Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Tragedy personified": Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth

By Catherine Curzon

The term "showbiz legend" is much bandied about these days when it comes to the world of entertainment, sometimes with less reason than others. Sarah Siddons, the first lady of the Georgian stage, was truly deserving of that lofty title. From humble beginnings she rose to the pinnacle of her craft, leaving her adoring fans gripped with Siddons fever as they flocked to her performances in droves. Famed as a tragedian, she will forever be associated with one particular role, that of Shakespeare's Lady Macbeth.

Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by Henry George Harlow, 1814
Sarah Siddons as Lady Macbeth by Henry George Harlow, 1814

When the celebrated Mrs Siddons played the lady of Dunsinane for the first time on 2nd February 1785, she was just 29 years old. With her tall, commanding figure and strikingly handsome looks Siddons made an instant and lasting impact; she would return to the role multiple times over the four decades that followed, making the part entirely her own. 

The majestic actress was known for the passion and fervour of her performances, bringing a deep understanding to each role as she practised the method of her day. Theatrical legend has it that, so intense was her portrayal and so blazing the look in her eyes, swooning ladies in the audience had to be carried from the theatre in order to recover their composure. The essayist, William Hazlitt, famously wrote that Siddons was "tragedy personified"[1], a sentiment with which her fans certainly agreed. 

In fact, away from the stage her life contained tragedy enough to inspire a thousand such performances. Her marriage to William Siddons ended in separation and five of their seven children predeceased their mother. She channelled her unhappiness into performances of startling intensity, focusing particularly on the famous hand washing scene. Siddons broke with tradition by setting down Lady Macbeth's candle to instead concentrate on repeated, hypnotising motions as she washed the blood from her hands again and again.

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785
Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough, 1785

In her essay, Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth [2], Siddons shares her thoughts on the role and the reasoning behind her own stylistic choices. She displays a rich understanding of Lady Macbeth, whom she considers to be "made by ambition, but not by nature, a perfectly savage creature". The essay makes for fascinating reading, offering deep insight into this most remarkable actress and the way in which she approached her roles. 

Georgian theatre is occasionally depicted as an almost ridiculous place, with overblown performances and overheated thespians but in Remarks on the Character of Lady Macbeth we are privy to share what would appear to be a modern approach to the text, with Siddons examining dialogue, movement and psychology in her efforts to inhabit the role.

After a long and celebrated career, Sarah Siddons gave her farewell performance in the role that she had made her own at the Covent Garden Theatre on 29th June 1812. The reaction of the audience to the sleepwalking scene was so rapturous that they gave an ovation that seemed as though it might never end, forcing the curtain down. After a short delay in which the adoring applause continued, the curtains opened again to show Sarah sitting on stage in her own clothes, no longer in character. Once the crowds finally fell silent she gave a farewell speech of almost ten minutes in length, the actress as overcome with emotion as the audience who adored her.

References and Sources

[1]   Hazlitt, William, Selected Writings. (Oxford, 2009), p. 339
[2]   Siddons, Sarah, "Remarks on the character of Lady Macbeth" as quoted in  Campbell, Thomas, Life of Mrs. Siddons. (New York, 1834). 

Perry, Gill, Spectacular Flirtations: Viewing the Actress in British Art and Theatre 1768-1820, (Yale University Press, 2007)
Perry, Gill and Roach, Joseph, The First Actresses: Nell Gwynn to Sarah Siddons, (National Portait Gallery, 2011)

Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

John Braithwaite the Elder, Engineer and Salvage Expert

by Lauren Gilbert

I live in Florida where diving is a popular sport. My attention was caught by a mention of an incident in Weymouth in 1806 when Mrs. Bennett of Cadbury accompanied “Mr. Braithwayte” in his diving machine where they stayed under water for forty minutes. Mrs. Bennett gained a certain level of fame as the “Diving Belle.” What intrigued me were Mr. Braithwaite and his diving machine. Who was he and what was he doing off the coast of Weymouth?

John Braithwaite was born probably in 1760. At any rate, it is known that he was baptized on July 20, 1760 at St. Alban’s Abbey, Hertfordshire. He was one of five children born to William and Mary Braithwaite. William was a whitesmith (a tinsmith) and engine-maker whose family had had a forge and engine shop in St. Alban’s since 1695 until he moved his business and family to Soho in 1770. (Soho was the center of London’s metal-working trade.) They worked with well sinking and pumps and engines for brewing and other trades. Diving bells having been in existence since the 16th century. John is credited with developing a significantly-improved diving machine, although the details were kept secret.

The first recorded use of this machine was 1783 when he went down into the wreck of the Royal George which had sunk off of Spithead in August of 1782. John recovered the sheet anchor, the ship’s bell, and many guns. John and his brother William bought a 40-ton sloop and went on to salvage guns from sunken vessels, Spanish and French, off the coast of Gibraltar. John worked with his older brother William raising wrecks, developing a prosperous business which resulted in John and his brother being at sea most of the time during the period 1783-1792.

In the period 1787-1792, John brought up salvage from the Hartwell which had been wrecked in 1787 off Boavista (one of the Cape Verde Islands). During this salvage, the Braithwaites encountered difficulties with American privateers who also wanted the salvaged material. John ended up with 38,000 pounds in Spanish dollars, 7000 pigs of lead, and 360 boxes of tin. During his time in the Cape Verde Islands, John met Elizabeth (or Eliza) Doyle (or Doile), a planter’s daughter. Upon their return to England, John and Elizabeth were married June 3, 1794 at St. Pancras Church. John ultimately had seven sons. The family built terrace homes and workshops in the New Road in London.

The wreck of the Earl of Abergavenny, one of the largest of the East India Company’s merchant ships, was John’s next, and possibly most famous, endeavour. This ship was captained by John Wordsworth, the brother of William Wordsworth the poet, and was loaded with a general cargo valued at 270,000 pounds. On February 5, 1805, it ran aground off Portland and was badly damaged. It sank within sight of Weymouth. The cargo included copper, tin, and other metals, Wedgwood china, and 67,000 pounds in silver dollars, among other valuables. Over 200 people drowned, included Captain John Wordsworth.

The ‘Earl of Abergavenny’, East Indiaman, Off Southsea, 1801

John was employed as a salvage expert to recover as much cargo as possible from the wreck of the Earl of Abergavenny. In order to successfully complete his task, he improved the diving equipment and developed machinery for sawing timbers under water. He brought up 75,000 pounds in dollars, tin, and other cargo worth 30,000 pounds. He then blew up the wreck with gunpowder, one of the first known underwater use of gunpowder charges. (It seems likely that this is the period when Mrs. Bennett, the “Diving Belle,” accompanied John for 40 minutes under water.)

After this successful venture, John retired and used part of the proceeds from the Earl of Abergavenny venture to purchase the Manor House, Westbourne Green, near Paddington and convenient to the business. All of his sons were in engineering-related occupations, and two of them, John (the younger) and Francis, continued the family business. I couldn’t find any references to his life after retirement. I do like to think that he was pleased with his success in this special career he carved out, the fortune he had earned, the home he provided for his family and, most of all, his sons carrying on in the family business and related fields. John died in 1818. According to a couple of sources, the cause was a stroke of paralysis. However, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography and A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland both indicate that he was attacked by a highway man and shot in the spine. He died three days later on February 2, 1818, leaving an estate of 30,000 pounds for his family and his business to his sons John and Francis. John Braithwaite was buried at St. Pancras Church.

Sources include:
Dorst & the Sea Smuggling & Shipwreck’s site The Earl of Abergavenny.”

Google Books. Skempton, Alec W., ed. A Biographical Dictionary of Civil Engineers in Great Britain and Ireland: Volume 1 1500-1830.> 2002: Thomas Telford. PP. 69-70.

Google Books. Stephen, Leslie, ed. Dictionary of National Biography Vol VI. Bottomley-Brownell. 1886: New York, MacMillan and Co.; London, Smith, Elder & Co. P. 201.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography on line. Braithwaite, William Ronald. “Braithwaite,John, the elder (bap. 1760, d. 1818).” Online ed., edited by Lawrence Goldman.

Image from Wikimedia:

The ‘Earl of Abergavenny’, East Indiaman, Off Southsea


Lauren Gilbert is the author of Heyerwood: A Novel, and lives in Florida with her husband. She earned an advanced open water certification, and they spent part of their honeymoon diving off Mexico. Find out more about Lauren and Heyerwood on her website .

Monday, July 28, 2014

Legio IX Hispana : The ‘Ninth’

by David Coles

The Roman Legions – even the phrase quickens the heartbeat. Stuff out of legend but, in fact, everything you’ve ever heard about them is probably true.

A Roman legion consisted of a force in excess of 5000 legionaries and there may have been up to 50 legions in the Roman army although this total varied throughout the 500 or so years of history because of disbanding, merging and raising new units. At its height, the Army probably numbered more than a million men.

‘Probably’ becomes an over-used word  in the history of the Ninth, including the raising of the Legion in the first place. Julius Caesar raised the original Ninth Legion but this was disbanded following Caesar’s final victory. After Julius Caesar’s assassination, the Ninth’s veterans were recalled to fight against the rebellion in Sicily after which they were sent to Macedonia then to Hispania which led to their nickname Hispana, which meant ‘stationed in Hispania’.

Later, the Ninth went to the uneasy border of the Rhine lands to campaign against the Germanic tribes and then to Pannonia – very roughly, the area we know as the Balkans.

Now, ‘probably’ comes thick and fast. They were probably involved in Claudius’ invasion of Britain. Here, they constructed the fort at Lincoln and put down the first revolt by Venutius but suffered serious defeat in Boudicca’s rebellion. They were reinforced with some 2000 legionaries from the German provinces and moved on to York where they constructed a new fort.

These lads got around. The cavalry were mounted, of course, but the infantry marched; the top speed of the Legion was limited to that of the slowest: the oxen which drew the wagons. So, a legion would move at three to four roman miles an hour (a mile = 1000 paces) for about six hours a day; in a forced march, they would make five miles an hour in full battle gear. Marching from one side of the Empire to the other was not a task undertaken lightly.

The legionaries who made up the bulk of the Ninth were unlikely to have included many Romans. The original veterans would have been augmented as they retired or died by recruits from the areas they controlled – Germany, the Balkans, Spain and some from Britain. This seems to have been general policy – such a broadly based force would have little sympathy for the local population and therefore, the possibility of collaboration would be minimized.

Probably, the biggest ‘probably’ of all concerns the apparent disappearance of the Ninth Hispana from the history books. How, why and where?

The academics are divided into three groups each espousing a different ending… a massive defeat in Scotland, official disbandment and the favourite – the Legion was moved to the eastern Empire where it suffered defeat in the Jewish revolt or at the hands of the Parthians. There is scant, if any, evidence for these scenarios and each occasions a certain amount of sneering from the other factions.

A forth possibility remains – it may be that the Legion just faded away… A legion had its own engineers, construction crews, surveyors, blacksmiths and the legionaries themselves doubled as grunt labourers. The Ninth had long experience in construction, their last project being the rebuilding of Hadrian’s Wall in stone rather than the original turf with extensions at either end. The work was completed to strict plans from the distant administration departments; there is at least one example of a mile castle with a gateway overlooking a 100 foot drop at the doorstep! Oh yes, bureaucracy was in full flower 2000 years ago.

It seems possible, therefore, that the Legion was split up and moved to other units requiring these skills – a gradual decline rather than some terrible mishap. An AD108 record of Legions omits the name entirely suggesting just such an administrative demise rather than a spectacular defeat.

The popular concept of a legionary’s life is one of fighting: putting down rebellion, preventing raids, punitive expeditions. In reality there were long periods of comparative peace. Hadrian’s Wall itself was a line on the ground – this is the end of Empire! It was also a customs post, the Ninth allowed trade in cattle and hunting dogs, minerals, textiles and these were inspected at the gateways and taxed as necessary. Many officers and higher-ranking legionaries took local wives although always on the understanding that they might be abandoned if the Legion moved on. Retiring legionaries often chose to stay where they were; granted an acre of land to farm; with a local wife, perhaps children, it could be an appealing prospect after 25 years of service.


The Last Free Men
by Jack Everett and David Coles

In 2008, we spent a long weekend walking the route of Hadrian’s Wall in the North of England. Initially, this was a guys’ get-away-break with no literary intentions. However, one evening, we came to a place where the Wall had once crossed the little river Irthing, a place called Willowford today. There was a quay, the remains of a causeway with sluiceways and across the river, a tumble of stone blocks marking the course of the Wall where the river’s erosion had ruined the original stepped ascent. We were entranced.

It was near sunset, birds sang, the river gurgled, otherwise all was silent. Quite plainly in our mind’s eyes, we could see the raiders of 2000 years ago making their way down the steep gorge left by a stream and then floating down with the river current. Unseen, they squirmed through the sluice ways, gained the bank on the south side and fell on the unsuspecting Romans from the back.

The fort at Banna was only a mile or so distant but out of sight beyond the high bank. The first the garrison knew was when the flames of the burning mile castle and wall turrets rose into the night air. Too late, much to late…

That was where our book was born.

But a gradual depletion of the Ninth’s force was not the stuff of adventure, nor the administrative decision to move them to a new theatre. We championed the defeat in Scotland. A British-born scout from the fort at Vircovicium, groomed by the local Druid leader, unites the tribes north of the Wall. The Roman force is lured into a chosen killing ground and wiped out almost, but not quite, to a man.

Buy this or our other books at Amazon via our website:

Note: Hadrian’s Wall is now a protected English Heritage site, fenced off from farm and common land and with a gravel path alongside. A modern metal footbridge spans the river near Willowford making it an easy matter to walk from a nearby car park. To the writer’s mind, it takes away much of the romance of place.

… David Coles

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Giveaway: Everyone wins an ecopy of In the Shadow of Tyranny

Chris Westcott is giving away Kindle copies of In the Shadow of Tyranny - A Novel of Ancient Rome from July 28 through 30. After that date you can leave a comment and contact information on this post to receive a free copy. You can read about the book HERE.

The Death of the Bishop's Poisoner

By Nancy Bilyeau

On April 5, 1531, hardened spectators of public punishment gathered at Smithfield, joined, perhaps, by others who were too ghoulish or genuinely curious to stay away. For an execution had been announced of a type that none had witnessed in their lifetimes, nor ever heard of.

The condemned man, Richard Roose, was not of the magnitude of criminal expected to meet his end at Smithfield. This was the ground where the English executed the fearless Scottish rebel William Wallace: hanged, drawn and quartered in 1305. Wat Tyler, the leader of the Peasant's Revolt, was run through with a sword at Smithfield in 1381, in the presence of young Richard II.

Death of Wat Tyler, at left, in a 14th century depiction of Smithfield

Roose, the victim of 1531, had not sought to harm King Henry VIII nor Queen Catherine nor any royal councilor. He had not tried to overthrow the nation's government nor change its religious policies. Roose, a cook in the service of Bishop John Fisher, was accused of murder by poison, his victims an obscure gentleman in the bishop's household and a destitute widow. He is believed to have admitted to the poisoning but claimed it has a joke gone wrong, an accident.  There is no testimony to examine because Roose had no common-law trial, by command of the king.

John Fisher, sketch by Hans Holbein the Younger

Moreover, Roose was boiled alive at Smithfield without benefit of clergy. In the words of the Greyfriars Chronicle of London, a contemporary document:
This year was a cook boiled in a cauldron in Smithfield for he would have poisoned the bishop of Rochester Fisher with divers of his servants and he was locked in a chain and pulled up and down with a gibbet at divers times until he was dead."
Roose's crime, the legal method of his condemnation and finally the form of punishment create a bizarre chain of events that, in a more modern age, might well have raised questions of motive in several parties, including Henry VIII. Although there is no question of who did the killing, this is still a Tudor murder mystery.

Roose's death by boiling preceded the period of brutality Henry VIII is well known for. In 1531, Anne Boleyn and Catherine Howard were still alive, as were Sir Thomas More and Lord Privy Seal Thomas Cromwell. The most noteworthy execution up to that time in the reign was of Henry Stafford, third duke of Buckingham, beheaded at the Tower following a trial in which he was found guilty of conspiring against the king.

So why did Henry VIII demand this punishment of a lowly cook? Why was Roose executed as a traitor when his crime was murder? The answer lies in the King's complex feelings for Bishop Fisher, whom many assume was the target of the poisoning attempt. Fisher did not eat the soup--sometimes described as porridge--that Roose prepared and so was unharmed.

John Fisher, a devoted patron of Cambridge, served the King's family in three generations: He was the chaplain of the King's pious grandmother, Margaret Beaufort. He was made bishop of Rochester by Henry VII in 1504. Fisher gave the funeral services for mother and son when they died, within months of each other, in 1509. In the first 20 years of the reign of Henry VIII, Fisher was considered "the greatest Catholic theologian in Europe, without any rival," writes Eamon Duffy. The English king was proud of his Bishop's fame, and once asked a young Reginald Pole whether "in all the cities and places where learned and good men might be best known, I had found such as learned man as the bishop of Rochester."

Statue of Fisher at St John's College, Cambridge

But in 1531 King Henry was no longer proud of Bishop Fisher, then 62 years of age. It would be safe to say he considered him an enemy. And it would have made the King's life much easier if Fisher were to lose his--if he had consumed the soup.

Henry VIII

Once Henry VIII decided to pursue an annulment from Catherine of Aragon and marry Anne Boleyn, Fisher became one of his most serious obstacles. The question of the royal marriage was a theological one, and if Europe's most respected theologian had agreed in the rightness of King Henry's cause, it would have done much to bring about the annulment. But Fisher took the side of Catherine of Aragon, vigorously and openly. The marriage was legal and could not be dissolved. The king and Cardinal Thomas Wolsey put increasing pressure on him to cease his opposition--to no avail. He refused to sign a statement of support from the clergy that Archbishop of Canterbury Warham submitted to the king, and when Warham said the statement had unanimous support, Fisher said loudly, to the King's face, that that was a lie.

To understand how strained affairs must have been between king and bishop, consider the chronology:

In 1529, Bishop Fisher said loudly at the legatine trial of the marriage that it would impossible to die more gloriously than in the cause of marriage, as John the Baptist did.

In that same year, when a proposal came to Parliament to dissolve the smaller abbeys--the beginning of Henry VIII's destruction of the Catholic monasteries as part of his break from Rome--Fisher "openly resisted it with all the force he could."

In 1530 he devoted himself to writing books defending the cause of the King's first wife--he would publish seven in all.

In December 1530, Fisher was summoned to the house of Archbishop Warham and there, with a compliant bishop and two of the King's legal advisers, ordered to retract his writings and take the King's side. He did not.

In January 1531, Henry VIII received letters from the Pope telling him that he must order Anne Boleyn from the court and that if he were to marry her before a divorce from Catherine of Aragon was decided, he would face excommunication.

The quest for a divorce was not going well.

Enter one Richard Roose. One of Fisher's earliest biographers, Richard Hall, wrote in 1655 the most complete account of the poisoning. He is the only source to say that Roose was not the chief cook in Fisher's household:
"After this the Bishop escaped a very great danger. For one Richard Rose came into they Bishop's kitchen (being acquainted with the cook) at his house in Lambeth-marsh, and having provided a quantity of deadly poison, while the cook went into the buttery to fetch him some drink, he took his opportunity to throw that poison into a mess of gruel, which was prepared for the Bishop's dinner. And after he had waited there a while, he went on his way.
But so it happened that when the Bishop was called into his dinner, he had no appetite for any meat but wished his servants to fall to and be of good cheer, and that he would not eat till toward night. And they that did eat of the poisoned dish were miserably infected. And whereof one gentleman, named Mr. Bennet Curwen and an old widow, died suddenly, and the rest never recovered their health till their dying day."
Roose was soon apprehended, and admitted to adding what he believed were laxatives to the soup as a "jest." No one believed him.

Ambassador Eustace Chapuys wrote a slightly different version to his master, Charles V, the nephew of Catherine of Aragon:
They say that the cook, having been immediately arrested... confessed at once that he had actually put into the broth some powders, which he had been given to understand would only make his fellow servants very sick without endangering their lives or doing them any harm. I have not yet been able to understand who it was who gave the cook such advice, nor for what purpose."
Sir Thomas More, the chancellor, informed Henry VIII that there were rumors that Anne Boleyn and her father and brother, Thomas and George Boleyn, were involved in the poisoning attempt. The king reacted angrily, saying Anne Boleyn was unfairly blamed for everything, including the weather.

Anne Boleyn

The murder motive and the question of a larger plot were soon obscured by Henry VIII's drastic actions. He decided that Roose should be condemned by attainder without a trial--a measure usually used for criminals who were at large. Roose was in prison. Parliament passed "An Acte for Poysoning," making willful murder by means of poison high treason even if the victim was not head of the government of the land. And boiling to death became a form of legal capital punishment. This crime was especially heinous, the king's representatives said, and thus called for such measures.

As historian K.J. Kesselring wrote in "The English Historical Review, "This may explain the severe, exemplary punishment of boiling, but not the need to label the offense treason."

Chapuys questioned the King's actions in his letter to Emperor Charles. Regardless of the "demonstrations of sorrow he makes he will not be able to divert suspicion." But no accusations were made, of course. And in April the crowds of Smithfield witnessed Roose's death, to their horror. According to an eyewitness:
"He roared mighty loud, and divers women who were big with child did feel sick at the sight of what they saw, and were carried away half dead; and other men and women did not seem frightened by the boiling alive, but would prefer to see the headsman at his work." 
There are several coda's to this story.

When, after the king married Anne Boleyn, Bishop Fisher refused to swear an oath of supremacy to the king, he was arrested. The pope made Fisher a cardinal but it only enraged the king more. After a difficult imprisonment, during which he was continually pressured to sign the oath and refused, Fisher was beheaded on June 22, 1535 on Tower Hill. The crowd gasped when they saw him on the scaffold for he was "nothing...but skin and bones...the flesh clean wasted away, and a very image of death." In his speech to the crowd, Fisher is said to have shown a calm dignity. As Eamon Duffy writes, "Maybe absolute integrity is destined always to fall afoul of absolute power."

A plaque on Tower Hill commemorating Fisher and others executed there in reigns of Henry VII and Henry VIII

Fisher's head was stuck on a pole on London Bridge, as was the custom with traitors.

But then something very disturbing happened. According to Fisher's biographer:
"And here I cannot omit to declare to you the miraculous sight of his head, which after 14 days grew fresher and fresher, for that in his lifetime he never looked so well.... the face looked as if it beholdeth the people passing by and would have spoken to them. Which many took as a miracle."
Rumors swept through London of the miracle of Fisher's head, drawing thick crowds to look on it, until "an executioner was commanded to throw down the head in the night time into the Thames." All of these reports were said to have unnerved King Henry.

Condemning someone by attainder, without common-law trial, used for the first time in this way on Roose, was employed for a range of accused in the reign, from the mystic nun Elizabeth Barton to Thomas Cromwell to Queen Catherine Howard. None of them was allowed a proper defense in a trial.

Boiling to death was employed once again,  in 1542 for a woman, Margaret Davy, who had used poison to murder her employer.

Smithfield today

Then, in the reign of the King's son, Edward VI, in 1547, the 1531 act was quietly repealed. No one was ever lowered into a boiling cauldron again, for whatever reason, in Smithfield.

And John Fisher was beatified by Pope Leo XIII in 1886.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical mysteries set in the reign of King Henry VIII, published in nine countries: The Crown, The Chalice and The Tapestry. The Crown opens at Smithfield. To learn more, go to

Saturday, July 26, 2014

And So To Bed ..

by Anne O'Brien

How important was a bed?

A bed was perhaps the most important item in a medieval royal and noble household, not only for sleeping but as the principal seating throughout the day for most activities within the lord's private chamber. In fact it might be the only piece of furniture in the room other than a chair or stool. The term bed included all the hangings, cushions, mattresses - stuffed with wool or feathers - sheets, pillows and covering.

We know of the importance of beds because they frequently figure in household accounts, they were items of major importance in wills, and, fortunately for us today, often figure in illuminated manuscripts and illuminated letters showing births, marriages and deaths, so that we are able to see what splendid items of furniture they were and how much work went into their creation. Great pride was taken in the possession of a bed, particularly by those who aspired to move up the social ranks.

The state bed of Henry III in the Painted Chamber at Westminster is recorded as having posts coloured green, powdered with gold stars with a canopy over it. We have no image of it, but this is a superb replica of the bed of Edward I in the royal apartments in the Tower of London.

The bed of Joan de Valence was made to be transported within its own bag by a sumpter horse. In August 1297 eighty rings and cords for curtains were purchased, as well as a pavilion to be erected over the bed, and set up in Joan's chamber, with a cresset light that burned each night. This might have been suspended within the canopy of the bed itself.

The bedding made for Bogo de Clare in 1285 included a quilt embroidered with red-haired sirens ( now there's an image!), with a mattress of lined red sindon (fine linen) stuffed with wool.

In 1348 amongst the items prepared for Princess Joan's intended marriage to Pedro of Castile, a bed was produced from the royal household collection. It was of red sindon worked with fighting dragons, embroidered in silk, powdered with gold besants and with a vine leaf decoration in the border. Obviously a bed fit for a queen.

The letters and accounts of the ubiquitous Paston family are an excellent source for beds and their furnishings. The family before it rose in the social scale used blue buckram and worsted for canopies and curtains. Of a more superior nature, at Caister Castle there were sets of tapestry for a bed showing a 'lady crowned, and a great roll about her head, the first letter N.' Also tapestries with a fringe of red, green and white silk with a tester of the same colours. In her will, Dame Elizabeth Browne left to her heirs no less than seven feather beds, most of them described as 'overworn.'

Sir John Fastolf possessed a silk coverlet lined with buckram, another made of green and blue silk, a third of pale green and white with leaves of gold. And for another of the bedrooms a magnificent green coverlet decorated with spots and ostrich feathers. Even Sir John's cook had a coverlet covered with roses and blood-hounds' heads - a comment on his value in the household.

Nor were bishops immune from such items of value. No poverty embraced here. Richard Gravesend, Bishop f London 1280 - 1303, owned a coverlet of scarlet, furred with miniver valued at £5. Thomas Bitton, Bishop of Exeter 1292-1307 owned two beds, one with covers of fox fur and silk and fifteen sheets of fine linen. John de Sandale, Bishop of Winchester 1316 - 19 owned a mattress, cover, curtains and canopy in blue samite, a rich silk, valued at over £6.

As for the value of a bed to be willed to one's heirs:

Joan, the Fair maid of Kent, mother of Richard II died in 1385, leaving in her will three magnificent beds.

- To my dear son the King, my new bed of red velvet, embroidered with ostrich feathers of silver, and heads of leopards of gold with boughs and leaves issuing out of their mouths.

- To my dear son Thomas Earl of Kent, my bed of red camak (silk) paled with red and rays of gold.

- To my dear son John Holland, a bed of red camak.

John, Duke of Lancaster, who died in 1399 left his beds to Katherine Swynford who was by this time in their relationship his Duchess.

- also my large bed of black velvet, embroidered with a circle of fetter-locks, and garters

- and all the beds made for my body called in England 'trussing beds' (which were beds used when travelling.)

Thus the importance of the medieval bedchamber, for sleeping, for begetting an heir, for carrying out the business of the day, for luxurious comfort and, last but by no means least, for making an impression on your guests, both peers and inferiors.


Visit my website for news of my new historical novel, THE KING'S SISTER, the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster, daughter of John of Gaunt and Elizabeth of Lancaster.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Barlings Abbey by Elizabeth Ashworth

The remains of Barlings Abbey lie in remote countryside seven miles from Lincoln. Above ground there is little left to see, except a small part of the nave of the abbey church. The site is mostly grassed over, although the mounds from which some remaining stones peep out hint at the magnificent buildings that once stood here.

The abbey was founded in 1154 by 13 canons from the first English Premonstratensian order at Newsham Abbey near Grimsby. The land was given to the order by Ralf de Haya, son of the constable of Lincoln Castle, and the abbey was built on an island, Oxeney, the island of the ox, which was raised above the low lying fens. The canons also built a causeway to connect the abbey to higher ground, and that causeway still forms the course of the twisting lanes that lead through the fields to the site.

Agriculture, and particularly wool production, made Barlings Abbey one of the richest and most influential of the Premonstratensian houses in England. It became even more influential than its mother house. The canons wore a white habit and cap and were known as the white canons. Unlike ordinary monks, they did not always stay within the cloisters of the abbey, but served as village priests and missionaries in the local community.  

I visited Barlings Abbey whilst researching for my latest novel, Favoured Beyond Fortune. The book tells the story of Alicia de Lacy, who is buried here alongside her second husband Eble le Strange. Alice’s links with the abbey go back to its foundation. She is a descendant of Ralph de Haya through her mother Margaret.  Both Alicia and her mother are also descended from Nicola de la Haye, famously known for defending  Lincoln Castle against a siege in the reign of King John.  Nicola is buried at the church of St Michael at Swaton, and when Alicia’s lands were forcibly taken from her after the execution of her first husband Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, she pleaded to be allowed to endow the manor and church of Swaton to Barlings Abbey for prayers for her soul and the souls of her parents, brother and ancestors. When her second husband, Eble le Strange, died in Scotland in 1335, his body was brought home and buried at Barlings Abbey. On her death in 1348, Alice asked to be buried beside him.

Barlings was the location of a meeting on 7th September 1328 between Henry of Lancaster and Roger Mortimer with the young Edward III. Lancaster came with an armed entourage, challenged Mortimer’s power over the king and told him that he had an army and was not afraid to use it. Mortimer eventually overcame Henry of Lancaster, but was in his turn overthrown by the king. You can read more about the story in my new novel The Circle of Fortune.

From 1334 to 1360, the abbey church was rebuilt through the generosity of Edward III who lodged at Barlings on at least three occasions. Two of the abbots, Thomas and Alexander, were granted special protection and exempted from payments of tithes, and according to Heritage Lincolnshire one of Edward's chaplains was a canon of Barlings. 

When Bishop Redman visited Barlings Abbey in 1488, there were twenty canons besides the abbot. In 1491, another visitation warned the canons against the adoption of new fashions and the unnecessary ornamentation of their habits. In 1494, the visitor had nothing to censure except the disregard of these admonitions as to the habit of the brethren, and especially the wearing of slippers. 

A large number of bequests to the poor were paid from Barlings Abbey until its dissolution: £18 to thirteen poor persons every year in memory of Alice de Lacy, Countess of Lincoln; 6s. 8d. in memory of John of Gaunt and his wives; on Maundy Thursday and the feasts of St. Nicholas and St. Thomas of Canterbury, to every poor person who came to the gate, a loaf of bread and a herring.

The last abbot was Michael Mackarel. At Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries he was charged with treason after being accused of involvement with the Lincolnshire Rising.  He was imprisoned in Lincoln Castle and later taken to the Tower of London where he admitted taking money, plate and vestments from the abbey so that the monks would not be left destitute. He was hanged in March 1537 and later beatified by Pope Leo XIII. The abbey church was defaced. The lead was stripped from the roofs and melted down. The abbey land and abbey possessions were given to Charles, Duke of Suffolk.

Some parts of the cloister range survived until the 18th century. The central tower of the church finally collapsed in 1757, but not before its appearance was recorded in an engraving by Samuel Buck in 1726.

The site of the abbey is now private land, but access is available via a footpath.

Giveaway: The Abduction of Anne O'Donel by Paul McNulty

Paul is giving away in ecopy of The Abduction of Anne O'Donel. You can read about the book HERE. Please comment below to enter the drawing. Be sure to leave your contact information.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Sinuous and Deadly Beauty: Pattern Welded Swords

The hard-edged blade with its woven patterns quivers and trembles; grasped with terrible sureness, it flashes into changing hues.
- excerpt from the Anglo-Saxon poem Elene. Translated by H.R. Ellis Davidson

The sinuous curves of a pattern welded blade, crafted by master
 weapon smith Robert P. Shyan-Norwalt. For a detailed tutorial
of his work, see The Creation of a Pattern Welded Blade.
Photographs by Melissa Shayan-Norwalt

A good sword is strong, flexible, and light. Lacking high-quality iron ore, Anglo-Saxon (and earlier) weapon-smiths devised the technique of pattern welding to impart desired flexibility and strength to their sword blades.

Simply put, pattern welding is the art of hammering together, and then twisting and re-hammering layers of iron (often of varying strengths) in a charcoal fire to add the one per cent of carbon critical to the blade's flexibility. A brittle blade is the sword of a dead man, for it is a sword that breaks under the stresses of combat.

The many layers of steel prior to heating, hammering, and twisting.

Pattern welded swords show a distinct interwoven figuring in the steel that imparted an especial beauty and visual liveliness to the blade. Twisting, heating, and hammering drives the crystalline structure of the steel to form the wavy, watery pattern which the technique produces. Shaping and grinding the rough blade into finished shape reveals differing levels of the respective layers. Weapon-smiths further emphasized this figuring by acid etching. Amongst the materials weapon-smiths had at their disposal for this purpose were tannic acid, vinegar-produced acetic acid, urine (that indispensable by-product which found its way into so much early manufacture), sour beer, and various acidic fruit juices. Tannic acid would have given a blade a dramatic blue-black colouring, and helped protect it from rust.

At the end of the 5th century Cassiodorus described pattern welded sword made by the Teutonic Warni tribe:

The central part of their blades, cunningly hollowed out, appears to be grained with tiny snakes, and here such varied shadows play that you would believe the shining metal to be interwoven with many colours.

The snake-like pattern that so impressed Cassiodorus is caused by viewing the hammered, twisted layers of steel on edge, as it were. As in the excerpt from the poem Elene, in which the poet speaks of the blade's changing hues, Cassiodorus takes delight in the sword's "many colours."

The term "pattern welding" is a modern one, coined in 1947 by researcher Herbert Maryon upon examination of an Anglo-Saxon sword found in a heathen burial from Ely. It was he who also determined that inscriptions in sword blades were created by the insertion of narrow iron rods into the white-hot blade. After reheating the inlaid inscription would be hammered flush into the surface of the blade.

Weapon smith Robert P. Shyan-Norwalt at the forge;
the steel bundle is 1800 degrees F.

The process is an ancient one. The Celts as far back as the 8th century BCE may have made swords by pattern welding, and the Anglo-Saxons and Vikings used the technique extensively until the end of the 9th century CE. Because the intertwined and hammered layers of softer and harder iron had varying cutting ability, often an edge of high carbon steel was welded to the nearly completed blade, allowing a consistently sharp edge to be ground along the length of the sword. All of this was highly labour intensive, and the makers of pattern welded words were justly esteemed and rewarded in society. By the 10th century better, more consistent iron ore was obtainable via import in Britain, and furnace technology improved, making this laborious technique unnecessary - and swords the less glorious for it.

Yet practical knowledge of pattern welding in the West was not completely lost. In 1771, Jean Jacques Perret in his illustrated L'Art du Coutelier (The Art of the Cutler) describes in detail the making of pattern welded blades, praising them for their superior beauty and strength. He refers to such blades as "Damascus", a confusion which has persisted many centuries. True Damascus steel blades, gun stocks, and other objects with their beautiful figuring are not pattern welded, but instead forged from iron ore heated with carbon inside a closed crucible. "Damascus steel" forged from the cakes of steely, high-carbon-content iron called wootz likely originated in the Hyderabad region India and dates from between 200 BCE to 200 CE. The material spread both Eastward and Westward from there, with Romans importing the cakes for their own blade making.

Seax created by Robert P. Shyan-Norwalt.  The seax was the distinctive
angle-bladed hand weapon which took its name from the Saxons.

 In the 1950's Englishman John Anstee successfully duplicated the pattern welded technique used by Anglo-Saxon and Viking weapon-smiths. During the course of his research he found that due to the crystalline nature of iron, he could produce wavy patterns on the finished blade even without layering wrought iron and steel, but by simply twisting the heated metal. Such blades however lacked the most important qualities of pattern welding, its superior strength and flexibility. He was also able to determine that old blades exhibiting a herringbone pattern and those with curving patterns were not structurally different; rust had removed the curving pattern in some, leaving only the herringbone figuring.

Interested in swords, and their importance to society? Hilda Ellis Davidson is a great expert, and her excellent book The Sword in Anglo-Saxon England is full of fascinating information, including complete details of John Anstee's recreation of pattern welding. A more recent work, covering all weaponry utilized by Anglo-Saxon warriors, is The English Warrior from Earliest Times to 1066 by Stephen Pollington ( Anglo-Saxon Books, 1996) a treasure trove of information about the men and their weapons. For more about Damascus iron work, see On Damascus Steel by Leo Figiel (The Print Center, NY 1991). Modern American weapon smith Robert P. Shyan-Norwalt’s detailed two part tutorial, The Creation of a Pattern Welded Blade, contains many photos and technical advice.

Octavia Randolph is the author of  The Circle of Ceridwen Saga, all four of which are happily nestled on  Amazon's Top Twenty Best Sellers for Women's Adventure. Young women with courage. Swords with names. Vikings with tattoos. Warfare. Passion. Survival. Sheep. And Other Good Things...

Book Four
Book Two
Book Three

Book One

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The English Princess - beloved wife and mother

by Anna Belfrage

Margaret of Connaught
In 1905, the Swedish Heir Apparent, Gustav Adolf (later Gustav VI Adolf) married Princess Margaret of Connaught, granddaughter to Queen Victoria. They met earlier that same year in Egypt, when Margaret and her sister were being presented to various eligible partners – although I think Egypt was something of a detour.

Gustav Adolf was actually in Capri visiting his mother when he received the invitation to a ball in Cairo in honour of the Connaught girls, and something must have piqued his interest already then - or maybe he just wanted to dance the night away, virtuoso dancer that he was. Whatever the case, off he went to Egypt. It is said it was love at first sight between the pretty English princess and the tall and dark haired Swedish prince. In actual fact, the idea was that the prince was to wed Margaret’s sister, but the moment he clapped eyes on Margaret, well, Gustav Adolf was lost, and after a whirlwind courtship the young couple were married at St George’s Chapel, Windsor Castle, attended by a crowd of royals.

Gustav Adolf
This spontaneous behaviour was most uncharacteristic of Gustav Adolf – and of his rather stiff and formal family. Or maybe not so stiff, come to think of it, but more about that later. Gustav Adolf and his two brothers were the product of a dynastic marriage between the future King Gustav V of Sweden and Victoria of Baden, granddaughter to the German emperor, Wilhelm I. Initially, this young couple was very affectionate towards each other, and over the course of seven years Victoria would produce three sons – one heir and two spares.

By then, Victoria and Gustav led quite separate lives, this dictated to a large extent by Victoria’s declining health which required she spend the winters as far away from Sweden as possible. Things were not improved when Victoria, during a trip with her husband to Egypt, apparently dallied with one of the royal adjutants, and from Gustav’s letters home, he was more than torn apart by her betrayal. Victoria went on to spend most of her time and affection on Axel Munthe, the royal doctor who attended on both Victoria and her husband, while Gustav was supposedly to develop a preference for young men – as I said, not all that stiff and formal after all...

With their mother mostly away from home, the two young princes, Gustav Adolf and Wilhelm, were left in the care of their paternal grandmother, Swedish Queen Sofia. (The youngest boy was sickly and cared for elsewhere) The queen had been an eager supporter of Victoria as wife to her eldest son, but over time the two ladies developed an active dislike of each other, and Sofia was more than pleased to involve herself deeply in the day-to-day lives of her grandsons - preferably to countermand Victoria's instructions.

When Victoria was in Sweden, life was led according to rules. Victoria was strict and structured, and showed little overt affection for her sons. When Victoria was away, life was also led according to rules – Sofia’s rules – and while Queen Sofia has a reputation for being a kind lady, she was also stickler for protocol – royals had to behave as behoved royals.

By the time Gustav Adolf met Margaret in 1905, I think he was pretty sick of rules and protocols. And when he saw her, he decided that this was one opportunity at happiness he had no intention of letting slip through his fingers, ergo that most unusual burst of spontaneity and determination.

With Margaret - or Daisy, as her family knew her - English customs entered Swedish life. With Margaret, Sweden saw an upswing in flowered wallpaper, in tea consumption and in gardening. With Margaret, the wide-eyed Swedish populace saw pictures of their princess – their blue-blooded English princess – digging her own garden beds and laughing with her husband. Some of those flower beds she so meticulously planned and planted have been restored and can be viewed at Sofiero, the little palace she and Gustav Adolf converted into their summer house.

In retrospect, Margaret and Gustav Adolf seem to have been very happy together. While this is great news for them, it leaves the aspiring writer bereft of “tension”, the inherent conflict that has the reader’s eyes glued to the page. But when one starts scraping the surface, there are some streaks of darkness that come to life – like Gustav Adolf’s supposed affair with an actress, or the young man who insisted he was Gustav Adolf’s son. The king, as he was then, never uttered a word either confirming of rebutting this particular story.

And then we have the fact that it must have been very difficult for Margaret to adapt from her life in England to the stilted dreariness of the Swedish court. Where Gustav Adolf had captured a vibrant butterfly, an injection of energy and colour in his rather staid and boring life, Margaret had netted a handsome man who had little reason to believe in the longevity of happiness – he had seen first-hand how his parents’ marriage collapsed. But Margaret was not a quitter, and besides she was very much in love with this husband of hers, with his cleft chin and sensuous mouth, with the low timbre of his voice.

In 1906 came the first of the couple’s children – a prince, joy of joys, thereby ensuring Margaret had done her duty. Named after his father, the little boy thrived, and one year later he was joined in the nursery by boy number two, little Sigvard. To the astonishment of the Swedish court, Princess Margaret insisted on being very involved in the lives of her children – a most odd and English notion as per the older members of the royal family. Margaret didn’t care, in matter such as these she trusted her instincts.

Even odder, Margaret insisted her children be dressed in comfortable clothes, with comfortable shoes, so that they could run wild and crazy through the grounds of Sofiero. Not, let me tell you, the way Swedish royal children had been raised previously. What, little princes to come in with twigs in their hair and mud-caps on their knees? And look at their nails, their hands, covered with dirt. Once again, Princess Margaret smiled serenely and shrugged. And as to her husband, Gustav Adolf was as happy as a calf in clover with his loud and boisterous family. What he had never experienced as a child, he now tried to compensate himself for as an adult, supported by his loving wife.

A happy family upon the birth of child nr 4, Bertil
In 1910, a little girl, Ingrid, was born, in 1912 yet another son, Bertil, and in 1916 came the baby, Carl Johan. Five children in ten years. Margaret looks a bit pale and strained in the pictures from this time, as if all this child-bearing was taking quite the toll on her. But nonetheless they were happy and busy, the children thrived as did the gardens, and it was year after year of marital bliss.

In 1919, Margaret became pregnant again. She was thirty-seven at the time, still young enough for the pregnancy not to be a concern. The baby was due in June of the following year, and everything seemed to be progressing as it should. Until Princess Margaret caught a cold. Not a major issue, one would assume – as did Margaret and Gustav Adolf. She sniffled and coughed for some days, she sniffled some more and started complaining that her ear hurt. A lot. An ear infection, no more, the doctors diagnosed. An ear infection that went very bad, developing into a full-blown mastoiditis.  From one day to the other, the Princess went from being eight months pregnant with an aching ear to being dead, leaving her five children motherless and her husband utterly bereft.

Sweden’s English princess was dead. The English butterfly that had so captivated her husband, bringing colour and light into his life, was gone. I imagine Gustav Adolf took a long walk in the gardens she had planned, in the greenhouse she had ordered, sinking down to sit on her favourite perch. His happy family was gone, his brief excursion into a world dominated by love and laughter was at end. Gustav Adolf retreated into the protective armour of protocol and rules.

Louise Mountbatten
In 1923, Gustav Adolf married yet another English lady of royal blood, Louise Mountbatten. Theirs was to be a very long if childless marriage, and by all accounts Gustav Adolf was as lucky in his second marriage as in his first, finding in Louise a woman who was capable of great affection. Not as strikingly beautiful as Margaret, at times painfully shy, Louise compensated by being well-read and interested in everything from politics to social welfare, a good companion to her erudite and equally well-read husband. (As an aside, Gustav Adolf left a library consisting of 80 000 books - and he had read them all)
But despite all her qualities, despite her husband's affection for her, I believe that there were very many days when Louise felt she lived in the shadow of her predecessor and close relative, the oh so beautiful, oh so loved Princess Margaret of Connaught.

Anna Belfrage is the successful author of six published books, all of them part of The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, The Graham Saga is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him

Anna's books are available on Amazon US, Amazon UK, or wherever else good books are sold.

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website! If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog or on FB