Tag Archives: Queen Elizabeth I

Chirk Castle

Catching-up time: I’m off to England soon, so I’m posting about places I will not see because I’ve seen them before. For a hopeless Anglophile like me, England has way too many stellar sights. Chirk Castle is one of my favorites.

Construction began in 1295, under Roger Mortimer. He was an English army captain who received the land from Edward I, with a mandate to show the recently-subdued Welsh who was in charge. A powerful ring of fortresses grew within a few years on the Marches, the brooding borderlands between England and Wales.

Most of these stone piles are now picturesque ruins, but Chirk has been continuously inhabited since it was finished in 1310.

I’d like to think this emblem, showing a hand above a crown, is from the days of the Mortimers. I’m a “Game of Thrones” fan. Was Roger Mortimer the “Hand of the King?” No, actually the hand emblem is from the late 1500s, when the Myddelton family owned the place and bought themselves a title.

When they added to King James I’s coffers by paying for the title of Baronet, they were entitled to add a red glove to their coat of arms.

The original Roger Mortimer and his namesake nephew both turned against the Crown. The first died in the Tower, and the second was executed as a traitor by Edward III. Three other owners of Chirk were also executed as traitors over the years. It’s easy to imagine the castle being haunted.

In Tudor times, in 1563, Elizabeth I gifted the castle to her favorite, Robert Dudley. Some rooms and parts of the gardens still have a distinctly Tudor look.

After Robert Dudley died, the castle was eventually sold to Sir Thomas Myddelton I. His son, Sir Thomas Myddelton II, found himself in the peculiar position of being ordered to break in and occupy his own castle in 1643. It had been taken by Royalists under Charles I in the English Civil War. Myddelton was ordered to retake it, which he could have done with artillery. But he didn’t feel like bashing his own home to smithereens. Eventually, the Royalists were bribed to leave peacefully, Charles I was executed, and Chirk went on as before. If these walls could talk!

Later, subsequent generations of Myddeltons were forced to rent out their castle to make ends meet, but the family managed to hold on until 1978. Even after giving the castle to the National Trust, family members lived there, and they still actively help manage the castle and grounds. That’s a Lady Mary Myddelton above, circa 1613.

One of her descendants sits, wineglass in hand, in the Bow Drawing Room.

The room is furnished as it was for posh parties in the twenties and thirties.

A gramophone plays dance music, and visitors are invited to make themselves at home.

Maybe we should take a turn in the Long Gallery?

Wait, I heard the dinner gong!

The dining room, last decorated in the 1930s, has entertained the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Rudyard Kipling, Augustus John, and any number of other people I would love to meet.

I’m not big on romantic castle ruins, but I’d go back to gloriously UN-ruined Chirk Castle anytime.

The exuberant Baroque Davies Gates, made by two local blacksmiths in 1712, will be waiting.

Kalmar Castle Doorways


Kalmar is a pretty town on the Swedish Baltic coast. It has a spectacular Renaissance castle on a site that was of strategic importance for many centuries, starting about 800 years ago.


Naturally, it has spectacular doorways, beginning with the dry-moated entrance.


Some of the doors are clearly defensive.


Some are more decorative, but still formidable.


Some are meant to impress and possibly intimidate, like the one just past the drawbridge.


This door features the regal lions of Sweden.


Inside, doorways reflect the luxurious tastes of kings and queens.


The doorways of Kalmar Castle are all worth entering.  Everything is more spare than Renaissance castles and palaces in England, Austria, Germany, France or other European countries.  But that very spareness has its own Nordic elegance. The castle is a fascinating look at the unique ways that Renaissance ideas played out in Scandinavia.

The shop has books about Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots, apparently because most of the major rebuilding and decoration of the castle was done during their lifetimes. And at least one Swedish prince was known to have courted Elizabeth I. Of course, we all know that she said “No!” to marriage. But at the time, Sweden was a great naval power.  I wonder if Elizabeth gave some serious thought to a Swedish alliance. How might history have been different if she had said “Yes!” to a Swedish prince?

Castle doorways always lead me to questions like this.  It’s why I travel.

Why I Love England: A Garden is More Than a Garden




It seems that anyone in England who owns a patch of ground, large or small, is compelled to make it into a thing of beauty or an expression of taste. English gardeners use flowers as a painter uses color.


And an English garden is more than just pretty flowers.  It’s also a place to display the imagination and wit of the gardener. Do you have an unsightly stump with a horizontal lean to it? Turn it into a six-foot earthworm to greet your guests. This one is at the entrance to The Vyne, a National Trust house from the Tudor era. I’m pretty sure the earthworm was a modern gardener’s idea.

Maybe your stump is more vertical. The Queen turned one of hers into a giant squirrel at Sandringham, the private country estate of the Royal Family near King’s Lynn. The squirrel stands about eight feet tall.  Do children climb on it? There’s nothing to stop them except decorum–maybe the Queen will walk by.


Do you have a boring expanse of lawn?  How about a creepy-crawly spider? This one, about a thousand times larger than life-size, is at Sudeley Castle.


Sometimes garden ornaments touchingly describe history. Sudeley Castle has exquisite ivy garden sculptures depicting Queen Catherine Parr and her younger relative Lady Jane Grey, two queens who lived at Sudeley together for a time. Later, Lady Jane reigned as Queen for only nine days. The political machinations that put her on the throne brought her down quickly and she lost her head. Queen Catherine was the only wife to survive Henry VIII. She is buried in the nearby chapel where she and Lady Jane went daily to pray.


History is everywhere in English gardens. At Sudeley, antique roses are lovingly cultivated outside the castle where the 15-year-old Elizabeth, later Queen Elizabeth I, once had to fend off the advances of Thomas Seymour. Baron Seymour, always on the lookout for the main chance, eventually married Queen Catherine Parr after Henry VIII died.  Sadly, Baron Seymour’s ambition proved his undoing and he was later executed for treason. It seems that Elizabeth wisely avoided him after Catherine died. Elizabeth had suitors enough without this particular bad boy.

If your brother was the fabulously rich Baron de Rothschild and he built himself a French chateau in the English countryside, then put you in charge of the grounds, what would you come up with?


Baron de Rothschild’s sister Alice invented “vertical gardening” at Waddesdon Manor. This bird, studded with colored plants in early spring, is about 8 feet tall. Like her mega-rich brother, Alice liked to do things in a big way.


I’d love to be wandering in an English garden right now, looking for discoveries through the next garden gate. Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!


Why I Love England: History in Bits and Bobs


In the Oak Gallery at Blickling, a Tudor house in Norfolk, I came across a tall chair upholstered in red velvet. It had no label, just the usual polite note from the National Trust asking the visitor not to sit on it. (Actually, the NT has so many unsittable ancient chairs that they often just place a dried thistle or a pinecone on the seat).

I asked the friendly room docent, a lovely white-haired lady, if there was anything special about this chair. “Oh, yes!” she said. “That was the coronation chair of Charles the Second.”

Really? The coronation chair of the King whose reign ended the bloody Civil War in England didn’t rate a placard? Charles II was the English king crowned in 1660, 11 years after his father, Charles I, was executed–for treason. How could a king be guilty of treason? Charles I wanted to rule as an absolute monarch, levying taxes without consulting Parliament. Thus began the bloody English Civil War. Charles I lost.

Contemporary print of Beheading of Charles I of England, 1649, Public Domain

Contemporary print of Beheading of Charles I of England, 1649, Public Domain

Charles I was executed in public, with all due ceremony, in front of the Banqueting House at Whitehall, in 1649. It was a cold day in January, and reportedly Charles’s main worry was that he would shiver and the crowd would think he was scared. He wasn’t.


Charles I was an unpopular king, but there are countless images of him. I can spot one at twenty paces.  The painting above is at Blickling, but I forgot to take a picture of the caption so I don’t know the artist.  I think the future Charles II is shown with his unfortunate dad. The pointy beard at the bottom of Charles I’s long narrow face is always a giveaway. I’m sure I’m being way too hard on the man, but to me he always looks very aloof, with his head in the clouds.

After Charles I lost his head at Whitehall, a Commonwealth of England was declared, but it was really more of a dictatorship led by Oliver Cromwell.  Before too long the people wanted their monarchy back. This is a huge simplification of events and people that are still hotly debated, of course. Oliver Cromwell was dug up and beheaded for treason after he was already dead, but many people consider him the father of British democracy.  Anyway, once again England had a hereditary King, Charles II.  I’d have thought the coronation chair of Charles II was an important piece of furniture.

I was pretty sure the kindly docent was mistaken about the tall red velvet chair.

Charles II of England in Coronation Robes, John Michael Wright, 1661-1662, Public Domain

Charles II of England in Coronation Robes, John Michael Wright, 1661-1662, Public Domain

I found a coronation portrait of Charles II with a much grander coronation chair just visible behind him.  He was crowned at Westminster Abbey in the full splendor that the English have always done so well. Now I think the chair I saw may have been used for something else–maybe a grand banquet following the coronation, built high so that everyone could see the new King.  Or maybe Charles II just had especially long legs and this was his favorite chair. I’m not willing to give up the idea that Charles II sat in that chair.

Anyway, I love the way the British love their history.  I would not dream of contradicting a lovely, friendly docent who is working as a volunteer in a National Trust property. If I heard a mistake, I would always just let it slide.  But if a Brit heard a howler of a mistake, trust me, there would be a swift and stern correction. People in the room would immediately gather round and join the debate. Events from 400 years ago might as well have happened yesterday. They are lovingly preserved in memory and in physical objects.

The Oak Gallery at Blickling is magnificent. For the price of a National Trust pass, a visitor can trace the footsteps of Henry VIII and several of his queens. When Henry was gone, Queen Elizabeth I was a frequent visitor. Anne Boleyn was most likely born on the property, though not in the present house.  On the anniversary of her death, she is said to arrive at the house in a ghostly carriage, sadly carrying her head.   Did Charles I or II walk this gallery? I’m not sure.  I’d better go back for another visit.

Join me next time for more explorations in the art and history of Europe and the British Isles!

Tony Soprano, Gone Home to Rest

I already was missing Tony Soprano, and now that he’s gone I have to miss the fine actor James Gandolfini too.  The first time I saw James Gandolfini playing the part that turned him from a character actor into a star, I happened to be in England.  I had resisted watching a show about New Jersey gangsters, plus I didn’t have HBO anyway at the time.  But there the show was, on the screen of the little TV in my hotel room.  I was in Winchcombe, visiting Sudely–a house where Queen Elizabeth I once lived, in the days of turmoil following the death of her father, King Henry VIII.  Elizabeth could very well have ended up executed instead of sitting on the throne of England. The Sopranos explored similar power struggles in a completely different age and place.  Characters and locations change, but life’s dangers and challenges remain the same.

I don’t remember which episode of The Sopranos I happened to catch, but I was hooked.  I never did like the violence of the show.  (I don’t like the violence of the series The Tudors either, but I’ve watched it compulsively.  Good thing we have fast-forward). To me, the genius of The Sopranos was in its humanity.  Over the six seasons, there was a Shakespearean sweep to it–every aspect of the many characters’ lives was explored as they made their way through a chaotic world, always trying to impose some kind of order.

I’ve been thinking about historic dream homes like Tyntesfield. I suppose each of us has a different dream of domestic bliss. Tony Soprano’s dream home actually exists–people go to the house in New Jersey to have their pictures taken in the driveway, where Tony appeared in his bathrobe every morning to pick up his paper.  Tony loved his pool, his pool house, and his kitchen, where he was forever grabbing snacks on his way out to do who knows what.

The house was almost another character on the show.  The writers used it to make points about the characters.  I remember one scene where a designer tried to interest Carmela Soprano in some antiques for her house.  “But my home is TRADITIONAL,” she said, with that innocent blank-eyed stare she used to such great effect.  The writers said so much with those few words.  Carmela had no notion of where “traditional” style might have come from.  What tradition? Whose tradition? The less-than-tasteful aspects of the house rarely received any comment in the scripts, but the house  always spoke volumes about the characters, their backgrounds, and their aspirations.

I remember a great episode where Tony’s daughter Meadow, in rebellion, was living with her boyfriend in a miserable city apartment with no air conditioning.  At the end of a long exhausting night of bitter arguing about where they would spend the summer, the boyfriend wearily said, “Well, we could get married.”  Meadow had learned lessons in manipulation from the best–her own family.  She immediately brightened and called her parents to announce the great news, not only getting what she wanted but setting in motion a new family drama.

I looked forward to seeing James Gandolfini in whatever part he took.  He could be funny, sad, menacing, self-mocking–he had a really endless range as an actor. Now he is gone.  I hope he’s found a peaceful home.