Friday, December 30, 2011

Regency Era Wallpaper, or Decorating your Drawing Rooms

by David W. Wilkin

One thing I find when writing my Regency Romances, or reading others, is that they invariably have many scenes in a drawing room. And why not, the art of calling on ones friends and neighbors was a central point of many of the Ton’s days. Or when in the country, the men may have been off sporting about the grounds of the great manor house, but our Heroines were back at the house, ensconced, in a drawing room.

Now, I bring this up because when I sit down and am madly typing away, I am much more concerned with what takes place in the scene, then the setting, and this I fault myself for. I have watched enough BBC dramas to know exactly what these rooms look like in my mind. I have visited several of the great houses and know how they look as well. I just take the short cut that relies on my psychic ability to project what I see in my mind's eye to be inherent in my writing and know that my readers need nothing from me to guide them to a similar view.

Now I shall remove my tongue from my cheek. It is easy enough to type with it planted there, but not so easy to speak should I want to hold a conversation.

As I fault myself for not providing enough detail about the rooms, I begin to add either in first draft, or second, details about furniture, and the layout of a room where a scene is set. Sometimes I create detail about the color schemes. But I still fall short, I am sure of it. (Though my action, which takes place often times through dialogue, starts off quickly in these drawing rooms, and my Hero’s being manly men, take little notice of the decor when they are about to offer for the Heroine.)

During the Regency our rooms could be decorated with a few materials, and they could use more than one at a time to ornament their rooms. Prior to our period, in Late Georgian times, the fashionable set would have had fabric hangings stretched between chair rail and cornice. Expensive and opulent fabrics made of silk, velvet and wool damasks.

By the 1770s wallpaper came into general use. These comprised patterned flock and printed designs. As late Georgian merged into our Regency, we see an increase in the wealth of many during the times. Despite the war, affluence was growing. And as it did so, the use of wallpapers took over, though silk and some other fabrics remained a luxury to adorn one’s walls.

The motifs employed were classical, Neo-Grecian, created in bas relief or as trompe l’oeil. The surviving wall paintings from Pompeii became vogue as they were unearthed the previous century. Making a room all over in the theme of Chinese, Turkish, Egyptian of Gothic was quite common, but few of these survive for study.

So before continuing the discussion of wallpapers what we know as they come into their own is that the rooms of the older established houses, whose owners might not have enough of the ready to keep up with the times, will have walls that are painted, or covered with fabrics. That alone can set the tone for your drawing rooms. The Duke of Wellington famously attempted shades of yellow at Apsley House, causing controversy.

Gold, however, was not allowed for your run of the mill members of the Ton, and even amongst the first circle. Save that for Prinny and his brothers.

And by no means do we ever wish to gaze upon the unadorned white wall. That is something that was not done. And though not wallpaper, during our period, as we transitioned from the coverings of fabric, we find entire walls fauxed to look like marble, or fake wood graining. Entire guides such as Nathaniel Whitcock’s Decorative Painter and Glazier’s Guide showed just how to achieve these effects.

By 1790 wallpaper was in common usage, but not necessarily for the entire wall. The chair rail, made of wood, was still a divider of the surface. At the end of the period it might be considered fashionable to remove the chair rail and run wallpaper the entire length of the wall. This was the practice in the 1830s, but earlier the use of the chair rail dividing the upper and lower parts of the wall was still very much the practice.

At the time, wallpaper was designed as we see with block printed patterns on pearwood blocks to produce rolls of 11 1/2 yards in length. In the 1830s the blocks were replaced by mechanized cylinders. In 1783 there is a patent for a machine that will emboss the paper, but there was an import ban on French paper until 1825. When this was lifted it led to lighter, cheaper paper flooding the market. In order to hang the paper, a specialist was needed. It was an art under the upholstery branch. By the 1820s wallpaper retailing was so sophisticated that manufacturers were making their own, illustrated order books. There is a copy in the Victoria and Albert of Cowtan’s Order Book.

Popular designs were often flock paper, with powdered wool, or other fabric refuse on glued patterns to give a cut-pile effect. These were also used for borders. Imitation of marble or dressed stone was often used in hallways or passages (not a drawing room, I know, but my research uncovered this tidbit.) Pin ground papers were used for practical reasons in rooms. Flies would soil the paper and so having this would cover the fly marks. Somehow though, my interpretation of the idealized Ton won’t have dead fly spots on the papers of their drawing room. A good vigorous cleanse by the servants will of course take care of such things. (These are historical novels I turn my hand to, not totally historically accurate novels, but now the vision of one of those not of the First Stare, energetically scrubbing at her wall before someone like Austen's Lady Catherine de Burgh is expected to visit has come into my head and I just may have to use it.)

Gothic papers were available from the manufacturers, bedrooms got ‘moire papers’, which was made to look like watered silk, or to suggest drapery. Floral patterns in bedrooms which had small repeats in the pattern and also used in the rooms of the servants.

For the rich, as was the craze in all things oriental, Chinese wallpapers were sought. These could be hand painted which naturally would appeal to all of the first circle. Understated bragging rights to a pattern that no one else had.

With this exploration of what was done in period, one can easily then take the knowledge and adapt that to building a unique drawing room. Any young heroine given the chance can remodel the wool and silk covered walls of her husbands mother to the more modern wall paper. A trip to look at the manufacturers book, or to speak to a specialist who can procure a one of a kind paper surely can be recounted in a paragraph or two to add to the setting of the next Regency drawing room you read about, or that I remember to write about.

Stephen Calloway The Elements of Style, 1991
Steven Parissien Regency Style, 1992
Susan Watkins Jane Austen in Style, 1990

Mr. Wilkin writes Regency Historicals and Romances, Ruritanian and Edwardian Romances, Science Fictions and Fantasy. He is the author of the very successful Pride & Prejudice continuation; Colonel Fitzwilliam’s Correspondence.

His work can be found for sale at: David’s Books, and at various Internet and real world bookstores including the iBookstore, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords.
He is published by Regency Assembly Press
And he maintains his own blog called The Things That Catch My Eye

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Writing Another Gender, Another Time

by Gary Inbinder

Thanks for inviting me to post on your blog. My novel, The Flower to the Painter, explores some major themes, including gender bias and the effect of the marketplace on culture within the context of what I believe is an engaging and compelling read, especially for those intrigued by the late Victorian period. Here’s a brief synopsis:

Marcia Brownlow, a young, unemployed American governess in late nineteenth century Italy, masquerades as a man to advance her career. She adopts the persona of her dead brother Mark and becomes the protégée of Arthur Wolcott, a famous American expatriate author who discovers Marcia’s artistic talent. Wolcott introduces his protégée to wealthy art patrons in Florence, Venice, Paris,
and London, including three women who, deceived as to Marcia’s sex, fall in love with the captivating artist.

Marcia emulates her idol, the great English landscape artist William Turner. As she develops her skills, James Whistler, John Singer Sargent, and Sir Frederic Leighton, the leader of the London art establishment, praise her paintings of Florence and Venice. However, on the eve of her greatest triumph, Marcia’s first love returns to threaten her with exposure and scandal.

I’ve always been fascinated by the Victorians, and have read about them extensively in literature of the period, Historical Fiction, and non-fiction. I was most influenced and inspired by the novels of Henry James and Edith Wharton, but I also considered the works of earlier writers for character and atmosphere. For example, some might detect a bit of Thackeray’s Becky Sharpe in my protagonist, Marcia Brownlow.

The Merchant Ivory films of period classics and BBC Masterpiece Theatre productions were an important resource as well. They’re great for visualizing scenes of the period—interiors, exteriors, dress and manners. Nevertheless, I still had to research quite a bit in reference books, especially to get enough detail on those painters, like Sir Frederick Leighton, who are not so well known today. I also had to pay a good deal of attention to period dialogue to get Marcia’s voice right.

It’s a challenge for a man of any era to write from the perspective of a woman, and even more so from the point of view of a woman from a much different time and place. So I took some risks writing this novel. Despite our differences, I could empathize with my protagonist. Many creative people feel marginalized, often to the point of alienation. Artists, writers, poets, actors, etc. tend to be “different” and that difference creates empathy with others similarly marginalized. Moreover, alienation can be exacerbated by bias based on gender and sexual orientation.

I’m attracted to stories told by outsiders looking in, people who hide behind masks to enter a world that might not otherwise be open to them. I tried to imagine what it would have been like to be a young woman artist in a male dominated culture. I’ve given some thought to role reversal classics, like Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper where the eponymous characters trade places, and If I Were King in which the vagabond poet Francois Villon becomes “King for a Day.” There are also “Gender-Benders” like Victor/Victoria, Tootsie and Myra Breckenridge. And I recall social dramas like Gentleman’s Agreement, where a journalist posed as a Jew to investigate anti-Semitism in post WWII America, and Black Like Me, where another journalist posed as an African American to experience race prejudice in the segregated south.

In preparation for telling Marcia’s story, I’ve read several biographies of artists of the period. I’ve also taken Art and Art History courses in college, and I’m a lifelong museum addict. Although it’s quite a challenge for a man to write convincingly from the female perspective, I’ve read two books where it’s been done successfully: Arthur Golden’s Memoirs of a Geisha and Junichiro Tanizaki’s Quicksand. And I’ll also mention Alyson Richman’s historical novel, The Mask Carver’s Son, which she wrote from the perspective of a Gay male Japanese artist of the Meiji era (1867-1912).

I believe my novel will appeal to readers of Historical Fiction that focuses on the late nineteenth century, and especially to those who like art related themes and are fans of writers like Stephanie Cowell, Susan Vreeland and Tracy Chevalier. Moreover, the novel also deals with themes related to gender identity and sexual sublimation, which I believe adds complexity and interesting nuances to the characters, the narrative and the story-line.

By the way, I’ve received compliments and questions about the cover art. The painting is, “A Morning Walk,” by John Singer Sargent. It’s a portrait of the artist’s younger sister, Mrs. Violet Ormond. I’ve included a copy of the painting and a portrait of a Venetian lady by Frederic Leighton that readers of The Flower to the Painter might associate with a completely fictional major character, Princess Albertini.

Thanks again for inviting me to your blog, which I might add is itself a great resource for Historical Fiction aficionados.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Secrets of a Saxon King

 By Nancy Bilyeau

“Holy King Athelstan, renowned through the whole world, whose esteem flourishes and whose honour endures everywhere,” said a 10th century Latin poem.

In his own lifetime, Athelstan, the grandson of Alfred of Great, was praised as  “the English Charlemagne.” By defeating the combined armies of Danes, Scots and Welsh in the Battle of Brunanburh in 937 AD, Athelstan could rightly claim the title of “King of all Britain.” In his 15-year reign, he also established laws, financed Catholic monasteries, and made key alliances with European royalty.

Yet today, Athelstan is mostly forgotten.

While researching this Anglo-Saxon king, who plays a crucial role in my historical thriller The Crown, I puzzled over why Athelstan dissolved into obscurity. It’s not all attributable to the time in which he lived—those ill-documented, striving, brutish yet sporadically dazzling centuries between the Roman Occupation and the Norman Conquest. Everyone has heard of Alfred the Great. Why not Athelstan, who arguably accomplished just as much?

I concluded that it was the mysteries surrounding Athelstan—ones that the most determined historians have not been able to solve—that made him too blurry for easy familiarity. His secrets make him tantalizing. But they also prevent his life from hardening into the simple outlines that propel a legend through time.

1.)   Was Athelstan’s mother a concubine?
This is hotly disputed, with biographer Sarah Foot convinced that Athelstan’s mother was an obscure but highly born young woman who had a child or two and died. Sort of a Dark Ages version of a starter wife.  Yet the story persists that Athelstan’s father, Prince Edward, fell in love with a beautiful young shepherdess while visiting his former wet nurse and conceived Athelstan that very night. It’s quite the erotic tale, putting to rest that stereotype of10th century men only caring for their swords. More practically, if there were any truth to Athelstan being illegitimate, it would explain why he did not have strong support when he succeeded his father to the throne at age 30—and it would also explain a serious problem he had with one of his half-brothers…

2.)   Did Athelstan have a half-brother killed?
The story goes that Athelstan suspected young Edwin, the son of his father’s undoubted queen, of conspiring against him with disaffected nobles. As punishment, Edwin was put in an oarless boat without food or water and set out to sea. He threw himself overboard rather than continue to suffer. Later Athelstan is said to have expressed remorse and performed penance. This whole story is far from confirmed but it’s persistent—and historians believe that it flung a shadow across the character of Athelstan.

3.)   Why did Athelstan never marry or have any children?
Thanks to chronicler William of Malmesbury, we know what Athelstan looked like: handsome, slim and blond. He was well educated. He was personally brave—Athelstan “won by the sword’s edge undying glory in battle.” In short, the man is King Arthur material. So why wasn’t there a Guinevere? Historians struggle to explain it: “Athelstan’s decision to remain unmarried seems more readily explicable as a religiously motivated determination on chastity as a way of life.” Still, the concept of celibate warrior monks—such as the Knights Templar—did not come along for another two centuries. A king was expected to marry and beget heirs, in Athelstan’s time and throughout the succeeding dynasties (see Henry the Eighth).  Lacking a Dark Ages Dr. Phil--which is perhaps for the best--we’ll never get to the truth of this one.

4.)   Where did the Battle of Brunanburh take place?
Athelstan’s enemies, determined to put an end to Wessex domination, drew him north for a cataclysmic encounter. Winston Churchill, as only he could, summed up the odds against Athelstan in The Birth of Britain: “The whole of North Britain—Celtic, Danish and Norwegian, pagan and Christian—together presented a hostile front under Constantine, king of the Scots, and Olaf of Dublin, with Viking reinforcements from Norway.” And yet…Athelstan won. Where this battle was fought, no one knows, though Yorkshire is a solid guess. Most of our information about Brunanburh comes from a rapturous Anglo-Saxon poem. There is a great deal of “they hewed the battle shafts with hammered weapons,” but no identifiable landmarks.

5.)   Why did Athelstan request burial at Malmesbury Abbey?
Almost every king of the House of Wessex was laid to rest in Winchester, the family’s seat of power. But Athelstan arranged to be buried at Malmesbury Abbey in Wilstshire. The king had "such a veneration for the place that he thought nowhere more desirable or more sacred." Whatever his reasons, Malmesbury rose to the occasion, and dedicated itself to the memory of the great king. Today you can visit Athelstan's tomb and glimpse his effigy, though his corpse is long gone. Some say it disappeared a few decades after his death, others that it was removed shortly before the Dissolution of the Monasteries.
Malmesbury Abbey today

6.)   Did Athelstan possess the most sacred religious relics of his time?
This was the age of relic collecting, and no one pursued them with greater passion than Athelstan. He was so famous for his love of relics than when Hugh Capet, descendant of Charlemagne, was interested in marrying Athelstan’s most beautiful sister, he is said to have delivered an amazing amount of treasure to England—as well as relics that date back to Golgotha. The most famous one was the Spear of Destiny, also known as the Lance of Longinus, that pierced Jesus’s side. 

But Athelstan is said to have possessed other objects of mystical value, too, and that is what I delve into in my novel, The Crown

"The Crown" is the first in a trilogy of historical thrillers, published by Simon & Schuster in North America and Orion in the UK. To learn more, go to 

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Great Frost Fair of 1814

by M.M. Bennetts

Boxing Day, 1813. Like a blanket of lambswool, heavy fog lay over southern England as the temperature plummeted.

That afternoon, piled into two travelling carriages, the Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh, and his family had drawn away from their house in St. James's Square, heading for Colchester in Essex on their way to Harwich from which they were to depart for the Continent. As his niece wrote, they left London "in a fog so intense, that the carriages went at a foot's pace, with men holding flambeaux at the head of the horses."

Though deep frosts, gales and deeper snows, blizzards even, had marked the last decade of the old century, the cruel bite of this mini-Ice Age had seemed to lessen in the opening years of the 19th century. Though Boxing Day three years previous had seen such severe temperatures that the Thames had frozen as Londoners huddled inside their houses, trying to keep warm.

A heavy frost began the next day, 27th December 1813, followed by two days of a continuous heavy snowfall--the heaviest recorded snowfall for nearly 300 years. The upper reaches of the Thames froze too.

A day later came a slight thaw, and the ice at Wey Bridge began to break up and to float downstream, only to crash and jam into a jagged and solid mass--like some scene from the Polar icecap--between Blackfriars and London Bridges.

And the frost returned, harder and colder than previously--probably due to the covering of deep snow that coated the land. The fog too still hung heavy over London, stranding travellers, slowing or halting the mails, while great ice floes continued to break off and to drift down the waterway.

By the 30th, the fog had finally cleared--whipped off by a Northerly gale.

But by now, the tidal stretch of the Thames had frozen so solid that people were walking across the river to the other bank. And the watermen, unable to make a living rowing people across the water, demanded a toll of these brave pedestrians.

And still the cold held, gripping the land as the temperatures continued several degrees below freezing. By 4th January 1814, the Great Frost Fair had begun.

Stalls and tents, decorated with "flags of all nations, streamers and signs" began appearing on the ice to create what they called "City Road", among them kitchens or rapidly constructed 'furnaces' selling roasted geese, lamb, rabbits and sausages to the public. Gin and beer were also on sale.

In the middle of the river, a marooned barge was converted into a 'dancing room'.

Contemporary accounts from "The Annual Register" and Hone's "Every Day Book" provide the most vivid and wonderful stories of the winter in London that year and of the Fair itself.

21st January 1814: "In London the great accumulation of snow already heaped on the ground, and condensed by three or four weeks of continued frost, was on Wednesday increased by a fresh fall, to a height hardly known in the memory of the oldest inhabitants. The cold has been intensely severe, the snow during the last fall being accompanied with a sharp wind and a little moisture. In many places, where the houses are old, it became necessary to relieve the roofs, by throwing off the load collected upon them, and by these means the carriage-way in the middle of the streets is made of a depth hardly passable for pedestrians, while carriages with difficulty plough their way through the mass."

27th January 1814: "Yesterday the wind having veered round to the south-west, the effects of thaw were speedily discernible. The fall of the river at London Bridge has for several days past presented a scene both novel and interesting. At the ebbing of the tide huge fragments of ice were precipitated down the stream with great violence, accompanied by a noise equal to the report of a small piece of artillery. On the return of the tide they were forced back again ; but the obstacles opposed to their passage through the arches were so great as apparently to threaten a total stoppage to the navigation of the river."

1st February 1814: "The Thames between Blackfriars and London Bridges continued to present the novel scene of persons moving on the ice in all directions and in greatly increased numbers. The ice, however, from its roughness and inequalities is totally unfit for amusement, although we observed several booths erected upon it for the sale of small wares, but the publicans and spirit-dealers were most in the receipt of custom. The whole of the river opposite Queenhithe was frozen over, and in some parts the ice was several feet thick, while in others it was dangerous to venture upon, notwithstanding which, crowds of foot passengers crossed backwards and forwards throughout the whole of the day. We did not hear of any lives being lost, but many who ventured too far towards Blackfriars Bridge were partially immersed in the water by the ice giving way. Two coopers were with difficulty saved."

2nd February 1814: "The Thames this day presented a complete frost fair. The grand mall or walk extended from Blackfriars to London Bridge. This was named the city road, and was lined on each side by persons of all descriptions. Eight or ten printing-presses were erected, and numerous pieces commemorative of the ' great frost' were printed on the ice."

3rd February 1814: "The number of adventurers increased. Swings, book-stalls, dancing in a barge, suttling-booths, playing at skittles, and almost every appendage of a fair on land appeared on the Thames. Thousands flocked to the spectacle. The ice presented a most picturesque appearance. The view of St. Paul's and of the city, with the white foreground, had a very singular effect ; in many parts mountains of ice upheaved, resembled the rude interior of a stone quarry."

4th February 1814: "Each day brought a fresh accession of pedlars to sell their wares, and the greatest rubbish of all sorts was raked up and sold at double and treble the original cost. The watermen profited exceedingly, for each person paid a toll of twopence or threepence before he was admitted to the fair; and something also was expected for permission to return. Some of them were said to have taken as much as six pounds in a day. Many persons remained on the ice till late at night, and the effect by moonlight was singularly novel and beautiful. The bosom of the Thames seemed to rival the frozen climes of the north."

Then, finally, on 5th February, an incoming tide brought about a sudden shifting in the mass of ice.

Booths which had only a few hours previously been secure were suddenly floating downstream and several people had to be rescued from the broken-off floes. Further down, the great jagged floes crashed into ships and boats, damaging them.

By 7th February, the sensational event was finished: "The ice between London Bridge and Blackfriars gave way yesterday, in consequence of the high tides. On Saturday, thousands of people walked on the ice from one bridge to the other notwithstanding there were evident signs of its speedy breaking up, and even early yesterday morning some foolhardy persons passed over from Bankside to Queenhithe. About an hour after this the whole mass gave way, and swept with a tremendous range through the noble arches of Blackfriars Bridge, carrying along with it all within its course, including about forty barges.

"The new erections for the Strand bridge impeded its progress and a vast quantity of the ice was there collected, but the strong current on the Somerset House side carried everything before it, and the passage of the river became at last free."

Quite simply amazing, don't you think?

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at

Giveaway~ The Queen's Envoy

This week's giveaway is The Queen's Envoy by Lord David Prosser. Please visit HERE to read about the book and then return to this message to enter by commenting.

This giveaway is now closed. The winner is Erica!

Monday, December 26, 2011

Almack's - it's not quite what you think...

by M.M. Bennetts

Almack's. The name conjures up images of a glittering Regency ball attended by ladies in elegant silk gowns and gentlemen in the formal attire of the age, all dancing and bowing together--Mr. Darcy and Elizabeth Bennet only in polished London setting. Though this, I suspect, may be down to the frequency with which the late Georgette Heyer wrote of the place.

The reality, regardless of the fictional lore, was somewhat different.

Almack's Assembly Rooms were located on King Street, St. James's. The Assembly Rooms themselves had been opened in 1764 by a Scot by the name of MacCall who, allegedly, decided on an approximate anagram of his name for the rooms.

There was a large ballroom--some ninety to one hundred feet long and forty feet wide--which was decorated with gilded columns and pilasters, classic medallions and very large mirrors. By the late Regency (so post 1814-15) it was lit by gas, in elaborate cut-glass lustres.

There was a balcony at one end where the small orchestra were seated. Refreshments (such as they were) were deliberately (revoltingly) mediocre: weak lemonade or orgeat or ratafia, dry biscuits and day-old brown bread and butter. (Although good wine or alcohol was never served on the premises, many gentlemen would have arrived already drunk.)

There was also a dais or raised seat at the upper end, where the Lady Patronesses sat, "nodding acknowledgement as the invitees arrived."

Balls were given once a week, on Wednesday evenings, for a twelve-week period during the Season--roughly from the beginning of March until early June. Until 1814, only country dances were permitted. Thereafter, quadrilles and the waltz were introduced to liven things up. No one was admitted after 11 p.m., but frequently the dancing went on well into Thursday morning.

By 1801, the required 'uniform' for a gentleman was the look made famous and fashionable by George Brummell: a dark coat, (navy or black) white cravat and black knee breeches and silk stockings or tight black pantaloons with thin shoes (men's black dancing pumps), and chapeau bras. Wider trousers or any introduction of colour were unacceptable and the wearer would be turned away at the door.

Admission to these balls was by ticket only, or by 'voucher' (a cardboard square) as they were called, which were on sale on Bond Street.

And the cost of this? Almack's membership fee was ten guineas--around £350 in today's money according to the UK National Archives. One then had to buy one's tickets at a cost of ten shillings each (£17 in today's money).

But these vouchers were only made available to those on the List. And the means for inclusion on this List is among the most important things one needs to know about the place. For Almack's during the early years of the 19th century was an exclusive club. Very exclusive. And it was run by women.

And not just any women. These are ladies of highest birth, fortune and snobbery. And possibly the last of those qualities is the most important. They are the Lady Patronesses.

In 1812, the Patronesses were:

Lady Emily Cowper: daughter of the Earl and Countess of Melbourne; by 1814, the lover of Lord Palmerston and then his wife; sister of William Lamb and therefore sister-in-law to Lady Caroline Lamb who is the niece of the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire and daughter of the Earl and Countess of Bessborough;
Lady Jersey: wife of the 5th Earl of Jersey, the granddaughter of Robert Childs, a banker, and a considerable heiress; sister to the 11th Earl of Westmorland (and yes, her nickname was Silence because she never shut her mouth);
Lady Castlereagh: wife of Viscount Castlereagh (later the Marquis of Londonderry--he was Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons from 1812 until his death in 1822), she was the daughter of the 2nd Earl of Buckinghamshire--he'd been the British Ambassador to Russia and the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland;
Mrs. Drummond Burrell, wife of the notable dandy who was enobled so she later became Lady Gwydry and eventually Lady Willoughby de Eresby; Lady Sefton; the Austrian Ambassador's wife, Princess Esterhazy; and after 1814, the Russian Ambassador's wife, Countess Lieven (who deserves her own blog as she is one of the most opionated, odiously officious, haughtiest busybodies ever to breathe oxygen).

Unofficially, until he fled to the Continent to escape his debtors in 1814, Mr. Brummell also wielded a great deal of influence over whom to admit to the List and whom to strike off.

And probably it is this description of those who wielded the power to include or exclude that is most informative about Almack's. Because although politics (and sex, London street riots, and the war) were all forbidden topics of conversation there, these were women at the pinnacle of political power and patronage, influence and wealth, not just in Britain but in Europe itself.

Between them, they weighed and scrutinised Britain's nobility and gentry. And in most cases, found it wanting. Probably some full three quarters of Britain's aristocracy failed to gain their approbation. Wealth--especially if it 'smelled of the shop'--was no guarantee of entry. Nor was birth. Good looks or talent might help. Dancing well, especially if one were male, was a definite asset.

According to Captain Gronow in his Regency Recollections: "Very often, persons whose rank and fortunes entitled them to the entree, were excluded by the cliqueism of the lady patronesses: for the female government of Almack's was a pure despotism and subject to all the caprices of despotic rule."

The travel writer, Major Chambre, in his Recollections, wrote of the 'Rules of Admission': "No lady or gentleman's name could continue of the list of the same patroness for more than one set of balls. No gentleman's tickets could be transferred; nor could ladies procure them for their female friends, nor gentlemen for gentlemen. A mother might give hers to a daughter, or one unmarried sister to another. Subscribers who were prevented coming, were requested to give notice to the lady patronesses on the day of the ball by two o'clock...that the vacancies might be filled up."

Moreover, having been on the List one year did not necessarily mean one could look to be included in the next year's List. Often too, in what might be described as playfulness (some might call it bitchiness) the patronesses would extend vouchers to a lady, but not her husband. Or vice versa. Particularly if it was felt one had married beneath oneself.

Almack's was, in short, a place wholly given over to the pursuit of sex and marriage--and these are alliances based on property, money, political influence and prestige. It is not about 'love-matches'.

In Austenite language, (though Jane Austen herself never mentions it) Almack's was a place where Miss Georgiana Darcy could be safely introduced to eligible young men, without her brother or her trustees worrying that she might encounter a fortune-hunter of the stamp of Wickham or Willoughby. Likewise these eligible young men would be sure that Miss Georgiana Darcy had been vetted by the Patronesses, that she was possessed of the fortune she claimed to have, and that she was suitably well-born.

For those who are devotees of Downton Abbey, if I may give another example, Almack's provided one setting where the Lady Mary Crawleys of the age might encounter suitable gentlemen with whom they might form an alliance. It was never a place for ingenues from the country.

It was a hot-house atmosphere of gossip, music, dancing, and repressed sexual tension perhaps, but above all, it was a place where the very rich and very powerful played, partied, and reigned supreme...

In Gronow's words, Almack's was "the seventh heaven of the fashionable world."

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early nineteenth-century British and European history, and the author of two historical novels set in the period - May 1812 and Of Honest Fame. Find out more at

Monarchy~ The Dark Ages House of Wessex

by Debra Brown

We will start with the Anglo-Saxon kings of the "Dark Ages", since most of the Romans left and King Arthur may or may not have existed. The earliest works mentioning Arthur are from centuries after he would have lived and do not call him a king. There is a stone from Tintagel Castle upon which is carved "Artognou descendant of Patern[us] Colus made (this)." Some have said that this may speak of Arthur, who it was claimed (again, centuries later) was conceived in Tintagel. A battle in which he is said to have fought has been recorded, but there is no mention of him in the writing. The most substantial evidence of Arthur's existence is that where there is smoke, there must have been a fire. Yet, fictional characters can yield the same smoke.

The Wuffingas dynasty ruled the long-lived Anglo-Saxon kingdom which today includes the English counties of Norfolk and Suffolk. Though not much is known about many of the kings, there is a little information HERE in Wikipedia, including a family tree. The best known of these kings was Rædwald, living at the turn of the 6th century.

Augustine preaching to Æthelberht.

At that time, the area now known as England was divided into various kingdoms. Of note, pagan King Æthelberht of Kent married Bertha, a Frankish Christian princess. This marriage brought Catholicism to the Anglo-Saxon royal houses. Pope Gregory sent the monk Augustine. Æthelberht converted and thereafter claimed the divine right of kings.

757- 796: King Offa of Mercia (who likely killed his predecessor) brought Mercia to power over the other six kingdoms. He was ruthless and brought an end to their dynasties, including that of Æthelberht. He did claim to be Christian, though he conflicted with the Church when his rulership wishes were hampered. Though he had a role in unifying England, his goal was not that, but his own personal power. Coins were struck with his image and were of better quality than the Frankish coins of the time. Offa's Dyke was built, possibly by King Offa and probably to create a barrier and establish commanding views into Wales. It shows that the builder had considerable resources.

In the 780s King Egbert of Wessex was forced into exile by Offa of Mercia and Beorhtric of Wessex, but on Beorhtric's death in 802 Egbert returned and took back the throne. He took Northumbria and defeated the Danes at Hingston Down. He reigned until his death in 839.

Within twenty years of Offa's death, England had reverted into smaller kingdoms and Viking invasions had begun. By the 860s, the Vikings had decided to stay.

King Æthelwulf of Wessex died in 855, leaving the throne to his four sons, one after the other. Æthelbald, Æthelberht and Æthelred all ruled for short periods of time, fighting the Danes. Their youngest brother became known as Alfred the Great; he was King of Wessex from 871 to 899.

Alfred took the throne at age twenty two. He endured difficulties with the Vikings for some time, but in May 878 he rallied a force of men and won a brilliant victory at the Battle of Ashdown on the Berkshire Downs. He then trapped the Danes in their stronghold at Chippenham and their king Guthrum fulfilled his promise to leave Wessex. Alfred reorganized the army to be ready at any time and built the first English Navy. He took London and its mint.

Alfred established a long law code which he determined to be just, taking parts of the Bible into account, and he considered judicial matters with care. He built burhs- fortified communities in which, rather than being a place of protection for a lord, the people lived under his patronage and protection. (The suffix -bury and the word burough come from burh.)

Alfred became the King of not just the West Saxons, but the Anglo-Saxons. He translated a writing from Pope Gregory into the vernacular and sent it to his bishops, establishing himself as the religious head of the country.

Edward I the Elder
succeeded his father in 899. His eldest sister Æthelflæd married Æthelred of Mercia and ruled in his place when he became ill. After her death, her daughter ruled for a short time before being supplanted by Edward. This union helped Edward to recapture the Midlands and Southeast of England from the Danes and drive them out. The princes of West Wales acknowledged Edward as their overlord, but he died in a Welsh-Mercian uprising against him.

Æthelstan succeeded Edward and reigned from 924 or 925 to 939. He was the first English king of several to be crowned on the King's Stone at Kingston. In 927 he was recognized as overlord by the rulers of Northern England, some of which now includes southern parts of Scotland. Ten years later he defeated Scots, Welsh and Viking forces at the Battle of Brunanburh and claimed the title "King of all Britain". He never had a son, but his sisters married five European monarchs, adding to England's wealth and prestige.

In 939 he was succeeded by his half-brother Edmund I, who subdued the Norse Vikings. The story goes that Edmund was murdered by Leofa, a thief whom he had once exiled. Leofa was instantly killed thereafter.

Eadred, another brother, ruled from 946 through 955, taking the throne at age sixteen. He faced off with former Norse king Eric Bloodaxe, so named after he'd bloodied his axe on his seven brothers- his people drove him into exile for the act. The Vikings had been ruling within the Roman walls of York since the 870s. Eadred threatened all of Northumbria, who then sided with him and drove out Bloodaxe, killing him in the war. Eadred died at age 25 from a digestive malady without a wife or children.

Eadwig or Edwy, the sixteen year old son of Edmund I lived to the age of twenty, ruling from 955-959. The Thanes of Mercia and Northumbria switched their allegiance to Eadwig's younger brother Edgar. Edgar, who took over Mercia and Northumbria at age fourteen, doubted Edwy's qualifications. In 957, rather than see civil war, an agreement was reached by which the kingdom would be divided along the Thames, with Eadwig ruling Wessex and Kent in the south and Edgar ruling in the north. Eadwig's marriage was annulled by powerful church officials, although that was against the will of both husband and wife. The picture above is entitled "The Insolent Behaviour of Dunstan to King Edwy on the Day of his Coronation Feast." This was the first time that Dunstan dragged him away from her. Dunstan claimed that they were too closely related, but they were less so than today's Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Phillip.

After Eadwig's death, Edgar ruled from 959 to 975 as king of a united England. He was the first to be crowned with a crown rather than a military style helmet. Though not a peaceful man himself, his rule was free of war and he came to be called Edgar the Peaceful. His rule unified England to the extent that it never again broke up into sovereign kingdoms. He founded forty religious houses and helped instigate a monastic revival.

Edgar was succeeded by his twelve year old son, Edward II, though Edgar's third wife claimed that her son Æthelred should have the throne. In 978, young Edward went to visit his ten-year-old half-brother and was killed by Æthelred's agents. He has since been called Edward the Martyr.

Æthelred II 'The Unready' ruled from 979-1013 and 1014-1016. He was the pawn of those who brought him to the throne. He paid off the Danes to leave him alone, but it failed. He fled from them to Normandy where he was protected by Robert the Good while the Danish King Sweyn ruled. In just a few months, however, the Danish king fell off his horse and died, and Æthelred returned to rule for two years more. His wife was Emma of Normandy, the sister of Robert the Good, who was eventually the grandfather of William the Conqueror.

Edmund II 'Ironside', Æthelred's son, was king from April to November of 1016. He thwarted the son of Danish King Sweyn, Cnut, who tried to take London. Edmund foolishly agreed to a deal where Cnut would get Mercia and Northumbria while he ruled Wessex, and after one of them died, the other would get the rest of the country. Edmund somehow died shortly thereafter.

Cnut 'The Great' reigned from 1016-1035. He had Edmund's younger brother Eadwig murdered and Edward's sons exiled to Hungary. Cnut had sons by his English mistress Ælfgifu of Northampton, who was acknowledged as Queen of Denmark. He also had a son, Harthacnut, by his new wife, (whoa!) Emma of Normandy, widow of Æthelred II. Emma's son by Cnut was regarded as the heir in England. Cnut was the first Dane to rule England in the sense of being able to collect taxes and mint money. He poured out his English wealth on Danish supporters while still a teenager. In time, though, he was said to become more English than the English- he loved Emma. She married him because it would help to neutralize British claims on the throne and the claims of her own older sons once she had a child by Cnut. Cnut endorsed the code of laws by Æthelred I and was deemed Cnut under Heaven. He severed his Nordish roots and was remade as a Christian king. He was seen as a good and just ruler and was buried in Winchester Cathedral when he died.

Harold Harefoot, son of Cnut and Ælfgifu, contended for Harthacnut's throne as did Alfred, son of Emma and Æthelred II. What a mess. Alfred was killed by Earl Godwin of Wessex. Harold Harefoot, the name referring to his swiftness, became Regent from 1035 to 1040 while rightful heir Harthacnut was busy being King of Denmark. They were to be joint monarchs, but in 1037, Harold was elected king by the English. Harthacnut had made preparations to invade and claim his throne, when Harold died, childless.

Harthacnut, 1035 to 1042, should have been happy. The throne was his. However, he had spent a great deal of money preparing to fight for it, and he was displeased. He blamed it on the English, who had voted his half-breed brother as king, and so he imposed a "fleet tax" on them. His popularity suffered. They shed no tears when he died with no wife or children of convulsions at a drinking party in 1042.

Edward 'The Confessor' ruled 1042 to 1066. The eldest son of Æthelred II and Emma, he had stayed in Normandy through the reign of Cnut. He attempted the throne in 1035, and helped by Harthacnut and Earl Godwin of Wessex (who wanted political favor), he succeeded in 1042. He married Godwin's daughter Edith. Godwin later decided that he wanted his own son on the throne instead of Edward. Since he had been involved in the murder of Edward's brother Alfred, Godwin was sent into exile, and Edith was banished to a monastery. In 1051, Godwin returned with the people's support and the king was forced to restore him to favor. He also had to expel his Norman friends and have Godwin's son, Harold Godwinson, as his chief advisor. However, he announced that upon his death he would have his cousin William, Duke of Normandy, as his successor, unless he had children. William came to him and pledged his loyalty.

Edward built the original Westminster Abbey. Most monarchs have been crowned there (or in the newer model) since. Too sick to attend its consecration, he died the next January. On his deathbed, he named Harold Godwinson to be the next king. However, the right actually belonged to his own grandson, Edgar.

Harold II ruled from January to October, 1066, the last Anglo-Saxon King of England. Harold was the first of only three English kings to die in warfare. He was killed at the Battle of Hastings by Norman invaders during the conquest by William, Duke of Normandy.

Edgar the Ætheling
was declared King of England, but never crowned. He was born in Hungary where his father, Edward the Exile, had lived since being sent there when Cnut became king. Edward the Confessor had learned of his (Edward's) existence and sent for him to take his place in court as heir to the throne. (That makes three people to whom he promised it, besides the legitimate heir, Edgar. Sometimes I wonder what history would have been if he had not put the idea into William's heart!) Edward the Exile died in strange circumstances shortly after arriving. Edgar was only six years old at the time. Edward the Confessor made no attempt to make him the heir, but after the death of Harold II, the Witanagemot assembled and elected Edgar king. However, as William of Normandy began his invasion, they brought Edgar to William. Later in his life he struggled for the throne, but never succeeded. He was still known to be alive in 1126.

Berkhamsted Castle, where the Crown of England is said to have been handed over to William by nobles including Edgar the Ætheling.

See a follow-up post on William the Conqueror. Watch this blog for future posts on the English-Norman monarchy and subsequent dynasties.

Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, an early Victorian story of a servant girl dragged along into snobbish London society, unwelcome by many.


Monarchy (U.K.) Monarchy with David Starkey (Documentary)

The Complete Idiot's Guide to British Royalty


Pictures are from Wikimedia Commons