Friday, November 29, 2013

The Stone of Destiny

by Marie Macpherson

Unless the fate shall faithless prove,
And prophets voice be vain;
Where’er this sacred Stone is found,
The Scottish race shall reign.

On St Andrews Day, 30 November 1996, 700 years after being stolen by King Edward I of England, the Stone of Destiny was brought back to Scotland with great pomp and ceremony.

But was it the real Stone of Scone, the ancient crowning stone of the Scots?

The origin of this sacred icon, fought over by the English and Scots, has been lost in the mists of time, and doubts about its authenticity have never been fully quashed. Legends about it abound and while giving a brief outline of its history, I take the liberty of weaving my own yarn into the story.

In 1296, having slashed and burned his way through Scotland, Edward Langshanks battered down the door of the Abbey of Scone and demanded that the Stone of Destiny be delivered up to him. For centuries, the Stone had been used as the seat of coronation for Scottish monarchs, and taking possession of this potent symbol of independence would send a powerful message to the rebellious Scots: that the English king, the Hammer of the Scots, was Lord Paramount of Scotland.

As he paced up and down waiting for the fabled stone to be delivered up, what was Edward expecting? Was it indeed Jacob’s Pillow, on which the biblical patriarch rested his head as he dreamt of angels ascending a ladder to heaven? Said to be the fragment of a falling star, this mythical stone would be made of black basalt or some mysterious, supernatural substance.

When the Temple of Jerusalem was looted Jacob’s Pillow was spirited away to Egypt where it became known as the Pharaoh’s Stone. What if this sacred relic coveted by the acquisitive Egyptians were sculpted out of pure white marble and inlaid with precious stones? That would be a prize well worth seizing.

After eloping with a Celtic prince Princess Scota, the pharaoh’s daughter, took the Stone to Ireland. Some time in the 5th century the princess’s descendants, the Scotti, brought the stone to Dalriada (Argyll). Then, c. 850 A.D, Kenneth MacAlpin, conqueror of the Picts, was crowned King of Scots at Moot Hill near Scone in present-day Perthshire. Sometimes referred to as the Hill of Faith or Belief, the Hill was created by sand taken there in the boots of those lords who had sworn allegiance to the Scottish king.

But was it the Tanist stone, known in Gaelic as An Lia Fàil, one of the four great treasures used in the coronation of Irish kings? Blessed by St Patrick the holy relic had been carted off by St Columba to Iona as his altar. During the Viking raids the Stone was moved to Scone Abbey for safekeeping.

This mythical stone, no doubt decorated with elaborate Celtic knot-work and covered in intricate carvings, was reputed to have magical properties. An Lia Fàil, ‘the great stone of fate or destiny’, not only groaned aloud when the true king of Scots sat on it but had the power to rejuvenate those who were crowned upon it. Said to be round, hollowed, and partly shaped like a chair or throne, it matched the description of the stone given by Walter of Guisborough who had attended the coronation of John Baliol in 1292. Whatever its origins, whatever its form, Edward coveted this touchstone of Scottish nationhood.

And so when the monks deposited a chunk of coarse-grained red sandstone at his feet, the English king would have gaped in astonishment.

The legendary talisman looked no different from the building blocks of the abbey, quarried from the hills around Scone. Not by any stretch of the imagination did it resemble a throne or a chair or a royal seat: on the contrary, the lump of stone with iron rings at each end bore an uncanny resemblance to the cover of a cess-pit.

King Edward’s eyes narrowed in suspicion and he clenched his fists in anger.

‘But this is no more than a hunk of rock!’ he spluttered.

Were these Scots’ monks making a mockery of him? Had they hidden the real stone?

The Abbot of Scone stepped forward. ‘I well understand your doubts, Your Grace, but consider this.’

He held up a chalice and took out a communion wafer. ‘Behold, this wafer is no more than a plain sliver of bread until the holy sacrament of the Eucharist transmutes it into the body of Our Saviour, Jesus Christ. As a Christian, do you believe in this miracle, Your Grace?’

The king nodded.

‘In the same way,’ the abbot went on, ‘we believe that because this humble slab has been consecrated with holy water by saints and men of God, whoever is crowned upon it becomes one of God’s anointed. There’s no joukerie-pawkerie here.’

And to reassure the king, perhaps he added, ‘Since biblical times our sacred Stone has been transported from place to place: these two iron rings are there for ease of movement, Your Grace. Take our blessed throne in good faith.’

Was the Hammer of the Scots taken in by this explanation or did he suspect his ‘lang shank’ was being pulled by the auld enemy? Whatever he believed Edward had no alternative but to claim his booty and cart it back to London where the Stone was fitted into an oak throne and installed at Westminster Abbey.

Since then, some 30 royal bottoms have sat upon King Edward’s Chair for their coronation. But were they crowned upon the legendary Stone of Destiny or the lid of a medieval toilet? Edward was still not convinced for in 1298 he sent a raiding party of knights back to Scone to rip the abbey apart in a desperate search. Whatever they were looking for, they returned empty-handed.

Then, in his Monuments Celtiques, 1805, Jacques Cambray claimed to have seen the stone when it bore the inscription:

Ni fallat fatum, Scoti quocumque locatum Invenient lapidiem,
regnasse tenetur ibidem

The poetic translation being passed down as:

Unless the fate shall faithless prove,
And prophets voice be vain;
Where’er this sacred Stone is found,
The Scottish race shall reign.

But there is no such inscription on the present Stone and, since Cambray believed in a ‘stone’ cult and its connection with the Druids, this is probably another myth.

The plot thickened when on Christmas Day, 25 December 1950, the Stone was allegedly ‘stolen’ from Westminster Abbey. But was it theft? Who owned it? Had the English not stolen it from Scotland in the first place? The Stone turned up a few months later on 11 April 1951. Following a tip-off, the police found the Stone draped in a blue and white Saltire – the national flag of Scotland – in front of the high altar of the ruined Abbey of Arbroath.

The choice of location was deliberate for it was there that the famous Declaration of Arbroath had been signed in 1320. In it the lords, commons and clergy of Scotland reaffirmed the right of the Scots to live in freedom:

‘For as long as one hundred of us remain alive, we will yield in no least way to the domination of the English. We fight not for glory nor for wealth nor for honours, but only and alone for freedom, which no good man surrenders but with his life.’

Perhaps this declaration of liberty is one reason why none of the Scottish nationalist students who had appropriated the Stone were ever prosecuted. (A film of the heist Stone of Destiny, was made in 2008.)

The Stone was then promptly dispatched to Westminster – but which one? During the robbery – or repatriation – the Stone had been damaged and was taken to a Glasgow stonemason for repair. Did he also make several copies of the stone? There is at least one acknowledged copy on public display at Scone Palace in Perthshire – might there be others?

And, if so, the stone that was returned to London might not even be the original rock that had been palmed off on Edward. That is what Scottish activist Wendy Wood would have us believe. For in 1968 she slipped a note under the iron railing at Westminster Abbey:

‘This is not the original Stone of Destiny. The real Stone is of black basalt marked with hieroglyphics and is inside a hill in Scotland.’

But is this true? If the Coronation Stone is a fake, what fate befell the real Stone of Destiny? Some say that Robert the Bruce took it to Dunstaffnage, or Iona, or Skye. Others insist that the monks buried it on Dunsinnan Hill above Scone where the secret of its location has been closely guarded and passed down the generations by word of mouth from father to son.

The Stone was returned to Westminster in time for the 1953 coronation of Queen Elizabeth, the second of England, the first of Scotland.

But in 1996, in response to growing dissatisfaction among Scots, the conservative government agreed that the Stone of Destiny should be returned to Scotland. It was installed in Edinburgh Castle, taking its place alongside those other symbols of national identity, the Scottish Crown Jewels.

In a service at St Giles cathedral, the Church of Scotland Moderator formally accepted the Stone's return, saying it would ‘strengthen the proud distinctiveness of the people of Scotland.’

As part of the agreement the Stone – or the toilet seat lid – will be returned on loan to Westminster Abbey for the coronation of the next British monarch.

For after 700 years, the authenticity of the Stone on display at Edinburgh Castle is still uncertain. Like Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, the Stone of Destiny has joined the pantheon of Scotch myths that should perhaps remain a mystery.

No Stone Unturned: The Story of the Stone of Destiny, Ian R. Hamilton, 1952
Stone of Destiny, Ian Hamilton, 2008
The Stone of Destiny, James Irvine Robertson, Scotland Magazine, Issue 37, March 2008

I am also indebted to the following websites:
Undiscovered Scotland
The Paisley Tartan Army
Scottish Scribbles


Born and bred in Scotland, Marie Macpherson went on to study Russian language and literature, gaining a  PhD on the Russian writer, Lermontov, said to be descended from the Scottish bard and seer, Thomas the Rhymer. Though she has travelled widely she has never lost her love for the rich culture and history of her native land.  Now retired from academic life she has taken up writing historical fiction.

 Her novel, The First Blast of the Trumpet – the first in a trilogy -– is a highly entertaining fictional account of the controversial Scottish reformer John Knox, based on his early, undocumented life.

A mini-documentary showing the historic locations featured in the novel can be viewed on YouTube under the title, 
John Knox and the Birth of the Scottish Reformation:

The novel is available in hardback, paperback and e-book and can be purchased at bookshops or online at:
Amazon UK
Amazon US
More information can be obtained from Knox Robinson Publishing website.

Latest Review from Undiscovered Scotland: What a magnificent book!  We have now published our review, which can be seen online here:

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Hans Holbein: Politics of Art in the Court of Henry VIII

By Nancy Bilyeau

Just two years into the reign of James I, a Dutch painter and poet named Karel van Mander toured Whitehall Palace and came upon something truly memorable: a large wall mural of two generations of Tudors. Dominating the nine foot by twelve foot mural was the long-dead Henry VIII. At his side was his third wife, Jane Seymour; above the couple were his parents, Henry VII and Elizabeth of York.

Whitehall mural, a 17th century painting reproduction

Van Mander was stunned. He wrote that Henry VIII "stood there, majestic in his lifelike that the spectator felt abashed, annihilated in his presence."

Lifelike. This was the supreme achievement of the mural's creator, Hans Holbein. then and now. Peter Ackroyd has written, "He illustrates his sitters in the light of some sudden but characteristic emotion, as if he had caught their thought on the wing."

Hans Holbein the Younger

It is in part because of Holbein that we feel we know the Tudor personalities, from Henry VIII and Jane Seymour to Thomas More and Thomas Cromwell to a baby Prince Edward. But do we really know Holbein?

It seems to us now as if Hans Holbein the Younger was always there, the favorite, the prize artist of the king. But in fact his artistic reign was fairly brief. He did not become "court painter" until shortly before painting that famous mural. It had taken years to win the trust of Henry VIII and secure royal commissions. Just three years after the Whitehall mural, he was under a cloud because of his painting of Henry's fourth wife, Anne of Cleves. Three years after that, he was dead.


Hans Holbein was born in 1497 in Augsburg, now the third largest city in Bavaria, Germany. Then it was a "free Imperial city" within the Holy Roman Empire, faithful to emperor and pope. Hans Holbein the Elder came from a family of talented artists and made sure to teach his son everything he knew. The father painted mostly altarpieces, church windows and other religious works--in the late medieval age, this was where artists found their majority of paying work.

Martin Luther transformed Germany--and then the rest of Christendom--when he challenged papal authority in 1517, nailing his 95 theses to the door of the castle church of Wittenerg. Two years earlier, Hans and his older brother Ambrosius had moved to the thriving Swiss city of Basel to work as journeyman painters. He created portraits and murals and designed woodcuts for printers. But soon enough Hans Holbein was engulfed in Luther's revolution.

Dance of Death, the Abbot

Holbein's cover of the Luther bible

It is in his woodcuts that Hans Holbein the Younger gives some indication of his religious beliefs. He designed the title page of Martin Luther's bible. And he created woodcuts for The Dance of Death, an eerie series of drawings showing a skeleton reaching for people across every level of society: merchant, king, abbess, old woman---and pope. Death came to everyone, high or low, was the message.

But in the first of several ironies, when Holbein came to England, his sponsor was Sir Thomas More, known for his hatred of Luther and determination to destroy the books written by those who wanted to reform the church.

Holbein departed from Basel in 1526, leaving a wife and children behind. Religious commissions had dried up as Lutheranism ignited. No one wanted altarpieces anymore. To earn enough money to live--and to, hopefully, find fame--he'd need to establish himself in a foreign court. He tried France first, but nothing happened. The famous Dutch Renaissance humanist Erasmus, whom Holbein had painted at least twice, gave him a letter of recommendation to be given to Sir Thomas More, a fellow Humanist and one of the most valued councilors of Henry VIII.

Sir Thomas More

Holbein may have lived in More's Chelsea home for a time. What is known for certain is that he painted a famous portrait of Sir Thomas as well as many of his family members. More raved about the artist's abilities in a letter to Erasmus. If he knew about Holbein's belief in religious reform, he'd decided to overlook it.

 In 1529 Sir Thomas More became chancellor of England. It would seem that Holbein couldn't have picked a better patron.

But More was devoted to Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of Henry VIII, and although he tried hard to avoid it, he got caught up in the Great Matter of the king's divorce. More did not have a high opinion of Anne Boleyn, who would eventually become Henry's second queen, and could not swear an oath of supremacy to king over pope. In 1532 he resigned as chancellor, in anguish, claiming illness.

Holbein was not damaged by his patron's fall from power because he'd returned to Basel, to his family and his circle of artist friends. But this was no place for an artist. The pendulum had swung so far in Basel that religious reformers were destroying statues and works of art in churches. It is believed that some of Holbein's paintings were burned in the rages of iconoclasm. Holbein decided to go  back to England. Before he left, he painted his wife, looking undeniably sad.

Holbein's wife and two of their children

There was a whole new group running the Tudor court in 1533, and Holbein headed for the top. His new patron? The stylish Anne Boleyn. He designed decorations for her coronation; pieces of jewelry; and several silver cups. It is believed that he painted Queen Anne's portrait, but after her fall, Henry VIII had many images of his second wife destroyed. One that survives is a sketch of Anne signed by Holbein.

The Ambassadors

Perhaps the greatest contribution Anne made to the legacy of Holbein was sponsoring his painting The Ambassadors, considered his master work. The strongest clue that Anne commissioned the work is that on a table between the two Frenchmen is a wooden cylinder used to determine dates. Visible is April 11, the day that the court was officially told that Anne Boleyn would be awarded royal honors.

Holbein's sketch of Anne Boleyn

Anne's execution in May 1536 could have led to Holbein's downfall. Instead, he shifted again, becoming the favored painter of Henry VIII himself and Thomas Cromwell, who many believe concocted the charges against Anne of adultery and incest.

Henry VIII, the year Anne Boleyn was executed

Holbein painted Jane Seymour, Anne Boleyn's prim-looking replacement as queen, and the family mural in Whitehall. He received the all-important commissions to paint the king himself and his heir, Prince Edward. He painted Cromwell. This was when Holbein's status at court became official and he earned an annual salary of thirty pounds.

Jane Seymour died the same year that the mural was painted. Henry VIII was reluctant to marry a foreign princess without having any idea of what she looked like. So Holbein was sent to various courts to paint the candidates: France, Flanders, Germany.

Anne of Cleves

In Cleves, he painted Anne, the older sister of Duke William, and Henry was charmed by her appearance. Yet from almost the moment he set eyes on her when she arrived, days before their wedding, he loathed Anne of Cleves. "I like her not," the king declared.

Did Holbein, the artist celebrated for his lifelike images, over-flatter Anne of Cleves in his painting? Did he feel pressure from Cromwell, who supported the marriage alliance to a German power, to make her look more attractive than she was? Cromwell was arrested and then executed in 1540, and one of the reasons for his shocking fall from power was that Henry felt his minister had bungled his fourth marriage. "I am not well handled," the king said, menacingly.

Thomas Cromwell

Did Holbein handle his part well? Others have said that Anne of Cleves' painting must have been accurate because, unlike Cromwell, Holbein was not punished in the fallout of the Cleves divorce. Which is strictly true. But Hans Holbein did not receive any more high profile royal commissions. He concentrated on private commissions, such as miniatures of various members of the nobility, like Katherine Willoughby, the young wife of the Duke of Suffolk.

In late 1543 at the age of 45, Hans Holbein died, perhaps of the plague, in London. He left a will, written in haste. His debts were settled and some of his monies went to the care of the children in Basel he had left behind. His grave is unmarked.


Ackroyd, Peter, The Life of Thomas More

Ives, Eric, The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn

Thurley, Simon, Whitehall Palace: An Architectural History of the Royal Apartments, 1240-1690

Weir, Alison, Henry VIII: The King and His Court

Wolf, Norbert, Hans Holbein the Younger, the German Raphael


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical thrillers set in the time of Henry VIII. The protagonist is a Dominican novice. The first two novels, The Crown and The Chalice, are on sale in North America, the United Kingdom, and Germany, The third book, to be published in March 2015, is called The Tapestry. Hans Holbein is a character in the novel.

U.S. publication

UK publication

To learn more, go to

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Giveaway! Child of the Northern Spring by Persia Woolley

Persia is giving away a signed softcover copy of Child of the Northern Spring, Volume One of the Guinevere Trilogy. You can read about the book HERE. You will be prompted to return to this post to enter the drawing.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

William Morris in Iceland

Few talents dominated Victorian England like William Morris (1834 -1896). Known primarily today as a designer and creator of wall coverings, fabrics, books, stained glass, and furniture, he is also revered as an early and ardent Socialist, deeply concerned with the appalling conditions facing most 19th century working men, women, and children. A rejection of cheap, machine-made gimcrackery drove young Morris, along with his close friend, the slightly older Dante Gabriel Rossetti (one of the founders of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood) to join with other passionate young artists such as Edward Burne-Jones and form a company to design and hand-create household and church furnishings. Much of their work harkened back to these young artists’ conception of the mediaeval period, a time when all furniture and fabrics were hand-created and great pride was taken in fine work. (In our exploration last month of the Reading Bayeux Tapestry we saw Morris’ influence in the natural plant dyes employed by the embroiderers.) But one of the creative outlets dearest to the great man’s heart was poetry.

Morris was appalled by the pollution, over-crowding, and exploitation seen everywhere in contemporary Britain. His personal antidote was the distant past. When Morris sat down to write poetry – and a favourite place for him to do so was at his tapestry loom, whilst weaving – he wrote of ancient times. Like the majority of the physical output of Morris & Company, Morris’ poetry harkened back to an era of knights in armour engaged in valorous and selfless acts of courage, lovely yet mysterious damsels, clanging swords, and heartfelt devotion to beauty, God, and honour. He took a great personal interest in history, and it is no wonder then that he was attracted to that “island of fire and ice”, Iceland. This was a place untouched by the hand of industrialism, where people still lived in a truly medieval fashion. Morris began, in 1868, to read the Icelandic Sagas in the original Icelandic Norse, helped by his Icelandic friend Eiríkr Magnússon. The Sagas were collected in the early 13th century by Icelandic scholar Snorri Sturluson (1179-1241), who feared these oral tales might be lost if not written down. The Sagas comprise 49 tales of the founding and settlement of Iceland, and are the richest source we have of early Norse history, religion, and mores.

The more Morris read, the more he realized that the Norse religion was actually the ancient faith of his own people; that the Angles and Saxons who had conquered and populated Britain in the 5th century shared the same heathen Gods as the Scandinavian Vikings who would later attempt to wrest that land from them in the 9th and 10th centuries. The simplicity and directness of Icelandic laws, with all gathering during the summer at the sacred law-mound at Thingvellir, recalled to his mind a purer, more democratic form of governance than the corruption of Parliament. Even the very poverty of the people seemed to elevate them in his estimation; a hardy agrarian and sea-faring existence in which nothing was wasted and simple joys cherished.

Morris was entranced, and with Magnússon set out to Iceland via the Diana, a wooden, fortnightly mail steamer in the summer of 1871. The journey was, in the words of J.W. Mackail, Morris’ friend and first biographer, of “an importance in Morris’ life which can hardly be over-estimated, and which, even to those who knew him well, was not wholly intelligible.”

Morris, Magnússon, and two friends landed in Reykjavik on Iceland’s West coast and collected the packhorses, tents, and kit they had sent money for. They had sent bank notes ahead of them, and in Reykjavik converted it to 1,000 silver dollars for the coming tour, the doing so which nearly exhausted the metallic currency of the capital. They set off with two guides, and eight packhorses to carry their kit. Morris’ goal was to visit the areas most important to the greater Sagas: Lithend and Bergthorsknoll on the southern coast, then to the fjords on the northern coast, over the mountain passes into the verdant Laxardal Valley, round the peninsula of Snaefellsness, and back to Reykjavik via the Thingvellir. They would encounter what the visitor today still encounters: smouldering volcanoes, bubbling hot springs, glaciers, turquoise-blue pools, vast tumbling waterfalls, and streaming geysers. Morris’ first impression as he stood upon the deck of the Diana was of a “great mass of dark grey mountains worked into pyramids and shelves, looking as if they had been built up and half-ruined; they were striped with snow high up, and wreaths of cloud dragged across them here and there, and above them were two peaks and a jagged ridge of pure white snow…”

Þingvellir (Thingvellir) the Summer gathering place
where laws were read out, disputes settled
and all Icelanders convened
He marvelled at the quality of the late evening light, “light enough to see to read; wonderfully clear, but not like daylight, for there were no shadows at all.” Never much of an outdoorsman, he found camping at night and riding everyday across the sere and mysterious landscape vivifying: “…yet it is an awful place: set aside the hope that the unseen sea gives you here, and the strange threatening change of the spiky blue mountains beyond the firth, and the rest seems emptiness and nothing else: a piece of turf under your feet, and the sky overhead, that’s all: whatever solace your life is to have here must come out of yourself or these old stories, not over hopeful themselves.”

Octavia at Snorri Sturluson's
"Snorralaug", his thermal hot pool
Morris was most impressed with the hardy little Icelandic horses and their distinctive rolling gait known as the tolt, and hoped to bring one he rode, “Falcon”, home with him: “he ambles beautifully, fast and deliciously soft; he is about thirteen hands high.” But Falcon went lame and Morris returned with a grey he had also ridden, “Mouse”, as a gift for his young daughters. Although only the size of large ponies the Icelandic horses are intelligent and strong. May Morris later recalled her father’s gift: “He was gentle and quiet, though not without slyness: for I remember there was one gate-post against which, when I went out for a ride, he used often to try to rub me off his broad back. I’m ashamed for my horsemanship to think how often the rogue had his way. Father used to ride him about the country a good bit at first. Then I jogged about with him…He got enormously fat on our coarse thick plentiful English grass, with little to do, and I used to imagine him lonely, and yearning for the fun and hardships of his Iceland life…”

Icelandic horses.
Morris's "Mouse" may have looked like this one
The weeks he had spent touring Iceland percolated in Morris’ brain, and his strong feelings for the country inspired him to deepen his own study of its literature and try to share it with others. He was diligent in his Icelandic studies, and could at length converse freely with his friend Magnússon. Morris now desired to take the prose version of the Vølsunga Saga he had translated with Magnússon’s help and turn it into English verse. It was more than an academic exercise. In Morris’ words

…how strange it seems to us, that the Volsung Tale, which is in fact an unversified poem, should never before have been translated into English. For this is the Great Story of the North, which should be to all our race what the Tale of Troy was to the Greeks – to all our race first, and afterwards, when the change of the world has made our race nothing more than a name of what has been – a story too – then should it be to those that come after us no less than the Tale of Troy has been to us.

Published in November 1876 as Sigurd the Volsung and the Fall of the Niblungs (and Morris’ version is exactly contemporaneous with Richard Wagner’s Ring of the Nibelung), the poem is over 10,000 lines long, and as Morris alerts us above, is a verse rendering of a prose story. Although Morris’ version was admired by no less a literary light than George Bernard Shaw, its archaic language and rather ponderous pace and repetitive metre can make for challenging reading today. Yet there are passages of power and energy. Here is the hero Sigurd being presented with the magic sword by Regin, the weapon-smith:
“Hail, son of the Volsungs, the corner stone is laid,
I have toiled and thou hast desired, and, lo, the fateful blade!” 

Then Sigurd saw it lying on the ashes slaked and pale,
Like the sun and the lightening mingled mid the even’s cloudy bale:
For ruddy and great were the hilts, and the edges fine and wan,
And all adown to the blood-point a very flame there ran
That swallowed the runes of wisdom wherewith its sides were scored.”
Sigurd the Volsung remained Morris’ favourite poem of all he had written. Although rarely read today, it proved a source of inspiration for JRR Tolkien, and even opening the book at random will reward the curious with a glimmer of why Morris felt compelled to re-tell this “grandest tale that ever was told.”

Icelandic photographs by (c) Jonathan Gilman


Octavia Randolph’s latest work is The Tale of Melkorka: A Novella. A beautiful slave girl. Silence. And revenge. The Tale of Melkorka is based on a character from the Saga of People of Laxardal, one of the Icelandic Sagas. Available now at Amazon US and Amazon UK

From English Historical Fiction Authors:
Please see the following Special Request.

Special Request

from Man B Productions

Starting as far back as the Laurence Olivier helmed Pride and Prejudice (1940) to the upcoming Ralph Fiennes Great Expectations, film history unveils a demand for Victorian fiction adaptation onto the silver screen. Yet, we tend to see the same novels adapted over and over rather than new material from the vast library of Victorian literature. We are MAN B Productions, and we are adapting one of Victorian literature’s hidden gems, Anthony Hope’s “The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard”.

However, we can’t do it alone; we need the help of the Victorian literature community! We will tell you how you can join our team, but first—why Anthony Hope and “The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard”?

We remember Anthony Hope for The Prisoner of Zenda like we remember Conan Doyle for The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. Both authors wrote voluminously and brilliantly. Both are, oddly, remembered primarily for only one creation—in neither case necessarily their strongest. We are not interested in whether The White Company is “better” than The Hound of the Baskervilles. What we are interested in is why we forget some works and remember others. Zenda is a great adventure, but it exists firmly in its time and place, making it nearly impossible to be anything but English and the period anything but Victorian. Yet Hope’s work has the ability to bring the Victorian to the modern audience. Therefore, our work begins with Hope!

“The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard” is a charming piece about a woman who loves a man so much, and a man who has not the slightest idea—something anyone who has ever had a crush can certainly relate to. Therefore we updated the tale—sort of! The language has been (mildly) modernized, though Hope made that job easy for us. His late Victorian syntax isn’t wildly different from our own, the biggest changes only being made to streamline a film version and remove a few particular British-isms. As far as setting—the story takes place in a removed area, in Hope’s story, an apple orchard, in ours, a wooded area ringing a pond. There are no signs of modern life, except what our heroes carry on their persons, modern writing implements and composition notebooks. Our costumes hint at both the modern and the Victorian—which conveniently enough follows many of the current fashion trends of today, the women wear corsets with a contemporary flair and the men wear lots and lots of tweed. Finally, the music, the fourth movement of Beethoven’s string quarter in B- Flat Major, a piece that follows all the rules of classical music yet, was ahead of its time with its inclusion of tension filled chords, subtle changing in mood and concise melody. The reason for these updates—as have been discussed in great detail by the writers, director, designers, producers, actors, and staff—is that there are some stories which exist outside of any single time and place. They are stories for the ages, untethered and therefore ideal for film adaptation. This is one of them!

We are nearing the final week of our fundraising, and we need your help to meet our goals! Whether you give up one cup of coffee to donate 10 dollars, or you contribute 1,000 dollars to become an Executive Producer, YOU can drastically shape this project’s success. This is a passion project for us, and therefore all funds go towards the film and nothing else. All cast and crew are working without pay. Funds are being used only to secure the necessary equipment to shoot this at a Hollywood production level. Therefore, the greater our budget, the better the equipment and the better we tell this story! We are shooting during the first weekend of December, and will go through an expedited editing process to set the film’s release at the beginning of the new year. We will provide a personal digital copy to all donors as well as appropriate crediting during the film’s opening and closing credits. As for future marketing, we will campaign this project to all major film festivals including Sundance, Tribeca and Cannes.

To find out more about the project, read the shooting script, see examples of our previous work and contribute funds, please visit our campaign page. To set up a meeting to speak with the Producers, Writers, or Director please send an email to

We thank you all for your generous support. Together we are keeping a very important Victorian style alive!

Introducing that Amazing Man: William Pitt, the Younger ~ Part I

by Jacqui Reiter

Ladies and gentlemen. I realise some of you will probably already have made his acquaintance, but I would like to introduce, or reintroduce, you to a historical phenomenon: William Pitt, the Younger.

He was, of course, Britain's youngest (and second longest-serving) prime minister, son of William Pitt the Elder, himself another prime minister. He was in office under George III from 1783-1801 and 1804-6. He was at the helm for much of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and died in office aged only 46.

Pitt by George Romney
William Hague's 2004 biography and the 2007 film Amazing Grace have somewhat restored Pitt to the sphere of public consciousness. But only ten years ago it was a different story. Revealing the subject of my study to acquaintances generally resulted in the question: "Pitt the Younger? Why?"

So please put aside all your preconceptions of spotty teenagers, Benedict Cumberbatch, 'the Pilot that Weather'd the Storm', possible founders of modern-day Conservatism, and stick-thin Gillray figures molesting the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street.* For today, for your edification and delight, I present: Reasons why William Pitt the Younger is amazing.

1. His youth

Obvious? Maybe, but enough stress can't be laid on this.  Historians tend to be quite blasé about the whole 'prime minister at 24' thing, as though its happening once made it completely normal. It wasn't any more normal then than it would be now. Pitt's enemies played on his age most ruthlessly: 'A sight to make surrounding nations stare, A kingdom trusted to a schoolboy's care'.[1]  Gillray depicted Pitt's political opponent, Charles James Fox, as a schoolmaster whipping a student Pitt:

Of course Pitt was much more experienced than the average 24 year old politician. He had served eight months as Chancellor of the Exchequer under a previous prime minister, Lord Shelburne. Plus he had already refused the premiership before he turned twenty-four. Twice.

So how did Pitt manage to jump straight to the top spot?  Talent had something to do with it: from the moment he first opened his mouth in the House of Commons it was obvious to his listeners that he was something special. But it was more a matter of being in the right place at the right time. Pitt joined Parliament in January 1781, nine months before the Battle of Yorktown confirmed that Britain had lost the War of Independence with America. In March 1782 Lord North, prime minister since 1770, resigned and a prolonged period of political instability followed.

The process that led to Pitt coming to power was complex, but the reason he was chosen boils down to this: he had a famous name; he was a fresh face; and he was an excellent orator. Oh yes, and a whole bunch of people assumed he would be pliable. They were wrong.

2. His staggering intelligence

Pitt came to office through a combination of luck and circumstance. He stayed there for seventeen years (not counting his second ministry) because he was good at his job. Historians quibble over how much he owed to the King's favour in maintaining his hold on power. Obviously that played a part, but it was a comparatively minor one.

Pitt came to dominate so thoroughly that even his enemies felt the seismic effect of his death on the political scene. Upon hearing the news Pitt's lifelong rival, Fox, said that there was 'something missing in the world-- a chasm or blank that cannot be supplied'.[2]

Pitt was bright. He was fluent in Latin by the age of seven, fluent in ancient Greek by the age of twelve, and developed a lifelong interest in complex mathematics and scientific theory. He was quick to grasp the main points and flaws of an argument, something that came in helpful on the floor of the House of Commons. 

Trained by his father, Pitt the Elder, in the art of public speaking, he could rattle off a two-hour Budget speech with only a handful of notes (when he used notes-- mostly he didn't). His speeches were, by all accounts, a tour de force: 'that matchless eloquence, which called forth unbounded applause from all who heard it'.[3]  He had an eye for detail that stood him well both in Parliament and in day-to-day business.

Pitt addressing the House of Commons by K.A. Hickel

He had a complete grasp of the way 18th century politics worked. He was no stranger to its darker side, and was happy (a little too happy, sometimes) to reward political service with peerages and pensions. He knew exactly how much pressure could be placed on the various influences within the system, from the King all the way down to the humblest voter.

And he certainly knew all about image, propaganda and morale, which came in extremely useful during the long war with revolutionary France. The opposition press passed sarcastic comment on his ability to twist gloomy statistics to his advantage: 'Although the real situation of the Country may be truly alarming, yet the bulk of mankind shall not be able to perceive that so it is … This I look upon as a master-stroke of Policy, for next to being in a secure state, it is of the utmost moment, that a country should appear to be so'.[4]

Pitt was exceptionally skilled at playing the political game. On one occasion he managed to turn a vote of censure on his war policy round so completely he ended up leading the entire House of Commons in a standing rendition of 'Britons Strike Home'.[5] That takes guts, but it also takes talent.

3. .... but also his humanity

Pitt's intelligence, thankfully, came with a generous dash of human frailty. Some of his character flaws are more pleasing than others, of course. One does not become prime minister at 24, and remain prime minister for so long, without believing in oneself, and Pitt was more self-confident than most.

Pitt the Elder was the one who said 'I know that I can save this country, and that no-one else can', but the phrase might just as well have been spoken by his son. Pitt's confidence in everything except military matters (in which he 'mistrust[ed] extremely any ideas of my own')[6] added to his ability to sway audiences through oratory, but it was more than ordinary single-mindedness.

To put it simply, Pitt sometimes liked to show off. While still a trainee lawyer at Lincoln's Inn he out-argued the historian Edward Gibbon at a party, and continued to hold forth long after Gibbon had stormed off in a huff.[7] In the 1780s he enjoyed putting down his own Secretary to the Treasury by displaying his superior knowledge of detail in committee.[8] Ignorant of his own abilities Pitt was not; yet he managed to show it in a most endearing way.

There was also his optimism. No doubt it carried him through many a dark patch in the 1790s when the war with France was going badly, but it was not always a useful trait in a war minister. Pitt's sheer inability to countenance failure blended with a tendency to see success in every scheme.

His Secretary of State for War, Henry Dundas, had to rein in Pitt's 'eagerness' and 'sanguineness of ... temper'.[9] Again, sweet; but to his colleagues often highly annoying.

Paradoxically for a man accustomed to speechifying on a daily basis, Pitt was also extremely shy. He overcame it with a public mask of stiffness and pride, a mask many men not intimate with him came to see as the reality. This is Sir Nathaniel Wraxall's famous description of Pitt's haughtiness:

  'In his manners, Pitt, if not repulsive, was cold, stiff, and without suavity or amenity. He seemed never to invite approach, or to encourage acquaintance; though, when addressed, he could be polite, communicative, and occasionally gracious. Smiles were not natural to him ... From the instant that Pitt entered the doorway of the House of Commons, he advanced up the floor with a quick and firm step, his head erect and thrown back, looking neither to the right nor to the left; nor favouring with a nod or a glance, any of the individuals seated on either side, among whom many who possessed five thousand a year, would have been gratified even by so slight a mark of attention. ... Pitt seemed made to command, even more than to persuade or to convince, the Assembly that he addressed.'[10]

To those who had the good fortune to peer beneath the mask Pitt expressed himself in a remarkably unselfconscious and light-hearted style. The following is a typical extract from a letter Pitt wrote to his friend and later brother-in-law Edward Eliot in 1782 when Chancellor of the Exchequer:

 'What do you imagine is the immediate Cause of my writing to You? It concerns to say the Truth neither the Treasury Board nor the Treasury Bench, but if I must tell you, another Treasury Rendezvous the Treasury Box at the Opera. I forget, whether you promised to be one of Lady Shelburne's Subscribers, and as the Session approaches, I find it very necessary to know, both to satisfy Lady Shelburne [wife of the prime minister], who wishes to know that you are, and Mrs Townshend [wife of the Home Secretary], who wishes, for her own sake, to know if you are not. You see the Harmony and Concert of Administration.'[11]

Pitt was a much more attractive personality than many portrayals imply (take, for example, historian Philip Ziegler's throwaway line 'so far as Pitt was capable of loving any human being...').[12]  Wilberforce called Pitt 'the wittiest man I ever knew'.[13] Admittedly this doesn't entirely square with Pitt's fondness for bad puns. When told that the Customs House excisemen had formed a volunteer corps against French invasion he replied 'I am very glad of that; they are all seizers [Caesars ... in case you hadn't got it] to a man!' [14] Ha ha.

He did have the ability to laugh at himself, and decorated his country house with Gillray 's political cartoons. He couldn't sing for toffee and, when he could find the time, he wrote terrible poetry. In the right company he was the life of the party. He sounds like he must have been fun to know, and worth the trouble of getting to know.

One of the best known things about Pitt is his addiction to Port wine. While this certainly rounds out his personality, I find the way some historians have treated the issue distasteful (it was one of the issues I felt William Hague dealt with most sensitively in his 2004 biography). 

Pitt's drinking was a big problem. It worried his doctor, although not enough for Sir Walter Farquhar to do anything more than limit Pitt to 'two Glasses of Madeira wine ... and nearly a Pint of Port ... but not quite' at dinner.[15]  It worried Pitt's friends. 'In his way [to Bath], at Wilderness, he drank very nearly three Bottles of Port to his own Share at Dinner & Supper; so Lord Camden told me,' Pitt's friend George Rose reported in 1802 when Pitt was in bad health and supposed to be cutting down.[16] It seems to have worried everyone except Pitt himself.

Some of the stories are amusing-- Pitt throwing up behind the Speaker's Chair; giving the clerk a headache with his wine-laced breath; 'oscillating like his own [exchequer] bills' in walking to his carriage[17]-- but the truth is he was an alcoholic, and eventually it helped kill him. It's not funny.

That's all for now ... but please do keep an eye out for my second Pitt post on 12 December 2013, in which I will deal with three more reasons why Pitt is so fascinating. *Actually, hold onto that one:

Pitt and the Old Lady of Threadneedle Street by Gillray


[1] Rolliad (1812 edition), p. 27
[2] Quoted in Ehrman, The Younger Pitt III, 830
[3] Tomline, Life of Pitt (1821 edition) I, ix
[4] Morning Post, 10 July 1794
[5] Ehrman, The Younger Pitt III, 109
[6] Windham Papers I, 247
[7] Selections from the Letters and Correspondence of Sir James Bland Burges (1885), pp. 60-1
[8] Duffy, The Younger Pitt, p. 75
[9] Ehrman III, 326 n 5
[10] Wraxall, Historical Memoirs of my own time II, 469-70
[11] Pitt to Eliot, 15 October 1782, Ipswich Record Office HA 119/T108/39
[12] Ziegler, Addington (1965), p. 83 
[13] Life of Wilberforce I, 18 
[14] Ashbourne, Pitt: some chapters of his life and times (1898), p. 231 n 5 
[15] Sir Walter Farquhar to Pitt, 10 October 1798, National Archives PRO 30/8/134 
[16] George Rose to the Bishop of Lincoln, 21 November 1802, Ipswich RO Pretyman MSS HA 119/T108/44 
[17] Life of Wilberforce I, 26; Stanhope III, 137; Pellew, Life of Lord Sidmouth I, 91

Jacqui Reiter has a PhD in 18th century British political history. She is currently working on her first novel, which deals with the 2nd Earl of Chatham's relationship with his brother, William Pitt the Younger. She blogs at and also at

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Don't Scoff at the Minced Pie

by Maria Grace

Claesz, Pieter - Tabletop Still Life with Mince Pie and Basket of Grapes - 1625Traditional foods are an important part of any celebration. Every family and every culture has certain dishes that speak of holidays and festivities would be incomplete without them. This was as true in the Regency era as it is today.

During the Regency, most also considered mince meat pies, also known as Christmas or Twelfth Night pies staples for a Christmas feast and the whole of Christmastide.

These pies can be traced back to the 13th century when crusaders returned with Middle Eastern recipes featuring meat, fruit and spices together. Mixing meat with fruit and spices helped preserve the meat without smoke, drying or salt.

In the 15th century, King Henry V served a mincemeat pie at his coronation. King Henry VIII liked his Christmas pie to be a main-dish pie filled with mincemeat.

Originally the mince pies were oblong or oval; the pastry crust tended to sink in the middle resembling Jesus’ manger. Sometimes a small doll was made from pastry and placed in the center. These were known as crib pies. In the 1600’s, the pies became circular, though they might be as large as 20 lbs. In the intervening centuries they have become smaller.

These well-loved treats were, for a time, stigmatized by the Puritans. During Cromwell's rule as Lord Protector in the mid 1600's, his council banned the celebration of Christmas as it was not sanctioned in the bible. Puritans frowned on rich food and alcoholic drink. Minced pie represented both and was not considered fit to occupy a clergyman's plate. A 1656 satire called 'Christmas Day' calls them 'Idolatrie in a Crust'. Following Cromwell's death, Christmas celebrations, including minced pie, returned in force.

Leftovers from the Christmas feast would be used to make pies for the twelve days until Epiphany. Pies could be made up shortly after the feast and could last up to two months, if the weather were cold. Recipes varied by region, but usually included beef, poultry and other meats, suet, sugar, raisins or currants, spices, orange and lemon peel, eggs, apples and brandy. When making the minced-meat filling, custom says it should be stirred it only clockwise because stirring it counterclockwise would bring bad luck for the coming year. Tradition says that the filling should include cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg to represent the gifts of the Magi to the infant Jesus. Similarly, a star shaped bit of pastry should top the pie for the star of Bethlehem.

William henry hunt christmas pieEating minced pie every day of the twelve days of Christmas was said to bring twelve months of happiness in the new year. To strengthen the charm, the pies must be baked by the dozen and offered by friends. Other traditions suggest while eating the first mince pie of the season, the eater should make a wish make a wish and that mince pies should be eaten in silence.

Hannah Glasse's The Art of Cookery (1747) offered this recipe for Minced Pie.

Mince Pie

To make Mince-Pies the best way

TAKE three pounds of suet shred very fine, and chopped as small as possible; two pounds of raisins stoned, and chopped as fine as possible; two pounds of currants nicely picked, washed, rubbed, and dried at the fire; half a hundred of fine pippins, pared, cored, and chopped small; half a pound of fine sugar pounded fine; a quarter of an ounce of mace, a quarter of an ounce of cloves, two large nutmegs, all beat fine; put all together into a great pan, and mix it well together with half a pint of brandy, and half a pint of sack; put it down close in a stone pot, and it will keep good four months.

When you make your pies, take a little dish, something bigger than a soup plate, lay a very thin crust all over it, lay a thin layer of meat, and then a thin layer of citron cut very thin, then a layer of mince-meat, and a layer of orange-peel cut thin, over that a little meat, squeeze half the juice of a fine Seville orange or lemon, lay on your crust, and bake it nicely. 

These pies eat finely cold. If you make them in little patties, mix your meat and sweet-meats accordingly. If you choose meat in your pies, parboil a neat's tongue, peel it, and chop the meat as fine as possible, and mix with the rest; or two pounds of the inside of a sirloin of beef boiled. But you must double the quantity of fruit when you use meat.~Hannah Glasse


A Regency Christmas By Kieran Hazzard ©2013 2nd Bn. 95th Rifles  
Christmas Feast  
Glasse, Hannah. The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy. (1784) London 
Hale, Mrs. Sarah J. Morton, M. Michael And Louis A. Godey. Lady's Book, Philadelphia: Louis A. Godey, Publishers' Hall, Dec. 1860. 
Hirst, Christopher. Sweet delight: A brief history of the mince pie  
History of Mince Pie  
The History of Mince Pie  
Jane Austen and Christmas: The Christmas Eve Dinner at Randalls 
Jones, Callie . The mince pie in history, myth and law   
 Rundell, Eliza. A New System of Domestic Cookery. (1814)

 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy and All the Appearance of GoodnessClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Saint Milburga

by Tim Carrington

The sisters of Llan Meilien,
Round the Abbess Milburga stood:
"Oh Lady, stay, go not away
Through that dark lonesome wood.
The road of wolves is sore beset,
And also of pagan foe;
Then tarry here, Oh lady dear.
To Godstoke do not go."
King Merewald's daughter raised her hand,
And sadly shook her head:
"Ere break of day I must away
To Godstoke", she said.
"For sword I'll take the Holy Cross,
My maiden truth for shield;
So armed my ass and I would pass
Safe through a battle field."

So starts a fascinating story of the lady who is known in history as Saint Milburga.

Milburga was the daughter of Merewald, a member of the royal house of the Kingdom of Mercia, who founded a monastery at Wenlock around AD 690. It was a double house; primarily a nunnery but also served by priests who lived a formal life under vow. Most probably these two communities lived separate lives, each with their own church.

Milburga, together with her sisters, Milgitha and Mildred, were canonised by Saint Theodore, Archbishop of Canterbury, at a time when the various tribes in Britain were at war with each other in a vicious power struggle.

The Archbishop's task was to preach brotherly love and Christian faith, although even that was a contentious issue as there were at least TWO schools. The Catholic church and the Druid/Christian/Pelagianism school which was still prevalent in rural areas and certainly in the mountains to the west. However, to a certain extent, the sanctifying of royalty was simply good politics, as it united the church and monarchy, and many of those thus honoured did not continue to live up to their new position of saint. Milburga, Milgitha and Mildred were the best with probably more recordings of their lives than many holy men of that period.

In this period it was the practice for royalty to marry their daughters to sons of neighbouring kings as a means of uniting kingdoms. Mercia, at that time, was allied with the Welsh against the might of the Northumbrians, and when peace came a Mercian princess duly married a Northumbrian prince. Milgitha accompanied her to found a convent in Northumbria. Mildred went south to Kent, the home of her mother, to become St. Mildred of the Isle of Thanet. Their mother was St. Ermenburga, a Kentish princess, who was one of the first members of (Saxon) royalty to become a Christian.

Milburga stayed at home, and under her role the convent at Wenlock flourished. Her aura, which some people believed in, was seen by many. It is recorded that she was found with a sick child in her arms, both engulfed by flames, though neither were burnt. As well as healing the sick, she had the power of being able to communicate with birds, and she was said to help farmers by putting a charm on their scarecrows. It is also recorded that she was able to prevent a flock of wild geese from doing damage to crops. In fact, in later years, pilgrims to her tomb purchased little leaden geese as mementos.

So Milburga prepared for her journey, but just before she left she confessed something to her sister that shows us that, despite being a Saint, she was only human!

"Oh, sister dear, I do not fear
The perils of the road;
Though dark the wood and deep the flood,
And wolves prowl abroad,
He in whose cause I journey
gainst foes will take my part;
But Milgitha, dear, I need to fear
My weak and sinful heart."
"You know how, when duty called,
I cast my love aside;
Wolfgang, I said, a Christian maid
Can never be a pagan's bride.
I vowed my life, my love to God,
My plighted faith I broke;
And, Milgitha, I have never rued,
The word which then I spoke.
"But when I journey all alone,
And foes around me wait,
I fear least I should meet with one
Whose love has turned to hate.
I daily pray for Wolfgang,
For his soul will I pray;
But, sister dear, alas, I fear
To meet him on my way."

Well, it's not the first time a member of a Royal family has had the 'hots' for someone. But, thankfully, in those days, they knew to put duty before the heart, and thankfully there were no tabloid newspapers to ‘scoop’ any indiscretions. BUT, alas, Milburga met Wolfgang on her travels.

Over hill and dale, through brake and fell,
Sped on her milk white ass,
And ere the sun had reached the noon,
Through Corve's fair vale they passed.
There in a deep red furrow
The sowers dropped their grain,
An armed pagan by their side
Looked out across the plain.
And when he saw Milburga,
His black eye flashed fire:
"False Maid," he cried, once trothed my bride
By thy fainthearted sire:
Thou who has trampled on the love
Of a Saxon nobly born,
Shall rue the day thou told me nay
And pay for all your scorn.
The maiden's heart it quailed not;
She meekly raised her eye:
"Wolfgang, your arm can never harm
One that has a friend on high:
He who can make that grain to spring
And ripen into fruit,
Powers rain and sunshine on your heart,
And bids your faith take root."
She pointed to the furrowed field;
Loo, even as she spoke,
From the dry seed up sprang green blade,
And stalk and full ear broke!
In sore amazement the serfs gazed,
The warrior smote his breast,
And humble on his bended knee
The Christian God confessed.
Changed was his mind. He looked and lo
As in a glorious dream,
Behold the maiden and her ass
Against Corve's glittering stream;
And where they go fresh flowers grow,
And to this day is seen.
Upon the sod which they have trod,
A belt of freshest green.
But why did Milburga ride so fast?
No danger now was nigh.
"Think not," she cries, "my perils past;
From my own heart I fly!
My prayer is heard, we too shall meet
In the bright realms above,
But not again on Earth's wide plain;
In Heaven is all my love."
"Speed quick, my ass!" The ass sped on
Till well near Godstoke,
Her strength was spent, she tottered bent,
And sank upon a rock.
Great blood-gouts from her nostrils fell,
And stained the stone with red.
The saintly maid knelt by her side,
And stayed her fainting head.
"The wicked prophet smote his ass,
I will not thee so smite,
For God doth stay my onward way,
Till I shall walk a'right.
Trust not on chariot nor on steed
'Tis writ, but trust in me.
But I sought safety in great speed,
Though none pursue, I flee."
So spoke the pious Maid; and lo,
A sparkling fountain burst
From the dry ground and bubbled round,
And the ass slaked her thirst;
And strengthened, gained the journey's end;
And holy pilgrims tell,
There doth remain a dark red stain
At the bottom of the well.

When the pagan Danes invaded our shores, Milburga's tomb at Wenlock suffered the fate of many churches and shrines and was destroyed. It was later restored by Lady Godiva, but was destroyed yet again in the early days of the Norman Conquest. Later still, Roger de Montgomery founded a prior of monks at Much Wenlock on the site of St. Milburga's convent. Her memory was rekindled by the accidental rediscovery of her resting place around the time of the rebuilding of the church. It is said that her remains wrought so many miracles that floods of people poured in thither.

And so the memory of St Milburga was rekindled, but in 1547, in the last year of the reign of Henry VIII, Abbott Butler of Much Wenlock recorded the public burning of her precious bones in a common bonfire. Today, the memory of St. Milburga still lives on, especially in the parish of Stoke St.Milborough, (Godstoke) where the church is dedicated to her and where her holy well stands close by.

But what sort of person was this Mercian Princess? Can we, after 1,200 years, even speculate as to her character? I like to think we can. Despite her devout faith, she was no less human and she possessed all the foibles and passions of her subjects. Perhaps this poem, by an unknown poet, written at an unknown time, is closer to the truth than many of the legends and stories that surround her. One thing is certain, if she had weakened and fell for the pagan Wolfgang there would have been many who would have lost faith in her position and ceased to hold her, or her family, in such respect. It might be a lesson that today's Royal family could learn from.

Visible remains

Today in Much Wenlock, although nothing visible remains of the religious house she founded, it is believed that the priory occupies the original site of the canon's church; and that the present parish church is founded on the ruins of St Milburga's Nuns church. It is here that Milburga was buried, as was her father some years earlier.

It is said that she was only eighteen when she became Abbess, and we are told that under her gentle rule the 'Abbey became like a paradise, in which the Lord had planted the fairest flowers and sweetest fruits,...."

Stoke St. Milborough

This village lies some 13 miles to the south west of Much Wenlock. The water from the well was traditionally a cure for eye complaints. For many years it was overgrown, but has now been landscaped and reopened to the public. It can be found a little way up the hill on the road from the church towards Clee St. Margaret.

I love Much Wenlock. Visiting there is like stepping back in time. But Saint Milburga is not its only claim to fame. It was here, in this tiny town in Shropshire that the Modern Olympics were first held having been organised by Dr Penny Brookes, a local doctor who was concerned that his patients were not fit enough. One of the events in the first Olympics was ‘chasing a pig’. I kid you not!


Tim Carrington is the author of the 5th century novels ‘Hywel’ and ‘Tadau a Meibion’.