This blog is a selection of interesting things I've come across during my history research. I have a wide interest in history ranging from Wars of the Roses, country houses, Stuarts, Georgians, Louis XIV, Napoleon and criminals. So expect to see a bit of everything on here, with a focus on little known stories.
A BA History and MA Public History and Heritage graduate from the University of Derby. I love anything history.
Last year I conducted research into the conditions of Napoleonic prisoners of war held in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I wrote about my findings in two blog posts for the archives I work at, as well as talking through my findings with a lovely local group that I was involved with at the time. That went very well and all who heard about it said it was a very interesting topic.
Since then I have looked into the parish registers at the time and found a lot of examples of the prisoners and how they married and had children with local women. The most interesting find for me is that one prisoner brought his Egyptian wife to Chesterfield, whilst another brought his Caribbean servant with him. For this reason, I added it to my list of possible talks I could be booked to do and I’m so glad that I did as I have been booked to do it twice more.
The first will be for the Be Bold History Network, a group that connects history knowledge with the classroom. I did a talk for them back in 2021, talking about my book research on Anthony Woodville and was kindly invited back any time. So I will be giving the talk on Wednesday 9th of February. Whilst it is aimed at teachers, anyone is welcome to attend.
Happy New Year and welcome to the first blog post of 2023! As I get closer to my book deadline, I will probably be posting less over the next few months. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy this post.
Recently I was having a conversation with a ninety-year-old family friend about her experiences of World War Two. She started off with explaining about Dunkirk and D-Day, including her late husband’s role in D-Day and why he would never go on a ship ever again after that. One thing came up that I had never heard of before and that was the famous actress, Audrey Hepburn, had been involved in the Dutch Resistance during the war. After doing a bit of initial digging online, I found that she was right. The whole story had been unknown until 2019, when Dutch Girl: Audrey Hepburn and World War II written by Robert Matzen, following extensive research and interviews with those who had known Audrey during her time in Holland.
Audrey Hepburn was born in Brussels in 1929 to Joseph Rushton, a British banker and Ella van Heemstra, a Dutch baroness. During the 1930s, the family spent a lot of time in London and became supporters of the Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists. In 1935, they were invited to Munich to meet members of the Fuhrer. In that same year, Joseph left the family when Audrey was six-years-old. Following the split, Audrey was initially sent to be schooled in London, but was later sent to Arnhem once her mother had settled back in Holland. Whilst there, she trained to be a ballerina at the Arnhem City theatre.
Following the move back to Holland, Ella continued her support for the Nazis. In Matzen’s book, he admits that he believed this support was to help them to survive, particularly after the German’s invaded Holland in 1940. However, Ella’s opinion changed after her brother-in-law, Otto, was executed for not cooperating with the Germans. Perhaps that means that Matzen’s view was right but it is clear that it is neither black nor white.
The now teenage Audrey did not agree with her mother’s views and sympathised with the occupied people who had known immense hardship, violence and abject poverty they were subjected to. Instead she decided to become involved in the Resistance by becoming acquainted with the local doctor Hendrik Visser’t Hooft, who was a leader in the underground movement. Her main role was to carry messages to downed allied airmen and bring them food. It was thought that her young age would mean she could be undetected and her fluent English was also a bonus. Dr Hooft was a good choice for a Resistance leader as doctors had some immunity from suspicion from the Nazis due to their much needed skills.
One instance she was sent to give a message to an airman who was hiding in woods near her village of Velp, where they had moved to following the execution of her uncle. After having delivered the message, she noticed Nazi guards who asked her what she was doing and to show her papers. She managed to cover up the truth by pretending to pick wildflowers and offer them to the men. Audrey also danced in performances held to raise money for the resistance, despite the fact that she was suffering from symptoms of malnutrition. This malnutrition affected her for the rest of her life as she always remained slender and had a strange relationship with food thereafter.
The Battle for Arnhem in 1944 helped to liberate the part of Holland that Audrey Hepburn lived in, but she would never forget the things that she saw during the four years of occupation. This was something she admitted on numerous occasions.
Whilst this post has not used all the ins and outs of Audrey Hepburn’s involvement with the Resistance, I hope it has shown the immense bravery that a young teenager had in very dangerous and life threatening circumstances. It was for this reason that she spoke very little of her involvement. She also never revealed her mother’s Nazi sympathies because of the anger she felt for them, but also she wanted to distance herself from for the sake of her career.
Well 2022 has been another strange year for me. The majority of this year has been disturbed thanks to building work at home. That has meant that I haven’t been able to get as much of things done as I would have liked, including not doing as much work on my Anthony Woodville biography as I would have liked. It did also mean that working from home came to an abrupt end. Whilst I miss aspects of that, it has been nice to get back into the archive building I work in. It’s meant being able to hold original documents again for the first time in a very long time, rather than looking at scanned versions on a computer screen.
Thankfully though, my blog work hasn’t been much affected and I hope that you have enjoyed the content that has been created this year. It has been the most successful year yet in terms of views since I started this blog four years ago. For that reason, 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 means a lot to me to see people enjoy the blog. The best post of all this year has been about William Morgan, who translated the first Welsh Bible. That can be read here.
I would also like to thank the people who have done guest posts for the blog this year. It has been a privilege to host such varied and interesting posts. The most popular of these guests posts has been Isabel and Hamelin de Warenne by historian, Sharon Bennett Connolly. It can be viewed here. There have also been a few firsts when it comes to guest posts too. One was a press release about the archaeology survey work at Greasley Castle in Nottinghamshire conducted by Triskele Heritage. James Wright of Triskele Heritage was kind enough to send the release and it can be viewed here. The other first was a book tour to celebrate the publication last month of Gemma Hollman’s latest book, The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III. If you’re interested, the post can be read here. I wish Gemma all the very best with it and I hope a few of you were given it as a Christmas present!
Back in September, I also returned to Bath for the Jane Austen Festival. It was our second year participating and it was a joy to be involved. This year, my parents also joined in, which was great to see. A big thank you once again to my sister for sewing our beautiful dresses! However, our holiday in Bath was also marked by the sad passing of Queen Elizabeth II. It felt like a very surreal thing as it felt like one bit of stability we had in these very turbulent times was gone. We all wore black armbands and observed a minute’s silence in honour of her on the day of the promenade. I still miss the Queen in many ways but it was so interesting to witness a historical moment during her lying in state and funeral.
I also helped out at the first ever Derbyshire Georgian Festival. I helped out on a stall for work (the Derbyshire Record Office), where we showed some of the Georgian era collections. As we were at a mill, we also took some items relating to millworkers. I was also able to have my own table showcasing my research into the period that I have done for the blog. Of course I did this dressed in my Regency dress!
On happier news, I have been booked for two talks in February, including my first paid one, on some research I did this year on Napoleonic prisoners of war in Chesterfield, a town in my home county of Derbyshire. The group I am doing the paid talk for have also suggested that I might be able to go back and do some more. I was able to find out about the conditions the prisoners were held in and the fate of two officers, General Joseph Exelmans and Colonel Auguste de la Grange, who managed to escape. I can’t wait to share the interesting stories this research has shown with more people. There is also the possibility of finally doing a talk I was booked for in April 2020 about my research into Anthony Woodville, for the local branch of the Richard III Society, which I have been a member of since I was nine years old. Fingers crossed for that too! If you would like to know more about the talks I can do, I have added a specific page on the blog for them.
Following on from my research into Anthony Woodville, I have so far written 50,000 words of my 80,000 word target that my publishers set me. My deadline for it all is the 1st of May 2023. Hopefully I can get it all done by then. It does seem to have crept up on me! Sometimes I still can’t quite believe that after so many years of researching his life, I’m finally so close to having the book out. I will of course update you all after it’s been submitted about any possible publication date. Again on the Anthony theme, I was gifted an Anthony Woodville felt Christmas decoration by a friend and colleague, which he had made for me by a local shop. It’s just the best!!
All that is left now is to wish you all a healthy and wonderful 2023. 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.
This book has been on my to read pile for a while now and back in October, when it was Black history month, I thought there was no better time to read it. I had heard good things though, so I couldn’t wait to get started and I was definitely not disappointed!
It showcases ten very different examples of black people living in Tudor England to demonstrate that they would have been more judged by their social status than their skin colour. Each chapter is dedicated to telling the story of a different person. A few of the examples include the now fairly well known John Blanke, a trumpeter to Henry VIII, to Jacques Francis, a salvage diver who dived to the Mary Rose. All the examples chosen show the wide variety of trades available to them. They were not the slaves that we may perceive them to be, but free people who were able to chose their own path. Jacques Francis was a personal favourite and will be featured in a blog post at some point next year.
With focusing on these examples, the reader can clearly understand that Tudor and early Stuart England was not as white as we have been taught. For this reason, the book is very important as it sheds light on a little known aspect of history, which I am always a sucker for. The author not only gives a wider context to their situation, but gives smaller examples of other black people in the same situation, where we cannot find more than a fleeting glimpse of from the records. At times, this can take over a little from the people’s stories she is trying to tell, but I understand that it was necessary to do this in order to give a well-rounded picture to the times they lived in.
The writer’s style is easy to read and understand, which helps to appeal this book to a wider audience. It also helps them to ask questions about how racial attitudes and how this began to change following the introduction of the slave trade later in the seventeenth century. To do this, there are some uncomfortable moments in the book, particularly when explaining ideas of racism and slavery that were beginning to develop, and had already developed in places like Spain and Portugal, which are well explained throughout.
The main reason there has been a focus more on the contextual background is that the only sources that these black people existed in Britain are things like court and parish records. The issue with this is that it doesn’t add a wider context about how they would have been treated or viewed by those around them. It is for this reason that Kaufmann does add so much other information. This may put some people off, and there is no denying that there is some speculation amongst this, but I think the point of this book is to be expand historical thinking towards including those with different ethnical backgrounds. In this respect, it did well to answer some of the complex questions we may have about the book’s topic.
In general, I enjoyed this book and it left me wanting to know more about those black men and women who lived during this time period. I am not usually much of a fan of Tudor history, but this is certainly something I did enjoy. It brought something entirely new to the field and I hope that others authors take note of that and that there can be more research into black history during this period.
As an avid reader, I usually can’t name all the books I read in a year, but as the majority of them have a history theme, I thought I would share 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.
To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner
If you are a fan of the Wild West, this one will be for you. It is a dual biography of the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett, the sheriff that shot him dead in 1881. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid, that was written by Pat Garrett himself, as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing. It has a very journalistic and easy to read writing style, despite the many names, events and locations that are mentioned throughout. I would definitely recommend this as I found it very hard to put down. You can find a full review I wrote earlier this year here if you are interested in find out more.
The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner
I’ll be honest, this book was by far my most favourite read of the year. I was also lucky enough to be given a review copy of this by the author. It was shipped out to me all the way from America. A huge thank you for that too! I think, just like the book on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, that this is one of those books you won’t forget reading. This one is another duel biography, but this time of the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Sitting Bull is one of my favourite historical heroes, so I was very much looking forward to reading this. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest! It is a very emotive and sometimes uncomfortable read, as it tells of the gruesome reality of how settlers took over the plains. For this reason, as well as it showing the Lakota viewpoint, it is an important read. As I said in my review ‘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’. For that reason, I feel this is one of the most vital books to understand the final years of freedom for the Lakota. You can find my previous review of it here.
Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann
This book tells the stories of ten Africans who lived in Tudor and Stuart England. Each example shows that whilst they were in a minority, you could find Africans in a variety of different roles during this period. A personal favourite of mine was Jacques Francis, who was a salvage diver for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s that sank off the coast of Portsmouth. The writing style is incredibly accessible and creates a personal narrative not only for the examples given, but also for those Africans in similar circumstances who can only briefly be discovered in documents such as parish registers. All in all, this is a very entertaining and informative book, which has quite clearly been based on meticulous research. I have written a full review of this here.
A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley
At the beginning of the year, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read since my childhood by an author who once lived in the countryside of Derbyshire, close to where I live. Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for all ages, and is based on real life events. First published in 1939, it tells the story of teenage girl, Penelope, who is sent to live on her aunt and uncle’s farm, once owned by Anthony Babington, an important Derbyshire landowner, who became embroiled in a plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The girl manages to move between her own time and the 1580s and even meets Anthony Babington himself. Can Penelope alter the course of history or not? It is a slow starter, but once you get into it, this book does become somewhat all consuming and certainly triggers a lot of emotion.
Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History by Janina Ramerez
This tells the story of Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchoress who shut herself away in a church in Norwich. It discusses her religious writings, as well as providing context to the times in which she lived. Once again, this is another reread, but I loved it just as much this time as I did before. I first came across this book after the author (a favourite historian of mine) did a TV documentary about trying to find the lost original manuscript version of Julian’s text. Sadly it still hasn’t been found, other than a fragment later edited. The author certainly has a special way of explaining things and making things accessible to an audience and this book is no exception. It is especially good at analysing the importance and legacy of Julian, who is now largely a forgotten figure. In the words of Julian herself, All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.
I know this was meant to be a post about my must read books of the year, but as we are on the countdown to Christmas, I thought I must share my favourite historical themed film to watch in time for Christmas.
The Man Who Invented Christmas:
This film showcases how Charles Dickens really wrote A Christmas Carol, which is now synonymous with how we celebrate Christmas. As a Dickens fan of many years, I must admit I love this film and Dan Stevens plays the author very well. It shows off his eccentricities brilliantly, whilst also detailing the tragic backstory of his time in the blacking factory that Dickens himself tried to hide his whole life. I have always been fascinated by the way Dickens kept note of names and places for his books, as well as how he re-enacted his stories to audiences during readings. The film does show this wonderfully. It also has a fantastic cast, full of wonderful British actors. If you have any interest in A Christmas Carol, or Dickens himself, this is a must watch. I have watched this many times and never seem to bore of it!
I have always found churches to be fascinating places. Not only are they places of great faith, which have survived many hundreds of years, they are memorials to the people who built and used them. You can definitely learn a lot by looking around old churches. One that recently came to my attention, and is now on my to visit list, is St Bartholomew the Great in the Smithfield area of London. It was mentioned briefly in a discussion about Anthony Woodville, who I am currently writing a biography of, and who is famous for participating in a joust at Smithfield. The person I was talking to about this tournament mentioned that Anthony would have seen this church on his way to the joust. Once again, I set off down a research rabbit hole to find out more about this church. I certainly did find out a lot of amazing things about its history.
The name St Bartholomew’s may ring a bell with you because of the world famous London hospital of the same name, which is commonly known by the nickname of St Bart’s. Whilst this post is not necessarily about the hospital, there is no denying there is a collective history. The church of St Bartholomew the Great, the hospital and St Bartholomew the Less, which served as the parish church for the hospital, were all commissioned by a clergyman called Rahere in the 1100s.
Rahere had previously been a member of the clergy at St Paul’s, but that all changed during a pilgrimage to Rome. Whilst there, he received a vision in a dream to build a church and hospital in Smithfield. When he arrived back in England, he made enquiries about the piece of land he had seen in his dream. He found out it was in royal hands and so he went to King Henry I and explained the vision he had received. His petitioning worked and he was granted the land. Building started and an Augustinian priory was established in 1123. It was this priory that became what we now see today. The church and the hospital became known for its healing powers and it was reported that many miracles happened there, most occurring on St Bartholomew’s Day.
Throughout the priory’s existence, as with any church, there were some alterations, including in 1410, where parts of it were rebuilt, ensuring that the monastic complex was completely enclosed within walls. There was already some evidence of enclosure prior to this as a gatehouse, which is still in existence. Perhaps this might mean that there were new walls built or strengthening to existing ones. Whatever the case may be, the walls were completely demolished in 1671, leading to disputes about boundaries.
The most dramatic change in use for the priory came with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Henry had decided to dissolve the monasteries, who he believed had become too rich and powerful. Whilst some of them had, it was a massive over statement and many lies about the corruption in these places were told in order to make the dissolution of them appear necessary. As was the case with the hospital at St Bart’s, many offered medical care and relief to the poor and when they were dissolved, this ended, just to give the king money he needed. Whilst the priory was dissolved, the hospital was reinstated in the final year of Henry VIII’s reign.
Just like the other monastic institutions at this time, the priory at St Bartholomew’s had been valued. It was valued at £653 and 15 shillings a year, the equivalent of just under £275,500 in today’s money. This value had been given based on the small houses the priory owned in two other London parishes, and a few in the countryside away from London. The question was what would happen to the site after it was no longer a priory? It was purchased by Richard Rich, a man associated with the downfalls of both Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. He paid £1064, 11 shillings and 3 pence (just under £450,000 today) and gave the now redundant canons and annuity of £6, 13 shillings and 4 pence each (around £2,000 today).
Within a year of purchase, the nave was demolished and the rest used for housing, the cloister as stabling and the crypt as a wine cellar. By the 1720s, the building was instead being used as a printer’s shop. It was in this shop that Benjamin Franklin, briefly worked as a typesetter. After then, it fell into disrepair and was little used until it was restored in the late Victorian era. During this restoration, prior Rahere even had a shoe stolen!
There are so many other tales that could be said of the church, for it has seen so much of London’s history. However, I will end with my two favourite stories that I came across whilst researching about its history. The first one is about a bust of Edward Cooke, a seventeenth century philosopher. It was once known to weep during wet weather. It was noted that physical tears would stream down his face. A plaque was placed underneath the bust to tell of this fantastic tale. In reality, this was just condensation that stuck to the bust and it hasn’t wept since the invention of central heating.
Finally back to the gate that was mentioned earlier. Remnants of the lower section date back to the thirteenth century, but the top part dates back to 1595, when this was converted into a house. How has it managed to survive so well when much of the original priory has been destroyed or altered? At some point, it had been covered up by brickwork, meaning its older façade had been forgotten. That was until World War One, when a bomb landing nearby blew off the brick and revealed the older (and I think much prettier) façade. Luckily the site had also escaped the Great Fire of London and the Blitz of World War Two. Thank goodness it has because it would have been a shame to entirely lose all the fascinating history of the church and its original priory.
In this latest guest post, I am honoured to welcome Gemma Hollman for part of a book tour to promote her latest book, The Queen and the Mistress: The Women of Edward III. The book tells the story of the women in Edward’s life, his queen, Philippa of Hainault, and his mistress, Alice Perrers. It shows how two very different women, from very different backgrounds, were able to make their way in the royal court.
Gemma Hollman is a historian and author who specialises in late medieval English history. Her previous book, Royal Witches: From Joan of Navarre to Elizabeth Woodville, was published in 2019. When not working in the heritage sector, she also runs a history blog, Just History Posts, which features many different periods of history.
Being a woman in medieval England could be tricky. Society was run by men, and whilst women could and did have freedom and power, there were lots of conflicting social pressures placed upon them. They should be pious, quiet, affable, submissive, and fertile, but many women were also expected to be clever, able to run an estate or business in her husband’s absence, wise to politics and diplomacy and otherwise be an asset in a marriage.
One part of being a woman which was viewed with the most suspicion was her sexuality. Women were seen as emotional creatures, would-be-Eves just waiting to lead men into temptation and sin. Women could control men with the lure of the bedroom, and so they were seen as a danger. This danger was particularly heightened with the women who found themselves around the king – even his wife and queen.
Philippa of Hainault was the wife of Edward III for four decades, and she amply fulfilled her duties as consort by providing a vast number of children and heirs for her husband. But though their sexual attraction was clear, Philippa knew well not to flaunt her sexual status at the king’s side. Her mother-in-law, Queen Isabella, had come under scandal during her effective regency of England for taking a lover, and her potential pregnancy by this man was what ultimately led to Edward III to rebel against her and seize the reins of power for himself. Philippa had seen the damaging effects of a loose woman in power, and she was happy to demonstrate that she did not have undue influence over Edward because of her position in his bed. On one occasion when the couple were travelling their kingdom, they stayed at a monastery. The resident monks were uncomfortable with the king and queen sharing a bed in their religious institution, and Philippa happily agreed to stay in separate accommodation so as not to insult her hosts.
But though Philippa downplayed her sexual hold over the king, she profited greatly from her position as a mother. By caring personally for her children instead of placing them in separate households, she obtained extra lands and income in order to pay for their upkeep. The close relationships she cultivated with her children gave her influence over them and their extended network later in their lives. And even the image of Philippa as mother was used as propaganda in pieces of history. One of the most famous stories of Philippa’s life places her as a heavily pregnant woman pleading at the feet of her husband to spare the lives of the Frenchmen of Calais who had come under Edward’s wrath. The visceral image of a pregnant queen gave Philippa great political currency, and she was apparently able to succeed in intervening in politics in a way that none of the lords of Edward’s council were able to as a result.
Whilst Philippa had found a way to carefully navigate the power and suspicion that being a lover of the king entailed, towards the end of her life another woman was to take up this mantle. Alice Perrers was one of Philippa’s ladies-in-waiting and not long after her arrival at court she became the king’s only known mistress. As a young, lower-class woman who was causing the king to sin in adultery, Alice was in a far more immoral position than Philippa. Philippa’s position as the king’s partner was sanctified by marriage and her coronation, blessed by the church, but Alice could not be further from this. Though the couple kept their relationship secret during the lifetime of the queen, it still nonetheless resulted in three children. Once Philippa died, Alice was thrust into the limelight of Edward’s court as he became more open to sharing the place Alice had in his heart.
Though Edward was very much in love with Alice and lavished her with attention and gifts, others were more conflicted by her position. As the only woman who now shared Edward’s bed, powerful men across Europe recognised Alice’s influential position and they were not shy to petition her for help. But many also found her undue influence distasteful. Thomas Walsingham, a monk and chronicler, criticised Alice’s ugly appearance and shameless behaviour as a loose woman, attributing her rise in favour with Edward to witchcraft and good luck.
As if Alice’s position as a mistress was not bad enough, she had no qualms reminding those around her exactly how she gained her influence with the king. During her downfall and trial in Parliament, the men of Edward’s household described how Alice sat at the head of the king’s bed beside him, and how Edward sometimes seemed to change his mind overnight – a suggestion that a certain woman had entered his bedroom that night and changed it for him. Alice directed orders to the men around her from the same bed that she slept in with the king, and this overt reminder of her sexuality was severely disapproved of. Alice was not ashamed of her sexuality and the power it brought her, and this was brought into sharp contrast with the behaviour of the queen before her.
Ultimately, the womanly behaviour of both women was reflected in their subsequent legacies. Philippa was seen as the ideal queen who never mis-stepped, who blessed the kingdom with her generosity and fecundity, whilst Alice was despised for being a power-hungry woman who used sex to her advantage and had none of the shame and modesty a woman of her time should have. In looking back on their legacies and attempting to find their real stories, we need to remember just how important gender roles were in their reputations amongst their contemporaries – and make sure this doesn’t unfairly colour our modern opinion of them.
For UK readers, Gemma’s second book, The Queen and The Mistress: The Women of Edward III is out now, you can buy it from Amazon. For American readers, the book is due for release in Spring 2023.
Two anniversaries have inspired this blog post, first of all, yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the steps leading to Tutankhamun, probably the world’s greatest and most famous archaeological discovery, but today also marks the 244th anniversary of the birth of Giovanni Belzoni. At the moment, you may be wondering how these two things are connected, but it’s a closer connection than you may at first think. Giovanni Belzoni found a similarly exciting discovery in the Valley of the Kings, just a little over a hundred years before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun. The discovery he made was the fantastic tomb of Seti I, which is the largest of all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Giovanni Belzoni was one of fourteen children. He was born in Padua, Italy, in 1778. As a teenager, he attempted to go into holy orders, where he learnt about engineering. From this engineering experience, he began to exhibit some hydraulic engines he had made. When Napoleon’s forces invaded Italy, he moved to the Netherlands, before again moving to England in 1803, to escape going to prison. Following the move, he joined the circus as a strongman, helped by his 6 ft 7 inch height and muscly build. He toured with this around Britain and Europe, until he heard the Pasha of Egypt was looking for a new irrigation system.
In 1815, Belzoni made his way to Egypt to offer his hydraulic engines for use as an irrigation system. Despite a good pitch, the Pasha wasn’t entirely impressed and didn’t take up the offer. Instead, Belzoni was offered a small allowance that allowed him to stay in Egypt a little longer. It was during this time that Belzoni became fascinated with the European efforts to excavate Ancient Egyptian sites. Officials on these digs saw him as a valuable asset thanks to his strength and engineering knowledge and so by 1817, he was officially employed by the British to help with these types of excavations.
Belzoni built up a reputation for getting things done, even if his methods don’t match up to modern archaeology. He was notorious for using his strength, bribery and ingenuity to plunder items from Egypt, to send them to Britain. One of the most famous artifacts he helped unearth was a sculpture of Ramses II, which had been notoriously difficult to move, and was fought over by the British and the French, is now held in the British Museum. He also cleared the entrance of the famous Abu Simbel temple and was the first to enter the pyramid of Khafre at Giza. Whilst he made these discoveries and more, there is one discovery he is most famous for; the tomb of Seti I.
The tomb was discovered on 16 October 1817 and up to that point, it was viewed as the finest tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Its walls were highly decorated and looked as if they had just been painted yesterday, rather than many thousands of years ago. Most importantly, it still contained the sarcophagus, which was made of fine alabaster. This was sent back to London, initially to the British Museum, but was later brought by the Sir John Soane Museum. Belzoni and his team spent just over a year drawing and taking wax impressions of the decorated walls. Unfortunately, when they left, there as a flash flood that caused damage to the paintwork. This meant the tomb would never quite be the same again. Even today the tomb is closed because of issues of damage and issues around conservation.
Belzoni continued to make discoveries after Seti’s tomb, but he returned to England in 1819, saying it was becoming too dangerous after the French had taken an obelisk from him at gunpoint. A year later, he published his account of the many discoveries he had made in the four years he had been excavating in Egypt. This was then followed in 1821 by a fantastic life-size exhibition held in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. At this exhibition, called The Egyptian Tomb, many artifacts were on display alongside a recreation of Seti’s tomb (including the sarcophagus) which was based on the original drawings and wax impressions taken not long after the discovery. The exhibition aimed to showcase Belzoni and his work, but also to educate visitors about ‘authentic’ Ancient Egypt. There was also a catalogue produced for visitors, which emphasised the educational aspects of the exhibition, but also explained the reproduced royal tombs on display. After the exhibition closed, the items on display, including the replicas, were auctioned off at the Egyptian Hall in June 1822. Exhibitions still continued to be held after Belzoni’s death in 1823 during an expedition to Timbuktu. In 1825, his widow showcased his original drawings, alongside the models of the royal tombs, in both Paris and London.
Whilst there is no doubt that Giovanni Belzoni acquired his artifacts in dubious circumstances that definitely don’t match up to current ethics about museum collections, he was not the only one working in this way. I am in no way condoning his actions, but recognise that many people were doing the same thing around this time. What his work, and the exhibition that followed, do show is that it sparked a renewed interest in Egypt, much like the discovery of Tutankhamun did a century later. The difference was that in Belzoni’s time, the idea of Ancient Egypt was still fairly new. Hieroglyphics had still not yet been deciphered but the French and British had been writing and investigating Egyptian history and culture ever since Napoleon’s invasion or so called ‘expedition’ in 1798. These French investigations famously produced the Description de l’Egypte, an encyclopaedic folio published by academics following their return to France in 1801. You can find out more about that and Napoleon’s expedition in a previous blog post, found here. As has been noted, all of these discoveries, including those involving Belzoni, despite their dubious nature, helped to open the eyes of Europe to the glory that was Egypt”.
As we reach the end of black history month, I thought it would be a good time to share a rather inspiring woman that I only found out about recently. Delilah Beasley was a black female journalist and historian who never gave up on her goal to promote improved inter-racial relations, alongside her Christian faith. Her story is one of hope and determination but as one recent article in the New York Times wrote, despite her efforts to write black history back into the history books, she herself has also been brushed out. For this reason, I hope this blog post goes some way towards sharing Delilah’s story and the effort she put into creating a positive outlook on black history and unity in not just California, where she spent over twenty years of her life, but across America.
Delilah Leontium Beasley was born on 9 September 1867 in Cincinnati, Ohio, to parents Daniel and Margaret Beasley. At the age of 12, Delilah began to write short pieces about local church activities for the Cleveland Gazette newspaper, as well some other local newspapers. With these small pieces, she grew to dream of becoming a professional journalist. When she was high school age, she began to learn about journalism by working for a newspaper called the Coloured Catholic Tribune, which once again mixed her love of journalism with her Christian faith. However, this would soon change as in the 1880s, both of her parents died, leaving Deliliah an orphaned teenager. The death of her parents separated her from her siblings, as all of them had to now find work to fend for themselves. Sadly, it looked as if her dream of becoming a journalist would be over without the support of her parents.
Delilah initially became a maid, before moving to Chicago to train to be a hairdresser. However, she eventually decided that nursing would be more suited to her caring nature. Once she was trained, she moved across various parts of America to find work at sanitoriums, which were a type of convalescent hospital. In 1910, she moved to Oakland in California to care for a former patient. Whilst there, she decided that during her spare time, she should to get back into researching. She researched black history and became a member of various different societies and associations that promoted issues such as black rights, black women and black Christianity. Despite not finishing her formal schooling, she enrolled onto history courses so she could understand how to research black history, as well as conducting oral interviews of elderly black residents in the local area. Her aim was to learn about those that had been left out of the history books and to right the wrongs of that.
Delilah’s research was very meticulous. She became well known for her archival research and ability to track down personal letters and diaries. All of this research conducted did not go to waste as she successfully did manage to write about pioneering black people of California in her book, Negro Trail Blazers of California, which was published in 1919. The book gave examples of black pioneers dating back to the Spanish exploration of the Americas. It was a success and proved a platform to positively influence the way the black community was perceived. After writing this, she also travelled around giving talks on her research and her beliefs about black rights, peace and the hope of positive inter-racial relations at a time when America was still segregated. All of these trips, whether for research purposes, or to hold events and talks, was always paid for at her own expense. It was this determination that allowed her to make some high powered friends.
Following the publication of Negro Trail Blazers of California, Delilah came to know William Knowland, a white man who was a Californian politician and the assistant publisher for the Oakland Tribune newspaper. The pair knew each other well and Knowland invited Delilah to write a column for the newspaper. She accepted and the column became known as Activities Among Negroes, which promoted outstanding black people. This was a popular column and one which Deliliah would write until her death in 1934. Her friendship with William Knowland also allowed the first anti-lynching bill to passed in California.
Delilah’s faith played a huge role in her life. She regularly attended the Cathedral of Saint Francis de Sales in Oakland, where she was noted for her attitude of others first and self last. It was this attitude that saw drove her missions as she believed she could help the plight of suffering that all black people across America had to endure. As Deliliah herself put it, she always thought she was doing God’s work, which explains why nearly all of her talks were given in churches. Many of the organisations she was a member of also overlapped with the church, so it is fitting that her funeral, held at St Francis de Sales, was well attended by presidents of these organisations.
I hope this post has gone someway to showing just what a remarkable woman Deliliah Beasley really was. It is a shame that since her death, she herself as been somewhat removed from the history books, even though she tried to counteract this of other black pioneers who had gone before her. Hopefully one day that can be remedied. For that reason, I feel it very fitting to end with a quote from Deliliah herself, taken from a letter she wrote in 1932 to Dr W. E. B. Du Bois, a fellow black historian and one of the founders of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People:
“We are deserving of receiving not only human treatment, but equal rights with other United States Citizens”.
Beasley, Delilah L. (Delilah Leontium), 1871-1934. Letter from Delilah L. Beasley to W. E. B. Du Bois, May 16, 1932. W. E. B. Du Bois Papers (MS 312). Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries
I haven’t posted about one of my passions for a while now and that is pirates, so I hope this will be of interest to you. The lives of many pirates from the Golden Age of Piracy in the years leading up to 1726 have been surrounded by myth and legend. Black Caesar, a former slave turned pirate, who was part of Blackbeard’s crew is no different. Whilst little is known about his life, I hope this post can give a sense of what is known about such a fascinating character and what better time to do so than for Black History Month.
It has been estimated that of the around 10,000 pirates during the Golden Age of Piracy, up to a third of them were black. To reflect this, maritime historian, Ken Kinkor listed a number of various pirate captains and the ratio of black crewmembers they had on board their ships.
Samuel Bellamy (1717) – more than 27 out of 180 men
Edward England (1718) – less than 50 out of 180 men
Edward Lowther (1724) – 9 out of 23 men
Blackbeard (1717) – 60 out of 100; (1718) – 5 out 14
Yet, in the collective conscious of what makes a pirate, this number is not necessarily thought of. Most of them would have been runaways, possibly cimarrons who had escaped their Spanish captors, or had chosen to join when a slave ship or plantation was raided.
Considering the appalling treatment that black people had to face during this time, it is easy to see why they would turn pirate. Unlike on the mainland, they had a chance to some sort of equality, although this very much depended on the ship they sailed on, particularly in terms of being allowed to vote and have an equal share in any treasure. In such circumstances, this meant they were very much active members. On other ships, they would have still been mistreated and expected to take on the worst of the tasks on board. In the case of capture, there was certainly no equality in the treatment of black pirates. If caught, the punishment was usually to be sold back into slavery, whilst white pirates were hung.
Black Caesar was definitely a proactive member of the pirating community, but how he went on to become a member of the most famous pirate’s crew is a little hazy. According to most accounts, he had originally been an African chieftain, known for his strength and cunning. He had managed to avoid being caught by slavers until he was lured onto a ship that offered him treasure. Once he’d found out his fate, he refused to eat and drink but befriended a sailor who took pity on him and provided him with sustenance.
When the ship was off the coast of Florida, the pair escaped on a rowing boat and sought a life of robbery instead. They pretended to be shipwrecked, luring ships to rescue them and then stealing from them. This venture brought them great riches and they were able to take on more crew. However, the pair supposedly fell out over a woman they had captured. It was after this that Caesar chosen to join Blackbeard’s crew, although the details of how they met are unknown.
Blackbeard must have put a lot of trust in Caesar as during the famous pirates final battle against Lieutenant Robert Maynard in November 1718, Caesar was ordered to stand in the powder room with a lit match so he could blow up the ship if the pirates were overwhelmed. He was just about to carry out his orders when to prisoners, although some other accounts called them guests who had slept in the powder room overnight, stopped him. He was then taken prisoner and went on trial along with the other survivors of Blackbeard’s crew at Williamsburg, Virgina. Caesar was captured along with five other black pirates, but he was the only one who didn’t give evidence against his fellow crewmembers. The others probably did so in the hope that they would be granted mercy. This meant that Caesar was hung with the rest of the crew, although some accounts to say he was pardoned instead.
Whatever the fate of Black Caesar may have been, he serves as an example that black pirates were certainly not always passive in the pirate community. Whilst this idea may be easily thought as the majority of known black pirates are not named, it is not fair to make this assumption when the facts are not necessarily reported and the circumstances are often lost with time. What Black Caesar shows that black pirates were definitely fully functioning and trusted members of the crews they served with.