A virtual tour from www.uktoursonline.com where I look at some of the capital’s most significant and most poignant war memorials from the First World War, including the Cenotaph, the memorials to the Machine Gun Corps and the Fusiliers, the Royal Artillery Memorial at Hyde Park Corner and the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior in Westminster Abbey.
If you ever have a tour of the Houses of Parliament it is in Westminster Hall where you meet your guide. This is the oldest part of the Palace of Westminster, dating back to around 1100 when it was commissioned by William II (William Rufus), the son of the Conqueror.
In this hall, with its magnificent hammerbeam ceiling, kings, queens and commoners have lain in state before their funerals; great trials have taken place, including those of William Wallace, Sir Thomas More, Guy Fawkes, and ‘King and Martyr’, Charles I.
It was also the scene for the Coronation Banquets, celebrations after the crowning of the new monarch in the nearby Westminster Abbey.
The most lavish of these – so lavish in fact, that future monarchs did away with the tradition for fear of appearing too profligate – was in 1821 for the coronation of that most extravagant of kings, George IV. The former Prince Regent’s banquet cost over £25,000 (the equivalent of £2.5-£3 million today) – the total cost of his coronation was £238,000, or well in excess of £25 million.
This was also the last time that the King’s Champion made their traditional appearance. Riding into the hall in full armour, the champion throws down his gauntlet three times, challenging to trial by combat anyone who disputes the new monarch’s right.
As with much of British society, the role of champion is an inherited one, belonging to the feudal holder of the Manor of Scrivelsby in Lincolnshire, which has been held since the 1300s by the male head of the Cymoke family.
Although not part of coronations since the 1821 Banquet, anyone wishing to challenge a future Charles III to be ‘the right heir to the Imperial Crown’ might want to note that Francis Dymoke, the present champion, is a 66 year old chartered accountant.
To get into All Souls College Oxford, one has to take what has been called ‘the hardest examination in the world’. The college has no undergraduates, the members of it are Fellows, and over the past 100 years or so these have included Isaiah Berlin, Marina Warner, Joseph Stiglitz and Professor Cecile Fabre.
To be a Fellow of All Souls is therefore to be among the intellectual elite, the brightest of the bright.
Which is why the it is a little surprising to hear about the Mallard Ceremony, held every 100 years (that’s right, just once a century, the last one was in 2001 so we’re none of us likely to be around for the next one).
After a very good dinner in the college’s Codrington Library, the Fellows parade around the college holding flaming torches, carrying in a sedan chair a character called ‘Lord Mallard’, following a Fellow with a mallard (now a wooden model, in 1901 a dead duck, previously a live bird) on a pole.
They sing the Mallard Song, the first verse and chorus of which go:
The Griffine, Bustard, Turkey & Capon
Lett other hungry Mortalls gape on
And on theire bones with Stomacks fall hard,
But lett All Souls’ Men have ye Mallard.
Hough the bloud of King Edward,
By ye bloud of King Edward,
It was a swapping, swapping mallard!
The origins of the procession and the song are said to go back to 1437 when a giant mallard flew out of the foundations of the college as it was being built. As well as the centennial procession, the song is sung at the Bursar’s Dinner in March and the college’s Gaudy in November – although sans flaming torches and Lord Mallard.
It just goes to show that getting drunk, pratting about and singing daft songs can be excused anywhere and any time as long as you can claim ‘tradition‘.
Just after midnight on 2 September 1666, the bakery of one Thomas Farriner in Pudding Lane near the north end of London Bridge caught alight. Fires – sometimes major conflagrations – were not unusual in the towns and cities of the time, but this one proved to be a class apart.
Fanned by a strong wind from the east, and with wooden houses tinder-dry from a long, hot summer, the efforts of the citizens, the King and his brother, the army and the navy, failed to halt the progress of the fire until the wind abated and fire breaks were made by blowing up streets in the path of the flames.
In the four days of devastation, over 80% of the City of London was left a smouldering ruin, around 13,000 homes had been destroyed (as had the magnificent medieval St Paul’s cathedral) and up to 80,000 people had been made homeless, many living as refugees in camps in the fields on the roads up to Highbury.
On 10 September John Evelyn wrote “I went again to the ruins; for it was now no longer a city.”
Next week I’ll be giving an online talk about the fire on UKToursOnline.com, looking at how it started, its progression through the City and the destruction caused. We’ll look at the plans for the rebuilding from Wren, Evelyn and Hooke, how rumour spread throughout the city that the fire had been deliberately started by the Dutch, or the French, or Jesuits, and how a new city emerged from the ashes of the old.
Even with the recently announced lockdown relaxation it seems unlikely that there will be many guided tours, or indeed visitors, over the next few months.
That’s why a few friends and I have got together to offer virtual tours and talks, so that we can show you the best of London and the UK through the magic of the interweb. (See our trailer below)
You’ll find a complete list of what we have scheduled here. Some of our regular tours include the British Museum, Churchill War Rooms, the National Gallery, Bath and Roman London, and we’ll be adding more over the coming weeks.
Each talk is around 60 minutes, with time for questions afterwards, and each costs £10. We’ve done a ‘season ticket’ so you can choose five talks and only pay for four.
Anyway, go to UKToursOnline.com to find out more, and I hope to see you on one of our forthcoming events.
A project I’m working on to map locations in London associated with Winston Churchill – very much a work in progress! Please suggest others that you feel are appropriate.
You can zoom in to the map and click on any of the stars to find a brief description, and sometime a photograph or a link to more information.
In the British Museum is a remarkable Iron Age corpse, a wonderfully preserved ‘bog body’ from the 1st century CE discovered in a place called Lindow Moss near Wilmslow in Chesire in 1984.
Lindow Moss is a peat bog and while workmen were harvesting this peat they discovered a leg. The previous year the head of a woman (dated to the 2nd or 3rd century CE) had been found, so the archeologists were called in.Continue reading
Walk into Room 40 in the British Museum via the staircase in the entrance lobby and the first thing that hits you is this wonderful piece of medieval metalwork – The Royal Gold Cup, created around 1380 in France by John, Duc de Berry for his brother Charles V (or, some sources say, for his nephew Charles VI).
It’s a lidded cup that weighs just under 4kg (so just over 4lb) is around 23cm (9 inches) tall and is made from gold with ‘basse-taille’ (low relief) enamelling that tells the story of the martyrdom of St Agnes (Charles V birthday was St Agnes’ Day – 21 January).
[Here’s me doing an online talk about the Cup and explaining more about the story of St Agnes]
Up in Room 40 of the British Museum you will find one of the most stunning bits of medieval carving to survive – a citole (an early type of guitar) that dates from around 1300.
It’s carved from box (a slow-growing shrub that produces dense, hard wood). When it was nearly 300 years old, someone decided that citoles were so last year and converted it into a violin, but the neck and main structure were retained (the finger board and top of the sound box are ‘new’). Continue reading
My Instagram Live talk from today about the Cabinet Room in the Central War Rooms and how it was used in WW2.
“This is the room from which I shall direct the war” said Winston Churchill in May 1940. Click on ‘play’ to hear about the set up, the atmosphere, the tense meetings and arguments that took place beneath the streets of Westminster, and to see some of the incredible artefacts that have been preserved in the space.
The rooms were recreated in the studio for the Darkest Hour movie but – spoiler alert – the climactic meeting between Churchill and those who wanted to negotiate with Hitler didn’t take place here (The Blitz had not started at that point, so cabinet meetings were still being held in Downing Street.)