Monday 22 August 2011


             Today, 22 August 2011, is the 526th anniversary of the Battle of Bosworth, the battle in which Richard III died in 1485. His opponent Henry Tudor won and became King Henry VII, the first monarch of the House of Tudor.
             There really isn't much for me to say about Bosworth. It was a short battle, probably lasting about two hours, and Richard III went down fighting. He was probably undone by treason, for a magnate who was supposed to remain loyal to his king transferred his allegiance (and his fighting men) to Henry. This tipped the scales in Henry's favor, and Richard was cut down while he was in the thick of the fighting. His body was later stripped naked and taken to Leicester, where it was displayed for a time in a church (to prove the king was dead). Leicester Cathedral has a stone slab memorial for Richard III, but his body is not beneath it. Some people contend Richard's body is beneath a car park (parking lot), while others say his bones were thrown in the river. Suffice it to say, Richard's corpse was not treated with dignity.
              Richard III was thirty-two, going on thirty-three, when he died. He had been king for a little over two years. Despite Richard's relatively young age and short reign, his wife and son had predeceased him. With his death, the last monarch of the House of Plantagenet also died. The Plantagenets had been in power since 1066, when William the Conqueror conquered England.

Tuesday 16 August 2011

Richard Cory

       Richard Cory is the main character in the eponymous poem by Edwin Arlington Robinson. It was first published in 1897. The text is as follows:

“Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
"Good-morning," and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich – yes, richer than a king –
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through* his head.”
            *Some examples of the text say “in” rather than “through”

            I like this poem because it really makes you think, yet manages to be so short (as in, Robinson has cut out all the crap). It might seem nice to be rich and attractive, but you never really know what’s going on in someone else’s life. As much as I like this poem, though, I can’t sit around thinking about it for too long because I start to go off the rails a little. I start thinking, “if only he had a friend. If only someone could have helped him!” Then I begin to feel guilty that I didn’t help him, until I finally snap out of it, realizing, “this guy isn’t real!”
            This poem is also the basis for the Simon & Garfunkel song “Richard Cory,” which is totally epic. The song follows the basic “plot” of the poem, but expands on the details because the song is longer. One interesting thing is that after the line “Richard Cory went home last night and put a bullet through his head,” the chorus plays one last time. The chorus is sung by an anonymous narrator, who works in Cory’s factory and wishes he could be him. Therefore, after hearing about Cory’s suicide, we then hear one last chorus of “I wish that I could be Richard Cory.”  Interesting. Are Simon and Garfunkel just following song conventions and playing the refrain one last time or are they trying to make a point. Would some people want to be Richard Cory, because he was rich and handsome, even knowing he was unhappy enough to commit suicide? Just how much is happiness worth? Just how much is being wealthy worth?
            In case you have never heard this song (gasp!), here’s a You Tube link to a live version. If you watch it, please enjoy the awesomeness that is Art Garfunkel’s hair.

Tuesday 2 August 2011

Dick Whittington (1350s - 1423)

            There are two Dick Whittingtons in this world (well, maybe more than that, but I’m only concerned with two): the real guy and the fairy-tale character. Let’s begin with reality.
            Richard Whittington was born in the 1350s (exact year unknown) in Gloucestershire, the younger son of a landowning family. Richard’s father, William, was a knight, which meant the family was richer than a substantial portion of the population. Not earl or duke rich, but way wealthier than your run-of-the-mill peasant. Remember that: it will be on the quiz later.
            Since Richard wasn’t the eldest son, he wasn’t going to inherit his father’s land. Instead, he was apprenticed to a London mercer to learn that trade. In medieval England, mercers traded in silk, linen, other fancy fabrics, and luxury goods. Especially rich mercers exported English wool and English woolen cloth, which could fetch real money (top pound, shall we say) because English wool was the cat’s pajamas back then. Seriously, it was amazing. Anyway, Richard grew up to be a mercer and a successful one at that. By the 1380s, he was selling cloth to the royal court, meaning his customers were the movers and shakers of England. Richard even sold cloth to King Richard II, who loved luxury so much he spent over £1,000 a year (in certain years) on luxury materials. That’s a helluva lot for back then. Even after Richard II was deposed, Richard Whittington kept selling to the best people, counting Henry IV as his customer.
            With all the dough he was raking in from his trade as a mercer, Richard decided to diversify. Rather than invest in land, he made loans, generally to the crown. Richard loaned money to Richard II, Henry IV, and Henry V, as well as a number of prominent courtiers. And while the interest Whittington probably charged was low compared with the rates of today, he didn’t loan that money for nothing, either.
            Aside from his commercial successes, Whittington was also civic minded. Richard was an alderman, a sheriff, and even briefly a Member of Parliament (in 1416). He is most famous, though, for being Lord Mayor of London three times. The first was in 1397, when he was initially appointed to the position by Richard II following the death of the preceding mayor. Richard Whittington did such a good job that the citizens of London elected him for a full term, which ran from October 1397 to October 1398.  Richard was mayor again in 1406-7 and 1419-20.
            Although Richard had a wife named Alice (who he might have married as late as 1402), the two never had children. Alice died in 1411, and Richard did not remarry. Since he died without heirs, Richard left his wealth (around £7,000) to charity. Coupled with gifts during his lifetime, Richard Whittington financed (or helped finance) numerous projects, including: a hospital ward for unwed mothers, drainage systems, a public toilet, rebuilding the London Guildhall, rebuilding Newgate Prison, founding an almshouse, rebuilding a hospital, and installing some of the first public drinking fountains. While not all of these projects sound glamorous, they were all incredibly useful. The public toilets (cleaned by the rising water of the Thames) and the drinking fountains must have helped with the smell and hygiene of the city. Amazingly enough, the Whittington Charity, which Richard started and which the Mercers’ Company still maintains, continues to give money to needy people even today, nearly six hundred years later!
            Given the facts, it seems like Richard Whittington was a pretty good guy. However, evidence about him is relatively scant, meaning we know very little about him aside from financial transactions and the list of his benefactions. Perhaps because Whittington had given away so much money but people knew so little about him, he became an easy character on which to map a fanciful biography.
            And that’s where Dick Whittington and his cat come in. The Dick Whittington of “and his cat” fame is a pantomime and fairy-tale character who rises from rags to riches in an epic show of luck and hard work. Little orphan Dick moves from Gloucestershire to London in an attempt to make his way in the world/not starve to death. In some versions he has a cat that accompanies him to London; in other versions he buys the cat while in London because he has to live in a rat-infested hellhole. Anyway, once in London, little Dick gets a job as a kitchen boy in the household of a rich merchant, where the merchant’s daughter Alice befriends Dick and helps protect him from the bitch-tastic cook. When Dick’s master lets his servants invest in his shipping vessel, Dick can only offer his cat, which is duly placed aboard (in some versions, Dick leaves with his cat). The ship ends up in a place that has no cats and a terrible rat and mouse problem. Dick’s cat totally saves the day, and the king of this cat-free land buys the feline for an astronomical sum. Dick has hit the jackpot! This, of course, is unknown to Dick, for whom life sucked so much he nearly left town; however, he returned because he heard the Bow Bells of London calling him, foretelling that he would be Lord Mayor of London three times. Dick returns to his daily grind and soon finds out that he is incredibly rich thanks to the sale of his pussy (alternatively, if he went on the ship, he returns with his money). Now wealthy, Dick marries Alice, becomes a successful merchant and lord mayor, and lives happily ever after.
            Now, you might be wondering why Dick became associated with a cat. It seems pretty random and there is nothing in Richard’s actual biography to suggest he was a cat fancier. Apparently, there is an old folktale about an orphan that becomes rich through his cat. This story might have a Persian origin, but it was also common in Europe. So someone decided to take a nameless orphan with a cat and combine it with a backstory-less benefactor and - presto! - a legend was born. Meow!
            As always, I am indebted to the DNB and Wikipedia. Check out the real Richard Whittington’s page here: