Thursday, 13 September 2018

The funeral of Queen Mary I

Queen Mary I died on 17th November 1558 at the age of 42. Her reputation as “Bloody Mary” was well deserved, following her determination, throughout her 5-year reign, to rid the country of Protestants and return England to what she saw as the true Church, namely the Roman Catholic one.
Her funeral in Westminster Abbey was both a first and a last. It was the first royal funeral for a Queen, as opposed to a King, and the last for a Catholic monarch. The authorities did not have a rule-book for interring a Queen, so her coffin was preceded up the nave by a carried helmet, sword and body-armour. The service was celebrated in Latin, as were all Roman Catholic religious ceremonies then and for centuries to come.
Catholic priests were used to preaching to congregations who did not understand a word of what they were saying, but that did not apply in this case to Mary’s half-sister, who was now the new Queen. Elizabeth spoke Latin as well as she did English, despite having brought up as a Protestant.
So Bishop John White’s funeral sermon did not slip under the radar as he might have hoped. His words, in Latin, included the somewhat tactless:
“Our late sovereign hath left a sister, a lady of great worth, behind her, whom we are bound to obey, for a living dog is better than a dead lion”.
Elizabeth’s anger at being called a dog was not only fully understandable but immediate. She ordered Bishop White to be arrested the moment he stepped down from the pulpit.
The scene that followed was not one that would have been expected at a solemn occasion like a royal funeral. The Bishop responded by threatening to excommunicate Queen Elizabeth, thus – in the eyes of everyone present – condemning her to Hell when she died. However, Elizabeth possessed considerably more tact and commonsense than either the Bishop or her late sister and realized that stirring up even more religious hatred at such an early stage of her reign would not be a good idea. She therefore backed down and pardoned Bishop White.
Elizabeth would not have to wait long before getting even with Bishop White. He was deprived of his see (that of Winchester) a few months later and replaced by the ultra-Protestant Robert Horne, who had fled to Europe during Mary’s reign and thus avoided being one of her victims. Ex-Bishop White was imprisoned and died early the following year.
Elizabeth would also “overcome” Mary in a different way when her own funeral was held 45 years later. Her lead coffin was buried in the same vault as Mary’s, but instead of the two coffins being placed side by side, Elizabeth’s was deposited right on top of Mary’s.
© John Welford

Tuesday, 11 September 2018

Charles Darwin's lifelong love of worms

Which book by Charles Darwin (1809-82) sold most copies during his lifetime? “The Origin of Species”? No. The answer might surprise you. It was “The Formation of Vegetable Mould Through the Action of Worms”, which was published in 1881 and was the last title to appear in his lifetime.
As well as formulating the theory of evolution by the processes of natural selection, Darwin had been interested in earthworms for many years. This came about shortly after his return to England in 1837 after his famous voyage on HMS Beagle. He had picked up various illnesses while overseas and visited his uncle, the potter Josiah Wedgwood, with a view to spending some time recuperating in Staffordshire.
Uncle Josiah could see that young Charles needed something to occupy his mind during his stay and suggested earthworms as a subject for study. To Josiah’s surprise, Charles was extremely interested, and forty years of research ensued.
Darwin’s final book made clear to his audience that earthworms were the lifeblood of the average garden through their action in aerating the soil and aiding drainage. The Victorian reading public may have had serious doubts about the Theory of Evolution, but they were more than ready to learn about nature’s unsung garden heroes.
On publication of “The Formation of Vegetable Mould” Charles Darwin remarked that he wanted to publish the fruits of his work on worms “before joining them”.
© John Welford

Sunday, 9 September 2018

Henry of Blois

Henry of Blois was a 12th century churchman for whom political power and personal wealth had far more importance than holiness or the cure of souls. In this he was not unusual for his time!
Probably born in 1096, he was one of the five sons of Count Stephen of Blois. His mother was a daughter of William the Conquerer. He was brought up as a monk in the Benedictine abbey at Cluny.
In 1126 his uncle King Henry I gave him the abbey of Glastonbury and, three years later, the bishopric of Winchester. He made excellent use of these gifts, holding them both for 40 years and exploiting their potential as money-making enterprises. He therefore became the wealthiest churchman in England.
When King Henry died in 1135, Henry played an important role in helping his brother Stephen to become king in preference to Henry’s daughter Matilda. However, the brothers were not always close, and there was a time when Henry switched his allegiance to Matilda’s cause before changing back again.
Stephen died in 1154, to be succeeded by Matilda’s son Henry II, who had been extremely active in his mother’s cause. Henry reckoned that his best plan would be to return to Cluny, where he stayed for the next four years.
However, Henry was not deprived of his bishopric and he still had many interests in England that he wished to oversee and maintain. He therefore returned to England and played the role of elder statesman to King Henry.
Henry of Blois was a lifelong builder of castles and palaces. The works he commissioned included additions to Winchester Cathedral, the Winchester Palace at Southwark as a London residence, and castles at Bishop’s Waltham, Taunton and Wolvesey. He also built many smaller churches and inspired the construction of villages and canals.
Henry also had a liking for ancient pagan statues, buying a large number in Rome and bringing them back to England. His interest appeared to be entirely artistic, but this activity did not escape censure from the austere Bernard of Clairvaux, who questioned why a senior churchman wanted to acquire so many statues of naked and semi-naked gods and goddesses. Henry’s reply, namely that he sought to save the people of Rome from being tempted to worship idols, did not save him from being called the “whore of Winchester” by the sainted Bernard.
Henry died in 1171 aged about 75.
© John Welford

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Wihtgar, King of Wight: myth or reality?

The Isle of Wight lies off the south coast of England, separated from Hampshire by two narrow waterways, namely The Solent and Spithead. It might be thought that its name derives from a corruption of “white”, with a reference to the white cliffs that culminate in the Needles rocks at its western end, but this is not so. 
Tradition maintains that “Wight” comes from “Wihtgar”, who was a shadowy – probably legendary - figure from the early history of England.
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says that two warriors, Stuf and Wihtgar, fought against the British in the year 514 and were later given lordship over the Isle of Wight by Cerdic and Cynric (Kings of Wessex), to whom they were related. Wihtgar is said to have died in 544 but to have founded a dynasty that ruled the island until 685. One of his descendants was reputed to have been Osburh, the mother of King Alfred the Great. 
But can the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle be believed? Although the name Stuf is acceptable as a personal name, there are problems with “Wihtgar”. “Wiht” is an Anglicised form of Vecta, which was the Latin name for the Isle of Wight going back to Roman times, and the later inhabitants of the island were often referred to as “Wihtgara”.
The Venerable Bede, who wrote his “Ecclesiastical History of the English People” in around the year 730, held that Kent and the Isle of Wight were settled by people known as Jutes, a Germanic tribe who arrived in Britain alongside the Angles and the Saxons in the late 4th century. Doubts have been cast by later historians over whether the Jutes ever existed as a separate people, but there certainly appear to have been links between the settlers of Kent and the Isle of Wight. One such link is that several royal personages in Kent had names that began with “Wiht-“.  The suggestion is therefore that the name Wihtgar derives from Wiht and Wihtgara and not the other way round.
The connection between Wihtgar, Cerdic and Cynric also appears to have been made much later than the early 6th century, the first mentions of such a link being from around the time that the last King of Wight, Arauld, was killed after the island was overrun in 685 by the West Saxon King Cædwalla. 
It therefore appears that King Wihtgar may never have existed at all but to have been an invention of the early chroniclers who sought an origin for a name, which was something that is known to have happened in other cases.
©John Welford

Thursday, 6 September 2018

King William IV

Born on 21st August 1765, William was the third son of King George III and would not have expected ever to become King. 
He joined the Royal Navy in 1779 and served in America and the West Indies. He was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in 1811 and Lord High Admiral in 1827. This service was what gave him the nickname of “Sailor King” during his later reign.
He married Adelaide, daughter of the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen, in 1818, but the two daughters born to the marriage died in infancy. This was in contrast to the nine healthy children that William had previously fathered with an actress, Dorothy Jordan, with whom he had lived between 1790 and 1811.
From 1820 the throne had been in the hands of William’s elder brother George (as King George IV), but his sole legitimate daughter (Charlotte) had died in 1817, leaving him without an heir. 
Next in line should have been Frederick, Duke of York (satirized as ‘The Grand Old Duke of York’), but he died in 1827, also without leaving any legitimate children behind him.
When George died on 26th June 1830, William became King at the age of 64.
The first part of William’s reign was largely given over to the political crisis surrounding electoral reform, which concerned doing away with the medieval and highly undemocratic methods then in force for electing Members of Parliament. 
William was completely opposed to reform, which would have meant a huge diminution of aristocratic privilege and the involvement of the middle classes in the business of government. He used every means at his disposal to frustrate the efforts of reformers, but he could not prevent the election in November 1830 of a Whig government, led by Lord Grey, that was determined to push reform through.
Grey exacted a promise from King William to appoint enough Whig peers to enable his reform bill to pass a vote in the House of Lords, but William later tried to go back on his word and only reluctantly allowed the “Great Reform Bill” of 1832 to become law. 
Although William was not particularly active in the political sphere, he did try, in 1834, to exert influence on who should be Prime Minister. Lord Melbourne had succeeded Grey in July 1834, but William did not like the reforming nature of the Whigs and dismissed Melbourne in November, appointing the Tory Robert Peel in his place, despite the latter’s lack of a Parliamentary majority. Peel’s government soon fell, leading to the return of Lord Melbourne as Prime Minister for the rest of William’s reign. William was the last British monarch to make such an appointment against the will of Parliament.
Despite his innate conservatism and elitism, William was a popular monarch with the British people and was surprisingly informal in many of his personal ways. For example, he was known to issue open invitations for anyone to dine with him, in informal dress, at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. He also gave half of the royal art collection to the nation and even tried to give away Buckingham Palace, which his predecessor as King had spent a huge sum on restoring.
It is to be noted that William’s short reign included the passing into law of several important social reforms, as well as the Reform Act. These included the Factory Act of 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 and the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834.
© John Welford