Saturday, 30 April 2016

Haughmond Abbey

Haughmond Abbey is a few miles to the east of Shrewsbury. There seems to have been a small religious community from the late 11th century, though the formal foundation dates from 1135. It grew to a very large complex of buildings, deriving its considerable wealth from rents of farms over a wide area of local villages, as well as from the opeartion of fulling mills in the burgeoning Shropshire wool industry. The powerful local Fitzalan and Mortimer families patronised the Abbey.
    When you enter the abbey complex today, which is from the south, the first thing you notice is the unusual windows of the abbot's private rooms.

These must have been inserted long after the rest of the building had bee completed, probably in the 15th century. To the left of this is the abbot's hall, at the western end of which is an enormous window in the Decorated style.
These features suggest that the abbots of Haughmond enjoyed a very lavish lifestyle. Not all of them were personally admirable, however; and one of the last of them, Christopher Hunt, was disciplined in 1522 for administrative slackness and fornication!
   Very little remains of the great abbey church apart from the foundations, but there is a fine processional doorway leading from the cloister to the church. The arch is Romanesque, but with tall, slender stautes of saints carved on the shafts in the 14th century.
The best-preserved part of the abbey is the chapter house, where the monks would assemble every day to be addressed by the abbot. It is strange to find it has massive rectangular windows, which must have been inserted in the Tudor period.
The entrance to the chapter house has three magnificent Romanesque arches, again featuring statues of saints, including Thomas a'Becket and the locally-venerated Saint Winifred.
  All the English abbeys were closed by Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell in the 1530s. The last abbot of Haughmond surrendered his abbey to the crown in 1539, and he and his ten canons were pensioned off. This was a wise decision, since some abbots who reisted the dissolution were hanged, drawn and quartered for high treason!
   The wealth of the abbey, with an income estimated at almost £250 a year, was seized by the crown. The spoilation of the site probably began soon after; stripping lead from the roof and demolishing the buildings to reuse the stone. The dissolution of the monasteries brought Henry VIII such riches that he and his successors could have ruled despotically, without recourse to Parliament; but fortunately for the constitutional future of England Henry needed immediate cash to fight his wars, and most of the monasteries were sold off to his supporters. Haughmond was sold to Sir Edward Littleton, who rebuilt the abbot's lodgings as a residence. A whole new class of landowners was being created, grown rich on the plunder of the monasteries.

Friday, 22 April 2016

Caernarfon Castle

Caernarfon, with its strategic position guarding the south-western entry to the Menai Strait separating Anlesey from the mainland, had been an important base even in Roman times, and later was the centre of the Welsh kingdom of Gwynedd. Its capture by King Edward I in 1283 was the culminating point of his campaign to subdue north Wales, and he paid his viceroy, Otto de Grandson, over £1,000 a year for holding the town and "keeping the land of Wales".
   Edward's master castle architect, James of St. George, was summoned to build a suitably splendid and powerful castle in Caernarfon. It provides an immediately unusual appearance to the visitor, in that the towers are polygonal rather than round, and there are bands of pale limestone in the walls.
The castle thus resembles the famous land walls defending Constantinople. King Edward had been on crusade as a prince, and although he never visited Constantinople, it is likely that some of his entourage did, and reported on what they saw. 
     In its plan, the castle is shaped like an hourglass, with a narrow waist. There is a very elaborate gatehouse, which, however, was built in the early 14th century, after James's death.
The most spectacular part of the castle is the massive south-western Eagle Tower, which has its own watergate.

The three small towers upon it are said to be a reference to the coat of arms of Edward's beloved wife Eleanor of Castile.
   On the northern side of the castle, outside the main gate, Edward built a walled town for English settlers,

 the Welsh only being permitted to enter on market days; though this did not save the incomplete castle from being stormed by the Welsh in 1294.
   The completed castle was so strong that it defied Owain Glyndwr's attempts to capture it at the start of the 15th century. In 1403 it was successfully defended by a garrison of just 28 men!

Everyone knows the story of how in 1284 Edward caused his son, later King Edward II, to be born in Caernarfon, in order that he should keep his promise to the Welsh chieftains to give them "A prince who was born in Wales and does not speak a word of English". In fact, the castle was far from complete at the time, and Queen Eleanor probably had to endure an uncomfortable delivery in a local wooden house. She was 42 at the time, and can hardly have enjoyed the experience very much. It is worth pointing out that the King himself could speak little or no English, the language of the court still being Norman French. The other interesting fact about this episode is that baby Edward was not at this stage the heir to the throne. The King had an older son, called Alfonso, who, however, died four months later in circumstances which remain unknown. Very few people realise that England could have had a King Alfonso!
   Many strange tales became attached to the castle. One was that Edward had found a legionary Eagle from the nearby Roman base of Segontium and placed it atop the Eagle Tower. Another said that the builders had uncovered the body of Magnus Maximus, a late-Roman commander in Britain who had tried and failed to make himself Emperor in the 380s, and who figured in Welsh legends. Owain Glyndwr boosted the chances of his rebellion by invoking prophesies of Merlin.

   In 1911 the future King Edward VIII was formally invested as Prince of Wales in the castle, and in 1969 the ceremony was repeated for Prince Charles. Charles made a speech in Welsh for the occasion, which would undoubtedly have surprised King Edward I! 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Paedophilia: Several details you probably didn't know

In the ancient world and the middle ages, it was common amongst the nobility for very young boys and girls to be formally betrothed, and even married.
    The man who was to become King Henry VII of England was born when his mother (Margaret Beaufort, the daughter of the Duke of Somerset, through whom Henry derived his very sketchy claim to the throne) was certainly no older than 14. There is a famous scene in Shakespeare's "Richard III", where Richard successfully woos Anne Neville, having killed her husband, Edward, Prince of Wales. In fact, Anne would have been about 16 when she met Richard: she had married Edward when she was 14 and he was 17. (He was almost certainly killed in the battle of Tewkesbury, aged 18; not murdered by Richard). Although very little is known about Anne personally, there is no reason to believe that she resented being passed like a trophy between the houses of Lancaster and York. As a daughter of the mighty Earl of Warwick, "Warwick the Kingmaker", she would have known what was expected of girls of her class.
   When Henry VIII married his fifth wife, Katharine Howard, in 1540, he was 49 and in poor health, and she was probably no older than 16 (her exact age is not known). She had previously been betrothed to Francis Dereham, and, it transpired, was not a virgin. She had even experienced sexual games with her music teacher when she was only 13. Her later flirtations with Dereham and with Thomas Culpepper led to all three being executed for treason in early 1542. She seems to have been a rather stupid girl, behaving so recklessly, but nowadays we would regard it as intolerable that someone so young should be placed under such pressure.

Before the Victorian period, there was no legal definition of the age of consent. It was generally assumed to be about 10 or 12, and Victorian London was reported as crawling with child prostitutes of both sexes. The campaigning journalist W. T. Stead drew the public's attention to the situation by a stunt in which he purchased a young girl from her mother and took the child with him to Paris; subsequently publicizing it in a series of sensational articles entitled "The Maiden Tribute of Modern Babylon". It seems that there was some knowing collusion from the girl's mother in the stunt, but it succeeded in attracting great attention. Shortly afterwards, the 1885 Criminal Law Amendment Act raised the age of consent to 16; and the radical M.P. Henry Labouchere inserted an amendment to make "gross indecency" between men a criminal offence. Up to this point, it was unclear whether such behaviour was illegal.

   In the USA the age of consent varied considerably between different states. When Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the great original rock-n-rollers, came to tour Britain in 1958,he brought with him his wife, who was said to be 15, but, it transpired, was really only 13. There was an outcry in the press and the tour was called off after a couple of concerts. 

   It was under the 1885 Act that Oscar Wilde was convicted, though since he was accused of indecency with teenage youths he would nowadays be branded a paedophile and would receive a much longer sentence and no sympathy from anyone. The same would apply to Sir Roger Casement; hanged as a traitor after the Easter Rising in Dublin, and now regarded as a patriotic hero and martyr in Ireland; but whose sexual proclivities were revealed in his diaries, which were deliberately leaked to the press before his trial.
   In any case, the word "paedophile" is misused by the media. It only means someone who likes, or is attracted to children; analogies being a bibliophile, who loves books, a philosopher, who loves knowledge, and a philatelist, who loves postage stamps. There is a different word, "pederast", for someone who has sex with children. As far as I know it was first used by the 17th century writer John Aubrey, where he applied it to Francis Bacon, the Lord Chancellor and philosopher (and according to some, the true author of Shakespeare's plays). Aubrey wrote the word in the original Greek, and called Bacon's harem of boys his "Ganymedes", after the beautiful boy beloved by the god Zeus - which, of course, is why one of the satellites of Jupiter bears this name.

   Is it too much to hope that a clear distinction between paedophiles and pederasts might be drawn by the media? 

Saturday, 2 April 2016


Elagabalus (reigned 218-222) is perhaps the most bizarre of all the Roman Emperors. He was just fourteen when he took the throne after a brief civil war. His success was organized by his maternal grandmother, Julia Maesa, the sister-in-law of the earlier Emperor Septimius Severus (reigned 193-211; the only emperor in a period of half a century to die in his bed). Julia's family were Syrians, and from his late father, Varius Avitus Bassianus, the boy inherited the hereditary priesthood of El Gabal, the Syrian sun god, at Emesa: hence the name by which he is usually known.
   The young Emperor's dedication to his god was such that he brought the sun-god's symbol, a black phallic-shaped meteorite, to Rome, to be housed in a vast new temple on the Palatine hill. The stone was carried into the city on a richly decorated chariot, with Elagabalus ahead of it, walking backward to face the god. The senators were obliged to stand and watch. 
   Elagabalus was married at least three times during his brief reign, including once to a Vestal Virgin, but he showed little interest in any of his wives. He seems to have been entirely homosexual. He is described as flouncing about in women's clothes and makeup, and his most elaborately celebrated marriage was as "bride" to the charioteer Hierocles. He headed an expensive court, with exotic banquets, where he enjoyed playing practical jokes on the senators.
   After four years of this, his grandmother decided things had gone too far, and she arranged that Elagabalus should be murdered by the Praetorian Guards. His body was thrown in the Tiber, and he was replaced as Emperor by his 14-year-old cousin Alexander Severus (another of Julia Maesa's grandsons), who was more sober in his habits. Alexander reigned till 235, before he in his turn was murdered by the soldiers. The sacred black stone of El Gabal was returned to its home in Emesa, where its worship continued undiminished after its brief sojourn in Rome.

Edward Gibbon, in his "Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire", was at his most magisterial on the subject of Elagabalus (whom he called "Heliogabalus", after the Roman sun-god):- "The grave senators confessed with a sigh that, after having long experienced the stern tyranny of their own countrymen, Rome was at length humbled beneath the effeminate luxury of Oriental despotism"; and again:- "The corrupt and opulent nobles of Rome gratified every vice that could be collected from the mighty conflux of nations and manners. Secure of impunity, careless of censure, they lived without restraint in the patient and humble society of their slaves and parasites. The emperor, in his turn, viewing every rank of his subjects with the same contemptuous indifference, asserted without control his sovereign privilege of lust and luxury". How about that for rolling eighteenth century prose? (It has been said that "Gibbon's description of the vices of Elagabalus beats a hasty retreat behind a decent veil of Latin footnotes"!)

I first learnt about Elagabalus in an entertaining historical novel called "Family Favourites" by Alfred Duggan. This is probably out of print, but it should be possible to find it.

Footnote: Elagabalus's official name as Emperor was Marcus Aurelius Antoninus. It was put about that his real father was Septimius Severus's son Caracalla (reigned 211-217), who had been popular with the soldiers.