Traditional European Folklore on Death and Dying

A graveyard

Having recently been studying Victorians and the culture of death, I have been reflecting on how many of the traditions and superstitions around death and burial have their roots in folklore. (If you’re interested in folklore do check out my post on gardening folklore).

Today we rarely come into contact with death, but in the not too distant past most people died at home. And because the death rate was previously a lot higher, most people would have encountered a dead body and likely been part of washing or laying out of family members. This meant that death was less of a taboo.

Numerous traditions have sprung up around the process of death, dealing with the body and burial — mostly to prevent bad luck and to ease the spirit’s passage to the afterlife. Below is collected some European folklore associated with death, funerals and graveyards:

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When removing a dead body from a house make sure you always take them out feet first, otherwise they might turn and beckon someone from the house to follow them in death.

If you hear three knocks on your front door, but when you open it there is no one there, then it is death, warning you he is soon to come for you.

In Victorian times it was believed that lying on a pillow of feathers (sometimes specifically pigeon feathers) meant that the dying person could not pass peacefully away. This meant that feather pillows were used to ‘prolong’ the life of the dying so that family members could reach their bedside in time to bid them goodbye. On the flip side, if a person was thought to be lingering painfully, the pillow would be whipped away in the hope that it would end their earthly suffering.

Crows are believed to be messengers between this world and the next, so seeing a crow from your sick bed was believed to be an omen that death was near.

If lightning hits the house of a dying person then it reveals that the devil has come to claim them.

The last name to pass the lips of a dying person will be the next to die.

If you see a white owl in the day time it is said to portend death.9398556943_3b5e34dde3_z

Never bring a peacock feather into the house, it is extremely unlucky and thought to be taunting death.

As soon as a person dies all mirrors in the house should be covered. Mirrors are thought to be gateways to the spirit world and it was thought to be bad luck to see a corpse in reflection. Some traditions believed that if this happened their spirit would be forever stuck in the mirror.

A bowl of salt should be placed on the corpse’s chest as soon as they have passed. This not only reduces bad smells and putrefaction but was also thought to keep bad spirits away.

Always leave the window open a crack after death, so that the soul of the departed can escape.

If the head of the household dies then the bees must be told. All family news of import must be relayed to the bees or they will desert the hive.

After death, all the clocks in the house should be stopped. This tradition releases the dead person’s spirit as it tells them that time is over for them.20227647874_66fd98b54d_o

To cure a relative of drunkenness, put a coin in the mouth of a corpse. Later remove the coin and drop it into the drink of the drunkard without them noticing.

In a tradition dating back to medieval times, if many people from the same family died of a sickness, a black ribbon would be tied around any living thing (even animals and plants) entering the house to protect them.

Touch the forehead of the dead to ensure they do not haunt your dreams.

Funerals

An elaborate hearse pulled by 12 black horses
Funeral car at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, 1852

Never put the clothes of a living person on a corpse. That person will die too as the body rots.

If rains falls into an open grave it is seen as a sign that another death will occur in the family within a year.

Never count the number of cars or carriages in a funeral procession, it is thought to foretell the number of days until your own death.

Do not point at a funeral procession or death will come for you next.

Once the body had passed over the threshold of the house then a nail would be driven into the doorway to prevent them ever returning as a spirit.

It is bad luck to meet a funeral procession head on, if you do then you must touch a button on your clothes in order to stay ‘connected’ to life.

If a black cat crosses the path of a funeral procession then it is thought that another family member will soon die.6263557124_46a5b239bd_z (1)

People are said to traditionally wear black to a funeral as it makes them blend in. Death, therefore, will not notice you and take you next.

A funeral procession should not return home the same way it came or the spirit of the dead will follow and return to the house.

Many believed that you should hold your breath as your pass a graveyard or you will breathe in evil spirits.

If the body lies unburied over a Sunday then there will be another death in the family before the week is out.

Pall bearers traditionally wear gloves as it was believed that the spirit of the deceased might enter into them if they touched the coffin with bare hands.besieged-house-ghosts-768

Thunder after a funeral indicates that the person’s soul has gone to heaven.

Never wear new shoes to a funeral, it is thought that you are taunting the devil.

Whichever foot the horse drawing the funeral carriage sets off on indicates the sex of the next person to die. The left foot leading indicates that a women will be next to expire, the right, a man.

Graveyards

A graveyard
A graveyard

If you fall over three times in the same day at a graveyard then it was believed you would be dead within a year.

Bodies are traditionally faced with their feet to the east and their heads to the west so that when the sun rises they will greet it.

If the dead person lived a good life then flowers will bloom on their grave. If they led a bad life then only weeds will grow.

Some cemeteries have mazes planted at the entrance because it was thought ghosts could only travel in straight lines and so would not be able to leave the graveyard.

Never whistle is a cemetery or you will summon the devil.

Moss picked from off a grave stone was said to cure headaches.

If you enjoyed this post why not check out my books for more arcane history and fascinating facts.

 

 

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Revolutionary Relics: The Bastille Re-cast Anew

A model of the Bastille prison in Paris destroyed in the French Revolution

On 14 July 1789, in what would become a defining moment of the French Revolution, Parisians stormed the Bastille prison – a symbol of the ancien regime’s authority and despotism. Within days a local builder, Pierre-François Palloy, and his team of masons began to dismantle the old prison, taking away the stones, chains and debris, and leaving nothing but a space where this once imposing building stood.

The Storming of the Bastille in The History of the French Revolution. Translated by F. Shoberl (1881)
The Storming of the Bastille in The History of the French Revolution. Translated by F. Shoberl (1881) via The British Library

Palloy described himself as a patriot, self-identifying by signing his name ‘patriot Palloy’, and he chose to use the debris from the hated to prison to create a series of revolutionary relics. He used the stones to inscribe portraits of the king, revolutionary figures and the Declaration of the Rights of Man. He melted down the chains and cast medals of freedom. He even used the stones from the windowsill of the Bastille governor’s office to make a set of dominoes which he presented to the dauphin. Palloy used these stones as symbols of the revolution –  transforming a once despotic symbol into one of freedom.

The Bastille as a Symbol of Revolution

On 15 July 1789, the day after the storming, the newspaper Révolutions de Paris stated that the prison would be ‘entirely annihilated and, in its place, a monument to august Liberty will be raised’.[1] This indicates that the public immediately felt a need to memorialise and transform the space inhabited by the Bastille. The storming of the Bastille signified a moment when individuals came together against tyranny and were victorious – it signalled a huge shift in power.

Yet, very few people, in terms of the whole population of France, were actually present at the storming of the Bastille. Palloy recognised this, and saw the importance of the Bastille as a symbol of the Revolution and the opportunity it presented to amplify and spread the revolutionary message across France. By using the stones from the Bastille itself to create models of the prison, Palloy was forming portable material objects memorialising this momentous event. These models were then sent to every department in France, allowing people from all over the nation to feel part of this revolutionary moment.

The physical bulk of the prison had loomed large over Paris, and its destruction left a gap, both actually and metaphorically, that needed to be filled. Prior to the Revolution the monarchy had used a series of symbols, such as the fleur-de-lys, to lend themselves legitimacy, authority and allude to tradition. As the Revolution exploded into life, new symbols were required. These symbols came in many shapes – clothing, such as the revolutionary bonnet; monuments, such as liberty trees; and art, such as paintings of revolutionary figures. But where do Palloy’s objects fit? In his many speeches and pamphlets, Palloy defined his objects in a number of ways, embracing their multi-faceted meaning. He named them ‘reliques patriotiques’, which conjures images of sacred objects, and yet also plays on the idea that they are items from the past of historic value. He also referred to them as ex-votos (an offering to a saint or divinity) which again sacralises the stones. Additionally, Palloy called the stones ‘relics of freedom’, a name which recognised their new form and meaning.

A model of the Bastille prison in Paris destroyed in the French Revolution
One of the models of the Bastille cast by Pierre Francois Palloy

The Revolution created a new political culture which saw groups of people who had not previously engaged with politics emerge, this meant that Revolutionary propaganda became essential, not only to commemorate the key events of the Revolution but also to unite people and spread revolutionary ideals. Palloy did just that by creating smaller, multiple models of the Bastille. He demonstrated his agency and mastery over the despotic prison by defeating this once huge building and recasting it, in smaller form, anew. At the same time, Palloy was treating these transformed stones with reverence, ordering that they be celebrated as symbols of freedom, and therefore using them to unite people in common purpose.

The Making of the Models

Palloy’s Bastille stones were not only direct relics from the Bastille, and therefore were witness to years of oppression, but they were also then transformed by the hands of revolutionaries themselves. Palloy’s models were collectively created in his workshop by masons who had actually taken part in the demolition of the prison. These men who had torn down the stones were now remaking them in a new image which embodied both the despotic past, and the idealistic revolutionary actions of the present, at the same time. This fact lent the stones a whole new level of meaning, a meaning which could only be communicated if people knew of the context of their creation. Palloy ensured the provenance of the stones were announced at each models’ unveiling. In a speech given to mark the arrival of one of Palloy’s Bastille stones in the department of the Cote d’Or, the president of the administrative assembly, Navier, alluded to their power of evocation: ‘At the appearance of this monument, they believe they see the sombre dungeons; the noise of chains strikes their ear; the long wails of the victims resound in their hearts: a salutary horror will keep away tyrants everywhere.’[2]

As the Revolution continued, and competing factions vied for ascendancy, there was a need to narrate and define the transformation of power. Not only this but an end point was required at which revolution would stop and the new society could emerge and move forwards. Palloy himself was clear that his intention with his revolutionary relics was to use them as symbols of liberty even as the dominant ideology shifted around him, in a speech to the Constituent Assembly in October 1791 he said: ‘I have immortalized every epoch of the Revolution with trophies that I have dedicated to freedom.’[3] A simple model of the prison would serve only as a reminder of the old order. Palloy’s models were the Bastille crushed and remade, their meaning transformed by the hands of the demolishers themselves.

Palloy: The Barnum of the Bastille

The speed with which Palloy swooped in and took control of the demolition of the Bastille and appointed himself as custodian of its rubble has led some to claim Palloy was hoping to commodify and profit from the fall of the Bastille. Tom Stammers even referred to him as the ‘Barnum of the Bastille’,[4] and it is true there was something of

Portrait of Pierre-François Palloy held at Musée Carnavalet
Portrait of Pierre-François Palloy held at Musée Carnavalet

the ringmaster in the way Palloy managed the Bastille models and dictated their celebration and display. However, Palloy was not actually reimbursed by the government for the demolition of the Bastille until 1791/2, and between 1789 and 1799 Palloy published over 100 pamphlets and tracts of speeches, posters and designs for monuments he wanted to erect on the site of the Bastille, all at his own expense. In his 1794 autobiography Palloy wrote that the demolition of the Bastille, the distribution of the relics and the publication of his writings had left him financially ruined – which all attest to his life-long commitment to his vision of spreading the revolutionary message through his relics of the Bastille. When Palloy was mistakenly arrested and imprisoned by the Commune over alleged embezzlement, he clearly thought he might become a victim of the guillotine and, revealing his passion for the Bastille relics, he asked that he be buried under a Bastille stone inscribed ‘Here lies Palloy, who in his youth laid siege to the Bastille, destroyed it, and scattered the limbs of this infernal monster over the face of the Earth.’[5]

Today a number of Palloy’s Bastille models survive, some in museums, others built into the fabric of public buildings – their significance lessened by the passing of time, their curious provenance reduced to a historical footnote. Yet during the Revolution itself, thanks to the monumental efforts and vision of one man, these very same objects served to embody multi-faceted meaning. Palloy ensured through his speeches, pamphlets, festivities and parades that these multiple, miniature models of the Bastille could cast their Revolutionary message across France, to all levels of society. Their ability to represent past, present and future combined with Palloy’s talent for propaganda allowed these very simple objects to tangibly represent a victory over despotism.

References:

[1] Révolutions de Paris, (Paris, 15 July 1789) quoted in Richard Clay, Iconoclasm in Revolutionary Paris: the transformation of signs, (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2012), p. 26.

[2] Claude-Bernard Navier, Procés-verbal de ce qui s’est passé a la séance du 13 Novembre 1790, (1790).

[3] Pierre-François Palloy, speech to the Constituent Assembly (October 1791)

[4] Tom Stammers, ‘The bric-a-brac of the old regime: Collecting and cultural history in post-revolutionary France’, French History, vol 22, Issue 3, (2008), pp. 295–315.

[5] Pierre-François Palloy, printed defence, (Paris, 1794).

Traditional Signs of Guilt

Skeletons and ghouls pull a body from a graveyard

In the time before DNA testing, dusting for fingerprints and blood-spatter analysis proving guilt or innocence was a rather less scientific matter. Folklore, superstition and religion ruled.

The high German epic poem Nibelungenlied, written in about 1200, features a scene in which the dragon-slayer Siegfried has been murdered and his body laid out. When his murderer, Hagen approaches, Siegfried’s wounds begin to bleed afresh, indicating Hagen’s guilt. This phenomena was known as cruentation, whereby a victim’s body would react should the murderer approach, and before forensic science developed in the early nineteenth century, this was one of the many methods used across Europe for proving guilt .

Skeletons and ghouls pull a body from a graveyard
From Tales of Terror (1808) via The British Library

Cruentation

The word cruentation comes from the Latin cruentatus, which means to ‘make bloody’. The method likely originated in ancient Germanic practices and from about 1100 spread across Europe. To carry out cruentation, the body of the victim would be laid out on a bier in the courtroom (hence the practice’s alternate names: bier-right or ordeal of the bier) in the belief that it retained some sentience after death. The suspect was then required to approach the body, perhaps circling it a number of times, or placing their hand upon it. If the suspect was guilty, the body would supposedly signal this by frothing at the mouth, bleeding from the nose or oozing from existing wounds.

In an indication of the pervasive nature of this belief, Shakespeare’s play Richard III (in Act I, Scene II) includes a scene of cruentation when Lady Anne confronts the murderer of King Henry VI, saying:

O! gentlemen; see, see! dead Henry’s wounds

Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.

Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,

For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood

In reality modern science has shown that from about six hours after death all the blood in a dead body would have congealed. The fluid which may have leaked from these dead bodies (let’s face it its likely they would have been jiggled about a fair bit when getting them into the courtroom) was probably what’s delightfully known as ‘purge fluid’ which is created in the early stages of decomposition.

By the end of the seventeenth century British courts no longer used cruentation and the Germans followed suit by the end of the eighteenth century as the Age of Enlightenment saw Europe begin to turn away from superstition. However the Americans continued to occasionally employ the method right up to the mid-nineteenth century (for more on late American cases of cruentation see this wonderful post).

Trial by ordeal

Another method to uncover guilt was trial by ordeal. This was founded on the belief that God would protect the innocent from being falsely accused or intervene to show a sign of their guilt.

Trial by fire was used across the world in a number of different guises. The Indian epic poem Ramayana depicts Sita going through a trial by fire when Rama doubts her purity. Her innocence is proven after she stands in a circle of flames and remains entirely unscathed. Similarly in Europe the accused was often asked to plunge their hand into a fire to retrieve an object, or to hold a red-hot iron. Their innocence was proven as long as the wound appeared to be healing, rather than festering, within three days of the trial.

364px-Sita's_ordeal_by_fire_(cropped)
Sita’s ordeal by Fire via The British Museum

The most famous trials by water were seen in seventeenth-century Salem during the infamous witch trials. Here the accused were bound in the fetal position and thrown into a body of water. Those who sunk were deemed innocent and hauled out, those who floated were branded as guilty of witchcraft.

Witch-finding was a hotbed of superstition and a number of extremely dubious methods to extract ‘confessions’ or proof of guilt were utilised. This included: making the accused read aloud the Lord’s Prayer — any stumbling or mistakes and guilt was proven; bringing their bewitched victims before them and making the accused touch them, no reaction proved innocence whereas any ‘waking’ proved they had been under a spell; and ‘pricking’ supposed witches’ marks on the body of the accused, if they showed no pain, they were guilty.

In 1215 Pope Innocent III banned priests from cooperating with any trials by fire or water, a ruling which helped the practice to become less frequent in Europe, but witch trials during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries saw the practice revive and it did not truly die out until after the American witch trials of the seventeenth century — indicating the extent to which folk belief pervaded all levels of society.

If you enjoyed this post do check out my books for more on arcane history, books, words and libraries.

The Strange Afterlives of Ancient Egyptian Mummies

Illustration of the pyramids of Giza via The British Library, from Travels in Egypt, Arabia, Petraea and the Holy Land by Stephen Olin, 1843

The mummified remains of Ancient Egyptians have always held a certain gruesome fascination but today the closest we are likely to get to one is looking through glass in a museum. Even the modern display of a mummy for educational purposes brings up certain ethical questions about our treatment of the long dead, and yet this prickly moral minefield all seems rather tame when we look back in time at how, since the tenth century onwards, these ancient bodies were treated and used as commodities.

Mummy medicine

Arab doctors began using the ground up residue from ancient Egyptian mummies for medicinal purposes around the tenth century. The reasoning behind this is fairly circuitous. Originally it was bitumen (also known as asphalt), a naturally occurring semi-solid form of petroleum, which was extracted from the ground in Persia and the Near East and used as something of a cure-all. However bitumen was a scarce resource and so alternatives were sought. The historian Abdel Latif, writing in the twelfth century, revealed that doctors had wrongly assumed that the blackened state of some of the decomposing mummies was caused by the use of bitumen in the embalming process. This assumption led them to believe that the use of ground up mummy itself could be substituted medicinally for bitumen. In the Persian language bitumen was known as mum or mumiya, and as a result ancient Egyptian preserved corpses became known as ‘mummies’ and suddenly they became a useful commodity.

By the sixteenth century a trade in mummies had flourished, with whole bodies or body-parts being dug up by peasants in the countryside and transported to Cairo. Despite restrictions being placed on the trade in mummies these were flouted (with the help of a few well-placed bribes) and the bodies were transported all over Europe for use in medicine. Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle both recommended using ground up mummy for treating falls, bruising or preventing bleeding. One trader, John Sanderson, wrote of a collecting trip to Egypt in 1486:

‘I broke of all the parts of the bodies to see how the flesh was turned to drugge, and brought home divers heads, hands, armes and feet, for a shew; we brought also 600 pounds for the Turkie Companie in pieces; and brought into England in the Hercules: together with a whole body: they are lapped in above an hundred double of cloth, which rotting and pilling off, you may see the skin, flesh, fingers and nayles firme, altered blacke.’

The supply of genuine mummies could not always be maintained and it was alleged that when the supply was scant, the desiccated sun-baked bodies of animals or people who had perished in the desert were at times passed off as mummy in their stead.

Mummy pit at Thebes from Manners and Customs of the ancient Egyptians by John Gardner Wilkinson, 1837 via The British Library
Mummy pit at Thebes from Manners and Customs of the ancient Egyptians by John Gardner Wilkinson, 1837 via The British Library

Mummia as it was known became an important part of the European apothecaries’ armoury of medicine in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The bodies were ground up into powder and this was either applied topically onto the skin, or mixed into liquid and taken as a drink. By the mid eighteenth century the efficacy of mummia as a medicine was being questioned and it began to fade from use, although it was still available from some suppliers up until the twentieth century – in 1924 a kilogram of mummia was listed by German firm E. Merck for the price of 12 gold marks.

Cabinet of Curiosities

Aside from their medicinal purposes, mummies were also in great demand as curiosities, with whole mummies or embalmed body parts often the crowning glory of any cabinet of curiosity, combining as they did both natural history and human history. In sixteenth-century France a number of collectors held mummies, Boniface de Borilly (1587–1648), whose collection was kept at Aix, was said to have ‘four crocodiles, one very large, and three smaller. Diverse bodies petrified and embalmed. One foot and a leg of a mummy.’

However the conditions in European cabinets of curiosity were quite markedly different from the mummies’ original hot, dry resting places and antiquarian John Woodward (1665-1725) cautioned:

‘I myself saw here a mummy, brought formerly out of Egypt that, after it had been for some time in our more humid air, began to corrupt and grow mouldy, emitted a foetid and cadaverous scent, and in conclusion putrefied and fell to pieces.’

Sir Hans Sloane was said to have a mummy in his cabinet of curiosity in the 1730s but by the time his collection was gifted to the nation, forming the basis for the British Museum, the mummy was no longer part of the collection and it seems likely this may well have been due to decay.

The British Museum finally acquired its first genuine Egyptian mummy in 1756 and the Louvres Egyptian rooms opened in 1827 (furnished by Napoleon’s expedition to Egypt) marking the move from private museums and cabinets of curiosity to national museum collections. This would have allowed many more people to see an Egyptian mummy with their own eyes.

Unrolling mummies

By the 1830s mummies became embroiled in a new type of spectacle – the mummy unrolling party. The supposedly ‘scientific’ gatherings took place across France and Britain and saw the great and the good assemble to witness the unrolling of an ancient Egyptian mummy.

This article from The Newcastle Weekly Courant from December 1889 provides a fulsome account of one such mummy unrolling that was held at the botanical theatre of University College London:

‘Mr Budge unrolled the mummy which was closely swathed in scores of yards of thick yellowish linen of fine texture … At the beginning of the process of unrolling there was a very perceptible sickly smell of aromatics, which as the work went on gave place to a more pronounced and decidedly disagreeable odour…When at last the coverings had been removed the body was found to have been of a very dark brown colour, so dark indeed as to be almost black. The skin, where it remained, was hard and shiny.’

The article, somewhat frustratingly, does not tell us what happened to the mummified corpse once it had been unwrapped but it can be assumed that it would not have survived for long uncovered.

A 'graceful' mummy from Histoire du roi de Bohême et de ses sept châteaux by Tony Johannot,1830 via Old Book Illustrations
A ‘graceful’ mummy from Histoire du roi de Bohême et de ses sept châteaux by Tony Johannot,1830 via Old Book Illustrations

These public unwrappings no doubt provided fuel for Victorian ghost stories and encouraged the cliché of the revived, rampaging mummy that persists to this day. However as greater scientific rigour was demanded and the emphasis switched to the preservation of ancient artefacts the spectacle of mummy unrolling became consigned to the past.

Mummy brown

But the indignity of the mummy did not end here.  Since the eighteenth century ground up mummy had been mixed with myrrh and white pitch to create a deep brown paint pigment, known as ‘Mummy Brown’ or ‘Egyptian Brown’. The pigment was most frequently used mixed as an oil paint and with a good level of transparency it was especially good for shading, shadows and, of course, flesh tones.

By the nineteenth century Mummy Brown was especially sought after and it was thought to have been used by Eugene Delacroix for his decoration at the Salon de la Paix at the Hotel de Ville in 1854 – although this was unfortunately lost to a fire in 1871. Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones was also thought to have used the pigment and Art Historian Phillip McCouat reports that the artist’s wife, Georgiana Burne-Jones told the following anecdote revealing how shocked Burne-Jones was when he discovered the provenance of the pigment:

‘Edward scouted [scornfully rejected] the idea of the pigment having anything to do with a mummy — said the name must be only borrowed to describe a particular shade of brown — but when assured that it was actually compounded of real mummy, he left us at once, hastened to the studio, and returning with the only tube he had, insisted on our giving it decent burial there and then. So a hole was bored in the green grass at our feet, and we all watched it put safely in, and the spot was marked by one of the girls planting a daisy root above it.’

Ultimately Mummy Brown fell out of popularity as its exact colour could not be relied upon due to the varied nature of its source material and so was replaced by more stable pigments.

From commodity to museum specimen

By the early twentieth century the ancient Egyptian mummy had been through a number of incarnations as a commodity to be exploited by Europeans from medicine through spectacle to pigment. The development of museums and the increased interest in preserving the past meant that by the mid-twentieth century the unregulated trade in mummies finally became a thing of the past.

If you enjoyed this article take a look at my book How to Skin a Lion for more fascinating outmoded practices. 

10 Wars with Very Unusual Names

War (huh), what is it good for? Absolutely nothing! Well, that is not strictly true. Although all the killing and the destruction is very bad, some of the names given to wars and stories behind them are actually pretty interesting. Below are 10 wars with very unusual names and the reasons why:

1. The War of Jenkins’ Ear

This war was fought between Britain and Spain 1739 to 1748 and, to differentiate it from the numerous other wars Britain fought with Spain, it was given this unusual name by essayist Thomas Carlyle in 1858. The reason behind this strange name can be traced back to 1731 when Captain Robert Jenkins’ merchant ship ‘Rebecca’ was boarded by the Spanish coastguards in the West Indies. The Spaniards pillaged the ship of its goods, set it adrift and then, for good measure, cut off Captain Jenkins’ ear.

In 1738 Jenkins appeared before the British parliament to give evidence of Spanish atrocities in the West Indies. Jenkins reportedly brandished his severed ear, which had been pickled in a jar and it was this visual reminder of Spanish brutality that whipped the MPs into a frenzy of anger, precipitating the war.

Spain and England during this period were constantly at odds over control of the lucrative trade with the New World and the War of Jenkins’ Ear was played out in the Caribbean. Numerous skirmishes saw neither side victorious, and when the French joined with the Spanish against the English the tide turned and the fighting merged into the wider conflict of the War of Austrian Succession which raged 1740–48.

2. The War of the Oaken Bucket

During the early medieval period, Italy was not a unified country but was made up of a series of city states. To complicate matters further, some were loyal to the Pope, while

Map of Italy from A Pilgrimage to Italy, etc by James Smith (1899)
Map of Italy from ‘A Pilgrimage to Italy, etc ‘by James Smith (1899) via The British Library

others owed allegiance to the Holy Roman Emperor. The city states of Modena and Bologna were just 31 miles apart and yet had a long history of antipathy, with Modena in support of the Holy Roman Emperor, and Bologna the Pope.

Things came to a head in 1325 after soldiers from Bologna raided Modena, causing havoc and destruction before taking away their booty in an oaken bucket stolen from the town. When Modenese soldiers launched a return attack to raid Bologna they found the bucket stuffed with Modenese treasures next to the main well in the city centre. The outraged soldiers stole the bucket back again and displayed it in their own town centre to prove their victory.

The residents of Bologna were enraged and demanded their bucket of stolen treasure be returned, arguing that they had looted it fair and square. Needless to say Modena refused and on 15 November 1325 the War of the Oaken Bucket commenced in which 30,000 foot soldiers and 2,000 mounted knights on the Bolognese side met just 5,000 Modenese foot soldiers and 2,000 knights on horseback.

Despite their superior numbers the Bolognese army was taken by surprise by a sunrise attack and the Modenese forces swept into Bologna, destroying numerous castles and killing thousands. After the victory the people of Modena were allowed to keep their oaken trophy, which remains on display today at the Torre della Ghirlandina.

3. The War of the Golden Stool

The Ashanti Kingdom (part of modern-day Ghana) was annexed by the British in 1896, and keen to establish control they exiled the king Prempeh I. In 1900 the British decided to exert greater control on the region which until then had been allowed to follow its own governance and sent in Governor of the Gold Coast, Sir Frederick Mitchell Hodgson with a small number of troops.

In typically colonial fashion, Hodgson grandly announced plans to control the Ashanti government and then demanded they bring him their sacred Golden Stool so that he might sit atop it. The golden stool was extremely significant to the Ashanti people, representing their history and power. Only royalty were allowed to sit on it as it symbolised leadership of the tribe. The Ashanti refused Hodgson’s outrageous request and would not reveal the stool’s hiding place. While Hodgson continued to search for the stool the queen mother, Yaa Asantewa, began gathering her forces, determined to rid her kingdom of the British and bring her son back from exile.

The Ashanti forces blockaded the British fort at Kumasi, cutting telegraph lines and disrupting food supplies until a force of 700 British soldiers broke the siege and the governor and his troops fled. A couple of months later with renewed forces the British attacked again and defeated the Ashanti, exiling Yaa Asantewa and other local leaders to the Seychelles. The region was absorbed into the British Empire until 1957 when they finally won independence. The British never did get to sit on the stool which remained hidden until the 1920s when it was uncovered by road workers, who started to strip the gold, before the stool was rescued and returned to the Ashanti.

4. War of the Three Sanchos

During the Castilian Civil War of 1065–71, King Sancho II decided the time was ripe to expand his territory. Sancho II invaded the territory of his cousin, King Sancho IV of Navarre. Sancho IV was not about to give up his lands without a fight and so he appealed to another cousin, named (yes, you guessed it) King Sancho I of Aragon. As a consequence the three cousins all named Sancho fought it out until at last Sancho II’s Castilian troops were defeated and retreated back to their lands.

5. Aztec Flower Wars

Despite their pleasant floral name, these wars were anything but. During the reign of the Aztec leader Tlacaelel, the practice of human sacrifice grew, as subjects were needed to assuage the gods after a long famine, 1450 to 1454, had hit the area. Tlacaelel targeted

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An Aztec Sacrificial Stone from ‘A Popular History of the Mexican People’ (1888) via The British Library

the nearby city-state of Tlaxcala from which to harvest new victims. A strange agreement was set up which instigated the Flower Wars, in which both sides would regularly meet for a ceremonial battle at which no one would be killed but warriors would be taken captive on each side for later sacrifice. The agreement seemed to suit both sides as they each needed a constant flow of victims to meet the demands of their gods and although being taken captive was pretty rough, being sacrificed to the gods was seen as an honourable way to die.

Although the continual Flower Wars kept the Aztecs happy, the people of Tlaxcala began to fear their neighbours and resentment grew. Ultimately when the Spanish came to conquer the Aztecs, the people of Tlaxcala joined the Spanish forces which contributed to the defeat and downfall of the Aztec empire.

6. The Fantastic War

Between 1762 and 1763, as part of the wider Seven Years’ War, the Spanish invaded neutral Portugal. A huge Spanish force entered the country but the hilly terrain and hostile peasants severely hampered their efforts. A number of minor skirmishes were fought in which the larger Spanish forces came off much worse, losing many soldiers and failing to gain any ground. Ultimately because no major battles were fought and comparatively few Portuguese lives were lost, the Portuguese dubbed this short-lived war the Fantastic War.

7. The War of the Oranges

In 1801 during the height of the Napoleonic wars, France threatened Portugal, asking

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An illustration of an orange from Flore médicale des Antilles (1821) via BHL

them to break their allegiance to Britain and instead join with France and Spain, effectively ceding a large portion of their territory. The Portuguese refused and prepared for war.

Spanish minister Manual de Godoy led the French troops into battle and quickly took Olivenza near the Spanish border. Godoy then travelled to Elvas where he picked some oranges which he sent to the queen of Spain with a message that they would next march for Lisbon, and hence the conflict became known as the War of the Oranges . Fearing further casualties the Portuguese entered into negotiations with France and Spain which resulted in the Peace of Badajoz. As a result Portugal agreed to break links with England, refusing them entry to their ports; give Olivenza to Spain and surrender some of their territory in Brazil to France – in return however they got the desired peace.

8. The Pemmican War

In the early nineteenth century, the riches of the Red River Colony in Assiniboia, in present-day Manitoba, Canada were exploited by two rival trading companies – the Hudson Bay Company (HBC) and the North Western Company (NWC). An uneasy truce had allowed the companies to co-exist until 1814 when the 5th Earl of Selkirk, Thomas Douglas, who had founded the colony and held a stake in HBC, decided to try and scupper the rival NWC. As a result the Pemmican Proclamation was announced, which forbade the export of any provisions from the colony for a year which severely impacted both the NWC, who relied on pemmican when they travelled out of the territory to hunt, and the local Métis who supplied the NWC with buffalo meat.

The year after, the governor took it one step further and banned the Métis from hunting buffalo with horses and then confiscated 400 bags of pemmican. The Métis and NWC banded together and began attacking the colony, hounding families and destroying buildings, causing a tit-for-tat war with HBC which continued on and off until 1820 when the death of Lord Selkirk allowed the British Crown to force the merger of HBC and NWC, and peace was restored.

9. Ragamuffin War

This conflict was in fact of war of independence, when the southern half of Brazil mainly occupied by gauchos (or cowboys) rebelled against taxation by the Brazilian government. In September 1835 the rebel forces captured Porto Alegre beginning ten years of war which was dubbed the Ragamuffin War because the gauchos in their fringed suits were said to resemble scruffy peasants or ragamuffins which in Portuguese is farrapos.

The gauchos set up the breakaway Riograndense Republic but their leader, Bento Gonçalves was captured and imprisoned in 1836. However, Gonçalves would not be held and in an improbable fashion he escaped from his island prison by diving into the sea and swimming for a boat held by his allies. The Farrapos Revolution raged on with the Brazilian government re-taking Porto Alegre which the farrapos immediately began besieging. A peace was finally agreed in 1845, reuniting the country and giving pardons to the rebel leaders.

10. The Pastry War

Following Mexico’s independence from Spain in 1821 the country suffered a certain lawlessness, with rioting, looting and rampaging commonplace. One day the unruly residents of Mexico City picked on the wrong person by ransacking the pastry shop of a French chef named Remontel.

Distraught at the damage to his livelihood Remontel unsuccessfully attempted to gain compensation from the Mexican Government. Not willing to let it go, Remontel decided to take his case directly to the French king, Louis-Phillipe. The French were already pretty annoyed with the Mexicans over monies owed after the Texas Revolution in 1836 and so were all too pleased to have another reason to demand some of their cash back. They quickly demanded the Mexican government pay them 600,000 pesos, including a hugely inflated 60,000 pesos for the pastry shop.

Of course the Mexicans refused and as a result the French sent ships to blockade Mexican ports in an act of war and invaded the port city of Veracruz. The Mexican army quickly regrouped under war hero Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna who led the charge (and lost his leg in the process) to expel the French invaders. The four-month-long war came to an end in 1839 when the Mexicans agreed to pay the 600,000 pesos, including the 60,000 for the pastry shop – unfortunately it is unknown whether or not Remontel ever reopened his shop.

The Victorians and Pet Monkeys

drawing of a monkey on a trapeze

‘Monkeys are not very agreeable domestic pets, as they are extremely fond of mischief, and are very frequently vicious and spiteful to children.’ So wrote Mrs Loudon in her 1851 pet-keeping manual Domestic Pets their Habits and Management. Despite views such as these, in the Victorian era monkeys proved to be popular pets.

Notes on Pet Monkeys and How to Manage Them by Arthur Patterson (London, 1888) advises that that the chief importers of monkeys to Britain were Cross, Carpenter, and Johnson of Liverpool or Jamrach and Abrahams of London. Monkeys were brought to Britain by sailors or dealers alongside traditional cargo from South America, India and south east Asia. Patterson’s book includes a price list for various breeds of monkeys, revealing that marmosets could be had for 15 shillings whereas an orangutan could be as much as £100.The cover of Notes on Pet Monkeys by Arthur Patterson (1888)

Patterson recounts an anecdote on how wild monkeys were said to be caught in Brazil:

Some fanciful yarns are told, how that the natives repair to the vicinity of the haunts of the monkeys with pots of water, and also some containing an equivalent to glue. They begin washing their faces, turning the water out, and leaving the other. Upon retreating, down come the imitating monkeys, and pitch in for a wash with the gum. Of course their eyelids become fastened together, and the wretched animals are taken an easy prey.

Numerous monkeys were trapped and shipped to England to be sold at the docks or via exotic pet shops, their expensive price tag ensuring they were the preserve of the rich. An exotic pet monkey was highly desirable to the Victorians and Patterson sums up their allure: ‘A more comical and entertaining pet cannot possibly be kept, if but under proper control; and you have a fertile source of never-ending drollery at your disposal.’

‘The right place for a monkey, in civilised society, is in a cage.’  So says Patterson, going on to point out that leaving a monkey to live loose in the house like a cat or dog is folly, stating that soon the whole house will be in ‘uproar’. Many people kept their pet monkeys on a barrel and pole – this involved a long wooden pole for the monkey to climb with a barrel with a hole in at the top for the monkey to sleep in. The monkey was chained to the pole with a belt around its waist. Patterson however advised against this set up, calling it ‘barbarous’ and warning that the monkey may ‘pelt you with refuse from his larder’ and ‘be objectionable’.drawing of a monkey on a pole and barrel

Patterson instead suggests a secure wooden cage with a wire front, but warns that extra wire should be added when housing a large monkey as they are apt to jump. Patterson advocates a trapeze to keep your monkey amused.

Recommending the best breed of monkey, Patterson says of the brown Capuchin: ‘As clean, well-coated, and least repulsive and objectionable pets, with very little of the dirty insinuations of the Catarrhines.’ He cautions against keeping baboons: ‘their large size, superior strength, subtle cunning, and often filthy practices, giving ample reason for exclusion from general favour.’

As for feeding, the author warns: ‘the monkey is a glutton’ and should not be let loose unfettered on the kitchen cupboards. Patterson instead endorses a diet of boiled rice and milk, bread and milk, and boiled potatoes ‘which are most highly prized by them’. He also highly recommends onions which he thinks are a good ‘cleansing food’, however he notes that ‘American monkeys detest the smell of an onion’. He goes on to recount that not all monkeys are satisfied with a vegetable diet and that on one occasion his pet capuchin got loose and killed a ‘fine macaw, and partly stripped it before it was recaptured; whilst an unfortunate canary was literally devoured alive.’

Patterson proposes the following names for your pet monkey: Bully, Peggy, Mike, Peter, Jacko, Jimmy, Demon, Barney, Tommy, Dulcimer, Uncle or Knips.

To tame your pet monkey and gain his trust the author recommends that you let a friend go up to the monkey’s cage violently brandishing a stick in order to frighten the animal. ‘In the midst of this nonsense, rush forward, and pretend to take the part of your pet, thrash your friend to within an inch of his life with the very stick he has been using, and put him out. Next take the monkey some savoury morsel, such as a date, or an apple, and sympathise with it. You are sworn friends from that time.’

drawing of a monkey on a trapeze

Patterson suggests that when your pet monkey dies, should their coat be in reasonable condition you might choose to stuff them and mount them for display. He goes on to describe, in quite some detail, the agonies of a monkey’s death:

The tail end of a monkey’s earthly career, as with all flesh, is its death. This is an exceedingly human-like affair, the little sufferer often holding its head in its last illness, and gasping pitifully for breath, turning its dulled eyes up towards its keeper with an expression that seems to say “What have I done?” or, “We all of us come, at last, to this!” I haven’t always had the heart to see the end of it all; for, when a monkey is past cure, the sooner its sufferings are ended the better. My method of giving the coup de grace may savour of the barbarous, but I know of no quicker or better way to finish off the poor wretch than by giving it a sharp, heavy blow, with an iron bar, on the back of the neck, just below its connection with the skull. But a bungling or nervous hand had better not attempt a job of this kind, for adding torture to its dying pangs is cruel in the extreme.

Although to modern readers keeping a wild monkey as a pet seems unnecessarily cruel, it is clear from Patterson’s closing thoughts that despite his misguided ideas he did have a genuine affection for monkeys:

 Lastly, I would urge upon the reader not to neglect his little friend: to give him all the room and exercise possible; to provide him with a plentiful supply of clean, sweet food; always keep his domicile in a clean condition – in fact, in every possible way to make the little prisoner, who is entirely at his mercy, as happy as possible.

Introducing my next book: The Real McCoy

It is with great excitement that I announce my next book: The Real McCoy and 149 Other Eponyms.

Picture of the cover of 'The Real McCoy' a book by Claire Cock-Starkey

Here is a taster of what to expect:

The English language is rich with eponyms – words that are named after an individual – some better known than others. This book features 150 of the most interesting and enlightening specimens, delving into the origins of the words and describing the fascinating people after whom they were named.

Eponyms are derived from numerous sources. Some are named in honour of a style icon, inventor or explorer, such as pompadour, Kalashnikov and Cadillac. Others have their roots in Greek or Roman mythology, such as panic and tantalise. A number of eponyms, however, are far from celebratory and were created to indicate a rather less positive association – into this category can be filed boycott, Molotov cocktail and sadist.

Encompassing eponyms from medicine, botany, invention, science, fashion, food and literature this book uncovers the intriguing tales of discovery, mythology, innovation and infamy behind the eponyms we use every day. The Real McCoy is the perfect addition to any wordsmith’s bookshelf.

You can read more about it here in the latest catalogue for Bodleian Library Publishing and you can pre-order a copy here. The Real McCoy will be out in October 2018.

The Victorian Ostrich Feather Trade: Boom and Bust

At the Duke of Wellington’s funeral in 1852, the enormous hearse was pulled by twelve black horses, each sporting a dramatic plume of prime black ostrich feathers. The feathers harked back to traditional medieval baronial funerals and their inclusion in the spectacular parade, which was witnessed by 1.5 million people, was hugely influential on Victorian funereal customs. The fashion for ostrich feathers ultimately dripping down through the classes, becoming an essential element of ‘respectable’ Victorian funerals.

An elaborate hearse pulled by 12 black horses
Funeral car at the Duke of Wellington’s funeral, 1852

The Hunt

Before the 1860s all of the ostrich feathers that reached Britain were taken from wild birds, slaughtered during a hunt. Across the Sahara and in South Africa where the birds were common, riders on horseback would hunt down the birds, kill them and pluck their feathers. These feathers would then be bundled up, transported by camel caravan to North Africa and then shipped into France or Italy and then on to London where they would be sold.

Man on horseback hunting a wild ostrich
An ostrich hunt

The demand for feathers was so high that concerns were raised that ostriches would be hunted to extinction, like the dodo before it. This scarcity only served to make ostrich feathers yet more desirable.

Fashion

It was not only for funerals that ostrich feathers were required, a number of military regiments also used the feathers in their uniforms but by far the biggest market for ostrich feathers was the fashion trade.

A Victorian lady sporting an ostrich feather hat
A Victorian lady sporting an ostrich feather hat

In the 1860s the French Court began to wear ostrich feathers on hats, as trim on dresses, as jackets and boas. The feathers could be dyed any colour of the rainbow and added exoticism and luxury to any outfit. Naturally where Paris went, the world followed and soon the demand for ostrich feathers outstripped supply, lending them yet further cache.

A Game-Changer

Due to the value of ostrich feathers some canny colonial farmers at the Cape in South Africa saw an opportunity. If the ostrich could be domesticated and farmed they would have a ready supply of feathers which could be plucked from the bird without harming it and regrow anew. The first experiments began in the region of Oudtshoorn and by 1865 they had found some success with 80 domesticated birds.

The problem was the safe rearing of ostrich chicks — the ostriches tended to get spooked and destroy their own eggs, or simply fail to incubate them properly, leading to a difficulty in expanding the number of domesticated ostriches. This problem was solved in 1869 when Arthur Douglass, a pioneering ostrich farmer and the first to list ostrich farming as his sole occupation, invented the ostrich incubator.

An ostrich egg incubator
An ostrich egg incubator

This technological leap allowed farmers to safely hatch numerous chicks, greatly expanding their flocks and by 1875, there were 20,000 domesticated ostriches in the Oudtshoorn region alone.

Ostrich Farming

After the success of these early farmers many colonists at the Cape switched from sheep farming to ostrich farming, the returns at this point seemingly much better and the conditions in South Africa proving ideal. By the 1880s ostrich feathers had become South Africa’s fourth largest export after gold, diamonds and wool.

Each ostrich could provide two crops of a feathers a year, the feathers being plucked or cut from the birds would then regrow. Each bird gives 1 lb of feathers on plucking — 50 quill feathers (with about four fancy-coloured in each wing), plus 75 to 100 feathers in the tail and 6 ounces of drabs.

Port Elizabeth flourished with the new trade, as the money raised from taxes levied on the export of the feathers allowed new municipal buildings to be constructed. Many made their fortune from the trade and they built huge, luxurious houses, known as ‘feather palaces’ with the spoils.

London

London was the hub of the ostrich feather trade. Huge crates of sorted feathers would arrive each week from the Cape plus a smaller number still traded up the caravan routes from wild Saharan birds.

Warehouses at Cutler Street and Billiter Street in East London displayed the sorted feathers for merchants to inspect before they were sold at monthly auctions in commercial sale rooms in Mincing Lane.

Ostrich feathers on display at warehouse
Ostrich feathers on display at warehouse

The feathers were sorted and washed at the Cape before being transported and would be displayed at the warehouses divided into classes of feathers. Some of the feather classes included:

  • Prime Whites — the largest most valuable feathers from the wings of male birds
  • Feminas — wing feathers from female birds with soft flowing hairs extending from the central quill
  • Spadones — lower grade wing feathers, less full in look.
  • Blacks — body feathers from male ostriches
  • Drabs — shorter body feathers used for feather dusters and such like

Merchants would inspect the feathers before the sale and then bid for the lots of their choice. These merchants would then sell on their feathers to manufacturers where they were dyed, curled and layered up and sewn together to create plumes. The industry supported not just the farmers at the Cape but the merchants plus numerous artisanal trades people (often young women) who processed the feathers before they reached the retailers.

Page from manual on how to dye ostrich feathers
Page from manual on how to dye ostrich feathers

Boom and Bust

Initially prices remained high with a one sale in October 1882 seeing Prime Whites go for between £22 and £26 per lb, however before long as ostrich farming grew in popularity, the market began to get flooded with feathers and as a result profits fell.

The fashion for wearing feathers continued and between 1870 and c.1885 London was the very profitable hub of this burgeoning industry, selling feathers on to France, Germany and America.

However the glut in feathers began to tell after 1885 and prices began to drop as this once scarce and exotic commodity became plentiful. Many ostrich farmers went out of business and numerous speculators out in the Cape who had invested in the new craze went bust. Some farmers battled on but the industry heard its death knell in 1914.

The over-supply of feathers, the changing fashion, the introduction of the automobile which meant flamboyant headresses were no longer practical, and the outbreak of World War One all played their part. Farmers were suddenly faced with huge flocks of ostriches with no discernible value. Many were slaughtered for pet food and efforts were made to market the meat for human consumption and the leather as a fashionable alternative to traditional leathers, and this met some success.

Ultimately however the ostrich feather had fallen out of fashion and the days of the enormous ostrich farms of the Cape, the monthly auctions and the inflated prices were over. The majority of ostrich farms went back to sheep or goat farming, the provision of wool and mohair seemingly less subject to the fickle fancy of fashion.

Further reading:

Ostrich feather trade blog from London Metropolitan archives

Picture credits:

Duke of Wellington’s funeral car via King’s College, London

Ostrich: Nouvelles illustrations de zoologie (1776) via BHL

Ostrich hat via http://www.victoriana.com/victorian-feather-hats/

Ostrich feather dye picture: The Practical Ostrich Feather Dyer by Dr M. Frank (Philadephia, 1888), photographed by me.

All other pictures from Ostrich Farming in South Africa by Arthur Douglass (London, 1881) photographed by me.

 

The Secret Life of Statues

A Victorian photograph of two of the stone lions outside the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

 

As I was searching for local folklore for my customary dive into #FolkloreThursday on Twitter I came across the wonderful Enid Porter collection of local Cambridgeshire folklore, and it was here I discovered the wonderful story of the stone lions of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

That tweet seemed to capture the imagination of many people and I received some fascinating replies telling me about folktales of other stone lions or statues around the country which are said to come to life at night, and so I thought I should explore the legends further in a blog post.

The Fitzwilliam Lions

These four beautiful stone lions were carved by William Grinsell Nicholl (1796–1871) in 1839 with two adorning the south steps and two looking out over the north steps of the museum building. Lion statues are a familiar motif on public buildings, their majestic and powerful figures seen as worthy beasts to guard entrances.

A Victorian photograph of two of the stone lions outside the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge
A Victorian photograph of two of the stone lions outside the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge

Legend has it that at the stroke of midnight, the lions awake from their slumber, stretch and then pad down from their pedestals to take a drink from the guttering (flowing from Hobson’s Conduit further up the street) which runs along Trumpington Street. The lions might then take a stroll through the museum, letting out the odd roar, before settling back onto their perches ready to welcome visitors in the morning.

The story inspired Michael Rosen to write a poem called The Listening Lions in which he imagined what the lions might see and do when they awoke every night.

The British Museum Lions

These gorgeous Art Deco lions guard the lesser-used north entrance of the British Museum on Montague Place. At midnight they too are rumoured to have a stretch, yawn and take a drink of water, before settling back into position.

One of the lions outside the north entrance of the British Museum
One of the lions outside the north entrance of the British Museum

The lions were carved by Sir George Frampton RA in 1914, he is also famous for the Edith Cavell memorial outside the National Portrait Gallery.

The Landseer Lions

These four enormous bronze lions at the base of Nelson’s Column were designed by Sir Edwin Landseer. The Column was erected in 1843 and the fountains added in 1845, but there was some delay over the lions. The original commission went to Thomas Milnes but his four stone lions were not thought to be grand enough for the great memorial to Nelson and so they were sold to Sir Titus Salt who installed them outside the former factory school in Saltaire near Bedford, where they sit to this day.

One of the Landseer Lions surrounding Nelson's Column (credit: Chris Dennis)
One of the Landseer Lions surrounding Nelson’s Column (credit: Chris Dennis)

Landseer, a renowned artist, took over the commission in 1858 and immediately began sketching the lions at London Zoo and he also took delivery (via a cab!) of a dead specimen from the zoo. Landseer was particularly thorough and the press began to complain that his research was taking overly long.

The lions were finally put in place in 1867, some nine years after Landseer had received the commission. The Spectator has this rather sniffy report about their unveiling (2 February, 1867):

Sir Edwin Landseer’s lions, so long ordered for the base of Nelson’s Monument, were uncovered on Thursday without any official fuss. The popular verdict upon them seems singularly uncertain, and the artistic one has yet to be pronounced.

The statues may look identical but if you look closely you can see that they are all slightly different. The paws on the lions have been criticised for not being very lifelike, resembling the paws of a normal cat rather than a lion, it is thought this is because the lion corpse he used to model from may have begun to decompose by the time he got them and so the paws were not in great condition.

These iconic statues are rumoured to come to life should Big Ben ever strike thirteen. Incidentally, it is also said that should Big Ben strike thirteen times then there would be a death in the Royal family.

Statue of King William III

Lion statues are not the only statues said to come to life, there is statue of King William III, in Hull, which is known affectionately as ‘King Billy’. This gilded statue of King William siting astride his horse was erected in 1734 and was created by Dutch sculptor, Peter Scheemaker.

Golden statue of King William III, known as 'King Billy' and his local pub
Golden statue of King William III, known as ‘King Billy’ and his local pub

The statue stands on the Market Square and it is said that when the church clock of Holy Trinity strikes midnight, King Billy gets off his horse and pops into the pub for a pint. If the clock ever strikes thirteen locals expect to see the horse also join them for a drink!

Do you know of any other examples of folklore of statues coming to life? If so, please do share in the comments below.