Friday 17 September 2021

To Autumn: a celebration of nature’s golden season. By Caroline K. Mackenzie.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’. So begins Keats’ beautiful ode ‘To Autumn’, the first poem I ever learned by heart. Our English teacher at school had asked us each to choose a poem, learn it, and recite it to the rest of the class, with a short presentation of what it meant to us. Flicking through a poetry compilation from the bookcase in my bedroom, Keats’ poem immediately struck a chord. I have returned to the poem every year since, and not just in autumn.

Autumn is, quite simply, my favourite time of the year. Although many people understandably enjoy the ‘new birth’ of spring, or the hot weather and long days of summer, I have always favoured what tends to be one of the two cooler seasons of our year. Some of my friends cite winter as the better, thanks in part to the excitement of Christmas and the prospect of a New Year. However, I particularly enjoy the anticipation and rejuvenation of a new year not in January but September (of which more below).

If you are not familiar with Keats’ poem then I urge you to read it. I shall let his enchanting words speak for themselves. In this blog, I should like to set out just some of the reasons why I believe autumn is so special and, if you are a summer lover, perhaps this post will help you look forward to the days and months ahead rather than feel disappointment as your favourite season draws to a close.

Autumn leaves

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

Watching the leaves on the trees change from green to golden to flaming red is a visual delight, matched by the audible joy of the crunch of fallen leaves underfoot on a brisk autumn’s walk. Who can resist the childlike urge to kick a pile of these giant cornflakes and then watch them as they tumble silently, twisting and turning, to the ground again? Paths which would otherwise simply be muddy brown trails are transformed into golden patchwork quilts lining the way ahead through woods whose trees generously and gently drop their jewels until their branches are bare and ready for winter.

If one of these walks is blessed with a blue sky and gleaming sunshine, then that is a recipe for a perfect autumn day. Sunshine is always welcome but in the height of summer when the temperatures soar, I often find myself seeking shade or even staying indoors (not least to avoid the dreaded hay fever symptoms). However, sunshine on an autumn’s day feels like a surprise gift and makes my soul sing.

Log fires

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

The best experiences enlist all our senses and, together with a feast for the eyes fit for Midas, autumn brings its own aromas, one of the loveliest of which is the welcoming smell of a log fire. Watching the wisps of smoke whirl out of a chimney pot is surely one of the most enticing invitations and a promise of cheer, homeliness and comfort. Once inside, sitting by a fire provides warmth in a way that no central heating can rival and a cosy glow that turns everything in the room golden, mirroring nature’s colours outdoors.

Crackling logs are accompanied by a mesmerising dance display as the flames lick the wood, pirouette above, and showcase a whole rainbow of reds, oranges, yellows, even purples and blues. I find myself hypnotised by the constant movement which is ever-changing and yet supremely calming.

Even a stack of well-arranged logs can create that snug feeling with the promise of hours curling up by a wood-burner or inglenook.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie
Cosy evenings

Log fires are a treat at any time of day but perhaps the most indulgent time is late afternoon which almost unnoticed turns into evening, the hours slipping by as mugs of hot chocolate are grasped with grateful hands chilled during an invigorating stroll. Soon thereafter, it is perhaps time to crack open a favourite bottle of wine (mine is a ‘Bacchus’, of course) and curl up with a good book until bedtime.

© Amanda Short Design.
From ‘A Latin Lexicon: an Illustrated Compendium of Latin words and English derivatives’ by Caroline K. Mackenzie.

The soporific seductions of autumn need no hard sell, but to illustrate this part of the blog, I could not resist including the gorgeous illustration created by Amanda Short for my Latin Lexicon (the subject of a previous History Girls post, A Latin Lexicon). This lovely image accompanies the entry in the Lexicon for ‘dormio’ (I sleep) from which we derive dormant, dormitory and, of course, dormouse.


© Caroline K. Mackenzie

Most of my days are spent at my desk, researching, writing or teaching (currently via Zoom). As the days draw shorter, a scented candle flickering by my papers and books helps make my study a relaxing and pleasant environment. I would happily spend all my days in here so the lure of an autumn ramble ensures I keep moving and achieve some sort of physical as well as mental workout each day (or as the Roman poet Juvenal so succinctly wrote, ‘mens sana in corpore sano’).

Autumn fruits

Another of nature’s gifts at this time of year is the surplus of delicious ripe fruits growing in abundance on trees and in hedgerows - a healthy, sweet treat! Apples, blackberries, plums, and damsons make for comforting crumbles and warming pies (with plenty of cinnamon for good measure) or can be simply eaten straight from the branch. The fruits add rosiness to a garden or country lane - a form of second flowering when many plants have dropped their colourful petals - and contribute to the kaleidoscope of autumn arrays.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

If you are fortunate enough to be outdoors just after a rain shower, nature also kindly washes the fruit for you - it is such a beautiful sight to see a juicy plum, perfectly ripe and decorated with a glistening rain drop like a crystal of sugar. Green leaves positively radiate when wet and reflect the sun’s rays, as if thanking the skies for the combination of ingredients which help their host produce its best crop. As for the sweet smell of fresh rain and cut grass, I just stand and take deep breaths and feel the benefit with each one. If I could bottle this air, I would.

Back to school

I realise that I may be biased, being a teacher, but autumn heralds the excitement of a new year. Or, to look at this another way, I have often thought that one of the reasons I took up teaching is because I enjoy the structure of the academic year so much. September brings a new start; as a child, of course, that also meant new pencils - such a thrill! Refreshed and recharged by the summer holidays, the return to school meant new teachers, novel subjects and after-school clubs, sometimes additional classmates, too, and there was always the optimism of unknown adventures ahead.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

Later, as a student, cycling along The Backs and marvelling at the autumn colours in Cambridge, I contemplated the choice of new courses on offer: Homer, Classical Art and Archaeology, Food and Drink in the Ancient World (and daytimes spent in the Faculty would be punctuated by plenty of parties by night) - what a ball I was going to have! Embarking on my postgraduate studies in York, I remember vividly walking along the River Ouse lined with trees putting on their autumnal attire with the Minster towering majestically in the distance. That autumn reminds me of the excitement of a new chapter and a new challenge. 

The Library at Pembroke College, Cambridge in autumn.
© Caroline K. Mackenzie

This September, I have welcomed a new crop of tutees in Latin and Greek (of all ages and stages of life), whose enthusiasm is infectious and some of whose academic journeys are just beginning. But it is also lovely to welcome back students who have had a summer break from their studies and are returning re-energised and focused, whatever their goals. Happy New School Year!

September in the city

When I commenced my career in London as a lawyer, I was introduced to the joys of a city in autumn including the delight of diving into a cosy coffee shop on a rainy day en route to the office. City breaks are enchanting in autumn - it’s not too hot to explore the streets on foot and European cities like Paris, Bruges and Vienna are even more magical at this time of year, their beautiful buildings radiant in the golden sunshine, and their rivers sparkling like diamonds. New York always looks particularly stunning 'in the Fall' when Central Park comes ablaze with russet trees whose reflections bounce back in the Lake, offsetting the grey, geometric and grid-like mirror images of the city's architecture.

Literary inspiration

To conclude my case for autumn, I leave you with a couple of quotations which pay fitting tribute to autumnal offerings. In the meantime, I shall pour myself a cider and raise a toast, ‘To Autumn’.

‘Her pleasure in the walk must arise from the exercise and the day, from the view of the last smiles of the year upon the tawny leaves and withered hedges, and from repeating to herself some few of the thousand poetical descriptions extant of autumn, that season of peculiar and inexhaustible influence on the mind of taste and tenderness, that season which has drawn from every poet worthy of being read some attempt at description, or some lines of feeling.’ Jane Austen, ‘Persuasion’.

‘Life starts all over again when it gets crisp in the fall.’ F. Scott Fitzgerald, ‘The Great Gatsby’.

© Caroline K. Mackenzie

Friday 10 September 2021

The Red Prince by Mary Hoffman

Helen Carr's  The Red Prince: The Life of John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster reviewed by Mary Hoffman

If you are a student of Medieval history, the Wars of the Roses or the Plantagenets, you will be familiar with John of Gaunt. If not, you might rely on memories of the king's dying uncle in Shakespeare's Richard ll, who is given the patriotic lyric speech about "This sceptr'd Isle."

What no-one quite appreciates is that English and British Monarchs from Henry lV up to George l - with a brief interlude from Yorkists Edward lV to Richard lll - have been descended from this extraordinary lord, at one time the richest and most hated man in England, against whom the people rose up in what used to be known as "the Peasants' Revolt."

The people feared that his immense power made him a second king behind the throne of his weak nephew, Richard ll, and he certainly tried hard to become King of Castile, through his second wife, but had to remain content with his dukedom and his riches. What would he have thought of three hundred years of British monarchs and descendants on the Portuguese and Spanish thrones too?

There hasn't been a full-length biography of Gaunt since Anthony Goodman's in 1992 so Helen Carr's is most welcome. (It's a shorter gap than the last one since Sydney Armitage-Smith's was in 1904!) It's not so much that Carr's book provides any new information but it is compulsively readable and turns the image of this fascinating man a few degrees to shine light on different facets of his complex life.

For example, I didn't know that from the age of ten John went to live with his ten years older brother the Black Prince (as he was not known in his lifetime) and modelled himself on him. That makes sense of his strict adherence to the promise his made his dying older brother that he would protect and support the young Richard when he came to the throne.

John of Gaunt was named, like his many siblings, for the place he was born: Ghent. His immediately older brother was Lionel of Antwerp and his younger brothers Edmund of Langley and Thomas of Woodstock. These names stuck, even when they later became dukes (of Clarence, York and Gloucester respectively). John was the third surviving son of Edward lll and Philippa of Hainault, who had at least fourteen children.

He became Duke of Lancaster through his first marriage, to Blanche of Lancaster, inheriting the title when his father-in-law died. When Blanche's sister also died, the vast wealth of the first Duke of Lancaster, Henry Grosmont, came to his son-in-law along with the title. Among the many properties included in that inheritance was the Savoy Palace, which became the most luxurious home in private hands in the land. It was on the Strand, facing the river Thames and today's Savoy Hotel stands on the same site.

This luxurious residence became the focus of the rage felt by the common people when the Crown declared itself broke in 1380 and a Poll Tax of three groats was to be levied on each male over fifteen years of age. They believed this idea to be the fault of John of Gaunt, living in his fancy palace, and by the spring of 1381, the people were in full revolt.

The uprising began in Kent and Essex and the rebels' main target was the Savoy Palace. John of Gaunt was not home and they entered easily, destroying "cloth, coverlets, books, beds, a valuable headboard ... napery and jewels." They threw silverware into the river and ripped up the gorgeous clothes they found in chests. Although Carr doesn't mention this we know from Juliet Barker's England, Arise! that they also destroyed all paper records and killed the clerks so that John of Gaunt's administrative and financial affairs, for which the Savoy was the hub, were still in disarray at least seven years later. He never again had a permanent base in London.

The owner was away in Scotland but had he been at home he would have been in danger of his life. As it was, the looters (although they were not allowed to keep anything for themselves) made a bonfire of his belongings and inadvertently rolled a couple of barrels of gunpowder into it. The resulting explosion and fire killed many rebels, including some who were sampling Gaunt's fine wines in his cellars, and the palace was burned to the ground.

It makes Trafalgar Square in 1990 look rather tame.

The story is vividly re-told by Helen Carr. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the Treasurer and John of Gaunt's physician were all brutally killed by the mob. The future Henry lV, Gaunt's only legitimate son, survived only by hiding in a cupboard in the Tower of London.  But we are halfway through the book before we reach this pivotal clash between the great lord and the populace.

Before that we have heard of his military prowess alongside his oldest brother, the Black Prince, and his abortive attempts to become the King of Castile and Leon. Much of the resentment against him came because of the taxation to support this vanity project.

John's beloved first wife, Blanche of Lancaster, had died in 1368, either from the plague or complications of childbirth. Chaucer's Book of the Duchess commemorated this lady and if not commissioned by Gaunt was certainly written while Chaucer was in his service. There seems no doubt that the two were a loving couple and John was buried next to Blanche following the terms of his will. But it was important for him to re-marry and his second wife was Constance of Castile.

That was a dynastic choice and by the time of his second marriage, Gaunt was in a relationship with Kathryn Swynford, the long term mistress who bore him four children, later legitimated by his third marriage, after Constance's death. The personal and the political are both given weight in this well-balanced biography.

What we don't often hear is that John of Gaunt was fearful of returning to London after the uprising, in case the young king decided to scapegoat him  for the people's dissatisfaction with the nobility and possibly send him into exile. After several weeks, word came from Richard that his uncle was needed and Lancaster could breathe again. In less than a year he was walking at the side of Richard's young queen, Anne, the premier lord in the land, saving only the crown.

Temporarily, he separated from his mistress and appeared to devote himself to Constance. But his relations with the king were never so cordial as they had been during Richard's minority. Gaunt did not approve of Richard's close relationship with his favourite, Robert de Vere, the Earl of Oxford; he considered that de Vere and other favourites gave the king poor counsel and turned him against his wiser and more experienced uncle.

From now until his death, John of Gaunt maintained an uneasy relationship with Richard and there was also an hostility between the king and Gaunt's son Henry, Richard's cousin and ultimately his usurper. But Gaunt did better than some of Richard's uncles: the Duke of Gloucester, his youngest brother was killed by order of the king. 

John of Gaunt died in 1399, anticipating that his son would be robbed of his inheritance by the "volatile" king, who indeed expressed joy at his uncle's demise and did exactly that. Henry Bolingbroke was not prepared to put up with that and it began the chain of events that we know as the Wars of the Roses. Usurpation, even if understood, is not likely to be forgiven.

Helen Carr has given us a fine, fully-rounded portrait of a remarkable man, who was a soldier and a politician as well as a loyal son and brother, a lover and a patron of the arts. It's a "warts and all" depiction, not playing down his ruthlessness and ambition as well as his more chivalrous qualities.

All images from Wikimedia Commons

Friday 3 September 2021

"As Kingfishers Catch Fire" by Karen Maitland

'Looking for Fish' A common kingfisher in England
Photo: Tony Wood

Have you noticed that animals and birds never seem to read the books about how they are supposed to behave? According to the bird books, kingfishers like clean water, yet for months I daily watched one pair fishing in a filthy, muddy ditch next to a busy main road, apparently shunning an ideal river and lake less than half a mile away. But curious behaviour aside, there is no doubt, kingfishers are beautiful creatures, who have inspired many poets – 

As kingfishers catch fire, dragonflies draw flames,’ - Gerald Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

It was the rainbow gave thee birth,' - ‘The Kingfisher’ William Henry Davies (1871-1940)

But in medieval and Tudor times kingfishers were not simply admired, they were caught and killed to be used in the house. Also known as halcyons, these unfortunate birds were thought to be able to predict the wind direction when dried and hung up. Many Tudor houses had a dead kingfisher dangling from the rafters as an internal weather vane and they were also used for this purpose on board ships. 

A lytle byrde called the kingfisher, being hanged in the ayre by the neck; his nebbe or byll wyll be always dyrect and strayght againt ye winde.' Thomas Lupton, 1579

And both Shakespeare and Marlowe refer to this practise. 

How stands the wind? Into what corner peers my halcyon’s bill?’  Chrstopher Marlowe 

Coming up empty
Photo: Andy Morffew

Even as late 1928, a local historian noticed a dried kingfisher hanging from the rafters in house he visited and was told by the householder that the bird pointed in one direction if the weather was fine, but in the opposite direction if it was wet. 

But halcyons were used for more just weather vanes. Dead kingfishers, if kept in a dry place, were thought never to decay and always smelled sweet, so the dried carcasses of the birds were also placed in chests of clothes, linens and blankets, as they were said to preserve them from moths and decay, and keep give them a pleasant perfume. It was a strange belief since the kingfisher’s nest burrow smells anything but sweet. But beauty was associated with fragrance, and the birds could well have been packed with herbs or spices during the drying process which might have helped.

But the even their ancient name ‘halcyon’ is steeped in history and legend. It comes from the Greek myth of Alcyone, daughter of Aeolus, god of the winds. Alcyone’s husband, Ceyx, son of the Morning Star, perished at sea. His wife was so grief-stricken that she drowned herself. The gods took pity on them and turned the pair into kingfishers, so that they could be reunited. It was thought that kingfishers built a nest of fishbones which floated on the sea, into which they laid their eggs. For fourteen days in winter, when the halcyon was said to brood her eggs on the sea, her father, Aeolus, stilled the wind and waves for her. In ancient times, this period of unusually calm weather was known as the ‘halcyon days’. It was believed to occur at the time of the winter solstice, 21st December, and start around 14th December, though later the phrase came to mean any period of happiness, peace and calm.

Success! Kingfisher and fish
Photo: Andy Morffew

In Medieval France and England kingfishers came to be called St Martin’s birds, and were thought to brood their eggs around his feast day on 11th November, which often coincided with a period of calm weather, known as ‘St Martin’s little summer’, which Shakespeare refers to in Henry VI – ‘Except St Martin’s summer, halcyon days.’ St Martin’s summer was said to be three consecutive days of dry, mild weather around the time of Martinmas. This might have occurred more frequently in earlier centuries, but modern weather records show this has rarely happened in the last 100 years. So, perhaps, another bird is a better predictor than the kingfisher of the winter weather now, for as another old saying goes –

'If Saint Matinmas ice can bear a duck,

The winter will be all mire and muck.'

'Chilled Duck'
Photo: Ian Paterson/Chilled Duck/CC BY-SA 2.0

Now that sounds more like a British winter!