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Archive for March, 2011

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The Parable of the Talents

Posted in Bible, Parables, Religion on Tuesday, 29 March 2011

The parable of the talents is a powerful illustration of the dire consequence of life’s wasted and lost opportunities to make the most of what we have been given. Although its imagery centres on money, the lesson Jesus imparts in telling this parable applies to many aspects of human experience.

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The master casts out the servant and takes back his talent, by Clive Uptton

A master is going away for a while, and calls his three servants to whom he entrusts his wealth: he gives the first five talents, the second two talents, and the third a single talent. The master then leaves his house and goes on his journey. After he has gone time passes and the first servant increases his talents by trading with the first five; the second servant also adds to his original two; but the third servant buries his one talent and leaves it in the safety and obscurity of the earth. When the master returns he asks after his servants and what they have done with their talents and his property. The first two tell him of their hard work, risk-taking and consequent rewards of doubling the original sum, but the third man simply states that he had buried his one talent for fear of losing it. On hearing this his master is extremely angry, and after rewarding the other two with promotion, turns his rage on this “wicked and slothful servant”, taking away his talent and punishing him:

“For unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath.” (Matthew 25: 29)

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Sir Philip Sidney

Posted in English Literature, Literature on Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Sir Philip Sidney was for many years more famous for his last words than any written by him during the course of his brief but dazzling life. Yet he was one of the greatest Elizabethan writers, and among the most brilliant men of his time.

Philip Sidney, picture, image, illustration

Sir Philip Sidney, courtier, soldier and poet

The legend surrounding his death supplanted to some extent his literary reputation, and his heroic fall at Zutphen in 1586 lent martial solemnity and a glamorous nobility to this soldier poet and his generous dying gesture. But his writings are his greatest monument, and unique among Elizabethan poets, he left us works of genius in prose as well as poetry. His sequence of sonnets and songs, Astrophil and Stella, is still set above the greatest achievements of many of his contemporaries, and the Arcadia, edited and published by his sister, remains a unique masterpiece, quite unlike anything before or since. An Apology for Poetry gives us his views on the Elizabethan stage as well as poetry, and reveals his admiration for Spenser, who had dedicated Shepeardes Calendar to Sidney. Indeed, he mourned the young poet’s death in one of our greatest elegiac poems, Astrophel. He was born at Penshurst, Kent, and went to Shrewsbury School – where his contemporary was his future biographer, Fulk Greville – and afterwards up to Christ Church, Oxford. He later travelled widely on the continent, and met many of the leading artists and intellectuals in France, Italy, Germany and Austria. The famous Giordano Bruno even dedicated two books to him. Philip Sidney might have married the daughters of either the Earl of Essex or Sir William Cecil, but each plan fell through, and he eventually married the teenage daughter of Sir Francis Walsingham in 1581. Sidney was a militant Protestant and frequently pressed for military action against Spain and stern measures to crush the Catholics. He had opposed the Queen’s proposed French marriage, and unwisely wrote to tell her his reasons, which had necessitated his swift and tactful retirement from court. But by 1591 he had returned and become MP for Kent, being knighted in 1583. When he was appointed governor of Flushing in the Netherlands in 1585, his enthusiasm for attacking the Spanish forces was well known, certainly to his uncle, the Earl of Leicester, whom he constantly urged to stronger measures in the Protestant cause. It was this enthusiasm which led him to join Sir John Norris in the Battle of Zutphen, where he was badly wounded by a musket shot in the thigh, and died some three weeks later. He was not yet thirty-two years old. His remains were taken back to England and he was buried at St Paul’s Cathedral amidst an unprecedented outpouring of national grief. Legend has it that when Londoners saw the passing funeral procession, they cried out “Farewell, the worthiest knight that lived.”

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Sir Henry Vane: Famous Last Words

Posted in Famous Last Words on Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Sir Henry Vane the Younger was an English politician, statesman and colonial governor. A proponent of religious tolerance, he was briefly Governor of Massachusetts Bay Colony in North America, leaving after the banishment of Anne Hutchinson (a dissident who led a church discussion group) in 1637.

picture, Sir Henry Vane the Younger

Sir Henry Vane the Younger, beheaded for high treason

Returning to England, he became a leading Parliamentarian during the English Civil War and served on the Council of State during the Interregnum. However, he refused to take an oath which expressed approval of the King’s execution. After the Restoration he was tried for high treason and beheaded, saying from the scaffold at Tower Hill:

Blessed be the Lord that I have kept a conscience void of offence till this day. I bless the Lord that I have not diverted the righteous cause for which I suffer.

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The American Civil War ends

Posted in Anniversary, Famous battles on Tuesday, 29 March 2011

9 April marks the anniversary of the end of the American Civil War in 1865, although the last shot was fired the following June.

picture, Robert E Lee, Ulysses S Grant, American Civil War

Robert E. Lee surrenders to Ulysses S. Grant, ending the American Civil War

The War began when the Southern slave states declared their secession from the United States and formed the Confederate States of America. The Confederacy fought for independence from the U.S. federal government and the Union of twenty states where slavery had already been abolished an five border states.

The fierce and bloody series of battles that followed came to an end when Confederate commander Robert E. Lee surrendered to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House in 1865.

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Birth of the Duke of Monmouth

Posted in Anniversary, Famous battles, History on Tuesday, 29 March 2011

9 April marks the anniversary of the birth in 1649 of Sir James Scott, the 1st Duke of Monmouth.

picture, Monmouth Rebellion, Battle of Sedgemoor, Duke of Monmouth, King James II

The Battle of Sedgemoor with, inset, the Duke of Monmouth (left) and King James II. Illustration by Andrew Howat

Born in Rotterdam, Netherlands, and originally James Crofts or Fitzroy, he was the illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress Lucy Walters. He unsuccessfully attempted to depose his uncle, King James II, in what s commonly called the Monmouth Rebellion.

After declaring himself the legitimate king and gaining support from the Protestants opposed to James’s Roman Catholic rule, Monmouth set sail from Holland and landed in Dorset in May 1685, gathering his supporters at Lyme Regis. He was defeated some weeks later at the Battle of Sedgemoor, fleeing from the battlefield, only to be captured and executed on 15 July on Tower Hill.

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Germany invades Norway

Posted in Anniversary, Famous battles, World War 2 on Tuesday, 29 March 2011

9 April marks the anniversary of the invasion in 1940 of Norway by Germany during the Second World War.

picture, soldiers of World War II, World War Two, Second World War, German, French, British, Norwegian

Some of the participants in the war in Norway, soldiers from Germany, Britain, Norway and the French Foreign Legion. Illustration by Gerry Wood

Although they had declared themselves neutral, German forces invaded nonetheless and with such force and surprise that resistance only lasted two months. The last military forces surrendered after the Battle of Narvik in June 1940 after losing British support following the fall of France.

The German occupation came to an end after five years and, in thanks for British support, Norway donates a tree every Christmas which is erected in Trafalgar Square.

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The novice Christian Knight

Posted in Historical articles, History, Religion, War, Weapons on Monday, 28 March 2011

The path to becoming a knight was long and testing, and a novice’s life was mapped out from a very early age. Boys from good families were sent away as young as five to serve as pages in a nearby nobleman’s castle, where all the basic skills of horsemanship, self-defense and rudimentary swordsmanship would be acquired.

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A novice knight praying in chapel, by C L Doughty

After the age of ten the boy would be elevated to the role of squire, and this would assign him to an individual knight, whom he would serve and who in turn would serve him as a role model. All the arts of physical combat and tactical thought would be learned during his teenage years, along with the chivalric code and various romances and stirring legends. He would also look after the arms, armour and horses of his master. After some few years when the boy has become a man, usually around the age of eighteen to twenty, he would be dubbed a knight, often not with a sword but with a sharp blow of the hand to his neck. The crusading cause led to many more devotional and sacred elements being incorporated into the ceremony, and the novice knight would often spend the night before his proudest day in solitary prayer, pledging himself to God and the Christian cause, as well as to his country. During the ceremony itself  his sword would be blessed, and its hilt might even contain fragments of Holy relics.

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St Paul and the snake

Posted in Bible, Miracle, Missionaries, Religion, Saints on Monday, 28 March 2011

When Paul is shipwrecked on Melita, or Malta as we now call it, he is made welcome by the local people, and later that evening a group of them are sitting around the fire built to keep the survivors warm. Paul picks up a bunch of twigs to burn, and as he throws them on the fire a snake slithers out from the bundle and coiling round his arm bites him very badly.

St Paul, picture, image. illustration

St Paul is bitten by a snake, by Clive Uptton

The islanders are rather superstitious and take this as a sign that he is a murderer being punished for his sins; he is fully expected to die, but everyone is amazed to see that his arm is not even swollen where the fangs went in, and before long it becomes quite apparent that Paul has survived the venomous attack. News spreads of this seemingly miraculous event, and Paul is made welcome and stays for a few weeks with the island’s “chief man” or governor, Publius, whose father is suffering from dysentry and fever. St Paul’s reputation is further enhanced when he cures this old man, and after healing several other islanders, he and his guard at last set sail again for Rome and his impending trial. Publius later converts the entire island to Christianity, the first albeit small Christian nation in the world, and is venerated on that island of saints and churches as St Publius, first Bishop of Malta.

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Robert Southwell

Posted in English Literature, Religion on Monday, 28 March 2011

Robert Southwell is now a little remembered poet and his works are probably hardly remarked upon by anyone save the most diligent scholar. He was a Jesuit who had spent his novitiate in Tournay, where in 1580 after two arduous years, he entered the Society of Jesus. He was ordained in Rome in 1584, having been made Prefect of Studies in the English College of Jesuits.

Southwell, picture, image, illustration

Robert Southwell, Jesuit priest and poet

That very year the forty day rule was passed which forbade Roman Catholic priests from staying any longer than forty days in Elizabeth’s kingdom. Undaunted by this, Southwell came to England as a young Jesuit missionary in 1586 and spent six years travelling between one Catholic family and another administering the rites. In 1589 he became Chaplain to Anne Howard, Countess of Arundel, whose husband had been arrested for treason. The priest’s religious tracts were many and circulated widely in manuscript, probably valued as much for their euphuistic eloquence as for their spiritual comfort. It was just such he composed for the wretched Earl. Unfortunately, Southwell had connections with the Bellamy family, and Jerome Bellamy had recently been executed for his part in the Babington Plot, which had moved Elizabeth to several vengeful executions, and was ultimately to trigger the fatal warrant for Mary, Queen of Scots. Southwell was compromised by a Bellamy daughter, arrested, tortured and treated so appalingly that his distinguished father personally petitioned the Queen, asking for a trial at the very least, so that his beloved son might be spared yet more horrors in the macabre and pitiless gatehouse at Westminster. The young Jesuit was moved to the Tower, and after a few weeks was tried before the King’s Bench and found guilty of treason. He was hanged at Tyburn on 11th February 1595. St Peter’s Complaint with other poems appeared in April of the same year, unattributed but recognisably Southwell to those who would know; indeed, many of the poems were written during his time in prison.It was reprinted many times, and a supplementary volume entitled Maeoniae appeared. His devotional prose was a model of intense religious thought expressed in exquisitely wrought paragraphs, and A Foure Fould Meditation on the Four Last Things was published in 1606. A Hundred Meditations appeared in print for the first time in 1873 from a manuscript discovered at Stonyhurst College. It is well to recall that a poet of Ben Jonson’s stature told Drummond of Hawthornden that he would gladly have destroyed most of his own poems for the chance to lay claim to Southwell’s Burning Babe as his own. Anyone who reads this quite extraordinary poem will immediately appreciate its strange qualities, and wonder whether even William Blake might not have envied its visionary force and unforgettable fiery conceits.

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Sir Thomas Smith: Famous Last Words

Posted in Famous Last Words on Monday, 28 March 2011

An English scholar and diplomat, Sir Thomas Smith was born in Saffron Walden, Essex, in 1513 and became a professor at Cambridge. After further studies abroad he subsequently became provost of Eton College and dean of Carlisle Cathedral.

picture, Sir Thomas Smith, diplomat, scholar

Scholar and diplomat Sir Thomas Smith

He was made a secretary of state by the Duke of Somerset, then Protector to King Edward VI, and was knighted. Although he lost all his offices under Queen Mary I, he regained prominence under Queen Elizabeth I and was ambassador to France and, later, chancellor of the Order of the Garter.

When he died in 1577, his last words were said to be…

“It is a matter of lamentation that men know not for what end they were born into the world until they are ready to go out of it.”

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