Archive for January, 2009

Picture by Tureluurs (click image)

Picture by Nico W. Mourits (click image)

I went to see the RSC production of Romeo and Juliet at the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford last weekend. To be honest, some of the online reviews are mixed to say the least! (i.e. the good , the bad and the ugly ) I found myself largely disagreeing with the more negative critics.

The play had been given a sort of vintage Italian look with a clear ‘Godfather’ inspiration. Just in case anyone had any doubts about the setting, an onstage band played music that echoed the famous theme tune from the Movie. A minor gripe was lack of balcony! (see link ‘the bad’ above)

The director chose to have Juliet deliver the immortal ‘wherefore art thou’ line whilst leaning over the end of her bed! This line was delivered to Romeo who was sitting a few feet away – trying manfully to look as if all of this made any sense at all!

People have always re-interpreted Shakespeare and played with settings – I have no problem with this, I would have been surprised to see the cast in (Shakespearean) costume. Watching the play led me to reflect upon the sort of influences that Shakespeare might have considered.

Having read Claire Asquith’s book ‘Shadowplay’, I have started to consider Shakespeare differently. Taking the by now familiar idea that Shakespeare was a Catholic sympathiser, this book explores how these sympathies may have influenced his works.Take for example Romeo’s famous line from the balcony (or the floor at the end of the bed!) scene:

But, soft! What light through yonder window breaks?

It is the east, and Juliet is the sun.

Arise, fair sun, and kill the envious moon,

Who is already sick and pale with grief,

That thou her maid art far more fair than she:

Be not her maid, since she is envious;

Her vestal livery is but sick and green

And none but fools do wear it; cast it off.

 Elizabeth I

Elizabeth I

The usual reading of this would be as follows . According to Asquith though, we need to look more deeply to understand this.

Apparently, the story of Romeo and Juliet – especially the secret love affair and marriage had a covert  meaning.

Shakespeare’s patron, the Earl of Southampton had incurred royal displeasure for his marriage without permission to Elizabeth Vernon, one of the Queens ladies in waiting. If one also considers that the ’Moon’ is a coded reference to Queen Elizabeth then the above lines start to take on a different meaning. Furthermore, the originally text of the play referred to ‘Pale and Green livery’ – a reference that was only changed to ‘sick and green’ in a later version of the play. Asquith argues that this refers to the Tudor livery of Green and white, and the reference may have been just too risky to leave in!

Of course, we will never know for certain how far all of this is true. The fact that people choose to interpret Shakespeare differently is clear. If nothing else though, perhaps it also serves to remind us not to be too precious about how Shakespeares work is presented – I still think a balcony would have been good though!


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Few people in Tudor England lived beyond their fortieth birthday. This remains the situation in many parts of the developing world. The life expectancy in present day Sierra Leone is 34.3 years, and in Zambia life expectancy has fallen to 33 years, making it the lowest in the world. This situation continues to get worse due to rampant poverty and the spread of AIDS.
Tudor people experienced war, persecution, poverty, and did not have any of the benefits of modern medicine. If they became ill they relied instead on herbal treatments.

Headaches were treated by imbibing a drink made up of a mixture of lavender, sage, marjoram, rose and rue. Other headache sufferers preferred to press a hangman’s rope to the head! Rheumatism was treated by the patient being made to wear the skin of a donkey. A treatment for Gout was to apply to the affected foot a mixture made out of worms, pigs marrow and herbs all boiled together with hair from a red-haired dog. For deafness the gall of a hare was mixed with grease from a fox. The resulting concoction was warmed and placed in the ear. Those suffering from smallpox had red curtains hung around their bed as it was believed that the red light produced by the curtains will cure the patient. Jaundice could be cured by swallowing nine lice mixed with some ale each morning. The lice and ale mixture should be swallowed for seven consecutive days.

Leech - photo by nebarnix (click image)
Leech – photo by nebarnix (click image)

In the towns and cities bleeding was still a popular cure for most ills. The Tudors believed that too much blood was bad for the body and this in itself caused illnesses. If blood was let from the body, the patient’s illness would also go out of the body with the blood. It was common to use leeches to bleed the body.

Most of these remedies seem very strange now. I’m not sure whether I would like to swallow lice! However some of these older cures, discovered through necessity in hard times, are being investigated by present day medical researchers.
Clinical trials have reported that lavender essential oil may be beneficial in a variety of conditions, including insomnia, alopecia (hair loss), anxiety, postoperative pain, and as an antibacterial and antiviral agent.

Aromatherapists also use lavender to treat headaches, nervous disorders, and exhaustion. Herbalists treat skin ailments, such as fungal infections (like candidiasis), wounds, eczema, and acne, with lavender oil. It is also used externally for circulatory disorders, and as a rub for rheumatic ailments. A recent study found that the use of lavender oil may improve postoperative pain control. Fifty patients undergoing breast biopsy surgery received either oxygen supplemented with lavender oil or oxygen alone. Patients in the lavender group reported a higher degree of pain control than patients in the control group.lavender
In addition to training as a mental health nurse, I have also become qualified in aromatherapy and reflexology – due to an interest in the wisdom the past may have to offer. I think that there are a number of ‘old wives tales’ cures, discovered in a world without a modern day understanding of chemistry or microbiology which will turn out to a scientifically verifiable efficacy. I have seen the powerfully convincing results of using essential oils with massage for rheumatoid arthritis, stress and eczema, amongst other conditions.

Leeches have also made a come back! They are used in burns and reconstructive surgery units for their anti-coagulant and blood-draining properties. The leech bite creates a puncture wound that bleeds for hours, while the leech’s saliva contains substances that anaesthetise the wound area, dilate the blood vessels to increase blood flow and prevent the blood from clotting. Leeches are also useful in reducing the painful inflammation of osteoarthritis. There is even a farm in Wales that breeds Leeches for use in the NHS!

(See also ‘The Wise woman’)


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Thought I would do a quick post to show off a re-creation of some Tudor style decor that I did. The great chamber at Harvington Hall is panelled on three sides. This is a modern replacement of panelling that was stripped from the Hall whilst it was in the process of becoming derelict.

Harvington - Modern day room

Harvington - Modern day room

I thought it would be interesting to get an idea of what it might have looked like originally. There is one small panel on one of the walls which still has some of the original panelling. This is quite brightly painted with a red, triangular design – this original design is quite clearly evident on the door at the back of the room.

I took a photo of the door painting and then  added this to the other panels in the room ( I also ‘lit’ the fire and added a figure). I think the effect is quite interesting although I am not sure that I would particularly like it myself. I have left the floorboards un-covered, I think they would have been covered by rushes originally.


How the room may have looked?

Ok , Ok – the electric lighting is a bit of an anachronism too! but you get the general idea? (Although apparently ‘The Tudors’ TV Show had a central heating radiator on display – why shouldn’t I have electric lights!)


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The coronation of Queen Elizabeth the first took place at Westminster Abbey on Sunday the 15th of January 1559. The ceremony cost Elizabeth £16,000 – a fabulous sum of money for the time. It was also remarkable when one considers Elizabeth’s later reputation for reluctance to part with money. Elizabeth was of course conscious that she needed to consolidate her position as Queen because she came to the throne at a difficult time for her country.

Elizabeth I Coronation miniature by Nicholas Hilliard

Elizabeth I Coronation miniature by Nicholas Hilliard

England was surrounded by hostile nations and was still at war with France. Calais, which had been an English town since Edward III had captured it in 1347 had been re-taken by the French – a severe blow to national pride. Elizabeth had also to face a desperate shortage of funds. If all of this wasn’t bad enough there was still the question of the succession, the religious question, the fact that Elizabeth was technically illegitimate and also she was, well, a woman! Many people didn’t expect her to last long as Queen.

Elizabeth was as aware as her people that there had been a great turn over of monarchs in the recent past. In the 12 years since her Father Henry VIII died in 1547 there had been 3 Monarchs before Elizabeth. Jane Grey’s reign lasted for only 9 days in June 1553. One can only assume that some of the people in the crowds at her coronation would have been wondering how long it would be before they were celebrating at another coronation.

That Elizabeth’s reign was to last for another 44 years despite the challenges she faced on her succession is a testament to her political skill and her inherited survival instincts – a critical part of the repertoire of the Tudor monarchs.


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Martyrs of England & Wales under the Tyburn Tree. Courtesy Br Lawrence Lew, OP (Click image)

Martyrs of England & Wales under the Tyburn Tree. Courtesy Br Lawrence Lew, OP (Click image)

The site of Tyburn tree is very close to Marble Arch. What is now right at the heart of bustling London was once outside the city bounds in Middlesex, and used for executions for this reason – for six centuries. In this time over fifty thousand people met their deaths there.

Tyburn, the place of execution

Tyburn, the place of execution

From 1535 to 1681 Tyburn was transformed into a place of cruelty, torture and execution for men and women because of their religious belief. It had become an act of high treason to be a Catholic priest, or to associate with Catholic priests. It was also legal treason to refuse to accept the monarch as “the only Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England”, in the reign of King Henry VIII, from 1534 onwards under Elizabeth I, Charles I and Charles II.

Tyburn had been a place of public spectacle where crowds gathered for entertainment. The martyrs, however, brought a new spirit into the barbarities and butchery of Tyburn. This new spirit was one of joy, spontaneous humour and wholehearted forgiveness of those who had brought them to their life’s end at Tyburn. This spirit flowed over into the crowds around the Tyburn Gallows. When Blessed Thomas Maxfield was dragged to the Tyburn Tree in 1616, the Gallows had been adorned with garlands of fragrant flowers while the ground around it was strewn with sweet-smelling herbs and branches of laurel and bay.

Blessed Philip Powel announced from the Tyburn Tree, “This is the happiest day and the greatest joy that ever befell me, for I am brought hither for no other cause or reason than that I am a Roman Catholic priest and a monk of the Order of St Benedict.” (1646)Tyburn tree

Saint Edmund Campion, Jesuit priest, prayed on the scaffold for those responsible for his death – “I recommend your case and mine to Almightie God, the Searcher of hearts, to the end that we may at last be friends in heaven, when all injuries shall be forgotten.” (1581)

Edward Morgan, priest, was reproved by a minister on the scaffold for being so cheerful. The martyr replied – “Why should anyone be offended at my going to heaven cheerfully? For God loves a cheerful giver.” (1642)

“Thus”, write the nuns at Tyburn Convent, dedicated to those who died, “the holy Martyrs transformed Tyburn’s Deadly Nevergreen Tree into the Tree of Life and the Gate of Heaven, which it remains to this very day”. The nuns continue to live in this spirit, and, although living an enclosed life, offer their prayers in perpetual adoration for people in all walks of life, including prisoners.

The site of the gallows is now marked by three brass triangles mounted on the pavement on an island in the middle of Edgware Road at its junction with Bayswater Road.

Click on this link to see a Google earth image of the modern day site.

Whilst we are on the subject of executions – this is worth a look executedtoday.com


I asked a friend (thanks for your help Linda & Rob!) to take a picture of the Tyburn monument for us – he reported that it was no longer there due to roadworks. A quick Google search turned up this blog post which is worth a look

Update 2

18.05.2009 We had a comment from Fr Tim Finigan to say that the monument is now restored – you can see a photo of this on his blog.



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On my first Sonne

Farewell, thou child of my right hand, and joy ;
My sin was too much hope of thee, lov’d boy.
Seven years thou wert lent to me, and I thee pay,
Exacted by thy fate, on the just day.
Oh, could I lose all father now ! For why
Will man lament the state he should envy?
To have so soon ‘scaped world’s and flesh’s rage,
And if no other misery, yet age !
Rest in soft peace, and, asked, say, Here doth lie
Ben Jonson his best piece of poetry.
For whose sake henceforth all his vows be such
As what he loves may never like too much.

Ben Jonson

In most modern societies childbirth and childhood are considered to be joyful parts of family life. It is very easy to forget that people once had cause to view things much differently. In Tudor times childbirth was a hazardous time for mother and child whilst infant mortality was high. Ben Jonson’s well known and touching lament (above) on the death of his son Benjamin who died in 1603 reminds us of the grief that was all too commonly experienced. Shakespeare too lost a son, Hamnet who died aged 11 in 1596. It is hard to imagine that the following verse from the play King John does not contain an insight into Shakespeare’s own feelings.

Childbirth was a dangerous time and contemporary medical science and midwifery was ill equipped to deal with complications. It is well known that Henry VIII’s third wife Jane Seymour died of complications following the birth of Edward VI in 1537. Catherine of Aragon was pregnant on seven occasions, every child but her daughter Mary died either in or shortly after birth.

Catherine of Aragon

Catherine of Aragon

Because of the risks, children were baptised quickly as it was commonly believed that children who died without christening might be condemned to eternal damnation. There is a suggestion that christening came to be associated with superstitious beliefs. In Keith Thomas’ book Religion and the decline of magic he describes how the idea that children ‘came on better’ once christened in some places survived into the 20th century. The religious character of the midwife was also important because she would have to baptise the baby if there was a danger of it dying before it could be baptised.

In modern times we have mostly come to associate death with elderly people but for our Tudor ancestors it was something that confronted all ages far more commonly. Some estimates suggest that between a third and a half of children did not survive past the age of 5 years old. Life expectancy for most people was around 35 years and a person reaching their 40’s was considered to be aged.

Although Shakespeare and Ben Jonson’s writing serves to give us an idea how people must have felt when facing the prospect of death and disease it is still hard to imagine how people coped. In Keith Thomas’ book he describes how ordinary people developed a fatalistic attitude towards life. Parents were slower to recognise their children as individuals whilst husbands and wives accepted that they might have to marry again should their partner die. Apparently, middle class observers were shocked at the resigned attitude that ordinary people adopted towards their and their families fate. Would Ben Jonson or Shakespeare’s writing about loss and grief would have been different had they lived in less privileged circumstances?

See also free Podcast ‘Mortality & morbidity in early modern Europe”  by Assistant Professor Brian Els from University of Portland ( iTunes link)


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