Category Archives: History
London Bridge is falling down,
Falling down, falling down,
London Bridge is falling down,
My fayre lady.
I wonder how many of the thousands of commuters who stream across London Bridge every day remember or even know the nursery rhyme? Of those who do, how many are aware that the words refer to real people and real events? And that there is an older version.
London Bridge is broken down,
Dance over my Lady Lee,
London Bridge is broken down,
With a gay ladye
There’s hardly a corner, an alleyway, a stone in London that isn’t steeped in history. London Bridge itself can be traced back to the first century, when the Romans built the original one out of wood and clay. This was replaced at various times using alternative materials, like those mentioned in the rhyme. Though I doubt it was ever built with silver and gold.
Both rhymes propose various ways to rebuild the bridge so it won’t fall down again. Starting with wood and clay that will be washed away, then bricks and mortar but ‘they will not stay’. Various other materials are mooted such as iron and steel, silver and gold and a watchman. Each suggestion is rejected in turn, as befits a rhyming game. To some extent the rhyme follows the actual fate of the bridge.
Over time the bridge was destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed again. At one stage it was attacked by the Vikings: this resulted in a stronger replacement, complete with drawbridge. In the 12th century the first stone bridge, designed by Peter de Colechurch, superseded the then current bridge. This took thirty-three years to build. Hardly surprising when you know that it featured twenty arches, each one sixty feet high and thirty feet wide. At various times during the fourteenth century it carried no less than 140 shops (some accounts put it at as many as 200). Hence the reference to silver and gold in the verse.
This bridge survived the Great Fire of London in 1666 though buildings with thatched roofs were banned in the metropolis from then on. Incidentally, it was another three hundred years before the ban was lifted to allow the building of the new Globe Theatre, in 1994. While the great fire it didn’t destroy the bridge, it weakened it. In consequence various changes were made in the ensuing years, such as strengthening the foundations, removing buildings and restricting traffic.
While the stone bridge lasted much longer than many others, it was eventually demolished in the 1820s and a new London Bridge was built on a site near the old one. This nineteenth century bridge was replaced in 1960s; it wasn’t destroyed but sold to the Americans, being dismantled stone by stone and rebuilt in Arizona, of all places.
So much for the physical bridge. But what of the people referred to in the rhyme? Who was the fayre or gay layde; who was Lady Lee? For the answers we have to go back to the story of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, his second wife. She is indeed the layde referred to. Lady Lee is Lady Margaret Lee, a close friend of Anne’s. She and Anne were childhood friends. When they grew up Margaret became Anne’s trusted lady in waiting and remained with her throughout the good times, even standing beside her on the scaffold.
Anne was hated by the common people who found her high and mighty. They also had a strong allegiance to Henry’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon. Open criticism of Anne was officially approved of after her death. This situation continued during the remainder of Henry’s reign and subsequently that of Mary. However, when Elizabeth I ascended to the throne things changed. Elizabeth was Anne Boleyn’s daughter – the criticism could no longer be open, so it went underground.
The rhyme is an allegory, that is to say it describes one thing by means of something else. Thus the words of the rhyme describe the rise and fall of Anne Boleyn. Lady Lee is mentioned to ensure that there will be no doubt that the ‘gay layde’ is Anne. Although the nursery rhyme associates the bridge with Anne’s death, she was in fact executed within the walls of the Tower of London. But London Bridge itself did indeed see plenty of gruesome sights. The severed heads of traitors, impaled on spikes and dipped in tar, were regularly displayed at its Southern Gatehouse.
Last week I was bemoaning sloppy language. This week it’s sloppy reading. Or, to be more accurate, reading a watered down, slanted impression of what someone else has written, and taking it as fact. If you want to criticise Hilary Mantel for goodness sake read what she actually wrote, not what the tabloids and others say that she wrote.
I blame the press but I also blame our general laziness; I include myself of course. A nice bit of gossip, a slice of sensation is easy to read and hard to resist, unless you are very, very noble or perhaps a tad po-faced. Show me the Guardian and Times reader who has never, ever, not even once taken a quick peek at the Mail or the Express. Perhaps not the Sun, that might be a step too far.
The ‘Hilary Mantel v. Katherine Middleton’ story is a case in point. I was going to say ‘debate’ but it’s not a debate, is it. (Rhetorical question, spellcheck, no need for a question mark.) It’s a perfect example of the meaning of the word ‘uninformed’. Relatively few people read The London Review of Books so it would be unfair to expect that they would have read the whole article in full. Nevertheless, it does behove (lovely word) the press to report accurately and in a balanced manner, if they are going to report at all. As to David Cameron wading in – he obviously hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. No surprise there then.
I can see no reason why certain journalists would bother to comment on the Mantel article except to seize upon her so-called criticism of ‘our Kate.’ Leaving aside that it’s a free country where people are still allowed to express an opinion, a careful reading shows that, if anything, Kate is treated more sympathetically than critically. Yes Mantel uses the words ‘jointed doll’ but what comes before that? The sentence reads ‘… I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll’ and further along “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.’ The italics are mine. And the question is of course, who is defining her. Not Kate herself. The press and we readers.
I’m not proposing to go through the whole article. However, it’s worth pointing out that while it runs to over 5,500 words direct references to Kate Middleton are minimal. More to the point the so-called criticism of Kate is not personal, nor indeed are any of the individuals mentioned treated to the sort of outright tearing of limb from limb so often meted out by the press. The bulk of the article is a thoughtful and erudite examination of monarchy in a historical context and their understandable fixation on the need to produce heirs. Together with a measured, fascinating analysis of our continuing obsession with them.
While at times very funny, overall I find it enlightening, thought provoking and sympathetic. Yes, she is critical and expresses strong opinions but the real criticism is for the way the monarchy is presented to us.
“It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.”
That is a direct quote from the concluding paragraph of the article. It certainly gives the lie to the claim of a ‘venomous attack’ as stated in the Mail.
When it comes to criticism of the royals, the Mail is no slouch itself. In the very week that it attacked Mantel it treated us to a lengthy article on how the Middleton family are exploiting poor Mexican workers paying them ‘sometimes less than 10p an hour’ to make a product that ‘sells for £12.99.’ Full of evocative language and photographs it nevertheless takes care to say that the Middletons are profiting ‘albeit inadvertently’ from the labours of these poor overseas workers. Thus covering themselves from being sued. Though, if the Middletons are indeed unaware of the exploitation, wouldn’t it be better to draw it to their attention privately instead of splashing it all over the papers. But what would be the point of that? The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ spring to mind. And how!
Hilary Mantel’s article ‘Royal Bodies’ was the basis of a lecture, organised by the London Review of Books, and delivered at the British Library. Later published in the Review. I urge you to read it if you can, it’s online. For excellent and more in-depth analysis read Hadley Freeman’s piece in the Guardian, Gaby Wood in The Telegraph and Google ‘Hilary Mantel’ for a plethora of information, biased and unbiased. I should have realised that many others have written and tweeted about this, but it’s been a heavy week and I’ve only just found time to read the full article and catch up with the various commentaries.
I live at Newington Green, which became the home of English Dissenters during the 17th Century and beyond. These were free-thinking people who challenged conventional ideas. So I seem to have ended up in the right place.
The famous Unitarian Church still stands on the little Green, one of our local pubs is called The Dissenting Academy and the area has associations with too many famous and unconventional people to mention here. Among them John and Charles Wesley, founders of the Methodists and Thomas Cooper, the Leicester Chartist. He actually lived in my house, though of course it was his house then.
Among the important and influential residents of the Green was Mary Wollstonecraft, author of ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’. When I was researching Mary’s life I was rather pleased to see that before she wrote ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women’ she had actually written ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Men’ as well. Now this was a pamphlet in support of republicanism, agrarian socialism and religious tolerance, among other things. She wasn’t arguing the case for men, as such. In contrast to ‘A Vindication of the Rights of Women which, in very broad terms, argues for women’s education and maintains that they deserve the same fundamental rights as men.
However, it makes a nice link (albeit a little contrived). Because, while I am a great believer in supporting and advocating the cause of women, I also believe that in doing this we should welcome and encourage those men who are on our side. I don’t believe in man-bashing. I doubt that Mary W was anti man either. Nevertheless, without in any way diminishing the suffering of individual men, in general women still get a really raw deal. They still come off worse overall. Much worse.
Among women aged between 15 and 44, acts of violence cause more death and disability than cancer, malaria, traffic accidents and war combined. Currently India is in the news and many Arab States too have an abusive culture. But it’s not really fair to pick out just two cultures, as the problem is endemic. Indeed we’ve still a long way to go here in the UK – we’ve plenty to improve on. Did you know that more than two women are killed by current or ex-partners every week? And that one in four women in the UK will experience domestic violence in their lifetime?
This year, International Women’s Day is on Friday 8th March. It will be celebrated throughout the world. Because it is a celebration – a celebration of all that has been achieved so far. It’s also a fundraiser with the aim of helping women throughout the world gain their independence and live in safety. And it’s an awareness raising exercise, to remind those of us who already know and to educate those who are still ignorant of some of the appalling things that are going on. And that continue to go on away from the spotlight of the media, that continue when the journalists and the media have packed their bags and left.
From Afghanistan to Australia. Darlington to Delhi. The world will be celebrating on 8th March. Go onto the Facebook Page to see what’s happening and how you can join in. Take part in Oxfam’s ‘Get Together’ campaign (I’ll be writing more about that in a week or so). If we all do just a little bit, we can all make the violence stop.
If you’re of a nervous disposition, step away from the screen. I mean it. Shut down your computer now and step away. However if, like me, you are attracted by all things weird, including strange and unusual deaths, read on. It’s not the death part of it that attracts me; it’s the quirky and strange circumstances. Plus the fact that it raises an illicit giggle where giggles have no place. Like having an urge to laugh at a funeral. You know you shouldn’t. Indeed you don’t want to but somehow you can’t help it.
One of my favourite weird deaths is death by carrot. There’s one real one and one fictional one. You’ll find them in an article I wrote a while ago. The craziest carrot death is in the opening scene of the film ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ where Clive Owen dispatches the baddie with a carrot stick. Sounds unlikely? Well it is a film. In real life the unassuming carrot was also responsible for the death of a man called Basil Brown. A health fanatic, the poor man took it too far with the carrot juice. Having downed gallons of the stuff in a short space of time he ended up bright orange. And dead.
So far, so weird. But there’s more. Before I carry on, for the pedants among us, of which I am definitely one, I hasten to explain that in many of these sad cases death was actually the result of a heart attack, or strangulation or drowning or by breaking your neck by inadvisably jumping off a tall building wearing a Heath Robinson style overcoat-parachute. It was the things that led up to them that were strange. There are so many of them, it’s hard to know where to begin. Death by cactus, by bottle cap, by sheep and by beard. And more, far too many to mention.
In 1982 David Grundman and his mate decided to do a little shooting, with a cactus as the target. The cactus got its revenge; a chunk of it sheared off and crushed him to death. Tennessee Williams, the famous playwright, choked on a bottle top. Poor Betty Stobbs was knocked off her feet by her herd of sheep and pushed over a cliff. Ungrateful creatures – she’d only come to feed them. Hans Steinen grew the longest beard in the world, tripped on it and broke his neck escaping from a fire.
There are enough weird deaths to fill months of blog posts. They come in all guises – romantic, incredible, spooky, and, yes, funny. One of the most romantic sounding deaths is that of Chinese poet Li Po. Apart from being one of the greatest poets in Chinese literature, he also loved a drink. Poor man fell from his boat on the Yangtze River and drowned while trying to embrace the reflection of the moon. That’s one version. Grigori Rasputin’s death is downright weird. The Russian mystic, was reportedly poisoned, shot in the head four times, clubbed, and finally when these failed he was chased into a frozen river.
In 1991, Yooket Paen was walking in her farmyard. She slipped, grabbed a wire. It was live. She was electrocuted and died on the spot. Shortly after her funeral Her sister was out in the farmyard with neighbours, demonstrating how the accident had happened. She too slipped. Grabbed the same wire and she too died. You’d think they would have taped it up or something. That wasn’t just an accident waiting to happen. It had already happened.
General Sedgwick fell in battle during the American Civil War. Shots fired by Confederate sharpshooters caused his men to duck for cover. The Confederates were roughly 1,000 yards away. Sedgwick was disgusted and walked into the open, striding around saying “I am ashamed of you. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this distance.” Despite this his men continued to cower. So he repeated “I’m ashamed of you, dodging that way. They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist …” and fell forward with a bullet hole in his eye. I know it isn’t funny, but … well it is.