and, if Edward were to die without an heir, Mary would rightfully take control of Scotland.

Naturally, Henry had ulterior motives, including to break the Scottish alliance with France and abolish Catholicism. Instead, David Cardinal Beaton (1494-1546), who was the last Scottish cardinal before the Reformation, rose to power with a pro-Catholic pro-French agenda. Henry took advantage of the distraction caused by the infant Mary’s coronation on 9th September 1543 to arrest Scottish merchants headed for France. This action caused a lot of anger in Scotland, and by the end of the year, the Treaty of Greenwich was rejected.

Henry was still determined to form a Scottish-English union and began a military campaign in an attempt to force Scotland to accept the treaty. Known as Henry’s “Rough Wooing”, English soldiers invaded parts of Scotland and France, rallying support from Protestant lairds. In May 1546 Cardinal Beaton was murdered by a group of the latter and, despite Henry’s death in 1547, the Scottish suffered a severe defeat at the Battle of Pinkie on the River Esk.

Scotland was fearful for Mary’s safety and she was moved to Inchmahome Priory on an island in the middle of the Lake of Menteith. Meanwhile, Scotland appealed to France for help. King Henry II (1519-59) of France responded with a proposal to unite Scotland and France, which was not too dissimilar from Henry VIII’s treaty. In return for military support, the regency agreed that Mary would marry Henry II’s son, the Dauphin Francis (1544-60). In June 1548, the French arrived in Scotland to help take back parts of the country besieged by the English. The following month, the French marriage treaty was agreed and signed by the Scottish Parliament.

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Mary and Francis in Catherine de’ Medici’s book of hours, 1558

With the marriage treaty agreed, Mary, who was now five years old, was sent to France to live at the French Court. Mary was accompanied by two illegitimate brothers and her governess, Lady Janet Fleming (1502-62), an illegitimate daughter of James IV (1473-1513). Janet was the mother of one of the maids-in-waiting, the “four Marys”, who also accompanied the Queen: Mary Fleming (1542-81), Mary Beaton (1543-98), Mary Livingston (1541-79) and Mary Seton (1542-1615).

Mary had a pleasant childhood in France, where she was also in contact with her maternal grandmother, Antoinette de Bourbon (1494-1583). Mary got on well with the members of the French royal family, particularly her future sister-in-law, Elisabeth of Valois (1545-68). Her relationship with the queen consort, Catherine de’ Medici (1519-89), however, was less favourable.

In 1551, Mary’s governess was replaced by Françoise d’Estamville, Dame de Paroy (d.1557), a favourite of Catherine de’ Medici. Although Mary did not like her new governess, she received a good education. She was taught to speak French, Italian, Latin, Spanish and Greek as well as continuing to speak in the native language of the Scots. Mary learnt to play the lute and virginal and became proficient at writing poetry, needlework, horse riding and falconry.

Eventually, at the age of 16, Mary married the Dauphin on 24th April 1558 at Notre Dame de Paris. Although he was not yet the King of France, the marriage automatically made him the king consort of Scotland. It was also agreed that if Mary died without an heir, Francis would take her place as King of Scotland.

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Elizabeth I – attr. Frans Huys

At this time in England, Mary I (1516-58) had just been succeeded by her protestant sister Elizabeth I (1533-1603). In the eyes of the Catholics, however, Elizabeth was an illegitimate child because she had been born to Henry VIII’s second wife after divorcing his first, which was not allowed in the Catholic church. If the English monarchy had been kept in the Catholic line, Mary, Queen of Scots would have been the rightful heir. The King of France, who was a strong Catholic, went as far as to hail Mary and his son as queen and king of England.

The following year, Mary and her fifteen-year-old husband became the joint rulers of France after the death of Henry II on 10th July 1559 from fatal jousting wounds. Being so young, the French courts were mostly run by the French relatives of both Francis and Mary, however, they were unable to support Scotland in their battles against the English due to the Huguenot uprisings in France. To make matters more difficult, Mary’s mother, who had been ruling as regent, passed away on 11th June 1560.

To end the hostilities in Scotland, representatives of France, Scotland and England signed the Treaty of Edinburgh. This agreed that all three countries would cease fighting at 7pm on 17th June 1560. After this, the French and English were to remove their troops from Scotland, and France was also to recognise Elizabeth I as the Queen of England. Mary, as the Queen of Scotland, should also have signed the agreement, however, she was too overcome with grief after the death of her mother.

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Mary, Queen of Scots: The Farewell to France – Robert Herdman (1867)

Life, unfortunately, was not going to improve for the young queen. In the winter, Francis II developed an ear infection, which led to an abscess on his brain and he passed away on 5th December 1560. As of that point, Mary was no longer the Queen of France and Catherine de’ Medici, who still acted coldly towards the Scottish queen, was made regent for her ten-year-old son, Charles IX (1550-74), who inherited the throne.

No longer part of the French court, Mary returned to Scotland to rule as queen, however, she had been in France since the age of five and knew very little about the workings of the country. Seeing her as weak, the Protestants, led by her illegitimate brother James Stewart, Earl of Moray (1531-70), began to rise up against her. Likewise, the Protestant preacher, John Knox (1514-72), verbally attacked Mary in his sermons.

Unsure what to do, Mary tried and failed to talk to Knox then charged him with treason, however, he was later acquitted. Rather than also accusing her half-brother of treason, she appointed him her chief advisor in an attempt to keep the peace between the Protestants and Catholics. By September 1561, two-thirds of Mary’s privy council were Protestants.

Mary was advised by her councillors to put forward the proposal to the English courts that Mary be made the heir presumptive to the English throne. Queen Elizabeth, husband-less and childless, had refused to name an heir, however, she had reputedly admitted to the Scottish representative, William Maitland of Lethington (1525-73), that Mary had the greatest claim. A meeting was arranged between the English and Scottish queens, however, it was later cancelled because of the civil wars in France, which had caught England’s attention.

Meanwhile, Mary turned her thoughts to finding a new husband and began looking for a suitable match within the royal families of Europe. Her uncle, Charles de Lorraine (1524-74), suggested Archduke Charles of Austria (1540-90) as a potential suitor, however, Mary was horrified by the idea and outraged with her uncle’s interference. Her own attempts to find a husband, however, were also proving fruitless.

Elizabeth I attempted to persuade Mary to marry her favourite statesman, Robert Dudley, 1st Earl of Leicester (1532-88). He had once been a suitor for the English queen, however, she had always turned him down. Elizabeth’s suggestion, of course, had an ulterior motive. She believed she had control of Dudley, therefore, she would be able to gain some control in the Scottish court. To tempt Mary further, Elizabeth promised her that if she married Dudley, Elizabeth would “proceed to the inquisition of her right and title to be our next cousin and heir”. This promise, however, came to nothing for, even if Mary had agreed, Dudley strongly rejected the proposal.

Pierre de Bocosel de Chastelard (1540-63), a French poet from Mary’s court, put himself forward as a marriage contender. Unfortunately, he appeared overly besotted with the queen and used peculiar methods of showing it, such as hiding under her bed or bursting into the room while she was changing. The latter occasion caused Mary great distress and some people claimed Chastelard was faking his attraction and attempting to discredit Mary’s reputation. Nonetheless, whatever the truth, Chastleard was tried for treason and executed.

In 1565, Mary met her half-cousin, Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley (1545-67) for the second time in her life. Their first meeting had been in France when Darnley visited to pay his respects to the recently widowed queen, however, on their second meeting, which took place at Wemyss Castle in Scotland, Mary fell in love. “Her Majesty took well with him, and said that he was the lustiest and best proportioned long man that she had seen,” reported Scottish writer James Melville of Halhill (1535-1617). It is believed Darnley was over 6 foot tall.

Usually, Catholic laws forbade first cousins from marrying, however, Mary and Darnley went ahead with their wedding at Holyrood Palace on 29th July 1565. The match angered the Protestants, including the Earl of Moray, who roused up troops in open rebellion. Mary retaliated by sending her own troops who prevented Moray from gaining sufficient support. Eventually, the Earl retreated and sought asylum in England. Meanwhile, Queen Elizabeth was upset that the wedding had gone ahead without her permission. She was also concerned that both Mary and Darnley were claimants of the English throne, therefore, if they were to have children, they would have an even stronger claim.

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The Murder of David Rizzio – Sir William Allan 1833

Unfortunately, Mary’s marriage was not all she dreamt it would be. It soon became clear Darnley was an arrogant, self-centred man. He demanded the Crown Matrimonial, which would make him co-ruler of Scotland, however, Mary refused. This rejection worsened the strain on their already fragile marriage.

Darnley was also a jealous man and did not approve of his wife having dealings with any other men. This made life particularly difficult for Mary who, as Queen, regularly spoke to the men in the Scottish Parliament. The man who caused Darnley the most concern, however, was David Rizzio (1533-66), an Italian courtier who had been appointed the private secretary of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Rizzio’s position meant he spent a lot of time with the Queen and they developed a strong friendship. In his jealousy, Darnley conspired with Protestant Lords who were against Mary’s reign and riled them up by spreading the rumour that Mary was pregnant with Rizzio’s child. On 9th March 1566, while Mary and Rizzio were dining at the Palace of Holyroodhouse, a group of rebels burst into the room led by English ambassador Lord Patrick Ruthven (1520-66) and demanded Rizzio be handed over. Mary refused and tried to protect Rizzio but the rebels overpowered her and stabbed him to death.

Mary was unaware her husband had been involved in the murder and believed both she and Darnley were in danger from the rebels. On 11th March, Mary and Darnley escaped from the Palace and took refuge in Dunbar Castle. Once she was certain she was safe, Mary returned to Edinburgh Castle a week later, by which time some of the former Protestant rebels, such as the Earl of Moray, had been restored to the royal council in an attempt to bridge the rift between the Protestants and Catholics.

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Portrait of James as a boy, after Arnold Bronckorst, 1574

On 19th June 1566, James Charles Stuart (1566-1625), the future king of Scotland and, later, England, was born at Edinburgh Castle. Although James was recognised as Darnley’s son, the murder of Rizzio had led to an irreparable breakdown of their marriage. In November, Mary held a meeting to discuss what should be done about her overbearing husband. Divorce was suggested but eventually ruled out as an option, probably due to religious laws.

Darnley was aware he was no longer wanted by the Scottish courts and feared for his safety. Before Christmas, he fled to his father’s estate in Glasgow for protection, however, spent several weeks suffering from a fever. There were rumours he may have been poisoned. By the end of January 1567, Mary urged Darnley to return to Edinburgh, where he continued to recuperate at the former abbey of Kirk o’ Field.

On 10th February 1567, an explosion destroyed the abbey and Darnley was found dead in the garden, reportedly from asphyxiation. Although there were no visible signs that Darnley had been strangled or smothered, it was believed Darnley had been murdered. The identity of the killer or the names of the people who plotted Darnley’s demise were never discovered, however, Mary and her half-brother, the Earl of Moray, were amongst the suspects.

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James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell, c 1535 – 1578

Eventually, the murder was pinned on James Hepburn, the Earl of Bothwell (1534-78), although there was no tangible evidence. After a seven-hour trial, Bothwell was acquitted after which he sought the support of two dozen bishops, earls and lords to support his aim to become the next husband of the Queen. The agreement was signed in the Ainslie Tavern Bond, which Mary also allegedly signed.

Bothwell, however, had an unconventional way of proposing to the Queen. In April 1567, Mary visited her ten-month-old son in Stirling for a few days before returning to Edinburgh. Unbeknownst to her, this would be the last time she would ever see James. During the journey home, Mary was abducted by Bothwell and his men and taken to Dunbar Castle. It is not certain but there have been suggestions that Bothwell may have raped her. On the other hand, there were rumours that Mary went with Bothwell of her own volition.

The events leading up to Mary and Bothwell’s marriage on 15th May 1567 are hazy, but one obstacle to overcome was Bothwell’s previous marriage to Jean Gordon (1546-1629). Bothwell and Jean had only been married since February 1566, therefore, he was able to have the marriage annulled.

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The Return of Mary Queen of Scots to Edinburgh – James Drummond (1870)

Mary believed the Scottish nobles supported the match, however, because Bothwell was a Protestant, it also caused some antagonism from her allies. Catholics refused to acknowledge the marriage because they did not believe in divorce. They also thought it unsavoury to marry the man who was accused of murdering her previous husband.

The lords and advisors Mary once trusted, began to turn against her, raised their own army, and denounced her as an adulteress and a murderer. On 16th June 1567, the lords had her imprisoned in a castle on an island in Loch Leven. Mary was pregnant with twins at the time but miscarried a week later. On 24th July, Mary was forced to abdicate in favour of her one-year-old son and the Earl of Moray was made regent. Meanwhile, Bothwell had been forced into exile, although he was later imprisoned in Denmark where he went insane and died in 1578.

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Mary, Queen of Scots Escaping from Lochleven Castle – William Craig Shirreff 1805

During her ten months of imprisonment, Mary was looked after by Lady Agnes Leslie, the wife of the castle owner Sir William Douglas (1540-1606). On 2nd May 1568, however, Mary managed to escape with the help of Sir Douglas’ brother George and managed to raise an army of 6000 men. Unfortunately, her army was no match for Moray’s army, who they fought at the Battle of Langside.

Mary fled from place to place, spending the night at Dundrennan Abbey and crossing the Solway Firth into England. There, she stayed in Workington Hall in Cumberland before being taken into custody at Carlisle Castle for her own protection. Mary was hoping Queen Elizabeth I would come to her aid, however, the English queen hesitated, wishing to ascertain whether Mary had played a part in Darnley’s murder. Whilst these inquiries were taking place, Mary was moved to Bolton Castle.

A conference, which Mary refused to attend, was held in York in October 1568, which Moray used as an opportunity to offer incriminating evidence against the former Scottish queen. Moray presented eight letters known as the “casket letters” that, although unsigned, were allegedly written by Mary to Bothwell. The letters, which contained two marriage contracts and some sonnets, are now believed to be forgeries but at the time they were accepted as genuine proof of Mary’s guilt. Elizabeth, however, neither wished to convict or acquit Mary, so Moray returned to the new Protestant government in Scotland and Mary remained in custody.

Elizabeth was still concerned about Mary’s claim to the English throne, so kept her under lock and key at a variety of locations, including Tutbury Castle, Sheffield Castle and Chatsworth House. Despite being imprisoned, Mary was allowed up to sixteen members of domestic staff and was well looked after, however, after some time her health began to deteriorate. Meanwhile, Elizabeth attempted to restore Mary to the Scottish throne on the understanding that the government remain Protestant, however, this was rejected.

In 1571, Elizabeth’s principal secretaries uncovered a plot to assassinate the Queen and replace her with Mary. International banker Roberto di Ridolfo (1531-1612), supported by Elizabeth’s cousin, Thomas Howard, 4th Duke of Norfolk (1536-72), had begun to rally support from the Spanish when their plans were discovered. Some believe Mary had given the plot her consent, however, she still claimed to be loyal to Elizabeth.

The result of this attempted scheme was the publication of the “casket letters”, which caused some of Mary’s supporters to turn against her. Another plot was developed to marry Mary to the governor of the Low Countries. Although this was endorsed by Pope Gregory XIII (1502-85), it was discovered and prevented by the English government. In February 1585, a Welsh courtier was convicted of plotting to assassinate Elizabeth. Although Mary had nothing to do with this, Elizabeth tightened Mary’s terms of custody and moved her to a manor house at Chartley, Staffordshire.

Another plot, known as the Babington Plot, was uncovered in August 1586. The goal was for the Spanish to invade and assassinate Elizabeth, putting Mary on the throne. Letters from Mary to the plot’s leader, Sir Anthony Babington (1561-86), incriminated her and suggested she had authorised the assassination.

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Mary Queen Of Scots’ Trial & Execution, 1560

Mary was moved to Fotheringhay Castle in Northamptonshire and put on trial for treason. She denied the accusations against her and protested she had not been allowed to defend herself. She warned her accusers, “Look to your consciences and remember that the theatre of the whole world is wider than the kingdom of England.” Nonetheless, she was found guilty.

Elizabeth was hesitant to sentence Mary to death, possibly concerned about potential consequences involving the Catholics and Mary’s son. She even enquired whether there was any humane way of shortening Mary’s life, however, no doctor was willing to do so. Finally, on 1st February 1587, Elizabeth signed the death warrant.

Mary was only told of her impending execution on 7th February, the day before it was scheduled. She spent her remaining hours in prayer and wrote her final will, which expressed her wish to buried in France. The following morning, Mary was led to the scaffold and after uttering her final words, “In manus tuas, Domine, commendo spiritum meum” (Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit), was beheaded.

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Mary, Queen of Scots, 1578

So ended the life of Mary, Queen of Scots. Elizabeth, who had not been told of the execution until afterwards, was angry that it had gone ahead without her permission, despite having signed the death warrant. Some suggest she did not want Mary executed and was stalling for time, however, she refused Mary’s request in her will that she be buried in France. Instead, Mary was buried at Peterborough Cathedral in July 1587, although, her son, once he was King of England, instructed his mother to be reinterred at Westminster Abbey.

Mary’s courage at her execution has painted her as a heroic character in a dramatic tragedy. Whereas some say she was “a pawn in the hands of scheming noblemen,” she has been idolised as a brave, fearless woman who continued to fight for her freedom and her country despite the risks upon her life. She may not have been able to save herself, but she became the matriarch of the English monarchy for the following century. After her son became the King of England in 1603, the crown passed down the Stewart line until 1714: Charles I (1600-49), Charles II (1630-85), James II (1633-1701), Mary II (1662-1694) and her husband William III (1650-1702), and Anne (1665-1714).

 


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Dealing With Cards

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Everyone is familiar with the modern deck of playing cards. Most households own at least one pack and they have become a part of traditional cultures and customs. Yet, these decks of cards have been completely transformed since their origins several centuries ago. What we now take for granted has taken hundreds of years to reach its current format: four suits, red and black, court cards etc. Looking back through history, it is fascinating to see how our standard hearts, spades, clubs and diamond suits developed and why playing cards have remained a conventional pastime.

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Ming Dynasty Playing Card

The origins of playing cards are widely contested, however, it is generally accepted they were invented in China during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). The earliest evidence of playing cards in Europe dates to around the late 14th century, however, a 9th-century text, Collection of Miscellanea at Duyang, describes the daughter of Emperor Yizong of Tang (833-873) playing Yezi Gexi, a “leaf” game. These “leaves” are believed to be card-like pieces of paper featuring special designs or symbols. Rather than suits or numbers, the pictures revealed instructions or a forfeit to the players.

The rules of this “leaf” game are unknown, as are the visual appearance of the cards. It was not until 1294 that they were actually described in written documents. A legal document records that Yan Sengzhu and Zheng Pig-Dog were caught playing cards that had been printed with woodblocks, and 36 taels (an old monetary unit), which suggests they may have been gambling illegally. Later, during the Ming Dynasty, a scholar called Lu Rong (1436-94) reports he was mocked at college for not knowing how to play cards.

British Sinologist and playing card enthusiast, William Henry Wilkinson (1858-1930), whose collection of Chinese cards can be found in the British Museum, undertook a comprehensive study of the history of playing cards in China. His results can be read in several books including Chinese Origin of Playing Cards (1895) and The Game of Khanhoo (1891). The latter explains the rules of a game developed during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644).

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Money-suited cards, 1905

Khanhoo, which roughly translates as “Watching the Tiger”, was a trick-taking game using “money-suited cards”. This set of cards was made up of three suits known as coins, strings and myriads. The aim of the game was for the players to get rid of all their cards by melding them into certain sequences. The common meldings were known as “gibbons” (a sequence of three cards from one suit) and “Leopards” (three cards of the same number). Alternatively, players could hold onto their cards to create a special melding, for instance, a “Pangolin” (7 coins, 3 strings, 3 myriads) or “Tiger” (9 coins, 1 string, 1 myriad). Each melding was worth a certain amount of points and the player with the highest score at the end of the game was the winner.

Money-suited cards were only one form of playing cards to develop from the “leaf” game in China. Another type was Mahjong cards with which similar games to the tiled version of Mahjong could be played. The cards contained Chinese characters or suits representing circles, bamboos, characters, dragons, winds, flowers and seasons. Often an illustration was included with the Chinese characters to emphasise their meaning, however, others featured characters from popular stories, such as The Story of the Water Margin. This is not dissimilar from the novelty packs of cards sold in the western world today. Another type of playing card was the Domino card with pips (dots) representing numbers. These cards could also be embellished with cultural illustrations.

When the Chinese travelled abroad, they often took playing cards with them, either as a form of entertainment or something with which to trade. As a result, playing cards were introduced to people from other countries who began to print their own versions. In Persia, for example, a 48-pack of cards was developed, containing four suits made up of ten pip (number) cards and two court cards (king and vizier).

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Mamluk playing cards

By the 12th century, playing cards had been introduced to most countries in Asia and had just worked their way into Africa, in particular Egypt. In fact, the oldest surviving playing cards were produced in Egypt. The majority of surviving cards from Africa, however, were made during the 15th century.

Initially, Egypt copied the Asian style of playing cards but, during the Mamluk Sultanate period (1250-1517), they began to develop their own designs and games. Known as Mamluk cards, they contained colourful abstract designs and calligraphy, however, unlike Chinese playing cards, they never visually represented people. This is because Sunni Islam, which was the prevalent religion in Egypt, advocated Aniconism: the avoidance of images of sentient beings.

There were typically 52 cards in a Mamluk pack, ten pip cards and three court cards. Although the court cards could not visually depict a person, they could bear the names of ranks: king, viceroy and seconder. It is not certain what games were played with these cards, however, they were probably based on Chinese and Asian rules.

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Knave of Coins from the oldest known European deck (c. 1390–1410).

Playing cards reached Europe around the 14th century and were first described in writing by Johannes of Rheinfelden, a German Dominican friar also known as John of Basle (b.1340). Playing cards had evidently been in Europe long before he wrote his treatise in 1377, which was a response to the decision in Florence to ban card games. Johannes began by describing the cards then went on to say he believed they could be used as a means of understanding the world, in particular how social standings worked in court and how this could be applied to social orders throughout the rest of humanity. Despite his writings, bans continued to be enforced across Europe and playing cards were denounced in churches as forms of gambling.

Nonetheless, playing cards continued to be designed and printed. The first European versions are believed to have been created in Italy, which were divided into four suits: swords, clubs, cups, and coins; these are still used in Italy and Spain today. In Italy, court cards within these “Latin suits” were a king, queen and knave/servant, although the latter may have been a prince. In Spain, on the other hand, the court cards became a king, knight and knave. Whereas the Italian version had ten pip cards, the Spanish only had nine and, in some games, they only used numbers one to seven.

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Italian Cards

When playing cards were first produced in Italy, they were only intended for the upper classes. Each card was hand-painted, making them an expensive, luxury item. As their popularity grew, however, card makers sought methods of producing them quickly and cheaply. As a result, playing cards began to spread across the rest of Europe.

Between 1418-1450, professional card makers set up woodcut factories in the Germany cities of Ulm, Nuremberg and Augsburg. Although the woodcut process printed the designs onto the cards, the colours were added later by hand, therefore, these 15th-century cards were mostly handpainted. To establish themselves as card manufacturers of Germany, the designers changed the Latin suits to reflect the rural lifestyle of the country. These new suits were acorns, leaves, hearts, and bells. The court cards were changed to a king and two knaves: Obermann and Untermann. The pip cards, however, only numbered two to nine as they did away with the ace.

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German Cards

Although the new suits became the norm in Germany, some factories produced novelty version to appeal to people of particular professions and interests, for instance, animals and kitchen appliances. In Switzerland, they adopted the Germanic suits but tended to use flowers rather than leaves and a shield rather than hearts.

Germany was one of the key countries involved with developing printing techniques, which helped them to produce larger quantities of playing cards. Soon, they became more famed for the playing card trade than Italy. Subsequently, German suits became more dominant throughout Europe than the Latin versions.

In France, the Germanic suits were altered to clovers, hearts, pikes and tiles, which led to the development of the modern suits – clovers being clubs, pikes being spades and tiles being diamonds. Not only this, but the French also simplified the designs to make them quicker to print and divided the four suits into two colours: black and red. They also simplified the images on the court cards, reintroducing the queen and the ace to the pack. This meant stencils could be produced and used multiple times in printing presses, such as the Guttenburg press that was developed in 1440.

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French Cards

French playing cards quickly surpassed Germany in popularity and spread across Europe, thus familiarising the continent with a design similar to the cards used today. In the 16th century, the French also drew attention to the court cards by naming them after people from the Bible and popular works of literature. The kings became known as King David (Spades), Alexander the Great (Clubs), Charlemagne (Hearts), and Julius Caesar (Diamonds), consequently representing the four major empires up to that date: Jews, Greeks, Franks, and Romans. The queens were designated Greek goddess Pallas Athena (Spades), Judith (Hearts), Jacob’s wife Rachel (Diamonds), and Argine (Clubs). It is not certain who the latter is but Argine may be the French name for Argea, wife of Polybus and mother of Argus.

The knaves were assigned the names of La Hire (Hearts), Charlemagne’s knight Ogier (Spades), Hector the hero of Troy (Diamonds), and King Arthur’s knight Lancelot (Clubs). Hector and Lancelot are the more famous of the set, whereas, La Hire and Ogier were only celebrated in France. La Hire was the nickname of Étienne de Vignolles (1390-1443), a French commander during the Hundred Years’ War. Ogier the Dane was a legendary knight of Charlemagne (748-814) who featured in many medieval French stories.

France was made up of nine regions and the appearance of the kings, queens and knaves differed slightly from place to place. It was not until playing cards became popular in Britain that a common design was developed.

It is not certain when playing cards arrived in Britain but it is likely they came via Belgium, where many French people had fled to avoid heavy taxes. Without having been influenced by Latin or Germanic playing cards, the English were happy to use the French designs, although they renamed the suits clubs, hearts, spades and diamonds.

The biggest difference between French and British cards was the Ace of Spaces. This card tends to have some form of design, signature or marking to make it appear more important than the other aces. There was, however, no difference in value. This tradition began sometime after 1588 when the English government placed a tax on playing cards. To indicate they had been taxed, the manufacturers were required to sign or stamp the Ace of Spades, which was usually the top card in a brand new pack.

To avoid paying tax, some people began to forge signatures, which led the government to enforce more drastic measures. From 1828, the Ace of Spades had to be purchased from the Commissioners for Stamp Duties. The card had to be stamped with the manufacturer’s name and the amount they had paid. Initially, manufacturers had no say in the appearance of the Ace of Spades, however, after 1862 they were allowed to design their own ace to complement their signature. Although this tax law no longer applies, playing card manufacturers have stuck to tradition, giving the Ace of Spaces more attention than the other cards.

The court cards, which feature detailed illustrations of bearded kings, flower-holding queens and clean-shaven knaves, began to become less elaborate as manufacturers sought to find a way to produce playing cards quickly and cheaply. Thomas de la Rue (1793-1866), a printer from Guernsey, was the first to drastically reduce the prices of playing cards and increase productivity.

Thomas de la Rue moved to London in 1818 to set up a shop, initially for straw hat-making, but soon expanded to include bookbinding and paper manufacturing. By 1828, De la Rue had become interested in playing cards and used all his skills, including letter-press printing, to modernise the designs. In 1831, De la Rue was granted a patent for his improvement and has since been regarded as the inventor of the modern English playing card.

The early version of De la Rue’s court cards, which were produced using the letterpress, were still highly detailed full-length figures, however, he had used a limited palette of red, yellow, blue and black. A second attempt at modernisation resulted in a flatter, two-dimensional design and, in the 1840s, he combined both styles together to produce an intricate design, opting to use blue ink for the outlines rather than black.

“The whole of Messrs De la Rue’s establishment is carried out in a manner perfectly unique. Steam power wherever practicable is applied to the various departments of the business.” (Bradshaw’s, 1842) De la Rue’s modern designs were made possible by developments in technology. Not only was hand-painting the cards time-consuming, but the ink also took a long time to dry. So, De la Rue found a quicker drying ink and glazed the cards to prevent them from losing their pigment. Wherever he could, he replaced jobs that were originally done by hand with steam-powered machines, which sped up the manufacturing process.

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Card Backs designed by Owen Jones

In 1844, De la Rue hired Owen Jones (1809-74), a Welsh graphic designer who had trained at the Royal Academy Schools. Jones’s task was to produce designs for the backs of playing cards and, in the two decades he spent with the company, it is estimated he made 173 different designs. Jones was influenced by foreign cultures and many of his designs were similar to Moorish, Chinese and other art styles from antiquity. Fruit and flowers were a typical feature in the designs.

Owen Jones’s playing cards were much sought by the upper classes, including the Royal Family. Unfortunately, they were also quite expensive. Nonetheless, sales continued to do well and Jones received a lot of praise for his work, including from the Victorian author, Charles Dickens (1812-70). It is also said the Arts and Crafts artist, William Morris (1834-96), was influenced by Jones’s work.

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De la Rue, 1860

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De la Rue, 1885

Around the 1860s, double-ended court cards were designed so that they would always be the right way up. Previously, serious card players could work out if their opponent had a court card by watching to see if they turned a card around when adding it to their hand. The court cards now had two heads and joined together in the middle where their legs once began.

Another alteration was the inclusion of indices (a number or letter indicating the value of the card), in the top corner of the card. This allowed players to easily see which cards they had by fanning them out in one hand. The corners of the cards, which were originally sharp, were rounded off to limit wear and tear. A ripped corner could make it harder for players to tell what cards they had in their hand or even reveal the value to their opponents. The design on the back of the cards was another way of preventing other players from seeing what cards their opponents had; wear and tear caused cards to thin, revealing the design through the paper.

Playing cards eventually reached the Americas through European exports and quickly became a commercial success. Lewis I. Cohen (1800-68), who had spent some time in England between 1814 and 1819, returned to America with fresh insight into technological developments. As a result, he became the first American to introduce lead pencils and steel pens, which replaced the out-dated quill pens. He also became a manufacturer of playing card printing, developing a colour-printing machine that was able to print more than one colour at a time, thus speeding up production.

When playing cards became popular in the USA, they were already in the final stages of the design that would become commonplace across the world. It was in the USA, however, that one final card was added to the pack: the Joker. Samuel Hart (1846-1871), a playing card manufacturer from Philadelphia, is credited with the invention of the Joker, which was initially called “Best Bower” or “Imperial Bower”. The name came from the German word Bauer, which is what they called the Jack in Germany. (Knaves had become known as Jacks to make it easier to differentiate them from the Kings.) Jacks were often used as the highest trump cards in many games, including a trick-taking game called Euchre. Hart’s idea was to make an even higher trump card.

Around the late 1860s, the Imperial Bower was renamed the Joker, which is believed to have come from Juckerspiel, the German name for the game of Euchre. In Britain, the USA was still one of its biggest exports, so card manufacturing company Chas Goodall and Son began adding jokers to the packs produced for the American market. Eventually, the idea caught on in Britain and the first Joker for the British market was sold in 1874. The Joker also spread to mainland Europe where, in Italy, it became known as the “Jolly”.

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Unlike the rest of the playing cards, a uniform design was never developed for the Joker, therefore, companies could be as creative as they wished. For some manufacturers, the Joker became their trademark, however, they are usually depicted as jesters. It is common nowadays to have two jokers in a pack, often one coloured and one black and white. This was so there could be a trump card for the red suits (hearts and diamonds) and the black suits (clubs and spades). Usually, the two Jokers are different in appearance as well as colour to differentiate between them. The United States Playing Card Company (USPCC), established in 1867, prints their guarantee on one of the joker cards as a way of telling them apart.

The Joker has been introduced to many card games as the trump card, although, in Britain, older rules tend to be followed and the Joker discarded. For instance, in Britain, it is more common to play Old Maid rather than Chase the Joker.

Over time, nicknames have been invented for certain cards. The court cards (King, Queen and Jack) are also known as face cards but some of these cards have earnt other names due to their visual appearance. The King of Hearts and King of Diamonds, for instance, are sometimes known as the Suicide Kings. This is because the King of Hearts holds a sword to the back of his head as though stabbing himself. The King of Diamonds does a similar action with an axe.

The Jack of Hearts, the Jack of Spades and the King of Diamonds have been referred to as the One-Eyed Royals because they are traditionally drawn in profile rather than face on. The rest of the court cards are drawn in such a way that both eyes can be seen. The Jack of Diamonds is sometimes known as the Laughing Boy but this may be due to previous illustrations rather than the traditional British design.

The Queen of Spades, often known as “the black lady” or “black Maria”, is the undesirable card in the game of Old Maid. She is shown holding a sceptre, which has led to the nickname “the bedpost Queen”. The Queen of Clubs was, at one point, the only Queen holding a flower, therefore, she became known as the “Flower Queen”. Today, however, all four Queens are usually depicted holding flowers.

The Ace of Spades, with its unique design, is often designated the trump card in certain games. As a result, it has earned the nickname “the death card”. Most of the pip cards are known by the numbers, however, on occasion, the twos have been referred to as “deuces” and the threes as “treys”. The Nine of Diamonds, on the other hand, has become known as “the Curse of Scotland” but no one agrees on the reason why. One suggestion was every ninth king of Scotland was “a tyrant and a curse to that country”, and another suggestion was nine diamonds were stolen from the crown jewels during the reign of Mary, Queen of Scots (1542-87), which resulted in the whole country being taxed to recoup the costs.

New theories, names and meanings of playing cards have continued to be invented over the years. At one time, the four suits were said to represent the four major pillars of the economy in the Middle Ages: Church (Hearts), military (Spades), agriculture (Clubs), and merchants (Diamonds). Since then, the suits have also been assigned the four seasons, the four solstices and the four natural elements: water (Hearts), fire (Clubs), earth (Diamonds), and air (Spades).

There are 52 cards in a traditional pack of cards (discounting the jokers), which is the same number of weeks in a year. There are 13 cards in each suit and 13 weeks in each season and there are 12 Royals and 12 months of the year.

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The history of playing cards is long and varied and will likely endure forever. Over time, novelty versions of the cards have been produced, such as those featuring images from popular literature, to appeal to new generations. Playing cards have also been redesigned for coronations and special events and sold as limited editions.

Despite cultural differences, playing cards are something most countries have in common. Across Europe and America in particular, language barriers can be overcome through the playing of a well-known game. Even with the development of digital technology, playing cards are not at risk of being forgotten. Digital versions of solitaire are proving to be popular amongst all generations and casinos across the world continue to make lots of money from a simple pack of cards.

It is impossible to determine how many card games have been invented or how many styles of playing cards have been produced, but what we do know is they have all derived from games played in China during the 9th century. Who knew something so simple as a few strips of paper could grow to affect the whole world?


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Mata Hari the Dancing Spy

How many people in history have become famous for their deaths? Countless. Death has the power to shock the world, whether it be natural, murder, heroic or mysterious. Death also has the power to erase life, and not just physically. The world’s morbid curiosity can become so focused on the end of a life that it forgets everything that came before. A recent article in BBC History magazine (June 2020) that discusses the disappearance of the American aviator Amelia Earhart (1897- unknown) in 1937 urges readers to “pay more attention to why we are collectively so enamoured with Earhart’s tragic moments, rather than the incredible achievements of her life.” The same could be said about a multitude of historical celebrities, for example, the exotic dancer Mata Hari.

Often cropping up in online quizzes is the question, “What was the nationality of the exotic dancer Mata Hari who was executed for being a German spy during WWI?” The answer, as many quiz players will know, is Dutch. How many of the same quiz players can provide more details about the dancer other than she was Dutch and she was executed for being a spy? Has her life been reduced to these few details?

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Mata Hari, 1905

Born on 7th August 1876, in Leeuwarden, Netherlands, Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest child and only daughter of Adam Zelle (1840-1910) and Antje van der Meulen (1842-91). Both her parents were Dutch, which proves false the rumours that Mata Hari was of Javanese ancestry. Her father, a hat shop owner, led a fairly affluent life, earning money through successful oil industry investments. As a result, Margaretha received an exclusive education until the age of 13.

Unfortunately, this lavish lifestyle was not to last; her father went bankrupt in 1889, which led to her parents’ divorce. Margaretha’s mother died suddenly in 1891 and her father remarried two years later to Susanna Catharina ten Hoove (1844 – 1913), after which the family completely fell apart. Margaretha was sent to live with her godfather in Sneek, a city southwest of Leeuwarden, and when she was old enough, began to study to be a kindergarten teacher in Leiden. The headmaster of the school, who was presumably somewhat older than Margaretha, began to openly flirt with her. When her godfather found out, he instantly removed her from the institution. It is unknown whether Margaretha had reciprocated the headmaster’s advances, however, she no longer wished to live with her godfather and fled to The Hague where her uncle resided.

mata-hari-9402348-1-rawYet, Margaretha did not stop running. At 18 years old, Margaretha answered an advert in a newspaper placed by a Dutch Colonial Army Captain who was seeking a wife. Captain Rudolf MacLeod (1856-1928) was a descendant of Clan MacLeod of the Isle of Skye. His father, John, was also a captain and his mother, Dina Louise, was the Baroness Sweerts de Landas, therefore, he was of high social standing and financially secure.

Margaretha sent a photograph of herself, emphasising her raven black hair and olive skin, to MacLeod who was stationed in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The Dutch Empire had colonised the area in 1800 and MacLeod was the captain of one branch of the Dutch army stationed there.

On 11th July 1895, Margaretha and MacLeod were married and, two years later, settled in the city of Malang on the east side of the island of Java with their newborn son, Norman-John (1897-99). The following year, their daughter Louise Jeanne (1898-1919) was born. Margaretha’s dreams of a happy marriage, however, were shattered when she learnt about her husband’s philandering ways.  It was socially acceptable for Europeans to keep a concubine in the Dutch East Indies at that time, which MacLeod did, as well as visit prostitutes.

Captain Rudolf MacLeod was an alcoholic and prone to violence when drunk. He beat Margaretha for attracting other officers with her beauty; he beat and blamed Margaretha when he did not receive a promotion; he beat her for any petty reason he could find. To escape the abuse, Margaretha temporarily moved in with another Dutch officer where she began to study Indonesian traditions and embrace the local culture.

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Legong dance – Freeind Santosa

What interested Margaretha the most was Indonesian dance, which reflected the diversity of their culture. Indonesia can be split into three eras: Prehistoric, Hindu/Buddhist, and Islam; all of which can be observed in folk dances and court dances. Tribal dances from the Prehistoric Era gradually combined with influences from nearby countries, such as India, China and the Middle East. Later, European culture was thrown into the mix.

Margaretha joined a local dance company where she adopted an artistic name: Mata Hari. As she explained in letters home to her Dutch family, Mata Hari was the Malay word for “sun” (literally “eye of the day”). Here she would have learnt many different dances. The population of Indonesia was made up of different ethnicities, each of whom had their own dances. There is an estimated total of 3000 dances that have their origins in Indonesia.

Mata Hari was only able to escape her husband for a few months when she was persuaded to return. The beatings resumed but Margaretha was able to find moments of solace in her studies of the local culture and dance. Sadly, tragedy was soon to befall the MacLeod family. In 1899, the children fell violently ill from which Norman-John never survived. Many believe this was due to complications with the treatment of syphilis, which the children had contracted from their father. Others claim the children were poisoned by a servant or enemy of MacLeod. Whatever the cause, Norman-John was dead.

The MacLeod’s returned to the Netherlands in 1902 where they officially separated, although their divorce did not become official until 1906. Margaretha was awarded custody of Louise Jeanne and MacLeod was legally required to provide financial support – which he did not. After one of Louise Jeanne’s visits with her father, MacLeod refused to return her to Margaretha. Although Margaretha had every right to take her ex-husband to court, she did not have the resources. Despite MacLeod’s abusive nature, he had never hurt his daughter, so Margaretha conceded defeat. It is unlikely mother and daughter saw each other again. Not much is known about Louise Jeanne’s life other than she passed away aged 21 from complications due to syphilis.

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Performing in 1905

In 1903, Margaretha moved to Paris in search of work. Some say she posed as a model for an artist, but this claim is uncertain. She did, however, find work in a circus as a horse rider and performed under the name of Lady MacLeod. This, naturally, met with disapproval with her ex-husband’s family.

Orientalism” was all the rage in Paris at the turn of the century, which Margaretha was able to use to her advantage. Modern dancers were incorporating Asian and Egyptian cultures into their costumes and dance moves and Margaretha, who had learnt to dance in the Dutch East Indies, fitted right in. Using her Malay name, Mata Hari billed herself as a Hindu artist and choreographed “Temple Dances” using her knowledge of Indonesian culture, religion and symbolism. The dances often involved the removal of clothing, although she self-consciously kept her breasts covered with bead-covered brassieres.

Mata Hari was the contemporary of several established modern dancers, including Isadora Duncan (1877-1927), an American dancer who toured Europe at the beginning of the 20th century. Duncan’s technique incorporated ballet with Ancient Greece. Although her movements were as fluid as a ballerina, her costumed were based on Ancient Greek art. Rather than leotards or corsets, Duncan preferred tunics and performed most of her dances barefoot.

When Mata Hari first learnt of her, Duncan was on her European tour. Popular for her distinctive style, many artists were inspired by Duncan and wished to create works based on her. The French sculptor Auguste Rodin (1840-1917) was one of many who were intrigued by the movements of Duncan’s body.

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Gabriel Astruc

On the other hand, French journalist and theatre manager, Gabriel Astruc (1864-1938), did not think much of Isadora’s Duncan’s dancing, believing it to be too subtle to attract an audience. He was, however, attracted to Mata Hari’s Oriental-inspired style and became her booking agent in 1904. Around the same time, Astruc was also working with musicians and singers, such as Arthur Rubinstein (1887-1982) and Nellie Melba (1861-1931).

Mata Hari debuted her act at the Musée Guimet on 13th March 1905 where she became an overnight sensation. The Parisian museum is famous for being one of the largest collections of Asian art and owns several items from Indonesia, which complimented Mata Hari’s style of dance. Her audience was captivated by her body and flirtatious nature.

In her dance, Mata Hari posed as a Hindu Javanese princess, which led many people to believe she was of Asian ancestry. She let them believe she had grown up learning the art of sacred Indian dance when, in fact, it had only been a matter of years. As she danced, she progressively removed her clothing until she was left in nothing but a breastplate and jewels.

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Émile Guimet in his Museum, by Ferdinand Jean Luigini, 1898

It was not only the audience at the Musée Guimet who were captivated by Mata Hari’s performance; she had also caught the eye of millionaire and founder of the museum, Émile Étienne Guimet (1836-1918). Guimet had originally set up the museum in Lyon but transferred its contents to its current location in Paris in 1885. Soon after meeting Mata Hari, she became his mistress.

In August 1905, Gabriel Astruc booked Mata Hari into the Paris Olympia where she made many appearances over the following decade. Thousands flocked to see her shows and many photographs were taken, including some during her semi-naked acts. Unfortunately, some of these photos reached the MacLeod family who used them to strengthen their custody claim over Louise Jeanne.

Nonetheless, Mata Hari continued to have a successful career in Paris. Her type of act made her a popular woman amongst male spectators but also brought exotic dance to a more respectable status and greatly appealed to “oriental” obsessed Parisians. Mata Hari herself was thought of as exotic and many believed the stories about her origins to be genuine. Very little was known in Europe about the Dutch East Indies, so any form of art from that area garnered a lot of attention from intrigued Europeans.

A French journalist described Mata Hari as “so feline, extremely feminine, majestically tragic, the thousand curves and movements of her body trembling in a thousand rhythms.” News of her success in Paris saloons spread to other cities and countries, who wished to book Mata Hari for their halls and exhibition spaces. Her dance act travelled as far as Vienna, where a journalist commented on her body, “slender and tall with the flexible grace of a wild animal, and with blue-black hair.” He claimed that even her face made “a strange foreign impression.”

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In 1910 wearing a bejewelled head-dress

The popularity of Mata Hari’s dance style inspired other dancers to appropriate traditional Asian movements. By 1910, Mata Hari was competing for bookings with younger women. Critics, who were in favour of these new dancers, spread the opinion that Mata Hari’s success was down to her revealing clothes and exhibitionism rather than her dancing ability. In fact, some critics claimed she did not know how to dance at all.

Having begun her dance career relatively late in life, Mata Hari was hindered by the signs of ageing. Although she was not yet 40, Mata Hari had begun to put on weight, which made her body less appealing than the younger dancers. On 13th March 1915, she performed her last show as an exotic dancer, however, her fame, sensuality and eroticism led her to become a successful courtesan. She had relationships and liaisons with high ranking military officers and politicians, both in France and across country borders. Some of these men were German officers, which in hindsight was a foolish move.

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Amsterdam, 1915

Despite the growing tensions in Europe and the outbreak of World War One, Mata Hari continued to work as a courtesan, travelling from one country to another to avoid the fighting. Her constant movements came to the attention of British and French intelligence who put her under surveillance as she moved about between France, Britain, Spain and the Netherlands. The Netherlands remained neutral during the war, which allowed Mata Hari to travel unquestioned despite the surveillance.

At the beginning of 1916, Mata Hari began a very intense relationship with a Russian pilot who was serving with the French. Captain Vadim Maslov, who was in his early 20s, met Mata Hari at the Grand Hotel where he was staying for a short break after being granted military merit. Within a few short weeks, Mata Hari was deeply involved with Maslov, who she called the love of her life.

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Mata Hari and Vadim Maslov

When Maslov returned to work, he joined the 50,000 men in the Russian Expeditionary Force who were sent to the Western Front in the spring of 1916. During a dogfight with the Germans, Maslov’s plane was shot down. Although he survived, he was badly wounded and had lost the sight in both eyes. Naturally, Mata Hari wished to visit her wounded lover, however, as a citizen of a neutral country, she was not allowed near the front.

Mata Hari kicked up a fuss, which resulted in a meeting with agents from the Deuxième Bureau. The Deuxième Bureau de l’État-major général (“Second Bureau of the General Staff”) was France’s external military intelligence agency concerned with enemy troops. They proposed that Mata Hari could see Maslov if she agreed to spy for France. One of the agents, Major Georges Ladoux (1875-1933), believed her courtesan contacts would be able to provide useful information.

Ladoux also believed Mata Hari would be able to worm her way into Crown Prince Wilhelm’s (1882-1951) presence. The prince was the eldest son of the last German Kaiser Wilhelm II (1859-1941) and served as a general at the western front. Before the war, Mata Hari had performed for Prince Wilhelm, therefore, she would be a familiar face and, hopefully, appear trustworthy.

The Deuxième Bureau offered Mata Hari one million francs if she could seduce and obtain information about German war plans from the prince. Unbeknownst to the French organisation, the prince had very little to do with the military. German propaganda had painted the prince as a great warrior and leader of the Heeresgruppe Deutscher Kronprinz (Army Group Crown Prince). In reality, the prince had never commanded an army and was far more interested in partying and drinking.

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Painting of Mata Hari by Isaac Israëls, 1916

Mata Hari began her spy career by liaising with the contacts she had amassed during her work as a concubine and dancer. This took her to Spain from where she was returning by steamer ship in November 1916 when she was arrested by the British. The ship had called in at Falmouth, Cornwall, where she was detained and brought to London.

Sir Basil Thomson (1861-1939), the Head of the Criminal Investigation Department during the First World War, interrogated Mata Hari at length. She was held at Cannon Street police station but was released when she eventually admitted she was working for the Deuxième Bureau. After a brief stay at the Savoy Hotel, Mata Hari returned to Spain.

In Madrid, Mata Hari met the German military attaché, Major Arnold Kalle (1873-1952), with whom she began an affair. She asked Kalle if he could arrange a meeting with the Crown Prince but he appeared to be reluctant to do so. Mata Hari offered to share French secrets with Kalle in exchange for money, which she hoped would reward her with some German information in return. Indeed, Kalle did share some information, however, only things the French would already have known, for example, German submarines were refuelled in Spanish ports and German agents were being smuggled into Monaco.

Referring to Mata Hari as Agent H-21, Kalle transmitted telegrams to Berlin about the information she had revealed. Although it was written in code, Kalle had used encryption that had already been cracked by the French. The telegrams were intercepted by the British and French who easily identified Agent H-21 as Mata Hari. As a result, they began to suspect she was a double agent.

As it transpired, the information Mata Hari revealed to Kalle was mostly insignificant gossip about the sex lives of French politicians and generals, rather than useful information. German intelligence officer General Walter Nicolai (1873-1947), however, was annoyed that Kalle had paid for useless information and began to expose her as a German spy to the French.

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On the day of her arrest

Meanwhile, Mata Hari managed to obtain the names of six Belgian officers, five of whom were suspected of working for the Germans and one who believed to be a double agent. The latter was executed but the others evaded arrest and continued their work. The Deuxième Bureau believed Mata Hari had also given the names to the Germans who subsequently protected the five spies.

On 13th February 1917, while staying at the Hotel Elysée Palace in Paris, she was arrested by the French and placed in a rat-infested cell at Prison Saint-Lazare. At her trial, which took place on 24th July, Mata Hari was accused of spying for Germany, which led to the deaths of 500,000 soldiers. Captain Georges Ladoux of the Deuxième Bureau was one of her principal accusers, as was Sir Basil Thomson who had interrogated her in Britain. Both were convinced she had been a double agent, however, neither could produce substantial evidence. The most incriminating thing they could find was a bottle of invisible ink in her hotel room.

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Margaretha Zelle mugshot

Captain Pierre Bouchardon (1870-1950), nicknamed The Grand Inquisitor, was the prosecutor at Mata Hari’s trial and built his case around her invented persona. He drew attention to the story she had weaved about being a Javanese princess and revealed her real name as Margaretha Zelle.

During the trial, Margaretha admitted to accepting 20,000 francs from a German diplomat she had met in the Netherlands to spy on France. She insisted, however, that the only information she revealed was trivial as her loyalties remained with France.

A harlot? Yes, but a traitoress, never!

— Phrase attributed to Mata Hari during the trial.

 

Margaretha pleaded with the Dutch Embassy in Paris for help. “My international connections are due to my work as a dancer, nothing else… Because I really did not spy, it is terrible that I cannot defend myself.” Sadly, assistance was not forthcoming. Not even her wounded lover would come to her aid. When Maslov was asked to testify for her, he declined, claiming he did not care if she was convicted or not. Margaretha reportedly fainted at the news.

Researchers who have looked into Margaretha’s trial, such as British historian Julie Wheelwright, have concluded, “She really did not pass on anything that you couldn’t find in the local newspapers in Spain.” Despite this, Bouchardon continued to build his case by emphasising her past career. Bouchardon argued she was “accustomed to making use of men, she is the type of woman who is born to be a spy.”

Today, many believe Margaretha was used as a scapegoat for France. In 1917, the French were struggling to survive the war. The new Prime Minister, Georges Clemenceau (1841-1929), was determined to turn things around and having a German spy to blame for the recent failings of the French army would help to boost morale. Mata Hari was “… an independent woman, a divorcee, a citizen of a neutral country, a courtesan and a dancer, which made her a perfect scapegoat for the French, who were then losing the war. She was kind of held up as an example of what might happen if your morals were too loose.” (Wheelwright, 2014) 

Under interrogation, Margaretha had admitted to taking money to work for Germany, however, there was no evidence that she carried out any spy duties. Despite this, her defence lawyer, Édouard Clunet (1845-1922), faced an impossible battle; it was the French government versus one man. Unsurprisingly, Clunet lost the case and Margaretha was convicted.

Just before dawn on 15th October 1917, 41-year-old Margaretha Zelle was executed by a firing squad of 12 French soldiers. According to eye-witness reports, she was not bound and had refused to be blindfolded. One man claimed she blew a kiss at the squad just before they fired. British reporter Henry Wales wrote, “Slowly, inertly, she settled to her knees, her head up always, and without the slightest change of expression on her face. For the fraction of a second, it seemed she tottered there, on her knees, gazing directly at those who had taken her life. Then she fell backward, bending at the waist, with her legs doubled up beneath her.” To make sure she was dead, an officer then shot her in the head at close range.

No one came forward to claim Margaretha’s body, therefore, her body was donated to medical science. Records from 1918 show the Museum of Anatomy in Paris received her body and embalmed her head, however, when the museum’s collection was catalogued in 2000, Margaretha’s head and body were missing. They remain unaccounted for.

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Statue of Mata Hari in Leeuwarden, Netherlands

Mata Hari’s life has inspired many films including a Hollywood production starring Greta Garbo (1905-90). Her life has been a source of entertainment for many for over a century. In the 1967 James Bond spoof Casino Royale, the character Mata Bond was said to be the daughter of James Bond and Mata Hari. In 1992, Carrie Fisher (1956-1016) of Star Wars fame wrote an episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles in which Indiana Jones had an affair with Mata Hari and became involved with her spy career. At least five musicals have been based around her life and, in 2016, the Dutch National Ballet presented a ballet called Mata Hari.

Despite her life becoming appropriated for entertainment purposes, some people wish to see Mata Hari vindicated of her supposed crimes. In 2001, MI5 released documents concerning Margaretha’s interrogation, which the Mata Hari Foundation used to form their plea to the French government to exonerate her. The spokesman for the foundation stated, “We believe that there are sufficient doubts concerning the dossier of information that was used to convict her to warrant re-opening the case. Maybe she wasn’t entirely innocent, but it seems clear she wasn’t the master-spy whose information sent thousands of soldiers to their deaths, as has been claimed.” The foundation argued the documents were proof that Margaretha was not guilty of the crime for which she was convicted.

Margaretha Zelle, a.k.a Mata Hari remains a criminal in the eyes of the law. In 2017, exactly 100 years after her execution, the French Army made the 1275 pages of Mata Hari’ trial and other documents public; it is only a matter of time before the foundation comes forward again to campaign for her pardon.

It is difficult to say how innocent or guilty Margaretha Zelle really was and it will be challenging to prove now that a century has passed. Whilst her execution remains the most notable event of her life, we must not forget the 41 years that led up to that fateful day. Margaretha’s world was turned upside-down at a young age following her father’s bankruptcy and her mother’s death. She took her future into her own hands, marrying to escape her past, only to find herself in an abusive relationship; she lost her son and was estranged from her daughter. Remarkably, this did not break her. She found solace in dance, became Mata Hari and launched her own career – albeit one that many may frown upon. For love, she agreed to spy for a country that was not even her own. The final years of her life were fraught with danger and yet she persevered, showing remarkable strength and bravery.

Whether or not Mata Hari was innocent, she deserves to be remembered for her life rather than her death.


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