Originally posted 1st September 2022
During the Middle Ages Cambridge was a major trading centre due to its access to the Wash via the River Ouse (in turn, via the Cam). As such, the city’s market is one of the longest-used parts of the Borough; the market probably predates the Norman Conquest and Market Square is just up the road from St Bene’t’s church, the Anglo-Saxon tower of which is the oldest still-standing building in Cambridge. In Anglo-Saxon times, the marketplace appears to have been much larger than it is today and St Bene’t’s may have stood right next to it.
Fittingly for a major market town, Cambridge had several fairs. Three of these were mostly of local interest: Reach Fair, Midsummer Fair, and Garlick Fair. However, the fourth, Sturbridge or Stourbridge Fair, became a centre of international trade; by 1589 it was known as the most important fair in England.
It was originally granted a charter by King John to raise funds for the Leper Hospital of St. Mary Magdalene. The chapel of this hospital is still standing, known simply as the Leper Chapel, and marks the site of the old fairground. By 1279 the hospital no longer had any patients, but the fair had taken on a life of its own, selling everything from fish to horseshoes to silk. We know of its importance in 1589 because Elizabeth I had to intervene in a dispute between the University of Cambridge and the town council over who was responsible for the fair and could expect to receive profits from it; she decided that the town was responsible, but the university could police the weights and measures used.
The fair was abandoned in 1934 due to lack of interest, but it was revived as an Open Cambridge event by Cambridge Past Present and Future in 2004.
Originally posted 9th September 2022
Elizabeth I died on 24th March 1603 after an illness of a few months. It was probably brought on by a combination of depression - several of her close friends had recently died - and poor weather, but she was 70 years old: an extremely ripe age at the time. Immediately, courtiers raced to carry the news to King James VI of Scotland, who was soon to be crowned James I of England. Robert Carey had already written to James on 19th March to tell him he estimated Elizabeth only had three more days to live and that he had stationed horses on the road to Scotland to make the fastest possible journey with the news. Shortly afterwards, Robert Cecil sent a draft of the succession proclamation for James to read.
During Elizabeth’s reign, she refused to explicitly name a successor, saying that people always worship the rising sun and turn their backs on the setting sun. As long as she hadn’t announced a successor, her court would remain loyal to her rather than courting the favour of her successor. However, her letters to James suggest that she had chosen him and he was the most obvious choice; he was Protestant, a man, and had Tudor royal blood in his veins. This was also a question of significant importance overseas; Spain was currently trying to invade Ireland and Philip III’s council were extremely concerned about the possibility they would not be able to finish the invasion before Elizabeth died and a king was crowned in her place. They also tried hard to find a Catholic claimant to set against James. Unfortunately for them, there were very few Catholics who could argue that they had a claim to the throne and the best option was Isabella, the queen of the Spanish Netherlands, followed by the Duke of Savoy (who, they suggested, could gain a claim by marrying Arbella Stuart, who had a claim to the throne because, like James, she was descended from Henry VIII’s sister Margaret). Obviously, neither suggestion went anywhere.
James started south immediately, though he waited to take control of Whitehall until after Elizabeth’s funeral at the end of April. The funeral ceremony began with a water procession from Richmond Palace to Whitehall, followed by a service in Westminster Abbey. As was customary, her body was in a closed coffin topped with a fully-dressed effigy carrying the royal regalia. She was first buried in the tomb of her grandfather Henry VII, but in 1606 her coffin was moved to the same vault as her half-sister Mary I in Westminster Abbey, where they share a monument.
Originally posted 15th September 2022
Westminster Hall was originally built in 1097, during the reign of William Rufus and is the largest building on the Westminster Palace site. It is one of the largest surviving mediaeval buildings in Europe with an unsupported roof; while it may originally have been built with columns there is no archeological evidence of columns. The roof today is the one commissioned by Richard II in 1393 and is built from about 660 tons of oak. During our period, it was the location of the main English law courts as well as important state trials such as those of Thomas More and William Wallace.
Until the reign of Henry II law courts moved around with the king, who was almost constantly on progress around England. Sometime before 1178, Henry issued a royal ordinance commanding five judges to sit in a fixed location in the king’s absence, and later Magna Carta had a clause that the court of Common Pleas (the main court for civil litigation) should always sit in a fixed place. For convenience, this ended up being Westminster Hall. It shared the space with the Court of King’s Bench, which was for criminal cases of special interest to the king, and later the court of Chancery, where the Lord Chancellor considered cases that couldn’t be decided fairly under common law.
Westminster Hall was also used for royal coronation feasts, with the first recorded use for this purpose being the coronation feast of Henry II’s son Henry the Young King. Many of the customs of these feasts remained unchanged from the 1100s to the last coronation feast held in the Hall: that of George IV in 1821. One of these traditions was the King’s Champion: a hereditary post the holder of which would ride into the hall during the coronation banquet and offer single combat with anyone who challenged the new monarch’s right to rule. This role has been held by the Dymock family for 600 years, though today they no longer have to challenge anyone to fight.
Originally posted 22nd September 2022
Windsor has been a royal centre since before the Norman conquest, but the original Anglo-Saxon site was a couple of miles away; the site of the castle we still see today was chosen by William the Conqueror since it was significantly more defensive and impressive as well as being the only defensible spot for a castle between London and Wallingford to the west.
While most of the buildings have been replaced, the modern castle has the same footprint as the original motte and bailey castle; the mound on which the distinctive round tower stands is the one built by William the Conqueror. Henry I was the first king to build a residence in the castle and it was the site of some of the most important events of his reign: his marriage to his second wife, Adliza, and the ceremony where he demanded his nobles swear to support his daughter Matilda after his death. The curtain wall is the oldest building still standing; though heavily restored down the years, it was originally built by Matilda’s son Henry II.
Edward III made a significant change to Windsor Castle’s significance when he chose it as the home of his new order of chivalry. He originally intended to re-found the Knights of the Round Table and commissioned a huge round building in the grounds of the castle to house the table in question. However, the project was absurdly expensive and he scaled it down a little, instead founding the Order of the Garter. Despite its smaller size, the new order was an extremely important and solemn matter; among other things, members swore never to fight on opposing sides and to always attend a service in the Garter Chapel (officially, St George’s Chapel) in Windsor Castle on St George’s Day.
Today, as well as still being the home of the Order of the Garter, St George’s Chapel is the burial place of numerous members of the royal family, including eleven kings and queens of England, the latest being Elizabeth II.
Originally posted 28th September 2022
Macbeth is best known as the protagonist of William Shakespeare’s “Scottish play”, but he was a real King of Scots from 1040-1057. Originally, he was the earl of the province of Moray and appears to have been a member of the Scottish Court, since he did homage to King Cnut alongside King Malcom III of Scots in 1031. Soon afterwards, Malcolm died and his grandson Duncan I took the throne, in contravention of traditions surrounding succession (since he was the son of Malcolm’s daughter and therefore inherited through the female line) but without apparent opposition at the time. Macbeth, as Malcolm’s nephew, had just as strong a claim as Duncan.
Duncan’s unsuccessful invasion of Northumbria, ending in a massacre outside Durham, appears to have prompted Macbeth to rebel and make his claim to the throne. He killed Duncan in 1040, presumably in battle, and took the throne. We have very few contemporary records of his reign and many of them such as Orkneyinga Saga were written by his enemies, but they don’t suggest that he was the murderous tyrant portrayed by Shakespeare. In fact, the Duan Albanach, a poem with a list of kings which appears to have been written during the reign of Malcolm III, his successor, describes him as “Macbeathadh the renowned”. Furthermore, when he was briefly deposed by Earl Siward of Northumbria in 1046 he was able to recover the throne almost immediately, suggesting that he had personal support and did not have to rule through raw power and fear. Just four years later, he felt secure enough to travel to Rome, becoming the only King of Scots to make the pilgrimage.
He was finally overthrown when Siward returned with Duncan’s son Malcom, who had been too young to make his own claim for his father’s throne in 1040 but was now about 26. He had spent the intervening years in Northumbria and was able to find significant support among Macbeth’s enemies in both Northumbria and Orkney; he would go on to marry Ingibiorg Finnsdottir, the widow of the Earl of Orkney, and after her death the Anglo-Saxon Margaret of Wessex. Malcolm and his allies met Macbeth in battle, probably indeed near the Iron Age hill fort at Dunsinane. Macbeth survived that battle, but it was decisive and it was only a matter of time before Malcolm finally defeated and killed him at Lumphanan. He was briefly succeeded by his stepson Lulach, who only reigned for a few months before being assassinated.
Malcolm would go on to found a highly successful royal dynasty in alliance with the Anglo-Saxons and his descendants sponsored the creation of historical records that would later be used for Holinshed’s Chronicles of Scotland, which in turn were the main source used by Shakespeare.