Monday, December 31, 2012

Beds and Bugs Through the Centuries

by Debra Brown

I recently ran across a statement about mint placed in straw bedding. How pleasant, I thought! It reminded me of having lain in a pile of fresh-smelling straw in a friend's barn in childhood, listening to the rain hitting the metal roof.

In this day of foam mattresses- though I must say mine is quite welcoming- we have gotten away from the sounds and smells of nature. And that means we've gotten away from the negative ions that rolling in the hay kicked up. I've read that there was less insomnia in a time when a person was 'grounded' electrically by sleeping on natural bedding- even on skins on the ground- and wearing cotton nightclothes rather than polyester. The things we've done to ourselves! (I'm not complaining- I love my bed.)

The earliest beds were piles of straw, leaves or simply animal skins on the ground. These things were plentiful and easy enough to come by. They could be replaced regularly as needed. In time, large bags (tick) of fabric (ticking) were made to encase straw, leaves, pea shucks, moss, cotton, wool or feathers. These were used at home, but travellers might bring along a rolled up tick and stuff it full of straw wherever they needed to lay down their heads.

Some early houses had built in frames, like boxes or tubs, where straw could be piled up and contained. Eventually, frames were built of wood or stone to elevate the bed materials in order to keep the damp and pests away. (You don't mind vermin, do you?)

Replica of the "Saxon Princess" bed burial at Kirkleatham Museum, Photo by

Noble Anglo-Saxon families evidently had better beds. Bed burials, usually of young women with rich grave goods dating back to the seventh century have been found in in the southern counties of Cambridgeshire, Suffolk and Wiltshire, but a few have also been found in Derbyshire and North Yorkshire. These beds were wooden frames with iron fittings. The quality of the jewelry found in some graves indicates that the deceased may have been princesses. Some of the young women buried on their beds in the Ixworth, Roundway Down, Swallowcliffe Down and Trumpington areas have pectoral crosses or other emblems buried with them which suggests that they may have been abbesses, who in the early Anglo-Saxon period were recruited from noble families.

Box beds, or beds enclosed in an alcove built into the wall, were common (for the living) in the Scottish Highlands. Though I don't know where I got the idea, I built such beds in a room for my children years ago with a closet at the foot of each bed. They remember their special, cozy beds fondly. 

Early medieval lords and their families slept in the manor's great hall, but in time, they began to want more privacy. The first step in this direction came with the hung bed- beds perhaps built into alcoves with drapes hanging from the ceiling or walls around them. They would have a fabric celure at the head of the bed, the fabric matching the drapes and coverings. During the day, the curtains might be pulled back or folded to permit the bed to be used for seating. Such beds became a symbol of wealth or prestige from the thirteenth to fifteenth century.

By the 13th century wooden frames began to be decorated by carvings. By the 14th century, the carving was less important in some countries. The wood was being covered by drapings of Italian silk, velvet or even cloth of gold, sometimes lined with fur and richly embroidered. By the sixteenth century, the bedstead might have posters and rods called testers above which held the drapes.At first there were two posts at the foot of the bed along with the celure at the head, but in time, four posters and a wooden headboard became common. This was called a sealed bed or wainscot bed in Elizabethan times and was still used only by the wealthy, but shortly thereafter, yeoman farmers began to use them, too. This Pinterest page has pictures of beautiful hung and poster beds.

Southampton Medieval Merchant's House bedroom, Photo by Hchc2009

In the 14th century, wealthier people could own feather beds, or what we would now call feather mattresses. When the middle classes began to prosper, they wanted the soft beds as well. Downy breast feathers from the guest of honor at a duck or goose dinner were saved up over the years, as were their other feathers, though those would need some trimming to be comfortable in a bed. Servant girls might be allowed to save the feathers they'd removed from poultry over time for their future marriage beds. These beds were placed over something firmer, perhaps a straw bed. Feather beds were something to be passed on in a will, as were poster beds.

Every third year or so the feathers would have to be pulled out of a mattress to clean them. So, I wondered, where would they put them? Out in the sun or on the floor to air, while they washed and waxed the ticking cover. Wax or even soap would be rubbed onto the fabric to keep the feathers from poking through. The beds (mattresses) could be sent out for steam cleaning in later years. Shaking and plumping was a regular housekeeping process with feather beds.

Down comforters, or "continental quilts" as they are called in England, were common on the continent long before they were used in England, where they are a fairly recent addition.

How Reymont and Melusina were betrothed / And by the bishop were blessed in their bed on their wedlock

By the 16th century, bedsteads became lighter in weight though beautifully made. Why? Royals and lords would take them along when they went a-calling. Can you imagine the chore traveling became? It is no wonder a large household required many servants. England had simpler beds than some other countries, though often with four posts.

This Elizabethan bed looks anything but lightweight.

Cast iron beds appeared in the 18th century, sold as beds that would not harbor some of the little critters and vermin which were commonly found in wood.

A rather ritzy French ceremonial bed: Anca Pandrea from Bucharest, Romania

In France, the bed was a place where a woman would visit with intimate friends surrounding special occasions such as marriage, childbirth and even mourning, and the bed was richly designed and decorated.Starting with Louis XI, ceremonial beds were placed for honoring guests such as ambassadors or great lords. Louis XIV loved staying in bed and often held court in his bedroom. He had 413 beds.

Less expensive beds in Victorian times were stuffed with wool flocking, which became lumpy. The wool might also become fodder for moths. Therefore the mattresses would have to be disassembled and the wool washed, boiled and teased. After that was finished the mistress would hire someone to come in and stitch the mattress back together.

No matter their station in life, one might be visited by the bed bug, and it was no picnic to get him to move along. One could probably blame it on the maids, but it did not give them a better night's sleep to do so. Bed bugs are not easy to be rid of. A woman in the 19th century wrote about tossing 20 pails full of water on the kitchen floor trying to drown them. All the parts of her bed were then immersed in water, after which they were laid out in the sun for two days. The bed's joints were painted with mercury ointment (they were unaware of the mercury vapor's toxicity and probably blamed the maids for the onset of illness) and the curtains were taken down and washed. Bedroom curtains were often thick, heavy fabric to help keep the cold out, and just getting them into the boiling pot would have taken a bit of energy. Bed bugs can live within the walls of a house, so depending on whether you lived in a stone castle or a stuccoed Belgrave Square mansion, you may have to learn what could be done to evict them from between the stones or plaster.

The first coil-spring mattress was patented in 1865- what luxury! I'm sure you appreciate the advances in beds as I do. It is time for me to go and enjoy mine right now. 


Debra Brown is the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, now available in paperback, on Kindle, on and iTunes iBookstore.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Auld Lang Syne

Postcard 1910
by Lauren Gilbert

          New Year’s Eve…  This is the day when most of us look back at the old year passing away, celebrating the good things that happened, mourning our losses, and generally taking stock.  We also look forward to the new year approaching, preparing to shake off the dust and move forward.  Parties and celebrations are the order of the day, a happy way to speed the old year out and the New Year in.  Many traditions are involved in the New Year’s celebration, and one of these is the singing of “Auld Lang Syne.” 

Robert Burns

          The lyrics of “Auld Lang Syne” are attributed to Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796).  However, this is a much older song than we really know.  Variations of “Auld Lang Syne” abound.  Over the years, as is the way with many traditional songs, the lyrics and melodies have varied to suit the time and those singing it.  Although not published, a written record of lyrics for this song (then a lament about a faithless lover) was found in the Commonplace Book of James Crichton, 2nd Viscount Frendraught, for 1662.  James Watson included a version in his CHOICE COLLECTION OF COMIC AND SERIOUS SCOTS POEMS, published in 1711.  Allan Ramsay also included “Auld Lang Syne” in A COLLECTION OF SONGS published in 1724. 
          In September of 1793, Robert Burns wrote a letter to George Thomson, an editor working on an anthology of songs.  Burns commented on songs that Thompson had proposed for the anthology, and suggested that Thompson include one more, which was “Auld Lang Syne.”  Burns indicated that he wrote down the words while listening to an old man sing them.  Burns’ lyrics appeared in Volume 5 of James Johnson’s SCOTS MUSICAL MUSEUM, published in 1796, and are indicated as “old verses with corrections or additions.”  The music published with it then was different, and Burns apparently did not care for it.  When Thomson’s anthology SELECT COLLECTION OF ORIGINAL SCOTISH AIRS was published in 1799 (after Burns’ death), he changed the music to that which we know now.  The Morgan Library and Museum website has a wonderful online exhibition where you can look at and listen to a reading, and the musical variations of this song ( ).
           “Auld Lang Syne” was associated with the Scottish celebration of Hogmanay (a traditional New Year’s event).  Whether it was because it was a traditional song, or because of its theme of remembrance, it gradually became associated with the New Year’s events in the United Kingdom, and it spread to the colonies.  However, it was not a “popular” song in the modern sense until 1929 when Guy Lombardo adopted “Auld Lang Syne” for his annual New Year’s Eve broadcasts on radio and then television.
          Depending on the version of choice, the number of verses varies, and the meaning of the song can be obscure because of the dialect.  Commonly, the first verse and refrain is what we sing as the ball drops at midnight.  I thought it would be nice to include the first verse and refrain with some clarification:
“Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And never brought to mind?
Should auld acquaintance be forgot,
And days of auld lang syne?”
“For auld lang syne, my dear,
For auld lang syne.
We’ll tak a cup of kindness yet,
For auld lang syne.”

“Auld”-old.    “Auld lang syne”- literally old long since, by-gone days, old times.    “Tak”-take.
I wish you a very Happy New Year!
Sources:  “Scottish Hogmanay Customs and Traditions at New Year.”  ” Frequently Asked Questions.” 
Kirsten Koster blog.  “A Regency Primer on Christmastide & New Year’s.”  Posted 12/27/2011 by Kirsten Koster.  
The Morgan Library & Museum Online Exhibitions.   “Auld Lang Syne-The Story of a Song.”
Washington Post Style Section online.  “’Auld Lang Syne’: New Year’s song has a convoluted history” by Claire Prentice, published 12/30/2011.     
Yahoo! Voices.  “History Behind Auld Lang Syne: The New Year’s Eve Song.”  By Michael Barger, posted 12/8/2008. 
Images from Wikimedia Commons:
By Lauren Gilbert, author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel

The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, by Mike Rendell

The giveaway for this week is The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman, by Mike Rendell. Please click HERE to read more about the book. You may comment on this post to enter the drawing for a paperback copy to be shipped within the US. Be sure to leave your contact information!

The Bloody Assizes: Justice and Cruelty in 1685

by Tim Vicary

The first person brought before the court was a woman. She was seventy years old, partially deaf, and possibly senile. The charge was high treason, for which the penalty was death. Her name was Alice Lyle.

The judge was the Lord Chief Justice of England, the newly ennobled George, First Baron Jeffreys of Wem. In 1685 Jeffreys was 40 years old and had been England’s top judge for 2 years. He was a highly intelligent, ambitious man, renowned for his energy, hatred of criminals, and ferocious skill in cross-examination. He was also a sick man, suffering from a kidney stone. He frequently sipped what was thought to be brandy during trials, leading to accusations that he was drunk. This may have been true, but if so the brandy was probably medicinal, to dull the extreme pain he was suffering. And like most people in chronic pain, he was often in a filthy temper, searching for a scapegoat to vent his fury on.
If that was so, he had been given the perfect opportunity.  Earlier that year, James II succeeded to the throne, and his nephew James Scott, duke of Monmouth, rose in rebellion against him. Monmouth landed at Lyme Regis, in Dorset, and gathered an army of Protestant rebels to depose King James, his Catholic uncle. But the rebels were defeated at Sedgemoor (the last battle on English soil) Monmouth was captured and beheaded, and King James sent Judge Jeffreys to the West Country to teach the rebels a lesson they would never forget.
The charge against Alice Lyle was that she had hidden a rebel fugitive named Hicks in a priest’s hole at her home.  Her defence (she was a wealthy widow, able to hire a lawyer) rested on two points:
a)      Hicks hadn’t even been tried yet, let alone convicted, so there was no proof that he actually was a rebel;
b)      She was too old and doddery to know anything about Monmouth’s rebellion; she thought he was a priest
Jeffreys was having none of it. Point a) – which would certainly have stopped the trial in its tracks today – he brushed aside as irrelevant; of course Hicks was a rebel, everyone knew he had been with Monmouth’s army, he said. For point b) the prosecution produced two witnesses, a man called Barter and a man called Dunne. Barter said he’d seen Dame Alice with Dunne about ‘the business’ by which he meant the rebellion. When Dunne refused to confirm this Jeffreys launched into a terrifying cross-examination.  Part of it went like this:
Jeffreys:  Come now and tell us, what business was that?
Dunne:  (After a long silence) Does your lordship ask what that business was?
Jeffreys: Yes. It is a plain question. What was the business that the lady asked thee, whether the other men knew?
Another long silence.
Jeffreys: He is studying and musing how he shall prevaricate ... But thou hadst better tell the truth, friend ... Now I would know what that business was.
Dunne: I cannot mind it, my lord.
Jeffreys: Oh, how hard the truth is, to come out of a lying Presbyterian rogue!
Dunne: I cannot give you an account of it, my lord.
Jeffreys: Oh blessed God! Was there ever such a villain upon the face of the Earth?
And so on, over half an hour. Very effective cross-examination, you might think, from a prosecution barrister.  But Jeffreys wasn’t the prosecution, he was the judge, whom we think of today as impartial. But that wasn’t how Judge Jeffreys saw his role, not at all. He was there to get convictions, as quickly and efficiently as possible, and that was what he did.
Alice Lyle was convicted and sentenced to be burnt alive. There was no appeal on legal grounds, as there would be today. The only appeal was to the King, for mercy. And King James was merciful, sort of.  Alice wasn’t burnt alive; she was beheaded.
Hers was just the first case in the Bloody Assizes; Jeffreys had well over a thousand more to deal with.  In Dorchester he found 300 prisoners crammed into a small jail, mostly men charged with fighting in Monmouth’s army. Clearly it would take months to try them all individually, but Jeffreys had a better idea. Dispensing with a Grand Jury, he sent his clerk into the jail to offer them mercy if they would confess (and inform on their friends) He repeated this in court:
‘If you will plead guilty, the King, who is almost all mercy, will be as ready to forgive you as you were to rebel against him, yea as ready to pardon you as you are to ask it of him.’
Does that sound familiar? It should: it is the basis of the ‘plea bargain’ which is, unfortunately, practised daily by district attorneys across the United States, and, slightly more discreetly, by the Crown Prosecution Service in England. In 1685 the main differences were:
a) it was the judge who was making a direct offer to the accused, rather than a deal being struck between prosecution and defence lawyers (but then few, if any, of the rebels had defence lawyers) and
b) the punishments the rebels were facing were much more extreme.
The choice was between being transported as indentured slaves to the West Indies, or being hanged.   A cruel punishment indeed, but Jeffreys was able to joke about it.  When Christopher Battiscombe was convicted, his mistress bravely pleaded with the judge to hand over his body, unmutilated, for her to bury after death. ‘Certainly, madam,’ Jeffreys laughed. ‘You shall have part of the body. I know what part you love best and will direct the Sherriff accordingly.’

In fact, of course, the men were not just hanged, but drawn and quartered too.  They were half hanged, then cut down and disembowelled while still alive, and chopped into four pieces. Captain John Kidd was the last of twelve men to be executed like this on the beach at Lyme Regis; he suffered the unimaginable horror of watching this happen to eleven of his friends before him. The courage of such men, many of whom met their deaths while singing a psalm, is as humbling as the cruelty of the executioners is appalling.
Jeffreys ordered all this, but he was not the only monster of cruelty around. At least he acted within the law. James Kirke, the colonel of ‘Kirke’s Lambs’ a royal regiment who wore white coats, was said to have hanged over a hundred rebels without any trial at all. When a pretty young woman begged him in floods of tears to save her father’s life, Kirke agreed on one condition: that she would spent the night in his bed, which she did. When she got up next morning and walked to the window, she saw her father, hanging from the signpost outside the inn.
Such stories, and the fact that the rebels’ arms, legs and heads of rebels were boiled, tarred, and publically displayed in towns and villages all around the West Country, had a terrifying effect. Judge Jeffreys’ Bloody Assizes didn’t make anyone love the King, but they surely made people fear him.
For the next three years, at least.  
Then, in 1688, King William of Orange sailed to England with a much larger army, and chased King James away. James fled abroad, but Jeffreys – now Lord Chancellor - was captured, thrown into prison, and died of kidney disease in the Tower of London.  In the West Country, his death was greeted with understandable delight.
Tim Vicary’s novel about 1685, The Monmouth Summer, which touches only briefly on the cruelties described here, was listed as one of the 10 top history books of 2012 by Samantha J. Morris ‘Lady Hertford’ in her blog ‘Loyaltybindsme’. It is available on Amazon UK and Amazon US.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Rise, Rise and Fall of Sir Roger Mortimer

by Arthur Russell

Sir Roger Mortimer
After the defeat of Edward Bruce at Faughart in Ireland in October 1318, Sir Roger Mortimer’s reputation as an effective soldier and administrator made him a vital ally of King Edward II. The King was facing a resurgence of rebellion from his barons mostly arising from the activities of his latest favourite, Sir Hugh Despenser, his closest adviser. Established laws and agreements were being set aside to endow Despenser’s family with lands and titles as Despenser took over roles the King was too lazy or unwilling to perform himself. The pattern for this been set a decade earlier with a former Royal favourite, Piers Gaveston. The difference from Mortimer’s point of view was that while Gaveston had been his mentor and friend, Despenser was a mortal enemy arising from an old Marchland dispute in which Despenser’s grandfather was killed by Mortimer’s grandfather. This meant that Mortimer had to be careful. The King might appreciate his talents but showed that he had no qualms ignoring everything when it came to pleasing Despenser. Mortimer was somewhat relieved to be sent back to Ireland as Justiciar, thereby taking him away from court intrigues.  He was “out of sight, out of mind”.
Over the next 2 years he restored the post Bruce Irish colony to a healthy state so that by the time he left, the country had not known such peace and prosperity for generations. By contrast, the England he returned to in late 1320, was on the brink of civil war due to the continuing actions of Despenser.

Mortimer joins the rebellion - Mortimer’s interests had suffered considerably in his absence. He felt constrained to join an alliance of barons who resisted what Despenser, and through him the King were doing. As a Marcher Lord with rights and privileges that were guaranteed under Magna Carta, Mortimer simply had no other choice. The King was alarmed by this latest challenge and summoned the barons to court to declare their loyalty. The rebel barons ignored the summons and attacked Despenser territory in South Wales. Despenser pressured the King to declare them traitors; which meant their lands and titles were forfeit. At this point, the rebels were at pains to say their opposition was not against the King, but against the Despensers (father and son). Edward offered concessions, but refused their demand to banish the Despensers. Mortimer was stripped of his Irish Justicarship in favour of a Despenser relative who proceeded to return Ireland to the anarchy from which it had been rescued.
During the next months, the King was forced by the rebels to banish the Despensers. The elder Despenser fled to Bordeaux, blaming his son’s greed for his family’s downfall. Sir Hugh became a pirate exacting revenge on ships conducting trade and commerce between England and the Continent. This caused economic damage as well as severe embarrassment to Edward, who seemed less disturbed by this than by the anger and insult he held against the rebel barons, now clearly led by Mortimer.
What followed was one of the most rapid changes of fortunes in history.

King Edward II
Royal Revenge - Having won their campaign against the Despensers, the rebel alliance immediately fell apart. The event that sparked the King’s revenge was the refusal of one of them to allow Queen Isabella to shelter in Leeds Castle as she went on pilgrimage to Canterbury. The King ordered the castle to be besieged, while none of the alliance came to help. The offending lord and some followers were executed by the King who now, with the help of barons who had not previously taken sides; felt strong enough to move against the remaining rebels. Mortimer quickly realized that his best course lay in making his own peace with the King, who accepted his submission and imprisoned him in the Tower of London. All Mortimer titles and properties were seized by the crown.
In the following months, the King exacted terrible revenge on the barons with a series of horrific executions, while Sir Hugh Despenser was recalled from exile and restored to his former position. Despenser wanted Mortimer executed, but bowed to the King’s wish to commute this to perpetual incarceration in the Tower.
The King now had absolute power, which meant that no castle or estate was safe from Despenser who continued to enrich himself and his family at the expense of those he considered the King’s (and his) enemies. This drew the enmity of the bishops and Queen Isabella, the sister of the French King Charles IV, who increasingly saw Mortimer as the best focus for growing opposition to what had become Royal tyranny.
In 1322, she accompanied the King and Despenser on a disastrous Scottish campaign and was treated to the sight of her husband and his chief minister ungallantly fleeing from King Robert’s army, leaving her to fend for herself. With the help of her ladies, two of whom died, she eventually managed to find her way back to court.

Mortimer the Exile - Both Despenser and the King now saw the threat that Mortimer alive, even as a prisoner; posed. Despenser determined to kill him, confident that the King would have to allow it; but before this could happen, Mortimer, with the connivance of the Queen and the sub-lieutenant of the Tower, escaped and fled to France. It was months before the enraged King learned where Mortimer was. He suspected the Queen’s role in the escape and punished her by stopping her income. The four royal children were taken from Isabella and put in the care of Lady Despenser.
France and England were by now edging towards war with one another, due mainly to Despenser’s bellicose policies towards France which he was forcing on the King. This meant that Mortimer was welcomed by King Charles as an ally. All England feared imminent invasion by Mortimer the fugitive, who was now cast in the role of bogeyman supreme and the focus for everyone who resented Royal tyranny.
In March 1325 the King allowed his Queen to travel to France to use her influence to defuse the political situation with her brother. He sent handpicked servants with her with instructions to spy and report “disloyal” actions and words. In truth the Queen was delighted to leave England and her ruined marriage behind her.  She managed to forge a peace between Edward and Charles, which while distasteful to Edward, was as good as he could have hoped. One significant condition was that the 14 year old heir, Prince Edward, had to present himself in France to pay homage to Charles. This brought the Prince to his mother’s side and under her influence. Edward immediately demanded that wife and son return immediately to England. With her brother’s support, Isabella refused, blaming the obnoxious (to her) presence of Despenser at court as her reason.
On Christmas Day 1325, Mortimer finally met Isabella at the French court and thus began the most notable romance (and Royal scandal) of the Middle Ages between the exiled baron and the spurned Queen. His wife’s marital desertion was an extreme humiliation for Edward when he acknowledged it in Feb 1326 and had to ask his subjects to prepare for an invasion led by Isabella and her lover. Meantime, Mortimer’s wife, the unfortunate Joan and their 3 sons, was being held prisoner by Edward, while Mortimer’s mother managed to keep herself out of the King’s hands.

Illustration of Roger Mortimer and Queen Isabella 
Isabella & Mortimer invade England - On 20th September 1326, Roger and Isabella joined the invasion fleet and the small army of 1500 mercenaries they had assembled at Rotterdam, to invade England. They landed in Suffolk on Sept 24th. Surprised that the invaders came with such little military force, the King assembled one of the largest armies ever seen in medieval England to destroy them. He did not reckon on the love his people had for their Queen who with the young Prince, won them to her side. What should have been Edward’s overwhelming victory turned into a demoralizing retreat as the Queen succeeded in winning the hearts and minds of her subjects as she progressed through the English countryside. With all the resources of the land at his disposal, the King was effectively paralysed and isolated. He could not count on the loyalty of the citizens of London, and abandoned the city in early October. Anarchy reigned in the city as high ranking Royal supporters were lynched by a mob and brutally executed. Edward fled to Despenser’s territories in Wales, in vain hope that the Welsh might join him. Despenser senior was captured and executed by Mortimer after a siege in Bristol. The King having lost all hope of resisting the wrath to come, attempted to take ship to Ireland, but failed due to adverse weather. At the end of October the King and his remaining supporters, including Hugh Despenser, were captured. Mortimer exacted full and final revenge on Hugh Despenser, who was tried, condemned and immediately publicly hanged, drawn and quartered in Hereford.

Royal Abdication - Mortimer and Queen Isabella were now de facto master and mistress of England, but needed legitimacy in the eyes of the people and the world. King Edward II had to be made to abdicate in favour of his fourteen year old son, who was firmly under their control. A Parliament was duly convened at which the King was given no other option but to abdicate and pledge support to his son, who was immediately crowned to replace him. It was the first, but not the last time that the power of Parliament (representing People Power), was pitted against ‘the Divine right of Kings’. The ousted King was charged and found guilty of a long list of crimes against his people and realm and was imprisoned in Kenilworth Castle.
The new regime found that a live ex-King is not an easy thing to live with, as the Royal prisoner became the focus of many conspiracies. Life was further complicated by the need to embark on another inevitable campaign against King Robert Bruce who was pillaging the North of England. This took Mortimer away from court, earning him blame from the young King when Roger refused to let him lead his army against a superior Scottish army who were too well positioned. After weeks of pointless skirmishing and chasing across Northern England, the Scots simply returned home.

Conspiracy and Regicide - What happened next has been the cause of much argument and debate, theory and counter-theory. The narrative goes that the deposed King died or was murdered while under the care of Mortimer’s subordinates in Berkeley castle in 21st September 1327. Speculation (then and since) suggests that Mortimer was the prime mover in Edward’s death as he had much to gain from the King’s demise. (Ian Mortimer proposes in his book ‘The Greatest Traitor’, that the death and funeral was faked, with the Queen and the young King “buying into” the ensuing deception for their own good reasons). 
Mortimer and Isabella now acted as virtual rulers of England. The young King Edward III was growing older and becoming impatient with his overbearing mentor who was losing the support of many former allies, envious of his power and influence. He was blamed for concluding a peace treaty with the Scots which effectively stripped many Northern Lords of their Scottish estates. Opposition came to a head when Mortimer insisted on having the King’s uncle, the Earl of Kent executed for conspiring to rescue the ex-King from Corfe Castle where rumour had it he was being secretly kept. Mortimer was using Royal power against his enemies, many of whom fled England.
(Note - The death of heirless Charles IV of France in Feb 1328, had far-reaching effects as it opened the possibility that his nephew, King Edward III of England should inherit the French throne. This would lead to the outbreak of the Hundred Years War in 1337).

The Fall of Mortimer - It now seemed that Mortimer’s tyranny was no better that that of Despenser, especially when Mortimer began to take over huge territories and titles for himself and his supporters. After 5 years in Mortimer’s shadow, it was time for Edward III to exert control over his most powerful subject, if he was going to hold onto his crown – a crown which many feared Mortimer was about to seize for himself, unless something was urgently done about him.
With the King’s approval and connivance, Roger Mortimer was arrested in his castle at Nottingham in October 1330. A month later he was tried and executed in Tyburn, being spared drawing and quartering meted out to Hugh Despenser three years before. The main charge against him (one of fourteen); was the regicide of King Edward II.
Queen Isabella, who had pleaded for Mortimer’s life to be spared, was retired with a comfortable pension and lived privately until her death in 1358.

Comment - Sir Roger Mortimer was one of the most colourful figures of medieval England. Many of his political activities were cloaked in secrecy, which means that his importance in the paradigm of the age is often overlooked and understated.  His relatively short life provides a rich source of material to inspire many books of more than one genre; be it romance, political drama, (even a detective novel for any writer feeling inclined to delve into the machinations surrounding King Edward II’s murder [or not?]). He was a true Machievellian in a pre-Machievellian age who eventually lost out to an equally unscrupulous King, for whom he had done so much to place on England’s throne. Mortimer inevitably became the final victim of his own insatiable ambition. 

Sir Roger Mortimer features in my book ‘Morgallion’ which is set in early 14th century Ireland during the Bruce invasion, which sought to establish a Bruce dynasty in Ireland. Sir Roger was largely instrumental in preserving the English colony and restoring English hegemony there.

Friday, December 28, 2012

A Painful Transition for Some, A Benefit for Others: The Enclosure Acts

by J.A. Beard

"Not so large, I dare say, as many people suppose. I do not mean to complain, however; it is undoubtedly a comfortable one, and I hope, will in time be better. The inclosure of Norland Common, now carrying on, is a most serious drain. And then I have made a little purchase within this half year -- East Kingham Farm, you must remember the place, where old Gibson used to live. The land was so very desirable for me in every respect, so immediately adjoining my own property, that I felt it my duty to buy it. I could not have answered it to my conscience to let it fall into any other hands. A man must pay for his convenience, and it has cost me a vast deal of money."

-- John Dashwood, Sense and Sensibility, Chapter 33

Mr. Dashwood's comments don't initially seem to be all that important in the grander discussion of the nature of socio-economic disparity and economic realignment in Georgian and Regency England. His off-hand mention of "the inclosure of Norland Common", however, touches upon a rather significant series of land reforms that had major an impact on the rural lower classes in England.

Enclosure/inclosure was the process by which land was consolidated, separated from neighboring properties, and deeded to private owners. The name comes from the way these lands were marked off from others: enclosure with a wall, hedge, fence, or other obvious marker of division. Much of this process involved consolidation of irregular areas into more contiguous lands, but there were also cases of just simple conversion from common-use to private use. The combination of consolidation, demarcation of borders, and simple ownership assignment eliminated any ambiguity about who owned what and effectively eliminated most common-use land in England.

For a good chunk of English history, an open system was in place in many (but certainly not all) areas where peasants could make use of common-use land for grazing, small-scale planting, small-scale forestry, and similar subsistence activities. Although various minor cases of enclosure occurred throughout the centuries, the process really picked up speed during the Georgian era with a huge number of Enclosure Acts being passed by Parliament between the mid-18th century to the mid-19th century. While these were acts passed by the legislature, it should be noted that the process of acquiring enclosed land during most of the Georgian era involved a private citizen petitioning Parliament (until the mid-19th century at least), and so many of these Parliamentary acts were the culmination, in a sense, of private concerns and petitions rather than autonomous top-down decisions by the government. Even excluding the major Enclosure Acts, many smaller-scale private acts were passed by Parliament at the direct petition request of individuals.

It should be noted that in some cases enclosure was done to basically cut down on illegal use of private property. A man might own a swath of land, but a lack of clear borders allowed people to come in certain areas, pick berries, graze their livestock, et cetera. That being said, in other cases there were centuries-old common areas that were destroyed by enclosure.

The act of enclosure, given that it removed many economic/food-related rights from peasants in local villages and nearby areas, had wide-spread secondary effects. Once land was controlled by an owner, usage, if allowed, would require rent, which poorer families may have not been able to afford. Whereas previously they could potentially get by making limited use of common land, many now had to seek out employment. Arguably, without the Enclosure Acts, the huge number of cheap laborers necessary to help fuel the Industrial Revolution in England would not have been available.

Even if one is not particularly politically inclined, it's easy to see how these acts might be viewed with suspicion by some. A person (and many have) could make the argument that formerly self-sufficient people were forced to go seek out work, sometimes far from home (thus disrupting village life), whereas a small percentage of individuals found themselves in a stronger economic position.

The often unpleasant labor conditions of the early Industrial Revolution or the low-security life that accompanied service were arguably tolerated because of the flood of workers desperate for new means to sustain themselves. Was enclosure nothing more than people of superior means consolidating resources and land at the expense of people of lesser means? Some argue that rather strenuously.

On the other hand, the ostensible logic behind enclosure was in some cases simple protection of property rights and in other cases was about improving efficiency of the land. Some historians suggest that by pushing people out of low-level subsistence farming, enclosure may have ultimately contributed to greater social mobility potential in the long-run. General improved economic efficiency combined with the slowly eroding social resistance to things like trade and investment among gentry arguably led to a consolidation, enrichment, and investment cycle that benefited the nation as a whole. Under this argument, the workers flooding into the factories of the Industrial Revolution, in turn, expanded the economy and helped shift the poorer English away from having effectively zero chance at social mobility.

It's also undeniable that in many areas over-use and agricultural inefficiency was a legitimate motivation for enclosure. This is the so-called tragedy of the commons. In such a situation, as no one involved in the use of land/resource has true ownership, they will not take special measures to conserve it because others using the resources may not. This cycle of use and self-interest leads to the depletion of the resource. The various people who supported enclosure often based their argument on economic reasons (fencing associated with enclosure allowed high-value pasturage), agricultural efficiency, and land restoration.

Did this mean that every enclosed area was actually some horribly depleted over-farmed and over-logged deadland that needed the help of the gentry to rescue it? Doubtful. While there were areas where this was the case, it's not as if during the process of enclosure the government first did some sort of complicated land-use analysis. Mostly they were responding to petitions filed by people with enough wealth to hire lawyers to file petitions.

Many enclosed areas had been successfully maintained for centuries. Though, as noted above, in some cases enclosure was about making property borders more concrete rather than a more active attempt to expand land holdings. The nature and appropriateness (depending on one's point of view) of enclosure likely varied by case.

Regardless if you feel enclosure was some sort of land-grab by the elite or if it was a painful but necessary part of an economically maturing England that benefited everyone, it most definitely played a role in changing the nature of the English countryside and working classes.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Poison, Politics, and Passion

by Regina Jeffers
The German scholar, Albertus Magnus, is generally credited with the discovery of arsenic in or about 1250. All sorts of poisons have been used since the time of the ancient Greeks and Romans. The Greeks had a fondness for water hemlock, a plant in the carrot family, not the evergreen family. Plato celebrated the use of hemlock in his description of the death of Socrates.

Beginning with the Roman Empire forward, arsenic became the preferred poison. There are some references to the use of arsenic as far back as the 4th Century B.C., but Magnus perfected the compound in the 1200s. A metallic arsenic is mentioned in the writings of Paracelsus, a physician-alchemist in the late Middle Ages, who is often referred to a the “Father of Modern Toxicology.”

In the first century, Dioscorides, a Greek physician at the court of the Roman Emperor Nero, offers a brief listing of the advantages of arsenic for sinister uses: no odor or taste when mixed with food/drink and its lack of color. Arsenic is readily found in nature, which makes it easily accessible to ALL people. Arsenic poisoning mimics food poisoning, making it harder to detect, especially before physicians had full toxicology labs available to aid their diagnoses.

A single large dose of arsenic brought about diarrhea, vomiting, and death from shock, while smaller doses over a period of time resulted in loss of muscle control, paralysis, and mental confusion. As203 became the arsenic of choice for it could kill a man with a dose less than that of tip of a teaspoon in the powder.

Poison became the way to go about business in politics during the Roman reign. It became commonplace to deal with those who were disliked by slipping a dose of poison in their drinks or food. The poisons were so common that few believed in the natural deaths of kings, emperors, or clergymen. In 82 B.C., the Roman dictator Lucious Cornelius Sulla issued the Lex Cornelia, the first law outlawing poisons. Poisons were readily used during the Renaissance. A woman named Toffana from Florence, Italy, was renowned for making arsenic-laced cosmetics. Hieronyma Spara taught young married women how to rid themselves of their husbands of convenience.

The Borgias perfected the art of poisoning during the Middle Ages. Pope Alexander VI and his son Cesare easily rid themselves of interfering bishops and cardinals. Cesare’s half sister Lucretia is often thought to have mastered the art of poison, but many experts think her an innocent. Following the inevitable death of their victims, the Borgias profited by the law of the church, which reverted the victim’s property to the church (i.e., the pope).

The Borgias knew great wealth from their acquisitions, from Cesare’s position as a captain-general in the papal army, and from Lucretia’s three successful marriages for money and station. Ironically, the Pope and Cesare partook of some poisoned wine by accident. The Pope died. It is said that Cesare invoked the ancient superstition of encasing himself in an animal’s carcass. He had a mule slaughtered and wrapped himself in the animal skin. Surprisingly, the remedy worked. Cesare lived.

In 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte passed after suffering many of the symptoms of arsenic poisoning. Modern toxicology has never proven this rumor, but it persists. Trace amounts of arsenic were found in Bonaparte’s hair, but those amounts were in line with what could have been readily absorbed into the body. The official cause of death was stomach cancer.

Claire Booth Luce became a victim of arsenic poisoning when she was the U.S. Ambassador to Italy. Believe it or not, the arsenic-based paint from the ceiling of the embassy easily fell into the food. Luce resigned her position.

Carl Scheele developed “Paris Green,” an arsenic compound in 1775. It was used as a pigment in paints, wallpaper, and fabrics. Although thousands of people reportedly took ill from exposure to the compound, it was the end of the 1800s before Paris Green was recognized as a health hazard.

In the 1830s, a British chemist named James Marsh became the first to use arsenic detection in a jury trial. Marsh had developed a method for determining the level of arsenic in foods and beverages. Arsenic lingers in the urine, nails, and hair of the victim. Arsenic was an ingredient in Victorian fly papers. A deadly liquid was created when the paper was soaked in water. The liquid could then be used to cook food or mix with drinks. Arsenic is sometimes called “inheritance powder” due to its ready availability.

Arsenic is a favorite means to an end, especially in the hands of mystery writers. As late as the 1940s, arsenic was given to syphilis patients, as well as to those who suffered from yaws and leprosy. Today, it is used to remove color from glass, to promote growth in livestock, to preserve animals in taxidermy, and to create a metal alloy.