Friday, October 31, 2014

The Brown Lady of Raynham Hall

By Catherine Curzon

It was quite by accident that I scheduled myself for the Halloween slot here on the blog but, given my love of all things ghostly, most fortuitous too. With one eye on the date and one on my beloved glorious Georgians, there could really only be one topic for me today and that is the sad fate of Dorothy Townshend, aka the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.

The unfortunate Dorothy Townshend (pictured below) was born Dorothy Walpole on 18th September 1686 at Houghton Hall, Norfolk. As a daughter of Robert Walpole and Mary Burwell, she was the sister of the legendary Sir Robert Walpole, now widely considered to be the first man to hold the office of Prime Minister of Great Britain. For Dorothy, though, life was not destined to be quite so illustrious as that particular sibling. 

In her youth Dorothy took something of a fancy to Charles, 2nd Viscount Townshend (pictured bottom left), who had been left under Walpole's guardianship by his father. Though the young couple were devoted to one another Walpole forbade the marriage, preferring that Townshend make his own way in the world, sure that there would be allegations of nepotism, undue influence and possibly worse should he permit the union.

Townshend and Dorothy gave up on their dreams of marriage and the Viscount married another, leaving the woman who adored him utterly alone. Of course, no intelligent, beautiful, rich young woman is left alone for long and soon Dorothy fell under the influence of Philip Wharton, 1st Duke of Wharton and later founder of the notorious Hellfire Club. Dorothy's affair with Wharton was passionate and heated and though it was over quickly, it was to cast a long shadow even after Wharton fled his creditors and Dorothy was left, once again, alone.

Lady Dorothy Walpole
For once though, Cupid seemed to be smiling on the young lady and Townshend, now widowed, returned to claim her hand. The couple were finally married and together had seven children which should be the happy conclusion to this tale but of course, that wouldn't be much of a story for Halloween.

Instead, things eventually began to go downhill in the Townshend household at Raynham Hall and inevitably, word of the earlier affair eventually reached the Viscount's ears. He was furious at his wife's youthful indiscretion and ordered that she be locked up in her rooms, never to know freedom again. Here Dorothy remained for more than a year until her sad incarceration was ended by a dose of smallpox aged just forty. The official explanation struck some commentators as a little too convenient and there was gossip that the unhappy woman, despairing at what her life had become, had thrown herself down the stairs at Raynham Hall or, worse still, had been cast down them by her enraged husband, though suspicions were to remain unfounded.

Charles Townshend, 2nd Viscount Townshend by Sir Godfrey Kneller
Dorothy's story doesn't end there though and it seems that, according to some, her incarceration at Raynham Hall continues to this day. Many guests at the house have made reports of a ghostly apparition and our very own Prinny, better known as the future George IV, stayed at the house during the Regency and left in quite a hurry after being surprised by "a little lady all dressed in brown, with dishevelled hair and a face of ashy paleness" who stood beside his bed. Some of those who encountered the vision remarked upon its similarity to portraits of Dorothy Townshend and so the legend grew, helped in no small part by a now famous photograph taken in 1936 by Captain Hubert C. Provand. The photograph  purports to show the spirit who has become known as the Brown Lady of Raynham Hall.

Is the Brown Lady really the unfortunate Lady Townshend? Indeed, is the Brown Lady really anything at all beyond a legend? We cannot know for sure but as Halloween celebrations start across the country, let us spare a thought for the tragic fate of Dorothy Townshend, wherever she now walks.


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.

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Bath Chair

by Lauren Gilbert

For personal reasons, my attention was suddenly focused on the difficulties of getting around. As I was doing some research on Leamington Priors Spa, I ran across a reference to the last Bath-chair man (a bit more later on him). This, in turn, led me into information about the Bath chair. In a nutshell, a Bath-chair was a chair with wheels used to transport visitors (invalid or otherwise) from lodging to the spa and back again. However, there is so much more to it than that.

Wheeled chairs have been in use for centuries, possibly as far back at 4000 BCE. The Greeks were known to have put a bed on wheels. The first documented image of such a chair is a Chinese engraving from 525 AD.

King Philip II of Spain (1527-1598) also had a wheeled chair. It had small wheels at the end of the legs, a platform for his legs and an adjustable backrest and armrests. There is a sketch of him supposedly done about 1595 in his chair.

It’s important to realize that, at this time, wheeled chairs were not available for the disabled in general. These would have been costly items, for the use of the privileged. A luxury item of this nature would have been a sign of wealth or rank. (However, it must be said that Philip II at age approximately 68 years may have needed such a convenience.) It is interesting to note that Louis XIV also used a chair on wheels, known as a roulette, after a surgery, and when he was old.

The first wheeled chair built specifically for a disabled person’s transportation was constructed by Stephen Farfler, a paraplegic watchmaker of Nuremberg, Germany, for his own use in 1655. He built a sturdy chair on 3 wheels. The front wheel had handles which he could turn and, using a system of cranks and cogwheels, the chair moved forward on its own.

It’s a little puzzling that this invention did not become more popular. However, this item would have been costly and the cranks would have been labour intensive.

In the 17th century, a popular mode of transportation was the sedan chair. This basically was an enclosed box with a seat, carried on poles by two men. Grace Elliot wrote an excellent history for this blog. Although owning a personal sedan chair was a luxury indeed, a chair could also be hired. It could literally pick one up in the house, and return one accordingly. Again, this was a method of transport from which a person of limited mobility could benefit, but it was not designed or commonly used for that purpose, and cost would further restrict who benefitted.

The first known use of a wheelchair as we would recognize it was approximately 1700 in England. It was a 3-wheeled design, with 2 large wheels at the side, and a small wheel behind.

I was unable to find out any particulars, but the fact remains that, at this time, a chair of this type would have to be specifically commissioned and built, which would leave it in the domain of the well-to-do. Such a chair was also usually made of wood, heavy, bulky and not easy to move from one location to another.

In 1750, James Heath of Bath developed a chair for the purpose of taking ladies and invalids from their lodging to the baths. (Apparently walking from one’s lodging could be considered too much for a lady.) However, in 1783, John Dawson developed a design that became known as the Bath chair. It had 3 wheels and was designed to be pushed. It had a stiff handle attached to the front wheel, by which means the passenger could steer. This was the design that spread to other spa cities in England and in Europe. A number of types of Bath chair evolved over time: some were open; some were enclosed with hoods and glass fronts. Although the original design was intended to be pushed, it was not long before a modification allowed some to be pulled by a horse.

Bath chair in the Bath Museum Store, Bath
(photo by Rwendland 9/11/2010-
permission for use given via Wikimedia)
The Bath chair was a popular mode of transportation and eventually replaced the 2-man sedan chair. Since it only required one man to push, it effectually cut the cost in half. Victorian England embraced the Bath chair at seaside resorts. It’s important to note that, for the first time, a mode of transportation was concerned specifically with providing transportation for persons with physical limitations. The Bath chair was used well into the 20th century.

Thomas Timms (1855-1934) had to go to work as a child of 10, when his father was in the workhouse. After several other attempts, he started as a Bath chair-man in Leamington Priors, England when he was still very young. Although he tried other employment, he came back to the Bath chair business because he was able to make more money. In time, he acquired his own chairs, and by 1912, he had the largest Bath chair business in the town. I wasn’t able to determine exactly when he finally closed his business, but it appears it was still in operation in the late 1920’s-very early 1930’s. Sometime before his death in 1934, Mr. Timms wrote a brief autobiography of his life. Unfortunately, I was not able to locate a copy; it’s in the form of a pamphlet and is hard to find. At any rate, the Bath chair industry was put out of business in the early decades of the 20th century by a combination of affordable wheelchairs and taxi cabs.

As the 19th century progressed, wheel chairs became less awkward and more comfortable. They could be self-propelled via the large rear wheels. In 1881, a second, smaller rim was added, which made it possible to propel the chair without getting one’s hands dirty. By the early 20th century, wire-spoked wheels and adjustable back, arm and foot rests were devised. Light-weight chairs made of wicker on metal frames were also produced. In 1916, British engineers produced the first motorized wheelchair, although cost kept it from gaining much popularity.

In 1932, Harry Jennings, an engineer in Los Angeles, CA, designed and built a folding wheelchair for his friend Herbert Everest, a disabled mining engineer. Together they established a company, Everest and Jennings, to mass-produce the chair. Everest & Jennings dominated the industry during the mid-20th century until the Department of Justice filed an anti-trust suit. (Apparently the company managed to keep the cost of the chairs very high.) Subsequently new companies developed new designed and expanded options for wheelchair users.

Although transporting individuals with limited mobility has been a concern for eons, it seems that making affordable transportation available for people with such difficulties as a population came into its own with the Bath chair. The vast popularity of Mr. Dawson’s design, the lower cost involved, and the availability seemed to spark more ideas. I think it’s safe to say that the Bath chair was an important link in the history of transportation for individuals with mobility issues.

Sources include:
BBC History of the World on line. “Bath Chair.”
Chairdex. “History.” (History of the wheelchair.)
Leamington History Group-Discover Royal Leamington Spa on line. “Thomas Timms 1855-1934 Leamington’s Last Bath Chair-man.” June 26, 2013.
Doctor’s Review website. Rosenhek, Jackie. “Before Wheelchairs.” February, 2007.
Encyclopedia Britannica on line. “Bath Chair.”
Prezi website. Aoyama, Brittany. “Stephen Farfler.” November 5, 2013. Full transcript.


Lauren Gilbert, the author of Heyerwood: A Novel, lives in Florida with her husband Ed. Her second novel, A Rational Attachment, is in process.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

The Son of Belsebub - an Englishman in Italy

by Anna Belfrage

Should you ever make it to Santa Maria del Fiore in Florence, you should of course gawk at the beautiful cupola, but don’t miss the gigantic mural depicting a man in armour astride a magnificent horse. Move close enough to read the inscription, and you may also begin to wonder what on earth an English mercenary named John Hawkwood could possibly have done to deserve being honoured in this way.

John Hawkwood is not a name much bandied about these days, but back in 14th century Italy he was a force to be reckoned with, a man of martial skills everyone wanted on their side. (Not that the medieval Italians ever could get his name right, which is why Machiavelli calls him Giovanni Acuto.) Being gifted with an ample conscience and a constant hunger for gold, John took the opportunity to sell himself to the highest bidder – and this man, as per his inscription “the most skilled and cautious of generals”, did not come cheap.
To provide some background for our John, we need to start at the beginning. As always, this tends to be a bit murky when going this far back in history, but we know John was born in Essex, somewhere round 1320. His father was a well-to-do minor landowner, which ensured John thrived despite the rampant starvation that characterised England during his early years. Upon his father’s death, John as a younger son was not left much of an inheritance, but it helped that his family had close ties to the de Vere family, and it was as an archer under de Vere’s command that Hawkwood first bursts into the annals of history.
In 1342, John was a simple archer. At the battle of Crécy, four years later, he was in command of 250 archers, a crucial component in the strategy that led to victory for the English. Obviously, John must have been a gifted leader of men – and an able archer, one would assume. He was also, as would be proven throughout his long and colourful career, a naturally gifted strategist. It was John’s fortune that he was born into the tumultuous times of the Hundred Years’ War, thereby finding ample use for his somewhat bellicose talents.

The Hundred Years' War was not a chivalric little outing in which noble knights jousted, parlayed and did some more jousting. No, this was an extended rape of France, perpetrated by the English aggressors, but, just as often, by the bands of mercenaries hired by the desperate French to defend themselves. Problem with mercenaries is that if you don’t pay them – and pay them well – they will take their payment where they can find it. Or join the other side…

While using mercenaries was nothing new, it was during this extended conflict that the commercial community discovered just what a commodity a group of fighting men could be. The mercenary went from being badly paid cannon fodder to highly salaried experts, and the resulting profit was evenly shared by the mercenaries themselves and the middle-hand, the ever more powerful merchants.

We tend to forget that war – even today – always has an economic aspect to it, making rich men out of those who supply the fighting parties with food, armour and weapons. English and Hanseatic merchants made fortunes thanks to Edward III’s stubborn attempt to claim the French crown. Bankers invested (and lost) huge amounts in this venture, and as most of those bankers were Italian, Edward III’s ambition became a multinational venture, involving Italian money, Hanseatic merchants, Breton mercenaries – well, mercenaries from almost everywhere – and, of course, the stalwart English and Welsh soldiers who bled and died en masse on fields very distant from their homes.

Despite being labelled as a war that extended over a century, in actual fact this war was fought in innings, with long periods of fighting ending in an uneasy truce, thereby giving both sides the opportunity to get their breaths back. Now, these little breaks were excellent if you were a nobleman needing to trot back home to inspect your lands, make your wife pregnant, and generally lie about for some time. If, however, you happened to be a common soldier, chances are these extended pauses were quite the headache, starting with the fact that soldiers weren't paid if there was no fighting going on.

In essence, this is what happened to our John. After the glory of Crécy, he did go back home for some years, but when he and a friend severely mistreated another man, he found it best to flee the country of his birth, uncomfortable with being labelled a “miscreant” and thereby risking the noose. So John kicked his heels in the continent, rode to more glory at Poitiers in 1356 where he finally won his spurs, and then in 1360 it seemed the war was over, leaving Hawkwood an impoverished knight with nothing to return to.

This is when he joined the Free Companies, at first riding with the tard-venues (the latecomers) but relatively quickly transferring to the White Company, a well-organised mercenary venture headed by a German called Albert Stertz who had made it his task in life to enrich himself – and his men – by selling his company to whoever bid the highest. And when there were no takers for his services, our German captain decided to go creative, which is why he – together with several other mercenary captains – attacked the papal seat in Avignon, ultimately wresting a huge ransom from the pope.

Eventually, France had been so thoroughly robbed there were no pickings left. And so the mercenary armies lifted their eyes from the previously so fertile French soil and looked about for new horizons, eagerly urged on by the impoverished Pope who wanted nothing more than to see these Free Companies ride off into the sunset never to return. And what did they find? La Bella Italia!

At the time, La Bella Italia did not exist – at least not as more than a geographical region. Europe’s favourite boot was a collection of fiercely independent and competitive city states constantly at war with each other. And where there are miniature wars brewing, there one needs a mercenary army or two, right?

The pope obviously thought so: Innocentius VI actively participated in brokering the contract that finally rid Avignon of the mercenaries. He convinced the Marquis of Monferrato to hire the White Company and use them to smite the hated Visconti, rulers of Milan, hard. As the pay was good, the White company gladly went, stopping only to set half of Marseilles on fire as one final destructive coda to their long, unwelcome stay in France.

I suspect the White company was lured by more than the pay: at the time, the Italian city states were the Promised Land to many of their fellow Europeans. Lands of plenty, of culture, with a benign climate, the Italian city states beckoned with the promise of a delightful place to retire – supposing you were rich enough. Not that much different from today, come to think of it, given how many of the truly well-off acquire a villa in Tuscany in which to spend the sunset years of their lives…

By the early 1360’s, Hawkwood had assumed control over the White Company despite being illiterate. Not that being incapable of reading was much of an issue for the captain-general as the White Company boasted an excellent administrative system complete with its own lawyers, clerks and purchasers. Other than the fighting men, the company also had its fair share of priests, prostitutes and physicians – plus a minor army of servants.

Contrary to what one may think (or not), the White Company was not named for the innocence of its members, but rather for the uniform worn by the soldiers. In white surcoats, (most impractical one would think) and with selected pieces of armour polished until they glittered like mirrors, these mercenaries exuded a certain style. (Mercenaries depended on speed, so very few of them wore full body armour, choosing instead to wear whatever piece they felt suited their needs best.) Accompanied by a bevy of pages, the mercenaries rode from battlefield to battlefield but often dismounted to fight on foot, assuming a hedgehog formation that bristled with lances. Pitted against the mostly civilian militia of the various city states, the White Company’s hardened soldiers generally came out the victors, leaving a trail of blood and suffering in their wake.

The English mercenaries quickly acquired a reputation for ruthlessness and efficiency. Spawn of the devil, some of their reluctant hosts would mutter, son of Belsebub they whispered behind Hawkwood’s back. Not that he cared: after having spent some years fighting the Milanese Visconti on behalf of the pope, the company then spent the coming decade fighting for whoever dangled the biggest purse before Hawkwood’s nose. From having fought for Monferrato, the company ended up fighting against him at the Visconti’s side, and they were sometimes on the papal side of the constant conflicts, at others on the side of one city state or another. In time, Hawkwood acquired the reputation of being a mercenary one could trust (well…) which put him in the agreeable position of being able to pick and choose.

After spending close to two decades fighting in Italy, Hawkwood decided it was time to settle down. By now, he was well into his fifties, and when he was offered one of the illegitimate Visconti daughters as a bride he gladly accepted – before turning on his former masters and moving to Florence (a mortal enemy of the Milanese) in 1377, assuming command of this city’s defences. One suspects that must have put something of a strain on his marital relations.

There may have been another reason for Hawkwood’s decision to leave the soldier-for-hire business. Hawkwood lived by his sword, and it is difficult for a man to spend his whole life fighting and come out untarnished. In Hawkwood’s case, his huge blemish is the massacre of Cesena in 1377. At the time, Hawkwood was serving the pope, and it was Robert, Cardinal of Genoa, who insisted all the inhabitants of this little town be put to the sword. Approximately 5 000 civilians lost their lives in that bloodbath, and it would seem Hawkwood was quite disgusted by the entire matter. Whatever the case, he never actively fought for the pope again…

Anyway, from 1377 and onwards, Hawkwood was the effective commander-in-chief of the Florentine forces. And in 1390 he defended Florence against the expansive ambition of the Visconti by defeating the Milanese forces, thereby saving the fiercely independent Florence from that fate worse than death of becoming a Milanese vassal state.

That, of course, is why John Hawkwood ended up commemorated in the Básilica, remembered as one of Florence's true heroes. (Someone conveniently forgot that during his first time in Italy, Hawkwood repeatedly fought against Florence, killing a number of its citizens) Not that John had any intention of being buried in Florence. He wanted to return home, and spent his last few years planning his move. Unfortunately for him, he died before he could realise his dream of going home.

In 1395, Richard II requested that his body be returned to England, and the Florentine authorities acquiesced. Whether this happened or not remains an open question, but by now John Hawkwood probably no longer cares where his mortal remains lie buried. As to his spirit, I dare say it hovers over the rolling hills of Tuscany, but now and then his restless soul dives down to inspect that seven metre high mural of himself and howls with laughter. After all, whatever else he was, John Hawkwood was not a man who deserved to be commemorated in a church!

If you want to know more about John Hawkwood, I warmly recommend "Hawkwood: Diabolical Englishman" by Frances Stonor Saunders.


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, this 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.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Dark Glamour of the Black Prince's Ruby

by Anne O'Brien

Royal Jewels always pack a punch in the public eye, but where there is myth and legend attached to them they have even more glamour. And so we have the Black Prince's Ruby, burdened throughout its history with Murder, Betrayal, Treachery, Danger and Deceit.

And here it is.  In fact it is not a ruby at all, but a spinel, a large deep-red stone of irregular shape.  Drilled at some time in its past to be worn as a pendant although the hole is now filled with a tiny ruby.  Today it is set in the Imperial State Crown of the English Monarchy.

So what is the history of this famous jewel?  How did it get its fearsome reputation and come into the hands of the Black Prince?

The stone was almost certainly mined in the Indian subcontinent, the only part of the world that produced rubies (and spinels) in ancient times.  It made its first appearance in historical record in the 14thcentury when it was in the possession of the Sultan of Granada, who ruled the last Muslim outpost in Spain.

The Sultan came under attack from the Christian Kingdom of Castile, led by King Pedro the Cruel.  At a meeting in 1362 to discuss peace, the Sultan and his entourage were stabbed to death.  Legend says that Pedro performed the dark deed himself and that on searching the Sultan's dead body he found the precious ruby, and, of course, took it.

When Pedro soon found himself under attack from his half brother, Henry of Trastamara, who declared war upon him intending to seize the throne of Castile, Pedro appealed for support from Edward of Woodstock, the Black Prince, stationed in Aquitaine. Edward agreed to help Pedro in return for appropriate financial rewards.

The Black Prince and Pedro’s forces defeated Henry of Trastamara’s army at the Battle of Najera in 1367, and Edward’s reward upon the victory was Pedro’s ruby.

From here on, the ruby passed from one English monarch to the next, embarking on a dark journey through history, dubious legend suggesting that it brought misfortune or death to most of its owners.  (More legend than fact, but it makes for an interesting history for this jewel.)  Here are the tragic events said to be the consequence of ownership of the jewel.

- The Black Prince died 9 years later from a terrible debilitating disease.

- Pedro was was overthrown by his brother, and was killed by him three years later.

- Richard II was deposed and murdered by his cousin Henry Bolingbroke.

- Henry Bolingbroke, as Henry IV, died in great pain from some mysterious disease.

- Henry V alone seemed to have reaped good luck from it, though only just. He is said to have worn the ruby on his crowned helmet during the Battle of Agincourt, in October 1415, during which he almost lost his life, when a French knight tried to strike Henry down with a battle axe. The blow managed to hack off part of Henry’s crowned helmet with the ruby on it. It is said that the ruby fell and was lost in the mud of the field and was only brought back to Henry some time later by a French knight, who was rewarded for his deed with imprisonment by a still resentful Henry.

- But Henry V was to die from some virulent form of dysentery at the height of his conquest of France in 1422.

- King Henry VI took it with him to the battle of Hexham, where he only just escaped with his life.

- Richard III wore the gem on his crowned helmet during the Wars of the Roses’ last battle at Bosworth Field in 1485, and it was this crowned helmet that was picked up from a bush after the battle and offered to Henry VII, the first of the Tudors.  (No proof of this at all!)

By the end of the medieval period the ruby seemed to have spent its destructive power, but it still appears in English history when it was inherited by the Tudors who made a more peaceful, ceremonial use of it. It perhaps put in an appearance at the coronation of King Henry VIII when he wore a collar filled with great rubies around his neck.

In 1564 Queen Elizabeth I received the Scottish ambassador, Sir James Melville, to discuss a possible marriage between Mary Queen of Scots and the Earl of Leicester. The ambassador wrote that the Queen took him to her privy chamber where she showed him ‘a fair ruby, great like a racket ball.’ The ambassador asked her to send the ruby to Mary as a token of friendship, as well as the Earl of Leicester’s miniature. Elizabeth replied that if Queen Mary would follow her counsels ‘she would get them both in time, and all she had’.  Mary Queen of Scots never got the ruby, but the stone did pass to her son King James I when the Stuarts inherited the English throne in 1603.

In the troubled years of the Suart Century, the ruby’s capacity to bring misfortune seems to have been reawakened,  for James’ son Charles I was executed during the Civil War and the Crown Jewels were destroyed or sold. There is a record from the sale in 1649 of a great ‘Rock Ruby’ for £15. It was apparently bought by a jeweller who resold it to Charles II when the monarchy was restored in 1660. During the reign of Charles II, the stone, by now set in Charles II's State Crown, had another narrow escape when it was nearly stolen by the notorious Colonel Blood, who, unbelievably, was later pardoned by the King.

Charles’ brother, James II was the last monarch to be cursed by the stone when he placed it at the front of the refashioned Imperial State Crown at his coronation in 1685. Three years after his coronation, James lost his kingdom and fled into exile.

The Hanoverians suffered no further harm from the ruby which they had set in their Imperial State Crown, refashioned after George I inherited the throne, and which was later rebuilt for Queen Victoria in 1837.  By Victoria’s time, the hole in the stone had also been filled with the tiny ruby.

In more recent times, in 1841, the crown was almost lost by fire. Only the quick actions of police inspector Pierse saved the day. As the Tower burned, Pierse broke through the iron bars with a crowbar to rescue the Crown Jewels.  Then during World War II, the royal regalia was once more in danger, this time from Hitler's bombers in the Blitz.

All survived intact and undamaged and today the magnificent Black Prince's Ruby, which did not acquire its name until the Victorian era,  can be viewed in all its glory in the White Tower in the Tower of London, along with the rest of the English Crown Jewels.

Its connection with death and misfortune is frankly bogus, but it shows how easily legends are born, and royal jewels always attract interest.  The benign influence of the jewel in recent years is proved by the fact that it has been worn by Queen Elizabeth II with no ill-effects whatsoever since her coronation in 1953.  The Imperial State Crown is the one she wears annually at the Opening of Parliament ceremony.


Sticking with all things royal, my new novel The King's Sister, the story of Elizabeth of Lancaster, sister to King Henry IV, and much else besides, will be released in the UK on 7th November 2014. Do visit my website for all up-to-date news.

Giveaway: The Fifth Knight by E.M. Powell

E.M. Powell is giving away a signed paperback copy of The Fifth Knight, the #1 Amazon bestselling historical thriller.

This Giveaway ends at midnight on Sunday November 02 2014. To see some more information about the book, please click HERE.

To enter the draw, comment below on this page and be sure to leave your contact information. Good luck!

The Incorrigible Tom Percy ~ Martyr or Murderer?

by Linda Root

Thomas Percy
Lord Henry Percy
Earl of

In A History of the House of Percy from the earliest times to the present century(1902) author Gerald Brenan attributes the fall of Henry Percy, Ninth Earl of Northumberland to his cousin Tom.  Even Brenan’s sympathetic  account cannot avoid noting the Wizard Earl should have seen it coming.

If there was a black sheep in the Percy family, it definitely was Thomas.  In his youth he got away with murder, but in his middle years, he nearly got away with regicide. To add to the irony, popular history blames it all on a man named  Guy Fawkes.

Described in Brenan's tome as a tall, handsome man with large, clear eyes who had a propensity to sweat and who was regarded as 'half fanatic—half ruffian', Thomas was often in trouble with the law.  He was a most unlikely person to have attained the high position in the service of his mighty cousin which provided him the opportunity and wherewithal to engage in a plan to blow up the Houses of Parliament. If there were such a thing as poetic justice, The Fifth of November would be called Percy-Catesby Day, for Tom and his best friend Robert Catesby were the true instigators of The Gunpowder Treason. Fawkes was just their foot soldier.

Prior to the events that lead to Northumberland’s downfall, the Earl appointed Tom Constable of Alnwyck Castle, which charged him with  the management and collection of rents gleaned from the Earl’s estates in Northumberland and along the English East and Middle Marches. To appreciate the importance of such an assignment requires an understanding  of how incredibly wealthy Lord Henry Percy had become and how vast his holdings.  His primary residence in Northumberland, Alnwyck Castle, best known to modern readers as Hogworts, was a scant nine miles away from his equally elegant coastal fortress at Warkworth,  a mile inland on the River Coquet. The game parks and farms between and beyond were Percy holdings.

Alnwyk, Wikimedea commons, PD
Warkworth Castle, Wm.Turner{{PD-Art}}

Nevertheless, the Percy fortune was not as vast as it might have been had the Percys of the sixteenth century behaved themselves to the satisfaction of Elizabeth Tudor. After the death of the 'Magnificent Earl' Henry Percy, the 5th Earl of Northumberland who had distinguished himself in the service of both of England's Henrys-- the 7th and the 8th-- the subsequent holders of the title seemed to have a penchant for getting themselves in trouble.

The 6th Earl, another Henry, is best known for his unsanctioned betrothal to a girl named Anne Boleyn. The 7th Earl cut the widest historical swatch of the group by leading the Northern Uprising of 1569 and getting himself beheaded and beatified.  The always fiscally driven Elizabeth did not mind restoring some of the Percy lands and the title to the dead Earl's brother as long as the exorbitant fines were paid.

The 8th Earl of Northumberland had supported the Queen in her struggles against his errant older brother and was high in Elizabeth's favor until he embraced the cause of the imprisoned Queen of Scots.  He was murdered during one of his stays in the Tower.

Thus, the Henry Percy of our story,  Ninth Earl of Northumberland, inherited estates  reduced by forfeitures, levies and fines incurred due to antics of his family  during Elizabeth’s reign.

The Earl’s employment of his controversial cousin as his agent had to have been a  business decision based on nepotism, since there was nothing in Tom Percy's past performance to recommend him to the task. The upkeep of the Northern properties required skilled administration,  not the  heavy handed and corrupt  management style of Thomas Percy.

Garter plate of the 5th Earl of Northumberland, Wikimedia

Thomas Percy may have been a grandson of the Fifth Earl of Northumberland,  'the Magnificent Earl' who served both Henry Tudors,  but he was not a close kinsman of his contemporary, the Ninth Earl.  He went to London at the urging of his brother Jocelyn, ostensibly to study law, but the academic  regimen failed to entice him, and he ended up living in Alsatia, a London suburb known for its violence. In the vernacular of his day, he was known as a ‘free companion,’ making his way by the use of his sword.

Before he became the manager of the Earl’s extensive estates in Northumberland, Tom Percy had walked in the shadow of the gallows more than once. Yet, whether by virtue of his charm or by reason of his bloodline, trouble seemed to roll right off his back. Even today anyone who pursues a career in criminal prosecution has at some point received a phone call or a personal visits from the representative of a well known  family of means requesting clemency for a child who has managed to get his or her  name on the police blotter. Political arm-twisting is not a new thing.  Recent studies have shown it to have run rampant in the last decade of Elizabeth Tudor's reign. In the twilight of the sixteenth century when young Tom  transgressed, the political pressure came from his kinsmen  the Earls of Northumberland and Essex, two of Elizabethan England's highest ranking peers.

In 1596 the most notorious of his exploits brought him perilously close to the gallows. While Brenan’s history does not divulge the details, other sources suggest he murdered a Scotsman named Burns in a street fight, the first of several events in which he escaped punishment through the intervention of people in high places. Before his trial, one of his older brothers appealed to the Earls of Northumberland and Essex on  his behalf. Essex penned a note to Lord Beaumont,  Chief Justice of the Court of Sessions, flaunting Tom's ties to himself and Northumberland, stressing Tom's background and predicting he would be of great service to his country in the future. Upon Essex’s intervention, Thomas was sprung.  Essex later defined service to his county by leading a failed rebellion against his Queen, an act  which got him killed. His protege was to follow in his footsteps.

 2nd earl of  Essex
If Thomas Percy learned anything from the escapade it was to exploit his ties to those in high favor with the crown.

Upon a promise to behave himself, he was paroled to Northumberland’s London establishment,  Sion House at Isleswich, a wealthy  suburb.  During this time he also served as one of Essex’s henchmen in a failed plot against Sir Robert Ker, Baron Roxburghe,  who was Warden of the Scottish Middle Marches. During the years 1601 and 1602,  he accompanied Northumberland on an adventure in the Low Countries. Within a few months of his return, he was sent to Alnwyck as the Earl's personal agent. He likely stayed clear of the Essex fiasco because he was  in Europe at the time.

Regarding Percy's  appointment as his cousin’s agent, he had nothing to commend him to the post but good looks, charm, and some limited service to the Earl during their stay in Flanders.  Insofar as the tenants on Northumberland’s lands were concerned, he  was nothing but a hooligan who was overreaching in his efforts to collect from those he chose to bully, and lenient with those who  did him homage as if he were the titular earl rather than his agent.

Englishmen in the rural north shared many of the characteristics of Border reivers and were not about to succumb to abuse from Northumberland’s new dandy. Some openly resisted his demands with threats of violence. Others among the disgruntled resorted to the courts and presented strong cases against their self-appointed overlord. The court did not look kindly upon the collection methods of the Constable of Alnwyck, and eventually Northumberland was required to intercede. Tom wrote obsequious, apologetic  letters and was predictably forgiven.

He continued in his post as Constable, but to appease his many enemies, he acted through a deputy and with the Earl’s approval moved south to London. He only returned to Alnwyck when it was time to collect the Earl’s substantial revenues.  At about this time, he had developed a new reason d'etre and probably planned to divert a portion of his cousin's revenues to his new enterprise. Although raised a protestant like his cousin, Percy had married a Catholic woman,  Martha Wright, and adopted her religion with the same belligerence and zeal he exhibited in his other endeavors.  Some of his apologists propose his new-found faith  cured him of his hooliganism, but if that were so, the lessons did not last long. He was regarded as a rabble rousing fanatic by Catholic moderates and most recusants found his beliefs dangerous. He even made his friend and fellow activist Robert Catesby nervous.

Residing near London after misadventures with his cousin’s tenants placed him closer to the center of political action in Elizabeth Tudor’s waning years. When the Earl became enchanted with a religious settlement of tolerance such as Henry IV had brought to France, Percy became the Earl’s  emissary to the Catholic houses both in England and abroad.  Not long after his marriage he was fingered as a possible recusant and jailed after attending a meeting of known Catholic activists. True to form, he exploited his personal connections  to the fullest; by the following morning due to Northumberland’s intervention, he was freed to watch others hang.

JamesVI of Scotland
Percy's activities should have put him high on Elizabeth's Watcher’s List, but time was in Thomas's favor.  Fortunately, his high profile exploits occurred at a point when powerful men on both sides of the Border were waiting for Elizabeth Tudor to draw her final breath. Many Englishmen were openly courting her likely heir, James Charles Stuart, King of Scots, son of Christendom’s most celebrated Catholic martyr. Because of his eloquence, good looks, and confident manner, when the northern Catholic powers sought a secret emissary to plead the Catholic cause to the King of Scots, the mission was given to wily Tom.

What transpired between him and James VI of Scotland  is a topic of controversy. Tom came back from Scotland with good news for English Catholics: the King of Scots had  adopted an attitude of tolerance.  If he became Elizabeth’s heir, Catholics would be free to worship without reprisal.

There are three explanations to how such a report originated: first, Tom reported his discourse with the Scottish king accurately, but the king was deliberately misleading him; second, the parties struggled with a language barrier and each party to the conversation heard what he wished to hear; and three, Percy sugar-coated  the king’s comments to enhance the likelihood of a Stuart succession in which he believed he would find favor. It may well  have been a combination of all three. In any case, in the months before the death of Elizabeth Stuart, Thomas Percy was brokering to his Catholic friends a succession by a sympathetic James VI who did not exist.  If James harbored any doubt as to his attitudes toward Catholicism, two minor uprisings in the early days of his reign resolved them.

By 1603 at his friend Robert Catesby's home at Ashby St. Legers, Percy was already claiming a willingness to avenge the new King’s deceit by killing the new King with his own bare hands. Catesby urged him to exercise restraint until he could arrive at a better alternative.

After the meeting of the  King’s first parliament in the spring of 1604, English Catholics were disappointed by the message sent by their new sovereign.  Through  representations of men like Percy, most of them had expected a relaxation of restrictions on Catholic practices, and some anticipated a reinstatement of the mass. At his premier parliament James I made the union of the kingdoms his first priority. His attitude toward both Catholics and Puritans was becoming less tolerant with time.  Instead of relaxing restrictions against non-Anglicans, he intensified them.

By May 1604, Catesby had a plan to present to Percy and his friends.  Percy , Catesby and three other men of like disposition met at the Duck & Drake Inn near the Strand. Percy’s alleged opening words to the others were "Shall we always, gentlemen, talk, and never do anything?"

At the close of the meeting, the five conspirators retired to a back room at the inn where they took an oath of secrecy on a prayer book and celebrated a mass performed by the celebrated Jesuit Father Gerard. The Gunpowder Treason was born.

Engraving of the  Gunpowder Conspirators, Wikimedia Commons

A survey of the literature concerning the  evolution of the plot shows Percy as one of the principals from start to finish.  He brought his brother-in-law John Wright and Wright’s brother Christopher  into the  group in the initial stages. He is alleged to have recruited some of the later members in writing. At first blush his method sounds incredibly capricious, but  Catholic activists in the English north were often linked by blood or marriage, a close knit group. They shared a network with many recusants and priests. Tom Percy and Robert Catesby were drawing from a familiar well.

While many of Thomas Percy’s co-conspirators were of the country gentry, Percy was the most urbane. He knew his way about London and its suburbs.  He also enjoyed the status afforded one who was Northumberland’s personal agent and kinsman.  In that capacity he sublet a residence adjoining the Houses of Parliament, and installed Guido (Guy) Fawkes in it as his caretaker under the pseudonym ‘John Johnston, Mr. Percy’s servant.’  Under cover of darkness Fawkes, who had experience as a soldier dealing with ordnance and explosives, hauled sacks of  gunpowder from a barge on the nearby Thames to the residence. At first they attempted to tunnel their way from their leased headquarters into the Houses of Parliament until they realized doing so was unnecessary. The cellar of the house  was more extensive than the upper floors and ran under the House of Lords.

For those of us who may have experienced  the degree of vetting which precedes a presidential visit, it is hard to imagine the ease with which a man of Percy's history was able to lease premises adjoining Parliament. His explanation to the owner was a need to be close to the center of activity in his capacity as Northumberland’s personal agent.

Miniature of the 9th Earl of Northumberland, Wikimedia Commons

Northumberland himself planned to move to his rooms in Essex House for the opening session of Parliament.  According to numerous witnesses, insofar as Northumberland knew, his cousin was still in the North Country collecting rents. He was soon to learn he had been misinformed. Thomas Percy may have been clever,but  he was hardly discreet. One of his and the Earl's  common relatives ran into Percy  when he was out in town and inadvertently mentioned the incident to the Earl. When Northumberland began to make inquiries as to his cousin’s presence in the capital, Tom heard of it and arrived at his cousin’s residence on the pretext of accounting for the money which he conveniently failed to bring along.  He was graciously invited to stay for lunch.

The date was November 4, 1605.

The luncheon meeting was used by Cecil and his prosecutor Coke to imply Northumberland was knowledgeable of  the plot.  Some sympathetic historians believe Tom Percy went to Sion House to warn him to stay home the following morning, but skeptics believe that once his presence in London had been disclosed, Percy hastily moved to cover his tracks. If the purpose of his visit was to warn the Earl, he failed in his endeavor. After Percy left Sion House, the Earl moved from the suburb to  Essex House and  retired early to be fully rested for the pageantry of the following day.

Percy’s assignment did not place him anywhere near Westminster at the opening of Parliament. His initial role had been to position himself outside of London so he could kidnap Princess Elisabeth  Stewart, who Catesby had selected as their  choice of puppet sovereign. Later the assignment changed to seizing the Prince of Wales from  Oxford where he was a student and security was lax.

Until 1605, no one expected Prince Charles, the sickly Duke of Albany to live long enoough to be a contender for the crown. However, the parliament planned for the spring of 1605 was called off because of plague in the city, and concurrently, the much improved Charles Stuart arrived from Scotland and was placed in the care of  Sir Robert and Lady Carey. As the eve of the misadventure approached, Wales announced an intent to accompany his royal parents to the parliamentary gala. Charles, who would soon be five,  had begun to walk and talk. In the first days of November, Percy had been reassigned to stalking young Charles.

While in Scotland Charles Stuart  had been raised in a Catholic environment, and in spite of the nostalgia surrounding Good Queen Bess, the English still favored placing the English crown on the head of a male. Charles’s fragile health suggested he would be easy to manipulate. He  seemed a perfect puppet. Percy was to snatch him from the Carey house and haul him out of London to a safe house until he could be proclaimed king. Because of his status, he would have been acceptable to most English and would be sympathetic to a pro- Catholic hierarchy. England would be governed during Charles’s  minority by a pro-Catholic Regent. Northumberland's name had been mentioned. This does not mean he was aware of it, but it was enough to whet Cecil's palate, who considered Northumberland an enemy.  At any rate, Charles became the new candidate to replace his father on the throne.

That, of course, is not how it all ended, but it might have.

The initial five conspirators well may have carried it off. But letting too many people into the group doomed the plan. The popular theory is one of them, likely Sir Francis Tresham, sent a letter to an M.P. named William Parker, Lord Monteagle on October 26, warning him to stay away from Parliament.  Parker, whose Catholic leaning had previously placed him at risk immediately ran to Robert Cecil and tattled. Catesby and Percy learned of the revealing letter  from a man named Ward who was one of Monteagle’s servants and had seen the letter.  Tresham vehemently denied all knowledge of it, and when no steps were taken to curtail the conspiracy, the plotters decided Cecil had regarded it as a prank, and they went forward with their plans.

According to the prevailing theory, Cecil decided to wait to act until he had the goods on all of the culprits and if possible, a link implicating the  Jesuits. Up to that point, no one had warned  King James of a plot to blow him, Queen Anne, his heir the Prince of Wales, and half of the government to smithereens.

Then events grow 'curiouser and curiouser'.

The Monteagle letter, PD-Wikimedia commons.

Another nine days went by without any action on behalf of the Crown. No alarm bells rang: no whistles were blown. Percy and the others met and voted to go forward.  It is at this point that Tom Percy discovered his presence in London had been revealed, forcing him to deliver his accounting to Northumberland at Sion House at midday, an act that allowed Cecil to later act against the Earl.  Percy apparently went from Sion House to Whitehall to  reconnoiter the Carey House as a prelude to snatching Charles. True to form, he approached a woman on Carey’s household staff and asked  questions about the security of the little Duke of Albany.

Late that night, while passing by Clements Inn near Essex House Percy learned from the tavern crowd that a man named John Johnston had just been arrested in possession of enough gunpowder to blow up Parliament. There was a plan in place to cover such a disaster. Tom hurried to an appointed rendezvous where one of the conspirators had fresh horses waiting.

They fled the city and proceeded to a safe house and met up with several of the others on the way. Later when they reached their destination and alerted the others, Guy 'Guido' Fawkes was in the Tower under torture. It was only a matter of time before the entire plan came undone. According to the statement of witnesses, they attempted to stoke an uprising and were turned away by even their most ardent Catholic friends. A leading Jesuit despaired of their actions as dooming the fate of England’s many moderate Catholics. There was no alternative left but to run.

In what Antonia Fraser portrays as a brave last stand in her entertaining book, a group of the conspirators including the Wrights, Catesby and Percy were too fatigued by their flight to ride forward into Wales and after stopping at Ashby St. Legers, they holed up at a house in Holbeach just over the Staffordshire county line.  When their pursuers began to close in, some of their number fled into the woods and were later caught, but not the original principals, who elected to stand and fight.

By the morning of November 8, they were surrounded by Sheriff Richard Walsh of  Worchester and a posse comitatas.  Both Wright brothers fought bravely but in vain.

Catesby’s last recorded words as reported in Brennan’s account were to his friend: "Stand by me, Tom!...Stand by me and we will die togetlier [sic]."

Percy and Catesby stood back to back with swords in play until they were felled by a single shot fired by a man named Hall who received a pension until he died in 1640.

Northumberland did not hear of his cousin’s fate until November 10th  just before he was placed under house arrest. Earlier he had requested  to be permitted to join the pursuit, citing a need to recover the rather large sum of his money in the possession of his cousin. Cecil refused, stating his departure from the city would seem suspicious to the inflamed populace. Later that day he was informed the King was excusing his presence at all further meetings of the privy council while 'matters were being investigated.'

After learning of the injury to his cousin, the Earl demanded a foreign surgeon be imported to tend to his cousin’s wounds, since English physicians were notoriously clumsy.  He wished the man kept alive long enough to exonerate him, he declared. Predictably, Sheriff Walsh made no effort to treat the fallen traitor who died before he could be interrogated. When the King learned of  Percy’s death, he could not hide his joy. Anti-Jacobean historians speculate Percy had more to share about his visits to Scotland than King James wished Cecil and his subjects to discover.

The mystery in all of this is two-fold: first of all, why would a man as  astute as the Wizard Earl of Northumberland put his fortune and his reputation in the hands of a man like Thomas Percy?; and secondly, why did Cecil wait so long to make his move?  Historians  have addressed those issues from different viewpoints and arrived at differing conclusions, leaving an irresistible lure for writers of historical fiction who can spot a good story in need of telling, hopefully without doing an injustice to the past.


Linda Root

Author’s Note:

In the spirit expressed in the ultimate paragraph of this post, I have spent the last few months writing In the Shadow of the Gallows, the fourth novel in my Legacy of the Queen of Scots series, due in January 2015.  For the first three novels in the series, visit  my author page on Amazon.

Principal Sources Include:

1. Brenan, G. & Lindsay,W.A.. (1602) A History of the House of Percy: From the earliest times down to the present century, London, Fremantle & Co.
2.  Haynes, Alan (2005) [1994], The Gunpowder Plot: Faith in Rebellion, Sparkford, England: Hayes and Sutton, ISBN 0-7509-4215-0
3. Gerard, Fr. John, John Morris Ed. The Condition of Catholics Under James I: Father Gerard’s narrative of the Gunpowder Plot, John Morris, 1871.
4. Fraser, Antonia (2010). The Gunpowder plot: Terror and Faith in 1605, Hachette, Retreived  5 August 2014. 
5. The Memoirs of Robert Carey, Earl of Monmouth edited by C.H.Powell, Alexander Moring Limited, London 1905.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

A Humble Vicar, and the Discovery of 'Aspirin'

by Mike Rendell

Next time you reach for a bottle of aspirin to treat your headache, or back pain or rheumatic fever – let’s just call it “an ague” – spare a thought for good old Edward Stone, a vicar who lived at Chipping Norton. One day in around 1757 he was walking across the meadow near his home. Willow trees were thriving in the damp boggy conditions and he idly stripped off a piece of the willow bark (as one does) and chewed it. Now, willow bark is extremely bitter – and the good Reverend immediately remembered another very bitter bark – one brought back from South America and known at the time as Jesuit’s Powder or Peruvian Bark. It was known for its beneficial qualities – because it contained quinine.

jesuits bark

My ancestor Richard Hall used Jesuit’s  Bark as a cure for wind or flatulence, and I still have books and books of his medical recipes (or 'receipts' as he called them). Richard would have appreciated the laterally-thinking Reverend Stone.

Stone surmised that the bitter willow might have similar qualities to Jesuit’s bark. He carried out an experiment by gathering a pound of common white willow bark. He dried it by hanging it in a bag over a bread oven for three months and then pulverised it with a pestle and mortar to create a dry powder. He then split it up into small doses and administered it to around fifty ague-ridden parishioners (amazing to think how many gullible people must have been living in Chipping Norton at the time – “Trust me, I’m a vicar, now swallow this bitter pill”). Every one of the victims/patients noticed an improvement, or as the vicar himself said, the pills “were a powerful astringent and very efficacious in curing agues and intermittent disorders.”

Stone conducted a series of clinical trials to ascertain the most efficacious dose. As he was later to write:

“Being an entire stranger to its nature I gave it in very small quantities, I think it was about twenty grains of the powder at a dose, and repeated it every four hours ….Not perceiving the least ill consequences I grew bolder with it and in a few days increased the dose to two scruples, and the ague was soon removed.”

My ancestor Richard Hall’s explanation of apothecaries’ measures – a scruple being the equivalent of twenty grains ( originally a twenty-fourth part of one ounce).

Stone administered the powder “with any common vehicle such as tea, water or small beer” and noted the time taken for the patient to improve. In fact he had discovered salicylic acid, the active ingredient in aspirin. On 25th April 1763 he wrote a letter to Lord Macclesfield, the President of the Royal Society, outlining his researches of the previous six years, and giving details of the findings.

Stone's letter, published courtesy of the Royal Society

Stone’s letter, published courtesy of the Royal Society. In it he was
mistakenly referred to as ‘Edmund’ but his name was ‘Edward’.

It was to be another ninety years before a more digestible compound
of acetyl chloride and sodium salicylate was developed. It was later
marketed by Beyer under the name of Aspirin. (The name "Aspirin"
was finally trade-marked at the end of January 1899). But it was Stone who did the initial scientific research and who ironically
"re-discovered" the use of the willow. These had been known to the
ancient Greeks - Pliny and Hippocrates had both extolled its virtues
as a pain-killer some 2000 years earlier, but it had then disappeared
from view. Stone's scientific approach kick-startede more research -
not bad going for a vicar with no medical or scientific training.

Stone died aged 66 in 1768 and the blue plaque recording his
achievement was put up near where he lived in Chipping Norton some
ten years ago. Now, where can I find a headstone for an Ed Stone…


Mike is the author of a book about his
ancestor Richard Hall called The Journal
of a Georgian Gentleman
and is currently
working on a book about the loose morals
of the Georgian era, due to be published
next year under the title Sex, Scandal and
Satire - in bed with the Georgians

The Handfast Ceremony - Then and Now

by Octavia Randolph

Bound in love.

OVER the years I have received several requests from readers seeking advice in planning their upcoming handfasting - that is, wedding. Seeing as though Love and mutual attraction continues - thankfully- to exert its pull upon humans, I thought perhaps it was appropriate to build upon my responses to these initial requests and present some information in a more formal way, in the hope that it may serve as an inspiration for those so inclined to celebrate their union in this manner.

It must be stated at the onset that very little is reliably known of the heathen handfast. Few historians whose reports have come down to us saw fit to record these occasions, and if others did their records do not survive. The Christian clerics Bede, Asser (biographer of King Ælfred), and Nennius did not deign to cover this topic and what we can glean comes from Anglo-Saxon law codes, wills, poetry, and incidental writings by Roman historians observing the continental Saxon tribes. Although in my novel The Circle of Ceridwen two handfastings take place, these ceremonies are what I term well-reasoned imaginings or reconstructions of what the old Anglo-Saxon and Norse handfastings might have been, based on the scant historical documentation left to us. So this essay will begin by touching upon the reliable, historical, attested information that has come down to us - a truly skeletal tree - and then branch out into ways in which the twenty-first century couple can through their imaginations clothe these barren boughs with vivid and fresh new greenery.

Prince William weds the lovely Kate Middleton.
The cope about their wrists is a reminder of the "making fast of hands".
BBC image

Let's look first at the word handfast, a word quite similar to the Old English original and related to the Old Norse handfesta, "to strike a bargain by joining hands". One of the early English meanings is "a contract, specifically a betrothal or marriage contract." At times this referred to a trial marriage, or to the betrothal period, but the term was also used to distinguish a marriage not blessed by the Church - a heathen marriage, legal just the same.

What were the elements of these early handfasting ceremonies? Certainly the clasping or binding together of hands, and exchange of some sort of vows. Such ceremonies were honoured whether witnessed or not; a liturgical blessing was not required. The important element was the free choice of the participants:
If anyone's marriage is in question, all that is needed is that they gave their consent, as the law demands...If this consent is lacking in a marriage then all the other celebrations count for nothing, even if intercourse has occurred.
- Pope Nicholas I, 866 CE
Secular laws agreed; the law code of Ælfred the Great (849-899) specifically states that no woman can be forced to wed against her will. The scholar Dorothy Whitelock addresses Anglo-Saxon weddings in her book The Beginnings of English Society:
There were two parts to a marriage: the 'wedding', that is, the pledging or betrothal, when the bride-price was paid and the terms were agreed on; and the 'gift', the bridal itself, when the bride was given to the bridegroom, with feasting and ceremony. Ecclesiastical blessing was not necessary to the legality of the marriage, though the Church advocated it.
Christian couples generally wed at the church door. If a priest was available he may have simply blessed the couple. Not until the 12th century was the wedding ceremony formalized by the saying of a Mass.

One oftentimes hears a couple saying, "Rev. Jones married us" or "Judge Brown married us." This is true only if you are now living in a menage-a-trois. In fact bride and groom marry each other - you create the legal and moral bond; the person who may stand before you may be designated by church or State as a qualified witness, and is "officiating" but the marriage is performed by you two. (Indeed, even when the Church held greatest sway it has upheld the idea that the man and woman were the actual "ministers of the sacrament", and Pope Alexander III (1159—81 CE) reasserted this.)

An exchange of meaningful gifts is another element. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (circa 54-117 CE) in De Origine et Situ Germanorum wrote in some detail concerning the exchange of gifts amongst Germanic couples as part of their union, not chosen to please a woman's whim or gaily deck a young bride, but oxen, horse with reins, shield, spear and sword. For such gifts a man gets his wife, and she in turn brings some present of arms to her husband...
- H. Mattingly translation
These Germanic peoples were formidable warriors, and the most valued personal objects of any such people are likely to be their weaponry. Fine weapons were expensive and whenever possible passed down from generation to generation. The exchange of heirloom weapons to mark the union of two families linked not only man to woman but clan to clan.

The poem Ruodlieb, written in Latin circa 1050 by a German poet/monk (possibly of the Bavarian foundation of Tagernsee) contains a description of a wedding in which the bride is passed a ring on the hilt of a sword. This underscores the seriousness of the bond now between husband and wife - the honour of the young couple is now linked to the honour of the family sword.

The sword has obvious phallic symbolism and is thus a potent fertility symbol. It also embodied the idea of fidelity (vows taken on a sword to a war-lord were common around the world), the honour of one's acts, and indeed even life and livelihood itself, for warriors lived and died by their steel.

Using these three elements - the exchange of vows, the exchange of symbols of livelihood and honour, and the actual "act of the handfast", we will now turn to the construction of your own handfast ceremony.

A ribbon-bound handclasp.

First Things First

Ascertain that your handfasting will be legally recognized as a wedding. In many places all it truly takes is for the exchange of vows to be witnessed by at least two persons of legal age who then sign the certificate which is registered at the local town hall or whatever local government you have. So research this first, and avoid having to have an additional "civil" or other ceremony (unless of course you plan an additional ceremony for family reasons.)

For the exchange of vows, we have no precise historical record of what may have been said, save that the man and woman spoke openly their intentions. This could be as simple as "I take you for my wife" and "I take you for my husband" or as complex as you both see fit. (In my novel two handfastings are depicted, one of actions only, and one with spoken vows. Of the vows the man makes, he begins by stating who he is, and saying he will defend her body with his life. The young woman he is pledging to responds by saying she will never harm him or bring dishonour.) You might have an elder or friend ask you both at the beginning if you enter into this bond with open and loving hearts and free wills, and also to inquire of the gathered if anyone protests this union, but the point is that the pledging is performed by you two.

Then there is the exchange of the tools of livelihood, such as we read of Tacitus' account. Perhaps this was always a mutual exchange, and not only the man offering some symbol of his ability to provide for the woman. (In the first of the two handfastings I write of the bride is marrying a warrior chief, and he gives her his sword to hold for a moment. She as new mistress of his hall must preside over all the provisioning of his men and supervision of the stores, and she hands him a weaving shuttle as her willingness to take this responsibility.)

So think about this: you two will want to exchange temporarily or permanently some token of your livelihoods. Think of what best carries this message. Are you in the medical field? You could come to your partner carrying your stethoscope and hand him that. A teacher or lawyer? You might carry a school-book or law book. An artist - a brush. Does your man work in construction? - a hammer. Is he a writer? A pen, charmingly archaic as that may be. Software developer - a flashdrive with one of his best programs upon it (I'm serious). You get the idea - each of you appear before the other with this important symbol of what you bring to the union for its economic viability. If the woman intends to be at home and begin a family - then a weaving shuttle or drop spindle, simple and ancient as it is, would be beautiful and appropriate.

Now the actual handfasting. You could simply face each other and clasp one or both hands and say, "May we be made one". Or perhaps your eyes will lock as your hands have in a moment of profound and silent communion. Or the left hands could be placed together and wrapped for a brief moment with a special cord, ribbon or sash. Perhaps it is something one or both or you have made, or embellished with embroidery or other ornamentation. The bride could come to the ceremony wearing it as a sash if she likes, or it might be a braided leather cord borne by the groom. If a friend or elder is officiating she or he could wrap your hands, or you two could do it yourselves. If rings or other jewellery are to be given, exchange them first, before the actual handfast. Then the wrists are unbound, and the cord or sash or ribbon goes into the new wife's keeping.

The simplest of gestures can be full of meaning and import to you. Perhaps there are elements from your ancestor's lives or even weddings that you could incorporate into your ceremony. Or you and your beloved may be committed members of a historical reenactment group. In this case you will have well developed personas in your era of interest to further guide your choices. One couple who wrote to me were part of a Viking reenactment society, and I suggested that the man come to the ceremony wearing a hammer of Thor to place around his bride's neck to ensure her protection. Likewise such a couple devoted to Norse and Anglo-Saxon deities might choose a Friday as their handfast day, the day sacred to the Goddess Frigg, protector of marriage and childbirth.

Now you have spoken your vows, faced each other and exchanged your tokens of livelihood, and then wrapped your wrists briefly with this special ribbon. What else would be appropriate? Perhaps share a small goblet of mead - apple-cider will work just as well, for abstainers. The new husband should take up this cup, lift it to his lips, and sip. He then passes it to his bride for her to sip. She returns the cup to him and he drains the rest in a single draught.

Multi Ribbon Handfast.

The sharing of cake is an ancient ritual, and before you you might have a small cake, no larger than a scone. This is a seeded cake much like a soul cake. It should be baked not by either bride nor groom, but by a female friend or relation of either. She should add any kind of seeds to the batter, be they poppy, sesame, caraway or rye, but only one variety. A bit of honey should be used to sweeten this little cake. She should bake only one, discarding the rest of the batter. The wife should break off a bit of this cake and gently feed it to her husband, and he do the same. Needless to say the seeds represent fertility and abundance, the honey concord between the new couple. No one else should taste this little cake; it is only for the newly wedded pair. If you do not eat it all then, wrap it in a linen napkin and do so in bed that night.

What else might you do? The stories of the Norse gods (who with very little alteration were the Saxon ones; Thor = Thunor, Oden = Woden, Tyr = Tiw) will supply much inspiration. I suggested to one young woman that she might come to the ceremony with a friend holding an apple, one with a yellow skin, which she take from her and place upon the altar and ask Idunn, keeper of the Golden Apples (the daily eating of which kept the Gods youthful and beautiful) to always make her fair in her husband's eyes.

Planting a tree together could provide another important focal point to the ceremony. The tree would represent your hopes for your married life together. A tree could also be planted to commemorate the birth of each child, a custom once widespread but now too infrequently practiced. Such a tree would grow to become a sacred symbol in one's life, similar to what Anglo-Saxon scholar Stephen Pollington refers to as
...the Scandinavian notion of the barnstokkr (barn 'baby, child' stokkr 'tree trunk') which was a potent symbol of the regeneration for the family - a reminder of one's place in eternity, a link with both past and future generations who revered it. It was customary at a wedding for the groom to thrust his sword into the barnstokkr to judge from the resultant gash what the luck of his marriage would be (according to the evidence of Volsungasaga), and in a difficult childbirth, the wife would invoke or even clasp the tree for assistance. Such trees were, then, 'guardians' of the well-being of the people who venerated them." - Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing
One aspect of Anglo-Saxon weddings of which we have reliable information (as they are mentioned in wills and other legal documents) is the morgen-gifu or morning gift. This should be as costly a present as the new husband can afford (as it is a point of social pride to him, and status to his new wife) and the nature of it should be a complete surprise to the bride.

It might be an exceptionally beautiful piece of jewellery, a wooden chest or jewel casket, anything sumptuous that would please her. If she has been given a ring at the ceremony he might give her quite a simple one then and a magnificent one in the morning after they are truly man and wife. My point is not to bankrupt the poor fellow, but to stress that this gift should equal several Yule and birthday gifts combined, and that if it means the bride goes with very little in the way of presents for a while it will be well worth it to have a meaningful morgen-gifu. (Think about it: she has given him her body - it is supposed to be splendid gift in return.)


Of course one can't hold a wedding without a feast to follow.  Enter The Circle of Ceridwen Cookery Book(let), ten easy, delicious, and authentic 9th century recipes, charmingly illustrated with medieval woodcuts and filled with fascinating facts about medieval cookery.

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