Thursday, April 30, 2015

3000 Years of Royal Crowns

I don't generally like to send you away from this blog. However, unless you can enlarge the page to see these wonderful crowns well and read the information below each, please follow the link below to see them full size on Mads Phikamphon's site. They are too good to miss! Following is Mads' introduction to the page.

When we think of kings and queens, we most often think of them wearing a crown or some other form of royal headgear.

Almost no matter where you are from, a crown is considered the symbol of royalty and the authority the comes with royalty.

Hundreds of cultures from around the world have all adopted the crown as the symbol of leadership, which is quite interesting since many of the cultures have had very little contact with each other.

To show how the royal crowns are used all over the world and how they have developed from the ancient Egyptians to the modern world, Axentric.Com has created this big list of the 100 most important crowns in more than 3000 years! let's you view and compare jewellery from shops in all of Europe, so it becomes easier to find the jewellery you like the most.

Giveaway: Tudor Thriller THE TAPESTRY, by Nancy Bilyeau

Nancy Bilyeau is giving away a signed hardcover copy of The Tapestry to a resident of North America or the UK. This giveaway ends at midnight, May 3rd. To see some information about the book, please click HERE. Comment here to enter the drawing, and be sure to leave your contact information.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Benefit of Clergy: Get Out of Jail Free?

By Catherine Curzon 

In my last article here, the branding iron, the pillory and the gallows took centre stage as I introduced some corporal and capital punishments of the 18th century Old Bailey. Whilst researching my second book, Tales from the 18th Century Old Bailey, I have found myself lost in the fascinating labyrinth of the various sentences and punishments available to the Old Bailey judges and today, it is my dubious delight to look at a holy grail for sentenced prisoners... the chance to plead benefit of clergy.

Old Bailey in 1750. Sessions House
(Wellcome Library, London)

Benefit of clergy (privilegium clericale) first emerged as an option in the 12th century when a member of the clergy could be tried not by the courts, but by their clerical peers. It was an invaluable loophole to those who could exploit it and provided a route to escape the death penalty for serious crimes, with clergy courts likely to hand down far more lenient sentences than their criminal brethren. However, the plea was open only to those who could prove that they were clergymen of some description and for the vast majority of criminals on trial, this was never going to happen!

However, where there's a will there's a way and the method of proving your clergyhood was far from foolproof, taking as it did the form of a reading test. The person on trial was required to recite what became known as the Neck Verse, or, more officially, Psalm 51. If one could make the recital, then one could claim benefit of clergy and soon enough criminals up and down the country were merrily memorising and reciting Psalm 51 as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury himself might!

Psalm 51, or, the Neck Verse
“Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions."
Of course, such a blatant abuse of the system could not go unchecked and as the centuries passed, so too did the system of benefit of clergy morph and change. A suspicious judge who suspected a defendant of simply memorising the verse could ask for a second reading from the Bible and, of course, if a criminal could actually read, then he was, essentially, home and dry. As the number of people claiming benefit of clergy increased, a list of crimes for which clergy could not be claimed was drawn up and, eventually, the system was opened to any criminal committing a first-time offence. 

Following the wider availability of the plea, any defendant lucky enough to succeed faced a minimum sentence of hard labour but that, of course, is preferable to the gallows. Should benefit of clergy be approved by the judge, the recipient could also look forward to being branded on his thumb, in order to ensure that he could never claim the right again and that any future crimes would attract the full weight of the law.

The law was eventually abolished in 1827 and the Neck Verse was retired as those on trial forever lost the right to claim benefit of clergy.


Old Bailey Proceedings Online (
Brooke, Alan and Brandon, David, Tyburn: London's Fatal Tree (The History Press, 2013)
Cawthorne, Nigel, Public Executions: From Ancient Rome to the Present Day, Arcturus Publishing (2006)
Gatrell, Vic, The Hanging Tree: Execution and the English People 1770-1868 (OUP, Oxford, 1996)
Grovier, Kelly, The Gaol (John Murray, London, 2009)
Webb, Simon, Execution: A History of Capital Punishment in Britain (The History Press, 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.

In Celebration of Life

by Anna Belfrage

Tomorrow is the 30th of April, which for us here in Sweden is one of the more important days in the year. Not only is it our king's birthday, but it is also Valborgsmäss, the day when we traditionally light bonfires and sing to welcome back the sun - most understandable in a country as cold and dark as ours is during the winter.

The Celts called this day Beltane. It fell more or less halfway between the spring equinox and the summer solstice (and us Swedes have a major field day with the summer solstice, let me tell you...) and was a day in which to embrace life, to celebrate having survived yet another winter and the difficult months of March and April, when food stores were depleted and nature as yet had not revived enough to offer much in the way of edible stuff.

Beltane is a purely pagan rite. There is no saint to commemorate, no holy event to celebrate as per the Christian church. But no matter the established Church's determined efforts to eradicate this primitive feast, it has lived on, surviving irate apostles and harsh Conventicle Acts. Somehow, this celebration is imprinted in our DNA, harkening back to a time when the year was measured in solstices, equinoxes and quarter days, when human life was fragile enough for us to implore the gods to give us warmth and sun, continued life and good harvests.

Beltane was a major feast day for the Celts - a fire feast, and as mentioned above that tradition lives on up here in the north. Having said that, as far as I know there weren't all that many Celts up here, in Scandinavia, but seeing as they were a trading people I assume their cultural influence was massive - plus feasts such as Beltane, Samhain, and Midsummer are probably rooted in an even murkier past. Fire, for example, has played a major role in spring festivals since life began in the Fertile Crescent, and to this day the tradition of leaping over fires to cleanse yourself persists in countries such as Iran.

C F Hill - apple tree in blossom
The advent of spring was of utmost importance for our ancestors. Today, 3-7% of the population in the developed world are farmers, producing huge excesses of food they can sell to the rest of us. A century ago, roughly 50-60% of the population had their outcome from the agricultural sector. Before the Industrial Revolution, 80% depended on the land - and what little surplus they produced was sold to acquire necessities such as an iron plough, or salt. For them, an early spring was the difference between life and death.

The Celts, however, were more herders than farmers, and on Beltane the cattle were let out to pasture after months and months cooped up in byres. However, as any Celt knew, with the advent of spring came the increase in mischief from spirits and fairies, so to protect their cattle they lit two bonfires and drove their beasts between them, hoping the smoke would offer some protection against evil. These traditions lived on for a long time. As late as in the 19th century, Scottish Highlanders were lighting their bonfires on Beltane and driving their cattle through the resulting smoke. For good measure, the people would also run through the smoke - or leap across the embers. Similar traditions existed throughout the British Isles. For such a bonfire to be truly effective, it should be lit the traditional way, i.e. by rubbing two sticks together, but I suspect people cheated on this one, as it is very, very hard work to get a blaze going that way!

Sidney Richard Percy, Grizedale

Not only was the bonfire important as a way of cleansing cattle and people from the potential bad influence of the spirits. It was also seen as a representation of the sun, and on Beltane eve, households would extinguish their tallow candles and douse the fire in their hearths before rekindling them from the bonfire - a symbolic "here comes the sun" moment, which supposedly was to ensure the safety and fertility of the people in the household. And once the bonfire had run its course, the ashes were spread over the fields and gardens to protect the growing crops.

Originally, Beltane also included some element of sacrifice. As described in a previous post on this blog, sometimes the sacrifice made was the ultimate one - that of killing a man or a woman. This was done when circumstances were particularly dire, and generally the victim would be chosen by lottery. An oatmeal cake would be baked, it would be broken into pieces, and one of those pieces would be burnt. The pieces were then put in a bowl and passed round. Whoever got the burnt piece of cake was - so to say - toast.

The ritual of baking that oatmeal cake is known to have survived well into the 18th century in Scotland. Just like those long-dead Celts, the Scottish bakers would make a cake, break it and burn one piece. Whoever got the burnt piece had to leap the blazing bonfire on behalf of all of them. In some cases, the person who got the burnt piece was symbolically thrown into the fire and was treated as "dead" by his companions for some days.

Mostly though, the gods were appeased by somewhat less dramatic sacrifices. A cup of mead, a newly made loaf - maybe a chicken or two. And then, once the gods had been given their due, our ancient forefathers went a bit wild and crazy round the bonfire. It was party time, and there were bards singing, people dancing, mead and ale, food, more ale...Men and women retired to engage in more intimate pursuits, yet another variant of celebrating the return of life.

Van Gogh - flowering garden
In our neck of the woods, such pursuits would have to be undertaken indoors - or under a gigantic bear pelt or something. Chances are the last day in April will be cold - even very cold. But the evenings are light - where I live twilight lingers to well beyond 21:00 p.m. - and all around are signs of returning life.

The birches are decorated with minuscule leaves of brightest green, the shrubs shift into an emerald haze, and everywhere tits and blackbirds and lapwings and larks and ... well, birds in general - call and hoot that spring is here and so are they. In the woods anemones poke heads of brightest white through drifts of russet coloured leaves, the lake-shores are here and there still edged with ice, but a couple of swans sail by on the deep blue of the open waters.

Over by the bonfire, there is a smell of sausages burned to a crisp. Couples snog, or hold hands, or hug each other close, and the air is filled with the impressive sound of the male choirs singing in spring. That's what we call it; "Singing in spring". Us Swedes have books full of these spring songs, all about the melting drifts of snow, the return of the sun, of warmth, of hope that soon the ground will break out in full flower. Songs that rather unabashedly praise that first deity of human life; the sun.

For me, Beltane always brings home just what a miracle life is, an eternal cycle of dark and light. It behoves us to at times remember just how blessed we are to live on this green planet of ours. It behoves us to keep in mind that we are but the caretakers of a delicate sphere of life, as ephemeral in time and space as a soap bubble.

Monet - springtime
I'd like to end this post with one of my favourite poems - an ode of joy and gratitude for the world that surrounds us, in this case directed to God, but it could just as well be directed to Mother Nature. I don't know why it always springs to the forefront of my head this season of the year, maybe it's the sheer exuberance in it that speaks to me.

Glory be to God for dappled things - 
For skies of coupled-colour like a brinded cow;
For rose moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches' wings;
Landscape plotted and pieced; fold, fallow and plough;
And all trades; their gear and tackle and trim

All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;
He fathers-forth whose beauty is past change:
Praise him.

Pied Beauty by Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844 - 89)

Happy Beltane, everyone! May the day be long and bright, may the sun warm your skin, may a soft breeze caress your cheek.


Anna Belfrage is the successful author of seven 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 have won several awards and 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, April 27, 2015

In and Out of Jane Austen's Window

Today's post is a year old, brought from my other blog. It was written by a great fan of Jane Austen's work, a good friend to many of us, now deceased.

by M.M. Bennetts

We do love our period costume dramas, don't we?

I mean, what could be more restful than slipping back into a slower age, a more peaceful idyllic age, when horses clip-clopped their ways across the country, the corn was green in the fields, they wore elegant clothes that looked soft and weren't all black, and society was stable and one found one's Captain Wentworth or John Thornton in a garden of yellow roses? Or driving a high-perch phaeton with scarlet-wheels, wearing an eight-caped greatcoat, with a team of matched greys?

And that must be how it was, mustn't it, because Austen for one never mentions a world beyond that charming and charmed existence, does she?

But here's the thing, we tend to forget that Austen was actually--and this may come as a bit of a shocker--quite an experimental novelist. That is to say, without exaggerating, in many ways, she must be credited as one of the inventors of the novel.

And when she was putting quill to paper, there were no rules. Such a thing as a how-to-write-a-novel manuals hadn't even been imagined! She wrote what she chose. No one was there to tell her differently. And if she decided not to write about the realities of her existence and the daily life about which she knew everybody already knew, who was there to criticise or complain?

(And let's be honest, those gardens, those carriages, those clothes and the great houses do make for excellent cinematography.)


One of the great surprises/shocks to me as I've researched the period of the early 19th century in England has been how many people walked everywhere. And no, I'm not just talking about the working classes and rural poor. I'm talking everyone. We think they had horses coming out of the wazoo and of all those photogenic carriages. They actually walked.

There's an account of a young doctor from Ireland who was training in Edinburgh and when the peace came in 1814 with Napoleonic France, he was accepted for further study at the Sorbonne in Paris.

How did he get to France? He had the money. So did he take the stage or mail coach to Dover? No, he bought himself a stout pair of boots and he walked there. 960 miles in six weeks. And as he walked the length of Britain, he wasn't alone. Never alone. Not by a long chalk.

Every road and pikeroad upon which he trudged--about twenty miles a day--from north to south was chock-a-block with of every description of person: itinerant labourers from every county--hedgers and ditchers, tinkers, drovers with their flocks, ballad-singers, harvesters, preachers, pedlars...

And not only but also, during the early 19th century, when Britain was on a full-war footing against Napoleonic France, a great deal of the training of the thousands of soldiers and militia included marching hundreds of miles from county to county.

Imagine it...

Thus our young doctor encountered on every not-quiet lane, a press of people walking, always walking. Because everyone, unless they were wealthy or very fortunately placed, had no other option.

Yes, there were coaches, but they were expensive. And the early 19th century was a period of immense inflation due to the war (taxes--war costs so much more than anybody really wants to contemplate). Also the weather which was abominable--they were in the midst of a mini-Ice Age though they didn't know it--with failed harvest after failed harvest, sending the cost of food sky-high.

And betwixt and between this mass of trudging humanity, there were of course the farmers and their carts bringing their produce to the nearest market town or perhaps to London where the prices would be better.

But again, it's not like in the films--carts were employed to transport heavy loads--everything from coal to produce to road-building materials either long or short distances. The horse--usually a heavy cob or pack-horse pulling these carts--walked at foot-pace, no clip-clopping merrily, straining on the inclines (and England is covered with hills and Downland) with their masters walking alongside, one hand on the harness and in the other a whip or goad.

(Walking was also the new Romantic pursuit of choice. It wasn't just William Wordsworth who bought himself, yes, a pair of stout boots, to walk in and much admire the hills of Cumbria. Viscount Castlereagh, husband to one of Almack's patronesses and a powerful politician in his own right as Foreign Secretary, loved nothing better than buying a pair of stout boots and walking the hills and peaks of Northumberland whenever he could get away.)

(I'm still working out how they dried out their sopping wet clothes after all the rain--probably every house and inn from John o'Groats to Land's End stank of wet, drying wool all year long! And wet dog.)

But what of inside?

Those candlelit scenes look lovely on-screen, don't they? So flattering and soft--everyone looks great. But, for example, reading by one candle or oil lamp is not so great. And if that's the only light in the one room where everyone is gathered because that's the only room with a fire in the grate, well, that's pretty dark.

Also, what is so easy to forget is just how far north Great Britain lies on the lines of latitude. During the winter months, darkness falls (earlier in the north) by half past four. Daylight comes trickling in somewhat eight-ish. So there are a great many unlit by sunlight hours...And again, due to inflation and the war, the price of candles was sky-high. So one economised. As certainly Miss Austen and her mother and sister would have done at Chawton.

But another thing that I didn't really recognise until one day a few years ago when I was visiting the mediaeval manor owned by the National Trust, Cotehele. Now this house is just a mediaeval beauty! But it is unlit by modern technology. And on this particular day, a black thunderstorm came over the Tamar Valley and obliterated all light--and they are a common feature of this island.

I was in this oak panelled hallway and it was obsidian as a coal shaft! So what if one were myopic in an age without good eyeglasses? (Servants?) Well, one would be bumping into everything! And then I understood even more--how did the Puritans cope--and no wonder our ancestors loved colour and light clothes--it meant they could at least make out the other figures in the room in all that darkness.

Moreover, all those single candles, all those candelabra on the tables, above each on the ceiling will be stained with a roundel of black soot, and somebody had to clean those in an age when the cleaning products did not come from the grocers, they came from hartshorn or other natural ingredients and one made these oneself.

Finally, I'd just like to say a word about our perception of the aristocratic and gentry women of the age. We look at Eliza Bennet and imagine her bountiful happiness at taking on the role of mistress of Pemberley.

But we too often have no clue what that must have entailed. A big house, such as Pemberley or Chatsworth or any of the other great houses, required a mistress who was trained to the position of basically running a large hotel to put it bluntly. And we know, for example, from the biographies of several ladies of the late 18th and early 19th century, that this was at the best of times a struggle. Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, really had her work cut out for her when she took on Chatsworth--and she was brought up to the job.

Amongst the responsibilities of the mistress of such a place was the care and oversight of all the indoor servants--that might be upwards of 30 people-- including dressing them. (Except for the very grand houses and aristocratic families, servants of this period did not wear livery; they wore serviceable clothes, all of which were provided...brown or grey being a popular choice as it didn't shew the dirt.)

These ladies were also responsible for approving all menus, for ensuring that everyone in the household was fed, and when anyone on the estate was sick looked after. She was also expected to supervise her children's education, thus she needed a degree of education herself. She also managed, as it were, the stream of guests--bearing in mind this is a rural society, so one invites one's friends to visit and stay--and that includes their servants as well--so more people and activities to manage, often for weeks or months.

(Imagine the amount of bed linen such a house must have--and just how labour-intensive the washing thereof! And no Fairy powder neither!)

Oh, and there was the absolute necessity of providing that necessity--an heir and to spare.

But if our lady's husband traveled a great deal, was in the army or Royal Navy, or preferred London society to hers, our lady is at home, managing not the just the household, but the estate and farm as well. Which on the one hand meant that they really hadn't the time to get up to anything but paying taxes, the servant's wages, overseeing the income and vast expenditure and hiring in the local builders to mend the leaking ceiling after that last thunderstorm...

And yet these women did more. Often, we know from their letters that it was they who were responsible for restoring, rebuilding, adding on wings and furnishing these glorious houses--not the men. (One of my favourite women for this is Theresa Parker, mistress of Saltram.)

Amazing, isn't it all? Different from the images we cherish from our favourite 19th century novels and costume dramas, perhaps. But you know, I do feel that the real thing is just so breathtakingly wondrous, a panoramic of this fantabulous world of ours 200 years ago, I kind of prefer those many roads upon which all those stories are walking...


(M.M. Bennetts was a specialist in early 19th century Britain and the Napoleonic wars and wrote two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame, both of which are set amidst the world of walkers and wonders...and are available at Amazon.)

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Deadly or a Curative-poisons in medications

by Diane Scott Lewis

Toxins and poisonous plants have been utilized for centuries in medications. A Persian physician in the tenth century first discovered that poisons such as mercury could be employed as curatives and not only for applying on the tip of an arrow/spear to kill your enemy. But poisons had to be managed carefully.

Plants, long the healing forte of the wise-woman in England, were a common ingredient in medicinal "potions," though many had deadly qualities.

The foxglove, with its beautiful hooded, purple bloom is fatal if eaten.

William Withering
But eighteenth century British physician, William Withering, used infusions of this plant to treat dropsy (now known as edema).

Later, digitalis for heart failure, was created from this plant.

Rosy periwinkle is also toxic to eat. However, in traditional Chinese and Indian medicine, it’s used to treat diabetes and constipation.

More well known is the Opium poppy, used to make morphine (and unfortunately heroin-the killer of many an addict). Morphine is invaluable as a pain reliever for the sickest of patients. Small doses of other deadly toxins such as henbane, hemlock and mandrake have been employed to ease the pain of surgeries. But a dose slightly too high would kill the patient.

Strychnine, derived from a tree seed or bark, was made into medicines to raise blood pressure. It was first marketed as a poison to kill rodents.

In Shakespeare’s time, poisonous extracts were added to cough medicines. Opiates were common in cough remedies, mainly for sedation. Mrs. Cotton in the seventeenth century suggested a mixture of vinegar, salad oil, liquorice, treacle, and tincture of opium when "the cough is troublesome."

No one yet understood the addictive nature of some of these drugs—if the patient lived to find out.

The chemical element mercury, another toxin, was used starting in the 1500’s to treat syphilis.

Well into the twentieth century, mercury was an ingredient in purgatives and infant’s teething powder.

Arsenic is another poison (also utilized to kill rats) that was commonly added to medications. A chemical element, arsenic is found in many minerals. In the 18th to 20th centuries, arsenic compounds, such as arsphenamine (by Paul Ehrlich, 1854-1915) and arsenic trioxide (by Thomas Fowler, 18th c.) were popular. Arsphenamine was also used to treat syphilis. Arsenic trioxide was recommended for the treatment of cancer and psoriasis.

Numerous people suffered adverse effects or died after the ingestion of these lethal ingredients.

In my recent release, The Apothecary’s Widow, arsenic is found in the tinctures used to treat the ague of Lady Pentreath. Unfortunately, arsenic is not normally one of the ingredients listed in that cure, and never in such a large dose.

Who murdered Lady Pentreath, her miserable husband, Branek, or the apothecary Jenna who prepared the medicines, a widow about to be evicted from her shop, which is owned by the Pentreaths? A corrupt constable threatens to send them both to the gallows.

Click here to purchase The Apothecary’s Widow.

To find out more about my novels, please visit my website:

The Power of Poison: Poison as Medicine, the American Museum of Natural History

William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: or, a treatise on the prevention and cure of diseases by regimen and simple medicines [second edition] (London: 1772)


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Alfred Vanderbilt – the Hero of Novel Lusitania R.E.X

This post is by finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction, Greg Taylor.

Alfred Vanderbilt
Alfred Gwynne Vanderbilt was born into a remarkable life. By the time he joined the ranks of the growing family of Cornelius Vanderbilt II, known as Corneil, and his wife Alice (née Gwynne), on October 20th 1877, his parents were already engaged in a sibling rivalry that would create some of the finest homes in America. It is alleged that the opening ball of the conspicuous 5th Avenue chateau built by Alfred’s Uncle Willie and his socially conscious wife Alva, the “party of the century”, catapulted the Vanderbilts into acceptable New York society.

When Alfred was only five years old, his family moved into One West Fifty-seventh Street, the largest mansion ever built in New York City. This early French Renaissance mansion of red brick with limestone boasted one hundred and fifty-seven rooms by the time his parents were finished. It was here that Alfred played as a boy, dashing up the spectacular curved staircase of Caen stone or sneaking into the two-story Moorish smoking room designed by Louis Comfort Tiffany.

The Breakers,
Newport Cottage of Cornelius Vanderbilt II
From 1895, Alfred was able to enjoy the Newport season from the family’s new Italian Renaissance palazzo overlooking the ocean. The Breakers opened that year with the coming out ball of Alfred’s sister Gertrude. Given his love of horses, however, Alfred often ventured up the road to his father’s Oakland Farm, which he would later inherit and expand.

In September of 1895, Alfred followed his two older brothers to Yale. Vanderbilt Hall had opened the year before, built by his grieving parents in memory of Alfred’s oldest brother, Bill, who died during his junior year after contracting typhoid fever from a water pump. Vanderbilt Hall was built with one special suite: for use by future Vanderbilts, it featured wood-paneled walls, an ornate red marble fireplace and a bay window with a commanding view of the campus.

Alfred prospered at Yale, pursuing a variety of sporting activities and winning a “tap” to join secret society Skull and Bones. His older brother Neily was a serious academic, but Alfred enjoyed himself at Yale and after graduating in 1899 embarked on a round-the-world tour with friends, the first leg in a private Vanderbilt railcar. Alfred was in the Orient when he received the news that his father, weakened from a stroke caused by a disagreement with Alfred’s brother Neily, had died. Alfred returned to the Breakers to learn that his older brother had been disinherited for choosing the wrong bride, leaving him, the third son, the heir at age twenty-one to the greatest fortune of the age.

Alfred gave his brother Neily a share of his own inheritance to bring him equal to the other siblings, and but Alfred remained the wealthiest bachelor in America. He was now able to indulge his passion for society and sports, particularly coaching, and attempted to set a speed record between Newport and Boston driving a four-horse brake in August of 1900. Though he failed to set a new record that time, he collected as a passenger for on the return journey the heiress Elsie French, whom he married in January of 1901.

Alfred’s love of horses and coaching gradually pulled him away from Elsie, with frequent trips to London. For one horse show, Alfred shipped a hundred horses across the Atlantic. An adventuring beauty named Agnes Ruiz, the wife of a Cuban diplomat, eventually captured Alfred’s attentions. Elsie filed for divorce and the newspapers eagerly reported the details of Alfred’s adulterous liaison with Agnes aboard his private railcar the Wayfarer. When Alfred became enamored of another wealthy American socialite, Maggie Emerson, Agnes shot herself in London. Alfred married Maggie in November 1911 and they divided their time between London, Great Camp Sagamore in the Adirondacks and the top two floors of the new Vanderbilt Hotel that towered over Manhattan from 1912.

It was in order to attend a meeting of the International Breeders Association in London that Alfred booked passage on the Lusitania in May, 1915. Like the other passengers, Alfred ignored that warning that the German Imperial Embassy printed in the New York papers about sailing into the war zone. The Lusitania was a passenger liner travelling from a neutral country, and Alfred knew that she was also the fastest ship in the world at twenty-six knots compared to only eight knots for a submerged submarine.

In Lusitania R.E.X, Alfred has another reason to travel to England. In this fictionalized account, he is smuggling aboard the ship a prototype rocket clandestinely developed with his Skull and Bones friends that Alfred believes has the potential to end World War One. After the arrest of three German stowaways as the liner sails from New York, the Germans realize their plan to steal to rocket with help from Irish nationalists has failed and the Lusitania is targeted.

Eleven miles from the Irish shore on the last day of the crossing, a single torpedo fired by the German U20 struck the Lusitania. There was a second, much larger explosion that ripped the ship apart. She sank in only eighteen minutes at a list so severe that only eight of the forty-two lifeboats were launched.

Alfred Vanderbilt gallantly gave his lifebelt to a woman passenger, knowing that he could not swim. He was a gifted sportsman and accomplished at nearly every pursuit befitting a gentleman of leisure, but he had never learned to swim. Alfred spent the last few minutes of his life rushing about the deck of the Lusitania with his valet gathering up children to hand into the lifeboats.


Greg Taylor's passion for research has led him to develop first-hand relationships with the descendants of some of the characters in the book, including the Duke of Marlborough and Alfred G Vanderbilt III. He was drawn to the tale of Lusitania because he was fascinated by the cataclysm of elegant Edwardian society caused by the brutal warfare the industrial success of that society made possible. His passion for research and discovery has taken him to the numerous historical sites that appear in the book. Undergraduate studies in history at Williams College in Massachusetts and the University of Durham, England, are reflected in the book. Greg attended the School of Management at Yale University where he lived one block from The Tomb of Skull and Bones. London has been Greg's home since 2000 and he has divided his investment banking and asset management career between New York and London.


Friday, April 24, 2015

Utopian Communities of the Nineteenth Century

I have invited the three finalists of the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction to write posts about the research behind their novels. These posts will not always be British but will be interesting history. Tonight's post is the first.

by Steve Wiegenstein

Life is pretty much a mess, most of the time. People don't behave as they should; they follow their own interests and desires, bringing them into disagreement with others and creating unnecessary heartache and conflict. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone could agree in advance that they would act for the common good, setting aside their own wishes in favor of what's best for everyone?

That is the essence of the utopian ideal, and that's why it has fascinated me for many years. I first got interested in utopian movements when I read about the Icarians, a little-known group that lived in the United States for about fifty years in the Nineteenth Century. That interest led to a wider appreciation for the entire utopian movement, which was a transatlantic movement inspired both by Romanticism and by the newly created idea of “social science,” both of which contributed important elements to the movement in varying degrees.

When I think of the foundations of this movement, three names come to mind: Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, coiner of the memorable phrase “Property is theft”; Charles Fourier, the utopian socialist whose concept of the “phalanx” inspired communities on both sides of the Atlantic; and Robert Owen, the Welsh reformer who put his ideas into action in Britain and the United States. The intellectual roots don’t attract me as much as the human drama, though.

- the New Harmony community in Indiana,
as envisioned by Robert Owen

The Icarians, like a lot of utopian groups, originated with a charismatic leader who attracted a group of followers. But the Icarian movement was different from most others as well. For one thing, its founder, Etienne Cabet, hadn't actually intended to form a settlement. He wrote a novel, Voyage to Icaria, largely to comment on the political situation in France and to keep his name in front of the French public while he served a period of exile. But the novel, in which he set forth his communistic ideas in the form of an imaginary community in the South Seas, caught the public imagination, and in 1848 Cabet found himself leading a group of immigrants to the United States to establish a real-life Icaria. The experiment was marked by equal amounts of strife and heroism, nobility and pettiness, but the last colony of Icarians didn’t disband until 1898, and their dogged persistence in trying to live out their ideal deserves our admiration, if not imitation.

New Harmony as it actually looked

Those of you who have read my first novel, Slant of Light, will recognize that situation as the starting premise of the book – a charismatic social reformer who founds a community, almost by accident. I depart from history at that point, but certainly one of the central themes of my book is the utopian impulse that lives in us all, and whether that impulse can ever be realized. This Old World picks up that story after the devastation of the American Civil War, when the first wave of utopianism died down as dreams of a radical refashioning of human nature felt to most Americans more like a cruel hoax than an achievable ideal.

Somewhere below the surface, the utopian impulse has a dictatorial side—it's the "I know best" impulse, the belief that life's messes and strife could be avoided if only you would agree to what I know is best for us all. You can see hints of this impulse in the obsessive fascination with order that characterizes many of the utopian theorists’ visions of the ideal community. Fourier’s ideal phalanx was to have 1,620 people, equally divided among male and female, and encompassing what he imagined to be all combinations of the common passions of humanity. To the social reformer, our human imperfections are a problem to be solved. But to the novelist, they're what makes us so interesting.

- An artist’s imagining of an ideal Fourierist phalanstery

The fictional inhabitants of Daybreak, the name of my fictional community in Slant of Light and This Old World, try earnestly to arrange their lives for the common good. They hold weekly meetings to vote on everything from whether to install windows in their cabins to whether to buy cloth for mourning dresses. They eat together, work together, travel together. But their communal urges keep getting thwarted by their human desires. They envy, they betray, they fall in love with the wrong people. It's the struggle between these two sides of human nature—the desire to improve and perfect ourselves, and the desire to have what we want when we want it, regardless of others—that drew me to the utopian experience of the Nineteenth Century as a microcosm of human nature.

- the Icarian settlement in Nauvoo, Illinois


Steve Wiegenstein is the author of Slant of Light and This Old World, the first two novels in an anticipated multi-book series. Slant of Light, published in 2012, was the runner-up for the David H. Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and This Old World, published in September 2014, is currently a finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction. Both books were published by Blank Slate Press, a literary small press in St. Louis, Missouri.

See more about Steve and his work on the M.M. Bennetts Award for Historical Fiction website.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

April 24 1558 - April 24 1567: The Nine Year Descent of the Queen of Scots

by Linda Root


April 24, 1558 – Notre Dame d’ Paris

Victor Hugo's Hunchback of Notre Dame
(Cathedral depicted as circa 1600)
Wikimedia Public Domain
There was no butter or chocolate available for purchase anywhere near Paris. The city had long been sold out of silks, brocades, and Belgium lace. Aristocratic women who had failed to plan ahead were savaging their draperies because there was no other velvet to be had. No French king or heir apparent had been married at Notre Dame d' Paris  in living memory. The parents of the groom,  Henri II and his consort Catherine d' Medici,  had been married in Marseilles, and his father Francis I, at Saint Germain en Laye. None of Louis XII’s three wedding masses had been celebrated in the City of Light.  Although the betrothal had not become official until the week before, the prenuptial agreement had been solemnized at Stirling in Scotland when the bride-to- be was not yet five and the absentee bridegroom, barely four. The forthcoming wedding gave Parisians a long-awaited cause to celebrate.

1558 was a grand year for a French royal wedding. The bride’s uncle Francois, Duke of Guise had expelled the English from the Pas de Calais. Francois had abrogated the embarrassment of Agincourt.  On the other side of the coin, the English waged a successful siege of  St. Quentin, trapping  Francois' rival Duke Anne de Montmorency inside the city. Montmorency's detention cleared the way for the Duke of Guise  to act as Master of Ceremonies at his niece's wedding.

The mistress of the ceremony was indeed the bride. Sixteen-year-old Marie Stuart had been the anointed Queen of Scots since six days old and was comfortable in the limelight. She had lived in France since she was five and was already a  celebrated beauty and a crowd pleaser. In every respect other than being born of a Scottish King, she was a French girl. If you have read this in my other posts, I cannot emphasize it too much.  Portrayals of the Queen of Scots glossing over her French childhood (i.e., Reign) do a disservice to their audience.

It is regrettable there are no paintings of the wedding at Notre Dame. We are left to contemporary reports of bystanders and our imaginations. In all accounts, it was a public spectacle of unprecedented grandeur. The ceremony was orchestrated to allow ordinary citizens of Paris  a view of the procession and much of the ceremony. Duke Francois was a perfect host, tossing large sums of money to the assembled crowd amid cries of ‘Largesse, Largesse.’

The bride entered the cathedral on the arm of the King. She wore her hair down, and her gown was white--both departures from tradition.  Queen consort Catherine de Medici had vehemently disapproved of the choice of white for the bridal gown, and the issue was taken to Henri II  to arbitrate.  He sided with his future daughter-in-law. The dress was so heavily encrusted with pearls and other precious jewels that its train was difficult for Marie’s attendants to manage. Celebrations went on for days. After-parties arranged to entertain  visiting Scottish dignitaries and foreign ambassadors continued for the better part of a year.

Duke of Guise, Clouet
The Paris  Aprils  1559—April 1560:  

Although the focus of European royalty was still on Paris in April of 1559, developments on the world stage occurred  which impacted Marie Stuart’s life. The most significant was the death of England’s Catholic Queen Mary Tudor; a sad childless woman married to Philip of Spain who had  the audacity to claim she  smelled bad. According to the Will of Henry VIII and the Act of Succession, the English crown passed to Elizabeth Tudor, the strong-willed Protestant daughter of Anne Boleyn. At this point, the Queen of Scots seriously miss-stepped: No doubt at the provocation of her Guise uncles, the Dauphiness began quartering the arms of England alongside those of Scotland and France. The Queen of Scots had unwittingly taken her first steps toward the block at Fotheringhay by questioning her cousin’s right to rule at a time when Elizabeth I was vulnerable. Her act displayed a foreboding political naiveté and a tendency to follow an agenda written by others.

Elizabeth Coronation portrait 1559
By her third wedding anniversary, the Queen of Scots was Queen consort of France due to a jousting accident claiming the life of her father-in-law.With frail, insipid Francois II as its King, France was in the control of the Duke of Guise and his  brother Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine. Two events occurred to mar the carefree lifestyle of the young King and Queen.  An ill-conceived Huguenot plot to free France of its ultra-Catholic  overlords culminated at Amboise in the Spring of 1560. Although it failed miserably, it exposed the religious divisions plaguing France. In summer, amidst political unrest terminating her regency, Marie’s mother Marie d Guise died at Stirling.

 The  worst was yet to come.  Within days of Marie Stuart’s eighteenth birthday, her childhood confidant and adoring husband Francois II died, apparently of a brain abscess.  The new widow spent her birthday in mourning interrupted when her mother-in-law sent  agents to recover the crown jewels. Her family’s efforts to arrange another European royal marriage were stifled by Catherine de Medici, who ruled France as regent for her young son Charles. If Marie were to be a queen, it would be as Queen of Scotland, an alternative she considered a last resort.

The Scottish years: By April 24, 1561, her third wedding anniversary, Marie Stuart had run out of options. Four months later she sailed into Leith Harbor to begin her personal rule as Queen of Scots.  Although gently bullied by her half-brother James Stewart and maligned by a Protestant clergy led by the irascible John Knox, the Queen of Scots was determined to make the best of it. She spent the first year of her personal rule negotiating a face to face meeting with Elizabeth. Her foreign minister William Maitland did his best to arrange a meeting in York, but  factions on each side of the border sabotaged it. Marie Stuart’s objective was to be named Elizabeth’s heir apparent, which created issues with English Protestants. Meanwhile, Marie continued to search for a suitable husband amongst European Catholic royalty, which did not sit well with either Elizabeth or the Scottish Kirk.

Marie Stuart as a widow, Clouet
There were high points in Marie Stuart’s early reign, notably when she followed the advice of her brother James,  whom she made Earl of Moray, and her foreign secretary  Maitland. With Moray as a comrade in arms, she waged a successful armed expedition against the powerful Catholic Earl of Huntly, which pleased her English cousin. Nevertheless at the end of 1563 she still had failed to come to  terms with her cousin to the south. A successful foreign policy and the establishment of a seaworthy Navy made Elizabeth Tudor a new power on the European stage. European royals were in no hurry to offend her by catering to her charming but less politically astute cousin's marital agenda.  By April 24th, 1563, Marie was acutely aware of the need to secure her throne by producing an heir. Serious problems began when she ignored the advice of her brother and refused to give Elizabeth a right to nay say her choice of husbands, a prerequisite to being named her heir.

The situation developing was much more complicated than a rivalry of Queens. The same problem that was met head on in 2014 was a factor in 1563—the issue of Union. Many astute 16th century Scots including Maitland, Morton, Moray and Kirkcaldy realized a prosperous and Protestant Scotland required peace along the Borders. A permanent end to the Border Wars was best obtained through a Union of the Crowns. Such a premise was utterly alien to the Queen, whose  world view and loyalties were with the French. To Marie Stuart and other Francophiles, the Auld Alliance was very real. However, to most Scots, the Border Wars were devastating to Scotland and often instigated by its Auld Ally when a diversionary bush war in Scotland was in the French interest.
The Scottish view of the monarchy was a second factor sealing Marie Stuart's doom. Early Stuart Royals were Divine Right Monarchs, but the Scottish aristocracy had a different view of what constituted a right to rule. There was a nascent Republicanism in Scottish thought long before Marie Stuart came on the scene. Scots, not God had the final word as to who should be a Scottish sovereign. None of this was part of Marie Stuart’s mindset. She believed the rhetoric calling Elizabeth a heretic and a bastard and that she, not Elizabeth, was England’s rightful Queen. Consequently, when her brother and other advisors told her to acquiesce to Elizabeth's nominee for a second husband, she balked.

Premier Marian historian John Guy states the Queen sealed her fate when she married her English cousin Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Guy's arguments are sound, but the seed of doom was planted earlier when she quartered the arms of England along with her own. Elizabeth was so successful at recreating herself as Gloriana that it is easy to overlook how fragile her grasp on the English throne was when she ascended in 1558. Marie’s competing claim was more than an insult instigated by French Catholics. It was a genuine threat. Elizabeth’s bullying of Marie over her choice of husbands  was at the  least a subtle pay-back.

Darnley, Wiimedia Commonds PD Art
History makes such short shrift of Henry Stuart that it is easy to suspect he was Elizabeth's minister Cecil’s plant. At nineteen, he had a reputation as an arrogant, promiscuous, mollycoddled brat. Even Cecil, who was no fan of sending  Catholic Darnley to become Scottish consort, figured he would not last long. He expected  Moray to see right through Darnley and send him back. When Moray publicly declared Darnley a disaster in the making, his love-starved sister threw Moray out and married  Cousin Henry. Not all Scots disfavored the Darnley marriage. As Henry VII’s great grandchild, his claim to the English throne mirrored Marie’s without suffering the disability of her foreign birth. Anglophiles like Maitland viewed the marriage as a guarantee of Union under a Stuart succession should  Elizabeth die without issue.  But Darnley could not behave himself for long.  By winter, Marie's advisers sided with Moray and so did the unhappy, pregnant Queen. 

A series of bizarre events plagued her pregnancy. First, Maitland convinced Darnley he had been cuckolded. Darnley in turn partnered with the Douglas faction and murdered the Queen's favorite David Rizzio in her presence. Finally, he double-crossed the Douglases and sided with the Queen, assisting in her escape. When the air cleared, Marie saw Darnley  as a danger to her unborn child. In spite of occasional public displays of domestic harmony that fooled no one, she and Darnley were estranged.  After the Prince’s christening in December 1566 which Darnley boycotted, he fled to his father Matthew Stuart’s Lennox earldom near Glasgow. From there he began to plot against his wife. He guessed the Douglases, Maitland, and the Queen's friend James Hepburn were planning to kill him. As modern political philosopher Henry Kissinger observed, even paranoid schizophrenics have enemies.
Darnley was suffering from what is believed to have been tertiary syphilis and fell ill shortly after arriving in Glasgow. The queen traveled there to bring him back. One of history’s great mysteries centers on her motive. Was she delivering him into the lion’s den knowing he was marked for murder, or was she caging him in a velvet prison lest he kill her first?  It may have been a bit of both. On February 10, 1567, his lodgings at Kirk o' Field exploded, and he was found strangled in a nearby garden.

Wikimedea Commons, Drury Sketch of crime scene at Kirk o' Fields

April 24th, 1567:

By the Spring of 1566-67, the widow had chosen a new shoulder on which to lean. James Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell,  was a border firebrand whose most redeeming characteristic was his unwavering loyalty to both Marie de Guise during her regency and later, to the Queen. What part he played in Darnley's death is a topic for a tome, and I shall not explore it here.  He did not appear suddenly on the scene as Darnley had done two years earlier. The Earls of Bothwell were traditional powers in Scottish politics. Both Hepburn and his father were opposed to an alliance with England, although they were avid Protestants. Lord James was among a handful of men Marie trusted to reside in Edinburgh Castle during her lying-in prior to the birth of the Prince. He had never catered to Darnley and had been a secondary target in the Rizzio murder. Although he was a notorious womanizer, there is no credible evidence linking him and the queen sexually until Darnley's father Lennox  fueled the rumors.

When, then, did Bothwell become the Queen’s lover and more specifically, what happened between them on the 24th of April, 1567? The issue is unresolved, but the clues are out there. Unfortunately, most of them address the Queen's behavior rather than exploring what was going on with Bothwell, although  he is the prime mover in the following events.  To that end, I offer a caveat: none of the actions of the parties can be judged by 21st Century standards. With that in mind, the following facts suggest a different answer than expected. Mayhap the rape was genuine.
James Hepburn was a sexually attractive man, as attested by the ease of his many conquests. From the sophisticated Norwegian heiress Anna Trondsen and the icy Lady Jean Gordon to the siren Janet Beaton, who raised his illegitimate son, the women who knew him took the risks that went along with a relationship.

The Wizard Lady of Buccleugh-Braxtome, Janet Beaton
Wikimeia Public Domain

Hepburn’s womanizing was well known.  Nevertheless, the new widow frequently conferred with Bothwell in the privacy of her chambers during her period of mourning after Darnley’s death.

The privy council and other leading Scots knew something was brewing between the Queen and Bothwell by early April. Bothwell hosted a dinner party either at Ainslee’s tavern or in his apartments at court, and his guests put their names to a bond presenting him to Marie as their nominee to become her third husband.

In contrast, the Queen was sexually inexperienced. Her marriage to Francois was likely unconsummated.  His testicles had not descended at the time of his death at age seventeen. Although she was schooled in the practices of courtly love and had flirted with the  poet Chatelard and entertained her secretary Rizzio in her chambers at all hours, there is no evidence she regarded her behavior as compromising. Obviously her relation with Darnley was sexually charged but of relatively brief duration. Weeks after the wedding he was back to the brothels and the Queen was at the gaming tables playing cards with Rizzio.

On the day after Bothwell’s dinner party, Hepburn and Maitland rode to Seton House to present the bond proposing a Hepburn marriage to the Queen. She rejected it on the grounds it might cast doubts upon her honor. Maitland had been recruited to accompany Hepburn to give the proposal credibility.  The two men were not friends. Bothwell never considered Marie might turn him down, or he would not have let a man he despised witness his humiliation.

A final point worthy of consideration concerns the prevalent mores. In 16th Century Scotland, carrying a reluctant female off and raping her was not an uncommon means to force marriage on a reluctant bride, even among aristocrats. Others had contemplated it with the Queen including John Gordon, and possibly his father Huntly, as well as James Hamilton 2nd Earl of Arran.

To innocent observers, Marie and Bothwell were  conducting business as usual the day after she rejected his proposal.  Bothwell had pressing business on the Borders. Marie traveled to Stirling Castle where she intended to relieve the Earl of Mar of the custody of her son. She planned to transfer his guardianship to Bothwell when she returned to Edinburgh.
But that is not what happened.

On April 24th,  after having been refused the custody of her son by Mar, Marie headed back to Edinburgh with Maitland, Sir James Melville, two ladies and thirty retainers. Bothwell and an army of his Borderers waylaid the Queen's entourage at Foulmouth near a bridge over the Almond River. Marie ordered her escort to stand down. Bothwell and his men took control of the Queen, Maitland, and Melville and hauled them off to Dunbar. When they arrived, Bothwell allegedly raped the Queen and boasted to Maitland he had solved her honor problem.

When Melville was released to deliver a message from the Queen to her people excusing Hepburn’s conduct, the citizens of Edinburgh had armed themselves with broom handles, picks, and pitchforks.  When a contingent reached Dunbar, it was clear the Queen did not desire a rescue. A few days later she went to Hepburn’s family's estate at Hailes and  taught him the game of golf. When they returned to Edinburgh, the Queen was in Bothwell’s physical control and clearly in his thrall. The Queen of Scots had lost her credibility with her people.

In May, Marie Stuart married Bothwell in a Protestant ceremony that had her in tears. The ceremony was followed by a wedding breakfast to which the public was invited, but few came. On the 15th of June, the pregnant Queen of Scots surrendered to the Protestant lairds at Carberry Hill on the condition Bothwell would go free. Within days, she was imprisoned at Loch Leven Castle in the custody of her brother Moray’s mother.  On July 24th, 1567, she was forced to abdicate in favor of her son James whom she never saw again.

The battlefield at Carberry-Pd Wikimedia Commons

There are three versions of what occurred at Dunbar. One presumes Hepburn raped the Queen. Another suspects she surrendered her virtue willingly. A third claims the kidnapping was a well-planned farce. The  choice is ours to make.


Linda Root is the author of The First Marie and the Queen of Scots and The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots in the Queen of Scots Suite ( and The Legacy of the Queen of Scots series including The Midwife’s Secret: The Mystery of the Hidden Princess; The Other Daughter: Midwife’s Secret II; 1603: The Queen’s Revenge, and In the Shadow of the Gallows(coming soon).(
As J.D. Root, she has also published the first in her Daemons Ghosts & Guardian series, The Green Woman: A Scottish Fantasy. She lives in Yucca Valley, California with husband Chris, two Alaskan Malamutes, 20 hens and a chicken named Henry 8.