Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Giveaway: Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil by Steven A. McKay

Steven A. McKay is giving away a signed copy of his brand new novella Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil.
The giveaway ends at midnight, December 6th. To see some information about the book click HERE.

Comment below his blog post HERE to enter the draw.

Ye Olde Christmas Traditions

by Steven A. McKay

Christmas isn't a new invention – it's been around for quite a while, in one form or another, as you're probably aware! Many of our favourite traditions are relatively recent additions though, such as the red-suited, white-bearded Santa with his elves, Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and Slade with their annoying yet brilliantly catchy song.

Of course, winter has always been a time for people to celebrate, as the old year gives way to the new and we look forward to what the future will bring us. Medieval folk shared many of our customs and they had some interesting ones of their own that didn't carry over to the present day.

With the passing of summer, things become bleak and drab so, at Christmas we decorate our houses to chase away the gloom. In the middle-ages they used evergreens like holly, ivy and mistletoe to brighten the place, a tradition stemming from the Roman festival of Saturnalia.

Icy holly by Liz West

Holly was thought to deter witches while men wore it to attract female admirers. Ivy also kept evil forces away but it was kept outside the home, while mistletoe – a plant venerated by the pagan Druids – was really frowned on by the Church but that didn't stop suitors kissing beneath it as they do to this day.

Of course, the main evergreen we use to see in Christmas nowadays is the fir tree, with its fairy lights and shiny baubles. Medieval people didn't have a tree in their house but a candlelit fir was displayed in London in the fifteenth century and, in general, it was seen as a Christian symbol, possibly to combat the pagan oak.

Many of those traditions originated in even earlier times, with the Vikings, who celebrated the winter solstice, their Yuletide, around the same time as we enjoy Christmas.

Our lovely, chocolatey Yule Log, for example, which is a cake nowadays but in pre-Christian days it  was an actual log or even a small tree, carved with protective runes and brought inside with great ceremony to be used as fuel for the household's fire during December.

That should last a while!

Santa Claus takes many elements from the Viking legends. They believed Odin, or Old Man Winter, a white-bearded old man in a hooded robe who flew around the world on an eight-legged horse, gave out gifts to the good and punishments to the bad. He would even be invited into people's homes with food and drink.

Yuletide was often referred to as “drinking yule”, which suggests drinking a lot of alcohol played a big part in the Viking celebrations, with feasting, games and songs. Which of course carried on into medieval times and nowadays...well, I'd imagine more booze is sold in December than any other time of the year. We certainly carried on that custom!

Getting back to medieval times, the people had various saints' days which were celebrated throughout the winter, with some of them even carrying over after Christmas Day (which is still the case for those of Catholic faith).

December the 26th was St Stephen's day and it saw sword dances and mumming plays which sound pleasant enough, but the animals were also bled (in those days, of course, bleeding was seen as healthy!) and in Wales, female servants would have their arms and legs beaten bloody by young men with holly branches! Ouch. Thankfully that tradition died out…

Odin/Father Winter

There was also Holy Innocents' Day on the 28th, and Epiphany on January 6th, but most interesting to me was St Lucy's Day, which was on the 13th of December and was a celebration of light. This is another feast day that has links to earlier, pagan times, with candles and processions. Of course, Lucifer, before he became synonymous with Satan, was known as the light-bringer, so it seems clear to me that St Lucy's Day was actually a celebration of Lucifer (bear in mind, the Latin word lucifer was once even applied to Jesus)...

Which brings me rather neatly to my own little take on medieval festivities.

Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil is my brand new novella and December 1323 is the backdrop for much superstition and fear. I greatly enjoyed writing and researching it and, who knows, maybe reading it each December will become as much a modern tradition as Scrooge and Noddy Holder/Mariah Carey!

I am doing a giveaway of the book this week. Click HERE to find out more, and leave a comment below to enter!

Steven A. McKay is the bestselling author of the Forest Lord series of books, Wolf's Head, The Wolf and the Raven, and Rise of the Wolf. All his books are available on Kindle, paperback and from Audible.

To buy Friar Tuck and the Christmas Devil click HERE

To find all of Steven's books on Amazon, click HERE 

Sign up HERE to Steven's email list and get a FREE short story, "The Escape", starring Little John in a tight spot...

Steven's WEBSITE

Jackson, Sophie - The Medieval Christmas (The History Press, 2005)

Monday, November 30, 2015

Istanbul, Scandal and Smallpox

by Catherine Curzon

Portrait of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu by Charles Jervas
By Charles Jervas
I cannot remember how or where I first heard of the remarkable Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, but she is a lady with whom I have long been fascinated. Her life was one of adventure and learning and seems, in so many ways, to personify all that is great about the 18th century. She embraced scandal, achieved great things and left behind a lasting legacy of literature, a true woman of her age.

Mary was born in 1689 as Lady Mary Pierrepont to Evelyn Pierrepont, 5th Earl of Kingston-upon-Hull, and his wife, Lady Mary Fielding. Christened at St. Paul's Church in Covent Garden, Mary's mother died when her daughter was just three years old and the little girl, along with a trio of siblings, was sent to live with her paternal grandmother. Upon his death six years later, they were once again living with their father, the Earl, who proved a dedicated and loving father. He took particular delight in the company of young Mary, who had matured into a girl of beauty and good humour, impressing all who knew her with her keen wit and intelligence. When her father took her along to the iconic Kit-Cat Club she took her first tentative steps into salon society and dazzled the assembled patrons. Soon she was a regular fixture of the club, proving more than a match for her more seasoned fellows.

Lady Mary, however, had more on her mind than society and she whiled away long and happy hours in the library at her Thoresby Hall home, dedicating herself to education and working tirelessly on her writing. In fact, by the time she reached adolescence Lady Mary had already penned numerous poems and completed her first novel, quite a feat for one who had regular engagements at the Kit-Cat Club! 

Portrait of Edward Wortley Montagu by John Vanderbank, 1730
Edward Wortley Montagu, John Vanderbank, 1730
Lord Pierrepont recognised that his daughter had value as a society bride and earmarked the wonderfully-named Viscount Massereene, Clotworthy Skeffington as a match. Mary favoured Whig politician, Edward Wortley Montagu, but her father would not hear of it when the alternative candidate was so illustrious and though Mary and Edward corresponded regularly and were exceptionally close, the marriage appeared a hopeless case. 

Mary, however, was not one to be told what to do and rather than marry Clotworthy, she eloped with Edward, marrying him on 23rd August 1712. As Edward's career blossomed  Mary found herself popular once more among the chattering classes, earning illustrious admirers including George I himself, his admiration placing her in the very heart of court. She also gained adoring admirers in the iconic Alexander Pope and his waspish rival, Baron Hervey, a favourite of the queen and sometime best friend, sometime sworn enemy of Frederick, Prince of Wales.

The friendship between Pope and Mary would later collapse in spectacular fashion when she wrote an arch and merciless of parody of one of his works though society gossips whispered that he had declared his love to the lady and she laughed in his face, breaking his heart. Whatever the reason, the writer's love turned to loathing and he turned his most poisonous pen on the woman he had adored, writing vicious and thinly-veiled attacks on Mary and her peers.

Still, Mary was in her element in these exciting, fast-moving surroundings yet when she wrote and published her highly satirical Court Eclogues, she found the society that had adored her suddenly anything but welcoming. Laid low with smallpox in 1715, Mary's fellow courtiers discovered a poem she had written that mocked the Princess of Wales and, unable to return to court and engage in some damage limitation, she was ostracised. When she was well enough to emerge from isolation she left England to accompany her husband to Turkey, where he was to assume the office of Ambassador at Constantinople. It was a rueful departure but a perfectly-timed one, and Mary found herself thrust into a new world, one where she would thrive.

The newly-arrived noblewoman did not shrink from these utterly alien new surroundings but instead plunged headlong into her adopted culture. She wrote prolific letters and journals in which she chronicled life in Istanbul, the people she met, their cultures and the traditions that had excited for centuries. Watching the Ottoman women she discoursed on how free they seemed compared to the restrictions placed on their western counterparts, lamenting on the limitations of dress, ambition and behaviour that so confined her gender. Her writings were published as Letters from Turkey, a hugely influential collection that remain an invaluable record of Turkish art, as well as an inspiration to cultural writers. 

Photograph of the Obelisk at Wentworth Castle
The Obelisk
In addition, Mary memorialised the women she knew in poetry and letters and was at pains not to impress her own ways on this new world, but to respectfully become a part of it. She sought neither publicity nor publication for the majority of the work and instead distributed it to her closest friends, leading William Wentworth, 2nd Earl of Strafford,  to erect an obelisk at Wentworth Castle to celebrate her intellectual achievements.

One particular aspect of life in Turkey that fascinated Mary was the treatment of smallpox, the infection that had so blighted her own life. She was fascinated to learn of the Ottoman Empire's successful experiments with inoculation (known as variolation) and when she returned to England, it was with a passion for this virtually unknown procedure. Mary had her own child inoculated using Turkish method and when George I saw the success of variolation, he permitted members of his own family to undergo the procedure under the care of Charles Maitland, Lady Mary's doctor.

After her adventures in Turkey, English life seemed altogether too staid for Mary and she entertained herself by entering into a romantic correspondence with a French admirer known as Rémond. Far from a knight in shining armour, Rémond proved to be a thoroughly bad sort and first convinced Mary to invest a small fortune in South Sea stock, which she lost; he then came to her for money, threatening to blackmail her with the adoring letters that she had sent him. Mary had no choice but to reveal the truth to her husband and in 1739 she travelled to the continent alone. Although husband and wife did remain on friendly terms, they were eventually divorced. 

Mary engaged in new love affairs but as her health began to fail, her life entered a period of decline and by the age of sixty, she was shadow of herself. Disfigured by smallpox and plagued with ill health, she lived in virtual poverty, only returning to English shores to silence the repeated pleas of her daughter. Their reunion was to be short lived and Mary died that same year.

Portrait of Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1756
Lady Montagu in Turkish Dress by Jean-Étienne Liotard, 1756

Mary remains a literary force to be reckoned with thanks to her perceptive letters from Turkey; although her days ended sadly, these letters and writings reveal a life well lived and a woman of wit, intelligence and conscience who pushed the boundaries of her time.


Halsband, Robert. The Life of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1956. 
Halsband, Robert (ed.). The Complete Letters of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965-67: 
Grundy, Isobel. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Comet of the Enlightenment. Oxford University Press,  2001. 


Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, will be published by Pen and Sword Books in 2016, and her work has been featured in All About History. She is currently indulging in some theatrical gadding thanks to her involvement with An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Princess Esterhazy, The Bonne Enfant of Almack’s

by Lauren Gilbert

She was born Her Serene Highness, Princess Maria Theresia, Hereditary Princess of Thurn and Taxis on July 6, 1794. Her parents were Karl Alexander, the 5th Prince of Thurn and Taxis, and Duchess Therese of Mecklenburg-Strelitz (a niece of the late English Queen Charlotte). She was their third child, and second daughter. Princess Maria Theresia was born in Regensburg, Bavaria. She maintained an attachment to the city of Regensburg throughout her life.

Princess Maria Theresia was married to Crown Prince Paul Anthony Esterhazy III (date of birth March 11, 1786) of Galantha on June 18, 1812 in Regensburg, not quite 18 years old to his age26. The prince’s father, Prince Nicholas II, travelled extensively and had lived for some time in England. From an ancient Hungarian family, Prince Paul Esterhazy had begun a diplomatic career young, serving under Louis, Prince of Stahremberg, in London. He was apparently liked and respected in English society as well as in diplomatic circles. Princess Esterhazy was apparently already active in London society and established as a Patroness of Almack’s by 1814, so it is obvious that she plunged right in to the social mainstream. After attending the Congress of Vienna in 1814 with Metternich, where Princess Esterhazy was much admired, Prince Paul was appointed to the Prince Regent’s court in 1815 as Austrian ambassador, at the Prince Regent’s request.

The youngest of the Lady Patronesses, Princess Esterhazy was an attractive young woman, based on the descriptions. She was apparently dark, plump, pretty and lively. Countess Lieven (later Princess) described her as “small, round, black, animated and spiteful”. She was very formal, and known to have a distaste for status seekers. Her love of ceremony and etiquette were attributed to her German background. As wife of the Austrian ambassador, Hereditary Princess of Thurn and Taxis in her own right, and connected with English royalty (cousin to Princess Charlotte, niece of the Duchess of Cumberland), Princess Esterhazy was at the top of the social strata from the beginning. Her knowledge protocol and of Austro-Hungarian and central European aristocracy would have been invaluable to her as a hostess for her husband.

Princess Esterhazy’s youth, personal attractiveness, and connections put her into a position of influence, had she chosen to use it. Supposedly Countess Lieven felt Princess Esterhazy to be a threat to her own position, at least initially. Information about Princess Esterhazy as a spiteful person appears in Countess Lieven’s letters to Prince Metternich. Countess Lieven was known for her efforts to influence European politics in Russia’s best interests, and apparently feared that the Austrian ambassador’s young wife would attempt to compete with her on the political stage as well as in society. It’s interesting to speculate that her malicious comments about Princess Esterhazy were an underhanded way to undercut Prince Paul’s position as Austrian ambassador. Ironically, there is no reference to Princess Esterhazy having any interest in political maneuvering. According to the Memoirs of the Comtesse de Boigne, Princess Esterhazy missed her home and was bored in London.

Princess Esterhazy was primarily associated with high society in her capacity as Lady Patroness of Almack’s. She was one of only two foreigners accorded this position (the other being Countess Lieven). As previously mentioned, she was a very high stickler. She was noted for her love of new dances, and was especially fond of waltzing. She was frequently partnered by Baron de Neumann, secretary at the Austrian Embassy.

 Prince and Princess Esterhazy had 3 children, two daughters and a son, Nicholas Paul. It is interesting to note that their son was born in Regensburg in 1817, and married Lady Sarah Frederica Villiers, the daughter of Lord and Lady Jersey.

 Her father-in-law passed away November 25, 1833, at which point her husband Paul became the 8th Prince Esterhazy of Galantha. Princess Maria Theresia’s full title became Princess Maria Theresia Esterhazy, Princess of Galantha, Princess of Thurn and Taxis. (The questions of lineage and title were apparently contributed to Countess Lieven’s dislike of Princess Esterhazy; her dislike appears to have been returned. When Count Lieven was made a prince in 1826, the now-Princess Lieven told Lord Grey that they were the only ones granted that title. Princess Esterhazy had no hesitation in showing her disdain for the Russian title, which did not endear her to Princess Lieven. It is worth noting that the only source I found that dwells on Princess Esterhazy’s spiteful nature seems to be Princess Lieven.

Prince Esterhazy served as the Austrian Ambassador from 1815 to 1818, and again from 1830 to 1839. Prince and Princess Esterhazy also ruled Galantha from his father’s death and returned there in 1842. The Prince was active in political affairs for the Austrian empire and for Hungary, serving briefly as minister of foreign affairs to the King of Hungary, trying to mediate between the two governments. He left public life completely when Austrian and Hungarian relations broke down in 1848. I have found little data of Princess Esterhazy’s life after leaving England or during the years in Hungary. Sources indicate that Prince Esterhazy (and, by extension, Princess Esterhazy) had spent beyond his means, and that his last years were made difficult by money problems. He died May 21, 1866 in Regensburg (Maria Theresia’s much loved home city), at which time their son Nicholas became Crown Prince.

Princess Maria Theresia lived until August 18, 1874. She died in Huttledorf, Vienna, Austria. It is known that her son eased the family’s financial straits by selling the family’s famous art collection to the Austro-Hungarian Empire about 1870. Her rooms are the focus of an exhibition at the Esterhazy Palace in Eisenstadt, Austria. I requested more information about her from the Esterhazy Palace when this article was first written, but have yet to receive a reply despite a follow up request.

Sources include:
Chancellor, E. Beresford. LIFE IN REGENCY AND EARLY VICTORIAN TIMES An Account of the Days of Brummell and D’orsay 1800 to 1850. London: B. T. Batsford, Ltd. 1926.

Memorials of ST. JAMES’S STREET and Chronicles of Almack’s. New York: Brentano’s, 1922.

Charmley, John. The PRINCESS and the POLITICIANS Sex, Intrigue and Diplomacy, 1812-1840. London: Penguin Group, 2005. [This is actually about Princess Lieven, but talks about her issues with Princess Esterhazy.]

Gronow, Captain Rees Howell. Reminiscences of Captain Gronow. London: Smith, Elder and Co. 1862. Reprinted by IndyPublish.com, McLean, VA.

King, David. VIENNA 1814 How the Conquerors of Napoleon Made Love, War, and Peace at the Congress of Vienna. New York: Random House, Inc. 2008.

Kloester, Jennifer. GEORGETTE HEYER’S Regency World. London: William Heinemann, 2005.

Quennell, Peter, ed. THE PRIVATE LETTERS OF PRINCESS LIEVEN TO PRINCE METTERNICH 1820-1826. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc. 1938.

Robinson, Lionel G., ed. LETTERS OF DOROTHEA, PRINCESS LIEVEN, during her Residence in London, 1812-1834. London: Longmans, Green and Co. 1902.

candacehern.com.  “Leaders of Society and the Demimonde.” Princess Esterhazy (1794-?) Here

Unusual Historicals blog.  “Fashionable People of the Regency- - Time for a Reassessment?”  by Michelle Styles, posted 7/10/2012.  Here

Google Books.  An Irish Beauty of the Regency by Frances Pery Calvert (the Hon. Mrs.)  Great Britain: John Lane, 1911.  Page 341.   HERE

GluedIdeas.com. From “Chambers Encyclopedia 1880”,  Vol. 5 Escitria to Fagging, ESTERHAZY entry.  HERE

ThePeearage.com. “Maria Theresia Prinzessin von Thurn und Taxis.” Person #32081.  HERE 

ThePeerage.com. “Pal Antal Furst Esterhazy von Galantha.” Person 320811. HERE
Image: Wikipedia Commons Prince Pal Antal Esterhazy and his Family c 1850 artist unknown. HERE

This is a reprint of a post I published on my own blog, The World of Heyerwood, on March 18, 2013 which can be found here.


Lauren Gilbert published her first book, HEYERWOOD: A Novel in 2011.  Her second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is due out this winter.  She lives in Southeast Florida with her husband Ed.  For more information, visit her website here

Friday, November 27, 2015

Mrs Gaskell's Tower Part I - Historical Trails & Serendipity

By Annie Whitehead

I'm fortunate to live in a part of the world which gives me easy access to many areas of outstanding natural beauty. And I tend to veer away from the obvious spots in the English Lake District to see what else is on my doorstep.

On the northern edge of Morecambe Bay lies a little place called Silverdale, and it was here, at Lindeth Tower, that Elizabeth Gaskell, novelist and biographer of Charlotte Bronte, used to come for her holidays.

As an historian and an author, I love to go wandering along a trail, be it metaphorical or geographical. Mrs Gaskell's Tower had given me a starting point, but she is a literary, rather than historical figure. Little did I know that what started as a 'Victorian' day, would become a day when I got tantalisingly close to the Anglo-Saxons ... 

A pleasant walk down a lane strewn with autumn colours took me down to Jenny Brown's point, where a chimney stands as a reminder of this area's industrial past:

Walking back from the point, I found an old lime kiln which has been reconstructed, fenced off, and given a little placard explaining the history and uses of lime-burning. I also discovered that there was a shipwreck in the area in 1894, when a pleasure yacht, The Matchless, foundered off Jenny Brown's point with the loss of 25 souls.

The English poet Gordon Bottomley (1874-1948) lived in the village and was visited often by his friend, the artist Paul Nash.
Silverdale is noted for its wells, which used to serve the village, and Woodwell is situated, as one might guess, in an area of peaceful woodland.
photo by Zephyrine Barbarachild

It was a wonderful walk, despite the typical northern weather that day, but I left feeling that I hadn't uncovered everything that Silverdale knew ...

And then I remembered that a while ago I'd read in the local paper about the Silverdale Hoard. Now, I'm an Anglo-Saxon-ist, rather than a Viking-ist, so the Silverdale Hoard didn't initially get my pulse racing in the way that the Staffordshire Hoard is apt to do. And yet, and yet ... something drew me to investigate.

2oo pieces of Viking silver were found by a detectorist in 2011 and have been dated to around the year 900. Of the 27 coins, some are coins of Alfred the Great and some of the Danish king of Northumbria. As with the Staffordshire Hoard, it is assumed that whoever buried this stash was unable, due to the turbulent nature of the times and probably due to loss of limb, or life, or both, to come back and retrieve their retirement fund.

It's no thing of beauty compared with the ornate goldwork of the other afore-mentioned hoard, but this cache contained a silver bracelet with an unusual combination of Irish, Anglo-Saxon and Carolingian style decoration. Other pieces of jewellery were found as fragments, having been cut up to be used as 'hacksilver', an alternative form of coinage.

One coin in particular was considered note-worthy, inscribed as it was with the name AIRDECONUT, which has been translated as Harthacnut. Since the coin also bears the inscriptions DNS and REX, it has been suggested that this might identify a hitherto unnamed Danish king of Northumbria. The historian in me was interested.

Another coin, a silver penny, was inscribed  ALVVADVS, translated as Aethelwold. The author in me was excited ...

Aethelwold was the son of Alfred the Great's elder brother, King Aethelred. When Alfred died in 899 Aethelwold made a bid for the throne, taking a nun hostage (why? Don't ask me) and holing up in Wimborne, Dorset, where his father was buried, as if to establish that he, and not Alfred's son Edward, had the stronger link to the West-Saxon line of kings. From Wimborne he went to ally himself with the Northumbrian Danes, who acknowledged his claim to the kingship of Wessex. Confident of eventual victory, he must have proceeded to order coins minted in his name. He eventually met his cousin Edward in a remote part of of East-Anglia in 902, at the Battle of the Holme. The rarity of the coin bearing Aethelwold's name perhaps tells you what you need to know about the outcome.

So, from a tower favoured by a Victorian writer, via industry and shipwreck, and an interesting but not initially fascinating buried treasure, I had come, unplanned and unconsciously, to a person whom I feel I 'know' rather well. For you see, a year before this hoard was discovered, I had written a story. It's called To Be a Queen, and it features Alfred the Great, his daughter, her brother, Edward, and their cousin, one Aethelwold, or as I call him, Thelwold.

Those among you who write, and have a penchant for digging, either literally or figuratively, will understand how satisfying it was for me to find out about that tiny little silver penny.

And as for Mrs Gaskell? Well, she got me thinking, too, and Part II of my Silverdale 'wanderings' will be live on this blog on December 27th.

Annie Whitehead is an historian and author of To Be a Queen, which tells the story of Aethelflaed, Lady of the Mercians, daughter of Alfred the Great. She writes regularly for magazines and will be releasing her second novel, also set in 'Dark Ages' Mercia, in the New Year.

Find her book at AMAZON and BOOK DEPOSITORY
and find Annie on her BLOG and FACEBOOK PAGE

Thursday, November 26, 2015

"Who should that one be?": George Canning's Colleague-Rating System, 1807

by Jacqueline Reiter

The British political scene in 1807 seemed to be stagnating. Two big names had passed away in the past year: Pitt the Younger, prime minister for most of the last twenty years of the eighteenth century, had died in January 1806, followed by his celebrated opponent, Charles James Fox, in September. Both their parties seemed aimless and confused. The "Foxites", under Charles Grey, Lord Howick, were in a foundering coalition government with Pitt's cousin Lord Grenville. The "Pittites" were riven by internal disagreements and could not find a common ground from which to agree on a leader, let alone mount an effective opposition.

William Wyndham, Lord Grenville (Wikimedia Commons)

In February 1807, Lord Grenville, the prime minister, decided the time had come to strengthen his government. Fox's death had left a gaping big hole, and Lord Howick, the government's main orator in the House of Commons, was expected to succeed to the peerage as 2nd Earl Grey at any moment. Grenville's solution was to split the Pittites further by making an individual offer of office to their most talented man: George Canning.

Canning and Grenville had been colleagues before, when Canning had been an under-secretary in Grenville's Foreign Office in the 1790s. Canning was well known as a brilliant debater and speech-maker, and his vivid intelligence made him a desirable catch for the beleaguered government. Although Canning had been almost pathologically devoted to Pitt, with whom he had formed a close and somewhat obsessive friendship, he had started out in life as a Foxite, and had long considered Grenville -- Pitt's cousin and former Foreign Secretary -- as the natural leader of the "true" Pittites.

George Canning (Wikimedia Commons)

At the end of February, therefore, Grenville's nephew Lord Temple carried an official offer to Canning. Would he consider joining the government in a high capacity, as an unconnected individual? There would be no room for any other Pittites, but Canning might bring one colleague with him in an unspecified role.

Canning was half-convinced to accept the offer -- he had long been dissatisfied with the way things were going among the Pittites -- but he wanted to join the Grenville government in a way that made it clear he was there on his own merits. His own course was clear: he was resolved to hold out for one of the three Secretaryships of State (Home, Foreign, or War) or, failing that, the post of First Lord of the Admiralty. The major question, therefore, was which Pittite colleague to bring with him.

The three most talented men in the Pittite party, apart from Canning himself, were Lord Hawkesbury (later Lord Liverpool), Lord Castlereagh, and Spencer Perceval. Of those three, Perceval was the best orator, and by February 1807 was not yet considered to be a front-runner for the Pittite leadership, although he would later become prime minister. In any case, Canning wanted an ally who would not be a rival. He did not even consider Perceval. Hawkesbury and Castlereagh both had experience of high office, but neither was an impressive orator and Canning had a poor opinion of both. Apart from these three, talent was thin on the ground, but Canning was willing to consider other assets.

Canning discussed the issue with his wife, Joan, who was away in Hinckley with their three young children. (Interestingly, Canning seems never to have held back in any political matters with his wife, with whom he was deeply in love and whom he treated as his intellectual equal.) "If I can have but one brought into Cabinet with me, who should that one be?"

Canning's solution was to draw up a table rating the seven most likely candidates based on eight criteria. Five were positive: three were negative, but "more than counterbalance[d]" the positives. The result was the following table:

  1. "Who would carry most of Pitt?"
  2. "Who would bring or satisfy most people?"
  3. "Who would feel most obliged to me?"
  4. "Whom would the K[ing] like best?"
  5. "Who would L[or]d G[renville] [like best]?"
  6. Inefficiency
  7. Unpopularity
  8. "Mischievous Intrigue"
The table is fascinating, and not just because of the novel expedient of rating Canning's colleagues in such a blatant way. Eldon had been Lord Chancellor under Henry Addington (prime minister 1801-4) and Pitt, and was one of the leading organisational influences in the Pittites. Castlereagh had been Secretary of State for War under Pitt. Mulgrave had been Pitt's last Foreign Secretary. Sir William Grant was one of the only ones on the list who had not held high office, but he was Master of the Rolls (a prominent legal position) and owed personal allegiance to Canning. Charles Yorke had been Home Secretary in the past and had much political influence. Lord Chatham, as the table shows, had a reputation for "inefficiency", but he was Pitt's elder brother, and in Canning's eyes that counted for much.

Lord Bathurst seems to have been a sudden inspiration on Canning's part: he was added last and in different ink. Like Grant, he had not held Cabinet office, but he had been friendly with both Pitt and Grenville and had much influence. He was the only person who did not score in any of the three negative categories. As a result Canning concluded: "Perhaps L[or]d Bath[urs]t is the best of all".

Bathurst, then, may well have been the man Canning chose to bring with him. Certainly it would not have been Castlereagh -- poor Castlereagh, who only ticked the "Pitt" box for positives, and was considered both too "unpopular" and too prone to "mischievous intrigue" (whatever that meant). Sir William Grant would probably have been Canning's second choice, but he seems to have been a political lightweight. "Ld. Chat.?" Canning dithered. "Ld. Eld.? Castlerg.? Ld Mulg.? Sir W. Grant? Yorke?"

He was saved from making up his mind (and from having to come clean to his colleagues that he actually had a rating system for them) by circumstances. At the beginning of March, Grenville's government brought in a Bill relieving Catholics and Dissenters in the armed forces from some discrimination. The King, who felt such concessions trespassed on his Coronation Oath, balked, and the government fell. Before the end of March 1807, Canning was in office as Foreign Secretary in a Pittite government headed by the Duke of Portland anyway.

Cartoon by James Gillray depicting the fall of the Grenville government (Wikimedia Commons)

Unsurprisingly, given his poor opinion of most of his colleagues, Canning would be one of the men primarily responsible for the fall of the Portland ministry in 1809. He clashed with Castlereagh -- that unpopular mischievous intriguer -- and ended up fighting a duel with him. But that is very much another story.



Canning's letter to his wife, 27 February 1807, containing the table reproduced above is in the Canning Papers at the British Library (formerly West Yorkshire Record Office), currently catalogued as WYL 250/8/22

I have also consulted Wendy Hinde's biography, George Canning (NY, 1975) and Peter Dixon's Canning: Politician and Statesman (London, 1976)


Jacqueline Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She is currently working on the first ever biography of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham, due to be released by Pen & Sword Books in September 2016. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at http://alwayswantedtobeareiter.wordpress.com/, and can be found on Twitter as https://twitter.com/latelordchatham.


Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Ancient History? A 50 Year Old Copy of Reader's Digest

By E.M. Powell

I usually write medieval posts, but for this post I'm going to look at something a little different. I was digging around in the attic recently, opening box after box, including one containing items that had belonged to an elderly relative. Then I found this:

Reader's Digest March 1965 Edition

Yes, a copy of Reader's Digest. But this one is over half a century old, as it was published in March 1965. I opened it to have a look, expecting it to be very similar to today's publication. And indeed, some of it is. But not all. So I present to you a little reminder of how the world was in March 1965- according to Reader's Digest.

This edition has (for me) the instantly recognizable classic format: articles listed along with their original publication, the picture in a band down the left hand side that fully covers the back. This one is imaginatively titled 'Playing Cards' and was 'specially painted' for RD. The opening pages are of course advert after advert: But these adverts aren't presented as such.

Oh, no. 'Buy Lines', by Alison Grey, gives us adverts as mini-tale. There's a man who writes to Alison: 'My wife wants a fully automatic washing machine and I'd like her to have it. I can see that an ordinary twin tub isn't the answer on wash day.'  Alison replies cheerily: 'The nice husband who confided in me this way might voice your views!'  Like heck. There wasn't a man alive in 1965 who gave a hoot about wash day.

Alison is also thrilled that you can now buy frozen prawns and stick plastic on your books or maps (eh? Hope it folds, Alison). But she also provides reassurance. Apparently, what worries middle-aged men and women is 'not so much their increased size round the middle, but the increased discomfort and tiredness it brings.' She recommends a giant elastic thingy, called the RALLIE Health Belt which you strap on and pull hard (stop sniggering at the back) for just 5 minutes a day. Problem solved.

Reluctant though I was to move on from Alison, I carried on and came to this chap.

Dress Sharp, Fly High!

Yes, this man is pleased to announce: '£2 TO SATISFY A DREAM'. He asks 'Have you ever gone to the airport and seen someone walk out to a trim, eager airplane, climb into the cabin and shut the door on the outside world?' Well, yes. A pilot. Not sure about the door. And dressed like this guy? No. He's keen, though. 'You'll go along safely at 122 miles an hour and the feeling is wonderful.' 

And you need a coupon along with your £2. I don't know if it's a general rule but I think, in life, it's probably a good idea not to get in a plane with someone who is flying it via a coupon deal. The advert is also typical of the weird US/UK mix that was always present in Reader's Digest. The currency is in Pounds Sterling, yet he refers to an 'airplane' as opposed to the British 'aeroplane'.
We then leave the adverts for a page or two.

Time for an article! 'What Every Young Cat Ought to Know.' Yes, it's an article about kitten-rearing, written charmingly in the voice of a first-person kitten. Aww.

Just as well your heart is now well and truly warmed, because the next article is an emotional glacier. Its title is 'IF ONLY THEY HAD WAITED', capitals courtesy of RD. It is written by Anonymous. Anonymous tells us she had to wait six months before writing her article because 'the hurt was so deep that only time could partially heal the wounds... and no matter how hard we try to avoid admitting it to ourselves, tragedy is what has occurred.' Sounded terrible! I braced myself.

Turns out Anonymous's son, Paul, had got his girlfriend, Nancy, pregnant. There followed a full five pages of how morally lax he'd been. Anonymous even narrowed it down to where the evil deed had taken place: 'Now, too late, I realized that our playroom was the place where the tragedy had started.'  How?? Anonymous finishes off with: 'Paul, your life and the lives of those who love you will never be the same, will never be as contented or happy or or hopeful as they once were.' Poor Paul and Nancy. They sounded just fine. They got married, got jobs and presumably The Tragedy was a cutie.

The mood lightens a bit again thanks to an advert for tights.


We can only guess that Nancy favoured Kayser nylons, because it would appear that one doesn't wear any skirt with them. The use of a tiger skin in an advert is jaw-dropping but is indicative of how little awareness there was of conservation issues in 1965. Tiger numbers were already under threat but few people wanted to know. Tigers are of course now on the endangered species list and their numbers outside of captivity are in the low thousands.

Leafing through more articles in our 1965 edition, we see that 'The Falling Tower of Pisa' is going to be flattened in 50 years.(Still up- yay!). We learn social etiquette from another advert: never chew gum in company, but you go for it when you're hurtling down the black slopes. Gulp.

Skiing With Gum

We continue with the usual Life's Like That and Humor in Uniform where readers would send in their own anecdotes. An article asks politely: 'Are You Well Adjusted?', another extols the virtues of saying 'Thank You.' Another is about 'Edward Durell Stone: Architect Extraordinary'. Nice. Then this one:

Have You Seen...

Yes, a deadly serious article on the hunt for one of the surviving members of Hitler's elite. A war criminal that was still actively being hunted in 1965. And of course he was. It was only twenty years since the end of World War Two. Yet the article seems so incongruous in the middle of all the bland items in there.

The article gives all of his last known movements as well as a physical description. It also bizarrely  notes: 'An indefatigable woman-chaser, he is said never to have met a female whom he didn't press for an affair.'  I do wonder about the breadth of that statement. If it were literally true, it would have made him quite easy to identify in any public place.

The article ends with an astonishingly low-key instruction. It states: 'If you know or have seen a man whom you believe to be Martin Bormann, telephone the West German Embassy.' But because this is a British edition, it has a further footnote: to make sure you contact the right one: 'German Embassy, 23 Belgrave Square, London S.W.1. Telephone: BELgravia 5033). Were law enforcement agencies too busy?

We end on a more light-hearted note. Just look at the laughs you can have with your typewriter:

Typing Fun!

I don't know if you just sit there at your typewriter amusing yourself, or whether you type a funny , then rush across to another typist to show them. The working day must have flown by.

So those were the highlights for me and now we must bid good bye to Reader's Digest 1965. For some of you, I hope it's been an enjoyable nostalgia-fest. For the young, you should thank your lucky stars that someone invented the Internet, where things are completely different. On the Internet, you can look at funny cat pictures, stare at non-skirt wearing lady's legs, read moral diatribes, swap amusing word thingies... oh, I give up. Back to medieval for me.
Reader's Digest is still going strong. You can read some of their fascinating history here: http://www.readersdigest.co.uk/customer-service/about-us

An version of this post first appeared on E.M. Powell's blog on February 26 2013.

E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She blogs for EHFA, reviews for the Historical Novel Society and contributes to The Big Thrill.

Sir Benedict Palmer and his wife Theodosia are back in book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND. It's 1185 and Henry II sends his youngest son, John (the future despised King of England), to bring peace to his new lands in Ireland. But John has other ideas and only Palmer and Theodosia can stop him. THE LORD OF IRELAND is published by Thomas & Mercer in March 2016. Find out more at www.empowell.com.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Sheepskin Cloaks: The Most Practical Medieval Fashion

By Kim Rendfeld

If we are to believe Notker the Stammerer (and there are plenty of reasons not to), Charlemagne was trying to make a point when told his courtiers they ought to go hunting. At that moment. No changing clothes.

By Tare Gheorghe
Charles was wearing a sheepskin cloak. His followers were bedecked in silks, pheasant skins, ribbons, ermine robes, peacock feathers, and other finery. So they trekked through forests thick with briars and tree branches, got drenched with rain, and oh yeah, got spattered with blood from their prey.

The next day Charles ordered them to appear before him with in yesterday’s clothes. The courtiers’ garments were tattered and stained, not good for anything but rags, but once brushed off, Charles’s sheepskin was as good as new.

Then Charles asked his courtiers which garments were truly worth more, and the courtiers were duly ashamed of their vanity.

Writing about 70 years after Charles’s death, Notker probably made the whole thing up. Such a stunt would more likely cause resentment, and for Charles to rule such a vast empire, he needed trustworthy allies within his realm.

Besides, Einhard, a more reliable biographer who actually knew the monarch, doesn’t include a sheepskin in Charles’s outfit. To stay warm, Charles favored a vest of expensive otter or marten furs and a blue cloak.

But Notker’s anecdote does illustrate the practicality and durability of sheepskin cloaks.

A 14th century sheep pen from the Luttrell Psalter
Medieval folk depended on sheep, which were only a third of the size of today’s breeds or smaller. While alive, they were a source for wool and milk. Slaughtered, they provided meat, tallow for candles, and bones that could be made into anything from flutes to dice. Their skins could be used for parchment or cloaks.

A sheepskin cloak might cost a commoner as much as a live sheep or farm dog. When you consider that a peasant family might have thought themselves well off if they had a mix of 16 sheep, cows, and pigs, such an item isn’t cheap, but it is within reach. A sable-lined garment cost about 10 times more, and the marten and otter furs were 30 times as much.

To a family planning to keep a sheepskin cloak for years, it was worth the expense. The fleece kept its wearer warm and the lanolin repelled water when someone had to go outside to fetch firewood, walk to church, or get food from the cellar. It was valuable indoors, too; fires did not adequately warm the house.

Notker probably crafted his story to entertain his patron, Charles the Fat, and show the king how wise and pious his great-grandfather was. And perhaps Notker, like many writers, was fulfilling a wish. I can’t help but wonder if he had seen noblemen showing off their wealth with fancy, impractical clothes and wanted someone to teach them a lesson.

Images are public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.


The Monk of Saint Gall: The Life of Charlemagne

Einhard: The Life of Charlemagne

Katie Cannon’s Craft

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne by Pierre Riche

Daily Life in Medieval Times by Frances and Joseph Gies

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and is working on Queen of the Darkest Hour. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

When Roasted Crabs Hiss In the Bowl - The Cup That Cheers, 17th Century Style

by M.J. Logue

What historical fiction, and what winter's evening, would be complete without the traditional foaming mug of mulled ale?

On those short, dark winter days - on those even shorter, darker, wintrier days of the Little Ice Age that was seveneteenth-century England - a brief social excursion could be a whole day's trip on horseback, or a perilous, freezing trip in a draughty carriage. Cold, wet stockings - there is no evidence to suggest that women wore anything so sensible as boots - and heavy, clinging cold wool cloaks. No central heating, nothing but an inadequate fire in houses bedevilled by draughts and inadequately insulated. Unbearable, no?

Well, no. Because in a rather civilised manner, one was provided with one's own, internal central heating.

I have blogged before on the dubious delights of buttered ale, much beloved of one fictional Parliamentarian officer's wife as a cure-all for every ill. Samuel Pepys is inclined to agree with her -

"Thence home and to the office, and so home having a great cold, and so my wife and Mrs. Barbary have very great ones, we are at a loss how we all come by it together, so to bed, drinking butter-ale."

Robert May in "The Accomplish't Cook" in 1660 described it as

... Take beer or ale and boil it, then scum it, and put to it some liquorish and anniseeds, boil them well together; then have in a clean flaggon or quart pot some yolks of eggs well beaten with some of the foresaid beer, and some good butter; strain your butter'd beer, put it in the flaggon, and brew it with the butter and eggs.

Het Babbitt's recipe is a late Tudor one and contains ginger and cloves as well as nutmeg, and (mercifully) no licquorice. There's a traditional folk song called either "The Owl" or "Who Gave Thee Thy Jolly Red Nose?" - which often turns up, rather wonderfully, in children's songbooks - the chorus of which goes

"Nose, nose, jolly red nose
and who gave thee that jolly red nose
Cinamin, ginger, nutmeg and cloves
and that gave me my jolly red nose!"

- and now you know in what capacity they were being taken!

Now, I will be honest, and say that having tried buttered ale it did nothing for me at all. Hippocras, on the other hand, is much nicer. Somewhere between a medicine, a syrup and a celebration drink, it was a spiced, sweetened wine served - possibly heated, and possibly not always - at the end of meals.

These two recipes are transcriptions from the Historic Food website, as an illustration of just how exotic - and expensive - a good hippocras would be:

Ipocras out of an old booke

Take a pottole of white or redd wyne and take a pynt of clarified honye: and mixe well the wyne and honye together in a clean pan, and you take 3 ozs of ginger, of pepper a quarter of an ounce, of good cynnimone 1 oz., saffron 1 oz., Spikenard of Spayn 1 oz., gallingale 1 oz., and make :all into pouder, and put it into the wyne and honye and medell them together, and you colour it with tumsole, and make it as red as you will: and pour it into a bagg and strain it through the bagg often tymes till it be clere, and so serve it forth.

From an early seveneteenth century manuscript (Mss. Sloane 3690, ff 26b.).
To make an excellent aromaticall Hyppocras
Take of Cinnamon two ounces, Ginger an ounce, Cloves and Nutmegs of each two drams, of white Pepper half a dram, of Cardamums two drams: of Musk Mallow seed, three ounces. Let these be bruised, and put into a bag and hanged in six gallons of Wine. Note that you must put a weight in the bag to make it sink.
‘Some boyl these spices in Wine, which they then sweeten with sugar, and then let run through a Hyppocras bag, and afterwards bottle it up, and use when they please.
A little too expensive for my plain Essex goodwife in 1645. and so her recipe is much plainer. taken from the same Elizabethan cookbook as her buttered ale:
2 quarts red wine
1 tbsp ginger
2 tbsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp nutmeg
6 whole peppercorns
9 whole cloves
1/2 tsp rosemary
1 cup sugar
Boil it all up, remove from the boil, allow to steep for 12 hours and longer if you can. Heady stuff, so drink cautiously - but very warming...

Of course, if you are in need of something more substantial, I will leave you with the very housewifely Elizabeth Cromwell's recipe for sack posset. I will say nothing about Oliver's much-vaunted tendency to start throwing this substance about in jest (he is reported to have spent a happy afternoon at his daughter's wedding in November 1657 chucking posset over the ladies' gowns - an interesting sense of humour, the Lord Protector.)

I think this may have been the recipe she used for the wedding, because it starts with

"Set a Gallon of Milk on the Fire, with whole Cinamon and large Mace, when it boyls stir in a half, or whole pound of Naples-bisket grated very small, keeping it stirring till it boyls, then beat eight Eggs together, casting of the whites away; beat them well with a Ladle-ful of Milk, then take the Milk off the fire, and stir in the Eggs; then put it on again, but keep it stirring for fear of curdling; then make ready a pint of Sack, warming it upon the coals, with a little Rose-water, season your Milk with sugar, and pour it into the Sack in a large bason, and stir it a pace, then throw on a good deal of beaten Cinamon, and so serve it up."

Aren't you glad we can just put the kettle on?


 MJ Logue can be found lurking at uncivilwars.blogspot.co.uk, and is currently working on the week-by-week run up to Christmas of that hard-done-to Essex goodwife Het Babbitt. and the first four books in her bestselling series featuring the (mis)adventures of sweary Parliamentarian cavalry officer Hollie Babbitt and his rebel rabble are available here.

Why Porcelain Replaced Sugar Paste as a Table Decoration

by Grace Elliot

In the 18th century,  the cost of throwing a banquet could be ruinous. If you were an aristocrat who wanted to impress, then an impressive display along the center of the table was de rigor.

A table setting more typical of the early 17th century

The displays started off life in the 17th century as impressive symmetrically arranged pyramids of decadently exotic foods, decorated with exotic flowers and foliage. These were in place at the beginning of the meal, with the purpose of being talking points for the guests. But as time went on, the arrangements became increasingly elaborate, and started to demand specialists skills from the chefs involved.
These arrangements running along the center of the banquet table were described as: “A complex marriage of the arts of the silversmith, the potter and the pastry cook.”

A typical sugar work construction

By the 18th century the confectioner was expected to link individual elements on the table to provide a harmonious arrangement along the length of the table; in other words the display had to have a theme. One substance that leant itself well to being modelled and colored to make attractive displays was sugar work.
Confectioners began to come into their own, by creating detailed, whimsical scenes so as to satisfy the guests need for novelty. Indeed, the most popular table decorations were miniature landscapes and gardens. These fantastical creations were amazingly detailed and often contained hedges, walkways, building, flower borders and tiny figures in scale to the creation.
“All the geniuses of the age are employed in designing new plans for desserts. The Duke of Newcastle’s’ last was a baby Vauxhall [Gardens] illuminated with a million little lamps of various colors.”  Horace Walpole. 1750.

An aerial plan of Vauxhall Gardens

Six years after Walpole wrote this, Duke of Norfolk topped that creation with a park scene complete with a water feature and ornamental dolphins spouting water.
However, when banquet halls were lit by candles, they were apt to get rather hot, which caused the sugar work to melt. To circumvent this, the once edible table displays were supplement with non-edible materials such as ground glass, wax, cardboard, and colored sand. This made for added realism, and even though these displays were no longer designed to be eaten (as in the early days) they rarely survived the evening unscathed.
The cost of creating these designs was astronomical, as it required highly skilled craftsmen to create them. This, and the fact that the creations were single use only, meant it was inevitable they would eventually go out of vogue.

An example of unglazed Sevres porcelain figurines

In the late 18th century the development of fine porcelain had reached a point whereby it started to replace sugar work for table decorations. The fine porcelain flowers could last an awful lot longer than sugar ones. And unglazed biscuit porcelain, which Sevres used to create delicate decorative figurines, had an attracted matt shimmer than mimicked a sugary surface. And so it was that porcelain came to replace sugar paste, at least when it came to sumptuous table decorations.