Mary Celeste

From History Today:

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The Mary Celeste: ‘A curiosity that has never been satisfied’

The true story behind the much-mythologised ship and its vanished crew.

In 1884, the ‘phenomenally successful’ literary journal Cornhill Magazine published, anonymously, J. Habakuk Jephson’s Statement. Purporting to ‘subjoin a few extracts’ from an article that appeared in the Gibraltar Gazette, it began:

In the month of December in the year 1873, the British ship Dei Gratia steered into Gibraltar, having in tow the derelict brigantine Marie Celeste, which had been picked up in latitude 38 degrees 40′, longitude 17 degrees 15′ W. There were several circumstances in connection with the condition and appearance of this abandoned vessel which excited considerable comment at the time, and aroused a curiosity which has never been satisfied.

The Gibraltar Gazette is fictional, Marie a variation on Mary, and the discovery takes place a year late, but otherwise, the above represents a fairly accurate summary of fact: on December 4th, 1872 a small cargo ship carrying 1700 barrels of alcohol bound for Genoa from New York was found by the Dei Gratia adrift in the Atlantic ocean. As is now well known, the Mary Celeste was completely abandoned. Speculation as to what happened to its crew has been a renewable source of debate ever since.

From hereon in, however Jephson’s statement on the fate of the ship and its crew enters the realm of fiction and, arguably, has stayed there ever since. It was the first work to be published in a major publication by Arthur Conan Doyle, most famous as creator of Sherlock Holmes and victim of the Cottingley Fairies hoax. Most writers could only dream of creating such an legacy with their first notable work. Conan Doyle’s sensational solution to the mystery (the culprit is a mutilated stowaway on a cutthroat jihad against all white men) captured public attention to such an extent that the British and American governments were prompted to respond with formal denials and official investigations. In something approaching a self-fullfilling prophecy, the Statement created an interest in the Mary Celeste that has endured, unsatisfied, for well over 100 years becoming a genre in its own right.

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More at the link. Or perhaps not: see the Wikipedia article for more information, including the detail that Dei Gratia was not British, but Canadian.

The Princes in the Tower

One of the more evocative episodes in English history is the story of the “Princes in the Tower,” that is, the two sons of King Edward IV (d. 1483). Edward V (aged 12) and his younger brother Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York (aged 9), took up residence in the Tower of London in May 1483, but they subsequently disappeared, and their uncle Richard, Duke of Gloucester, seized the throne as King Richard III. He may have enjoyed some initial support in this move (no one wanted a child monarch), but it didn’t go over well in the medieval equivalent of flyover country, giving Henry Tudor the opening he needed to get an invasion force together and defeat Richard at Bosworth in 1485.

From Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle, *How to be Topp* (1954), chapter on “Uncles.”

But were they actually killed? Of course there would be rumors that the princes were still alive, and of course people would claim to be them, in the mode of the Duke and the Dauphin in Huckleberry Finn – thus Perkin Warbeck, a pretender who appeared during the reign of Henry VII. Workmen in the Tower uncovered a coffin containing two children’s skeletons in 1674; on the presumption that they were the remains of the Princes, Charles II had them buried in Westminster Abbey.

But their true fate remains a Mystery. Enter Philippa Langley, the finder of Richard III’s remains in 2012, who has embarked on a new quest to determine it. The Independent reports that she has:

“three key lines of investigation – two that have never been investigated before,” she said. “There are a couple of European lines of inquiry that are looking very interesting. We do know that [Richard III’s successor] Henry Tudor tried to destroy all copies of Richard’s legal right to the throne, the Titulus Regius. What we don’t know is how much of the other paperwork he destroyed quietly behind the scenes. So, we’re hoping that further [destruction] might not have taken place on the Continent. There might be more information available over there.”

Some British families with private archives dating to the Plantagenet and Tudor periods are also coming forward to open their doors to Ms Langley and her research team.

“We now have this incredible network of specialists around the world who are willing, ready and able to start new research into the princes. They just need to be told when, where and how and they’re ready to get on with it.

“This is a pure research project and it’s exciting in that we can go into it with a focus on this particular mystery.”

Ms Langley said she will be teaming up with professional cold case investigators, some of whom work with the police on unsolved murders.

“When you keep the paper historians out of it and ask those whose job it is to look into cold case histories, like the police, lawyers and private investigators they all say the same thing: that’s it’s very questionable whether there was a murder at all, considering what happened with all the pretenders that arrived under Henry Tudor’s reign; and second, that Richard III is not their prime suspect – because they go on motive, opportunity and proclivity.

“I’ll be using cold case history specialists because this project needs to go in places it has never gone before.”

My back gets up at her denigration of “paper historians” but hey, if she finds out what really happened, good for her. (But I guess that her attempt to discover Henry I didn’t pan out?)

UPDATE: From the article:

One area where no researcher will be allowed to investigate is the Henry VII Lady Chapel in Westminster Abbey – where the bones said to belong to the princes were interred by Charles II four years after the discovery in 1674 of two children’s skeletons. The remains were found by workmen 10ft under the staircase leading to the chapel of the White Tower.

The Church of England, supported by the Queen, has repeatedly refused requests to exhume the remains so that forensic tests can be carried out.

The point of this is to make the Queen look obtuse, but the article does not mention that the bones were already exhumed in 1933, with a report published in Archaeologia in 1935. (I gleaned this information just now from Alison Weir’s The Princes in the Tower.) After examining the bones, Lawrence Tanner (archivist at Westminster Abbey) and William Wright (dental surgeon and president of the Anatomical Society of Great Britain) certainly came to believe that they were most likely the remains of the Princes. (Whether Richard III was directly responsible for their deaths is another question, of course, and perhaps the more contentious one: the Richard III Society has for years insisted that their namesake didn’t do it.)

A Medieval Mystery!

From Smithsonian.com:

A 13th-Century Sword Is Giving Historians a Headache
The sword’s inscription is an 800-year-old mystery

By Danny Lewis
smithsonian.com
August 4, 2015

The double-edged steel sword, which belongs to the British Museum, is on loan as part of an exhibit celebrating the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta. Discovered in a river in 1825, the sword dates back to the same time that the Magna Carta was first written and was likely owned by a wealthy knight or a noble, writes Julian Harrison for the British Library’s Medieval Manuscripts blog.

While the sword’s design is similar to others found and depicted in illuminated manuscripts from the same period, it has several distinctive features, namely an inscription down the length of the blade. Written in gold wire inlaid on one side of the blade, the inscription has baffled scholars for more than a century. It appears to read “+NDXOXCHWDRGHDXORVI+” and experts believe it has religious significance, writes Harrison. However, the language it was written in is still a mystery, making it impossible to translate.

The blade is also unusual in that it has two grooves running down its length and ending at the hilt. The grooves and the appearance of the characters used in the inscription have led some to believe the blade has Viking origins, but the overall shape and make of the sword is more likely Medieval European, according to the British Museum.

If all this is perking up your ears and you think you have the solution to the centuries-old conundrum, contact the British Museum and you might just win their eternal affection. Of course, if medieval scholarship is your thing, you’ll probably think the following is old news indeed: this kind of sword was common around the year 1300 and is considered to be a “classic ‘knightly’ sword.” While it weighs just shy of three pounds, the steel was so strong and flexible it wouldn’t shatter in battle — and with enough force, says the British Museum, it could cleave a man’s skull in two. Now that’s packing a punch.

 

The Green Children of Woolpit

From Pam Wilson, an interesting article (on MentalFloss):

Sometime during the 12th century, two children appeared in the village of Woolpit in Suffolk, England, seemingly out of nowhere. These were no ordinary orphans: The boy and girl spoke in an unknown tongue, sported strange clothing, and only ate raw beans. Oh, and their skin was green.

The green children’s story began when they emerged from one of the wolf-trapping pits for which the town is named. The pits—designed to lure and ensnare dangerous wolves—were likely at least twice as tall as the children and a couple hundred square feet in area. A reaper discovered the pair and took them into town, where Sir Richard de Calne gave them a home. In time, they lost their viridescent pallor and diversified their diets, though the boy became increasingly depressed and sickly before succumbing to illness and dying.

When the girl learned to speak English, she relayed the story of their underground homeland—St. Martin’s Land—where everything was green and it was always twilight. According to the girl, the boy was her brother. In one version of the story, she said that the siblings had been herding their father’s cattle when they heard a loud noise and suddenly found themselves at the bottom of a wolf pit. An alternate report states that the children had followed the herd into a cave and had become disoriented. The sound of bells led them out, but when they emerged from the cavern, they did so in Woolpit rather than St. Martin’s Land.

Historians have stitched the Woolpit narrative together from the reports of Ralph of Coggeshall and William of Newburgh. Although neither man had firsthand experience with the Green Children, and their secondhand retellings differ in their details, the overall story is the same. Ralph was a sixth abbot of Coggeshall who lived in a nearby county and had repeatedly heard the story from Richard de Caine himself. He wrote of it in the Chronicon Anglicanum around 1189. Monk and historian William of Newburgh’s Historia rerum Anglicarum also contains the story of the children, though he was more removed from the incident both physically and in time: His version was published circa 1220 and reportedly came from many “trustworthy sources.”

Even if you prefer one account over the other, a larger question remains: is this story a folktale or some botched version of actual history?

If the story is based on actual events, there are a few plausible explanations for the green tint. One theory is that the children had arsenic poisoning. The story goes that their caretaker, an earl from Norfolk, left them to die in a forest near the Norfolk-Suffolk border. Another more likely (and less depressing) culprit is chlorosis, a type of iron-deficiency spawned from malnutrition that leads to a greenish complexion.

Yet another (and perhaps most likely) theory postulates that they were the children of Flemish immigrants who were persecuted and killed—possibly in the battle at Fornham in 1173. Fornham St. Martin was a nearby village, separated from Woolpit by a river and just a few miles from Bury St. Edmunds, where loud bells often chimed. It’s possible that the children had been orphaned, suffered a poor diet while lost and on their own, and eventually made their way to Woolpit from Fornham St. Martin by following the clanging bells.

Whatever the children’s origin, the sister eventually became integrated into English society. She was baptized and allegedly later married a man at King’s Lynn, possibly an ambassador of Henry II, though conflicting reports say she became “rather loose and wanton in her conduct.” She may have taken the name “Agnes Barre,” though as with most things in the story of the Green Children, there’s simply no definitive evidence.