Monthly Archives: January 2017

Names Matter

Names matter. Over the centuries a person’s family name could cost them their life. Exile, imprisonment or death faced those who, at the wrong time or place, were associated with the families of Plantagenet, Tudor or Stuart. After a long period of relative stability under the Hanoverians, the last royal name change occurred in 1917, 100 years ago.

King George V

Queen Elizabeth II is the 7th great grand-daughter of the first Hanoverian monarch, George I, who became king in 1714. During that time the royal surname has been changed twice. The first was in 1840, when Queen Victoria married Albert and chose to take his surname in place of Hanover. His surname, reflecting his family origins, was “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha”. This remained the royal surname for the next 77 years, when the First World War brought about another change.

World War One was named “The Great War” for a reason: it was by far the most widespread and deadly conflict the world had ever seen. In Great Britain, patriotic fervour reached such a pitch that German immigrant families came under attack. Many had settled in London’s East End, where they worked in the sugar baking industry. As the war progressed they were increasingly persecuted and one of their most popular gathering places, the King of Prussia pub, was renamed the King Edward VII.

In March of 1917, in the first use of powered aircraft in warfare, the German Air Force began launching strategic bombing raids over London.  Though initially plagued by equipment failures, the German heavy bombers eventually began to pose a significant threat to civilian populations. In June 1917, the most devastating such raid took place over Poplar in East London. The death toll of 162 included 18 schoolchildren found in the rubble of a local primary school. Adding insult to death and injury, the aircraft used was the Gotha G.IV, after its place of manufacture. The Germanic nature of “Saxe-Coburg-Gotha” had already become an embarrassment. This clear association with the surname of the King proved fateful.

The Gotha G.IV Heavy Bomber

After three years embroiled in a conflict costing millions of lives against an enemy led by his own cousin, this was too much for King and country to tolerate. The following month George V issued a proclamation renouncing all his German titles, revoking all British titles held by his German relatives, and declared that the House and Family of Saxe-Coburg-Gotha  would henceforth be known by the name Windsor.  The old surname was gone, but not before George V’s cousin Kaiser Wilhelm used the occasion to joke that he was looking forward to seeing a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Merry Wives of Saxe-Coburg Gotha”.

The choice of “Windsor” reflected the long association of the castle with the Royal Family. And so it has remained, though the name was briefly challenged in 1952, when Prince Philip’s uncle and mentor, Lord Louis Mountbatten, attempted to use the accession of Elizabeth II as a pretext to rename the royal family the “House of Mountbatten”. This was quickly squashed by the new Queen and her family, though later she authorised the use of the surname “Mountbatten-Windsor” for those of her children who chose to do so. However the next three generations of successors are firmly within the House of Windsor, so the name is likely to remain unchallenged for the foreseeable future.

400 Years of Beauty and Culture

In any other century, the reputation of Elias Ashmole might have been pre-eminent. But alongside Isaac Newton, Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and countless other thinkers of the Enlightenment, it gets lost in the shadows. His name might even have been forgotten entirely were it not for the perfect jewel of a museum that bears his name.

Elias Ashmole

Born in Lichfield 400 years ago this year, Ashmole had the sort of wide-ranging intellectual curiosity typical of the time. His interests encompassed natural philosophy, mathematics, alchemy and astrology, though he was at heart an antiquarian. He qualified as a solicitor but earned a living through his military role in support of the Royalists and King Charles I. Stationed in Oxford, he lodged at Brasenose College and took advantage of his proximity to the university by studying mathematics and physics.

Despite these academic pursuits Ashmole was practical and ambitious. In order to live comfortably while pursuing his intellectual interests he did what any resourceful 17th century gentleman might do: he set about finding a wealthy widow to marry. The lucky lady (if that is the right description) was the thrice-widowed Lady Mary Mainwaring, 20 years his senior. Though successful in its primary purpose of securing his fortune, the marriage was opposed by the bride’s family and led to an acrimonious separation.

After the Restoration, Ashmole was rewarded for his loyalty to the King with many public offices, including that of Accountant-General of the Excise. These conferred not just wealth but the power of patronage; he was a made man.

First and foremost, Ashmole was an antiquarian and a collector, especially of manuscripts. He was always more of a student than a practitioner, obsessively cataloguing his own collections as well as those of others. He befriended the botanist and plant hunter John Tradescant the Younger, whose collection he inherited after Tradescant’s death in 1662. This, combined with his own extensive collection of artefacts and manuscripts, formed the basis of his bequest to found a museum for the University of Oxford. In the event, the Tradescant collection formed the majority of the bequest after a fire at Middle Temple destroyed most of Ashmole’s own contribution, which lead to Ashmole being accused in some quarters of stealing the Tradescant legacy and glorifying his own name.

Ashmolean Museum

After two unsuccessful attempts to enter Parliament and completing a definitive history of the Order of the Garter, Elias Ashmole died at his Lambeth home in 1692.

Whilst not an Enlightenment A-lister, his name lives on in the outstanding museum, known simply as The Ashmolean, he founded in 1683. With a strong claim to be the country’s first truly public museum (it predates the British Museum by some 76 years), the Ashmolean has a diverse collection of exceptional quality. Its main advantage over the British Museum is its size. A perfect example of the principle that “less is more“, the Ashmolean is human and manageable. And yet it boasts exhibits ranging from very fine European paintings and drawings, to Anglo-Saxon treasures, Egyptian pre-dynastic sculpture and treasures from ancient Minoa. Housed in a handsome neoclassical building on Beaumont Street, the interior was extensively renovated between 2006 and 2009 and now has five floors of excellent exhibition space. This has clearly paid dividends and the Ashmolean is now the most visited museum outside London. Located in the centre of Oxford, it is surrounded by amenities, it is accessible and best of all, entry to all but special exhibitions is absolutely free of charge. More details here: