Friday 8 December 2023

Anne Boleyn's Book of Hours by Judith Allnatt

 On 19th May this year I visited Hever Castle, Anne Boleyn's childhood home. It was on this day in 1536 that Anne was beheaded at the Tower of London following charges of adultery, incest and plotting to kill her husband, Henry VIII. Modern historians regard these charges as fabricated: the couple had failed to produce a male heir; several miscarriages had followed the birth of their daughter Elizabeth and Henry had begun to court Jane Seymour. In memory of Anne, on the 19th of May 2023, her precious Book of Hours was brought out from the archive and put on display at Hever, along with fascinating historical details that could be deduced from it.

A Book of Hours is basically a Christian prayer book designed to guide the spiritual life of a secular person. It often contains psalms, hymns, extracts from the gospels and prayers to be read at the canonical hours of the day from Matins to Compline. Affluent owners often had their books lavishly illuminated and sometimes they were wedding gifts given by a husband to a wife.  The books were  sometimes personalised through having the owners  themselves featured in the paintings or through featuring local saints; some have notes written in the margins, some were so much a part of daily life that they were hung from a woman's girdle, like her keys. In the case of Anne Boleyn's Book, the prayers in English show more wear, from kissing or rubbing the pages, than the Latin prayers. It is tempting to see in this the enthusiasm Anne had for promoting an English Bible for all to be able to read, as shown by her protection of those working on English translations. However, the Hever exhibition points out that after Anne's death the Book was owned by various Kentish women who may not have known Latin and whose use of the book would have left its mark. 

The English School

Anne was originally a maid of honour to the Queen, Catherine of Aragon, but by 1527, the year of the book's printing, Henry was hotly pursuing Anne and was considering the annulment of his marriage to Catherine. Assistant creator Kate McCaffrey explains in the Hever exhibition that books from this printing were commissioned for the English court, including both Catherine and Anne, but that their copies are of different quality.  

The vivid colours used in illumination were made from sources such as charred wood (black)  lapis lazuli( blue) gold, cuttlefish ink (sepia), crushed insects ( crimson)  or limonite (ochre). Anne's Book of Hours is decorated with gold borders, red and blue corner patterns and oval borders with inscriptions, whereas Catherine's is plainer. Whether this was perhaps due to Anne, full of confidence as she moved towards becoming Queen, commissioning the books herself, or whether the books were gifts from the King  that reveal his  coldness to  Catherine and his passionate interest in Anne is a matter for speculation.

The rivalry between Anne and Catherine is further shown in a tiny illumination in Anne's music book in which her emblem, the falcon, is shown pecking rather viciously  at Catherine's emblem, the pomegranate.   

Leaving aside the machinations of Court, I was also intrigued to see an inscription in Anne's own hand at the foot of one of the pages of her Book of Hours.

In June 1528, when Henry was still married to Catherine and pursuing Anne, a 'sweating sickness' occurred in London that sent the court, in action all too reminiscent of the last few years,  scattering to the countryside to quarantine. Anne and her father at Hever became dangerously ill and Anne's brother-in-law died of the virus. Kate McCaffrey's research suggests that the inscription was written at around this time, possibly while Anne battled with the death-dealing illness. 

It reads:

 Remember me when you do pray

that hope doth lead from day to day

 - Anne Boleyn 

It  made me shiver to think about what lay ahead of her only eight years later. I reflected on the relief she must have felt on her recovery, the determination to seize the day and her opportunity to become Queen and how fragile human hopes can be. 



Friday 1 December 2023

History repeats. ‘Almost pathological madness’: the monster cruise ships to return to Venice by 2027, guided in by Mayor Brugnaro - Michelle Lovric

Luigi Brugnaro, Venice’s mayor, has never quite given up on the cruise ships – not even after they were banished to Marghera to the applause of the entire world, (apart from the cruise industrialists and that tiny tight ring of local entrepreneurs who scoop profit out of their operations). Now Brugnaro is endorsing a new plan to bring the monster cruise ships of up to 60,000 tonnes back to Venice's historic centre from 2027. The Titanic, to put the proposal in context, weighed in at 52,000 tonnes, fully laden.

This scheme treats the Venetian lagoon as a highway, not an irreplaceable living thing. In such contempt lies danger for flora, fauna, beauty and history. Cue cries of disbelief and outrage about the threat to the lagoon’s ecosystem, the danger of collisions and fuel spills, the menace to the foundations of Venice’s historic buildings, the shipwrecking of air quality – and a general sense of disbelief that Venice’s own mayor is backing something that goes against every instinct for what is right and good for the city. Brugnaro, of course, was elected by the votes of the mainlanders of Venice and largely rejected by the islanders. He makes no secret of his allegiances.

'What will happen if the cruise ships return'?
NGN poster
Environmentalists led by NoGrandiNavi (NGN) and AmbienteVenezia, political parties, researchers and residents have denounced the new schemes presented by the Port System Authority in September. Brugnaro’s pet projects are three: redevelopment of the Malamocco-Marghera canal (also known as the Canale dei Petroli), the excavation and enlargement of the Vittorio Emanuele III canal that leads to the historic centre of Venice, and the creation of an artificial island for the accumulation of toxic sludge from the digs.

In summary, the scheme would excavate great trenches in the highly polluted mud of the lagoon, deep enough to permit 150 massive cruise ships annually right back to the Stazione Marittima near the end of the Zattere. This plan, doubtless years in the brewing, probably explains why no new creative idea has ever been entertained for the Marittima since the cruise ships left by the national government decree that Brugnaro and his cohort feel no obligation to observe. The cruise ‘interessi’, it seems, were just biding their time, setting up their funding and working out how to market their idea to a sceptical world: in a breathtaking coup of doublespeak and greenwashing, they are calling their excavations, which will bring a world of pollution into Venice, ‘The Green Deal’.

The proposed dredging routes are shown in the map above: the Canale dei Petroli in red leading to Marghera and the Canale Vittorio Emanuele in blue leading to the Stazione Marittima near the Zattere. With thanks to AmbienteVenezia

Tommaso Cacciari, leader of the NoGrandiNavi committee, has described Brugnaro’s new moves as an "almost pathological madness".

I attended a sombre meeting at San Leonardo on September 29th, when Cacciari explained that NoGrandiNavi is remobilizing. But now the front will move to the Canale dei Petroli.

NGN and its sister organisation AmbienteVenezia are planning a double campaign … a ‘mobilitazione popolare’ and also a legal, procedural route. For example, City councillor Gianfranco Bettin (Venezia Verde Progressista), Luana Zanella (Green Party MP) and Franca Marcomin (Green Europe spokesperson) have announced that the European Green Party is drafting a document to protect Venice, to be presented to the European Parliament.

On September 29th, Cacciari set out his road map for protest but also listed the grim new obstacles for those who want to stop Brugnaro’s tide of massive cruise ships.

NGN, Cacciari explained, has already had a taste of the new problems facing the new campaign.

For a start, there's the turbo-charged greenwashing being deployed by the cruise lobby, as by so many other notable polluters. Expensively marketed greenwashing is hard to fight. The law is only just catching up with this double crime against the environment. Claims are made in contexts where no challenge is possible. Comments, for example, are disabled under articles and videos. Unarguable but absolutely irrelevant facts are grandly puffed. Unpalatable projects are sugar-coated with childlike cartoon graphics. In a pretty You-Tube video, also airing in English, many picturesque and comforting claims are made about the Port System Authority’s ‘Green Deal’, with a patronising lack of detail. There is no mention, for example, of the toxic waste leaked by Marghera’s petrochemical industry into the lagoon sediment for over a century – or what might happen if the heavy metals embedded in the mud are suddenly shaken and stirred into the living waters.

"Don't touch the lagoon - No to the new
excavations; no to cruise
ships back at the Stazione Marittima.
They want to destroy the lagoon.
They want to bring the cruise ships back
to Venice by excavating new channels."

Some of those heavy metals are at 120 percent of what is considered safe or acceptable by the scientific community. These deposits are the legacy of the Veneto’s millionaire-making 20th century rush into petrochemical, resin and chlorine production. Lead, dioxins, vinyl chloride monomer, polychrome biphenyls are described by journalist Ugo Dinello as ‘the fingerprints left at the crime scene that tell the story of Veneto's industrial development … . highly carcinogenic chemical compounds that remain in the environment with great persistence, so much so that they are defined as "eternal pollutants"'. Brugnaro plans to excavate 1,280,000 cubic meters of this sediment to facilitate the access of the cruise ships to Venice. Italy has no landfill site equipped for such volumes of poisonous waste. So what does not get ‘accidentally’ swilled into the water during excavations will be redistributed in the lagoon or deposited on the manufactured island known as the Isola delle Tresse, near Fusina.

Venetians of the lost Republic would never have allowed such imprudence – they knew to avoid deep dredging near Murano, for example, where arsenic and lead leaked from the glassworks.

Greenwashing is recognised by the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority as not just moral but commercial misconduct. Those who falsely claim green credentials gain customers who want to do the right thing, and who will pay more for what they believe to be wholesome products or services. Entities that do not lie about their green credentials are thereby disadvantaged. However, everyone wants to hear good news about the environment. Good-hearted people want to feel that they can be part of a solution, making them easy targets for the greenwashers.

Also difficult for NGN’s new campaign is the fact that the visible outrage of the outsized cruise ships is no longer there to draw the world’s attention to the new problem. The cruise lobby is profiting from the fact that the world thinks, ‘mission accomplished’ in Venice. Gone and good riddance. It seems inconceivable that Venice, suffering from damaging numbers of tourists, would shoot itself in the foot by ushering in more, or expose the historic centre to the known danger of collisions and impacts such as the terrifying incident in June 2019 when the MSC Opera ploughed into another vessel and the embankment at the Zattere after a technical fault went unnoticed by the crew until it was too late.

In any event, the big ships seem to have gone. But in fact they are still in Venice’s lagoon, sending out toxic emissions, causing danger. The passengers, currently diverted to Marghera and other places, are still transported in to choke Venice’s overburdened streets without adding anything of much value to the city’s economy – profits are tightly palmed by those few who host, ferry for and supply the cruise lines. Cruise tourists the world over bring little economic benefit to the city they infest as their time is carefully engineered so that they do most of their spending aboard. Cruise ships in Venice, for example, stage special late-night dinners so their passengers don’t have to spend at Venetian restaurants.

How will NGN fight these twin problems of greenwashing and invisibility? NGN’s plans to highlight the absolute interdependency of Venice and her lagoon. Those who want to gouge the lagoon for the cruise ships will not be allowed to do so out of sight and out of mind.

NGN’s roadmap was set out at the meeting on September 29th. 

October 7: an Assemblea Cittadina informed the public and set in motion plans to get going with before the excavations start. NGN will take the campaign out to the lagoon, deploying the bricole (navigation poles) along the Vittorio Emmanuel Canal to signal the looming problem by ‘decorating’ them with NoGrandiNavi banners.

October 22: NGN made the new danger felt in the Venice Marathon (see photo below).

November/December: a conference at the university.

January: NGN will celebrate its birthday with a campaign dinner.

February: an NGN parade at Carnevale.

March 24: a large public demonstration will take place all over the city on foot and in boats. An island of boats, a floating protest, will stretch right out into the lagoon, pointing the way to the threat.

April: the launch of the Biennale of Art. NGN is working with various artists on a ‘super-proposta’ to make the idea of defending the lagoon both concrete and communicable.

NGN have already provided the international symbolism of a city that has resisted the cruise industry, Cacciari told us on September 29th. “Now the battle has moved to the lagoon and the polluted mud. We have to defend the lagoon from the greed of the boats and the authorities that collude with them.”

These maps were kindly provided by Luciano Mazzolin of Ambiente Venezia to illustrate what can only be described as the proposed routes of betrayal through the lagoon.
Meanwhile, NGN is hampered on another front – those with deep pockets continue to persecute members with expensive prosecutions. On that front at least, there was good news last week. The latest trumped-up charge against the NGN leader Tommaso Cacciari – initiated in 2017 – was dismissed by the Venetian courts on November 20th. Cacciari was accused of interfering with a police vessel during a demonstration against the cruise ships. The entire case was dismantled, having no factual basis. Here's NGN celebrating after the verdict.

In London, the River Residents Group and other organisations continue to deal with the plans of the Oceandiva, Europe’s biggest party boat, which wants to operate on the Thames. Our members too have been subject to threats of legal action and indeed falsely denounced to the police for planning a non-existent large demonstration. We try not to waste time or energy on intimidations like this: it’s a well-worn tactic of large companies to try to neutralize activists this way. Nor was I surprised when the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA) declared my safety questions about the Oceandiva ‘vexatious’ on the grounds that they took up too much time, also complaining about repeated questions - questions repeated because answers were evaded in the first place.

So many people ask why the Mayor of London hasn't stopped the Oceandiva. Unfortunately, the Mayor has sidestepped the issue. Because it floats, the Mayor of London disclaims any responsibility for the impacts of the Oceandiva, even though its emissions would travel from the piers, surrounded by residents, where it plans to charge and hold long, static parties. Because it floats, the Mayor disclaims any responsibility for the Oceandiva’s effects on historic views.

Like Brugnaro's 'Green Deal', the Oceandiva is trying to enter the city on a flood of greenwash. Its advertising – and that of its agents in the eventing world – boasts of being 100 percent carbon neutral and fully electric. It is in fact a hybrid, capable of running just three hours on its batteries, according to its own marine technician speaking at webinar in June. The rest of the time it will use Hydrolized Vegetable Oil, a form of diesel, which is linked to deforestation by virtue of its use of palm oil. Meanwhile all the associated emissions will be discounted via discredited carbon credits (VCA). And no mention is ever made of the embodied carbon in the £25,000 new build out of steel and aluminium.

We understand that the Oceandiva is currently restricted to the privately-owned Royal Docks and not allowed on the river because it has not gained its safety certification from the Maritime & Coastguard Agency (MCA). The only visible manifestation recently has been a planning application to sanitize the unauthorised electrical infrastructure erected a year ago at West India Pier, in front of 750 residents. The pier is owned by Sunset Moorings Ltd which shares directors with Oceandiva Shipping Ltd.

Meanwhile, questions are now being asked – in an excellent piece of investigative journalism by the Byline Times – about both the roles and accountability of the Port of London Authority (PLA) and the MCA in the Oceandiva story.

With the PLA encouraging more and more cruise ships into the metropolitan Thames, London and Venice have ever more in common. London's River Residents Group continues to be inspired by and learn from NGN and AmbienteVenezia, both of which I thank for the images in this post. Particular thanks also to Barbara Warburton Giliberti and Luciano Mazzolin.

It's a hard battle ahead for all of us. As NoGrandiNavi says – ‘We are on the right side of history and we will not stop fighting for the ultimate extermination of these monsters from our city!’



To join NoGrandiNavi, please visit their website. On this page you can donate to their cause:

Sostieni le nostre lotte – Comitato No grandi navi

The facebook page for AmbienteVenezia is here: (1) AmbienteVenezia | Facebook

More information about the chemical threat can be found on the website of Campaign for a Living Venice: Venice and the Poisons of the Small Canal. Study Reveals the Dangers of the Vittorio Emanuele Excavation – Campaign For A Living Venice

To join the River Residents Group, please visit our website: River Residents Group . You don't need to live on the river to be a part of this movement - you just need to care about the Thames. 

Michelle Lovric’s website

Friday 24 November 2023

Tullia Minor - Rome's Murderous 'Bad Girl' by Elisabeth Storrs

Tullia runs over the Corpse of her Father by Jean Bardin (1765)

In previous posts, I’ve told the stories of exemplary women of Roman legend such as Lucretia, Verginia and Tanaquil. In The Legend of Tarpeia – a  Roman Morality Tale, I’ve also related the fate of the greedy traitoress, Tarpeia, Today, I tell the tale of the ultimate ‘bad girl’ – Tullia Minor – the last queen of Rome.

The historian, Livy, described Tullia as ‘ferox’ - savage. What did she do to be branded so? Try sororicide, mariticide and parricide then add mutilating a corpse to her list of crimes!

Tullia Minor was the younger daughter of King Servius Tullius, the sixth king of Rome. A son of an enslaved Latin noblewoman, Servius ascended the throne due to the influence of Queen Tanaquil, a gifted Etruscan seer, who foresaw his greatness (see The Legend of Tanaquil and the Auspicious Flight of Birds). After Tanaquil’s husband, Tarquinius, was assassinated, she contrived to have the Senate appoint Servius as monarch in preference to her own two sons, Lucius and Arruns. Servius therefore became king without holding a popular vote (although he later called for one and was successful in the election.)

History records Servius Tullius as a visionary leader who introduced important reforms including the Census. This led to the division of citizens into 5 wealth classes each with the right to vote but also the responsibility to serve in war. Under his reign, the boundary of Rome was expanded to include the Quirinal, Esquiline and Viminal Hills. He successfully established a crucial treaty with the neighbouring Latin League, founding a shrine to the Latin goddess, Diana, on the Aventine Hill to mark their concord.

However, Servius’ popularity in expanding the franchise to the lowest classes of citizens raised the ire of the upper-class patricians. The simmering resentment which ensued paved the way to his downfall. But it was the hatreds seething within his own family that were to effect his demise.

To placate the ousted sons of King Tarquinius, Servius Tullius arranged marriages for them with his daughters. The girls, both named Tullia, (according to the custom of women taking the feminine form of their father’s cognomen) were extreme opposites in temperament as were the princely brothers. Unfortunately, the sweet natured Tullia Major was wedded to the ruthless Lucius, while the scheming Tullia Minor became the wife of the unambitious Arruns.

Determined to gain power, Tullia was frustrated by Arruns’ refusal to overthrow Servius and rightfully reclaim the throne. Instead, she turned to Lucius who matched her zeal. The pair conspired to murder their spouses resulting in brother killing brother, sister killing sister, and both committing homicide of their respective in-laws. Unaware of their part in the assassinations, Servius reluctantly then approved a marriage between Lucius and Tullia Minor.

Emboldened, Lucius embarked on a vicious campaign to undermine Servius’ authority and foment rebellion. Having convinced a bloc of Senators to support him, he proceeded to the Curia Senate House and sat on the throne, surrounded by armed guards. When Servius arrived to accost the usurper, Lucius hurled his father-in-law down the Curia’s stairs into the Forum. Dripping blood and abandoned by supporters, the old man limped along Clivius Orbius, the road to the Esquiline Hill.

When Tullia heard Lucius had seized power, she called for her carriage and sped to the Senate House, hailing her husband as king. She then urged him to kill her father lest Servius survive and raise an army from his remaining supporters. Lucius quickly dispatched assassins who slew the injured Servius and left his mutilated body lying across a small alleyway known as the Vicus Cuprius.

With chaos unleashed in the Forum, Lucius ordered Tullia to return home for her own safety. On the way, she came upon her father’s corpse. In a frenzy, she ordered her driver to force the horses to trample the body. As a result, Tullia arrived at her house with blood spattered clothes as ‘a grim relic of the murdered man... The guardian gods of the house did not forget; they were to see to it, in their anger at the bad beginning of the reign, that as bad an end should follow.’

The historian, Livy, pulls no punches when he describes Tullia as maniacally ambitious and transgressive. Unlike Tanaquil who quietly pulled strings behind the scenes, Tullia harangued Lucius into bloody deeds. ‘To Tullia the thought of Tanaquil’s success was torture. She was determined to emulate it: if Tanaquil, a foreigner, had had influence enough twice in succession to confer the crown – first on her husband, then on her son-in-law – it was intolerable to feel that she herself, a princess of blood, should count for nothing in the making, or unmaking of kings.’

Lucius Tarquinius Superbus and Tullia were to become models of  regal depravity: venal, psychopathic and unjust rulers. But Tullia, as a woman, is held up as a shocking example of private and public impiety who is responsible, in great part, for her family’s exile. For ultimately, Lucius and his family were banished when the Romans could no longer stomach his tyranny, rising in outrage at the rape of the virtuous noblewoman, Lucretia, and her subsequent suicide. See Roman Honour Killings – Lucretia and Verginia. As such, the public actions of two women with diametrically opposed characters can be seen as catalysts for the overthrow of the monarchy and the birth of the Republic.

Borghese Steps, Rome

As an interesting side note, the Via Cupria was dubbed Vicus Sceleratus – the Wicked Street – after Tullia’s desecration of her father’s body. In the early C15th century a grand staircase was built over it connecting the Esquiline to the Basilica San Pietro in Vincoli. The Palazzo that was built over these steps by the Cesarini family was given to Vannozza dei Cattanei, the mistress of Rodrigo Borgia (Pope Alexander V) and the mother of the infamous Borgia children; Cesare, Lucrezia, Juan and Gioffre. The steps became known as the Borgia Steps. On June 14, 1497, Juan Borgia left the family apartments through the heavy door to the stairway and was attacked and killed. His body was then thrown into the Tiber, remaining undiscovered for three days.

The identity of Juan Borgia's murderer remains an unsolved mystery. Was it his brother Cesare? Or a jealous husband or brother avenging their family’s honour? It wasn’t a robbery given his body was found with a coin filled purse. Whatever the answer, the scene of his death resounds with ghostly echoes of Tullia Minor’s crimes. Definitely a street to avoid after dark!

Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Quotes from The Early History of Rome by Livy translated by Aubrey de Selincourt, 1971.

Elisabeth Storrs is the author of the A Tale of Ancient Rome saga, and the founder of the Historical Novel Society Australasia. / 

Friday 17 November 2023

Medieval climate change by Carolyn Hughes

A couple of weeks ago here in the UK, we put our clocks back one hour from daylight saving time. So now it’s more or less dark by 4.30pm. I know that some people suffer from SAD, seasonal affective disorder, brought on by the shorter days. I’m not one of them but, even so, I do always have a sense of descending gloom at this time of year, which I know won’t be relieved until the spring. 

But I do take pleasure in any splendid sunny days, such as the morning I am writing this, when the sky is utterly blue and the sun is bright, casting a glorious golden light on those deciduous trees in my garden and beyond whose leaves are turning brown. I suspect it is not all that warm outside but, later on, I will don my coat and maybe a scarf and gloves, and go for a reviving walk.

However, as so often when weather is on my mind, my thoughts turn to the folk I write about in my novels, people who lived in the fourteenth century. For us, shorter days may signal the arrival of a period of “hunkering down”, but we can to a considerable extent still get on with our lives without too much disruption. We generally have on-tap heating and lighting in our homes, and even travel and going to work are mostly manageable (in temperate climes like the UK, at any rate). But, for my Meonbridge folk, especially the poorer ones, shorter days meant fewer hours in which to work, especially outdoors. Obviously, rural peasants were farmers, so there would be work to do. They would wrap up as best they could to go out and harvest winter vegetables, fertilise fields, repair buildings and fences, collect fuel for fires and, if they had animals, feed them.

But then they had to retreat indoors, and it is hard to imagine, isn’t it, how restrictive life must have been? With only a wood fire burning in the central hearth, undoubtedly emitting a good deal of smoke but possibly not all that much heat, the long evenings and nights would often have been very cold and “hunkering down” might have meant wrapping yourself in every garment you possessed (which might not have been all that many), and huddling around the fire.

The lack of light too must have severely limited what people could do indoors. Spinning or sewing, or any craft or repair work, would have been difficult to manage by candlelight, or, worse, by rushlight. And, in the depths of winter, when bright sunny days might be infrequent, the days too would offer little opportunity for industrious activity. Windows in peasant cottages were few and small and, if shutters or blinds were closed to keep out the winter weather, it would be dark indoors, even at midday. If outdoor work was not required, then confinement inside must surely have been excessively tedious!

I don’t have any special insight into how such medieval lives would have been lived, or whether indeed people then suffered from SAD, not that they would recognise it, of course. But bringing my imagination to bear, as of course I do when writing my novels, leads me to assume that winter life would have been uncomfortable and dull for them at best. Not of course that they knew any different, so undoubtedly they did simply get on with life as best they could. 

If you’d like a little more insight into winter life in Medieval Europe, this article might be of interest:

The 2023 United Nations Climate Change Conference or COP28, is scheduled to take place at the end of this month (November) in Dubai.  I can scarcely contemplate the difficulties the world faces in tackling the problems caused by centuries of industrialisation, but I won’t comment on that, as I have no expertise to offer on reasons or solutions.

But, again, because I spend my days “living with” people from the fourteenth century, I am bound to think about how their lives might have been affected by particularly challenging weather situations.

Recently, Storm Ciarán battered the southern counties of the United Kingdom. Some countries of the world of course suffer frequent violent storms, with horrendous winds and torrential rain, more or less as a matter of course, but we are less used to it here. As a result of the storm, there was a good deal of flooding, bringing misery and great discomfort to many people, not to say fear at what the rest of the winter’s weather might throw at them, for winter has barely started.

Unusual or extreme weather did not in fact often affect my Meonbridge people, for in the period in which my Chronicles are set, the middle couple of decades of the fourteenth century, the weather was, if hardly benign, not often especially extreme. In the early part of the century, there had been such torrential and unceasing rains, and flooding so widespread, that harvests were dire and animals died, and the Great Famine stalked the land for three years. This was the beginning of the “Little Ice Age”, an extended period of cooling, particularly in northern Europe, which lasted until 1850, with periods of relatively mild weather and others of more extreme cold.

However, frightening weather was not unknown even in the middle part of the fourteenth century. At the end of my book, Children’s Fate, an extraordinary wind that affected not only the British Isles but also northern Europe did cause great disquiet and, in some places, severe damage, disruption and death.

This is how I describe it in my Author’s Note:

“Plague left England in December 1361, though it was still in Scotland. In Hampshire, I think it would have passed on by the autumn. By Christmas, people were presumably beginning to think the time had come at last when they could move on from horror and disaster.

But, two weeks later, on 15th January 1362, came yet another cataclysm: the Saint Maurus’ Day storm, a wind – the “Great Wind” – one of the most violent extra-tropical storms ever to hit the British Isles and northern Europe. It was so strong that it toppled church spires, destroyed houses and mills, and caused huge damage to farms and forests across the south of England.

A chronicler of the time said it was “as if the Day of Judgement were at hand… no one knew where he could safely hide, for church towers, windmills, and many dwelling-houses collapsed to the ground”. Norwich Cathedral lost its wooden spire, Salisbury Cathedral was so badly damaged the bishop appealed to the Pope for funds, and St Albans Abbey was destroyed.

The storm was in fact much more damaging in the Low Countries, where the event was called the Grote Mandrenke, the “Great Drowning of Men”. Storm surges caused sea floods that washed away towns and villages, leaving tens of thousands dead.

But, following on from months of plague, one can perhaps appreciate why some people might have thought the end of the world had finally come.”

Storm in the Sea by Pieter Mulier, c 1690. In Hermitage Museum, St. Petersburg, Russia. Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
And here is an extract from Children’s Fate showing my imagination’s take on the Saint Maurus’ Day storm:

“Eudo was humming as he made preparations as usual for the office of Vespers. It was already fairly dark but, chancing to look up at the great window behind the altar, he thought it looked beyond the glass more like midnight than late afternoon, albeit it was the middle of January.

It was then he noticed too that the brisk breeze of earlier seemed to be blowing harder. He could hear the wind quite clearly from the chancel, whereas normally the thick walls of the church stifled any sounds of weather. It was a while yet before the office had to begin, and he hurried to the porch door to look outside.

Unthinking, he lifted the door’s great latch, and was almost knocked off his feet, as the door, heavy as it was, blew open. The edge caught him in the chest and, for a few moments, he was unable to catch his breath. Holding fast to the door, he eased it open sufficiently for him to step out into the porch, then closed it carefully behind him, ensuring the latch had dropped. He moved towards the porch’s front, his feet shuffling through all manner of debris presumably whisked in by the wind.

It was indeed as black as midnight out beyond the building. Yet, as his eyes accustomed to the dark, he realised the churchyard yews were swaying wildly, and small branches of other trees, and objects he could not identify, were being tossed about, spinning through the air. He clapped his hands over his ears to muffle the din of it.

He had surely never heard or witnessed such a wind before.

Eudo turned and hurried back into the church. He had to lean hard upon the door to close it, and he again made sure the latch had fallen, and hoped the iron fastener was strong enough to hold.

He had no intention of trying to get home to the parsonage whilst this storm was raging. He suspected there would be no Vespers congregation now, for surely no one would venture forth in this? Nonetheless, he returned to the chancel to complete his preparations. He would of course recite the office regardless of the absence of any worshippers.

But, as he waited to see if any of his congregation did come, the wind outside seemed to gather force, and it fairly roared around the walls of the chancel. He recoiled as flung debris struck the glass of the great window, just feet away from where he stood at the altar, and his heart raced with anxiety.

When it was clear no one was coming, Eudo did wonder for a moment if he might give Vespers a miss. The wind was so loud, it was likely he would not even be able to hear himself. Yet, God would surely know if he did not perform his duty and, anyway, he really did not want to leave the safety of the church.

[Eudo tries to recite Vespers…]

Yet he made little progress with the office as the roaring swelled, and his heart thudded within his breast. His throat went dry and he could no longer speak the words, even if he could remember them. And his memory was now distracted by a new persistent noise, the clattering of what were surely tiles being torn from the church roof and thrown down onto the ground. Unable to concentrate, Eudo looked up towards the rafters, but the chancel candles cast too dim a light for him to see so high above him. Despite the raw cold inside the church, his face grew hot. What if all the tiles were stripped away? Would the wind then strip away the rafters too and invade the church? Of course he had no way of knowing.

But his efforts were undone when some object, much larger than the debris flung at it already, crashed into the great window, the only glazing in the church, and the glass exploded, showering Eudo with sharp and stinging fragments.

Eudo screamed and threw himself prostrate upon the floor before the altar, wrapping his arms over his head. ‘Mea culpa, mea culpa,’ he cried out, weeping. ‘Oh God, forgive me, for I have sinned…’

For surely it was God who had sent this terrible wind…

Perhaps the pestilence had not been chastisement enough. God saw mankind had not learned its lesson, but had simply returned to their old ways… Such a wind as this could wreak destruction across the land, topple great oaks, rip up fields, fling beasts into the air, demolish houses and even bring down mighty churches. God had the power to destroy the Earth, if mankind no longer merited it…

Yet maybe it was not mankind…? Was God chastising only him? For continuing to sin, week in, week out… For promising to fulfil the penance, whilst knowing he would not do so…

Another roar around the chancel walls brought a swirl of flying debris through the shattered glass, small branches, twigs, dead leaves, shingle, and fragments of every substance, all scooped up from the ground and now tumbling down upon his back.

Eudo fell to sobbing, drumming his feet against the cold stone floor.

The Day of Judgement most surely was at hand. But was it for mankind, or for Eudo Oxenbrigge alone?”

The Last Judgement (detail) by Lucas Cranach the Elder, c. 1525/1530. In Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, USA.  Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The priest Eudo is a sinner, and is perhaps justified in his terror (even if his rational mind might realise the storm couldn’t possibly be aimed solely and specifically at him). But I’m sure it wasn’t only sinners who were terrified by the destruction caused by storms. For everyone assumed it was a punishment sent by God; indeed, bishops told them it was His punishment, and bid them to atone for whatever sins they had committed and to pray daily for God’s mercy. Amidst all their fear and agony, they believed what was happening was their fault: they had brought it upon themselves, and prayer was all they had to try to avert the punishment and expiate their guilt.

Coastal areas in particular across the world are today much threatened by climate change, because of rising sea levels. Flood defences are being constructed everywhere to try and mitigate the damage. The east coast of England has always been notorious for suffering from erosion, which has been going on since the end of the Ice Age, when sea levels rose dramatically from the effects of melting ice. Storms, particularly those at sea, can cause devastation to such low-lying areas. Many towns and villages have been lost over the centuries.

A famous one is Dunwich in Suffolk, an example of a once thriving town that almost totally disappeared in the late thirteenth century. Dunwich was a great port of medieval England, with several churches, hospitals and two seats in parliament. The town battled constantly against the sea. In 1328 a great storm blocked up the port and by the 16th century the town and its houses were regularly falling into the sea. Today all that remains is a quaint village with a tiny population, which is still under threat from the sea. In East Yorkshire, there used to be a seaport called Ravenser Odd. It was too a thriving place, with warehouses, and cargo ships and fishing vessels going in and out, customs officials, a market and an annual fair. But by 1346 already two thirds of this busy town had been lost to the sea from the effects of storms and erosion. Then, in that great Saint Maurus’ Day storm of January 1362, Ravenser Odd vanished altogether. 

The erosion of England’s east coast does of course continue, as melting ice at the poles once more threatens sea levels. And our present changing climate will continue to threaten us, even here in the temperate isles of Britain, with more storms, more floods, more grief for many.

Much like our ancestors, we know that we – aka mankind – are (at least partly) to blame for what is happening to the world’s climate. But even if we too have “brought it upon ourselves”, our accountability is obviously not the same as theirs. We do not believe our sinfulness is at the root of our culpability, nor that the change in the weather has been instigated by some wrathful divine being. Moreover, we have options other than prayer to alleviate our present situation, for we do understand its causes and have some notion of the sort of remedies required to try to mitigate its worst effects.

Yet, as always, what I find so thought-provoking is to recognise the differences between our medieval forebears and ourselves, but also, and perhaps more importantly, the similarities and connections.


The Deluge by Francis Danby c. 1840. In Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Deluge by J. M. W. Turner, 1805, Tate Britain, London. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Friday 10 November 2023

Of a Cave Unknown By L.J. Trafford

I have spent the past ten years writing about Ancient Rome. I’ve written four novels, three non-fiction books, three short stories and a total of 27 History Girls articles. Somebody really should stop me. After my last History Girls article about Ancient Rome got hit with a content warning, which I suppose I was asking for given the title; How Depraved was Ancient Rome? (the answer being depraved enough to twitch the antennas of Google’s sensitivity robots) I decided that for my next article I would write something much more wholesome, more family friendly, less likely to offend. Which pretty much rules Ancient Rome out as subject.

Instead, I have decided to cast a historical eye over my hometown of Royston. Nobody ever invokes the Google censor robots writing about local history, do they?

My Home Town.
Royston is a small town of around 17,000 people situated on the Hertfordshire/Cambridgeshire border and it’s somewhere I have lived for the last 12 years. The sign that greets you on driving into Royston neatly sums up what my home town has to offer to the would-be visitor.

It’s a historic market town! It has some gardens and a historic church (aren’t all churches generally historical?) There’s parking and toilets and the possibility of eating, drinking and having a cup of tea. And then there is it nearly at the very bottom of Royston attractions, beneath the toilets (which frankly I do not particularly recommend) museum and cave. What says you? A cave? What do you mean a cave? Why would there be a cave in the heart of East Anglia, a terrain so flat that it’s version of hills are nothing more than a slight upward incline and is situated at least 60 miles from the cost?

And here lies a story, a real life mystery and one that really deserves a better more impressive road sign.

The Discovery of Royston Cave.

Scouring my local bookshop, Bows Books, I stumbled across a pamphlet about Royston Cave written by one Joseph Bedlam. Bedlam, a local Royston boy, is an interesting man. A one-time lawyer turned parliamentarian and campaigner against slavery, in his retirement he forged an interest in archaeology and wrote several pamphlets on finds in his local area. Including the one I picked up in Bows Books on the cave.

Bedlam’s account is written only 100 years after the initial discovery of the cave and it is quite marvellous. Take as an example the extremely diplomatic way Bedlam completely demolishes a certain academic’s stated view on Royston’s history: ‘Camden was not quite accurate on that subject; and he may have been misled as to the origin of the Cross.’ Which is Victorian gentleman talk for Camden is both wrong and an idiot. Burn.

According to Bedlam it was in August 1742 that a gang of workmen given the task of erecting a bench in Royston’s butter and cheese market happened upon something curious. It was a round millstone with a hole in its middle only a foot into their digging. Obviously, it would have to be moved, else where would the bench go. But on prising the millstone up the workman found something strange underneath it, there was a shaft. A two-foot-wide man-made shaft that they discovered, by dropping in a plumb line, was at least 16 feet deep. Gazing down into their discovery the workmen noted the ledges carved into the sides of the shaft at regular intervals, they looked uncannily like steps on a ladder, but where did those steps lead to? There was only one way to find out. Send a small boy down there to investigate!

In defence of those workmen this is an era where it was commonplace and indeed expected to send small boys into narrow tunnels, because what are they good for otherwise? This small boy evidently proved himself a useless first responder since they then lower in a ‘slender man with a lighted candle.’ Beldam fails to mention whether the boy or the slender man willingly volunteered for this mission. Nor does he give the boy or the slender man a name, which seems jolly unfair since they are the first people to set eyes on what the workmen have accidentally uncovered.

The nameless slender man does a much better job reporting back than the boy, possibly because they’d at least given him a candle. He tells them the shaft leads to a cavity around 4 feet in height that is filled with loose earth. There was a moment’s pause as everyone digested the slender man’s report, and then a collective conclusion was reached: ‘The people now entertained a notion of a great treasure hid in this place,’ says Bedlam.

One can imagine the excitement of those townspeople, their day was turning out to be way more interesting than the daily purchase of cheese and butter. It must have been akin to how Howard Carter felt when he gazed upon the door of Tutankhamun’s tomb. Or the Italians as they began to slowly uncover the majesty of Pompeii. Or Indiana Jones in that bit in Raiders of the Lost Ark when they find the Ark. Although rest assured that nobody’s face melts off in this tale, thankfully.

It’s amazing the motivation the thought of riches beyond your dreams can inspire, the townspeople working together managed to extract 200 buckets of soil by nightfall. ‘They were quite exhausted by it,’ reports back Mr Bedlam. I don’t doubt it. But what was it? What was it that lay beneath that millstone? What had they uncovered?

Disappointingly it wasn’t a room stacked up with golden treasures like Howard Carter had found behind his door in 1922. What they had found was a cylindrical space 17 feet in diameter with a domed roof some 25 feet high. The most striking feature of this manmade cave, and one as worthy as Howard Carter’s discovery, were the walls of the cave. For on them were carved images, hundreds of images from the floor right up to where the domed ceiling began covering pretty much every spare inch of stone.

From Joseph Bedlam's book, a sketch of Royston Cave.
Wikicomms, public domain

The Carvings

We’ll let Joseph Bedlam have the first word ‘The various groups and figures we are now about to describe are irregularly distributed : they are of different sizes : refer to different subjects : are probably the production of different artists : and exhibit little unity of design.’ In other words Royston Cave is no Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, as Bedlam again bluntly puts it ‘They harmonize chiefly by their general air of antiquity and the quaintness which belongs to the efforts of a rude and superstitious age.’

From Joseph Bedlam's book, a sketch of some of the carvings that adorn Royston Cave.
Wikicomms public domain.

This lack of artistry, skill and talent of whoever carved the images in the cave is informative in itself. It tells us what we are not looking at. We are not looking at the commission of a skilled professional artist the likes of whose works were visible in churches of the time. That different people at different times added to the images ad hocly and often not in keeping to the earlier styles hints that this is not a formal, recognised space.

But it is the images themselves that give us the biggest clues as to what Royston Cave was; they are all to do with Christianity. There is an image of the crucifixion, St Katherine, St Christopher, St Laurence, the conversion of St Paul, amongst many others that have been identified. Outside of the depictions of Christian martyrs who come handily with their own iconography that makes it easier for them to be identified, e.g. St Katherine is always pictured with the wheel she was tortured to death on, there are various figures that could be King Richard the Lionheart, King Henry II and his Queen Eleanor and one who could be Jaques de Molay, Grand Master of the Knights Templar. Scholars examining the clothing and armour of the figurines have concluded that they belong to the mid 1300s. Possibly.

Further drawings of the Royston Cave carvings by Joseph Bedlam.
Wikicomms public domain

Given the nature of the vast majority of the carvings we can conclude that the purpose of the cave was surely religious in nature. But how exactly? And why had the cave been filled in, covered over and deliberately hidden from view? It was time to get the experts in.

Who's theory is correct? There's only one way to find out FIGHT!!!
The discovery of Royston Cave caused a sensation amongst archaeologists and historians of the day and they clambered to answer some of the questions the discovery of the cave had raised. These questions were the cause of an academic bust up that our friend Joseph Bedlam again uses his great tact to describe. ‘So great was the curiosity occasioned by this singular occurrence’ begins Bedlam meaning the discovery of the cave in 1742 ‘that it immediately gave rise to a warm controversy between two eminent archaeologists of the day, Dr William Stukeley and the Rev Charles Parkin, in the course of which though both parties displayed abundant learning and ingenuity, the cause of the truth suffered much from their mutual loss of temper and the too eager desire on both sides to establish a rival theory.’

Stukeley’s theory was that Royston Cave had been the private chapel of Lady Roisia from whom the town, Royston got its name. There is in Royston near the Jolly Postie Restaurant a large round stone known as the Royse stone which is said to be all that is left of a cross that stood there dedicated to Lady Roisia.

The so-called Royse Stone
Picture by John Patridge CC-BY

Parkin did not agree. His theory was that the cave was a hermitage, that is the home of a local hermit. A hermit was a man who had opted to live apart from society in solitude in order to concentrate on contemplating religious matters.
Parkin published his theory under the polite title An Answer to, or Remarks upon, Dr. Stukeley's Origines Roystonianæ.
Stukeley responded to Parkin’s theory in a paper entitled Discourses on Antiquities in Britain. Number II. Which caused Parkin to hit back with another paper, this time entitled A Reply to the Peevish, Weak, and Malevolent Objections brought by Dr. Stukeley in his Origines Roystonianæ

The Fighty Monks
Another theory, and one that is killer popular on You Tube, is that the cave was a chapel/initiation temple for the Knights Templar. The Knights Templar get dragged into all kinds of conspiracy theories/mysteries which makes them perfect fodder for You Tube and the discovery of strange caves with odd carvings which don’t appear in any historical records.

Historically, in the proper sense that involves actual evidence for your theories, the Knights Templar were a religious order of monks founded in the 12th century. But these were monks with a difference; they were fighty monks! Originally stationed in the Holy land their role was to physically protect visiting Christian pilgrims. Later we find them being very fighty in the crusades. 
As well as being fighty, the Knights Templar were also extremely wealthy and it was this talent in making money that led to their downfall. King Philip IV of France having become indebted to the Templars sought a novel way to get out of paying back the cash he owed – he persuaded/threatened Pope Clement to declare that the Templars were heretics. With an accompanying demand that all the Christian monarchs under Papal influence should arrest the templars and seize their assets. It was a full scale persecution, with those who were captured being horribly tortured and executed. Unsurprisingly many Templars fled to parts unknown and kept themselves hidden.
Jacques de Molay, the last grand master of the Knights Templar, burnt alive as a heretic in Paris.
Wood Engraving by J David. From Wellcome Collection

That’s what we know about them historically from the surviving evidence. In recent times the Knights Templar have been the subject of numerous books of dubious research that claim they were the recipients of secret knowledge relating to the Holy Grail, the Ark of the covenant, the Turin shroud, the true nature of Christ, freemasonry and probably the solution to every single Wordle until the end of time. For many the idea that the Templars were sitting on dynamite info that could seriously damage Christianity is a more convincing reason why Pope Clement was so determined to wipe them all out, rather than Philip IV just didn’t fancy paying back his loans.

In the context of busily hoovering up cataclysmic secrets that they refused to divulge even when they led to their own destruction I can quite believe the Templars found the time to travel to a small Hertfordshire town to deliberately build an underground cave covered in mysterious symbols that they would leave no explanation for. It’s exactly the sort of maddening thing they would do, smugly, in the full knowledge that people would write about it for centuries to come.
On the other hand history is awash with stories of petty men whose pettiness accidentally delivers world changing events. So I can quite believe that Philip IV would happily watch Templars being horribly killed just because he thought their interest rates were crimininally unfair to him.

The Draw of the Cave
Treasure wise the townspeople of Royston were to be disappointed, for all that was recovered from the cave in the way of movable objects distinctly lacked value; there was the fragments of a drinking vessel, animal bones, a human skull and some bits of brass. Certainly not enough to construct a blockbuster exhibition out of that would tour the world.

But even if nobody was going to get instantly rich beyond their wildest dreams there was money to be made from the cave. In 1784 local builder, Thomas Watson dug the tunnel entrance to the Cave that is still used today, issuing this grand statement: ‘T. Watson respectfully informs the public in general and the antiquarians in particular, that he has opened (for their inspection) a very commodious entrance into that ancient Subterraneous cavern in Royston, Herts. which has ever been esteemed by all lovers of antiquity as the greatest curiosity of the kind in Europe. T. Watson hopes that all those who may think proper to visit the above Cave will have their curiosity gratified to the full extent. The passage leading to it is itself extremely curious, being hewn out of the solid rock. N.B. - It may be seen any hour of the day.’

Seen at any hour of the day for a charge of six pence per person.

One of the many mysterious carvings in Royston cave.
Wikicomms CC-by

Bedlam has the delightful story Watson’s wife who designated herself as some kind tour guide/seer to the cave and was ‘accustomed to descant on the exploits and piety of its heroes and heroines, mixing up the legends of saints [] and confidently supporting her statements by quotations from history, which she humorously called The Book of Kings’. Which had to be worth six pence

Bedlam also mentions ‘numerous, distinguished personages’ who visited the cave, including the French King Louis XVIII. For those of you not so hot on your King Louis’ (and by god who is given the huge number of them); Louis XVIII is the Louis who was brother to the Louis that got guillotined during the French revolution and who was brought in post Napolean when the monarchy was restored. It was whilst he was in exile in the years between his brother being executed and Napolean being defeated that he took the time to travel to my small home town to visit the cave.

Portrait of Louis XVIII by Angelique Mongez
Public Domain. Wikicomms


So what is Royston Cave?

We don’t know. But the not knowing is what makes it special. To write history is to trawl through literary accounts, local registries, endless inscriptions and documents. That such a cave could exist beneath a busy market without anyone knowing it was there is quite something. I get a kick every time I drive down Melbourn Road in Royston knowing that a few feet beneath my wheels is the cave, silent and empty and hanging onto its secrets. That’s it’s draw; that we don’t know why it was built or why it was destroyed. There hangs the tantalising prospect for every visitor to the cave that maybe they could be the one to finally solve the mystery.

P.S. I’m with Parkin and his hermit theory.

Recommened Reading:
Royston Cave by Joseph Bedlam
The Royston Cave website has lots of information on both the carvings and all the latest theories

L.J. Trafford's latest book on Ancient Rome entitled Ancient Rome's Worst Emperors is available from 30th November.

Friday 3 November 2023

Earth Mysteries - Torre d'en Galmés - Menorca - Celia Rees


At the beginning of October, I went to Menorca on a Yoga Retreat. Weather perfect, lovely place and I love the Balearics. I've spent time on Ibiza, but I’d never been to Menorca. It is smaller than Ibiza or Majorca, less busy and less well known. 

Apart from the yoga and the prospect of a little sun before winter sets in and the storms start rolling in from the Atlantic, I wanted to see the megalithic sites that are unique to this island. I'd read about them years ago in a book about Earth Mysteries and they were on my list of places I'd like visit. We have plenty of megalithic sites in Britain and I've visited a lot of them, but so many have been worn away, degraded, ironed out by ploughing, their stones robbed for later building by people who had no respect or reverence for those who had occupied the land before them. 

Menorca is a small island and for much of its history sparsely populated, so much survives here. It was also isolated, at the far eastern end of the Balearic archipelago and distant from Continental Europe. The first settlers apparently arrived in the Early Bronze Age and by the end of the 2nd millennium, it had begun to develop its own distinctive culture with large settlements, roads, dwelling places and open spaces surrounding tower shaped monumental structures called talayots. 

Torre D'en Galmés is one such settlement. It occupies an extensive site and is the highest point on the island. It is on the southern coast, looking out to sea. All along this coast are similar sites. Apart from the tower-like talayots, there are stone enclosures, containing monumental structures, Taula (table in Catalan), huge slabs of stone topped by massive stone lintels, eerily reminiscent of Stonehenge and the even more mysterious  Göbekli Tepe in Turkey. What was their purpose? Table? Platform? Altar? Who constructed them? How? And most of all, why? The same mysteries surround these sites as swirl about so many other remnants of ancient cultures that have disappeared from our memory. They suggest many questions but answer very few.  


Very little is known about the purpose of these impressive stone enclosures and the significance of the monumental Taula that they enclose. Some kind of sanctuary where the community could gather to perform celebrations, ceremonies and rituals, but of what nature and to what purpose? There are so many enigmas - the massive size of the monolithic slabs which form the Taula, made of local stone but how did they get the stones there, how did they form them, how did they erect them? As with all these enigmatic remnants of the past, we don't know and will probably never know.

The mystery here might be to do with the positioning of the site. It faces due south and at night, particularly at a time with no light pollution, it would have had an unparalleled view of the southern night sky, Maybe it had something to do with the position of the stars, alignments with a constellation or constellations that the people here regarded as significant.

Eventually, of course, this distinctive culture disappeared. Maybe the stars they saw as so important, lost that vital alignment and the site was abandoned. Or maybe the process was more gradual; as the island became subsumed into the ever expanding Roman Empire, its distinctive difference was erased. The indigenous culture would have survived for a time but gradually the traditions and beliefs would have been lost and the purpose and function of these monumental structures would have receded, like so much else, into the enigma of the past. 


Celia Rees