One of the more uniquely designed tombs in London, that of Victorian explorer, soldier, linguist and diplomat Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890; not to be confused with the actor of the same name) was created in the shape of a Bedouin tent.

Located in the cemetery of St Mary Magdalen Roman Catholic Church in Mortlake in south-west London, the Grade II* tomb was designed by Burton’s strongly Catholic wife, Isabel, Lady Burton (1831-96), who is buried in it with him (his body was brought back from Trieste, Italy, where he expired; hers added after he death several years later). The tent’s form was apparently inspired by one the couple stayed in during a visit to Syria.

The tomb, which is constructed of stone from the Forest of Dean and Carrara marble and topped with two gilt stars, looks a fitting tribute for Burton who not only took part in the search for the source of the Nile but also scandalously translated the texts The Arabian Nights, The Perfumed Garden and The Kama Sutra into English.

The coffins of the couple can be seen inside the tomb through a large window in the rear of the roof which is accessed by a short ladder. The interior is also decorated with a range of items including religious paintings, statues and other items symbolic of the Catholic faith as well as strings of camel bells.

The inscription on the front of the mausoleum features a commemorative sonnet by poet Justin Huntly McCarthy as well as the inscription, “This monument is erected to his memory by his living countrymen”.

The tomb was restored in 1975 and more recently in 2012-13.

The interior of the church also features a memorial to Burton (who actually described himself as an atheist). It takes the form of a stained glass window which depicts Burton as a medieval knight.

WHERE: St Mary Magdalen Church, 61 North Worple Way, Mortlake (nearest overground station is Mortlake); WHEN: Reasonable hours; COST: free; WEBSITE: www.stmarymags.org.uk.

PICTURES: Maureen Barlin (licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0/image cropped)

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The subject of a current exhibition at the Royal College of Physicians, Dr John Dee – mathematician, courtier, astrologist and ‘magician’ are just some of the tags he is labelled with – is one of the most enigmatic figures of Tudor England.

John_Dee_memorial_plaque_at_S_Mary_the_Virgin_MortlakeBorn in London’s Tower ward in 1527, Dee was of Welsh descent and the son of Roland Dee, a mercer and courtier to King Henry VIII, and Johanna Wild. He attended school in Chelmsford and, at the age of 15 entered St John’s College, Cambridge, awarded a Bachelor of Arts in 1545 and a master’s degree in 1548. He was also a founding fellow of Trinity College when it was founded in 1546.

Dee travelled through Europe during the late 1540s and early 1550s, studying and lecturing at places including Louvain, Paris and Brussels. It was during this trip that he met mathematicians and cartographers like Gemma Frisius and Gerardus Mercator.

Back in England, Dee was appointed rector at Upton-upon-Severn (apparently on the recommendation of King Edward VI), and in 1555 was made a member of the Worshipful Company of Mercers. He had, meanwhile, turned down offers of professorships at both the Sorbonne in Paris and the University of Oxford, ostensibly because he had hopes of obtaining an official position at court.

It was perhaps in pursuit of this that he subsequently appeared at England’s Royal Court where he took on the role of teacher of the mathematical sciences while also serving as an astrologer to Queen Mary I and courtiers.

The latter role led to Dee’s arrest and imprisonment in 1555 on charges of being a ‘magus’ (magician) – he would go on to appear for questioning in the infamous Star Chamber – but he was eventually cleared of all charges.

In 1558, Dee became a scientific and medical advisor to Queen Elizabeth I and, by the mid-1560s, had established himself in the village of Mortlake (now in the south-west of Greater London) where he built a laboratory and gathered together what was the largest private library in the country at the time, said to have consisted of more than 4,000 books and manuscripts (and the subject of the current exhibition).

Dee was also associated with several English voyages of exploration for which he provided maps and navigational instruments, most famously  Sir Martin Frobisher’s expedition to Canada in 1576-78.

He is also known for his strong views on natural philosophy and astrology and the occult, which included the idea that mathematics had a special, supernatural power to reveal divine mysteries. Some of his occult-related ideas were explored in his 1564 text Monas hieroglyphics – one of numerous works he authored – but his most influential work is said to have been a preface he wrote to an English translation of Euclid’s Elements published in 1570 in which he argued for the central role of mathematics.

Dee is said to have married three times – the first in the mid-1560s and, following the deaths of his previous two wives, the last time in 1578 when he was wedded to Jane Fromond, who was less than half his age and who had been a lady-in-waiting to the Countess of Lincoln. She bore him some eight children (although there are questions over the paternity of at least one) and died in 1604 of the plaque.

By the 1580s, having failed to win the influence he hoped to have at court and wanting to further his explorations into the supernatural (in particular, communication with ‘angels’ through occult practice of crystal-gazing), he travelled to Europe with a convicted counterfeiter and medium Edward Kelley to Europe.

Returning to England, after much lobbying, Queen Elizabeth I appointed him warden of Manchester College in 1596, but despite this, he returned to London in 1605 where his final years were marked by poverty.

He is believed to have died in March, 1609, at the London home of a friend and was apparently buried in Mortlake (pictured, above, is a memorial plaque at St Mary the Virgin in Mortlake).

It’s believed that William Shakespeare modelled the figure of Prospero in the 1611 play The Tempest on Dee (it’s also claimed that he was the model for Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus).

Scholar, courtier, magician: the lost library of John Dee runs at the Royal College of Physicians at 11 St Andrews Place, Regent’s Park, until 29th July. Entry is free (check website for opening hours). For more, see www.rcplondon.ac.uk.

PICTURE: Robert Smith/CC BY-SA 3.0/Wikipedia

Now officially known as the BNY Mellon Boat Race, the annual rowing event between Oxford and Cambridge universities was first held at Henley on Thames in 1829, moving to London for the second event in 1836 and becoming an annual event (with the exception of the two world wars) in 1856.

One of the most controversial races ever held – and next year’s will be the 159th – was in 1877 when the race, run over a four mile, 374 yard course which starts in Putney in west London and taking in a great bend of The Thames as it goes past Chiswick and Hammersmith, finishes at Mortlake, ended in a “dead heat”.

The drama began as the boats passed Barnes Bridge, about three-and-a-half miles through the course, when one of the blades of the Oxford team’s oars broke after striking rough water. Oxford (wearing dark blue) had been leading the race and the incident is believed to have helped Cambridge (wearing light blue) to draw level – so much so that both crews are recorded as having passed the finish line in 24 minutes and eight seconds.

It’s the only time the race has ever finished in a draw and there was, as might be expected, significant controversy over the result. With no finishing posts then in place, the judge, a waterman from Fulham named ‘Honest John’ Phelps, had to decide the result from his place in a small skiff on the water (and, according to the official Boat Race website, it is believed he was in a position to do so and not dozing under a bush as others have suggested).

His skiff, it is believed, may have drifted off the finish line. In addition, it was not the only craft on the water and it’s believed that the other craft filled with people eager to see the result, may have partially obscured his view. Even if they hadn’t, his was a tough task.

As was recorded in The Times (with thanks to Wikipedia):  “Cheers for one crew were succeeded by counter-cheers for the other, and it was impossible to tell what the result was until the Press boat backed down to the Judge and inquired the issue. John Phelps, the waterman, who officiated, replied that the noses of the boats passed the post strictly level, and that the result was a dead heat.”

Oxford, however, thought they had won by a matter of several feet and it’s believed that as a result Honest John announced the result as “dead heat to Oxford by five feet”. The result was later confirmed as simply a “dead heat”.

The controversy did lead to some changes – including the introduction of finishing posts – a stone on the south bank and a post on the north – and the passing of the role of judge to members of the two universities instead of a professional waterman.

Following this year’s race (also rather controversial – see our earlier article here) Cambridge has 81 wins and Oxford 76. For more on the history of the Boat Race see our earlier entry here or visit www.theboatrace.org.

PICTURE: Oxford celebrate their win. Source: Getty Images

Last weekend saw the running of the 157th Oxford and Cambridge Boat Race from Putney to Mortlake on the River Thames in London. Oxford this year added to its tally with a victory which now has the running scores as 80 Cambridge, 76 Oxford.

The origins of the race go back a friendship between two men who’d met at the prestigious Harrow School – Charles Merivale and Charles Wordsworth (incidentally, the nephew of the poet William Wordsworth). Merivale went on to attend Cambridge and Wordsworth, Oxford. The first race was organised after Cambridge challenged Oxford.

The first race, said to have been watched by 20,000 people, was held at Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire, in 1829 after Cambridge sent a challenge to Oxford (Oxford won after a restart). It was such a success that the townfolk decided to organise an annual regatta – the Henley Royal Regatta – but the race itself moved to London with the second event held in 1836.

Initially Westminster was the chosen location but growing crowds led it to be moved again in 1845 – this time what was then the village of Putney, about six miles upstream. It became an annual event in 1856 and has run every year ever since, with the exception of the war years.

The races have featured several sinkings (including 1912 when both boats sank), a win in a blizzard (1952), and a “dead heat” (1877 – although some controversy surrounds how close it was – in any event it was almost repeated in 2003 when Oxford won by just one foot).

Sponsored by Xchanging, the race – in which Oxford traditionally wear dark blue and Cambridge light blue with both teams known as “Blues” – is now watched by some 250,000 people who crowd along the river’s bank as well as millions around the world. Among the traditions which have continued are that it’s the loser of the previous year’s race who challenges the victor to the next race.

For more about the race, see www.theboatrace.org or visit the River & Rowing Museum at Henley on Thames.