My Top 5 History Reads of 2022

As an avid reader, I usually can’t name all the books I read in a year, but as the majority of them have a history theme, I thought I would share my top five history books that I’ve read this year. It’s a mixture of different periods and some fiction and non-fiction, so hopefully there’s something for everybody there.

To Hell on a Fast Horse by Mark Lee Gardiner

If you are a fan of the Wild West, this one will be for you. It is a dual biography of the famous outlaw, Billy the Kid, and Pat Garrett, the sheriff that shot him dead in 1881. This book does help address some of those myths in an even and balanced way, particularly in terms of the biography of Billy the Kid, that was written by Pat Garrett himself, as it focused on Pat’s motivations behind his writing. It has a very journalistic and easy to read writing style, despite the many names, events and locations that are mentioned throughout. I would definitely recommend this as I found it very hard to put down. You can find a full review I wrote earlier this year here if you are interested in find out more.

The Earth is All that Lasts by Mark Lee Gardiner

I’ll be honest, this book was by far my most favourite read of the year. I was also lucky enough to be given a review copy of this by the author. It was shipped out to me all the way from America. A huge thank you for that too! I think, just like the book on Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett, that this is one of those books you won’t forget reading. This one is another duel biography, but this time of the Lakota chiefs, Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Sitting Bull is one of my favourite historical heroes, so I was very much looking forward to reading this. I wasn’t disappointed in the slightest! It is a very emotive and sometimes uncomfortable read, as it tells of the gruesome reality of how settlers took over the plains. For this reason, as well as it showing the Lakota viewpoint, it is an important read. As I said in my review ‘this is the written equivalent of what Dances with Wolves was for the big screen, in that it very much shows the Lakota viewpoint, which is not shared often enough’. For that reason, I feel this is one of the most vital books to understand the final years of freedom for the Lakota. You can find my previous review of it here.

Black Tudors by Miranda Kaufmann

This book tells the stories of ten Africans who lived in Tudor and Stuart England. Each example shows that whilst they were in a minority, you could find Africans in a variety of different roles during this period. A personal favourite of mine was Jacques Francis, who was a salvage diver for the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s that sank off the coast of Portsmouth. The writing style is incredibly accessible and creates a personal narrative not only for the examples given, but also for those Africans in similar circumstances who can only briefly be discovered in documents such as parish registers. All in all, this is a very entertaining and informative book, which has quite clearly been based on meticulous research. I will be writing a full review on this soon, so please do look out for that.

A Traveller in Time by Alison Uttley

At the beginning of the year, I was reminded of a book I haven’t read since my childhood by an author who once lived in the countryside of Derbyshire, close to where I live. Whilst this is technically a children’s fiction book, it is well suited for all ages, and is based on real life events. First published in 1939, it tells the story of teenage girl, Penelope, who is sent to live on her aunt and uncle’s farm, once owned by Anthony Babington, an important Derbyshire landowner, who became embroiled in a plot to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. The girl manages to move between her own time and the 1580s and even meets Anthony Babington himself. Can Penelope alter the course of history or not? It is a slow starter, but once you get into it, this book does become somewhat all consuming and certainly triggers a lot of emotion.

Julian of Norwich: A Very Brief History by Janina Ramerez

This tells the story of Julian of Norwich, a medieval anchoress who shut herself away in a church in Norwich. It discusses her religious writings, as well as providing context to the times in which she lived. Once again, this is another reread, but I loved it just as much this time as I did before. I first came across this book after the author (a favourite historian of mine) did a TV documentary about trying to find the lost original manuscript version of Julian’s text. Sadly it still hasn’t been found, other than a fragment later edited. The author certainly has a special way of explaining things and making things accessible to an audience and this book is no exception. It is especially good at analysing the importance and legacy of Julian, who is now largely a forgotten figure. In the words of Julian herself, All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well.

I know this was meant to be a post about my must read books of the year, but as we are on the countdown to Christmas, I thought I must share my favourite historical themed film to watch in time for Christmas.

The Man Who Invented Christmas:

This film showcases how Charles Dickens really wrote A Christmas Carol, which is now synonymous with how we celebrate Christmas. As a Dickens fan of many years, I must admit I love this film and Dan Stevens plays the author very well. It shows off his eccentricities brilliantly, whilst also detailing the tragic backstory of his time in the blacking factory that Dickens himself tried to hide his whole life. I have always been fascinated by the way Dickens kept note of names and places for his books, as well as how he re-enacted his stories to audiences during readings. The film does show this wonderfully. It also has a fantastic cast, full of wonderful British actors. If you have any interest in A Christmas Carol, or Dickens himself, this is a must watch. I have watched this many times and never seem to bore of it!

The Priory Church of St Bartholomew the Great in Smithfield, London

I have always found churches to be fascinating places. Not only are they places of great faith, which have survived many hundreds of years, they are memorials to the people who built and used them. You can definitely learn a lot by looking around old churches. One that recently came to my attention, and is now on my to visit list, is St Bartholomew the Great in the Smithfield area of London. It was mentioned briefly in a discussion about Anthony Woodville, who I am currently writing a biography of, and who is famous for participating in a joust at Smithfield. The person I was talking to about this tournament mentioned that Anthony would have seen this church on his way to the joust. Once again, I set off down a research rabbit hole to find out more about this church. I certainly did find out a lot of amazing things about its history.

The name St Bartholomew’s may ring a bell with you because of the world famous London hospital of the same name, which is commonly known by the nickname of St Bart’s. Whilst this post is not necessarily about the hospital, there is no denying there is a collective history. The church of St Bartholomew the Great, the hospital and St Bartholomew the Less, which served as the parish church for the hospital, were all commissioned by a clergyman called Rahere in the 1100s.

St Bartholomew’s marked on a map of Medieval London vectorized by Grandiose for Wikimedia Commons and (b) University of Pittsburgh’s “Images of Medieval Art and Architecture: England: London: Maps,” copyright Alison Stones, using Creative Commons

Rahere had previously been a member of the clergy at St Paul’s, but that all changed during a pilgrimage to Rome. Whilst there, he received a vision in a dream to build a church and hospital in Smithfield.[1] When he arrived back in England, he made enquiries about the piece of land he had seen in his dream. He found out it was in royal hands and so he went to King Henry I and explained the vision he had received. His petitioning worked and he was granted the land.[2] Building started and an Augustinian priory was established in 1123. It was this priory that became what we now see today. The church and the hospital became known for its healing powers and it was reported that many miracles happened there, most occurring on St Bartholomew’s Day.[3]

Throughout the priory’s existence, as with any church, there were some alterations, including in 1410, where parts of it were rebuilt, ensuring that the monastic complex was completely enclosed within walls.[4] There was already some evidence of enclosure prior to this as a gatehouse, which is still in existence. Perhaps this might mean that there were new walls built or strengthening to existing ones. Whatever the case may be, the walls were completely demolished in 1671, leading to disputes about boundaries.[5]

Interior of St Bartholomew the Great Church (2016), Rafa Esteve, Wikimedia Commons

The most dramatic change in use for the priory came with the Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII. Henry had decided to dissolve the monasteries, who he believed had become too rich and powerful. Whilst some of them had, it was a massive over statement and many lies about the corruption in these places were told in order to make the dissolution of them appear necessary. As was the case with the hospital at St Bart’s, many offered medical care and relief to the poor and when they were dissolved, this ended, just to give the king money he needed. Whilst the priory was dissolved, the hospital was reinstated in the final year of Henry VIII’s reign.

Just like the other monastic institutions at this time, the priory at St Bartholomew’s had been valued. It was valued at £653 and 15 shillings a year, the equivalent of just under £275,500 in today’s money.[6] This value had been given based on the small houses the priory owned in two other London parishes, and a few in the countryside away from London. The question was what would happen to the site after it was no longer a priory? It was purchased by Richard Rich, a man associated with the downfalls of both Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell. He paid £1064, 11 shillings and 3 pence (just under £450,000 today) and gave the now redundant canons and annuity of £6, 13 shillings and 4 pence each (around £2,000 today).

Exterior of St Bartholomew the Great Church (2014), Edwardx, Wikimedia Commons

Within a year of purchase, the nave was demolished and the rest used for housing, the cloister as stabling and the crypt as a wine cellar.[7] By the 1720s, the building was instead being used as a printer’s shop. It was in this shop that Benjamin Franklin, briefly worked as a typesetter.[8] After then, it fell into disrepair and was little used until it was restored in the late Victorian era. During this restoration, prior Rahere even had a shoe stolen!

There are so many other tales that could be said of the church, for it has seen so much of London’s history. However, I will end with my two favourite stories that I came across whilst researching about its history. The first one is about a bust of Edward Cooke, a seventeenth century philosopher. It was once known to weep during wet weather. It was noted that physical tears would stream down his face. A plaque was placed underneath the bust to tell of this fantastic tale.[9] In reality, this was just condensation that stuck to the bust and it hasn’t wept since the invention of central heating.[10]

Surviving doorway and later Tudor gate of St Bartholomew the Great Priory (2014), Edwardx, Wikimedia Commons

Finally back to the gate that was mentioned earlier. Remnants of the lower section date back to the thirteenth century, but the top part dates back to 1595, when this was converted into a house.[11] How has it managed to survive so well when much of the original priory has been destroyed or altered? At some point, it had been covered up by brickwork, meaning its older façade had been forgotten. That was until World War One, when a bomb landing nearby blew off the brick and revealed the older (and I think much prettier) façade.[12] Luckily the site had also escaped the Great Fire of London and the Blitz of World War Two. Thank goodness it has because it would have been a shame to entirely lose all the fascinating history of the church and its original priory.


[1] Look Up London, ‘7 bits of Sneaky History in St Bartholomew the Great’, 21 September 2020, https://lookup.london/st-bartholomew-the-great-history/;

[2] Peter Ackroyd, London: The Biography (London: Vintage, 2001), pp. 39-40

[3] Lost London Churches Project, ‘St Bartholomew the Great’, https://lostlcp.com/st-bartholomew-the-great-2/

[4] Walter Thornbury, ‘The churches of Bartholomew-the-Great and Bartholomew-the-Less’, in Old and New London: Volume 2 (London, 1878), pp. 351-359. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/old-new-london/vol2/pp351-359

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Look Up London, ‘7 bits of Sneaky History in St Bartholomew the Great’

[8] Ibid, Lost London Churches Project, ‘St Bartholomew the Great’

[9] Baldwin Haney, ‘The Weeping Monument of Edward Cooke’, London Details, 14 November 2012, https://baldwinhamey.wordpress.com/2012/11/14/edward-cooke/

[10] Look Up London, ‘7 bits of Sneaky History in St Bartholomew the Great’

[11] Ibid

[12] Ibid

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

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

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

The Courtyard of Berkeley Castle, Author’s Own Image

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

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

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

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

Me and my sister at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath

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

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

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

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

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

Glastonbury and its Connections to the Hymn Jerusalem

First of all, Happy Easter, whether you celebrate Easter as a Christian festival like I do, or not. In honour of the season, I thought I would share the Christian legend connected to the hymn, Jerusalem. The hymn has become an unofficial national anthem of England and is seen as something very patriotic, having been sung at all sorts of events, including the London Olympics, royal weddings and the last night of the proms. It is perhaps also well known for being the anthem of the Women’s Institute, which adopted it in 1924.[1] Since then, the hymn has come to represent an idyllic England. It is within this patriotic context that the song, composed by Charles Hubert Parry, has been understood for over a hundred years since it was first debuted in March 1916, but have you ever stopped to think about what the words really mean?

The lyrics mainly come from Milton, an epic poem William Blake wrote in the early 1800s, especially the famous line “dark satanic mills”. Since the patriotic connotations became associated with the hymn, the dark satanic mills in particular has come to represent Britain’s Industrial Revolution, but in Blake’s format, it was really intended to be an allegory for Satan himself, who was a miller who ground souls.[2] Another famous line, “did those feet in ancient times”, is steeped in centuries old legend that Joseph of Arimathea, the man who gave his tomb up to hold the body of Jesus following the crucifixion, came to England and established the country’s oldest church at Glastonbury in Somerset.

View of the Abbot’s Kitchen Glastonbury, Somersetshire dated March 16 1761 from the King’s Topographical Collection at the British Library

During the medieval period, Glastonbury was a huge place of pilgrimage because of its abbey. The abbey not only had connections to Joseph of Arimathea, but in 1184, a fire hit. It was during restoration work following the fire that the graves of the legendary King Arthur and Queen Guinivere were found. Both of these links brought fame and drew on beliefs at the time. Whilst the theme of Arthurian legends and the belief of Glastonbury as being Avalon, where Arthur was buried, are interesting in their own right, there isn’t time to delve into those in this blog post, so I’ll just stick the Joseph connection. However, if you are interested in that, do feel free to research that for yourself.

According to legend, Joseph came either with a younger Jesus, or following his death and brought the Holy Grail with him, to set up a church, which later developed into what became the abbey.[3] If we follow the legend of the Holy Grail, Joseph buried the Grail at what is now known as Chalice Well. It is there that the water runs red, the colour of blood, linked with the blood of Christ. Whilst this colour is also created by the iron that runs through the water, it is clear to see why people in the past would have believed this.

Chalice Well, Glastonbury (2005), John Vigar, Wikimedia Commons

The other legend connected to Joseph is the Glastonbury Thorn Tree. It is said that on a hill just outside of the town called Wearyall Hill, Joseph’s staff turned into a thorn tree, which is a variety found in the Holy Lands.[4] What makes this tree miraculous is that it flowers twice a year: at Easter and Christmas, even though Easter changes its date ever year. Before Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries from 1536, there were known to have been three trees on Wearyall, but by the 1600s, there was only one left. When the English Civil Wars were raging, the Parliamentarian forces, who were mainly Puritans that followed strict doctrines, destroyed the Glastonbury Thorn. Luckily, local residents had taken cuttings and a replacements descended from the original were later planted, but many have either died or tragically been vandalised. There are many around the town, including one in the abbey grounds, but there is also one main one at Glastonbury’s parish church. Most monarchs since the seventeenth century, other than when the Parliamentarians ruled following the Civil War, have been gifted a cutting at Christmas to use for decoration, a tradition started when Anne of Demark, wife of James I, was gifted one.[5]

These legends originate from the fact that there was a large Jewish community in the West of England in the time following on from the crucifixion, many believed to have been tin miners in the region.[6] Whilst this may be the case, is there any truth to these tales? They cannot be totally proved or disproved with the passing of time and as there is faith behind them, I believe it is only fair to leave it up to individuals to make up their mind on this. However, an article written in 2018 about archaeological explorations made by the University of Reading at Glastonbury Abbey holds an interesting take on this. The origins of the Abbey were originally thought to date back to around 700 AD. In their excavations, they found the remnants of a pre-Saxon timber building on the outskirts of the later abbey complex. Within this they found fragments of later Roman pottery, showing links with the Mediterranean, and much earlier burials than expected.[7] These excavations have now dated the origins of the site to around 450 AD, nearly 300 years earlier than previously thought.[8]

A Holy Thorn beneath up the tower of St John the Baptist parish church (2009), geography.org.uk via Wikimedia Commons

Whilst this may not prove the Joseph of Arimathea legends, it does show that perhaps there was a much more ancient place of Christian worship than was previously thought. It showed that William of Malmesbury, an historian writing in the 1100s, was right when he noted an early church on the site at Glastonbury, which he said was the oldest he had ever witnessed himself.[9] Whatever the truth of the matter, there is no denying that Glastonbury does hold some sense of spirituality and mysticism to it, something which I can promise you can still feel today if you visit. As the hymn Jerusalem says, ‘did those feet in ancient times’, i.e. the feet of Joseph, come to England, bring Christ or Christianity with him, who knows, but hopefully this post has made you think a bit differently about that famous song.


[1] Whittaker, Jason, ‘Almost Everything You Knew about the Hymn Jerusalem is Wrong’, Prospect, 26 December 2019, https://www.prospectmagazine.co.uk/arts-and-books/almost-everything-you-know-about-the-hymn-jerusalem-is-wrong

[2] Ibid

[3]  ‘Myths and Legends’, Glastonbury Abbey, https://www.glastonburyabbey.com/myths-and-legends.php

[4] Ibid; Johnson, Ben, ‘Glastonbury, Somerset’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryMagazine/DestinationsUK/Glastonbury/#:~:text=The%20legend%20of%20the%20Holy,the%20site%20of%20Glastonbury%20Cathedral.

[5] ‘Myths and Legends’, Glastonbury Abbey, https://www.glastonburyabbey.com/myths-and-legends.php

[6] Ross, David, ‘Legends of Glastonbury- Joseph of Arimathea’, Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/Myths/Glastonbury.htm

[7] Gilchrist, Roberta, ‘Glastonbury: Archaeology is Revealing New Truths about the Origins of British Christianity’, The Conversation, 23 March 2018, https://theconversation.com/glastonbury-archaeology-is-revealing-new-truths-about-the-origins-of-british-christianity-93805

[8] Ibid

[9] Ibid

A Historical Themed Weekend in Ludlow, Shropshire

As some of you will already know, I’m currently writing a biography on Anthony Woodville, a fifteenth century knight and man of letters, who was the brother of Queen Elizabeth Woodville, and brother-in-law of Edward IV. It should be out sometime next year, when it’s finished that is! This was the inspiration for a weekend away in Ludlow, Shropshire, mainly to go back to the castle there and take photographs of it for the book. Anthony was the head of the household of Edward, Prince of Wales, his nephew, who lived there for ten years until 1483. I have visited before, back in 2018, but it was great to be back in much better weather than before, but also to think about it in terms of what Anthony’s experience there would have been like. I don’t think we could have timed it better as we had the warmest weekend in March since the 1920s! Anyway, as I did a lot of history related things and enjoyed every minute of it, I thought I’d share what we did whilst there.

View of Ludlow Castle from the apartment, Author’s own image

We stayed on the grounds of Ludlow Castle inside what is known as Castle House. This part of the castle is along the entrance, and includes what is now the café, gallery shop, and the apartments where I stayed with my parents and sister. There are three apartments you can stay in, all suitably named after people connected with the castle. Our apartment, named Arthur and Catherine after Prince Arthur and Catherine of Aragon, who honeymooned at the castle after their wedding, had beautiful views looking towards the rest of the castle and out across the Shropshire countryside. I’m not going to deny that the accommodation was expensive, but this visit was a once in a lifetime chance to stay at a place I’m writing and researching about. I’m really glad I did as the apartment was lovely and very spacious. The views and peacefulness, whilst being right in the centre of town and only a walk away from everything, was fantastic as well. If you would like to stay in Ludlow yourself, there are lots of other great options around the town and last time, we did stay in a pub just 15 minutes away, which was also a good place to stay.

The first place we visited was Stokesay Castle, which is owned by English Heritage. I had also previously visited here, but was keen to go back as even though it is a small site, it has a lovely and somewhat homely atmosphere. Stokesay was built at the end of the thirteenth century by Laurence of Ludlow, a local wealthy merchant, said to have been one of the wealthiest men at the time. It’s survival is wonderful and really makes you feel what medieval life would have been like. It also underwent renovations during the Stuart era, so look out for the seventeenth century panelling in the Solar, which would have been the private area of the castle. As someone who loves both the medieval and Stuart periods, I must admit I was a little in my element. Also remember the lovely Stuart era gatehouse, which someone kindly told me that until English Heritage took over the site fully, the lady who granted them part ownership still lived in this part until her death in 1992. This whole place is really so photogenic though, so do make sure you’ve got your camera!

Stokesay Castle Gatehouse, Author’s own image

We also went inside the church next door. It was very small as it once served as the chapel for Stokesay Castle. Despite its size but just wonderfully formed. Despite enduring the English Civil War, the church was not wrecked by the Puritans and is an excellent example of how seventeenth century churches would look, complete with original box pews. Sorry to sound a bit nerdy, but I must admit I got excited by this as it’s the first time I remember ever seeing proper box pews. As well as the pews, there are also wall paintings of the ten commandments, another rarity in English churches. Another thing to keep an eye out for is some of the interesting gravestones and memorials dotted around the churchyard. Make sure you have a read of the ones with coats of arms that are on the side of the church, there’s a wonderful story about an incredibly long marriage for the time.

Of course we also visited Ludlow Castle itself. As we stayed in the apartments, we got free entry, so that was a plus sign. It also meant we didn’t have the worry of how long we would be there for as we only had to walk around the corner back to our apartment. The castle itself dates back to Norman period, when it was founded by the de Lacy family. Due to the age of the site, it’s impossible to go through the entire history of the castle, but the reason I have a particular interest in it was that it was a Yorkist stronghold during the Wars of the Roses. Richard, Duke of York, the father of Edward IV and Richard III, had inherited the castle from his Mortimer family ancestors. He established it as the administrative base for his lands in the region. In 1459, Richard was in the castle, with his forces preparing for the Battle of Ludford Bridge, named after one of the bridges into Ludlow. However, the Yorkists retreated before any serious action, as they feared being outnumbered. When his eldest son, Edward, became King Edward IV, the castle reverted into Royal hands. As mentioned previously, Edward chose the castle as the place to bring up his heir, Prince Edward, under the guidance of his uncle, Anthony Woodville, and others. The castle is perhaps best known as the deathplace of Prince Arthur, the eldest brother of Henry VIII.

Ludlow Castle as viewed from Dinham Bridge, Author’s own image

Ludlow Castle is now a ruin as it was neglected after the Council of the Marches, the administrative body set up to rule Welsh borders, was removed in 1641, around two hundred years after its creation. However, I must admit they are picturesque ruins! If possible, I would recommend talking the footpath that goes round the side of the castle and down to the river. This gives lovely views and also goes down to Dinham Bridge, another ancient bridge. If you walk down to either this bridge or Ludford Bridge, you will walk past lots of historic buildings. I’ve never seen so many blue plaques, which detail the history behind them. Mostly they are a mix of medieval or Tudor, with lots of Georgian ones mixed in. Keep an eye out for the lovely looking Dinham House, which once housed Lucien Bonaparte, brother of Napoleon, who was kept under house arrest there.

A short walk away from the castle is the parish church of St Lawrence. This again is a real treat and is such a beautiful place. A church is said to have stood on this site since Saxton times, but most of what you see is a mixture of Norman and Medieval. It is a very impressive church and is famous for the stained glass windows of Richard Duke of York, Edward IV, Prince Edward and Prince Arthur. Prince Arthur’s heart was also buried here after his death, with his body being buried at Worcester Cathedral, just over 30 miles away. Volunteer guides are dotted around to answer any questions you may have, so please make use of their wonderful knowledge.

Some of the stained glass windows at St Laurence’s Church in Ludlow, Author’s own image

Ludlow is also full of lots of lovely places to eat, including pubs, cafes and restaurants. There are definitely so many options to choose from, whatever your tastes are. We ate at a place aptly called Aragon’s, which is close to the marketplace. They serve the most wonderful cooked breakfasts there, but we also enjoyed lunch there too. Some in the party commented on how the sausages served were some of the best they’d ever tasted, so that definitely comes highly recommended! The staff were very friendly too, which was an added bonus. Other places to look out for are Vaughan’s, a sandwich bar that also serves salads and jacket potatoes. Many people have commented on their hot pork sandwiches being the best ever, so again give that a go. We wanted to visit, but didn’t quite have the chance this time, but definitely on the list for next time.

As we visited the weekend of Mother’s Day, I had booked a Sunday Carvery at the Fisherman’s Arms in Docklow, a 20 minute drive away from Ludlow. It is a bit of a fisherman’s retreat as there are ponds and woodland walks. There are also places to stay there, as well as a café too. The country pub/restaurant was where we went. I had heard good reviews about the place, but as a visitor, didn’t really know what to expect. All I can say was that we definitely weren’t disappointed. It was by far the biggest carvery portions I think any of us had ever had. The food quality was excellent and so were the staff. We will definitely be going back too, so definitely make this a place to visit if you can.

A market is held on the market place nearly every day, so be sure not to miss that! Last time we visited, they were holding an antique market, which was good quality and had very interesting items. This time it was the general market, which had stallholders selling food, jewellery, antiques, crafted items and all sorts of things. I came away with some lovely jewellery and photographic prints of the places we’d visited. Another shop I also brought from, not far from Aragon’s café, was Nina and Co, a quirky little antique shop. I saw some lovely sparkly brooches in the window that would look lovely for putting on clothing and bonnets for our Regency dressing up at the Jane Austen Festival in Bath, where we will be going back for a second time later this year. Thank you to them for also giving us a few free ones, which were missing a stone, but still useable for that. Again all of these were such lovely experiences.

Nina’s shop where I got the brooches from

All in all, it was probably one of the best trips I’ve been on. The peacefulness was just what was needed after what have been an awful two years. If you ever get the chance to go yourself, I promise you that you will love it. It feels like stepping back into a bygone era. What makes it all the more enjoyable is just how lovely the people of the area are. The memories I’ve made will certainly stay with me forever.

For more about the places mentioned in this post, please visit the following websites:

Ludlow town, https://www.ludlow.org.uk/index.html

Ludlow Castle, https://www.ludlowcastle.com/

St Laurence’s Church, https://stlaurences.org.uk/history-timeline/

Stokesay Castle, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/stokesay-castle/

Aragon’s Restaurant, https://www.facebook.com/AragonsLudlow5/

Vaughan’s Sandwich Bar, https://www.facebook.com/Ludlow14KingStreet/

Fisherman’s Arms in Docklow: https://www.thefishermansarms.uk/

Nina and Co: https://www.instagram.com/nina.and.co.ludlow/?hl=en

Bibliography:

Griffiths, Ralph, ‘Wales and the Marches in the Fifteenth Century’, in Chrimes, Stanley; Ross, Charles; Griffiths, Ralph (eds), Fifteenth Century England, 1399–1509: Studies in Politics and Society (Bristol: Sutton Publishing, 1972)

Shropshire Churches Tourism Group, ‘Stokesay, St John the Baptist’, https://www.discovershropshirechurches.co.uk/south-west-shropshire/stokesay/

The History of Christmas Cake

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.

Samuel Collings, Christmas in the Country (1791), Private Collection/Bridgeman Images

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.[1] 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.[2] 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.[3] This porridge was added to over time to include other fruits and honey, so much so it resembled something closer to a Christmas pudding.[4] 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.[5] Richer families also began to add lots of decorations made from sugar and marzipan to the cake to show they could afford it.[6]

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.[7] 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.[8] This tradition had largely disappeared by the Georgian times, but Twelfth Night cake was still eaten.[9]

George Cruickshank, Frontispiece to a set of Twelfth-night characters, showing a Cossack and Napoleon in front of a Twelfth Night Cake (c. 1813), © The Trustees of the British Museum

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.[10] 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.[11] Thus the Christmas cake would finally be cemented to Christmas.


[1] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[2] Ibid

[3] Great British Bake Off, History of the Christmas Cake, https://thegreatbritishbakeoff.co.uk/history-christmas-cake/

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid

[6] Ibid

[7] Leach, H. M. and Inglis, R., ‘The Archaeology of Christmas Cakes’, Food and Foodways, 11.2-3 (2003), p. 146; ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[8] Johnson, B., ‘A Georgian Christmas’, Historic UK, https://www.historic-uk.com/CultureUK/A-Georgian-Christmas/

[9] Ibid.

[10] ‘Christmas Cake’, https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/christmascake.shtml

[11] Jane Austen Centre, ‘A History of Twelfth Night Cake’, https://janeausten.co.uk/blogs/desserts/twelfth-night-cake

Robbery of Edward I’s Treasures from Westminster Abbey

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.[1] 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.

Chamber of the Pyx, Westminster Abbey, London (2012), Wikimedia Commons

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.[2] 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.[3] He said he knew where he was going because he had done a smaller scale robbery before, taking silver dishes and drinking vessels.[4] 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.[5]

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.[6] 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.[8]

Contemporary image of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd wearing his crown during a ceremony of him paying tribute to Henry III (1267), Wikimedia Commons

Amazingly, the crime wasn’t discovered until early June as on the 6th, Edward I ordered an investigation into the robbery.[9] 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.[10] 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.

Painting in Westminster Abbey thought to be Edward I (2019), Wikimedia Commons

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.[13] 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.


[1] Ross, D., ‘Westminster Abbey Chapter House and Pyx Chamber’, Britain Express, https://www.britainexpress.com/attractions.htm?attraction=4723; ‘Pyx Chamber’, Westminster Abbey,  https://www.westminster-abbey.org/about-the-abbey/history/pyx-chamber

[2] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur (Stroud: The History Press, 2016), p. 101.

[3] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[4] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[5] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[6] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[7] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, pp. 91-92.

[8] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, pp. 91-92.

[9] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[10] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101.

[11] Ashbee, J., ‘Robbery of the King’s Treasure at Westminster Abbey’, English Heritage, https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/chapter-house-and-pyx-chamber/history-treasure-at-westminster/

[12] Rouse, R. and Rushton, C., The Medieval Quest for Arthur, p. 101; Keegan, V., ‘Vic Keegan’s Lost London 139: The great royal jewels heist of 1303’, On London, 13 April 2020, https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-139-the-great-royal-jewel-heist-of-1303/

[13] Keegan, V., ‘Vic Keegan’s Lost London 139: The great royal jewels heist of 1303’, On London, 13 April 2020, https://www.onlondon.co.uk/vic-keegans-lost-london-139-the-great-royal-jewel-heist-of-1303/

Elizabeth Scales: Heiress, Wife and Lady-in-Waiting

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.[1] According to the post-mortem inquisitions, her birthdate is estimated at around 1436.[2] 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.

Image from page 304 of Wright, T., The Homes of other days: a history of domestic manners and sentiments in England from the earliest known period to modern times (1871). Credit: The British Library.

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.[3] This can be reasonably assumed as William Paston falsely reported Anthony’s death at the battle, where he refers to him as Lord Scales.[4] 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.[5] 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.[6] 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.[7] 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.

The Yorck Project (2002) 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei (DVD-ROM)/Wikimedia Commons

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.[8] 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.[9] 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.[10] 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.

Middleton Towers near King’s Lynn (Author’s Own Image)

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.[11] 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.[12] 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.


[1] http://www.luminarium.org/encyclopedia/scales/htm

[2] 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.

[3] Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 78.

[4] James Gardiner (ed), Paston Letters, no. 90, part 1.

[5] George Smith (ed) Coronation of Elizabeth Wydeville: Queen Consort of Edward IV on May 26th, 1465 cited in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 78.

[6] I. M. W. Harvey, Jack Cade’s Rebellion of 1450 cited in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 78.

[7] Pidgeon, L., ‘Antony Wydevile, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers: Family, Friends and Affinity, Part 2.’, The Ricardian, 16 (2006), pp. 16-17.

[8] Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 79.

[9] A. R. Myers, ‘The Household of Queen Margaret of Anjou, 1452-3’, The Bulletin of the Rylands Library, 40 (1957-58) cited in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 79.

[10] Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 80.

[11] Anthony’s Will, appendix in Higginbotham, S., The Woodvilles, p. 181.

[12] Pidgeon, L., ‘Antony Wydevile, Lord Scales and Earl Rivers: Family, Friends and Affinity, Part 2.’, The Ricardian, 16 (2006), p. 3.