Thursday, August 13, 2020

The Vulnerable Victorian Governess

by Mimi Matthews

The Governess by Richard Redgrave, 1844.

A governess occupied a unique position in a Victorian household. She was neither servant, nor family member. She existed in a sort of in-between world which often left her feeling isolated and alone. To combat this, the young governess was advised to cultivate a tolerance for solitude. Author Susan Ridout addresses this in her somewhat depressing nineteenth century book of advice, Letters to a Young Governess on the Principles of Education and Other Subjects Connected with Her Duties (1840):
“Consider therefore, before you enter a family, how far you are able to support the solitude into which you must be thrown, in such a situation. It is not now a separation merely from friends and relations to which you are called; it is a seclusion from society altogether, at least from any which sympathizes with you.”
Seclusion from society not only left a Victorian governess isolated and alone, it also left her vulnerable to the unwelcome advances of men, both in and out of the household. To that end, Ridout instructs the young governess to be gentle, modest, reserved, and dignified, stating that:
“If there are young men in the family where you reside, remember that your carriage will generally govern theirs; they will not presume, if you are discreet and unpretending.”
On occasion, modesty and dignified reserve did not provide enough of a deterrent to gentlemen who were determined to take liberties with an unprotected female. Cases abound of governesses who were kissed, groped, and otherwise assaulted in the course of their employment. On these unfortunate occasions, there was little incentive for the governess to complain to her employer, since, as Ridout implies, gentlemanly presumptions were generally marked down to some lapse in decorum on the part of the governess. If she brought them to the attention of the mistress or master of the household, she risked being let go without a reference.

Fortunately, the courts were not always as indifferent to the plight of governesses as the rest of society. Below are just a few instances of advances made toward young governesses, some of which were ultimately dealt with in a Victorian court of law.

Proposals, Elopements, and Bigamy

In some cases, the overtures of a gentleman of the household could lead to a marriage proposal. This happened with enough regularity—both in reality and in popular fiction—that the young governess could be forgiven for dreaming that she might, too, meet a wealthy Mr. Rochester during the course of her employment. In reality, however, the man of the house was usually more of a middle-aged fellow in a marital rut than a single, charismatic hero.

Arrival of a New Governess in a Merchant's House by Vasily Perov 1866.

The 18 November 1893 edition of the Yorkshire Gazette reports the case of Mr. Hearn, a wealthy, fifty-four year old father who had engaged Miss Crosswell, a governess, to instruct his daughters on the pianoforte. He subsequently fell in love with Miss Crosswell and made her an offer of marriage. Miss Crosswell eagerly accepted, but when Mr. Hearn’s daughters protested the engagement, he broke it off. Miss Crosswell pleaded with Mr. Hearn to stand by her. When he refused, she promptly sued him for breach of promise. According to the Yorkshire Gazette, the jury awarded her £475, a sum which they considered to be “an approximate pecuniary equivalent to her pain and loss.”

Often, the master of the house developed a tendre for the governess while still married to his wife. This caused quite a bit of tension in the household. The 17 September 1892 edition of the Dundee Evening Telegraph reports the case of a wealthy farmer who eloped with the family governess while still married. As the newspaper explains:
“His wife had occasion to remonstrate concerning his marked attentions to the attractive young lady who had for a considerable period acted as governess in the family.”
When confronted, the governess agreed to find another situation and asked for a leave of absence in order to do so. The husband left the family home at the same time, ostensibly on a business trip. The following day, the pair was spotted “at a junction in England,” after which they were never seen again.

A governess and her male employer in 1901 were not so lucky. The Sheffield Independent states that, after ten years of marriage, Leopold Moulton and his wife, Lucy, hired a governess named Miss Robson to teach their children. Less than two years later, Mr. Moulton and Miss Robson departed the family home, intending to elope together to Australia. The pair was “caught together at Marseilles,” at which point they made a full confession. Mrs. Moulton subsequently sued her husband for divorce on the grounds of cruelty and adultery and was granted a dissolution of marriage.


Far more common than marriage proposals and elopements, were the everyday instances of physical encroachments perpetrated against the vulnerable young governess. If committed by a member of the household, these insults were difficult to defend against. However, if an assault was perpetrated by a man outside of the home, a governess sometimes had recourse in the courts—especially if that assault was witnessed by others.

The Governess by Rebecca Solomon, 1851.

In 1874, while out walking in a field with her three young charges, governess Lydia Jackson crossed paths with Mr. John Bickley, a young gentleman of the neighbourhood who was heir to a great fortune. Mr. Bickley was driving by in a cart when he saw Miss Jackson gathering violets. He made disparaging remarks about the children and, when Miss Jackson did not reply, the 20 May 1874 edition of the Norwich Mercury states that Mr. Bickley “did something to his trowsers; and subsequently tying his horse up, he came towards plaintiff in that position.”

Miss Jackson ran. Mr. Bickley followed and soon overtook her, grabbing hold of her jacket. Miss Jackson was able to get free and, along with the children, ran to the cottage of a neighbour. When later confronted in court, Mr. Bickley denied he had ever even seen or spoken to Miss Jackson. He claimed she was either lying or that it was a case of mistaken identity. Fortunately, the children and the neighbour were all able to verify Mr. Bickley’s presence in the field of violets that afternoon. The Norwich Mercury reports that:
“The jury almost immediately returned a verdict for the plaintiff for the full amount claimed, namely £50, the usual costs following. His Honour, addressing the jury, said that if it was any satisfaction to them to know it, he quite concurred in the decision at which they had arrived.”
In a similar case from 1881, a governess by the name of Jane Hutton was out walking when Christopher Henderson, a railway worker, grabbed her by the wrist, pulled her close to him, and attempted to kiss her. Miss Hutton ran away, but, as the Dundee Courier relates:
“He ran after her and overtook her, and again seized hold of her by the wrist and arm, dragged her on to the embankment, pulled her on to his knee, and placed his arm round her waist.”
What happened next is not entirely clear from the reports, but whatever transpired, it was enough to result in Mr. Henderson being sentenced to thirty days' imprisonment.


Cases of governess murdered by their employer are not as numerous as those involving assault, but they do exist and are, in my opinion, some of the most tragic. Victorian governesses were often alone in the world, without friends or family to inquire after them if they should happen to disappear. With no one to ask questions, a governess’s murder could go undiscovered for years. For example, in 1843, a governess by the name of Miss Crossland was employed by Mr. and Mrs. Clarke at Firth Wood Farm. The 19 August 1893 edition of the Yorkshire Evening Post reports that:
“Clark became enamoured of her and got rid his wife, to whom he allowed £60 a year, while he retained Miss Crossland as housekeeper.”
Mr. Clarke was a big man who had been known to participate in prize fights. When Miss Crossland later disappeared, the locals assumed she had either “died in giving birth to a child” or met with foul play.

The New Governess by Thomas Ballard, (1836-1908).

Her ultimate fate was destined to remain a mystery until, forty years later, railway workers excavating a field near Firth Wood found “the remains of a young woman” buried in a shallow grave. The newspaper reports that “the skull was crushed on to the chest, and both jaws wore broken, as well as several ribs.” By this point, Mr. Clarke had long since died himself and, though the remains were widely believed to be those of Miss Crossland, the Coroner in the case declined to hold an inquest.

In Conclusion

Not every position held by a Victorian governess was fraught with physical danger. There were many families who were genuinely decent and respectable, allowing the governess to go about her duties without fear of being importuned by the gentlemen of the household. With that being said, it is important to remember just how vulnerable a governess was during the nineteenth century and just how precarious her situation could become if an unscrupulous man should decide to embark on a seduction.
Dundee Courier (Angus, Scotland), 26 November 1881.
Norwich Mercury (Norfolk, England), 20 May 1874.
Ridout, Susan. Letters to a Young Governess on the Principles of Education and Other Subjects     Connected with her Duties. London: Edmund Fry, 1840.
Sheffield Independent (South Yorkshire, England), 05 February 1901.
Yorkshire Evening Post (West Yorkshire, England), 19 August 1893.
Yorkshire Gazette (North Yorkshire, England), 18 November 1893.

This post is an Editor's Choice from the Archives, originally published August 7, 2017.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
Mimi Matthews writes both historical non-fiction and traditional historical romances set in Victorian England. She is the author of numerous works both nonfiction and fiction, including The Pug Who Bit Napoleon: Animal Tales of the 18th and 19th Centuries, A Victorian Lady’s Guide to Fashion and Beauty, The Work of Art, and most recently, Fair as A Star.

In her other life, Mimi is an attorney with both a Juris Doctor and a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature. She resides in California with her family, which includes an Andalusian dressage horse, two Shelties, and two Siamese cats.


Wednesday, August 12, 2020

The Complex History of Welfare: The Poor Law in Nineteenth Century Ireland

By Frank Parker

Public Domain Image

Prior to the reformation – the switch, over large parts of Europe, from Roman Catholicism to Protestantism – the poor were looked after by the monasteries. The funding for this came from the patronage the monasteries received from the landowners and from the tythes paid by farmers. Whilst the old, the sick and the disabled were provided with food, shelter and healing, the able bodied were provided with work, either in farms that formed an important part of the religious community or on building construction and maintenance.

For the able-bodied individual who could not find work near his place of abode the only alternative was to travel to a place where there was work available. Others might travel from place to place plying a particular trade, or offering a service, moving on when the demand for the service in a that area had been satisfied.

Throughout this period there were years when crops failed causing famine. Epidemics of disease occurred from time to time. The 'Black Death', the plague that devastated Europe in the 14th century, for example, reduced the population by 30%. Wars, too, took their toll on populations, although they also provided a source of income for those who chose, or were forced, to join one or other of the many armies that took part. With the men away fighting the bulk of the labour necessary to grow food fell to the women.

Wars were often responsible for the failure of crops. This was sometimes a deliberate act of destruction, perpetrated as part of the campaign. The poet, Edmund Spenser, who served in the English army at the bloody siege of Smerwick and received lands in County Cork for his trouble, later wrote a pamphlet advocating the widespread adoption of such a policy.¹ At other times it was the consequence of the absence of  farm labourers meaning that insufficient crops were sown.

Edmund Spenser - Public Domain Image

The destruction of the monasteries that followed the Reformation meant they were no longer able to carry on the work of alleviating poverty. In Britain, it now fell to the Parishes to administer poor relief under the first of a string of 'poor laws' that were introduced and amended throughout the 16th and 17th centuries.

In order to qualify for relief you had to be able to prove a connection to the parish from which you were claiming. If you were a stranger, you would need to travel to the parish where you were born or where you could demonstrate a long-term affinity. Such relief, when applied to individuals deemed capable of work, was conditional upon the individual undertaking some form of work in return. It was funded by levying a rate (property tax based on the notional value of the property) on the landowners of the parish.

By the 18th century this idea, that assistance must be earned by performing work, had become well established. After all, someone else's labour had created the food, clothing and shelter with which you were being provided. It was only right that you should perform some service in return.

For those not completely indigent, survival depended on payment received in return for their labour, whether as agricultural labourers or in the factories appearing in the growing industrial centres. The balance between wages and the price of food and other necessities became an important factor influencing the extent of poverty.

The practical manifestation of the principle of work in return for relief for the indigent was the workhouse. The first of these was established in Bristol at the end of the 17th century. The movement grew throughout the 18th century as the larger parishes, and groups of small parishes set up similar institutions. By 1776 there were over 1900 such institutions in England and Wales, housing an estimated 100,000 individuals, most of them children, sick or elderly.

The Victorian facade of the former workhouse in Athy, County Kildare,
built in 1844 and now part of a community hospital complex -
author's own photo

The Dublin House of Industry was established in 1772 to care for vagrants and beggars. In times of more general distress the work of this and similar institutions in other cities was supplemented by ad hoc provision by the parishes raising funds by subscription. Reading accounts of the conditions that prevailed in the early 1780s, for example, it is clear that the response to widespread food and fuel shortages that occurred consisted of a combination of fire-fighting with limited financial resources and attempts by the government in Dublin to control markets and prices. Such attempts were actively opposed by merchants who often combined to frustrate philanthropic actions such as the donation of 2000 tons of free coal from the mine owner Sir James Lowther.

In addition to fund raising appeals by the parishes and government's attempts to control markets and prices, some landlords offered alternative employment to workers displaced by such events as the failure of the flax crop in 1782 that had left weavers unable to ply their trade. In rural areas many communities took the law into their own hands, waylaying cartloads of grain destined for the cities.

According to James Kelly “Acts of benevolence by landlords and clergy, and donations to institutions like the Houses of Industry, were vital for the control of distress in late eighteenth century Ireland. ... In Dublin the House of Industry was the most important agent of relief, but it worked with local committees and was heavily reliant on donations.... while in the countryside landlords, wealthy farmers and clergy were indispensable.” ²

Note, however, that whereas there were numerous workhouses in England and Wales there were only a handful in Ireland, even though poverty and famines, or near famines, were much more common there. After the Act of Union at the commencement of the 19th century the government in London considered various ways of tackling this problem which was beginning to effect social cohesion in England. A growing number of poor Irish families were migrating to England. Whilst they were not able to take advantage of the poor relief available there until they had established 5 years residence, their presence was perceived as a threat to both wages and social order.

Education was seen as one important way of ending poverty, by equipping individuals with the skills to enable them to obtain work. During the second half of the 18th century a number of Protestant organisations established schools in Ireland. Catholics had been banned from providing education as part of the policy of suppressing the old religion. Once the ban was lifted, Catholic schools also began to appear. Unlike the Protestant schools, however, these did not receive government support. By the 1830s, the government decided to establish a National school system which would be multi-denominational, run by committees containing both Catholic and Protestant members.

Although this put Ireland ahead of the mainland in terms of state funded education, Ireland was not progressing economically or socially. A number of government-initiated surveys and reports were commissioned but their recommendations were generally deemed to be too costly to implement. One such commission, headed by the Protestant Archbishop of Dublin, recommended that the poor law, as established in England, would not work in Ireland because of the lack of available work. This was unacceptable to the authorities in London who sent one of the commissioners responsible for administering the poor law in England to look at the situation in Ireland.

The modern liberal view is that a person's ethnic origin has no bearing on his or her intelligence or ability to acquire useful skills. This was not so in the first half of the nineteenth century. The English establishment viewed the native Irish in exactly the same way as they viewed the natives of Africa.

The remarks of the poor law commissioner, George Nicholls, illustrate this perfectly. “They seem to feel no pride, no emulation; to be heedless of the present, and reckless of the future. They do not ... strive to improve their appearance or add to their comforts. Their cabins still continue slovenly, smoky, filthy, almost without furniture or any article of convenience or decency ... If you point out these circumstances to the peasantry themselves, and endeavour to reason with and show them how easily they might improve their condition and increase their comforts, you are invariably met by excuses as to their poverty ...Sure how can we help it, we are so poor’ ... whilst at the same time (he) is smoking tobacco, and had probably not denied himself the enjoyment of whiskey.”³

George Nicholls - Public Domain Image

His conclusion was that a new poor law should be enacted for Ireland which should include the provision of a network of 130 workhouses and that these institutions would not be permitted to provide relief other than within their walls. It was felt that this would deter all but those deemed to be the most deserving people from claiming relief. Each workhouse would have space for 800 persons, would be administered by a Board of Guardians and financed by a local property tax.

This policy was quickly implemented. When the potato crop failed in the second half of the 1840s this network of workhouses became the bases from which relief would be administered. They would prove to be utterly inadequate to perform the task, although, in fairness to the Boards of Guardians, they did their best with the limited resources available to them.

¹ A Vewe of the Present State of Irelande was originally circulated in manuscript form in 1598. It was published by Sir James Ware in 1633 under the title The Historie of Ireland
²Kelly, James. “Scarcity and Poor Relief in Eighteenth-Century Ireland: The Subsistence Crisis of 1782-4.” Irish Historical Studies, vol. 28, no. 109, 1992, pp. 38–62.
³Nicholls, George. A History of the Irish Poor Law, First published in 1856, available on-line at: The quotation is from an extract from his 1st report delivered in November 1836 and included in Chapter III.

Frank Parker is a former engineer who took up writing on retirement. He became interested in the history of Ireland shortly after moving there in 2006. He has written about the Anglo-Norman invasion of Ireland (Strongbow's Wife, 2013) and the Irish famine (A Purgatory of Misery, with Patrick Lillis, 2018). His latest, a historical novel based on the two and half years tenure as Poor Law Inspector in Kilrush, County Clare, of Captain (later Sir) Arthur Kennedy, Called to Account is published by TSL Books. He lives in the Irish Midlands.

Sunday, August 9, 2020

In Search of Eleanor Cobham at Beaumaris Castle, Anglesey, Wales

by Tony Riches

Beaumaris Castle
My wife researched her family tree and discovered a direct line of descent from Antigone Plantagenet of Gloucester, her 19th great grandmother. Further research revealed Antigone was the daughter of Humphrey of Lancaster, Duke of Gloucester and the younger brother of Henry V. There proved to be much debate about the identity of Antigone’s mother, although historian and author Alison Weir suggests both Antigone and her brother, Arthur, could have been the children of Humphrey and his mistress Eleanor Cobham, (see Nancy Bilyeau’s post The Duchess and the Necromancers) whom he later married. In her book Britain's Royal Families: The Complete Genealogy Alison Weir notes that ‘Eleanor Cobham became Humphrey's mistress sometime before their marriage and might have borne him two bastard children’.

Curious, I looked into this, discovering the tragic details of Eleanor Cobham’s life in the course of my research. It is a fact that Humphrey of Lancaster acted as a father towards Antigone and was definitely with Eleanor Cobham since at least 1425, if not earlier (records were seldom kept of mistresses), marrying her in 1428. Alison Weir’s suggestion is therefore extremely plausible but I found no positive evidence to support it. (Poor Duke Humphrey has quite a hard time of it in most historical fiction, yet Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, A Biography by K.H. Vickers, written in 1907, paints quite a different picture.)

The only sure way to settle the question of whether Eleanor was Antigone’s mother would be if some new documentation comes to light – an idea which led to my latest novel, The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham. In the research for this I discovered many accounts which report important details incorrectly, most notably that Eleanor died at Peel Castle. It is well documented that her final two years were at Beaumaris. For example, In the Welsh History Review Vol. 8, nos. 1-4 1976-77 Richard, Duke of York and the Royal household in Wales, 1449-50, it is stated that:

Anglesey and Beaumaris castle were urgently reinforced in 1449 against both foreign invaders and Welsh dissidents. These reinforcements (of eight soldiers, and then twelve and one priest) were needed that much more speedily once it was decided to transfer Eleanor Cobham to the island. On 10 March 1449 at Man castle, [Peel Castle] she was handed over by John Glegge, Sir Thomas Stanley's representative and janitor of Flint castle (where Stanley was constable), to William Bulkeley, the Cheshire esquire who was serjeant-at-arms in north Wales and lived at Beaumaris. Bulkeley was acting on behalf of Sir William Beauchamp, the constable of Beaumaris castle, whence she was taken forthwith with a great company. Eleanor died at Beaumaris on 7 July 1452 and was buried there (perhaps in the early-fourteenth-century parish church of St. Mary and St. Nicholas) at great cost to Sir William Beauchamp.

My wife and I visited Beaumaris Castle and spent a summer afternoon searching the churchyard of St Mary and St Nicholas, within sight of Beaumaris Castle. Inside the church lie the medieval ornate tombs of Lady Ellen and Sir William Bulkeley.

Unsurprisingly, we found no sign of Eleanor’s grave, although it was fascinating to see that the castle chapel, where she could have prayed, was still intact and regularly used. It is impossible to prove that Eleanor Cobham was, in fact, an ancestor, although in some small way this research should help ensure that she is not forgotten.

This is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published November 10, 2014.

The Secret Diary of Eleanor Cobham
is now available.
Amazon US
Amazon UK

More Information

Tony Riches has a BA Degree in Psychology and an MBA from Cardiff University. He lives with his wife in Pembrokeshire, one of the most unspoilt areas of the UK. His first novel, 'Queen Sacrifice' was written after looking into the early history of Wales and seeing the parallels to a game of chess, with kings and queens, bishops and castles - and the people becoming pawns in their civil wars.

When not writing Tony enjoys sea and river kayaking and has a specialist blog 'Kayak Journeys' about some of his kayaking adventures. He also enjoys hiking and plans to complete the full 186 miles of the Pembrokeshire Coast path which passes fifty-eight beautiful beaches and fourteen harbours.

Thursday, August 6, 2020

My Kingdom for a Horse: The Cost of the Equestrian Lifestyle in the Middle Ages

By Rosanne E. Lortz

It is the prince of palfreys. His neigh is like the bidding of a monarch, and his countenance enforces homage…. I once writ a sonnet in his praise and began thus: “Wonder of nature—”
--Shakespeare's Henry V  
A horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse!
--Shakespeare's Richard III

Very few people (unless they happen to find themselves in the same sticky situation as Richard III did) would consider trading the kingdom of England for something as inconsequential as a horse. And yet, when the medieval horse is compared to something other than the inestimable value of a kingdom, it was in fact quite a costly item, and an item that added a great deal of consequence to its owner.

A thirteenth century treatise on horses states:
No animal is more noble than the horse, since it is by horses that princes, magnates and knights are separated from lesser people, and because a lord cannot fittingly be seen among private citizens except through the mediation of a horse. 
The owning of horses, and especially warhorses, was an essential part of being a medieval nobleman precisely because it was something far out of the reach of a simple peasant.

Steven Muhlberger, in his book Jousts and Tournaments, helps us understand the value of warhorses during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries by looking at the records of the king’s compensation to men-at-arms for horses lost during a campaign. He says that, “the lowest value assigned to a warhorse was £5 and the highest £100.”

To put this in perspective, “a well-off English peasant family at the beginning of the century might earn just a little over £3 annually.” In order to qualify to become a knight, Muhlberger says that a landowner would need to make £40 a year. They were “an elite class that included at the very most 1500 men.

With warhorses being valued all the way up to £100, some of the noblest of the beasts would be worth more than a lower-level knight’s yearly income. The loss of a horse, therefore, would be a devastating blow to all but the wealthiest of men (meaning that a man would think twice about taking his horse into battle…unless the king was willing to compensate him if his horse was lost).

Detail of a horse from a medieval bestiary

Besides war, tournaments were another place where horses might be lost…or won. In many cases, the loser of the joust had to forfeit his horse to the winner.

Geffroi de Charny, one of the premier French knights of the fourteenth century, wrote a series of questions and answers dealing with the etiquette of the joust. Unfortunately, the answers (if they were ever written down) have been lost to posterity, but the content of the questions is still revealing.
2. If it happened that…one knight knocked another to the ground with a stroke of the lance, his saddle being between his legs and the whole thing off the horse, will he who knocked the other down win the horse? What do you say in this case, will it not be judged by the laws of arms?  
3. Knights are jousting without any formal announcement, and one knight knocks another down and out of the saddle with a stroke of the lance. Will he who knocked the other down win the horse? What do you say? 
5. In the emprise it is said that anyone who kills a horse with a stroke of a lance will pay for it. So it happens that in jousting one strikes the other’s horse with his lance well advanced; but their horses collide so hard that both of them fall to the ground. Will he who struck the horse with the lance pay for it or not? What do you say? 
8. A banneret sends out from his entourage some knights to go out with him in the fields to joust with those who have set the emprise; …If there are two or three of them whose horses are dead and injured in the joust from blows or falls, will the banneret be obliged to compensate them? What do you say?
From reading just a short sampling of these questions, a common theme emerges—the theme of who deserves to win a horse and who is required to compensate for a horse’s loss. In fact, out of the twenty questions centered around jousting, nineteen of them deal with these equestrian issues. Charny’s questions, designed to standardize judicial rulings in the “law of arms” at tournaments, reinforce the idea of just how consequential the possession—and loss—of a horse could be.

A medieval warhorse might not have been worth an entire kingdom, but he was still worth a tidy chunk of change. And since the consequence of owning a horse was not something the nobler classes would willingly do without, it was essential for kings to recompense knights when horses were lost and for tournament law to clearly explain when a horse would be forfeit.

The horse was the ultimate status symbol in the later Middle Ages. Shakespeare's scene in Henry V describing "the prince of palfreys" was clearly written to poke fun at the French prince...and yet, knowing how valuable horse of this period actually were, one can almost understand why the Dauphin once “writ a sonnet” in praise of his horse, whose “neigh is like the bidding of a monarch” and whose “countenance enforces homage.”


Muhlberger, Steven. Jousts and Tournaments: Charny and the Rules for Chivalric Sport in Fourteenth Century France. Union City, CA: Chivalry Bookshelf, 2002.


Rosanne E. Lortz (“Rose”) is a writer, editor, teacher, history-lover, and mom to four boys. Her first book, I Serve: A Novel of the Black Prince, released in 2009. This book explores the tumultuous landscape surrounding the Hundred Years’ War and the Black Death and is a tale of arms, of death, of love, and of honor. In 2015, Rose began her Pevensey mysteries, novels of romantic suspense set during the British Regency (with inspiration from medieval characters and events). The first three titles are: To Wed an Heiress, The Duke’s Last Hunt, and A Duel for Christmas. Rose has served on the board of the Historical Novel Society North America and works to promote interest in historical novels. Find Rose on website, and her books on Amazon.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

The Villages of Great and Little Ouseburn—the Forgotten Stops on the Brontë Trail

By Finola Austin

If Yorkshire is known as “Brontë Country,” then Haworth, home of the Brontë Parsonage Museum, is the nation’s undisputed capital. It was here that celebrated Victorian novelists Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë lived out most of their short lives. It was here that they sat together around one table writing their acclaimed books, including Charlotte’s Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily’s Wuthering Heights (also, 1847). But, while Brontë-driven tourism is now the lifeblood of the village, Haworth isn’t the only town with compelling links to literature’s most famous family.

Dedicated Brontë fans seeking to walk in the siblings’ footsteps may also visit the seaside town of Scarborough, where Anne died and was interred (she’s the only Brontë not buried in the family tomb in Haworth), and Thornton, birthplace of the sisters and their brother, Branwell. As far afield as Brussels, it was just announced that a square would be named for the “Soeurs Brontë” or “Zusters Brontëplein,” due to Charlotte and Emily’s links to the city.

But there’s another pair of Yorkshire villages that deserve to be included in the Brontë trail—Great and Little Ouseburn, near York.

Anne Brontë came to the area in 1840 when she was employed as a governess by the Robinson family of Thorp Green Hall, a fine house just outside Little Ouseburn. Branwell followed less than three years later to become the Robinson son’s tutor. Anne and Branwell continued in the family’s employ until the summer of 1845, when their sojourn there ended in scandal. Branwell had apparently entered into a sexual affair with Mrs. Lydia Robinson, a woman eighteen years his senior. He returned to Haworth a broken man, and drowned his sorrows with alcohol and opium. By 1849, he, Anne, and Emily were all dead. Charlotte’s death would follow in 1855.

While Thorp Green Hall itself no longer survives, there are multiple places of interest to history buffs in search of Brontë lore in and around Great and Little Ouseburn. Here are a few:

Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate
It has been widely reported that Thorp Green Hall itself burned down in the late nineteenth century, although local historian Helier Hibbs challenged this assumption in 2007. Either way, the ‘new’ hall, known as Thorpe Underwood, was built in the early 1900s. This building is now home to a school—Queen Ethelburga’s Collegiate. While the grounds look different than they did in the Brontës’ day (the school for instance filled in the stew pond a few years ago), walking from Little Ouseburn to the school via country lanes, you could be excused for thinking you were stepping back in time. 

Monk's House

Monk’s House
Branwell, unlike Anne, didn’t sleep in Thorp Green Hall, but in an outbuilding known as the “Monk’s House” (or, less often, the “Monk’s Lodge”). This beautiful Tudor home is now a private residence, adjacent to Queen Ethelburga’s and visible from the main road.

Holy Trinity

Holy Trinity Church, Little Ouseburn
The Robinsons’ local church will be familiar to some Brontë fans from a sketch of it made by Anne, although renovations made in the late nineteenth century altered the building. Those in search of Brontë history will also find several graves of interest. Edmund Robinson (Lydia’s husband) is buried here, along with his parents and sister. So too are Edmund Robinson, junior (known as Ned), who was Branwell’s pupil, and Georgiana Robinson, the youngest child of the house, who died while Anne lived at Thorp Green, prior to the Brontë brother’s arrival. The most distinctive feature of the churchyard, a beautiful mausoleum, houses the remains of the Thompson family—neighbors of the Robinsons. 

Dr Crosby's Obelisk

St Mary’s, Great Ouseburn
The church in Great Ouseburn is also worth visiting for its links to Brontë history. A tablet in the church and a towering obelisk in the graveyard both memorialize one Dr. John Crosby, who was said to have acted as go-between for Lydia and Branwell, following the latter’s dismissal. You’ll also see a plaque for Jane Robinson, Edmund’s aunt, who was instrumental in arranging his match with Lydia.


In Great Ouseburn, there is a red-brick house, now known as Rosehurst, which was built for and lived in by this same Dr. Crosby. The house remains a private residence.

Moat Hall

The Kirkby Hall Outbuildings and Moat Hall
The Robinsons’ neighbors, the Thompsons, were clearly influential. Their impact on the Ouseburns is clear just from the scale and grandeur of their mausoleum, but, unfortunately, Kirkby Hall, their palatial mansion, which Anne and Branwell would certainly have been familiar with, no longer exists. Some nineteenth-century outbuildings can still be seen on the farmland where the Hall once stood, and Moat Hall, another house owned by the family, is a home in Little Ouseburn.

While the Ouseburns, like Haworth, are in Yorkshire, anyone visiting both will be struck by the geographic differences between these areas. 

In her 1847 novel, Agnes Grey, which is thought to be at least partly based on her experiences at Thorp Green Hall, Anne Brontë writes, “The surrounding country itself was pleasant, as far as fertile fields, flourishing trees, quiet green lanes, and smiling hedges with wild-flowers scattered along their banks, could make it; but it was depressingly flat to one born and nurtured among the rugged hills of [Agnes’s hometown].” 

Adding Great and Little Ouseburn to the Brontë trail gives us a whole new perspective on the Brontës, away from industrial Haworth and its bleak moors. And visiting these villages will give you a chance to see the pieces of history that still surround us today, hinting at one of the most scandalous episodes in Brontë family history.


Finola Austin
, also known as the Secret Victorianist on her award-winning blog, is an England-born, Northern Ireland-raised, Brooklyn-based historical novelist and lover of the nineteenth century. She has two degrees from the University of Oxford, including a Master’s in Victorian literature. Brontë’s Mistress is her first novel and is available for order now. The book explores the scandalous historical love affair between Branwell Brontë and Lydia Robinson, giving voice to the woman who allegedly corrupted her son’s innocent tutor and brought down the entire Brontë family. By day, Finola works in digital advertising. Find her online at or connect with her on Instagram, Facebook, or Twitter.

Monday, August 3, 2020

The Battle of Shrewsbury, 1403

By Annie Whitehead

Last time, I explored the history of the medieval town of Shrewsbury. My visit there also included a walk round the site of a bloody battle which took place in 1403, between royal forces and rebellious nobility.

Just four years earlier, in 1399, Richard II was ousted as king of England by his ambitious cousin, Henry Bolingbroke, who then became Henry IV. Usurpations haven’t happened all that often in English history, and Henry couldn’t have done it without help. Among those who assisted him were the powerful northern Marcher lords, the Percy family of Northumberland.

Still, even if you are the richest in the land, wars don’t come cheap. The Percys claimed that the king owed them £20,000 and they were also peeved that Scottish nobles who’d been captured at the battle of Homildon Hill in 1402 had not been ransomed. This meant, of course, that Henry Percy, earl of Northumberland, was also being denied a source of income.

It was Percy’s son, also Henry but nicknamed ‘Hotspur’, who was instrumental in the battle of Shrewsbury. He had been given high office in Wales, where he’d been busy trying to bring the Welsh rebel Owain Glyndŵr to heel. But yet again, payment was withheld and Hotspur did a ‘u-turn’, entering into alliance with Glyndŵr and Edward Mortimer, a powerful Marcher lord. Their claims superficially rested on the financial injustices, but Henry IV saw this as a bid for his crown, and an attempt to replace him. Their proposed candidate for the throne was the earl of March, nephew of Mortimer.

The battle at Shrewsbury was fought on 21 July. Rebel troops had gathered in Cheshire, where Hotspur issued a proclamation which suggested that Henry IV was not king but merely ‘Henry of Lancaster’ and that Richard II was in fact still alive. The rebels marched south and Hotspur was accompanied by his uncle, Thomas Percy, 1st earl of Worcester and Archibald Douglas, 4th earl of Douglas.

Shrewsbury was garrisoned by the eldest son of the king, whose name was ‘Harry’ and who would go on to make a bit of a name for himself at Agincourt as Henry V. Here, though, he was not leading the battle. King Henry IV managed to intercept Hotspur before he could join forces with Glyndŵr. Henry got to Shrewsbury before Hotspur on 20th July and this left Hotspur stuck on the north side of the town, and with the king’s army and the River Severn between him and the Welsh.

The next morning, with no sign of Glyndŵr and with the king’s troops advancing from the town, there was nothing for it but to stand and fight. Several hours of parlaying preceded the fighting, but it could not stave off the inevitable. The picture below shows the suggested positions of the armies, with the Percys on the ridge and the king’s troops having to force their way up the slope. The fighting lasted until nightfall.

Estimates suggest that the king had at his command some 14,000 men while the rebels had 10,000.*

Both sides seem to have had difficulty in recognising coats of arms and there was a great deal of confusion during the battle. It was rumoured that Henry IV had died, but in fact the king was removed to safety. Nevertheless, royal casualties were heavy. The losses have not been calculated with certainty but to walk round the site is to get some idea of the scale of the fighting and, indeed, the numbers of casualties. Estimates are that the dead numbered around 1,600 on both sides, with at least 3,000 wounded subsequently dying from their injuries or killed by looters seeking booty.

The longbow played an important and decisive role in the fighting. The battle began with an archery onslaught, in which Hotspur’s Cheshire bowmen appeared superior and the English Chronicler, Thomas Walsingham, said that the royal troops fell “like leaves in Autumn, every one [arrow] struck a mortal man". ** Famously, the Prince of Wales was struck in the face by an arrow and it is incredible that he survived. The arrow sank into his cheek (the surgeon stated that it was the left, although I have seen debates in which people argue that he might have meant the left as he looked at it.) That the prince survived was down to the skills of his surgeon, John Bradmore, who later described in detail how he used a specially designed implement, using a sort of corkscrew motion, to extract the arrow-head and then treated the wound with honey and alcohol.

Prince Henry survived, and no doubt learned a great deal about the effectiveness of the longbow in battle, but the other leaders involved were not so lucky. Hotspur led a charge directly at the king and was surrounded and killed. Other rebel leaders survived, but not for long. Thomas Percy was tried and beheaded. The earl of Northumberland, Hotspur’s father, was not executed but was stripped of his office as Constable and of several castles, which were thenceforth to be controlled by royal officers.

Hotspur’s body, first buried at Whitchurch, was exhumed and put on display at Shrewsbury, and then was cut up, the parts being sent to various cities and his head sent to York and displayed at Micklegate Bar.

Battlefield Church was constructed on the orders of the king, to commemorate the fallen, and it has been suggested that it stands on ground where most of the fighting took place. There is an area of the churchyard which does look as if it might be the site of a mass grave, but archaeology has not confirmed this.

The church itself is no longer open to the public. It was dedicated to St Mary Magdalene as the battle took place on the eve of her saint's day. In 1410 the chapel was converted into a college of chaplains, where a master and five chaplains said daily mass for the dead. The existing church is the only chapel building to survive and in 1548 the college was closed. In 1982 the church was declared redundant.

There are two visitors’ points. The first is at the southern side of the battle area, and gives views across to the church and offers a walking trail. The area is still agricultural land and is easy to imagine the forces lined up, and to envisage where the fighting might have taken place. On the northern side of the site, the Battlefield 1403 complex houses an exhibition which gives information about the battle and a walk back down to the church. Slightly further north is a village called Upper Battlefield, suggesting to me that the fighting might have extended further still.

Top- from the south. Bottom - from the north

I was there on a sunny September day, and presumably it would have been warmer still in the month of July when the battle was fought. It all looks very bucolic now, but not for nothing did Edith Pargeter call this A Bloody Field by Shrewsbury.***

*The Annales Henrici Quarti offers the figure of 14,000 Royal troops, while Jean de Waurin, a medieval French chronicler, estimated 60,000. It seems that Henry's army was the larger, but in his Chronicle of England John Capgrave suggested that Hotspur had, "as is wrytyn, XIIII thousand men".

**The Chronica Maiora of Thomas Walsingham (1376-1422) by David Preest (Translator), James G. Clark (Translator)

*** Her novel about the battle, and the events leading up to it.

[All photos by and copyright of the author]

This is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published October 1, 2019.

Annie Whitehead
studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Book of the year 2016, and a full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has recently been a judge for that same competition, and for the HNS Short Story Competition. Annie’s new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, is published by Pen & Sword Books.

For more information, visit Annie's Website or her Author Page. Also connect with Annie through her Blog and Twitter (@AnnieWHistory)

Thursday, July 30, 2020

A Photo Tour of Hadrian's Wall

by Richard Denning

Over the weekend of 4th to 7th July I spent parts of four days touring Hadrian's Wall.The father of a friend is a custodian of the wall (his job is to, as best as possible, keep the wall in good repair). Thus equipped with our own tour guide half a dozen of us set off up the M6 from Birmingham.

The idea was to hit as many significant locations on the Wall as possible in the time we had along with the secondary objective of enjoying some decent real ale along the way!

Brief historical Background.

The Emperor Hadrian established the main borders of the Roman Empire. Although later Emperors would try expeditions outside these bounds the Empire more or less maintained the size and shape that he defined for three centuries. To defend the most northern edge of the empire from the barbarians outside he ordered the building of this wall in the year 122. It was manned more or less continuously through to the year 410. Today it is a World Heritage Site.

Anatomy of the Wall

The wall consisted of a twenty foot high, ten feet wide stone wall that was around 70 miles long and capped with a parapet and crenelations. Every mile was a minor Mile fort that would house a small section of men. Between mile forts were turrets for a small patrol. Along the wall, or sometimes behind it, are major forts with large garrisons and a surrounding civilian town. 10,000 men in all would garrison the wall. In front of the wall is a ditch, and behind it a grass mound and ditch called the Vallum.

Centuries later after the Jacobite rebellions of the 18th century came along. The main impact on the wall was that the English commander demolished large chunks to provide the rubble to build a military road from Carlisle to Newcastle running west to east behind and sometimes along the wall. Today it is the B6318 road and provides a perfect way to navigate along the wall.

Our Tour begins

On Friday 4th July we arrived at Carlisle around noon. We started with a visit to Tullie House Museum in Carlisle. This houses a good overview exhibit about the wall and the Roman Period and serves as an ideal starting point. We then went west out of Carlise to the Cumbrian coast. Although the Wall itself extended from Bowness to Wallsend there are supporting fortifications down both the Irish sea and North sea coast, and the idea was to see something of them.

We visited Maryport. In Roman times a fortress, Alauna, stood here. The fort was first established in around AD 122 as a command and supply base for the coastal defences that would prevent Pictish or Irish raids along the coast. Today the fort is only an outline in the grass. There is however a museum showing part of a large collection of Altars that would be made with each new commander. The old altars were used later as supports for posts of a large hall - perhaps in the post Roman period.

The mounds and lines that

A replica wooden watch tower that now functions as a view point at Alauna.

Around this time we had the only bad weather of an otherwise rather pleasant July weekend. It just poured down, and we abandoned attempts to see the other forts in the area. We did stop briefly at Bowness and looked out over the Solway Firth at the spot that the wall once started. There are no stone ruins west of Carlisle however - for that we would have to head east on Saturday.

Our Friday night Hotel turned out to occupy the site of a Roman Fort that stood on the wall. Today nothing is visible but a display board, and the brick line in the carpark of the hotel shows where the fort stood. It was rather fun to spend the night in a Roman fort - even if the fort vanished centuries ago.

Uxelodunum Fort Carlisle - its location

Day Two

Saturday meant time for some ruins. Our itinerary on the Saturday was to visit the first sections of the wall still visible coming from the west, the Roman Army Museum and the Vinolanda Fort.

I can recommend the most western section of surviving wall for a nice walking tour. Here is the local map:

First stop was the first section of wall and a turret.

The most western surviving section of wall  and a turret just west of Birdoswald.

The first turret on the wall. (Turret 52a Banks Turret) Just off the Of map

Just further along this road is Banna (known today as Birdoswald. This is the location of a significant sized partially excavated fort.

Birdoswald is adjacent to a later farmhouse and small manor house whose
19th century owners were some of the first enthusiastic excavators of the site.

Birdoswald has a nice little museum recording the first haltering attempts to excavate the wall in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Inside Birdoswald Museum

For more images on Birdoswald click here

We then walked the wall from Birdoswald the two miles to Gilsland. This route took us past a long section of surviving wall, two turrets and a milecastle and the remains of one side of a Roman bridge.

The Wall between Birdoswald and Gilsland.

The River Irthing - once bridged at this point by a Roman Bridge. A beautiful peaceful spot.

The Bridge approach in the eastbank is now all that is left.

Roman Army Museum

This museum at Brampton gives a excellent overview of life in the Roman army. It includes a well done 3D movie "Edge of Empire" whose participants also appear in a film  later on about a day's life in the army. There are lots of replica items from the period.

Nearby is Vindolanda, one of the star attractions of the wall. A huge part of the fort and nearby Viccus is excavated. Vindolanda lies behind the wall. It was a nearby supply base for this section of the wall.

Vindolanda visitors can explore the site, visit a museum in the former house of an early excavator, as well as climb replica stone and wooden towers.

Excavation is still on going all along the wall and you can often see digs and get
explanations of what is going on. Here our own guide fill us in on wooden  walls found
deep below the stone fortress - maybe an early part of the first fort here.

A well inside the commandant's house.

This was a granary. The elevated floor was to allow ventilation beneath.
The Romans would let dogs and cats chase the rats out from there.
The side buttresses can be seen - reinforcement for the tall (often 2 story) walls).

There are more Vindolanda images here

Day Three

On the Sunday we took in Housesteads, Chesters Fort and Corbidge. On the way to Housteads we passed Sycamore Gap.  This section of the wall runs along an escarpment which is almost sheer in places.

There is a dip in the high ground of this escarpment, and in that dip a tree grows made famous by Robin Hood Prince of Thieves from the bit where Kevin Costner is walking home to Sherwood from Dover and ends up on Hadrian's Wall somehow! Ah well, at least Alan Rickman was good as the Sheriff. Costner chose a good cinematic location, mind you, and it is a good spot for a photo. A tip though. Park up in the nearby Once Brewed Carpark and walk along the ridge. Don't try and reach it from the road as fences lie in your path - as well as a bog.

Housesteads fort  lies on the wall. To me it is one of the most dramatic locations as the approach walk dips down from one ridge and up towards the site above you on the far slope. You then have to endure heart attack hill as one of of our party called it. But the walk is worthwhile when you find yourself in Housesteads.

Housesteads is built on a slope, and many of the buildings are built on more than one level.

Hypocaust under floor heating system

Looking North from Housesteads over the wall and a tower. This way lie the barbarians!

More images from Housseteads here

Chesters Fort is not far from Housesteads and is on the River Tyne. There is a fort at Chesters that has all the usual features like granaries, barrack blocks, and commanders house, etc., but after 3 days of this we were getting a little "seen that done that", so I was pleased that Chesters had a bath house in decent condition as that was something I had not seen close up in the other sites. The bath house was on the river.

Changing room

Drainage system

Chesters has a fine museum of stone relics and other items found on various digs.

Joking aside, the fort is also a fine example. For more images from Chesters Fort, including the fort itself, go here.


Near the wall were other settlements that sometimes had heavy military presence and at other times did not. Corbridge, not far from Chesters, is such a place. This has evidence of military compounds within a more open civilian settlement which itself was probably not fully fortified. It's a slightly different feel and rounded off day 3 nicely.

Among other structures was a huge pair of granaries that may
have stored supplies ready for shipping up to the wall.

Although not purely a military base, the headquarters of the military compound contains
an underground strongroom of the sort found in all the forts.
More images from Corbridge here

Day 4

On the Monday morning we packed up ready for the homeward trip. First though we had 2 final visits.


Segedunum is at the extreme eastern end of the wall. It lies within modern day Newcastle. The fort here is excavated in outline only - outlines filed in mainly with rocks and pebbles to show the layout. As such its not as impressive as say Housesteads. However it is in some ways clearer to see what goes where in a Roman fort especially as there is a panorama level in the adjacent museum which allows you to see the entire fort from up high (or at least the half that is visible above ground).

Looking down on Segedunum from the Panorama room.
The site also features a reconstructed Roman Bath House (alas closed during our visit)

The site also has the most eastern section of Wall. This is where the wall went down hill into
the River Tyne 70 miles from its western end on the Solway Firth.

There is also a memorial to the men and units that built the wall.


Arbeia is a mirror to Alauna/Maryport. Just as Alauna watched over the Irish sea, Arbeia stood watch over the coast line of the Northsea just below the mouth of the Tyne. Today there is a partially excavated fort but what is of main interest here is a replica gatehouse, barracks block, and commandants house.

This is me standing outside the replica gatehouse.
This is what Hadrian's wall would have looked like as you approached it.
A Roman squad of 8 men slept in here.
10 such rooms made up the accommodation for one century.

This is the more spacious centurion's room.

Bedroom in the Commandants House

Public dinning room in Commandants House.

More Arbeia images here

All in all a great 4 days. I had in the past visited the Wall 2 or 3 times and each time just went to one fort. This tour gave me a much clearer overview of the whole wall from end to end, its general anatomy, how it was built, and the way of life of its inhabitants. It is a World Heritage Site and for good reason.

On a nice sunny day - such as we had - it is a magical location combining amazing views in places with a structure of huge historical significance.

Oh - and we got some good ale too!

This article is an Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives, originally published July 14, 2014.


Richard Denning is a historical fiction author. His main areas of writing are the early Anglo-Saxon years. For more details go to his website: