Unfinished Business: Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon

According to the British Library in their recent exhibition Unfinished Business, the first woman to receive a Cambridge University degree was the Queen Mother, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon in 1948. The degree was an honorary award presented to Queen Elizabeth, as she was then, to mark the equal academic status for men and women. Unlike the women, for example, the Edinburgh Seven, who campaigned for this right, it appears she did very little to merit the award except being the most important woman in England. Yet, looking at her history, Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon played a significant role as the wife of a king, followed by the mother of a queen. When she married into the royal family, she did not anticipate becoming a queen, but the actions of others changed the direction of her future. 

Portrait by Richard Stone, 1986

Born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon on the 4th August 1900, Elizabeth was the ninth of ten children for Lord Glamis, Claude Bowes-Lyon (1855-1944) and Cecilia Cavendish-Bentinck (1862-1938). The family belonged to the British nobility and, through her mother, Elizabeth’s family tree connected with Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington (1769-1852), a former prime minister and leading political figure.

Elizabeth spent most of her childhood at either St Paul’s Walden, a village in Hertfordshire, and Glamis Castle in Scotland. Until the age of eight, a governess took charge of her education, after which she attended a school in London. At 13, Elizabeth passed the Oxford Local Examination with distinction. The outbreak of World War One, which Britain declared on her 14th birthday, hindered further education.

Despite being nobility, Elizabeth and her family did not hide from the horrors of war. Several of her brothers enlisted to fight, resulting in the death of Fergus (1889-1915), the eldest, during the Battle of Loos. Another brother, Michael, went missing in 1917, later to be found in a prisoner of war camp. Back home, Glamis Castle became a convalescent home for the wounded, which Elizabeth helped run. The soldiers loved her care and attention with one saying she ought to be “Hung, drawn, & quartered … Hung in diamonds, drawn in a coach and four, and quartered in the best house in the land.”

George VI in the uniform of a field marshal

As a British peer, Elizabeth’s father had close relations with the Royal Family. The Bowes-Lyon family frequented events attended by the King and his family. During some such event, the Duke of York, Prince Albert “Bertie” (1895-1952), the second son of George V (1865-1936) fell in love with the young Elizabeth and proposed marriage in 1921. Afraid such a relationship would result in “never, never again to be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to”, Elizabeth declined.

Bertie declared he would marry no other woman, which intrigued his mother, Queen Mary (1867-1953), who immediately visited Glamis Castle to see “the one girl who could make Bertie happy”. Mary approved of her son’s choice but did not deign to intervene since Elizabeth had found another man. For a brief time, Elizabeth courted James Stuart (1897-1971), the future Scottish politician, until he moved away for work.

In 1922, Albert’s sister, Princess Mary (1897-1965), asked Elizabeth to be one of her bridesmaids. The wedding prompted Albert to ask Elizabeth a second time if she would marry him. Again, Elizabeth said no. Undeterred, on 23rd January 1923, Albert drove to St Paul’s Warden, where Elizabeth was staying, to propose to Elizabeth for the third time. On this occasion, she said yes. They married at Westminster Abbey on 26th April 1923, where Elizabeth started the tradition of laying a bouquet on the grave of the unknown warrior. She did this in memory of her brother Fergus, whose body went missing after the Great War.

Portrait by Philip de László, 1925

Traditionally, princes were only allowed to marry princesses, but the royal family agreed the rule was outdated. Although Albert was not the heir to the throne, Elizabeth gained the titles “Her Royal Highness” and “Duchess of York” during the wedding ceremony. Following their honeymoon at Polesden Lacey in Surrey, Elizabeth and Albert visited Northern Ireland, before embarking on a tour of Africa in 1924. They toured the countries belonging to the British Empire but avoided Egypt following the assassination of the Governor-General.

In 1926, Elizabeth gave birth to her first child, also named Elizabeth. The family nicknamed the child Lilibet to differentiate her from her mother, who doted upon her. The following year, royal duties separated mother and child, which Elizabeth found “very miserable”. Prince Albert and Elizabeth needed to make a trip to Canberra, Australia to officially open Parliament House. The journey, which can now be completed by plane in 22 hours, took much longer by sea, stopping in Jamaica and Panama along the way. They also spent time in New Zealand before arriving at their destination for the opening ceremony on 9th May 1927.

Elizabeth in Queensland, 1927

After the ceremony, the royal couple spent time in New South Wales, Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria, South Australia and Western Australia. During this time, they met many officials and members of the general public, many of whom they greeted with handshakes. On one day, Prince Albert met with over 2,000 Australian troops. After completing the successful trip, Elizabeth was glad to return home, albeit via Mauritius, Malta and Gibraltar. She loved to spend time with her daughter and on 21st August 1930, welcomed her second, Margaret Rose (1930-2002).

On 20th January 1936, George V passed away, making Albert’s eldest brother King Edward VIII (1894-1972). Since Edward had no wife or children, Albert became the next in line for the throne. Secretly, his father had prayed “that my eldest son will never marry and that nothing will come between Bertie and Lilibet and the throne.” It is not sure why the previous king said this, but he soon got his wish.

Within months of his father’s death, Edward announced his plans to marry the American socialite Wallis Simpson (1869-1986). As King, Edward had the right to choose who to marry, but Simpson had only recently divorced her first husband. The King of the United Kingdom was also the head of the Church of England, which banned divorcees from remarrying. Edward had a choice: abandon his marriage plans or abdicate in favour of Albert. He chose the latter.

Portrait by Sir Gerald Kelly.

Since birth, Edward had received an education suitable for the heir to the throne, but Albert had received no such training. With great reluctance, he took his place as King on 11th December 1936, using the regnal name of George VI. The coronation took place the following year on 12th May 1937, where George and Elizabeth were crowned King and Queen of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions. They also took on the titles of Emperor and Empress of India.

Albert and Elizabeth never planned to be the rulers of the United Kingdom. They did not have long to get used to the idea before embracing the role. As Queen consort, people expected Elizabeth to attend state visits and royal tours with her husband, including a trip to France in 1938 and Canada in 1939. During the latter visit, they also met with President Roosevelt (1882-1945) of the USA whose wife described Elizabeth as “perfect as a Queen, gracious, informed, saying the right thing & kind but a little self-consciously regal”.

The outbreak of the Second World War brought an end to their travels, but the royals did not shy away from public life. Elizabeth sponsored fifty authors to produce The Queen’s Book of the Red Cross, which helped raise money for the Red Cross. Authors included T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), A. A. Milne (1882-1956), Daphne du Maurier (1907-89), and Georgette Heyer (1902-74). 

Parliament advised Elizabeth to move away from London and send her children to Canada, but she refused. “The children won’t go without me. I won’t leave the King. And the King will never leave.” Instead, she visited the hospitals, bombsites and factories involved with the war. Initially, the crowds acted hostile towards the Queen because her expensive clothing alienated her from the suffering people. After Buckingham Palace suffered bomb damage during the Blitz, Elizabeth expressed that she felt “glad we’ve been bombed. It makes me feel I can look the East End in the face.”

Whilst Princess Elizabeth and Margaret did not evacuate to Canada, they moved to Windsor Castle on the west side of London. Although they avoided the direct hits Buckingham Palace received in the capital, the castle’s windows shattered during bomb raids. King George and Elizabeth joined their children every evening, but they spent their days working from Buckingham Palace. Allegedly, Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) considered Elizabeth “the most dangerous woman in Europe” due to her popularity and war work.

Southern Rhodesian stamp celebrating the 1947 royal tour of Southern Africa

After the war, royal life resumed for George and Elizabeth, beginning with a tour of South Africa in 1947. In 1948, the same year Elizabeth received an honorary Cambridge University degree, the couple planned to return to Australia and New Zealand, but the King became unwell. An operation helped improve the circulation in George’s right leg, but he remained unable to conduct the majority of his engagements. Elizabeth and her daughters attended many events on her husband’s behalf, but everyone hoped he would soon return to full health.

In 1951, George received a diagnosis of lung cancer. This put pressure on his wife and children who the public expected to fill his role whilst he underwent treatment. While he recuperated from a lung operation, his eldest daughter and her husband, Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh (b.1921), went on the royal tour of Australia and New Zealand in his place. The Prince and Princess set off in 1952, taking a detour through Africa. While they were in Kenya, Princess Elizabeth learned that her father had passed away in his sleep on 6th February 1952, making her Queen.

As a widow, Elizabeth gained the title Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother, which many shortened to the “Queen Mother”. Devastated about the loss of her husband, Elizabeth retired to Scotland where she hid from the public. There she planned to stay, but the Prime Minister, Winston Churchill (1874-1965), convinced her to return to London and resume her public duties. To combat her grief, Elizabeth threw herself into the role of Queen Mother. She focused on helping with the preparations for her daughter’s coronation on 2nd June 1953. Later that year, Elizabeth visited the Federation of Rhodesia and Nyasaland with her youngest daughter, where she lay the foundation stone of the University College of Rhodesia and Nyasaland (now the University of Zimbabwe). After this, she returned home to act as a Counsellor of State while the Queen toured the Commonwealth. Elizabeth also spent time looking after her grandchildren, Charles (b.1948) and Anne (b.1950).

Richard Stanley “Dick” Francis CBE

Elizabeth found she had just as many duties as Queen Mother than she did as Queen Consort, but she managed to find time to enjoy herself too. Elizabeth had an interest in horse racing and owned several racehorses. Between them, the horses won over 500 steeplechases. One of her most famous horses, Devon Loch, just lost out on first place at the 1956 Grand National with the jockey Dick Francis (1920-2010) when it collapsed before finishing the race. When Francis experienced another fall the next year, Elizabeth suggested that he retire.

After George VI passed away, Elizabeth and her daughter Margaret moved to Clarence House on The Mall in London. The house was designed by neoclassical architect John Nash (1752-1835) for William IV (1765-1837) and has remained a British royal residence ever since. Elizabeth frequently liked to go to Scotland in the summer, so purchased and oversaw the restoration of the Castle of Mey in Caithness. Officers used the castle as a rest home during the Second World War, but by the 1950s it had fallen into disrepair. Elizabeth paid for the restoration and decorated the rooms with paintings. As a keen art collector, Elizabeth purchased works by Claude Monet (1840-1926), Fabergé (1846-1920), and other artists from a similar era.

Royal tours continued to fill Elizabeth’s diary, but during the 1960s, many of these were postponed. In 1964, an emergency operation to remove her appendix delayed her trip to New Zealand, Australia and Fiji for two years. In 1966, she underwent more surgery after receiving a diagnosis of colon cancer. The operation was a success and Elizabeth continued her royal duties. In 1975, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi (1919-80) invited her to Iran, where she enjoyed speaking to everyone regardless of their social status, which bemused the Iranians. Between 1976 and 1984, Elizabeth made annual trips to France until another operation, this time for breast cancer, forced her to rest.

Elizabeth at Dover Castle

The public did not learn of the Queen Mother’s cancer scares until after her death, but they were aware of several fishbone incidents. In 1982, Elizabeth needed an emergency operation to remove a fishbone from her throat. She made a joke about it at the time, saying “the salmon have got their own back,” for she was a keen angler. The incident occurred again in 1986, although she avoided an operation, and once more in 1993.

On 4th August 1990, Elizabeth celebrated her 90th birthday. Much loved by the United Kingdom, they held a parade in her honour. Several organisations came together to put on the display, 300 of which she supported as a patron. Although she wished to remain active in the royal family, her ageing body made it hard to do as much as she did when younger. In 1995, Elizabeth needed a cataract operation and a hip replacement. Only her right hip was replaced on this occasion, but in 1998 she broke her left one during a fall.

In 2000, Elizabeth became one of the 0.02% to reach the age of 100. The country honoured her with another parade, far greater than the one for her 90th birthday. Rose petals dropped from the sky, 100 doves flew overhead, and the Red Arrows saluted her with red, white and blue smoke. Over 8000 people took part during the day, including Elizabeth’s favourite actor, Norman Wisdom (1915-2010).

“It’s been a wonderful evening, God bless you all and thank you.” Elizabeth showed her appreciation to the crowds at the end of the day with a short speech, but that was not the end of the centenary celebrations.

The Royal Bank of Scotland released commemorative £20 notes featuring Elizabeth’s image in honour of her 100th birthday. She was also guest of honour at a lunch held by the Guildhall, London. Jokes about Elizabeth enjoying her drink stem from this event. When George Carey (b.1935), the Archbishop of Canterbury picked up her wine glass instead of his own, Elizabeth shouted: “That’s mine!” Unfortunately, her centenary year ended with a broken collar bone after a fall in November.

Shortly before her 101st birthday, Elizabeth needed a blood transfusion for anaemia but insisted on greeting the crowds of well-wishers in person. She continued to partake in public engagements, including Remembrance Day and a reception at the Guildhall. Once again, she spent the winter recuperating from a fall, in which she broke her pelvis.

On 9th February 2002, Elizabeth’s youngest daughter Margaret suffered a fatal stroke. A few days later, the Queen Mother accidentally cut her arm while staying at Sandringham in Norfolk, which needed medical attention. Professionals advised her to stay home and rest, but she insisted on attending her daughter’s funeral. Elizabeth made the journey to London by helicopter and then in a car with blacked-out windows so that no one could see her in her frail state.

Elizabeth’s health deteriorated rapidly after Margaret’s death, so she retreated to the Royal Lodge, Windsor Great Park. She passed away in her sleep on 30th March 2002 with her surviving daughter, Queen Elizabeth II, by her side. The funeral took place on 9th April, and one million people filled the 23-mile route from Westminster to Windsor to watch the procession of the coffin, adorned with camellias from Elizabeth’s garden. As she had requested, the funeral wreath was laid on the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior, echoing the tradition she began on her wedding day. After the funeral, Elizabeth joined her husband and Margaret in St George’s Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Mourning for the Queen Mother took place all over the world. She had made a big impression in all the countries she visited, particularly Canada and Australia, where memorial services were conducted. Elizabeth’s life may have vastly differed from the other women mentioned in the Unfinished Business exhibition, but her life was by no means easy. She never wanted to be part of the royal family, and she never expected to become Queen consort. Yet, these things happened, and she became the nation’s most popular member of the royal family. People loved Elizabeth for her charm and ability to stabilise the popularity of the monarchy, which had been shaky for centuries.

Elizabeth was like “a wave breaking on a rock, because although she is sweet and pretty and charming, she also has a basic streak of toughness and tenacity. … when a wave breaks on a rock, it showers and sparkles with a brilliant play of foam and droplets in the sun, yet beneath is really hard, tough rock, fused, in her case, from strong principles, physical courage and a sense of duty.”

Sir Hugh Casson

When Elizabeth married Albert, she expected she would “never, never again be free to think, speak and act as I feel I really ought to.” In this, she was correct, but her biographers note she often expressed her views in private. Elizabeth “abhorred racial discrimination” and employed homosexuals to spite conservative ministers in the 1970s who advised her against it.

Bronze statue of Elizabeth on The Mall, London, overlooked by the statue of her husband King George VI

Despite her sweet nature, Elizabeth gained a reputation for her love of alcohol. Journalists estimated she drank 70 units per week and Elizabeth became the butt of jokes, although in a kind way. In satirical television shows, actresses often portrayed the Queen Mother as a perpetually tipsy character. Many well-known stars have played the part of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon on screen, most notably Helena Bonham-Carter (b.1966) in The King’s Speech (2010).

In 2009, a bronze statue of Elizabeth by Scottish sculptor Philip Jackson (b.1944) joined her husband’s memorial on The Mall. There is also a bas-relief of the couple in Toronto, Canada, at the entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Way (QEW) highway.

Many may envy the life of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, who lived in relative comfort for over 100 years. Wealth and happiness often appear to go hand in hand, but a royal life is not always what it seems from the outside. Elizabeth had health problems that resulted in several operations, which is no different from many people in the United Kingdom. Whilst she had money, servants and luxuries, Elizabeth lived her life under public scrutiny. By marrying a prince, she needed to be mindful of the things she said. When Albert unexpectedly became King, Elizabeth’s duties doubled in number. Elizabeth had to think about how she looked at all times, adopting suitable facial expressions and demeanours every moment of the day.

Living for 100 years meant Elizabeth endured an untold amount of grief. She outlived both her husband and her youngest daughter. She experienced the loss of her nine siblings, some in war and some in old age, plus her parents, aunts and uncles, cousins and her husband’s family. At her death, only her sister-in-law, Princess Alice, Duchess of Gloucester (1901-2004) remained, who passed away age 102 a couple of years later.

As Queen Consort and Queen Mother, Elizabeth assisted and supported many organisations. As a patron, she provided funds to help them grow into or remain the successful companies they are today. Organisations include the Women’s Royal Voluntary Service, the Marie Curie Memorial Foundation, the Scottish National Institution for the War Blinded and the Society of Antiquaries of London.

Thus it hath pleased Almighty God to take out of this transitory life unto His Divine Mercy the late Most High, Most Mighty and Most Excellent Princess Elizabeth, Queen Dowager and Queen Mother, Lady of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Lady of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Lady of the Imperial Order of the Crown of India, Grand Master and Dame Grand Cross of the Royal Victorian Order upon whom had been conferred the Royal Victorian Chain, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Dame Grand Cross of the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem, Relict of His Majesty King George the Sixth and Mother of Her Most Excellent Majesty Elizabeth The Second by the Grace of God of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and of her other Realms and Territories Queen, Head of the Commonwealth, Defender of the Faith, Sovereign of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, whom may God preserve and bless with long life, health and honour and all worldly happiness.

The Styles and Titles of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth as read at her funeral on Tuesday 9th April 2002, Westminster Abbey

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


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Handel with Care

“… But Handel’s harmony affects the soul,
To sooth by sweetness, or by force controul;
And with like sounds as tune the rolling spheres,
So tunes the mind, that ev’ry sense has ears.
When jaundice jealousy, and carking care,
Or tyrant pride, or homicide despair,
The soul as on a rack in torture keep,
Those monsters Handel’s music lulls to sleep.”

an anonymous poem in The Gentleman’s Magazine, May 1740

Being a posthumously famous artist, musician, performer and so forth is a peculiar sentiment. A name may be remembered for hundreds of years, a painting may be viewed centuries after the artist’s death, people may have favourite musicians who lived long before their birth, but is it the person who is famous or the legacies they have left behind? One of the most famous British composers is Handel, a German-born Baroque musician who lived in the 18th century. Most people can name at least one or two of his compositions, but how many can claim to know about the man himself? How many people can explain how a German child grew up to be the highly acclaimed British composer? Handel’s name has survived through his music but his personal history is equally worthy of praise.

george_frideric_handel_by_balthasar_denner

George Frideric Handel by Balthasar Denner c1726-28

Georg Friedrich Händel was born on 5th March 1685 (incidentally the same year as J.S. Bach and Scarlatti) in the Prussian, now German, town Halle-upon-Saale to Georg Händel and Dorothea Taust. Little is known about Handel’s early life but documents prove that he was the first son of his father’s second marriage, discounting a still-birth, and he was followed by two sisters, Dorothea Sophia, born 6th October 1687, and Johanna Christiana, born 10th January 1690. His maternal grandfather was the Lutheran pastor of the Church of St. Bartholomew in Giebichenstein, north Germany, and it is likely that this had some influence on his upbringing.

Information about Handel’s childhood has to rely upon Memoirs of the Life of the Late George Frederic Handel written by his biographer John Mainwaring (1724-1807), although there are many discrepancies within the text. For instance, Mainwaring claims that Handel’s father was dismayed with his son’s penchant for music and “took every measure to oppose it”, going as far as to ban musical instruments from the house and refusing to let Handel visit anyone in possession of one. The biographer tells a romantic story about Handel’s secret visits to the attic where he had hidden a clavichord, which he played whilst his family were asleep. Some historians claim this to be little more than “poetic imagination”, for Handel must have been receiving some sort of musical education for him to be eventually noticed by Johann Adolf I, Duke of Saxe-Weissenfels (1649-97).

At about eight years old, the young Handel accompanied his father on a trip to Weissenfels where he sneaked over to the organ in the palace chapel of the Holy Trinity and proceeded to play. His impromptu performance was overheard by Duke Johann Adolf I who persuaded Handel’s father to allow his son to receive musical instruction. Back home, his father sought out the organist at the Halle parish church, Friedrich Wilhelm Zachow (1663-1712), and Handel’s musical education began. He learnt to play the violin as well as the organ, yet continued to practice on the clavichord/harpsichord. It is also noted that Handel developed a love for the oboe, which is evidenced by the number of pieces he would later compose for this instrument.

Due to his late father’s wishes that he should become a lawyer, Handel enrolled at the University of Halle in 1702, however, he never completed the course. Despite being Lutheran, Handel accepted the position of organist at the Calvinist Cathedral in Halle until mid-1703 when he moved to Hamburg. Whilst he was in the city, Handel joined the orchestra for the theatre Oper am Gänsemarkt as a violinist and harpsichordist. It was during this period that Handel composed his first two operas, Almira (full title: Der in Krohnen erlangte Glücks-Wechsel, oder: Almira, Königin von Castilien) and Nero; Handel was only 19-years old.

In 1706, Handel was invited to Italy; whilst it is uncertain who summoned him, it is likely to have been a member of the Medici family. During his time in Florence and Rome, Handel wrote several compositions, including sacred music for the Roman clergy, cantatas, oratorios, and operas. Yet, Handel’s time here was short, by 1710 he had become the Kapellmeister to the future king of England, Prince George the Elector of Hamburg (George I).

By the time he was 27-years old, Handel had found a permanent home in London. He achieved great success with his opera Rinaldo, the first opera in Italian to be performed in the British capital, which the Victoria and Albert Museum celebrated last year (2017) in their exhibition on opera. The composer caught the attention of Queen Anne who supplied him with a yearly stipend of £200 after he composed the sacred choral composition Utrecht Te Deum and Jubilate (1713) in her honour. For the next five years, however, Handel gave up composing operas, although his famous Water Music proved popular. 

508px-georg_friedrich_hc3a4ndel_3

The Chandos Portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel, attr. James Thornhill, c1720

In 1717, Handel became the resident composer at the stately home Cannons in Little Stanmore, Middlesex, where he composed his 12 Chandos Anthems for his patron, James Brydges, 1st Duke of Chandos (1673-1744). Handel also wrote his first English-language pastoral opera, or “little opera”, Acis and Galatea (1718), which became the most performed of his works during his lifetime. The music was set to a text written by John Gay (1685-1732), a poet and dramatist who also penned The Beggars Opera (1728).

During his residence at Cannons, the Royal Academy of Music was founded by a group of aristocrats who sought musicians and composers to perform and write operas and such forth. Handel was one of three leading composers commissioned by the academy, the others being Attilio Ariosti (1666-1729) and Giovanni Bononcini (1670-1747), and was also appointed as Master of the Orchestra. One of Handel’s commissions was to write four anthems for the coronation ceremony of George II: The King Shall Rejoice, My Heart is Inditing and Let thy Hand be Strengthened, and Zadok the Priest. The latter has become one of Handel’s best-known works and has been played at every British monarch’s coronation since.

Unfortunately, the Royal Academy of Music soon folded but Handel continued composing and sought a venture elsewhere. In 1729, Handel became the joint manager of The Queen’s Theatre, Haymarket (now Her Majesty’s Theatre) alongside the leading impresario John James Heidegger (1666-1749). Works by Handel were already popular at this theatre and between the years 1711 and 1739, over 25 of his operas premiered there.

Handel could be a very cantankerous man and earned a reputation for his inexhaustible vocabulary of swear words in five different languages. Whether or not triggered by the stress of opera falling out of fashion, thus causing Handel to become bankrupt, he suffered a stroke in April 1737, aged 52, resulting in temporary loss of movement in his right hand. Unable to perform, Handel sought treatment in Aachen, a spa in Germany, where he made an astonishingly quick recovery. He continued writing operas despite his ill-health, however, by 1741 and still losing money, he decided to give up in favour of English oratorios.

Unfortunately, Handel’s oratorios, many of which were based on biblical passages, caused controversy and outrage throughout the predominantly Protestant country. The Church was shocked about God’s word being spoken in the theatre in such a fashion causing one minister to exclaim: “What are we coming to when the will of Satan is imposed upon us in this fashion?”

Angry Christians sabotaged many of the performances of Handel’s oratorios, something which deeply saddened the Lutheran composer who was profoundly religious himself. The author John Hawkins (1719-89) commented that Handel “would frequently declare the pleasure he felt in setting the Scriptures to music, and how contemplating the many sublime passages in the Psalms had contributed to his edification.” Not to be defeated, Handel persevered with his compositions, however, he was at risk of being thrown into debtor’s prison. Depressed, his health deteriorating and his career on the line, Handel was losing hope of any future successes, however, his greatest legacy was still to come.

charles_jennens

Charles Jennens by Mason Chamberlin, mid-18th century

In 1741, friend and librettist, Charles Jennens (1700-73) visited Handel with a proposal concerning a spiritual text he had written based on the King James Bible. The story is a reflection on the life of Jesus the Messiah beginning with the prophecy told in Isaiah, through to the Annunciation, Passion and Resurrection. Having written with the intent of it being sung, Jennens entreated Handel to compose an oratorio. In spite of the negative reaction he had received with his previous religious works, Handel accepted and estimated that he would need a year to complete the entire score.

With a new project to work on, Handel’s depression lifted and he swiftly completed the entire orchestration in 24 days, which consisted of 53 movements within three parts. Containing sections for trumpets, timpani, oboes, violins, cellos and so forth, and the famous Hallelujah ChorusMessiah was born.

“I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God himself.”
-Handel speaking about composing the Hallelujah Chorus

 

 

Messiah premiered at the new Music Hall in Fishamble Street, Dublin in April 1742. It was performed as a means of raising money “for the relief of prisoners in the several gaols and for the support of Mercer’s Hospital in Stephen Street, and of the Charitable Infirmary on the Inns Quay.” Although some people felt insulted that Handel had not premiered the oratorio in London first, his reasoning was that it was too sacred for the theatre and too long for a liturgical service – concert halls had not yet arrived in the capital.

Handel hoped for the concert in Dublin to become an annual event, however, this plan never came to fruition. Nonetheless, Messiah was soon to become a yearly occurrence in London, attracting thousands of spectators. In 1749, another benefit concert, this time in aid of the Foundling Hospital, was so successful that it was repeated each year, including after Handel’s death in 1759.

The Foundling Hospital, established in 1739, was a children’s home established for the “education and maintenance of exposed and deserted young children.” The money raised from the Messiah concerts helped to fund the home and Handel was elected a Governor of the Hospital in recognition of his support.

Despite the success of Messiah, Handel was once again nearing poverty by 1745. Opera was no longer as popular as it used to be and many performances failed to attract a full audience. Alongside this, Handel’s health was rapidly deteriorating, he was losing his sight, thus making it difficult to write. Despite a cataract operation in 1751, Handel was completely blind the following year. He remained in his house in London, occasionally attending concerts to listen to the music he had composed. The last work he heard before his death in 1759 was of Messiah.

Although he died a poor man, Handel was given full state honours and buried in the south wing of Westminster Abbey. Over 3000 mourners attended his funeral, proving that he had been a popular composer regardless of the difficulties during his final years. In his will, Handel had requested the following in regards to his burial:

I hope I have the permission of the Dean and Chapter of Westminster to be buried in Westminster Abbey, in a private manner, at the discretion of my executor, Mr. Amyand; and I desire that my said executor may have leave to erect a monument for me there, and that any sum not exceeding six hundred pounds, be expended for that purpose, at the discretion of my said executor.

G.F.Handel

Handel may have been quick to anger, as evidenced by his colourful use of language, but he was also a kind and generous man, particularly considering his own financial state. An entry in his will dated 4th August 1757 stated, “a fair copy of the score, and all parts of my oratorio called the Messiah” was to be given to the Foundling Hospital so that they had every right to continue their annual benefit concert. Handel’s will can be viewed at the Foundling Museum in London.

The Foundling Museum tells the history of the hospital and its patrons including George Frideric Handel, who has an entire upper room devoted to him. Alongside his will, many other items are displayed in connection with the great composer. These have come from the Handel Collection owned by Gerald Coke, who had amassed over 1000 books, scores and objects. Coke began collecting in 1930 until his death in 1990, by which time he owned the biggest private accumulation of “Handelania” in the country.

Amongst the objects in the museum are manuscripts, paintings, posters, advertisements, music, busts and a model of his monument in Westminster Abbey. Visitors can also sit and listen to a handful of Handel’s compositions and talk to knowledgeable staff about his life and works.

 

Another statue of Handel can be viewed in the V&A. A full-length marble statue was commissioned of the composer in approximately 1730 by the proprietor of New Spring Gardens (Vauxhall Gardens) Jonathan Tyers (1702-67). At this period of time, Handel was the leading composer of music in London and his statue was used to help advertise the gardens. The sculpture was produced by Louis François Roubiliac (1702–62) and it is thought to be his first independent work, thus establishing his reputation.

There are a number of other places in London fans of Handel can visit, including a number of places he frequented, however, there is none so important as the Handel House Museum in Mayfair. Now renamed Handel and Hendrix in London, the museum is set up within the rooms of 25 Brook Street where Handel lived for the majority of his time in London. It also incorporates a room from 23 Brook Street where the rock guitarist Jimi Hendrix (1942-70) once lived.

The house has been restored to look how it did during Handel’s 36-year occupancy until his death in 1759. The interior is decorated in the typical Georgian style and contains a variety of Handel memorabilia. The front room of the house was likely used as a rehearsal room, whereas the rear, containing Handel’s clavichord is presumably where most of his composing took place. The rest of the rooms reflect the standard living arrangements of the time, including a bedroom, dressing room and servant quarters.

Of the hundreds of items in the collection, the correspondences of Handel and original compositions are perhaps the most precious. A copy of one of the first biographies of Handel by John Mainwaring is also in the museum’s possession. The remainder of objects include prints, paintings and sculptures of the composer.

 

Although an easily recognised name, the life of Handel is largely unacknowledged and his existence is identified through his music. His name is also remembered in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church with a feast day on 28th July, which he shares with Johann Sebastian Bach and Henry Purcell (1659-95).

Amongst his contemporaries and later musicians, Handel was regarded with high esteem, particularly by Bach and Mozart (1756-91), the latter who was born in the final years of Handel’s life. Another composer that lived after Handel’s time who considered him the greatest composer who ever lived was Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827). Calling him “the master of us all,” Beethoven exclaimed, “Go to him to learn how to achieve great effects, by such simple means.”

The man may no longer be important in contemporary society, however, Handel’s music will never go out of fashion. His compositions continue to be performed yearly for a variety of events, for instance, the BBC Proms, Good Friday services, Christmas concerts, Royal celebrations and so on.

Whether by attending an opera, a concert or hearing background music on a television advert, Handel will continue to infiltrate the lives of Londoners and the rest of the western world. Nonetheless, it is always worth discovering more about the people who have impacted lives through music or any other means; you are bound to find out something interesting.

“He died as he lived—a good Christian, with a true sense of his duty to God and to man, and in perfect charity with all the world.”

Faith at the Heart of the Nation

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© 2017 THE DEAN AND CHAPTER OF WESTMINSTER

It is virtually impossible to find a building more steeped in British history than the spectacular structure of Westminster Abbey. Although sections of the present building date from the 1200s, its history dates even further back. Registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the Abbey has been in constant use and importance in the life of past and present royal families. Still used for church services today, Westminster Abbey welcomes visitors to tour the sacred building and marvel at the architecture and the many wonders hidden inside.

There is a discrepancy about the origins of the first church built on this site, however, historical evidence has been confirmed for the years subsequent to the death of Edward the Confessor at the very beginning of 1066. Children are taught at an early age about the Battle of Hastings that followed the death of this holy king, but little to no emphasis is put on the use of Westminster Abbey at that time, nor in the lives of future monarchs.

Visiting the Abbey will provide all the information about its uses and significance to various Kings and Queens of England. Commentary through an audio guide explains the events of different years that involved the Abbey’s use and development and, although no written information is displayed in the building, a full account of the history is available for purchase in a souvenir guide.

Originally, the church founded by Edward the Confessor stood in roughly the same place as the current Abbey, however, its surroundings would have looked completely different to the built up area that exists today. Over a thousand years ago, the Westminster area was on the very outskirts of London, a city which had not yet expanded to its contemporary grand size. Not only was the church located in the suburbs, it stood on a boggy, inhospitable island known as Thorney. Surrounded by many tributaries of the River Thames, it was not the welcoming district it is today.

The current building was erected over hundreds of years, beginning during the reign of Henry III (crowned 1216-1272). As a devotee to the canonised St Edward (the Confessor), Henry wished to demolish the existing church and construct a spectacular structure in the European Gothic Style in the saint’s honour. St Edward, who had been buried in his own construction, was provided with his own shrine. St Edward the Confessor’s Chapel still remains in the centre of the Abbey, unfortunately, due to fragility and age, visitors are unable to enter.

Little is known about who was responsible for the design of what was to become Westminster Abbey, but the three main stone masons involved in the raising of the building have been recorded as Henry of Reyns (d1253), John of Gloucester and Robert of Beverley (d1285). Although influenced by French cathedrals, the continental style was simply appropriated rather than copied. In order to make the building unique to England, as well as contain the highest vault (102ft/31m), certain aspects were altered from the geometrical system. This includes a single aisle, a lengthy nave and wide transepts. The stone and marble sculptures add to the Englishness of the building.

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Great West Door (Hazel Stainer 2017)

The façade of the Abbey, for which it is most famous, is as impressive as its interior. In order to keep its magnificent appearance, Westminster Abbey has been refaced several times, and may no longer resemble the original building. Architects, such as Sir Christopher Wren (1632-1723) and James Wyatt (1746-1813), have done a great deal of work on the building over the centuries. The latest major restoration took place between 1973-1995.

It is not clear who is responsible for the carvings, statues and effigies, but these are in over abundance in and out of the Abbey. Many Kings and Queens of England have been laid to rest under elaborate shrines and memorials that are so intricate it is difficult to believe that they were produced by the hands of a human being. And it is not only the royals who have been subjected to this lavish treatment; many members of the aristocracy have been honoured with a burial place in Westminster Abbey.

The most remarkable monument in the Abbey can be found in St Michael’s Chapel, one of the many small chapels located around the perimeter. Interestingly, this does not belong to a monarch but rather Lady Elizabeth Nightingale (1704-31) who died in childbirth. The memorial was designed by the French sculptor Louis-François Roubiliac (1702-1762) and consists of life-size figurines of Lady Elizabeth’s husband trying to protect her body from a skeletal apparition of death. To create realistic statues of people is one thing, but to successfully carve a skeleton from stone is a serious feat. Roubiliac was responsible for other effigies in the Abbey, including one of the musician Handel located in Poet’s Corner.

 

Westminster Abbey is open to the public every day for services including Holy Communion, Morning Prayer and Evensong. For a fee, tourists are allowed in to follow a plotted tour around the holy building. Although this means it is difficult to take your time and study every hidden corner as a result of the crowd continually surging forth in one direction, the tour is laid out so that nothing is missed. The accompanying audio guide provides the history of the building’s involvement with the English royal family but also points out works of art, sculpture and architecture that will amaze many a visitor.

Unlike most churches throughout the country, not all the effigies remain the whitish-grey colour of stone. Evidence remains of coloured paint that was added to the statues to make them as lifelike as possible. Although some of these have faded over the years, many are still covered in the rich reds and blues.

Westminster Abbey was built before the fashion of painted ceilings and walls came in to being. In contrast to other London churches, for instance, St Paul’s Cathedral, the Abbey relies on ornate carvings for decoration. Having said that, during a cleaning in the 1930s, two wall paintings were uncovered that historians believe date back to the end of the 13th century. These have been identified as images of Christ with the apostle Thomas and Saint Christopher. Of all the artistic components of the Abbey, these early paintings are one of the few that feature religious content.

The most complex piece of art situated in the Abbey is the Cosmati Pavement in front of the High Altar. This also dates back to the 13th century and was commissioned by the abbot of the monastery, Richard de Ware (d1283). Pavements made of mosaics were all the rage in Italy, therefore Roman stonemasons were invited to England to lay something similar in the newly built Abbey. The pavement spans 24ft and is made up of a variety of material: onyx, porphyry, limestone and glass. The geometric pattern consists of an assortment of shapes and colours and, despite its age, still looks colourful today.

Although the architecture is phenomenal, the greatest attractions are the tombs and memorials of famous people – and not purely the Royals. Upwards of 3000 people are eternally remembered in the Abbey and more are likely to be included in years to come. The flamboyance of previous centuries has abated resulting in more indistinct plaques and stones for the more recent tributes. The most popular area for tourists is located in the South Transept and is most commonly known as Poet’s Corner.

Over 100 well-known authors, poets and playwrights are celebrated in Poet’s corner. Some, such as William Shakespeare (1564-1616), have ostentatious friezes, however, the majority have modest stone slabs, many of which are embedded into the floor. Literature lovers will be excited to locate some of their favourite authors, including Jane Austen, the Bronte sisters, Lewis Carroll (Charles Lutwidge Dodgson), Geoffrey Chaucer (the first to be buried in this corner), Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Rudyard Kipling, C. S. Lewis, Lord Tennyson and William Wordsworth.

With floor and wall space running out, memorials have begun to feature on stained glass windows. These have been added fairly recently and take into consideration the writers who were shunned at the times of their deaths. Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wilde (1854-1900) is one example. Almost 100 years after his death, Oscar Wilde, who had been denied a place in Westminster Abbey on account of his sexuality, was awarded a humble lozenge in the giant window above the tomb of Geoffrey Chaucer. Space remains on the window for future authors to take their place amongst the other literary greats.

Westminster Abbey is a captivating example of British architecture and history and is certainly worth the visit. There is no other church or building as elaborately adorned as this structure on the edge of the Thames. As visitors follow the numbered audio points on their tour, they are encouraged to look up and marvel at the mesmerising ceilings that must have taken several years to produce.

 

As well as the main Abbey, your ticket will also allow you to explore the cloisters behind the dominant building. Here can be found the Pyx Chamber, Chapter House and the College Garden (check opening times). There is also a restaurant that is open seven days a week where you can get refreshments after walking around the entire Abbey.

It is without a doubt that Westminster Abbey is a worthy tourist attraction, nevertheless, the extortionate entry fee may cause something of a dispute. At £22 a head, it is questionable whether walking around what is effectively a giant tomb is worth it. One could joke that it is a once in a lifetime experience because, at that price, no one is likely to want to do it twice.

Having now visited Westminster and Abbey and St Paul’s Cathedral – London’s two most famous religious buildings – the differences between the two are striking. Westminster Abbey is quite clearly intended for the aristocracy, evidenced by the class of people buried in its grounds. St Paul’s, on the other hand, is much more user-friendly. Of course, the architectural styles differ significantly on account of the periods in which they were built, but Westminster Abbey makes the general public feel as though they do not belong there (the strict rules and watchful security guards do not help matters), whereas St Paul’s is a much more welcoming and comfortable environment. In terms of their purposes as a house of God, St Paul’s definitely comes out on top.

It is irrefutable that Westminster Abbey is one of the most popular landmarks in London. Whether you attend a service or join the lengthy queue to tour the building, it will certainly be a place you will never forget. Despite the development of building materials and the constantly rising number of skyscrapers in the area, Westminster Abbey will remain a true advocate of the country’s history at the heart of the nation.