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Historical Note, Serpents in the Garden

Serpents in the Garden, by Anna Belfrage, cover

Historical Note, Serpents in the Garden

The 17th century is generally considered as the start of the Modern Era, breaking away from the preceding Renaissance. It is a time of discovery, of burgeoning trade – and constant religious conflicts.

It is also the time when the European countries began to see a growing emigration, with people from Spain, from England, from France, setting off to make new lives for themselves in the colonies, outposts of Western Civilisation on continents such as America, Asia or Africa.

One such emigrant was Matthew Graham, who decided to carry his family across the seas all the way to the Colony of Maryland, where they settled down to build a new life for themselves. In Serpents in the Garden, the Graham family had spent a decade or so in their new home, and while Matthew and Alex were quite content with this new life of theirs, some of the younger members of their family wanted to see more of the world – which is why Jacob Graham set off for London.

The London of the Restoration was a loud affair, full of wealthy merchants, aspiring politicians and malcontents. When Jacob arrived in London, the city was one huge building site – St Paul’s Cathedral was being rebuilt based on Wren’s design, houses damaged in the fire more than ten years ago were still being repaired and added to. The king resided in Whitehall, the palace that Henry VIII built round Cardinal Wolsey’s York Place, by now swollen into a labyrinth of buildings. Today, nothing remains of the royal palace of Whitehall – except for the Banqueting House, which is rather ironic as it is in connection to this building that the scaffold was built on which Charles I was beheaded. The rest of the palace was destroyed by fire in 1698, and was never rebuilt.

In the 17 th century, the various guilds controlled most of the London trade. Attempting to set up business without the sanction of the relevant guild was prone to end quickly and nastily, and young men aspiring to become any kind of tradesman had to go through the process of apprenticeship, in essence years as unpaid labour while their master taught them their craft. In Serpents in the Garden, Jacob circumvents this process somewhat; Master Castains succeeded in convincing his fellow apothecaries that Jacob Graham came so well-schooled that the apprentice period could be shortened substantially. Not, I think, something that would happen more than rarely, but then I do find Jacob quite the exceptional young man, and so, apparently did Master Castains.

Jacob spent a lot of time at the Apothecaries’ Garden, situated in present-day Chelsea. The garden still exists, and Chelsea Physics Garden is warmly recommended for anyone privileged enough to visit London. Not only is the garden a haven, with very interesting guided tours, but the cakes are to die for. When Jacob toiled in the garden, it was as yet in its initial stages, and in difference to today, it was accessible directly from the Thames – the men of the world in the 17 th century preferred to travel by barge. And for those of you who may have more than a passing acquaintance with the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, you may be somewhat stumped by my referral to a two-headed rhinoceros decorating the water gate, as the present arms of the society depict a more normal (hmm) one-headed rhinoceros. This particular detail I picked up from one of the guides at the garden, who at length expounded on the fact that the rhinoceros was so unknown – almost mythical – that attributing it two heads was seen as perfectly normal.

One particular goldsmith figures at length in Serpents in the Garden. Richard Collin lived in great comfort in a house on Maiden’s Lane, and it is also here he has his workshop. Originally, the goldsmiths of London lived and conducted business along Cheapside – the busy thoroughfare that ran in parallel (roughly) to the Thames. There are depictions showing just how grand this street once was – such as that of Edward VI’s coronation – but overtime the goldsmiths began setting up business elsewhere, moving west in the wake of their wealthy clients. Richard Collin and his pretty little ward, Charlotte Foster, lived a mere stone’s throw from the Goldsmith’s Guildhall on Foster Lane.   And yes, of course Charlotte has been named after this particular street.

I mention in passing the constant persecution of Catholics that flavoured the life of the Londoners in the latter half of the 17 th century. Things burst quite out of control when Titus Oates entered the stage, and as is insinuated in Serpents in the Garden, Mr Oates was not a nice man – rather the reverse. A rabid man with a colourful past including charges of buggery and a number of years spent studying with the Jesuits, in 1678 Titus Oates fabricated the famous Popish Plot, whereby a number of prominent Catholics, such as Oliver Plunkett, archbishop of Armagh, and the queen, Catherine of Braganza, were accused of planning to murder the king. Initially, his accusations were taken most seriously – at least by the king’s counsellors. The king himself seems to have been less than impressed, but found himself in a difficult position; to openly defend his Catholic subjects in the present anti-papist environment could destabilise his position, and Charles II had seen far too much upheaval in his youth to be inclined to take that risk. Luckily, over time the voices of reason prevailed, and Oates was ousted from his comfortable living arrangements in Whitehall and was sentenced to long stretches in the pillory plus repeated whippings.

Further to all the happenings in London, back in Maryland the Graham family had to handle the disintegration of a marriage. I rather like the fact that the Puritan/Presbyterian faith accepted divorce as a final remedy to marriages that had gone sour – at least if there was adultery involved. In the 17 th century, marriages were more about contracts than priestly blessings, and just as a contract would tie two people together, so a new contract could be written permanently separating them. Had Ian wanted to be vindictive, Jenny’s adultery would have been brutally punished – it could have led to her death. He could also have left her destitute, but that would not have been in keeping with Ian’s character – besides, Alex would have given him hell had he chosen to be so petty.

For those of you that may be confused by the reappearance of Qaachow, former Susquehannock chief, now a Mohawk, I am sad to report that this tallies with known facts. The Susquehannock were close to extermination by the 1670’s, this due to a combination of various epidemics and the aftermath of Bacon’s Rebellion, where the remaining Susquehannock forts were razed to the ground by the colonists. What few remnants of this people remained were invited by their distant cousins, the Mohawk, to join them. The Mohawk were part of the Iroquois Confederacy, and had their ancestral homes somewhat to the north of present day Maryland, but pressure from the arriving colonists had forced the Mohawk further inland. As related in the Historical Note to A Newfound Land, some of the Susquehannock moved to Pennsylvania, where the last remnant of this one so proud and powerful people was ignominiously slaughtered in 1763.

Yet again, I have clung to the name of Providence for the little 17 th century town in Maryland that today is known as Annapolis. Yet again, the reason for doing so is that I assume the founding fathers of the town – all of whom were Puritans – would have been less than pleased to call their town by its official name, Anne Arundel’s Towne. After all, Anne Arundel was a Catholic…