Tag Archives: Jeff R Vescent

Stir Wars: The Sauce Awakens

A long time ago in a galaxy far far away, the dark forces of history were gathering. Preying on the innocent readers of historical fiction, or those unsuspecting viewers enjoying a BBC costume drama, the dark lords of misinformation planted such dangerous seeds as Richard III invented bail, or that Edmund Tudor was a rapist, or Catherine Howard was a slut. Worse still, in some small enclaves of resistance, these darth(in)vaders even managed to penetrate dedicated groups and equip them with anachronistic armour. But as the edifices of civilisation crumbled, there were those who could not hold their tongues.

It was a period of civil war. Rebel historians, striking from a hidden base, won their first battle against the evil didactic empire. Setting down their traditional weapons of facts and evidence in favour of the salty-edged tongue of satire, they managed to gather forces and unite under the iconic banner of Double History. From the safety of anonymity, they infiltrated social media groups, to a mixture of derision and applause, using humour to expose the ignorant and easily-influenced, to draw all true history lovers back to the way of the light. And the force was strong with them. For months they fought to liberate their people and restore freedom to the galaxy. But all warriors need rest, so, pursued by the Empire’s sinister agents, they retired to gather their strength and plan their next move.

Now the time has come for the rebels to rise again. It’s a time of uncertainty; unrest grips the internet as the influence of the dark lords spread, but a glimmer of hope remains in the heroic forces of the resistance. The group of freedom fighters are stirring, watching the boiling pot of misinformation and awakening the skill and strength needed to forge a new future. From the crucible of darkness, Double History rises again, to challenge the historical faux pas, the deliberate blinds, the misinformation, exaggeration, assumptions, bias and romanticism rife among facebook pages. Love them or loathe them, the Jeffs are here to stay, reminding us that history must be constantly challenged, questioned and proven. That it is not a discipline for the faint-hearted or the lily-livered.

Fight us or join us. If there is a topic you would like the Jeffs to write about, or a common myth you would like to see given the Double History treatment, write it in the comments below and you may see your idea featured on the blog.

 

Jeff. R. “Skywalker” Vescent has awoken.

When History Bites you on the Bum: Eight Centuries of Magna Karma.

MOL225600 #82 Charter of King John (1167-1216) 9th May 1215 by English School, (13th century) © Museum of London, UK English, out of copyright

2015 is a year of anniversaries: some big, some small. As we celebrate eight hundred years since the signing of the iconic Magna Carta, or “Magna Carter” as it has been bucolically represented on occasion, we must not overlook that other significant phenomenon existing in its shadow. For implicit in the justice of the Magna Carta is that other powerful medieval force: the wheel of fortune. There would be no Magna Carta without a sense of Magna Karma.

The Rota Fortunae was a concept that really took hold in the medieval imagination. Presided over by the goddess of the same name, it represented the cyclical and fluctuating nature of luck; the inevitability of improvement but also of failure: a positive and negative construct that predicted the fall of kings and the rise of peasants. From Babylon to the Ancient Greeks, from Tacitus to Boethius, this allegory allied with Catholic doctrine to create an expectation that sinners would be punished and the meek would creep through the gates of heaven through the eye of a needle. But the medieval man or woman was not entirely helpless. There were ways and means to placate the goddess too. Penance, offerings, prayers, bequests and charitable works could all buy the bearer a pass through purgatory and smooth one’s way to the pearly gates.

One of the most significant examples of the wheel of fortune is to be found in an early thirteenth century manuscript included in the Carmina Banana collection, now held in Munich’s Bavarian State Library. Frequently crude and explicit in detail, it contains a number of marginal images depicting the fall of man from various deadly sins: a vain prince slipping whilst looking in the mirror, a former beauty eaten by worms, a glutton being dragged away from a feast by the carcass of a cow slaughtered on his behalf. On the verso of page six in folio four, the goddess Fortuna appears, sitting atop her wheel and looking down at the mortals at her feet. It is a typical image in many ways, except for the unusual figure at the bottom. A handsome, bearded man wearing a crown sits astride a large ripe yellow fruit, which can only be a banana, hence the manuscript’s name.

Certain details such as the clothing and crown, along with the suspected date of composition suggest this is a portrait of King John falling from grace in 1216, a year after the signing of the Magna Carta. Yet the appearance of the banana is challenging. It calls into question what was thought to be the first recorded appearance of bananas in England in 1633 and existing understanding of trading routes. At the edge of the manuscript, as King John is almost crushed under the wheel of fortune, the head and shoulders of a small, red-faced devil lean into the page, jaws wide open to bite the backside of the unlucky king. Thus the sense of the noble ideals of the Magna Carta are somewhat fuddled by the crude nip of magna karma. It is a joyous reminder of the earthiness of the medieval mind, a slap stick humour, a proto Chaucerian joke that represents the darker side of this year’s anniversary.

Sources

Syrup de Fortunae

Creme de Menthe

Banana cake.

Jeff R Vescent is horizontal at present.

Meet Amber Lynn, a Tudor Queen’s Body Double.

Anneboleyn2

Anne Boleyn is always a controversial topic. Questions about her love life have long been debated studied by scholars in their ivory towers but along with her reputed “lovers,” she took many of her secrets to the grave. However, it appears that she may have taken a startlingly pragmatic approach to keeping her royal suitor satisfied during the years of abstinence, from 1527 to 1532. Apparently Anne Boleyn employed a body double. She was of “myddle height… well formyd and fayre” and her name was Amber Lynn.

Amber Lynn’s real name is not known. That which she used in her professional life was clearly chosen to mirror the name of Henry’s love, when Amber first appeared in a brothel in Cokke Lane, an alleyway leading from Cheapside down to the Thames. She was the most famous prostitute in London from around 1528 and there are suggestions that she visited court on several occasions, and that Henry’s courtiers wore disguises when they sailed down river to Cokke Lane. Did Anne turn a blind eye when Henry indulged? A poem found scrawled on the back of some of her household receipts implies she did far more. She may even have paid Amber’s expenses. The verse reads:

Sche dwellys in Cheapside in the nighte

Well formyd and fayre, of myddle height

And even yf you loathe thys dittye

You’ll find Mistress Amber Lynn is prettye.

A winsome smile, two dazzling eyes

Her pretty foote ys a surprise.

Most royally entertained and seen

She takes the place of Kyngis’ Quene.

After some satire levelled at various bishops of the era, the verse continues. There is also the interesting use of the description “crowe,” suggesting that Amber was dark haired, but echoing some of the more guttural and anamorphic insults directed at the future queen.

To Whitehall makes this crowe her waye

And tarries there with Kynges to playe

While Quenes look on with fires cooled

To see their lovers hotly schooled.

And in the end they pay and frown.

A costly way to win a crown.

The author of these verses has yet to be identified. It was clearly the work of some court insider, clearly a literate individual, although it is not great literature: perhaps a gentleman of the court who was privately critical of the King. If Anne was willing to allow Henry to have his fun with a woman who resembled her so closely, it would imply quite a different reading of her character. She would seem more cynical, more ambitious and focussed on gaining the crown at all costs. Perhaps she was simply being pragmatic, employing a woman who would not pose a threat to her, just as some have suggested she later encouraged her cousin Madge Shelton to submit to Henry’s advances. Maybe it was a question of better the devil you know. It also takes something of the romance out of her story. Alternatively, this inept ditty might all be lies, one more example of the force of contemporary feeling against Anne. Perhaps someone in the household of Princess Mary scribbled it down for their amusement, or it was an attempt to discredit Anne in popular eyes. In any case, it failed.

Amber Lynn disappears from history in 1532. She may have married, as there are a John and Amber Breakwynde listed as taking on the tenancy of an Inn in Southwark that August. Perhaps the loss of her body double encouraged Anne to finally take the plunge and submit to the King. Perhaps this just lifts the lid on the Tudor underworld; perhaps it just lifts the lid of a box of frogs.

Sources

Six of one and half a dozen of the other.

Hodge, John Records of the Deep: Life under Water

Munn, Llewellyn How to Live on £5 a week

Watson, Dr Eating People May Not be so Wrong After All.

Jeff R Vescent is sparkling away in the sunshine, drinking yam juice and knitting a stocking.

Shocking twist in Richard III mystery: did the king fake his own scoliosis?

plant

Was the medieval herb Leechmold an early relation of today’s highly poisonous Caroline Jessamine, native to the US?

In a spine-tingling discovery, scientists working at the University of Leicester have uncovered an unbelievable possibility regarding Richard’s appearance. It is now over three weeks since the last medieval King was laid to rest amid great pomp in the Cathedral of St Mary Castro. Since the shock of his discovery, the curve of his spine lying less than a metre under the car park tarmac has led to all sorts of theorising and analysis. Yet his legendary “hunched-back,” now revealed to be scoliosis, continues to stir debate about the extent of his suffering and its visibility to others. Now, in the wake of all the tests, comes a new revelation. It may well be that Richard actually faked his own scoliosis. But how would he do this, and why?

A recent study suggests that Richard’s curved spine might not have been visible to anyone else, that he managed to keep it hidden all his life. This would appear to be likely, given that the comments about it uniformly appear after August 1485 and much was made of them by the Tudor spin machine which Henry VII kept well oiled like a circus act. Now a new report from a Leicester lab has been leaked, containing the suggestion, so damaging to Richard’s character, which has been hitherto concealed, for fear of the controversy it would spark in addition to the issues surrounding his reburial. The presence of certain substances in his DNA prove that Richard had consumed a high dose of a certain herb, well-known to medieval doctors as Leechmold, which had the effect of ceasing up the vertebrae of his spine.

The effects of the herb appear to have been dramatic. Its identity, however, is not clear; one manuscript illumination found in a twelfth century Leech Book show a small, modest-looking plant with heart-shaped leaves and a small yellow flower, but scientists are still struggling to identify it with any known species today. There is a chance that the crop was on the wane in the fifteenth century and has since died out in the UK. It does not feature in Culpeper’s herbal or any other manuals of medicinal plants in the Elizabethan or Jacobean eras, but it may have been taken across the Atlantic by the first travellers, and rooted itself there as today’s common Caroline Jessamine. Among its effects are listed: “to contracte and warp the spine,” “to bryng on the crampes in the back” and “to make a manne stoop when he walks.” Such a scarce and potent herb would have been highly prized, especially among those seeking to practise witchcraft and medicine and only available to those who could afford the significant cost. On 30 June 1485, one entry in the records of a well-known London doctor, John Fenygreek, includes the sale of two handfuls of “syrup of leekmolde” at 50s, to a client who is only recorded as “RG.” Fenygreek was a main supplier of the court, frequently at Westminster, and RG may have been Richard of Gloucester. Although he was King at this point, the doctor was clearly trying to hide this individual’s identity.

spine

But why would Richard have resorted to this herb, in the weeks approaching Bosworth? He had been anticipating Henry Tudor’s invasion since his first failed attempt in the winter of 1483 and in the spring of 1485, reports reached him that it would soon be a reality. Yet Richard was not afraid, not believing that Tudor was anything but a rank outsider whom he could easily defeat: his own marital plans for an alliance with Portugal prove that. So what was Richard doing? From his purchase, it appears to have been in Richard’s interests to make someone suffer from the ill-effects of the herb. Had he been intending to administer it to himself, or to a rival, or someone else entirely? Aware of the medieval correlation between physical deformity and morality, did he intend to capture Henry and parade him as a hunchback, an unfit, defeated King? Or had he bought it for his own use? The effects of the herb must have been rapid, perhaps immediate, depending on the individual’s build and weight. With Richard’s “gracile” stature, no doubt they worked quickly. Exactly what happened is unclear, but the Leechmold ended up in Richard’s system and its effects upon his spine were dramatic. Two possibilities arise. Did he ingest it himself, perhaps in an attempt to garner sympathy when the battle was lost? To present himself to Henry as a humble cripple, perhaps to spare his own life, to live and fight another day. If so, scholars need to reassess the King’s character. Alternatively, was it fed to him by someone he trusted in his camp at breakfast or in a drink, on August 22? If so, we need to start looking for the enemy within.

Leaked report LLR30497

Leaked tap in my bathroom.

Leeks, a few in my garden.

Jeff R Vescent is getting curiouser and curiouser.

What colour are this King’s bones?

bones1

In the wake of all the controversies surrounding Richard III’s bones, an important new question has been raised by concerned Ricardians. With some casting doubt upon whether the bones in question actually have been proven to belong to the long-lost King, others are more exercised by questions of ordination and co-ordination when it comes to his re-interment at the end of March.

Feelings on the internet have run high this week as puzzled history addicts have disagreed over whether the King’s bones are in fact white and black, or cream and grey. Since the publication of conflicting images, some have argued with certainty for the more definitive colour scheme, whilst others have opted for the subtler tones, unable to see how their friends can see the sacred items in such literal terms. Discussion reached such a fever pitch at the end of the week that the entire internet, celebrities included, seemed shrouded in confusion about the true colour of the King’s bones.

Archaeologists in Richard III dig

Now the experts have waded into the debate. Setting aside the problems arising from poor quality photography, it would appear that interpretations of the bones’ colouring is actually pre-determined by the perception of the viewer. It all boils down to the way the human eye and mind have evolved to judge colour in a world which increasingly fails to value objectivity. We see objects because light bounces off them, in the same way that we can perceive truths. The brain has learned to see colour, to read it, based on certain coded messages, already physically encoded by the experiences of an individual.

Thus, it would seem that the colour we see the King’s bones is dependent upon our personal experiences. People with a high propensity to evaluate according to emotion, to ignore fact and evidence and favour the subjective, who prefer closed-answer thinking over the questions of an open mind, will tend to view the bones as black and white. In contrast, those who have read widely from a variety of sources, in order to reach an impartial truth, and continue to question, are more inclined to see the bones in shades of grey.

bones3

Does it matter? The topic certainly has got people talking about the science behind colour perception and enquiring minds were keen to know the answer. Yet apart from the interesting phenomenon that has divided the internet, colour is going to be a crucial part of the re-interment ceremony. With so many Ricardians travelling from all around the world to be present in Leicester, or York, finally they have an answer on how to co-ordinate their outfits with the man they admire. The wonders of science have allowed devotees to match their flexibility of mind with their choice of clothing. Of course, some will buck the trend. Onlookers should not be fooled when the erudite and educated Archbishop of Canterbury opts for an elegant black and white ensemble. Yet a quick glance over the sartorially-minded among those assembled might prove a fascinating insight. But then, of course, it all depends upon the observer as to whether the crowd are wearing dresses in white and gold or blue and black. Beauty and colour, as with so many other things like truth and rumour, fact and fiction, really do lie in the eye of the beholder.

Sources

James, E.L Fifty Shades of Grey

Murrey and Blue

That dress.

Jeff R Vescent is conducting a comparison of shades of grey courtesy of Dulux paint.

Who was Bloody Mary’s Secret Friend.*

Who1

1553 was a year or turbulence: three monarchs, untimely death, executions, religious change and uprising. From the death of the fifteen year old King to the succession of his sister, the summer months proved to be unpredictable and bloody. Yet Mary I may have had some help recovering what she felt was her rightful claim to the throne. And that help might have come from a very unlikely source indeed.

As Edward lay dying at Greenwich Palace, his religious reforms, ushered through by his “Protectors” Somerset and Northumberland, were in danger of being undone. Having taken England further down the path of Reformation, Edward’s changes threatened to prove as fragile as his life, because the next in line to the throne was a devout Catholic. Edward’s elder half-sister, Mary, was determined to return England to the faith of her mother, of her childhood and of the Pope and undo all the council’s recent hard work. As she awaited news of Edward’s decline, his right-hand-man worked hard to ensure his own legacy, as well as that of the new faith.

In an unprecedented move, Northumberland decided to ignore the will of Henry VIII. By this document of 1547, the throne would pass from Edward to Mary and then Elizabeth, although Henry and others had hoped that Edward would father children through whom the claim would pass. With a younger brother on the throne, the two women’s chances seemed fairly slim. With Edward’s blessing, Northumberland married his son, Guildford, to the King’s cousin, Lady Jane Grey, and had her crowned as England’s next Queen. Yet only nine days later, their friends had deserted, she had been deposed and Mary was restored to the succession. How did it all go wrong so quickly? It is almost as if some external force was turning the wheel of fortune so quickly that everyone on board became sea-sick.

who2

Framlingham Castle, Suffolk.

A document kept in the archives at Ely Cathedral contains a strange reference that might hold a clue to the rapid turn-around. Written in the form of an anonymous pamphlet, it describes Mary’s restoration from the standpoint of a witness in Suffolk.  Mary had barricaded herself into Framlingham Castle, perhaps as a convenient point to reach the coast and flee the country, except her fortunes changed. This pamphlet, Against Popery, is the only survivor of five copies made in July 1553, which Mary ordered to be destroyed immediately after she had regained power. Written by an eye-witness, it makes the extraordinary claim that Mary used witchcraft to raise an army in the small Suffolk market town. It claims she acted “with the help of the doctor” to raise a storm that “caste down a grete shadowe upon the erthe… a great rent was torn in the skyes… from whiche fell to erthe the miraculous cupboard.”

What can be made of this odd description, which Mary was so keen to destroy? There may well have been a storm at the time, although this was the middle of summer, and Mary may have enlisted the help of various doctors; perhaps of medicine, perhaps of divinity. What seems strange though, is that the tract clearly refers to the doctor and a “miraculous cupboard,” which is later described as being blue, “painted like a coffyn” and “the size of a riche manne’s bed.” It also “rent” the skies and caused a “howling in the heavens” but later could be found “by no man.” Was this strange apparition linked to Mary’s friend the Doctor? Who could he have been and what should we make of this? In all my years researching the Tudor period, from the dusty annals of the cloisters of my youth, I have never come across a reference like this before. All suggestions and possible interpretations would be gratefully received. Thank you, kind friends, in advance for your help.

who3

Woods outside Framlingham

Sources

Ely Cathedral Archives, with thanks to Jolyon Dalrymple-Smythe

Vile Bodies Evelyn Waugh

Suffolk Haunts Loada Cobblers

Jeff R Vescent loves you. And you. And them. And even those who might be over there.

*No, it doesn’t need a question mark. Geddit?

Finally Located in Basildon: Elizabeth I’s Missing Member.

Wending on my winsome way as I am wont to do, lonely as a cloud with my head among the stars, I stumbled into a disused ha-ha somewhere outside the Essex town of Basildon. I flailed about for a little, partly trying to recover my composure, but also gaining some enjoyment from the motion, when my knee knocked against something sharp. With deft fingers, I quickly unearthed a long, cylindrical object covered in mud, about as heavy as a bag of sugar. And I knew I had something. Years of watching Antiques Roadshow had not gone to waste. There was a glint, a glimmer, a hint of promise in it, so I stuffed it into my pocket and made like a lithe person.

I perched myself on a grassy knoll, somewhere beside the A127 and examined my find. With the aid of a bottle of Evian and a pocket handkerchief, I gradually revealed a long, slightly curved shape, something like a gherkin that seemed to be made of glass, although so grimed by centuries of greyness that I could make neither head or shoulder of it. Nor knees or toes either. At both ends, the object appeared to be encased in metal of a dull bronze colour, engraved with some sort of decoration that might have included leaves, flowers and circles. Intriguingly though, there was a distinct rattle: not of something that had become dislodged over time, but most distinctly of something contained within. Yet try as I might, I could not manage to prise it out.

skies

The skies over Basildon.

My choices were few. The A127 hummed along on one side and on the other lay the waterlogged fields where a small herd of cattle nibbled pitifully. But there, in the distance, there was a broken church spire. Once the proud community landmark, it had lost its prophetic top hat and now presented a flat top to the sky. I reached it as a lone bell in the tower was pealing and the vicar was scraping chewing gum off a misericord. He cast me the look of a man tired, but I went to meet him eagerly, bearing forth my find. When he saw what lay in my hands, his demeanour changed at once.

“Oh! No! No dead things, absolutely no dead things, they make the church smell.”

“No, no, it’s something else,” I urged, “it’s solid and hollow at the same time, I think it’s old.”

In the vestry, we applied every substance and implement we could find, until the mystery item yielded up some of its secrets. The vicar held it up to candlelight, his eyes aglow.

“I don’t believe it! I can’t be! I’ve heard legends of its existence but I never really thought…”

“What? What is it?”

“Look, this central section is carved from crystal, hollowed out to create a chamber inside. It’s bound in gold on either end, and these things that the toothpaste cleared up so well; those are emeralds.”

“Emeralds?”

“Yes, it’s a high status item. A reliquary dating from the late sixteenth century.”

A term of lectures under Dr Mutton Chop came back to me. “Hang on, I thought they’d done away with reliquaries, icons and all that stuff by then. Weren’t they all collected by Cromwell and burned on a pyre at Chelsea?”

“Yes indeed. Sorry, I wasn’t clear. This isn’t a reliquary. It is the reliquary.”

The reliquary?”

“If I’m not very much mistaken,” he dribbled, “this is the reliquary known as the Virgin’s Pizzle, made at Greenwich in 1603. Rumour has it that it was interred in the old chapel at Greenwich Palace but that with the erosion of the Thames, and a series of Victorian storms, some of those goods were carried down river. Metal detectors regularly turn them up on the Essex mudflats.”

“The Virgin’s Pizzle? What on earth?”

He nodded. “I know, but it is exactly what it sounds like. You’ve heard the legends that Elizabeth I was actually a man?”

I laughed. “What nonsense.”

“Nonsense, is it? That’s what they all want you to think. Dr Blarney was successful. But no, she wasn’t, not according to a diary entry made in code by the doctor who carried out her post-mortem.”

At this point, I could scarcely believe my ears, but I encouraged the man to tell me all and he was faithful to a fault. He knew about the diary only because, as a young trainee, he had access to secret records held at Lambeth House. Whilst researching the baptism of a certain dwarf pig in the 1270s, he had found a note scribbled in the back of a diary in an unrecognisable cipher. Having spent the intervening forty years attempting to decode it, he had finally managed to ascertain that the entry, made by a Dr U.R. Blarney, referred to his examination of Elizabeth I’s body, prior to her embalmment in March 1603.

“He spoke of their horror, of a secret oath,” the vicar whispered, although we were quite alone in the church, save for the ghosts of the past. “A secret oath, that each of the five doctors were forced to swear, on pain of immediate death. He swore along with them, of course, but there was more and Dr Blarney’s conscience clearly did not rest easy. It was only a few scratched lines, but he conveyed the incredible secret that the Queen had, after all, been born a man. Worse still, he had seen the terror, the fear in these doctor’s faces, the panic as they struggled to conceal their knowledge; the shame and dishonour to the great memory of their glittering majesty. So he acted on impulse. The Queen must be buried as she had lived: as a great woman. With his surgical blade, Blarney had snipped off the offending item and ordered the creation of what he called the casket. His diary entry was finished only with the words “crystal and emerald, Greenwich Chapel, 27 March 1603.”

I looked at the object. I gave it a little rattle. I could scarcely believe that it contained the organ of the great virgin queen. I confessed myself at a loss; to whom could I trust this knowledge, this great secret, without letting it become tainted, discredited, ridiculed? I stuffed it up my jumper and ran out of the church. The vicar was chasing after me, almost close enough to reach me at one point, although he must have forgotten about the existence of the ha-ha.

At home, I sit and wait. The reliquary sits in an armchair opposite me, on the other side of the fire, warming slightly. The clock ticks. My heart beats. Where will this discovery take me?

reliquary

A crystal reliquary dating from the early medieval period, but not The Reliquary of the Virgin’s Pizzle.

Sources

O’Mahoney, Bernard Essex Boys: A Terrifying Expose of the British Drugs Scene 2011

Walker,H. Hedingham Ware: A Medieval Pottery Industry in North Essex: Its Product and Distribution East Anglian Archaeology, 2012

Lambeth Palace Archives

Jeff R Vescent has currently gone to ground.

The Real Dark Lady: Was Shakespeare Enamoured of a Moor?

african

It is an accusation often levelled against Mr William Shakespeare that a married man in want of an education must also be in want of a life. Some people wonder how he could have written so many plays, with such wide and varied references, drawing on law, mythology, history and the classics? The answer is simple. Shakespeare was a genius. Not only this, but he was a genius who frequented the London taverns, which were full of merchants, sailors, lawyers from the Inns of Court, and the coterie of actors and writers who drew from popular culture and book learning alike.  He knew a hawk from a handsaw. He wrote about the world he knew and his plays represent popular concepts of history and learning in the Elizabethan period, aspiring from his lowly position to be the sort of Renaissance man whose style and learning he aspired to, and aped with such skill. And yet, perhaps there was another influence.

In 2013, Dr Aubrey Burl of the Society of Antiquities published his findings after years of analysing Shakespeare’s work. For years the mysterious dark lady, to whom the poet refers in his sonnets, has been identified by scholars as poetess Emilia Lanyer or Lanier. The mistress of Henry Carey, she was unhappily married to her cousin in 1592, when pregnant by Carey. Another candidate is Mary Fitton, lady in waiting to Elizabeth, known for her affairs with leading courtiers. Now Burl believes she was actually an Aline Florio, who was married to an Italian translator. As his wife, she would have had access to the many books he used, past and present. As Shakespeare’s mistress, she could have passed that information on. Born Aline Daniel, she lived with her husband in Shoe Lane, near the River Fleet and would probably have met Shakespeare at Titchfield, the home of the Earl of Southampton. There has also been mention of a Lucy Morgan, a fallen woman also known as Lucy Negro. However, this name might belie a more controversial truth. Resident in London’s Cheapside in the 1590s, was another woman named Lucy, who was also referred to as “negro.” Could Shakespeare’s mistress have actually been black?

It has been the view of scholars for decades that going by his 1603 play Othello, Shakespeare followed contemporary views about the savage passions and intense rages of “moors.” Leo Africanus, a north African who was captured by Venetian pirates and long considered an influence on the characterisation of Othello described moors as “very proud and high-minded, and wonderfully addicted unto wrath… they will deeply engraven in marble any injury be it never so small… their wits are but mean and they are so credulous that they will believe matters impossible which are told them…. they speak always with angrie and lowd voices.” And so the stereotype goes on. It seems like a perfect model for the character of Othello, but there is also a chance that Shakespeare was referring to a real man, a man he knew: Lucy the Negro’s father.

Little information survives about Lucy’s family. They are recorded as living in Cheapside from 1597, with her father listed as John the Negro, practising as a cobbler, or cordwainer. He shows up in the records for that year when the rents on the house were due and again for the following two years. In 1599, he attempted to join the London Guild of Cordwainers, who got their license in 1439 and in 1493, established their first hall in Maiden Lane, near St Paul’s.  John’s application, for whatever reason, was declined in the spring of 1599.He may well have been blacklisted. Influential men may have spoken against him because it appears that, in that year, he had a falling out with Shakespeare.

shakey

John appears in the London Assize records for November 1599, being bound over to keep the peace against brothers Richard and Cuthbert Burbage and William Shakespeare. The Burbages had taken over the Blackfriars Theatre on their father’s death in 1597 and would be responsible for building the Theatre and the Globe, working closely with Shakespeare. A fragment of the records that survive for Blackfriars in September 1599 show that money was set aside for repairs “against the anger of Mr John.” It was common for moors in London to be referred to by their first names, in a similar way to servants, and Lucy’s father would have been known to those who were his social superior simply as Mr John. This is also how he appears in the rent books, whilst for the Cordwainers, he is Mr John, cobbler of Cheapside. Why had Lucy’s father turned up at Blackfriars in such a rage that he caused damage to the sum of 20 shillings ? Perhaps because he had found out about the affair she was having with Shakespeare and chose to confront him there.

The sonnets themselves support the notion that Lucy Negro is the woman referred to. They describe the lady as having dark hair and “dun” coloured skin; a shade of brown traditionally associated with cows. It comes from the old English “dunn”, synonymous with dingy-brown or bark-coloured. No English woman would have found this flattering.  The collected sonnets were published in 1609 but at least two of them had already been printed as early as 1599. This included Sonnet 138; “When my love swears that she is made of truth, I do believe her though I know she lies,” which inverts the racial stereotype to make Shakespeare the credulous lover, instead of Leo Africanus’ portrayal of moors as gullible. In this way, Shakespeare was paying a deft compliment to Lucy in 1599, but also signalling that their relationship was troubled and that she was possibly being torn between her father and her lover. This poem also makes clear that the relationship was a physical one, amid the puns of falsehood: “therefore I lie with her and she with me.” Even more telling is his unrhymed, thus disharmonious, couplet in Sonnet 144:

“The better angel is a man right fair , The worse spirit a woman colour’d ill.”

If Mr John had heard of the poems, which were in circulation in the London Inns, or worse still, had read them, it would have been sufficient to provoke the rage he exhibited at Blackfriars. This memorable performance may have found its way into Othello, which was composed a couple of years later. Perhaps it was the playwright’s revenge for Lucy’s father’s brutality.

othello

Lucy disappears from the records in 1608. No account of her marriage or move from Cheapside survives, so it is likely that this was the year of her death. The London playhouses were regularly closed when plague reached dangerous levels in the city and this happened in 1593, 1603 and 1608, so Lucy may well have been a victim, perhaps after keeping a tryst with her lover at the Theatre, or mingling with the infected crowds. It may be that Shakespeare waited until her death to publish the remainder of the letters.  Mr John was never admitted to the Cordwainer’s company and outlived Shakespeare, dying in 1619. The true identity of the Dark Lady may never be known, but the internal evidence of the letters, their dating, and the records of Mr John and his family from Cheapside make Lucy as likely a candidate as any.

Sources

Othello

Shakespeare’s Songs and Sonnets.

Cordwainer’s Record Books 1589-1601, 1601-1611

Light transmitting diode

Oracle at Delphi

Jeff R Vescent knows no bounds.

The Lost Love-Child of Richard III and Elizabeth of York.

Jeff book

 

As if there are not beguiling mysteries enough out there, I must press upon your patience once more to relate a little adventure of mine, which has uncovered yet another unexpected truth at the heart of Yorkist family politics. On awakening one morning, I decided to take a stroll and set out from Piccadilly after breakfast with little more than a potted-meat sandwich tucked away in my inside pocket. By teatime I found I had wandered across several county borders into Norfolk, and I came to my senses amid the bulrushes of the Fens with a pair of curlews engaged in some ritual mating dance at my feet. Seeking a bed for the night, I was fortunate enough to find the Biggerump Inn, standing alone in the falling darkness, where I was offered the corner of a stable. Dining on braised lamb in the Inn’s delightful parlour, my fancy was taken by a shelf of old-looking books, which I fell to perusing once my meal was finished. One of the smallest, and most battered, was a little book in a leather binding (see above); a funny little foible, but I have a taste for funny little foibles and, as I turned its pages, it was clear that the content pre-dated the cover by some centuries.

I flicked through the pages. It seemed to be some sort of prayer book, written in a fifteenth century secretary hand, with the occasional illuminated initial letter in red and gold. I have seen many similar books before. The first page bore many inscriptions, dating through from the 1400s to the seventeenth century, and one name in particular caught my eye. I had heard of Severus Larke on a previous occasion: the Larkes were a well-known Suffolk family, connected with Wolsey and the court of Henry VIII. Yet this individual’s hand was quite distinct; he had made a few notes in the margins beside prayers, initialling them with an elongated “S” and a small bird with distinctive stubby wings. And as I traced his comments, most of which were amendments to prayers or names of individuals to pray for, I recalled where I had heard his name before. Severus Larke had, for a brief period during the autumn of 1483, acted as confessor to Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV.

By this point, Elizabeth was a widow. She had fled into sanctuary with her children following the death of her husband. Her sons had been taken and Richard III had been crowned, so her future looked very uncertain. Larke was working in the service of one of the Pastons, I believe, which had taken him to London for a few months on legal business and, somehow, he ended up lodging in Westminster. As I yawned before the roaring fire, I passed the hours in trying to decipher something of his hand, and form an impression of his character. It was but fancy, and I met with little success, until I reached the end pages, which he had used to record his thoughts. Mostly they took the form of prayers and lists, payments owing and in one case, the number of his master’s dogs that needed feeding. And then, there was a strange line. Strange in that it was dated, very specifically to September 29, 1483. The line read “Prayers to be said for the Princess for the safe arrival of her child.” The word “Princess” was scored through in ink of a lighter colour.

This threw me into a state of bafflement. I could not recall a Princess that might have been pregnant in the autumn of 1483. Elizabeth Woodville was too old, having borne her last child three years earlier. Richard III’s Queen, Anne Neville, had borne a single son, who was then somewhere between the ages of seven and ten and there were never any reports of a second pregnancy. Equally, she would have been referred to in the text as “Queen” or “widow” or “dowager,” but not Princess. The only Princesses I could think of were the daughters of Edward IV, then in sanctuary with their mother. The eldest, Elizabeth of York would have been seventeen. Within months, Richard would pass an act of Parliament, Titulus Regis, declaring them illegitimate. This might account for the word being scored through, as Elizabeth’s royal status was retracted. Could it have been possible that it was she to whom Larke’s prayers referred?

So I twiddled with my pipe and thought about the dates. Elizabeth and her daughters had entered sanctuary in June 1483 and left it on March 1, 1484. This was a period of nine months but it couldn’t have corresponded exactly with a pregnancy, as Elizabeth of York must have been well enough, recovered and churched, to emerge on March 1. Nor is it likely that she conceived in the cramped confines of sanctuary, under the watchful eye of her mother. Therefore, she must have been pregnant when she entered sanctuary and given birth late in 1483 or early in 1484. And I began to wonder who the father of this child might be, this hypothetical child, whose absence from the records suggests it did not survive. The only man in London to whom Elizabeth’s name was attached prior to her marriage to Henry VII was her uncle Richard, the future Richard III. Tracing back his movements, I discovered that Richard was present in the city early in 1483 to attend a session of Parliament, leaving for the north in February. If he had impregnated Elizabeth of York that month, he would then have departed without being aware of her condition. We know that he had two acknowledged bastards; the scarcity of records about them suggests there may have been more, about whom we do not know. Yet perhaps not even Richard ever knew about this other child.

Elizabeth’s pregnancy would have become apparent by late March or early April. In the light of this, Edward’s early death can be interpreted in a different way entirely. I never accepted the theories that the robust Edward, even with all his feasting and whoring, had succumbed to a chill caught whilst out fishing. The possibility now arises that Edward was informed by his wife of his favourite daughter’s condition and the shock broke his health. Such a scandal was unprecedented and must be covered up. After Edward’s death, Richard began to travel south. Aware that he was the father of the child, Elizabeth Woodville could not allow him to know about the pregnancy, so before he was even half way, she fled to sanctuary, which she knew would offer the cover she needed until the child was born. If it was conceived in February, the delivery date would have been in November 1483. If it had been a boy, the child would have been an important Yorkist heir, a replacement for the lost Princes in the Tower. It also meant that the potential match being proposed between the Princess and the exiled Tudor was not anticipated to become a reality in the immediate future, suggesting that Elizabeth Woodville had no faith in Henry’s planned invasion of the autumn of 1483. Either that, or Henry had been informed of her condition and was coming to avenge her honour, in the style of his favourite French Romances. But he failed to live up to these legends. The weather drove his ships back and the next thing we know is that Elizabeth Woodville and her daughters emerged at the start of March. If Elizabeth of York carried her child to term, in this world where still births, miscarriages and infant mortality, were common, it seems most likely that it did not survive. Only one or two servants would have known of its existence, including confessor Severus Larke.

This theory also makes sense of the oath Elizabeth Woodville required Richard to swear in 1484. Before she set foot outside the safety of Westminster, she required him to make a public promise to protect her daughters and arrange suitable marriages for them. Of course she did, given that she knew Richard had already seduced her eldest girl. Richard was probably unaware of the pregnancy but had his deflowering of his niece on his conscience. This also makes sense of the rumours that date from Christmas 1484 about a potential flirtation between Richard and his niece. Except this was not a new flirtation, it was the tail end of a dangerous affair from early 1483, which the oath had firmly put an end to. To Richard, Elizabeth of York was but a conquest from his days as the Duke of Gloucester. Now that he was King, he had his own reign and wife to concern him, and Elizabeth was relegated to the status of an old flame, whose future he must arrange, to a Prince of Portugal. No doubt Elizabeth felt used and rejected. It is no surprise then, that she was eager to go along with her mother’s plan to wed her to Henry Tudor. She had borne her uncle’s child in secrecy and, but for the prayer of the royal confessor, jotted indiscreetly into his book, the matter would never have come to light.

It was that very indiscretion that led to the dismissal of Severus Larke from the royal profession. The emergence of the women in March 1484 coincided with Larke’s return home; first to Ipswich, then on to a position of confessor in a noble Norfolk household. No efforts were made by the royal family to retain his services and, ten years later, he appears in the Assize court records as living a profligate life, keeping a mistress who bore him a bastard. He was in danger of losing his position, in addition to the payment of a large fine but the case was never concluded. Only two weeks later, in October 1495, he was granted a royal pension by none other than the new Queen, Elizabeth of York, and retired to Bungay in Norfolk, just two miles east of the Biggerump Inn. He retained this pension and the queen’s favour until his death in 1498.  Perhaps it was in recognition of his services in the past, or perhaps it was made to ensure his silence. With this thought, I strolled out into the deep Norfolk night and smoked a particularly good pipe of woody tobacco, musing on the inconsistencies of history and the eternal frailties of woman.

 

Sources

Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, Arthur Conan Doyle, Geoffrey Willans, Shakespeare, Tobias Smollett, Jonathan Swift, George Orwell.

 

Jeff R Vescent is now accepting marriage proposals.

Was the Elder Prince in the Tower actually a Princess?

 

princess

A day or three ago, I found myself wafting through the Tower of London, as you do, with my feet shuffling along the cordoned off path of the twenty-first century, in the hope of catching the echo of voices from the past. I was musing over the story of the Princes, as they’re never far from my thoughts, especially when all the other modern visitors fade away and, just for a moment, I’m left alone in one of the thick-stone-walled rooms. And that’s when I like to put out my hand, and touch the stone with my fingertips and imagine I’m back then, in those barbaric days. It fair sends a shiver through my spine, I assure you; I’m back there, then, with the footsteps of the Tower guard rushing up the staircase and the cannon booming, and then someone’s mobile goes off in the next room and the spell is broken.

But this time, something quite different happened: something extraordinary, that I can hardly believe, which I really must report upon, as it seems to me of such significance. I leaned slightly against the stone wall, catching my breath as I climbed the staircase, looking out of the window at the tourists below. And there, on the stone ledge, etched in deep, at least three millimetres, were two small stone carvings. I’d passed this way before and never seen them, so I was surprised now to notice they appeared to represent two children in late medieval dress: one, a girl of about twelve and another, a boy of perhaps nine, maybe ten. Beside them were inscribed the initials E and R.

Now straightaway those initials meant something to me. Having studied medieval history avidly forever since the discovery of Richard III, and the magnificent series of the White Queen, I know that E and R can be nothing else but the Princes in the Tower, who have been occupying my thoughts so much of late. And yet those images bothered me; the boy was the right age to be Richard of York, who had been born in 1473, but why was the elder one portrayed as a girl? I walked out into the daylight, to try and shake off the confusion. No, the images must refer to two other children entirely. Perhaps, I told myself, to the surviving children of George, Duke of Clarence, who I believe were a boy and girl with a similar age gap between them. I walked through the grounds, my mind turning to the coffee served in a small Italian Deli nearby, when I passed the foot of a staircase in the White Tower. Quite unexpectedly, in a way that I simply cannot explain, a sudden chill went through me. And that was when the idea struck me. Strange and fabulous it seemed at first, but the more I considered it, the more marvellous and incredible it seemed. It had been staring me in the face all these years and here it was, fully formed and real. Of course Edward V had to die, because he had been born a girl.

Bear with me now. I know it sounds strange, but think of the circumstances of his birth. His father, Edward IV, had been forced to flee the country and there was no certainty that he would return. His queen, Elizabeth Woodville, gave birth in sanctuary, in absolute secrecy, with only her mother and probably a doctor and priest present. She had already given birth to three girls, and while there was no male heir to the throne, the Lancastrian Henry VI had stepped back into the role. But what if, at that crucial time, there suddenly had been a male heir born: the hope of the York dynasty in the potentially permanent absence of his father?  Let’s imagine for a moment that the child was a girl but that Elizabeth gave out the report that it was a boy, in order to provide a figurehead for her family? She names “her” Edward, dresses her in the unisex frocks of the period and treats her like a boy. Without a male heir, there was nothing to strive for, when King Edward might easily have been lost at sea, or killed in battle. It was the act of a desperate woman in an era that only valued men as leaders. When Edward finally returned, he was let in on the secret, but the young heir continued to be raised as a boy, until such point as a real son was born. Children did not always survive and they must have discussed the possibilities of the girl’s future and come up with some plan, some story they’d use in the future. Except they ran out of time.

Now fast forward to 1483. The girl Edward and her brother, the real male heir Richard, are awaiting the coronation in the Tower. The Woodvilles are in a panic and have fled into sanctuary because their secret is about to be discovered; no doubt they will be concocting some sort of story that the boy King has been bewitched, once the facts inevitably leak out. Because here’s the deciding factor: the she-Edward, now approaching thirteen, has hit puberty. She started to grow and, in the Tower, her menstruation began. This is where the evidence comes in. Among the accounts for the Tower during the summer of 1483, specifically from June to July, are listed a supply of “ragges,” for supply to the White Tower, the traditional location where the Princes were held. These were commonly used by women, worn between the legs, in order to stop the menstrual flow. Yet which women were resident in the White Tower at this time? The changes the young she-Edward was undergoing meant that her cover was blown. Once this news got back to Richard, it must have been overwhelming. After the shock, there was the realisation that he, and the rest of the world, had been lied to. Either that, or he believed that some strange witchcraft had transformed the boy. The secret had the potential to shame the family, to cast aspersions on their reproductive abilities and sanity, or Edward might be considered to be some sort of changeling child, indicating that the family were cursed. He couldn’t risk the scandal of it becoming news. So Edward had to go, and Richard, Duke of York, also had to go, because he knew the secret and, well, he was also the rightful King. Richard must have felt that the York dynasty would not have survived if the truth got out. I believe the little carvings on the window ledge, of E and R, are in fact the Princes in the Tower, except that one of them is a Princess, the rightful Queen of England, smothered in her bed before she had a chance to claim her inheritance. It may sounds strange, but the truth is often stranger than fiction.

Sources: Alison Weir, Wikipedia entries, Desmond Seward, Terry Deary, ketchup.

Jeff. R. Vescent can usually be found lying silently at the bottom of a fish bowl. Sometimes he comes out to drink lemonade, knit socks and ride non-stop round London on the tube. He is the reincarnation of a prune that was diced and served to Edward IV in a banquet on Christmas Day 1468.