Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Collision of English History with Medieval Muslim Spain

by John D. Cressler

Imagine a time when Muslims, Jews, and Christians found a way to live together in peace. Sound unbelievable? It is historical fact. Convivencia (coexistence of religions) is a largely forgotten triumph of al-Andalus (a catch-all word for the lands of medieval Muslim Spain). Peaceful coexistence between Muslims, Christians and Jews occurred in al-Andalus for nearly 300 years beginning in the 10th century. During the Castilian Civil War (1367-1369), Muslims even took up their swords and fought alongside Christians.

By the 13th century, the Christian kingdoms are mid-stream in their attempted reconquista (reconquest) of al-Andalus, having conquered Córdoba in 1236, Valencia in 1238, Murcia in 1243, and Sevilla in 1248, slowly but surely pushing the Moors into the Mediterranean Sea. (The Muslims of Spain, regardless of ancestry, are known collectively to Europeans by the term “Moors”.) The Kingdom of Granada is the final holdout of al-Andalus, a mere one-hundred mile wide swath of land at the extreme southeastern tip of Spain, stretching from the coast north of Mojácar, through Málaga, to Gibraltar.

Under the moderate Arab Nasrid clan, who rule from Alhambra Palace, the kingdom prospers, and by the 1360s Granada, under Sultan Muhammad V, remains a stubborn bulwark against Christian reconquista. Improbably, Granada is allied with the Muslim Marinid Empire of North Africa and is also a tribute-paying vassal state to the Christian Kingdom of Castile, ruled by King Pedro from Sevilla.

Tensions that have smoldered for decades between Castile and her Christian neighbors finally boil over. Pedro’s illegitimate brother, Enrique of Trastámara, is championed by the king of Aragon, who lusts after a unified Spain under Aragonese rule. Enrique is supported by King Charles V of France and even the Pope himself, who is presently in Avignon, itching to help cleanse Spain of infidel Moors. Enrique brashly declares himself the “true” king of Castile in 1366. The Castilian Civil War becomes a death match between Pedro and Enrique, brother against brother.

Enrique assembles a large army consisting of Aragonese, French, and Breton troops, supplemented by a diverse collection of mercenaries, and invades northern Castile from Zaragoza, the capital of Aragon, forcing the unprepared Pedro to abdicate the Castillian throne without a major fight.

Pedro gathers his meagerly funded troops and retreats from Sevilla to Galicia, in northwestern Spain, where he begins frantic preparations for war. Meanwhile, England’s Sir Edward of Woodstock (Edward the Black Prince), in an attempt to head-off France’s thinly-veiled ambitions in Spain, as well as attempt his own land-grab, weighs in behind Pedro, and the Hundred Years’ War creeps south into Iberia. Sultan Muhammad of Granada, as vassal to Castile, walks a thin line between the warring brothers, but in the end, agrees to send 600 of his best cavalry to support Pedro.

Pedro’s ragtag army of 28,000 English, Castilian, Gascon, Aquitainian, Majorcan, and Muslim troops clash decisively with Enrique’s superior army of 60,000 at Nájera, in the Rioja region of northern Spain, on a fine spring day, the 3rd of April, 1367.

Among Enrique’s officers is Sir William Chandon. A strapping twenty-five year old, Chandon brilliantly leads the forces of Jean de Monfort from Brittany to victory over the House of Blois at the Battle of Auray in France in 1364, winning the Breton War of Succession, a linchpin in the Hundred Years’ War. As a reward for his valor at Auray, Monfort appoints Chandon Viscount of Saint-Sauveur in the Cotentin, Brittany, where he settles, a suddenly-landed, wealthy English knight living now as a Breton on French soil. At the request of the King of France, Chandon’s cavalry rides with Enrique.

The famous English longbow makes its first appearance in Spain at Nájera. Edward the Black Prince’s twelve thousand English longbowmen first overwhelm the French archers then train their arrows on Enrique’s cavalry, to devastating effect. Enrique’s Aragonese and French cavalry units panic and turn tail, leaving his flank and rear dangerously exposed. Edward the Black Prince strikes like a hammer.

Enrique’s force of 60,000 is quickly routed, with losses of 7,000 dead to Pedro’s 200. Enrique and his whipped forces limp back to Zaragoza to lick their wounds and regroup for round two of the fight. Pedro settles back into his palace in Sevilla, supremely confident.

Eight days later, on 11 April 1367, a Moor courier in transit from Granada to Sevilla is intercepted in Carmona and his throat slit. In his satchel is an official communiqué from Sultan Muhammad to King Pedro, declaring that Granada, empowered by Pedro’s decisive victory at Nájera, will seize the opportunity to strike north through Jaén and invade the former Castilian border lands presently occupied by Aragon.

Made aware three days later of this bold and unexpected move by the Moors, Enrique, fearing a two-front war, summons Chandon and sends his elite Breton cavalry south to bolster the garrison of Castillo de Santa Catalina in Jaén, only forty miles north of Granada. Enrique’s instructions to Chandon are simple - send an emphatic message that Aragon is off limits to Moor meddling.

My novel, an interfaith love story entitled Emeralds of the Alhambra, begins here with the Breton-Moor battle for Jaén.

John D. Cressler is giving away a signed paperback copy of the book in a drawing HERE.

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Dr. John D. Cressler spent 8 years at IBM Research and 10 years at Auburn University before joining Georgia Tech in 2002. Emeralds of the Alhambra is the TED talk presenter’s debut novel. Connect with John on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, and GoodReads.

Giveaway: Emeralds of the Alhambra by John D. Cressler

John Cressler is giving away a signed paperback copy within the US of his debut novel, Emeralds of the Alhambra. You can read about the book HERE. You will be prompted to return to this page to enter the drawing with a comment below. Please be sure to leave your contact information.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Anecdotes II

by David William Wilkin

A mother, I have always understood to love their child, faults and all.

Victoria said of her eldest son, later Edward VII, "Handsome I cannot think him," she sniffed, "with that painfully small and narrow head, those immense features and total want of chin." And we would think that Victoria's education included the knowledge of genetics, or breeding so she had to know that she was half responsible for Edward's looks.

All to do with them if you think that she had a great deal to say about choosing Albert as Edward's father.

Victoria did admit, "He is my caricature."

Edward VII


When Edward as prince (he was prince for a very long time, like Charles has been prince for a very long time at present) was in Paris, Count Deym told his neighbours that the Prince was much too familiar in Paris with La Goulue, a famous dancer at the Moulin Rouge, and that on a recent occasion, when La Goulue had greeted his appearance with a ringing shout of 'Ullo Wales!', he had merely chuckled and ordered that all the dancers and members of the orchestra should be supplied immediately with champagne.

La Goulue


The Boer War (2nd war of 1899-1902) caused a great deal of European animosity against Britain. On April 4th 1900, at Gare du Nord, Brussels at 5:30 in the afternoon, Jean Baptiste Sipido, a Belgian youth aged 15 jumped on the footboard of the royal carriage as it steamed out of the station and fired several shots through the open window of the Prince's compartment. One bullet lodged in the back of the seat between Edward and Alix (his wife, The Princess of Wales). The occupants of the carriage remained imperturbably calm, except for Alix's lap dog, which shivered with fright. Edward described his would be assassin as 'un pauvre fou,' and observed how fortunate it was that anarchists were such poor shots: it was almost inconceivable to miss at a range of six feet.

Friday, June 28, 2013

The Board of Longitude: What does spaceflight have to do with a watchmaker, James Bond, and a deadly shipwreck?

by J.A. Beard

In 2004, space travel enthusiasts cheered the awarding of the Ansari X Prize for sub-orbital flight. For those unfamiliar, the prize was awarded for a demonstration by a private entity of launching a reusable manned spacecraft into near-outer space twice within two weeks (100 kilometers). The prize itself was worth ten million dollars, but the winners of the prize, and for that matter most of the people attempting to earn the prize ended up putting considerably more money into earning the prize for various reasons (seeking glory, seeking the attention winning the product would grant for business ventures).

The X Prize Foundation itself, which has several prizes dedicated toward impressive achievements, is simply interested in stirring innovation in particular areas that might aid humanity in general.

This is of course not a new idea. Even the Ansari X Prize itself had the goal of helping promote efforts in space by entities other than government agencies. The idea being that such efforts would lead to an expansion of private efforts into the last frontier, something that is needed given the stagnation of government programs.

That particular prize was inspired by certain aviation prizes in the 20th century, but the idea of offering a prize to encourage people to develop technologies that would aid in travel also made an appearance in Georgian England, though in this case, it was driven by a government prize.

Now, of course, back in Georgian England, space travel and even aerial travel weren’t particularly areas that people were worried about trying to crack. They had a more fundamental problem they were attempting to solve for sea-going vessels: knowing your longitude.

Of course, today, we have satellite GPS systems to deliver latitude and longitude with extreme precision. In the 18th century, even with centuries of maritime tradition, navigation was a far trickier affair.

Latitude, at that point, wasn’t a major issue for experienced sailors as both charts and tools were available that could give fairly decent latitude readings. Without going into detail, the ability to see either the Sun at noon during the day or Polaris (the North Star) at night in general allows a determination of latitude at sea.

Determining longitude can theoretically make use of similar tools as used for latitude (which are various devices, really, just to determine the angle between the horizon and Sun or stars), however, due to the geographical (and for that matter geometric) nature of longitude, accurate determination of longitude also requires another piece of information: time.

Time has a strong relationship to longitude because the Earth rotates at fifteen longitude degrees per hour. Accordingly, if a sailor knew the time at a fixed reference location and then knew the local time, they could, through the wonders of math (or at least the wonders of a chart) figure out their longitude.

Finding out the local time wasn’t typically a major problem at the time, but the fly in the ointment in the aforementioned system is knowing the time, accurately, at the used fixed reference location. Note this isn’t just a matter of having a chronometer, but one that’s extremely accurate, as a single degree of longitude could be a fairly decent distance in terms of kilometers (the actual distance varied relative to the distance to the poles).

Prior attempts to solve the longitude problem involved some very bright minds, including Galileo and Edmond Halley, examining the issue with a particular focus on celestial bodies. Improved sextants and the development of a method using the moon, the so-called lunar distance method had some utility in the mid-18th century, but at the beginning of the 18th century, the longitude problem remained a critical issue, and even the later lunar distance method still had some accuracy issues.

One of the main practical methods of longitude calculation actually used at the time was dead reckoning, which involved making estimates based off course and speed in relation to a known starting point. This method is subject to severe cumulative error, and that is assuming that the navigators are keeping good records.

In addition, a lack of accurate knowledge of longitude could cause navigators to lean more on their knowledge of latitude. For example, they might establish travel until they were at the known latitude of their destination and then just sail directly toward it by maintaining latitude. This might, in many circumstances, mean they were not traveling the most direct route.

Now, one might ask, “What’s the big deal? So they didn’t have the most accurate navigation in the world. They got around, right? Heck, they got across the ocean to the New World.”

First of all, for those not traveling the most direct route, this meant more time on the ship. If they were in the middle of the ocean, this meant issues with supplies.

Second, incorrect navigation away from the coast could be downright dangerous. This was spectacularly demonstrated in 1707 when a fleet commanded by Sir Cloudesley Shovell attempted to return from a failed naval campaign in Gibraltar.

From September to October, the fleet traveled without serious incident. Bad weather had slowly put them off course. This all came to head on October 22. The fleet, at the time, thought they were much farther west than they actually were, and, as a consequence, were not aware they were sailing right into the Isles of Scilly off the Cornish Peninsula.

By the time they realized their mistake, it was too late. The fleet struck ground. Four ships were lost and at least 1400 sailors died.

While this was not the only such disaster, it was a particularly high-profile one. Something had to be done to save the lives of English sailors. In 1714, the Longitude Act was passed, and the Board of Longitude was established. The Board offered prizes for men who could solve the longitude problem.

There were three main longitude prizes: 10,000 pounds for a method that could accurately determine longitude within sixty nautical miles, 15,000 pounds for a method for within forty nautical miles, and 20,000 pounds for a determination within thirty nautical miles.

Although it is difficult to completely accurately determine the relative inflation between 1714 and now, that still puts the rough value of the prizes in the neighborhood of tens of millions of modern pounds. So, in other words, the Board of Longitude was throwing around just as much money, in equivalent terms, as the Ansari X Prize.

Although many brilliant men tackled the problem, an autodidact carpenter and clockmaker is the man who ultimately solved the issue in a lasting and accurate way. He spent decades of his life attempting to construct accurate clocks that would allow for accurate time-keeping on the ship and keep track of the time from the reference point. Ultimately, he designed a series of large watch maritime chronometers for the purpose.

Despite the accuracy of Harrison’s later devices, the Board of Longitude claimed, basically, that he’d gotten lucky. Now, there are many possible reasons for that, but two major reasons commonly cited by historians include the presence of a professional rival on the Board of Longitude at the time of certain critical tests and an academic preference for non-chronometer-based methods, as certain alternate methods, such as the lunar distance method, were viewed by the scientific establishment as being more reflective of science. There’s also some suggestion that the Board may have been biased against Harrison because of his relatively humble background.

Eventually, nearing the end of his life and finding the Board intransigent, Harrison managed to appeal to King George III, who tested Harrison’s most advanced watch himself in 1772 (though at the palace, not on a ship). With the king vouching for the accuracy of his devices, Parliament begrudgingly was forced to award some money to Harrison, though he was never officially awarded the Longitude Prize, even though he obtained about the same amount of money overall through various payments from Parliament. He didn’t have long to enjoy it, as he died in 1776, though his family at least benefited.

As they never officially granted the prize, the Board of Longitude had no reason to close up shop, but they would officially be disbanded by Parliament in 1828.

I should briefly note that other countries also established similar sorts of longitude prizes and navigation awards. This was one of the foremost scientific and maritime issues of the 17th and 18th centuries.

As mentioned above, the lunar distance method had gained some popularity in the middle of the 18th-century and traction over marine chronometers because it was cheaper, but ultimately Harrison’s chronometers (and later marine chronometers) were more accurate, and so in the 19th century, chronometers came to dominate.

Even modern GPS is, ultimately, a time-based technology, as demonstrated, interestingly enough, in the James Bond movie Tomorrow Never Dies, where a disruption in a satellite chronometer is used by a villain to disastrous navigational effect against a Royal Navy frigate. So, Harrison definitely got the last laugh in the long run as no supervillains have made use of the lunar distance method for their plots yet.

J.A. Beard is a scientific editor and the author of A Woman of Proper Accomplishments, which is a Regency paranormal romance about a bunch of landlubbers from Bedfordshire, so no longitude calculations are involved.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Chawton today ~ a Walk in Jane Austen's village

by M.M. Bennetts

Walking up to the 'Big House'
Although she didn't settle in the village of Chawton in Hampshire until 7 July 1809, it's now one of the places we most associate with Jane Austen.

It's there that the cottage she lived in with her mother and sister Cassandra is found, and can be visited...and it's there that she wrote and rewrote during the most productive years of her short life.

As probably everyone knows, the Austen family had been living mostly in Bath and roundabout for a number of years, since 1800--though Jane, rather like her heroine Anne Eliot of Persuasion, did not like it there. Thus when her brother Edward offered the family the use of the small 17th century cottage in Chawton that was his as owner of the 'big house' in the village, Chawton House, it was a welcome change.
Chawton House, owned by Austen's brother Edward
Between moving to the cottage in Chawton in 1809 and her death in July 1817, Austen wrote or revised the novels which would change the face of fiction forever.

Though Austen's niece described the family's life there thusly, "It was a very quiet life, according to our ideas, but they were great readers, and besides the housekeeping our aunts occupied themselves in working with the poor and in teaching some girl or boy to read or write..." I think it's fair to say that while Austen's life may have appeared quiet, her imagination and her pen were busier than ever.

Starting with the publication of Sense and Sensibility in October 1811, she went on to publish Pride and Prejudice in January 1813, which was followed by Mansfield Park in May 1814, Emma in December 1815.  (Northanger Abbey and Persuasion were published posthumously in December 1817...)

It's been 200 years since Austen published Pride and Prejudice from that most modest address and to celebrate, earlier this month, the village of Chawton opened their gardens to visitors, and Chawton House besides opening their gardens, also brought the a company of Regency dancers to perform in the grounds as well as to teach some of the dances to visitors.

Into the church yard

Over the past few years, a great deal of work has been done on the Chawton property to open more of it to the public and to provide an education centre as well.  

Among other things, the garden has been carefully planted with flowers and shrubs that were available at the time of Austen's living there, rather than with modern cultivars and the effect is wondrous.  

Austen's garden
The church 

Walking the still-quiet lanes, peering into the beautifully kept gardens, observing the dancing at the big house, all of this is part of the life that Austen would have known when she resided many of the cottages might easily have belonged to Miss Bates or housed the school where Miss Smith had grown up, don't you think?

The view from Austen's front door

Austen's garden

So please, take a moment to walk with her and see what she might have seen, to hear the distant bleating of lambs, and smell the scents of roses, pinks and rich earth as she did in those heady weeks after the publication of her most famous novel, when she had no idea how famous she would become, nor how many of us would make the pilgrimage to this tiny village in northeast Hampshire.

For a virtual tour of Austen's Chawton home/museum today, please click here. 

M.M. Bennetts is a specialist in early 19th century British and European history and the Napoleonic wars and is the author of two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame set during the period.  A third novel, Or Fear of Peace, is due out in 2014.

For further information, please visit the website and historical blog at

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Lonely Lives and Deaths – French Napoleonic Prisoners of War in Britain

by Antoine Vanner

Though the focus of my own writing – as in my novel Britannia’s Wolf – is on the mid-Victorian period, I retain a lively interest in the Napoleonic era. I have always found the plight of prisoners of war of this time as particularly poignant.

Over 100,000 of them were brought to Britain during the wars with France that raged from 1793 to 1815, with only a one-year break in 1802/03. Enlisted soldiers and seamen had the worst of it with many being confined in horrific conditions on moored hulks. The luckier ones were housed in the specially built prison on Dartmoor, to which many American prisoners were also sent from 1812 to 1815.

Officers were however given the opportunity to give their parole – their word of honour, in writing, not to escape – and to live relatively normal lives in lodgings in a few specified British towns. The French established a similar regime for British officer prisoners at Verdun in Eastern France.

Unlike in earlier wars between Britain and France, only limited exchanges of prisoners took place in the Napoleonic period and those unfortunate enough to be captured early in the wars faced long periods in detention. In the case of seamen, removal of skilled men from active service was of particular benefit to the captor. This reflected the fact that, given the technology of the time, an effective soldier could be trained in a matter of weeks whereas mastery of nautical skills demanded years of experience.

For French and British officer prisoners – and for the large number of wealthy British civilian tourists whom the French somewhat unsportingly interned in 1803 – life was as close to normal as was possible in the circumstances. Social relations seem to have been relaxed – and even warm, as discussed later in this article.

Once the initial fervour of Revolution had died down and social stability had been restored by Napoleon, ideological differences as we understand them today were almost non-existent. The concept of “a gentleman” transcended national boundaries and apart from the painful necessity of fighting each other occasionally, personal animosity seems to have been remarkably low between the British and the French at all levels of society. This may have been due to the facts that Britain’s civilian population was never exposed to French foraging and that when Britain did invade France, in 1814, Wellington ensured that French civilians were spared the sort of rapine that had disgraced British victories in Spain at Badajoz and San Sebastian.

The most notable French prisoner in Britain was Napoleon’s brother, Lucien, who had fallen out with the Emperor in 1809 and who attempted to flee from Italy to the United States. He was captured by the Royal Navy and brought to Britain – where on landing he was apparently cheered by a crowd that approved his part in the family quarrel. Placed under liberally-interpreted “house arrest”, Lucien was permitted by the British Government to purchase a large country house at Thorngrove in Worcestershire and to establish himself as a member of local society. His son, also Lucien and later a distinguished philologist, was born there and two of his daughters would later marry into the British aristocracy.

Large numbers of less highly connected officers also spent long periods in Britain. On arrival in Britain an officer prisoner was the responsibility of the Admiralty’s Transport Board. Once he had signed a parole document he was provided with a copy of its terms in French and English. It also carried a physical description of him, so that it served as an identity card which he was thereafter required to carry.

Formalities complete, the prisoner was assigned to a “parole town”. One such was the Alresford, one of no less than eleven such towns in Hampshire and one which still contains sad memorials to these men. The Transport Board had an agent in each town – in Alresford’s case a solicitor called John Dunn – who arranged for billeting the prisoner on a suitable local family.

Each prisoner was required to report to the agent twice a week, an obligation made less onerous by being also the occasion for drawing one shilling and sixpence a day for subsistence. The agent heard and resolved complaints, supervised conduct, and submitted reports and accounts to the Transport Board, which hoped to recover costs from the French Government at the end of hostilities. Should a prisoner die then the agent arranged the funeral, sold his possessions, and as far as circumstances allowed transmitted the proceeds to his family. Some prisoners had their wives living with them, possibly captured at sea and choosing to stay with their spouses in captivity.

In Alresford prisoners were free to walk up to one mile along the turnpike road – now the A31 highway – which led eastwards towards Guildford, 30 miles away, and westwards to Winchester, 8 miles distant. The prisoners were not permitted to leave the highway or cross fields and it is not clear if they were allowed to walk on lesser roads leading from the town. Any such prohibition would have been very painful since Alresford is set in one of the most beautiful rural landscapes in Britain and strolling in it would have been some solace to the prisoner.

The village of Chawton, home of Jane Austen, lies a mere 9 miles to the east and she would have used the turnpike on her frequent visits to Winchester. As she passed through Alresford, Jane would almost certainly have seen French prisoners. She would perhaps have felt a chill at the realisation that her two brothers in the Royal Navy might someday endure a similar fate in France. Though she makes a naval officer the hero of “Persuasion”, and as her cousin Eliza’s French husband had been guillotined during the Terror, it is perhaps regrettable that she did not work in a French prisoner as a character.

The Transport Board’s daily allowance seems to have been on the meagre side and many of the prisoners supplemented their incomes by giving lessons in French, fencing or drawing. Others seem to have made for sale tobacco boxes, sets of dominoes and bobbins used in making lace. Some may have built model ships of the type made from bone and rigged with human hair which are associated with French prisoners – one occasionally appears at auction houses. Whether to supplement their diet, or to satisfy French gastronomic taste, prisoners were frequently seen gathering snails, much to the amazement of the locals.

The most notable reminder of the prisoners in modern Alresford is to be found in the graveyard of the ancient church of St. John the Baptist. Here one can find headstones which commemorate four prisoners, and the wife of another, who lie buried here. A small plaque alludes to deaths brought on by tropical diseases carried back from the West Indies. Though brief, the inscription on each stone tells a tale of tragedy:

· Pierre Garnier – Sub-Lieutenant of the French 66th Regiment of Foot, died on 31st July 1811 at the age of 36. I have been unable to locate a book written about him by Audrey Deacon, entitled The Prisoner from Perrecy (1988) but his details appear to be that he had served since 1796 and sailed to Guadeloupe in 1810, being captured that year in the British attack that eliminated this last French base in the Caribbean. Garnier arrived in Alresford in June 1811, but already appeared to be ill, possibly due to a fever brought from West Indies. Before dying he prepared a claim for arrears of half-pay to which he was entitled as a prisoner but the claim was not settled (on behalf of his heirs) until six years after the end of the war.

· Jean de Lhuille – Lieutenant of Artillery, died August 6th 1812 at the age of 51. He was the oldest commemorated with a headstone and considering his junior rank one wonders what his story might have been. Was he a promoted ranker? Was he perhaps a civilian but enrolled in some part-time militia on Guadeloupe and captured at the same time as Pierre Garnier?

· Joseph Hypolite Riqueffe – Naval Ensign, died December 12th 1810, aged 28. It is interesting that his affiliation is given as the “Imperial and Royal” French Navy and not the “Imperial” alone. He was “regretted by his comrades and all who knew him” and one suspects that the latter category was not confined to Frenchmen.

· Mr.C. Lavau – Merchant Navy officer, died December 23rd 1811 at the age of 29. Given that much of Britain’s naval war against Napoleon was a war against commerce, and conducted with higher standards of humanity than the U-Boat wars of the 20th Century, there is a good chance that he might have been captured at sea.

· Madame Marie Louise Fournier – wife of Captain F. Berlet of the French Artillery, died 11th April 1812 aged 44. This is the saddest of the gravestones and one wonders how she had come to be in Alresford. Had she perhaps been captured with her husband, perhaps in Guadeloupe, and had she volunteered to stay with him? Had he perhaps been wounded and needing nursing? Or had she offered to come to Britain to stay with him after he had been captured somewhere else?

Yet in parallel with these tragedies life went on as pleasantly as it could and relations between British hosts and reluctant French guests seem to have been generally cordial. French prisoners seem to have participated in social gatherings and one such was to be at The Swan Inn (still in business and proud of having hosted Oliver Cromwell) in 1810 when the agent, John Dunn, and other Alresford notables were invited to attend an Anglo-French assembly to celebrate Napoleon’s marriage to Marie-Louise of Austria. Somebody must have tipped off the Admiralty’s Transport Board, which then prohibited the celebration as being unpatriotic.

It is also notable that the tradition of prisoner of war theatricals, which was so much a feature of WW2 camps, especially British ones, seems to have been well established in Alresford. On one occasion some spoilsport at the Transport Board got wind of the fact that French officers had formed a theatre and warned John Dunn that if it continued the prisoners would be moved elsewhere. One hopes that this warning was treated with the contempt it deserved!

Other than Conan Doyle’s Brigadier Gerard’s brief captivity in Britain, I know of only one notable work of fiction which builds on social relations between the British and their French prisoners. This is a tragic short story by Rudyard Kipling in his Rewards and Fairies and it centres on a girl who, unknown to herself, is dying of consumption. Her father has become friendly with a French prisoner, a doctor, René Laennec, who is on the process of inventing the stethoscope. Another friend is Arthur Wellesley, later Duke of Wellington, who is just back from India. The climax of the story is an unbearably poignant account of a dinner at which all three men realise that the girl is dying, but she does not know it herself. Wellesley, who himself was partly educated in France, would have had no hesitation to be on friendly terms with a cultivated Frenchman, prisoner or not. I’d like to think that social interactions of this type were not uncommon – and there’s scope here for many a convincing fictional plot!

In preparing the above article I have been heavily indebted to the “About Alresford” website and to an article on it by Peter Hoggarth, dating from 1991, on the French prisoners. The photographs have been taken by myself.


Antoine Vanner had had an adventurous and rewarding life, living and working long-term in eight countries and doing short-term assignments in many more. He is fascinated by history, especially of the nineteenth century, and this provides the foundation for his Dawlish Chronicles novels, the first of which, Britannia's Wolf was published early in 2013 and the second of which is due towards the year's end. He maintains a very extensive website:

Amazon US
Amazon UK

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Strike a light!

By Mike Rendell

                  Fairfax snuff box 1 001

Does your Regency hero pose nonchalantly by the window, pull out a cheroot, and light it with a match struck against the rough stone surface of the mullion window through which he gazes at his beloved? If so, you may have to re-think the scene, because striking a match was not known until a British invention in the 1827.

Up until then your hero would have taken a taper from a lit fire, or, if no fire burned in the grate, would have had to resort to using a tinderbox. And that meant several minutes of messing around getting very frustrated and probably grazing his gorgeous knuckles...

My family still have a couple of tinderboxes belonging to my Georgian ancestors. One of my forebears was called Richard Fairfax, and his box is shown above. It is dated 1812 and I suspect was one of many thousands of steel, hinged, tinderboxes churned out by metal workers in Birmingham in the reign of George III. They are usually around five inches long and just under an inch deep.

It made me think - how were the tinderboxes used, and when did congreves/vestas/lucifers/ matches come into vogue?


The tinderbox usually  contained at least three items - a flint, a firesteel  (like the one above) and a piece of tinder (typically charcloth). It might also contain  "matchsticks," made of deal dipped in  brimstone, which would be lit from the charcloth, and  a damper (to extinguish the charcloth after it had been used).

The charcloth was made by scorching a piece of material so that it was easy to ignite. An old piece of linen would be held by tongs close to the flames until it blackened. It would then be allowed to burn for a fraction of time before being extinguished, and popped into the box for future use. If charred cloth was not available then straw might be used or even, or if you were French, a thin slice of a mushroom known as 'amadou' dipped in saltpetre. In England it was known as "horse’s hoof fungus"  because of its shape.

On 'A Woodsrunner's Diary' site here I came across this interesting diagram showing how the firesteel was held, rather like a knuckle-duster:

The handle in the centre was attached to the damper. To use the tinderbox the damper was removed, and repeated downward strikes of the firesteel against the flint would send a shower of sparks down on to the charcloth. After two or three minutes, with many attempts and often with knuckles knocked red-raw from being caught on the flint , the cloth would smoulder, and be blown gently into life; the flame would be transferred to the matchstick (known as a 'punk' or sometimes a 'spunk) which would then flare into life; from there the flame could be transferred either to a candle, or to the hearth to light the kindling wood. Voila!

The Woodsrunner site also shows the inside of a tinderbox of a very similar size and shape to my family one shown earlier:


The tinderbox had been in use for hundreds of years with very few modification. When my ancestor bought his in 1812 he would have little thought that it would become obsolete within a matter of only a few years. 

In  1827 a Stockton on Tees chemist called John Walker began experimenting with chemicals which would burst into flames. According to Wikipedia he came up with the idea of "wooden splints or sticks of cardboard coated with sulphur  and tipped with a mixture of sulphide of antimony, chlorate of potash and gum, the sulphur serving to communicate the flame to the wood." At first Walker simply called them 'friction lights'. He declined to apply for a patent, and his involvement in the development of the friction match only really became apparent after his death in 1859.

His price for a box of 50 matches was a shilling, and each box came with a piece of sandpaper, folded double, through which the match had to be drawn to ignite it. Walker named the matches Congreves in honour of the inventor and rocket pioneer Sir William Congreve. This image, courtesy of Diomedia, appears ©of the Science Museum:

Congreve matches courtesy of diomedia (© Science Museum).

Despite selling his  first Congreves in April 1827, credit for the invention was claimed by Samuel Jones, a Londoner who copied Walker's ideas to the letter and who launched his own Lucifers in 1829. Others came up with their own ingredients for "safety" friction matches, and suddenly fire was portable, instant and safe. All those tinderboxes became museum objects almost overnight...

Mike Rendell is the author of the Journal of a Georgian Gentleman  and of a book on Bristol Blue Glass. He lectures on all-things-Georgian as well as operating a blog on life in the Eighteenth Century here.

Monday, June 24, 2013

"...doth voluntarily put himself a servant" - indentured labour in the colonies

by Anna Belfrage

Cpt Phillips in Sydney - well before the deportees arrived...
Very many years ago, I watched a TV series called Against the Wind which described the deportation of Irish women to Australia. (It also had Jon English singing Six Ribbons, and being young and romantic I developed a major crush, but that is neither here nor there.) Most of these women were sent off from their homes and families for petty crimes such as stealing food, and once they arrived in Australia they were sold off as unpaid servants for periods between four to seven years. It goes without saying that they never made it back to Ireland - apart from the expense, they were forbidden to return by law, the authorities having a vested interest in ensuring they remained in their new homeland.

Most of the former British colonies have been populated in similar ways, with the labour required to build a prosperous community being supplied through a system called indentured labour. Not quite the same as the deportation described in the TV series I mentioned above, but the end result was the same: labourers marooned in the colonies with no possibility of ever going back home.

Indenture is a type of contract whereby one person voluntarily becomes the servant of someone else. Usually the contract specifies the length of contract and the pay - but for most of the indentured servants that went out into the world there was no pay. Instead, they had to work off the debt they'd accumulated by having their new master pay for the sea-crossing to, for example, Maryland or Virginia.

Virginia was presented as a land of bounty. open your mouth and birds flew straight in...Not really!
For people wanting a new life far from home despite being destitute, becoming an indentured servant was an option. Younger sons, childless widows, orphaned children - they could all achieve a new start in a new, faraway place by working as unpaid labour for some years. But it was a harsh life they were signing up for...

A truer depiction of life as an indenture
Due to a severe lack of labour in the colonies, rules were set in place whereby landowners were encouraged to bring over servants at their own expense. For every servant landed, the landowner would receive up to 50 acres in compensation. the problem with this little set up was that the need for indentured labour exceeded the supply - most people were reluctant to cross the sea to an unknown wilderness from which they might never return.

We all know that if the mountain won't come to Mohammed, then Mohammed must go to the mountain, right? If people didn't queue up for the fantastic opportunity of expanding their horizons at no cost but their hard toil, maybe some light coercion would help, and what better way to achieve this than by snatching unsuspecting - often illiterate - people off the street and have them set their mark on a document they didn't understand. Quite a number of people were carried overseas against their will, but once on the other side there was nothing they could do but submit to the inevitable and work off their years.

To further swell the ranks of available labour, the powers that were quickly caught on to the fact that deporting people (like the Irish women above) was an excellent way of delivering able-bodied workers to the struggling colonies while at the same time ridding the homeland of such undesirables as criminals and political or religious protesters. During the first eighty years or so of its existence, the Colony of Virginia would regularly receive complements of deported people, very many of whom were Scots who clung to the Scottish Kirk, refusing to kowtow to the Anglican faith.

Whether forced or voluntary, the life of an indentured servant was no walk in the park. For a woman, there was the constant risk of being raped - these were societies with a chronic shortage of women - and should she be so unlucky as to end up pregnant, her term of service would be extended for a further year. The men ended up in the fields, disposable beasts of burden that were worked until they dropped. Food was not exactly plentiful, the living conditions were primitive, and on top of all this there were unknown ailments and 'savages' living in the woods who would gladly dismember you should they get the chance. (Hmm. Preconceived notions about the original owners of the land were rife...)

A disobedient (or 'wilful') servant was punished - in some cases so severely as to permanently maim the servant. Trying to run away was a serious offence that could lead to a beating so brutal the person in question died. In the 17th century, on average, four out of ten indentured servants in Virginia died, many of them in the tobacco fields that consumed workers at a horrifying speed.

A romantic depiction of tobacco farming
Once the term of indenture had been completed, the master was under obligation to pay 'freedom dues' to his former servant. This could be anything from some acres of land, money, clothes, a musket or food. The ex-servant was then put out into the world to make his/her way in a colony where they were the lowest of the low. Initially, quite a few indentures overcame this handicap, acquiring land of their own and on rare occasions even rising to become a member of the local gentry. This upward mobility disappeared as the colonies' social hierarchies solidified and in the latter half of the 17th century the most a former indentured could hope for was to become a tenant farmer, unless he was willing to go inland, into unchartered lands further away from settled areas.

Many of them did. With nothing but the belongings they could carry, these intrepid men and women set off to carve themselves new existences, new lives, in territories that were at best describes as 'remote', at worst as 'savage'. Unfamiliar fauna, just as unfamiliar flora, endless wilderness that had to be tamed bit by bit, every square foot of tillable land coming at the expense of toil, more toil, even more toil. I can't help but raise my glass to these early explorers, toasting them for their courage and perseverance. I hope they lived long enough to see the fruits of their labour - sadly I think most of them died relatively young.


In my book Like Chaff in the Wind, Matthew Graham experiences first-hand what it is like to be an indentured servant. Abducted off the streets in Edinburgh and carried overseas, Matthew experiences the worst years of his life on the plantation Suffolk Rose. Like Chaff in the Wind is the second book in The Graham Saga, the first being A Rip in the Veil and the latest, just published, being The Prodigal Son. Set in 17th century Scotland (and the colonies), the books tell the story of Matthew and his wife, Alex, two people who should never have met - not when she was born three centuries after him. For more information about my books, visit

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Sunday, June 23, 2013

Medieval Games and Pastimes

by Octavia Randolph

An early Boogie-Woogie
Bugle Boy from Company B

ALL cultures, regardless of how arduous the times they live in, have some kind of sport, games, and pastimes to engage in during leisure hours, and thankfully children have always played. In Anglo-Saxon times (roughly 450 CE to 1100 CE) life was largely lived outdoors for most people, for the continuance of life was predicated on agricultural labour. The interiors of most buildings were dark, smoky, and often cramped, and many tasks whether for livelihood or leisure required the clear strong light of daylight.

Children played with many more natural objects than they do today; a later medieval sermon, which still holds true for the Anglo-Saxon era, mentions children playing

"with flowers...with sticks, and with small bits of wood, to build a chamber, buttery, and hall, to make a white horse of a wand, a sailing ship of broken bread, a burly spear from a ragwork stalk, and of a sedge a sword of war, a comely lady from cloth, and be right busy to deck it elegantly with flowers." (G.R. Owst, Literature and Pulpit in Medieval England, Oxford, 1961)

Grave finds from early heathen burials contain carved wooden toys such as horses and small wooden boats, tenderly laid to rest with their little owner. But childhood was short for the Anglo-Saxon girl or boy, and girls of five or six were already spending part of their day learning to spin wool, to card fleece, or help with the younger children in the family. Boys tended animals or helped in the fields. Boys also played with small spears and knives carved of wood, learning the arts of hunting and defense at a young age.

Miniature tools sized for a child's hand have been found, much like children's sized gardening implements today, but since a child would be more useful at an activity such as egg gathering or sheep tending perhaps such tools were meant as playthings rather than actual implements of labour for young hands. (Although no one pulls weeds better than an industrious six year old!)

Sometimes for adults work and play were mingled. In some villages plough races were held by the men on Plough Monday, the first Monday after Twelfth Night (Epiphany), the end of the Yuletide season.

Physical fitness was obviously of paramount importance to people of all classes - life was hard and demanding, and being physically able to cope with the realities of farming, tree-felling, and of course, battle, could mean the literal difference between life and death. Young men in particular held foot-races, participated in wrestling matches, and practiced the martial arts such as spear throwing, archery, and mock sword play. Those who were rich enough to own horses would have raced them to see whose was the fastest; the Old English epic Beowulf mentions young men doing just that:

"The warriors let their bay horses go/a contest for the best horse/galloping through whatever path looked fair."  (David Breeden translation)

Hunting was not purely sport, as it was relied upon to bring food to the table, but it could be very exciting and therefore enjoyable. Huge numbers of deer roamed the vast forests and marshes of Britain, and provided a good supply of game to those able to stalk and bring them down. Wolves too were hunted as a protection to the flocks of sheep on which so much depended. These intelligent predators nearly suffered the same fate as the bear, hunted to extinction on the island in the 10th century. Boar hunting was hunting of the most challenging kind, and many dogs, horses, and men were killed while trying to hunt this speedy, ferocious, and clever beast.

Not your average little piggy

Good hounds were cherished both as working animals and as companions, and the rich often times made gifts of such dogs. King Ælfred, greatest king of the Anglo-Saxon era and perhaps indeed of any other, sent a brace of fine hounds to the archbishop of Reims.

Nice doggie...nice doggie...down doggie!
Only the very richest lords kept falcons specially trained to bring down pigeons and starlings and the like. Riding out on horseback and releasing the falcon and watching it swoop down on its prey was a very aristocratic sport indeed. (Many of these falcons were from Viking traders who captured and trained them in Scandinavia, and then sold them to the rich in Britain, Northern Europe, and as far East as Arabia.)

Although most fish were captured in weirs set up in rivers, streams, and narrow ocean channels, line fishing was practiced, and was undoubtedly found to be as enjoyably frustrating as it is today.

The Anglo-Saxons had a great love of ornament on even everyday objects, and men and women spent long hours decorating the spines of wood, bone, and horn hair combs with drawings of animals, embellishing gowns and tunics with gaily coloured embroidery, and decorating leather goods by stamping them with metal dies and burning designs into the surface with heated pokers. The most utilitarian of items such as wooden buckets and dippers generally carried some decoration, even if only simple incised lines or dots around the perimeter. Many of these handcrafts would have been practiced out of doors to take advantage of the good light.

Darn,broke the teeth again....
Indoor pastimes included a variety of board games that used little clay and carved markers, and games using dice. Just as today almost everybody enjoyed such pastimes, and our modern word "game" comes from the Old English "gamen". Dice games were very popular (so popular that even clergy played them) and many die have been found. Betting played a large role in dice games, just as it does today.

The game of tæfl was played on a board using game pieces in opposition. The rules of early games probably varied quite a bit, but many of these games featured a piece which represented the "king" which needed to be protected by the other pieces.

Tæfl Board:Care to wager?
The stunning contents of a grave of an Anglo-Saxon prince or king (possibly of King Sabert who died in 616 CE) discovered near Southend in Essex in 2003 and known as the Prittlewell Find contained 57 gaming pieces carved of bone and two very large dice carved from antler. This shows us that games were important enough in the lives of the Anglo-Saxons that they accompanied their owners into the afterlife.

In the latter Anglo-Saxon period, from the 12th century onward, chess (a particular favourite of my own), originally created in India, was brought to Britain. With its war lords, warriors, and horsemen it echoed the battle-driven lives of the noblemen and women who played it. Two forms of chess were played, one quite similar to the challenging intellectual game we know today, and one simplified version which employed dice, and thus introduced an element of luck.

Storytelling, singing and dancing were also part of the long indoor Winter evenings.

Sutton Hoo Harp: Meant for an early Jimi Hendrix
Harps such as the beautiful one buried with the Sutton Hoo treasure (the burial goods of a great king from about 625 CE, now on display at the British Museum) were played by professional story tellers called scops, but small hide drums, wood pipes and whistles are easily made from everyday materials and were probably played by a wide variety of children and adults. Listening was an active art, and when the professional storyteller or scop began his tale, all turned attentively to him and listened raptly, picturing in their mind's eye the great heroes, battles, hunts, and religious episodes he sang of.

The love of word-play extended to riddles, and close to one hundred riddles of the Anglo-Saxon period have been recorded in The Exeter Book, a manuscript written about 975, and still kept at Exeter Cathedral Library. Here is one:

"A creature came slinking where men were sitting, many of them in council, men shrewd in mind. It had one eye and two ears and two feet, twelve hundred heads, a back and a belly and two hands, arms and shoulders, one neck and two sides. Say what I am called." (S.A.J. Bradley translation)

I wish I could Shimmy like my sister Kate...
Can you guess it? The answer is: A one eyed garlic seller.

There was also pleasure to be taken in the simple contemplation of unspoilt nature. A 14th century treatise on the duties and pleasures of a nobleman lists "Watching the snow fall" as an act worthy of his rank, and indeed during Winter when many agricultural duties were suspended and war rarely waged one can also imagine his earlier forbears doing the same.


Octavia Randolph is the author of The Circle of Ceridwen Trilogy.  Book One is FREE today at  Claim your copy! ( click here)

Young women with courage. Swords with names. Vikings with tattoos. Warfare. Passion. Survival. Sheep. And Other Good Things...

Saturday, June 22, 2013


by Grace Elliot

Here in the UK we’re having such a gloomy summer, so dull and grey, that we need the lights on during the day. But, electricity is a modern luxury which set me wondering about dreary days in Victorian or Georgian times and what the options were for light.

Viewing a sculpture by candlelight.

Burning the Candle at Both Ends
Rushlights were made from the stem of the rush plants, dried and stripped of green fibre, then soaked in any available fat. Cheap and easy to make, they were a popular lighting option for poor people. The rush stem was supported in a holder at a 45 degree angle to provide maximum light and burn time. An average rush light burnt for 10 – 15 minutes. If you wanted a brighter light (but with half the burn time) you lit the rushlight at either end, hence the expression ‘burning the candle at both ends’.

The Game’s Not Worth the Candle
Beeswax candles were expensive and used mainly by the wealthy. Indeed burning a candle was tantamount to burning money, and via the extravagant use of candles the rich advertised their wealth. In larger households, candle stubs could be a saleable commodity for the enterprising servant who collected them.
In Georgian times, people adapted to poor light – often learning to perform tasks without light. In Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell, one of the characters economises on candles in the winter by ‘knitting in the darkness by the fire.’
A chandelier such as this cost a small fortune to light
and was a visible sign of wealth.
In 1709 the government decided to cash in and tax candles. At the rate of four pence a pound, that candles were lit for guests despite the tax, was a great compliment to them. Such was the value of candles that when in 1731 Sir Robert Walpole entertained the Duke of Lorraine it was rumoured (with much amazement) that he burnt 180 candles, at a cost of over 15 GBP.
An Unpleasant Meaty Smell
If beeswax candles were outside the pocket of ordinary people, there was an alternative – the tallow candle. These were made from animal fat; the ideal blend was half sheep and half cow tallow – because hogs fat burnt with ‘an ill smell and a thick black smoke.’ Even so, the tallow candle smelt meaty, burnt with a sooty flame, and the wick needed trimming every few minutes.

Francois Argand - who invented the
lamp that bears his name.
A Lighting Revolution
The end of the 18th century saw an improvement in the design of oil lamps. Previous to this oil lamps burnt with a poor light and were prone to going out at regular intervals. A breakthrough came in 1783 when a Swiss chemist, Francois Argand, patented a new system with a circular cotton wick protected by a funnel and burnt viscous rape-seed oil.
An Argand table lamp
An Argand lamp gave out ten to twelve times the light of a single candle. This amazing increase in illumination was such that some contemporary observers attributed ‘women’s nervous disorders’ to the unnatural brightness. (In fact, green wallpaper containing arsenic was a more likely culprit.)
Argand lamps gave out enough light to sew by.
And finally, isn’t it strange how even though we have electricity, we favour the sense of intimacy that candles give? Did you know: last year more than 1 billion pounds of wax was used in the production of candles for sale in the US?
Grace Elliot leads a double life as a veterinarian by day and an author of historical romance by night. Grace is an avid reader and believes intelligent people need to read romance - as an antidote to the modern world. She works in a companion animal practice near London and is housekeeping staff to five demanding felines, two sons and a bearded dragon.
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New release- end of June!