Christina here. I may have mentioned this before, but back in 2015 something quite amazing was discovered in the little village church of St Faith’s at Bacton in Herefordshire – a piece of cloth from one of Queen Elizabeth I’s dresses. It had been used for centuries as an altar cloth, and the parishioners had no idea what a treasure they possessed. When it was rediscovered, it was rather grubby and worn, and didn’t look particularly impressive. The reason the experts could be sure that it really was one of Elizabeth’s dresses, though, was that it’s made of cloth of silver. Under the so-called Sumptuary Laws of the time, only members of the royal family were allowed to wear it, so it had to be hers. Despite the state of it, it’s priceless, because it is the Tudor queen’s only surviving piece of clothing, even though she reputedly owned about 1,900 dresses in total. Not a single one of them remain, except this small fragment with beautiful embroidered motifs in all the colours of the rainbow. In the so-called Rainbow portrait of the queen, she wears a similarly embroidered gown and this shows how the completed dress would have looked.
Nicola here. There are a lot of old buildings in the UK and a lot of different names for historic types of buildings, whether it’s a castle, manor, hall, tower, mansion or cottage. A castle, though, conjures up very particular ideas of what a building looks like. The dictionary definition is “a fortified building as in medieval Europe” or “a large, magnificent house especially if the home of a prince or noble.” However, I think fortifications – crenelations, towers, turrets etc are essential for it to be a proper castle. Often a castle, which has been around for hundreds of years, is in ruins, either through age or because it was destroyed in a war or battle and has never been rebuilt. There is definitely a special aura about a castle.
Castles in novels tend to be creepy. Whether it’s the Castle of Otranto by Walpole or The Red Keep in Game of Thrones they are designed to be intimidating and the gothic atmosphere just adds to the sense of menace.
How lovely it was, then, to visit a real castle last week that was both impressive but also had quite a homely atmosphere! Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire has been in the same family for over 800 years. It’s been mentioned in Shakespeare and it fulfils the “Gothic horror” element because King Edward II was murdered there in 1327. It looks like a fortress from the outside but inside it has a warmth and charm. Although the guide book insists it is “savage,” I didn’t get that vibe from it. Even the fact that the stone it is built from looks pink and purple in the sunshine makes it beautiful and the gardens are glorious.
Nicola here. One of the things that I have missed the most about Lockdown is not doing my tours at Ashdown House, and not being able to visit other castles and stately homes whilst everything has been closed so it was very exciting when English Heritage started to re-open a number of their historical sites and I could get my history fix again. Last week, for the first time in 5 months, I went to a castle and I thought I would share the trip here for those who would enjoy a virtual history fix.
A place I’d never been to but had always wanted to see is Kenilworth Castle in Warwickshire. Kenilworth has a very long and fascinating history from the time of its building as a great tower in the 1120s, through a period when it was one of the favourite palaces of the Lancastrian kings, and the royal visits of Queen Elizabeth I. It was this aspect of Kenilworth’s history that particularly fascinated me, and Robert Dudley’s final, failed attempt to persuade Elizabeth to marry him. So I took The Forgotten Sister along with me on the road trip as I thought Amy Robsart would enjoy seeing the place (more on that later!)
Nicola here. A new book about celebrity was published a couple of weeks ago. Called “Dead Famous” it’s written by Greg Jenner, a historical consultant on Horrible Histories and traces a history of celebrity from the Bronze Age to the modern day. The Amazon blurb reads: “Celebrity, with its neon glow and selfie pout, strikes us as hypermodern. But the famous and infamous have been thrilling, titillating, and outraging us for much longer than we might realise.” Quoted examples are Lord Byron, the Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean and Sarah Bernhardt.
Way back in 2007(!) I wrote a book called Lord of Scandal which was about a Regency celebrity. I was writing it at the same time that I was researching my MA dissertation and it was this research into heroes that fed into the book. Now I have a new book, The Forgotten Sister, coming out in a couple of weeks that also features celebrity, this time in a slightly different way, drawing on parallels between the cult of Queen Elizabeth I and modern-day fame.