The Survival of the Scottish Crown Jewels

The Scottish Crown Jewels, also known as the Honours of Scotland, are a regular feature for any visit to Edinburgh Castle. Within the last week, the Honours crown was placed on top of Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin as she lay at rest in St Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. What is little known is the rather amazing survival story behind the jewels, a story I didn’t know myself until a I watched a programme during the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee celebrations only a few months ago. For that reason, I found it only fitting to write about it in the lead up to the Queen’s funeral.

The Honours are used as a collective term to include a crown, sceptre and sword. The sword and sceptre were given to James IV of Scotland by two separate popes in 1494 and 1507, with the crown having an unknown date, but it was certainly in existence before 1540, when James V ordered alterations to it.[1] The first time all three items were used together was during the coronation of the nine-month-old Mary Queen of Scots in 1543.[2] Within a century, the jewels were placed in immense danger. Following the English Civil War, Charles I, the grandson of Mary Queen of Scots, had been executed in January 1649 by the Parliamentarians, and the country was made a Protectorate, with Oliver Cromwell in charge.

Replicas of the Honours of Scotland, © Copyright kim traynor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

The Scots, although they were against Charles I for his religious policy, were outraged at the murder of a king. On 1 January 1651, Charles II, son of the late king Charles, was crowned with the Honours. This angered Cromwell, who sent forces to Scotland as a punishment for their Royalist sympathies. The Honours were immediately at risk because Cromwell had already ordered the destruction of the English crown jewels, so the Scottish ones would be next if he could lay his hands on them. Following the coronation of Charles II, the Honours were unable to return to their home in Edinburgh as the city had already fallen to Cromwell’s troops, so another place of safety had to be chosen.

Dunnottar Castle, situated just under 20 miles from Aberdeen was chosen. It made sense to choose the castle as it was strategically placed on top of giant cliffs along a headland of coast. It was a good place to make a stand, but also to smuggle the jewels out from if necessary. The Honours arrived at Dunnottar not long after Charles II’s coronation by hiding them in sacks of wool. This in itself posed a threat as they had to be carried through territory occupied by Cromwell’s troops.[3] Whilst Dunnottar was a safe haven for a while, troops began to besiege the castle from September 1651, which would last for eight months in total.[4] A plan to smuggle the jewels out was now the only option. The question was how was it managed?

Dunnottar Castle, © Copyright Stephen McKay and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

There have been two theories placed forwards as to how the jewels actually were smuggled, the first was given my Christian Fletcher, the wife of the minister of nearby Kinneff Church, who played a major part in the planning. In her account of the event later spoken in front of the Privy Council, she claimed to have visited the castle on three separate occasions to undertake the task of smuggling. She was also helped by Mary Erskine, dowager countess of Marischal, who’s son was in control of the area, and Elizabeth Douglas, wife of the Castle Governor. The first attempt launched the rescue attempt, in which Christian left the castle with the King’s papers sewn into her belt.[5] She then returned in February 1652 to collect the crown and sceptre. She had arrived on horseback to collect them and left the castle by keeping close to the cliff in order to stay hidden.[6] The final attempt was in March 1652, when she came back with a servant to collect the sword. The servant took the sword away hidden in a sack of flax on her back, with the sword case later being taken away in a sack of pillows.[7]

Christian Fletcher’s account was seen as too boastful and later on a different set of events was released to explain the rescue attempt for the jewels. This account suggests that all of the items were taken in one go, with them being tied up and lowered down to the beach below, were a servant girl collected them and hid them inside a basket of seaweed.[8] Whichever account is accurate, the Honours were certainly successfully rescued. They were taken to nearby Kinnaff Church, where Christian’s husband served as a minister, and buried there. The Honours were dug up every three months to be checked for any damage, a process that would go on for nine years before they could be returned to Charles II, once had been restored as king.[9]

Tableau at Edinburgh Castle of the Saving of the Honours of Scotland, © Copyright kim traynor and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

When the jewels were returned to the monarchy, arguments began to ensue over who had really had the largest part in the rescue attempt. Dowager Countess Marischal managed to convince people that her son had smuggled them to the continent, meaning that he received money and titles for his supposed efforts, Elizabeth Douglas claimed she was the person in charge of the operation and also received rewards. This meant that Christian Fletcher, her husband, and their servants, had their roles diminished.[10] It wasn’t until Fletcher told her side of the story that she was offered 2000 Scots merks, but it was never paid to her.[11]

Upon the return of the Honours, they were placed back inside Edinburgh Castle, where they stayed until the Scottish Parliament was dissolved in 1707, following the Act of Union, which officially merged England and Scotland.[12] They were then placed inside a large chest and their whereabouts forgotten for over a century. There were rumours that the jewels had been sent to England in secret, but the famous Scottish author, Walter Scot, still believed them to be in a chest in Edinburgh Castle. With this belief, he petitioned the Prince Regent, the future George IV, in 1818, to give permission for the chest to be opened. It was and the life of the jewels continued once more. They were put on public display on 26 May 1819 and have been ever since.[13]

The Burial of the Scottish Regalia, David Wilkie (1785–1841), The Fitzwilliam Museum via Art UK, under this Creative Commons Licence.

As mentioned at the beginning of this post, the crown was used to adorn Queen Elizabeth II’s coffin as it lay at rest in Edinburgh, so in some respects, it has once again been brought to the world’s attention, albeit in sad circumstances. Without the bravery and cunning of the women who helped save the Honours all those centuries ago, that would not have been possible. Whilst I know monarchy isn’t for everyone, as witnessed in the struggles between the Royalists and Parliamentarians at that time, there is no denying that the people who saved the jewels at that time risked everything to save the Honours.


[1] Kinneff Old Church, https://www.kinneffoldchurch.co.uk/opening-of-the-great-chest/

[2] Ellen Castelow, ‘The “Honours” of Scotland’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Honours-of-Scotland/

[3] ‘The women who smuggled Crown Jewels from Dunnottar Castle’, The Scotsman, 25 May 2017, https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/women-who-smuggled-crown-jewels-dunnottar-castle-855361

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Ibid

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid; Kinneff Old Church, https://www.kinneffoldchurch.co.uk/opening-of-the-great-chest/

[10] ‘The women who smuggled Crown Jewels from Dunnottar Castle’, The Scotsman, 25 May 2017, https://www.scotsman.com/whats-on/arts-and-entertainment/women-who-smuggled-crown-jewels-dunnottar-castle-855361

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid; Kinneff Old Church, https://www.kinneffoldchurch.co.uk/opening-of-the-great-chest/

[13] Ellen Castelow, ‘The “Honours” of Scotland’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/The-Honours-of-Scotland/

Fourth Anniversary, a trip to Berkeley Castle and a tribute to Her Majesty, the Queen

Today marks the fourth anniversary of the blog. I would just to take the chance to thank all the followers, readers and supporters over those three years. It honestly means a lot that people read and love the content I produce. Whilst this is a hobby, history, and sharing it with others, is my passion. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the stories I write about for many more years to come.

The Courtyard of Berkeley Castle, Author’s Own Image

Last week, I was away on holiday in Bath, one of my favourite places. On the way there, we stopped of to visit Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. It is well-known for being the prison and place of death for Edward II, but the castle is so much more. Despite it raining quite badly, it is such a big place, that this really didn’t matter. There are so many wonderful things to see there, including a chest supposedly owned by Sir Francis Drake. I would honestly recommend it to everyone, as it is well worth a visit. A favourite thing for me was all the beautiful paintings and portraits, which were explained very well. However, I feel I must also apologise to the American tourists I feel I must have scared with my rather exuberant enthusiasm.

St Mary’s Church next door to Berkeley Castle is also a must visit. It may look like an ordinary medieval church from the outside, but inside it is fantastic. Whilst I have seen so many photos of medieval church wall paintings, I haven’t really seen many in person, but this church was full of so many beautiful examples. It is also the last resting place of many of the Jenner family, who lived next door, of whom Edward Jenner, the inventor of the vaccination, was one of them.

Example of some of the wall paintings in St Mary’s Church in Berkeley, Author’s Own Image

Once again I took part in the promenade of the Jane Austen Festival promenade for the second year running. A massive thank you to my sister for all her hard work in sewing all of the costumes!! Compared to last year, which had around 300 people taking part there were so many more people. It was quite easily about 500 people this year who came from all over the world. Everyone is so friendly and made us feel very welcome, so if anyone would like to take part in the future, please come and join us. You can find out more about the festival using the following link.

Me and my sister at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath

Our holiday was of course marked by the passing of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II on the 8th September. For the Jane Austen promenade, we marked her passing by wearing black armbands and observing a minute’s silence.

I have always been very fond of the Queen as she has maintained a faithful and loyal service over the United Kingdom and has often been a source of comfort. Some regular readers will remember that I wrote a piece for the Historians Magazine only a few months ago honouring the marriage of the Queen and Prince Philip. Their wedding day was the day my mum was born, so for me, the Queen has always been a part of my family. Little did I know that actually, that would be my last tribute to her. You can read about that article here.

Queen Elizabeth II, wearing a crown and an ermine-trimmed cloak, next to Prince Philip, in uniform, 1950, National Film Board of Canada. Photothèque. Library and Archives Canada, PA-196667, used through Creative Commons, Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0)

I wanted to take the time to offer my sincere condolences to the Royal Family in their time of grief. I also give my thanks for all the Queen has done and the kindness and love she has shown to so many people. For me, as well as many others, this is a very sad time, but I will certainly remember how well she served as an example to us all.

Thomas Cook: the Inventor of the Package Tour

When the travel operator Thomas Cook sadly went bankrupt in 2019, it was the world’s longest running tour operator. It had been running for nearly 180 years. With so many years in operation, Thomas Cook, the founder of the original company and who it was named after, has been somewhat forgotten. In reality, Cook has been dubbed by scholars as the inventor of modern mass tourism as he was the first to use the idea of a package tour.[1] From humble beginnings, Thomas, and his son, John Mason, were able to transform how travel was perceived during the nineteenth century. With the company now no longer in existence, it could mean that the history of those beginnings could easily be lost. I hope that this post goes some way to stopping that origin story from being lost to the general public. Thomas Cook was born in Melbourne, Derbyshire in 1808. Even though I’m from Derbyshire, I must admit that I don’t think it’s particularly well-known that the famous travel man actually was born in the county, which is a real shame. Still hopefully this helps to tell his story.

He left school at the age of 10, which was around average for the time, so would not have necessarily hindered him. After leaving school, he managed to find employment in various jobs until he became a Baptist missionary in 1828 and later a printer.[2] It was these two roles that he particularly excelled in. Both Christianity and printing would also very much go on to influence how he conducted his famous travel business, particularly in those early years.

Photograph of Thomas Cook, c. 1880, National Library of Wales

The first tour Thomas Cook conducted had a religious theme to it. In 1841, Cook persuaded the Midland Counties Railway Company to run a special train between Leicester and Loughborough for a temperance meeting. The meeting consisted of promoting the ideas of religious temperance, which put simply meant the Christian promotion of consuming no alcohol. Cook managed to persuade the company to offer reduced fares for the excursion because the amount of people promised to use this train if it was put on was around 500.[3] Considering rail travel was still in its infancy, the very fact Cook had manage to organise such a trip was extraordinary. At the time, most people still didn’t travel by train, largely down to the expensive nature and ‘novelty’ aspect of this form of transport. To travel in such a way, as well as with a large amount of people, meant that the religious and temperance movement also gained public attention. The popularity of such trips certainly proved popular following this first excursion as Cook organised them for the next four years.[4]

The majority of these temperance trips were not run to make profit. They were simply to help those who wished to partake in the ideas around these conferences and meetings get there, although spreading the word via these excursions also helped. Eventually these trips became large enough to become economically viable. The first of these excursions for profit was an organised trip to Liverpool, with travellers from across the Midlands, mostly from Derby, Nottingham and Leicester.[5] Cook created a handbook for this trip, which would be a similar to a modern day guidebook, explaining the itinerary for the trip. These would become a staple for all of Cook’s travellers.

A later example of a handbook used by the company. Cook’s Handbook for London With Two Maps (1893), British Library

By the 1850s, the business had grown enough for Cook to finally become a full-time travel operator and leave the printing trade. This decision was also fuelled by the sad loss of his mother. Loss sometimes has the funny way of making us see what we really want or need and in this instance, Thomas Cook was no different. It also helped that one of his biggest successes in those early years came in 1851 with the Great Exhibition held at London’s Crystal Palace (and no not the football team). The exhibition featured exhibits meant to showcase the industry and ingenuity of the British Empire, but also offered people an opportunity to glimpse the world in just one exhibition. In total, it’s been estimated that Cook gave 100,000 people discounted travel to the Great Exhibition.[6]

Following on from this success, in 1855, the ambition grew to organising trips to Europe, starting with the 1855 Paris Exposition. A cynic would probably say it was money and profit that fuelled this decision. In fact it again was really fuelled by his Christian beliefs. At the time, Britain had seen France as a threat and enemy, largely down to the Napoleonic wars. Cook was a pacifist and instead thought offering tours to Paris could help promote peace. He thought it would make English people more tolerant towards foreigners and reduce the kind of “hatred and narrow-minded attitudes that led to wars”.[7] Of course the logistics of organising trips to Europe would be much more difficult than arranging ones in England. For a start different companies and currencies were involved during these trips, meaning a lot more complications. After the first trip these problems were eventually ironed out, as any business would do after starting something new.

During these early days, Thomas Cook himself personally guided the tours. He would stay at the helm for many decades, until his son, John Mason, took over primary control in the 1870s, ensuring all was well for his customers. Not only did he offer them ‘working men’s excursions’, which were mainly day trips in England, but his foreign tours were promoted to the middle classes, who now could afford the discounted rates that Cook provided. Cook was able to change the way that travel was viewed as it was now something more people outside the aristocracy could do for leisure, all thanks to Cook’s guided tour, transport, accommodation and meals now becoming a whole package.[8]

Thomas Cook Memorial Cottages, © Copyright Trevor Rickard and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

Cook’s business success is indicative of his drive to allow tourism to open up to wider society. His previous skills in printing press allowed him to advertise his tours, as well as create guidebooks needed by his travellers. Most importantly, his Christian values drove him to share the world that God had created. Whilst of course we may not understand that now, there is no denying that was a huge motivation to him. This motivation can still be seen in his birthplace of Melbourne, Derbyshire. A selection of pretty almshouses built at the end of Cook’s life still survive there. They were meant as a place specifically designed to house the poor and include a caretakers house and a chapel.[9]

Whilst all of the achievements of Thomas Cook are hard to put into a single post, I hope that the genuine enthusiasm and business mind of the man have been shown. I know he would have been sad if he knew how his business came to an abrupt holt in 2019, but that doesn’t detract from the peace and love of the world he wanted to share with others during his early days as a travel operator. These were what drove the company to exist not just under his son, but were what the entire company had been originally founded upon.


[1] Harry Sherrin, ‘Thomas Cook and the Invention of Mass Tourism in Victorian Britain’, History Hit, 3 March 2022, https://www.historyhit.com/thomas-cook-invention-of-tourism/

[2] Britannica, Thomas Cook, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Thomas-Cook

[3] Waleed Hazbun, ‘The East as an Exhibit: Thomas Cook & Son and the Origins of the International Tourism Industry in Egypt’, in Philip Scranton and Janet F. Davidson (eds), The Business of Tourism: Place, Faith and History (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), p. 9

[4] Harry Sherrin, ‘Thomas Cook and the Invention of Mass Tourism’, https://www.historyhit.com/thomas-cook-invention-of-tourism/

[5] Ibid

[6] Waleed Hazbun, ‘The East as an Exhibit’, p. 9

[7] History Press, Thomas Cook’s First Tours to the Continent, https://www.thehistorypress.co.uk/articles/thomas-cook-s-first-tours-to-the-continent/

[8] Harry Sherrin, ‘Thomas Cook and the Invention of Mass Tourism’, https://www.historyhit.com/thomas-cook-invention-of-tourism/

[9] British Listed Buildings, Thomas Cook Almshouses, Chapel and Railings, https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101096389-thomas-cook-almshouses-chapel-and-railings-melbourne#.YwX1qXbMK3B

Napoleonic Prisoners of War Talk

During the summer, I have been working for a community based charity local to me, called Blue Box Belper. Their aim is to offer community events in a town called Belper in Derbyshire, as well as to raise money for a brand new community centre. Me and another girl, Abi, have been helping out at some of their events, as well as pitching some new ideas for them.

One of the events I’ve been helping out at has a catchy title, ‘Cuppa Cake Chat’, which does what it says on the tin really. It’s a nice informal coffee morning, where sometimes guest speakers, or members of the group, share about themselves. It was my turn this week. As many of you regular followers will have guessed, I decided to make it history themed. I must admit I had to think for a while about what to talk on as I wanted something quite interesting and not too heavy. Thankfully, I had the perfect topic to talk about from some of my current research on Napoleonic prisoners of war in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.

General Exelmans changing horses at the Battle of Wertingen in October 1805, Wikimedia Commons

Back in March, following a trip to Ludlow in Shropshire, I discovered that Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, had been held prisoner there during the Napoleonic Wars. With my curiosity piqued, I brought a book on his time imprisoned, which also made some references to how other prisoners of war were kept at that time. In the same book, I saw a sentence explaining how two prisoners, called General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange, had escaped from Chesterfield.

As little was mentioned about how they’d escaped, I decided to look more into it, as well as the conditions for the prisoners in Chesterfield at that time. That led me to an utterly fascinating discovery of many different and interesting stories, which I don’t really have the time to share now. It’s an amazing story and one that I’m glad I’m now able to share as it is something that seems to have been lost.

If you would like to know more, please to have a read of the two blog posts I wrote for my work at the local archives in Derbyshire, known as the Derbyshire Record Office, please do click here and here. I promise that they are full of entertaining and exciting things!

Book Review of The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner

First of all, I would like to personally thank the author, Mark Lee Gardiner, and HaperCollins, for sending me a review copy of this book. I am very grateful for that and it honestly means a lot that I received this.

Despite my love of the history of the Wild West, I must admit that I have always sympathised more with the plight of the Native Americans. Throughout, I have often come across many accounts that make it sound as though the Native Americans ‘deserved’ their fate. For many years I have often wished for someone to correct this narrative and push for the Native American point of view. Whilst I know there have been attempts previously to do this, I feel that Mark Lee Gardiner’s efforts in The Earth is All That Lasts shows at every corner that the white man had lied and cheated its way to get land belonging to the Native Americans, as told through the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. As Sitting Bull has always been a hero of mine, I have read and written quite a bit about him in the past. This prior knowledge did give me a certain excitement, as well as high expectations, before I started reading this book. Whilst my expectations may have been high, I can gladly say that I wasn’t disappointed.

After recently reading one of the author’s other books, To Hell on a Fast Horse, which told the connected stories of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (I would highly recommend it), I had high hopes for this latest book. As I have come to expect with Gardner’s writing, it was easy going, which sounds like a bit of a contradiction considering that the subject matter at times was tough to deal with. I must admit I initially found it hard to get into, as there are lots of descriptions of violence and battles, this is only to be expected as it provides context to the negative relations between the Lakota and the white men, particularly the army and officials, who intended to either fight them or pacify them with treaties that were not understood. At every point the argument that white men had forcibly wanted to get their way by getting land the Lakota lived on, as well as either their assimilation or extermination, is driven home. I utterly commend the author for this as I feel in general that this is not nearly used enough elsewhere. As I was reading, there were many moments that I found were very emotional and poignant, which again shows just how well the whole subject was portrayed.

There is a lot of information, names and locations to take in, but with the easy writing style, as well as a handy map of the forts and battles mentioned at the beginning of the book, there is some help towards this. The amount of information just shows how wonderfully researched this book is, as is mentioned in the acknowledgements, it took the author five years to research and write. For the reader, who may not be that well informed of the culture of the Lakota, I feel that this aspect in particular was very well researched and portrayed. The analysis of the culture that both Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse lived in provides the reader with a better understanding of just what made both of these figures the people they were, rather than just the stereotype of them both being involved in Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn.

As previously mentioned, this is not a book for comfortable reading, but it is definitely one that is needed in order to portray the realities of how settlers really came to populate the Great Plains of America. It was done by robbing, lying, cheating, massacring the Native Americans and desecrating their sacred sites and entire way of life. However, this reality is something that needs to be told as far too often, the general narrative is very much about how manifest destiny was a given. This narrative has been written by the white men who eventually ‘conquered’ the West, which is also shown very well throughout the book, but is in stark contrast to the truths that the Native Americans were living. I challenge anyone, whether already sympathetic to the Lakota, like myself, or not, to come away still thinking and believing the whole manifest destiny narrative to be the whole truth.

The epilogue is dedicated to the ones involved in the murders of both Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull, showing what happened to them all after these events. I found that the majority of them didn’t actually reap the rewards that they had hoped for, particularly the Lakotas who had chosen to follow the white men governing them when they were forced onto the reservations. One man who did seem to be promoted was James McLaughlin, the agent in charge of the Standing Rock Reservation that Sitting Bull lived on in the last years of his life. From what I had read previously, I found him a very hard man to like, mainly due to his hatred of Sitting Bull. The author showed just how McLaughlin didn’t want to understand the Lakotas he was in charge of, unless they wished to assimilate to a Western way of life. Again, I commend the author for writing about McLaughlin in such a way that shows just how strong his hatred was of Sitting Bull, leaving the reader in no doubt as to what his intentions were towards surrounding the famous chief’s death.

This is yet another book that I would recommend to anyone, whether they have an interest in the final years of freedom for the Lakota or not. I feel very much that this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough. This work is a vital piece to the history and understanding of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, and those final years before the Lakota were forced onto reservations. Most importantly, I feel that those mentioned, whether white men, the US army officers, or any of the Lakotas mentioned, including Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull themselves, had their true characters revealed, whether for good or bad.

The Conditions onboard Prison Hulks

In the opening chapters of Charles Dicken’s Great Expectations, Magwitch was incarcerated on a prison hulk, a disused ship used to house prisoners, situated around the mouth of the River Medway in Kent. It was after he escaped from one that he first encountered the main character, Pip, along the foggy marshes near this part of Kent. The mention of these hulks during the opening scenes of the book was meant to play on pre-existing ideas about the harsh conditions that those on board endured. Were these ideas really true and what exactly was a prison hulk?

A prison ship in the River Thames at Deptford: rowing boats convey prisoners between land and the ship. Engraving by George Cooke after Samuel Prout. Wellcome CollectionPublic Domain Mark

Hulks were first used after the American War of Independence in order to solve the issue of ever increasing prisoner numbers.[1] Prior to the war, many prisoners were sent out to America, but during the War of Independence and after, this was no longer a viable option for the government. Something else had to be done as there was no space to hold them inside prisons. The idea of using decommissioned and unseaworthy ships, known as prison hulks, was born out of this need. They were officially made legal by the ‘Hulks Act’ of 1776, which was meant to create a temporary fix, although the hulks would be in action for the next 80 years.[2] As the hulks were designed to be organised by contractors, it made them an easier and cheaper option that building new prisons to hold people in. The first few were located close to London in the Thames, but when need increased, more were placed along the Medway Estuary in Kent and near the dockyards at Portsmouth.

One of the first ships to be brought used from August 1776 was the Justitia, which was previously owned by the wealthy East India Company. A total of 632 prisoners were initially placed on the ship, of which 176 had died by March 1778, showing just how insanitary the ships were.[3] Insanitary conditions were an issue throughout the lives of the prison hulks, although there were some attempts at improvement. The cramped conditions were the main cause of disease being rife on board as this meant disease could travel easier. The small amount of rations given also made the men weak and more susceptible to the diseases onboard. Instructions meant that prisoners were given little more than bread, other than some meat and potatoes for their evening meal.[4] These rations were not enough to cover the hard labour of the prisoners, who were expected to work in chain gangs, either at nearby dockyards or along river banks. Any insubordinate behaviour was punished with heavier chains for work or whilst on board. These would have made already backbreaking work a lot harder. Those who were either too old or too infirm for this kind of work instead stayed on the ship to cook, clean and mend clothes and shoes.[5]

Gallery of a Prison Hulk, London Illustrated News, 21 February 1846

The only upside to the work was that there was the opportunity to gain money. Although whilst a prisoner men were only entitled to keep a penny of every shilling they earned, funds were saved so that they could be given money upon their release. In general, this amounted to between £10 and £15, or between £670 and £1,000 in today’s money.[6] The prisoners also had the opportunity to gain some education whilst on board, if they so wished. After their evening meal, there was the option of attending to school work, giving them the chance to learn to read and write.[7] This was certainly more skills than most of the prisoners would have had before entering the hulk. It was hoped that with this education, as well as the backbreaking labour, that criminality could be forced out of those incarcerated.

By the mid-1800s, more prisons were beginning to be built, meaning that the prison hulks were slowly being phased out. More and more criticism was aimed at the hulks. Those who wanted reform for the prison system suggested that the improvements being made in ordinary prisons was not being implemented on the hulks, meaning that the conditions were still as terrible as ever. As husband and wife authors, Sydney and Beatrice Webb, who wrote on the prison system many years later, have indicated that the hulks had become “of all the places of confinement… apparently the most brutalizing, the most demoralizing, and the most horrible”.[8] It is no wonder then that by 1852, there were only two hulks left in use, before the whole hulk system was officially disbanded in 1857.

Garneray, Louis; Prison Hulks in Portsmouth Harbour; Portsmouth Museums and Visitor Services; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/prison-hulks-in-portsmouth-harbour-25000

Despite there being some positives, in terms of offering meals, education and money upon release, there was no denying that the authorities made sure that prison hulks were a nightmarish place to be. Many who served their sentence on them were known to stick together, almost as if to rally around the horrors they had witnessed, mainly caused by the corruption of the system. All in all, it is a good thing they ended, but let them be remembered for the inhumanity, just like much of other parts of the justice system at that time.


[1] Digital Panopticon, https://www.digitalpanopticon.org/Convict_Hulks

[2] Ibid

[3] Thomas R. Forbes, ‘Coroners’ Inquisitions on the Deaths of Prisoners in the Hulks at Portsmouth, England, in 1817–27’, Journal of the History of Medicine and Allied Sciences, 33.3 (1978), p. 358

[4] Anna McKay, ‘A Day in the Life: Convicts on board Prison Hulks’, Carceral Archipelago, 10 October 2017, https://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/carchipelago/2017/10/10/a-day-in-the-life-convicts-on-board-prison-hulks/

[5] Ibid

[6] Rose Staveley-Wadham, ‘”Colleges of Villainy” – Life Onboard the Prison Hulks’, The British Newspaper Archive, 31 March 2021, https://blog.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/2021/03/31/life-onboard-a-prison-hulk/

[7] Anna McKay, ‘A Day in the Life: Convicts on board Prison Hulks’, Carceral Archipelago, 10 October 2017, https://staffblogs.le.ac.uk/carchipelago/2017/10/10/a-day-in-the-life-convicts-on-board-prison-hulks/

[8] Sydney Webb and Beatrice Webb, English Prisons Under Local Government (New York, 1922), pp. 45-46

Book Review of The Waterloo Belles by Alice Church

I had heard good things about The Belles of Waterloo and was looking forward to getting stuck into it. Of course it helped that I have an interest in the Regency period in general, but I had hopes of this focusing on the more social aspects of a time we often understand as being full of war. In both respects I wasn’t to be disappointed.

The Belles of Waterloo tells the story of the Capel family who have had to move to Brussels a year before the Battle of Waterloo because of their father’s gambling debts. The narrative particularly focuses on the lives of the three eldest daughters named Harriet, Maria and Georgy, as they adjust to their new lives and loves. Little do they know that within months of their arrival that the war against Napoleon would be right on their doorsteps. This does give the reader an expectation of things to come.

Whilst this book is a work of fiction, Alice Church makes it clear that their story is a true one. I found it rather refreshing to know that the majority of the story told was based on letters that exist of the family. By using these letters as a basis, I found this gave the book a unique feel of authenticity. Whilst this meant that there was a risk that the story could have become dull, the opposite is true in fact. This meant that the real emotions felt throughout the family’s many highs and lows during this period are acutely portrayed. The reader easily becomes sucked in and emotionally involved with all that goes on, for good or ill.

The book had a very Bridgerton feel to in in that it portrayed a close knit large family trying to navigate life and for the girls in particular, that means trying to understand the first feelings of love and romance. I feel that even if you hadn’t watched Bridgerton, but liked the late Georgian/Regency period, you would find this as equally compelling. If you have any understanding of the period, you would expect to see lots of balls and house calling. The reader is definitely not disappointed in that. By attending balls and accepting house calls, the Capel sisters find lots of potential suitors and family friends alike. These particular scenes were written with great grandeur and it was easy to imagine the glitz and glamour of those events, most famously the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, where war with Napoleon was declared once more. The writer strikes a good balance between explaining the atmosphere of these large gatherings, but also focusing on the personal experiences of the Capel girls and the relationships they form whilst there.

Whilst all three of the Capel girls did have some experience of love, I do find that it did seem to be more focuses on the romances that Maria has. Whilst of course it was necessary to show Maria’s, I would have lived to have seen more exploration of the other two girls experience. There are some mentions of this, but I feel it would have added to a greater understanding of the sisters by doing so. Whatever may be the case, there is no denying that the girls’ relationship is shown in a way that indicated that the girls are inexperienced in love, which is to be expected when they came out in society when they first reached Brussels. In many ways, this was a stark contrast to the heavy realism of the relationship of their parents, which has been tarnished by their father’s gambling.

By the end of the book, the Capel siters had grown in many respects and I think this was one of the best selling points of the book (beside the historical attention to detail of course!). It showed that just like any of us, the characters had become shaped by what they had gone through, even if in reality it was a short space of time. Whilst this meant it was more of a philosophical ending in some ways, it felt very apt and was the right choice to make. It also helped that there was an end note explaining what happened to the real people mentioned within the book and how this influenced what had been written.

Whilst I did enjoy the development of the characters within the Capel family, I found I had a soft spot for General Barnes. Barnes had become a friend to the family after first meeting some of the girls early on in their move to Brussels. He was a kind man and easily befriended the entire family, although he did have a particularly soft spot for Maria. I must admit I was very keen to find out his fate when towards the end of the book, he, as well as all the other military men that the family had grown to know and care for went off to war. There are also some descriptions of the injuries and horrors of war when the timeline reaches the Waterloo campaign, but these are actually necessary in the context they are portrayed in.

In general, I felt that this book, whilst primarily a novel, felt like it was about real people who you could easily relate to. It held its authenticity in a way that showed the research and passion the writer had for the topic. The historical attention to detail made it easy for the reader to imagine being within the events being described, but also like a fly on the wall for the more intimate and gossipy moments as well. It was this engaging narrative that made it very hard to put down and I was sad to finish this, which is always the sign of a good book! I would very much recommend giving The Belles of Waterloo a read as it was just the tonic and escape that I needed.

The Sinking of the Gloucester

Last month it was announced that the wreck of a ship known as the Gloucester had been found off the coast of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. The ship had been wrecked on the sandbanks in 1682, whilst carrying the then heir to the throne, James Stuart, Duke of York, who later became James II. Whilst I am interested in the Stuart era, I must admit, I didn’t know anything about the sinking of this ship, so  whilst it has been in the news a lot recently, I thought it best to explain the context around the sinking and why it has been such an important discovery. I also recently wrote a short piece on why this amazing discovery was needed by the town of Great Yarmouth, which can be viewed here.

Greenhill, John; James II (1633-1701), as Duke of York; Dulwich Picture Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/james-ii-16331701-as-duke-of-york-200078

James Stuart was heir to his older brother, Charles II, as Charles had had no legitimate children. As James was a Catholic in a Protestant country, this did cause issues. By the time of 1682, Charles had made James and his family live in Scotland, mainly due to the issues of the succession. Many had tried to bar James from becoming King, whilst there was also a Popish Plot in 1679, where Catholics had attempted a conspiracy to kill Charles in favour of his brother, James.[1] In early 1682, when these issues appeared to be settling down, James was allowed to return to England, with plans being made to allow him and his family, including his pregnant second wife, Mary of Modena, back to court. In order to do this, James was to collect Mary by boat from Scotland and bring her back to England, with the hopes that she would give birth to a boy and thus secure James’ claim to the throne.

The ship chosen for this journey was the Gloucester. It had been originally commissioned in 1652 and was launched in 1654, so by the time it was used by James, it was already of some age. In fact, it had been out of action due to a poor state of disrepair and had been refitted between 1878 and 1680.[2] In order to collect James from Margate in Kent, which is on the east coast, it had to leave the dock at Portsmouth on the south coast. As well as the Gloucester, there were also five other ships and four yachts that formed the escort.[3] When the time came for boarding, there was a bit of chaos. It took several hours to load the tons of baggage and the estimated 350 passengers on board. Some, passengers decided to change which boat last minute. One of these passengers was Samuel Pepys, the famous diary writer. As he suffered from sea sickness and was worried that the amount of people on board would make him worse, he decided to change boat.[4]

John Hayls, Samuel Pepys, oil on canvas, 1666, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Bad weather made the journey an awkward one. One the first day of sailing, the Gloucester decided to moor due to the terrible conditions. When this decision was made, the ship fired a cannon to announce the decision but this only caused confusion. Instead, some the ships in the escort took this as a sign to move seawards again and were separated from the rest.[5] When the ship got closer to the coast of North Norfolk, an argument ensued between the pilot, some of the crew and naval experts, and the Duke of York, as to which route would be best to take. The area was known for its treacherous sandbanks, so a wrong decision would have been fatal. This proved to be true in the case of the Gloucester.

At 5:30 am on the 6th of May, the ship hit two parallel sandbanks known as the Leman and Ower sandbanks off the coast from Yarmouth. James was reluctant to leave the ship, thinking that they could save it.[6] Instead the opposite was true. It only took the ship around an hour to sink. The rest of the passengers couldn’t leave as etiquette dictated that no one could leave until royalty had gone first. In the end, it has been estimated that around 130-250 people died that day, including some from the nobility. James had also lost a brother of his first wife, Anne Hyde, and according to one source, “all the Dukes cooks but one, all his footmen, and all the rest of his servants”.[7]

As would be expected, the sinking caused a lot of emotions within the witnesses and the families of those who had died, with all wanting answers. The pilot of the Gloucester, James Ayres, was sentenced to life in prison, although there were some, including the Duke of York, who were calling for his execution.[8] Instead, the pilot only served a year of his sentence. Others blamed James, for one being involved in the argument about navigation, and two, for taking so long leaving the ship, meaning others couldn’t escape.[9] No matter who was really to blame for the wreck, the reality was that many people had lost their lives in the tragic accident.

In the aftermath, James’ reputation was at stake. With his reputation only just beginning to rebuild, the Gloucester did little to help, despite some reporting hoping to diminish the collateral damage. Poems, ballads and plays were all written about the event, meaning the news of it was everywhere.[10] With the succession being so fragile already, this event was again another thing used by some against James to show he wasn’t the right person to become the next king. Others who did support him were willing to place the blame elsewhere and continue their support for him. One such way of doing this was by the production of a medal to commemorate the event and to circulate rumours that it was a republican plot to kill James and end monarchy in England once again.[11]

The future Charles II is pictured centre, with James being second left. After Sir Anthony van Dyck, Five Children of King Charles I, oil on canvas, 17th century, based on a work of 1637, © National Portrait Gallery, London

Whilst James did eventually become king in 1685, following the death of his brother, Charles II, he was ousted during the Glorious Revolution of 1688, in which his own Protestant daughter, Mary, and her husband, William of Orange, were invited to take the throne. Perhaps the Gloucester was one of the many reasons used against James’ rule. Whatever the case may be, the discovery of the shipwreck has brought up many fascinating artifacts that capture the moment in time when it sank on the 6th May 1682, including spectacles that would have once been used by someone on board. I hope the discovery helps to add more context behind the life of James and of course be used as a way to remember those who lost their lives on that day. For that reason, I very much look forward to seeing what will happen with it in the future, starting with a planned exhibition next year.


[1] The Gloucester Project, https://www.gloucestershipwreck.co.uk/

[2] Ibid

[3] Claire Jowitt, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester (1682): The Politics of a Royal Shipwreck’, English Historical Review (2022), p. 2

[4] Claire Tomalin, Samuel Pepys : The Unequalled Self (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 331

[5] National Maritime Museum, The Sinking of the HMS Gloucester, https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/hms-gloucester-shipwreck-history-james-ii

[6] Ibid; Claire Jowitt, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester’, p. 12

[7] Letter from Scotland Giving a True Relation of the Unhappy Loss of the Gloucester-frigot, Whereof Sir John Berry was Commander. With a Particular Account of the Persons of Quality Drowned therein, and the Miraculous Escape of His Royal Higness the Duke of York (London, 1682), cited in Claire Jowitt, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester’, p. 13

[8] Meilan Sully, ‘Wreck of Long-Lost Royal Battleship Discovered Off English Coast’, Smithsonian Magazine, 14 June 2022, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/shipwreck-gloucester-james-king-england-180980250/

[9] Claire Jowitt, ‘The Last Voyage of the Gloucester’, p. 15

[10] Ibid, pp. 16-17

[11] National Maritime Museum, The Sinking of the HMS Gloucester, https://www.rmg.co.uk/stories/topics/hms-gloucester-shipwreck-history-james-ii

William Morgan and the Welsh Bible

In this modern age, we can often take things for granted. One of those things is how easily we can access information, particularly in our own languages, whatever that may be. In ages past, information written or printed in vernacular languages wasn’t always a given. Texts were mainly written in Latin or Greek, or possibly Hebrew. In terms of the language the Bible was written in, it was a mixture of all three of these languages. Church services and worship were also conducted in Latin, regardless of which country you lived in. However, with the advent of Protestantism in the sixteenth century, the debate about whether it was necessary to use languages that every day people could understand was raging. This included whether or not it was worth translating the Bible into these languages. Whilst this post isn’t necessarily about English translations of the Bible, but of the Welsh, it is important to give a quick explanation of the early form of Bible translations and what led to the Welsh bible translated by William Morgan.

In terms of the Bible being translated into English, William Tyndale had made attempts in the 1520s and 1530s. At that time, it was illegal to translate biblical texts into English, so he had to go into exile to what is now modern-day Germany. It was also illegal to own a copy of these texts, so not many original examples survive.[1] Even though these attempts were not entirely successful in reaching England, although some were smuggled into the country, it would help to form Protestant ideas that would go on to influence later translators, who would revise Tyndale’s version once the English Bible was acceptable.

Portrait of William Morgan (1907), Wikimedia Commons

In 1534, under Henry VIII, Wales became joined with England under an Act of Union. This act purposefully refused to recognise Welsh as an official language and instead sought to destroy it. This is somewhat ironic really when Henry was descended from Welshmen. Under the new rules, Welsh was banned from being used in areas of law and administration, with English taking precedence.[2] Only the English Bible and the Book of Common Prayer were allowed to be used as well.[3] However, under his daughter, Elizabeth I, William Morgan, was asked to write a Welsh translation of the Bible, which was published in 1588. Elizabeth did try and keep religious toleration, so it is not entirely surprising she may have made this suggestion, although offering an edition in Welsh would have been.

When given this task, Morgan took inspiration from some Welsh translations from the previous few decades: a 1567 edition of the New Testament by William Salesbury, Richard Davies and Thomas Huet, and an edition of the Psalms (also by Salesbury and Davies) from the same year, which was used in the Book of Common Prayer.[4] Whilst working on the book, Morgan lodged with the Dean of Westminster, so he could be closer to the printers in case any correction or guidance was needed. This would have been essential as at that time, means of transport and correspondence were improved during Elizabeth’s reign, but not really very reliable. In terms of the translation process, Morgan would have had to have been on hand as those working in the printer’s wouldn’t have necessarily had previous experience in dealing with Welsh texts.[5] Both the Dean and John Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury were a huge help during the translation process, which Morgan made reference to in his explanation about how his edition came to be.[6] In fact, Archbishop Whitgift paid the printing fees from his own private purse.[7]

Title Page of William Morgan’s Welsh Bible of 1588 © The National Library of Wales 2022

Once the Bible was finally printed, it would have transformed the way Welsh people worshipped as it would have meant their services could now be conducted in Welsh, rather than either English or Latin, as had gone before, and that the Welsh language was allowed to continue.[8] Initially, this would have been on a small scale as it has been estimated that 1,000 copies were produced, although only 24 are known to still survive.[9] Morgan wasn’t entirely pleased with how the Bible had been produced. He complained that they were made too large and would have been only practical during a service, rather than to be used at home, and that they were too expensive at £2, which is around £343 today.[10] There were also misprints too.

Regardless of what Morgan himself thought of the edition, it has been seen as the most important book in Welsh.[11] Not just because it helped to establish recognition for the Welsh language, but because of how it was used to improve the lives of ordinary Welshmen. In 1620, the Bishop of St Asaph, Richard Parry and Dr John Davies, worked on a revised edition of Morgan’s text. Whilst was meant to be a counterpart of the English King James Bible, it mainly sought to correct the misprints found in Morgan’s original and also added 2,000 new words.[12] Ten years later, in 1630, Morgan’s other complaints were addressed. A new smaller and more affordable edition was printed, meaning that it could be easily read from home.[13]

Statue of William Morgan with his Bible outside St Asaph’s Cathedral (2016), taken by Llywelyn200, Wikimedia Commons

So what impact did William Morgan’s Welsh Bible have? Since its original publication in 1588, it has been used by all denominations in Wales as the main edition of the Bible. It’s popularity only grew again in the eighteenth century when it was used by circulating school set up by Griffith Jones and Thomas Charles. The purpose of these schools was to teach both adults and children from underprivileged backgrounds how to read and write. It largely used Morgan’s Bible to do this.[14] As a result, Wales had a large literacy rate.[15] In fact, it’s popularity was maintained so much, new translations of the New Testament, Psalms and the complete Bible, were not printed until the end of the twentieth century, in 1975, 1979 and 1988 respectively.[16]

As with many things, the popularity and success of Morgan’s Welsh Bible were not made in his lifetime. He died in 1604, the year that King James first commissioned the English translation that would be named after him. All in all, I hope that he would be very proud of what he achieved, for it not only improved the lives of Welshmen for generations to come, but also helped to save the Welsh language too.


[1] British Library, ‘Tyndale’s New Testament 1526’, https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/william-tyndales-new-testament

[2] National Trust, Bishop William Morgan, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ty-mawr-wybrnant/features/bishop-william-morgan

[3] The National Library of Wales, ‘Welsh Bible 1588’, https://www.library.wales/discover/digital-gallery/printed-material/1588-welsh-bible#?c=&m=&s=&cv=&xywh=-886%2C-1%2C4734%2C4026

[4] Oliver Currie, ‘The sixteenth-century Bible translations and the development of Welsh literary prose style’, Translation Studies, 9.2 (2016), p. 157

[5] Ibid, p. 118

[6] William Hughes, The Life and Times of Bishop William Morgan (Brighton: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1891), p. 121

[7] Ibid, p. 117

[8] Oliver Currie, ‘The sixteenth-century Bible translations’, pp. 152 and 154

[9] National Trust, Bishop William Morgan, https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/ty-mawr-wybrnant/features/bishop-william-morgan

[10] Rosemary Burton, ‘William Morgan and the Welsh Bible’, History Today, 38.5 (1988), https://www.historytoday.com/archive/william-morgan-and-welsh-bible

[11] William Hughes, The Life and Times of Bishop William Morgan, p. 130

[12] Timothy Cutts, ‘400th Anniversary of the 1620 Bible’, The National Library of Wales, 23 November 2020,  https://blog.library.wales/400th-anniversary-of-the-1620-bible/; John T. Kock, Celtic Culture: A Historical Encyclopaedia (ABC-CLIO, 2006), p. 210

[13] Timothy Cutts, ‘400th Anniversary of the 1620 Bible’

[14] John T. Kock, Celtic Culture, p. 210

[15] Ibid

[16] Oliver Currie, ‘The sixteenth-century Bible translations’, p. 153

Isabel and Hamelin de Warenne: a 12th century power couple, Guest Post by Sharon Bennett Connolly

In this latest guest post, I am very excited to welcome author and medieval historian, Sharon Bennett Connolly. You can view her own history blog by clicking the following link

Isabel de Warenne was the only surviving child of William de Warenne, 3rd Earl of Warenne and Surrey, and his wife Ela de Talvas. When her father died on the Second Crusade to the Holy Land, in around 1148, Isabel became 4th Countess of Surrey in her own right and one of the greatest heiresses in England and Normandy, with large estates in Yorkshire, Norfolk and Sussex.

Isabel was born during a period of civil war in England, a time known as The Anarchy (c.1135-54), when King Stephen fought against Empress Matilda, the daughter of Henry I, for the right to rule England. Isabel’s father, William, was a staunch supporter of the king and had fought at the Battle of Lincoln in February 1141, though without distinction; his men were routed early on in the battle and William was among a number of earls who fled the field. He later redeemed himself that summer by capturing Empress Matilda’s brother and senior general, Robert Earl of Gloucester, at Winchester.

the Warenne coat of arms at Trinity Church Southover, author’s own image

The earl appears to have tired of the civil war in 1147 and departed on Crusade with his half-brother, Waleran de Beaumont, Count of Meulan, and their cousin, King Louis VII of France. In the same year, in order to guarantee the Warenne lands for King Stephen’s cause, Earl Warenne’s only daughter, Isabel, was married to Stephen’s younger son, William of Blois, who would become Earl by right of his wife, following the 3rd earl’s death on Crusade in 1148; he was killed fighting in the doomed rearguard at the Battle of Mount Cadmus near Laodicea in January 1148.

The young couple were of a similar age, being about 10 or 11 years old. During the 3rd earl’s absence, and while the new earl and countess were still only children, the vast Warenne lands were administered by the 3rd earl’s youngest brother, Reginald de Warenne, Baron Wormegay, who was a renowned and accomplished administrator and estate manager. A charter issued in c.1148, in the name of William of Blois as earl of Surrey, had the proviso ‘that if God should bring back the earl [from the crusade] he [Reginald] would do his best to obtain the earl’s confirmation, or otherwise that of his lord earl William, the king’s son.’1 We do not know when news reached England of the earl’s death, the tidings may have arrived before the return of the earl’s half-brother, Waleran, later in the year. However, the future of the earldom was already secure with the succession of Isabel and her young husband, carefully watched over by Isabel’s uncle, Reginald.

In 1154 the young couple’s future prospects could have changed drastically when William’s elder brother Eustace, their father’s heir, died. As a consequence, William inherited his mother’s County of Boulogne from his brother, adding to his already substantial domains. He may also have expected to inherit his brother’s position as heir to the throne However, the young man was removed from the succession by his own father, in the interests of peace. Stephen made a deal with Empress Matilda’s son, Henry of Anjou, that the crown would go to him on Stephen’s death, thus restoring the rightful line of succession.

William seems to have been reluctant to accept this as there is some suggestion of his involvement in a plot against Henry later in 1154, during which William suffered a broken leg. In the event of Henry’s accession, though, William served Henry loyally, until his death, returning from the king’s campaign in Toulouse, in 1159.

Now in her mid-20s, and as their marriage had been childless, Isabel was once again a prize heiress. Although she seems to have had a little respite from the marriage market, by 1162 Henry II’s youngest brother, William X, Count of Poitou, was seeking a dispensation to marry her. The dispensation was refused by Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, on the grounds of consanguinity; the archbishop’s objection was not that Isabel and William were too closely related, but that William and Isabel’s first husband had been cousins. William died shortly after the archbishop refused to sanction the marriage – it is said, of a broken heart.

Seal of Isabel de Warenne, author’s own image

King Henry was not to be thwarted so easily in his plans to bring the Warenne lands into the royal family, proposing his illegitimate half-brother, Hamelin. The natural son of Geoffrey, Count of Anjou, Hamelin was born sometime around 1130, when Geoffrey was estranged from his wife, Empress Matilda. His mother was, possibly, Adelaide of Angers, though this is by no means certain. Geoffrey had a second illegitimate child, Emma, who may have been Hamelin’s full sister. Emma married the Welsh prince, Davydd ap Owain of Gwynedd.

Hamelin and Isabel married in April 1164; Isabel’s trousseau cost an impressive £41 10s 8d. In an unusual step, Hamelin took his wife’s surname and bore the titles Earl of Warenne and Surrey in her right, though was more habitually called Earl Warenne. Hamelin was incredibly loyal to Henry and his marriage to an heiress was reward for his support, whilst at the same time giving him position and influence within England.

Hamelin supported his brother the king in the contest of wills that Henry was engaged in with his archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Becket. When Henry called for the archbishop to appear at a great council at Northampton Castle on 12 October 1164, to answer to the charges laid against him, Hamelin was at the trial and spoke in support of his brother. Indeed, the new earl and the archbishop appear to have started a war of words; Hamelin defended Henry’s dignity and called Becket a traitor. The archbishop’s retort was ‘Were I a knight instead of a priest, my fist would prove you a liar!’ Ironically, it is thought that Hamelin’s denunciation of Becket was motivated by the injury caused to the royal family in Becket’s refusal to allow Henry’s brother, William – Hamelin’s half-brother – to marry Isabel de Warenne; who was now Hamelin’s wife.

Hamelin’s animosity to Becket was not to survive the archbishop’s martyrdom and he actively participated in the cult that grew up around Thomas Becket after his violent death. In later life, the earl claimed that the cloth covering Becket’s tomb had cured his blindness, caused by a cataract, in one eye.

Hamelin was an influential and active member of the English barony. He supported Henry during his sons’ rebellion in 1173 and formed part of the entourage which escorted the king’s daughter, Joanna, to Sicily for her marriage to King William. Hamelin remained close to the crown even after Henry’s death, supporting his nephew, Richard I. Hamelin was among the earls present at Richard’s first coronation in September 1189; and carried one of the three swords at his second coronation in April 1194. During Richard’s absence on Crusade, Hamelin sided with the Regent, William Longchamp, against the intrigues of Richard’s brother John. Hamelin held great store in the rule of law, attested by the legend on his seal, ‘pro lege, per lege’ (for the law, by the law). This adherence to the law explains Hamelin’s support for Longchamp against that of his own nephew, John, and even as the justiciar’s overzealous actions alienated others. Later, Hamelin was one of only two magnates entrusted by Eleanor of Aquitaine with the collection and storage of the king’s ransom, after he was captured by Duke Leopold of  Austria; the other was William d’Aubigny, Earl of Arundel. Hamelin’s involvement with the court continued into the reign of King John; he was present at John’s coronation and at Lincoln when William, King of Scots, gave his oath of homage in November 1200.

Conisbrough Castle, author’s own image

Away from court, Hamelin appears to have been an avid builder; he built a cylindrical keep at his manor of Mortemer in Normandy. He then constructed a larger and improved version, using all the latest techniques of castle design, at his manor of Conisbrough, South Yorkshire. He may also have been the one to build Peel Castle at Thorne, a hunting lodge which had a 3-sided donjon that was of smaller, but similar, design to Conisbrough. Hamelin spent a lot of time and money on Conisbrough Castle, which took almost 10 years to complete, and it appears to have been a favourite family residence. King John visited there in 1201, and two of Hamelin’s daughters married landowners from the nearby manors of Tickhill and Sprotborough.

Hamelin was also involved in a famous dispute with Hugh, abbot of Cluny, over the appointment of a new prior to St Pancras Priory, Lewes. Abbot Hugh was known as a man of great piety and honour; he had been prior of Lewes but became abbot of Cluny in 1199. In 1200, Abbot Hugh appointed one Alexander to the vacant position of prior of Lewes, but Hamelin refused to accept the nomination. In establishing the priory at Lewes, the abbots of Cluny had apparently reserved the right to appoint the prior, and to admit all monks seeking entry into the order; however, Hamelin claimed that the patronage of the priory belonged to him, and it was his right to appoint the prior.

The dispute dragged on, and it was only after intervention from King John that agreement was eventually reached whereby, should the position of prior become vacant, the earl and the monks should send representatives to the abbot, who would nominate two candidates, of whom the earl’s proctors should choose one to be appointed prior.

St Pancras Priory, Lewes, author’s own image

The marriage of Hamelin and Isabel appears to have been highly successful. They had four surviving children. Their son and heir, William, would become the 5th Earl of Surrey and married Matilda Marshal, eldest daughter of the great William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke, regent for King Henry III. Ela married twice, firstly to a Robert de Newburn, of whom nothing else is known, and secondly to William Fitzwilliam of Sprotborough, a village just a few miles from Conisbrough. Isabel was married, firstly, to Robert de Lascy, who died in 1193, and secondly, no later than the spring of 1196, to Gilbert de Laigle, Lord of Pevensey.

Matilda married Henry, Count of Eu, who died around 1190; by Henry, she was the mother of Alice de Lusignan, who struggled to maintain her inheritance during the reign of King John, when another lord asserted his hereditary rights to her castle at Tickhill. Matilda then married Henry d’Estouteville, a Norman lord. One of the daughters – although it is not clear which – bore an illegitimate son, Richard Fitzroy, Baron Chilham, who was born, possibly, around 1190, by her cousin, John (the future King John). This must have caused considerable family tensions!

Hamelin died on 7th May 1202, in his early 70s and was buried in the chapter house at the family mausoleum of Lewes Priory, in Sussex. Isabel died in her mid-60s, in 1203, and was buried at Lewes Priory, alongside Hamelin. In 1202, Countess Isabel had granted ‘for the soul of her husband earl Hamelin, to the priory of St Katherine, Lincoln, of similar easements for 60 beasts, namely for 40 as of his gift and 20 as of hers.’2 Together, Hamelin and Isabel had played important roles in English politics for almost 40 years, all while raising a family and managing their vast estates which stretched from Yorkshire in the north to the south coast, and into Normandy.

Footnotes: Farrer, William and Charles Travis Clay, editors, Early Yorkshire Charters, Volume 8: The Honour of Warenneibid

Author bio:

Sharon Bennett Connolly FRHistS is the best-selling author of 4 non-fiction history books, her latest being Defenders of the Norman Crown: Rise and Fall of the Warenne Earls of Surrey. A Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, Sharon also writes the popular history blog, www.historytheinterestingbits.com and is a feature writer for All About History magazine. Her TV work includes Australian Television’s ‘Who Do You Think You Are?‘.

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