Roger’s Annual Letter 2011
As I generally include an image from
the previous year’s December visits, I’ll put in one of the roof of the nave at Exeter Cathedral (Figure 1) in
honour of the Exeter Book of Riddles!
If I were asked
to nominate the essential themes of my activities in 2011, they would be threefold: a renewal of two earlier enthusiasms
and an introduction into a new field of interest. The revivals consist of fashion history and bird watching; the new one is
Early in the year I was asked to take on the organisation
of a WEA coach trip to Oxford scheduled for October first. In February I made my first trip down to Oxford to check
out some of the Museums which I had not visited before. I stopped first in the Museum of the History of Science with
no idea of what its displays might include. As I’ve long been interested in Chaucer’s treatise on the Astrolobe,
I was astonished to find that the displays featured a hundred or more of these astronomical instruments from both Western
European and Arab countries. As is my custom, where a Museum permits it, I photographed about half of the collection
on display and spent far longer in the Museum than the quick look around that I had anticipated. A few days later, I
sent off an order to the States for James Morrison’s massive tome on the use of the Astrolabe and on a subsequent visit
to Oxford purchased a small scale replica of an Astrolabe (see Figures 2 and 3). It’s only four inches in diameter
and is designed for the latitude of Bournemouth on the South Coast so it’s never going to be particularly accurate
here ... but it is a working model so I can play about with it to some extent. The Astrolabe has many applications but
those most frequently used by the possessor of the instrument in Medieval times would have been to tell the time by day or
night (cloud cover permitting) when you were at home ... or the latitude when you were travelling. In practice, you
took a sighting of the altitude of the sun or a star on the “reverse” side (Fig. 2), then set the date on the
front (Fig.3), entered the altitude and worked out the time or latitude. Well, that’s the theory. It sounds
easy to do but I find it horribly complicated ! I even went back to this Museum on a later date to attend a lecture
on the use of the Astrolabe ... but I can’t say that it clarified much in my mind. I’ll just have to work
my way through Morrison’s book ! Little did I know that by the end of the year I would be involved in a different
form of star gazing.
Another object from antiquity entered
my possession this year. I can recall my mother showing to me about sixty years ago one of her prize possessions: an
“Etruscan vase” (Fig. 4) given to her, presumably as a wedding present, by one of her Professors at Hunter
College in New York. This was the one thing I wished to inherit from her estate and let that be known to my Brother
Warren. Over the decades succeeding my mother’s death a certain amount of good natured bantering passed between
us as to the best method of conveying this article to me. In the end, Warren never managed to bring it along on his
various visits to Europe ... but he did leave instructions in his will that the vase should be sent to me. His son,
Tom, wrapped the item up with great care and sent it on earlier this year. Enclosed was a clipping about the Professor
concerned, who turned out to be not a Professor of Classics but of Botany. One wonders how he got hold of such an object.
I‘ve no idea of the precise provenance of the vase and have no proof that it does date from the Etruscan era other than
hearsay. However, that doesn’t bother me in the least. The object has a beautiful iridescent patina in places
(Fig. 5), which is supposed to be an indication of great age.
As I’ve barely covered more than the first few months of 2011 so far, I’ll have to try to be more succinct about
the rest of the year !
For decades I have gazed at the ruins of Chartley
Castle here in Staffordshire but never been able to get closer to it than about half a mile. When I heard that there
was to be a WEA Medieval History Class which included a visit to Chartley, I made a point of joining it. At long last
I was able to see the interior of the Castle (Fig. 6). As Mary, Queen of Scots, was held briefly at Chartley (though
in the Manor Hall rather than in the Castle), I was able to negotiate permission for two members of the Marie Stuart Society
to join us on the visit. Early in April I went on a visit by that Society to Sheffield Manor. We were entertained
by two re-enactors, one of whom, Laura Alston, played the role of Marie Stuart (Fig. 7). I asked her, after her presentation,
whether she would consider adding the role of Katherine Swynford to her repertoire. As she was then a final year History
undergraduate, obligingly, she agreed. I have for a number of years manned a stall at various re-enactor events on behalf
of the Katherine Swynford Society. This year I began to do so garbed in various forms of Medieval attire, some of which
were rather less accurate in detail (Figs. 8 and 9), dressed as “John of Gaunt”. One meets unexpected “long
lost relatives” in this game. One of these this year was John’s father-in-law, Henry Duke of Lancaster (Fig. 10).
It occurred to me that Laura and I might be able to appear together as an elderly John reminiscing about his times with (the
ghost of ?) a much younger Katherine. We did appear together in this fashion at the Re-enactment of the Battle of Bosworth
in August (Fig. 11) where we ran the Society stall but did not put on any formal presentation. I was able to provide
some parts of her costume: namely, the green sideless surcote (which I had bought from a sale of costumes by the Shakespeare
Memorial Theatre Wardrobe Department), the floral headband and the amber pendant. I hope to write sometime a script
for our future presentations. However, Laura is now pursuing a Master’s degree at Sheffield full time, so any
joint performance must be deferred for the time being, if not indefinitely, depending on her further academic career.
May was a busy month for me, as usual. First there was the annual Katherine
Swynford Study Day at Lincoln. This year we did not arrange a coach tour. Instead, I was asked to devise a walking tour
around various sites in Lincoln. The administrative details were much the same as for the coach tours as I had to offer
two or three simultaneous tours which did not overlap at any point because of a restriction of numbers that could be accommodated
by the various venues. We also employed “Blue Badge Guides” to lead each tour. In the event, the third
tour attracted so few numbers that it was abandoned. The other two tours divided their times between two locations:
St. Mary’s Guildhall and The Lincoln Guildhall, a Tudor building in its present incarnation at Stonebow, the Roman gate
. At the latter we were able to see the sword (Fig. 12) that Richard II presented to the Mayor of Lincoln in the 14th Century.
There is also a (presumably Victorian) painting of the presentation which includes the artist’s conception of Katherine
(Fig. 13) viewing the occasion from a balcony.
It was at
the Chetwynd Fair in 2010 that I first photographed the Passamezzo Early Dance Group (not to be confused with Passamezzo,
a group of musicians who perform early music!).
One of the dancers, Lindsay Smith (shown on the left in Fig.
14), is also an expert on historical costume and has given advice to Laura and myself about our costumes. Lindsay and I gave
a Study Day in the History of Fashion in May this year. It was designed as a WEA course but recruited insufficient numbers
so I ran it privately. I have had to do this with a previous course on Katherine Swynford, so am used to discovering
that the topics I choose to offer are frequently of minority interest in this part of the country. Lindsay is shown
holding a fashion doll in Fig. 15 at the Study Day.
I think it was in
June that I became interested, for some obscure reason which eludes me now, in the structure of the sepals of wild roses !
These are generally “bearded” and show lateral projections along their margins (Fig. 16). I can’t
check back to that time by consulting my past emails, either sent or received as they were all deleted by a “spammer”
during his or her attack. The spammer sent out an email purporting to be from myself in Spain having been mugged and requesting
financial help from everyone on my list of email correspondents (several hundred individuals !). Two of these would actually
have sent something but had the wit to telephone me first at home. The attack was a very sophisticated one and the spammer
even arranged for all my future incoming emails to be directed to his or her address. Of course I had to alter that
arrangement, and was helped by Graham Coult to accomplish that. Then I had to devise a new email address, which is now firstname.lastname@example.org
I regret the loss of my back emails, which went back to 2003. Perhaps, when I have nothing better to do (hollow laughter)
I could retrieve some of them from any of the six earlier laptops (which I no longer use) whose contents may still be
accessible to me (not all of them are!) or the Maxtor external storage disks into which I occasionally save some files.
During the summer I was approached “out of the blue” by Jeremy Scott, who
sent me some images of a ring (Fig. 17) which is reputed (by tradition in his family) to have belonged to Katherine Swynford.
That may or may not be true as there is no definite documentary evidence to that effect. Curiously, though, one of the correspondents
on the Living History Katherine Swynford site recalled having been offered for sale a number of years ago such a ring with
a blue stone and reputedly having belonged to Katherine. The inscription inside the ring is “Alas for fayte”.
I invited Jeremy and his father, who owns the ring, to the Battle of Bosworth re-enactment this past August so that Laura
could be photographed wearing it but the Scotts did not turn up. I will see if we can visit the Scotts some time in
the future to do this.
There is insufficient space for me to mention
all the places I’ve visited in the past year but I’d like to mention three favourites that I had also visited
in earlier years.
It is a common misconception that the Welsh in Medieval
times eschewed town life and built no castles of their own. There are, however, a number of “Native Welsh Castles”
scattered along the borders between England and Wales. Ewloe Castle (Fig. 18), halfway between Chester and Mold, is one of
these. It was built in the mid Thirteenth Century by Prince Llewellyn ap Gruffydd. As for town life, both Corwen
and Machynlleth have long histories as towns before Owain Glyndwr chose to set himself up at the latter location. His
plans for the future included the establishment of two Welsh Universities, one in the south and the other in the north ...
but of course this never came to pass during his time as Prince of Wales. I am, incidentally, a member of the Owain
Glyndwr Society but I never attend their meetings as they’re held in the Welsh Language. It’s nearly sixty
years since I took a course in Medieval Welsh Literature at Harvard University; my fluency in spoken Welsh is about zero!
Nearly a year ago, I decided to take some photos in the Lake District while there was still
some snow on the lower slopes of the mountains. On that trip I tried to revisit the site of a Roman Fort at Hardknott
Pass. I tried approaching it from the east from Windermere and Skelwith Bridge but the road was impassable and closed,
presumably because of the snow ! I recalled that it had been summer when Sylvia and I visited the Fort decades ago and that
we had approached it from the south, driving up from Broughton in Furness and Ulpha. I tried again in the summer this
year and found the road not to have been improved since my earlier visit decades ago. In fact it was in worse condition
but I managed to battle my way through (Fig. 19). The Romans stationed there must have felt they were in a highly exposed
location, from the point of view of the weather. However, I expect they decided it had considerable merits as a defensive
position. Any attacking force would wear themselves out just getting there ! Of course both sides were made of sterner
stuff in those days.
My next visit, to Bodiam Castle (Fig. 20) in East
Sussex, could not have been a greater contrast. It was built “all of a piece” in the late Fourteenth Century,
ostensibly as a defence against French raiding parties who had been making themselves a nuisance in recent years on the South
Coast. There is a school of thought, however, that many of the “defensive” details are essentially ornamental
rather than practical from a military point of view. The owner and builder, Sir Edward Dalyngrigge, may therefore have
built this structure mainly to enhance his social status. He was, incidentally, an enemy of John of Gaunt. This
came about because he resented John’s presence and role in the County as an absentee landlord. John, in turn,
successfully prosecuted him in court for trespass, so there was little love lost between the two. Sir Edward was not the only
individual opposed to John in the area. Sir Nicholas Brembre, one of the Mayors of London in the period, lived
at Bramber Castle some fifty away in West Sussex. Amongst the Aldermen of London there were two parties, one of which
was composed of the larger guilds, such as the Grocers and Fishmongers. Nicholas Brembre was the Leader of this party and
supported Richard the Second.. His Civic Opponents included the smaller Guilds. They were led by John of Northampton and supported
John of Gaunt. This is not to imply that John was a mortal enemy of the King, for he was extremely loyal to Richard
personally. However, there were times when John was definitely out of favour at Court ! The real opposition to
the King came from amongst other members of the Nobility. The “Lords Appellant”, for example, in 1387 succeeded
in charging Brembre with treason, had him tried and eventually hanged.
Enough of Medieval Politics. Over the summer I’ve become interested in the so called “Ship Nobles”
(a Noble was a coin worth six shillings and eight pence, or 80 pence, half a mark or one third of a Pound Sterling).
These gold coins (Fig. 21) were first introduced by Edward the Third in 1344. Curiously, the ship part of the design
has persisted through a large number of reigns of the English Kings and Queens. It persisted amongst the gold coinage,
though with various changes of face value, certainly until the reign of James the First. After that it disappeared but was
revived in a greatly reduced role as a “supporter” of Britannia in some of the copper coins of George the Third’s
reign and on to that of Victoria. The Medieval sailing ship as a main feature was then revived on the reverse of George
the Sixth’s halfpenny of 1937 and continued through the reign of Elizabeth the Second until the change to decimal coinage
seems finally to have put paid to it. I recently purchased at Sainsbury’s a chocolate replica “coin”
five inches in diameter, depicting the head of Queen Victoria on the obverse and the George the Sixth ship design on the reverse,
a combination which never existed in coins issued in England, so is something of a curiosity How accurate were the details
of the original ship design in the Fourteenth Century ? Well, one of the paintings in the Ashmolean Museum contains a reasonably
close design (Fig. 22).
I mentioned earlier that I’ve found myself
taking up star gazing at the end of the year. I hesitate to call this astronomy because mine is a very amateur approach.
My intentions at present are merely to try to take some interesting photographs in the visible light spectrum. I have for
several decades been using a converted astronomical design, known as a “Questar” telescope, for bird watching
and bird photography. This, however, does not have any motors attached to enable it to follow the motions of stars through
the sky thus enabling longer exposure times. I have therefore purchased a Meade telescope with built in motors and am
trying to align the telescope to the stars and their motions. I have been able so far to take photographs of both the
Moon (Fig. 23) and of Jupiter and its four largest Galilean Moons. The latter image, however, is too small and faint
to reproduce adequately for the purposes of this annual letter. If I can succeed in mastering the telescope, perhaps
I’ll have better images in a later annual newsletter.
close this edition by observing that I have 63 commercially produced Christmas cards that I’ve bought over the past
few years, so I’ll start using those up and reduce the clutter in my house by perhaps one part in a million!
greetings from Roger