Archive | History RSS feed for this section

The Myth of London Stone

21 Nov

London Stone has been a landmark for centuries. And where facts and science have failed to provide a definite history, myths have flourished. London’s Cannon Street is a frantic mêlée during the morning rush hour. As commuters hurry to work, few notice the small crypt, with a glass encasement within it, built into the wall of 111 Cannon Street. Fewer still know that to peer inside would reveal a stone – nothing extravagant, just a lump of oolitic limestone. There are no precious metals or engravings; it’s not a dazzling artefact you might find in a museum. But what it is, and has been as long as records exist, is a literal and metaphorical part of London. Some 18th-Century writers even suggested that, much like the palladium that protected the city of Troy in Ancient Greek mythology, the stone’s survival is key to the continued existence of London itself. One thing that is for sure is that it is always there, and always remains the same, it has stood roughly in the same spot, while everything around it has changed. To this day, however, the exact origin of this 53cm-by-43cm-by-30cm piece of rock, known as London Stone, remains a mystery. Studies undertaken in the 1960s revealed it was likely Clipsham limestone, probably extracted from the band of Jurassic-era rock that runs from Dorset in England’s south-west to Lincolnshire in the north-east. London Stone was included on the earliest printed maps of the city in the 16th Century. What remains today is only a fraction of the original stone that was once embedded in the ground in the centre of Candlewick Street, now known as Cannon Street, a short walk from the Tower of London. John Stow, a 16th-Century London historian, wrote in 1598: “It is so strongly set, that if carts do run against it through negligence, the wheels be broken, and the stone itself unshaken.” It was an entirely impractical position, no doubt, but bearing how much the topography has changed in London over the last millennium, it’s fair to assume that the streets were built around the stone. But that is all we can say definitively.

Continue reading

The Most Haunted Places in Dorset

19 Sep

The distant past is perhaps more tangible in Dorset than in any other part of England. Predominantly rural, this county overlaps substantially with the ancient kingdom of Wessex, whose most famous ruler, Alfred the Great, repulsed the Danes in the ninth century and came close to establishing the first unified state in England. Before Wessex came into being, however, many earlier civilizations had left their stamp on the region. The chalky uplands of nearby Wiltshire boast several of Europe’s greatest Neolithic sites, including Stonehenge and Avebury, while in Dorset you’ll find Maiden Castle, the most striking Iron Age hill fort in the country, and the Cerne Abbas Giant, source of many a legend. The Romans tramped all over this southern county, leaving the most conspicuous signs of their occupation at the amphitheatre of Dorchester – though that town is more closely associated with the novels of Thomas Hardy and his distinctively gloomy vision of Wessex. None of the landscapes of this region could be described as grand or wild, but the countryside is consistently seductive, its appeal exemplified by the crumbling fossil-bearing cliffs around Lyme Regis, the managed woodlands of the New Forest, or the gentle, open curves of Salisbury Plain. With this weight of history it is hardly surprising to hear that Dorset has often been called one of the most haunted parts of the British Isles. You can feel your skin crawl as you stand amidst the ghostly occupants of Dorset’s spooky pubs, stately homes and historic buildings, where paranormal activity haunts the grounds and current residents. From whispering voices and swirling white mists to eerie spirits and ghastly ghouls, Dorset is full of haunted locations and ghost stories, guaranteed to leave you with a chill.

Continue reading

Shakespeare’s Dark Lady

15 Nov

The seductive Dark Lady who inspired some of Shakespeare’s most famous and explicit sonnets has remained a mystery for centuries. This mysterious woman is described in Shakespeare’s sonnets and so called because the poems make it clear that she has black wiry hair and dark, brown, “dun” coloured skin. What was to become perhaps one of the most famous poetic works of all time was a slim volume on publication in 1609, containing 154 poems over 67 pages, and the edition is now extremely rare: only 13 copies survive. But its influence has been all-encompassing, providing a template for language, for literature, for love, ever since. Recent years have seen the sonnets disseminated in ways that Shakespeare could never have imagined. “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?” is quoted 5m times on the internet. Apps have been created in which famous voices recite the poems, sonnets are tweeted, T-shirts are printed, and poetry that was once said to circulate only among Shakespeare’s “private friends” is now stored for ever in the cloud. But what remains one of the great mysteries of English literature is who, exactly, was the “Dark Lady” of Shakespeare’s Sonnets? Did she even exist? And, if so, who was this tantalising woman with “raven” brows and black hair to whom Shakespeare addressed a string of overtly passionate and sometimes explicit poems? Scholars have debated the issue for decades — potential candidates include Aline Florio, wife to a translator, Mary Fitton, a lady-in-waiting, and “Black Luce”, a brothel-owner.

Continue reading

Lupercalia

15 Feb

More than a Hallmark holiday, Valentine’s Day, like Halloween, is rooted in pagan partying. Lupercalia was an ancient pagan festival held each year in Rome on February 15. Although Valentine’s Day shares its name with a martyred Christian saint, some historians believe the holiday is actually an offshoot of Lupercalia. Unlike Valentine’s Day, however, Lupercalia was a bloody, violent and sexually-charged celebration awash with animal sacrifice, random matchmaking and coupling in the hopes of warding off evil spirits and infertility. The origins of the festival are obscure, although the likely derivation of its name from lupus (Latin: “wolf”) has variously suggested connection with an ancient deity who protected herds from wolves and with the legendary she-wolf who nursed Romulus and Remus. As a fertility rite, the festival is also associated with the god Faunus. The Lupercalia may be the longest-lasting of the Roman pagan festivals. Some modern Christian festivals, like Christmas and Easter, took on elements of earlier pagan religions, but they are not essentially Roman, pagan holidays. Lupercalia may have started at the time of the founding of Rome (traditionally 753 BC) or even before. It ended about 1200 years later, at the end of the 5th century AD, at least in the West, although it continued in the East for another few centuries. There may be many reasons why Lupercalia lasted so long, but most important must have been its wide appeal.

Continue reading

The Man in the Iron Mask

23 Jun

During the reign of King Louis XIV, an enigmatic man spent several decades confined to the Bastille and other French prisons. No one knew his identity or why he was in jail. Even stranger, no one knew what he looked like—the prisoner was never seen without a mask covering his face. The anonymous prisoner has since inspired countless stories and legends, yet most historians agree that he existed. The mysterious prisoner lived during the reign of Louis XIV. To his supporters, Louis was le Roi Soleil (“the Sun King”) in whose reign France expanded and strengthened her borders. To his detractors, he was a near tyrant, whose belief in absolutism—the idea that he ruled as God’s representative on Earth—had turned France into a police state. After his death, the unknown prisoner’s story began to take on a life of its own as gossips said that his punishment stemmed directly from the French throne. From the very outset, the “masked man” stories were more than just lurid tales: They played directly into anti-Louis propaganda. During the Nine Years’ War (1688-1697) the Dutch, fighting to protect their republic from French expansion, exploited the rumor to undermine the legitimacy of Louis XIV. Agents of the Dutch spread claims that the masked prisoner was a former lover of the queen mother, and was the king’s real father—which would make Louis illegitimate. Historians have, however, discounted the theory popularised by famed philosopher Voltaire and writer Alexandre Dumas that the masked man was the twin brother of Louis XIV. So who was he?

Continue reading

Lovecraft Country

21 Apr

Matt Ruff’s novel, Lovecraft Country, is set in Jim Crow America, long after Lovecraft’s death in 1937. Despite drawing the title from a term coined by Keith Herber to describe the fictional New England landscape in which Lovecraft set many of his stories, Ruff’s novel takes place primarily in Chicago; though there are excursions afield to locales both terrestrial and celestial, very little of the story is actually set in the eponymous Lovecraft Country. Nor do Ruff’s characters resemble the typical Lovecraftian protagonist — white, male, and with antiquarian tendencies. Atticus Turner, a 22-year-old African American Korean War vet, has just returned to his hometown of Chicago only to find his father, Montrose, has gone missing under mysterious circumstances. Montrose and Atticus never got along very well, mostly due to the friction caused by how each man navigated the racial tightrope of living in Jim Crow America. Guided by his Uncle George’s self-published ‘The Safe Negro Travel Guide’, Atticus, George, and Letitia, his friend from childhood, set off for the east coast to track down Montrose. Their trip takes them to a rustic white enclave in the backwoods of Massachusetts run by the wealthy Braithwaite family. The chaos that ensues from Atticus’ subsequent choices ensnares two black families and their friends into a centuries-long battle of freedom and oppression, hope and hatred, racial intolerance and violent magic.

Continue reading

What became of the Bunyip?

24 Mar

Australia is famous for its huge swathes of untouched wilderness and for the unique, often deadly animals that wander there. You wouldn’t expect that a nation with the likes of the platypus and the killer box jellyfish would need to invent a new creature to add to its allure, yet reports of a mysterious, massive creature lurking in the waters of Australia abound. This creature, the Bunyip, is as much a part of Australian culture as any of its other fantastic beasts. The Bunyip (translated in Aboriginal Australian to mean devil or evil spirit), also known as the Kianpraty, is a creature of Aboriginal mythology. It lives in swamps, billabongs, creeks, riverbeds and waterholes all over Australia. The Bunyip has many descriptions. Some say it has a dog-like face, dark fur, a horse-like tail, flippers, walrus-like tusks, and a duck-like bill. Others think the creature has an appearance similar to a snake with a man and a beard. Some even think that the Bunyip is actually the prehistoric marsupial, Diprotodon australis, that managed to escape extinction. But the figure of the Bunyip was part of traditional Aboriginal beliefs and stories throughout Australia, while its name varied according to tribal nomenclature. In his 2001 book, writer Robert Holden identified at least nine regional variations of the creature known as the Bunyip across Aboriginal Australia. Europeans recorded various written accounts of Bunyips in the early and mid-19th century, as they began to settle across the country.

Continue reading

Haunted Holland

28 Oct

Here’s a special pre-Halloween treat for all of you – a post about Utrecht, the most haunted city in the Netherlands! Founded by the Romans in 47 AD, Utrecht was one of the first places in the Netherlands to embrace Christianity, and in the Middle Ages it grew into an important religious centre. The city retains many of its medieval churches and monasteries – wandering the backstreets it is possible to revel in the architectural reminders of past centuries. But there is also a darker aspect to this history. During the horrific witch hunts of the 16th century, thousands of women all over the country were executed – burned, drowned or otherwise tortured to death – on suspicion of witchcraft. Weighing was one of the more common methods of determining witchery, as a popular belief held that any woman who was too light for the size of her frame was obviously a witch (because hags like that have no soul). The nearby town of Oudewater emerged with some honour – no one was ever proved to be a witch here and this is held up as a symbol of the honesty of the locals, who refused to take bribes to rig the weights. It is also seen as the first stirrings of people power and a turn against the church, which was behind the witch-hunts.

Continue reading

The Whitby Witches

18 Mar

Whitby is a town on the North Yorkshire coast that is perched between two supernatural thresholds – the moors and the sea. This area is rich with extraordinary history, stories of the magical and mysterious, of shipwrecks, sailors, superstitions and the supernatural, of wild adventure and impossible happenings. The 17th century abbey here made Whitby one of the key foundations of the early Christian period, and a centre of great learning, though little interfered with the fishing community which scraped together a living on the harbour banks of the River Esk below. For a thousand years, the local herring boats landed their catch until the great whaling boom of the 18th century transformed the fortunes of the town. Melville’s Moby Dick makes much of Whitby whalers like William Scoresby, while James Cook took his first seafaring steps from the town in 1746, on his way to becoming a national hero. Tourism started in Whitby during the Georgian period and developed further on the arrival of the railway in 1839. Its attraction as a tourist destination was enhanced by its proximity to the high ground of the North York Moors National Park, its Heritage Coastline and by its association with the classic horror novel Dracula. There are also stories of a horrific black hound that prowls the streets of Whitby by night, tales of unexplained supernatural phenomena at the Pavilion Theatre and reports of paranormal activity in virtually every room of an historic Georgian manor that is now a guest house during the tourist season.

Continue reading

Boston By Night

15 Oct

Boston is an old city, one of the oldest colonial settlements in the Americas, and it has long been fertile ground for superstition, myth and folklore. The woods of New England and upstate New York have a certain reputation for having been haunted by devil-worshippers, witches or creatures of the night during the time of the pilgrims and the later colonies (the Headless Horseman, for instance). But the strands of fate binding the region aren’t all bad. The city did spawn the Boston Tea Party, which helped to create a new nation dedicated to freedom and liberty. The city also saw the Salem Witch Trials. It’s the city where Ben Franklin grew up, and the place where the infamous Strangler stalked. In other words, it’s a place of potency. New things are created daily at MIT, while Harvard graduates figure out how best to steer the course of society. Boston is a city of secrets, layered with history. Buried under the weight of the past, secrets from Boston’s pre-colonial and colonial history promise profits and threats to visitors. The Massachusetts woods creep over forgotten ruins and strange colonies. Boston proper is a layered city, where the sediment of past cultures pack into a bedrock that isn’t easily dislodged by the passing fads of the 21st century. Europeans came here with agendas that were variously devout, venal, hopeful and strange. Once Boston was a revolutionary city, full of ideas and promise. Its possibilities have been fading, lost in a mire of apathy and the frantic pace of too-rapid change. What legacies continue to reach forward, out of history, to continue to affect the present? These legacies not only give Boston’s past an identity but also serve, through means both mystic and mundane, to define its future. Along lonely roads, in deep woods and on the grounds of isolated and ancient houses, strange things lurk. Boston and its surroundings have long known the tread of those who walk in other realms – centuries-long hauntings, spirits both benign and malevolent and creatures unknown to either science or superstition, just to name a few. Let’s take a look at the city of Boston and its environs with all its old, witchy New England atmosphere .

Continue reading

%d bloggers like this: