September 2

1571, 1666


The  world's most sophisticated clock

On page 144 of John Banville's splendid little vignette "Prague Pictures", I read that Tycho Brahe arrived in Prague as court mathematician to the Emperor Rudolf, his task to prepare, and his fellow genius Johannes Kepler to complete, the "Tabulae Rudolphinae", the final word on astrology before intelligent thought was introduced into Europe by the Enlightenment (it was Kepler who said that astrology was invented so that astronomers could earn a living). That was in the summer of 1599; within just a few days he was received by the Emperor.

"Tycho described the triumphal occasion," Banville reports, "to his disreputable cousin Frederick Rosenkrantz..." which statement leads to a footnote: "In 1592, this Rosenkrantz, along with another Brahe cousin, Knud Gyldenstierne, travelled on a diplomatic mission to London, where they must surely have encountered one of the leading English dramatists of the day...", a statement that Banville leaves tantalisingly incomplete, allowing us to understand that obviously he meant Shakespeare, since a Rosencrantz and Guildernstern, spelled slightly differently, will turn up as minor characters, old college friends in fact, of Hamlet, summoned by King Claudius to distract the prince from his apparent madness, and if possible to ascertain the cause of it, and then to ship with him to England where he is to be murdered; though in fact Hamlet finds and reads the letter, and arranges their deaths in his place. "Hamlet" was written somewhere between 1600 and 1603, so the dates work. But who knew that Shakespeare had real Danish noblemen as his source?

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Banville's book is about Prague, where Brahe and Kepler made their names among the founders of the aforementioned Enlightenment. Prague, or at least nearby Zlin, was also the starting-point for his lifelong mission to London of one of the great modern playwrights, Sir Tom Stoppard, and it was precisely with his satirical reworking of Rosencrantz (with a "c" rather than a "k") and Guildernstern that he made his name in the 1960s, though actually he first cast them in a one-act play with King Lear before going for the full-length version, restored to Hamlet. I am taken aback that Banville failed to follow through with that literary connection, or to mention W.S. Gilbert, he who partnered Arthur Sullivan in many a fine operetta, and who also revived R&G (and also with a "c") satirically.

Gilbert's play, written in 1874, is a comedy in which Rosencrantz plots with his friend Guildenstern to get rid of Hamlet, so that Rosencrantz can marry Ophelia. They discover that Claudius has written a five act tragic play. Sadly, the king's literary work is so embarrassingly bad that Claudius has decreed that anyone who mentions it must be executed. They obtain the manuscript and convince Hamlet to perform it. When he does, Claudius decrees that he must die, but is eventually persuaded to banish him to England. Rosencrantz and Ophelia can now be together. In a 1900 performance of the play, P.G. Wodehouse of Jeeves fame played Guildernstern; a 1904 performance included George Bernard Shaw.

Stoppard's play is rather more absurd than comic (he once described it as the tale of two men who don't know why they are here, don't know where they are going, or why, but go, and then die - which seems to me to sum up the human condition to perfection), and if it is rather less overtly political than some of his other plays (the TV play "Professional Foul" remains my favourite, if only for the wonderful lecture on the untranslateability of language that forms its middle section), it is still regularly performed, and likely to remain so. The link here will take you to about ten minutes' worth of Dominic Cumberbatch's rendition of Guildernstern.

But what was the reason for the real Rosenkrantz and Guildernstern's diplomatic mission to London?

The Rosenkrantz in question was Frederik Holgersen Rosenkrantz, born September 2nd 1571, the son of Holger Ottesen Rosenkrantz and Karen Christophersdatter Gyldenstierne – yes, the two names interconnected right from his birth. Frederik died on August 18th 1602 of what Danish websites call "Krigstjeneste Ungarn" which my Google Translator insists means "War Service Hungary". The rest is probably interpretable into meaningful English, but you will have to make your own way through this next Google-translation, which is the only website I can find with information about said Rosenkrantz. This is what I have:

"Frederik Rosenkrantz (1571-1602) was a Danish nobleman and vassal. Owner of manor houses Rosenvold and Stjær Holm. His parents were Councillor Holger Ottesen Rosenkrantz and Karen Gyldenstierne. His baptism took place September 2, 1571 at Skanderborg Castle with great pomp. The father died when Frederick was only four years, why Chancellor Niels Kaas and his uncle Jørgen Ottesen Rosenkrantz since his guardians. He was like his own class on long overseas trip. In 1584, he studied in Rostock, 1586-87 Wittenberg, 1589 in Padua and in 1590 in Siena. After returning, he took 1,593 service as hofjunker. In 1595 he Giske Len in Norway. At the same time, he was betrothed to the owner of the headland, Christence Corfitsdatter Viffert that after only three years of marriage sat as the widow of Henrik Bille to Mogenstrup.
"Frederik Rosenkrantz prospects seemed so promising, especially since he seems to have had great influence on the young King Christian IV. But it ended abruptly. In the spring of 1599, Frederik Rosenkrantz Lundenæs in forlening, which certainly has been a kærkommet pretext to withdraw from hoftjenesten. Shortly after had one of the queen's maids, Rigborg Brockenhuus flee from the court to a relative on Fyn, with whom she July 24 gave birth to a son, to which Frederik Rosenkrantz was designated as the child's father. When he was already betrothed to another, it was impossible to put a lid on the scandal by Rigborg and Frederick were married. Her father Laurids Brockenhuus also called relentless punishment of both culprits for the offense that was surpassed him and his family. King supported Brockenhuus and required statutory maximum penalty than the one that had enticed a virgin in the king's farm. There came commandment to Frederik Rosenkrantz were apprehended, dead or alive. Frederik had fled from his Website and reached Hamburg, where he, however, in August 1599 was escorted home under guard. Two months later, in October, fell misjudging both. She was sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, he was to lose the honor and her two fingers. The last sentence, however, relented for him to go to Hungary to fight against the Turks. This he did too and with so much distinction, in particular by Stuhlweissenburgs conquest, the imperial colonels under which he earned in 1601 interceded for him by King Christian IV. Surely the sake of Laurids Brockenhuus refused, however, the king in very sharp terms to pardon him. The following year, August 18, 1602 died Frederik Rosenkrantz in Moravia by an unfortunate incident when he would separate two contestants. He is buried in Teinkirken in Prague. Frederik and Riborg son Holger was in 1624 recognized as a genuine Rosenkrantz.
"It is believed that it was Frederik Rosenkrantz trip to London, along with his cousin Knud Gyldenstierne that gave Shakespeare the inspiration for the use of the names Rosencrantz and Guildenstern in the play Hamlet."

Neither Gilbert nor Stoppard could have written that spendidly absurd translation better!

So much for Rosenkrantz, though Wikipedia tells us, in rather better English, that the woman in his life, "Rigborg Brockenhuus (1579-1641), was a Danish noble and lady-in-waiting" - it being Wikipedia, these dates may not be reliable; though the facts that follow are much the same as the ones above

"She was the central figure in a famous sexual offence case in 1599. Daughter of nobles Laurids Brockenhuus and Karen Skrams, she was the sister of Jakob Brockenhuus and the maternal aunt of Corfitz Ulfeldt. She became maid of honor to the queen, Anne Catherine of Brandenburg in 1598. In 1599, she had an illegitimate son, Holger, with the courtier Frederik Holgersen Rosenkrantz. King Christian IV charged the couple with having broken the conduct of the royal court and the presence of the monarch, as well as the common law of seduction - an exceptional judgment against two nobles. Rosenkrantz was sentenced to have two fingers amputated and to lose his nobility. The seriousness of the sentence was deemed appropriate because Rosenkrantz had been engaged to another woman, Christence Viffert. His sentence was later softened to service in the war against the Ottoman Empire, where he died in 1602. Rigborg Brockenhuus was sentenced to life imprisonment in a room in her father's castle, Egeskov, thirty miles outside of Odense. Her son Holger was turned over to the custody of his father's family. In 1608, the queen dowager Sophie of Mecklenburg-Güstrow obtained permission for Rigborg to leave her room to attend church once a week. In 1616, Rigborg's mother secured permission for Rigborg to live on her own estates, and when her mother died in 1625, this was realized. In 1626 she was reunited with her son, Holger."
   Not half so entertaining an account as the Danish version.

What about Guildernstern? I can find even less on Knud, though other members of his family have webpages, including a Catholic bishop in Odense who died in 1560, "the one who outwitted Christian II in Oslo", though it fails to explain how or in what. However a paragraph in "Shakespeare and Scandinavia, A Collection of Nordic Studies" suggests that Shakespeare himself may have spent some time in Denmark, a hypothesis which I have never heard suggested anywhere else, but still more plausible than the one that has either Francis Bacon or the Earl of Oxford writing his plays.

Apparently an English troupe was employed at the Danish court in Elsinore in 1586, probably on the recommendation of the Earl of Leicester, and that it included Will Kemp, George Bryan and Thomas Pope, all three of whom joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men upon their return; it just so happens that Shakespeare joined the Lord Chamberlain's Men at exactly the same time, though why this should infer that he was in Denmark with them is unclear. By coincidence, or perhaps not, 1586 is one of the "lost years" of Shakespeare's life, about which the scholars have no information – so why could he not have been in Denmark? He remained "lost" until 1592, and the next we know of him is in London in 1593, where he attended the execution of the Queen's personal physician Roderigo Lopes, and later wrote "The Merchant of Venice" by way of an angry response to that, and to the anti-Semitic riots that followed. Whether he also went to Italy during those years is likewise unknown, but he also set plays in Malta and Turkey, Greece and Lebanon, Austria and Bohemia, to name but six, and maybe he visited them too. Highly unlikely on all counts; what however is highly likely is that the three who did go to Denmark shared information about their trip with Shakespeare, and that he used it.

The same volume continues by recounting how Frederik Rosenkrantz was sent by his father Holger to study at Rostock between 1596 and 1589, and then at Wittenberg from 1598-91, the latter being the one where Shakespeare places Hamlet as a college friend of R&G.

"After completing his studies, Rosenkrantz went on a tour of Europe that took him to Italy, Sicily and Malta and in 1592 he visited England in the company of his friend and fellow student, Knud Gyldenstierne. According to a biographical account of Frederik Rosenkrantz, there can be little doubt that 'his stay in England with Knud Gyldenstierne was the occasion for introducing these two Danish noblemen into Hamlet.'"

But still no suggestion of why they were in England.

The same account then tells us that "another Rosenkrantz visited England in connection with James' coronation in 1603. This was young Holger Axelsen Rosenkrantz (1598-1647), "a member of the same powerful noble family in Denmark" - presumably the son of that criminalised affair. "He came in the retinue of the Danish Chancellor, Christian Friis, and attended the coronation. No doubt the opportunity was taken by the Danish Chancellor to discuss the forthcoming state visit of Christian IV to England. Brief mention can also be made of yet another diplomatic mission to England"... but unfortunately my "Internet sample" access to this particular text ran out there, short of my paying for a copy of the whole book just to read what was probably two more sentences, and before I could reach the footnote that told me from which "autobiographical account" the author, Gunnar Sorelius, was sourcing. I am therefore left even more tantalised than previously, certain that Shakespeare must have met Rosenkrantz and Gyldenstierne, and in London, and at exactly the time that he was writing Hamlet, and that surely the structure of Hamlet, which involves a group of tragedians travelling to Elsinore to perform a play... if anyone has any further knowledge, whether of facts or simply places in which fragments of detail might be accrued, please use the comment box at the foot of this page.


Shakespeare's career ended when "The Globe" theatre burned down in 1613 (see June 29). Had it not done so, it would have been unlikely to survive the greater conflagration that destroyed virtually the whole of London, on this day in 1666. The Great Fyre began at the Thomas Faryner's bakery, the King's own bakery, on Pudding Lane in East Cheap, just by London Bridge, where the Monument to the event now stands. 1 of the clock on a Sunday morning it was, when a spark from his oven caught a pile of logs nearby, and two thousand years of history simply went up in smoke.

In his diary for this "Lord's Day", Pepys noted that "some of our maids sitting up late last night to get things ready against our feast to-day, Jane called us up about three in the morning, to tell us of a great fire they saw in the City. So I rose, and slipped on my night-gown, and went to her window; and thought it to be on the back-side of Marke-land at the farthest, but being unused to such fires as followed, I thought it far enough off, and so went to bed again, and to sleep. About seven rose again to dress myself, and there looked out at the window, and saw the fire not so much as it was, and further off. So to my closet to set things to rights, after yesterday’s cleaning. By and by Jane comes and tells me that she hears that above 300 houses have been burned down to-night by the fire we saw, and that it is now burning down all Fish-street, by London Bridge. So I made myself ready presently, and walked to the Tower, and there got up upon one off the high places, Sir J. Robinson's little son going up with me; and there I did see the houses at the end of the bridge all on fire, and in infinite great fire on this and the other side the end of the bridge..."

Pepys' matter-of-fact, his complacency, his capacity to rubber-neck as a mere spectator, is staggering. Talk about Nero fiddling while Rome burns! The diary entry runs on to several closely-written pages, in which the most banal of episodes (Mr Moore's disappointment at the new royal closet, for example) are juxtaposed with details of human tragedy (Mr Houblon, "dirty at his door at Dowgate, receiving some of his brother's things, whose houses were on fire"). The whole episode seems to be a little more than an opportunity for an excursion, and an even better - an even more ghoulish - opportunity to fill to the last available space what might otherwise have been that most terrible calamity that can befall a diarist, which is to say an empty page: self-centred to a point of vanity given what was happening to other people, introspective beyond credulity given what was happening to the exterior world. And yet, as journalism, it provides a fascinating and historically important record:
"... down with my heart full of trouble to the Lieutenant of the Tower, who tells me that it begun this morning in the King’s baker’s house* in Pudding-lane, and that it hath burned down St Magnes Church and most part of Fish-street already... everybody endeavouring to remove their goods, and flinging into the river, or bringing them into lighters that lay off; poor people staying in their houses as long as till the very fire touched them, and then running into boats, or clambering from one pair of stairs by the water-side to another..."
It was Pepys, according to his own testimony, who brought news of the fire to the King, though it is hard to believe he hadn't already been informed, or simply noticed.
"I did give them an account dismayed them all, and word was carried in to the King. So I was called for, and did tell the King and Duke of York what I saw, and that unless His Majesty did command houses to be pulled down, nothing could stop the fire. They seemed much troubled, and the King commanded me to go to my Lord Mayor from him, and command him to spare no houses, but to pull down before the fire every way...”
The Duke of York offered soldiers, but by the time Pepys tracked down Sir Thomas Bludworth, the Lord Mayor, "down in Canning-street", it was far too late to save the city. But he had done his duty, gained much royal esteem to cap his self-importance, and acquired useful detail for his portrait. I speak disdainfully, but while London burned, Pepys now returned home for luncheon, with Mr Wood and Barbary Shelden and also Mr Moone, who had come to look at Pepys' closet, only events had been so troubling they could not bring themselves to it. "However, we had an extraordinary good dinner, and as merry at this time as we could be..." - a dinner not even ruined by the arrival of Mrs Batelier, "come to enquire after Mr Woolfe and Stanes (who it seems are related to them,) whose houses in Fish-street are all burned, and they in a sad condition."

There is something disturbingly Marie Antoinette in this account, which moves back and forth between further ghoulish excursions to see the sights, and further returns home for sustenance (plus any number of pretexts to namedrop his relations "by appointment" with the King. Such, indeed, is his sang-froid, that even when matters turn personal there is a dispassion that defies belief:

"Poor Tom Hater came with some few of his goods saved out of his house, which was burned upon Fish-street Hill. I invited him to lie at my house, and did receive his goods, but was deceived in his lying there, the news coming every moment of the growth of the fire; so as we were forced to begin to pack up our own goods, and prepare for their removal; and did by moonshine (it being brave dry and moonshine and warm weather) carry much of my goods into the garden, and Mr Hater and I did remove my money and iron chests into my cellar, as thinking that the safest place... about four o’clock in the morning, my Lady Batten sent me a cart to carry away all my money, and plate, and best things, to Sir W Riders at Bednall-greene. Which I did, riding myself in my night-gown, in the cart..."
Pepys' house was in Seething Lane - owned by the Navy Office and his as a perk of his job - just to the west of Tower Hill, less than half a mile east of where the fire started. The house survived the fire, as did his office in the same building, where he continued working through the several days in which the fire continued raging, destroying most of mediaeval London. His diaries were written in what looks like code, but is in fact seventeenth century shorthand. But his real legacy is not the diaries - it was Pepys who masterminded that most significant of all British achievements, the Royal Navy.

In total 13,000 houses burned down in the four days of the Great Fire of London. Looking on the zero-positive side, it was the fire that destroyed the last remnants of the Great Plague of 1665 - for good.

Amber pages

Phidippides ran from Marathon to Sparta, today in 490 BCE. Given that Marathon was his staring point, and not his goal, why is not called a Sparta? Does anyone have a clue which charity he was raising funds for?

The Gregorian Calendar was finally adopted by Britain and her colonies, starting tomorrow, but officially adopted today, in 1752; so you could argue that this should appear on September 14, which is tomorrow's reformed date

And today in 1945, Japan signed its unconditional surrender. Hopefully the document has not been kept, as it is highly likely to remain dangerously radioactive for some while.

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