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A guest post by Caroline Derry. This article originally appeared in London Historians Members’ Newsletter from May 2014.

5b3cc99c-e7d9-457a-97c6-7e780f93fb87When Tsar Peter the Great visited London in 1696 to learn about shipbuilding and naval architecture, it was natural that he should stay in Deptford. After all, the town had England’s foremost Royal Dockyard, and was close to the Naval Hospital and Observatory in neighbouring Greenwich. The river offered easy travel into London. And conveniently, Sayes Court, the Deptford home of John Evelyn, had just become available to rent.

John Evelyn is best remembered today as a diarist, albeit overshadowed by his contemporary Samuel Pepys. Perhaps his greatest influence, though, was in gardening and forestry. As well as designing his own and friends’ gardens, he wrote horticultural works ranging from the Elysium Britannicum, a major (if unfinished) work of gardening history, to Acetaria: a Discourse of Sallets, devoted to salad plants but including discussion of vegetarianism and a selection of recipes. The work with which he was most closely identified was Sylva, a treatise on tree cultivation; he was later even nicknamed ‘Sylva’ Evelyn.

Sylva was the first book published by the Royal Society, in 1664. A learned and wide-ranging work on forestry, it aimed to encourage the planting of trees to replace those lost in the Civil War or cut down for industrial use. The practical purpose of this was made clear in the sub-title: A Discourse of Forest Trees, and the Propagation of Timber in his Majesty’s Dominions. The book proved a double success, not only selling well but also achieving its greater aim. Landowners answered Evelyn’s call to plant trees – and in doing so, they provided raw material for the ships which helped win the Napoleonic Wars nearly a century and a half later. In a foreshadowing of a popular phrase from that war, Evelyn had described the Navy as the nation’s ‘wooden walls’.

Meanwhile, Sayes Court was proving an ideal testing ground for Evelyn’s work on gardening, despite suffering from easterly winds. The nearby docks meant that foreign plants were readily available; the large site offered scope for ideas he had gathered on a grand tour of France and Italy. His ideas on creating naturalistic gardens probably influenced developments in landscape design which would come to fruition in the eighteenth-century work of Repton and ‘Capability’ Brown.

As well as private gardens with flowers, herbs and bee-hives, there were extensive grounds and an ornamental lake. It is no surprise that the author of Sylva included orchards and a grove of various tree species. A contemporary described the garden as ‘most boscaresque’, while Pepys enthused over its ‘variety of evergreens and hedges of holly, the finest things I ever saw in my life.’

The garden was Evelyn’s pride and joy: he had started planting it even before the purchase of the house was complete in 1652. Many illustrious guests came to Sayes Court to admire its gardens, and were generally welcomed by him. His diary for June 1685, though, records a more surprising would-be visitor:

A large whale was taken betwixt my land butting on the Thames and Greenwich, which drew an infinite concourse to see it, by water, coach, and on foote, from London and all parts. It appeared first below Greenwich at low water, for at high water it would have destroyed all the boats; but lying now in shallow water, incompassed with boats, after a long conflict it was killed with a harping yron, struck in the head, out of which it spouted blood and water by two tunnells, and after a horrid grone it ran quite on shore and died.

The gardens themselves later suffered a rather undignified experience at the hands of Peter the Great and his friends. Apparently more interested in heavy drinking than the appreciation of horticulture, the Russian visitors did a great deal of damage to the property – but what seems to have upset Evelyn most was the harm to his holly hedge caused by the Tsar driving wheelbarrows through it. On 5 June 1698 he wrote:

I went to Deptford to see how miserably the czar had left my house after three months’ making it his court. I got Sir Christopher Wren, the king’s surveyor, and Mr. Loudon, his gardener, to go and estimate the repairs, for which they allowed £150 in their report to the Lords of the Treasury.

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Peter the Great Memorial, Deptford.

Among the items to be repaired were 300 broken panes of glass, 170 feet of oak wainscoting, and 240 feet of fencing, as well as grease and ink damage to the floors. Damage to the furniture added another £133. Two months after Peter’s departure, the Treasury awarded Evelyn the then-enormous sum of over £350 in compensation.

While the physical injury to the prized holly hedge was seemingly not permanent, the injury to Evelyn’s feelings was more enduring. He would write in a subsequent edition of Sylva:

Is there under heaven a more glorious and refreshing object of the kind, than an impregnable hedge of about four hundred feet in length, nine foot high, and five in diameter; which I can shew in my now ruin’d gardens at Say’s-Court, (thanks to the Czar of Muscovy) at any time of the year, glitt’ring with its arm’d and varnish’d leaves? … It mocks at the rudest assaults of the weather, beasts, or hedge-breakers.

Sadly, drastic changes followed Evelyn’s death in 1706. The holly hedge could not mock the rude assaults of the expansion of the neighbouring dockyard or the replacement of Evelyn’s home with a workhouse. Sayes Court gardens have now all but disappeared. Most of the grounds are underneath Convoy’s Wharf (itself derelict pending a controversial redevelopment) although a small area survives as Sayes Court Park. Its ancient mulberry tree, now in poor health, may have been part of the original gardens.

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Evelyn’s name is found in many Deptford street and place names, but his contribution to victory in the Napoleonic Wars is largely forgotten. His unruly tenant Peter the Great has arguably fared better, since his statue stands on the river front. However, its strange and unflattering portrayal of the Tsar makes it a rather mixed blessing!


Further reading on Sayes Court:
There is very good Wikipedia article.
The London’s Lost Garden blog has a lot of discussion of the garden and the possibility of restoring it.

… finally, an excellent book was published last year by Margaret Willes (LH Member!): The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn.


Caroline Derry
Caroline – a long-standing London Historians Member – is the author of the Caroline’s Miscellany blog, which focuses on London history and ghost signs. She has lived in Deptford for over a decade, and is fascinated by its past and the physical traces which remain.

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A guest post by LH member Nigel Pickford. This article first appeared in London Historians members’ newsletter from March 2014.

Detailed recording of temperatures, wind speeds, precipitation, and atmospheric pressure only really starts from the 1850s onwards (1). So, if you want to know what the weather was like in London 350 years ago you have just two possible approaches. There is retrospective science in the form of dendroclimatology (2). The limitation of this is that it’s very broad brush. It’s not going to tell you whether it was raining on Sunday, 12 February 1682, for instance, the day that Mr Thynn was gunned down in the street. But this was the level of detail that I needed to know about when writing my new book, Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn. The alternative is to study the literary and artistic ephemera of the day in the shape of contemporary diaries, letters, travel journals, early broadsheets, ships logs, paintings, astronomical almanacs and so on.

One thing was quickly evident. The winters were a lot colder than they are now. The end of the seventeenth century experienced a sharp spike of chilliness during what was anyway a cool period that had already been going on for several hundred years, a period now known as the little ice age (3). There is plenty of personal anecdote to support this. For a start the River Thames was in the habit of freezing right across, a freak weather occurrence which was quick to be commercially exploited in the form of the famous frost fairs. There was sledging, skating, coach racing, bull baiting, pop up shops, and roasting of oxen, as well as ‘ puppet places and interludes, cooks, tipling and other lewd places’, to quote John Evelyn’s rather coy phrase. (4)

Thomas_Wyke_Thames_frost_fair_500

River Thames Frost Fair, 1683, by Thomas Wyke.

It wasn’t just the frequency of sub-zero temperatures that made the London weather experience very different from what it is today. The ‘Metropolis’, as it had recently come to be called, was also a lot more susceptible to noxious fogs. One tends to associate the trademark London smog with the Victorian period, partly because of the marvellously atmospheric descriptions in Dickens’s novels. But the roots of London’s industrial pollution problems go back to the seventeenth century when smog was probably even more pernicious and ubiquitous than it was in Dickens’s time. John Evelyn’s fascinating little book Fumifugium, published in 1661 (5), describes the effect of the growing use of sea coal on London’s micro climate. He refers to ‘that Hellish and dismall Cloud of Sea Coal’ which caused Londoners ‘to breathe nothing but an impure and thick mist accompanied with a fulginous and filthy vapour’ and which caused the inhabitants to suffer from, ‘Catharrs, Phthisicks, Coughs and Consumptions’. He blamed all the ‘Brewers, Diers, Lime Burners, Salt and Sope Boylers’ who belched forth a ‘cloud of sulphure’ from their ‘sooty jaws’. Evelyn was a founding father of the environmental movement and his suggested solution was to move all the polluting industries to an area East of Greenwich which would be downwind from the main centres of habitation. He was also keen on the idea of planting a ring of sweet smelling trees and shrubs right around the periphery of London, a sort of early green belt. Fumifugium was dedicated to Charles II, who received Evelyn’s ideas with enthusiasm and did nothing about them.

A fascination with daily weather was just as much a preoccupation with seventeenth century Londoners as it is with its modern inhabitants. Food supplies depended on a good harvest, transport was even more vulnerable to the vagaries of climate and, of course, it affected everyone’s general sense of wellbeing. Even the Duke of York (the future James II) typifies that unchanging tendency to moan about the elements when he writes to his niece about not being able to get out for his usual morning walk ‘as for the weather it is the same with you, that it is with us, only it keeps us prisoners, for there is no sturing out farther than the little Parke, the waters being still so much out and the ways so durty, that I have not been able to go further, and this day has been so very rainy that I have not been able to walke abroad at all but a little in the morning early upon the terrasse’. (7)

There may have been no meteorological office but weather forecasting was still a thriving business left largely to the professional astrologers and almanac writers. One of the more interesting and lesser known works in this genre is John Gadbury’s Nauticum astrologicum: or, The astrological seaman…unto which is added a Diary of the weather for XXI years together, exactly observed in London. (8) Gadbury had a client base of merchants and shipowners who need to know whether it was a propitious weather moment to launch a new boat or start on a new voyage. Astrology was very much on the defensive towards the end of the seventeenth century against accusations of being little more than necromancy and Gadbury was anxious to prove to his readers that his work was commensurate with the strictest scientific standards of the age being full of ‘New and Real Observations or Experiments to credit his opinions’.

NPG D30383; John Gadbury after Unknown artist

John Gadbury, unknown artist. © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Part of the point of the weather diary which extended from November 1668 to December 1689 was to validate his astrological predictions. So, the studious reader can apparently discern from his daily record that ‘the sun in Leo, generally brings along with it, parching hot air; and in Aries dry but lofty winds; in Pisces much moisture.’ or again ‘we have a fall of wet upon every New or Full moon.’ The actual daily entries are more down to earth. On 7 November 1681, for instance, the day of Lady Bette’s sudden flight from London, he notes, ‘close air, great wind East.’ That East wind was all important. It could result in the boat she hoped to escape in being trapped in the river for days if not weeks. She can’t have consulted him.

Notes:

  1. The Meteorology Office was established in 1854 with its main purpose to help predict storm and avoid shipwreck.
  2. The study of tree rings to establish changes of weather pattern.
  3. The little ice age is now thought to have lasted roughly from around 1400 to 1800.
  4. The Diary of John Evelyn, Ed. E.S. de Beer, 6 vols (Oxford 1955).
  5. Quotations are taken from the 1976 reprint published by Rota, Exeter.
  6. This idea was developed in the works of Samuel Hartlib and John Beale, contemporaries of John Evelyn.
  7. Windsor April 30th 1682, from Some Familiar Letters of Charles II and James Duke of York ed. Harold Arthur, Viscount Dillon (1902).
  8. The astrological seaman was thought to have been written in the last decade of the seventeenth century but was not published until 1710. Gadbury died in 1704.

 


Nigel Pickford is an author and historian whose book Lady Bette and the Murder of Mr Thynn was published by Orion Books in 2014. He is also a specialist maritime historian who has made documentaries for Channel 4 and published books with Dorling Kindersley and National Geographic. He is a Member of London Historians.

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Review: The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn by Margaret Willes.

the-curious-world-of-samuel-pepys-and-john-evelynLondoner Samuel Pepys (1633 – 1703) is the most famous proper diarist in the English language. Those who appreciate a little of London history will know too his fellow practitioner and great friend John Evelyn (1620 – 1706).

Pepys kept his diary for just 10 years until 1669 when he felt it was affecting his eyesight. Evelyn was far more prodigious, noting down his daily thoughts from 1660 until his death in 1706. We find that others – notably Robert Hooke – also enjoyed the pastime, a genre embraced with much enthusiasm from the mid 17th century onwards. Unlike Pepys, Evelyn retrospectively updated and adjusted his diaries over time, which may seem to us now to be a bit cheaty. Pepys, perhaps, didn’t see his daily jottings as a legacy issue. How ironic.

The two men had much in common. They were both active members and supporters of the new Royal Society; they were keen collectors of books; they had friends and acquaintances in common such as Hooke, Boyle, Wren and others of that golden generation. In short they belonged to group of men whom we might describe as curious gentlemen of affairs. That’s how they would have seen themselves and how others saw them too, and not always approvingly.

But at the same time, they were very different. Pepys became a widower and had no children; Evelyn had a successful and long marriage with many offspring (although most did not survive childhood). Their attitude to women generally was entirely different. Pepys, though well-connected, was not as wealthy as Evelyn and had to make his fortune through successful public service. Most importantly, though, Pepys’s character was as earthy as Evelyn’s was high-minded. The former was addicted to theatre, music and entertainment generally whereas his friend’s obsession was primarily horticulture. Pepys experienced prison; Evelyn not. Evelyn’s world view was shaped by his continental travels as a young man; Pepys lacked this benefit. And so on.

Looking through the prism of  the interests and experiences of these two men, we can build a detailed and fascinating picture what life was like for the educated elite in Restoration London. That is idea underpinning this book. It is not really about Pepys and Evelyn so much as about their curious world and hence the title.

The early chapters talk about the political and social environment inhabited by our protagonists. We are introduced to their friends, their family and others who shaped their lives. It’s good to be reminded of the origin of the word cabal and the genesis of Whigs and Tories.

As later chapters examine in further detail, this was a remarkable period of firsts. Formalised scientific enquiry through the Royal Society; the introduction of tea, coffee and chocolate; the rise of the coffee houses (it was interesting find out that coffee had taken hold in Oxford some good ten years before London); the craze for imported foreign manufactures – furniture, linen, crockery, etc; shopping malls!

These are wonderfully developed, but for me there are two stand-out chapters. The first – Chapter 6, Pleasure in All Things, is mainly about Pepys. It addresses the Restoration theatre of Kelligrew and Davenant with appearances, of course, by Margaret Hughes (another first) and Nell Gwynn. Pepys’s love of music introduces us to how that was written, performed, consumed and distributed at the time.

The other is the book’s final chapter – The Affection Which We Have to Books – which brings us full circle for both men: their love of books. This is one of the author’s specialities and it shines. Pepys’s library (now at Magdalene College, Cambridge) numbered some 3,000 titles while Evelyn’s was even larger at around 4,000 – both enormous by the standards of the day. Respectively, as you would expect, they tell us much about their owners who assembled them, housed them and catalogued them in distinctly different ways, also reflecting their personalities. The contemporary London book trade – agents, vendors, booksellers, stationers, auctioneers – an enormous topic, here wonderfully described. For me, this was one of the most fascinating sections of the book. One among many.

I can’t remember a history book as richly illustrated as this. There are fully 48 pages of colour plates in three sections. Virtually every topic covered in the text has an image to match – portraits, maps, engravings, landscapes, fabrics, toys, panoramas, landscapes, furniture and on and on. All generously captioned.

This is a wonderful introduction to the Restoration London scene through the lives of two if its most significant players. Thoroughly researched, organised and presented, I loved every page and recommend it unreservedly.


The Curious World or Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn (282pp) by Margaret Willes is published by Yale with a cover price of £20.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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royal river greenwichThis exhibition at the National Maritime Museum – guest-curated by David Starkey – celebrates five hundred years of the London Thames and its relationship with our monarchs. The narrative sweep is partitioned neatly and chronologically. We see how Tudor and Stuart rulers mounted simply enormous royal processions, mainly for propagandistic purposes. Henry VIII did one for Anne Boleyn. Charles II introduced Catherine of Braganza to the London public with a huge river display for which Pepys himself could not get a berth on any boat for under eight shillings, leaving us to rely on John Evelyn’s account. The Queen’s procession on 3rd June will be the first in 350 years to rival these.

The next section – my favourite – shows us how livery companies, many of whom had their own barges, tried to outdo each other for opulence during the new Lord Mayor’s annual river procession. We have contemporary paintings and gorgeous barge objects – carved and gilded coats of arms, patron saints, uniforms and more.

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

Quirky. A 17C mascot statue belonging to the Company of Ironmongers. It was believed ostriches ate iron.

Later on we see how the royal centre of gravity moved west, particularly when George III moved the family to Kew. Objects on show include his telescopes, a microscope and an amazing breakfast table egg boiler (reminding one of Gillray’s cruel cartoon).

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

Poignant. Last known portrait of George III. Wigless, mad and not terribly happy.

By the early 19th Century, the Thames was sewage-infested and fast deteriorating. The golden age of barge processions as depicted by Canaletto was well and truly over. The exhibition perforce concentrates on new bridges, the embankment and pumping stations. Steam and engineers. We have portraits I had not seen before of hero engineers: Rennie and Bazalgette. And we have of course Barry and Pugin transforming the Westminster shoreline. The role of royalty was now opening bridges and pumping stations.

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

The overwhelming majority of objects brought together for this exhibition have been lent by other institutions; by livery companies; by private collectors; and not least by Her Majesty the Queen. Aside from those mentioned above we have original scores of Handel’s Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks; 18C musical instruments; landscape paintings and original architect and engineering drawings; flags, livery and uniforms; royal souvenirs and gifts. My favourite: a huge carved Stuart coat of arms from the ship Royal Charles, captured by the Dutch and still in their possession!

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

royal river national maritime museum greenwich

Professor Starkey and the National Maritime Museum are to be congratulated for mounting this stunning and deeply absorbing exhibition.

The exhibition runs from 27 April to 9 September. Admission £11. Family tickets available.

More information, booking etc.

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execution of 1st duke of monmouthThere can hardly be a more fascinating dramatis personae in London’s rich story than that of the Restoration. Aside from the king himself, we have playwrights, diarists, scientists, architects, building developers, projectors, wheeler-dealers of every stripe. Everybody striving, but striving in a general atmosphere of paranoia and fear. For the issues which dominated this highly politicised, religious and violent of centuries still persisted.

And so we come the legal profession, which was  kept extremely busy. Dozens of barristers making a name for themselves either defending or prosecuting Catholics and recusants, in fact anyone straying from the restored Anglican orthodoxy. From Judge Jeffreys at the pinnacle wielding terrible justice to the prisoners at the bottom. On the rung barely just above them, their own gaolers and executioners. Most notorious of these was Jack Ketch (unknown – 1686). Sometimes referred to John, his surname frequently rendered as “Catch”, his onomatopoeic moniker quickly became the stuff of legend, invoked even by frustrated parents as a warning to miscreant toddlers.

Even though Ketch was a public executioner almost continuously between 1666 and 1678, his background remains a mystery. Date of birth unknown, it’s thought that he came from Ireland. It is known that he lived near Grey’s Inn Road and was buried in Clerkenwell in 1686, predeceasing his wife, Katherine.

With at least eight public executions a year, at Tyburn and elsewhere in the capital, it is certain that Ketch would have despatched hundreds of prisoners, almost all by hanging. Those who were found guilty of treason were also drawn and quartered at his hand. The heads of traitors, as was the custom, were displayed on London Bridge, Temple Bar and other notable landmarks. The corpses of many prisoners who were not quartered, were instead gibbeted, that is to say displayed in a cage which was hung up near busy roadways. In order to make body parts and corpses last longer, the executioner would first immerse them in boiling pitch. Ketch did this at his headquarters in Newgate Prison which hence became known as Jack Ketch’s Kitchen.

Executioner is a macabre profession in any age, and there were many over the years, so why did Ketch become so notorious? First, there was his longevity in the job. Second, he was known to be unpleasant, and very frequently extremely drunk, on and off the job. Third, he was avaricious. He was constantly in dispute with the authorities over payment for quartering and “boylinge” of the bodies. A further stream of revenue, it was customary for the executioner to keep the clothes of the condemned, often very fancy in the case of the wealthy, people preferred to look their best en route to the scaffold. But in addition, the prisoner would often bribe the executioner with as much as he could afford, to despatch him as painlessly and quickly as possible. Ketch was known to milk this particular system in full. One has to wonder, therefore, how he ended up doing a spell in the Marshalsea for debt.

After 1678, Ketch continued to work as an executioner until his death and it’s from this period that almost certainly he derives his notoriety, in particular for his appalling incompetence in the beheadings of William, Lord Russell in 1683 for the Rye House Plot; and the Duke of Monmouth in 1685 for his failed attempt on the throne itself. Beheadings during this period were relatively few, reserved for the high-born only. In earlier times it was customary to engage a specialist, often from the Continent, to do the job. Ketch had no experience as an axe-wielder and so he proved. In the case of Lord Russell, despite being given between ten and thirty guineas (accounts vary) to do a good job, he took at least three blows to sever the noble’s head, the first of which struck Russell on the shoulder! Some say Ketch had been deliberately vindictive, others that he was blind drunk. Perhaps he was both.

Two years later it was Monmouth’s turn. The Duke gave Ketch six guineas with a promise of more from his servant after the act and demanded that he do a better job this time:

Do not serve me as you did my Lord Russel. I have heard you struck him three or four times…

In vain. Ketch took a least five strikes this time. Halfway through he cast down his axe in frustration and was ordered to continue. In the end, he had to finish the task with a knife. The crowd were up in arms. The diarist John Evelyn wrote:

five Chopps … so incens’d the people, that had he not ben guarded & got away they would have torne him to pieces.

A year later, Ketch himself was dead.

But his fame was well established in his own time. Poems, ballads, pamphlets, broadsheets, essays abounded, all laced with hefty dollops of black humour, irony and sarcasm. Within a generation he was resurrected, reinvented as the hangman in Punch and Judy shows, the one whom Mr Punch tricks into hanging himself.

Sources:
Wikipedia, as per.
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (sub required), profile by Tim Wales
Newgate: London’s Prototype of Hell by Stephen Halliday

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bust of charles I

Bust of Charles I at the Banqueting House

So said Charles I in the immediate preamble to his losing his life at the executioner’s block outside the Banqueting House in Whitehall, a building his father commissioned and that he himself embellished with the help of Peter Paul Rubens. Seconds later it was all over, and the crowd let out a terrible moan, among their number both Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn, two young men destined for great things.

30 January 1649 remains one of the most significant dates in British history, which still resonates today. Most people who think about such things, consider themselves to be a Roundhead or a Cavalier. Both Charles and Cromwell are eminently hissable villains, depending on one’s point of view. But it was a sad day, no question, and even the little king’s detractors then and now cannot begrudge the bravery and dignity with which he met his fate.

Contemporaries realised the enormity of the event, which had consequences for everybody, from the Royal family to the man in the street and for every stripe of religion, but in particular Jews (good) and Catholics (bad). The ramifications for our constitution can hardly be overstated.

For Londoners, Charles still lives among us. His portraits are ubiquitous in our galleries. On the streets, we can admire his bust which sits above the entrance of Banqueting House and gaze up at the equestian statue by Hubert Le Sueur in Trafalgar Square. This is the oldest and first equestrian monument of a British monarch. It was cast in the 1630s and positioned at Charing Cross. After the Civil War, the Parliamentarians ordered it destroyed. Disobeying this instruction, the man given the job instead buried it in his garden. After the Restoration, the statue was re-erected in 1675 in its original position on a plinth designed by Sir Christopher Wren and carved by the master sculptor Grinling Gibbons. It defiantly points down Whitehall, past the Banqueting House towards the Houses of Parliament. This is officially the point where all measurements from London are taken, so forever at the epicentre of his Realm, in death Charles has done rather well.

charles I statue

Equestrian statue of Charles I, Trafalgar Square.

There is a good account of the execution here.
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If you are reading this in time, you might like to attend a commemoration of this event by the “Kings Army” who will be marching along the Mall from St James’s Palace on Sunday 30 January (tomorrow as I write). From 11 am. More information here.

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