17th c. Dutch shipwreck off English coast identified

A shipwreck discovered off the coast of Eastbourne in southern England has been identified as the 17th century Dutch warship Klein Hollandia. It was built in 1656 and for the next 16 years fought in every major battle of the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) before going down at the beginning of the Third Anglo-Dutch War.

In 1672, the ship was part of the squadron of Admiral de Haese to escort the Smyrna fleet while sailing from the Mediterranean into the English Channel, en-route to the Netherlands. At the Isle of Wight, the squadron was attacked by an English squadron under Admiral Holmes.

A fierce battle broke out on the second day, 23 March, resulting in the Klein Hollandia being damaged severely. The commander of the ship, Jan Van Nes was killed in action. The ship was boarded and conquered by the English, but shortly after the Klein Hollandia sank with both English and Dutch sailors on board. This surprise action by the small squadron under Sir Robert Holmes and Sir Frecheville Holles contributed to the start of the Third Anglo-Dutch War.

The wreck was first spotted in 2015 during a UK Hydrographic Office survey off the Sussex coast, but the survey data could only categorize it as an anomalous element on the seabed, not as a sunken vessel. That was confirmed four years later when a recreational diver laid eyes on the “anomaly” and reported to Historic England that it was indeed a shipwreck.

Dutch and British maritime archaeologists began exploring the site in 2019, finding it in good condition. The wooden hull is mostly intact and several of its bronze cannons appear to be in excellent condition. Some of its cargo, including Italian pottery and marble tiles, were also found intact on the seabed. Microscopic examination, mineral composition and stable isotope analysis of two of the tiles that were recovered from the wreck found that they are made of marble from the famed Carrara quarries in Tuscany. They were likely destined for a wealthy home in the Netherlands.

Volunteers worked with the professional divers to document the wreck and to look for evidence that might identify it. One vision-impaired volunteer proved particularly helpful with the bronze cannons thanks to his tactile reading abilities. After 282 dives, archival research and tree ring analysis of the ship’s timbers helped narrow down the field and identify the ship as the Klein Hollandia.

Gold wire kept French countess’ teeth in her mouth

A study of the remains of Anne d’Alègre, Countess of Laval (ca. 1565-1619), has found that her teeth were kept in her head by gold wire.

Anne de Laval’s gold-rigged teeth (and the rest of her remains) were discovered in 1987 during an archaeological excavation of the basement of the chapel in the Vieux-Château de Laval. She was buried in an anthropoid lead coffin that was inside a wooden sarcophagus. A heart-shaped lead casket known as a cardiotaph was placed on the exterior coffin above her chest. Neither the coffin nor the urn had any inscription that might identify the owner.

The lead coffin was opened in a local funeral home, revealing a complete skeleton wrapped in a canvas shroud kept in place by hemp cords. The body had been expertly embalmed and was in good condition. There was enough archaeological and osteological evidence to identify the body as that of Anne d’Alègre. A study found her organs — brain, lungs, digestive tract — had been removed and replaced with aromatic herbs and berries. The cardiotaph contained a desiccated organic amalgam that was almost certainly a human heart with embalming materials.

In 2007, three more sets of bones were rediscovered in the château storerooms. One of them belonged to Anne’s son, Guy, Count of Laval (1585-1605), 20th and last of his name. He had died on the battlefield at just 20 years old. With him died the line and title of the Laval counts.

(And now the moment you’ve been waiting for: an extended, meandering, long-winded digression into the wars of religion that blighted France in the 16th century and ultimately took out the Laval family.

So Martin Luther nails his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Church on Halloween of 1517 and by 1521 the Reformation is making converts in France. Tensions rise and by the 1530s, the French crown is actively persecuting Protestants, from draconian anti-Protestant laws to massacres of thousands. In 1562, 50 Huguenot worshippers, five of them women, one a child, were slaughtered in their meeting house in Vassy by the troops of the Catholic Francis, Duke of Guise. This act is considered the starting point of the French Wars of Religion.

They continued at a staccato pace more than 30 years, stopping and starting as one aristocratic faction vied with another. Protestant Henry of Navarre ultimately asserted his legitimate claim to the throne of France, but he had to fight Catholic opponents to secure it. He finally quelled the objections of holdout areas by converting to Catholicism in 1593. The French Wars of Religion ended officially when King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes mandating freedom of religion in 1598.

Anne was born around 1565, the daughter of the Marquis d’Alègre. Her father had taken an opportunistic stance as the religious conflicts escalated. He was Protestant initially, but flipped to the Catholic faction in 1563, a year after Vassy. In 1575 he went back to Protestantism and then retired to live in Rome, ironically, where he died in 1580.

His daughter Anne was married to Guy XIX, Count of Laval, in 1583. Guy had been raised Protestant. His father was not just a devout believer, but the founder the first Calvinist church in Brittany. The House of Laval held rich fiefdoms in Brittany, Normandy and Maine and the family’s power and income were little harmed in the first three wars of religion. The Laval holdings were spared destruction in battle and they were not targeted by the extraordinary taxes levied to fund the war.

When the leader of the Protestant forces, the Prince of Condé, died in 1569, an uncle of Guy XIX, Admiral Gaspard de Coligny, was appointed to lead the Huguenot forces. In the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre of 1572, Gaspard was targeted for elimination by the Catholic faction and pulled from his bed and murdered.

Guy XIX fled France, traveling through Protestant-friendly countries from Switzerland to England. He returned to France in 1575 and settled in his chateau at Vitré where Protestantism had more popular support than at Laval. It was during a gap in active war that he married Anne. Two years later, their son, the future Guy XX was born.

Their marriage could not outlast the virulence of this conflict. Guy XIX was killed near the Huguenot-held fortress of La Rochelle in 1586. Baby Guy XX was just a year old at the time, so his mother wielded his power as his guardian and the Dowager Countess of Laval. France was now mired in the 8th War of Religion, and wee Guy was literally smuggled to the safety of the Protestant stronghold of Sedan by his grandmother who dressed as a peasant woman and carried him in her arms 61 miles from Reims.

The King himself tried to run custodial inference. The Lavals were one of the most powerful families in France, and Henry III wanted the baby to be brought back into the Catholic fold. He revoked Anne’s guardianship and appointed two Catholics his guardians instead. He confiscated all the property Guy XIX had left to his son. Henry III’s death did nothing to improve Anne and Guy XX’s circumstances. The ultra-Catholic governor of Brittany confiscated Laval lands and dedicated all of their revenues to the Catholic League. By 1590 Anne wrote to her cousin that their sources of revenue had been so effectively choked off that she and Guy scrambled to get enough to eat. Only with the Edict of Nantes did Anne get her son’s birthright back in 1599. She also remarried, 13 years after the death of her first husband, to the powerful Guillaume IV d’Hauteme, Marshall of France.

Guy traveled to Italy in 1604 and witnessed the miracle of the blood of San Gennaro in Naples then met with Pope Clement VIII. He declared to the Pope that he would abjure Protestantism and when he returned to France in 1605, that’s what he did, much to his mother’s horror. A few months later, he was dead, killed fighting in Hungary with the Holy Roman Emperor Rudolph II against Sultan Achmet I. His body and heart were returned to Laval for burial and they too wound up in the cross-hairs of religious conflict. It took another three years to settle the bickering over where his heart and body should be interred and for the funeral to finally take place. His mother did not attend the funeral ceremony, nor did any other Protestant.

As Guy XX had no children, no brothers, no relatives at all in line to inherit this important title and property, he should have made explicit arrangements before going off on a perilous journey to fight the Ottomans. He did not, so on his death his seigneuries were inherited by the La Trémoille family and the Laval dynasty ended.

Anne was still going strong, though. The Maréchal de Fervaque died in 1613 and Anne immediately started looking for husband number three. There were a number of suitors — the Prince of Joinville, the Duke of Chevreuse — as her fortune and social status made her a desirable partner. Her romantic life was the talk of Paris as was her daring fashion and carriage racing hobby. She never did get around to that third marriage. She died in 1619 after many months of illness. The canons of the Church of Saint-Tugal would not allow her to be buried with her husband, her son’s heart and all the past counts and countesses of Laval because she was Protestant. She was buried in the chapel of the Chateau de Laval instead.

Guy XX’s remains were exhumed when the church was demolished to make way for a new government building during the French Revolution. They were moved to the museum stores in the Vieux-Château de Laval, dodging the fate of so many scattered bones of French nobles.)

The new study focused on Anne’s teeth using the digital technology used in dental practices today to learn more about a rare and expensive practice of historic dentistry only available to the elite. Scans and imaging found she suffered from severe periodontal disease leaving her teeth rattling loose in her jaw. To keep them in place, the upper left jaws were tied with gold wire .4 mm thick. The upper incisor was replaced by a prosthesis that was tied in place by a gold wire .2 mm thick. The wear on the prosthesis indicates it was used for many years.

A “Cone Beam” scan, which uses X-rays to build three-dimensional images, showed that gold wire had been used to hold together and tighten several of her teeth.

She also had an artificial tooth made of ivory from an elephant—not hippopotamus, which was popular at the time.

But this ornate dental work only “made the situation worse”, said Rozenn Colleter, an archaeologist at the French National Institute for Preventive Archaeological Research and lead author of the study.

The gold wires would have needed repeated tightening over the years, further destabilizing the neighboring teeth, the researchers said.

Long-term dental health was probably not her goal. She was willing to suffer all that pain and tightening so she didn’t look toothless. That third husband was still on the table, after all, and disfigurement of any kind in that era was deemed a reflection of moral failure. For Anne appearances mattered enough to endure the agony.

Musket ball holes may rewrite English Civil War history

Archaeologists have discovered the ruins of a late medieval gatehouse riddled with holes from musket and pistol shots that may be evidence of the first clash in the English Civil War, one that does not appear on the historical record.

The site in Coleshill, Warwickshire, is being excavated because it is on the route of the new HS2 high-speed rail line. It’s pasture land now, but a medieval manor house, Coleshill Hall, once stood there. It was built in the 14th century and expanded in around 1600 with a grand formal garden, the remains of which were discovered by the HS2 team last year.

The gatehouse was still standing in 1628 — it was recorded in an inventory of the house — but was demolished by the end of the 17th century to make way for a new manor house. The excavation revealed the remains of the gatehouse ground level. Made of massive sandstone blocks, the gate featured a monumental building flanked by two massive octagonal towers. The manor house was encircled by a defensive moat. A drawbridge in the gatehouse opened to allow authorized people access over the moat.

The front gatehouse walls are pockmarked with 200 holes from a barrage of shots. More than 40 musket balls were recovered from the former moat around the gatehouse.

The English Civil War began in August 1642. The conflict was between the Royalists who were loyal to King Charles I, and Parliamentarians, known as the Roundheads. The first recorded battle of the Civil War, the Battle of Curdworth Bridge, took place in 1642, and was only a short distance from Coleshill Manor.

The Manor was in the hands of Royalist Simon Digby as the Civil War approached, after the estate was transferred into his name following the execution of its previous owner, Simon De Montford, for Treason.

Coleshill Manor, next to a bridge over the River Cole, would have been a strategic position that the Roundheads would have wanted to control. Experts believe that the Roundheads would have passed close to the Manor on their way to battle. It is entirely plausible that a skirmish took place on the way to Curdworth Bridge, especially given the Manor’s strong Royalist connection. Historical records of the Civil War are confined to famous major battles, so details of the exact events will never be known, but these marks exposed as part of HS2’s archaeology programme provide a rare glimpse into the impact of war on the lives of those not recorded in the history books.

Closer to Johannes Vermeer

The Rijksmuseum has put together an unprecedented exhibition of works by Johannes Vermeer that will open next month. Only 37 works firmly attributed to Vermeer are known to exist, and 23 of them will be on display in this exhibition. Many of them are on loan from museums around the globe, including The Girl with a Pearl Earring (Mauritshuis, The Hague), Girl Reading a Letter at the Open Window (Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden) and Woman Holding a Balance (The National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.).

To accompany the exhibition the Rijksmuseum has crafted an exceptional virtual exploration of all of Vermeer’s paintings. It truly is an exploration, a guided tour of Vermeer’s oeuvre that takes the fullest possible advantage of digital technology to give viewers an in-depth view of each of his 37 known paintings. The English language narration is by Stephen Fry who, as seen in his TV documentary series, is an outstanding tour guide.

The intro opens with a tiled screen of thumbnails of every painting by Vermeer. Each thumbnail is clickable if you’d like to peruse specific works, but I highly recommend the tour because it does a masterful job of putting the paintings in the context of Vermeer’s life and evolution as an artist.

The exhibition divides Vermeer’s work into 13 chapters with unifying motifs. The tour begins with “Into the City,” exploring the View of Delft and The Little Street and placing Vermeer’s artistry in the context of the city where he was born, lived and worked. I really enjoyed this section because it’s a walk-through of the 17th century city as seen through Vermeer’s landscapes. Fry identifies some of the buildings as we go along and then segues neatly into The Little Street through the cloudy sky they have in common.

Girl with the Pearl Earring is in Section 8, The Look of Seduction, which groups her with three other Vermeer beauties with soft eyes and glistening lips. They are all “tronie” portraits, a type of study painting with fantasy elements of lighting, expression and clothing that painters created as workshop exercises. There was no actual sitter. All four of Vermeer’s tronies are wearing pearl earrings and unusual headgear.

You can jump around through the chapters by hovering over the right side of the screen and navigating the menu or you can just let it ride and go in order. Either way, it’s easy to pick up where you left off, and you might very well have to do because there is so much to see for an artist with such a small total output.

This is one of the best virtual exhibitions I have ever seen, and I have seen a lot of them. It is written in a personable, light-hearted style that still manages to be incredibly information-rich. The way they zoom into the detail of the paintings to illustrate the commentary is flawlessly paced and takes full advantage of the ultra-high resolution photographs. Fry explains changes Vermeer made based on the most recent imaging and research into his process. There are also annotated areas of each painting which you can click on for a shot of additional information. The notes open in windows that have click-through images, so every note is really multiple notes. Then when you’re done exploring the nooks and crannies, you click back to the main tour and the narration picks up where you left off. Whoever designed this is a content management genius, seriously.

“Irish giant” finally removed from display

Eleven Christmases ago, the British Medical Journal published an article appealing for the burial at sea of the remains of Charles Byrne, the “Irish giant” whose skeleton has been on public display at the Hunterian Museum in London for two centuries, very, VERY much against his expressed will. The Hunterian declined, claiming that the scientific value of Charles Byrne’s bones “outweighs the benefits of carrying out Byrne’s apparent request to dispose of his remains at sea.”

They still think that. Charles Byrne will not be buried at sea or anywhere else, for that matter. But they have, in what strikes me as a somewhat grudging, defensive statement, agreed that he will no longer be on public display. The museum has been closed for redevelopment so visitors haven’t been able to gawk at Byrne for the past five years. When it reopens in March, Byrne’s skeleton, formerly the flagship of the museum’s anatomical specimens collection, won’t be there. From the statement:

John Hunter (1728-1793) and other anatomists and surgeons of the 18th and 19th centuries acquired many specimens in ways we would not consider ethical today and which are rightly subject to review and discussion.

These are weasel words to employ in this situation because stealing dead bodies was considered unethical back then too. Worse than that, it was considered illegal. Worse than THAT, it was considered a monstrous blasphemy because it impeded resurrection of the dead at the Last Judgment. This is in no way a case of modern sensibilities being forced onto the past. Grave-robbing was reviled far more then than it is now.

The skeleton will be retained as it is an integral part of the Hunterian Collection and will be available for bona fide research into the conditions of acromegaly and gigantism.

They have his DNA, extracted from a molar and used to map a genetic cluster of gigantism in Ireland, and that is available to researchers. They could easily 3D scan his body and make that data available to researchers all over the world in an instant. His bones are simply not necessary for any scientific research at this point, and given the cruel treatment he received at the hand of the museum’s founder, both in life and in death, I think he’s more than earned the eternal rest he wanted so badly.

Skeleton of Charles Byrne on display. Born in the village of Littlebridge, Northern Ireland, in 1761, his extraordinary stature became apparent in early childhood. He drew crowds locally when he was still in school, and as a teenager was engaged by a promoter to tour Ireland. He moved to London around 1780 and was initially a huge success. He was presented at court; he starred in a play. When the novelty wore off and he could no longer book big events, he just stayed in his room and advertised himself in newspapers, charging half a crown admission per person to see the “Irish Giant,” billed as the tallest man in the world. (His height was reported at the time to be 8’4″, but his skeleton is 7’7″ so he was probably more like 7’10” in life.)

Human oddities were prized by anatomists, and giants were particularly rare. The vultures were already circling while Byrne was still alive. In addition to his increasingly poor health caused by his condition, he was also an alcoholic with tuberculosis, so his days were numbered and everyone knew it. Scottish surgeon John Hunter sent a man named Howison to Byrne’s room at Spring Gardens, London. After paying his half-crown, Howison relayed an offer from John Hunter to buy his body after he died, cash in advance, of course. Byrne was horrified and refused. Hunter dispatched Howison to return every single day so he could let him know the second Byrne died giving Hunter the chance to get the jump on the other ghouls vying for the poor man’s body.

The thought that the anatomists would get to him and dissect his body plagued Byrne. He knew he wouldn’t live long and he made arrangements to prevent him suffering this fate. He had a lead coffin built and arranged for his Irish friends to guard it and his body until it could be transported down the Thames to the Downs and sunk in the English Channel.

This information was not kept under wraps. Newspaper articles were written about the planned burial and how the resurrectionists were trying to foil Byrne’s measures. According to one London paper, “the body-snatchers, however, are determined to pursue their valuable prey even in the profoundest depth of the aquatic regions; and have therefore provided a pair of diving bells, with which they flatter themselves they shall be able to weigh hulk gigantic from its watery grave.” Another magazine noted that he’d requested burial at sea “in order that his bones might be removed far out of the reach of the chirurgical fraternity, in consequence of which the body was put on board a vessel, conveyed to the Downs and sunk in twenty fathoms of water.” If only that had been true.

What happened next is unclear. Hunter bribed either the undertaker or Byrne’s Irish bodyguards to remove him from the lead coffin, putting stones in his place. The coffin then continued on with the original plan. The body was carted away in John Hunter’s carriage.

He never even dissected him. That very night, Hunter boiled the flesh off of Byrne’s bones so he could reassemble the body for mounting in his anatomical specimen collection. It was on the wall in his private study when Hunter commissioned artist Joshua Reynolds to paint his portrait in 1786. You can see Byrne’s feet and long shin bones in the back right. The boiled bones of Charles Byrne went on public display in 1799, six years after Hunter’s death.

John Hunter is buried in Westminster Abbey where his tombstone describes him as “The Founder of Scientific Surgery.” Charles Byrne is in a box in museum storage. The Joshua Reynolds portrait of John Hunter will be displayed in the spot where Charles Byrne’s body was formerly exhibited.