Alice Roberts has been back on our screens with a third series of the above. This time, she visited (Mediaeval) Lincoln, (Restoration) London, (Naval) Portsmouth, (Elizabethan) Plymouth, (Steam Age) Glasgow, (Georgian) Edinburgh and (Industrial Revolution) Manchester, albeit not in chronological order like the two previous series. There was a focus on Nicola de la Haye at the Second Battle of Lincoln, Charles II’s scientific and theatrical interests, Nelson‘s career and Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, Drake, Hawkins and Raleigh against the Armada as well as voyages to America, the great medical discoveries of a cramped Glasgow, the closes of Edinburgh with evidence of the first overdraft and some body-snatching and the influence of Marx, Engels and the Corn Laws in Manchester. As usual, Roberts (left) is accompanied by Ben Robinson in the helicopter, flying over the seven towns in question, all of which are now cities, as are all but one or two of the other twelve.
I have just watched an episode (series 1, episode 5) of the Mysteries of the Missing documentary series. Half of this one dealt with the mysterious sunstones of the Vikings, by which they are believed to have navigated the Atlantic. They also used wooden sundials (hand-held) that worked when the sun was out, but what about when it was cloudy? It wasn’t really explained how the sunstones worked after dark . . . but then we’re talking the midnight sun in the North Atlantic, so there was always sun. So I guess the sunstone was only useless further south if the weather was overcast or after dark. To read more about sunstones, go to this article which is very informative about how the sunstone worked and was used.
Anyway, it was believed for a long time that the sunstone was mythical, and invention for the magical Norse sagas, until an amazing discovery was made in 2011, when one of these sunstones was discovered and its use realised. Where was it found? Off Alderney in the Channel Islands. How? Because divers were exploring an Elizabethan warship and found an unusual crystal with dividers and other navigation instruments.
Does this mean the Elizabethans knew all about sunstones and used them? If so, were they resorted to regularly? Or was this a chance in a million discovery? Was the ship’s captain of Viking descent and just happened to have a family heirloom with him? Unlikely.
My next question is . . . if the Vikings used them and the Elizabethans knew about/used them too, surely they were also known to the centuries in between? Surely they had to be? So did our medieval merchantmen and warships sally forth with these invaluable, almost magical tools?
Our medieval sailors didn’t only nip across the Channel to beat seven shades out of the French (or try to!) they also traded far and wide. Did they have sunstones as well? After all, the ubiquitous cog is first mentioned in the 10th century, off Amsterdam and is believed to have originated in Jutland. See this article
If that one example of a sunstone hadn’t been found off Alderney, we’d still think it was solely Viking knowledge. But it wasn’t. Might it be that the Armada was driven to defeat by Drake’s fleet that although smaller had an unseen advantage? Or that Raleigh crossed the Atlantic with a little help?
Last question. If in modern times we believed the sunstone was a fairy tale, what happened to it? Why, if the Elizabethans knew of it, didn’t subsequent generations carry the knowledge—and the invaluable tool—with them too? From Elizabeth’s time, was there suddenly such a huge advance in navigation that it was rendered superfluous?
OK, more than one question, I know, but really, it boils down to only one: how/why did we lose the sunstone?
🎄 And the compliments of our modern Christmas to you all! May you navigate your way home with complete success and have a truly wonderful season.
This is a six-part series, first shown on “Yesterday” (a UKTV channel) in 2015 but is available to view on their website here. The producers used pathologists, coroners, historians, barristers and other writers to form their conclusions, some of which are more reliable than others.
The first episode, which surely misses the mediaeval timescale, is that of Christopher Marlowe, stabbed in a Deptford tavern in 1593: in self-defence, a brawl or a targeted assassination? Marlowe’s possible involvement with heresy or espionage, Raleigh or Cecil is investigated in depth. The riddle of Edward II‘s fate at Berkeley Castle is tackled next – could he really have died by poker or suffocation or could he have escaped? Their conclusion points in the latter direction, although the current Berkeley heir leans towards the ultra-traditional legend.
The third show is about Arthur of Brittany, son of Geoffrey and nephew of John, who seems to have been disposed of in a particularly grisly manner in Brittany – blinding and castrating, either of which could have been fatal through shock. Several Byzantine Emperors, from 800 onwards, had been blinded, to prevent them from ruling effectively and castration would prevent him from reproducing, although death would not necessarily be intended. The fourth, again un-mediaeval, case covered Amy Robsart’s fall down a staircase at Cumnor, Oxfordshire after sending her servants away – accident, suicide, murder to free her husband Dudley to marry Elizabeth I, murder to stop him from ever marrying Elizabeth? Both suicide and murder are less probable, as the pathologist argued, because Amy might have survived as an invalid for a few years and remembered her assailant if there was one. There was no mention of the cancer I have heard, elsewhere, that she suffered from, although the staircase is the series emblem.
Inevitably, the “Princes” feature, in part five. Sadly, as with Edward II, many of the “experts” may understand their own professions well but seem not to appreciate the level of “Tudor” propaganda and have not approached the case with open minds, which skewed their conclusion against the high probability of one or both being sent to Burgundy. The final case was that of Juan (Giovanni) Borgia, the acknowledged son of a Pope (Alexander VI), who was definitely murdered and dumped in the Tiber – but as a random victim, by his brother Gioffre, the Orsini family or someone else? An Orsini had just died in a Papal prison.
Recently a strange red bag was found at West Horsley Place in Surrey. It is believed by its finders to have once contained the severed head of Sir Walter Raleigh who was executed on October 29, 1618.
Further tests on the bag , which is certainly of the correct period, will be undertaken. Legends did say that Bess Throckmorton, Raleigh’s wife, carried off her husband’s severed head from the execution site at Westminster in a red bag. Of course, the recently found bag would not be the same one, which would have been heavily blood-stained; if this newly-found artefact did hold Raleigh’s head it would have been used at a later date, once mummification of the skull had taken place. Further legends do state the head was not buried with its owner but kept by Bess in a ‘case.’
The fact that the widowed Bess did in fact live at West Horsley, home of her son Carew, does raise the possibility that this bag was indeed used to house the head.
And that’s not all that’s recently turned up regarding Sir Walter Raleigh. A drawing hidden for centuries under layers of whitewash is thought to be a self-portrait drawn by Raleigh during his long imprisonment in the ‘Bloody Tower’.
The Champernownes (above), a Norman line whose alternative spellings include Chapman and Chamberlain, are surely Devon’s second family after the Courtenays of Powderham Castle, who hold the Earldom. From 1162, their (Domesday Book-cited) home was at Chambercombe Manor near Ilfracombe (middle right) but, by the early sixteenth century, this had passed to Henry Grey, Duke of Suffolk, father of Jane (below left).
The Champernownes Arthur Champernowne (1524-78) moved the family from Polsoe, near Exeter, to Dartington near Totnes, where the Hall (middle left) was built in 1560 and his descendants lived there – the previous building had been owned by the Holland Dukes of Exeter. Kat Ashley, his aunt, was Elizabeth I’s governess, Sir Humphrey Gilbert and Sir Walter Raleigh (above right) were among his nephews, Henry Norris (executed over the Anne Boleyn case) was his father-in-law and Sir Edward Seymour, grandson of the Protector Somerset, married one of his daughters, launching a line of baronets, so Arthur’s close family were at the centre of the “Tudor” political scene.
Arthur was a Vice-Admiral as well as an MP in the south-west, as was his grandson Arthur and his Georgian descendant Arthur (ne Harrington), who married a relative of Crediton’s General Sir Redvers Buller (below).
As this genealogy also shows, Champernownes married Courtenays at least once.
I have just watched a fascinating BBC documentary from 2013, concerning the amazing hoard of 17th-Century (and earlier) jewels that was found in Cheapside at the beginning of the 20th Century. The documentary is called Secret Knowledge: The Hidden Jewels of the Cheapside Hoard, and was presented by modern jeweller, Shaun Leane. You can see it here.
If you Google the hoard, there are countless sites that deal with it. The link below is just one that I picked out. The subject of buried jewels is always engrossing, with so many possible reasons why they were buried. This hoard was, apparently, entirely forgotten, and would still be lost were it not for the utter transformation and rebuilding of Cheapside. Original foundations, vaults and cellars were found again…and so were these priceless jewels.
Watching the documentary isn’t obligatory, but it certainly helps, because the camera goes in so close and personal, encircling these objects and showing every detail.
This four-part series is narrated by Jason Watkins and heavily features Tracy Borman, Joint Chief Curator of Historic Royal Palaces.
The first part dealt with the Peasants’ Revolt, which resulted in Simon of Sudbury‘s beheading and Borman travelled to St. Gregory’s in his home town to view the preserved head. She spoke about the animals kept in the various mini-towers and the Royal Mint that coined “Long Cross Pennies”, introduced by Henry III. We saw the Beefeaters, including a retirement party for one, before scholars at Eton and King’s College commemorated their founder, Henry VI, at the “Ceremony of the Lilies and Roses”. Then came the mystery of the “Princes”, as Borman used Domenico Mancini’s correct forename whilst taking him at face value a little too much, although she did note that More was five in 1483 and wrote three decades later to please Henry VIII. The seventeenth century discovery of remains of some sort was mentioned and a new exhibition on the “Princes” was launched, even as counter-evidence has emerged and been clarified.
Part two focussed on Henry VIII’s first and second “marriages”, together with the dramatic end of the second. Part three moved on to the twentieth century with the shooting of Josef Jakobs and other German spies, together with the 1913 visit of the suffragette Leonora Cohen. Rudolf Hess was also held there, as were the Kray twins later. The concluding part dealt with the role of the Constable, the ravens and the interrogation of Guy Fawkes and other prisoners, together with the tale of the more privileged, such as Raleigh, and the audacity of Colonel Blood’s attempt to steal the Crown Jewels, so soon after many of them had been recreated.
The title sounds like a fairy tale, doesn’t it? Well, I’m once again going to address the matter of those pesky princes in the Tower as I found myself recently debating with several folks who still want to hang on to a certain rather improbable fairy story about them—the one created by our ‘favourite’ saint, Thomas More.
We all know about the two sets of bones, undated and not properly sexed, that are currently sitting in an urn in Westminster. Enough has been said about them on this blog and elsewhere, at least for the time-being.
But what about other remains found over the centuries that have been thought to be the princes? They are more bones than there are boys.
Two children’s skeletons were said to have been found walled up in a hidden chamber in the Tower during the time of Sir Walter Raleigh (the early to mid-1600’s). Supposedly found laid out on a table, the bones were immediately believed to be the missing princes…despite their ages being estimated at between six and eight, too young to be ‘our’ princes.
That said, of course there was no archaeology or osteology in the 1600’s and any guesses as to age at death or cause would be very untrustworthy indeed. However, the idea that they were the princes had some backing….Jean Molinet, the French chronicler and poet, who died in 1507 (so someone who lived at the time the princes vanished, although he was not in England at the time, and was of course, French, which meant his writing would show the English in as bad a light as possible) wrote that the two boys had in fact been bricked up and died of starvation.
However, this tale rapidly seems to have been forgotten (presumably because Molinet was not a saint like Thomas More, and he was French to boot) and the two children’s skeletons vanished who knows where.
Later, of course two coffins were also discovered in a sub-vault adjacent to the main crypt when Edward IV’s tomb was opened in 1789. These were supposed at the time to be the coffins of his children Mary and George, who had died young; however Mary and George were found in different parts of St George’s chapel at a later date.
Sounding likely for the princes? Only until you realise we don’t know if these ‘children’s coffins’ were in fact for children at all (they were only supposed to hold children) or again, what date they were from or if that sub-vault was from another era altogether. Substantial re-ordering in the chapel had taken place throughout the Tudor era and there were later works too.
Records are sketchy and contradictory…at one point 14 year old Mary, whose body was apparently very well preserved, with open blue eyes and long golden hair that had infiltrated through chinks in her coffin, was mistaken for the middle-aged Elizabeth Woodville, her mother!
Back to the Tower of London itself, another child’s skeleton was found at a much later date….in modern times, 1977. Once again, this individual appeared to be that of an adolescent. Examination by a modern bone specialist showed it had male characteristics. A missing prince? No, carbon dating showed it was an Iron Age boy from before the Roman occupation of Britain.
So there have been seven possible princes. We could add an eighth if you want to include another set of bones found in a high up turret in the great Norman fortress—first touted as a lost and heinously murdered prince, it turned out the bones were the remains of an escaped ape!
Many would still argue that More identified the ‘right place’ (ignoring the fact of course that his history says the princes were later moved from the tower staircase by a solitary priest) and that it would be too much coincidence.…but maybe the reason he chose that spot for the ‘scene of the crime’ is simple. Perhaps occasional human bones turned up around that area (as they still do today, it would seem.) Centuries before archaeology existed, people like More would only assume one thing.