Untold lives blog

53 posts categorized "Religion"

02 February 2016

'Pretty, witty Nell', the 'Protestant whore': Nell Gwyn remembered

Nell Gwyn, actress and mistress of Charles II, was born on this day in 1650. Nell's short life didn't have a promising start. According to the diarist Samuel Pepys, she was brought up in a brothel, where she served strong liquor to clients. In 1663, at the age of about twelve, Nell became an 'orange girl' in the King's Theatre, selling fruit to theatregoers and probably passing secret messages between the actresses and their lovers. Within a short time Nell was herself elevated to the stage, where she proved a great hit. Pepys wrote admiringly of 'Pretty, witty Nell' and her performances in comic roles - as well as of her shapely figure.


Eleanor ('Nell') Gwyn by Simon Verelst, circa 1680 © National Portrait Gallery, London   NPG

It wasn't only Pepys who found Nell desirable. She had affairs with several men, before attracting the attention of the King himself. She became his mistress and eventually bore him two sons. The King was evidently very fond of her. On his deathbed he supposedly said to his brother, the future James II, 'Don't let poor Nelly starve'. Nell clearly didn't go short of money: when she died in 1687 she left several hundred pounds to family members, as well as money to help the poor and those in debt.

As Charles II's mistress, Nell had sometimes awkward relationships with the King's other lovers. A particular rival was Louise de Kéroualle, to whom Charles had given the title Duchess of Portsmouth. The British Library holds several contemporary publications satirising the spats between the two women, including A pleasant dialogue betwixt two wanton ladies of pleasure, A dialogue between the Duchess of Portsmouth and Madam Gwin at parting, and Madam Gwins answer to the Dutches of Portsmouths letter. The last of these is full of sexual innuendo: the fictionalised Nell says to Louise that the sea-god Neptune (presumably representing Charles II):

'proffer'd you Gold, and Pearl, and what not, if you would have let him stick his Trident in you.'

The Duchess of Portsmouth's Catholicism made her unpopular with some people. While Nell was riding through Oxford in a coach in 1681, she was reputedly mobbed by an angry crowd, who thought the coach contained the Duchess. Nell is supposed to have leaned out of the coach window and reassured the crowd by saying, 'Pray good people be silent, I am the Protestant whore'.

Fascination with Nell Gwyn and her exploits didn't end at her death. She has been the subject of plays, operas and stories in the centuries since, including a three-act play by Edward Jerningham, published in 1799 with the title The Peckham Frolic. In this comedy Charles II, in heavy disguise, meets Nell in Peckham, where all sorts of trickery ensues.


Edward Jerningham: The Peckham Frolic (London, 1799). BL shelfmark: 11778.d.1.  Cc-by

Sandra Tuppen, Lead Curator Modern Archives and Manuscripts 1601-1850.

17 December 2015

The Ancient Mosque of Manama

On 5 February 1936 Charles Dalrymple Belgrave, Advisor to the Bahrain Government, asked the Political Agent Percy Gordon Loch for help in locating an ancient mosque in Manama, Bahrain. The only piece of information Belgrave had was that the mosque dated to AD 876-9, and had been described by Ernest Diez in 1925.

Diez had indeed visited the place in 1914 and described the mosque’s physical features including its pillars, arches, roofs, plan, and measurements, in addition to the possible timeline of its establishment.

The mosque is believed to be one of the oldest Islamic buildings in Bahrain, whose ruins Deiz thought dated back to the year 740 AH (AD 1339/40). This date is shown with Cufic inscription on an epigraphic tablet that was described by Deiz. The mosque has a unique architectural style with an open plan layout rather than most familiar courtyard mosques spotted in various Muslim countries.

  Plan of mosque in Manama
From Ernest Diez,  ‘Eine Schiitische Moschee Ruine auf der Insel Bahrain’ Noc

Basic local materials were used to build the mosque including clay and teak. Diez states that teak ‘was shipped from India to the Persian Gulf and Egypt and was much utilised in the early Islamic mosques of the towns of Iraq, in Baghdad, and also in the Persian highland country’.

The identical twin minarets on this ancient Islamic monument make it easily recognizable. The foundation dates back to the 11th century and has been rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries. During this reconstruction the twin minarets were added. At the east and west exterior walls of the mosque stand these two distinguishable circular minarets.  Below is one of the oldest photographs taken of the two minarets in 1939.

Photo of mosque in Manama

IOR/R/15/2/1663, ff 252-255 Noc


There are two Kiblah stones with Cufic writing around them at the western wall of the mosque. They are called kiblah as they indicate the direction of prayer. They are believed to have been rebuilt in the 15th century.

Kiblah stones with Cufic writing around them

From Ernest Diez,  ‘Eine Schiitische Moschee Ruine auf der Insel Bahrain’ Noc


At some point of its history the mosque was a Shia mosque. The  inscription found on its wooden pillar is a Shia formula: ‘la Ilaha illa Allah, Muhammed Rasul Allah, ‘Ali Wali Allah’.

Shia inscription on wooden pillar at Manama mosque

NocFrom Ernest Diez,  ‘Eine Schiitische Moschee Ruine auf der Insel Bahrain’

The design which can be seen on the above wooden pillar can be assigned to at least the 10th century. Such designs can be traced to the mosques of Samarra in present-day Iraq.

If Mr Belgrave had made the same enquiry today, he would have been delighted to learn that the ancient mosque of Manama is now called al-Khamis Mosque. It is found to the south-west of Manama. The mosque derives its name from a local market (Souq) which was held in the area on Thursdays (al-Khamis), hence Souq al-Khamis. It is however rather difficult to trace the date by which the mosque acquired this name, or even to trace any previous names. Most recently the Bahrain Authority for Culture and Antiquities  has been working on a project called Souq al-Khamis Mosque Visitors’ Centre which is intended to open by the end of 2015. The project is sponsored by Assistant Undersecretary for Culture and National Heritage Shaikha Mai bint Mohammad bin Al-Khalifa.

Ula Zeir
Content Specialist/ Arabic Language British Library/Qatar Foundation Partnership

Further Reading:
Diez, Ernest ‘Eine Schiitische Moschee Ruine auf der Insel Bahrain’ von Ernest Diez, pp 101-105, (‘The Ruins of Shia Mosque on Bahrain Island’), Jahrbuch der asiatischen Kunst II (The Annual Book of Asian Arts), Part II, edited by Georg Biermann (1925).
IOR/R/15/2/1771 File 34/1 Ancient Monuments and Tombs. Ancient Mosque in Manamah.
IOR/R/15/2/1663, ff 252-255 File 20/1- Vol: III Ceremonial and Celebrations: New Year's and King's Birthday's Celebrations.
Article by Muhammad Al Khatam, Al-Yaum Newspaper. 
al-Khamis Mosque



09 December 2015

Happy Birthday to John Milton!

The great poet, scholar and controversial pamphleteer John Milton was born #onthisday in 1608.

One of the treasures of the British Library’s Milton holdings is the Bridgewater Manuscript of Comus (Loan MS 76 ), on long term loan from a private collection. Comus is a masque, with music by Henry Lawes, first performed at Ludlow Castle on 29 September 1634 before John Egerton, first Earl of Bridgewater, to celebrate his inauguration as Lord President of Wales. The Library also holds an autograph manuscript of Lawes’s music (Add MS 53723 ), which includes settings for five songs from Comus.


 Add MS 53723, Henry Lawes, f.37v 'Comus'  Noc

The masque is both a warning against licentiousness and a celebration of chastity, thought by some scholars to have been intended to distance the Egerton family from the Castlehaven scandal, in which the Countess of Bridgewater’s brother-in-law was executed for sexual crimes in 1631, or to emphasize a message of chastity in light of the Countesses fears that in 1632 a male servant had bewitched her youngest daughter, Alice. At the first performance of the masque, the roles of the Lady and her brothers were played by three of the Egerton children: Alice (15), John (11) and Thomas (9).

In the masque, the Lady, alone in the woods, is tricked and kidnapped by Comus, the son of Bacchus and Circe. The Lady, magically bound, tries to resist Comus’s attempts to seduce her into intemperance by making her drink a potion. She is rescued by her two brothers and the Attendant Spirit of the wood, who rush Comus’s palace and smash the glass to the floor. They summon Sabrina, a goddess of chastity, who lifts the binding spell from the Lady. Order is restored and the scene changes to Ludlow, where there are country dances and the children are presented to their parents with words of praise for ‘their faith, their patience, and their truth’ and their triumph over ‘sensual folly, and intemperance’.

There are five early versions of the text of Comus or A Maske Presented at Ludlow Castle: the Bridgewater MS, the Trinity MS (an autograph manuscript with many revisions, thought to have been Milton’s working copy), and print versions published by Lawes in 1637, and Milton in 1645 and 1673. The Bridgewater MS was previously believed to have been an acting copy for the performance at Ludlow. It is now thought to have been a presentation copy for the Egerton family, with its variants possibly recording adaptations of the text for the first performance. Among its variants, the Bridgewater MS omits several key speeches, among them Comus’s famous carpe diem speech, ‘List Lady be not coy […] you are but young yet’, which criticizes virginity and sexualises the Lady; and the passage where the Lady is thronged by memories of fantasies of ‘calling shapes, and beckoning shadows dire, / And airy tongues, that syllable men’s names’. Perhaps the text was edited to be sensitive to the family scandal, and indeed to a 15 year old girl performing before her parents.

There are numerous other noteworthy items in the Library’s extensive Milton collection. Our printed copies of Paradise Lost include two first issues of the first edition of 1667 (C.14.a.9. and Ashley 1183); two issues of Jacob Tonson’s fourth edition of 1688 – the lavish, illustrated folio that helped secure Milton’s place in the canon (1486.m.4. and 643.m.10.(1.) ); a 1751 copy with manuscript notes by Charles Lamb (C.61.a.5.); first editions of the poem as illustrated by John Martin (1827, 643.m.18,19.) and Gustav Doré (1866, 1871.f.14.); and translations of the poem into numerous languages, the earliest being a 1682 German translation by E G Von Berge (11626.b.31.).


Plate from Jacob Tonson's fourth edition of Milton's Pardise Lost, 1788. British Library 643.m.10Noc


'Satan on his Throne' by John Martin,from The Paradise Lost of John Milton with illustrations designed and engraved by John Martin, 1827, 643.m.18.Noc

We also have several copies of the 1645 Poems  and first editions of his poetry, including a copy of Justa Edouardo King naufrago (1638) – the collection in which ‘Lycidas’ first appeared – containing manuscript corrections to Milton’s poem, possibly in his own hand (C.21.c.42.).


Frontispiece and title page from Poems by John Milton, 1645, E.1126.Noc

The Library has many first editions of Milton’s extensive prose works, including five pamphlets – Of Reformation (1641, E.208.(3.)), The Reason of Church-Government (1641, E.137.(9.)), An Apology against a Pamphlet (1642, E.147.(22.)), Areopagitica (1644, C.55.c.22.(9.)) and Pro populo anglicano defensio (1651, C.114.b.37.))  – bearing the inscription ‘Ex dono Authoris’ (from the gift of the author) on the title page, and with corrections to Areopagitica and Of Reformation in a contemporary hand.

Title page from Pro populo anglicano defensio, 1651, C.114.b.37.).Noc

The Library also has two non-Miltonic works owned and annotated by the poet: a Greek text, Ἀρατου Σολεως Φαινομενα και Διοσημεια (1559, C.60.l.7. ), and a 1612 King James’s Bible (Add MS 32310) in which Milton recorded the births and deaths of family members.


Title page from Ἀρατου Σολεως Φαινομενα και Διοσημεια, 1559, C.60.l.7. Noc

As well as the Bridgewater MS, the Library’s Archive and Manuscript collection also boasts the original agreement between John Milton and the printer Samuel Symmons for the sale of Paradise Lost, dated 27 April 1667, with the signature and seal of the Poet (Add MS 18861); and one of his commonplace books, containing extensive notes on divorce (a subject Milton controversially published in favour of), as well as notes on ethics, economics, politics and literature (Add MS 36354) .

PUCKAdd MS 36354

Page from John Milton's Commonplace Book, Add MS 36354 55v. Noc

Dr Puck Fletcher, Web Content Developer - Shakespeare Discovering Literature.

27 September 2015

Crack-Nut Sunday

Today is Crack-Nut Sunday, the last Sunday before Michaelmas (29 September).  The name comes from an old English custom whereby the congregation took nuts with them to the parish church on this day and cracked them during the service.

It is said that the practice had its origin in the election of bailiffs and other members of the corporation on Michaelmas Day and the civic feast connected with this.  Young and old members of the congregation participated and the cracking noise often drowned out the words of the priest.

  Congregation in church

Image taken from Annals of the Parish and the Ayrshire Legatees ... Illustrated by C. E. BrockNoc


In 1907 a newspaper in New York State published an account by an American visitor who had attended a country church in the north of England on Crack-Nut Sunday.  He commented that the service ‘would have driven a New York preacher clean crazy’: ‘Nobody, no matter how pious he might be, hesitated to avail himself of the peculiar privilege granted him, and men, women and children came to church with their pockets stuffed with nuts, which they complacently cracked and munched during the sermon…It can be easily imagined that when forty or fifty people get to cracking nuts with all their might the noise is apt to be something terrific, and many times the minister was hard put to hear himself think’. The custom came to be looked upon as a nuisance but was suppressed with some difficulty ‘so firmly had the nut cracking fever taken hold of the fancy of the people’.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
John Timbs, Something for everyone (1861)
The Kingston Daily Freeman 4 March 1907


21 September 2015

St Matthew’s Day

Today is St Matthew’s Day.  Traditionally this was the day when the governors of Christ’s Hospital were elected with ceremonies involving the Lord Mayor and aldermen of the City of London.  Christ’s Hospital is now situated in Horsham Sussex, but the pupils still march each year through the City on or about 21 September to reaffirm the school’s links with the Square Mile.


Christ's HospitalNoc

Christ's Hospital - image from The Works of Charles Lamb. A new edition (London, 1840) shelfmark 12272.f.9 BL flickr


 In 1825 William Hone wrote this description of the annual ceremonies:

‘On this day the lord mayor, aldermen, sheriffs, and governors of the several royal hospitals in London, attend divine service, and hear a sermon preached at Christ church, Newgate-street; they then repair to the great hall in Christ’s hospital, where two orations are delivered, one in Latin, and the other in English, by the two senior scholars of the grammar-school; and afterwards partake of an elegant dinner’.

The London Evening Standard published an article about the 1843 ‘annual scholastic fête’ attended by ‘a brilliant assemblage’.  The Lord Mayor was accompanied by the Earl of Grosvenor and ‘an individual in Turkish costume, who appeared to take considerable interest in the scene’.  No less than four orations were delivered on the subject of the benefits of the Royal Hospitals – in Latin, English, Greek, and French.  These were followed by several ‘poetic effusions’ including an ode to celebrate Queen Victoria and Prince Albert becoming governors of Christ’s Hospital, and Latin Sapphic verse on peace with China, ‘a pretty thing, trippingly recited’.

The day’s proceedings concluded ‘as usual, by contributions to the gloves of the orators’. Then the Lord Mayor left the hall ‘amid the shrill storm of cheers with which the young blue coats are in the habit of making their valedictory salute’.

Margaret Makepeace 
Lead Curator, East India Company RecordsCc-by

Further reading:
William Hone, The Every-day Book (1825)
British Newspaper Archive – for example London Evening Standard 22 September 1843


08 September 2015

Reading, writing, arithmetic – and leapfrog

On International Literacy Day we bring you the story of missionary Joseph Mullens teaching soldiers and sailors to read and write during the voyage of the clipper Malabar to Calcutta in 1860.


Books on a tableNoc

Image taken from Dexter and Garlick, Object Lessons in Geography for Standards I. II. & III (London,1899) BL flickr 


Joseph Mullens was a Congregationalist minister who served with the London Missionary Society in India. In 1845 he married Hannah Catherine Lacroix the daughter of a Swiss missionary. Hannah was fluent in Bengali and undertook educational work with local women.  They went in 1858 to England on furlough, returning to India in 1860.

The Mullens family set sail in the recently launched Malabar in September 1860: Joseph; Hannah; children Alice, Lucy, Kenneth, and baby Kate; Hannah’s sister Laura Overbeck Lacroix; and ayah Areka, ‘a jewell of a servant’  Many family members came to see them off at Gravesend including their ‘darling boy’ eight-year-old Eliot who was to be educated at a school in London. 

Joseph kept a fascinating journal of the voyage, detailing his fellow travellers and describing a typical day on board ship for both crew and passengers.  There were anxious moments when little Kenneth fell off a ladder onto his head and when bad weather struck the ship.  The family were kept busy throughout with religious and educational activities; Joseph commented at the start of the journey: ‘I find that my hands can easily be filled with useful employment’.  Joseph held religious services for passengers and for the troops being transported to India.  Bengali and Hindustani lessons were arranged. Laura Lacroix led separate classes for the young ladies on board in English and French dictation. 

Mullens sought permission to offer classes in reading, writing, arithmetic, and Bible instruction for the soldiers.  To his delight, sailors were also allowed the opportunity to learn.  On Saturday 15 September the soldiers’ class met for the first time: ‘22 were present.  Stirred up by good example, 14 of the crew have asked for lessons in reading & writing, & have the full sanction of the Capt. and chief officer to avail themselves as much as possible of all the instruction we can give’.  However Mullens was later to be disappointed in the numbers attending the classes, with a number of men having to be absent each day because of their onboard duties.

Although young Alice commented: ‘Don’t you think we have all gone knowledge mad?’, there were opportunities for less cerebral pastimes.  There were lively celebrations for ‘Crossing the Line’, and Mullens witnessed soldiers entertaining themselves with sessions of leapfrog followed by ‘a most funny game, pulling each other’s ears’.

The Malabar reached Calcutta in December 1860 after a rapid voyage of 96 days.  Sadly Hannah and Kate both died in 1861.  From 1865 Joseph travelled the world publicising and raising funds for the London Missionary Society: India, China, the United States, Canada, Madagascar, and finally central Africa where he fell ill and died in July 1879.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records Cc-by

Further reading:
MSS Eur A214 – journal of Joseph Mullens of voyage to Calcutta September- December 1860. [The author was identified as the Reverend Dawson when the journal was purchased by the British Library in 1992 because of an inscription inside the volume – the catalogue will now be corrected.]

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – Mullens, Joseph (1820-1879), missionary by Katherine Prior

Find the writings of Joseph and Hannah Mullens in Explore the British Library


28 July 2015

Richard Burton - Masterchef?

If you mention the name Richard Burton, most people will assume that you mean the mellifluous-voiced Welsh actor, a few might opt for the nineteenth century orientalist and explorer but you can be pretty sure that no-one will suggest Henry VI’s cook.  Everything that we know about this third Richard Burton is written on a memorial brass, hidden away in St Mary’s Church, Twickenham, the burial place of Alexander Pope. 

Memorial brass in St Mary’s Church, TwickenhamNoc


The Latin inscription reads:

Hic jacet Ricus Burton Armigr nup Capitalis Cocus dni Regis Et Agnes Uxr ejs qui obiit xxiiiio die Julii Ao dni moccccoxliii qor animabs ppiciet des

  Close up of inscription on memorial brass in St Mary’s Church, TwickenhamNoc

This translates as:

Here lies Richard Burton Esquire lately principal cook to his Majesty the King and Agnes his Wife who died the 24th day of July 1443 of whom may God have mercy on their souls.

The inscription is on a brass plate mounted on two fragments of a stone slab. Also mounted on the stone are the royal arms of the House of Lancaster and of France; a privilege granted only to those who had been members of the royal household.

Royal arms of the House of Lancaster and of France on the stone slabNoc


There has probably been a church on the St Mary’s site since Saxon times. Located on a rising promontory next to the Thames, it would have provided a useful landmark and a refuge in dangerous times. The earliest incumbent is recorded in 1332 but there is, however, an earlier reference to "Alan, vicar of Twickenham" in the accounts of Richard, Earl of Cornwall for 1296-97.

St Mary's Church Twickenham Noc

The 15th century tower is all that is left of an earlier building, which may have included parts that were even older. By 1713, it was in a poor state of structural repair and the new vicar, a Dr Pratt, refused to conduct any more services inside it.  There are records of a discussion about emergency repairs to some pillars just three days before the building collapsed during the night of 9 April 1713.  The church was rebuilt in 1714, and the surviving ragstone tower was joined to a red brick Queen Anne nave and chancel. Some of the monuments from the earlier building, of which the Burton brass is the oldest, were relocated in the new church.  It is uncertain where the original tomb was located; the brass is displayed vertically but may once have been on a flat ledgerstone.

St Mary's Church TwickenhamNoc


The description of Richard as a cook probably reflects Latin usage in England at that time and a better description might be Steward.  The memorial would seem to indicate a gentleman, entitled to bear arms and probably holding a responsible position within the royal household. The Burtons must have been sufficiently important for someone to have erected a memorial to them.  In which of the royal establishments did Richard work?  The palace at Richmond was not built until some 60 years later. Perhaps he retired to Twickenham?  We can only speculate because, at the moment, nothing more is known of Richard and Agnes Burton or the life they led in Twickenham. 

David Meaden
Independent researcher

Further reading:
Add MS 34891 - Rubbings of sepulchral brasses, chiefly inscriptions and shields of arms f. 157 Richard Burton, Chief Cook to Henry VI: Sepulchral inscription of him and wife at Twickenham, 1443.
The story of St Mary’s – the parish church of Twickenham (X.080/743).


25 July 2015

Blessing cars and eating oysters

Two saints are remembered on 25 July in the United Kingdom - St Christopher and St James.  A number of very different customs and traditions are associated with this day.

St Christopher, a 3rd century Christian martyr, is commonly represented by a figure carrying the child Jesus across a river. He is most often claimed as the patron saint of travellers, but he is also the patron saint of sports, with figures wrestling or fishing accompanying his picture. Both travellers and athletes wear medallions bearing an image of St Christopher for protection and good fortune.

  St Christopher

Image taken from Charles Knight, Pictorial Half-hours (1850) Noc


The link to travellers has prompted special church services to bless vehicles in honour of St Christopher’s Day.  In July 1932, there was a ceremony held on St Christopher’s Eve at St Augustine’s Roman Catholic Church in Nottingham.  Each member of the congregation was presented with a St Christopher medal and after the service Canon Parmentier went outside to bless cars, motorcycles, and bicycles belonging to the worshippers.  In 1950 the vicar of St Botolph’s in Northfleet Kent reported how he blessed all forms of transport outside his church on 25 July.

On St James’s Day it was the tradition for the rector of the parish of Cliff in Kent to distribute a mutton pie and a loaf to however many people demanded this bounty.  The day was celebrated in many counties with customs aimed at increasing the apple crop.  Prayers or verses were said in the orchards and the trees were sprinkled with holy water.  In Sussex young men performed the ceremony of ‘blowing the trees’. Cows’ horns were blown under the apple trees and each man took hold of a tree and recited verses.

25 July was also considered a milestone for hop growers. There is an old saying concerning the likelihood of a good crop:
Till St James’s Day is past and gone,
There may be hops, or there may be none.

Away from the countryside, St James’s Day was the first day on which oysters were brought into the London market, thus flouting the notion that they should only be eaten when there is an ‘r’ in the month.  There was a superstition that anyone eating the oysters on 25 July would have plenty of money throughout the rest of the year.

  An oyster market in England
An oyster market in England -Denis Dighton (1821) ©Jean Vigne/Kharbine-Tapabor/British Library Board


So it’s time to drive your car or ride your bike to the nearest church before seeking out a plate of oysters. Happy St Christopher’s and St James’s Day!

Margaret Makepeace
India Office Records Cc-by

Further reading:
John Timbs, Something for everybody (London, 1861)
British Newspaper Archive: Nottingham Evening Post 25 July 1932, Dundee Evening Telegraph 10 October 1950


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