Saturday, September 22, 2012

Historical Anecdotes

by the English Historical Fiction Authors

William IV

William the Fourth

by David W. Wilkin

A few weeks back I wrote about the sons of George III and their mistresses who were as much of a wife as many of the marriages we honor today.

One of those was William, who succeeded his brother (George IV) and ruled from 1830 to 1837. He was succeeded in turn by Victoria. Prior to his reign he spent 20 years with Dorothea Jordan and had 10 children with her.
Dorothea Jordan

From the Oxford Book of Royal Anecdotes we have the exchange between George III to his son:

George III
"Hey, hey:--what's this--what's this. You keep an actress, they say."

"Yes, sir."

"Ah, well, well; how much do you give her, eh?"

"One thousand a year, sir."

"A thousand, a thousand; too much; too much! Five hundred quite enough! Quite enough!"

Married Life by Samuel Pepys 
(with a bit of help from Deborah Swift)

Long-suffering Elisabeth Pepys
6th January

"Myself somewhat vexed at my wife's neglect in leaving of her scarfe, waistcoat and nightdressings in the coach that brought us from Westminster though I confess she did give them to me to look after - yet it was her fault not to see that I did not take them out of the coach." (italics mine)

Is it just me, or is this scene of married life frighteningly familiar?!

Massacre Averted: The Siege of Calais 
by Rosanne E. Lortz

After the English defeated the French at the Battle of Crecy (1346), they moved on to besiege the city of Calais. French pirates had been using Calais as a base from which to attack English merchant ships, and this city situated on the Channel had been a thorn in England's side for years. The siege lasted almost a year. As the days inched by, Edward III grew more and more angry at all the time and money Calais was costing him.

The hungry citizens of Calais kept hoping that their king would come and lift the siege, but it was a risk Philip VI was not willing to take. Finally, in August of 1347, Calais' governor sent Edward word that they were ready to surrender and asked what terms they would receive. Enraged, Edward replied that they would receive no terms and that he intended to slaughter them all out of revenge. Edward's nobles pleaded with him not to commit such an atrocity. Grudgingly, he agreed to lessen his revenge, demanding instead that six of the leading citizens exit the city and come to him with a rope around their necks.

When Queen Philippa, who had come to France to be with her lord, heard that he meant to hang these men, she came into his presence and knelt before him. Heavy with child, she entreated him that for love of her he would refrain from pursuing his revenge. The love that Edward bore his wife was strong, and although he was sorely frustrated to see his desires blocked at every turn, he handed the captives over to his gentle wife. And so thanks to the good offices of Queen Philipa, these six men were spared, and all the citizens of Calais were allowed to leave the city unharmed.


The weather and temperature in 18th Century England - by Mike Rendell

If my ancestor’s diaries are anything to go by, diarists love to record what the weather was like. After wading through pages of tedious reports of “fine-ish” or  “some rain, sunny at times” it is lovely to come across a more descriptive passage such as “a dribbling sort of day”. But my favourite description is when my ancestor Richard Hall says how cold it was in January 1776, making the comment  “Exceeding sharp; Snow, froze very hard. Froze the water in the Chamber pot.”  Now that is cold!

"Little Ease": Torture and the Tudors
By Nancy Bilyeau

On a March night in 1534, a man and woman hurried past a row of cottages on the outer grounds of the Tower of London. They had almost reached the gateway to Tower Hill and, not far beyond it, the city of London, when a group of yeoman warders on night watch appeared in their path, holding lanterns.

In response, the young couple turned toward each other, in what seemed like a lover's embrace. But something about the man caught the attention of Yeoman Warder Charles Gore. He held his lantern higher and within seconds, recognized the pair. The man was a fellow yeoman warder, John Bawd, and the woman was Alice Tankerville, a condemned thief and prisoner.

So ended the Tower's first known escape attempt by a woman. But Alice's accomplice and admirer, the guard John Bawd, was destined to enter the Tower record books, too, and for the grimmest of reasons--he is the first known occupant of a peculiar torture cell used during the reigns of the Tudors and the early Stuarts. The windowless cell measured 1.2 m (4 square feet) and bore the faintly prim name of Little Ease. The prisoner within could not stand nor sit nor lie down but crouched over, in increasing agony, until freed from the suffocating, dark space.

 For more, go to the full article, Little Ease.


That's No Ordinary M.M. Bennetts

I'm reminded me of this charming story of military valour and courage just about every time I pass the pet shop...

Hunting being the traditional sport of kings, Napoleon Bonaparte was mad about it.  And this one day, he wanted to go out hunting, so he and his various chums took their guns to a hunting lodge outside Paris for a day's shooting and general jollification.

The obsequious courtier who owned the hunting lodge in question decided to take no chances with the day's outcome--displeasing the Emperor could ruin one's life and livelihood--so he went and bought (figures vary here, but the received wisdom says 1000 or so) rabbits, just to make sure that everyone except the rabbits would have a great day out.

Unfortunately, what the courtier failed to understand was that these were domesticated rabbits.

Hence, when Napoleon and his posh mates started walking out into the field, the rabbits imagined it was their feeding time and, as one, rushed the little Corsican.

Can't you just see it?

And confronted by a thousand hungry, rushing hoppers what's a little corporal to do but run away?

And run faster!

Which is what he did--pursued by the rabbits.  All the way back to his carriage.  Where he hid, refusing to come out.

That's right, Napoleon cowered in his carriage whilst surrounded by ravenous, fanged, er, bunnies...Ha ha ha. (Also of interest perhaps:  he was afraid of cats.)


The King, The Archbishop and The Bear 

by Judith Arnopp

Bishop Burnet, writing a century after the event, relates a bizarre incident that took place in Henry VIII’s reign during the aftermath of the six articles.  The Six Articles was an act that set out quite clearly and reinforced six points of medieval doctrine which Protestants at that time had begun to undermine. The act also specified the punishments due to those who did not accept them and was known by many protestants as ‘the bloody whip with six strings.’ As a married man, Archbishop Cranmer must have taken particular exception to Article Three which stated that priests should not be allowed to marry.

He set down his objections quite strongly, making detailed notes, all backed up with citations from the bible and learned scholars, and it is believed he planned to present his findings to Henry.  His secretary, Ralph Morice, duly copied the notes into a small book and set of with it to Westminster.

The king, meanwhile, was attending a bear-baiting across the river at Southwark and, just as Ralph Morice and company were passing in a wherry, the bear broke loose from the pit and with the dogs in hot pursuit, leapt into the river and made straight for the boat. Bishop Burnet goes on to relate that;

‘those that were in the boat leaped out and left the poor secretary alone there. But the bear got into the boat, with the dogs about her, and sank it. The secretary, apprehending his life was in danger, did not mind his book, which he lost in the water.’

You can just picture it, can't you? Dripping wet bear, soaked dogs, terrified clerk, wildly rocking boat?

When Morice reached the shore he saw his book floating and asked the bearward (who was not perhaps as ‘in charge’ of the bear as one might hope) to retrieve it for him. But before he could get his hands on it, the book fell into the hands of a priest who, realising what the book contained, declared that whoever claimed it would be hanged.

Burnet says that, ‘This made the bearward more intractable for he was a spiteful papist and hated the archbishop, so no offers or entreaties could prevail on him to give it back.’
In no little panic Morice sought the immediate assistance of Cromwell who, on discovering the bearward about to hand the book over to Cranmer’s enemies, confiscated it, threatening him severely for meddling with the book of the privy councillor. Thus saving the life of the Archbishop.

This all sounds rather like a scene from the film Carry-on Henry, a farce, far too unlikely to be true. I cannot help but wonder what Henry made of the spectacle.


Women and Childbirth in 17th Century England by Sam Thomas

When we think about the difference between the past and present, our minds often turn to medicine, and with good reason. Who in their right minds would want to return to a world of leeches and blood-letting, of pregnancy without doctors and high death-rates for both mothers and children? But as so many of the writers on this blog have made clear, there is far more behind the history than modern stereotypes, and childbirth is no exception.
If you were to peek in on a woman in labor (or “in travail” as she might have said), the first thing you might notice is the people in the room. There would be a midwife rather than a doctor, of course, and you’d not find her husband – until the eighteenth century at the very earliest, childbirth was the business of women...
To read the rest of this post, click here.

Sam Thomas is the author of The Midwife's Tale: A Mystery from Minotaur/St.Martin's. Want to pre-order a copy? Click here. For more on midwifery and childbirth visit his website. You can also like him on Facebook  and follow him on Twitter.


Boudicea: Warrior Queen of the Iceni 
by Teresa Thomas Bohannon

Boudicea Warrior Queen
Boudicea was Queen of the Iceni, a tribe of the ancient Britons (in what is now Norfolk) during the era when Nero ruled in Rome and Roman troops occupied Britain. Her husband, Præsutagus, was King of the Ice'ni, and a Roman ally. Under Roman law, the sovereignty of Præsutagus' realm would end at his death and neither Boudicea, nor their daughters would be allowed to rule in his stead, however his personal wealth was his to distribute as he would. Præsutagus, a powerful ruler, had amassed a great deal of wealth during his reign.  In an attempt to placate the occupying Romans and protect his family's legacy, Præsutagus, made the emperor of Rome co-heir to his personal wealth along with his two daughters. Unfortunately, Præsutagus underestimated the greed and brutality of the Romans. Immediately upon his death, they not only took possession of his lands, but also seized all of his personal assets. The widowed Queen was outraged and protested vigorously. For her impertinence, she was seized by the Romans and publicly stripped and flogged. Her daughters, were turned over to the Romans soldiers and subjected to indignity and rape.

Boudicea incited the Britons to war and riot leading them in several battles where Roman troops were decimated. She besought them to fight for their country and their homes. "On this spot we must either conquer or die with glory," she said. "There is no alternative. Though I am a woman, my resolution is fixed. The men, if they prefer, may survive with infamy and live in bondage. For me there is only victory or death."

To read more about Boudicea visit these posts
Boudicea: Warrior Queen & Boudicea: Destroyer of London


The Great Stink of London, 1858 by Debra Brown

I greatly enjoy Liza Picard's book Victorian London. If you want to read numerous great anecdotes, her book is a wonderful source. Her first chapter discusses the smells of London past.

Day and night in Victorian times, she says, London stunk. The Thames "main ingredient" was human waste. Human excrement was sold as fertilizer to nurseries and farms surrounding London by the night-soil men who emptied the cesspits. A chamber pot might be emptied on your head as you walked through the narrow streets, adding to the stench of dead dogs, horse and cattle manure and rotting vegetables.

By 1841 there were 1,945,000 people and 200,000 cesspits full and overflowing. Years of waste fermented in miles of sewers in Holborn and Finsbury with no access to the Thames. Even in aristocratic Belgravia, Grosvenor Square, Hanover Square and Berkeley Square noxious matter stopped up house drains and reeked. Buckingham Palace smelled from drains that ran below.

Cows were kept in cowsheds all over London in appalling conditions with no space for cleaning. Cattle, sheep and pigs sold in Smithfield Market walked through London streets leaving behind 40,000 tons of dung a year, and thousands of horses each excreted 45 lb. of faeces and 3.5 lb. of urine a day.

A 14 foot deep pit at St. Bride's Church was reopened every Wednesday to take in carcasses of dead paupers until it could hold no more. The whole neighborhood stunk.

Coal gas stunk, and gas mains leaked. In Bermondsey skins and hides were tanned using a process including dog turds. Refuse from hospitals, fishmonger's and fishmarket washings and offal, slaughterhouse offal, glule-makers, candle-makers, bone dealers, dye works, dead rats, dogs and cats and even, the January 1862 journal The Builder said, dead babes stank.

  © Copyright Mick Garratt and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence
Finally there was a breakthrough, right? when water closets became a normal part of a house. By 1857 there were 200,000 of them all duly sidetracking the cesspits and emptying straight into the Thames via the sewers. The result was the Great Stink of 1858.

" Broken Victorian Sewage Pipe Saltburn's sewage used to be discharged into the sea below Huntcliff. The pipe has been filled with concrete but the constant pounding of the sea twice a day at high tide is gradually taking its toil of the pipe." Wikimedia

This at last precipitated actions which helped to turn things around. You really do want to read Liza's book!



We have arrived at our Anniversary weekend. In one year nearly 80,000 unique visitors. A historical post everyday. More than 50 bloggers bringing you a little piece of English History every day that they uncover in their research. History that adds color and background to the novels that they write for your enjoyment.

To thank all those who have come this year to sample the endeavors herein, twenty of the books that our writers have labored over are being given away this weekend. Just post your name, email in the comments section for a chance to win. (Many people place spaces on each sign of the @ symbol, or type that out as (AT) but we'll get the idea.) A comment on Saturday the 22nd, or Sunday the 23rd or both days will garner a chance to win one of the twenty books. Some are eBooks, some are physical and have restrictions as to where they will ship. Should you win, we will contact the author and provide them with your information. They then will contact you and if there is a problem because of the restrictions, we shall find away to get another tome into your hands. 

In no particular order for all prizes will be awarded randomly, we have donations for our giveaway from these authors and their works:

David Wilkin--The Shattered Mirror, The End of the World ebooks
Debbie Brown--Companion of Lady Holmeshire
Nancy Bilyeau--The Crown (2 Copies)
Lauren Gilbert--Heyerwood
Deborah Swift--The Gilded Lily
Katherine Pym--London 1660
Lucinda Brant--Deadly Affair
Cathie Dunn--Dark Deceit
Maria Grace--The Future Mrs. Darcy, Darcy's Decision
Nancy Jardine--The Beltane Choice
Maggie Secara--The Dragon Ring
Edward H. Carpenter--A Matter of Honor
Karen Wasylowski--Sons and Daughters
Peter St. John--Gang Territory
Teresa Thomas Bohannon--Choice of: A Very Merry Chase, Shadows in a Timeless Myth or The Widow's Tale
Mark Patton--Undreamed Shores
Sherry Jones -- Four Sisters, All Queens


  1. Such a fabulous post. I'm still laughing about Napoleon and the rabbits.

    Thank you for such a generous giveaway

    Mary Preston

  2. Excellent recap - you all made me laugh at 4 in the morning. Not an easy thing to do.

    Cynthia Robertson
    c.annerobertson at yahoo dot com

  3. Congratulations on your anniversary. I love to visit and read all the interesting articles from some of my favourite authors..


  4. What a fun and entertaining post! Enjoyed that. Judith you had me amazed with that tale.


  5. I love the entertaining story about Napoleon and the rabbits! Congratulations on your first anniversary and thank you for the giveaway!


  6. I've never heard of bear-baiting before. I like learning new things which I often do here!


  7. Thank you for the contest!! I love this blog!


  8. Well, the Thames and all the stench was a very interesting post also..please enter me in the contest!
    Marilyn (


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