Elizabeth Fry was one of Britain's most influential 19th century social reformers and is best known for her work on improving the conditions of Britain's gaols. Because of her work, first on the treatment of female prisoners at Newgate Prison and then more generally on the conditions in British and European gaols, she has often been referred to as the "angel of prisons".
Elizabeth was born on May 21st 1780 in Gurney Court, off Magdalen Street, Norwich, Norfolk, England into a prominent Quaker family, the Gurneys. Her father, John Gurney (1749–1809), was a partner in Gurney's Bank. Her mother, Catherine, was a member of the Barclay family who were among the founders of Barclays Bank. Her mother died when Elizabeth was twelve years old so as one of the oldest girls in the family, she was partly responsible for the care and education of the younger children.
She married Joseph Fry, who was also a Quaker, in August 1800 at the Norwich Goat Lane Friends Meeting House and moved to St Mildred's Court in the City of London. In 1811 she was recorded as a minister of the Religious Society of Friends.
Prompted by a family friend, Stephen Grellet, Fry visited Newgate Prison in 1813. The conditions she saw there horrified her. The women's section was overcrowded with women and children, some of whom had not even received a trial. The prisoners did their own cooking and washing in the small cells in which they slept on straw.
She returned the following day with food and clothes for some prisoners. She was unable to personally further her work for nearly four years because of difficulties within the Fry family, including financial difficulties in the Fry bank.
Fry returned in 1816 and was eventually able to fund a prison school for the children who were imprisoned with their mothers. Rather than attempt to impose discipline on the women, she suggested rules and then asked the prisoners to vote on them. In 1817 she helped found the Association for the Reformation of the Female Prisoners in Newgate. This association provided materials for women so that they could learn to sew patchwork which was calming and also allowed skills to develop, such as needlework and knitting which could offer employment when they were out of prison and then could earn money for themselves. This approach was copied elsewhere and led to the eventual creation of the British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners in 1821. She also promoted the idea of rehabilitation instead of harsh punishment which was taken on by the city authorities in London as well as many other authorities and prisons.
Elizabeth Fry also campaigned for the rights and welfare of prisoners who were being transported. The women of Newgate Prison were taken through the streets of London in open carts, often in chains, huddled together with their few possessions. They were pelted with rotten food and filth by the people of the city. The fear was often enough to make women condemned to transportation riot on the evening before. Fry's first action was to persuade the Governor of Newgate prison to send the women in closed carriages and spare them this last indignity before transportation. She visited prison ships and persuaded captains to implement systems to ensure each woman and child would at least get a share of food and water on the long journey. Later she arranged each woman to be given scraps of material and sewing tools so that they could use the long journey to make quilts and have something to sell as well as useful skills when they reached their destination. She also included a bible and useful items such as string and knives and forks in this vital care package. Elizabeth Fry visited 106 transport ships and saw 12,000 convicts. Her work helped to start a movement for the abolition of transportation. Transportation was officially abolished in 1837, however Elizabeth Fry was still visiting transportation ships until 1843.
Fry wrote in her book Prisons in Scotland and the North of England that she stayed the night in some of the prisons and invited nobility to come and stay and see for themselves the conditions prisoners lived in. Her kindness helped her gain the friendship of the prisoners and they began to try to improve their conditions for themselves. Thomas Fowell Buxton, Fry's brother-in-law, was elected to Parliament for Weymouth and began to promote her work among his fellow MPs. In 1818 Fry gave evidence to a House of Commons committee on the conditions prevalent in British prisons, becoming the first woman to present evidence in Parliament.
Her humanitarian work didn’t stop at prisons. For example, she helped the homeless, establishing a "nightly shelter" in London after seeing the body of a young boy in the winter of 1819/1820. She also campaigned for the abolition of the slave trade and opened a training school for nurses. Her programme inspired Florence Nightingale, who took a team of Fry's nurses to assist wounded soldiers in the Crimean War.
Her work gained her admiration from people in high places. One such was Queen Victoria, who granted her an audience a few times before she was Queen and contributed money to her cause after she ascended to the throne. Another admirer was Robert Peel who passed several acts to further her cause including the Gaols Act 1823. The act was however largely ineffective, because there were no inspectors to make sure that it was being followed.
Fry died from a stroke in Ramsgate, England, on October 12th 1845. From 2001–2016, Fry was depicted on the reverse of £5 notes issued by the Bank of England.
These scenes were built by Dan Harris and James Pegrum as part of a series on important people in British history; follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
On this day in 1945 Nazi Germany unconditionally surrendered to the Allies ending World War II in Europe. The day has become known as Victory in Europe Day, generally known as VE Day (United Kingdom) or V-E Day (USA), and is a celebration of this event.
Upon the defeat of Germany, celebrations erupted throughout the western world, especially in the UK and North America. More than one million people celebrated in the streets throughout the UK to mark the end of the European part of the war. In London, crowds massed in Trafalgar Square and up the Mall to Buckingham Palace, where King George VI and Queen Elizabeth, accompanied by Prime Minister Winston Churchill, appeared on the balcony of the palace before the cheering crowds. Princess Elizabeth (the future Queen Elizabeth II) and her sister Princess Margaret were allowed to wander incognito among the crowds and take part in the celebrations.
In the United States, the event coincided with President Harry Truman's 61st birthday. He dedicated the victory to the memory of his predecessor, Franklin D. Roosevelt, who had died of a cerebral hemorrhage less than a month earlier, on 12 April. Great celebrations took place in many American cities, especially in New York's Times Square.
Tempering the jubilation somewhat, both Winston Churchill and Truman pointed out that the war against Japan had not yet been won. In his radio broadcast at 15:00 on the 8th, Churchill told the British people that: "We may allow ourselves a brief period of rejoicing (as Japan) remains unsubdued". In America, Truman broadcast at 09:00 and said it was "a victory only half won". It would not be until August 15th that Japan surrendered.
This scene was built by James Pegrum as part of a series of models on important events in world history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
This year we are building and, Corona Virus notwithstanding, hoping to display a huge model to commemorating the 400th anniversary of the voyage of the Mayflwower. Over the coming months we will be publishing a series of blogs about the events that paved the way for her voyage and the reasons for those on board, who have been called the Pilgrim Fathers, for making the risky voyage across the Atlantic and establishing an English colony at Plymouth (or Plimoth) Colony, Massachusetts, America. In this blog we look back to 1611 and the publication of the King James Bible and how this fits in with the story of the Mayflower.
On this day in in 1611 the King James Bible was published for the first time in London by printer Robert Barker. To quote In our Time presenter Melvyn Bragg, it “…wasn’t the first of the several bibles translated into English but it was and remains far and away the most influential”. In this blog we explore the path to the King James Bible and how it became widely available to those in England and indeed further afield. We will also look at how this translation failed to satisfy the demands of the Puritans and how this would eventually lead to around 40 of them to board the Mayflower and sail to America to practice their beliefs.
For much of its history, the Bible in England was not available in any language other than Latin and in the 14th century this began to be seen as a real problem as ordinary people couldn’t understand it and had to rely on a priest to read and explain God’s Word. In the 1370s the English philosopher, theologian and priest John Wycliffe (c 1330–1384) began to officially criticize the Roman Church. One of his chief complaints was that that everybody should have direct access God’s word and therefore the Bible should be translated into English.
Wycliffe’s followers were known as Lollards and by 1384 Wycliffe and his Lollard colleagues had translated the entire Bible into the vernacular Middle English. Wycliffe's Bible pre-dated the printing press but was circulated very widely in manuscript form.
By now Wycliffe's teachings had been rejected by the church, but he had not been charged for fear of a popular uprising. The translation of the Bible caused great unrest among the clergy and so several defensive provincial synods were convened, such as the 3rd Council of Oxford. Under the chairmanship of Archbishop Thomas Arundel, official positions against Wycliffe were written in the Oxford and Arundel Constitutions and so from 1408 it became illegal and indeed heretical to translate scripture into English.
Wycliffe died later in 1384 and by the mid-1400s, the word Lollard had essentially become synonymous with 'heretic.' However, his bible was secretly preserved and read by followers. Wycliffe's Bible was not printed until 1731, when he was historically conceived as the forefather of the English Reformation.
The next English Bible translation was that of William Tyndale, whose Tyndale Bible had to be printed from 1525 outside England in areas of Germany sympathetic to Protestantism. However, it carries the distinction of being the first printed Bible in English. Tyndale himself was sentenced to death at the stake because of his translation work. He was strangled in 1536 near Brussels and then burned. Nevertheless, the merits of Tyndale's work and prose style made his translation the ultimate basis for all subsequent renditions into Early Modern English.
With Tyndale’s translations lightly edited and adapted by Myles Coverdale, in 1539, Tyndale's New Testament and his incomplete work on the Old Testament became the basis for the Great Bible, which was the first "authorised version" issued by the Church of England during the reign of King Henry VIII. Coverdale worked under commission of Thomas, Lord Cromwell, Secretary to Henry VIII and Vicar General. In 1538, Cromwell directed the clergy to provide "...one book of the Bible of the largest volume in English, and the same set up in some convenient place within the said church that ye have care of, whereas your parishioners may most commodiously resort to the same and read it."
When Mary I succeeded to the throne in 1553, she returned the Church of England to the communion of the Roman Catholic faith and many English religious reformers fled the country, some establishing an English-speaking colony at Geneva. Under the leadership of John Calvin, Geneva became the chief international centre of Reformed Protestantism and Latin biblical scholarship.
These English expatriates undertook a translation that became known as the Geneva Bible. This translation, dated to 1560, was a revision of Tyndale's Bible and the Great Bible on the basis of the original languages. However, soon after Elizabeth I took the throne in 1558, the flaws of both the Great Bible and the Geneva Bible (namely, that the Geneva Bible did not "conform to the ecclesiology and reflect the episcopal structure of the Church of England and its beliefs about an ordained clergy") became painfully apparent.
In 1568, the Church of England responded with the Bishops' Bible, a revision of the Great Bible in the light of the Geneva version. While officially approved, this new version failed to displace the Geneva translation as the most popular English Bible of the age—in part because the full Bible was only printed in lectern editions of prodigious size and at a cost of several pounds. Accordingly, ordinary people overwhelmingly read the Bible in the Geneva Version—small editions were available at a relatively low cost. At the same time, there was a substantial clandestine importation of the rival Douay–Rheims New Testament of 1582, undertaken by exiled Roman Catholics. This translation, though still derived from Tyndale, claimed to represent the text of the Latin Vulgate.
In May 1601, King James VI of Scotland attended the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland at St Columba's Church in Burntisland, Fife, at which proposals were put forward for a new translation of the Bible into English. Two years later, he ascended to the throne of England as James I. The newly crowned King convened the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. That gathering proposed a new English version in response to the perceived problems of earlier translations as detected by the Puritan faction of the Church of England.
The Puritans were sought to purify the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices, maintaining that the Church of England had not been fully reformed and needed to become more Protestant. In church polity, some advocated separation from all other established Christian denominations in favour of autonomous gathered churches. Politics and religion being deeply entwine during this period, this was seen as a challenge not only to the church but also to James royal authority.
In 1603 the Puritans had issued James with the Millenary Petition, a Puritan manifesto of 1603 for reform of the English church, but James wanted a religious settlement along different lines. So while Puritans were present at the Hampton Court Conference, and the teachings of four prominent Puritan leaders heard there, they were largely side-lined in favour of the High Church bishops.
When it came to the Bible, instructions were given to the translators that were intended to limit the Puritan influence on this new translation. Further instructions were given to not add marginal notes, as James had identified several in the Geneva Bible that were offensive to his principles of “divinely ordained royal supremacy” and to guarantee that the new version would conform to the ecclesiology of the Church of England.
The new translation had to be familiar to its listeners and readers so the text of the Bishops' Bible would serve as the primary guide for the translators, and the familiar proper names of the biblical characters would all be retained. If the Bishops' Bible was deemed problematic in any situation, the translators were permitted to consult other translations from a pre-approved list: the Tyndale Bible, the Coverdale Bible, Matthew's Bible, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible.
James' instructions also included several requirements that kept the new translation familiar to its listeners and readers. The text of the Bishops' Bible would serve as the primary guide for the translators, and the familiar proper names of the biblical characters would all be retained. If the Bishops' Bible was deemed problematic in any situation, the translators were permitted to consult other translations from a pre-approved list: the Tyndale Bible, the Coverdale Bible, Matthew's Bible, the Great Bible, and the Geneva Bible.
The task of translation was undertaken by 47 scholars, although 54 were originally approved. All were members of the Church of England and all except Sir Henry Savile were clergy. The scholars worked in six committees, which included scholars with Puritan sympathies, as well as High Churchmen.
The committees started work towards the end of 1604 and all sections were complete by 1608. From January 1609, a General Committee of Review met to review the completed marked texts.
The original printing of the Authorized Version was published by Robert Barker, the King's Printer, in 1611 as a complete folio Bible. It was sold looseleaf for ten shillings, or bound for twelve. In contrast to the Geneva Bible and the Bishops' Bible, which had both been extensively illustrated, there were no illustrations at all in the 1611 edition of the Authorized Version, the main form of decoration being the historiated initial letters provided for books and chapters – together with the decorative title pages to the Bible itself, and to the New Testament.
The Authorized Version's acceptance by the general public was not immediate and the Geneva Bible continued to be popular with large numbers were imported from Amsterdam, where printing continued up to 1644 in editions carrying a false London imprint. However, few if any genuine Geneva editions appear to have been printed in London after 1616, and in 1637 Archbishop Laud prohibited their printing or importation. It would not be until the first half of the 18th century, that the Authorized Version became effectively unchallenged as the sole English translation in current use in Protestant churches. However, general standards of spelling, punctuation, typesetting, capitalization and grammar had changed radically in the 100 years since the first edition of the Authorized Version, and all printers in the market were introducing continual piecemeal changes to their Bible texts to bring them into line with current practice—and with public expectations of standardized spelling and grammatical construction. Therefore in 1760s the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge both sought to produce an updated standard leading to the 1769 version edited by Benjamin Blayney. This became the Oxford standard text, and is reproduced almost unchanged in most current printings.
However, to end this blog we return briefly to the early 17th century and the Puritans. The reforms of James I and his new bible were not enough to satisfy the most ardent of Puritans. Consequently many would seek other places to worship, first in the Netherlands and then, via England and the Mayflower, North America. We will explore these individuals, their motivations and ambitions, more closely in later blogs.
In our next blog in this series we will will however jump back in time a little and tell the story of the English Reformation of the 16th century. These scenes were built by James Pegrum; follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
On this day in 1781, astronomer Sir William Herchel discovered Uranus. Of course Uranus had been observed before, indeed Hipparchos took great interest in Uranus way back in 128 BC. However, previous observers had assumed it was a star and it would not be until Herschel was able to take a really good look at it that Uranus was identified as what it truly is – a planet.
William Herschel was born November 15th 1738 in Hanover, which was then part of the Holy Roman Empire. At the time the crowns of Great Britain and Hanover were united under King George II and the Herschel family were employed in the two nation's joint army. William and his brother Jakob joined as oboists in the regimental band of a Hanoverian Guards regiment and were deployed when the Seven Years’ War broke out in 1756. A year later France invaded Hannover and the brothers were present at the Battle of Hastenbeck where a British and German army was defeated. Soon after the brothers’ father sent them both to seek refuge in England. Although Jakob had received his dismissal from the Hanoverian Guards, Wilhelm was accused of desertion.
In England, William quickly learnt English and became an accomplished musician and composer, adding the violin, harpsichord and organ to his repertoire and composing a number of symphonies. He would eventually settle in Bath where his intellectual curiosity and interest in music eventually led him to astronomy. After reading Robert Smith's Harmonics, or the Philosophy of Musical Sounds (1749), he took up Smith's A Compleat System of Opticks (1738), which described techniques of telescope construction. He took lessons from a local mirror-builder and having obtained both tools and a level of expertise, started building his own reflecting telescopes. He relied on the assistance of other family members, particularly his sister Caroline and his brother Alexander, a skilled mechanical craftsperson.
He "began to look at the planets and the stars" in May 1773 and on March 1st 1774 began an astronomical journal by noting his observations of Saturn's rings and the Great Orion Nebula (M42). By 1779, Herschel made the acquaintance of Sir William Watson, who invited him to join the Bath Philosophical Society. Herschel became an active member and through Watson would greatly enlarge his circle of contacts.
Herschel observed Uranus on March 13th 1781 from the garden of his house at 19 New King Street in Bath and initially reported it as a comet. This is how he presented his discovery to the Royal Society, though he also implicitly compared it to a planet.
Although Herschel continued to describe his new object as a comet, other astronomers had already begun to suspect otherwise. The object was soon universally accepted as a new planet and by 1783, Herschel too acknowledged this to Royal Society president Joseph Banks:
"By the observation of the most eminent Astronomers in Europe it appears that the new star, which I had the honour of pointing out to them in March 1781, is a Primary Planet of our Solar System."
In recognition of his achievement, King George III gave Herschel an annual stipend of £200 on condition that he move to Windsor so that the Royal Family could look through his telescopes (equivalent to £24,000 in 2019). As a bonus, George also pardoned him of his apparent desertion.
Despite only becoming a professional astronomer at the age of 43, Herschel made other valuable contributions to the field, building increasingly powerful telescopes to make observations of nebulae and form theories on their formation and evolution. He made numerous other discoveries, including two moons of Saturn, Mimas and Enceladus; as well as two moons of Uranus, Titania and Oberon.
He died on August 25th 1822 with the epitaph:
Coelorum perrupit claustra
(He broke through the barriers of the heavens)
His house at 19 New King Street in Bath, Somerset, where he made many telescopes and first observed Uranus, is now home to the Herschel Museum of Astronomy.
This scene was created by Colin Parry as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
Never, before this,
were more men in this island slain
by the sword's edge--as books and aged sages
confirm--since Angles and Saxons sailed here
from the east, sought the Britons over the wide seas,
since those warsmiths hammered the Welsh,
and earls, eager for glory, overran the land
The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle
If asked what the most important battles in British History are, it is likely that most people will mention Hastings, Agincourt, Waterloo or the Battle of Britain. There are loads of other candidates too, so there’s no need to write in. The point we are making is that few will mention, or perhaps even have heard of, The Battle of Brunanburh, which was fought sometime in 937 between the Kingdom of England and the combined might of the Kingdoms of Scotland, Strathclyde and Dublin. Yet Brunanburh would set the course for the political and cultural development Britain, and in particular that of England, which would see its unity preserved and its identity realised.
By 927 King Æthelstan had consolidated his position in England, making him the most powerful ruler in the British Isles. His realm may have even extended as far north as the Firth of Forth, but wherever the border lay, he seems to have faced opposition from Constantine II of Scotland and Owain of Strathclyde. John of Worcester's chronicle suggests that Æthelstan fought a short war against Scotland and Strathclyde, perhaps due to the latter kingdoms’ support of Æthelstan’s Viking enemies. In July of 927 however, this appears to have drawn to a conclusion because on the 12th of that month Constantine and Owain agreed with Æthelstan not to make further allegiances with Vikings. Apparently, Æthelstan stood godfather to a son of Constantine, probably Indulf, during the conference.
In 934, for reasons unknown, conflict between Æthelstan and Constantine seems to have broken out once again, with the former marching north with an English and Welsh army. It is said that the army reached as far north as present day Aberdeenshire and was accompanied by a fleet of ships that harried Caithness. No significant battle appears to have been fought and a settlement appears to have been negotiated, with a son of Constantine given as a hostage to Æthelstan and Constantine himself accompanying the English king on his return south. On September 13th 934, Constantine acknowledged Æthelstan's overlordship.
Following this invasion of Scotland, it became apparent to Constantine and his allies that Æthelstan could only be defeated by an allied force of his enemies; so in around 937, one was formed. The leader of the alliance was Olaf Guthfrithson, King of Dublin, joined by Constantine and Owain, King of Strathclyde. Though they had all been enemies in living memory, historian Michael Livingston points out that "they had agreed to set aside whatever political, cultural, historical, and even religious differences they might have had in order to achieve one common purpose: to destroy Æthelstan".
In August 937, Olaf sailed from Dublin with his army to join forces with Constantine and Owain and so it is suggested that the Battle of Brunanburh occurred in early October of that year.
The main source of information about the battle itself can be found in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle. After travelling north through Mercia, Æthelstan, his brother Edmund, and the combined Saxon army from Wessex and Mercia met the invading armies and attacked them. The location is unknown and a matter of contention, though somewhere on the Wirral is currently the favoured theory. The battle was exceptionally hard fought, with prolonged fighting taking place throughout the day. According to the poem, the Saxons "split the shield-wall" and "hewed battle shields with the remnants of hammers... [t]here lay many a warrior by spears destroyed; Northern men shot over shield, likewise Scottish as well, weary, war sated".
Æthelstan and his army pursued the invaders until the end of the day, slaying great numbers of enemy troops. The Chronicle states that "they pursued the hostile people... hew[ing] the fugitive grievously from behind with swords sharp from the grinding". Broken, Olaf and the remnants of his army fled back to Dublin while Constantine retreated to Scotland; Owain's fate is not mentioned. Æthelstan and Edmund returned to Wessex as victors, with the Chronical stating that "the brothers, both together, King and Prince, sought their home, West-Saxon land, exultant from battle."
The battle was a crushing defeat for the allies. According to the Chronicle, "countless of the army" died in the battle and there were "never yet as many people killed before this with sword's edge ... since from the east Angles and Saxons came up over the broad sea". The Annals of Ulster describe the battle as "great, lamentable and horrible" and record that "several thousands of Norsemen ... fell". Among the casualties were five kings and seven earls from Olaf's army, while Constantine is said to have lost several friends and family members, including one of his sons. A large number of Saxons also died, including two of Æthelstan's cousins, Ælfwine and Æthelwine.
Æthelstan's victory prevented the dissolution of England, though he failed to completely defeat Scotland and Strathclyde, who remained independent. However, the battle cemented the idea of the English as a unified people, and while Æthelstan's kingdom may have fallen apart following his death, future English kings and the people they ruled had an ideal to strive for. Indeed, if the battle had gone the other way, the England we see today may never have existed at all. According to Livingston, the battle was "the moment when Englishness came of age" and "one of the most significant battles in the long history not just of England but of the whole of the British isles".
At 2am on February 22nd 1797 troops of Revolutionary France, under the command of Irish American Colonel William Tate, landed at Carreg Wastad near Fishguard, Wales, marking the beginning of the last invasion of mainland Britain. They had originally been part of a much larger invasion force, however, owing to atrocious weather, outbreaks of mutiny and indiscipline, only Tate’s force made landfall, and he did so in the wrong place. The original plan was to land near Bristol, some 100 miles further east.
Tate and his well armed force of 600 Regular Troops, plus another 800 Republicans, deserters, convicts and Royalist prisoners, made their way inland and established a base near Trehowel Farm, about a mile from their landing site. Unfortunately, it appears deserters, convicts and prisoner do not make reliable soldiers, and within a few hours, most had decided to part with the invasion force and engage in a bit of looting. Discipline broke down even further when those who remained discovered the local wine supply (salvaged from a Portuguese wreck a few weeks earlier), and with some enthusiasm, set about the task of devouring it.
Originally the French had hoped that they would be seen as liberators and that the Welsh would join them and rebel against the English, making the task of invasion a whole lot easier. However, by looting, shooting and perhaps worst of all, drinking all the booze, the French failed to impress their local hosts, and by the evening of the 23rd a ragtag force of around 700 reservists, militia and sailors, plus an unknown number of angry locals, had assembled in Fishguard to face them. Demoralised and by now outnumbered the French considered surrender and approached the commanding British officer, Lord Cawdor, to discuss terms. Cawdor demanded nothing short of unconditional surrender and issued an ultimatum to Colonel Tate.
At 8am the following morning, the British forces lined up in battle-order on Goodwick Sands, and up above them on the cliffs, the inhabitants of Fishguard came out to watch and await Tate's response. Tate tried to delay but eventually accepted the terms of surrender and at 2pm the remaining French force lay down its arms, thus ending the last invasion of Britain.
Legend has it that Tate, mistaking the traditional red costumes of the spectating women on the cliff tops for the red uniforms of British soldiers, thought his opposing force was much larger than it actually was, persuading him to surrender without a fight.
This scene was created by Dan Harris as part of a series of models on British history. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to see them first.
“Oh Christmas Tree, Oh Christmas Tree, how lovely are your branches” (Aretha Franklin version) might be one of the songs you’ll sing along to at some point over the next month. The song has a traditional German folk background, which is thought to date back to the 16th century. The modern German lyrics were written by Ernst Anschütz in 1824 and refer to a ‘Tannenbaum' or fir tree in English.
Like the song, the tradition in Britain of bringing a living tree into the house (something my cats have now got used too) came from Germany and we can thank the Royals for that. The exact point at which the tradition arrived is however uncertain. During the 16th century German Christians would bring in to their homes and decorate an evergreen tree, whereas in Britain it had been normal for people to bring in a branch of holy or mistletoe, but not a tree. Apparently, Queen Charlotte, who was the wife of George III, used to bring in a yew tree at Christmas, but it is not known of this was the start of the trend.
Things changed when in 1848AD the Illustrated London News reported in detail and included a drawing on its cover of the Royal family around a Christmas tree at Windsor Castle. On Christmas eve, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert would bring the tree in themselves and decorate it with candles (sounds a fire hazard to me!) and gingerbread. Once decorated they would bring in the children.
The Royals at this time were trend setters and within 10 years the wealthy were copying them. By the 1850’s it was accepted as normal throughout the nation. Soon other nations around the world were hot on their heels. This was not without its problems, particularly in the absence of today’s electric lights. For example, in 1855 or 56 Caroline Luttrell from Somerset accidentally died after her dress caught fire as she lighting the candles on her tree!
Today Christmas trees are common in people’s homes throughout Britain and thankfully there are safer decorative options than candles! Our decorations have also expanded to include many wonderful colourful items and maybe a Lego train for the kids ...or AFOLS!
These scenes were built by James Pegrum; find out more by following us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
BLOG TO THE PAST
On LEGO, History and other things by Brick to the Past