Wednesday 25 January 2012

Vandals and Thieves - The Crown Jewels (part 2 of 2)

During the turbulence of the English Civil War, (1640's), Charles I had the gold and silver plate used in ceremonial banquets smuggled out of the Tower and melted down to bolster his depleted finances. When Oliver Cromwell eventually seized power he had what remained of the crown jewels melted down as symbols of:

"The detestable rule of kings".
Henry V prays before the battle of Agincourt.

 The precious metals were minted into Cromwell's Commonwealth coinage, but in the process many precious artefacts were destroyed. Two ancient Saxon crowns, reputedly worn by King Alfred the Great and Queen Edith were consigned to the furnace, and to their credit MPs protested at the time that this was wanton vandalism - but to no avail.  

A handful of artefacts were saved by monks who hid items such as a coronation anointing spoon, the Black Prince's ruby (worn in Henry V's helmet at Agincourt and reputed to have deflected a near fatal blow to the head) and a silver salt cellar belong to Elizabeth I, were saved.
Centre piece - The Black Prince's Ruby.

Much later, with the monarchy restored, some of the gems were recovered and mounted in a third set of Crown Jewels, ready for Charles II coronation in 1661. The Black Prince's ruby was one of these stones - which had apparently been sold for just four pounds, a derisory sum even at the time. The jewel was mounted in the new king's state crown by, Sir Robert Vyner, court jeweller. In the name of continuity Vyner was instructed to make the new jewels as close to the original as possible - work which cost an eye-watering 32,000 pounds.

Celebrated Jewel Thief.
However such profligacy didn’t go unnoticed by a man known to posterity as Colonel Thomas Blood (although he never rose above the rank of Lieutenant).
'Colonel' Thomas Blood.
Born in Ireland, in 1618, Blood refused to accept the return of the monarchy and was active in many Republican plots. In the 1660's he even tried to storm the Tower, and through good luck got away scot free. An adventurer in the truest sense of the word, Blood went on to rescue a co-conspirator, Captain John Mason, as he was moved to York for trial and execution, and attempted the abduction of the Duke of Ormonde.

But it was Blood's audacious plan in 1671 that he is remembered for: stealing the crown jewels. Dressed as a cleric and accompanied by a woman he described as his 'wife', Blood bribed the Assistant Keeper of the Jewels, Talbot Edwards, to let them view the jewels. Having gained access to the jewel room Blood's wife fainted and Edwards went to fetch a glass of water, thus leaving Blood alone to case the joint.
After that, a series of visits then took place where Blood 'groomed' Edwards and gained his confidence. When Blood returned with two friends to view the jewels, Edwards smelt trouble and in the ensuing struggle was stabbed in the stomach with a long knife.
The Sovereign's Orb - hidden by Blood's conspirator in his trousers!
The thieves had thought of every detail; Blood carried a mallet to hammer the St Edward's crown flat and then conceal it under his clothes, another conspirator hid the Sovereign's Orb down his trousers and the other cut the Sceptre with the Cross in half. However it was at this moment that Edwards' son returned to visit and seeing the crime in progress, tried to apprehend the villains. The cry was raised,

"Treason! Murder! The crown is stolen!"

The thieves were eventually caught by guards as, weighted down with loot, they passed under the archway of the Bloody Tower.
Laiden with swag Blood nearly escaped under the Bloody Tower
Colonel Blood and his gang were imprisoned in the vaults beneath the White Tower to await the king's pleasure and since theft of the royal jewels was akin to kidnapping the monarch himself, a sentence of being hung, drawn and quartered was expected.
However the plot thickens because Charles II was astonishingly lenient and rather than punishing Blood, the felon was awarded a pension of 500 pounds a year. Rumours started that Blood was actually acting for Charles to raise much needed cash…

Larry - the Downing Street cat - suitably attired for the recent Royal Wedding

Wednesday 18 January 2012

Royal Dismeanours - The Crown Jewels (part I)

King John, of Robin Hood fame, a contender for the title of "Worst King of England" is attributed with losing the first set of crown jewels in the Wash 1216. (The Wash is an area of wetlands on the East coast of England, and nothing to do with personal hygiene.) This isnt quite as strange as it sounds because Medieval kings were constantly on the move about their kingdom and took their jewels with them, to impress the locals with their wealth and authority.

King John - also known as "John Softsword" after going back on his word.
The story of the crown jewels loss is connected to John trying to cross the tidal marshes with a baggage train containing his valuables. Surprised by the speed of the incoming tide, the wagons became bogged down in quicksand.

The Wash estuary.
Charles Dickens gives us an account of events in his "A Child's History of England."

"…Looking back from the shore when he was safe, he [The King] saw the water sweeping down in a torrent, overturn the wagons, horses and men that carried his treasure and engulf them in a raging whirlpool from which nothing could be recovered."

This was the beginning of the end for John, who, overcome with the magnitude of the personal disaster was taken to a nearby monastery where he drowned his sorrows with large quantities of pear cider, developed dysentery and died!

Early Hollywood portrayal of Robin Hood.

With John dead, his son, the new King Henry was crowned but he had to make do with a simple gold circlet instead of a crown. This lack of finery was perhaps the beginning of Henry III's interest in jewels and royal symbols of power. By 1230 he decided the core of his jewels - the royal crown, orb and sceptre - symbols of the monarch's temporal and spiritual power, should be kept under guard in the Tower of London. Thus began the beginning of the Tower's link to the crown jewels

Henry III had his own problems and had to put the crown jewels to work, in a different way to his father. Constantly in need of money, not least for continual building work on the Tower, he pawned the gold and precious stones to a group of French merchants. When he died in 1272, they had to be hastily redeemed and brought back to England for the coronation of his son and successor, Edward I.

The First Plantagenets.

Henry II (married Eleanor of Aquitaine)                                            R 1154 - 1189
Richard (the Lionheart - of Robin Hood legend.)                              R 1189 - 1199
John     (signed the Magna Carta in 1215 to placate his barons.)       R 1199 - 1216
Henry III                                                                                             R 1216 - 1272
Edward I                                                                                             R 1272 - 1307

NEXT post…Who melted down the second set of crown jewels and which King discovered he was wearing fake jewels?

Wednesday 11 January 2012

London Bridge Legends.

I have no sense of direction. Many, many times my total lack of direction has got me into trouble, such as the time I went the wrong way round the M25 and a journey that should have taken quarter of an hour, took 90 minutes. And last summer, I decided to take my son to the Museum of London, only to end up at the London Docklands Museum (a subtle but essential difference, which meant we ended up at completely the wrong place!) However, in this case all ended well since the Dockland museum was fascinating and has inspired today's blog post on: London Bridge.

London Bridge in the 1800's.
 It is not my intention to give a history of this historic landmark, but more a mention of some of the lesser known legends associated with it. It is thought that a bridge first spanned the Thames in the site of the current London Bridge, in Roman times. The first stone bridge was erected around 1136 and on this more permanent structure, people started to build houses.

            The nursery rhyme "London Bridge is falling down," has ensured the bridge is one of the most famous in the English language, but the origin of rhyme is unknown. The first written mention of it is in 1766 and Tommy Thumb's Pretty Song Book.

London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down.
London Bridge is falling down,
My fair lady

Build it up with wood and clay,
Wood and clay, wood and clay,
Build it up with wood and clay,
My fair lady.

Wood and clay will wash away,
Wash away, wash away,
Wood and clay will wash away,
My fair lady.

Build it up with bricks and mortar,
Bricks and mortar, bricks and mortar,
Build it up with bricks and mortar,
My fair lady.
London Bridge 1616
One theory is that it refers to the different attempts to build a bridge over the Thames; how wood rotted over time, and burning during the Great Fire of London. A more grizzly suggestion is that the song is associated with burying things, possible children, in the foundations of the bridge to ensure good luck. Fortunately, there is no archaeological evidence to back up the later.

So who is the  "Fair Lady" mentionned in the rhyme?

There are three main contenders:
 - Matilda of Scotland - (1080 - 1118) - consort of King Henry I, who was responsible for building a series of bridges across streams between Bow and Stratford.
- Eleanor of Provence (1223 -91) , consort of Henry III who was custodian of bridge revenues from 1269 to 1281
 -A member of the aristocratic Leigh family, from Warwickshire, who had a family tradition that a human sacrifice lies under their family home at Stoneleigh Park.

The current London Bridge (often confused with Tower Bridge!)
 On a more cheery note, another legend associated with London Bridge is that of the Swaffham Pedlar. He had a dream in which he was told that someone on the bridge would tell him joyous news. With this in mind he went there and waited for three days and nights. Eventually a shopkeeper went out and asked the pedlar what he was doing. When he explained his errand the shopkeeper laughed and said:

"I myself have had a dream that if I went to a particular oak tree in Swaffham, and dug underneath it, there I would find great treasure, but I am not such a fool as to follow dreams."

Tower Bridge (often mistakenly called, London Bridge.)
The pedlar thanked him and left. He proceeded home to dig under the oak tree, only to unearth a pot of gold! Some versions add that a visitor to the now wealthy man read a Latin inscription on the pot that translates as:

"Under me doth lie,
Another much richer than I."

He went and dug in the same spot, to discover even more treasure!

So there we have it - a blog post inspired by an accidental trip to a museum I had no idea existed. Do you have 'happy accidents' or am I the only one with a talent for getting lost?

Wednesday 4 January 2012

Reasons To Be Cheerful - January!

Hello and welcome to my first post of 2012! (Drums fingers and stares at the ceiling for inspiration.) The trouble is we may have a brand, New Year - but the weather is still damp, dull and grey. So to cheer everybody up lets take a look at what traditions January holds in store.
6 January - The Epiphany or Twelfth Night (or time to take the decorations down!)

Whether you want to call 6th January, Epiphany or Twelfth night (more of the differences shortly) this is the last day for taking your Christmas decorations down.
Epiphany is the easier of the two to explain. Named after the Greek word for 'manifestation' it was first celebrated as the day of Christ's baptism and took another four centuries to become associated with the visit of the Magi or Three Wise King's to the infant Jesus.
Twelfth Night came about in AD 567 when the Council of Tours decreed that the duration of the Christmas festival would be 12 days, during which time no one should be made to work!
Party animal.
Originally, Twelfth Night was marked with a massive party. From the reign of Charles II through to George II, in England the day was marked with masques, plays, pageants and gifts. Those with less money played games involving role play at being the King or Queen. To this end players shared a cake containing a bean, pea and clove. The bean represented the king, pea the queen and clove the knave. Whoever found the respective legume in his slice got to play that part. Samuel Pepys mentioned a Twelfth cake in his diary, when drew the clove and secretly placed it into his neighbour's portion!  
Sadly the fun part of Twelfth night seems to have died out, leaving us instead with a slightly sad day when all the fun and sparkle of Christmas disappears.
So what can we look forward to?
A plough being taken through the streets to raise money.
Plough Monday.
Plough Monday was the first Monday after Twelfth night and widely regarded as the start of the agricultural year. In 15th century England there are references to Plough Lights being lit in churches, these candles were kept burning to bring God's blessing on the farmers' efforts. But then things become a bit blurry, because some parishes formed 'plough guilds' to raise money to pay for the candles, and then raising money became an end in itself with ploughs being taken round from church to church for fund-raising purposes.
With the Reformation plough lights were banned as superstitious and the practice died out.

Saints Days.

There are a whole crop of Saints days to look forward to in January (tongue firmly in cheek) :

7th       - St Distaff's Day (when women started spinning again, after Christmas)
13th     -St Hilary's Day - reputedly the coldest day of the year.
19th     -St Wulfstan's Day - a popular medieval saint, now largely ignored
21st     -St Agnes' Day - young women could divine their future husbands on this eve.
22nd    -St Vincent's' Day - if the sun shines today, the weather will be fair for the year.
25th     -St Paul's Day - if the weather is good here, a great harvest could be expected.
St Wulfstan - who bizarrely has a cheese named in his honour.
Now, if that isn’t enough to make January more interesting, here is one final piece of trivia. The anniversary of the execution of King Charles I falls on January 30th. Charles was beheaded on 30 January 1649 - sending shock waves through English society. Reputedly, Charles had a favourite black cat called "Lucky" that kept him company whilst in prison. On the morning of the King's execution Lucky went missing….
Lucky...or unlucky for Charles?
You may or may not have gathered, that January isn’t my favourite time of year - far too dismal for my liking. But how about you? Is it a good or bad time of year? Please leave a comment to cheer me up.