Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Alfgar, The Recalcitrant Earl

by Paula Lofting

The king with his witan

March 1055, and as every year, all the nobles in the land that could, would make their way to witanegemot, this year to elect the next earl of Northumbria. There were two men who seemed to be in the running. Ælfgar, son of Leofric, Earl of Mercia, and Tostig Godwinson, as his name implied, of the number one clan in the country.

Ælfgar had been elevated to earl of East Anglia in 1051 when Harold Godwinson was forced into exile in 1051 with other members of his family. In 1052, the Godwinsons made a successful comeback and all their lands and properties were once more restored to them, which meant that Ælfgar had to hand back the earldom to Harold, leaving him with no earldom to run. That must have gone down like a treat. However, it was restored to Ælfgar in the wake of Godwin's death and Harold's appointment to Wessex. Tostig had been waiting in the wings for his first appointment since his brothers, Harold and Swegn (the latter now deceased) had both been invested in earldoms 10 years ago. With Harold in Wessex, and Alfgar sorted in East Anglia, Tostig obviously thought that he was up for the Northumbrian post.

Photo c/o Christopher Doyle
and members of Regia Anglorum
And so, at that gathering that year, the proverbial gossips must have had a field day, and anyone with a leaning to intrigue might have found themselves weaving in and out of either man's supporters and causing quite a stir amongst each man's faction had they a mind to it.

This was very much a north and south thing, and even as far back as then, the divide still existed. The last native ruler who'd been in charge of Northumbria had been Uhtred the Bold from the House of Bebbanburgh. In 1016 he was assassinated by Thurbrand the Hold probably on the orders of Cnut whom had invited him to visit and whom he was on his way to see. Eadwulf, Uhtred's son succeeded him in Bernicia and Cnut made the Norwegian, Erik Hlathir, the earl in the South. The killing of Uhtred was to spark the blood feud in the north that would last more than two generations. 

The date when Siward, the Dane took over as earl is sketchy, but it seems to have been around 1030. Siward had a good run, and he must have been a tough pair of boots to have reigned for so long, at least twenty-five years or so. What with managing the wild northerners with their violent blood feuds, which the north was notorious for, plus supporting Malcolm Canmore to get his throne back in Scotland, Siward was most likely to have been the most warlike of the earls in England at the time of Edward's reign. 

Battles were fought with the Welsh on the borderlands
In 1054, he had invaded Scotland by land and sea to overthrow King MacBeth and put the murdered Duncan's son on the throne that Malcolm obviously thought should have been his. Edward was in support of this and he sent many of his own huscarles north to support him, and lost many of them too.The hard battle saw Siward losing his son and nephew. MacBeth was defeated, but still alive and pushed north-west to recoup. Malcolm was able to take over the rest of the territories gained from the king. Many lives were lost on both sides in the terrible battle of Dunsinane and the loss of his son and nephew might have hastened Siward's death which eventually came the year after in 1055. 

Whatever had brought Siward to his death, he was somewhat elderly by this time in anycase, so perhaps it was his time to go, and although he had not been a northerner himself, he was a Dane, and many of the men of Yorkshire were Danes, he knew how they thought, how they fought, and they respected him.

Photo c/o Christopher Doyle
and Regia Anglorum
 So who were these men, Tostig and Alfgar, who thought they could step into Siward's rather big boots? Tostig was probably born in Suth Seaxa (Sussex) and as a boy grew up in the Godwin family home of Bosham. The winters were milder and the land not as harsh as in the north. From an early age he most likely spent a lot of time at court under his sister's tutelage, well educated and groomed for an administration job which would have eventually have flowered into an office of high standing. He was also schooled in military matters as most noble sons would have been, and brought up to be ambitious as all of the Godwinson men seem to have been. He also had a lot to prove. His older brother, Harold, was on the rise, and fast becoming the king's number one man, and as Tostig's later actions in the coming years would show, he was, I suspect, envious of his brother, the latter day Golden Balls. Tostig had the blood of the Vikings running through his veins with his mother being daughter of Thorgil Sprakalägg, so called because he was fast on his legs, perhaps because he was purported to have been the son of a bear. (Yes, I know!) Tostig's father's lineage is just as mysterious. (though no bears in the tree) Wulfnoth, his father, according to Frank Barlow, believes his family tree can be traced back to King Egbert making him a son of the House of Wessex. Despite the possibility of a royal pedigree and Viking blood, Tostig was a 'soft' southerner, brought up in southern ways and unpalatable to the rough, wild men of the north.

Photo c/o
Christopher Doyle and Regia Anglorum
Alfgar was not so much of an alien perhaps, having been born less south than Tostig. He was the son of Leofric of Hwicce, now absorbed into Mercia. Leofric became Earl of Mercia around 1017, after Cnut had taken the crown following the death of Ironside. Alfgar's mother was Godgifu, who appears to have come from good noble stock herself, considering that she held quite a lot of land in her own right. This might have something to do with the fact that she was a widow when she married Alfgar's father. Alfgar was most likely to have had some military experience seeing as there had been quite a lot of conflict with the Welsh, but nothing is recorded for definite, just how experienced he was or whether he'd had the benefit of a court upbringing like Tostig most likely had. It's quite likely he may well have, it seems to have been traditional for the sons of nobles to be educated at court, though he was probably not of an age that he would have been in Queen Edith's school. However, he had some experience already, having run East Anglia for a year before Harold's return and a couple of years after Harold had stepped back out of it and into Wessex. With this in mind, Alfgar, might have thought he was better qualified than his opponent, Tostig.

Photo C/o Christopher Doyle
& Regia Anglorum
Court must have been interesting, with Alfgar and Tostig posturing amongst their supporters. The Mercians vs West Saxons. And when it was announced at the council meeting that Tostig was to be invested with the earldom of Northumbria, there must have been some threatening glares across the feasting boards that evening at supper. What happened after the council met gives us some idea that Alfgar was not happy at what had occurred at the council meeting.

The Anglo Saxon Chronicle is sympathetic to Alfgar. Chronicle C  reports that he was 'outlawed without any fault.' And then the E Chronicle says, 'And the king gave Tostig, son of Earl Godwin, the Earldom which Earl Siward owned before.' The D script tells it the other way round, that Tostig was given the earldom and then later Alfgar was exiled, without 'well-nigh any fault'. Chronicle E tells us that his outlawing took place on the 19th March ( 7 days before mid-lent) and the reason being 'that it was thrown at him that he was a traitor to the king and all the people of the land. And he admitted to this,' but the words evidently left his mouth before he had time to think about what he was saying. This latter version seems to explain things a little clearer, though none of the scribes writing the chronicles seem to have been of a mind to tell us what it was that came out of his mouth. One can imagine there was a lot of expletives about a puppet king whose strings were being pulled by a certain family!
Alfgar's Mercenaries
Photo c/o Richard Price & Regia Anglorum

The usual crime for treason seems to have been exile, however hanging had also been an option. But though exile seems a lenient punishment for such a crime, it was not as simple as you think. You were usually given a limited amount of time to get out of the country, which could be anything from 3 days to a week. In that time you would have to make whatever arrangements you could to gather your wealth if you had any and make arrangements for transport. If you lived nowhere near the coast, the further you were, the more time you would have needed, and if you didn't get out within the time allotted you could be killed on the spot by anyone. But at least you were had a chance, and if you made it like the Godwinsons had done in 1051, you were free to gather forces and whatever mercenary help you could get and force your way back to power.
Alfgar was said to have gone straight to Ireland where he stayed some months recruiting men and ships from amongst the Hiberno-Norse. When he had 18 ships fully crewed, he made his way to King Gruffudd in Gwynnedd to recruit him to his cause. Gruffudd also took advantage of the Englishman's pleas by promising to help him invade England, if he helped him to defeat the king of South Wales, thus realising his dream of a becoming king of a united country. Alfgar was obviously obliging, and supported Gruffudd successfully. Shortly afterwards, the two armies, Alfgar's mercenaries and Gruffudd's Welshfighters, joined together to invade England, and razed Hereford to the ground, causing the deaths of five hundred English mounted warriors.

The lesson to be learned here for the English king, was that execution was more effective punishment than exile. You would think, wouldn't you? Unfortunately, it was to happen again three years later.
Paula Lofting is an author and a member of the re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, where she regularly takes part in the Battle of Hastings. Her first novel, Sons of the Wolf, is set in eleventh-century England and tells the story of Wulfhere, a man torn between family and duty. The sequel, The Wolf Banner is available now. Paula is currently working on the third book in the series, Wolf's Bane.

Connect with Paula on her Blog and on her Amazon Author Page

Sunday, March 17, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, March 17, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Enjoy this week's articles from English Historical Fiction Authors.

by Erica Lainé

by Judith Arnopp

by Judith Thomson

Click on the post and leave a comment stating your preference for e-book or paperback. Giveaway closes at midnight Sunday 17 March Pacific Daylight Time (8am Monday 18 March GMT).

Friday, March 15, 2019

The Glorious Revolution

by Judith Thomson

On the 10th of July 1688 a momentous event in the history of England took place – a baby was born! He was not just any baby, he was the son of King James ll and his wife, Mary Beatrice. Or was he?

The news was the very last thing most people in England wanted to hear. James had succeeded his charismatic brother, Charles ll, to the throne but James was nothing like him. When the monarchy had been restored after the troubled years following Civil War, Charles had vowed that he would never go upon his travels again and he had used his charm, and his intelligence, to make sure of it. James was unfortunately lacking in both these qualities. Lord Rochester, who had a cruel wit, summed up their differences by saying that “Charles could see all things if he would, whilst James would see all things if he could!”

But the worst thing about James, in most people’s eyes, was that he had declared himself to be a Catholic and had married a Catholic after the death of his first wife. To a Protestant nation, to whom the horrors of the Popish Plot were still a vivid memory, this was unforgiveable. Catholics had been accused at that time of all sorts of heinous crimes, including attempting to kill his brother, Charles, and whether or not the charges had been proved false, Papists were still viewed with suspicion, and even hatred, by most. Now, thanks to James, they were being given important positions of power.

Charles’ illegitimate son, the Duke of Monmouth, had, three years earlier, led a rebellion against his uncle James, but it had been a disaster and resulted in a great many deaths, including that of the young Duke himself. After that, the people had, in the main, accepted James’ rule sullenly, safe in the knowledge that James could not live for ever. When he died, his eldest daughter, Mary, a good Protestant married to another of James’ nephews, the Dutch Prince, William of Orange, would inherit the throne.

Except now she wouldn’t. The new baby, being a boy, would take precedence over her, and he was baptised into the Catholic faith before he was a day old. The Papist rule would continue. Small wonder few welcomed the announcement of the Prince’s birth.

The word was even spread about that the Queen’s baby had died and that the new Prince of Wales had been a substitute, smuggled into her bedchamber in a warming pan. Some people went so far as to claim that she had never been pregnant in the first place, but had just been wearing a cushion tied around her! Those who were present at the birth disputed the tale of the ‘warming pan baby’ but, since it was only Catholics who been there whilst the Queen was in labour, their words did not carry too much weight.

Whatever people believed, or pretended to believe, there were a few who had decided that the time had come for action. Since the throne would no longer be given on James’ death to William of Orange and Princess Mary, then why not ask them to take it now, whilst James was still alive?

William of Orange

However, William had quite enough problems as it was, with the French troops of Louis XlV encroaching on his borders. He accepted the desirability of ensuring Protestant rule in England, especially since his arch-enemy, the Catholic King Louis, was James’ cousin, but, before he embarked upon so great an enterprise, he needed to be absolutely certain that it was what the nation truly wanted. He insisted upon being actually invited to take the English crown.

This was tricky, for anyone signing such an invitation would be taking a great risk. King James would show no mercy to any he suspected of working against him but, even so, a document was drawn up in secret. It bore the coded signatures of men representing the organisations whose welcome William had desired. These were Compton, the Bishop of London, for the Church, Admiral Russell for the Navy, Lord Danby for the Tories and Henry Sidney, Lord Shrewsbury, Lord Devonshire and Lord Lumley for the Whigs.

Seven brave and desperate men.

William received his invitation with more resignation than pleasure, but he knew where his duty lay and, upsetting as the prospect must have been of siding with her husband against her father, so did his wife, Mary.

Preparations for an invasion of England began at once. As well as the Dutch, there were troops assembled from all parts of Protestant Europe, and they were joined by Englishmen who had taken up residence in Holland and Huguenots who had fled France when the edict which had once protected French Protestants had been revoked.

It was a mighty army. Two hundred transport vessels were needed to take the sixteen thousand soldiers and their equipment over the North Sea. As well as food for the men and fodder and saddles for the horses they were taking, there was a mobile smithy and wagons, boats, a portable bridge and even a printing press with moulds for striking money! There were also fifty men o’ war with fire ships and lighter craft to escort them and many small boats that needed to be lashed to the side of larger vessels to enable them to make the crossing.

And what was King James doing whilst these preparations were going on? Not a lot, actually, at first. There were rumours that Prince William was planning to invade but he did not take the threat seriously. Samuel Pepys, the Secretary of the Admiralty, did take it seriously and tried to persuade him to commission the first and second rates, the grand battle fleet, but James was unwilling to spend the money. Pepys did manage to persuade him to man two third rates and three fourth rates, but James refused to be panicked and listened to his advisers, such as his chief minister, Lord Sunderland, who were convinced that if William did come he would not be foolish enough to brave the Autumn weather but would wait until the Spring.

Samuel Pepys

When they finally realised they were wrong, Pepys put to sea everything the Navy had that would stay afloat in the Autumn storms and even recalled the fleet from the straits of Gibraltar, all the way from the southern tip of Spain. Ships from every shipyard in the country were assembled at the Buoy of the Nore, in the mouth of the Thames estuary, and he worked round the clock to equip them, but he was short of guns and sailors. The press gangs were waiting for the merchant ships to come into port and soldiers were being taken on board if no others could be found.

William’s expedition did not have a very auspicious start. The first time they set sail the gales scattered the ships and they were forced to return. Only one ship was lost and no men but, sadly, thirteen hundred of the horses had suffocated by the time they managed to get them out. When the news reached James, he insisted that the wind had declared itself Popish!

Pepys was still concerned and pointed out to him that if the wind had not stopped William then their own fleet, which had been moved from the Nore to the Gunfleet, would have been trapped and powerless to prevent him from landing. James sent an order for Admiral Dartmouth to cross the sea and put a stop to the invasion whilst it was still in shambles but Dartmouth had a dilemma; most of his captains were Protestant and many of them were not loyal to James. He feared they might simply turn their ships over to William, given the chance.

And so it was without any opposition that William’s fleet finally sailed to England on the 1st of November 1688, saluting Dover and Calais with their guns as they passed through the Straits of Dover and playing drums and trumpets for the benefit of the people watching them from the Dover cliffs.

William had originally planned to land in the north but the wind was making it difficult so he decided to make for Torbay, in the west, instead and the huge fleet anchored off the little fishing village of Brixham, much to the surprise of the villagers!

Brixham - William of Orange Monument

There was little accommodation to be had there so William, the future king of England, spent his first night in his new country sleeping in a fisherman’s hut!

They marched to London, gathering recruits and supporters along the way, slowly at first, for people still remembered the terrible price paid by those who had supported the Duke of Monmouth’s ill-fated rebellion, but it soon became obvious to James that he was under a real threat and he rallied his forces to meet him in battle.

Unfortunately for James, most of the soldiers felt the same way about him as the sailors did. Many deserted and went over to join William, including his own son-in-law Prince George, who was married to his younger daughter, Anne. The real blow came for James, though, when John Churchill, later to become the Duke of Marlborough, changed sides. James had been a generous patron to Churchill, whose sister, Arabella, had once been his mistress, and could have expected that he, at least, would have remained loyal.

He returned to London and, when it became evident that he would not be able to negotiate a settlement with William, he managed to escape, on the second attempt, and followed his wife and baby son to France, where his cousin Louis welcomed him, even giving over to him the chateau of St. Germain.

So the ‘Glorious Revolution’ came about without battle or bloodshed, which had been exactly William’s intention. He and Mary were crowned as joint King and Queen on the 11th of April 1689 and became our first constitutional monarchs, not absolute as their predecessors had been, but answerable to the parliament and the people.

And James? The following year King Louis equipped him with an army and he sailed to Ireland in an attempt to raise supporters there and regain his crown.

But that is quite another story!


Judith Thomson lives in Sussex and is passionate about the seventeenth century She has gained much inspiration from her time spent in London and her regular visits to Paris and Versailles.
She likes to paint, enjoys boating on the French canals and scuba diving.
Judith has written five historical novels to date, based around the actual events of the period, set in both England and France. They follow the life and adventures of her main character, Philip Devalle, and have been published by Troubador. They are all available from https://www.troubador.co.uk/ as well as Amazon  and most book stores.

For more information about Judith and her books, please visit:
She also writes regular blogs on:
Follow her on Twitter @JudithThomson14

Also by Judith Thomson:

Thursday, March 14, 2019

Lower Brockhampton Estate

by Judith Arnopp

Lower Brockhamptom is timeless. The timber-framed house and gatehouse nestle in a valley, ringed by a damson orchard and historic woodland. The house emerges as you walk up the drive and the sight halts you in your tracks and mesmerised, you reach for your camera. 

The manor was home to the same family for 900 years. The land has been occupied since Anglo Saxon times, with the house first mentioned in the 12th century, and the current dwelling dating back to the late medieval, extended further in the Tudor period.

As an author writing in the medieval/Tudor period, places like Lower Brockhampton are invaluable. I prefer to visit out of season, when there are fewer tourists, less intrusive signage and visitor attractions to distract from the past I am trying to locate.

I entered the gatehouse first. It was clearly built for status, not defence and according to the guidebook, may have been a ‘visual pun’ in its mirroring of the manor behind. From the outside the gatehouse is a wonky, half-timbered delight, the diamond casements twinkling a welcome.


I passed into the shadow of the gate. There have been many repairs and alterations over the years; the staircase is 17th century, the bargeboards on the south gable are modern copies from restoration in 1999. I run my fingers over the magnificent studded door and instinct tells me it is original. The guidebook confirms this and directs me to examine the bargeboards to the north, also original, the carving still remarkably vivid for its age.

The upper floor is uneven, the beamed ceiling aged to a glorious golden brown. On the walls you can trace the vague shadow of religious marks symbolising the Virgin Mary which, again according to the guide book, support the rumours of illegal Catholic masses held there during the Protestant years. I look around at the evidence of summer swallows and house martins, the ancient floors now trodden only by modern tourists, and wish those praying Catholics would show themselves and tell me how things really were.

Inside the main house, the National Trust direct visitors along a trail that follows the history of the manor’s inhabitants. The great hall for instance is laid out in 17th-century style but it is possible to see how it worked as a medieval hall. As you move through the building, the artefacts and the manner in which the rooms were used become more familiar. Close to the end of the trail, the Lounge looks just like my grandmother’s house once did with a fireplace, a writing desk, a radio and a three piece suite. Being contrary by nature, I walked round in the opposite direction so I could emerge with the earlier period fresh in my mind.

It was the outside that made my creative juices begin to flow. I strolled around the moat, examined the much plainer architecture at the back of the building, craned my neck to see the vast Tudor chimneys and was lured toward the silent peace of the ruined chapel.


In the undergrowth were small scurrying creatures whose way of life at Lower Brockhamptom hasn’t altered at all. The crows in the wood, the ducks on the moat, the moles who have dug up the meadow and garden provide the sights and sounds that remain unchanged.


It was particularly cold, even for late March, with huge cumulonimbus clouds decorating the blue sky. Every so often, the sun burst from their cover, stimulating reflections on the moat that mirrored the manor, the gatehouse, the sky – revealing another world beneath; a world very much like this one but enticing – the place I’d been seeking, the house where my characters dwell. I sat down, took out my notebook and asked if I could join them ...


Judith Arnopp writes historical fiction set in the medieval and Tudor period. She writes from a female perspective featuring women like Margaret Beaufort, Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth of York and Katheryn Parr. Her most recent novel, Sisters of Arden, traces the fate of three nuns during the dissolution of the monasteries

You can find out more on her webpage: www.judithmarnopp.com
or her author page: author.to/juditharnoppbooks

You can also follow her on social media.
Photographs © Judith Arnopp

Wednesday, March 13, 2019

England and France: Sibling Rivalry

By Erica Lainé

Robert and Isabelle Tombs wrote a book* - which begins in the 1600s, charting the relationship between England and France - called That Sweet Enemy, a quote from a 1591 sonnet by Sir Philip Sidney: ‘That sweet enemy, France.’ But there were quarrels, bitter and sweet, long before this.

The First Hundred Years War

The 100 Years War, lasting from 1337 to 1453, has been the subject of much in-depth research and critical analysis. Some French historians refer to an earlier period from 1154 to 1259 as the First 100 Years War. When Eleanor of Aquitaine, newly divorced from the French heir Prince Louis, married Henry of Anjou in 1152, this marriage set in train a relationship between England and France that was almost that of siblings. Henry became King of England in 1154 and ruled over that vast land mass from the borders with Scotland to the Pyrenees, with Aquitaine sitting like a very rich plum in the middle of the pie.

This did not make for an easy relaxed partnership between the two crowns.  Instead it was a relationship full of petty squabbles, some periods of savage fighting and frequent competition. The English and the French shared a feudal Christian heritage during the Middle Ages and had overlapping areas of influence, especially as the English kings, the Anglo-Angevins, tried to hold onto their lands in continental France. So a common heritage, but where they differed was in the size of the domains held and wealth and power. Their main interactions were based on trade and war.

In France the Capets held the île de France and relied on surrounding counties, Champagne, Burgundy, Blois and Flanders for support. France was not unified by allegiances to the centre or indeed by language and culture. Power was shared out among many feudal lords and some of these had very divided loyalties. From time to time each monarch tried to enlist the support of his rival’s men; local risings were stirred up against both the English and French kings. 

Further problems were caused by English nobles who held lands in France and swore loyalty to the French king but were called upon by their English overlord to fight against him. There was no unified state in the modern sense. Power was fragmented amongst this melange of feudal lords. Monarchs could not command direct authority over them; local dukes and counts or major towns owed the king, as their overlord, a duty of obedience but within their own territories they could act as independent rulers. When a king managed to get most of the big players on his side, they would support him; if not they could and frequently did rebel. Especially when they felt he or his officials were encroaching too much on their independence. 

And the problem of loyalty existed for the king himself. As English monarchs also had titles and lands within France, these possessions made them vassals to the kings of France. They had to swear fidelity to the French king as a duke of those lands, not as the King of England but as, for example the Duke of Normandy. Normandy was a huge sticking point and in May 1200, King John and Philippe Augustus signed a treaty at Le Goulet in an attempt to end the war over the duchy and to draw up new borders. Philippe now had a legal right over the English king’s lands but not over Aquitaine, which was still held by John as heir to Eleanor of Aquitaine.  

By 1202 the two kings were at loggerheads as Philippe had summoned John to answer charges brought against him by the Lusignans and John had refused to attend the court. He argued that as a king he did not need to answer such commands. Philippe replied that he summoned him as vassal duke of France and deposed him of his fiefs and went to war for Normandy. He was successful and Normandy was lost in 1204.

South West France: A Rebellious Region 

South West France from just below the Loire to the Pyrenees was not a heavily populated region. Aquitaine was a confusing collection of a dozen or so counties. Few towns of any significant size existed before 1200. But there was a growing sense of power and independence and many castles and fortified churches (which can be seen to this day) were built by forceful local lords and bishops.

Siorac de Riberac 

Who owned the Poitou? It was complicated. John seems to have agreed that it belonged to his mother and that it was hers to have and to hold forever. In May 1199 after he inherited the English crown, she ceded it to him as ‘her right heir’ and received his homage for it.  She made over to him the rights to govern and the fealty of its vassals. But one month later she also met Philippe and he had allowed her make homage to him for the Poitou, and this act formally recognised her as its lawful countess. Eleanor was determined to be the person legally responsible for the Poitou as far as the king of France was concerned. Perhaps she knew that the region would not be as loyal to her son as it was to her. The Poitevins had been described by William Marshal as ‘scheming traitors.’

Poitiers was Eleanor’s stronghold, a well-fortified town and always dominant. Further south control moved from Périgeuex to Angoulême and Thouars. Among the powerful local lords were the Lords of Lusignan and this map shows how their influence grew. 

Draft map - John and Erica Lainé

Their story is almost archetypical for the region. Swerving loyalties, savage raids on towns that stood out against them, grasping at charters and taxes and tolls, brutal ambushes, lies and treachery. In 1220 Hugh Lusignan married the widow of King John, Isabella of Angoulême thus binding himself to Henry III as his step-father. Except he was only loyal when it suited him. They were both happy to turn away to the French king when it didn’t and as the French could offer far more in the way of cash, betrothals and promises of more land the swerving allegiance paid well.

The Poitou was eyed by the Capets as a region they wanted under their control and King Louis VIII (who as Prince Louis had been invited, in 1215, to take the English throne at the time of the Barons’ War) decided in 1224 to ride down from Bourges and take it. Louis mopped up every Poitevin town with ease and besieged La Rochelle, which looked in vain to England for support. 

When Henry III decided to campaign in 1230 to take back the Poitou he was helped and encouraged by the Duke of Brittany, and other rebellious French lords who were intent on unseating Blanche of Castile, a formidable mother to a young King Louis IX. Henry’s campaign meandered down the Poitou to Bordeaux and back again and achieved nothing except expense and loss of life to disease, most likely malaria as the Vendée was marshy and the army marched through here in the height of the summer.  

Battle of Taillebourg:  Delacroix 1834: public domain

In 1242 Henry tried again to retake the Poitou and safeguard Gascony, his mother and step father had called on him for help as their independence was severely threatened by the Capets. They had invested King Louis’s brother Alphonse, as Count of Poitou and called for all kinds of allegiances to be sworn and homages made. This was another disastrous campaign ending in the Battle of Taillebourg, which Henry lost.  

The Poitou was now firmly part of the newly expanded France. Henry retreated to Bordeaux and was determined to hold onto Gascony and the lucrative wine trade.
The relationship between England and France continued to be uneasy until the Treaty of Paris in 1259. Henry III held Gascony and pockets of the Poitou and it was as Duke of Gascony and King of England that he negotiated. His resources seemed to be eternally limited though and at one stage he pawned the crown jewels to fund an expedition to put down strife in Gascony.  

Two Kingdoms: One Problem, Two Solutions 

For both the kings of France and England there was a similar difficult situation. However much they might desire to wage a major war, a king’s private income could not finance a costly war. 

The English kings’ problem was maintaining an army across the sea in France and having access to safe ports. The ports in Normandy were lost after John’s defeat. La Rochelle remained a safe haven until Louis took it, thus depriving Henry III of a landing place for easy excursions into the Poitou. Unless the Duke of Brittany was paid great sums of money, St Malo would be a place of unwelcome piracy and raids. It was a long and difficult voyage to sail down the Bay of Biscay to Royan or the mouth of the Gironde. Knights, soldiers, provisions and horses had to be carried by ship. Mercenaries had to be paid.  All of this was very expensive. 

When Henry III inherited an almost bankrupt kingdom he struggled to find money to regain those lost French lands.  A king who was now relying on contributions from the magnates and the church and who had to persuade, but not coerce them, or face rebellion.  Raising money for warfare by imposing a new tax meant asking a nascent parliament for agreement.  Often the council was reluctant to do so, unless they were convinced that the war was of benefit to them, and held out for concessions. Gradually this became how the king and his circle, the king and the magnates conducted policy. It had all the ingredients to make for a belligerent and acrimonious relationship. This tussle led to the beginnings of a political system where the centres of power, nobles, the Church, the king and his advisers would determine their differences in the context of parliament. 

In France the problem was in reverse. The campaigns were fought on its soil and the towns and villages and people suffered. It became easier for French kings to justify taxes to raise armies and maintain them, even if lords and knights would only give their 40 days of service before returning home. The king asked for aid and it was very rarely refused. Louis IX had a healthy annual revenue of between £200,000 and £250,000 parisi. During his reign the monetary system in France consolidated and stabilised. His father and grandfather had been prudent and managed to have sons who did not quarrel within the family or turn against them. 

Taxes were collected year after year without there necessarily being a war to justify the imposition and without the necessity for an assenting vote. The church and the French kings also tended to be in agreement most of the time, which kept the balance of power firmly with the king. 

The several wars that made up the First 100 years War and The 100 Years War paved the way for the French kings to build a very central and absolute monarchy. 

Two Kings, Two Systems

In each situation these years of war, helped to shift both England and France onto a new path. In France, instead of various magnates controlling large, almost princedoms within the borders, there was now a sense of greater unity. The king did not rule only because of their support and consent. His power extended throughout the realm, and this began in the late 1220s. The concept of a sovereign king rather than a suzerain or feudal overlord was born and France was becoming a nation–state. But always with the king and his officials firmly holding centre stage. 

The concept of an English nationality became more apparent now that the English were expelled from France. Borders were more defined; possessions on the continent were no more. Loyalty was more straightforward. And so strong central government came about in England too, but here it was a partnership between king and parliament. In 1236 the term parliament was recorded for the first time. A new term for something that was often fractious and inconsistent. But it described the assemblies and councils held by the Anglo-Saxons and which had existed for many centuries. Now it evolved again. 

This article began with a quote from the 16th century and it ends with one from the 15th. Sir John Fortescue, a Chief Justice of the King's Bench, reflected that the king of France could rule his people by such laws as he made himself and set taxes without their assent. The king of England by contrast could not rule his people 'by laws other than those the people had assented to'. 

[*Tombs, Robert and Tombs, Isabelle, That Sweet Enemy: Britain and France: The History of a Love-Hate Relationship, Vintage 2008]


Erica Lainé has been an actress, a beauty consultant, a box office manager for an arts festival, a domiciliary librarian, a reader liaison officer, a speech and drama teacher, a writer of TEFL textbooks for Chinese primary schools, and an educational project manager for the British Council in Hong Kong. She was awarded an MBE for her work there. 

After Hong Kong she came to south west France with her architect husband to live in the house he had designed, a conversion from a cottage and barn. She is president of An Aquitaine Historical Society and through this came to know about Isabella Taillefer, the subject of her trilogy. Isabella of Angoulême: The Tangled Queen.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Giveaway: Abiding Fire by MJ Logue

Sapere Books and author MJ Logue are offering one paperback copy and one e-book copy of Abiding Fire.

How do you solve a murder when you are one of the suspects…

1664, London

Life should be good for Major Thankful Russell and his new bride, Thomazine. Russell, middle-aged and battle-scarred, isn’t everyone’s idea of the perfect husband for an eligible young woman but the moment Thomazine set eyes on her childhood hero, she knew they were destined for one another.

But Russell, a former Roundhead, now working for the King’s intelligence service, was never going to have a simple life in Restoration London.

Unable to shake suspicions of his Parliamentarian past, someone seems hell-bent on ruining his reputation — and his life.

Whispers about his sister’s violent murder follow him and accusations of treason abound.

When more deaths occur Russell finds himself under suspicion.

He is ready to escape from the capital, but Thomazine is determined to find the truth and clear the name of the man she loves.

But who is the real killer and why are they so keen to frame Russell? More importantly, will they succeed?

And has Thomazine’s quest put them all in mortal danger?

An Abiding Fire is the first book in the Thomazine and Major Russell Thriller series, compelling historical mysteries with a dash of romance, set in seventeenth century England.

‘written in a deceptively light, easy style that draws the reader in, until you’re frantically turning the pages to find out what happens, and the flavour, sights, sounds and smells of Restoration London, in all its crowded, often squalid vitality, leap into life. Highly recommended’ - Pamela Belle

‘everything in this book is utterly believable and solidly historical, right down to the gloriously funny dialogue and rather personal details…’ - P F Chisholm

‘a suspenseful read peppered with humour, and earthy language enough to lighten and lift the reader in between the more sinister elements as they unfold’ - Romance Reviews Magazine

‘London is brought vividly to life, the historical setting is impeccable, the plot is well-constructed, but it is the characters that make this book. Both Thomazine and Thankful step out of the pages to become real, believable, people. M. J. Logue has delivered an excellent read and I hope there will be many more books about Thomazine and Thankful—preferably sooner than later’ – Discovering Diamonds

For a chance to win, please leave a comment stating your preference for e-book or paperback and leave your contact details. If you prefer not to leave your contact details then please check back after the giveaway closes at midnight Sunday 17 March Pacific Daylight Time which is 8am Monday 18 March GMT to find out if you are a winner.

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, March 10, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Every week our contributing authors tell of saints or sinners, politics or war. Read about kings and queens, the common people, and legends from ancient to post-WWII. Never miss a post on English Historical Fiction Authors. Enjoy this re-cap of posts for the week ending March 9.

Friday, March 8, 2019

Slipcoat Cheese

by M. J. Logue

Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
The time has come, the Ironside said, to talk of many things: of Banbury cheese, and slipcote cheese, and sometimes headless kings.

Banbury cheese must wait another day, for my accomplish't delight on this occasion is slipcoat cheese.

You may have heard of slipcoat - or spell it slipcote – cheese in historical fiction, but it's shamefully unlikely that you'll have ever tasted it: modern slipcoat is only commercially available from one dairy, High Weald Dairy in Suffolk, and that's a sheep's cheese. One theory of its name is that it’s allowed to ripen until the cloth it drains on peels away easily from the curds: the other, favoured by the dairy, that slip is dialect for little, and cote refers to a cottage, as in cottage cheese.

Kenelm Digby writing in the 1660s offers several recipes for it. “The Closet Of Sir Kenelm Digby Knight, Opened 'in 1669 gives us:

"Take three quarts of the last of the stroakings of as many Cows as you have; keep it covered, that it may continue warm; put to it a skimming dishful of Spring-water; then put in two spoonfuls of Runnet, so let it stand until it be hard come: when it is hard come, set your fat on the bottome of a hair-sieve, take it up by degrees, but break it not; when you have laid it all in the fat, take a fine cloth, and lay it over the Cheese, and work it in about the sides, with the back of a Knife; then lay a board on it, for half an hour: after half an hour, set on the board an half pound stone, so let it stand two hours; then turn it on that board, and let the cloth be both under and over it, then pour it into the fat again; Then lay a pound and half weight on it; Two hours after turn it again on a dry cloth, and salt it, then set on it two pound weight, and let it stand until the next morning. Then turn it out of the Cheese-fat, on a dry board, and so keep it with turning on dry boards three days. In case it run abroad, you must set it up with wedges; when it begins to stiffen, lay green grass or rushes upon it: when it is stiff enough, let rushes be laid both under and over it. If this Cheese be rightly made, and the weather good to dry it, it will be ready in eight days: but in case it doth not dry well, you must lay it on linnen-cloth, and woollen upon it, to hasten the ripening of it."

We’re not really familiar with the concept of “new” cheese as such, cheese that’s not intended to be stored for any length of time but eaten soft, straightaway. Slipcoat is a simple cheese, the salted curds are pressed under a light weight and then it’s aged until the cloth peels away from the cheese easily. The 1653 cookbook 'A True Gentlewomans Delight' very wisely suggests that, "if you find any mouse turd wipe it off, the Cheese will come to his eating in eight or nine dayes." It’s very much the kind of cheese a farmer’s wife would have made in the spring and early summer when her cows were giving a high yield, for the family’s immediate consumption – what was left over after the more heavily-salted and pressed cheeses to be stored for the lean months. 

Most “new” cheeses were cooking, rather than eating, cheeses – the way we use ricotta today. It’s not a soft texture like Brie or Camembert – despite the name it’s not a spoonable, almost runny, cheese – and nor is it crumbly, like a Cheshire. It’s closer to a sort of feta, but not, as you’ll note from the recipe, salted: moist, friable, and not portable at all. Cheese was, obviously, a way of storing up the surplus of dairy produce for the time when it wasn’t in such abundance, but most was intended for personal consumption: only the surplus was sold on to a wider market, and so there are quantities of recipes in period cookery books for what we’d now consider “fresh” cheeses.

Slipcoat is interesting in that it’s weighted by degrees, just like a hard cheese, but using much lighter weights, which results in a much more open texture. Modern “fresh” cheese recommends 10 lbs of pressure for 20 minutes, followed by 25 lbs for 2-5 hours – but then it isn’t ripened, which slipcoat is, so its taste is much more complex than you’d expect from such a simple recipe.

With the onset of the Industrial Revolution – and the increasing need of the armed forces for mass-produced rations suitable for long storage – home dairying started to become less common as the age of the small self-sufficient farm passed, and so many of the unripened new cheese recipes passed from history as not commercially viable. It’s only really now that raw milk is becoming available again, and there’s an increased interest in home cheese-making, that we’re looking again at the recipes of the past for inspiration.

M. J. Logue is a writer, mad cake lady, re-enactor, and historian. Being slightly potty about the clankier side of Ironside for around 20 years, she lists amongst her heroes in this unworthy world Sir Thomas Fairfax, Elizabeth Cromwell and John Webster (for his sense of humour). When not purveying historically-accurate cake to various re-enactment groups across the country, M.J. Logue can usually be discovered practising in her garden with a cavalry backsword.

She can be found on Twitter @Hollie_Babbitt, lurking on the web at asweetdisorder.com, and posting photos of cake, cats and extreme embroidery on Instagram as asweetdisorder

M.J. Logue's latest novel, An Abiding Fire, is available for purchase from Amazon

Wednesday, March 6, 2019

Flanders 1793: A Tale of Two Diaries

By Dominic Fielder
‘Somewhere there was a fault.’
The British campaign in Flanders, between 1793 and 1795, feels like an often-overlooked footnote in British military history. A disaster, that if we somehow look away, will be neatly swept under a rug, and we can return to the familiar narrative of a series of coalitions against France until the victory of Waterloo. Fortescue’s British Campaigns in Flanders is still the seminal work for understanding this campaign and sets the two diaries in context. The anonymous writer known as ‘Officer of the Guard’, was a member of the Duke of York’s staff and is a mixture of beautiful verse and pithy prose. Robert Brown’s account as corporal in the Coldstream Guards, is observant of the everyday. A shared war from very different social strata. 

Terra Firma at length, thank my stars! We have gain’d,
And our raptures, believe me, can scarce be explain’d.
With more transport the breast of a debtor ne’er heav’d,
From straw and his fourpence per diem reliev’d,
Than ours when we shook all our friends by the hand,
As they joyfully leap’d from the decks on dry land.
                                                                Officer of the Guards Vol 1
In February 1793, the French Convention declared war on Great Britain. In response, Great Britain sent a small army, a brigade initially with more men to follow. It was necessary to be on the continent, to be seen to be ‘doing our bit’ to restore the French monarchy; there were after all, political prizes to be had! While the Guards’ officers were no doubt keen to be rid of an overcrowded ship, Corporal Brown makes no mention of the hardship, instead comparing the villages around the port of Helleveotsluis to the country he had just left, ‘The streets are regular and kept remarkably clean, as well as the outside of their houses, which they are continually washing’.

The gaining of Terra Firma was an obvious relief to all the Duke’s soldiers. It had been a less than auspicious start.
The port of Hellevoetsluis at Hollands Diep  

The parade of two thousand guardsmen which had set off along the Mall had turned into a drunken ramble by the time it had reached Greenwich. Soldiers were loaded into three overcrowded transports. A soldier slipped on a gang-plank, fell and shattered his leg. Amongst the doctors in the three battalions, no medical supplies could be found. None had been loaded but at least the campaign furniture of the Guards officers had. Some consolation at least. The young officer from York’s inner circle foreshadowed the days ahead, “Somewhere there was a fault.”

The epitaph of the Flanders campaign.

The ships that sailed into Hollands Diep narrowly avoided a storm that would have surely wrecked them. Such an auspicious start was compounded by the constraints of operational orders sent by the government, and Henry Dundas in particular, which attempted to shackle the Duke’s army to a protection of the landing places along Hollands Diep. In early March 1793, there were around 2000 men under the Duke’s command. Two weeks earlier, the French convention had passed a law to levy 300,000 men to be added to a standing army that John Lynn in The Bayonets of the Republic suggested had shrunk from 450,000 in November to 290,000 in February 1793.

While the French were fighting on every border, the Army of the North, under General Dumouriez was around 23,000 with the Army of the Ardennes also nominally under his control. Fortescue paints Dumouriez as the supreme chancer, his aims with the Army of the North uncertain. It seems more likely that Dumouriez had designs on capturing Amsterdam and its gold rather than The Hague and the seat of the Dutch Stadtholder.

The war for Corporal Brown is one that any soldier across the ages could identify with. Marching, waiting, marching again. In fact, there was to be no major engagement in Holland. The French had begun a siege of Willemstadt, a fortress on the south bank of Hollands Diep, but the arrival of a strong Austrian army under Prince Josias, drew Dumouriez and the bulk of his men in the direction of Brussels and a fateful battle.

As the moment of high drama approached, the tempo of the ever present politicking increased. The Duke of York was given license to move further inland but strict instructions from Dundas that the ‘British army’ was not to become just another corps in Josias’ ranks. Two thousand men would barely constitute an Austrian corps but that was being rectified. Hanover was to supply 15,000 infantry and around 5,000 cavalry. More Germans, Hessian troops, would follow as well as several squadrons of British cavalry. All this due by May, but by then the emergency and the chance to secure the peace dividend and political prize could well be lost.

The Duke of York. The King's choice as the commander
of the British army on the continent in 1793.

Dunkirk might seem a strange choice as compensation for Great Britain’s efforts but, along with other French colonies in the West Indies, Fortescue suggests that such a deal had been brokered by Austria. The Imperials from Vienna were playing a much greater endgame, to ensure both its close ties with the restored House of Bourbon but also to expand north into Saxony. By greasing the palms and soothing the consciences of other nations, Prussia was also to receive French territory in the Austrian plan, who could deny Austria a rightful prize when she alone asked nothing of France. Pitt’s embattled administration thought that possessing a little part of France would play well at home with the mob.

Such manoeuvring was scarce confined to the allies. Dumouriez, the master strategist, had a foot firmly planted in both worlds and a step light enough to stay one move ahead of the guillotine. He was perhaps the last man to hold a private counsel with Louis XVI before the King’s execution. A courtier of some thirty years but also the Revolutionary Minister for War and now Commander of the Army of the North. Dumouriez believed that his men were more loyal to him than to France, much as Lafayette had done, the year before. A miscalculation that had nearly cost his predecessor his life.

When the negotiations between Dumouriez and Prince Josias first occurred, I cannot be certain. On the 18th March 1793, the two armies fought at Neerwinden. The Austrian victory sent the French reeling back towards their northern border. Somewhere in that time frame, the Convention in Paris heard that Dumouriez planned to defect. By the 1st of April, a delegation had arrived from Paris to arrest the traitorous general, only for Dumouriez to have them arrested and sent to the Austrian camp.

The timeframe is too tight for these events to play out consecutively. Eleven days for secret negotiations to be discovered, reported to Paris, a decision made and a delegation dispatched to the frontier? Which draws the obvious conclusion of collusion between Dumouriez and the Austrian Prince Josias before Neerwinden, making the battle a bargaining chip and the treachery to have been relayed to Paris from within the General’s close circle. If Dumouriez won, he had more choice. Amsterdam could still be taken. And with money, why restore an unpopular monarchy when a new-style of revolutionary leader might be more acceptable to the masses? The defeat weakened his hand but would the ultimate gambit of changing sides bear fruit?

So he sent the commissioners, under arrest,
To the Austrian encampment, and stood forth confess’d,
A friend to their cause, undertaking to bring
His army to publish young Louis their King.
And instantly mounting the modest cockade,
The power of his rhet’rick the Champion essay’d.
To his florid narration the answer reciev’d
Was, “Vive Dumouriez” Sounds he fondly believed. 

Five thousand Frenchmen followed Dumouriez into exile, less than one in eight that had taken the field at Neerwinden. The rest of the Army of the North could return to France on the swearing of oaths by officers that its men would not bear arms again. Prince Josias was roundly condemned by his allies, even publicly by his own Emperor for the attempts to woo Dumouriez. For the rest of April, the Allies bickered about how best to impose peace, without it seems, the smallest concern that they still had to beat the French to accomplish such lofty goals. At the end of April, Prussia proposed its own negotiations with the Army of the North, to affect a mass defection, and found itself on the end of various verbal attacks from rest of the coalition.

Dumouriez, a man for all seasons? 

A plan was eventually agreed, the capture of the fortress at Valenciennes, which opened a route to Paris. The battle itself, called the battle of Camp Famars, foreshadowed the events of 1794. There were no maps of the terrain. If any reconnaissance had been undertaken, that information failed to reach the frontline. What it did expose was the propensity of the troops to plunder, a scene that appalled Corporal Brown “Every house was plundered in a most unseemly manner, by the Austrians and others of the foreign troops; whose hardened hearts, neither the entreaties of old age, the tears of beauty, the cries of children, nor the moving scenes of the most accumulated distress can touch with pity.” 

Valenciennes fell in a protracted siege at the end of July. The Army of the North, whose leaders had either defected, died at its helm or faced the guillotine for their ‘failures’, retreated. The allies pursued and Paris was just eleven days march away. But the coalition faltered again. The fortress of Lille would be at the backs of the allied forces and the Austrians feared having their supply lines severed. The Duke of York, with two brigades of British infantry and his Hanoverian and Hessian contingent was under pressure to secure Dunkirk before it was too late. After all, grabbing the city once the revolution had been beaten might look a little disingenuous. There was a last meeting between Prince Josias and the Duke of York before the British, with a corps of 10,000 Austrians acting as corps of communications, moved north.

With this moment of separation, the coalition lost the momentum and tempo of the war and would never regain it.

If ever you do attempt to follow the machinations of this campaign, do invest in a map of northern France. How the Austrian corps that accompanied the Duke was meant to protect communications between Josias and York has baffled my understanding. Lille and Dunkirk are around 50 miles apart. That is just one of the many farces that this rich campaign has still to reveal.

The story of Dunkirk and the fateful days of September 1793 are for another post.


The King’s Germans is a project that has been many years in the making. Currently Dominic Fielder manages to juggle writing and research around a crowded work and family life. The Black Lions of Flanders (set in 1793) is the first in the King’s Germans’ series, which will follow an array of characters through to the final book in Waterloo. The King of Dunkirk will soon be released and Dominic hopes that the response to that is as encouraging as the reviews of Black Lions have been.
Dominc lives just outside of Tavistock, in Devon where he enjoys walking on the moors and the occasional horse-riding excursion as both inspiration and relaxation.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2019

The "Lost" History of the Town of Swindon

by Nicola Cornick

Old map of Swindon

The town of Swindon in Wiltshire is not well-known for its pre-industrial era history. It rose to prominence in the early nineteenth century, first with the building of the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal in 1810 and later when it became a centre for the repair and maintenance of locomotives on the Great Western Railway. The development of a railway village and subsequently Swindon “new town” eclipsed the little village on the hill which had existed since before the Norman Conquest and which subsequently became known as “old town.” In fact some books seem to write Swindon’s pre-industrial past completely out of history. “Swindon was virtually a new town that grew up around the railway” is the only line about it in Mark Girouard’s book “The English Town,” dismissing centuries of Swindonian history. 

At the other extreme is a very different publication: William Morris’s “Swindon of 50 Years Ago” written in 1885 which he freely admits is a collection of stories about the town and not a formal history, which he says would be impossible to write because “there is absolutely no material for such a purpose.” Somewhere between the two of these, though, Swindon does have a pre-railway history that is rich and fascinating.

We know from archaeological evidence that the hill on which Swindon Old Town was built has been inhabited for a very long time. Finds from the prehistoric, Bronze Age and Roman periods give an insight into the people who were living here down the centuries. The discovery of a Saxon settlement with pit buildings was particularly interesting as these were partially constructed below ground level and had thatched roofs. As well as being used for storage they are thought to have had a purpose rather like a community hall; they were a cultural focus for story-telling, music and dancing.

It was from the Old English that the name Swindon originally derived, Swine Down, a place that was a pasture for pigs. The Latin name for the village, Swyndon Super Montem which was used in formal documents in the medieval period literally meant “Swindon over the hill” which in time became High Swindon.

The Domesday Book gives a useful insight into the size and value of the village. At the time of the Norman Conquest it had a population of 27 households and was taxed on an income of 22 units of geld. The land was worth more in 1086 than in 1066 which was unusual because the conquest had depressed land values. This prosperity continued into the 12th and 13th centuries. The first documentary record of a market in Swindon was a reference to the fact that William de Valence had first established it in 1259. Certainly, the town is referred to as Chipping Swindon in 1289, and Chipping, of course, is a name derived from Old English meaning a market. Newport Street, the first recorded named road in Old Town, dating from 1346 is a record of the market that survives into the current day, “port” meaning a market town, a place where goods are transported and exchanged, so in this case, the new market at Swindon. Swindon was also a borough, which meant that it had been granted self-governance by the Crown and was entitled to elect its own MPs which it did in 1295. It was also a place where the justice was meted out at the court assizes.

A point that is frequently made by authors and historians writing the early history of Swindon is that it is a quiet little place where nothing much happened. Yet the historical record disputes this. For a town to be incorporated as a borough, for it to elect MPs and for it to hold a market is all evidence of a very active history of investment and development. The prominence of towns grows and wanes over the centuries; we see it on a larger scale with places like Norwich, the second largest city in England in the 16thcentury with Norfolk as the most populous county in England, and we see it on a much smaller scale with the prominence of market towns like Highworth and Swindon. In 1334, for example, Swindon Old Town was comparable in size and wealth with Devizes.

The remains of Holy Rood church
This small but relatively prosperous town is recorded as having a parish church, Holy Rood, dating from 1154 although no remains of that original church can be found. However, some of the ruins that are still visible date from the 14th century. They stand close by the site of the old Goddard family manor house at what is now the Lawns Park. We also know that in 1086 Swindon already had a mill as this is mentioned in the Domesday Book. Although the mill buildings are long vanished, landscape archaeology reveals the dips and depressions in the ground via which one can trace the entire watercourse. Like so many of the villages along the Ridgeway, Swindon was on the spring line which facilitated a supply of water.

The existence of the springs and the mill also gives clues to the origin of one of the local road names, the Planks, because a raised causeway had to be built leading from the town to the church to enable people to arrive for services without getting wet or dirty from the spring waters.

Another old street name, Windmill Street, now Wood Street, hints at the fact that water power alone wasn’t sufficient to supply the needs of Swindon’s medieval population. Spring waters are notoriously unreliable and in a place as high as Swindon hill the alternative wind power for grinding grain was very useful. The name Windmill Street fell out of use in the late 16th century and Wood Street came in with the industrialisation of the area, where timber yards, farriers and other businesses sprang up. Wood Street developed into the merchant quarter of the town.

The basic structure of the streets that we still see in Swindon Old Town today was already in place by the medieval period. The market square was to the east of what is now the High Street. This name was first recorded in 1645 but almost certainly in use before that. This was a more prestigious road with larger houses and the principal inns of the town. 16 High Street is a surviving 17th-century house that was built on what is known to be a former medieval burgage plot. The long, narrow strip of land behind the frontage and the alleyway down the side of the house are still in existence, taking us straight back to Swindon’s medieval roots.

Swindon’s prosperity dipped in the mid-17th century as a result of the devastation wrought over the area by the English Civil War. However, by the end of the 17th century the re-discovery of the stone quarries, first worked in Roman times, had led to an increase in both prosperity and population. Swindon stone was smooth and white, suitable for the interior of houses. Quarries of lesser quality provided stone for paving the streets of London.

A list of inhabitants in 1697 shows that it had more than doubled from the start of the century with almost 800 people and all levels of society represented: there were those who worked the land, an emerging middle class of shop-keepers and tradesmen; yeomen and gentlemen who owned property, including members of the Goddard and Villet families.

18th century Swindon was by all accounts a very pleasant place to live. John Britton, an antiquary who was born near Chippenham referred to the politeness of the society there in his book “The Beauties of Wiltshire,” published in 1801. 'The pleasantness of its situation', he wrote, 'may have induced many persons of independent fortune to fix their residence at Swindon; and their mansions contribute as much to ornament the town as their social intercourse may be said to animate and enliven it.'

Inns flourished notably in Swindon. One of my favourite references to the town was dated 1627 and records that the constables considered (rather piously perhaps) that 9 licensed alehouses were too many for a relatively small town of approximately 300 people. We know the names of many of these inns: The Crown, built in the 16th century, was rebuilt and renamed The Goddard Arms in the 18th century in honour of the local landowners. The Bell, originally another 16th-century inn named the lapwing, had a particularly interesting history. Dutch and Flemish wool and cloth merchants established a base in Swindon in the early 18th century and, missing their local favourite tipple, gin, established an inn specifically to provide it.

The Bell Inn today

In this instance “bell” is short for bellarmine, a stoneware jug into which spirits were decanted. The bellarmine was named after Cardinal Robert Bellarmine who was a fierce opponent of the Dutch reformed church. Thus the tradition was to stamp his face on the jug and smash it when you had finished drinking.

There are persistent rumours that Swindon was the centre of a smuggling ring in the 18th century, a place where illicit spirits were stored having been brought into the ports of Dorset and carried across the wasteland of Salisbury Plain, before onward transmission to the Midlands. Certainly, there is an extensive network of tunnels beneath the old town, connecting the private houses and the inns and various other buildings. Research is still going on into the smuggling trade in Swindon; if it is proven it may turn out to be one of the most fascinating elements of pre-industrial Swindonian history!


Nicola Cornick is an international bestselling and award-winning novelist who has written over thirty historical romances and historical mysteries in a career spanning twenty years. She is the current chair of the Romantic Novelists’ Association UK.

Nicola studied History at the University of London and at Ruskin College Oxford and worked in academia for a number of years before becoming a full-time author. She volunteers as a guide and researcher for the National Trust at the 17thcentury Ashdown House and gives talks and seminars on a number of historical topics. 

Her latest book, The Woman in the Lake, is available for purchase through all major retailers.

Connect with Nicola through her Website, Facebook, Twitter (@NicolaCornick) and on the Word Wenches blog