London History Bulletin – February 7

On February 7, 1602 Middle Temple lawyer saw a fatal fencing match on the Bankside. This London History Bulletin tells the tale.


London calling.

London Walks connecting.

London Walks here with your daily London fix.

Story time. History time.

London. You get an appreciation for this town it’s like being in the cockpit of an extremely powerful, swift, highly manoeuvrable, state-of-the-art fighter plane. There’s the most wonderful array of buttons and levers and controls that can take you to so many amazing places so fast. Today, February 7th, is a wonderful example of the power and range of this amazing aircraft called London history. 

A lever I particularly like to pull is the one that activates what I call the Wild Surmise Afterburner. 

The name comes from the end of John Keats’ first great poem, “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer.” Chapman was an Elizabethan translator and poet. He translated Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey. Keats couldn’t read ancient Greek. Somebody lent him a copy of Chapman’s translation. Almost impossible to describe the effect it had on Keats. Almost but not quite. Because Keats found a way of describing it. It’s the Big Bang at the end of the sonnet. He says, “reading it, I felt like stout Cortez” – he gets his history wrong, it wasn’t Cortez it was Balboa but that doesn’t matter in the least – he says, reading it, it was like that world-changing moment when Cortez – or Balboa if you want to be a purist – thinking they were in India when in fact they were in Darien, in Panama, and they climbed a mountain, got to the top and there, before them, was the Pacific ocean. And in that instant, a world view – the world view – changed utterly. Here’s how Keats puts it, here’s the finale of his first great poem:

He begins, “yet did I never breathe its pure serene” – by its pure serene Keats means Homer’s Iliad – and notice he doubles up, he begins by saying reading Chapman’s Homer was like being an astronomer and discovering a new planet…then it’s onto that moment on that mountain top in Panama…ok, here’s the full octet:

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific – and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise–

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” 

Now back to my first metaphor – London, having an appreciation for it, is like piloting a Fifth generation fighter jet, at your fingertips controls that can take you to amazing places in the merest instant.

Let’s push the button that activates the wild surmise afterburner.

It’s a diary entry for February 7th, 1602. The diarist was a Middle Temple lawyer named John Manningham. Here’s that entry.

“Turner and Dun, two famous fencers, play’d their prizes this day at the Bankside, but Turner at last run Dun so far in the brain at the eye, that he fell Down presently stone dead; a goodly sport in a Christian state to see one man kill another.”

Where that afterburner takes us, in a split second, is to the wild surmise region, “my God, what kind of people were these, what were those Elizabethans like?” And of course you can riff with that diary entry. Maybe three Middle Temple lawyer friends went to the Bankside that day and split up, one felt like going to the Globe. Maybe to see Romeo and Juliet. In which, after all, Mercutio scoffs, “Alas! poor Romeo  he is already dead, stabbed with a white wench’s black eye.”

And the second lawyer goes to see the bear baiting. And Manningham goes to see the sword fight. And sees Dun stabbed in the brain through the eye. And drop dead.

Imagine the three of them in an Elizabethan tavern afterwards, comparing notes. 

But the wild surmise afterburner is an afterburner with an afterburner. Because if you think about that last sentence –  “a goodly sport in a Christian state to see one man kill another” – we’re not the only ones asking, “oh my god, those Elizabethans, what kind of people were they?” Surely, the Elizabethan writer of that diary John Manningham himself is asking the same question, “what kind of people are we?”

And the thing about London is the teeming fecundity and interconnectedness of the place. Or if you want to use the milky way of buttons and levers in the cockpit of the super fighter plane to make that same point, there’s yet another afterburner you can switch on with that Manningham quote. When I – or any of my London Walks colleagues – guide the Inns of Court we’re always at pains to explain the hierarchical nature of the beast. That the governing body of an Inn is a group called the bencher. And that the head bencher is the Treasurer. And then it’s fun to introduce them to a Treasurer who lived over 400 years ago. Yes, our man, John Manningham. First of all, that tells you how distinguished his career was. But much more to the point, thanks to Manningham’s diary we have a couple of critically important pieces to the biographical puzzle of Shakespeare’s life. For example, Manningham records that on 2 February 1602, at the Middle Temple Candlemas day feast, ‘wee had a play called ‘Twelve Night, or what you will’‘. Few of Shakespeare’s plays can be so precisely placed and dated.

Even better is the story Manningham got from an older Templar, William Towse and jotted down in his diary. The biographical anecdote tells us the actor Richard Burbage while playing Richard III, was overheard by Shakespeare making an assignation with a lady. Shakespeare usurped his place and was ‘at his game’ when Burbage announced his arrival with the agreed ‘Richard III’ has arrived. By way of response, Shakespeare sent down the triumphant message ‘William the Conqueror was before Richard the 3’. Now here’s the clincher. Shakespeare’s sexual orientation is a hot topic. But the hard fact of the matter is, the only contemporary gossip about Shakespeare’s sexual preferences that has come down to us is Manningham’s diary entry and it makes him out to be an amiable woman-chaser.

I usually make both of those points when I guide through there. And I like to top it up with the one that’s much less well known – Manningham going to watch that duel and seeing the sword thrust going straight into Dun’s eye on its way to his brain and seeing him drop dead then and there.

It’s not a pretty picture. And it’s easy to imagine the sudden hush and collective shudder that will have convulsed through that crowd. Like modern Formula One Race spectators witnessing a fatal accident, they got more than they bargained for. They saw something they’d never forget, something that would haunt the darkest recesses of their minds for the rest of their lives. And on that note it’s time to decompress. 

You’ve been listening to the London History Bulletin for February 7th. Emanating from – home of London Walks, London’s signature walking tour company. London’s local, time-honoured, fiercely independent, family-owned, just-the-right-size walking tour company. And as long as we’re at it, London’s multi-award-winning walking tour company. Indeed, London’s only award-winning walking tour company.

And here’s the secret: London Walks is essentially run as a guides’ cooperative. 

That’s the key to everything. It’s the reason we’re able to attract and keep the best guides in London. You can get schlubbers to do this for £20 a walk. But you cannot get world-class guides – let alone accomplished professionals.

It’s not rocket science: you get what you pay for. And just as surely, you also get what you don’t pay for. 

Back in 1968 when we got started we quickly came to a fork in the road. We had to answer a searching question: Do we want to make the most money? Or do we want to be the best walking tour company in the world? You want to make the most money you go the schlubbers route. You want to be the best walking tour company in the world you do whatever you have to do to attract and keep the best guides in London – you want them guiding for you, not for somebody else. Bears repeating: the way we’re structured – a guides’ cooperative – is the key to the whole thing. It’s the reason for all those awards, it’s the reason people who know go with London Walks, it’s the reason we’ve got a big following, a lively, loyal, discerning following – quality attracts quality.

It’s the reason we’re able – uniquely – to front our walks with accomplished, in many cases distinguished professionals: barristers, doctors, geologists, museum curators, archaeologists, historians, criminal defence lawyers, Royal Shakespeare Company actors, a bevy of MVPs, Oscar winners (people who’ve won the Guide of the Year Award)… well, you get the idea. As that travel writer famously put it, “if this were a golf tournament, every name on the Leader Board would be a London Walks guide.”

And as we put it: London Walks Guides make the new familiar and the familiar new.

And on that agreeable note…come then, let us go forward together on some great London Walks. See ya tomorrow.

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