Monday, September 1, 2014

The West Briton

by Jane Jackson

We are so used to 24-hour news with information arriving from all over the world minutes after events occur, it’s easy to forget that two hundred years ago news travelled at the speed of a galloping horse or a fast sailing ship. But though dispatches might take days, weeks or months to arrive, their impact on local people was no less profound.

The first edition of the West Briton was published in 1810 by John Heard from offices in Boscawen Street, Truro, heart of Cornish high society in the 1800s. This was a Whig newspaper and was established to promote an alternative view to a rival Tory paper first published in 1803.

The term Whig entered British political life during the controversy of 1678–1681 about whether or not King Charles II's brother, James, should be allowed to succeed to the throne on Charles's death. Whig was a term of abuse applied to those who believed James should be excluded from on the grounds that he was a Roman Catholic.

Evolving during the C18th, the Whig party supported the great aristocratic families, the Protestant Hanoverian succession, and toleration for nonconformist Protestants (dissenters such as Presbyterians.) It drew support from emerging industrial interests and wealthy merchants. By the first half of the C19th the Whig political programme came to encompass not only the supremacy of parliament over the monarch and support for free trade, but also Catholic emancipation, the abolition of slavery and expansion of the franchise.

The term Tory - originally applied to Irish Catholic bandits – was used in the C17th to deride those who believed in the principals of hereditary succession to the crown and non-resistance to the monarch. Despite falling into disarray in 1688, within parliament a significant block of members remained bound together by support for the established Church of England, hostility to Nonconformists, and continued insistence upon the principle of divine monarchical right.

Briefly back in power during Queen Anne's reign, in 1714 they were undone by their support for James II and the Stuart Royal family’s claim to the British throne. The Tory power base was the conservative rural gentry which violently opposed the taxation required to pay for the wars with France that the Whigs, with their belief in free trade, stood to profit from. They returned to government in 1784. But after the French Revolution the Tories were increasingly seen as a party of reaction and eventually lost power in 1830.

(Whigs with their liberal views on community and social responsibility equate to American Democrats, Tories being conservative and believing in individual rights and justice, to Republicans.)

Given such violently opposed political views, editorial battles between the rival newspapers were epic, being inflammatory and scathing.

In that first edition of the West Briton, Heard expressed concerns about the actions of Napoleon Bonaparte. What follows are abstracts from articles in his newspaper.

In April 1814 the paper reported the entrance of the Allied Army into Paris. The dethronement of Bonaparte was received in every part of Cornwall with demonstrations of joy. In Penzance and Newlyn the populace erected bonfires in several streets and wealthy neighbours donated barrels of beer to aid the celebrations.

St. Michael's Mount
Marazion and St Michael’s Mount were illuminated with the castle magnificently lighted to striking effect. The bells in the castle tower, which had not been heard for many years, rang out on this joyous occasion.

The fishermen of Mousehole showed their delight by burning an effigy of Bonaparte.

The proprietors of Crinnis Mine near St Austell celebrated the victory by entertaining all the (mine) captains, miners and work people in their employ. The captains dined together and were given twelve dozen bottles of wine. The work people were treated to a whole roast ox, a thousand loaves of bread and ten hogsheads of beer. In the evening the entire company enjoyed a grand display of fireworks.

(Bonaparte was sent to Elba, escaped, and rallied his army to fight the Allies.)

After his defeat at Waterloo in June 1815, unable to escape to America because of the blockading Bellerophon, Bonaparte stepped aboard the ship that had dogged his steps for twenty years to finally surrender to the British ending two decades of war.

The Bellerophon
In July 1815 Bellerophon, known to English sailors as Billy Ruffian, entered Plymouth Sound to take on water and provisions before carrying the ex-Emperor to exile in St Helena. Bellerophon was accompanied by the Slaney and the Myrmidon, both carrying the baggage of Bonaparte and his suite.

As soon as the ship dropped anchor, every boat in Plymouth took to the water filled with people wanting to approach. But acting on orders from the Government, guard boats stationed around Bellerophon prevented the curious from getting close.

Yet despite the losses of ships and men caused by the war, and the celebrations following his defeat, such was the aura surrounding Bonaparte that when at 6pm he appeared on deck every officer, British as well as French, instantly bared their heads as a token of respect.

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Jane Jackson loves history, Cornwall and romance. A professional writer for over thirty years with twenty-eight books published, she also teaches the craft of novel-writing and ten of her former students are now published novelists. Happily married to a Cornishman, with children and grandchildren, when not writing she enjoys reading for pleasure and research, long walks while listening to music and playing 'what if' with characters and plot ideas. She also likes to bake - hence the need for long walks.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Appeal of British History

by S.F. Sharp

British and indeed any history is the recorded memory of mankind. It is an interesting story of past enterprise. Once a deed has been done, once an event has occurred, it is as if written on tablets of stone and can never be undone. While history’s true facts cannot be erased they are open to interpretations, which can be good or bad, true or false.

British history’s events are the cause of our present situation and so of our future. A mirror of what we have been in which we recognise as a family likeness. A reminder of who we are and of what we are capable.

For history is not just a narrative of the past, a chronicle of remembered dates, it is also a record of great men whose lives serve to remind us we too can achieve something worthwhile, something sublime. It is the result of many humble people who laboured to lay the stone stairways up which great men could rise.

Above all, our history may and should be an inspiration for us to emulate the good achievements of the past and to avoid the misdeeds and errors that litter the winding path of ongoing time. It has already inspired great paintings, sculptures and, of course, poetry.

British history, like life itself, is largely unpredictable. It appears to be a series of chapters in a narrative which has no end. Empires rise and while they last seem impregnable they already contain the seeds of their demise. The British could be forgiven for never thinking the Empire would cease, just as Roman Emperors could not envisage their days of triumph would end.

Time, like the River Thames, flows remorselessly on. As Heraditus observed, “You can never step in the same river twice”, fresh waters wash away those that have gone before. This is not something we should ever regret. Change, however unsettling, should be welcomed; it gives life, vitality and freshness. It avoids the boredom of ever-repeated sameness and opens our minds and hearts to new possibilities and opportunities.

I am no trained historian, coming to its rich panorama as a philosopher and a poet. Without the careful painstaking work of historians I could never have penned my flights of poetic imagination. I am grateful to their more exact scholarship.

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S.F. Sharp is the author of poetry and philosophy, including the four-volume Philosophical Explorations in 2007 and Later Gleanings (2013). He has a degree from the Open University, and now lives in active retirement in Milton Regis, Kent.

Enterprise of the English: An appreciation of English history in verse

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Saturday, August 30, 2014

Flora MacDonald: Scottish Heroine and Staunch British Loyalist

by Lauren Gilbert


Flora MacDonald 1747
Wikimedia Commons

Thanks to her dramatic rescue of Prince Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) after the Rising of 1745, Flora MacDonald is frozen in time. Their names are almost inseparable, and the first thing mentioned about her is this romanticized event. Her life before and afterwards has almost become postscripts to this single event. The story of the rescue is told as drama, sometimes with an implication of romance between the prince and his rescuer. Victorian-era accounts are almost overwrought with their praise and idealization of Flora. But who was she? What happened afterwards?

Flora MacDonald was born in 1722 to Ranald MacDonald and his wife Marion at Milton on the island of South Uist in the Outer Hebrides. Her father was a farmer, and her mother had been the daughter of a clergyman. Ranald MacDonald died when Flora was very small, and her mother married Hugh MacDonald of Armadale on the island of Skye when Flora was about 6 years old. Flora stayed at Uist with her older brother Angus until she was 13 years old at which time she was sent to stay with the Clanranalds to pursue her education. Lady Margaret MacDonald (Clanranald) brought Flora into her home and later had Flora accompany the family to Edinburgh where Flora continued her education, attending boarding school. Flora lived with them in Edinburgh and elsewhere. Lady MacDonald and many of the MacDonalds were Jacobite sympathizers.

Accounts vary, but the rescue consisted of Flora and Niel MacEachainn in June of 1746 taking the prince, who was disguised as a female Irish servant, to the Island of Raasay. Once there, the prince was directed to find shelter in a cave until he could complete his escape. (After Flora and Niel left him, the prince made his way through Skye to the mainland. He had been living rough prior to this, and continued so, in caves and wherever he could find shelter. The prince ultimately escaped after about 3 months on a French vessel to France.) Flora’s part in the physical rescue was approximately 3 days. It would seem she was involved with the planning as her stepfather Hugh MacDonald, a captain in the militia, provided the passports for her, her manservant, and Irish spinning-maid, ostensibly to visit her mother.

The prince’s movements became known, and Flora’s participation became known. Once it was clear that the prince had succeeded in escaping to France, the search for those who had aided him intensified, and Flora was arrested on Skye after a brief visit with her mother. I was unable to find formal accounts of a trial. She was held at Dunstaffnage Castle in August of 1746 for about 10 days, where she was allowed to entertain visitors. Subsequently, she was taken by boat to Glasgow, where she was placed aboard “HMS Furnace” (or possibly the “Bridgewater”), where she stayed on board for 3 months. Again, Flora was allowed to receive visitors and gifts. On November 7, 1746, the ship departed for London.

Flora was held in the Tower of London for a short time, then released into house arrest with friends. Flora was apparently quite popular and entertained frequent visitors. At one point, she met one of George II’s sons (one account said it was Fredrick, the Prince of Wales; another indicated it was the Duke of Cumberland). Supposedly, the prince in question asked her why she aided Prince Charles, and she told him that she would have helped anyone in similar circumstances. It seems she assisted him as a humanitarian, rather than political, obligation. Finally, in June of 1747, George II passed a general free pardon, allowing those who had been convicted of treasonous acts before June 15, 1747 to be released.

Upon her release, she became a guest of a leading Jacobite lady (possibly Lady Primrose of Dunnipace). Flora remained in London for a time, trying to aid other state prisoners, receiving gifts, donations of funds, and many more visitors. After leaving London, her travels took her through England to York and on to Scotland. Apparently Flora travelled for about 12 months, visiting Jacobites on her journey. She finally settled in Skye, after visiting her mother, Lady Clanranald and her brother.

Flora married Allan MacDonald of Kingsburgh, whom she had known since childhood, on November 6, 1750, at the age of 28. She brought with her into the marriage several hundred pounds, and received more money from Jacobite supporters. The couple farmed at Flodigarry, and had seven children, but things did not go well. Whether the result of debts incurred by his father, difficulty in farming, increases in rents, or a combination of all of these factors, the couple experienced increasing difficulties. In 1774, they immigrated to North Carolina in America with their children.

Upon arrival in North Carolina, Flora and her family were welcomed by the Scots community, many of whom had emigrated before, and a ball was given in Flora’s honour in Wilmington. They purchased a plantation in Anson in January 1776, and two of their children died of typhus. Unfortunately, before they had time to get settled, the American Revolution broke out. Flora and her husband were loyalists, her husband having been commissioned an officer in the Royal Highland Emigrant Regiment in 1775. After the war broke out, Allan and several other family members fought, but Allan was captured after the defeat at Moore’s Creek and made prisoner. Their plantation was damaged and ultimately confiscated when Flora refused to take the oath required by the Act of November 1777.

Allan and Flora reunited briefly in 1778 after his release, and they moved to Nova Scotia. Although Alan remained with his regiment in Canada, Flora went back to Skye in 1779. Her surviving two sons and older daughter returned with her, where they were reunited with the youngest daughter. This voyage was more exciting, as the ship was attacked by a French privateer. Accounts indicate that Flora remained on deck and suffered a broken arm. Upon her return, her brother built a cottage for her where she stayed until her husband’s return five years later. It seems she had a sense of humour as she supposedly said that she had fought in the service of both the House of Stuart and the House of Hanover but had been defeated in both endeavours.*

Flora died March 5, 1790, possibly at Kingsburgh, her husband’s family home (accounts differ). Her body was wrapped in a sheet on which Charles Stuart had slept all those years before, and buried at Kilmuir on the north end of Skye in the churchyard. Her funeral was supposedly well attended, and her grave was covered by a thin marble slab. The slab, however, was chipped away within a short time, and the pieces carried away by tourists. Subsequently, public subscriptions allowed a large granite cross on a pedestal to be erected in her memory.

Numerous accounts of Flora’s rescue of the prince and a few biographies were written about her. Although known for a brief adventure with Prince Charles Edward Stuart, her life was exciting and full of incident. Flora showed herself to be intelligent, faithful, determined, and resilient.

Flora MacDonald’s grave in Kilmuir Cemetery on the Isle of Skye, 6/2007, by Adam Cuerden,
From Wikimedia Commons

Sources include:

Dictionary of Ntional Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 35. “Macdonald, Flora” by Thomas Finlayson Henderson. On line at http://en.wikisource.org/wiki/Macdonald,_Flora(DNB00)

Internet Archives. MacGregor, Alexander. THE LIFE OF FLORA MACDONALD and her Adventures with Prince Charles*. Inverness: A & W MacKenzie, 1882. https://archive.org/details/lifeoffloramacdo00macguoft

GoogleBooks. THE SCOTS MAGAZINE Containing A GENERAL VIEW of the Religion, Politicks, Entertainment, etc. In Great Britain: and a Succinct Account of Publick Affairs Foreign and Domestic for the Year MDCCXLVII. Volume IX. June 1747. “Abstract of the act vicesimo George ii R Entitled, An Act for the King’s most gracious , general, and free pardon.” PP 258-261. http://books.google.com/books?id=FVwAAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA259&lpg=PA259&dq=act+of+grace+and+pardon+1747&source=bl&ots=R35BskguE1&sig=d2w5BqLPoKMxUWTkiJtQ1vMoObE&hl=en&sa=X&ei=Oi36U7rGNsqhyAS_tYKwCQ&ved=0CDUQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=act%20of%20grace%20and%20pardon%201747&f=false

Scotland Magazine on-line. “What Flora did next.” By Jackie Cosh. Issue 22, p. 48. Http://www.scotlandmag.com/magazine/issue22/12006639.html

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Lauren Gilbert is author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, and lives in Florida with her husband. Her second novel, working title A Rational Attachment, is expected to be released later this year.


Friday, August 29, 2014

Reynolds, Siddons and the Tragic Muse

by Catherine Curzon

Last month, I wrote of the remarkable celebrity of Sarah Siddons, the first lady of the Georgian stage who was so celebrated for her portrayal of Lady Macbeth. Among her fans was Sir Joshua Reynolds, the near legendary Georgian artist, and he memorialised Mrs Siddons forever in his remarkable 1784 work, Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse.

This portrait has been an inspiration to me for many years and a print hangs in pride of place in my sitting room, where it often attracts compliments. When I look at this painting I see a remarkable piece of theatre, and one that rightly confirmed the actress's status as a superstar of the tragic stage, preserving Mrs Siddons forever as a figure of graceful authority, the living embodiment of Melpomene, the muse of tragedy.


Mrs Siddons as the Tragic Muse by Joshua Reynolds, 1784

When Mrs Siddons arrived to sit for the portrait, Reynolds told his adored subject, "Ascend upon your undisputed throne, and graciously bestow upon me some great idea of the Tragic Muse". Mrs Siddons accordingly draped herself in a somewhat monarchical fashion on her throne and in doing so appeared to assume the pose adopted by Isaiah on the Sistine Ceiling. However, she claimed that this was nothing but coincidence, having chosen this position when she found the initial pose requested by Reynolds to be too uncomfortable to hold. Whether this is true we cannot know but Mrs Siddons was well aware of the power of celebrity and perhaps was giving her own near-mythical reputation a helping hand!

Regardless of the thought behind it, the pose is unmistakably graceful and in her opulent gown and pearls, the actress's noble bearing is evident in every inch of the canvas. For all of the grace and nobility, though, her expression is troubled, and the painting is one that shows a woman in some conflict. Emerging from the shadows behind her throne are the figures of Aristotle's Pity and Fear. Recalling her role as Lady Macbeth they clutch a dagger and a chalice and Fear's features were modelled on Reynolds' own grimace, which he painted from reflection.

This painting is remarkable in its subtle use of light and shadow. The colours are subdued yet striking, and the arms and face of the sitter draw the eye with their vibrancy. Despite or perhaps because of the simple and muted palette, the painting draws and holds the attention; in fact, the dress was initially intended to be blue but Reynolds repainted it in the brown and gold we see today. This blends the primary figure of the actress into the background even as she is kept apart by the brightness of her features versus the misty figures that flank her, a luminous figure and one that demands attention.

The painting was an utter sensation when it was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1784 and Reynolds placed a mind-boggling one thousand guinea price tag on the canvas. To this day it is regarded as one of the finest works of 18th century painting and has played a part in the enduring reputation of both actress and artist. It is perhaps fitting, then, that Reynolds signed the portrait across the bottom of Mrs Siddons's dress and told her, "I have resolved to go down to posterity on the hem of your garment." That signature is no longer visible but this magnificent painting remains, as remarkable now as it was then.


Sources

Perry, Gill, Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre 1768-1820, (Yale University Press, 2007)
Perry, Gill and Roach, Joseph, The First Actresses: Nell Gwynn to Sarah Siddons, (National Portait Gallery, 2011)
Postle, Martin, Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity, (Tate Publishing, 2005)

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Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A Royal Love Letter

by Anne O'Brien



This is Henry IV, son of John of Gaunt, and the first of the Lancastrian kings of England.

In February 1400, Joanna of Navarre, Duchess of Brittany and newly widowed, wrote this letter to King Henry IV of England.  It was within five months of Henry becoming King of England in September 1399 and within three months of the death of John Duke of Britttany, Joanna's husband, in November 1399.

My most dear and honoured lord and cousin,
Forasmuch as I am eager to hear of your good estate - which may our Lord make as good as your noble heart can desire, and as good as I could wish for you - I pray my most dear and most honoured lord and cousin that you would tell me often of the certainty of it, for the great comfort and gladness of my heart.  For when ever I am able to hear a good account of you, my heart rejoices exceedingly.  And if of your courtesy you would like to hear the same from over here - thank you - at the time of writing my children and I are all in good health (thanks be to God and may he grant the same to you) as Joanna de Bavelen, who is bringing these letters to you, can explain more plainly ... and if anything will please you that I am able to do over here, I pray you to let me know: and I will accomplish it with a very good heart according to my power.  My most dear and honoured lord and cousin, I pray the holy Ghost that he will have you in his keeping.
Written at Vannes, 15th February, the duchess of Brittany.

What do we make of this letter?  It is extremely friendly in tone, warmly considerate, and obviously in reply to an earlier letter from Henry to Joanna, enquiring about her health and that of her children.  It is deeply courteous and has strong religious references.  What is clear is that it is not simply a letter between one ruler and another (Joanna was Regent of Brittany for her young son at the time).  It may not be a love letter in the accepted sense, but it is certainly more than a diplomatic missive.

So what was their relationship in February 1400?

We know that Joanna and Henry had met previously and most probably on more than one occasion, since through her mother, Jeanne de Valois, a French Princess, Joanna was closely connected with the French royal family.  Certainly Henry and Joanna would have been in the same grouping of high-blooded nobility at the marriage of Richard II and Isabelle de Valois at Calais in 1396.  Most probably they also met when Duke John was made a Knight of the Garter at Windsor in April 1398.  We know that Joanna attended with her husband.  And furthermore there is a high probability that they met when Henry was in exile in France after Richard accused him of treason. Froissart says the John of Brittany lent Henry ships to return to England.  Although this seems unlikely since Henry landed with few personal followers at Ravenspur, and with no foreign troops, it does suggest that there was a connection between Henry and the Brittany household.

Were Joanna and Henry attracted to each other?  Both were mature, respectable people in their thirties rather than young and foolish, both widowed with their own growing families, and both with a strong religious leaning.  I am sure that there was no improper relationship between them.  Joanna's husband might be more than twenty years older than she, but their marriage appears to have been built on strong affection and respect.  But whatever the truth of it, the attraction between Henry and Joanna was strong enough to cause these letters to be written.

How many such letters passed between them?  We have no idea.  If they were all of this nature, it was definitely a lukewarm wooing, and yet events leading to their marriage were immediately set into motion.  Three months after Duke John's death Joanna sent ambassadors to Henry's court.  By March 1402 a papal Bull had been obtained to allow their marriage (they were within the degrees of prohibited consanguinity) and in April of the same year Joanna was married by proxy to Henry at Eltham, witnessed by the Archbishop of Canterbury and some of Henry's closest friends.  Finally Joanna travelled to England, met with Henry in Exeter and their marriage took place at Winchester in February 1403.  During all this time they did not meet once, until Henry travelled to welcome her in Exeter. 

Here is a fanciful painting of Joanna's arrival in Falmouth, painted in 1924.


 So we are still left to ponder whether this was a love match, conducted as it was at a distance, or not.  Certainly on first glance there were few advantages to this marriage, and many stumbling blocks to it ever coming to fruition.  War was once more looming between England and France.  The prospect of Joanna's marriage to the King of England would find no favour with all her uncles and cousins at the French court.  Furthermore it would undermine her own power in  Brittany.  Joanna could not expect to remain Regent of Brittany as well as Queen of England.  She would also, as it happened, be forced to give custody of her sons into the care of the Duke of Burgundy and leave them behind.

For Henry, the ongoing trading disputes between English and Breton merchants were sufficiently keen to make this proposed marriage alliance unpopular with Parliament, even without the fact that Joanna came as a bride without a dowry.  But it has to be said that there was an advantage for Henry if he could achieve an important bride.  It would be no bad thing for him to have such a well connected woman as his wife, given the fact that he had just usurped the English crown.  Henry was intent on improving his European status through the marriage of his two daughters, and his own.

So what is the outcome for us?  We are still left with little evidence to get below the surface of this very adult relationship.  What we can surmise is that their courtship was conducted by 'go-betweens', such as the lady Joanna de Bavelen, by word of mouth.  What was not written down could not be used in evidence against them.  When Henry's council asked the purpose of the Navarrese ambassadors at the English court, all Henry would say is they they would be told in due course. 

All in all, their desire to marry was strong enough to bring them together after three years of being apart.  It was strong enough for Joanna to leave her country, her power and her sons, to be with Henry.  And so I like to think that it was a love affair: a very private, understated emotion.  They remained very close until Henry's death ten years later.  Sadly, although both with large families from their previous marriages, they had no children together.

Winchester Cathedral where Henry and Joan were eventually married by Henry's half-brother, Henry Beaufort


Finally, have we indeed lost more of these letters?  In Joanna's personal possessions, confiscated when she was imprisoned for witchcraft in the reign of Henry V ( and what a very dodgy scenario that was!  more later!), there was a pen case, with a silver-gilt inkhorn engraved with the words 'God make us goode men.'.  Was this a gift from Henry, to keep him in her mind as she wrote, even though they were apart for so long?  It is a gift that seems to fit their temperaments very well.  A nice thought.

The tomb of Henry and Joanna in Canterbury Cathedral.  The only true likeness we have of the couple.

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For news of my historical novels, speakings and signings, drop into my website.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The Softer Side of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex

by Beth von Staats

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
(Hans Holbein the Younger Miniature)
______________________________________________

“His speech is low and rapid, his manner assured; he is at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury. He will quote you a nice point in the old authors, from Plato to Plautus and back again. He knows new poetry, and can say it in Italian. He works all hours, first up and last to bed. He makes money and he spends it. He will take a bet on anything.”
-- Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall --
______________________________________________

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex, Vice-gerant and Chief Minister of King Henry VIII, suddenly is a very popular man in contemporary British culture. With the huge literary award winning acclaim for Hilary Mantel’s brilliant novels, Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, the Lord Privy Seal made an amazing resurgence, not only in recognition as an important historical figure, but also in a greatly enhanced respect of Cromwell’s legacy.

The sinister antagonist in Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons is now lead heroic figure himself in two positively reviewed plays based on Mantel’s novels performed by none other than the Royal Shakespeare Company. A highly anticipated and touted mini-series is also in the works.

Was Thomas Cromwell really as heroic as Hilary Mantel's prose would suggest or as conniving as Robert Bolt highlights in his screenplay? The answers are both “yes” and “yes”, for this brilliant and highly complex statesman had far more layers to his personality than most men, alive or dead.

A man of the 16th century, his decisions and actions often conflict with our modern sensibilities, and frankly sometimes to many living in his own era. Historians and history lovers will debate Thomas Cromwell endlessly, and justifiably so.

Some Tudor enthusiasts will argue that Thomas Cromwell was an evil historical villain of the highest order -- a man capable of dissolving an entire nation's monasteries, displacing thousands, while also orchestrating the deaths of any and all subjects with dissenting opinions, popular courtiers, Roman Catholic religious figures, and even a reigning queen consort.

In stark contrast, others will profess that instead Cromwell was a genius statesman worthy of admiration, a man who revolutionized Parliamentary Law, united the kingdom through nationalized government, successfully counseled King Henry VIII to refrain from fruitless wars abroad, patronized the arts and brought the English language Bible to all English and Welsh subjects (an accomplishment often unfairly attributed to Thomas Cranmer).

One can argue both mindsets convincingly, because this was a man with a mission, a man who wanted to make a difference, a man who sought to change how government works, a man who sought to bring scripture to all people, and a man who was 100% devoted to his God, his faith as justified solely by his faith, and the King he served with steadfast loyalty -- all the way to the scaffold.

King Henry VIII
(Artist Unknown)
In short, Thomas Cromwell was a man who viewed that the means always justified the end, so long as that end was either his perception of God's will or, more importantly to his tainted legacy, the King's will.

Most people who are familiar with Tudor Era history are very knowledgeable of the “evil side” of Thomas Cromwell. After all, whether by active manipulation for his own agenda or far more likely at the command of King Henry VIII, he was at the epicenter to the course of events that changed the face of England forever, many of the realm's subjects laid displaced, destitute or dead in the process.

But, did Thomas Cromwell have a softer side? Was the King's Chief Minister capable of compassion? Kindness? Fun? Love? Of course he was, but with no memoirs and only a precious few private correspondences to guide us to to this conclusion, how do we know? Let's explore the ways in this admittedly incomplete accounting.

The Softer Side of Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex

Thomas Cromwell, Family Man

Admittedly, very little is known of Thomas Cromwell's private life. Still, most people assume that beyond his commitment to his son Gregory, the Earl of Essex was distant, aloof and egocentric. In fact, Thomas Cromwell was actually a devoted “family man”. Married to Elizabeth Wykys in 1515, Thomas and Elizabeth Cromwell raised three children together, Gregory, Anne and Grace.

Tragically, Cromwell's wife died most likely of the sweating sickness in 1528. His two daughters perished together shortly thereafter. Poignantly, the will Cromwell wrote soon after Elizabeth's death refers to his late wife and details careful provisions made for Gregory, Anne and “myne little daughter Grace”. These deaths obviously had a profound impact on Thomas Cromwell, as in an age where remarriage was not only common but expected, this wealthy and highly eligible widower remained single for the remainder of his lifetime.

Thomas Cromwell
1859 Engraving
Beyond Cromwell's commitment to his immediate family, the King's Chief Minister was gracious and loving to his extended family. Cromwell continued to share his home with his wife's mother throughout her lifetime, laid provisions in his will for his sister who sadly predeceased him, and funded rich educations for not only all of his nephews and children of close family friends, but also his niece.

Thomas Cromwell had a special affinity for his nephew Richard Williams, son of his sister Katherine. Cromwell's influence was obvious, as his nephew requested to take Cromwell's name after his own father's death. Richard Cromwell, great grandfather of  Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell, entered his uncle's service and became a highly successful courtier, ultimately serving in Parliament and as High Sheriff of Cambridgeshire and Huntingdonshire.

Likely most telling of Cromwell's commitment and love for family was his wardship of Sir Ralph Sadleir. In the 16th century, many people of means were wards of orphaned children of the rich, usually arranged as a sign of favor from the King. Such wardships were highly lucrative, as while the child remained a minor, the income from the deceased parent's properties was diverted to the guardian.

Courtiers as esteemed as Saint Thomas More and Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk gained substantial incomes from their wards. Brandon even married one of his wards, none other than Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk. The 14 year old Willoughby was initially contracted to his son.

Thomas Cromwell, in contrast, became guardian of the 7 year old Ralph Sadleir while his parents still lived at their behest in their desire for the child's best interest. Instead of generating income from the arrangement, Cromwell raised Sadleir as his own, alongside his children at Austin Friars. Their freely given relationship was exceptionally close.

This portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger
was in the ownership of the Sadleir family
and is perhaps Ralph Sadleir.
Due to Cromwell's influence and patronage, Sadleir became King Henry VIII's Principal Secretary and later was knighted by King Edward VI. Ultimately Sir Ralph Sadleir, an esteemed diplomat essential to England's foreign policy with Scotland, became England's most influential and wealthy commoner, far eclipsing both Cromwell's own son and nephew.

Thomas Cromwell, Religious Scholar and Reformer

Many Tudor history lovers view that Thomas Cromwell's belief system was devoud of true religious conviction, and point to his actions as Vice-gerant and Chief Minister as self-serving, in short a way to gain properties and riches for himself at the expense of others. One historian goes so far as to list pages of Cromwell's obsessive financial accounting to detail alleged exorbitant bribes and kick-backs garnished during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, as well as alleged brides received to secure favor from the King through Cromwell's influence.

Although Thomas Cromwell certainly became an extremely wealthy man and owner of extensive property, his wealth gained through the King's pleasure, good fortune and, most tellingly, exceptionally hard work in no way discredits his obvious religious convictions.

The Guild Chapel of the Virgin Mary, St. Botolph’s Church, Boston.
Papal Bulls secured in 1517 by Thomas Cromwell insured indulgences
flowed in “perpetuity”.

Prior to 1531, Thomas Cromwell was a Roman Catholic. There is strong evidence of his convictions, including his success in gaining bulls for the Boston Guild's Chapel of the Virgin Mary, St. Botolph's Church. Yes, Cromwell did resourcefully entice His Holy Father with music and sweetmeats to gain advantage, but the fact remained, with his help, the Boston Guild received papal authority to sell indulgences in “perpetuity” – well, at least until the Henrican Reformation Cromwell authored criminalized the practice.

Though the example above more humorously illustrates Cromwell's resourcefulness than truly reflecting his religious devotion, what he accomplished while on route to visit His Holy Father to secure these bulls most certainly does. Thomas Cromwell memorized in full Desiderius Erasmus' 1516 translation of the New Testament, book by book, psalm by psalm, scripture by scripture, word by word.

Other small hints speak to Cromwell's religious mindedness before his evangelical conversion. For example, George Cavendish teaches us in his biography of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey that he came upon Thomas Cromwell during a weak moment on the day Cromwell left Wolsey's service. With English modernized for the reader, Cavendish records...

“It chanced upon me on the morning of Hallow's Eve to come there into the great chamber to give my attendance where I found Master Cromwell leaning in the great window with a primer in his hand saying 'Our Lady Maddens' (which had been a very strange sight). He prayed not more earnestly than the tears from his eyes.”


Apology of the Augsburg Confession
Not long after leaving Thomas Cardinal Wolsey's service, evidence begins to show plainly that Thomas Cromwell's love of scripture was gradually drawing him toward more evangelical leanings. Gaining a seat in Parliament representing Taunton and securing employment in the King's service as a low ranking councilor, Cromwell worked in partnership with his friend Stephen Vaughan through Dr. Augustine de Augustinis to secure the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, by German theologian Philipp Melanchthon, along with other Lutheran writings.

There is also ample circumstancial evidence to suggest Vaughan and Cromwell were smuggling evangelical works into England through Antwerp cloth merchants. Beyond this, Christopher Mont, another evangelical ally, was translating German religious works in Thomas Cromwell's home.

Thomas Cromwell, Stephen Vaughan and Christopher Mont were playing with fire -- quite literally. Concurrently, Lord Chancellor Thomas More and John Stokesley, Bishop of London, were both chasing, arresting, and burning at the stake people guilty of Lutheran heresies. Thus, it can hardly be argued that Thomas Cromwell feigned religious piety to gain wealth and riches. The fact is clear that he risked his career and life repeatedly to practice his faith and bring it to others.

Even Thomas Cromwell's decisions to send clergy to Europe for teaching from evangelical theologians and introduction of a Bible in English while at the height of his power held inherent risks. In fact, Cromwell's staunch evangelical position contributed significantly to his ultimate downfall, him viewed as a huge impediment towards the goals of the conservative faction, most notably Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk and Stephen Gardiner, Bishop of Winchester.

Thomas Cromwell, Philanthropist and Advocate for the Poor

Obviously, Thomas Cromwell was the architect of the Henrican Reformation and driving force of the Dissolution of the Monasteries. During the course of four short years, every abbey, monastery, and priory – literally every religious house in England and Wales, no exception -- was dismantled; all nuns, monks, friars and priests displaced with small pensions; and all poor reliant on the religious houses for charity scrambling for food and emergency housing.

Queen Anne Boleyn
(Artist Unkown)
If we are to believe Queen Anne Boleyn who chastised Thomas Cromwell in 1535, the Vice-gerant's motivations were far from religious and lacked all charity. To her way of thinking, Cromwell's goals were to to fill the King's treasuries, reward and buy off allies and courtiers through the sale of property at bargain prices, and line his own pockets. Enraged, she famously threatened to have his head smitten off. Was Her Majesty's thinking fair and accurate? In short, no.

In the same year Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell “spiritedly debated” how monastery proceeds should be dispersed, Cromwell drafted legislation, the "Relief of the Poor Bill of 1535". Prepared after a year long investigation of the causes of poverty, Cromwell set about, albeit unsuccessfully, to seek a revolutionary solution to the challenges faced by the poor and downtrodden.

Cromwell's ideas included a highly elaborate plan of public works, erecting new buildings, repairing poorly maintained harbors, and dredging water ways throughout the kingdom in exchange for fair pay for work completed. The legistlation also proposed free medical care for abandoned or orphaned children, the disabled, elderly or chrocically ill. Of course, this all would be policed by officials to insure no abuse.

Now is this all sounding a bit familiar? Was Thomas Cromwell world history's first socialist? Did he influence the thinking of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt? Perhaps so, but indirectly of course.

Unfortunately, Cromwell's proposed Bill to benefit the realm's most vulnerable failed to pass Parliament. Had Cromwell's efforts succeeded, his legacy of charity and compassion for others would have been indisputable.

Even before Thomas Cromwell held power second only to King Henry VIII, he showed strong support for the common man. He had obvious reason. Cromwell was born and raised “base born” himself, the son of the Putney town drunk.

Thomas Cardinal Wolsey
(Sampson Strong)
George Cavendish teaches us in his biography of Thomas Cardinal Wolsey that Thomas Cromwell was greatly concerned for the plight of Wolsey's servants who were to abruptly lose there wages and board due to the Cardinal's startling fall. On the last day Cromwell spent in Wolsey's service, he indignantly shamed the clergy to pony up some of their lavish wealth to provide each servant a month's wages.

Cromwell dug into his purse and tossed five pounds in gold of his own money on the table, and chided, “Now let us see what you chaplains will do.” The men, embarrassed by Cromwell's assessment of their lack of charity, contributed substantial funds dispersed to those displaced by Wolsey's misfortune.

Thomas Cromwell throughout his lifetime contributed to a variety of worthy causes and was a strong patron of the arts, but most likely, the people most tragically impacted by his execution beyond his blood family and the six men, three evangelical and three Roman Catholic, executed in his wake, were the over 200 men, women and children a day that were fed through “doles” at his London home. They were abruptly left hungry and scrambling to find a meager meal.

Thomas Cromwell, Mediator


Queen Mary I
(Attributed to "Master John", 1544)
As first a lawyer and then the King's Secretary, Thomas Cromwell was often drawn in to mediate an endless variety of grievances, such as property ownership, fair compensation for purchases and services rendered, and marriage disputes. Even Elizabeth Howard, Duchess of Norfolk sought Cromwell's help in mediating issues between herself and her estranged husband, the powerful and ornery Thomas Howard. I can't imagine that he enjoyed the task.

The most critical and historically relevant mediation Thomas Cromwell successfully brokered, however, was the submission of the Lady Mary to her father's ultimate Supremacy and recognition that King Henry VIII's marriage to Catherine of Aragon was never valid. Though Mary Tudor was not of like mind given her staunch loyalty to her mother and the bullying she endured by those councilors and clergy sent by the King to force the issue, Cromwell's actions, in partnership with his ally in the cause Imperial Ambassador Eustace Chapuys, saved her life and eventually restored her to the succession that led to her ultimate Queenship.

Thomas Cromwell, Life of the Party

When I look at the famous portrait of Thomas Cromwell painted by Hans Holbein the Younger, I am struck by the seriousness and aloof nature Cromwell projects. It is a common perception, and with good reason given many historical accounts and popular historical fiction, that Cromwell was all-business, stern, aggressive, a henchman, a “work-a-holic” -- in short, a man “lurking in the shadows” and cruel to the extreme.

Thomas Cromwell
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
Even the contemporay and admittedly hostile source, Cardinal and later Archbishop of Canterbury Reginald Pole described Thomas Cromwell to be the “Emissary of Satan”. Was he?

I will leave that to the historians and history lovers to debate, but I will say this. Thomas Cromwell was affable, surprisingly fun-loving, exceptionally witty, and a man who enjoyed a great party. There was not a courtier, minister, foreign diplomat, queen or maid in King Henry's Court that didn't add Thomas Cromwell's lavish parties to their social calendars. In one perhaps apocryphal accounting, he is said to have paid 4000 pounds for an elaborate costume to entertain the King. Yes, Thomas Cromwell reportedly paraded around for His Majesty in costume – imagine that.

Thomas Cromwell's quick wit was legendary. It seems the man had an answer for everything. To prove the point, I will highlight his thoughts as a young Parliamentarian, words that not only illustrate his wit, but also prove that “the more things change, the more they stay the same”. In a 1523 letter to his friend John Creke, Cromwell writes:

“I among others have endured a parliament which continued by the space of seventeen whole weeks, where we commoned of war, peace, strife, contention, debate, murmur, grudge, riches, poverty, perjury, truth, falsehood, justice, equity, deceit, oppression, magnanimity, activity, force, attemprance, treason, murder, felony, conciliation, and also how a commonwealth might be edified and also contained within our realm. Howbeit, in conclusion we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do, that is to say as well as we might, and left where we began."

Touché! Britain's ultimate Parliamentarian, politician and lawyer has the last word. Case closed. Let the deliberations begin.
______________________________

SOURCES: 

Hutchinson, Robert, Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VIII's Most Notorious Minister, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007.

Loades, David, Thomas Cromwell, Servant to Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing, 2013.

Schofield, John, Thomas Cromwell, Henry VIII's Most Faithful Servant, The History Press, 2011. 

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Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of 


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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

From Witches to Riches - a Story of Immorality

by Anna Belfrage

Lägg till bildtext
Sometime around 1620, a boy was born in Suffolk, England, to a Puritan clergyman called John Hopkins. The little boy was named Matthew, had a number of older siblings and that’s about everything we know about this young man’s childhood. One must assume he had dreams of his future (even if his mother most definitely did not warble “Qué será,será” while smoothing his hair down) and there must have been days when he worried that future of his would be very short and stunted, what with the increasing tensions between King and Parliament.

Whatever the case, the first time Matthew Hopkins steps out of the sea of anonymity to properly greet us is in 1645, when he proudly introduces himself as a Witch-finder. A what? Yup, you heard the young man: he’s making a living finding witches.

To understand his choice of profession, one needs certain context: England at the time was in the throes of Civil War, Puritan factions instilled a rampaging fear of evil, and to further add spice to this particular soup, it wasn’t all that long ago since the previous king, James VI of Scotland and I of England, had presided over the infamous Berwick Witch Trials, emphatically stating that witches did exist and had to be fought with all possible means. This most learned (but also rather foolish) king even wrote a book about witches , a text young Matthew seems to have studied quite avidly.

Witches have been around for a long time. For primitive man, so much of what surrounded him was difficult to interpret as anything but magic, and it follows that if there is magic there are people who can use magic. Even to this day, a surprisingly large percentage of the world’s population remains convinced that witches and wizards exist, and the savvy person makes sure never to tread on said witches’ toes.

From a Christian perspective, witches did not exist – at least not initially. The early fathers of the Church may have been derogatory of women in general, blaming them for everything from excessive carnal desires to a weak intellect and a propensity to sin, but they rarely said anything about witches. In fact, the Church held it heretical to claim someone was a witch, as to do so was to give credence to Satan’s lies.

But things happened as they say, and on one hand the Church was fighting a battle against ancient superstitions that insisted witches existed, on the other the Holy Catholic Church was being beset by heretics. And somewhere along the line, someone was smart enough to combine the accusations of heresy with those of unnatural magic – take the downfall of the Knight Templars, for example.

The Inquisition, ever eager for more victims to sink its teeth into, started mumbling and grumbling about witches – and especially about the heretical aspects of witches, as these old crones per definition worshiped Satan. A couple of fanatic monks latched on, a malleable pope sighed and went with the flow, and by the close of the 15th century, the Holy Church had concluded that witches did exist – and had to be rooted out. A papal bull confirmed this was so, a detailed handbook in how to identify the evil creatures (Malleus Maleficarum or The Witch Hammer - the Latin is in feminine, presupposing witches are mostly female) had conveniently been written in 1487, and armed with both these documents the representatives of good set out to do away with evil. Hmm. Major hmm, as these supposedly evil people were often women who deviated somewhat from the norm or who earned their living as healers and midwives.

Over the coming two centuries, somewhere around 45 000 to 65 000 people were to be executed as witches – mostly based on their own confessions, extracted from them via torture. Many of these poor souls were burned alive, but in most cases they were hanged, or beheaded, or garrotted, or strangled, before they were burnt. I suppose we must consider this a mercy. In the cases where they were burnt, it was often the sin of heresy that had them being tied alive to the stake. The Holy Church deemed heresy a far graver sin than that of dabbling in magic.

In difference to most of Europe, England had an established judicial process that required there to be proof before anyone was found guilty of anything (I know: such a novel concept!). This in turn means that England has a relatively low number of convicted witches – estimates land around 500 people, all in all. Of these, 300 can be attributed to Matthew Hopkins, who obviously took to the role as Witch-finder as fish take to water.

Back to 1645 and Hopkins’ grand debut – and it was quite the coup, as young Matthew managed to have close to thirty people convicted and executed as witches in one fell swoop. I guess he did some high-fives while pocketing the sizeable amount of money he was paid for his services – and herein lies the key to our Matthew’s dark, corroded soul: he was greedy, and he had found a way to make very easy money!

In March of 1645, Hopkins went after one Elizabeth Clarke. A perfect victim, seeing as this lady’s mother had been hanged as a witch. At his insistence, Elizabeth was thrown into prison, and his subsequent interrogation had her confessing to everything – and naming five other women as witches.

So what did he do to this poor woman, to have her condemning herself to death by her own confession? Hopkins was a subtle man – and more than aware that torture was forbidden in England. Of course, “torture” is relative, and throwing someone naked into a dark cold room, beating them and leaving them without food or light could be considered torture. As would another of Hopkins’ favourite methods, namely sleep deprivation. The poor prisoner was constantly watched, and whenever they seemed about to nod off, they were hauled to their feet and made to walk until they were properly awake.

If this failed, Hopkins advocated tying people in a cross-legged position for well over twenty-four hours, after which he would have them walked up and down in their cells until their bare feet blistered and bled. Nice guy, huh? And then we have the humiliating process of “pricking” which involved shaving the poor victim of all their body hair and then repeatedly sinking a needle or other sharp object into the victim. Should Matthew hit upon a point that didn’t bleed – well, obviously the naked, terrified woman being inspected was a witch. How convenient if one should use a pricking implement where the blade could be retracted into the handle, thereby ensuring there was no blood.

Poor Elizabeth caved in. So did most of the other women apprehended, and at the subsequent trial in Chelmsford in July of 1645, thirty-two people were accused of being witches. Twenty-nine were condemned to hang, and for every witch found guilty, Hopkins pocketed twenty shillings – a huge amount of money when considering a labourer earned at most half a shilling a day.

With Chelmford, Hopkins reputation was made. While he was never appointed by Parliament – and in fact there were quite a number of people in various positions of power that objected to Hopkins – he proclaimed himself Witch-finder General and went on to make the lives of the unfortunate women living in East Anglia even more uncertain than they already were.

Not one to rest on his laurels, Hopkins leapt onwards and upwards, and at the following trials in Bury St Edmunds in August of 1645, he noted with glee that 18 people were hanged on the same day based on his testimony. Two were men. One of these men was close to seventy, a minister named John Lowes. After several nights of sleep deprivation, coupled with being chased back and forth in his cell until he collapsed only to be pulled back to his feet and be subjected to it all again, Mr Lowes broke down and confessed that yes, he was a witch that had even caused a ship to sink off Harwich. No one bothered to check if a ship had in fact sunk…

Hopkins was now unstoppable. Hundreds of women – and a handful of men – were arrested and subjected to his patented forms of interrogation. If everything else failed, Hopkins recommended the “swimming” test, whereby the person was tied up and thrown into the water. If the person floated they were guilty. If they sank, they were not. Most people float – at least initially – when thrown in water. And once they start sinking, chances are they’re already more dead than alive… Hopkins, however, hedged his bets, and had ropes attached to the victim’s waist – to save them if they sank, he said, but just as likely his accomplices knew to use the rope to make sure the person “floated”.

Throughout 1646, Matthew Hopkins hauled one person after another to the gallows. At times, he was fortunate enough to see up to twenty people hang simultaneously, at others he had to content himself with only the single dead woman.

Obviously, Hopkins had a giant streak of sadism in him. Plus he rather liked the wealth he was amassing. And when people started questioning his methods he was very affronted, which was why he published a little pamphlet called Discovery of Witches in 1647, describing what he did and why. Some were less than impressed, and as the outraged voices of reason began to gain the upper hand, Matthew Hopkins found it wise to slip back into the obscurity from whence he came.

It is believed Hopkins died in 1647. Church records support that assumption. Some people hope that the legend by which he met his death at an angry mob who submitted him to his swimming test is true. Sadly, I am more prone to believe the version whereby he died in his bed of consumption, having coughed his lungs to pieces over several consecutive months. Whatever the case, I don’t think he was much missed.

In Revenge and Retribution, my main character, Alex Graham, faces accusations of being a witch. No wonder she is more than unnerved when she hears this. Just the thought of being subjected to one more humiliating inspection after the other – plus the fear that she might be found guilty – must have led to an endless number of sleepless nights!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Anna Belfrage is the successful author of six published books, all of them part of The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, The Graham Saga is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him

Anna's books are available on Amazon US,  Amazon UK, or wherever else good books are sold.

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website! If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog or on FB




Monday, August 25, 2014

The Horseracing Craze

by Sue Millard

Was there ever a time when men didn’t want to compete against each other to see who’d got the biggest, the fastest, whatever? As soon as men had enough horses to spare from necessary work and transport, they surely must have tested their speed against each other.

We may not know when horseracing itself began, but horses were first domesticated in Kazakhstan about 6,000 years ago http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-17943974 so to my mind, if men had domesticated horses then, that’s probably how old horseracing is!

Britain


Horses were definitely in use here before Julius Caesar arrived – he commented on the British charioteers’ nimbleness and daring in battle – but it seems it was those pesky Romans who commercialized the idea of racing in Britain. They built at least one circus or hippodrome where chariot races could take place. The one excavated in Essex in 2011 is the first ever discovered in Britain. http://www.culture24.org.uk/history-and-heritage/time/roman/art25464

Vikings


There are still placenames that describe racecourses – “Hesket” refers back to Norse hesta-skaeth, the place where the stallions (hesta) run. It may only have been a smooth stretch of land where horses were shown off to potential buyers (what the gipsy boys at Appleby Fair would call “the flashing lane”!) but it’s unlikely such a tempting bit of grassland wouldn’t also be used as an impromptu racecourse.

Smithfield


In the middle ages the broad grassy space known as Smooth Field was just outside London Wall. William Fitzstephen described in 1171 how “every Friday there is a celebrated rendezvous of fine horses to be sold” and he listed all the different kinds he saw, but he didn’t mention any kind of horse purely for racing. Does that suggest no races were taking place? Perhaps it only means racing was impromptu, not regulated or organised.

Organised races


“Scratch” or informal races must have been common wherever men with horses got together. Trotting races and galloping races took place without any advertisement or race card in areas such as the Lake District until the middle of the 19th century. The first records of organised races, however, seem to date from the mid-16th century.

The first recorded race at Chester on the Roodee was held on 9 February 1539, in the reign of Henry VIII. There was an annual race on Shrove Tuesday – the Tuesday before the start of Lent, after which such frivolity would have been frowned upon until Easter – and from 1609 the race was held on St George's Day (23 April). The Chester Goldsmith Company supplied a silver bell and in 1744 a gold cup was awarded annually by the Grosvenor family. In keeping with the tradition of ancient races, the Gold Cup is still one for stayers, being run over 2 miles 2 ½ furlongs.

Carlisle is the home of the Carlisle Bell, one of the oldest horse races still in existence. There are two bells. The larger one, 2 ½ inches in diameter, was donated by Lady Dacre in 1559 and bears the inscription: The sweftes horse thes bel to tak for mi lade Daker sake (The swiftest horse this bell to take for my lady Dacre's sake) and the second, smaller bell is inscribed 1599 H.B.M.C. This race, however, is much shorter in modern times, being only a distance of 1 mile.

Newmarket


King James I

Newmarket already had a small reputation for horse racing when James I established himself there in 1605. The King took a lease on The Griffin inn for £100 a year. Then, in 1608, he decided to buy it for the sum of £400. Clearly he was very keen to have somewhere to hold court when he went racing! In 1609 he bought land in the High Street. http://www.newmarketracecourses.co.uk/about-the-home-of-racing/newmarket-history/james-i-discovers-newmarket/

King Charles II

Peter Tillemans - The Round Course at Newmarket,
Cambridgeshire, Preparing for the King's Plate
Google Art Project.
Charles II was also a keen horseracing fan, and was probably a very good horseman since he rode his own horses and won with them (I wonder whether anyone ever dared to beat him?) He set up the Newmarket Plate in 1665: “in the 17th year of the Reign of King Charles the Second, which Plate is to be rode for yearly the second Thursday in October, for ever, Anno Dom. 1666.” Charles won the Plate on two occasions, 1671 and 1675 when “Blew Capp” was the horse he rode. The distance was, and is, 3 miles 6 furlongs.

Royal Ascot


Queen Anne

Queen Anne, who loved horses, riding and hunting, raced her own horses at Newmarket and elsewhere. In 1711 she realised that Ascot Heath, where the royal hounds were kennelled, was an ideal location for a racecourse. The Queen and her courtiers attended the opening day, a Saturday in August, which began with a race for a purse of 50 guineas. Seven horses took part.

The Ascot Gold Cup goes back to 1807 when the race was watched by George III and Queen Charlotte.  Again, this is a race for “stayers” being run over 2 miles and a half.

It was George IV in 1825 who began the carriage procession up the course and made Royal Ascot a key event of the aristocratic social season.   http://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/royal-ascot%E2%80%99s-first-day

Racing and Times of Year


Horseracing “on the flat” has retained much of the aristocratic glamour that has surrounded it in history. Partly this is because it traditionally takes place in summer, when good weather makes it easy for people to dress up without fear of being drenched.

“Jump” racing on the other hand, under National Hunt Rules, takes place from autumn to late spring, with the less formal Point-to-Point racing from December to June. More about these in another post!

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Sue Millard is the author of “Coachman”, a historical novel set in 1838, and a modern novel about steeplechasing, “Against the Odds”, to which she is currently writing a sequel.
Sue Millard, Jackdaw E Books

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Giveaway: Darling of Kings by P.J. Womack

P.J. Womack is giving away a signed print copy of Darling of Kings within the UK. You can read about the book HERE. Please comment below and leave contact information to enter the drawing.

Venison Pie and Honey Cakes

by Octavia Randolph

Run before you become a pie!
Woodcut from Tubervile’s Boke (sic) of Hunting, 1576

Writing about food and cooking and eating in my novels has always been a pleasure, one I hope it has been to read as well. Eating in Britain in the late ninth century, the age of The Circle of Ceridwen Saga, was circumscribed by at least two factors: The limited ability to preserve any foodstuffs for long, and the comparatively narrow range of edibles available to our ninth century forefathers and foremothers. Think about it: not only were there no out-of season tomatoes; there were no tomatoes at all, as these New World natives had to wait until the Conquistadors of the early 16th century carried them back to Europe from the mountain foothills of South America. The same goes with that later European staple, the potato, brought back to Europe from the Incan empire in the later 16th century. Ditto maize, the American corn. Rice, native to Asia and parts of Africa, was also largely unknown in Europe until its use and cultivation spread from Sicily northward beginning in the 15th century. (The third factor, that of economics, we will address below.)

Yet even without such common foodstuffs as tomatoes, potatoes, and rice there was a perhaps surprising variety in the staples that were eaten. The growing of grain was vitally important, for grains were used not only in the baking of bread (which the poor oftentimes subsisted on) but served as the thickening base for nearly every kind of stew-like browis, pottage, or frumenty. Bread even gives us the words for “Lady” and “Lord”, for the Old English hlæfdige, ‘kneader of bread’, became Lady, and hlafward, ‘keeper of the bread’, became Lord.

And grains such as wheat, barley, rye, and oats were the basis for the brewing of ale. (Brewing used malted grains; grains such as barley which had been air dried, sprouted, then oven-dried.) Wheaten bread graced the tables of the high-born; coarser loaves of oat, barley, and rye (oftentimes adulterated with less-palatable seeds and even ground tree bark) fed the poor. We need to recall that 9th century ears of grain were far smaller than their modern counterparts which have been bred over many generations for large, plump, full heads.

Similarly, some domestic animals were smaller than those today. Many breeds of chickens were the size of today’s bantam fowl, their eggs correspondingly smaller. Yet certain wild animals were larger. Solitary and very ill-tempered wild bulls roamed the hills beyond London as late as the 12th century. Wild boars were fierce, tough, and savvy fighters, claiming many a dog and huntsman with their sharp tusks.

Most diets were by necessity plant-based, and for the majority of folk meat was used sparingly as a flavouring agent. The slaughtering and roasting of a fatted calf or even an entire oxen which I depict in celebratory feasts were rare occasions even for the rich. Most meat was boiled or fried to capture every drop of precious fat and flavour; and roasting large animals consumed huge amounts of firewood. This is why the common morning and evening meal was browis, a combination of oats or barley with some meat broth, a kind of hearty porridge. This could be enlivened with the common vegetables of the day: shredded or cubed turnips, parsnips, radishes, beets, carrots and its relation, the little known today skirrets, onions, cabbage, and peas.

Skirrets, from the Restoration Seeds catalogue

Greens such as lamb’s lettuce, docks, parsley, purslane, bugloss, mallows, mints, and leeks were grown, gathered, and enjoyed in season, as were tonic Spring teas such as that made from the young leaves of the birch tree. Tansy leaves were ground in a mortar and pestle and stirred into beaten eggs and cooked like a frittata or omelette (just add Ham for a breakfast suitable for Dr. Seuss). Beans, chick-peas, and lentils were also grown during the period.

Butter, when available, was stirred into the browis to enrich it, and bread-and-butter is an ages-old enjoyment. Milk spoils quickly and went almost at once into butter or soft cheeses. Ewes’ milk was commonly used for milk and to make both butter and cheese. The use of rennet (derived from the vell, or salted stomach lining, of calves) was understood, and that invaluable commodity salt was also used to cure and preserve cheese, as well as added to butter to increase its keeping qualities.

Ceramic floor tile from Westminster Abbey depicting fish,
a sustaining food source for the resident monks

Regarding fish and shellfish, the many fast days of the early Church meant that even those who could afford meat often ate fish. (Lent was particularly challenging, as not even eggs could be eaten, and at a time of year when egg-laying was on the rise, and folk were hungry for any source of protein.) Certain types of fish which were wildly popular then have fallen out of favour – lampreys, and the river eel, for example. Baby eels were so relished that taxes and rent were paid in them. Fish were captured through the use of weirs (underwater traps consisting of stakes and netting), nets cast from boats, line fishing, and simply dipping a hooped fishing net into likely waters.

Successful line fishing, from the Boke (sic)
of St Albans. Equipment and technique could
not have changed much between the
9th and the 15th century.

All manner of things were collected or dug at low tide: winkles, whelks, sea snails, oysters (and Anglo-Saxon England was a rich source of pearls), mussels, clams, crayfish, crab. And the occasional leviathan washed ashore as well.

A stranded whale became the property of the king,
especially the tongue, considered a delicacy.

Fresh meat needed to be consumed quickly, and was most abundant during the slaughter month of Blodmonath,”blood-month”, November, when livestock not strong or fit enough to be kept over Winter on limited fodder was killed and consumed in an orgy of feasting, the surplus being laid up for the lean months ahead. Meats were smoked, dried, salted, or laid up in brine (highly salted water). Farm animals were typically lean, and fat was highly prized. Sheep, cattle, goats, pigs, deer, and wild birds were all consumed by those who had the means to indulge; but almost every family kept a few hen-fowl and a pig, that invaluable garbage-disposal which assured that nothing at all went to waste. Bacon was as cherished then as it is now. Anglo-Saxons enjoyed the right to hunt upon their own lands; it was not until the advent of the Normans following the disaster of 1066 that all forest game became the property of the King and his henchmen. Poachers were regularly blinded or had their hands cut off in punishment. But let us turn our attention to something more pleasant: Sweets.

Natural sweeteners were few and far between. Fruits, fresh or dried, provided longed-for sweetness in earlier centuries, as did the naturally sweet vegetables parsnips, carrots, and skirrets. (But do remember that both parsnips and carrots have been bred to be as sweet as they are now.) Sugar from cane, grown originally in the tropical climes of Southeast Asia, would not spread to Britain until the 17th century slave plantations of the Caribbean produced cane in abundance; prior to this it was a luxury item on elite Elizabethan tables, consumed in lump form. Honey, beloved by all, was a treat, and in many parts a valuable trade commodity. Beeswax was just as valued for the naturally scented and clean-burning tapers that could be made from it, far superior to the ill-smelling and smoky tallow candles, made from animal fat, that the less-well-off used. (The truly poor had neither, and either sat in darkness – surely encouraging an ‘early to bed’ ethos – or used rush torches.) Honey was also the source of the potent and delicious alcoholic drink mead, made using the “washed” honey comb. Honey’s preservative qualities were understood, and it was used, where available, to slather upon meat to keep it fresh longer, just as it was slathered on burns to soothe them. Honey has a natural antiseptic property which could not have been understood but was none the less known.

Bees heading out of their skeps, made by
plaiting and sewing together straw coils.

Citrus, indispensable to us today, was unknown to our Anglo-Saxon forebears, but other fruit happily abounded: apples, pears, quinces, medlars, cherries, stone fruits like plums, all kinds of grapes and berries. Nutmeats such as walnuts and chestnuts were grown and gathered, and provided a health-some and hearty source of vegetable fat and protein.

Spices were fabulously valuable; the early 8th century English cleric the Venerable Bede died owning a small store of black pepper corns, which he carefully left to the grateful brother-monk recipients in his will. (Look kindly on that pepper mill when next you enter your own kitchen…it holds what was once a fortune!) Nearly all spices were held to have medicinal as well as culinary uses, increasingly their usefulness and value.

And now, two recipes which have graced the tables in The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. Don’t worry, I’ve eaten them myself.

Venison Pie with Juniper Berries 
The very same pie that Gunnvor the cook bakes up for Ceridwen 

Oven to 350 F/ 180C/ Gas mark 4

Your favourite pie crust for a two crust pie
12 oz (340 grams, or about 2 cups) cooked ground venison, chicken, turkey, or beef, well drained; (or seasoned tofu crumbles, which is what I use, being vegetarian)
¾ cup sliced carrots
1 Tbsp raisins, chopped
3 juniper berries, crushed slightly in a mortar and pestle
Small sprig each of fresh rosemary and thyme, stems removed
A grinding of black pepper (if you are rich)
1 egg, beaten into ½ cup of ale (or apple juice, or meat broth)

Roll out your pie dough and divide in half. Line a 9” pie plate with one crust, or use two 5” diameter oven-proof ramekins. In a medium size bowl combine the crumbled protein, carrots, raisins, juniper berries, herbs, and pepper. Pour the ale into a small bowl and beat the egg into it with a whisk. Add to protein/vegetable mixture and blend. Spoon into pie pan or ramekins, and top with top crust. Bake in bottom third of oven for 35 minutes or until crust is light golden brown. Delicious warm or at room temperature. Serves four hearty appetites.

Honey Cakes  
Very easy to make, and addictive. Luckily Tindr is always glad to share his honey with friends.

Oven to 350 F/ 180C/ Gas mark 4

Sift together 2 cups flour, 1 teaspoon salt, and 3 teaspoons baking powder. Dribble 5 tablespoons of honey over this, then drop in 4 tablespoons of sweet butter, cut into small pieces. Toss so that the honey is covered by the flour mixture, then using your fingertips, rub the honey-butter into the flour so it is crumbly. (It will not be sticky – yet). Beat 2 eggs into ½ cup cream, and add to bowl; stir. (It will be sticky now.) Turn out onto generously floured board, sprinkle with more flour, and pat to about ½” – ¾” thickness. Using a drinking glass, cut into rounds, and lay on parchment-paper lined baking sheet. Bake for 12-15 minutes, until light golden brown and firm. Enjoy with butter, jam, or more honey. Makes 7 to 9, depending on your drinking glass.


Wish to dig deeper in the food lore of earlier times? Food and Drink in Britain from the Stone Age to the 19th Century by C. Anne Wilson is a highly readable book you are certain to enjoy.

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Octavia Randolph is the author of the Best Selling four volume The Circle of Ceridwen Saga. She is happy to announce the publication of her novella about Lady Godiva, Ride, available now and Free to Kindle Unlimited Members.

Circle of Ceridwen
Ride