Monday, December 11, 2017

Giveaway - Our Man on Earth by Blaise

To celebrate the release of the new book, Our Man on Earth, and launch of the new series The Swithen, which honors the oldest tales of King Arthur and his court in retellings that make the stories come to life for modern readers, Blaise is giving away an e-book to anyone who leaves a comment and contact details in the comment below.

This offer will close at midnight, Sunday 17 December Pacific Standard Time.

Merlin: Sired by a demon and born of a human woman… This is no made-up tale, but the ORIGINAL story of Merlin from the year 1215 AD.

The devil wants a man on earth to work his evil plans. He decides to bring this about by impregnating a human woman. That woman, Meylinde, finds her life turned into a nightmare as a demon picks off her family one by one, until only she is left. Soon the demon’s work is done—in a time when an illegitimate child incurs the punishment of death—and she is desperate to save her own life while thwarting the devil’s plans for her child: a child that will become Merlin, the greatest wizard of all time.

Based on the oldest known accounts of Merlin, the Lancelot-Grail and Prose Merlin romances from around 1215 and 1450, this is Merlin’s actual origin story, not some made-up tale. A work of horror and fantasy, filled with wonder and wit, this book brings the bizarre and weird world of the 15th century, where magic was as real as the air we breathe, to life for the present day.

This is the first book in the series The Swithen, which retells the original tales of Merlin, King Arthur, Guinevere and the of Knights of the Table Round in exciting versions interpreted for modern readers.

To receive a copy, leave a comment below - don't forget to leave your contact details (!) and state whether you'd rather receive PDF or MOBI (Kindle) file.

Living on Credit is Not a NewThing

by Maria Grace

It’s easy to believe that living on credit is a modern thing. The news abounds with tales of woe regarding consumer debt, mortgages, student loans, and other lines of credit. How would Jane Austen have reacted to such news? Probably with great aplomb and a declaration that the more things change, the more they stay the same.

During the Regency era “almost all members of the middle and upper classes had accounts with different suppliers, who extended credit to their patrons. … Only if the amount was small or they were traveling did they pay cash. In fact, only the poor did not live on credit in one guise or another.” (Forsling, 2017) In fact, more people depended on credit than ever before resulting in perpetual overcrowding in the debtor's prisons.

Although debt, both personal and national, were rife in Regency society, attitudes toward debt were largely divided across class lines. “Aristocratic claims for leadership had long been based on lavish displays and consumption while the middle class stressed domestic moderation. In particular, aristocratic disdain for sordid money matters, their casual attitude to debt and addiction to gambling …, were anathema to the middling ranks whose very existence depended on the establishment of creditworthiness and avoidance of financial embarrassment.” (Davidoff, 2002).

Many small and otherwise flourishing businesses failed due to bad debts, especially among the upper classes. Some went so far as to begin refusing credit and to only sell for ‘ready money’. The notion that debts of honor had to be paid and paid quickly while debts to merchants could be put off indefinitely only exacerbated the situation.

Robbing Peter to Pay Paul

Gaming debts were regarded as sacrosanct which might not have been so significant an issue had there not been so many of them. The Regency was a time when Englishmen, especially the wealthy and highborn, were ready to bet on almost anything. Though gaming for high stakes was illegal by Austen’s day, authorities mostly seemed to turn a blind eye to it, (Fullerton, 2004) perhaps because it was considered largely an upper class vice.

Different social classes offered different reasons for the immorality of gaming. The upper classes feared losing their money to the lower class, giving them income without having earned it and opposing the work ethic. The rising middle class also saw gaming as opposing the values of stability, property, domesticity, family life and religion. (Rendell, 2002) Regardless of the reason, there was widespread agreement that gaming was a problem, thus legislation was passed against it.

Unfortunately anti-gaming laws, much like prohibition in the US, only forced gambling from public venues into private clubs where individuals bet on any and nearly everything. Organized sports including cricket, horse racing, prize fighting and cock fighting attracted spectators willing to bet on the outcome. Huge fortunes, even family estates could be won and lost at games of chance. Even the outcome of the Napoleonic Wars were subject to betting.

Moneylenders and bankers made themselves available at private clubs to assist gentlemen in settling their debts of honor which were not otherwise enforceable by law. The cost of this service though (beyond the interest on the debt of course), was creating a legally enforceable debt from which one had not been so previously.

Debtors' Prison

English bankruptcy laws were particularly harsh, demanding personal repayment of all debt, including business debt, and often incarceration. Ironically, there was no disgrace about being sent to gaol during the era, provided it was for an acceptable crime like debt or libel. (Murry, 1999) The Royal Courts administered three prisons primarily for debtors: the Fleet, the King's Bench and the Marshalsea, though debtors might be imprisoned at other facilities as well. (Low, 2005) At any given time during the era, upward of a 10,000 men were imprisoned for debts as small as four pence. (Savage, 2017)

Debtors were probably the largest proportion of the era’s prison population and had privileges not granted to ordinary criminals, including the right to have their family stay with them and to have other visitors. They could also often arrange to be supplied with beer or spirits. (Low, 2005) “During the quarterly terms, when the court sits, (Fleet) prisoners on paying five shillings a-day, and on giving security, are allowed to go out when they please, and there is a certain space round the prison, called the rules, in which prisoners may live, on furnishing two good securities to the warden for their debt, and on paying about three per cent on the amount of their debts to the warden.” (Feltham, 1803)

The process of obtaining an arrest warrant for debt was expensive. Often several tradesmen would have to band together to see a writ for debt issued. (Kelly, 2006)

Once the writ was obtained, the debtor (once caught, of course, as it was not uncommon for debtors to flee in the face of a writ, even so far as to leave the country) would first be confined to a spunging or lock-up house. A spunging-house was a private house maintained for the local confinement of debtors to give them time to settle their debts before the next step, debtors' prison. “…For twelve or fourteen shillings a-day, a debtor may remain [at the spunging house], either till he has found means of paying his debt, or finds it necessary to go to a public prison, when the writ against him becomes returnable. We have heard that great abuses prevail in these spunging-houses, and that many of the impositions practised in them deserve to be rectified. … It would be wrong to quit the sad subject of prisons, without observing that such is the bad arrangement of the laws between debtor and creditor, that ruin to both is greatly accelerated by the expensiveness of every step in the proceedings, insomuch that not one debtor in ten ever pays his debt after he enters a prison. (Feltham, 1803)

Why Debtors' Prison?

Given that once a debtor was in prison, they lacked the ability to earn money making the payment of his debt even less likely, this approach to debt seems ridiculous. So why was it done?

First, it was assumed that the debtor’s family and friends would be available to help pay off their debts. So imprisoning the debtor might help motivate them to action. Second, it was perceived as a deterrent to getting into debt in the first place. (Clearly, given the numbers in debtors’ prison it was a total failure on that count.) (Savage, 2017)

The third reason is perhaps the most difficult for the modern reader to understand. To the people of the time, the issue was bigger than simply insuring the debtor paid off their debts. “The ‘moral’ imperative to make the debtor aware of their responsibility for not living beyond their means was judged more important. … To understand the mind-set of the time, it’s important to remember two things: taking on more debt than you could pay was seen as a form of theft; and, … (t)heft broke the Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not steal”. The causes of becoming too indebted to pay also pointed to the presence of other sins: idleness, covetousness, greed, deceitfulness. … Sin demanded punishment and repentance not support,” thus jailing the debtor fulfilled the moral imperative. (Savage, 2017)

Myth of the smock wedding

Just because there was a moral imperative to punish debtors didn’t mean that those who owed money accepted their fate easily or didn’t attempt creative means by which to discharge their debts. Running to avoid one’s creditors was common. Beau Brummell fled to France to avoid debtors’ prison. In some cases a debtor could be pressed into naval service in exchange for the Navy to cover their debts.

Marriage, particularly for the upper class, was also a handy means of bringing in quick cash to alleviate a family’s money woes. The (disastrous) marriage of the Prince of Wales to his cousin, Princess Caroline of Brunswick in 1795 came about so that Parliament would pay off his debts.

Not all men were happy to marry a woman with debts, especially a widow still responsible for her late husband’s debts. Consequently, the practice of a ‘smock wedding’ came into being. At such a wedding, the bride would be married naked, bringing nothing into the marriage. In practice, she usually was barefoot and garbed in a chemise or sheet. The salient point was that she was technically bringing nothing into the marriage, thus her husband-to-be was thought not liable for any debts she might have. (Adkins, 2013) It is too bad that was not around in the era, because it could have told them that the ‘smock wedding’ way out of debt was an urban myth and would not stop the new bride’s creditors from knocking at their door.


Adkins, Roy, and Lesley Adkins. Jane Austen's England. Viking, 2013. 
Craig, Sheryl. Jane Austen and the State of the Nation. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.
Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.
Feltham, John. The picture of London, for 1803; being a correct guide to all the curiosities, amusements, exhibitions, public establishments, and remarkable objects in and near London; with a collection of appropriate tables. For the use of strangers, foreigners, and all persons who are intimately acquainted with the British metropolis. London: R. Phillips, 1803.
Forsling, Yvonne . “Money Makes the World Go Round.” Hibiscus-Sinensis. Accessed July 22, 2017.
Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen and Crime. Sydney: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2004.
Kelly, Ian. Beau Brummell: The Ultimate Man of Style. New York: Free Press, 2006.
Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.
Low, Donald A. The Regency underworld. Stroud: Sutton, 2005.
Murray, Venetia. An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England. New York: Viking, 1999.
Rendell, Jane. The Pursuit of Pleasure Gender, Space & Architecture in Regency London. London: Athlone Press, 2002.
Savage, William . “The Georgian Way with Debt.” Pen and Pension. July 19, 2017. Accessed July 25, 2017. .


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Common Myths of the Wars of the Roses - Myth #3: Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, the ‘Kingmaker’? Part 3…

This is the third part of my exploration into the notion that Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, deserves the epithet of “kingmaker”. When I sat down to write Part 3, I quickly realised that, to avoid oversimplifying the story, I would need to deal with King Edward IV’s mid-reign crisis of 1468-71 in two separate posts. So basically this is now Part 3 of 4!
There are two stages to the crisis and the first involves Warwick’s attempt to hitch his wagon, or more accurately his elder daughter, to the runaway horse called George, Duke of Clarence - the king's younger brother.

Much has been made by historians of Warwick’s growing frustration during the 1460s, especially over the king’s secret marriage to Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. We are told that Warwick was ‘disappointed’ that Edward did not give him the influence over policy that he believed he deserved. Yes, you’re right: he had an ego to die for – and sooner or later he would…

In his ‘disappointment’ Warwick began to consider an alternative to Edward. After all, if one powerful duke could seize the throne, why not another? His attentions were therefore focused on Edward’s younger brother, George, who seemed an obvious choice because his claim to the throne was as good as Edward’s – especially if Edward was without Warwick’s support. An obvious choice, except George was not the man Edward was and no-one would seek to supplant the king with his younger brother unless he was desperate.

Why then was Warwick beginning to feel desperate by 1468?

Well folks, it’s mainly about sons and daughters – Warwick had no sons and two daughters.

A favourable marriage was a major tool in noble advancement. Warwick himself made a spectacular one which added enormously to his power and wealth. At least one of his daughters would have to secure a great marriage and the best – perhaps the only - option amongst the nobility would have been Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham, since he had royal lineage and large landholdings. Buckingham, however, was swiftly married off to one of the new queen’s Woodville relatives and was thus unavailable. So, if the noble line of Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick, was not to be subsumed into a lesser noble house, his daughters must marry up – i.e. into royalty. 

George, Duke of Clarence [from Wikimedia]

Enter George, Duke of Clarence: available, eligible and royal. This would be the perfect match to secure the future of the Neville family.
King Edward, however, dismissed out of hand the idea of a Neville marriage to either of his brothers. Perhaps Warwick did have a genuine cause for complaint since, in his eyes, the king had denied him Buckingham and was now ruling out the two royal dukes as well. But from Edward’s point of view: by 1468 he, like Warwick, also had two daughters and no sons. How dangerous would it be if the heir presumptive, his brother George, married into the most powerful noble family in England while Edward still had no male heir of his own?  A further hurdle was that a papal dispensation would be required since George and Warwick’s daughters were cousins. 

In spite of the king’s opposition, Warwick persisted with the project through 1467 and at some point began secret negotiations with Rome for the necessary papal dispensation. 

The summer of 1467 marks the first really low point in the relationship between the king and Warwick. By the end of that summer, Warwick’s favoured foreign policy of an alliance with France was demolished when Edward opted for a counter alliance with the enemy of France: Burgundy. Here is not the place to discuss the relative merits of the two policies but it was this humiliation of Warwick that set the earl on a collision course with the king. 

Warwick went home to his estates to lick his wounds. That does not mean that he had already decided upon rebellion, but it does mean that he was considering his options. Apart from the French fiasco, he was also resentful of the rise of other men at court, notably the Queen’s father, Earl Rivers, and brother, Lord Scales, but especially William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke. Herbert was a rising star in the Yorkist firmament and his growing power in Wales set him against Warwick who had longstanding interests there. Herbert also appeared to be spreading rumours – also going around the French court at the time – that the disaffected Warwick was now in league with the deposed Lancastrian queen, Margaret of Anjou. 

Privately, King Edward must have dismissed this notion as laughable but he could not completely ignore it. When he asked Warwick to come to answer the rumours, the earl was reluctant. In the end, early in 1468, he did so but only in the most grudging and unbending manner. Despite Warwick's unhelpful attitude, the king continued to reward him with lands and income – as if he was short of such things!

It has been noted before that Edward preferred conciliation to confrontation with his leading subjects – sometimes at very great risk to himself. Here again we see the king trying hard to win over Warwick rather than drive him away, but it became increasingly obvious during 1468 that Warwick would not accept being merely one of a number of royal advisers. The earl did not really buy into the concept of ‘first among equals.’

Whilst his leading magnate was sulking, Edward had more pressing problems: there had been a notable increase in lawlessness during 1466, 1467 and into 1468. One of the most enduring planks of any Yorkist manifesto was to reduce corruption and restore law and order, but it appeared that Edward had failed to do so. Part of the renewed unrest was down to an increase in the activities of Lancastrian loyalists. It seemed that every time Edward thought he had restored control, new pockets of rebellion popped up. Whilst none of these was large-scale, taken together they were certainly worrying.

During 1468 Warwick returned to London and the documentary evidence tells us that he and his brothers, George – lately removed as Chancellor – and John, Lord Montagu, were all prominently involved in government. So, to judge from appearances, the Nevilles were back on board the good ship Edward. But all was not quite as it seemed…

By 1469, Warwick was actively pursuing two converging policies against Edward. The first was the  alliance with Clarence through marriage to his daughter, Isabel, for which Warwick still awaited a papal dispensation.

Why did Clarence go along with this? Basically because, whilst he was handsome and charming like his brother, he lacked several of Edward’s other, better, qualities. Despite the immense rewards showered upon him since the victory of 1461, Clarence was dissatisfied. He was ambitious and viewed a marriage to the elder Neville heiress as an excellent way of increasing his already large land holdings and power.

Warwick’s second policy was to exploit and focus the growing disaffection of the commons against Edward’s government. In the spring of 1469 he used his men in the north to encourage rebellion. Though it is certain that the commons had legitimate grievances, it is unlikely they would have risen in such numbers without the promise of support from some local members of the gentry committed to the earl. Warwick also promoted his own image through propaganda and his generosity to all and sundry. Then – as now – folk are easily swayed by rich men who promise the poor better times…

Between April and July 1469 there were several risings in the north. It’s almost unbelievable how little we know about these revolts, but we do know one thing: Warwick was behind the largest one and helped to direct its manifesto.

[See an earlier post on my blog for the complexities of these risings:]

King Edward reacted very slowly to the threat of rebellion in the north, making a laboured progress to Nottingham to raise troops to counter the rebels. While he was doing that, Warwick was elsewhere. At the end of June the earl announced the Clarence-Neville marriage in a letter to his supporters in Coventry and almost at once, in early July, he departed with his brother Archbishop George Neville, along with Clarence and Isabel, to Calais where the marriage took place. After that, Warwick made his intentions crystal clear, directly associating himself with the northern rebels and issuing a statement which notably compared the ills of the present regime with the failures of Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI – all of whom had of course been deposed.

Warwick then returned to England as the northern rebels swept into the midlands opposed only by the armies of William Herbert and another upstart - from Warwick’s perspective – Humphrey Stafford, Earl of Devon.

Middleham Castle, Yorkshire
At this critical moment in his reign, Edward was slow to grasp what was happening: perhaps the betrayal by Warwick, but also by his own brother, still seemed unthinkable. His inactivity did not help his allies, Herbert and Stafford; on the other hand these two bullish men did not help each other much either. They managed to snatch oblivion from the jaws of victory at the battle of Edgecote in July 1469. 
Warwick arrived in time to condemn the royal commanders and anyone else he cared to – notably a few of the Woodvilles. He then took possession of the king, moving him first to Warwick and then into the Neville heartland at Middleham. Next he summoned parliament - perhaps to garner support for his actions and perhaps also to legitimise the elevation of Clarence over his older brother. By the middle of August 1469, Warwick appeared to be in command of both the king and the kingdom.

Sadly for Warwick, it was all an illusion. The conundrum for us is that we don’t really know what Warwick intended. Surely he intended to be the ‘kingmaker’ here. Clarence must have been promised the throne; otherwise what was the point of drawing any comparison with previously deposed kings?

It is possible, of course, that the more Warwick got to know Clarence the less convinced he was that the king’s flawed brother was the answer to his problems. Hence the earl ended up trying to rule through Edward as a ‘puppet king’ and it just did not work.

Here’s why. Though Warwick had some popular support in the north, hardly any of the ruling classes supported his coup. He was almost completely isolated amongst the nobility and the king’s council. Plans for a parliament were quickly shelved amid governmental chaos and yet another Lancastrian rising. It did not help Warwick that there was even more disorder after he took over than before: local feuds abounded and the earl could offer no answer without the authority of the king. Ironically therefore, he was forced to release the king in order to suppress the Lancastrian rising and restore confidence in the government.

By October, King Edward was back in London in the bosom of his allies. Publicly, he declared his goodwill towards both Warwick and Clarence, but no-one was fooled. Though the king did not punish Warwick, he was unlikely to forget the earl’s savage execution of his rivals - especially since one of them was the queen’s father! He began to limit Neville power and influence whilst allowing them to retain some pride. Men such as Edward’s youngest brother, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, Thomas, Lord Stanley, and Henry Percy, newly restored to his earldom of Northumberland, were given more influence at Neville expense. Edward hoped for reconciliation, but did not expect it. His brother, George, might be forgiven but not the Earl of Warwick.

Over the winter of 1469-70, the earl chewed over his failure. True, he had achieved the marriage he intended and had removed some rivals, but his position in the state was now perilous. Yet, the king still had no son, so perhaps Warwick’s only way out was to think the unthinkable… as many desperate men do…

In the final part I shall look at Warwick's final throw of the dice: the readeption of Henry VI.

If you have yet to read the earlier posts in this series, you can find them here:

Kingmaker? Part 1
Kingmaker? Part 2

Derek Birks was born in Hampshire in England but spent his teenage years in Auckland, New Zealand, where he still has strong family ties.

For many years he taught history in a secondary school but took early retirement to concentrate on writing. Apart from his writing, he spends his time gardening, travelling, walking and taking part in archaeological digs at a Roman villa. Derek is interested in a wide range of historical themes but his particular favourite is the late medieval period. He writes action-packed fiction which is rooted in accurate history.

His debut historical novel was Feud, which is set in the period of the Wars of the Roses. Feud is the first of a now complete four-book series, entitled Rebels & Brothers, which follows the fortunes of the fictional Elder family from 1459 to 1471.
A new series, The Craft of Kings, picks up the story of the Elders in 1481 in its first book, Scars from the Past. In February 2018, the violent events of 1483 are played out in the sequel, The Blood of Princes.

Amazon author sites:

Culross - The Burgh That Time Forgot

by Annie Whitehead

Culross, on the Fife Coast in Scotland, is familiar to some as one of the locations for the hugely popular series, Outlander. This is because, oddly, it looks as if it has never aged and does, indeed, look more like a film set than a working town. It's a complicated story...

Culross (pronounced koo-ross) sits nestled on the banks of the Firth of Forth, on the east coast of Scotland, in the ancient kingdom of Fife. It's been used as a location for Kidnapped (1971), starring Michael Caine, The Little Vampire (2000) starring Richard E Grant, The 39 Steps (2008), starring Rupert Penry-Jones and Captain America (2011) starring Chris Evans, as well as the above-mentioned Outlander, starring Caitriona Balfe and Sam Heughan and based on the books by Diana Gabaldon. The painted cottages, and the immaculate cobbled streets, present a picture of a town seemingly unchanged, as if fixed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

But its roots go back to the sixth century, when it was a religious centre, founded by St Serf.  The story goes that St Serf came across a young woman on the seashore with her newly-born son. She and her baby had been cast out in a boat by her father in the hope that mother and child would drown. The child was Kentigern, who in time became Serf's pupil. Kentigern travelled and eventually settled in what became Glasgow, where the cathedral is dedicated to him, using his more familiar name of Mungo. There are the remains of a chapel dedicated to St Mungo in Culross, too, founded in 1503.

It was the monks who first began mining the area, and it was mining which was to become the key to the prosperity of Culross. With plenty of coal, and the Firth of Forth acting as a watery highway, trade was easy and profitable. Such was the reputation of Culross and its mining industry that the Culross Chalder (a chalder being an old Scottish measure) became the standard Scottish measure for weighing coal.

Coal mining was not the only industry, though, and salt panning gave rise to stories of Culross being a smoky town, due to the sea water being run into large, shallow pans, and then evaporated by fires made from the burning of inferior coal. With up to 50 salt pans in the area, its reputation for being a smoky place seems justified.

There was also a healthy iron industry, by which the legend grew up, that the ironsmiths of Culross invented the iron 'girdle' for Robert I (the Bruce), who is reported to have ordered soldiers camped near the town to be supplied with iron plates for toasting their oatcakes.

In 1575, Sir George Bruce, a descendant of Robert the Bruce, was granted the lease of the abbey's collieries. He was more than simply a rich man; he was responsible for many innovations, including the 'Egyptian Wheel', turned by horses and operating thirty-six buckets on a chain to drain the mine. Sir George made it possible for men to work at a depth of 240 ft, compared with the 30 ft managed by the monks. It was recorded that while the miners were digging the coal, hundreds of ships were sailing over their heads.

James VI visited the mine, and was a guest at Sir George's fine new house, which he called 'the Palace'. James was so impressed*, he granted the burgh royal status. As a Royal Burgh, Culross could take part in lucrative import and export trade. The town was made.

The 'Palace'

But in 1625, a great storm damaged the under-sea mine workings, and shortly afterwards, Sir George died. Over the next two hundred years, the town's industries slowly died, too. After the flooding and the collapse of the mining industry, the focus shifted to the manufacture of boots and shoes, and there is still a building in the town called the Tanhouse. The boots and shoes were exported to the American colonies, but after the revolution/war of independence in 1776, this industry also had its fate sealed. A new foundry in Falkirk, producing cheap cast-iron, removed the market for Culross's more labour-intensive and more expensive wrought-iron. The town began to fade and fail.

But in the 1930s, the Palace was bought by the National Trust for Scotland, which went on, in association with its Little Houses Improvement Scheme, to purchase and renovate many of the town's buildings, so that although the place looks a little like a museum, it remains a fully functioning, working town.

The remains of the abbey, founded in 1217, can still be seen in the grounds of the current abbey, and the Mercat Cross, dating from 1588, is still on show, although only the base is original.

The Townhouse has had a number of uses. It was a tollbooth for many years, witches - or rather, women accused of being witches - were kept imprisoned here, and the building was also used as a meeting place for the town council. An exhibition inside the Townhouse shows photographs of the houses when they were dilapidated and in danger of collapse.

The National Trust for Scotland's renovation project has rebuilt the town and in so doing, has captured a snapshot of the seventeenth century, one which can be enjoyed by those interested in history, and which would otherwise have been destroyed if the town, like so many others in Britain, had simply been rebuilt and the houses replaced with newer buildings.

*Initially, James' visit did not auger well for the town. Taken on a tour of the mine, he emerged at the seaward end and, finding himself surrounded by water, began to panic. Shouting 'Treason!', he had to be hurriedly reassured that all was well, that this was a fact of this kind of mining, and that his life was not in danger, nor any harm meant to his royal person.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]

Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
Amazon Page

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Queen Charlotte's Christmas Tree

by Catherine Curzon

As a historian of Georgian royalty, I have to get that family from Hanover into all of my holiday celebrations. Of course, mad kings and mistresses aren’t always appropriate for Christmas but trees certainly are.

Most people believe that we have Prince Albert and Queen Victoria to thank for the tradition of Christmas trees in England, but that isn’t actually the case. In fact, for that particular tradition we should look back into the Georgian era, and Queen Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz. On 8th September 1761, George III married the 17-year-old Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz in the Chapel Royal at St. James's Palace. Their marriage was long, produced 15 children, and was filled with challenges, but when George was well, the couple were happy.

Charlotte put up the first known English tree at her home at Queen’s Lodge, Windsor, in December, 1800. It was a tradition that she brought with her from her home in Germany, where trees were a popular bit of festive decor. Legend has it that they were popularised by Martin Luther in 1536 who was strolling in a pine forest in Wittenberg one night when he glanced up through the canopy at the stars twinkling above him. Inspired, he hurried home and brought a fir red into his house, which he lit with candles. Luther hoped that this would remind his children of the heavens and, by extension, God.

Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz
by Nathiel Dance-Holland
Throughout the 17th century, trees of various types that were illuminated by candlelight became popular across Southern Germany whilst in Charlotte’s homeland of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, a single, mighty yew branch being decorated rather than a whole tree. Samuel Taylor Coleridge visited the country in 1799 and wrote of the traditions there. Among them, he noted, was the Yew branch.

"There is a Christmas custom here which pleased and interested me. The children make little presents to their parents, and to each other; and the parents to the children. For three or four months before Christmas the girls are all busy; and the boys save up their pocket money, to make or purchase these presents. What the present is to be is cautiously kept secret, and the girls have a world of contrivances to conceal it -- such as working when they are out on visits, and the others are not with them; getting up in the morning before daylight; and the like. then, on the evening before Christmas day, one of the parlours is lighted up by the children, into which the parents must not go.

A great yew bough is fastened on the table at a little distance from the wall, a multitude of little tapers are fastened in the bough, but so as not to catch it till they are nearly burnt out, and coloured paper hangs and flutters from the twings. Under this bough, the children lay out in great order the presents they mean for their parents, still concealing in their pockets what they intend for each other. Then the parents are introduced, and each presents his little gift, and then bring out the rest one by one from their pockets, and present them with kisses and embraces.

An ancient yew
Where I witnessed this scene there were eight or nine children, and the eldest daughter and the mother wept aloud for joy and tenderness; and the tears ran down the face of the father, and he clasped all his children so tight to his breast, it seemed as if he did it to stifle the sob that was rising within him. I was very much affected.

The shadow of the bough and its appendages on the wall, and arching over on the ceiling, made a pretty picture, and then the raptures of the very little ones, when at last the twings and their needles began to take fire and snap! -- Oh, it was a delight for them! On the next day, in the great parlour, the parents lay out on the table the presents for the children; a scene of more sober joy success, as on this day, after an old custom, the mother says privately to each of her daughters, and the father to his sons, that which he has observed most praiseworthy, and that which was most faulty in their conduct.

Formerly, and still in all the smaller towns and villages throughout North Germany, these presents were sent by all the parents to some one fellow, who in high buskins, a white robe, a mask, and an enormous flax wig, personate Knecht Rupert, the servant Rupert. On Christmas night he goes round to every house, and says that Jesus christ his master sent him thither, the parents and elder children receive him with great pomp of reverence, while the little ones are most terribly frightened.

Coleridge by Washington Allston
He then inquires for the children, and, according to the character which he hears from the parent, he gives them the intended presents, as if they came out of heaven from Jesus Christ. Or, if they should have been bad children, he gives the parents a rod, and in the name of his master recommends them to use it frequently. About seven or eight years old the children are let into the secret, and it is curious to observe how faithfully they keep it."

Charlotte was devoted to her homeland and when she came to England as a bride, she brought many traditions with her. Among them was the traditional Christmas yew branch. Yet as a queen, even a private one, Charlotte didn’t content herself to a quiet corner of the castle. Instead, she used it as a way to bring the royal household, from family to friends to courtiers, together.

She and her ladies-in-waiting positioned and decorated the bough in the centre of the Queen’s House’s largest room. As evening fell and the tapers were lit, the court assembled around the yew and sang carols. Then, by the light of the tree, they exchanged opulent gifts to celebrate Christmas.

This was the first, but not the last notable Christmas foliage of the Georgian era.

In 1800, Queen Charlotte was planning a Christmas Day party for the children of the most important and wealthy families in Windsor - I should say that the poor weren't forgotten either, and the 60 poorest families were given an enormous Christmas lunch too. This time, however, there would be no yew bow, but a whole tree. From it were hung the traditional decorations as well as small gifts for the children from the royal family. The children were enchanted by the sight before them, for they had never seen anything like it before. It glittered with glass and crystal and the scent of fruit and spice filled the drawing room, capturing the heart and imagination of all who saw it.

Windsor Castle
Dr John Watkins, one of the adults present, wrote:
"Sixty poor families had a substantial dinner given them and in the evening the children of the principal families in the neighbourhood were invited to an entertainment at the Lodge. Here, among other amusing objects for the gratification of the juvenile visitors, in the middle of the room stood an immense tub with a yew tree placed in it, from the branches of which hung bunches of sweetmeats, almonds and raisins in papers, fruits and toys most tastefully arranged and the whole illuminated by small wax candles. After the company had walked round and admired the tree, each child obtained a portion of the sweets which it bore together with a toy, and then all returned home quite delighted."
Thanks to the queen, the fashionable world raced to put up their Christmas trees and no one who fancied themselves anyone went without. Across high society trees were soon glittering in the most opulent drawing rooms in Britain.

So, when the adoring Prince Albert first put up his tree, he really was following in the footsteps of the glorious Georgians. Far from being first to the show, he was actually one of the last!


"Yew Tree - 'Taxus baccata'" Grow Wild.
Anonymous. The Magazine Antiques, Volume 108. Straight Enterprises, 1975.
Anonymous. Country Life, Volume 186. Country Life, 1992.
Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. The Collected Works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Princeton University Press, 2015.
Craig, William Marshall. Memoir of Her Majesty Sophia Charlotte of Mecklenburg Strelitz, Queen of Great Britain. Henry Fisher, 1818.
Curzon, Catherine. Queens of Great Britain. Pen & Sword, 2017.
Delves Broughton, Vernon (ed.). Court and Private Life in the Time of Queen Charlotte. Richard Bentley, 1887.
Fitzgerald, Percy. The Good Queen Charlotte. Downey & Co, 1899.
Hadlow, Janice. The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians. William Collins, 2014.
Desmond, Ray. Kew. Random House, 1998.
Foley, Daniel. The Christmas Tree. Chilton, 1960.
Groom, Suzanne & Prosser, Lee. Kew Palace. Merrell, 2006.
Harrison, Michael. The Story of Christmas. Odhams Press, 1951.
Hedley, Owen. Queen Charlotte. J Murray, 1975.
Holt, Edward. The Public and Domestic Life of George the Third, Volume I. Sherwood, Neely and Jones, 1820
Nash, Joseph. The Mansions of England in the Olden Time. TM Lean, 1869.
Pimlott, John & Pimlott, Ben. The Englishman's Christmas. Harvester Press, 1978.
Sfetcu, Nicolae. About Christmas. Sfetcu, 2014.

All images from Wikipedia.

Catherine Curzon is a royal historian. She is the author of Life in the Georgian Court, Kings of Georgian Britain, and Queens of Georgian Britain. She has written extensively for publications including, the official website of BBC History Magazine, Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and Jane Austen’s Regency World. Catherine has spoken at venues and events including the Stamford Georgian Festival, the Jane Austen Festival, Lichfield Guildhall, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and Dr Johnson’s House. In addition, she has appeared with An Evening with Jane Austen at Kenwood House, Godmersham Park, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, the Jane Austen Festival, Bath, and the Stamford Georgian Festival.

Her novels, The Crown Spire, The Star of Versailles, and The Mistress of Blackstairs, are available now.

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Connect with Catherine through her website (, Facebook, Twitter (@MadameGilflurt), Google Plus, Pinterest, and Instagram.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Ælfgyva: The Mysterious Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry - Part II

By Paula Lofting

Welcome to the second part of the post concerning Ælfgyva, the woman, who over the years has caused many a historian to scratch their heads in wonder. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, in the Bayeux Tapestry, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman, stands in a doorway, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind a doorway.  He is reaching out to touch the side of her face whilst his other hand rests on his hip in a stance of dominance and he looks as if he might be touching her face in a fatherly way, perhaps admonishing her for some misdeed, or perhaps he is slapping her?  On the other hand he could be caressing her face.

The text sewn into the tapestry merely states ‘where a priest and Aelfgyva…’ and the onlooker is left with no more than this to dwell on. So just what is the author alluding to? Why did he/she not finish the sentence?

In this piece of work we will examine one of the possibilities as to who this woman could possibly be and what was her role at the time of the conquest. There are a number of theories, all of which have been thoroughly discounted by others, myself included. I would like to examine here one particular source that alludes to her representing Emma, who, as I stated in the first of this series, had taken on the English name Ælfgifu upon marriage to King Aethelred. Eric Freeman in his Annales de Normandie explains through a story that was circulating in the fourteenth century that Emma had been involved in an unorthodox relationship with a bishop of Winchester and had proven her innocence through trial by ordeal. She was said to have achieved this by walking barefoot across nine red-hot ploughshares.

What followed is even more absurd: her son King Edward, who had instigated the trial and had always shown harsh resentment toward his mother, begged her forgiveness and was duly beaten by both his mother and the accused Bishop Ælfwine. So, could this ridiculous tale be the scandal that we think the Bayeux tapestry is referring to? Bearing in mind that it is only an assumption of a scandal, however, the lewd depictions that accompany the image would indeed strongly suggest a scandal.

My research of this strange anecdote has turned up no other contemporary source. Quite how it shaped its way into the fourteenth century, we will never know, but what it does show is how the medieval mind-set could so effectively create the believable in the unbelievable. If we were to take this story as having some basis in truth, it would be a credible subject, if not for the trial by ordeal which would have been impossible to survive. So, if we put that aside and concentrate on the rest of it, what do we have? Emma/Ælfgifu, depicted as a bishop-loving adulteress whose scandal has somehow enmeshed itself into the threads of the Bayeux Tapestry.

photo credit: Caroline Williams

Now here comes the why, the how and what for. If we consider the scene and its place in the tapestry, the images before it show Harold standing before William having some sort of discussion. Incidentally, Harold appears to be touching the hand of one of William’s guards, but that is another story we will go into in part three. Our gaze next rests upon Ælfgyva and our priest, who is definitely not a bishop, otherwise the tapestry would have read, Unus Episcopus, rather than, Unus Clericus. If we can imagine that the two men are deep in conversation about some important topic, could the image of Ælfgyva have been inserted to allude to something that may have been better known at the time? If it was meant to be a representation of William’s great aunt Emma, she may well have been referred to by the English artist by her English name and this would be plausible. 

Yet the insertion of a bishop touching her face and the lewd creature underneath them in the border is a strange way to portray so great and noble a lady such as the former twice Queen of England. Not only is she William’s great aunt, but also partly the basis for his claim to the English crown. Through her, he was a first cousin once removed to the reigning monarch, Edward the Confessor. It was because of this kinship that William sought acceptance as heir to Edward’s throne. Emma, in her time was often criticised but despite this, she was respected by her English subjects. It is not likely that she would have been denigrated in this way unless she was involved in something pertinent to the story of the conquest. And I think considering the lack of a contemporary insertion in the sources for this story, we can safely assume that there is no credence to this legend.

It would seem that there is no other connection with Emma and the tapestry and the absence of a bishop and the presence of a priest, although perhaps an error but this is unlikely, means that this cannot be the Ælfgyva story the artist is referring to. In my next post on the subject, I will be exploring with you, another Ælfgyva.

We must give credit to the intriguing artistry of the creator who at every turn and twist manages to confuse us all.


Paula Lofting is an author and a member of the re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, where she regularly takes part in the Battle of Hastings. Her first novel, Sons of the Wolf, is set in eleventh-century England and tells the story of Wulfhere, a man torn between family and duty. The sequel, The Wolf Banner is available now. Paula is currently working on the third book in the series, Wolf's Bane

Find Paula on her Blog
on her Amazon Author Page

Monday, December 4, 2017

A Visit to St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin

By Richard Denning

This summer my family and I visited Ireland and stayed for a week near the capital, Dublin. One of the days we went on a visit to St Patrick's Cathedral. St Patrick's is the national Cathedral of the Anglican Church of Ireland. It is also the largest as well as the tallest church in Ireland. Dublin actually has a second Anglican cathedral Christ Church which is the cathedral of Dublin, Glendalough and Cashel in the Church of Ireland. Dublin is unusual in having two Anglican cathedrals as well as a Catholic one (St Mary's).

The Cathedral seen from the north.

The Cathedral is named after Saint Patrick who is said to have visited Dublin in the 5th Century. According to tradition it was on this site that he chose a well in which to baptise new converts to Christianity which he introduced to the land.

Interestingly back in 1901 six grave slabs were discovered during building works about 100 yards from the Cathedral which dated to the 10th century. One of these stones was a cap to what appeared to be a very old well. Whilst there is no definitive proof that the well is the one that St Patrick used, it is thought quite probable that this is indeed the same well. Furthermore the stones at least show the site has been used as a Christian site for over one thousand years.

There is documentary evidence of a church on the site dating back to the year 890 when King Gregory of Scotland, visited it. In 1190 Archbishop John Comyn raised the church to Cathedral status. The present Cathedral building, in terms of shape and size, dates from 1220-1259 and was built during the tenure of an Archbishop Luke. Sadly Luke himself became blind. So when the building work was finished he never saw it.

The well stones that sat on the head of  the well.
As is the case with many cathedrals, the building was constantly developed in the following centuries. One of the early additions is now the oldest part that survives. Dating back to 1270 the Lady Chapel was added. In those centuries it had become the trend to add a chapel dedicated to Mary behind the altar. From mid-17th century the Chapel was called the ‘French Chapel’ as it was used by Huguenots who had fled France and came to Ireland following the revocation of the Edict of Nantes.

In the 14th century a series of disasters forced a rebuild of the original tower and nave: a violent storm in 1316 (which blew down the spire), a fire in 1362 and a further collapse of the tower in 1394. The current structure is essentially the one that survived after that last disaster and reconstruction although the clock, one of the first in Dublin, was added in 1560 and the modern spire in 1700. In the 18th and 19th centuries the cathedral went into decline and was in desperate need of repair. It was the Guinness Foundation that during the 1860s raised £150,000 that was the main benefactor that allowed restoration. During that time screens which separated the choir and priests from the congregation were removed, opening the entire structure up.

In the 15th century a curious incident occurred that created a famous saying still used today.

As we were walking around the Cathedral I came across a door standing in the middle of the floor. It is a very old wooden door with a curious hole in the middle. Drawing closer we realized it was not only a door of significance but in fact is the door behind the phrase “to chance your arm.”

My wife, Jane at the door
It seems that in the year 1492 the Butlers of Ormonde and the FitzGeralds of Kildare were rival families locked in a longstanding dispute over who should be the Lord Deputy. No resolution was reached and in that year the dispute became violent and a small battle occurred outside Dublin city walls.

The fight did not go well for the Butlers and so, realizing fortune had turned against them, they fled to St Patrick’s Cathedral where they took refuge. Their enemies pursued them to the cathedral and asked them to open the door and come out and agree to a peace.

The Butlers did not believe that they could trust the Fitzgeralds and so refused to open the door as they feared they would be killed.

So it was that Gerald FitzGerald asked for an axeman to chop a hole in the door. When this was done he pushed his hand through the door as a gesture of peace. The head of the Butler family took this as a sign of good faith and shook hands with Gerald. The fighting was over and peace restored.

I recreate the event. Fortunately Jane did not have an axe

The door is known today as the “Door of Reconciliation”. It is believed then that this story was the origin of a commonly used Irish phrase “To chance your arm” or to take a risk.

Jonathan Swift, most famously the author of “Gulliver’s Travels”, was Dean of Saint Patrick’s from 1713 until his death in 1745. He was politically very active and fought hard against social injustice against the Irish people. One success he had was preventing a debased currency being imposed on Ireland and for which he was presented with the freedom of the City of Dublin.

The pulpit used by Swift is still present in the cathedral.

At the time his love of exercise and obsession with cleanliness was considered most odd but seemed to have been good for him because Swift lived to be 77. He did not suffer from false modesty, however. Swift wrote his own epitaph himself before he died and which is still present in the cathedral. It read:
"Here lies the body of Jonathan Swift, Doctor of Divinity and Dean of this Cathedral,
Where savage indignation can no longer lacerate his heart;
Go traveller and imitate if you can, this dedicated and earnest champion of liberty"
A Copy of Handel; Messiah in the cathedral.
The cathedral was the location of a world premier when the combined choirs of Christ Church and Saint Patrick’s Cathedrals sang the first performance of Handel’s oratorio Messiah on the 13th of April 1742.

The Cathedral is actually situated slightly outside the "old city" which is clustered around the original viking settlement and Christ Church but all the important sites in Dublin are within walking distance and well worth the visit. You can find out more here...


Richard Denning is an historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord. Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.