In 1596 William Shakespeare began to write his tragedy Romeo & Juliet, inspired by a narrative poem which had been popular while the Bard was still a boy in Stratford upon Avon. In nearby Birmingham a remarkably similar tale was being lived out between two prominent families: the Smalbrokes and the Colmores.
The problems between the Capulets and the Montagues were, in the original story, based merely upon mutual envy. Shakespeare escalated the grudge into a full-scale feud, which mirrored the running battles and hatred which divided the townsfolk of sixteenth century Birmingham into two camps – those who supported William Colmore and his sons, and those who favoured the brothers Richard and Thomas Smalbroke.
The origins of the feud concerned libel actions; accusations of usury and nepotism; disputes over wills and even a disputed marriage settlement: Thomas Smalbroke’s wife Elizabeth was the sister of William Colmore and of Ambrose Colmore who was a joint defendant against a charge of embezzlement brought by his brother against him and Richard Smalbroke.
A complicated web of suspicion and lies which led eventually to the Court of Star Chamber – the highest in the land – and even to an armed stand-off at Blakesley Hall in Yardley.
Blakesley Hall is the house which Richard Smalbroke built in 1590 on land which he had inherited from his father. Richard divided his time between his main residence The Ravenhurst at Bordesley and Blakesley Hall which was also the matrimonial home of Richard’s only son Robert.
On 1st July 1604, at Bordesley Thomas Smalbroke was attacked with a hunting staff by William Colmore’s son Thomas. Colmore then tried, unsuccessfully, to shoot his enemy who ran for safety to the house.
When Thomas Smalbroke rode to Packington for a warrant for the arrest of his attacker, Colmores waited to intercept him on his return along the Coventry Road. Richard got to him first and the pair made it to Yardley. Later that evening Thomas set off again for his home at the top of the Bull Ring but was met by one of his sons who told him to go back to Yardley where the brothers watched from the top floor window of Blakesley Hall as young Colmore and his servant, both armed with pistols, sought a Smalbroke to shoot.
The town was not safe for any of the Smalbrokes that night. William Colmore was ‘most irreligiously and profanely swearing and protesting many times by the blood of God that he would his son had well boxed Smalbroke’ – that he ‘would to God he had sped him’.
Thomas Smalbroke told the Town Constable to arrest Thomas Colmore, but it was only by the intervention of Sir Thomas Holte of Aston that the writ was finally served.
Also sheltering in the house at the time of the siege were Richard’s son and daughter-in-law and their eight-year old daughter Barbara who would, two years later, inherit Blakesley Hall and all its lands on the death of her father. Her mother Elizabeth would then re-marry. Her new husband was that same Thomas Colmore! Had he and Elizabeth known each other before she married Robert? Had he been waiting in the wings for a second chance to claim his bride and were they the real-life star-crossed lovers with an altogether different ending. Who was the true target for the Colmores on that July evening in 1604?
A final twist to this saga. In 1614 Richard’s granddaughter Barbara married Henry Devereux of Castle Bromwich Hall. Her new mother-in-law, Lady Devereux, was formerly Catherine Arden – a kinswoman of Shakespeare’s mother Mary Arden whose family seat was Park Hall, Castle Bromwich. Did William Shakespeare get all of his inspiration for his play from that poem? Or did his mother tell him about the goings-on in Birmingham?
As one of Blakesley Hall’s team of visitor-friendly volunteers, I hope that the embellishments to the above true record of sixteenth-century events sound plausible enough to claim, if not a possible Shakespeare connection, then at least a parallel with one of his most loved plays. Yardley may not be a substitute for Verona, but beautiful Blakesley Hall, in old age, remains inspirational.
The plot thickens! Since writing this blog post I have found out that Robert Smalbroke died from natural causes in 1603, so it seems that Thomas Colmore’s errand to Blakesley in 1604 was not to murder him but a failed attempt to elope with his widow.
Volunteer at Blakesley Hall
I am lucky enough to be a volunteer at Blakesley Hall, the dearest little Tudor gem out in Yardley surrounded by its own garden oasis, just bliss.
Here at Blakesley Hall we have all sorts of events going on for children, from Totstime Tuesday to Crafty Thursday. But the one that appealed to me above all was held on National Play Day 6th August and that was ‘Teddy Bears parachuting Picnic’ complete with a teddy bear hospital. I begged to be allowed to come in to help on that day as it sounded such fun and oh I love teddies. I was so very pleased to take part that I jumped at the chance when asked to become Nurse Teddy in charge of the teddy bear hospital. Here is my account of a happy sunny day enjoyed by the Blakesley Hall team.
I arrived early (as all good volunteers should), the sun was already high in the sky and everybody scurrying around, tables being moved outside and teddy parachute wire in place. My position of choice was in the corridor that leads to the outside world but also looks down on the reception area so good vantage point to say hello to teddies and minders. My table was set up with Maddies help and I donned my ‘uniform’, an apron covered in teddy bears and a mini teddy bear as a ‘fob watch’ and finally my official museum name badge of course. I had bought with me my teddy sick bed complete with pine bed, bedding and ‘sick’ rabbit to use as a conversation piece. I had travelled by bus with all this with much hilarity (one bus driver asked if I was leaving home). I straightened the bedding, checked my badge machine was in place and doctors kit by my side then a quick nod and thumbs up from Kim and we were open for business.
Within moments the children, Mums, Dads and assorted adults were flooding in complete with regulation teddies, dollies, dinosaurs, monkeys and all sorts of wonderful furry shaped objects. The sun had put a smile on everyone’s face and the children charged out into the fresh air looking for the hidden teddies in the grounds or eager for their own loved furry to fly. One or two shy ones hung back and it was then I was able to tell them the secret of the rabbit sitting in the teddy bed pretending to be a teddy (but don’t tell anyone).
For a little while I was only saying hello and explaining that after teddy had ‘flown’ do come and get him checked out. But very soon they were flooding back to have ted examined. If you want to examine a teddy for any injuries this is how you do it. Reassure owner, lie teddy, monkey etc. on back flex arms and legs, check eyes and head for bumps however this can altered, reduced or changed if a queue. Pronounce teddy fit or in need of a cuddle or two and then make a ‘Brave Blakesley Bear’ badge and send child on their way. Fortunately we had no serious injuries as everybody knows teddies bounce.
Some funny things did happen during the day. Two woman unconnected bought antique teddies to be examined by me to see if they could be mended in the mistaken belief that we had a fully functioning dolls hospital. With one of the ladies I had this very surreal conversation about not being set up for extensive surgery but eager to please I gave her an overview of how to mend the teds wobbly leg and we decided between us maybe he shouldn’t be flown.
One child insisted on having six plasters on her ted, he could hardly breathe, what is it with plasters and children? Later in the afternoon one three year old carefully dragged the giant panda off that had been sitting in the entrance hall and left her tiny teddy in its place fair swops she thought.
Late into the afternoon when everybody was flagging I had a last minute rush the teddies, plasters, bandages and badges were fairly flying out. I did pause for a moment and think with a longing for home and tea. Then I thought naa this is much more fun out at Blakesley Hall with the team being silly surrounded by sun burnt happy faces!
Volunteer at Blakesley Hall
Blakesley Hall was once a modern and fashionable middle-class home, located in what was the countryside, covering acres of land. While the Hall was certainly an impressive feature in the landscape, how much do we really know about its gardens? The original owner of Blakesley, Richard Smalbroke, a wealthy middle-class gentleman, would have wanted his garden to be just as impressive as his home, stopping onlookers in their tracks. In fact, Blakesley Hall was built at a time when the very concept of a garden was evolving and the Smalbrokes would have certainly been influenced by the changing fashions and ideals of the period.
The Tudors were very fond of formality and it was this which characterised gardening in the 16th and 17th centuries. This was a time when gardens were designed to demonstrate power, wealth and status, instantly letting onlookers know that you were ‘important’. Certainly, fashions filtered down through society, and a man like Richard would have wanted a garden that reflected his status, maybe even exaggerated it to complement his modern home. Our garden today is probably more formal than the one which would have originally existed at Blakesley, but it certainly reflected the designs which were popular at the time.
Up until the mid 1550s gardens were viewed as practical spaces to grow and produce food, and not as we know today, as spaces to ‘unwind’, relax and grow plants to admire simply for their beauty.
The catalyst for this change was the Renaissance where new concepts were emerging from France and Italy, and pleasure or flower gardens, as they were known, were quickly becoming the new fashions of the day. While growing food remained important, the concept of how a garden should be used was slowly changing, and the very idea of a garden solely used for pleasure, was slowly being embraced by society.
Although a very wealthy middle-class gentleman, Richard couldn’t have afforded the kind of luxuries present at the local and wealthier residence of Kenilworth Castle, but would have nevertheless maintained a well-presented garden that certainly impressed onlookers. And not forgetting that because Blakesley was also a farm, most of the land would have been used to grow and produce crops, keep animals and to ultimately be functional.
Our garden consists of many parts. From the intricacy of the knot garden, to the formality of the herb garden, families like the Smalbrokes would have used their outdoor areas for both pleasure as well as functional spaces. And the Smalbrokes did exactly this at Blakesley. Just as we beautify our own gardens today, by spending money on the latest plants, furniture or water features, other Tudor families would have also invested money and time into their outdoor areas, making them attractive and pleasant spaces.
We have no documentary or archaeological evidence about the type of garden that existed at Blakesley but we can be certain that there would have been a sizable kitchen garden present for food production. The kitchen garden formed the focal point of daily life and was therefore much bigger in size than the one we have today, probably the size of our herb garden. It was the life-hub of the household, providing necessary food all year round. Our kitchen and herb garden are separate today, but would have been interchangeable in the Tudor and Stuart periods, consisting of fruit trees, herbs and vegetables, or useful plants as they were known in this period. The terms kitchen garden and vegetables would not have been used; rather useful plants was applied to all manner of plants and herbs at this time.
Also known as the pottager, the kitchen garden was located very near to the house. It was both a formal and practical space, with straight lines and geometrically-laid-out beds, intertwined with paths creating a sense of balance which would have been very pleasing to the eye. But the primary reason for rectangular beds separated by strips of land as the photo above illustrates, was practical so as to allow access to the plants so they could be easily tended to and looked after. Essentially, this area was a utilitarian space but the period favoured function co-existing alongside beauty. Take a look at the photo below; gardens had a sense of regularity and often included repeated patterns and this is the style that the Tudors and Stuarts loved so much.
The population at that time had a great belief in the power of herbs as medicinal remedies so they were widely grown and used by all levels of society, particularly as medical doctors were rare. This was the Tudor housewife’s domain and she would have been responsible for growing and harvesting vegetables for her family, whilst working alongside her servants.
From the familiar lavender, to rarer herbs and plants like sweet cicely and borage, our garden reflects popular plants present in the 16th and 17th centuries. Sweet cicely produces a wonderful aniseed smell that freely floats through our garden and would have had many uses in Tudor times, but its main use was to aid digestion and soothe stomachs. And according to Nicholas Culpepper, the 17th-century herbalist, it was also “very good for old people that are dull and without courage”. Maybe a little harsh but the point here is that herbs and plants were widely grown and used medicinally because their use was believed to aid health and well-being. Another common complaint, the headache, was treated using a concoction of lavender, sage, marjoram, roses and rue. But fresh herbs were only available in season, so they had to be preserved for use throughout the year by making salves, syrups, candies and sweet waters.
Essentially the idea of distilling was to try and preserve the essence of herbs all year round. Without question, every lady who could have afforded a still room would have had one, using it primarily for the production of medicines for her family.
Moving on to the aesthetic area, the pleasure or flower garden as it was also known, is where intricate knot gardens and rows of tulips were planted for their wonderful display and bursts of colour in spring. Our Friends’ Garden represents this idea with the sole purpose of simply looking attractive, and not necessarily having a function as such. Colourful, attractive plants played their part in alluring the attention of onlookers and fulfilling the Smalbroke’s desire for simple pleasures. Tulips were a very popular Tudor plant, not just because of their beauty but because they acted as a status symbol for the wealthy. Only the rich could have afforded Tulips and the bulbs were even used as a form of currency in Holland. The Smalbrokes would have most likely had tulips in their flower garden at Blakesley as well as other eye-catching plants such as foxgloves and roses. In short the knot garden at Blakesley is perhaps the most recognised Tudor creation and represents the period’s love of formality, intricacy and structure, and perhaps what best represents a Tudor garden.
It wasn’t until the 18th century that gardens experienced a rebirth moving away from the straight lines of the Tudor period to a natural curved design that we’re more familiar with today. Yet the period’s influence and legacy is still present today, and lives on through the formal flower borders and beds that we have in our very own gardens at home. So this summer when we sit out in our gardens sipping drinks and pottering around in our allotments, think about how much we owe to the Tudors for embracing the idea of the pleasure garden and bestowing this wonderful pastime on to us. Unquestionably, the Renaissance was truly a period of new discovery that helped to create the modern garden we’re familiar with and love so much today.
Blog written by Anne-Marie Hayes.
When you think of Blakesley Hall, what first comes to mind? Is it the Tudors and old houses, or might it be our wonderful gardens? But in fact, did you know that Blakesley plays a significant role in urban ecology? You might not necessarily think of an ecosystem when a museum garden comes to mind, yet our gardens attract a plethora of biodiversity.
But what exactly is an ecosystem and where do they exist? The simple answer is, everywhere. Ecology is all around us, in our garden at home, a derelict building in the city centre and in the pond in our local park. Essentially an ecosystem is a collection of plants and animals, combined with non-living components like water, air and soil that share the same resources and environment and fundamentally rely on each other. A very cyclical process! There are three components that make up an ecosystem; producers, consumers and decomposers.
At Blakesley, the ‘producers’ are our plants and trees, because they make their own food from sunlight and are self-sufficient. We are often more concerned with making our gardens look attractive and fail to notice that while we enjoy the beauty of tulips and roses at Blakesley, these flowers are providing an important food source for an array of animals.
That brings me onto the next group, called ‘consumers’ because they do exactly what their name suggests and consume plants and living things. There are two types present in our garden. First, we have the primary consumers that live off plants. These include bees, butterflies, caterpillars and snails. You’ll always be certain to spot this group especially while wandering through the herb garden, particularly past the lavender.
Then there are the secondary consumers. These are the meat-eaters and at Blakesley these include birds like the sparrow hawk, blue tits and magpies, and small mammals such as hedgehogs, grey squirrels, and on occasion, the odd urban fox. Another familiar secondary consumer in our garden is the spider.
The third group, which possibly isn’t as interesting but equally as important as the previous two groups, are known as the ‘decomposers’. These are organisms like worms, fungi and bacteria that break down dead organic matter and return necessary nutrients to the soil. I like to think of this group as the ‘recyclers’, clearing up the waste. In other words, they are the workers that you don’t really see but who are always there working hard in the background. All three groups actively contribute to a sustainable and balanced ecosystem at Blakesley.
But how else do plants, grasses and trees contribute to our ecosystem? Well, our knot garden might look pretty but it actually provides not only vital plant nutrients, but necessary shelter for birds and tiny mammals over the long winter months. Butterflies and bees also fill our herb garden, attracted by the vibrant colours and aromatic fragrances, but they are actually working as tiny engineers, collecting pollen from flowers and transporting it through our ecosystem. And while bees are extremely proficient at pollination, butterflies are a very important entity in this process too. Although, not as adept as bees at pollination, butterflies act as an excellent guide to how healthy an ecosystem is. Butterflies are extremely sensitive to climate change and habitat loss, so their presence tells us if an ecosystem is working properly, and act as a reliable indicator to an environment’s well being. So if you have scores of butterflies in your garden, chances are you have a balanced ecosystem. And if you want to spot a butterfly at Blakesley, walk around the lavender and daisies in the herb garden, and you might just catch a glimpse.
Blakesley exists within an urban environment and ecology is not necessarily the first thing you consider when maintaining a garden. Gardens in general are engineered and manipulated by people to look attractive, and Blakesley is no exception. By this, I mean that we cut our grass, trim back the hedges and remove the weeds, therefore indirectly destroying habitats because we need our lawns to look appealing for visitors. But there is one area of our garden that isn’t engineered with an edged lawn and weed free, and that’s our wildflower meadow.
Wildflower meadows are threatened by extinction so the very fact that we have one is helping to maintain vital habitats. You may not know this, but wildflowers actually are a perfect haven for wildlife because they attract an assortment of species, which either feed on the flowers or the animals found in the meadow, and offer shelter as well. Certainly, wildflower meadows help to maintain a healthy ecosystem, and we’re looking forward to when our meadow springs back to life in a couple of months’ time.
Ecology is an important part of our gardens and we make every effort to encourage wildlife to ‘set up’ home here. Indeed even the bugs and birds have Tudor style homes that Richard Smalbroke would be proud of!
So next time you visit us and stroll around our gardens, have a think about the many processes that are taking place and what creature might be hiding away in a hidden habitat somewhere.
Look out for our Ecology Weekend in June.
Blog written by Anne-Marie Hayes.