Thursday, November 15, 2018

Lady Charlotte Guest - Victorian powerhouse of myth and iron

by Deborah Swift

Next weekend* I am booked to give a talk on the Mabinogion, the extraordinary collection of Welsh myths that were first brought to prominence in England by Lady Charlotte Guest. Not only are the myths fascinating, but Charlotte Guest was quite a phenomenon herself.

Charlotte Guest

Born Charlotte Bertie in May 1812, she was the eldest child of the ninth Earl of Lindsay of Lincolnshire, and was brought up at Uffington House, a large country estate. When she was six years old, her father died and her mother remarried a vicar, a man whom she disliked intensely. Charlotte was a bookish and intelligent child, and being educated at home, her only escape was into literature. She soon taught herself several languages, including Arabic, Hebrew and Persian. She began keeping a journal when she was nine, and so we know a lot about her life, because she carried on writing it for another seventy years - until she was was seventy-nine! 

Page from Charlotte Guest's Diary

Her interest in Wales and its history began after meeting the MP for Merthyr Tydfil,  John Josiah Guest.  Full of vitality and energy, Josiah ran the largest ironworks in the country, the Dowlais Iron Company, which employed 7,000 workers. In 1833 Charlotte and John were married. Charlotte took a keen interest in the business, and in the welfare and education of the workers. Moreover, she was keen to escape the oppression of her step-father and Wales was suitably far from her family home.

Ever a keen linguist, she launched herself into learning Welsh. At that time there was a romantic revival and a strong interest in Arthurian legends. Charlotte began translating some Medieval Welsh tales into English. These tales were part of an oral tradition, and drawn from the written sources of the Llyfr Coch o Hergest, or Red Book of Hergest. Her translations included the four branches of the Mabinogi, three Arthurian Romances, and a translation of the well-known myth Taliesin

The Lady of the Fountain  (an Arthurian tale) was first published in 1838, and in 1849 the collected tales appeared as The Mabinogion in a lavishly illustrated edition. Since then they have been widely studied by poets such as Tennyson and scholars of Welsh and Celtic mythology, as well as those interested in the spiritual and wisdom traditions they embody. The myths are much-loved by illustrators too, trying to capture the unknowable in paint.

Click picture for more great
illustrations by Lee

Back to Charlotte Guest.  Not content with documenting the ancient tribes of Britain, Lady Charlotte also produced her own tribe - ten children: five boys and five girls. She was ambitious for her children, marrying them into the aristocracy and ensuring their education through the schools she endowed (the Dowlais Central Schools cost £20,000 to build - an enormous sum in the Victorian era.) This area of Wales was heavily influenced by Chartism, and these principles were evident in Charlotte Guest's educational ideals for her workforce.

On her husband's death she became the only active trustee of the ironworks, and ran the business. Astute and energetic, she insisted on being in control. This included negotiating terms when the men went on strike, and dealing with dissatisfied workers who in those times were unused to being ordered by a woman. One cannot help but think, that the models of the powerful women in the tales from the Mabinogion must have proved an inspiration to her when faced with these difficulties.

Dowlais House, centre of Charlotte Guest's empire

Two years later Charlotte fell in love with her son's classics tutor, Charles Schreiber. They shared a passion for history and collecting ceramics, and from then on they travelled the continent collecting, as many wealthy Victorians did. Their collections were left to the nation and are housed in the V&A, where there is a 'Schreiber' Room, and in the British Museum, which houses her collection of playing cards and fans. In 1891 she became the first woman to receive the freedom of the Worshipful Company of Fanmakers. 

Below - an unmounted fan-leaf,  painted for the occasion of the Schreibers' silver wedding anniversary in 1880, now in the British Museum.

Lady Charlotte died in 1895 but it wasn't until 1950 that her grandson, the Earl of Bessborough, published edited highlights from her diaries. The originals are now housed in the National Library of Wales. 

Charlotte Guest is chiefly remembered for her translations of the Mabinogion, from which we receive most of our knowledge about Welsh mythology, including the story of Rhiannon, the tale of the mysterious mound that leads to the Otherworld, Bran and the ravens that now roost in the Tower of London, about Arianrhod and her turning wheel of stars. Although many now take issue with Guest's translations, without her a whole generation of people would have had the door to these wisdom stories closed to them.

Work with the myths and stories of the Mabinogion still goes on, and new translations have appeared and continue to do so, proving that good stories always outlast those that tell them.

Watch a BBC video about The Mabinogion
The Dancing Floor Film - new film based on Mabinogion Myths

The Mabinogion - translations by Guest, Davies, Jones
National Library of Wales

* This post is an Editors' Choice post, originally published on this blog on 16 March 2016


Deborah Swift is the author of seven novels for adults and a trilogy for young adults. She lives in the North of England close to the mountains and the sea. Follow her on Twitter @swiftstory or find her on her website

Monday, November 12, 2018

Early Education of up-and-coming Gentlemen

by Maria Grace
"In all well-regulated states, the two principal points in view in the education of youth, ought to be, first, to make them good men, good members of the universal society of mankind; and in the next place to frame their minds in such a manner, as to make them most useful to that society to which they more immediately belong; and to shape their talents, in such a way, as will render them most serviceable to the support of that government, under which they were born, and on the strength and vigour of which, the well-being of every individual, in some measure depends." (Sheridan, 1756)
Although sentiments for the education of youth (read here, male youth; female education would not be considered worthwhile yet for quite some time), no one really argued for state-provided education for middle and upper-class children before 1850. (Brown, 2011) That was left entirely in the hands of the parents. Although considerable effort and activity went into educating these children, it was hardly standardized. How a young boy was educated depended entirely on the preferences and means of his family.

Early education

On the whole, early education in the home was preferred. Mothers and governesses would provide a boy’s first education, often teaching him the basics of reading and writing. Usually by the age of seven, he would graduate from being taught by women to being educated by men. There were no standards of how this worked though. The specific details varied by family and by social class.

A male tutor might be brought into the home to teach the child, preparing him for the next step in his education. This could continue for just a few years until the boy was deemed ready for a boarding school, or it could continue until he was ready for university study, depending on the educational philosophy of the family, usually the father. (Selwyn 2010)

Alternatively, a boy might be sent to a local scholar, often a clergyman, for lessons as a day student. Many clergymen also took such students on as boarders, running small schools to supplement their income teaching anywhere for half a dozen to two dozen students.

Preparatory Schools

These smaller schools which routinely took boys in the 7 to 13-year-old age range were often referred to as preparatory schools, preparing boys for the larger public schools that often preceded entry into the universities.

These schools were usually held in the schoolmaster’s home. Jane Austen’s father, Rev. George Austen conducted such a school out of the vicarage in Steventon beginning in 1793. His living as a vicar was £230 a year. He charged £35 per term for each of his student boarders. It is easy to see how taking even just a few students could substantially augment his family’s income. The work though did not fall on him alone. His wife cooked, cleaned, sewed, and mother-henned the boys in her care, much like a surrogate mother. (Sanborrn, 2016)

In larger schools where the teaching staff consisted of ordained clergymen, teachers could make as much as £200-400 a year, giving them a comfortable middle-class income. (Davidoff 2002) Headmasters in such schools, especially if scholars themselves, might enjoy a position of respect and distinction in local society. (Selwyn 2010)

By modern standards, preparatory school curriculum was very limited. It consisted mainly of Latin and Greek classical texts (both prose and verse), modern and ancient history, some mathematics, and the use of globes to locate nations. French and Italian might be taught as extras (for additional fees), along with handwriting, dancing, drawing and a smattering of scientific subjects. (Le Faye, 2002) No curriculum standards existed, so what might actually be taught varied widely and there was no guarantee that a particular teacher was actually well versed in the subjects he taught.

Teachers in these preparatory schools were most often clergymen or failed ordinals. There were far more men ordained than there were livings to provide for them. In 1805, it was estimated that up to 45% of those ordained never found a church living and were forced to work as (usually highly underpaid) curates for men who had a living or to try their hand at teaching or take up another occupation entirely outside the church (Southam, 2005). After their education in these preparatory schools, boys might then progress to a public school.

Public Schools

Public schools were public in the sense that boys were taught in groups outside of their private homes, not in the sense that these institutions were funded by public funds. A number of public schools existed, but the landed elite, in particular, chose to send their sons to a select number of these schools: Eton, Harrow, Winchester, Westminster, Rugby, Charterhouse and Shrewsbury. (Adkins, 2013) The exact timing and duration of a boy’s stay at school varied greatly. Some were sent as young as age seven and stayed until age eighteen. More commonly boys started public schools around age thirteen and stayed about five years.

Though Regency era education was very different from modern education, two factors, in particular, seem to distinguish it most from modern schooling: the curriculum taught and the lifestyle of the students.

What was Taught

In his 1693 treatise, Some Thoughts Concerning Education, John Locke recommended that instruction in foreign languages (beginning with a living language like French) should start as soon as a boy could speak English. Locke considered Latin and Greek to be absolutely essential to a gentleman’s education, enabling him to read classical literature. In addition, he endorsed the study of geography, astronomy, anatomy, chronology, history, mathematics and geometry. (Morris, 2015).

Based on Locke’s foundations, students were expected to know some Latin upon arrival to public school. “The first two years of their education was entirely a study of Latin–memorizing, reciting, reading, and answering set questions in that language, so pronunciation too.… Thus they learned to be confident public speakers, first in Latin, then in classical Greek and finally in English.” (Bennetts 2010) These studies also developed an understanding of the moral and philosophical issues brought up by classical thinkers and a literary appreciation of poetry and prose. Dancing, fencing, and other sports also featured in some curriculums.

What was notably absent from both public school and university educations were courses on anything the modern mind would consider practical. Since these establishments catered to gentlemen who were not destined to actually work for their living, courses like bookkeeping or land management that might equip them for jobs (oh the horror!) were relegated to schools that catered to the sons of men in trade. (Selwyn 2010)

Life in public school

Students at public schools either boarded at the school itself or in town at boarding houses known as ‘Dame’s Houses’ usually overseen by a ‘Dame’ or landlady. In the early 1800s, about thirteen such houses were associated with Eton. Although school life was very regimented, with school days running from six in the morning until eight in the evening, there was actually very little direct supervision over the boys. They were often left to fend for themselves. Once they entered public school, most boys spent the majority of their year at school, with only a few weeks of holidays spent back home during the year.

With a strong economic incentive to admit as many students as possible, public schools were often so crowded that even beds were shared by two or more boys at the same time. The same incentives also influenced the quantity and quality of food made available to the students. Those with pocket money frequently supplemented their rations at local shops. (Brander, 1973)

Under such conditions, it was no surprise that public school culture was wild. Almost no limits were placed to the amount the boys could drink, gamble, fight and indulge any sexual bent with maidservants, local prostitutes, and girls living in town. Even the institution of prefects (older boys in charge of younger ones) did little to curb the out of control behavior. “ … Most schools suffered occasional rebellions, or mutinies, resulting in mass expulsions or floggings. In 1797, Dr. Ingles, headmaster of Rugby, had his door blown open by gunpowder. The boys at Harrow were even more ambitious, setting up a roadblock and blowing up one of the governor's carriage.” (Brander, 1973)

Bullying and Brutality

Not only was dissolute, licentious behavior the norm, bullying and brutality were expected. Corporal punishment consisting of flogging with a birch, or caning with a rod until blood was drawn from the bare buttocks, was regarded as the normal and accepted punishment for transgressions. Such punishments were frequently delivered in public, adding additional humiliation to the experience.

Not only was brutality dished out from the masters to the students, older boys were put in charge of younger ones and permitted to order them about and punish them with beatings just as the schoolmasters did. Depending on the sorts of friends a boy did or did not make and how he got on with others, especially older students, a boy’s public school years could be very testing indeed.

Why was it tolerated?

If public schools could be so bad, why did not parents intervene? Why would a father who had suffered through such school days send his son into a place that brutalized him?

In short, such an environment was regarded as essential for inculcating the toughness and fortitude men needed to perform their social roles. “Educators and parents subscribed to the principle that one was fit to command only after one had learned to obey. And those young boys of the gentry and nobility were there to learn their place and destiny in England's highly structured society.” (Laudermilk, 1989)

So, even if a boy had been able to appeal to parents for help, he would have been unlikely to receive either assistance or sympathy. At a very tender age, he was literally on his own, to survive the experience in whatever way he could. Is it any wonder that the friends a boy made during his time in public school were often strong allies for a lifetime?


Adkins, Roy, and Lesley Adkins. Jane Austen's England. Viking, 2013.

Austen, Jane, and David M. Shapard. The Annotated Persuasion. New York: Anchor Books, 2010.

Bennetts, M.M. A gentleman’s education. M.M. Bennets. July 20, 2010. Accessed October 5, 2016.

Brander, Michael. The Georgian Gentleman. Glasgow: University Press, 1973.

Brown, Richard. Educating the middle-classes 1800-1870. Looking at History. Accessed October 29, 2016.>

Davidoff, Leonore, and Catherine Hall. Family Fortunes: Men and Women of the English Middle Class, 1780-1850. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.

Day, Malcom. Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David and Charles, 2006.

Evans, Bronwen. Eton College During the Regency Era. Collette Cameron. May, 9, 2015. Accessed October 3, 2016.

Glover, Anne. Regency Culture and Society: Harrow. Regency Reader. November, 15, 2013. Accessed October 10, 2016.

Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.

LeFaye, Deirdre. Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. New York: Abrams, 2002.

Locke, John. Some Thoughts concerning Education. London, 1693.

Morris, Diane H. “I Am Illiterate by Regency Standards.” Moorgate Books. Thursday, October 8, 2015. Accessed May 22, 2017.

Sanborn, Vic. "19th Century Learning Academies and Boarding Schools: An Eyewitness Account" Jane Austen’s World. August 1, 20012. Accessed October 28, 2016.

Selwyn, David. Jane Austen and children. London: Continuum, 2010.

Sheridan, Thomas. British Education. London: R. and J. Dodeley, 1756.

Southam, Brian . “Professions,” in Jane Austen in Context edited by Janet Todd, p 366-376. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Sullivan, Margaret C., and Kathryn Rathke. The Jane Austen Handbook: Proper Life Skills from Regency England. Philadelphia, PA: Quirk Books, 2007.


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 16 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, November 11, 2018

Editor's Weekly Round-up, November 11, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Join us every week on English Historical Fiction Authors. We have saints and sinners, politics and war. Read about kings, queens, the common man and woman, and legends from ancient to post-WWII.

Linda Root takes the spotlight in this week's round-up. Enjoy!

Monday, November 5, 2018

The Man in the Tower Suite ~ Henry Percy, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland

by Linda Root

Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland, {{PD-Art}}

For seventeen years (1605-1622)  the Martin Tower Suite in the Tower of London complex housed a most illustrious guest. He was a gentleman of high fashion,  undisputed good looks, and a keen intellect, loyal to his friends and congenial to his hosts. We can hardly call his keepers jailers since they went to considerable lengths to assure his comfort and entertainment.

There are 21 towers in the complex known as the Tower of London and vague records as to which prisoners were housed in which ones. However, the Ninth Earl of Northumberland Henry Percy's occupancy of the Martin Tower was well known. Apparently, his rooms occupied most if not all of it.  He entertained often and lavishly and used it as the center of operations for his widespread business enterprises. Among his frequent guests were his son and heir, his pet fox and Sir Walter Raleigh. From his arrival at his lodgings on the 27th of November, 1605, the man his contemporaries called The Wizard Earl made himself very much at home. November 1605 was the month of the Gunpowder Treason, which brought Northumberland to the Tower. If rumors circulating in 1622 held a modicum of truth, when he was released, he was loathed to leave.

At one point the Northumberland apartment housed much of his celebrated library. His was one of the largest collections of books in Britain. They covered a broad range of topics, many related to his strong interest in alchemy.  His interest in natural philosophy, what we call science, earned him the moniker The Wizard Earl.

By the time of his arrest in 1605, Percy had adopted an urban lifestyle and made Sion House in Isleworth, a London suburb, his principal residence.  The magnificent mansion was inherited through his wife Dorothy Devereux, daughter of the Earl of Essex.  It remains in the family to this day.


Earlier, as a young man living in Paris, he had been captured by a young man's traditional fancies--the riding, the hunt, the gaming, and the many mistresses, he confessed.  But he professed to having returned to  England with only one mistress claiming him, and that was Knowledge.

Northumberland was drawn into the Gunpowder Treason investigation due to his association with his second cousin Thomas Percy, indisputably one of the principals in the plot.  1605 was not the first time the earl's conduct regarding Cousin Tom got him into trouble.  He had made him Constable of Alnwyck, the Percy ancestral home in Northumberland, with it many acres of adjoining farm land. Alnwyck was but one of many of his real estate holdings in Northumberland, an income producing enterprise for the Earl.

Wikimedia Commons

No one is quite certain as to why Northumberland chose Thomas Percy as its overseer. In addition to making him his Constable, he gave Thomas Percy control over his accounts and the responsibility for collecting revenues and land rents.  Accusations from the tenants of misappropriation of rents and other acts of overreaching abounded, but the earl did not investigate. Charges were actually brought against Thomas by his benefactor's tenants, and they, too, were overlooked.

J.M.W. Turner -Wikimedia Commons -{{PD-=Art}}

Tom Percy was also involved with Robert Devereux, Earl of Essex in a failed murder plot targeting the warden of the Scottish Middle Marches, none other than the firebrand reiver laird Robert Kerr of Cessford, who later became Baron Roxburghe, one of King James I's favorites. Sir Robert Kerr of Cessford was both anti-Catholic and anti-Marian, which put him at odds with Percy and Essex.

In spite of his controversial conduct, in 1601 Thomas accompanied Northumberland on a military expedition to the Low Countries where he is said to have comported himself well. Northumberland received some criticism, possibly from Lord Robert Cecil, for having given Percy positions for which he should have been vetted without requiring him to attest to his religion or sign a Declaration of Faith. Thus, even before the Gunpowder Treason was uncovered, Northumberland's lenient treatment of his cousin had placed him at odds with Cecil, an avid anti-papist like his father Lord Burghley had been.

Northumberland had been raised in his aunt's house as a Protestant but was believed by many to be sympathetic to the Catholic cause. There were also rumors that Cousin Thomas was more than a cousin, perhaps an illegitimate brother. Thomas Percy, like the other principals in the Gunpowder Treason, was a militant Papist to a degree his powerful cousin either did not admit or truly did not realize.

For those unfamiliar with the scheme, the purpose behind the Gunpowder Plot was to replace King James I with a sovereign sympathetic to the Catholic cause but palatable enough to English Protestants to avoid civil war. That pointed to another Stuart. There is no direct evidence that Northumberland was personally involved in the conspiracy, but there is a strong suspicion the plotters had reserved a role for him in their pro-Catholic post-Jacobean government.

The Gunpowder plotters had settled on the king's daughter Elisabeth, who was nine as a replacement for her father.  Her older brother Henry Frederick, Prince of Wales, was eleven, a student at Oxford, and already an outspoken Protestant with a priggish moral sense, critical of his father's religious tolerance and his mother's thinly veiled Catholicism. The conspirators expected him to be in the royal entourage at the opening of Parliament and would die along with his father. The nine-year-old princess lived in the country and was not expected to attend. Her younger brother Charles, Duke of York was a slow-developing child who failed to thrive at birth and at age five had only recently begun to walk and talk, albeit with a shuffle and a stutter,  living in relative seclusion in the home of Robert Carey. He was sufficiently lackluster to earn no consideration from anyone, including the plotters.  Elisabeth, being female, could be made a puppet of the Catholic faction and eventually married off to an appropriate Catholic European prince.  While she was herself a Protestant, so young a female would be malleable and easily controlled by an appropriate Regent. Northumberland was the logical nominee.

The question perplexing modern scholars is the same one that kept him in the Tower Suite instead of laying headless on the Tower Green. No one could prove he was in on it.

Without revisiting the failure of the plot, what confined Northumberland to the Tower of London was not so much what happened on the infamous November 5, but what happened on the day before, November 4, 1605. On that day, Thomas Percy visited the earl at Sion House, ostensibly on business.  He had all of those cumbersome accounts from Northumberlandshire to review.  Whether he was really there to warn his kinsman from attending the opening of Parliament is open to conjecture. It is difficult to believe that he was spending the day before the big event reviewing ledgers with his kinsman, but there is no proof to the contrary.

When Percy arrived,  Northumberland was entertaining another guest, Thomas Hariot, a noted scholar, mathematician and astronomer who lived at Sion House and enjoyed Northumberland's patronage.  The three gentlemen had a pleasant late lunch together and thereafter, Percy left.  He next met with Catesby, the mastermind behind the plot, and thereafter left for the country to kidnap Princess Elisabeth. That evening Guy Fawkes, the plotter with the most military experience and knowledge of explosives, was discovered with the gunpowder in a search of the underpinnings of the Houses of Parliament, and the jig was up. When news reached the countryside, Tom Percy found himself running for his life, which did not last long.
When the law caught up with Thomas Percy and a cluster of the others who escaped the city, he soon was dead of a sniper's shot and unavailable to confirm or deny his cousin's complicity. Astute Northumberland was admitting nothing.

Engraving of Henry Percy-{{PD-Art}}
Fortunately for the earl,  his friend Thomas Hariot confirmed Northumberland's averments concerning the subject matter discussed at lunch on November 4th. There had been no talk of explosions or plots to kill the king. It may well be Hariot's presence thwarted Thomas's plan to warn his cousin off. Whatever the truth may have been, by the end of the week Thomas Percy's tongue was silenced. Thus, what ultimately saved Northumberland from the headsman was a lack of evidence. No one could dispute his planned attendance at the opening of Parliament on the following day.

The Earl remained out of custody until November 27th while he and others, including his personal secretary, his wife, and his friends, were interrogated. By December, Robert Cecil's focus had shifted to blaming the plot on Jesuits. When Northumberland was finally charged it was not with treason, but contempt. And there he languished.
Or did he?

Richard Lomas in A Power In The Land (Tuckwell Press, 1999) and other sources on the fate of the Gunpowder plotters speaks of the Earl's suite in the Martin Tower as having multiple dining rooms, a drawing room, gardens with access to a  tennis court, and enough space to accommodate twenty servants. And of course, there was the essential addition of a bowling alley.  His scholarly friends including Thomas Hariot maintained apartments at Sion House so they could appropriately tutor Northumberland's children.  Servants ran from Sion House to the Martin Tower with the latest imported delicacies.

While the Earl of Northumberland perfected his games of Ten Pins and read his beloved books, poured fine wine and smoked tobacco with Walter Raleigh and later dined and gambled with his fellow prisoners Lord Robert Carr, Earl of Somerset and his murderous countess Lady Frances Howard, Jesuit priests were convicted on scant evidence often gleaned from torture and treated to grisly deaths. Cecil had his scapegoats, the plotters got their just deserts, and the Earl had spare time to devote to the pursuit of knowledge and the management of his vast estates, and when he needed a distraction, he played tennis.

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published on August 19, 2014.


Linda Root is the author of The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, a tale of the life and love of Lady Marie Flemyng, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots,  the fictionalized adventures of the colorful Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange to whom the queen surrendered at Carberry, and the books in The Legacy of the Queen of  Scots Series, The Midwife's Secret: the Mystery of the Hidden Princess,  The Other Daughter, and 1603: The Queen's Revenge. 
She recently has written a paranormal historical fantasy The Green Woman under the name J.D. Root.
Root lives in the high desert community of Yucca Valley, above Palm Springs, with her husband Chris and her two mixed giant woolly Alaskan Malamutes. The Legacy of the Queen of Scots, and is presently working on the fourth book in the legacy series, In the Shadow of the Gallows.

Sunday, November 4, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, November 4, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Here's what you missed last week on English Historical Fiction Authors. Enjoy!

by Emma Rose Millar

by Deborah Swift
(an Editor's Choice from the Archives)

Friday, November 2, 2018

Flights of Fancy Set in Stone

by Deborah Swift

If ever an architectural feature expressed an aspect of Englishness and eccentricity, the English "folly" does.

Usually sited in gardens, the english folly is a flight of the imagination that draws on history, myth, illusion, and plain inventiveness just for the fun of it.

Often the building is a "mock" castle, such as the one above, or other romantic ideal.

However, a folly need not necessarily be in a garden. One of the earliest eccentric follies was Sir Thomas Tresham's Rushton Lodge built between 1595 and 1597. (Below left) The Lodge, a strange triangular confection, was an exercise in expressing Tresham's views on the secret symbolism of numbers, and the Trinity.

It carried its three-fold symbolism to extremes with three sides to the lodge, three floors, three trefoil windows on each floor, and even three smoke-holes in the chimney!

Also carved all over the building are Tresham’s initials; the many clover leaves found on shields and on top of the obelisks are part of his family crest. Many dates can be found on the building too: 1580, for example, is thought to be the date of Tresham’s conversion to Catholicism.

Other aspects of the design are a bit wackier - why are there birds and kings’ heads hiding in the gables?

The most common form of folly was without a doubt, the tower. Above you can see Wimpole Folly - fake ruins combined with a tower, all built in the 18th century to look exactly like a Saxon ruin!

Visitors to England could well be confused as to what are genuine ruins and what are flights of a rich landowners fancy.

This seventeenth and eighteenth century craze for fantastical buildings has given the English their love of summerhouses or garden retreats. Here is an early example, where the poet John Donne supposedly lived with his young wife.

My local town of Kendal has 17th century houses with stone summer houses still existing in the gardens. They were used then mostly by men for smoking, snuff taking, and for the taking of tea, coffee and chocolate - then very expensive habits.

Some summer houses were octagonal in shape, some square, like John Donne's brick built one which has a lovely riverside site. You can find out more about this particular summerhouse and other historic places of interest on the lovely walks website at

When I was researching The Lady's Slipper I used this idea of the summerhouse in the garden to make a studio for my character Alice Ibbetson to paint her watercolours and botanical studies.

And below you can see my very own summerhouse in the bottom of my garden - still used by me for drinking tea today! And no I don't know why the picture is all a bit wavy as if my camera went through a mangle, must be all that tea.

An Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives, originally published November 2, 2011.

Deborah Swift is the author of seven novels for adults and a trilogy for young adults, including The Lady's Slipper mentioned in the post. She lives in the North of England close to the mountains and the sea. Follow her on Twitter @swiftstory or find her on her website

Monday, October 29, 2018

John Brown: Victoria's Lover or Rasputin-like Figure?

By Emma Rose Millar

Since first watching Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly in the 1997 film, Mrs Brown, I have been intrigued by Queen Victoria’s relationship with her ghillie: were the pair really lovers, or was he simply her loyal servant and protector?

There is no doubting Victoria’s early love for Albert. She was an obsessive letter writer and journal keeper. Aged twenty, she wrote in her diary about her first evening of married life:
“I never ever spent such an evening! My dearest, dearest, dear Albert sat on a footstool by my side, and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms and we kissed each other again and again! His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness—really how can I ever be thankful enough for such a husband.”
She often wrote of her pride in his achievements, particularly the Great Exhibition of 1851. Albert was indeed intelligent and enterprising, and often, especially in the early years, he was frustrated by his lack of power. However, as Victoria became increasingly occupied with her children, Albert took on more responsibilities. Victoria sometimes resented Albert’s authority, and fierce arguments between the couple were a regular occurrence. Frequently, they would cease to be on speaking terms and communicated only in writing. Many of these letters survive and have given us a fascinating insight into their relationship.

When Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861, Victoria was devastated. She wrote to her eldest daughter, also called Victoria, asking: “How I, who leant on him for all and everything – without whom I did nothing, moved not a finger, arranged not a print or photograph, didn’t put on a gown or bonnet if he didn’t approve it shall go on, to live, to move, to help myself in difficult moments?”

For years Victoria mourned Albert, retreating from public life and wearing black for the remaining forty years of her life. After his death, whenever decisions needed to be made, Victoria felt the absence of Albert acutely. She attempted to guess what the Prince Consort would have advised and attended many séances in order to communicate with him directly. Victoria famously consulted Daniel Dunglas Home, one of the most lauded mediums of the era, and Georgiana Eagle, whom she gave an engraved watch, for supposedly channelling Albert’s ghost.

In 1861, a 13-year-old medium, Robert James Lees, held a séance in Birmingham during which he went into a trance and delivered a message from the Prince Consort that he wished to speak with his wife, the Queen. One of the sitters there was a professional editor, who published his account, which was subsequently brought to Victoria’s attention. The Queen’s position dictated a cautious approach. She sent two courtiers to Lees’ next séance in her place, instructing them that they were not to reveal their identities. During the séance, Lees again went into a trance and produced a voice phenomenon which the courtiers instantly recognised as Prince Albert. The spirit then addressed the courtiers by their real names and gave intimate details of life at the palace, which they considered only Albert could have known.

Following the séance, Lees wrote a letter to the Queen, using the supposedly supernatural gift of automatic writing, where the spirit takes over the body of the spirit medium long enough to write a message. Lees’ letter was filled with personal details and signed by a pet name used only between Albert and Victoria. Victoria was utterly convinced that the letter was genuine and sent at once for Lees, who conducted a further séance at the Palace, again channelling Albert’s voice.

Lees as an older man

According to Lees’ children, he performed another nine séances, impressing the Queen so much that she invited him to join the Royal household. However, he refused the offer on the advice of his spirit guides. Speaking through Lees, Albert’s final words of comfort were, “You will still be able to receive messages from the boy who used to hold my gun at Balmoral.”

The boy who carried Albert’s gun was John Brown.

After Lees revelations, Brown was sent for to become the Queen’s personal groom at Osbourne, her house on the Isle of Wight. The relationship between John Brown and Queen Victoria remains a source of conjecture. Her courtiers were pleased at first that he was able to coax her out of her misery, but they soon became concerned that she had fallen utterly under his spell.

Brown immediately adopted a bullying and familiar manner with the Queen that astonished courtiers and caused her daughters to refer to him as ‘Mama’s lover.’ He became increasingly domineering, towards the rest of the royal household. Other servants came to despise him, and secretly dubbed Brown ‘the Queen’s stallion.’ Brown encouraged the Queen to drink whisky with him, Begg’s Best being their preferred tipple. She was soon referring to him as ‘fascinating Johnny Brown’.

A shocked Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Derby, recorded that ‘contrary to etiquette and even decency,’ Queen Victoria and John Brown slept in adjoining rooms, with only a door between them. Some sources suggest that the pair even married in secret. Lewis Harcourt, First Viscount Harcourt’s diaries state that one of the Queen's chaplains, Rev Norman McLeod, made a deathbed confession repenting his action in presiding over Queen Victoria's marriage to John Brown. Victoria was buried with a lock of Brown’s hair, his photograph, Brown’s mother's wedding ring, along with several of his letters.

However, Irish author, J. H Brennan claims in his book, Whisperers, the History of the Spirit World that far from being lovers, John Brown was a spirit medium who was channelling messages from Albert’s ghost. In the blue room, which Victoria had turned into a shrine to her late husband, she would sit with Brown and a few trusted courtiers, in the dark, where she would sit and wait. John Brown would then begin to speak, not in his own voice, but in the voice of the Prince Consort, telling Victoria what she should do.

After John Brown’s death in 1883, Victoria wrote to the Earl of Cranbrook, “the Queen feels that life for the second time is become most trying and sad to bear deprived of all she so needs.” This letter could perhaps be alluding to her losing Albert for the second time – she was no longer able to communicate with him through Brown.

Whether or not John Brown was behind Lees’ claims to be able to channel Albert’s spirit, we do not know, although it is telling that when recounting his first experience of Spiritualism, Lees wrote:
“I am personally aware that as a child I cried at being left in the darkness unless I saw a mysterious and to others invisible kilted Highlander who remained beside me talking or singing till I fell asleep. And even now, after a lapse of half a century the vivid memory of his strong but kindly face is as freshly recalled as if he had sat beside me whilst this New Year was born.”


Emma Rose Millar writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction, with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published in 2016 by Crooked Cat Books, and was shortlisted for the Goethe Award for Late Historical Fiction. Her third novel, DELIRIUM, a Victorian ghost story, published by Crooked Cat Books was shortlisted for the Chanticleer Paranormal Book Awards in 2017.


Saint Anne’s Lunatic Asylum, London.

One woman whose secret has driven her to the brink of insanity; another who claims she can tell fortunes and communicate with the dead. With seemingly no way out – and everything at stake – only one of them has the tenacity to survive.

Lies, murder, obsession... Delirium.

Find Delirium on Amazon
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Sunday, October 28, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, October 28, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Join us every week on English Historical Fiction Authors. We have saints and sinners, politics and war. Read about kings, queens, the common man and woman, and legends from ancient to post-WWII.

Kim Rendfeld takes the spotlight in this week's round-up. Enjoy!

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Ecgberht: The Refugee Returns to Claim the Throne

By Kim Rendfeld

In 789, Ecgberht was a refugee in the Frankish court, driven from his home in Kent. His exile was another chapter in the long struggle between his kinsmen and Mercian King Offa.

Twenty-seven years earlier, Kent suffered a succession crisis, with the death of Æthelberht II. Over the next few years, five men claimed to rule the kingdom or at least eastern or western half of it. One of them was King Ecgberht II, who at the time claimed the western half. This Ecgberht is not our hero but was perhaps a relative. Medieval aristocrats were fond of reusing names, especially to remind subjects, allies, and enemies of prior rulers.

The chaos about who exactly was in charge of Kent was an opportunity for Offa. He might have felt entitled to the kingdom next door because Kent had acknowledged his predecessor, Æthelbald, as overlord by 731. Whether that relationship lasted until Æthelbald’s murder in 757 is unknown.

By 765, Offa imposed himself as overlord of Kent, and apparently held on to the kingdom for several years.

14th century image of Offa
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

The Kentish people apparently weren’t happy with Mercian rule. In 776, Ecgberht II led soldiers to drive Offa out. They fought at Otford, and Kent likely won its independence, if we are to believe circumstantial evidence like coins with Ecgberht II’s name and charters with his name but not Offa’s. This time Ecgberht II ruled all of Kent.

We know Ecgberht II flourished between 765 and 779, but don’t know how his reign ended. King Ealhmund, our hero’s father, might have succeeded him. Evidence is scant. One piece is that his name appears on charters. Ealhmund’s relationship between Ecgberht II, assuming there is one, is unknown. Ealhmund did name his son after the warrior who triumphed over a foreign invader.

But Offa was not one to sit quietly. By 785, he reimposed his authority on Kent, issuing charters in his name without a reference to a Kentish king. Ealhmund’s fate is a mystery. Was he killed? Driven out?

Ecgberht, Ealhmund’s son, was still around. Considering that he lived until 839, 50 years after he went into exile, he might have been an adolescent when his father lost Kent. Offa likely saw Ecgberht as a threat, as he likely perceived anyone with a claim to the throne.

In 789, Offa enlisted the aid of his new son-in-law, Beorhtric, to help solve his problem—perhaps it was one of the reasons the Mercian king and his wife arranged of his daughter Eadburh to the king of Wessex. Until this time, Beorhtric probably had no quarrel with Ecgberht and no concern about Kent. But he did have this new alliance and might have felt obligated to fulfill it.

Driven from home, Ecgberht found refuge in Charlemagne’s court or in Francia. Either way, he would have had the permission of the Frankish king to be there, much to Offa’s aggravation. Ecgberht might have met fellow exiles during his time in Francia, including Eadberht Præn. Sharing the name of prior Kentish kings, Eadberht likely had been tonsured against his will—a common way to deny rivals their inheritance to the crown.

Seven years later, Mercian rule in Kent was again challenged. Offa died in July 796, and his son, Ecgfrith, succeeded him. Although Ecgfrith had be crowned co-ruler, he didn’t seem as strong as his father. Some aristocrats in Kent might have seen opportunity.

That same year, Eadberht Præn decided to leave the priesthood and seize power. He reigned for two years, having coins minted in his name and getting rid of a troublesome archbishop. In the meantime, Ecgfrith died, and his successor, Cenwulf, was able to stabilize Mercia then try to regain Kent.

Eadberht Præn was captured in 798 and taken in chains to Mercia. Things turned out horribly for him. Because he had been ordained, he could not be killed, but he suffered what some might see as a worse fate. Be warned: it is gruesome. His captors blinded him, chopped off his hands, and sent him to Winchcombe, an abbey Cenwulf had recently founded. Thus crippled, Eadberht Præn would never be able to rule again.

13th century image of Ecgberht
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

In 802, Ecgberht decided to claim power, but he didn’t go for Kent. Instead he invaded Wessex. It’s uncertain why he decided on Wessex. Perhaps it was the easier target, and Ecgberht had not forgotten how Beorhtric had helped Offa steal what was rightfully his. The two likely met on the battlefield at Wiltshire. Beorhtric died, and Ecgberht seized the crown.

He didn’t stop at Wessex. During his 37-year reign, Ecgberht would extend his rule to include Surrey, Essex, Sussex, and Kent.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, including
“Offa” by S.E. Kelly
“Eadberht Præn” by S.E. Kelly
“Ecgberht” by Heather Edwards
“Æthelberht II” by S.E. Kelly


In Kim Rendfeld's Queen of the Darkest Hour, Queen Fastrada must stop a conspiracy before it destroys everyone and everything she loves. The book is available on Amazon, iBooks, Barnes & NobleKobo, and Smashwords.

Kim has written two other books set in 8th century Francia. In The Cross and the Dragon, a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband (available on Amazon). In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, a Saxon peasant will fight for her children after losing everything else (available on Amazon). Kim's short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur, is set in early medieval Britain and available on Amazon.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.

Sunday, October 21, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, October 21, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Here's what you missed last week on English Historical Fiction Authors. Enjoy!

by Helen Hollick
(Editor's choice from the archives)

by Natalie Rose