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Archive for the tag “Sir Christopher Wren”

London: 2000 years of history (channel 5)

Who let Dan Jones out? At least, as in his last outing, he is accompanied both by a historian (Suzannah Lipscomb) and an engineer (Rob Bell), narrating and illustrating almost two millennia of the city’s past.

In the first episode, we were taken through the walled city of “Londinium” being built and rebuilt after Boudicca’s revolt. Whilst Bell showed us the Kent stone from which the original Tower was built, we were told about the Ampitheatre and the remains, near Spitalfields, that include the “Lamb Street Teenager” and the slaves that helped to build the city, strategically located on the Thames. Some archaeology has resulted from the building of Crossrail.
As Roman Britain ended and the Anglo-Saxons arrived, their original city (“Londonwych”) was on a smaller scale. Viking raids followed and Alfred moved the city inside the Roman walls as “Londonburgh”, as broken glass and pottery found near Covent Garden testifies, with the previous entity further east now being known as Aldwych. Although the Vikings took the city, Ethelred II reconquered it and destroyed London Bridge as well.
The programme finished with William I’s coronation on Christmas Day 1066, followed by his rebuilding of the Tower with Norman stone, not to be confused with this historian, with the domes later added by Henry VIII.

The second episode showed us Westminster Abbey, later to be rebuilt at great expense by  Henry III, in a smaller city then separate from London, where every coronation since Harold II has taken place, followed by Westminster Hall, where Wallace, Fawkes and Charles I were all sentenced to death. Half of the evolving city’s population fell victim to the Black Death, after which Richard Whittington, younger son of a Gloucestershire knight, really did serve as Mayor three or four times under Richard II and Henry IV. The population then increased exponentially to the days of the wealthy Cardinal Wolsey, who built Whitehall Palace before falling from Henry VIII’s favour, so Henry and his successors occupied it from 1530 until the fire of 1698. This part ended with Elizabeth I knighting Drake aboard the Golden Hind.

Week three covered the Great Fire, which the trio had previously examined in much greater detail, although they did mention Pepys’ description, the probable origin in a Monument Lane bakery, the timber-framed buildings of the old city and the easterly wind that spread the fire. Although we can see the new St. Paul’s today, Wren’s original plan for the area was even more radical, featuring a Glasgow-style grid of streets. London then expanded to the west for merchants and their imports via the Thames, whilst the poor stayed in the east where gin was popular. In the nineteenth century, industrialisation caused the city’s population to rise rapidly, although smog became a factor.
London Bridge became the city’s first rail terminus, in 1836, before Euston was built and Paddington was soon added to serve Brunel’s Great Western lines. The steep hills of Hampstead were overcome through a man-made valley, as Bell showed by visiting the abandoned Highgate station, allowing London to expand to the north. Poor water hygiene caused a cholera outbreak, which Bazalgette’s civil engineering solved with pumping stations, sewers and the reclaiming of land. Heavy traffic then necessitated the strengthening of the ancient bridges. The reclaimed land (Embankment) and Great Fire site (Monument) are both remembered on the Underground map.

The series concluded by pointing out that road congestion was quite possibly worse in 1860 than it is now, as trains were banned from running within two miles of the epicentre at street level. The solution was to run them underground, with the Metropolitan line being started first by “cut and cover” and the Northern line, authentically bored, to follow. Residents moved out of the first engineered areas to the east, leaving Shoreditch and Whitechapel overcrowded with twice the mortality level of London as a whole. By 1890, the capital had five million residents and Charles Booth’s “poverty map” highlighted a quarter of these, with the worst cases in the East End, where “Jack the Ripper” preyed on some of them. From the maps, living conditions were addressed and the worst slums demolished. Following Edward VII’s accession in January 1901, recognisable modern buildings such as Admiralty Arch, the MI5 building and the War Office arose. Visitors could stay in hotels such as the Savoy and shop at Selfridges as we can do today. Suffragettes were active before the First World War, during which they suspended their activities and many worked in armaments manufacture, for instance at the Royal Ordnance factory known as the Woolwich Arsenal.
Air warfare came to London with Zeppelin bombs in 1915. In the remainder of the conflict, there were thirty raids killing forty thousand people, including thirty children at Poplar in 1917. Armistice Day was followed by the “Spanish ‘flu”, which was generally three times as deadly as the war itself, with some 20,000 deaths in London alone. In the following years, houses were built along the expanded Metropolitan Lane, taking in towns such as Pinner and Harrow, and advertised in a “Metroland” magazine to raise the population to 8.6 million. The Blitz brought the Second World War to London a year after the start but, importantly, after the corrugated tin structures known as Anderson shelters were made available. It happened on fifty-seven consecutive nights in the first instance and a total of two million homes were damaged or destroyed. Replacing these and housing Commonwealth immigration from 1948 was hampered by the Green Belt so that London could no longer expand outwards, only upwards. As freight expanded, containers could no longer fit into the Thames so the docks were less busy from the sixties, in favour of more coastal ports. However, Docklands regeneration was initiated in the eighties as the City was pushed eastwards to Canary Wharf and the Isle of Dogs. In a further effort to relieve congestion, the great Crossrail project opens later this year with twenty six miles of new tunnels, forty-two metres below ground, providing a unique archaeological opportunity to view London’s past.

In conclusion, it is possible to enjoy a history programme with Dan Jones, so long as he has at least two colleagues and cannot simply indulge his prejudices against particular figures. The second half of the series was more a social and economic history, which is a further restraint.

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The Propaganda of Charles II

charlesiiGuest author Richard Unwin explains the context behind the discovery of those convenient bones:

Charles II came to the throne in 1660 after the period of Commonwealth when England, and particularly its entertainments, had been suppressed by Puritan authority. The security of the new reign was precarious and there were many in the country opposed to a return of the monarchy. The king needed good PR and he began by restoring those entertainments the English had enjoyed before the Civil War, which had been suppressed by the Puritans. The Restored theatres were immediately used to promote Court propaganda and would do so for most of the reign. Theatre had been banned under Cromwell and anyone performing as a player would be thrown into prison. Similar penalties were applied to those who might be in the audience at a performance.
The first playhouse to be constructed in the new reign was The Theatre Royal, at Drury Lane, which opened in 1663. This theatre, though unaffected by the Great Fire of London in 1666, burned down in 1672 as the result of an internal combustion. Because of the demand for entertainment, a new theatre was financed and built on the site of the old one. Thought by some to have been designed by Sir Christopher Wren, the second theatre opened to the public on March 26th 1674; the alleged bones of the Princes in the Tower were discovered just four months later, in July.
Upon the restoration of Charles II, old plays were, at first, resurrected for performance at the new venue. Many of these were rewritten and used as pure propaganda to promote the court of the restored monarch. Shakespeare’s language was out-of-date and soon his plays were being rewritten to suit the tastes of the modern audience. Charles was a devotee of the theatre and we find one of his most famous courtesans, Nell Gwynne as an actress at Drury Lane.
The playhouse at Drury lane was not the only one in Restoration London. There was another: Dorset Garden, also known as the Duke’s Theatre. The duke in question was the duke of York, Charles’ brother and destined to become James II. It was home to the Duke’s Company of players and renowned for its technical innovations, moving scenery and lavish productions. Later, in 1782, the Duke’s Company would merge with the King’s Company and move to Drury Lane, but in 1674 it was vibrant and in open competition for audiences with the Theatre Royal.
Villainy was not long becoming, in the popular public mind, synonymous with Shakespeare’s Richard III due mainly to the supposed murder of his nephews, popularly known as The Princes in the Tower. Sometime in 1661 there was a performance of Shakespeare’s play, the details of which are now lost. The prologue survives and it shows us King Richard presented as a dictator, (metaphorically Oliver Cromwell) set against one Henry Richmond who defeats him to become a benign monarch (King Charles II). It seems that this was propaganda used to promote the new reign. In the year 1667 the Duke’s Company performed a similar play, written by John Caryll. Its title was “The English Princess: or the Death of Richard the Third.” The author was a diplomatist and later became secretary to Mary of Modena, the second wife of James II. This particular play was printed in 1667, 1673 and pertinently, in 1674. Clearly the story of Richard III and the murder of the two Princes in the Tower had much currency throughout the period of the “discovery” of the Westminster bones and was current in the year they were found.
Throughout the reign of Charles II we find the villainous character of Richard III in a variety of plays, none of them Shakespeare’s and with a deliberate political bias. Of course, the character could also be used against the monarchy. In 1680, John Crowne adapted Shakespeare’s Henry the Sixth, Part Two converting it into an anti-catholic rant. It was sub-titled: the Misery of Civil War, performed at the Duke’s Theatre (Dorset Garden) and printed in the same year. In this version of Shakespeare’s play the malign character of the duke of Gloucester (Richard III) is enhanced, his crookback is emphasised and his brothers’ philandering in the play becomes a comment on the current Court. John Crowne, although said to be a favourite of Charles II, was known to have a moral repugnance for his Court. This was politically sensitive as the Exclusion Crisis, an attempt by parliament to prevent the accession of a Catholic monarch, was in full cry in this year.
Almost as if he was deliberately flouting the concerns of his people, his mistress, Louise de Kerouaille was a Catholic and a French spy to boot. She had replaced Barbara Villiers, (Lady Castlemaine) as Charles’ principal mistress. He ran her more or less currently with the actress Nell Gwynne. Bad luck had also brought about the Great Plague of 1665, which only came to an end due to the Great Fire of 1666 when much of the old City of London was consumed in the flames. Charles had also provoked war with the Dutch. The first war had been something of a success, but the second war had gone badly. In the year following the Great Fire, a Dutch fleet had sailed up the Medway and destroyed the British fleet supposed to be safe at anchor at Chatham docks. Ignominiously for the English navy, the Dutch boarded and captured the fleet flagship, the Royal Charles. This was the very vessel that had brought Charles to England from exile. They towed it back to the Netherlands as a trophy where the ship’s coat-of-arms can be seen on display to this day at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. It was England’s greatest naval defeat. The Dutch destroyed fifteen ships while the English scuttled others to block the river. The biggest ships, the Royal Oak, the Loyal London, a new ship, and the Royal James were burned. Afterwards, this misfortune, on top of the Catholic question and the scandals of his personal life meant King Charles and his government feared a backlash from the people of England who were becoming increasingly critical of his rule.
By the year 1674 then, we can see that Charles and his government had become highly unpopular and desperately needed to turn the mood of the people towards that which he had enjoyed at the beginning of his reign. We must remember that the Court establishment feared a resurgence of republicanism. At the same time there was the real threat, that Charles’ brother James would succeed him, provoking a Catholic revival and religious conflict. (This did indeed occur and James II’s persecution of Protestants led to his eventual removal and exile – the Glorious Revolution of 1688).
Charles’ strategy at the beginning of his reign had been to use the printed word and public performance in the restored theatres as propaganda to promote his monarchy. Perhaps what had worked in the heady days of the early 1660’s could work in 1674 too? The “chance” discovery of royal bones in the Tower of London, accompanied by a series of plays where the villain was understood metaphorically to be the dictatorial Oliver Cromwell and the possibilities for promoting the monarchy would be obvious to Charles II. Unfortunately what worked in 1660 seems to have failed in 1674. Charles II managed to cling on to his throne until his death in 1685. His brother would be the one to lose it.

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