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.


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.

A Busy Man

07 28 Hooke 1Today I am celebrating the birthday of Robert Hooke who was born on this day in 1635 in Freshwater on the Isle of Wight. He was a sickly child, though I haven’t been able to find out what the problem was. He was also the sort of child who loved to take things apart to see how they worked. He was also pretty good at drawing and used to make his own drawing materials from chalk, coal and iron ore. His father expected him to find work as a clockmaker or an illustrator of manuscripts.

He studied at Westminster School and afterwards at Christ Church College, Oxford. He quickly discovered his lifelong love for mechanics, he really enjoyed building things. At Oxford, around 1665, he became assistant to Robert Boyle, refining the equipment that he used for his experiments.

To put him in some sort of historical perspective King Charles I had been beheaded in 1649 and his successor, Oliver Cromwell, was not keen on scientific research. He didn’t like anything very much, except God, the Bible and being very serious. Hooke became part of a small group of people who were trying to keep alive the spirit of scientific enquiry. They may or may not have called themselves the Invisible College. I hope they did, because it’s a great name. Then in 1660 the monarchy was restored and Charles II became king. He was a much more enlightened person, as we have discussed before when we’ve talked about theatre. Under his reign Hooke and his circle formed the nucleus of the newly formed Royal Society.

Hooke’s role in the Society was as Curator of Experiments, which meant the when he or anyone else came up with a theory, he would design an experiment to test it. He must have learned loads of different things from this work but it led to his tendency to claim credit for other people’s ideas. Not that he didn’t have plenty of his own. He invented the anchor escapement, which regulates the movement of a pendulum clock and the balance spring inside a watch. He improved the design of the microscope to make it easier to focus and also introduced a way of lighting the specimen being examined. Through it he observed a microscopic structure inside plants which he named ‘cells’ because they reminded him of the cells in a honeycomb. He also observed the same structure in fossil samples and was able to conclude that they were once living things.

07 28 Hooke 2In 1665 he wrote a book called Micrographia. It was the first book to be published by the Royal Society. It contained loads of detailed drawings of things that he had observed through his microscope. It was a hugely important book because it revealed a world that nobody knew existed. It was also the first scientific best seller. Samuel Pepys said it was “the most ingenious book that I ever read in my life.” The drawings are pretty amazing and Hooke drew them all himself.

He was a busy man, his work at the Royal Society was not his only job. He was also Surveyor to the City of London and chief assistant to Christopher Wren. Following the Great Fire of London in 1666, he seems to have been responsible for surveying more than half the buildings damaged by the fire. He also had a hand in the design of the Greenwich Observatory, Bethlem Hospital (Bedlam) and the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral.

Unfortunately, in later life he grew rather bad tempered and fell out with a lot of people. There was an argument about who invented the watch spring between himself and Christiaan Huygens which raged on long after the death of both of them. Probably his most famous falling out was with Isaac Newton and it was over who had come up with a theory about gravity. The two men just didn’t get on at all, Newton was a single minded sort of a fellow whereas Hooke had a much more creative approach and his ideas were all over the place. It was probably his irascible nature that is the reason we have no real idea what he looked like. There must have been paintings of him, but no one bothered to keep them. The Royal Society certainly had one but it mysteriously went missing after Isaac Newton was appointed President of the Royal Society.

Apologies for such a long post. Thank you for bearing with me. I can’t show you a picture of him, so here are some of his lovely illustrations instead. Also, as you’ve read this far I’m going to reward you by telling you that in Hooke’s personal diaries he often inserted a special symbol that recorded every time he had an orgasm.

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