Mercurius Politicus

A blog (mostly) about early modern history

Category: sixteenth century

Acton Court

This is a portrait drawn by Hans Holbein in about 1535 of Nicholas Poyntz. I share his name, and also a family resemblance. If I’ve worked it out correctly, he is my first cousin thirteen times removed; in other words, I am directly descended from his uncle.

In 1535, Nicholas was living at Acton Court, in the village of Iron Acton in Gloucestershire. This had been in the family since 1364, and at the start of the sixteenth century was a medieval manor house surrounded by a moat. Nicholas had inherited it in 1532 after the death of his father, Sir Anthony Poyntz. In the same year, Nicholas had accompanied Henry VIII to his conference with Francis I at Calais. So he was already known to his king when, in 1535, Henry decided to undertake a royal progress around the west country.

It’s not clear how Acton Court ended up on the itinerary, but whether it was always the plan or was later added, Nicholas seems to have acted hastily to improve the accommodation Henry could expect. Little of the medieval manor building now survives. Instead, this is the sight that greets you as you approach:

This is not the original entrance to the house, but shows the impressive Renaissance brickwork of the east wing that Nicholas had erected. Archaeological work by English Heritage in the 1980s revealed through tree-ring dating that the timbers used in the construction were from the spring of 1535. The building must have gone up in an awful hurry, and would have occupied many local tradesmen as it used a very regionalised technique that did not involve mortar.  The pointing you can see is modern: the walls would then have originally been rendered and whitewashed.

Use of this technique meant it is lucky the building has simply not collapsed under its own weight. Here for example is one end of the east range. The window originally occupied the entire space between the two brick pillars at either side. At a later date, the window has been made smaller and buttresses added to keep the gable from falling down.

The walls have also had to be reinforced:

It’s hard to get a sense now of what this addition to the building would have looked like. In 1680 the building was sold out of the family and became a tenanted farm. What’s left is the east wing, part of a further north range added in around 1550, and various eighteenth and nineteenth-century additions. In this view you can see the remains of the north range, which was originally twice as long, together with the gigantic buttress that supports it. The spiral staircase in the centre, connecting the two, is Elizabethan.

Compare this to a view of the building as it would have looked in 1535:

You can see here the east range with its gigantic chimneys tacked on to the medieval manor.To the south is the original approach to the house. To the north are the formal gardens (still unexcavated), and to the west the original core of the house.

The purpose of the new range was to provide accommodation for Henry and Anne Boleyn. At one end was a gigantic high-ceilinged receiving room, leading through into an anteroom and a bedchamber. A significant amount of panelling and painting still survive inside the building. The reason it has survived is because so little was done to the house after it left the Poyntz family. Most of the buildings came down, the high-ceilinged reception room was used to hang cheeses, and other rooms were partitioned off.

An improvement which seems to have pre-dated the royal visit is this wonderful sundial by Nicholas Kratzer, dated 1520:

It was found in the 1980s in a nettle patch near the building. It seems to have been a broken first iteration: the mason hadn’t carved it correctly according to Kratzer’s plans, so it couldn’t tell the time accurately. It was either thrown away or re-used as a building material. Like so much of what has survived at Acton Court, it is only due to gentle neglect at the time that it still exists. A huge amount of exotic Venetian tableware, for example, has been found in the moat (which had been filled in by about 1550). This would almost certainly have been purchased for Henry’s visit.

There doesn’t seem to be conclusive evidence about whether or not Henry did stay at Acton Court as planned: he had to amend some of his itinerary because of the plague. However, the general consensus is that he did. Nicholas was knighted in 1535, possibly at Acton Court, and steps seem to have been taken before the house was sold out of the family to preserve the buildings (not least to stop them falling over), to commemorate what they were used for.

In 1984 the building was sold, first to a trust that tried and failed to get a grant to restore it, before it then passed to English Heritage. The family legend is that my grandfather (who lived twenty miles away) also considered buying it. Since then English Heritage have done an amazing job of excavating and restoring the site. It is a beautiful place to visit on a summer afternoon, with a restored Tudor garden and surrounded on all sides by meadows with long grass and rare flowers. The building only opens to the public for a limited period: I went last weekend, and if you want to go yourself you have until 14 August this year. The Acton Court website has more details.

Kingston parish register

I posted recently about the parish register for Much Wenlock compiled by Sir Thomas Butler, and the glimpses of his own life and of the life of the parish that it affords us. By way of follow-up, here are some snippets I came across yesterday in the parish register for Kingston in Surrey. As with Much Wenlock, every so often they provide an insight into far more than births, marriages and deaths.

First there is the walk-on part played by characters at the bottom of the social pyramid, who would otherwise be lost to history. The poor and the dispossessed continually appear in the register:

1575 February 14. A straunge woman the which followed the courte.

November 30 1578. Jhon Byrder a stranger folloinge the Court.

January 19 1593. A poore woman founde dead in a barne buryed.

17 January 1624. Wm Foster son of Wm a goer about.

I love the phrase ‘goer about’.

Parishioners could also prove objectionable. Here, for example, is the unfortunate fate of Mrs Downing, wife of the parish gravedigger:

1572 August On Tewsday being the xix day of this monthe of August [left blank] Downing wyfe to [left blank] Downinge gravemaker of this parysshe she was sett on a new cukking stolle made of a grett hythe and so browght a bowte the markett place to Temes brydge and ther had iii Duckinges over hed and eres becowse she was a common scolde and fyghter.

A later person has tried to obliterate this entry by ruling lines through it.

The register also records some lonely or violent deaths:

June 4 1593 John Akerleye wentte too bathe hymsellfe and was drownde & buryede.

24 June 1597 Christopher Atkyngson found dround in the cheker well and was bered.

June 12 1598 An Flood was found mordred at Mr Hiliers shop hous on the downs.

August 25 1598 William Hall was bered being shott by theves when he was Constabl at Coblers Hol.

June 27 1601 Jone Chapman widdow an inhabitant of Temmes Ditton killed by meanes of a Carte going over her neare Westby Temmes the 27 of June 1601 was buried the sayd 27.

This protracted note, giving permission to a parishioner to eat meat during Lent, is particularly interesting:

Kingston upon Thames.

Decimo octavo mensis Martii tricesimo tertio regni Elizabethe.

M yt ye day & yeare abovesaid I Thomas Lammyng Clerke did give licence to eate flesh to Francis Cox wyfe unto John Cox of Kingston gent being weake and sickely in the tyme of Lent & upon other dayes prohibited for eating of flesh such flesh as might be convenient for ye helth of her body & to ye best liking to her stomak in as large & ample manner & for so long tyme as I ye said Thomas Lammyng may or can grant by force and vertu of her majties lawes & statutes.

Before William Yong one of ye Churchwardens & Thomas Haward and Thomas Wartholl.

By me Thomas Lammyng Curatt of Kingston aforesaid.

And then there are the glimpses into parish life, which range from the mundane to the wonderful:

December 1569. Item in this monthe of December was the Ponde made in the Horse Market.

8 September 1572. This day in this towne was kept the Sessions of gayle Delyverye and her was hangid vj persons and seventene taken for roges and vagabonds and whyppid abowte the market place and brent in the ears.

July 11 1629. A Bird called a Cormorant light on the top of the steeple and Aaron Evans shot but mist it.

Butler did it

I have been reading Adam Smyth’s excellent Autobiography in Early Modern England recently, which argues that the genesis of life-writing can be found in early modern forms and genres that we are unaccustomed, through twenty-first century eyes, to seeing as autobiographical. Successive chapters look at annotated almanacs, financial accounts, commonplace books, and parish registers as sources in which we can see the origins of autobiography.

Reading the chapter on registers, I was reminded of the parish records kept by Sir Thomas Butler, vicar of Much Wenlock during the mid-sixteenth century. I have blogged previously about a specific incident recorded in Butler’s register, in which an 11-year old girl was hanged. But in fact Butler’s records do not just contain information about the personal and religious milestones of his parishioners. They also show that, even from the start, registers could contain occasional glimpses of a self-reflexive subjectivity that gives an insight into the personal and religious lives of parish priests.

Butler’s original register does not survive: it was destroyed in a fire, but extracts in the Cambrian Journal from 1861 give at least something of its contents. It covers 1538 to 1562, and Butler’s views about the establishment of the Church of England start to insinuate themselves onto the page as the register goes on. Here is the first overt reference to the Reformation:

The Monastery of Wenlock surrendered on the morrow of the feast of the Conversion of S’ Paul. 1539.

This feast is celebrated on 25 January. In an entry for February 1539, Butler has written:

20 of the above rotten moneth was christened here Jone the daughter of of Rauf Patson Brewer to the Monastre of St Milburga of this towne of Moch Wenlok.

Implicit references to the dissolution and its casualties recur throughout the register:

  • Here was buried out of Hopton Monachorum Sir John Gough, there at that time curate, otherwise called Sir John Castle, some time Monck in the monastery of St. Milburghe here in Moch Wenlock, and Prior of the Cell in Preen, the last Prior that there was, whose bodie is here buried.
  • Here was buried out of Broseley the body of Sir Thos. Parkes priest, sometime a White Monk of the Cistercian order in the monastery of Buildwas.

The juxtaposition of incident and location in this entry is particularly poignant:

Richard Philips who hanged himself at the ynde of the Lane going toward Calowton at the plotte of grownde wher somtyme was a Crosse of tymbre called Hamfis Weales crosse.

The dissolution was only the start of seismic changes to the religious culture of Much Wenlock. Here Butler records in Latin what must have been, for him, a particularly difficult incident:

7 Nov 1547. quo die combusta fuerunt ossa dive Virginis Milburge in fori itroitu cimiterii cu quatuof images vz. St Jo. Bapt. de Hopebowdlar, Imagines St Blasii de Stanto long, imagines St Marie Vgis Matris Xti de Acton Ronde, et imagines eiusdem St Virginis Marise.

[My Latin is very rusty but a rough translation is something like: on which day the bones of the holy Virgin Milburga [founder of the local priory] were burned in the market place by the entrance to the graveyard and four images viz. St John the Baptist from [the village of] Hope Bowdler, images of St Blaise from Hope Stanton, images of St Mary the Virgin Mother of Christ from Acton Round, and images from the same of St Mary the Virgin.]

Not surprisingly, the death of Edward VI, and the crowning of Mary I, is greeted with joy:

1553. Mem. That as some say King Edward the VI. by the Grace of God died the 6th day of this instant month of July, in the year of our Lord God as it is above written, and as some do say he died the 4th day of May last preceeding, in the same year of our Lord, and upon Mary Magdalenes, which is the 22nd day of this instant month, at Bridgnorth in the fair, there was proclaimed Lady Mary Queen of England, &c., after which proclamation finished the people made great joy, casting up their caps and hats, lauding, thanking and praising God Almighty with ringing of bells and making of Bonfires in every street. And so was she proclaimed Queen the same day at Shrewsbury, and at the Battlefield in the same evening with the like joy of the people, and triumphal solemnity made in Shrewsbury, and also in this Borough of Much Wenlock.

Mary’s coronation quickly makes its impact on the day-to-day life of Butler and his parishioners:

7 Oct. A child first Christned in the Latyne tongue by the booke called the Manuale.

31st Oct. A child first buryed after the Coronacon of the Queens Majestic in the latyne tongue after the use of the Church of Sarum.

Butler’s hopes at Mary’s accession must have been dashed when Elizabeth succeeded her – something he found out just before conducting a mass:

In remembrance to be had it is, that the 17th day of this instant month of November, in the year of our Saviour Jesus Christ, 1558, in the morning of the same day departed by death the noble Queen Marie, in the 6th year of her reigne the daughter of King the 8th, and of Queen Catherine his first wife; and the same day of her departing at 11 of the Clock, with the whole assent of the nobility, was Elizabeth the daughter of the said King Henry proclaimed Queen of England &c. in London. And upon St. Catherines day, as Sir Thomas Botelar Vicar of this Church of the Holy Trinity of Moch Wenlock was going toward the Altar to celebration of the Mass, Mr. Richard Newport of High Ercal Esqr then being Sheriff of Salop, coming late from London, came unto me and bad me that I after the Offertorie should come down into the Body of the Church, and unto the people here being, should say these words in open audience and loud voice.

Butler passes on the news to his parishioners, but his reluctance to do so is very apparent:

Then I said, Friends, Mr. Bailiff of this Town & of the liberties of the same, & Mr. Richd Lawley his father, with other that have been Bailiffs, have willed me to shew you that are poor folks that ye may at afternoon about one of the Clock resort to the Bonfire where ye shall have Bread & Cheese & drink to pray unto God Almighty for the prosperity of the Queen’s Noble Majesty, and this said we went forthwith.

In 1559 Butler makes this mournful entry into the register:

It is to be had in Remebrance that the celebration of the divine Svice in the Englysh Tonge was begun this day in crastino Nativitat St John bapt.

Thomas Cromwell’s original instructions to parishes in 1538 were for:

every person, vicar or curate to provide for every parish one book or register, wherein he shall write the day and year of every wedding, christening and burial, and also therein insert every person’s name who shall be so wedded, christened or buried.

Reading Butler’s register, however, it becomes clear that pretty quickly a lot more starts to creep into them than just the bare details of hatches, matches and dispatches.

Ghost in the machine

A slightly belated Halloween post.

I was 14 when the first season of The X-Files was broadcast on UK television. This was the perfect age to become obsessed with the programme’s mix of aliens, ghosts and conspiracy theories. Like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe. The series sparked an obsession that made me an eager viewer of the other – mostly awful – programmes which tried to cash in on the 1990s vogue for the paranormal. Amongst the most awful was a BBC series – it may have been the one presented by Carol Vorderman, although I can’t recall for certain – which was a ragbag of “strange but true” stories presented through dramatic reconstructions. I can remember very little about it, save for one episode that has always stayed with me.

It told the story of a man in the early 1980s, who found that his BBC Micro computer had become a conduit through which he could communicate with a man from the sixteenth century. The latter was mystified by the “box of lights” which had appeared in his house, and accused the computer owner of witchcraft. Gradually, however, as the two carried on their electronic conversations a more trusting relationship developed. The programme concluded by stating that archival research supposedly revealed that the sixteenth-century man had actually existed, and that expert linguists had concluded that the dialect and vocabulary he used was authentic to the period.

A few weeks ago – fifteen years on – a memory of this story popped back into my head for some reason. Some quick Googling revealed that other people remembered it too; and that the man in question, Ken Webster, had written a book about his experience called The Vertical Plane. Intrigued, I ordered a second-hand copy and spent a happy afternoon reacquainting myself with the story. The book badges itself as “a unique supernatural detective story”, and one look at the cover gives an early warning that it was published by Harper Collins’s “occult” division.

You may or may not be relieved to know that this isn’t going to be a post about whether Webster’s account is true. Instead, I thought it might be interesting to consider Webster’s book as a cultural artifact in its own right. Webster’s book has quite a lot going on beneath the surface, which will perhaps be of interest to early modernists who study texts and the different forms they can take. So this post does two things. First, it summarises the story Webster sets out in his book. Secondly, it looks at how Webster tells his story, and how his own text and narrative link to early modern ideas about texts and narratives.

Webster’s story starts in the autumn of 1984, in the village of Dodleston near to the English border with Wales. He is living in Meadow Cottage, an eighteenth-century house in the middle of the village, with his girlfriend Debbie and friend Nicola. Webster borrows a BBC Micro computer from the school at which teaches, so that Nicola can use the word processor (EDWORD, for others who grew up with the Beeb) to write comedy sketches. All three are alarmed when files start appearing on the computer with messages in an archaic form of English, signed “L.W.” The messages are accompanied by various poltergeist phenomena, such as objects being moved or piled in particular formations.

L.W. gradually reveals himself as Lukas Wainman, living in a house on the site of Meadow Cottage during Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine Parr (ie at some point between 1543 and 1547). He kept various livestock on the land around his house. He had been married with a son, but both wife and child died of the plague in 1517. He had studied at Brasenose College, Oxford and knew Erasmus, having met him three times in all.

A friend of Lukas’s then starts communicating: it turns out that Lukas has been arrested and is being held by the local sheriff, Sir Thomas Fowleshurst, due to his communications with the ‘light box’ or ‘leems boyste” as Lukas calls it, in his house. The friend also reveals that ‘Lukas’ is a pseudonym. Lukas is then released and held under house arrest, resuming communication and confessing how scared he is of the fate that could await him. He also reveals that the ‘leems boyste’ was brought to his house by someone called ‘one’, from the year 2109. ‘Lukas’ had been under the impression that Webster was also from 2109 until the latter says that he is living in 1985.

An unnamed contact from 2109 then starts leaving impenetrable messages on the BBC, saying that the events they are experiencing have a wider purpose. In the meantime Webster and his friends try to think of a way to save Lukas’s life. They remember a chance reference by Lukas to Henry Mann, Dean of Chester and find information in the present that Mann had in 1533 communicated with Elizabeth Barton, the so-called “Maid of Kent”. Barton was a Catholic nun who had made prophecies critical of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and who was executed as a result in 1534. Webster gives this information to Lukas to use as a bargaining chip with the sheriff. However, it doesn’t work, and Lukas goes on trial regardless: but is kept alive to keep the light box working. During this period Thomas Fowleshurst begins to use the box to communicate with Webster and it emerges that events are happening in 1546.

Communication is re-established with Lukas, but with further intervention and inscrutable comments from 2109. Webster and Lukas begin to suspect that 2109 is changing their messages, and develop a system where Lukas starts communicating with paper and charcoal left out for him in the present (Lukas meanwhile is able somehow to see and hear Webster in the past). Though this means Lukas reveals that his real name is Tomas (sic) Harden/Hawarden, a graduate of Brasenose who had been dean of the chapel there but was expelled in 1538 for refusing to expunge the name of the Pope from a book in the chapel, as was required by law after the break with Rome. 2109 become extremely irritated that Webster has learnt Wainman’s real name, and demand that he stops disrupting their experiments.

Eventually, the Grosvenor family – Harden’s landlords – demand that he leaves his house. Harden leaves a final message wishing Webster and his friends well, and stating that he will go to Bristol to buy a horse then see if he is welcome again at Brasenose. He says that he will write a book about the events, and hopes that some day they might meet so he can read Webster’s book and Webster his. Harden is then never heard from again, although Webster finds a reference to him – or at least someone with his name – becoming vicar at Little Barrington in Gloucestershire from 1551 to 1554. The tale is rounded off with some final, ever-cryptic communications from 2109.

One of the themes which emerges most strongly from The Vertical Plane‘s narrative is the instability of texts. Webster’s ghost is a textual ghost. Although Harden seems able to see and hear what is happening in the present, Webster himself never sees Harden (although his girlfriend, Debbie, sees him in her dreams on several occasions). Instead, he primarily interacts with Harden through various forms of textual communication, none of which the reader can rely on:

  • Through the letters on Webster’s computer monitor. Some of these – Webster never knows which – are altered in subtle ways by 2109. Others are deleted by mistake, meaning that Webster has to summarise what he can recollect of them.
  • Through printed copies of those same letters. A number of these are also subsequently lost, and again we rely on Webster’s memory of them for the content of his narrative.
  • Through manuscript notes which Harden scratches onto surfaces in the present-day Meadow Cottage, or writes on scraps of paper. The materiality of these notes inclines Webster to place the most faith in them, even though they are often the shortest and most cryptic of Harden’s statements.

Harden communicates through different identities: directly as Lukas Wainman then as Tomas Harden, and second-hand through an unnamed friend and through the sheriff Thomas Fowleshurst. He also sets traps for Webster, in attempt to assess whether he is really from the future. For example, he claims to have done his degree at Jesus College, Oxford, which at that time did not exist: anyone from the future, Harden reasons, would surely know there is no such thing as Jesus College and that it is nonsensical to claim to have studied there. Webster, meanwhile, sees this as a “mistake” which could point to the presence of a hoaxer.

And Webster and Harden themselves also take steps to further mediate how their texts are received. Both try to modify their grammar and vocabulary so as to make it easier for the other to understand. Harden also modifies his hand-writing to try to make it as clear as possible. Webster’s own narrative then further mediates Harden’s, by ‘translating’ his texts. Harden’s original is presented in upper case, with a rendering in modern English below in lower case as with this example:

MYNE GOODLY FOOL MYNE LINKMAN THINKETH THAT THOU ART BE AL IN MYNE PAN H’SAYETH THAT ME MAKETH LYK DIVINSTRE BUT I KNOW YOW LYVE NOWE HE ALS SAYETH THAT MYNE BLOOD BE POYSOND AN THAT IT BE MYNE WEEK HIGNED FANCY BUT LUNE ME NAT METHENKE AN TOLDE HEM SO I ALS SEID ‘TIS LYK FAIRYMGOLD AN THAT TO HOLD IT CLOSE TIL ME WRYTS BOOKE.

My pleasant fool, my servant, thinks that you are all in my head. He says I act like a seer but I know you live now. He also says that my blood is poisoned and that it is my weak-hinged imagination; but I am not mad, I think, and told him so. I also said it is like fairy gold [that he should] keep it secret until I write a book.

The result is a patchwork of overlapping, unstable narratives, which through their structure resist any attempt to derive a “true” version of the story. Harden makes this point explicitly at one stage:

METHYNK YOW ARN A HISTORIE BOKE THAT HATH ITS FRONTE AN BACK SKYN JOYNANT WE ARN EECHE A SYDE

I think we are a history book that has its front and back pages joined together. We are each a side of it.

Indeed, Harden states at various points that he is writing his own book about these events: a completely alternative meta-narrative to set against Webster’s, albeit one that the reader is not privy to. Others clearly are, though: 2109 say that Harden’s book will be found one day. We are left, as a result, with the impression that yet another side to the story remains to be told.

The way in which layers of different textual forms impose themselves upon each other, adding to or contradicting each other, is not unlike the way in which the real Harden might have experienced the textual culture of sixteenth-century England. The bound, printed and unannotated book was by no means the prevailing manifestation of textual culture in early modern England. Textual forms which to modern eyes appear much less ‘settled’ than print interacted both in partnership and in tension with the printed book. Commonplace books reproduced text from printed sources while at the same time subverting it to the owner’s own needs. Manuscript newsletters co-existed with printed newsbook. Printed almanacs provided space for owners to hand-write their own annotations. While we are used to looking for linear, narrative compositions put together by a clear author and generating a fixed meaning, early modern writers and readers were willing to cut and paste material from different types and forms of texts, to create texts embedded within texts or texts that co-existed alongside others. People creating and using early modern texts had a much more creative understanding of the possibilities of textual culture than we have, until recently,  given them credit for.

Given all this, the ease with which Webster’s sixteenth-century counterpart adjusts to the different forms of communicating with him is perhaps not so far-fetched. Harden’s sense of confusion and wonder is reserved for the ‘leems boyste’: where has it come from, and how does it glow so? But he adjusts very quickly to communicating with Webster in different textual media, and becomes adept at flitting back and forth between them. As a student at Brasenose, he would no doubt have been just as adept at negotiating printed and manuscript versions of texts. He alludes to a relaxed attitude about “remixing” different forms when Webster leaves out a picture of Erasmus which subsequently disappears, taken by Harden back to his own time:

THANK YE FOR THY PORTREYING ME SHALT HATH IT PORTRAYD IN MYNE BOKE OF YOW TIME.

Thank you for the picture. I shall have it put in my book about your time.

Webster’s narrative is, on the surface, a supernatural detective story which strives after truth. Who is/was Tomas Harden? Did he really exist? Were his communications real, or faked by someone with a good knowledge of the sources? Webster’s character devotes considerable energy during the early days of the haunting – if that is what it was – to researching early modern Chester and its surroundings. He is jubilant when Thomas Fowleshurst, the first verifiable character they come across, makes an appearance. He is even more jubilant when Robin Peedell, an assistant librarian in 1980s Brasenose, identifies Harden in the college records and Harden confirms who he is. But it is significant that Webster’s character also quickly grows fed up with this quest for truth:

I became bored… I wanted to go home, to read about something else.

And so Webster’s book can also be read, exercising one’s freedom as a reader, as an exploration of the relativity of truth. There is not just ambiguity in Webster’s narrative; there is layer upon layer of ambiguity, driven by the way he sets out his different narratives. Whether they are intended to echo the writing and reading practices of Harden’s contemporaries is not clear. But it is also, perhaps, not the point. Texts in whatever form are unstable, shifting media that resist attempts by authors to impose a fixed meaning upon them. In reading Webster’s story I have found my own meaning in it. In retelling it, I have used a particular structure, a long-form blog post, in a particular medium, the electronic text, both of which will shape how it is received. And in reading it, you will no doubt impose your own meanings on my telling of Webster’s telling of Harden’s life. Whether you read it as fact, metaphor or a simple ghost story, I hope you enjoyed it.

A slightly belated Halloween ghost story.
I was 14 when the first season of The X-Files was broadcast on UK television. This was the perfect age to become obsessed with the programme’s mix of aliens, ghosts and conspiracy theories. Like Fox Mulder, I wanted to believe. The series sparked an obsession that made me an eager viewer of the other – mostly awful – programmes which tried to cash in on the 1990s vogue for the paranormal. Amongst the most awful was a BBC series – it may have been the one presented by Carol Vorderman, although I can’t recall for certain – which was a ragbag of “strange but true” stories presented through dramatic reconstructions. I can remember very little about it, save for one episode that has always stayed with me.
It told the story of a man in the early 1980s, who found that his BBC Micro computer had become a conduit through which he could communicate with a man from the sixteenth century. The latter was mystified by the “box of lights” which had appeared in his house, and accused the computer owner of witchcraft. Gradually, however, as the two carried on their electronic conversations a more trusting relationship developed. The programme concluded by stating that archival research supposedly revealed that the sixteenth-century man had actually existed, and that expert linguists had concluded that the dialect and vocabulary he used was authentic to the period.
A few weeks ago – fifteen years on – a memory of this story popped back into my head for some reason. Some quick Googling revealed that other people remembered it too; and that the man in question, Ken Webster, had written a book about his experience called The Vertical Plane. Intrigued, I ordered a second-hand copy and spent a happy afternoon reacquainting myself with the story. The book badges itself as “a unique supernatural detective story”, and one look at the cover gives an early warning that it was published by Harper Collins’s “occult” division.
You may or may not be relieved to know that this isn’t going to be a post about whether Webster’s account is true. Instead, I thought it might be interesting to consider Webster’s book as a cultural artifact in its own right. Webster’s book has quite a lot going on beneath the surface, which will perhaps be of interest to early modernists who study texts and the different forms they can take. So this post does two things. First, it summarises the story Webster sets out in his book. Secondly, it looks at how Webster tells his story, and how his own text and narrative link to early modern ideas about texts and narratives.
Webster’s story starts in the autumn of 1984, in the village of Dodleston near to the English border with Wales. He is living in Meadow Cottage, an eighteenth-century house in the middle of the village, with his girlfriend Debbie and friend Nicola. Webster borrows a BBC Micro computer from the school at which teaches, so that Nicola can use the word processor (EDWORD, for others who grew up with the Beeb) to write comedy sketches. All three are alarmed when files start appearing on the computer with messages in an archaic form of English, signed “L.W.” The messages are accompanied by various poltergeist phenomena, such as objects being moved or piled in particular formations.
L.W. gradually reveals himself as Lukas Wainman, living in a house on the site of Meadow Cottage during Henry VIII’s marriage to Catherine Parr (ie at some point between 1543 and 1547). He kept various livestock on the land around his house. He had been married with a son, but both wife and child died of the plague in 1517. He had studied at Brasenose College, Oxford and knew Erasmus, having met him three times in all.
A friend of Lukas’s then starts communicating: it turns out that Lukas has been arrested and is being held by the local sheriff, Sir Thomas Fowleshurst, due to his communications with the ‘light box’ or ‘leems boyste” as Lukas calls it, in his house. The friend also reveals that ‘Lukas’ is a pseudonym. Lukas is then released and held under house arrest, resuming communication and confessing how scared he is of the fate that could await him. He also reveals that the leems boyste was brought to his house by someone called ‘one’, from the year 2109. ‘Lukas’ had been under the impression that Webster was also from 2109 until the latter says that he is living in 1985.
An unnamed contact from 2109 then starts leaving impenetrable messages on the BBC, saying that the events they are experiencing have a wider purpose. In the meantime Webster and his friends try to think of a way to save Lukas’s life. They remember a chance reference by Lukas to Henry Mann, Dean of Chester and find information in the present that Mann had in 1533 communicated with Elizabeth Barton, the so-called “Maid of Kent”. Barton was a Catholic nun who had made prophecies critical of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn, and who was executed as a result in 1534. Webster gives this information to Lukas to use as a bargaining chip with the sheriff. However, it doesn’t work, and Lukas goes on trial regardless: but is kept alive to keep the light box working. During this period Thomas Fowleshurst begins to use the box to communicate with Webster and it emerges that events are happening in 1546.
Communication is re-established with Lukas, but with further intervention and inscrutable comments from 2109. Webster and Lukas begin to suspect that 2109 is changing their messages, and develop a system where Lukas starts communicating with paper and charcoal left out for him in the present (Lukas meanwhile is able somehow to see and hear Webster in the past). Throgh this means Lukas reveals that his real name is Tomas (sic) Harden/Hawarden, a graduate of Brasenose who had been dean of the chapel there but was expelled in 1538 for refusing to expunge the name of the Pope from a book in the chapel, as was required by law after the break with Rome. 2109 become extremely irritated that Webster has learnt Wainman’s real name, and demand that he stops disrupting their experiments.
Eventually, the Grosvenor family – Harden’s landlords – demand that he leaves his house. Harden leaves a final message wishing Webster and his friends well, and stating that he will go to Bristol to buy a horse then see if he is welcome again at Brasenose. He says that he will write a book about the events, and hopes that some day they might meet so he can read Webster’s book and Webster his. Harden is then never heard from again, although Webster finds a reference to him – or at least someone with his name – becoming vicar at Little Barrington in Gloucestershire from 1551 to 1554. The tale is rounded off with some final, ever-cryptic communications from 2109.
One of the themes which emerges most strongly from The Vertical Plane‘s narrative is the instability of texts. Webster’s ghost is a textual ghost. Although Harden seems able to see and hear what is happening in the present, Webster himself never sees Harden (although his girlfriend, Debbie, sees him in her dreams on several occasions). Instead, he primarily interacts with Harden through various forms of textual communication, none of which the reader can rely on:
  • Through the letters on Webster’s computer monitor. Some of these – Webster never knows which – are altered in subtle ways by 2109. Others are deleted by mistake, meaning that Webster has to summarise what he can recollect of them.
  • Through printed copies of those same letters. A number of these are also subsequently lost, and again we rely on Webster’s memory of them for the content of his narrative.
  • Through manuscript notes which Harden scratches onto surfaces in the present-day Meadow Cottage, or writes on scraps of paper. The materiality of these notes inclines Webster to place the most faith in them, even though they are often the shortest and most cryptic of Harden’s statements.
Harden communicates through different identities: directly as Lukas Wainman then as Tomas Harden, and second-hand through an unnamed friend and through the sheriff [name]. He also sets traps for Webster, in attempt to assess whether he is really from the future. For example, he claims to have done his degree at Jesus College, Oxford, which at that time did not exist: anyone from the future, Harden reasons, would surely know there is no such thing as Jesus College and that it is nonsensical to claim to have studied there. Webster, meanwhile, sees this as a “mistake” which could point to the presence of a hoaxer.
And Webster and Harden themselves also take steps to further mediate how their texts are received. Both try to modify their grammar and vocabulary so as to make it easier for the other to understand. Harden also modifies his hand-writing to try to make it as clear as possible. Webster’s own narrative then further mediates Harden’s, by ‘translating’ his texts. Harden’s original is presented in upper case, with a rendering in modern English below in lower case as with this example:
MYNE GOODLY FOOL MYNE LINKMAN THINKETH THAT THOU ART BE AL IN MYNE PAN H’SAYETH THAT ME MAKETH LYK DIVINSTRE BUT I KNOW YOW LYVE NOWE HE ALS SAYETH THAT MYNE BLOOD BE POYSOND AN THAT IT BE MYNE WEEK HIGNED FANCY BUT LUNE ME NAT METHENKE AN TOLDE HEM SO I ALS SEID ‘TIS LYK FAIRYMGOLD AN THAT TO HOLD IT CLOSE TIL ME WRYTS BOOKE
My pleasant fool, my servant, thinks that you are all in my head. He says I act like a seer but I know you live now. He also says that my blood is poisoned and that it is my weak-hinged imagination; but I am not mad, I think, and told him so. I also said it is like fairy gold [that he should] keep it secret until I write a book.
The result is a patchwork of overlapping, unstable narratives, which through their structure resist any attempt to derive a “true” version of the story. Harden makes this point explicitly at one stage:
METHYNK YOW ARN A HISTORIE BOKE THAT HATH ITS FRONTE AN BACK SKYN JOYNANT WE ARN EECHE A SYDE
I think we are a history book that has its front and back pages joined together. We are each a side of it.
Indeed, Harden states at various points that he is writing his own book about these events: a completely alternative meta-narrative to set against Webster’s, albeit one that the reader is not privy to. Others clearly are, though: 2109 say that Harden’s book will be found one day. We are left, as a result, with the impression that yet another side to the story remains to be told.
The way in which layers of different textual forms impose themselves upon each other, adding to or contradicting each other, is not unlike. The bound, printed and unannotated book was by no means the prevailing manifestation of textual culture in early modern England. Textual forms which to modern eyes appear much less ‘settled’
connection between reading and writing – neither the primary
willingness to cut and paste and rework material
non-linear, non-narrative compositions
creations of texts embedded within texts
Alludes to creative early modern methods of textual expression, such as commonplace books or circulated manuscripts.
Relativity of truth.

Alice Glaston

Here is a note of an incident from 1545 in the parish register of Sir Thomas Butler, vicar of Much Wenlock in Shropshire:

Here was buried John Dod of the parish of Little Wenlock, who was hanged here, as also Alice Glaston, 11 yrs of age, of the parish of Little Wenlock, and Wm. Harper, a tailor.

A note slightly further down the page reads:

Three Convicts buried one a girl of 11 years old.

Cambrian Journal, vol. IV, p. 89.

Although Butler’s first sentence is ambiguous, the second seems to suggest that Alice was hanged. If so, it is one of the youngest ages I have seen recorded for the execution of a girl in early modern England. That said it’s not the youngest reference I’ve seen to a child who was hanged. A John Dean from Oxfordshire was not even 10 when he was executed for arson:

At Abingdon assizes Feb 23 1629 before Whitlock justice one John Dean an infant between eight and nine years was indicted arraigned and found guilty of burning two barns in the town of Windsor and it appearing upon examination that he had malice revenge craft and cunning lie had judgment to be hanged and was hanged accordingly.

Matthew Hale, Historical Placitorum Coronae, vol. I, p. 25.

It is probably impossible to know exactly what transpired in this incident. The Wenlock quarter sessions records for this period do not survive. If Alice was hanged, the crime she was accused of committing remains lost to us. The next entry in Butler’s register states this:

A boy found dead and thither went Wm Fennymere the Coroner and of the Six men of the Franchises NB Description of the wounds and the dress.

However, it’s not clear whether this relates to the three burials mentioned above it, or whether it’s a separate burial of the boy. I think it’s probably the latter.

All I have been able reconstruct is the physical places in which Alice may have spent her last days. They would have been tried at Wenlock Guildhall, which had only been built five years previously in 1540 after the dissolution of the nearby priory. To the left of the wooden pillars on the ground floor is a stone section of the building, which was the prison:

Here Alice and others convicted of hanging offences would have spent their final hours. After their trial, they would have been taken up to Edge Top, part of the limestone ridge of Wenlock Edge that lay to the south-west and north-east of the town. There they were hanged.

What exactly happened at Alice’s trial and execution also remains lost to us. However, Butler did record what transpired in the hanging of two men four years previously:

Item on the 7th Feb 1541 here was buried Thomas Myles whose dwelling was at that time in Bockleton in the Parish of Milburge Stoke of and within the Franchises of this Borough of Moch Wenlock which Thomas Myles was cast by 12 men for felony at Wenlock at a Sessions kept and holden here the same day & the day before being Monday before John Bradley the younger Bailiff of this Franchises and Richd Whorde of Bridgenorth Justice of Quorum Recorder of this said franchises Ano Regni 33o

Memorandum that the 10th day of this instant month of Febry in the year of our Lord 1541 here was buried Wm Lowe a Cheshire man born which William was a lad of 18 years of age or thereabouts cast by the verdict of 12 men at the sd Sessions holden here before the sd Justices the day as it is written in the last of the leaf next preceding which Sessions were prorogued till friday because of the absence of the ordinary forasmuch as the sd William desired the Priviledge of the Church saying that he could read and on friday the 10th day of this february when the Justices were sitting the Ordinary Mr George Dycher parson of Stretton Dean of this Deanery being ready in presence, It was found he was no Clerk and so was put to execution of the law & buried the same day confessing openly both in the Hall and at the place of Execution on the Edge Top that he had robbed divers persons of their goods Buried out of Holmere of this Parish besides Wigwyke Atterley in this Parish.

Whether Alice confessed, or made a “good death”, is not clear, but even with the gap of 465 years between then and now it still chills me to the bone to think of an eleven-year old girl being taken up to the gallows.

New entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography

Shardlake, Matthew (b. c. 1500), lawyer, was the son of a yeoman farmer from Lichfield. Early in his childhood he developed severe kyphosis, a disability that would go on to have a significant impact on his adult life. In 1518 he moved to London to attend Lincoln’s Inn, going on to practice as a lawyer. In the late 1520s he was introduced to Thomas Cromwell, at the time a lawyer associated with Cardinal Wolsey. In 1533 Shardlake was able to use these connections to find a post under Cromwell for Mark Poer, son of his father’s steward William Poer.

In the winter of 1537 Shardlake was sent by Cromwell to investigate allegations of corruption at the Benedictine monastery of St Donatus the Ascendant of Scarnsea. The visit became a criminal investigation after another of Cromwell’s officials was found dead. While at Scarnsea, Shardlake was introduced to Guy Elakbar (known by his monastic name of Guy of Malton), a Spanish Muslim and apothecary who had fled Spain after the reconquista. Shardlake appears to have maintained an association with Malton after this meeting. Meanwhile Shardlake’s links with Poer seem to have ended after Scarnsea. After 1537 Poer disappears from the historical record, although correspondence recently unearthed suggests he may have eloped to France. In 1538 the monastery at Scarnsea was razed to the ground by Giovanni Portinari, Cromwell’s engineer.

The Scarnsea incident appears to have established Shardlake’s reputation as a fixer, particularly where crimes were involved. In 1540 Shardlake was asked by Cromwell to recover what was rumoured to be a recipe for ‘Greek fire’, the liquid weapon used by the Byzantine army. At the same time he was also involved in defending a young girl against a false charge of murder. It was during this time that Shardlake also met Jack Barak, a servant of Cromwell’s with whom he would go on to have a long association.

In 1541 Shardlake rose to prominence due to his involvement in the Progress by Henry VIII to York. By this time Sharlake had become associated with Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, who sent Shardlake to York to handle petitions to the king from the citizens of York. However, there are suggestions that while there, Shardlake was also involved in trying to bring an important prisoner, Sir Edward Broderick, safely to London for questioning. In 1543 Shardlake again acted on Cranmer’s behalf in investigating a series of murders that included the brutal killing of Shardlake’s friend Roger Elliard.

Throughout what is known of his career, Shardlake continued to practice law. No evidence survives of him having been married. He maintained a substantial London household and appears to have been close to his servants. He was also a horse enthusiast, holding particular affection for his first horse called Chancery.

Other events in Shardlake’s life and the date of his death remain unknown, although it is to be hoped that ongoing research by his biographer, C.J. Sansom, will uncover more details.

Sources C.J. Sansom, Dissolution (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2003); Dark Fire (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2004); Sovereign (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2006); Revelation (Basingstoke and Oxford, 2008).

(All of which is a roundabout way of saying how much I’ve been enjoying working my way through the Shardlake series recently. I hope I haven’t given away any of the plots).

Information technology and early modern readers

bookshelves

Bookshelves are not the most obvious thing that comes to mind when you think about information technology. But the word technology is actually a very appropriate description: the word “τέχνη” from which it derives means craft or art, which is apt given the skills that go into producing shelves. For early modern readers, and even readers today, bookshelves were and are one of the most important methods for storing and accessing information. And bookshelves are not just passive, functional pieces of wood, metal or plastic that provide a neutral home for books to sit on. The other Greek word from which technology derives – “λογία” – means saying or utterance, and this expressive, constitutive aspect of technology is important to bear in mind. As with any other material aspect of a book, bookshelves mediate a reader’s experience of a text.

This was certainly the case for many early modern readers. Michel de Montaigne kept his book collection in the third storey of a tower, which allowed him unfettered views not just of his geographical domain but also his textual and intellectual domain:

My library is round in shape, squared off only for the needs of my table and chair; as it curves round it offers me at a glance every one of my books ranged on five shelves all the way along. It has three splendid and unhampered views and a circle of free space sixteen yards in diameter.

You can see a reconstruction of Montaigne’s library here. The arrangement of shelves allowed him a remarkable intellectual freedom to wander through his books:

Here I leaf through now one book, now another, without order and without plan, by disconnected fragments. One moment I muse, another moment I set down or dictate, walking back and forth, these fancies of mine that you see here.

Sir Robert Cotton’s library helped to order his reading in a different way. At some point between 1620 and his death in 1631, Cotton arranged his extensive collection of rare manuscripts into fourteen cabinets, each mounted by a bust of a famous classical figure such as Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Caligula or Nero. Kevin Sharpe’s reconstruction of how this might have looked can be seen here.

Unlike other collections, this meant his library was not organised by subject. Nero, for example, contains the Lindisfarne gospels alongside collections of royal diplomatic correspondence. Julius contains Ælfric’s Lives of Saints alongside a copy of the charges brought against Cardinal Wolsey.

Cotton allowed liberal borrowing from his library by friends and colleagues, making it both a private and semi-public collection. But only Cotton and his libarian would have had the knowledge to find books quickly. As Kevin Sharpe has put it:

Cotton and his books went together and contemporaries had to know Cotton before they knew much about the contents of his manuscripts.

For Cotton, then, bookshelves were a way of organising other readers’ experience of his books, as well as his own.

Samuel Pepys was another seventeenth-century reader whose bookshelves helped to mediate his reading. In the 1660s Pepys drew on his contacts as a naval administrator to procure the services of Thomas Simpson, a joiner at the Royal Naval Dockyard in Woolwich. Simpson was first employed to build a closet for clothes, but in 1666 Pepys commissioned him to build a set of bookcases for his growing collection of books. Practical considerations seem to be what first motivated his decision to build the shelves:

23 July 1666. Up, and to my chamber doing several things there of moment, and then comes Sympson, the Joyner; and he and I with great pains contriving presses to put my books up in: they now growing numerous, and lying one upon another on my chairs, I lose the use to avoyde the trouble of removing them, when I would open a book.

The need to manage growing amounts of information, or otherwise risk overload, seems to have been a common impulse for readers with the money to afford book collections. Later, during his retirement, Pepys devoted considerable time to cataloguing his library, employing Paul Lorrain and his nephew Jackman as librarians to help him.

But there were also more sensual pleasures to be had from building shelves:

10 August 1666. Thence to Sympson, the joyner, and I am mightily pleased with what I see of my presses for my books, which he is making for me.

In Pepys’s case, pleasure could be had not just from organising his collection, but from making it beautiful too:

24 August 1666. Up, and dispatched several businesses at home in the morning, and then comes Sympson to set up my other new presses for my books, and so he and I fell in to the furnishing of my new closett, and taking out the things out of my old, and I kept him with me all day, and he dined with me, and so all the afternoon till it was quite darke hanging things, that is my maps and pictures and draughts, and setting up my books, and as much as we could do, to my most extraordinary satisfaction; so that I think it will be as noble a closett as any man hath, and light enough – though, indeed, it would be better to have had a little more light.

You can make out the portraits and a map in this engraving of Pepys’s later house at Buckingham Street in 1693.

A finely decorated library was undoubtedly an important status symbol for Pepys; but the aesthetics of his library were also crucial. He took great pleasure in commissioning shelves that were intricate and beautiful, as well as practical. His bookcases were made of oak and glass-fronted, with the main section holding folio size books. The lower sections use sliding glass panels for smaller books. The Pepys Library site hosted by Magdalene College has a good selection of images: 1, 2, 3.

Books also needed to look right on the shelf. Pepys was adamant that the books should be arranged by height, even specifying in a codicil to his will that after his death:

8 thly That the placing as to heighth be strictly reviewed and where found requiring it more nicely adjusted.

Even the books themselves were turned into objects of beauty. They were expensively bound, stamped with Pepys’s crest, had bookplates in the front and endplates at the back. You can see Pepys’s bookplate here.

So what difference did bookshelves make to these three early modern readers? We shouldn’t underestimate the functional aspect of shelves. As private book collections grew, they needed to be stored somewhere. But for Montaigne, Cotton and Pepys, bookshelves also provided different experiences of reading. They allowed Montaigne to wander through his collection, whereas for Cotton they helped to close it off to others. Pepys, meanwhile, derived both pleasure and status from his bookcases.

The growth in recent years of a new history of the book has resulted in a much greater focus on the material aspect of texts, such as the paper they are printed on, the typeface they use, or the ink they are printed with, and on the ways in which early modern readers approached and constructed their reading. In Don McKenzie’s words:

A book is never simply a remarkable object. Like every other technology it is the product of human agency in complex and highly volatile contexts which a responsible scholarship must seek to recover if we are to understand better the creation and communication of meaning as the defining characteristic of human societies.

As a product of human agency themselves, bookshelves too have their place in the history of books and reading.

My illustration is from Claude du Molinet’s “Le Cabinet de la Bibliothèque de Sainte Geneviève” (Paris, 1692). AN465647001, © The Trustees of the British Museum.