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.
Whilst as a rule I don’t usually share about history themed news pieces, I have made an exception, just this once. A few days ago, it was announced that the discovery of a ship, known as the Gloucester, which sank in 1682, with James, Duke of York (the future James II) on board, was found off the coast of Great Yarmouth in Norfolk. You may ask why this is significant and why I’m particularly excited to share this news with you.
Great Yarmouth is where I have holidayed regularly for many years now. For this reason, it holds a special place in my heart. It’s a traditional British seaside town, full of fun and amusement arcades. The pirate golf there is a must visit and is actually education too! Best of all is the famous reputation it has for it’s fish and chips. I have to agree that they taste like know where else.
However, the town does struggle with poverty due to its reliance on seasonal tourism. Whilst I must admit this is an issue that does need addressing, it is a place full of history if you know where to look. It was once a thriving fishing town and port. During my own research, I have seen these aspects referenced many times. One particular part of its history has become well known: the many old passageways that the inhabitants of the town used to live and do business from, which are known as The Rows. However, I must acknowledge that the town’s history and heritage is not always celebrated as much as it should. There are pockets of it, if you are interested and they certainly do have a very good maritime festival along the quayside.
From this, you may be wondering why I find it so exciting that a 340 odd year old shipwreck is such a welcome thing to the town. The Gloucester wreck has been described as an important a find as the Mary Rose, the flagship of Henry VIII’s fleet that was raised from the seabed off Portsmouth in 1982. The Mary Rose was a time capsule thanks to the many artefacts onboard and it seems the Gloucester is no different. There are even wine bottles with their contents still inside! The ship’s bell was still intact too, helping to identify the wreck.
If like me, you want to know all that there is to know about this amazing discovery, click here to learn more about the significance and some of the findings. An exhibition of the discovery is due to be held at Norwich Castle museum from Spring 2023 and I for one will definitely be attending and if you can, I hope you will too. I also hope that this will be just one of the things that Great Yarmouth needs.
I will also be writing a post on the events around the sinking of the Gloucester in a few week’s time, so please do look out for that.
Like many avid Bridgerton fans, I was captivated with the room chosen for Queen Charlotte’s throne room where the debutantes were presented. It sparkles and oozes luxury with gold and large paintings everywhere. It has also been featured in many other period dramas, The Crown, and the 2005 adaptation of Pride and Prejudice. So where exactly is it? The room is actually the Double Cube Room at Wilton House in Wiltshire. Wilton is a spectacular house and has been dubbed one of the most, if not the most, beautiful country houses in England. No wonder it has featured in many a period drama and specifically been Buckingham Palace on more than one occasion.
Wilton House itself has been a private house since Henry VIII seized a previous religious site on the estate from nuns during the Reformation. The abbey and its vast 46,000 acre estate was given to William Herbert, who would go on to become the 1st earl of Pembroke and Henry VIII’s brother-in-law when he married Anne, the sister of Henry’s last wife, Catherine Parr. Following this change of ownership, an original Tudor mansion was built, but major alterations to the southern wing during the mid-seventeen century was what the house would go on to be famous for.
Charles I was said to have spent most of his time in the summer at Wilton, so an appropriate design fitting a king was needed. The south wing was to be a set of state rooms similar to those found in the courts of royal palaces. These state rooms were meant to be a mixture of public rooms where the monarch could be meet with his court, along with banquets, music and dancing. There were also a few more private rooms which were only entered by invite only.
By the time of the alterations, the 4th earl was in charge, deciding to employ Inigo Jones and his pupil, John Webb, to design a classical style exterior with an flamboyant exterior, similar to Jones’ other works at Banqueting House and the Queen’s House at Greenwich. Who best to design a space meant to hold a mini court? Jones had been a protégé of the Herbert family, so that was also a big factor in choosing him as the designer. He as also an innovator as he was responsible for bringing in the Palladian style, which took influence from the classical styles of architecture found in Greece and Rome. Whilst he was an innovator, the style would sadly not catch on until the Georgian period a hundred years later.
A fire in 1647 caused serious issues to the building project as it meant a new design, the one we now see, had to be built. Jones was an elderly man by then and so Webb is thought to have taken over more of the duties, whilst Jones was still involved. What was finally completed was truly spectacular. The Double Cube Room, the focus of this post, is perhaps the most recognisable. It was one of the public state rooms, along with its smaller twin Single Cube Room, which was used as a sort of entrance space for the Double Cube Room. Both of the Cube Rooms were so called because Jones had designed them to be a symmetrical cube shape, although the Double Cube Room was originally known as the King’s Great Room as it was mainly used as a presence chamber.
The ceiling was highly decorated in the baroque style that was popular at the time, known for its flamboyance. Again the classical themes were shown in the choice of scenes portrayed on the ceiling as they tell the story of Perseus, the Ancient Greek hero. As if the splendour of the room wasn’t enough with its ostentatious decoration and expensive furniture made by William Kent and Thomas Chippendale everywhere, there are also the many paintings by Anthony van Dyck throughout the room. The largest of which is a portrait of the Herbert family. As it was 17 feet wide, the whole room had to be designed around it. With so many van Dyck paintings in one room, it has often been called one of the best collections of the artist’s work in one place.
Whilst the room has become recognisable to many a period drama fan, in the past it was monarchs who have greatly enjoyed the Double Cube Room, and the rest of Wilton House alike. The house has been visited by every monarch since Edward VI, who would have visited when the whole original Tudor house would have been in existence. It is no wonder that the grandeur of the house has made it as much of a character of the period drama genre as the human characters. Still, one thing is usually forgotten, well it’s certainly something that I didn’t know until researching for this post, that the state rooms, including the Double Cubed Room, served as an allied headquarters during World War Two and the D-Day Landings were planned from there.
No matter how much grandeur the Double Cubed Room has seen during its long lifetime, it still continues to captivate many visitors and viewers of period drama alike. One day I hope to visit Wilton House in person and get to imagine just what it might be like to be an actor in Bridgerton visiting Queen Charlotte’s throne room.
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.
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!
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 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.
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.
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:
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)
The English Civil War, fought between the Parliamentarians and Royalists, had started as a direct result of grievances about the way in which Charles I had ruled, largely without Parliament, as well as fears about the Catholics, most notably his wife, Henrietta Maria, he had become associated with. Whilst there are many more reasons for the Civil War, these are most commonly cited. When Charles I was executed at Whitehall in January 1649, England became a republic led by Oliver Cromwell. Still, Royalist hopes were kept alive in Charles, the Prince of Wales. Scotland had been horrified and proclaimed the young Charles as their king. On 1 January 1651, Charles was crowned as Charles II, with the promise that Scottish forces would follow him to England to help him reclaim his throne.
The forces led by Charles met with Parliamentary resistance at the battle of Worcester on 3 September 1651. It was not the Royalist victory that was hoped for as the Parliamentarians defeated them. Despite reports that Charles had been killed in the fighting, he had managed to escape and had gone into hiding. A huge £1,000 reward (around £103,000 in today’s money) for his capture was given. This reward would make his escape even harder. Whilst in hiding, the famous incident of Charles hiding in an oak tree at Boscobel House when Parliamentarian soldiers came looking for him happened.
This, as well as other close shaves, made him realise a better plan was needed to get him out of the country and away from danger. Lord Henry Wilmot, a close confidant of Charles, who had also been at Worcester, was also in hiding, but was staying at Bentley Hall, the home of John Lane. John Lane was a known Royalist sympathiser who had been a Royalist cavalry officer during the Civil War. He had led a band of Royalists who made the journey to Worcester but didn’t get there in time for the battle. The original plan was to use John’s sister, Jane, to help Wilmot escape, as she had been granted a pass to visit a pregnant cousin in Bristol so she could help with the birth. This pass covered her, a servant, and her cousin Henry Lascelles. As both Royalist and Catholic, the family needed these passes to be able to move further than 5 miles away from their home. This was the perfect excuse to help Charles, rather than Wilmot to escape to the safety of the continent.
Charles was to pretend to be Jane’s manservant, taking on the name Will Jackson. Only a few, including Jane, know the true identity of this man. Charles’ acting skills really had to be excellent to pull off this disguise as he was easily noticeable with his dark complexion and 6 ft 2 stature. Despite many dangers along the way, including a horse losing a shoe and a brush with Parliamentarian soldiers, the gang, which included John and Jane Lane, as well as their sister Withy and her husband, John Petre, arrived at the home of Ellen Norton, their pregnant cousin. Whilst there, a butler recognised the king but rather than think of taking the £1,000 reward, offered his silence and assistance. It was decided that Charles wouldn’t be able to take a boat from Bristol, as had originally been planned, but that it was best to try the south coast. To be able to do this, the party needed some sort of excuse to leave, which was now harder when Ellen had suffered a late-term miscarriage. Jane herself forged a letter saying her father was seriously ill and she had to return home.
The ruse worked and the group managed to get to Dorset, where Wilmot and Charles were safely reunited. Despite all the dangers they had faced in their journey to get to this point, Jane and her family had to return to Bentley Hall to make their plan appear real, leaving Charles to escape to France. It’s quite possible that Jane and Charles thought that would be the last they saw of each other. However, fate had other ideas. News of a woman matching Jane’s description had helped Charles in his escape began to spread. Her life was now in danger and it was her turn to take on a disguise. She walked all the way to Yarmouth in Norfolk and escaped to France, where she was warmly welcomed by Charles.
In return for saving his life, Charles offered Jane many personal gifts, including miniature portraits of himself, a lock of his hair, and a gold pocket watch, which had been a gift given to him by his father. The pair remained firm friends and even continued corresponding together when in 1652, Jane became a part of the household of Charles sister, Mary of Orange, in Holland. Following the Restoration of Charles as King in 1660, Jane was given a £1,000 a year pension for her services to the monarchy. The pair continued their friendly correspondence, even after Jane became Lady Fisher after her marriage to Sir Clement Fisher in December 1662, right up until Charles death in 1685.
The bravery of Jane in helping the young Charles is evident. What is most remarkable is the platonic nature of her relationship with Charles, an open and well known philanderer. He was less than subtle when it came to his womanising ways and yet, with Jane, it appears that it never went beyond a friend-like relationship. However, he did admire Jane and was always keen to tell everyone that it was her who had saved his life.
For a short series related to Mary Queen of Scots, I’m pleased to welcome Laura Adkins, creator of the For The Love of History Blog. I have been able to do a few guests posts for myself. She has worked at many historical sites and mainly posts about sites found in Essex, her home county. Do check her blog out if you can, I promise you it’s a very enjoyable read.
This post also follows on from a previous post on the Babington Plot, for which Mary was convicted of treason for exchanging letters. That can be found here. To find out more about Francis Walsingham, the spymaster who helped discover the plot and arrest Mary for Treason, please click here.
Standing on top of the mound which was once part of the castle of Fotheringhay one feels at peace. The surrounding views of the countryside and the River Nene are picturesque and calming. Unfortunately like many castles, Fotheringhay lost its purpose and was eventually dismantled with its stonework being repurposed elsewhere. Today all that remains is the mound and a piece of stonework. Not much for a place with such a history, one event in particular, the execution of an anointed queen – Mary, Queen of Scots.
Mary had been a prisoner in England ever since fleeing Scotland in April 1568. She thought she would get assistance from her cousin Elizabeth I, however, things turned out differently. Mary and Elizabeth were both descended from Henry VII (Elizabeth his granddaughter and Mary his great-granddaughter) and so Mary had a claim to the English throne and more dangerous to Elizabeth she was a Catholic. What led to Elizabeth finally agreeing to execute Mary was the evidence of her part in the Babington plot. A catholic plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth and place Mary on the English throne. Letters were intercepted between Mary and Anthony Babington discussing said plot by Elizabeth’s spy Francis Walsingham and it was these letters that sealed her fate. Mary was moved to Fotheringhay on 25th September 1586.
In its heyday Fotheringhay was the main home of the Dukes of York. It entered the hands of the Earl of Northampton in the 12th century and was incorporated into the Dukedom of York from 1385 which is where it stayed for many centuries. It was where the future King Richard III was born.
Fotheringhay is primarily a motte and bailey castle in design with a double moat. Like many castles, it had a number of changes and developments in its time with the biggest changes by Edmund of Langley (1st Duke of York). He had the castle rebuilt and enlarged. Its shape was that of a fetterlock, the symbol of the Yorks. Within its walls were accommodation suites, kitchens, breweries, bakehouses, drawbridge, chapel, stables and a number of other buildings one expects in the function of a castle estate. Sadly none now remain. The great hall, where the trial and execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, was held is thought to be located to the south-east of the mound.
In July 1476 the Castle was host to one of the biggest events in its history – the reburial of Richard, Duke of York and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland. They were both killed in the battle of Wakefield with Richard’s head being placed on a pike at Micklegate, York. He was initially buried in Pontefract. Around 1,500 guests would attend the service including the king and royal family, nobles and bishops. Fotheringhay would have never seen anything like it (Hicks, M 2001). It is said that ‘King Edward IV, dressed in a dark blue hooded mourning habit trimmed with fur. The King ‘very humbly did his obeisance to the said body and laid his hand on the body and kissed it, weeping’. (Wakefield historical society)
Nearby the Castle and still in existence today is the New Inn, a beautiful 15th-century farmhouse. This would have been where some of the guests stayed for the reburial. It is even believed that Mary’s executioner may have been there the night before her death.
Maybe the Castle’s life went with Mary on that fateful day of 8th February 1587, Mary had only been informed the previous day that she was to be executed the following morning. ‘this was to be her greatest performance, her greatest triumph; she had considered every detail’(Guy, J 2004, p2). Her execution was well documented from her words, actions and what she wore.
About nine a.m., came that sweet saint and martyr, led like a lamb to the butchery, attired in a gown of black satin embroidered with a French kind of embroidery of black velvet; her hair seemly trussed up with a veil of white lawn, which covered her head and all her other apparel down to the foot. (Catholic report of queen mary’s execution by an anonymous “Catholic witness” present at the execution.)
[She asked her servants to] rejoice and pray for her…’
‘… I die a true woman to my religion and like a true scot woman and true french women’ – to Sir Amias Paulet, her steward.
The scaffold was 2 foot high by 12-foot square covered in black cotton sheets. The story goes that It was not one blow of the axe but two in addition to the executioner having to use his dagger to cut through the remaining cartilage which finally removed her head from her body. Upon lifting her head up to show the witnesses her lips were still moving in prayer and her head fell from the executioner’s grasp, revealing a head of grey hair and leaving the auburn wig held aloft.
Although she had lost everything in her life she left behind a son who became King James I of England on the death of Elizabeth. A king who, if raised by his mother, would most likely have been catholic and brought about a different course of history.
Fotheringhay today may be a peaceful, picturesque location but a place where history was made and the walls may no longer be standing but the earth underneath remembers.
Dunn, J (2004) Elizabeth and Mary. Harper Perennial; London
Guy, J (2004) My heart is my own; London
Hicks, M (2001) Richard III. The History Press; Gloucester.
Licence, A (2015) Cecily Neville. Amberly; Gloucester
Wier, A (2009) Lancaster and York. Vintage Books; London
Eltham Palace lays South East of London and is just four miles away from Greenwich. It’s position made it an ideal location for a royal palace, as it was close enough to the capital, but still offered a retreat away from the city. The site was not always a royal palace. It was originally a manor house owned by various bishops until it was gifted to the future Edward II in 1305. Successive monarch spent large amounts of money to alter the palace to their own needs. One of the most considerable alterations was made by Edward IV in the 1470s.
Eltham was one of Edward IV’s favourite residences. With the palace’s proximity to nearby Greenwich Palace, Edward and his queen, Elizabeth Woodville, shared their time, together and separately, between the two sites. With the couple spending a lot of their time at the Eltham, upgrades were needed. An extensive building project began, including adding new royal apartments. However, the most significant building added was the Great Hall. Whilst a great hall had existed previously, it didn’t meet Edward’s standard for the rebuild and a new building was required. Before Edward’s time, great halls were places of communal activity throughout the day. However, their function had changed with the addition of separate rooms, reducing the great hall to a space mainly used for large functions and to show off wealth.
The Great Hall was designed by Edward’s chief mason and carpenter in a style influenced by the hall at Westminster, which is now one of the only buildings left of the former Palace of Westminster. It is 101 foot long and 36 foot wide, with a large oak roof and high stained glass windows to let in light. It would have originally been lavishly furnished, especially with tapestries. Motifs of Edward’s emblem, the rose en soleil, or rose with a sun, were placed on both sides of the entranceway into the hall. The emblem was itself a mixture of two Yorkist symbols, the white rose, and the sun in splendour, so there was no denying who’s space a guest was walking into.
After the rebuilding, Elizabeth gave birth to her second youngest child, Catherine, in Eltham in 1479, and a year later, Edward moved his substantial library there. This showed just how much the couple valued Eltham’s new buildings, but these would pale in comparison to the new Great Hall’s greatest ever event. At Christmas 1482, Edward held a massive feast for over 2,000 guests. Whilst Edward wouldn’t have known at the time, this ostentatious banquet was to be the last time he visited before his death in April 1483.
Sadly for the palace at Eltham, Edward was the last monarch to consider Eltham as a favourite residence. Henry VII only used it as a nursery for this children, meaning that when his son, Henry VIII became king, he no longer used it much, as his favourite palaces were Greenwich and Hampton Court, which also allowed easy access to London. By the time of the Stuart era, the palace was much neglected, so much so in fact that Charles I was the last ever monarch to visit. Things became even worse after the palace was sold to Nathaniel Rich in 1651. He began to demolish buildings and even stripped the Great Hall’s roof of lead!
It was in this sorry state the site stayed in for around 200 years before anyone took any notice. It had been converted into farm buildings, with the Great Hall being used as a barn. In a strange way, it was this use as a barn that had kept it still standing, although rather ruined. It’s ruined state was looked on romantically, until protests were made to improve the stability of the building. This was done, but with little love for the surviving buildings for the history they portrayed. This is easily seen when it was also regularly used as a tennis court by those who lived nearby.
It wasn’t until the 1930s, when the millionaire Courtauld family moved in and began restoration work, alongside building a brand new art deco house inspired by the existing architecture, that the building began to be cared for again properly. The stained glass currently in the Great Hall is sadly not original, but was replaced with new glass in the 1930s thanks to the Courtaulds.
Today there is no fear of a return to a state of abandonment for Eltham Palace, not just thanks to the Courtaulds and the threat of bombing during the Second World War. English Heritage, who now own the whole site, originally were given rights to the Great Hall in 1984, and at last it was acknowledged as one of the finest examples of a medieval hall still in existence, for which we also have to thank Edward IV’s design, but also the men who built it.
Pontefract Castle in Yorkshire has been a place of power ever since he was originally built during the Norman Period. It became a place of royal power after it was brought into royal hands in the 12th century, after the power struggles during the reign of Henry I. For me, the castle means a lot as the place that Anthony Woodville, my favourite historical figure, his nephew, Richard Grey, and his friend, Thomas Vaughn, were executed in 1483. The years of the English Civil War in the 1640s continued this tumultuous history when it was besieged 3 times. In fact, the consequences of the last siege in 1648, following the Parliamentarians gaining control of the castle ended in an interesting, even somewhat comical, way.
The Royalists were determined to again take possession of the castle. None was more enthusiastic than the Yorkshireman, Colonel John Morris. He was known for carrying on fighting at both the Battle of Nantwich and Middlewich, despite being on the losing side. However, following the fall of Royal forces at Liverpool, he briefly switched sides. It is thought that this was because of a soldiers’ desire to win, rather than any heartfelt gesture. As Edward Hyde, the Earl of Clarendon (also a very distant ancestor of mine), noted on Morris’ decision to change sides, this didn’t help him with the Parliamentarians either, for they “left him out in their compounding of their new army”. The lack of acceptance made him once again return to his Royalist roots and he found himself assisting in the third siege at Pontefract Castle.
The original plan was to scale the walls using ladders, but the men Morris commanded had got a little too drunk beforehand and they ended up being disturbed by the guards but weren’t captured. Following this attempt at entering the castle, there were orders to employ more men at garrison inside the castle. This meant more beds were needed for these extra men, so Morris and his men were able to successfully disguise themselves by carrying beds into the castle. It’s almost beyond belief, but this strategy worked, and the Royalists were able to take charge of the castle. The Parliamentarians were placed in the dungeons and many of their names were carved into the walls. In direct response, other Parliamentarians in the area were sent to ransack John Morris’ house in the West Riding of Yorkshire. They stole £1,000 (around £103,500 in today’s money) in goods, and £1,800 (just over £186,000 in today’s money) in cash.
The Royalists held Pontefract for around 9 months in total, even well after the Parliamentarians had officially won the war. It wasn’t until the execution of Charles I in January 1649 at Whitehall in London, that the garrison finally realised that they would have to surrender. Even so, just as before, Morris wasn’t willing to give in without having his final say. He made demands that he said had to be met before he would allow the garrison to surrender. He specifically asked for an armed convoy home and for all the men to be exempt from prosecution or being sued for their parts on the Royalist side. These terms proved too much, and it was finally agreed that only Morris and 5 others would be exempt, but this proved to be a trick so they would leave the castle. One man was shot when they left and Morris escaped, but went on the run. He was found 10 days later and sent to York to be condemned to death as a traitor, but again he briefly escaped. He was eventually executed on 23rd of August 1649.
The Parliamentarians, especially Oliver Cromwell, never forgot how stupid they were made to look when John Morris and his men had taken over the castle at Pontefract. Cromwell saw it as such a troublesome place than instead of the customary slighting, where a castle was partially damaged, he ordered and paid the townspeople of Pontefract to destroy it. To this day, the castle is a former shadow of itself. It’s very hard to imagine what the castle had once looked like prior to the destruction as there is so little left of it. Thankfully, there are some lovely images available to give a sense of what that might have been like. Whatever that may have been, you can’t help but commend John Morris for his tenacity and quick thinking when it came to infiltrating Pontefract Castle by using just beds.
If you would like to learn more about the history of Pontefract Castle, please do take a look at the following website: https://pontefractsandalcastles.org.uk/. It’s run by an amazing team of volunteers for both Pontefract and nearby Sandal Castle, both with wonderful Wars of the Roses connections. The team are lovely and the website is full of information on all aspects of history connected to both sites.
Jo Romero has been obsessed with history for as long as she can remember and gained her History degree at the University of Hull. Her articles have been published in online magazines The Historians and The C Word and she runs the blog Love British History.
Reading, King Street: September 1639. The town constables skidded to a stop outside The George hotel to shrieks of murder. Their eyes were met with a grisly scene. Moaning townsmen clutching their heads lay scattered across cobblestones, deep red blood oozing from their scalps and dripping down past their ears and onto their shoulders.
Reading in Berkshire was a small, prosperous town that had become famous for its Medieval abbey, founded by Henry I in 1121. Parliaments were held within its pale, cold walls and Edward IV chose it as the place to formally introduce his new bride, Elizabeth Woodville in 1464. Trades sprang up to cater for travellers who came to worship and do business with the abbey – the royalty, nobles and pilgrims. But since Henry VIII’s dissolution, Reading concentrated on its market days and clothing industry with clothiers and shoemakers working in the town.
Seventeenth-century Reading was the smell of bonfires, the barking of dogs and the furtive, eager glances of pick-pockets and cut-purses loitering in the busy market square. The malty scent of alehouses and taverns and the sharp, musty tang of leather workshops. The earthy, metallic sting of fresh meat wafted out from Butcher’s Row and the bells clanged out from church towers. Alehouses, taverns and inns were always in demand, tucked awkwardly into timber-framed streets, signs swinging above their doors with names like The Katherine Wheele, The Bear and The Sun.
Samuel Pepys visited Reading in the summer of 1668 and wrote that the town “is a very great one, I think bigger than Salsbury: a river runs through it, in seven branches, and unite in one, in one part of the town, and runs into the Thames half-a-mile off one odd sign of the Broad Face.”(1) The Broad Face was another pub on the High Street almost opposite The George.
All important town business – debts, rents and petty crime – was written down in the Corporation Diary. They were mostly concerned with mundane minutes of council meetings, the execution of wills and enforcing trade regulations, but on 21st September 1639, we can almost detect the breathless excitement of the minute-taker, as they recorded the events at the inn:
“Then complaynt was made that murder was likely to be commytted in The George backside, for there was fyghting; whereupon the Constables were presently called, and at their comynge to keep the peace they found a number of people, amongest whiche some had their heades broken and cutt with swordes and staves, and some of the fighters and quarrellers gone.” They add, with a trace of both bewilderment and derision: “And beinge brought before the Maiour, upon examynacion, it apeared the quarrell arose about a dogge.” (2)
At first glance, it seems far too serious a fight to have been over a dog. Could it have been that some drunken haggling over the sale of a dog spiralled out of control? Or perhaps the dog had been stolen and was recognised by the original owner leading to a confrontation?
A detail in the town’s diary for January 1641 might give us a clue. It records the case of a butcher named Edward Vindge who “caused a tumult in The George gate-house, by settinge and causinge dog-fightinge and other brabbles.” He also struck a man called Humfrey Dewell, and “abused him in wordes”.(3) Edward Vindge isn’t mentioned as being involved in the 1639 attack, but the fact that we have evidence of dog fighting in Reading, in this very spot, suggests that it may have been common and certainly had the potential to disturb the peace. Perhaps one of the two men implicated in 1639 (William Keate and a certain man named Cumber of Tilehurst) were training dogs to fight, or it was a bet placed on a disputed winner?
While many people think of Stuart life as a cosy huddle of timber-framed houses and cobbled streets there was, to us looking back today, a darker side, particularly in their choice of entertainment. Dog fights and bear baiting were famously enjoyed by Elizabeth I and continued into the reigns of the Stuarts. In 1666 Samuel Pepys travelled to Southwark to watch a bull baiting, “and saw some good sport of the bull’s tossing of the dogs.”(4) A dog fight in 1629 in Greenwich was one of the events blamed for the onset of Queen Henrietta Maria’s early labour after they did “snatch at her and pull her by the gown.” (5)
Baiting a live bull with dogs before it was slaughtered by a butcher wasn’t just for entertainment – the Stuarts also believed that it made the meat more tender, perhaps explaining the temperament of butcher Edward Vindge’s dogs at The George in 1641. A writer who in 1660 spoke out to discourage these baiting sports proclaimed that although ‘the baiting of the bear, and cockfights, are no meet recreations,’ he drew attention to this practice, accepting that ‘the baiting of the bull has its use.’(6)
The Stuart townspeople of Reading might not have blinked an eye at a dog fight or a bull being baited outside the butcher’s shop, but the loud clatter of swords clashing at the local inn must have been a subject of local gossip.
The men who were injured – five men are recorded as having been at the scene, but it’s possible there were others – lived to tell the tale. Two men blamed for inflicting injuries fled the scene, but Thomas Soundey is recorded as suffering cuts to his head, and Morrice Nashe, for whom “blood was seene run about his eares.” The Constables called the surgeon, who confirmed the men were in “no danger of death.”(2)
For the town’s mayor, Richard Burren, it was business as usual. First mentioned in the diary in 1618 as a Constable of the town, he was a clothier by trade and sworn in as Mayor in October 1638. Unusual for Reading mayors, who tended to be re-elected more than once, he served just one year. This incident would have come during his last serving month. He would stay on in a different role as a town justice and overseer of St Laurence’s parish. He dutifully brought in the people involved, questioned the ones that hadn’t run away and concluded the cause.
It’s true that daily Stuart life was probably not as inherently violent as most TV dramas and films make it out to be, but this case shows that there were occasional hot-tempered outbursts involving weapons and risk to life. The exact details of the cause of the fight are missing from the records, and so we can only speculate as to the real trigger. This scrawled entry in the town’s diary does give us a glimpse into how crime was dealt with in Stuart towns and how important the clothing industry still was to Reading, with a wealthy clothier able to advance to various positions within town administration, including Mayor. Today, as shoppers grab coffee and chat with friends they would have no idea that on this spot blood was violently spilled on the cobblestones of The George on that late September day in 1639.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 16 June 1668.
The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 21 September 1639. Ed. JM Guilding. Vol 3. p464. 1892.
The Reading Records, The Diary of the Corporation, entry for 12 January 1641. Ed. JM Guilding, Vol 4. p37. 1892.
The Diary of Samuel Pepys, 14 August 1666.
Katie Whitaker, A Royal Passion: The Turbulent Marriage of Charles I and Henrietta Maria, 2010, Google Books.
The Harleian Miscellany, vol 7. The Opinion of Mr Perkins, and Mr Bolton, and Others Concerning The Sport of Cock-Fighting, 1660. Ed. by R Dutton, 1810. Accessed via Google Books.
After the Glorious Revolution of 1688 (where Protestant William and Mary replaced the Catholic James II as joint monarchs of England, Wales and Scotland) tensions rose within the nobility and people at large, depending on which monarch they supported. At this time large pockets of Scotland in particular were Catholic, meaning they had a natural leaning towards King James. They, alongside others supporting James, became known as Jacobites, so named because it was similar to the Latin for James. This period in history is fascinating to me, not just because I love the Stuarts, but a few years ago during researching our family history, my dad discovered that my mum’s family are descended from James II’s first wife, Anne Hyde. The Glorious Revolution is literally my ancestors having a family fall out.
The tensions finally began to come to a head in late 1715 when forces mustered in the name of James’ son, James Francis Edward Stuart, known as the ‘Old Pretender’. It wasn’t well supported as Louis XIV of France, a previous supporter of the Jacobite cause, had died in September. The Duke of Orleans, who became the Regent took a rather different approach, choosing to instead become friends with the Hanoverians, the Protestant line that had been invited to the English throne following the end of the remaining Protestant Stuarts. Despite this, the forces marched through Cumberland, Westmoreland and Lancashire, until they eventually surrendered in Preston. Amongst them was William Maxwell, the 5th Earl of Nithsdale. He and others were taken to London as prisoners and placed either in the Newgate Prison or the Tower of London. William was taken to the Tower, awaiting execution.
William would probably be forgotten to history if it wasn’t for his wife, Winifred, who’s family had been closely linked to the exiled Jacobite court. She was full of dedication, love and loyalty for her husband. Once news of his capture reached her at the family home in Terregles House, just outside Dumfries. Winifred bravely decided to take the month-long ride down to London through terrible winter weather, including deep snow, alone, other than for her maid. After taking lodgings in the city, she wrote a petition to King George I, asking for clemency, after there was no forthcoming help from other Jacobite supporters. When none of this worked, she even visited the King in person, some sources saying she clung to his robes with her begging. Still none of this worked, and Winifred knew she could only rely on herself and a few close friends to help William escape.
Planning to escape from the Tower of London was a dangerous thing to do and was fraught with danger. Many had attempted it, but few had successfully managed it. Winifred was willing to play the long game though, and purposefully built up trust with the guards so that she was allowed to visit William regularly. This was a good way to lay the ground for the escape attempt which was scheduled for the day before William’s execution.
Winifred, along with her maid and two friends, were granted a last visit to say goodbye to William when they offered the guards drinking money and began friendly conversation with the wives of the guards. Each of the women had the cloaks of their hoods up and were crying into handkerchiefs every time they left the cell, creating a confusing situation for the guards. It also gave Winifred the time to dress William up in spare women’s clothing that had been smuggled in under the clothing of her friends, and place make up on his face. The funny thing is that William hadn’t had time to shave, so the make up didn’t stick to his face well. However, he was able to leave his cell and get past the guards pretending to be another of the grieving entourage. This was only made possible because Winifred stayed in the cell, pretending to have a conversation with William, and later telling the guards to leave him to his prayers.
The alarm wasn’t raised until much later after the party had managed to leave the Tower without suspicion. The pair were never caught as William was smuggled out of the country using a carriage with the Venetian ambassador’s coat of arms on, whilst Winifred made the journey back to Scotland to organise family papers and how the estate would be run whilst they were in exile. By the time Winifred made the journey back to Scotland, she was pregnant and sadly after all her hard work, miscarried on the boat over to France to find her husband. They did reunite and moved to Rome, where the rest of the exiled Jacobite court was living. However, despite happily being reunited, their life was still filled with varying degrees of poverty. They were helped with money and things did improve when Winifred became governess to Henry Stuart, the younger brother of Charles Edward Stuart, also known as Bonnie Prince Charlie.
William and Winifred did continue to be in love, and it is lovely to know that love never wavered, despite imprisonment, rebellion, and poverty. The pair did have two children, William, and Anne, but it is thought there were further miscarriages. William Junior did return to the family home following his father’s death in 1744 and reconciled himself with the Hanoverian regime and continued to tell the tale of his parents’ escape from the Tower of London. This was especially important as his mother continued to live in exile until her own death in 1749.
This story of love is perhaps a rather bizarre one, but I must admit there is something endearing that Winifred was so instrumental in saving her husband’s live, despite the obvious risks she was taking. It’s certainly one I hadn’t heard of until recently and I hope it will continue to live on as one of the stranger parts of the Jacobite Rebellions and the history of the Tower of London. Thank you to Lauren Johnson’s talk on women and the Tower of London for bringing it to my attention. The story of the Maxwells certainly shows that whilst the Jacobite Rebellions is often told from the male perspective, just like Flora MacDonald, who helped Bonnie Prince Charlie escape following his rebellion, women played an important, if forgotten role during that time.
 Burke, S., ‘Women of Merit Connected with Criminal Trials: The Countess of Nithsdale’, The Rose, Shamrock, and the Thistle, 5.25 (1864), p. 50.
I first came across Margaret’s story during my volunteering at Bolsover Castle. I admired her determination to be what we would view as a modern woman, which during the seventeenth century, was an incredibly difficult thing to do. The saddest thing is that she was often nicknamed ‘Mad Madge’, when really, the exact opposite was true. Margaret was a highly intelligent woman who was interested in science, art, laboratories, and literature. She was a prolific writer of books and essays on these topics and much more, including a biography of her husband, William Cavendish, poetry, and plays which often reflected her life experience. Best of all, William actively encouraged these interests his wife, who was 30 years younger than himself, had. He often spoke out about the reasons her being criticised as being unladylike and socially inappropriate in her pursuits, as pure sexism. In Margaret he saw an intellectual equal, which it a very unique relationship for the times. I completely commend them for it. They received a huge amount of criticism for this, meaning they often spent long periods away from court, but that didn’t stop them from showing genuine love and acceptance of each other’s talents.
Margaret was born Margaret Lucas in 1623 to a respectable, royalist leaning family, in Colchester. We know little as to how she became interested in the usually male reserved topic of science and literature, but it is probable that she accessed these during her private tutoring at home. What is clear is that she had an innate understanding of these topics. It was this that probably attracted William Cavendish when they met at the exiled court of Henrietta Maria in 1645. By this time, Margaret was a lady-in-waiting to the exiled Queen of England and William’s first wife, Elizabeth, had died. This first marriage, although is deemed to have eventually become a love match, was more a typical match of convenience, despite it producing 8 children. In Margaret, William had found his equal in all things, other than age and status.
The couple’s early courtship was full of romance, despite the unhappiness that Henrietta Maria felt about the match. From these letters we can clearly see the emotions that William felt for Margaret. They often referenced the large age gap between them, hoping that it would not hinder their love.
These letters offer us an incite into what appears to have been a genuine love between William and Margaret. It would appear that William didn’t hide his faults at this time, but he certainly made it no secret that he had a true love for Margaret, despite the small differences between them. However, they also had a lot in common.
The exile they endured until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660 didn’t hinder their enthusiastic collecting of books and scientific instruments, amongst other things, a hobby they often shared together. The couple amassed a large collection of microscopes and telescopes during this period. Margaret even had her own ones to use personally, which was why she later went on to critique the use of them in the Royal Society. Many at the time used this to rubbish her opinion, believing that them as childlike. However, as she used such instruments herself, she knew very well that the instruments could offer imprecise readings, especially as the grinding of lenses was a common problem. These critiques of microscopes would later be reflected in the work of John Locke and Thomas Sydenham, but were largely brushed off. These were not the only dealings Margaret had with the Royal Society, she often attended their public experiments, much to the comment of others. Sadly, this meant that after Margaret, women were excluded from the Royal Society until 1945.
Science wasn’t the only interest Margaret had. She also published a lot of material, starting with Poems and Fancies in 1653. At the time, as William also was a writer, they believed it was truly her husband, using his wife’s name as a pen name. William always supported his wife, claiming it was always her own work. Margaret did the same but did credit William as a writing mentor. As Billing suggests, the pair actually relied on each other in print, in order to maintain a certain reputation in the public sphere: William as a supportive husband and loyal subject to the king, Margaret as a dutiful wife and writer in her own right. It was for this that Margaret so wished to be remembered. Instead, society wished to rubbish her as a woman whose opinion on usually male dominated topics wasn’t required.
The relationship she had with William’s children and household also proved to be a rocky affair, probably not helped by the fact her marriage proved childless. Margaret blamed Henry, William’s longest surviving son, for abandoning his father during the exile. This alongside her unusual approach to societal norms caused a lot of tension within the family. In October 1670, not long before the death of both William and Margaret, these tensions came to a head. William wrote over more of his lands to Margaret in the hope of sustaining her during her widowhood, believing he would die first (although sadly that was not to be the case). This move angered William’s children, especially Henry, who believed she had had enough lands and was now stealing the inheritance. At the same time, William’s steward, Andrew Clayton, began to spread malicious rumours about Margaret, suggesting she was being unfaithful, and was purposefully stockpiling money and land to fund a second marriage after William’s death. However, Margaret herself died on the 15th of December 1673 at their main house of Welbeck Abbey, nearly 3 years before William himself. Probably still hurt by the turn of events in 1670, William instead used the money he had saved for Margaret to begin reworking Nottingham Castle.
Sadly, I don’t have enough time or words to go into depth about the many works published by Margaret, or the influence they had. If you would like to know more, I would recommend looking into The Blazing World, often referenced as a proto-science fiction novel, almost Jules Verne in character. For now though, I hope this post has managed to highlight the unfair attitude that Margaret Cavendish was treated with in her own time. During the Seventeenth Century, intelligence in a woman, whilst accepted to a small degree, was often seen as far too dangerous, and in the case of Margaret, was dismissed as childish. However, she did have similar views to men in her field, but she was always excluded. From this, it is no surprise that she advocated for better education for women and believed that women were being forced to obey men. That is why I am glad she married William, because without his support and understanding her as an equal to him, she wouldn’t have been allowed to follow her interests and talents. This can be seen in the epitaph he gave her tomb:
This Dutches was a wife wittie and learned lady, which her many books do well testifie. She was a most virtuous and a louieng and careful wife and was with her lord all the time of his banishment and miseries and when he came home never parted from him in his solitary retirements.
 Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy (London: Fabor and Faber Ltd, 2007), p. 219.
 Worsley, L., Cavalier: The Story of a Seventeenth-Century Playboy, p. 223.