My Own True Love and I went to Portsmouth primarily to visit the Historic Dockyards. Restored historic ships, the story of the Tudor warship the Mary Rose, the history of the dockyards themselves–it sounded right up our alley. And in fact it was. The quality of the exhibits ranged from the fabulous to the dated and dusty, but we spent a happy day there. The exhibits on the discovery and underwater excavation of the Mary Rose and the construction and conservation of Admiral Horatio Nelson’s warship, the HMS Victory were excellent. I came away with several “oh wow!” moments:
- The attempted French invasion of Britain in July 1545 was larger than the Spanish Armada. Who knew? (Attempted French invasions were a repeated theme of our trip.)
- Before mechanical watches were invented, mariners, shepherds and other peripatetic types carried pocket sundials. (Am I the only one who didn’t know this?)
- A hands-on exhibit for children included a chain mail shirt sized for a ten-year-old boy. It was so heavy I could barely pick it up. I can’t even imagine putting one on without help, let alone fighting in it.
- In 1802, Nelson commissioned an oak tree plantation in the forest of Dean. Two hundred odd years later, the oak is now ready to use for repairs to the Victory. Somehow this brought the fact that timber for ships was a major issue in the days before metal ships to life for me in a new way.
But interesting as the Historic Dockyards were, the unexpected high point of Portsmouth was the D-Day Museum. Despite the fact that I read Antony Beevor’s excellent book on The Second World War a few months ago, I was chagrined to realize how little I had retained about the invasion itself–a handful of names and a few images. I certainly knew nothing about the preparations leading up to the invasion or the Portsmouth’s key role in those preparations.
The museum does an excellent job of portraying the invasion itself, but it is not “just” a military museum. A significant portion of the exhibit focuses on social history of the period, looking at bombing raids, women in the workforce, black outs, evacuation and rationing as experienced in Portsmouth. I was particularly taken by the oral history element of the museum: the museum not only provided book after book of first hand accounts for the visitor to read, it also played recordings of those accounts in the relevant sections of the museum. My favorite line was from a woman working in a munitions factory:
“They used to tell you that you couldn’t do it, but at the same time there was no-one else to do it…You had to get it done.”
Sing it, sister.
One of my favorite history sites on the internet, Wonders and Marvels, is celebrating the holidays by giving away twelve signed copies of books by regular contributors, including Mankind:The Story of All of Us. It’s a great selection of history and historical fiction, if I do say so myself.
A new book will go up each day from December 6 through December 17. All you have to do to enter the contest for a specific book is to comment on the related post. You can enter the drawing for as many of the books as you like. Winners will be announced on December 24.
Happy, Merry, Blessed, or just plain Jolly.
Visiting the Royal Pavilion at Brighton was a sentimental journey for me.
As some of you may know, I did my PhD on the 20 year plan–in part because I kept wandering down odd and fascinating side roads that didn’t end up in the final dissertation.* Two of those academic dead ends were chinoiserie and Indian influence on English buildings. They collide magnificently in George IV’s little seaside cottage in Brighton.
The Pavilion started out as a farmhouse where George, then the Prince of Wales, happily canoodled with his long-term mistress, Mrs. Fitzherbert.** With the help of architect John Nash, the prince transformed his farmhouse over time into a royal fantasy: a Moghul palace on the outside,
“Chinese” interior decoration on the inside,
and a kitchen that made me want to pull on an apron and make a feast.
It was thrilling to see it all in real life after years of looking at plates.
Beyond the thrill of seeing the buildings, I was fascinated by two special exhibits: one about the use of the Pavilion as a hospital for Indian soldiers in World War I and the other an exhibit on George IV’s daughter, Princess Charlotte. The exhibit title calls Charlotte the forgotten princess–it’s a fair description. Even though I’ve spent a fair amount of time reading about Regency England, Charlotte had always been a little vague in my imagination. George IV’s only legitimate child, Charlotte was in some ways the alternate Victoria. Like her famous cousin, she was a short, plump, slightly Germanic princess with a stubborn streak. She refused to marry the man her father wished her to marry, the Prince of Orange (nicknamed “the Young Frog”), choosing instead the less eligible but handsome Prince Leo of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha***. Unlike her father and grandfather, the young princess was popular with the British people. Again like Victoria, she seems to have been happy with her German prince. When she died in childbirth in 1817 at the age of 21, the nation went into mourning.
As the only legitimate grandchild of George III, Charlotte’s death left the succession uncertain–and led her “wicked uncles” to hurry into matrimony. Victoria, daughter of the Duke of Kent and his brand-new wife, was born in 1819.
The exhibit left me hungry to know more about Princes Charlotte. Can anyone recommend a good book on the subject?
* This may not come as a surprise to those of you who have been reading along for a while now.
** George’s relationship with Mrs. Fitzherbert was complicated. In an act of have your cake and eat it too, they were married in what they both knew was an illegal ceremony years before he took the throne and were involved in a tumultuous on and off again relationship for the rest of his life. Their marriage did not stop George from later marrying his cousin Duchess Caroline of Brunswick, with whom he had a tumultuous, permanently off-again relationship for the rest of his life.
***Later the infamous King Leopold of Belgium, the butcher of the Congo.