Friday, June 22, 2018

That Little Matter of King Arthur and Camelot

by Helen Hollick

“There’s no congenial spot, for happy-ever-aftering…. than here, in, Cam...e...lot!”
DVD Cover 

Camelot: turrets and towers, ladies in flimsy wimples and multi-coloured gowns. Chivalric knights in gleaming armour. Camelot, where the wind whisks the leaves into neat little piles, it never rains until after sundown and the snow must melt at a designated time.

Except, if Arthur had existed, and if he'd had a headquarters it would not have been a castle with flags fluttering from the turrets, a drawbridge and portcullis, a bailey – stone walls, and dungeons (and no dragons). The romantic view of King Arthur’s Camelot is a fairy-tale type Disney castle, with jousting, courtly behaviour and a round table in the magnificent tapestry-adorned Great Hall. The movie starring Richard Harris was fun. But history it wasn't.

Unfortunately, no one is certain whether Arthur existed or not; if he had been a genuine historic character he would have lived in Britain in the mid-to-late 400s or early 500s, between the going of the Romans and the coming of the Anglo-Saxon English. His realm would have been Britain, not England – Arthur's Britain is what we today call England and Wales combined, perhaps with the lowlands of Scotland included as well. In Arthur’s time, the Welsh were Britons, the Scots were Irish, the English were Germanic and the Romans were… well, in general, were from anywhere except Rome!

And Arthur’s Castle? We don’t know about that either, although there is a mass of speculation. Probably such a headquarters would have been a semi-derelict Roman Fort, or a re-vamped iron-age hillfort. Caer Leon in South Wales has been suggested. Chester on the border of North Wales and England – Arthur’s Seat in Scotland, Tintagel in Cornwall; Winchester, even London….  there are dozens of possibilities. It is almost a case of 'pick your own favourite.'

Tintagel, Cornwall
(photo Kathy Hollick-Blee)
Cadbury Castle near Yeovil in Somerset is one of the main contenders, and the one I used for Arthur’s main fortress in my Pendragon’s Banner Trilogy. Excavations discovered that the place - once an Iron-Age fortress - was indeed occupied in Arthur’s period (again assuming he did exist!) of mid-fifth to mid-sixth century, the period popularly known as the Dark Ages (and rightly so, as we are still very much in the dark about this era of immense upheaval.)

Anything connected with King Arthur is conjecture; there is no factual proof of evidence for his existence, which is why so many historians / authors / enthusiasts argue like mad about the various theories, everyone insisting their idea is the truth. The only fact in all of it being that we all disagree with each other.

If Arthur had existed, was he pre-Roman, Romano-British, post Roman or early British-Saxon? The only certainty (probably!) is that he was not a king nor a knight in armour belonging to the 12th or 13th centuries. If he had been of this later period we would have had at least some historical, factual, reference to him, not just the Medieval tales - the early equivalent of historical fiction.

'Camelot'? er no...
more like 'Certainlynot'!
(image: Pixabay)
The scanty - somewhat dubious - 'historical' references we do have (Gildas, Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth in particular,) are, at base level, fairly accurate records of the fifth/sixth century, but like the exaggerated stories of Robin Hood, they have become embellished during later years from Medieval monks to the Victorians and the New-Age hippies of the 1960s, with so many facts altered that the truth has now become vastly distorted. Alas. (Glastonbury in particular was affected by an upsurge of myth and magic in the 60s: nearly every shop in the High Street sold crystals and embraced 'Flower Power'. I'm not entirely certain what it all had to do with King Arthur though...)

Arthur’s Camelot (assuming he had one!) would have been a fortified hill-fort built primarily of timber, with a wattle-and-daub long house. But whether it was fortified to keep out the Saxons, the Scotti or an almost infinite variety of different foreign invaders is speculation. My money is on a warlord attempting to preserve what little was left of the crumbling Roman existence in Britain against the encroachment of settling Anglo-Saxons. Maybe the West Country or what is now Essex, Kent, Surrey, Hampshire, Sussex. There again, I might be wrong.

For my Arthurian trilogy I stripped away the Medieval myth and looked closer at the early Welsh legends. My Arthur is a warlord, a no-nonsense man who had to fight hard to gain his kingdom - and even harder to keep it.  I have deliberately made him a pagan, a non-Christian, because I wanted to get away from the Christian-based 'Holy Grail' tales. My Arthur puts his faith in his sword not a god. I do use the term 'king' for him because I felt readers would be more comfortable with a more familiar term of leadership (as opposed to something like Dux Bellorum).

The Boy:
Who became a Man:
Who became a King:
Who became a Legend.

Whatever the truth, the good thing about Arthur is that he is an absolute delight for fiction authors. We do not know the facts so we can make it up - and no one can prove us wrong. So huzzah for imagination, a good storyteller and long may Arthur  of Camelot (wherever it might be) reign as the King of Fiction!

For a full bibliography of books used while researching the Pendragon's BannerTrilogy:

What are your views on King Arthur? You are welcome to leave a comment below.


Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a USA Today bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction which is due to be published in 2018. 

Helen is also the founder of Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, submissions welcome.

Main Blog:
Twitter: @HelenHollick
Amazon: (universal link) 

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

How grand was the aristocratic Georgian London house?

by Elizabeth Bailey

Unlike the grand country house, where successive owners could build extra wings whenever they felt like it, space was at a premium in London just as it is today. Georgians built up rather than wide. Although there were mansions of considerable size, these were exceptions. Not every landed family could have one or build one. There simply was not enough room to accommodate them all.

A double-fronted very large house, such as that occupied by the Polbrook family, had in general four huge rooms to each floor. On the floors above, an extra smaller room could be made of the space above the downstairs hall. Likewise, on the second or third floor, depending how many floors you had, you could make another small room in the space above the stairwell.

There would be two staircases, a narrow one for the servants, either at the back of the house, or tucked away in a recess somewhere. This gave access to all floors, including the attics where the servants slept. Internal walls here would create enough rooms to service the entire domestic staff, with the exception of the butler, who traditionally slept in a room near the pantry.

Down the servants’ stair to the basement, you would find the domestic offices, often a rabbit warren of small rooms and corridors. The housekeeper’s room will be here, as well as the butler’s pantry, the large kitchen, store-rooms and, down a further stair, the wine cellar, the coal cellar and very likely a junk room too. At the front of the house a main door led to a narrow area and steps up to the street.

If you had four or more floors, you might give over the whole of the first floor to a grand saloon for parties and a ballroom. However, a house without this facility could open out two rooms for the purpose of holding a dance. In the Polbrook house, they would use the Blue Salon and the Dining Room. This would give you an extended room about 23 feet long and a good 18 feet wide at the front, a little less at the back to accommodate the staircase.

Choosing this design for the Polbrooks makes it possible to create two good-sized parlours in the front at ground floor level, the posh Blue Salon for visitors and a cosier parlour in daily use by the family. The two rooms behind become the dining-room and the library, the latter accessed by a small vestibule which also houses the servants’ narrow staircase. The central hall runs from front to back, where we find the grand staircase winding around and up.

On the first floor, the principal bedchambers at the front are occupied by the master and mistress of the house, and the little room over the hall becomes my lady’s dressing room. One back bedroom is occupied by the second son of the house, Lord Francis Fanshawe, and the other is reserved for guests. The heir and the daughter of the house have rooms on the second floor, with two more bedrooms available at need.

All the main rooms have fireplaces, which create a stack of flues and chimneys either side of the house because fireplaces cannot share the same flue. In the Blue Salon, as was customary, the furniture is ranged around the walls, but the family parlour has a more cosy arrangement, with only one sofa against the wall and chairs set so as to enjoy better warmth from the fire.

In the domestic quarters, things are somewhat less than comfortable. The back door leads to a yard below the main garden behind the house, with the coal hole, sheds and other facilities, where dirty water might be disposed of and carpets beaten, for example. From the cellar below there is a further outside area, which is decidedly unsavoury with the servants’ privy, receptacles for the disposal of all the contents of the chamber pots, and a lane where the “night soil men” come through to take it all away in a cart. The stench is one of the major disadvantages of working below stairs.

As may be imagined, to keep these great houses operational you needed many servants, even in the London house. Under the butler, you have the indoor menservants such as footmen and boot boy. Under the housekeeper come the female staff: the housemaid, the chambermaid and the kitchen maid; and nominally, the cook, who reigned supreme in the kitchen. Then there are the ladies maids and the valets.

At need, extra help is hired in, like the laundry woman who collects the linen and takes it away to be washed elsewhere. Caterers may be brought in for balls, bringing waiters with them. Horses and carriages are kept in stables in a nearby mews, with grooms and stable boys living above them. In addition, there are a couple of gardeners and perhaps a skivvy or two.

In all, this aristocratic Georgian family required a dozen or so servants to service a household of three to five individuals, with perhaps an occasional relative or guest. This gives your sorely beset author of the upstairs downstairs murder mystery a cast of thousands, as they say, to manipulate, quite aside from the various characters to be found outside the home. It was rather a relief when research produced this relatively modest house instead of the grand mansions we tend to associate with the lords and ladies of an earlier era.


Elizabeth Bailey feels lucky to have found several paths that have given her immense satisfaction – acting, directing, teaching and, by no means least, writing. Through the years, each path has crossed the other, honing and deepening her abilities in each sphere.

She has been privileged to work with some wonderful artistic people, and been fortunate enough to find publishers who believed in her and set her on the road.

To invent a world and persuade others to believe in it, live in it for a while, is the sole aim of the novelist. Elizabeth’s own love of reading has never abated, and if she can give a tithe of the pleasure to others as she has received herself, it’s worth all the effort.

You can check out Elizabeth’s website here

Sunday, June 17, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, June 17, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

English Historical Fiction Authors brings you posts every week on different aspects of British history, society, and culture. Enjoy the articles for the week ending June 17.

by Maria Grace

by Kate Braithwaite

by Annie Whitehead

Friday, June 15, 2018

Gloucester Cathedral & the Æthelflæd Connection

By Annie Whitehead

Approach Gloucester Cathedral and the first thing you'll see, long before the building itself, is the beautiful tower.

This place was not originally a cathedral, however, but was a Benedictine monastery, dedicated to St Peter. In 1072, William I appointed as its abbot a Norman named Serlo, and the Domesday survey of 1086 shows that Serlo did a remarkable job of increasing the abbey's fortunes, doubling the value of its pre-Conquest assets. Flushed with success, Serlo built a new abbey in the Romanesque style, and sustained growth in income enabled the building programme to continue over the centuries.

In the thirteenth century a large central tower, the Lady Chapel, and the refectory were added, and in the fourteenth century, funds arising from devotion to King Edward II allowed for further remodelling, while in the fifteenth, the Norman west end was knocked down and rebuilt. The sixteenth century heralded a change in fortunes for the abbey, in the form of Henry VIII and the dissolution of the monasteries.

The Lady Chapel
Gloucester abbey was dissolved in 1540 and the building was re-designated as a cathedral in September 1541.

The eleventh-century Norman crypt can be visited (by arranged tour only) as can the tower. But a visit to the main cathedral brings rewards aplenty and shows the building's royal connections.

A foundation charter, which may or may not be authentic, shows King Osric of the Hwicce (by this time a sub-kingdom of Mercia) as the founder of the abbey:
Æthelred, king of Mercia, [Penda's son] to Osric and Oswald, his noble ministri; grant of 300 hides (tributarii) at Gloucester, Gloucs., to Osric, and 300 hides (cassati) at Pershore, Worcs., to Oswald; Osric's part being used by him for the foundation of a minster at Gloucester. [1]
There is a rather impressive effigy of Osric in the cathedral:

The royal connections don't stop there, however. In the south ambulatory is a wooden effigy of Robert Curthose, [2] Duke of Normandy and the eldest son of William I. Eldest son of a king he may have been, but he was never King Robert, because he was imprisoned by his brother, Henry I, in 1106, having been captured after the battle of Tinchebray. He died at the age of eighty, in captivity at Cardiff Castle, but was buried in Gloucester. I have to say, though, that he looks rather relaxed here! (The crossed-legged effigy may denote the fact that he had been on Crusade.)

You'll recall that I mentioned money amassed from devotion to Edward II. I'm aware of the theory that Edward was not murdered, or even that he died at all at Berkeley Castle, but fled abroad. However, the official version of events is that he died at Berkeley, perhaps suffocated, in 1327 and that his body was brought to Gloucester where it lay in the nave to allow visitors to see it.

After a state funeral, attended by his widow and his son, the king's body was buried on the north side of the presbytery and in 1329 that son, Edward III, commissioned a tomb for his father, built by London stone masons working with alabaster and Purbeck marble.

There are recent connections to the monarchy, too. On display in the cathedral is the processional cross used in the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953:

As you might expect, the architecture of this building is almost an artwork in itself. The cathedral cloister famously has fan vaulting above all of its four walks. It dates from the fourteenth century and replaced the original Norman cloister.

The stained glass windows are a sight to behold. One of them is the second largest, in terms of area of glass, in any church in Britain. It dates from the fourteenth century and the quire had to be widened to accommodate it.

But this is no historical monument, to be merely preserved and revered. It is a 'working church' and during the entire length of my visit, the organist was rehearsing for Evensong. At around 4pm, the local school disgorged its pupils, many of whom headed straight over to the cathedral for choir practice. One of the guides I spoke to told me that Gloucester is able to boast not just a boys' choir, but a girls' choir too.

At the time of my visit, the whole of this area was gearing up for the celebrations to mark the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, on June 12th. While I was in the vicinity, I wanted to take the opportunity to visit the spot where she and her husband were buried.

At first, it might be easy to assume that she was buried in the cathedral. We know that she was buried in the church of St Peter, and that the cathedral was dedicated to St Peter. In fact, in order to visit and pay my respects, I had to take a short walk from the cathedral close to what remains of St Oswald's Priory.

This priory was originally dedicated to St Peter, but had its name changed to St Oswald's after Æthelflæd arranged to have the bones of St Oswald (King Oswald of Northumbria, slain in battle by the Mercian pagan king, Penda) translated* from Bardney Abbey in Lincolnshire. A short walk from the cathedral close, the remains of St Oswald's Priory is now a simple stretch of wall, jutting up incongruously on an island surrounded by roads full of traffic. Having reached this spot, it was an emotional moment for me, having written so much about her in fiction and non-fiction. I've often repeated my daughter's comment about me, that I regularly stand around in fields, getting emotional. This much is true. But here was something different again, as I stood as close as I'll ever get to the woman who has taken up so much of my writing life.

Æthelflæd is something of an anomaly; one of the very few women to lead an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, she was the daughter of Alfred the Great, and yet she was never a queen. The only time she is given this title is in the Irish and Welsh annals. Some of the English annals hardly mention her at all. And yet she was instrumental in the fight against the Danish 'Viking' invaders, building fortified towns in strategic areas which enabled the English to arrest the incursions and ultimately to force the invaders into submission. Shortly before her death, she was approached by the men of York who sought her protection and assistance against the Norse raiders too. A formidable woman indeed.

Back in the cathedral close, a short hop through an archway brings the visitor face to face with a completely different kind of history, for here is the shop where the author and artist Beatrix Potter imagined that her little mouse, the Tailor of Gloucester, had his premises.

From the magnificence of the stained glass windows, to the simplicity of the remains of St Oswald's priory, to the delight of finding the shop where the little mouse sewed, this was a joyous visit, made all the more special by being able to connect to closely with the woman whose place in history was celebrated in this, the 1100th year since her death, on June 12.

[1] Charter S 70 from the Gloucester archive, 671 for 679
[2] Curthose = from the Norman French courtheuse, meaning 'short stockings'.

All photographs by and copyright of the author.

* Translated - the movement of saints' relics


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom will be published by Amberley in September 2018.

Find out more at

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Hot-beds of fake news and misogyny? The rise of the Coffee Shop in 17th century London

By Kate Braithwaite

Coffee was not new to England when Pasqua Rosee opened the first London coffee shop in 1652. Coffee houses had gradually spread from the Muslim world in medieval times, finding their first European home in Venice in 1645 and from there to Oxford. But Rosee’s business in St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, at the heart of the City of London, although probably little more than a stall initially, advertised by a sign portraying a Turk’s head, marked the beginning of an explosion of popular coffee shops across the capital.

Initially coffee shops were hailed as a positive new force in London life. Rosee claimed his brew would cure hangovers, dropsy, gout and even scurvy. Coffee shops predominantly did not sell alcohol and had at least those grounds on which to claim to be healthier than the already well-established taverns and ale houses. A penny entry fee was charged – to keep the poorer Londoners at bay – and a list of rules was displayed in many coffee houses, calling on patrons not to shout, quarrel or gamble. Smoking, on the other hand, was almost compulsory and almost all early descriptions of London coffee shops, describe a fog of pipe smoke hanging in the air. Coffee shops were the province of men only, the sole female presence, likely a woman employed as the “dame de comptoir” with the work of grinding, brewing and serving the coffee being the responsibility of coffee boys wearing long aprons. Patrons sat at long tables to talk and debate with strangers and friends, sharing news, gossip, business deals and more.

Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century - Attribution
The diarist Samuel Pepys makes frequent mention of Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, where the celebrated poet and playwright John Dryden held court. Often named after their proprietors, coffee shops quickly gathered clique-ish clientele. While literary types chose Will’s, stockbrokers were drawn to establishments near the Royal Exchange such as Jonathon’s and Garraway’s on Exchange Alley in Cornhill. Sir Isaac Newton preferred the Grecian Coffee House in Devereaux Court by the Strand, with its reputation of drawing an intellectual crowd. During the Restoration years after 1660, a time of fomenting political thought and debate, coffee shops were the perfect place for thinking men to collect their letters, read newspapers and pamphlets and share opinions and news. But they were far from popular with everyone.

In 1675, worried that coffee shops were hotbeds of plot and sedition against his rule, Charles II issued A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses which, although it had little legal impact or effect, clearly demonstrates the concerns felt in government about the impact of Coffee Shops on London society. They were centres, the authorities believed, for the deliberate spreading of false news and anti-government sentiment. But they were also places where government spies could be placed and whispers of conspiracies and plots could be heard and acted upon. Despite Charles’ frustration, coffee shops continued to thrive but they had already attracted criticism from another part of the population – women.

The Women’s Petition against Coffee, featured here in more detail, claimed coffee made men not only anti-social and unsupportive of their families, but also impotent: “as unfruitful as the sandy deserts, from where that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” The response was swift and The Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition was direct to a fault. After claiming that coffee rather aided men’s ability to perform under the bedcovers, its author went so far as to claim that coffee increased the chance of fertility, adding “a spiritual escency to the Sperme, and renders it more firm and suitable to the Gusto of the Womb.”

Such criticisms had no effect on the growth of the coffee shop however. In 1681 when the Thames froze from December to February and a Frost Fair was established on the ice, a central feature was Duke’s Coffee Shop a temporary building erected mid-stream. By the turn of the century it is estimated that there were at least 1000 coffee shops in London, vital to the economic and cultural life of the city.

In The London Spy, published in 1703, Ned Ward gives the following colourful picture of typical establishment:
“Come, says my Friend, let us step into this Coffee-House here, as you are a Stranger in the Town, it will afford you some Diversion. Accordingly in we went, where a parcel of Muddling Muck-Worms were as busie as so many Rats in an old Cheese-Loft; some Going, some Coming, some Scribbling, some Talking, some Drinking, some Smoaking, others Jangling; and the whole Room stinking of Tobacco, like a Dutch-Scoot, or a Boatswains-Cabbin.”
Suggestions for further reading:

Life in a 17th Century Coffee Shop by David Brandon

1700, Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller

Ned Ward, The London Spy, published 1703 text available online at


Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is the author of two historical novels set in the 17th century.  The Road to Newgate, a story of lies, love and bigotry in the time of the Popish Plot, will be published by Crooked Cat Books on July 16th. Kate and her family live in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Monday, June 11, 2018

Life in the Regency Era Nursery

by Maria Grace

Like so many other facets of society, childrearing also underwent significant changes during the Regency era. Despite growing concern over the influence of servants in a child’s life, many families of means still employed nursery maids, who might be lower class women, maiden aunts or poor female relations, to tend young children. Parents might have very little contact with their children during nursery days.

Traditionally the nursery was a separate part of the household, running on its own schedule. The exact routine varied from household to household and depended on the number of children and servants to tend them as well as the servants' education and beliefs about children.

Customarily, babies would be in the care of the head nurse, while the undernurse had care of the older children. She would awaken the children, typically by 7AM, dress and feed them breakfast, then take them out for air and exercise. Sometime before bedtime (typically around 8PM) the children would be dressed in their best clothes and brought to see their parents for some sort of a visit. Between those times, children would play and might partake in some early lessons, depending on the education of the nurses. Social etiquette would be a major component of those lessons.

But in some, more progressive households, children might be drawn more tightly into the family circle, eating their meals together and even spending time with the family instead of being exclusively separated to the nursery. “The belief was that they would better learn to socialize and grow into better adults by seeing the behavior of their elders and to “practice” with them. But it had the added benefit of keeping the family together and letting the parents and children play a larger part in each other’s lives.” (Olsen 2017).

Children’s health

In an era when child mortality was alarmingly high and many never grew to see adulthood, physicians rarely treated children’s disorders. The reason? Doctor’s remedies were considered too drastic (and thus dangerous) for delicate children. Given their treatments consisted largely of laxatives, bloodletting, and emetics, one can see some wisdom in the strategy.

Instead of physicians, parents often consulted surgeons, who were the hands-on medical professionals, trained through apprenticeship rather than university training. When surgeons were unavailable, undesirable, or unaffordable, parents would look to family members, friends and neighbors for advice, sometimes bringing in very unlikely professionals to assist. For example, sometimes the local blacksmith might set bones for humans as well as animals. (Sometimes it seems a wonder that anyone survived.) (Payne, Health in England).

A unique period of gender equality

During the Regency, parents felt little need to identify a small child’s gender by their clothing. Those who knew the family personally would already know the child’s gender, and for those who did not know the family that well, it was none of their business. Moreover, very young children rarely appeared in public. The age at which children began to be seen outside the house coincided with the age at which they would begin to wear gender differentiated clothing.

The majority of garments for infants and babies, whether swaddling bands for the first few months of life or simple gowns worn thereafter, were typically linen or cotton, either white or unbleached natural colored cloth, possibly trimmed with colored ribbons. These ribbons would be chosen to the mother’s tastes, not restricted to blue for boys and pink for girls as would be seen much later in the 19th century. In wealthier families, babies had some "good" clothes to wear while being shown off to visiting family and friends. Typically these garments would be colored or trimmed in ways that would not stand up as well to the harsh laundry techniques of the day, so they would be worn sparingly.

One unique feature of infant clothing still present in the early 1800’s was leading strings. Leading strings were the fashion decedents of the hanging sleeves of the middle ages. Attached to the back of children’s garments when the child began to move independently, leading strings might be sewn into individual garments when a family could afford multiple sets. For those of lesser means a single set could be pinned onto different garments. In some cases, children’s garments were made with buttonhole like slits through which leading strings could pass when fastened to the child’s corset.

Well into the nineteenth century infants, both male and female, were dressed in corsets. These garments were not boned and cinched like adult corsets might be, but rather made of multiple layers of sturdy fabric, most often corded or quilted cotton or linen. These garments did not shape the body so much as provide warmth and train the child to have good posture, which was considered essential for good health at that time. The sturdiness of the garment made it an ideal one for attaching leading strings.

Once attached, leading strings could be used as reins to guide the child during the process of learning to walk. This approach was most prevalent in the upper classes. Pudding caps, a slightly padded helmet of sorts, were also used to help prevent the bumps and bruises that came with learning to walk.

For middle and lower class women who enjoyed less help from servants, leading strings might be used more as a leash to limit a child’s movement. The strings could be fastened to a bed-post or heavy piece of furniture while indoors or something immobile like a fence or tree while outside. Though this might be an uncomfortable idea to modern parents, in a world where child safety measures were largely non-existent, these methods could help keep a child safe while their mother’s attention was diverted elsewhere. Leading strings were usually removed when they learned to walk well, certainly by age three or four.

Boys in Dresses

Before learning to walk, babies wore long gowns that extended beyond their feet. Once out of infancy (walking age), both boys and girls were ‘shortcoated’, dressed in ankle length dresses. The early 19th century saw almost no difference between dresses for little boys and little girls. Little boys might wear their sisters’ hand-me-downs and vice-versa. Dresses might be made of chintz or printed cottons. They were worn with small white caps, sashes and petticoats or long ruffled pantaloons.

This is William Henry Meyrick
Though it is difficult for the modern observer to wrap their minds around dressing little boys like little girls, the fact was that dresses were considered children’s wear, not little girls’ clothes. Children’s dresses were very distinct from women’s garments, so to the eye of the person in context, it was not a matter of boys in women’s garments. On a more practical note, in the days before disposable diapers and washing machines, dresses were much more practical garments for children who were not toilet trained.

The transition of little boys from wearing dresses to masculine pants was called breeching and marked a major transition in a child’s life.


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Horn, Pamela. Flunkeys and Scullions: Life below Stairs in Georgian England. Stroud: Sutton, 2004.

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Olsen, Quenby. “How to be a child in Regency England.” Jude Knight. May, 1, 2017. Accessed February 18, 2018.

Payne, Lynda. "Health in England (16th–18th c.)," in Children and Youth in History, Item #166, Accessed February 19, 2018.

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Stone, Lawrence. The Family, Sex and Marriage in England, 1500-1800. New York: Harper & Row, 1979.

Watkins, Susan. Jane Austen's Town and Country Style. New York: Rizzoli, 1990.


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After sixteen years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook or follow on Twitter.

Sunday, June 10, 2018

Thursday, June 7, 2018

6th Century Britain – Questions without Answers

By Gareth Griffith

In the age of Google, at a time when physicists are unlocking the secrets of the universe, when there are answers to almost every question, it seems churlish of history to present us with what used to be called “The Dark Ages.” Yet, in respect to Britain at least, that description would still appear to be appropriate for the period between the departure of the Romans, in AD 410, and the 7th century.

Particularly sparse is our knowledge of the 6th century, when the native written evidence is confined to Gildas’ The Ruin of Britain. Gildas was a monk and, as it is often said, his purpose was not to write history but to present a moral and polemical tract addressed to the British kings of his time. It is not known exactly when he wrote, although it likely to have been in the mid-6th century. There is controversy over that issue and also about the interpretation of what he wrote, as discussed, for example, by Guy Halsall in Worlds of Arthur: Facts and Fictions of the Dark Ages (OUP, 2013).

Statue of Gildas - Wiki Commons attribution

That is not to say that archaeologists and historians are completely in the dark about this period of British history, but it is to suggest that the speculative theories and histories of the age have the feel of a parlour game about them – where five archaeologists and five historians are sent out of the room and return with 11 theories of the Anglo-Saxon take-over of lowland Britain. Ideas about how certain Angles and Saxons arrived at and settled one area or another – the Hwicce for instance on the Welsh borders – can be amusingly reminiscent of the brilliant Monty Python sketch, Wrong Way Norris.

Relatively little is known, therefore, about 6th-century Britain and much of what is believed to be known is contested. In terms of literary evidence, according to Peter Heather:
“To supplement Gildas, there are a few more or less contemporary references to events in Britain in continental sources, and some very late, wildly episodic materials gathered together in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.” (Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe, Macmillan, 2009, p 272) 
There are more questions than answers, some large, others more specific: Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become British? What was the scale of the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain? Was there a mass migration? Is that process best described in terms of conquest and invasion or more as a transfer of elites, with the indigenous population remaining more or less in place?

Possible 5th-century migration pattern Wiki attribution

In attempting to answer such questions, historians have tended to follow the prevailing fashions of historical analysis. The nineteenth century and beyond leaned heavily on the conquest and invasion model, in some cases as evidence of the superiority of Teutonic peoples over their Celtic counterparts. (B Ward-Perkins, “Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become British?” English Historical Review (2000), pp 513-533) As new aerial archaeological techniques revealed evidence that contradicted that model, the view fell into disfavour after 1945, to be replaced by versions of the elite-transfer theory.

From the view that the Anglo-Saxons basically wiped out or expelled the native British population, the pendulum swung towards the displacement of British landowning classes by an Anglo-Saxon warrior elite, led by those who had served as mercenaries in the Roman occupation of the island. It is a caricature admittedly, but we had replaced blood and iron with something approximating a hippy land-grab. It may be that DNA analysis supports that view, whereby the indigenous population remained in place, merely exchanging one ethnic ruling class for another.

A perennially vexing issue for that account relates to language: as Ronald Hutton writes: “If genetics and landscape studies indicate a basic continuity of population all over Britain…linguistic studies do not.” (Pagan Britain, Yale University Press, 2014, p 295). The contrast with the continent, with France in particular, is profound in this regard. To quote Hutton again:
“Old English replaced both the main languages of Roman Britain – the native Celtic one and the official Latin one – completely in the areas that later became England. It did so, moreover, while taking on virtually no loanwords from either tongue.” (p 295) 
In lowland areas at least, 6th century Britain appears to have witnessed “an absolute and abrupt discontinuity of language and culture,” events which, according to Hutton, are “commonly the hallmark of genocide…” (p 296)

The Aedui chief Dumnorix, Museum of Celtic Civilization, Bibracte
The British may have dressed similarly

Rather than deciding between contrasting viewpoints, Hutton’s main concern is to highlight the problems and discontinuities of evidence and interpretation. Calling it “an extreme state of affairs,” he points out that, in this instance, the material data drawn from archaeology and the textual and linguistic evidence do not fit: “In the case of the arrival of the Anglo-Saxons, the two are at present bewilderingly adrift…” (p 297) One is reminded of the comment made by Nicholas Higham in 1994, in reference to the issue of conflicting evidence, that “it has become obvious that archaeologists are capable of producing an almost infinite succession of models, each of which is more or less incapable of either proof or refutation.” (The English Conquest, Manchester University Press, p 2)

In his 2009 book, Empires and Barbarians: Migration, Development and the Birth of Europe, Peter Heather draws together the known and the probable facts of the matter. Like Hutton, he accepts that the key questions about the extent and nature of Anglo-Saxon immigration are not answered in any straightforward way by either the archaeological or historical evidence. (p 275) Nor does he think that DNA testing is likely to fill the gap. Decisively rejected by Heather is the “ethnic cleansing” model, which in his view was not remotely possible given the probable number of people involved, perhaps as many as three to four million. But then, there is the linguistic evidence to be considered, which leaves the argument “more than a little stuck.” (p 277 and p 297)

From this starting point, Heather proceeds to confront from what he calls “the intellectual impasse between mass migration and elite transfer originally generated by the limitation of the traditional historical and archaeological evidence.” (p 277) Taking a comparative perspective, he draws upon evidence from the migrations of the period on the continent, which leads him to several conclusions. One is that the Anglo-Saxon migration to Britain was a long-term process, a “predatory population flow” that occurred over many generations. A related conclusion is that, notwithstanding the obvious transport difficulties, this gradual migration flow included women and children.

Still, by AD 600 the native British population was likely to have outnumbered the newcomers, possibly by a ratio of around 1:4. With the Frankish model before him, Heather’s argument is that an adequate interpretation of Anglo-Saxon migration must combine elements of mass migration, sufficient to establish linguistic and cultural change, with elements of the elite model, whereby land ownership shifted decisively in favour of the incomers and where the mass of the indigenous population, formerly landed or otherwise, were left to accommodate themselves to these new arrangements of subservience.

Of course, none of this is to maintain that the transformation of lowland Britain was peaceful. It is argued that, from the earliest times, the Britons and the Anglo-Saxons perceived themselves as races apart, with Bryan Ward-Perkins commenting:
“…when both peoples came to summarize their dealings with each other, the picture is straightforward and consistent. Two distinct and hostile peoples fight for the same territory; one of them comes by ship from overseas, and gradually expands its power by conquest; the other resists, with greater or lesser success, and awaits the moment when the invaders can be slaughtered and their defeated remnants driven to their boats and 'sent home' over the sea.” (“Why did the Anglo-Saxons not become British?”, p 516) 
To offer my own historical speculation, it seems likely that the Anglo-Saxon takeover was messy and that it varied from one local area to another, in particular as between what is now south-east and south-west England. Whereas a version of the elite-transfer model may apply to the south-east where the scale of armed resistance from the British may have been minimal in the aftermath of the Roman departure, the story in the south-west may have been quite different, with the Saxon advance being marked by a series of pitched battles until they reached what is now the Bristol Channel towards the end of the 6th century. Admittedly, that account may be disputed. On its behalf, it is at least broadly consistent with the account we find in the traditional interpretation of Gildas and with the admittedly sketchy and episodic entries for the period from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle.

Replica of the Sutton Hoo helmet, from the earlier period of
Anglo-Saxon settlement. Wiki Commons attribution link

Clearly, not everything in those sources can be accepted at face value. But some things ring truer than others. For example, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records a major battle fought in AD 577 just north of modern day Bath. There is no other source for the battle which, if true, broke the land-bridge that existed between the Celtic people of modern day Wales and those of Devon and Cornwall. Possibly, the entry which says that three British kings were killed in the battle, those of Bath, Gloucester and Cirencester, can be discounted as a form of aggrandising propaganda on the part of the West Saxons. It is possible. On the other hand, as Heather acknowledges, it is also possible that these events were recalled with “outlined accuracy.” He writes:
Sometimes, too, the events even make sense against the landscape, notably the battle of Deorham in 577, which is said to have brought Gloucester, Cirencester and Bath under Anglo-Saxon control. A visit to the site, now the grounds of Dyrham Park just outside Bath, is enough to show you why. Set on high ground, it dominates the territory around.” (p 272) 
What is beyond question is that the Britons did not relinquish the western regions of the Island to the Anglo-Saxons without a long struggle. If the details are lost to us, the outline is clear enough. The reported Battle of Dyrham occurred over 150 years after the Romans left Britain, which, if true, suggests concerted resistance on a significant scale.


Gareth Griffith was born in Penmaenmawr, North Wales, and now lives in Sydney, Australia with his wife Sue. His career has encompassed teaching, research and writing, including many years working as the manager of research for the parliament of New South Wales. These days, when Gareth isn’t writing, he enjoys reading, music, dark Scandi film and TV, and Dark Age Britain. Although Gareth left Wales at the age of twelve, Wales never left him, and its landscape and history loom large in his imagination and his storytelling.

Find Gareth on his website:
and on Twitter: @garethgriffith_

Wednesday, June 6, 2018

Sailors and Their Superstitions

by Julian Stockwin

Over two decades of researching my Thomas Kydd series I’ve learned much about the rich sea lore of the seaman. In my latest book THE IBERIAN FLAME the appearance of a mermaid evokes age-old fears of sirens luring sailors to their doom. Those who followed the sea then were far more superstitious than landlubbers. Some notions, such as those about the weather often did have an element of truth in them. And the fabled Fiddler’s Green no doubt provided comfort to sailors that they would not end up in Davy Jones’ Locker as food for fishes but go to a better place.

• The caul

One superstition that borders on the macabre is the reverence in which a birth-related piece of human tissue was held.

The caul, the thin membrane covering the heads of some new born children was believed by mariners to bring good luck, in particular to guard against drowning – the sailor’s great fear.

Those born with the caul were considered immune from drowning. In one story, a baby born with the caul was so powerful ‘that when his mother tried to bathe him he sat on the surface of the water, and if forced down, came up again like a cork.’

In fact the caul was highly prized not just by mariners but by landlubbers as well, and there are references in literature from the bible onwards, even in the works of Charles Dickens. David Copperfield describes feeling uncomfortable and confused at the auction of his own caul. (The winning bid was from an old lady who went on to live to ninety-two, and died in her own bed.)

As long as the individual born with a caul kept it on his person the magical powers remained with him but if the caul was sold its properties passed to the buyer, as in Copperfield’s experience. An advertisement in The Times in February 1813 offered a caul for 12 guineas. Another paper announced the sale of a caul – ‘having been afloat with its late owner forty years, through the periods of a seaman’s life and he died at last in his bed at his place of birth.’

A Punch cartoon of
Davy Jones sitting on his locker
Sailors would often sew their cauls into their canvas trousers. One old sailor with a caul secreted on his person this way was admonished that his amulet was a ‘vulgar error’. He was said to reply: ‘A vulgar error saving me from Davy Jones is as good as any other.’
Cauls were advertised in British newspapers all the way until World War I. One ad, posted in the Bristol Times and Mirror in 1874, appealed specifically to sailors. “TO SEA CAPTAINS: For sale, a Child’s Caul in perfect condition. £5.”

• Mermaids and Mermen

lurer of sailors to their doom
Legends of creatures with the head and trunk of a man or woman and the lower torso of a fish abound. Mermen, often thought to be the spirits of sailors lost at sea, were depicted as ugly old men with straggly black beards and hair. Mermaids, by contrast were young, attractive creatures with long gold hair. It was believed that mermaids longed for an immortal soul but could only attain this by physical union with a human.

Mermaids would sing to sailors, distracting them from their work and causing shipwrecks, sometimes inadvertly squeezing the life out of drowing men while trying to rescue them.

We have a number of recorded historical ‘sightings’ of mermaids, including Columbus who wrote in his log about seeing three mermaids on his first voyage to the Americas. ‘[they] rose high out of the sea, but were not as beautiful as they are represented.’

• Mother Nature

Far more seamen died at sea in storms than in engagement with the enemy. It is not surprising, then, that mariners had many superstitions about the weather.

Sometimes a horse-shoe was nailed upside down to the mast of a ship to avert storms. Nelson was said to have had one on the mainmast of HMS Victory.

Seamen were particularly anxious about squalls. It would certainly bring bad luck not to follow the advice of the old ditty:
‘When the rain’s before the wind, Strike your tops’ls, reef your main ... When the wind’s before the rain, Shake 'em out and go again.’

Under certain atmospheric conditions there is an electrical discharge around the mastheads and yardarms of ships, St. Elmo’s Fire.

Superstition holds that the fourteenth century St Elmo was rescued from drowning by a sailor. As a token of his gratitude St. Elmo promised to send a light to warn those at sea of approaching storms. The appearance of St. Elmo's Fire was thus regarded as a good omen. Its appearance preceding a storm portended that the guiding hand of St. Elmo would be present. However many older mariners believed that if the eerie shimmering light fell upon a man’s face he would die within twenty-four hours.

Among American sailors felines were thought creatures of ill omen: should cats frolic aboard this was a sure sign of a storm; if they washed behind their ears this would bring rain, and if one was seen climbing the rigging the ship was doomed.

A ‘cat’s paw’ is a ruffle on the water during a calm that moves as silently as a cat. On seeing cats’ paws old salts would rub the ship’s backstay, part of the standing rigging, as though stroking a cat, and whistle for a wind to come to the ship.

But whistling at sea when the wind was blowing was banned; it would mock the devil who would retaliate by sending gale-force winds. An exception to this injunction was given to the cook preparing the duff, steamed pudding. He was supposed to whistle while he worked so that he couldn’t surreptitiously pop raisins intended for the sweet treat into his mouth!

• When a Sailor Tops His Boom

Sailors had a number of colourful expressions for death at sea, mostly involving nautical terms. Some sails need a long spar, or boom, to spread their foot. When the boom is topped, the vessel is ready to start the voyage. Sailors adopted the expression ‘to top your boom’ to refer to the journey to the afterlife.

A mariner might talk about meeting Davy Jones, the spirit of the deep, thought to be in all storms and sometimes seen as a being of great height with three rows of sharp teeth in an enormous mouth and blue flames coming from his mouth. The name may be a corruption of ‘Duffy Jonah’, a West Indian sailors’ name for the devil.

Davy Jones’ Locker was the bottom of the sea, a repository for everything that went overboard, from masts to men.

Then there was Fiddler’s Green. This was an Elysium, a paradise populated by countless willing ladies, rum casks that never emptied – and always a fair wind and flying fish weather. To go to Fiddler’s Green the departed sailor first became a seagull and then flew to the South Pole where the entrance awaited him in the form of an open hatch. Sailors had a horror of molesting sea birds, especially the albatross, as they were thought to be the spirits of dead sailors who had not yet found their way to Fiddler's Green.

The albatross, the spirit of a dead sailor

Unless the ship was very close to land, burial was at sea for most sailors. The body was sewn up in the man’s hammock and weighted down with a cannon ball. At the last minute a stitch through the nose confirmed that he was really dead!

Jack Tar was uneasy about having a corpse on board ship, believing it would attract bad luck. If a corpse was carried on board there were some things that could be done to minimise the impact: it must always lie athwart the vessel, never end on, and when the home port was reached it must leave the ship before any member of the crew.

• Women on Board

Female mariners were not common in the age of sail but life at sea was not completely a male preserve. Some wives of standing officers went to sea; they assisted with the care of the sick and wounded and even acted as powder monkeys during battle. However to have a woman on board was generally thought to bring bad luck to the ship in the form of a terrible storm that would destroy the ship and all in her. Curiously, a half-naked woman was believed to be able to charm a storm at sea, hence the practice of figureheads with a bare-breasted female torso.

• Friday Sail, Friday Fail

For a sailor the day of his ship’s departure was important. Wednesday was the best day to begin and end a voyage – possibly because the name derives from the Anglo-Saxon god Woden, a protector of mariners. Friday, however, was to be avoided at all costs. The Temptation and Banishment from the Garden of Eden, the Flood and the Crucifixion were all believed to have occurred on a Friday.

One admiral once remarked: ‘Why, I was once fool enough to believe that it was all nonsense and did once sail on a Friday, much to the annoyance of the men. The consequence was that I run my ship aground and nearly lost her... nothing will induce me to sail on a Friday again!’

And while we are perhaps more sceptical today some of these beliefs linger on in those who venture upon Neptune’s kingdom.

The injunction never to sail on a Friday is known to sailors in today's fleet. I remember during my time at sea that mysterious faults in the engine room were known to develop on Friday that were not rectified until the next day!


The Iberian Flame,
the latest title in
the Thomas Kydd series
Julian Stockwin  has written twenty books to date in his Thomas Kydd historical action adventure fiction series, set in the Age of Fighting Sail. Although they form a series each title can be read as a stand-alone novel. These are in order: KYDD, ARTEMIS, SEAFLOWER, MUTINY, QUARTERDECK, TENACIOUS, COMMAND, THE ADMIRAL’S DAUGHTER, TREACHERY (published in the US as THE PRIVATEER’S REVENGE), INVASION, VICTORY, CONQUEST, BETRAYAL, CARIBBEE, PASHA, TYGER, INFERNO, PERSEPHONE, THE BALTIC PRIZE and THE IBERIAN FLAME. In parallel to the Kydd novels, he is writing a series of standalone novels, based on pivotal points in history. Two titles have been published: THE SILK TREE and THE POWDER OF DEATH. Julian has also written a non-fiction book, STOCKWIN’S MARITIME MISCELLANY. More information can be found on his website Julian also posts to his own blog, BigJules, and is on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

For a chance to win a signed copy of THE IBERIAN FLAME email with 'IBERIAN FLAME' in the subject line. Please include your full postal address. Contest closes June 20, and the winner will be notified by email. Open worldwide.