Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Life of the Governess Continued: Agnes Porter

by Lauren Gilbert

The Governess
As we’ve already seen, governesses were a necessary feature in upper class households with children. The position came to be regarded as oppressive, socially ambiguous and somehow shameful. This is especially true of the Victorian era, when middle class and tradesman families who had acquired new wealth wanted governesses for their children as a sign of their new status (and to help their children move into a higher social sphere). In many ways, this created a new tension in that, at the same time, there was a plethora of unattached gentlewomen seeking employment who went to work for people whom they might never have considered a social equal. Within the household, a governess had the social strain of being kept “in her place” combined with the need to provide their female students with less intellectual stimulation and more accomplishments, creating a singularly isolated and intellectually arid situation. This is the situation from which JANE EYRE and her like was born. Miss Trimmer (see my previous post HERE.) and Miss Agnes Porter, today’s subject, had the advantage of being from an earlier generation. They grew up at a time when education for girls was not as restricted (even if only in their reading) and worked at a time when governesses were employed primarily by the aristocracy, so the issue of rank was already settled.

Fortunately, Agnes Porter left diaries and letters, which give us an opportunity to learn about her working life. However, we do not have as much personal detail as we could wish. Ann Agnes Porter was born on June 18, sometime around 1750-52 (exact year unknown) in Edinburgh, the oldest of 4 children (she had 2 sisters and a brother; her brother died young). Her father was Francis Porter, born about 1718. His parents having died when he was young, he was apprenticed at age 12 under his uncle, a woolendraper in Great Yarmouth. Although he completed his apprenticeship, he apparently had different ambitions; by 1750, he was an ordained Anglican clergyman living in Edinburgh and married to a woman named Elizabeth (maiden name unknown but of apparently better connections) and beginning his own family. It is important to note that, despite his beginnings in trade, by becoming a clergyman and marrying a woman of somewhat better status, he raised himself up to a higher social level. This allowed his daughters to be considered gentlewomen, an important consideration.

Although Mr. Porter does not seem to have held a permanent living for most of his career, he performed marriages and services and apparently continued his studies. Despite the fact he and his family seem to have relocated to Chelsea near London by about 1763, Francis Porter was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by Edinburgh University in 1765. He had also benefited from a series of inheritances from aunts, first in 1757, again in 1764 and again in 1765, inheriting money and property in Great Yarmouth, among other benefits. The family remained in the Chelsea-London area until about 1770. In 1778, he was given his own living at Wroughton, Wiltshire, as vicar. He died March 28, 1782 at Wroughton, living his widow and 3 daughters.

We know nothing of the education of Agnes and her sisters. There is no indication that she or her sisters were sent away to school; there is a strong probability they were educated at home. We don’t know what benefits Mr. Porter’s inheritances may have afforded the family prior to his death. As a clergyman, particularly one pursuing his own education, one assumes there were books in the households in which they lived. There is an indication that Agnes and her youngest sister Fanny were in Boulogne, France, for some time as girls; certainly, Agnes spoke respectable French as an adult. At some point, she must have had music lessons, as she played the piano and the harpsichord and sang. It is apparent she read widely, had an inquiring mind, and acquired the usual skills: the use of the globes (celestial and terrestrial), drawing, geography, etc.

Agnes spent some time in the household of a wealthy family named Ramey in Great Yarmouth. John Ramey, head of the household, may have been a friend or acquaintance of her father. She may have been in the household for at least part of the time as Mrs. Ramey’s companion, and was there at the time her father died in 1782. There is no indication of what happened to the property Mr. Porter had inherited in Great Yarmouth; he left little to his surviving family and, as the widow of a clergyman, Mrs. Porter had to leave the house that had come with the living. From this point, it was apparent that Agnes was going to have to support herself and her mother. Her first known position as a governess was in the household of a family named Goddard with several daughters later in 1782, which was located in Swindon, not far from Wroughton. She stayed there a short time, before moving on to the household of the 2nd Earl of Ilchester in January of 1784. She was then in her early thirties. Her salary was 100 pounds per year and she was provided with comfortable rooms of her own, including the use of a parlour.

Lord Ilchester’s family was wealthy and related to Lord Holland and Charles James Fox, one of the strong Whig families. Despite this, his wife and children spent most of their time at Redlynch in Somerset, rather than in London or at other more imposing estates. Lady Ilchester was the daughter of an Irish gentleman, and apparently the marriage was a love match. At the time Agnes Porter joined their household, Lord and Lady Ilchester had 3 daughters, and her arrival occurred just before the birth of a 4th daughter. Lady Ilchester, by all accounts, was a warm-hearted person who preferred life in the country with her children, and Agnes Porter became very attached to her. It appears that Miss Porter and Lady Ilchester became friends. A son and 2 more daughters were born. Sadly, Lady Ilchester died in June of 1790, shortly after the birth of her 6th daughter. Agnes Porter had the teaching of and a great deal of the care of the children. Lord Ilchester was involved with his children, particularly the older ones, taking them on visits from home and to his London home during the season.

Miss Porter’s teaching style seems to have been less reliant on learning by rote than by experience, reward and making the lessons fun. She heard their prayers and their lessons, took them for walks, supervised their play and read with them. This could involve a day lasting up to 16 hours, and occurred every day. Having an affectionate relationship with their mother and fondness for the children must have made things much easier for Miss Porter and the family (unlike the periodic tensions between Selina Trimmer and Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire and Elizabeth, the 2nd duchess). After the death of Lady Ilchester, Miss Porter was even more involved with the day-to-day care of the younger children. She genuinely liked teaching. She was also a sympathetic friend to the two older girls who were growing up and no longer required teaching as much as guidance.

During this time, Miss Porter was able to see friends, especially when in London. Her youngest sister Fanny Richards (who had married a clergyman) visited her at Redlynch. She sent money to her mother and younger sister Elizabeth, who lived with Mrs. Porter. She also corresponded with her sister Fanny. Agnes wrote and published a book of children’s stories in 1791. However, despite the many advantages of her position, she worried about her mother and wanted to spend more time with her which was difficult. She visited when she could, and was concerned about her mother’s health. Agnes was there multiple times in 1791, and again in July of 1792, when she paid her mother’s debts and arranged for more care for her (sister Elizabeth was apparently not a reliable caregiver, which added to Agnes’ worries). She was also anxious about an indigent old age, despite Lord Ilchester’s promise of an annuity of 30 pounds per year. She hoped for a marriage, and a home of her own, as that offered the most security.

In 1794, one of Lord Ilchester’s older daughters, Mary, married Thomas Talbot and moved with him to his home Penrice Castle in Wales. This was a wrench, as Lady Mary and Miss Porter were friends. They did however engage in correspondence. On June 8, 1794, Miss Porter’s beloved mother died. Then, in August of 1794, Lord Ilchester married again, to his cousin Maria Digby, a much younger woman. Although Miss Porter tried to be optimistic, the new Lady Ilchester did not warm to Miss Porter, apparently uncomfortable with Miss Porter’s affectionate relationship with her stepchildren. The birth of a son two years later to Lord and Lady Ilchester only exacerbated the tension, culminating in Miss Porter’s determination to leave the position in 1796, although restricted by her situation (where to go?). Fortunately, a friend, Mrs. Upchur, offered Miss Porter 100 pounds per year to come as companion, so Miss Porter was able to give her notice to Lord Ilchester, who was distressed to lose her. She moved in with Mrs. Upchur in September of 1797. She was in her mid forties and had been with them over a decade.

In March 1799, Mrs. Upchur died, leaving Agnes 100 pounds. Later in 1799, her friend and former pupil Lady Mary Talbot, now a mother herself, invited Miss Porter to come to Penrice to teach her children, also offering 100 pounds per year. This gave Miss Porter the opportunity to return to a country household with a congenial mistress and a second generation of children to teach. She remained with the family until she retired in 1806. Lord Ilchester had died in 1802, but he left many debts and an unclear will, so it took much time for the promised annuity to be paid. At some point in 1808, the payment of the annuity finally became reliable.

Fortunately, the Talbots continued to pay her 30 pounds per year after her retirement and she was able to go live with her married sister Fanny and her brother-in-law in Fairford, Gloucestershire. She periodically returned to Penrice to help out, and also visited London and Norfolk. At some point, she decided to leave her sister’s home (there is a suggestion that her brother-in-law’s evangelical beliefs were not compatible with her beliefs, and particularly her fondness for cards). Ultimately, she spent the last few years of her life comfortably in lodgings in Bruton, a happy situation near Redlynch where she had acquaintance and was able to enjoy a social life. Agnes maintained her correspondence with Lady Mary Talbot until she passed away in February 1814, in her early 60’s. She left approximately 2000 pounds, which she had settled with a will written in 1813, benefiting her sister Fanny and some cousins, and leaving a few other bequests.

Agnes Porter’s diaries give us many insights to her life and activities as a governess that we do not have with Selina Trimmer. She acknowledged herself as plain, but she retained her intellectual curiosity and strove to learn. She read books about education, tried to teach herself Latin, German and Italian, and continued to read widely during her life. She clearly had positions in the Ilchester and Talbot homes that allowed her privacy and a certain amount of freedom and paid her decently, allowing her to support her mother and to save something for herself. In spite of this, she was dogged by the uncertainty of her situation and the fear of being alone and poor in her old age. Throughout her career, as successful and satisfying as it was in many ways, Agnes Porter wanted to be married. She had her hopes raised and disappointed more than once well into her middle years. It’s no wonder that, after Lord Ilchester’s death, she pursued her annuity until it was resolved and paid regularly.

The information here is from the following sources:

Brandon, Ruth. GOVERNESS The Lives and Times of the Real Jane Eyres. 2008: Walker Publishing Co., New York, NY.

Martin, Joanna, ed. A GOVERNESS IN THE AGE OF JANE AUSTEN The Journals and Letters of Agnes Porter. 1998: The Hambledon Press, London, England.

I highly recommend both books. Unfortunately, I found no portrait of Miss Porter in the public domain.

Image: The Governess by Emily Mary Osborne, 1860. Wikimedia Commons. HERE

Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first published work, HEYERWOOD: A Novel, was released in 2011.  Her second novel, working title A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT in in process.  Visit her website HERE for more information.

Monday, May 30, 2016

Wealth, Power and Influence in Later Anglo-Saxon England

By Annie Whitehead

The great magnates of Anglo-Saxon England were not poor men. Land has always been the most recognisable sign of wealth, and these men had plenty of it. The amount of land which a pre-Conquest nobleman could amass can be seen clearly in the case of Harold Godwineson. [1] As well as their own family lands, such men could hold land from their lord as reward for service. Bookland, as it was called, was originally granted by the king to his thegns with an ecclesiastical purpose in mind. By the tenth-century, however, land was being booked without any pretence that it would go to endow a church. Many thegns and ealdormen were benefactors of religious houses though - Wulfric Spott founded Burton Abbey, Athelstan 'Half-king', ealdorman of East Anglia 932-956, used his wife's lands to form the nucleus of the large endowment of Ramsey Abbey, [2] and Aelfhere, ealdorman of Mercia 956-983, cited in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle as the destroyer of monasteries, [3] was a great friend to the religious houses at Glastonbury and Abingdon.

Dunstan - one-time abbot of Glastonbury

The nature of the land grants varied little, and each one set out the conditions under which the land was booked. King Edgar granted to his thegn, Aelfwold, land at Kineton in Warwickshire as

"an eternal inheritance ... and after the conclusion of his life (he may) leave it unburdened to whatsoever heirs he shall wish. Also the aforesaid estate is to be free from every yoke of earthly service except three, namely fixed military service and the restoration of bridges and fortresses." [4]

It was not only the king who granted land. Oswald, bishop of Worcester, sets out the conditions under which he has granted his land in his letter to King Edgar. [5]

"That they shall fulfil the whole law of riding as riding men should and that they shall pay in full ... church Scot and Toll. In addition they shall lend horses, they shall ride themselves, and, moreover, be ready to build bridges, ... they shall always be subject to the authority and will of that archiductor who presides over the bishopric..."

King Edgar

The will of Wulfric Spott [6] is a fine example of the extent of lands in the possession of an influential thegn. He had lands in Staffordshire and Derbyshire, estates in Shropshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. The will also refers to lands in South Lancashire and Cheshire.

The family of Wulfric Spott was one of the most influential and powerful of its day, with branches linked to the royal family and a regular involvement in power struggles and political rivalry. Wulfric Spott's brother, Aelfhelm, ealdorman of Northumbria, was murdered in 1006, and his sons Wulfheah and Ufegeat were blinded. Wulfheah was one of the prominent ministri during the period when Aethelred II (Unready) was restoring royal favour to the Church (see below).

It is easy to believe that Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia 1007-1017, was Aelfhelm's murderer. His rise to power certainly would not have been hindered by the removal of such prominent men who had surrounded the king. The rivalry does not seem to have stopped there, for Eadric is named as the murderer of the thegns Sigeferth and Morcar.

These brothers were members of this same family; Morcar was married to Wulfric Spott's niece. There is a possibility that they were related to King Aethelred through his marriage to the daughter of Thored of Northumbria.

Vacillating between the causes of Edmund Ironside and Cnut in the war of 1015-16, Eadric was playing a dangerous game. Edmund had defied his father, Aethelred II (Unready), and married Sigeferth's widow, thereby gaining the allegiance of the northern Danelaw. Cnut's English wife, Aelfgifu of Northampton, was the daughter of the murdered Aelfhelm, and the cousin of Ealdgyth, Morcar's widow. It is also possible that this family was connected to that of Leofwine, who held Eadric's ealdordom after the latter's death. His son succeeded him, and his son Aelfgar married Aelfgifu who may have been the daughter of Ealdgyth and Morcar. So far, so confusing!

Encomium Emmae Reginae 
But the Encomium Emmae Reginae shows us how important this family really was. It was written for Cnut's second wife Emma, as a propaganda exercise for the claims of her son Harthacnut, and in Book III it denies that Harald is Cnut's son. This in itself is not enough to refute Harald's claims, and the Encomium further denies that he is Aelfgifu of Northampton's son. Clearly his position as her son is important. If Emma denies that he is of this family, then she is not attacking them. The importance of Aelfgifu's kinship is clear, and Emma does not wish to offend this great family.

Cnut with his sons Harald and Harthacnut

A simple equation which has always held true is that wealth equals power. King Aethelred II was called 'Unraed' because he was badly counselled. It is certainly true that for much of his reign he was guided by councillors acting in their own interests. The 980s were a period which Aethelred came later to regret. Many churches were deprived of their lands; an Abingdon estate was acquired by a king's reeve, and Rochester was besieged. Aethelsige, one of the five most prominent men at this time, was responsible for the damage done at Rochester. The king himself admitted that this was a period when he was being manipulated by a group of men who, taking advantage of his youth, were acting in their own interests at the expense of various churches. In the next decade the prominent men were associated with the monastic cause and royal generosity to the Church was re-established.

The king needed his councillors and officials. He rarely acted without the consent of the witan (council). Royal authority could only be made to be felt throughout the kingdom through the king's representatives. Yet it was all too easy for these men to become too powerful. The king rarely strayed from the south, and to the inhabitants of England north of the Humber, royal authority was remote.

Northumbria was never free from the Scandinavian threat, and the eorls (as they were called in the north) often had to deal with this problem on their own. It must have been difficult to trust them, but many thegns were encouraged to acquire estates in areas settled by the Danes, to help break down the isolation of the north. Another policy instigated was that of appointing archbishops to York who had sees elsewhere. This pluralism was designed to ensure ecclesiastical loyalty, and would also help to bring Northumbria out of isolation. Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. The ealdormen, if they wished to assert themselves, had to establish links in order to gain and retain control, and at times this must have looked suspiciously like treachery. Poor communications also did nothing to alleviate the danger of an over-concentration of power in too few aristocratic hands.

Aethelred II

During the reign of King Alfred, ealdormen usually controlled single shires, but as the West Saxon kingdom expanded the ealdormen were given greater responsibility. Athelstan of East Anglia's nickname 'Half-king' demonstrates how powerful these men could become. His ealdordom included East Anglia proper (Norfolk and Suffolk), Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, north-east Northamptonshire, and he probably governed the whole of the eastern Danelaw. [7]  He kept his ealdordom under such control that Kings Edmund and Eadred were able to recover first the northern Danelaw, then Northumbria, and finally to conquer Strathclyde.

It is not surprising to discover that men like these did not always work together in complete harmony. The anti-monastic reaction which followed the death of Edgar in 975 found ealdormen Aelfhere and Aethelwine on opposing sides in the succession dispute. Doubtless Aelfhere was antagonised by the triple-hundred of Oswaldslow which had encroached upon his area of authority, but it has been suggested [8] that he had other, more personal reasons for opposing Aethelwine's and Dunstan's support of Edward; namely that Aethelwine's ealdordom was East Anglia, and this meant East Anglia proper, Essex, and the shires which had at one time been the eastern part of the old kingdom of Mercia, and were still called Mercian in the tenth-century. Aelfhere, Aethelwine and Eorl Oslac of Northumbria were the most influential ealdormen of their day. Ambition and power perhaps inevitably cause conflict.

Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Thorkell the Tall, a Danish invader turned mercenary of Aethelred II, became the leading secular lord of Cnut's reign. He was made governor of Denmark for a time and guardian of the king's son. Cnut's letter to the people of England [9] instructs Earl Thorkell to deal with those who defy the laws. Dorothy Whitelock* suggested that this was because the letter was sent to him from Denmark by Cnut and that Thorkell was acting as regent in Cnut's absence. Power and trust indeed for a man who had earlier fought on the side of the English. Doubtless this was the kind of reward Eadric Streona had been seeking to secure himself when he changed sides during the war of 1015-16. He, of course, was not so fortunate. [10]

It is interesting to note that open conflict only occurred in times of unrest, for example during the succession dispute of 975, or the war of 1015-16. Athelstan 'Half-king' was loyal, as we have seen; Aelfhere of Mercia was invaluable to King Edgar when he was trying to assert himself as king of the Mercians. Only after Edgar's death did Aelfhere's resentment manifest itself. The king may have been ill-served upon occasion, and there is some doubt as to the effectiveness of the reeves as checks against the power of the ealdormen, but there was nothing in England to compare with the rise to power of the Capetians in France, and royal authority was never seriously challenged by the servants of the crown.

[1] Ann Williams - Harold Godwineson Battle 80
[2] CR Hart (in Anglo-Saxon England 2)- Athelstan Half-king and his Family
[3] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) 975
[4] EHD (English Historical Documents) 113 page 519
[5] Origins of English Feudalism 42 p133
[6] EHD 125 p541
[7] CR Hart ibid
[8] Ann Williams - Princeps Mercorum gentis; the family, career and connections of Aelfhere, Ealdorman of  of Mercia 956-983
[9] EHD 48 p415
[10] The Encomium Emmae Reginae tells us Eadric's fate: "He (Cnut) said 'pay this man what we owe him; that is to say kill him, lest he plays us false.' He (Eric of Hlathir) indeed raised his axe without delay and cut of his (Eadric's) head with a mighty blow."
*Author of The Beginnings of English Society, & Wulfstan and the Laws of Cnut (English historical Review 62 1948)

Annie Whitehead is a history graduate and prize-winning author. Her 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 and has been awarded an indieBRAG medallion. 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.

Annie's Author Page
Buy Alvar the Kingmaker
Buy To Be A Queen
Annie's Website

Saturday, May 28, 2016

WILD FOODS - Historical Fiction Research

By Elaine Moxon

One of the things you swiftly learn, as a historical fiction author, is that you must become well read in a myriad of subjects. Many of these topics, to external eyes, may seem entirely disconnected with writing a novel. Little do they know, this knowledge is invaluable. Creating a historic and accurate landscape within which your characters can travel and interact is hard work.

I thought I’d share some research I’ve been doing for some travelling characters that may not always be able to pop into the local town for supplies. Living in the 5th Century AD as they do, and also wary of bumping into enemies, they have only what they brought with them for the journey, and what they find along the way.

From Saxon settlement, along ancient roadways, across rivers towards the coast, this is what they might discover.
DANDELION, publicdomainpictures.net

Woodland, Hedgerow, Roadside, Heath & Moorland

In scrubby woodland you’ll find young Elder buds for salads, and hazelnuts rich in protein, fats and minerals. The best dandelions are found on hedge banks and roadsides, and their young leaves are good in salads. Eat them in moderation, however. As suggested by their French name ‘pis-le-lit’ (or more politely, wet-the-bed) they are a diuretic and can have you running for the nearest facilities!

Blackberries ripen in August and are at their sweetest then. Also known as the ‘blessed bramble’ it was so called for the joy its fruit brought to areas where fruit was rare. Its leaves soothe burns and bruises, and a rich dye can be made from the berries, as can also be made from sloes. Sloe berries also make delicious wine, though I doubt my travelling companions have time for that.

Columbines love limestone woods and flower May-July. While most of the plant is poisonous, the 17th Century herbalist Nicholas Culpeper observed that ‘the seed taken in wine causeth a speedy delivery of women in childbirth’. Handy if any of your travelling party are in the later stages of child labour!

Pollen from the Common Mallow has been found in Roman remains in Britain, suggesting it was imported for medicinal purposes. Pliny the Elder declared a daily ‘spoonful of the mallows’ to be preventative of illnesses. A decoction of boiled leaves is said to calm fevers and a lotion of the same alleviates swellings. Mucilage of the roots of the variety known as ‘Marsh Mallow’ once provided a chewy filling to chocolate coated biscuits. Today it is somewhat rare and used only in toiletries and cosmetics.

Another ancient acquaintance is the Crocus, harvested since medieval times for the spice ‘saffron’. Although this doesn’t necessarily constitute a ready food source, I felt it worth a mention as an ingredient. Also within this realm is Lady’s Bedstraw or ‘Galium verum’, once used as a rennet in cheese-making. Thyme can flavour soups, stews, sauces and stuffing and is thought to prevent bad dreams. Ideal for travelling nobility with heavy weights on their minds.

Galium verum
Photo credit: bastus917 via VisualHunt / CC BY-SA 


The obvious one here is seaweed, of which two types can be cooked as a spring vegetable - laver and caragon. You can also cook ‘Fat Hen’ and nettle leaves as you would spinach (but wear gloves when picking the latter!). Nettle leaves also make a refreshing drink. Molluscs such as cockles, mussels, and if in Cornwall, pilchards, all make tasty additions to a meal. At the end of summer, enjoy sweet chestnuts, eaten raw or even better roasted. Then in autumn, berries, nuts and fungi can be found, mostly in woodland, but field mushrooms are common in pastures and meadows (particularly where horses graze). Pick early in the morning and fry or add to soups.

By streams, fields and riverbanks you can find water-loving mint, watercress and wild garlic – all great for making soups. Wild garlic, also known as Ramsons, gives its name to several settlements in Britain known for the pervasive smell of this pretty flower, including Ramshope, Ramsbottom, Ramsey and Ramsholt. The name derives not from male sheep, but the Old English word ‘hrmsa’ meaning ‘wild garlic’!

Bogbean can be found in wet soil, mud and water – its bitter trifoliate leaves were used as infusions to alleviate scurvy and rheumatism. Laplanders used the powdered roots to bulk up the meal in their bread, though it leaves a bitter taste. Another lover of moist ground is Common Comfrey. All parts of the plant have a reputation for healing cuts and fractures and reducing swelling. Often going by the name ‘knitbone’, an infusion of the leaves in warm water gives relief to sprained wrists and ankles. My heroine in WULFSUNA uses a comfrey poultice beside a stream to alleviate swollen ankles.

Mentioned by the Greeks as early as the 1st Century AD, ‘seseli’ or as we know it Sweet Cicely, can be added to salads. Its fresh, sweet leaves counteract any bitterness or remove tartness when boiling fruit. With an aniseed flavour, it was used as an aphrodisiac in the 16th Century to ‘increaseth...lust and strength’ (John Gerard’s ‘Herball’).

Photo credit: col&tasha via Visualhunt.com / CC BY

Wild Animals

Some wild animals are predators to be cautious of, others may be sacred and some will be food sources. Wolves, foxes and badgers are main predators. Boar, while a ferocious beast particularly when breeding, makes a large meal, as do deer. Hares were considered sacred by some pagans and eating them was forbidden if not all of the time, then at least during certain symbolic festivals especially around springtime. Others believed them to be witches in animal form and were so avoided. Their later cousins, rabbits, are low in fat and good in a stew, though not widely available. Introduced by the Romans, they died out post-Empire and were not reintroduced until later centuries. Snakes and certain birds were also pagan symbols and so may have had a bearing on whether they were eaten. Poisonous snakes would be avoided for obvious reasons.

With an abundant array of salad leaves and stewing vegetables, my characters’ wild food table will be replete with tasty dishes to serve alongside freshly caught fish, berries and nuts, and maybe even a boar if they’re lucky. However, I must stress it is not suggested nor advised that you go munching on anything you find growing along the roadside. Some plants are highly poisonous. As Ben Law says, if you can’t identify them, ‘don’t eat them!’.

~ ~ ~ 


Farmhouse Cookery, Readers’ Digest

Wild flowers, Graham Murphy

The Woodland Way, Ben Law

Blood, betrayal and brotherhood.
An ancient saga is weaving their destiny.
A treacherous rival threatens their fate.
A Seer's magic may be all that can save them.

Elaine Moxon writes historical fiction as ‘E S Moxon’. Her debut Wulfsuna was published January 21st, 2015 and is the first in her Wolf Spear Saga series of Saxon adventures, where a Seer and one named ‘Wolf Spear’ are destined to meet. 

She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain. You can find out more about Book 2 from Elaine’s website where she has a video diary charting her writing progress. She also runs a blog. Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Margaret Pole’s Wild Ride on Fortune’s Wheel

by Samantha Wilcoxson

Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, is possibly best known for her botched execution. One of the last victims of Henry VIII’s temper and insecurities, Margaret was sent to her death without trial at the age of sixty-seven. However, if that is all you know of this dynamic woman, you are missing out on an adventurous story.

Painting of unknown woman
believed to be Margaret Pole
In the late medieval world, faith was an important element of daily life but it was sprinkled with superstition. One of these philosophies related to Rota Fortunae or the Wheel of Fortune that was blindly spun and could drastically affect the life of any person, great or small. We might call it twists of fate or destiny, but the idea is the same. While the poor might pray for an unexpected rise in fortune, the great could be quickly brought low. Few endured greater shifts in fortune than Margaret Pole.

Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium showing Lady Fortune spinning her wheel.

She was born August 14, 1473, to George of Clarence and Isabel Neville. He was the brother of King Edward IV, and she was the oldest daughter of the Earl of Warwick, the man most credited with placing Edward upon the throne. George was no longer heir presumptive, since Elizabeth Woodville had recently presented Edward with one son and another would join him within days of Margaret’s birth. Still, George’s position was a favorable one, and Margaret had every reason to anticipate a bright future.

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence

Before Margaret was old enough to know what was happening, the Wheel of Fortune made the first of many turns in her life. The Duke of Clarence had betrayed his brother even before Margaret’s birth, but he had always been forgiven. In 1477, the king was pushed too far. Wild with grief over his wife’s death after childbirth that he convinced himself was a poisoning, George once again rebelled. By the spring of 1478, Margaret and her younger brother Edward were orphans. Many theories revolve around George of Clarence’s execution, but to these small children the only thing that mattered was that their father was gone, executed by his own brother.

Despite their status as the orphaned children of an attainted traitor, Margaret and Edward enjoyed the remainder of the Plantagenet dynasty within households of royal cousins and may have believed that Fortune’s Wheel was creeping its way back upward. Then came the year 1485.

After Henry Tudor was victorious at Bosworth, the royal children who had been tucked away at Sheriff Hutton were brought south to London. Margaret and Edward were among them. We have no way of knowing whether their cousin, Elizabeth of York, was eager to meet the new king to whom she was betrothed, but all of the York children must have been anxious to learn what the future would hold and which way Fortune’s Wheel would turn for them.

At this point Margaret’s path veered away from her brother’s. Edward was imprisoned in the Tower for his excess of royal blood, while Margaret was married to a distant relative of Margaret Beaufort. Richard Pole was a faithful supporter of Henry Tudor, and, as such, he and Margaret were soon sent to serve Prince Arthur at Ludlow. During this time, Margaret formed a close relationship with Arthur’s bride, Catherine of Aragon.

Edward, never more than a pawn in older men’s games, had been executed in 1499 in order to clear the way for Catherine’s arrival, but Margaret does not seem to have held it against her. The two remained lifelong friends well beyond the brief time at Ludlow. After the deaths of their husbands, Margaret and Catherine shared a low point on the Wheel of Fortune. Both women, accustomed to rich lifestyles, were left in relative poverty by King Henry VII. Gifts from his wife, Elizabeth of York, would help ease their burden that was only to be lifted with the ascension of Henry VIII.

King Henry VIII
by unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, 
NPG 4690

By marrying Catherine and bestowing an old family title upon Margaret, Henry VIII appeared to be the women’s savior. For a time. The Countess of Salisbury thrived during this high point on Fortune’s Wheel. Building projects, advantageous marriages for her children, and a coveted place at the queen’s side occupied her time. She mourned with Catherine over the loss of the queen’s babies, one after another, until the birth of a healthy auburn haired girl. In a few years, Margaret became Princess Mary’s governess.

Queen Mary I
by Master John, NPG 428 
Her place must have seemed entirely secure when the whispering began in the mid-1520s. Henry had a new love. He did not believe that Catherine could give him the son he wanted. Needed. Margaret had a decision to make. Stand by her queen and the princess she had grown to love as much as her own children, or look to her own future and rally to the side of her cousin the king?

She attempted a balancing act, which worked for some time. Margaret would not give up her friend or her religion, but neither did she antagonize the king. That job was left to her son.

Reginald Pole had enjoyed the patronage of both Henry Tudors, and the education that they had provided him with placed him close to the Pope. Henry hoped that Reginald would support his case and convince the pope to approve his divorce. Instead, Reginald took advantage of the safety provided to him by his distance from England to speak vociferously against Henry’s Great Matter, eventual multiple marriages, and self-proclaimed status as Head of the Church of England.

Henry’s rage could not bring Reginald within his reach, so he lashed out at his family instead in a devastating turn of the Wheel of Fortune for Margaret Pole. The final blow began with the arrest of her youngest son, Geoffrey, and grew into the legalized mass murder known as the Exeter Conspiracy in 1538. In this vicious blow against the York remnant, Henry executed Margaret’s oldest son, Lord Montague, along with several others. Montague’s son, a young boy named Henry, was also taken to the Tower, never to be seen again. Geoffrey attempted to commit suicide.

Margaret was first placed under house arrest, then taken to the Tower herself, though no charges were ever brought against her. There she would endure this low point, knowing that her family was being torn apart, until she was informed that Henry was done with her. On May 27, 1541, Margaret was informed that her execution would take place that morning. She had committed no crime and been given no trial, yet she prepared herself with the royal dignity she was born to.

Tower of London

After her brutal beheading by an unprepared and inexperienced executioner, these words were found on the wall of Margaret’s Tower cell:
For traitors on the block should die;
I am no traitor, no, not I!
My faithfulness stands fast and so,
Towards the block I shall not go!
Nor make one step, as you shall see;
Christ in Thy Mercy, save Thou me! 

Margaret Pole Memorial

Additional Reading:
Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury 1473-1541: Loyalty, Lineage and Leadership by Hazel Pierce

Image credits:

Painting of unknown woman believed to be Margaret Pole. Public Domain(?),  by Unknown

Boccaccio's De Casibus Virorum Illustrium showing Lady Fortune spinning her wheel. Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=466545, FortuneWheel.

George Plantagenet, Duke of Clarence, by Lucas Cornelisz - [1], Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7500733

King Henry VIII, by unknown Anglo-Netherlandish artist, NPG 4690CC BY-NC-ND

Queen Mary I, by Master John, NPG 428, CC BY-NC-ND

Tower of London. Author's personal photo

Margaret Pole Memorial. Author's personal photo

Author Bio:
Samantha Wilcoxson is a first generation American with British roots. She is passionate about reading, writing, and history. Her novel, Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen: The Story of Elizabeth of York has been recognized as an Editors’ Choice by the Historical Novel Society. Her next book, Faithful Traitor: The Story of Margaret Pole, is currently available for pre-order and will be released June 14, 2016.

Samantha has also published two middle grade novels, No Such Thing as Perfect and Over the Deep: A Titanic Adventure.

When not involved in reading or writing, Samantha enjoys traveling and spending time at the lake with her husband and three children. You can connect with Samantha on her Blog, Twitter,  Goodreads, Booklikes, and Amazon.
Pre-Order Faithful Traitor
Buy Plantagenet Princess, Tudor Queen

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Favourite from Hell

by Anna Belfrage

There are few men in English history as vilified as Hugh Despenser the younger. This man, it would seem, was Satan come to earth, and it was his evil influence that indirectly caused the situation which led to Edward II being deposed and locked away in Berkeley Castle. Except, of course, that it was Edward II who was the king, not Despenser, and if Edward allowed Hugh to lead him about by a figurative ring through his nose, then how can that be Hugh’s fault?

Edward I and his son, Edward
Hugh Despenser was born in 1286, making him a couple of years younger than Edward of Caernarvon, Edward I’s fifth and only surviving son. Hugh’s father was another Hugh, and accordingly today’s protagonist usually goes by the name of Hugh Despenser the younger so as to differentiate from his father, Hugh Despenser the elder. These two gentlemen had more in common than their name, namely a rapacious greed that quickly made them extremely unpopular with everyone but their king, Edward II.

The Despensers came with something of a stain, seeing as our Hugh’s grandfather had died at Evesham, fighting for Simon de Montfort against the royal forces. Somewhat ironically, this Despenser (also a Hugh) was killed by a Mortimer (also a Roger) thereby laying the grounds to the implacable enmity between the Despensers and the Mortimers. In brief, all of this history resulted in two of Edward IIs most capable barons detesting each other.

Thanks to Hugh the younger’s paternal great-grandmother, all had not been lost to the Despensers after the debacle of Evesham. Hugh the elder worked hard to re-establish himself in Edward I’s favour, and his son was an intelligent and personable young man who found favour with the king – so much favour, in fact, that in 1307 Edward I did Hugh the younger the honour of giving him Eleanor de Clare as his wife. Eleanor was not only beautiful she was also Edward I’s granddaughter. Hugh Despenser the younger had thereby through his marriage become a member of the royal family.

In July of 1307, Edward I died. Rejoicing broke out in both Scotland and (I assume) in Wales, but the English knew they had lost a great king, and looked with some concern at his heir, the newly crowned Edward II. This second Edward was a handsome man, gifted with a vivid intelligence and physically agile and strong. He was brave, he had presence, and appeared to be everything a king should be – had it not been for his odd pastimes. The new English king enjoyed manual work and would happily spend his time in smithies or thatching. And then there was his faiblesse for handsome young men – and especially for Piers Gaveston, the Gascon knight who so easily twirled Edward II round his little finger.

As Piers is not the subject of the post, suffice it to say that this charismatic man effectively became the power behind the throne. This did not please the barons, and soon enough loud voices were calling for the favourite’s exile.

Piers and Edward, Marcus Stone (1876) 

Piers was not only the king’s favourite, he was also Hugh’s brother-in-law, having married Eleanor’s younger sister, Margaret, late in 1307. I’m not sure this endeared Piers to Hugh, and by 1310 or thereabouts Hugh was firmly in bed with the baronial opposition. Hugh the elder, meanwhile, stood by his king. Now and then I wonder if this was a tactic, the two Hughs sitting down and deciding it made sense to have one foot in each camp, so to say.

By 1312, Piers was dead, executed (murdered, some said, among them the distraught king) by the barons led by Thomas of Lancaster, first cousin to the king. Edward was never to forgive him for this. Hugh the younger was not in a position to comfort his distraught king – at least not initially, given his support for the barons – so the king consoled himself elsewhere. But bit by bit, Hugh wormed his way into the king’s confidence, no doubt helped by the fact that Edward was very fond of his niece, Eleanor de Clare.

Bannockburn (Scotichronicon, c:a 1440)
The Scots had been quick to capitalise on the unrest in England, and in 1314 the king decided it was time to show the Scots once and for all that the son of The Hammer of the Scots could do some hammering of his own. Well, we all know how well that worked out for Edward, don’t we? At the Battle of Bannockburn, the English hit the dust, and among the many, many men killed was Gilbert de Clare, Earl of Gloucester – and Hugh the younger’s brother-in-law.

Gilbert left no children, and so his huge estates were to be distributed between his three sisters. In the ensuing free-for-all, Hugh the younger showed his very rapacious side, having no qualms about hogging the lion’s share on behalf of his beloved wife. What Eleanor may have thought about all this is uncertain, but I I suppose she was as dynastic in her approach as her husband – after all, she had the future of her children to consider. Whatever the case, Hugh’s behaviour alienated his sisters-in-law and their husbands. But by now, Hugh was rising rapidly in Edward’s favour, so I dare say he wasn’t all that worried.

Soon enough, Hugh was a constant presence at the king’s side, hungry for more land, more power. The king was more than happy to give it to him, no matter that the barons grumbled. Edward shrugged and made Hugh his royal chancellor. Suddenly, Hugh controlled access to the king, making him the most powerful man around – well, with the exception of his easy-going royal master.

This is where we can return to my initial paragraph: Hugh did not take his power by force. It was freely given to him by the king, who chose to ignore the rumbling protests this caused. Edward had no desire to submerge himself in the details of running his kingdom and was more than happy to let Hugh handle the day-to-day. Besides, I suspect Edward enjoyed twisting the noses of his recalcitrant barons out of joint – and in particular that of Thomas of Lancaster who was predictably enraged at having someone like Hugh wielding power he felt should be his.

So instead of stopping Hugh when he appropriated land that did not belong to him – Edward even looked the other way when Hugh claimed land belonging to the king’s half-brothers, the earls of Norfolk and Kent – instead of curbing his favourites excesses, Edward sat back and enjoyed the ride. He didn’t even intercede when Despenser violated the law, as he did in the case of the Welshman Llewellyn Bren, whom Hugh had hanged, drawn and quartered, without a trial.

By 1321, the barons had had enough. Their attempts to reach an amicable solution with the king had failed, and consensus among them was that Hugh Despenser – both of them – had to go. The rebellious barons devastated Despenser land and marched in force against the king, throwing a cordon of armed men round the royal court. Led by Thomas of Lancaster, Humphrey de Bohun and Roger Mortimer, they demanded that the king exile his favourite – and Papa Hugh – that he allow himself to be counselled by his barons, and that order and the rule of law be restored within the realm. This last was a not-so-oblique reference to the unjust killing of Bren. The king was trapped and had no choice but to comply.

Hugh the younger and elder left – but they did not go far. For the coming months, they took up a career as Channel pirates, while in England the king plotted his revenge. For once, Edward II showed an impressive capacity for swift action, and come late autumn he had the tables turned on the victorious barons.

Had Lancaster ridden to Mortimer’s aid, the king might not have had such an easy win, but Lancaster preferred to stay in the north, thereby giving Edward the opportunity to pick his enemies off one by one. Mortimer ended up in the Tower, Lancaster was executed, and Hugh Despenser returned to his beloved king. And this time, Despenser and the king thought they had won for good.

Turns out they hadn’t. In 1323, Mortimer escaped from the Tower and fled to France, where he was warmly welcomed by Queen Isabella’s brother, King Charles.  Edward II and Despenser went into a frenzy. It became paramount to cleanse the realm of England of any potential traitors, a.k.a. Mortimer supporters, and so a large number of men were hauled before the assizes, in many cases subjected to crippling fines, but just as often found guilty of treason and executed. Family members of these traitors – wives, children – were confined or thrown out to starve. Dark, dark years for the English – and most blamed Hugh Despenser.

By now, Hugh had also earned the enmity of the queen, firstly by marginalising her at court, secondly by suggesting to the king that he take back her dower lands and exile her French household. Seeing as England was at war with France over Gascony, exiling potential French spies made some sense, but Isabella had been Edward’s loyal wife for sixteen years, and she took it badly. Very badly.

The war in France did not go well, and Edward saw no option but to send Isabella to negotiate with her brother. Which she did, brokering a peace treaty which called for Edward to do homage for his French lands – in France. Not a good idea, as per Hugh, because with the king gone, God knew what might happen to him, poor unprotected favourite left behind in England? Hmm, the king said, but he loved Hugh, and these last few years of tyranny had not endeared Hugh to the barons – rather the reverse.  So instead, Edward sent his son, the future Edward III to France.

In retrospect, Edward could just as well have tightened a noose around his own neck. Waiting for Prince Edward in France was not only the disgruntled queen, but also Roger Mortimer – and Mortimer had scores to settle, especially with his personal enemy, Hugh Despenser.

An artistic interpretation of Edward II's arrest
In 1326, Mortimer and Isabella returned to England, bringing with them a small invasion force – and the young prince. The people of England flocked to their banners, tired of living under the heavy Despenser yoke. The king could easily have raised an army to meet them, but Despenser panicked and suggested they flee west, make for Ireland before it was too late. Edward did as his favourite asked, but they never made it to Ireland. Instead, the king and his favourite were captured in Wales. Edward was hauled off to Kenilworth as a prisoner. Hugh Despenser was hauled off to Hereford, there to die.

On November 24, 1326, Hugh Despenser the younger stood some sort of trial in Hereford. The verdict was never in doubt, and the naked man was attached to four horses that dragged him towards the waiting gallows, built very high so that everyone could see how the king’s favourite, the rapacious and greedy Despenser, died. He was hanged, taken down while alive, castrated and disembowelled. Purportedly, Mortimer and Isabella sat watching the spectacle while partaking of food and wine. Hugh, they say, died well – whatever that means when you’re being tortured to death.

Following Despenser’s death, Queen Isabella had Despenser’s wife incarcerated in the Tower. Three of Hugh’s daughters were forcibly veiled as nuns (the oldest of them was about ten), and his sons were locked up. And as to Hugh, his bodily remains were quartered and hung from the city walls in York, Bristol, Dover and Carlisle, while his parboiled head adorned London Bridge. By then, of course, Hugh was no longer in a position to care.

Hugh Despenser was not a nice man. Once in power, he stopped at little to further his own interests, whether that meant disinheriting orphans and widows, or killing men without trial. But ultimately, he was a product of his king, a sovereign too weak to keep his favourite in check.

All images from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain


Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a professional time-traveller. As such a profession does not exist, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests, namely history and writing. 

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Hugh Despenser plays a central role.

The first book In The Shadow of the Storm was published in 2015, the second, Days of Sun and Glory, will be published in July 2016.

When Anna is not stuck in the 14th century, she's probably visiting in the 17th century, specifically with Alex and Matthew Graham, the protagonists of the acclaimed The Graham Saga. This is the story of two people who should never have met – not when she was born three centuries after him. 

More about Anna on her website or on her blog