Category Archives: England
From ghost tours, to books, Halloween costumes to theatre productions – and even a museum – the Jack the Ripper industry is well and truly alive.
His is the name given to the unidentified serial killer who was believed to be responsible for a number of murders in and around the Whitechapel district of London between 1888 and 1891. It was during this period that the lives of Mary Ann Nichols (Polly), Annie Chapman, Elizabeth Stride, Catherine Eddowes and Mary Jane Kelly were so brutally ended.
Known as the Whitechapel Murders, the killings saw an unsubstantiated number of female sex workers murdered by an unknown assailant[s]. At various points, some or all of these unsolved murders have been attributed to the notorious “Jack the Ripper”.
And yet the fact remains that Jack the Ripper is not, and never has been, real. The name “Jack the Ripper” was simply invented by a journalist to boost newspaper circulation – and it did just that as papers sold from stands all across London town with tales of “Jack’s” gruesome killings.
So while there was a killer – or even many killers – committing horrendous acts of femicide during the period, it was not done by a man named Jack the Ripper. And what can also be said with a great deal of certainty is that it was not a smog shrouded, top-hatted, cloak wafting mythical figure who was responsible.
The reality of the killings
What is real, though, are the women who were killed – and the pathological violence enacted upon them. Public recounts of their murders are often sanitised, and frequently omit the true ferocity of the violence and degradation they endured.
This includes virtual decapitations, facial, abdominal and genital mutilations, organ removal and possible cannibalisation. But yet in spite of the sexual injuries inflicted upon the bodies of the women killed, any sexual motives for the killings are frequently dismissed.
It has been argued by several feminist historians, that the whole grand narrative of the Whitechapel Murders is held aloft to all women – as a warning of what may happen should they breach their prescribed gendered limits of domesticity, geography and sexuality.
In this way, the story of “Jack” and his deeds, is built around a cornerstone of “whorephobia”. This is the hatred of, oppression of, violence towards, and discrimination against sex workers. And by extension, derision or disgust towards activities or attire related to sex work.
The women killed, by and large, are rarely represented as anything but deserving, diseased, destitute, addicted, immoral and unsightly. They were part of a community which was too visible and deemed verminous. And many sources at the time overtly stated that the sins of the fallen, far outweighed the sins of the hand that slew them.
The humanity and life experiences of the women killed in Whitechapel have been utterly reduced to their jobs and the roles they played in society. They have become more akin to cultural tropes of “disposable street prostitutes” than once living women. More unreal than the unreal “man” who is supposed to have killed them.
A cultural icon
Failing to acknowledge the horrific historical truth of these murders has undoubtedly impacted perceptions of Jack the Ripper today. He is seen as an “icon of crime” rather than a horrific serial killer who disembowelled women.
Worse still, since the era of the crimes, hundreds of people globally have lost their lives to killers who have confessed to emulating “Jack”. And the press still refers to “Jack the Ripper type crimes” when acts of femicide have been committed, particularly if the victims work in the sex industry.
“Jack” did not forge his ubiquitous cultural status, his multi-million pound industry, or his “immortality”. “Jack the Ripper” may be a made up construct but with lives still being taken in his name, it is high time that our cultural relationship with “The Ripper” changed. One way of doing this is by addressing the way such modern crimes are reported.
The World Health Organisation’s 2014 report, which looks at how violence can be prevented, highlights the impact language around such violence plays. And given that “Jack’s” name remains associated with an ever growing list of victims – from around the world – it is clear this is something that needs to change sooner rather than later.
King Arthur is probably the best known of all British mythological figures. He is a character from deep time celebrated across the world in literature, art and film as a doomed hero, energetically fighting the forces of evil. Most historians believe that the prototype for Arthur was a warlord living in the ruins of post-Roman Britain, but few can today agree on precisely who that was.
Over the centuries, the legend of King Arthur has been endlessly rewritten and reshaped. New layers have been added to the tale. The story repeated in modern times includes courtly love, chivalry and religion – and characters such as Lancelot and Guinevere, whose relationship was famously immortalised in Thomas Malory’s 1485 book Le Morte D’Arthur. The 2017 cinematic outing, King Arthur: Legend of the Sword, is only the most recent reimagining.
But before the addition of the Holy Grail, Camelot and the Round Table, the first full account of Arthur the man appeared in the Historia Regum Brianniae (the History of the Kings of Britain) a book written by Geoffrey of Monmouth in around 1136.
We know next to nothing about Geoffrey, but he claimed to have begun writing the Historia at the request of Walter, archdeacon of Oxford, who persuaded him to translate an ancient book “written in the British tongue”. Many have concluded, as Geoffrey failed to name his primary source and it has never been firmly identified, that he simply made it all up in a fit of patriotism.
Whatever the origin of the Historia, however, it was a roaring success, providing the British with an heroic mythology – a national epic to rival anything written by the English or Normans.
As a piece of literature, Geoffrey’s book is arguably the most important work in the European tradition. It lays the ground for not just for the whole Arthurian Cycle, but also for the tales surrounding legendary sites such as Stonehenge and Tintagel and characters such as the various kings: Cole, Lear and Cymbeline (the latter two immortalised by Shakespeare).
As a piece of history, however, it is universally derided, containing much that is clearly fictitious, such as wizards, magic and dragons.
If we want to gain a better understanding of who King Arthur was, however, we cannot afford to be so picky. It is Geoffrey of Monmouth who first supplies the life-story of the great king, from conception to mortal wounding on the battlefield, so we cannot dismiss him entirely out of hand.
A full and forensic examination of the Historia Regum Britanniae, has demonstrated that Geoffrey’s account was no simple work of make-believe. On the contrary, sufficient evidence now exists to suggest that his text was, in fact, compiled from a variety of early British sources, including oral folklore, king-lists, dynastic tables and bardic praise poems, some of which date back to the first century BC.
In creating a single, unified account, Geoffrey exercised a significant degree of editorial control over this material, massaging data and smoothing out chronological inconsistencies.
Once you accept that Geoffrey’s book is not a single narrative, but a mass of unrelated stories threaded together, individual elements can successfully be identified and reinstated to their correct time and place. This has significant repercussions for Arthur. In this revised context, it is clear that he simply cannot have existed.
Arthur, in the Historia, is the ultimate composite figure. There is nothing in his story that is truly original. In fact, there are five discrete characters discernible within the great Arthurian mix. Once you detach their stories from the narrative, there is simply nothing left for Arthur.
Cast of characters
The chronological hook, upon which Geoffrey hung 16% of his story of Arthur, belongs to Ambrosius Aurelianus, a late 5th-century warlord from whom the youthful coronation, the capture of York (from the Saxons) and the battle of Badon Hill is taken wholesale.
Next comes Arvirargus, who represents 24% of Arthur’s plagiarised life, a British king from the early 1st century AD. In the Historia, Arthur’s subjugation of the Orkneys, his return home and marriage to Ganhumara (Queen Guinevere in later adaptions) parallels that of the earlier king, who married Genvissa on his return south.
Constantine the Great, who in AD 306 was proclaimed Roman emperor in York, forms 8% of Arthur’s story, whilst Magnus Maximus, a usurper from AD 383, completes a further 39%. Both men took troops from Britain to fight against the armies of Rome, Constantine defeating the emperor Maxentius; Maximus killing the emperor Gratian, before advancing to Italy. Both sequences are later duplicated in Arthur’s story.
The final 12% of King Arthur’s life, as recounted by Geoffrey, repeat those of Cassivellaunus, a monarch from the 1st century BC, who, in Geoffrey’s version of events, was betrayed by his treacherous nephew Mandubracius, the prototype for Modred.
All this leaves just 1% of Geoffrey’s story of Arthur unaccounted for: the invasion of Iceland and Norway. This may, in fact, be no more than simple wish-fulfilment, the ancient Britons being accorded the full and total subjugation of what was later to become the homeland of the Vikings.
Arthur, as he first appears, in the book that launched his international career, is no more than an amalgam. He is a Celtic superhero created from the deeds of others. His literary and artistic success ultimately lies in the way that various generations have reshaped the basic story to suit themselves – making Arthur a hero to rich and poor, elite and revolutionary alike. As an individual, it is now clear that he never existed, but it is unlikely that his popularity will ever diminish.
With its round amphitheatre, The Globe is the most famous playhouse associated with Shakespeare – indeed, a working, pop up replica of it is currently in Melbourne. But long before Shakespeare or his plays appeared at the Globe, another forgotten stage was the Bard’s temporary home.
It is even possible that the first purpose-built stage to house Shakespeare was at a playhouse that stood a mile south of the London Thames at the Newington Butts juncture. Rather than round, the playhouse would have been relatively small and rectangular – a conversion of an existing commercial building.
It was here, in June 1594, that theatre entrepreneur Philip Henslowe recorded the first known performances of the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, a theatre troupe of which Shakespeare was a founding member, playwright and actor. The company performed versions of Hamlet, Taming of the Shrew, and Titus Andronicus over 11 days.
The evidence also suggests that the actor Richard Burbage wouldn’t have been at the Newington Butts playhouse. Yet most have assumed Hamlet was a play Shakespeare wrote for Burbage.
While Shakespeare’s plays were performed at smaller venues such as inns and courtyards (possibly as early as 1589), the Newington Butts’ shows were very likely to have been the first on a major Elizabethan stage constructed specifically for the kind of theatre for which he was about to become famous. It soon vanished from history, and was largely forgotten by Shakespeare scholars.
But using 18th-century maps, I’ve been able to figure out where it likely once stood. This historically significant site is likely now under a shopping centre south of the Thames.
The Newington Butts playhouse was built in 1575 and continued operating until 1594. The playhouse would have had at least two tiers of seating around the perimeter to be financially viable, seating about 700 to 800 patrons. It was closed down when the new leaseholder Paul Buck agreed to convert it to some other purpose – it is likely he converted the building to tenement housing.
One of the reasons the playhouse has been easy to forget, and difficult to locate, is that there are no maps from the period that show the junction there. From the perspective of the Elizabethan mapmaker, there was not much to see south of the Thames – London was located on the north side of the river, and the road to the south quickly ran into fields only pockmarked by the occasional dwelling place or church.
While early modern maps and panoramas have been very helpful in locating the more famous playhouses like the Globe on London’s Bankside, they provide no help in searching for the playhouse at Newington Butts.
Some maps of the roads survive from at least 1681. In 1955, surveyor Ida Darlington pointed out that a property to the east of the juncture on this map was the same as that on which the playhouse stood. However, the map is of too poor quality to find a precise location.
I used another map from 1746 drawn up by surveyor John Rocque to pinpoint the playhouse. The building north of the junction has remained in the same place for several hundred years. It began as stables, later becoming the Elephant and Castle Inn. Knowing this, and using early leases that record the site of the playhouse, I could figure out that the playhouse stood southeast of the inn.
In 1960, the Newington Butts junction was replaced by the Elephant and Castle roundabout. The site of the playhouse now likely lies under the Elephant and Castle shopping centre, named after the inn that stood there until 1960. Any archaeological remains, if they survived the redevelopment, would thus be under where the market stalls are situated. Unfortunately, this would seem unlikely, as the shopping centre’s foundations were very deep.
So where did Shakespeare’s troupe go after Newington Butts? Their next known stopping point was in Marlborough. By the end of 1594, they ended up performing at the Theatre in Shoreditch, the first of the famed round theatres. In 1598, the Theatre was closed down and the more famous Globe was built in 1599.
The link below is to an article reporting on ruins found near Hadrian’s Wall.