Saturday, May 23, 2015

Smuggling Made Easy in the 1760s

by Allen Woods

As I worked through the initial research and plot ideas for The Sword and Scabbard: Thieves and Thugs and the Bloody Massacre in Boston, I was stunned at how common and easy it was to smuggle goods into the Colonies before the Revolutionary War. Some of the great American fortunes (including that of John Hancock) were founded on the profits from smuggled goods. Later, Customs disputes offered sparks that were fanned into blazing conflicts during the Stamp Act riots, the Bloody Massacre (the name happily used by Samuel Adams and the Sons of Liberty), and eventually the Revolutionary War itself.

How could a lower-level property crime like smuggling grow into a conflict that became a turning point in world history? My research essentially reinforced a suspicion I have held for decades. Although the technologies, fashions, and culture continue to change so quickly that many of us can't keep up, human nature–in its criminal and bureaucratic aspects–maintains a consistent thread throughout our societies. I found two basic reasons that smuggling played such a central role in colonial history: government officials susceptible to bribes and misguided government strategy in addressing the problem.

Bribing Officials was Business as Usual

John Hancock was just one of the American merchants whose fortune was partially a result of smuggling.

As the colonies became a market for English and international goods through the early 1700s, the English government looked to control imports and make a profit from them. Because they were still such a distance from the mother country and an unsavory place to live for most of the lords that might be appointed to a post, they turned to those already in residence there. Many were friends of the colonial merchant class and were unwilling to enforce duties on molasses and other imported goods.

One of the most notorious was Benjamin Barons, who actually led Boston merchants in opposition to Customs officials in several court actions. It was common knowledge that in Boston (and probably throughout the colonies) that an unwritten agreement allowed merchants to declare one-third of their goods and pay the import duty for that portion while Barons looked the other way.

After a full board of Custom Commissioners arrived in Boston in 1767 to try to fully enforce the laws, firebrand Captain Malcom boldly offered to file his manifest and willingly pay duty using the "customary indulgences." When the Commissioners indignantly refused, he came back a few days later announcing that he had arrived with an empty ship and that Customs was free to search it, since he had offloaded the cargo at a site unknown to Customs.

Although there are no records of it, it is hard to believe that Barons took these illegal actions without some type of payments from the merchants who were his friends and turned a handsome profit from this international trade. Bribing government officials was business as usual throughout the colonies at the time, and almost certainly in England and Europe as well. It is a criminal practice that continues today in ports and entries around the world and allows the flow of everything from illegal drugs to immigrants and slaves to counterfeit goods.

New Rules Promote Competition among Officials, Not Better Enforcement

After the French and Indian War in the colonies ended in 1763, British officials noted how much money they had spent defending the colonies and how little they got back in import duties. Customs revenues were only a fraction of the actual trade and barely enough to pay the salaries of the appointed officials, let alone offset military costs from the war. Prime Minister George Grenville moved to enforce colonial Customs law by sending Royal Navy ships to patrol coastal waters and giving them the power to seize and sell ships involved in smuggling.

Unfortunately, this move promoted competition between the Navy and Customs officials. Instead of watching for smugglers, the two groups spent much of their energy watching their bureaucratic rivals. (Today, there are multiple stories in the U.S. and around the world where competition among law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and local officials, prevents efficient law enforcement.)

The heart of the dispute, as is so often the case, was money. Customs officials themselves could make a huge profit if they seized a ship and sold it and its illegal cargo. The Commissioner responsible would personally get one third of the proceeds, hundreds of pounds from a single ship, about as much as their yearly salary. Grenville made this the reward for naval captains as well, whose compensation was small enough to motivate them to seek the "prize money" offered for successful battles during a war or seizure of illegal ships and merchandise during peace.

The unfortunate result was that the two groups didn't pool their resources. Customs officials in the colonies had no ships or troops to seize ships outside of a harbor, while naval captains had no access to the network of Customs informers that could have pointed them at likely targets. In some cases, a dispute over which group had rights to a seized ship landed in court. The end result was that the new rules designed to enforce Customs duties after 1763 probably hindered Royal efforts as much as it enhanced them. The Navy kept an eye on Customs agents and Customs agents kept an eye on the Navy–and neither kept a closer watch on American smugglers.

Smuggling: An American Tradition

By the time John Hancock publicly declared he wouldn't pay the new Customs duties on his ships in 1768 and arranged for Customs officials to be held while a ship filled with Madeira wine was illegally unloaded in Boston Harbor, he was simply following an American tradition that had been established over several decades of trade in the colonies. It was a tradition that was supported by British actions during the period, sometimes intentionally but more often inadvertently. When a British ship of the line seized Hancock's Liberty, the colonists responded with direct attacks on some Customs officials and their property. The occupation of Boston by British troops followed soon afterward, setting the stage for the Boston Massacre and the string of events that ultimately led to the Revolutionary War. It was this economic struggle over taxes in the form of import duties that resulted in the War of Independence and the call for freedom in the colonies.


Allen Woods has been a full-time freelance writer and editor for almost 30 years, writing everything from magazine and newspaper features to sales training for corporate clients. Recently he has specialized in social studies and reading textbooks for all ages. The spark for The Sword and Scabbard came while doing research for an American history text. He lives 100 miles from the site of the Boston Massacre and plans a series which will follow Nicholas and Maggie through the Tea Party, Lexington and Concord, the Revolutionary War, and beyond.


Friday, May 22, 2015

Ernst – Greatness from Limited Expectations

by Greg Taylor, Finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction

Like Alfred Vanderbilt, Ernst August was not the oldest son and therefore had no expectation to inherit his father’s fortune. Both Alfred and Ernst were, in fact, the third son of their parents. Both of them were also great lovers of horses. Alfred tried to revive the dwindling art of coaching and Ernst became an officer in the 1st Royal Bavarian Heavy Cavalry Regiment.

Ernst had chosen the 1st Royal Bavarian Regiment because it had tried to ride to the assistance of his grandfather, the last reigning King of Hanover, during the battle of Bad Langensalza. Ernst’s grandfather’s army won the battle but afterwards failed to meet up with the Bavarian allies. The Hanoverians were overcome by superior Prussian forces, and Prussia annexed Hanover under the careful guidance of Otto von Bismarck.

Otto von Bismarck

In 1714, George Louis of the House of Hanover ascended the throne of Great Britain as George I, and thereafter Hanover and Great Britain shared a single monarch. The Congress of Vienna of 1814 elevated Hanover to an independent kingdom and its Prince-Elector, George III of Great Britain, to King of Hanover. The new Kingdom of Hanover was the fourth-largest state in the German Confederation after Prussia, Austria and Bavaria.

Queen Victoria
When Queen Victoria succeeded to the British throne in 1837, Salic law prevented accession to the Hanoverian throne by a female while any male of the dynasty survived so Victoria’s Uncle Ernest Augustus, the eldest surviving son of George III, succeeded to the throne.

During the Austro-Prussian War, the Kingdom of Hanover attempted to maintain a neutral position but after Hanover mobilized in June 1866, Prussia invaded and soon the immense wealth of the House of Hanover was being used by Bismarck to finance his military adventures.

Herrenhausen Summer Palace

Franz Josef, Emperor of Austria and latterly King of Hungary, permitted three generations of the deposed Guelph family to live in comfortable exile in Gmunden. Ernst had an older brother, Crown Prince Georg, who was in line to inherit not only the deposed throne of Hanover but English titles as well including the Duke of Cumberland.

Ernst was skeptical that Hanover would be restored to his father or his older brother despite their royal relatives entreaties to the Kaiser. Ernst and his brother were, after all, first cousins to George V of Great Britain, Nicholas II of Russia, Christian X of Denmark, Haakon VII of Norway and Constantine I of Greece.

In Lusitania R.E.X, Ernst sees the potential behind the rocket theories of Russian scientist Konstantin Tsiolkovsky when they are published in 1911. When he meets Alfred Vanderbilt at the regatta at Cowes and realises that Alfred shares his interest in Tsiolkovsky’s theories, he decides he should learn a bit more about Alfred Vanderbilt.

Ernst and Sissy
Ernst struggles with how he can harness Tsiolkovsky’s ideas about reaction explusion to restore his family’s lost throne and fortune. Ernst is an attractive, young man of twenty-four, possessed of the easy, confident manner of a young man aware of his own strength, youth and sexuality. Years in the saddle had given him strong, muscled legs and on his arrival to thank the Kaiser for honouring his dead older brother, Ernst immediately catches the attention of the Kaiser’s daughter. Their romance and remarkable imperial wedding in 1913 were described in a blog posted earlier this month that is a profile of Wally, a school friend of Princess Viktoria Louise who attended the imperial wedding in 1913.

When older brother Georg tragically died in an automobile accident, it fell upon Ernst to look after the family interests. In Lusitania R.E.X, Ernst does this by marrying the Kaiser’s daughter and pursuing the rocket technology of Tsiolkovsky. It is his pursuit of Tsiolkovsky’s theories that ultimately leads him into conflict with Alfred Vanderbilt, who is working with his comrades from the secret Yale society Skull and Bones to develop a prototype rocket.


Greg Taylor's passion for research has led him to develop first-hand relationships with the descendants of some of the characters in the book, including the Duke of Marlborough and Alfred G Vanderbilt III. He was drawn to the tale of Lusitania because he was fascinated by the cataclysm of elegant Edwardian society caused by the brutal warfare the industrial success of that society made possible. His passion for research and discovery has taken him to the numerous historical sites that appear in the book. Undergraduate studies in history at Williams College in Massachusetts and the University of Durham, England, are reflected in the book. Greg attended the School of Management at Yale University where he lived one block from The Tomb of Skull and Bones. London has been Greg's home since 2000 and he has divided his investment banking and asset management career between New York and London.



James III and the Second Battle of Bannockburn

by Louise Turner

James III of Scotland
Everyone knows the Battle of Bannockburn, fought in 1314 between the Scots and the English. The Second Battle of Bannockburn isn’t so well known – it was renamed, in fact, in 1655, perhaps to avoid confusion with its more celebrated predecessor. Known today as ‘The Battle of Sauchieburn,’ it was fought in more or less the same location as its more illustrious predecessor. But that’s where the similarity ends. The Second Battle of Bannockburn took place on the 11th June, 1488, and it was fought not between the Scots and their Auld Enemy England, but by two Scots armies fighting - on the one side - for the reigning King James III and on the other for his son and heir Prince James, Duke of Rothesay.

The details of the battle are unclear, though it seems to have been as much a series of small-scale skirmishes as an organised engagement, but its consequences were grave nonetheless. By its end the reigning King of Scots was dead and his army routed, leaving his son to succeed to the throne unchallenged.

The Battle of Sauchieburn tends to be overlooked, perhaps on account of the qualities of the young man who gained most from it. Prince James, Duke of Rothesay went on to become one of Scotland’s finest medieval kings: James IV. Though he’s often remembered as much for his untimely and unfortunate demise at Flodden (along with around 10,000 of his men), the positive impact James had upon his nation cannot be underestimated. He promoted Renaissance flair throughout his kingdom: a keen patron of the arts and sciences, he was a cultured and intelligent prince who longed to dazzle on a European stage, and to a certain extent he succeeded, with buildings like Linlithgow Palace rivaling contemporary equivalents across Europe.

But there’s no escaping it. The beginning of James IV’s reign was at best murky, at worst extremely suspect. Though to be fair, the death of James III wasn’t exactly his doing – it was more happy accident than carefully-engineered assassination. In its aftermath, the new regime took great pains to distance themselves from the killing. James IV himself made prominent acts of atonement: throughout the rest of his life, he publicly sported an iron chain around his waist as an acknowledgement for the part he played, and his coronation procession was led by a man carrying St Fillan’s bell, a holy relic reputed to cure mental affliction. James’s coronation, incidentally, took place on an auspicious day - the anniversary of Bannockburn #1.

Rather than reflecting genuine remorse, the regime’s collective contrition was probably undertaken more to reassure the wider circle of European monarchs, for whom regicide would never have gone down well. It also helped to mollify James III’s supporters, who still posed a very real threat to the fledgling regime a year or so later. Alongside these expressions of regret came justification, if not for James III’s death, then for the rebellion against his rule. James IV’s government were quick to accuse James Senior of ‘dissaitful and perverst counsale on the one hand, and ‘the inbringing of Inglsmen to the perpetuale subiccieone of the realm’ on the other (MacDougall, 2009, 335). Fingers were also pointed at those who’d assisted in the provision of this ‘dissaitful and perverst council’ in the last few years of James III’s life. Chief offenders were the former Lord Advocate, John Ross of Montgrennan and one of his closest familiars, Sir John Ramsay, Earl of Bothwell. Tellingly, both men fled to England when the battle turned in the rebels’ favour, where they were welcomed at the court of Henry VII. There they seem to have busied themselves in the task of actively supporting a fifth column against James IV’s rule: unrest continued during the early years of James IV’s reign , though with the return of Montgrennan and his subsequent appointment to the Privy Council a year or so later the dust finally settled on what had been an inauspicious period in James’s kingship.

James III’s death at Sauchieburn followed six disastrous years throughout which his authority was progressively eroded. The rot started in 1482, at an incident in Lauder. This has earned historical notoriety, not for James’s role in it, but for the actions of Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, who was much later dubbed ‘Bell the Cat’ for the leading part he allegedly played in it. James had mustered the host at Lauder to counter a very real threat from south of the border, but instead suffered a rebellion amongst his nobles and then saw a number of his closest advisers hanged. The same John Ramsay of Bothwell who later fled the country after Sauchieburn was also present here: aged just eighteen at the time, he supposedly escaped death by clinging tightly to the king, who begged fervently for the young man’s life to be spared.

The debacle at Lauder conveys the impression of an ineffective monarch railroaded by his nobility, but - as MacDougall meticulously points out - James’s reign prior to this point could hardly be classed as an unmitigated disaster (MacDougall 2009). To begin with, he’d proved himself both a competent and a decisive ruler. Not bad going considering the unfortunate circumstances which led to his inheritance: he had the misfortune to come to the throne as a minor aged 8 years of age, succeeding when his father James II lost his life at the Siege of Roxburgh, killed by an exploding bombard.

Once he reached his perfect age, he showed much promise. He regained Berwick from the English, while, closer to home, he managed to squash the ambitions of the powerful Boyd family, which had been challenging his authority in much the same way as the Black Douglases had his father’s almost two decades previously. He also acquired Orkney and Shetland through his marriage to Margaret of Denmark, bringing territorial expansion to Scotland which had been hitherto undreamed of.

By the 1480s, these early successes had been forgotten, eclipsed by a number of perceived shortcomings that were not limited to deceitful and perverse council and the inbringing of Englishmen.

James is often remembered as a keen patron of the arts and arguably Scotland’s first Renaissance king: amongst the favourites who died at Lauder were an architect named Thomas Cochrane (who’d recently been appointed Earl of Mar) and also the court tailor. This suggests that the nobility who turned on James that day were a bunch of brutal thugs who were pathologically opposed to Renaissance culture and thinking, but if this is the case, why did many of the same men wholeheartedly embrace these same principles during the succeeding reigns of James IV and V? It’s true that James IV was exceptionally charismatic, but this whole argument can be overplayed.

Instead, James III’s unpopularity was rooted far more deeply. His failures had nothing to do with culture, and everything to do with politics and economics. Thomas Cochrane may have been an architect, but his main crime was to have been born from lowly stock. His presence at the king’s side was an insult to those members of the nobility whose place had been usurped by someone of lesser status. Coupled with this was another major source of dissatisfaction: throughout his reign, James increasingly debased the coinage, adding ever greater quantities of copper to the once-silver low denomination coins and creating the so-called ‘black money.’ This was certainly a source of criticism in contemporary chronicles written around the time of the Lauder crisis (MacDougall, 2009, 183).

Seen in this context, I think we can probably accept that it wasn’t James’s luxury-loving Renaissance lifestyle with its patronage of fine arts and architecture that was the problem – it was instead the amount of money he was perceived to have spent on it. He was accused both of hoarding wealth and of being avaricious and miserly. This added to the list of grievances felt at every level in society, from the highest to the lowest in the land.

Hot on the heels of this financial mismanagement was his remoteness. As his reign progressed, he ran an increasingly centralised government from Edinburgh, dispensing justice from this single location. This was counter to the ideal vision of medieval kingship, where the ruler toured the land in person and participated in justice ayres. Such processions across the kingdom encouraged personal interaction with the monarch and gave the impression, at least, of a ruler who cared and who was listening. As time passed, James became increasingly cloistered within ‘Fortress Edinburgh,’ with access to his person restricted to all but a select few. With decisions made by this close band of favourites, it is perhaps small wonder that increasing numbers of his nobility were feeling disenfranchised.

Coupled with this was the loss of Berwick. James had negotiated the town’s return early in his reign, but this victory was short-lived: in 1480 diplomatic relations with Edward IV (who once again raised the thorny issue of English overlordship) broke down and an English army was sent north on his behalf. Led by the future Richard III, then Duke of Gloucester, it also contained James’s exiled brother the Duke of Albany, there with the expectation of seizing the throne from the beleaguered king.

James certainly made strenuous efforts to regain his lost territory by force: the mustering of the host at Lauder was undertaken with the direct of aim of raising an army which might march south and engage Gloucester and Albany in battle. Instead, James found himself taken bodily to Edinburgh Castle and incarcerated there for two months, trapped while Gloucester rode as far as Edinburgh and indeed into the city itself, where others conducted negotiations on the king’s behalf.

Berwick was lost during Gloucester’s onslaught, but only five years later, Richard himself was dead on Bosworth Field. With Henry VII as yet insecure upon his throne, a substantial portion of the Scots nobility (and perhaps the wider populace, too) no doubt felt that James should have been using this period of relative insecurity to press for the return of their territory by invading England, if needs be.

But James, it seems, was still hamstrung by recent events, preferring now to rely upon negotiations.

All these factors hindered James’s popularity, but even together they might not have been sufficient to see him deposed. One last flaw in his kingship proved his undoing. He seemed incapable of recognising good loyal service from those closest to him, and incapable to an even greater extent of rewarding it.

An example of such behaviour can be seen in his treatment of Colin Campbell, 1st Earl of Argyll. After serving in James’s council for twenty years, Campbell was appointed Chancellor in 1483. Campbell’s loyalty could not be described as unswerving – his allegiance had wobbled in the aftermath of the Lauder incident, and he’d been one of the individuals who’d negotiated with Gloucester at Edinburgh when James himself was incarcerated in the castle.

Not long before that final decisive clash at Sauchieburn, Campbell was removed from his post. At the very least, this was a short-sighted move, for it alienated a man whose household performed a crucial role as a buffer between the Scots-speaking mainland and the Gaelic-speaking Isles. But Argyll’s influence extended over a much broader area. His Campbell kinsmen also held an important office in south west Scotland: they were the hereditary Sheriffs of Ayr. The Argyll Campbells had also strengthened their power-base in this area by marrying into the Montgomerie family: in the years immediately preceding Sauchieburn, Argyll’s son-in-law Hugh, 2nd Lord Montgomerie was embroiled in a legal battle with his local rivals, the Cunninghames, over his inherited titles of Bailie of Cunninghame and Constable of Irvine. James III clearly favoured the Cunninghames in this dispute: just weeks before Sauchieburn, James created Alexander Cunninghame Earl of Glencairn (MacDougall, 1997, 36). These actions were sufficient to make both Argyll and Montgomerie join the rebels, and in the end, it cost Glencairn his life, for not only did Montgomerie take an active part in the battle, but he also appears to have been directly responsible for Glencairn’s death.

This fuelling of local feuds and resentments was replicated throughout the realm, and if that wasn’t ill-judged enough, James III coupled it with similar disdain for his eldest son and heir, James, Duke of Rothesay. The death of Queen Margaret in 1486 soon provoked rumours that she’d been murdered on the orders of her husband: at the same time, Prince James found himself progressively stripped of powers and authority by his father, who favoured instead his second son. It’s small wonder that the prince felt compelled to join the rebels. At the time, he may have been genuinely afraid for his future if not indeed his life.

Until recently, it was assumed that Prince James (later James IV) was an unwitting accomplice in the Sauchieburn rebellion. He was a hapless child at the time, just fifteen years old. He appears to have been seized by the rebels at Stirling, where he was subsequently paraded as a hostage and then set up as a puppet king. But James was intelligent, and able and charismatic. I suspect he was fully in command of the situation and he knew full well what he was doing. Perhaps his father, growing increasingly unpredictible and erratic, left him no other choice.

Cambuskenneth Grave
But on the evening of the 11th June, 1488, the crisis ended. The king’s men were routed, and James III fled the field, hoping to escape to England. Tradition states that James III fell from his horse and was injured. He called for a priest, but the robed figure who came to take his final confession was an imposter: instead of providing succour and comfort, the so-called ‘priest’ stabbed and killed his king. A few weeks later James III was laid to rest in Cambuskenneth Abbey with all the pomp and ceremony customarily bestowed upon a monarch, the mourners led by his contrite son. But the killer was never found, nor was there ever any real appetite to pursue them.

(For those interested in reading more about James III and James IV, I can suggest no better introductions than the masterly biographies penned by former Senior Lecturer at the University of Saint Andrews, Norman MacDougall, which formed the basis for this essay and which I found inspirational when I was writing my novel Fire and Sword. They provide a modern, in-depth account of both men, revised in the light of contemporary research, and above all, they are both eminently readable. Full details are included in the bibliography given below.)


MacDougall, N, 2009 James III Birlinn (Edinburgh)
MacDougall, N, 1997 James IV Tuckwell (Edinburgh)

James III: By Anonymous ( [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Edinburgh Castle: By David Monniaux (Own work) [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.
Cambuskenneth Grave: Adtrace at English Wikipedia [CC BY 2.5 (, GFDL ( or CC-BY-SA-3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons


Born in Glasgow, Louise Turner spent her early years in the west of Scotland where she attended the University of Glasgow. After graduating with an MA in Archaeology, she went on to complete a PhD on the Bronze Age metalwork hoards of Essex and Kent.  She has since enjoyed a varied career in archaeology and cultural resource management.  Her initial expertise in prehistoric archaeology has expanded over the years to include the medieval and modern periods, and she recently authored a paper on Thomas Telford, James Watt and their contribution to the evolution of Glasgow’s water supply, published in last year’s Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Writing fiction has always been an important aspect of her life and in 1988, Louise won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition with her short story Busman’s Holiday.  Her debut novel Fire and Sword, published in 2013 by Hadley Rille Books, recreates real characters and events  and is set in the turbulent early years of James IV’s reign.  Fire and Sword explores the challenges faced by a Renfrewshire laird, John Sempill of Ellestoun, whose father is killed defending the murdered King James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn in June 1488 .  Louise, who lives in west Renfrewshire with her husband,  has recently completed her second novel, a follow-up to Fire & Sword provisionally titled The Gryphon at Bay.


Tuesday, May 19, 2015

History of an English Manor House – Ettington Park

by Lynn Kristine Thorsen

If you’ve seen the original movie “The Haunting”, you’ll immediately recognize this structure.

It’s a perplexing gothic blend of towers, chimneys, and odd additions that don’t line up with the other floors. It’s Ettington Park, with a history as curious and interesting as the building itself. The estate is six miles from Stratford-upon-Avon and has a close association with Shakespeare. But more on that later. This was the estate of the Shirley family, one of Warwickshire’s oldest families which can be traced back over 1,000 years to the Domesday book and beyond.

Going further back in time, archaeological evidence indicates that the site has been inhabited for at least 2,000 year, placing it back in the time of the Romans. There have been Roman coins and pottery unearthed on the site, enough to support the possibility that the one of the early structures could have been a Roman villa.

As an example of what went on within 10 km of Ettington Park, archeologists have located 388 archaeological and historical sites including:

• 113 roman sites
• 21 anglo-saxon sites
• 37 iron age sites
• 33 bronze age sites
• 116 medieval sites,
• 10 mesolithic sites
• 15 neolithic sites

So, a lot of activity. The great Roman road, the Fosse Way, passes very nearby in the village of Halford. I made my own possibly Roman discovery when I was at Ettington Park wandering around looking at the ground. I often do this and am often times rewarded. Here are photos of what I found:

But back to Ettington Park. The name was originally spelled Eatendon and then later Eatington, coming from the old Anglo-Saxon words, “Ea” meaning water, and “Don” meaning meadow. The name then gives us an apt description of the site as a meadow near a river.

According to the Domesday Book, at the time of the Norman invasion the manor of Lower Eatendon consisted of a church, a mill, 1,700 acres of land and a village all adjacent to a manor house. The manor was held by the Sewallis, a Saxon Thane of Henry de Feriers, who was his Norman overlord. The Shirley families are descended from the Sewallis, their earliest recorded ancestor.

The church that is mentioned in the Domesday record was founded by Sewallis. It was rebuilt at the end of the 12th century in the Norman style, incorporating the earlier Saxon church. The rebuilt church was dedicated to St. Thomas a Becket.

The antiquarian, Sir Thomas Shirley who lived during the reign of Charles I , wrote: "Close by the church is a very ancient mansion house built by an ancestor of this family so long ago that the memorie, by the revolution of so many ages, is utterly lost and forgotten; for the ancient form and structure of the house is a witness beyond all exception of its pristine antiquity, it being covered with so unknown a covering that none can tell with what it was made, plainly sheweth that it was built in so ancient times, that stuff whereof the texture was made is many ages since, not only worn out of the kingdom, but also the very knowledge that ever any such thing was within this realm".

The House was mentioned in 1287 when the Rolls of Parliament show that Sir James Shirley petitioned Edward I for restitution of the "Manor of Eatingdon" unjustly detained from him by Ralph Shirley, his son, and again in 1294 when Ralph Shirley represented the City of Warwick as the first Knight of the Shire, in Parliament. He and his wife are commemorated in the old church at Ettington where their effigies are still to be seen.

The manor house has gone through many restorations, alterations, and extensions over the years. The original manor house was demolished in 1641 and replaced by a smaller house build from the remnants of the first. Serious extensions started in the 18th century and around this time, the village was moved to a new site two miles away at Upper Ettington. The mill was demolished, and the original church, dating back to 1198 was torn down leaving only the tower, the walls of the nave, and the south chapel that contained the family mausoleum. A new church was built in Upper Ettington.

In 1820, the Entrance Hall was Gothicized, a new story was added, new chimneys, and a Gothic stained-glass window was installed. The window had been removed from a redundant chapel near Chipping Campden. Continued renovations involved taking down the external walls and rebuilding around the interior of the old house. The roofline was raised; more chimneys were added as well as contrasting round and square turrets. Much of this work was under the design of the architect John Prichard and produced one of the finest examples of the French and Italian Gothic style that was promoted by John Ruskin. The striking visual impact of the contrasting layers of yellow limestone and iron stone is unforgettable.

Shakespeare and Ettington Park

In 1541, Sir Francis Shirley leased Ettington Manor to the Underhill family for a term of 100 years. It was from these same Underhills that William Shakespeare purchased the Great House in New Place, Stratford-upon-Avon. Shakespeare was a friend of the family and well known at Ettington. He may have hunted there with the Underhills and would have been well aware of the Shirley family history, including their connections with the Battles of Shrewsbury and Agincourt which Shakespeare wrote about in two of his plays. There is also a somewhat more obscure connection. In the south transcript of the chapel, there is an epitaph to Anthony Underhill who died in 1587 which some ascribe to Shakespeare. It reads:

As dreams doe slide, as bubbles rise and fall;
As flowers doe fade and flourish in an houer;
As smoke doth rise, and vapours vanish all
Beyond the witt or reach of human power;
As somer’s heat doth parch the withered grasse,
Such is our stay, soe lyfe of man doth passe.

The Underhills were also linked to the Sir Francis Bacon families through the Chapel of St. Thomas a Becket at Ettington. Members of the two families are interred closely together there. One tablet on the tower has a long description of Thomas Underhill (1521-1603) and his wife Elizabeth who lived together 65 years, had 20 children, and died a few months of each other. Next to this is a memorial for the Bacon family. Members of the Bacon family were well established in Warwickshire at that time.

The Strange and Unusual

In August 1859, the workmen, under the direction of John Prichard, were dismantling the outer wall overlooking the garden when they made an unusual discovery. They found a live toad in a cavity within the wall. There was no access from the outside, or anyway that air could penetrate through to the cavity. It was concluded that the toad could only have gained access during the previous work that took place in 1740. They could only suppose that the toad had gone into a state of suspended animation for 119 years. The workmen kept the toad, which refused all food and survived for another three months. The incident was commemorated by carving a stone toad which was placed in the new outer wall close to the spot where the original toad was found.

In 1935, Ettington Park became a nursing home, and during the Second World War it was a prisoner of war camp. After a multi-million pound restoration program, Ettington Park opened as a luxury hotel. The Automobile Association has named Ettington Park the most Haunted Hotel in Britain!

There are numerous priest holes at Ettington Park, and over fifteen documented ghosts that are frequently heard and seen by visitors. The priest holes suggest that the Underhills continued to practice the Catholic religion well after the establishment of the Church of England.

I had a nice tea and walked the grounds. I found Ettington Park to be charming, historically fascinating, and, yes, a bit unusual.

“The History of Ettington Park and the Shirley Family” – pamphlet offered by Hand Picked Hotels Heritage Calling, a Historic England Blog
“Lower Eatington : its manor house and church”, by Evelyn Philip Shirley
“Unearthing Underhills” blog by Isaac Kremer
“The Shirley Family Association” website


Lynn’s first collection of short fiction entitled The Friends of Emily Martine will be released this summer under the new title, Fever Dreams. Her second collection, Mischief will be published at the same time. She is currently at work on a historical novel that takes place during Tutor England. She publishes under the name Lynn Kristine Thorsen.

Facebook: Lynn Thorsen Jensen

Monday, May 18, 2015

O Deathe Rock Me Asleepe

by Hunter S. Jones

O Death, O Death, rock me asleepe,
Bring me to quiet rest;
Let pass my weary guiltless ghost
Out of my careful breast.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Thy sound my death abroad will tell,
For I must die,
There is no remedy.
My pains, my pains, who can express?
Alas, they are so strong!
My dolours will not suffer strength
My life for to prolong.
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Thy sound my death abroad will tell,
For I must die,
There is no remedy.

Alone, alone in prison strong
I wail my destiny:
Woe worth this cruel hap that I
Must taste this misery!
Toll on, thou passing bell;
Ring out my doleful knell;
Thy sound my death abroad will tell,
For I must die,
There is no remedy.

Farewell, farewell, my pleasures past!
Welcome, my present pain!
I feel my torment so increase
That life cannot remain. 
Cease now, thou passing bell,
Ring out my doleful knoll,
For thou my death dost tell:
Lord, pity thou my soul!
Death doth draw nigh,
Sound dolefully:
For now I die,
I die, I die.
Poem attributed to Anne Boleyn, said to be written on the eve of her execution, 19 May 1536.

There are various citations for this poem. The following video features contemporary musician Martin Pope who discusses the possible originations of this poem with late historian Eric Ives.

Music was added to the poem by Anne Boleyn’s chaplain, Robert Jordan. That gives it a great deal of provenance. Was the poem written by Anne, that dark night before her execution, or was it penned by a poet or troubadour, longing for the beautiful, doomed queen? We may never know. Today let us remember the passing of someone long ago who still enchants, much as she enthralled a king who changed an entire realm for her love. Yet for Henry, and for all of history, Anne Boleyn will forever be unattainable. We will never know her secrets. Her charm and mystique are the enigma which captivates us 479 years after her death. That is the power of her legacy.

The Anne Boleyn Files
On The Tudor Trail


Deb Hunter writes fiction as Hunter S. Jones. She lives in Atlanta, GA. Look for her Anne Boleyn story, Phoenix Rising. Now available via Kindle and paperback on Amazon.



The last hour of Anne Boleyn’s life…

Court intrigue, revenge and all the secrets of the last hour are revealed as one queen falls and another rises to take her place on destiny’s stage.

A young Anne Boleyn arrives at the court of King Henry VIII. She is to be presented at the Shrovetide pageant, le Château Vert. The young and ambitious Anne has no idea that a chance encounter before the pageant will lead to her capturing the heart of the king. What begins as a distraction becomes his obsession and leads to her destruction.

Love, hate, loyalty and betrayal come together in a single dramatic moment… the execution of a queen. The history of England will be changed for ever.

“Compelling, captivating and moving.”
– Claire Ridgway, author of The Fall of Anne Boleyn

Phoenix Rising is the last hour of Anne Boleyn’s life, told from the descendant of the astrologer/physician of King Henry VIII. She uses the star map used by her ancestress to reveal the stories hidden in that hour. Characters include King Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Jane Seymour, Sir Francis Bryan, Thomas Cromwell, Ralph Sadler, Mary Tudor, Eustace Chapyus, Elizabeth Howard Boleyn, Elizabeth I and the Swordsman of Calais. Look for upcoming insights into the secrets of Tudor England as we launch Phoenix Rising via MadeGlobal Publishing on May 19, 2015.

Order your copy today: Amazon

You can find Hunter S. Jones on Twitter or Facebook but Pinterest is best!

Giveaway: The Sword and Scabbard by Allen Woods

Allen is giving away a print copy and an ecopy of The Sword And Scabbard:
Thieves and Thugs and the Bloody Massacre in Boston.
You can read about the book HERE. Comment below to enter the drawing, and please be sure to leave your contact information.

The Three Women in Dean Jonathan Swift's Life (1667-1745)

by Arthur Russell

Dean Jonathan Swift as featured on the Irish £10 Note
during the 1970's and 80's
The author of that most famous fantasy book Gulliver’s Travels was never a man noted for showing his emotional side, which goes some of the way to explain the fact that he never married. In his lifetime he was associated with three women, two of whom came close to presenting the possibility of prospective marriage while the third lady some commentators believe he might well have secretly married during long years of friendship and acquaintance though there is no tangible evidence that a marriage ever took place. This last possibility draws some credence from the fact that the Dean and the lady in question have for almost 3 centuries lain side by side under the aisle of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, the place where Swift served as Dean for over 20 years.

The first lady in Swift's life - an ill-advised liaison with ‘Varina’ 

The first lady that Swift was engaged to marry was the sister of a friend called Waring from Belfast whom he met while he was a rector in his first clerical posting to the parish of Kilroot near Carrickfergus in Antrim. Before the marriage with Miss Waring (Swift had given her the pet-name ‘Varina’) took place, either he, she or both of them together thought better of the idea and the marriage did not happen. It seemed to have been a parting that was conducted and concluded with mutual consent. Neither of them thought their marriage was a good idea?

The second lady - ‘Vanessa’ 

The second romantic entanglement of the Dean was not to be so simple or easy. It was with a lady called Hesther vanHomrigh, to whom he gave the pet-name ‘Vanessa’. He met Miss vanHomrigh while he was attending college in England. Hester was the 20 year old daughter of a Dutch merchant who had died some time before. The vanHomrighs had a house close to Swift’s lodgings and had made a lot of money from a series of land and property forfeitures in the aftermath of the success of King William’s war in Ireland in the early 1690’s.

Hesther was obviously much struck with the up and coming clergyman and pamphleteer to the extent that she followed him back to Ireland, where she bought a house called Marlay Abbey in the town of Celbridge about 15 miles from Dublin to be close to the man she considered the man of her dreams. She had by that time openly declared her affections for the Dean and her willingness to marry him – if he cared to ask her.

While Swift was a regular visitor to Marlay Abbey, there are no letters or other signs that he held reciprocal feelings for the lady. He was not to be drawn. There is evidence that suggest he tried to establish relationships for her with two “suitable” young men of his acquaintance to put an end to what was clearly a one way love affair.

Vanessa showed her determination to win the Dean’s affections by making enquiries about and actually wrote to a longer term female friend of the Dean’s, someone she obviously viewed as her rival for his attentions. This lady was Esther Johnson, a long time friend who had earlier followed the Dean from England and had bought a house in his parish of Laracor, near Trim in Co Meath.

Vanessa would have been well aware that the Dean was a frequent visitor to Laracor. Her letter to the lady in question, when it was brought to his attention; had the effect of annoying Swift, causing him to upbraid Vanessa severely, putting her in no doubt about the true status of their relationship from his perspective.

Poor Vanessa, who had been in poor health anyway, died several weeks after the altercation with Swift at the relatively young age of 36 years. She was buried in the nearby churchyard of Leixlip, Co Dublin. She was dutifully mourned by Swift, who felt a degree of guilt about his own possible role in her demise, though her own will and writings portray no hint of any blame being laid on his shoulders.

“She had loved not wisely but too well”.

The third lady - Esther Johnson (‘Stella’) - a lifelong friend if not lover

Possibly the main focus of any romantic interest which the Dean displayed during his entire lifetime was for the aforementioned Esther Johnson, who was a full ten years older than Miss vanHombrigh. He had first encountered Esther Johnson as a nine year old, along with her younger sister Anne while he was attending college in England in 1690. The girls’ mother was friend and companion of Lady Gifford, who was the sister of Swift’s patron, Sir William Temple of Moor Park, an influential member of the English Parliament and confidant of King William III. Swift became the volunteer teacher of the young girls and developed a friendship with Esther (to whom he gave the pet-name “Stella”) which continued for the rest of their lives. In later years he related how he had “guided her little hand in writing and how his spirit had given hers its first impress”.

Soon after Swift was appointed Vicar of the small parish of Laracor near Trim in Co Meath, Ireland in 1700, he persuaded Esther to come to live there with her constant companion, Rebecca Dingley, a lady some years older than herself. Their house, which became known as ‘Stella’s Cottage”, was regularly visited by Swift while he was Vicar of Laracor and subsequently after he was appointed Dean of St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. Stella and Rebecca were also frequent visitors to Swift after he was appointed Dean of St Patrick’s in Dublin and were active in the city’s social circles for the early decades of the 18th century, years that coincided with the most productive years of the Dean’s literary life.

The remains of Stella's cottage at Laracor, Trim
A clergyman of some style: 

There is an amusing anecdote from Swift’s first months of his clerical appointment in Laracor, a small congregation of no more than 15. He notified his audience during one of his first Sunday services that that he would hold prayer services every Wednesday and Friday evening in the small church.

On the first evening, his clerk Roger Cox duly rang the church bell to summon them to prayer. Swift and his clerk vainly waited patiently for at least some of the congregation to respond to the summons. After a quarter of an hour, the conscientious clergyman obviously concluded none were going to come; so he got to his feet, walked composedly to his pulpit and very gravely began the service with the words “Dearly beloved Roger ------------“. Roger was the solitary audience for that evening's service.

A constant friendship

The Dean’s friendship with Stella had by then become a constant in both their lives. Theories abound that they were secretly married, but there is no documentary evidence of any such ceremony, religious or civil. Neither is there any anecdotal evidence of marriage from close acquaintances of either party. Rebecca Dingley, who was well positioned to be aware of anything relating to her friend and companion, was most dismissive of all rumours of marriage or even anything approaching intimacy between the pair. For his part, and no doubt with an eye to potential scandal, Swift always took pains to ensure he was never in company with Stella except when they were in the presence of a third party.

Stella's untimely death

It was while he was in London promoting his recently published masterpiece, Gulliver’s Travels in 1727, that he received urgent news of Stella’s sickness back in Laracor. He rushed back to Ireland to be at her side. She lingered for a year and died on January 28th, 1728.

At her request, her body was laid to rest under the floor of the aisle of St Patrick’ Cathedral in Dublin. Swift was inconsolable. Few nobler tributes have ever been paid to the memory of a deceased friend than the one written by him in the aftermath of Stella’s death:
‘The truest, most virtuous, and valuable friend that I, or perhaps any other person, was ever blessed with. I knew her from six years old, and had some share in her education, by directing what books she should read, and perpetually instructing her in the principles of honour and virtue, from which she never swerved in any one action or moment of her life... Never was any of her sex born with better gifts of the mind, or who more improved them by reading and conversations... Her advice was always the best, and with the greatest freedom, mixed with the greatest decency. She had a gracefulness somewhat more than human, in every motion, word, and action. Never was so happy a conjunction of civility, freedom, easiness, and sincerity... With all the softness of temper that became a lady, she had the personal courage of a hero." 

Swift and his lifelong friend Stella lie side by side under the
aisle of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin
Swift was executor of Stella’s will but never really recovered from losing her companionship. He had been subject to episodes of giddiness, and these increased as he grew older. By 1740 he was forced to retire to an institution for the mentally unstable where he died in 1745. His funeral was one of the largest seen in Dublin at that time, bearing testimony to the affection in which the Deanwas held by Catholic as well as the Protestant people of Dublin. He was one of the first, and would not be the last Protestant (and a clergyman at that) who wrote in defence of the down-trodden Catholic population of Ireland who at that time were suffering under the worst impositions of the so called “Penal laws” that had been passed and implemented by the Protestant dominated Irish Parliament in the aftermath of the Williamite wars of the 1690’s. He was buried beside his good friend, Esther Johnson (‘Stella’) under the aisle of St Patrick's Cathedral in Dublin where he had served for so long as Dean.

 Dear friends in life; now forever united in death.


Arthur Russell is author of  an historic novel Morgallion set in early 13th century Ireland during the invasion of Ireland by King Robert Bruce's younger brother, Edward, who is determined to establish the Bruce dynasty as High Kings of Ireland, thereby creating a "Celtic Empire of the West".

For more information - website


Sunday, May 17, 2015

Everyday Medieval Possessions

By E.M. Powell

For me, one of the most interesting parts of historical research for my novels is getting up close and personal with history. I've mentioned this in previous posts, along with my fondness for looking at the lives of ordinary people. A recent research trip saw me heading off to Ireland and one of the stops was the port city of Waterford.

Waterford's Medieval Reginald's Tower.

Waterford has a long history, having been first settled by the Vikings. The Anglo-Normans took the city in 1170, with Henry II of England arriving in 1171 and making it a Royal City. Waterford has taken the preservation of its heritage extremely seriously and its medieval past has an entire museum dedicated to it.

Medieval Museum, Waterford

This is in addition to Reginald's Tower, which also has a number of wonderful everyday medieval possessions on display. I found it extraordinary that so many of these objects are almost 900 years old. There was also something very special looking at these objects in the same place in which they had been found. I'd like to share my favourites with you.

Looking Good

To look your medieval best, you of course needed a comb. These are made from antler horn, with the single-sided ones being more typical of medieval combs.

Combs carved from horn.

Archaeologists also found offcuts of antler horn, which tells us that the combs were made in Waterford. And where did you keep your comb? Why, in your medieval comb case of course!

Comb Case

Made of leather, it is beautifully decorated with a pattern of leaves and dates from around 1250.

Another way to make sure you looked smart as well as keeping your cloak secure, was to use pins.

Stick Pin Selection

These stick pins were used to tie a cloak and are made of copper alloy. Each design is different, because they were hand made. 250 pins have been found at Waterford. This represents almost a quarter of all Viking-Age and medieval stick pins excavated in Western Europe, an extraordinary number.

Feet old and young had to be protected from the city's wet clay among other things. This adult's shoe dates from around 1150.

Adult Medieval Shoe

And this calfskin shoe would have been worn by a child. Wooden planks and wicker panels covered the ground to give the wearers some protection from the wet clay that the city is built on. It is due to this same soil that objects have been so well preserved.

Child's Shoe

House Beautiful

I found this set of kitchen implements absolutely remarkable. They could have been picked out of a twenty-first century kitchen drawer, and yet are around 870 years old.

Curfew Bowl & Kitchen Tools

The less familiar object to the left is part of a curfew bowl. A curfew bowl was placed over the hearth at night, which kept embers hot so the fire didn't need to be started from scratch again in the morning. They also helped to prevent house fires.

Houses had be lit as well as kept warm and a variety of candle holders were used. Some were attached to the wall, or inserted into wooden posts or masonry joints. Others were for table top use.

Rush Light Holder & Candle Sticks

Alcoholic drinks were widely consumed in the medieval period due to unsafe drinking water. Waterford was the chief port for importing wine into medieval Ireland. This jug and cup date from around 1320 and are probably French in origin.

Wine Jug & Cup

And, as today, people were mindful of their home's security. These keys are from the mid-twelfth century and would have been used for doors or storage chests.

Keys & Latch Lifter

The object in the middle is an iron latch lifter. This would be used to open a door that was merely latched shut (as opposed to locked) and was probably more for convenience than security.

Make Do and Mend (Or Just Make)

Spinning was of course women's work and they need the tools to do it.

Spinning Tools & Shears

On the left is part of a wooden distaff, which was used to hold the unspun wool fibres and stop them from tangling. Next to it are the wooden spindles and whorls made of bone and stone, which were used for drop spinning.

At the top is a pair of iron shears, which date from around 1190. These were all-purpose and used for spinning tasks, cloth and hair cutting and the odd spot of sheep-shearing where necessary. There are some beautiful carvings on the distaff, which dates from around 1260.

Carved Distaff

What was spun had to then be woven, and it was over to the men who were the weavers. This selection of their tools still looks so new, though they all date from the twelfth and thirteenth century.

Weaving Tools

We have the weaver's comb, made of wood and a range of pin beaters, needles, needle cases and loom weights which are all made of bone.

All Work and No Play

The medievals loved a bit of R&R the same as the rest of us. Here's a selection of wonderful gaming pieces.

Board & Gaming Pieces

The gaming board dates from c1150 and was used for playing hnefatafl, a common board game in the Viking era. The gaming pieces could be pegged into the board, which meant it could be played anywhere, including on board a moving ship. My favourite piece is the knight on the right hand side. He was excavated beside the hearth of a Hiberno-Norse house and is slightly charred. I hope no-one mistook him for firewood- he's far too lovely.

Flute & Whistle

And of course there was music: this is Ireland, after all. The beautiful flute is from the mid twelfth century and has been carved from the bone of a swan or a goose. The little whistle is even earlier- 1100- and again carved from a bird bone.

And finally

While these objects might have been treasured by their owners, none of them are the crowns of kings or the jewels or silks of nobility. Most are ordinary objects worn or used by everyday men, women and children. Yet it's the passage of almost nine hundred years that makes them truly extraordinary.
I shall finish with a cheat object, which would have been owned by someone very wealthy but to which I was particularly drawn.

It's made of copper alloy and at first glance, I assumed it was a necklace or a headpiece. But no. It would have been backed with the best leather and worn around the neck of a greyhound or a wolfhound. Yes; it's a medieval dog collar. As the possessor of a slightly less noble furry friend, how could I resist?

Noble? No.

All photos are copyright E.M. Powell 2015.
Note: the websites listed here only give a flavour of what's on offer. I highly recommend visits if you get the opportunity.
Heritage Ireland- Reginald's Tower:
Medieval Museum, Waterford:
OPW- The Office of Public Works/Oifig na nOibreacha PoiblĂ­:
Pollock, Dave, Medieval Waterford- Above & Below Ground: Waterford, Archaeografix (2014)
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)


E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She blogs for EHFA, reviews for the Historical Novel Society and contributes to The Big Thrill. She is working on the next novel in the series, Lord of Ireland, based on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign in Ireland. Find out more at
Amazon (Universal)
Barnes & Noble

Friday, May 15, 2015

What Are the Ozarks?

by Steve Wiegenstein, Finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction
Winner to be announced at the Historical Novel Society Luncheon on June 27, 2015 and HERE.

My novel series is set in the Ozark Mountains, an area of the United States that is not well known, even to most Americans. Those who have heard of the Ozarks probably only know it from a couple of sources: the simple, comically rustic family on the television show “The Beverly Hillbillies” or the clannish methamphetamine dealers of the novel and movie “Winter’s Bone.” Both narratives, oddly enough, have (fictional) roots in the same location, Taney County, Missouri.

The Ozarks are a rugged region of hills (the “mountains” descriptor is essentially honorific) in the central part of the United States, mainly in the states of Missouri and Arkansas. Because the hills obstructed travel, the region was lightly settled during the westward expansion period and developed a reputation for backwardness and poverty. The literary Ozarks begin with The Shepherd of the Hills (1907), the first American novel to sell a million copies. The Shepherd of the Hills took the hillbilly stereotype and added a layer of Christian uplift over the top of it, along with enough melodrama to fuel a contemporary TV mini-series for two or three seasons.

Although the people of the Ozarks are poor, the region itself has long been attractive to outsiders. The earliest European settlers, French, came for lead and iron. In the late Nineteenth Century, the nation’s craving for building materials led to indiscriminate timber cutting that changed the landscape permanently. In the mid-Twentieth Century, the region’s steep and narrow valleys drew power companies and government dam builders, who envisioned a network of hydroelectric power dams feeding the electrical needs of the rest of the Midwest (only a few of which have actually proven efficient). The 1960s saw a renewal of the lead and iron boom. And for the last several decades, the commodity in demand has been natural beauty, as retirees and tourists flock to the rivers and lakes of the Ozarks in search of a rustic ideal.

Ozark Lumber Company

Rural hill people everywhere are experienced in dealing with exploitative outsiders, and Ozarkers are no different. The classic legend/fiddle tune “The Arkansas Traveler,” in which a country bumpkin baffles a traveling city slicker with his incomprehensible logic, exemplifies this interaction as well as anything I know. The old fiddler is either a fool or a genius, and the city slicker can’t tell which. The great Ozark folklorist Vance Randolph, quoting one of his informants, titled one of his books We Always Lie to Strangers, an approach that lives on today. That phrase, fittingly enough, was reused by the creators of the 2013 documentary film about Branson, Missouri, the current high temple of all things Ozarks, both faux and authentic.

The history of the Ozarks is rich in contradictions: the idyllic landscape that has existed in grinding poverty since its first colonial settlements, the beautiful isolation that draws political extremists and criminals looking for a place to hide, the residents who resent the stereotypes placed on them but who are willing to employ them when useful. I set my novels in the Ozarks partly because I’m a native of the region and I feel a kinship to it unlike any other; but I also write about the Ozarks because as a novelist who is interested in issues of the environment, social class, the land, and the romantic ideal of Nature, it’s a near-perfect setting to engage with those issues.

An Ozarks Trail


Steve Wiegenstein is the author of Slant of Light and This Old World, the first two novels in an anticipated multi-book series. Slant of Light, published in 2012, was the runner-up for the David H. Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and This Old World, published in September 2014, is currently a finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Both books were published by Blank Slate Press, a literary small press in St. Louis, Missouri.

See more about Steve and his work on the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction website.