Few things in this world can be more heartbreaking than a lost, abandoned or mortally-endangered child, in a world where there is precious little compassion or social justice.
Some of our most well-known archetypal stories play into this fear: Babes in the Wood is one, and Little Red Riding Hood or Hansel and Gretel or The Little Match Girl come to mind, along with many others.
And this fear is summed up in the word ‘foundling‘ which means ‘an infant that has been abandoned by its parents and is discovered and cared for by others.’
In London at the height of the gin craze, as this famous Hogarth print shows, many babies, infants and young children were hugely vulnerable.
And it took a influential philanthropist, Thomas Coram, to set in motion the events that led to a solution – of sorts.
For even the solution, though it led to the physical care and nurture of such children, was limited by the psychological insight of the well-meaning people who operated the system. The noble intention of the philanthropists was to rescue these abandoned children and tend to their physical and moral well being in a safe environment and to eventually enable them to become “useful members of society“. Nowadays we might, instead, aim to help them “fulfill their true potential.” But such a concept was alien to the minds of many people in those times.
It took the wealthy and powerful to exert enough pressure to make the even wealthier and more powerful – i.e. the King – to agree that action should be taken. Thomas Coram asked twenty-one ladies of Quality and Distinction (see the exhibition at the Foundling Museum) to sign a petition to get something done.
The Foundling Hospital was established in 1739 and the first babies were admitted in 1741; it was originally sited where the museum now stands, and later moved out to a country location. And in 1954 the last residential pupil was placed in foster care. But on that original London site now stands the Foundling Museum, incorporating some of the features of the original Hospital. A fascinating exhibition may be found there, detailing the story of the Foundling Hospital. And on the top floor is the Handel Museum, a tribute to the contribution of the great composer George Frederic Handel who was a great patron of the work of the hospital and who ultimately donated one of the original scores of The Messiah to the museum.
When I visited the Museum recently I found a very moving display of the tokens destitute mothers left with their babies when they gave them to the Foundling Hospital, in the hope of claiming their children again some time in the future: scraps of fabric, buttons, coins, keys, a hairpin…….
Only a small percentage of all the children who passed through the Hospital were ever claimed, and because they were given new names when they entered the Hospital, and their only chance of discovering their true identity was by being claimed by their mothers, many were robbed of what some might consider a birthright – the right to know who you are.
Nowadays I hope we may be moving towards a situation in the not too distant future where not a single child in that situation need be institutionalized – although it’s still far from being achieved. Instead they may be found new homes with loving families. And that of course is the vision which inspires the work undertaken by Lumos, the charity set up by JK Rowling.
This Museum is a treasury of the memories of ordinary people – not the rich and powerful and renowned, but the many souls who pass by the attention of the Historians, each one of whom, even when lost to time, represents a story of immense value.
Magnificent and imposing as the college buildings are, they were used as a hospital to house ex-sailors from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The sailors were all invalided out from the navy, some sick, others disabled, and their ages ranged from twelve years old upwards.
When you go on the tour of the Royal Naval College buildings and listen to stories of those sailors’ lives, you realise that the system under which they lived was highly regimented and that by our own standards they lived very restricted and controlled lives, under the iron heel of authoritarians.
Their daily routine was full of seemingly (to our ears) harsh compulsory elements, and they were given what we might consider now to be rather mean ale rations and slept in narrow confined spaces, which of course may well have been far better than the accommodation they had formerly had on board ship.
Regardless of their various disabilities or physical constraints, they were all required on a regular basis to climb the steps which led up to the grand Chapel, to attend services thee.Once again the tentacles of rigid authoritarian control reaching into and distorting the Christian faith… And yet, we always have to consider the times and the culture in which people lived and made these decisions.
The tour is to be highly recommended, and I do urge you to include Greenwich on your list of places to be visited, when you spend a holiday in London. You will need a full day to do justice to all that Greenwich has to offer. The Queen’s House too is now open and full of fascinating historical exhibitions. And from the upper floor you may obtain the most beautiful view towards the brave new world of the revitalised London docklands….
Free will means that even in the most totalitarian regime, individuals keep within their hearts and minds their secret thoughts and views: but with ingenuity they will find a way of expressing it.
When Private Eye editor and TV personality Ian Hislop stepped out of his Private Eye offices – as shown on video at the entrance to this brilliant exhibition – he went round the corner to see if he could find signs of dissent within the hallowed portals of the museum.
As he says at the beginning of the exhibition, he had set out to answer these questions: “Have people always shown signs of dissent? Are there artefacts in the British Museum relating to people forming views against the government?” Fortunately, the answer was YES.
As you wander through the exhibition examining the artefacts, one thing becomes clear: the fiercer and more authoritarian the government under which the artists or creators lived, the more subtle and more clever the signs of dissent. And of course sometimes it can be done unconsciously, or can be just what the paranoid authorities choose to see as dissent.
Throughout the ages, through ceramic vases, badges, banknotes, coins, rugs, engravings, paintings, individuals have expressed their dissent against the established order and the powers that be.
A winking owl was taken by Chairman Mao to be a statement that his health was failing – and won the artist arrest and imprisonment. An ancient Egyptian craftsman fed up with constantly producing artefacts for the Pharaoh which were going to go in the tombs carved his own face in place of the Pharaoh’s; another added his own name where only the name of someone high and mighty should be.
In Afghanistan, a traditional rug had helicopters woven into it instead of flowers, to protest against Soviet invasion.
Soviet invaders were show with devil’s horn on another rug; and those being invaded were shown in the same position as an avenging god.
Later we saw that people have also dissented against the British Museum itself. The famous artist Banksy had done a cave painting of a man pushing a shopping trolley. It was placed in the British Museum with a very authentic looking cheeky label – and stayed there for three days before it was noticed.
Cleverly defaced banknotes and engraved coins were intended to stay in circulation with their dissenting message for as long as possible.
The ring worn by a Royalist during the rule of Cromwell opened up to reveal a portrait of King Charles I who had been beheaded.
A copy of the Bible opened up to the Ten Commandments revealed that the printer had printed “Thou shalt commit adultery.” Ironical typo…… or expression of dissent?
The exhibition was wonderfully diverse and didn’t just represent one ideological stance on the part of its curator Ian Hislop. There was no biassed view, for instance, of leftist dissenter against totalitarian regime. All views were represented, even those of a Russian who objected to Gorbachev’s attempts at control of alcohol; and someone who opposed Barak Obama. And there was before us an object which consisted of elaborate Catholic items, heavy with Catholic symbolism, turned into a supposedly inoffensive salt cellar to use in Reformation England.
George IV apparently wasted a huge amount of public money trying to suppress insulting images of himself.
And an English cartoon of William Pitt’s and George’s III’s decapitated heads followed shortly after news from France of Louis IV’s beheading.
And how about the right wing Brexiteers wearing yellow jackets? In Hong Kong those dissenting from China’s plans for political change all carried yellow umbrellas as a sign of their protest.
In one part of the exhibition Ian Hislop had written, “I was disappointed to discover that Spitting Images was not new.”
And of course – in former times the Turks had got there first with their own puppets lampooning those in authority over them.
I know when I lived in Australia for four years, this wonderful institution was much prized for its almost legendary status amongst the Australians, even if they did think we British are a bit weird to go around drinking warm beer all the time.
And at the Museum of London, Docklands, I had the chance to listen to a talk on the social history of this, the most iconic “hostelry”.
Crowded into The Three Mariners, a replica of a small historical pub within the Museum’s Sailortown recreation, we listened to a most engaging talk on the subject. I learned that the social history of drinking in Britain began when the Romans introduced the taverna to the natives of these isles, and thus began the habit of drinking wine.
Then, later on, after the Romans had given up on us and left, the Vikings invaded – and introduced beer. then we British became used to the alehouses. Ale was a natural choice for England, and later inns began to appear.
During Tudor times, Henry VIII introduced licensing laws.. He wanted the “public house” regulated and ordered.
Then on into the 1600s and 1700s – and gin was the thing. It was very cheap and easy to make; and we know of course from vivid engravings and from our social history, the effect that the craze for gin had on our society.
And onto William Gladstone – when he was Prime Minister he decided it would be morally superior for us to revert to wine drinking. Prior to his time wine had only been available in kegs. Now he introduced the bottle of wine, and promoted the idea that there was some kind of social refinement or even moral virtue about drinking wine as opposed to beer.
And now of course we have inherited these social presumptions about our drinking habits. Who, our guide asked, would dare request a strawberry daiquiri when he’s sitting amongst his mates in the pub and they’ve all ordered beer? Social meltdown, at the very least!
It all brought me back to the first time I tasted alcohol. My first love was Asti Spumante; and Blue Nun was the order of the day too, along with Mateus Rose. And when I was at university, I remember such combinations as Guinness and Grapefruit, Dry Martini and Lemonade, and American Dry and Whisky – along with the much-favoured Snowball (Advocaat and Lemonade). And I have long loved a gin and tonic…
But how amusing it is to think how easily we attribute a social value to anything we might do… and no wonder the drinking of alcohol has not escaped this natural tendency of human nature.
But it was great fun to listen to our enthusiastic and lively speaker setting all our ideas about alcohol firmly in the context of English social history.
I’ve just spent a week in London, near the Tower, and my mind is full of London stories… stories of many different aspects of life in the city. First of all, I think of the tales we were told on the walk from Whitechapel tube station, the Hidden East End walk, led by one of London Walks’ brilliant raconteurs.
Stories that encompassed Ronnie and Reggie Kray, the Salvation Army, the Tower Hamlets Mission, the almshouses, the White Hart pub and Richard II, Henry de Montfort and his daughter, and his alias as the Blind Beggar, stories of the Elephant Man and Whitechapel Hospital, of the French Huguenots’ houses near Brick Lane, Spitalfields, and the building that has housed four major faiths…
I have in my mind stories of the vulnerable and oppressed: enslaved Africans, whose story is told at the Museum of London, Docklands; foundlings abandoned on the streets during the height of the gin craze, whose story is told at the Foundling Museum, Bloomsbury;
I have in mind the magnificent and privileged, those in Anglo Saxon times who were important and wealthy enough to leave precious time capsules for the British Library to display centuries later in their Anglo Saxon Kingdoms exhibition: the magnificent, the scholarly and the gifted: kings, monks and abbots.
So, throughout my week in London and all the places I visited, I have in mind the peasants, the gangsters, the deformed, the desperately poor, along with the brickmakers, the law-makers, the ministers, the politicians, and civil servants and officials of Westminster whose alter-egos were created in the Ministry of Magic by JK Rowling… for we learned, too, about the locations in Westminster where the film-makers brought her imagined scenes to life, in Harry Potter on Location in London town
In my next few blog posts I’ll have more to say about these and other individual strands of London life, but for now let it remain a brief survey of a rich and complex tapestry.
Our thoughts are ours, their ends none of our own.
Shakespeare: Hamlet, III, 2, 602
Surely the best places to reflect upon the universal truths that lie behind Shakespeare’s words above, are the many historical sites to be found in his county.
Hidden in the heart of rural Warwickshire is a Saxon sanctuary.
It’s in St Peter’s Church, Wootton Wawen, which lies to the north west of Stratford-upon-Avon, on the way to Henley-in-Arden. In the Lady Chapel, an exhibition tells the story of Wagen’s woodland village in the Forest of Arden.
Wagen was a Saxon lord who owned the land (the manor) of Wootton before 1066, probably holding court in the estate farmstead and hall of Wudu Tun which sat securely within ancient moated banks. He is known to have been a companion of Early Leofric, who founded a monastery at Coventry in 1043. But at the time of his lordship at Wudu Tun near the river Alne, the minster church had been here since the early 700s. I wondered about Lord Wagen as I looked through the exhibition. When William the Conqueror took over, this woodland village in the forest of Arden was one of the many land holdings that came to his attention. He confiscated the land from Wagen and gave it to one of his own pals (as was the way of many English monarchs). In this case the lucky recipient was Robert of Tosny, Earl of Stafford. History doesn’t record what happened to Wagen.
The Dynasty of the Staffords, lasted through to 1521 when the last one was executed by Henry VIII. Thus centuries of royal favour and privilege came to an end for that particular family.
It is thought there may be a Shakespeare connection with the church at Wootton Wawen: a Victorian author claimed in 1890 that Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway in their courting days used to visit their friend, John Mascall, the Vicar of Wootton, just as Mascall was beginning his 60 year stint as pastor of the parish. The same Victorian author also speculates that John Mascall may have been the officiant at Will and Anne’s marriage in the private chapel of Shottery Manor, owned by the same family who at that time held the manor of Wootton. (And who knows, perhaps John inspired Will for the character of Friar Lawrence from Romeo and Juliet!)
Along with this exhibition in the Saxon Sanctuary, three other streams of thought played into my musings: a TV documentary I had seen about the fifty greatest treasures found by members of the public; a BBC drama production of Shakespeare’s Henry V; and our visit to Bosworth to see the re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth where Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, was killed.
Here are a few historical snippets that sprang into my mind.
A Viking with bad attitude buried his plunder meaning to come back later and collect it – but he never did. It lay in the earth until it was found by chance 1300 years later.
Henry V triumphed at Agincourt then married Catherine daughter of the French king. Henry died when their son was 9 months old. When he grew up, that son, Henry VI, later revered as a saint, shrank from the role of king whereas his father had been famed for his valour. Meanwhile Catherine had gone off and married Owen Tudor and thus started the Tudor dynasty.
Mary I believed she’d restored Catholicism to England. She meant to secure a Catholic future. But her pregnancy turned out to be a phantom one, her Catholic husband deserted her, she died, and the throne passed into the hands of her protestant half-sister.
So I meditated on the fickle changes of fortune and how they interface with our lives.
English history is full of “what-ifs.” Many potentially great or significant people have been swallowed up by fate and removed from the arena of history and thus prevented from affecting the destiny of the human race. Shakespeare was well aware of that.
In the face of these truths it seems that success or failure are not determined by hard work and striving. Perhaps we have to live with a healthy awareness that they may in a moment be swept away and rendered irrelevant by a quirky twist of fate.
Thus we may find ourselves pondering, as we wander around such a place as the Saxon sanctuary in Wootton Wawen.
Love goes toward love, as schoolboys from their books,
But love from love, toward school with heavy looks.
Romeo and Juliet
Whether or not this is a true reflection of how Shakespeare felt about his own schooldays, it’s difficult not to feel a sense of awe upon entering the fifteenth century schoolroom where Shakespeare would have studied from 1571 to 1578, between the ages of seven and fourteen.
Even more impressive is the opportunity to experience a costumed actor playing the part of a schoolmaster of Shakespeare’s time, teaching as young William would have been taught; the recital of Latin vocabulary and declensions, drummed into the boys’ heads through wearisome repetition. Perhaps, even, this discipline, tedious as it may have been, prepared and fitted the young boy for the acting profession, since learning lines by heart is part of an actor’s skills.
Within the schoolroom Shakespeare would have also watched visiting troupes of actors perform plays. Also he would probably have acted in school plays himself. To be in the place where he may have conceived his first love for poetry, drama, and the acting world, is indeed moving. Quite apart from the mellow historical beauty of the sixteenth century interiors, I cannot but feel this is a special experience to come here. Pupils do sometimes use these classrooms today in King Edward VI School, and Shakespeare’s Schoolrooms and Guildhall have only been open to visitors for a relatively short time (two years at the time of my visit) to further illuminate the life of Shakespeare.
The meeting chamber of the Guild is a gracious and imposing room. In this particular chamber, Shakespeare’s father John would have presided over meetings of the Guild in 1568, when he served as Bailiff (equivalent to Lord Mayor); and he would also have participated as a member of the jury in court hearings here. It is amusing to think how in his younger days he had fallen foul of the local authorities for being one of those responsible for creating a muckheap in the streets. But since then he had clearly regained a good reputation.
Nevertheless we may also wonder at the fact that 14 year old William had to leave school because his father could no longer afford it and was now in debt. What had happened in the intervening years since his high office for the local authority, and his ignominious removal of William from school?
We may find it very tempting to speculate. Quite often we have insufficient biographical detail about Shakespeare’s life. Was William cross? Or was he relieved at his new-found freedom? The fact that he left school at 14 and didn’t go to university is used as one of the possible pieces of evidence for the theory that the man known as William Shakespeare could not possibly have written those plays and poems attributed to him. How could he? the skeptics enquire. He never went to university.
And yet… is it possible that William was a child prodigy? That he found all that learning by rote very boring? (Though in fact it was to serve him extremely well in the acting profession). Was it possible that William was like certain child prodigies in contemporary times who attain a double first university degree by 15? Was he the type who is perfectly capable of taking his A levels without doing the two year course?
Another aspect to consider is that Shakespeare may have absorbed what he learned at school to a much greater depth and intensity than his contemporaries. It is certain he studied the stories of Ovid and other Roman writers, for these stories appear in his plays. Perhaps William made up for his interrupted schooling by voracious reading. What was he doing between the age of 14 and 18, at which age we know he married Ann Hathaway?
These and many other questions spring into the mind of the visitor at Shakespeare’s Schoolroom and Guildhall, a rich new addition to the Shakespeare properties on offer to visitors to Stratford-upon-Avon.
Rising up before you as you approach Warwick from the south, along the Banbury road, you will see a spectacular sight: that of Warwick Castle, perfectly preserved ancient fortress, later transformed into a stately residence.
The south-east side of the castle commands a cliff on the opposite bank of the River Avon, as you enter Warwick. It is best viewed from those on foot, or seated high enough to look beyond the stone parapets of the bridge.
But, to my mind, the most awe-inspiring view may be obtained by standing on the river island bridge inside the castle grounds. The massive walls soar up from the water; and above them the buildings which house the state rooms of the castle are situated. From this point you gaze along the river back in the direction of the road bridge; you will see the mill and engine house, and just beyond it the whitewater of the weir, where groups of cygnets will be galvanizing themselves to take the plunge.
Beyond that you will glimpse the ruins of the medieval bridge, which are best observed from the decking outside the mill and engine house. This was the original bridge which for four hundred years formed the main approach to Warwick. It was built in the fourteenth century together with a toll booth. The site of that toll booth is now in the glorious Mill Garden, another location from which you have an outstanding view of the Castle. Once the new wider bridge was built over the Avon in the 1780s, the medieval bridge was sealed off and later partially demolished to form a picturesque ruin.
The first fortification on the land where Warwick Castle now stands was built in 914 by Ethelfleda, daughter of Alfred the Great, with the purpose of keeping out the Danes. Subsequently William the Conquerer took it over as a site for one of the many motte and bailey forts he established throughout England.
The mound on which these fortifications stood remains today as a prized element of the estate surrounding Warwick Castle; and indeed when Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown was commissioned by Francis Greville, Earl of Warwick from 1759 to 1773, to landscape the grounds, he suggested making the mound an important aesthetic feature, by ordering ornamental trees to be planted down its slopes surrounding the spiral path.
The first owner of the castle was, naturally, one of those who supported William the Conquerer; namely, Henry de Newburgh, Constable of the Castle from 1088 to 1119. But it was really only when the first member of the family de Beauchamp inherited the castle, beginning with William de Beauchamp in 1268, that a dynasty with significant influence in the affairs of the nation commenced.
From then on, through the Beachamps and the Nevilles and the reign of Edward IV, it is true to say that any individual who could be addressed My Lord of Warwick had a considerable influence on English history: and throughout the generations of Earls, the one to win the most noteworthy place in history books was Richard Neville, holder of the Earldom from 1449 to 1471. He held two kings prisoner during the course of one year, 1469: Edward IV in Warwick Castle and Henry VI in France.
It is easy for us to see Richard Neville’s actions as worthy of mirth now but within the complexities and the power struggles of his time these were grave decisions and deeds. It is intriguing to note how the balance of power often seemed to be influenced by the women behind the throne; in the case of Henry VI, Margaret of Anjou, later to be known as one of the she-wolves of English history: and in the case of Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville and the powerful family behind her.
One of the great recurring themes of English royal history is that of betrayal and changing sides. The two Tudor kings Henry VII and his son Henry VIII left the castle to fall to ruins probably because of its associations with that Demon Brood, the Plantagenet dynasty who had preceded them.
Sellars and Yeatman, of course, brilliantly summed up the trap into which so many of us can fall, in their comic classic 1066 And All That(first published in 1930). In that slim volume they gave us: A Memorable History of England, comprising all the parts you can remember. Of Richard Neville they say: Any baron who wished to be considered king was allowed to apply at Warwick the Kingmaker’s, where he was made to fill up a form.
Richard Neville held sway more than any other Earl of Warwick before or after him, helping to depose both Henry VI and Edward IV. He also brought about the Readeption of Henry VI, to the great astonishment of Henry himself, for one year in 1470-71 before Henry was ‘put to death’ (or died of melancholy, as some would have it) in the Tower, and Edward IV took over again.
Though saintly – and judged by history to have been so – Henry VI was a disastrously ineffectual medieval king. But whilst manipulating the trusting and pliable man who had never wanted to be king, Richard Neville used the magic of Henry VI’s name as a cloak of respectability for his own ambitions.
But, in the beguiling manner of English history, his fortunes rapidly changed when he was defeated and killed at the Battle of Barnet in 1471, at which point Edward IV awarded the castle to his own brother, George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence.
The Battle of Barnet is the battle whose extensive preparations we see in the brilliant waxwork exhibition Kingmaker at Warwick Castle.
Another much earlier earl of Warwick had been responsible for the treacherous crime committed in 1312 against Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite. Guy de Beauchamp, earl from 1298 to 1315, was one of a group of earls known as the Ordainers who aimed to try and contain Edward II in his excesses, and restrict his abuse of power. Guy was responsible for luring Piers Gaveston, Edward II’s favourite, to Warwick in 1312; and Piers ended up being dragged to Blacklow Hill and slaughtered there.
Yet another Earl of Warwick – Richard Beauchamp, earl from 1401 to 1439 – presided over the trial of Joan of Arc, and sentenced her to burn at the stake. This same Richard was also responsible for the building of the Beauchamp chapel in St Mary’s Church, Warwick – so priests could pray for his departed soul. It’s very tempting to speculate that he hoped thereby to assuage his lingering guilt for the part he played in bringing the Maid of Orleans to the stake; but it’s unlikely, of course, that he felt any guilt at all. We must always be careful not to attribute a 21st century conscience to one living in very different times.
Now when we visit the Castle, owned by Merlin Entertainments, our introduction to historical matters is via the Horrible Histories maze, which (arousing local controversy) stands in place of the previous Victorian rose garden, and gives great entertainment to many visitors. The intention of Horrible Histories is of course to amuse and amaze as well as inform, but it does mock the behaviour of our ancestors – of which more later in this chapter.
One of the other castle attractions is a visit to the State Rooms. After the restoration of the Monarchy in 1660, Robert Greville, then Lord of Warwick, began a period of restoration at the castle, and created there a grand palatial residence. From that time on, the castle rose again from its threatened fate of becoming a picturesque ruin.
The first Greville to lavish his wealth on renovating the property and creating new gardens had been Sir Fulke Greville, who held the castle between 1621 and 1628. It seems an undeserved irony that having achieved so much good, he should end up murdered by his manservant Ralph over the matter of how much money he had left Ralph in his will.
And Sir Fulke’s work on the new gardens was swept away by his successor who sided with Parliament during the English Civil War. During that period much damage was done to the Castle.
But when Francis Greville commissioned Lancelot Capability Brown to transform the grounds in the late 1750s, he made a major contribution to the castle’s power to attract and inspire visitors. Today, as you stand on the river bridge with your back to the island, you see the land sweep upwards to the Peacock Garden, and round to the north-west side of the castle in a way that appeals to our deepest sense of proportion and harmonious design. In fact Warwick Castle was Capability Brown’s first major commission, which launched him on his subsequent career, in which he transformed the grounds of many great houses in England.
When we walk round Warwick Castle, whether we tour the excellent Kingmaker Exhibition, admire the Great Hall with its magnificent weapon displays, wander through the State Rooms, walk the ramparts and towers, climb to the Conquerer’s Fortress or watch the Knights of Middle England re-enact the Wars of the Roses, we cannot but be aware of the rich concentration of English history, centred upon this castle.
And we might also reflect that it’s no wonder medieval earls and barons and kings were so willing to risk their lives for glory and power and wealth. Everyone would have been intensely aware of life as insecure, short and easily-disposable. That would drive anyone with ambition to an All or Nothing philosophy.
Though their pitilessness is undeniable, to all who descend the steps to the Gaol and gaze down the dreadful oubliette into which the unluckiest prisoners were thrown to be forgotten and to die of starvation or madness. But the judgements we pass on historical characters are often suspect. The decisions we ourselves make now – if significant enough to be remembered – will be as easy mocked from a distance of a few hundred years.
Looking back to medieval times, if we imagine the complexity of the situations and power struggles within which these personalities sought to reach their goals, all in the context of limited vision, we recognise that they had to make decisions just as we do now with no knowledge of future outcomes. We too will seem equally as self-defeating when viewed from the distance of centuries.
In front is the most exquisitely laid-out garden packed with abundant lavenders.
Everything about this house and its surrounding grounds and gardens speaks graciousness, fine proportions, serenity: all that tends to make us feel relaxed, good-humoured and full of positive anticipation. But that has by no means always been the case. In the past this house has known betrayal, terror and conspiracy.
This house has been held by the Throckmorton family for over 600 years and during that time the vast majority of them have been fervent Catholics, remaining loyal throughout times of great persecution. Several generations of the Throckmortons have been closely involved with some of the major events of English history.
The first Throckmortons to own land in Coughton were John and Eleanor in 1412 and John became the founder of this historically-important family. A later Throckmorton, Robert, was knighted in 1494 along with Prince Henry, the future Henry VIII, thus beginning the family’s long association with the Tudor monarchy, sometimes profitable, always dangerous, and ultimately fateful.
His son George was to discover the folly of opposing Henry VIII in his attempt to divorce Katherine of Aragon; the mortification of being a dissenting guest at Anne Boleyn’s coronation; the inadvisability of thwarting Thomas Cromwell in a land dispute; and, no doubt, a rather uncharitable sense of vindication at finding himself prosecution witness at Thomas’s trial and in a position to seal his fate.
Robert’s son Nicholas stands out among the Throckmortons as having been a Protestant; and I cannot help wondering how that affected his family relationships, coming as he did from an otherwise unbroken line of devout Catholics. Nicholas too discovered the slipperiness of close involvement with the Tudor monarchy.
He had a very narrow escape when his support of Lady Jane Grey ended in defeat; found himself in prison after opposing Queen Mary’s marriage to Philip of Spain; and suffered the thanklessness of Elizabeth after he had acted as confidant to the young princess, brought the news of Mary’s death to her, and finally acted as her emissary to Mary Queen of Scots. All of this failed to win for him the high office at court which he had hoped for.
After Nicholas’s death, the family resumed its activities on behalf of the Catholic side with renewed zeal. In 1584 his nephew Francis was executed for trying to depose Elizabeth and place Mary Queen of Scots on the throne.
In 1858 a 16th century priest-hole was rediscovered in the Tower Room: a double hide, one chamber on top of the other, so the priest hiding in the chamber below would have been highly unlikely to be discovered, even if the upper chamber came to light.
The Tower room is where the family kept a small altar with everything needful to celebrate Mass according to their Catholic faith; the windows both sides of the room gave extensive views out onto the surrounding countryside so they would be alerted to anyone approaching the house from a considerable distance away. Certainly they would have had plenty of warning if Elizabeth I’s priest-hunters were approaching, and enough time to hide the priest together with all the objects of Catholic worship in that ingenious hiding place.
When you begin your tour of the house, you are soon shown through a well-laid-out exhibition about the Gunpowder Plot; and after visiting that, as you enter the drawing room on the first floor of the Gatehouse, you cannot but be very aware that this was the room where the first news of the plot’s failure was broken to those who waited here. In the early hours of 6th November 1605, Lady Digby, the wife of Sir Everard Digby, one of the Plotters, sat in this drawing room, anxiously awaiting news.
At 6am Thomas Bates, servant to Robert Catesby (charismatic mastermind of the plot) galloped across the bridge over the moat and climbed the stairs to the drawing room. No doubt drenched with sweat, wild haired and eyes full of terror, Thomas broke the news which would have filled her with horror and fear: the plot had been discovered, Guy Fawkes arrested, her husband Sir Everard captured, and his fellow conspirators were all on the run in fear of their lives. She would have had no doubt whatsoever about what lay in store for her husband and his friends. The fate that awaited all those found guilty of treason was a vile and brutal punishment: hanging, drawing and quartering. It was, however, a fate that many chose to risk. They were desperate times. The stakes were high, and hot-headed, religious zealots were willing to run that risk for their passionate beliefs.
Following this, the party at Coughton Court quickly dispersed to various locations, among them two priests, Nicholas Owen the master priest-hole builder, and the Vaux sisters who had rented Baddesley Clinton for the express purpose of providing a safe meeting place for priests, together with concealed chambers they could hide in during raids. Meanwhile, the plotters fled to the house of another Catholic friend, hoping for support, which they did not receive: instead they headed off to Holbeach Hall, where final disaster awaited them.
Of those who fled to Holbeach Hall, we learn in the special exhibition at Coughton Court, four suffered the least painful, and the quickest, death. They (incredibly) betrayed their presence by trying to dry their gunpowder in front of the fire. Not surprisingly (but presumably, it surprised them) their gunpowder exploded. The noise alerted the Sheriff of Worcestershire who came with his troops and surrounded the house. In the ensuing gunfight the next morning, four conspirators were shot dead, including Robert Catesby the charismatic mastermind of the plot. Of the others, six were tried on 27th January 1606 and executed at the end of that month. One other, Francis Tresham, was arrested on 12th November and fortuitously died of a natural illness in the Tower on 23rd December.
The room in which Lady Digby received Thomas Bates’ news is a beautiful one to our eyes, and we might expect to find a lingering atmosphere of fear and dread. But indeed no such feeling hangs around this room, and our emotional response to the story may be most clearly elicited in the room which holds the exhibition. The information about the Plot is imaginatively displayed, thus giving visitors their best chance to remember the names of the people involved and the details of their desperate flight and foolhardy actions during those final fateful hours after Guy Fawkes was discovered in the cellars beneath the Houses of Parliament.
Whatever we may think now of the issues at stake during years of turmoil in which England swung back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism, nevertheless, when viewed on the human scale, we see individuals chancing their lives and family destinies, on the hoped-for success of desperate strategies, utterly at the mercy of the State’s ruthless response to their own religious zeal, often leading to heart-rending and grisly outcomes.
Here at Coughton Court, home of the Throckmortons who were so closely connected to those dramatic events, we may see this played out through generations of unswerving Catholic devotion both before the events of 1605 and for centuries after, right down to the present day. After Sir Robert Throckmorton became Lord of Coughton in 1680, he built an illegal Catholic chapel, only to see it burned down by a Protestant mob, during the anti-catholic riots which were followed by the exile of James II. The mob also burned the east side of the house, and the ruins stayed there for another century.
When I enter a house such as Coughton Court, the rich surroundings, the elegant and lofty rooms, the grand family portraits and the harmonious decor play their part; but most powerful of all is the story of the house, brought alive by the artefacts that are displayed here. We may find the chemise that Mary Queen of Scots wore on the day of her execution; the dole-gate that one of the family, Elisabeth Throckmorton, Abbess of Denny, brought with her as a poignant memento as she fled the dissolution of the monasteries; the chair made out of wood originally used for the bed Richard III slept on before he fought the Battle of Bosworth.
And, too, we may view the family photographs of the present-day members of the Throckmorton family – two of them, Clare McLaren-Throckmorton and her daughter Christina, responsible for the design and creation of the enchanting walled garden. These photos also have a poignancy to them, when you remember the contemporary family’s forbears. We may consider this a luxury few may claim, to know your family history back 600 years; but I believe there may be a certain burden in carrying this, a certain weight on your shoulders, a weight of knowledge of the details of your ancestors’ vices and virtues, their hopes and failures, their deeds, their triumphs and disasters.
You may find the exhibition in the ST Lee Gallery, Weston Library, next to Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street. It’s packed with fascinating objects and letters, and drawings: Tolkien’s own exquisite illustrations for The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, plenty of original letters giving intriguing biographical information about him, authentic items and furnishings from his own home, a magnificent projection of a 3D model of the map of Middle-earth and many other delights for all those who love Tolkien and the fantasy world which flowered from his creative genius.
I love The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion: I first came to The Lord of the Rings when I was at university in Lancaster; and for many of us then it was a cult book; the world of Middle-earth so absorbed us that Tolkien’s characters, and situations from Frodo and Sam’s epic journey, would appear in our conversations without any need for explanation or context. Over the years I have been moved and enchanted by the powerful illustrations of places in Middle-earth such as Rivendell, but until I came to this exhibition in Oxford I confess I had no idea that Tolkien was himself such a gifted artist and had actually himself drawn and hand-coloured much of the artwork with which I have been captivated.
These are just a few of the many gems I discovered from the exhibition:
Tolkien spent twelve years writing The Lord of the Rings, in order to provide his publisher George Allen & Unwin with “something more about hobbits” as a sequel to The Hobbit – his publishers were hoping for a lucrative series like Swallows and Amazons
He squeezed that writing into his evenings, after full days spent on academic work in his role as English professor at the University, family life, and socialising, etc.
The words In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit…. came to him while he was doing some marking of student papers, and he scrawled those words in an empty space on a paper he was marking. He did nothing with that idea for several years, it just lay in his mind, waiting its time (just like the ring itself lay waiting…)
His first concept of Treebeard was as an evil character but eventually he transformed the Ent into a good character
The village near Birmingham where he lived as a young child inspired him for Hobbiton.
He kept having wonderful ideas for additions to The Lord of the Rings, such as an exquisitely-rendered facsimile of a seriously war-damaged and bloodstained ancient manuscript, and a fascinating epilogue, a letter from Aragorn to Sam Gangee years after the events of The Lord of the Rings, but his publishers would decide against incorporating them for various reasons including because they thought it cost too much…
After the Tolkien exhibition we spent a considerable amount of time in Blackwell’s, losing ourselves among the special Harry Potter displays and Tolkien and CS Lewis sections not to mention among the pages of the Paddington Bear London pop-up book…
Then we enjoyed a fascinating tour of the Oxford Colleges, as you’ll see from some of the photos here.
Oxford is the city of dreaming spires and has a rich and complex history, a tapestry of darkness and light, which perhaps suggests just a few reasons why it is also, for creative people, a city of lightbulb moments…