Postcards from the Edge

My friend Will Hill went off on a big American road trip last year, and while this still leaves me gnawing my knuckles in envy, he’s written an amazing blog post on one part of his trip, over on his blog: his visit to (or as close to it as he could get!) Area 51.

So if you’ve ever wondered just what Dreamland really looks like, head over and have a read…


There’s Something About Michael…

Today, interestingly enough, is Michaelmas, the feast day of the archangel Michael.

He’s my favourite. Well, one of them. Yes, I’m allowed to have favourite angels.


Essentially being the alpha-angel, legend and scripture between them record a long list of his attributes.

For instance, we all know that Michael is the one who defeated Lucifer – but did you know that when he weeps, his tears turn to gemstones? (Or, slightly more alarmingly, cherubim?)

He’s connected to knowledge, to light, patience and repentance; righteousness, mercy and sanctification. He assisted in the burial of Moses and depending on who you’re reading, technically it’s Michael who holds the keys to the gates of Heaven… and not St Peter.

That last one does rather make sense: if you’re going to have a bouncer on the door, you want someone who’s not afraid of a fight. And preferably carries a sword.

I’ve collected images and descriptions of Michael for a while now – but my favourite comes from Hastings’ Encyclopaedia of Religion & Ethics, where he’s described in one early tradition as having wings the colour of “green emerald”, as well as being covered “with saffron hairs, each of them containing a million faces and mouths and as many tongues”. You can see why most people opt for the more familiar armour / sword portrayal, can’t you?

Once, he was also associated (benevolently) with death: he was the one who would lead the souls of the faithful into Heaven – and perhaps this is why he is sometimes also referred to as the angel who foretells Mary’s death.

Chief of the order of the virtues, chief of the archangels, prince of the presence and ruler of the 4th Heaven: with a list of titles like that, he must have one hell of a business card.

Happy Michaelmas.

The Legend of Bleeding Heart Yard

One of my favourite London street names is “Bleeding Heart Yard”. It’s just off Hatton Garden, right at the edge of the City of London – and not far from the Barbican, where I used to live. Its unusual name stems from a particularly grim London legend.

The land was given to Sir Christopher Hatton by Elizabeth I. When he married, his wife’s dances became a high-point of the social season. One night, as a great ball was in progress, a black-robed man with a twisted hand threw open the doors to the ballroom and walked among the dancers until he found Lady Hatton; first, sweeping her into a dance, then leading her from the room.

Suddenly, there was a crack of thunder and a flash of lightning… and the assembled company heard a piercing scream from outside. Rushing to the aid of their hostess, the party were able to find no trace of her… except for her still-beating heart in the courtyard.

Lady Hatton, so the legend goes, chose to dance with the devil – and paid for it with her soul.


Heart Burials

Here’s an interesting thing: the last heir of the Habsburg Empire (who relinquished his claim in 1961) has been buried in Vienna.

At least, most of him has.

In line with Habsburg family tradition, his heart will be buried in an abbey just outside Budapest.

Burials in which the heart is interred separately from the body (or “heart burials”) aren’t all that unusual, historically-speaking. The Ancient Egyptians yanked all sorts of squishy bits out of bodies post-mortem and packed them into canopic jars–albeit for very different reasons. Medieval monarchs also received heart burials: supposedly, Richard and Henry I; Robert the Bruce and Eleanor I all rest in pieces.

From the 12th Century, the separate burial of a corpse’s heart and viscera (or intestines) was remarkably common for English & French aristocracy. As the medieval period progressed, heart burials increasingly ignored the intestines.

Often, hearts were buried at the place of death: a practical solution to the challenge of preserving a body, or were destined to be carried to a place of significance (as was often the case for Crusader Knights: some, who died in battle, asked for their hearts to return home. Others, dying at home many years later, might ask for their hearts to be buried in Jerusalem).

Special heart sepulchres would mark the burial place, while the hearts were buried inside visceral urns engraved with their own epitaphs, such as this play on Luke 12:34:

‘Ubi thesaurus meus, ibi cor meum’

Where my treasure is, there is my heart.

Aside from practical or sentimental reasons, medieval heart burials may be an expression of benefaction to a religious order – the case of a founder of an abbey or monastery, for example, may have donated their heart for burial. More than being a spiritual act, the creation of a bond between the order and the founder’s direct descendants helped to ensure their continued patronage.

But the best story about heart burials involves Thomas Hardy, whose body is interred as ashes in Westminster Abbey – but whose heart is buried in Dorset. Or possibly not. The story goes that following Hardy’s death, his doctor removed the heart and took it for safe-keeping until burial… but there is another version, in which the doctor puts the heart down for a moment… and it disappears. Suspicion falls (as it always does) on the cat. After a thorough search, the heart is nowhere to be found and instead, a pig’s heart is substituted for symbolic burial.

While it’s unlikely to be true, “The Cat Who Ate Hardy’s Heart” would make quite a story…

Alice of Abergavenny

The lower border of the third panel of the Ros tapestry shows Alice - complete with axe - seeking revenge for her lover's killing.

I’m still thinking about comics–and how they relate to women, and how women relate to them. And, god help you all, I’ve been reading about it.

Now I’m looking for them, I’ve found some fantastic blogs, articles and general geekery on the subject online, which I’ll come back to tomorrow once I’ve had time to organise the links (there will be many).

In the meantime, how’s this for Fem-Rage? The story of Alice of Abergavenny.

Her Welsh-Norman lover took her with him during the Fitzgerald-led Norman invasion of Ireland in 1170 and although the Normans were massively outnumbered on landing, their tactics enabled them to kill 500 of their opponents and take 70 prisoners. Unfortunately for Alice’s Marcher Lord, the invaders also suffered casualties–and he was one of them.

Alice’s considered response was to pick up an axe, and to personally behead each one of the 70 prisoners in revenge.

You go girl…

At the Cross-Bones Gates

Gates to Cross Bones graveyard

There’s a curious graveyard in south London. It was closed in the 1850s, having been described as being “completely overcharged with dead”, its gates are decked with ribbons and it’s where you’ll find the Winchester Geese.

Who were the Winchester Geese? “Single women”, as the Londonism went: prostitutes licensed by the Bishop of Winchester to work within the Liberty of the Clink – the fabulously disreputable area of Southwark famed for its brothels since the 12th Century (as it fell outside the jurisdiction of the City of London, the Church found it a convenient place both to accommodate female orphans and to deal with the… urges of the clergy. It was a notorious gambling spot, and riddled with thieves – a veritable den of iniquity if ever there was one). Curiously, it’s why you’ll occasionally see “goose bumps” historically used to refer to VD – to be “bitten by a Winchester goose” was to contract syphilis. Nice.

But I digress. We were talking about Cross Bones.

The graveyard was unconsecrated – burial there was the fate of not just the prostitutes but paupers too: anyone from the margins of society could find themselves among the 15,000 bodies thought to be interred there.

A vigil is held there every Halloween, led by playwright John Constable and the Friends of Cross Bones

You’ll find Cross Bones on Redcross Way, in Borough: look for the ribbons, which have now come to symbolise not just the women buried within, but all women in the oldest profession – and any of society’s outcasts, living or long-dead.


The Curious Legend of Dirty Dick

There’s a funny little pub on Bishopsgate in the City of London called Dirty Dicks. It’s narrow, but it’s easy to spot–partly because it’s got a bright red neon sign above it, and partly because there’s always a stag-night party in one stage of pissheadedness or another having their photo taken outside. It’s called Dirty Dicks (and, by the way, if you’re googling it, I cannot advise you strongly enough to check you have “safe search” enabled. Promise me you’ll check first? Please?)

It always used to fascinate me when I walked past it–usually on the way to the even more exotically-named Woodins Shades… what can I say? They had pool tables… and I figured there had to be a reason for giving a pub a name like that. Besides luring in men of a certain age wearing red polyester wigs, that is.

“Dirty Dick” was, in fact, Nathaniel Bentley, an 18th-Century merchant who owned a hardware shop and warehouse on Leadenhall Street. He was something of a dandy: stylish and well-dressed, he was nicknamed “The Beau of Leadenhall Street”.

This changed with the death of his fiancee: according to legend, he refused to wash or to change his clothes after that day, and became a complete recluse. When his cats died, he left their corpses to rot where they fell. Some versions of the story tell that his fiancee died on the very eve of their wedding and–distraught and heartbroken–Bentley simply locked the door of the dining room, leaving the table laid and the wedding breakfast to moulder within…

Sounding familiar yet?

The long and short of it was that Bentley became a celebrity of sorts–any letter addressed to “The Dirty Warehouse, London” automatically found its way to Leadenhall and that nickname, “Dirty Dick”, stuck.

Bentley ceased trading in 1804, and died shortly after. But his legacy of filth lived on: so infamous had his warehouse become that the owners of the Bishopsgate Distillery in its various incarnations bought the contents of the building and, after its demolition, moved them (cats and all) to another location nearby: the Old Jerusalem pub, which in due course changed its name…to Dirty Dicks.

As for the cats–and everything else–they used to be on display in the bar (in some instances, on the bar), although today they’re tucked away in a glass case.

Suffer the Little Children

At Reculver in Kent, not far from Herne Bay, there’s a ruined church.

The Romans–always ones with an eye for strategy– built one of their Saxon Shore forts here and it became an important lookout point over the mouths to the Thames and the Medway rivers.

Later, the Anglo-Saxon kings took it as a seat of power: Aethelberht of Kent was said to have moved his court here from Canterbury, taking over the abandoned Roman site. A large church–St Mary’s–was later constructed, and along with it a wealthy monastery. A 7th Century cross, most likely a high cross, was discovered by archeologists outside the church and is now kept at Canterbury cathedral.

The church, and the village it served, was perilously close to the sea by the 17th Century, and by the 18th, the village was largely abandoned and a new church built further inland. St Mary’s was suddenly surplus to requirements.

As the buildings around it (including the vicarage and the original village inn) were claimed by the sea, the majority of the church was demolished. Its imposing towers, the Twin Sisters, were allowed to remain as a navigational aid, and the ruins were protected from further sea-attacks by the construction of a series of groynes.

Illustrious–and complicated–as its history is, it comes with an even more interesting and particularly gruesome legend–that if you listen carefully, you will hear the sound of a crying baby in the ruins of the church. And that’s fair enough, you know. Ruined churches. They’re spooky, right? But in the 1960s, archeologists working on the site discovered a number of children’s skeletons buried deep beneath the walls of the Roman fort. The legend tells that they were buried alive as a sacrifice to protect the fort and its inhabitants….

Is it me, or did it suddenly get a bit chilly in here? Brrr.