Injustice in 1605?

BBC News: Free the Gunpowder Plot One.

Was one of the Gunpowder Plotters an innocent victim of circumstance? As effigies of Guy Fawkes again go up in flames, is it time to rectify a 400-year-old miscarriage of justice?

After the failed attempt to blow up Parliament in November 1605, Henry Garnet, a Jesuit priest, was hanged, drawn and quartered, and his parboiled head displayed on London Bridge.

A 17th Century book describing the execution of this "barbarous traitor" sold at auction last year, with the unique selling point that its cover was allegedly made from the executed man’s skin. But was the subject of this text really guilty? On the day when the UK marks the anniversary of its most famous attempted coup, a historian is asking some awkward questions about one of those executed for his role in the Gunpowder Plot.

We will never truly know whether Garnet was innocent or not. The Gunpowder Plot Society isn’t convinced. They say that Garnet knew of the plot and did nothing to prevent it, making him culpable. Garnet was not one of the thirteen plotters but the Gunpower Plot Society has a profile of him, along with everyone else involved or touched by the plot and an excellent overview of the plot itself.

I’m not convinced Garnet was innocent.

Early Computing

BBC News: Celebrating the UK’s computer pioneers

"The layman when asked about the introduction of steam power will usually reel off Newcomen, Watt and Trevithick," said Chris Burton, of the Computer Conservation Society.

"But when it comes to computer pioneers they are absolutely baffled," he said. "They have no idea." When pushed, he said, they might be able to remember the name of Alan Turing but few know of any others beyond that.

Turing established the conceptual and philosophical basis for the rise of computers in a seminal 1936 paper called "On Computable Numbers". But it took a large cast of engineers and scientists to solve the real world problems that arise when those ideas are turned into whirring, clicking reality. At Bletchley Park forerunners of modern computers were built to help the Allies crack German codes.

Interesting article about the early machines. Baking and catering company Lyons had one of the early number crunchers, Edsac, and used it for calculating what the Lyons tearoom people should be paid. The Bletchley Park website is worth a visit.

Sounds of Doctor Who

BBC News: Lost tapes of the Dr Who composer.

A hidden hoard of recordings made by the electronic music pioneer behind the Doctor Who theme has been revealed – including a dance track 20 years ahead of its time. Delia Derbyshire was working in the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop in 1963 when she was given the score for a theme tune to a new science fiction series. She turned those dots on a page into the swirling, shimmering Doctor Who title music – although it is the score’s author, Ron Grainer, who is credited as the composer. Now David Butler, of Manchester University’s School of Arts, Histories and Cultures has revealed for the first time the existence of 267 tapes found in Ms Derbyshire’s attic when she died in 2001. They were, until last March, in the safekeeping of Mark Ayres, archivist for the Radiophonic Workshop – and have lain unheard for more than 30 years.

There are five sound samples to hear on the article, including the original Doctor Who theme. Fascinating!

Living history

BBC News: Ancient tree ‘one of UK’s best’

An ancient Perthshire yew has made the top 10 in a list of the most important trees in the UK. The Fortingall Yew, which grows at a churchyard near Aberfeldy, could be up to 5,000 years old and is among the oldest living organisms in Europe.

Local legend has it that Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor who oversaw the crucifixion of Jesus, was born in its shade and played there as a child. It is heading a list of 22,000 trees being compiled by the Woodland Trust. The document is being drawn up to highlight the need to protect the UK’s trees.

A tree that’s five thousand years old, the mind boggles. What was it like in 3000BC when that tree first put out leaves?

We used to go to Thetford Forest when I was a child, I remember Dad lighting one of those portable gas stoves with the blue cannisters in a clearing covered with pine needles, and Mum sitting in the boot of a huge light blue car drinking tea from a thermos flask. The forest was a haven for red squirrels. It was created after World War I so nothing in there would be in the list of ancient trees. Grimes Graves, a neolithic flint mine, is in the forest, we visited there and I freaked out about being so far underground.

Tudor re-enactment

Fascinating article about Tudor re-enactment at Kentwell Hall in Suffolk BBC News: Upstairs, downstairs.

Last weekend I travelled back in time to a place where the worlds of those with lavish lifestyles were of necessity closely intertwined with those who provided them with all their everyday needs – the year was 1588, the place, Kentwell Hall in Suffolk.

Each summer for the past 30 years, Kentwell Hall has been transformed by owner Patrick Phillips and his wife Judith into a living replica of itself in a given year during the 16th Century. For three weeks continuously, between 200 and 400 volunteers, steeped in Tudor history, ranging in age from infants to sprightly octogenarians, live and breathe the period from dawn to dusk.

The article is about the disconnection between the wealthy and the poor, which was not possible in Tudor times. Kentwell Hall is a beautiful red brick building in Long Melford. Their Tudor re-creations web page has some video clips from their DVD for schools. They do several re-creations through the year, but the summer one is biggest with three to four hundred people involved.

I’ve been reading about Medieval times lately (William Manchester "A World Lit Only By Fire" and Norman Frank Cantor "In the wake of the plague"), and Tudor times seem positively civilised in comparison.

St. Distaff’s Day

According to the Book Of Days (scroll down), January 7th is St Distaff’s Day. There is no saint called Distaff, it was just the day people were expected to return to work, and work for the women included spinning. Robert Herrick wrote this poem about it:

St. Distaff’s Day; Or, the Morrow after Twelfth-day

Partly work and partly play

You must on St. Distaffs Day:

From the plough soon free your team;

Then cane home and fother them:

If the maids a-spinning go,

Burn the flax and fire the tow.

Bring in pails of water then,

Let the maids bewash the men.

Give St. Distaff’ all the right:

Then bid Christmas sport good night,

And next morrow every one

To his own vocation.’

I went back to work today, despite my main route being closed for the next year. I’ll be spinning in the evening. Still working on the baby camel.

The Great Charter

BBC News: Charting out the Magna Carta.

The latest chapter in the history of the Magna Carta is the sale of one example of it, sealed by King Edward I and dating from 1297, which has been sold at Sotheby’s in New York for £10.6m ($21.3m). It came into being as the result of a dispute between King John, English barons and the political community of the kingdom, and went some way towards limiting the authority of the king. The first was sealed in 1215, and not signed as is often thought, by King John at Runnymede. The final one was issued in 1300. This has led to 17 surviving versions from the 13th Century, including the one sold at Sotheby’s.

The original set of rulings still have some resonance in modern-day English law, as they contain the principle of Habeas Corpus, which protects people against unlawful imprisonment. Also, the right of trial by jury can be traced back to the Magna Carta. And it is a document that was much studied and revered in the United States several centuries ago, as that nation fought for its independence from Britain.

I didn’t know the American founders were so interested in it! The article mentions Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln both studying the Magna Carta. How many of our documents will still be around in seven hundred years time? With changing data formats, we’re lucky to manage a mere decade in electronic format.