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 Mother Goose

The Church of St Olaf on Hart Street (London) has a Burial Register plaque stating "14 September 1586 MOTHER GOOSE". This is two entries above Samuel Pepys’s burial plaque. Nothing else is known about the elusive Mother Goose.


 A Litany of notable British literary villains (NC)
Bill Sykes (Dickens), Mordred (Geoffrey of Monmouth), the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood), Jekyll and Hyde, Grendel (Beowulf), and Professor Moriarty (Conan-Doyle). Any more?


 The “Fat Lady” (NC)

"It ain't over till the fat lady sings." Often quoted as "The opera ain't over till the fat lady sings", and sometimes confused with Yogi Berra's, "It ain't over till its over."

This universal image calls to mind an overweight soprano brandishing a spear and wearing a Viking helmet. It is clearly rooted in Wagnerian opera, specifically "The Ring of the Nibelungen".

The "fat lady" is probably best associated with character Brunhilda in "The Valkure", "Siegfreid", or "Twilight of the Gods". At the endings of these operas, Brunhilda is asleep, singing, and dead (respectively); leaving the opera, "Siegfried" as the most logical choice.

Which "fat lady"? To complicate things, the 20th century has not produced a noticeably overweight Brunhilda. Opera buffs, however, agree that the two most likely candidates are Sweden's Birgit Nilsson and Norway's Kirsten Flagstad. Pictures can be found at...

Who said it? The most satisfying response we received about this adage
indicates that it is a metonymy. The posting (from A Ghoulihan) is given

"…I believe the actual phrase was […]. It occurred in Seattle in June of 1978. Seattle and Washington D. C. were playing each other in the NBA finals. Washington was behind and their coach made the now famous quote.

He was referring to the Ring, which at that time was performed in Seattle in August. He meant that there would be time to play a full seven games to decide the winner, since the Ring was not due to start for a month and a half."

John Cowan adds: "The singing fat lady refers to vaudeville (variety, in the U.K.) where shows typically ended with a female (often fat) singing the national anthem..."


 Britannia: Her history, her folklore, her image through the ages (GJV)

Rule, Britannia, rule the waves; Britons never will be slaves. 

Britannia is the national emblem and poetic name of Britain (arguably the oldest surviving national emblem in Europe), and an article about Britannia is relevant to English speakers because her name has been used in practically every form of figurative language to allude to Britain and the British Isles.

Incredible to relate, the earliest known image of Britannia is in the ancient town of Aphrodisias, Turkey.  There, in a Roman temple dedicated to Aphrodite (dated 20-60 CE), is a relief entitled, “Claudius Conquers Britannia”.  This gruesome sculpture shows a scantily clad, bare breasted Britannia twisting in agony as a Roman warrior (the Emperor Claudius) prepares to slay her. 

Nearly a century later, Britannia was revived and made her first appearance in Britain on a coin issued by the Roman Emperor Hadrian.  This image shows a seated woman with a spear across her left arm and resting her left elbow on a large bossed shield. Her bare left foot is visible, and she is dressed in Roman style. Her expression is one of dejection or sadness. 

Coins that followed in Hadrian’s reign echo her sad expression and posture.  But on a coin issued in the reign of Antonius Pius, she is depicted with a pleasant, if not happy, expression.

Near the end of the Roman occupation, there is an interesting literary reference to her in Claudian’s, “On the Consulate of Stilicho”, where he describes her as wearing woad.  As there are no images to accompany this reference, we don’t know if he intended “woad” to mean dyed clothing, or as the blue skin pigment characteristically worn by the Picts.

After the retreat of the Romans in 410 CE, Britannia’s image lay dormant for over a millennium.  Gesithas member Andy explains, “…Alas, I know of no Britannias from the Sub Roman period.  I don’t think she pops up on coins again until Charles II’s mistress modeled for her.  If you turn up anything, please post it, as I would love to know.  Perhaps when the concept of Britain as a whole was lost, and I suspect that was a Roman construct too, people gradually reverted to more local loyalties.  It is hard to erase 350 years of history, but on the other hand, Gildas, who writes soon after the Roman period seems to know remarkably little about it…”

In 1665, the artist Philip Roettier revived her image to adorn the halfpenny and several other copper coins of the period.  Roettier’s likeness is faithful to the Hadrian coin:  Britannia is seated, bare left foot exposed, holding a spear in her left hand and her left elbow rests upon a shield.  However, there are also significant differences:  the shield is emblazoned with the Union Jack, and she demonstrates a confident, erect posture.  Her right hand, rather than supporting her chin in an expression of sadness, holds a branch of vegetation slightly forward. 

Samuel Pepys (1667) commented, “…The king’s new medal, where, in little, there is Mrs. Stewart’s face… and a pretty thing it is, that he should choose her face to represent Britannia by…”.  As mentioned above, Frances Stewart was thought to be a mistress of Charles II.

The same image was applied to bank notes, the first of which appeared in 1694.  In this year, the newly formed Bank of England adopted for its seal an image of "…Brittannia sitting on looking on a Bank of Mony…"(sic. NOTE: this citation has been carefully proofed ).   Often, a beehive is used to represent either the bank or British society (as can be seen on today’s ten-pound note).

This image of Britannia was relatively stable until the Victorian era; and during this era images of a confident, majestic, sometimes defiant Britannia abounded.

The artist R. H. Solly created the first helmeted Britannia in 1818 as a proposal for a new series of “inimitable” one pound notes.  While the image was not used, artist Stephen Gooden recalled it almost exactly for the Britannia used on the blue five-pound note (Series “B”, 1957).  This Britannia sports long, curly hair, robust cheeks, and a compassionate expression.  She is wearing a Grecian crested helmet that is inlaid with seashell patterns.

There are two known images where Britannia is shown weeping:  on a medal commemorating the death of Abercrombie and on a leaflet (dated 1819) advocating a gold standard.  In the latter of these, Britannia sits amidst an empty cornucopia, a wounded lion, and a damaged Union Jack shield.  Her spear is broken, and in the background, there is a gallows and a cluster of people (who are, presumably, intending to hang her).

Daniel Maclise, RA, introduced the notion of presenting Britannia in Saxon clothing in 1855.  Using his daughter as the model, he depicted Britannia as the wife of a thegn, her dress  reminiscent of the early to mid 8th century.  Her cape appears to be North Umbrian style, with an ornamental clasp indicating a rank of nobility.  In her left hand, she carries an unprovenanced spear, resembling many of those dated to the 10th century.  In her right hand is an olive branch.  To her left is a beehive, and behind her is a shield with the Cross of Saint George.  This portrait of Britannia was printed on banknotes until 1961, and was revived several years ago for the new twenty-pound note (purple, “E” Series).

Britannia’s pose in the 2nd century Roman coin is captured almost exactly on the current five-pound note (the series E, or “green” series, notes). There, a large shield emblazoned with the Cross of St. George replaces Britannia’s buckler, and in her right hand is a branch of vegetation, commonly assumed to be an olive branch. Her Roman dress is replaced by a Saxon dress and cape. Her bare left foot is resting on an elevation.

The Royal Mint has traditionally opted to connect Britannia with maritime accomplishments, and some of the most dramatic images have been produced on this theme. Coins and medals produced by the Royal Mint over the years have shown Britannia carrying tall ships, lighthouses, globes, sextants, and almost any other maritime artifact you can think of.

Perhaps the most striking portrayal of Britannia in recent times is the GBP 100 pound coin issued in 1998. Here, she stands on a wind-swept precipitous rock looking out over the sea. Evidently fashioned after Athena, she is wearing a crested helmet and a loose fitting, daringly immodest, toga. She carries a trident in her right hand, and a shield embossed with the Union Jack in her left hand. Following tradition, her bare left foot is visible.  The artist for this coin was Philip Nathan.

Nathan also designed our seven-sided fifty pence coin.  The reverse of this coin shows a helmeted Britannia in Grecian dress carrying a spetum in her right hand and leaning on a shield emblazoned with the Union Jack.  And finally, Nathan’s design for the Queen’s Near East Service Medal shows Britannia riding a chariot through the waves.  Her chariot is a giant seashell, and it is drawn by water-horses.

These two completely different portraits, Britannia as a Saxon noblewoman and Britannia as a Grecian styled demi-godess, coexist happily together today.  This diversity also underscores the point that her image has been constantly evolving over the course of two millennia, and will continue to do so.

Unlike America’s “Liberty”, or France’s “La Semeuse”, there are no images showing Britannia directly interacting with her Britons in a social or political context.  Perhaps this difference reflects a quiet satisfaction in the British mind set with their noble and time-proven national emblem.

I would like to thank the Bank of England for their considerate and thorough assistance in preparing this article.   Also to those Gesithas who answered the call.

Some pictures to accompany this article are at britannia.html.


London’s bridges (Mark Baker)

Bridges across the Thames in London are, in order from the east:

The Dartford Crossing
Tower Bridge
London Bridge
(unnamed railway bridge)
Southwark Bridge
(unnamed railway bridge)
Blackfriars Bridge
Waterloo Bridge
Hungerford Bridge (rail)
Westminster Bridge
Lambeth Bridge
Vauxhall Bridge
Grosvenor Bridge (rail)
Chelsea Bridge
Albert Bridge
Battersea Bridge
(unnamed railway bridge)
Wandsworth Bridge
(unnamed railway bridge)
Putney Bridge
Hammersmith Bridge
Barnes Bridge (rail)
Chiswick Bridge
(unnamed railway bridge)
Kew Bridge
Twickenham Bridge
Richmond Bridge
(unnamed footbridge)
Kingston Bridge
Hampton Court Bridge
Walton Bridge


(I'm not sure how many of the last few would be considered to be in London; Walton certainly isn't, but I'm not sure where to draw the line. Kingston Bridge is the last one that's in Greater London. The Dartford Crossing is also not in London, going from Essex to Kent)

Depending on whether you include all railway bridges, only name ones, or
none, and on whether you include Kew and Tower bridges themselves, you get different numbers, but none of them 20. That doesn't mean the poem wasn't correct when written of course.

Until the Dartford bridge was built a few years ago (previously there was a tunnel, which is still used for northbound traffic), Tower Bridge was the
first bridge you got to. If you look at a map of London you will see that it
is fairly central. To the east of it are a couple (three if you include the
one at Dartford) road tunnels, a couple of foot tunnels and a ferry.

[I used the "London Atlas" by the "Geographers' A-Z Map Company ltd"]



“This seat of Mars…”

There can be little doubt that John of Gaunt refers to the Roman god of war in this passage from Shakespeare's "Richard III". Had he been been referring to Mar's other aspects, particularly as the god of animal husbandry, and further refined to the raising of sheep for wool production, the allusion would not suffer for want of material.

Many common British surnames reflect the importance of the wool industry and its role in commerce: Shepherd, Draper, Mercer, Skinner, Tozer, Weaver, Webster, Webber, Fuller, Walker, Dyer, Sherman, Shearer, Milner, Tucker, and Rover.

From the wool industry, we also get spinster, freight, fraught, heirloom, shuttle, and "on tenterhooks".





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