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November 14, 2013 / Mathew Lyons

Review: Elizabeth I and her people – National Portrait Gallery exhibition

Elizabeth exhibitionThose whose interest lies outside the Tudor era could be forgiven for exasperation at the extent to which the long sixteenth century still dominates our nation’s cultural life. But the new exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery – Elizabeth I and Her People, which runs until January 5 2014 – is nevertheless good enough to excite the curiosity of even the most stubborn Tudor-phobe; and for those of us who find the period particularly fascinating, it is a delight.

The exhibition has been curated by Dr Tarnya Cooper, both chief curator and 16th-Century curator at the gallery. She is the author of the recent Citizen Portrait – Portrait Painting and the Urban Elite of Tudor and Jacobean England and Wales, 1540-1620, and her interest in the representation of lives outside the courtly elite is evidenced throughout.

Late Tudor England grew into an economic powerhouse, based on a flourishing mercantile culture, the increasing financial heft of the City of London and the political and religious stability – relatively speaking – of the Elizabethan state. And this middling sort, aspiring, ambitious, self-conscious, are superbly represented here.

A trio of portraits, for instance, reveals the Wittewronghele, family – father, mother and son – who established a prosperous brewing business in the capital. Thomas Gresham – arguably the most brilliant financier of the 16th century – is here. We see, too, the court portraitist George Gower, who chooses to be painted holding the tools of his trade – the brush and palette – rather than with something that might represent a claim on family title or another, more obviously self-aggrandising, social status. The times were changing. Trade itself was becoming respectable.

But beyond the portraiture, we also see something of the texture of people’s lives. There is some wonderful Tudor clothing here, from a seaman’s cloak to a superbly detailed woman’s waistcoat. And there is much, much more: a tankard inscribed with ‘Think and Thank’, surely the 16-century equivalent of ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’; a pristine set of drawing instruments; pins, without which many Tudor garments wear simply unwearable; an intricately carved ivory comb featuring the Judgement of Paris and David’s message to Bathsheba; and so on.

For many, perhaps, the portraits will still be the point, and one room is given over to those of Elizabeth herself, including Hilliard’s sumptuous ‘Ermine’ Portrait. Even here, though, the exhibition is careful to delineate between the kind of representations that would have been available to the different strata of society, from the full length paintings that hung in noble houses, through the more modest copies owned by members of the gentry, down to the portraits that every person in the country had access to. When Elizabeth I recalled the coinage early in her reign, she became the first English monarch to sit for the image that represented her on her currency: it was a powerful statement of intent.

There is, too, a room of portraits of courtiers and nobleman. Again, however, the exhibition goes beyond representations of mere power, to offer a more unconventional and human perspective on the way portraiture embodied a kind of power – but also a negotiation with it. Elizabeth Vernon, Countess of Southampton, appears in – in context – a shockingly private portrait of herself in a bedgown beside her dressing table. She had been one of Elizabeth’s maids of honour and her marriage to Shakespeare’s patron, Henry Wriothesley, the year before had caused controversy at court resulting in her banishment.

William Cecil, Lord Burghley, whose ward Wriothesley had been, had wanted him to marry his own daughter. He is pictured here, mostly likely in his lost palace at Theobalds in Essex, somewhat charmingly athwart a donkey among some strawberry plants, as if to plead with his queen for the quiet pleasure of a country life away from the explosive tensions and rivalries of the court.

Last but not least, Sir Walter Ralegh is here, in 1588 at the very height of his power and influence. The gallery’s restorers have revealed a hidden detail in the portrait: a sea beneath the sway of the moon. It was a trope Ralegh used often in describing his own, often tempestuous, relationship with Elizabeth and here it affirms his subjection to her. He looks, if truth be told, exhausted. And perhaps he was. The tumults of the Tudor era took their toll on winners and losers alike.

November 5, 2013 / Mathew Lyons

Personal: Half-Life

This was never intended as a blog about myself, so I am posting this – with some trepidation – as an experiment. I am not at all sure how much I want to write directly about myself or my experiences, but I may post more purely creative things as time goes by, if people seem interested in reading them.

As some of you may know, I have only been intermittently active this year as a result of depression and, in particular, anxiety.

The roots of these things spread deep and wide, but two years ago – around this time of year – I felt suicidal for the first time in my life and was prescribed an anti-depressant. (Citalopram, for those who are interested.) I was also advised to explore therapy, which I avoided, hoping that the problems I had with life would prove to be purely chemical. Although the following six months or so were pretty good, I relapsed again in the autumn of last year and to a great extent ceased to function. I began an intensive programme of – largely – cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) at the beginning of 2013.

I hesitate to say I am whole again. What would that mean? And perhaps wholeness is in any case a thing to be always reached for, never attained. But I am closer than I have been for a very long time; and I am learning how to reach for it. And I am learning, too, how to be more honest with myself and how not to hide. I have spent too much of my life in different kinds of hiding.

But one of the things therapy has certainly done for me is put me back in touch with the creative side of me, which had all but disappeared – creativity being one of the first cognitive functions that depression and anxiety attack. And I thought – almost as an expression of gratitude – I should post this poem, which grew out of a number of therapy sessions, and which I wrote in the summer.

For anyone out there now who is being bent out of shape by the gravitational pull of depression and anxiety, I know it will feel as if loneliness defines you. But you are not and never will be alone in your hurt. Rare is the person who never feels their soul mis-shapen by life. It is almost what it is to be human. And you will find the right balm to bring you through, because that is inside you too.

The only road back is the one in front of you. Onwards, my friends. Onwards.


When I was born

The moon sat on the garden wall

And sung me a lullaby.

My nights were foxlight,

The days willow and white gold.

Box kites skimmed the airfield

And falcons swept the evening sky

While poets lay bleeding on the graves

In the churchyard under the sunset.

I dreamt of cold lakes and kingdoms,

Hawthorns and cinnamon,

Semaphor, cedar, love.

But Vikings watched from the Andersen shelter

And crows danced in the stubble.

Rust lay in wait in the long grass

And blood shone on the thorns.

So I buried my heart beneath a young tree –

Cradled in its roots –

And I wished to the known stars

For solitude.

But the moon turned her back on me.

And the tree grew old and is gone.

Half a century on

I climbed the garden wall again

From the wilderness grown wild

And looked down on my darkness

Where the moonlight has all-but decayed

In the half-life of a child’s heart

And the wind conjures nothing but rain.

I am forgetting even this.

But a shooting star fell over the hill last night

And lit another life

Where the moon still charms

And a young tree remembers her song.

April 3, 2013 / Mathew Lyons

History and myth: JRR Tolkien, a Roman temple and a ring

The last few days has seen a rash of media coverage for an exhibition at The Vyne in Hampshire which features a Roman ring said to have led Tolkien to incorporate a ring myth into the Middle Earth of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

I wrote about this – the story of the ring’s discovery and Tolkien’s relationship with it – in my 2004 book There and Back Again: In the Footsteps of JRR Tolkien, which explored Tolkien’s inspirations in the history, mythologies, language and landscape of England.

What follows is a edited version of my thoughts then, beginning with the temple where the ring properly belongs, at Lydney Park in Gloucestershire.

What brought me to Lydney was ultimately the same thing that brought Tolkien in 1928: a pagan Roman temple set on a hill above the last few acres of England before it cedes to the Celts, dense woodland falling away to the silver-grey strip of the Severn Estuary below.

It had been known for some time that the site was something out of the ordinary, certainly since the 18th century when it and the land around it, which constitute Lydney Park, was bought by the Bathurst family, in whose possession it remains. But in the late 1920s Sir Mortimer Wheeler and his wife Tessa, both eminent archaeologists, were commissioned to make a thorough examination of the site. Tolkien was invited here in a professional capacity, being at that point Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford, and stayed on a number of occasions in the main house. He would contribute a chapter to the published report for the Society of Antiquaries on the origin and meaning of the name ‘Nodens’, the god to whom the temple complex is dedicated and of whom there is little other record.

Tolkien found a web of meanings and association that stretched across a wide range of early North European languages. But the Wheelers’ discoveries need to be examined first. The site they were working on expands over five flat acres on the top of Dwarf’s Hill – the historic, Anglo-Saxon, rather than contemporary name for it, I admit, since today it is known as Camp Hill. Mortimer Wheeler, though, was fond enough of the ancient name, which survived long into the second millennium, to use it in his report.

The hill stands some 200 feet above sea level, sandwiched between the Severn river to the south and the Forest of Dean to the north. As far as is known, it was first occupied in the first century BC as evidenced by the remains of a hill-fort, as well as by the innumerable shallow iron works dug, unusually, into the side of the hill, many of which are still visible  to this day. Although it would be misleading to call these mine shafts, they are clearly of a different order from the open-cast mining that typified iron age attempts to retrieve the precious ore, the remains of which are known as ‘scowls’ locally.

The Romans – or Romano-British – occupied the site sometime during the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD and continued to mine the rich hill. One such mine, sited towards the north of the complex, extends some 50 feet into the ground; it and the other Roman mines here are the only ones extant in Britain. The temple itself dates from around 364-367. It must have had a relatively brief heyday, since Rome withdrew its legions from England in 410. Although coins, for instance, have been found into the 5th century, the late 4th century saw a defensive wall built around the precinct and the strengthening of the iron age banks and ditches. Evidence of habitation dwindles after that; and the site seems to have been eventually abandoned. Whether that was because it became unsustainable or because it was attacked by the Saxons is open to question. There is suggestion of a fire, which might make the latter seem more likely, although Wheeler thought it simply fell into disuse.

Tolkien’s article, published in 1932, is an extraordinary testament to his skill and erudition. In just over five densely argued pages he runs through the known mythic figures whom he could plausibly associate with Nodens, including Lear and Lludd, and analyses the name itself in merciless detail to extract every last drop of meaning: it is as if he is struggling to recreate a desert from a single grain of sand. The degree of learning on display is astonishing. One paragraph runs through seven languages – Gothic, Old English, Old Saxon, Old High German, Old Norse, Lithuanian and Lettish – in search of an unrecorded but hypothesised Germanic root verb. Elsewhere he reaches back through vowel shifts – the way the pronunciations of words change when they are grafted onto one language from another – from the very distant to the prehistoric Indo-European family of tongues, feeling his way through to a source that might make sense of the evidence.

His conclusion is that Nodens is – or was – a snarer, catcher or hunter of some description. But he cannot – or does not – go further and explain what that implies. And it ties in with the number of votive offerings found at Lydney in the shape of dogs. He does note, though, an echo of one analogous figure in Celtic myth, Núada Argat-lam – Núada of the silver hand – a king whose power is bound up in the hand itself.

But it is Tolkien’s linguistic approach and technique that is most illuminating, the extent to which legend and language are used as mutually supportive tools in a bid to rescue meaning – and behind that the cultural legacy of a forgotten people – from the last remaining scraps of information left to us. Because this is not simply about the beliefs of those who built the temple and who worshipped here. It is about the ancestry of the gods and the cultures they graced, the legends they inhabited before the arrival of the Romans to assimilate or destroy them, before even the arrival of the Celtic tribes from mainland Europe, arguably as much as 1500 years earlier, when Nodens already served a remote and unknown people, whose monuments, mere stones, inspire both dread and awe.

It is a commonplace argument in critiques of Tolkien’s work that one of the great strengths of The Lord of the Rings is the depth (or, if you prefer, illusion of depth) provided by the background histories, the heroic – mostly tragic – tales of the First and Second Ages which Tolkien had in fact written first and which are referred to throughout. It was something that he was aware of himself and which made him wonder whether publication of The Simarillion would be a mistake. But it is not just the fall of Gondolin or the battles of Isildur and Elendil that contribute to that effect. It is also that sense of lost histories, of peoples whose very names have already been obliterated, or to whom the victories and defeats of the west are largely an irrelevance, which either way will spell a wider kind of defeat.

I am thinking in particular of the makers of the Púkel men, great primitive stone figures, their features all but erased save for the holes that were their eyes, who move Merry, seeing them for the first time as he rides with the men of Rohan, to a kind of sorrow. The same people built “dark Dunharrow, the work of long-forgotten men. Their name was lost and no song or legend remembered it. For what purpose they made this place… none in Rohan could say. Here they laboured in the Dark Years, before ever a ship came to the western shores… and now they had vanished”. They stand to Rohan as builders of Stonehenge or Wayland’s Smithy do to us. And it is a peculiarly Tolkienian sentiment, this: “the heart-racking sense of the vanished past [is] one that moves me supremely,” he wrote.

Some might dismiss Tolkien’s world, as Jonathan Miller has done, as being one of “remote, meaningless antiquity”, but that misses the point of Tolkien’s life’s work, which was precisely to restore to antiquity its meanings and identities. In Dunharrow – and later too in a different way with Ghan-buri-Ghan and the woses, the wild men of the woods – we see Tolkien making room within his work to articulate the very emotion that drove him to create it in the first place. Among other purposes, it serves to project the reader further into that created world, more aware of the layers of history and culture that underlie it, wondering more about its dark periphery, sharing Merry’s pity.

His work on Nodens was just such an act of rescue or recovery. But the site as a whole is a kind of microcosm of the lost England of his heart. If nothing else, its iron ore ensured that the area would attract attention and settlement. Lydney saw a succession of peoples struggling to escape oblivion, to escape the fate of those who, in Milton’s phrase, are “blotted out and rased from the books of life”. Simply, they were struggling to survive, fending off their own erasure while assuming into their own cultures and languages such traces of the defeated as they found valuable or expedient.

There is in fact the ruins of a Norman castle on the adjacent hill – now known as Little Camp Hill – which has yet to be properly excavated. It is a reminder of the loss that sorrowed Tolkien most of all, that of the Anglo Saxon language and culture that thrived in the centuries prior to 1066. The Normans, for good or ill, provided a stability to England, a continuity that has yet, really, to be broken. Their stamp is on the last 1,000 years of English history, where the 2,000 previous to their arrival is a tangle of invasions – which for whatever reason the inhabitants of the islands seemed incapable of repelling -  followed by assimilation before the next wave of migrants appears off the eastern coasts.

And the ring itself?

The story is this. One of the artefacts attached to temple at Lydney is a curse tablet, an invocation for revenge. It reads: “To the God Nodens. Silvanus has lost a ring. He has [vowed] half its value to Nodens. Amongst all who bear the name of Senicianus, refuse thou to grant health to exist, until he bring back the ring to the Temple of Nodens.” As curses go, this seems extreme, but then it was not uncommon for people to keep much of the wealth in jewelry like this, so it may have meant rather more to Silvanus than the loss of a beloved trinket. It seems extraordinary, but the ring has, in fact, also been found. But not here. It was dug up in a church in Silchester, which is now in Hampshire, in 1785.  Only Senicianus clearly had a new inscription placed on it: ‘Seniciane vivas in deo’ (Senicianus, may you live in God). Its home these days is the Vyne Museum at Basingstoke. Taking its lead from Senicianus, the Vyne has declined to return it to Lydney too.

I think there is still a vestigial power in the idea of curses, or more particularly of invoking a god to enforce a curse, which we feel despite our general disbelief. It is an act out of the remote past, almost but not quite unintelligible. Something we recognise, though, and would seek to avoid. It is not what we turn to God for now; in the Christian world at least we look to Him for his mercy rather more than his wrath.

The circularity of this curse in particular -  with the restitution of property being subordinate to the ring returning to the place where the curse was laid – also adds to its resonance, emphasising that the acts enmeshed in the story are reciprocal, mutually responsive. Which is why Paul’s comment about returning the ring to Lydney seems right: it is not about restoring it to the owner or some notional proxy thereof; it is about acknowledging the authority of the god. It would be like disturbing the pattern of history. Particularly so since the ring has been lost to Nodens and rededicated to the Christian God, which to me is as telling a symbol as any of a period in which belief systems and cultures were in flux, at war, even.

As Wheeler says of the temple builders: “In the 4th century the darkness was already closing rapidly upon them… The Lydney temple, with its partially transmuted pagan forms, represents the ultimate achievement of some one of these lost rivals to Christianity.” That it was Senicianus, it seems, who picked the winning side makes the apparent failure of Silvanus’ curse – to the extent that the ring never returned – doubly sad. A personal loss, but also in a wider sense, a loss for a pagan culture now barely known to us, heard only in the echo of place names, in small things dredged out of the earth.

Clearly, though, it is a long way from this to the magic ring – not yet even a Ring of Power  – that Bilbo wins in the darkness under the mountain. I don’t think you can say any more than that the story, which he would have certainly known, may have simply caught his imagination and been buried away somewhere in his unconscious. A ring is an unusual device, after all, certainly once you discount the Wagnerian train of thought, which Tolkien did, vehemently (“Both rings were round,” he fumed. “There the resemblance ceases.”) What you have here is a ring that bears a curse, that has a more than material significance, that needs to be returned to the place of the curse’s making if that curse is to be lifted.

You can’t make a causal link – and Middle Earth would be much duller if you could – but the parallels are certainly thought-provoking.

February 25, 2013 / Mathew Lyons

The borders of historical fiction and non-fiction: a conversation with Nancy Bilyeau

The ChaliceUKcoverLast year I reviewed Nancy Bilyeau’s excellent début Tudor thriller, The Crown which is set during the dissolution of the monasteries. Its sequel, The Chalice, is being published in the UK by Orion on February 28; and in North America by Simon & Schuster on March 5.

Nancy has kindly agreed to take part in an online discussion with me comparing the processes of writing historical fiction and non-fiction, trying both to identify common ground and to explore the different ways in which we approach problems such as narrative and character. There is a tendency to look down on historical fiction, but at its best it is trying to tell a kind of truth – more usually an emotional truth – about life in a particular period; and at its best, again, it can do that in a way that it is very hard for straight “history” to achieve.

Mathew: Hi Nancy. Many thanks for joining me here! I’m really looking forward to talking to you! I thought we might start by talking about research.

For me, the research process is the most purely enjoyable part of writing a work of non-fiction because – particularly when you start out – you don’t have to make too many decisions and you can read as widely as you like, following both sense and intuition to find possible sources. It’s a very open process because one of the things I am trying to find is the shape of the book, and that only emerges once you have absorbed a certain amount of information and started to map out a universe – which is the parameters of your area – and a rough sense of where your narrative will begin and end.
Read more…

November 16, 2012 / Mathew Lyons

Londonist Out Loud podcast

My Londonist Out Loud podcast with N Quentin Woolf, recorded in the lovely gardens at Hampton Court on Wednesday, is now available for download – either from the Londonist website or from iTunes. We chatted about various London-related matters, including the commercialisation of the Houses of Parliament and the ongoing privatisation of public spaces, among other things. I also spoke briefly about the Elizabethan court – and performed so badly in a quiz on old things in London that Mr Woolf silently dropped about half the questions.

If anyone is interested, my previous appearance on the podcast – recorded at Hogarth House in London earlier this year – alongside Mike Paterson of London Historians,  historian and author Hannah Rennier, and Hogarth House manager John Collins, is still available online here.

October 2, 2012 / Mathew Lyons

The Hollow Crown poster competition

The DVD of The Hollow Crown series of BBC Shakespeare films is now out. When I reviewed the films over the summer – links to my pieces are here – I saw them out of sequence, so I am very much looking forward to watching them through again as they were meant to be seen. Although I have some doubts over the way some of the plays were cut, and felt the transposition to a different medium wasn’t necessarily handled consistently across the four films, I do think the series’ virtues far outweighed such flaws as it may have had. It will be interesting to see how much I need to revisit my earlier judgements when I can watch the films with more time for reflection.
Read more…

August 20, 2012 / Mathew Lyons

History Today blog post: beach volleyball, Horse Guard’s Parade and the Accession Day tilts

I have a piece just up on the History Today blog this morning about Horse Guard’s Parade, the venue for the Olympic beach volleyball tournament and also the site of Elizabeth I’s Accession Day tilts.


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