Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Fascinating Artifacts Unearthed in TWO Newly Discovered Neighboring Anglo-Saxon Sites in England

Ancient Origins


Preparations for two new Cambridgeshire housing development projects have uncovered a fine collection of precious ornamental items and weaponry from Anglo-Saxon times and rare Roman era domestic artifacts. The finds provide new insight on the fashion and lifestyle of the wealthy who lived in the area during the 5th-7th centuries AD.

The discoveries were made in Cambridge and near Soham in Cambridgeshire, England. Heritage Daily reports that the Anglo-Saxon objects were likely owned by nobles and include several well-preserved items. The jewelry they found at the sites includes beaded items made of glass, amber, jet, and amethyst, silver wrist clasps, bone pins, and rings.


Some of the Anglo-Saxon beads found at the Cambridge site. ( Archeology by Weston Homes )

Cambridge News says that one of the brooches found at the Soham site holds special importance for researchers as it still has textile fragments, which they can use to recreate Anglo-Saxon clothing


An Anglo-Saxon brooch discovered at the site with textile still attached to it. ( Cambridge News )

Some of the Anglo-Saxon domestic artifacts of the Soham site are a decorative bone comb, tweezers, buckets, and buckles.

As for the weaponry, the team of archaeologists from the University College London (UCL) discovered a dagger, iron shield bosses, and spear heads at the Soham site.


An iron Anglo-Saxon dagger found at the Soham site, by the Centre for Applied Archaeology. ( UCL Institute of Archaeology )

A final discovery of importance at the site near Soham was an Iron Age enclosure which measured at least 50m (164 ft.) by 20m (65.6 ft.) and was 2 m (6.6 ft.) deep. The archaeologists believe “The enclosures form part of a productive agricultural landscape with finds of quernstones for processing grain, animal bones and other domestic refuse, and pits possibly used for grain storage. Although no buildings were identified, it is likely a settlement focus was located nearby.”

Assistant director of UCL’s Archaeology South-East, Louise Rayner, told Cambridge News that the archaeologists were expecting to find something at the Soham site, though they were surprised to find as much as they did:

“The site was expected to contain archaeological remains after a large excavation immediately to the south-east had previously uncovered extensive evidence for the Late Bronze Age, Iron Age and Roman periods, but it was great to discover such a range of artefacts”.

Following the Roman departure from the area, Anglo-Saxons arrived in Soham and surrounding areas around 411 AD. It is believed that they probably re-used the Roman villas they found.

In contrast, pottery vessels were found at the Cambridge housing development site, such as a rare glass claw beaker (named due to the claw-shaped handles which were attached to the conical walls near the stem of the vessel). The History blog states these “vases were very highly prized, probably imported from Germany, and have mainly been found as grave goods in 5th and 6th century Anglo-Saxon burials.” Cambridge News adds that “These elaborate drinking vessels are normally found further south east such as in Kent, northern France, the Netherlands and Germany.”


The rare claw beaker found at the Cambridge site. ( Stephen Collins )

Duncan Hawkins, Head of Archaeology and Build Heritage for CgMs discussed some of the Anglo-Saxon structures and features discovered during the Cambridge excavations:

“The site fell out of use in the 7th century but we discovered evidence of 8th century Middle Saxon activity including post-built structures, possibly workshops and livestock pens. Pits dug in this attest to local industrial activity and further processing of soil samples should help us understand what these were used for.”




A cross found during the Cambridge dig. ( Cambridge News )

Archaeologists were also delighted with the discovery of a Roman era pottery kiln and some plates, as well as a ditch delignating a field from the Late Iron Age and Roman times (all found at the Cambridge site). As Hawkins told Heritage Daily:

“Evidence of the time period 5th to 7th century AD is almost non-existent so this gives us a highly important window into understanding how people lived in that era, their trade activities and behaviours. The academic value of this collection is therefore immeasurable

The Cambridge site is located on the western edge of a Middle Saxon settlement previously found near Church End. It formed part of a 9th to 10th century manor. The Domesday Book shows that it was known as Hintona by 1086.


The Cambridge site during excavations. ( David Johnson )

Now that the artifacts have been recorded and removed from both of the Cambridgeshire sites, the builders have been given the go-ahead for their work. As development of the area continues, David Ivell, technical director at the Bovis Homes site, said:

“We’re delighted that it uncovered items of interest that will help future generations to understand how the land here has changed over many centuries, from an agricultural settlement for Roman families, right through to becoming the modern new homes site we are building here today.”

 Heritage Daily reports that the fascinating collection of Anglo-Saxon and Roman artifacts will be housed in local museums.

Top Image: Vases and pottery found during the dig in Cambridge, England. Source: Stephen Collins

By Alicia McDermott

Monday, January 16, 2017

Entering an Unknown Pagan Sanctuary: New Discoveries Made at a Roman Site in Israel

Ancient Origins


A team of researchers have finally found the missing link in the ancient Israeli city of Hippos-Sussita. Following discoveries of a large bronze mask of the Greek god Pan and a monumental gate, they were searching for the last piece of evidence to ascertain the era and purpose of the rich site. Through the discovery of a large theater and a bathhouse, they have declared it was almost definitely occupied during peacetime. However, the theater seems to have been used as a space for something other than entertainment - the experts speculate that it could have been a religious center instead.

An Important City During Roman Times
The new discoveries were made during recent excavations in the Hippos-Sussita Excavations Project, a research project conducted by a team from the University of Haifa with partners from all over the globe, at Hippos, overlooking the Sea of Galilee in Northern Israel.
The Roman amphitheater they uncovered leaves no doubt about the site’s era. As Dr. Michael Eisenberg of the University of Haifa and leader of the Hippos Excavations Project, revealed,

"The excavations outside the city over the past few years are falling into place like in a detective story.” He went on to explain, “First we found the mask of Pan, then the monumental gate leading to what we began to assume was a large public compound - a sanctuary. And now, this year, we find a public bathhouse and theater in the same location, both facilities that in the Roman period could be associated with the god of medicine Asclepius or with gods of nature such as Dionysus and Pan.”



Early excavations of the Roman theater. There is a semicircular passage between the lower and upper seating arrangements (praencinctio) and an entrance to a vaulted corridor (vomitorium). (M. Eisenberg)

As previously reported on Ancient Origins, the team of archaeologists unearthed a large bronze mask of the Greek god of forests and shepherds (Pan) while excavating a catapult armory outside Hippos-Sussita in 2015. They suggested that it dates to the Pax Romana, a time of peace in the Roman Empire.


Dr. Michael Eisenberg holding up the bronze mask of Pan. (Michael Eisenberg)

The Missing Link is Found
Despite all the evidence, there was a missing link that didn’t allow the researchers to state the site’s exact era with certainty: The Roman Theater. As Eisenberg described,

“No self-respecting Roman city in this period could allow itself to remain without a theater. It’s simply unthinkable that any Roman polis could have existed without a theater.”

Eisenberg also added that Dr. Arthur Segal, leader of the Hippos project for many years and a top expert on the theaters in the Roman East, was the one who insisted that there must be a theater in the city. As one can easily understand, its discovery gives a new meaning to the project and the reassurance local researchers needed to verify their theories and speculations.


Dr. A. Iermolin (standing) and Dr. M. Eisenberg during the excavation of the first vaulted passage (vomitorium). (A. Nakaryakov)

Religious Ceremonies
Instead of Entertainment However, Haaretz reports that all the findings so far have led the experts to speculate that the theater was more likely used for religious purposes than a place of entertainment. As Eisenberg said,

“What is even more exciting for the researchers than the discovery of the theater is the fact that they may have uncovered an expansive sanctuary outside the city walls. Dionysus, the god of wine, is associated with change and the loss of identity, and accordingly, with the masks used in the theater.”

Additionally, Eisenberg explained that the gate, which is almost unearthed, probably bore the bronze mask of Pan that was found in one of the gate towers, “All these findings suggest that this was a large sanctuary outside the city – something that completely changes what we knew about Hippos and the surrounding area, until now.”


Hippos (Sussita) Excavations - A Portal for Pan by mayzenb on Sketchfab

He makes sure to note, however, that all this is just a hypothesis for the moment, and only further research – and possibly more findings – will clear things up.

Top Image: A view of 2016 excavations the archaeological site at Hippos. Source: Hippos-Sussita Excavations Project

By Theodoros Karasavvas

Sunday, January 15, 2017

10 First World War slang words we still use today

History Extra


circa 1916: British soldiers sitting around a lamp in their trench. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

In Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War, Pegler reveals how common words and phrases such as ‘bumf’ and ‘having a chat’ originated in the trenches. Drawing on his interviews with a number of First World War veterans conducted in the 1980s, he recalls how the men were overwhelmingly positive about their experiences – they made friends for life, and the camaraderie they shared was something that many never experienced again.

 Here, writing for History Extra, Pegler details 10 words and phrases circulated during the war that still remain in use today:

 The subject of the First World War evokes many images, many of which are used repeatedly nowadays in film and TV, but they tend to concentrate on the drama and the misery of war. The reality was that it didn’t rain every day, the trenches were not knee deep in mud all year round, and soldiers were not subjected to shelling and death every day of their lives.

 In fact, day-to-day life was, as one veteran told me, “90 per cent sheer boredom and 10 per cent fear, but when we were frightened, we were very frightened, though you tried not to show it”. Of course there was death and destruction – there always is in war – but these men were young, energetic and above all, optimistic. Few believed anything terrible would happen to them (it was always ‘the other bloke’), and they masked their nervousness by sharing their hardships and fears with close chums.

 Indeed, having interviewed many veterans over the years, the overwhelming impression was that they looked back on their service in the First World War with a mixture of nostalgia and affection, tinged with sadness at the loss of friends. Above all else, the one emotion that helped them keep their sense of perspective and enabled them to endure the bad times was their uniquely British sense of humour, which appeared in even the grimmest situations, and it was the funny stories that they most often regaled us with.

 Much of the humour was found in their widespread use of songs and slang. Within any profession there is a language that is largely incomprehensible to outsiders, and soldiers were little different.

 In 1914–18, however, for the first time in Britain’s history, huge numbers of men from every conceivable walk of life had been put together in a huge citizen army, and as a result they developed their own language. But whereas in the past this slang had mostly remained within the ranks of the armed forces, during the First World War much of it was transferred by the soldiers from the western front to the home front.

 The songs and slang used by these men became not only popular, but almost fashionable in wartime England, and much of this has remained with us to this day.

Here are 10 examples that might surprise you.

 1) ‘Having a chat’
A commonplace expression today that owes its origin to that most pernicious of insects, the louse. Body lice were endemic in the trenches, and they inhabited the seams and pleats of clothing where they bred in huge numbers, causing skin rashes and itching. The expression is often ascribed to the Hindi word for a parasite, ‘chatt’, but is more possibly from an earlier medieval English word for idle gossip, ‘chateren’. Soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars certainly referred to lice as ‘chats’. During the Great War it was common to see small groups sitting around and talking as they used their fingernails, or a candle, to kill the lice. Such groups were described as men who were ‘chatting’.

 2) ‘Plonk’
The now almost universal word for a bottle of wine. The British soldier has traditionally failed since time immemorial to master the pronunciation of even the simplest foreign words, and it is merely a corruption of the French ‘vin blanc’.

 3) ‘Pillbox’
Prior to the war some small defensive military fortifications had been constructed, generally referred to as blockhouses. Mostly these were made of heavy timber – many were constructed during the Boer War. However, the term was only widely adopted into English during the latter part of the Great War because of the huge numbers of concrete bunkers constructed by the Germans across the flooded Flanders battlefields. They were called pillboxes due to their similarity to the small receptacles used by civilians for carrying medication.

 4) ‘Blighty’
The origin of this now very British word is shrouded in mystery. It may have come from the Arabic ‘beladi’, meaning ‘my own country’, or the Hindi word ‘bilaik’, referring to a foreign place or country. For the Tommies, it meant only one thing: home. The best possible way to get there was to sustain a wound serious enough to require hospitalisation in England, which was enviously termed ‘a Blighty one’.

 5) ‘Third light’
A superstition that it was bad luck to light a third cigarette from the same match. This was actually based on sound experience: it took a German sniper about five seconds at night to see, aim and fire at a light source, and a flaring match was clearly visible on a dark night from well over 500 yards. Five seconds was also about the time it took for the third man to light up.


6) ‘Tank’
The first modern armoured fighting vehicles were produced in great secrecy by Fosters of Lincoln. To prevent any hint of their purpose being discovered by German spies, workers were told they were mobile water tanks. Some were even clearly marked in Cyrillic ‘Water tanks for Russia’. The ruse certainly worked, because their first use on the Somme on 15 September 1916 was a complete surprise to the Germans.

 7) ‘Sniper’
Prior to the First World War, armies had employed specialist marksmen known as ‘sharpshooters’, but when war broke out the Germans fielded thousands of highly trained riflemen, usually equipped with telescopic-sighted rifles. British officers referred to them as ‘snipers’, which harked back to the army in India in the late 18th century when officers would go bird hunting in the hills – the tiny Snipe being one of the hardest of targets to hit. From 1914 the word was widely adopted by the British press, and it has since become universal. Sniping can now also refer to sharp or snide remarks made about another person.

 8) ‘Over the top’
An example of an expression that has seen a resurgence, although now with a very different meaning. Originally it referred to the physical act of launching an attack by climbing over the sandbag parapet in front of a trench – literally by going over the top. It thus became synonymous with setting off on any highly dangerous venture, usually with a slim chance of survival. It mostly died out after the war but in recent years has been revived, albeit now meaning to embark on a course of action or to make a remark that is either excessive or unnecessary.

 9) ‘Shrapnel’
Often used today as a reference to the annoying, and all-but-worthless small change that accumulates in one’s pockets or purse. It is possibly the most incorrectly used word from the war, as it is invariably misapplied to describe the lethal flying splinters from high-explosive shells. In fact, it refers to the lead balls launched from airburst shells (a little like airborne shotgun cartridges) invented by Lt Henry Shrapnel of the Royal Artillery in 1784.

 10) ‘Bumf’
Printed paper that is produced in huge quantities for no discernable reason, and apparently has no information value. The junk mail we all receive on a daily basis is a prime example. It is derived from the army term ‘bum-fodder’ – paper that has only one possible practical use. It is originally from prewar schoolboy slang then appropriated by the soldiers to refer to excessive paperwork. It generally referred to the endless streams of army orders that were issued from headquarters. In the middle of one particularly savage attack on the Somme, a British orderly officer received a series of communiqu├ęs from HQ demanding to know how much tinned jam was held in stores and how many pairs of socks were required. Some things never change.

 Soldiers’ Songs and Slang of the Great War by Martin Pegler (Osprey Publishing) is now on sale.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

8,500-year-old Evidence of Silk Production Weaves a New History of the Luxurious Fabric

Ancient Origins


Researchers have isolated degraded silk proteins in the soil of Chinese tombs that date back about 8,500 years—the oldest evidence of manmade silk by far. They found the tiny molecular proteins at the Jiahu archaeological site, which is rich with artifacts that point to some of the first signs of civilization.

The researchers, who published their findings in the journal PLOS one, say they found rough weaving tools and bone needles in the 8,500-year-old tombs, all of which indicate the people who lived at Jiahu may have had basic weaving and sewing skills.


The three tombs from which researchers took soil to find silk proteins. ( Yuxuan Gong et al .)

“This finding may advance the study of the history of silk, and the civilization of the Neolithic Age,” wrote the authors. “The invention of silk was significant not only to ancient China; but to all of Eurasia.”

The Jiahu archaeological site was home to people from about 9000 to 7000 BC. It was named after a nearby modern village.

Silk was such a desirable product that a great trade route across Eurasia in ancient times was called the Silk Road. It comprised several routes from east in China as far west as ancient Greece and Rome. Silk, of course, was not the only product carried over the Silk Road.


This map shows the land route of the Silk Road in red and sea routes in blue. ( Public Domain )

The authors wrote that the first known clothing, dating back 70,000 years, was from animal skins. Then, about 30,000 years ago people were using flax fibers to make textiles. Scholars thought silk was made much more recently, about 5,000 years back.

Until now, that is.

The scientists, led by Yuxuan Gong of the University of Science and Technology of China, came up with a system of identifying evidence of degraded silk from about 3,000 years ago in the soil. They devised a way to distinguish modern silk fibers from archaeological silk remnants. This latest article in the December 12 issue of PLOS One reports on their newest research using mass spectrometry to identify biomolecular evidence of silk protein in the soils of three tombs that date back to the New Stone Age, 8,500 years ago.

The weaving tools and bone needles found in the tombs, indicate the silk from 8,500 years ago was sewn or woven into clothing. Legends say the area of Jiahu was where silk production first began.


13th century depiction of people weaving silk by Liang Kai. ( Public Domain )

Jiahu, which is in Henan Province, is a site rich with evidence of civilization, as the authors report:

“The site is famous for the discovery of the earliest playable musical instrument (bone flutes), the earliest mixed fermented beverage of rice, honey and fruit, the earliest domesticated rice in northern China, and possibly the earliest Chinese pictographic writing. The excavated biological remains, including pollen, phytoliths and soil micromorphology, indicate that Jiahu’s warm and humid climate not only favoured the growth of mulberry trees, which feed the silkworm, but also enabled Jiahu inhabitants to settle and develop agriculture .”


A Neolithic bone flute that was discovered in Jiahu, China. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

There is an article on Natural History Magazine online by researchers who excavated the site of Jiahu in the 1980s about the artifacts, health, diet and music of the village’s ancient residents. The article also deals with Penn State archaeologist Patrick McGovern’s efforts to recreate ancient alcoholic beverages at Jiahu, which researchers found in abundance on pottery at the site.


Jiahu pottery. (the.black.sheep)

Dr. McGovern reasoned that many of the jars and vases at Jiahu were used to ferment and store beer or wine. He speculated they made alcoholic beverages not just for intoxication but also because alcohol kills germs. They placed beer or wine along with other gifts, including flutes made from bones, into the tombs of many of the dead.

 Jiahu villagers also grew short-grain japonica rice and hunted, fished, and gathered to supply a varied diet. Evidence shows they took “carp, crane, deer, hare, turtle, and other animals. They also collected a broad variety of wild herbs, wild vegetables such as acorns, water chestnuts, and broad beans, and possibly wild rice. And they possessed domesticated dogs and pigs.”


Bone arrowheads were found at Jiahu, but the people there were not just hunters, they were also among the earliest farmers in that part of the world. (CC BY SA 3.0)

Regarding the current find, the PLOS One abstract says: “This finding may advance the study of the history of silk, and the civilization of the Neolithic Age.” The authors intend to continue investigating evidence of early silk production at Jiahu and other sites.

Top image: People preparing silk in old China. Source: Public Domain

By Mark Miller

Friday, January 13, 2017

Italian Archaeologists Find a Rare Solar Observatory Hewn Into Rock to Highlight the Winter Solstice

Ancient Origins


A group of friends surveying World War II bunkers in Sicily, Italy, uncovered something much older—a rock on a hill with a circular hole that was apparently carved into it through which the winter sun still shines the morning of the solstice. It is a sundial that has been dubbed the Stonehenge of Italy. Archaeologists who examined the holey stone say it dates as far back as 6,000 to 3,000 years.

Archaeoastronomy Professor Alberto Scuderi, a regional director with Italy’s Archaeologist Groups, studied the stone after amateur archaeologist Giuseppe La Spina and his friends discovered it on November 30, 2016.

Finally, on the winter solstice of December 21, experts determined that the stone was used to determine seasons and solstices. They used a compass, a GPS drone, cameras and video equipment to verify that the sundial worked.

"At 7:32 am the sun shone brightly through the hole with an incredible precision," Mr. La Spina told Live Science. "It was amazing."

Professor Scuderi completed his work on January 3 and was to present a report on the stone to the Gela Archaeological Museum.

The stone arrangement is near three prehistoric cemeteries—Grotticelle, Dessueri and Ponte Olivo. The closest town is Gela, on the southern Sicilian coast.


This rock-hewn tomb at Syracuse, reportedly that of Archimedes, is of a type found near the sundial in Gela, Sicily. (Wikimedia Commons/Photo by Codas2)

“Making an archaeological discovery is in itself an important event, but to be part of one of the most sensational finds in recent years fills me with pride,” Mr. La Spina told the Local.

He added that this Bronze Age monument was special to him personally because he and his group found it near his hometown of Gela.

Mr. La Spina said the discovery of the sundial with its 3.2-foot (1-meter) diameter hole may mean even more archaeological treasures are there to be discovered. He hopes for new finds that will shed light on the distant past of his hometown.

The 7-meter-tall (23-foot tall) stone’s special ritual importance becomes even clearer in the context of the sacred ground upon which it was found. Around the end of the 3rd millennium BC, there were burials nearby called grotticella tombs that were carved out of rock by people of the Castelluccio culture that held sway in Sicily.



La Spina and his associates also found a stone called a menhir at the eastern side of the sundial. They believe the stone was upright when it was taken there, but it fell at some point later. The menhir is 5 meters tall (16.4 feet) and in front of it is a pit.

The sundial stone and menhir have different geological compositions, which experts think indicate the menhir was imported to the site from elsewhere.

This is not the only stone with a man-made hole found so far on Sicily. Professor Scuderi said he found two others, near Palermo, that were made in prehistoric times.

"One lined up with the rising sun at the winter solstice, the other produced the same effect with the rising sun at the summer solstice," Scuderi told Live Science . "For this reason, I believe that another holed calendar stone, marking the summer solstice, may be found near Gela."

Featured image: The morning sun shines through the stone with the hole, an event marking the beginning of winter on December 21. (Credit: Giuseppe La Spina)

By Mark Miller

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Tudor tunes: music at the courts of Henry VIII, Elizabeth I and James VI and I

History Extra


Queen Elizabeth I dancing with Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Artist unknown. (© Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library/Alamy)

Music was an important facet of elite 16th-century culture. It played a part in every aspect of court life: processions, coronations, funerals, baptisms, fanfares announcing the monarch’s approach, music in the privy chamber, and music for the pageants and masques that entertained the court. It was also an integral part of religious worship.

 Music was provided both by professional musicians and by the courtiers themselves. Playing, singing and dancing were all essential elements of royal and noble education. Castiglione [an Italian courtier, diplomat and author], in his influential 1528 work The Book of the Courtier, laid great emphasis on the courtier’s need to have an appreciation of music and to play well as an amateur.

 Professional court musicians, meanwhile, had their own hierarchy – those who played ‘loud’ instruments – for example, trumpets and cornets – were less valued than those who played ‘soft’ instruments, such as stringed instruments and keyboards. These ‘soft’ players were the private entertainers of the monarch, and would form part of his privy chamber. They were often rewarded with extravagant tips, and even personal praise from the king or queen.

 All of the Tudor and Stewart monarchs were musical, and took a personal interest in the professional performers at their courts. Some of these court musicians were also well known writers and performers. Henry VII's most important musician was Robert Fayrfax (c1460–1521), organist of St Alban’s Abbey and first doctor of music at Cambridge. Fayrfax continued to serve Henry VIII, one of his last commissions being music for the meeting between the monarch and the French king Francois at the Field of Cloth of Gold in 1520.

 Another well-known composer of Henry VII’s reign, who was also commissioned by Henry’s wife, Elizabeth of York, was William Cornysh. In Scotland, meanwhile, Robert Carver provided music for the court of James IV and also for the coronation of James V, and in Elizabeth’s reign two of the most famous English composers of all time, Thomas Tallis and William Byrd, reached the heights of their genius.

 Tutoring
Among the duties of court musicians was the tutoring of royal children, who all learned to play at least one instrument. In 1502, Elizabeth of York paid £4 for a pair of clavichords [a stringed keyboard instrument] for herself, while her husband, Henry VII, bought lutes [a stringed instrument] for their daughters, Margaret and Mary, who also played the clavichord. Mary was sufficiently proficient on it to entertain Philip, Duke of Burgundy, at Windsor when she was just 11 years old, while Margaret’s skill with the lute came in handy when she met James IV of Scotland, whom she later married: the 30-year-old king put the 13-year-old princess at ease by playing and singing with her. Their son, James V, was equally fond of the pastime, but although he was a talented sight-reader, his singing voice was described as “rasky and harske” – that is, raucous and harsh-sounding.

 Henry VIII
Of his musical family, Henry VIII was probably the most gifted. He played numerous instruments: the lute, the organ and other keyboards; recorders, the flute and the harp, and he had a good singing voice. Henry wrote a number of compositions, the most famous probably ‘Pastime with Good Company’, although, disappointingly, probably not ‘Greensleeves’ which is later in date.


Pastime with Good Company. Musical score for a three-part madrigal alleged to have been written by Henry VIII. Archived at the British Museum. (Photo by Culture Club/Getty Images)

 All his life Henry patronised musicians, with at least 60 on his staff at the end of his reign, not including his gentlemen and children of the Chapel Royal. Ambassadors frequently commented on the beautiful music at Henry’s court, making unfavourable comparisons with that of King Francois, whose chief singing master was often drunk!

 Henry didn’t just play several instruments, he also owned an enormous collection of them. His throng included cornets, bagpipes (called drones), viols, lutes, flutes, shawms [a double-reed woodwind instrument] and more than 150 recorders. Henry even owned an early type of pianola in the form of a set of virginals that “goeth with a wheel without being played upon.”

 Music was a pleasure that Henry shared with some of his wives. He and Catherine of Aragon particularly favoured a friar by the name of Dionysius Memmo, who had been the organist at St Mark’s in Venice and brought his “excellent instrument” to England at great expense. Henry was so delighted with Memmo that he requested the Pope release the friar from his order so he could join the king’s Chapel Royal.

 Henry and Catharine’s daughter, Mary, was equally mesmerised by Memmo – her first recorded words when she was about two years old were “Priest! Music! Music!,” repeated until Henry commanded him to play. Mary grew up playing the regals and virginals [both keyboard instruments] and became a proficient lutenist; she was described in 1553 as “surprising even the best performers, both by the rapidity of her hand and the style of her playing”.

 Mary was taught by Philip van Wilder, one of Henry’s chief musicians, who played to the king in his privy chamber. Van Wilder went on to teach Henry’s son, Edward VI, to be “excellent in striking the lute” and led a choir at Edward’s coronation. He is said to have been paid a substantial sum of money for taking care of the young king’s lute cases. Edward’s musicians included 18 trumpeters, seven viol players, four sackbuts players, a harpist, a bagpiper, a drummer, eight minstrels and a rebec player [a type of fiddle, with a bow] and eight minstrels.

 Elizabeth I
The virginals seem to have been the instrument of choice for Elizabeth I, who spent regular hours practising. One of Elizabeth’s instruments, dated from a tiny inscription to 1594, is now housed in the Victoria & Albert Museum in London. Elizabeth rather piqued herself on her skill, and, when informed by the Scottish ambassador, Sir James Melville, that Mary, Queen of Scots played both lute and virginals, Elizabeth was eager to know if she had a rival. She asked how well Mary played, and received the reply “reasonably, for a queen”.

 Later that day, Melville was asked by the queen’s cousin, Lord Hunsdon, to listen to music with him. Hunsdon took him to a gallery where Melville heard music that “ravished him” – it turned out to be Elizabeth playing. She coyly told Melville that she had not been expecting him, and did not play in front of gentlemen; but, since he had heard her, perhaps he could tell her whether her playing, or that of the Queen of Scots, was better? Melville was obliged to answer that Elizabeth was the superior performer.

 Elizabeth also appreciated the performance of others. Before Lord Darnley went to the Scottish court to woo Mary, he often attended upon Elizabeth. He would play the lute for her “wherein it should seem she taketh pleasure, as indeed, he plays very well.”

 Anne Boleyn
Elizabeth may have inherited her talent as much from her mother, Anne Boleyn, as from her father. According to Anne’s biographer Eric Ives, Henry VIII’s second wife may have been taught by Henri Bredemers, organist to the Archduchess Marguerite [or Margaret] of Austria. Bredemers was music tutor to the archduchess’s nephew, Charles V, and his sisters, one of whom, Eleanor – later queen of France – was noted as particularly skilled. Whoever Anne learnt from, she was described as “[knowing] perfectly how to sing and dance…to play the lute and other instruments”.

 One of Henry’s objections to his fourth wife, Anne of Cleves, was that she had no musical abilities. Apparently in Germany, unlike most of Europe, it was not considered proper for great ladies to have any knowledge of music. With music being so central to Henry’s life, for him this was completely unacceptable.

 Fortunately, it was a taste Henry could share with his sixth wife, Katherine Parr. They jointly patronised a family of Italian musicians, the Bassanos, who continued as court performers into the 17th century.

 Worship
Music was a vital component of worship before the Reformation. To have an accomplished chapel of singers was an important mark of status, and the finding of suitable men and boys was something that occupied the minds of the highest. There is correspondence relating to the friendly rivalry between Cardinal Wolsey and Henry VIII regarding the singers in their chapels: both men sought to recruit talented choristers, and even arranged a competition to see whose choir was the better. Henry gave the victory to Wolsey’s men, so, tactfully, Wolsey released to Henry’s service a boy with an especially “crafty descant”.

c1550, Tudor musicians in church. (Photo by Rischgitz/Getty Images)

 Another young musician who began his career in Wolsey’s chapel was Mark Smeaton. Smeaton played the lute, the virginals and the regals, and was an accomplished singer and dancer. Henry was so pleased with Smeaton that he was given a position as a musician in the privy chamber. He was thus often in the company of Anne Boleyn, and this proximity of the queen to a low-born man (Smeaton was the son of a carpenter) was used to blacken the queen’s name. Smeaton confessed to adultery with her – a charge she strenuously denied.

 Another queen whose downfall was her music master was Henry VIII’s fifth wife, Catherine Howard. When she was no more than 12 or 13, Henry Manox, her teacher was caught kissing and fondling her. Later, when she was Queen, the incident was used as evidence in the charges of adultery for which Queen Katherine was executed.

 The procuring of musicians for each other, and the sending of minstrels to entertain friends and family, was a way of demonstrating affection. Katherine Parr, who kept musicians, including a consort of viols, sent a musician to her stepdaughter, Lady Mary, with the words “[he] will be…most acceptable, from his skill in music, in which you, I am well aware, take as much delight as myself.” In 1561, Edward, Earl of Hertford, found a flautist for Elizabeth I in France after her previous player died.

 Dancing
Both Mary I and Elizabeth I were fond of dancing. A rather priggish nine-year-old Edward VI sent a message to his stepmother, Katherine Parr, asking her to “beseech” his “dear sister, Mary…to attend no longer to foreign dances and merriments, which do not become a most Christian princess”. This reflected the rather more censorious view of music being taken by the radical religious reformers. Lady Jane Grey’s tutor, John Aylmer, requested the Swiss reformer, Bullinger, to prescribe a suitable length of time for Jane to spend on music, for “in this respect, people in this country (England) err beyond measure”.

 For all Edward’s personal fondness for music, this increasing puritanism meant that it was no longer considered so appropriate for religious ceremonies, and the 1552 Prayer Book significantly reduced the amount of music in the service. Music returned to the church under Mary, and this was one of the Catholic practices that Elizabeth was happy to retain. While the English church thus kept much of the choral music of earlier days, the more stringent reform in Scotland swept away the vast majority of pre-Reformation sacred music.

 Well into her sixties, Elizabeth could still dance the energetic galliards she had excelled at in her youth, and rebuked any of her ladies-in-waiting who did not dance to her satisfaction while she tapped out the rhythm with her foot. Elizabeth’s love of music was so well known that on her deathbed her anxious councillors summoned her musicians, perhaps to rouse her from the stupor into which she had fallen, or perhaps to comfort her.

 The Scottish court
Music was just as important at the Scottish court as at the English. While there were bagpipes at the English court, there is no mention of them at James V’s court, but there were trumpeters, whistlers and drummers, clad in the red and yellow livery of the king. These ‘loud’ musicians were used in war and for ceremonial purposes, such as greeting James V’s two queens, Madeleine and Marie, on their arrival in Scotland in 1537 and 1538 respectively. The Scottish monarchs also enjoyed hearing and playing ‘soft’ music: James V and Marie of Guise each had a ‘consort’ of Italian viols. James V’s own principal instrument seems to have been the lute, for which his yeoman frequently bought new strings. European influences, particularly Flemish and French, were strong at the Scottish court, which also had its own Italian family of musicians – although they took the Scottish name Drummond.

 Following the deposition of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1567, music was less central to the Scottish court. Her son, James VI, was described in 1584 as “[hating] dancing and music in general…”. This changed as he matured, however, and, influenced by his wife, Anne of Denmark, the court he presided over – first in Scotland and later in England – was as sophisticated in its musical tastes as any in Europe.

 Melita Thomas is the editor of Tudor Times. To find out more, visit www.tudortimes.co.uk

Wednesday, January 11, 2017

Q&A: Could Roman slaves buy their own freedom?

History Extra



Illustration by Glen McBeth.

Yes, it was common for Roman slaves to ‘earn’ a little money. This was often in the form of tips but, as Gaius, a Roman jurist, wrote in the second century AD, “whatever property is acquired by a slave is acquired by his master” – whether the slave kept his or her ‘earnings’ seems to have been at the master’s discretion.

 If slaves saved that money, they could use it to buy their freedom for a sum agreed by their master. The Romans had an official system for freeing slaves that was unique in the ancient world.

 Called ‘manumission’, from manumissio, (‘release from the hand’ of power), it came in several forms: the most formal involved a magistrate, and gave the freed slave not only his freedom, but also the right to trade and make his own living, as well as to make and to benefit from a will.

 Lifelong obedience and services (obsequium et operae) towards the former owner were part of the deal, and a freedman (libertus) remained part of the familia, the ex-owner’s extended household. Less formal forms of manumissio even meant that when the freed slave died, everything he had reverted to his former owner.

 Answered by Gillian Hovell, author of Roman Britain (Crimson Publishing, 2012).