Wednesday 30 January 2013

The Tower of London: Lion Superstitions

One of the magnificent lion sculptures at the Tower of London.
Author's own photograph.
In the moat near the entrance to the Tower of London stand three fantastical lion sculptures.
Improbably made out of chicken-mesh, they are breathtakingly life-like and expressive, the sculptor having achieved the impossible by recreating fur from wire! But why sculptures of lions? Well, history of lions in central London is almost as old as the tower itself, and wrapt in superstition.
The approach to the Tower of London.
Author's own photogrpahs.
The Tower's association with wildcats begins in 1235 when Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor was betrothed to the sister of King Henry III of England. To honour his new brother-in-law and in reference to the king's royal standard, Frederick gave Henry a gift of three leopards. (Actually, there is strong historical evidence that they were actually lions, and that 'leopard' was a mistranslation.) This link to lions on the royal flag goes back to Henry's uncle, Richard the Lionheart, who had three lions passant on his crest (as perpetuated by the English football team!)
Entrance to the Tower of London -
near the site of the original Lion Tower (now demolished)
Note the lion in the crest.
"My friend, who had a great deal of talk with their [lions] keeper, asked after the health of the beasts and whether none of them had fallen sick ….at the flight of the Pretender.…For he had learnt in his cradle that the lions in the Tower were the best judges of the title of our British kings, and always sympathised with [the welfare of] our sovereigns."
Addison, 1715

Tradition to name a lion after the reigning monarch; there have been a Henry, Philip, Mary and an Elizabeth. Superstition had it the health of monarch and lion were linked. Indeed, the lioness Elizabeth did pass away just a few days before the aged monarch died - somewhat to relief of those that believed in the myth.

Again, in 1758, when King George II was sick with a painful attack of gout, the politician Lord Chesterfield wrote:
"It was generally thought that HM [His Majesty] would have died and for good reason, for the oldest lion in the Tower - much about the King's age - died a fortnight ago. This extravagancy was believed by the common people."

An exception to this rule was lion named, Edward VI, who outlived his namesake by almost half a century. One possible explanation went that the Edward lion was replaced several times - although why anyone should bother to do this is a mystery! Indeed, the other side of the coin was that rumour reported that if a monarch's lion died unexpectedly, the death was hushed up and the beast hastily replaced by another of the same name.

There were other, more mischievous, superstitions linked to the Tower's lions. For instance in the 17th century it was held that they had the potentially embarrassing talent of being able to identify if a woman was a virgin or not. Not mention is made of how they did this!

Also, it was aid the Tower lions were particularly attuned to the weather around Candlemass (February 2nd) day.

"If Candlemass Day be fair and bright,
Winter will have another flight."

So if February 2nd was a bright sunny day, the lions were said to lounge around in a state of depression at the prospect of an even longer winter.

And finally, the spring of 1698 saw the birth of a new tradition. Rumours spread that on April 1st the keepers bathed the lions in the Tower's moat. Gilt-edged invitations to view the spectacle were issued to a favoured few, and when the visitors arrived on the appointed day - you guessed it - they were told it was an April Fools joke and the keepers had no intention of doing such a dangerous thing. The prank was such a good one that in future years, advertisements for the lion-washing were posted in newspapers - with the result that flocks of gullible tourists arrived at the Tower on April 1st!

Wednesday 23 January 2013

Les Miserables - Who Was the Real Jean Valjean?

A self-indulgent post today because of my infatuation with "Les Miserables" the movie.
Eugene Vidocq - on whom the character of
Jean Valjean was based.
Whilst researching Les Mis, I discovered that Victor Hugo based the main protagonist, Jean Valjean, on a man called Eugene Francois Vidocq. This is just too interesting to pass by and so I looked further into the life of Eugene.

Firstly, a little about Jean Valjean.

We meet Jean Valjean in the movie's stunning opening scenes, as a convict, working to haul a warship into dry dock. He was imprisoned for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister's child, and after a 19 year sentence, is at last free. But freedom is a relative word when you have nothing and Jean Valjean steals from the one man who shows him kindness, Bishop Myriel. But the bishop's forgiveness is a turning point for Jean Valjean who resolves to use his good fortune to help ease the suffering of the poor.
Bishop Myriel.
Some time later Valjean has taken on the appearance of a respectable man, running a successful business. He is however, officially a criminal as he broke the terms of his bail agreement, and is being hunted by his enemy, the police commissioner, Javert.

Fantine at Javert's feet.
 When one of Valjean's employees, Fantine, is dismissed and turns to prostitution to support her daughter, Cosette, Valjean is shocked to discover the depths to which she has fallen. Then Fantine dies and in reparation for her dismissal and ultimate plunge into poverty, Valjean adopts her daughter, Cosette, to raise her as his own.

The death of Fantine -
Valjean closing her eyes.
 Valjean has many brushes with arrest but wherever he goes, and wherever he hides, he becomes known for his generosity to the poor. Ultimately, his selfless love for Cosette leads him to the barricades during a rebellion; in order to protect the man she has fallen in love with, Marius. Indeed, Valjean saves Marius' life, even though he fears the young man with supplant him in Cosette's affections, and when they marry he leaves so as not to shame their union with the sins of his past.

Cosette - as an adult.
 So what of the real Valjean - Eugène François Vidocq ?

 Whilst Vidocq's life is very different from that of Valjean, they do share a common start in criminality, and a moment of redemption when they change their ways. They both remained on the run for most of their lives, and both were haunted by the shadow of their past. Indeed, Vidocq turned from being a thief, to creating a detective force - and in Les Miserables, Valjean's nemesis, Jarvet, is in part based on this side of Vidocq's character.
By all accounts as a child Vidocq was a tearaway - first he stole his family's silver and then money from the cashbox at his father's bakery. His escapades as a young man found him constantly in and out of jail, he joined the army but deserted and was generally led a dissolute and untrustworthy life.

 Vidocq's turnaround came when he fell in love with a widow. His crimes meant the couple were perpetually on the run, and the final straw was witnessing the execution an old comrade, César Herbaux. When Vidocq was yet again arrested, he pledged to give up his criminal life in order to turn police informant. He was sent to jail - but as a police spy- and after 21 months of loyal service to the authorities, was freed.

As a reformed man Vidocq opened a factory that employed only ex-convicts, male and female. This caused a huge scandal and sadly, the venture didn't last long as customers refused to pay the full price for goods, insisting he had used cheap labour.

Vidocq then worked openly for the police, using his knowledge of the criminal underworld to help the law enforcers. It was his methods for examining a crime scene and his knowledge of ballistics that led to the birth forensic science.

Sherlock Holmes - influenced by Vidocq's methods.
 Such was Vidocq's amazing life that he inspired many novelists, amongst them Victor Hugo and Balzac. Some even say that his methodical means of investigating a crime were an influence on Conan Doyle and the creation of his fictional detective, Sherlock Holmes.

Indeed, in Les Miserables both the reformed character, Jean Valjean, and the obsessive policeman, Jarvet, as said to be based on Vidocq. Although the fictional characters and the real man differ greatly, as a writer myself I can see how such an extraordinary life would set the creative juices flowing.

Saturday 19 January 2013

"How to Kiss" - Reading Romances giveaway blog hop!

Win a $20.00 Amazon card - or one of eleven other prizes!
Details at the end of this post.


Click for a link to the other
participating blogs.
Today I'm excited to take part in the Reading Romances blog hop.
The theme of the hop is "happy endings" and what better way to seal a happy ending than with a kiss! With that in mind enjoy this post about  the history of kissing!
Don't forget to enter the giveaway draw at the end of this post.
How to Kiss - A History.

“A lover should not hold his bride by the ears in kissing her...”  
Henry Theophilus Finck. 1887

Kissing is not, as you might suppose, something that has happened since the evolution of man. Instead the historian St Pierius Wensemius claims it was ‘invented’ by a Friesian Princess. According to Wensemius kissing was;

“Unpracticed and unknown in England until the fair Princess Rowena, daughter of King Hengist of Friesland, pressed the beaker with her lips and saluted the amorous Vortigen with a little kiss.”

However it seems that kissing soon caught on in a big way since the scholar and monk Erasmus writes in 1499;

“If you go any place in Britain you are received with a kiss; if you depart …your are dismissed with a kiss; you return and kisses are exchanged…whenever you move, nothing but kisses.”

Apparently it was a practice Erasmus was fully in favour of;

“On my honour you would not want to reside here for ten years, but for life.”

However, the kissing was not always done well as the American writer; Henry Theophilus Finck writes in his book ‘Romantic Love and Personal Beauty.’ 1887.

“Kissing comes by instinct and yet it is an art which few understand properly.”

He goes on to write,

“A lover should not hold his bride by the ears, as appears to have been customary in Scotch weddings of the last century (1700’s)”

He offers some helpful advice;

“A more graceful way, and as effective at preventing the bride from getting away, is to put your right arm round her neck, your fingers under her chin, raise the chin and gently but firmly press you lips to hers.”

Then the ever thoughtful Theophilus offers some words of reassurance.

“After a few repetitions she will find out it doesn’t hurt and will become as gentle as a lamb.”

If Theophilus ever got married, am I alone in feeling sorry for his wife - perhaps not such a happy ending for her?

For a chance to win the Amazon $20.00 gift voucher just sign up for my e-newsletter (issued every 3 months) via the link below:
The winner will be chosen at random on Saturday 26th January, and the winning name posted here.

For a chance to win a myriad of wonderful books and vouchers, follow the link here:
and leave a comment.

Grace x

Wednesday 16 January 2013

The History Behind 'Les Miserables'.

The logo for the famous 1980 theater production.
You've experienced the emotion of "Les Miserables" - but what is the history behind the story?
I'm still haunted by scenes from "Les Miserables" - that closing sequence was just devastating; but I admit to being confused about the historical events portrayed. According to my shaky French history the revolution happened in 1789, so what was this about a rebellion in 1832?
So, for those who like me were puzzled, here is a potted guide to events leading up to the revolt of 1832.
Cosette - illustration from Victor Hugo's
"Les Miserables" - original edition.
 Let us start with the abdication of emperor, Napoleon I, in 1814. The senate decided on a constitution that protected the achievements of the revolution, but appointed the brother of the late king, to the throne. Louis-Stanislas-Xavier, returned from exile in England and was crowned as Louis XVIII of France.
At first things went well, Louis approved a constitution that defended the freedom of the press, the right to worship and a fair judiciary. But then he started to do unsettling things such as spending vast amounts of money restoring Versaille - that symbol of aristocratic excess, and stipulating Catholicism was the official state religion. He took things a step further in 1822 by making it an offence to criticise divine-right kingship. A couple of years later, 1824, Louis died and a new king, Charles X, took his place.
Eugene Vidocq - his life was said to be the inspiration
behind the character of Jean Valjean. 
Charles X sacked ministers who disagreed with his policies and appointed his aristocratic allies into positions of great power.  Mutterings of unrest became rife in the press. His response, in 1830, was to suspend the freedom of the press, with the result that on 27 July 1830 - barricades went up on the streets of Paris.

"This is no longer a riot, it's a revolution."
Commander of the royal troops.

The rebels had a strong following and perhaps fearing for his life, Charles abdicated in favour of his grandson, the duke of Bordeaux, Louis-Philippe.

"The idolatry of a name is abolished; monarchy is no longer a religion."
Viscount Chatter Briand.
The June rebellion. 
However, these were years of hardship; harvests had failed year-upon-year and cholera was rife such that people muttered the government had poisoned the wells. Uprisings were common and those republicans seeking relief for the poor, set up secret societies. These consisted of twenty members (meetings of more than 20 were outlawed) with a president and vice-president.
General Lamarque was sympathetic to the plight of the people, and when he died, his funeral became a flash point. Rebels hi-jacked his funeral cortege to rally support and then one night in 1832 the rebels took over the narrow streets in the Eastern districts of Paris. But this time the government was ready. The National Guard was reinforced by 25,000 state troops and the rebels hopelessly outnumbered. It is these events that are portrayed in the closing scenes of Les Miserables.
The death of Eponine - illustration from
the original novel. 
Afterwards the government ran a smear campaign, portraying the rebels as an extremist minority, and it wasn't until a rebellion in 1848 that Louis-Phillipe's reign was eventually overturned.
Have you seen "Les Miserables"?
What did you think of the movie? 

Wednesday 9 January 2013

Happy Anniversary - 150 Years of The London Underground.

Photo courtesy of

Which London tube line has the longest route?
What name was originally proposed for the Jubilee Line?
Which was the first station that used kestrels to scare away pigeons?
Which is the only tube station not to have letters of the word "mackerel" in it?
[ANSWERS at the end of the post.]

To celebrate 150 years of the tube, the Post Office has issued special stamps.
They feature original steam trains, Victorian workers excavating the underground
and Edwardian passengers. 
10 January 2013 marks the 150th anniversary of the opening of the London Metropolitan Railway, and the birth of London's modern tube network. The world's first underground passenger railway took 2,000 workers, 3 years to dig over 3.5 miles of track to link Paddington, Euston and Kings Cross to London's business district.

 "London Underground was the first transport system of its kind, embodying the engineering ingenuity of our Victorian forefathers and providing a template for similar schemes around the world."
Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

'Cut and cover' construction in action.
Photo courtesy of Transport For London
Those first Victorian trains sound even more uncomfortable than their modern counterparts; the carriages were windowless and lit by gas lamps, and soon earned the nickname 'padded cells.' Added to that, steam powered trains and poor ventilation meant passengers and drivers alike, frequently complained of feeling ill during their journey.
In the 19th century as London's streets became ever more congested, a solution had to be found for getting around the city. The idea of an underground railway was hit on and work started in 1860. The early construction technique was 'cut and cover'. This is just as it sounds: navvies dug a deep ditch which was braced and roof, and covered over to form a tunnel. This work was hugely disruptive as whole streets had to be closed and extremely dangerous for the workers.
The shield in situ.
Photo courtesy of Transport For London
A step forward was made with the invention of a tunneling device called, 'the shield'. Inspired by an engineer who observed how a worm chewed through wood, the shield was so called because it protected the men working behind it. However, it was not a sophisticated structure so much as an iron frame with pockets for workers to stand in with their shovels. Their excavations were then reinforced with brick and iron and the shield jacked forward. With modern technology it takes just a week to create what would have taken the Victorian's a year.
Another improvement in technique was made when James Greathead, with co-worker Barlow, developed a mechanised shield. This was a circular device,  2.21m in diameter which was inched forward by hydraulic jacks, and as the ground was excavated the exposed surface was lined with curved metal ribs. The basis of this design is still the foundation of most modern tunneling devices used today.

Statue of James Greathead - near the Royal Exchange, London.
Have you traveled on the underground either in London, or abroad?
What was your experience?

Quiz answers.
Which tube line has the longest route?
This is the Central line; over 34 miles of track covers the distance from West Ruislip to Epping.

What name was first proposed for the Jubilee Line?
 It was originally going to be called the Fleet Line.

Which was the first station that used kestrels to scare away pigeons?
This was Northfields, on the Piccadilly line, which used hawks and kestrels to deal with a pigeon problem.

Which is the only tube station not to have letters of the word "mackerel" in it?
St. John's Wood - of course!

Did You Know?
The iconic London Underground map was created in 1933 by Harry Beck. He was paid just five guineas for the design, which is still in use today.

The font used on London Underground signage was designed in 1916 by Edward Johnston.

Originally the boundaries of the tube network were limited by the extent of London clay, an excellent substrate to tunnel through.

Wednesday 2 January 2013

Would You Credit It? - Top 10 Most Read Blog Posts.

It's New Year and I'm feeling a little lazy, so I decided to investigate the most viewed posts on my blog.
The results left me speechless!
Who'd have believed that the number one most popular post is about....ahem....well you'll have to scroll down to find out. Needless to say, I have NO idea why this niche topic has proved so constitantly popular with over 32,000 hits!
Anyhow, here is a run down of the most viewed posts on my blog.
Enjoy!  (PS - Click on the links to read the actual post.)

Number 10
"Kensington Palace - At Home With the King."

Queen Victoria's statue with Kensington Palace in the background.
A personal take on a royal palace.

Number 9
"The Canary Isles - Going To The Dogs."

Canary Dogs.
It turns out the 'canary' part of the Canary Isles - isn't really to do with birds at all!

Number 8
"Dog and Cat Diaries"

The secret diary of a dog and cat - beautifully highlighting the difference between the species.

Number 7
"Cats and The Possessed"

Proof that cats are agents of paranormal forces.

Number 6
"How Many Wives Did Henry VIII Have?"

Holbein's portrait of Anne of Cleves.
Henry's fourth wife....or was she?
You may think the answer is obvious, but this post is a bit of a tease.

Number 5
"Bizarre Tudor Deaths."

The title says it all: Strange ways people met their demise, in Tudor times.

Number 4
"Miraculously Improbable - The Crystal Palace."

The interior of Crystal Palace.

What links Crystal Palace and Christmas cards? Read this post to find the answer.

Number 3
"London Bridge Legends"

A post inspired by my poor sense of direction.

Number 2
"Exit Napoleon Pursued by Rabbits."

The true story of an Emperor's fear of small, fluffy bunnies...

Number 1
"Cats Eyes - Seeing is Believing" -
Would you credit it? The MOST viewed post ever on my blog, with over 32,000 hits since it was first posted!

A post about, ahem, cats eyes - those reflective studs in the road!
Truly, if you have any idea why this post should generate such sustained interest ( averages around 600 hits a week) then do please leave a comment and enlighten me - because I have no idea.

A very happy 2013 to you all!
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