Archive for February, 2009

“I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms” Queen Elizabeth I – 1588
Cate Blanchett in the film ‘Elizabeth’ – a powerful national myth?

r as long as I have been trying to understand the history of this period I have found myself reflecting about the similarities with our own times – take the picture and the quotation above. (NB you can hear this speech recreated in a sound file from the Imperial War Museum)

For many English people, Elizabeth’s words still have meaning.  The national idea of England as being alone and surrounded  by potential enemies runs throughout our history – arguably it is as current an idea now as it was in Elizabethan times.

From the outset,  (see previous post) Elizabeth faced problems and threats, from both within and outside the country. England was closely faced with hostile powers in Ireland, Scotland, France and the Netherlands. Spain, the greatest power of the day was hostile and keen to support any anti-English moves. Quite frequently during Elizabeths reign, England felt itself embattled and surrounded. I love these lines from Shakespeares Richard II which for me say something about how people felt:

“This royal throne of kings,

this sceptered isle,

This earth of majesty,this seat of Mars,

This other Eden, demi-paradise,

This fortress built by Nature for herself

Against infection and the hand of war,

This happy breed of men, this little world,

This precious stone set in a silver sea,

Which serves it in the office of a wall

Or as a moat defensive to a house,

Against the envy of less happier lands,

This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England,

This nurse, this teeming womb of royal kings,

Feared by their breed and famous by their birth”


White cliffs of Dover (courtesy of Kev on Flickr : click image)

It seems clear that this idea of England being alone and embattled was well established in Tudor times – what about more recent times? – take a look at the start of “Dad’s Army”. I used to love this (1970’s) sitcom about the British Home Guard – an army composed often of older men or those thought unsuitable to fight in the regular forces.

My own Grandfather Francis McCabe was in the Home guard,  I remember his stories about how they had been tasked to stop German tanks coming up the Bristol road into Birmingham. They had no proper weapons and it seems unlikely that they would have been able to do very much from their base at Selly Oak toilets and the Great Oak pub!

Winston Churchill is of course famous for this speech which needs no introduction .. ( a slightly unusual take on it – see what you think?)

This history of fighting against the odds has served England well in the past. I am not sure about how well this ‘fits’ now and what effect this has on relations with our neighbours today?

  • I think that the rest of Europe sometimes sees us as being a bit jingoistic and hostile to foreigners.
  • Some of our politicians define themselves by their opposition to European integration. (Co-incidentially, a recent leader of this political party was born in Birmingham at around the same time that my Grandfather was preparing to defend it!)
  • How much does a percieved ‘foreign’ threat serve to justify restrictions on freedoms?

Arguably, current concerns about the extent of an internal threat from Islamic fundamentalists and the need to clamp down on this is really reminiscent of Elizabethan moves against Catholics – but more of that at a later date.

What do you think? – I know that most people who visit this site come from outside the UK ( I really hope that we make you feel welcome too!) – try the poll below.


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What I would like to write about today falls a little outside our normal timeframe. The entry was prompted in part by a question from a reader about Oliver Cromwell.  The house of Tudor ends with Elizabeth’s reign in 1603.  Less than fifty years later England was declared a Republic under Oliver Cromwell.

The picture above, is a still from a film called ‘Stable’ which Kathleen Herbert produced out of an event in which horses were bought into Gloucester Cathedral one night, to wander through architecture of the space.


Cromwell 1657

Stable was produced during Herbert’s residency at the Cathedral.  The idea began with a comment made by one of the cathedral’s tour guides that horses were once kept in the Cathedral. Herbert discovered that during the English civil war in 1645 Lord Levan’s army kept their horses inside the cathedral as a defiant gesture against the Royalist cause. During the Puritan period iconoclasm was rife, and many churches and cathedrals were wantonly vandalised.  Kathleen Herbert explains

“The citizens of Gloucester were influenced by the Parliamentarian/Puritan way of thinking, whilst the Cathedral remained sympathetic to the Royalist cause. In 1642 Thomas Pury, the MP for Gloucester proposed to parliament the abolition of The Dean and Chapter and this marked the end of the existing clerical authority and form of worship. So the act of stabling horses within the cloisters by Lord Levens’ army appears to be a clear statement of the new political and religious power of the Puritans.”

Gloucester Cathedral (Image courtesy of shexbeer on flickr: Click photo)

Gloucester Cathedral (Image courtesy of shexbeer on flickr: Click photo)

In contrast, during the medieval period knights would hold all night vigil in churches and cathedrals prior to battle. They would bring their horses, swords, armour and page to pray and be blessed. In this context, the intention of the horse being bought into the space is very different.

For Stable, Herbert brought horses back into the Cathedral and filmed them roaming around the ancient building. The film was not intended as an historical re-enactment; rather, by introducing something incongruous into the cathedral, Herbert wanted to encourage a contemporary questioning of the space.  The film was made at night, in silence, in the absence of human visitors.  There is silence followed by a snort, followed again by silence, and then the clatter of hooves.  The first horse is joined by two others who sniff and lick at the hard stone floor, before clattering off again.

Gloucester Cathedral courtesy of Thomas Wood79 on Flickr (click image)

Gloucester Cathedral (image courtesy of Thomas Wood79 on Flickr) (click image)

In interview Herbert says

“We experience the Cathedral as a powerfully religious building, which affects our mental and physical responses to the architecture. We each bring knowledge from a range of sources that has an impact on our behaviour. However the horses will be innocent to this, and I want to be quite free and open, allowing the horses to navigate and react to the space in their own way.”

Herbert was asked what the Cathedral authorities made of her desire to bring horses in to what is a sacred building.  They were positive about the project.  It is interesting to trace the history of ideas here. Medieval knights brought horses for a blessing before battle; Lord Levan’s forces brought them into the building to make a political and religious point – and the presence of horses would certainly have been a deliberately provocative, sacrilegious act.  In 2007, when the film was made, we are interested to see how the horses react in a large, echoing and unfamiliar environment.  It is perhaps a juxtaposing of nature and culture; or a way of making the familiar unfamiliar.  We see the beauty of the horses in the shadows of the cathedral; and see the ancient building, which has been a presence there for 900 years experienced in a new way by the horses, and so experience it ourselves afresh.


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Tower of LondonTower of London

In 1597,the Jesuit Priest John Gerard was held in the Tower of London on charges of Treason.  Gerard had been tortured and was awaiting trial on charges that would certainly have brought him to the scaffold.

Whilst held in the Tower Gerard was able to smuggle secret messages out to friends and I thought it would be interesting to try and re-create these messages.

Apparently, Gerard managed to please the warden by making him a gift of some oranges that he had been sent. Because of this gift, the warder agreed to allow Gerard to send a gift of crosses made from orange peel to his friends in the clink prison (also in London). The warder agreed that Gerard could write them a message in charcoal as long as he was allowed to check the message first.

Gerard wrote a message in charcoal which must have been all that he had to hand with which to write – as you can see from the poor handwriting below, I found it hard to write anything at all!

Charcoal message
Charcoal message

Once the warder had left the cell, Gerard used the saved orange juice to write another letter onto the paper. Once it had dried,it was used to wrap the crosses and sent to his friends.


All that the recipieint of the message then had to do was to hold the paper up to a fire, as you can see, a new message appears on the paper. I don’t think it is known what Gerard wrote – I would have written something like this asking for help to escape!

Apparently, this was a well known technique for sending messages.  Sometimes lemon juice was used, but Orange juice has the advantage of permanently marking the paper once heated up. This quality makes it less easy for a  letter to be intercepted and read without detection.

As you can see, from the picture below, the orange juice turns to a dark brown once heated. In practice, it took quite a lot of heat to produce this effect and it was difficult to avoid setting the paper on fire!

Hidden message
Hidden message

I did wonder whether this was where we got the expression “reading between the lines”? – I was unable to find the origin of this and would be interested if anyone knows where this comes from.

(See related post)


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For many people, the song ‘Greensleeves’ is associated with the Tudors, England and with traditional English music. If the hit counters on ‘YouTube‘ are any guide it is still popular, the version above has been watched over 25,000 times whilst another has had over a million hits!

There is a persistent myth that Greensleeves was composed by Henry VIII for his lover and future queen Anne Boleyn. Anne rejected Henry’s attempts to seduce her and this rejection is apparently referred to in the song, when the writer’s love “cast [him] off discourteously.” However, it seems Henry did not write Greensleeves, which is probably an Elizabethan tune.

In Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor, written around 1602, the character Mistress Ford refers twice without any explanation to the tune of Greensleeves, and Falstaff later exclaims:

Let the sky rain potatoes! Let it thunder to the tune of ‘Greensleeves’!

I like the idea of the sky raining potatoes! These allusions suggest that the song was already well known at that time.

A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves

A broadside ballad by the name of Greensleeves was registered at the London Stationer’s Company in 1580 as “A New Northern Dittye of the Lady Greene Sleeves”. It then appears in the surviving A Handful of Pleasant Delights (1584) as “A New Courtly Sonnet of the Lady Green Sleeves. To the new tune of Green Sleeves.”

Anne Boleyn

Anne Boleyn

No-one really knows who wrote Greensleeves but we do know that music played a huge part in Tudor court life.  Dancing was a form of exercise enjoyed by the royal family and practised every morning. Dancing was accompanied by the Court musicians. Low born but talented musicians sought places at the court of the Tudors, and one such musician, Mark Smeaton, featured strongly in the tragic story of Anne Boleyn. Favoured by Anne Boleyn he was falsely accused of being her lover, tortured and finally put to death.

A rich time for music

The Tudor period was a rich time for music making – and I play and listen to music which would have been familiar to Tudor ears. Music and dancing were at the heart of life for rich and poor alike. The medieval music of the pipe and tabor was still very much in evidence, and many tunes that were played then are still used for English Country Dancing and Morris Dancing. I know many of these well as I play the melodeon for dancing. New instruments were being developed during the Tudor period; and the religious turmoil of the age acted as a stimulus for the music of Tallis, Byrd, which will be the subject of a future post.

(For more about this song including Lyrics click here)

nb dont have permission yet!

Image courtesy of Sandmania on Flickr (click picture)


PS On the subject of Tudor music we had a comment from Philip Sheppard who is composing music for the forthcoming David Starkey TV program about Henry VIII . If you want to hear a preview of the music go to his blog “radiomovies


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It was completely inevitable that a Tudor themed blog was going to end up discussing aspects of the TV show “the Tudors”. You will no doubt be aware that for a variety of reasons this caused a bit of a stir – this piece by Clemmie Moore in the Daily Mail sets the scene nicely.  Perhaps I will go into our opinion of this program at a later date but I thought I would touch upon the subject of breasts for this post.


I had been looking at an illustration in R.E. Pritchard’s book ‘Shakespeare’s England’ and came across a picture of a wealthy and well dressed lady. The image was taken from the Roxburghe ballads – I was interested to note that the dress the woman is wearing is so low cut as to expose her breasts. As copies of this are freely available online (and are well worth browsing through if you have a spare hour or two) I had a look at some of the images, I have reproduced a few of them here.

As you can see – it is quite clear that the women depicted are either showing a great deal of cleavage (left) or have completely exposed their breasts. What is going on here? Could ‘The Tudors’ actually be more accurate than we have given them credit for?


There is a suggestion that it was not uncommon for women to bare their breasts in public and that the fashion for doing so was adopted following the example set by women from the upper classes. Liza Picard discusses women’s dress in her book ‘Elizabeth’s London’ and covers the issue of Tudor attitudes towards the display of female breasts.

Apparently, the French ambassador was surprised to see Queen Elizabeth I with her bosom completely exposed. Picard goes on to say that reformers deplored this fashion and saw exposed breasts everywhere. Exactly what they really saw may be uncertain though as what is considered ‘indecent’ tends to vary from person to person?


I wonder though, about the extent to which images from the ballads can be taken as evidence for frequency of breast exposure? It is quite well known that putting a half naked woman on the front of a magazine is likely to increase it’s sales. I was (briefly) tempted to call this post something like ‘Warning! Naked Tudor breasts exposed’ – I suspect it would have increased our hits! but how many people would have come back and do we really want/need lots of hits from people who surf the net looking for breasts? (see this re this subject).

I think it is likely that the publishers of the ballads were just as aware that sex sells and this is the reason they include lots of half naked women? I also wonder about how acceptable it really was to show breasts? I don’t recall seeing any painted portraits of Queen Elizabeth or other court ladies with exposed breasts – unless anyone can correct me about this?

This post has also been featured on this website which is well worth a look.

See also Tudor breasts exposed again & a tribute to the Clash’




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