Page 5. " a king with a large jaw and a queen with a plain face "

The opening scenes of A Tale of Two Cities are set in 1775 when George III was on the British throne. He succeeded to the throne in 1760 but due to mental illness was considered unfit to rule in 1810. At this point, his eldest son George, the Prince of Wales, ruled in his place under the title Prince Regent.

George III’s wife and Queen consort was Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (a north German duchy) who was a friend of Marie Antoinette, her French counterpart. According to the standards of her age, Charlotte was not considered to be a great beauty.


Portrait of King George III
Public DomainPortrait of King George III (1781) - Credit: Thomas Gainsborough
Portrait of Queen Charlotte (1781)
Public DomainPortrait of Queen Charlotte (1781) - Credit: Thomas Gainsborough


Page 5. " a king with a large jaw and a queen with a fair face, on the throne of France. "

Louis XVI
Public DomainLouis XVI - Credit: PBS
Marie Antoinette
Public DomainMarie Antoinette - Credit: PBS
This refers to Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, the rulers of France around 1774.  Even though Louis XVI inherited a government in debt,  the French public soon began to view these two rulers as "spendthrifts." 

Page 5. " the lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes "

The ‘loaves and fishes’ alludes to the biblical miracle in which Jesus divided 5 loaves of bread and two fish to feed a great multitude of people.  Dickens' description of the ‘lords of the State preserves of loaves and fishes’ refers to the French and English aristocrats.  Their estates were well stocked with many kinds of wild game, which they hunted for entertainment. Instead of feeding a multitude, these ‘loaves and fish’ were the preserve of an elite minority, kept from hungry mouths to entertain the rich and hedonistic ruling class.

The Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes
Public DomainThe Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes - Credit: Jacopo Tintoretto

Page 5. " Mrs Southcott "
by hector

Joanna Southcott (1750-1814), a domestic servant and daughter of a Devon farmer, claimed to be a prophet.  At 64, she even announced she would give birth to the Messiah.  When she died, two months after the Messiah failed to appear, she left behind a sealed box of prophecies and over 100,000 followers, calling themselves Southcottians.

One of her prophecies was that the Day of Judgement would come in 2004.

The Panacea Society: Joanna Southcott 

Page 5. " the Cock-lane ghost "

Alright; no sniggering up the back of the class please. This is the true tale of the ghost of Scratching Fanny from Cock Lane.

The year is 1762 and one of the most entertaining and intriguing places to be in London is a small three story house in Cock Lane, near St Paul’s Cathedral where séances are being held to communicate with the ghost of Fanny Lynes. The apparent apparition made angry scratching noises and knocked on the walls to answer questions relating to the cause of her death. The séances were conducted by the owner of the house, Richard Parsons through the medium of his sleeping 12 year old daughter Elizabeth. They were theatrically assisted by Parsons’ servant, Mary Frazer, who asked the questions and interpreted the ghostly answers.

Fanny had lived in the house with her partner, William Kent. Fanny’s “ghost” accused Kent of murdering her with arsenic in her evening tipple. However it seems that Fanny actually died of smallpox and the ghost was proven to be a hoax aimed at ruining Kent after his successful legal action against Parsons for an outstanding debt. Parsons was prosecuted for the fraud.  However, enough questions remain to ensure the legend, if not Scratching Fanny herself, lives on.

Page 6. " a certain movable framework "
Marie Antoinette's execution by guillotine
Public DomainMarie Antoinette's execution by guillotine - Credit: Gravure de Isidore Stanislas Helman

The guillotine was the main method of execution during the French Revolution.  It continued to be used in many countries long afterwards.  In France it remained in use until the abolition of capital punishment in 1981.

The guillotine is named for Doctor Joseph-Ignace Guillotin, who, in 1789, persuaded the National Assembly that they needed to make the practice of capital punishment more equitable and humane.  As the French Revolution progressed, the need for an efficient means of dispatching people from the world became increasingly pressing.  The National Assembly resolved that the mechanism for death should be restricted to ending of life, rather than infliction of pain (unlike, say, the breaking wheel).  It appointed a committee to come up with an appropriate mechanism. The committee, drawing inspiration from head-crushing/chopping devices then in use in Britain and Italy, commissioned Tobias Schmidt, a German engineer and harpsichord maker, to construct a prototype of what was subsequently christened the guillotine.  It was quickly put to use - the first execution by guillotine was performed on a highwayman on 25 April 1792.

If one had to be executed, the guillotine offered a fairly attractive option. Previously, a member of the nobility would have been beheaded with a sword or axe (which took at least two blows), while commoners were usually hanged, unless they were unlucky enough to get the wheel or be burnt at the stake. 

Estimates of the number of people sent to the guillotine between June 1793 and July 1794 range between 16,000 and 40,000.

Page 6. " sentencing a youth to have his hands cut off "

Memorial to Chevalier de la Barre
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeMemorial to Chevalier de la Barre - Credit: Moonik
The youth referred to is Chevalier de la Barre, executed in 1766. de la Barre had failed to remove his hat when he passed within 30 yards of a procession bearing a crucifix, and had allegedly spoken “irreverently of the Virgin Mary” and “sung bawdy songs.”  His story was detailed in Voltaire’s Oeuvres Complètes (complete works).  According to Voltaire, de la Barre was the victim of petty personal vengeance – the young soldier was staying with his aunt, an abbess.  When the abbess rejected the romantic advances of a man named Belleval, Belleval set out to ruin her financially, and then to ruin her nephew, by spreading the rumour relating to the church procession.  Six witnesses testified that they had seen de la Barre fail to remove their hats when passing close to the procession. Other witnesses testified that de la Barre had blasphemed and made other heretical statements.  De la Barre, on the scaffold, said that he “never thought that a gentleman could be put to death for so little.”

Page 8. " as it lumbered up Shooter's Hill "

Woolwich Dockyard from Shooter's Hill, c.1819
Public DomainWoolwich Dockyard from Shooter's Hill, c.1819 - Credit: Peter de Wint
Shooter's Hill, on the Dover Road, is one of the highest points in London. It lies between Woolwich and Eltham in the Royal Borough of Greenwich.  The name is thought to come from the site's use as an archery range in the Middle Ages.


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