Anthony Babington and the Babington Plot

As a bit of a change from what I normally write on the blog, I thought I would share something that has a local connection to where I live. It has national significance, but all starts with Anthony Babington, a Derbyshire man. I have known of Anthony Babington from a young age for many reasons. First of all, he was a major landowner of my hometown during the late sixteenth century. The other is that he, as well as his association with Mary Queen of Scots, are the subject of one of my favourite childhood books, A Traveller in Time, written by local author, Alison Uttley. It tells the story of a girl who slips in and out of the 1580s, when Anthony was plotting to help the imprisoned Mary Queen of Scots to escape. I would definitely recommend reading it. Whilst of course this is a work of fiction, it’s based on the very real Babington Plot, which was named after Babington’s involvement.

Anthony Babington was born in October 1561 in Dethick, Derbyshire, to Henry Babington and his wife, Mary. He was their third child and eldest son. The family were well connected and were wealthy local landowners. Anthony’s grandfather, John, had been High Sheriff of Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, who had fought and died for Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth. As a boy, Anthony had served as a page in Sheffield to George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury, and his wife, Bess of Hardwick, jailers of Mary Queen of Scots, who had been in his charge since February 1568.[1] As the Babington family were secret Catholics, Anthony became drawn to Mary, a Catholic herself.

Portrait of George Talbot, 6th Earl of Shrewsbury (1580), National Trust, Wikimedia Commons

During Anthony’s life, to be Catholic was seen as wrong. With the Protestant Elizabeth I on the throne, Catholicism was seen as something to be suspicious of. Her ministers, especially her spymaster, Walsingham, viewed Catholics as capable of treason. This was proved to be true at times when plots to replace Elizabeth with Mary Queen of Scots were uncovered, although the majority of Catholics just wished to worship in peace. It was only a matter of time until Babington himself became embroiled in the final one of these plots.

In 1580, Anthony went to London, where he joined a secret society that supported Jesuit missionaries.[2] His involvement with this underground activity meant that following the execution of the clandestine Catholic priest, Edward Campion, he decided to retire back to Derbyshire, before later deciding to go abroad. Anthony’s involvement in secret plots began to deepen whilst he was abroad. Whilst in Paris, he became involved with supporters of Mary Queen of Scots. They were planning on helping her to escape and were offered assistance from Spain if they assassinated Elizabeth I.[3] He was given letters for Mary and returned to England.

Mickie Collins, Manor Farm at Dethick, Derbyshire (1999), Wikimedia Commons

In May 1586, a Catholic priest known as John Ballard became part of the plot. By this point, the plan included destroying the entire Protestant government and included many Catholics from across the country. Messages were sent to and from Mary, who was by then being held in Chartley Hall in Staffordshire, by hiding them in the stopper of a beer barrel from Burton on Trent, which is still known for beer making.[4] These messages were coded to try and deter any would-be interceptors. However, the plot was deciphered by codebreaker, Thomas Phelippes, who worked at Chartley, and a double agent, Gilbert Gifford, who was part of Babington’s circle, but also one of Walsingham’s spies.[5] With the discovery, John Ballard was arrested on 4 August 1568 and he probably betrayed his co-conspirators under torture.

In the meantime, Babington had applied for a new passport to travel abroad, claiming he needed it so he could spy on Catholic refugees, but really he needed to help organise help for the plot. When the passport was delayed, he offered to report a conspiracy to Walsingham if it helped speed up the passport process.[6] There was no response to this request. Instead, Babington supposedly found out he was being investigated after seeing a note about himself whilst in the company of one of Walsingham’s servants.[7] He fled to St John’s Wood, an area of woodland outside of London at the time, but is now close to Regent’s Park. The authorities found him at the end of August just nine miles away in Harrow, where he was being hidden by a Catholic convert.[8]

Portrait of a young gentleman, said to be Anthony Babington, Wikimedia Commons

Babington, Ballard and five others were given a trial that lasted two days over the 13 and 14 of September. Babington pleaded guilty but placed all the blame for the plot on Ballard. This did him little good as the only logical outcome for the charge of treason was to be sentenced to death. This sentence was passed and the guilty parties were due to be hung, drawn and quartered. Despite knowing his fate, on the 19 of September, the day before the scheduled execution, Babington wrote a desperate letter to Elizabeth I, pleading for mercy and offering £1,000, around £171,600 in today’s money, for a pardon.[9] This wasn’t granted and the execution went ahead.

The execution was held at what is modern day Lincoln’s Inn Fields, which is a public square next to Lincoln’s Inn, one of the Inns of Court where barristers belong to. At the time of the execution of the conspirators, it was agricultural fields outside of London. This site was chosen as it was one of the places the conspirators gathered for secret meetings.[10] A crowd numbering in the thousands watched the horrific execution on a scaffold that was built purposefully tall so that the crowd could see it easily.[11] Ballard was the first of the seven to be executed, followed by Babington. Another seven conspirators were due to be executed at the same place the following day. Out of these fourteen men, the majority of them were minor courtiers, who, like Babington, were wealthy and well connected.[12]

Image of Mary Queen of Scots from “Memoirs of Mary Stuart, Queen of Scotland” (1844), British Library

Whilst that may have been the end of the story as far as Babington was concerned, it was not the end of the far reaching consequences of the plot. Of the letters that were used as evidence for the plot, many had been written by Mary Queen of Scots, who encouraged the conspirators. Whilst Elizabeth had previously saved Mary from execution for the previous Ridolfi plot, it was harder to deny her involvement when there were letters between Mary and the conspirators, which suggested she knew of the plan to assassinate Elizabeth.[13] Whatever evidence there was, Elizabeth was reluctant to execute another sovereign and hesitated issuing a death warrant. A warrant was drawn up in December of 1586, but Elizabeth refused to sign until 1 February 1587, after fearing further threats.[14] Discussions were held by between representatives of Elizabeth and those in charge of Mary, who was being held at Fotheringhay Castle.[15] There wasn’t one and so Mary was finally executed a week after the warrant had been signed.

I hope this post has offered a good insight into how local history can often relate to national history but also raise awareness of the importance that Anthony Babington had on sealing the fate of Mary Queen of Scots. Look out for a guest post written by Laura Adkins on Fotheringhay Castle. It should be coming soon and links in with this post.


[1] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, Encyclopedia Britannica, 27 Sep. 2021, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington; Batho, G. R., ‘The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots’, The Scottish Historical Review, 39.127 (1960), p. 38.

[2] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington

[3] Ibid.

[4] Wilkes, J., and Borman, T., ‘Alternate History: What if the Babington Plot to Assassinate Elizabeth I Had Succeeded?’, History Extra, https://www.historyextra.com/period/elizabethan/babington-plot-assasinate-elizabeth-i-alternate-history/; Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington

[5] Wilkes, J., and Borman, T., ‘What if the Babington Plot to Assassinate Elizabeth I Had Succeeded?’, History Extra, https://www.historyextra.com/period/elizabethan/babington-plot-assasinate-elizabeth-i-alternate-history/

[6] Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Lyons, M., ‘The Terrible Execution of the Babington Conspirators’, London Historian’s Blog, 20 September 2016, https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/the-terrible-execution-of-the-babington-conspirators/; Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia, ‘Anthony Babington’, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Anthony-Babington

[11] Lyons, M., ‘The Terrible Execution of the Babington Conspirators’, London Historian’s Blog, 20 September 2016, https://londonhistorians.wordpress.com/2016/09/20/the-terrible-execution-of-the-babington-conspirators/

[12] Ibid

[13] Batho, G. R., ‘The Execution of Mary Queen of Scots’, p. 38.

[14] Ibid, p. 39.

[15] Ibid

End of 2021 Thanks and Update

For me, just like everyone else, 2021 has been yet another hard year. I sincerely hope that 2022 is a better year for all of us, although I definitely remember saying the same thing at the end of 2020. I have been suffering from a foot injury since May, which is only just starting to get a bit better. Sadly that has meant not being able to do much and certainly not drive, which has been the most frustrating. At least it has meant I have had more of an opportunity to write more when I can.

Before I go on to give a further update on things, I just want to take the time to thank each and every person who has read, shared, liked and followed the blog this year. It genuinely has meant to much to me that the blog has brought people enjoyment through such tough times. This year has been the best year for views since I started this blog three years ago. The best post of all this year has been on Brushy Bill Roberts, a man who claimed to be the infamous Billy the Kid. That can be read here. All that is down to all of you readers, so sending lots of virtual love and hugs your way!

Photograph of Brushy Bill Roberts

A new thing this year has been guest posts from other writers. It has meant a lot to me that others have wanted to contribute in various ways. I’ve certainly enjoyed hosting them, so I hope you’ve also enjoyed the very interesting content they’ve created, just as much as I have reading them too. Look out for more of this next year too, with lots more interesting topics. I can definitely promise you that! I have also done quite a few guest posts on other blogs, which has also been an honour.

Another wonderful first was attending the Jane Austen festival in Bath. I should have visited last year, but Covid circumstances meant it was cancelled. As a lifetime Jane Austen fan, this was something I really wanted to do. My sister made our dresses and I must admit she made did a brilliant job with them considering she’d never really sewed historical costumes before. I would definitely recommend it to anyone interested, even if it was just to witness the amount of people in Regency dress walking around Bath.

There have been lots of firsts this year too. I’ve also done two of my first ever online talks on my research into the life of Anthony Woodville, brother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, the wife of Edward IV. I never would have thought that possible not long ago. One was alongside author and historian, Michele Schindler, for the Be Bold History Network, on the connection between Anthony and Richard III and Francis Lovell, the most trusted friend of Richard. This can be viewed here if you would like. The other I did was a brief talk based on an academic poster for this year’s conference held by the Royal Studies Network based on Anthony’s role as educator of Edward V. Another first for me was being a guest on the Tudor Dynasty podcast on William Caxton’s contribution to printing in England in the late fifteenth century, with lots of mention of Edward IV and Anthony Woodville thrown in. If you’d like to listen to that, it can be found here.

The most exciting announcement I have to make is one that means the world to me. For the last seven years, I have been researching about the life of Anthony Woodville, with the dream of one day writing a book on this often overlooked figure from the Wars of the Roses. I approached a publisher back in 2019 with little success, but this summer, I decided to try again with a different publisher. Earlier this month, I found that it has been accepted and it has a hand in date of May 2023. I hope that in the future, you will look forward to this as this project honestly means so much to me. Thank you for all of you who have so far supported my research, it will be of so much help whilst writing the book. Special mention must go to Kevin and Alan, volunteers at Pontefract and Sandal Castles, who have already been extremely helpful. They have been creating a very useful website on the history of both sites. It can be found here.

Portrait of a young gentleman, said to be Anthony Babington, Wikimedia Commons

This shouldn’t hinder the blog, so I hope that you can continue to enjoy the blog in the coming year. There are lots of interesting topics planned ranging from Victorian prison hulks, medieval London, to pioneering women. I hope they’ll be something there for you to enjoy. The first posts coming in January 2022 are linked to Mary Queen of Scots, including one about Anthony Babington, a local landowner that once owned my hometown in Derbyshire, who was involved in the Catholic plot that resulted in the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

All that is left now is to wish you all a healthy and much better 2022. May it be a better one for all of us. Most importantly, thank you all once again for your support over the last year. Each and every view, like and share means a lot to me, so I pass on my hearty thanks and love to all of you.

In the Bleak Midwinter- Origins of a Christmas Carol, Guest Post by Andrew Rothe

An empty field in the middle of the countryside. Kneeling before a freshly-dug grave with a gun to his head, notorious Birmingham gangster Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders, closes his eyes and utters what he thinks will be his final few words before death. In that incredibly tense, heart-stopping moment, what does this infamous criminal choose to say?

“In the Bleak Midwinter.”

Yes, the title of a Christmas carol. [1]

But why? More importantly, what’s the history behind this much-loved festive tune?

Christina Rossetti’s poem as it appears in Scribner’s Monthly (1871)

Part 1: Christina Rossetti

To examine the history of the carol, we first have to look at the poem it was based on. A poem that will be celebrating its 150th birthday in January 2022.

It was in late 1871 that Scribner’s Monthly (or to give its full name; Scribner’s Monthly: An Illustrated Magazine for the People), a relatively new American literary publication founded in 1870, approached famous British poet Christina Rossetti asking for a contribution for their winter 1871/1872 edition. Rossetti herself was experiencing increased periods of illness at this time, something that had plagued her for much of her life and would continue to do so till her final days, but still wrote back with an offering for publication. Simply titled ‘A Christmas Carol’, the poem featured on page 278 with an illustration of the nativity above it. [2]

Frontispiece of Scribner’s Monthly

After this initial appearance in Scribner, it took another 3 years before the poem was first released as part of a book of Rossetti’s assorted poetry in 1875, published, as with much of her work, by the now-iconic Macmillan’s of London [3]. At this point, it was simply one of many poems in her back catalogue and it would take several more years before the evolution into musical hymn and rise to household status would begin.

Part 2: Gustav Holst

In Edwardian England around the years 1904 to 1905, composer Gustav Holst, in his mid-30’s and happily married to wife Isobel since 1901, was approached by his close friend and colleague Ralph Vaughan Williams to contribute to a new project he was working on.

In 1904, Vaughan Williams was himself approached by clergyman Percy Dearmer, tasked with helping to assemble a new Church of England hymnbook. There was already a hymnbook in wide circulation throughout the Church of England at this time, Hymns Ancient & Modern, first published in 1863, but its latest edition in 1904 had been met with much criticism. Hymn numbers were jumbled around, wording had been altered and some much-loved hymns of the time had been left out altogether. Dearmer and several other discontented voices within his parish had decided that they would commission something new to take its place.

Initially named English Hymns and written simply for local use, this idea quickly grew in scale with the involvement of Oxford University Press and became The English Hymnal, intended for widespread publication throughout the nation. Being a clergyman and not a composer, Dearmer reached out to Vaughan Williams to assist him with the musical side of editing the final publication. Dearmer, having heard of Vaughan Williams and his musical prowess from English folk song collector Cecil Sharp (who was also a friend and collaborator of Holst), was confident that the 32-year-old composer would hopefully accomplish this task in just 2 months; it actually ended up taking 2 years! [5]

As well as In the Bleak Midwinter, Gustav Holst would go on to submit two other hymns for The English Hymnal; From Glory to Glory Advancing and Holy Ghost, but In the Bleak Midwinter has definitely become the more well-known to contemporary and secular audiences. It is highly likely that Holst first came upon Rossetti’s words thanks to a publication of her collected works released in 1904. The tune he wrote to accompany them is known as ‘Cranham’, named for the Gloucestershire village where Holst spent many years of his life. (4). The exact time and place where ‘Cranham’ was created remains unclear, although it’s perhaps unsurprising that many residents of Cranham village like to stake a claim that the tune was composed in the very place from which it takes its name! [6][7]

The English Hymnal (1906) by Oxford University Press, edited by Percy Dearmer and Ralph Vaughan Williams, Wikimedia Commons

After years of work, The English Hymnal was finally published in 1906; the words/lyrics edition appearing in May of that year, followed by the tunes/sheet music edition some weeks later. The end product that Dearmer and Vaughan Williams had delivered radically divided opinions within the Church of England.  The book’s more Catholic undertones, especially regarding the Virgin Mary and the Intercession of Saints, drew the ire of several Bishops and members of the clergy.

The Bishop of Bristol, George Forrest Browne, banned the book in his Diocese, stating “I cannot reconcile it to my conscience, or to my historical sense, to do less than prohibit a book which would impress upon the Church of England tendencies so dangerous.”. This caused further outrage in the press, and eventually the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, got involved by censuring The English Hymnal. [8]

Throughout this discourse, Dearmer remained steadfast and defended his creation. Oxford University Press, worried that the drama may cause sales to dip, eventually agreed a compromise with Dearmer and released an ‘abridged’ version of The English Hymnal in 1907, with the ‘controversial elements’ removed. This seemed to satisfy the critics, yet the revised version quietly seemed to fade into obscurity over the following years, not seeing any further reprints following the initial production run. In fact the only major revision to The English Hymnal after this was in 1933, when Vaughan Williams made some changes to the Tunes edition (no changes were made to the original lyrical/word edition). This 1933 version is the one that has remained in circulation through to the present day. [5]

Part 3: Harold Darke

From its initial release in 1906, Holst’s ‘In the Bleak Midwinter’ has become a firm favourite with carol singers and choirs around the world. The tune, although labelled as ‘dreary’ by some, has become as iconic as Rossetti’s words, and can be regularly heard in a smorgasbord of places during the Christmas season. But Gustav Holst was not the only one inspired to combine the words of Christina Rossetti’s poem with music to create a festive hymn. Just 5 years later than Holst, another composer would add his own unique take on this Christmas classic.

In 1911, 23-year-old Harold Darke was a student at the Royal College of Music and also the resident organist at Emmanuel Church in West Hampstead. The exact circumstances surrounding the conception of his tune are hard to fathom, but it was in that year that London-based publishers Stainer and Bell first printed the music for his creation. [9][10]

It’s a distinctive melody, quite different from Holst’s tune. Performances naturally vary between different choirs and carol singers, but in many performances of Darke’s tune the first verse is usually performed by a soprano as a solo, Rossetti’s fourth stanza is omitted altogether, and the final line is often repeated.

This version, noted for its higher degree of complexity, has become the more popular with professional choirs around the world. Fittingly reflecting Harold Darke’s tenure as organist of King’s College, Cambridge, during the Second World War, this version is still a firm favourite with the King’s College Choir and still regularly appears in their famous Christmas Eve ‘Nine Lessons and Carols’ service, enjoyed by radio listeners and television viewers around the globe. (11)

The appeal of this tune remains strong well into the 21st century; A 2008 BBC poll to find the ‘best’ Christmas carol was conducted with 51 directors of music across the UK and US, and they voted Darke’s version of In the Bleak Midwinter into the top slot at number 1. (12)

Part 4: Midwinter’s Legacy

Sadly, Christina Rossetti and Gustav Holst were plagued by severe health complications throughout their life, and both would die relatively young, never truly seeing the scale of the legacy of their work.

Rossetti died in 1894 at the age of 64 after a bout of breast cancer, over a decade before Holst’s adaption of her words. One can only wonder what she’d have made of a Christmas carol being created out of her poetry.

Holst himself died in 1934 at the age of 59 owing to heart failure, in part caused by an unsuccessful operation to treat an ulcer. He lived to see the release of The English Hymnal, but sadly not to observe the lasting popularity of his work throughout the latter half of the 20th century. Fittingly, Ralph Vaughan Williams conducted the music at his memorial service.

Harold Darke had a far longer life, finally passing away at the age of 88 in 1976. However, his lasting views on In the Bleak Midwinter were less than positive; despite bearing witness to the success of his creation, he allegedly grew to dislike it, becoming irritated that he wasn’t better known or recognised for his other pieces of work.

So, what of Tommy Shelby, leader of the Peaky Blinders? Why do the main characters of Stephen Knight’s highly successful period crime-drama series seem so obsessed with a Christmas carol?

Shelby himself explains in one episode that the family’s shared love for the carol goes back to their time serving in the First World War, and a particularly gruelling winter’s night when they all widely believed, and accepted, that they were to be rushed and killed by enemy forces. The group’s Padre, Jeremiah (played by poet Benjamin Zephaniah) suggested that they all sing the carol in that moment. When they survived the night and the enemy forces never came, they concluded that they had been spared by an act of divine mercy, and that everything in their lives from that moment until their actual deaths would be considered ‘extra’. [13] The carol goes on to appear multiple times throughout the show’s story, popping up in multiple episodes, often in the moments when various characters think that their death is imminent.

Author’s own image

Conclusion

Christina Rossetti’s beautiful poem turns 150 years old this winter and it’s a tribute to her skill as a writer that her words, be it sung or spoken, remain so popular with so many people over 100 years after her passing.

I could have written a blog post about the history of any number of fascinating Christmas carols, as they each have their own amazing stories. From the inspired last-minute improvisation behind the creation of ‘Silent Night’ through to the violent end of the life of Wenceslas I of Bohemia (‘Good King Wenceslas’), itself easily worthy of starring in an episode of Horrible Histories.

But I have a big soft spot for In the Bleak Midwinter. It’s a poignant carol. It’s delicate, melancholy and yet simultaneously comforting at the same time. It remains my favourite carol and I have no doubt that it will remain a regular fixture of carol concerts and church services for many years to come.

Thank you for reading! A big thank you to Danie for giving me this spot in her wonderful blog! She’s absolutely brilliant, please do go back through her older posts and give them a look. It was lovely to write this piece and research an area of history I don’t normally delve into.

It only remains to say that I hope you all had a safe, peaceful Christmas and I wish you all a prosperous, trouble-free New Year.

Andrew, a MA Museum & Heritage Development graduate from Nottingham Trent University

Sources and images

  1. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b04nyw0f/peaky-blinders-series-2-episode-6?seriesId=b04kkm8q
  2. https://archive.org/details/scribnersmonthly03newy/page/n5/mode/1up?view=theater
  3. https://www.panmacmillan.com/about-pan-macmillan
  4. http://landofllostcontent.blogspot.com/2009/12/gustav-holst-in-bleak-mid-winter.html
  5. https://www.bl.uk/20th-century-music/articles/vaughan-williams-and-the-english-hymnal
  6. https://www.bbc.co.uk/gloucestershire/content/articles/2008/12/18/midwinter_feature.shtml
  7. https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52218436
  8. https://www.telegraph.co.uk/comment/personal-view/3634586/Sacred-mysteries.html
  9. https://www.allmusic.com/artist/harold-darke-mn0001261167/biography?1640147639153
  10. https://stainer.co.uk/about/
  11. https://www.hymnsandcarolsofchristmas.com/Hymns_and_Carols/in_the_bleak_midwinter.htm
  12. http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/entertainment/arts_and_culture/7752029.stm
  13. https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b09gvn5j/peaky-blinders-series-4-2-heathens

The History of Christmas Cake

Whilst writing this, I’m listening to Bing Crosby Christmas songs, with the Christmas lights switched on. An unusual choice for a 26-year-old, you may think, but for me this has a personal connection. A running joke in my family was that my beloved grandad looked like the Crooner, so I always like to listen to him as it feels grandad is still here, despite him no longer being with us. Just in case you haven’t get it yet, I love Christmas, but I don’t like the tradition Christmas cake, Christmas pudding or mince pies. Whilst I don’t, everyone else in my family does. Our kitchen has smelt very Christmassy for the last month whilst my mum has been busy baking Christmas cakes for our family and friends. I’m sure lots of your houses will be filled with the treat too, whether homemade or store brought. It got me wondering of how Christmas cake has become a tradition at Christmas time.

Samuel Collings, Christmas in the Country (1791), Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

Up until the Industrial Revolution, Christmas was celebrated between 6th December and 6th January as the cold weather meant little work could be done in the fields. Presents were given, but usually to mark the beginning, St Nicholas’ Day and the end, Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany. Boxing Day was usually the day presents were given to servants.[1] As the present giving was spread out, food was one of the largest part of the celebrations. Food that could be made ahead of time and served cold were popular as they could keep for season.[2] Food with fruit in was one of the flavours most preferred, as these usually kept longer.

Originally the flavouring we now associate with Christmas cake came in the form of a plum porridge, which was made to line people’s stomachs at Christmas aver a time of religious fasting over Advent.[3] This porridge was added to over time to include other fruits and honey, so much so it resembled something closer to a Christmas pudding.[4] From the sixteenth century, the oats became replaced with flour and eggs, which meant it took on the consistency of a cake. Spices were also becoming more available at this time, which were meant to represent gifts offered to baby Jesus by the three wise men.[5] Richer families also began to add lots of decorations made from sugar and marzipan to the cake to show they could afford it.[6]

Whilst this does sound more like the Christmas cake we recognise today, it was still not quite the same. It was made from the leftovers of all the puddings eaten over the Christmas period and was elaborately decorated with icing and figurines.[7] As Twelfth Night was celebrated by whole households the cake the centrepiece of the feast. It was shared by everyone, including servants. Both a dried pea and dried bean were placed into the cake and whoever found them would be the King and Queen for the day, no matter what social standing they had normally.[8] This tradition had largely disappeared by the Georgian times, but Twelfth Night cake was still eaten.[9]

George Cruickshank, Frontispiece to a set of Twelfth-night characters, showing a Cossack and Napoleon in front of a Twelfth Night Cake (c. 1813), © The Trustees of the British Museum

By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Twelfth Night itself was mostly a bygone thing. Most people had moved to live in cities, with little time to celebrate Christmas for a whole month, has had gone before. Instead, Twelfth Night became Christmas Day, as that was the day most people had off work.[10] From this, the Twelfth Night cake became known as the Christmas cake. In the 1870s, Queen Victoria officially banned Twelfth Night as she feared any celebrations that did occur would become too out of control and potentially riotous.[11] Thus the Christmas cake would finally be cemented to Christmas.


[1] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[2] Ibid

[3] Great British Bake Off, History of the Christmas Cake, https://thegreatbritishbakeoff.co.uk/history-christmas-cake/

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Leach, H. M. and Inglis, R., ‘The Archaeology of Christmas Cakes’, Food and Foodways, 11.2-3 (2003), p. 146; ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[8] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[11] Jane Austen Centre, ‘A History of Twelfth Night Cake’, https://janeausten.co.uk/blogs/desserts/twelfth-night-cake

Transmitting the Tunnel Tale: Why Stories of Secret Passages Stick, Guest Post by James Wright

Tunnel at Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire

During the 2000s, I worked for the archaeological department at an English local authority. As a public-facing organisation we would receive many requests from individuals seeking advice on various matters. One of the most regular enquiries would involve telephone calls from excited individuals who would breathlessly announce that, during routine excavations, they had uncovered a mediaeval secret passage! Inevitably, sightings had been taken down the tunnel and it was certain to be on the same alignment as well-known historic landmarks such as the local timber-framed pub and the castle on the hill.

A member of our team would be dispatched to view the mighty subterranean labyrinth which, without fail, would turn out to be a small, brick-lined, drain dating to the nineteenth century. Despite such prosaic realities, we continued to receive similar calls at a rate of perhaps one or two every month for many years. There were so many reports that we began to keep a log which became known as The Tiny Book of Tiny Tunnels.

“Escape Tunnels”

Whilst writing the Mediaeval Mythbusting Blog it has become apparent that tales of mysterious underground tunnels are ubiquitous. Literally every single hamlet, village, town and city – including Stone (Staffordshire) and Guildford (Surrey) – have such folklore. Sometimes “discoveries” reach the desks of mainstream media journalists such as apparent secret passages near Tintern (Monmouthshire) or Burton upon Trent (Staffordshire). Many stories apparently involve significant delvings across miles of landscape. For example, there are documented tales of “escape tunnels” connecting Wigmore Castle and Abbey in Herefordshire (1.3 miles), St Radegund’s Abbey and Dover Castle in Kent (3 miles) or Framlingham Castle and Leiston Abbey in Suffolk (9.8 miles).

Leiston Abbey in Suffolk

The impracticality of such construction projects is staggering. Why would such a tunnel be required? How would such a vast scheme be kept secret? Where would the spoil be put? How would the passage be maintained, ventilated and kept dry? How on earth would pre-modern engineers have managed such a venture? These are questions which seldom trouble the minds of those who repeat such tales and yet the stories remain stunningly popular across the country. Why is this?

Making the Story Stick

Ideas which become embedded in a societal consciousness, despite little or no critical evaluation, are commonly known as urban myths. Formerly transmitted as oral accounts, over the last two decades the phenomenon has been given renewed prominence by the ease of immediate information sharing on internet platforms. Sadly, fact-checking has not had a similar Renaissance, and, despite the availability of data, misinformation thrives online.

In their 2007 book, Made to Stick, American researchers, Chip and Dan Heath, have posited that the spread of dubious information can take a firm hold if it includes a Simple central message coupled to data that is Unexpected, Concrete, Credible and appeals to our Emotions to create memorable Stories (handily, forming the acronym SUCCESs). Such stories will be received openly by a large percentage of the population – even if they are demonstrably untrue (Heath & Heath 2007, 14-19).

Ten years after the Heath brothers’ published their analysis, “Fake News” was made Word of the Year by Collins English Dictionary in reaction to (the twice-impeached former American president) Donald Trump’s attempts to discredit media reports of his extraordinary behaviour. Meanwhile, Trump’s own media team broadcast “alternative facts” – dangerously simple ideas, with little basis in truth and reality, that were lapped up by his credulous fanbase. It is often said that we live in a post-truth era in which the measured opinion of expertise is rejected in favour of information which confirms established systems of belief based on emotions. This phenomenon can also be identified when assessing tall tales connected to mediaeval buildings

Second-hand Reporting

Nineteenth century brick drains aside, the vast number of hidden secret tunnel stories are not reported by primary sources and are usually related a long time after the proposed events. The great cataloguer of secret passages, Jeremy Errand (1974, 105), noted that: “The existence of many passages is vouched for only by the memories of boyhood exploration.” Which takes us right back into an age of frolicking innocence.

The second-hand recollections of hunting through apparent secret passages in childhood must give us pause for consideration. Can the distant memories of others even be trusted? Neuropsychologists, such as Tim Rogers of the University of Wisconsin-Madison,  warn us that the distance of time can create a cognitive dissonance: “False memory studies show us that our memory is always a blend of what we know about the world generally, plus what we retain of a recent experience”. Such an observation chimes well with those of the Heaths – there is a willingness to believe the distant recollections of others if they are communicated effectively and confirm an established view of the world. Most people are not expert in mediaeval architecture and are therefore susceptible to readily accept stories of secret passages if they are delivered credibly.

Despite the widespread use of oral history as a valid technique in studying the past through memory, we must be mindful before taking second-hand reports at face value, especially when they are not recorded in a rigorous, scientifically controlled, environment (Howarth 1999, 11-46). In retelling distant memories of other people, it may be the case that those repeating the stories do not wish to directly associate themselves with information that they, consciously or unconsciously, perceive may not be entirely accurate (even if they would like them to be so).

Stories of hidden tunnels capture the imagination of the public successfully. We can apply the Heath brothers’ SUCCESs analysis to the subject by assessing the sentence: ‘secret passage between castle and pub discovered by young boy playing in fields.’ It forms a Simple passage packed with hook-laden information that is Unexpected (“secret passage”), Concrete (“between castle and pub”), Credible (“discovered by”), and plays on our Emotions (“young boy playing in fields”) to create a memorable Story. Notably, the tale is only 13 words long, but the rebuttal of this blog is significantly longer.

If you want to make a story stick, keep it short.

Conclusions

The desire to pass on tall tales relating to mediaeval buildings is rarely malicious and may be linked to a sense of whimsy, romance, nostalgia, or loyalty to the person who originally told the story (especially if they were a loved one). The Heaths have pointed to a simple formula which can explain how and why stories are successfully transmitted. However, in the case of commonly repeated secret passage tales, that formula probably has a very strong ally in the traditions of western storytelling.

Lud’s Church in Staffordshire

The adventurous narratives of secret passages are a long-lived feature of our cultural experience. Mediaeval tales incorporating subterranean themes include the Mabinogion, Green Children of Woolpit or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Many novels such as John Meade Faulkner’s Moonfleet, Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows, Enid Blyton’s Five on Finniston Farm, Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows incorporate hidden tunnels. Latterly, films such as Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Clue and Skyfall all feature secret tunnels.

Exciting adventure stories can leave lasting effects – especially when first encountered at a young age. This can be coupled to a desire for wish fulfilment by linking prosaic and mundane realities to a hoped-for adventurous and fantastical world. This technique of storytelling is one of the reasons why novelists who intermingle real and magical worlds – incorporating secret passages – such as J. K. Rowling and Alan Garner are so successful.

References

Errand, J., Secret Passages and Hiding Places. David & Charles. London

Heath, C. & Heath, D., 2007, Made to Stick: How Some Ideas Take Hold and Others Come Unstuck. Random House. London.

Howarth, K., 1999, Oral History. Sutton. Stroud.

About the author

James Wright (Triskele Heritage) is an award-winning buildings archaeologist who frequently writes and lectures of the subject of mediaeval building myths. He has two decades professional experience of ferreting around in people’s cellars, hunting through their attics and digging up their gardens. He hopes to find meaningful truths about how ordinary and extraordinary folk lived their lives in the mediaeval period.

He welcomes contact through Twitter or email.

Gift Ideas for History Lovers: My Top 5 History Reads of the Year

It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding

Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.

The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper

This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.

Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe

In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.

Before the Crown by Flora Harding

This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!

Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis

Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.

Book Review of Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis by Gerri Chanel

I’m not usually a fan of World War Two, although I know many others are, so this book was an unusual choice for me. I really brought it as I have visited the Louvre many times and didn’t know the story of how the museum had dealt with keeping the priceless treasures safe during a time of war. After reading this book, which describes the dangerous situations, often at the threat of the lives of museum staff, as well as the many times the art was nearly taken by the Nazis, has made me realise just how much we take these amazing institutions for granted. It does try and focus on a good mixture of the fate of the curators and other museum staff, as well as their families. There is a keen focus on Jacques Jaujard, the Director of the Musee Nationaux, who was instrumental to the evacuation process and dealing with the Nazis once they occupied France. This gives the book a very personal feel and at some points, makes the reader feel very connected with those involved.

Whilst the book doesn’t instantly talk about the evacuation, I thought the background on how the Louvre became a museum, as well as explanations as to why the staff had learnt from previous threats to the museum, all contribute to a greater understanding of the challenges and logistics required to organise such a venture.

Despite the title, the book does cover all the art evacuated from the Louvre, and other French museums in preparation for the Second World War, which had to be spread across many different chateaus for safety reasons. I do like though that it covers all the art works, with mentions of the Mona Lisa sprinkled throughout. Personally I liked this as I felt a bit disappointed at easing the Mona Lisa, as I much preferred other paintings in the museum. This also helps to demonstrate the enormous challenges the staff faced in such an evacuation, especially with the larger paintings and sculptures. Whilst I enjoyed this part, I feel others would find this hard to get into as it is more background context than specifically focuses on the World War Two topic promised. However, if this isn’t to your taste, once you get a few chapters in, you won’t be disappointed.

There are some graphic description of violence and war, which is to be expected considering the topic, but I must admit these parts were hard to read. Although these are important to the narrative and explain the genuine dangers the museum staff had to contend with. I would be prepared for these as I had to take a break from reading at this point. These, alongside mentions of wider war issues, such as food shortages, the difference between Occupied and Vichy France, could have used with better context, but I understand this wasn’t necessarily the scope of this book. However, it could easily be used as a platform for further learning about the period.

I do especially like the epilogue, which mentions what happened to the main people after the end of the war, including the awards given in recognition for the courage, bravery and can do attitude that all museum staff had in the face of great adversity. This was a touching tribute and I must admit I was quite emotional to see the recognition the staff had received. It was a very fitting way to end what is a very fascinating and easy read. Thank you to Gerri Chanel for writing this book in acknowledgment for the achievements of the staff.

I would definitely recommend this book as the easy writing style made it very hard to put down. Whilst it’s a nonfiction book, it very much reads like a novel in its easy style, reading much like an adventure story. This has definitely been one of my favourite books that I’ve read this year. Whenever I am finally able to go back to Paris, especially the Louvre, I will now look on it in a new and grateful light for the sacrifice the staff and their families made at the time to keep the art protected for the world, not just for France.

Walter Tull: Footballer turned Military Officer

As this week marked Remembrance Day, I wanted to share the amazing story of Walter Tull, one of the first black professional footballers and the first black army officer who served, and died, during the First World War. Whilst researching his story in more depth, I must admit I got quite emotional, even more so knowing he hasn’t received recognition since his death in 1918. Thankfully in recent years, there have been attempts to share his story, led by his grandnephews and nieces. I hope this blog post goes some way to adding to that recognition.

Walter Daniel Tull was born to Daniel and Anne Tull on the 28th of April 1888. Daniel was from Barbados and had moved to England at the age of 20. He settled in Folkestone on the Kent Coast, where despite facing initial prejudice due to his skin colour, had a successful career as a carpenter. Whilst attending the Grace Hill Wesleyan Chapel, he met Alice Palmer, and they married in 1880, with the consent of her family.[1] They went on to have six children, one of them being Walter, but sadly their oldest child died within a few weeks.

Walter had a happy beginning to life and the family were known to be close knit. Sadly this wasn’t to last as Alice died of cancer at the age of 42 in May 1895, leaving Daniel as a single parent struggling to look after them and work at the same time.[2] To show how much Daniel was accepted into Alice’s family, a niece of Alice’s called Clara moved in to help look after the children so the family wouldn’t be split up.[3] Daniel and Clara went on to marry and they had a daughter. Again heartbreak reached the family as Daniel died of heart disease in December 1897, leaving Clara to look after six children alone.[4] The situation was dire and Clara had to make the awful decision to place Walter and his brother, Edward, into care. They were placed into a home in East London run by Methodists on Clara’s insistence, hoping that there would be some familiarity in that, no matter how big the difference was in moving from the coast to the dirty and polluted capital.[5]

Walter Tull with Comrades (1914), Wikimedia Commons

Before any application could be sent to the home, the Reverend Stephenson, who ran the home, was made aware of the skin colour of the boys. He responded that it made no difference, they were very welcome, so long as poor relief board could contribute towards their costs, just as they did with the other boys in their care.[6] Care homes at that time made it hard for families to ever take their children back, as it was expected the families would financially compensate the home, the costs of which increased the longer children had been in the home for.[7] The home that Walter and Edward lived in also did this, but was well known for the kindness it was run with. The children well fed and taught trades for the future, as well as encouraging hobbies and sport, including access to their own swimming pool.[8] It was here that Walter found his love of football. He was often a player for the home in local amateur games, with which he competed in more after Edward was adopted by a Glaswegian family.[9]

Walter was first offered a trial by Clapton FC in 1908. This was a good place to start his football career, albeit on an amateur basis, as Clapton was seen as one of the best amateur teams of the time.[10] Walter proved his worth for the team as he helped contribute to them winning the FA Amateur Challenge Cup, London Senior Cup and London Amateur Cup that season.[11] Tottenham soon signed him up as a professional in July 1909, so that he could join them in a football tour of Argentina, before he made his English debut for the team in September.[12] Within a month, he was racially abused by Bristol City supporters at an away match, which made all the national newspapers.[13] Soon after he was dropped from Tottenham’s first team and placed into the reserves, which he did continue to make appearances for, although on a smaller scale than he envisioned. Whilst playing one of these reserve matches against Northampton Town in February 1911, Walter again showed his talent for the game. He scored a hat trick in a 7-1 victory against Northampton.[14] It impressed the club and they signed him up for the next season. He played just over 100 matches for the team before the First World War.[15]

In December 1914, just four months after Britain entered the First World War, Walter enlisted in what was known as the Football Battalion, a battalion made up of footballers from all over the country. Within two months, he was promoted to the position of Lance Corporal, and then promoted again to Lance Sergeant.[16] In May 1916, he was invalided back to England due to shell shock, although the Northampton Mercury newspaper also reported that he was suffering from pneumonia.[17] Despite this, he returned to the fighting and took part in the Battle of Ancre, the first and second Battle of the Somme, Battle of Messines, Battle of Passchendaele and first Battle of Bapaume.[18]

First World War Football Battalion Recruitment Poster, Wikimedia Commons

With the bravery shown in battle, he was again promoted to the rank of Sergeant in 1916. He was recommended for an officer’s training course and became a Second Lieutenant in May 1917 after showing good leadership skills.[19] This went against the Army Council’s rules of only allowing those of European descent of becoming officers. The Council also said that black people should be placed in their own regiments and not mix with white people, but Walter’s example went against this as he first led white men at the Battle of Passchendaele.[20]

Whilst stationed in Northern Italy towards the end of 1917, he successfully led men on night time reconnaissance missions to gather information on German positions. Each time he did this the party came back without any casualties.[21] For this he was mentioned in dispatches and put forward by Major General Sydney Lawford for a military cross, but he didn’t receive one.[22] It’s thought he didn’t receive one as due to the Army Council’s rules.[23]

Walter was killed at Arras on 25th March 1918 during what is known as the German Spring Offensive, which was the German’s last attempt to regain control towards the end of the war. It’s reported that Private Tom Billingham, a former goalkeeper for Leicester Fosse, attempted to bring Walter’s body back to the British lines but was unable to, meaning he was unable to have a grave.[24] His name is instead mentioned on the memorial wall at the Faubourg d’Amiens cemetery in Arras.[25]

Newns, T., Epitaph of Walter Tull at the Sixfields Stadium in Northampton (2009), Wikimedia Commons

That could easily have been the last people heard of Walter, but there have been efforts to increase public awareness of his achievements in football and his sacrifice during the First World War. Northampton Town have a memorial set up outside their stadium, as well as the road that leads to their stadium being named Walter Tull Way.[26] To mark centenary celebrations of the First World War between 2014 and 2018, a special £5 coin and stamp with Walter’s face on were created.[27] Most recently, Walter was finally inducted into the Football Hall of Fame on the 20th of October 2021, with the award being collected by his grandnephew Edward Finlayson, the grandson of Walter’s brother, Edward.[28]

Whilst I am very pleased that Walter’s story has become more well known since the centenary, I must admit I was disappointed to learn that he has still not received a military cross for his bravery, despite the possible reason for his colour not allowing him to be granted one in his lifetime. A petition was set up in 2013 but didn’t receive enough signatures.[29] The granting of a military cross would be the next logical, and deserved, step in remembering the legacy of Walter Tull and the achievements he made despite the obstacles of racism and poverty he had. If any campaign is reignited for Walter to be granted a military cross, I will be right behind it as I feel he definitely deserves one.


[1] Wynn, S., Against All Odds: Walter Tull, The Black Lieutenant (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2018), p. 2

[2] Ibid, p. 3.

[3] Ibid, p. 3.

[4] Ibid, pp. 3-4.

[5] Ibid, p. 4.

[6] Ibid, p. 4.

[7] Ibid, pp. 4-5.

[8] Ibid, p. 7.

[9] Ibid, pp. 7-9.

[10] National Football Museum, ‘Walter Tull Inducted Into Hall of Fame’, 19 October 2021, https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/walter-tull-induction/

[11] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 9.

[12] Ibid, p. 10.

[13] Ibid, pp. 18-19.

[14] Ibid, p. 21.

[15] Ibid, p. 21.

[16] Ibid, p. 33.

[17] Ibid, p. 36.

[18] Ibid, p. 36.

[19] Ibid, p. 41.

[20] Ibid, p. 41; Aarons, E., ‘Walter Tull: Why the Black Footballing Pioneer was Denied a Military Cross’, The Guardian, 3 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/03/walter-tull-black-football-pioneer-military-cross-tottenham

[21] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, pp. 41-42.

[22] Ibid, p. 42.

[23] Conway, R. and Lockwood, D., ‘Walter Tull: The Incredible Story of a Football Pioneer and War Hero’, BBC Sport, 23 March 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/football/43504448

[24] Ibid.

[25] Walter Tull Archive, https://waltertullarchive.com/a-brief-history/

[26] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 23.

[27] Aarons, E., ‘Walter Tull: Why the Black Footballing Pioneer was Denied a Military Cross’, The Guardian, 3 February 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/feb/03/walter-tull-black-football-pioneer-military-cross-tottenham

[28] National Football Museum, ‘Walter Tull Inducted Into Hall of Fame’, 19 October 2021, https://www.nationalfootballmuseum.com/news/walter-tull-induction/

[29] Wynn, S., Against All Odds, p. 54.

Update and New Anthony Woodville Content

Things have been a bit hectic here lately with lots of things going off here, so thought it would be best to explain what’s happening. Before I start though, I want to make it clear I will still be blogging, but it may reduce to one post a month from now on. There are still so many stories I want to share, so I will continue doing that for as long as I possibly can do. I also want to take the time to say thank you to all you readers and followers of the blog. It means a lot that people are interested in what I write.

Next week marks the 100th Anniversary of the first Remembrance Day here in the UK and to mark it, I’ll be writing about Walter Tull. He was one of the first black professional footballers and the first black officer in the British Army during World War One. His story is a very special one and it will be an honour to share it with you all.

Newns, T., Epitaph of Walter Tull at the Sixfields Stadium in Northampton (2009), Wikimedia Commons

Some of you regular readers will know about my research into the life of Anthony Woodville, the fifteenth century knight and brother- in-law of Edward IV. I have been doing this on and off for the past 6 or 7 years now, so you can imagine it means a lot to me. Back in June, I was asked, alongside my good friend Michele Schindler, to give a talk on Anthony Woodville and Francis Lovell’s connections to Richard III. This is now available to view on YouTube, so I’m attaching it here for you to watch if you want to.

I was also asked by Rebecca, who runs the Tudor Dynasty podcast, to write an episode on Anthony Woodville. This is now available through any app you listen to podcasts through. If that’s not for you, you can easily listen by using the following link: https://tudorsdynasty.podbean.com/e/a-brief-history-executed-brother-of-a-queen.

There is also some other news that I’ll be announcing next week that I really can’t wait to share with you. It’s been a long time coming, but I hope you’ll be as excited about it as I am. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this content and let me know what you think.

The Great Hall at Eltham Palace

Eltham Palace lays South East of London and is just four miles away from Greenwich. It’s position made it an ideal location for a royal palace, as it was close enough to the capital, but still offered a retreat away from the city. The site was not always a royal palace. It was originally a manor house owned by various bishops until it was gifted to the future Edward II in 1305.[1] Successive monarch spent large amounts of money to alter the palace to their own needs. One of the most considerable alterations was made by Edward IV in the 1470s.

Eltham was one of Edward IV’s favourite residences. With the palace’s proximity to nearby Greenwich Palace, Edward and his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, shared their time, together and separately, between the two sites.[2] With the couple spending a lot of their time at the Eltham, upgrades were needed. An extensive building project began, including adding new royal apartments. However, the most significant building added was the Great Hall. Whilst a great hall had existed previously, it didn’t meet Edward’s standard for the rebuild and a new building was required. Before Edward’s time, great halls were places of communal activity throughout the day. However, their function had changed with the addition of separate rooms, reducing the great hall to a space mainly used for large functions and to show off wealth.[3]

The Great Hall was designed by Edward’s chief mason and carpenter in a style influenced by the hall at Westminster, which is now one of the only buildings left of the former Palace of Westminster.[4] It is 101 foot long and 36 foot wide, with a large oak roof and high stained glass windows to let in light. It would have originally been lavishly furnished, especially with tapestries. Motifs of Edward’s emblem, the rose en soleil, or rose with a sun, were placed on both sides of the entranceway into the hall.[5] The emblem was itself a mixture of two Yorkist symbols, the white rose, and the sun in splendour, so there was no denying who’s space a guest was walking into.

Eltham Palace Great Hall, Tom Parnell, Wikimedia Commons

After the rebuilding, Elizabeth gave birth to her second youngest child, Catherine, in Eltham in 1479, and a year later, Edward moved his substantial library there.[6] This showed just how much the couple valued Eltham’s new buildings, but these would pale in comparison to the new Great Hall’s greatest ever event. At Christmas 1482, Edward held a massive feast for over 2,000 guests. Whilst Edward wouldn’t have known at the time, this ostentatious banquet was to be the last time he visited before his death in April 1483.[7]

Sadly for the palace at Eltham, Edward was the last monarch to consider Eltham as a favourite residence. Henry VII only used it as a nursery for this children, meaning that when his son, Henry VIII became king, he no longer used it much, as his favourite palaces were Greenwich and Hampton Court, which also allowed easy access to London.[8] By the time of the Stuart era, the palace was much neglected, so much so in fact that Charles I was the last ever monarch to visit.[9] Things became even worse after the palace was sold to Nathaniel Rich in 1651. He began to demolish buildings and even stripped the Great Hall’s roof of lead!

Jackson, R. J., Eltham Palace, Kent. A paper, etc (1896) British Library

It was in this sorry state the site stayed in for around 200 years before anyone took any notice. It had been converted into farm buildings, with the Great Hall being used as a barn.[10] In a strange way, it was this use as a barn that had kept it still standing, although rather ruined. It’s ruined state was looked on romantically, until protests were made to improve the stability of the building. This was done, but with little love for the surviving buildings for the history they portrayed. This is easily seen when it was also regularly used as a tennis court by those who lived nearby.[11]

It wasn’t until the 1930s, when the millionaire Courtauld family moved in and began restoration work, alongside building a brand new art deco house inspired by the existing architecture, that the building began to be cared for again properly.[12] The stained glass currently in the Great Hall is sadly not original, but was replaced with new glass in the 1930s thanks to the Courtaulds.[13]

Today there is no fear of a return to a state of abandonment for Eltham Palace, not just thanks to the Courtaulds and the threat of bombing during the Second World War. English Heritage, who now own the whole site, originally were given rights to the Great Hall in 1984, and at last it was acknowledged as one of the finest examples of a medieval hall still in existence, for which we also have to thank Edward IV’s design, but also the men who built it.


[1] English Heritage, ‘Eltham Palace and Gardens’, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/history/

[2] Royal Palaces, ‘Eltham Palace’, https://www.royalpalaces.com/palaces/eltham-palace/

[3] Thompson, M., The Medieval Hall: the Basis of Secular Domestic Life, 600-1600 AD (Aldershot: Scholar Press, 1995), p. 153

[4] Exploring London, ‘Treasures of London – The Great Hall at Eltham Palace’, https://exploring-london.com/2018/08/10/treasures-of-london-the-great-hall-at-eltham-palace/

[5] Bedford, K., Eltham Through Time (Stroud: Amberley Publishing, 2013)

[6] Royal Palaces, ‘Eltham Palace’, https://www.royalpalaces.com/palaces/eltham-palace/

[7] English Heritage, ‘Eltham Palace and Gardens’, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/history/

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

[10] Royal Palaces, ‘Eltham Palace’, https://www.royalpalaces.com/palaces/eltham-palace/

[11] English Heritage, ‘Eltham Palace and Gardens’, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/eltham-palace-and-gardens/history/

[12] Ibid

[13] Exploring London, ‘Treasures of London – The Great Hall at Eltham Palace’, https://exploring-london.com/2018/08/10/treasures-of-london-the-great-hall-at-eltham-palace/