Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Fencing in Regency England: Could a Woman Do It? by Christy English

During the Regency Period, fencing became the formalized sport that we know today instead of simply a means to defend oneself in a duel. Standard rules and forms began to be applied and gentlemen fenced, not just to stay in shape for combat but for sport and enjoyment.

The Weapons
(right to left) Medieval Longsword; Rapier; two Smallswords; Classical Epee, Foil, and Radellian Sabre; modern Epee, Foil, and Sabre

According to Salle Greene LLC, Domenico Angelo founded the Angelo School of Arms in 1763. His grandson, Henry Angelo, was the third generation of that family to teach fencing to the haute ton of England’s elite, training gentleman fencers during the Regency.  

In my novel, HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE, I take the liberty of allowing my leading lady to fence. This is relatively unlikely in the state of the world at the time, but my heroine is the daughter of a military man, a girl raised as much by her father’s veterans as by her mother.

Regency Fencing Kit

As far as I can tell, there is no physical reason that a woman could not have fenced secretly during the Regency period. But beyond the realm of fiction, it is highly unlikely that women would have been trained in combat at all. How does one fence in stays and a gown, for example? And more importantly, why would a woman risk her reputation by doing something so masculine and outlandish?

But in the realm of fiction, it was a lot of fun to conceive of a heroine who set aside her fears of social censure and to pick up a rapier. Courage or folly, that is the kind of woman I love to read about.

After years of acting in Shakespeare’s plays, Christy is excited to bring the Bard to Regency England. She can often be found hunched over her computer, immersed in the past. Her latest novel is HOW TO TAME A WILLFUL WIFE, a re-telling of The Taming of the Shrew. She is also the author of the historical novels TO BE QUEEN and THE QUEEN’S PAWN. Please join her on her website or on Facebook at

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

All Hallows and All Souls

By Lauren Gilbert

From The Book of Hallowe'en 1919

At this time of year, around the world, people celebrate in remembrance for the dead: specifically deceased saints and deceased loved ones. Tonight, we will be celebrating Halloween. In the United States, and many other western nations, this has become a secular holiday, full of games, sweet treats, costumes and fun. However, it is still celebrated as a religious tradition and has deep historical roots.

In the CONCISE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY, “Hallow” is defined as follows: verb-to make holy or consecrate; noun-archaic word for a saint or holy person. Pope Gregory IV extended a holiday to the whole Catholic Church in 835 AD to honor all of the saints, known and unknown, which was called All Saints Day, on November 1. This was and is a holy day of obligation in the Catholic church, and attendance at mass was required. This day was also known as All Hallows Day. As with many Christian holidays, it absorbed an earlier, non-Christian holiday, the ancient Celtic holiday, Samhain, which fell at roughly the same time.

As with other Catholic days of obligation, the evening before is the start of the celebration, or vigil. Therefore, the evening of October 31 became All Hallows Eve, or All Hallows Even. This is the root of Hallowe’en (now Halloween), the first known usage of which occurred about 1700. Samhain was an ancient Celtic and Gaelic holiday celebrated on the night before their New Year, which roughly coincides with October 31. On this night, the division between the living and the dead becomes blurred. Celtic customs included bonfires (and sacrifices) and wearing costumes to ward off spirits.

In 1000 AD, the feast of All Souls was established on November 2 by the Catholic Church. On this day, the office of the dead was read, and all of the faithful who had died and were in purgatory were remembered. During the service, survivors could have the names of their deceased loved ones read upon request. It was thought that the spirits of the dead returned to visit their homes, and candles were lit to guide them. Before the Reformation, poor Christians would beg for money or food, offering prayers for the dead in exchange. In England, by the 19th century, this morphed into a tradition called “souling” where children would sing a specific song for money or soul cakes.

You can see the words of the song and a modern recipe for the cakes HERE.

The modern celebration of Halloween as a secular holiday has embraced the costumes, the bonfires and candles, and the requests for “treats” from the pagan and early Christian traditions, while losing (or ignoring) the religious solemnity.

All Saints Day and All Souls Day are both still celebrated today, not only by the Catholic Church, but by other Christian denominations including the Church of England. The Book of Common Prayer contains this collect for All Saints Day: God, who hast knit together thine elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of thy Son Christ our Lord: Grant us grace so to follow thy blessed Saints in all virtuous and godly living, that we may come to those unspeakable joys, which thou hast prepared for them that unfeignedly love thee; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

On All Souls Day, the Church of England celebrates the Eucharist of the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. While it is fun to celebrate Halloween as a secular event, it is important to remember the history and roots of the celebration.

CONCISE OXFORD ENGLISH DICTIONARY.11th edition. Oxford University Press, Oxford NY © 2008, Pg. 644

ABOUT.COM/Catholicism. Richert, Scott P. All Souls Day.

Catholic Encyclopedia online New Advent: (All Saints Day)

Catholic Encyclopedia online-New Advent: (All Souls Day)

Church of England website. The Book of Common Prayer.'-day.aspx

Project Britain Website; Project Britain Folklore Calendar. Facts about November. (The History Channel online).Origins of Halloween.

Image from Wikimedia. org

Merriam-Webster online.

The Telegraph Online. Chivers, Tom. Hallowe'en: a history of All Hallows' Eve, from Samhain to trick-or-treat.

The Telegraph Online. Ross, Tim. Churches attempt to take the ‘dark side’ out of Hallowe’en. 10/31/09

Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida, and is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel.  You can find out more about the novel at

Monday, October 29, 2012

Tudor Superstitions: The 'Witching Time of Night'

‘Tis now the very witching time of night - Hamlet

Tudor superstitions were an expression of total belief. And when you consider how the Tudors experienced the hours of darkness, that is hardly surprising. Despite the growth of London, the streets would remain unlit until 1684. Just like their country cousins, Londoners would wake in the middle of the night, in the pitch-dark. Imagine a mini-Halloween every night, in a city made of creaking timber, where criminals and outlawed religions conducted their secret meetings. Add into that a medieval psychology that absolutely believed the ghosts of the dead walked the earth.

The night was a time when witches flew and communed with their familiars. Decent folk stayed abed until dawn, and said their prayers to ward off spirits from their curtained beds.
Witchcraft was a fact of life, not something only a few believed in. If your milk soured, a witch's curse was to blame. If your pregnancy miscarried, your elderly female neighbour was behind it, especially if she lived alone and knew how to heal the sick. Witches were hanged in England, burnt in Europe. But they were not the only bugbears of the Tudor imagination. Suicides were still buried at crossroads to confuse their way back from the land of the dead, stakes were put though their hearts to pin them to the ground. What the modern mind sees as psychological, the Tudor perceived as real exterior force. Sin was a living thing, and sin-eaters would be employed to consume food that had been passed over the corpse of a dead person.

If you could imagine it, it existed, however evil and perverted, and you needed to protect yourself against it.
The very dreams that disturbed you were the product of the night – mare, an evil spirit entering your head, and the things that you saw on waking, or heard in the night, really were right there with you.

In response to this supernatural assault, the Tudor mind devised rituals and charms to protect the disturbed soul. Fire, iron and salt were protectors. Tudor entrepreneurial skill created a thriving business where people could buy charms to ward off evil and vermin, change luck, prevent drunkenness, encourage children to sleep, even put out fires – all of which were deemed to be under the control of outside forces. This was part of everyday life, not seen as evil, and apparently compatible with religious belief of the day.

That is until things went wrong, and an accusation of witchcraft was made. Then all their belief in supernatural forces was turned onto the outside world with a vengeance.

Victoria Lamb is the author of Witchstruck, first in the Tudor Witch series with Random House, set during Princess Elizabeth's imprisonment at Woodstock Palace.

She is also the author of The Queen's Secret, a novel of the Tudor court, also with Random House.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Pendle Witches

 By Frances Brody (aka Frances McNeil)
This year marks the four hundredth anniversary of the trial, at Lancaster Assizes, and the execution by hanging of the Pendle witches. Like many writers, I was inspired by this story and it formed the subject of my first BBC radio play. 

Pendle Hill, Lancashire

My fascination with the story began when I was a student at Ruskin College, Oxford, studying the seventeenth century. One impressive author had charted years of good and bad harvests across Europe. He found a connection between the economic effects of bad harvests and accusations of witchcraft. In times of hardship, this historian argued, better-off people were disinclined to bestow charity on the poor and outcast. At such times, accusations of witchcraft against marginalised individuals increased. I do not remember the author's name or the title of the book, but it sent me scurrying to learn more.


In the domed reading room at the British Museum (haunt of Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde and Bram Stoker), I read Thomas Potts' vivid account of the trial. The majority of the accused were members of two desperately poor matriarchal families headed by Demdike (Elizabeth Southerns), who was almost blind, and her rival, Chattox (Anne Whittle). The families begged, or earned their living as best they could. In court, they boasted of their ability both to harm and to heal - cattle or people. The odd one out among the accused was a gentlewoman, Alice Nutter.

Lancaster Castle, where the trial took place

 The story begins simply enough when Alison Device curses a pedlar who refuses to show her his wares, probably because he knows she cannot buy. Shortly after, he suffers a stroke. When challenged by the pedlar's son to lift the curse, the penitent Alison admits her guilt. The magistrate investigates, and the process of arresting women, and a slow-witted man, begins. Crimes against people and animals are uncovered. A black dog makes an appearance. Jennet, a nine year old, testifies against her family and gives an incriminating account of their doings at Malkin Tower. Her mother rails at this shocking betrayal.

Half blind Old Demdike, who escaped hanging because she died in Lancaster Gaol, gave me the title for my play: THE SUN AND THE DEVIL. She told the court how one fine evening, while sitting outdoors, first she saw the sun, and then she saw the devil.

Pendle Hill above mist

 Many writers have been inspired by this heartbreaking tale and in this anniversary year there is much to impress. I had always hoped to return to the story but my 1920s First World War widow detective, Kate Shackleton, keeps me busy.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Fork handles? No, four candles...!

By Mike Rendell

My ancestor Richard  Hall, living in the second part of the Eighteenth Century, had access to four different forms of candle – beeswax, tallow, spermaceti and rush-light. At a time when the world was either dark or it was light, choosing the correct candle would have been very important. Candles formed a significant part of Richard’s budget since his accounts show that in 1797 he was spending £4.8.04 p.a. on candles (roughly equivalent to £250) as against more than double that amount for coal. (£10.17.00).
By far the best and most expensive candles were made from beeswax – they would burn with an even, sweet-smelling light but they were a luxury. As an aside, the prestigious  store of  Fortnum & Mason has its origins in the sale of beeswax candles. The Royal Family insisted on new candles being used every night, which meant that there was a constant supply of half-used candles which were left to the footman (one William Fortnum) to dispose of. William's landlord was Hugh Mason. Together they decided to go into partnership selling on these part-used candles along with general groceries. 300 years later the firm is still going strong!
Back in the Georgian era  tallow candles were made from suet (animal fat from beef or mutton usually) and these had the disadvantage of spitting and spluttering as well as smelling pretty foul. They had the added drawback of being soft, particularly in the heat of the summer, meaning that the stems would bend and become useless.
Spermaceti was certainly used by Richard in the 1790s because he specifically mentions it in his shopping order of 21st January 1791 where he bought 2 ounces of the stuff (see penultimate line).
Rushlight holder courtesy of Cerediggion Museum in Wales.

Other holders were more like a conventional table-mounted candle holder. Either way they would burn for perhaps 40 minutes before needing to be replaced.They would have given off a dim and often fluctuating light.

The Lesser Key of Solomon (or) Lemegeton

The Lesser Key of Solomon (or) Lemegeton (This would have made a good Halloween post.)

In researching my next cozy mystery, I have sought out several sources that speak of The Lesser Key of Solomon. Although there is not much print space assigned to it in my new novel, the Lemegeton plays a central role in The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy. Therefore, I thought it prudent to bring to light some of the beliefs and inaccuracies associated with this text. What do we know of this manuscript and what is its significance? 

The Lesser Key of Solomon or Clavicula Salomonis Regis is an anonymous 17th Century grimoire (textbook of magic). It is widely known as the Lemegeton. The Lesser Key took much of its text from several 16th century manuscripts, including Johann Wierus’s Pseudomonarchia Daemounum (a hierarchy of demons) and late-century grimoires. Some of the first section dates to the 14th Century. Claims that the book was originally written by King Solomon have easily been proven incorrect, but that fact has done little to dampen the documents popularity among those who practice demonology. For example, titles are given to many of the demons. These titles of the nobility were not in use in King Solomon’s time, nor were the prayers to Jesus (Solomon was born some 900 years before Jesus) and the Christian Trinity included in the text.

Reginald Scott, who has completed extensive research on magical texts, mentions Ars Paulina, Ars Almadel, and Ars Notoria (three of the Lesser’s 5 books) and a text closely related to the Goetia. Several experts believe the text of the Lesser could have been collected by 1584.

The Lesser provides detailed description of spirits and conjurations of how to evoke their powers. The several original copies extant vary in detail and spellings. Modern editions are widely available in print and on the Internet.

The books of the Lesser Key of Solomon include:

Ars Goetia – list of 72 demons similar to that of Johann Wierus’s; no demonic seals are assigned to Wierus’s demons, nor are the rituals for conjuring the demons as elaborate as those found in the Lesser; deals with the evocation of different types of spirits

Theurgia Goetia – a system of angel magic; closely parallels Trithemius’ Steganographia (At there are some great comparison between the Trithemius’ manuscript and the Lesser.); deals with spirits of the cardinal points; explains the names, characteristics and seals of the 31 aerial spirits that King Solomon evoked

Ars Paulina – the spirits in this part of the Lesser coincide with those found in Trithemius’s Steganographia Book 2; supposedly the Apostle Paul discovered “The Pauline art”; experts have known of the Ars Paulina since the Middle Ages; it contains detailed descriptions on how to deal with the angels of men

Ars Almadel – explains how the almadel, or a wax tablet with protective symbols drawn upon it; has instructions concerning the colors, materials, and rituals necessary for the construction of the almadel

Ars Notoria – a collection of prayers, mixed with kabbalistic phrases and magical words from several languages

Note! As one can easily see, researching the smallest details of a fictional novel are often time consuming. Authors attempt to be accurate in the most minute details, but often they encounter conflicting information, as I have in researching The Lesser Key of Solomon. In my story, the archaeologist finds an original copy of this manuscript, and several devious elements wish to take it from him.  

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Sir Francis Drake, the Hellburners of Holland, and the Sea of Horses

What defeated the Spanish Armada? Well, the English navy, of course, and Lord Howard, Francis Drake, John Hawkins. They sailed out of Plymouth in their gallant little ships and harried the Spanish galleons all along the Channel from the Lizard to Calais until the Spaniards had had enough. It was a great naval victory.
Well, yes, up to a point. The English ships – many of which were as big or even bigger than the Spanish – did all of that. It was a continuous naval battle lasting – with intervals – over a week. There was lots of cannon fire – particularly from the English, who probably fired about three times as many cannon balls as the Spanish. It was a major naval battle – 150 ships in the Spanish fleet, about the same in the English.
But – here’s a strange thing. Despite all those guns, and all those cannon balls, not a single ship was sunk by enemy fire on either side. Not one. Because naval gunnery simply wasn’t good enough.  And anyway, wooden ships were notoriously difficult to sink. Even in the battle of Trafalgar, when naval cannons were much more powerful, most ships were dismasted and battered into hulks, rather than being actually sunk.
So in 1588, the Armada made it all the way along the English Channel to Calais, battered, but unbeaten. The English ships were a nuisance, but the mighty Spanish fleet was still as much of a threat as it had been a week earlier. More so, in fact, because it was very close to achieving its first objective.
It’s important to understand that the Armada itself wasn’t an invasion fleet. Even though it had lots of soldiers and horses on board (more about those later) the Armada’s job was to act as an escort for another Spanish army, led by the duke of Parma, which was in Holland. Parma’s men (and horses) were supposed to cross the Channel on flat-bottomed barges, while the galleons of the Spanish Armada protected them from the English navy. The same plan that Napoleon and Hitler tried to use later.
So why did it fail?   Well, that’s where the secret weapon comes in - the terrible Hellburners of Holland. These were really scarey – the nuclear weapons of the sixteenth century. They had first appeared in 1585, at the siege of Antwerp. The Spanish army had blocked access to the city with an 800 metre long bridge made of ships tied together across the river. The Dutch needed to break this blockade, or they would starve. So on the night of 4th-5th April 1585 they sent a fleet of 32 fireships floating downstream towards the bridge. The Spanish soldiers laughed. They didn’t think it would work.
But two of these fireships, the Fortuyn and the Hoop, were different. An Italian engineer, Federigo Giambelli, had made them into bombs. Inside each ship he had built an oblong chamber with a brick floor, walls five feet thick, and a roof made of lead with tombstones piled on top. He filled each chamber with 7000 pounds of high quality gunpowder. Then he fitted a delayed action clockwork fuse, and covered the chamber with a wooden deck so the ship looked normal.
The first ship, Fortuyn, ran aground before it reached the bridge, but the Hoop crunched straight into it. Then it exploded. All that gunpowder confined in a chamber produced a COLOSSAL explosion. According to the historian John Lothrop
            ‘The Hoop disappeared, together with the men (Spanish soldiers) who had boarded her, and the blockhouse, against which she had struck, with all its garrison, while a large portion of the bridge, with all the troops stationed on it, had vanished into air. It was the work of a single instant. The Scheldt yawned to its lowest depth, and then cast its waters across the dykes … and far across the land. The earth shook as with the throb of a volcano … Houses were toppled down miles away and not a living thing … could keep its feet. The air was filled with a rain of ploughshares, grave-stones, and marble balls, intermixed with the heads, limbs and bodies of what had been human beings. Slabs of granite, vomited by the flaming ship, were found afterwards at league’s distance, buried deep in the earth. A thousand soldiers were destroyed in a second of time; many of them were torn to shreds, beyond even the semblance of humanity.’

What has this got to do with the Armada? Well, three years later, when the Spanish Armada was anchored off Calais, waiting for the Duke of Parma’s army, the English admiral, Lord Howard, sent a fleet of 8 fireships floating towards them. This was a fairly desperate measure, after a week of inconclusive bombardment. Probably he hoped to set some Spanish ships on fire. But if he did, he was about to be disappointed.
Disappointed, because not a single Spanish ship was set on fire. The English fireships drifted harmlessly through the Spanish fleet, and burnt themselves out on the shore. All of them. So Howard had just wasted 8 of his own ships.
But he probably didn’t care – in fact he must have been delighted with the result. Because what the fireships did cause was chaos, and total, utter panic. The Spanish captains cut their cables, sailed into each other, crashed their ships on the shore, or fled out to sea. The next day there was a major battle off Gravelines, which scattered them further. Despite all the Spanish admiral’s appeals, the Armada never assembled as a disciplined force again. They gave up the idea of waiting for the Duke of Parma’s invasion force, and fled into the North Sea, losing touch with each other, and each surviving ship began its long desperate journey north, around Scotland and Ireland to their Spanish home. Lord Howard had finally won the victory which had eluded him for so long.
But what caused it? Why did the Spanish captains – all experienced seamen – panic like that? Why not just dodge the fireships and laugh at the English for wasting their own ships? Well, the answer lies in the Hellburners. Everyone had heard the horror story of the Siege of Antwerp, and the Italian engineer, Giambelli, was known to be working for Queen Elizabeth. So when the Spanish sailors saw those fireships bearing down on them, they thought they were looking at weapons of mass destruction. They were about to be vaporized.
It was a mistake, because none of the fireships were hellburners. The English navy had almost run out of gunpowder; they couldn’t have made one even if they’d wanted. But the Spanish didn’t know that. So they panicked and fled.
And the sea of horses? That’s a really sad story. Many of the Spanish ships didn’t just have men on board, they had horses too, for their officers to ride when they landed in England. But on the long journey home, they didn’t need the horses. Everyone on board was starving, and short of water. So …
A week or two after this battle, the skipper of a Hansa merchant vessel reported a strange, terrible sight. He’d sailed through an empty sea, he said, but everywhere he looked, it was alive with horses and mules, swimming desperately for their lives.
Tim Vicary writes historical novels and legal thrillers. You can read about them on his website and blog.
All images from Wikimedia commons

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

An Enduring Tudor Mystery: What Happened to Lady Mary Seymour?

by Sandra Byrd

Lady Mary Seymour was the only child of Queen Kateryn Parr and her fourth husband, Thomas Seymour. Parr died of child bed fever shortly after giving birth to Mary, and the baby’s father, Thomas Seymour, was executed for treason just a few short years thereafter. But what happened to their child, who seems to have vanished without trace into history? This is an enduring mystery and one which has intrigued Tudor readers for years.

Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk
Among the last known facts about the child include that her father, Thomas Seymour, did ask as a dying wish that Mary be entrusted to Katherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk and that desire was granted. Willoughby, although a great friend of Mary Seymour’s mother, Queen Kateryn Parr, viewed this wardship as a burden, as evidenced by her own letters which pleaded for relief.

According to Parr’s biographer Linda Porter, “In January, 1550, less than a year after her father’s death, application was made in the House of Commons for the restitution of Lady Mary Seymour…she had been made eligible by this act to inherit any remaining property that had not been returned to the Crown at the time of her father’s attainder. But in truth, Mary’s prospects were less optimistic than this might suggest. Much of her parents’ lands and goods had already passed onto the hands of others.”

Queen Kateryn Parr
The £500 required for Mary’s household would amount to approximately £100,000 British pounds, or $150,000 US today, so you can see that Willoughby had reason to shrink from such a duty. And yet the daughter of a Queen must be kept in commensurate style. There were many people who had greatly benefited from Parr’s generosity throughout the short years of her marriage to Henry. None of them stepped forward to assist Baby Mary.

Biographer Elizabeth Norton says that, “The council granted money to Mary for household wages, servants’ uniforms, and food on 13 March, 1550. This is the last evidence of Mary’s continued survival.” Susan James says Mary is, "probably buried somewhere in the parish church at Edenham."

Most of Parr’s biographers assume that Mary died young of a childhood disease. But this, by necessity, is speculative because there is no record of Mary’s death anywhere: no gravestone, no bill of death, no mention of it in anyone’s extant personal or official correspondence. Parr’s biographer during the Victorian ages, Agnes Strickland, claimed that Mary lived on to marry Edward Bushel and become a member of the household of Queen Anne, King James I of England’s wife. It's possible.  There are other possibilities.

Thomas Seymour, Baron Seymour of Sudeley
Various family biographers claimed descent from Mary, including those who came down from the Irish shipping family of Hart. This family also claimed to have had Thomas Seymour’s ring which was inscribed, What I Have, I Hold, till early in the twentieth century. I have no idea if that is true or not, but it’s a good detail and certainly possible.

According to an article in History Today by biographer Linda Porter, Kateryn Parr’s chaplain, John Parkhurst, published a book in 1573 entitled, Ludica sive Epigrammata juvenilia. Within it is a poem that speaks of someone with a “queenly mother” who died in childbirth, child of whom now lies beneath a marble after a brief life. But there is no mention of the child’s name, and 1573 is twenty-five years after Mary’s birth. It hints at Mary, but does not insist.

Fiction is a rather more generous mistress than biography, and I was therefore free to wonder. Why would the daughter of a Queen and the cousin of the King not have warranted even a tiny remark upon her death? In an era when family descent meant everything it seemed unlikely that Mary’s death would be nowhere definitively noted. Far less important people, even young children, had their deaths documented during these years; my research turned up dozens of them, most of whom were lower born than Mary.

Edward Seymour requested a state funeral for his mother (which was refused) as she was grandmother to the King. Would then the death of the cousin of a King, and the only child of the most recent Queen, not even be mentioned? The differences seem irreconcilable. Then, too, it would have been to Willoughby’s advantage to show that she was no longer responsible for the child, if Mary was dead.

Sudeley Castle, birthplace of Mary Seymour
The turmoil of the time, in which Mary’s uncle the Lord Protector was about to fall, the fact that her grandmother Lady Seymour died in 1550, and the lack of motivation any would have had to seek the child out lest they then be required to then pay for her upkeep, all added up to a potentially different ending for me. The lack of solid facts allowed me to give Mary a happy ending in my novel, The Secret Keeper: A Novel of Kateryn Parr, an ending I feel is entirely possible given Mary’s cold trail, and one which I feel both Queen Kateryn and her little Mary deserve.

To learn more about Sandra's Ladies in Waiting Series, set in Tudor England, please visit For blogs on England and English history, visit:

Monday, October 22, 2012

Sir Roger Mortimer - His Rise to Power and Influence

by Arthur Russell

Sir Roger Mortimer, 3rd Baron Mortimer – His Rise to Power and Influence.

Mortimer Shield
Roger Mortimer was the son of Edmund Mortimer, 2nd Baron Mortimer, a marcher lord whose stronghold at Wigmore castle was an important point in the defence against the Welsh princes in medieval times. It was his grandfather, Roger Mortimer, 1st Baron Mortimer who defeated and killed the Welsh Prince Llwelyn the Last in 1282. Edmund’s brother, Roger Mortimer of Chirk, carried Llwelyn’s severed head to King Edward I (nicknamed “Longshanks”).
Sir Roger’s father, Edmund Mortimer, was actually a second son who was destined for minor clerical orders in Oxford University before the sudden death of his older brother Ralph, heir to the title; caused his family to set his feet on quite another path.
Subsequently, Edmund married Margaret deFiennes who on April 25th 1287, bore their first son Roger, who was destined to become one of the most powerful and controversial figures in the England of his time.  
As a boy, Roger was sent to the house of his Uncle Roger Mortimer de Chirk in Cornwall. He was betrothed to Joan deGeneville, the daughter of Sir Piers deGeneville, Lord of Trim, Lord of Ludlow and Justiciar of Ireland. Sir Piers had inherited his Irish title by virtue of his own marriage to Maud who was a member of the deLacy family who were the original holders of the huge Trim Lordship in central Ireland.
The marriage of Roger and Joan took place in 1301. They had 12 children during the next 17 years which indicated a relatively close and loving relationship in spite of problems which emerged later in their marriage.
Wigmore Castle - Mortimer's headquarters
Roger Mortimer had to quickly learn the art of survival in the Welsh marchlands. His father was killed in a skirmish with the Welsh at Builth in 1304 leaving him as heir to Wigmore. The young heir designate was placed under the care of the Prince Edward’s favourite (some would say lover) Sir Piers Gaveston, until he was knighted with 250 others at a glittering ceremony in Westminster Abbey at Whitsun 1306 by King Edward I (“Longshanks”).
In March 1307, the young Prince Edward became King Edward II after the death of his father at the head of an English army marching north to attack Robert Bruce of Scotland. The coronation of the new king brought his friendship with one Piers Gaveston into sharp focus as he proceeded to heap Royal honours and titles on the young low born favourite, to the extreme annoyance of most of his barons. This was to cause many problems for Edward as many barons became disaffected.

Mortimer’s First Irish Campaign :
In 1308 Roger and Joan Mortimer went to Ireland to assert their Irish claims and immediately came into conflict with the cousins, Hugh and Walter deLacy, who disputed the will of their geriatric uncle Piers deGeneville, who had disinherited them in favour of Mortimer. While in Ireland it is supposed he met and campaigned with his former mentor and friend Piers Gaveston, who had preceded him to Ireland after being appointed Justiciar of Ireland by the King. By this time, Gaveston had been effectively banished from England at the insistence of his many enemies who objected to his influence over the King.
Trim Castle, Co Meath, Ireland - the largest in Ireland
Over the next few years, Roger and Joan divided their time between their Irish and Welsh marchland estates, as well as attending regularly to the King’s court where their loyalty were highly regarded. It is likely that Ireland provided a welcome absence from England for Mortimer as it kept him away from the intrigues surrounding his friend Gaveston, who having returned to England, was eventually captured and killed by his enemies in 1312, an act which divided the country and precipitated war between the King and his barons. This eventually ended in October 1313, when the recalcitrant barons sued for and were granted a Royal pardon.  King Edward was not strong enough to do much else.

The Scottish campaign and Bannockburn :
The Gaveston debacle served to distract King Edward II from paying enough attention to what was happening in Scotland, a campaign which had been so close to his father’s heart. The success of Bruce and the fact that as time went on, the Scots posed serious threat to England itself, finally prompted Edward II to prepare to march north to meet the Scottish challenge. Mortimer mobilized and sent considerable resources to help his King, and himself took part in the desperate final rearguard action at the end of the Battle of Bannockburn on June 24th 1314, after the defeated King Edward had left the field where so many of his followers fell.
After the battle, Mortimer was captured and due to the fact that he was a third cousin of the victor, Robert Bruce, and an ally of the Earl of Ulster, whose daughter Bruce had married; he was not ransomed, but was given the dubious duty of carrying King Edward’s privy seal and shield, both of which had fallen into Scottish hands during the battle; back to its owner, as a token of Bruce’s magnanimity towards a defeated foe. Mortimer returned to a demoralized English Royal court from Scotland and spent the remaining months of 1314 with King Edward whose spirits were at a low ebb having in a few short years of his reign, lost so many of his closest boyhood friends and allies.

Bruce’s Invasion of Ireland (May 1315)
It was while he was at the Royal Court that Mortimer by some means was made aware of Scottish plans to open a fresh front in their war with England by invading Ireland and putting Edward Bruce on the long vacated throne as Ireland’s Ard-Rí (High King).  Mortimer actually arrived in Ireland mere weeks before the invading Scottish army under Edward Bruce landed in Antrim on May 26th 1315, though he did not contribute to any resistance to Bruce’s march southwards. After Bruce destroyed Dundalk, Justiciar Edmund deBoteler decided to use Mortimer’s forces as a rearguard to his own forces. Mortimer stationed himself in the town of Kenlys (Kells) to defend his Irish estates. On November 14th his forces were utterly defeated by Bruce and he was lucky to escape with a handful of knights to Trim Castle and from there to Dublin, where he met the King’s representative. It was decided that he should return to England to report to King Edward on the perilous state of the English colony in Ireland. 
The disastrous situation in Ireland coupled with that of England after Bannockburn, was further compounded by the weather. 1315 and 1316 saw two disastrous harvests in Europe, which meant that famine and pestilence was rife everywhere. Any plans Mortimer had of persuading King Edward to provide men and resources to reverse the situation in Ireland had to give way to the more immediate need to address the dire situation in England itself.
Apart from agreeing and attending the wedding of his 14 year old son Edmund to the infant daughter of the rich and influential Bartholomew Badesmere (nicknamed “the Rich”); Sir Roger spent most of 1316 attending to the King’s business in England. Significantly he was responsible for the defeat of the Welsh prince Llwelyn ap Gruffydd ap Rhys otherwise called Llwelyn Bren, and the suppression of a revolt by the townsmen of Bristol.
Finally in November of that year he persuaded the King that the best way of advancing the two front war with the Scots, was to confront them in Ireland by sending a huge royal army there during the following year.  Edward officially appointed Sir Roger King’s Lieutenant of Ireland with wide ranging powers to condemn or forgive rebellious subjects, appoint, confirm or remove officials, remit debts, sell or assign land grants, negotiate treaties and covenants, arbitrate disputes, marriages, wills. Most important, he was given whatever funds he needed and a free hand to operate as virtual ruler of Ireland – in the King’s name. This was the first Royal appointment of his career.
After many delays and logistical difficulties, Sir Roger landed in Youghal, Co Cork Ireland. His arrival was greeted with understandable joy by the hard pressed colonists; but also by many Irish who were angry and weary of the depredations of the Scottish invaders, who over the previous 2 years, had looted the country from one end to the other. The invasion had not bothered to “win hearts and minds”.  In truth, by 1318, the Scots were a spent force, in large part due to the destruction of Ireland’s resources which rendered much of the island incapable of sustaining life. Edward Bruce was forced to fall back on his base in Ulster to link with help and resources from his brother King Robert of Scotland.
Sir Roger could afford to bide his time and spent several months reversing the advances made by the Scots by using his authority to restore English rule in the East and South of the island.  The end of the Bruce brothers’ Irish adventure came at Faughart, near Dundalk, on October 14th 1318, when Edward Bruce rashly committed his badly outnumbered force to battle without the reinforcements led by King Robert himself, which had already landed and were marching south to help him.

The Irish campaign was a notable victory for Mortimer, as it marked the end of Scottish interest in Ireland and restored balance to the relationship between England and Scotland, which culminated in the Treaty which affirmed Scottish independence for the next 3 centuries, and the establishment of more normal relations between England and Scotland. It also cemented Mortimer’s claims on his substantial Irish estates.

During those critical years, during which he had shown remarkable ability and astuteness, Mortimer became indispensible to King Edward II, who arising from all the disasters and difficulties of the early years of his reign, continued to sit most uneasily on his throne.
Those early years set the scene for many of the events of the next 12 tumultuous years; events that would see the violent deaths of both Mortimer and his King.

These events will be outlined in a future post. 

Bibliography - The Greatest Traitor (Ian Mortimer); A History of Ireland - Volume 1 (Eleanor Hull)

This post is submitted by Arthur Russell, Author of the historic novel 'Morgallion' which is set in 14th century Ireland at the time of the Bruce invasion. The invasion was eventually defeated by Sir Roger Mortimer, who among his many titles, was also Lord of Trim. 
'Morgallion' was launched at the O'Carolan Harp Festival on Sunday Oct 14th 2012.
More information on website Also on Facebook and Twitter