Tag Archives: Charles II

The Frost Fair



Hey everyone Happy Holidays. I had something in mind for a Christmas episode this year – and that thing ballooned out to around two hours of audio. Apologies all, I’m burned out. I don’t think I could get a two hour episode together before the 25th.  

I’m going to zoom in on the one aspect of that episode that I think best sums up this time of year – and release some of the outtakes as their own mini episodes throughout 2023. 

A few episodes back we spent some time on the Thames, looking at those poor weeping willow trees, and of course the profligate King who gamed the system with Tallysticks made from those trees, passing his debts onto the city’s jewellers. Today we’ll return to that river, and to that king, but first a flash forward. 

In 1831 a bridge along the Thames was opened to the public. The project was begun by a Scottish engineer named John Rennie senior. It took a while, and would be completed upon his death by his son, John Rennie junior. This new London bridge was a solid, dependable replacement for an older London bridge – though it looked a little old-fashioned by the time it was completed. By the 1960s, as motorised vehicle use greatly increased, the 1831 bridge became no longer fit for purpose and would itself be replaced. The 1831 London Bridge would be dismantled, then reassembled in a town in Colorado, USA. 

If the Tallysticks were our hero in the earlier tale, then this bridge is the villain of this tale – or at least a massive killjoy. It had a far greater clearance than it’s predecessor, and fewer arches – and water flowed with ease through it’s arches. 

Because of this, the Thames river never froze again. 

On nine occasions in London’s past, not only did the Thames freeze over in winter, but when it did a frost fair rose up – bringing in all in sundry out to play. From 1564 to 1813 Rich and poor alike came together on the ice, and partook in the carnivalesque atmosphere. In 1564, the event was simply a great outpouring of the people onto the ice. People strolled along the river. Some played games. Queen Elizabeth I, enraptured by the festive scene going on outside her window gathered her entourage and joined in on the fun. In 1608 people set up stalls on the ice for the first time. As you made your way through the pop up village you could buy a beer or a glass of wine. You could buy fruit, or even get a full meal on the river. Shoe shops, barbershops, and much more set up on the ice. 

It is December 1683, and it looks like, yet again the Thames is going to freeze. The nights grew longer. A bone-chilling cold pervaded the air. Increasingly large chunks of ice formed on the water – some of those chunks breaking away, endangering the many river ferries who plied their trade on the river. After a cruel year which saw a smallpox epidemic tear through the city, it must be said the people had every right to feel cold, tired and miserable. To want to hibernate till spring and wish good riddance to the year. Those people did nothing of the sort. Filled with Christmas cheer, they gathered by the riverside in their thousands. They waited for hell to freeze over.  

On the Twelfth day of Christmas, January 5th 1684, when – to quote the writer John Evelyn –  “the air was so very cold and thick, as of many years there has not been the like,” the Thames finally solidified into one solid sheet of ice. Was it strong enough to hold a fair? Two men took a bet it wouldn’t hold a coach and six horses. It did, easily. 

All of a sudden, rows and rows of stalls and tents appeared, as thousands of Londoners made their way out onto the ice. For three days the populace forgot all of their troubles and partied amongst the carnivalesque atmosphere. Then, just as quickly, the thaw began… the people held their breath. 

It turns out the Frost Fair was not done yet. A bracingly cold wind reared up, and the Thames froze back over again – well mostly froze over again. Several people found themselves wandering out onto less than solid parts, and accidentally fell through the ice. There were several deaths. Surprisingly, this didn’t dampen the spirits of the revellers. The frost fair partied on. Whatever passed for weather reporters looked upon the ice, and prophesied the Thames would stay frozen till March. 

One day a man, well inebriated at an ice tavern, boasted he could build a three storey house on the ice, spend a night there, then tear it back down again before the frost broke. Bets were taken on this and construction began. I could find no confirmation if the man won his bet. 

King Charles II looked out his window at the teeming mass of subjects below, and forthwith ordered a painter to the palace. Orders were made for a panorama of the scene outside, to remind the king of the joyousness of the crowd. Any time he felt blue, Charles could look upon it and remember the Frost Fair. On the 23rd January, Charles ordered a collection be taken from the rich, for the poor of London. Looking out the window, it appears the king began seeing the partygoers as people, and certainly felt more compassion for them than he had the jewellers of the city. On the 31st the King gathered his entourage and headed out onto the ice himself. 

He was, of course, not the only member of the ruling class to take to the fair. It was one of those rare occasions when all classes got amongst it together, cheek by jowl. The aforementioned John Evelyn – a writer, landscape gardener and, when remembered these days, remembered as London’s second most famous diarist of the time (to Samuel Pepys) – visited the fair on January 24th. Evelyn wrote. 

“The frost continuing more and more severe, the Thames before London, was still planted with boothes in formal streetes, all sorts of shops and trades furnish’d and full of commodities even to a printing-presse… Coaches plied from Westminster to the Temple, and from several other staires to and fro, as in the streetes; sleds, sliding with skeetes, a bull-baiting, horse and coach races, puppet-playes, and interludes, cookes, tipling, and other lewd places, so that it seem’d to be a bacchanalian triumph, or carnival on the water”

A city within a city, where all observances of class and everyday sorrows were on hold – a place so remarkable it brought a profligate king who twelve years earlier bankrupted all the jewellers in the city, to order a significant act of charity for the poor. A ‘bacchanalian triumph’ a ‘carnival on the water’- well, such an utopia could not last. Utopias rarely do. First the watermen, a trade employing 20,000 Londoners – who had been unable to make money during the fair – petitioned to convert their boats to makeshift sleds. When told no, they petitioned for a ban on coach rides across the Thames – if they had to suffer why should coach drivers be allowed to profit? 

This all became a moot point soon enough, and as February 1684 came, the river slowly defrosted. The taverns, stalls, horse races and all manner of buskers returned to terra-firma. The many joys of the Great Frost Fair of 1684 were relegated to the memories of Londoners – until the next time – a three month long carnival beginning in November 1715.

In the midst of adversity – three years in to our own great pandemic – I hope everyone is keeping safe… and everyone finds joy in the season this year. 

Stay safe all, I’ll be back January 25th with more Tales of History and Imagination.      

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Revenge of the Tallysticks

The Revenge of The Tally Sticks Tales of History and Imagination

This week I’m starting with a quick anecdote. Please bear with me, this is not going to be a regular thing. Nor is the general tone of this Tale regular. I thought I was making something short and a little strange, to give me extra time on the last couple of episodes for 2022 – a bit of a firebreak I guess. This episode took off on me as I laid pen to paper – taking on complexities I didn’t foresee. 

Anyway, I ask you give me time to set the scene on this one, and suspend disbelief on occasion. If this tale is not for you, no worries – we’ll be back to regular programming in two weeks’ time if you want to skip it. That said… 

I’m no animist, but there’s a dream I had years ago. Apparently it’s a dream that I can still clearly recall. In 2007 I worked for a call centre by day, as a kind of in-house investigator. By night I was a guitarist in a rock band that had a level of local buzz and a local following. The band never really broke through – and eventually split – later taking up other creative endeavours- like podcasting. In 2007 we were self funding an extended EP, and when money ran short – I took to hiring myself out as a studio player for our producer for more studio time. This was a fair piece of barter; I got to redo all the guitars on one track, our producer got to finish an EP she was working on. On having arrived home one night from a mix-down session that ran to 2 am, I fell into a deep sleep… to dream of, well, musical instruments. 

Ishtar playing The Studio 2004 - I’m somewhere to the left of the photo.
Ishtar at the Studio, 2004. Simone to the left, Mel middle, Jamie right…Dave somewhere in the background.

I was in a studio we’d borrowed for a day that was full of esoteric percussion and orchestral instruments. Amid their collection, a rather beat-up old cello with a string missing. At the session I picked the instrument up, and had a play – before deciding it wouldn’t add anything to the song. A scratch track on the instrument was subsequently cut. In my dream I picked the cello up, took a seat, and plucked at the strings till something musical came out. “Cello, it’s been a long day” I said. 

“It’s been a long life” The cello replied. “Once I was majestic, the tallest Maple on the block. When it rained, elk sheltered beneath my canopy. When the sun was out, robins perched upon me and sang like angels.”

“We had our own song too, you know? When the wind blew, we sang – and what a song it was!” 

Simone playing the Dog’s Bollix bar with a couple of acoustics and a mandolin.
Simone onstage with a mandolin at The Dog’s Bollix bar.

Three and a half hours later an alarm sounded, and I trundled off to work. “Funny dream” I thought. I recalled the last thing I’d read that week was an account of the Emperor Charlemagne and his vendetta against a tree, the Irminsul. Yeah, that’d be it – exhaustion plus Charlemagne equals dreams of talking cellos?   

In that spirit I invite you to suspend disbelief with me, and take a boat ride down the River Thames, England. The year is 43 AD, and we’re cruising the river in search of a suitable place for a fortress. Everywhere we look there are trees – a heavy covering of Weeping Willows rising up from the wetlands, then bowing down again to kiss the water. As day-trippers in modern times we appreciate the Acadian beauty of the scene. To a boatload of Roman Legionnaires sailing into parts unknown where – as far as they know – they could meet the same end as Varus’ legions in the Teutoburg forest (we’ll come back to that tale, eventually) – it must’ve been terrifying? This is not the tale of those Romans – They establish London, well, Londinium to use the name they did – and do many other things – we’re interested in those willow trees. We’ll return to London – and eventually those trees – in a minute. 

But first we need to discuss money.

In the episode on Martial Bourdin I stated time itself is a very real phenomenon, but how we measure it is nothing more than a standardised set of measures agreed upon by all. We do this in part because of precedence, and in part because it’s in the interests of those in power to do so. Sometimes it’ll be in the interests of society as a whole. We call this a noble myth, or a noble lie. Though the origins of money are somewhat murky, we can fairly safely say in it’s every iteration it has been a noble myth.

On to that origin story – nobody ever recorded the why’s and wherefores. There’s a tale that states money came about from necessity, as the earlier system of barter reached it’s limits. Once all our ancestors were nomadic hunter-gatherers, but the advent of the ice age pushed many of the animals they hunted towards places sure to still have food – fertile river valleys. Humans, still hunter-gatherers, followed their prey. Once in these enclaves, as land elsewhere became barren, our ancestors became territorial, claiming ownership over the land. From 10,000 years ago we began to domesticate certain animals as pets or beasts of burden. Many humans learned to farm the land for food and other supplies.

Around 4,000 years ago, at several places all at once, we invented the plough – creating massive surpluses, and freeing up 5/6 of the workforce to diversify. The working theory is that this diversification led to greater choice in how one swapped their surplus goods for other things – but it proved terribly inefficient. 

Say you made arrows and needed grain, but none of the hunters who use your arrows grew crops – and none of the farmers who have the grain need arrows anymore – then what do you do? Without a double coincidence of wants between the parties, it was hypothesised, barter failed. There a standardised proxy for goods seems sensible, right? Something quite rare, and durable enough to withhold being passed from one person to the next many times.  

Where this theory falls down, is there is some proof of barter in some places – but no proof found yet of a community who bartered, then ditched the practice for a system of money – let alone giving any reason for doing so for posterity. 

Somewhere along the line though, the idea of money of account – a token of standardised value – grew . Early methods included cowrie shells, and beads. The Mesopotamians (of modern day Iraq) invented the shekel somewhere around 2,150 BC. A silver coin which borrowed it’s name from a measurement of barley – approximately a weight of 11 grams – one can guess what it originally stood in proxy of. The shekel was used throughout much of the near east. Money was truly standardised, however by the Lydians (of modern day Turkey) around 1,000 BC. They had different coins, worth differing amounts. Their rulers even put their faces on the coins for the first time. In the late sixth century BC, their King Croesus, a man with a great love of his ample fortune, became a person of interest in Greece – as did those coins which bore his image. Croesus love of money, his meeting with the Athenian lawmaker Solon, and later run in with the Persians is of interest – but let’s shelve that too for another day – we’ve got too much ground to cover. From Lydia to Greece, to Rome and beyond you can sketch more or less unbroken lines to modern coinage.

Back in England, those Roman soldiers sailing down the Thames settled. They, of course were paid in coins. Over the course of the first century they brought destruction, conquering as far as what later became Hadrian’s wall (the wall itself built from 122AD) in the North of England. They also brought vast building and infrastructure projects – roads and canals, public buildings – built in stone and sometimes clad in marble. Groves of willow trees were felled to make way for a walled city which held 50,000 at it’s Roman era peak. There’s no word if the weeping willows wept at such carnage (stick with the plot device, it’ll make sense in the end). 

Weeping Willows on the Thames
Weeping Willows on the Thames

A section of the English public, then a pre-literate society, learned to read, write and count. The Roman presence opened up lines of trade with the empire in Europe, and as such, opportunity for some. They also brought money to a people completely unaccustomed to the concept. For a small percentage of elite Britons, the Roman presence brought great wealth, prestige, and nice things like costly villas to live in. For perhaps as much as 99% of Britons, however, life was a similar daily grind to before – where one mostly subsisted, and occasionally starved – but at least they had roads to travel along, and slightly nicer pottery?

Of course the Romans also brought a time of peace. With as many as 50,000 legionnaires along Hadrian’s wall alone, elite Britons slept well in their villas at night – assured no Picts, Scots, Goths, Vandals, Saxons, Angles or Swabians could arrive and steal all their precious money. But this peace wouldn’t last forever. Rome disintegrated throughout the Fourth Century for numerous reasons, both within and without the kingdom. The supply of shiny new silver coins everyone had become accustomed to slowed to a trickle, as the Empire struggled to keep the lights on. Many of those soldiers England’s peace depended on were stationed to other parts of the empire, where trouble brewed for Rome. 

Londinium in the 2nd Century
Londinium in the 2nd Century

The English, knowing money didn’t grow on trees (not yet anyway), started to ‘clip’ their coins to make the money go further – cutting chunks of silver off existing coins to mint new ones. In 409 AD, England, feeling Rome had abdicated all their responsibility to them – Brexited from the Romans in a successful rebellion. Having ‘taken back their sovereignty’, the cashflow stopped completely. What’s more, without garrisons of troops to protect them, the Picts of the North descended with a vengeance upon them. 

Thriving cities and expensive villas were abandoned. Many wealthy Britons buried their beloved – though now dog-eared coinage in hoards. The land descended into an anarchy that would take hundreds of years to recover from. The willow trees took back much of London. When the wind blew, they sang a song of victory. When it rained, the red deer took shelter. When the moon was full, the wolves howled ominously. 

I am looking to plough too big a field if I described everything that happened in England in the following years. The chronicler the Venerable Bede stated attacks from the Picts and Scots worsened. An English warlord named Vortigern hired a mercenary army of Saxons from the north of modern day Germany to help them fight back. Unfortunately for Vortigern, the Saxons liked England so much, they returned with friends and took over the country. This could contain some truth – Britons were not allowed to use weapons under Roman occupation, so most lacked the skills to repel a professional army. We know the Saxons, Angles and Jutes established several kingdoms in England from the early 440s – and that some kind of widespread slaughter of Britons did take place. Barbarians rolled many other Roman colonies, and they subsequently adopted many Roman ways – but Germanic invaders in England took on around 30 Romano-Britonic words, and nothing else. Virtually everything else was allowed to disintegrate around them. 

This suggests several possible scenarios – none of which are pleasant for the original inhabitants of the land. Like the origin of money, the history of this time is incredibly murky, so we’ll move on.  

Vikings first showed up in 789, and made a big splash in 793, when they wrecked the monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. Anglo-Saxon England was divided up into at least a dozen kingdoms – at times dozens – ruled by all kinds – but we’re now straying a long way from the money, and the trees – so back to the topic.

Londinium was slowly re-populated, just shy of two centuries after it was abandoned. It would become Londonwik before it became known as London. Shepherds ventured out to the area now called Covent Garden. It seemed a nice place to keep sheep. Over time others would come, and the city would rebound – but to the willows this time must’ve seemed like paradise. Shepherds sheltered under them in the rain. When the stars shone bright, young lovers sung of love and longing like Chaucer’s Absolum to an unattainable Alisoun. One presumes the trees provided swelling harmonies. 

Coins returned to England under Offa, King of Mercia (his reign 757 – 796). The man brought back the silver penny. His coins were remarkable in some ways – often of a higher quality than anything being minted in mainland Europe at the time. Some carried Arabic writing on one side. Some carried the image of his wife, Cynethrith – making her the only Anglo-Saxon queen represented on money. An empire builder intent on bringing England under just one ruler, coinage was a kind of propaganda to the king – a way of big-noting himself and letting everyone know he was the new boss. Offa embraced that aspect of money. As did every subsequent king or queen after him. By the time of the Normans in the 11th Century, coins were well established – but wealth had gravitated upwards into the hands of a small, elite class.

A general shortage of ready cash among the populace, to pay taxes with, often proved troublesome to these English royals. Take Henry I, fourth son of William the Conqueror. On his father’s death he had to buy his own fiefdom in Normandy off his older brothers. In 1091 he was deposed of that kingdom by his brother Robert, and had to fight a costly war with him. By 1100 he was king of England, and Normandy – but was broke and facing multiple challenges to his crown. He desperately needed tax revenue… If only money grew on trees.

Well, it did, but not in the way you’re thinking – let’s put China and paper money to one side for now. The royals came up with a plan that, if those willows had emotions, they would have been shaking in terror over it.

Whole groves of weeping willows were press-ganged into finance. Henceforth their song would become less lullaby of the leaves, more a dull clatter as they banged up against one another. 

Henry I came up with an interesting way to keep receipts on taxes paid. Tax would be recorded on a Tally Stick, as you had an annual tax bill, but typically paid it in halves, twice a year. A tally stick was a piece of wood, usually willow, that was split in two – both parts marked with identical notches to denote just how much tax the person had paid. The payer kept the longer piece, known as the stock (where we get the word stocks from). The exchequer kept the shorter piece, known as the foil. Willow trees were perfect for use as tally sticks as their distinctive grain pattern meant you couldn’t easily substitute one stock with another foil. When it came time to confirm who had paid their taxes, both parts were joined back together. 

People realised if they were in need of money, they could often trade in their stocks for close to that sum of money – the new stockholder knew it was as good as guaranteed money come tax time. Jewellers often got into the business of buying tally sticks off the hard up, creating a secondary market. Henry II realised this also meant he could sell stocks to people for their future taxes at a slight discount, allowing for quick cash injections if money was needed to go fight a war. The stockholder could then sell the stock at a profit too on the secondary market. These tokens often spread far and wide in the kingdom – many times a long way away from the original taxpayer. 

On occasion however; a king, such as Charles II, might game the system. 

Having been restored to the throne in 1660 (his father Charles I having lost his head, with the Cromwells taking the reins for the interregnum), Charles agreed he would allow parliament to pay him a wage drawn from taxes – granting them the power to dole out his money and set taxes. Unfortunately for the monarch, a cluster of unfortunate things happened. First parliament were stingy, paying him less than expected, while keeping taxes static. Second, The Crown were limited in the printing of new money, due to a lack of bullion entering the country at the time. The Great Plague, followed by the Great Fire of London wiped out the King’s cash reserves, leading to him making deals with France (one publicly known, to send soldiers to help in their fight against the Dutch. The other a secret pact to expose he was actually Catholic, theoretically forcing the nation back to the old faith – which he did only on his deathbed). 

But this still wasn’t enough. 

In 1671, Charles was heavily in arrears on his payments to his army, navy, and debtors. He flooded the market, the jewellers particularly, with far cheaper tallies than usual. A buying frenzy on the secondary market, incredibly, pushed the value of the sticks up until their profit exceeded 10%. The debt came due a year later, and the stock holders came to the crown to collect their profits. The king couldn’t repay the debt – but he had a way out. Any debt agreement at the time with annual interest in excess of 6% was considered predatory lending. The usury laws then stated any such debt were null and void and to be promptly ignored by debtors. On these grounds, Charles refused to pay, crashing the value of tally sticks overnight. Many a jeweller went bankrupt, ending up in debtors prisons. 

Charles II
Charles II

So it is unsurprising Tally Sticks fell out of favour, as useful as they had once been. As a form of alternate currency, they limped on till 1826. I couldn’t tell you what their song was in those days but I imagine it was not terribly festive or uplifting. Certainly they no longer provided shelter, financially or otherwise to anyone. Brought no-one solace, or comfort. Increasingly they took up basement space in the Government’s treasury and collected dust. On 16th October 1834 it was decided our wooden heroes would be immolated. Rather than do something civic-minded, like have a large public bonfire – or kind, like giving the old tally sticks away to people to use as firewood in the coming winter – the palace’s clerk of works decided the sticks should be fed into two ovens beneath the House of Lords. Throughout the day, two full cartloads of sticks were gradually fed into the furnace. 

As the workday came to an end, with the basement floor actually hot to the touch, the workmen doused the flames and packed up for home. An hour later, the flames reignited. The wife of the doorkeeper rushed to the deputy housekeeper to advise the fire had not just re-animated – it was burning the entire building down, and threatened to spread to the rest of the palace. As the buildings went up in flame, renowned artists like J.M.W Turner crowded around outside, paint and easel at the ready. Turner painted several canvases of the ‘Great Fire of 1834’.

The Burning of the Houses of Parliament ?1834-5 Joseph Mallord William Turner 1775-1851 Accepted by the nation as part of the Turner Bequest 1856 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/D36235

As I said at the beginning, I’m no animist – I don’t believe plants and trees, rocks, stones or the great eternal blue sky (sorry Genghis Khan) have feelings, souls or sentience… but isn’t it a little fun to suspend disbelief for a second and imagine those sticks – once majestic and content down by the riverside. They sang in the breeze, till someone robbed them of their essential being. Press-ganged into service, they lost their voice. Used and abused by a man, who, quite frankly should have hugged every single tree he ever came into contact with (For a second time, I WILL come back to that story), they were branded villainous and untrustworthy. Left in a basement to moulder for years – they were ultimately robbed of a final chance to be of service to others. Don’t you just want to allow them one final act of revenge? As the painters captured the billowing smoke, and firemen fought a losing battle to contain the damage –
Well, I couldn’t tell you their final song – but it brought the house down.

Oliver

Oliver (the Man in the Box)… Tales of History and Imagination


Hi all, this week is probably the second, and final unplanned episode. If you’re curious, the new day job is going fine. Trigger warning on this one, it gets gory at times.    

I have an image in my mind of Josiah Wilkinson, that may not be entirely accurate. More a whole scenario than an image, I imagine us transported back to some time – let’s for argument’s sake say 1818. We’re at an upmarket ale house a short ride from Harley Street, London and Wilkinson is holding court in a corner of the pub. As the beer flows the gentlemen pass judgment on German inventor Karl Von Drais
“damn fool invented a wooden horse, if you would believe it!”
a newly released, anonymous novel discussing wide ranging themes from the sublimity of nature to the dangers of an unfettered pursuit of knowledge, to ambition, to just what is the true nature of monstrosity?
“I dare say the chap who wrote that book is far too fond of the opium.
“Romantics they call em…Hmph”.

Perhaps conversation veered to the recent passing of Seymour Fleming, the scandalous Lady Worsley 

“I hear she had affairs with 27 men while wedded to that sot.”
”Yes, but the damn fool invited some of those men into his marital bed – who does that?”
“Sir Richard worse than sly, that’s who”
”Look up, dear – Bisset’s at the window!”
”that’s the one….. What’s that Oliver? What happened to that African slave boy Worsley bought in Turkey? You think he murdered and cannibalised him while in Moscow. Oliver that is preposterous, the man was a damn fool but he was no monster”

If writing this in longer-form, I’d start in 1612, and we’d stay there a while. At the time James I, one of our bad guys in the Pendle Witches saga, was the king of England and Scotland (and by extension Wales and Ireland). His son and heir apparent, Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales – a bright, capable young man – suddenly died of typhoid fever. His passing was a heavy blow for the nation – not least of all as the new heir apparent was the awkward, incompetent, less beloved younger brother, Charles. 

In longer-form we’d definitely expound on Charles’ tumultuous reign. We could easily spend several episodes unravelling this. What we need to know, however, is he ran into conflict with parliament early on, never managing to come to a consensus with them. They clashed over religion (not as simple as Protestant vs Catholic, there were various factions vying for specific permutations of Protestantism from almost Catholic to full-on Puritanism to become a new state religion). They also clashed over failed attempts to bring Scotland and Ireland into line with the official religion. 

Charles and Parliament clashed over taxes, the long-held belief kings had a divine right to rule, over what rights a rapidly growing middle class should be granted, the perception the king was a warmonger – and of course George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham. 

Buckingham was reputedly a lover of Charles’ father, James. He later acted as Charles’ wingman in the clumsy attempted wooing of the Infanta Maria Anna of Spain. Villiers’ assassination in 1628 robbed the king of one of his trusted supporters very early on.

Having never been trained to rule till his early teens, he lacked the diplomatic skills to navigate in such an explosive time. While he could, and did dissolve parliament on occasion – a sitting Parliament remained a necessity. War with his continental neighbours constantly loomed. To levy the taxes needed to put an army together, Charles constitutionally needed a sitting parliament to sign off on taxes to pay the soldiers. 

By 1642 a frustrated Charles tried, and failed to prorogue parliament. Civil war soon erupted between crown and parliament. 

At 2pm, January 30 1649, a defeated Charles knelt before the executor’s block. We don’t know the identity of the executioner, but a 19th century exhumation shows they were an experienced axeman – the cut was extremely clean. Normally an executioner would hold the head aloft, proclaiming ‘Behold the head of a traitor’ to all in attendance. Possibly in an attempt to hide his identity, the axeman remained silent. The head was sown back on. His body prepared for burial at Windsor Castle. 

At his funeral a middle-aged parliamentarian, turned cavalry officer gazed down at the corpse. “It was a cruel necessity” he exclaimed. That man played a vital role in the execution, as the second signatory of twelve on the death warrant. That man – Oliver Cromwell – is our man in the box. 

Oliver Cromwell was born in 1599 to a gentrifying, middle class family. His grandfather made a small fortune from a brewery he established. The brewing side of the family married into the titled, but disgraced forebears of Thomas Cromwell – a chief advisor to King Henry VIII who faced the executioner’s axe after he fell foul of the king. Oliver studied at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was introduced to Puritanical thought. In 1620 he married Elizabeth Bourchier – a young lady from an influential Puritan family. Her uncles helped the young Cromwell into politics, helping him win a parliamentary seat at Huntingdon in 1628. 

Cromwell wasn’t overtly religious till he slumped into a ‘dark night of the soul’ in his late 30s. 

From early adulthood on, Oliver Cromwell suffered bouts of severe depression. He was often bed ridden for days on end in a deep, blue funk. The root of his depression was surely more complex than the following, but the explanation we have is he was convinced he was a sinner in a land full of sinners, and destined to burn in hell for eternity. Oliver Cromwell had a complete nervous breakdown in 1638; a spiritual awakening shaking him out of it. Born again, he adopted the solipsistic goal of becoming ‘the greatest man in the kingdom’. 

If doing a longer-form piece on Cromwell, and again people could devote whole series to him – I’d detail how his radicalism made him an ideal fit amongst the parliamentarians who declared war on the Crown. How he turned out to be an extremely capable fighter, rising through the ranks as a cavalry man. How he was given the task of building their ‘New Model Army’. His decisive leadership in the battles of Marston Moor in 1644, Naseby in June 1645 and Langport in July 1645 were instrumental in the defeat of the king. As were his murderous raids on towns who remained loyal to the king. 

We most certainly would linger on his genocidal campaigns in both Scotland and Ireland following the king’s execution – particularly in Ireland where civilian deaths may have run in excess of half a million souls. He had 50,000 Irish sent off as indentured labourers to the colonies – essentially slaves by another name – expected to be worked to death on an American plantation. He dissolved the ‘rump parliament’; then the bare-bones parliament’ following King Charles execution. By 1653, feeling he had no other option if order was to be restored to the realm – Oliver Cromwell was declared Lord Protector of England – essentially a dictator for life. He instituted a network of Major Generals to enforce his regime. In an effort to save souls he banned joy in life; criminalising swearing, blasphemy, drunkenness and sex outside of marriage. 

Though he didn’t personally ban Christmas – the puritans in the ‘Long Parliament’ did that in 1647 – he oversaw a half-hearted attempt to enforce the law on Christmas 1655. 

Oliver Cromwell is a divisive figure in English history. Some see him as a heroic figure. Others think him a monster. I fall in the latter camp, and think his death of kidney failure on September 3 1658 no great loss for England. Now we’ve covered some background, let’s discuss his head.

On 29th May 1660; a day designated Oak Apple Day (if I need more downtime we’ll come back to that in a few weeks’ time), Charles’ son and namesake, now Charles II – re-entered London. The new king forgave many of his father’s enemies, but saw to it anyone responsible for his father’s death warrant were punished – whether dead or alive. 

On 30th January 1661, the anniversary of Charles I’s execution, Oliver Cromwell’s body was dragged through the streets of London, hung from a gallows, then decapitated. His head was pierced through with an iron spike. The spike then stuck on the end of a long pole, then was hoisted atop the Parliament buildings at Westminster Hall. A warning to future despots, his head was to remain there forever.
Oliver Cromwell’s head disappeared mysteriously on a stormy night in 1684. The pole snapping in the tempest, it was thrown across the courtyard. A guard found the head, and secreted it away to his own home. 

As soon as the missing head was noticed, authorities went into a mad panic, scrambling to find it. Although a large reward was offered for Cromwell’s head, the sentinel in possession of the head became increasingly worried he’d be accused of theft if he brought it in. He stored Oliver up his chimney – where it stayed till the guard passed on. There is a presumption he made his family aware of the ghastly house guest on his death bed.  

In 1710 Oliver Cromwell’s head went from cautionary tale to morbid curiosity. First it showed up in the London curiosity room of a Swiss calico trader named Claudius Du Puy. In amongst a cabinet full of rare coins and exotic herbs, the gnarly-looking head was a sight to behold for the many foreigners stopping by his museum. From there the head found itself in the possession of Samuel Russell, an actor who performed in London’s, Clare Market, from a stall. I cannot say if he ever soliloquised  “Alas poor Yorick!, I knew him, Horatio” while holding Mr Cromwell up for inspection. Oliver was, however, popular with passers by, having visited the meat market on the look out for a leg of lamb or cut of beef. Russell sold the head to one James Cox, who owned a museum but Cox chose to exhibit the head only to his close friends. He in turn sold it to the Hughes family – who owned a museum full of Cromwell memorabilia. They, in turn sold it to a surgeon named Josiah Wilkinson in 1814. 

The head became Wilkinson’s prized property. He had an oak box made to exhibit it, and took to bringing his friend Oliver with him to the local pub. One wonders what Cromwell would have thought at becoming the centre of attention in the midst of the boozing, swearing, laughing and – one hopes – blasphemy. When someone doubted the raggedy head’s provenance, Wilkinson took the head out, pointing to the wart above his left eye. One friend noted the head “A frightful skull it is, covered with it’s parched yellow skin like any other mummy and with it’s chestnut hair, eyebrows and beard in glorious preservation”

The head became of public interest again in the 1840s after proponent of the ‘Great Man’ theory of history Thomas Carlyle published a collection of Cromwell’s letters and speeches in 1845. This was helped on by the rise of the pseudo-science of phrenology, and the appearance of a rival Cromwell skull, exhibited at the Ashmolean. The rival skull was easily dismissed as a fake when it was shown to be in circulation in the 1670s, while Cromwell’s head was verifiably still on the pike as late as 1684. Efforts to confirm our head reached a reasonable level of certainty in 1930, when the new-fangled technology of the X Ray at least proved the head had been run through with an iron spike as described in the accounts of Cromwell’s mounting. 

In 1960, Dr. Horace Wilkinson, the original Dr Wilkinson’s great-grandson handed Cromwell’s head over to his old alma mater, Sidney Sussex College. On 25 March 1960, his head was finally laid to rest in an intimate ceremony, at an unspecified location within their chapel. 

Sophxit

(Originally titled The Deadly Sophxit of Count Konigsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea.)

Sophxit! – The Tale of Count Konigsmarck and Princess Sophia Dorothea Tales of History and Imagination

Hi all the following tale is something I’ve had rattling round for a little while now. I have taken a few shots at writing it under the auspices of a whodunit, but I don’t think there’s any doubt who the murderers are. I then had another run – this time as a faux fairytale, an OG soap opera? I had a line from John Wilmott, Earl of Rochester kicking round in my head about his patron Charles II, and thought what about riffing off that; this is an example of what a crazy, swinging place Europe’s courts were in the late 17th Century after all… but I abandoned all of these.

Then Megxit happened; The Sussexes – Harry and Meghan – announced they were leaving ‘the firm’. In some quarters there was shock, and I understand there was an urgent family meeting. Harry didn’t get thrown into a cell in the Tower of London. There was no clandestine dash for the English channel (like the aforementioned Charles II after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651). No disguising himself as a servant. No hiding in oak trees for Harry. Public discourse re-centred on whether you wished them well, or thought them a pair of spoilt brats. This brought me back round to this tale again… Imagine you’re a deeply unhappy royal, but it is 1694. Does Sophxit play out any differently?


This tale begins on the evening of July 1st 1694. The setting, Hanover – a Germanic Duchy which would eventually be subsumed into a larger German nation, and whose first family would go on to be kind of a big deal. A handsome young man, aided only by moonlight, sails along the Leine river till he reaches the Leineschloss – the palatial riverside home of the duke and his family. He moors his boat, then cautiously enters the property. The man is Phillipp Christoph, Count Konigsmarck – an aristocratic German born Swede from a long line of mercenaries. His father had served King Gustav II Adolph in the 30 Years War, rising through the ranks to Field Marshall. Phillipp himself had fought the Turks for Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. At this point in the tale however, he was under the employ of the Elector of Saxony. Tonight he’s been summoned to met his paramour – Sophia Dorothea, princess of Celle – the very unhappy wife of Duke Georg Ludwig.


Sophia, though surprised- she never summoned him – is ecstatic over his arrival. They haven’t seen each other for weeks. She is also a little perturbed and angered at ‘that woman’s’ gall. “Well, clearly she’s still spying on us” I imagine one saying “Never mind, in a day we’ll be out of this nightmare” the other may have replied. With rather less poetic license you can imagine the rest of their night – Konigsmarck had not come to play solitaire after all, nor Sophia to play old maid. I like to imagine Sophia enfolding the count in her arms as he left and whispering “keep safe, hell hath no fury and all” but that is a little anachronistic – Congreve would not publish ‘The Mourning Bride’ till 1697.
This is the last time Sophia Dorothea would see Count Konigsmarck – in the following hours he would disappear from the face of the Earth, never to be seen again.


Joining ‘The Firm’.

To explain how Sophia Dorothea found herself in an unhappy marriage, I need to take us back a generation. The first fact worth knowing is there was no German nation in the modern sense until January 1871. People could be ethnically Germanic, but Germany was a collection of feudal states for most of it’s history. Until 1806, they were also overseen by a ‘Holy Roman Emperor’. From 1346 the Emperor was elected by a council from the Elector states – This is important to know later. The second fact is marriages of convenience were very much a thing in the 17th Century, particularly among the aristocrats. Third, this tale concerns two duchies, Brunswick- Celle and Brunswick- Luneberg, afterwards known simply as ‘Hanover’. These duchies were ruled over by two brothers. Fourth their leading citizens of the duchies wanted to see the two areas reunited one day. Now that is out of the way…

Sophia Dorothea’s father was a man named Duke Georg Wilhelm of Brunswick- Celle. Georg W had been engaged to a princess from the neighboring duchy of Rhineland Palatinate (her name was also Sophia, though she hardly gets a mention beyond this point), but he was desperate to stay a bachelor a little longer. He cancelled the engagement – passing her on to his brother, Ernst August, Duke of Brunswick Luneberg. The leading figures of Georg W’s duchy were furious, but when Georg signed a legal agreement stating he would never marry – and would pass his duchy to Ernst, (merging the duchies) on his death, all was forgiven. Georg was not exactly out of the firm, but was free to enjoy his newly acquired freedom. The problem was Cupid laid Georg W low after he crossed paths with the beautiful Frenchwoman Eleonore d’Olbreuse.

Georg immediately knew they must marry and start a family. His own duchy and brother Ernst were unimpressed, so Georg W approached Leopold I, Holy Roman Emperor for permission to marry Eleonore. Leopold gave his blessing, but many years after the fact– at this stage Georg and Eleonore had a child, Sophia Dorothea, now 10 years old. There was a caveat to Leopold’s blessing – Georg W had a daughter, Ernst a son (Georg L) – the two cousins would marry, uniting the duchies. This suited all, but the two cousins themselves, who detested each other.


Complicating matters further, both Georg L and his father Ernst were openly having affairs outside of their marriages. Given what transpires it is worth mentioning Georg L’s double standards with affairs. The key fact to take on however is Ernst, Sophia’s uncle-stepdad, was involved with a lady named Countess Platen.

Countess Platen

The Konigsmarck brothers.
We’ll come back to this lot in a second, but first let’s discuss Count Konigsmarck. He has quite a fraught backstory too.
Konigsmarck was brought up at court, and knew the rest of this cast well. Both he and his brother, Karl, were sent to England in their mid teens, around 1680. They were sent off to learn courtly skills and mingle, but both brothers soon got into trouble. Phillipp’s trouble involved losing huge sums of money through gambling. Karl’s trouble was on a whole other level.
The two brothers began associating with several high society Britons- including Charles II. Karl had become smitten with Elizabeth Seymour, Duchess of Somerset. Elizabeth was – you guessed it – caught in a loveless, arranged marriage to a wealthy, cheating husband – the wealthy landowner and MP Thomas Thynne. On 12th February 1682, Thynne was travelling in a carriage through Pall Mall, when three men with pistols – Christopher Vratz, John Stern and George Borosky gunned him down. The three men were captured, and named Karl Konigsmarck as the man who hired them to make the hit. The assassins would hang, Karl walked free – but both young men were outcasts in England from this point on. Both returned to Europe and joined Leopold’s army.
Karl would be killed in action fighting the Turks in Greece in 1686. As an aside, not long after Thomas Thynne’s murder, a poem circulated through London.

Here lies Tom Thynne of Longleat Hall
Who ne’er would have miscarried;
Had he married the woman he slept withal

Or slept with the woman he married.”

Let the Dangerous Liaisons begin.
In 1688, after eight years service in the wars with the Turks, Phillipp Konigsmarck returned to the court of what was then Hanover. The ladies of the court fell for this dashing, young soldier. He became a close friend and confidant of Sophia Dorothea – a sympathetic ear who would keep tales of Sophia’s horrible husband, hideous uncle/stepdad, and terrifying mistress of uncle/stepdad – Countess Platen, confidential. Konigsmarck also began an ill advised affair with Countess Platen himself.

The young count soon realized; one, he had fallen in love with princess Sophia – and two, Countess Platen is a dangerous lunatic he should have never become involved with. He took on a new military commission and left Hanover, hoping the countess would forget about him.

On his return to the court in the spring of 1690 he began wooing the princess. The countess, meanwhile resumed her wooing of the count. When left unrequited she hired spies to follow the couple, and intercept their letters. By 1693 Countess Platen stopped even attempting to repair the broken seals on the couple’s love letters. Phillipp resumed his affair with the countess, hoping to placate her; at the very least to stop her from spilling the beans on them. Phillipp and Sophia make the decision to run away together; to start a new life elsewhere- far away from courtly life. This presented a problem for the two. Phillipp was lousy with money, and currently broke – he had not been working, while wooing two ladies. Sophia, upon marrying Georg L, ceded all her possessions to her husband.

Phillipp took a commission with the elector of Saxony, in Dresden in May 1694. Sophia sat tight and waited for Phillipp to make some money. 1st July, at the urging of a counterfeit letter, Phillipp returned to Hanover. Possibly aware it was a trap, Phillipp had saved a month’s worth of wages. Most of the court were away at their summer house at the time – Georg. L included. Tomorrow morning they would run away – and begin a new, happier life together.
The following day Count Konigsmarck was nowhere to be found. A distraught Sophia Dorothea eventually hears the scuttlebutt from the markets “the witches of Dresden…” lured Phillipp away.

So…. what happened?
Let’s work through the facts – and suppositions – of the case. There are at least five possibilities. It’s generally accepted the counterfeit letter came from the countess. She had spies watching the couple, who reported to her that the couple were planning to abscond the following day. It is established fact also that Countess Platen informed her other lover, the uncle/stepdad Ernst, of the two lovers’ plan. Ernst ordered four cavaliers to arrest Count Konigsmarck immediately. The four men caught him outside the palace, swords were drawn. When the men eventually faced trial they claimed the count had drawn his sword, a fight broke out, and the count got stabbed to death in the melee.

What happened to the body? Who the hell knows? That is the real mystery. The four suspects were never on record on this matter. One theory has his body thrown into the Leine river, or immolated, or buried on the property. There was excitement in 2016 when bones were dug up on the site, but DNA proved the bones belonged to five separate men (none Phillipp) and a selection of animals.

Possibility one is simple as this, manslaughter. Count Konigsmarck, the battle hardened soldier of fortune thought he could fight his way out of an awkward situation and the four men got the better of him. It was, at most, a case of manslaughter.

Two, when Ernst August sent the cavaliers out to stop Konigsmarck, did he give the order to murder him before the elopement uncovered his dalliances, causing him embarrassment? He may have wanted him out of the way for this reason. Besides personal embarrassment, Hanover had only just been appointed an elector state, who help choose the Holy Roman Emperor. A scandal involving their royals may have jeopardized that position.

Three, well that ‘hell hath no fury’ motive is also out there. Countess Platen was jealous, and involved in high level stalking behaviour. She had laid this trap for the couple, does it not make sense to go that one step further. Did she kill Count Konigsmarck, solipsisticly to say ‘if I can’t have him, no-one can’?

Four, did Georg Ludwig know of the affair, and order the assassination? An elopement certainly would have left him a cuckold. Working counter to this, Georg L seemed unaware of the affair till after the affair was exposed. As soon as he heard, he divorced Sophia Dorothea. He exiled her to house arrest in Ahlden Castle, another family possession. She was kept prisoner until her death 32 years later. Here’s my reason to doubt Georg as the mastermind – he divorced and imprisoned her six months after Count Konigsmarck disappeared. Perhaps Georg was an endlessly patient man? I doubt it.

Now, I want to put a fifth suspect on the table – I said I would not mention her again – but I need to in order to tie this to the Sussexes at the very least. Ernst August’s wife, Sophia the elder, scorned by Georg W, and in what one would imagine as unhappy a marriage as anyone else in this tale – Her husband was cheating on her with Countess Platen after all – well she had a dream.

Discontent with her lot in life, married to a petty duke of a tiny duchy, she daydreamed of a time when herself, or her son would run the larger archipelago to the north-west. This did not seem such a crazy daydream. Her grandfather had been James I of England. In 1685 Charles II died leaving 14 illegitimate children, but no heirs. The crown passed to his brother James II, who was deposed in the ‘Glorious Rebellion’ of 1688. This saw a joint rule by James II’s daughter Mary, and the Dutch Import William of Orange. The line of succession had gotten a little complicated of late, and Sophia the elder’s daydream was seeming less and less blue sky thinking, more a genuine possibility – just so long as a giant scandal didn’t break out about her cheating husband, cheating daughter in law, and surrounding rogues gallery. I can’t count her in, but I certainly can’t ignore she too has a motive.

By 1702 both Mary and William of Orange had died. The crown passed to Mary’s sister – Anne. Anne fell pregnant 18 times – and suffered six miscarriages, five stillbirths, and none of her remaining children lived beyond two years of age. When Anne died on August 1st 1714, the crown passed to one Georg Ludwig, of an obscure German duchy, henceforth known as George I of England, whose family sit on the throne of England to this day.

How do I feel about the Sussexes and Megxit? Well, I am glad for the couple that it is 2020, not 1694 – and I wish them well.