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Today we have a special mystery:  a strange sacred underground passage of great beauty which was constructed by unknown entities for unknown reasons.  Shell Grotto in Margate Kent is an underground passage constructed entirely of seashells (or, I should say, the walls and ceilings are entirely lined with shells).  The passage is 2.4 meters (8 feet) high and 21 meters in length (69 feet) and terminates in a 5 x 6 meter (16 foot by 20 foot) chamber colloquially known as “The Altar Room.”  The entire complex is hewn out of the native chalk of Kent and extensively decorated with vaults and decorative mosaics made of local mussels, cockles, whelks, limpets, scallops, and oysters (although winkles from as far away as Southampton.

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The complex was “discovered” in 1835 and has been the subject of much speculation ever since.   Some people assert that it was a prehistoric astronomical calendar (?), a special space for Templar or Freemasonry ceremonies, or an 18th century nobleman’s folly.  The first mention of it in the press is from 1838, announcing its forthcoming opening as a public attraction.  My own hypothesis is that the grotto is a Victorian attraction.

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Originally the shells had their vibrant natural colors, but after long exposure to flickering Victorian gaslights they had blackened and faded.  Fortunately, Shell Grotto is protected as a Grade I listed building of special historical and cultural interest (although no archaeologists seem particularly interested, which reinforces my “Victorian tourist trap: hypothesis).  Whatever its provenance, Shell Grotto is certainly impressive.  It is estimated that the builders, whoever they were, employed about 4.7 million shells to make the complex.  Their initiative and hard work have paid off: Shell Grotto has a mysterious oceanic splendor and beauty all its own.  The enigma of its nature only adds to its picturesque (but haunting) charm.

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

The Union of the Crowns of England and Scotland (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

This strange work “The Union of the Crowns” is by the consummate painter’s painter, Peter Paul Rubens. It shows the symbolic joining of the crowns of England and Scotland, an event which occurred upon the death of Queen Elizabeth I on March 24, 1603. When Elizabeth Tudor died without an heir, the crown of England passed from her to her first cousin twice removed— James VI, King of Scots (thereafter also James I of England & Ireland). The United Kindom did not formally become one imperial kingdom until the Acts of Union of 1707, but once a single sovereign held both thrones, the way was certainly paved for the merger. This mighty canvas hangs in the banqueting hall at Whitehall and it shows James I attentively watching as Juno and Venus hold the two crowns over a regal chubby naked baby (who may be Great Britain or may be an infant Charles I–back when he still had a head).  Minerva joins the crowns together as flying putti hold the conjoined shield aloft among a suffusion of roses.

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

England and Scotland with Minerva and Love (Peter Paul Rubens, ca. 1632-1634, oil on canvas)

Rubens knew exactly how to pander to aristocratic tastes…and how to bang out lucrative political allegories with help from his extensive studio. There are several other slightly different versions of “The Union of the Crowns” by the master (& co.) located around England at the estates of various noblemen who stood to gain from the union. As Scotland nears a fateful electoral choice later this year, one wonders if a painter will be called upon to paint the division of the crowns by strife, nationalism, and vested interest…

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Union of England & Scotland, Peter Paul Rubens, 1630, oil on panel)

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine

Thomas Paine, the great political philosopher and revolutionary, was born in England but he emigrated to Great Britain’s American colonies (thanks partly to encouragement from Ben Franklin).  In America, Paine was an immensely important figure in the American Revolution.  His best-selling book Common Sense was the voice of the revolution to such an extent that John Adams wrote, “Without the pen of the author of Common Sense, the sword of Washington would have been raised in vain.

Paine is revered as one of the nation’s founding fathers, but his revolutionary thinking and nonconformity prevented him from fitting into American society after the revolution. Paine was an Enlightenment deist who rejected organized religion and the Bible (which he regarded as “fabulous inventions”).  Additionally, the new country (with its slaveholders, capitalist merchants, feuding states, and theocratic undertones) did not live up to his ideal of a utopian republic.   Paine became involved in a feud involving the revolution’s funding with Robert Morris Junior a wealthy merchant & political insider who had set up the fledgling American economy (although Morris himself later went spectacularly bankrupt from injudicious land speculation and ended up in debtor’s prison).  Forced out of American politics by feud and scandal, Paine went back to England in 1787.  Then, as his writings became the subject of political and legal controversy, Paine moved again to revolutionary France, thus narrowly escaping being hanged for sedition.

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1890s)

Thomas Paine (Laurent Dabos, ca. 1790s)

Initially Paine was regarded as a hero by the French Revolution.  He was granted honorary French citizenship and elected to the National Convention (despite an inability to speak French).  However, once again Paine’s liberal and humanitarian ideals caused him trouble: he objected to capital punishment and argued that Louis XVI should be exiled to the United States rather than executed.  Paine also was an instrumental member of the Convention’s Constitutional Committee which drafted a highly principled Constitution.  The Constitution Committee was a moderate (Girondin) group and as the radical Montagnards took over, they regarded Paine as a political enemy.

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

Louis XVI Interrogated by The National Convention

In 1793, during the reign of terror, Thomas Paine was arrested by the Jacobins (who were acting under orders from Robespierre).  Paine languished in jail as his fellow prisoners were mercilessly slaughtered by the terror.  Paine pleaded for help from America’s minister to France, the wily Gouverneur Morris (who is credited with writing the preamble to the U.S. Constitution), but Morris offered no diplomatic support.  In summer of 1794 Paine’s execution was ordered.  A guard marked Paine’s cell with the chalk mark which indicated that the philosopher was to be taken to the guillotine the next day.  Paine had been feeling feverish and, as a mark of respect to him, his door was left open so a breeze could blow through the cell at night.  The guard accidentally wrote the fatal mark on the inside of the door–which was then closed in the morning.  The sickly Paine slept through the morning he should have been beheaded and woke to find the fatal mark inside the cell with him, unread by the executioner’s goons.  The Montagnards lost power a few days later and Robespierre himself went to the guillotine instead of Paine.  James Monroe, the new U.S. minister to France lost no time in securing Paine’s freedom.

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

The execution of Robespierre and his supporters on 28 July 1794

For decades Paine had mingled as an equal with the most influential politicians and thinkers of France, Britain, and the U.S., however his timing was always somehow tragically off.  He left France in 1802 or 1803 just as the Second Great Awakening was bringing old-fashioned religious intolerance sweeping across the United States. When Paine died in Greenwich Village in 1809 he was almost universally despised as an atheist.  Only 6 people attended his funeral when he was unceremoniously buried under a walnut tree on his farm in New Jersey.   Yet Paine has lived on through his books.  Many of the great figures who overshadowed Paine have faded from the public memory as their political battles were forgotten, but Paine’s books still appeal to revolutionaries, nonconformists, and idealists across the ages.

The Lost Crown of Henry VII

The Lost Crown of Henry VIII

Many of the most amazing historical crowns were destroyed during the tumultuous hurly-burly of history.  This is a reproduction of the crown worn by the infamous Henry VIII, the powerful plus-sized king with many wives.  The original was made either for Henry VIII or his father Henry VII and was worn by subsequent Tudor and Stuart monarchs up until it was broken apart & melted down at the Tower of London in 1649 under the orders of Oliver Cromwell (when the monarchy was abolished and replaced by the Protectorate).   The original crown was made of solid gold and inset with various rubies, emeralds, sapphires, spinels, and pearls. After Henry VIII’s schism with the Catholic Church, tiny enameled sculptures of four saints and the Madonna and child were added to emphasize the monarchy’s authority over the Church of England.

Charles I of the United Kingdom (Charles Mytens, 1631)

Charles I of the United Kingdom (Charles Mytens, 1631)

Although the reproduction was not made with solid gold or natural pearls (which would be prohibitively expensive) it was painstakingly crafted by master jewel smiths using period techniques.  The jewelers were able to recreate the original crown in great detail because many paintings and descriptions are available, including the amazing picture of Charles I by Daniel Mytens above.  Charles I lost his head and the crown with his obdurate insistence on the absolute authority of the monarch—a point of view which Cromwell sharply disputed.

The Hannover Military Band

The Electorate of Brunswick-Lüneburg (colloquially known as the Electorate of Hanover) was a principality within the Holy Roman Empire.  In the mid eighteenth century, the region was ruled by the Prince Elector, Georg II.  A series of religious wars and a strange quirk of fate had made the house of Brunswick-Lüneburg the heirs to the British throne.  Prince Elector Georg II was therefore better known to his English subjects and to history as King George II.  In 1755, George II ordered his Hanoverian Guards Regiment to England.  The Hanover Military band went with the Guards.  One of the oboists of the band was named Friedrich Wilhelm Herschel.  Friedrich was something of a musical prodigy: he also played the violin, the cello, the harpsichord and the organ.   When the guards came to England, he liked the country and he left the band to move there permanently.  He accepted the position as first violin and soloist for the Newcastle orchestra and later became the organist of the Octagon Chapel in Bath (a chapel attached to a very fashionable spa).  Throughout his career Frederick William Herschel (for he had anglicized his name) composed a great many musical works including 24 symphonies, numerous concertos, and a large canon of church music.

Frederick’s music is forgotten today, but later in his life he found his true calling.  As his musical career progressed, he became more and more deeply fascinated by lenses and mathematics. At the age of 35, he met the Reverend Dr. Nevil Maskelyne who was Astronomer Royal and Director of the Royal Observatory in Greenwich. Herschel began making mirror telescopes for Maskelyne, personally grinding the lenses and mirrors for up to 16 hours a day.  He also looked at the universe through the telescopes he had made and reported his discoveries. What he found made him one of the preeminent scientists in history (he also became extremely wealthy and was granted a knighthood).

The Planet Uranus (or "Georgium sidus" as Herschel originally named it)

Herschel is most famous for discovering Uranus, the first planet to be found since the depths of antiquity.  His other discoveries and ideas are perhaps even more remarkable. He was first to find out that the solar system is moving through space.  He coined the word “asteroid” as a name for such objects.  By observing Mars he determined its axial tilt and found that the Martian ice caps fluctuate in size. His attempts to determine if there was a link between solar activity and the terrestrial climate were unsuccessful (because of a lack of data), but formed the basis for successful work concerning both climatology and stellar physics.  Astonishingly, Herschel discovered infrared radiation, the first non-visible electromagnetic radiation to be known.  He accomplished this by passing sunlight through a prism and holding a thermometer just beyond the red end of the visible spectrum.  He found two new moons of Saturn and two moons of Uranus.  He correctly concluded that the Milky Way is a disk.  He debunked the notion that double stars were optical doubles and showed that they are truly binary stars (thus demonstrating that Newton’s laws extend beyond the solar system).

Sir Frederick William Herschel, 1738 - 1822 (painted by Lemuel Francis Abbott in 1785)

In honor of his amazing career, numerous objects, devices, institutes and features around the solar system and beyond are named after Herschel (including the giant crater on Saturn’s moon Mimas). Few people have contributed so greatly to science or changed the conception of everything as much as this gifted Saxon oboist!

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