Wednesday, May 11, 2022

The Gunning Sisters & the Cost of Celebrity

by Nancy Bilyeau

On an autumn day in 1760, a woman's funeral was held in London. So many mourners mobbed the church--one count puts the crowd at ten thousand--that it suggests the burying of a royal. But the deceased was far from royal. 

She was Maria Coventry, born Maria Gunning and raised in obscurity in County Roscommon, Ireland. Yet during the second half of her short life Maria would have been well accustomed to mobs.

The Gunning sisters, Maria and Elizabeth, were beautiful no doubt, but their effect on the population was extreme if not bizarre. We are told that at times they required sword-bearing guards to protect them from fevered crowds, that people stayed up all night to be in position to catch just a glimpse of one descending from a carriage.

In George Selwyn's memoirs, he writes, "Someone proposes a stroll to Betty's fruit shop [in St. James's Street]. Suddenly the cry is raised ' The Gunnings are coming!' and we all tumble out to gaze and criticise."

Horace Walpole wrote of them as "two Irish girls of no fortune who make more noise than any of their predecessors since the days of Helen, and are declared the handsomest women alive."

Aristocratic men who ordinarily would have been keen to make financially prudent marriages ("acre to acre" went the saying) abandoned all pragmatism and fought to marry a penniless Gunning sister within weeks, even days, of coming into contact with her.

Maria married an earl, and Elizabeth married a duke and, after he died, a second duke. 

Attractive young women had caused sensations at the English court before, whether it was Anne Boleyn in the 16th century or Frances Stewart in the 17th century. In the mid-18th century, the fame that was attainable for a young beauty changed in nature, becoming greater in scope and more threatening too.

Maria Gunning
Maria, Countess of Coventry, credit: wikipedia

One of the changes that affected the Gunnings was the growth of the popular press.

"So it was that a free press and a very weak libel law created a climate of speculation and gossip far freer than we have today, far more direct, personal and scurrilous," wrote Stella Tilyard. "Information, paid for by eager editors, poured into publishers' offices and straight into type. Readers were discovering the heady pleasures of scandals in high places."

Along with a bolder press came the rise of the British portrait painter. Sir Joshua Reynolds, first president of the Royal Academy of Arts, is believed to have created the concept of celebrity, "a hybrid of fame driven by commerce and the cult of personality," according to the book Joshua Reynolds: The Creation of Celebrity.

In an article published in The Guardian, curator Louise Cooling writes that "Catherine Maria 'Kitty' Fisher was the most celebrated courtesan in England in the 1760s and was one of the first celebrities to be famous simply for being famous." It was a portrait of Kitty painted by Joshua Reynolds, posing her as Cleopatra dissolving a pearl, that turned her into "an 18th century Kardashian" and "the original influencer," according to The Guardian.

Reynolds' portrait of Kitty Fisher

It was a spectacular portrait of Elizabeth Gunning by Reynolds that brought her a rush of special attention. She sat for the artist for an unusually long time. He worked on the portrait from January 1758 to June of the following year. It is praised by art historians as one of the first examples of Reynolds; "fully realized aesthetics."

It could be fairly argued that it was the Gunning sisters who carry the distinction of being the original influencers. They did inspire a cult of personality.

We know next to nothing of Kitty Fisher's early life. As for the Gunning sisters, much more has been written about their background. But how much of it is accurate is up for debate. Some tales carry a whiff of the apocryphal.

Their father was John Gunning of Castle Coot, yet it does seem clear there was a shortage of money. The mother and children took a house in Dublin while the father hid from creditors. There is one story that an actress, Mrs. Bellamy, heard raised voices on the other side of a wall, rushed inside the strange house to help, interrupted a fight over eviction, and rescued Mrs. Gunning and her "beautiful children" with a loan.

Some reports say the sisters afterward dabbled in acting, others that, when they had the chance to attend a ball in Dublin, their mother begged a theatrical contact to lend her daughters costumes so they could go to the ball. Their own dresses were close to rags. Shades of Cinderella...

Whatever they wore, Elizabeth and Maria caused a sensation at the Dublin ball. Their mother was advised to "take them to London." Somehow she raised the money t do just that.

"Thus the captivating aristocratic Gunning sisters, whose distinguishing feature was that there were two of them, were sent on a carefully managed progress from their home in Ireland to England in 1750 to be launched on the marriage market," wrote Tilyard.

In 1752, both Elizabeth and Maria married two of the most eligible single men in England. They were judged successes--though whether their marriages were happy is another matter.

It was when between Elizabeth was between husbands that she posed for Reynolds. Both sisters were quite tall; Elizabeth's willowy figure in the portrait and fashionable coloring suggest why she might have been so celebrated.

Elizabeth Gunning

Her first husband, the Duke of Hamilton, was a notorious rake and gambling addict who insisted on marriage shortly after meeting her. The second, John Campbell, the Duke of Argyll, was despised by Walpole as "sordidly covetous." Nonetheless, Elizabeth seems to have developed a steeliness about the whole business. She had eight children, served as a Lady of Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte, and died at Argyll House at age 57.

The older sister, Maria, had a different kind of marriage and court career. She possessed an impulsive, outspoken nature that some people found charming. When George II asked her if she were sorry that there were no more masquerades that season, she answered that no she was tired of them, but there was one thing she did want to see—a royal funeral. The King used to tell this story himself "with much amusement."

Her marriage did not turn out to be a happy one. When she and the Earl of Coventry went to France, she began using rouge as the other ladies did, including Madame de Pompadour, but her husband hated it, and once chased her in public to rub it off her face. 

More seriously, the earl had a flagrant affair with none other than Kitty Fisher. Maria, unlike most other aristocratic wives, did not look the other way.

According to one account, "in the park Lady Coventry asked Kitty Fisher for "the name of the dressmaker who had made her dress." Kitty Fisher answered she ..."had better ask Lord Coventry as he had given her the dress as a gift." To that, Maria raged at her "impertinence."

Maria's health deteriorated. While one theory is tuberculosis, another frequently repeated story is that she died of lead poisoning caused by overuse of cosmetics. (This was the same cause of death rumored to strike down her rival Kitty Fisher.) There was no autopsy, so we'll never know.

She didn't slow down willingly. One chronicler wrote, "With all the spirit of a true belle, however, she refused to quit the paths of pleasure, and was seen attending a celebrated murder trial only a few days before she was forced to take to her bed."

Maria Coventry died at the age of twenty-seven.


Nancy Bilyeau wrote about the art world of 1764 London in her historical novel The Fugitive Colours, with Joshua Reynolds and Kitty Fisher appearing as characters. The book was published in the US, the UK, Canada and Australia on March 12th.

"A cracking historical spy thriller."- Historical Novel Society

"Deftly written and deeply atmospheric, The Fugitive Colours is a book 
you'll have trouble putting down!"
--Kate Quinn, New York Times Bestselling Author of The Diamond Eye


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Thursday, May 5, 2022

"A Horse, a horse, my kingdom for a horse!" by Jeri Westerson

 In 1485, King Richard III of England was unhorsed and killed on Bosworth field. Poor Richard. He lost his life and his dynasty. The crown went to Welsh Henry Tudor, Earl of Richmond, who became Henry VII of England, father to the infamous and ubiquitous Henry VIII.

Who was Richard? Was he really the villain he is portrayed to be in Shakespeare's tragic play (whence the title's quote comes)? Was he the diabolical instigator of the murders of the Princes in the Tower? Or is he really the innocent as portrayed in Josephine Tey's 1951 novella The Daughter of Time?

Earliest surviving portrait of Richard III, 1520

I doubt we'll ever know the real truth, though I tend to think that he was, perhaps, a little of both. He was a medieval man, after all, seeking the highest place in the land. But he was a loyal and accomplished warrior, fighting to restore his brother, King Edward IV to the throne during the War of the Roses. He was appointed to many posts under his brother's reign, in recognition of his loyalty and service: Constable of England, Chief Justice of North Wales, Chief Steward and Chamberlain of Wales, High Sheriff of Cumberland for life, Great Chamberlain, Lord High Admiral of England, Lieutenant of the North and Commander-in-Chief against the Scots and hereditary Warden of the West Marches, and later Lord Protector when his brother the king died and his young son, King Edward V and Richard’s nephew was a bit too young to rule. In other words, he was no slouch.

The Two Princes Edward and Richard in the Tower, painted by Sir John Everett Millais 

However, he seemed to be surrounded by conspirators, whether actual or imagined, and many were executed for treason. And the Princes in the Tower were later declared illegitimate because Edward IV was supposedly married first to Eleanor Butler and therefore made his marriage to Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the princes, invalid. The princes just sort of...disappeared, and no one knows what happened to them, though much speculation has plagued historians ever since.

Rebellion was afoot, though, and when Richard went to his fateful battle at Bosworth field it was all going to be settled one way or another. Or was it? History is a funny thing. Yes, it's based on documents and firsthand and thirdhand accounts. To the victor go the spoils, but records are there and the information available offers only a glimpse that is sometimes interpreted one way and then another. That's what makes it interesting. In fact, sometimes new archaeological information comes to light. Not only do historians have to re-evaluate where exactly was the battleground, but because of artifacts found, they had to reconsider how the battle was fought.

Alf Oliver's farm will never be the same. This is the fellow who has an arable farm just off the old Roman road from Atherstone to Leicester in England. According to a 2017 article in the London Times, to get to Alf's farm:

" drive south and west from the Bosworth visitor centre on Ambion Hill, which is now, rather awkwardly, two miles adrift of the true site. Past a farm selling “battlefield beef” you park in a lane, tramp round one small field with a dip, cross a drainage ditch and arrive at a flat, triangular ploughed field exposed to the elements on all sides."

Richard III's boar badge from Bosworth, British Museum

The exact location of the battle of Bosworth Field where Richard III lost his crown and his life and made way for the reign of the Tudors, was unknown. Archaeologists finally located it October 2016 but were reluctant to give its exact location before they had a chance to dig it up for artifacts. And artifacts they found! Boar badges, Richard’s talisman, were found. Bones, weaponry. And, most interesting, they also discovered cannon balls and shot leading historians to the conclusion that heavy movable artillery were used much earlier for battles than expected, as well as the use of “gonners”. That will change a lot of author’s fiction for that time period. Perhaps that horse was blown out from under Richard with a cannonball!

Now, since I was invested in researching and writing about the late fourteenth century in my medieval mystery series, we can further turn this around to the reign of Richard II.   

John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, painted later c. 1593 

In his household, John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster had the court poet Geoffrey Chaucer as a loyal friend and servant. Was it because he liked the poet or liked his sister-in-law more? For the duke entertained Chaucer’s sister-in-law Katherine Swynford as his mistress for over twenty-five years, and even married her a year after his second wife, Constanza of Castille, died. Katherine wasn’t his first mistress. When he was a young man he took one of his mother’s ladies-in-waiting as a mistress, Marie de St. Hiliare, and had a daughter with her, named Blanche Plantagenet. All told, he had about fourteen children both legitimate and ill-, with nine living into adulthood. His illegitimate children from Katherine Swynford were made legitimate by King Richard II when John finally married her, but they were barred from inheriting the throne.

Meanwhile, King Richard II had a falling out with the duke’s legitimate son Henry Bolingbroke and kicked him out of the country. But it is Lancaster who gets the last laugh. By the end of the century, Richard is forced to abdicate and is then left to starve to death in Lancaster’s favorite castle, Pontefract. Lancaster’s son Henry seized the throne and thus the royal House of Lancaster began. Unfortunately, the venerable duke was in his grave by then.

But speaking of inheriting the throne, Gaunt’s eldest son by Katherine Swynford, John, had a granddaughter, Margaret Beaufort, whose son became Henry VII and took the throne from the last Plantagenet, Richard III. And Henry VII in turn married Elizabeth of York (who was also related to John of Gaunt), thus ending the York and Lancaster feud known as the War of the Roses, and allowing Gaunt's and Katherine's descendants to get the throne at last.


Jeri Westerson writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir series, and will be releasing her humorous medieval caper Oswald the Thief at the end of May 2022. Her newest mystery series set in Tudor England, Courting Dragons; A King's Fool Mystery with Henry VIII's real court jester Will Somers as protagonist, will be released January 2023. See all of her books--including an urban fantasy, a werewolf mystery series, a gaslamp-steampunk fantasy, and a LGBTQ rom-com mystery series--at

Thursday, April 28, 2022

A Visit to the Seaside: Worthing

by Lauren Gilbert

Located on the coast in West Sussex, Worthing is between 50-60 miles south of London, and 10-12 miles west of Brighton and Hove (depending on routes taken). It has a long and fascinating history.

Stone Age people were in the area approximately 60,000 years ago. By the New Stone Age or Neolithic era (between about 4000 BCE to about 2000BCE), Worthing was the centre of flint mining; Romans also settled the area. The Iron Age (about 750 BCE-about 43 AD) hillfort Cissbury Ring is the largest hill fort in Sussex, and the 2nd largest in England. It contains one of the Neolithic flint mines found in the area.

Easternmost Part of Cissbury Ring by Slbs June 29, 2008 Creative Commons

At the Norman Conquest, the Manor of Worthing included the Ordinges and Mordinges estates. William de Braose received the Manor. The estates were joined, and Bramber Castle was built. The Manor was then leased to Robert Le Sauvage. Worthing was included in the Domesday Book.

Remains of the Norman keep of Old Bramber Castle by Margaret Anne Clarke Sept. 20, 2013, Creative Commons

During Georgian Era, Worthing saw great change. For decades, Worthing was a fishing village, with mackerel as the prime catch, until the temperate climate and seaside started attracting visitors in the 1750s. It was also a stronghold of smugglers throughout the 19th century.

As other watering places such as Brighton became more congested, less crowded places, such as Worthing, became more attractive. As physicians extolled the benefits of sea bathing for health, more visitors came. George III (who had popularized Weymouth as a seaside destination, visiting numerous times in 1789-1805) thought it might improve Princess Amelia’s health and brought her to Worthing in 1798.

By 1803, streets had been built, along with some hotels and fine homes. The early visitors were wealthy fashionables, who expected comfortable accommodations and entertainment. The medical benefits of sea bathing attracted some. Others confined themselves to travel within the United Kingdom due to the difficulties of foreign travel resulting from the Napoleonic Wars. In 1803, Parliament passed an Act, establishing Worthing as the Town of Worthing, and establishing a group of commissioners to manage cleaning, lighting, improving streets and roads, and to establish a police force.

There is also a Jane Austen connection-she stayed at Stanford’s Cottage in Worthing, with her mother, her sister Cassandra and her friend Martha Lloyd for several weeks in late 1805. Worthing is considered the likely inspiration for SANDITON. Edward Ogle (a prominent businessman) and Warwick House, which he purchased in 1801, may have been models for Mr. Parker and Trafalgar House.(1) Now known as Stanford Cottage now has a blue plaque declaring that Jane Austen stayed there.

In 1813, John Feltham described Worthing and said, “In a short space of time, a few miserable fishing huts and smugglers’ dens have been exchanged for buildings sufficiently extensive and elegant to accommodate the first families in the kingdom. The establishment of two respectable libraries (Spooner’s and Stafford’s) at each of which the newspapers are regularly received, and the erection of commodious warm baths (Wickes’s) within a few years; sufficiently prove how far it has risen in public estimation.” (2)

In 1821, The Esplanade was built to create a suitable place for people to promenade. After 1825, Worthing was no longer considered a fashionable resort, and drew a much smaller crowd of visitors, which resulted in financial difficulties for the town in the 1830s. It became a suitable resort for families and those seeking health.

During the Victorian Era, as its status declined, Worthing again experienced financial difficulties in the 1850s. In 1862, the Pier was built, and in 1865, the Esplanade was expanded and renamed the Marine Parade. By 1889, a pavilion had been built on the southern end of the Pier. Paddle steamers, providing popular day trips along the coast, moored there to pick up and drop off passengers. Oscar Wilde is known to have spent time there in 1893, and liked it well enough to spend the summer and autumn of 1894 in Worthing, writing THE IMPORTANCE OF BEING EARNEST. In 1897, a bandstand was built west of the pier. Band concerts became a crowd-pleasing feature.

The Pier, Worthing, England-print-1890-1900, Library of Congress, public domain

The Pier was badly damaged during a storm on March 24, 1913 (Easter Monday). Repairs were begun promptly, and the pier reopened in 1914. In September 1933, fire destroyed the South Pavilion. This was repaired, and the pavilion subsequently reopened.

On October 9, 1934, there were clashes between Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists and anti-fascist protestors, an event which became known as the Battle of South Street. During World War II, Worthing was a prime defensive place in the event of an enemy landing along the coast. In 1942, it became a popular recreation area for the troops. Worthing also served as the embarkation site for the D-Day invasion on June 6, 1944.

After World War II, the town was repaired and refurbished. The population has grown steadily. In the 1960s, Worthing was a popular music venue. It evolved to a retirement haven in the 1970s and 1980s. From the 1990s to present, major corporations have located there, attracting younger workers with families. In 1998, 1999 and 2000, Worthing was voted the most profitable town in Britain by Experian. In the 21st century, Worthing continues to grow and thrive as the seaside location continues to attract visitors and residents.


(1) Edmonds, Antony. JANE AUSTEN’S WORTHING The Real Sanditon. Pp. 9-11, pp. 14-30.

(2) Feltham, John. A GUIDE TO ALL THE WATERING AND SEA-BATHING PLACES FOR 1813. Vol. 2, p. 463.

Sources include:

Edmonds, Antony. JANE AUSTEN’S WORTHING The Real Sanditon. 2015: Amberley Publishing, Stroud, Gloucestershire.

Evans, John. PICTURE OF WORTHING To Which Is Added An Account of Arundel and Shoreham, with Other Parts of the Surrounding Country. 1805: printed by C. Stower, London. Reprint published by Sagwan Press, imprint of Creative Media Partners. Scholar Select.

Feltham, John. A GUIDE TO ALL THE WATERING AND SEA-BATHING PLACES FOR 1813. With a description of The Lakes; A Sketch of A Tour in Wales and Itineraries. Vol. 2 1813: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, London. Reprint published by Franklin Classics, an imprint of Creative Media Partners. Scholar Select. “History of Worthing.” (No author or post date shown.) HERE “Worthing,” last edited April 20, 2022. (No author shown.) HERE

All images from Wikimedia Commons.

Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. An avid reader, she pursued a Bachelor of Arts degree in English, with a minor in Art History. She is a contributing writer to both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She has two novels, HEYERWOOD A Novel and A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, currently in print and is working on a new nonfiction work for Pen and Sword Books. A long-time member of JASNA, she has presented programs for the JASNA Palm Beaches Region, the JASNA annual general meeting in 2011, and the Jane Austen Fest in Mount Dora in 2022. She lives in Florida with her husband. Visit her website here.

Thursday, March 17, 2022

"The Most Extraordinary Person of the Age"

By Nancy Bilyeau

It was the spring of 1810. Ordinarily, the death in London of an 81-year-old French émigré of aristocratic birth who'd long been living in genteel poverty would arouse little attention. The city was flooded with aristocrats during the French Revolution's Reign of Terror. Some of them never left.

But as the body of the deceased, known as the Chevalier d’Éon, was being prepared for burial, medical authorities swooped in to perform an investigation.

Its purpose? To answer a question that had been raised in society in the 1770s and persisted ever since, a debate that obsessed so many that the London Stock Exchange made it a betting-pool subject.

Was the Chevalier d’Éon a man or a woman?

Portrait made in 1792

Born on October 5, 1728, d’Éon’s full name was Charles-Geneviève-Louis-Auguste-André-Timothée d’Éon de Beaumont. The only son of Louis Deon de Beaumont--an advocate in Parliament, a King's Counsellor, and a member of the petite noblesse--he was raised in the elite, dissolute world of Dangerous Liaisons.

In his early 20s, d’Éon continued to present as male. He was charming and intelligent, a gifted mimic. He was carefully educated and took a position at the highest level of civil service, also gaining fame as an expert fencer, but his life changed dramatically when he was recruited to become a member of an elite spy service for France called le Secret du Roi (the King’s Secret).

Louis XV, great-grandson of Louis XIV, was the absolute monarch of France and as such perhaps the most powerful man in the world for a period during the mid-18th century. It was a heavy burden to him. He often seemed morose, his Versailles duties lightened by frolicking with a string of delectable mistresses, from Madame de Pompadour to Madame de Berri.

His duties extended beyond the crushing protocol of Versailles. France was a country often at war, and Louis XV struggled to make the right decisions in diplomatic and military matters. To better assist him, he split his diplomatic service in two: official and secret channels. Formed more than a century before MI6 in England, le Secret du Roi employed no more than 32 people at any time, undertaking missions in other countries vital to the interests of France.

D’Éon’s first assignment was a challenging one: travel to Russia using a false identity to advance a key diplomatic objective. This was when d’Éon first dressed as a woman, although there are two stories. One was that he impersonated a French lady-in-waiting from the beginning to ingratiate himself with Empress Elizabeth (daughter of Peter the Great); the second, that he won the heart of the Russian court when he dressed as a beautiful woman at one of the Empress’s Metamorphoses balls. She adored cross-dressing balls, a taste shared by Catherine the Great later on.

After what became the Seven Years War broke out, d’Éon returned to France. His bravery and military achievements won him titles and acclaim although, unfortunately, the English won the war.

His next assignment was to go to London in 1762, pretending to be a diplomat dealing with end-of-the-war issues like exchange of prisoners. Actually he was performing spy missions for Louis XV, such as learning of weaknesses in England’s defenses and conveying that information to Versailles. This was the time of invisible ink and ciphers. The French had suffered a bitter defeat, one that left England poised to dominate Europe as never before.  Louis XV's directive to his spies was to "interfere with the ambitions of the English" as much as possible. (This resentment would lead to the famed French support of the British colonists in America in the 1770s.)

His secret mission notwithstanding, the Chevalier was a hit with the English court. The rumors were that Queen Charlotte, wife of George III, found him as charming as had the Russian Empress Elizabeth.

However, this was when the Chevalier and the French King had a falling out. He was jealous of a fellow diplomat and felt misunderstood and threatened. He threatened to expose Louis XV’s sexual secrets to the public unless he received a pension. After months of high drama, including an attempted poisoning and failed kidnapping, the pension flowed.

Around this time, his fondness for wearing women’s clothes and his androgynous appearance led to rumors that the Chevalier was, in fact, a woman biologically. The London Stock Exchange placed its question for wagers. He did not deny or confirm it.

A contemporary illustration showing the Chevalier's gender fluidity

After Louis XV died in 1774, the Chevalier d’Éon, 48, returned to France. The Chevalier now presented only as a woman. She told the court that she had been born a female, forcing her father, desperate for a male heir, to execute a fraud.

This was more or less accepted by everyone, taking the lead of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. The queen even sponsored her wardrobe, created for the Chevalier by royal milliner Rose Bertin. She wore beautiful dresses and military ribbons. Moreover, d’Éon wrote a memoir, drawing on her literary talents.

Fashion-conscious Marie Antoinette helped the Chevalier pay for a new wardrobe

Biographer Gary Kates, who wrote Monsieur D'Eon Is a Woman, wrote that her sexual partners are unknown, whether in France, England, or Russia. There were never any marriages or public liaisons. Either she was extremely discreet or she did not have lovers.

"In today's context, the story of d'Éon divides historians," according to the story "The Gender Fluidity of the Chevalier d'Éon." "While some regard d'Éon as a proto-'trans' figure, others such as Gary Kates refute this notion, arguing instead that they switched gender as part of a social and political strategy. The fascinating story of d'Éon raises questions about the role of gender in eighteenth-century Europe, indicating that perhaps a more open attitude about gender and sexual politics long preceded contemporary conversations about LGBTQ+ identities."

The French Revolution was unfriendly to aristocrats of any gender, and d’Éon made her way to England again. At first the Chevalier was as celebrated as ever. "It must indeed be acknowledged that she is the most extraordinary person of the age ... we have seen no one who has united so many military, political, and literary talents," according to The Annual Register for London.

But with Louis XVI overthrown, the Chevalier's pension was halted, and she ran out of money. After selling her jewelry and books, she started appearing in fencing tournaments dressed as a woman, fighting for cash.

Fencing didn't bring in enough money, and the Chevalier served some months in debtors’ prison. In old age, she lived with a widowed friend, Mrs. Coles, in modest circumstances as she battled ill health. "D'Éon spent roughly the last decade of [her] life inside the apartment, on cold days rarely even leaving [her] bed," wrote Kates.

After her death, the medical investigation revealed its report: the Chevalier d’Éon had male organs. However there were “questionable” aspects too, ones left vague in the report. This leaves open the possibility that the Chevalier had features of both genders.

Today the Chevalier d’Éon is buried in the churchyard of St. Pancras Old Church.


The Chevalier d’Éon is a character in The Fugitive Colours, a historical novel set in the espionage-rich London of 1764.

On March 18-23, The Blue, the first book in this series, is discounted on amazon.

In the US, you can find The Blue  here.
In the UK, The Blue can be found here.

To learn more, go to 

Sunday, February 27, 2022

Lady Mary Wroth, Author and Courtier

 By Lauren Gilbert

Lady Mary Wroth c 1620

Born Mary Sidney, she was the daughter of Robert Sidney, Earl of Leicester & Viscount de L’Isle and his wife Barbara Gamage, a Welsh heiress. She was born about 1587 (possibly October 18) possibly in Penshurst Place in Kent or in Baynard’s Castle, London (the Sidney family’s London headquarters). Robert Sidney was the younger brother of Sir Philip Sidney and Lady Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke. Robert Sidney was also a poet. He was appointed Governor of Flushing, the Netherlands, in 1588, where his wife and daughter Mary accompanied him. A brother, William, was born there. When she couldn’t accompany her parents, Mary was in the household of the Countess of Pembroke for much of her childhood.

Out of eleven pregnancies, Lord and Lady Leicester had six surviving children including Mary, and seemed to have an affectionate family unit. When at home together, the children had a tutor, who apparently gave the children a good education. When staying in the household of her aunt, the Countess of Pembroke, Mary shared her cousins’ tutor. She was known to have talent for writing, playing the virginals and dancing. In 1602, Mary danced at court, before Queen Elizabeth, whose reign would end at her death the next year.

When James I succeeded in 1603, he appointed Lord Leicester as Lord Chamberlain of Queen Anne’s household. His increased status put Mary, now about fifteen or sixteen years old, in a position to attend court as one of Queen Anne’s attendants. Mary was married in 1604, at about age seventeen to Sir Robert Wroth, who at about age twenty-seven, was about ten years older. He was a wealthy landowner and one of the king’s many hunting companions. He had been knighted in 1603. In 1613, he was chosen to be sheriff of Essex.

There are suggestions that the couple was unhappy, possibly an arranged or forced marriage. There were rumours of incompatibility early on. There are also suggestions that he was a profligate spender and womaniser. Lord Wroth inherited Loughton House and Durrants in Essex from his father c. 1605-1606. (Loughton House was a family home, and Durrants a hunting lodge.) Lady Wroth continued to attend court after her marriage, although she was not a member of the Queen’s household, and acted at Whitehall in one of Ben Jonson’s masques, The Masque of Blackness” on Twelfth Night 1605. This introduced her into literary society.

Lord and Lady Wroth had one child, a son named James, born in February 1613 or 1614, after about ten years of marriage, suggesting a possible rapprochement. Lord Wroth died March 14, 1614. She was left a widow with a very young child, a jointure of 1200 pounds per year (about $320,220.00 USD today), and debts totaling 23,000 pounds (approximately $6,138,000.00 USD today). Although there were three trustees involved, it appears she managed her estates herself, and wasn’t very good at it. She lived primarily at Loughton House, a widow the last forty years of her life. Sadly, little James died in July 1616, which resulted in Lady Wroth’s losing many of her rights as widow regarding her late husband’s estates.

As with many court ladies, there were rumours about Lady Wroth. One was a rumoured affair with Ben Jonson, for which there seems to be no evidence, so that is likely untrue. (He dedicated his play The Alchemist to her in 1612. He also wrote a sonnet, “A Sonnet to the Noble Lady, The Lady Mary Wroth,” which was not published until after his death, and was known to seek and receive patronage from Lady Wroth’s mother as well as Lady Wroth.) It is worth noting that Jonson was not the only poet to write poetry to her.

Lady Wroth did have an affair with her cousin, William Herbert, 3rd Earl of Pembroke (1580-1630). He was her first cousin (son of Mary Herbert, Countess of Pembroke). When children, Lady Wroth and her cousin were close, and there is an indication that they may have been more than friends. Lord Pembroke was a wealthy and powerful courtier (even though he was not a favourite of King James). He was also a poet in his own right-his poems were collected and published by John Donne.

It is not known when Mary and William became lovers (there is an implication that the affair began while her husband was still living). Whenever it started, their affair lasted until the mid-1620’s. Lady Wroth had two children by William: a son William who died in the 1640s fighting as a Royalist in the English civil war, and a daughter Katherine who survived her mother. Lord Herbert never acknowledged these children as his, and there are no records of these children in the Wroth family records.

Lady Wroth was an accomplished writer-her poetry was noticed as early as 1613. She predated Aphra Behn (c. 1640-c. 1689), who wrote plays, poetry, and other works during the Restoration. (It has been suggested that Lady Wroth may have been Behn’s grandmother through her daughter Katherine, who married twice. I am unable to address this as so little is known of Aphra Behn’s personal history and much is contradictory.) Lady Wroth’s writings addressed themes of love, faithfulness, loyalty, and questions of power and gender.

Around 1617-1619, Lady Wroth wrote a play, a romance titled “Love’s Victory” and gave a bound, hand-written copy to Lord Pembroke before their affair ended.* The play was not published. It was, however, performed at Penshurst in 2008, the first professional performance.

Her most famous work is “The Countess of Montgomerie’s Urania” for which she was issued a licence to publish July 13, 1621. A lengthy novels, this was her first and only published work and was based extensively on the lives of her family and fellow courtiers, including her affair with the Earl of Pembroke. Considered a forerunner of the modern novel, it also created a huge scandal.*  “Mad Madge”, Margaret Cavendish, Duchess of Newcastle (an author herself) made fun of it. Edward Denny, the Baron of Witham accused Lady Wroth of slander-he was so angry about it, he wrote scurrilous verses about her in 1623. She ended up withdrawing it from sale by December of 1621. Because of this work, Lady Wroth is considered the first English woman novelist.

The title page of Lady Mary Wroth's The Countesse of Mountgomeries Urania 1621


Lady Wroth wrote a sequel to Urania, which hinted at her affair with the Earl of Pembroke and the fact that he fathered her children, but did not publish it. (It was published in 1999, and the manuscript is held at the Newberry Library in Chicago.) 

Lady Wroth owned a translation of Xenon’s CYROPAEDIA (biography of the Persian Emperor Cyrus the Great) which was published in 1632. She also wrote poetry. In “The Countess of Montgomerie’s Urania”, the heroine of her novel wrote sonnets to the hero. Lady Wroth also wrote other poetry. Considered to be one of the first women to write a sonnet sequence, over 200 of her poems are known, and there may be others not yet discovered.

After her affair with the Earl of Pembroke ended, Lady Wroth no longer attended court, apparently going into seclusion. She was heavily in debt, and received help more than once from the king to stave off creditors. Another blow came when William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke died in 1630. She died in March of 1651 (or 1653), at age 53. After her death, some of her possessions, including some writings came into her daughter's hands and were preserved.*. Her primary home, Loughton House, which included her library, burned down in the 1800s.

*See "The Secret Codes of Lady Wroth, The First Female Novelist" by V.M. Braganza.  

Sources for Lady Mary Wroth, Author include:

Waller, Gary. THE SIDNEY FAMILY ROMANCE Mary Wroth, William Herbert, and the Early Modern Construction of Gender. 1993: Wayne State University Press, Detroit.

Early Modern Women Research Network. “Mary Wroth, Biography.” here

Goucher College online. “Lady Mary Wroth, The Countess of Montgomerie’s Urania (including “Pamphilia to Amphialanthus”) (1621).” (No author or post date.) here “Lady Mary Wroth (1587? -1651?)” by John Butler and Anniina Jokinen. (No post date.) here

Orlando Project, Cambridge University. “Lady Mary Wroth Entry.” Overview. here

Smithsonian Magazine. “The Secret Codes of Lady Wroth, the First Female English Novelist,” by V. M. Braganza, September 2021. [Print version title: “Decoding Lady Wroth”], here

The Monstrous Regiment of Women blog. “Mary Sidney Wroth, Pamphielia, Poetry, and Prose,” posted on October 18, 2015 by Sharon L. Jansen. here

The Sidney Homepage online. Biography. “Lady Mary Wroth,” by Nandini Das. (No post date.) here

University of Saskatchewan, Digital Research Center. “Lady Mary Wroth, Biographical Introduction.” (No author shown.) Revised June 8, 1998, contact person Ron Cooley, Dept. of English. here DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, 1885-1900. “Wroth, Mary” by Sidney Lee. here

Lady Mary Wroth (Public domain) here
The Countess of Montgomerie's Urania Title Page (1621) (Creative Commons) here

An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. Lauren has a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. She has presented several programs for the Palm Beaches Region of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and recently for the Jane Austen Fest in Mt. Dora, FL. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her most recent novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble and more. She is currently working on a non-fiction book for Pen & Sword Books Ltd. For more information, visit her website at here , her Facebook page here and her Amazon page at here.

Sunday, January 9, 2022

Unwanted Pregnancies in the Middle Ages

by Jeri Westerson

We’ve read about some pretty bold women in the Middle Ages; Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen Elizabeth, Kathrine Swynford. They made their destinies, though they might have had trouble achieving it in early life…or as in the case of Eleanor was consigned to what amounted to house arrest in the latter part of her life.

But for the average medieval woman, when one could be married off to secure alliances, gain property for the family, or to be sent to nunneries—there was surprisingly little impediment when it came to some control of their lives. For them, it was whether to remain pregnant or not. Granted, for some women, giving birth to an important man’s child meant a place at court or court adjacent at the very least, as well as funds to raise that bastard child, but other women who got into a family way through country matters needed a way out.

It’s a modern idea to consider an embryo a person, something that didn’t worry the medieval mind in so far as the Church was concerned. Much of the physician’s art in the Middle Ages favored Greek philosophers and ancient physicians, who had nothing to go on but their own feelings on the matter, and a certain tradition among them. Certainly nothing scientific.
Many of these men—and they were most often men—were of the opinion that an embryo was plantlike until birthed and took its first breath. Indeed, this was the medieval Hebrew philosophy as well, citing Adam: mere clay until God breathed life into him to become a human being.

Hippocrates, on the other hand, forbade ending pregnancies. In his oath he mentions, “I will not give to a woman an abortive remedy”, but then again, he also stated that the fetus was only viable from the moment its various organs – their structures – were already formed, which puts the kibosh on only later abortions, just not earlier ones. This was also what the famous ancient physician, surgeon, and philosopher Galen (c. 129 CE) expressed.

Aristotle viewed abortion as population control for a well-ordered society, but only before the embryo achieved animal life, or was recognizably human. “The line between lawful and unlawful abortion will be marked by the fact of having sensation and being alive,” he stated. Before that, Aristotle did not regard abortion as the killing of something human. (It should be understood that the “unlawful” aspect leaned heavily as to whether the husbands wanted to end this pregnancy). Unmarried women would find less opposition. Including (or perhaps even especially) prostitutes.

In Greece and ancient Rome, various instruments—curettes, hooks, other scraping tools—might be used to extract a fetus, but early physicians were worried that these instruments—and rightly so—could perforate the organ. A woman’s life over the unborn was
always utmost in cases of these operations.

By the time we reached the Middle Ages, such procedures, though still practiced, were not preferred. Herbalists/apothecaries were easier and no doubt more inexpensive to consult. Female apothecaries were often nuns in monasteries with access to the herbs grown on convent grounds. Midwives, too, were experts on such herbs for contraceptives and all stages of pregnancies, both wanted and unwanted.

An amazing array of proscribed methods such as bloodletting, fasting, diuretics, emmenagogues (herbs that stimulate menstruation), and enemas, were used. Jumping up and down. Carrying heavy objects. Heavy horseback riding. A painful massaging of the abdomen, and similarly binding the abdomen tightly.

Did any of these approaches work? Was there a scientific method involved? Not so much. These were from those same unscientific ancient physicians, folk remedies, “old wives’ tales”, and any number of shamanistic methods that came down to medieval woman from very old sources indeed (the first recorded evidence of induced abortion is from an Egyptian papyrus recorded in 1550 BCE.)

Perhaps these methods worked coincidentally. Or the embryo wasn’t viable to begin with. Or poor nutrition contributed to a spontaneous abortion. Or the woman wasn’t pregnant in the first place. Whatever the situation, women, herbalists, apothecaries, and physicians of the day believed in it, and proscribed them again and again.

An apothecary administering 
pennyroyal to a patient. 
Public domain

The variety of concoctions of herbs used was breathtaking; pepper, myrrh, thyme, rue, catnip, dittany, savory, sage, watercress seed, parsley, soapwort, hyssop, marjoram, tansy, juniper, hellebore, and pennyroyal (the last two of which contain some properties that actually can be used as an abortifacient. But beware. Too much pennyroyal or hellebore can cause death. Consult your apothecary).

These herbs and essential oils used in conjunction with one another could be drunk with hot water in a kind of tea with honey. Mostly, they were to induce menstruation to begin again, which would expel the embryo.

Hildegard von Bingen
Public domain

Even Hildegard von Bingen, the saint and mother superior of her convent in the twelfth century who wrote sacred music, works of theological philosophy, and scientific works on botanicals and their medicinal properties, got into the act and described a particular treatment (tansy) to restore menstruation in her treatise De Simplicis Medicinae. 

Were there medieval laws against a woman obtaining an abortion? In a word, no. The Church seemed to prefer not to meddle into what amounted to “women’s complaints”. So women consulted other women to help them with these life-changing difficulties. It was a natural for nuns to work as apothecaries to help in the physicians’ art and to administer to other women, including their own nuns in the convent who might also get into a family way. After all, it wasn’t all prayer and meditation. Not everyone could be a St. Hildegarde.


Jeri Westerson

  • Jeri Westerson is the author of fifteen novels in the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries that just concluded the series with The Deadliest Sin that deals with nuns administering abortifacients; the Enchanter Chronicles, a gaslamp fantasy-steampunk trilogy; Booke of the Hidden, an urban fantasy series, and several standalone historical novels. Be looking for her newest mystery Courting Dragons, the first in her King's Fool Mysteries with Henry VIII's real court jester Will Somers as the amateur sleuth. See all her books at

Tuesday, January 4, 2022

History for a New Year

 by Debra Brown

2022 Greetings!

The EHFA Blog will be bringing you occasional new posts once again. We are just organizing, and we appreciate our readers so much. Despite being inactive for a full year, we've had 554,000 views during that time. Thank you for continuing to visit!

You can join us and discuss the posts and British history at our English Historical Fiction Authors Facebook Group. We'd love to hear from you.

The following posts had the most visits in 2021 (the two with my name were written by Heather Hiestand and Paul Walker, but posted by me.) Congrats to the authors:

A History of the Cuckold's Horns
Posted by Deborah Swift
The 'Natural Beauty' Ideal of the Regency
Posted by Maria Grace
The French King's Bastard, Harry Valois
Posted by Linda Fetterly Root
The Horrors of War: The Black Prince and the "Massacre" at Limoges
Posted by History Museum Through the Ages
Tudor England's Most Infamous Villain: Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez
Posted by Beth von Staats
An Enduring Tudor Mystery: What Happened to Lady Mary Seymour?
Posted by Sandra Byrd
Baking in Victorian England
Posted by Debra Brown
Anglo-Saxon Monsters and Creatures
Posted by Richard Denning
The History of Armour 1100-1700
Posted by Debra Brown
The Strange Death of Richard the Lionheart
Posted by Nancy Bilyeau