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.
Whilst writing this, I’m listening to Bing Crosby Christmas songs, with the Christmas lights switched on. An unusual choice for a 26-year-old, you may think, but for me this has a personal connection. A running joke in my family was that my beloved grandad looked like the Crooner, so I always like to listen to him as it feels grandad is still here, despite him no longer being with us. Just in case you haven’t get it yet, I love Christmas, but I don’t like the tradition Christmas cake, Christmas pudding or mince pies. Whilst I don’t, everyone else in my family does. Our kitchen has smelt very Christmassy for the last month whilst my mum has been busy baking Christmas cakes for our family and friends. I’m sure lots of your houses will be filled with the treat too, whether homemade or store brought. It got me wondering of how Christmas cake has become a tradition at Christmas time.
Up until the Industrial Revolution, Christmas was celebrated between 6th December and 6th January as the cold weather meant little work could be done in the fields. Presents were given, but usually to mark the beginning, St Nicholas’ Day and the end, Twelfth Night, also known as Epiphany. Boxing Day was usually the day presents were given to servants. As the present giving was spread out, food was one of the largest part of the celebrations. Food that could be made ahead of time and served cold were popular as they could keep for season. Food with fruit in was one of the flavours most preferred, as these usually kept longer.
Originally the flavouring we now associate with Christmas cake came in the form of a plum porridge, which was made to line people’s stomachs at Christmas aver a time of religious fasting over Advent. This porridge was added to over time to include other fruits and honey, so much so it resembled something closer to a Christmas pudding. From the sixteenth century, the oats became replaced with flour and eggs, which meant it took on the consistency of a cake. Spices were also becoming more available at this time, which were meant to represent gifts offered to baby Jesus by the three wise men. Richer families also began to add lots of decorations made from sugar and marzipan to the cake to show they could afford it.
Whilst this does sound more like the Christmas cake we recognise today, it was still not quite the same. It was made from the leftovers of all the puddings eaten over the Christmas period and was elaborately decorated with icing and figurines. As Twelfth Night was celebrated by whole households the cake the centrepiece of the feast. It was shared by everyone, including servants. Both a dried pea and dried bean were placed into the cake and whoever found them would be the King and Queen for the day, no matter what social standing they had normally. This tradition had largely disappeared by the Georgian times, but Twelfth Night cake was still eaten.
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, Twelfth Night itself was mostly a bygone thing. Most people had moved to live in cities, with little time to celebrate Christmas for a whole month, has had gone before. Instead, Twelfth Night became Christmas Day, as that was the day most people had off work. From this, the Twelfth Night cake became known as the Christmas cake. In the 1870s, Queen Victoria officially banned Twelfth Night as she feared any celebrations that did occur would become too out of control and potentially riotous. Thus the Christmas cake would finally be cemented to Christmas.
It can be hard to know what to get the history lovers in your life when it comes to Christmas, especially if, like me, they’re interested in more than one period. If you need a bit of inspiration this year, then here’s a list of my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.
Jane Austen Investigates: The Abbey Mystery, by Julia Golding
Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for Jane Austen fans of all ages. A teenage Jane Austen turns supersleuth when mysterious goings-on happen at Southmoor Abbey, where she has been sent to be a companion of Lady Cromwell for a week. It’s written in a very entertaining way and is a satirical version of a Gothic novel, full of many hints of the real Jane which will be recognised by hardened fans. It’s also a good way to introduce younger readers to the world of Jane Austen. This has definitely been one of my favourite books and I found it quite hard to put down! If you would like to know a bit more, I recently wrote a review for Love British History, which can be found here.
The Real Falstaff: Sir John Fastolf and the Hundred Years War by Stephen Cooper
This book places the Hundred Years War in the context of John Fastolf, the man Shakespeare used as inspiration for his Falstaff character. It successfully blends military history and social history with the personal life of John Fastolf. It gives you a great understanding of how Fastolf fit in and influenced the world around him until his death in the 1450s, including a focus on the homes he built for himself. All in all, a very interesting read and shows just why Fastolf isn’t recognised enough.
Sitting Bull: His Life and Legacy by Ernie LaPointe
In this book, Ernie LaPointe, great-grandson of the legendary Chief Sitting Bull, tells the real story of his famous ancestor. This is a biography with a difference. It’s written in the traditional style of Lakota oral history. This makes it read very differently to other books, but feels true to the person of Sitting Bull. It also makes it easy to read. Again this is up there with one of my favourite books of all time as it is full of emotion but is also education in the respect it shows just how complicated history has portrayed Sitting Bull. I wrote a review of this earlier in the year, so please do take a look here if you’re interested.
Before the Crown by Flora Harding
This is another fiction book, but this time an adult one. I was recently given this by a friend as a gift, so I would definitely recommend gifting this one. It tells the story of how Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip fell in love during the war and the lead up to their wedding on the 20th November 1947. Whilst this isn’t my usual time period, my friend obviously remembered that I have a personal connection to the Queen’s wedding day as my mum was born on the exact same day. I feel this has captured a young Elizabeth and Philip well and is also a very easy read. This would definitely be a good choice for any Royal fan!
Saving Mona Lisa: The Battle to Protect the Louvre and Its Treasures from the Nazis
Again this isn’t my usual time period, but I read this mainly because I have been a regular visitor to the Louvre, but was unaware of the troubles the museum had had during the Second World War. Whilst this is a non-fiction book, it does read more like an action or thriller story as the museum staff risked their lives to protect the treasures in their care. Again this makes it an enjoyable read and really focuses on the individuals involved and their sacrifices, as well as the personal achievements and recognition they had after the war ended. I recently wrote a review of this, which can be found here.
Westminster Abbey has had a long history of royal ceremony and patronage, ever since its rebuilding between 1042 and 1052 by Edward the Confessor. The Westminster Abbey that we know of today was again rebuilt by Henry III in the 13th Century, and it was this rebuilding that made it a place of safety for the crown jewels. A vaulted chamber known as the Pyx Chamber was used to house the royal treasures, including the crown jewels, alongside others belonging to the monks who called the abbey home. This chamber was considered the best place to house the treasury as it was a medieval equivalent of a high security bank vault. With the monks in charge of these precious items, along with many keys to the strong vault doors, it’s easy to see why this site was chosen.
However, in 1303, the unthinkable happened; the treasury was robbed and in a most miraculous and somewhat laughable way. The man responsible was Richard Podlicote or Pudlicote. He was a merchant who had previously been working in Flanders before returning to England. He clearly had motive as he had previously been arrested and forced to pay £14 (nearly £10,000 in today’s money) towards King Edward I’s debts in Bruges. Whilst this may sound harsh to us, it was a common right of medieval kings to force Englishmen living abroad to help pay debts.
In his confession, Pudlicote revealed how he had managed to do the robbery. It took him 98 days (roughly 3 months), between Christmas and just after Easter, to dig a tunnel under the abbey grounds. He said he knew where he was going because he had done a smaller scale robbery before, taking silver dishes and drinking vessels. After getting through to the chamber, he spent a whole day deciding what he wanted to take. The items were more than he could carry and so, on his way out under the cover of darkness, he left some of it under a nearby bush, which he came back for the following night.
With the passage of time, we’re not entirely sure just how many things Pudlicote stole, but we do know some of the higher status items he did and did not steal. The crown jewels themselves were left alone, probably because they were too high profile. One item which was possibly stolen as it was reported missing and was never seen again is a crown taken from the dead body of the Welsh Prince, Llywelyn ap Gruffydd after his death at the Battle of Builth in 1282.[7 After being taken by the English, claims began to circulate that this crown had once belonged to King Arthur, who the Welsh royals claimed as their ancestor.
Amazingly, the crime wasn’t discovered until early June as on the 6th, Edward I ordered an investigation into the robbery. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been discovered for a lot longer if it hadn’t had been for the pawnshops and brothels the treasures ended up in. The pawnshops in their desperation to be rid of the stolen goods, offered them to nobles and others of high standing. These men were among those who knew about what these goods were and where they had come from. The truth of what had happened in Westminster Abbey began to unravel and it led to Pudlicot, who was found with between £2,000-£2,200 (around £1.5 million pounds in today’s money) worth of stolen goods on him.
Despite being a previous offender, and how long it took him to dig, as well as being in or around the scene of the crime, Pudlicote claimed the monks were not involved and didn’t know of his endeavours. I’m not sure that really adds up, especially as 48 monks were arrested and imprisoned in the Tower of London for a brief stay, but they were never formally punished, instead they were released on Edward I’s orders. It seems to be a large coincidence, so there must have been some insider help. Whatever the truth, Pudlicote was sentenced to death in November 1303.
The theft changed how the crown jewels were kept, something which can be seen right up until the present day. The remaining treasure was briefly placed in the Tower of London whilst the Pyx Chamber was reinforced. In the later 1300s, a new and more permanent home was built in the Tower of London specifically built to house the jewels. Whilst that building is not the building currently used for that purpose, as that has long been lost, it started the tradition of the Tower being the residence of the crown jewels.
The debts of Edward I, which were a major motive for the crime, were enormous. On his death in 1307, they amounted to £200,000, nearly £142 million in today’s money. The amount is so phenomenal amount it’s virtually unthinkable. Considering this, it’s no doubt that the majority of these debts were still unpaid by the time of Edward II, the son of Edward I, 20 years after.
Unfortunately like many women who lived in the medieval period, not much is known about the Lady Elizabeth Scales, other than she was the sole heir to her father’s estates and wife of Anthony Woodville. Most of what we do know of her is glimpsed through how others commented on her, or in connection to her wealth and status as a woman of her own means, with a husband who provided her status as the wife of the much favoured brother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville. Just like many other women of her time, there are no sources that speak with her own voice or showing her as her own person, just how she connected to the political world around her. Whilst it is difficult to reconstruct Elizabeth, I hope this blog post may help to answer at least some questions about who this mysterious, and often forgotten, woman of the late 15th century was.
Elizabeth Scales was the only surviving child of Thomas, Lord Scales and his wife, Emma. The pair had did have a son, but it is believed he died at a young age, meaning Elizabeth grew up as the heir to her father’s estates. According to the post-mortem inquisitions, her birthdate is estimated at around 1436. Whilst it was rare for women to inherit estates, it did happen. Just as in the case of the Earldom of Warwick, titles could pass to women, hoping that their husband could continue the line at a later date.
Her first husband, Henry Bourchier, had died in 1458 and the date of her second marriage to Anthony Woodville is unknown, but it is believed by Susan Higginbotham to have been in the run up to the Battle of Towton in 1461. This can be reasonably assumed as William Paston falsely reported Anthony’s death at the battle, where he refers to him as Lord Scales. With this in mind, it is clear that the early parts of their marriage would have been tumultuous, as Thomas Scales was murdered in 1460, as well as facing the bloody battle at Towton.
Elizabeth would have known Anthony even before their marriage as both of their fathers had been friends for many years. Lord Scales was the one who had nominated Richard Woodville, Anthony’s father, to become a Knight of the Garter in 1450. The pair at this time were loyal to the Lancastrian King Henry VI and were known to offer him military support. Not long after the nomination was made, both men fought alongside each other to stamp out Cade’s Rebellion. They were also regularly seen at court in each other’s company.
Following the death of her father, Elizabeth inherited many manors in Norfolk, Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Essex and Suffolk. This does give some indication of motive behind the marriage between Elizabeth and Anthony, but to suggest this alone was a factor simplifies the motives for marrying at that time. As both families were intertwined through ties of friendship, they would have both been known to one another and would probably wish to strengthen this bond. It may even be possible that there was some love, or at least affection between the pair.
Sadly, there are no sources that survive that tell us anything in depth about their relationship or what their feelings were towards one another. The only glimpses we have are comments from their time at court, where they were often noted to be in one another’s company. In November 1464, they were part of King Edward’s party at Reading, where they were playing cards together. At this game, John Howard lent Elizabeth 8s and 4d to play. They also were both part of the entourage that escorted Margaret of York to her wedding to Charles the Bold in Bruges. Anthony was chosen as he had been part of the negotiations for the match and as an experienced married woman and member of the court, his wife, Elizabeth, was deemed a good choice for a companion. No doubt Elizabeth would have offered good advice for what lay ahead. Elizabeth was also chosen for this role as she was a lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth Woodville, so she was also the Queen’s representative. During the period 1466-1467, we know Elizabeth was paid £40 for the role of lady-in-waiting, the same as the Queen’s sister, Anne. In today’s money, this would equate to nearly £27,500. From this it is clear how valued Elizabeth was within the Queen’s household.
In 1466, Anthony placed a legal case to ensure if his wife died before him, the Scales’ estate would pass to him, rather than to distant relatives. Unfortunately, we don’t know Elizabeth’s feelings on this manoeuvre, meaning that it could have been possible that she agreed with this decision, as before this, the both of them had managed the Scales’ manors and lands together, most notably at Middleton in Norfolk. However, this was outside usual practice and again, there is nothing that suggests Elizabeth’s exact opinion on the matter.
Elizabeth died in 1473, when Anthony was away on pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. No matter what their relationship was really like, this must have been a massive blow. Anthony had gone on this pilgrimage in honour of his late mother and in doing so, was not there when his wife died. Perhaps this is why the pilgrimage was a profound experience for him, especially as he adapted the pilgrimage shell as his personal symbol from then onwards, as well as it being the reason for his later translation of the Dictes and Sayings of Philosophers.
Anthony did go on to later remarry, but despite more than one match being offered for him, including Mary of Burgundy and Princess Margaret of Scotland, he didn’t do so until around 1480 to Mary FitzLewis, an acquaintance through family connections. In his will Anthony makes more mention to his first wife than his second, which may suggest he had more affection for Elizabeth than Mary. In it he asked that 500 marks be used for prayers in the name of the souls of Elizabeth, her brother Edward, and all the Scales family. The will is perhaps the only source we have where Anthony directly mentions Elizabeth. Lynda Pigeon has described the will as making “no affectionate mention” to Elizabeth, which wrongly suggests the use of a will. A will is a business transaction and as Anthony’s was written whilst incarcerated at Sherriff Hutton, probably knowing his fate was execution, it would have been made hastily and with the knowledge that it may not have been carried out.
As I have already mentioned, there are little sources that describe the personality of Elizabeth, or her relationship with Anthony. I hope this blog post has helped show glimpses of what little is known about this woman who does appear to have been very capable in her roles as heiress, courtier and wife. She did not have children of her own, but she would have known of Anthony’s illegitimate daughter, Margaret, that he had before their marriage. Perhaps that means we can add a mother figure to the list of achievements this remarkable woman had to her name, no matter how little we know about her.
 TNA: (142/1/36 Cambridge); (142/1/37 Hertford); (142/1/38 Norfolk) cited in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles: The Wars of the Roses and England’s Most Infamous Family (Stroud: The History Press, 2013), p. 78.
Like many others who have watched Heath Ledger’s film, A Knight’s Tale, I assumed the character of Ulrich von Lichtenstein was a made up person, invented to tell the story of a lowly peasant claiming to be a knight, so that he could fulfil his dream of jousting. It wasn’t until I was researching the history of tournaments, in connection with my favourite person, Anthony Woodville, that I came across the real-life Ulrich. During his lifetime, he was not just the knight you expect him to be, but also a poet, high ranking commander, steward, and provincial judge.
Ulrich von Lichtenstein was born into a low status but prosperous minor noble family in Styria, now modern-day Austria around 1200. His first connections with the knightly world came during his teenage years, when he became a page to the son of a Duke. He held this role until he himself was knighted by Duke Leopold VI of Austria in his early 20s. After this position was bestowed upon him, it was clear that he would have certain skills and expectations to hold. However, during the thirteenth century, there was relative peace across Europe, meaning that many knights were idle and were having to find new ways to entertain themselves, and to practise their skills.
In the century before Ulrich’s knighthood, the lance had first emerged as a weapon for cavalrymen, meaning that tournaments were beginning to help train and exercise the talents required to use it. When they were originally formed, tournaments, or tourneys as they were called, were not just about the jousting tournaments we now understand today. They were melees, disorganised ‘peaceful’ versions of battles, designed to prepare soldiers for the real experience of war. These events also included hostage taking and could become highly political, as well as being obviously dangerous and disruptive to any town they took place at. Jousting did take place but was only a side-line activity in the days leading up to the grand melee.
It was not until the 1220s, around the time Ulrich began participating in tournaments, that jousting became an accepted part of a knight’s training in its own right. Melees were still an accepted part of tournaments until the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, but the 1220s saw an acknowledgment of jousting as an art form. Ulrich von Lichtenstein played a large part in this as he became one of the many travelling knights who would tour across Europe following the tournaments. The tournament slowly became agreeable to organisers of these events, who began to see the advantages of jousting tourneys rather than melees. By devoting whole days to jousting, there would be less disruption and less competitors, but also the same areas could be reused easily as there would be less destruction to the fields used. These smaller scale tournaments were still a form of training for war, but also focused on providing entertainment for the elites by using pageantry and individual skill.
During Ulrich’s lifetime, there was an increasing association with Arthurian legend. Many of these new tournaments were known as Round Tables and Ulrich’s version in 1240 is an interesting example. During this jousting tour, he dressed as King Arthur and challenged knights to joust him, proclaiming that if any were found worthy enough, they would become one of his Knights of the Round Table. This finished with a single event where a pavilion was erected to represent the Round Table, with the knights then given 5 days to defend the table. This event, alongside many others were recorded in Ulrich’s poetry, written in the 1250s, some 20-30 years after they supposedly took place.
Whilst his poetry must have had some exaggeration, including the pageantry of his tournament career, there must be some basis of fact underneath, no matter how small that may be. Ruth Harvey suggests that the tales he told in these poems were a mixture of fact and fiction which “are jumbled together in a single kaleidoscopic medley”. This is probably best seen in Ulrich’s description of a helmet crest he wore in 1226, which was made from gilded metal, and was laced with a fan of peacock feathers. Whilst we may never know if he did wear something similar during his jousts, it is true that from the early history of tournaments, emblems were used, whether worn on the body or head, as well as on banners, to show a knight’s status and to make them identifiable. The use of these emblems had been changed from an exclusive military purpose, to include this civilian setting.
What is certain from Ulrich’s writings is that he had a love and respect for women. Unusually for writers of his time, he wrote about the problems and terrible experiences women had to endure, such as drunken husbands, being beaten, and men attempting to ruin their reputation and chastity. Of course this is written from a male perspective, but it does show a certain respect for women and commends their strength. His love of women first started in his teens, when he fell in love with a married, older, and higher ranking noblewoman. His love remained unrequited. However, throughout his career, Ulrich dedicated his victories to her. She was flattered by this, but nothing more.
The tournaments he fought in her name and their acquaintance are detailed in his Frauenbuch or The Service of Ladies. Despite his best attempts at wooing this woman with his jousting prowess, it took something more drastic to catch her attention. He had an operation to fix a cleft lip, hoping it would improve his chances. In some ways it did as she invited him to join a horse ride with her and her friends, but this backfired when he was too shy to speak to her. Feeling insulted, she banned him from using her colours in tournaments. Ulrich eventually got the message when she threw him into a lake, but even this couldn’t stop his feelings.
In some ways, despite some artistic license, Heath Ledger’s Ulrich von Lichtenstein was not so different from the real one. He certainly loved to show off on the jousting field, as well as having a love for women, especially one in particular, no matter how out of reach she was. Despite exaggerations in his poetry detailing his career with a lance, the danger was very real, just as is shown in A Knight’s Tale. The real Ulrich lost a finger during a tournament in 1222 and in 1226, an opponent’s lance pierced through his chain mail, cutting his chest, and causing his white outfit to turn red with blood.