Ten Things I’ve learned about Catherine of Aragon

I took my brother and my sister-in-law on a little walking tour the other day.  We passed the site of Baynard Castle, which was originally a Norman castle in the area that is now Queen Victoria Street in the City of London.  Baynard Castle was, like so much of the rest of the City, destroyed in the Great Fire of London, but well before that, Henry VIII gave it to his first wife, Catherine of Aragon as a wedding present.  Researching that, I found out a few things, so here are ten things I’ve learned about Catherine of Aragon:


  1. She was the great-granddaughter of Catherine of Lancaster on her mother’s side.
  2. She had a stronger claim to the English throne than Henry VII and Henry VIII – her ancestors were born on the right side of the blankets, the Henrys’ weren’t. That was why they were so keen to make an alliance with her.
  3. She was betrothed to Arthur, Prince of Wales, at the age on only three years.
  4. Had Catherine not married someone else in the royal family after the death of her first husband, Henry VIII’s brother Arthur, her (rather large) dowry would have had to be repaid. Not an appealing thought for the king or his son.
  5. Henry VIII was five years younger than his wife.
  6. Catherine’s mother died before she re-married, which reduced her “value” as a bride. (Hey, I know it’s sexist, but that was the way of the world then.)
  7. Catherine served as Spanish ambassador to England in 1507 – the first female ambassador in European history.
  8. Although she had six pregnancies, only one of her children survived to adulthood – she later went on to become Queen Mary, also known as Bloody Mary.
  9. When Henry VIII married Anne Boleyn, Catherine was retitled “Princess Dowager,” a huge slap in the face.
  10. When Catherine first arrived in London, she brought her African attendants with her. They were the first Africans to have been recorded as coming to London, and were said to be luxury servants.


© Susan Shirley 2016

Magna Carta

A visit to Windsor and Runnymede  the other day made me think about the Magna Carta.  The Magna Carta (Great Charter) was issued by King John in 1215 because he was facing a political crisis – to put it bluntly, he’d upset all his barons and they were raising arms against him.  He didn’t really have a great deal of choice but to try to appease them.  (As it happened, he didn’t stick to the terms, so his troubles were far from over, but I’m jumping ahead of myself.)

Windsor Castle
Windsor Castle

Why Runnymede?

I’d always wondered why John chose Runnymede as the spot for the agreement.  It turns out that this lovely little place, along the bank of the Thames, was the traditional place for assemblies at the time, but also, it was about half way Windsor castle, the rebels base at Staines.  It was neutral ground and did not confer a military advantage on either side.  That must have been an important consideration for the barons as King John had a reputation for being somewhat duplicitous.


I hope you’ve all got over your shock and horror at learning that someone in a position of power had a reputation for being a bit of a cad.  Outrageous behaviour.  Wouldn’t happen nowadays.  Ahem.

Magna Carta
Magna Carta

John was the younger brother of Richard the Lion Heart.  Richard, loved as he was by the people, wasn’t actually the best king ever, he spent a lot of time away fighting in the Crusades.  (Good for him but bad for us peasants.)  So John, although not the greatest king, and a bit of a cowardly custard compared with big Bro, wasn’t totally to blame.  He didn’t help matters though, he didn’t have his brother’s charisma, nor his sense, and he lost a lot of the family jewels to France.  The long and the short of it was that John owed money to his barons and had no intention of paying them back.  That was possibly a good short-term plan, but was never going to work in the long-term.

The Magna Carta didn’t, if John complied with the legal terms, give him a lot of wriggle room.  Many historians say that there was only one way out – civil war.  And, sure as eggs are eggs, war broke out within three months of the signing of the Magna Carta.

Magna Carta
Magna Carta

There were several more “Great Charters” over the years; to be honest, the territory becomes quite technical in terms of legal issues, and I have no intention of going into them here.  (Two reasons: one, I am not a lawyer, two, I am not a historian.)  Suffice it to say that the Magna Carta had a huge impact, conferring a number of rights on the barons of the day (not on the rest of us, those of us that were peasants were really unaffected by it).  The rights conferred were built on over time, who knows where we would all be now, if not for the Magna Carta?  Although, somehow, I suspect we’d have reached a place not far from where we are now, just maybe with far more bloodshed.


© Susan Shirley 2016

Stray Cat

I am, and always have been an animal lover. I don’t like all animals – I don’t like slugs, not crazy about snails, and would really prefer not to be close to wild rats. Aside from that, I like animals. So when I found an injured stray cat in my garden a couple of weeks ago, I was in a bit of a flap.

Regular readers will know that I have four cats, all female, all beautiful, so it’s no surprise that the local boys like to come for a visit, but my girls are not very friendly. (They are to me, but they know me.). They don’t like these male interlopers staring in through the windows at them. I’ve even see Artemis “fighting” through the window because she doesn’t think they should be there.


This little stray – I knew he was male because of his behaviour – had been hanging around in my garden for some weeks but I still didn’t know his distress call, and anyway, he didn’t make a noise until he saw me. I don’t generally feed the strays because my girls don’t like it. (Very jealous.). He had taken to sitting in Telesto’s favourite spot under one of the trees, which didn’t go down too well.

So it wasn’t until I got up to let my girls go outside that I realised that he was injured. He did his usual thing when he saw me and got up to move away from me so I could see he was limping, holding his right back leg at an angle and not putting any weight on it.

I knew I wouldn’t be able to just catch him, so what to do? I rang the RSPCA.

“Feed him at the same time every day, try to catch him. When you do, give us a ring and we’ll give you a reference number so you can take him to a vet to get him treated.”

“I don’t think it’s going to be that easy.”

“We’ll get one of the inspectors to give you a ring.”

Sure enough, one of their inspectors did give me a ring, a few days later, and came round. Of course, the cat had disappeared by the time Michael turned up. He told me that he didn’t think the leg was broken as the cat would have been dragging it rather than holding it up. My plan to try to get the little cat in one of my pet carriers had failed miserably – I’d bought some cheap food that little boy cats could have, put a bowl in the carrier but when the lovely Oceana went outside, she went into the carrier, ate the food and pushed the door “to” behind her. Well, she can open cupboard doors, provided the spring is not too strong, and very nearly open drawers, so why was I surprised?


Michael told me that they use humane traps to catch cats but they didn’t have any spare at the time so he suggested I try Celia Hammond or the PDSA. I did, but they couldn’t help me. A few days later, Michael called me back,

“I’ve got a trap. I can be round in fifteen minutes.”

“Great, thank you.”

The little stray cat had been injured for a week now, and although by now he was able to jump, he still wasn’t putting his full weight on his back leg.

Michael showed me how to operate the trap. I didn’t try to catch him straight away, I really wanted it to be a day when I didn’t have to go out, but I was also conscious that the poor little boy was still in pain. Oh the best laid plans…

To cut a long story short, I did manage to trap him – it was actually much easier than I thought, but due to a break down in communication, he was in the trap for 24 hours, which upset me and him.

Joe, another inspector, came round the following day and took him. He told me that he could see by looking at him that the cat was not neutered, which probably meant that he wasn’t micro chipped. He also told me that only about one in 20 of the cats they collect has a micro chip. This little stray cat has gone off, and hopefully will be neutered and found a good home.

Cute huh? But don't be fooled.  Cats grow up.
Cute huh? But don’t be fooled. Cats grow up.

No-one knows exactly how many cats there are in the UK at the moment, but between July and September 2012, there were over 24,000 calls to the RSPCA and Cats Protection alone reporting strays or unwanted cats. As a nation of so-called animal lovers, we really aren’t doing very well.

If you do have a pet (cat or dog), unless you are a serious breeder, please get it spayed or neutered. It’s better for the animal, and it will help to reduce the number of strays. Some of the following charities are able to help with neutering if you are in financial difficulty:




© Susan Shirley 2016

Beau Brummell

A comment made by one of the men at a workshop I attended this week reminded me of the well-dressed Beau Brummell.  I’ve seen the 1954 film starring Stewart Granger and Elizabeth Taylor, but apart from reading that he was a “Dandy” didn’t know much about him, so I decided to find out more about Mr Beau Brummell.


Anyone who has ever watched any period dramas will know that Henry VIII and Charles II were very flamboyant in their dress, complete with the elaborate wigs the men wore in the seventeenth century, yet somewhere it all changed…  Beau Brummell was the catalyst for that change, which included spending a lot of time in the bathroom.  And frankly, in a good way, because hygiene wasn’t high on the list of things to do in Tudor and Stuart England.  Brummell changed the fashion from men wearing multi-coloured outfits to wearing just a few, usually more sombre colours, and jackets closer to the ones worn nowadays.

Brummell was born George Bryan Brummell on 7 June 1778, in London (apparently in Downing Street), the son of Lord North’s secretary (Prime Minister from 1770 to 1782).  Brummell went to Eton and Oxford, although he only spent a year at the latter, having requested to join the army.  (In those days, you had to pay to join, so he had to get the money from the executors of his father’s estate.)


He joined the Prince of Wales’ own regiment as the lowest officer rank, a cornet, however, within two years he had been promoted to captain.  No-one is really clear how Brummell came to the notice of the Prince, but come to notice he did, and they became close.  When the regiment was sent to Manchester, Brummell resigned his commission; clearing being out of London would not assist him in staying close to the Prince.

By 1799, Brummell had come into his inheritance and soon became known for his understated style of dress.  He became very powerful – if he liked you, you would be in the “in” crowd, or not as the case might have been.

He was also known for his wit, and, some might say, rudeness, and this is, allegedly, how he lost favour with the prince – he asked, “Who is your fat friend?” when referring to the prince.  Yep, that’ll do it every time.


Statue of Beau Brummell in Jermyn Street, London W1
Statue of Beau Brummell in Jermyn Street, London W1

Brummell also ran up a lot of debts through gambling, and someone to whom he owed money, Richard Meyler, found out that Brummell intended to renege on them.  Meyler took the opportunity of telling anyone who would listen about Brummell’s behaviour, which was the nearest thing to challenging him to a duel without actually using those words that he could do.  Brummell did a runner.  He made his way to Calais, where he could go without having a passport.

Beau went on to become British Consul in Caen, which enabled him to pay off some of his debts, but he probably knew his days were numbered – he was suffering from syphilis.  When the job as consul came to an end, the debts started to mount again, and he was eventually imprisoned as a result.  A contact agreed to return to the UK to try to get some money, which he did, so Brummell was released from prison.

Within a few years, however, he was growing increasingly ill, leading to insanity that is so often characteristic of the disease.  He died in a mental asylum in March 1840.


© Susan Shirley 2016

Constitutional Crisis?

I’m not a political animal but even I haven’t been able to avoid the events of the past week – the Brexit, David Cameron resigning, the Euros, Labour front bench MPS resigning, and a vote of no confidence against Jeremy Corbyn. I’m not sure whether this counts as a constitutional crisis or not.


In fact, there is no official definition of a constitutional crisis, although much of the world press seems to think it’s on the cards that one will happen. Whatever, it’s an unsettling time for us all, and not just in the UK. My fears that the EU will fall apart now have been echoed across the water. I’m amazed that no-one in any position of authority (other than the wonderful Mark Carney at the Bank of England) appears to have planned the next move in the event of a leave vote.

Will Scotland leave the Union? (I think that’s a resounding yes, if Nicola Sturgeon gets her way, but then, surely, Scotland will have to apply to join the EU in its own right? That doesn’t happen overnight.) If so, that would push us closer to a constitutional crisis, surely?

In order for a constitutional crisis to occur, it’s usually necessary for there usually has to be a situation in which the constitutional principles do not answer a serious issue of governance. To add confusion to the mix, Britain doesn’t have a written constitution. It has its written laws, it’s institutions (eg parliament itself) and its customs, all of which have worked pretty well together up until now.

As we don’t have a written constitution, technically, the referendum is not binding on the government. (That said, ignoring the result might be enough to trigger a constitutional crisis.). Not only that, there is a body of legal thought that says that the Scottish Parliament has to give its consent to Britain leaving the EU… That’s an interesting thought.

Has there ever been a constitutional crisis before in the UK? By gad, yes. In 1215, there was the Barons Revolt, which led to King John signing the Magna Carta. That was pretty serious for the King. And then again in 1936, when Edward VIII abdicated so that he could marry Wallis Simpson. (Rumours about his being Nazi sympathiser still abound.) So if this does become a constitutional crisis, we will survive it, things just might be messy for a while.

Next manager of the England football team?
Next manager of the England football team?

The truth is that none of us knows how this is all going to play out yet, but I might just write to the FA and offer them my services as a career coach…

© Susan Shirley 2016