The Tale of King John’s Thumb

Travel Talk

Now, before you say anything, I am very sorry for having neglected you lately.  It is mainly my fault, though not entirely, because all sorts of things have been happening, most of which are, fortunately, good things.  One involves a long-held plan for a radio documentary which may, with luck and a following wind, actually be broadcast.  The other good thing involves a book project.

In this context you need to know that, when you talk to journalists of a certain age, they invariably mention that they are “working on a book”.  This really means that they are doing nothing of the kind, but thinking vaguely of writing something substantial some time in the distant future.  Later, the phrase used is “planning the book”, which means they have finally got round to putting something down on paper.  Eventually they might be shamed into actually writing the darned thing, all the time knowing that the chances of finding a publisher are slimmer than an anorexic stick insect.

Absolutely honestly, I am actually about half way through writing a book – a collection of travel tales – and a publisher for whom I have a great deal of respect has shown interest in it.  That’s not to say it will see the light of day as a proper book with hard covers and pages and even illustrations, but I have to do some serious work on it, if it is to have half a chance.

So now you know what’s been keeping me away from this “Now and Then” space.  As I said, I’m sorry.  

The tales in the book, by the way, are all absolutely true, and mostly unbelievable, because real life can sometimes be surreal.

Worcester CathedralWhich brings me to the point of this article and to a lady from Washington U.S.A. (the State, not the capital city) with whom I had a surreal conversation just last week.  However, in order to bring you there, too, you’ve got to go back in time with me.  Back many years to when I was a schoolboy in the city of Worcester.   

In passing, the school happens to be one of the oldest in Britain, having existed since the 13th century, but Worcester is not known for that, but for Worcestershire sauce, Edward Elgar, and a cricket ground on the side of the river Severn, overlooked by the city’s magnificent cathedral.

In that cathedral is the tomb of King John, and when I was a school boy (think of a cross between William Brown and Adrian Mole and you’ve more or less got the picture) I used to visit that tomb because of the glass topped display case that stood beside it.  In the case was a piece of skin, about the size of a lady’s handkerchief, and a thumb bone.  Just the sort of objects that appeal to a schoolboy.

The skin, according to legend, belonged to an unfortunate Viking.  He and his mates rowed up the Severn, en route doing the usual pillaging and burning and what-have-you, until they reached Worcester and the cathedral – or the religious buildings that were then where the cathedral is now.   

Worcester Cathedral - the medieval cloistersAshore they came, bent on yet more pillaging and burning (and, with luck, a spot of what-have-you) but on their way back to the boat one of them became separated from his chums and was surrounded by a bunch of monks. 

According to one story, poor old Erik, or Rolf, or Thor, or whatever he was called, had dropped behind because he was carrying a large bell, nicked from the monastery.  Whether or not that is true, he was set upon by a bunch of muscular monks who, in the true spirit of Christian forgiveness, beat him senseless, then flayed him alive and pegged out his skin (all of it) on the wooden door in a wall overlooking the river, as a warning to others.

I think it was that story that stimulated my lifelong love of history.  And the thumb bone.  Which was that of King John himself, and likely to have been the very thumb that was stuck in the sealing wax at the bottom of Magna Carta.  (He didn’t sign it, of course, because nobody signed stuff in those days, and in any case he could well have been illiterate.)

Visiting Worcester a couple of years ago, with the lady who is now in my life, I took her to the cathedral to show her the skin and the thumb, knowing how much they would appeal to a petite and graceful person who, for some reason or other, seems to think I am a pretty decent sort of chap.  To my sorrow, and her relief, there was no display case.  A passing parson said they were in the cathedral library and one needed to make advance arrangements in order to examine them.

Much disappointed, we returned to our Cotswold hotel.

King John's thumbA couple of weeks ago, the aforementioned lady went with one of her chums to the Magna Carta exhibition at the British Library.  That evening, she telephoned me in a state of great excitement with the news that, among the exhibits was – wait for it – THE THUMB!!!!  

And so it came to pass that, a few evenings ago, I found myself circulating at a pre-dinner drinks reception, chatting to our hosts, a tourist delegation from Washington State, and asking a lady named Tina if she had managed to do any shopping or sightseeing during her brief time in London.  She had such plans for the next day, she said, so we talked about the superb atmosphere of Covent Garden with its buskers playing classical music and singing opera, and a restaurant called The Crusting Pipe which I urged her to visit.

She said she also hoped to visit the Magna Carta exhibition.  So I told her all about King John’s thumb.

Then, as we were agreeing that the topic of our conversation was so “off the wall” as to be on the verge of unbelievable, we were summoned to dine.

In one of the twin walkways high above Tower Bridge.  And it doesn’t get more surreal than that.

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John Carter

Long-time presenter of TV’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ and BBC holiday programmes

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