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Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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Death of Thomas Butler, 6th Earl of Ossory

Vice Admiral Thomas Butler, 6th Earl of Ossory, KG, PC, PC (Ire), Irish soldier and politician, dies in London on July 30, 1680.

Thomas is born on July 8, 1634 at Kilkenny Castle, the eldest son and one of ten siblings of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormond and his wife Elizabeth Preston. His father is then the 12th Earl of Ormond but would be raised to marquess and duke. His family, the Butler dynasty, is Old English and descends from Theobald Walter, who had been appointed Chief Butler of Ireland by Henry II of England in 1177. His mother is a second cousin once removed of his father as she is a granddaughter of Thomas Butler, 10th Earl of Ormond. Her father, however, is Scottish, Richard Preston, 1st Earl of Desmond, a favourite of James I. Both parents are Protestants.

As the eldest living son, he is the heir apparent and is styled with the corresponding courtesy title, which at first is Viscount Thurles but changed to Earl of Ossory when his father becomes marquess in 1642. His early years are spent in Ireland until 1647 when he accompanies his father to England. In 1648 his father renews his support for the royalist cause and he and his son have to flee to France, arriving in Caen in February 1648. Lady Ormond also moves to Caen, where she arrives on June 23, 1648 with his siblings.

Butler is an accomplished athlete and a good scholar. Having come to London in 1652 he is rightly suspected of sympathising with the exiled royalists, and in 1655 is jailed by Oliver Cromwell. After his release about a year later he goes into exile to the Netherlands where Charles II has his exile court at the time.

On November 17, 1659, while in exile, Butler marries Emilia van Nassau, the second daughter of Louis of Nassau, Lord of De Lek and Beverweerd. They have eleven children.

Butler accompanies Charles II back to England in 1660. In 1661 he becomes a member of both the English and the Irish houses of commons, representing in the former Bristol and Dublin University in the latter.

In 1662 Butler is called to the Irish House of Lords under a writ of acceleration as the Earl of Ossory. His father holds the title “5th Earl of Ossory” as one of his subsidiary titles. The acceleration makes Thomas Butler the 6th Earl of Ossory. This is the only substantive title he ever holds, as he predeceases his father and therefore never succeeds to his father’s titles.

Butler holds several military appointments including lieutenant-general of the army in Ireland, created an English peer as Lord Butler in 1666, and Lord of the Bedchamber to Charles II (appointed in 1660 and held until his death).

In 1665 a fortunate accident allows Butler to take part in the Battle of Lowestoft against the Dutch, and in May 1672, being now in command of a ship, he fights against the same enemies in the Battle of Solebay, serving with great distinction on both occasions. While visiting France in 1672 he rejects the liberal offers made by Louis XIV to induce him to enter the service of France, and returning to England he adds to his high reputation by his conduct during the Battle of Texel in August 1673. From 1677 until 1679, he serves alongside his father as a Lord of the Admiralty.

Butler is intimate with William II, Prince of Orange, and in 1677 he joins the allied army in the Netherlands, commanding the British contingent and winning great fame at the siege of Mons in 1678. He acts as deputy for his father, who is Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. In 1680 he is appointed governor of English Tangier, but his death prevents him from taking up his new duties.

Butler dies on July 30, 1680 at Arlington House in London. He is buried provisionally in Westminster Abbey on July 31, 1680. The ceremony of burial is performed belatedly on November 13, 1680. Some say his body is later taken to Ireland and reburied in the family vault in St. Canice’s Cathedral, Kilkenny. James, his eldest son, succeeds him as the 7th Earl of Ossory and becomes the 2nd Duke of Ormond in 1688.

(Pictured: “Thomas Butler, Earl of Ossory,” painting by Peter Lely, circa 1678, Source: National Portrait Gallery)


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Birth of Richard Downey, Archbishop of Liverpool

Richard Downey, English prelate of the Roman Catholic Church, is born in Kilkenny, County Kilkenny on May 5, 1881. He serves as Archbishop of Liverpool from 1928 until his death.

Downey is ordained to the priesthood on May 25, 1907 at St. Joseph Seminary, Up Holland, Skelmersdale, Lancashire. He is Professor of Philosophy at Sacred Heart College, Hammersmith, and then Professor of Dogmatic Theology at St. Joseph’s College, Up Holland, where he is also Vice-Rector. On August 3, 1928, he is appointed Archbishop of Liverpool by Pope Pius XI, succeeding the late Frederick William Keating. He receives his Episcopal consecration on the following September 21 from Cardinal Francis Bourne, with Bishops Robert Dobson and Francis Vaughan serving as co-consecrators.

Downey’s tenure sees the construction and dedication of the crypt of Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, built to a design by Sir Edwin Lutyens, although the Cathedral itself is never completed as he had envisaged. A picture of Lutyens proposed cathedral is printed on postcards sold to raise funds.

In 1929, before the actual construction begins, Downey states, “Hitherto all cathedrals have been dedicated to saints. I hope this one will be dedicated to Christ himself with a great figure surmounted on the cathedral, visible for many a mile out at sea.” He also declares that while the Cathedral will not be medieval and Gothic, neither will it be as modern as the works of Jacob Epstein, a statement somewhat at odds with the design that is finally realised after his death.

In 1933, after the urn containing the bones of King Edward V and Richard of Shrewsbury, Duke of York is removed from Westminster Abbey for examination and then returned with an Anglican burial service, Downey says, “It is difficult to see what moral justification there can be for reading a Protestant service over the remains of these Roman Catholic princes, even though it were done on the plea of legal continuity of the present Anglican Church with the pre-Reformation Church of Britain.”

Downey dies in Liverpool at the age of 72 on June 16, 1953, having served as Liverpool’s archbishop for twenty-four years. His remains are interred in a crypt at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral, Liverpool.


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Birth of James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde

James Butler, 12th Earl and 1st Duke of Ormonde, is born at Clerkenwell, London on October 19, 1610. An Anglo-Irish Protestant, he is the leading agent of English royal authority in Ireland during much of the period from the beginning of the English Civil War (1642–1651) to the Glorious Revolution (1688–1689).

Butler is born into the prominent Butler family, the eldest child of Thomas Butler and his wife Elizabeth Poyntz. He grows up in England and succeeds to the earldom of Ormonde in 1633. That same year he begins his active career in Ireland by offering his services to Lord Deputy of Ireland Thomas Wentworth, later Earl of Strafford. Upon the outbreak of the Irish Rebellion of 1641 in Ireland, he is appointed a lieutenant general in the English army. He defeats the rebels of the Catholic confederacy at Kilrush, Munster on April 15, 1642 and at New Ross, Leinster on March 18, 1643. Those triumphs, however, do not prevent the confederates from overrunning most of the country.

Butlers’s attempts to conclude a peace are blocked by a Catholic faction that advocates complete independence for Ireland. The situation deteriorates further and, in July 1647, he departs from Ireland, leaving the Protestant cause in the hands of the parliamentarians, who had defeated King Charles I in the first English Civil War (1642–1646).

Returning to Ireland in September 1648, Butler concludes a peace with the confederacy in January 1649. He then rallies Protestant royalists and Catholic confederates in support of Charles II, son and successor of Charles I. For several months most of Ireland is under his control. But the parliamentarian general Oliver Cromwell lands at Dublin in August 1649 and swiftly conquers the country for Parliament. Butler flees to France and becomes one of Charles II’s closest advisers at his court-in-exile in Paris.

When Charles II returns to England in the Restoration of 1660, Butler, who had urged constitutional rather than military rule, is made commissioner for the treasury and the navy. Appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland in 1662, he makes vigorous attempts to encourage Irish commerce and industry. Nevertheless, his enemies at court persuade Charles to dismiss him in 1669. He is restored to royal favour in 1677 and is again appointed Lord Lieutenant of Ireland. Although he is created a duke in the English peerage in 1682, he is recalled from Ireland in 1684 as a result of new intrigues at Charles’s court and because of the determination of James, Duke of York, to strengthen his supporters in Ireland.

Butler dies on July 21, 1688 at Kingston Lacy estate, Dorset. He is buried in Westminster Abbey on August 4, 1688. His eldest son, Thomas, 6th Earl of Ossory, predeceases him, but Ossory’s eldest son James succeeds as 2nd Duke of Ormonde (1665–1745).

(Pictured: “James Butler, 1st Duke of Ormonde,” oil on canvas by William Wissing, National Portrait Gallery)


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Birth of Composer Michael William Balfe

michael-william-balfeMichael William Balfe, Irish composer best remembered for his opera The Bohemian Girl, is born in Dublin on May 15, 1808.

Balfe’s musical gifts become apparent at an early age. He receives instruction from his father, a dancing master and violinist, and the composer William Rooke. His family moves to Wexford when he is a child.

In 1817, Balfe appears as a violinist in public, and in this year composes a ballad, first called “Young Fanny” and afterwards, when sung in Paul Pry by Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, “The Lovers’ Mistake”. In 1823, upon the death of his father, he moves to London and is engaged as a violinist in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He eventually becomes the leader of that orchestra. While there, he studies violin with Charles Edward Horn and composition with Charles Frederick Horn.

While still playing the violin, Balfe pursues a career as an opera singer. He debuts unsuccessfully at Norwich in Carl Maria von Weber‘s Der Freischütz. In 1825, Count Mazzara takes him to Rome for vocal and musical studies and introduces him to Luigi Cherubini. In Italy, he also pursues composing, writing his first dramatic work, a ballet, La Perouse. He becomes a protégée of Gioachino Rossini‘s, and at the close of 1827, he appears as Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Italian opera in Paris.

Balfe soon returns to Italy, where he is based for the next eight years, singing and composing several operas. In 1829 in Bologna, he composes his first cantata for the soprano Giulia Grisi, then 18 years old. He produces his first complete opera, I rivali di se stessi, at Palermo in the carnival season of 1829—1830.

Balfe returned to London in May 1835. His initial success takes place some months later with the premiere of The Siege of Rochelle on October 29, 1835 at Drury Lane. Encouraged by his success, he produces The Maid of Artois in 1836, which is followed by more operas in English. In July 1838, Balfe composes a new opera, Falstaff, for The Italian Opera House, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, with an Italian libretto by S. Manfredo Maggione.

In 1841, Balfe founds the National Opera at the Lyceum Theatre, but the venture is a failure. The same year, he premieres his opera, Keolanthe. He then moves to Paris, presenting Le Puits d’amour in early 1843, followed by his opera based on Les quatre fils Aymon for the Opéra-Comique and L’étoile de Seville for the Paris Opera. Meanwhile, in 1843, he returns to London where he produces his most successful work, The Bohemian Girl, on November 27, 1843 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The piece runs for over 100 nights, and productions are soon mounted in New York, Dublin, Philadelphia, Vienna, Sydney, and throughout Europe and elsewhere.

From 1846 to 1852, Balfe is appointed musical director and principal conductor for the Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. There he first produces several of Giuseppe Verdi‘s operas for London audiences. He conducts for Jenny Lind at her opera debut and on many occasions thereafter.

In 1851, in anticipation of The Great Exhibition in London, Balfe composes an innovative cantata, Inno Delle Nazioni, sung by nine female singers, each representing a country. He continues to compose new operas in English, including The Armourer of Nantes (1863), and writes hundreds of songs. His last opera, nearly completed when he dies, is The Knight of the Leopard and achieves considerable success in Italian as Il Talismano.

Balfe retires in 1864 to Hertfordshire, where he rents a country estate. He dies at his home in Rowney Abbey, Ware, Hertfordshire, on October 20, 1870 and is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London, next to fellow Irish composer William Vincent Wallace. In 1882, a medallion portrait of him is unveiled in Westminster Abbey.

In all, Balfe composes at least 29 operas. He also writes several cantatas and a symphony. His only large-scale piece that is still performed regularly today is The Bohemian Girl.

 


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Death of Bishop James Ussher

james-ussherJames Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, dies in Reigate, Surrey, England on March 21, 1656. He is best known for his massive compendium of ancient history, The Annals of the World, in which he attempts to calculate the number of years that had elapsed since creation.

Ussher is born in Dublin on January 4, 1581. Early in life he is determined to pursue a career with the Church of England, a resolve quite similar to that of the Biblical Judge, Samuel.

A gifted polyglot, Ussher enters Dublin Free School and then the newly founded Trinity College, Dublin on January 9, 1594, at the age of thirteen (not an unusual age at the time). He receives his Bachelor of Arts degree by 1598, and is a fellow and MA by 1600. In May 1602, he is ordained in the Trinity College Chapel as a deacon (and possibly priest on the same day) in the Protestant Church of Ireland by his uncle Henry Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

At the age of 26, Ussher becomes Professor and Chairman of the Department of Divinity at the University of Dublin, and he holds his professorship from 1609 to 1621. In 1625, he becomes Archbishop of Armagh, an office he apparently holds until his death. In 1628, King James I makes him a Privy Councillor.

Ussher is considered well-read and well-versed in history, a subject that soon becomes his primary focus. He writes several histories of the doings of the Irish and English churches dating back to Roman times. He also makes himself an expert in Semitic languages, an expertise that informs his argument in favor of the Masoretic Text of the Bible in preference to the Septuagint.

Ussher’s Confessions appear in 1643, followed in 1646 by his fifth work, Here I Stand. His most famous work, the dating of the creation as calculated from the Biblical record, appears in writing in the 1650s.

In 1656, Ussher goes to stay in the Countess of Peterborough’s house in Reigate, Surrey. On March 19, he feels a sharp pain in his side after supper and takes to his bed. His symptoms seem to have been those of a severe internal haemorrhage. Two days later, on March 21, 1656, he dies at the age of 75. His last words are reported as: “O Lord, forgive me, especially my sins of omission.” His body is embalmed and is to have been buried in Reigate, but at Oliver Cromwell‘s insistence he was given a state funeral on April 17 and is buried in the chapel of St. Erasmus in Westminster Abbey.

Ussher’s extensive library of manuscripts, many of them Middle Eastern originals, become part of the collection at the University of Dublin.


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Birth of C.S. Lewis, Poet & Novelist

clive-staples-lewisClive Staples Lewis, novelist, poet, academic, medievalist, literary critic, essayist, lay theologian, and Christian apologist, is born in Belfast on November 29, 1898. He is best known for his works of fiction, especially The Screwtape Letters, The Chronicles of Narnia, and The Space Trilogy, and for his non-fiction Christian apologetics, such as Mere Christianity, Miracles, and The Problem of Pain.

Lewis is schooled by private tutors until age nine when his mother dies in 1908 from cancer. His father then sends him to live and study at Wynyard School in Watford, Hertfordshire. After the school is closed soon afterward, he attends Campbell College in the east of Belfast about a mile from his home, but leaves after a few months due to respiratory problems. He is then sent to the health-resort town of Malvern, Worcestershire, where he attends the preparatory school Cherbourg House. It is during this time that he abandons his childhood Christian faith and becomes an atheist. In September 1913, he enrolls at Malvern College. After leaving Malvern, he studies privately with William T. Kirkpatrick, his father’s old tutor and former headmaster of Lurgan College.

Lewis holds academic positions in English literature at both the University of Oxford (Magdalen College, 1925–1954) and the University of  Cambridge (Magdalene College, 1954–1963).

Lewis and fellow novelist J. R. R. Tolkien are close friends. They both serve on the English faculty at Oxford University and are active in the informal Oxford literary group known as the Inklings. He returns to Anglicanism at the age of 32, owing to the influence of Tolkien and other friends, and he becomes an “ordinary layman of the Church of England.” His faith profoundly affects his work, and his wartime radio broadcasts on the subject of Christianity bring him wide acclaim.

Lewis writes more than 30 books which have been translated into more than 30 languages and have sold millions of copies. The books that make up The Chronicles of Narnia have sold the most and have been popularised on stage, television, radio and cinema. His philosophical writings are widely cited by Christian apologists from many denominations.

In early June 1961, Lewis begins suffering from nephritis, which results in blood poisoning. He recovers but on July 15 of that year he falls ill and is admitted to the hospital where he suffers a heart attack the following day, lapses into a coma and awakens the next day. After he is discharged from the hospital his condition continues to decline. He is diagnosed with end-stage renal failure in mid-November. He collapses and dies in his bedroom on November 22. He is buried in the churchyard of Holy Trinity Church, Headington, Oxford.

Media coverage of Lewis’s death is almost completely overshadowed by news of the assassination of United States President John F. Kennedy, which takes place approximately 55 minutes after Lewis’s collapse.

In 2013, on the 50th anniversary of his death, Lewis is honoured with a memorial in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey.


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Death of William III, King of England, Scotland & Ireland

Kneller, Godfrey, 1646-1723; King William III (1650-1702)William III, also widely known as William of Orange, dies at Kensington Palace on March 8, 1702 following a fall from his horse when it stumbles on a molehill. Upon his death, Anne accedes to the throne of Britain and Ireland.

William is sovereign Prince of Orange from birth, Stadtholder of Holland, Zeeland, Utrecht, Gelderland and Overijssel in the Dutch Republic from 1672 and King of England, Ireland and Scotland from 1689 until his death in 1702. As King of Scotland, he is known as William II. He is sometimes informally known in Northern Ireland and Scotland as “King Billy.”

William is born on November 4, 1650 at Binnenhof, The Hague, Dutch Republic. He inherits the Principality of Orange from his father, William II, who dies a week before William’s birth. His mother, Mary, is the daughter of King Charles I of England. In 1677, William marries his fifteen-year-old first cousin, Mary, the daughter of his maternal uncle James, Duke of York.

A Protestant, William participates in several wars against the powerful Catholic King of France, Louis XIV, in coalition with Protestant and Catholic powers in Europe. Many Protestants herald him as a champion of their faith. In 1685, William’s Catholic uncle and father-in-law, James, becomes king of England, Scotland and Ireland. James’s reign is unpopular with the Protestant majority in Britain. William, supported by a group of influential British political and religious leaders, invades England in what becomes known as the Glorious Revolution. On November 5, 1688, he lands at the southern English port of Brixham. James is deposed and William and his wife become joint sovereigns in his place.

William’s reputation as a staunch Protestant enables him to take power in Britain when many are fearful of a revival of Catholicism under James. William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690 is still commemorated by loyalists in Northern Ireland and Scotland.

William and Mary reign together until Mary’s death from smallpox on December 28, 1694, after which William rules as sole monarch. Despite his conversion to Anglicanism, his popularity plummets during his reign as a sole monarch. His reign in Britain marks the beginning of the transition from the personal rule of the House of Stuart to the more Parliament-centred rule of the House of Hanover.

On March 8, 1702, William dies of pneumonia, a complication from a broken collarbone following a fall from his horse, Sorrel. The horse had been confiscated from Sir John Fenwick, one of the Jacobites who had conspired against William. Because his horse had stumbled into a mole’s burrow, many Jacobites toast “the little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat.” Years later, Winston Churchill, in his A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, states that the fall “opened the door to a troop of lurking foes.” William is buried in Westminster Abbey alongside his wife. His sister-in-law, Anne, becomes queen regnant of England, Scotland and Ireland.

William’s death means that he would remain the only member of the Dutch House of Orange to reign over England.


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Birth of James Ussher, Primate of All Ireland

james-ussherJames Ussher, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, is born in Dublin on January 4, 1581. He is best known for his massive compendium of ancient history, The Annals of the World, in which he attempts to calculate the number of years that had elapsed since creation.

Early in life Ussher is determined to pursue a career with the Church of England, a resolve quite similar to that of the Biblical Judge, Samuel.

A gifted polyglot, Ussher enters Dublin Free School and then the newly founded Trinity College, Dublin on January 9, 1594, at the age of thirteen (not an unusual age at the time). He receives his Bachelor of Arts degree by 1598, and was a fellow and MA by 1600. In May 1602, he was ordained in the Trinity College Chapel as a deacon (and possibly priest on the same day) in the Protestant Church of Ireland by his uncle Henry Ussher, the Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland.

At the age of 26, Ussher becomes Professor and Chairman of the Department of Divinity at Dublin University, and he holds his professorship from 1609 to 1621. In 1625, he becomes Archbishop of Armagh, an office he apparently holds until his death. In 1628, King James I makes him a Privy Councillor.

Ussher is considered well-read and well-versed in history, a subject that soon becomes his primary focus. He writes several histories of the doings of the Irish and English churches dating back to Roman times. He also makes himself an expert in Semitic languages, an expertise that informs his argument in favor of the Masoretic Text of the Bible in preference to the Septuagint.

Ussher’s Confessions appear in 1643, followed in 1646 by his fifth work, Here I Stand. His most famous work, the dating of the creation as calculated from the Biblical record, appears in writing in the 1650s.

In 1656, Ussher goes to stay in the Countess of Peterborough’s house in Reigate, Surrey. On March 19, he feels a sharp pain in his side after supper and takes to his bed. His symptoms seem to have been those of a severe internal haemorrhage. Two days later, on March 21, 1656, he dies at the age of 75. His last words are reported as: “O Lord, forgive me, especially my sins of omission.” His body is embalmed and is to have been buried in Reigate, but at Oliver Cromwell‘s insistence he was given a state funeral on April 17 and was buried in the chapel of St. Erasmus in Westminster Abbey.

Ussher’s extensive library of manuscripts, many of them Middle Eastern originals, become part of the collection at Dublin University.


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Death of Henry III, King of England, Lord of Ireland

effigy-of-henry-iiiHenry III, King of England, Lord of Ireland, and Duke of Aquitaine from 1216 until his death, dies in Westminster, London on November 16, 1272. His son, Edward I, who has been Lord of Ireland since 1254, succeeds him.

In the final years of his reign, Henry is increasingly infirm and focused on securing peace within the kingdom and his own religious devotions. Edward becomes the Steward of England and begins to play a more prominent role in government. Henry’s finances are in a precarious state as a result of the war, and when Edward decides to join the crusades in 1268 it becomes clear that fresh taxes are necessary.

Henry is concerned that Edward’s absence might encourage further revolts, but is swayed by his son to negotiate with multiple parliaments over the next two years to raise the money. Although Henry had initially reversed Simon de Montfort‘s anti-Jewish policies, including attempting to restore the debts owed to Jews where these could be proven, he faces pressure from parliament to introduce restrictions on Jewish bonds, particularly their sale to Christians, in the final years of his reign in return for financing. Henry continues to invest in Westminster Abbey, which becomes a replacement for the Angevin mausoleum at Fontevraud Abbey, and in 1269 he oversees a grand ceremony to rebury Edward the Confessor in a lavish new shrine, personally helping to carry the body to its new resting place.

Edward leaves for the Eighth Crusade, led by Louis IX of France, in 1270, but Henry becomes increasingly ill. Concerns about a fresh rebellion grow and the following year the King writes to his son asking him to return to England, but Edward does not turn back. Henry recovers slightly and announces his renewed intention to join the crusades himself, but he never regains his full health. On the evening of November 16, 1272, Henry dies in Westminster, probably with his wife, Eleanor of Provence, in attendance. He is succeeded by Edward, who slowly makes his way back to England via Gascony, finally arriving in August 1274.

At his request, Henry is buried in Westminster Abbey in front of the church’s high altar, in the former resting place of Edward the Confessor. A few years later, work begins on a grander tomb for the King and in 1290 Edward moves his father’s body to its current location in Westminster Abbey. His gilt-brass funeral effigy is designed and forged within the abbey grounds by William Torell. Unlike other effigies of the period, it is particularly naturalistic in style, but it is probably not a close likeness of Henry himself.

Eleanor likely hopes that Henry will be recognised as a saint, as his contemporary Louis IX of France had been. Indeed, Henry’s final tomb resembles the shrine of a saint, complete with niches possibly intended to hold relics. When the King’s body is exhumed in 1290, contemporaries note that the body is in perfect condition and that Henry’s long beard remains well preserved, which at the time is considered to be an indication of saintly purity. Miracles begin to be reported at the tomb, but Edward is sceptical about these stories. The reports cease, and Henry is never canonised. In 1292, Henry’s heart is removed from his tomb and reburied at Fontevraud Abbey with the bodies of his Angevin family.

(Pictured: Effigy of Henry in Westminster Abbey, c. 1272)


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Death of Composer Michael William Balfe

michael-william-balfeMichael William Balfe, Irish composer best remembered for his opera The Bohemian Girl, dies in Dublin on October 20, 1870.

Balfe is born in Dublin on May 15, 1808, where his musical gifts become apparent at an early age. He receives instruction from his father, a dancing master and violinist, and the composer William Rooke. His family moves to Wexford when he is a child.

In 1817, Balfe appears as a violinist in public, and in this year composes a ballad, first called “Young Fanny” and afterwards, when sung in Paul Pry by Lucia Elizabeth Vestris, “The Lovers’ Mistake”. In 1823, upon the death of his father, he moves to London and is engaged as a violinist in the orchestra of the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. He eventually becomes the leader of that orchestra. While there, he studies violin with Charles Edward Horn and composition with Charles Frederick Horn.

While still playing the violin, Balfe pursues a career as an opera singer. He debuts unsuccessfully at Norwich in Carl Maria von Weber‘s Der Freischütz. In 1825, Count Mazzara takes him to Rome for vocal and musical studies and introduces him to Luigi Cherubini. In Italy, he also pursues composing, writing his first dramatic work, a ballet, La Perouse. He becomes a protégée of Gioachino Rossini‘s, and at the close of 1827, he appears as Figaro in The Barber of Seville at the Italian opera in Paris.

Balfe soon returns to Italy, where he is based for the next eight years, singing and composing several operas. In 1829 in Bologna, he composes his first cantata for the soprano Giulia Grisi, then 18 years old. He produces his first complete opera, I rivali di se stessi, at Palermo in the carnival season of 1829—1830.

Balfe returned to London in May 1835. His initial success takes place some months later with the premiere of The Siege of Rochelle on October 29, 1835 at Drury Lane. Encouraged by his success, he produces The Maid of Artois in 1836, which is followed by more operas in English. In July 1838, Balfe composes a new opera, Falstaff, for The Italian Opera House, based on The Merry Wives of Windsor, with an Italian libretto by S. Manfredo Maggione.

In 1841, Balfe founds the National Opera at the Lyceum Theatre, but the venture is a failure. The same year, he premieres his opera, Keolanthe. He then moves to Paris, presenting Le Puits d’amour in early 1843, followed by his opera based on Les quatre fils Aymon for the Opéra-Comique and L’étoile de Seville for the Paris Opera. Meanwhile, in 1843, he returns to London where he produces his most successful work, The Bohemian Girl, on November 27, 1843 at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. The piece runs for over 100 nights, and productions are soon mounted in New York, Dublin, Philadelphia, Vienna, Sydney, and throughout Europe and elsewhere.

From 1846 to 1852, Balfe is appointed musical director and principal conductor for the Italian Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. There he first produces several of Giuseppe Verdi‘s operas for London audiences. He conducts for Jenny Lind at her opera debut and on many occasions thereafter.

In 1851, in anticipation of The Great Exhibition in London, Balfe composes an innovative cantata, Inno Delle Nazioni, sung by nine female singers, each representing a country. He continues to compose new operas in English, including The Armourer of Nantes (1863), and writes hundreds of songs. His last opera, nearly completed when he dies, is The Knight of the Leopard and achieves considerable success in Italian as Il Talismano.

Balfe retires in 1864 to Hertfordshire, where he rents a country estate. He dies at his home in Rowney Abbey, Ware, Hertfordshire, on October 20, 1870 and is buried at Kensal Green Cemetery in London, next to fellow Irish composer William Vincent Wallace. In 1882, a medallion portrait of him is unveiled in Westminster Abbey.

In all, Balfe composes at least 29 operas. He also writes several cantatas and a symphony. His only large-scale piece that is still performed regularly today is The Bohemian Girl.