Early Modern Times – quoth the ravens, nevermore

Early Modern Times - quoth the ravens, nevermore

Dear readers,

Last month, it was reported that one of the ravens kept at the Tower of London is missing, presumed dead. There are, fortunately, seven remaining ravens. Legend has it if the number of ravens falls below six, then the kingdom will fall. Although the legends surrounding the Tower of London ravens refer to early modern English history, there is no evidence that these legends are any older than the Victorian period. Nevertheless, let us review the early modern events, especially executions at the Tower, which came to be associated with its ravens–and why, under a Covid-19 pandemic, the corvid-7 are worth crowing about.

According to the Guardian article on the missing ravens, one story has it that in the late 17th century, Astronomer Royal John Flamsteed sought to remove the ravens from the Tower because they were blocking his observations, but that King Charles II refused. Another legend is that Flamsteed resisted incendiary and inflammatory calls for the ravens to be destroyed given the recent Great Fire, and so the king heeded his counsel by decreeing that there must always be six ravens, even if the populace was burning in rage and ready to put the torch to these birds.

Boria Sax, however, argues in a 2007 article, ‘How the Ravens Came to the Tower of London‘ that all such legends are the stuff of Victorian lore. Sax points out that the legendary aura surrounding the ravens and their association with executions at the Tower is most fascinatingly evoked in The Tower of London: Tales of Victorian London, a 1906 book by the famed Japanese author Natsume Soseki. Soseki received a stipend from the Japanese government to travel to London for study. Based on a tour of the Tower on Hallowe’en 1900, Soseki embellished his visit with ghostly legends about the Tower ravens and executions. From his imagination of those who were imprisoned and executed at the Tower, Soseki’s narrator discovers that the unfortunate victims are reincarnated as ravens. While in England, then, Soseki developed a raven-ous appetite for Victorian ghost stories.

Who are the ghostly ravens encountered by Soseki’s narrator? First are the nephews of Richard III, the ‘princes in the Tower’ kept there ostensibly for their protection, but to remove obstacles to Richard’s path to power in 1483. The Richard III Society has sought to overturn or at least mitigate his reputation as a Shakespearean villain (as recently depicted by Richard’s descendant Benedict Cumberbatch), but those who were convinced that he ordered the princes’ execution saw the king as ‘Richard the Turd‘ for treating his nephews as refuse.

The narrator then meets a young, beautiful woman with a karmic connection to the ravens. She is the ghost of Lady Jane Grey, the ‘nine days queen’ who was named as successor by the Tudor King Edward VI in 1553, as a Protestant heir to the throne instead of Henry VIII’s  Catholic daughter Mary. She was immediately ousted by Mary, incriminated by her father, and beheaded at the Tower in 1554. Her impending execution is depicted in an 1833 painting by Paul Delaroche, pictured above and a feature piece currently at the National Gallery in London. Delaroche’s dramatic depiction draws from English history with an image redolent (for his initial audience) of the recent Revolution in France. The ‘nine days queen’ captured the English imagination, particularly as a last desperate Protestant hope before the Grey days of Catholic persecution. She is immortalised not only in paintings such as Delaroche’s but also Soseki’s tale of ‘Grey-vens’ at the Tower.

Soseki’s narrator also meets Sir Walter Raleigh. Raleigh (ca. 1552-1618) was among the most accomplished and famous figures in the court of Queen Elizabeth I. He was a privateer in the West Indies, suppressed a rebellion in Ireland, embarked on colonising expeditions to Virginia, and vainly sought out the famed land of El Dorado in South America. Although he was, for a time, the most celebrated courtier under Elizabeth and brought both tobacco and the potato to England, he was also imprisoned and exiled after displacement by the Earl of Essex as Elizabeth’s favourite. His fortunes turned decisively for the even worse with the accession of James I in 1603. Raleigh was falsely suspected of conspiracy against King James, and was imprisoned in the Tower for 13 years. There he wrote a history of the world and engaged in chemical experiments to condense salt water into fresh water. After freedom and a disastrous expedition to South America and the Caribbean, Raleigh was arrested and executed for having fought with the Spanish despite stern orders not to do so. For all of his power and fame, he was not able to Raleigh his supporters to his defence.

Finally, the narrator meets other ghosts of the Tower, including Guy Fawkes, a conspirator against King James in the 1605 Gunpowder Plot (the subject of this 2018 issue of Early Modern Times). Despite, presumably, his own claims to be only crazy like a Fawkes, the plot to blow up parliament and the king along with it was discovered and thwarted. This Catholic conspirator is far less sympathetic to the English imagination than the other figures encountered by Soseki’s narrator, but as a legendary figure is still included in his tale: a Fawkes turned raven.

The legends of the ravens of the Tower of London show how the English, at least since the 19th century, have turned their early modern history into material for ghost stories and tall tales. Of course, the more sceptically minded might regard all of this as stuff and nonsense, the products of a mind that’s gone stark raven mad.

Till next time,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Daylight Ravens Time Studies Program

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