When you find a cheap bit of property up north, and then the Anglo-Scottish wars kick off…

Aydon Castle

Apologies for lack of posting of late.

I have been busy relocating back to England, and settling in.

And making day trips to places like this: Aydon Castle, near Corbridge, Northumberland.

I love the story behind it. A thirteenth century Suffolk landowner, Robert de Rhaymes snapped up this beautiful piece of property north of the Tyne, for a very reasonable price by East Anglian standards. Suffolk was back then one of the most important and populous parts of the kingdom.

But gentlefolk were starting to realize the potential of the land in the north – or its lowland areas at least. Aydon looked the perfect place to build a luxurious country estate on the cheap.

But within years of his arrival, simmering tensions with the Scots had erupted into open warfare, and the Suffolk gentleman found himself living less than a day’s ride from the border.

It’s funny the things estate agents don’t tell you.

Rhaymes quickly had to revise his plans for his new home into something more defensive – a walled castle, dominated by an early pele tower. Hostilities between the Scottish and English – wars, and internecine conflict that raged between – the reiving – continued for another three centuries, and subsequent generations of Rhaymes improved the castle’s defenses periodically – although the Scottish more than once found their way in…


The Hollow Crown: Richard II

Ben Wishaw and Rory Kinnear in Richard II

Some thoughts on the BBC’s take on Shakespeare’s take of Richard II…

The Hollow Crown (2012) follows four Shakespeare plays covering the rules of three of the kings of England, starting with the rule of the last Plantagenet, Richard II. This was, I think, the best of the BBC adaptations. It is, I think the easiest to make into a compelling drama for modern audiences, being one of Shakespeare’s tightest and most formal plays, but the BBC version also benefited from strong casting alongside the sharp visuals and heavy atmospherics that characterise the whole series.

Richard II alienates his greatest nobles through both the unmanliness, and the arbitrariness and unfairness of his rule, and through his inept handling of these nobles, sows the seeds of his own downfall. Ruling through a clique that circumvents the great powers of his realm, when two of his great lords, Bolingbroke and Mowbray, come to blows over a matter of the king’s honour, he cynically exiles both of them. Then when Bolingbroke’s father, John of Gaunt, dies, he grabs his land for himself, sowing the seeds of his own fall. When Bolingbroke returns to claim back his land, he stirs such a rebellion that Richard is swept from power, whereupon, to the surprise of the other nobles, and perhaps Bolingbroke himself, he relinquishes the crown to Bolingbroke, who becomes Henry IV, after which he is assassinated by an over-zealous follower of the new king.

Ben Wishaw’s Richard is a vain, aloof creature at the beginning of the play, and yet as his downfall progresses, his vulnerability and circumspection make him an increasingly compelling figure. Wishaw succeeds greatly in capturing the pathos of the fallen king – where we could be bored by his repeated reflections on the nature of kingship, instead it feels like we are discovering with him the truth of its brittleness.  ‘Not all the water in the rough rude sea / Can wash the balm off from an anointed king,’ (3.ii 54-55) he declaims defiantly as the rebellion gathers pace, but, not much later, after some defection and defeat, he hits that woeful, fatalistic, half-crazed note so familiar to Shakespearian Drama: ‘Let’s talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs. / Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes / Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth. / Let’s choose executors and talk of wills.’ (3.ii 145-148) At this point, not even half-way through the play, his capitulation and death appears inevitable.

The historical figure was a more complex and perhaps a more interesting figure than Shakespeare allowed – the events that the play dramatises were in fact just the last act in a long and bitter power struggle between himself and the other powers of the land, over which historians still argue: was he a just reformer attempting, after the great Peasants’ Revolt, to change the dynamics of English society in favour of the common man? G.K. Chesterton thought so. Or was he an inept and vain king, who misunderstood the nature of post-Magna Carter English government, and paid the price for it? More modern historians incline towards this view. Shakespeare refers little to the wider conflict – and this BBC production even edits out some of these few references to previous problems between king and nobles – and thus the drama becomes a more effectively personal one – the story of a man who was temperamentally unfit for the challenges of kingship. Thus he captures at least one important aspect of the truth of his reign.

The most famous lines of Richard II come from the dying John of Gaunt who delivers to the sneering king, first a paean to the glories of England quickly followed by a bitter lament at the misrule that has befallen it. The first half of this is one of the most celebrated passages about England in English literature, although in our (debatably!) ‘post-national’ age, it is a lot less celebrated than it used to be. In a more confident age, this might have been chosen to accompany the start of the London Olympics, rather than the more mysterious passages about a magical isle in The Tempest (which, in any case, were certainly not written about England).

This royal throne of kings, this sceptred isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars,
This other Eden, demi-paradise,
This fortress built by Nature for her self
Against infection and the hand of war,
This happy breed of men, this little world,
This precious stone set in a silver sea
Which serves it in the office of a wall
Or as a moat defensive to a house,
Against the envy of less happier lands,
(2.i, 40-49)

On the other hand, I can see why it isn’t. Not only is it more royalist, and more religious than the spirit of our own age can tolerate, and too English for our (tenuously) united kingdom, but the effective message of the passage is not just that England is magnificent, but that it is better than everywhere else – not such a pleasant message for the visiting athletics fans, perhaps.

The lamenting part of the speech is a great condemnation of the corruption of Richard’s rule.

This land of such dear souls, this dear, dear land,
Dear for her reputation through the world,
Is now leased out – I die pronouncing it –
Like to a tenement or pelting farm.
(2.i, 57-60)

One  of the contemporary complaints about Richard’s reign was that he improperly used the lands and properties of lands he owned before becoming king, as a kind of power base and a place from which to draw unquestioningly loyal soldiers. But Bolingbroke did much the same thing with the Lancastrian lands he inherited from his father John of Gaunt. Perhaps Shakespeare ignored this to avoid offending Queen Elizabeth, whose bloodline extended back directly to the Lancastrian usurper. If so, she did not accept the compliment. After watching a performance of the play, she protested that ‘I am Richard II!’ For most Elizabethans, and certainly for the famously (and justifiably) paranoid queen herself, it was a disturbing sight to see the deposition of a crowned monarch on stage.

The question of Henry IV’s conduct – his ambitions and his intentions, is one of the most ambiguous things about the play. Does he raise rebellion only to win back his ancestral lands, unjustly swiped from him after his exile and the death of his father? Does he have his eye on the crown all along? Shakespeare seems to suggest that he is as swept along by events as Richard is, but when the opportunity to become king presents itself, as surprised as he is, he takes it gladly – or, to put a more positive spin on it, assumes the responsibility readily. Rory Kinnear brings a surprising ferocity to the role (I say ‘surprisingly’ because, prior to this, I think I had only ever seen him in political drama or comedy, and it’s a big step from looking flustered in a suit to ferocious in a suit of armour). The audience, initially sympathetic to his cause, must start to feel a little queasy once,with grim efficiency, and egged on by Northumberland, he starts applying his righteous (or self-righteous) justice to his enemies. I’m thinking in particular of the scene filmed by Carew Castle in Wales, where two of Richard’s acolytes are beheaded over the castle moat. It is one of the advantages of a TV production that the true horror of such a scene can be realised – it is hard for beheadings not to look a little comical on the stage. On TV the blood on the ground, and in the water, looks that much realer.

The most significant change that the BBC adaptation makes is near the end, when Richard is killed. In Shakespeare’s text the killer is a hitherto unknown character, a minor knight who hears Henry complain about the still living Richard and takes it upon himself to execute him. In the BBC adaptation, this role is given to one of the men of Richard’s retinue, Aumerle:  caught and (on account of his high birth) excused for involvement in a plot to kill the new king, Aumerle assassinates his former friend and king in order to win favour with the new king. This tidies up the play somewhat, giving more significance to Aumerle’s role, and preventing the introduction of an important character so near the end of the play. But the original plot, although no closer to the historical record (Richard is thought to have been starved to death in captivity), is interesting in other ways too. The killer is a minor knight called Exton, who claims to have heard the king say ‘Have I no friend will rid me of this living fear?’, and, taking this for a hint that someone should kill the deposed king, travels to his prison in Pontefract and kills him. Henry denies having said these words, and disowns the act, although not quite successfully. Shakespeare took the tale from the chronicles of Raphael Holinshed, the main source for most of his Hollow Crown material, although it is not quite what really happened. The way both Shakespeare and Holinshed tell it, it is remarkably similar to the historically verified tale of another King Henry who accidentally (or not) ordered an assassination. The first Plantagenet king, Henry II, exasperated after a six year feud with his rebellious archbishop, and former chancellor and friend, Thomas Becket, raged to his court words, ‘Will no-one rid me of this troublesome prelate?’ (or words to that effect, and in French, of course). Four knights in attendance took it upon themselves to do just that, and murdered him, sacrilegiously, on the floor of Canterbury Cathedral. Becket was soon after made a saint, and Canterbury became one of the major pilgrimage sites of Europe, so much so that the king and his descendants participated in the cult, which lasted until the Reformation – at which point another rapacious and bloodthirsty King Henry, Henry VIII, had his bones taken out of the tomb and desecrated. The battle between Henry II and Thomas Becket was one of the great tales of medieval England, but one that Shakespeare left well alone. Perhaps for good reason: in the reign of the daughter of Henry VIII, it may have been an impolitic story to tell. One wonders if Elizabeth, watching the play suspiciously, may have reflected on the similarities between the different Henrys down the years. In some ways, she may have been closer to the mark if she had said ‘I am Henry IV.’

Image:COURTESY OF NICK BRIGGS, http://www.kpbs.org/news/2013/sep/17/great-performances-hollow-crown/


Can You Hear the New?


The seductive, destructive, dehumanising power of technology, and we mere mortals trembling in its wake…

That’s the theme of my latest article at the Wagon Magazine, covering early 20th century poets Maria Rainer Rilke, G.K. Chesterton, and Isaac Rosenberg, and the writings of Joseph Roth and Filippo Marinetti.

Read it here:



Image: L’Oiseau bleu, By Jean Metzinger – Photo by Coldcreation, PD-US, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=38298907

To Saint Margaret

800px-St_margaret_museo_del_prado_madrid   Raffael_101


My latest podcast, on Henry Constable’s To Saint Margaret, can be accessed here:


In the podcast, I talk a little more about Constable’s later life and the life of Catholics in post-Reformation England, the popularity of Margaret and her story, its link to other virgin- and dragon-related stories, and Constable’s use of this rich material in his poem. The poem is reproduced below for those who like to read as they listen.

I meant to mention the above two paintings in the podcast, but didn’t get around to it. I think one or the other, or even both, may have inspired the poem. The first is Titian’s, the second Raphael’s, Saint Margaret and the Dragon. Both seem to show the moment of the dragon’s defeat, and Margaret’s triumph, or her escape, and in both Margaret is sporting figure-hugging robes, showing off both the Renaissance painters’ skill at painting the human form, and the fine proportions of the young saint (or at least the model in her role), such that we can almost sympathize with her pagan suitor’s great frustration at her resolve to reject him. Both are great in their way, but I think Raphael’s is truer to the spirit of Saint Margaret. Titian’s could almost be taken for a damsel in distress, fleeing the dragon, awaiting a Saint George never to arrive. But Raphael’s Margaret, in clearer classical lines and plainer colours, is calm and confident in the face of evil, not running away but calmly observing the serpent, who writhes in pain and frustration in the face of her purity. His whole head twists sideways, mouth gaping in a disgusting gesture supplication, greed and aggression – but Margaret simply isn’t having it.


To Saint Margaret

     Henry Constable (1590’s)


Fair Amazon of Heaven who tookst in hand

Saint Michael and Saint George to imitate,

And for a tyrant’s love transformed to hate

Wast for thy lylly faith retained in band,

Alone on foot and with thy naked hand

Thou didst like Michael and his host; and that

For which on horse armed George we celebrate

Whilst thou, like them, a dragon didst withstand.

Behold my soul shut in my body’s gaol

The which the Drake of Hell gapes to devour.

Teach me (O virgin) how thou didst prevail.

Virginity, thou sayest, was all thy aid:

Give me then purity instead of power,

And let my soul, made chaste, pass for a Maid.


Titian’s Saint Margaret and the Dragon (1565) can be found in the Prado, Madrid; Raphael’s (1518) in the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna.

Henry Constable’s poetry is in the public domain, but a very good selection can be found in the New Oxford Book of Sixteenth Century Verse


The Hunter and His Quarry

The Wagon Magazine has published an article of mine on the 17th century poet William Drummond of Hawthornden, particularly his magnificent madrigal “The world a-hunting is”. It also covers a bit of Richard Lovelace, Thomas More and Dante, and their very different use of hunting and dogs imagery.

If that sounds interesting to you, please follow the link below.

The Hunter and His Quarry


Also, the editor has headed the article with a startling picture of what looks like a Beefeater hunting wild lions… with some Vikings approaching in the background. I can guarantee you that you have not seen anything quite like it before…


To Our Blessed Lady


I have posted a new podcast to my internet archive, so please head over if you are interested in Elizabethan poetry, and especially in 16th century Catholicism.

(For some reason I had trouble with the first upload, but the second seems to be working.)

To Our Blessed Lady

I do realize that Mariology isn’t exactly everyone’s cup of tea (although I like it just fine), but To Our Blessed Lady is an excellent poem, and there is an interesting story behind it, so it really is worth 15 minutes of your time – that is less time than it takes to actually make and consume a cup of tea.

Here is the poem…

In that, O Queen of queens, thy birth was free

From guilt, which others do of grace bereave,

When in their mother’s womb they life receive,

God as his sole-born daughter loved thee.

To match thee like thy birth’s nobility,

He thee his Spirit for thy spouse did leave,

Of whom thou didst his only son conceive,

And so wast linked to all the Trinity.

Cease then, O queens, who earthly crowns so wear,

To glory in the pomp of worldly things.

If men such high respect unto you bear, 

 Which daughters, wives and mothers are of kings

What honour should unto that Queen be done,

Who had your God for father , spouse and son?


Henry Constable


From The New Oxford Book of Sixteenth-Century Verse, Ed Emyrs Jone, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1991

Picture: Image: Adoration of the Child, Fra Filippo Lippi, 1459, Berlin, Germany. Vanderbilt Divinity School Library, Art in the Christian Tradition. (From Patheos Magazine)

The Geordie Baudelaire

Some bairns playin’ aboot wi’ bubbles… and intimations of mortality

*My own rough (and I mean proper rough) translation of Charles Baudelaire’s L’amour et le crane from Les Fleurs Du Mal (1857).


Cupid is sittin’

On the skull o’ man

And from this throne

The grinnin’ bairn


Merrily blows bubbles

That climb the air,

As if gannin’ for parts

O’ some elsewhere.


The shiny little suds

Soar, aal grand,

Pop, spit oot their souls

Like a dream o’ gold.


At every burst, I hear the skull,

Whinge and aaful groan:

This stupid savage game

 – Will ye not pack it in?


What yer vicious gob

To the air scatters,

Murd’rous beast, is my blood

My brain, and my own matter!


(Painting: Nicolaes_van_Verendael_and_Caspar_van_Opstal_(I)_-_Vase_of_flower_with_two_nude_children_blowing_bubbles_(Vanitas) from Wikimedia)