Category: History

A Wives Pairing

“I’m Henry the eighth, I am
Henry the eighth, I am, I am
I got married to the widow next door
She’s been married seven times before.”
– Henry Champion

Thank goodness for Beyonce. In all things, really, but specifically when we need a break from the news, be it babies or the Grammys.

Funnily enough, a couple of weekends ago, a Very Important Discussion ensued between Katarina and myself about which Beyonce songs corresponded best with which wives of Henry VIII. We’re fairly intersectional here at SDS headquarters.

After some debate and reallocation, we feel like we nailed the perfect “Wives Pairing” to match women to power anthems/ballads and thought it was only appropriate that we put our selections out to be judged. Therefore, in the interest of making your Monday a bit more fun and ridiculous, find our picks below!

Katherine of Aragon – Hold Up, Don’t Hurt Yourself
The thesis of more than one of our many historical conversations has been that even though Anne Boleyn gets a lot of press time for the break up of the Tudor marriage/English church, the truth is that the story of the king’s Great Matter wouldn’t have been the drama it was if not for Katherine holding her ground in defense of her marriage and title as queen…for years. After turning a blind eye to Henry’s peccadilloes for most of her marriage, when she finally came at him for threatening her with an annulment or convent, she did so on a European wide scale that included trials, Emperors, and popes. Don’t hurt yourself, indeed!

Anne Boleyn – Diva, Ring the Alarm
Anne was nothing if not a hustler and so Beyonce’s definition thereof must stand! By far the most famous of Henry’s wives, even if we think a lot of the credit for her fame actually lies at her predecessor’s feet, she was unable to live with the dangerous precedent she herself had set at court: namely, making the leap from side piece to main squeeze. The caution in her story is that you lose them the way you get them.

Jane Seymour – Rather Die Young, If I Were a Boy
Jane doesn’t get her just dues sometimes…but we’re just as guilty of that as anyone. Sorry Jane. We went for on-the-nose picks for you.

Anne of Cleves – Me Myself and I, Best Thing I Never Had
Anne of Cleves should go down as one of history’s greatest survivors. Not only did she get out of a marriage to a–by that time–fat, diseased, and tyrannical man, she walked away with an amazing settlement and lived out the rest of her life independently wealthy and relatively secure. Atta girl, Annie!

Catherine Howard – Single Ladies, Check on It
I feel like these song choices are fairly self explanatory. She made him put a ring on it and she flaunted what he wanted. Catherine came to a tragic end, but as I tend to view her more as a victimized young woman, we’re focusing on her flirty nature in upbeat, positive picks rather than downer songs.

Katherine Parr – Run the World, Irreplaceable
The first queen to publish a book under her own name, she also served as regent, and oversaw the education of her stepchildren (to excellent effect). Not to mention that after Henry’s largely unlamented death, she had a replacement waiting in the wings.

This sort of important historical theorizing should be what keeps scholars up at night. Let me know what you think of our picks, and loudly disagree with us in the comments if you feel so inclined!

Barcelona: The History

“History is a set of lies agreed upon.”
― Napoléon Bonaparte

If you like places that wear its history on its sleeve, you’ll adore Barcelona. It’s a perfect mix of Roman, medieval, and modern and you can find traces of era all over the city.

For example, in the main square, we stumbled upon some traditional fall festivals that included large “giant” figurines that are paraded in the streets on holy and fest days (and seem to have some Celtic or pagan origins, at least according to some historians) and acrobats which seem to a Catalan tradition.

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For those into conquest, trade, and epidemiology, the court where Isabella of Spain supposedly received Columbus in audience before his voyage is a nice check in.

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And the architecture everywhere is fantastical…until you start to learn how much of it is a lie!

What I loved best about visiting Barcelona and hearing about its history is that the people of this city seem to have been amazingly inventive and innovative with their town. No precious nonsense about accuracy here, what they want is good show. So for instance, when there was a grand exhibition being held in Spain, they thought their cathedral was a bit drab. Romanesque architecture is by definition bulky, angular, and squat. This simply would not do. The enterprising populace decided to commission a faux gothic facade to the entrance in stead. It looks like it’s from the late medieval period, but in fact dates from the 19th century.

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Glance down the side streets and you can see the original, rather less impressive and unadorned walls.

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This triumphal arch is a great might-have-been because it was the original site for an edifice deemed so ugly that the people refused to allow it to be built. And so the Eiffel Tower was erected in Paris instead. Oops.

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The sand was perhaps my favorite story. The Spanish coast on the Mediterranean is rocky and not particularly good for holiday postcards and so when the Olympics were held here and a great influx of tourists expected, our proactive natives again rose to the challenge. Tons of sand was imported from the Middle East and palm trees from Hawaii–none of the tropical foliage you see in the city is native to the area, according to our guides. Marine sand is also different from desert sand, with a different texture and feel due to the polishing of waves rather than wind–meaning the beaches are rather rough to walk on. Doesn’t deter people, though.

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And finally, the iconic Sagrada Familia is an absolute hodge podge because the original plans by Gaudi were lost in a fire. Rather than give up, dozens of architects and artists have been involved with the project and instead of trying to replicate the style of the master, they each have left a different and unique stamp on the area of the basilica they were assigned to. Far from Gaudi’s entrance opposite to this which commemorates the birth of Christ, this doorway memorializes his death in a darkly modernist style. My impious observation was that the statues of Roman guards looked like Cylons from Battlestar Gallatica…but I stand by this observation.

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A completely mad and constantly evolving city!

Services at the Tower

“I like the silent church before the service begins, better than any preaching.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

I love getting in when or where others can’t. It’s not a noble confession, but it’s an honest one. And if you want a fantastic private peek into what is normally a very public space, make some time in your weekend calendar to attend Sunday services at the Tower of London. The main doors don’t open until after the first of two services (one communion, the other a sung matins), though a side gate admits service attendees without a ticket, and it’s an amazing chance to see this world heritage site nearly free of people. Redcoats excepted.

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The Tower still functions as a military fortress, though the vast majority of its activities are understandably ceremonial. The Beefeaters may wear Tudor era uniforms but their assignment is a proper posting and a detachment of the Queen’s Guard stands sentry over the Crown Jewels.

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However like all military bases, there’s a cottage community thriving here. Beefeaters live at the Tower, often with families, and there is also a small but famous Royal Chapel still in operation under the pastoral care of a military chaplain. St Peter ad Vincula (St Peter in Chains) is a Tudor church famous as the resting place of Queen Anne Boleyn, Queen Katherine Howard, Lady/Queen Jane Grey, St Thomas Moore, Margaret Pole, and others.

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Attending a service here has been on my list of things To Do since moving to London, but I just never really got around to it. Then I went through the death throes of a faith crisis and didn’t really want to do anything more church-y than Christmas–which I still love and always will–and it fell off the radar. And then a friend friend from the MoFem (Mormon feminist) community invited me to attend on September 11th and it seemed a fitting thing to do.

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One of the ravens stood by as a small group filed in for services, beak wide open and likely expecting one of the familiar uniforms to provide him breakfast.

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Katie and I attended both the communion service and the sung matins, which I particularly enjoyed. Between the sessions, we wolfed down croissants and chatted about faith, community, expat life, and the nerdy history of the Book of Common Prayer. Totally normal touristy stuff.

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The congregation was not large, but we weren’t the only Americans there and as a military brat, it was nice to hear a few words on the day from a chaplain whose career was focused in and around active service. The fact that he managed to tie in references to Poldark and Great British Bake Off, before circling around to familiar parables was just icing on the cake. In spite of the day, and the remembrances of the day, the whole experience felt friendly.

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It may not be your usual cup of tea, but it’s worth trying, even if just to sit in stillness in a lovely place for a while.

Emails With Friends: Marital Counseling

“I had an argument with a friend who claimed Henry “didn’t behead THAT many” of his wives (which…lol?) by claiming Cromwell was a proxy Anne of Cleves, and I stand by that assertion.”
“…How many wives does it have to be before it becomes problematic…?”
– Katarina and C.

Emails With Friends: Novel Writing and Great Men of History

“Let’s go back in time and literally just be Lafayette. What a complete lunatic-slash-badass.”
“I love the stories of how people just went NUTS over him for well into the Victorian era!”
“Seriously though, “Hey, I’m 17, let’s build a boat and go join another country’s revolution even though I don’t speak the language and know no one,” and then like a year later you’re a crucial strategist and George Washington is calling you his SON. I’ll take impossible YA premises for $1,000,000, Alex.”
-Katarina and C.

A Very Belated Thanksgiving Post (with dreadful photos)

“There is no Thanksgiving back in the old country where I come from. You know why? Because being thankful is a sin.”
― Craig Ferguson

It’s almost hilarious to write this up since we’re heading to the States in a week for our Christmas holiday, but ’tis what it is. Jeff is studying for his next round of exams (that guy is a champ…if you add in kindergarten, he’s been taking tests of some kind now for 24 years…) and my work gig has kept me busier than I’ve been in months. Which is saying something!

It’s an odd thing to dash from work to Thanksgiving dinner, but that’s what happened perforce. After my plans last year to eat at The Mayflower were scuppered by Jeff’s Christmas do, we finally made it this year. The Mayflower is a charming pub that crams in and absolutely revels in every stereotype you can imagine. Obviously it’s proud of its history and plays up the connection to the ship Mayflower (which was moored near the site of the pub in the 17th century before heading off to the New World, and whose captain lies buried in the vault of St Mary’s across the street), but it also indulges its connections to other maritime history in the area and general Britishness. The walls are covered in quotes about food and drink from literature, sailing paraphernalia covers the walls, and paintings and photos of Rotherhithe through the last centuries abound.

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(It’s a bit silly how funny I found their wifi password.)

It was a very British way to celebrate the only real, genuine American holiday but we loved it. The place was full of Brits and expats celebrating the day, a few of my country were made patriotic by wine and at one point we were serenaded with an off key but heartfelt rendition of America the Beautiful, and the food (though miles short of home cooking) was surprisingly good.

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Apple Day at Borough Market

“It is remarkable how closely the history of the apple tree is connected with that of man.”
― Henry David Thoreau

Borough Market is currently celebrating 1000 years of history, and this year’s Apple Day pulled out all the stops with a proper harvest festival. Players put on traditional skits featuring English folk heroes like Robin Hood and anthropomorphic woodland creatures, Morris dancers performed, and a Green Man (a pagan throwback, probably to harvest and fertility gods) presided in a fab costume. The big deal this year was a display of 1000 apple varieties, including the oldest known variety to come to Britain. There were tasting stations to try the apples, the kitchens hosted baking classes, and generally a nicely traditional time was had by all!

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Some of the varieties of apples grown in and near London throughout the centuries.

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The players performing, alongside a Corne Queene, a traditional symbol of plenty and constructed entirely of harvest bounty.

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The Green Man (also called the Berry Man and any other number of names across the centuries), a symbolic nature figure who appears in literature and traditions across Europe.

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One of the players hands out conkers…

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And the Morris dancers immediately start a game!

Keeping Up With the Marlboroughs: Ai Weiwei and Blenheim Palace

“I do the thinking, you do as you are told.” -Alva Vanderbilt to her daughter Consuelo (later Duchess of Marlborough) Sit back and strap in, kittens, because today we have a massive post for a massive house. Blenheim Palace is the seat of the Dukes of Marlborough and began as a project of the first Duke and Duchess, who were favorites of Queen Anne. Today it’s still one of the grandest homes in the country.  photo blenheim1_zps6c186488.jpg For a sense of the size we’re talking, this massive entrance isn’t even in use.  photo blenheim2_zps0f4e5ab7.jpg Like many great homes, much of the house is open to the public for a fee. But it’s still a working estate in many ways, and as these houses were supposed to do, employees a small army.  photo blenheim3_zps36fbfd1f.jpg We absolutely lucked out (a theme of our travels this summer) because it just so happened that Blenheim was hosting an exhibition by the famed artist and activist Ai Weiei. The contrast between the establishment that one of the most prominent aristocratic families and houses of Britain represents and the anti-establishment artist was quite interesting and his ultramodern pieces within the historic staterooms was very effective. This chandelier is one of his pieces, and does not belong to to the house.  photo blenheim4_zps4dd0cd84.jpg One of the most famous of the family, Consuelo Vanderbuilt was one of the American heiresses whose family traded her wealth and beauty for position. By the time she married the 9th Duke (under duress), Blenheim was in serious need of funds. During the Gilded Age, these marriages were the stuff of society papers and saved many a British estate. Downton Abbey portrays this, somewhat unrealistically, but the reality behind it is correct. Many American beauties, including Winston Churchill’s mother (who married another member of the extended Marlborough family) made the bargain. One interesting fact I learned is that the Marlborough family is the only other highborn family in Britain, besides the Royal Family, to allow daughters to inherit the title. And interestingly enough they did it three hundred years before the current government got around to doing it. The 1st Duke and Duchess had several children but none of their sons lived to adulthood, so a special inheritance law was passed that applied only to their title to allow their eldest daughter to assume the title of Duchess in her own right, rather than as the consort of a Duke. Downright revolutionary stuff at the time.  photo blenheim5_zps42edcb59.jpg And speaking of! One of Ai Weiwei’s pieces covers the carpet. Contrast the historical art with the new…  photo blenheim6_zps54894a4b.jpg Ceramic crabs, a comment on the sea-based economy of some parts of China.  photo blenheim7_zpsc5fac2b1.jpg Commentary on tradition and stability.  photo blenheim8_zps6b36017f.jpg Pieces representing the Chinese zodiac signs…  photo blenheim9_zpsdab12b54.jpg Located in the unbelievably big formal dinning room. Apparently this cavern is never used by the family except on state visits…and for the family Christmas dinner. I don’t think I’d be able to eat a thing with that much history bearing down on me.  photo blenheim10_zps1bb59b24.jpg  photo blenheim11_zps01521676.jpg She might have been miserably married and later happily divorced and remarried, but Consuelo’s influence still reigns supreme at Blenheim. The palace might not be standing today if not for her money. That banner over the fireplace also has an interesting role, apparently it’s the “rent” that the Dukes pay to the crown, a new one is presented annually, and the Queen has a collection of them somewhere.  photo blehnheim12_zps44d0f1dc.jpg Another Ai Weiei piece beneath a portrait of Louis XIV. One Duke had a small obsession with Louis’ larger than life persona and sense of building scale and decided to redecorate Blenheim, modeled upon Versailles. The effect was less than impressive as Blenheim might be massive, but it’s not Versailles, and the scale of the new gilt and moldings ended up not being what His Grace envisioned. By which time, of course, the money was spent and the fait was accompli.  photo blenheim13_zps5cbd86a0.jpg Pearls as rice.  photo blenheim14_zps1c5183e8.jpg The beautiful library with a most un-quiet looking (and staggeringly massive) organ at the far end which is kept in good form by daily recitals. I was quite perturbed to have missed that! And on the walls…  photo blenheim15_zpsad32c36a.jpg A series of Ai Weiwei at various significant social, political, and religious sites with his, um, reaction. Offensive yes, but an interesting series to hang where it does.  photo blenheim16_zps19df7099.jpg Horrible grounds, really. Quite tragic.  photo blenheim17_zps96531126.jpg Those poor Marlboroughs.  photo blenheim18_zps86043b78.jpg Such an embarrassment.  photo blenheim19_zpsb4b0440e.jpg  photo blenheim20_zps93885c0f.jpg  photo blenheim21_zpsaee142e4.jpg Oh well, I guess we all have our trials.

Life, Death, and Afterlife in Straford-upon-Avon

“I have good reason to be content,
for thank God I can read and
perhaps understand Shakespeare to his depths.”
― John Keats

I don’t understand people who say, “Oh, I’ve already been to such-and-such, I don’t need to go back.” Things change, all the time. It’s pretty much the only guarantee in the universe. Even extremely old places change, and we as people certainly do, so it’s always worth revisiting a lovely and interesting spot to see what’s new or how your experience of it may shift.

In a related note, I don’t exactly understand why so few Britons travel within their own country as infrequently as they do. When I told a British friend how we were going on a trip around the southwest with my in-laws and mentioned we would be driving from London to Salisbury, he sighed and said it sounded like a terribly long drive. It wasn’t. I think we’re dealing with a sense of scale issue. The US is a third of an extremely large continent and Britain is smaller than many states, what is long to them simply isn’t to us. At any rate, we saw both Stratford-upon-Avon and Blenheim Palace in a single day and weren’t rushed in the slightest, in spit of the fact that they were in opposite directions from our starting point.

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Stratford-upon-Avon is lovely, but is really only one reason to go: Shakespeare. His family homes, that of his wife, and the church where he was probably baptized and married and definitely buried are within easy distances of one another and well worth a visit. The last time I was here was when I was studying in London still in university and there have been some changes. I don’t believe the extensive (and quite good) visitor’s center with accompanying exhibits had been completed then, and it was lovely to have a look round.

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Shakespeare’s family home is nicely the same as it has been for many centuries now.

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There have also been some recent research developments in the church, including some potentially hidden Catholic imagery, which would have been quite a big deal given the political and religious realities of the day.

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What really hooked me on this trip, however, was the gentleman in the striped shirt standing center. He was a wealth of historical information about the church, Shakespeare’s day, and the ways both the building and the faith climate would have influenced him. He also talked extensively about Elizabethan burial practices, which seems gruesome but was rather interesting. If you’ve every wondered how centuries of burials have been managed in enclosed spaces, the answer is that most churches would perform burials in circular way around the church, moving like the hands of a clock. It would take about a local generation to complete a pass, after which the bones would mostly be dug up (the flesh would have, er, been taken care of by time and other things) to be further processed by burning or mashing up. The word bonfire derives from this, a “bone-fire” meant to reduce bulky human remains to more manageable chunks.

Hence the famous scene in Hamlet of the gravediggers mucking about with Yorick et al.

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However if you were very wealthy or very influential, your remains could avoid this fate by permanent interment. You had to pay a hefty fee to the church powers of course, but in an age where being remembered was important, plenty of people found the funds. Billy S. doesn’t need a memorial for that, of course, but it’s very nice that we have one anyway.

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The Quirks of Christ Church, Oxford

“None but the most blindly credulous will imaging the characters and events in this story to be anything but fictitious. It is true that the ancient and noble city of Oxford is, of all the towns of England, the likeliest progenitor of unlikely events and persons. But there are limits.”
― Edmund Crispin

Christ Church College, Oxford, is a unique one. It is the only academic institution in the world that doubles as a cathedral. It’s the seat of the Bishop of Oxford, but incidently in its charter the resident ecclesiastical overseer is the monarch. Which is, of course, thanks to Henry VIII and his truly staggering sense of self-importance. Reformations can be such messy things.

It’s also a really lovely place to visit and is chock full of fun historical odds and ends.

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Hideous grounds. How can any right thinking person work there? Horrible…

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If the Hall looks familiar, it’s because it was used as a model for Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films. The pictures don’t move, but Henry VIII looms (of course he does) from the place of honor above the head table.

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Sir Robert Peel was a graduate of the college but not always popular in elections. A later student tattooed his political opinion on a door of the college, which let it stand permanently!

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The cathedral itself is a beautiful building, but it’s hidden bits are easily my favorite parts. I mentioned that reformations are tricky, and nowhere more complexly than Britain. These might not look like much but they are the remains of a medieval painting that was whitewashed over when Catholicism went out. Since medieval era church art like this was often scrubbed away, stripped, and burned, whitewashing is practically a gift since in many cases it preserved the art beneath it.

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One of the most famous graduates was Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen name, Lewis Carroll. Look closely in the windows of the Hall and you may discover a delightful tribute hidden away. See them?

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The Duchess is one of my favorite characters. Rare indeed is the cooking expedition in which pepper is called for and I do not belt out, “More pepper!” in honor of her cook as I rummage in cupboards. I’ve even got Jeff doing it, it’s officially a family quirk.

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The Mock Turtle is a delight!