Saturday, April 30, 2016

Elizabeth Milbanke Lamb, The Formidable Lady Melbourne

By Lauren Gilbert

The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, c 1770, by George Stubbs

Her date of birth apparently unknown, Elizabeth Milbanke was baptized Oct 15, 1751 at Croft-on-Trees Yorkshire. Her father was Sir Ralph Milbanke (5th baronet), and her mother Elizabeth Hedworth. The family home was Halnaby Hall in Yorkshire. Her father and her mother’s father were both political (her grandfather was a member of parliament for County Durham). Elizabeth was intelligent and educated privately (probably at home), her studies including French, and poetry. Her brother Ralph inherited their father’s title. Her mother died in 1767, when Elizabeth was approximately 15 years old.

In 1769, at about age 17, Elizabeth met and married Sir Peniston Lamb, who was 24 years old, the marriage being celebrated on April 13 1769 in London. He was the 2nd baronet, and they promptly moved to London. It was a marriage of mutual advantage: her lineage was better and she brought 10,000 pounds to the marriage; he provided her access to the highest level of London society. He was a Whig politician, representing at one time the Borough of Malmsbury, and Elizabeth quickly found her feet as a political hostess. She also developed a good head for business, and organized her husband’s financial affairs, including overseeing the building of Melbourne House in Piccadilly, London. Sir Peniston obtained an Irish peerage as Lord Melbourne, Baron of Kilmore in 1771. In 1781, he was elevated to Viscount Melbourne.

Sir Peniston was almost immediately unfaithful, which Elizabeth accepted with tolerance, if not with grace. Elizabeth was beautiful, intelligent, and had the gift for making guests feel at ease, so became a successful hostess quickly. She also attracted confidences, which she remembered for future reference. Rather than show pique at her husband’s straying, Elizabeth focused her efforts on her activities as a reigning hostess and in making friendships that could be advantageous to her husband’s and family’s advancement. In time, these friendships included men, and involved affairs. Calm, rational, with a caustic wit, she seemed to be more comfortable with men than women. The first child, a son named Peniston born in 1770, was definitely Sir Peniston’s child. After that, who knew? It must be said that Sir Peniston accepted her affairs with the same toleration that she showed with his, including the children born of them. Elizabeth knew what Society expected and what Society would tolerate, and managed these activities with discretion.

A significant friendship ensued in 1774, when William Cavendish, the 5th Duke of Devonshire, married Georgiana Spencer. Elizabeth was quick to make friends with Georgiana, and became a mentor to her. (Since the Duchess of Devonshire had a better pedigree, more money and much higher rank, it was a way for Elizabeth to preserve her sphere of influence as a leader of society.) It may be said that Lady Melbourne kept her friends close, but kept her rivals closer by making friends with them. She was pragmatic and ruthless in her way.

Another significant friendship was that with Lord George Wyndham, 3rd Earl of Egremont. Lord Egremont was an advisor who educated her in agricultural and other business matters. He never married, and the friendship became romantic. Lord Egremont was supposedly the father of Elizabeth’s children William born 1779, Frederick born 1782, and Emily born 1787, all of whom were accepted by Sir Peniston. (The fact that he never married was attributed to Lady Melbourne’s influence in some sources.)

In 1782, Lady Melbourne became acquainted with George, the Prince of Wales. Their friendship developed into a fruitful relationship, resulting in an appointment as Gentleman of the Bedchamber at Carlton House for her husband in 1783, and another child, significantly named George, who was born in 1784 and widely believed to be the prince’s son. When that romance cooled about 1786, she resumed (assuming it had been interrupted) her relationship with Lord Egremont, as witnessed by the birth of Emily. Even so, she managed to maintain her friendship with the prince and a marital relationship with Sir Peniston. Harriet, the youngest child of the marriage, was born in 1789, and was believed to have been the only other child born by Lady Melbourne to her husband. Sadly, Harriet died of consumption (tuberculosis) on June 7, 1803, a devastating blow to Lady Melbourne. She was a devoted mother to her children, keenly interested in their development and studies. All of the children spent most of their time at the country estate of Brocket Hall in Hertfordshire, until the boys went to Eton. (Supposedly it was while visiting her son Peniston at Eton that she made the acquaintance of the Prince in 1782.)

The oldest son Peniston died January 24, 1805 of tuberculosis. Peniston had been his father’s favourite, and by all accounts was indulged by Sir Peniston, who gave him a personal allowance of 5000 pounds per year, allowed him to leave school early to travel the Continent, and engage in basically frivolous pastimes. Young Peniston was apparently very intelligent and replaced his father as MP for Newport, but was not particularly interested in politics and did very little. According to some sources, Peniston died in the arms of his mistress, whom Lady Melbourne brought to her son to comfort his last moments. The occasion of Peniston’s death is noted as the only time that Sir Peniston complained about his wife’s affairs, as young Peniston’s death meant that his heir would not be a child of his body. That heir was the second son, William, who also happened to be Lady Melbourne’s favourite. William had studied law, and entered into politics with real interest. His career and success became a primary focus for Lady Melbourne.

Peniston Lamb, 1805

Although Elizabeth maintained her friendship with Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire, she thoroughly disliked Harriet Ponsonby, Countess of Bessborough, the Duchess of Devonshire’s sister, and Caroline Ponsonby, the Countess’s daughter, as well. This dislike, however, did not prevent her from accepting her son William’s engagement and marriage in 1805 to Caroline. Lady Melbourne was a devoted mother, who was laser-focused on advancing her children’s interest at every turn by any means necessary, and was able to set aside her dislike since Caroline’s superior pedigree and influential relatives gave the match all the appearance of an advantageous one. This courtship and marriage started an explosive chain of events.

I do not propose to get into a detailed discussion of the life and affairs of Lady Caroline Lamb (the subject of many blogs, biographies and novels) but it is impossible to talk about Lady Melbourne without reference to her relationship with her daughter-in-law. In a word, bad. It is hard to imagine two ladies with less in common than Elizabeth and Caroline Lamb. From their appearance (Lady Melbourne being tall, full-fleshed and commanding vs. Caroline being slender, delicate and clinging) to their interests and personalities, they were almost direct opposites. As mentioned before, Elizabeth never liked Caroline or her mother, and she deeply resented Caroline’s influence over her son William. While pursuing and after wedding Caroline, William neglected his political career to enjoy the entertainments of the Devonshire set.

Caroline Lamb, by Eliza Trotter

Caroline was undisciplined and uncontrolled, intelligent but not well-educated, willing to have violent tantrums, had no concept of discretion or reticence, and unable to brook any restraint. Lady Melbourne was controlled, as well as controlling, even tempered, discreet, well-educated with a sharp wit and not reluctant to show her contempt for Caroline and her mother. William and Caroline lived on a floor in Melbourne Hall, which can only have exacerbated things to the maximum. In time, the marriage became difficult, and stressed even further after the birth of their son George in 1807, who was later found to be disabled. Then Caroline had a flirt, possibly an affair, with Sir Godfrey Webster in 1810, which alienated Lady Melbourne further.

Then, into this volatile mixture, we drop George Gordon Byron, the 6th Baron Byron and poet. Lady Melbourne was a mature woman (approximately 54 years old at the time of William’s marriage to Caroline in 1805) but she was a fascinating companion and still attractive to men. In 1811, Caroline met Lord Byron and by the middle of 1812, their affair was public knowledge. At some point, Lady Melbourne met Byron and developed a personal relationship with him herself, sharing letters from Caroline as well as engaging in her own correspondence with him. Although there was a large age difference (she was in her 60’s when he was in her 20’s), she was a fascinating correspondent, and subtly influenced Byron with her criticisms of Caroline.

Lady Melbourne’s brother’s daughter Anne Isabella Milbanke (known as Annabella) was in London, and was introduced to her aunt and society. Annabella managed to attract Byron’s by appearing cool and disapproving, at a point where his attraction to Caroline’s passions was wearing thin. William’s neglect of his political career put him out of office, which disappointed Lady Melbourne even further. Lady Melbourne and Byron communicated frequently during this time. Annabella found her interest focused on Byron; the couple ended up engaged in 1814, in spite of her doubts and his basic reluctance, thanks in no small part to Lady Melbourne’s machinations and encouragement. While Caroline was trying to hold Byron’s interest, Lady Melbourne and, to a lesser degree, Annabella were busy redirecting it. Ultimately, Caroline was completely out-classed in the Byron contest, in spite of her numerous and increasingly brazen attempts to recover his interest. The affair was over by the end of 1812; unfortunately, Caroline didn’t know it.

This was a tumultuous time for all concerned, with Caroline continuing her brazen behaviour and her pursuit of Byron, Byron’s relationships with his wife and half-sister becoming more bizarre, and Lady Melbourne still in touch with all. In 1816, William had almost reached the end of his tether, and (to the he relief, if not the pleasure, of his family) was on the brink of giving up on Caroline, Byron’s marriage to Annabella was falling apart, and everyone was exhausted. In the midst of the drama, Lord Melbourne achieved his peerage as Baron Melbourne in 1815. In April of 1816, Byron left England and William was ready to break with Caroline, to the pleasure of many, especially Lady Byron and his sister Emily. The straw that almost finished it was Caroline’s novel, GLENARVON, in which Caroline portrayed herself as the innocent victim of her husband and all of society (with recognizable portraits of friends and family). Caroline was basically cast out by society, and almost cast out by William. In spite of Lady Melbourne’s best efforts and the wishes of his family, he kept her as his wife until she died.

This long-running serial of her battle with her daughter-in-law (who was really not an equal combatant), I believe, shows all of Lady Melbourne’s least attractive traits: she was determined to dominate, overwhelmingly ambitious, certain she knew best, and willing to do whatever it took to accomplish her ends. She was cynical, hard and unconcerned with morality once she had decided what she wanted. This pattern continued throughout her life; she was less concerned with right than with expedience. She was shrewd and ambitious for her family, but somehow heartless.

Lady Melbourne died April 6, 1818 at Melbourne House in Whitehall. It was a protracted and painful death, attributed to rheumatism. All of her children except Frederick seemed to have been present. She was buried at Hatfield House in Hertfordshire. At the time of her death, none of her children had lived up to her ambitions for them. That lay all in the future: William resume his political career and became Prime Minister for Victoria; Emily married her lover Lord Palmerston (with Queen Victoria’s permission) and became the wife of a prime minister. Lord Melbourne, her husband outlived her, passing away in 1828.

Sources include:

Blyth, Henry. CARO The Fatal Passion. New York, Coward McCann & Geoghegan Inc.: 1972.

Cecil, David. The Young Melbourne. Bobbs-Merrill Company, Indianapolis and New York: 1939.

Douglass, Paul. Lady Caroline Lamb, A Biography. New York, Palgrave McMillan: 2004.

Foreman, Amanda. Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire. New York, Random House: 1998.

Gross, Jonathan David, ed. Byron’s “Corbeau Blanc” The Life and Letters of Lady Melbourne. Texas A & M, 1998 (original published by Rice University, 1998).

History and Other Thoughts blog. “Elizabeth Lamb, Viscountess Melbourne.” Read here.
World of the Marchioness blog. “Caroline Lamb: Family Connections-Brocket Hall.” August 17, 2014. Read here.

Image Attributions: 

The Milbanke and Melbourne Families, from Wikimedia Commons here.

Peniston Lamb, from Wikimedia Commons here.

Caroline Lamb, from Wikimedia Commons here.


Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, released in 2011, and is working on A RATIONAL ATTACMENT, due out later this year. A long-time resident of Florida, she lives with her husband. Visit her website here for more information.

Friday, April 29, 2016

Tudor England's Most Infamous Villain: Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez

by Beth von Staats

Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez
(Hans Holbein the Younger)

Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez, Essex -- was there ever a more manipulative man in 16th century British history? Simply stated, no. In fact, many historians would be hard pressed to find any British man who walked the earth with less redeeming qualities. With no moral center, not even the zealous religious fanaticism common for the era, the Baron Rich of Leez lived his life flip-flopping to the whims of the monarchs he served, resourcefully allying with and then stepping on anyone in his way to advancement and wealth.

Unfortunately for many in the realm, Rich was long-lived, spreading his venom throughout the reigns of King Henry VIII, King Edward VI and Queen Mary I, amazingly remaining unscathed. With the varying political and religious agendas of these monarchs, ranging from staunch Roman Catholicism to near Calvinist Protestantism and everything in between, just how did he pull this off? Well let us count the ways through this admittedly incomplete list.

Ten Dastardly Deeds of Sir Richard Rich

Saint John Fisher
1. Sir Richard Rich, by 1535 Attorney General of Wales and Solicitor General of England, is famously known for his persecution of those who refused to take the Oath of Supremacy during the reign of King Henry VIII, a vow that assured the King was the acknowledged Head of the Church in England inclusive of the clergy and all religious liturgy and tenants. In the case of Bishop John Fisher, Rich tricked the man into admitting his loyalty to the Roman Catholic papacy, promising to tell no one. Rich then testified to Fisher's statements at trial.

In Thomas More's case, Rich flat out lied to the same. Thomas More reportedly told him at trial, "In faith, Mr. Rich, I am sorrier for your perjury than for my own peril, and you shall understand that neither I, nor no man else to my knowledge, ever took you to be a man of such credit as in any matter of importance I or any other would at any time vouchsafe to communicate with you."

Though the source of the quote is actually from More's son-in-law William Roper, truer words were never spoken. Both Saint John Fisher and Saint Thomas More were executed by decapitation for high treason based on Rich's dubious testimony.

Ruins of Holywell Priory, Middlesex

2. In 1536, along with his other titles, Sir Richard Rich was appointed Chancellor of the newly created Court of Augmentations. In this role, he worked in partnership with the Vice-gerant and King's Principal Secretary Thomas Cromwell to dissolve all abbeys, monasteries and nunneries in England and Wales, displacing thousands and completely upending a way of life going back centuries.

What did Sir Richard Rich have to gain by this? Well, he acquired wealth and territories, of course. At bargain basement prices, he procured the monastery at St. Bartholomew, the priory of Leez, the manors of Lighes Parva, Magna Lighes, Folsetd and Fyfield in Essex. Not satisfied, he added to his land gains by procuring the nunnery of St. Bride at Syon, several manors in Essex once belonging to Christ Church, Canterbury and several more manors once owned by St. Osth's at Chic and the Holywell Priory, Middlesex.

Our Baron Rich of Leez was on his way.

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
3. In 1540, Sir Richard Rich turned on his close ally and benefactor of his great wealth and land acquisitions, again performing commendably as a "chief witness", this time against Thomas Cromwell, who was just four months earlier elevated to Earl of Essex. Cromwell was soon executed by decapitation for sacramentary heresy and treason, the charges and testimony falsified.

Thomas Cromwell made his opinions of Rich known to King Henry VIII in a letter after his arrest. From prison he wrote, "What master chancellor has been to me, God and he knows best; what I have been to him your Majesty knows."

The Baron of Leez was "off the hook" for perjuring himself in court this time, though. Cromwell was condemned on attainder, thus Rich's lies were solely to Parliament, the Privy Council and the King.

4. Sir Richard Rich was an incredibly resourceful villain. As King Henry VIII's religious views swayed from evangelical to conservative and back again, Rich went along for the ride, playing the role of henchman brilliantly. In July 1540, on the heels of Cromwell's execution, three men were burned at the stake, declared heretics for preaching doctrines opposed to King Henry's Six Articles of Faith.

On the same day -- that's right, the same day -- three more men were hanged, drawn and quartered for denying the Royal Supremacy. Think about that for a minute. Three Evangelicals and three Roman Catholics were put to death at the hands of Sir Richard Rich on the same day. Was there anyone more expert in riding the waves of King Henry VIII's ever changing religious doctrine? I think not.

Perhaps Queen Catherine Howard
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
5. Well, yes, this time in 1541 the parties were actually guilty of wrong doing both from a legal and moral standpoint, so perhaps we can give Sir Richard Rich the benefit of the doubt that his extensive involvement in the fall of Queen Catherine Howard, as well as his participation in the special Commission for the trials of Thomas Culpepper and Francis Dereham, were solely done for the benefit of the King's honor and the realm's security.

If you are shaking your head disbelievingly, I don't blame you.

6. In 1546, the Baron of Leez was a busy guy. Along with Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley and Bishop Stephen Gardiner, Rich engaged in a witch hunt, working to discredit and upend minor evangelicals in the hopes of snagging the major players, most notably Katherine Parr, Queen of England; Catherine Willoughby, Duchess of Suffolk; and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury.

Thomas Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
One such "minor evangelical" was martyred preacher Anne Askew. Unwilling to testify with whom she associated, Sir Richard Rich and his cohort Wriothesley tortured the woman, racking her by turning the wheeled levers themselves. To punctuate the evilness of the act, the Constable of the Tower of London refused to participate and rushed to court to inform the king. Before he could gain an audience, the damage was done. Anne Askew became the only known women to ever be tortured at the Tower of London in its' over thousand year history.

With arms, legs, elbows and knees dislocated from the rack, Anne Askew was burned at the stake on July 16, 1546.

William Paulet,
1st Marquess of Winchester
(Hans Eworth)
7. Upon the death of King Henry VIII and ascension of King Edward VI in 1547, Sir Richard Rich once again did what he did best, turn on one of his closest allies to seek his own advancement. To reach his goal, Rich successfully worked with his other "allies of the moment" and secured the fall of his "interrogation and torture partner" Lord Chancellor Thomas Wriothesley.

Things did not work out quite as planned. William Paulet was appointed in Wriothesley's place. No problem -- Baron Rich of Leez quickly convinced Lord Protector Edward Seymour and the Privy Council of Paulet's "incompetence", securing the Lord Chancellorship for himself.

8. Throughout the reign of King Edward VI, Lord Chancellor Rich was a "staunch Protestant". Thus, along with Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, he insured the destruction of all "images and idols" in the realm's churches. Throughout the realm great roods and stained glass were destroyed. All church and abbey walls were white washed, covering priceless works of art replaced with the Ten Commandments -- in English, of course.

Stephen Gardiner
 Bishop of Winchester
Just how "staunch" was Rich's Protestantism? Baron Rich of Leez was heavily involved in proceedings leading to the arrests and imprisonments of conservative and later avowed Roman Catholics, Bishop Edmund Bonner and Bishop Stephen Gardiner. Taking things a step further, in his role as Lord Chancellor, Rich worked tirelessly to insure the Eucharist mass was not celebrated, arresting those performing mass for the ever defiant Lady Mary Tudor.

Sir Richard Rich dutifully delivered a letter to the King's Roman Catholic sister from Edward VI himself commanding her to cease and desist. The Lady Mary's response? She commanded that Rich keep his lecturing short. Her celebration of the Eucharist continued.

Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
9. What goes around comes around, even for the brilliantly manipulative Sir Richard Rich. In December 1551, he was compelled to resign his long sought powerful position as Lord Chancellor of England and Wales, feigning illness. The poor man took to his bed at at his estate at St. Bartholomew's.

Why? Like those in modern times who carelessly hit the "send button" before insuring they are emailing or private messaging the correct person, a befriending letter of manipulative warning intended to be sent to the imprisoned Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset was delivered instead to the also imprisoned Thomas Howard, Duke of Norfolk.

I suppose addressing the wax sealed parchment "The Duke" was not quite specific enough for a missive sent to the Tower of London. After all, throughout Tudor history, there always seemed to be a few Dukes, Earls or Barons in the pokey.

What a great opportunity for Norfolk to gain potential release! Though ultimately unsuccessful (for now), the Duke sent the missive along to John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Rich's days as Lord Chancellor were over.

Phew! Finally we are done with him. Or are we?

10. Upon the death of King Edward VI in 1553, both Mary Tudor and Elizabeth Tudor were usurped in favor of the King's cousin, Jane Dudley. Sir Richard Rich was solicited for support of the new queen. Knowing this was his chance to regain power within the realm, the Baron of Leez did what he is now infamous for. Rich flipped his support to whom he gauged would ultimately reign and proclaimed his loyalty to the woman he previously persecuted, Mary Tudor.

Queen Mary Tudor
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
The Baron of Leez always the ultimate host, Queen Mary Tudor spent a few days visiting with Rich and his family at his home in Wanstead before heading to London to take her rightful crown.

What was Sir Richard Rich's most noteworthy service to the realm in Queen Mary's reign? This should come as no surprise. Baron Rich, loyal subject that he was, became one of Queen Mary's most active persecutors, orchestrating the arrest and execution by burning of all convicted Protestant "heretics" in his home county of Essex.

Perhaps to make amends for his previous work as Chancellor of the Court of Augmentations, the Baron of Leez worked towards the large and unfinished task of restoring the monasteries. He granted the Queen what remained of the monastery at St. Bartholomew, where she established Black Friars.

Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez
Felsted Church, Essex
After five years supporting the Roman Catholic agenda of Queen Mary Tudor, Sir Richard Rich rode into London with Queen Elizabeth Tudor when she ascended the throne. In his likely only act showing disagreement with a reigning monarch, Rich refused to support Queen Elizabeth's Act of Uniformity, voting against it in Parliament's House of Lords in 1559 with the Roman Catholic minority. 

Sir Richard Rich mellowed in his last years, perhaps in penance and preparation for meeting his God. The Baron of Leez founded a grammar school in Felsted, which in time educated two sons of Oliver Cromwell. He also founded almshouses to care for the poor and built the tower of Rochford Church.

The father of at least 15 children, 11 legitimate from his long suffering wife and at least 4 known bastards, Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez, died on June 12, 1567. He rests under his magnificent, albeit disconcerting tomb and statue at Felsted Church, Essex.

The "resting place" of Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez.

Do you have other stories detailing the manipulations and evilness of Sir Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich of Leez? If so, feel free to share them in the comment section below.

Author Unidentified, Chapter X: Sir Richard Rich, British History Online

Author Unidentified, Richard Rich, 1st Baron Rich, Luminarium Encyclopedia Project, England Under the Tudors. The article notes that it was excerpted from the following: 1. Pollard, A. F. "Richard Rich, first Baron Rich."; 2. Dictionary of National Biography. Vol. XVI. Sidney Lee, ed.; and 3. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1909. 1009-1012.


Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of 


This post is an EHFA Editor's choice. It was first published on July 23, 2014.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Crests, Blood and Power – The Howards' Rise in Tudor Times

By Lizzy Drake

Photo 1: Framlingham Castle, the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk (Holly Stacey)

The Howard dynasty in Tudor times was a highly rich and powerful one, but there was a time when their precious heads were on the proverbial block before being given a chance to prove themselves loyal to the 'new' Tudor crown. Having been Yorkist and fought for Richard III where Henry Tudor took the crown at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, the family was viewed with suspicion, not in part for the fact that they had a Plantagenet lineage and could, with the backing of loyal Howard and old Yorkist ties, easily have attempted to take the crown for themselves. Thomas Howard, 2nd Duke of Norfolk, was stripped of his title and lands and sent to the tower for three years. The former Duke was, however, clever enough to know how to show his loyalties had changed, for when an opportunity for escape from the tower came, he refused to take it. Who knew that his family would land so close to the king in the form of two queens. Or, perhaps, Thomas Howard had a keen sense of destiny, for the years to come allowed him to show both his guile and servitude in rising back to his position and beyond.

While Thomas Howard was in prison, his family and heirs were still expected to serve the crown and country, providing from their own pocket to help defend and serve it. The Howard male children were educated in court and also taught to train in combat for any upcoming threat. Thomas Howard II was also betrothed to the queen's sister, Anne but because the alliance was so threatening to the current monarchy, their vows were postponed until 1495, though it was the Queen who had to provide her sister and husband 20 shillings a week (Denny, p.21). In 1503, Margaret Tudor was escorted by the Howards to her groom, King James IV and then later, both Thomas Howards travelled on an embassy to Flanders, an obvious show of trust and by the time the crown passed to Henry VIII, the Howards had managed to become an invaluable asset.

It proved a good move for Henry VII not to have executed Thomas Howard, as he proved to be a superb ally both in court politics and, in particular, in the battlefield. It was at the Battle of Flodden (during Henry VIII's reign, and where the Scottish king lost his life) Howard truly proved his worth, fighting so valiantly, he earned back his family title of Duke of Norfolk, while his son, also a Thomas Howard, took the title Earl of Surrey (soon to be passed down to his own son, as Thomas Howard the elder was an aged 70 years by this point and soon to be laid to rest).

Photo 2: portrait of Thomas Howard 2nd Duke of Norfolk

In fact, things were going so well for the Howards by late 1513 that they had fortune enough to make many repairs on their family estate at Framlingham Castle, rebuilding the gatehouse and adding the coat of arms above it, putting up highly decorative Tudor chimneys and the chambers adjoining the gatehouse to accommodate the castle porter and staff. The coat of arms, still visible today as visitors enter the castle, is highly chipped, but a beautiful reminder of the seat of power the Howards held with the Tudors from this upward turning point.

Photo 3: The Howard coat of arms on the new gatehouse built in 1513 (Holly Stacey)

The Howards adopted the motto, Sola virtus invictia, 'Virtue alone invincible'. Their coat of arms was 'red with a silver stripe between six silver crosses', with the crest of a lion 'on a chapeau (Denny, p 20).” Though a contemporary drawing of the Howard coat of arms for Henry Howard, earl of Surrey (beautifully shown in the Framlingham Castle Guidebook), included the cross with the three-pointed label in his arms which was Edward the Confessor's emblem, in which claimed the royal ancestry. Evidently, claiming to be royal blood was too dangerous to broadcast, especially to a king who wanted to eliminate all potential rivals in an increasingly dangerous court, although at the time, there was a power struggle between the Seymours and the Howards. While the very ill King Henry VIII was waning, the Seymours were concerned that the Howards would make a bid for the throne by putting the rightful heir, Edward, aside, and ascending though their Plantagenet bloodline; something they were supposedly able to do should the king have no heir, or as puts it:

'Returning to England in 1546, he found the king dying and his old enemies the Seymours incensed by his interference in the projected alliance between his sister Mary and Sir Thomas Seymour, Jane’s brother; he made matters worse by his assertion that the Howards were the obvious regents for Prince Edward, Henry VIII’s son by Jane Seymour. The Seymours, alarmed, accused Surrey and his father of treason and called his sister, the Duchess of Richmond, to witness against him. She made the disastrous admission that he was still a close adherent to the Roman Catholic faith. Because Surrey’s father, the Duke of Norfolk, had been considered heir apparent if Henry VIII had had no issue, the Seymours urged that the Howards were planning to set Prince Edward aside and assume the throne. Surrey defended himself unavailingly and at the age of 30 was executed on Tower Hill. His father was saved only because the king died before he could be executed ('

Photo 4: Henry Howard (wiki photos)

The Howards created an amazing dynasty for themselves and it was clear that they took family honour to the absolute limit and coupled it with unparalleled ambition for power cutting just shy of actually seizing the throne, though it does seem evident that Henry Howard had this intent. Historians often dwell on the two women who, through the 2nd Duke of Norfolk, found themselves as Henry VIII's queens, and the other, who produced some of his illegitimate children, but it may be said that without the cleverness, patience and political acumen of Thomas Howard the elder and the younger, neither would have worn their crown, nor indeed, would the family have risen from the ashes like a phoenix of lore.


deLisle, Leanda; Tudor, The Family Story; Vintage Press, London 2014
Denny, Joanna; Katherine Howard, A Tudor Conspiracy; Piatkus, 2005
Doran, Susan; The Tudor Chronicles 1485-1603; Metro Books, New York
Elton, G.R.; England Under the Tudors; Routledge, 1991
English Heritage; Framlingham Castle

Online references:


 A Corpse in Cipher amazon.comLizzy Drake has been studying Medieval and Tudor England for over 15 years and has an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York, England. She has been writing for much longer but the Elspet Stafford Mysteries began her writing careen in the genre. The First Elspet Stafford book, A Corpse in Cipher - A Tudor Murder Mystery, is available now.

When not writing or researching, Lizzy can be found reading or gardening. She balances time between her two homes in Essex, UK and California.

You can follow her on Twitter (Lizzy Drake@wyvernwings)

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Defining 'Nobility' in Later Anglo-Saxon England

By Annie Whitehead

The word ‘nobility’ is a vague term; no society in history could be described as having an upper social tier whose members were all of equal wealth and statues. The Anglo-Saxon aristocracy certainly had more than one stratum, and any detailed study of these men must entail a definition of these different levels.

In the eighth-century, Bede wrote of a group of men called ‘comites’, the Anglo-Saxon translation of which is ‘gesiths'. In origin, a gesith was an honourable companion, usually of the king. Most often he would be of noble birth, and he would be either a retainer or the holder of an estate. By the tenth-century, the word was no longer used to describe a personal retainer. HR Loyn [1] suggests that by this time the gesith may well have been a retired retainer settled on his estate. He suggests further that the pattern in the tenth-century may have been as follows:

seal of Godwin the thegn - 11thc
"The retainer at court was termed ‘thegn’. If he was promoted , he became an ealdorman, and when he retired he became a ‘gesith’."

Whatever the truth of the matter, it is clear that by the tenth-century the thegns were subordinate to the king's thegns and to the ealdormen, and that the gesith was no longer engaged in active service for the king.

One distinction between the gesith and the thegn was that of age; the thegn was a young man, the gesith more mature. Initially the thegn was not a powerful man, the term sometimes merely denoting a servant, albeit one who was free. By the tenth-century, however, ‘thegn’ had taken on a more specialised meaning. The law codes of the period show us something of how the thegns had become more important as servants of the king. They were given the responsibility of helping the king to ensure that the church was observing its rules:

"And I and my thegns shall compel our priests to that which the pastors of our souls direct us (clerical celibacy)." [2]

It is also clear that the thegns now had their own class, with a recognisable rank:

“And my thegns are to have their dignity in my time as they had in my father’s.” [3]

Anglo-Saxon society was not a static one. Thegnship had developed as a class of its own, but this did not mean that one had to be born into that class to belong to it.

“And if a ceorl prospered, that he possessed fully five hides of land of his own, a bell and a castle-gate, a seat and a special office in the king’s hall, then was he henceforth entitled to the rights of a thegn.” [4]

It is doubtful how many achieved this, but the opportunity was at least there in theory.

Thegns were graded according to their relationship with the king. The king's thegns would recognise no other lord than the king [5] and might themselves be lords to other thegns. The lesser thegns would have a lord other than the king. Their heriot (see below) would go to their lord, not the king.

From among his thegns the king appointed ealdormen. These men were the king’s representatives in the localities. The main ealdordoms were Northumbria [6], East Anglia, Mercia and Wessex. The office was not strictly hereditary, although many ealdormen succeeded their fathers. In the king’s lands his presence was felt through his reeves, but increasingly the king’s reeves were used as a check against the ealdormen. A grant of King Aethelred II’s shows that an ealdorman had no authority to deal with a breach of law by a king’s reeve, and had to appeal directly to the king. [7]

Aethelred II (Unraed - 'Unready')

The Witan was the high council, and its members were powerful wealthy thegns, and bishops and abbots. The bishops were powerful men, usually from noble families themselves. The witness lists to royal charters show a strict order of seniority. The king signs first, followed by the archbishops, bishops and abbots. The ealdormen sign next, followed by the king’s thegns. Among the ealdormen, there was also a strict order; the most influential of the moment signed above the others. Usually the order changed following the death of an ealdorman, but it was possible for some to gain prominence without such an event. Eadric Streona, Ealdorman of Mercia in the reign of Aethelred II, headed the lists in the lifetime of men who had at one time been his seniors.

charter showing the witness list

The heriot (war-gear), as defined in II Cnut [8] also demonstrated seniority of rank: among the earl’s heriot is the requirement "eight horses, four saddled and four unsaddled.” The requirement of the king’s thegn is "four horses, two saddled and two unsaddled.” Of the lesser thegn the corresponding requirement is for "a horse and its trappings."

The law of the North People, and the Law of the Mercians [9] show the position of the nobility in relation to lesser men. The Law of the North People sets out the wergild* thus:

  • The wergild of the archbishop and the atheling is 15,000 thrymsas
  • That of a bishop and an ealdorman 8,000 thrymsas
  • That of a king’s high-reeve 4,000 thrymsas
  • That of a mass-thegn and a secular thegn 2,000 thrymsas
  • A ceorl’s (churl) wergild is 266 thrymsas

(* wergild was essentially the price, or worth, of a man's life; a payment due to the family by the person who killed him)

In the Law of the Mercians a ceorl's wergild is 200 shillings, and a thegn’s wergild is "six times as much." So between the thegn and the atheling, the wergild is doubled each time. In contrast, the thegn’s wergild is six times that of a ceorl. Despite the professed opportunity for social mobility, the Anglo-Saxon aristocracy was clearly set apart from the rest of society by a substantial distance.


As well as possessing considerable rights over his lands and his vassals, a lord had a duty to safe-guard his men. The terms of the fealty oath are vague, but there is other evidence which describes more fully the nature of the personal bond between a man and his lord. In the reign of Edward the elder (899-924), a letter was written to the king describing the history of an estate at Fonthill, Wiltshire. [10] It describes how a thief, Helmstan, was required to give an oath to clear himself of the charges brought against him. He asked his lord Ordlaf to intercede for him, which Ordlaf did, even though his man was guilty. Although this practice was forbidden [11] there are many other illustrations in the law codes of the lord’s obligations to his man.

A tenant who did not pay his rent could expect his lord to be lenient and exact no penalty. [12] If an accused man ran away, his lord had the responsibility of paying the man's wergild to the king. [13] Any master who forced his slave to work on a feast day forfeited the slave and paid a fine. [14] An accused man could expect his lord to stand surety for him, and if the man ran away from the ordeal it was the lord who had to pay his wergild. [15]

The betrayal of a lord was beyond compensation, according to the laws of Cnut. [16] The personal bond was a two-way responsibility, and the man must be seen to honour his obligations to his lord. The Battle of Maldon shows how seriously this responsibility was taken. Eadric resolves to serve his lord in battle and "now that the time had come to fight, before his lord he duly kept his vow (hold-oath)." When Byrhtnoth is killed, his men have a duty to avenge his death. Traditionally this means that they have to kill the whole of the Viking army to ensure that they kill the actual soldier by whose hands Byrhtnoth has been slain:

“They all intended one of two results,
To love their lives or to avenge their dear one.”

In this stratified society, every man had a duty to protect the men in his care, and to serve the man who protected him. At the top level, the king of course served no-one, and had only the responsibility of protecting his people. At the lowest levels of society the obligation would be only service. The aristocracy had two duties: they served the king (and their lord if they had one) and in return they were rewarded. They had their own men who served them as lord, and in return they offered their man protection, especially under the law.

[1] Gesiths and Thegns in Anglo-Saxon England from the Seventh to the Tenth century - HR Loyn
[2] IV Edgar 1.8.
[3] IV Edgar 2.a.
[4] EHD (English Historical Documents) Vol 1 52 - A Compilation on Status (1002-1023)
[5] "And no-one is to have any jurisdiction over a king's thegn except the king himself." III Aethelred 11
[6] Because of the Scandinavian influence in the north, the ealdormen in Northumbria were termed 'Eorl'
[7] EHD 117 page 525
[8] EHD 50 page 419
[9] EHD 52 - A Compilation on Status
[10] EHD 102 page 501
[11] II Cnut 20.1 "Many an over-bearing man will, if he can and may, defend his man which ever way it seems to him that he can defend him more easily ... but we will not allow that abuse."
[12] II&III Edgar 1.1.
[13] II Cnut 31.1.
[14] II Cnut 45.3.
[15] III Aethelred 4. & 6.2.
[16] II Cnut 64.


Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first novel, To Be A Queen, is the story of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who came to be known as the Lady of the Mercians. It was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society’s Indie Book of the Year 2016. Her new release, Alvar the Kingmaker, which tells the story of Aelfhere of Mercia, a nobleman in the time of King Edgar, is available now, and is the story of one man’s battle to keep the monarchy strong and the country at peace, when successive kings die young.
Find her on her author page HERE

Buy Alvar the Kingmaker
Buy To Be A Queen

Monday, April 25, 2016

Giveaway - The Colour of Poison by Toni Mount

This giveaway has now ended and the winner has been notified. Thanks to everyone who has entered!

Author Toni Mount is giving away a copy of her book, The Colour of Poison

The narrow, stinking streets of medieval London can sometimes be a dark
place. Burglary, arson, kidnapping and murder are every-day events. The
streets even echo with rumours of the mysterious art of alchemy being
used to make gold for the King.
Join Seb, a talented but crippled artist, as he is drawn into a web of
lies to save his handsome brother from the hangman's rope. Will he find
an inner strength in these, the darkest of times, or will events outside
his control overwhelm him? Only one thing is certain - if Seb can't save his brother, nobody can.

To enter the draw, which closes on 1st May 2016, leave a comment and contact details below:

John 'Lackland', Lord of Ireland.

By E.M. Powell

I doubt if King John, youngest son of Henry II, needs much introduction. The 800th anniversary of his issuing of Magna Carta was celebrated only last year. Being referred to as Bad King John also tends to stick in people’s minds.  As for Robin Hood, I will say nothing.

Royal Mail Magna Carta Stamp.
© E.M. Powell

But I’d like to share one of the lesser known episodes in John’s life: his first campaign in Ireland. For on this day, April 25, in 1185, John landed at the port of Waterford on the south east coast with three hundred knights in tow. He hadn’t arrived as King John, but as the eighteen year old Lord of Ireland. No spoilers, of course, but John being John, all did not go well.

King John as shown on Waterford's Great Charter Roll c. 1370
© E.M. Powell

We need to rewind a little to understand why John went there in the first place. Because EHFA is such a wonderful, well-informed blog, you can read a detailed account of the reasons in this post from last month here. The short recap is that Henry II first visited Ireland in 1171. He had already sent troops there and he wanted to stamp his authority on it. But by 1185 it was in a state of major unrest, with native Irish kings and Henry’s Anglo-Norman barons who had taken Irish lands fighting it out for power.

One of those barons was Hugh de Lacy, Henry’s first Lord of Meath. De Lacy had turned into a major thorn in Henry’s side, being far too good at his job for the King’s liking. Yes, de Lacy had taken the ancient kingdom of Meath (Mide) from the Irish and constructed many castles. But he’d also married a daughter of Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (Rory O’Connor), the Irish High King. Some chroniclers suggest that de Lacy was lining up to take all of Ireland from Henry.

Hugh de Lacy's Trim Castle in Co. Meath.
© E.M. Powell

The King looked for a solution and believed he’d found it in John. He’d made the nine year old John Lord of Ireland at the Council of Oxford in 1177. Now that John was an adult, it was time for him to assume responsibility for the troublesome isle. One would think John would have been pleased. After all, he’d borne the nickname of ‘Lackland’ (given to him by Henry) for some time. Trouble was, John possibly had his sights set on the Holy Land. Its ruler, King Baldwin IV, was stricken with leprosy and the Patriarch of Jerusalem arrived in England looking for a prince to succeed him.

John’s desires were thwarted.  On the 18th March 1185, the Patriarch came before Henry’s Council at Clerkenwell for a decision. The decision was a refusal. John would not be going east, but west. He would be going to Ireland. Even worse news for John was that he would not be going as king. Yes, the title of Lord of Ireland was Dominus Hiberniae- dominus being the title accorded to a king before he was actually crowned. But Pope Lucius III would not sanction it. John would remain under the superior lordship of the Angevin dominions. He was not to be independent of his father. Henry knighted John at Windsor on March 31st and sent him on his way.

The port  of Waterford today.
© E.M. Powell

Happily for us, Henry also included his royal clerk, Gerald of Wales, in the entourage and Gerald wrote an account of the expedition in his Expugnatio Hibernica (The Conquest of Ireland). I did mention earlier that all did not go well and it was so from pretty much the moment John’s boots met Irish soil. Still standing tall on Waterford’s quay is the medieval Reginald’s Tower, part of the old city’s fortifications which date from the time of the Vikings.

Reginald's Tower, Waterford City
© E.M. Powell

While the Tower would have looked a bit different in John’s day, we do know precisely what he did as he stood outside it. A group of powerful Irish chieftains came to pay tribute to him as Henry’s representative, greeting him as their lord. John’s response? Well, according to Gerald, John ‘pulled some of them about by their beards, which were large and flowing according to the native custom.’

Suitably angered and very unimpressed, the Irish made for the court of one of the Irish King of Thomond, Domnall Mór Ua Briain (Donal O'Brien), where they reported back to him and others on the insults and how John was ‘a mere youth…a stripling who only listened to youthful advice.’ Worse, they decided that rather than make peace with John, they would ‘plot to resist [John’s force]…guard the privileges of their ancient freedom’ with their lives, and ‘make pacts’ to resist him. Those ‘who had previously been enemies became friends for the first time.’

One of Gerald's depictions of the Irish.
British Library- Public Domain

Having alienated many of the Irish, John then began making grants of land to his own friends— land that loyal supporters of Henry already held. The result, according to Gerald, was that those who were dispossessed ‘went over to the side of the enemy.’ And John carried on. He set about establishing castles to take control of the land. We know from Gerald that there were three sites: Tibberaghny, in Co.  Kilkenny, Ardfinnan in Co. Tipperary and Lismore in Co. Waterford.

Slievenamon, Co. Tipperary, as viewed from the site at Tibberaghny.
© E.M. Powell

These speculative grants were a huge mistake, unleashing the ire of the likes of the powerful Ua Briain. Ua Briain had been one of the first to submit to Henry back in 1171, yet ‘the stripling’ John would receive nothing of the sort. Fierce fighting broke out and there were losses of life on both sides. John (or rather, his more able men) made a few gains, but his forces were well and truly routed in equal amounts by some of the native Irish kings. His less able men drank, caroused and fought with each other. When John failed to pay them, they deserted.

As with so many of his writings, Gerald can be accused of bias, for it was his Cambro-Norman kinsmen who made up the first wave of colonists in Ireland. Yet Roger of Howden is of the same view, listing selfish behaviour by John, non-payment of his armies and subsequent desertion and bad losses to the Irish.

The Comeragh Mountains, Co. Waterford.
© E.M. Powell

One would have thought that John would have accepted some responsibility for his failings. But no. Instead, he accused one of Henry’s men of treacherous dealings with the Irish. And that man of course was Hugh de Lacy. There is no suggestion that de Lacy did anything to interfere with John’s campaign. He was by now immensely powerful: Constable of Dublin, and still holding his own vast lordship of Meath. De Lacy did join John for part of his travels through Ireland. What is interesting is that while de Lacy witnessed several of John’s charters, none of them are John’s grants of lands to his friends. It is possible that de Lacy, hugely successful on the battlefield as well as on the diplomatic front, wanted nothing to do with John’s cronyism.

Ninth Century High Cross, Durrow, County Offaly.
© E.M. Powell

John’s campaign ended in Dublin where he stayed until returning to Henry in December 1185, after only eight months as Lord of Ireland. He complained bitterly to the King about the Irish and Hugh de Lacy, and squarely blamed de Lacy for his failure. If de Lacy was poised to make a bid for Ireland, we will never know. De Lacy was assassinated at Durrow, Co. Offaly in July 1186 by an Irish axe-man. Henry is said to have rejoiced at the news and made preparations to send John back to Ireland to assume control. A new Pope had agreed to John’s coronation.

It was not to be. John was mid-journey when news came of his brother Geoffrey’s death. Now just two sons remained: Richard and John. John was needed elsewhere. It would be another twenty four years before John would set foot in Ireland again. And by 1210, he would no longer be Lackland: he would be King John. But he still would not be the English King of Ireland. That would take more than 300 years and another Henry- Henry VIII.
Church, S.D.: King John: New Interpretations, Boydell Press (1999).
Cosgrove, Art, ed: A New History of Ireland Volume II, Medieval Ireland: Oxford University Press (2008)
Duffy, Seán: Ireland in the Middle Ages: Palgrave Macmillan (1997)
Flanagan, Marie-Therese: Irish Society, Anglo-Norman Settlers, Angevin Kingship: Interactions in Ireland in the late 12th Century, Oxford: Clarendon Press (1998)
McLynn, Frank: Lionheart & Lackland: King Richard, King John and the Wars of Conquest: Vintage Books (2007)
Morris, Marc: King John: Treachery, Tyranny and the Road to Magna Carta: Hutchinson (2015)
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: King John/Hugh de Lacy
Scott, A.B. & Martin, F.X. eds., The Conquest of Ireland by Giraldus Cambrensis: Dublin, Royal Irish Academy (1978)
Veach, Colin, “Relentlessly striving for more”: Hugh de Lacy in Ireland, History Ireland, Issue 2, Volume 15 (2007)
Warren, W.L., King John, Yale University Press (1981)

E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers THE FIFTH KNIGHT and THE BLOOD OF THE FIFTH KNIGHT have been #1 Amazon bestsellers and a Bild bestseller in Germany. Book #3 in the series, THE LORD OF IRELAND, about John’s failed campaign in Ireland, was published by Thomas & Mercer on April 5 2016.

Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. As well as blogging and editing for EHFA, she is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting
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