A History of Santa Claus

This piece is basically a transcription of a lecture I’ve frequently delivered to my social studies classes on the day before winter break since about 2002.

I got hooked on Santa lore when I saw an A&E Biography on St. Nicholas in 1994. I wrote a paper on him in college a few years later, and saved all my notes. As a teacher, I spun it into a class presentation to have something fun to do on the last day before winter break when no one wants to do any real work. (I can justify it in the educational world of academic standards by calling it a lesson on “cultural diffusion.”)

Nowadays, there’s not much here that can’t be found on the Santa Claus or St. Nicholas Wikipedia pages, but in the absence of anything else to post this time of year with a suitable holiday feel, I thought I would send this artifact from my bottom drawer into the ether of internet posterity.

How did this…

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Become this?

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Here’s what I would say to the students:

“It’s not too much of a stretch to figure out that the term ‘holiday’ comes from ‘holy day.’ Days set aside for the veneration of religious figures have been a facet of human existence as far back as the historical record can peer (and presumably into the mists of prehistory). When the human species gradually abandoned the hunter-gatherer lifestyle around ten thousand years ago, an existence based on animal husbandry and cultivation of planted crops allowed for some downtime in the cold season between harvest and planting. The crops had been gathered and stored in granaries, and the animals earmarked for slaughter were salted away or consumed before they spoiled, frequently in observance of one of these holy days. Be it celebrating primitive pagan nature gods or the Christian saints of a later era, any excuse to retire the yoke and hoe for a day (or twelve) of feasting was enthusiastically seized.

Winter and summer solstices were considered very important, the winter solstice particularly so. When you lived and died based on what you could wrest from the soil, noting that the days were gradually getting longer and warmer again was cause for rejoicing.

The Romans had a calendar with months we would (mostly) recognize since the earliest days of the old Roman Republic (500s BCE). Their winter solstice (‘bruma’) date was December 25.

Saturnalia was a pre-solstice, multi-day Roman festival that traditionally ran from December 17 to December 23. It was definitely a carnival atmosphere, similar to Mardis Gras in modern-day New Orleans, but the characteristic that’s noteworthy for our purposes was the tradition of gift-giving.

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Saturnalia

Many Romans of the later period of the Empire (300s CE) worshipped a sun god called Sol Invictus (‘Invincible Sun’). A Roman codex made by an engraver named Filocalus in 354, and copied and re-copied many times over the next few centuries (the original was lost), is the source of a lot of our knowledge about Roman institutions of the third and fourth centuries. Essentially a kind of almanac/encyclopedia, it included a calendar of important dates. The day celebrating this particular sun-god, ‘Dies Natalis Solis Invictus,’ is listed as December 25.

Also on December 25, Filocalus noted the ‘birth of Christ in Bethlehem, Judea,’ the first surviving reference to this event happening on that date. Certainly no such date ever appeared in the New Testament, but there are many biblical passages linking Jesus to the sun (‘the light of the world’ according to John, etc.), and there was also symbolic importance attached to his conception being connected to the vernal equinox (beginning of spring.) So the date caught on relatively quickly, being mentioned in a sermon by St. Augustine as soon as the early 400s. It was regularly celebrated on that date as the feast of ‘Christ’s Mass’ by the 800s. Modern and ancient theologians both agree that December 25 is almost certainly not the birthdate of the historical Jesus, but acknowledged that metaphoric symbolism superseded a completely blank historical record. The gospels were not intended to be historical documents, but historians have gleaned what they could from context, passing references, and geographical details buried in what were explicitly created as religious dogma.

As Christianity gained more of a foothold in western Europe, missionaries and other early supporters of the new religion eased various local population’s transition away from paganism by gradually replacing pagan festival days with days venerating Christian figures. They kept the same dates, and a lot of the same traditions. As long as the celebration was held in the name of the newly-ascendant monotheistic religion, everyone seemed happy. The feast of Christ’s Mass incorporated many elements of the dissolute Roman Saturnalia, and grew increasingly raucous until its reputation had become disreputable among the devout by the early modern era.

Other western cultures had their solstice festivals as well. The pre-Christian Germanic lands of northern Europe had ‘Yule,’ and its associated massive log, which was expected to burn in the village square for all twelve days of the festival, and still have enough consumable fuel to provide the starting kindling for next year’s Yule log. The Celts liked to decorate for their solstice festival with pine, holly, and mistletoe.

As Christianity spread out of the Mediterranean area in the first part of the Middle Ages, the Christ’s Mass festivities began incorporating local traditions, such as Yule. A medieval Christmas was twelve days of revelry (partridge in a pear tree optional), beginning on December 25 and ending on ‘Twelfth Night,’ January 5.

The day after Twelfth Night was another important date on the old Christian calendar, celebrating the Epiphany — the arrival of the magi (‘three wise men’) in Bethlehem and the revelation that God was made incarnate in the newborn Jesus. Other sources indicate the Epiphany is in observance of Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist many years later. Either way, a heads-up to all of you lazy slackers who leave their Christmas lights up until March — it is considered bad luck to leave Christmas decorations up past Twelfth Night.

The rise of Christianity coincided with the decline of the western Roman Empire. While the religion crawled its way north and west in dribs and drabs, Emperor Constantine shifted the base of operations for the newly-Christian Imperial government eastward, to Byzantine (soon to be renamed Constantinople) on the edge of Asia Minor. So Asia Minor (now Turkey) was really the home base of Christianity for a couple of centuries, where it eventually evolved into its own unique flavor — Eastern Orthodox. The eastern portion of the old Roman Empire became known to historians as the Byzantine Empire, and took on many Hellenistic (Greek) cultural traits.

St. Nicholas originates here.

Lycia, in ancient times an independent kingdom, and in the 300s a largely self-governing province in the eastern Roman empire, was tucked away along the southwest coast of Asia Minor. The terrain was rugged and its inhabitants were mostly Greek-speaking. Its principal port town was Myra, although the once-bustling harbor has long since silted up, and Myra itself is now nothing more than archaeological ruins.

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Detail of rectangle in the above map

Keep in mind that there is no historical evidence that the person that became known as St. Nicholas ever existed. The Catholic Church demoted him on their ‘calendar of saints’ in 1969 due to this lack of historical verification. (Along with 93 others, whose origins were ‘more mystery than manuscripts,’ according to a Church spokesperson, although they retained full sainthood.) All information about — and images of — St. Nicholas came from sources working centuries after his supposed death. So he could be as imaginary as his later incarnation, Santa Claus.

With that in mind, let’s tell his story.

Nicholas was born in Patara, another Lycian city a few miles west of Myra, in March of 270, and would have answered to the Greek form of his name, Nikolaos. His parents were wealthy Greek Christians who died when Nicholas was still in his teens. He gave away his inherited fortune to the needy, and soon became an ordained priest in Myra, where his reputation for generosity began to grow. (Some sources say he was never ordained, but was a ‘lay brother,’ or monk, in his early years.) According the legend, one of his first acts as a man of the cloth was to surreptitiously, in the darkness of three successive nights, slip bags of gold through the window of a family who could not provide proper dowries for their three daughters and were about to sell them into prostitution. He was caught by the father on the third night, and Nicholas swore him to secrecy, wanting the good deed to remain totally anonymous.

The father evidently did not keep his promise, as soon Nicholas became a kind of Byzantine Superman. Stories shared among the Lycians had him rescuing drowning sailors, reanimating dead children who had been pickled in brine, freeing unjustly accused prisoners, calming hurricanes, teleporting himself, flying, and so on.

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Young Nicholas, depicted as he may have looked when he became a bishop, c. 300

Around 300, Nicholas was elevated to the post of Bishop of Myra. Later visual depictions of him often had him clad in red and white bishop’s robes, a color scheme that would remain associated with him. It was around this time that Diocletian (r. 284-305), the last Roman Emperor who made a policy of persecuting Christians, had Nicholas imprisoned and tortured, some said for as long as a decade. Diocletian’s successor, Constantine, not only ended the persecutions (and freed Nicholas), he converted the Empire to Christianity.

By 325, early Christianity was already splintering into factions. Constantine called together the First Council of Nicaea to iron out the differences and get everyone on the same page. Over 1,800 bishops attended, Nicholas supposedly among them. Things got heated. Nicholas was the center of attention at one point when he belted the leader of the Arianism sect right in the chops. (The Arianists believed Christ himself was not a part of God as stated by the Trinitarians, but a separate and distinct “Son of God.” Nicholas was a staunch Trinitarian, evidently.)

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Nicholas died on December 6, 343, and was likely entombed in a fourth century church on the nearby island of Gemile, the ruins of which can still be seen. The church in Myra that was the seat of his bishopric was torn down or crumbled away. Anything he wrote, if he wrote anything at all, was lost. The only things that remained, for 200 years, were the fantastical stories. Nicholas was a righter of wrongs, a defender of religious orthodoxy, and a special protector of children and sailors.

Some of these stories finally got jotted down in the late 500s, and provide the first written mention of Nicholas (apart from his name scrawled on the ruined wall of the church on the aforementioned island of Gemile). He remained an immensely popular figure, especially among sailors working the Mediterranean coast, who enjoyed spreading the Nicholas tales as far as Italy. His church in Myra was rebuilt. Locals gave gifts to each other in his name. Michael the Archimandrite finally produced the first full-length manuscript to survive into the modern era, The Life and Wondrous Works of our Father Nikolaos, Bishop of Myra, in Lycia in the late 800s. Then came Simeon Metaphrastes’ The Life of St. Nicholas about a hundred years later. Both were based on oral traditions and earlier written sources now lost, and are the basis for pretty much everything we know about the figure of St. Nicholas.

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St. Nicholas as imagined by the Renaissance. Detail from the 1490 Florentine painting The Visitation with Saint Nicholas and Saint Anthony Abbot by Piero Di Cosimo

There is no fixed date for when he officially became a saint. The standardizing of the canonization procedure was not fixed until the 1100s, and Nicholas had been referred to as a saint for at least 300 years before that. His feast day was observed on the traditionally accepted date of his death, December 6.

As the Arabs made more and more incursions along the southern Turkish coast, Nicholas’s remains were moved to his re-built church in Myra, where they were treated as a shrine with healing properties for the next 400 years. By 1087, the Muslim Turks were overrunning Asia Minor, so concerned sailors (Nicholas’ biggest fanboys) spirited the bones of the saint across the sea to a safer place — Bari, on the heel of Italy’s boot. There they remain to this day, in the Basilica de San Nicola, built especially to accommodate Nicholas’s relics. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 9)

We were leaving London today and heading northwest for a stay in the Cotswolds. There was some talk early in the planning stages of the trip of renting a few cars and driving ourselves around the sceptered isle. However, the whole everything-on-the-other-side aspect of traffic and steering wheels would have undoubtedly resulted in getting lost/separated, damaged vehicles and property, possible injuries, and harsh accusations of incompetence from local drivers and pedestrians. So we decided the safest bet was to rent a van that could transport the eleven of us and hire a local driver. Pricey as it may seem on the surface, we figured we were saving money on foreign lawsuits in the long run.

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Our driver, Sebastian, sported a look best described as “Russian mob,” but seemed friendly enough as he loaded our approximately 11,000 pieces of luggage while dragging on his ever-present cigarette.

There were two sightseeing stops on the way, and the first one came after traveling west for less than an hour: Windsor Castle, which had been much in the news due to the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan What’s-Her-Face taking place there about four weeks previously.

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Windsor is the largest occupied castle in the world, and the oldest in continual use. Like the Tower of London, Windsor Castle was begun by William the Conqueror in the late 1000s as one of a series of defensive forts ringing London and its environs. It was a wooden keep at first, replaced with stone by William’s immediate successors. The reign of Henry II (1154-89) saw extensive upgrades. Work was continued by Henry’s bumbling youngest son, King John, who holed up in Windsor Castle when his own nobles revolted against him. This resulted in him signing the Magna Carta in 1215, which, in theory, was the first set of limitations placed on monarchical power by a monarch’s subjects. (Future monarchs felt free to ignore it for the next several centuries.)

The reign of Edward III (1327-77), who was born at Windsor, saw the most notable expansions and improvements to Windsor Castle since its original construction, although it didn’t go smoothly. The Black Plague wiped out much of the labor force, and the series of dynastic conflicts known as the Hundred Years’ War diverted funds and manpower. The result, however, was impressive — Windsor became the largest and most comfortable of the royal residences, and was “the most expensive secular building project of the entire Middle Ages in England.”

Later in Windsor history, King George III went famously insane, as portrayed on stage and film, and spent the last twenty years of his life raving away deep within the castle, sporting a Howard Hughesian long white beard. Queen Victoria’s beloved consort, Prince Albert, died in the castle’s Blue Room in 1861, and the grieving royal widow insisted on the room being kept just as it was when he was alive, right down to the servants changing the linens and keeping the water pitcher full.

Windsor had become a popular royal “second residence” away from London for its heavy defenses when needed, its luxurious apartments, and its extensive grounds stretching through a beautiful woodland setting. The rambling expansiveness and general footprint of the castle was established at this point, but the towering battlements and turrets now visible for miles around date from extensive rebuilding during the 18th and 19th centuries.

The day was mostly clear, with a refreshingly crisp breeze blowing away memories of humid London. As we walked up the path toward the castle, we spotted the Queen’s royal standard fluttering above the Round Tower, meaning the monarch was in residence, although it was highly unlikely we would bump into her. Everyone knows about her preference for Windsor over Buckingham, and she was still lingering there a month after her grandson’s big wedding.

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We made our way around the Round Tower to the north terrace and entrance to the State Apartments, which were open to the public, but no photography was allowed. The State Apartments are mostly Georgian/Victorian in origin, and were severely damaged in a 1992 fire. Most of the furniture and artwork was saved, but the rooms themselves required extensive restoration, which was mostly completed within a year. (One of Windsor’s most popular features, Queen Mary’s Doll House, was closed the day we were there, along with St. George’s Hall and Waterloo Chamber.)

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The State Apartments are entered through the arched Grand Staircase, overlooked by a marble statue of George VI, the current monarch’s father and the stammering hero of The King’s Speech. The statue was flanked by an impressive collection of weapons and armor. The Grand Vestibule beyond is also kind of a military mini-museum. On display is the fatal bullet dug out of Admiral Nelson. (The coat it passed through is in the National Maritime Museum, remember?) We then passed through suites of rooms dedicated for the use of the king, and a separate suite for the queen.

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Every room in the State Apartments has a different architectural style — Classical, Gothic, Rococo, etc. — although they are so lavishly wallpapered or damasked and hung with dozens of works of art I couldn’t really notice the differing details of the actual construction. As the name implies, these rooms were once living quarters, but living quarters designed for use during state business, so they retained an element of “publicness.” People were coming and going all the time, even in the “King’s Bedchamber.” (In the time of Henry VIII, visitors were warned against leaving their dirty dishes “upon the King’s bed, for fear of hurting the King’s rich counterpoints.”) The royal family’s truly private living quarters were — and still are — elsewhere in the castle.

We then headed down the path into the Lower Ward to St. George’s Chapel, the primary burial place for the royal family once Westminster Abbey was full to bursting. The late-Gothic chapel’s construction was begun in 1475, and completed in 1528. St. George is the patron saint of England, despite the fact that he was a third century Greek-born Roman soldier who never saw England (he spent much of his life in what is now Turkey), and he never certainly never slew a dragon (dragons aren’t real).

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St. George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle.

The interior is very reminiscent of Westminster Abbey, although on a much smaller scale. There is one stained glass window from the medieval era, the rest is Victorian. The wooden seats of the quire are English oak, originally felled in the nearby forest. The 75-foot high vaulted ceiling are lined with colorful heraldic banners. In the floor of the quire is the tomb of Henry VIII.

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As his weight skyrocketed and his health declined, Henry VIII planned an elaborate exterior mausoleum for himself and his already-dead (of natural causes) favorite wife Jane Seymour on Windsor’s grounds. Once he expired, his remains were placed in a temporary vault in the floor of St. George’s Chapel. Since his overbearing regal presence was no longer around the crack the whip, no one was really motivated to complete (or even begin, really) the mausoleum, and the temporary vault became permanent. The vault was cracked open a hundred years later, and the body of executed Charles I — his head sewn back on — was plopped in the vault on top of Henry and Jane. A stillborn infant of Queen Anne was tossed in for good measure fifty years after that. The vault in the quire became a kind of macabre utility drawer.

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Elsewhere in the chapel, you can pay your respects to George III, our old foe from the Revolution. He is also entombed in the floor, in a spot highly susceptible to Americans dancing a little patriotic jig. (A shame, really. Apart from the bad timing of being king in 1776, and the later mental illness, George III was one Britain’s more capable and sensible monarchs. He was laughed at behind his back by his courtiers for remaining faithful to his wife and not taking one or more mistresses.)

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert are buried in a large mausoleum on the adjacent (and much more private) Frogmore Estate grounds.

The newest addition to the St. George’s interior is the George VI Memorial Chapel, completed in 1969 in honor of the king who had died seventeen years earlier. George VI’s remains were moved here, and he is buried alongside his wife, Elizabeth (the “Queen Mother” who died in 2002 at the age of 101), and his daughter, Princess Margaret. Space is reserved for the current queen and her consort, Prince Philip.

One of the most attractive features of Windsor Castle is the one that we didn’t have time to explore — the 5000 acres of Windsor Great Park to the south of the castle. Full of ancient oaks, deer, and rambling paths and creeks, this expanse of broadleaf woodland is connected to the castle by the Long Walk. The only interruption to the idyll is jets coming in for a landing at Heathrow Airport, which is practically in Windsor’s backyard.

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The Long Walk leading from Windsor Great Park to the castle.

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 8)

After our illuminating trip through the world of the Royal Society, we were ready for lunch. We chose the restaurant located on the ground floor of the Grand Hotel, within sight (“a mere 77 paces”) of Trafalgar Square. Built in the 1880s, it was once the Hotel Victoria. Seven floors, five hundred rooms, electric lights…and four bathrooms (it was the 1880s, after all.) Its ballroom was one of the biggest in London, and an elegant billiard room filled the basement. It all ended with World War II. In 1940, the Ministry of Defense took over the hotel, and it became one of the many nerve centers of the British war effort. Primitive computers filled what was once the restaurant. The ballroom became a lecture hall, where military experts and intelligence officers briefed civil defense workers. After the war, the old Hotel Victoria was a musty shell of its former self, still owned by the government but underused and in bad shape. After finally being sold, it returned to the hospitality business in 2010, reopening as the Grand at Trafalgar Square.

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The Grand’s restaurant, known as Boyds Grill & Wine Bar, was lit by vintage chandeliers from 1914, and the original marble and onyx walls were once again in evidence, having been covered over during the war years. After a starting course of duck wings, Shannon had the sea trout, I had the cottage pie, and Cam had their “hot dog of the week,” which I regretted not getting myself. We don’t keep hot dogs in the house because they’re fundamentally disgusting — the processed-scrap, bottom-feeders of the lunch meat world, not even fit to be categorized as a “sausage.”

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Yes, they serve hot dogs.

But goddamn, do I love a grilled hot dog. I once made a vow to myself to never turn down the opportunity to have a hot dog outside of the house, be it a ballgame, barbecue, or gourmet restaurant. I broke that vow today, and was a little remorseful as I saw Cam devour his southwestern-themed dog, covered in cheese and hot sauce. The cottage pie was fine, though.

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After lunch, Cam and I were the only ones really interested in seeing the Churchill War Rooms. Shan and her parents hopped a bus to head back to the Airbnb for an afternoon of rest and reading. We would meet again that evening in London’s East End for another walking tour, this time dedicated to the crimes of Jack the Ripper. Cam and I struck out on foot towards Whitehall.

We turned southwest at Trafalgar Square, passed under the 1912 structure known as the Admiralty Arch and began walking down the Mall, which, if we followed it all the way, would lead us to Buckingham Palace. We turned left on Horse Guards Road instead, heading towards the Churchill War Rooms, and found ourselves in the sector of London known as Whitehall.

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The Admiralty Arch, gateway to Whitehall

Whitehall was named for Whitehall Palace, which once occupied this entire area. The old Palace of Westminster, since 1049 the seat of the English monarchy, was viewed with increasing royal disfavor by the early Tudor era. With its cold medieval feel and immense echoing hall, Westminster Palace was an outdated relic. It was being used more and more for meetings of Parliament, anyway. A hundred yards downriver was York House, owned by Henry VIII’s discredited advisor Cardinal Wolsey. Once Wolsey had fallen from favor in 1530, Henry swiped the mansion for himself, renamed it White Hall, and turned it into a rambling, 1500-room edifice with luxurious private apartments for both king and whoever his queen happened to be at the moment. No more would the king’s court live and work communally in a drafty, stone-floored “great hall.” Now there would be smaller, plusher rooms. The king would meet people in a “presence chamber.” Business would be conducted mostly behind closed doors.

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Whitehall Palace. The Banqueting Hall is on the left.

The era of Whitehall Palace came to an end in 1698, with its near-total destruction by fire. The official royal household moved on to St. James’s Palace. The only structure of Whitehall left to see today is its Banqueting House.

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The Banqueting House today.

The street called Whitehall is now home to most of the administrative offices of the British government. The home and offices of the Prime Minister, Downing Street, is a side street off of Whitehall. The term “Whitehall” is often used as shorthand for the entire British government, much as “Wall Street” represents the American financial world.

Underneath the Treasury Building, not far from Downing Street, is a set of bomb-proof basement rooms from which World War II Prime Minister Winston Churchill directed the course of Britain’s role in the conflict. In various forms, these subterranean bunkers, including a Cabinet Room and a Map Room, have been open to the public since 1984. After an expansion to include Churchill’s private quarters and a major 2005 remodel, the Churchill War Rooms (now operating under the auspices of the Imperial War Museum) saw a surge in popularity. So much so that when Cam and I approached them, our hearts sank to see the size of the line. Near the beginning of the line, an official-looking portly gentleman in a vest and holding a shade umbrella kept repeating the mantra of “Two-hour wait at this point, ladies and gentlemen, two-hour wait. Two-hour wait at this point, ladies and gentlemen, two-hour wait…”

We bailed, and decided on the spur of the moment to make the obligatory Beatles fan pilgrimage to Abbey Road in the upscale neighborhood of St. John’s Wood.

The abbey the road was named for was the Kilburn Priory, a small community of nuns that existed from 1134 to 1536, nothing of which remains.

Behind its graffiti-covered outer walls, the front Abbey Road Studios looks like the 1831 Georgian townhouse it once was. When the Gramophone Company acquired the property in 1929, it built its recording facility on top of what was once a very extensive back garden. The townhouse facade has always been used as administrative offices only. The Gramophone Company merged with a few others to form Electric and Musical Industries, Ltd. (EMI).

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One of EMI’s subsidiary record labels, Parlophone, signed a promising young band from Liverpool in the summer of 1962, and they spent almost all of their remarkable recording career within the confines of what was then called simply “EMI Recording Studios.” The facility has three recording spaces — massive Studio One, designed for large orchestras, mid-sized Studio Two, and the little Studio Three. The Beatles made use of all of them at one point or another, but their home base was Studio Two. The early puppy-love singles which rocketed them to fame, the twin masterpieces Rubber Soul and Revolver, the psychedelic epic Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the fragmented but no-less-epic The Beatles (“White Album”), and almost everything else — all cooked up in that one building, mostly in that one room.

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Going over the Hard Day’s Night screenplay while recording “And I Love Her,” Studio Two, February 1964.

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Studio Two, Abbey Road.

Their Get Back project, an attempt to perform a live concert of all-new material in January 1969, did not go well. Internal tension between the band members, and collective boredom with the whole Beatles thing, was at its height. The desulatory run-throughs of the new songs were shot by a documentary crew (at Twickenham Film Studios) and the songs were duly put on tape (at their self-owned Apple Studios, not at Abbey Road). The “concert” ended up being a brief lunch-hour performance from the roof of their Apple office on Savile Row. Iconic as it is now, the rooftop show seemed anti-climactic back then. Apart from the title single which came out that spring, the Get Back project was shelved.

Not wanting to fizzle out like that, the Beatles decided put their differences aside and craft one more well-polished studio gem as a proper cap to their career. As producer George Martin recalled, Paul called him up and asked if they could make another album “like we used to.” Over the summer of ‘69, the walls of Studio Two were witness to the creation of “Come Together,” “Something,” “Here Comes The Sun,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Because,” and several others that formed the sonic tapestry of their final project*, including the aptly titled “The End.” The resulting album is a lot of people’s favorite — it’s filled with good energy, more close three-part harmonies than any of their recordings in years, and tinged with the perfect amount of elegiac, end-of-the-ride sadness. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 7)

2.5 million people take a peek at the crown jewels every year. The line leading into the Tower of London’s Waterloo Block for viewing them wrapped around the east side of the White Tower, but the wait wasn’t over when we finally entered the building. Disneyland-like, the line continued to wind back and forth once we entered the building, with large video screens showing scenes from various coronations in an attempt to help the time pass as the queue shuffled along. Fairly quickly, it must be said.

The reason the line moved quickly was revealed when we finally entered the crown jewels display area — visitors hopped on an airport-style moving sidewalk and were moved past the collection at a pretty speedy clip. No lingering was possible, and no photos allowed.

The collection known as the “crown jewels” is made up of 140 individual pieces — crowns, scepters, orbs, swords, robes, maces, trumpets, plates, and other items, most of them symbolically representative of some element of the British monarch’s reign. Several of them are used in the coronation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. Some of them are worn by the newly-crowned monarch in the ceremony, some are handed to him/her, some are simply shown to him/her, who then kind of solemnly nods at them in an approving manner and they’re placed somewhere nearby.

The original crown jewels, from the time of Edward the Confessor, were mostly lost when King John’s caravan attempted to cross the tidal estuary known as the Wash in 1216. They mistimed their crossing, and high tide rolled in and claimed several wagons, including the treasure wagon. The next set of crown jewels was physically destroyed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell, who had toppled the monarchy and installed himself as “Lord Protector” in 1653. The crown jewels, he said, were symbols of the “detestable rule of kings.” Cromwell’s rule as essentially a military dictator was pretty detestable itself, and when the monarchy was restored in 1660, the new king, Charles II, ordered a replacement set of crown jewels to be crafted. The collection has been growing ever since, with the latest addition being a set of bracelets made for Elizabeth II’s coronation in 1953.

Coronation-accessories

The most important accessories of the coronation: St. Edward’s Crown, the Sovereign’s Orb (topped with a cross, symbolizing God’s dominion over earth), the Sword of Offering, the Sovereign’s Dove Sceptre (symbolizing the monarch’s position as head of the Church of England), and the Sovereign’s Cross Sceptre (symolizing the monarch’s position as head of state). To the left is the hollow golden eagle called the Ampulla, which contains the holy oil which will anoint the new monarch. The anointing is done with the Coronation Spoon, the oldest surviving item in the crown jewel collection. Dating from the late 1100s, it was hidden when the rest of the jewels were destroyed.

The centerpiece of the collection is the St. Edward’s Crown, made of 22-carat gold and encrusted with over 400 jewels. This is the crown placed on the head of the monarch at the moment of coronation, but it isn’t worn for very long — weighing in at five pounds, it is said to be incredibly uncomfortable. For most of the coronation ceremony, and for all other state occasions, the monarch wears the similar, but lighter, Imperial State Crown.

After being whisked by the crown jewels so fast we could feel the breeze in our hair, we were deposited outside the Waterloo Block, and concluded our visit to the Tower of London. Our little family trio broke off from the main group again, leaving them to do something more kid-friendly. We headed up toward the Tower Hill tube station to see the oldest thing in London.

The Romans founded London in the first century A.D., and inhabited the city for almost 400 years. By the second century, it was enclosed by a protective wall. London had all the features of a major Roman settlement — a forum, an amphitheater, public baths, a large fort for its garrison of soldiers. All now long gone, or deep under the modern city. But a few fragments remain, mostly uncovered by Nazi bombs in World War II, or by digging foundations for new construction. The most noticeable of these fragments are some sections of the old wall, which once ran for 2.5 miles and defined the original shape of the city.

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The section near the Tower is one of the largest. Buildings used to back up against both sides, but they were torn down in the early 1900s, revealing this portion for the first time in centuries. The first nine feet or so (up to the top row of red tiling) is Roman, everything above that was added during the Middle Ages.

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Perimeter of the London walls.

We continued eastward from Tower Hill in search of a suitable place for lunch. We soon found ourselves at St. Katharine Docks, named after the medieval hospital that once occupied the site.

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St. Katharine Docks, 1800s.

The docks were used for commercial shipping purposes from 1828 to 1968, then sold to developers. Today it is an upscale shopping and dining area, surrounding a small yachting marina.

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We chose Bravas Tapas, which specialized in the Spanish Basque style of dining indicated by its name — multiple small dishes of finger food shared around the table. We sat outdoors on the water, and picked two dishes each, including brava potatoes, piquillo-wrapped prawns, bacon-wrapped quail, and roasted Iberian pork belly. Even including some of the fancier places we found ourselves in, it was some of the best food I had on the whole trip.

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The prawns

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The quail

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The pork belly

We hopped a bus to St. Paul’s cathedral.

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Cam on the bus to St. Paul’s

St. Paul’s, along with the Palace of Westminster and the Tower Bridge, is one of the three iconic sights of London. It occupies Ludgate Hill, the highest point within the old city walls (a dizzying 58 feet above sea level). It is possible that the Romans built a temple to the goddess Diana on this spot, but it was long gone by the time Christianity permanently came to England in the early Middle Ages. Various cathedrals occupied the hilltop since the 600s. The Normans constructed the edifice known as “Old St. Paul’s” beginning in 1087. Like its successor, Old St. Paul’s dominated the skyline, with a spire reaching almost 500 feet above the ground. After Henry VIII broke with the Catholic Church and established the Church of England, St. Paul’s became the “mother church” of the new religion.

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Old St. Paul’s

The old cathedral was decaying by 1666, and there was already hesitant talk of pulling it down and starting fresh. The Great Fire made the decision easy for them. Good old Sir Christopher Wren designed the New St. Paul’s, replacing its spire with a dome, which was completed in 1708.

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New St. Paul’s

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The other reason, besides the Fire, that the face of the City of London is so new is that central London was a primary target of German bombs in the Blitz of 1940-41, which wiped out much of the city that had been re-built after the Fire. St. Paul’s took a couple of direct hits, but its thanks to its immense bulk, it survived, and it became a symbol of English fortitude in the face of Nazi aggression.

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We approached the steps of the great cathedral, and I suddenly remembered that the steps of St. Paul’s were the site of the “Feed the Birds” song from Mary Poppins, featuring Jane Darwell’s silent performance as the Bird Lady, selling bread crumbs for “tuppence [two pennies] a bag” to people who wanted to feed the pigeons that swarmed the area. Darwell was an Oscar-winner (for her performance as Ma Joad in 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath) brought out of retirement at age 84 by her admirer Walt Disney for this tiny part. It was only on a recent re-watch of the film that it dawned on me that the song was actually a metaphor for giving to charity. I always thought it was about feeding a bunch of filthy pigeons. I looked around and saw only a handful of pigeons. I checked the St. Paul’s website later, and there’s a notice at the bottom warning people against feeding the pigeons. I guess that could be a metaphor, too.

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My own charitable spirit was stretched to the breaking point when I saw it would cost us £18 each to enter the cathedral. Instead, I took a couple of pictures (we were too close to capture the massive dome properly), and headed up Little Britain Street, through Postman’s Park, to arrive at the Museum of London.

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The Museum of London, appropriately located at the address of 150 London Wall, is dedicated to examining the history of the city, from the Stone Age to present day.  It is the largest urban history collection in the world. Its modern-looking (for 1976 — it looks a little funky today) building was constructed in the 1970s on the gutted bombsite that was notable for having received the heaviest concentration of falling ordinance during World War II. The museum was great in a different way from the glorious jumble of the British Museum — it was streamlined and logically ordered in a chronological fashion. The British Museum demands the visitor dig deep, the Museum of London is set up in a way that the casual I’ve-just-got-an-hour visitor can have an enriching experience, as well as those who like to linger longer.

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Although I had only briefly glimpsed the Monument to the Great Fire that morning, it had stayed in the back of my mind, and I lingered longest in the War, Plague, and Fire gallery. As mentioned in the previous entry, most Londoners believed the fire to have been deliberately set in the bakery by Catholics as an act of religious terrorism. This belief was further fueled by the confession of a man named Robert Hubert, a Frenchman who claimed to be Catholic and working with a gang of Catholic insurrectionists. Despite changing his rambling, disjointed story several times, and despite testimony from everyone who knew him that he was a lifelong Protestant, well…a confession was a confession, and he was hung before the year was out. Not long after the Monument went up, a smaller plaque, now on display at the museum, was placed on the exact spot where the bakery once stood:

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“Here by the permission of Heaven, Hell broke loose upon this Protestant city from the malicious hearts of barbarous Papists, by the hand of their agent Hubert, who confessed…”

The plaque was finally removed in the 1700s, not due to a change of heart or because the truth was established, but because the crowds stopping to read it were blocking traffic. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 6)

Since yesterday was all about Westminster, today would be dedicated to the City of London, often referred to as just “the City,” or “the Square Mile.” Although the oldest part of metropolitan London, most of buildings in the City are relatively new. The succession of buildings that were once here — the old Roman forum and amphitheatre, the Saxon halls, the dark-beamed wooden houses and shops of the Tudor era — are all long vanished. In their place are the sleek skyscrapers of big business. The City is London’s financial center.

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The City

As we emerged from the Monument tube station that morning, we came face to face with the station’s namesake — the Monument of the Great Fire of London.

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The fluted Doric column made from white Portland stone looms over the intersection of Monument Street and Fish Street Hill. The inside has a narrow spiral staircase, and there is a viewing platform near the top. The very top is capped by a gilded urn of fire. If the column were to be tipped over on its side to the east, the urn’s flames would be resting on the starting place of the fire, exactly 202 feet away.

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Pudding Lane has shifted slightly west during various redevelopments over the centuries. It used to cross the red dot.

That empty patch of Monument Street (marked with an X in the photo below) was once a baker’s shop on Pudding Lane belonging to Thomas Farriner, who made hardtack for the Royal Navy. He extinguished his oven fire when he closed for business around nine o’clock Saturday night. His daughter Hanna checked the oven around midnight, and later swore it was cold. Shortly after that, in the dark pre-dawn of the morning of September 2, 1666, the ground floor filled with smoke, and flames began licking the wooden ceiling beams from a fire in the upper portion of the chimney. Farriner and his daughter escaped by climbing onto an adjoining roof. Their maid was not so lucky. Soon the building was engulfed. Before dawn, a strong wind picked up from the east.

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London was a tinderbox. There was little open space. The buildings all abutted each other, and were all made of wood and lath & plaster, many with thatched roofs and straw flooring. Nearby warehouses were filled with timber, oil, hemp, tar, flax, pitch, coal and all manner of handy fuel. The previous July and August had seen a low amount of rainfall, so everything was brittle and dry. If the City were set up by arsonists for deliberate destruction, they couldn’t have done a better job.

As the sun rose, the fire had already engulfed its first church, St. Margaret’s, on the site where the Monument now stands. People were beginning to panic, but London’s Lord Mayor hesitated, at first dismissing it as such a minor conflagration that “a woman might piss it out” (delightfully direct were those pre-Victorians), but he soon had to eat his words. Londoners packed what they could and streamed out of the city.

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In the days before professional fire departments, putting out fires came down to volunteers. Every parish church had fire fighting equipment on hand: usually brass syringe-like “squirts,” leather buckets, and massive hooks for pulling down houses. Water in large quantities was often scarce, so the primary strategy for halting the progress of fires was to create firebreaks by pulling down unburned houses and shops. The owners of said structures were understandably reluctant to destroy their perfectly good buildings (even if they were right in the path of the fire), so it was a real test of their civic-mindedness. Bucket brigades were formed to get water from wells and pumps to areas under the gravest threat.

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Imagine a volunteer firefighter’s surprise when he looked up and saw that the person passing him the bucket was none other than King Charles II himself. The normally lazy and dissolute monarch stirred himself off his velvet cushions in Whitehall Palace and headed to the City, where he began supervising, issuing orders, working the bucket brigades, and generally demonstrating the kind of leadership he had been unwilling to apply in most other situations. He certainly came out of it looking better than the Lord Mayor.

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Fed by strong winds, and creating its own diabolical atmosphere as major fires do, the towering flames spread, unchecked, to the west at a pace of about thirty yards per hour. Thunderous booms and cracks echoed across the city as buildings imploded. By the third day, the fire had reached St. Paul’s cathedral. Only the stone walls were left standing. The lead from the roof ran in molten, glowing rivers down the street like volcanic lava. All the buildings on the north side of London Bridge were destroyed. Dense smoke spread over a fifty mile area.

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By the fourth day, the fire’s westward progress caused people to think about protecting Whitehall Palace, and it was even conceivable that Westminster was under threat if the winds continued. The Royal Navy began using gunpowder to blow up buildings between Somerset House and Whitehall. Other firebreaks began finally seeing success as the winds died down. The fire consumed all available fuel. It was completely out by the end of the week, but the ground remained hot to the touch for days afterwards.

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The face of London was permanently changed. St. Paul’s was reduced to its exterior masonry walls. What was once a crowded, thriving, essentially still-medieval city was now an ashy wasteland. The lone familiar structure was the Tower of London, behind stone walls upwind and east of the fire, so it was spared. Of the 448 acres within the City walls, 373 acres were wiped out, and 13,200 houses and 87 churches were no more.

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Engraved map of London just after the fire. The non-burned areas reflect the building denisty that used to be city-wide.

Luckily, the Monument that now stands near the fire’s starting place does not commemorate a large loss of life. Fewer than ten people are (officially) reported to have died, including the Farriners’ poor maid. But over 80,000 were now homeless. The very first insurance company, the Fire Office, was founded the next year. As re-building began, Charles II issued a royal proclamation: all new buildings in the City of London were to be of brick or stone. Architect Sir Christopher Wren became the busiest man in England.

The Monument itself (designed by Wren) was part of the rebuilding program, completed in 1677. In the aftermath, it took some time to pinpoint the cause of the fire. Many in the City assumed it was arson perpetrated by the Catholics, and in fact the original Latin inscription on the Monument made some disparaging comments about “popery” that weren’t removed for almost two hundred years, long after the cause was determined to be accidental. More on that in the next entry…

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We didn’t linger long at the Monument, but headed east down Lower Thames Street toward the Tower of London. The Tower of London is actually a conglomeration of several towers (20 altogether) and other buildings, built at different times for different reasons. The centerpiece is still the original tower, known as the “White Tower,” the most imposing and impressive building Londoners of the 11th century had ever seen. The White Tower was built by William the Conqueror, beginning around 1078 and finished by 1100. Originally located right where the easternmost section of the old Roman wall met the Thames, the White Tower anchored what William intended to be a strong defensive position for his newly-acquired territory. By God, these Normans built castles, not the humble little halls and hill forts that littered the Anglo-Saxon landscape.

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The White Tower, 1400s, with the London Bridge in the background.

Most of the other buildings in the Tower complex were added during major expansions ordered by William III and his heir Edward I from the the early 1200s through the early 1300s. Thick “curtain” walls went up on the west and north, and replaced the crumbling Roman wall to the east. Rings of small fortifying towers were built as added defense. Each ring was separated by open spaces and pathways called “wards.”

The Tower was no longer used as any kind of royal residence by the early 1500s. It became more of a defensive “keep” — a fort, a meeting place, the Royal Mint (until 1812), an armory…and a prison, which increasingly darkened its reputation. Although no great foreign armies invaded England’s shores after William’s 1066 conquest, there were enough civil wars and local rebellions to keep the Tower’s defenses busy for hundreds of years. 

As far as “newer” construction and additions, the cluster of Tudor buildings known as the Queen’s House was built in the 1540s as lodgings for the Tower’s chief constable. It was not, as many websites state, built for Anne Boleyn, who would have been too dead to enjoy it by the time it was constructed. A set of Tudor storehouses north of the White Tower were replaced by an army barracks known as the Waterloo Block in the 1840s. Other Victorian-era buildings now line the eastern wall.

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The Tower as it exists today. Refer back to this diagram as you read. You may need your reading glasses, but it will come in handy.

There are two chapels, one built into the interior of the White Tower (St. John’s) and one next to the Waterloo Block (St. Peter-in-Chains).

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The western Tower wall as seen from the entry plaza. The rounded portion is Beauchamp Tower.

The current entrance for the Tower’s visitors is through the wetsern gatehouse known as Middle Tower. Dating from one of Henry III’s expansions in the 1200s, it was re-surfaced with Portland stone in 1717, and had the coat of arms of George I added above the arch. The iron portillicus is long gone, but the grooves where it once rose and lowered are still visible.

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The Middle Tower

Another defensive feature, known as a “barbican,” also once guarded the approach to the Tower. (The barbican was the “first tower” before you reached the Middle Tower.) The rounded interior of the barbican became home to the Royal Menagerie, and the structure was later known as Lion Tower.

The Royal Menagerie began when the Frederick II, the Holy Roman Emperor, presented Henry III with three leopards in the 1230s. Lions were soon added, along with jackals, owls, a polar bear (who would go fishing in the Thames, attached to his pen by a long chain), brown bears, hyenas, and assorted others. They were housed in wooden pens lining the inside wall of the barbican. James I added a small exercise yard and an audience platform, and the inhabitants of London could view the animals for a small fee. The English climate and the cramped conditions were not conducive to good health for most of these creatures, so there was a pretty frequent turnover, but monarchs did not seem to have any trouble acquiring fresh specimens of exotic beasts, especially once Britain became an empire. (An American mountain lion was described by one chronicler as “an Indian cat from Virginia.”) It was finally decided to move the animals to the newly-opened London Zoo in 1831. The only animals to remain behind are the well-known Tower ravens, who now freely hop around the walls and lawns (their wings are clipped), and retire to a spacious aviary at night.

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Wire-mesh lion sculpures peer at the remains of the Lion Tower. The moat bridge between Middle Tower and Byward Tower is in the background.

The Lion Tower was pulled down not long after the departure of the animals. Its crumbled foundation and the pit that once housed the drawbridge gears were still visible off to our left as we approached the ticket takers of Middle Tower. Once we passed through the Middle Tower, we followed the footbridge that crossed the moat. The moat is now waterless, a wide expanse of green lawn marking where it once existed. With the moat behind us, we entered Byward Tower, the true entrance of the Tower of London.

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Crossing the “moat” into Byward Tower

I plugged into my audio tour (available at almost every major site in London, sometimes for free, sometimes for a small fee — it’s worth it) and headed through one final archway into the Inner Ward. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 5)

It was a short walk from our lunchtime pub to Westminster Abbey, but the line to get in was anything but short. It wound neatly back and forth in front of the Great North Door without the need for ropes and stanchions. The British can queue like nobody’s business. It is one of their many skills as a culture. I didn’t mind the line so much, except when it was in direct sunlight, at which point it became a brutal endurance test. Did I mention the heat wave?

The Abbey towered above us, providing blessed shade at regular enough intervals. It hasn’t been an abbey for 450 years (since Elizabeth I booted the community of Benedictine monks that had been living there for centuries), nor is it technically a cathedral (since it is not the seat of a bishop). It is just a really, really big church that the monarchy has a proprietary interest in (a “royal peculiar.”)

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Edward the Confessor, last of the Anglo-Saxon kings of England (unless you count poor old Harold Godwinson, the Moe Green of mediaval monarchs), decided sometime in the mid-1000s to build himself a palace and a church a few miles upriver from the walled City of London. London had semi-autonomously governed itself since time out of mind, and regarded the king’s rule as a formality rather than a subjugation. Edward wanted a place where he was top dog. He chose Thorney Island, formed by a confluence of the Thames and Tyburn rivers. Upon Thorney Island, the Palace of Westminster arose. And right next to it, supposedly on a site already occupied by a century-old monastery, Westminster Abbey came to be. (Minster is derived from the Latin word for monastery. “West” because it was west of London.)

Unlike so many other patrons of great architectural projects, Edward the Confessor did live to see the church completed — and promptly died a week later. He was the first, but far from the last, person to be buried in Westminster Abbey

Edward the Confessor (his nickname derived from a posthumous — and totally undeserved — reputation for piety) died heirless in 1066, leaving England open to conquest from across the Channel by William, Duke of Normandy. Thus, the very French duke became King William I (“The Conqueror”) of England, imported a lot of his Norman cronies to be noblemen, and was crowned in Edward’s brand-new abbey. English kings and their courts spoke little but French until around 1400. Britain’s current corgi-loving monarch can trace her ancestry through a few twists and turns back to William I.

Unsurprisingly, not everyone in England was thrilled with their new Norman overlords, and Edward became a symbol of their proud Anglo-Saxon past. He was canonized in 1161, becoming Saint Edward the Confessor.

William and his immediate successors had better things to do than look after a crummy old church, such as building a shitload of castles all over the place, so Westminster Abbey languished until the reign of Henry III. Henry III, whom no one would mistake for a rocket scientist (had such a thing existed in the 1200s) was at the very least a kind and decent fellow, a rare thing for a king from the hot-blooded Plantagenet dynasty, and was absolutely dedicated to the veneration of Edward the Confessor. He decided to have Westminster Abbey completely rebuilt on a much grander scale and dedicate it to his hero. The old Romanesque church was gradually replaced with one in a high Gothic style, with lots of pointed-top arches and flying buttresses to support the walls. Greater wall support meant more room for enormous stained-glass windows, and the layout was in the shape of a Latin cross, similar to the great cathedrals of the era.

A bustling service community grew up around the Palace of Westminster and its associated Abbey. London had begun spilling beyond its walls, and the walls themselves were pulled down in the 1760s. London and Westminster eventually met in the middle to make the great metropolis we know today. The marshes around Thorney Island were drained, and it ceased to be an island, although the little River Tyburn still exists, culverted and flowing underground.

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The building Cam and I entered now through the Great North Door after a 75-minute wait was the building begun by Henry III in 1245, and consecrated in 1269. Henry himself was stuffed in a Westminster Abbey crypt three years later. Work continued, off and on, until 1517. Then the Abbey’s most distinctive feature, the two massive towers flanking the Great West Door, were added between 1722 and 1745.

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The Great North Door

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After a stern warning about taking pictures (the interior pictures here are mostly from the Abbey’s website), our audio tour headphones guided us to the nave, where we began our exploration. The nave is the long main body of the church, where the congregation sits. Tombs and memorials line the walls and floor, including those marking the burial sites of Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, prime ministers Clement Attlee and Neville Chamberlain, and the still-fresh Stephen Hawking.

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The nave, with the British Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in the foreground and the gilded wall of the Quire in the distance.

At the altar end of the nave is the Choir (or “Quire”), a sort of roofless wooden room, with hand carved wooden seats, reserved for high-ranking parishioners and dignitaries (and yes, the choir).

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The Quire, walled off from the rest of the nave.

Beyond the choir is the Sacarum, or High Altar, the site of every coronation since 1066 and many royal weddings. Tucked away behind the Sacarum is the shrine of St. Edward the Confessor, containing what little is left of his mortal remains.

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The Sacarum

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Shrine of St. Edward the Confessor

Just east of the Sacarum is the 16th century extension known as the “Lady Chapel,” named in honor of the original Lady, the Virgin Mary. The most prominent feature here is the tomb of Henry VII, sponsor of the Lady Chapel’s construction. Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, was once revered as the dashing young earl of Richmond who sailed in from exile and ended the destructive Wars of the Roses by uniting the rival houses of Lancaster and York in marriage. He aged into a grim, paranoid bureaucrat with a deeply-lined face and an ultimate legacy of miserliness and total mediocrity. “You either die a hero, or live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” — Henry VII.*

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Westminster Abbey as it appeared around 1600. The “new” Lady Chapel built by Henry VII sticks out on the left. Note the lack of massive towers on the right.

Fittingly, the Lady Chapel is also the location of the tombs of two noteworthy ladies: Henry VII’s granddaughers, Elizabeth I and her half-sister Mary I, bitter rivals in life, now lie side by side for eternity. Just a few feet away are the alleged** remains of the uncrowned Edward V and his brother Richard, both probably murdered as children on the orders of their uncle, Richard III. (More on that in the next entry.)

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A few monarchs from the late 1300s through the early 1700s are buried elsewhere due to various circumstances, but the majority of them are right there in Westminster Abbey, mostly out of the desire to be interred near the remains of St. Edward, one of the most prominent English-born saints. Henry III is cozied up right next to his saintly idol. His son, Edward I, sworn enemy of William Wallace and the hissable villain of Braveheart, is nearby. Edward I’s son, the suspect and effeminate Edward II, who abdicated the throne and was supposedly assassinated soon after by a red-hot poker up the rectum***, is also somewhere in the vicinity. Continue reading

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Mind the Gap: The Holy Bee’s Adventures in the U.K. (Part 4)

This might prove useful over the next several entries:

The Holy Bee’s Handy Guide to Historical Eras/Dynasties in England:

Prehistoric/ancient — dawn of time to the Romans. The earliest occupants of Britain were a mysterious bunch, with a muddled and puzzling genetic past. But they could build a hell of a ring of stones.

Roman — the time of occupation by the Roman Empire, 43 – c.410

Middle Ages/medieval — from the exit of Romans to the foundation of the Tudor dynasty, c.410 – 1485. The Angles and Saxons (tribal groups from Germany) held sway over England (which comes from “Angle Land”) in the first half of this era, and the Normans of France took over after 1066. A Norman offshoot, the Plantagenets, ruled from 1154 to 1485.

Tudor — from the beginning of the reign of Henry VII (1485) to the end of the reign of Elizabeth I (1603). Basically, the 1500s. A very busy period for England. Shakespeare time. Big ruffled collars. Your “Bloody Mary” and your husband of the year Henry VIII would go here. The setting for lots of historically-inaccurate movies and mini-series.

Stuart — the Scottish royal house that, due to overlapping family trees, was England’s ruling family from James I (1603) to Anne (1714). (Their reign was interrupted for about a decade by the Parliamentary “commonwealth” of Oliver Cromwell.) Throw in two Charleses and another James, and the first official joint rulers, William III and Mary II. And a lot of hilarious long curly wigs and stacked heels. Basically, the 1600s.

Georgian — I don’t use this one too often. George I through IV, and let’s toss William IV in for good measure. Basically, the 1700s – early 1800s.

Victorian — the reign of Queen Victoria. 1837 to 1901.

Anything after Victoria, I just call “modern.”

“Great Britain” is the large, main island of the British Isles. “England” is its politically-dominant southern part, “Scotland” is its northern part, “Wales” is its far western part. England has more or less controlled Wales since 1282. Scotland was for many centuries an independent kingdom, a great rival to England and frequent collaborator with England’s old enemy, France. During the latter days of the Stuart dynasty (1707, to be exact), England and Scotland became a unified political entity — “The United Kingdom of Great Britain, etc.” (The whole Ireland thing is too complicated to get into in this Handy Guide.) For the monarchy, before 1707, I’ll say “English” king or queen, after 1707, I’ll use the term “British” king or queen.

Following Saturday’s travel via tube and black cab, we nailed the London transportation trifecta on Sunday morning by hopping a red double-decker bus. It was dubbed by three-year-old Maya as a “decker-decker” bus, and that’s how it was known to us forever after. The bus took us as far as the east side of Westminster Bridge, which we crossed on foot. (In a larger sense, the Thames divides London into north/south, but Westminster is on a pretty extreme bend.)

Much of the central part of Greater London, and most of the West End, is actually the “City of Westminster,” an entirely separate administrative district. The “City of London” is much, much smaller, and roughly corresponds with the square mile once enclosed by the old Roman walls.

Westminster Bridge, under the shadow of Westminster Palace (Houses of Parliament), is the tourism center of London. A huge crush of people, and so many different languages and accents mingled together, it was like an international bazaar. Police cars and ambulances dashed around unnervingly. I was let down to note that the traditional British rising-and-falling, two-note emergency vehicle siren has been replaced by the more familiar “whoop-whoop” American siren.

This was my first good look at the clock tower that houses Big Ben, which is the name of the huge bell inside, not the tower or even the clock. The tower was officially called “Clock Tower” (clever, no?) until 2012, when it was renamed “Elizabeth Tower” in honor of the current monarch. No matter the name, it was now completely clad in scaffolding due to a massive, multi-year renovation project. It was distinctly un-photogenic, indeed almost unrecogizeable, and a mite disappointing for tourists. “Even Space Mountain breaks down occasionally,” Cam pointed out.

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At Westminster Pier, we boarded a Thames Clipper river ferry (Oyster cards gladly accepted) and headed downriver towards Greenwich, passing under London Bridge and the Tower Bridge. (Don’t confuse them. One of my Anglophilic pet peeves is someone referring to the Gothic-spired Tower Bridge as “London Bridge.”)

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This is London Bridge.

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NOT this. This is Tower Bridge.

London Bridge is pretty nondescript, and it is the third bridge by that name to have occupied that space.

Where London Bridge is currently located is also roughly the same place that the Romans built a bridge when they established the settlement of Londinium in the 1st century A.D. Wooden bridges came and went in that location well into the Middle Ages. The first stone bridge across the Thames connecting London and Southwark was completed in 1209, and remained in place for over six centuries.

“Old London Bridge” was treated like any other street, and had homes and businesses lining either side. A chapel (St. Thomas’s) was next to a small drawbridge in the center which allowed for the passage of some tall ships, but most bigger vessels docked downstream from the bridge. Ferries rowed passengers and cargo through one of nineteen stone arches under the roadway. The heads of traitors could usually be observed impaled on spikes on the bridge’s Southwark entrance.

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London Bridge, circa 1600. Those aren’t lollipops on the lower right.

London Bridge was also the site of one of the most epic forgotten battles in history. A huge popular revolt led by Jack Cade rose up against the increasingly disastrous rule of the possibly mentally-challenged Henry VI. Cade’s rebels succceeded in taking over London for a day or two, but were forced out by the Tower of London’s garrison. A huge battle raged on London Bridge all through the night of July 8, 1450. Men fought hand-to-hand by the light of torches and the burning drawbridge until well after sunrise. Several inhabitants of the bridge’s homes were swept up in the fighting, and civilians and combatants alike were sometimes plunged howling into the Thames. When the gates to London were finally heaved closed in the morning light against the pile of charred and bloodied bodies, the revolt collapsed. Jack Cade’s head appeared in the expected spot above the Southwark entrance to the bridge within a few weeks. Political instability continued, ultimately leading to the Wars of the Roses a few years down the road. (I wish I could say I was cool enough to have named my son Cade after this guy, but he was in fact named after now-forgotten UCLA quarterback Cade McNown.)

Over time, the arches grew increasingly narrow due to silt build-up, the river level on either side could vary as much as six feet, and the water gushed through them at low tide like whitewater rapids. “Shooting the bridge” became a test of a boatman’s skill. By the 1500s, the bridge had more than 200 structures on it, some seven stories high. The center road was a mere twelve feet wide, and the top stories of the buildings were extended so far over the road, they almost touched in the middle, creating a tunnel effect.

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The bridge’s growing disrepair probably led to the well-known nursery rhyme song. It became so structurally unsound that all of its buildings were torn down in the 1700s, and the bridge itself was finally demolished in 1831.

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Out with the old bridge (right), in with the new (left), 1831.

That same year, “New London Bridge” opened, a granite structure with five much-wider arches (and no buildings cluttering it.) By 1896, it was London’s busiest thoroughfare, with 8000 pedestrians and 900 vehicles crossing every hour. But it was gradually sinking into the riverbanks on either side.

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New London Bridge

In 1967, it was dismantled…and reassembled in, of all places, Lake Havasu City, Arizona, where it can stare impassively down at thousands of tanned, oblivious spring breakers preening, pissing, screwing, and puking each April.

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New London Bridge in its new location, Lake Havasu City, AZ.

The better-engineered modern London Bridge is a perfectly serviceable concrete box-girder bridge, but it has no whiff of romanticism about it and does not draw the eye the way the more impressive Tower Bridge (completed in 1896 and named for the nearby Tower of London) does. It was long rumored that the billionaire entrepreneur Robert McCulloch, who was responsible for buying London Bridge and moving it to Arizona, thought he was getting the Tower Bridge. He always denied this. I think it may be true. (He was from Missouri.)

We got off the ferry at Greenwich, 5½ miles downriver from Charing Cross, and home to the Royal Observatory. This is where time begins, at least as far as we know “time.”

Before we got there, though, there was the matter of an early lunch. Shannon, Cam, and myself were over our jet lag, but our newly-arrived nieces and nephew were in the worst throes of it. They had popped awake and had breakfast around 5:00 that morning, and were now famished. I had partaken in my usual light traveling breakfast (two large cups of strong black coffee), so I could do with a bite myself. We settled in along long wooden benches on the second floor of Goddards at Greenwich (“Traditional Pie and Mash since 1890”).

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I had the minced beef pie and mash because it seemed to be the specialty of the house, and was a little disappointed. Not the dish’s fault at all, but Shannon’s heartier steak-and-ale pie just looked so much better.

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Goddards also seemed very proud of their jellied eels, but all of us skipped those. (Yes, they’re exactly what they sound like. Yes, the bones are still in there.)

In the 1670s, when England was on the rise as a maritime nation, there was a growing need for accurate timekeeping, since accurate timekeeping was vital to determining a ship’s longitude, or position east or west. Latitude (position north or south) had been easy enough to pinpoint for centuries (just measure the angle of the sun or North Star relative to the horizon), but longitude required a way to keep precise time while on board a ship. The rolling of a ship on waves plays havoc with a typical clock’s pendulum, and smaller watches had to be constantly wound and measured against a pendulum clock.

Longitude was a very tricky issue, and many ships and their crews were lost because they weren’t sure of their location. Charles II founded a Royal Observatory, administered by an “Astronomer Royal,” to make sure England’s sailors could safely determine their location based on the Observatory’s detailed star charts, created with the aid of increasingly sophisticated telescopes.

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Courtyard of the Royal Observatory, facing the Flamsteed House.

A clockmaker named John Harrison spent thirty years of his life developing a timepiece that could keep time at sea. He finally succeeded with his H4 “sea watch” in the 1760s, and in conjunction with the data generated by the Royal Observatory, the longitude crisis was solved. This bit of history is considered so important, a lavish four-part TV miniseries was made about it in 2000, starring Michael “Professor Dumbledore” Gambon as Harrison. It was called — wait for it — Longitude.

Zero degrees longitude is called the prime meridian. Every seafaring country once determined their own prime meridian, and made their own navigational charts based on it. Increasing globalization caused England’s Prime Meridian (capital P, capital M) at Greenwich to go into universal use after a vote of the International Meridian Conference in 1884 (what a crazy party that must have been). Along with that, the local time in Greenwich became the basis for the international civil time standard, Greenwich Mean Time (GMT).

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In keeping with being the home of all standards, the first thing you see when you approach the entrance to the Observatory after a long walk uphill across the broad, green lawns of Greenwich Park is the Public Standards of Length. The yard measured between two brass posts on is the official yard, supposedly based on the distance between Henry I’s (1068-1135) nose and outstretched thumb. The foot is the official foot (supposedly based on — you guessed it — the length of Henry I’s foot.) 19th-century scientists would travel here to make sure their measuring equipment was accurate.

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The strip of brass marking the Prime Meridian was close by (on the other side of the gate — pay your admission first, please), and was constantly crowded with people experiencing the novelty of having one foot in the western hemisphere and one foot in the eastern hemisphere.

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The Observatory building itself was designed by famous architect Sir Christopher Wren (St. Paul’s cathedral, Kensington Palace, Hampton Court, tons of other stuff) and referred to as the Flamsteed House (after the first Astronomer Royal, John Flamsteed.) It is the first purposely-built scientific research facility in Britain. Most of the actual astronomical observing was farmed out in the mid-20th century (due mainly to light pollution from ever-growing London), leaving the Flamsteed House and its surroundings as museum space. Continue reading

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