The open area round the cathedral at Exeter in Devon is called the Cathedral Close, once the heart of the city. In medieval times it contained streets of houses, the burial ground for the entire city and even churches and chapels. Those living there were closely connected with the church, while the open space was used for recreation by all and sundry, rubbish was dumped, bonfires lit, animals roamed, and games played amidst the grave markers. The Close was not a tranquil place, but a frontier zone between the cathedral and the city.
In the late 13th century, relations between the cathedral and the city were especially bad. In what appears to have been a flawed election, John Pycot became dean of the cathedral, and so Peter Quinil, the bishop, tried to oust him. Pycot was an Exeter man whose supporters included the mayor, and they singled out Walter de Lechlade as their main opponent on the bishop’s side. As the precentor of the cathedral, Lechlade’s job was to organise the cathedral’s services, but on the night of 10th November 1283, he was murdered in the Cathedral Close. Continue reading →
Decimal coinage has been the legal currency in Britain for 45 years, since 1971, based on pounds and pennies (with 100 pennies equivalent to one pound), so that a price of £1.05P means one pound and five pennies. There are still plenty of people who remember a pre-decimalisation time when £.s.d. was the abbreviation for money – pounds, shillings and pence. Of those three letters, only the £ sign (an embellished form of ‘L’) remains in use.
The letters L.s.d. developed from Roman times when gold was the basis of coinage, along with silver. The ‘L’ or ‘£’ originated from the Latin word libra (plural librae), meaning a pound in weight (not librum as it is at times incorrectly written). The ‘s’ came from the Latin word solidus (plural solidi), which was a type of late Roman gold coin. The ‘d’ came from the Latin word denarius (plural denarii), which was a Roman silver coin (see the picture). The value of these Roman coins depended on the amount of gold and silver they contained, and when coins were debased, their relative values changed.
A denarius of Hadrian who was Roman emperor AD 117–138
With the fall of the Roman Empire in western Europe, the use and minting of coins were disrupted. With gold in short supply, Continue reading →
Cyprus, a beautiful island in the eastern Mediterranean, is now mainly known as a popular holiday destination. With its pleasant beaches, beautiful mountains and bright sunshine, it is difficult to imagine that this island was once the heart of the sugar industry that supplied western Europe. Before the medieval period, honey was the source of sweet flavouring. The cultivation of sugar cane probably originated on the islands of the south Pacific, gradually spreading to India and China. It slowly expanded westwards, to Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean, and by the 10th century there is evidence of a sugar industry in Cyprus.
Sugar cane growing in Egypt (left) and before processing
When western armies went on crusade to the Holy Land, they encountered sugar cane for the first time. Gradually, sugar became known in Europe, initially as a medicine. Continue reading →
Returning to the story of Magna Carta, once King John had sworn the agreement with the barons, the scribes made numerous copies of the charter, probably in the king’s chancery at Windsor castle. This was the government office that created and archived official documents, and it travelled with the king. These copies of Magna Carta were distributed throughout England to inform people what had happened. Four copies have survived, as well as several later versions. In an era long before paper, documents were handwritten with quill pens Continue reading →
Inevitably, many myths have grown around Magna Carta, such as King John signing the charter on an island in the River Thames at Runnymede, so ensuring the freedom of the individual. Much of this is untrue. Another misconception is that only one copy of Magna Carta exists. Even its name was not used at the outset.
The United States commemorates Magna Carta with an oak tree at Runnymede
In 1199 John was anointed and crowned king, giving him divine sanction to rule. The ‘feudal system’ (introduced after the Norman Conquest in 1066) controlled English society – ‘feudal’ was a term coined centuries later from Continue reading →