Saturday, July 30, 2016

The Beautiful Village of Shere

by Lauren Gilbert

One’s first visit to a new place is always special. On my first visit to England, we were taken to a teashop in Shere. I was entranced. I had never been anywhere like it. So many stone and timbered buildings... It was truly the England I had always dreamed of visiting. Shere is considered to be one of the most beautiful villages in England, and I can certainly attest to that. (It was used as a setting for the movie “The Holiday.”) It is also quite old. It is in the Guildford district, between Guildford and Dorking.

A view of Shere, taken by the author, 1996

Shere appears in Domesday Book of 1086 as Essira and Essire. It was held by William the Conqueror. In 1086, when Gomshall, a village about 8 miles away, was royal demesne, the villagers of Shere were exempt from the sheriff's jurisdiction. There were four manors in the immediate vicinity of Shere: Shere Vachery, Shere Eboracum, Gomshall Netley and Towerhil.

Edward the Confessor, Bayeux Tapestry

Under Edward the Confessor, his queen Edith held Shere Vachery and Shere Eboracum until her death, when they were absorbed by William the Conqueror. It became the chief English seat of the Irish Earls of Ormond. Eleanor, Countess of Ormond (wife of James Butler, the first Earl of Ormond), who owned Shere Vachery manor, had a “view of frankpledge” (a compulsive sharing of responsibility, because of kinship or an oath of fealty, to produce anyone accused of a crime) in Gomshall Towerhill.

In 1281 William Braose was granted a privilege: he was allowed to kill certain kinds of game normally off limits there (free warren). Shere Vachery was forfeited to the king when James Butler, the fifth Earl of Ormond and Earl of Wiltshire, was beheaded in 1461. (It was restored to John, Lord Audley, James’ brother in 1467. The earldom of Ormond was also restored.) Henry VII granted this manor to Sir Reginald Bray in 1486, but Lord Audley remained in possession and paid rent. Because of Audley’s activities in the Cornish Revolt in 1497, the manor was again forfeit to the crown, but was soon returned to Sir Reginald Bray, and has remained in the Bray family.

Shere Eboracum was held by William Donn de Burgh, the third Earl of Ulster. It also changed hands several times. At one point it was held by Richard, 3rd Duke of York and subsequently his widow, Cecily Neville, who held it until her death.

Because Henry VIII used it as a dower property for his first five wives, it was also known as Queen’s Hold. (Apparently, it was not a dower property for Katherine Parr.) Subsequently, for a short time, it was held by Sir Edward Bray who also owned Shere Vachery. He bequeathed it to his wife, Mary, who subsequently married Edmund Tylney, Master of the Revels to Elizabeth I. It changed hands again several times, ending up in the possession of the Bray family several times. Ultimately, the Bray family holds it today.

Gomshall Netley and Gomshall Towerhil resulted from the division of the manor of Gomshall, which was royal demesne, and had been held by King Harold. After William the Conqueror defeated Harold, it was held by William (although his brother Odo did encroach somewhat). It appears that the division of the property occurred under Henry II, who awarded part to Robert de Wendenale and part to William de Clere. Gomshall Netley was awarded to Sir Edward Bray by Henry VIII, after the suppression of Netley Abbey. It remains in the Bray family still.

Gomshall Towerhil also changed hands multiple times. In 1205 it was in the hands of William de Braose who held it until driven out by King John who awarded it to to Peter de Mauley. After the Civil War, in which Williams son the Bishop of Hereford, John, was forced to restore Towerhil to the de Braose heirs.

Rowland de Bloet held it for a time, but in 1218 Reginald de Braose (younger brother of the Bishop) had it. His widow claimed dower rights in 1230. In 1332, Edward III granted it to John Pulteney, Lord Mayor of London; after Pulteney’s death, Edward III granted Towerhil to Eleanor, Countess of Ormond for her lifetime. After her death, it changed hands a couple of times again. In 1539, it was in the hands of Sir Edward Walsingham, who conveyed it to Sir Edward Bray in 1550 (the Brays again!). Gomshall Netley and Gomshall Towerhill manors held court baron, to resolve disputes and enforce the lord’s will.

Church of St James, taken by the author, 1996

The Church of St. James is a Norman church, with the oldest part dating from possibly the late 11th century but mostly being 12th, 13th and 14th century, of various materials probably taken from Roman buildings on Farley Heath, with buttresses, which has been carefully restored. By the north chancel wall, there is a 14th-century Anchorite Cell, supposedly used by the Anchoress of Shere, Christine Carpenter, who had promised in 1329 to devote her life to God and live in a holy place. It had a quatrefoil window through which she received communion, and a “squint” (a window through which she could see the altar) belonging to Anchorite Cell. There is 14th-century glass in the east window and the chancel fittings were renewed.

Quatrefoil and Squint
This area was one of the most lawless in Surrey, with smugglers, poachers and sheep and horse-thieves hiding in the hills surrounding the village. Most of the stolen livestock ended up in London. Sheep stealing was particularly troublesome 1830-1840. Some of the cottages had (and some still have) very large cellars, considered to have been constructed to hide smuggled goods until they could be removed to London.

Iron was worked from the stone and into implements in centuries before the 18th century in Shere. Relying on the River Tillingbourne for power, gunpowder was also manufactured near Shere at Chilworth.

Tudor Cottage

Shere holds many old cottages and houses dating from the 15th to the 19th century. It is also home to the White Horse pub, which was originally a farmhouse built in the 15th century. After traditional beer was replaced by hopped ales in the late 18th century, the farmhouse was converted to an alehouse and brewery. It is still in operation today, and a scene from “The Holiday” with Cameron Diaz and Jude Law was shot on the premises. I had a fantastic cream tea at a beautiful tea shop there as well.

The White Horse

This is an Editor's Choice. The original article was published on November 20, 2013.

Sources: Some West Surrey Villages, by E. A. Judges. 1901: Guildford (publisher’s name unclear).

Chef & Brewer. “History of the White Horse and Shere.

BritishHistory Online. Victoria County History, H. E. Malden, ed. A History of the County of Surrey, Vol. III. “Parishes: Shere.” Published 1911.

Exploring Surrey’s Past. “Shere.” “The History of Shere.”

Wikipedia: Shere  

Edward the Confessor image from Wikimedia Commons:

Quatrefoil and Squint image from Wikimedia Commons:

Tudor Cottage image from Wikimedia Commons:

The White Horse image from Wikimedia Commons:

Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD: A Novel, in 2011, and is a contributor to CASTLES, CUSTOMS, AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. Her second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is in process. She lives in Florida with her husband. Visit her website at

Friday, July 29, 2016

How The Celts Lived

By Annie Whitehead

Last time, I introduced the Celts and who they were.*

I explained that there were three phases of Celtic settlement in Britain, beginning in around 500-450 BC (perhaps earlier in Scotland), with settlers from France and the Low countries, continuing around 250 BC, and then a third phase, in around 100 BC, of Belgic peoples settling in southern Britain.

This time I’m taking a look at how they lived, although, given the paucity of the sources, it's sometimes necessary to look at those still living in Europe, in order to build up an adequate picture.

Firstly, what kind of housing did they have?

According to Polybus [1] the people who settled in Cisalpine (the Roman side of the Alps) Gaul lived in scattered villages without walls. Their houses were probably wooden, which could easily be burned down and destroyed.

Gaulish houses were usually thatched and dome-like, and built of planks and willow supports. Some had an outer facing of mud, while others were covered with oak shingles, or straw mixed with earth. The Bretons built similar houses of reeds and wood. The Caledonii still had neither fortified walls, nor towns, as late as the second century of the Christian era.

A Pre-Roman Gaulish House

In wartime, the Gauls used to take refuge in the fortified camps known to Caesar as ‘Oppida’. The oppida of the Bretons were nothing more than retrenched camps defended by a ditch and a mound of earth with a stockade, within which they erected temporary huts. The Belgian people who inhabited the Ardennes Forest used to take special precautions in times of war by weaving the branches of thorny bushes into a mesh of thorns, so that invaders would find all paths blocked. In certain places, they would retreat with their families to small islands in swamps deep in the forest, having first driven stakes into the ground along potential paths. The oppida of Gaul were towns which could also offer shelter to the inhabitants of neighbouring areas but which also had a permanent population themselves.

Caesar described the walls of Gaulish fortifications: solid beams were laid out on the ground about two feet apart; they were joined by transverse struts, and the cavity thus formed was filled with earth. Large stones were used to face the front. A second layer was then added, and so on until the desired height was reached. These interwoven layers of stone and wood had major military advantages as the stone was a protection against fire, and the wood against the danger of the battering ram.

The Gauls described by Polybus were not familiar with the idea of furniture and their beds were apparently nothing more than grass.

Posidonius, [2] quoted by Athenus, [3] noted that at mealtimes the Celts used to sit on bales of hay around low circular tables of wood. They used neither spoons nor forks; they simply grabbed chunks of meat and tore them apart. Their dishes were made of silver, copper, or earthenware. Their goblets were of earthenware or silver.

A Belgic bronze tankard was found in Trawsfynydd in Wales, and has been dated to the mid-first century AD. Its base was made of turned wood. Two more tankards were found at Shapwick Heath in Somerset, and one was recovered from the River Thames, at Kew. Belgic wrought iron ‘fire dogs’, would have been used to spit-roast meat at feasts, and examples have been found at Great Chesterford, Essex and Capel Garmon, North Wales.

The fire dogs - pic from

Dairy products were much used among the Gauls. (The remains of vast cheese-making installations have been found at Mont Beuvray- also known as Bibracte.) [4]

The Calednoii and the Maeatae apparently made no use at all in their diet of the abundant stocks of fish in the waters of their region.

For their daily sustenance, the Bretons used to shell the oldest ears of cereal in their barns. Some of their tribes were so lacking in industry that although they had plenty of milk, they never made cheese from it. Others lived off bark and roots, and devised a type of food which was so filling that a very small amount was enough to serve as a meal. The fore-runner of the breakfast bar, perhaps? (More about farming in a later episode.)

The standard drink of the Gauls was at one time a beer made from grain. This drink was called ‘corma’. The guests all drank out of the same goblet, which was passed round by a servant.

In the first century BC, wine brought from Italy was the drink of the rich. Some Gauls would lie down on their shields, and, in exchange for wine or money, would allow their throats to be cut, as long as the wine or the money should go to their descendants after their death.

The Celts held ceremonial dinners; the guests sat in a circle, and the man who was the most distinguished in terms of military prowess, birth, or wealth, sat in the middle of the assembled company. The master of the household sat next to him, and the others sat on either side, their position depending on their rank.

So, as they sat there, what would they have been wearing?

It would seem that many of the Celtic tribes were comparatively sophisticated in their dress. Diodorus [5] described the Gauls as having worn tunics and trousers, with striped sashes over their shoulders. Pliny [6] suggested that the Gauls were the inventors of checked cloth; they extracted a purple dye from the bilberry, scarlet from the hyacinth, and colours from various other plants.

The Aedui chief Dumnorix, Museum of Celtic Civilization, Bibracte

The Celts of the La Tène culture had highly developed weaving and dyeing techniques. The men wore close-fitting trousers and pullovers, while the women wore freely-flowing cloaks of the same material.

In Ireland, the men liked to wear woollen cloaks, pinned together at the neck by a brooch. Trousers were worn only by the poor, noblemen preferring ‘Léine’, knee-length linen tunics.

The Celts wore sandals, which left much of the upper foot exposed. These sandals were tied up with leather.

Some Celtic tribes, however, seem to have been quite unaware of the use of clothes. In the second century AD, the inhabitants of Northern Brittany went completely naked. Some Gaulish tribes also were in the habit of undressing completely before battle.

When they were clothed, though, did they wear any other adornments?

Strabo [7] said of the Celts: “to the frankness and high spiritedness of their temperament must be added the traits of childish boastfulness and love of decoration. They wear ornaments of gold, torcs on their necks, and bracelets on their arms and wrists.”

These torcs were heavy rings of solid gold, richly decorated, and with a finger-sized opening at the front. Gerhard Herm points out in The Celts, that they must have been put on with great difficulty, being too small to push over the head, and yet too thick to bend open. Perhaps the most famous of the Celtic torcs were discovered at Snettisham in Norfolk between 1948 and 1968. The largest was 20cm in diameter and made of electrum. It was dated to the mid-first century BC

A more delicate (Bronze) torc

Besides jewellery, the Celts also used the tattoo as a form of personal adornment. Caesar wrote that all the Bretons used to dye their bodies with pastel, thus turning their bodies a bright blue colour, which made them look particularly horrible in battle. It is possibly from the addiction to his habit that the dark-age Picts acquired their name, ‘painted men’.

A brief note on hygiene: Personal hygiene among the Celts cannot have been overly sophisticated. They did, however, make soap from tallow or ash. This was, according to Pliny, a Gaulish invention. In order to preserve the freshness of their complexions, the Celtic women used beer foam. The cleaning of teeth, among the Celtiberians (the Celts who invaded Greece) was done with urine, stored for a long time in special tanks.

Next time: The role of Members of the Community
* Read the first in this series, Who Were the Celts?

[1] Polybus, or Polybius, was a Greek historian who was born between 210 and 205 BC, in Arcadia. He wrote a general history of his time, and died around 125 BC
[2] Posidonius, or Poseidonius, was a Syrian born historian. He was a Stoic philosopher, and emphasised the interrelation of all things in the universe.
[3] Athenus, or Athenaeus, was a Greek writer born in Egypt. He wrote in the end of the second century and the third century AD
[4] The world of the Celts - G.Dottin
[5] Diodorus (Sicilus) of Sicily was a Greek historian who used literary sources with little judgement of his own, but for certain periods he provides the best evidence available.
[6] Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79) was born in Northern Italy and wrote 37 books of natural history. The eruption of Pompeii claimed his life.
[7] Strabo was a Greek geographer, who lived from about 58 BC - AD 25. Lloyd Laing (1979) attributes this translation to S. Piggot (1970)

Further reading:
The Celts - Gerhard Herm
Pagan Celtic Britain - Anne Ross
Celtic Britain - Lloyd Laing
The World of the Celts - G Dottin

(all images are in the public domain unless otherwise attributed)

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
Annie's Blog

Annie has also been involved in a collaborative e-book project re-imagining the events of 1066

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The rebellious aftermath of an unlawful execution

by Anna Belfrage

It is said that in the late 13th century, Edward I decided that he needed to up the death-penalty somewhat, make it even more of a deterrent. Specifically, Edward I wanted people considering treason to think again – which was why, on October of 1283, he had the last Prince of Wales, Dafydd ap Gruffydd, subjected to horrific torture before the poor man finally died. Dafydd thereby became the first recorded person to be executed by the gruesome means of being hanged, drawn and quartered.

Being drawn (Matthew Paris)
To be thus executed involved a lot of stages. First, you were tied to a horse (or in some cases several horses) and dragged through the town. Sometimes, you were strapped to a rough hurdle, at others, there was a large piece of leather beneath you. Sometimes, there was nothing protecting you from the ground beneath. Doesn’t sound too bad, you may think, but imagine being dragged over uneven cobbles, over gravel and stones, mud and slime, while the spectators lining the road pelt you with stuff – hard stuff, mostly. By the time the victim arrived at the gallows, he was a collection of bruises and gashes, his garments torn to shreds. Chances were, the man couldn’t stand, but stand he had to, and soon enough he was hoisted upwards, to the waiting noose.

The second stage involved the hanging as such. Now, in medieval times, hanging rarely resulted in a broken neck. The condemned man didn’t drop several feet. Instead, the victim was set to swing from his neck and slowly strangled to death. A painful and extended demise, with the further indignity that when a man dies, his bowels and bladder give. However, the unfortunate soul who’d been condemned to being hanged, drawn and quartered, never got to the bladder and bowels part. He was cut down before he died and placed before the executioner and his big, sharp knife. The horror was just about to begin.

In some cases, the executioner started by gelding the man. Loud cheers from the spectators – or not, depending on who was being executed. Once the condemned man had been rid of his manhood, he was cut open, and a skilful executioner would keep him alive all through the process, ensuring the dying man saw his organs being pulled from his body. And then, once he’d died, they chopped him up, sent off body parts to be displayed in various parts of the kingdom, and buried what little was left over.

Not, all in all, a nice way to die. Men condemned to die that way must have swallowed and swallowed, knowing full well that no one could bear such indignities and die well. Before he drew his last breath, he’d have cried and wept, suffered horrific pain, hoped for the release of unconsciousness, only to be brought back up to the surface so as to fully experience what they did next to him. A truly demeaning death – most definitely a deterrent! (And in case you're wondering why I only refer to male victims, it's because women were never hanged, drawn and quartered. It was considered too immodest a way to die, so instead treasonous ladies were burned alive at the stake.)

Edward I was rather fond of his new method of execution (although, to be honest, it is still a matter of dispute if it was Edward I who “invented” it – there seems to have been earlier cases, like when a man tried to assassinate Henry III). Other than the unfortunate Dafydd, Edward had several Scottish “rebels and traitors” – in itself a strange label to put on men fighting for the freedom of their country – hanged, drawn and quartered, notably among them William Wallace and some of Robert Bruce’s brothers.

Edward II 
Edward I’s son and heir, Edward II, was less blood-thirsty than his father, and there are very few recorded instances of men having been hanged, drawn and quartered during his reign. But among these unfortunates one man stands out: In 1318, Llywelyn Bren was executed without having been sentenced to die – a serious violation of existing law.

Llywelyn Bren was Welsh. His real name was Llywelyn ap Gryffudd ap Rhys, and his father had been one of those men loyal to Llywelyn ap Gryffudd, often referred to as the Last True Prince of Wales (He was Dafydd’s brother. Dafydd was something of a weathervane when it came to his loyalties – he had actually sworn allegiance to Edward I prior to his brother being killed, which was why Edward I was so incensed when Dafydd turned around and proclaimed himself Prince of Wales…) Bren is a Welsh honorific meaning something akin to “royal”, and our Llywelyn had earned the sobriquet, not only due to his lineage, but also because he acted like a king should – he defended “his” people.

The story starts in 1315. England was in something of a disarray after the Battle of Bannockburn, and this was especially true of the Welsh Marches, where the powerful Earl of Gloucester had died without a male heir. Young Gilbert de Clare did leave three sisters, but until the inheritance issues could be properly sorted, the huge de Clare lordship was administered by royal officers – with varying success. The period also coincided with famine. The second decade of the 14th century saw a sequence of failed harvests, and by 1315, the people were hungry and finding it increasingly difficult to pay the royal taxes.

The king, of course, insisted his taxes be paid, and his various sheriffs were charged with ensuring the subjects coughed up their pennies. In Wales – and especially in Glamorgan – the situation was very bad, and the newly elected sheriff, a certain de Turberville, did not make things any better when he started by dismissing all Welshmen holding office. One of the men so discourteously snubbed was Llywelyn Bren.

Bren had been a respected sub-lord under the Earl of Gloucester, held in high regard by Welsh and English alike. When de Turberville resorted to force – he sent out armed men to terrorise the Welsh into giving up what little they had, some of which he kept for himself – Llywelyn Bren protested. De Tuberville responded by accusing Bren of sedition, and Llywelyn was so outraged he penned a letter to the king, asking that he remove de Tuberville. Edward II answered by telling Llywelyn Bren to present himself before Parliament – and prepare to hang, should the court find him guilty of the charges made by de Turberville.

De Turberville continued with his persecution of the Welsh. Forced into a corner, Llywelyn Bren had no choice but to defend his people. In a well-planned action, he surrounded the detested sheriff and his closest men while they were holding court just outside Caerphilly castle. De Turberville tried to reach the safety of the castle, but the portcullis came down, the drawbridge was pulled up, and so a number of Englishmen – including de Turberville – were cut down in the outer bailey of the castle. The victorious Welsh then descended on Caerphilly town, looting and burning as they went.

Obviously, the king could not allow this to happen. He ordered the Earl of Hereford, Humphrey de Bohun, and the Lords Mortimer (Roger Mortimer and his uncle Roger Mortimer) to handle the issue, supported by further troops. Llywelyn quickly realised he was hopelessly outnumbered, and decided he had to do what a true leader had to do: set the safety of his men before that of himself. So he gave up, offered himself as a prisoner on terms that allowed his men to keep their lives. Llywelyn himself was to be taken to London, and I dare say he held little hope of ever seeing his homeland again.

Llywelyn’s bravery made a huge impression on both de Bohun and Roger Mortimer. Both of them pleaded with the king that he be lenient – Llywelyn had served the king loyally for many years. Besides, there was ample proof that de Turberville had exceeded his authorities. This time, the king listened, and Llywelyn Bren had the threat of being hanged, drawn and quartered commuted into imprisonment in the Tower. Phew, Llywelyn probably thought.

Time passed. Roger Mortimer was sent to Ireland to handle that Scottish would-be Irish king upstart Edward Bruce, and in England a certain Hugh Despenser nestled himself closer and closer to the royal bosom. Hugh was wed to Eleanor de Clare, one of the heiresses to the Earl of Gloucester, and as a consequence of his new position as the king’s favourite, in November of 1317 he (well, formally his wife) was awarded the plum pieces of the huge inheritance –  the lordship of Glamorgan, where Llywelyn Bren held his hereditary lands. Neither Roger Mortimer nor de Bohun were too thrilled by the news that Despenser had acquired the lordship of Glamorgan. In one fell swoop, the royal favourite had become a power to be reckoned with on the Welsh Marches, thereby threatening Mortimer’s traditional power base.

To celebrate his new lands, Despenser had Llywelyn Bren removed from the Tower. Despite the lack of a formal royal approval, the Welshman was handed over into the less than loving hands of Despenser and carried back to Wales sometime in early 1318. In Cardiff, the poor man was attached to two horses, dragged through the town to the waiting gallows where he was subsequently hanged before being cut down and resuscitated enough to see (and feel) his heart being cut out. Once dead, he was quartered and Hugh Despenser appropriated Llywelyn’s lands, imprisoned his widow and as many of his sons as he could lay his hands on.

The English nobility was appalled. More particularly, Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun were enraged. With what right had Despenser deprived Llywelyn Bren of his life? After all, Llywelyn Bren had been sentenced to imprisonment in London, not execution in Cardiff. Even worse, the man had died the death of a traitor, an awful extended death that a man like Llywelyn Bren did not deserve – this was a man both de Bohun and Mortimer held in high regard, an educated man with whom the Mortimers even shared (distant) kin. The king was expected to act, punish his favourite for this blatant disregard of the law. Except, of course, that Edward II didn’t, proving yet again to his disgruntled barons that he was not much of a king – or a man of his word. Or a defender of law and justice…

When Roger Mortimer and Humphrey de Bohun – together with the royal cousin Thomas of Lancaster – rose in rebellion in 1321, one of the reasons they put forward was the despicable treatment of Llywelyn Bren. The royal chancellor Hugh Despenser had violated the law and effectively murdered a loyal servant of the king, with not so much as a slap on the wrist as retribution. England, the rebel barons claimed, deserved to be ruled by better men, men who respected law and order.

And so, indirectly, the awful death of Llywelyn Bren set in motion events that would subsequently lead to the deposition of a king – and the equally harrowing death of Hugh Despenser, who died just like Llewlyn Bren did, in November of 1326. Maybe Llewlyn smiled down from the skies as he saw Hugh suffer. One who definitely smiled was Roger Mortimer, now permanently rid of that personal burr up his backside, the equally ambitious Hugh Despenser.

(all pictures in the 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, was 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!

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

The Mayfair Secret

By Catherine Curzon

In 1785 two people, deeply devoted and unquestionably in love, were married in a secret ceremony at the bride’s house in Mayfair’s fashionable Park Street. The bride was Maria Fitzherbert, née Smythe, a 29-year-old, twice-widowed Roman Catholic woman and the groom none other than George, Prince of Wales, the man who would one day rule as Prince Regent and, eventually, King George IV.

George IV, 1798,
Salomon Jomtob Bennett, after Sir William Beechey
(via Wikimedia Commons)
The scandalous clandestine marriage was forbidden in law by the Royal Marriages Act of 1772, that stated:

‘That no descendant of the body of his late majesty King George the Second, male or female, (other than the issue of princesses who have married, or may hereafter marry, into foreign families) shall be capable of contracting matrimony without the previous consent of his Majesty, his heirs, or successors, signified under the great seal, and declared in council, (which consent, to preserve the memory thereof is hereby directed to be set out in the licence and register of marriage, and to be entered in the books of the privy council); and that every marriage, or matrimonial contract, of any such descendant, without such consent first had and obtained, shall be null and void, to all intents and purposes whatsoever.’

Those over 25 did enjoy a small loophole in that, if they were refused permission to marry, they could give notice of the intended wedding to the Privy Council. One year after that notice was given they would be allowed to marry, on condition that Parliament had not refused the match.

In keeping with his carefree, selfish character, George had neither sought nor gained permission from his father, George III, for the wedding. Though it’s unlikely that the permission would have been given, even if it had, any children that resulted from the marriage would have been forever disqualified from wearing the crown.

Maria Fitzherbert, 1788,
Joshua Reynolds
(via Wikimedia Commons)
How, though, did the heir to the British throne come to meet this Shropshire widow?

Mrs Fitzherbert was born Maria Anne Smythe and was just 19 when she wed Edward Weld. Just three months later, an equestrian accident left the new bride a widow and the lack of a will meant that his considerable estate passed to his brother, leaving Maria with nothing.

Still, Maria was not a lady to mope and three years later had found herself a second husband, Thomas Fitzherbert. Once again the fates were not smiling and three years after the marriage, she was a widow once more. But this time the newly bereaved lady was left a very generous bequest and, still only 24-years-old, Maria spread her social wings. Thanks to the influence of her relative, the Earl of Sefton, society welcomed her with open arms and in 1784, during a visit to the opera, she met the Prince of Wales.

For George it was infatuation at first sight though Maria was somewhat more circumspect. When George sent Maria jewellery, she promptly returned it; in reply, the devastated young man sent word that he had attempted suicide and languished on the threshold of death. She must come to Carlton House with all haste, he begged, and see him one last time.

It is perhaps surprising that the worldly Maria fell for this ploy but fall for it she did and the shocked lady hurried to the royal bedside in the company of Georgiana, the Duchess of Devonshire. The women found the prince pale, weak and wrapped in bloodstained bandages. He implored her to take a ring borrowed from the duchess and when she did so, told her that he now considered them betrothed. As soon as Maria reached home she and Georgiana wrote out a statement denying any connection and Mrs Fitzherbert made preparations to leave England.

Maria’s getaway only made her more attractive and through a combination of tenacity and romance, George finally managed to woo her. Upon her return to England, Maria and George entered into a morganatic, secret and illegal marriage. The couple were wed at Maria’s home on 15th December 1785 before her uncle and brother in a ceremony officiated by a Reverend Burt. Though rumours persist that Burt was an inmate of the Fleet Prison, records of the Fleet Prison contain no mention of his name. Scandalous though the tale is, it appears that it contains no basis in fact.

At first Maria and George enjoyed a surprisingly loving marriage and London gossips assumed that Maria was nothing more than another royal mistress. The prince was happy to string the king and Parliament along, encouraging them to settle his ever-increasing debts on the understanding that one day he would marry and secure the line of succession for the House of Hanover.

George IV, 1785,
Samuel William Reynolds
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Charles James Fox brokered a deal with George, securing him the cash he needed to satisfy his creditors in return for a public denial of the widespread rumours that he was married to a Catholic widow. Despite his declaration of undying adoration to Maria, George agreed.

On 30th April 1787, Fox gave a speech to Parliament that included the following passage, its meaning in little doubt:

‘ [The rumours of marriage] …proved at once the uncommon pains taken by the enemies of his Royal Highness to propagate the grossest and most malignant falsehoods with a view to depreciate his character and injure him in the opinion of his country. […] a tale in every particular so unfounded, and for which there was not the shadow of anything like reality.’

For all Fox’s delicacy of language, the damage was done and Maria was furious. She was left to lick her unhappy wounds as George gadded off to Carlton House with nearly £170,000 safe in his coffers.

Despite the distance or perhaps because of it, their attraction continued to flare and soon Maria had forgiven her prince. Setting up individual residences in Brighton, George and Maria sat at the heart of fashionable society, hosting some of the most illustrious names in the country whilst at his father’s official court, things were less than happy.

George and Charlotte loathed the open liaisons between their son and his Catholic lover, but Maria struggled to retain her allure.

Almost ten years after the wedding, George sent a letter to Maria in which he explained that their marriage must end. With no excuses left, the time had finally come for him to make an official marriage to Caroline of Brunswick.

Maria Fizherbert
(via Wikimedia Commons)
Maria was heartbroken by the end of the relationship. Though the couple attempted to reconcile once his disastrous union with Caroline of Brunswick collapsed, the happy times they had known were far behind them. George hammered the final nail into the coffin when he snubbed Maria at a Carlton House dinner in 1811, when he told her to sit away from him ‘according to her rank’. Maria and George never met again and as the years wore on what had once been love turned to animosity.

Maria threatened to expose their marriage if she did not receive an annuity whilst George came to believe she had married him only for advancement. This seems disingenuous to say the least as Maria already enjoyed social standing and financial independence and being the illegal, secret wife of the debt-ridden George brought little to Maria that she could not have achieved with a good, legal marriage.
When Maria heard that George was unwell in 1830 she sent him a final note yet he was too frail to respond. Before George’s death, he asked to be buried with Maria’s eye miniature around his neck. This final wish was granted, perhaps proving how deeply George rued the loss of the scandalous Mrs Fitzherbert.


Anonymous. George III: His Court and Family, Vol I. London: Henry Colburn and Co, 1821.
Baker, Kenneth. George IV: A Life in Caricature. London: Thames & Hudson, 2005.
Black, Jeremy. The Hanoverians: The History of a Dynasty. London: Hambledon and London, 2007.
David, Saul. Prince of Pleasure. New York: Grove Press, 2000.
Hadlow, Janice. The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians. London: William Collins, 2014.
Hetherington Fitzgerald, Percy. The Life of George the Fourth. London: Tinsley Brothers, 1881.
Huish, Robert. Memoirs of George the Fourth: Vol I. London: Thomas Kelly, 1830.
Irvine, Valerie. The King’s Wife: George IV and Mrs Fitzherbert. London: Hambledon, 2007.
Lloyd, Hannibal Evans. George IV: Memoirs of His Life and Reign, Interspersed with Numerous Personal Anecdotes. London: Treuttel and Würtz, 1830.
Smith, EA. George IV. Bury St Edmunds: St Edmundsbury Press, 1999.

About the Author
Catherine Curzon is a royal historian and blogs on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life. Her work has been featured by publications including BBC History Extra, All About History, History of Royals, Explore History and Jane Austen’s Regency World. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, which she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here). 

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill. 

Her book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository and all good bookshops!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Name This Lovely English Lady

by Debra Brown

by John Singer Sargent (1856 - 1925)

If you read the caption on the above picture, you may have been surprised. The date of this (I assume) charcoal sketch is 1917, so no, it is not the lovely Diana, Princess of Wales. I'm sure many readers do know that this is Lady Cynthia Elinor Beatrix Hamilton, daughter of Sir James Albert Edward Hamilton, 3rd Duke of Abercorn and Lady Rosaline Cecilia Caroline Bingham, born in Londonderry, Ireland, Diana's paternal grandmother. Notable ancestors include Robert I of Scotland, Charlemagne, William I of England, Hugh Capet, Henry II of England, Alfred the Great, Rurik, and Willam van Oranje. She descended from the 4th Earl of Lucan and the 5th Duke of Richmond. She was a six-times great-granddaughter of Charles II (wrong side of the blanket) and was ardently courted by the Prince of Wales, who later married Wallis Simpson. One could have fun writing alternate history with her having married him!

Above, Lady Cynthia is pictured two years before her wedding to John Spencer, 7th Earl Spencer on February 26, 1919, at St. James' in Picadilly, London. She became Viscountess Althorp, later Countess Spencer on September 22, 1922.

Ken Cuthbertson says, "Through the marriage of Princess Diana’s grandparents, John the 7th Earl Spencer and Lady Cynthia Hamilton, the Spencer family enjoys a uniquely comprehensive range of descents from the royal house of Stewart/Stuart that ruled in Scotland from the late 14th century and in all of Britain from 1603 to 1714. And in fact, if they had been legitimate lines of descent, several of the ancestors in the Spencer-Hamilton lineage would have been senior in the line of succession to the Hanover/Windsor family... Cynthia Hamilton’s sixteenth century ancestor, the Duc de Chatelherault, was the closest legitimate heir to the Scottish crown during the lifetime of Mary Queen of Scots. And it is also worth noting that Lady Cynthia’s more remote ancestors included several illegitimate offspring of earlier Stewarts such as King James IV... The Spencer-Hamilton lineage includes at least two of Charles II’s progeny. The Hamilton ancestors include two different lines of descent from Charles, 1st Duke of Richmond and Lennox, the son of Charles II and Louise de Keroualle... The historical and genealogical significance of these several lines going back to James VII/II and Charles II is great. For not only will Prince William someday be the first King, ever, descended from Charles II; he will also be the first descendant of Charles I to reign over Britain since 1714. The Hanoverians descended from James VI/I by quite a different route... Except for William IV, William [Duke of Cambridge,] is descended from every monarch of England and Scotland with known (and acknowledged) living descendants."

Despite their grand pedigrees, finances for the Spencers were tight by the 1950s. Cynthia's "fierce" husband, unlike many aristocrats, did not open his house to the public. Rather he was fastidiously thrifty. He washed the china by hand, dusted the library himself, and made needlepoint seat covers for chairs. The Countess drove an old beat up Morris, and in it she was known for her compassionate visits to the needy. Young Diana saw her as divinely kind, and this no doubt helped to fashion the Princess of Wales, later known for her compassion and loved as 'the people's princess'.

Lady Spencer had two children, Lady Anne (Spencer) Wake-Walker and John Spencer, 8th Earl Spencer, Diana's father. She was appointed a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Consort Elizabeth, her close friend, in 1937, and remained such until her death. On 4 June 1943 she was made an Officer of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (OBE) and on 1 June 1953, a Dame Commander of the Royal Victorian Order (DCVO). She was, however, little known until her granddaughter married the heir to the throne, Prince Charles.

Diana, Princess of Wales
Public Domain

In other pictures, the two women look less alike, though still obviously related. Here the Countess is seen wearing the Spencer family's Honeysuckle tiara. Lady Cynthia Spencer had received as a gift the gold and diamond Spencer tiara worn by Diana at her wedding and other formal events.

Lady Cynthia Spencer, Countess Spencer died at the Spencer’s ancestral home, Althorp, of a brain tumour, aged 75, and was buried in the Spencer Family Vault, St Mary the Virgin with St John Churchyard, Great Brington, Northamptonshire, England.

Photograph courtesy of Dave Dunford
Geograph Project

Brown, Tina; The Diana Chronicles, Anchor 2008
Bradford, Sarah; Diana, Viking 2006


Debra Brown in Oregon, USA, is the founder of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, the author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire, and co-editor of Volumes 1 and 2 of Castles, Customs, and Kings: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. 

I am very proud of this blog and cannot adequately praise the many authors who have spent countless hours writing and posting herein. The blog is now in the hands of a team of editors, myself, Annie Whitehead, Char Newcomb, and Cryssa Bazos. Without this team, it would be impossible to maintain the quality of the blog. Great thanks to this fine group.

And to the 1,000,000+ readers who have been with us at one time or another for the last five years, thank you! I hope you will enjoy the past for a long time to come.


The Horse in Early Medieval Britain

By Elaine Moxon

In heraldry, the horse signifies readiness to act for one’s king and country or a readiness for duty. It is also a symbol of speed, intellect and virility. These attributes have their roots in very early history. Our affinity with this beast resonates throughout our pre-history. In Sub-Roman Britain our Celtic ancestors were riding horses as well as using them to pull chariots, which were themselves symbols of speed and agility. At Sutton Hoo there is a wealth of grave goods highlighting the importance of horses in Saxon noble culture from the 5th Century onwards (gilt-bronze decorated bridles, bran tubs, horses as symbols on metalwork and ceramics such as Pagan cremation urns, bow-brooches, footplates).

Sutton Hoo helmet
Picture courtesy of A.J. Pilkington

Detail of Sutton Hoo helmet
Picture courtesy of A.J. Pilkington

Aside from burials, archaeological evidence does exist to support horses used in Anglo-Saxon warfare between 650 – 899AD, although there are some who continue to dispute this. Wooden saddles and a step-rope for mounting (not a riding stirrup) were being used. The horse was incredibly useful as transport, scouting, a fast attack (as I used in my ‘Battle of Bathumtun’ in WULFSUNA) and, if an army came under siege, food. Whilst no direct evidence exists of warriors engaging in battle on horseback, that is not to say it could not have been the case and indeed, I made use of this grey area when writing my novel. Lack of archaeological evidence can often provide the writer room for fictional creativity!

Bede mentions the bearing of weapons and riding a stallion as ‘attributes of the elite male warrior class’ so to ignore this, even if it may be a social or cultural stereotype, would be to ignore at least an essence of the historical fact. Likewise, Sundkvist says the horse is ‘the most important animal of the Old Scandinavian cult’. They ‘played a part in sacrifices and divination, were emblems of sovereignty and symbolised a warrior-ideal’. To support these comments, an array of Old English words abound that refer to horses and their upkeep:
Stodfaldas – stud folds/paddocks
Stodmyra – stud mares
Stodhors – stud stallions
Stodðeofas – stud thieves
Hengest – stallion
Horsa – horse
Horsþegn – horse thegn/thane
There are also several mentions of the importance of horses in a variety of literature from, or in reference to, the Early Medieval period or thereabouts. These further substantiate horses as means of owning and showing wealth and a deeper spiritual connection with the divine. It is worth noting here that in Germanic culture white horses were linked to nobility and kingship, while red (chestnut) horses were linked to Frejya and fertility.

a saddle made fair with skill, adorned with gems...was the war-seat of the high-king.’~ Beowulf
(Horse) ‘is for leaders the joy of princes –
A steed proud in its hooves – where the hero
Wealthy in mounts exchanges speech –
And shall always be a comfort for the restless.’~ Old English Rune Poem, Exeter Book
Peculiar to that people, in contrast, is to try as well the portents and omens of horses: maintained at public expense in the groves and woods, they are white and untouched by any earthly task; when yoked to the sacred chariot, the priest and the king or leading man of the state escort them and note their neighs and snorts. To no other auspices is greater faith granted, not only among the common folk, but among the nobles and priests, for they see themselves as mere servants of the gods, but the horses as their intimates.’~ Tacitus (of horses and the Germanic people).
...all the blood from them was called hlaut (sacrificial blood), and hlautbolli, the vessel holding that blood; and hlauteiner, the sacrificial twigs (aspergills). These were fashioned like sprinklers, and with them were to be smeared all over with blood the pedestals of the idols and also the walls of the temple within and without; and likewise the men present were to be sprinkled with blood. But the meat of the animals was to be boiled and to serve as food at the banquet.’~ Snorri, Saga of Hákon the Good from Heimskringla
I know that I hung on the windy tree
For nine full nights, wounded with a spear, given to Oðinn,
Myself to myself,
On that tree of which no one knows
For nine full nights, wounded with a spear, given to Oðinn,Myself to myself,On that tree of which no one knowsWhere the roots run.’~ Hávamál, from Prose Edda

Yggdrasil Tree
Wikimedia Commons [Public Domain]
That aforementioned tree is Yggdrasil, the World Tree connecting all the worlds in Norse (and Germanic) mythology. It is interesting to note that ‘Yggdrasil’ can be translated as Ygg’s Horse and ‘Ygg’ is another name for Odin. Odin, or the Saxon equivalent Woden, was the Chief of all the gods in later centuries (replacing Tiw as the all powerful leader of the gods). He of course rode ‘Sleipnir’ the famous eight-legged horse to enable him passage between the land of the living and the land of the dead, resonating with other cultures and legends like ‘Epona’. The same might be said of the mythical unicorn or Pegasus. All of these horse-like creatures link in some way to the divine and magical.

It is not uncommon to find that the eating of blood or flesh of animals, thought to be a link to the divine, is carried out as a way for people to connect with deities. For instance, on the Baltic island of Őland, hundreds of horse remains have been unearthed. The animals were stabbed for blood-letting and their bones split to remove the marrow. Feasts of horseflesh have also been uncovered from the Viking period at Lade and Maere in Trøndelag, Norway. In Denmark there are records of horse sacrifices every nine years, nine being a magical number for the Saxons and other Germanic people.

In conclusion, the Early Medieval age is steeped in horse mythology and the enduring image of warrior and horse irrevocably entwined; an image that would prevail for centuries after.


Seven Ages of Britain – Justin Pollard
A Nobleman Should be on a Horse’s Back – Stephen Pollington
Woden’s Warriors – Paul Mortimer

Additional Attributions

Yggdrasil Tree By Unknown - AM 738 4to, 44r. Digitized version available from Image processing (crop, erase etc.) by Skadinaujo (talk · contribs), Public Domain,

Elaine Moxon writes historical fiction as ‘E S Moxon’. Her debut Wulfsuna was published January 21, 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.

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.