First Time Travellers in People-from-the-Past-not-Hollister-Models Shocker!

Henry VIII 1536It may, or may not, have escaped your notice that the rumour spreading around Tinsel Town is that Damian Lewis is rumoured to be in talks to play Henry VIII, in the much-anticipated TV adaptation of Wolf Hall. I hope he’s been chosen for his acting chops and not his ability to make them ladies swoon. I hope this because this rumour comes off the back of a raft of recent historical TV that has seemed to have been centred purely upon trying to make historical figures seem – dare I say it – sexy. As actor John Hawkes was quoted in the LA Times recently an accurate “period face is going away from our culture” replaced by teeth whitening, yoga and plastic surgery.

So what is this obsession in recent years with portraying figures from the past as Hollywood-hot? What does it say about us as a people if we even uphold those long-dead to modern perceptions of perfection? Or even worse if Tumblr is anything to go by, as objects of sexual fantasy?TheTudors

In 2007 Rhys Meyers strutted onto the scene as a Bluff King Hal with a penchant for leather cod-pieces and banging every floozy in sight (even peasant girls – quelle horreur) without a drop of ginger or middle-aged-spred to be seen.  Fair enough Henry VIII was described in his youth as fairly handsome, with a ‘fire in his eyes, beauty in his face and roses in his cheeks,’ tall and athletic with auburn hair but I doubt that he and Anne Boleyn quite looked like an early-modern poster campaign for the Kooples (right). Especially with him being mid-forties by the time of Anne’s execution.

Touching upon the gorgeous Natalie Dormer (the face that launched a brief interest in history for more than a couple of my acquaintances) Laura Churchill’s recent reconstruction of Anne’s ‘Moost Happi’ potrait medal of 1534 shows that Anne was a rather regular looking gal (there’s hope for us all!) The medal, approved of by Eric Ives, Alison Weir and David Starkey, shows Anne as the sources suggest, not beautiful as such, but enigmatic with a certain je ne sais quoi which kept a King interested for nigh on a decade.

A year later and The Devil’s Whore provided us with a similarly sexed-up narrative, this time of the Civil War. Centred around a fictitious Lady Angelica Fanshawe, our heroine just happened to be lucky enough to have a relationship with nearly every key male figure of the period. Thomas Rainsborough become her equality loving second husband in direct contrast to her initial misogynist Cavalier cousin. Colonel Edward Sexby was portrayed as a rough-and-ready, Parliamentarian knight-in-not-very-shiny armour, who it turns out had loved Fanshawe since even before the war. How romantic! There was unrequited love, garter flashing and even the early-modern equivalent of date rape. The casting of Harry Lloyd (GoT’s Viserys Targaryen) as Prince Rupert of the Rhine was pretty uncanny though (bottom).

RichIIINow to the zenith… 2013’s The White Queen took historical fetishization to new heights. This was the Wars of the Roses sponsored by Hollister and Tresemmé. Elizabeth ‘the Witch’ Woodeville was Elle cover shoot ready with a rather nice tan, Edward IV was more like Edward Cullen than a battlefield killer and Richard III was more Heathcliff than Hunchback. Barnard spent most of the early episodes running through palace gardens after twilight. A billowing black cloak blew about him, he looked constantly brooding and swept his fair lady-love Anne Neville off her feet with secret garden meetings after saving her at Tewkesbury of course. His dark wardrobe had more than a hint of the Gerard Way about it. Testament to the power of The White Queen’s potrayal of Barnard’s Richard  is that, instead of castles and car parks, he now haunts dozens of love struck teen’s Tumblr blogs (things  have really moved on since Olivier’s Richard III – Jebus)!

I suppose that last sentence sums up for me the point of this rambling. I wish we as a culture would leave the bodice ripping to Mr Darcy, Heathcliff or Mr Rochester and keep the history as accurate as we can. It may just be my degree talking though. To get back to the stimulus of this piece, Mantel is a brilliant author. Her Wolf Hall trilogy is well-regarded by historians, it’s even been called a good companion to G.R. Elton’s Revolution in Government. I hope that the upcoming TV adaptation will play for substance over style. Let’s not forget should he take the role that Lewis will be playing Henry at the start of middle age; balding, fattening and in the case of Mantel’s novel with a penchant for falling asleep dribbling straight after dinner. God forbid too if Rylance’s Cromwell is portrayed in a fanciable light (the family man ripped by the tragedy of his wife and daughter’s deaths – I can see it now…).

Let it be said though should Hollywood recreate my life, for whatever reason, I call dibs on Mila Kunis.

Rupert of the Rhinerupert

So what do you guys think, should people of the past be cast with portraiture in mind? Or is historical drama just all good, escapist fun?


Six South London Sites from the Sixteenth and Seventeenth-Centuries

It is both a blessing and a curse that I was born in, shock horror, the much maligned London Borough of Croydon. The curse being I can sound rather scary when riled to non-Londoners and spent most of my University years shuffling awkwardly through ‘where are you from?’ exchanges. The blessing? Growing up surrounded by a whole-lotta-history. Here’s my personal top six historic sites saaaa-outh o’tha riva:

Number Six:

The Whitgift Almshouses/Parish Church, Croydon Town Centre, London Borough of Croydon

quad3largeNestled like an oblivious ghost between tram tracks and a busy shopping centre is the old Whitgift Hospital. Now known as the Croydon Almshouses, with it’s red bricks and lattice windows the building is unmistakably Tudor.

Established in 1596 by Elizabethan Archbishop of Canterbury John Whitgift, this hospital (more like a modern old people’s home) was designed to take in ’28 poor brethren and sisters’ of over sixty, from either Lambeth or Croydon. These men and women were to be of worthy behaviour and could be thrown out for a variety of misdeeds including ‘heresye, sorcerye, any kinde of charmmynge or witchcrafte.’ I wonder if Mystic Meg was allowed on the communal TV back in the 1990s? Residents still live in the Almshouses and maintain Tudor traditions, including being provided their stipend (a small amount of cash) every Friday just as in the days of yore. All within a stones-throw of a three storey Primark, Who’da thunk it?

Venture down the hill from the Almshouses (Church Street) and you will be met with the prospect of the Parish Church of Saint John the Baptist. The building is a Victorian recreation of an earlier church and still maintains a deliciously creepy, shaded graveyard (though maybe that’s just because my dad used to tell me Dracula lived there). The church also boasts the final resting places of a variety of early modern Archbishops including Whitgift himself.

Number Five:

Croydon Palace/The Old Palace, Croydon Town Centre, London Borough of Croydon

imagesOkay, so I’m sticking fairly hard within the Croydon theme. In fact, geographically within a couple of streets. On the central Croydon side of Parish Church lies what is now Old Palace girls school. The school’s buildings, whose walls mark the boundary of Parish Church’s graveyard, have an absolutely fantastic history.

Old Palace, known in the past as Croydon Palace, provided a home away from (their many other) home(s) to, yep you guessed it, the Archbishops of Canterbury. Archbishop Cranmer was given lands by Henry VIII here (Henry found the town made him sick according to records – thanks for the endorsement Henry). Whilst in the early fifteenth-century James I of Scotland had been imprisoned in the palace and wrote a variety of letters from Croydon.

Carrying on the town’s royal connection, Queen Elizabeth I too visited the palace, on one occasion for seven days in 1573. Amongst the memos discussing room arrangements is the name of the ‘Erle of Leicester’, Robert ‘Robin’ Dudley the Queen’s long-term favourite (pictured left as portrayed by Tom Hardy in the 2005 ‘Virgin Queen’). A recent letter to BBC History magazine revealed that one of Old Palace’s year seven forms actually have the privilege of being registered each morning in Elizabeth’s former bedchamber. To be very Croydon for a moment, I am like, well jel!

Number Four:

Beddington Park/Carew Manor, Beddington, London Borough of Sutton

Heading out past Croydon towards Wallington/Sutton lies Beddington Park and Grange (Croydonites might know it as the park where you saw Zippos circus in the ’90s). Another Tudor hotspot, the park boasts some beautiful, unspoilt walks but it’s pièce de résistance has to be Carew Manor (left). It’s probably the number one reason I love my hometown, did the park you learn to ride your bike in have a bloomin’ early modern mansion in it?!

Beddington is a particularly historic area. The area has been inhabited since the Bronze Age, with evidence of a Roman Villa found by archaeologists in the ’30s as well as a mention in the Doomsday Book. The Carew’s for whom the manor/school is now named stamped their authority over the area buying up large swathes of land as early as the reign of Edward III.

Yet perhaps the most exciting prospect about the park is Carew Manor’s Tudor links. Sir Nicholas Carew was a favourite and friend of Henry VIII. In 1531, Henry visited Carew at his house in Beddington to charge him with heading to France to discuss his marriage to Anne Boleyn with Francois I (historical squeeeee!) Yet as the old saying of mice and men goes, in 1539 Carew found himself un-amicably seperated from his head at the Tower for involvement in treasonous correspondence with the Catholic Pole family.

Other royal visitors to the house include both Elizabeth and James I. Elizabeth in fact is supposed to haunt the park. Maybe she is still vexed that her favourite Sir Walter Raleigh married Elizabeth Throckmorton of Carew Manor behind her back in 1592.

Number Three:

Nonsuch Park/Mansion, Cheam, London Borough of Sutton

NonsuchTrail3Beginning construction in 1538, two years after the death of Anne Boleyn and a year after that of Jane Seymour, the King swept away a whole village (Cuddington) to make way for his grand Renaissance palace. Covered in stonework, with ornate eight-sided towers, the magnificence of the now lost Palace can be seen in a recent recreation worked upon at Oxford University.

After the death of Bluff King Hal the Palace exchanged hands a variety of times throughout the sixteenth and seventeenth-centuries. In 1670 Charles II gifted it to his main squeeze Barbara Villiers, spelling disaster for the outdated abode. She broke down the palace, selling on the parts. Yet though nothing remains of Henry VIII’s grand designs-esque Palace (named because there was literally ‘none such’ palace as his, geddit?) In situ fragments of the elaborate masonry can still be seen in the Museum of London.

Today Nonsuch Mansion, a later building presides over the park and upon certain days of the month some of the old servants wing from the original palace can still be viewed. The park is still well worth a visit for the beautiful old trees and gardens and to get swept up in imagining the Palace as it once was. Don’t forget to drop intoas well the nearby Tudor White Hall either. A large plaque now marks the spot of the old palace, and did I mention the newer mansion has both Henry VIII and Elizabeth I in stain glass form and a really amazing coffee shop?

Number Two:

Ham House and  Garden, Ham, London Borough of Richmond

hamOkay, now this one was hard, I was very tempted to put this place as number one. Ham House provided me with my first post-University paid role and whilst working there I absolutely fell head-over-heels for the place. How could you not? Given that I spent nearly six months helping to run the shop here as well as room guiding, I could warble on about the house forever BUT I’ll keep it brief.

Ham is like a time machine. Due to the later ‘eccentric’ (as they were then known) Tollemaches the house has mainly been kept, with a few alterations, as if still in it’s seventeenth-century heyday. Walking through the Great Hall, into the Duchess’ closets, through her and her husband’s rooms – it still very much feels like they have just left. In fact, when opening the house on a Friday morning I regularly kept my eyes firmly fixed at window shutters I was opening for fear of spotting the Duchess and her ghost dog (most haunted house in England don’t cha know) in the corner of the room!

The house has many wonderful and unique survivals including the Duchess’ extremely rare early en-suite bathroom (she kicked her husband out of his room to build it), a variety of objects that link to black/colonial history, Charles I’s prayer book and the gem in the crown, the Green Closet (picture right). A fabulous cabinet of miniatures which is pretty much a who’s-who of early modern society and was my absolute favourite room to work in! Alongside it’s collection, hearing the story of the Elizabeth Murray/Dysart/Maitland is well worth the visit. An early modern Scarlett O’Hara, she used marriage, her charms and intelligence to protect and maintain her family home throughout the political upheavals of the seventeenth-century. Her most remarkable feat in my mind though? Living to old age after eleven births! Ouch.

Did I mention too that our modern version of royalty, celebrities that is, often visit the House which is regularly used for filming? Recent titles that utilised the house as a location include ‘The Young Victoria’, ‘Anna Karenina’ and (so upset I missed it) ‘Horrible Histories’.

Number One:

Hampton Court, East Molesey, London Borough of Kingston


Last but not least, how could it not be at the top? Number one is without doubt Hampton Court. A tale of two palaces, both equally splendid. Though I’m fairly well assured that if you have read -this- far upon this blog you have already visited, let me recount the Palace’s charms for me.

Hampton Court is a place very close to my heart, as a child I was regularly taken there by my grandfather and remember well sitting underneath the well manicured trees for a picnic.

The changes in the Palace since 2009 too have further embedded my love for the place. With regular exhibits on top of old favourites such as the Tudor kitchens, Chapel Royal and maze there’s always something new at the Court. In fact since I last went in January the new Georgian Chocolate Kitchens have been opened up, and God knows I love chocolate!

Walking over the bridge from the train station as the great palace unfolds before you I can assure you is a sight you will not forget.

What are you favourite historic sites in and around London? I’d love to hear them. Mainly so I can add them to my ‘must visit’ list!

Pomegranate meets the Rose, 11th June 1509

Catherine_of_Aragon_PicJust a quick post to mark the 504th anniversary of the wedding of the twenty-three year old Catharine of Aragon and the then seventeen-year-old Henry VIII (eleven days off of his eighteenth birthday.)

Of course we all know what ensued, but what we often forget is that before the arrival of ‘La Boleyn’ in the late 1520s Henry and Catharine had been married nearly twenty four years and had been (in those early years) happy. As Henry her ‘Sir Loyal Heart’ would write to his father-in-law shortly after their marriage, if he were still free he would chose her again before all others, so strong was his bond with her.

Catharine of course in her own right gained some remarkable achievements throughout her life; as Spanish Ambassador to the English Court in her years preceding marriage to Henry she became the first woman to hold such a post in sixteenth-century Europe. She also experienced military success. Whilst Henry captured Therouanne and Tournai upon his French campaign in 1513, Catharine as Queen Regent oversaw the defeat of the English ‘Auld Enemy’ the Scots at Flodden Field and sent the dead King James IV’s bloodied and tattered coat to her hubby as a gift.

In my youth I always preferred the dark-haired glamour and wit of Anne Boleyn but as I have matured it seems by far Catharine who deserves attention and admiration, to say she went through a lot in her life is an understatement. I’m looking forward to reading more about the former Spanish Infanta and daughter of the warrior Queen, Isabella of Castille in the future.

Henry and Catharine's Coronation.

Henry and Catharine’s Coronation.

The last words of Anne Boleyn, Friday May 19th 1536.

Good Christen people, I am come hether to dye, for according to the lawe, and by the lawe I am judged to dye, and therefore I wyll speake nothynge agaynst it. I am come hether to accuse no man, nor to speke anything of that, whereof I am accused and condempned to dye, but I pray God save the king and send him long to reygne over you, for a gentler nor a more mercifull prince was there never: and to me he was ever a good, a gentle and soveraygne lorde. And yf anye persone wyll medle of my cause, I require of them to judge the best. And thus I take my leve of the worlde and of you all, and I hertely desyre you all to praye for me. O Lorde have mercy on me, to God I commende my soule.

The Hever Portrait.

The Hever Portrait.

The final words of Anne Boleyn upon the scaffold, May 19th 1536 as recorded by the chronicler Edward Hall.

Edward Hall, The Triumphant Reign of Henry VIII ed., T.C. & E.C Jack (London, 1904) pp. 268 – 269

You can view a screen cap of the text here.

At least I’m not…

‘At least I’m not translating the King James Bible into Algonquian’ my Academic Advisor once stated to our Colonial American seminar during the process of re-drafting his latest book. So in my anxiety relating my future, my family and life who am I happy I’m not? What historical undertakings am I happy I’m not groaning under the pressure of right now as I sit here in my pyjamas in a post-final exam state of catatonic laziness?

1. ‘At least I’m not…’ in East Anglia in the mid-1640s

Matthew Hopkins stands surrounded by witches naming their familiars in a seventeenth-century wood cutting.

Matthew Hopkins stands surrounded by witches naming their familiars in a seventeenth-century wood cutting.

Hammed up by the horror hero Vincent Price in the cult classic Witchfinder Generalthe real horror lies in the true story of the East Anglian witch-hunts. Beginning with the torture and interrogation of one-legged older lady Elizabeth Clarke in Essex, her shocking sleep-deprived confessions of meetings with the Devil and suckling imps sparked a witch-hunt that claimed the lives of hundreds of men, women and children across Suffolk, Cambridgeshire, Essex and Norfolk.

Have you ever had a fight with your neighbours? With a friend or loved one? Have a pet or ever been seen near an animal? Have a predisposition towards speaking your mind, cursing or being a little odd or eccentric? A little worse off than your peers? Then East Anglia in the seventeenth century was not for you. From ‘schollers fit for Cambridge’, to older marginal ladies, to the litigous eighty-year-old Suffolk Parson John Lowes, nobody seemed safe from the sinister perambulations of the self-titled ‘Witch Finder General’ Matthew Hopkins and his assistant John Stearne.

You can stand trial and see whether you would be found guilty of witchcraft over at the BBC History Magazine website, or see if you could survive trial in the hysteria of the emergency court of Oyer and Terminer at Salem, Massachusetts in 1692 over at the National Geographic.

2. ‘At least I’m not…’ Anne Boleyn

A tired looking Anne Boleyn collapses on entry to the Tower, comforted by weeping lady-in-waiting in a nineteenth-century romantic re-imagining.

A tired looking Anne Boleyn collapses on entry to the Tower, comforted by weeping lady-in-waiting in a nineteenth-century romantic re-imagining of the events of May 1536.

The year is 1536 and the month is May, after three years of marriage and ten years (depending upon historian) of a cat-and-mouse game waiting for Henry to discard his Spanish wife, Anne Boleyn sits in the Tower awaiting execution. In a cruel quirk of fate she spent the last days of her fall imprisoned in the rooms that had once been sumptuously adorned for her Coronation; her greatest moment of triumph framing her utter destruction.

I cannot imagine the horror, pain and fear Anne would have gone through in her final moments.  During her imprisonment the Queen’s emotional state oscillated between dry humour, and hysteria to dark dejection and weeping. She famously joked with her jailer Sir William Kingston that she had but ‘a little neck’ as she clutched it within her small hands and giggled. She would tell her ladies too she would go down in history as ‘La Royne Anne sans tête’, Headless Queen Anne. A remarkable incite considering the future prevalence of ghost stories regarding the tragic Queen.

Why most of all am I not glad to be Anne Boleyn, other than brutal death? The delays in her execution allowed for her to begin to believe that Henry would forgive her, sending her into exile as he had done Catherine. Whilst the fact Bluff King Hal spent the day of her execution playing tennis and became betrothed to his next ‘sweteharte’ and Anne Boleyn’s former Lady-in-Waiting Jane Seymour within a day of her being laid to rest in that too small arrow chest has to sting!

Dipping your toes into the life of Anne Boleyn? I recommend a perusal of the Anne Boleyn Files or On the Tudor Trail.

1. ‘At least I’m not…’ in James Town in 1609 – 1610

The less attractive, non-disneyfied, real face of seventeenth-century adventurer Captain John Smith.

Rumours of cannibalism have lingered around the early English settlements in Virginia since the dry humour of seasoned soldier Captain John Smith (yes he was real, yes he knew Pocahontas, no they weren’t in love – she was a child) described in his works a particular delicacy amongst the New World colonists – ‘Powdered Wife.’

The first men who arrived under the banner of the Virginia Company in 1607 were piteously unprepared for the New World. Doting on ‘mines of gold’ to their ‘utter undoinge’ as the good Captain wrote in 1631, the men spent their time scrabbling for glittering rocks and not crops, realising their fatal mistake come winter. The worsening period from 1609 – 1610 has become known to history as ‘the Starving Times.’

Chaos prevailed with violence, disease, summary executions and political instability rife. Men ate roots and dogs before finally boiling their boots and belts desperately eating the softened leather. Historians have poo-pooed the idea that the colonists were desperate enough to eat their own, classing Smith’s tale as the wry sedition.

You can imagine then the shock, when archaeologists recently found this, the skull of a young woman they have named ‘Jane’ found with marks symptomatic of butchery hidden in a rubbish heap. It appears post-humously (I hope) Jane had the flesh scrapped from her face and her brain removed, probably to be eaten. Perhaps John Smith’s ‘powdered wife’ was no joke after all? Whilst the results of the investigation are inconclusive, I would much rather be in my bed in Norfolk with some M&S brownies then supping on boots and early modern brain in a colony that had become hell on earth.

Of course there are a million other historical figures and contexts I would rather not be in, but these three popped from my recent Undergrad. Are there any historical places, peoples or times you are glad you are not? I’d love to hear from you.


Armstrong, Catherine, Writing North America in the Seventeenth Century (London, 2007)

Ewen, L’Estrange, Cecil, Witchcraft and Demonism (London, 1933)

Gaskill, Malcolm, Witchfinders: A Seventeenth Century English Tragedy (London, 2005)

Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn (London, 2004)

Middleton, Richard, Colonial America: A History (Oxford, 2003) 

Starkey, David, The Reign of Henry VIII: Personalities and Politics (London, 1985)  etc., etc.