George III 250 Years After

In Elizabeth’s day, London was much smaller and even Chelsea was a village, not part of London.  Going upstream on the Thames, Kew was a countryside place, and some courtiers had houses there.  Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, may have been one of them, and Elizabeth may have visited his home there.  In the 1700s a garden was established there that grew into the Royal Botanical Gardens and has a fabulous Victorian greenhouse.  It is also connected with the Georgian kings, who made a red brick house into their country palace retreat.  Today it’s Kew Palace, the smallest of the royal palaces.

Feeling that I needed to expand a bit from the sixteenth century and venture into the eighteenth, I attended a dinner at Kew Palace that featured a Georgian themed meal and a talk on George III.

Now if you are an American, most of what you know about George III is that he was the king that the noble Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and George Washington wanted to get free of.  Or, if you’ve seen “The Madness of King George” you know he ran around shrieking in his nightshirt and so you thought, “Well, no wonder he lost the colonies.”

But in context, it’s a lot more complex than that.  (It usually is.)  I came away from the evening actually sympathetic to George III.  At least he spoke English as his first language (unlike his father and grandfather) and he was king for a very long time, sixty years. His madness may have been due to a metabolic disease, porphyria.  He was interested in astronomy and science.  He had a very happy marriage (no mistresses!) , and 15 children.  And during his reign, England had to contend with Napoleon, as well as us.  He had his hands full.

Songs on a Sunday Afternoon

On Sunday afternoon I attended a sung evensong at Westminster Abbey.  Not only was it a chance to see the Abbey without throngs of tourists, it

was a chance to sit quietly and just absorb the grandeur of that building, to look carefully at the site where Elizabeth had been crowned and where she had been entombed.  My seat was near the Poet’s Corner. I had set a scene there, the funeral of Edmund Spenser, who was buried next to Chaucer.  Not far away was the tombstone of Old Thomas Parr, who also has a scene in the book.  He was reputedly 152 years old when he died, and had lived through the reigns of 10 monarchs, from Edward IV to Charles I.  He died in 1635.  So he was already over 100 during Elizabeth’s reign.  He became famous because at the age of 100 he had an affair and an illegitimate child, and had to do public penance.  In my scene, he tells Elizabeth he’s thinking of marrying again and asks if she’ll send him a wedding gift.  Supposedly he remarried at the age of 122, three years after Elizabeth’s death.  So he didn’t get his gift from her.

During this particular service, the choristers in training got their promotion into full membership. Their voices were exquisite, and their faces innocent, but I couldn’t help remembering that the boys in “Lord of the Flies” were choristers of about that age.  How brilliant of William Golding to have chosen such a group to represent original sin and how it’s always lurking just beneath the snowy choir robes.

Lively London

Now that “Elizabeth I” is through the creative process and at the printer’s, I took a short trip to London, as a sort of nightcap to the project.  I wanted to revisit some of the things I had just written about, and see if they seemed different to me now.  I think all my senses were on alert and as the cab took me through the streets enroute to my hotel, the first thing that struck me were all the posters for Shakespeare plays—Henry IV, parts I and II; Hamlet, of course;  Antony and Cleopatra, As You Like It,  Julius Caesar, King Lear, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Merry Wives of Windsor, Richard III, Comedy of Errors, The Winter’s Tale.  I wondered what in the world Shakespeare would have thought if he could have known this.  Would it have changed his behavior?  Would it have given him writer’s block?  (“I have to write something that London audiences of 2010 can relate to!”)  Since Shakespeare is a major character in my book I’ve become quite curious about his thought process.

My first day there was a bright sunny Sunday and I headed over London Bridge like people did in Elizabeth’s day.  The Southwark area on the south bank of the Thames always had a dicey reputation, at least in the middle ages and Elizabeth’s time.  All the fun vices were there—taverns, bawdy houses, and theaters, not to mention bearbaiting pits.  As recently as twenty years ago, though, the pleasure aspect had faded and it was a derelict, depressing warehouse area.  However, with the building of the new Globe Theater, and the opening of the Tate Modern, the south bank got a revival and today it’s a lively, bustling place.  The theater is back, as are the taverns and bands of carousers.  Lurid museums about torture and executions are wildly popular.  Only the bearpits are missing.  The Globe was having a matinee and scads of people were arriving by boat and by the river pathway, as they must have done in Elizabeth’s day.  I got a good glimpse of what the atmosphere must have been back then.  I got lunch in a pub overlooking the river, which was at low tide, and saw many boats out, filled with rowers and sightseers.  When the sun shines in England, everyone wants to be outdoors.  That, too, hasn’t changed.

The other big posters concerned the impending visit of the Pope to England that week.  I truly think Elizabeth must have been stirring in her marble tomb in Westminster Abbey, where the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury would hold a joint service.  The thought that a pope would ever set foot in England would have seemed impossible to her, considering that the one she dealt with blessed the Armada and issued a proclamation that she was not the true queen, called her “the servant of crime” and even, off the record, said whoever assassinated her would be doing a good deed!  Truly, what a difference four hundred years makes!  The present Queen was formally receiving him, and the present Prime Minister welcoming him.