Friday, December 30, 2016

An Almack's Mystery-Who was Miss Pelham?

by Lauren Gilbert

Almack's Assembly Rooms
The Almack’s best known today is the “Marriage Mart” of the Regency era, with the Lady Patronesses at the helm: Lady Jersey, Lady Sefton, Lady Castlereagh, Mrs. Drummond-Burrell, Princess Esterhazy and Princess Lieven. We know of it from novels, for its mediocre suppers, stringently-enforced rules (no waltzing without the approval of a Lady Patroness), and highly prized vouchers. However, there was life at Almack’s before that. And it was somewhat different...

One cannot underrate the importance of assembly rooms in the Georgian and Regency periods. With the sharp divide between men’s and women’s activities, a free zone where both could be present was a necessity. Places to see and be seen, young people were closely chaperoned as they met, danced and conversed. Potential marriage partners were on display, and the rituals of courtship (or commerce) observed. Every town or city had its own assemblies during its social season. Of course, London had to have the most exclusive of all. One thing the assembly rooms have in common is gambling. Cards were offered for the entertainment of those who did not dance. This included women.

Almack’s Coffee House opened in 1763 in St. James’s Street, and, some years later, became known as the gentlemen’s club Brookes’s. (Coffee houses catered to men.) William Almack decided on a new venture, selected a site on King Street, St. James’s, east of Pall Mall Place, and built three very elegant rooms, offering a ball and supper once a week for twelve weeks for a subscription of 10 guineas. In 1768, he added another room for cards, decorated in blue damask. It did not take long for Almack’s to be firmly established and popular with the highest of high society, including Lady Sarah Lennox, the Duke of Cumberland (brother of George III), the Duchess of Gordon and other notables. It became known for high play, with fortunes lost and won, by women as well as men. On May 6, 1770, Walpole wrote to George Montagu about an innovation at Almacks: “It is to be a club of both sexes to be erected at Almacs, on the mode of that of the men of Whites. Mrs. Fitzroy, lady Pembroke, Mrs. Meynel, lady Molyneux, Miss Pelham, and Miss Loyd, are the foundresses.”[i] I found the inclusion of two single ladies in such a leadership position interesting, and decided to investigate Miss Pelham. Who was she, and how did she get into this position at Almacks?

Rt. Honorable Henry Pelham
I cannot say unequivocally that I found her. However, I did find a likely candidate: Frances Pelham, daughter of Rt. Hon. Henry Pelham who served as Prime Minister during George II’s reign (Mr. Pelham’s brother was the Duke of Newcastle). Available data indicates that Frances was born in 1728, one of six daughters, and the second eldest of the four who survived into adulthood. The earliest mention I have of her so far is in John Robert Robinson’s biography of William Douglas, fourth Duke of Queensberry. Then Lord March, William Douglas took a house on Arlington Street in Piccadilly in 1752 next door to that of the Hon. Henry Pelham, then First Lord of the treasury. According this biography, the reason for his choice was “the bright eyes of Miss Frances Pelham, who had smitten the heart of this noble ‘macaroni’.”2 At this time, Frances would have been approximately 24 years old. According to this source, Lord March and Miss Pelham conversed through facing windows, as her father would not admit him. Supposedly, Lord March courted Miss Pelham about seven years. Upon her father’s death in 1754, unaccountably, the couple did not marry. One speculation is that, with her father’s death, any hope of political assistance for Lord March died as well, but that idea is discounted in Mr. Robinson’s biography. Her father left her a life estate in Esher, Surrey. 

Little information surfaces about Miss Pelham again, until mentioned in relationship to Almack’s, and gambling. In 1770, Frances Pelham would have been forty two years old and well past an expectation of marriage, a spinster of means and social status. Her being involved with such a venture as Almack’s is not an impossible or unlikely event. At any rate, at this point in time, the Miss Pelham of Almack’s was a gambler, who was famed for her fondness for deep play. By 1773, she was known for losing hundreds of pounds a night, and (with several of the other ladies) had moved away from Almack’s to other venues, and had earned the nickname of Miss Pell-Mell. There are indications that she dissipated her own fortune and required assistance from her relatives.

Miss Frances Pelham never married, and died the 10th of January 1804 at about age 76. According to The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics and Literature for the Year 1804, she had an excellent reputation. This reference indicates she was very rich, with a considerable estate. However, A Topographical History of Surrey is very specific that Mr. Pelham had left his possessions in Esher for her life by will and, at her death, the property devolved to her nephew. This in some ways supports my theory identifying Frances Pelham with Miss Pelham of Almack’s fame, as a life estate limited the inheritor’s ownership, and his (or her) ability to dispose of assets. She would have had a place to live and conceivably assets (or at least family) to support her after she had gambled away her disposable funds. 

I am continuing my research, but we may never find incontrovertible evidence for the identity of Miss Pelham, founding patroness of Almack’s. I haven’t even been able, to date, to find a portrait of Frances Pelham, and she is not identified in The Peerage. However, I can’t help but feel that Miss Frances Pelham, spinster daughter of a Prime Minister of superior social standing, may have found some satisfaction and excitement in an alternative life as Miss Pell-Mell, gambler, for a period of time after other options faded away.

[1] Letters from the Hon. Horace Walpole, to George Montagu, Esq. From the Year 1736, to the Year 1770 (The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Oxford in six volumes. Vol. VI.) P. 434.

2 Robinson, John Robert, ’Old Q’ A Memoir of William Douglas Fourth Duke of Queensberry K. T. P. 59.


Chancellor, E. Beresford. Memorials of St. James’s Street and Chronicles of Almack’s. New York: Brentano’s, 1922. 

The University of Nottingham. “Biography of Henry Pelham (c. 1695-1754: Prime Minister.” Here.

Google Books. The Annual Register, Or, A View of the History, Politics, and Literature for the Year 1804. “Deaths in 1804.” London: W. Otridge & Sons, et al, 1806.Here.

Google Books. A Topographical History of Surrey by Edward Wedlake Brayley, F.S.A., etc. London: G. Willis, 1850. Here.

Google Books. Letters from the Hon. Horace Walpole, to George Montagu, Esq. From the Year 1736, to the Year 1770 (The Works of Horatio Walpole, Earl of Oxford in six volumes. Vol. VI.) London: Rodwell and Martin, 1818). Here.

Google Books. ‘Old Q’ A Memoir of William Douglas Fourth Duke of Queensberry K.T. by John Robert Robinson. London: Sampson Low, Marston and Company, Limited, 1895. PP. 58-61. Here.

Google Books. Women, Sociability and Theatre in Georgian London, by Gillian Russell. Cambridge University Press, 2007. Here.

This was originally posted on my blog January 12, 2014 here. Unfortunately, I have turned up no further information. If any readers can contribute, please leave information in a comment!

Lauren Gilbert holds a BA in English Literature and has been a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America since 2005. A life-long reader of historical fiction, her first published work HEYERWOOD: A Novel was released in 2011. A second novel, A Rational Attachment, is in process. She lives in Florida with her husband, where winter may be finally making an appearance. Visit her website here for more information.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

The Murder of Thomas Becket

By E.M. Powell

Midwinter in England can indeed be bleak. Iron-hard frosts, smothering snow, torrential rain and gales: all can sweep down on these short days where daylight is gone by mid-afternoon. But at day's close on the twenty-ninth of December 1170, an event occurred that stunned medieval England and all of Christendom. Archbishop Thomas Becket was brutally murdered by four knights in his own cathedral at Canterbury. The knights came to Canterbury following an outburst by Henry II, king of England and much of France. It was a tragedy that had been set in motion many years before.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

The son of a London merchant, Becket cut an imposing figure. He was over six feet tall (well above average for the period), with an aquiline nose, a "large brow", and "long and handsome face". He had a quick mind and a particular capacity to absorb and retain huge amounts of information. One chronicler states that he could even detect and react to distant smells and scents! Though he had stammered in his youth, he largely overcame this and was a fluent orator.

Appointed as Henry's Chancellor in 1155, Becket did not disappoint the King. He performed brilliantly in the role and the two men, Henry thirteen years younger than Becket, became extremely close. William Fitzstephen records "Never in Christian times were there two greater friends, more of one mind."

Henry makes Becket Archbishop of Canterbury
Liturgical comb c. 1200
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

One mind, perhaps, but of course Henry was king. And he was a king who was engaged in power struggles with Rome. On the death of Archbishop Theobald in 1161, Henry appointed Becket as Archbishop of Canterbury, believing Becket would simply do his bidding and act at all times on his behalf. Henry could not have been more wrong. Becket stood firm against Henry in matters of ecclesiastical law and power. Their disputes dragged on until in 1170 Henry had his son anointed as king by the Archbishop of York, a ceremony that was witnessed by ten other bishops. Becket's response? He excommunicated the bishops from the pulpit at Canterbury Cathedral on Christmas Day. When news reached Henry, he went into one of his legendary rages.

And his rages were indeed legendary. Henry could really let rip when roused. According to John of Salisbury, Henry once became so enraged during a debate about the King of Scotland that he flung off many of his clothes and started "chewing on pieces of straw." John also has Henry describing himself as "a child of anger." One of Henry's charters states that if anyone "should attempt to quash...this grant, he will incur the disfavour, anger and indignation of Almighty God and me."

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

So it was when Henry was informed of the news of Becket's latest actions. He "struck his hands together and exclaimed against it vehemently", his face "white with fury." His tirade against Becket was about the man's ungratefulness, too: he had raised Becket to a high position, and the only response was treachery. He worked himself up to a frightening pitch, ending with the words: "He has...shamed my realm; the grief goes to my heart, and no-one has avenged me!" Unfortunately, a group of barons who were listening took him at his word. They set off for Canterbury to avenge their king.

And who were these knights? It is unlikely they were part of Henry's intimate circle and acted to increase their favour with the king. William of Canterbury gives us their names and their descriptions. First was Reginald Fitzurse. "Urse" means "bear", and William claims the name indicated the man's savagery. Hugh de Morville's surname translates as "a village of death." William de Tracy is acknowledged as a brave fighter, but had a "sinful way of life." Richard le Bret became the Brute "on account of the depravity of his life." It was these who headed for the cathedral in which the holy man they sought was to be found.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 
The accounts of events from eight hundred and forty four years ago can often be sketchy. In the case of Becket's murder, we have detail upon appalling detail, as five monks were eye-witnesses to it and wrote their version.

When the knights arrived at Canterbury Cathedral, daylight was fading. They first took off their armour and went to confront Becket who was in the Episcopal Palace. They most likely had come to arrest him but Becket simply refused to comply. That did not help the situation. The knights went back out and started to put on their armour once more. The monks and clerks who were with their Archbishop were extremely concerned by now for Becket's safety. Even if no-one expected murder, they were aware that Becket could be hideously maimed or wounded in such a tense situation. No doubt Becket himself was also aware that this was now a very real possibility. The monks hustled him through to the Cathedral, though he protested throughout.

Carrying on with the rhythm of the day, the Office of Vespers was being sung, the monks voices echoing into the cathedral's high roof with the only light from candles or lamps. Such illumination would hardly have  pierced the chill darkness and cast instead deep shadows. Once the monks saw Becket, they halted their prayers, rejoicing that he was safe. It was only a temporary reprieve. As he walked to the altar, the knights burst in, armed with hatchets and an axe, Fitzurse yelling "Where is the archbishop, the traitor of the King?"

The Murder of Thomas Becket
Public Domain

Becket kept his composure, replying: "Here I am, not a traitor of the King, but a priest. Why do you seek me?" The knights were not so calm. They surrounded Becket, in a shouting, clamouring group, their lethal weapons ready and raised. Grabbing hold of Becket, they tried to manhandle him away but he grabbed for one of the stone pillars and refused to move. Then the Archbishop delivered an insult to Fitzurse, calling him a panderer or a pimp and challenged Fitzurse to kill him. This seemed to tip Fitzurse over into murderous rage, and he roared at de Tracy to strike. Becket bent his head in submission. He knew he was going to die.

Chasse showing the Martyrdom of Saint Thomas Becket c1190
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

De Tracy's first strike took off the top of Becket's skull and glanced off, injuring Brother Edward Grim. The watching appalled monks fled in panic, as Becket took another blow to the head but still remained standing. He must have been in unspeakable agony and shock, yet managed to speak for the last time: "For the name of Jesus and the good of the Church, I am ready to embrace death." De Bret thrust his sword through Becket's head with such force that the sword shattered on the altar stone. A cleric who had accompanied the knights scattered the Archbishop's brains, declaring, "He won't get up again." It was over. The knights left the cathedral and went to the Episcopal Palace, where they ransacked Becket's possessions.

Becket's body lay cooling on the altar as the traumatized monks made their way back in. Over the next few hours, people converged on the cathedral in horrified disbelief. Those who came dipped their fingers in the blood of their martyred Archbishop, daubed their clothes with it, and collected as much as they could. Terror still filled the air, with rumours flying around that the murderers were coming back to take the body, or to slay others. It was feared that the knights would defame Becket's corpse, and pull it across the city behind a horse, or display it on a gibbet. This could not be countenanced. The monks decided to bury Becket in the crypt as quickly as possible.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

The miracles began that very night. A man who dipped part of his shirt into Becket's blood went home to his paralysed wife. As he wept in his telling of the murder, she asked to be washed in water containing some of the blood. She was cured immediately. A shrine was erected to Becket in the cathedral. An astonishing 100,000 people came to pray and visit Canterbury Cathedral in 1171 alone. The attributed miracles mounted up and in ten years, there were a total of 703 recorded. Becket’s intercession was in healing, casting out demons. He was prayed to by women in childbirth. When Queen Eleanor, the wife of King Henry III was expecting her fourth child, 1,000 candles were lit around Becket’s shrine.

Reliquary casket with scenes of the martyrdom c1173-80
© 2014 E.M. Powell 

And what of Henry, the king whose supposed utterance of "who will rid me of this meddlesome priest?" set the murder in motion? Henry had to give in on the matter of church courts. He also performed a number of acts of penance for the man who had once been his dear friend. The most extreme was on the streets of Canterbury on 12 July 1174, where he was scourged by eighty monks before spending the night praying at Becket’s tomb. In death, Becket had been victorious.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

Saint Thomas Becket was a venerated saint for the next four hundred years. Until the arrival of another King Henry, Henry VIII. This Henry was going to take on the church. And win. When he achieved his aim of total control of the church, Henry VIII denounced Becket as a traitor. Becket’s shrine was destroyed, his bones were burned and the mention of his name was outlawed.

Canterbury Cathedral
© Shane Broderick Photography 

But Henry didn’t manage to erase the memory of Becket. People continued in their devotion to him as a saint. Today, Canterbury Cathedral still marks the place of Becket’s martyrdom and thousands continue to visit every year. Think of him today, at day’s close.

Abbott, Edwin A.: St. Thomas of Canterbury: His Death and Miracles, A & C Black (1898)
Cathedral: Murder at Canterbury, BBC TV (2005)
Gervase of Canterbury: Thomas Becket's Death, from History of the Archbishops of Canterbury, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University
Grim, Edward: The Murder of Thomas Becket, Internet Medieval Sourcebook, Fordham University
Guy, John: Thomas Becket, Penguin Books (2012)
Jones, Dan: The Plantagenets: The Kings Who Made England, William Collins, (2013)
Staunton, Michael (ed.): The Lives of Thomas Becket, Manchester University Press (2001)
Warren, W.L., Henry II, Yale University Press (2000)
Weir, Alison: Eleanor of Aquitaine: By the Wrath of God, Queen of England, Vintage Books (2007)

Editor's Choice from the archives. Originally published December 28, 2014.

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

Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she now lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. 

As well as blogging for EHFA, she is a contributing editor to International Thriller Writers The Big Thrill magazine, reviews fiction & non-fiction for the Historical Novel Society and is part of the HNS Social Media Team. Find out more by visiting

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Photographer Shane Broderick specializes in studies of castles, churches and places of pilgrimage. To view more and to see his other work, please visit his Facebook Page at Shane Broderick Photography. You can also view his video here for more on Canterbury Cathedral. His photographs on this post have been used with his generous permission.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Boxing Day is not Black Friday: Unwrapping the Tradition

by Linda Root

Today is Boxing Day

When Americans and most other people outside of the U.K. and the Commonwealth, inquire about the holiday, a common modern explanation links it to the American event known as Black Friday. Doing so invites an unfortunate comparison, although,  in current times, it fits.  The American Black Friday competes with the day after Christmas as the busiest shopping day of the year,  but there are significant differences.  One is steeped in tradition dating back many centuries.  The other is a late Twentieth Century marketing scheme.

Black Friday falls on the day after Thanksgiving when stores offer incentives called 'Door Busters' to attract early shoppers. The term Black Friday is designed to seduce buyers into thinking the stores have been losing money for the first eleven months of the year, and only through excessive shopping will they save  American retail merchants from 'going in the red.'  Many department stores in the U.S. close all or part of Thanksgiving Day but open after midnight to crowds lined up in the parking lot waiting for a chance to snatch up a loss leader.  Some setup camp, like the shopper below.

However, the similarity between Black Friday and Boxing Day ends there. Theoretically, the term Black Friday dates to an event in the late 19th century when a cabal of overreaching entrepreneurs tried to seize the nation's Gold reserves, hence, a black moment in American history.  Rumors that the term relates to the ability of plantation owners to buy slaves at a discount on the day after Thanksgiving, while not far off the mark, fortunately, are not supported by any facts.  While Boxing Day has also become a record breaking shopping marathon, it’s original intent had nothing to do with corporate greed, and its goal was altruistic.

Some sources indicate Boxing Day is a Victorian holiday, which is technically correct if one is counting from the time of its being established as an official holiday.  Banks, public offices, and many private businesses in the U. K. and other Commonwealth Countries remain closed on December 26th, ostensibly to give their employees the day off, allegedly to spend with their families.

But Boxing Day did not begin with Victoria and Albert. The holiday itself dates to the early middle ages and is associated with altruism rather than greed. The official designation of Boxing Day as a national holiday occurred after the American Revolution, which may be why Americans never adopted it.  Left to their own devices, the American's came up with Black Friday, which on occasion has brought riot police to Chicago and New York Department stores.

Boxing Day, Saint Stephan's Day, Christmas II, The Day after Christmas - December 26th.

Samuel Pepys, courtesy Edmund J. Sullivan
There are elements of something like a Boxing Day found in the folklore of the eleventh century. The name itself may come from the ancient practice of priests breaking open the Poor Box on the day after Christmas and distributing the collected alms among the poor people of the parish.  Others say the name stems from a tradition whereby lairds distributed unwanted gifts,  hand-me-downs, and leftovers from the Christmas feast in boxes given to their servants and tenant farmers on the day after Christmas.  One of the first mentions of it in English literature comes in Samuel Pepys’ Diary, published in 1663, in which he discusses depositing  something in what he refers to as the 'boy’s box.'

Until recently,  service providers with regular routes such as letter carriers and deliverers of fruits and vegetables would duplicate their usual rounds on the day after Christmas, retrieving envelopes or boxes containing gifts or tips for their year of service.  That practice has fallen out of favor because it seemed coercive. To be in the proper spirit of Boxing Day, the benevolence of the overlord is to have the illusion of being voluntary, in Victorian terms, 'the done thing.'

Sporting matches and horse races are popular features of Boxing Day.  Some say the inclusion of sports as a part of the ritual dates back to Roman times when games, races and staged combats were a principal source of recreation. Dancing was also popular.

Coincidentally,  the holiday happens to fall on Saint Stephens Day. However, there were two Saint Stephens, the earliest being the first Christian martyr, who was executed by public stoning for his support of Christ.  The second Saint Stephen, a Swede, is the patron saint of Swedish horses.   Perhaps in a meld of the two, the early practice of running horses inside of churches on Saint Stephen’s Day prompted the addition of horse races and other spectator sports to the Boxing Day repertoire.  Football (soccer) matches on Boxing Day are usually played between local rivals. In keeping with the spirit of the season, games are scheduled to spare the participants from having to travel away from their families during the holidays.

 Until the ban on fox-hunting was imposed in the early 21st Century,  hunts on Boxing Day were a major source of revenue in rural counties.  In addition to the money the hunts brought into the community, entry fees and prize monies were donated to local charities.  In spite of the ban, hunts in a version where no foxes are killed remain traditional Boxing Day activities among the super wealthy.

Cotswolds Hunt, courtesy Steven McKay

Countries with historical ties to the United Kingdom often call the 26th of December by different names, the most common of which is Christmas II or The Second Day of Christmas.  There is a movement afoot in Britain to close stores on Boxing Day to give the employees a second day to spend with their families.  It is not expected to pass.

The Irish Version ~Wren Day

Perhaps the most bizarre tradition associated with Boxing Day is Irish.  No surprise there.  It is a variation of the holiday called Wren Day.  According to legend, killing a wren was a sin, unless it was done on Saint Stephens’ Day.  Boys would paint their face, dress in scary costumes, and go about in small gangs, stoning wrens, which they would dip in a sticky substance and suspend from sticks on strings. Thankfully, the Irish celebration has moved beyond that.

Wren Day is still celebrated, but the killing of the wrens is symbolic. Groups of boys still dress up, boisterously parade,  and collect money door-to-door, which they allegedly give to charities.

Wren Boys, parading in Dingle, Kerry, courtesy NLI

Good King Wenceslas and the Feast of Stephan

Perhaps the most familiar of the Boxing Day/Saint Stephan's Day legends is the one popularized in the Victorian Christmas Carol,  Good King Wenceslas, written by John Mason Neale in the latter 19th century and put to music dating from the 16 Century.  Although Wenceslas is an actual historical person,  a martyred 10th century Bohemian king, patron saint of the modern Czech Republic, Neale's lyric verse is more than likely mere conjecture. According to the carol, the king was traveling in a snow storm and came upon a peasant gathering fuel.  Goodly Wenceslas was sympathetic to the poor man's plight and arranged to have a sumptuous feast brought to the man’s house, which the King shared with the peasant and his family. It perfectly fits into the spirit of Boxing Day, combining the virtues of charity and camaraderie and the idea that sharing the wealth is an endeavor worthy of either a king or a saint.  As stated, the lyric probably has no basis in fact and does not reflect the behavior of most 10th Century kings, but its association with the Saint Stephen’s Day and its message make it an appropriate Boxing Day Hymn.

The King and his page, Wikimedia Commons

  'The first stanza links the carol to December 26th, Saint Stephen's Day.

Good King Wenceslas looked out
on the feast of Stephen,
when the snow lay round about,
deep and crisp and even.
Brightly shown the moon that night,
though the frost was cruel,
when a poor man came in sight,
gathering winter fuel. 

 The second reveals the king's concern for the peasant:

Hither, page, and stand by me.
If thou know it telling:
yonder peasant, who is he?
Where and what his dwelling?
Sire, he lives a good league hence,
underneath the mountain,
right against the forest fence
by Saint Agnes fountain.

Now, the King decides to intervene....

Bring me flesh, and bring me wine.
Bring me pine logs hither.
Thou and I will see him dine
when we bear them thither.
Page and monarch, forth they went,
forth they went together
through the rude wind's wild lament
and the bitter weather.

The king admonishes his page that dedication to a worthy task has its own reward.

Sire, the night is darker now,
and the wind blows stronger.

Fails my heart, I know not how -

I can go no longer.

Mark my footsteps good, my page,

tread thou in them boldly:

Thou shalt find the winter's rage
freeze thy blood less coldly.

From a biscuit tin on display at Victoria and Albert Museum

And, after Boxing Day, What next?

Traditionally, yule logs must be removed and holiday decorations put away by Boxing Day, but the winter festival season is not over.  The New Year approaches, and soon the revelries associated with Twelfth Night will have those who aspire to become the Lord of Misrule or the Queen of the Bean picking apart their honey cake, looking for the magic bean.  For those who do not win the prize, there is no cause to despair.  It is only 332 days to Black Friday.


Note: All photographs are via Wikimedia commons, and are in the public domain or licensed via Creative Commons. 

Linda Root is the author of the historical novels The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, the Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and the four books of the Legacy of the Queen of Scots series,  She lives in Yucca Valley, California, near Pappy & Harriets and the Joshua Tree National Park.  Her books are on Amazon and Amazon Kindle.

Editors' Weekly Round-Up, December 25, 2016

by the EHFA Editors

Enjoy this week's articles from the blog:

by Deborah Swift 
(Editor's Choice from the archives)

by Kim Rendfeld

by Anna Belfrage

by M.M. Bennetts
(Editor's Choice from the archives)

Saturday, December 24, 2016

A Viennese Christmas, 1814

by M.M. Bennetts

Imagine it!  For over twenty years, Great Britain had been cut off from Continental travel and culture.  And when I say cut off, I mean, cut off.

War is always bad for international trade and social and cultural intercourse.  And since 1793, the Continent had been embroiled in a series of wars, first with the newly formed French Republic and subsequently with Napoleonic France.

Then, with the imposition of the Berlin Decrees in November 1806 and the 1807 Milan Decrees, the French Emperor had effectively severed all commercial ties between the Continent and Great Britain.  If things hadn't been difficult enough, now it was impossible (unless you were a smuggler, and in that case, business began to boom...)

Hence British merchants, travelers, scientists and diplomats (and their wives) had had to find other markets, other places to do business, other cities to visit and enjoy, other more exotic lands to investigate. Books, music and ideas had perhaps continued to be exchanged between the Continent and Britain--a bit--but only because these could easily be sent or smuggled without damage.

And then, finally, in 1814, came peace.  The holiday-abroad-starved Brits (who had become quite insular over the past two decades) flocked to the Continent and especially to Vienna in the autumn of 1814, where the great European Congress, the first ever international peace conference, was being held.

Great Britain's Foreign Secretary, Viscount Castlereagh arrived with his wife and brother in tow and a diplomatic mission of some 80 others.  There were fourteen assistants, including Lord Cathcart and Lord Clancarty, Edward Cooke, the undersecretary of state, and Joseph Planta, Castlereagh's private secretary.

The parties and balls that autumn were extravagant and endless as European heads of state, diplomats and their entourages, and those representing special interests such as printers and publishers, the Papal representative or the Jewish delegation engaged in a ceaseless round of business-mingling and flirtation that accomplished little.  Meanwhile, the Viennese shopkeepers, wine-sellers, brothel-owners, hoteliers, gambling dens, restauranteurs, and secret service made money hand over fist.

Then, as December came to Vienna, snow began to fall occasionally, the days were shorter and colder, and the city began to celebrate Advent and prepare for Christmas.  It would be the first Christmas without war in twenty years...

From the 13th century, Viennese traders had held a special December Market, the Thomasmarkt, from before Christmas through New Year, which sold wonderful gingerbread and pastries.  In the Am Hof market though, the sale of this special gingerbread (a study of contemporary invoices tells us) had expanded to include Christmas goods too for the first time--angels, silver-plated nuts, ribbons, lametta (thin strips of metallic decorative work formed into stars, snowflakes and icicles, etc.) and candles--alongside the standard market fare.

Then, just before Christmas, there was a great party at the Arnstein mansion held by Fanny von Arnstein, a prominent Viennese hostess, where guests found in the salon a great, tall fir tree, decorated all over with gifts, lametta and candles.  It was the first Christmas tree ever seen in Vienna, and it's referred to in the diaries of diplomats and the reports of the many spies of the Congress, as "the Berlin custom".

The many guests were enchanted.

The French embassy were among the first to adopt the custom as their own.  There, the French ambassador's hostess, Dorothee, Duchesse du Perigord, convinced the ambassador to decorate the mansion Berlin-style.  Nor was she content with just one tree.  In the great hallway, guests were greeted with a huge fir tree, adorned with "colourful garlands and lit candles" while another even larger tree stood near the mansion's famous staircase, and everywhere too, there were platters of German-style marzipan delicacies--formed into fruits and small animals, gingerbread and butter biscuits.

And that year, when Dorothee hosted a party on Christmas Eve, gifts were exchanged that night, again, German-style--not as they did in Catholic countries like Austria and France, on New Year's Eve...

It was the start of a whole new way of celebrating Christmas.  Imagine that...

Editors' Choice from the Archives: originally published December 18, 2012.


M.M. Bennetts was one of the driving forces behind the EHFA blog and contributed many wonderful posts before her early demise some years ago. She was a specialist in early 19th century European history and the Napoleonic wars, and the author of two novels, May 1812 and Of Honest Fame set during the period.

Friday, December 23, 2016

The Life of a Queen Bee - or doing your royal duty

by Anna Belfrage

One of the things a medieval queen was expected to provide her husband with was a male heir. Plus, preferably, a spare. For a medieval king to have only female heirs caused a number of problems, primarily that of convincing the male barons to swear allegiance to a woman. Plus, from a purely dynastic perspective, whatever children the female ruler had would belong to their father’s house.

To not have male heirs was a problem Henry I of England faced. When his only (legitimate) son died in the White Ship disaster of 1120, this powerful king was left with a mere daughter as his legitimate heir. Not that Matilda was in any way a mere anything, but as per the mind-set of the times, being a woman did not exactly make her the self-evident choice as next ruler of England. Henry knew this, which was why he had his barons swear allegiance to Matilda while he was still alive. Didn’t help much, because no sooner was Henry dead, but the majority of the Anglo-Norman barons turned to Matilda’s cousin, Stephen of Blois instead.

What followed was a period known as the Anarchy, several decades of civil war that ravaged the country. No future king wanted a repeat on that. Ever.

Matilda - as per a 15th C chronicle
No matter that ultimately Matilda’s side “won”, she never became queen. Instead, the crown passed from Cousin Stephen to her son, Henry II, a vigorous young man whom the nobles gladly acclaimed. Henry wasn’t about to risk ending up in the same pickle as his grandfather. Once wed to Eleanor of Aquitaine – several years his senior, and judged incapable of producing a son for her first husband, king Louis of France – they did some serious begetting which resulted in many sons. Too many, one could say, as all those haughty young princes were soon to become Henry II’s major headache – and heartache. But at least he didn’t leave his vast lands without a male heir: upon his death, Richard Lionheart was ready to take over. When Richard died, baby brother John picked up the pieces, rid himself permanently of the competition in the form of his nephew Arthur, and settled down to rule – and beget heirs of his own.

By the time John’s grandson Edward was old enough to wed, the Plantagenet kings had established themselves firmly on the English throne, the crown passing safely from father to son. Edward was only fifteen when he married Eleanor of Castile in 1254, and as always when it came to royalty, this wedding had a political purpose at heart – in this case, to keep Alfonso X of Castile from invading Gascony.

Edward & Eleanor - not the most flattering
of likenesses
The happy couple only met a few days before being married. He was already inordinately tall – if lacking in bulk, I imagine. She was not quite thirteen. Was she fair? Dark? No idea. She did, however, come with a good pedigree. Her mother, Jeanne de Dammartin, had once been considered by Henry III as a wife for himself, but due to political reasons this was not to be. Instead, Jeanne was wed to Fernando III of Castile (the future St Fernando) as his second wife. With her husband came an entire brood of step-children, first and foremost the future Alfonso X of Castile.

Eleanor not only had a saint for a father, but also had Plantagenet blood, in that her great-grandmother was Henry III’s aunt, Eleanor of England, who wed Alfonso VIII. (I know: it does get a bit complicated with all these Eleanors and Alfonsos). Plus – and this was a major point in her favour – she came from a notably fertile family. Her mother had given Fernando five children, four of whom were sons. Her paternal grandmother, Berenguela, had produced five children during seven years of marriage. And as to Eleanor of England, well she had presented her husband with twelve children – one every other year or so. However, very few of the sons survived – in fact, once the youngest was killed by a falling tile, the Castilian crown passed through Berenguela to Fernando. (Berenguela was wise enough to understand the Castilian nobles would not accept her as queen – but they readily accepted her son as king.)

Anyway, with all these fertile females up Eleanor of Castile's family tree, no one was particularly worried about the mandatory male heir. In the fullness of time, Edward’s new wife would surely present him with a healthy, squalling son.

The young couple seem to have taken an immediate liking to one another. This resulted in a stillborn (or dead shortly after its birth) baby in 1255, the first of sixteen (at least fourteen) children. At the time, Eleanor was not yet fourteen, so I imagine this was a traumatic experience. There was a gap of some years – years in which the affection and love between Edward and Eleanor grew, making them almost inseparable. Whether or not there were miscarriages, we don’t know. I hold it likely: Edward and Eleanor not only liked each other but also desperately needed to produce an heir. Besides, throughout their marriage, Eleanor did not seem to have a problem conceiving – it was more a matter of the viability of the children she gave birth to.

There was probably quite some rejoicing and relief when, in 1261, Edward and Eleanor welcomed a daughter, Katherine, into this world. Their joy was short-lived. Little Katherine died at three, and one year later, in 1265, Eleanor was delivered of yet another daughter, Joanna, who died some months later. I imagine that by now, Eleanor and Edward were beginning to become quite concerned. More than ten years married, and no living children – that did not bode well.

Fortunately, in 1266, little John arrived, and he was miraculously healthy. Prayers of gratitude rang in the royal solar, even more so when in 1268 yet another son, Henry, saw the light of the day. Two boys, albeit that little Henry was sickly.  To round things off, a healthy daughter, Eleanor, was born in 1269.

Edward I
In 1270, Edward took the cross. As a matter of course, Eleanor decided to accompany him, leaving her babies in the care of their grandmother and, in the case of the precious heir, their great-uncle. In 1271, there was a stillborn child. In 1272, while in Palestine, Edward and Eleanor welcomed yet another daughter, Joan. By then, they would have heard that their son John had died and what little joy they experienced at the birth of their daughter soured into fear when Edward was almost murdered. Clearly, they weren’t welcome in the Holy Land, and they set off for home. On the way, they learnt Henry III was dead. Edward was now king, and the pressing matter of a male heir became even more pressing – little Henry was not expected to live long.

In 1273, son number three, Alphonso, was born. A fine, lusty son, and Eleanor must have wept in relief. It was therefore with great happiness Edward and Eleanor celebrated their coronation in 1274. By then, they’d been married almost twenty years, and even if little Henry died some months later, they did have their lovely Alphonso – and two healthy little girls. Does not seem much, given that Eleanor had carried nine babies to full term. Nine. As she was only thirty-three, she could look forward to several more pregnancies. I wonder if there were times when this thought filled her with trepidation.

1275, 1276, 1277, 1279 – four pregnancies, four births, resulting in four little girls of whom two died. But at least Alphonso, this apple of his parents’ eyes, still thrived.

1281 – a little boy came and went like a shadow in the night. But still, they had Alphonso.

1282 – Elizabeth of Rhuddlan was born. A healthy child, and now there were five daughters – plus the precious Alphonso.

In April of 1284, a heavily pregnant Eleanor accompanied her husband to Wales. And there, in the building site that was Caernarvon Castle, Eleanor was delivered of a boy. A boy! Yes, a miracle baby, a strong little prince, and Eleanor smiled and wept as she presented her husband with the much-desired spare. And as to Alphonso, their sweet son was now old enough to wed, and a marriage had been arranged for him with Margaret, daughter of the Count of Holland. For a little while there, everything was perfect in the Eleanor-Edward household. Until Alphonso fell ill, dying in August of 1284.

Alphonso lived the longest of all those children who died. Long enough for his parents to pin hopes on him, long enough to grow from an anonymous baby into an adored boy. And then, just like that, he died.  It must have been utterly devastating. Yes, they had Prince Edward, but both Eleanor and Edward knew just what frail things children were – after all, with Alphonso they buried a tenth child.

Eleanor was not to have any more children. After sixteen births, I guess she was worn out, and besides, her health was failing. So all hopes for a surviving male heir now rested on baby Edward, and even if he was a robust child, there were concerns that he too would die young. On a daily basis, Eleanor did not see much of her youngest son. In fact, she rarely saw much of any of her children, seeing as she was always travelling from one place to the other.

Judging by moral standards, this behaviour does not make a good mother. After all, we expect mothers to spend time with their children. As per the standards of her time, Eleanor was a conscientious mother, ensuring her children were in good, competent hands and lived relatively stable lives while she accompanied her husband from one end of his kingdom to the other. Did she love her children? I’d say yes – as much as she dared to, given all those losses. But no matter that she loved them, she loved her husband much, much, more. It was with him she wanted to be, it was at his side she belonged, as his loyal and supporting spouse. And he, I believe, agreed.

Edward I with Prince Edward
In 1290, Eleanor died. Edward was numb with grief – so much so that for three whole days all royal business was suspended. But life goes on, and Edward had a duty to the crown – and his dynasty – to ensure there was more than one little boy in line to the throne. So in 1299, Edward married a second wife, the pretty and vivacious sister of the king of France. At the time, he was sixty and she was twenty – and fertile enough to present him with two beautiful and healthy sons.

In the event, these little spares would not be needed. In 1307, Eleanor’s lastborn, Edward of Caernarvon, became king after his father. I daresay she would have been mightily pleased. She had done her duty – she had birthed the next king.

Eleanor's life consisted of more than having babies - much more. In fact, this is an intriguing lady who surprisingly often surfs just under the radar, despite building up a considerable real estate fortune and being a proactive member of Edward's court. But that side of her will have to wait for another day, another post.

All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons


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. 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(andra) 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, December 21, 2016

St. Etheldreda: Twice Married and Still a Virgin

By Kim Rendfeld

The only husband East Anglian Princess Etheldreda ever wanted was Christ, but her family needed her to marry a lord and secure an alliance against the Mercians threatening her homeland. What was a seventh century lady to do?

Known today at Saint Audrey, Etheldreda was a dutiful daughter to King Anna. Politics in her world were violent. Her father had ascended to the throne around 641 after the deaths of two cousins in battle, one of whom seized the crown from a murderous usurper. She probably was 5 years old. She must have sensed that royalty was both privileged and dangerous. Very few kings died of old age or even natural causes.

Her family were devout Christians, even though they were in the Uffing clan, which claimed descent from the pagan god Wodan. Two of her sisters (who also became saints) were abbesses, and Etheldreda wanted that vocation. In Etheldreda’s case—as with all medieval aristocrats—family needs came before her heart’s desire.

Then a teenager, Etheldreda married Tonbert, ealdorman of the Southern Gyrwe in the Fens, around 652. Yet she persuaded him to respect her wish to remain a virgin, not an easy feat when conjugal relations were consider a husband’s (and wife’s) right.

Tonbert might have been much older than his bride and might have already had heirs. If that was the case, one less son to accommodate might have worked to his advantage. If he needed to sate his lust, he could do so with a whore. True, it was a sin, and he would need to confess and do penance. But in early medieval eyes, it was not that big a deal.

Tonbert’s morning gift to Etheldreda, usually bestowed after the marriage was consummated and thus deemed valid, was strategic. It was the Isle of Ely. This tract of land on the border with Mercia was surrounded by water and marshes, formidable natural defenses. In early medieval times, a morning gift would always belong to the wife, even if her husband set her aside.

Etheldreda’s marriage did not protect her father, who was killed with her brother (another saint) in a 754 battle against his longtime adversary, the pagan Mercian King Penda. Anna’s brother Athelhere ascended to the throne and recognized Penda as an overlord.

Etheldreda and Tonbert’s marriage would also be short-lived. Tonbert died around 655, the same year Athelhere and Penda died in battle against Northumbrian King Oswy, a Christian. Etheldreda retired to the Isle of Ely, a common act for early medieval widows. She might have thought she could pursue the religious life she always wanted.

From a 10th century illuminated manuscript
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

It was not to be. In 660, her family, probably led by her father’s brother Athelwold, arranged for her to marry Egfrith, Oswy’s heir and a former hostage in King Penda’s court. It was another strategic marriage in which Northumbria and East Anglia could form an alliance against Mercia.

Egfrith was probably 15 at the time. Etheldreda might have been 24. Again, she persuaded her husband to respect her wishes to remain a virgin.

At first, Egfrith consented and held her in high regard. For about a decade, Etheldreda lived at court, enjoying the society of learned monks and nuns and becoming friends with Bishop Wilfred. When Egfrith succeed his father in 670, he had a problem. He needed heirs born within wedlock. He could have forced himself upon his wife—although horrific to modern eyes, medieval folk would not recognize the act as rape. Or he could have asked Etheldreda to retire to an abbey and thus free him for another marriage.

Instead he asked Bishop Wilfred to persuade Etheldreda to willingly come to the marriage bed. Perhaps Egfrith feared losing his alliance with East Anglia, control of his wife’s dowry, and the connections she had made. Perhaps he thought his sons’ connections to the Uffings would help form alliances. Perhaps he truly loved Etheldreda and wanted her to be a real wife.

It would have been easier for Wilfred if he complied with the king’s request and accept the rewards Egfrith offered for the bishop and his churches. But Wilfred did just the opposite. He encouraged Etheldreda to hold fast to her vow of virginity. Maybe he believed Etheldreda’s desire to be a nun was her true calling and feared God’s anger for meddling with that more than the king’s.

Egfrith was none too happy when Etheldreda asked him for his permission to leave. At first, he reluctantly agreed, and she traveled to his aunt’s convent. Apparently, he missed her and was determined to get her back, even if she wanted no such thing.

Egfrith’s aunt advised Etheldreda to flee. Disguised as a beggar, she left with only two nuns to accompany her. The legend includes a few miracles in her escape such as a tide that rose and stayed high at just the right time and a staff that transformed into a tree.

Whatever the circumstances, she made it to Ely, where 600 families already lived, and built a double monastery. Wilfred made her abbess. (Egfrith did remarry. His second wife hated Wilfred.)

Saint Ethelreda's statue at Ely Cathedral
(photo by Jim Linwood, CC BY 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)

Etheldreda’s abbey thrived over the next seven years. During that time, she choose an austere lifestyle, wearing only woolen garments rather than linen near the skin. She also abstained from warm baths—not bathing was a form of penance in early medieval times—with the exception of four great festivals. Even then, other nuns had used the water first.

Shortly before she died, she had a quinsy, a painful abscess in her tonsil, which she believed to be punishment for her earlier fondest for necklaces. A surgeon cut it out, but it didn’t help. She died June 23, 679.

Sixteen years after Etheldreda’s death, her sister (a third one) and successor St. Sexburga wanted to move Etheldreda’s remains from a wooden coffin to a more fitting tomb within the church. If we are to believe legend, Etheldreda’s body was not at all corrupted—even the surgical incision had healed—proof that she had been chaste her whole life.


Bede on St Etheldreda

"St. Etheldreda" by Ewan Macpherson, The Catholic Encyclopedia.

A Dictionary of Saintly Women, Volume 1, Agnes Baillie Cunninghame Dunbar

The Mammoth Book of British Kings and Queens by Mike Ashley

The Peterborough Version of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle: Rewriting Post-Conquest History, Volume 27 of Anglo-Saxon studies, by Malasree Home

“The Retreat of St. Etheldreda” Catholic World, Volume 62, Paulist Fathers

Etheldreda” (Northumbria Community)


Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in early medieval times and is working on a third.

You can order The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, about a Saxon peasant who will fight for her children after losing everything else, at AmazonKoboBarnes & Noble, and iTunes. Kim's first novel, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband, is available at Amazon, Kobo, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Smashwords, CreateSpace, and other vendors.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.