British Museum blog

Building a nation

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode The Flag That Failed examines some of the challenges involved in uniting England and Scotland.

Design proposals for the new flag of Great Britain, from 1603-4. © The Trustees of the National Library of Scotland


John Morrill, Professor of Early Modern History, University of Cambridge

I think James had real problems with the union of England and Scotland from the very beginning. There was the great problem that he was a Scot taking over England – the junior kingdom taking over the senior kingdom, as it were – by which I mean that for many centuries the English had claimed that Scotland was a feudal dependency of England.

Such historical prejudices and historical legacies made it very difficult for a rapid movement. Initially, James went for an all-out push for union; political union, economic union, religious union. But very quickly he saw that the scale of the opposition was too great so he backed off and went for what he called the `union of hearts and minds’.

There was such a long animosity between the peoples of England and Scotland that the idea of them becoming one new people came up against a huge amount of prejudice. James wanted to try and get rid of this prejudice. For many centuries there had been border raiding and people in the far north of England rustling and stealing in southern Scotland and visa versa. What James did was to create a new administrative structure called the Middle Shires which brought the English and Scots together to sort out lawlessness in this particular region, and it worked pretty well.

James did small things wherever he could which slowly and surely moved the two nations towards being willing to have more of a union. He created a new coinage and, as we hear in today’s programme, he attempts to create a flag for this new nation.

What he couldn’t do is anything which affected legal freedom, and he couldn’t touch the property of the subjects in either kingdom without the agreements of his parliaments. The problem was the English would always preferred to create common institutions covering the whole of the island, so there would be one parliament, there would be one system of law, there would be one church. What the Scots preferred was a federal structure in which both countries retained independent institutions but they co-ordinated, they worked together. In a sense the Scots would always prefer devolution to integration.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme The Flag That Failed

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , , , , ,

The role of the pedlar

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Disguise and Deception looks at the importance of appearances in Elizabethan England.


Margaret Spufford, historian

The pedlar was a very elusive figure indeed. He (or she – there were women pedlars too) was peripatetic and they lived literally near the edge of society, the vagrant fringe.

Pedlars were essentially salesmen who worked in and out of markets and there were large groups of them around big towns. London had the largest contingent of pedlars who would have worked out of the city, up and down the roads. There would have been people circulating to and fro; some people travelled as far as Edinburgh to London and back. They travelled by foot, carrying their wares in packs on their backs. As they became more prosperous, they might have been able to afford to buy a horse.

As well as pedlars based in the bigger cities, there were those based solely in individual market towns all over the country. They would live in a market town and would work out of it, circulating during the week to spread wares.

Pedlars were also entertainers. They were certainly multi-skilled and often earned their night’s lodging by singing. They sang, told stories, shared the latest news. Pedlars were talkers and were highly socially skilled people. In fact, I would say that the whole business of singing and performing which you find amongst these people is an aid to selling. The skills are almost indistinguishable, they have to be entertainers to make a living.

Their role was extremely important in circulating goods and news very widely, but they were unpopular with the authorities. Pedlars were heavily legislated against. I think there were something like 11 bills in parliament against pedlars and hawkers in the 17th century. They were beaten, they were unpopular and with a town’s shopkeeper they were very unpopular indeed because their living was being undercut by the pedlars’ presence.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Disguise and Deception

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , , , ,

The Salcombe Bay treasure

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode From London to Marrakech looks at sunken treasure and global trade networks.


Venetia Porter, curator, British Museum

This extraordinary find, discovered at Salcombe Bay in Devon in 1994, provides a glimpse into a fascinating period of history. In 1585, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the Barbary Company was established to facilitate trade between England and Morocco. English merchants were excited by the commercial possibilities of obtaining sugar, saltpetre for making gunpowder and gold which was in short supply in Europe at this time.

Stories of the Moroccan ruler Ahmad al-Masur’s 1591 conquest of gold-rich Timbuktu and Gao in West Africa filtered out to the West and increased the desire for trade. A letter from one Laurence Madoc to Anthony Dassel (called ‘a merchant of London’ in Richard Hakluyt’s Principal Navigations) describes the feat of the conquest: ‘there went… for those parts seventeen hundred men: who passing over the sands for want of water perished one third part of them: and at their coming the Negroes made some resistance but to small purpose.’ Madoc marvels at the quality of gold available to the Moroccan ruler: ‘The rent of Tomboto [Timbuktu] is 60 quintals of golde by the yeere’ (approximately 600 kilos).

Ahmad al-Mansur (r.1578-1603) was known as al-Dhahabi, ‘the golden one’. He is said to have paid his functionaries in pure gold; his palace supposedly had golden walls. Legend also has it that during his reign, ‘1,400 hammers continuously struck coins at the palace gate.’ He had excellent relations with Elizabeth I. About a quarter of the coins from the wreck – more than a hundred – were struck by this ruler, and another hundred were struck by one of his sons Mawlay Zaydan (r.1608-27). The rest are mostly coins of other members of the family, down to the 1630s.

How were they acquired? In the souk of any city in the Islamic world, money-changers and dealers in jewellery would have been located together and often conducted both businesses. The fact that much of the jewellery is in pieces suggests that out merchant or sea captain obtained this as bullion to be melted down.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme From London to Marrakech

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on, , , , , , ,

‘Eerie’ innovation from the seventeenth century


An Van Camp, curator, British Museum

If you visit Room 90 on the fourth floor here at the British Museum, you will find a display of some of the stranger prints in our collection. Hercules Segers and his printed paintings, is on show just outside the study room of the Prints and Drawings department and is a rare outing of the unusual and weird-looking etchings created by this visionary printmaker. Honestly, they attract the amazement of everyone who lays eyes on them.

Distant view with a mossy tree branch

Distant view with a mossy tree branch

Hercules Segers lived and worked at the beginning of the seventeenth century. He created prints that looked completely different from anything that came before. While other printmakers tried to make identical impressions of their engraved works in order to distribute them to a large market, Segers wanted to create unique works of art.

Every single one of his prints looks entirely different from any other one and the eeriness and desolation they emit makes them stand out from other artists’ work from the same period. This is because, after the printing process, Seger’s hand-coloured most of his works in a wide range of colours, from aubergine purple to olive green (see Distant view with a mossy tree branch: S.5528), while the etched lines are often printed in blues, greens or even bright turquoise (see River valley with a waterfall: S.5519). While most prints of the time were made by applying black to white background, he went against the grain and printed one of his etchings in white on a black background (see Ruins of the Abbey of Rijnsburg: 1854,0628.73).

Segers also invented a completely new printmaking technique called sugar-lift etching, creating darker areas within the landscapes which look grainy upon closer inspection and evoke a sense of the supernatural (see Rocky mountains with a plateau: S.5521).

It is no surprise that when I became curator of Dutch and Flemish drawings and prints in 2010 I was itching to share my passion for this eccentric artist with the Museum’s visitors who I am sure will grow to love his colourful works.

Hercules Segers and his printed paintings is in Room 90 until 16 May, and An Van Camp will be giving a gallery talk on 3 May.
Read more about Segers’ printmaking techniques.

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Filed under: Collection, Exhibitions, What's on, ,

Venetian glass

Shakespeare’s Restless World is currently being broadcast on BBC Radio 4. Today’s episode Sex and the City looks at the role Venice in Shakespeare’s England.


Dora Thornton, curator, British Museum

In the mid 15th century, Venetian glass workers perfected a wonderful new medium: Cristallo or crystalline glass. It’s called Cristallo because it has the clarity and transparency of rock crystal. Unlike rock crystal, however, it can be moulded and blown into fantastic forms and shapes. It can also be decorated, as this goblet is, with beautiful brightly-coloured enamels and gilding to make a really splendid object to hold in your hand, admire and drink from.

The making of Cristallo was a very closely-guarded trade secret. The glassmaking guilds in Venice controlled not only their workmen, but the trade and import of the raw materials for their industry. There are many materials needed to make this goblet and Venice dominated the trade in those precious commodities.

To make the glass body (known as “metal”) for this object you would need ingredients from all over the world: plant ash imported from Syria; a special kind of river pebble from the River Ticino in northern Italy; and manganese as a decolourant. Analysis in the British Museum by x-ray fluorescence of the enamels used to paint the woman on the glass indicates that the striking cobalt blue is likely to come from the Erzgebirge mountains on the German/Czech border. We can also tell that the white colour, which is made from tin oxide, has probably been made using tin imported from Cornwall or Brittany. The gold, heavily used all over the rim and for touching up details and for the arms, is probably from Africa.

Questions remain about this particular glass. We do not know for certain that it is Venetian, made on the island of Murano in the lagoon. It may have been made by Venetian glassmakers who had set up a glasshouse elsewhere, as happened throughout the 1500s. It belongs to a group of rather heavy glasses all of which have full-length enamelled portraits of men and women and German-style arms. Enamelling like this was less fashionable in Venice from the mid 1500s but continued to be admired in Northern Europe. Was this glass made in Venice for a German, Swiss or Austrian customer (I have not yet been able to identify the arms) as a kind of souvenir of the city? The way the woman is presented is a picture-postcard stereotype of the beautiful Venetian lady or courtesan. Or was the glass made in a German or Austrian glasshouse by a Venetian emigrant, or by a native craftsman working in the Venetian tradition? Either way, when we’re looking at this goblet, we can not only marvel at the highly-skilled craftsmanship involved in its creation but also the extensive global trade networks that were fundamental to its production.

Shakespeare’s Restless World is on BBC Radio 4
from 16 April to 11 May, at 13.45 and 19.45 weekdays.

Listen to today’s programme Sex and the City

Filed under: Shakespeare's Restless World, What's on

A new world in a familiar setting


Philippa Edwards, Project Manager, British Museum

2012 is my fifth year working at the British Museum and also sees me working on my fifth forecourt Landscape project. During these five years I have not only learnt lots of about the habitats and plants of four different continents (Asia, Africa, Australia and now North America) but I have also honed my project management skills. I feel like I have set up enough meetings, taken enough minutes and updated enough schedules to last for another five years!

But when I see the first bit of soil turned and the West Lawn rapidly transforming into another far-off habitat it seems all worthwhile. I am currently watching a piece of North America be installed in front of me, with the boardwalk over the swamp taking pride of place, many of the woodland trees planted (which are going to look amazing in autumn/fall), and the prairie grasses will soon be rustling in the Bloomsbury breeze.

Boardwalk in the North American Landscape

Quite a few people have asked me over the years how we make the decision of which theme the next Landscape will feature, and in particular how we decided on North America this year. We always try to tie the Landscapes in with the public programmes of both Kew and the BM, and also look for ways to highlight the wonderful work Kew is doing around the globe. North America was a region not yet covered in our series of Landscapes, and this Landscape gives us the ability to showcase some of the spectacular and unique flora of this continent and highlight the relationships between British Museum and Kew objects, and Kew’s work addressing threats to North American habitats.

As the Museum forecourt continues to be transformed over the next few (soggy) days I will continue to hold meetings and circulate minutes, happy in the knowledge that every time I pop outside I will be one step closer to escaping to a whole new continent, without even leaving work…

North American Landscape: Kew at the British Museum is open from 10 May to 25 November 2012. Follow the build

In partnership with the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Supported by the American Express Foundation

Filed under: North American Landscape: Kew at the British Museum

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