Shakespeare Slept Here: Hidden Old Room In Oxford Once Hosted The Bard

ShakespeareBehind an eighteenth-century facade in downtown Oxford, just above a clothing shop, is a bedroom that was once used by William Shakespeare.

It was part of the Crown Tavern, owned by Shakespeare’s friend John Davenant. The Bard frequently stopped in Oxford on his trips between Stratford-upon-Avon and London. A nearby courtyard may have hosted his troupe’s performances.

Known as the Painted Room, it’s been remarkably preserved since Elizabethan times and still has hand-painted wall decoration from the late 16th century. This rare artwork survived thanks to oak paneling installed in the following century, and was only rediscovered in 1927.

Part of the decoration includes a religious text:
“And last of thi rest be thou
Gods servante for that hold I best / In the mornynge earlye
Serve god devoutlye
Feare god above allthynge. . .”

This week the Oxford Preservation Trust is offering guided tours of the Painted Room. If you can’t make it, BBC has posted a video tour of the room, led by some silly guy in an anachronistic tricorne hat. The Trust is also working on making the rooms permanently available to the public.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

5 Overlooked Castles Close To London

castles, England
England is famous for its castles. Giant fortresses such as Bamburgh Castle and Lincoln Castle attract thousands of visitors a year, but people tend to overlook the many smaller, lesser-known castles close to London. These are often as interesting as their more famous cousins and make for enjoyable day trips from London. Here are five of the best.

Hadleigh Castle
Near the town of Hadleigh in Essex stands the ruins of Hadleigh Castle, once a magnificent royal residence. It was started in 1215 and massively expanded by King Edward III (ruled 1327-1377) to be a fortified residence away from the stink and political infighting of London. Sitting atop a high ridge overlooking the Essex marshes, the Thames estuary and the sea, it held an important strategic position. Edward was obviously thinking of it as more than just a relaxing getaway.

The castle has suffered over the years, as you can see in this photo courtesy Ian Dalgliesh. Erosion crumbled the walls, and in 1551 it was purchased by Lord Richard Rich (real name!) who promptly sold off much of the stone. One tower stands to its full height and portions of the walls also remain, so you can get a good idea of what it looked like when it defended southeast England from French invasion during the Hundred Years War.

Hadleigh Castle is in open parkland and is free to the public during daylight hours.

%Gallery-185653%Hedingham Castle
Another Essex castle is Hedingham Castle, one of the best-preserved early Norman fortifications in the country. It’s a motte-and-bailey type, consisting of an artificial mound (motte) with a keep and wall on top, and a lower area enclosed by a wall (bailey). Both parts are surrounded by a ditch. Usually they were built of wood first and later replaced with stone when the local ruler got the time and money. These castles could be built quickly and cheaply and the Normans put them all over England after they conquered the kingdom in 1066.

At Hedingham you can still see the 12th-century keep, which rises 95 feet to give a commanding view of the countryside. It played a key part in the Barons’ War of 1215-1217, when several barons rebelled against the despotic King John. They eventually lost but remarkably this castle survived its siege. The four spacious interior floors are filled with medieval bric-a-brac and the banqueting hall is available for weddings.

Since the castle is still a private residence, it’s open only on selected days.

Longthorpe Tower
In the outskirts of the city of Peterborough in Cambridgeshire stands Longthorpe Tower, an imposing 14th-century tower that is all that remains of a fortified manor house. The outside is impressive enough, but the real treasure is inside, where the walls are covered with magnificent medieval wall paintings from about 1330. They are in such good condition because they were whitewashed over during the Reformation and weren’t discovered again until the 1940s. The paintings show a variety of religious and secular subjects such as the Wheel of Life and scenes from the Nativity and acts of King David.

Longthorpe Tower is only open on weekends. While in Peterborough, also check out the medieval Peterborough Cathedral.

Farnham Castle
An hour’s drive the southwest of London is Farnham, Surrey, where stands one of the most interesting medieval buildings in the region. It started out as a Norman castle built in 1138 by the grandson of William the Conqueror. Destroyed during a civil war in 1155, it was soon rebuilt and eventually became the traditional home of the Bishops of Winchester, including Cardinal Henry Beaufort, who presided over the trial of Joan of Arc and ordered her burned at the stake. In memory of that event, a local church in Farnham is dedicated to Joan.

During the English Civil War, the castle was “slighted” (partially destroyed to render it useless for defense) and it was no longer used for military purposes. The large circular keep still survives in a reduced state. The ornately decorated Bishop’s Palace is in better condition and is now a conference center.

Farnham Castle is privately owned but the keep and Bishop’s Palace are open to the public.

Berkhamsted Castle
An easy walk from Berkhamsted train station in Hertfordshire stands Berkhamsted Castle, a Norman motte-and-bailey castle now fallen into picturesque ruin. While not as impressive as the well-preserved keep of Hedingham Castle, this place has the advantage of being free and open all day for seven months of the year.

Built by William the Conqueror’s half-brother in 1066, it became an important fortification and, like Hedingham Castle, was besieged during the Barons’ War. It was taken by rebel forces with the help of Prince Louis of France after they stormed it with a variety of siege engines, including what’s believed to be the first use of the trebuchet. After the war it was claimed by the Crown and used as a royal fortress until it was allowed to fall into ruin in the late 15th century. By this time castles were becoming outmoded thanks to the development of artillery.

[Photo by Ian Dalgliesh]

Lon-Done? Try Hertford

Hertford
London is one of the most popular destinations in Europe, offering loads of nightlife, dining and cultural options. It offers plenty of day trips too, the favorites being to Stonehenge and Oxford.

If you want to see England without the tourists, there are plenty of smaller towns an easy day trip from London. One of them is Hertford, where I used to live. If the name sounds familiar, that’s because it gave its name to Hartford, Connecticut. The Puritan Reverend Samuel Stone from Hertford helped found the settlement in Connecticut in 1636.

The English town dates back to the seventh century or perhaps earlier. Its earliest remains are the crumbled walls of an 11th-century Norman castle that enclose a small park downtown. Next to it stands Hertford Castle, which was originally the gatehouse and later a stately home to kings and local nobility. Just north of town in Bengeo is the interesting little Norman church of Saint Leonard, dating to 1120. Some faint medieval wall paintings can still be seen inside.

Wandering around the town you’ll see plenty of old wood-frame houses from the 17th and 18th centuries, including the world’s oldest Quaker Meeting House, in use since 1670 on Railway Street. A small local museum tells visitors more about the Hertford’s long history.

The rapid development of many towns near London has passed Hertford by. It still retains many local businesses and is small (fewer than 30,000 people) compared with many other bedroom districts of London.

The best pub in town is The Old Barge, a friendly local bar serving real ale at a prime location right alongside the River Lea. This is a perfect place to sit in summertime. For good Thai food try Old Siam. For something a bit more English visit the restaurant at the Salisbury Arms Hotel, which also offers comfortable rooms in a historic building.

%Gallery-185088%Hikers might want to try the Hertfordshire Way, a 194-mile circular route around Hertfordshire that passes through Hertford. This part of England has some pretty woods and little villages and tends to be rather flat. Hikers looking for something more rugged will want to head to the Peak District or Scotland.

Hertford is just 20 miles from central London and easily accessible by train, bus or car. It can easily be seen in a day and makes for a relaxing getaway where you’ll probably be the only foreign visitor. For more day trip and overnight options from London, check out my posts on Canterbury, St. Albans, Bath, and Windsor/Eton.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

London Crossrail Project Unearths Black Death Burial Pit

black death“Bring out your dead!”

If you lived in London in 1348-50, you’d hear that call a lot. All of Europe was swept with the Black Death, a virulent plague that killed an estimated one-third of the population. London, like other congested urban areas, got hit hard.

Now archaeologists working in London have uncovered a mass grave of Black Death victims, a Crossrail press release reports. Digging ahead of the planned London Crossrail transportation project, the team discovered a mass grave of 13 bodies at Charterhouse Square, an area known as a burial ground during the plague. Pottery from the mid-14th century found at the site helps confirm the identification.

The bodies were laid out neatly in rows, hinting that the burial ground was from the early stages of the Black Death. When the plague was going full force, bodies were simply dumped into giant pits.

Now archaeologists are examining the bones to learn more about how the people lived, including diet, physical health and work-related wear and tear on the body. They also hope to find surviving DNA from the plague to give scientists a better idea of how it developed. Researchers stress that the plague bacteria cannot live for long in the soil and the excavation poses no health risk.

This is only the latest in a series of finds by the Crossrail workers. Earlier we reported on their discovery of a 3,500-year-old Bronze Age trackway. The Crossrail project is a high-speed train system that will link 37 stations along 73 miles of track through London. It’s due to open in 2018.

Sadly, the 14th century plague was only the first wave of a persistent contagion. The Black Death returned to London several times, the worst being in 1665-6, when it killed 100,000 Londoners.

[Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons]

Carlisle Castle Celebrates 1000th Birthday

Carlisle Castle
One of England’s most besieged castles has turned the ripe old age of 1000 this year.

A new exhibition at Carlisle Castle in Carlisle, England, tells its thousand-year history. Well, approximately a thousand years, since nobody actually knows when the first castle was built here. Like with many great English castles, it got its start with a Roman fort. This fell to ruins and was replaced in the late 11th century by a Norman fort built by William II, son of the famous William the Conqueror, known to his detractors as “Billy the Bastard.”

Carlisle Castle is located on the English side of the Scottish border by an important river and town. This made it of vital strategic importance. The Scots took it several times, only to have it taken back by the English again and again in a series of bloody conflicts that only ended when Bonnie Prince Charlie’s Scottish uprising lost at Culloden in 1745 and the bodies of my ancestors were tumbled into a mass grave.

(It’s a bit freaky to know there’s a mass grave with my name on it, but I don’t hold a grudge. Why should I?)

I got to visit Carlisle Castle when I hiked the Hadrian’s Wall Path. What remains of the castle is very well preserved and shows a series of changes over the years, not the least of which was when Henry VIII adapted the place for use by artillery. While artillery meant the death of most castles, Carlisle hung on because of its thick walls, earthworks, and the large number of artillery emplacements it had to defend itself. After 1745, however, it lost its purpose. There was never another serious rebellion in Scotland. The castle became the headquarters of the King’s Own Royal Border Regiment, which has recently moved out and been replaced by the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment.

The oldest part of the castle, the Captain’s Tower, probably built around 1180, has opened for the first time in 25 years. There’s also a regimental museum on the grounds and some fascinating renaissance graffiti in the Keep, including a crude drawing of a mermaid.
Carlisle itself it worth a day or two of exploration, with its windy medieval streets, museums, old pubs and the most awesome indie bookshop in England.

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