Inside Charles III’s Hampton Court Palace

Now that Charles III is King – he takes over the royal palaces and that includes an impressive Tudor spread just outside London called Hampton Court Palace. A royal residence seized from its original owner Cardinal Wolsey by his boss, King Henry VIII. He expanded it into the incredible series of structures you see today.

I visited in April 2022 – fifty-two years after I went as a child (see my film below). It’s as magical today as it was in 1970. Though the way it’s presented has changed a bit. But all the main features are still very much in evidence. The cavernous kitchens that served jumbo-sized meals to courtiers and the king twice a day. The manicured gardens with the maze that delights children. And the great vine for gardening enthusiasts.

DISCOVER: England’s long lost royal palaces

The palace is closely associated with three of Henry’s wives. The intertwined letters A and H you can see carved at certain points refers to the thousand days in which Henry took Anne Boleyn to be his second queen. After arranging for Anne to be beheaded with a sword on charges of treason, the overbearing monarch married Jane Seymour but she died in childbirth at Hampton Court.

Wife number five was the teenage Catherine Howard who was put under effective house arrest at this palace after being accused of adultery. She would also lose her head. As a child I remember a guide at Hampton Court telling us that her ghost could still be heard imploring the king in high pitched screams to forgive her indiscretions. He didn’t.

A century later, and King Charles the first was imprisoned in his own palace at the end of a civil war that had pitched royalists against parliamentarians. The king managed to escape as he knew his own palace and its various exit points. But was recaptured and executed outside the Banqueting House in London. The Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell – who headed up Britain’s first and only period as a republic of sorts – lived at Hampton Court enjoying its regal splendour.

But as you’ll see in the film below, that splendour wore thin by the end of the 1600s with King William III setting out to demolish the entire palace and rebuild it in the baroque style. He got half way there. So today, you have the remains of a Tudor palace bolted on to a grand Versailles-style edifice. It’s a curious stylistic jumble.

In 1737, King George II gave up on the place preferring Kensington Palace while George III developed what would become Buckingham Palace. It remains a royal palace and part of the new king’s palatial portfolio but it’s managed to be passed on as opposed to Charles III having any power to change it in any way.

Diamond Jubilee 1897 – amazing images!

Regular visitors to the blog know that I have a huge archive of old books and newspapers stretching back 300 years. And one dusty, crumbling specimen is a photo album published for the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897.

It includes images that reveal a Britain that is at once familiar and very different. In this most royal of weeks, leading up to the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II as I write, let me share some of these images with explanations. They are a fascinating insight into England 120 years ago.

DISCOVER: England’s lost royal palaces

The first scene below is in front of Buckingham Palace. The building may look a bit unfamiliar because in 1913, sixteen years later, a new Portland stone facade was slapped on the front of the palace to match the gleaming white Victoria memorial in front and to create a more impressive backdrop for royal events. Behind the facade is the original palace that was built throughout the first half of the 19th century.

What we see is an honour guard of sailors on the left and “blue jackets” on the right who may look like police but – and correct me if I’m wrong – were actually sailors as well, sent to put down the Boxer Rebellion in China amongst other things.

With the next image, we glimpse Queen Victoria leaving for her Diamond Jubilee procession. Note that today’s impressive railings around the palace are absent and obviously the memorial to Victoria mentioned above isn’t there either as she was still very much alive. The Mall has yet to be turned into the wide roadway we see in 2022.

FIND OUT MORE: The impressive state funeral for Queen Victoria

Below we get a view of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee procession going through the City of London near the Bank of England and Mansion House. In the foreground towards the left you can see a large group of ‘Bluecoat’ boys from Christ’s Hospital school. The pupils were from poorer backgrounds. The school was founded by King Edward VI in 1552.

It was housed in the remains of a Franciscan monastery shut down during the Protestant Reformation of Henry VIII. Five years after this photo was taken the boys were moved to a new school outside London ending centuries of being based in the middle of the city. The school is still thriving and today admits girls.

The next image has the Diamond Jubilee procession heading down Pall Mall towards Trafalgar Square and a huge multi-level stand has been erected at the junction. Of particular interest is the reference to “various West Indian regiments” as these could have come from Jamaica, Barbados, and other Caribbean colonies, which now are questioning their future in the Commonwealth following the death of Queen Elizabeth II who was still their head of state.

Finally, Queen Victoria arrives at St Paul’s cathedral, which remains an iconic presence on the London skyline. The masterpiece of Sir Christopher Wren, constructed after the Great Fire of 1666 that incinerated the ancient medieval cathedral. The buildings to the right are mostly still there but elsewhere around the cathedral, the Blitz of the Second World War levelled a great number of buildings.

DISCOVER: Medieval buildings bombed in World War Two

Note the amount of soot on St Paul’s. I remember it took until the middle of the 1980s for London to be cleaned of all its soot revealing a very different city to the dark place I grew up in. Creamy exteriors we had previously thought to be pitch black.

The impressive funeral of Queen Victoria

At 6.30pm on 22 January 1901, Queen Victoria breathed her last aged 81. Like her descendant Queen Elizabeth II, she was at a favourite country residence, in this case Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. Victoria’s reign had spanned the 19th century, starting in 1837 though she would be out-reigned by Elizabeth. Her funeral would be the first that we would recognise as a modern royal event with massive attention to detail, long processional routes, and mass media coverage.

Whereas her immediate predecessors had confined the whole business of the funeral to Windsor, Queen Victoria was processed around London for maximum public view. Firstly, her coffin arrived by train at Victoria station. It was then taken along the streets of London to Buckingham Palace, then down the Mall turning at St James’s Palace, along Piccadilly to Hyde Park, up the Edgware Road, and eventually to Paddington station for the train to Windsor.

Her body ended up at the Royal Mausoleum at Frogmore, just south of Windsor Castle, where she was laid to rest next to her long dead husband Prince Albert. Within her coffin, she was attired in her white wedding dress and veil, which is unusual as we often associate the older Queen Victoria with dowdy black.

Rather mawkishly, a plaster cast of Prince Albert’s hand was placed in hers alongside mementoes of John Brown, the Scottish personal assistant of Victoria who had enjoyed an unusually close relationship with the queen after her husband’s death. He had died in 1883.

DISCOVER: Worst royal funeral ever!

Royal attendees at the funeral of Queen Victoria

In the year 1901, there were a lot more royal families ruling Europe than there are today. Germany, Austro-Hungary, Russia, Portugal, Italy, and many other countries still had monarchs. And many were related to Queen Victoria who was something of a matriarch to all these European royals.

The titles of those present reads like an article in the Tatler. The King of the Belgians and his Grand Marshal of the Court; Count de Bourboulon, Envoy Extraordinary of Prince Ferdinand of Bulgaria; the Hereditary Grand Duke of Baden; the Grand Duke of Saxe-Meiningen; and Count D’Avricourt, representing the Prince of Monaco. Also present were the King of the Hellenes, Grand Duke Michael of Russia, and the Crown Prince of Denmark.

DISCOVER: The chaotic funeral of King George III

The British Empire announces the death of Queen Victoria

As Queen Victoria ruled an empire that spanned the globe, announcements of her death were made in all the dominions and colonies. The Governor of New Zealand Lord Ranfurly had formerly been a member of the Queen’s personal staff and had hoped to re-enter her service. He was “deeply moved” according to The Times.

In Australia, the Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Moran, and other senior clerics “preached powerful sermons eulogizing the Queen and her reign”.  A day of mourning was proclaimed in India as Victoria was official the Empress of that country. Eighty-one-gun salutes, representing each year of her life, were fired throughout India.

South Africa, the bloody Boer Wars were still raging between the British Empire and two Boer republics. Queen Victoria’s military governor in the Orange River Colony pledged its allegiance to the new king, Edward VII.  While in Pretoria, Lord Kitchener proclaimed the accession.

La Liberte newspaper in France reported on the “exchange of honours” between Victoria’s son, the new Edward VII, and Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany, who was Victoria’s grandson. But it warned that as Britain was now weakened by the war in South Africa, it had to be on its guard against the threat of war with a “great European nation or with the United States”. Just over a decade later, Britain would be at war with Germany – so prescient words indeed.

The cost of the funeral of Queen Victoria

In March 1901, a month after the funeral, the Daily Telegraph gave a breakdown of the funeral’s cost – which totalled £35,000. In today’s value, that would be: £4,781,513.49. Allowing for the recent spike in inflation. About £15k at 1901 value went on travel and accommodation for troops; £8.5k on entertaining royal and foreign guests; and £4,300 on hire of carriages, railway, and steamer expenses.

Below is a photograph of Queen Victoria not long after she died – viewer discretion is advised if you find this kind of image distasteful.

The chaotic funeral of King George III

On 29 January 1820, King George III died bringing an end to a very long reign of sixty years, long surpassed by Queen Elizabeth II who was on the throne for seventy years. George III was Elizabeth’s great-great-great-great-grandfather. Because of intermarriage, they’re related in other ways too. Unlike the funeral of Queen Elizabeth, that of King George was a chaotic and disorganised affair as news reports of the time testify.

Aged 82 and after sixty years on the throne, King George III died at Windsor Castle. Once news had arrived in central London, the Privy Council descended on Carlton House, the extravagant home of his son the Prince Regent, who was about to become George IV. The new spendthrift monarch was set on demolishing Carlton House, deeming it wasn’t good enough for his new role.

He had long waited for his father to pass away and now was able to become the undisputed monarch.

DISCOVER: The worst royal funeral ever!

Prelude to the chaotic funeral of King George III

According to The Observer, the body of his late father George III wasn’t embalmed in the “usual manner” but wrapped in cerecloth, a very medieval way of preserving the body. This involved binding the king’s body with strips of fabric impregnated with wax to exclude air and therefore decomposition.

The king had once been a hefty figure, generously proportioned. But The Observer reported that at death “the corpse of his Majesty exhibited a painful spectacle of the rapid decay which had previously taken place in his constitution. His once vigorous frame was reduced almost to the appearance of a skeleton”. For this reason, conventional embalming was deemed to be too difficult to perform on a body that had wasted away.

Tightly wrapped, the king was then placed in a mahogany coffin with an interior fold of white satin. This was then placed inside a lead coffin, which was then inserted into yet another mahogany coffin.

“The whole will finally be enclosed in the state coffin, which will be covered with crimson velvet, richly ornamented with gilt nails, and bearing the royal arms.”

On top of this funereal Russian nesting doll of multiple coffins was the following inscription:

DEPOSITUM

Serenissimi Potentissimi et Excellentissimi Monarchae

GEORGII TERTII

Dei Gratia, Britanniarum Regis, Fidei Defensoris

Regis Hanoverae ac Brunsvici et Lunenburgi Ducis

Obiit xxix die Januarii. Anno Domini MDCCCXX

Aetatis sure LXXXII, Regnique sui LX

The funeral was to be in Windsor where George had died so he lay in state in the castle and was then removed to his tomb. This meant that vast crowds descended on this small town just outside London. The streets became a sea of confusion with a jumble of carriages and “jaded horses”. And things only got worse.

The chaotic funeral of King George III

There was little by way of crowd control and those who had come to gawp at George were not especially well behaved or dignified in their conduct:

“Males, females, and children, were huddled together in an indiscriminate mass and the shrieks of the latter as they were crushed against each other, or against the railing by which their numbers were confined, were so dreadful, that apprehensions were entertained of the most serious mischiefs, and many were extricated with difficulty from a state of the greatest peril.”

The Observer’s description is chilling and leaves a lot of unpleasantness to the imagination. Having emerged from that hell, mourners found themselves flung into another. At each entry point into another part of Windsor castle people were “sucked into the vortex of an impatient throng”. The report went on:

“It was a complete scramble, in which the infirmities of age, the delicate habits of many respectable and beautiful females, who were intermingled with the throng, and the helplessness of infancy, were alike disregarded.”

Ten years later, George III’s son George IV would die after just ten years on the throne. His passing was far less mourned, but some lessons had been learned from the chaotic scenes in 1820. And in 2022, we see a police operation around the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II that beggars belief in terms of scale and cost.

Worst Royal Funeral ever!

On June 26, 1830 – one of the most unpopular monarchs of England died. King George the Fourth breathed his last. And it seems that nobody particularly cared. This was possibly the worst royal funeral ever!

Goodbye to a hated king!

The Times published an astonishing commentary referring to George as a “pompous and secluded monarch” who had easily identifiable vices while his virtues were not in evidence. “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow-creatures than this deceased king. What eye has wept for him? What heart has heaved one throb of unmercenary sorrow?”

It then went on to say: “If George IV ever had a friend – a devoted friend – in any rank of life, we protest that the name of him or her has not yet reached us.” The reason, the commentary continued, was his utter selfishness.

“Selfishness is the true repellent of human sympathy. Selfishness feels no attachment and invites none – it is the charnel-house of the affections.”

The London Medical Gazette pulled no punches on July 17, barely three weeks after the king’s death, detailing the “remarkable degree of obesity in the person of his late majesty”.

“We understand that the quantity of fat enveloping the several viscera in the person of his late Majesty was very great. An immense deposit was found about the kidneys, and the adipose matter seemed even to have pervaded the ‘intersfical’ texture of these glands.” There was so much fat around George’s heart, The Times was sure it had “oppressed its action to a considerable extent”.

When it came to reporting the king’s funeral a month later, The Times said it was required to cover the event “though at the sacrifice of more important matter”. “Our hearts sicken at the insincerity of the closed and darkened house, the dismal knell, and ‘all the forms, modes, and shows of grief’ wherewith the court sycophant bemoans departed majesty, and with obsequious bow, and smirking smiling face, rejoices in the event”.

DISCOVER: Why King Henry VIII had no friends

Royal Funeral with little respect for the King

The Morning Chronicle reported that on the day of the funeral ‘common-place jokes’ were being told by courtiers.

The whole lying in state and funeral was conducted at Windsor Castle which George IV had spent a vast amount of money refurbishing at a time when the country was in economic turmoil. We’re used to the idea of British royal occasions being perfectly stage managed but before Queen Victoria – this was not the case.

Both the funerals of George IV and his father George III were chaotic. At this funeral, both women and what were described as “effeminate” men complained loudly about the crush of the crowd. Once mourners found themselves by the coffin of the king, The Times noted that there was far less interest than there had been for king George III.

And on the streets of Windsor, “the only sign of mourning” was in what people were wearing. “There is no affectation of grief”, the Times reported, “no sound of lamentation in the street”. The procession to the king’s tomb was described as “more tumultuous than magnificent – more pretending than interesting”.

And quite shockingly to us after seeing the respect shown to Queen Elizabeth the Second – The Times noted that when the “Royal Body appeared, not a single mark of sympathy was exhibited”. The VIP guests found themselves seated without a view because royal servants and their friends who lived locally including carpenters and upholsterers had taken the best seats and refused to give them up.

London shut down as the funeral was a public holiday and people thronged the streets – especially Fleet Street and The Strand. But there were rowdy scenes. St James’s Church in Piccadilly held a special service for the king but only six people turned up. At St James’s Clerkenwell, the preacher condemned the king railing against the “voluptuousness of his companions” and his “habits of reckless expenditure”. He continued: “In no portion of his life was he fortunate in his choice of friends”.

As for George’s stormy relationship with his wife, “it would be well for the memory of his late Majesty if the alienation from the Queen formed no part of his history”.

DISCOVER: Royal weddings – tragic and comic

Before the Royal Funeral – His Majesty’s grim death

Details of George’s final hours of life were given. Contrast that with the scant details provided about the last day of Queen Elizabeth II. King George IV was moved from his bed into a chair as death clearly approached with his fixed and his lips quivering. Attempts were made to revive him splashing Eau de Cologne on the royal face “and such stimulants as were at hand”.

The king tried to raise his hand to his chest and whispered: “Oh God, I am dying!”. Then after a few seconds: “This is death!”. The king’s doctors were not present but once they got to what was now a corpse, they noted his chest was “much swollen as well as the abdomen and legs” while the upper part of his body “exhibited all the appearances of extreme emaciation”.

Aside from heart disease, the king also had cancer and The Times described the lead up to his death with obvious relish: “The torture which the King must have suffered during the paroxysms of this disorder, must have been excruciating. His moans were at times even heard by the sentinels on duty in the Quadrangle”. So disturbed were the soldiers on guard by the noise that they moved away from the king’s apartments to avoid hearing it.

In short, despite some people’s best efforts, George IV was ushered out of this world with little dignity or respect.

England’s lost royal palaces

Some of England’s royal palaces have gone missing – lost at some point in history. Grand structures that once dominated the landscape have vanished into thin air. So, what happened to them?

Every day I pass by an office block called Edinburgh House in south London – a typical post-war block on a busy street. Hard to believe it was once Kennington Palace – built by the Black Prince, one of the military heroes of the Middle Ages. Yet today, not a scrap of the place is left. Why?

Kennington is one of several lost palaces in London alone. There is the mystery of Baynard’s Castle, a looming presence on the river Thames up until the 17th century. Now the site of a 1970s brutalist monstrosity.

One of our largest lost royal palaces

Or the vast 1,500-room Whitehall Palace that King Henry VIII built in Westminster and from where the Tudor monarchs terrorised the country with their conflicting ideas on religion. Whitehall rivalled the Pope’s new Vatican palace in the 16th century and was only eventually outshone by Versailles, constructed by the ‘sun king’, Louis XIV. Today, a solitary building – Banqueting House – is all that remains.

DISCOVER: The filth and stench at Versailles

Where the Savoy Hotel now stands was once the Savoy Palace, home to John of Gaunt. He was the brother of the aforementioned Black Prince and arguably the most powerful politician of the medieval period. But his once sumptuous home has gone. A victim to a wave of violence that swept the city.

To find out more about our lost royal palaces, watch the film below for some answers that might surprise you!

Has royal tradition been largely invented?

This week just gone saw the death of Queen Elizabeth II who has been a constant in my life as somebody born and raised in the United Kingdom. It’s an event that’s had a justifiably big impact. But in the hours and days that have followed, I’ve watched with a quizzical eye some of the allegedly ancient traditions unfold. Normally involving men in strange costumes yelling proclamations around the country. But to what extent has much of this royal tradition been invented?

In other words, is it all as old as they’d like you to believe?

Well, it may come as a shock to both Britons and royal watchers around the world to know that some of these venerable traditions really aren’t that old. Unless you regard fifty, one hundred and even two hundred years as incredibly ancient. In fact, a great deal of the pomp has grown with the development of mass media and the public appetite for spectacle.

The monarchy has also been deployed during volatile political periods in the 19th and 20th century to curb radical and even revolutionary currents stirring within the British population. In an excellent book – The Invention of Tradition – edited by the late Eric Hobsbawm, things you may have regarded as both eternal and true like Scottish tartan were breezily demolished. The book showed how royal glitz has been an effective distraction from growing social unrest.

DISCOVER: Royal weddings – tragic and comic

The book also examined how royal ‘tradition’ was extended to the Indian Raj and colonial Africa to foster deference and the idea of an empire upon which the sun would never set. For example, the British took the idea of the ‘durbar’, a traditional royal feudal gathering in India, and turned it into the Imperial Durbar. Three grand processional events held by the British in 1877, 1903, and 1911. At the third one, King George V oversaw the proceedings in person as Emperor of India (a title invented in Queen Victoria’s reign and scrapped in the 1940s after Indian independence).

So let’s look at some other traditions around the monarch that may not be quite as old as if often claimed:

The State Opening of Parliament: The website for Parliament claims this ceremony is 500 years old. But then it lets the cat out of the bag admitting that in its ‘modern’ form – ie, what you see on TV – it’s only existed since 1852 when Queen Victoria established the route to be taken and much of the ritual. Indeed, in the early part of Victoria’s reign, a state opening would have been impossible because the Houses of Parliament had burned down and were being rebuilt.

The Honours system: If you think the honours system with the OBE, MBE, and CBE dates back centuries, I’ve got bad news for you. It celebrated its centenary in 2017 having been introduced in the closing years of the First World War and the same year as the Russian Revolution.

The national anthem: While the music and words to the national anthem, do date back to the mid-18th century, the anthem only started to be used in earnest at royal occasions from the mid-19th century. It wasn’t even played at the coronation of Queen Victoria in 1837.

In short, we can rightly point an accusing finger at the Victorians whose love of kitsch – and frankly rather camp – takes on medieval history and ritual are well recognised. They created much of the royal ‘tradition’ that we believe dates back countless centuries.

Queen Elizabeth

Queen Elizabeth – a lifelong presence

For those of us in our 50s and 60s – Queen Elizabeth the Second has been a constant presence throughout our lives. I’m no great monarchist but this familiar figure bowing out is a very unsettling moment. It reminds us of losing those close to us in recent years – including both my parents. We’ve essentially watched the Queen going through the same health travails as she relinquishes her grasp on life.

As a pupil at an infants and then junior school in the late 1960s and 1970s, the Queen was omnipresent. She’d already been on the throne for two decades by the start of the 70s. And her status as the head of state sitting at the pinnacle of the social order was beyond question.

The coins and notes we got as pocket money bore her young head with a laureate crown and after 1971 – when our currency went decimal – an updated image appeared as she advanced into her 40s. There were still coins with the heads of her father and grandfather – George VI and George V – in circulation, but they seemed very remote figures.

In the school assembly hall, we faced the 1955 portrait of the Queen painted by Pietro Annigoni with the monarch draped in the ceremonial robes of the Order of the Garter and a strangely desolate landscape behind her. While the Queen gazed serenely down, we sung our morning hymns and intoned the Our Father to the head of the Church of England. Deference was still a big thing in the 1970s.

Queen Elizabeth meets punk rock

The late 1970s saw both a surge in monarchism and the first outburst of counter-cultural opposition. In 1977, the Queen celebrated her Silver Jubilee and the nation was enjoined to organise street parties and other events. Whereas subsequent jubilees – Golden, Diamond, and Platinum – seemed to be over in a fortnight, the 1977 jubilee went on for months. And it was very much a Commonwealth wide affair with the Queen touring Australia and New Zealand while Prince Charles visited Canada.

But a year before, punk rock had exploded into our lives. It’s hard to explain now what an impact The Sex Pistols and that whole musical genre had on our generation in a country that was sagging under the weight of economic crisis, post-Empire malaise, and rising unemployment. The Pistols released the raucous and irreverent single God Save The Queen which looking back now was less an attack on the Queen as a person and more a rejection of deference and suffocating paternalism.

But there was no wave of Republicanism crashing through the land. As a political activist in the 1980s, I was opposed to the monarchy but the main target of my socialist ire was capitalism. The Queen was simply the ceremonial icing on a cake of class oppression. I moved on from radical activism but just in time for the Queen to experience what she termed an “annus horribilis” in her Ruby Jubilee year of 1992.

Queen Elizabeth and her terrible year

That jubilee was noticeably low-profile. We were in the throes of endless scandal and rumour surrounding Sarah, Duchess of York – better known as “Fergie” – and of course Diana, Princess of Wales. Divorce, separation, racy photos, and compromising recording of secret conversations gave the tabloids a field day with the Royal Family. And then a big chunk of Windsor Castle burned down.

Compared to the 1970s, the monarchy in the 1980s and 1990s slid from revered institution to soap opera. Culminating in the death of Princess Diana in Paris. This event was an eye opener for me as somebody who wasn’t an arch-monarchist, along with most of my friends. It revealed a large and hyper-emotional constituency of royal admirers whose grief went far beyond anything most people I knew were experiencing. And the target of their anger over Diana’s demise was the Queen.

Shrill and shouty demands came for Her Majesty to show her feelings more publicly. I’ll admit that for the first time in my life, I actually felt genuine sympathy for the Queen. She was essentially being harangued into displaying the correct feelings by a tranche of the population in thrall to therapists. And she buckled, giving a televised address to mollify the population.

DISCOVER: Why did Queen Elizabeth the First never marry?

A kinder century for Queen Elizabeth

The 21st century has seen the Queen’s stature rise as the public view of democratically elected politicians and other professions has nosedived. But as ever, there’s a contradictory trend. Younger people – if social attitudes surveys are to be believed – just don’t feel the affinity to the monarchy that’s still widespread in my generation.

In addition, the discourse about the legacy of colonialism, slavery, and empire has fuelled a growing hostility in the Commonwealth. The last anachronistic ties binding former colonies to Britain are unwinding rapidly. It’s become the conventional wisdom to state that after Queen Elizabeth – the remnants of empire will evaporate. She is, after all, the last link to the Empire.

So, it’s been a journey that millions feel they’ve been on. Queen Elizabeth evolved into the nation’s collective mother figure – even though she has remained throughout a remote and even slightly ethereal figure. This constant in our lives is now disappearing. How our view of the monarchy will change is a big question.

Elgin Marbles

Should the UK hand over the Elgin Marbles to Greece?

There is growing pressure on the British Museum in London to send the Elgin Marbles back to Athens in what would be a historic move. For two hundred years, the museum has owned and displayed two-hundred sculptures that once adorned the Parthenon – a temple built 2,500 years ago at the height of ancient Greek power, dedicated to the goddess Athena.

Today, if you get to visit the Parthenon in the Greek capital Athens, it’s very much a shadow of its former self. But then this iconic monument has experienced a rocky and turbulent history. Originally, it was a huge temple and strong-walled treasury for the ancient Greeks in the fifty century BC.

Later, when Athens became part of the Roman Empire, the Parthenon transformed into a church in the sixth century AD when the Romans converted to Christianity. Incredibly, this involved adding a bell tower to the temple.

In the 15th century, Greece was invaded by the Ottoman Empire – a Turkic and Muslim kingdom that came to dominate eastern Europe, north Africa and the Middle East for centuries. The Parthenon was changed into a mosque and the bell tower extended to become a minaret. Yet despite all this, the Parthenon was surprisingly intact as it marked two thousand years of existence.

But then disaster struck. In 1687, the Ottomans were at war with Venice – which was then an independent country. In the film below, I detail what happened to the Parthenon. Bit of a spoiler but basically, it was left in the condition you see today. If you think the Parthenon collapsed thousands of years ago, think again. It was wrecked just 340 years ago.

Semi-demolished and unloved, the Parthenon was looted for building material. A fate shared by many ancient buildings at a time before tourism and the notion of conservation. But in the 18th century, wealthy, intellectual Britons took a growing interest in the classical past. They made a beeline for Rome and Athens undertaking what became known as the “Grand Tour”.

DISCOVER: London’s great plague in 1665

Meanwhile in the Ottoman capital Constantinople, the British ambassador was a member of the British nobility called Thomas Bruce – though you know him as Lord Elgin. Initially he sent a team to make drawings and casts of the Parthenon friezes but this somehow developed into the removal of half the Parthenon sculptures. What came to be known – notoriously – as the Elgin Marbles were then shipped to London.

I’ve looked back at newspaper commentary from Elgin’s lifetime and his lordship had plenty of critics. Although you get the impression that some of his critics were jealous they hadn’t got there first. However, Elgin’s claim that he had the approval of the Ottoman authorities to remove the marbles from the Parthenon and ship them off was greeted with scepticism – even in parliament.

One report in The Times on June 8, 1816, covers a debate in parliament where Elgin’s version of events was derided. His argument that he was rescuing the marbles from the Parthenon was rubbished. It was said that he had been given permission to “view” and “contemplate” the sculptures – not to pull them down and ship them off.

What should have happened ideally was that the Ottomans – referred to as Turks in this parliamentary debate – could have been taught to value these monuments as opposed to having them whipped away by Elgin. Parliament viewed Elgin’s conduct – especially in his role as an ambassador – as thoroughly inappropriate. Here is an excerpt from that 1816 newspaper article.

Elgin claimed to have spent something like 74,000 pounds to secure the marbles from the Parthenon. A select committee of the House of Commons looked into the whole affair in 1816 and decided to offer Elgin under half that amount to buy the marbles for the nation.

The committee sympathised with the argument that Elgin had “saved” the marbles, declaring they would have been destroyed over time by the “apathy of the Turks” and “barbarous violence” by passing travellers carrying off fragments. But the sympathy didn’t extend to given Elgin what he was demanding financially. There’s a constant inference – to be blunt – that Elgin was a bit of a chancer and a man in public office who was lining his pockets.

Black British Georgian Rebel – William Davidson

In 1820, a group of English radical activists plotted to kill the entire British government while they were sat down to dinner in central London. The Cato Street Conspiracy – so-called from the place where they met to plot – was uncovered and the ringleaders executed in a public and grisly manner. One of those who died was William Davidson – a black British Georgian rebel.

Davidson is an under-recognised figure in our history. An educated and resourceful radical. The illegitimate son of the slave-owning Attorney General of Jamaica and a local free woman. And a man whose gravitas on the scaffold as he faced his fate was commented on positively by journalists.

Britain had won a long war against Napoleon Bonaparte and the French Empire with the final victory at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. But far from ushering in a period of peace and stability, the ending of military conflict was followed by economic depression and mass hunger as food prices skyrocketed.

This was a period when working-class people didn’t have the vote and precious few rights in the workplace – if they were lucky to have a job. Demobbed soldiers joined civilians sleeping rough on the streets with many surviving through petty crime even though pickpocketing and burglary could carry the death penalty. And those being hanged in public included teenagers and very occasionally what we would regard as children.

DISCOVER: A horrific day trip to Georgian London

Black British Rebel – William Davidson

Little wonder that radical movements emerged, and Davidson was drawn to them like a moth to the flame. He would play a leading role in the Cato Street Conspiracy that aimed to take out hated ministers like the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh. The plotters hoped to display Castlereagh’s head after the government had been wiped out but instead, it would be Davidson who would be beheaded in front of Newgate prison on the first of May 1820.

Join me as we go back to this turbulent yet fascinating period of history!