Two for the price of one – a second Today (Jan. 4) in London History

Did two for today. Couldn’t decide between them. So what the hell, I’ve put both of them up. This one’s a grab-bag, a bit flakey – but after that fire in Whitehall something like this is what the doc ordered.


London calling. It’s January 4th. 

January 4th, 1568. Some chronological context: the big news the year before was something that had never been done before: a Census of Foreigners in London.  It had counted 1 Walloon, 2 Danes, 44 Burgundians, 40 Scots, 45 Spaniards and Portuguese, 140 Italians, 428 Frenchmen and 2,030 Dutch. To get that into perspective, today there are about 250,000 French people in London. And a similar number of Scots. 

Anyway, That was 1567. In our year – 1568 – a little boy in Stratford named William Shakespeare is coming up to his fourth birthday. Just ahead, 1569, the first Lottery in England will take place. 

So where are we and what are we doing on January 4th, 1568?

We’re at a funeral in an old London church. The obsequies over, the man we’re honouring and remembering, is buried on the north side of St Sepulchre without Newgate. Buried in St. Stephen’s Chapel.  

The man we’re honouring, remembering – the man whose mortal remains we’re burying – is Roger Ascham. 

His light going out, Ascham had made his last confession to the parish priest there a few days before, saying, simply, “I want to die and be with Christ.” Roger Ascham was in his early 50s, approximately the same age as Shakespeare when he died. He is believed to have died of malaria. 

Now to come to the point – the first point at any rate – Roger Ascham was Princess Elizabeth’s tutor. He taught – when she was a teenager – the future Good Queen Bess. Taught her well. 

The youngster had a flair for languages. By the time she was 11 she spoke five language fluently. Her tutor, Roger Ascham – the man we’re burying today – upped the ante to seven, or eight if you count the smattering of German that she knew. The seven she could speak or read were English, Welsh, Greek, Latin, Spanish, French and Italian. 

Accomplished is hardly the word for it. 

Later, Ascham would be her Latin secretary. Many an evening the Queen would read with him after dinner from favourite Greek and Latin works. 

I’m not going to comment on that – I’m just going to let it sink in.

Now at this point the path we’re on trisects. We can go one of three ways. One path takes us back over the course of Roger Ascham’s life. A second path explores the church, St. Sepulchre. The third path hares off in the foreign language direction, specifically ancient Greek, which Queen Elizabeth read, most evenings, thanks to the efforts of the man we’re burying today.

The third path – the matter of ancient Greek and London and Londoners – is dottier than the other two paths, so naturally it’s the one we’re going to go skipping down. See what’s there. 

Just a quick run-through, really. We’ve got Queen Elizabeth I nightly reading ancient Greek. And Latin. Those classical languages keeping company with the half-dozen other languages she knew. Let’s skip ahead to another Queen – a Queen of English Literature: Virginia Woolf. This factoid is sad – and remarkable. In her periodic bouts of madness Virginia Woolf could hear birds singing to her in ancient Greek. And how about the Great Philosopher John Stuart Mill. John Stuart Mill’s father didn’t set any store by modern educational methods. So he took his son’s education personally in hand. James Mill was spot on. By the time John Stuart Mill was three years old he could read and write ancient Greek. And Latin followed not long after. The nervous breakdown came along about 20 years later.

And what about the 14th Earl of Derby, one of the forgotten premiers of the Victorian age. He led the Tory party for 22 years, between 1846 and 1868. In his spare time – when he wasn’t displaying “boisterous jollity at race meetings” – Derby translated the Iliad into English blank verse.

It’s a rich vein, this. The great Romantic poet John Keats could not read Ancient Greek. His, Keats’, first encounter with the Elizabethan poet and translator George Chapman’s Homer, sparked Keats’ first great poem, called On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer. It’s a sonnet, so it’s not long. I’ll read it at the end of the podcast. One more: the British Museum’s – the world’s – greatest treasure: the Rosetta Stone. The key that unlocked Egyptology. A decree – an official message – is inscribed on the stone three times: in hieroglyphics (which nobody knew how to read), in demotic (the language of ordinary Egyptian people) and in ancient Greek. Scholars could read Ancient Greek. They realised it was a translation, what it was saying in Ancient Greek was what the hieroglyphics were saying in ancient Egyptian. It was a Eureka moment – there, set in stone, was the Egyptology key of keys.

And on that note, here’s Keat’s sonnet, On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

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.

Last point, pretty obvious point, really – London and London’s history and London’s literature – they’re realms of gold. Worth travelling in. 

Good night. From London.


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