The Queen’s Houses – Alan Titchmarsh (2014)


It seems that every time autumn rolls around, I end up thinking about growing up in England as their autumns can be spectacularly good (and/or spectacularly bad) depending on the year. On the good years, it’s all about Keats’ “season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and as this is my favoritest season, I love the whole thing.

The England thoughts led to this book title, The Queen’s Houses by Alan Titchmarsh, which is a well produced and glossy invitation to look inside six of the grand locations that the Queen (and/or her family past or present) call home:

  • Windsor Castle
  • Buckingham Palace
  • Balmoral
  • Sandringham
  • The Palace of Holyroodhouse
  • The Royal Mews

You’d think that since I’ve grown up in England that I would know a lot more about these places than I do, but no, not really so this was a fun romp through the Queen’s private quarters with a knowledgeable and rather witty guide. (You know – I do think the photos could have been better, but the content was good.)

As it covered so many vastly different places, I took random notes and so here they are in bullet points for you:

Random snippets:

One of the
One of the “strewer of herbs” people in action…
  • Charles II (mid 1660’s) was very extravagant as King and had lots of servants with titles such as “Royal Comb-Maker for Life,” “Marker of Swans” (swans were sign of royalty), a Periwig Maker, and one lady called Mary Dowle whose job was “Strewer of Herbs” and who always walked before the King to strew herbs (literal name) as they were believed to ward off the plague.
  • In the 1780’s, there was a position in the Royal Court titled “Keeper of the Buckets”…
  • An awful lot of rebuilding of palaces etc. all took place during the nineteenth century with both Victoria and her earlier relatives. (Before that time, a lot of these royal houses were in various states of disrepair.)
  • George IV (another extravagant young chappie) took over the country estate of his parents (which included Buckingham then-House) just outside London (then much smaller in size), and added wings and other pieces (such as the railings in front etc.) to make it fit his idea of a metropolitan palace. Before this, Buckingham House was a fairly small country house (country home speaking).
  • VE Day (8 May 1945) marked the end of WWII and is so-called because the full title is “Victory in Europe” Day. I  knew what the day stood for, but not the acronym. Huh. This seems so obvious now, but honestly, I didn’t know that.

Victoria snippets:

  • * Victoria had five attempted assassinations on her during her reign.
  • * When Victoria moved into Windsor Castle in 1837, it was a huge event with a big celebration including “the only English female aeronaut” Mrs. Margaret Graham. She went up in a balloon named “Victoria”. Apparently Mrs. Graham had several falls (presumably from high places), and one was described as “although the ground was very hard, there was an evident of her form upon it.” Despite this tendency, she lives to a grand old age for the times.
  • Victoria (oh, Victoria, how I love thee – you’re so weird!): After Albert had died and after her friend John Brown had died, she took an interest in two Indian servants. One of the two was called Mohammed Abdul Karim (or the Munshi for short) and Victoria developed a very close relationship with him. She even spent the night with him in a cottage on the Balmoral estates (much to everyone’s horror). He was not generally well liked – one person described him thus: “his one idea in life seems to be to do nothing and to eat as much as he can”… However, despite such widespread disapproval amongst the Court, Edward VII allowed Munshi to be the very last person to view Victoria’s body and then to take part in her funeral procession. He was subsequently dismissed and returned to India. (I wonder what he did then?…). ETA: I found and read a book about this guy. See here for more info.

QEII snippets:

Local Input~ ROYAL QUIZ- Q30 - Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward's Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Queen Elizabeth II in her coronation crown, 1953. Known as St Edward’s Crown, it was made in 1661 for the coronation of King Charles II, and is reputed to contain gold from the crown of Edward the Confessor. It is set with 444 precious stones. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
  • The Queen (QEII) has two birthdays, one of which (the “official” birthday) lands in the middle of June. This tradition was started in 1908 by Edward VII who had a November birthday, and whose outdoor birthday celebrations were invariably squelched by bad weather. (For some reason, I had thought that this was a centuries-old tradition.)
  • Re: Other country’s State Visits to England: no more than two countries accorded a state visit each year, and the cost is met by the Royal Treasury.
  • Re: 21 gun salutes: This is a standard gun salute for heads of state but the number can be increased to 41 if the salute is given in a royal park. President Obama and First Wife Michelle were given a 41-gun salute during their May 2011 trip to England. (They were in Green Park, a royal park.) That seems a really long time to stay interested in the event (at least to me). Still, lovely idea.
  • Speaking of processions, it wasn’t until 1953 that the Mall was resurfaced with an application of iron oxide pigment to give the idea of the royal processions walking on a red carpet. (Another thing that I had thought was really really old.)
  • Re: state banquets: The Butlers’ Guild (real thing) says it takes about 15 minutes to set each place setting, and soup has been abolished from state banquets as soup takes at least 20 minutes to serve, eat and then clear away which makes the occasions far too long.

Royal horses snippets:

  • The Royal Mews – all this time and I haven’t gone to the Mews so this has been added to the list for next time we’re over there. Called the Mews because the earliest records mentioning that location, back in 1377, said it was the place where royal hawks (usually falcons) were kept during their moulting (or mewing) time from late April to early October. (Mew is from French muer – to change, apparently.)
  • The Royal Mews were originally where Trafalgar Square is now, and were demolished in 1835.

And so it goes on with all sorts of intriguing little nuggets of information about royalty. If you’re curious about the domestic lives of royalty, you will love this book. A potential Christmas pressie, perhaps?

From Middle England: A Memory of the Thirties – Philip Oakes (1980)

book363I have no idea where I found this title – probably a random pick at the FoL sale one year – but the title jumped into my hands when I was scanning my bookshelves the other day. What it is, actually, is an autobiography of a man’s childhood in the 1930’s up in Stoke, near what’s called “The Potteries” in England.

It’s a pretty normal childhood – nothing too extremely bad or great – a fact that made it very easy for me to connect to the author and his life as explained by his writing. In fact, this certainly reminded me of “Cider with Rosie” (Laurie Lee, 1960), but this one with a more serious and slightly different tone to it.

Oakes’ childhood mainly took place in the 1930’s in England. It’s a time of childhood fun, but also the time is tinged with the unavoidable memory that WWII is just about to break out (1939), and so there is a persistent and vague sense of anticipation and excitement for Oakes. He is a child after all, and all he knows of war is what he’s read in books and heard from relatives similar, as Oakes describes, as the “excitement before a birthday party”…

Oakes’ family lived in the Potteries in northern England, an area known for its pottery industry (thus the moniker) and all that is associated with that: heavily working class, factories, smoke in the air (and the smell)… His mother was a single mother (a stigma in the 1930’s) who was also struggling with severe ill health, so money was tight.

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left...

Stoke on Trent (or the Potteries) is quite high up on the left…

However, the one thing that his relatives put above all else was the importance of a good education, so when young Philip was offered the opportunity to attend an elite private school down south, the family must have been so excited knowing that this was the chance for Philip to leave his childhood to become something more that was possible otherwise. (Not so sure about Philip!)

So he goes to boarding school down south which is of course a different world for him – new friends, new school, new uniform, new rules…

“Dawdling was not allowed. It frayed moral fiber. It encouraged idleness. It was the antithesis of all that Mr. Gibbon [school headmaster] stood for…”

The private boarding school takes both boys and girls, but the genders are divided by living in separate wings of the establishment so they rarely seem to meet. The narrative relates the antics enjoyed by Philip and his new friend Carpenter: they raid the kitchen late at night for midnight feasts (sometimes helped by the maids who were only a few years older), they scrump apples, and have a secret club in the boiler room… Very Enid Blyton (except not so cuddly and warm).

It’s the 1930’s but the school is very old-fashioned with a lengthy history – strict uniforms were the rule, an hour to write home on Sundays and expectations that pupils support their school houses in football/soccer by standing on the lines in the rain on dreary Saturday afternoons.

Interestingly enough, a lot of the memories that Oakes mentions happened to overlap with mine of life in my old private all-girls school (about 650 students) growing up in England even though it was fifty years later. (The more things change…) My twin sister and I attended the same school (along with 90% of our friends) from when we were 6 to until we finished our A-levels when we were 18. We were very lucky in many ways to have this experience and it’s one that I look back on with fondness most of the time.

My old school in England in 1982 - Bedford High School....

My old school in England in 1982 – Bedford High School….

Our school had very strict cultural rules which governed friendship, lunchtime, and all the other important parts of growing up in that milieu. Lunchtime rules and expectations was that whoever sat at the head of the table (and rules decided which end of the table was “head”) would serve lunch to the others sitting there and then after lunch, the playground opened up to another set of generally accepted rules. One lunch rule that I clearly remember was that the first person to touch the salt and pepper and say “veins” would also be immune from doing “the cloth” which referred to wiping down the table after lunch. (Gross at the best of times.) Anyway, these expectations weren’t really talked about but everyone was aware of them and generally followed them to the letter.

Oakes’ descriptions of the school’s morning assembly was really similar to how our school organized ours, even down to the typical hymns that were chosen on special occasions, the organ that accompanied them and the rows of school pupils listening to the headmaster (or mistress in our case) as s/he read the results of the cricket team, the date and topic of the next school debate, and asking who had engaged in minor misdemeanors such as a missing pair of gloves from someone’s coat pocket.

As I look back on that experience of going to a public (which means private in England) school in England, it was idyllic in a lot of ways as an educational experience, but I must admit that I did leave it feeling very unprepared to face the world. (It was generally assumed by the school that most pupils would be going to university, but if you weren’t one of the pupils who followed that well-worn path (i.e. me), the school wasn’t really focused on giving you tools to handle that. If you’re going to go to the Great Unknown such an American university (which we did), then you’re on your own, sister.

It’s great to live in a world with widely accepted rules and most of your friends in the same boat, but when that was the case (as in moi) and you leave that educational vacuum, it’s strange to need to make new friends and not have the comfort of a regimented class schedule.

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978...

Our group of (naughty) friends on a BHS trip to Boulogne (or Calais) in 1978… (I’m in the middle.)

Don’t get me wrong: I adored the experience of going to a private school and would probably have been eaten alive in a comprehensive if I needed to go there. If I had kids, I would try and replicate the social side of my old school life for them. It’s just that the whole school thing didn’t really give me the tools I would need to succeed once I’d stepped outside into the real world for the first time. (Sink or swim after that, my friends.)

However, lessons were learned, skills were developed, all is well and I expect that the overall school experience is very different now.

Way off track there wrt the book, but if you’re ever curious about life in private school in the early-mid twentieth century (and up to the 70s), then this book will give you a good idea. I really enjoyed it and it brought back many happy memories of school days. Recommend it.

February 2015 Reading Book Numbers…

black-history-month_2 For February 2015, I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

The Mezzanine – Nicholson Baker (F)

Packing for Mars – Mary Roach (NF)

Brown Girl, Brownstones – Paule Marshall (F)

March Book Two – John Lewis/Nat Powell (GN-NF)

Funny Girl – Nick Hornby (F) – post to come

Victorian Hospitals – Lavinia Mitton (NF)

  • Total number of books read in February: 5
  • Total number of pages read: 1,446 pages (av. 289 pages)
  • Fiction/Non-Fiction: 1 F and 4 NF
  • Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 3 library books and 2 owned books. 0 e-books this month. (Total of 8 books off TBR pile this year.)

One special note was that I read some African-American literature (and non-fiction) which was eye-opening and fascinating for me. In case you’re interested and so they are all in one place, here’s the list:

(And more titles from POC authors on the way… I am really enjoying finding new titles.)

Goodness gracious me. I seem to not have read as many books as usual… Work has been very all encompassing which helps to explain the low numbers. Several big reports mean two tired eyes at the end of the day!

tired eyes

Devoted Ladies – Molly Keane (M. J. Farrell) (1934)


This was one was from the Virago Modern Classic series, books which have been on one of my shelves for Way Too Long. Choosing a Virago can sometimes mean an uncomfortable read in that the characters (and the stories) can be rather prickly. Perhaps that’s only me? This one was no different as most of the characters were thoroughly unlikeable and mean to each other (both men and women equally were mean to just about everyone else), and yet, despite this, I almost enjoyed this unpleasant and rather sour read in the end.

Jane and Jessica are together and have been together long enough to be an accepted couple in their circle of friends. However, Jessica is a very boorish and spiteful person, especially to the person that she supposedly loves – Jane. Jane, in turn, is quiet and scared of Jessica’s sharpened tongue, but is resigned to spending her life in this abusive relationship. Any efforts to escape from Jessica have never ended up well, so perhaps safer to stay? The unhappy couple are surrounded by a small grouping of sycophantic friends and servants who continue to play their lives out whilst pretty much ignoring the couple’s dysfunction until one day, a friend brings new blood to the fold in the form of a successful Irish business man and farmer, George Playfair. (There’s some irony in the last name.)

An affair grows between the quiet Jane and Playfair, and when Playfair is in an accident one day, it is enough to ignite the ember which sets into motion a dual of the hearts for Jane. Who will win and get to keep Jane’s heart? For surely she is not strong enough to choose of her own accord.

I’m not going to give the plot away, but suffice to say (and this being a Virago), the end is not all fluffy and warm. Nevertheless, it was a very satisfying conclusion to come across and once I’d finished the read, I closed the book with a contented sigh. Despite such detestable characters, this was a good read – prickly but good.


The Year 1000 – Robert Lacey and Dan Danzinger (1999)


Subtitle: What Life was Like at the Turn of the First Millenium.

Having read other really enjoyable history books by Lacey here, here,  and here, I knew that I was going to be in for another good read. Lacey is extremely good at writing about serious topics such as history whilst infusing his books with a great dry sense of humor every now and then which I particularly enjoyed…  (More so in his other books than this one, but it still pops up every now and then. Lacey has also made it on my Ultimate Dinner Party List for 2014 although that date and the complete guest list is still TBD. Just FYI.)

As the book description reads, “The Year 1000 is a vivid and surprising portrait of life in England a thousand years ago – a world that already knew brain surgeons and property developers, and yes, even the occasional gossip columnist…”

(Above) - Robert Lacey.

(Above) – Robert Lacey.

I really enjoy learning about social history of times past, much more so than the political and military side of things, and so this book was right up my alley. I don’t have much any background in Medieval history (apart from early junior high years and the endless watching of Monty Python’s The Holy Grail during the college years), but I did have a general idea of it being cold, dark and muddy. In reading Lacey and Danzinger’s book, I realized that it was a lot more than that. (Isn’t that usually the way?)

As it was such a great read packed with info, I’ve done this in note form of some items that were of particular interest to me:

  • The history of the half-penny: Back in these times, coin-making was a lengthy multi-step hand-made process which usually resulted in a probably thin coin called a penny. If an item cost less than a penny, then people would literally just cut the coin into half and so it would be exactly – one half-penny. (This might only ring a bell to English people of a Certain Age, but there you go…)
  • England’s system of geographical divisions into counties and towns started in the 10th and 11th centuries. To collect taxes, kings needed to have administrative centers in the middle of their areas (called shires) and so most counties with that suffix (-shire) were formed at that time. (For example, the county where I am from is called Bedfordshire and the town Bedford so therefore, it was coined at that time.)
  • Any English city name which ends in a “-burgh” or “-borough” (like Peterborough and similar) came about during the reign of King Alfred the Great (who was a really cool king, btw). Most of England at that time was rural in small villages, and with the Vikings on the invasion from the North, Alfred organized the villages into larger units for better protection and called them “burgs”. Now you know…
  • Living in Texas (as I do now), there’s quite a bit of talk about the sheriff, the title of which actually originated back in the tenth and eleventh century with the development of shires in England. Taxes and other administrative duties needed to be centralized and the sort of CEO in charge of each shire was called the “shire reeve” which developed into “sheriff”.
  • Here’s a probable history of the word “carpenter”: Going back to Roman times, Romans were generally in admiration of the Celtic-designed two-wheel carts common in those times which the Romans called a “carpentum”. Those who had the skills to make such a cart were thus called carpenters…. Huh.
  • When Romans first invaded Britannia, there were smaller settlements called “civis” (from the root word civilization). People who did not live in these contained communities were literally “uncivilized”… (Those Romans were very fact-based…)
  • One of the common punishments for a thief caught in the act during the year 1000 was to have to hold a red-hot poker in his/her hands and then walk forward for nine excruciating steps. His wound was then dressed and left alone for the period of one week. If, at the end of that time, the dressings were removed and the wound was healing and coming along nicely, then that suspect was an innocent. If, however, the burn was infected on his/her hands, then that signaled a guilty verdict and punishment was meted out accordingly. Thus, the term “red-handed”. (Punishment was, at that time, sentenced to hang until you die.)

And just an interesting point: close to the English town where I grew up, a village called Caxton used to have a historic reconstruction of a reputed old gibbet (where people would hang as punishment for crimes committed), and as it was on the same road that our family took to Grandma and Grandpa’s house, we would always look out for it with ghoulish glee as it meant we were that much closer to tea-time. (This particular gibbet was mostly used for highway robbery, I think, but still theft of one kind or another. This location was also reputedly used for the “cage variation” of the gibbet, whereby live victims were placed in a small cage hanging from the top log and the victim would stay there until they died from starvation, dehydration or exposure. Bodies were kept there after death as a warning to passersby.)

“Come on now. Don’t mind the old instrument of death — let’s have a cup of tea, dear…”



November 2014 Reading Review


For November, I read the following titles (with links to blog posts about said book where there is one):

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves – Lynn Truss

Life Before Man – Margaret Atwood (F)

Dishes – Shax Riegler

The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy (F)

Coasting – Jonathan Raban

The Ladies Paradise – Emile Zola (F) (post to come)

The History of the Dead – Kevin Brockmeier  (F) (Post to come)

My Man, Jeeves – P. G. Wodehouse (F) (no post of any note)

Ongoing read: Ten Years in the Tub – Nick Hornby (NF)


Total number of books read in November: 8

Total number of pages read: 2342 pages (av. 292 pages)

Fiction/Non-Fiction: 5 F and 3 NF

Library books vs. books I owned (and thus removed from the home abode): 2 library books and 3 owned books; 3 e-books this month. (Total of 44 books off TBR pile this year. Yahoo!)

Coasting: A Private Voyage – Jonathan Raban (1987)


“People who live on continents get into the habit of regarding the ocean as a journey’s end… For people who live on small islands, the sea is always the beginning…”

Having already read (pre-blog) Raban’s Bad Lands about his travels across North Dakota and co., I knew that this would probably be a great read as well. And it was.

Raban is a travel writer of sorts who journeys to see the world but also to navigate his interior terrain of memories and experiences along the way. (It sounds very boring and naval-gaze-y, but he maintains a balance on interior/exterior monologue that works.) For this volume, Raban decides to renovate a small boat and then to sail it tightly around the coast of Scotland, England and Wales (although Ireland was in sight at times if the weather was clear) and this is exactly what the book describes most of the time.

UK_map_coastalAlthough I have no real experience of a boat or sailing or tides or anything nautical really, I do enjoy reading about such topics and it was rather fun to follow Raban as he sails south down the west coast of Britain, stopping in at various ports of call along the way. He stops off for a time on the Isle of Man (which he describes with a good sense of humor and observation), and then follows the Irish Sea down to Wales and then around the corner of Land’s End. Along the way, he narrates his sailing experience along with some present and past history of the land he passes.

Written in the early 1980’s, it’s when there was a Thatcher government and the Falkland Islands war had just broken out. The UK miners’ strike was in progress, and high unemployment throughout the country. (This was referenced in the music of the time: Remember the group UB40? That group name was actually the name of the government form that you had to fill out when you were unemployed. And their song “I Am a One in 10” refers to the high unemployment rate at the time. So now you know…)

It was really interesting to read about this time in UK history as I was only 19 when it occurred and all this was very much on the periphery of my life at the time. (I was much more excited and interested in my near-future move to the United States than I was about some vague political struggle at the end of South America and governmental unrest.)

So it was a really fascinating read on many levels: recent history, long-past history, then-current governmental relations all mixed with Raban having personal reminisces of his unhappy days at boarding school and meeting up with Paul Theroux, another travel writer who seems to be constantly in a bad mood wherever he is.

Raban’s journey takes him around places that I haven’t heard mention of since I was a child: Anglesey in Wales, Cornwall, Portsmouth, Norfolk  – and I was very grateful for my book edition to have a map in the frontispiece so I could track his navigation. It was fun to see where he went and then read about his experiences along the way.


Tidal chart of the English Channel in 1880

And you know what I also found really interesting? The sailing part of this journey. As mentioned, I have next-to-little experience of boats and when people do engage in nautical talk, I get a bit lost. When sailors start talking about tidal charts and the Shipping Weather Forecast, it’s almost about a different planet at times, so it was great to expand my knowledge slightly in this area. Raban knows a lot about the sea and how it works generally, and he had clear explanations which enabled me, as the reader, to access this heretofore secret world (which I loved). Loads of new words to look up and learn.

Although this book got to a rather slow start, once I had buckled down and got into the narrative, it was a fast and fascinating read. I’m definitely going to track down more of Raban’s backlist in the future.

This is my nautical experience really...

This is my nautical experience really…

Catch-Up Time for a Cool November

catch_upLife has been great lately, most notably for its normal day-ness and just going smoothly along. It’s not that life has been hard, but it’s just noticeably going without any large unexpected bumps so that’s nice. Work has evened out a bit more and I seem to have broken my dreadful reader’s block which has been hindering me over the last few months. It’s been a long time since I’ve had to work around a reader’s block, and I had forgotten how it felt – Blargh. I was adrift in a sea of book pages, but couldn’t get anywhere. Frustrating, but after a while, I started to embrace the experience and did some other things for a while. (One new interest is that I have learned that I really enjoy editing doctoral dissertation work. Go figure.)

But now, for whatever reason, that block is now over and I’m back to enjoying reading loads of books and being interested in loads of things. Yippee. Recent reads which are good, but just don’t trigger a great deal of deep and meaningful discussion are as follows:

Dishes – Shax Rielger (2013) book320

This was a fun coffee table-type book (although very small in size, presumably for a very small coffee table :-)), and it featured lots of lovely photographs of lots of lovely dishes. More of a superficial worship of dish design than an in-depth investigation, this was packed with well composed photographs featuring both new and old dish graphic art, and although it wasn’t a particularly deep read, it was a fun way to spend an afternoon. (Great graphics and good photography are always a good combination in books.) So – nothing too deep and meaningful, but it does just what it says on the tin: looks at dishes. Nothing that I can’t live without, but a nice taste of something very outside my normal interests.

One of my favorite reads at the moment is a large collection of book-review columns by Nick Hornby. (He would be a fantastic dinner party guest, along with Robert Lacey. Still working on the rest of the guest list for that event, but would definitely invite those two.) The book is called Ten Years in the Tub: A Decade Soaking in Great Books and is a compilation of Hornby’s book-related columns in The Believer magazine. (I’ve never seen this on the newsstands around here, but have heard about it.) Hornby is also the author of several other good novels (such as High Fidelity, About a Boy, Fever Pitch et al.) and his blog is pretty entertaining. (Lots more Believer columns as well. <rubs hands with glee>) Plus – he has a new book (Funny Girl) out in the UK with a US release next year.

sailingNon-fiction, I’m coasting along with a travel memoir by Jonathan Raban (with whom I’ve only had good reading experience). Called Coasting (see what I did there? No? DIdn’t miss much. 🙂 ), it’s a description of the time Raban took to sail solo around the edges of Britain down the west side and up the east. It’s a mix of personal reminiscence along with some sailing and UK history bits popping up now and then, and although the book got off to a bit of a rough start (not enough wind), it’s good now and I’m enjoying it. (If you like travel journalism, you’ll probably like Raban’s works. The only other one by Raban that I’ve read is called Bad Land and describes his driving across the open land of North Dakota etc. It’s a very good read if you’re interested.) This is another title that’s been on my TBR shelf for far too long. What’s cool is that I happened to come upon a small paperback edition in a recent book sale which meant that I could ditch the HUGE imposing Scary Big Book that I had which meant that I actually picked it up to read. Score!

And it’s been all super-cold here that last few days which is FAB as I have had enough high temperatures (thank you). Yeah for cold weather (without the snow difficulties). cold_temps

Great Tales from English History: Volume I – Robert Lacey (2003) – Part II

And the sharing of knowledge gleaned from Lacey’s Volume II continueth:

  • Days of the week history:
  • In the fourth century, King Ethelbert (a pagan sovereign in England) married Bertha (who happened to be a Christian). Since the nation was divided in its loyalties to both Christianity and several pagan beliefs, the king wanted to find a way to blend the very different belief systems. And thus, the days of the week were born. (Did they not have days of the week before now?)

Sun-day and Moon-day (pagan belief)

Tiw’s Day (Germanic god of war)

Woden’s Day (Germanic god of wisdom)

Thor’s Day (Germanic god of thunder)

Freya’s Day (Germanic god of love)

                     Saturn’s Day (Roman idea in pre-Christian days)

  • Lady Godiva who is generally thought to have ridden through her town naked on a horse to protest her ruling husband’s tax increases. The word “naked” used to mean “unadorned” and would commonly refer to whether you were wearing jewels or not. (So she probably wasn’t actually without clothes, but more likely in very plain clothes without all the expensive sparkles that would usually be worn.)
  • “Peeping Tom” – again linked with Lady Godiva. When Lady G. was riding her horse through the town, legend has it that all the townspeople closed their house shutters out of respect for her nakedness. All except one naughty tailor called Thomas who couldn’t resist the urge to have a looksie. Legend has it that he was punished by being struck blind immediately after this. Thus the “Peeping Tom” phrase. See?….

bedeAnd then there was the 6th century monk Venerable Bede  (“venerable” meaning old/ancient, “bede” is an old word meaning “prayer”*). What’s notable about him is that he wrote the first written history of England called “The Ecclesiastical History of the English People”. He was a polymath and wrote more than 65 other books on topics ranging from the Bible, science, spelling, astronomy, sea tides etc.

He also seemed to have a positive interpretation of life. Take this, for example:

Bede’s interpretation of life:

 It seems to me that the life of man on earth is like the swift flight of a single sparrow through the banqueting hall where you are sitting at dinner on a winter’s day with your captains and counselors. In the midst there is a comforting fire to warm the hall. Outside, the storms of winter rain and snow are raging. This sparrow flies swiftly in through one window in the hall and out through the other. While he is inside, the bird is safe from winter storms, but after a few moments of comfort, he vanishes from sight into the wintry world from which he came. So, man appears on earth for a while – but of what went before this life, or what follows, we know nothing.

When he was dying, he was working on finishing one of his books with his pupils, and knowing that the end was near, told them:

“Learn quickly now for I do not know how much longer I will live.”

Seemed like good advice for everyone and that he was a rather cool monk to me.

robert_laceyI’ve already read Volume III of this series (which was equally as good) and I highly recommend these reference books as readable and accessible collections of events over the years, many of which I had heard of but had no clear picture of what the details really were (from a historical perspective). It’s scholarly but approachable, and Lacey has a very sly sense of humor that creeps in every now and then (and which I thought was hilarious at times). If I was going to ask someone interesting to dinner, I’d definitely invite Mr. Lacey as he is a great raconteur.

The middle volume is left for me to look at, and I’m so looking forward to reading it. Just need the contents in this volume to marinate a bit as there was so much to take in. Loved it.

  • Note to self: I wonder if that is related to my home town’s name of “Bedford”. I’ve always heard mention of it stemming from “St, Bede’s Ford” so it might be that it refers to this guy. He was actually made into a saint after he had died…


Bedford, my home town in Bedfordshire, England. One of my favorite places to visit when I go home to UK.

Great Tales from English History: Volume I – Robert Lacey (2003) – Part I


Searching for a more-or-less guaranteed good read, I picked up Volume One of Robert Lacey’s Great Tales from English History, part of a three-volume collection of tales from England’s long and storied history. Yes, I am English, but there is so much history out there (at least for England), that I felt there were significant gaps in my knowledge about England’s green and pleasant land of long ago.

Lacey is a very good conduit for these tales as he tells them in an interesting and witty manner without skimping on facts or taking too many liberties. In this volume, he covered the early historical events ranging from the Cheddar Man to the signing of the Doomsday Book to Ethelred the Unready and the Norman Conquest, and he does so in such a way that it’s a fascinating read to me. I did start off putting Post-It flags into the interesting pages and then realized that the whole book was going to be flagged in the end, so I just took notes of bits and pieces that really struck me in some way.

As I found this book to be really interesting, this blog post is in two parts. Part One is here.

Here are some of the notes that I took:

  • Boudicca/Boadicea and her link with Harry Potter: boudicca

Boadicea was a famous warrior queen who fought as fiercely as her troops did. In her last battle in London, she was felled by a sword and died where she landed on the battle field. That is also where, years later, the King’s Cross rail station was built and her grave is believed to be underneath where Platform 10 has been built. And that’s why HP’s Hogwarts Express leaves at Platform 9 ¾ – out of respect for the ancient warrior queen.

  • Hair cut monk wars: There was a time when the northern Celtic monks were vying for religious domination with the southern Roman monks who were more focused on the Pope side of Christianity. The monk hair cut (called a tonsure) was important to how people believed, with the Pope-ish monks having a shaved bald patch on top of their heads with a thin circle of hair around the head just above the temples (a la the stereotypical monk image).

monk_hairThe northern Celtic monks, however, preferred a look that was closer to the Druids and shaved the front of their heads along a line going from ear to ear with the back of their heads having long cascading rather dirty locks. Eventually, the southern monk haircut won out…


  • Why the town of Bury St. Edmund is called that. (I grew up hearing this town’s name a lot as it was in the same region that I lived.)

In the ninth century, Vikings invaded the north of England (one of many invasions by them) and as they came south to East Anglia, they met King Edmund who ruled the East Angle group. Edmund refused to change his religion to that of the invaders, and so was tied to a tree and shot with arrows, thus making him a martyr. Another legend of his death was that he died in the Norse tradition of “carving the blood eagle”: the ribs are cut away from the spine whilst still alive, and then the victim’s lungs are pulled out through that empty rib space and are spread across the back like a pair of eagle wings. (Yikes. Brutal.) In the tenth century, Edmund’s remains were relocated to a new place that became a place of pilgrimage and was called – wait for it – “Bury St. Edmunds”.

  • King Alfred the Great (the king who is legendary for burning the cakes) was a ninth century ruler and is the only sovereign in history to be given the title of “Great” in English history. He was very forward-thinking and believed that education was important for his subjects (one of the few who did). My favorite quotation from him: “The saddest thing about any man is that he be ignorant, and the most exciting thing is that he knows.”

Thus endeth the part the first. The sermon continueth on another day.