Tiny Wasp Day

02 07 charles iiMay 29th used to be a public holiday here in Britain. It was called Oak Apple Day. An oak apple is a kind of gall, that sometimes grows on oak trees. It is the home of a tiny wasp larva. But that’s not what’s being celebrated here. Because that would be weird. No, Oak Apple Day is all about celebrating a king hiding in a tree.

We had beheaded our king, Charles I, in 1649 as a result of the English Civil War. His son escaped and was briefly made king of Scotland, but it all went very wrong and he was forced to flee. Despite having a price of £1000 pounds on his head, he found friends to help him. Cromwell’s New Model Army were everywhere, it wasn’t safe to hide in a house so he had to climb an oak tree and hid there. He later told his friend Samuel Pepys that he could see the soldiers passing directly underneath the tree. He eventually managed to make it to France where he stayed for nine years. On 29th May 1660, which was also his 30th birthday, the monarchy was restored and he was made king. The following day, Parliament declared that is would be made a national holiday.

Everyone would wear an oak apple or a sprig of oak leaves on that day in celebration of the event. You need to understand that under Cromwell’s rule, we weren’t allowed to celebrate anything. I mentioned earlier this month that the Puritans, who were in charge during the Commonwealth, weren’t keen on theatre. They also banned alcohol and Christmas. Charles II, on the other hand, was all about fun, which was a bit of a relief and certainly an occasion worth celebrating. In fact, you could get into trouble for not celebrating it. Anyone found not wearing their oak could be beaten with nettles or have eggs thrown at them.

05 29 oak apple dayIn 1859 parliament changed their minds about Oak Apple Day and abolished it. They decided it had become associated with drunkenness and general mayhem. But the day is still celebrated in some places. The picture on the left shows the annual celebration in Castleton in Derbyshire. The person covered in the flowery bell is King Charles and the lady behind him is the Queen. They are both dressed in period costume and the king is certainly hidden, but there’s definitely something else going on here. They ride around the town accompanied by a band, morris dancers and little girls dressed in white. Then the huge garland is hoisted up the side of the church tower where it hangs until the flowers wilt. It’s probably related to an earlier May Day ceremony that would also have been banned by the Puritans. Perhaps the King is a stand in for a Jack-in-the-Green figure representing the pagan spirit of the greenwood. I did find a book from the early 1820s that described a ceremony at Tiverton in Devon, where the procession was led by a figure known as ‘Oliver’. Presumably, he was meant to represent Cromwell. He was dressed in black and had his face smeared with soot and grease and was tied up with a rope. He capered about the crowd in a ludicrous manner and children threw dirt at him.

When I started to read up a little bit about oak apples, I found out that they weren’t just a weird growth formed by an invasive insect, they were once actually quite useful. Oak galls were used to make iron gall ink. It was made by mixing the tannin from oak galls with iron sulfate. Being both permanent and waterproof, it was the most popular method of making ink in Europe for around 1400 years. Leonardo da Vinci used it, so did Vincent van Gogh. The earliest surviving copy of the Bible was written with it and iron gall ink was used to draft the American Declaration of Independence. So maybe it is worth celebrating tiny wasps after all.


05 09 thomas bloodToday I want to tell you about Thomas Blood. Not only does he have a great name, but on this day in 1671 he made a spirited attempt to steal the crown jewels. Blood was born in Ireland in 1618 and had a colourful history. He had already fought for both sides during the English Civil War and made two unsuccessful attempts, first to kidnap and then to murder the Duke of Ormonde.

A few weeks before the theft, he had visited the Tower of London disguised as a parson and accompanied by a woman posing as his wife. The Crown Jewels could be viewed by anyone on payment of a fee to the custodian of the tower. The Custodian, Talbot Edwards, was 77 years old and new to the job. As the party were about to leave Blood’s ‘wife’ feigned a stomach ailment and the two were ushered upstairs to the Edwards’ family apartment to recover.

Days later, Blood returned to the Tower with a gift for Mrs Edwards, four pairs of white gloves, to thank her for her kindness and hospitality. He proceeded to ingratiate himself with the Edwards family and suggested that his nephew might be a suitable husband for the Edwards’ daughter. He claimed that the young man would, if he married, be eligible for an income of several hundred pounds.

On May 9th, Blood, his ‘nephew’ and two or three others were invited to dine with the Edwards’. They asked if they could, not only see, but perhaps hold…? the jewels. Edwards trustingly obliged and once they were inside the Jewel House, Blood and his accomplices threw a cloak over Edwards, hit him with a mallet, gagged him, tied him up, and stabbed him. Now the problem was how to conceal the jewels while they made their escape. They hammered the crown flat with the mallet, tried to saw the long sceptre in half and someone stuffed the orb down his trousers. Blood and his accomplices had made it all the way through the Tower grounds and as far as the Iron Gate before they were apprehended. Though they had dropped both the sceptre and the crown along the way.

Blood insisted that he would be tried by no one but the King and, oddly, he agreed to this. King Charles II had only recently had the crown jewels replaced, at a cost of £12,185, because the old ones had been destroyed by Cromwell. Charles claimed that the Jewels were worth £100,000 but Blood claimed they were worth much less and offered to sell them back to the King for £6,000. The King not only pardoned him, but granted him land in Ireland worth £500 a year, which didn’t go down too well with the Duke of Ormonde. The reason for the pardon is unclear. It may have been political. Blood had supporters in Ireland who might have caused trouble. Perhaps the King just liked his style. Blood flattered the king by telling that he had originally planned to murder him instead of just stealing his Jewels. But he had seen the king bathing in the Thames and been so in awe of his majesty that he hadn’t been able to go through with it. On the other hand, you may notice a discrepancy between the cost of having the Jewels made and the amount that the king claimed they were worth. The Jewels were insured for £100,00, so maybe he knew about it all along and had arranged to have them stolen. He was rather short of money.

The custodian of the Tower, fortunately recovered from his wounds and also had a brilliant story to tell for the rest of his life. Blood became a court favourite after that. In 1679 though, he was sued for £10,000 by the Duke of Buckingham for insulting remarks he made about his character. But the Duke of Buckingham was certainly not beyond reproach and may have been behind the plan to murder the Duke of Ormonde. Blood was imprisoned and fell into a coma shortly after his release. He died two days later. After he was buried though, he was dug up again, just to check he was really dead. Some thought he had faked his own death in order to get out of paying the Duke.

An Idle Place Of Intercourse

05 07 second drury lane 1674Today I want to celebrate the opening, in 1663, of the first theatre to be built at Drury Lane in London. I say the first theatre, because it has been demolished once and burned down twice but it is the oldest theatre site in London which is still in use.

Following the execution of Charles I, the Puritans had banned all theatre because they were a serious bunch and thought it was all a bit too frivolous. They called playhouses ‘idle places of intercourse’ and declared all actors to be ‘rogues and vagabonds’. If they were caught acting they could be whipped for a first offence, and for the second treated as ‘an incorrigible rogue’, whatever that means. Charles II loved the theatre and he granted licenses to two acting companies. One of these was led by Thomas Killigrew, whose acting troupe were named the ‘King’s Company’. You can find out more about him, and what he has to do with Ken Russell’s film ‘The Devils’ here.

02 07 thomas killigrew 1650It was under Killigrew’s direction that the theatre, then called the ‘Theatre Royal on Bridges Street’, was built. Sadly, there is no picture of it, so we don’t know exactly what it was like. The drawing above is of the second theatre, which was opened in 1674. We know that it was a wooden building with semi circular tiered benches in the stalls, three semi circular galleries around the walls, a lot of green baize and it could hold at least 700 people. It had scenery which could be changed by sliding it off into the wings and sliding another into place, which was then a very new thing. Performances happened in the afternoons and it had a glazed dome to let in the light. It was not entirely weather-proof though. We know this because Samuel Pepys tells us that he and his wife were once forced to leave because of a hail storm.

Many of Killigrew’s troupe were seasoned actors. Charles Hart and Walter Clun had acted in the ‘King’s Company’ (Shakespeare’s old company) prior to the closing of the theatres in 1642. It was through this connection that Killigrew claimed the sole right to perform all of the plays that had belonged to that company which, of course, included all of Shakespeare’s plays. Much of what we know about theatre in the 1660s comes from the diaries of Samuel Pepys and we know that he didn’t care for Shakespeare. He called ‘Romeo and Juliet: “the worst that I ever heard in my life” and Midsummer Night’s Dream: “the most insipid ridiculous play”. He loved Macbeth though. Pepys was also 05 07 edward kynastonrather impressed by an actor called Edward Kynaston, who was well known for playing both male and female roles. He said Edward was ‘the loveliest lady that I ever saw in my life”. Kynaston’s ambiguous sexuality made him very popular. Ladies enjoyed taking him out in their carriages after the performance whilst he was still in costume.

The age of acting being a men only career was coming to an end though, and Drury Lane Theatre became one of the first to employ female actors. The rumours of Kynaston continuing his female role playing away from the stage was one of the things that led the king to allow female roles to be played by female performers. Nell Gwyn, who later became the kings mistress, acted there, as did Pepys friend Mary Knep. Also Margaret Hughes and Anne Marshall, both of whom have been named the first actresses on the English stage. Killigrew even staged an all female production there of his own play ‘The Parson’s Wedding’. In fact women playing male roles became terribly popular but mainly because men liked to look at their legs.

The theatre was closed, along with all other forms of public entertainment, during the time of the Great Plague in 1665 but reopened in 1666. It survived the Great Fire of London but was burnt down in 1672. Killigrew rebuilt it, bigger and better two years later. In the following years, the theatre faced a lot of upheaval. Some of it political, some of it just mismanagement. But one of Drury Lane’s actors, Charles Macklin, became very famous in 1741 after appearing as ‘Shylock’ in ‘The Merchant of Venice’. His naturalistic style was much admired and he later tutored other actors. One of his students was Samuel Foote, who I’ve mentioned elsewhere because he was a terribly interesting fellow. Another was David Garrick, who I’ve only mentioned in passing because, although he is extremely famous, he was relatively dull. He took over the theatre in 1747 and, in 1776, sold it on the Richard Brinsley Sheridan.

05 07 third drury lane 1808Sheridan employed a lot of child actors, including a young Joseph Grimaldi, who made his debut there in 1780. Grimaldi was, of course, the man who popularised the role of clown, but unfortunately you won’t find him here either as his life was rather sad and difficult. In 1791 Sheridan had the theatre demolished and rebuilt again. It was enormous. There were three tiers of galleries. In fact, it was so big that people sometimes found it rather difficult to hear what was going on and productions tended to lead heavily on visual spectacles. In 1794 there was a play that featured real water pouring down a rocky stream into a lake which was large enough to row a boat on. The water came from huge tanks in the attic that were installed at the same time as an iron safety curtain as a precaution against fire.

In the year 1800, the theatre saw an assassination attempt on King George III by a man named James Hadfield. James was not a well man at all. He believed that he could help bring about the second coming of Christ by shooting the King. In 1809, despite the safety precautions, the theatre was, once again, burned down. Sheridan was found out in the street with a glass of wine in his hand, watching it burn. When asked about it, he said: “A man may surely be allowed to take a glass of wine by his own fireside.” The theatre was rebuilt for a fourth time in 1812 and still stands today.

05 07 burning of drury lane from westminster bridge

So, with such a long history, you might not be surprised to learn that the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane has more than its fair share of ghosts. Both Macklin and Grimaldi have been seen at the theatre. But its most famous ghost is the ‘Man in Grey’, a gentleman dressed in 18th century costume complete with powdered wig, tricorne hat and a sword. He usually appears in the fourth row of the upper circle and proceeds towards the royal box. In 1848, a skeleton was found in a walled up passageway near the box. There was a knife in his ribs.


02 07 thomas killigrew 1650Today is the birthday of Thomas Killigrew, playwright and theatre manager, who was born in 1612. His father, Sir Robert Killigrew, was courtier to King James I. When he was thirteen, Thomas became a page to Charles I. He seems to have divided his time between life at court and visits to the theatre. He gets several mentions in the diary of Samuel Pepys, who tells us that, as a boy, Killigrew used to volunteer to play an extra at the Red Bull Theatre in Clerkenwell, so that he could see the plays for free.

He doesn’t seem to have been educated anywhere in particular, but rather to have travelled around Europe, writing plays as he went. He wrote nine of them, supposedly each in a different city. One interesting feature of his youth is that he was present at an exorcism of possessed nuns at Loudun in France in 1635. He wrote a long letter about it. The exorcisms at Loudun were completely awful, but also fascinating so therefore worth a mention.

02 07 urbain pactThe story concerns a local priest called Urbain Grandier who was accused of summoning devils who had apparently possessed the nuns of the convent at Loudun. The nuns began to have fits and started speaking in tongues. They claimed to be possessed by two demons called Asmodeus and Zebulun, who had been sent to them by Father Grandier when he tossed a bouquet of roses over the wall of the convent. Exorcisms followed, a lot of exorcisms, they went on for years and later became a public spectacle. Killigrew was not the only witness, maybe 7,000 people visited the convent to see priests casting demons out of nuns. Grandier was tried as a witch. One of the pieces of evidence, which you can see above, was a pact signed by him and several demons which had been stolen from the devil. Urbain Grandier was found guilty and burned alive in 1634, but the public exorcisms continued until 1637. It was all a big lie, the nuns were pretending. They staged the whole thing, perhaps to discredit the priest on behalf of someone else, maybe to encourage people to convert to Catholicism. What Grandier had actually done wrong was write a treatise against celibacy in the clergy and perhaps written a rude play about Cardinal Richelieu.

Killigrew, didn’t know about this though, and he seems to have been impressed by the display. He believed that he saw the belly and breasts of one nun swell before his eyes, as if she was pregnant. He also saw that, as a devil left one of the nuns, its name appeared on the flesh of her arm. I can’t imagine how this was done, but maybe they had run out of fancy devil names by 1665, because the demon was called ‘Joseph’. The Devils of Loudun, however made up they were, have been a fruitful source of inspiration. Aldous Huxley wrote a book about them, which was made into a play by John Whiting and then a film by Ken Russell.

02 07 charles iiThomas Killigrew was an ardent Royalist and, as you may know, things didn’t work out too well for Charles I. His son, the future Charles II went into exile in 1646 and Killigrew followed him a year later. He returned with the prince when the monarchy was re-instated in 1660 and, along with William Davenant was given a warrant to form a new theatre company. Killigrew’s ‘King’s Company’ and Davenant’s ‘Duke of York’s Men’ would be rivals for years. He also earned himself the position of ‘Groom of the King’s Bedchamber’, Chamberlain to the Queen and, according to Pepys, the king’s jester and fool. He even insists that the king bought him a hat with bells on, but I suspect this is probably a joke. Killigrew certainly seems to have got away with insulting the king though. Charles II was a rather dissolute character who fathered no heirs, but at least twelve illegitimate children. I rather like him though. He had a difficult reign that saw the Great Plague and the Great Fire of London, neither of which were his fault. He also lost a war against the Dutch. At the same time, he managed to revive theatre in London, which had been banned for years under the Commonwealth, and to found the Royal Society and the Royal Observatory. Killigrew got away with calling him: “The one who spends his time in employing his lips and his prick about the court and has no other employment.”

He and his King’s Company were no less rude at their theatre in Drury Lane. Whilst Davenant’s company tended to rather ingratiate themselves with their audiences, the King’s Company just insulted everybody in their prologues. They were an innovative troupe. Killigrew was probably the first person to employ an actress on the English stage. She played the part of Desdemona in Shakespeare’s ‘Othello’ on December 8th 1660. But there is some argument over who it was. He also employed Pepys friend Mary Knep and Nell Gwyn., who he lost to the king in 1668. In 1664, and again in 1673, he actually staged productions of his own play, ‘The Parson’s Wedding’, that was entirely acted by women. Male audience members loved to see actresses playing the parts of men, because it meant that they could look at their legs.

Historically Killigrew is seen as a bit of a rubbish theatre manager, compared with Davenant, a bit of an amateur and general example of how not to run a theatre. He left the day to day running of the theatre to a group of actors who all had shares in the company. This sometimes caused arguments and problems, especially over who owned one of the shares when one of the actors, Walter Clun, was murdered in 1664. He also had problems with getting people to turn up to rehearsals, a problem which he solved by employing a company prostitute. So, he was a bit left of field, but I think he did okay. He was the first to employ performers from overseas, including two enormous castrati from Italy, who Pepys was terribly impressed by. He also may have invented the orchestra pit.

London’s Burning

09 02 fire of london 1Today marks the outbreak of the Great Fire of London in 1666. This was obviously not a brilliant thing for anyone at the time, but in hindsight, it’s pretty spectacular. What started as a small fire in a bakery on Pudding Lane spread over four days and destroyed more than 13,000 homes, 87 parish churches, most of the buildings belonging to the City authorities and St Paul’s Cathedral.

At the time, the most effective way of controlling a large fire was to pull down other nearby buildings to create a fire break. Due to the indecision of the Lord Mayor, Sir Thomas Bloodworth, this was not done until the following night, by which time the blaze had become an uncontrollable firestorm. Hot air from the flames was rising so quickly that it created a vacuum at ground level which caused strong winds to rush in from all directions. This made the fire spread erratically.

09 02 fire of london 2The City of London was a very crowded place surrounded by a Roman wall. Most of the buildings were made of wood and thatch which made them extremely flammable. Access by road was restricted to the eight gates in the city wall. The city was open to the river on its south side and the Thames should have been the important source of water that could have helped to put the fire out as well as a means of escape for the citizens. But this area was packed with buildings made from tar paper and warehouses containing many flammable materials including gunpowder so most of the waterfront soon became inaccessible. There was a second water supply from a water tower at Cornhill but unfortunately the pump which supplied it was also destroyed by the fire. Although fire engines were available the fire was to hot for them to be able to get close to the flames.

By the following day people start to give up trying to fight the spread of the fire and settled instead for trying to move their belongings to a safer place. Flying embers cause seemingly unrelated fires to break out and people started to suspect that the fire was a result of terrorism. Britain had recently been at war with the Dutch so suspicion fell on foreigners. The Coldstream Guards, who had been brought in to help out began to put more effort into rounding up suspicious people than to fighting the fire. These worries were fuelled by burning of the General Letter Office and the headquarters of the London Gazette. As people struggled to save their possessions, anyone with a cart or a boat that was still able to reach the shore was able to make a lot of money transporting goods of the upper classes to safety. The streets were crowded and the gates jammed with people who now just wanted to leave the city to the flames. Magistrates ordered the city gates shut to encourage people to fight the fire instead of leaving. The Lord Mayor seems to be one of the people who left as he isn’t mentioned again.

The King himself, Charles II, took management of the situation. He put his brother James, Duke of York, in charge of organizing groups of fire fighters who were well paid and well fed. They also rescued foreigners who had fallen victim to mobs. It was reported that the king also worked manually to throw water on the flames and demolish buildings.

St Paul’s Cathedral was thought to be safe because it was surrounded by a plaza and had thick stone walls. The crypt had been packed with printers goods from nearby Paternoster Row. Unfortunately building was undergoing restoration under the direction of a man named Christopher Wren. It was surrounded by wooden scaffolding which caught fire on the third day. The lead on the roof melted and ran down the streets making them impassable. The stones exploded like grenades. When the fire moved east towards Tower of London, which was packed with gunpowder, the garrison stationed there started to blow up houses on a large scale to prevent the spread. It was this method that really helped to stop the spread of the fire the following day.

Both Samuel Pepys and a man named John Evelyn, who was a founding member of the Royal Society, described walking through the ruined city after the fire was out. They both describe how the ashes burned their feet. The fire had been fed not just by the wood and thatch of buildings but also the oil, pitch, coal, tallow, fats, sugar, alcohol, turpentine and gunpowder stored near the river. The flames had been hot enough to melt the steel that was also stored there. The iron chains and locks on the city gates had also melted. The official death toll was very small but we will never know how many perished in the flames.