Writing Portfolio

24.1.17

Half-a-dozen more kings and queens we never had

I recently looked into a few might-have-beens of English history in the form of half-a-dozen people who could, or even perhaps should, have been the King (or Queen) but through the cruel hand of fate were denied the chance. They weren’t the only ones, of course – and here are half-a-dozen more…

Edgar Aetheling (c.1051-c.1126) – would have been King Edgar II
‘Aetheling’ was, roughly speaking, the Anglo-Saxon term for the heir to the King. During the latter part of the Edward the Confessor’s reign (1042-1066) this title was held by Edgar, grandson of Edward’s half-brother Edmund Ironside (who had himself been King for a mere seven months in 1016) and, aside from Edward himself, the only surviving male member of the royal House of Wessex. The childless Edward, however, made no effort to entrench Edgar’s position as heir. The designs of both the King of Norway and Duke William of Normandy on the English throne meant that, after Edward’s death in January 1066, the assembly of the English nobility known as the Witan chose to elect Harold Godwinson, the country’s senior nobleman and a renowned warrior, to be King rather than the young, untested Edgar. After Harold’s death at the battle of Hastings later that same year, Edgar was proclaimed as King but the surviving English nobility quickly submitted to William the Conqueror. Thus deprived, Edgar would later be linked with various anti-Norman rebellions, and eventually became a Crusader.

Henry, the Young King (1155-1183) – would have been an alternative King Henry III
The Plantagenets were a famously unruly royal family. Henry II had five sons by his wife, the formidable Eleanor of Aquitaine, and the eldest of those to survive infancy was the one who was named after him. Described by contemporaries as a charming but feckless playboy, in 1170 this younger Henry became the only heir to the English throne to be crowned before the death of his predecessor. It is unclear why Henry II decided to do this, but as he got the Archbishop of York to do it, it was became part of that king’s feud with Thomas Becket, who as Archbishop of Canterbury should have been the man to perform the ceremony. Probably frustrated by his father’s reluctance to relinquish any actual control of any of his lands, the Young King – as he became known after his coronation – led the rebellion against Henry II in 1173-74 and was joined by his mother and two of his brothers. He was in revolt against his father again in 1183 when he died. Six years later, his father died and the crown passed to his brother Richard.

Edward of Westminster, Prince of Wales (1453-1471) – would have been another alternative King Edward IV, or maybe V
Born at a time of strife, this Prince Edward was the only son of Henry VI and Margaret of Anjou but he was disinherited in 1460 when his father was captured after the battle of Northampton – Henry was allowed to remain as King but he was forced to make the Duke of York his heir. A year later, York was dead and his son, the Earl of March, had defeated the Lancastrians at Towton, seizing the crown and becoming King Edward IV in the process. Prince Edward and his mother went into exile, where Margaret allied herself with the Earl of Warwick; Edward married his daughter, Anne Neville, in 1470. Warwick briefly restored Henry VI to the throne, but was defeated and killed by the Yorkists at Barnet in 1471. Deprived of their best military leader, the Lancastrians rallied around the inexperienced Prince of Wales for the battle of Tewkesbury on 4th May 1471; they were defeated and Edward killed – making him the only heir to the English throne to have died in battle. His father died (or was murdered; no-one knows for sure) a few days later. A teenage widow, Anne went on to marry Edward IV’s brother, the Duke of Gloucester – who would become King Richard III.

Arthur, Prince of Wales (1486-1502) – would have been a real rather than legendary King Arthur
Much was expected of this Tudor prince, the eldest son of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York and as such viewed as living proof of the union between the houses of Lancaster and York (Elizabeth being the daughter of Edward IV) and the end of the Wars of the Roses. He was said to have been academically bright, as well as an accomplished archer and dancer. His father wanted him to marry Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella, in order to forge a union between England and Spain; the marriage eventually took place in late 1501. Within months, though, Arthur fell ill and died. His brother Henry – the ‘spare’ who would succeed their father as King in 1509 – married Catherine but, as she was his brother’s widow, he could only do so after getting special dispensation from the Pope; the consequences of this would lead to the break with Rome some years later.

James Stuart (1688-1766) – styled himself as James III of England and James VIII of Scotland
The Old Pretender sparked controversy merely by being born – opponents of his father, James II, alleged that his mother’s pregnancy had been faked and that he had been smuggled into the Queen’s bed in a warming-pan. The Glorious Revolution followed shortly thereafter, and as such James Stuart grew up in exile, assuming the title of King – and being recognised as such by the Pope and by his cousin Louis XIV of France – after his father’s death in 1701. He made three serious attempts at recapturing his father’s kingdoms, his best chance being in 1715 after his half-sister Queen Anne’s death plunged Britain into political uncertainty. A rebel army was raised in Scotland and some rebel forces entered England, but before James could arrive in person defeats at Sheriffmuir and Preston had put government forces in control. James spent much of his life in Rome, where his court-in-exile was popular with British visitors regardless of their faith or political affiliation (he was even given permission to hold Protestant services for said visitors, although he himself remained a Catholic). In later life he quarrelled with his eldest son Charles (the Young Pretender) to the extent that he only knew of the 1745 rebellion after the latter had landed in Scotland. He died in Rome and is buried in the Vatican alongside his two sons – the younger of whom became a cardinal and in old age received a pension from George III.

Princess Charlotte of Wales (1796-1817) – would have been Queen Charlotte I
As the only legitimate grandchild of George III, Charlotte was second in line to the throne after her father who became Prince Regent in 1811 (and would become George IV in 1820); unlike him, she was very popular with the British people. She married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, and in 1817 her pregnancy was the subject of intense public interest. Unfortunately her obstetrician, Sir Richard Croft, followed outdated medical advice and put her on a strict diet and bled her regularly; this weakened her to the extent that after a two-day labour the 21 year-old princess died after giving birth to a stillborn boy. Croft later killed himself. As well as deep mourning across the country, Charlotte’s death prompted a succession crisis which led to two of her uncles quickly ditching their mistresses and getting married in a bid to ensure the survival of the House of Hanover; one of them, the Duke of Kent, married Leopold’s sister Victoria, after whom their daughter – the future Queen Victoria – was named.

10.1.17

London's unusual church names

Ever wondered about where some of London’s more unusual church names come from? You know, the ones that refer to wardrobes, garlic or being without. I’ve been looking into this very thing for Londonist as part of their ongoing ‘etymology’ series, and this particular episode involved visits to several of the most beautiful buildings on London to find out more. 



It is in such oases of peace and quiet in a busy city that London’s history comes to life; many have associations with famous historical people and many of them are the works of Sir Christopher Wren who rebuilt so many churches (in addition to St Paul’s Cathedral) after the Great Fire. 



Some even commemorate famous former parishoners, such as St Clement Danes which has a statue of Samuel Johnson at the back, facing towards Fleet Street! 



These days, some of them even have cafés, and not just in the crypts either – the one at St Mary Aldermary, for example, is in the church itself which must make said Wren church a strong contender for ‘best café interior in London’.


Here’s the link:



7.1.17

The Capital Ring: Osterley Lock to Greenford

Back to the Capital Ring, mindful of the fact that it is almost two years since I started out by following the green signs from East Finchley. I’d made it half-way, more or less, over the course of 2015 and by comparison 2016 was slim, seeing me cover just under 24 miles from Crystal Palace to Osterley Lock (although there were various other walks for Londonist). The next section, Osterley Lock to Greenford, promised to be a fairly easy one – 5½ miles, mostly flat and following either the Grand Union Canal or the River Brent for the most part.

My Capital Ring odyssey had thus far been a solo experience but this was now no longer the case; Dad has been doing the walk as well but for some reason we had not managed to co-ordinate our efforts thus far (although I started doing it before him, he’s actually done more of it than me because he started in Hendon). Since we’d both managed to get as far as Osterley Lock, though, we thought it would be silly not to do the rest together.

We got to Boston Manor station at just after 10am on a clear but frosty January morning – turns out we were on the same train but in different carriages, having got on the Piccadilly Line at different stations. Once at the canal and rejoining both the Capital Ring and the Grand Union Canal Walk (a long-distance footpath which follows the towpath of said canal to the Midlands), we noted that the canal was frozen over at that point; by way of prodding it with a walking-stick we found that it was very thin ice, mind you. The towpath was quite muddy, and both of us thought it was a good job we’d come wearing hiking-boots.


A waymarker proclaimed that it was 91 miles via the canal network to Braunston, which we thought was a bit odd as that’s in Devon and surely Devon is further away than that? Turns out that the sign was referring to Braunston in Northants which used to be a central hub of England’s canal system; we were thinking of Braunton where we once went on holiday!


Between Brentford and Hanwell, the River Brent and the Grand Union Canal are one and the same with the river diverting off to a weir whenever a lock appears. At Hanwell, the two split as the canal starts on a six-lock flight, taking it up over 50 feet in a third of a mile. 


Much though I’d’ve liked to see a canal go up a hill (sort of), the Capital Ring breaks off after the first lock, following the river instead with Ealing Hospital to the left; had we wanted to stay on the canal towpath, it would’ve been another 16 miles to Rickmansworth, and 136½ miles to Birmingham.



We followed the river and the path, across the Uxbridge Road and onto a playing-field where we beheld an impressive sight – the Wharncliffe Viaduct, built by Isambard Kingdom Brunel in 1838 to carry the Great Western Railway on its journey to Bristol (according to a sign, Queen Victoria is said to have asked for her train to be stopped on the viaduct so she could admire the view on both sides).


Our path took us underneath said viaduct and into the grounds of Brent Lodge Park, the grounds of an old manor house in the shadow of St Mary’s, Hanwell – a nineteenth-century ‘Gothic Revivial’ church, the spire of which is something of a local landmark.




Our path hugged the Brent, taking us to the edge of the fields at the point where there was still frost in the shade. 



Over the river and past a cricket pitch and a golf course we walked, to a reclaimed landfill site bearing the somewhat optimistic name of Bittern’s Field. Our chances of seeing one of those elusive birds were slim-to-none (I’ve only ever seen one once, and that was at Minsmere although I’m told they’ve been seen at the London Wetlands Centre at Barnes); on our walk we did get to see moorhens, coots, mallards, a lone mute swan, blue and great tits, a couple of robins, black-headed gulls (lots of those), blackbirds, pigeons of the wood and feral varieties, a solitary grey heron and some ring-necked parakeets flying overhead.

We parted company with the Brent by Greenford Bridge, crossing it for a last time before entering Perivale Park from which the arch of Wembley Stadium can be seen. 




We took a tea-break there, marvelling at how quicker a walk can go when you have someone to talk to on said walk, even when the talk veers between such subjects as Watford Football Club, various trivia we’ve found out about London, pubs, what we’ve done with the meat we bought at Smithfield and whether or not John Keble can be classed as a saint (to which the answer is no, because the C of E doesn’t go in for canonisation, although that doesn’t stop people from thinking he is a saint because there’s a church named after him).

Carrying on, our walk, which had seemed to be almost rural in parts, took a turn for the urban as we crossed over the A40 and skirted around Northolt Rugby Club, walking through a built-up area to get to Greenford station and the end of another Capital Ring stage; Dad has two left before he completes the circular walk around London, while I have two-and-a-half to go. A quick perusal of the Colin Saunders book (London: The Definitive Walking Guide, as opposed to his more specific work The Capital Ring) tells us that the next part, from Greenford to South Kenton, is “a very interesting section with some climbing and fine views” – two hills in fact, Horsenden and Harrow. I guess we’ll need our boots for that too.

As we approached the station, it was lunchtime – and just before we got to the station we spotted a pub. That was lunch sorted out, then.

6.1.17

Sherlocked: going through the motions, or being too clever by half

(Note: contains spoilers. You probably wouldn’t want to read this if you have yet to see the first episode of the fourth series of Sherlock. You have been warned.)

Sherlock returned to our screens last Sunday, some seven years after Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman first appeared as the modern-day Sherlock Holmes and Dr Watson, and three years after the third series (although there was that rather disappointing one-off one last year which purported to be a reimagining of the original, late-Victorian setting of the Sherlock Holmes adventures but which turned out to be an extended dream-sequence). I watched it, because it’s Sherlock, and even though I will be watching the rest of the series I must say that it hasn’t been the most auspicious of starts.

Yes, there was an updating of one of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories. ‘The Adventure of the Six Napoleons’ – the one in which a criminal is going around smashing up plaster busts of Napoleon Bonaparte because he hid a stolen jewel in one of them, but he doesn’t know which one – became ‘The Six Thatchers’, the twist being that although Sherlock thought that the missing item was a jewel (with the same name as the one in the original story) it was in fact a memory-stick which led onto a bringing-up of Mary’s back-story which in turn set up the episode’s denouement.

 And yes, there were references to various other Holmes stories, such as The Sign of Four (Agra/A.G.R.A., the use of Toby the dog), ‘The Adventure of the Yellow Face’ (when Holmes got it wrong and asked Watson to mention the word ‘Norbury’ to him “if it should ever strike you that I am getting a little overconfident in my powers”, although in the original he was referring to the place in South London and not a disgruntled ex-MI6 secretary), ‘The Adventure of the Red-Headed League’ (the client who doesn’t think so much of Sherlock’s deduction after it’s been explained to him) and of course the never-written one about Sumatra (“a story for which the world is not yet prepared”), among others. The writers even managed to cram in a reference to John’s blog, just like Conan Doyle himself managed to have Holmes occasionally refer to Dr Watson’s write-ups of his cases (the conceit here being that although they put a lot of business his way, he didn’t care much for them).  

However, I cannot help but think that Sherlock has lost its way, and that the many references were there because they had to be, just like the bits where Sherlock acts like an arse because not only is he cleverer than everyone else, he knows he is. But these things which identify an episode of Sherlock as being an episode of Sherlock were mere window-dressing, for ‘The Six Thatchers’ seemed for the most part to be less Sherlock Holmes than some sort of James Bond pastiche. The solving of a mystery took second place to a tale of secret agents for hire, a fight in a swimming-pool, shady governmental goings-on, betrayal, a few overseas locations, much running around (including in the vicinity of the MI6 building, no less) and characters pointing guns at each other. By the time it got to Mary the former assassin being shot in the aquarium (I did warn you that this post contained spoilers) I was frankly past caring, aside from wondering how this compares with Tracy getting shot just after becoming Mrs Bond at the end of On Her Majesty’s Secret Service and considering that this might not be the last we’ve seen of Amanda Abbington, given how reluctant writers Steven Moffat and Mark Gatiss are when it comes to moving on from main characters after they’ve been killed off (witness the fact that Jim ‘Miss Me?’ Moriarty is still a major talking-point).

By the show’s own high standards, this wasn’t a good return. It’s not been well received and I cannot help but think that Gatiss put more thought into the poem he wrote as a repost to the critics; the writers have always been clever in the way they’ve adapted the old stories but it’s got to the point where they’re either going through the motions or being too clever by half. But hey, I’ll still be watching the rest of the series, which I hope will return to the old format of concentrating on solving crimes (I for one cannot wait to see what Toby Jones can do as a villain after his superlative performance in The Witness for the Prosecution, of which more perhaps in a future post), although there are hints at some more Holmes family business – as if Mycroft wasn’t being over-used already – with references to ‘Sherrinford’, the non-Canonical third brother. They do like to keep us guessing, don’t they?