Popular anglophone histories tend to play up England’s settlement of the “New World”, but – in reality – England under Elizabeth I was, by comparison with Spain and France, a minor player on the European scene and for the most part non-existent in the New World.
Having lost Calais, its final territory in France, in 1558 – and having experienced the two short reigns of King Edward VI and Queen Mary – England could not compete with the strength, stability and financial resources of Spain. At that time Spain was vastly rich as gold and silver flowed from the mines of the New World, especially from Potosi, into Spanish coffers.
England and Spain had long been allies before Elizabeth’s reign – Henry VIII’s first wife, Katherine of Aragon, was Spanish, as was Mary Tudor’s husband Philip II. But animosities beneath the surface eventually boiled over into open warfare after England intervened in the Dutch Revolt to support the Dutch against Spanish control in 1585.
Philip had entertained the idea of aggression against England prior to 1585, but English engagement in the Netherlands along with piracy on the seas by the likes of Francis Drake provoked the launching of the Spanish Armada in 1588 in an attempt to invade and subjugate England to Spanish control. As the saying goes, “God blew and they were scattered”, and the 1580s mark a turning point in English ambition on the seas and relative to its European neighbours.
With adventurers such as Drake, Walter Raleigh and other privateers, soon independent Englishmen found private investors to finance their voyages to, and activity in, the New World. This was seen as a countermeasure to Spain and an opportunity to explore commercial ventures for trade.
The landing of the Mayflower in November 1620 is a significant historical marker. Its recognition is warranted because of the legacy that followed. But in many ways, the Mayflower represents not only the beginning of an Anglo-American story, for it is just one part of a wider European tale of exploration, settlement, and displacement and subjugation of indigenous populations.
The Mayflower followed the first successful English settlement at Jamestown in 1607, which itself was more than a century after the initial forays of the Spanish and Portuguese in the Americas.
‘In 1492 Columbus sailed the ocean blue’
Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo) was Italian and sailed to the New World under a Spanish flag. Other Italians followed in his wake – including Amerigo Vespucci, under both Spanish and Portuguese flags shortly after Columbus, and Giovanni Verrazzano under the French flag in 1524. Zuan Caboto (Britain knows him as John Cabot) sailed under an English flag in the 1490s, but his efforts never resulted in any permanent settlements by the English. Spanish exploration and colonisation in the New World stretched thousands of miles from deep into South America to the plains of North America.
New Spain (“Hispania Nova”) dominated early maps of the western hemisphere, and in these lands the Spanish government established colonial governance and administration, complete with churches and missionaries to attempt converting the indigenous. Lands claimed by Portugal in modern-day Brazil were also vast and easily recognisable on such maps.
International acknowledgement of Spanish and Portuguese territories and domination came with the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 – which, in the years that followed, earned the pope’s approval in Rome. Not to be outdone, by 1550 the French explored and subsequently claimed massive lands in what is now Canada – “Nova Francia”, though active settlement by the French in this area was limited.
Spain’s activity was not restricted to Central or South America. Spanish exploration in North America continued to expand as the century progressed. Hernando de Soto explored Florida during the 1540s, while Francisco Coronado the south-west (and Grand Canyon) at the same time. What is today Mexico had by this point been thoroughly occupied by Spain, the colonial capital city of Mexico City being built upon the ashes of the former Aztec city of Tenochtitlan.
The Spanish empire expanded further and further across the globe under King Philip II during the second half of the 16th century, especially when all Portuguese lands came under his dominion in 1580. So mighty, so awe-inspiring was Spanish power in Europe and the New World that none dared question it, even if daredevils like Drake drew Spanish ire by plundering along the coasts of South America during the 1570s.
By the early 17th century, England was more assured of itself on a European level than it had been since the reign of Henry VIII, but it still had a lot of catching up to do. Alongside Spain (especially having absorbed Portuguese dominions), the Dutch and even the Danish soon became active in exploring and claiming lands in the Americas.
The English, led by private companies or religious refugees, such as the Mayflower pilgrims, were in some respects on the back foot until the second half of the 17th century.
To situate the Mayflower within a broader context of European exploration and colonisation, and to understand early modern England among its mainland European neighbours, is not to belittle the achievements or significance of either. Rather, doing so helps us to see how a wide variety of countries and peoples came together – in commerce and trade but also in rivalry and war – to bring European cultures to the indigenous cultures of the New World with dramatic and often horrible effects.
And so began the great mixing and melding of peoples in the Americas.
The Great Bible is often seen as a monument of English reform – but could it also contain the first known example of political photoshopping in early modern England? Printed in 1538-9, it was to be purchased by every parish church in the realm. Its creation was overseen by Henry VIII’s chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. The Great Bible ushered in the English parish Bible and its large size and meticulous printing set the bar for centuries to come. Nowhere is its iconic appearance more evident than in a unique presentation copy made for the Tudor court. This copy was printed on vellum and hand-coloured by highly skilled illuminators.
I encountered this lavish copy while carrying out an in-depth study of the production and use of Bibles in late medieval and early modern England. Researchers have long known about the Great Bible and used its striking title page for illustration. But little or no scientific analysis has ever been carried out on it. So I asked Paola Ricciardi, scientist in residence at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, to help me with a new investigation which utilised the latest technology to study the Bible in forensic detail. The results blew us away.
Our analysis revealed a new – and hitherto unknown – plot by Cromwell to literally change the balance of power on the Bible’s front page, just one year before his execution for high treason. We plan to publish our research results in full later this year.
This article is part of Conversation Insights
The Insights team generates long-form journalism derived from interdisciplinary research. The team is working with academics from different backgrounds who have been engaged in projects aimed at tackling societal and scientific challenges.
As Lord Privy Seal and Vicegerent in Spirituals (Henry’s deputy in matters relating to the church), Cromwell was the most powerful man in Henry VIII’s court. Henry’s break from the Catholic Church and the dissolution of the monasteries became an opportunity for Cromwell to advance religious reform. For Cromwell, support for a vernacular Bible (translated into English for the general population) was linked with obedience to the King. But he had to counter a strong opposition and a substantial conservative faction in court and within the church. Henry’s support for religious reform was always limited. His stance on religion was influenced more by his political aims, rather than faith, so his support for a vernacular Bible was hesitant from the start.
Cromwell thought that the best way to ensure royal support was to produce a Bible worthy of royal patronage – both in its content and in its material grandeur. Such a Bible would combine Cromwell’s own evangelical leanings with the political aim of consolidating Henry’s control over the English church. Production began in Paris. English printers were simply not equipped to produce a book of the magnitude sought by Cromwell.
A letter to Cromwell from the production team in Paris dated June 23, 1538, reveals that two luxurious vellum copies of the Bible were being prepared. It reads: “We have here sent unto your lordship two examples, one in parchment, wherein we intend to print one for the King’s grace, and another for your lordship.”
Printed on parchment and meticulously hand-coloured, these copies have survived – one at the National Library of Wales and the other in St John’s College, Cambridge. In November 2019, with the kind assistance of St John’s College, we engaged in a technical and scientific investigation of their copy of the Great Bible.
We employed various non-invasive analytical techniques to examine the St John’s Bible, including X-ray fluorescence (XRF) spectroscopy, reflectance spectroscopy (in the ultraviolet, visible and near-infrared range), high-resolution digital microscopy and advanced technical imaging. Scientific investigation of works of art has much to offer and is more reliable for material identification than visual analysis (historically the primary identification method for painting materials and techniques).
The focus of our technical examination of the Bible was the decoration. Knowledge of the painting materials and techniques used to decorate books can provide a wealth of information on production methods and artists’ skills –and, occasionally, on their identity. All of the hundreds of black-and-white images printed in the Bible were painstakingly hand-coloured by a group of talented artists for this special presentation Bible. In some cases, the artists did not simply colour in the print, but made significant changes to the black-and-white printed images used in the regular editions of the Bible.
Our investigation focused on 14 images, spread out across the volume. First, we used a range of spectroscopic methods to analyse a selection of small areas in each image, allowing the identification of individual pigments. The pigments identified throughout the volume were consistent with what is known about the materials used by Continental painters and illuminators during the 16th century. One of the most interesting results of this investigation was the fact that different “palettes” can be identified in different images, which suggests the presence of no less than six (and quite possibly more) artists at work on the decoration of this Bible.
The spectroscopic analysis was followed by high-magnification digital microscopy (in direct as well as raking and transmitted light). The close-up images captured using these methods not only provided greater insight into the stylistic preferences and working methods of the artists, but were also crucial in revealing the extent to which the printed images were modified at the painting stage.
From black and white to colour
We paid special attention to the Bible’s title pages. Each of the book’s five parts is preceded by a full, illustrated and meticulously hand-coloured title page. The title pages depict scenes from the parts of the Bible they precede (historical books, the words of the prophets, or the New Testament). We discovered that the St John Bible’s main front page was actually a hand-coloured adaption of the printed black-and-white version which would have been present in all the mass-produced Bibles. But this luxurious front page – meant for the eyes of King Henry VIII – contained some key differences, as the slider image below illustrates.
The main black-and-white title page depicts an ideal scenario in which the majestic Henry VIII distributes bibles to lay and religious subjects, assisted by two of his faithful ministers – Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, and Cromwell. Renowned art historian Tatiana String believes the printed title page was the visual manifestation of Henry’s authority. Henry reigns at the top of the page, distributing bibles to laypeople and clerics, aided by Cromwell to his left and Cranmer to his right (each identified by his coat of arms). The Word of God then reaches the general public in the lower part of the page, who duly proclaim “vivat rex” and “God save the king” (apart from those in prison, who are seen on the bottom right and shout nothing).
This black-and-white title page of the Bible masterminded by Cromwell, distilled his theory of scripture and obedience. The dissemination of the Bible was from top to bottom (literally), resulting in greater submission to the monarch. Its details reveal, however, that it moves away from the more radical reformation ideal of putting the Bible “in the ploughboy’s hands”. The laity at the bottom of the page do not hold the Bible, they simply listen to the Word of God preached from the pulpit. This was a nuanced and hierarchical way to disseminate the book and it reflected the unease Henry had with common people reading the Bible.
In the St John’s copy, the printed title pages were carefully hand painted, with the original print at times peeping through. For example, in the hand-coloured version the prison was obliterated and replaced by a dedication scene. The original brick background is still visible through the red stockings of the green-clad figure.
Cut and paste politics
The most striking modification we found has so far been hidden from scholars working on this Bible. Under a microscope with raking light, it becomes evident that some of the faces were painted on separate pieces of vellum and pasted over the existing page. A thin line can be seen under Cromwell’s face where the image was pasted in. This was done in a highly professional manner, covering much of the border area with paint overlapping the edges and creating the impression of a single image. This major modification applied to Cromwell and another key figure.
We believe that the instigator of this modification was Cromwell himself and the change had much to do with his representation on the page – a page which illustrates Henry’s complex attitude towards the lay readership of scripture, wavering between distribution and retraction. The same phenomenon, more nuanced but equally powerful, is evident in this careful modification. The pasting of Cromwell’s portrait had reshuffled political powers and affinity to the monarch.
In the original black-and-white design, Cromwell is affiliated with distributing the Bible to the laity – his coat of arms is in the middle of the page, below the figure whose features resemble Cromwell, handing the Bible (inscribed verbum dei, or “the Word of God”) to lay nobility. He mirrors Cranmer’s image, on the other side of the page, distributing a similar book to the clergy. This accorded with Cromwell’s central role in lay administration, as with his reformed leaning and his support for the printing of the Great Bible. In this image, then, Cromwell is on the level below the King and positioned in the middle of the page.
In the painted version of the title page, on the other hand, Cromwell is moved up a level and transformed into the person receiving the book from Henry’s left hand. This serves two purposes. It enhances the affinity between Cromwell and Henry, placing them next to each other. It also renders Cromwell in a more passive position, receiving the book from Henry rather than actively distributing it. Given Henry’s ambivalence towards the lay readership, this was a much less hazardous position. The careful and extensive modifications of the title page demonstrate Cromwell’s political prowess and his ability to read the political map and manipulate the visual image accordingly.
This transformation was both careful and premeditated. A back-light exposure reveals that the faces underneath the pasted elements had not been previously painted in, but rather left blank – anticipating the subsequent pasting. The scientific analysis reveals that the two faces were painted at the same time, most likely in a setting different from the painting of other features in the Bible. Very similar pigment mixtures were used across the two faces and they differ from those employed for flesh tones in the rest of the Bible.
Similarly, the pigments used in the uppermost sections of the fur garments in which the two figures are cloaked (those closest to the faces) differ from those identified in the lower portions of the garments. The same is true for the green brushstrokes surrounding the faces, painted with posnjakite (a copper sulphate mineral) unlike the rest of the grassy landscapes, which were painted in a different sulphate of copper.
This all suggests a targeted campaign. The separation between the painting of the other elements of the presentation copy and the faces reveals that the latter was carried out in a different location and at a later time – most likely in England – after the Bible had arrived from Paris. Reallocating the painting of the faces to London ensured greater accuracy, especially for those whose likeness was less well known outside of England.
In London, very few artists were capable of such skilled and intricate work. The workshops of either Lucas Horenbout or Hans Holbein are the likely location where these portraits were painted and inserted into the title page. The involvement of artists with such close ties to Henry’s court (Horenbout was King’s Painter and court miniaturist from 1525 until his death in 1544, and Holbein was also painting for the court by the mid-1530s) would have guaranteed great accuracy in the depiction of key people. The features of the upper pasted face on the title page closely resemble known depictions of Cromwell. The image of him in the hand-coloured title page is probably his last accurate portrait.
But who was the second person, distributing Bibles below Cromwell? There is no obvious answer. Based on court politics at the time, and the iconography of the portrait, we believe that this could be Richard Rich, Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations (responsible for dissolving English monasteries) and Speaker of the House of Commons. A comparison between Rich’s known portrait and the pasted face supports this hypothesis.
This would demonstrate, once again, Cromwell’s political manoeuvring. Rich, once an affiliate of Cromwell and a leading politician at the court, would have been a natural ally in the dissemination of the Bible to the laity. By placing him underneath, further removed from Henry and closer to the more tricky endeavour of empowering the lay readership, Rich was presented as subordinate to Cromwell (which was not the case at the time) and with a clearer evangelical stance (again, this was not the case).
Rich was instrumental in facilitating the execution of Cromwell soon after and this may attest to Cromwell’s distrust of him. A few years earlier, Rich’s testimony was key in the executions of John Fisher and Thomas More.
The image of the woman on the bottom right of the page (and in front of the prison in the black-and-white page) was also changed in the painted copy. In the printed image, a woman is sitting next to a group of children, her hair in curls, possibly with a white undercap. Her hands instruct the children, while she is facing the man on her left (who appears to be the prison warden).
In the painted image, however, this was completely transformed. The woman now faces the children and her features are more distinct and more subtle. Her headgear has been turned into a lavish gable hood, worn by nobility and royalty. This sumptuous gable, trimmed in gold and possibly jewelled, together with the distinctive facial features are reminiscent of Holbein’s portrait of Jane Seymour, painted in 1536.
The portrait was well known at the time and served to inspire other depictions of Jane Seymour, who was Queen of England from 1536 to 1537 as Henry’s third wife. One such portrait was made in 1539 – the same year as the hand-painted title page. The importance of this figure is revealed when looking at the materials used for its creation.
The woman’s headdress and collar are the only instances where gold leaf was used on the page. Every other gilded area was decorated using “shell” (or powdered) gold. Pigment analysis also reveals the dress, which appears white with dark grey lines, contained tarnished silver. This combination of dazzling gold and silver makes the woman a truly spectacular addition to the colour title page.
Cromwell and Cranmer had previously used the King’s affinity to Seymour to elicit his support for the English Bible. In 1537, they evoked her pregnancy in the dedication to Henry which prefaced the Matthew Bible. The title page of that Bible proclaimed: “Set forth with the King’s most gracious licence.” Seymour’s pregnancy led to the birth of the future Edward VI – Henry’s much sought-after male heir. It is little wonder then that the woman in the painted title page is instructing a group of children, with her gaze directed to them – unlike the turned head of the woman in the original image.
Seymour died shortly after labour on October 24, 1537. Henry grieved for her and cherished her memory. Her loss permeated throughout the remainder of his life and he was subsequently buried at her side at Windsor Castle. A further change of mind about this female portrait is evident in the hand-painted title page. The analysis of the woman’s dress reveals an additional layer of modification, which attests to a later transformation of the figure. Under a microscope, it becomes evident that the white of the upper part of the dress conceals a red layer of paint.
The dress was therefore originally red with a low neckline, mirroring the dress worn by Seymour in the Holbein portrait and was later modified. The motivation for this later transformation is not yet known.
Political upheaval and betrayal
The importance of this presentation copy of the Great Bible – and its sister copy held in Wales – should not be underestimated. These copies were most likely the first ones seen by Henry and his court.
The modifications we have uncovered provide a unique insight into Cromwell’s thought process. Between the design of the printed title page and the hand-colouring, he has grown more cautious and more weary of Henry’s support of the English Bible and reform in general. As a result, he wished to distance himself from the role of distributing Bibles and instead put in his place the person who was to play a key role in his downfall and execution.
The Great Bible was reprinted in six subsequent editions, all produced in quick succession between 1539 and 1541. Henry approved of the printed title page, which was kept in all editions – and later even replaced the title page to the New Testament. However, further transformations to the title page reveal the political upheavals which were to come and the ultimate fate of Cromwell.
Shortly after the appearance of the Great Bible, Cromwell devised Henry’s ill-fated marriage to Anne of Cleves in January 1540. The conservative faction in court used this opportunity to move against Cromwell, leading to his execution in July 1540 – in which the perfidious testament of Rich was instrumental.
The printers of subsequent editions of the Great Bible faced the problem of retaining the image of a convicted traitor. The solution was not to replace the woodcut used for printing altogether (a cumbersome and very costly endeavour). Instead of erasing Cromwell’s image entirely, they erased his coat of arms from the fourth edition of November 1540 and all subsequent editions thereafter.
Rather than completely obliterating Cromwell’s memory, the blank circle reminded readers of the fate of traitors to the Crown. Henry also grew disillusioned with the dissemination of bibles to the laity. He came to realise that reality was different to the ideal of the printed title page, and that reading the Bible did not necessarily lead people to shout “long live the king”, but rather to think for themselves.
Cromwell’s fear, leading him to rejig the images, became a reality. Henry’s distrust of lay reading led to legislation in 1543, prohibiting lay women and men of the lower classes from accessing the Bible. Our analysis reveals how key players reacted to political and religious changes. The image modifications have laid bare the truth of the English Reformation period and illustrated just how dangerous and political 16th-century England was – especially in the court of King Henry VIII.
The announcement by Boris Johnson, the UK prime minister, that pubs in England will be allowed to resume trading from July 4 was greeted with rousing cheers from some. But having a pint in the pandemic era will be slightly different. While two-metre social distancing rules are being relaxed to one metre to ensure economic viability for publicans, to maintain the safety of customers and staff, pubs will where practical be restricted to “table service”.
Standing at the bar is one of the most cherished rituals of the British pub experience – and many people are worried that the new rules could be the beginning of the end of a tradition that dates back centuries. Except, it doesn’t – the bar as we now know it is of relatively recent vintage and, in many respects, the new regulations are returning us to the practices of a much earlier era.
Before the 19th century, propping up the bar would have been an unfamiliar concept in England’s dense network of alehouses, taverns and inns. Alehouses and taverns in particular were seldom purpose-built, but were instead ordinary dwelling houses made over for commercial hospitality. Only their pictorial signboards and a few items of additional furniture distinguished them from surrounding houses. In particular, there was no bar in the modern sense of a fixed counter over which alcohol could be purchased and served.
Instead, beverages were ferried directly to seated customers from barrels and bottles in cellars and store rooms by the host and, in larger establishments, drawers, pot-boys, tapsters and waiters. The layout of Margaret Bowker’s large Manchester alehouse in 1641 is typical: chairs, stools and tables were distributed across the hall, parlours, and chambers, while drink was stored in “hogsheads”, “barrels”, and “rundlets” in her cellar.
The bar as we know it didn’t emerge organically from these arrangements, but rather from the introduction of a new commodity in the 18th century: gin.
Originally it was imported from the Netherlands and distilled in large quantities domestically from the later decades of the 17th century, but the emergence of a mass market for gin in the 1700s gave rise to the specialised gin or dram shop. Found mainly in London – especially in districts such as the East End and south of the river – an innovation of these establishments was a large counter that traversed their width.
Along with a lack of seating, this maximised serving and standing space and encouraged low-value but high-volume turnover from a predominantly poor clientele. The flamboyant gin palaces of the later 18th and early 19th century – described by caricaturist and temperance enthusiast George Cruikshank as “gaudy, gold be-plastered temples” – retained the bar, along with other features drawn from the retail sector such as plate-glass windows, gas lighting, elaborate wrought iron and mahogany fittings, and displays of bottles and glasses. While originally regarded as alien to local drinking cultures, by the 1830s these architectural elements started making their way into all English pubs, with the bar literally front and centre.
As architectural historian Mark Girouard has pointed out, the adoption of the bar was a “revolutionary innovation” – a “time-and-motion breakthrough” that transformed the relationship between customers and staff. It brought unprecedented efficiencies that were especially important in the expanding and industrialising cities of the early 1800s.
In particular, a fixed counter with taps, cocks and pumps connected to spirit casks and beer barrels was more efficient than employees scurrying between cellars, storerooms and drinking areas. This was especially the case for “off-sales” – customers purchasing drinks to take home – which had always been a large component of the drinks trade and still accounted for an estimated one-third of takings into the 19th century.
Posterity has paid little attention to the armies of service staff who kept the world of the tavern spinning on its axis before the age of the bar. But they are occasionally glimpsed in historical sources – such as Margaret Sephton, who was “drawing beer” at Widow Knee’s Chester alehouse in 1629, when she gave evidence about a theft of linen. While skilled – one tapster at a Chester tavern styled himself rather grandly in 1640 as a “drawer and sommelier of wine” – drink work was poorly paid. Staff were often paid in kind with food and lodgings and the work was usually undertaken by people who were young, poor, or new to the community.
The lack of a bar made the job especially challenging. It was physically demanding – in 1665 a young tapster at a Cheshire alehouse described how during her shift she was “called to and fro in the house and to other company, testifying to the constant back and forth. The fact that drinks were not poured in front of patrons made staff more vulnerable to accusations of adulteration and short measure – sometimes with good reason – and close physical proximity to customers when serving and collecting payment meant such disputes could more readily turn violent. For female employees, the absence of the insulating layer of material and space later provided by the bar meant they were much more exposed to sexual abuse from male patrons.
What can the historical record teach proprietors of any newly bar-less pubs? There are, of course, modern advantages such as apps and other digital tools – plus the example of European and North American establishments, where table service was never fully displaced. But there are practical lessons to be learned from the past all the same. Publicans today might streamline the range of drinks on offer and encourage the use of jugs for refills. Landlords could develop careful zoning for their staff – in larger alehouses and taverns tapsters were allocated specific booths and rooms. Most importantly they need to establish and enforce clear rules about behaviour towards staff – especially in terms of physical contact. Better to have premodern pubs than no pubs at all, after all.
The chances of finding another major archaeological monument near Stonehenge today are probably very small given the generations of work that has gone into studying the site. Stumbling across such a monument that measured more than 2km across must be highly unlikely. And yet that is exactly what our team from the Anglo-Austrian “Stonehenge Hidden Landscapes” research project has done.
We discovered a circle of pits, each ten metres or more in diameter and at least five metres deep, around Stonehenge’s largest prehistoric neighbour, the so-called super henge at Durrington Walls. More amazingly, the initial evidence for this discovery was hidden away in terabytes of remote sensing data and reams of unpublished literature generated by archaeologists over the years.
Durrington is one of Britain’s largest neolithic monuments. Comprising banks and ditches measuring 500 metres across, the henge was constructed over 4,500 years ago by early farmers, around the time that Stonehenge achieved it’s final, distinctive form. The site itself overlies what may have been one of north west Europe’s largest neolithic villages. Researchers suggest that the communities that built Stonehenge lived here.
Over the last decade, there has been a quiet revolution in the landscape around Stonehenge as archaeologists have gained access to enhanced remote sensing technologies. Around 18 sq km of landscape around Stonehenge has now been surveyed through geophysics. Now archaeologists are joining the dots within these enormous data set, and making associations they might not have done otherwise.
The first geophysical anomalies related to our new discovery were recorded (but not published) some years ago when a small number of peculiar circular splodges in the magnetometry data south of Durrington. These were initially interpreted as shallower features, possibly dew ponds, unlinked to the henge. But our research group realised that similar features had been recorded far to the north of the henge by archaeological contractors, interpreted as natural sink holes caused by solution of the chalk bedrock.
Our mapping work suggested all these features were actually linked and part of a single, massive circuit surrounding the henge monument at Durrington. Detailed study, including drilling for underground samples, revealed the anomalies as massive pits, with near vertical sides, containing worked flint and bone. Radiocarbon dating suggested the features were from the same time as the henge.
Shafts and pits are known in prehistoric British archaeology, but the sheer number of massive pits and the scale of the Durrington circuit is unparalleled in the UK. The internal area of the ring is likely to be at least around three sq km. This arrangement of pits certainly gives the impression they bound an important space, and here there may be a comparison to be made with Stonehenge itself.
Stonehenge actually has a territory sometimes called the “Stonehenge Envelope”. This is marked by lines of later burial mounds clustering around the monument, covering an area similar to that of Durrington Walls. The space is marked so clearly that archaeologists have suggested only a special few people may have been allowed to enter the area.
This association of Stonehenge with death and burial has also led to interpretations that it was reserved for ancestors. Durrington, in contrast, is believed to be associated with the living. But our discovery of the pits suggest that Durrington did have a similar special outer area, as large as that associated with Stonehenge.
The pit circle also provide insights into the mindset of the people who built these massive structures. The pits appear to be laid out to include a much earlier monument: the Larkhill causewayed enclosure.
Built more than 1,000 years before the Durrington Walls henge, such ditched enclosures were the first large communal constructions in Britain and they were clearly important to early farming communities. The decision to appropriate this earlier monument into the circuit of the henge must have been a deliberate, symbolic statement.
In fact, the pits appear to have been laid out in a notional circle so that they were all the same walking distance from the henge as the causewayed enclosure. Given the scale involved and the shape of the landscape, which includes several valleys, this would have been difficult to achieve without the existence of a tally or counting system. This is the first evidence that such a system may have been used by neolithic people to lay out what must be considered a sacred geometry, at the scale suggested by the Durrington pits.
The unexpected discovery of a unique set of massive pits within the Stonehenge landscape may also have implications in terms of the site’s management. There are similar individual features scattered throughout the landscape that are unexplored but may be of equal significance. Yet a proposed road (the A303) development includes a road tunnel that will pass close to the iconic site of Stonehenge itself and impact a large corridor of land directly associated with the site.
The issue of value is complex when we’re discussing a period of history in which the digging of pits clearly had a multitude of social values. We would do well to consider the implication of such discoveries before a tragic loss ensues. Future generations are unlikely to forgive us if we damage this unique landscape.
As a professor of medieval Europe, I’ve taught the bubonic plague, and how it contributed to the English Peasant Revolt of 1381. Now that America is experiencing widespread unrest in the midst of its own pandemic, I see some interesting similarities to the 14th-century uprising.
The death of George Floyd has sparked protests fueled by a combination of brutal policing, a pandemic that has led to the loss of millions of jobs and centuries of racial discrimination and economic inequality.
“Where people are broke, and there doesn’t appear to be any assistance, there’s no leadership, there’s no clarity about what is going to happen, this creates the conditions for anger, rage, desperation and hopelessness,” African American studies scholar Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor told The New York Times.
Medieval England may seem far removed from modern America. And sure, American workers aren’t tied to employers by feudal bonds, which meant that peasants were forced to work for their landowners. Yet the Peasant Revolt was also a reaction brought on by centuries of oppression of society’s lowest tiers.
Surviving letters and treatises express feelings of fear, grief and loss; the death tolls from the 14th-century plague were catastrophic, and it’s estimated that between one-third to one-half of the European population died during the its first outbreak.
The massive loss of life created an immense labor shortage. Records from England describe untilled fields, vacant villages and untended livestock roaming an empty countryside.
The English laborers who survived understood their newfound value and began to press for higher wages. Some peasants even began to seek more lucrative employment by leaving feudal tenancy, meaning the peasants felt free to leave the employment of their landowning overlords.
Rather than accede to the demands, King Edward III did just the opposite: In 1349, he froze wages at pre-plague levels and imprisoned any reaper, mower or other workman in service to an estate who left his employment without cause. These ordinances ensured that elite landowners would retain their wealth.
Edward III enacted successive laws intended to ensure laborers wouldn’t increase their earning power. As England weathered subsequent outbreaks of the plague, and as labor shortages continued, workers started to clamor for change.
Enough is enough
The nominal reason for the Peasant Revolt was the announcement of a third poll tax in 15 years. Because poll taxes are a flat tax levied on every individual, they affect the poor far more than the wealthy. But similar to the protests that have erupted in the wake of Floyd’s death, the Peasant Revolt was really the result of dashed expectations and class tensions that had been simmering for more than 30 years.
Ball was sympathetic to the Lollards, a Christian sect deemed heretical by Rome. The Lollards believed in the dissolution of the sacraments and for the Bible to be translated into English from Latin, which would make the sacred text equally accessible to everyone, diminishing the interpretive role of the clergy. Ball wanted to take things even further and apply the ideas of the Lollards to all of English society. In short, Ball called for a complete overturn of the class system. He preached that since all of humanity constituted the children of Adam and Eve, the nobility could not prove they were of higher status than the peasants who worked for them.
With the help of sympathetic laborers in London, the peasants gained entry to the city and attacked and set fire to the Palace of Savoy, which belonged to the Duke of Lancaster. Next they stormed the Tower of London, where they killed several prominent clerics, including the archbishop of Canterbury.
A bait and switch
To quell the violence, Edward’s successor, the 14-year-old Richard II, met the irate peasants just outside of London. He presented them a sealed charter declaring that all men and their heirs would be “of free condition,” which meant that the feudal bonds that held them in service to landowners would be lifted.
While the rebels were initially satisfied with this charter, things didn’t end well for them. When the group met with Richard the next day, whether by mistake or intent, Wat Tyler was killed by one of Richard’s men, John Standish. The rest of the peasants dispersed or fled, depending on the report of the medieval chronicler.
The meager benefits some essential workers gained during the pandemic are already being stripped away. Amazon recently ended the additional US$2 per hour in hazard pay it had been paying workers and announced plans to fire workers who don’t return to work for fear of contracting COVID-19. Meanwhile, between mid-March and mid-May, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos added $34.6 billion dollars to his wealth.
In early April, writer Jen Miller urged New York Times readers to start a coronavirus diary.
“Who knows,” she wrote, “maybe one day your diary will provide a valuable window into this period.”
During a different pandemic, one 17th-century British naval administrator named Samuel Pepys did just that. He fastidiously kept a diary from 1660 to 1669 – a period of time that included a severe outbreak of the bubonic plague in London. Epidemics have always haunted humans, but rarely do we get such a detailed glimpse into one person’s life during a crisis from so long ago.
There were no Zoom meetings, drive-through testing or ventilators in 17th-century London. But Pepys’ diary reveals that there were some striking resemblances in how people responded to the pandemic.
A creeping sense of crisis
For Pepys and the inhabitants of London, there was no way of knowing whether an outbreak of the plague that occurred in the parish of St. Giles, a poor area outside the city walls, in late 1664 and early 1665 would become an epidemic.
The plague first entered Pepys’ consciousness enough to warrant a diary entry on April 30, 1665: “Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City,” he wrote, “it being said that two or three houses are already shut up. God preserve us all.”
Pepys continued to live his life normally until the beginning of June, when, for the first time, he saw houses “shut up” – the term his contemporaries used for quarantine – with his own eyes, “marked with a red cross upon the doors, and ‘Lord have mercy upon us’ writ there.” After this, Pepys became increasingly troubled by the outbreak.
He soon observed corpses being taken to their burial in the streets, and a number of his acquaintances died, including his own physician.
By mid-August, he had drawn up his will, writing, “that I shall be in much better state of soul, I hope, if it should please the Lord to call me away this sickly time.” Later that month, he wrote of deserted streets; the pedestrians he encountered were “walking like people that had taken leave of the world.”
Tracking mortality counts
In London, the Company of Parish Clerks printed “bills of mortality,” the weekly tallies of burials.
Because these lists noted London’s burials – not deaths – they undoubtedly undercounted the dead. Just as we follow these numbers closely today, Pepys documented the growing number of plague victims in his diary.
At the end of August, he cited the bill of mortality as having recorded 6,102 victims of the plague, but feared “that the true number of the dead this week is near 10,000,” mostly because the victims among the urban poor weren’t counted. A week later, he noted the official number of 6,978 in one week, “a most dreadfull Number.”
By mid-September, all attempts to control the plague were failing. Quarantines were not being enforced, and people gathered in places like the Royal Exchange. Social distancing, in short, was not happening.
He was equally alarmed by people attending funerals in spite of official orders. Although plague victims were supposed to be interred at night, this system broke down as well, and Pepys griped that burials were taking place “in broad daylight.”
Desperate for remedies
There are few known effective treatment options for COVID-19. Medical and scientific research need time, but people hit hard by the virus are willing to try anything. Fraudulent treatments, from teas and colloidal silver, to cognac and cow urine, have been floated.
Although Pepys lived during the Scientific Revolution, nobody in the 17th century knew that the Yersinia pestis bacterium carried by fleas caused the plague. Instead, the era’s scientists theorized that the plague was spreading through miasma, or “bad air” created by rotting organic matter and identifiable by its foul smell. Some of the most popular measures to combat the plague involved purifying the air by smoking tobacco or by holding herbs and spices in front of one’s nose.
Tobacco was the first remedy that Pepys sought during the plague outbreak. In early June, seeing shut-up houses “put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell … and chaw.” Later, in July, a noble patroness gave him “a bottle of plague-water” – a medicine made from various herbs. But he wasn’t sure whether any of this was effective. Having participated in a coffeehouse discussion about “the plague growing upon us in this town and remedies against it,” he could only conclude that “some saying one thing, some another.”
During the outbreak, Pepys was also very concerned with his frame of mind; he constantly mentioned that he was trying to be in good spirits. This was not only an attempt to “not let it get to him” – as we might say today – but also informed by the medical theory of the era, which claimed that an imbalance of the so-called humors in the body – blood, black bile, yellow bile and phlegm – led to disease.
Melancholy – which, according to doctors, resulted from an excess of black bile – could be dangerous to one’s health, so Pepys sought to suppress negative emotions; on Sept. 14, for example, he wrote that hearing about dead friends and acquaintances “doth put me into great apprehensions of melancholy. … But I put off the thoughts of sadness as much as I can.”
Balancing paranoia and risk
Humans are social animals and thrive on interaction, so it’s no surprise that so many have found social distancing during the coronavirus pandemic challenging. It can require constant risk assessment: How close is too close? How can we avoid infection and keep our loved ones safe, while also staying sane? What should we do when someone in our house develops a cough?
During the plague, this sort of paranoia also abounded. Pepys found that when he left London and entered other towns, the townspeople became visibly nervous about visitors.
“They are afeared of us that come to them,” he wrote in mid-July, “insomuch that I am troubled at it.”
Pepys succumbed to paranoia himself: In late July, his servant Will suddenly developed a headache. Fearing that his entire house would be shut up if a servant came down with the plague, Pepys mobilized all his other servants to get Will out of the house as quickly as possible. It turned out that Will didn’t have the plague, and he returned the next day.
In early September, Pepys refrained from wearing a wig he bought in an area of London that was a hotspot of the disease, and he wondered whether other people would also fear wearing wigs because they could potentially be made of the hair of plague victims.
And yet he was willing to risk his health to meet certain needs; by early October, he visited his mistress without any regard for the danger: “round about and next door on every side is the plague, but I did not value it but there did what I could con ella.”
Just as people around the world eagerly wait for a falling death toll as a sign of the pandemic letting up, so did Pepys derive hope – and perhaps the impetus to see his mistress – from the first decline in deaths in mid-September. A week later, he noted a substantial decline of more than 1,800.
Let’s hope that, like Pepys, we’ll soon see some light at the end of the tunnel.
Captain James Cook arrived in the Pacific 250 years ago, triggering British colonisation of the region. We’re asking researchers to reflect on what happened and how it shapes us today. We will be publishing more stories in this series in the coming week.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised this article contains images and names of deceased people.
In the early Sydney colony, newcomers commonly quizzed Indigenous locals about their memories of Captain Cook and the Endeavour.
They believed the arrival of a shipload of British men who stayed for a week was an incredibly memorable event; and assumed that details of it would have been preserved — even treasured — over time.
The accounts given are hardly ever a straightforward recounting of what Cook did. And they rarely tally with what is recorded in the voyage accounts.
Rather, they carry those common qualities of remembering: telescoping, conflating, rearranging time, stripping back detail, and upping symbolism and metaphor. Unpicking the threads of these memories is vital for historians wanting to find agreement on details and interpretations, and provenance of items that changed hands during early encounters.
Some oral accounts were written down – either at the time they were heard or later. Records reveal accounts extracted out of curiosity, to assist with commemorations, or simply to pass the time.
One account comes from the early 1830s. Two priests stationed at St Mary’s Cathedral near Sydney’s Domain met an Aboriginal man from Botany Bay. They asked him “if he had any recollections of the landing of Captain Cook”? He was born too late to have witnessed it himself, but he shared a reasonably long story he had inherited from his father, the recollection of which one of the priests later published.
Similarly, in a recent prize-winning essay, historian Grace Karskens reconstructs a tantalising conversation between Aboriginal woman Nah Doongh and her settler friend Sarah Shand.
“Shand was intensely curious about Nah Doongh’s memory of her first contact with white people”, Karsken explains, but was frustratingly incapable of seeing she was implicated in the dispossession of Aboriginal people, including Nah Doongh.
Nah Doongh offered her a story about Cook, whom she presented as big and evil, violent and greedy, in a way that anticipates late 20th-century Aboriginal oral narratives.
Cook emerged as an erstwhile topic in cross-cultural conversations across colonial Sydney, but the substance of what was said and why was less dependent on the details of what Cook and his crew had done in 1770 than on the conditions, contexts and purposes of the chats.
As many have noted, discourses about Cook in Australia are neverending; but their contours and emphases change in relation to – and contribute to change in — broader Australian culture and politics.
Who is speaking?
Sometimes it is not the account given of Cook that is of primary interest, but the identity of the narrator.
Dharawal woman Biddy Giles lived around the Botany Bay area for much of the 19th century. An account she gave of Cook’s landing was written down after her death by a white settler.
He recalled she’d said: “They all run away; two fellows stand; Cook shot them in the legs; and they run away too!”.
This economical account is faithful to longer Endeavour voyage renditions. But researchers are more exercised by biographical information showing Giles was briefly married to a much older man, Cooman. Speculation swirls that Cooman’s grandfather, also called Cooman, was one of the two fellows shot.
When historian Heather Goodall in her book Rivers and Resilience returned to Giles’ life, she made it clear she thought historians who relied on documentary sources should not attempt such jumps.
Not all researchers have been so circumspect. In 2016, speculations about the identity of one of the two men shot contributed to formal requests to museums in Britain for the return of artefacts either known to have been collected at Botany Bay during the Endeavour voyage (four spears at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge) or believed to have been (a shield at the British Museum in London).
The repatriation claim repeated historian Keith Vincent Smith’s assertion one of the two men was Cooman.
When asked for advice on this repatriation request, I (Nugent) concluded there was no consensus about that assertion, noting it was unfortunate that:
historical claims which derive from inconclusive evidence, are based on questionable interpretative leaps, and are not presented in ways that recognise and respect the complexities of writing “early contact” history from fragmentary sources […] were being relied upon.
Other arguments would serve applications for return far better.
The request was unsuccessful, but the process was productive and generally positive. More work has taken place since, both further historical research and object analysis, and importantly, renewed and enriched relationship-building.
Building a material history
Retracing the speculative leaps made between the historical encounters, collected objects, and related written, oral and visual sources reinforces the urgent need for well-resourced, critically reflexive, and multimodal methods of interpretation. This is particularly true when the return of an object and the knowledge it embodies is strongly desired.
This year we will commence a new ARC-funded project, Mobilising Objects to draw together objects in international collections, images, written records, oral accounts, and contemporary expertise to generate a material history of early colonial Sydney.
The project aims to build knowledge about exceptional, but poorly-documented, Aboriginal objects from Sydney and the NSW coast (circa 1770-1920s) in British and European museums. We hope to build strong relations between Aboriginal communities and overseas museums and lay robust foundations for future projects seeking the return of Indigenous cultural heritage.
Gathering together records of oral accounts given by Aboriginal people about Cook and other seaborne interlopers, and grappling with the interpretive challenges they present, will be a vital aspect of this work.