Wednesday, 23 December 2009

The Ghost of Christmas presents.

This is an e-Christmas card I designed for friends in the past.

The Ghosts of Christmas Past

Perhaps because I don’t have family of my own, I find myself whiling away many an hour researching local history. It gives me a real sense of connection to an area that is not dependent on mere family roots. When I lived in North London as a child, I became fascinated by the Dudley family, who resided at the old manor house in Stoke Newington during the sixteenth century. They were kinsfolk of Robert Dudley, perennial favourite of Elizabeth Tudor, and were once graced by a visit from the Queen herself, leading to an exchange of costly presents in the form of fine jewels. After her husband died, the widow of John Dudley went on to marry one Thomas Sutton, the founder of Charterhouse public school. The manor house, which the widow inherited from John Dudley, has long since been demolished. However, only a few miles away there is a comparable Tudor mansion still standing. It was erroneously re-named after the widow’s second husband, Thomas Sutton.

Sutton House was actually built by Sir Ralph Sadlier. This courtier‘s career survived the downfall of his patron, Thomas Cromwell, after the debacle of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne of Cleves. Sir Ralph himself was led off to the Tower in chains. Somehow, he managed to inveigle his way back into Henry’s favour and enjoyed continued royal patronage under Henry’s son, Edward, and younger daughter, Elizabeth. Being Protestant, Ralph discreetly retired from court during the reign of the Catholic Mary but returned to public office when Elizabeth Tudor came to the throne. He was still active in state affairs well into his 80s and was one of the judges at the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots. I shall describe anon my recent visit to Sutton House, along with how Sir Ralph dealt with the shocking discovery that his wife, and the mother of his children, unwittingly became a bigamist upon her marriage to him.
Sutton House
For many years Sutton House was not open to the general public. Regrettably, the same held true for the Tudor parish church of St Mary’s at Stoke Newington. As an adult, I achieved my childhood dream of being allowed inside both buildings. The ancient church graveyard was always accessible to me. The odd thing is I never noticed one particular inscription until after my own house fire.  According to the account written on her family tomb, the unfortunate Elizabeth Pickett died on 11th December 1781 "in consequence of her cloaths taking fire the preceding evening. Reader, if ever you should witness such an afflicting scene, recollect, that the only method to extinguish the flame is to stisle it by an immediate covering."

In recent years, my dilettante researches into local history have led me to discover that the renowned children’s artist, May Gibbs, spent Christmas 1904 with her relatives in the house next door to mine. I used this as part of my speech in support of the redevelopment of the site. Then in her 20s, May Gibbs produced a series of comic vignettes of her holiday there, including the cartoon of the cook, proudly bearing aloft the hot steamed Christmas pudding adorned with a single sprig of holly. May’s life and work are commemorated in the May Gibbs museum dedicated to her at her former family home of Nutcote in Sydney, Australia

Christmas 1541 must have been a very grim one for the young Catherine Howard, the fifth wife of Henry VIII. Her alleged lovers had been executed on 10th December and she was awaiting news of her own fate whilst shut away in Syon House. I wonder what Sir Ralph Sadlier thought of her fall from grace, since it was her rise to power which had sealed the downfall of Thomas Cromwell and nearly resulted in his own political and actual demise. In 1906, two years after May Gibbs celebrated Christmas at the house next door to me, the English novelist and poet Ford Maddox Ford published one of my favourite novels about the doomed life of Catherine Howard entitled: “The Fifth Queen”. Having studied the relevant census, I know that Ford Maddox Ford was born on the exact same street where I live now. I also firmly believe he was born in the very house May Gibbs spent such an enjoyable Christmas in, just a few decades later.