Ten Things I Didn?t Know About Manchester (first posted 21st August 2007)
The subject of this article arose from the research for two of my novels:- The Angel Stone, set in 1604, and The Whispering Road, set in 1836.
The plot of The Angel Stone is centred around Manchester cathedral. The Angel Stone is the oldest carved stone in Manchester. It was discovered by Joseph Crowther in the mid 19th century when he undertook the reconstruction of part of the cathedral. On it is the carving of an angel, peculiarly angled, and Anglo-Saxon writing, which translates as ?Into thy hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.? Estimates vary, but the stone may be 1,300 years old. It was actually retrieved from infill rubble between two porch walls, but since the cathedral building dates from 1421, it must have belonged to the earlier church which stood on the same site.
Little is known about the earlier church, but the history of the present cathedral is well-documented and fascinating.
After the Battle of Agincourt in 1415, Thomas de la Warre, Lord of the Manor of Manchester and Rector of the old Parish Church, applied to Henry V for a charter to build a bigger church on the same site. The Battle of Agincourt was the decisive battle of the Hundred Years War. Henry V defeated Charles VI of France, married his daughter, Katherine de Valois, and returned to England with immense revenues. Unfortunately, he didn?t live long enough to inherit the French throne. In 1422, he died of dysentery, aged 34. Had he lived, the course of English history would have been very different. His son, Henry VI, was defeated by Charles VII, who, at the instigation of Joan of Arc, drove the English out of all French territory apart from Calais. The vast wealth gained at Agincourt was lost, so it was fortunate that one year before the death of Henry V, Thomas de la Warre petitioned the king for money to build a Collegiate Church.
Henry V was of the House of Lancaster, at that time the major city of Lancashire. Manchester itself was a small and insignificant town. The building of a large Collegiate Church did not necessarily signify that the king had great plans for Manchester, yet around it the town grew. The changes that occurred during the Reformation accelerated that growth.
Before the Reformation, church attendance was expected but not enforced. After Henry VIII declared himself head of the Church, however, refusal to attend was potentially treasonable, and by 1593, any person of sixteen years and over who had not attended church for the space of one month could be imprisoned and dragged to the church in chains, or whipped through the streets. By this time there were approximately two thousand people in the township of Manchester. Church services were held all day to accommodate the population, some of whom would have travelled considerable distances. In bad weather they needed overnight accommodation, and a number of inns were built along Long Millgate. Markets were established on Saturdays and Mondays, probably in response to this fluctuating population. Thus, the presence of the church precipitated the expansion of the town.
But the building that is now the cathedral has an even more significant link to another battle in English history. Seventy years after the Battle of Agincourt, the Battle of Bosworth field brought the Wars of the Roses to an end, and established the Tudor dynasty. This was the battle in which Henry Tudor defeated Richard III, the last Plantagenet king, who was allegedly responsible for the murder of the princes in the Tower. The repercussions of this event were so far reaching that it is astonishing to remember that the battle itself took only two hours.
Henry Tudor landed at Milford Haven with a small force of French mercenaries. He gathered support as he travelled towards Leicester, but still when the two armies met on a field outside Market Bosworth, Richard?s force outnumbered Henry?s by approximately three to one. What happened next was determined by the actions of the Stanley brothers, Sir William, and Thomas Lord Stanley.
These two brothers were allies of the king, but as Richard?s army charged, they waited on the hillside, finally entering the battle on Henry?s side. Thomas Stanley?s soldiers hacked Richard to death, then Henry Tudor knelt as Thomas, Lord Stanley, placed the crown on his head.
The apparent reason for this defection was that Thomas Stanley was married to Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry Tudor, so that he was now stepfather to the new king.
And one of the homes belonging to Thomas Stanley and Margaret Beaufort was Alport Lodge, which was just off Deasngate.
Margaret Beaufort, 1443 ? 1509, was one of the most remarkable women of her time. Known in her lifetime as ?a gentlewoman, a scholar and a saint?, she was patron of the first printers, William Caxton and Wynkyn de Worde, translator of religious texts by important theologians such as Thomas a Kempis, and an important beneficiary of the arts. She granted endowments for the foundation of colleges in Oxford and Cambridge Universities and was indirectly responsible for the foundation of the Manchester Grammar School.
Thomas Stanley was her fourth and final husband. She was married for the first time at the age of seven, to the six year old John de la Pole, but the marriage was later dissolved. At the age of nine, she picked Edmund Tudor as her favoured choice for her second marriage. He died of the plague on the first of November 1456, just a few weeks before Henry Tudor was born in late January 1457. At the time of her son?s birth, Margaret Beaufort was only thirteen years and eight months old.
It was not uncommon to give birth so young in this late mediaeval period. Anne Boleyn?s grandmother, Margaret Butler, was twelve when she gave birth to her first son, but in Margaret Beaufort?s case, the process seems to have caused physical damage, leaving her infertile. Despite two further marriages, she never conceived again.
She married Thomas Stanley in 1472. Apparently she ?obtayned of him license to live chaste?, though only in 1499, when she would have been 56. The marriage seems to have been one of policy rather than love, but there is little doubt that she was fiercely devoted to, and ambitious for, her only son. Sometime before the Battle of Bosworth, she entered negotiations with Elizabeth Woodville, mother of the murdered princes. It is possible that a secret meeting took place, in which it was agreed that Henry Tudor would marry Elizabeth Woodville?s daughter. This was an alliance which would have a significant impact upon his claim to the throne.
The importance of this marriage becomes apparent when we consider the lineage of both Margaret Beaufort and Edmund Tudor. The Beauforts were descended from the bastard line of John of Gaunt and his mistress, Katherine Swynford. They were legitimised by a statute of Richard II in 1397, but in 1407, Henry IV added a rider which prevented the Beauforts and their heirs from ever inheriting the crown.
Edmund Tudor similarly came from an illegitimate line. He was one of the sons of Henry V?s widow, Katherine de Valois, by the groom of her wardrobe, Owen Tudor. When Henry Tudor took the crown, every single surviving Plantagenet had a better claim to it than he did, so it was singularly important for him to make the alliance with Elizabeth of York, daughter of Edward IV. It united the warring houses of Lancaster and York and helped to legitimise his claim to the throne.
It was potentially treason, however, for Margaret Beaufort to discuss this alliance, depending as it did on the death of Richard III, and this in itself demonstrates the scope of her ambition. Later scholars have associated her with the murder of the two princes in the Tower, though this is unlikely and cannot be verified.
Margaret Beaufort, then, matriarch of both the Tudor and Stuart dynasties, had a huge impact on the fate of the nation, but she also had a direct impact on Manchester itself. She made generous contributions to the church and is said to have donated the 14 stone angels in the roof of what is now the cathedral. It is also said that when Edward VI?s soldiers came to ransack the church and destroy the remaining evidence of Catholicism, they left quietly when told that the Rector was saying prayers for the soul of Margaret Beaufort.
A scholar herself, Margaret Beaufort began independently to teach boys in her own home near Deansgate. One of the boys in whom she took a particular interest was Hugh Oldham, later Bishop of Exeter. In 1515, Hugh Oldham founded the Manchester Grammar School, which is one of the oldest in the country. Situated until 1930 in the Manorial House close to the cathedral, it was administered by a Warden in conjunction with twelve Fellows who were also responsible for the affairs of the church.
The school was unusual in that it provided free education for the boys who attended. They learned Latin, Greek, Grammar, Mathematics, sword fighting and archery. Later, music and astronomy were added to the curriculum by one of the most exotic characters ever to become Warden of a school, Dr John Dee.
John Dee, (1527-1608), was sometimes known as Queen Elizabeth?s Merlin. Scientist, astrologer, alchemist, he is said to be the original of both Shakespeare?s Prospero and Christopher Marlowe?s Faust. This in itself suggests the reputation he had acquired. He became popularly known as an occultist and necromancer. Unfortunately, this tended to obscure his real achievements. He translated Euclid, for instance, and wrote the famous preface to Euclid?s Elements. He was the first to apply Euclidean geometry to the art of navigation, and built the instruments which allowed the navy to apply this knowledge. He trained the great navigators and developed the maps charting the North East and North West passages. He was said to have had the greatest library in England, which had taken him over forty years to acquire. This was estimated at between four and ten thousand books.
In 1579, however, he met a rogue lawyer named Edward Kelly. Although even at the time they met, Kelly had already had both ears cut off for forgery, fraud and coining, he managed to convince John Dee that he could relate messages from angels by a technique known as scrying, which involved gazing into a blank surface such as an obsidian stone. In 1583 they produced together the Book of Enoch which contained an ?angelic alphabet? consisting of 2,401 letters set out in 98 tables. They claimed that this was the original language of man before the Fall, and that it directly encoded angelic wisdom.
In 1584, convinced that Elizabeth I?s spymaster, Walsingham, was pursuing them, they fled to Poland, then to the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, in Prague. They were kept there on the promise that they would reveal the secret of the Philosopher?s Stone ? the ultimate goal of alchemy. In 1589 they parted company. John Dee returned to England, but Kelly was imprisoned in Prague, apparently for failing to deliver either gold or immortality to the Emperor. He later died attempting to escape from prison. The date of his death is given variously as 1593/5/7.
Dee was by now impoverished. He obtained a licence from Elizabeth I to practice alchemy, and in 1595 was appointed Warden of Manchester Grammar School.
This was an extremely controversial appointment, especially since the Warden had duties in the church, and was expected to take church services. John Dee?s reputation had preceded him and people were scandalised that a known occultist had been given clerical responsibilities. They believed that the town had actually been cursed by his appointment. So unpopular was he that when plague broke out in 1605, a mob broke into his rooms in what is now the Chethams Library and destroyed his magnificent collection of books and manuscripts. John Dee himself had mysteriously disappeared. He never returned to Manchester, but died in his home in Mortlake in 1608. His disappearance might be explained by the rumour that there are secret passageways and tunnels linking the cathedral and the college. It is also said that because the two rivers which meet behind the library flooded persistently, the present town is built above the earlier town. If archaeologists were to dig beneath the surface of Manchester, they would uncover whole streets, houses and shops extending all the way to King Street, preserved from this earlier time.
Manchester?s plague was in its own way as devastating as the Great Plague of London. It was responsible for the deaths of over a thousand people at a time when the population is estimated at between two and three thousand. In line with common practice the town was sealed off ? no one was permitted to enter or leave. The rich, however, had already left, escaping to their alternative homes in the country, so it was mainly the poor who remained trapped in the town, and there was much looting of the shops and larger houses.
So many people died that there was no room to bury them. Bodies were dug into the field now known as Angel Meadow. Heavy rain fell all summer, churning the field, and grotesquely, the bodies of the plague victims began gradually to surface, and to drift towards the river.
Manchester is not good at commemorating its pre-industrial history. Extensive records exist in the cathedral and the library (which is the first public lending library in the world) but there is no easy public access or display. Many more records exist from the time of the Industrial Revolution, when Manchester was said to be responsible for producing the wealth not only of the nation, but of the world.
The Whispering Road is set in 1836. At this time Manchester had not yet been incorporated into a municipal town, and the cathedral was still the Collegiate Church. It was rapidly burgeoning into an industrial city, containing over 100 factories and a population of circa 300,000, yet it was still being run along the lines of a feudal village.
Manchester was owned by the Mosley family, who bought it in 1596 for £3,000.00. All rents were paid to this family, who were in theory responsible for street and bridge repairs, water supplies, policing, street lighting etc. It was an antiquated system, and wholly inadequate to meet the demands of the growing population.
Several written accounts testify to the appalling conditions of the time. One of the most comprehensive and graphic was written by Dr James Kay (1804-77). In his Moral and Physical Conditions of the English Working Classes, (1832) he wrote that entire families of sixteen or eighteen people were crammed into a single, flooded cellar room with their pigs and chickens; that in any tenement block there would be up to a thousand children who had no name, and that in Ancoats, the world?s first industrial suburb, average life expectancy was only fourteen. Other writers such as Alexis de Tocqueville, compare Manchester directly to hell, a place of ?darkness, smoke and flame?, where even on the brightest day it was not possible to see the sun. Factories poured out their fumes and their chemical waste directly into the rivers, which were so polluted that small animals could walk across them. The people, of course, took their water directly from the rivers, and this caused the major cholera outbreaks of the 1830?s.
In these unimaginable conditions there are several inspiring stories of individual heroism. There is only space here to mention one of these stories; that of Abel Heywood (1810-93) the son of a weaver, who became a political activist and later, mayor of the city.
Abel Heywood?s father died when he was nine years old, and he came to the town centre to work in one of the factories. He was educated at a Sunday School in Bennett Street, and in 1828 he established his radical paper, The Poor Man?s Guardian, in the cellar of a shop on Oldham Street. This was a prodigious undertaking. He wrote and edited the paper himself, printing articles by such writers as William Cobbett and Richard Cobden, and distributed it secretly all over the city, in boxes bearing the labels of tea and coffee or biscuits. He was imprisoned twice, and twice fined for this activity, because of the Stamp Act. This declared that a tax of 4d a copy was payable on each issue of any newspaper or magazine. Abel Heywood wanted his paper to be read by the working men of the city, the poorest of whom only earned five shillings a week, so he kept his costs down by operating secretly and illegally. Only when the Stamp Act was fully repealed in 1836 was he able to run his paper openly. He then went on to have a long and illustrious career, becoming alderman of the city in 1853, and mayor in 1862, but he refused all other titles, and remained firmly on the side of the urban poor.
Abel Heywood is commemorated in Manchester?s Town Hall, unlike many of the invisible people who dedicated their lives to the city and contributed to its rich and varied history. It is a remarkable history, and deserves more commemoration. Manchester has reinvented itself many times, most recently since the IRA bomb in 1996. Its cultural identity has changed so rapidly that its true stature and importance in English history is in danger of being lost. Only certain aspects of it are outlined here, but even in this rough sketch I hope that it is possible to see the city?s history as a dynamic process, a continuously unfolding drama linking Manchester to the rest of the nation, and to the world.