Curious

07 18 rudolph ii portraitHoly Roman Emperor, Rudolf II, was born on this day in 1552 in Vienna. Rudolph was also King of Germany, King of Bohemia and King of Hungary. He became something of a recluse, rarely leaving his palace in Prague. He ruled at a difficult time when, as Holy Roman Emperor, he was meant to be Catholic, but a lot of his subjects were not. He tried to occupy the middle ground and it didn’t really work out too well for him. He was eventually deposed by his more ambitious brother. All this makes him sound rather dull, but he really wasn’t.

Rudolf was an enthusiastic patron of both the arts and sciences. This meant his court harboured all sorts of interesting people. Under his rule, Prague had a reputation for being full of dissidents, heretics and heliocentrists. The idea that the earth might go round the sun, instead of the other way round was not a popular one. In 1599, he made Tycho Brahe, who is probably my favourite astronomer ever, his court astronomer, after he was exiled from his home country of Denmark. But Rudolph was also fascinated by alchemy and the occult. Both of these subjects were, at the time, every bit as credible as astronomy. In the 1580s, he was visited by the famous mathematician and alchemist John Dee along with his questionable friend Edward Kelley, who Rudolph later locked up in a castle.

07 18 rudolf IIThe Emperor was an extremely keen collector of both art objects and scientific instruments. As well as collecting well-known artists like Dürer and Brueghel, he commissioned many new pieces. This unusual portrait on the left is Rudolph as Vertumnus, the Roman god of the seasons. The artist’s name is Giuseppe Arcimboldo, he did a lot of paintings like this, but mostly they have titles like ‘winter’ or ‘the librarian’. This is the only one I could find that is of a specific person.

Rudolf amassed an amazing ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ that included one hundred and twenty astronomical and geometrical instruments and more than sixty clocks. His collection was the finest in Europe and it occupied three large rooms of his palace. As the private collection of a recluse, not many people got to see it, so we can’t be sure of everything that it contained. Certainly he kept a live lion and a tiger, which roamed freely about the castle. We know this because there are documents relating to the payment of compensation to those who had been attacked by them or, if it had gone particularly badly, to their families. Rudolf himself insisted that he owned a grain of earth from which God made Adam, two nails from Noah’s Ark, a basilisk and some dragons.

Rudolf never married, but it is rumoured that he had numerous affairs at court with both men and women. He had several illegitimate children, one of whom seems to have suffered from schizophrenia and did some terrible things. Rudolf was a member of the Habsburg dynasty, who suffered terribly from inbreeding and do not have a happy history of mental stability. Rudolph himself seems to have suffered from bouts of melancholia, which was common in his family. Two of his favourite objects were a cup made of agate, which he believed to be the Holy Grail, and a six foot long horn, which came from a narwhal, but Rudolf thought it had belonged to a unicorn. When he was at his lowest he liked to take these two things, draw himself a magic circle with a Spanish sword, then just sit in it.

Some believe him to be one of the owners the Voynich Manuscript, a very interesting document which I mentioned briefly when I wrote about Edward Kelley. It has been carbon dated to some time in the early fifteenth century and is written in an unknown language. It has defied all attempts to translate it. Most of the illustrations are botanical and there are some with what look like star charts. But some are really weird. There are a lot of drawings of naked women that also feature an elaborate system of pipes. They seem to be conveying something really specific, but we have no idea what. So, naturally, they make everyone who sees it really want to know what it says. It seems to contain information about plants, medicine, biology, astronomy and cosmology. It doesn’t appear to be written in code, but rather in some, now lost, language that is possibly Middle Eastern in origin, but no other examples of the language have ever been found. If you’ve never come across it before, you can find a facsimile here

07 18 voynich cropped by me.

Rudolf, as you may gather, was a deeply superstitious man. Tycho Brahe once informed him that he shared a horoscope with his favourite lion cub. When it died, years later, the Emperor shut himself up in his rooms and refused all medical attention. He died three days later. His successors were less enthusiastic about his collection. It was packed away and forgotten about. Later, much of it was stolen when Swedish troops attacked Prague Castle in 1648 and many of its items later ended up in the hands of Queen Christina of Sweden.

Beggars Banquet

07 17 death of a miser heronimus boschYesterday, I wrote about money and how it is worth nothing until you exchange it for something else. Today, I want to look at some of the people who didn’t get round to spending what they had while they were alive. Writers have long been fascinated by misers. Aesop, writing in the seventh or sixth century BC, tells us a story of a miser who buried his gold. But he came back to look at it every day and someone saw him, dug up the gold and stole it. The miser was distraught at the loss of his wealth. His neighbour consoled him by telling him that he might just as well bury a stone instead, or even just come back each day and look at the empty hole. Because he wasn’t using his gold, it would really be exactly the same thing. Buried gold is as useless as stone or an hole in the ground.

There are loads of examples of misers in literature, in theatre and in art, but there are also plenty of real life hoarders. I’ve mentioned a couple of them over the past year, and I have found that they are not necessarily greedy people, but they are not well people and are often profoundly eccentric. A true miser will live in apparent penury, in detriment to their comfort and their health so, often, their wealth is only discovered posthumously. Some, although they inherited huge sums, were assumed by the casual observer to be beggars. But some of them actually were beggars. Certainly, their accumulated riches were not as vast as those of John Camden Neild or John Elwes but were, nonetheless, remarkable. Robert Chambers, in his entry for July 17th, mentions Mary Wilkinson, who he describes as a ‘beggar and bone grubber’, who had £300 sewn into her ragged clothing. He also mentions Frances Beet who was found to have hidden £800 in her bed and rickety furniture and a character called ‘Poor Joe All Alone’ who had made his living selling matches and ballads and performing magic tricks yet he managed to amass a fortune of £3,000 by the time he died in 1767. Joe left the money he had saved to help support widows and orphans.

Both Robert and I have a particular reason for telling you about rich beggars today, because July 17th is the anniversary of the death of William Stevenson, who died at Kilmarnock in 1817. I have no idea when he was born, possibly some time around 1730. Stevenson was trained as a mason, but spent the greater part of his life begging. Up until his last illness, the only thing we know about him was that he and his wife had separated. They must had hated each other a lot, because they had made an agreement that if one of them ever proposed they got back together, they would pay the other £100. As far as we know, they never saw each other again.

Stevenson fell ill at the age of eighty-five and was confined to bed. His chief concern was that what little money he had scraped together would not last. But it did. When he knew he was close to death, he began to make arrangements for a grand send off. He sent for a baker and ordered twelve dozen funeral cakes and a great quantity of sugar biscuits. He ordered wine and liquor in correspondingly large amounts and said that more of both should be purchased if that proved to be insufficient. Next, he sent for a joiner and ordered himself an expensive coffin. Then the gravedigger, and asked for a roomy grave in a dry and comfortable corner. He told an old lady who had been looking after him where she might find £9 hidden in his home to pay for all the expenses, and assured her that she had been remembered in his will. He died shortly afterwards and, when his room was searched they found a bag of silver pieces, more coins hidden in a heap of old rags and £300 hidden in a trunk. They also found bonds and securities. His fortune amounted to around £900. To the old lady, he left £20, which may not sound like much but, in today’s money, that’s close to £1,800.

William Stevenson lay in state for four days while his distant relatives were gathered to attend his funeral. But it was not a sombre affair. It was a party. Whole families were invited. He was visited by the young and the old, by beggars and poor tradesmen. The older attendees found they had each been left sixpence, the younger ones, threepence. After the burial, everyone repaired to a barn, where most of them got so drunk that they had to be helped home. Some did not make it home at all, but fell asleep on a pile of corn sacks. The only account I could find of William’s funeral was by someone who clearly didn’t approve of it. It uses words like ‘wicked’, ‘careless’ and ‘waste’. It also goes on to say that those who missed the celebrations threatened to dig up his body so that they could give him another send off. They left him where he was, but apparently, the party continued for several weeks. That doesn’t sound like a waste to me. I think when a funeral is such fun that you want to do it all over again – that’s a pretty good funeral.

Sepulchral Vagaries

06 21 captain backhouse tombToday is the anniversary of the death of Captain Thomas Backhouse who died on this day in 1800. In life, he was a soldier who served in Europe, India and the Philippines. But today’s post is not about his life. Today I am looking at unusual burials, and Captain Backhouse is my first example.

When Thomas Backhouse retired to Great Missenden in Buckinghamshire, he declared that he would “have nothing to do with the church or the churchyard”. Instead, he began to build himself a tomb. It was around eleven feet square, built of flint and bricks. The walls tapered to a pyramid and were finished at the top with a flat stone about three feet square. I assume that the tomb is now long gone, as this is the only picture of it that I could find. “Bury me there,” he said, “in my own wood on the hill, and my sword with me, and I’ll defy all the evil spirits in existence to injure me.” When the captain died, his body was placed in a coffin, along with his sword and stood on end in a niche in the wall. Presumably so the evil spirits didn’t catch him lying down. Then, the niche was bricked up. His body remained there, standing to attention, for seven years, until one of his sons returned from India and had his body removed to the churchyard.

This gave rise to a tale among the villagers that the old man’s body was guarding the property until his son came to take possession of it, and also that his ghost still haunted the mausoleum. There is a splendid tale about some boys who were out in the woods when they came upon the tomb. One said to another : “Jack, I’ll lay you a penny you dursn’t put your head into that window, and shout out, Old Backhouse.” The boy took the challenge. He thrust his head through the window and yelled “Old….” That was as far as he got. The boys outside heard the screams, they saw him kick and struggle, they saw that something had a hold of him and that he couldn’t get away. They all ran away, terrified.

This is what really happened. When Jack put his head in at the window, his first shout had roused an owl that had taken up residence there. The owl was also frightened, and it’s first instinct was to make for the only exit – the window. Jack, seeing it’s great pale face hurtling towards him, thought it really was the ghost of Old Backhouse. The window was of a Gothic design, pointed at the top. He had jerked up his head to get away and it had become lodged in the top of the window. So Jack was stuck in the window and the owl inside was flying round screeching and making occasional lunges at his face. Luckily, some men, working in a nearby field, heard the frightened yells of his friends and went to help him. They pulled him out. He was unconscious and had to be carried home. Luckily he made a full recovery, although for several days there was concern that: “his intellect was impaired”. Though he certainly never stuck his head in Backhouse’s tomb again, so maybe his intellect was improved if anything.

The other really weird burial I want to tell you about today is that of Reverend Langton Freeman of Whilton, Northamptonshire. He died on October 9th 1784 and, as this year long project of mine will be up in just over a month, I won’t be here to tell you about it then. So let’s look at him now. In fact, I can let him speak for himself about how he wanted his body disposed of. The following is an extract from his will:

“…first, for four or five days after my decease, and until my body grows offensive, I would not be removed out of the place or bed I shall die on. And then I would be carried or laid in the same bed, decently and privately, in the summer house now erected in the garden belonging to the dwelling house, where I now inhabit in Whilton aforesaid, and to be laid in the same bed there, with all the appurtenances thereto belonging; and to be wrapped in a strong, double winding sheet, and in all other respects to be interred as near as may be to the description we receive in Holy Scripture of our Saviour’s burial. The doors and windows to be locked up and bolted, and to be kept as near in the same manner and state they shall be in at the time of my decease. And I desire that the building, or summer house, shall be planted around with evergreen plants, and fenced off with iron or oak pales, and painted of a dark blue colour; and for the due performance of this, in manner aforesaid, and for keeping the building ever the same, with the evergreen plants and rails in proper and decent repair,”

All this seems to have gone ahead as he requested. I have this story, and the other from Robert Chambers ‘Book of Days’ which was published in 1864. He tells us that until relatively recently, the summerhouse was still surrounded by trees, but they had now been cut down. There was a hole in the roof and, two years before he was writing his book, some men had climbed in to have a look round. His body was still there and still intact.

I have stolen my title for today’s post from Robert Chambers. He has quite a lot to say on the subject. If you want to read about more unusual burials, you can visit Robert here. He will tell you about a farmer, named Trigg, who had his body encased in lead and set into one of the roof beams in his barn. Or Geoffrey de Manville, the 1st Earl of Essex, who could not be buried because he had been excommunicated. His body was taken by the Knights Templar. They put it in a lead coffin and hung it in a tree in their garden until they had received permission from the Pope to bury it. They buried it at a new church they had built themselves in the City of London. A cursory search of the internet tells me that he died in 1144, but the new church was not consecrated until 1185, so he was in that tree for a really long time. I don’t have a picture of the tree, but here is the church, which is still standing…

06 21 temple church

Queen of Nowhere

06 06 queen christinaToday I want to tell you about Queen Christina of Sweden. She is something of a contradictory character. Not entirely good, but also a fascinating person. I didn’t want to celebrate her birth, because she caused a lot of problems for a lot of people. But celebrating her death isn’t really appropriate either, so today I am celebrating her abdication from the throne of Sweden on June 6th 1654.

Christina was born in 1626 and was made heir to the throne by her father, Gustav II. Her mother had already given birth to a stillborn daughter and a second daughter, also called Christina, who died when she was only a year old. When Christina number two was born there was, at first, some confusion over her sex and everyone thought she was a boy. This seems mainly to have been because her body was covered in hair and she cried with a “strong, hoarse voice”. When the king was informed of the mistake he replied: “She’ll be clever, she has made fools of us all.”

Gustav was very fond of his daughter and had her raised with the sort of education normally reserved for boys. She studied languages and philosophy and learned about politics. When Christina was only six, her father was killed in a battle and her mother, who was already emotionally unstable, went completely over the edge. She refused to bury her husband’s body. She kept it in an open coffin and visited it regularly. The King remained unburied for over eighteen months. So Christina’s mother was, fairly swiftly, sidelined and she was raised by an aunt.

06 06 christina and descartesChristina was hugely interested in arts and sciences and, by 1649, had amassed an enormous collection of paintings, statues, manuscripts, coins and scientific instruments. She was equally interested in opera and theatre and was a bit of an amateur actress herself. Christina wanted to make her capital, Stockholm, the “Athens of the North” and she invited many learned men to her court. Most notably, she asked René Descartes. Christina had a lot of stuff she felt she needed to learn about. Her days were long and she decided the only time she could possibly see Descartes was at five in the morning. The climate and possibly the early starts didn’t agree with poor Descartes and, sadly, he caught pneumonia and died there in 1650.

She was not officially crowned until later that year, but it wasn’t long before she was making plans to abdicate. Christina made it very clear that she had no plans to marry, ever. She admitted “an insurmountable distaste for marriage” and “for all things that females talked about and did.” Though this did not stop her having an extremely close relationship with one of her ladies in waiting, Ebba Sparre, who she describes as her ‘bed-fellow’. For most of her reign though, she pursued a punishing regime of long days, a rather ascetic existence and very little sleep. It led to a sort of nervous breakdown in 1651 and she again asked to abdicate. In 1652, under the care of a French physician, Pierre Bourdelot, she was persuaded to stop studying so hard, get more sleep and enjoy life a bit more. He also introduced her to the sonnets of Pietro Aretino.

As she never planned to marry or have children, she made arrangement to have her cousin, Carl Gustav, made her heir. Christina had, for a long time been very interested in the Catholic idea of celibacy and with Catholicism in general, which made a lot of people very uncomfortable. This may have been one of the reasons her abdication was finally accepted. Another could have been that she was just spending loads of money and had become a bit of a liability. There was an abdication ceremony at Uppsala Castle in which she removed her regalia piece by piece. She made a speech and left in a simple white gown. But she had already packed up most of her treasures and sent them on ahead.

Days later, she left Sweden disguised as a man, to make travelling easier. She journeyed through Europe, spending and partying all the way and arrived in Rome in 1655. There, she was warmly greeted by the Pope, Alexander VII, and was accepted into the Catholic faith. Her presence was widely celebrated. Firework displays, jousts, fake duels, operas and all manner of celebrations were held in her honour. Take a look at this carousel (below), which was given for her in February 1656, it’s pretty splendid. She set up home in the Palazzo Faranese and opened an academy for the enjoyment of music, theatre and literature.

06 06 carousel for christina

Of course, as soon as the Swedish government found out about her religious conversion, they cut off all her financial support. Then, she became involved in a very close relationship with a cardinal called Decio Azzolino, who was rather liberal for a Catholic, and that didn’t go down so well. But they stayed firm friends for the rest of their lives.

Cut off from her revenue, she hatched a plan to become Queen of Naples. Spain and France had been fighting over Naples for years and she had the idea that, if she were made Queen, she would pass on the crown to the King of France. When she visited France, in an attempt to organise this, the French found her extremely uncouth. At the ballet, she applauded too loudly and sat with her legs over the arm of the seat. Nevertheless, she was treated with respect by the King and his mother. It was at this time that she visited and recommended the release of Ninon de l’Enclos, who I mentioned back in November.

However, things went terribly awry when she accused her master of the horse of revealing her plans and had him executed. She had to leave France and was not particularly welcome in Rome either. Then, in 1660, her cousin. Carl Gustav died and she thought she might go back and be Queen of Sweden again, But, being a Catholic, they wouldn’t have her and she went back to Rome. She was reasonably happy there until 1666, when she returned to Sweden again and, disappointed by her reception, went to live in Hamburg. There, she found out that her patron, Pope Alexander, had died. The new Pope, Clement IX, was also a friend and had been a regular guest at her palace. She threw a party to celebrate. Citizens of Lutheran Hamburg were furious. The party ended with shooting and she was forced to leave in disguise via the back door.

Christina made a spirited attempt to be made Queen of Poland in 1668, but this also failed. She passed the rest of her years in Rome. She and Pope Clement shared a love of theatre and in 1671, she established Rome’s first public theatre. Subsequent Popes were less keen, and Innocent XI had it turned into a storeroom for grain and banned women from performing. Christina didn’t care though, she carried on putting on plays at her palace.

06 06 queen christina 1685She continued to be a bit of a rebel, supplying the world with her unsolicited opinions, long after she had lost her rights to rule. When Louis XIV revoked the rights of French Protestants, she wrote him a letter of objection. In 1686, she made the Pope put an end to an awful practice of chasing Jews through the streets at Carnival. Then, she issued a declaration pronouncing all Roman Jews under her protection and signed it ‘the Queen’.

When she died, in 1689, she left all her treasures to her old friend Cardinal Azzolino and they passed almost immediately to his nephew, who sold them. Many of her books are now part of the Vatican library. Most of her paintings went to France and many are now in the National Museum of Scotland.

On balance, I really like Queen Christina. She upset a lot of people, but she did what she wanted and she didn’t care. Certainly, she walked off with a lot stuff that almost definitely should have stayed in Sweden but, in 1697, her castle burnt down and it would all have been destroyed anyway. She is one of only three women to have been buried in the Vatican.

Quack

Mountebank Distributing his Wares on the StageLast month, when my laptop was broken, I thought all my notes for this blog might be lost forever. So I was scratching round for something to write about and came across Robert Chambers article about mountebanks. He then went on to describe a bunch of fascinating people that I’d never heard of. Mountebanks were quack doctors who travelled about pedalling their cures and often performed operations on stage in front of an audience. As I wrote about Franz Mesmer yesterday, the link between medicine and theatre is still on my mind.

Today marks the death of Sir William Read who died in 1715. He wasn’t destined to be a knight. Originally, he was either a tailor or a cobbler and he was barely literate. He somehow became a mountebank and travelled the country peddling his wares. His specialities were diseases of the eye and the removal of tumours. He did all this with the aid of a substance he called ‘styptic water’ which was, I believe, designed to stop bleeding. In fact, you can still buy styptic pencils today for the same purpose, so perhaps it worked. Anyway, he managed to rise to the position of eye doctor to Queen Anne and her successor George I. People didn’t like him very much. When he was knighted, Beau Nash, a dandy from Bath turned down the offer of a knighthood because he did not want to be associated with Read. Beyond that, I couldn’t find out very much about him, apart from the fact that he published a book about eyes which was mostly lifted from someone else. But it does give me the opportunity to tell you about a couple of Robert Chambers mountebanks.

05 24 gustavus kattafeltoGustavus Katterfelto was a Prussian conjurer, scientific lecturer and mountebank who travelled about England and Scotland towards the end of the eighteenth century. He found fame in London during a flu epidemic in 1782. Part of his performance included a solar microscope, which he used to project images of micro organisms found in water, on bread or in cheese. He claimed these were the insects which caused the influenza. Unfortunately, people started to think he might be releasing the insects and actually causing the disease. He quickly took out an advertisement announcing that all his insects had died in a rain storm. Then, three days later, he took out another announcing that he himself had caught influenza. Not long after that he claimed to have found the cure, which he would sell at five shillings a bottle. Among his other claims were, that he had discovered the secret of perpetual motion and that he had launched the first hot air balloon fifteen years before the Montgolfier brothers. Katterfelto lectured on electricity and magnetism and performed with a black cat, who he claimed was evil. When the cat later gave birth kittens, its offspring were very much in demand. Marie Antoinette may have had one of them. The kittens that he kept would sometimes magically convey themselves into the pockets of his audience members, but they might also find that they had been relieved of their money and watches at the same time.

After he had outworn his welcome in the capital, he took off on a less successful tour of the provinces. In Shrewsbury, he accidentally set a haystack on fire with a hot air balloon and was jailed when he couldn’t afford to pay for the damage. I was delighted to find out that he performed, and was well received in Whitby, which, you might have gathered, is my home town. One of his favourite tricks there was to put his daughter in a massive steel helmet and lift her to the ceiling with a giant magnet.

05 24 james grahamThe other mountebank I want to tell you about today is James Graham, who operated in London at the same time as Katterfelto. Graham studied medicine in Edinburgh, but never took a degree. He travelled to America where he learned about the principles of electricity from a friend of Benjamin Franklin. He left before the revolution and travelled Holland, Germany and Russia before setting up in Bath in 1776. By 1780, he had opened his ‘Temple of Health’ in London. There, he offered electrical and magnetic cures with a heavy emphasis on the electrical. You could sit on an electric throne, put on an electric crown or soak yourself in an electric bath. He sold medicines with names like ‘Electrical Aether’ and ‘Nervous Aetherial Balsam’ and gave medical lectures. These he performed with the aid of a succession of ‘Goddesses of Health’, who were supposed to represent physical perfection. One of his goddesses was Emy Lyon, who later became Emma Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson.

The following year, he opened another premises, his ‘Temple of Hymen’ in Pall Mall. This held his most impressive piece of equipment. His ‘Celestial Bed’. The bed was designed to help couples who were having difficulty conceiving a child. It was twelve feet by nine and was surmounted by a dome filled with fresh flowers, automata, a pair of live turtle doves and also a large mirror. The mattress could be tilted into a favourable position and was filled with fresh wheat or oat straw, rose petals, lavender flowers and, just for good measure, hair from the tails of the best English stallions. If you think this all sounds a bit much, I want to tell you that it was also a musical bed. The movements of its occupants would cause organ music to play which increased in intensity with their ardour. You could hire this bed for fifty pounds a night. That was an exorbitant sum in the 1780s but there were plenty of aristocratic families who desperately needed an heir and who were probably so riddled with syphilis that they were having difficulty producing one. I was a bit sad that I couldn’t find a picture of it, but then I came across this lovely re-imagining of Graham’s Celestial Bed by an artist called Tim Hunkin.

Graham was a great showman but sadly not very good with money and, by 1784, he was bankrupt. Two years later, he was back in business and promoting ‘earth-bathing’. He claimed that bathing in soil was the secret to immortality. That a person could absorb through their skin, all the nutrients they needed. He claimed that he had survived for two weeks immersed in his earth bath, with nothing but a few drops of water for sustenance. He even gave lectures whilst burieded up to his neck in a flower bed. In later years, he became extremely religious and founded the New Jerusalem Church. He was its only member. In 1792, he began to experiment with prolonged fasting as a way of extending his life-span. He died two years later. He was forty-nine.

Election Special

05 20 garrat electionToday, I want to tell you about the Garrat Elections, which were mock elections that took place between the 1740s and the 1800s in, what was then a tiny hamlet just south of the River Thames. Garrat was situated between Wandsworth and Tooting, on the edge of Wandsworth Common. These elections were timed to run alongside the General Election and at least one of them took place on May 20th. Garret was tiny. It had no representation in Parliament. Also at this time, almost no one had the right to vote anyway. The people of Garrat were in danger of losing their access rights to the small common and they weren’t very happy about it. They got up a sort of protest committee and elected a leader. Then, they decided that their leader would be given the title ‘Mayor of Garret’. Of course, Garret was so small that they didn’t really need anything as fancy as a mayor, so it was all a bit of a joke. As there was a General Election at the time, they decided that the Mayor would serve for the length of the Parliament and, when there was another General Election, they would appoint someone else.

Notification of an election would issue from a non-existent Town Hall. The candidates were always poor tradesmen, but they gave themselves fancy names like Squire Blowmedown, who was a Wandsworth waterman, Lord Twankum, a cobbler and grave-digger, and Sir George Comefirst, I couldn’t find out his occupation. They campaigned and produced pamphlets extolling their own virtues and damning those of the opposition, just like a real election. Local innkeepers happily paid to put up flags and placards and to build a hustings, even for the candidates lavish costumes, as they did pretty well out of the event. The Garrat Elections could attract crowds of 80,000.

On the day of the election, the candidates would set out from Southwark and then parade through Wandsworth, often in boats on wheels, and sometimes in the company of the ‘Garrat Cavalry’, a motley collection of forty boys riding ponies. The smallest boy being mounted on the biggest animal and the tallest of them on the smallest. They delivered their speeches from a hustings built on Garrat Green. But first they had to swear an oath, whilst resting their right hand on the symbol of the mob, a brickbat. If you’re wondering what a brickbat is, it’s a piece of brick that is useful for throwing at something, or someone. Their brickbat was, they said “handed down to us by the grand Volgee, by order of the great Chin Kaw Chipo, first Emperor of the Moon”. Later historians were a bit coy about what this oath actually was, as they had to swear that they had ‘enjoyed a woman’ somewhere in the district, preferably in the open air. Here it is:

That you have admitted peaceably and quietly, into possession of a freehold thatched tenement, either black, brown or coral, in a hedge or ditch, against a gate or style, under furze or fen, on any common or common field or enclosure, in the high road, or in any of the lanes, in barn, stable, hovel, or any other place within the manor of Garratt; and, that you did (Bona fide) keep (ad rem) possession of that said thatched tenement (durante bene placito) without any let, hindrance, or molestation whatever; or without any ejectment or forcibly turning out of the same; and that you did then and there and in the said tenement, discharge and duty pay and amply satisfy all legal demands of the tax that was at that time due on the said premises; and lastly, did quit and leave the said premises in sound, wholesome and good tenable repair as when you took possession and did enter therein. So help you.

05 20 jeffrey dunstanThe first elections were between two candidates, but by 1781, there were nine. Among them was a man who called himself Sir John Gnawpost, which is my favourite. There were also Sir William Swallowtail, who was actually a basket weaver named Cook; Sir Buggy Bates, a waterman and chimney sweep and Sir Jeffrey Dunstan, who actually stood under his own name, though he certainly wasn’t a knight of the realm. Sir Jeffrey Dunstan was a purveyor of second hand wigs. He was a well-known figure who was often seen shouting his wares about the streets of London. This portrait of him is not an unkind caricature, he was four feet tall and always went about with his coat and shirt unfastened, his breeches unbuttoned at the knee and his stockings hanging down. Some of the candidates processed in style. Most notably, Sir William Swallowtail, who had woven a carriage for himself from wicker. But the streets were so crowded that they got stuck. Sir Jeffrey, who had arrived on foot, reached the hustings easily. Some candidates did not make it at all. Sir John Harper sent word that he was too drunk to attend. Sir William Swallowtail was accused of having a contract to supply baskets to Parliament and Sir Buggy Bates that he supplied soot for ‘powder to destroy vermin in biscuit.’ Sir Jeffrey was elect despite the fact it was suggested that his daughter was to marry the Prime Minister, Lord North. Jeffrey Dunstan was a popular candidate and was returned as mayor on two subsequent occasions. In 1796 he was ousted by Sir Harry Dimsdale, a muffin seller from Seven Dials.

After that, more well-off Londoners, who had previously enjoyed the spectacle started to feel rather uncomfortable about large groups of working-class people gathering together in unruly mobs. What with the French Revolution and everything. The whole thing just sort of stopped happening. But it was immortalised by Samuel Foote in his play ‘The Mayor of Garrat’. I really enjoyed learning about Samuel Foote back in January, so here is his picture again. That’s him in the frock…

01 27 lady pentweazel

Hell Fire

04 28 duke of whartonEver since I wrote about the Calves Head Club back in January, I’ve been hoping to find a day when I could squeeze in a post about Hell Fire clubs. Today seems like a pretty good opportunity, as the original one was outlawed by Parliament on April 28th 1721.

The Hell Fire Club and its offspring were really a product of the Enlightenment. It was rather fashionable to mock the Anglican Church and its rituals and that seems to be what the Hell Fire Club was all about. Historically, we are talking about a time when there was a lot of concern that the Catholics might just sweep in and take over the throne. It was also just after the South Sea Bubble happened. A lot of people had lost a great deal of money investing in a company that never did anything or made any money. There were those who saw this as a punishment from God and they thought ridiculing Him in mock ceremonies, that probably involved Devil worship, was only going to make things worse.

Philip Wharton, the first Duke of Wharton had Catholic leanings himself. He had lost a fortune in the South Sea Bubble. He had lost £120,000. When you consider that a decent wage would have been about £200 a year, you can see what an enormous sum it was. Wharton was not contrite though. He positively celebrated it. He hired musicians and a hearse and he held a public funeral for the South Sea Company. It was Wharton who started the Hell Fire Club.

The Hell Fire Club members probably didn’t really worship the Devil. It was a bit of a joke which was designed to shock the outside world. They met on Sundays, sometimes in taverns and sometimes in private residences, where ladies would also be able to attend. They claimed their president was the Devil. They dressed as biblical characters and feasted on ‘Holy Ghost Pie’ which was a sort of mock sacrament. They also ate ‘Breasts of Venus’, two roast pigeons with a cherry on the top, and ‘Devil’s Loins’, roast beef cut into the shape of buttocks. There was also ‘Hell Fire Punch’, but we don’t really know what that was. If any club member died, they became the club’s ‘Ambassador in Hell’. When their activities came to public attention it caused a sensation. The idea of a secret and blasphemous society, right in the middle of London that involved members of Parliament caused just the right amount of moral outrage and prurient interest to make it fascinating. Of course, here in the UK we know exactly what that is like. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, simple type ‘David Cameron’ and ‘pig’s head’ into a search engine and press go.

It really became a problem when it was rumoured that one of the Queen’s Ladies in Waiting was a member. This is what the London Gazette had to report:

“His Majesty having received Information, which gives great Reason to suspect that there have lately been and still are, in and about the City of London and Westminster, certain scandalous Clubs or Societies of young Persons who meet together in a most impious and blasphemous Manner, insult the most sacred Principles of our Holy Religion, affront Almighty God himself, and corrupt the Minds and Morals of one another…”

The concern was that they would: ‘Increase and draw down the “Vengeance of God upon this Nation”. The society was wound up by order of King George I. Wharton became a Mason instead. By 1723, he was its Grand Master. But crushing one society did not prevent others from springing up. In the 1730s, Sir Francis Dashwood and the Earl of Sandwich belonged to a sort of Hell Fire club that met at a tavern called the ‘The George and Vulture’ in the City of London. Dashwood was very fond of themed clubs. He had been a member of the ‘Dilettanti Society’ for people who had been to Rome. They sat about in togas and discussed all things Roman. Then there was the ‘Divan Club’ for people who had visited the Ottoman Empire. Here, they wore turbans and pretended to be Turkish. It was all really just an excuse for lots and lots of drinking though.

04 28 francis dashwoodSome time in the 1750s he founded a club which was known as the ‘Knights of Saint Francis’ or the ‘Monks of Medmenham’ who met at Medmenham Abbey near West Wycombe in Buckinghamshire. He had the ruined abbey rebuilt and the natural caves underneath it enlarged. There was a sign above the entrance in stained glass which read “Fay ce que voudras” a quote from Rabelais which means ‘do what thou wilt’. There were, apparently, murals drawn by William Hogarth and the caves were decorated with mythological themes and phallic symbols. We don’t particularly know what they did there. They referred to themselves as monks and their mistresses and courtesans that were invited to the celebrations were called nuns. We know they were quite fond of Greek and Roman gods, because there were a lot of statues, particularly to Venus and Bacchus so it was probably mainly about sex and drinking.

Rumours of sacrifice and satanic worship were attached to their activities and those of other clubs founded elsewhere in the British Isles. Particularly in later, more prudent times. Robert Chambers had quite a lot to say about them in his ‘Book of Days’ entry for April 28th. Mostly he talks about those that took place in Ireland. Writing in 1869, he tells us: “Their toasts were blasphemous beyond modern belief.” He had heard that they were so awful that sometimes people would die after drinking them. Not from any supernatural causes, but from the ‘moral strain’. He described a drink called ‘scaltheen’ which was a mixture of whiskey and butter. Very difficult to make but lovely if you got it right, horrible if you didn’t. This is the picture he paint for us:

“…they drank burning scaltheen, standing in impious bravado before blazing fires, till, the marrow melting their wicked bones, they fell down dead upon the floor… there was an unaccountable, but unmistakeable smell  of brim-stone at their wakes;  …the very horses evinced a reluctance to draw the hearses containing their wretched bodies to the grave. “

Robert also tells us about a black cat that belonged to a club in Dublin, probably Montpellier Hill. The cat attended the meetings and was always served first at dinner. Woe betide anyone who said anything rude about the cat. He tells us about a curate who was invited to a meeting. He went along and was jeered at whilst he tried to say grace. Then, when the cat was served first, he asked why. They told him that it was out of respect because the cat was the oldest individual there. The curate replied that he could well believe it, and that it was not a cat but ‘the imp of darkness’. The members wanted to put him to death for this insult but he begged to be allowed to say a prayer first. But instead of a prayer, he recited an exorcism. The cat assumed it’s demon shape and flew away, taking the roof of the club house with it. Everyone was very sorry, they immediately dissolved their club and became Christians. The King was so pleased when he heard about it that he made the curate a bishop.

Robert didn’t really believe this story any more than I do. He mentioned other, wilder stories that he didn’t feel were suitable to print A quick search turned up a tale about a woman who was rolled down a hill in a burning barrel and the body of a dwarf that was found buried under the floor of the kitchen in nearby Killakee House in 1971. Probably, the truth is that, like Cameron and his pig they were just wild young men with far too much money. The bizarre things that eighteenth century politicians did for fun really shouldn’t seem better than things we hear about those in the twenty-first century. But somehow, they are. Even when they are worse.

Gifted

04 15 leonardo de vinciOn this day in 1452 Leonardo da Vinci was born, in the town of Vinci in the Florentine Republic. I truly love Leonardo. He is a person for whom the term ‘Renaissance Man’ might have been invented. He was interested in painting, sculpture, architecture, invention, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history and cartography. With such a wide range of interests, he seems to have been easily distracted and rarely finished any of his projects. Even his most famous painting, the Mona Lisa, was with him until he died because he didn’t think it was finished.

His interests were so wide-ranging that I can’t possibly do justice to him in a single blog post. So I mainly want to talk about some of his lost projects and what he might have been like as a person. Of course, that’s going to make it rather hard to illustrate, but let’s see what happens…

Leonardo was the illegitimate son of a wealthy legal notary called Piero da Vinci and a peasant woman called Caterina. He showed an early talent for art and his father sent him to study with an artist called Andrea del Verroccio in Florence. At some point his father was given a shield made by a local peasant. The man wanted Ser Piero to find someone in Florence to paint it for him. Ser Piero took the shield to his son. It was quite roughly made so Leonardo had it fixed up and made smooth, then started to think about something scary to paint on it. He collected together specimens of slow worms, lizards, crickets, snakes, moths, grasshoppers and bats. Then he devised a horrifying imaginary creature made up from bits of all of them. He painted it breathing fire and smoke. It was so terrifying and so good that his father never gave it back to the peasant. He bought him another with a heart pierced by an arrow on it and sold Leonardo’s shield to a Florentine merchant for a hundred ducats. The Duke of Milan later paid three hundred for it.

In 1482, he was sent by Lorenzo de’ Medici to work for the Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza. He brought with him a letter detailing all his skills of building fortifications and siege 04 15 horseweapons. He also mentions, almost as an afterthought, that he also does painting and sculpture. Leonardo also brought his lyre with him. He played very well and had built the instrument himself out of silver, in the shape of a horse’s skull. He also designed floats for the Duke’s pageants and planned to build a huge equestrian monument in honour of Ludovico’s father, Francesco.  It would have been the biggest in the world and seventy tons of bronze were set aside for casting it. He worked on it on and off for sixteen years but unfortunately, when he had finished the life-size clay model, Michaelangelo rudely suggested that he wouldn’t be able to cast it. This put the Duke off and he gave away the bronze to make cannons instead. The cannons didn’t do the Duke much good though, as soon after he was overthrown by the French. They also destroyed Leonardo’s clay horse, their archers used it for target practice.

At the same time as he was working on the giant horse, Leonardo was also painting his famous ‘Last Supper’. This also took a very long time and the Prior who had commissioned him started to worry about it. He sent the Duke of Milan round to try and hurry him up a bit. Leonardo was having trouble with two of the faces. Jesus, because he couldn’t imagine anything holy enough, and also the face of Judas, because he couldn’t find a model who looked evil enough. Leonardo loved interesting faces, but more of that in a moment. He told the Duke that he was looking really hard for a suitable face for Judas, but if he couldn’t find one, he would just use the face of the Prior instead.
 04 15 last supper

I don’t think he was terribly fond of the Clergy in general. Once, at Easter, he was visited by a Priest who went round his studio sprinkling his paintings with Holy Water. Leonardo asked the priest why he’d done this. The priest replied that he was doing a good thing and that his actions would be rewarded a hundred times over in heaven. Leonardo watched from his window as the man left and threw a bucket of water down on him, shouting ‘There’s your gift from on high, you’ve ruined half my paintings.’

I’m very fond of  his drawings, So I thought, as we’re short on pictures of his lost works, I’d show you a couple of them. He’s so clearly fascinated by people and it seems that the more unusual looking they were, the more he liked them. An early biographer, Vasari, tells us that if he saw someone with an interesting face he would follow them around all day, observing them. Then he would go home and draw them. But his interest in people wasn’t only skin deep. Working with a doctor called Marcantonio della Torre, he made loads of very detailed anatomical drawings that would probably have been massively useful if he’d ever got around to finishing them and getting them published. He studied not only the skeleton and muscles, but also the internal organs. He was the first to draw a foetus in utero and he also made a glass model of the aorta which he filled with water and grass seed to watch how liquid flowed through it.

04 15 warrior04 15 portrait


Leonardo loved animals. He was a vegetarian, which was unusual at the time. Also he would buy caged birds in the market just so he could let them go. But in contrast to this, he also dissected animals, and he did some pretty strange things with them. He seems to have enjoyed filling them with air and flying them round like a balloon. His favourite trick was to get hold of some intestines from a sheep or a bullock. Wash them out, then invite his friends round. He showed them how small the intestines were. You could hold them in the palm of your hand. Then he would attach them to a pair of bellows and inflate them so that they filled the whole room. Everyone had to hide in the corners to get away from the ballooning innards.

I think my favourite story though, I like it even more than the Priest and the bucket of water, is about a lizard. He was at the Vatican working for Pope Leo X. A vine-dresser brought him an unusual looking lizard. Leonardo was delighted. He made it a pair of wings from the scales of other lizards and mercury. They trembled when the lizard walked around. He also gave it some false eyes, horns and a beard. Then he tamed it and kept it in a box. What he liked to do then was suddenly show it to people.

Away with the Showfolk

As I hinted the other day, I am still separated from all my notes for this blog because I recklessly tried to upgrade my laptop to windows 10 and it didn’t like it. I know I had something planned for today, but can’t for the life of me remember what it was.  So I had a look at what Robert Chambers had to say about April 14th, back in 1864, in his ‘Book Of Days’. Mountebank Distributing his Wares on the Stage

Robert tells us that, on this day in 1684, a notice was published suppressing all ballad singers, rope dancers and mountebanks who did not have a licence to perform from the Master of Revels. At that time the Master of Revels was Thomas Killigrew, who I feel certain I’ve mentioned before. A rope dancer, I discovered, is a tightrope walker. Robert has quite a lot to say about mountebanks. I knew the term referred to some sort of scurrilous person, but according to him they seem to have been specifically showmen who travelled about selling fake medical cures. They did not work alone. As well as having accomplices amongst their audience to come forward and be ‘cured’, their shows seem to have included a harlequin, a clown and possibly a brass band. I learned two names for a clown that I’ve never heard before. They are merry-andrew and jack-pudding. The entertainment value of the shows they put on was well worth the sixpence they charged for whatever quack cures they were selling. Sometimes, they practised dentistry. It seems pulling teeth was a spectator sport back in the day. The brass band was to drown out the cries of the patient.

Robert Chambers mentions several people who I’d like to revisit on another occasion, but for now I want to tell you about a character surnamed Russell who seems, among other things, to have claimed some medical knowledge. I don’t know when this person was born, probably some time in the late 1660s or early 1670s and lived in Streatham, London. Russell died in 1772 and was buried on April 14th. Russell is described as an itinerant vagabond and seems to have lived to be at least a hundred years old. You might have noticed that I’m avoiding the use of a gendered pronoun for this person. The reason is that, in life, everyone believed Russell to be a woman called Elizabeth, but after her death she was found to be a man. What little information I’ve found about Elizabeth Russell is very old and uses the word ‘he’ all the way through, but as Ms Russell chose to live as a woman, I’m going to stick with ‘she’.

An examination of church registers reveals that her father, John Russell had two sons: William in 1668 and John in 1672. If Elizabeth was born John, she lived to be 100, if William, she was 104. Elizabeth herself believed that she was 108. In 1770 she acquired a copy of a certificate of baptism belonging to her sister Elizabeth who may have died in infancy or just moved away. Elizabeth Russell seems to have taken up a travelling life with ‘strollers and vagabonds’ and she travelled all over Europe. Sometimes she travelled in the company of another once famous, now forgotten vagabond, Bamfylde Moore Carew. In later life, she settled in Chipstead in Kent, where she kept a large shop. She also travelled the countryside hawking her wears along with a man she said was her husband. In fact, she changed her surname to his and was known as ‘Bet Page’. I have been unable to find out exactly what it was that she sold. Googling ‘Bet Page’ is hopeless, you just end up with loads of gambling websites. But I did find out that she worked with travelling physicians and learned their ways.

She had a good reputation as both a healer and an astrologer. She was also an excellent seamstress who could sew a mean shirt. Elizabeth could have lived comfortably on what she earned, but spent most of it in the alehouse, buying drinks for herself and her friends. It’s pretty amazing that, over two hundred years later, we know anything at all about her, but she really came to attention because she was so very old. She became a frequent visitor to Henry Thrale, the MP for Southwark and it was at his house that she met Samuel Johnson. Doctor Johnson enjoyed talking with her very much. He found her shrewd, sensible and to have an excellent memory, despite her advanced age.

Elizabeth died very suddenly and everyone was astounded when it was discovered that she had been a man. Elizabeth had been a woman for as long as anyone could remember. I’ve no idea what prompted her to live as a woman. Whether it was what she actually wanted or whether it was just a really good disguise, she certainly had everyone fooled. She often used to share the bed of her landlady when a new lodger came along unexpectedly. Tantalisingly she is described as having a: ‘wildness and eccentricity… which seemed to border on insanity’ but no one seems to have gone into any detail about how this manifested itself.

Hedgewig

04 07 john elwesToday is the birthday of John Elwes, who was born in 1714 in Southwark. He was born John Meggot. Elwes was his mother’s family name. He inherited several large fortunes during his life and could have lived very comfortably. But he didn’t. Elwes was a miser. He came from a long line of misers, his maternal grandmother Lady Isabella Hervey was notoriously mean. His first fortune came to him at the age of just four, when his father died. His mother was left £100,000 in the same will, but she didn’t spend it. In fact, it is said that she starved herself to death. John inherited the rest of the estate.

His mother’s brother, Sir Harvey Elwes, became a big influence in his life. He was also a miser. When John visited his uncle he would dress down especially for the occasion and make sure he’d had a good meal first. The two would spent evenings together, complaining about the extravagance of others, while they shared a single glass of wine and burned a single stick on the fire. When it got dark, they went to bed to save on candles. John changed his surname from Meggot to Elwes in order to inherit his uncle’s fortune which was worth £250,000.

John Elwes inherited his uncle’s miserly ways along with his fortune. He began to dress in ragged clothes all the time. When his wig wore out, he wore another that he had found in a hedge. People used to mistake him for a beggar and press pennies into his hand. He would walk in the rain rather than pay for a coach and then sit in wet clothes rather than build himself a fire to dry them. He kept food after it had gone off and would eat putrefied game before he would allow more food to be bought. His huge house was crumbling because he wouldn’t spend anything on repairs. Once, when his nephew, Colonel Timms, came to stay, he was awakened in the night by rain pouring in on him through the roof. He could find no bell to summon help, so he was forced to move his whole bed several times until he found a spot where he could stay dry. When Timms mentioned it the next day, Elwes replied that he didn’t mind the leaks himself, but for anyone who does: ‘…that is a nice corner in the rain’

Remarkably, for someone who was so careful with his money, he was very fond of gambling and lost some of his fortune that way. He also didn’t mind lending to friends and never seemed to notice when they didn’t repay him. He once lent £7,000 to Lord Abingdon to bet on a horse at Newmarket. Elwes attended the race himself, he rode there on horseback with nothing to eat for fourteen hours except a piece of pancake he had put there two months earlier. He claimed in was ‘good as new’. It’s a good job he had a strong constitution, because he disliked paying for a physician. Once he fell and badly cut his legs whilst walking home in the dark. He would only allow the doctor to treat one of his legs. Then he bet the doctor his fee that the untreated leg would heal quicker. He won his bet.

There are other stories about John Elwes and his legendary miserliness. There was the time he almost died because he fell ill whilst sleeping in a stable and the time he was made MP for Berkshire, having laid out election expenses of only eighteen pence. He may have been the inspiration behind the character of Scrooge in Dicken’s ‘A Christmas Carol’ and he is mentioned by name in ‘Our Mutual Friend’. There is one tale about him though, that shows him in a different light. It seems he was once out hunting with another gentleman who was a terrible shot. This man accidentally fired his gun through a hedge and some of the lead shot hit Elwes in the cheek. The man was clearly embarrassed and also quite concerned. As he approached to apologise Elwes held out his hand and said: “My dear sir, I congratulate you on improving; I thought you would hit something in time.”