Tudors to Windsors (Part Two, Georgians to Windsors)

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

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

George I (reigned 1714-27)

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

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

George II (reigned 1727-60)

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

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

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

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

George III (reigned 1760-1820)

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

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

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

George IV (reigned 1820-30)

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

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

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

William IV (reigned 1830-37)

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

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

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

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

Victoria (reigned 1837-1901)

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

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

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

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

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

Edward VII (reigned 1901-10)

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

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

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

George V (reigned 1910-36)

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

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

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

Edward VIII (reigned 1936)

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

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

George VI (reigned 1936-52)

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

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

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

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

Elizabeth II (reigning since 1952)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Tudors to Windsors (Part One, Tudors to Stuarts)

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

Henry VII (reigned 1485-1509)

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

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

Henry VIII (reigned 1509-47)

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

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

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

Edward VI (reigned 1547-53)

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

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

Lady Jane Grey (proclaimed 1553)

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

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

Mary I (reigned 1553-58)

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

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

Elizabeth I (reigned 1558-1603)

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

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

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

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

James I (reigned 1603-1625)

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

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

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

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

Charles I (reigned 1625-49)

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

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

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

Oliver Cromwell (Lord Protector of England 1653-58)

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

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

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

Charles II (reigned 1660-85)

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

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

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

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

James II (reigned 1685-88)

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

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

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

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

Mary II (reigned 1689-94)

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

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

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

William III (reigned 1689-1702)

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

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

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

Anne (reigned 1702-14)

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

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

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

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

To be continued…


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Woolsthorpe Manor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace

Of the 8000 paintings in the Royal Collection, 65 of the best have been selected for the latest exhibition at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace. Many of these masterpieces have hung in the palace since George III (1738-1820) acquired the building in 1762. When George IV (1762-1830) came to the throne, he commissioned leading architect John Nash (1752-1835) to build a Picture Gallery, one of the state rooms in the palace, where these paintings have hung ever since. Unfortunately, they are displayed in two rows where it is difficult to see them all. Whilst the Picture Gallery is undergoing essential work, the public have the opportunity to view each of the chosen paintings at eye-level, where they can be examined and appreciated in detail.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, which look at paintings from different countries, such as the Netherlands, Flanders and Italy. Many were acquired by George IV, who had a good eye for art, but others have been in the collection since the reigns of Charles I (1600-49) and Charles II (1630-85). The paintings in the first gallery were all created in the Low Countries (Belgium and the Netherlands) between 1630 and 1680. This was the heydey of the Dutch Golden Age, during which the Dutch Republic controlled much of the area now belonging to the present Kingdom of the Netherlands.

Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age are modest in scale and tend to depict scenes of everyday life. Artists usually worked alone in a studio, painting from memory rather than on-site or en plein air. The colours are vibrant, which is one of several identifying features of the style. With delicate, almost invisible brushstrokes, Dutch artists produced true-to-life paintings that often contained a comic element. George IV appreciated the artworks for the latter quality and purchased all but two on display for his London residence at Carlton House while he was still the Prince of Wales.

A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman (c1660) is one of two paintings in this section of the exhibition not purchased by George IV. Instead, his father, George III, bought it in 1762 to hang in the King’s Closet at Windsor Castle. Nicknamed The Music Lesson, it was painted by Johannes Vermeer (1632-75) in the early 1660s, although the King believed it was by Frans van Mieris the Elder (1635-81) due to a misreading of the signature. The true identity of the artist did not come to light until 1866.

Only 34 paintings by Vermeer survive, and they are difficult to date, although some art historians estimate he produced A Lady at the Virginal with a Gentleman between 1662 and 1664. Vermeer paints in a grid-like manner, full of vertical and horizontal lines, which draw the eye to the back of the room where the scene takes place. A young woman stands at a virginal with her back to the viewer while her music teacher stands to the side with his right arm resting atop the instrument.

Vermeer has cropped many of the elements in the painting, suggesting the room is much larger than what is visible. In the mirror on the back wall, which reflects the lady’s face, Vermeer has also included a glimpse of an artist’s easel, suggesting he is in the same room. Yet, it is more likely that Vermeer produced the artwork in his studio.

On the lid of the virginal, an inscription reads MUSICA LETITIAE CO[ME]S / MEDICINA DOLOR[IS], meaning “Music is a companion in pleasure and a balm in sorrow.” Art historians debate the meaning of this phrase, suggesting it relates to the two figures in the painting. Perhaps there is forbidden love between the two characters, breaching the teacher-student relationship. Yet, another element in the scene questions the type of love hinted at by the inscription. The framed painting hanging on the wall behind the tutor is an impression of Roman Charity (Cimon and Pero) by Dirck Van Baburen (1595-1624). The scene depicts the story of the imprisoned Cimon, who was breastfed by his daughter Pero to keep him alive. Whilst this is meant to symbolise the ideal of Christian charity, it also hints at a complicated relationship.

Most likely purchased for its comedic value, The Listening Housewife by Nicolaes Maes (1634-93) entered the Royal Collection in 1811. During the 1650s, Maes produced several paintings of domestic scenes with moralising themes, of which this is one. The young housewife, identified by the keys in her hand, engages with the viewer with a direct gaze and a conspiratorial finger to her lips. This gesture draws attention to the scene at the foot of the staircase, on which the housewife is eavesdropping. Two lovers are kissing, having abandoned their chores, but will soon be caught by a man approaching with a lantern. The playful smile on the housewife’s lips indicates she is not upset by the scene, but the older man may react quite differently when he discovers the couple.

Paintings of indoor domestic scenes tended to be quite dark due to the nature of Dutch buildings. Windows let in very little light, and the wooden interiors and furnishings created many shadows. Maes’ paintings are an example of this, as are works by Gerrit Dou (1613-75), a former pupil of Rembrandt. In The Grocer’s Shop (1672), Dou contrasts the darkness of the interior with the daylight outside, coming through an arched window. This creates the illusion that the viewer is observing the scene outside the building. Yet, the window is likely an element of Dou’s imagination.

The scene in the room is typical of a general store selling eggs, dairy products, bread and meat products. The style of dress is slightly different from the early paintings by Dou, suggesting the fashions from France had begun to influence the Dutch Republic. This is also evident in the sculpted relief of children playing with a goat on the window sill, which resembles the work of French artists.

Not all paintings from the Dutch Golden Age depicted interior, everyday life scenes. Christ and St Mary Magdalen at the Tomb (1638) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) is an interpretation of a traditional religious scene recorded in the Gospel of St John (20:11-18). The Bible passage records the moment Mary Magdalen visits the tomb of the crucified Christ, only to find it empty. A man, who she mistakes for a gardener, asks her why she is crying, and she appeals to him for information about the missing body. This is the scene Rembrandt depicts, shortly before the moment Mary realises the gardener is her Lord, Jesus Christ.

Similar to other artworks of the era, the painting is quite dark, particularly around the tomb. Rembrandt’s use of light in the background, which contrasts with the deep colours in the foreground, is symbolic. The darkness represents death and grief, whereas the opalescent dawn sky hints at hope and life. Jesus’ body is angled towards the background, suggesting he wishes to move on and embrace his post-resurrection role in the world.

At first glance, Two Sportsmen Outside an Inn (1651) by Paulus Potter (1625-54) may appear to be a typical everyday life scene, but George IV probably purchased it for its comedic value. Two professional hunters are being served beer from a small, remote inn. A barefoot young boy tends to one of the men’s horses while the other horse urinates on the ground. Whilst the horse’s action is natural, it is unusual for an artist to capture such a moment.

Paintings from the Dutch Golden Age typically depicted colourfully dressed, wealthy men and women. Poverty was rarely seen in Dutch paintings, yet Potter emphasised the impoverished state of the innkeeper, child, and drunken man sitting on a bench. Art historians liken the subject matter to a story told by Ovid about the Roman gods Jupiter and Mercury, who visit the elderly peasant couple, Philemon and Baucis. There is a stark contrast between the rich and the poor, both in the style of dress and attitude. During the 17th, 18th and 19th century, some viewers may have found this contrast amusing.

The artwork in the second gallery also come from the Low Countries, but they belong to more prestigious branches of art. All the paintings are significantly larger than those in the first gallery and depict narratives, religious subjects, landscapes and commissioned portraits. Three of the best artists of the 17th century dominate the walls: Rubens, Van Dyck and Rembrandt.

Those fortunate enough to be visiting the exhibition at 12 pm or 3 pm have the pleasure of listening to a short talk about Milkmaids with cattle in a landscape, ‘The Farm at Laken’ by Sir Peter Paul Rubens (1577-18).

Peter Paul Rubens was perhaps the most accomplished and influential artist of the 17th century. He was born in Siegen, Germany but spent much of his early life in Antwerp, where he established himself as a painter. Rubens subsequently travelled all over Europe as a court artist and diplomat for Philip IV of Spain (1605-65) and Charles I of England (1600-49).

Rubens was a very versatile artist. In the exhibition are three of his landscapes, two portraits, and the Assumption of the Virgin. He was very well-known for his large scale history paintings, depicting scenes from mythology and religion. His landscapes are less known, which he painted towards the end of his life. These were produced for fun rather than for patrons and stayed in Rubens’ personal collection or within the possession of friends and family.

The Farm at Laken is one of Rubens’ earliest landscape paintings and was acquired by George IV in 1821 for 1500 guineas (just under £100,000 today) and has remained in the Royal Collection ever since. It is a panoramic landscape where the details in the foreground are very clear and viewers also have a view of the horizon on the left-hand side of the painting. Rubens’ used subtle changes in colour to differentiate between the different levels of the landscape. In the foreground, he used brown tones, which become greener in the middle ground before transforming to blue in the background. He also uses a picturesque line of trees to lead the eye from one place to another.

Rubens produced this painting during the Autumn. This is evident through the subtle use of orange in the trees to indicate the changing colours of the leaves. The fields also have an autumnal glow, but the most obvious indication of the season is the activities of the people in the foreground. It is the time of the harvest, and some farmworkers are digging up vegetables, such as the cauliflowers and onions seen in a wheelbarrow and the basket carried by a woman. The well-fed cows are being milked, which along with the produce suggests the farm has had a successful, fertile year.

Some art historians believe there are elements in the landscape that relate specifically to Rubens’ life. He painted the scene between 1617 and 1618, almost ten years after the signing of the Treaty of Antwerp. The treaty declared a truce between the Habsburg rulers of the Southern Netherlands (where modern-day Belgium is today) and Spain, and the Dutch Republic. The two sides had been at war for 41 years, the majority of Rubens’ life, but the 1609 peace treaty resulted in twelve years of peace. The abundance of this Flemish landscape may represent this time of peace. The figures and animals may also personify the allegories of Peace and Plenty. The woman carrying the basket represents Plenty, and the flock of doves in the centre represent Peace.

The title of the painting, The Farm at Laken, refers to the church in the background between the trees. Art historians believe this is an impression of the Our Lady at Laken church, demolished during the late 19th-century. The church was associated with the rulers of the Southern Netherlands, Archduke Albert VII (1559-1621) and Isabella Clara Eugenia (1566-1663), who made a pilgrimage to the site every year. So, the farm did not just thrive under the peaceful watch of its rulers, but it also had religious connotations. Religion was extremely important to people living in Flanders and the Netherlands, but Our Lady at Laken held even more value because it contained a relic associated with fertility. Many women visited the church every year in the belief it would help them conceive a child.

Similar to other landscapes by Rubens, such as A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning and The Rainbow Landscape that were recently on display at the Wallace Collection in London, the painting grew during the making. The majority of Rubens’ landscapes were painted on wooden panels (ironically, the other two landscapes in the exhibition are on canvas), which allowed him to produce finer details and disguise his brushstrokes. Rubens began this painting on a much smaller panel, which he later expanded by adding extra panels to the top (13 cm), left (7 cm) and right hand (15 cm) sides. Some art historians suggest this is because he could not contain the abundance of the landscape on such as small panel (72.9 x 103.9 cm).

Christ Healing the Paralysed Man (1619) is, admittedly, not one of Anthony van Dyck‘s (1599-1641) greatest works, but he was only 20 years old. At the time, Van Dyck was a student under Rubens, and the painting was likely designed by the elder artist. Sketches of figures similar to those in this painting exist in Rubens’ hand. The religious theme is more synonymous with Italian painters of the 16th century, but many Netherlandish and Flemish artists practised by copying these styles.

Van Dyck, with Rubens’ help, depicted the scene in Matthew 9:2-8, where Jesus healed a paralysed man. Some men brought the man to Jesus, who said, “Take heart, son; your sins are forgiven.” Although this evoked outrage amongst the Pharisees, the man got up and walked home. The man in question is likely the poorly dressed, older looking figure on the left. He is thanking Christ for healing him – a scene not mentioned in the Gospel of Matthew.

Art historians have identified the young man near the open doorway as the recently called James, the Apostle that became the Patron Saint of pilgrims. All the characters seem to be heading towards the door as though about to start a journey or pilgrimage. The world outside appears bright and positive, which contrasts with the darkness of the interior. The darkness symbolises the sins of the man, and the light colours his salvation.

Visitors will recognise Rembrandt’s Portrait of Agatha Bas (1611-1658) ‘Lady with a Fan’ from the promotion materials and advertisements for the exhibition. It is considered one of the most beautiful portraits in the Royal Collection. The 29-year-old woman was married to the wool merchant Nicolaas van Bambeeck (1596-1661), whose portrait hangs in the Musée Royal des Beaux-Arts in Brussels. The couple were not particularly famous, but Rembrandt knew them personally. After their marriage, the Van Bambeeck’s lived with Nicolaas’ mother, diagonally opposite Rembrandt on Sint Anthoniesbreestraat in Amsterdam.

Agatha wears a black gown over a pink silk dress. The gold flower patterns, pearls and fashionable fan reveal she was of a wealthy standing in Dutch society. Rembrandt expertly painted the white lace around her collar and sleeves, making the painting feel three-dimensional, almost as though the viewer could reach out and touch the material. Rembrandt also engages with the viewer by adding an ebony frame upon which Agatha’s hand rests, giving the illusion that she could climb through the frame into the gallery.

Lord Yarmouth (1777-1842) bought the Portrait of Agatha Bas at an auction for King George IV. Yarmouth was an art collector as well as a politician, so understood what to look for in a painting. The sitter’s beauty combined with Rembrandt’s delicate brush strokes and detail makes the portrait particularly striking. Not only is the artwork pleasing to look at, but it is also the work of one of the most well-known artists of all time.

Almost out of place next to Rubens, Rembrandt, and Van Dyck is A Kermis on St George’s Day (1649) by David Teniers the Younger (1610-90). Teniers was a versatile Flemish Baroque painter whose work greatly appealed to George IV. This painting is the most expensive work by Teniers in the Royal Collection, costing the King 1500 guineas in 1819; the same price as Rubens’ Farm at Laken.

A Kermis is a summer fair held in towns and villages in the Netherlands, often organised by the parish church. Teniers painted several Kermis scenes, but instead of capturing fairs for posterity, he filled it with examples of vices for comedic effect. In this painting, lust, wrath, drunkenness, and general boorishness are abundant throughout the crowds. They are all in high spirits, leading to careless folly. George IV was a wild partygoer, and he may have recognised himself in many of these characters.

The third and final room of the exhibition displays paintings created in Italy between 1510 and 1740. During this period, art styles changed and developed, as did the themes. Ideal female figures contrast with sober male portraits, and large landscapes depict a range of views and weathers. The choice of colour also differs from artist to artist. Some use chiaroscuro to emphasise particular sections of the painting, and others stand out with bright, attractive colours. Whilst most of the previous paintings were purchased by George IV, many of the ones from Italy entered the Royal Collection much earlier.

In 1660, the States of Holland and West Friesland presented Charles II with Pallas Athene (c.1531-8) by the Italian prodigy Parmigianino (1503-40). Also known as Francesco Mazzola, he gained the nickname Parmigianino, meaning “the little one from Parma”, due to his youth. Parmigianino began painting as a child, and by the age of 18, had already completed several commissions.

Pallas Athene was the Greek goddess of wisdom and a skilled warrior. Most artists depicted her wearing some form of armour, and Parmigianino followed suit by including a golden breastplate. The green gown covering Athene’s shoulders, combined with her long, curly hair, emphasise her femininity. Athene’s appearance, particularly her long neck, was inspired by classical statues, descriptions by the Italian poet Petrarch (1304-74), and Mannerist ideals of beauty.

In contrast to the beautiful Athene is Artemisia Gentileschi’s (1593-1652) Self-Portrait as the Allegory of Painting (La Pittura), purchased by Charles I. Unlike the bright colours in Parmigianino’s work, Gentileschi used dark, earthy tones, showing the viewer an alternative interpretation of beauty. According to Iconologia by Italian iconographer Cesare Ripa (1555-1622), Painting is personified as “a beautiful woman, with full black hair, dishevelled, and twisted in various ways, with arched eyebrows that show imaginative thought”. Gentileschi captured the essence of this description, but as a woman, she did not intend to present herself (for it is also a self-portrait) as a man’s ideal beautiful woman.

Artemisia Gentileschi came to London at the request of Charles I, suggesting he respected her as a painter despite her gender. Successful female painters were unheard of during the 17th century, but Gentileschi was very much in demand. Naturally, collectors were attracted by her unusual status as a female artist, but she also had outstanding artistic abilities.

Titian’s (1488-1576) portrait of Jacopo Sannazaro (1458-1530) is an example of the sober-style paintings of men from the 16th and 17th century, a stark contrast from those depicting women. Painted early in his career (c.1514-18), Titian used a restricted colour range, making the sitter look like a sensible, respected member of society.

Jacopo Sannazaro was an Italian poet best known for his humanist classic Arcadia, a poem that influenced the likes of William Shakespeare (1564-1616) and John Milton (1608-74). Sannazaro claimed to come from a noble family, and this portrait reflects that. He sits with an air of importance, demanding respect from his viewers. In his right hand, he holds a book with one finger marking his place. Some art historians suggest it is a Bible, thus emphasising Sannazaro’s piety. 

Claude Lorrain’s (1604-82) Harbour Scene at Sunset (1643) is one of several landscapes in the latter part of the exhibition. It was first recorded at Buckingham Palace in 1785 but may have been purchased earlier by Frederick, Prince of Wales (1707-57), the father of George III. The scene depicts the harbour at the Arco degli Argentari in Rome at sunset. The low sun creates a path of sunlight across the sea, providing enough light for the workers to unload goods from the ships.

The ancient Roman arch, yellow sky, and the “wine-dark sea” create an idyllic landscape, suggesting peacefulness, warmth and harmony. Yet, “Arco degli Argentari” means Arch of the Money-Changers and was located in a squalid corner of Rome. Lorrain used artistic licence to create an idealised version of the harbour. He did not aim to capture an accurate scene; instead, he worked to his strengths: his command of perspective and use of colour and tone.

In 1762, George III acquired The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day by Canaletto (1697-1768), which is a complete contrast to the landscape by Lorrain. Canaletto’s precise drawing and painting style create a perfect depiction of the Bucintoro, the state barge of the doge of Venice, returning to the city on Ascension Day. The annual ceremony celebrated the Sposalizio del Mar (the Wedding of the Sea), which symbolised Venice’s reliance on the sea. Several boats accompanied the Bucintoro, as seen in Canaletto’s painting.

Canaletto’s skill at architectural drawing is evident in his paintings because the buildings are precise and finely detailed. From a distance, the artwork looks like a photograph, but up close, the individual brush strokes are visible. He used the same technique for the ripples on the water and the boats. Although the canvas is fairly large (76.8 x 125.4 cm), the details are minute, suggesting Canaletto used a very fine paintbrush to painstakingly draw each line and flourish.

On display are four more paintings by Canaletto, which George III acquired in the same year. On a grander scale, these depict views of Venice away from the water’s edge. As a result, they lack the fine details seen in the water in The Bacino di San Marco on Ascension Day, but they are still impressive pieces of art. It is easy to see why the King liked Canaletto’s work, and visitors spend longer looking at the details in the landscape than they do in some of the other paintings in the gallery. In total, the Royal Academy owns over 238 paintings and drawings by Canaletto, making it one of the largest and most important art collections in the world.

Whilst the exhibition Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace evolved from an opportune moment – the Picture Gallery undergoing essential work – the curators have thought carefully about what paintings to display and where. Rather than placing them in chronological order, they are divided into three groups, which helps visitors compare artworks of similar styles. The exhibition provides details about each painting and encourages visitors to question what makes them so important that Britain’s previous kings wanted them in their collection. There is no right or wrong answer. The appreciation of art is a subjective topic, and what appeals to one person may not to another. The aim of the exhibition is not to educate but to provide visitors with the opportunity to think and reflect.

Masterpieces from Buckingham Palace is on display at the Queen’s Gallery, Buckingham Palace, until Sunday 13th February 2022. Tickets cost £16.00 per adult but discounted tickets are available for over 60s, children and students. Get your ticket stamped, and you can return as many times as you wish throughout the year. 


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Simeon goes to Grantham

Dear Secret Agent Simeon. The miserable malcontent Ivor Grudge is up to his old tricks again. This time he has planted a device in the Bell Tower of St Wulfram’s Church. The device is set to explode at the stroke of midnight. You must act quickly to find the code to deactivate the device and save the Church and the resident Peregrine Falcons who nest there.
Regards, Treasure Trails

Once again, Simeon, the red-haired gibbon (toffee-coloured, if you please), is called in to save the day. After receiving Top Secret Spy Mission Documents from Treasure Trails in the post, Simeon headed to the South Kesteven district of Lincolnshire to follow a trail of clues around the town of Grantham. The two-mile trek took Simeon past some notable sights, including the birthplace of the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the school attended by Sir Isaac Newton.

Grantham was once an Anglo-Saxon “homestead by gravel”. Names ending in ham were usually medieval homesteads, and “Grant” comes from the Old English word for gravel. Today, the urbanised town contains shopping centres, many pubs, industrial estates and high street shops. Yet, as Simeon discovered, there are plenty of buildings dating back hundreds of years.

According to the Domesday Book of 1086, Edith the Fair (c. 1025-66), the first wife of King Harold Godwinson (c. 1022-66), had a hall or house in Grantham before the Battle of Hastings in 1066. After this, William the Conqueror (1028-87) established a manor house, and the area became a valuable asset to future kings. Records also reveal St Wulfram’s Church existed at the time of the “Great Survey”. Yet, the building Simeon set out to save was built at a later date.

Simeon’s trail of clues passed through St Wulfram’s churchyard, and Simeon could not resist having a peek inside the church. The building is named in honour of St Wulfram of Fontenelle (c. 640-703), who served as the Archbishop of Sens in France during the 7th century. Wulfram took holy orders hoping for a quiet life, but instead, he became a missionary to Friesland in Germany. He succeeded in converting the pagan King Radbod (d. 719) to Christianity before retiring to Fontenelle. After his death, Wulfram was canonised, and he is remembered for several miracles. He is credited with the miraculous delivery of a stillborn baby, thus saving the mother’s life, preventing the death of a hanged man, and rescuing two boys who the king had sacrificed to the sea during a pagan ritual.

There are only four churches dedicated to St Wulfram, two in France and two in England. One is in Ovingdean, Sussex, and the other in Grantham. Only a few stones of the original Saxon church remain in Grantham, which was altered and expanded by the Normans after 1066. Likewise, not much is visible of the Norman building due to a lightning strike in 1222.

In 1280, after rebuilding the nave, the church expanded towards the west, taking over the space once belonging to a Saxon marketplace. Supporting piers or columns in the church feature mason marks, which indicate the gradual process of building the tower. Simeon, being on the small side, could not see these marks from ground level, but he felt awe-inspired by the height of the spire, which is visible across the town.

The spire reaches an impressive height of 86.2 metres (283 ft), making it the tallest church in England at the time of completion. Many churches and cathedrals are now taller than St Wulfram’s, but it takes credit for inspiring architects to aspire to reach such heights. One side of the spire is wider than the other to incorporate a spiral staircase leading to the belfry. “That’s where the nasty Ivor Grudge has planted his device,” realised Simeon. “I must prevent him from destroying this beautiful church.”

Simeon hurried off to complete his mission after temporarily getting distracted by the beautiful stained glass windows. The oldest windows date to the Victorian era and illustrate scenes such as the Last Supper, Christ’s early years, the Evangelists and the biblical Prophets. Others depict the four Lincolnshire saints: Regimus, Hugh, Botolph and Gilbert of Sempringham, and the Latin Fathers: Ambrose, Jerome, Gregory and Augustine.

Four windows are relatively modern in comparison to the Victorian stained-glass. One, known as the Catlin window, depicts a war in heaven, as described in Revelation 12:7-12. Designed by Henry Harvey of York in 1962, the window shows the archangel Michael holding the scales of justice and a spear. On one side, a man, surrounded by chaos, begs the angel for help. On the other, a defeated Satan and the condemned fall into hell. This window was donated by Lewis Catlin in memory of his family.

The Porter Window (1969), named in memory of Jessie Porter, depicts the birth and life of Christ. Jessie came from a family of shoemakers in Grantham, so the designer Leonard Evetts (1909-1997) included shoemaker tools in the design. John Hayward (1929-2007), who made nearly 200 stained glass windows in his lifetime, produced the other two contemporary windows. Donated by Thomas Hall in memory of Minnie Hall in 1970 is a window depicting Jesus walking on water. His disciple, Peter, tries to follow suit but begins to sink. “Immediately Jesus reached out his hand and caught him. ‘You of little faith,’ he said, ‘why did you doubt?’” (Matthew 14:31, NIV)

Hayward designed the other window in 1974 for Lily Pinchbeck in memory of members of her family, who regularly attended St Wulfram’s Church. The design symbolically represents the seven Sacraments: baptism (font and scallop shell), eucharist (bread and wine), confirmation and holy orders (bishop’s mitre), reconciliation (tears), anointing of the sick (oil), and marriage (ring). The window also represents the Pinchbeck family with references to baptism, singing in the choir and serving at the altar.

Having finished admiring the interior of St Wulfram’s Church, which Sir Gilbert Scott (1811-78) expertly restored in the 1860s, Simeon ventured outside to search for clues along Church Street. Several old buildings surround the church, including the original building of the King’s School (the present school is situated on Brook Street). On closer inspection, Simeon discovered that Isaac Newton (1642-1726) once attended the school between 1655 and 1660.

The school’s history dates back to the early 15th century, but few records exist until Bishop Richard Foxe (1448-1528) refounded the establishment in 1528. This suggests the school fell into disuse towards the beginning of the 16th century. Foxe came from Ropsley, a village near Grantham and served as Lord Privy Seal to Henry VII (1457-1509). Foxe also refounded Taunton Grammar School in Somerset (1522) and set up Corpus Christi College in Oxford (1517).

During the 16th century, the school officially became known as the Free Grammar School of King Edward VI. At first, not many attended the school, so classes were not large when Newton began studying in 1655. The future “natural philosopher” started attending King’s School at the age of 12, where he learned elementary mathematics, Latin and religion. He lodged with an apothecary’s family in the high street, who noted he was “a sober, silent, thinking lad,” yet records suggest Newton could also defend himself in a physical fight.

Newton paid little attention to his lessons, preferring to make mechanical devices and discover how things worked. (“I would rather climb trees,” says Simeon.) As he approached his 17th birthday, Newton’s mother called him home to work on the family estate, but he proved useless at manual labour and frequently had his head in a book. Newton’s uncle and Mr Stokes, the schoolmaster at King’s School, persuaded Newton’s mother to return him to school. After another year of education, Newton earned a place at Trinity College, Cambridge. As was customary for King’s School scholars in the 17th century, Isaac Newton carved his signature on the wall of the school library.

Isaac Newton is remembered fondly in Grantham, and Simeon spotted many references to the scholar around the town. The primary shopping centre is named the Isaac Newton Centre, which houses the public library as well as a range of shops. Opposite the centre is a statue of Newton, which the town erected in 1858. The sculptor, William Theed the Younger (1804-91), a favourite of Queen Victoria (1819-1901), made the statue from the bronze of a Russian cannon used during the Crimean War. It cost the public £1800 to produce this statue of Newton, which is the equivalent of £230,000 today.

During his search for clues, Simeon discovered another statue dedicated to Sir Isaac Newton. Situated in Wyndham Park Sensory Garden is a large hand holding an apple. Newton developed his Law of Gravitation after witnessing an apple falling from a tree. Nigel Sardeson, a self-taught woodcarver, produced the statue from the remains of a horse chestnut tree in 2010. Unfortunately, the roots and interior of the tree stump began to decay, and the statue sprouted fungus.

An urgent preservation project took place in 2015. The statue was removed from the ground and taken away for treatment. A year later, the Mayor of Grantham, Linda Wootton, unveiled the refurbished apple sculpture, which now sits upon a concrete base.

The apple statue is one of many attractions in Wyndham Park. As Simeon made his way through the grass and trees, he came across an open-air paddling pool, a model boating lake and the River Witham. Carefully skirting these for fear of getting wet, Simeon searched the area of clues.

The park is named after Lieutenant The Hon. William Reginald Wyndham of the 1st Life Guards, who died in action in 1914 at the beginning of the First World War. His mother, Constance Evelyn Primrose, Lady Leconfield (1846-1939), officially opened the park in 1924. The model boating lake predated the park by almost forty years and was once used for bathing.

While walking beside the River Witham, Simeon spotted a bench dedicated to Mr James Bench, the inventor of the bench. Scratching his head, Simeon moved on, convinced someone was pulling his leg. Soon, Simeon was distracted by a sign marking the way to “Grantham’s Oldest Resident”. Intrigued, Simeon eagerly took that path, eyes peeled to spot something very old.

After walking almost a mile (a very long way for a little gibbon), Simeon finally came face-to-face with “Grantham’s Oldest Resident”: an oak tree. Resisting his animal instincts, Simeon looked up in awe at the huge tree rather than climb up its 600-year old trunk. The tree is an ancient English oak (Quercus Robur) with a girth of over 7 metres. That’s more than 30 Simeons!

The tree’s exact age is indeterminable, but the Woodland Trust suggest it may have been a sapling when Grantham was attacked during the War of the Roses in 1461. The tree has seen Grantham grow from a relatively small village into a large town with a population of over 44,000 people. In 2018, construction work threatened the Grantham Oak, whose roots stretch almost 7 metres. The Woodland Trust and the South Kesteven District Council intervened, placing protective measures around the tree and its roots to protect it from damage. It is unusual to find an oak tree as old as this in an urban setting. Most are cut down to make way for roads and buildings, so the Grantham Oak’s survival makes it even more special.

Back in the town centre, Simeon spotted the much thinner Market Cross. Demolished and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the cross is a reminder of Grantham’s early days as an 11th-century market town. Grantham played a large role in the wool trade, which helped raise funds to build St Wulfram’s Church. The nine metre-high cross sits in the centre of the historic part of the town on octagonal limestone slabs.

Not far from the Market Cross, Simeon found a tea room (or gibbon refuelling stop, as he calls it) and treated himself to a chocolate brownie. Being an observant gibbon, Simeon noticed the strange name of the tea room, The Conduit. “I wonder why it has that name,” thought Simeon. He did not need to look far to find out. On the pavement outside stood a strange little building, also called The Conduit. This is the remains of Grantham’s first public water supply.

The first water conduit was constructed in 1134 by the Greyfriars, a group of Franciscan monks who lived near the marketplace. They used lead pipes to convey water from a nearby spring to their house. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the water was rerouted to the strange little building outside the tea room in 1597. The inhabitants of Grantham could draw water from the conduit instead of springs or streams, and by 1680, water carts delivered water directly to houses for a fee of £3 a year. The conduit needed several repairs throughout its lifetime, and the lead pipes were replaced with iron pipes. Eventually, the conduit fell out of use due to the advent of modern water systems.

While looking for clues, Simeon came across a whole range of interesting things, including the birthplace of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (1925-2013). Thatcher, née Roberts attended Kesteven and Grantham Girls’ School, which was established in 1910. The King’s School, attended by Newton, only admits boys.

Thatcher and Newton are not the only notable people from Grantham. Edith Smith (1876-1924), the first woman police officer with full arrest powers, patrolled the streets of Grantham. Thomas Paine (1737-1809), the author of Common Sense, briefly worked in the town as an Excise Officer. There are also many past and present politicians and sportsmen who hail from the area. Simeon also came across a family of bees living in a hive outside the Beehive Inn. South African bees have inhabited the hive since 1830.

After walking the many streets of Grantham, Simeon solved all the clues, cracked the code and saved St Wulfram’s Church from destruction. He learned so much about the town along the way and thoroughly enjoyed himself. When in the area, Simeon recommends visiting Belton House, built in the 17th century. It is located 3 miles from Grantham and has extensive parklands. It was also one of the locations for the BBC’s 1995 version of Pride and Prejudice.

To purchase the Grantham Treasure Trail, visit treasuretrails.co.uk

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


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Jodi Picoult

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about how to write a book review. While writing, I discovered that I have, to date, written 392 book reviews, of which a list is available here. Many of my reviews are about pre-published books sent to me by the author or publisher via NetGalley or Goodreads, but I also review books of my choice. Examples of the latter include books by American author Jodi Picoult.

Jodi Picoult (born 1966) is the author of over 25 novels that tackle a wide range of controversial or moral issues. She is adept at tackling matters in a sensitive, honest way, whether they involve abortion, assisted suicide, race relations, eugenics, LGBT rights, or school shootings. Geoff Hamilton and Brian Jones, the authors of Encyclopedia of Contemporary Writers and Their Works (2020), described Picoult as “a paradox, a hugely popular, at times controversial writer, ignored by academia, who questions notions of what constitutes literature simply by doing what she does best.”

I first came across Jodi Picoult in 2008 when my A-Level Religious Studies tutor suggested reading My Sister’s Keeper to help with our medical Ethics Module. Not only did I enjoy the book, but it also rekindled my love of reading. Picoult’s writing ability is exceptional, and her turn of phrases are almost poetical. It is no surprise that Picoult has won at least 14 awards and honours.

In 2014, I decided to write reviews of all Jodi Picoult’s novels. So far, I have only managed to write about eight books, but I plan to continue this goal in the future. (Although the 20+ books on my to-read pile suggest this will not be achieved any time soon!)

My Sister’s Keeper (reviewed 2015)

“If you use one of your children to save the life of another, are you being a good mother or a very bad one?”

My Sister’s Keeper was the first Jodi Picoult novel I read. (I have since read all Picoult’s books to date) I was not expecting much when I first picked it up, especially as I was reading it for a Medical Ethics module at college. Yet this book rekindled my love of reading, and suddenly, after only reading one story, I was asking for Jodi Picoult books for my birthday.

Many people may be familiar with the storyline, even if they have not read the book, as My Sister’s Keeper shot to fame when the film version hit the cinemas. Thirteen-year-old Anna Fitzgerald was Rhode Island’s first genetically engineered baby, created to provide her older sister Kate with the means to survive acute promyelocytic leukaemia. However, over the next few years, Kate relapses resulting in Anna going under numerous procedures, such as bone marrow extraction, to save Kate’s life. Now things have got so bad that Kate will die unless Anna gives up one of her kidneys, yet unwilling to do this, Anna hires a lawyer, Campbell Alexander, to sue her parents for the rights of her own body.

From reading a synopsis, the reader can already see that My Sister’s Keeper is going to be an emotional story, but what made me love the author so much?

The story was told from six points of view: Anna, Jesse (older brother), Sara (mother), Brian (father), Campbell and Julie (guardian ad litem). Notice that Kate was not one of the narrators, which leads us to speculate from the very start that Anna wins the case and Kate dies. Within the six main characters, there is no antagonist – unless you count cancer – and in all of them, the reader can find something relatable.

In one of the chapters, Jesse pronounces that Kate is the martyr, Anna the peacekeeper and himself the lost cause. With Anna, we can recognize the struggle to follow the decisions laid down for us by other people – a time when we have no choice of our own. Jesse represents the times when we have been ignored and forgotten because of bigger or more important events, thus resulting in attention-seeking behaviour. Brian, the firefighter, the man who wants to save everyone, cannot put out the metaphorical fire plaguing his family. Sara, whose narrative starts in the past rather than the present day, shows us how easy it is to get wrapped up in one problem (or daughter), ignoring everything (or everyone) else.

One great thing about all Picoult’s novels is that they are not focused on one storyline. Granted, this book focuses on the trial and Kate’s illness, but the inclusion of Campbell and Julia’s voices provide an additional subplot. Julia is not thrilled to discover that she will be working alongside Campbell, a person she knew from school with whom she had a difficult past. Since then, Julia has found herself unlucky in love and blames Campbell for this. Campbell, on the other hand, has troubles of his own and needs a service dog with him at all times. Yet, he is self-conscious about people knowing the reason behind this and often comes up with creative lies to stop people from asking questions. “Maybe if God gives you a handicap, he makes sure you’ve got a few extra doses of humour to take the edge off.”

Another reason Picoult’s books are so great is that the reader learns something every time. My Sister’s Keeper is full of medical and legal jargon, which may go over some people’s heads. Yet, it is also bursting with random bits of knowledge, for example, how to treat a fire, facts about astronomy, and many other interesting details that the characters use as metaphors to describe their experiences.

My Sister’s Keeper is a story that will stay in people’s hearts and minds for a long time. We never learn who the narrator of the prologue was, but we immediately assume that it is Anna and that she wants Kate to die. By the end, we are still unsure who the character was, but if it was Anna, we see it in a completely different light. This is not a book about whether it is ethical for Anna to be Kate’s donor; it is not a cancer story. Instead, it is a message about the right for each person to have choices about their lives.

A warning to potential readers: this book could break your heart, shock you or leave you in tears. My Sister’s Keeper is full of irony. For instance, Jesse’s experimentation with arson, causing fires that are subsequently put out by his father. But the biggest sense of irony and the biggest shock is the ending (FYI this is the complete opposite to the film ending). After everything that Anna has achieved, devastating circumstances result in the same conclusion that it would have had Anna sat back and done nothing. Yet this does not make it a pointless story. Despite Anna’s actions almost tearing the family apart, it also wakes them from the stupor that Kate’s illness has put them in and makes them realise how precious everything else in their life is too.

I highly recommend this book to everyone, and if you have not read a Jodi Picoult novel before, I strongly suggest you begin with this one. It is suitable for adult and adolescent readers, especially those who like to think about hypothetical, moral questions. My Sister’s Keeper gets you questioning your own choices and actions within your own life and may even make you view the world slightly differently.

The Storyteller (reviewed 2014)

Jodi Picoult is the bestselling author of numerous novels, with My Sister’s Keeper being the most well known. All of her stories are well written, although it is still possible to notice improvements in the writing over the years right up until now with her latest, The Storyteller, which quite possibly could be her best yet.

Arguably, The Storyteller does not quite read like a typical Jodi Picoult novel. This is, in part, because of the nature of the story. Most of her previous books deal with medical ethics and/or court cases, whereas this story features neither. The Storyteller contains a combination of past and present – the main focus being on the Holocaust.

Four people narrate the novel: two in the present day and two giving an account of their experience during the Second World War. It begins with Sage Singer, a 25-year-old, hermit-like woman with a disfiguring facial scar – the result of a terrible accident, one that also led to the death of her mother. For the past three years, Sage has been participating in a grief group – a place where people who have lost loved ones can come together and talk about their feelings. After three years, surely Sage would no longer need the help of the group? However, she still attends, not because she finds it helpful, but for the opposite reason. She even says herself: “If it were helpful I wouldn’t still be coming.” It unfolds that she still blames herself for her mother’s death despite the reassurances that it was an accident and not her fault.

It is through the grief group that Sage meets the elderly Josef Weber. After becoming friendly and discovering that Sage comes from a Jewish family, Josef confesses to something terrible – he was a Nazi during the war. He killed people. He wants Sage to represent all the Jews he killed and forgive him. Then he wants her to help him die.

While Josef recounts his experience of being part of the Nazi party, Picoult provides another account. Minka, Sage’s grandmother, describes the terrors she faced as an imprisoned Jew suffering fates such as the deaths of all her family and friends and her time in Auschwitz. Another element of the novel is the vampire story Minka wrote as a teenager. This is interspersed between the other chapters of the book. Unwittingly, Minka’s fictional tale reflects the alienation and destruction of the Jews. The final character is Leo who, like Sage, is narrating the present day and trying to locate ex-Nazi members to be punished by the government.

One thing to praise Picoult for, not just in The Storyteller, but also in all her novels, is the amount of in-depth research she undertakes to make her stories as accurate as possible even though they are fictional. Minka’s account was written in such a way that it was almost believable that Picoult had been there and experienced it herself. She even learnt to bake bread so that she could write from the point of view of a baker. This is pure dedication!

The Storyteller is an amazing, beautiful book that informs, shocks and stays with you for a long time. You will question your morals and ability to forgive. Is anyone entirely evil? Is anyone entirely good? Perhaps we are both, so why should anyone have the right to treat others as inferior to themselves?

Leaving Time (reviewed 2015)

Jodi Picoult keeps getting better and better. Her latest novel, Leaving Time, explores a daughter’s search for her mother, who mysteriously disappeared ten years earlier. Jenna Metcalf is a thirteen-year-old girl living with her grandmother who is determined to discover the whereabouts of her mother, who has not been seen for ten years, since a tragic event at a local elephant sanctuary.

Jenna recruits the help of Virgil Stanhope – an ex-policeman who has gone into hiding – and Serenity Jones – a failed psychic. As the three of them look into the events of a decade ago, they begin to piece together possible scenarios resulting in a woman vanishing without a trace. But just as importantly, they try to explain the reasons for a mother to abandon her daughter.

Jenna’s mother, Alice Metcalf, was a scientist who loved to study the grieving processes of elephants. Although Jenna tells one part of the story, Alice provides the reader with a different story – one of the past, one of Africa, one of elephants. As with many of Picoult’s novels, Leaving Time is not purely a piece of entertainment; it teaches the reader something new. Through Alice, Picoult unleashes a torrent of information about the lives of elephants in Africa and explains their behaviours. She explains what happens to the animals that are captured by circus trainers or zoos, as well as the work a sanctuary may do to save the lives of these creatures.

Alice and Jenna are not the only voices of this story. Virgil and Serenity have chapters to describe things from their perceptions. What is great about this is that although the main storyline is about Jenna’s search for her mother, Virgil and Serenity provide additional stories alongside it. Jenna’s interaction with Virgil helps him deal with his past and come to terms with the mistakes he may have made when investigating the original tragedy at the sanctuary. Likewise, Jenna helps Serenity believe in herself again and to focus less on her past failures.

Picoult’s writing, as always, is beautiful and sucks the reader into the narrative. It is easy to relate to all the characters in some way and understand a little of what they are going through despite having never been in their situation. Through her ability to do this, Picoult engages the readers from beginning to end. Fans of Picoult’s other novels, such as My Sister’s Keeper, will be familiar with Picoult’s surprising plot twists. Leaving Time tops all of those and will leave the reader almost breathless and in awe of Picoult’s imagination.

It is with no doubt that Leaving Time is an excellent novel exploring numerous themes, from a mother’s love to the paranormal. It entertains as well as educates, leaving the reader a lot more knowledgeable by the very end. It makes you think, it makes you hope, and it makes you want to keep on reading. Glamour magazine defies us “not to be gripped” and, after reading it, you will agree that is not entirely possible.

Nineteen Minutes (reviewed 2016)

Your son says the bullying was unbearable. But his revenge was murder. What would you do?

Nineteen Minutes 
is perhaps Jodi Picoult’s most controversial novel, as well as one of the longest. Lots of things can happen in nineteen minutes, including a school shooting resulting in the deaths of ten people. This is what happens at the beginning of this book, leaving hundreds of teachers and students emotionally scarred for the remainder of their lives. Picoult explores the reactions of a community whose ideas of safety have shattered, the grief of the victims and their families and, perhaps most importantly, the heartache of the parents of the shooter.

Seventeen-year-old Peter Houghton has had enough of the bullying that he has endured throughout his entire school life. He has no friends, is constantly miserable, possibly suicidal, and so, on a typical morning in March 2007, he decides to permanently fix the situation, unthinking of the consequences. But why did he go to such extremes? What circumstances in his life led to firing a gun as the only solution?

As the evidence is gathered in the lead up to the court trial, many characters question their involvement in Peter’s life. Firstly there is Josie Cormier, a straight-A student who swapped her childhood friendship with Peter for popularity and her boyfriend Matt, a particularly aggressive bully. Secondly, there is Alex Cormier, Josie’s mother, who destroyed her friendship with Peter’s mother after finding their five-year-old children playing with guns in the Houghton’s basement.

If Peter’s father had never owned a selection of hunting rifles, would Peter ever have thought of guns as a way out of his predicament? On the other hand, Lacy Houghton blames herself for not noticing how badly her son was suffering, not just at school but home as well, where he had to live up to the memory of his saint-like older brother who died in a car crash the previous year.

Naturally, a tragic event such as this changes people, but not always in a negative way. Relationships begin to blossom as characters realize how close they were to losing the ones they love. Alex takes a step back from her demanding job to comfort Josie in the aftermath, thus feeling closer to her than she ever has done before. Alex, a single mother, also opens herself up to a romantic relationship, something she has had no time to consider up until now.

All the while, Defense Attorney Jordan McAfee, who some readers may remember from Salem Falls, fights a losing battle to get Peter acquitted by arguing and prying into Peter’s emotions to discover his reason for committing murder.

What I like about Picoult’s novels is that there is more to them than a simple storyline. While the story plays out and plot twists happen, the reader is learning something new. In Nineteen Minutes, Picoult provides insight into midwifery, psychology and economics – things that are not synonymous with the shootings.

Readers will constantly question whose side of the story they are on. Hundreds of people grow up being bullied and will understand how Peter was feeling, yet they would not pick up a gun. Likewise, by putting themselves in the shoes of the victims, readers will think about how they would feel in the same situation, however, would anyone be willing to admit that they made someone else’s life a living hell? There is no simple conclusion to Nineteen Minutes; someone will always lose. Nevertheless, Picoult’s fantastic writing skills provide an enthralling story of love and loss.

I cannot recommend this book to readers in general due to the nature of the themes found in the story. Gun crime and school shootings are sadly still an occurrence in the present time, particularly in America, therefore, there are thousands of people who have been affected by such an event, whether directly or indirectly, as part of a local community. Some readers may find Nineteen Minutes challenging and upsetting, which is why I am not going to encourage everyone to read this book. However, Picoult has excelled herself with this novel, and it would be a shame for people not to read it. Fans will not be disappointed with her writing and will love all her characters, possibly even Peter!

Small Great Things (reviewed 2017)

Jodi Picoult has been my favourite author since I first came across her novels in 2008. With twenty-three novels under her belt, she continues to delight readers with her page-turning stories. Most of Picoult’s books contain a moral issue, often, but not always, in the form of medical ethics, as well as a hefty court case. Although following along similar lines, Small Great Things is a radical, revolutionary book, which, with great courage, Picoult has written with the intent to expose the reader to truths that most of us, as a society, are intentionally oblivious to.

The gist of the storyline is a baby dies whilst under the care of a nurse, prompting the grieving parents to take her to court with the accusation of murder. Although that sounds like an interesting story, it barely begins to describe what the book is about. The character on trial, Ruth, is an African American labour and delivery nurse. In this day and age, race is not so much of an issue. Yet, the parents of the baby are White Supremacists: seriously racist with the belief that white people are the master race. The father, Turk, refuses to let his wife and child be treated by Ruth, but circumstances result in her being the only nurse available to watch Davis. Unfortunately, it is at this moment that the baby happens to go into cardiac arrest. Although the reader knows that Ruth is not at fault, Turk insists she murdered his child – but is he accusing her of medical negligence or punishing her for being black?

Three characters, all with different views and experiences when it comes to racism, alternately narrate Small Great Things. Ruth and Turk represent the extremes on either side of the scale. Ruth experiences first-hand the negative impact of prejudice in the American system and society, not only through this court case but in everyday life as well. She also reveals the difficulties growing up in a predominately white environment, never feeling like she fitted in with her peers. On the other hand, Turk spent his teenage years attending KKK rallies, participating in a white power movement, and beating up anyone different: black, foreign, gay, Jewish and so forth.

The third character represents the majority of white people living in America. Kennedy is a public defender and the lawyer assigned to Ruth’s case. Like most of the population, she believes that she is not racist and persuades Ruth to leave the colour of her skin out of the argument. However, as she gets to know her client, she realizes that it is nigh on impossible to ignore racial prejudice.

Picoult shocks the reader on two accounts: one, the way that people of colour have been, and still are, treated; and two, the revelation that an invisible empire of White Supremacists is living amongst us. Yet, there is a third way in which Picoult provokes outrage – she indirectly accuses the reader of being racist, too.

There is always something to learn in a Jodi Picoult novel, for instance, medical terminology or how a court trial is conducted. Small Great Things provides more eye-opening information than her previous books, unveiling facts about such a controversial subject.

Through Kennedy, the reader’s eyes are opened to the racial discrimination, to which we all turn a blind eye. Ignored are the difficulties African Americans suffer when going shopping, applying for jobs, attending school, walking down the street, sitting on a bus, and so forth. Picoult asks me as a reader to think about how my life has been affected by racial discrimination: being served politely in shops because I am white, not having my ethnicity questioned when applying for college etc. Living in Britain, I have not experienced openly hateful comments or behaviours towards people with a different skin tone – I used to believe this was primarily an American problem. Yet, Small Great Things has made me think about the hierarchy of power within society, particularly in regards to the ethnicity of those at the top, compared with those at the bottom.

Jodi Picoult sat on the idea of writing a book about racism for well over a decade, yet, it is particularly apt that it is published now, with the current predicaments America is facing. Although we have come a long way in attempts to achieve equality for all – compare the trial in To Kill A Mockingbird to Picoult’s version – recent events have revealed that we are nowhere near.

Small Great Things will shock everyone who reads it regardless of their ethnicity and so forth. Many may find it uncomfortable to read, become upset or outraged, and even feel like they are being directly targeted. If this is the case, then good – it should do that. Everyone needs to read this book. On the one hand, it is a brilliant, well-told story with a beautiful, almost poetic narrative, and, on the other, it causes us to face up to the issues we are forever making light of or overlooking entirely. We have grown up believing that racism is a form of hatred when really it is about power. However Small Great Things makes you feel, it is worth reading, especially for the satisfying ending – one that you do not see coming.

Handle With Care (reviewed 2015)

As with most of Jodi Picoult’s novels, Handle With Care contains a deeply moral issue regarding abortion, especially in the case of the baby having a life-debilitating illness. Willow O’Keefe is six years old but only looks half that age. Suffering from Osteogenesis Imperfecta (Brittle Bones Disease), Willow will never live a normal life.

After a disastrous trip to Disney Land, Sean O’Keefe plans to sue the authorities for the way he and his wife, Charlotte, were treated after Willow broke yet another bone. However, once Charlotte learns about Wrongful Birth lawsuits, she decides to take action against her obstetrician with the argument that Willow’s diagnosis could have been discovered earlier in her pregnancy – the issue with this is it involves suing her best friend.

Picoult explores the arguments for and against what Charlotte is doing, and delves into how it affects the people involved. Friendships are broken, and relationships are damaged. As her family is torn apart, Willow feels unwanted and worried that she is the cause of all the tension. Through it all, Charlotte’s older daughter, Amelia, gets forgotten about and develops harmful ways of coping – bulimia.

The story is not solely based on the O’Keefe family. Picoult includes the character Marin, an attorney, and her search for her birth mother. This contrasts with the theme of abortion and makes the reader question the rights and wrongs of the dilemma.

Throughout the novel, Picoult creates a sense of foreboding. The narrative is written as if being spoken to Willow, however, the use of past tense implies that something horrible befalls her later in the book, regardless of the court case outcome.

Handle With Care is a novel that makes you think and plays with your emotions. Readers have a chance to develop their own opinions by reading the different characters’ perspectives. Another way in which Picoult connects with the reader is with the inclusion of recipes for baked goods. Charlotte used to be a baker before Willow was born, therefore, these extra bits fit well with the story. The recipes are also something readers could try out at home.

Jodi Picoult is a brilliant author with imaginative, thought-provoking ideas. Handle With Care fits in well with her other novels. It is quick to read, gripping and not quickly forgotten. This is a definite read for someone interested in ethical issues and those who like a novel that makes them think.

The Tenth Circle (reviewed 2016)

Admittedly I do not think this is one of Jodi Picoult’s best novels, however, that does not mean that The Tenth Circle is not a good book. Like all her stories, a large part of the storyline is about relationships, in this case, between father and daughter. On the other hand, The Tenth Circle stands out from the others as being a little different.

When Daniel Stone’s fourteen-year-old daughter Trixie accuses her ex-boyfriend of rape, he becomes an overprotective father, determined to keep his child from any more harm. What begins as a rape case spirals into a murder case with Daniel as the prime suspect. Suddenly the police turn to Trixie as an alternative suspect, and frightened of being accused, she runs away to Alaska – a place Daniel grew up as a child; a place he has been running away from all his life.

In a way, The Tenth Circle feels like two different stories: the rape and murder, and the flight to Alaska. Although the rape/murder case is the key focus of the plot, this story is also an insight into the relationship between father and daughter, and husband and wife.

“The real mistake he made was believing that you could lose someone in an instant, when in reality, it was a process that took months, years… lifetime.” Despite the Stone’s world turning upside down after a single event, Daniel realizes that he was losing his daughter a long time before that. She was growing up and keeping secrets. He barely knew the real Trixie. Likewise, his wife, Laura, was also keeping her fair share of secrets.

What made The Tenth Circle different from Picoult’s other novels is the inclusion of a comic book. It is an example of Daniel’s work as a comic book penciler (illustrated by Dustin Weaver in real life). This short graphic story represents Daniel and Trixie’s relationship. A daughter goes missing, and her father goes through hell and back to find her. It is interesting to compare the two stories and understand how Daniel feels. This comic book also allows the reader to have some fun. Within the illustrations are hidden letters, that when put together, spell out a quotation. It is the readers’ job to find and solve this puzzle.

Hell is a theme that kept coming up in this novel. As some may realize, The Tenth Circle is a brief reference to Dante’s Divine Comedy. Dante believed there were nine circles of Hell, each one representing a sin. Picoult has added a tenth circle, a circle for people who lie to themselves. The topic of Hell is emphasized through Laura Stone, a professor at Monroe College, Maine. She lectures on Classics, particularly on Dante’s Inferno. Picoult constantly alludes to this as a metaphor for the life Daniel and Trixie are experiencing.

Reading The Tenth Circle for a second time, I found I did not enjoy it as much. The element of surprise and plot twists were lost, as I already knew what was going to happen. For first readers, however, all of that is still to be experienced. Some may be put off or triggered by the rape content, but rest assured that Picoult deals with this delicate topic in the best way possible.

As fans will already know, you cannot read a Jodi Picoult book without learning something new. In this instance, you learn about Dante, forensic investigation and Yup’ik Eskimos – including intriguing words in the Yup’ik language. Due to this, Picoult’s writing is interesting to read, as well as delightful and meaningful due to her powerful metaphors.

Before reading this book, however, bear in mind that it contains rape, self-harm, drugs, suicide and murder. If any of the subjects are too upsetting, then I suggest you avoid this novel. On the other hand, if you are okay with delicate topics, I say go for it!

The Pact (reviewed 2016)

“Your son says they both meant to die. But he lived. What would you do?” As fans will already be aware, most of Jodi Picoult’s novels involve a “What if” or “What would you do?” scenario. The Pact is no different. This book contains all the elements you expect to find in a Picoult story: an ethical dilemma, family, relationships, love. However, The Pact is one of her more challenging reads – and it still was for me, reading it a second time.

Bainbridge, New Hampshire is an idyllic town that oozes a sense of security and safeness; it does not seem possible for crime to exist there. For a long time, that was the case, with the Harte and Gold family living as neighbours in a pragmatic family environment. Chris Harte and Emily Gold grew up together. They knew each other from birth and remained friends ever since, becoming intimate on reaching their teens. But suddenly, this serene atmosphere is shattered after seventeen-year-old Emily is found dead after being shot through the head, with Chris covered in blood beside her.

Despite defending himself by claiming that it was a joint suicide pact gone wrong, Chris is on trial for first-degree murder. The defence and the prosecution have to look deeply into the supposed crime and the events that lead up to it. Was Emily suicidal even though no one noticed? Did Chris love her, or was there a motive for murder? Whilst Chris anxiously awaits his verdict, the two families, the Hartes and the Golds, instead of pulling together in their time of grief, begin to crumble apart.

That is the general gist of the story, however, as with any Picoult book, there are smaller, subtle storylines dropped in here and there. The most prominent of these is the life of the defence attorney, Jordan McAfee, and his Private Investigator, Selena Damascus – two names that may be familiar to avid readers. These two are recurring characters in a couple of other novels by the same author. Instead of only being names dropped into a story for convenience sake, they have lives of their own. By reading all the books containing the pair, readers get to know them well and witness their growing relationship – providing they are read in the correct order, of course.

As for the key plot – the botched suicide pact – the story is told from a variety of perspectives, although all in the third person, from both after the event and before, going as far back as 1979, the year Emily was born, up until the present day, 1997. Naturally, the characters are going to reflect on the recent incidents to understand what has happened, but it is necessary to delve deeper into the past so that the reader can understand Chris and Emily’s relationship. It would be rather difficult otherwise to know who Emily was without any background knowledge, especially as she is already dead on the first page.

Picoult tackles the suicide theme delicately, showing full awareness that it is a difficult concept for people to read. She uses her characters to reveal the different ways people or societies react to the idea that someone would want to take their own life. The divide in the belief that suicide is either intrinsically right or wrong is evident from the characters who support Chris and those who accuse him of murder, maintaining that there was no way Emily would willingly take her own life. Some witnesses brought to the stand during the trial speak of suicide and depression from a medical and psychological point of view, fuelled by the in-depth research that Picoult has undertaken. Visiting a prison and experiencing what life is like for the inmates is an example of how far Picoult is willing to go to make her novels as realistic as possible.

As mentioned earlier, The Pact provokes the thought, “what would you do?” By engaging the reader in this way, Picoult encourages people to develop their interpretations and opinions about the storyline. She leaves hints and clues lying around to nudge our minds in a variety of directions. What was it that made Emily suicidal? Could her relationship with Chris, who for a long time was like a brother to her, be confusing the way she feels towards him and her family? Are there other factors? As for the outcome of the trial, readers will take either the prosecutor’s or the defence’s side – despite most of the book written in a way that paints Chris as wrongly accused. Picoult admits in an interview that even she was not sure how it should end and only made the decision by thinking about what the majority of readers would favour and the amount of hate mail she would receive if she did the opposite.

There is no denying that The Pact is a difficult book to read. Anyone who has experienced depression or suicidal thoughts will relate to Emily and Chris’ predicament, which may be too much to handle for some readers. On the other hand, if you have picked up this book knowing what to expect from Picoult’s writing, then you are less likely to be as shocked by the narrative. This is a book that will make you feel many emotions and question your own beliefs and opinions. Although not as beautifully written as her more recent novels, The Pact will suck you into the storyline and not let go until a long while after you have read the last page. Be prepared!


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Reuniting Rubens

For the first time in over 200 years, two landscape paintings by Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) have found themselves in the same room. Painted as a pair, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning parted ways in 1803, eventually ending up in the Wallace Collection and National Gallery, respectively. In partnership with VISITFLANDERS, the two paintings are temporarily on display at the Wallace Collection until 15th August 2021, after which they will separate once more. Attracting the likes of Jon Snow, who filmed his visit to the exhibition for Channel 4, the paintings have captured the attention of art lovers and tourists alike, providing what may be a once in a lifetime experience.

The name Rubens is usually associated with historical and mythological paintings, full of action and voluptuous women, rather than the idyllic landscapes shown at the Wallace Collection. Yet, landscape painting had intrigued Rubens since his youth and one of his first teachers specialised in the area. To succeed as an artist, Rubens needed to paint what his commissioners and buyers wanted. Landscape painting was not a respected theme where Rubens lived in Antwerp, so he focused on fleshy figures depicting historical moments in the typical Flemish Baroque tradition.

Towards the end of his career, Rubens moved away from the busy city lifestyle to devote himself to landscape painting. The majority of these Rubens produced as a hobby rather than for profit. Not many knew about the extent of his artistic talents until after he died in 1640.

In 1592, Rubens was serving as an emissary for the Spanish crown. At 53 years old and a widower, he longed to settle down in his homeland. Unlike many artists of his day, Rubens had a considerable amount of money, having worked for the Archdukes of the Spanish Netherlands, Charles I of England, Philip IV of Spain and Queen Marie de Medici of France. After completing his negotiations in England on behalf of Spain, Rubens returned home to Antwerp, where he married 16-year-old Hélène Fourment (1614-73).

Following his marriage, Rubens contented himself by painting his young wife and growing family, whilst spending time in his large garden. Rubens enjoyed painting for pleasure, unrestrained by commissions and deadlines. Throughout his career, Rubens was restricted to the preferences of his patrons and buyers, but in his retirement he had the freedom to choose his subject matter. His love of landscapes resurfaced and he longed for the countryside, away from the pressures of commercial and city life.

In 1635, Rubens purchased an eight-acre country estate in Elewijt, Flemish Brabant. The house, known as the Castle of Het Steen, cost Rubins 93,000 florins and gave him the right to the title of Lord of Het Steen. A three-hour ride (half an hour by car) took Rubens from his home in Antwerp to his “manorial residence with a large stone house and other fine buildings in the form of a castle.” It also had a garden, an orchard, a lake and extensive grassland. The family used the estate as their summer home, returning to the city during the autumn.

Built in the typical Flemish style, the manor house had gabled roofs, red-bricked walls and a crenellated tower. The latter has since been demolished, and the house has also undergone remodelling and renovation over the past centuries. Rubens captured the building as it looked during his day in the paintings, The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning. 

The extensive views around Het Steen provided Rubens with the perfect backdrop for many landscape paintings. Although he had produced many landscapes before moving to the estate, his nephew Philip admitted Rubens made the purchase intending to study and paint the landscape. Rubens kept most of these artworks, displaying them at Het Steen. As a result, not many knew of the extent of his oeuvre until after his death.

“Having bought the seignory of Steen, between Brussels and Malines in the year 1630 [sic] he took great pleasure living there in solitude, in order to paint vividly and au naturel the surrounding mountains, plains, valleys and meadows, at the rising and setting of the sun, up to the horizon.” – Philip Rubens

After producing many landscapes, which explored composition, figure and animal placement, light and darkness, and so forth, Rubens finally painted his two most famous landscapes. The Rainbow Landscape and A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning represent Rubens zenith of his achievements in landscape painting, evidenced by their sheer size and panoramic content.

A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning

In A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning, usually shortened to Het Steen, the house is set to the far left, making the extensive open plains the main focus of the painting. The colours suggest it is late summer or early autumn on a sunny morning, although puddles and clouds hint at a recent rainstorm. Whilst the house is a faithful representation, Rubens elevated the view of the land between the foreground and the horizon to produce a continuous panoramic sweep.

On the left, a man drives a cart away from the house, carrying a woman and a trussed calf. Closer to the building is a group of people, which many believe represent Rubens’ family. In the foreground, a hunter and his dog hide behind a large tree stump, keeping a steady gaze on a bevy of partridges. This activity, combined with the altocumulus clouds, gives away the time of day, as does the cart, which is presumably on its way to market. In the distance, maids milk the cows in the pastures.

The Rainbow Landscape

Het Steen sits in the far distance in The Rainbow Landscape, which provides a view of the estate from the other side of the fields. Once again, Rubens raised the level of the viewpoint to encompass the many topographical features. The scene in this painting takes place later in the day after farmhands have already had time to create two haystacks. Yet, the cart carrying more hay in the left-hand corner suggests their workday is far from over. Some art historians propose Rubens based the appearance of the cart driver on his likeness, although it is unlikely he ever contributed to the farm work.

The cart driver greets two milkmaids, one who is balancing a pitcher on her head. Their smiling faces suggest happy workers, which compliments the idyllic landscape. Meanwhile, a herdsman goes about his work, herding cows along a path beside the stream, contrasting with the lively ducks playing in the water. Both the ducks and cows are similar to those in other paintings by Rubens, suggesting he did not paint them from life but memory or imagination.

Whilst there is a lot of activity in the lower half of the painting, it is the sky that captures the viewer’s attention. Spanning the width of the landscape is a double-arced rainbow, which is an unusual feature in artworks from this era. Artists were discouraged from depicting rainbows because their fleeting appearances were difficult to portray accurately. Rubens attempt is impressive, yet it is not true to nature. He chose not to represent its full-colour spectrum, obscuring sections with clouds instead.

The rainbow hints at the recent storm, whose dark clouds are still visible in the distance. The phenomenon also had religious connotations, symbolising God’s divine blessing. In the Bible (Genesis 9:11-15), God made a covenant with his people, promising never to flood the world again. This promise followed the well-known story of Noah’s Ark.

And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth. Whenever I bring clouds over the earth and the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will remember my covenant between me and you and all living creatures of every kind. Never again will the waters become a flood to destroy all life. (Genesis 9:12-15, NIV)

Art historians believe Rubens produced Het Steen and The Rainbow Landscape to be displayed together because they are linked by their subject matter, scale, size and composition. The English landscape artist John Constable (1776-1837) agreed, saying some years after the two paintings were separated: “When pictures painted as companions are separated, the purchaser of one, without being aware of it, is sometimes buying only half a picture. Companion pictures should never be parted…”

Both paintings have similar motifs, such as milkmaids, wagons, cows and fowl. These, along with the inclusion of the manor house, albeit almost unnoticeable in The Rainbow Landscape, suggests the landscapes depicts the same area from different perspectives. Although the paintings represent different times of day, when hung together, they complete a cycle of a late summer’s day.

Another connection between the two paintings is the way Rubens constructed the landscapes. Using X-radiography and infra-red reflectography, the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection have discovered that Rubens produced the paintings in three stages. Rubens began both compositions on a medium-sized panel, upon which he depicted the middle ground leading to the horizon. Rubens then added or commissioned someone to add extensions to the bottom and sides of the panel. Upon these, he extended the landscapes, making them more panoramic. A final extension to the top, bottom and sides, gave the landscapes a dimension of 136 cm x 236 cm (54 in x 93 in).

Careful analysis of the two paintings has revealed images below the top layer of paint, which indicates Rubens developed the composition gradually. Unlike his commissioned work, Rubens did not need to rush and had no deadline. X-rays show Rubens included a seated milkmaid and herdsman on the original panel of The Rainbow Landscape but painted over them after extending the boards. A half-rainbow decorated the sky, which tells us Rubens always intended to include it in the landscape. After increasing the size of the work, Rubens repainted the trees and added the herdsmen and cattle by a river. The ducks, horses and wagon joined the scene after the final extension.

With more space above the horizon to play with, Rubens expanded the rainbow to sweep across the sky. Although it remained a double-arced rainbow, only a section of the second arc is visible in the top right-hand corner. Rubens added touches of blue, pink and yellow to the trees, river and ground to suggest a reflection of the rainbow, although, in reality, the rainbow would make no such impression.

The construction of A View of Het Steen in the Early Morning has similar paint handling and attention to detail as its companion. During the first stage of the painting, Rubens filled the space with open pastures interspersed with trees. As the boards grew, so did the landscape, incorporating a bridge, stream, tree trunk and hunter. Only in the final stage did Rubens paint the house and add the other figures and cart to the composition.

Unlike The Rainbow Landscape, which developed gradually with the expansion of the boards, the painting of Het Steen changed dramatically in the final stages. During the first two stages of the painting process, the composition was typical of Rubens’ landscapes, revealing idyllic farmland and a peaceful environment. When he began the painting, he had no intention of including his house, yet it became a key feature during the latter stages. This element, with the suggestion of the building in the background of The Rainbow Landscape, is what convinces many art historians that the paintings belong together.

Shortly after Rubens died in 1640, the two paintings appeared in a sales catalogue with 312 other works of art from his collection. A version of the catalogue translated for Charles I describes the landscapes as “A great landschap after the life, with little figures in’t uppon a board,” (Het Steen) and “A great landschap where it raines with little Cowes in it” (The Rainbow Landscape). Since they were listed one after the other suggests Rubens’ family intended them to stay together, which they did for many years.

In 1691, both paintings hung in the palace of Juan Gaspar Enríquez de Cabrera, the 10th Admiral of Castile (1625-91) in Madrid, after which they appeared in Genoa in the early 18th century. Records state they belonged to a Genoese banker to the Spanish Crown, Bartolomeo Saluzzo (1651-1705), who bequeathed his art collection to his sons. Constantino Balbi (1676-1741) purchased the landscapes in 1706 and hung them in the Palazzo Balbi. In 1802, art dealers William Buchanan (1777-1864) and Arthur Champernowne (1767-1819) purchased the paintings and brought them to London, where they were displayed at an Oxdenden Street gallery. They quickly became the talking point of the artistic circle in the capital.

Despite attempts to sell the two landscapes as a pair, Buchanan and Champernowne were unsuccessful. Instead, they sold Het Steen to Lady Margaret Beaumont for £1500 in 1803. Little did they know the paintings would not appear in the same room again until 2020. Lady Margaret gave the artwork as a present to her husband Sir George, who pronounced it the “finest landscape I believe [Rubens] ever painted.” On his death in 1823, George Beaumont bequeathed Het Steen and other paintings in his collection to the National Gallery.

In 1815, Champernowne sold The Rainbow Landscape to art collector George Watson-Taylor (1771-1841), who, in turn, sold it to Horatio Walpole, 3rd Earl of Orford (1783-1858) for 2,600 guineas. Walpole hung the painting in the Principle Dining Room at Wolterton Hall in Norfolk, where many people admired it. Allegedly, George IV (1762-1830) attempted to purchase the painting from Walpole shortly before his death in 1830. The landscape remained in Lord Orford’s possession until he decided to sell it in 1856.

Sir Charles Eastlake (1793-1865), the first Director of the National Gallery, attended Lord Orford’s sale intending to reunite Rubens’ landscapes. Unfortunately, one of the wealthiest collectors in Europe, Richard Seymour-Conway, 4th Marquess of Hertford (1800-70), was also in attendance and outbid the director. Lord Hertford paid £4,550 for The Rainbow Landscape, which he hung in his London residence, Manchester House. After his death, his son Sir Richard Wallace (1818-90) inherited the house and its contents, thus becoming the new owner of the painting. Wallace extended the house to create a large gallery where he installed the landscape and other notable paintings. After his death, the collection was bequeathed to the nation. The house opened to the public as the Wallace Collection, and The Rainbow Landscape has hung here ever since.

Thanks to the collaboration between the National Gallery and the Wallace Collection, the public have once again been able to view both landscapes in the same room. Unfortunately, the exhibition is ending soon, and the paintings will separate once more. There is speculation that Rubens’ two great landscapes may be reunited permanently in the future. Hopefully, we will not need to wait 200 years to make this a reality.

It is a shame that the exhibition coincided with the coronavirus pandemic. Fewer people than expected have visited the Wallace Collection to see the two landscapes in situ. Yet, the display made the national news, proving that the story of two landscape paintings, reunited, at last, has touched the hearts of thousands of people.

Het Steen, now known as Elewijt Castle or Rubenskasteel, still stands. It was briefly used as a prison in 1792 before being abandoned. In 1955, the current owner restored the building, although the tower seen in Rubens’ painting was unsalvageable.

RUBENS: REUNITING THE GREAT LANDSCAPES is open until 15th August 2021 at the Wallace Collection, London. Tickets are free with a suggested donation of £5.


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Nero: destroyer or builder?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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The Making of a Saint

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Alabaster panel showing the murder of Thomas Becket

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lead ampulla, c. 1170–1200, England.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Simeon Returns to Bristol: Part One

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

Broadmead and Castle Park

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Treasure Island Trail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


My blogs are now available to listen to as podcasts on the following platforms: AnchorBreakerGoogle PodcastsPocket Casts and Spotify.

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