The Death of Chief Sitting Bull

Chief Sitting Bull was one of the most notable advocates for Native American rights in the last part of the nineteenth century. He is probably most known for his appearances in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. For me, he personifies the struggles of the Native American people in their fight to keep their way of life. None more so than the circumstances that led up to his murder by the Indian Police, helped by the army, in 1890. They saw this ageing man as the last remaining beacon of hope for all Native Americans who were being forced to leave their once nomadic existence to live reservations. Life on reservations was purposefully meant to stop their traditional way of life. They were no longer free to move as they pleased, were forced hundreds of miles away from their ancestral land and subjected to forced assimilation wherever possible. Especially by sending Native American children to boarding schools so they could ‘unlearn’ their traditions and languages, instead imposing Western education upon them.[1]

In Sitting Bull’s own words on the subject, this was an injustice to his people:

“We were once free to come and go, and to live in our own way. But white men, who belong to another land, have come upon us, and are forcing us to live according to their ideas. That is an injustice; we have never dreamed of making white men live as we live.”[2]

These very opinions made him a much-reviled figure to the American authorities, especially as this was a man who had fought at the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, where George Custer and the 7th Cavalry Regiment of the U. S. Army were defeated by an army of Native Americans, made up of different tribes, but led by visions Sitting Bull had had.

Sitting Bull photographed and published by Palmquist & Jurgens, St. Paul, Minn, ca. 1884. Photograph.

The bitterness the army and other authorities had towards Sitting Bull stemmed not just from his brave fight at the Battle of Little Bighorn, but from his flee to Canada following the bad winter of 1876-1877. That winter was full of bad weather meaning food was scarce. Many of the Native Americans decided to give in to being put on reservations, believing it would mean a guaranteed food source. Sitting Bull and his people refused to do this and instead fled to Canada, which was viewed as a safe place for the indigenous people. This meant that all the Native Americans still living in America were now all living on reservations.[3] Their time in Canada didn’t last long though as the buffaloes they relied on began to dwindle in numbers. It forced the Chief and his people back to America and onto the Sioux Reservation.

Under the Sioux Act of 1889, the government wanted to reduce the size of the Sioux Reservations into six smaller ones, rather than just one large one. This purposefully sought to reduce the amount of land available for the Native Americans, so that larger parts could be sold on to settlers.[4] You can imagine how Sitting Bull and many other leaders in the community reacted to this. For them, it once again showed how the white man could not be trusted. Many promises given had been broken, and not for the first time. Just as before, their opinions and complaints, despite being just, “and loud, and bitter, but were little heeded”.[5] Out of the ashes of the brokenness this brought, there was one glimmer of hope that began to arise: The Ghost Dance.

The Ghost Dance was a spiritual revival within the Native American communities living on reservations, most notably the Sioux. It believed that through performing this dance, it would prepare the way of a messiah, along with ghosts of the ancestors and buffalo, to save them from their current misery in order to re-establish their old way of life.[6] Whilst the initial ‘prophet’ of this movement was Wovoka, who believed he had had a vision, Sitting Bull played a major part in the movement. Another Sioux Chief named Kicking Bear believed in revelations that the Great Spirit had entrusted Sitting Bull to oversee and conduct the dances.[7]

Ghost Dance of the Sioux Indians in North America, 1891. Photograph.

These dances caused great concern for those in charge of the Sioux reservation that Sitting Bull lived on. Major McLaughlin believed that Sitting Bull was the root cause of this new movement and wanted it to end. On the 17th of November 1890, McLaughlin and an interpreter went to one of these dances to gauge how many of the Native Americans were involved. They found 100 people dancing and another 100 people watching.[8] Following this, McLaughlin began negotiations with Sitting Bull about how to stop the dances, despite Sitting Bull’s instances that this was nothing to fear. When the Major invited Sitting Bull to the reservation headquarters at Fort Yates, it was seen as a trap for the elderly chief. Sadly, the authorities responded with punishments that included attempting to starve the warriors. The ghost dancers were also worried and fled into the wilderness away from the camp. Sitting Bull wished to follow to carry on peaceful talks about the situation. Sitting Bull needed permission to do this and had a letter translated for this. However, it was poorly translated and instead looked like a threat.[9] He was told no and instead put under house arrest.

Within a month it seemed like the Chief’s fate was sealed. Orders were given to arrest Sitting Bull and bring him to Fort Yates. Others had sent a warning telegram to Buffalo Bill, a former friend whilst he was in the Wild West Show, was sent, hoping he could be an intermediary. Despite arriving at Fort Yates, he was suspiciously plied with drink and turned away the next day.[10] This was probably to maintain the secrecy surrounding the idea of murdering the Chief. The Indian Police went to the camp early in the morning of 15 December 1890 with a hidden group of soldiers. They dragged Sitting Bull out of his cabin and placed him on a waiting horse. Rather than quietly submit to his fate, Sitting Bull shouted orders to his followers, despite being threatened by the Police with guns.[11] A gun fight ensued between the Police and those in the camp. During the fight, Sitting Bull and two of his sons, Blackbird and Crow Foot, as well as 6 of the Indian Officers, 2 of which died from their wounds afterwards. Another version told at the time was that the Indian Police had shot Sitting Bull and his sons inside the cabin, only to later smash the Chief’s face into pieces.[12]

Kurz & Allison. Capture & Death of Sitting Bull, ca. 1891. Jan. 5. Photograph.

Despite the death of the famous chief, that was not the end of the story. His body was buried at the cemetery at Fort Yates, but many other stories surfaced about what subsequently happened to the body. The Chicago Tribune reported at the time that the body buried at the fort was a fake and that the real body was in fact “now in a dissecting room”.[13] Others included quicklime being placed into the coffin to disintegrate the remains, his body being taken to Canada, and drunken soldiers stealing a thigh bone before the Fort closed in 1903.[14] All of these rumours complicated the legacy of the once great chief and in some ways meant he was forgotten, even more so when his body was the only one not to be moved when the fort closed.

Fiske, Frank Bennett, photographer. Sitting Bull’s grave / F.B. Fiske. North Dakota, ca. 1906. Photograph.

The sad part is that the grave was left unattended and unloved. It would have been a sad legacy for him had it not been for his descendants, who were finally allowed to move his body to a spot looking over the Missouri River in April 1953. This was divisive as one granddaughter believed the site chosen was unsuitable because of antisocial behaviour that was known in the area. Yet, it happened, and 2 cars moved the remains to the chosen site in snowy weather. His new resting place now has a bust to commemorate him, which is more than he had whilst buried at Fort Yates.[15]

Whenever I think of the death of Sitting Bull, I feel incredibly sad to know he was killed for what he believed in. My heart has always agreed with the Native Americans, that they have been treated with injustice and still continue to be to a greater extent. Was it really a crime to hope that your life would improve if only you could practise your traditional way of life? I will also leave you questioning whether if Buffalo Bill could have reached Sitting Bull, whether the outcome would have been any different. Whatever may have happened if he had, I like to remember the small kindness in that Buffalo Bill attempted to bring his old friend some of his favourite sweets that he new he loved. What a contrast to the treatment he was given by the Indian Police, one of whom was his nephew and adopted son, One Bull.

[1] ‘Boarding Schools,,Code%20Talkers%20attended%20boarding%20schools.

[2] ‘This Land Belongs to Us’, in McMaster, G. and Trafzer, C. E. (eds), Native Universe: Voices of Indian America (Washington: National Geographic Society, 2004), p. 92.

[3] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, 1831-1890 (Mankato, Minnesota: Blue Earth Books, 2003), p. 24.

[4] Todd, A. M., Sitting Bull, p. 26.

[5] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull: And History of the Indian War, 1890-1891, Reprint(DSI Digital Reproduction, 2000), p. 169.

[6] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[7] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 169

[8] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull,

[9] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull,

[10] Stillman, D., The Unlikely Alliance Between Buffalo Bill and Sitting Bull,

[11] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 185.

[12] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 187; Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,

[13] Johnson, W. F., Life of Sitting Bull, p. 188.

[14] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,

[15] Thomas, R., ‘Sitting Bull’s Burials: A History’, Friends of the Little Bighorn Battlefield, 25 February 2007,

To find out more about Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, please visit

Napoleon’s Expedition in Egypt

On the 1st of July 1789, Napoleon, along with nearly 55,000 men and 400 ships arrived in Egypt. Among them were around 150 scientists, engineers, and academics, hoping to learn more about the mysterious country. Napoleon claimed that the so-called invasion had two aims, to liberate the people of Egypt from despotism, and to bring knowledge of the history, nature, and culture of the country to the Western World.[1] As Peter Hicks argues, the 3 year long expedition to gain knowledge following the invasion was used as a romantic ‘smoke screen’ to cover up the military reasons Napoleon had arrived in Egypt, specifically to curb British interests in the country.[2] Whatever motives lay behind the invasion and subsequent expedition, there is no doubt that it did “open the eyes of Europe to the glory that was Egypt” and helped to start the “professional study of Egyptology”.[3]

Napoleon in Egypt, 1867–68, Jean-Léon Gérôme, French, 1824–1904, Oil on wood panel, Princeton University Art Museum, Museum purchase, John Maclean Magie, Class of 1892, and Gertrude Magie Fund

The academics who came with the French to Egypt were tasked with collecting knowledge and cloning French style learning. To do this, they created the Institute of Egypt, which focused on 4 main areas of study: mathematics, physics (which covered all the sciences), political economy and culture.[4] The Institute followed 3 simple objectives:

  1. To progress and spread the enlightenment in Egypt.
  2. Research, study and publish about the natural, industrial, and historical context of Egypt.
  3. Advice the government on relevant topics.[5]

In order to achieve these aims, the academics had to take part in intellectual debate and report on long term investigations, such as agricultural improvements, studies of ancient monuments, geology and wildlife, just to name a few.[6] However, much of the intellectual debate that took place was actually not relevant to Egypt, instead focusing on their own personal work they had research prior to the expedition. Whilst this appeared to follow the aim of spreading enlightenment ideas in Egypt, these previous studies had nothing to do with the unique context of Egypt itself.

‘Interior of the Temple of Phile’, from G. A. Hoskins, A Winter in Upper and Lower Egypt (1863), The British Library

The Institute was housed in two former palaces outside Cairo, which were well equipped with a library full of books specifically chosen by Napoleon for the expedition, alongside printing presses to print their findings.[7] This did cause controversy as many in the Egyptian high society saw this as blasphemous, as only religious texts should be printed. Following discussions on the topic, it was found that many of them actually owned books on other topics, such as history and philosophy, meaning that the opposition didn’t last long. Other activities were found to be more favourable. These included a workshop and foundry used to recreate scientific equipment lost from Alexandria harbour, and a botanical garden featuring a menagerie of local birds, monkeys, and snakes.[8]

Certainly, the most successful part of the expedition was the surveying of the historical sites in Egypt. All the sites we now recognise when we think of Ancient Egypt were studied, ranging from temples, tombs, statues, and pyramids, including Luxor and the Valley of the Kings.[9] Each one was meticulously measured, mapped and drawn, so they could be turned into engravings. All of these engravings later featured in the Description de l’Egypte, an encyclopaedic folio published by the academics following their return to France in 1801. It featured aspects of Egyptian life and culture such as antiquities, customs, and natural history, including the first large-scale map of the Nile Valley.[10] The sheer volume of information collected during their 3 years in Egypt is noticeable in the extent of what was published in the Description de l’Egypte. A total of 23 volumes were published between 1809 and 1828, featuring 837 engravings.[11] Copies of this were sold all over Europe, meaning that the interest in Egypt and its treasures would reach never seen before levels. Prior to the expedition, interest had only been on an individual scale, but the publication of these new wonders meant people wanted to travel to see them for themselves.

Léon Cogniet, The 1798 Egyptian Expedition Under the Command of Bonaparte (1835; Musée du Louvre), Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the most important find of the expedition was the Rosetta Stone. The Rosetta Stone would later become the key to reading hieroglyphics as it featured Greek letters which were used to decipher the unused Egyptian language. It was actually found by accident when French soldiers were digging foundations for an extension to the fort at Rosetta. It had been used as a building stone for a very old wall.[12] Luckily some of the academics were residing at Rosetta and recognised the significance of the stone. Following the French being kicked out of Egypt in 1801 by the British, any antiquities not already sent to France were forfeited under the terms if the Treaty of Alexandria.[13] It was eventually sent back to England and arrived at Portsmouth in 1802. This started a race between the English physicist, Thomas Young, and the French scholar Jean-Francois Champollion, to decode the ancient mystery of hieroglyphics. The Frenchman won, much to the dismay of Young, who was in the audience at the lecture where the findings were unveiled.

Napoléon Bonaparte (‘Buonaparté leaving Egypt’) by James Gillray, published by Hannah Humphrey
hand-coloured etching, published 8 March 1800, NPG D12727, © National Portrait Gallery, London

The military aspect of the expedition was a failure because the soldiers sent were going into unmarked territory and weren’t prepared for the hot climate of Egypt. Sadly, an estimated 10,000-15,000 died of disease or heat exhaustion.[14] For this reason Napoleon abandoned his men and sailed back to France, preparing for the coup that would see him become First Consul. There was also strong opposition from the Egyptians, who saw the expedition as the first time since the Crusades that the West unwantedly intruded in the Arab world.[15] Whilst of course this is true as the invasion and expedition sought to ‘acquire’ the people and intellectual property of Egypt, it did start the study and appreciation of the history and culture that formed Ancient Egypt.[16] After seeing the Tutankhamun exhibition in London as a birthday present for my mum last November, I must admit I have a newfound appreciation for all the treasures of Ancient Egypt. The amount of gold and wonderful craftsmanship in the objects was truly outstanding. When the French saw such things, it would have been the first time anyone in the West would have known about them, so I can only begin to imagine just what they felt when they first saw such things.

[1] Coulston Gillespie, C., ‘Scientific Aspects of the French Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133.4 (1989), p. 447; Jeffreys D., ‘Introduction- Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology’, in Jeffreys D. (ed), Views of Ancient Egypt Since Napoleon Bonaparte: Imperialism, Colonialism and Modern Appropriations (London: Routledge, 2016), p. 1.

[2] P. Hicks cited in Soussi, A., ‘Napoleon by the Nile: How the French Emperor’s Egypt Invasion Set the Tone for Western Incursions’, The National, 30 Aug 2019,

[3] Coulston Gillespie, C., ‘Scientific Aspects of the French Egyptian Expedition, 1798-1801’, Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, 133.4 (1989), p. 447

[4] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt (London: Vintage Books, 2008), p. 191.

[5] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt, p. 191.

[6] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt, p. 191.

[7] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt, p. 196.

[8] Strathern, P., Napoleon in Egypt, p. 196.

[9] Lynda Hall Library, Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition in Egypt,

[10] Jeffreys D., ‘Introduction- Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology’, p. 2.

[11] Lynda Hall Library, Napoleon and the Scientific Expedition in Egypt,

[12] ‘Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Rosetta Stone’, British Museum,

[13] ‘Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About the Rosetta Stone’, British Museum,

[14] P. Hicks cited in Soussi, A., ‘Napoleon by the Nile: How the French Emperor’s Egypt Invasion Set the Tone for Western Incursions’

[15] Jeffreys D., ‘Introduction- Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology’, p. 2.

[16] Jeffreys D., ‘Introduction- Two Hundred Years of Ancient Egypt: Modern History and Ancient Archaeology’, p. 2.

Lady Baillie’s Grand Parties at Leeds Castle

I haven’t visited Leeds Castle in Kent for around 10 years now, but it still has left an impression in me. It has often been described as the loveliest castle in England. I can easily see why with its impressive moat and medieval style architecture. It is even more appealing when you consider the women who were once in possession of this castle in its long history. From Eleanor of Castille, wife of Edward I, to Catherine of Aragon, wife of Henry VIII, many royal women saw the castle as their home. However, not is all as it seems. Much of what we can see today was mostly reconstructed by Olive Wilson, later to become Lady Baillie after marrying her 3rd husband, the last owner of the castle. When she had brought it in 1927 for £180,000 (just over £9 million today), it was in a neglected state for the last person to live inside the castle had died in 1870.[1]

Leeds Castle (2010), Herry Lawford, Wikimedia Commons

As someone with dual American and English nationalities, Olive was looking for an English retreat away from London. She certainly found it in Leeds Castle as she is said to have fell in love with it instantly, despite the sorry state it was then in. For the rebuild, she hired Armand-Albert Rateau and other French craftsman, for she believed the French would be able to restore a sense of history to the site.[2] Other local men were hired too, but the French ones were needed to source French materials, such as chimneypieces and oak doors. For all the historical items added, including replica eighteenth century furniture, modern living was also a priority. Underfloor heating and en-suite bathrooms made of onyx were added.[3] As if that wasn’t luxurious enough, in 1939 an open air and heated swimming pool was added to the grounds, complete with a wave machine and nearby cocktail bar.[4] The bar was decorated with a mural depicting Neville Chamberlain, the then Prime Minister, skating on a frozen pond surrounded by statues of women and children representing Adolf Hitler, Winston Churchill, Hermann Goering and Duff Cooper.[5] These additions reflected the use of Leeds Castle as a prominent place of entertainment for the great and the good during the 1920s and 1930s.


Lady Baillie playing croquet

The types of people invited to the weekend parties at the castle ranged from film stars such as Cary Grant, Errol Flynn and Charlie Chaplain, to royals such as Edward, Prince of Wales and his mistress Wallace Simpson, to ambassadors, ministers and MPS.[6] The one I find the most intriguing is the Russian Grand Duke Dimitri Pavolovich, one of the conspirators suspected of being involved in the assassination of Rasputin in 1916. During these parties, activities such as golf, tennis, squash, croquet, boating or skating on the moat or picnicking in the vast parkland, all before a lavish dinner and merrymaking with music to gramophones or watching the latest film releases.[7] Despite all these wonderful images created by such events, its curious to think that Lady Baillie herself often didn’t see the guests following their arrival on Friday night, until sometime on the Sunday. In truth, she was described as more of a listener than a talker, and much preferred to leave people to their own devices. Her friend, the Duchess of Argyle described her as an eccentric, yet shy person, often taking up to 3 days, or even a week, before she felt able to show herself in the company of new guests.[8]

Despite all this, her parties were full of the rich and famous, who were able to seek privacy at Leeds, as Lady Baillie refused to allow the press near. The guests were allowed to wander around freely other than at night, when the unmarried male guests were placed in the Maiden’s Tower away from the rest of the castle to prevent bed hopping.[9] For this reason, some guests described her hospitality style as “relatively restrained in behaviour compared with many of her much more notorious contempories”.[10] Perhaps that is why guests often were able to have a candid experience, as seen in the case of actor, David Niven. He often left the party to play cards with the servants in the servants’ hall instead.[11]

David Niven in Enchantment (1948), Photograph in possession of SchroCat, Wikimedia Commons

The parties continued even during World War Two, although in a different form. Most of the castle was taken over as part of a war hospital for injured soldiers. They were moved into smaller parts of the castle and often included some of the soldiers being rehabilitated there. Many of these were sent home following their repatriation from Dunkirk and included severely burned pilots.[12] They were never again seen on the same large scale as before the war, especially as Lady Baillie’s health was on the decline.

Similar small-scale parties were also occasionally held for the castle staff at Christmas time. On Christmas Eve, a large party was held for the local children, whereas on New Year’s Eve, one was held for the castle servants. During these events, Lady Baillie was known to dance with the butler, and her husband danced with the housekeeper.[13] These events showed kindness to her staff and ensured her legacy was one of a ‘lovely lady’ by them following her death in 1974, before the castle was handed over to the nation in the form of a charitable trust. The care Olive put into restoring the castle was certainly a legacy to remember in terms of the architecture and interiors but showcasing these to large numbers of famous people is perhaps what she will be remembered for most.

[1] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle (Leeds Castle: Leeds Castle Enterprises, 2007), p. 7.

[2] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 18.

[3] Leeds Castle Blog, ‘The Real Gatsby was a Woman: Lady Baillie and the Glamourous 1920s’,

[4] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 54.

[5] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 54.

[6] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 34.

[7] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 35.

[8] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 54.

[9] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 36.

[10] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 36.

[11] Bignell, A., Lady Baillie at Leeds Castle, p. 53.

[12] Leeds Castle, ‘The Baillie Years’,

[13] Kent Online, ‘The Real Downton’,

Ned Despard: The Real Rebel Behind the Poldark Character

Little did I know whilst watching the final series of Poldark last year, that the new character, Ned Despard, an old friend of Ross Poldark, who was imprisoned for treason, was actually based on a real person of the same name. It was only after reading a book on Regency era spy networks after the series had finished that I discovered there really was a Colonel Edward Despard who was executed for planning a rebellion against the King and State. The story told in Poldark was not too dissimilar to the reality. He was indeed a rebel with a black wife called Catherine, just as portrayed in the period drama.

Etching by Barlow (based on sketch taken at trial), Wikimedia Commons

Edward Marcus Despard had indeed been imprisoned and sentenced to be executed for attempting to incite a rebellion in London, that was meant to happen alongside rebellion in Ireland and invasion from the French. Before all this though, he had served in Nelson’s fleet in the Spanish Main, including a successful raid at Black River along the Mosquito Coast of Honduras.[1] In reward for his service, he was offered a government position as Superintendent of Honduras, but was forced to return to London because of accusations of complaints from landowners.[2] Following his return to London with his wife, Catherine, he was placed in prison, without charges brought against him, for 2 years between 1790 and 1792. The government finally did admit to the accusations being made up, but never offered recompense and instead decided to end the post of Superintendent of Honduras.[3]

He was purposefully moved between prisons during this time, hoping to raise as little suspicion about the case as possible. The most notable prison he spent the last part of his sentence in was Coldbath Fields in Clerkenwell. It was a relatively new prison by the time Despard was moved there but had built up a reputation as England’s version of the Bastille.[4] Despite this, he was still allowed to see his wife, Catherine. Catherine herself was an interesting woman and played a large role in the story of her husband’s many imprisonments. She was the daughter of a free black woman, who lived near Kingston in Jamaica.[5] I find that during this period where the government purposefully tried to ruin the reputation of Despard, his marriage to a woman of black origin was never used as ammunition against him.[6]

The House of Correction in Coldbath Fields, British Library

Catherine openly discussed the poor conditions, especially the lack of warmth, light and food given to her husband. The main support she lobbied was in the MP, Francis Burdett.[7] Francis Burdett spoke of these terrible conditions in Parliament, asking for an inquiry to be made into the treatment of prisoners there. The speech that he made on the subject included the poor conditions other state prisoners, starvation of a 14-year-old girl, enforced solitary confinement without reason, and the theft of money belonging to prisoners.[8] These explosive revelations were published by Burdett in a pamphlet called An Impartial Statement of the Inhuman Cruelties Discovered in the Coldbath Fields Prison, ensuring wider public knowledge of the situation inside the prison. The publication of this pamphlet and the voices of both Burdett and Catherine allowed enough public support to cause the prison to improve the lot of Despard.[9] He was moved to a larger cell with better conditions, including a fire.[10]

During his unlawful imprisonment, Despard became radicalised after reading the Rights of Man by Thomas Paine.[11] It’s easy to see why when a government that you fought for and served for many years suddenly imprisons you on false pretences. Upon his release, he was approached by some radicals who understood the emotions this situation would have instilled in him. He became involved in a secret society that wanted to start an uprising in London. The plan they devised including taking the Bank of England, the Tower of London, and armouries, before declaring war on the State and murdering the King.[12] The government were kept well informed of plans as they had a spies called Moody and Thomas Windsor in place to gather information, especially as this insurrection was to be a sign for the rest of the country, Ireland and France to also take up arms. A plot was uncovered and Despard was the leader of it.

On the 16th of November 1802, following a tip off about a meeting of the rebels, Despard and nearly 40 other conspirators were arrest for treason. Most of the people involved were labourers and soldiers, some of them Irish, who had mainly fallen on hard times.[13] The trail began in January 1803, and all pleaded not guilty. However, most of the evidence used against them, especially that which implicated Despard, was given by the informers, which made followers of the trial suspicious of another government stitch up.[14] The main surprise of the trial was when Lord Horatio Nelson was called as a character witness from Despard’s time in his fleet.[15]

Abbott, Lemuel Francis; Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), Viscount Nelson, Admiral, Victor of Trafalgar; National Galleries of Scotland; Art UK

Despite the interventions by Nelson, Burdett and Catherine, Despard was still found guilty. The decision for this is clear in the Attorney General’s speech surrounding the suspicion Despard was held in. The Attorney commented that it was odd that a man of “birth, education, genteel manners, and of a rank in the army” would “associate with the lowest of mankind”, unless it was to cause trouble.[16] At the end of the trial, he was sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered. Pleas of mercy were asked for by the jury, meaning the sentence was lessened to death by hanging, then beheading. His exact death speech was replicated in his final scenes in Poldark:

“His Majesty’s Ministers know as well as I do that I am not guilty, yet they avail themselves of a legal pretext to destroy a man, because he has been a friend to truth, to liberty, to justice… because he has been a friend to the poor and oppressed. But citizens, I hope and trust, notwithstanding my fate, and the fate of those who no doubt will follow me soon, that the principles of freedom, of humanity, and of justice, will finally triumph over falsehood, tyranny, and delusion”[17]

After his execution, Catherine successfully won a fight against the Lord Mayor of London, over where her husband should be buried. She argued that because of hereditary rights, Despard should be buried in St Pauls.[18] She was also given a pension by Francis Burdett that was due to her until she also died.[19] Perhaps the best legacy left by the married pair was that their situation raised the issue of poor conditions inside prisons at that time. Thanks to Catherine’s political action with Burdett, state prisoners following Despard were given larger and more comfortable cells during their imprisonment.[20]

[1] Wilkes, S., Regency Spies: Secret Histories of Britain’s Rebels & Revolutionaries (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2015), p. 62.

[2] Britannica, ‘Edward Marcus Despard’,; Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 63.

[3] Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 63.

[4] Parolin, C., Radical Spaces: Venues of Popular Politics in London, 1790 – C. 1845 (Canberra: ANU Press, 2010), p. 51

[5] ‘Edward and Catherine Despard’,

[6] ‘Edward and Catherine Despard’,

[7] Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 66.

[8] F. Burdett, An Impartial Statement of the Inhuman Cruelties Discovered in the Coldbath Fields Prison, cited in Parolin, C., Radical Spaces, p. 53.

[9] Parolin, C., Radical Spaces, p. 53; Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 66.

[10] Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 66.

[11] ‘Edward and Catherine Despard’,

[12] Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 70.

[13] Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 71.

[14] Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 72.

[15] Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 66; ‘Edward and Catherine Despard’,

[16] J. Gurney and W. B. Gurney, The Trial of Edward Marcus Despard, Esquire, for High Treason (1803) Cited in Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 71.

[17] Cited in Wilkes, S., Regency Spies, p. 73.

[18] ‘Edward and Catherine Despard’,

[19] ‘Edward and Catherine Despard’,

[20] Parolin, C., Radical Spaces, p. 65.

Victorian Art Depicting the Poor

Social Realist paintings were created as direct response to the squalid conditions the poor were living in. The theme was short lived, only really lasting in the 1870s. It aimed to protest against the harshness of the Poor Law, which had meant that outdoor relief was cut and relief was centralised to the workhouse.[1] Despite prior attempts to show the plight of the poor and the conditions they lived in, there still remained a reluctance to portray any hardness in the lifestyle surrounding any image of them.[2] There was a fear that poverty had changed its meaning since industrialisation, so there was some desire to portray it in order to gain understanding. However, attempts often felt otherworldly as they sought  to portray the ‘new citizens of the Empire’.[3] The main theme of art from the early nineteenth century onwards was patriotic, portraying national greatness and reaffirming the superiority of middle class contemporary morality.[4] This meant that there was little appeal for paintings depicting the poor as they were seen as undoing national greatness. It was especially evident in the theory suggesting that the condition of people’s bodies reflected the health of the State. If the poor were in ill health, they were living in “conditions which might give rise to social and political unrest.”[5] To outwardly make not of this possibility would undo the State as a whole. For this reason, many portrayals of the poor showed them in a ‘fashionable’ light, where they still had some invisibility or were purposefully kept at a distance from the intended audience. This helped to reinforce the upper classes social standing because they still were able to control the way in which the poor were portrayed.

S. L. Fildes (1844-1927), Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward, 1874; Royal Holloway, University of London

In the 1870s, there was a change to the work of some artists, most notably Luke Fildes, known for his famous Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874). It was based on a similar engraving that featured in The Graphic newspaper, which encourage artists to capture real life, especially if it helped make poverty a public rather than private concern.[6] The idea for the painting came from the experiences Fildes had when he first moved to London, and in his own words he described how he would never “forget seeing somewhere near the Portland Road snowy winter’s night the applicants for the admission to a casual ward”.[7] It purposefully painting showed the different types of people who were reliant on this new form of indoor relief by showing the darkness that a life in poverty created.[8] Art critics had a mixed response to the painting. Some believed that it was “the most notable piece of realism” showing “the startling impression off all wayward and unlovely reality” but others saw it as “revolting for an art which should seek to please, refine and elevate” the poor in the eyes of others.[9] Fildes used this painting as a protest against the Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 which stopped all outdoor relief and centred the relief of the poor only within the workhouse. In terms of the painting, it is a direct condemnation of the indignity many poor had to go through to get help. They would first have to report to a police station in order to gain a night ticket for the workhouse, as seen by the policeman in the far left who is talking to a gentleman who looks like a lost ‘explorer’ of the slum.[10] The people who did manage to get some help were often called the ‘undeserving’ poor, so called as they had to prove they were deserving of relief offered by the parish.

D. G. C. Rossetti, Found, c.1869; Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, USA

The ’undeserving’ poor were not allowed help as they were classed as undeserving and were left to fend for themselves. A main category of this type of poverty depicted in art at the time was the fallen woman, a woman who prostituted herself. The image of the fallen woman came to represent the idea of sexual immorality that the middle class believed was rife within the working classes. Female weakness within Victorian art was seen as a way of showing some compassion but not enough to put off a middle-class audience.[11] The Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti, used his unfinished painting Found (c.1869), to represent the prostitution that Dickens and Mayhew had already debated about in their writings.[12] The painting depicts a rural man encountering an old lover who had moved to the city and has now become a prostitute. Urbanisation and industrialisation are seen as the reason for her moral ‘affliction’ and is purposefully compared with the righteousness of her rural lover.[13] The loss of rural innocence and her possible fate is symbolised in the calf that has come into the city from a rural life only to be led to slaughter.[14] Women who did not conform to middle class feminine ideals were used by artists because it was able to create more distance between the audience and the poor they depicted. Distance was also created by the frozen sense of drama which Lamborne indicates was a key feature of paintings depicting fallen women.[15]

In contrast to the fallen woman being used metaphorically for the wrongs of the working poor, the masculinity of the labouring man was the metaphor for how the city was able to improve people’s spiritual life. Ford Madox Brown (another Pre-Raphaelite artist) was able to portray moral concerns surrounding the poor in Work, one of the most famous paintings of the Victorian age.Even Brown himself suggested the inspiration for the painting was his belief that labourers were “at least as worthy of the powers of an English painter as the fisherman of the Adriatic, the peasant of the Campagna or the Neapolitan lassarone”, because they were still working, even they were the lowest in society.[16] The navvies who do the main and physical work are seen as heroes who bask in light whereas the aristocracy are in the dark background as they do not participate in work.[17] The street urchin girl at the front also shows a feminine ideal of work as she shows a motherly persona towards her siblings but the red colour of her dress and her exposed shoulders subtly indicate that she has the signs of a future prostitute.[18]

F. M. Brown, Work, 1852-65; Manchester Art Gallery, UK

Despite the good intensions of Social Realism, it was never fashionable as the middle class were the main buyers of art, meaning those depicted would have represented their work force. For this reason, they were not interested in the pity created in the paintings, for the people in them were their capital.[19] Despite the artists hoping to create a realistic portrayal of the poor, the Victorian poor, sentimentality did play a role. With the middle-class audience in mind, an altered image was needed to create a hidden message of social realism. This came in two forms: the idea of the fallen woman, who appealed to the middle class because it did not conform to their feminine ideals, thus distance was created between themselves and the model within the painting; the masculinity of the working poor could also appeal to the middle class connection with work and moral improvement.[20] There also would have been those who purposefully wanted to turn a blind eye, so having a painting of the poor would have been just too close to home for some.

[1] Paxman, J., The Victorians: Britain Through the Paintings of the Age (London: BBC Books, 2009), p. 68; Des Cars, L., The Pre-Raphaelites: Romance and Realism (London: Thames & Hudson, 2000), p. 49.

[2] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 63.                                   

[3] Flint, K., The Victorians and the Visual Imagination (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000), p. 156.

[4] D’Arcy Wood, G., ‘Visual Pleasures, Visual States: Art, Entertainment, and the Nation’ in Klancher, J. (ed), A Concise Companion to the Romantic Age (Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009), p. 246; Pulham, P., ‘The Arts’ in Williams, C. (ed), A Companion to Nineteenth-Century Britain (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007) p. 449.

[5] Flint, K., The Victorians and the Visual Imagination, pp. 152-153.

[6] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 66; Korda, A., Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London: The Graphic and Social Realism, 1869-1891 (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2015), p. 93.

[7] Fildes cited in Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 69.

[8] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 78.

[9] Art Journal, July 1874 cited in Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 70.

[10] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 68.

[11] Des Cars, L., The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 52.

[12] Des Cars, L., The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 52.

[13] Des Cars, L., The Pre-Raphaelites, p. 52; Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, Second Edition(New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012), p. 109.

[14] Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, p. 109.

[15] Lamborne, L., Victorian Painting (London: Phiadon Press Limited, 1999), pulp. 375.

[16] Ford Madox Brown cited in Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 81.

[17] Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, pp. 113-114.

[18] Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, p. 115.

[19] Paxman, J., The Victorians, p. 72; Pulham, P., ‘The Arts’, p. 450.

[20] Korda, A., Printing and Painting the News in Victorian London, p. 94; Baringer, T., Reading the Pre-Raphaelites, p. 18.

The Star Chamber at Bolsover Castle

Since 2016, I have volunteered at Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire every summer as a guide. Sadly, this year I haven’t been able to return due to the pandemic, but the site is open daily between 10 am and 5 pm for pre-booked slots only.[1] I know I’m biased, but I would really recommend a visit if you can. It has a fascinating history and some wonderful period paintings which are well worth seeing. The castle is a wonderful mix of Stuart pleasure with the sense of nostalgia towards the medieval, as designed by father and son team Robert and John Smythson for the father and son owners, Charles and William Cavendish.[2] It has been recognised by some as “the most beautiful house in England, and one of the treasures of Western Europe”.[3] I will leave that judgement up to you if you ever visit, but I can imagine in its heyday, it would have been a spectacular sight to behold.

The first building phase of the current castle was between 1611 and 1617, following the footprint of an older medieval castle that was once in existence. This included the building known as the Little Castle, which was the main living accommodation until the Terrace Range was built in anticipation of a visit from Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria in 1634. The Little Castle was built as William Cavendish’s pleasure holiday home, as he mainly lived at Welbeck Abbey nearby. For this reason, it was sumptuously decorated and furnished. Each room had a theme and relevant imagery was used to show the classical and biblical knowledge of William.

The Little Castle (Author’s Own Image)

One of the most popular rooms in the Little Castle is the Star Chamber, mainly as it was refurnished in 2014 to replicate what it may have once looked like in the Stuart era, and as many visitors have noted, it feels the most homely. The tapestries are not original to the house, they are actually reproduced versions of original 17th century tapestries found at Blickling House in Norfolk. They were recreated by 3D printing onto linen but are still very effective.

The original interiors of the Little Castle, including the Star Chamber were completed roughly between 1619 and 1921. The Star Chamber itself was created as the main entertaining and reception space for the Castle. It would have originally been furnished with a large table to eat from, as well as many seats to be used either during banqueting or for watching or listening to entertainment, with a raised dais to be used by William and either his first wife, Elizabeth Basset, or his second wife, Margaret Lucas.

The Raised Dais (Author’s Own Image)

The theme of this room is biblical, with painted panels depicting old and new testament figures, the largest of which are King David and King Solomon. These contrast with the two painted panels in the corner, which would have once formed a door to a concealed privy. These depict men in armour, and it has been debated about who these are.[4] Some have claimed that it could be William and his brother. There was once another panel depicting a young boy with a pet cat, but sadly this was stolen.[5] Raylor argues that all the paintings in this room are an allegory for political and religious authority, which originated with these biblical figures, and was passed down not just to himself as the local landowner, but replicated in the monarchy.[6] This can be seen in the use of family crests, indicating where William’s personal authority comes from.

Interior of Star Chamber, showing ceiling, Wikimedia Commons

The reason the room is called the Star Chamber is because at some point following William’s death, an auditor named the rooms in an inventory. The Star Chamber took its name from the wonderfully elaborate ceiling, featuring 254 gold leaf stars. This was restored in 2000, when the coving had to be redone. During this process, the ceiling colour was changed. Prior to this, the colour had been a dark blue, to represent the night sky. During the investigation work, an original light blue colour was found underneath, and it was decided to return it to its sky-blue colour. The ceiling would have originally cost a fortune, as the sky-blue colour is blue verditer, which is created by smelting silver.[7] Also during the restoration, an original 17th century playing card was found underneath the coving. It was probably put there by one of the craftsmen who worked there, hoping to be remembered in some way centuries after he had completed his work. Unfortunately, the card is now at the British Museum, but it is only one of many hidden treasures found secreted away in many country houses across the country.

The Star Chamber Fireplace (Author’s Own Image)

The fireplaces throughout the Little Castle, are all made from Derbyshire stone and marble (other than the Italian Marble used in the Marble Closet) either mined in the Peak District, or more locally to the Castle. They all feature slightly different imagery, but the fireplace in the Star Chamber is the most carved and represents different parts of the Cavendish family. The Talbot dogs on the front are to remember George Talbot, the last of William’s grandmother, Bess of Hardwick’s husbands, and through who’s son, sold Bolsover to this side of the Cavendish family. The Cavendish crest is also wrapped around the sides. This is also the only fireplace to have received some damage. It was probably done by Parliamentarian forces who lived here during the Civil War, following William’s forced personal exile after his defeat at the Battle of Marston Moor in July 1644. Luckily for William, despite instructions to have the place destroyed, the Parliamentarians never did, instead choosing to sell it on in 1650.[8] William’s brother, Charles, saved stopped this sale by returning apologetically to England and brought back William’s estates.[9]

Despite not being able to return to Bolsover myself this year, I have extremely fond memories and hope to return next summer. I gave my first ever guided tour last year and it was received very well by visitors and was hoping to do some more this time, but sadly that wasn’t to be. I hope that this short history of one of the most popular rooms, although not my personal favourite (that’s the Heaven Closet), has been a guided tour of sorts, even if it’s in a very different way. By knowing the history and style of the house, it is almost like knowing William Cavendish himself. This very unique house is said to openly reflect his style and character.[10] If you ever have the chance to visit, remember that as you look around the rooms that are full of imagery that often seems to be puzzling to us. It’s just that for whatever reason, the meaning has somehow been lost to us to a certain extent.

[1] Bolsover Castle, English Heritage,

[2] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook (London: English Heritage, Revised Edition, 2016), p. 3.

[3] T. Mowl, Elizabethan and Jacobean Style (1993), cited in Raylor, T., ‘“Pleasure Concealed as Virtue”: William Cavendish, Ben Jonson, and the Decorative Scheme of Bolsover Castle’, Renaissance Quarterly, 52.2 (1999), p. 402.

[4] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 20.

[5] Raylor, T., ‘“Pleasure Concealed as Virtue”, p. 420.

[6] Raylor, T., ‘“Pleasure Concealed as Virtue”, p. 420.

[7] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 20.

[8] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 41.

[9] Drury, P., Bolsover Castle Guidebook, p. 41.

[10] Raylor, T., ‘“Pleasure Concealed as Virtue”, p. 404.

Life After Dickens: The Mistress Who Hid Her Previous Life

Charles Dickens is one of my favourite authors. He so easily describes a version of the Nineteenth Century that has become cemented as fact. Despite his genius in novel writing, like us, he was still only human and was as complicated as the next person. As Claire Tomalin so nicely describes, “everyone finds their own version of Charles Dickens… the angry son, the good friend, the bad husband the quarreller, the sentimentalist, the secret lover, the despairing father, the brilliance in the room.”[1] For me, this sums Dickens up as really, he was all of these things. He was two parts of the same self: the charitable, kind and imaginative man but also the hardworking manic who lived a double life after causing a lot of pain to his family during the separation from his wife, Catherine. I do not think any person with a heart could deny the way he separated her was unfair and deeply horrible. Dickens openly blamed Catherine for his behaviour in a public justification for the marriage breakup in his own magazine, Household Words.[2] Sadly, other than the oldest son, Charley, none of the children were allowed to see their mother, although Katey did see her mother regularly. Katey later wrote that her father caused a lot of pain by not allowing them to visit, but also honestly realised that Dickens would have done the same, no matter who it was he had been married to at the time. The real reason for this was not just marital unhappiness, but Dickens had met Ellen Ternan, a much younger actress, and wished for her to become his mistress.

Bryant, H. C., Charles Dickens (c. 1870), Credit: Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services

Ellen, also known as Nelly, Ternan had only been 18 when she first met Dickens as part of a play called The Frozen Deep, of which Dickens was a co-author and actor in. She was the youngest of three sisters, all actors, who were associated with the production, under the supervision of their mother, who also an actress. Two years after this meeting, Dickens would separate from Catherine, surrounded by rumours that he was having an affair with a younger woman. Whilst this part was true emotionally, it is uncertain as to when their relationship officially became physical. During this time, the rumours falsely involved Georgiana Hogarth, Dickens’ sister-in-law, who acted as housekeeper and nanny.[3] Despite the break up of the family home, Georgiana carried her role as housekeeper until Dickens death in 1870, and continued a friendship with Ellen, hoping this would help preserve the author’s posthumous legacy from scandal.

The relationship with Ellen was described by Dickens at the time as being purely paternal. However, his love of small and young women was known, and can be seen in some of his characters. He often referred to these types of women as a “little mother”, possibly to rekindle a lost sense nostalgia from his traumatic childhood working in the blacking factory.[4] However, he viewed his wife in the last years of their marriage is totally against this angelic image of his ideal woman, viewing her as idle and uncompromising. Holbrook argues that this shows the two-sided part of himself, where he could easily change his attitudes towards women, compartmentalising them into different stereotypes depending on how useful they were to him.[5]

Maclise, D., Catherine Dickens (1847), Credit: Charles Dickens Museum, London

Whatever Dickens reasons were for choosing Nelly over Catherine, there is no denying the fact she did profit from his attention. When the affair was first made public in a newspaper article written by Thomas Wright in 1934, Ternan was branded as a cold-hearted gold digger.[6] Personally I do find this assessment unfair as there is no direct evidence about the personal feelings of Ellen towards Dickens. However, as the Ternans were given houses by Dickens and Ellen herself was left £1,000 (£62,600 in today’s money) in Dickens will, the evidence that survives does unfortunately provided a very one-sided view.[7] Three novels written by Ellen’s sister, Frances, were also published in Dickens’ periodical, All Year Round, again showing that Dickens was willing to advance not just Ellen, but her family too.[8]

Despite a thirteen-year relationship, Dickens was to die in June 1870, surrounded by his family following a stroke after a hard writing session in his Swiss chalet at Gads Hill Place in Kent. This death followed all the Victorian ideas of the perfect death. I myself had never questioned this version, until I recently read A. N. Wilson’s book, The Mystery of Charles Dickens, which was recently published to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Dickens death. In it he puts forward a rather convincing case of what really caused the stroke that killed the author. Instead of writing causing the stroke, Wilson argues it was actually one of Dickens’ illicit visits to Nelly in her home in Peckham.[9] She used this house for these visits as it would have been too noticeable to have him visit the family home in Camden. Peckham was also easily reachable by train from Kent in just under an hour. He had had to be helped onto a train and safely delivered to Gads Hill so he could receive his acceptable death surrounded by his children.[10] Whether this is true or not, life would certainly change for the Ternans following Dickens death.

Photograph of Ellen Ternan, Wikimedia Commons

They moved to Oxford and that is where Ellen met her future husband, George Wharton Robinson, who was studying theology at the university. When the pair met, George was 18 and Ellen was 30, pretending to be 20.[11] They finally married in 1876. By the 1881 census, Ellen was claiming to be 28 but was in fact 42. Their married life revolved around their two children, Geffrey and Gladys, and the school they ran in Margate. Ellen was heavily involved in the social side of it, teaching French and even doing public readings of the works of Charles Dickens.[12] It’s unknown whether George really knew the type of relationship Ellen had had with her favourite author, but her son, Geffrey, apparently found out following her death from breast cancer in 1914, apparently burning any incriminating papers.[13] He stayed remarkably quiet on the matter following the accusations in the newspapers. Gladys however, commented on her disbelief. She denied the association and suggested if it had existed “it could only be because her love for him was so strong it swept aside all other considerations”.[14]

Dickens giving the last reading of his Works. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Whilst we may never know Ellen’s thoughts in her own words, it is the opinions of others that have followed that remains the dominant narrative. There are those that do believe they had a full-blown affair, which is now considered fact. Still, some historians and biographers do not consider this an option, as they continue to argue that it was an entirely platonic relationship or only invested in on Dickens’ part.[15] Nelly’s legacy will always be connected to Dickens in whatever form that relationship took. Sadly there is little know about the real woman behind the mistress, but she was said to have enjoyed politics, books, music and theatre for much of her life.[16] The gold digger version of her does still persist, but after her husband died in 1910, she could no longer afford to life alone. If she did have that nature, surely, she would have known how to maintain her money.

[1] C. Tomalin, Charles Dickens: A Life cited in Balee, S., ‘Charles Dickens: The Show (But Don’t Tell) Man’, The Hudson Review, 64.4 (2012), p. 653.

[2] Sawyer, R., ‘He Do Redemption in Different Voices: Dickens and the Failure of Atonement’, South Atlantic Review, 68.2 (2003), p. 60; Balee, S., ‘Charles Dickens: The Show (But Don’t Tell) Man’, p. 660.

[3] Sawyer, R., ‘He Do Redemption in Different Voices’, pp. 59-60.

[4] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women (New York: New York University Press, 1993), p. 170.

[5] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 168.

[6] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 213.

[7] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens (London: Atlantic Books, 2020), pp. 12-13.

[8] Bowen, J., ‘The Life of Dickens 2: After Ellen Ternan’ in Ledger, S. and Furneaux, H. (eds), Charles Dickens in Context (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), p. 12.

[9] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, pp. 12-13.

[10] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 13.

[11] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 21.

[12] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, p. 211; Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 21.

[13] Wilson, A. N., The Mystery of Charles Dickens, p. 22.

[14] Holbrook, D., Charles Dickens and the Image of Women, pp. 211-212.

[15] Pruitt, S., The Secret Relationship That Charles Dickens Tried to Hide,

[16] Spartacus Educational, Ellen Ternan,

Elizabeth Scales: Heiress, Wife and Lady-in-Waiting

Unfortunately like many women who lived in the medieval period, not much is known about the Lady Elizabeth Scales, other than she was the sole heir to her father’s estates and wife of Anthony Woodville. Most of what we do know of her is glimpsed through how others commented on her, or in connection to her wealth and status as a woman of her own means, with a husband who provided her status as the wife of the much favoured brother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Just like many other women of her time, there are no sources that speak with her own voice or showing her as her own person, just how she connected to the political world around her. Whilst it is difficult to reconstruct Elizabeth, I hope this blog post may help to answer at least some questions about who this mysterious, and often forgotten, woman of the late 15th century was.

Elizabeth Scales was the only surviving child of Thomas, Lord Scales and his wife Emma. The pair had managed to have a son, but it believed he died at a young age, meaning Elizabeth grew up as the heir to her father’s estates.[1] According to the post-mortem inquisitions, her birthdate is estimated at around 1436.[2] Whilst it was rare for women to inherit estates, it did happen. Just as in the case of the Earldom of Warwick, titles could pass to women, hoping that their husband could continue the line at a later date.

Image from page 304 of Wright, T., The Homes of other days: a history of domestic manners and sentiments in England from the earliest known period to modern times (1871). Credit: The British Library.

Her first husband, Henry Bourchier, had died in 1458 and her second marriage to Anthony Woodville is unknown, but it is believed by Susan Higginbotham to have been in the run up to the Battle of Towton in 1461.[3] This can be reasonably assumed as William Paston falsely reported Anthony’s death at the Battle of Towton, where he refers to him as Lord Scales.[4] With this in mind, it is clear that the early parts of their marriage would have been tumultuous, as Thomas Scales was murdered in 1460, as well as facing the bloody battle at Towton.

Elizabeth would have known Anthony even before their marriage as both of their father’s had been friends for many years. Lord Scales was the one nominated Richard Woodville, Anthony’s father, to become a Knight of the Garter in 1450.[5] The pair at this time were loyal to the Lancastrian King Henry VI and were known to offer him military support. Not long after the nomination was made, both men fought alongside each other to stamp out Cade’s Rebellion.[6] They were also regularly seen at court in each other’s company.

Following the death of her father, Elizabeth inherited many manors in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk.[7] This does give some indication of motive behind the marriage between Elizabeth and Anthony, but to only suggest this alone was a factor simplifies the motives for marrying at that time. As both families were intertwined through ties of friendship, they would have both been known to one another and would probably wish to strengthen this bond. It may even be possible that there was some love, or at least affection between the pair.

The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM)/Wikimedia Commons

Sadly, there are no sources that survive that tell us anything in depth about their relationship or what their feelings were towards one another. The only glimpses we have are comments from their time at court, where they were often noted to be in one another’s company. In November 1464 they were part of King Edward’s part at Reading, where they were playing cards together, where John Howard lent Elizabeth 8s and 4d to play.[8] They also were both part of the entourage that escorted Margaret of York to her wedding to Charles the Bold in Bruges. Anthony was chosen as he had been part of the negotiations for the match and as an experienced married woman and member of the court, his wife Elizabeth was deemed a good choice for a companion. No doubt Elizabeth would have offered good advice for what lay ahead. Elizabeth was also chosen for this role as she was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth Woodville, so she also played the part of the Queen’s representative. During the period 1466-1467, we know Elizabeth was paid £40 for the role of lady-in-waiting, the same as the Queen’s sister Anne.[9] In today’s money, this would equate to nearly £27,500. From this it is clear how valued Elizabeth was in the Queen’s household.

In 1466, Anthony placed a legal case to ensure if his wife died before him, the Scales’ estate would pass to him, rather than to distant relatives.[10] Unfortunately we don’t know Elizabeth’s feelings on this manoeuvre, meaning that it could have been possible that she agreed with this decision, as before this, the both of them had managed the Scales’ manors and lands together, most notably Middleton in Norfolk. However, this was outside usual practice and again, there is nothing that suggests Elizabeth’s exact opinion on the matter.

Middleton Towers near King’s Lynn (Author’s Own Image)

Elizabeth died in 1473, when Anthony was away on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. No matter what their relationship was really like, this must have been a massive blow. Anthony had gone on this pilgrimage in honour of his late mother and in doing so, was not there when his wife died. Perhaps this is why the pilgrimage was a profound experience for him, especially as he adapted the pilgrimage shell as his personal symbol from then onwards, as well as it being the reason for his later translation of the Dictes and Sayings of Philosophers.

Anthony did go on to later remarry, but despite more than one match being offered for him, including Mary of Burgundy and Princess Margaret of Scotland, he didn’t do so until around 1480 to Mary FitzLewis, through another family connection. In his will Anthony makes more mention to his first wife than his second, which may suggest he had more affection for Elizabeth than Mary. In it he asked that 500 marks be used for prayers in the name of the souls of Elizabeth, her brother Edward and all the Scales family.[11] The will is perhaps the only source we have where Anthony directly mentions Elizabeth. Lynda Pigeon has described the will as making “no affectionate mention” to Elizabeth, which wrongly suggests the use of a will.[12] A will is a business transaction and as Anthony’s was written whilst incarcerated at Sherriff Hutton, probably knowing his fate was execution, it would have been made hastily and with the knowledge that it may not have been carried out.

As I have already mentioned, there are little sources that describe the personality of Elizabeth, or her relationship with Anthony. I hope this blog post has helped show glimpses of what little is known about this woman who does appear to have been very capable in her roles as heiress, courtier and wife. She did not have children of her own, but she would have known of Anthony’s illegitimate daughter, Margaret, that he had before their marriage. Perhaps that means we can add a mother figure to the list of achievements this remarkable woman had to her name, no matter how little we know about her.


[2] TNA: (142/1/36 Cambridge); (142/1/37 Hertford); (142/1/38 Norfolk) cited in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), p. 78.

[3] Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 78.

[4] James Gardiner (ed), Paston Letters, no. 90, part 1.

[5] George Smith (ed) Coronation of Elizabeth Wydeville: Queen Consort of Edward IV on May 26th, 1465 cited in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 78.

[6] I. M. W. Harvey, Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 cited in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 78.

[7] Pidgeon, L., ‘Antony Wydevile, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers: Family, Friends and Affinity, Part 2.’, The Ricardian, 16 (2006), pp. 16-17.

[8] Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 79.

[9] A. R. Myers, ‘The Household of Queen Margaret of Anjou, 1452-3’, The Bulletin of the Rylands Library, 40 (1957-58) cited in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 79.

[10] Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 80.

[11] Anthony’s Will, appendix in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 181.

[12] Pidgeon, L., ‘Antony Wydevile, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers: Family, Friends and Affinity, Part 2.’, The Ricardian, 16 (2006), p. 3.

The Public Image of Miss Annie Oakley

Since a teenager, I have been fascinated with Annie Oakley, the sharpshooting ‘cowgirl’ of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. It was mainly because she had found local fame in her native Ohio as a teenager herself, taking part in shooting contests. Yet it was this, as well as touring with her husband Frank Butler, that would eventually lead her to the international fame being a member of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West brought. To me then, as well as now, there is something attractive in the fact this petite woman became respected in a man’s environment. So much so that her own husband saw her skills and backed out of the limelight to let her shine. This is part of what gives Annie Oakley a timeless quality, especially to women.

As Glenda Riley suggests, her image of a respectable woman who had gained her fame through hard work is what gives Annie her universal appeal, both in her own time and long after her death nearly a century ago.[1] She purposefully distanced herself from other performing women at the time as she maintained an air of Victorian femininity. She purposefully wore long skirts with leggings underneath and always used side-saddle for her horse riding tricks.[2] Her look was key to gaining her acceptance in a career that was often thought risqué and degrading, especially for the other cowgirls who donned men’s attire.[3]

Fox, R. K., Copyright Claimant. Annie Oakley – famous rifle shot and holder of the Police Gazette championship medal. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

Her skill with a gun was undeniable and she was purposefully marketed by Buffalo Bill’s show as the strong woman, which helped to be an idol for the women coming to watch.[4] Just as Buffalo Bill was the embodiment of the male experience of the Wild West, so Annie became the poster girl for the female experience.[5] As one Glasgow journalist commented on the young woman’s skill with a shotgun and a horse:

Annie “is another living illustration of the fact that a woman, independent of her physique, can accomplish whatever she persistently and earnestly sets her mind to overtake”.[6]

No one would have guessed, despite the obvious signs of shear hard work that had gone into developing her skills, just how bad her childhood had been to force her into learning how to sharp shoot. Her family were very poor farmers and she was one of 7 children by the time her father Jacob passed away from pneumonia in 1866 after he had been caught out in a blizzard. She was passed around different homes and was often physically abused but for the sake of her family hopefully being paid by her work, she taught herself to shoot and trap small animals.[7] The little and destitute Annie Oakley of those days could never have dreamed of finding international fame in later life, but her associations with upper and middle class society allowed her a voice she wouldn’t have been able to use otherwise.

C. mid-1880’s poster for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, advertising “Miss Annie Oakley, the peerless lady wing-shot” (Wikimedia Commons)

She was often quite vocal on training women to shoot, even if only for protection purposes. Given her own background, it is clear why she would have thought this a necessity. Still, there was a need for any woman who chose to learn how to wield a gun to maintain an air of dignity. At the time it was suggested that women should hide guns in their parasols, which sounds as if it could be in a James Bond film. By acting as a female role model in this way, Annie helped broaden the female sphere, showing it was acceptable for women to be independent by learning how to shoot, but whilst still adhering to female ideals at that time. She made sure the best furniture, such as carpets, tables and chairs, were available so that she could invite friends for tea and cake, but always made sure her guns were on display.[8] Many women joined shooting clubs themselves, following on in Annie’s image of the respectable lady shooter, especially many society women she taught to shoot, hunt and camp whilst in London. For this reason, despite not caring in a political form of feminism, just for extending the pursuits of women, “she became and has remained a symbol of the liberated female”.[9] Even during World War 1, when she was nearing her 60s, Annie offered her services. Writing to officials, she offered to be the officer for a regiment of women shooters or to assist in training cadets how to shoot.[10] Unfortunately, both of these offers were rejected. What a story it would have turned out to be if they hadn’t though!

Annie Oakley, with gun Buffalo Bill gave her / staff photo. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress,

The pair retired in 1901 following a train crash that left Frank’s back injured, but Annie continued to have letters and messages from nostalgic fans who remembered her in the good old days. She died in 1926 and Frank followed her 18 days later following spouts of ill health for them both. Little Sure Shot, as her adopted father Chief Sitting Bull nicknamed her, was gone, but her ability to combine Victorian dignifying femininity and the Wild West still lingers on and I hope it will for a long time to come.

Despite being the first cowgirl of note, since her death, Annie Oakley has become more associated with the idea of show business rather than her true skill. Whilst there is of course some element of show business to her life, it was all based around her innate handling of a gun. Despite her appearance in many Hollywood films, many seem to forget how her she found a unique sense of Victorian femininity that promoted her in many ways above her husband. For instance, in Annie Get Your Gun (1950), Annie purposefully loses to her future husband Frank in a gun competition. This suggests that as a woman, she shouldn’t defeat a man.[11] In reality, Annie had first met Frank, when she was a teenager, by beating him at a local shooting competition. They did act as partners in a show that showed off their shooting skills following an illness of his show business partner. However, once Annie’s fame grew, it was he that stood back and became an assistant to her, not the other way around.[12]

[1] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1994)

[2] Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, Montana The Magazine of the Western History, 45.3 (1995), pp. 40-41.

[3] Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 40.

[4] W. E. Deahl, ‘Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, 1885’, Annals of Wyoming, 47 (1975) cited in Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, pp. 34-35

[5] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley

[6] Eastern Bells, December 1891, cited in Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 38

[7] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley

[8] Riley, G., The Life and Legacy of Annie Oakley; Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 41.

[9] Kaspar, S., Annie Oakley (Norman and London: University of Oklahoma Press, 1992), p. 246.

[10] Anderson, A., ‘Annie Oakley (1860-1926)’, National Women’s History Museum

[11] S. K. Schackel, ‘Women in Western Films: the Civilizer, the Saloon Singer, and Their Modern Sister’, in A. P. McDonald (ed), Shooting Stars: Heroes and Heroines of Western Film cited in Riley, G., ‘Annie Oakley: Creating the Cowgirl’, p. 46.

[12] Sayers, I. S., Annie Oakley and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show (New York: Dover Publications Inc, 1981); Anderson, A., ‘Annie Oakley (1860-1926)’, National Women’s History Museum

Christian Davies: First Woman to be Paid an Army Pension in her Own Right

Female veterans were officially accepted into the Royal Hospital at Chelsea in 2009 but there was one who arrived in the 1730s. Her name was Christian Davies and she certainly had a story to tell. She lived a life that wasn’t available to most women of the eighteenth century and quite a lot of it was spent on the battlefield. The idea of war would have been known to her as she was born in 1667, the English Civil War would have been within living memory. Her protestant father had also supported James II during the Williamite War in Ireland, dying from wounds following the Battle of Aughrim in July 1691.[1] At some point after the death of her father, she went to live with an aunt who ran a pub and it would be this move that set her life on a very different path.

Whilst living with her aunt, Christian fell in love with a servant at the pub by the name of Richard Welsh. They were married and ended up having 3 children together. Their life together seemed rather ordinary until during the last pregnancy, Richard disappeared without a trace. It turned out he had been signed up for the army and shipped off to the Netherlands to fight. A letter was sent home by him explaining that he had been drunk and had woken up on a ship surrounded by other soldiers on their way to war.[2] There would have been a social stigma attached to Christian if word had got out her husband had abandoned her, regardless of the real facts. Rather than face the sad situation, she left her children with her mother and made the rather unusual choice to join the army herself and find Richard. Whether her intention was solely to find her husband or to use his disappearance as an excuse to find the opportunity for adventure, we’ll never know, but whatever those reasons, her choice to join the army herself was an incredibly brave one.[3]

Kit Cavenaugh, aka Mother Ross and Christian Davies (1706), from the Scottish Military Historical Society

Christian changed her name to Kit Cavanagh and became a rather skilful soldier, fighting in both the Nine Years War and the War of Spanish Succession. The first battle it is known she fought at was the Battle of Landen in July of 1693, where she was wounded and taken prisoner by the French.[4] She was released in a prisoner swap a year later but her secret was still not known. How Christian managed to keep her gender a secret for upwards of 13 years is a miracle, especially considering some of the situations she found herself in. She fought a duel with a sergeant in the same regiment for attacking a young woman in hopes of defending the woman’s honour.[5] The sergeant was killed and she was dismissed but soon after reenlisted in the Royal North British Dragoons, which later became the Scots Greys.[6] As if that wasn’t awkward enough, a prostitute later claimed that Kit Cavanagh was the father of her child but instead of telling the truth and decrying the other woman as a liar, Christian instead paid for the baby’s maintenance.[7] The bizarre situations the imposter found herself in didn’t stop there. In a biography later published in 1740 following her death, which claimed to have come from her own words, Cavanagh said she managed to fool the rest of her regiment into believing she was a man by using a tube with leather straps to pee through.[8] If that part was true, it shows how much effort she put into her disguise and possibly how stupid the other men around her were.

L. Laguerre, The Battle of Malplaquet (Tanières), 1709: The Duke of Marlborough and Prince Eugene Entering the French Entrenchments, Wiki Commons/Art UK

Following the Battle of Blenheim in 1704, Christian finally found Richard after she was put in charge of some French prisoners. Richard was getting flirty with a Dutch woman and Christian’s anger showed her true identity. Begging to still remain a soldier, Christian insisted the pair act as brothers.[9] It was not until a more serious injury of a fractured skull from the Battle of Ramillies that the truth was discovered by an army doctor. Instead of instantly sending her home, the regiment’s commanding officer recognised Kit’s bravery and allowed her to keep her pay until she was fully recovered, then would be allowed to stay as a camp follower as a soldier’s wife.[10] This situation continued for 3 years until Richard was finally killed at the Battle of Malplaquet on the 11th of September 1709.

The army life still called to her and Christian decided to stay following the Scots Greys. This led to a brief relationship with a Captain Ross, hence the nickname Mother Ross, and a 3 month marriage with a man called Hugh Jones, before he died also.[11] The wandering life never left her even when she returned to Ireland. She owned many pubs but never settled on one, despite her third and final marriage. Despite her return to a somewhat normal life, Christian remained a celebrity from her life in the army, so in some ways the army had never left her. She was presented to Queen Anne and received a £50 and 1 shilling pension from her, besides a separate pension from the Duke of Marlborough.[12] In her final years she was accepted as a pensioner at the Royal Chelsea Hospital and died there on the 7th of July 1739, later to be given a funeral with full military honours.[13]

The Royal Hospital, Chelsea: viewed from the Surrey bank with boats on the river. Coloured engraving. Credit: Wellcome CollectionAttribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)

Whilst there is debate as to whether the posthumous biography on Christian Davies, under the name of Kit Cavanagh, used her own words, it does certainly shed light on life in an army camp at that time.[14] It became a go-to book on women’s experience of war during the early part of the eighteenth century, which was often overlooked at the time.[15] Yet there is a more complex context behind it than who’s words were used to create this biography. It did one of two things; help promote nationalism for men and women at a time of further conflict during the Anglo-Spanish War and the War of Austrian Succession and celebrated a woman who was able to defy the typical gender roles that were expected of her.[16]

[1] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, 1682-2017 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2019), p. 192.

[2] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 193; Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women (Dublin: O’Brien Press, 2012).

[3] Traynor, J., ‘The crossdresser from Dublin who tricked the British Army’, The Irish Times, 27 June 2018,

[4] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 193.

[5] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 194; Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women.

[6] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 194.

[7] Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women.

[8] Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women.

[9] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, pp. 194-195.

[10] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 195.

[11] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 196.

[12] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 196; Broderick, M., Wild Irish Women.

[13] Wynn, S. and Wynn, T., A History of the Royal Hospital Chelsea, p. 196.

[14] Lynn, J. A., ‘Essential Women, Necessary Wives, and Exemplary Soldiers: The Military Reality and Cultural Representation of Women’s Military Participation (1660-1815)’, in Hacker, B. C. and Vining, M. (eds), A Companion to Women’s Military History (Leiden: Brill, 2012), p. 127.

[15] Lynn, J. A., ‘Essential Women, Necessary Wives, and Exemplary Soldiers’, p. 127.

[16] Bowen, S., ‘”The Real Soul of a Man in her Breast”: Popular Opposition and British Nationalism in Memoirs of Female Soldiers, 1740-1750’, Eighteenth-Century Life, 28.3 (2004), p. 20; J. Wheelwright, ‘”Amazons and Military Maids”: An Examination of Female Heroines in British Literature and the Changing Construction of Gender’, Women’s Studies International Forum, 10.5 (1987), cited in Bowen, S., “The Real Soul of a Man in her Breast”, p. 21.