The Making of the British Eccentric
Creating the Quintessential characteristics of the British Eccentric
Thank You HRH Prince Philip, patron of that hallowed Historic Eccentric Club, for humbling & delighting me by awarding me Most Eccentric British thinker.
The Eccentrics Club goes back centuries, an unbroken line of exquisite, tea-drinking, owl-loving, tiara wearing, men and women who dash out in White-ties to Fortnums for a pot of Stilton or lie in our hospital beds in ballgowns and play croquet at midnight so our skin retains that moon-kissed glow.
Eccentrics matter, for they make the ordinary extraordinary, the banal beautiful and the dull brilliant. Eccentrics encourage us to think differently. My beloved friend of almost twenty years, that Grand Mayfair Eccentric and world famous philosopher, Edward De Bono, reminds us that the Truly Great ideas were born from eccentric thinking.
The origins of the British Eccentrics evolved in the seismic changes wrought in the lives of women of The Civil War which decimated the male population in the 1600’s.
It was not so much a war of politics or religion but a war of ethics. The ethics of the Protestant and Parliamentary Roundheads dictated that art and beauty were dangerous gateways to sin.
The ethics of the Stuart Royalists – the Cavaliers – valued art and beauty as gateways to the grace of God. The cavaliers celebrated eccentrics.
In 1649 the Roundheads murdered King Charles II striking a devastating cause for the Cavaliers and Royalists. Cromwell formed a Commonwealth and to fund his anti-art and beauty policies he melted down our crown jewels and sold off our Royal art collections. Many more art collections were burned as Cromwell’s Army swarmed the country burning anything considered Papist – which was to them simply anything associated with art and beauty. All our ancient sacred manuscripts were burned though a few survived due to the efforts of brave individuals including the Cotton family who tried to save what ancient manuscripts they could. Sir Robert Bruce Cotton (b. 1571, d. 1631) efforts formed the basis of the National Library after the Royalists were firmly and safely back in power.
During Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Cavaliers retreated. The two princes Charles and James and their mother Henrietta stripped of her legendary jewellery collection and wealth, fled to the continent and restratigised.
Cromwell’s Commonwealth was a dark time for the average Britain. It was mob rule at its worst and many women such as Aphra Behn offered to work as spies for their king.
Maypoles were chopped down in villages and towns around the country. Theatres and ale-houses were closed. Alcohol was banned as was art, music, architecture and dancing. Make-up and decoration were banned, toys for children were considered wicked and children caught kicking a ball were beaten by Cromwell’s anti-fun police who roamed the country peaking in windows; their spies everywhere. Women believed to be wearing make-up were put in stocks and their faces scrubbed until they bled. Even Christmas festivities were banned.
Men and women were banned from wearing velvet or lace or jewels and forced into a black sombre uniform which covered women’s entire bodies.
Tyburn and the area we now refer to as Mayfair was turned into a slaughterhouse for any who dared flout the new laws. Every day those suspected of flouting the laws against art and beauty, eccentrics, artists and Catholics were tortured and slain in a public theatre of bloodletting meant to terrify the people into submission. The area which had once been a pre-Christian pilgrimage site for the sacred springs were covered over and the soggy field described by Pepys was turned into a theatre of torture and death. The ghoulish sight went on all day the bodies of the martyrs hung drawn and quartered were flung into the crowd while the head and heart were flung into an enormous burning pit. At night emissaries from European Embassies sent men to gather what they could from the still burning embers of the fields in order to provide a Catholic burial. Relic hunters also roamed the blood sodden fields searching for relics to sell at the markets to the superstitious.
While Cromwell’s Commonwealth was casting Britain back not the dark ages, The Sun King in Paris, Charles II’s cousin was celebrating art and beauty in the lavish court of Versailles. The two countries were polarised.
It was unsurprising that by 1659 the people were fed up and begged Charles to return.
Reading the diary of Pepys, his delight and that of the rest of the population was palpable. On the 29th May 1660 as Charles II rode through London with his Royal court, the people of London threw rose petals from windows, the fountains of London flowed with champagne for a full fortnight and there was dancing and singing on the streets. His first order of business after his Restoration was not only to re-erect the Maypoles and role back the oppressive laws of Cromwell, Charles also wanted to transform the Catholic Killing fields into the most luxurious and lavish shopping and residential area in Europe. He hired the world’s first woman architect as the study of architecture had been banned under Cromwell. He had met Lady Wilbraham on her honeymoon in Europe. Her husband was a staunch Royalist who had fought for the crown and funded the cause. He greatly admired his 19 year old wife’s talent and had taken her to Europe for a seven year honeymoon to study at the feet of the greatest architects of the day, at the Palladio architectural school in Italy. She also spent two full years with Pieter Post.
Cromwell had bankrupted the country with his rigid policies and laws but fortunately King Charles II’s wealthy eccentric cross-dressing wife, Queen Catherine was fully supportive of his plans to pave over the ghoulish Catholic Killing Fields.
She arrived in London with dozens of ships bursting with tea and untold exotic goods from her port cities of Bombay and Tangiers and trade links with South America. Once again the fountains flowed with champagne and there was a fortnight of dancing and singing in the streets.
Between Charles’s vision and Catherine’s support and wealth, their vision took shape. Queen Catherine was a great lover of theatre and the arts. Though she struggled with English she formed friendships with two eccentric women of the age: proto-feminist anti-vivisectionist poet and novelist Margaret Cavendish (Mad Madge) whose eccentric dress often overshadowed her great scientific mind.
Her other close friend was Aphra Behn who had been a spy for Charles I in both Antwerp where she saved the British Fleet with her lemon scrawled letters to the King scrawled over bawdy verse. She’s also served the king in Surinam a dutch colony, now Dutch Guinea, where she led a slave rebellion which she later wrote about in her book Ooroonoko. Aphra Behn, aka Agent 160, was the most popular playwright of her age, with more plays produced than her friend Dryden. Aphra Behn assisted Queen Catherine in throwing Masques at St James’s Palace. Masques were a ball focused around subversive theatre satirising the behaviour of men.
Between Catherine, Margaret and Aphra and a few other women at court, these eccentric women started a fashion for tea salons which took off across the country. Coffee had only been available in coffee shops which banned women, whereas tea was available to all. Women were able to host tea parties in their own homes similar to the salons taking place in Versailles and France.
Within a decade the dark ages of Cromwell’s reign had been swept away and Mayfair was the site not of oppression and brutality but of glass-fronted arcades bursting with exotic goods and drawing rooms alive with intellectual debate. The British Enlightenment had arrived heralding the birth of the quintessential characteristics that define the British Eccentric.
The twin C’s on Westminster’s lamp posts today, remain as a reminder of the 1660’s when Londons’s fountains ran with champagne and Mayfair’s drawing rooms flowed with tea, for t’was in the Crucible of the Restoration that the quintessential qualities that define the British Eccentric were defined and celebrated by the transformation of the Catholic Killing Fields into the sybaritic residential and retail playground for Eccentrics and lovers of art and beauty it remains today.
It is those exquisite qualities of the British Eccentric that make me proud to be British and it is the company of my fellow eccentrics in which I feel most vital… and certain that anything and everything is possible.