Once I was a clever boy learning the arts of Oxford... is a quotation from the verses written by Bishop Richard Fleming (c.1385-1431) for his tomb in Lincoln Cathedral. Fleming, the founder of Lincoln College in Oxford, is the subject of my research for a D. Phil., and, like me, a son of the West Riding. I have remarked in the past that I have a deeply meaningful on-going relationship with a dead fifteenth century bishop... it was Fleming who, in effect, enabled me to come to Oxford and to learn its arts, and for that I am immensely grateful.

Monday, 18 September 2023

Accidents of history

Medievalists.net has an interesting little article about a number of international boundary curiosities that originate in the medieval era. It can be seen at Strange Borders with Medieval Origins

There is more about the delightfully intertwined towns of Baale Nassau and Baale Hertog on the Dutch-Belgian frontier at Europe's strange border anomaly

The history of Ceuta is also set out in a recent article at The curious slice of Spain in Africa

The Franco-Spanish condominium of Pheasant Island, which changes its national administrative allegiance twice a year is not included, presumably because its status was codified in the mid-seventeenth century. There are online articles about it at Pheasant Island and Europe's island that swaps nationalities

At a local level in this country the nineteenth century had an unfortunately strong tendency for to tidy such oddities in county boundaries up, and those which survived tended to be casualties of the dreadful 1972 Local Government Act. One such was Dudley - a detached part of Worcestershire surrounded by Staffordshire, with Dudley Castle at its centre as a detached part of Staffordshire. Similarly York Castle was a detached portion of the North Riding in the City and County of the City of York, and similarly the Nottinghamshire County Hall in the middle of Nottingham, and was constituted a civil parish in its own right.

Friday, 15 September 2023

The Golden Jubilee of the King of Sweden

Today is the fiftieth anniversary of the accession to the throne of Sweden of King Carl XVI Gustaf in 1973. His Golden Jubilee is being celebrated with a variety of events in and around Stockholm along with the Swedish Royal Family and members of their close relatives from the Danish and Norwegian dynasties. He is the longest reigning Swedish monarch. This year is also the quincentenary of the election of the first of the monarchs from the Vasa dynasty, King Gustaf I, in 1523.

An official portrait of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, taken by Thron Ullberg to celebrate the Golden Jubilee (The Royal Court of Sweden)
The official portrait of the King of Sweden to mark his Golden Jubilee

Image: The Royal Court of Sweden / The Court Jeweller

I remember the death of the King’s grandfather King Gustaf VI Adolf and the present King’s accession which occurred whilst I was on holiday in East Anglia. It does not seem half a century since that happened - the holiday remains still very fresh in my memory. 

I also recall some of the press coverage at the time. Given the age difference between the old King who was almost 91 and his 27 year old successor, and the fact that Sweden was revising its constitution  - notably the 1809 Instrument of Government - in the light of developments during the intervening years which would remove the monarch’s residual political powers, journalists were dismissive of the future of the Swedish monarchy.

Fifty years on we can look back at those changes to the Swedish constitution which became law in 1975 ( having been accepted by King Gustaf Adolf before his death ), the present King’s marriage in 1976, and his and Queen Silvia’s raising of a new royal family, together with the maintenance of an impressive Court ceremonial, as a reminder, as the Psalmist might have written, to “put not your trust in journalists”….

It is worth noting that at his accession apart from the King himself the formally constituted Swedish Royal Family comprised his unmarried uncle Prince Bertil. The wider members of the House of Bernadotte did not count as “working royals” in that modern unlovely phrase, and had no rights of succession due to renunciation of rights for unequal marriages or being female as Sweden then had an exclusively male system of primogeniture.

A formal portrait of King Carl XVI Gustaf of Sweden, taken at the time of his accession to the throne in 1973 (Wikimedia Commons)

King Carl XVI Gustaf at the time of his accession 

Image: Wikimedia Commons / The Court Jeweller 

Four generations: King Gustaf V, Crown Prince Gustaf (VI) Adolf, Prince Gustaf Adolf and Prince Carl (XVI) Gustaf. This photograph was taken at Prince Carl (VI) Gustaf's christening on 7 June 1946 in the Royal Chapel at the Royal Palace of Stockholm.

The baptism of the present King on June 7th 1946. He is held by his great grandfather King Gustaf V, who is seated next to the Crown Prince, later King Gustaf VI Adolf, with the baby’s father Prince Gustaf Adolf, who was killed in a plane accident in 1947, standing between them. When the future King Gustaf V himself was baptised in 1858 he had been held by his great grandmother Queen Désirée, the widow of the first Bernadotte King Carl XIV Johann, the former French Marshal Bernadotte.

Image: kungahuset.se

Thursday, 14 September 2023

A Roman statue of Triton from Kent

Roman remains continue to catch my eye as the Mail Online reports the discovery of a late first or second century statue of Triton from a mausoleum which is being excavated on the line of the Roman road now represented by the A2 at Teynham in north Kent.

The stone statue, more than two feet tall, is the first more or less complete statue of the semi-god to be found in Britain. Experts have drawn attention to its quality and detail as the report indicates. Today in this country we are most likely to associate Triton with the four figures of him who support the State Coach of 1762 and which was used at the Coronation.

The illustrated report about the discovery and about the mausoleum site, together with future plans for the remains, can be seen at 2,000-year-old Roman sculpture found buried next to the A2 in Kent

Monday, 11 September 2023

The Roman military bathhouse at Carlisle

Staying on Hadrian’s Wall the continuing excavation of the military bathhouse at the principal fort at the western end of the defences which has evolved into Carlisle is outlined in the Daily Telegraph.

The article concentrates on the great number of gem intaglios found from finger rings worn not just by men but also by women and children, but also highlights other discoveries as well as the scale of the structure. This is developing as a major site revealing much about life in Roman Britain.

When I was a schoolboy I had several holidays in Carlisle staying with relatives and I got to know the city and its historic sites as well as the museum collection at Tullie House Museum. These visits were also my first acquaintance with Hadrian’s Wall.

It was also good to see quoted opinions on the finds from an Oxford friend in the person of Professor Henig.

The social and economic impact of Hadrian’s Wall

The Past reproduced online an article from Current Archaeology which draws together evidence from what is now north east England of the impact on local conditions of the construction of Hadrian’s Wall. This is based on archaeological evidence from both sides of the Wall and looking at the periods from the late Iron Age, before the Romans arrived through to the later years of their rule.

The evidence suggests an established pattern of Iron Age farming, disrupted by the invasion and conquest, and then adaptation to new circumstances. North of the Wall was a region that supplied the Romans at least at times, south of the fortified line a developing Romanised society akin to much of the rest of Britannia.

This interesting and insightful article with its maps and photographs can be seen at Before and after Hadrian’s Wall: Living on the Roman frontier east of the Pennines

Saturday, 9 September 2023

The Sacred Belt of Prato

To mark yesterday’s feast of the Nativity of the Virgin the Liturgical Arts Journal has an article about the Sacred Belt of the Virgin Mary which is venerated in the cathedral at Prato. This devotion goes back to the high middle ages and acquired a special exposition pulpit in the fifteenth century, and designed by Donatello. The feast of the Nativity of the Virgin is one of the days in which the relic is exposed for public veneration as the article explains. It can be read at The Sacred Belt of Our Lady (Cathedral of Prato, Italy)

As the article shows the tradition of Our Lady giving her belt to St Thomas as she was assumed into Heaven is ancient and shared by Christians both East and West. The relic at Prato is one of antiquity and prestige, but was by no means unique. Many medieval churches in western Europe claimed to possess it - or perhaps bits of it, like fragments of the True Cross. It was the last physical, tangible, material link to the Virgin and by a process of association was often used or requested by expectant mothers for a safe delivery. That all these belts or girdles of Our Lady cannot all be true may well be incontestable yet the human need for such spiritual aid cannot be gainsaid.

Accession anniversary

Yesterday was the first anniversary of the accession of His Majesty The King to the throne. It does not seem in some ways that long since we were watching the events around the death of the late Queen, his accession ceremonies and her funeral, yet in other ways the smooth transition from one reign to another, and the continuing rhythm of the royal and ceremonial year, has meant that the change in monarch has seemed - as it should - entirely natural. 

I perused online various newspaper articles about the anniversary and the first year of the King’s reign in the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail and that sense of sensible continuity  - with the exception of a silly piece by Amanda Platell in the Mail ( but then, what does one expect? ) - seemed to be the mood of them. People do indeed still mourn the death of Queen Elizabeth II, and give thanks for her life, but all lives come to an end - it is their legacy we carry forward.

The naysayers looking for trouble and conflict have been proved wrong, as one knew they would be, and much has been achieved or set in motion for a hopefully stable and secure reign, but one that can also continue to respond to the life, expectations and hopes of this and the other Commonwealth realms.

TheKing and his family, his realms and his peoples enter what is now 2 Charles III with confidence in what has been demonstrably secured but hopefully without complacency about a future which is, for everyone, always unknowable. It is perhaps rather like the idea presented to his people by King George VI in his 1939 Christmas Broadcast about the Man who stood at the Gate of the Year.

Thursday, 7 September 2023

Reconstructing a crew member from the ‘Vasa’

As a boy I was fascinated by the recovery of the ‘Vasa’ from Stockholm harbour in 1961 and my mother bought me the translation of the book which was written about the ship and its contents. 

At the time such a recovery of a seventeenth century ship was exceptional. Since then we have seen many other historic vessels from the  fifteenth century onwards being identified and excavated in the Baltic, including the ‘Gribshunden’ from 1495, as well, of course, as the recovery of the ‘Mary Rose’ from 1545 and the Newport Ship from (probably) 1470 here in the UK, and the discoveries from the thirteenth century Poole ‘Mortar Ship’ and from ‘HMS Gloucester’ from 1682. Our knowledge of maritime vessels and life has expanded enormously and enriched our understanding of life at sea, and indeed on land, in past centuries.

Wikipedia has a quite detailed article on the ‘Vasa’ which can be seen at Vasa (ship)

Work continues on interpretation of the archaeological finds and of the human remains of the thirty or so crew members who drowned when the ship heeled over on August 10th 1628 and sank in front of King Gustavus Adolphus and much of the population of Stockholm.

A recent project has been the study of what turned out to be the skeleton of a woman on the ship. The wives of seamen sometimes accompanied them on peacetime voyages. This research work was reported upon earlier this year by phys.org at One of sunken warship Vasa's crewmen was a woman and by apnews.com at DNA: Woman was on famed 17th century Swedish warship

A facial reconstruction of the woman and her appearance and possible clothing has now been done. This is set out with illustrations in an article from the Smithsonian Magazine which can be seen at See the Face of a Woman Who Died in a Shipwreck in 1628