Wednesday, October 31, 2012



As our motor coach sped through the English countryside, we took note of two things, (1) speed cameras to catch the unaware speeder, and (2) fields of beautiful yellow flowers.  We learned that the flowers are rapeseed which we know today as canola.  When Henry VIII broke off relations with the Pope, the Catholic countries of southern Europe, especially Spain and Portugal,  cut off England's supplies of olive oil.  Henry's solution was to order the British to begin planting rapeseed, a rich source of vegetable oil as a substitute.  Today, it is used for biofuels, animal feed and nutritious vegetable oil.   We don't like the name rapeseed, although the word actually comes from the Latin rapa which means "turnip".  Instead canola is deemed a more politically correct word, but it is actually an acronym coined by plant researchers--CAN O L-A which stands for Canadian oilseed, low acid. 


No visit to England is complete without seeing William Shakespeare's hometown, Stratford-upon-Avon.  We always knew that Avon is the river there, but we didn't know that Avon was actually the old English word for "river". Thus Avon River is really "river-river".  There are six different Avon Rivers (actually Rivers Avon) in England--in Devon, Warwickshire, Hampshire, Bristol, Hampshire again, and Evesham, plus three more in Scotland and another in Wales. 

We crossed the Avon into Stratford where our first stop was Anne Hathaway's cottage with its thatched roof.  We didn't spend a lot of time there other than taking the group picture with our tour guide.  Anne Hathaway was a cougar--or was it a coyote?  Whatever the case, Anne was 26 and pregnant when she and the 18 year old William Shakespeare got married in 1582.  Does that tell you something?  Their first child, born a few months later was Susanna, and not too long after, they had twins, a son, Hamnet (not Hamlet) and daughter Judith.  Little Hamnet died at age 11, most likely from bubonic plague which was rampant in England at that time.

From Anne's standpoint, marriage was crucial.  In those days, women couldn't hold occupations except as domestics or nuns, and convents were on the way out after Henry VIII.  Single women, called "spinsters", generally had to be supported by their male relatives and were often accused of witchcraft.   For Anne, by age 26, time was definitely running short.  The Shakespeares were prominent in town, and under the circumstances, a quick marriage was necessary to avoid embarrassment. 

Shakespeare's father, John was a glover, and his shop was in the house.  To learn his trade, he had to serve a seven year apprenticeship.  But he had another racket going.  He got himself appointed the official ale taster.  Somebody had to do it, so he volunteered.  He parlayed that into getting elected mayor of Stratford.

We visited the little house and shop where Shakespeare was born.  They still have the bed in which he was born back in 1564, and it is made up the way his mother would have liked it.   After this short tour, we walked out to the garden where actors in period dress acted out and recited the words of the Bard who created more words in the English language than any other individual.  We spent the rest of our time obambulating around the rest of downtown Stratford. 

In Shakespeare's time, Stratford was a market town and it still is.  It burned down in Tudor times and was rebuilt.  Most of the buildings are from (the first) Queen Elizabeth's time in the Tudor style built with half timbers.  Anne and William lived in the house with Shakespeare's parents, and Anne remained there even after William went to London and became successful.  Despite being married to one of the greatest writers in world history, Anne was illiterate.  Maybe that was a good thing, because she couldn't read the savage attacks written by Shakespeare's critics. 

Shakespeare died on his birthday, April 23, 1616.  The Spanish novelist Miguel Cervantes died on the same day (in a different city).   April 23rd is now celebrated by the U.N. as World Book Day to honor the two writers.  While it appears to be a great coincidence, and I hate to burst their bubble, but they didn't really die on the same day because Spain at that time used the Gregorian calendar, decreed by Pope Gregory in 1582, while England still used the Julian calendar.

England didn't switch to the Gregorian until 1752 when it eliminated 11 days in September.  When Sweden and Finland switched over in 1712, they worked in a double leap year day--February 30, 1712.  Russia didn't switch over to the Gregorian until 1918, China in 1929, and some others like Saudi Arabia still haven't adopted it.  Getting back to Shakespeare, he actually died about 10 days later, in May, if they had used the Gregorian calendar then.  For what its worth, the English poet William Wordsworth also died on April 23rd, but about 200 years later.  A better coincidence would be that Thomas Jefferson and John Adams both died July 4, 1826.   Better yet, Charles Darwin and Abraham Lincoln were both born on the same day, February 12, 1809, although the news media of the time made no mention of it.

Shakespeare is said to be buried in an 11 foot deep grave.  At that time graves were routinely exhumed every 3 years or so and people's remains used for religious or research purposes or even for fertilizer.  But not 11 foot graves.  Shakespeare had this fear of his corpse being dug up, and so for good measure, he had a curse engraved on his tomb at Holy Trinity Church in Stratford warning gravediggers, "and curst be he that moves my bones".    His anxiety about this exceeded even the fear of death itself, and references to this are found in 16 or his 37 plays including Hamlet, Romeo & Juliet and Richard III.  I'm not making this up, but last year paleontologists sought permission to exhume Shakespeare's body to determine if he smoked pot--they thought maybe that was the source of his genius.   They were turned down.  All's Well that Ends Well. 

We ate lunch at the nearby Garrick Pub.  There is a Garrick theater in Chicago.  We suspected there was a connection, but weren't sure what.  It turned out David Garrick was a famous Shakespearean actor in the 1700's. 

A big fan of Shakespeare was King James I, whom you'll recall was the son of Mary, Queen of Scots.  He was King James VI of Scotland and essentially united the two countries.  During his reign, he was best known for commissioning a rewrite of the Bible and founding the Jamestown settlement.  A fun (?) fact about James I is that he reportedly never took a bath in his whole life.  Even Louis XIV of France, who ruled for about 72 years, took at least 3.  And the City of Bath wasn't that far away.

But around the same time, maybe on the recommendation of the King's courtiers, Parliament passed a law requiring everyone to take at least one bath per year (whether they needed it or not).  People generally did so in the Spring.  In fact, that is why traditionally weddings have been held in June--the people were cleaner.


Blenheim (pronounced BLEN-em) Palace is most famous today as the birthplace of the great British leader Winston Churchill.  The palace has been in the Churchill family for over 300 years, beginning with John Churchill, a British military commander during the War of Spanish Succession. When he defeated the Austrians and French (there they go again!) at the Battle of Blenheim on the Danube River, he became a national hero.  His wife, Sarah, a headstrong woman, was Queen Anne's best friend and confidant.  In 1702, the Queen rewarded him with a dukedom, land and money to build a palace.  Thus, John Churchill became the first Duke of Marlborough.  The Marlboroughs later had a falling out with the Queen and were forced into exile on the Continent when the Queen shut off the  money, but they returned in 1714 right after Queen Anne died.

The construction of the  palace was a source of constant intrigue. The Duchess wanted Christopher Wren to build it, but the Duke prevailed with his friend John Vanbrugh.  The Duke was away fighting battles for most of the construction, leaving the Duchess in charge.  Queen Anne and England wanted a fitting monument to the Duke, while the Duchess wanted a comfortable house.  The two objectives were not necessarily compatible.  The Marlboroughs were at the mercy of the Queen and Parliament controlling the purse strings, and the architect wanted to build a grandiose palace.  The unsurprising result was severe cost overruns.  Ultimately, the Marlboroughs completed the project with their own money, and the family has lived there ever since, though not always smoothly.  The project destroyed the architect Vanbrugh's reputation and he was never given any government business after that. 

The various Dukes of Marlborough over the years were by and large spendthrifts, and by the late 1800's, the future of the family estate was in dire straits.  Priceless paintings and other assets had to be sold off, but even that was insufficient to settle the debts.  Charles, the Ninth Duke of Marlborough neatly solved the problem soon after he inherited the estate in 1892.  The social dictates of the era prohibited him from working and earning money, so he did the next best thing--he married it.  The lucky lady, if you could call her that, was Consuelo Vanderbilt whose family owned the New York Central Railroad.  The loveless marriage went forward after lengthy negotiations with her divorced parents.  Her father, William Vanderbilt finally coughed up about $2.5 million to make his daughter a duchess.  The couple divorced in 1921. 

Although Marlborough was a direct ancestor of Winston Churchill, neither Winston nor his father held the title of duke.  The reason was the primogeniture system in which titles and inheritances are passed to the eldest son.  The system actually made some sense because it kept estates intact despite its inherent unfairness to the younger kids.   In the 18th and 19th Century, the younger siblings would go to America to make their fortunes or enter the clergy.  The girls would be married off to noblemen. 

We noticed that Winston Churchill's full name was Winston Leonard Spencer-Churchill.  I asked the guide if Churchill was related to Princess Diana (Spencer), and indeed he was.  When the first Duke died, his only surviving child was a girl, Henrietta.  She married a Spencer. 

The current occupant of the palace is the 11th Duke of Marlborough, John George Vanderbilt Spencer-Churchill who, of course is a cousin of Princess Diana and Winston Churchill as well as the Vanderbilts. 

Blenheim Palace is an enormous building surrounded by manicured hedges, 300 year old trees, a lake, fountains and statues of Greek gods.   In 1987, UNESCO designated the palace as a World Heritage Site.  The admission fee is about 35 bucks.

During our visit, the British Mercedes Benz Club held a car show on the grounds, and I enjoyed walking among the vintage autos of the 1960's.  This was personal for me; as a teenager, I learned to drive a standard shift on a 190-SL sports car.  I saw several at the show as well as the gull-wing 300-SL's of the same era. 

We drove through the rolling hills of the Cotswolds (from Old English for "God's high open land") in Southwest England, and observed flocks of sheep peacefully grazing.  This area was designated an "Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty" (AONB)--they really have such a designation!  What beautiful country!

We stopped for a delicious lunch of broccoli and Stilton soup at the Woodstock Arms in nearby Woodstock, Oxfordshire.  After lunch, we had an hour or so to walk the streets which have quite a few antique stores.  In England, the antiques are considerably older than those in the U.S.  I made the acquaintance of a nattily dressed fellow named John who was decked out in a green and  black plaid suit and tie.  He may have been a walking billboard for one of the shops, but he attracted my attention, and we exchanged pleasantries and took my picture.  We went to a craft fair at the old town hall which was noteworthy for the tapestries on the wall depicting events in medieval British history. 


On the way to London we visited Windsor, famous as the site of the oldest and largest occupied castle in the world.  It is the official residence of Queen Elizabeth II although she wasn't home when we arrived.  We visited her State apartments decked with priceless oil paintings from the Royal Collection which includes more VanDycks than anywhere else in the world.  What we didn't see were her bedroom, her TV set, closets and shoes.  This place is huge and employs over 500 people.  The dining room comfortably seats 66 people at the table. 

The castle is built in the motte and bailey style.  A motte is an earthen artificial hill and a bailey is the courtyard surrounding it.   Atop the motte is a keep, a stone structure.   This was a state of the art fortification in the 12th and 13th Centuries, and the Norman castles throughout England had these features. 

Windsor Castle was originally built by William the Bastard, the Duke of Normandy who later became known as William the Conqueror, as history was kind to him.  The Normans were a Viking tribe, who when they weren't raping and pillaging, were farmers and builders.  They settled in Normandy in France in the 8th Century.  The "Nor" in their names indicated that they were from the North.  This area around Rouen was surrendered to the Normans in the year 911 by the French king Charles the Simple--history wasn't as kind to him!  He called 911, but the line was busy.

William was one of several claimants to the English crown.  He was related to the Anglo-Saxon king, the childless Edward the Confessor and became upset when Edward designated the powerful English earl Harold Godwinson as the next king.  William was a man of action;  he raised an army, crossed the Channel and defeated the English at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 at which Harold was killed. 

William was illiterate and didn't speak English (neither did George I), but he had a major impact on the development of the English language.  He brought in skilled Norman administrators and established a justice system.  The language of the courts was French which developed side by side with English.  The net result is in today's English, we have synonyms, essentially two words for almost everything--the Saxon word and the French word.  e.g. big, large


The Changing of the Guard at Windsor Castle is a sight to behold.   The Marching Band of the Welsh Guards, elegantly dressed in red uniforms with black fur hats marches in from the Victoria Barracks through the arched gate, to the Quadrangle playing To Anachreon in Heaven, a familiar tune to most Americans.  The music was written in the 1750's by an Englishman, John Stafford Smith, but new words were given to the tune by the American poet Francis Scott Key in 1814.  We heard the instrumental version.  Many of these soldiers had recently served in Afghanistan where the fur hats were probably impractical. 


Queen Mary (the Queen, not the ship) was the wife of King George V.  In the early 1920's, she built her dollhouse at the suggestion of her cousin, Princess Marie Louise who was well connected to the prominent artists and craftsmen of the time.  She persuaded the architect Sir Edwin Lutyens to draw up plans and construct the house, which took a couple years to complete.  The result was an instant tourist attraction, first exhibited at the British Empire Exhibition in 1924-25.

Everything is obviously in miniature (one inch to one foot) but the amazing thing is that the fixtures actually work.  For example, the dollhouse has working plumbing--running water through tiny pipes with even a flushable toilet.  I'm not sure that's such a good idea, but apparently there haven't been any problems. 
The tiny electrical fixtures work.  The carpeting and curtains are copies of the real stuff.

In the library are tiny books which are actually written and bound in that size.  The Queen talked prominent authors like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham to contribute their works in miniature.  George Bernard Shaw told her to take a hike.  She even got famous painters to provide miniature pictures. 


The magnificent 15th Century Gothic St. George's Chapel, named after the patron saint of England is the chapel of the Order of the Garter, the oldest and most prestigious order of chivalry in the U.K.   It dates back to 1348.  A who's who of English royalty is buried there, including Henry VIII, and one of his wives, Jane Seymour, as well as the beheaded Charles I, Edward IV and VII, and George III through VI.

The Order of the Garter is bestowed mostly on British and other Commonwealth subjects, mostly nobles, although it includes former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher (now Baroness Thatcher) and Sir John Major.  At any given time, it is limited to 24 members not including "supernumerary" lords and ladies such as members of the British Royal Family and some foreign monarchs (none American).  The members are chosen solely by the British monarch.

The Order was created by Edward III, who got his chivalrous reputation when he allegedly covered up a medieval wardrobe malfunction.    As the story goes, the Countess of Salisbury was dancing at a court ball in Calais, and her garter slipped off her leg.  In the commotion, the King picked it up and handed it to her exclaiming "honi soit qui mal y pense" (shamed be the person who thinks evil of it) which is the motto of the Order.  So there you have it!.  The motto is inscribed in the Chapel.   There are other competing theories about the origin, but as far as I'm concerned, that's the best and most popular explanation.


We stayed two nights in the grand old Randolph Hotel in Oxford across from the Ashmolean Museum on one side and Oxford University along Magdalen Street on the other.  In the unique British pronunciations, Magdalen is pronounced MAUD-len.     College towns are dynamic and bohemian with numerous cultural opportunities, and Oxford is no exception. 

Oxford University was begun in 1167, but is not the oldest in Europe.  We visited Jesus College, New College and Trinity College.  New College was so named because it was "new" when it was founded in the 1300's.  In all, Oxford has 38 different colleges all under the umbrella of Oxford University.  The final exams are given by the University.  Each of the colleges has a separate endowment and separate sports teams.  Students at the different colleges often separately study the same curriculum such as law and medicine.

To be accepted into the University, a student must get accepted into the individual college.  A tutor from the individual college interviews prospective students for that college.  We learned about some of the famous alumni, often with portraits in the main halls--Lawrence of Arabia at Jesus College; Richard Burton at Trinity College.  Harry Potter movies were filmed at the main hall at Jesus College.


The awe-inspiring Bodleian Library at Oxford was founded in the 1300's.  It was re-created in its present form by Sir Thomas Bodley in 1602.  Oxford scholars refer to it as "the Bod".  This is the English equivalent of the Library of Congress in that it was established by Parliament as one of six Legal Deposit Libraries for all works published in the United Kingdom.  It is a reference library, so you can't check out books.

This library is huge, encompassing several buildings at Oxford, not to mention sites outside Oxford and even an abandoned salt mine in Cheshire.  All told, it has 11 million items on 117 miles of shelving.

Some of the better known items in the Bodleian collection include 4 copies of the Magna Charta, the Song of Roland, a Gutenberg Bible, Shakespeare's First Folio, and its oldest manuscript, the Huntington MS-17, which is the complete text of the Four Gospels in Coptic.  We didn't get inside to see these things, but I don't read much Coptic anyway.  To get inside, they make you sign a pledge not to take, deface or injure in any way, any of the materials, and not to bring in any fire or flame or smoking materials--well you've got the idea.  Sir Walter Raleigh would have had a hard time gaining entry--there's no smoking section.


We devoted a rainy afternoon exploring the Ashmolean Museum which is housed in a Greek Revival building built in 1677.  It was built to house the collection of the oddly named Elias Ashmole, a hoarder who would hit the antique stores of his day.   His collection included antique coins, books, engravings, geological specimens, plants and stuffed animals.  He even had a stuffed dodo bird which became so decomposed that it had to be destroyed except for the head and beak.

The museum was totally remodeled and re-opened in 2011 to exhibit a large collection of Egyptian and Green artifacts.


The iconic Stonehenge was constructed by the ancient Druids (we think!) on Salisbury Plain between 4000 and 10,000 years ago, depending on whom you talk to.  The best guess is about 3100 B.C., based on carbon dating of human remains in the area.  This remarkable place attracts new-agers from all over the world.  Neo-paganist folks dress up in ancient druid costumes and camp out nearby.  The authorities have had to control access, and tourists are no longer allowed to walk up to the structure.  It is roped off, maybe in response to the Chevy Chase movie European Vacation.  In that movie Chase backed his car into it and knocked down the huge stones like dominoes.  We looked at it fairly closely, and those stones are dug deep into the ground and they're not going anywhere.

Stonehenge is not the only neolithic stone complex in the area.  Even bigger, and free, but about 1000 years newer is the nearby Avebury henge, 25 miles North, but we didn't have time to visit it.

Stonehenge is a circular setting of large standing stones set within earthworks.  These stones weigh many tons each and were moved here from quarries miles away.  We're not sure how they moved them; the builders left no written records.  Modern archaeologists speculate about its function--astronomical observatory, religious worship, human sacrifice, you name it.  There is evidence that it may have been a site of pilgrimage from other countries, based on the study of the many burial sites in the area.  Whatever the case, we've seen it now, and we can cross it off our list.


Finally, a note about our favorite nursery rhymes, most of which had political meaning in medieval England.  the origins of these rhymes are murky.  For example, "Baa baa Black Sheep, have you any wool"  refers either to a complaint about the English tax on wool in the 13th Century or perhaps about the slave trade.  In the 20th Century, the forces of political correctness  have attacked this nursery rhyme. 

Humpty Dumpty may refer to the humpbacked Richard III who was defeated at Bosworth Field in 1485.  Ring Around the Rosy may refer to the bubonic plague.  Ashes, ashes..., of course refers to the cremated people who died from the Black Death. 

Mary, Mary quite contrary, How does your garden about either Mary Queen of Scots who was attempting to reinstate Catholicism after the reformation of Henry VIII, or it was about Mary I of England who was unable to produce heirs to the throne.   We'll leave it to the serious scholars to decide.



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