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I must have walked down Whitehall a hundred times, past one stone façade after another, and not realised that such an important building lay just beside me. I knew about the old Palace of Whitehall, which was a key royal residence until it was destroyed by fire in 1698. And I knew that the banqueting house was the only surviving building. However, somehow I failed to visit it before now!


So much has been built around the Banqueting House, designed to match the Inigo Jones design, that you can barely tell the buildings apart and I am still pretty oblivious to which buildings are old and which new. I feel this is why the Banqueting House is often missed by tourists, travelling between the key sights at Westminster and Trafalgar Square. This is also not helped by its location opposite Horse Guards Parade and The Household Cavalry Museum, which means that tourists are drawn towards the guards on horseback for photographs.

I purchased membership to Historic Royal Palaces recently, so made a real effort to visit the last attraction on the list that I hadn’t been to. This isn’t always easy as the Banqueting House is used for a lot of corporate functions and so can close unexpectedly. They advise you to ring ahead if you wish to visit. It was closed when I arrived but I returned a few hours later and it was opened. I happened to be the BFI London Film Festival Awards happening there that night, so there was part of the stage set up there already.

The Banqueting House c. 1810

The Banqueting House c. 1810

When you arrive at the Banqueting House, you are treated to a short video explaining the history of the house, which is pretty useful. They also had some images on display of the Banqueting House surrounded by smaller buildings, which really makes you realise what an magnificent building it really is – something that gets missed now that it is surrounded by similarly grand buildings on Whitehall.


Whitehall Palace was created by Henry VIII from a mansion owned by Cardinal Wolsey. The first permanent banqueting house was built for James I but was destroyed by fire in 1619. This prompted a brand new house to be built in a completed different style from the existing Tudor buildings. The Banqueting House was designed by Inigo Jones and completed in 1622. It was one of the first buildings built in the neo-classical style in London, a style which went on to transform London, particularly the west, from medieval and gothic structures to grand Palladian mansions.

Charles I succeeded James in 1625 and focused on the arts. He visited Spain and was an admirer of Titian, Rubens, and Velázquez. He commissioned Rubens to paint the magnificent ceiling of the Banqueting House, the main attraction for visitors today. This is the only room of the building open to the public now, apart from the basement area, and you will spend your entire visit looking at this painting.



The painting is titled The Apotheosis of James I and is a glorification of James and an allegory of his son Charles’ birth. It is certainly a piece designed to promote the king to guests who attended events at the Banqueting House. However banquets became less common at the house after this point, to avoid candle smoke damaging the painting.

Charles I made the Banqueting House what it is today, not only in his artistic additions, but also in providing the most famous historical event that occured there. After Charles I was arrested and sentenced to death, he was brought to the Banqueting House to be executed. It is thought that the scaffold was erected outside the central window of the house, so that, on 30 January 1649, he stepped through the window to be beheaded in front of a crowd on Whitehall.

This is something that I feel Historic Royal Palaces should make more of in the visitor experience, since it is such a famous and important historical event. I would like to see some kind of monument on or outside the front of the house to indicate where Charles I was executed, so that even passers by not visiting the house are made aware of the pivotal event that took place where they walk.



There have been some great documentaries on TV recently, including the wonderful Archaeology: A Secret History, which at first sight I thought might be more along the lines of Time Team, but turned out to be really innovative and fascinating. I’d never thought about the history of archaeology itself and it turns out that there are some great stories behind it.

It’s presented by Richard Miles who is a senior lecturer in the Department of Classics and Ancient History at the University of Sydney and has presented history docs for the BBC before. He is an excellent presenter with a seemingly genuine interest in everything he’s talking about (the sequence where he gets to see the Neanderthal 1 skeleton is particularly good), but he does take every opportunity to show he he is fluent in Italian!

The first programme starts with the search for biblical relics, spurred on by Helena of Constantinople, patron saint of archaeologists. The next focus is Ciriaco de’ Pizzicolli, 1391 — 1453/55, an antiquarian from Ancona known as the Father of Archaeology  He noticed a ancient Roman arch in his town which inspired him to start documenting the ancient remains around him.

It seems bizarre to us now with all our museums, monuments and guidebooks, that the physical past hasn’t always been important, hasn’t always needed to be interrogated. But in Pizzicolli’s age the past was just there – it’s all around you and that’s why what he tried to do was such a revelation.

This struck me as very interesting as, while we do have museums, monuments and guidebooks, the past is still all around us in a city like London and people still ignore it! The programme then explores William Camden’s mapping techniques, John Aubrey’s surveying techniques used at Avebury and cabinets of curiosity from the eighteenth century.

There are three episodes available on BBC iplayer here.

I visited the National Maritime Museum yesterday, which has some fantastic examples of ship figureheads and ship badges from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. From the outset of the age of seafaring, images were used to mark out the identity of a ship and these soon developed into painted wooden statues, mounted onto the bowsprit.

Figureheads from the National Maritime Museum

Figureheads from the National Maritime Museum

Early on the images were often religious symbols to protect the ship during its voyages or animals to indicate the ship’s power and grace and to frighten enemy sailors. Serpents, swans and lions were among the most popular animals used to adorn ships in the medieval and early modern periods.

Figurehead from HMS Ajax (1809-64) and HMS Bulldog (1845-65)

Figurehead from HMS Ajax (1809-64) and HMS Bulldog (1845-65)

In the eighteenth century, painted human figures became more popular. These were often mythological figures and/or figures that represented the name of the ship. The popularity of these figures continued into the nineteenth century, becoming larger, heavier and more elaborate. Certain figures were very popular, for example a naked or semi-clothed woman was said to calm a stormy ocean.

The figurehead for HSM London (1840-84) has a model of the Tower of London on her head.

The figurehead for HSM London (1840-84) has a model of the Tower of London on her head.

With the success of steam-powered ships, figureheads went out of use and were abolished by the Royal Navy for major vessels in 1894. In 1918 the Navy adopted the use of ship’s badges displayed on the bridge to mark the identity of a ship. These were much more uniform in design but still contained symbols of the ship’s name.

The Long John Silver Collection of figureheads, at the Cutty Sark museum.

The Long John Silver Collection of figureheads, at the Cutty Sark museum.

Ship badges from the National Maritime Museum. The top row shows HMS Benbow, HMS Renown, HMS Marlborough, HMS Kenilworth Castle and HMS Loch More

Ship badges from the National Maritime Museum. The top row shows HMS Benbow, HMS Renown, HMS Marlborough, HMS Kenilworth Castle and HMS Loch More

The Supersizers…

This is one of my favourite documentary series of all time and I have been quite happy to watch episodes over and over again! Each episode sees restaurant critic Giles Coren and comedian Sue Perkins spend a week experiencing the food and lifestyle of an era together. I have written about episodes before, particularly the Seventies, the Victorian era and the Restoration.

It started with a one-off show called Edwardian Supersize Me in 2007 where Giles and Sue dressed up and trialed the food of the Edwardian era for a special season of BBC programmes.

Since then we’ve had two series: The Supersizers Go… (2008) covering the Second World War, the Restoration, the Victorian Era, the Seventies, the Elizabethan era and the Regency; and The Supersizers Eat… (2009) which covered the Eighties, the Medieval era, the French Revolution, the Twenties, the Fifties and Ancient Rome.

I love seeing the variety of food they get to try, some of it awful, some of it quite tasty. Their chemistry is pretty good and I particularly like their reenactments of historical events an journeys in modern locations and with modern transport.

Almost all of the episodes are available on YouTube and this playlist puts them in chronological order starting with ancient Rome and ending with the Eighties.

Margaret Thatcher: Prime Minister

A relatively topical one here – there were many TV documentaries about Margaret Thatcher after her death last month but this was one of the main ones from the BBC. It’s narrated by Andrew Marr and was clearly recorded long before her death.

For someone who wasn’t around while she was Prime Minister, it is a great detailed overview of the events of her reign which is often difficult to get when people around you have such strong views about her. The tone is respectful since she had just died, but I would say the documentary seems relatively neutral (of course there will be many who disagree with me there!) but it is the best you’re going to get.

The talking heads included Ken Clarke, Lord Patten, David Cameron, Geoffrey Howe and all of the main figures from her time in office. Its a pretty conventional documentary format, but to be honest that’s exactly what I want from a doc about an era I know little about.

Robert May was born in Wing in Buckinghamshire around 1588. He worked with his father who served as cook for the Dormer family of Ascott Park and was eventually sent to France to learn the secrets of cookery. He served in the household of Achille de Harlay, first president of the parlement of Paris.

He returned to England and worked as apprentice to Arthur Hollinsworth of Newgate Market in London, cook to the Grocer’s Company and the Star Chamber. In the 1620s he returned to Wing to work for the Dormers. He worked for various employers throughout his career, mostly noble and Catholic.

accomplisht cook

His book The Accomplisht Cook was published in 1660 and was the first substantial English recipe book to be published after the Restoration. It was so popular it went to five editions by 1685. It combines courtly Elizabethan tradition and more modern French influences. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:

May’s work was a longer and more complete collection of recipes than had appeared before in English, and made use of illustration in a way that had not yet been seen. Cookery was still a closely guarded trade mystery, which May desired to make accessible to all, though admitting that not every reader could afford his most extravagant dishes.

Below are some examples of recipes from The Accomplisht Cook.

Sauce for all manner of Fowls.

Mustard is good with brawn, beef, chine of bacon, and mutton; verjuyce good to boil chickens and capons; swan with chaldrons; ribs of beef with garlick, mustard, pepper, verjuyce, ginger; sauce of lamb, pig and fawn, mustard, and sugar; to pheasant, partridge, and coney, sauce gamelin; to hearn-shaw, egript, plover, and crane, brew and curlew, salt, and sugar, and water of Camot; bustard, shovilland, and bittern, sauce gamelin; woodcock, lapwing, lark, quail, martinet, venison and snite with white salt; sparrows and thrushes with salt and cinamon. Thus with all meats sauce shall have the opperation.

To pickle Cucumbers.

Pickle them with salt, vinegar, whole pepper, dill-seed, some of the stalks cut, charnel, fair water, and some sicamore leaves, and barrel them up close in a barrel.

To Boil a Pike in white Broth.

Cut your pike in three pieces, then boil it in water, salt, and sweet herbs, put in the fish when the liquor boils; then take the yolks of six eggs, beat them with a little sack, sugar, melted butter, and some of the pike broth; then put it on some embers to keep warm, stir it sometimes lest it curdle; then take up your pike, put the head and rail together in a clean dish, cleave the other piece in two, and take out the back bone, put the one piece on one side, and the other piece on the other side, but blanch all, pour the broth on it, and garnish the fish with sippets, strow on fine ginger or sugar, wipe the edge of the dish round, and serve it.

On this day in 1885 a new magazine was founded by Clark W. Bryan in Holyoke, Massachusetts. It was designed for women, with articles about family life, household products, health, recipes and literature. The first edition was titled For the Homes of the World: Good Housekeeping. it aimed to be:

“a family journal conducted in the interests of the higher life of the household” with a “mission to fulfill compounded of about equal portions of public duty and private enterprise…to produce and perpetuate perfection as may be obtained in the household.”

Edition of Good Housekeeping from 1928

Edition of Good Housekeeping from 1928

The magazine reviewed products and featured articles about food with the clear aim of seeing past manufacturers claims and getting to the truth for consumers. A campaign was started against false claims made in the food industry in the form of an article called “Guard Against Adulteration.”

This led to the creation of the Good Housekeeping Experiment Station in 1900 to study housekeeping and test and rate products and food. They went on to develop the “Roll of Honor for Pure Food Products” and lists of “Tested and Approved” products in the magazine. Products were known as having the  “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”


The magazine has been known to be very ahead of its time on social and health issues. The first article on electric cooking appeared in the magazine in 1899, cigarette advertisements were banned as early as 1952 and the magazine’s activism contributed to the 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act.

Famous contributors include Somerset Maugham, Edwin Markham, Virginia Woolf, and Evelyn Waugh.

Methods of curing meat have been developing all over the world for many hundreds of years, in order to preserve food for longer. Many delicious products were created through traditions of smoking, drying, salting, pickling. Efforts to preserve meat accelerated with the increase in Atlantic trade, as long naval voyages required food that would keep for a long time.

The industrial revolution and population increases also increased the desire for convenient, long-lasting, cheap food. While beef had been cured with salt for many years, these specific changes led to the emergence and popularity of corned beef as a product.

Ireland already had a tradition of salting beef and so as demand increased from the seventeenth century onwards, Irish companies began providing salt cured beef for trade with the British and the French. This product was used as a provision for naval voyages and also for civilian consumption in Britain and in the colonies.

The method of curing the beef was to mix large chunks of salt called ‘corns’ with the chopped beef in a large pot or jar. The word ‘corn’ derives from the old Germanic word ‘kurnam’, meaning seed, grain or kernel.

During the industrial revolution, corned beef began to be mass produced in cans, reaching its height during the Second World War. During this time, most of the corned beef consumed was imported from Fray Bentos in Uruguay.

Today corned beef and cabbage is considered a traditional Irish dish, enjoyed in the USA on St. Patrick’s Day. However in reality, this is an American tradition started by Irish immigrants to America in the nineteenth century.

In Ireland corned beef has never been that popular; although it was manufactured in Ireland, the cattle and means of production were owned by the British colonizers and most of the product was exported. Pork was much more popular for ordinary Irish people.

Mary Seacole was a nurse who worked on the front line during the Crimean War. She is often overlooked while the more famous Florence Nightingale is celebrated by history. However she arguably did more good, was loved more by the soldiers and had a more remarkable story than Florence.

Women’s involvement in medicine was slowly developing during the nineteenth century, but it took a long time for the British government to agree to female nurses being sent into warzones. Not only did Mary Seacole have to contend with prejudice due to her sex but also her race, yet she still succeeded astonishingly.

Mary Seacole was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1805. Her father was a Scottish soldier in the British Army and her mother was Jamaican. Her mother taught her a great deal about traditional herbal and folk remedies and her medical education came from her mother’s boarding house for disabled European servicemen.

Hearing of the terrors of the Crimean War she wanted to volunteer as a nurse and travelled to London to do so. At first the British War Office first refused her along with many other women, but even after women began to be accepted, she was left out of the party of nurses led by Florence Nightingale, who travelled to the Crimea on 21 October 1854.

This is when Mary Seacole demonstrated her remarkable resilience and dedication. Instead of giving up on her dream, she travelled to the Crimea on her own, using borrowed money. She visited Florence Nightingale’s hospital in Scutari but was turned away.

Again she did not give up. She travelled to Balaclava, gathered building materials and set up her new British Hotel, which opened in March 1855. It was applauded by the men for providing good food and simple cures. The Hotel sold useful items, food, and alcohol to soldiers, tourists and passers by and provided simple folk medicines and treatment for injuries. Seacole also often went out onto the front line to treat soldiers and give out food and drink.

While some praised her efforts, Florence Nightingale tried to avoid associating herself with Mary Seacole, as she objected to some aspects of Seacole’s Hotel such as selling alcohol and allowing access to tourists. Nightingale even likened Seacole’s Hotel to a brothel.

The Treaty of Paris was signed on 30 March 1856 and as soldiers began leaving the battlefield, Mary Seacole was struggling financially. After she returned to London she went bankrupt and when her problems were discussed in the British press, a fund was set up to help her.

A fundraising event, the “Seacole Fund Grand Military Festival” was organized and held at the Royal Surrey Gardens, from Monday 27 July to Thursday 30 July 1857. With many prominent military guests, the event was a success but unfortunately did not make that much money for Seacole.

In July 1857, she published an autobiography called Wonderful Adventures of Mrs. Seacole in Many Lands. It was the first autobiography written by a black woman to be published in Britain.

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