This blog is a selection of interesting things I've come across during my history research. I have a wide interest in history ranging from Wars of the Roses, country houses, Stuarts, Georgians, Louis XIV, Napoleon and criminals. So expect to see a bit of everything on here, with a focus on little known stories.
Last year I conducted research into the conditions of Napoleonic prisoners of war held in Chesterfield, Derbyshire. I wrote about my findings in two blog posts for the archives I work at, as well as talking through my findings with a lovely local group that I was involved with at the time. That went very well and all who heard about it said it was a very interesting topic.
Since then I have looked into the parish registers at the time and found a lot of examples of the prisoners and how they married and had children with local women. The most interesting find for me is that one prisoner brought his Egyptian wife to Chesterfield, whilst another brought his Caribbean servant with him. For this reason, I added it to my list of possible talks I could be booked to do and I’m so glad that I did as I have been booked to do it twice more.
The first will be for the Be Bold History Network, a group that connects history knowledge with the classroom. I did a talk for them back in 2021, talking about my book research on Anthony Woodville and was kindly invited back any time. So I will be giving the talk on Wednesday 9th of February. Whilst it is aimed at teachers, anyone is welcome to attend.
Two anniversaries have inspired this blog post, first of all, yesterday marked the 100th anniversary of the discovery of the steps leading to Tutankhamun, probably the world’s greatest and most famous archaeological discovery, but today also marks the 244th anniversary of the birth of Giovanni Belzoni. At the moment, you may be wondering how these two things are connected, but it’s a closer connection than you may at first think. Giovanni Belzoni found a similarly exciting discovery in the Valley of the Kings, just a little over a hundred years before Howard Carter discovered Tutankhamun. The discovery he made was the fantastic tomb of Seti I, which is the largest of all the tombs in the Valley of the Kings.
Giovanni Belzoni was one of fourteen children. He was born in Padua, Italy, in 1778. As a teenager, he attempted to go into holy orders, where he learnt about engineering. From this engineering experience, he began to exhibit some hydraulic engines he had made. When Napoleon’s forces invaded Italy, he moved to the Netherlands, before again moving to England in 1803, to escape going to prison. Following the move, he joined the circus as a strongman, helped by his 6 ft 7 inch height and muscly build. He toured with this around Britain and Europe, until he heard the Pasha of Egypt was looking for a new irrigation system.
In 1815, Belzoni made his way to Egypt to offer his hydraulic engines for use as an irrigation system. Despite a good pitch, the Pasha wasn’t entirely impressed and didn’t take up the offer. Instead, Belzoni was offered a small allowance that allowed him to stay in Egypt a little longer. It was during this time that Belzoni became fascinated with the European efforts to excavate Ancient Egyptian sites. Officials on these digs saw him as a valuable asset thanks to his strength and engineering knowledge and so by 1817, he was officially employed by the British to help with these types of excavations.
Belzoni built up a reputation for getting things done, even if his methods don’t match up to modern archaeology. He was notorious for using his strength, bribery and ingenuity to plunder items from Egypt, to send them to Britain. One of the most famous artifacts he helped unearth was a sculpture of Ramses II, which had been notoriously difficult to move, and was fought over by the British and the French, is now held in the British Museum. He also cleared the entrance of the famous Abu Simbel temple and was the first to enter the pyramid of Khafre at Giza. Whilst he made these discoveries and more, there is one discovery he is most famous for; the tomb of Seti I.
The tomb was discovered on 16 October 1817 and up to that point, it was viewed as the finest tomb in the Valley of the Kings. Its walls were highly decorated and looked as if they had just been painted yesterday, rather than many thousands of years ago. Most importantly, it still contained the sarcophagus, which was made of fine alabaster. This was sent back to London, initially to the British Museum, but was later brought by the Sir John Soane Museum. Belzoni and his team spent just over a year drawing and taking wax impressions of the decorated walls. Unfortunately, when they left, there as a flash flood that caused damage to the paintwork. This meant the tomb would never quite be the same again. Even today the tomb is closed because of issues of damage and issues around conservation.
Belzoni continued to make discoveries after Seti’s tomb, but he returned to England in 1819, saying it was becoming too dangerous after the French had taken an obelisk from him at gunpoint. A year later, he published his account of the many discoveries he had made in the four years he had been excavating in Egypt. This was then followed in 1821 by a fantastic life-size exhibition held in the Egyptian Hall in Piccadilly. At this exhibition, called The Egyptian Tomb, many artifacts were on display alongside a recreation of Seti’s tomb (including the sarcophagus) which was based on the original drawings and wax impressions taken not long after the discovery. The exhibition aimed to showcase Belzoni and his work, but also to educate visitors about ‘authentic’ Ancient Egypt. There was also a catalogue produced for visitors, which emphasised the educational aspects of the exhibition, but also explained the reproduced royal tombs on display. After the exhibition closed, the items on display, including the replicas, were auctioned off at the Egyptian Hall in June 1822. Exhibitions still continued to be held after Belzoni’s death in 1823 during an expedition to Timbuktu. In 1825, his widow showcased his original drawings, alongside the models of the royal tombs, in both Paris and London.
Whilst there is no doubt that Giovanni Belzoni acquired his artifacts in dubious circumstances that definitely don’t match up to current ethics about museum collections, he was not the only one working in this way. I am in no way condoning his actions, but recognise that many people were doing the same thing around this time. What his work, and the exhibition that followed, do show is that it sparked a renewed interest in Egypt, much like the discovery of Tutankhamun did a century later. The difference was that in Belzoni’s time, the idea of Ancient Egypt was still fairly new. Hieroglyphics had still not yet been deciphered but the French and British had been writing and investigating Egyptian history and culture ever since Napoleon’s invasion or so called ‘expedition’ in 1798. These French investigations famously produced the Description de l’Egypte, an encyclopaedic folio published by academics following their return to France in 1801. You can find out more about that and Napoleon’s expedition in a previous blog post, found here. As has been noted, all of these discoveries, including those involving Belzoni, despite their dubious nature, helped to open the eyes of Europe to the glory that was Egypt”.
If you are a regular follower of the blog, you will have probably guessed that I have an interest in the Georgian period. However, I knew very little about the Georgian Queens. Perhaps part of that is that as the Georgian period is named after its kings, they have been pushed to the side somewhat. I wished to learn more, so that is what first attracted me to this book. As this book is written by an author I have not read before, I must admit I was a little apprehensive, but also excited, to see what this book would bring. I was definitely not disappointed with this book in anyway.
The women covered in the book are Sophia Dorothea of Celle, Caroline of Ansbach, Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Streliz and Caroline of Ansbach. Each of the women featured have their own intriguing life stories to tell, which the author writes in an accessible and exciting way. I found this made it an easy read and despite the trials and tribulations all of the women went through, there were some light-hearted and entertaining moments throughout. The book certainly highlights how downtrodden the women were because of their husbands and the courts they lived in. This makes the reader empathetic with the lives the women lived, and showed that whilst covered in jewels, they were not necessarily as happy as modern readers may perhaps think.
All of the Queens, whilst mentioned individually, were placed into the context of the royal court they lived in. This gave a fascinating insight into the cycle of how they were influenced by the court and how the individual Queens in turn influenced the court. In doing this, it shows that the author has clearly done a good amount of research, not only into the lives of the Queens and their Georges, but also the wider context of society in Britain (and the German states where they all hailed from) at the time.
The occasional addition of extracts from letters about the Queens and other events also provided a good insight, as it felt like reading about more personal matters. The same could be said about the inclusion of newspaper articles, in order to gauge possible public opinion. This was particularly useful for considering the media war between George IV and his wife, Caroline of Ansbach, who actively disliked one another. With the retelling of this, it was clear that there were so many modern day parallels in. Again, moments like this provided a good context to the times, but also highlighted the wide range of research conducted by the author.
With the amount of women involved in this book, there is of course some skimming of their lives. I feel that doesn’t necessarily detract from the overall experience of the book. Instead it allows the book to be light and not so stuffy as other history books can sometimes be. I can understand how this may put some readers off, but it is fine to use, as I did, as an introduction to either the Georgian period, or to the Georgian Queens themselves. As the book covers so many people and has a large timespan, I can also understand that that may be confusing to some readers, especially as the people mentioned have similar names. Sadly that is what happens a lot in history, so please don’t let that put you off giving this a read.
Overall, I would definitely recommend this book. Not only is it written in a witty and engaging style, but the Catherine Curzon manages to make the Queens feel like real people that the reader can connect with, rather than figures from the distant past. It highlights the human side to royalty, that can so often be forgotten. As said above, this is the perfect book to introduce the topic and I hope it would encourage anyone who reads it to find out more about the Queens who would help define an era, although the era is clearly given its name by their husbands.
Today marks the fourth anniversary of the blog. I would just to take the chance to thank all the followers, readers and supporters over those three years. It honestly means a lot that people read and love the content I produce. Whilst this is a hobby, history, and sharing it with others, is my passion. I hope you’ll continue to enjoy the stories I write about for many more years to come.
Last week, I was away on holiday in Bath, one of my favourite places. On the way there, we stopped of to visit Berkeley Castle in Gloucestershire. It is well-known for being the prison and place of death for Edward II, but the castle is so much more. Despite it raining quite badly, it is such a big place, that this really didn’t matter. There are so many wonderful things to see there, including a chest supposedly owned by Sir Francis Drake. I would honestly recommend it to everyone, as it is well worth a visit. A favourite thing for me was all the beautiful paintings and portraits, which were explained very well. However, I feel I must also apologise to the American tourists I feel I must have scared with my rather exuberant enthusiasm.
St Mary’s Church next door to Berkeley Castle is also a must visit. It may look like an ordinary medieval church from the outside, but inside it is fantastic. Whilst I have seen so many photos of medieval church wall paintings, I haven’t really seen many in person, but this church was full of so many beautiful examples. It is also the last resting place of many of the Jenner family, who lived next door, of whom Edward Jenner, the inventor of the vaccination, was one of them.
Once again I took part in the promenade of the Jane Austen Festival promenade for the second year running. A massive thank you to my sister for all her hard work in sewing all of the costumes!! Compared to last year, which had around 300 people taking part there were so many more people. It was quite easily about 500 people this year who came from all over the world. Everyone is so friendly and made us feel very welcome, so if anyone would like to take part in the future, please come and join us. You can find out more about the festival using the following link.
Our holiday was of course marked by the passing of Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II on the 8th September. For the Jane Austen promenade, we marked her passing by wearing black armbands and observing a minute’s silence.
I have always been very fond of the Queen as she has maintained a faithful and loyal service over the United Kingdom and has often been a source of comfort. Some regular readers will remember that I wrote a piece for the Historians Magazine only a few months ago honouring the marriage of the Queen and Prince Philip. Their wedding day was the day my mum was born, so for me, the Queen has always been a part of my family. Little did I know that actually, that would be my last tribute to her. You can read about that article here.
I wanted to take the time to offer my sincere condolences to the Royal Family in their time of grief. I also give my thanks for all the Queen has done and the kindness and love she has shown to so many people. For me, as well as many others, this is a very sad time, but I will certainly remember how well she served as an example to us all.
I had heard good things about The Belles of Waterloo and was looking forward to getting stuck into it. Of course it helped that I have an interest in the Regency period in general, but I had hopes of this focusing on the more social aspects of a time we often understand as being full of war. In both respects I wasn’t to be disappointed.
The Belles of Waterloo tells the story of the Capel family who have had to move to Brussels a year before the Battle of Waterloo because of their father’s gambling debts. The narrative particularly focuses on the lives of the three eldest daughters named Harriet, Maria and Georgy, as they adjust to their new lives and loves. Little do they know that within months of their arrival that the war against Napoleon would be right on their doorsteps. This does give the reader an expectation of things to come.
Whilst this book is a work of fiction, Alice Church makes it clear that their story is a true one. I found it rather refreshing to know that the majority of the story told was based on letters that exist of the family. By using these letters as a basis, I found this gave the book a unique feel of authenticity. Whilst this meant that there was a risk that the story could have become dull, the opposite is true in fact. This meant that the real emotions felt throughout the family’s many highs and lows during this period are acutely portrayed. The reader easily becomes sucked in and emotionally involved with all that goes on, for good or ill.
The book had a very Bridgerton feel to it in that it portrayed a close knit large family trying to navigate life and for the girls in particular, that means trying to understand the first feelings of love and romance. I feel that even if you hadn’t watched Bridgerton, but liked the late Georgian/Regency period, you would find this as equally compelling. If you have any understanding of the period, you would expect to see lots of balls and house calling. The reader is definitely not disappointed in that. By attending balls and accepting house calls, the Capel sisters find lots of potential suitors and family friends alike. These particular scenes were written with great grandeur and it was easy to imagine the glitz and glamour of those events, most famously the Duchess of Richmond’s ball, where war with Napoleon was declared once more. The writer strikes a good balance between explaining the atmosphere of these large gatherings, but also focusing on the personal experiences of the Capel girls and the relationships they form whilst there.
Whilst all three of the Capel girls did have some experience of love, I do find that it did seem to be more focused on the romances that Maria has. Whilst of course it was necessary to show Maria’s romances, I would have lived to have seen more exploration of the other two girls experience. There are some mentions of this, but I feel it would have added to a greater understanding of the sisters by doing so. Whatever may be the case, there is no denying that the girls’ relationships are shown in a way that indicated that the girls are inexperienced in love, which is only to be expected, when they came out in society after they first reached Brussels. In many ways, this was a stark contrast to the heavy realism of the relationship of their parents, which has been tarnished by their father’s gambling.
By the end of the book, the Capel siters had grown in many respects and I think this was one of the best selling points of the book (beside the historical attention to detail of course!). It showed that just like any of us, the characters had become shaped by what they had gone through, even if in reality it was a short space of time. Whilst this meant it was more of a philosophical ending in some ways, it felt very apt and was the right choice to make. It also helped that there was an end note explaining what happened to the real people mentioned within the book and how this influenced what had been written.
Whilst I did enjoy the development of the characters within the Capel family, I found I had a soft spot for General Barnes. Barnes had become a friend to the family after first meeting some of the girls early on in their move to Brussels. He was a kind man and easily befriended the entire family, although he did have a particularly soft spot for Maria. I must admit I was very keen to find out his fate when towards the end of the book, he, as well as all the other military men that the family had grown to know and care for went off to war. There are also some descriptions of the injuries and horrors of war when the timeline reaches the Waterloo campaign, but these are actually necessary in the context they are portrayed in.
In general, I felt that this book, whilst primarily a novel, felt like it was about real people who you could easily relate to. It held its authenticity in a way that showed the research and passion the writer had for the topic. The historical attention to detail made it easy for the reader to imagine being within the events being described, but also like a fly on the wall for the more intimate and gossipy moments as well. It was this engaging narrative that made it very hard to put down and I was sad to finish this, which is always the sign of a good book! I would very much recommend giving The Belles of Waterloo a read as it was just the tonic and escape that I needed.
I recently took a short holiday to Norfolk. It’s full of history and as where I come from is the furthest away from the sea you can get, I love to be by the sea. For one day, we went into the city of Norwich, famous for it’s historical buildings. The city was once one of the largest in England, largely due to the wealth Norfolk got from its farming and wool trades. Of course, I also went because of its links to Anthony Woodville. Little did I expect when I’d booked to go round the Stranger’s Hall, a merchant’s house dating back to the 1200s, that there would be a connection to one of my favourite period dramas, Outlander. In the very lovely Georgian dining room, there was a portrait of Margaret Tryon, the wife of William Tryon, Governor of North Carolina, who features in series four and five of the drama. I would like to thank Cathy Terry, the Senior Curator of Social History at Norwich Museums, who left a copy of her research into Margaret near her portrait, who it turns out, was an amazing woman in her own right.
Margaret was born in London in around 1732 as the daughter of William Wake and his wife, Elizabeth. Elizabeth claimed descent from John Rolfe and his wife, Pocahontas, whereas William, was a wealthy merchant for the East India Company, who went on to be the Governor of Mumbai (then known as Bombay) between 1742 and 1750. She went on to marry William Tryon in 1757, who was an aristocratic army officer. Margaret’s dowry was £30,000, which is around £3 million today, which showed just how wealthy her father had become. It would seem that Margaret would be just any other military wife, but she had very different ideas about that. Not only was she a talented organ and spinet player, she was fascinated by all sorts of intellectual topics aspects of government, military strategy and religion. These topics would keep her in good stead for the next aspect of family life, which saw the Tryons move to America.
William had been injured during a raid on Cherbourg in the Seven Years War, so a less physical role was needed for him. Thankfully, Margaret’s relations were able to help with this. One of her relatives was Lord Hillsborough, who was the Secretary of State for the Colonies, which explains why William’s next position was as Lieutenant Governor of North Carolina, which he took up in 1764. The couple, along with their young daughter, also called Margaret, moved to Wilmington in North Carolina.
Within a year, the existing Governor died, leaving William to take the promotion to Governor himself. Whilst in Wilmington, the family lived in a house on the Cape Fear River. It was there that a boy was born, but he sadly died in infancy. The couple often held social events inviting the upper classes from Wilmington and throughout the area. Margaret was known to seek out male, rather than female, company due to her masculine interests. On this, a friend known as Mrs Janet Montgomery wrote of her that:
‘Her mind was masculine. She studied everything difficult…. She published a book on fortifications and I fancy I could have won her heart if she could have given me a taste for such useful arts. The many called her mad; she certainly was eccentric. As trifling amusements had been beneath her lofty mind, and as they were essential to please the town, she found a substitute in me to amuse the circle and make the parties at the card tables.’
She was also known to insist she be addressed as Your Excellency, a title which should have only been addressed to her husband, William. William himself has been seen as a controversial man, and there is not enough time to go into the whys in this post, but he was known for his bad temper and he did isolate the people of Wilmington. Rebellions led by men called The Regulators dominated the area, blaming the Governor’s corruption and unwillingness to listen to grievances. The building of a new Governor’s Palace, known as Tryon’s Palace, in New Burn, nearly 100 miles away, was the last straw. Tryon had brought over an English designer and no expense was spared on the build, which was paid for by the citizens of Wilmington. The Regulators were eventually stamped out by Tryon’s forces, but the damage was done. In order to get out of the situation, William accepted the Governorship of New York. Tryon Palace had only been lived in for a year before the family moved in 1771.
When William took up this post, the family moved into another richly decorated house at Fort George. They had little luck there either as the house burned down in 1773 after a fire lit in the council chamber got out of control. The fire was so great that all of their possessions were lost. The estimated loss was £6,000 in possessions (around £523,000 in today’s money), and £900 in cash (around £78,500). In order to claim compensation, detailed inventories of the contents of each of the 16 rooms of the house were required. These still survive and show just how richly the Tryon family lived. No wonder the family briefly returned to England in 1774.
The family did return to America following the outbreak of the American War of Independence. This was an awkward time for William Tryon, who’s duty was to the British Crown. Forces under Tryon were known for their brutality against civilians. He also had a particular animosity towards George Washington, which led to him being embroiled in plot to assassinate Washington. The Tryons did eventually return to England again in 1780, when William’s health began to deteriorate. They moved to Mayfair, a wealthy part of London that was seen to fit their status. Despite concerns for his health, Tryon was still given military duties, this time back in East Anglia. He was appointed to command the fortifications at Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft, and also placed at Somerleyton Hall, his headquarters, where he was also in charge of forces from American and Canadian from. William died in 1788 and left the bulk of his estate to Margaret. Tragically, their daughter, Margaret, died only 3 years after her father, when she fell onto railings outside the London home, when climbing down from a rope in an attempt to elope with her army officer sweetheart. Margaret herself died on 16 February 1819 in Great Yarmouth, where she had retired to a respectable lodging house on the famous Yarmouth Rows, used by families as a holiday home.
No one is really sure just how long she lived in those lodgings for, but what is known is that she was buried alongside her husband and daughter at St Mary’s Church in Twickenham, London. Her memory, and that of her husband’s (whether deserved or not in his case), is continued by Tryon’s Palace in New Burn. This curious museum is not the original home of the Tryon’s, as that was seized by rebels at the start of the American War of Independence and burned down in 1798. Instead, it is a modern recreation based on the original plans, which opened in 1959. Still, it is used to remember a turbulent period of the history of North Carolina, of which Margaret Tryon, with all her masculine ways, played a part in.
Elizabeth Linley was a famous singer in the late eighteenth century, not only for the remarkable music abilities of her own family, dubbed the Nest of Nightingales, but also for the tumultuous marriage to the playwright, Richard Brinsley Sheridan. Despite both of their connections to Bath, which I have visited a view times now, I hadn’t heard of them until recently. The BBC programme Britain’s Lost Masterpieces featured a painting, supposedly of her, painted by the famous Georgian portrait painter, and a personal favourite of mine, Joshua Reynolds. That programme showed a story of celebrity not unlike those known today.
Elizabeth was one of twelve siblings born to Thomas and Mary Linley, most of whom were musically capable, a trait they had clearly inherited from their father. Thomas was a famed harpsicord player and a musical director at the Bath Assembly Rooms. Elizabeth’s brother, Thomas Junior, was compared to Mozart, and her sister, Mary, was also an accomplished singer. For Elizabeth herself, she made her public debut at the age of twelve, a very young age to be performing, but with her elder siblings already in the spotlight, it was seen as normal for the Linley family. The family’s pre-eminence in Bath was noted by painter, Thomas Gainsborough, who bad become friends with the family after moving to Bath in 1759. Between the late 1760s and 1789, he had painted a number of portraits of the family, including one of Elizabeth and Mary (see above image), which was altered later on, as Mary had been unhappy with the original version.
With her beauty and talent, Elizabeth became sort after by many suitors. In 1769, when she was sixteen, Elizabeth’s parents had betrothed her to Walter Long, a man who was around sixty. This engagement was ended in 1771 when Elizabeth claimed she was in love with another. Walter paid £3,000, or around £270,000 in today’s money, to Elizabeth’s father and let her keep the jewels and gifts he had already given her. At the same time, a married family friend, Captain Thomas Mathews, had been harassing Elizabeth for a while by trying to force her to become his mistress. He tried any tactic he could from threatening her reputation to threating to commit suicide if she continued to ignore his advances. The playwright, Samuel Foote wrote a play called The Maid of Bath about the situation. The play, which opened in Haymarket, London, in 1771, insinuated that Elizabeth’s engagement had been called off because she had had an affair with Mathews. The only thing that was accurate about the play was the depiction of Elizabeth as a mixture of spirited and dutiful, but this was also a popular trope for heroines at the time.
The situation with Mathews, alongside the popularity of The Maid of Bath, only appeared to make Elizabeth’s worries grow. She confided with her friends, Lissy and Betsy Sheridan, the sisters of her future husband. Between them, they concocted a plan for their brother, Richard Brinsley Sheridan, to escort her to France, where she could stay until she became of age. Whilst on their way, Sheridan admitted his feelings for Elizabeth and the pair were married in a village near Calais in March 1772. As this was a Catholic ceremony, the marriage was not deemed legal under English law, meaning that when the couple were persuaded to return to England, they were not seen as married.
Both Elizabeth and Richard’s family didn’t accept the match and were forced apart. However, Sheridan did leave love notes at a grotto in Bath for her to find, but it’s uncertain whether she ever saw them. Captain Mathews was also unwilling to give up his feelings for Elizabeth and challenged Sheridan to a duel over her. This was fought in London and Sheridan won, with the demand that Mathews retract an unflattering article he had published about Sheridan in the newspapers. That was not to be the last duel as Mathews failed to keep his side of the bargain and spread rumours that it was him that had one the previous duel, not Sheridan. The second duel was fought just outside of Bath. Sheridan was injured and when reports later came about the outcome of the duel, stories were told that he had been saved from death by a miniature of Elizabeth.
Sheridan still didn’t give up in his pursuit for love. When he came of age in October 1772, he followed Thomas Linley around, begging him to let his daughter marry him. He even went to nearly every, if not every, concert hall Elizabeth performed at to pester for her hand in marriage. Elizabeth and Sheridan were finally able to marry in London on 13 April 1773 but it would not be the happy ever after you would expect. After their marriage, Sheridan refused to let his wife perform for fear of his own reputation if she continued. Instead, she helped her husband to write his play, The Rivals, which premiered in January 1775, which was only fair when Elizabeth’s dowry had helped pay for Sheridan’s theatrical ambitions. Eventually Elizabeth was allowed to perform for exclusive functions, but this was mainly to pay for the enormous debts her husband had racked up. Sheridan also began to have numerous affairs, which Elizabeth was aware of. In retaliation, she also had affairs, which produced an illegitimate daughter, as well as the legitimate children she had with Sheridan.
Elizabeth was known to have suffered bouts of ill health throughout her life, many of which were reported to a public who were eager to have any update possible about the celebrity couple. These became even more sort after when she had all but retired from public life after a stillbirth in May 1777 and the death of her brother, Thomas, in a boating accident in August 1778. She finally died from tuberculosis on 28 June 1792 at the age of 38 at Bristol Hot Wells, where she had moved to from London for health reasons. She was buried alongside her sister, Mary, at Wells Cathedral.
Whilst Elizabeth’s life may have been short, there is no denying that it had been eventful. Both her and her husband, Richard, showed that whilst we understand celebrity as a relatively modern phenomenon, it did have its infancy in the Georgian period. Many of the celebrities of the day were of musical and theatrical backgrounds, just like Elizabeth, her family, and her husband. A plaque dedicated to her can still be seen at 11 Bath Crescent, where she had lived before her marriage. When I go back to Bath later on in the year, I will now look on it with a better understanding and appreciation for the woman who it commemorates.
This book tells the story of two women trying to bring two smuggler gangs operating in Cornwall to justice; the first the teenage Emily Moon in 1799, the second Phoebe Bellingham in 2019. Both cases have their parallels, but to help solve the 2019 case, Phoebe has to figure out what happened to Emily Moon. Legend says she plunged from the cliff and her ghost still haunts the cliffs next to the pub she and her family once lived in. How true was this and how did it link to the present day case of smuggling? Of course, I won’t give you spoilers, but I hope that gives a bit of flavour to what the premise of the book is, without giving too much away.
I haven’t really read much historical fiction lately, so I must admit I was intrigued by the concept of the book, even if the main reason I chose it was because it reminded me of Poldark. There were a few reservations about it at the beginning, including the idea of having parallel timelines. Whenever I watch TV shows with that concept, I must admit, I do get quite confused with it at times. However, this book manages to keep it simple yet gripping at the same time. It certainly helps that the chapters are fairly short, so you don’t forget what’s happening in the other timeline. This also helped the reader to feel anticipation as to what was coming next, whilst also making it feel fast paced. Another reservation I had was about how much violence would be mentioned. Personally, I can take a bit, but I don’t like anything too gratuitous. I was happily surprised to find that other than at the beginning, there wasn’t much. Most of it was inferred rather than actually described, which I feel suited my tastes well. I will warn you that there are inferences of rape though, so just be careful of that.
After these initial reservations, I relaxed into the story and once I had, I found it really gripping and extremely hard to put down! The easy writing style helped with this enormously, but I also feel like the writer provoked a personal response from the reader. I know I certainly had one and just couldn’t wait to find out the fate of both the main characters and whether the bad guys were brought to justice or not.
For me, the best part was the character of Emily Moon. A girl who has only ever known the coastal village she lives in, struggles to talk and is viewed by her village neighbours as simple. She is far from it. At times, she is a silent observer, but is often helped by her drawing skills and her best friend, Arthur, who is really her childhood sweetheart. All this makes Emily a heroine with a difference, as her steely determination is often looked over by other characters in the book, but is clearly evident to the reader. Emily is a definite contrast with Phoebe, the modern day heroine.
Phoebe, originally from London, moves to Cornwall with her friend, Liv, to help run the pub Emily once lived in. She made the move after she was signed off from her job as a police officer following a particularly harrowing case. After hearing the local legends about Emily, she decides to discover more about her. Phoebe herself is very much affected by what had happened in London, so sees Emily as a way to cope with what has happened and to keep herself occupied. It is this that I feel ties both parallel timelines together. It also leaves the reader finding more about both Emily and Phoebe at the same time.
The ending does come to a satisfying conclusion, for both Emily and Phoebe, although there are a few surprises. To some extent, not all of them are total surprises, they are more logical conclusions. For that reason, the ending is definitely believable and I was very sad to finally come to an end of the book. I feel that’s always a sign of a good book, which this one definitely is! The author herself describes how she wanted to write a cross between Jamaica Inn and Line of Duty. I personally feel she has achieved that. It successfully mixed the gripping nature of Line of Duty with the smuggling and historical setting of Jamaica Inn. If there are any TV producers out there looking for the next thing to adapt, I would totally recommend this story.
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.