Friday, June 5, 2020

Mottisfont ~ the Evolution of an English House

by M.M. Bennetts

In the beginning there was a man and the man's name was William Briwere.

A sketchy history of this man, Briwere, suggests he was a successful businessman who went on to be a rather savvy administrator for the Plantagenets.  First as a judiciary left in charge of the kingdom when in 1189 Richard Lionheart embarked on the Third Crusade.  Then latterly when he was made a baron, and became a trusted advisor to King John.

 In return for his loyalty and service to the crown, he was awarded considerable lands upon which he was able to levy taxes.  And upon some of this land, he founded four religious institutions:  Dunkeswell Abbey and Torres Abbey in Devon, the Hospital of St. John in Somerset, and the Priory of the Holy Trinity at Mottisfont in Hampshire.

Was he trying to buy his way into heaven after a life-time of financial gain and dubious piety?  I can't tell you.  I don't know.

The Priory at Mottisfont was founded in 1201 and it housed not monks but black-hooded Augustinian priests, who numbered among their duties ministering to those in need, preaching to the community and welcoming pilgrims passing on their way from Canterbury to Winchester, or even those on their way to the far-off shrine of Santiago de Compostela in Spain.

Throughout the 13th century and into the 14th, the Priory remained prosperous, supported as they were by the Briwere family and their descendents.  And even throughout the modern-day property, there remain traces of this first house at Mottisfont--there's the vast cellarium which was the giant larder for the community as well as traces of the mediaeval church...

But in 1348, the Black Death swept over the country, killing over a third of the population and, in some cases, wiping out entire villages.  The Mottisfont cellarer, Walter de Blount, fell victim in 1349.  Robert de Bromore and Richard de Caneford, his two successors, died too, in quick succession.  And like the rest of the land, Mottisfont was caught up in the subsequent civil and economic hardship of the age.

(An earthquake in Hampshire in 1457 didn't help matters any.  William Westkarre, the then Prior, recorded that this had "greatly crushed and loosened" the buildings.)

Still, a generation later, though, things were looking up.  Henry VII now sat on the throne and he initially planned to change the priory's status, making it a Collegiate Church.  But that was never enacted.  Instead, Mottisfont became a subsidiary of Westminster Abbey, before gaining, in 1521, a new patron--Henry Huttcroft.

Then in 1536, Henry VIII ordered the dissolution of the monasteries.

They made quick work of it, for Mottisfont had been sold by June of that same year to William, Lord Sandys, (the king's Lord Chamberlain for five years) who at once set about transforming the place into a grand new Tudor dwelling.

Now Sandys was one of those energetic and savvy Tudor apparatchiks.  He'd been a diplomat during the reign of Henry VII, and subsequently became a staunch supporter of Henry VIII and his new queen, Catherine of Aragon.  He was Treasurer of Calais and made a Knight of the Garter in 1518, and was one of the velvet-tongued-talkers who arranged for the meetings between Henry VIII and Francois I of France at the Field of the Cloth of Gold.  He also already owned another substantial property in Hampshire--this one near Basingstoke and called The Vyne--where he'd received Henry and Catherine in 1510;  and Henry and Anne in 1535.

Sandys was 66 when he set about transforming the priory with its ruined outbuildings, using the structure of the massive church as the spine of his new great house.  Four years later, when he died, the house was nearly completed--creating the main part of the house, the Great Chamber, out of the church nave.

And again, things looked good and the prosperity of the place seemed a certainty:  Elizabeth I visited Mottisfont in September 1569 and again in 1574.

But...and it's a big the middle of the 17th century, England was engulfed in Civil War, and Henry, the 5th Baron Sandys, like so many other Hampshire landowners, fought on the side of the King.  He died at the Battle of Cheriton in 1644.  Within ten years, the family could no longer afford to keep both houses going, so they sold The Vyne.

Finally in 1684, the 8th Baron, Edwin, died childless.  The title expired and Mottisfont was left to Sir John Mill, his nephew.

Then in the 1740s,  it was one of Sir John's sons, Sir Richard Mill--Member of Parliament, Sheriff of Hampshire--who demolished much of the Tudor building, then rebuilt and transformed the house, adding a pedimented three-storey extension onto the the old Tudor house, transforming the place into the Georgian home that is seen today.

Though interestingly, much of the mediaeval structure was retained, hidden behind the new walls of the new rooms of the south front.

(By 1791, the park had been turned into a fashionable landscape.  While sometime in the late 18th/early 19th century, an Ice House was built not far from the house--a.k.a. as a Regency Refrigerator--to be filled with ice during the spring, keeping it cold enough to store winter game, etc. into the summer months.) 

And for another century, the Mills family lived and flourished at Mottisfont.  In 1835, the estate passed to the Reverend John Barker (a cousin) who instantly changed his surname to Barker-Mill.

Sir John Barker-Mill, besides being a reverend gentleman was a keen rider to hounds and a racing man.  In his time, he replaced the old stables with something more suitable for his fine hunters and his stud-farm, and founded Reverend Sir John Barker-Mills Foxhounds.  He also was known for his cherry-coloured cravats and his loud check trousers.

Barker-Mill died childless in 1860, but his widow lived on at the house into the 1880s, founding the first school to be built in Mottisfont village.

The new owner of Mottisfont in 1884 was a Mrs. Marianne Vaudrey (who later changed her name to Vaudrey-Barker-Mill) and she decided to let the house to a family with ten children, the Meinertzhagens, on the condition that they altered nothing in the house and most particularly did not install either electric lighting or any kind of central heating!

Their rent was £320 a year, and they loved it there.  Mrs. Meinertzhagen was the sister of social reformer, Beatrice Webb, she who also co-founded the London School of Economics, and the house was frequently visited by the social reformers, politicos and intellectuals of the day, including George Bernard Shaw, Cecil Rhodes, Charles Darwin and Henry Stanley, of Stanley and Livingstone fame...

In 1898, following the death of their eldest son in 1898, the Meinertzhagens left Mottisfont, and Mrs. Vaudrey-Barker-Mill set about removing the central heating which had been installed, contrary to her wishes, and spending a considerable fortune, some £40,000 (roughly £3 million in today's money) restoring the old place.

A keen follower of The Gothic, she wished to bring out the monastic history of the place.  She removed a parapet on the north side to reveal the roof of the Tudor Great Chamber; she had stucco removed to reveal the mediaeval masonry and arches.  She had the Long Gallery redecorated.  And when the work was complete in 1908, she let the house for shooting parties.  However, in 1932, she had the contents of the house sold.

Whereupon in 1934, the house was bought by a merchant banker and his wife, Gilbert and Maud Russell, who wanted a country house for weekend parties and where they could raise their young family.  Another fortune was now spent modernising the house, adding electric lights, and rooms were redecorated and reconfigured once again.

The artist, Rex Whistler, was commissioned in 1939, to help transform the old, dark entrance hall into a large saloon, and his trompe l'oeil murals, painted in gothick style in keeping with the house's origins, were his last and perhaps most beautiful completed work, before he was killed in France in 1944, while on active service.

During WWII, along with many other big houses up and down the country, Mottisfont was requisitioned--the Long Gallery became a hospital ward with up to 80 patients at any one time, and children who'd been evacuated from London, lived in converted accomodations in the Stable Block.  And it wasn't until after the war that Mrs. Russell was able to make Mottisfont her home.

Finally, in 1957, Mrs. Russell gave the house and the estate to the National Trust, though she continued to live there for another 15 years.

In 1972, Graham Stuart Thomas, the Trust's Garden Adviser, settled on the Walled Garden (formerly the Kitchen Garden and orchard--they grew pears, pine-apples, grapes, figs and vegetables for the house...) as a perfect home for his collection of historic (pre-1900) roses--there are hundreds of them--and it was he who laid out the Rose Garden with such flair and all-consuming love, planting the shrub and climbing roses amongst mixed perennial borders of foxglove, delphinium, iris and clipped box.

Today, without a doubt, it is the Rose Garden--Britain's national collection of old roses--which attracts visitors from all over the world to Mottisfont in June.  And it's no stretch either to understand why, nor to say that Thomas saved the old roses for posterity--they were considered very unfashionable and uncool when he began collecting them.

At times, and in certain places in the garden, the scent of roses and clove pinks is almost too fragrant to bear.  And there is no direction in which one may look which is not nature at her sweetest, most bountiful perfection, harmony for for all the senses...

This is an editor's choice from the EHFA Archives, originally published June 18, 2012.

M.M. Bennetts,  co-founder of English Historical Fiction Authors, passed away in August 2014. She was a specialist in early nineteenth-century British history and the Napoleonic wars, as well as the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame

Wednesday, June 3, 2020

The Man Who Walks Behind Satan: On the Trail of Henry of Blois

By Tracey Warr

The 12th century bishop, Henry of Blois, was the grandson of William the Conqueror. He attracted opprobrium from some contemporaries. Bernard of Clairvaux described him as ‘the man who walks behind Satan’ and ‘that old whore of Winchester’. For Henry of Huntingdon he was ‘a new kind of monster, composed part pure and part corrupt … part monk and part knight.’ Brian FitzCount accused him of ‘having a remarkable gift of discovering that duty pointed in the same direction as expediency’.

Henry of Blois, British Library Public Domain Image

Henry was probably the youngest of eleven children born to Count Etienne of Blois and Adela of Normandy, sister of King Henry I of England. As the youngest son Henry was superfluous to needs for the inheritance of his parents’ holdings and he was given to the monastery at Cluny as an infant.

Some elements of Henry’s history are well-documented and some may be apocryphal. Among the latter is that Henry went to Germany when he was around eleven with his eight-year-old cousin Matilda, daughter of King Henry of England, on her journey to marry Emperor Henry V. If this was Henry of Blois (rather than a different Henry), he was elected Bishop of Verdun in 1118 (aged around 20) on the recommendation of the emperor. The Pope arranged his consecration in Milan but, due to fierce controversy between the Pope and the emperor over who should appoint bishops, the emperor forbade the inhabitants of Verdun from receiving their bishop. Henry took refuge in the fortress of Hattonchatel. With military support, he was installed as bishop in 1120. If this story is true, we catch a glimpse of Henry’s willingness to switch allegiances to hang onto his power, which is repeated in later events in his life.

In 1120 the Anglo-Norman empire shuddered with the sinking of The White Ship in the English Channel. The ship was carrying the younger generation of Norman nobles including the 17 year-old heir to the English throne, Prince William Adelin. Henry of Blois’s sister Matilda, Countess of Gloucester, and her husband were also among the dead. Despite having at least twenty-four illegitimate children, King Henry was left without an heir and his new queen, Adelisa, appeared to be barren. The sinking of the ship led to a succession crisis in England.

In Germany, Verdun was stormed on the orders of Emperor Henry, the bishop was expelled, and escaped the emperor’s forces by swimming across the Meuse. If this story of Henry’s escapades is true it must have caused embarrassment to Empress Matilda since Henry arrived in Germany in her entourage and was then in defiance of her husband. The story has been questioned due to Henry’s age, however, there were other very young bishops who catapulted up the ranks through the power and wealth of their families. Furthermore, the incident seems in keeping with later events in Henry’s life when he took power and his loyalties twisted and turned as he clung onto the influence he had accrued and sought to expand it.

If Henry was in Verdun, it is possible that he was recalled to the Anglo-Norman empire in 1125 by King Henry, along with the Empress Matilda after the death of her husband. The king was contemplating his resources in the succession crisis and these included his widowed daughter and his nephews, Thibaut and Stephen of Blois, and their younger brother, Henry.

Once in England Henry rose rapidly in the Church, thanks to the patronage of his uncle. King Henry I was a youngest son who had climbed unexpectedly to power after the deaths and defeats of his older brothers and that may have been a source of inspiration to his nephew and namesake. In 1126 King Henry appointed Henry of Blois prior at Montecute in Somerset and  then abbot of Glastonbury. Glastonbury was the richest and foremost monastery in England. On 1 January 1127 Henry of Blois was very likely among the English lords who swore an oath at Westminster Palace to uphold the rights of Empress Matilda as the king’s heir.

A few years later, in 1129, the king appointed his nephew bishop of Winchester, when Henry was probably around 30 years old. Very unusually and by special papal dispensation, Henry was allowed to retain his abbot’s mitre at Glastonbury at the same time as receiving the bishopric at Winchester. The combination of these two positions gave him an income that was 37% greater than that of the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Historiated initial letter from the beginning of the Song of Songs
from the Winchester Bible. Public Domain Image

Henry was a generous patron of the arts. He commissioned the Winchester Bible and the Winchester Psalter and is depicted on the Henry of Blois plaque (image at end of article). Matthew of Paris described a magnificent sapphire pontifical ring that Henry gave to Saint Albans Cathedral. His extensive building works included renovations to Winchester Cathedral, Farnham Castle and Wolvesey Castle.

The Annunciation to the Shepherds (top) and
the Magi before Herod (bottom), Winchester Psalter
British Library, Public Domain Image

Many of the English lords were not happy at the idea of a woman on the throne, and they were even less happy with this solution to the succession crisis when the king married Matilda to Geoffrey, Count of Anjou. It is likely that Henry conspired with his brother Stephen and made plans for how they would act in the event of King Henry’s death. When King Henry died in Normandy in December 1135, Matilda was pregnant and unwell. She was unable to immediately claim the throne. The Anglo-Norman lords elected Thibaut of Blois as king of England, but his younger brother Stephen took swift action and usurped the throne from both Matilda and Thibaut. Stephen sailed from Boulogne in rough December seas. At Winchester the keys to the royal treasury were handed over by Bishop Roger, supported by Bishop Henry.

Henry of Blois attended the funeral of King Henry at Reading Abbey in early 1136, where he saw the hand of Saint James, which Matilda had brought back with her from Germany. Despite requests from the German court to return the relic, the empress had given it to her father, who had given it to Reading, his designated burial place. Henry of Blois ‘borrowed’ the hand of Saint James and took it back to Winchester where it doubtless attracted considerable revenue from avid pilgrims seeking cures. The reliquary was not returned to Reading Abbey until 1155, under the orders of Henry II.

With his brother as king of England, Henry could reasonably expect to rise further. When the archbishop’s throne in Canterbury became vacant in 1136 Henry coveted it. Orderic Vitalis claimed that Henry was elected archbishop. However, his expectations were thwarted since his candidacy was not supported by King Stephen and Henry did not receive papal confirmation. Stephen was probably pressured by other factions at court, including the queen and the twin earls of Beaumont and Worcester, who feared that Henry might exert too much influence on the king. Henry overcame this setback by getting himself appointed as papal legate to England in March 1139, which effectively gave him ascendancy over the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King.

Motivated, perhaps, by resentment, Henry called a church council in August 1139 to oppose Stephen’s dealings with Bishop Roger. Henry’s apparent championing of Roger on this occasion did not inhibit him from taking Roger’s role as Dean of St-Martin-Le-Grand, London and acquiring some of the disgraced bishop’s properties.

Henry of Blois had his fingers in the water at every turn of the tide during The Anarchy. The empress landed at Arundel in September 1139 with her half-brother Earl Robert of Gloucester ready to begin her long-awaited contestation for the throne. Stephen allowed her to leave Arundel and Bishop Henry escorted her towards Bristol. He may have written to his cousin urging her to come to England and claim her throne. In 1140 Henry went to France to discuss the civil war with King Louis VII and Thibaut of Blois and organised an inconclusive peace conference attended by Stephen’s queen, Matilda and Earl Robert of Gloucester.

After Stephen was captured by the empress’s forces at the battle of Lincoln in 1141, Henry switched sides. He met the empress near Wherwell and she agreed to make him her chancellor and defer to him on church matters. Henry received the empress at Winchester Cathedral as Lady of the English, the prelude to crowning her queen and ending the civil war. However, the accord between bishop and empress was short-lived. She flouted her agreement with Henry to defer to him by appointing William Cumin as bishop of Durham. When the empress’s highhanded actions in London caused another downturn in her fortunes, Henry had to flee the city with her. Henry argued with the empress over his nephew Eustace’s inheritance and they parted ways. She went to Oxford and Henry went to Winchester.

Henry next arranged a meeting with Stephen’s wife, Queen Matilda and switched sides again. The empress marched on Winchester and besieged Henry. He appealed to Queen Matilda for aid. The siege went on for six weeks, during which Henry’s forces burnt large parts of the city. The siege ended with a rout, the capture of Earl Robert and the escape of the empress.

When the prisoners, Robert of Gloucester and King Stephen were exchanged, Bishop Henry was obliged to patch things up with his brother. He called a council in London to declare Stephen the rightful king. In 1143, Pope Innocent II died and Henry lost his position as papal legate. He visited Rome in an effort to regain his position but was unsuccessful. In a further bid to secure ascendancy he proposed that Winchester be created a new archbishopric but was again unsuccessful. In 1149 Henry was King Stephen’s envoy in a mission to persuade King Louis of France to support Stephen against the advances of the empress’s son, Henry FitzEmpress, in Normandy. In 1154 King Stephen died and Henry FitzEmpress became Henry II, King of England.

William of Malmesbury, a friend and beneficiary of Henry of Blois’s patronage, described the bishop’s actions during the civil war in a favourable light, claiming that he was trying to do the best by the kingdom. Nevertheless, even allowing for the biases one way or another of the various commentators, a picture emerges of Henry of Blois as a man who might define the word tergiversator. He appears intent on wielding power by any means possible, hoping perhaps that first his brother King Stephen and then the Empress Matilda might be his puppets, or at least that he would have the foremost position in either court, depending on who emerged as the victor. Brian Fitzcount complained against Henry that ‘[my] main offence consisted in refusing to change sides as often as himself’.

Henry of Blois plaque, showing kneeling, tonsured figure. Inscription reads:
'Art comes before gold and gems, the author before everything. Henry, alive in bronze, gives
gifts to God. Henry, whose fame commends him to men, whose character commends
him to the heavens, a man equal in mind to the Muses and in eloquence higher than
Marcus [that is, Cicero]' Image Credit

Bishop Henry assisted at the coronation of Henry II as king of England, but perhaps trepidatious about how the new king might view his equivocations and his wealth, he left England without the king’s permission and retired to Cluny for a few years, sending his treasure on before him. King Henry promptly ordered the destruction of Bishop Henry’s castles. After his cautious return to England, Henry of Blois had a part to play in one more significant episode in English history. He was amongst the bishops forced to sign the Constitutions of Clarendon by King Henry II against Thomas of Becket and presided over Thomas’s trial at the same time as secretly supporting the archbishop’s family.

Another of the possibly apocryphal stories associated with Henry is Francis Lot’s controversial theory that Henry was the author of the Gesta Stephani (an account of the life of King Stephen) and that Geoffrey of Monmouth, the author of The History of the Kings of Britain, was his nom de plume.

Bishop Henry died in his seventies in 1171. King Henry II visited him as he lay dying. When Henry’s body was discovered in 1761 in a sepulchre in Winchester Cathedral it was ‘wrapt in a brown and gold mantle, with traces of gold round the temples’. Henry of Blois emerges from the traces of history as a man who lived sumptuously and who was impressively presumptuous.


Tracey Warr’s novels are set in early medieval Europe. Almodis was shortlisted for the Impress Prize and the Rome Film Festival Book Initiative. It is based on the life of Almodis de La Marche, who was described by William of Malmesbury as being ‘afflicted with a Godless female itch’. The Viking Hostage recounts the true story of a French noblewoman kidnapped by Vikings. Warr’s trilogy Conquest follows the tumultuous life of the medieval Welsh princess, Nest ferch Rhys. It was supported by a Literature Wales Writer’s Bursary. Warr’s next project, Three Female Lords, has received an Author’s Foundation Award and is a biography of three sisters who lived in 11th century southern France and Catalonia. She is Head of Research at The Dartington Trust and teaches on MA Poetics of Imagination at Dartington Arts School. Her latest novel Conquest III: The Anarchy is published by Impress Books on 2 June.

Purchase link: Amazon 

social media links:
Twitter - @TraceyWarr1

website links:

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Search for the Elusive Arthur

By Tim Walker

It was never my intention to write a version of the King Arthur story. It is a well-trodden path, and what could I possibly add that would be well received?

But I had read Thompson and Giles’s translation of the parts of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s 1136 work, The History of the Kings of Britain, that related to events in the fifth century, and found it a fantastical and captivating read. Geoffrey’s work gives us the first full telling of the stories of Uther Pendragon and his son, Arthur. More than that, he gives a timeline of post-Roman kings of Britain, plugging the gap in our empty history between the end of Roman rule and the establishment of Anglo-Saxon kingdoms – a period of about 200 years. But how reliable is his ‘history’?

The boy Arthur and the sword in the stone

Geoffrey claimed to have been working from a ‘text written in a native tongue’, but no evidence has been found by historians of such a document. Because they can’t verify it, they doubt it ever existed, and have tarnished Geoffrey’s work with the claim that it is a work of fiction – made up to please his Norman sponsor and to appeal to his readership.

More recently, other historians, including Miles Russell (Arthur and the Kings of Britain, 2018), have tried to understand Geoffrey’s approach, and have demonstrated that he did compile and work from a wide range of source material – it’s just that he exercised a certain amount of creativity in plugging gaps in his narrative, and appears to have deliberately moved historical characters and their deeds around in a Middle Ages cut-and-paste job. Russell believes he didn’t invent Uther and Arthur - they are real figures plucked from Welsh chronicles and mentions from literary monks such as Nennius, who credits twelve winning battles to Arthur. Uther Pen-Dragon (‘the head dragon’) is thought to be a king of Gwynedd in North Wales – perhaps a son or relative of the mighty Cunedda who was sent there in the mid-fifth century by King Vortigern to rid Wales of Irish settlers.

Ever since eminent academic, John Morris, in his epic work, The Age of Arthur (1972), announced his belief that Arthur was a real historical figure, the search for evidence has been taken on by others. Morris states: “The personality of Arthur is unknown… But he was as real as Alfred the Great or William the Conqueror; and his impact upon future ages mattered as much, or more so. Enough evidence survives from the hundred years after his death to show that reality was remembered for three generations, before legend engulfed his memory.”

The eminent archaeologist, Leslie Alcock, in Arthur’s Britain (revised,1989) states in the preface: “This book is about the Arthur of history, and about the Britain in which he lived. It will demonstrate that there is acceptable historical evidence that Arthur was a genuine historical figure, not a mere figment of myth or romance.” These two works have given credibility to the search for evidence of Arthur’s existence, and it can only be hoped that more tangible evidence is forthcoming over time.

Geoffrey of Monmouth tells us that a noble prince, Constantine came from Armorica (Brittany in northwest France) and was accepted by a council of tribal kings to be their overlord. He ruled for ten years before being assassinated on the orders of disgruntled noble, Vortigern. Vortigern ruled for perhaps as long as twenty years, covering the middle years of the fifth century, and he is mentioned by a number of sources, including Gildas, who wrote an account of those times around the year 540. He is also named in the Welsh Annales – a record of dates and events.

Depiction of Arthur's 'final battle'

Despite some historians believing that ‘Vortigern’ is a title, meaning ‘high king’, it is widely believed that it relates to one individual. Who was Vortigern and what was his real name? Graham Phillips in The Lost Tomb of King Arthur (2016) has trawled through museums and libraries looking for records of tribal kings in western Britain in the fifth and sixth centuries, and has come up with his own theory. He argues that ‘Vortigern’ may have been the chief or king of Powys in mid-Wales, and that his regional rival was Aurelius, who came from a family of former Roman elite nobles who were rulers of the Dobunni tribe based at modern day Gloucester.

Aurelius defeats Vortigern in battle to become high king of the Britons, possibly at the Battle of Gulloph in Hampshire around the year 460, taking the title ‘Ambrosius’ (the divine one). There are enough mentions of both Vortigern and Ambrosius Aurelianus, and mentions of their battles, to cement them as historical figures who straddle mid to late fifth century Britain; therefore, Geoffrey of Monmouth is on safe grounds including them in his ‘history’. Graham Phillips talks about the descendants of Cunedda ruling over the kingdoms of Gwynedd and Powys, and therefore Uther, Vortigern and Ambrosius could all be related through marriage as members of the ruling elite of that region. Could an alliance have enabled Aurelius and Uther to defeat Vortigern?

Geoffrey tells us that Ambrosius’s brother was Uther Pendragon, and that he succeeded Ambrosius following his poisoning by a Saxon spy. Could the Briton noble, Uther, have been related to the Roman-named Aurelius through a family marriage alliance, and therefore become his ‘brother’? Uther’s story is one of a powerful warrior king who fights the advancing Saxons, and falls for the charms of the beautiful wife of one of his nobles, the lady Ygerne. Uther is so besotted with her that he instructs his adviser/healer/sorcerer Merlin to find a way for him to have her. Merlin arranges it, but asks that if their union results in the birth of a boy, that he must have the child. And so, the deed is done, and Uther marries Ygerne after her husband is killed in the ensuing civil war. Merlin takes the child – Arthur – and places him with a foster family to raise in secret. When Arthur comes of age, he accidentally pulls the sword from the stone (following Uther’s death), and is then exposed by Merlin as the one true son of Uther and rightful heir.

Much of this narrative, including Graham Phillip’s connections with West England and Mid-Wales, and the possible locations of Nennius’s twelve battles of Arthur, have been incorporated into my storytelling, as I have attempted to breathe life into these fascinating and only dimly-glimpsed characters in my book series.


Tim Walker is an independent author living near Windsor in the UK. He worked in the newspaper publishing industry for ten years before relocating to Zambia where, following a period of voluntary work with VSO, he set up his own marketing and publishing business.

His new book, published in June 2020, is Arthur, Rex Brittonum, a re-imagining of the story of King Arthur (book five in the series). It follows on from 2019’s Arthur Dux Bellorum, the story of young Arthur (book four in the series), that received recognition from two sources in 2019 - One Stop Fiction Book of the Month in April, and an honourable mention in the Coffee Pot Book Club Book of the Year (Historical Fiction) Awards. The series starts with Abandoned; followed by Ambrosius: Last of the Romans (2017); and book three, Uther's Destiny (2018). 

Find out more about the author at - 

Friday, May 29, 2020

Charles and Nancy Wollstonecraft

By Lauren Gilbert

Botanical illustration and description by Nancy Anne Kingsbury
Wollstonecraft of the Cuban Blue Passion Flower, Vol. I, Pl. 25, ca. 1826

In 2019, we learned of an astonishing discovery: the manuscript of a work long thought lost created by American Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft titled SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA. This remarkable work consists of three volumes, in which Mrs. Wollstonecraft described various specimens. She also illustrated them beautifully in watercolors herself. Although we know little about her, data shows that she was married to Charles Wollstonecraft, the youngest brother of British author Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN, among other works. I was immediately intrigued. How did Charles Wollstonecraft get to America? What is their story?

Mary Wollstonecraft in 1790-91, By John Opie - Tate Britain

In April 1789, Charles went to Cork, Ireland to stay with family, but returned to his father in the spring of 1791. That didn't work out, so he returned to his brother Ned in the fall. (It appears that Charles had difficulty finding himself.) He was supposed to go to America in 1792 with Joel and Ruth Barlow, American acquaintances of sister Mary. Mr. Barlow was a speculator in land. Mary bought Charles clothes and put him on a farm in Leatherhead so he could learn something of agriculture until his departure. However, Mr. Barlow ended up in France and Charles went to America alone, possibly later in 1792 or in 1793.

There are indications that Charles dabbled in land speculation, and he may have purchased land in Ohio. He was in Philadelphia, PA in late 1794, and wrote to his sisters telling them how well he was doing. In 1795, he became involved with a calico mill with Archibald Hamilton Rowan, another acquaintance of Mary's who was also a speculator. Although he continually wrote in optimistic terms, he did not respond to requests for financial assistance from his family in England.

Apparently, Charles' efforts at speculation in land and calico did not pay off, as he enlisted in the U.S. Army in Pennsylvania in 1798. He was a Lieutenant in 2 Artilleries and Engineers June 4, 1798 and went to Artillery April 1, 1802. Charles married Sarah Garrison of New Orleans in 1804, and they had a daughter named Jane Nelson Wollstonecraft about 1806. Data indicates he divorced Sarah for adultery in 1811, and kept their daughter. He was promoted to Captain March 15, 1805. He served as captain of the Regiment of Artillerists (known as Captain Charles Wollstonecraft's Company from 1806 until late 1815). He himself was transferred to Corps Artillery May 12, 1814 and was present in the British bombardment of Fort St. Philip, Lower Mississippi River, Louisiana from Jan 9-18, 1815 (in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans).

A general map of the seat of war in Louisiana & west Florida :
shewing all the fortified points and encampments of both
the American and British armies also the march of
Genl. Jackson's army on his expedition against Pensacola. 1814

Charles married Anne Kingsbury in 1813 in New Orleans. (Her name is commonly shown as Nancy or even Nancy Anne.) She was born October 29, 1791 to Benjamin Kingsbury and Abigail Sawin. She had multiple siblings, and her mother died when she was 12 years old. I found no information on her youth, education or when (and why) she came to New Orleans. I also found no information on how Charles and Nancy became acquainted. She would have been approximately 22 years of age, and he would have been about 43 years old when they were wed.

Charles became brevet major on March 15, 1815, as a reward for 10 years' service in one grade. He died in Louisiana, possibly of fever, September 28, 1817. He left his daughter Jane (then age 12) in Nancy's care, with Nancy as her guardian. Nancy placed Jane in other people's custody, the last being Rev. Richard Hall in New Ipswich, NH. Jane's mother Sarah managed to find and take the child to New York. A custody battle ensued, which resulted in Sarah being awarded custody of the child in August 1819, based in part on Jane's expressed desire to stay with her mother.

Nancy apparently remained in New Orleans for a time. She was a benefactor of the Poydras Female Asylum (an orphanage) in 1817. In 1819, she moved to Matanzas, Cuba. The reason for this move is unclear; health seems a likely possibility as Cuba's subtropical climate made it a destination for sufferers of various health problems, including lung complaints, for which warmth and sea air were specifics.

Throughout the 1820s, Nancy worked on SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA. She was very knowledgeable in the study of botany, showing familiarity with the work of Carolus Linnaeus (18th century Swedish botanist who pioneered classification and naming of organisms), Olof Swartz (another Swedish botanist, noted for his work with orchids) and other contemporary scientists. At this time, it is unknown where she studied or if she was self-taught. Besides her scientific knowledge, she was also a talented artist as her illustrations show. (The 3 volume manuscript has been digitized and can be viewed here.)

Portrait of Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus), 1774

In 1825, Nancy visited New England. Under the pseudonym, "D'Anville", she began publishing articles about her botanical studies and about women's issues. "The Natural Rights of Women" was published in the Boston Monthly Magazine in August  1825, in which she appeared to echo many of her sister-in-law Mary Wollstonecraft's views, especially on women's education. (It is tempting to imagine that Charles told Nancy about his sister, and that Nancy read her works. It is certainly not impossible.) Nancy's "Letters from Cuba" appeared in the Boston Monthly Magazine in April and May 1826. On June 10, 1827, her father Benjamin Kingsbury died.

At some point around 1827, Nancy sent her manuscript for SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA to New York for publication (her manuscript was known to be there in April 1828, even thought it was not published). There are indications that she was still working on notes for her manuscript when she died on May 16, 1828 in Matanzas, Cuba, aged 46 years.


Todd, Janet. MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT A Revolutionary Life. 2000: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London.

AtlasObscura. "A Forgotten Botanist's Stunning 19th Century Manuscript Is Now Online" by Jonathon Carey, February 5, 2019. HERE

Cornell University Library. “Rediscovering a pioneering botanical illustrator.” (no author shown) February 1, 2019. HERE “Edward John WOLLSTONECRAFT/Elizabeth DIXON”, Family Tree Maker, 2/19/05. HERE

Feminist History of Philosophy. “An ‘Exciting New Discovery’: Anne Wollstonecraft, Botanist and Woman’s Rights Writer” by Sandrine Berges, April 25, 2019. HERE

GoogleBooks. Davis, Paris M. AN AUTHENTICK HISTORY OF THE LATE WAR BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND GREAT BRITAIN with a Full Account of Every Battle. 1829: ATHAEA. HERE ; Hamersly, T.H.S. COMPLETE REGULAR ARMY REGISTER FOR ONE HUNDRED YEARS (1789-1879). 1881: T.H.S Hamersly, Washington D.C. HERE

Hathi Trust Digital Library. “The Natural Rights of Woman” by D’Anville. Boston Monthly Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1-7 (1825). HERE ; “Letters from Cuba No. 11”. Boston Monthly Magazine, 1825-1826, S.L. Knapp, Boston. HERE ; Wollstonecraft, Anne Kingsbury. SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA, 1826? V. 1, 2 and 3. HERE

National Geographic. “.'Lost' Book of exquisite scientific drawings rediscovered after 190 years” by Czerne Reid, April 22, 2019. HERE “Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana, 1814-1815” by Major A. Lacarriere Latour, translated by H. P. Nugent, Esq., Philadelphia 1816. Bombardment of Fort St. Philip, in Placquemines Parish [reproduction of an item in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly, published by the Louisiana Historical Society] Bill Thayer, no date of post. HERE

University of Florida. “The Cuban Botanical illustrations (1819- 1828) of Nancy Kingsbury Wollstonecraft (1781-1828) at Cornell University Ithaca, New York” by Emilio Cueto, November 8, 2018 (PDF). HERE

U.S. Army Center of Military History. McKenney, Janice E. FIELD ARTILLERY PART 1. 1985: Center of Military History, Washington D.C. p. 311.HERE


Botanical illustration and description of the Cuban Blue Passion Flower, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. HERE

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. HERE

A general map of the seat of war in Louisiana & west Florida 1814. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. HERE

Carolus Linnaeus, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, HERE

An Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives, originally published May 30, 2019.

Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life, and the passion has never left. An avid reader, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts 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 written two novels, including her new release, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT. She is working on a non-fiction book about powerful women in Regency Europe for Pen & Sword books, and is also researching material for another novel. Visit her website for more information.

Wednesday, May 27, 2020

The Women who Worked for SOE

By Hilary Green

In my last blog (Click here) I wrote about the work of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry during the First World War. When the conflict was over the FANY did not disband, although there was some difficulty in keeping membership buoyant in the inter-war years. Nevertheless, a loyal core continued to train, although now the emphasis was not so much on nursing as on transport. It was clear that there was no longer any need for mounted nurses, the function for which they had been founded in 1907, but their ability to drive and maintain motor vehicles had been crucial during the 1914-18 period. So now they concentrated on this aspect of the training and shortly before the outbreak of World War II it was suggested that they should come under the aegis of the ATS as the Women's Motor Transport Company. And it was in this capacity that many of them did sterling work driving ambulances and chauffeuring high ranking officers during the war. (It was into this corps that Princess Elizabeth, now our Queen, was recruited in order to 'do her bit'.)

Princess Elizabeth in the ATS - Public domain Image

Some long-standing FANYs, however, refused to be subsumed into the ATS. Their independence from other authorities had always been a matter of pride and they insisted on maintaining it, becoming known as the 'Free FANY.' It was this independence that made them ideally suited to working with SOE.

When the Special Operations Executive was first set up at the behest of Winston Churchill to 'set Europe ablaze' by dropping secret agents behind enemy lines, its existence was so secret that not even the army high command was allowed to know about it. So when a need arose for help on 'the home front' with such activities as radio communications and coding and decoding messages to and from agents in the field it was impossible for them to turn to the ATS or any other recognised women's service. Fortunately Colin Gubbins, who was in charge of operations, knew that a neighbour of his, a Mrs Phyllis Bingham, belonged to the FANY and he turned to her for help. So was born 'Bingham's Unit', a branch of the FANY whose function was known only to a few.

Member of ATS - Public Domain image

In order to fulfil their new tasks it was imperative to recruit extra personnel. What was required were young women with experience of wireless telegraphy, perhaps those who had worked for the Post Office, or who had a mathematical background or an aptitude for crossword puzzles. These last, it was felt, would have the right kind of brains for dealing with codes and cyphers. Girls with the right attributes found themselves being referred to a vicarage in Wilton Place, in London, where they encountered the redoubtable Marion Gamwell. (Marion and her sister Hope were long-standing members of the FANY, having volunteered in the First World War, when they provided, from their own funds, a mobile bathhouse in a converted lorry where troops could bathe and get their clothes washed.) Other young women who applied to the Women's War Work Bureau in Oxford Street were sent to Bingham's office in Baker Street. None of them knew what they were being recruited for, but if they were considered suitable after an induction course at Overthorpe Manor, they were then asked to sign the Official Secrets Act. Not even their parents knew what they were doing. They were told that their daughters were being trained as drivers.

Potential radio operators were sent to Fawley Court, near Henley, for four months’ intensive training. If they passed they then went to SOE's communications centre at Grendon Underwood, one of the many country houses taken over for the duration of the war. Conditions were grim. They lived in Nissen huts in the grounds and were often cold and hungry. They worked six hour 'skeds' or schedules in shifts round the clock and each girl was allotted her own agent (or Joe as they were fondly called). In this way, she would get to know his 'fist' – his unique touch on the Morse key – so that she could detect if someone else was impersonating him. Messages were in code and sent in groups of five letters which did not make words, so if one letter was missed it was impossible to guess what it should have been, and they were often sent in haste and in poor atmospheric conditions. It was intensive and demanding work.

Fawley Court via Wiki commons - click here for attribution

Once the message had been received it was handed over to the coding section to be rendered into plain English. Codes were based on poems. Each agent was asked to memorise two or three lines of verse and each message was based on one or two words from those lines, the letters of which were then transposed by using a cypher on a silk sheet which could be folded very small and concealed. The process is described by Leo Marks, a brilliant young man who was SOE's Head of Coding in his book 'Between Silk and Cyanide'. (Those who have read or seen '84 Charing Cross Road' will be interested to learn that Leo was the son of the man who owned the eponymous bookshop.) Many agents maintained that they were unable to remember even short pieces of poetry, so Leo suggested that the girls at Grendon might make up verses that would be easier for them to learn. Some of the results were scatological in the extreme -but presumably all the more memorable for that!

Leo Marks at the opening of the Violette Szabo Museum
Image via Wiki Commons - click here for attribution

Because the messages were sent under very dangerous and difficult conditions they often arrived garbled, making the decoding almost impossible. Marks describes how, on his first visit to Grendon, he told the girls the story of a young Belgian radio operator who was caught while transmitting by the Nazis and suffered terrible tortures in an effort to make him reveal his associates. He pointed out that the longer an operator was at his set, the greater the chances that the enemy detector vans would be able to pinpoint his location. It was vital, therefore, that no operator should be asked to send a message twice. After that, it became a point of honour among the decoders that, no matter how garbled, every message was decoded – even if they had to sit up all night to solve it.

Radio communications was not the only area where the FANYs gave invaluable help. Agents in training or those waiting to be sent into the field, were housed in more great mansions taken over by SOE. In fact, there was a standing joke among them that the letters stood not for Special Operations Executive but for Stately 'Omes of England. While there, they had to be looked after, fed and above all entertained to keep their minds off the dangers ahead of them. Here the more traditional FANY personnel were ideally suited. Many of them had come from backgrounds where social life was at the hub of their existence, but this did not mean they were not prepared to roll up their sleeves and get down to hard work. But at the end of a long day cooking and cleaning they would change into evening dress and after dinner the carpet would be rolled back and they and the agents would dance till midnight to the music of a gramophone.

It was not long, of course, before some of them developed the urge to become agents themselves. Once SOE became convinced that women could play a useful role they began to train with the men, and many of them who were not already members of the FANY were enrolled into their ranks to give a cover to their real purpose. One such was Violette Zsabo, whose exploits form the basis for the film Carve Her Name With Pride.

[This is an Editor's Choice archive post which was originally published on EHFA on 6 December 2018]

One aspect of this change in the role of the FANY that particularly interested Hilary was the social implications. When they were founded the FANY was unashamedly elitist. It was a Yeomanry, an organisation for the daughters of the land-owning classes. To a great extent it had preserved that ethos up to the beginning of World War II. Many of the young women had been 'debs', had been presented at court and 'done the season'; some even had titles. But the expansion of the work had required the influx of a large number of girls from very different backgrounds. The heroine of  'We'll Meet Again' is a working class girl recruited into Bingham's Unit who becomes a coder for SOE, ultimately finding herself parachuting into enemy-occupied Italy.
The heroine of Never Say Goodbye is  Frankie's best friend, a girl from the opposite social background, who volunteers to be dropped into France as an agent.

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Monday, May 25, 2020

Equestrian Pageantry in Tudor and Stuart Times

by Margaret Porter

William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle

The basis of equestrian pageantry began with Xenophon of Athens, who first codified the movements. His treatise On Equitation (circa 400 BC) was first printed in 1512, inspiring centuries of artistic horsemanship, the origin of modern-day dressage. It was then referred to as the Art of Manège, or High School Riding. Riding academies were founded--initially in Italy and Spain. Over time the horse trainer, noble rider, choreographer, composer, and costumier united to develop a popular and exclusive entertainment. During the Renaissance, horse ballets or carrousels rose to prominence at European royal courts, eventually replacing jousting tournaments. A carrousel featured a mock battle, with group manueuvres, quadrilles, and individual feats showcasing elements of the balancing, leaping, jumping, and flying 'airs above the ground': the levade, croupade, courbette, ballotade, and capriole.


English royalty preferred court masques to carrousels. But everyone liked a clever horse and rider. The common people tended to prefer low comedy to balletic grace.
Marocco & William Baknes
Marocco, sometimes referred to as Bankes's horse, was the most famous dancing horse of the Renaissance. Born 1586, he was alternately described as a bay, a chestnut, or white. Petite and well-muscled, he was extremely agile, intelligent, and easily trained. His owner, William Bankes of Staffordshire, took his marvel to London. Marocco's initial performances took place in Gracechurch Street, and he was later stabled at the Belle Sauvage Inn and performed there. Marocco, who wore silver horseshoes, could dance a jig, count, play dead, walk on his back legs, and urinate on command. He could also identify which ladies in his audience were sluts, and which were virtuous. He made his bow to Queen Elizabeth I. And he bared his teeth at King Philip of Spain. John Donne and Shakespeare knew of Marocco (there's a reference in Love's Labours Lost) and almost certainly witnessed performances similar to this:

Banks perceiving, to make the people laugh, saies; 'seignior,' to his horse, 'go fetch me the veryest foole in the company.' The jade comes immediately, and with his mouth drawes Tarlton [a famous clown and comedian] forth. Tarlton with merry words, said nothing but, 'God a mercy, horse.' In the end Tarlton, seeing the people laugh so, was angry inwardly, and said: 'Sir, had I power of your horse as you have, I would doe more than that.' 'What ere it be,' said Banks, to please him, 'I will charge him to do it.' 'Then,' said Tarleton: 'charge him bring me the veriest whore-master in the company.' The horse leades his master to him. Then 'God a mercy horse indeed,' saies Tarlton. (1611)
The horse was immortalised in various verses. One example:

Bankes hath a horse of wondrous qualitie
For he can fight, and pisse, and daunce, and lie,
And finde your purse, and tell what coyne ye have:
But Bankes, who taught your horse to smell a knave?

In 1601 he performed his greatest feat, climbing the thousand steps to perform on the rooftop of St. Paul's Cathedral--the medieval one, not the Christopher Wren one with the dome. After touring England and visiting Scotland, he travelled to Europe. In Paris he caused such a sensation that Bankes was accused of sorcery, and to save himself revealed that he controlled the horse primarily through hand gestures. Marocco performed in Germany and travelled as far as Portugal. Returning to England, Bankes worked as a trainer in the royal stables during James I's reign, and also trained the Duke of Buckingham's horses.

Bankes's acquaintance Gervase Markham produced A Discourse on Horsemanship (1593), in which he writes of 'that most excellent and prayse worthie gyft, the breeding and ryding and trayning uppe of horses.' In his multi-volume Cavelarice: Or the English Horseman (1608) dedicated to Prince Henry, James I's son and containing William Bankes's secrets for training Marocco. Markham attributes human emotions to horses, stating, 'It is most certaine that everie horse is possest with these passions: love, joy, hate, sorrow and feare.' He also charts the different 'humours' during the lifetime of the horse as it matures: 'Now these tempers do alter, as the powers of a horse either increase or diminish, as thus, a Foale is said to have his temper from the Fire and Ayre, a horse of middle age from the Fire and the Earth, and a horse of the old age from the Earth and the Water.'

1st Duke of Newcastle
William Cavendish, the polymath First Duke of Newcastle was one of the great riders of his age. Margaret Cavendish, his duchess and biographer, describes the admiration his riding excited at the English court, where was responsible for the education of the future King Charles II. In that role imparted his riding skills to the then-Prince of Wales:
But not only strangers but his Majesty himself, our now gracious Sovereign, was pleased to see my Lord ride, and one time did ride himself, he being an excellent master of that art, and instructed by my Lord, who had the honour to set him first on a horse of manage when he was his governor [instructor, tutor]...his Majesty's capacity was such that being but ten years of age he would ride leaping horses and such as would overthrow others and manage them with the greatest skill and dexterity to the admiration of all that beheld him.
A firm and devoted Royalist, Newcastle spent Interregnum on the Continent. In Antwerp, where he occupied the house associated with painter Peter Paul Rubens, he established a riding school. Then, and later, he published books on horsemanship and established his famous riding-school, exercised 'the art of manège' (High School riding), and published his first work on horsemanship, Méthode et invention nouvelle de dresser les chevaux (1658). After the Restoration and his return to England, he published A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to Dress Horses and Work them according to Nature (1667).

He was not humble about his abilities and their effect upon spectators:
The Marquess of Caracena was so civilly earnest to see me ride that he was pleased to say it would be a great satisfaction to him to see me on horseback, though the horse should but walk...he came to my manage [manège] and I rid first a Spanish horse called Le Superbe, of a light bay a beautiful horse, and though hard to be rid yet when he was hit right he was the readiest horse in the world. He went in corvets forward backward sideways on both hands made the cross perfectly upon his voltoes and did change upon his voltoes, so just without breaking time that a musician could not keep time better, and went terra a terra [terre-á-terre] perfectly. The second horse I rid was another Spanish called Le Genty, and was rightly named so for he was the finest-shaped horse that ever I horse ever went terra a terra like him so just and so easy and for the piroyte [pirouette] in his length so just and so swift, that the standers by could hardly see the rider's face...truly when he had done I was so dizzy that I could hardly sit in the saddle. The third and last horse I rid then was a Barb that went...very high both forward and upon his voltoes and terra a terra. And when I had done riding, the Marquess of Caracena seemed to be very well-satisfied, and some Spaniards that were with him crossed themselves and cried 'Miraculo!'


Grand  Carrousel, 1662

Many English aficionados of equestrian skill were exposed to the carrousel at the French court. Antoine de Pluvinel (1555-1620), a well-born Frenchman, studied equitation and other subjects in Italy, returned to found an academy at Faubourg St. Honore. He served as chief instructor, or gouveneur, to the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, and his precepts for riding were published in The Maneige Royal, or L'Instruction du Roy (1623), written as a dialogue between master and pupil. In 1612, Pluvinel devised a fifteen-minute carrousel celebrating the marriage of ten-year-old Louis and Anne of Austria.

Like father, like son. The 1662 Grand Carrousel at the Tuileries, performed over two days, celebrated the birth of the Dauphin, son of Louis XIV. It was a grand display of the young King's power and splendour. Louis participated, as did the royal dukes. The riders and their horses were elaborately costumed, and the characters were allegorical and representative in nature--Romans, Turks, famous warriors from history. Teams of participants, each led by a duke or the king, performed this ballet to music created by the court composer Lully. The horses' decorations alone cost one hundred thousand livres. Though not English by birth, England's Dowager Queen, Henrietta Maria, witnessed her nephew's performance.

Louis XIV in Le Grand Carrousel

Monsieur, the King's brother

In May 1686, the two-day Carrousel des Galantes Amazones was held at Versailles. All the most important people received tickets, including the English ambassador, Sir William Trumbull, and his wife. The story depicted was that of Alexander the Great (portrayed by the now adult Dauphin) and the Amazon Queen Thalestris (the Duchess of Bourbon). This was the first time ladies appeared in a carrousel, and all, men and women, were spectacularly attired in costumes by Jean Berain.
Carrousel des Amazones at Versailles, 1686

The King's Champion

After every English coronation, an elaborate banquet was served to the participants, and it included a unique and historic ceremony involving equestrian spectacle. A designated 'King's Champion' (or Queen's) mounted on a steed, rode into Westminster Hall and dared anyone to challenge the new ruler's right to succeed. For more than six hundred years members of the Dymock family held this position, although the George IV coronation in 1821 was the occasion that a Dymock was called on to perform his hereditary role, described thus in 1660: have on the Coronation day one of the King's great coursers with a saddle harness and trappings of cloth of gold and one of the best suits of armour with cases of cloth of gold, and all such other things appertaining to the King's body...if he was going into mortal battel. And on the Coronation day to be mounted on the said courser ...being accompanied by the High Constable and Marshal of England and the King's Herald with a trumpet sounding before him to come riding into the Hall to the place where the King sits at dinner with the crown on his proclaim with an audible voice these words following...that if any person of whatsoever degree he be, either high or low, will deny or gainsay that Charles the Second King of England Scotland France and Ireland son and next heir of our late sovereign Lord Charles the First deceased defender of the faith... ought not to enjoy the crown thereof here is his Champion ready by his body to assert and maintain that he lyes like A false traitor, and in that quarrel to adventure his life on any day that shall be assigned him. And thereupon the said Champion throws down his gauntlet, and in case no man shall say that he is ready in that quarrel to combat then as hath been usually done at all former Coronations of Kings and Queens of this realm...

James II's Champion (British Museum)


The famed Royal Lippizzans of Vienna's Spanish Riding School are modern equivalents of the dancing horses of centuries past, as are the Olympians in the dressage competitions in the Summer Games. Modern groups recreate versions of carrousels that were seen by Henrietta Maria, Charles II, and their kinsmen Louis XIII and Louis XIV, and French courtiers. The one I attended in Brussels is an indelible memory. A video of a similar performance is here. A section of Lully's music for the Grand Carrousel can be heard here.

This is an Editor's Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published December 15, 2016.
Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, whose other publication credits include nonfiction and poetry. The Carrousel des Amazones is the setting for a scene in A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans.

Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

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Friday, May 22, 2020

'All Women's Parts to be Acted by Women'

By John Pilkington

So runs a commanding phrase from one of the earliest Acts of Charles II’s reign. Following the demise of Cromwell’s short-lived Republic, 1660 saw the Restoration of the Monarchy: the return from exile of the son of the executed Charles the First. The Restoration ushered in a new, liberal era after the Puritan years - and among many changes the new King brought was the appearance of the first actresses on the English stage. Prior to that, all female roles had been taken by men and boys.
Soon after his arrival Charles gave two of his supporters, Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant, royal patents to run theatres in London, their patrons being, respectively, the King himself and his brother James, Duke of York. Killigrew soon founded the King’s Company, based at first in a converted tennis court. Here, on 8th December 1660, the first actress to perform publicly stepped out: Margaret (‘Peg’) Hughes, taking the role of Desdemona in Othello. Soon afterwards, the great diarist -and keen theatre-goer - Samuel Pepys would write: ‘I to the Theatre, where was acted Beggars Bush… and here the first time that ever I saw women come upon the stage’ (3rd January 1661). In terms of theatre history, it was a revolution. Within a few years Pepys could record: ‘Tomorrow, they told us, should be acted… a new play called The Parsons Dreame, acted all by women’ (4th October 1664).

Margaret Hughes

By then, Killigrew had moved (in 1663) to a new theatre adapted from a former riding school in Brydges Street, off Drury Lane in lively Covent Garden – the burgeoning West End. The courtier Davenant, meanwhile (once rumoured to be an illegitimate son of Shakespeare, though no real evidence exists), had lost no time in founding the Duke’s Company, also in a former tennis court (Lisle’s, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields). He opened in 1661 with one of his own plays, The Siege of Rhodes, featuring the actress Mary Saunderson who the following year would marry leading actor Thomas Betterton. Davenant, who had produced plays and court masques before the Civil War, was the guiding spirit of this first wave of English actresses: eight young women he had tutored and even boarded at his house. Very soon they were an accepted - and expected - sight on the stage.

So began what we now term ‘Restoration Theatre’, often characterised by alluring costumes and witty ‘Comedies of Manners’ in which the pursuit of women was a common theme. Now, however, instead of cross-dressing boys there were real, flesh-and-blood females to take the roles. So, who were they?

To begin with they were not only talented, being expected to sing and dance as well as to act: they were strong-willed and courageous. They had to be, to survive in what was exclusively a men’s domain. Some, it must be said, took to the stage merely to attract well-to-do suitors with marriage as a goal, since many theatre-goers came from the gentry and upper classes, even the aristocracy. Others settled for becoming mistresses, this being a notoriously licentious age with men taking their example from the King himself. The most famous, of course, was Eleanor (‘Nell’) Gwyn. Nell starred alongside the actor Charles Hart in Killigrew’s first Drury Lane production, The Humorous Lieutenant. She was 14; a year earlier she had been a poor orange-seller in the theatre. Within a few years she would catch the eye of the King, go on to bear sons by him and become his most famous mistress with her own servants and a set of rooms in St James’s Park.

Nell Gwyn

The actress Mary (‘Moll’) Davis became another of Charles’ mistresses, and was set up in similar fashion. While Mary Lee, a leading tragedian with the Duke’s Company, married a baronet and became Lady Slingsby.

Moll Davis

Other actresses apart from Mary Saunderson married theatre people, like Anne Gibbs who became Mrs Shadwell, wife of the celebrated playwright Thomas. But most of them had to shift for themselves, in a precarious world with very few opportunities for women outside of marriage. The wage, for the time, was good: up to fifteen shillings a week for a regular female player - well above the wage of the working man – which gave them a degree of independence. Though this was offset by the insecurity of the profession, since the theatres might be closed at any time for a variety of reasons. The fact remains that many of the actresses were obliged, if not prepared, to use their sexuality to advance their careers. The ‘casting couch’ surely dates from this era, for all actresses were considered fair game – not only by leading actors, but also by the men (Pepys among them) who haunted the backstage areas before, during and after performances, many doubtless deserving of the soubriquet ‘Blowflies of the Tiring Room’. At least there were separate changing rooms (known as the ‘Men’s Shift’ and the ‘Women’s Shift’), as there were now seamstresses and ‘tiring-maids’ to look after the costumes, in this age of extravagant fashion.

How the women managed, in a climate of casual sex with virtually no contraception, let alone legal protection, would be a challenge to the staunchest of souls. Yet Mary Betterton forged a successful career on her own merits, and Elizabeth Barry – though given a helping hand by that famous libertine, the Earl of Rochester – gained a well-deserved reputation as a serious tragic actress. While Hester Davenport, often known as ‘Roxalana’ after her celebrated role in The Siege of Rhodes, left the stage to become the mistress of the Earl of Oxford. She was still only 20, and had been tricked into a fake marriage with the Earl. The pace of change was sometimes slow, but it was inevitable. There was even an opportunity for a woman to take a prominent role in theatre management: when Davenant died in 1668, his widow Henrietta Maria, along with two of their nine sons, took over the running of the Duke’s theatre, with the help of the forward-looking Betterton.

We should not forget that this was a vibrant theatrical scene. These new indoor theatres, with their lighting and elaborate scenery, were a far cry from the rough-and-tumble of the great Elizabethan playhouses like the Globe, the Swan and the Rose. Their day was over, and had been since the closure of the theatres on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. Davenant, who like the King had been impressed by theatres on the continent, where female actors already performed, introduced moveable scenery at the Duke’s: painted flats sliding into place along grooves in the stage. Killigrew soon followed the practice at the King’s. Equally important was the lighting: great candelabras hoisted above the stage, with side-lighting from candles in reflectors. It was a striking development from the open-air stages, natural daylight and minimal scenery of the pre-Civil War theatres – and it was also considerably more upmarket. In the old theatres you could stand in the yard for a penny; in the Restoration playhouses the cheapest gallery seats (there was no standing room to speak of) cost a shilling. A seat on a bench in the ‘pit’ – today’s stalls – would set you back two shillings and sixpence, a tidy sum at that time.

These theatres were also quite intimate spaces, seating around 500-800 (the old pre-war theatres had accommodated thousands). It was an excellent platform for an actor to shine and to command the stage. Usually a leading player spoke the prologue on the forestage in front of a ‘festoon’ curtain, which was then raised to open the first scene – and many of these speeches were made by actresses.

The companies of the time generally contained around 24 actors, of whom a third were women. No longer were playwrights restricted in the number of female parts they could write as they had been in earlier times, to be played by the boys in the company (never more than four). Nor had the company to rely on the singing abilities of boys whose voices had not yet broken, but could exploit the full range of mature female voices. For dancing, the looser gowns now in vogue (despite the upper-body corsets) allowed greater freedom of movement, as Pepys noted with his customary relish: ‘I was pleased to see [Elizabeth] Knipp dance among the milkmaids, and to hear her sing a song… [in] the comeliest dress that ever I saw’ (17th August 1667). And equally noteworthy was the arrival of the first female playwright, Aphra Behn, an adventurous widow who had briefly been a spy. She wrote successful plays which provided strong roles for women as well as men – with shrewd observations on the predatory behaviour of the latter.

Aphra Behn

Nowadays we are accustomed to seeing female actors feted and honoured on a par with men (even if equal pay remains an issue). The profession is no longer considered a disreputable one, or even particularly dangerous. It is easy to forget how brave those first, pioneering actresses had been back in the 1660s, and how revolutionary was their arrival.

Even if it had come about at the whim of a profligate king, it was a beginning.

Further reading:
Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses (1992).
John H. Wilson, All the King’s Ladies: actresses of the Restoration (1958).
Graham Hopkins, Nell Gwyn; a passionate life (2003).
Montague Summers, The Playhouse of Pepys (1964).


John Pilkington wrote plays for radio and theatre as well as scripts for BBC television before turning to historical fiction, which soon become his lifelong passion. He has since published around twenty books, including seven in the popular series The Thomas the Falconer Mysteries, set in the late Tudor period (now republished by Sharpe Books), four in the early 17th century Marbeck spy series (Severn House) and a children’s series, the Elizabethan Mysteries (Usborne). His Restoration-era mysteries, featuring actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand, are now being published in revised editions by Joffe Books.

Twitter: @_JohnPilkington