Monday, 25 February 2013

Gilbert Potter: a Tudor barman turned national hero

In 1553 Gilbert Potter was a young man working as a 'drawer' (the 16th century equivalent of a barman) at the St John's Head tavern in Ludgate, London. He would have spent his life in obscurity, unknown to history and ourselves had he not acted as he did on the 10th July 1553. His actions led to him becoming a heroic figure in the eyes of the people and his heroism was reinforced by 'Poor Pratte's' epistle, which was a work of propaganda in support of Potter which began to circulate on the 13th July.

Portrait miniature of a young woman
usually thought to have
been Lady Jane Grey

On the 10th July, just a day after Lady Jane Grey had been proclaimed queen, the royal barges set off down the Thames from Richmond and landed at 3 o'clock at the Tower of London in an inconspicuous manner as requested by Jane herself, who at this time was still uncomfortable with the thought of her impending reign. The banks of the river were lined with clusters of curious spectators who had come to catch a glimpse of the mysterious girl who was said to be their queen. Those along the banks and in the city of London itself were still in stunned silence as they had expected the Lady Mary, Henry VIII's daughter, to be their queen so they were understandably shocked to hear that someone else was proclaimed queen. In order to procure a reaction from the people bands of heralds-at-arms and archers were sent into the city where they were to repeat the proclamation of Jane as queen. At Cheapside, Paul's Cross and Fleet Street the proclamations were read out and the heralds stated that 'the Lady Mary was a bastard, and the Lady Jane was queen'. The heralds then cried 'God save the queen!' but the only response came from their accompanying archers who repeated the cry and threw up their caps.

It is at this point that Gilbert Potter made his way into the history books, albeit as something of a footnote. Upon hearing the proclamation Gilbert exclaimed that 'the Lady Mary has the better title', and it was these seven words that cast Gilbert forward out of the shadows of obscurity. It seems like a relatively harmless comment to make, it is undeniably true as Mary's claim was stronger than Jane's and the rest of the crowd were thinking it although none ventured to voice in such a public place. Unfortunately for Gilbert his master Ninian Sanders overheard him and probably in fear of his business and personal welfare if anyone else had heard, he reported young Gilbert to the guard. In some awful form of poetic justice Sanders fell into the Thames when travelling home by wherry on the same day that he had handed Gilbert to the authorities. He drowned but the other passengers and boatmen (who James Froude calls the 'instruments of providence') survived.

Modern (mock!) demonstration of how someone's
ears would have been nailed to the pillory
The new regime was incredibly unstable, as Mary was still on the loose and rapidly gathering support, so they were ruthless in the face of any opposition even when it was just a young man of little influence and standing.  Gilbert was seized by the guard and imprisoned but the worst was yet to come. The next day he was taken back into the city and his ears were nailed to the pillory for all to see, and after hours of pain and humiliation his ears were sliced off so as to free him and return him to his cell.

Whilst in prison Gilbert was sent a copy of Pratte's epistle. The opening line of which reads 'Poor Pratte, unto his friend Gilbert Potter, the most faithful and true lover of Queen Mary, doth him salute with many salutations'. The epistle is an effective piece of propaganda that has heavy religious undertones and compares Potter to many biblical figures including Daniel who was cast to the lions in the Old Testament.  The epistle was distributed by being nailed to posts and dropped on the ground in public places where it would be found, read and shared so that the fate of bold Gilbert Potter was known throughout the country. Part of the epistle (taken from Linda Porter's book Mary Tudor) is below:
What man could have shown himself bolder in her grace's cause, than thou hast showed? Or who did so valiantly in the proclamation time, when Jane was published queen (unworthy as she was) and more to blame, I may say to thee, are some of the consenters thereunto. There were thousands more than thyself, yet durst they not (such is the fragility and weakness of the flesh) once move their lips to speak that which thou didst speak. Thou offerest thyself amongst the multitude of people to fight against them all in her quarrel, and for her honour did not fear to run upon the point of the swords. O faithful subject! O true heart to Mary, our queen! 
If you're interested in reading the whole epistle it can be found here.

Gilbert Potter's travails did not go unrewarded as once Mary was firmly on the throne she ensured that by the 30th May 1554 Gilbert had received a message of thanks for his loyalty and valuable land in South Lynn, Norfolk.

So although his fame was brief his story is an interesting one and it demonstrates how open expression of political beliefs could be extremely dangerous in the sixteenth century. But fortunately in the case of Gilbert Potter his brief stint as a hero and Mary's champion was not in vain.
Further Reading: 
The Reign of Mary Tudor by James Froude
Mary Tudor by Judith M Richards
Foxe's Book of Martyrs by John Foxe
Memoir of Mary Tudor by Frederic Madden
Mary Tudor: The First Queen by Linda Porter

Friday, 22 February 2013

The last abbey: Waltham

Waltham Abbey Church
The dissolution of the monasteries in the reign of Henry VIII saw many religious houses stripped of their goods and the monks/nuns expelled out on to the streets. This led to many social problems in the country as monasteries had acted as hospitals, shelters for travellers and when the monks/nuns were expelled there was a huge increase in the number of beggars roaming the country.

The last abbey to be dissolved was Waltham Abbey, which was dissolved in 1540. Located in Essex, it is thought to have been the last abbey to have been dissolved as it was a favourite of Henry VIII's due to the surrounding hunting parks and his friendship with the abbot, Robert Fuller. Although he had it dissolved Henry still retained some favour for Waltham as he suggested that it be made one of the new Cathedrals  for the Church of England, but this suggestion was never implemented.  

The 14th century gatehouse
Today all that remains of the abbey is the Abbey Church which consists of the nave of the Norman abbey church, the 14th century Lady Chapel and a 16th century west tower which was added after the abbey had been dissolved. These original parts of the abbey were salvaged by the church wardens as the domestic parts of the abbey were demolished so that the stone could be used for other building projects and in 1553 the Norman crossing tower and transepts collapsed due to their lack of maintenance. The ruins of the abbey's 14th century gatehouse and bridge stand in the grounds and give an impression of how impressive the abbey would have been in its prime.

The image on the right shows the 14th century 'Harold's bridge' which crosses Cornmill Stream. The bridge has earned its name as the abbey is the final resting place of the last Anglo-Saxon King of England, Harold II (Harold Godwinson).

The inside of the abbey church provides an excellent example of Norman architecture with the dominant piers and carvings of faces in the stonework and there is a fascinating 15th century Doom painting.

The nave of Waltham Abbey Church
The 15th century doom painting at Waltham Abbey Church, with Christ in the centre and the jaws of hell on the right

Thursday, 21 February 2013

A rhyme in time

Nursery rhymes are a key part of everyone's childhood and many have their origins and meaning affiliated with the 16th century. Children tend to take them at face value so they enjoy the rhyme and characters but they don't know the deeper meaning behind the rhyme, which is probably a good thing in many cases due to their often sinister origins. Rhymes were used as ways of criticising or heralding figures and as ways of expressing political/religious opinions in a way that was more discreet than open discussion. The characters in the rhymes are often meant to represent well known Tudor figures so I'll categorise rhymes by the figure featuring in them.

Richard Plantagenet, Duke of York and 'The grand old Duke of York' 

Oh the grand old Duke of York, he had ten thousand men
he marched them up to the top of the hill 
and he marched them down again. 
When they were up, they were up 
and when they were down, they were down 
and when they were only halfway up 
they were neither up nor down. 

This rhyme was published in the 17th century and it mockingly refers to the defeat of the Duke of York in the 15th century English civil wars known as the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York was an incredibly rich and powerful man but he was often excluded from court due to the favourite nobles of King Henry VI. This unfair exclusion led to York's resentment of the king's 'evil councilors' and it came to a climax in the 1455 Battle of St Albans. At that point York was not looking to take the throne for himself, he was just planning to take control of Henry VI and act as his adviser. But York's resentments grew as he was continually slighted and in 1460 York claimed the throne for himself, this was possible as his mother was the great-granddaughter of Edward III's second son. York's claim was not well received by the nobility so he was unable to set himself up as king. 
York was killed in battle in December 1460 at the battle of Wakefield, he had been sheltering in Sandal Castle with a small force of men when he saw the Lancastrian army, which he mistakenly thought to be a foraging party. Unfortunately for York it was the main Lancastrian army so his force was overpowered and crushed. York had not been very popular with the nobility due to his overbearing arrogance and this may reflect on the treatment of his body. After his death he was stripped and his head was cut off, it was the stuck on a spike on the gates of the city of York and mockingly dressed with a paper crown. 

Henry VII and 'Sing a song of sixpence' 

Sing a song of sixpence a pocket full of rye, 
Four and twenty blackbirds baked in a pie. 
When the pie was opened the birds began to sing, 
Oh wasn't that a dainty dish to set before the king? 
The king was in his counting house counting out his money, 
The queen was in the parlour eating bread and honey 
 The maid was in the garden hanging out the clothes, 
When down came a blackbird and pecked off her nose.  

The rhyme was published in the 18th century but the meaning/characters lead back to the 16th century. In this rhyme the king is often thought to be Henry VII as he gained a reputation as a miser in the later years of his reign so it seems appropriate for him to be found in a counting house. A counting house is quite literally the room or building where financial accounts and documents would have been kept and used. As Henry VII is often perceived to be the king in the rhyme, his wife Elizabeth of York is seen as the queen. The practice of putting live birds in a pie so that they would fly out when it was cut was popular in the 16th century due to the surprise and entertainment that such a dish provided, a recipe for this type of pie has been found in a 1549 Italian cook book. 
It has also been suggested that the characters in the rhyme are representations of Henry VIII and his love triangle with Katherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn. Where Henry is the king, Katherine the queen and Anne the maid. This interpretation then suggests that the blackbirds represent the disaffected monks who had been affected by the dissolution of the monasteries. 

Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and 'Humpty Dumpty' 

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall. 
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. 
All the king's horses and all the king's men 
couldn't put Humpty together again. 

Published in the 18th century there are many versions of the rhyme and many interpretations of its meaning, and one interpretation is that Humpty Dumpty represents Thomas Wolsey. The phrase 'humpty dumpty' was never originally associated with an egg as in the 16th century it was used as an insulting name for an overweight person. Therefore there is good ground for assuming that Wolsey is Humpty Dumpty as he became quite overweight and he was unpopular with many people due to his humble origins so he would have been insulted by many people (mostly behind his back).

The meaning behind the rhyme then leads us to the village of Cawood in Yorkshire, as in 1530 Wolsey lived at Cawood Castle for nine months. It is said that while at Cawood Wolsey developed the habit of walking the castle walls and he would sit on the high tower wall in order to admire the view. So we have our Humpty sitting on a wall, but where does the fall come into it? The fall is not a literal fall, so Wolsey never took a tumble from his seat on the wall, but he did fall from power. He fell from power and the king's favour when he failed to secure a divorce for Henry VIII, so he was stripped of many of his titles and sent north to his bishopric of York.

'All the king's horses and all the king's men' were then sent to arrest Wolsey on a charge of treason, and they began to escort him down to London. But they 'couldn't put Humpty together again' as Wolsey took ill on the journey and died aged 60 at Leicester on the 29th November 1530. Wolsey's body was then buried in Leicester Abbey.

Katherine of Aragon and 'I had a little nut tree' 

I had a little nut tree, 
nothing would it bear 
but a silver nutmeg, 
and a golden pear, 
the King of Spain's daughter 
came to visit me, 
and all for the sake 
of my little nut tree. 
Her dress was made of crimson, 
golden was her hair, 
she asked me for my nut tree 
and my golden pear. 
I said, "So fair a princess 
never did I see, 
I'll give you all the fruit 
from my little nut tree. 

Published in the 18th century this rhyme may have been written to herald the marriage of Katherine of Aragon and Prince Arthur. The couple were betrothed when they were just toddlers and actually married when they were 16 so the people of England knew that a great princess would be coming to England, so the rhyme may have been written in lieu of that. The King of Spain referenced in the rhyme is Ferdinand of Aragon, Katherine's father, although technically it could mean Isabella of Castile, Katherine's mother, as she was a queen regnant so was sometimes called 'King of Castile'. In her youth Katherine was famed for her beauty so this corresponds with the rhyme calling her a 'fair princess' and she is known to have had golden hair, which did not match with the 16th century view that Spanish women had dark hair and sallow complexions.

Queen Mary I and 'Mary, Mary quite contrary' 

Mary, Mary quite contrary, 
how does your garden grow? 
With silver bells and cockle shells 
and pretty maids all in a row. 

Published in the 18th century this rhyme alludes to Mary I and there are two common ways of interpreting the rhyme. The first way interprets the 'Mary' as being Mary I and it treats the rhyme as an allegory to Catholicism where the bells represent the sanctus bells, the cockle shells represent the badges of pilgrims to the shrine of St James and the maids represent nuns. 

The second interpretation is altogether more sinister as again the 'Mary' is seen as Mary I, but in this instance she is viewed more as the traditional image of 'Bloody Mary'. This interpretation suggests that she is 'quite contrary' as her reign launched the counter-reformation which changed the measures brought in under the two previous monarchs. As a jab at the queen 'how does your garden grow?' can be taken to refer to Mary's lack of an heir as she had suffered two phantom pregnancies. The meaning then grows more sinister as the 'silver bells' and 'cockle shells' are colloquial terms for instruments of torture, the former being thumbscrews and the latter being a device that was attached to a man's genitals. The 'pretty maids' are either viewed as a reference to Mary's husband, Philip II of Spain, having mistresses or as an early form of the guillotine, known as the maiden, which was used in some executions. 
Queen Elizabeth I and 'Rain rain go away' 

Rain, rain go away, 
come again another day. 
Little Johnny wants to play; 
Rain, rain go to Spain, 
never show your face again!  

Published in the 17th century this rhyme refers to the Philip II's attempted invasion of England in 1588 with the Spanish Armada. The invasion failed partially due to the small fast English ships which outmaneuvered the more cumbersome Spanish ships and due to the stormy conditions. During the storm the English were lucky to have the wind blowing out towards the Spaniards so they were able to sail fireships out into the Spanish fleet, causing it to break formation. The Spanish ships then tried to retreat but many were ship wrecked by the storm so only 67 of the original 151 ships made it back to Spain. Therefore the line 'rain, rain go to Spain' is a clear call for the Spaniards to take the storm away with them. 

Queen Mary I and 'Three blind mice' 

Three blind mice, three blind mice,  
see how they run, see how they run. 
They all ran after the farmer's wife, 
who cut off their tails with a carving knife, 
did you ever see such a thing in your life, 
as three blind mice? 

Published in the 19th century this rhyme is thought to refer to Mary I and the persecution of Protestants in her brief reign. In the rhyme the farmer's wife represents Mary, the significance of her being a 'farmer's wife' could be that she was reconciling England with Rome so she was herding her flock back to their spiritual shepherd. The 'farmer' who is only alluded to could be a reference to Philip II of Spain, Mary's husband, as he was a notable Catholic monarch who was determined to help Mary in her quest to salvage England's soul. The 'three blind mice' are thought to represent three Protestant bishops who refused to comply with Mary's religious policies so they were persecuted; their blindness may be a reference, from a Catholic viewpoint, to the bishops' blindness to the 'true religion'. 
Although there is a clear mention of decapitation in the rhyme it is unlikely that Protestant bishops would have suffered this, if they refused to recant their beliefs they would have been imprisoned and then they may have faced a heretic's death by burning. 

There are more rhymes with Tudor connections so if you know of some or would like to know about a particular rhyme, leave a comment and I'll add it in if  I can find some information on it.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Valentine's Day 500 Years Before Moonpig

Happy Valentine's Day! Today we have Valentine's traditions like giving flowers, chocolates and personalised cards but what did people do 500 years ago? Interestingly many of today's customs originated in the 15th and 16th centuries. Valentine's Day has been celebrated for many hundreds of years and its romantic connotations are often believed to originate with Geoffrey Chaucer's 'Parlement of Foules', which was written in 1382. The poem was written to commemorate the anniversary of  King Richard II of England and Anne of Bohemia's engagement and it contains the lines:
For this was on seynt Volantynys day 
Whan euery bryd comyth there to chese his make. 

(For this was on Saint Valentine's Day, when every bird cometh there to choose his mate.) 

Detail from a French manuscript dating from around 1330 where a lover wounded by cupid's
arrow pledges his heart to his beloved in order to heal it 
That was a very brief background history to Valentine's Day, but what did people do in medieval England? One tradition was for young (usually unmarried) men and women to draw the name of their valentine at random from a bowl and then wear the name pinned onto their clothes for a week as a declaration of their 'love'. Some believe that this is where the saying 'to wear your heart on your sleeve comes from'. The use of 'x' to represent a kiss is often thought to have originated in medieval times as the majority of common people were illiterate so if they were ever required to give a signature, for example if they were in court, they would sign with an 'X'. As a way of further expressing their sincerity they would then kiss the 'X', which led to the letter x becoming synonymous with a kiss. 

Original letter from Charles, Duke of Orléans
to his wife.
Written valentines originated in the 1400s with the earliest surviving written valentine being from Charles, Duke of Orléans to his wife Bonne d'Armagnac. He wrote it from the Tower of London where he was imprisoned after the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and it begins 'Je suis deja d'amour tanné, ma tres doulce Valentinée', which in English means 'I am already sick of love, my very gentle Valentine'. It is titled 'A farewell to love', which suggests that Charles doubted his chances of surviving his imprisonment. The earliest surviving valentines written in English are found in the Paston Letters and the earliest dates from 1477. It is written by Margaret Brewes to John Paston, who she refers to as 'my right well-beloved valentine'.

Miniature of Princess Mary Tudor wearing a gold brooch
in honour of the Emperor Charles V

Accounts of Princess Mary (daughter of Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon) and her household's Valentine's Day activities provide insight into upper class Tudor Valentine's traditions. In 1525, when she was nine years old, Mary and her household indulged in drawing Valentines. On this occasion Mary drew the name of Richard Sydnor, who was her aged treasurer of the privy chamber, and she seems to have enthusiastically followed the custom of staging a mock romance. In messages that she sent to him she called herself 'your wyfe' and referred to him as her 'husband adoptif'. Poor Sydnor seems to have suffered from gout and found it hard to keep up with his young 'wyfe' as Mary jokingly scolded him that 'ye take greater care of your goute...than ye do of your wyfe'.

Mary provides further insight into the Tudor practice of choosing valentines as in 1522 she chose Charles V as her valentine (probably at her mother's insistence) and wore a golden brooch which spelt out 'Charles' in jewels. The Lucas Horenbout miniature of Mary painted around this time depicts her with a golden brooch pinned to her bodice which spells out 'the Emperour'. Sweet as this may sound it would have been more of a diplomatic move than a romantic one as Mary was around nine when the miniature was painted and Charles was twenty-five.

Mary Tudor: the First Queen by Linda Porter
Mary Tudor: England's First Queen by Anna Whitelock

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

Katherine of Aragon's last letter

Portrait of Katherine of Aragon by Michel Sittow (1502)
My most dear Lord, King and Husband, 
The hour of my death now drawing on, the tender love I owe you forceth me, my case being such, to commend myself to you, and to put you in remembrance with a few words of the health and safeguard of your soul which you ought to prefer before all considerations of the world or flesh whatsoever. For the which you have cast me into many calamities, and yourself into many troubles. For my part, I pardon you everything, and I wish to devoutly pray God that He will pardon you also. For the rest, I commend unto you our daughter Mary, beseeching you to be a good father unto her, as I have heretofore desired. I entreat you also, on behalf of my maids, to give them marriage portions, which is not much, they being but three. For all my other servants I solicit the wages due them, and a year more, lest they be unprovided for. Lastly, I make this vow, that mine eyes desire you above all things. 
Katharine the Quene.
Above is a version of Katherine of Aragon's last letter to Henry VIII, which was written shortly before her death on the 7th January 1536. It is one of the most famous and emotive letters that we know of from the Tudor period, but some question whether it was a genuine letter written by Katherine or if it is just a myth. In his 2011 biography of Katherine, Giles Tremlett expressed his view that the letter 'is almost certainly fictitious'. Others may also take this view as there is no physical version of the original letter in existence and the notion of her 'last letter' only surfaced many years after her death. These two doubts could be countered with the argument that, if real, the letter was written 477 years ago so it would be unsurprising if it had been lost/damaged/destroyed at some point and that knowledge of the letter's existence would only have surfaced years after her death as it was a personal letter to the king so it would have taken time for people to have learnt about it. But this is just speculation.

Miniature of Katherine by Lucas Horenbout
painted in 1525 

 One of the earliest mentions of the letter comes from Polydore Vergil, who wrote the 'Anglica Historia' or 'History of England' for Henry VII and then Henry VIII, he recorded in the 27th book of his history that before her death Katherine had dictated a letter to Henry. Some people go so far as to suggest that Vergil had the original letter in his possession. According to Vergil she had expressed her forgiveness, begged him to care for Mary and concluded that 'I vow that mine eyes desire you above all things'. This vague outline of the letter's content is similar to other mentions of it and the versions in circulation today.

The letter is one of the most well-known from the Tudor period due to William Shakespeare mentioning it in his play 'Henry VIII' (which is sometimes called 'All is true'). An extract from the play is below, Patience is a maid to Katherine and Caputius is Eustace Chapuys the Imperial ambassador:
Shakespeare's Henry VIII performed at the globe theatre in 2010, with 
Kate Duchêne (right) playing Katherine of Aragon
Katherine: Patience, is that letter I caused you write yet sent away? 
Patience: No, madam. 
Katherine (to Caputius): Sir, I most humbly pray you to deliver this to my lord the King. The letter is given to Caputius. 
Caputius: Most willing, madam. 
Katherine: In which I have commended to his goodness the model of our chaste loves, his young daughter- the dews of heaven fall thick in blessings on her- beseeching him to give her virtuous breeding. She is young and of a noble modest nature. I hope she will deserve well- and a little to love her for her mother's sake, that loved him, heaven knows how dearly. My next poor petition is that his noble grace would have some pity upon my wretched women that so long have followed both my fortunes faithfully; of which there is not one, I dare avow- and now I should not lie- but will but will deserve for virtue and true beauty of the soul, for honesty and decent carriage, a right good husband. Let him be a noble, and sure those men are happy that shall have 'em. The last is for my men- they are the poorest, but poverty could never draw 'em from me- that they may have their wages duly paid 'em,  and something over to remember me by. If heaven had pleased to have given me longer life and able means, we had not parted thus. These are the whole contents; and, good my lord, by that you love the dearest in this world, as you wish Christian peace to souls departed, stand these poor people's friend and urge the King to do me this last rite. 
Caputius: By heaven I will, or let me lose the fashion of a man. 
Katherine: I thank you, honest lord. Remember me in all humility unto his highness. Say his long trouble is now passing out of this world. Tell him, in death I blessed him, for so I will. Mine eyes grow dim. Farewell, my lord.  
Shakespeare's interpretation of the letter bears many similarities to Vergil's description and today's version of the letter so this could support the argument for the letter having been genuine; although there is still the possibility that they all stem from the same fictitious source! Therefore the authenticity of the letter will never be proved unless the original letter is found somewhere deep within the archives.

But regardless of the letter's authenticity, from what is known of Katherine's character and state of mind prior to her death the content of the letter gives a believable reflection of what she may have been feeling towards Henry. The letter reflects Katherine's intense piety as it chastises Henry for indulging his mortal body instead of caring for his immortal soul. In the letter Katherine forgives Henry and this demonstrates that she had still not accepted that Henry of his own free will had decided to divorce her; to the end she was blinded by her devotion to him so she blamed those around him i.e. Wolsey, Anne Boleyn, courtiers...for the instigation of the 'Great Matter'. The letter also highlights Katherine's caring nature as she entrusts her beloved daughter to Henry and asks that her servants are provided for as she has nothing left to give them. The requests in the letter are logical as in the 16th century married women could not make wills so their only way of making their final wishes known was by using their husbands. As Katherine rejected the divorce and believed herself to still be Henry's wife it would have been natural for her to have made these requests to him. The last line declares her love for Henry one last time as the letter reveals that she wishes to see him again before she dies. But for all the letter's wifely love and devotion it ends on a defiant note with the signature 'Katherine the Quene'. So even if Katherine never wrote a last letter to Henry, this letter provides an idea of what she might have written.
Kimbolton Castle, Cambridgeshire which is where Katherine died and where she would have written the letter

King Henry VIII by William Shakespeare 
Catherine of Aragon by Garrett Mattingly 
Catherine of Aragon by Giles Tremlett 
Sister Queens by Julia Fox

Monday, 11 February 2013

Leicester or York?

Reconstruction of Richard's face made from scans of his skull

It has recently been confirmed that the skeleton found beneath a car park in Leicester is that of King Richard III, but now that we have his body where should it be buried? I believe that it has been said that Richard will be interred in Leicester Cathedral, but nevertheless this post will look at the claims of Leicester and York to house the 561 year old body of the last Plantagenet king.

Richard's skeleton as it was found in the original grave at Greyfriars
Richard III has been one of our most vilified monarchs thanks to Shakespeare and Tudor propaganda so naturally the discovery of his body has led to strong feelings concerning his final resting place. A reader of BBC History Magazine, who seems to hold the traditional view of Richard, wrote in to the Christmas issue of the magazine and suggested that as he was 'probably a child murderer' Richard should be 'put back in the hole in which he was found'. Purposefully putting a King under a car park in Leicester seems a little harsh regardless of what he may or may not have done, so perhaps the Cathedrals of Leicester or York  would be more appropriate.

The memorial tablet to Richard in Leicester Cathedral
  • Richard was originally buried in the chapel of the Greyfriars monastery in Leicester after his death at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485. 
  • Richard spent his last night in Leicester before Bosworth at the Blue Boar Inn, but it was knocked down in 1836 and a Travelodge now stands on the site. 
  • Richard rode across Bow Bridge in Leicester on his way to Bosworth and the ironwork of the present bridge depicts Richard's emblems of the white boar and the white rose of the House of York. 
  • Richard stayed at Leicester Castle on numerous occasions. 
  • In the Cathedral there is already a memorial tablet dedicated to Richard. 
  • In 1980 a statue of Richard was erected in the city. 
  • The Cathedral is only around 13 miles from Bosworth Field  where Richard lost his life.   
York Cathedral
  • He spent a considerable amount of his youth at Middleham in Yorkshire.
  • Richard married Anne Neville in York. 
  • He was given control of a palatinate in the North of England during Edward IV's second reign and he was President of the Council of the North. 
  • Throughout his reign Richard was popular in the city of York and upon his death the people of the city braved the new king's wrath in writing a letter which lamented the death of Richard. 
  • York is the home of the Richard III museum. 
  • Richard is often viewed as the only 'northern king' so some feel that he should be buried in the north. 
  • In 1484 Richard outlined plans to set up a chantry of 100 priests at York Minster. 
  • Some of Richard's descendants have expressed their desire that Richard ought to be buried in York. 
  • The city had sent Richard armed soldiers prior to Bosworth. 
Many people have strong opinions on this matter so online polls and petitions have been set up. Links to these are below.  

Friday, 8 February 2013

On this day: the execution of Mary Queen of Scots

Portrait of Mary Queen of Scots by François Clouet

On this day at 8 o'clock 1587 at Fotheringhay Castle 44 year old Mary Queen of Scots was led to her execution. She was richly dressed in a black satin gown, with a crimson bodice trimmed with gold embroidery and sable. On her head she wore a demure lace veil that covered her auburn hair and flowed down to her feet. Careful to promote herself as a devout Catholic she carried an ivory crucifix in one hand and a Latin prayer book in the other.

The image on the left shows the crucifix and cover of the prayer book that Mary carried with her and the image above shows the rosary that hung from her girdle and some of the pages inside of the prayer book.

She kissed her female servants and offered her hand for her male servants to kiss asking them to 'rejoice and pray for her'. She then entered the great hall but had to be assisted on the stairs as her legs were swollen and stiff with rheumatism. At the ante-chamber to the great hall her steward knelt weeping at her feet and weeping herself she told him that he 'ought to rejoice rather than weep for the end of Mary Stuart's troubles is now come'. She went on to ask him to 'tell my friends that I die a true woman to my religion, and like a true Scottish woman and a true French woman'.

All that remains today of Fotheringhay Castle

Accompanied by  two  gentlewomen and four of her gentlemen she strode into the great hall, which contained around a hundred spectators, mounted the two foot high scaffold and sat to hear the warrant of execution read out. The Dean of Peterborough Cathedral then began an admonition against Catholicism but the effect was ruined by his nervous stammering and Mary's determined interruptions. He encouraged her to renounce the Catholic faith but she retorted that 'I am settled in the ancient Roman Catholic religion, and mind to spend my blood in defense of it' before ordering the Dean to be silent. He then tried to recite prayers in English but Mary began to pray loudly in Latin brandishing her crucifix and continued to pray even when she slipped off of her stool. She prayed for the Church, for an end to the religious conflicts, for her son, for her son to convert to Catholicism, for Elizabeth I and for herself. She then kissed the crucifix and crossed herself.

 Depiction of Mary's execution at Fotheringhay Castle

Her gentlewomen then helped her to remove her clothes down to her petticoat, which was red, the colour of martyrdom in the Roman Catholic Church. The executioner also assisted her and smiling she exclaimed that she 'had never had such grooms before to make her unready' nor had she 'ever put off her clothes before such a company'. She gave the executioner her forgiveness for what he was going to do to her and then knelt on a cushion of black cloth; once kneeling she was blindfolded with a white Corpus Christi cloth. Calmly reciting in Latin the Psalm 'In thee, O Lord, I have put my trust' she reached for the block and laid her head upon it. She then stretched out her arms and repeated the words 'Into your hands O lord I commend my spirit', she did this three or four times before one executioner held her down while the other severed her head with an axe. But the first strike fell on the knot of the blindfold and missed her neck, the second nearly severed her neck but the executioner had to sever the remaining sinews with a third strike. Then she was dead.
The death mask of Mary Queen of Scots

The executioner held up her head and shouted 'God save the Queen' and to the audience's unease Mary's lips continued to move for fifteen minutes. This unease intensified as the executioner held the head by the cap/hair, but Mary had been wearing a wig so her head dropped to the floor and rolled towards the spectators. It was the final dramatic event of the day.

Her body was later embalmed and interred in Peterborough Cathedral in July 1587, despite Mary's wish to be buried in France. In 1612 during the reign of her son James I and VI her body was exhumed on his orders and re-interred in Westminster Abbey and a grand tomb was built in her memory at a greater cost than the tomb that James had built for Elizabeth I.
Mary's tomb in Westminster Abbey
Mary Queen of Scots by Alison Weir
Mary Queen of Scots: My Heart is My Own by John Guy
The Lives of Queens of England by Agnes Strickland
Elizabeth's Spymaster by Robert Hutchinson
The Watchers: A Secret History of the Reign of Elizabeth I by Stephen Alford

Friday, 1 February 2013

'Be not afeared: the isle is full of noises'

I felt that I should probably write a post explaining the title of this blog so here it is! From medieval times through to the 17th century Britain was described as 'the ringing isle' by foreign visitors. One of the main reasons for this was that Britain was peppered with many small parish churches which had two or three bells (cathedrals usually had more that five bells) that were rung for many different reasons. Including to call people to worship, to mark a birth, to mark a marriage, to mark a death, to call a meeting and in times of celebration. When someone died the number of times that the bells tolled depended on who you were so they would toll twice for a woman, three times for a man and more times for a member of the clergy depending on the orders that they had received. The ringing of bells was used a way of communicating a simple message to people in a quick and efficient way for example in his reign William the Conqueror introduced a curfew where bells were rung at sunset in the summer and at eight o'clock at night in the winter in order to signal that all fires should be extinguished. In 1552 Bishop Hugh Latimer proposed that 'if all the bells in England should be rung together at a certain hour, there would be almost no place but some [where] bells might be heard there', so it was not just visitors who noticed the dominance of the ringing bells around Britain.

People ringing hand bells during a medieval funeral
Some visitors found the sound pleasant and felt that it added to the charms of Britain's beautiful countryside with its vast forests and lush green fields. But others found it less agreeable and accused the English of being 'vastly fond of great noises that fill the ear such as the firing of cannon, drums and the ringing of bells'. Some even suggested that people in England would 'go up into some belfry and ring the bells for hours together for the sake of exercise', so it would appear that the English had a certain enthusiasm for bell ringing. Indeed the practice of bell ringing was so important to the English that the Reformation was unable to abolish it. The English people's attachment to the bells is also demonstrated as the bells and ropes were provided for the churches at the expense of the parishioners.

11th-14th century bronze bell 
Another slightly stranger but quite common reason for ringing bells in medieval England was the belief that ringing bells counteracted thunder and lightning. It was believed that thunder/lighting was caused by the devil so the sound of blessed church bells would chase the devils away. Latimer was not a believer in this and as he pointed out that, due the number of bells ringing in England the devil's powers should never be able to affect the country.

Therefore I felt that as this blog is about 15th and 16th century Britain it ought to have a name that has some relevance to the period and personally I feel that Britain as 'the ringing isle' sounds considerably nicer that Britain as 'that grey rainy place' and I would like to think that one day Britain will be known for its beauty again instead of for its bad weather.

(The title of this post is a taken from a line in Shakespeare's The Tempest)


Meet the Monarchs: from 1399 to 1603

Brief background information on the eleven monarchs that ruled England between 1399 and 1603.

Henry IV 
He was born in April 1367 to John of Gaunt and Blanche of Lancaster, he was the cousin of Richard II, who he deposed in 1399 to become the tenth Plantagenet king. His claim to the throne came from both of his parents as his father was the third son of Edward III and his mother was descended from Henry III. As a usurper his position as king was very unstable and throughout his reign Henry was faced with various problems, many of which were uprisings against his rule. He was married twice, his first wife was Mary de Bohun with whom he had six children (they were married in 1381 and she died in 1394) and his second wife was Joan of Navarre with whom he one son (they were married in 1403). The last years of Henry's reign were marred by his ill health where he suffered a disfiguring skin disease and attacks of an acute disease that eventually led to his death on the 20th March 1413. He is buried beside his second wife in Canterbury Cathedral.

Henry V 
He was born in 1386 to Henry of Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) and Mary de Bohun at Monmouth Castle. At his father's coronation in 1399 he was made Prince of Wales and he fought in his first battle at Shrewsbury aged 16 where he was wounded by an arrow. After his father's death he was crowned king on the 9th April 1413. Henry's reign is famed for his French campaigns, particularly the resounding victory at Agincourt in 1415, due to his successes in France Henry gained a reputation as a great warrior king and was the epitome of medieval kingship. After lengthy negotiations with the French Henry married Katherine of Valois, the French king's daughter, in June 1420, they had one son together. In 1421 Henry set out on his last campaign to France, he did not return from this campaign as he died aged just 35 on the 31st August 1422 after contracting dysentery. His body was returned to England and interred in Westminster Abbey.

Henry VI 
He was born in 1421 to Henry V and Katherine of Valois and he became king when he was just nine months old, which is the youngest accession age of any English monarch. He was crowned King of England in 1429 and due to the terms of the Treaty of Troyers he was crowned King of France in 1431. The treaty stated that after the death of Charles VI of France, Henry V and his heirs would inherit the French throne. A regency council ruled England in Henry's name until he was old enough to rule independently but even when he came of age Henry was very dependent on others; he was very meek and pious so was dominated by the ambitious nobles who surrounded him. In 1445 he made an unpopular marriage to  Margaret of Anjou, the marriage was unpopular as she did not have a dowry and in order to marry her Henry had to return Maine to the French. It was during the turbulent reign of Henry VI that the Wars of the Roses broke out, the beginning of the wars is usually perceived to be the outbreak of war at St Albans in 1455. The wars were between the houses of Lancaster and York who were vying for control over the English throne and the responsibility for the outbreak of the wars is usually put on Henry due to his weaknesses as a king. He had one son, Edward of Lancaster, who was born in 1453. Henry's reign was very eventful due to the failed war in France which led to the loss of all French possessions except Calais, the domestic wars and the fact that he was deposed twice by Edward IV. After he had been deposed for the second time Henry's cause was lost as his son was killed at the Battle of Tewkesbury in 1471 and his wife was captured. Henry died aged 49 when he was murdered in the Tower of London by a blow to the back of the head in May 1471.

Edward IV 
He was born in 1442 to Richard Duke of York and Cecily Neville in Rouen, France. He was the eldest of the four 'sons of York' his younger brothers being Edmund, George (later Duke of Clarence) and Richard (later Richard III). He was reputedly over 6 ft tall, handsome, athletic and a notorious womaniser. He grew up in the midst of the Wars of the Roses as his father fought for control of king Henry VI in the early 1450s and in 1460 York laid claim to the crown itself. In 1460 at the Battle of Wakefield Edward's father and brother Edmund were killed, the Lancastrians exacted revenge on York's corpse by putting his head on a spike and making it wear a paper crown. Edward went on to become king in 1461 after defeating the Lancastrians in a series of battles, one of which was Towton, this was the largest/bloodiest battle ever fought on British soil. As king Edward had two reigns, the first from 1461-1470 and the second from 1471-1483 this occurred due to the brief readeption of Henry VI in 1470. Edward's first reign was marked by his marriage in 1464 to Elizabeth Woodville who was a Lancastrian widow of little standing and the dominance/rebellion of Warwick 'The Kingmaker'. His second reign was more successful as he enforced law and order and improved crown finances so that he was the first monarch to die solvent in 200 years. His marriage to Elizabeth Woodville shocked the nobility as Edward married her in secret and she was a 'commoner' but regardless of this it was a very fruitful union as they had ten children, seven of which survived infancy. Edward died on the 9th April 1483 of uncertain causes but pneumonia, typhoid and appendicitis have been suggested. He was buried in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle.

Edward V 
He was born in 1470 to Edward IV and Elizabeth of York while his mother was in sanctuary at Westminster Abbey and while his father was exiled in Flanders. He was sent to Ludlow in the Welsh Marches as Prince of Wales to head the Council of Wales with guidance from his uncle Lord Rivers. He became king aged 12 after his father's death in 1483 and Edward IV had chosen his brother Richard to be protector during Edward V's minority. Edward V was escorted to London and installed in the Tower where he was to await his coronation but he was never crowned as king. His younger brother Richard was sent to join him in the Tower and within a matter of months rumours about their fate began to spread. They became known to history as 'The Princes in the Tower' because Edward V was usurped by his uncle Richard and shortly after Richard's coronation the two Princes disappeared. It is usually assumed that the two Princes were murdered at some point after August 1483 as they were never seen alive after this time.

Richard III 
He was born in 1452 to Richard Duke of York and Cecily Neville at Fotheringhay Castle. He married Anne Neville in 1472 and they had one son, Edward of Middleham, who was born in 1473. During his brother Edward IV's reign Richard had been popular in the North of England where he had been given control of a palatinate. Within eight weeks of Edward IV's death Richard had usurped Edward V by claiming that he was illegitimate, Richard was then crowned king on the 6th July 1483. Richard has been the subject of much vilification due to the disappearance of the Princes as many people believe that they were murdered on his orders, although there is no evidence other than hearsay to support this claim. Richard's brief reign showed that he was leading the country in reform as he continued to improve the royal finances and he made significant changes in the judicial system so that English instead of Latin was spoken and he founded the 'Council of Requests' which helped poor people who could not afford legal fees. It also demonstrated how quickly a king's popularity could flounder as Richard's rash treatment of certain nobles led to rebellion and a lack of open support. Richard's son and wife died in March 1484, which led to further rumours against Richard which suggested that he had poisoned them. Richard's reign ended with his death at the Battle of Bosworth on the 22nd August 1484 when he was defeated by Henry Tudor's army. He was buried in Greyfriars Church, Leicester and a marble tomb was constructed in his memory on the orders of Henry VII.

Henry VII 

He was born in 1457 to Edmund Tudor (who died three months before Henry was born) and Margaret Beaufort who was around thirteen at the time. He was originally christened 'Owain' at the behest of his uncle Jasper Tudor who wished to name him after his father Owen Tudor, but Margaret Beaufort disliked the name so renamed him 'Henry' after the Lancastrian king Henry VI. He had an eventful childhood as when he was four he was sent to live in the household of the Yorkist William Herbert and when he was fourteen he went into exile in Brittany with his uncle. His claim to the throne was tenuous as it came through a woman and an illegitimate line as his mother was the great-granddaughter of Edward III's son John of Gaunt and his mistress (and later third wife) Katherine Swynford. At the time of his birth he would never have been considered as a viable claimant but after 1471 he became the main Lancastrian claimant due to the deaths of Henry VI and his son. He became king in 1485 after defeating Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth and he was crowned on the 30th October 1485. To strengthen his position he married Edward IV's eldest daughter Elizabeth of York in January 1486 and they had eight children together, although only four survived infancy. Henry VII was challenged throughout his reign by rebellions and pretenders to the throne but by 1506 he had overcome the challenges to his rule and had secured the Tudor dynasty. Throughout his reign he formed and maintained strong foreign and financial policies which served to consolidate his position and the domestic stability of England. However in the later years of his reign Henry gained a reputation as a miser due to the meticulous attention that he paid to his finances in order to maximise his income. Henry died on the 21st April 1509 at Richmond Palace of tuberculosis and was buried in a magnificent tomb in the Lady Chapel that he constructed at Westminster Abbey. He shares his tomb with his wife who died in 1503 and James the I/VI who was buried there after his death in 1625.

Henry VIII 
He was born in 1491 to Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and was their third child and second son. He became heir to the throne after his brother Arthur's  unexpected death in 1502 and as his father's only remaining son he was closeted away to protect him. He was given the an education befitting a Renaissance Prince so he became fluent in Latin and French, well versed in classical texts and a fine dancer and horseman. When he became king in 1509 one of his first actions as king was to marry Katherine of Aragon who had previously been married to Henry's brother Arthur and had been betrothed to Henry since 1503. They were a glamorous young couple who resided over one of the finest royal courts in Europe, which the young Henry was determined to make more lavish. Reveling in his independence Henry spent his time in hunting, jousting, tennis, dancing, masques, feasts and 'disguisings'. He left most of the administrative work of kingship to his councilors  in particular Thomas Wolsey who rose to prominence after the 1513 French campaign. In 1533 Henry broke with Rome in order to divorce Katherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, this led to the dissolution of the monasteries and the formation of the 'Church of England'. Henry married six times to Katherine of Aragon 1509-1533, Anne Boleyn 1533-1536, Jane Seymour 1536-1537, Anne of Cleves 1540, Catherine Howard 1540-1541 and Katheryn Parr 1543-1547 (dates indicate the length of the marriage). From these six wives he had three children that survived infancy Mary born in 1516, Elizabeth born in 1533 and Edward born in 1537. Henry also had a recognised illegitimate son by Elizabeth Blout who was born in 1519 and was known as Henry Fitzroy. As Henry's reign progressed he became more unpredictable and and his once athletic figure ran to fat, creating the well known view of Henry today as an obese tyrant. Henry died on the 28th January 1547 having suffered numerous medical problems related to his obesity and the ulcer on his leg, he was buried in St George's Chapel at Windsor Castle alongside his third wife Jane Seymour.

Edward VI 

He was born in 1437 to Henry VIII and Jane Seymour and his birth was particularly significant because he was Henry's long awaited male heir. His mother died within weeks of his birth but he still had a mother figure in his life in the form of his eldest sister Mary who became very close to him. He was incredibly intelligent and became fluent in Latin, French and Greek. He became king in 1547 aged nine years old and was crowned on the 20th February 1547. Due to his young age a protector in the form of his uncle Edward Seymour ruled England in Edward's name, later in the reign Seymour was executed and replaced by the Duke of Northumberland as protector. During Edward's reign the English Church further distanced itself from Catholic customs/traditions and began to take shape as a fully-blown Protestant reformation. In 1549 the Book of Common Prayer was issued with an Act of Uniformity to enforce its use. As Edward matured his religious views became increasingly intolerant and his piety increased in intensity. He wrote his 'devise for the succession' in which he attempted to block his sister's claims to the throne so that the Protestant Lady Jane Grey could become Queen and continue Edward's religious reforms. This 'devise' was not passed through parliament so the legality of the document was very questionable as on its own it could not overturn Henry VIII's Act for the succession which stated that if Edward died without issue his sister Mary would inherit the throne. Edward died aged 15 on the 6th July 1553 after a long illness which may have been tuberculosis or some kind of lung infection.

Mary I 
She was born in 1516 to Henry VIII and Katherine of Aragon and was the only one of their many children to survive infancy. She received an excellent education and became fluent in Latin, French, Spanish, Greek and could read/write in Italian. In her youth she was a renowned beauty with the red gold hair of the Tudors, blue eyes and a clear complexion. The lengthy divorce of her parents was incredibly traumatic for her as she was forcibly separated from her mother, bastardised, forced to act as a maid in her sister's household and threatened with execution. She was eventually reconciled with her father in July 1536 once she had signed a document recognising her illegitimacy and Henry VIII's position as head of the Church of England. She was a devoted Catholic but accepted her father's Church of England; it was only in Edward VI's reign that she changed her opinions as more extreme changes to the Church were made, which led her to believe that the Church could not function properly without the Pope at its head. During Edward VI's reign she became the Catholic figurehead in England as she defied the ban on the mass and continued to worship as she had done since her childhood. To become queen she had to overcome the coup to make Lady Jane Grey queen and she was able to do so due to her popularity and decisive actions. On the 1st October 1553 she was crowned Queen Mary I and was the first crowned queen regnant of England. As queen she initiated a counter-reformation that reconciled England with Rome and made the country Catholic again. This was generally accepted as the English people were still predominantly Catholic but there was some opposition to this from English Protestants. The Protestants who openly opposed the return of Catholicism to England met with the traditional punishment of burning so during Mary's reign 283 Protestants were burnt at the stake. This has led to her being vilified throughout history as 'Bloody Mary', although she was actually the most kind hearted of the Tudor monarchs. In 1554 she married Philip II of Spain at Winchester Cathedral in order to make a powerful alliance and to produce a Catholic heir to the throne. Mary suffered two phantom pregnancies during her reign which left her humiliated and depressed but each time she still emerged from her confinement and immediately began her duties as queen. Mary died on the 17th November 1558 at St James's Palace after falling victim to an influenza epidemic that was sweeping the country, she was buried in Westminster Abbey despite her wishes to be buried alongside her mother.

Elizabeth I 

She was born in 1533 to Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, her birth was greeted with mixed reactions as she was not the longed for son and many people saw her as illegitimate. Elizabeth's mother was executed by beheading when Elizabeth was just two years and eight months old, after this she was bastardised like her older sister and no longer entitled to use the title of Princess. Like her siblings she was intelligent and received a brilliant education from which she became fluent in Latin, French, Italian and Spanish. It is often said that her elder sister taught her how to play cards and the harpsichord. After Henry VIII's death she went to live with her stepmother Katheryn Parr and it was there that she engaged in a flirtation with Thomas Seymour who had married Parr shortly after Henry VIII's death. The true extent of this 'flirtation' is not known but some go as far as to suggest that Elizabeth became pregnant from it. During her sister's reign as queen she came under suspicion of supporting a rebellion and was sent to the Tower of London for eight weeks, this was traumatic for her as she feared that she would suffer execution as her mother had done. She became queen after her sister Mary I's death in 1558 and was crowned queen on the 15th January 1559. As queen, Elizabeth reversed her sister's re-establishment of Catholicism and the Elizabethan Religious Settlement created the form of English Protestantism that remains largely intact today. The English arts bloomed in Elizabeth's reign with the growth of the great works of Thomas Tallis, William Byrd, Christopher Marlowe and William Shakespeare. Elizabeth is famed as the 'Virgin Queen' as she never married although it was expected of her and many proposals were made. The exact reason for her refusal to marry is uncertain but it could have been that she did not want to risk losing her power as an independent queen or that she could not marry the man that she loved (Robert Dudley) so she chose not to marry at all. Her reign was faced with many Catholic challenges and assassination attempts, and the greatest Catholic challenge came form Mary Queen of Scots and her supporters. In 1568 Elizabeth imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots when she sought refuge in England and executed her 20 years later after being pressurised by her councilors. In 1588 her fleet defeated Philip II's Spanish Armada and she made her famous Tilbury speech, which cemented her reputation as 'Gloriana'. Elizabeth died on the 24th March 1603 of septicemia and is buried in the same tomb as her sister in  Westminster Abbey, the inscription on the tomb reads 'Partners in both throne and grave, here we rest, two sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, in the hope of one Resurrection.'

The Plantagenets by Dan Jones
A Brief History of the Wars of the Roses by Desmond Seward
Elizabeth by David Starkey
Mary Tudor by Judith M Richards
Edward VI by Jennifer Loach
Young Henry: The Rise of Henry VIII by Robert Hutchinson