The King’s Lover: Motherhood and Sexuality at the Court of Edward III, Guest Post by Gemma Hollman

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.

British (English) School; Edward III (1312-1377); The Queen’s College, University of Oxford; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/edward-iii-13121377-223628

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.

Queen Philippa of Hainault begging her husband, Edward III to spare the lives of six burghers in 1347, coloured lithograph (1914), Wikimedia Commons

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.

Detail of Ford Madox Brown’s painting, ‘Chaucer at the court of King Edward III’ (1856-68), depicting Alice Perrers and Edward III, National Portrait Gallery via Wikimedia Commons

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.

You can find Gemma’s site here: http://www.justhistoryposts.com/.

You can find Gemma’s Facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/JustHistoryPosts

You can also find Gemma on Twitter here: @GemmaHAuthor

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?‘.

Links:

Blog: https://historytheinterestingbits.com/

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Thehistorybits/

Twitter: @Thehistorybits

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sharonbennettconnolly/?hl=en

Amazon: http://viewauthor.at/SharonBennettConnolly

Out of the Shadows: Forgotten Nottinghamshire Castle Revealed Astonishing mediaeval castle at Greasley once rivalled Haddon Hall

Thank you to James Wright of Triskele Heritage for this press release, really exciting stuff here!

Archaeological survey work by Dr James Wright of Triskele Heritage, funded by the Castle Studies Trust, has revealed exciting new evidence that Greasley Castle in Nottinghamshire once rivalled world-famous Haddon Hall in size and appearance.


The castle, lying 8 miles to the north-west of Nottingham, was built in the mid-fourteenth century for the soldier and politician Nicholas de Cantelupe. “Greasley Castle is an enigmatic site,” says Dr Wright, “but the project has allowed us to understand this astonishing place for the first time.”


The survey shows that the site was a courtyard castle with corner turrets. It had a fine great hall accessed via an impressive doorway. The room was illuminated by tracery windows flanking an early example of a recessed fireplace. Fragments of stonework reveal that the decoration at the castle was magnificent and include carved head sculptures, moulded copings, and the crown of a vault.


The castle was a prestigious building that allowed Cantelupe to display his power and status. In 1343, Cantelupe hosted the archbishop of York at Greasley, along with several other bishops, earls and knights, during a ceremony to found nearby Beauvale Priory.


“The castle was very similar to Haddon Hall in Derbyshire,” states Wright, “it was built around the same time and the layout of the great hall is comparable. The owners of castles were often inspired by one another’s buildings – although Greasley was slightly bigger than Haddon.” Haddon Hall, the home of Lord and Lady Manners, is a beautifully preserved late mediaeval building known the world over due to its appearance in television and film as the location for productions including The Princess Bride, Pride and Prejudice and The Other Boleyn Girl.


In 1485, Greasley was confiscated Henry VII after a later owner of the castle – John Lord Zouche – supported the doomed Richard III at the battle of Bosworth. A century later, records show that the site had been turned into a farm. The survey has been able to identify the remains of the castle surviving among later farm buildings.


Jeremy Cunnington, of the Castle Studies Trust said: “The Castle Studies Trust is delighted to have funded this work and provide a good understanding of this important, but little understood castle. We hope it will provide a base from which others can build on to learn more about this significant Nottinghamshire castle.”


Sarah Seaton of Greasley Castle Farm History Project said: “Triskele Heritage have done amazing research on behalf of the Castle Studies Trust and we are so grateful to be able to finally share the story of such an important landmark with the wider community.”

The Castle Studies Trust is a charity and is fully funded by public donations. To learn more about these and previous projects the trust has funded people can visit the Trust’s website: http://www.castlestudiestrust.org

For more about Treskele Heritage, please visit their website: https://triskeleheritage.triskelepublishing.com

The Wild Animals of Stuart England- Guest Post by Cassidy Cash

“Gavest thou the goodly wings unto the peacocks? or wings and feathers unto the ostrich?” – Jon 39:3, King James Bible (1616)

Exotic animals in England in the 17th century were a staple part of society. Travelers, explorers, and representatives of the import/export industry would send and ship non-native animals to England for display, for curiosity collections among the upper classes, and for use in production of perfumes, apothecary remedies, and even ink pens or clothing accessories.

Close up section of a painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, (1618). The full portrait is called  Allegory of Taste, Hearing and Touch. This closeup shows a peacock served in full plumage. Public Domain.

Exotic animals were used in everything from perfume and apothecary creations to harvested for their pelts and feathers to be used in clothing or accessories. While cats and dogs were common household pets, the more exotic animals like parrots and even monkeys were also imported to the newly formed United Kingdom to take up residence at the homes of the UK’s most prominent citizens who saw the possession of exotic animals as a status symbol. 

From the mundane to the extraordinary, I decided to take a look at the animal life of the 17th century. Here’s a few of the most surprising animals I discovered and their place in Stuart England.

Monkeys at a banquet, 1660, byDavid Teniers the Younger. At the  Museo Nacional del Prado in Madrid, Spain. Public Domain.

Monkeys

Monkeys were often kept by the elite of the 17th century, who saw ownership of these curious creatures as a symbol of their status. After all, to purchase a monkey was quite involved logistically since it was much more complicated than running out to a pet store. Therefore, to own a monkey was a way to flaunt your power and wealth as it required both to own one. It is recorded that one prominent Stuart lady, the daughter of James I, Elizabeth Stuart, owned not only monkeys but also parrots. According to the Oxford University Press, household records from Elizabeth’s childhood record “Elizabeth spent 8 shillings and 3 pence on ‘strewing herbs, and cotton to make beds for her grace’s monkeys’, ‘mending parrot’s cages’, and ‘for shearing her grace’s rough dog.’” 

There are numerous paintings of parrots from the 17th century (including several of the african grey parrot like what Frances Stuart owned). This portrait is titled “A Woman Feeding a Parrot, with a Page” by Caspar Netscher, 1666, part of the National Gallery of Art. Public Domain.

Parrots

Elizabeth Stuart is just one example of a lady of prominence owning a parrot. Frances Stuart, Duchess of Richmond is immortalized in a wax effigy that features her pet parrot. Her parrot was an African Grey parrot that lived with Frances Stuart for close to 40 years. After it died, the bird was stuffed, and despite what Westminster Abbey’s blog calls “Primitive” measures to preserve the animal, the entire skeleton of the bird survives to this day, making it the oldest known stuffed bird in existence. 

Albrecht Duer’s woodcut from 1515 of the Rhinoceros, woodcut print, sheet (trimmed to image): Height: 23.5 cm (9.2 in); Width: 29.8 cm (11.7 in). National Gallery of Art. Public Domain. Note This is a digitally altered version of File:Albrecht Dürer – The Rhinoceros (NGA 1964.8.697).jpg. The modification consists of the setting of the white point according to the light area around the sheet, normalization of the dynamic range, and a slight sharpening. The resulting image was converted into an indexed colour palette. To avoid quantization errors this file should not be used for further processing. Any modifications are best applied to the original.

 Rhinoceros

The earliest known image of a rhinoceros was drawn as a woodcut in 1515 in Italy. That same year, another famous and much more detailed woodcut of a rhinoceros would be drawn by Albrecht Duer who drew the animal from a description provided about a live rhino that had been given as a gift to the King of Portugal. While most of the instances of rhinoceroses are drawings and woodcuts included in naturalist texts there was one instance of a live rhinoceros in England in the year 1684. 

Dated October 10, 1684, this London newspaper records an advertisement for a Rhinoceros. The animal was shipped to England from India and placed on display at a tavern where patrons could pay money to look at and to ride the “Rhynoceros.”

A peacock in a flask, “representing the stage in the alchemical process when the substance breaks out into many colours”,from the Splendor Solis (1582). “Detail of a miniature of a peacock in a flask. Image taken from f. 28 of Splendor Solis (an alchemical treatise) (index Splendor of the Sun). Written in German.” by Salomon Trismosin | The British Library | This file is made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication.

Peacocks

“Proud as a peacock” is a well known English saying that stems from the prevalence of peacocks in England. These birds, known as blue peafowl, do not have what bird experts call an “established” presence in the country, but they have remained popular in England since at least Roman times when the birds were first introduced from India by the Romans. 


What made the peacock popular for Stuart England was the use of their beautiful feathers in decoration as well as their popularity as an elegant dinner dish on the tables of England’s nobility. In this 1618 painting by Jan Brueghel the Elder, you can see a peacock served at the table with it’s full plumage and even it’s head salvaged for decoration on the dinner table. 

The peacock was frequently used as a symbol of pride. You can see this usage of the peacock’s reputation in this drawing of James II of Scotland who is depicted in caricature as an owl kneeling to the Pope, who is caricatured as a peacock. 

Lion from Cosmographia by Sebastian Münster., unknown artist, published 1544. Published to http://www.tablespace.net/maps/ by William Favorite. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Lions, Tigers, and…Eagles?

By 1622, Lord Protector Olive Cromwell had outlawed animal fighting, but animals were still kept in the Tower of London. There’s a record of eleven lions, two leopards, three eagles, two pumas, a tiger, and a jackal being housed there that year. 

Sports in Stuart England often included pets with popular pastimes like bull and bear baiting both involving dogs, often pit bulls, being trained to attack bulls or bears in an arena for the purpose of entertaining a gathered group of spectators. Beyond spectator sports, activities like falconry involved the use of birds to capture prey and was a popular form of hunting for the monarchy. 

Dogs and cats were the most common household pets, but cats were also used by the military as a weapon. Published in official military manuals, one strategy for burning down a town including strapping flammable material to the back of a cat, lighting it on fire, and setting the cat loose in the town. The cat being extremely hard to catch anyway, it’s even harder to catch once it’s on fire, so the cat would mercilessly spread fire over an entire town during this death run.

Ostrich Hunt byAntonio Tempesta (Italy, Florence, 1555-1630), Italy, 16th century Series: Hunting Scenes V Prints; etchings Etching Los Angeles County Fund (65.37.1) Prints and Drawings Los Angeles County Museum of Art | Public Domain

Ostriches

For 16-17th century London, the ostrich was known, and considered incredibly exotic, rare, and consequently, images of ostriches were used to communicate great wealth. According to the Art Institute of Chicago, Ostrich feathers were used to create the decorative panache combatants wore during a jousting match in the 16th century, and some historians report that ostrich feathers were used as quill pens during Shakespeare’s lifetime. Colored ostrich feathers were also popular in the 16th century. Read more about that here. Not native to England, ostriches were imported from Northern Africa to England for their feathers. I was unable to find any ostrich farmers in Stuart England, but the sheer volume of feathers that were in demand for clothing and ink pens would have made it practical to try and raise them on a farm, so I wouldn’t be surprised to discover a farm did exist for Stuart England. 

Ostriches, along with elephants, lions, and rhinoceros were among the animals kept in the Tower of London. This menagerie of animals was considered the first zoo, and many of the inhabitants were there because explorers or even dignitaries would give the exotic animals to the King as a gift and the gifted animals had to be kept somewhere.

A Polar bear approaches the men of Willem Barentsz.| Engraving by Gerrit de Veer 1596, from Diary of Gerrit de Veer | Public Domain

Polar Bears

As an example of animals returned from exotic lands as a gift for the King, there were two polar bear cubs brought back from an expedition to the Arctic to be given as a gift to James I in the early 17th century. 

We know about Poole’s polar bear cargo because Samuel Purchas writes about it in Pilgrimes (1625).

we slue 26. Seales, and espied three white Beares: wee went aboord for Shot and Powder, and comming to the Ice againe, we found a shee-Beare and two young ones: Master Thomas Welden shot and killed her: after shee was slayne, wee got the young ones, and brought them home into England, where they are aliue in Paris Garden.

By 1611, Philip Henslowe and Edward Alleyn had, as Aubrey notes in today’s episode, received the royal warrant from King James to be in charge of the various bears, bulls, and mastiffs in the King’s care. Which means they were specifically in charge of the polar bear cubs which Poole had gifted the King. King James loved animal blood sports and is reported to have kept quite the zoo inside the Tower of London. As shareholders in the Fortune Theater and investors in Bear Garden, Henslowe and Alleyn bought their own zoo, and several critics have pointed out that the young bears could have performed in playhouses as well as baiting rings.

During that 1595 expedition, Barents lost two of his men to a ferocious polar bear attack. In his diary, Gerrit de Veer recounts the episode by saying the bear pursued the first man, before he  “bit his head in sunder, and suckt out his blood” The rest of the crew takes off running, and the bear chases them, grabbing his second victim “which she tare in peeces” The story was written down close to 15 years later, and published in English in 1609, the same year Jonas Poole returned to England with two polar bear cubs for King James, and the same year William Shakespeare wrote A Winter’s Tale and included the not only famous, but curiously unique “exit, pursued by a bear” stage direction.

From elephants to monkeys and parrots, it seems Stuart England had more than their fair share of surprising exotic animals in the streets and homes around England.

Cassidy Cash is a Shakespeare historian and host of That Shakespeare Life, the podcast that goes behind the curtain and into the real life and history of William Shakespeare. Cassidy runs a vibrant membership community for Shakespeare enthusiasts and creates history activity kits that work like science labs for Shakespeare history. Learn more at www.cassidycash.com 

Francis Walsingham- Elizabeth I’s Spymaster: Guest Post by Elizabeth Hill-Scott

This guest post by Elizabeth Hill-Scott is the last in a series of posts linked to the life and execution of Mary Queen of Scots. The first is about the Babington Plot, which sealed her fate, this can be found here. The second was about Fotheringhay Castle, where she was executed. It can be found here.

He was a scholar, lawyer, diplomat, Member of Parliament and Secretary of State to Queen Elizabeth I from 1573-1590. But he will always be known as ‘The Spymaster’. His motto? There was less danger in fearing too much than too little.

Imagining England in 1553, there were good reasons to be fearful. This was especially true for devout Protestants like Francis Walsingham. Shaped by his studies at King’s College, Cambridge, when Mary I took the throne and returned England to Catholicism, he knew there was only one thing to do. Flee.

Walsingham was not one to take pledges he didn’t believe in then practice in secret. He spent the next five years overseas while ‘Bloody Mary’ ruled. He used that time wisely. He learnt languages, the law and connected with movers and shakers within foreign courts. It was only when Elizabeth became Queen, on the death of her sister, that Walsingham returned. And it was not just to live in Protestant England but to serve and protect it.

The accession of the young Elizabeth I did not bring peace and harmony to the nation. It was still bitterly divided both by what religious practice England should follow and whether Elizabeth, to some still the bastard daughter of Anne Boleyn and Henry VIII, was the rightful heir. From day one conspirators were everywhere, so Francis Walsingham’s role began to take shape out of necessity.

Walsingham’s Rise to the Top

So how did Walsingham come from back from the wilderness to become the Queen’s most trusted adviser for 13 years? 

Walsingham became a Member of Parliament and then Ambassador to France in 1570. He started working under William Cecil, later made Baron Burghley, the Queen’s then Principal Secretary.

Cecil was busy with matters of state, including desperately trying to make Elizabeth marry, and intelligence gathering increasingly became Walsingham’s responsibility.

Intelligence gathering accelerated when the Queen’s cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, an absolute magnet for conspirators, arrived in England. Walsingham became Secretary of State (formerly called Principal Secretary) in 1568.

Walsingham’s Relationship with Queen Elizabeth I

According to some accounts Elizabeth, despite promoting and knighting him in 1577, respected but did not like Walsingham.

It does seem they were very different personalities. Compared to the vivacious Queen, Walsingham was shrewd, serious and dower. During a time when it was easy to lose the confidence of the Queen (and your head), this only makes the longevity of their relationship even more fascinating.

Perhaps, because Walsingham was so committed and focused on one thing, her safety and, as a consequence, Protestant England, she never had to fear he could be turned or wanted more.  

John de Critz, Sir Francis Walsingham (c.1585), National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons

The Growth of the Secret Intelligence Service

After thwarting plots like the Northern Uprising of 1569, it became clear Walsingham needed more assistance to track plotters and break coded messages. And so, the Secret Intelligence Service grew.

There are mixed views on whether he had a decent budget to employ the best or whether the Queen was stingy, and most expenses came from his pocket. You’d like to think, considering all his efforts were to save her throne and her life, it was the former.

Walsingham’s Spies

He used his overseas network to post spies. These spies, often young budding recruits, had numerous tasks.

Tasks included covertly reporting back on the attitudes of Catholic countries and The Pope. This information would allow Walsingham to trace lines of communication between Catholics at home and abroad to track any plots developing.

His spies also needed to infiltrate close enough to feedback on any military moves. We know Walsingham was able to get detailed reports Spain was mobilising her Armada with sights firmly set on an English invasion.

Finally, spies spread disinformation. On one occasion, they helped mask the preparations of Sir Francis Drake to raid Cadiz Harbour in 1587.

To join up the circle of intelligence, spies were posted in England. Interception of letters and messages were crucial to intelligence gathering. Walsingham often planted people and double-agents in the households and meet-ups of suspected traitors.

Spy Tradecraft 16th Century Style

In the 16th Century, you couldn’t capture plotters on CCTV entering a Castle or listen in on a phone call between traitorous nobles. But tradecraft, alongside HUMINT or human intelligence, became so important during this time that Walsingham even set up a spy school.

Desired skills included forgery, using invisible ink, and learning the exquisite skill of lifting the wax seal of a letter so that it could be undetectably opened and read.

Yet, interception only took them so far if the messages were in a secret code. Methods used by plotters included letters of the alphabet being shuffled, replaced with numbers or even signs of the zodiac. Sometimes, you could only understand the coded message by placing an additional piece of paper on top with strategically placed holes punched in it.  

Walsingham Gets It Wrong

Francis Walsingham didn’t always get it right despite more resources, skilled spies, and an extensive network. In 1569 he misread the deeper intentions of The Ridolfi Plot.

Roberto Ridolfi, a Catholic and international banker, could travel between countries without raising too much suspicion.

He found himself in jail because of a rumour he had distributed money to dissenting nobles linked to the earlier Northern Uprising. Walsingham released him convinced by a charming Mr Ridolfi during his interrogation that it was untrue. Ridolfi was a spy for The Pope and went on to conspire with The Duke of Norfolk for (you’ve guessed it) the assassination of Queen Elizabeth in favour of Mary, Queen of Scots.

Walsingham’s Biggest Test – Removing the Threat of Mary Queen of Scots

Make no mistake, for Walsingham, getting rid of Mary, Queen of Scots was his life’s work. Completing this mission would test his network and relationship with Elizabeth I to the limits. And it all culminated around The Babington Plot.

When in Paris, Englishman Anthony Babington, after whom the plot is named, became involved with supporters of Mary, Queen of Scots. They wanted her to escape, the in effect, imprisonment she was under in England and to assassinate Elizabeth.

Babington had letters for Mary as he returned home. With the involvement of a Catholic priest, John Ballard, coded messages were sent to and from Mary. They hid them in the stopper of a beer barrel. Thanks to Walsingham’s double-agent Gilbert Gifford, these letters were intercepted and decoded by Thomas Phelippes. They showed Mary encouraged the conspirators trying to help her.

Mary was taken to Fotheringhay Castle and put on trial in October 1586. It must have been an agonising wait for Walsingham. Despite his interceptions and the evidence before her, Elizabeth procrastinated. She did not sign Mary’s death warrant until 1st February 1587. She clearly needed convincing that the threats would reduce with Mary gone not increase (something I imagine Walsingham told her daily).

The Death of a Pivotal Figure in English History

With a feeling of ‘mission accomplished’, Walsingham died three years later, aged 58, having been married twice and leaving two children (who chances are barely saw him).

As someone who devours all things espionage, Sir Francis Walsingham is a truly fascinating historical character.

Unusually, for someone holding the post of adviser to the monarch, if you play the ‘What If’ game of alternative history, things could have been very different without him.

Would an assassin have got to Elizabeth I without his spy network? Would one of the many plots have succeeded? Would England have been less prepared for the Spanish Armada and potentially lost?

The success of any one of these could have taken English history down a completely different path, especially when you consider Queen Elizabeth chose to have no heir.

Bibliography

The National Archives

The History Press

Britpolitics

British Heritage

Britannica

Tudor Times

Elizabeth Hill-Scott – Bio
Elizabeth Hill-Scott is the founder of Smart History Blogging, which gives you smart ways to save
time, grow your traffic, make money, and write about what you love.

A life-long history fan since she saw her first English Castle on a school trip, Elizabeth teaches
entrepreneurs and bloggers who want to start or grow a successful niche blog in the fascinating field of history.

She is also a post-graduate and communications expert who spent over 15 years advising senior UK politicians and public figures.

Connect with Elizabeth
Website
www.smarthistoryblogging.com
Email
• elizabeth@smarthistoryblogging.com
Social Media
• Twitter = @elizabeth_shb
• Instagram = @elizabeth_smarthistoryblogging
• Facebook = www.facebook.com/smarthistoryblogging
• Facebook Group = Smart History Blogging

Home of the Yorks and the Death of a Queen – Fotheringhay Castle: Guest Post by Laura Adkins 

For a short series related to Mary Queen of Scots, I’m pleased to welcome Laura Adkins, creator of the For The Love of History Blog. I have been able to do a few guests posts for myself. She has worked at many historical sites and mainly posts about sites found in Essex, her home county. Do check her blog out if you can, I promise you it’s a very enjoyable read.

This post also follows on from a previous post on the Babington Plot, for which Mary was convicted of treason for exchanging letters. That can be found here. To find out more about Francis Walsingham, the spymaster who helped discover the plot and arrest Mary for Treason, please click here.

Standing on top of the mound which was once part of the castle of Fotheringhay one feels at peace. The surrounding views of the countryside and the River Nene are picturesque and calming. Unfortunately like many castles, Fotheringhay lost its purpose and was eventually dismantled with its stonework being repurposed elsewhere. Today all that remains is the mound and a piece of stonework. Not much for a place with such a history, one event in particular, the execution of an anointed queen – Mary, Queen of Scots.

Mary had been a prisoner in England ever since fleeing Scotland in April 1568. She thought she would get assistance from her cousin Elizabeth I, however, things turned out differently. Mary and Elizabeth were both descended from Henry VII (Elizabeth his granddaughter and Mary his great-granddaughter) and so Mary had a claim to the English throne and more dangerous to Elizabeth she was a Catholic. What led to Elizabeth finally agreeing to execute Mary was the evidence of her part in the Babington plot. A catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. Letters were intercepted between Mary and Anthony Babington discussing said plot by Elizabeth’s spy Francis Walsingham and it was these letters that sealed her fate. Mary was moved to Fotheringhay on 25th September 1586.

Remains of Fotheringhay Castle, Author’s Own Image

In its heyday Fotheringhay was the main home of the Dukes of York. It entered the hands of the Earl of Northampton in the 12th century and was incorporated into the Dukedom of York from 1385 which is where it stayed for many centuries. It was where the future King Richard III was born.

Fotheringhay is primarily a motte and bailey castle in design with a double moat. Like many castles, it had a number of changes and developments in its time with the biggest changes by Edmund of Langley (1st Duke of York). He had the castle rebuilt and enlarged. Its shape was that of a fetterlock, the symbol of the Yorks.  Within its walls were accommodation suites, kitchens, breweries, bakehouses, drawbridge, chapel, stables and a number of other buildings one expects in the function of a castle estate. Sadly none now remain. The great hall, where the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, was held is thought to be located to the south-east of the mound.

In July 1476 the Castle was host to one of the biggest events in its history – the reburial of Richard, Duke of York and his son  Edmund, Earl of Rutland. They were both killed in the battle of Wakefield with Richard’s head being placed on a pike at Micklegate, York. He was initially buried in Pontefract. Around 1,500 guests would attend the service including the king and royal family, nobles and bishops. Fotheringhay would have never seen anything like it (Hicks, M 2001). It is said that ‘King Edward IV, dressed in a dark blue hooded mourning habit trimmed with fur. The King ‘very humbly did his obeisance to the said body and laid his hand on the body and kissed it, weeping’. (Wakefield historical society)

Nearby the Castle and still in existence today is the New Inn, a beautiful 15th-century farmhouse.  This would have been where some of the guests stayed for the reburial. It is even believed that Mary’s executioner may have been there the night before her death.

Guest House as seen from Castle, Author’s Own Image

Maybe the Castle’s life went with Mary on that fateful day of 8th February 1587, Mary had only been informed the previous day that she was to be executed the following morning. ‘this was to be her greatest performance, her greatest triumph; she had considered every detail’(Guy, J 2004, p2). Her execution was well documented from her words, actions and what she wore.

About nine a.m., came that sweet saint and martyr, led like a lamb to the butchery, attired in a gown of black satin embroidered with a French kind of embroidery of black velvet; her hair seemly trussed up with a veil of white lawn, which covered her head and all her other apparel down to the foot. (Catholic report of queen mary’s execution by an anonymous “Catholic witness” present at the execution.)

[She asked her servants to] rejoice and pray for her…’

‘… I die a true woman to my religion and like a true scot woman and true french women’ – to Sir Amias Paulet, her steward.

The scaffold was 2 foot high by 12-foot square covered in black cotton sheets. The story goes that It was not one blow of the axe but two in addition to the executioner having to use his dagger to cut through the remaining cartilage which finally removed her head from her body. Upon lifting her head up to show the witnesses her lips were still moving in prayer and her head fell from the executioner’s grasp, revealing a head of grey hair and leaving the auburn wig held aloft.

Drawing of the trial of Mary, Queen of Scots, in the Great Chamber at Fotheringhay Castle, co. Northants., 14-15 October 1586, British Library, Wikimedia Commons

Although she had lost everything in her life she left behind a son who became King James I of England on the death of Elizabeth. A king who, if raised by his mother, would most likely have been catholic and brought about a different course of history.

Fotheringhay today may be a peaceful, picturesque location but a place where history was made and the walls may no longer be standing but the earth underneath remembers.

Sources:

Dunn, J (2004) Elizabeth and Mary. Harper Perennial; London

Guy, J (2004) My heart is my own; London

Hicks, M (2001) Richard III. The History Press; Gloucester.

Licence, A (2015) Cecily Neville. Amberly; Gloucester

Wier, A (2009) Lancaster and York. Vintage Books; London

Abernethy, S  (2015) The History of Fotheringhay Castle.  Available from: https://thefreelancehistorywriter.com/2015/02/06/the-history-of-fotheringhay-castle/ [accessed 01/12/2021]

Anon (2019) Fotheringhay Castle. Available from: http://www.castlesfortsbattles.co.uk/midlands/fotheringhay_castle.html [accessed 01/12/2021]

Anon (nd) Fotheringhay – The Mausoleum of the House of York. Available from:  https://www.englishmonarchs.co.uk/fotheringhay.html [accessed 10/12/2021]

Morris, S (2019) Fotheringhay Castle: The Final Dark Act of a Scottish Tragedy

https://thetudortravelguide.com/2019/02/02/fotheringhay-castle-the-final-dark-act-of-a-scottish-tragedy/ [accessed 01/12/2021]

Pendrill,C (nd) Death in Fotheringhay. Available from:  https://thefriendsoffotheringhaychurch.com/history/ [accessed 27/12/2021]

Wakefield Historical Society. (nd) Pontefract to Fotheringhay. Available from: https://www.wakefieldhistoricalsociety.org.uk/ [accessed 27/12/2021]

White, L 2014) The Fotheringhay Boars. Available from: https://murreyandblue.wordpress.com/2014/11/13/the-fotheringhay-boars/ [Accessed 03/01/2022]

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

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

“In the Bleak Midwinter.”

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

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

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

Part 1: Christina Rossetti

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

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

Frontispiece of Scribner’s Monthly

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

Part 2: Gustav Holst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 3: Harold Darke

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

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

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

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

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

Part 4: Midwinter’s Legacy

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

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

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

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

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

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

Author’s own image

Conclusion

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources and images

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

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

Tunnel at Ashby de la Zouch, Leicestershire

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

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

“Escape Tunnels”

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

Leiston Abbey in Suffolk

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

Making the Story Stick

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

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

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

Second-hand Reporting

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

Lud’s Church in Staffordshire

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

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

References

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

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

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

About the author

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

He welcomes contact through Twitter or email.

The Town of Reading in The Wars of the Roses- Guest Post by Jo Romero

In this latest guest post, I welcome back Jo Romero. You can view her previous post on a riot, dog and the George Hotel in Reading here.

Jo has been obsessed with history for as long as she can remember and gained her History degree at the University of Hull. She has been published in The Historians magazine and runs the blog Love British History where she shares articles, travel and historic sketches.

The Wars of the Roses was defined by the fight for power between Yorkists and Lancastrians and tales of castles, battles and political twists. But how far was a rural, textile-producing town in Berkshire involved in these turbulent events of the fifteenth century?

Reading was a modest but busy town, with a population of around 2,000-3,000 at the mid-fifteenth century.(1) A huddle of timber-framed buildings housed clothiers, butchers, fishmongers and cooks. Its river snaked through the town, and the spires of three Medieval churches pierced its sky.

Taverns and ale houses nudged wonkily into the streets, with names like The Bell, The Bear and The George. These establishments enjoyed custom not only from work-weary locals, but also from pilgrims visiting the town’s abbey, founded in 1121 by Henry I. There were royal visits too, along with a large and wealthy entourage.

And it was here, while locals washed down ale at taverns and haggled over prices at the market, that events concerning the security of the unstable crown played out just yards away.

When plague threatened London, parliament sometimes gathered in the leafier, safer suburbs of Reading Abbey. Henry VI was here in 1451, 1452 and 1453, and Edward IV in 1464 and 1467.(2) Henry VII visited in 1486.

It was during one visit in 1452 that Henry VI requested 13,000 archers for the defence of his realm.(3) Although this was three years before the 1455 ‘official’ start date of the Wars of the Roses, by the time Henry added his seal to this act he and his advisers would have known trouble was brewing: Gascony had been lost, nobles struggled for control over the king and his closest adviser William de la Pole had been beheaded at sea in 1450. The king’s request was enacted at the end of 1457.(4)

Reading Abbey ruins, © Jo Romero

As the Wars progressed, Reading itself provided military support to the crown. In November 1462, The Corporation Diary records payment for arrows and “sondyers ye last went to the king”. It’s possible that these soldiers were at The Battle of Towton in March 1461. We know that Edward IV’s army was made up of many supporters from the south and south east and it’s probable that Reading townspeople made up some of the 20,000 Yorkist troops that fought there. The battle site would have been a five-day ride from Reading but we know that soldiers did attend from Berkshire and as far as Dorset.(5)

Although 1487 marks the Battle of Stoke, considered by many the end of the Wars of the Roses, an inventory of Reading’s armour four months later could hint that Henry still had concerns.(6) The town didn’t routinely inspect its armour and it’s possible that this October inventory was driven by a real or perceived threat to royal control. Two years into Henry VII’s reign, security was far from watertight. A new pretender, Perkin Warbeck, would emerge in 1491 and Henry faced trouble in France as well as Scotland in the coming years. While town officials counted steel-plated vests and chain mail in Reading’s town centre, Lambert Simnel and the 1486 Lovell Conspiracy would also have been fresh in Henry’s mind. As historian Thomas Penn writes about the years following Stoke, “old loyalties simmered, and the after-shocks of rebellion rippled on”.(7)

But after-shocks rippled in Reading long before The Battle of Stoke.

In September 1464, Edward IV chose Reading Abbey to publicly introduce his new, secret bride, Elizabeth Woodville, daughter of Lord Rivers. They had married despite him being in negotiations to marry the French princess Bona of Savoy. Elizabeth was led through the abbey past stunned nobles within its cool, stone walls with Richard Neville, Earl of Warwick (‘The Kingmaker’) by her side. It’s easy to imagine him barely concealing his rage after working to negotiate a politically advantageous European match for the king and not having been consulted on the secret Woodville marriage. By February it was reported that “King Edward and the Earl of Warwick have come to very great division and war together.”(8)

The Marriage of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, from the Anciennes Chroniques, Jean de Wavrin, c1470-1480. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Reading’s streets buzzed with gossip about the wedding, and there were even plots within the town to have the union dissolved. A Milanese ambassador wrote: “The greater part of the lords and the people in general seem very much dissatisfied at this, and for the sake of finding means to annul it, all the nobles are holding great consultations in the town of Reading, where the king is.”(9) Taverns and street corners around Reading may have been alive then with the angry whispers of exasperated nobles.

Reading Abbey also saw the rise of Elizabeth Woodville’s sister, Margaret, when she married Thomas Fitzalan, heir to the Earl of Arundel here, also in 1464. As the 25-year old Margaret stood solemnly at the abbey’s altar next to her new husband, the October light glinting through the stained glass window, she must have felt stunned: elevated to Countess, Margaret would have four children and lived into her early fifties.(10)

It wasn’t all fairytales and weddings, however. Reading was also the scene of an act of treason that gives an insight into one of the root causes of the conflict.

In 1444, Thomas Kerver walked through the church of Reading abbey with three men, uttering ‘treasonous proposals’ about the government of Henry VI. He was quickly arrested and charged with having “falsely and traitorously… schemed, imagined, encompassed, wished and desired the death and destruction of the king.”(11) Kerver’s sentence was death, although Henry reduced it at the last minute to imprisonment. Kerver’s actions reveal that it wasn’t just the nobility who were disillusioned with Henry as a ruler but a deep-seated disappointment simmered among his subjects, too.

Lastly, Reading has one more, macabre link to the Wars of the Roses.

In 1538 John London wrote to Thomas Cromwell that the canon at Caversham Priory  “was accustomed to show many pretty relics, among others the holy dagger that killed King Henry… all these… my servant will bring your Lordship next week.”(12)

There was a reason for glorifying this grisly piece of criminal evidence. Henry VI was said to have been murdered at the Tower of London in 1471. Despite his failings in kingship, he was posthumously adopted as a martyr and considered responsible for a number of miracles, including curing the madness of Geoffrey Braunston’s wife in 1486, restoring Beatrice Shirley from the dead in 1489 and William Cheshire, who “having made a vow to visit the blessed King Henry, was immediately made glad by the restoration of his lost eye.”(13)

Unfortunately, we have no idea what happened to Caversham’s holy dagger after it was spirited out of Reading by London’s servant, or the specific miracles it was said to perform.

At first glance then, it would seem that a small cloth-producing town in the Thames Valley 40 miles from the nearest battle and 45 miles from Westminster would have been insignificant to the development of the Wars of the Roses. But evidence points to Reading’s involvement in royal (and secret) weddings, militia, political tensions – and of course the prized relic: the miracle-performing dagger that was said to have killed a fragile but worshipped king.

Notes

1 Joan Dils, Reading: A History. Carnegie Publishing, 2019. Dils uses the 1381 and 1525 tax records to estimate a population of 1,300 in 1381 and 3,400 in 1525. Our figure for the mid-fifteenth century would be somewhere in the middle of these estimates. Page 44.

2 Ibid., p.31. Also Coates, in his History and Antiquities of Reading (1802) adds that Henry VI held parliament here in 1451 and 1452. page 253.

3 Charles Coates, Ibid., page 253.

4 Dan Spencer, The Castle in the Wars of the Roses. Pen and Sword Publishing, 2020.

5 Adrian Waite lists those whose property was confiscated after supporting the Lancastrian side after the Battle of Towton, including ‘Thomas Manning, of New Windsor in Berkshire’. AW History, accessed 18th July 2021.

6 JM Guiding, Reading Records: Diary of the Corporation, vol. 1. J Parker, 1892. p85

7 Thomas Penn, Winter King: The Dawn of Tudor England, Penguin, 2012 page 24.

8 ‘Milan: 1465’, in Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts in the Archives and Collections of Milan 1385-1618, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1912), pp. 115-117. British History Online [accessed 18 July 2021].

9Milan: 1464′, in Calendar of State Papers and Manuscripts in the Archives and Collections of Milan 1385-1618, ed. Allen B Hinds (London, 1912), pp. 110-114. British History Online [accessed 18 July 2021].

10 The Peerage, Margaret Fitzalan, accessed 18 July 2021.

11 C.A.F. Meekings, Thomas Kerver’s Case,1441, The English Historical Review, Volume XC, Issue CCCLV, April 1975, Pages 331–346.

12 ‘Henry VIII: September 1538 16-20’, inLetters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 13 Part 2, August-December 1538, ed. James Gairdner (London, 1893), pp. 141-154. British History Online[accessed 18 July 2021].

13 The Miracles of King Henry VI: being an account and translation of twenty-three miracles … with introductions by Father Ronald Knox and Shane Leslie. CUP archive. 1923. Pages 39, 50 and 73.

A Riot, a Dog and The George Hotel in Reading- Guest Post by Jo Romero

Jo Romero has been obsessed with history for as long as she can remember and gained her History degree at the University of Hull. Her articles have been published in online magazines The Historians and The C Word and she runs the blog Love British History.

Reading, King Street: September 1639. The town constables skidded to a stop outside The George hotel to shrieks of murder. Their eyes were met with a grisly scene. Moaning townsmen clutching their heads lay scattered across cobblestones, deep red blood oozing from their scalps and dripping down past their ears and onto their shoulders.

Reading in Berkshire was a small, prosperous town that had become famous for its Medieval abbey, founded by Henry I in 1121. Parliaments were held within its pale, cold walls and Edward IV chose it as the place to formally introduce his new bride, Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Trades sprang up to cater for travellers who came to worship and do business with the abbey –  the royalty, nobles and pilgrims. But since Henry VIII’s dissolution, Reading concentrated on its market days and clothing industry with clothiers and shoemakers working in the town.

Photograph of The George by Jo Romero

Seventeenth-century Reading was the smell of bonfires, the barking of dogs and the furtive, eager glances of pick-pockets and cut-purses loitering in the busy market square. The malty scent of alehouses and taverns and the sharp, musty tang of leather workshops. The earthy, metallic sting of fresh meat wafted out from Butcher’s Row and the bells clanged out from church towers. Alehouses, taverns and inns were always in demand, tucked awkwardly into timber-framed streets, signs swinging above their doors with names like The Katherine Wheele, The Bear and The Sun.

Samuel Pepys visited Reading in the summer of 1668 and wrote that the town “is a very great one, I think bigger than Salsbury: a river runs through it, in seven branches, and unite in one, in one part of the town, and runs into the Thames half-a-mile off one odd sign of the Broad Face.”(1) The Broad Face was another pub on the High Street almost opposite The George.

All important town business – debts, rents and petty crime – was written down in the Corporation Diary. They were mostly concerned with mundane minutes of council meetings, the execution of wills and enforcing trade regulations, but on 21st September 1639, we can almost detect the breathless excitement of the minute-taker, as they recorded the events at the inn:

“Then complaynt was made that murder was likely to be commytted in The George backside, for there was fyghting; whereupon the Constables were presently called, and at their comynge to keep the peace they found a number of people, amongest whiche some had their heades broken and cutt with swordes and staves, and some of the fighters and quarrellers gone.” They add, with a trace of both bewilderment and derision: “And beinge brought before the Maiour, upon examynacion, it apeared the quarrell arose about a dogge.” (2)

At first glance, it seems far too serious a fight to have been over a dog. Could it have been that some drunken haggling over the sale of a dog spiralled out of control? Or perhaps the dog had been stolen and was recognised by the original owner leading to a confrontation?

A detail in the town’s diary for January 1641 might give us a clue. It records the case of a butcher named Edward Vindge who “caused a tumult in The George gate-house, by settinge and causinge dog-fightinge and other brabbles.” He also struck a man called Humfrey Dewell, and “abused him in wordes”.(3) Edward Vindge isn’t mentioned as being involved in the 1639 attack, but the fact that we have evidence of dog fighting in Reading, in this very spot, suggests that it may have been common and certainly had the potential to disturb the peace. Perhaps one of the two men implicated in 1639 (William Keate and a certain man named Cumber of Tilehurst) were training dogs to fight, or it was a bet placed on a disputed winner?

While many people think of Stuart life as a cosy huddle of timber-framed houses and cobbled streets there was, to us looking back today, a darker side, particularly in their choice of entertainment. Dog fights and bear baiting were famously enjoyed by Elizabeth I and continued into the reigns of the Stuarts. In 1666 Samuel Pepys travelled to Southwark to watch a bull baiting, “and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs.”(4) A dog fight in 1629 in Greenwich was one of the events blamed for the onset of Queen Henrietta Maria’s early labour after they did “snatch at her and pull her by the gown.” (5)

Baiting a live bull with dogs before it was slaughtered by a butcher wasn’t just for entertainment – the Stuarts also believed that it made the meat more tender, perhaps explaining the temperament of butcher Edward Vindge’s dogs at The George in 1641. A writer who in 1660 spoke out to discourage these baiting sports proclaimed that although ‘the baiting of the bear, and cockfights, are no meet recreations,’ he drew attention to this practice, accepting that ‘the baiting of the bull has its use.’(6)

The Stuart townspeople of Reading might not have blinked an eye at a dog fight or a bull being baited outside the butcher’s shop, but the loud clatter of swords clashing at the local inn must have been a subject of local gossip.

The men who were injured – five men are recorded as having been at the scene, but it’s possible there were others – lived to tell the tale. Two men blamed for inflicting injuries fled the scene, but Thomas Soundey is recorded as suffering cuts to his head, and Morrice Nashe, for whom “blood was seene run about his eares.” The Constables called the surgeon, who confirmed the men were in “no danger of death.”(2)

For the town’s mayor, Richard Burren, it was business as usual. First mentioned in the diary in 1618 as a Constable of the town, he was a clothier by trade and sworn in as Mayor in October 1638. Unusual for Reading mayors, who tended to be re-elected more than once, he served just one year. This incident would have come during his last serving month. He would stay on in a different role as a town justice and overseer of St Laurence’s parish. He dutifully brought in the people involved, questioned the ones that hadn’t run away and concluded the cause.

It’s true that daily Stuart life was probably not as inherently violent as most TV dramas and films make it out to be, but this case shows that there were occasional hot-tempered outbursts involving weapons and risk to life. The exact details of the cause of the fight are missing from the records, and so we can only speculate as to the real trigger. This scrawled entry in the town’s diary does give us a glimpse into how crime was dealt with in Stuart towns and how important the clothing industry still was to Reading, with a wealthy clothier able to advance to various positions within town administration, including Mayor. Today, as shoppers grab coffee and chat with friends they would have no idea that on this spot blood was violently spilled on the cobblestones of The George on that late September day in 1639.

Notes:

  1. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 16 June 1668.
  2. The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 21 September 1639. Ed. JM Guilding. Vol 3. p464. 1892.
  3. The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 12 January 1641. Ed. JM Guilding, Vol 4. p37. 1892.
  4. The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 14 August 1666.
  5. Katie Whitaker, A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 2010, Google Books.
  6. The Harleian Miscellany, vol 7. The Opinion of Mr Perkins, and Mr Bolton, and Others Concerning The Sport of Cock-Fighting, 1660. Ed. by R Dutton, 1810. Accessed via Google Books.