Monday, February 27, 2017

Dining out in Regency England: The Belle Sauvage

By Lauren Gilbert

La Belle Sauvage Inn, Ludgate Hill, London

My husband and I went out to dinner this evening and really enjoyed it. Dining out is usually a pleasure, and it is something people have been doing for generations. Lists of places to eat were published in guide books and The Epicure's Almanack which was published in 1815. Dolly’s Chop House and Lloyd’s Coffee House were well known names. I ran across one named La Belle Sauvage Tavern (also known as the Bell Savage Tavern), located on Ludgate Hill, with a long and fascinating history. As you will see, La Belle Sauvage was much more than a place to eat.

There is a record of a forged claim by William Lawton for 20 shillings against William Savage in the area, which resulted in Mr. Lawton being sentenced to an hour in the pillory and establishes the name of Savage as that of a citizen there. During the reign of Henry VI, in 1453, a clause roll (or close roll-administrative records created by the royal chancery) refers to the bequest of Savage’s Inn, which would indicate the existence of an inn as early as the 15th century. The inn also seems to have been known at some point as the Bell in the Hoop. The inn was a coaching inn at this point. There is an indication that in 1554 Sir Thomas Wyatt came to the Bell Savage in Ludgate for his rebellion, stopped to rest, couldn’t get into the city (which ended his rebellion), and rested at the inn until he could turn himself in at Temple Bar. In 1568, John Craythorne gave the right to possess the property to the Cutler’s Company (knife makers’ guild).

By 1584, the inn was known as the Belle Sauvage. Plays were staged in the yard of certain inns during this period, and were staged at the Belle Sauvage, including a performance of Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus and (possibly) some of Shakespeare’s plays; there is an indication that Love’s Labours Lost was performed there. In 1616, John Rolfe and Pocahontas stayed at the Belle Sauvage during their visit from America. (Subsequently, there was a theory that the inn was named for her, but that was not correct as it was known as the Belle Sauvage or Bell Savage long before her arrival.) The original inn burned down in the Great Fire of London, but it was rebuilt. In 1703, the Belle Sauvage was mentioned in a newspaper article in relation to damage to the building resulting from a severe windstorm.

La Belle Sauvage Inn and Yard

The Belle Sauvage became one of the famous coaching inns. In 1674, with 40 rooms and facilities for 100 horses, it was quite an enterprise. By the Regency era, it had stabling for approximately 400 horses and was known for sending coaches all over the country. (The Belle Sauvage was one of two inns on the London to Bath route-by 1667, a stage left at 5:00 am every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and travellers were told they would complete the 105 mile trip in three days if all went well.) Routes expanded and coaches from the Belle Sauvage went to Colchester, Ely, Holyhead, Shrewsbury, Warwick and Windsor, to name a few. The hostlers would have changed horses (a fresh team harnessed to a coach to replace an exhausted team) while passengers hopefully had time to dine (dinners had to be timed for a coach’s arrival), some stayed the night, possibly to be ready for an early departure, and so forth. It was one of the main inns for mail coaches and stage coaches coming into and leaving London. Its proximity to the Fleet Prison also brought a clientele for meals. (Prisoners had to pay for food and beverages. Lucky prisoners had family or friends willing to bring them meals or the means to pay a jailor to bring food; the Belle Sauvage was handy for such custom. Local businessmen and others with business in the area also dined there.)

What amenities might have been enjoyed at La Belle Sauvage? In general, coaching inns offered breakfast, dinner, supper, and liquid refreshment. According to The Picture of London, for 1803: Being A Correct Guide to All the Curiosities, Amusements, Exhibitions, Public Establishments, and Remarkable Objects, In and Near London, The Belle Sauvage had a good coffee room (dining room), newspapers, and access to coaches to and from many regions of England. The guide book indicates it was popular with travellers. The Epicure's Almanack; or Calendar of Good Living, published in 1815, includes the Belle Sauvage in its list of places to dine in the Fleet Market area. Commended for a “well stocked larder”(1), The Epicure's Almanack indicates that the Belle Sauvage was not only popular with travellers but others as well. It does not provide a description of meals serviced or specialties, but apparently the Belle Sauvage was not one of the inns known for meals served badly prepared or timed so that travellers could not enjoy them.

There are also literary references to the Belle Sauvage (or Bell Savage). Sir Walter Scott named “the famous Bell-Savage” (2) in Kenilworth in Chapter 13, the inn where Wyland and Tressilian stayed. Kenilworth was first published January 28, 1821 and is set in 1575. Another literary reference was established when Charles Dickens alluded to the Belle Sauvage in The Pickwick Papers. The novel is set in the years1827-1831 and was originally published in installments between March 1836-November 1837. It features a character named Tony Weller (father of Sam Weller) who was a coachman whose coach arrived in and departed from London at La Belle Sauvage. It was also linked with the magazine Punch (founded in 1841). The men who produced the magazine met weekly over dinner to discuss and debate various subjects, and the Belle Sauvage was supposedly the site of such a dinner, possibly the first (I was unable to find an exact date).

Trains had been on the horizon since the late 18th century and steam engines a subject of study and experimentation in the early 19th century. Development continued, and in 1830, the Liverpool to Manchester route opened. The 1840’s saw a huge growth in the railroad systems (by 1844, over 2000 miles of line had been established) and, as the routes expanded, the need for coaching service diminished. Railroad travel was faster and provided more efficient service for the mail. As the coaching routes were no longer needed, coaching inns no longer drew customers. The railroad era finally put an end to La Belle Sauvage and, in 1873, it was torn down to allow for construction of a railway viaduct.

(1) The Epicure's Almanack: Eating and Drinking in Regency London, ed. Janet Ing Freeman, pp. 77-78.

(2) Scott, Sir Walter. Kenilworth. P. 171.

Sources include:

Feltham, John. The Picture of London, For 1803: Being A Correct Guide to All the Curiosities, Amusements, Exhibitions, Public Establishments, and remarkable Objects, in and Near London. 1802: R. Phillips, London). A Nabu Public Domain Reprint.

Rylance, Ralph. The Epicure's Almanack: Eating and Drinking in Regency London The Original 1815 Guidebook, edited by Janet Ing Freeman. 2013: British Library, London.

Scott, Sir Walter. Kenilworth. A. L. Burt Co, New York. (Publishing date is not shown; appears to have been published about 1926)
Elizabethan Era. “Bell Savage Inn” by L. K. Alchin. HERE “Pocahontas and her London Street Name Connection,” Elizabeth Steynor, 1/13/2017, HERE; “La Belle Sauvage Yard, Pocahontas and a dancing horse,” Elizabeth Steynor, 5/18/2015 HERE; “London’s Coffee Connections,” Elizabeth Steynor, 9/29/2014 HERE “Proprietors of Punch Magazine” Jane E. Chadwick, September 26, 2016 HERE.

British Heritage Online. “Travel Through Time at England’s Coaching Inns” by Sean McLachlan, July 1, 2009. HERE

British History Online. Walter Thornbury, 'Ludgate Hill', in Old and New London: Volume 1 (London, 1878), pp. 220-233 HERE.

English Historical Fiction Authors. “Coaching Inns in Early 19th Century England” by Julie Klassen, December 12, 2016. HERE; “Lloyds--Lifeblood of British Commerce and Starbucks of Its Day” by Linda Collison, July 30, 2012. HERE

Google Books. 1607: Jamestown and The New World. Compiled by Dennis Montgomery. 2007: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, Williamsburg, VA, in association with Rowman & Littlefield, New York. P. 140. HERE; Holland, J. G. Scribner's Monthly, An Illustrated Magazine for the People. Vol. XXII. (May, 1881 to Oct. 1881, inclusive). "In and Out of London with Dickens." P. 39. 1881: The Century Company, New York HERE; Spielman, Marion Harry. The History of Punch 1895: Cassell and Company, Ltd., London. HERE

London Online. “La Belle Sauvage.” (No author or post date shown.) HERE

The Word Wenches. “Travelling the Roads of Regency England with Louise Allen!” March 4, 2015. HERE

Parliament.UK. “Railways in Early 19th Century Britain.” (No author or post date shown.) HERE

Wicked William. “Principal Departures for London Coaches (1819)” by Greg Roberts, April 28, 2016 HERE

Pictures: Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain) HERE and HERE.

Lauren Gilbert, author of Heyerwood, A Novel, lives in Florida with her husband. She is a long-time member of JASNA, and is also a member of the Florida Writer's Association. Her next novel, A Rational Attachment, is due out soon. Visit her website for more information HERE.

Friday, February 24, 2017

Of gambolling lambs and woolly economics

by Anna Belfrage

This post is about sheep. Well, if we’re going to be correct, it is about wool, not sheep, but seeing as no sheep equals no wool, that per definition means you cannot talk about one without mentioning the other.

Sheep have a reputation for being incredibly stupid. Not that I can boast of any in-depth relationship with a sheep, but what interaction I’ve had indicates that they couldn’t care less about us humans, they’re more into grazing and staring unstintingly at us if we get too close. Somewhat uncomfortable, that eye-balling of theirs. Had they been carnivores, I’d have suspected they’re selecting just where to bite me. Fortunately, sheep rarely bite. They can, however, butt—hard.

Sheep are one of those animals that were domesticated very early on. Originally, as meals-on-hooves, but overtime as a source of wool, our forebears having discovered that wool is quite the thing if you want clothing that retains warmth even if it is damp. I imagine those nomads from whom we all descend quite often found themselves at the mercy of the weather, ergo damp clothes were probably a recurring event in their lives.

Wild sheep tend to be brownish. Domesticated sheep quickly went white, seeing as it is far easier to dye white wool brown than brown wool white. It was something of a lucky coincidence that white is a dominant trait – at least for our forebears who were doing their first forays into genetic modifications – and so sheep are mostly depicted as being white. Except for the black sheep, that is. This perennial scapegoat sticks out like a sore thumb among its conformist brethren.

Anyway: man ambled along with his sheep, his goats. At some point, man domesticated cows and pigs, and pigs aren’t that much for ambling. Besides, man had discovered how to sow crops, and wheat does not go walk-about, which is why man eschewed the nomadic existence to instead become a farmer. Well, not all men. Some preferred to hunt and trade their meat for whatever the farmer produced.

Over time, man began amassing wealth. Lots of land was wealth. Lots of sheep, cows, goats were wealth. Lots of wives…yes, also a sign of wealth, but hopefully that ancient male distinguished between his sheep and his women. And I guess most men weren’t rich enough to have more than one wife, which probably upped the potential for domestic bliss. Women are somewhat possessive when it comes to their men.

British Library, MS 42130
Civilisation picked up speed, and we’re going to take a couple of giant leaps here, thereby ending up in medieval England. At the time, sheep were everywhere, one could say. Sheep were the mainstay of English wealth, the English sheep having quite the reputation for their high quality wool.

Monasteries financed their human flock by keeping huge flocks of sheep, the lord of the manor did the same, the income generated by the wool adding that little extra to a life mostly dominated by a lot of pea-soup and porridge. Wool was used to pay the ransom for Richard Lionheart (50,000 sacks of high-quality wool were put forward to contribute. To put into perspective, approximately 40,000 sacks of wool were exported during the peak years of the wool trade in the 14th century).

Despite having its own fledgling weaving industry, England was essentially a raw material producer. English sheep were sheared, the fleeces were washed, skirted, picked and bundled and transported abroad where others carded and spun after which the wool thread was woven into high quality cloth by Flemish or Italian weavers. Eventually, some of all this high quality stuff found its way back to England where it was bought by the well-to-do. As a result, Flemish and Italian cloth merchants grew very fat and happy.

However: no wool, no cloth, no income—not even for our Flemish and Italian textile workers. Obviously, there was more than English wool around – specifically a lot of Spanish wool. Spain was the leading supplier of high quality wool, even more so since they cross-bred English sheep with their own native breeds in the 12th and 13th century, thereby creating that jewel among sheep, the Merino. Merino wool was of superior quality to anything else on the woolly planet, and prior to the 18th century attempting to smuggle a Merino out of Spain was punishable by death. Before Spain “discovered” all that gold in the New World, their primary source of wealth, just as for England, were their sheep.

British Library, MS 42130

So imagine you were the purchaser for a Tuscan mill. Off you went to scour the various markets for high quality fleece, and in this case you decided to skip the expensive Spanish stuff and look for a bargain elsewhere. England was full of sheep – and other eager merchants swooping down to buy up what they could. Chances were you might end up with no wool unless you got there early or offered a premium price. Alternatively, a new approach was needed to ensure constant supply.

The Italians, being a savvy people with an innate aptitude for trade, had already in the early 13th century developed some sort of rudimentary financial market. Initially, it was more a question of advancing money to a farmer with the future crop as collateral, but soon enough these agrarian “futures” spread to other things. Like wool. That monastery out in the wilds really, really needed a new church, but at the rate of their annual income it would take them twenty years to finance it. Enter the creative wool-buyer:

“I tell you what: I’ll advance you the amount you need, and instead you sell me your wool for the coming twenty years at a fixed price.”
“What, all my wool?” the abbot said, and then they’d haggle for a while, before agreeing on fixed quantities and fixed prices.

As a financial professional, I must admit to being quite fascinated by these early “futures” – goes to show that trade in medieval times was far more innovative than we generally give it credit for. The transactions were documented – several hundreds of these contracts survive, detailing the seller, the buyer, the price and delivery schedules. In some instances these contracts were sold on, but in general the purpose was not to speculate on the price in wool, but rather to safeguard its supply.

Biblioteque National de France
Now the English kings were fully aware of how important the wool trade was for their economy. At times, desperate times required desperate measures, which was why in the 1290s Edward I confiscated all wool from foreign merchants in England. He then sold it again and lined his coffers with the money required to continue his bellicose efforts. The foreign merchants were less than pleased, but seeing as they really, really needed wool, they were back next year anyway. Wool bound for export was also taxed. Such wool had to be traded through the “Staple”, where the king’s tax collectors could easily collect the levied taxes.

By the early 14th century, the English were more than aware of the fact that they were exporting wool at, let’s say, a price of 100, and importing the finished fabrics at 200. Someone else was pocketing the difference, and this was not good. Not at all. Which was why, in 1331, Edward III invited several Flemish master weavers to come and settle in England, thereby taking a giant leap forward when it came to domestic textile production.

To further strengthen the English position, in 1337 Edward III attempted to create a wool monopoly, the Wool Company, its buyers purchasing all English wool and selling it on as it benefited the crown. Not only did Edward “borrow” the income generated by all this wool to finance his armies, he also took the opportunity of starving the Low Country textile mills of wool and diverting the precious fleeces to his own weavers, thereby causing substantial unrest and poverty among the former textile workers in Flanders. This was not only done to develop the English textile industry. It was also Edward’s way of punishing the Flemish rulers for their support of the French King in what was soon to escalate to the Hundred Years’ War.

Ultimately, the Wool Company was not successful, but England’s wool export continued to thrive, and throughout the 14th century wool remained the single most important source of wealth for England, which is why Edward III had his Lord Chancellor sit on a bale of wool, the “Woolsack”, a constant reminder to all those present that without those critters that went ba-ba, England would plunge into obscurity and poverty.

In the 16th century, the English weavers were further strengthened by large numbers of Huguenot craftsmen fleeing the persecution of Protestants in France. By then, England was already recognised as one of the larger producers of “undressed” woollen cloth, but with the influx of the French weavers, the English milling industry became even more efficient – and started moving from “undressed” cloth (which essentially means the fabric was still in its raw form, more or less as it was lifted from the loom, i.e. it had not undergone any fulling or been dyed) to fully finished fabrics, ready to be made into clothing or other articles. Yet again, this meant a larger proportion of the added value remained in English hands rather than ending up with the middlemen. By the end of the 17th century, close to two-thirds of English export (in value) came from textiles. Raw wool no longer figured among the exports, instead England was importing wool—primarily from Spain—to complement its own, homegrown variety.

The textile industry—and the required wool—remained a fundamental part of the English economy for the centuries to come. When the Industrial Revolution swept through England, one of the first industries to be modernised were the textile mills, with all those Spinning Jennies (and subsequent Spinning Mules) granting England a huge cost advantage over other cloth producers. By then, of course, England had come a long, long way from that medieval shepherd, watching over his flocks while assessing just how much money he’d get from his fleeces this year. A long, long way, and yet to this day the versatile and renewable woollen fibre still depends on gambolling lambs and eye-balling sheep.

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, and the third, Under the Approaching Dark, will be out in April 2017.

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!

Thursday, February 23, 2017

A Tale of Two Iscas

by Alison Morton

Whenever I visit a town I’m drawn to the museum, especially (and sometimes exclusively) to see if there is any Roman stuff. This is what a ‘Roman nut’ usually does. Woe betide anybody coming in between me and tesserae, Samian ware or a nice bit of Roman concrete. Last year in Exeter was a special treat because it was the second of the twin Iscas, the other one I’d never seen.

The Romans established a large castrum (fortified camp) named Isca around AD 55 at the southwest end of the Fosse Way as the base for the 5,000-man Legio II Augusta (Second Augustan Legion) originally led by Vespasian, later Roman emperor. Twenty years later they moved to Caerleon in Wales, which was also confusingly known as Isca. To distinguish the two, the Romans referred to Exeter as Isca Dumnoniorum after the name of the local tribe and Caerleon as Isca Augusta.

I’d visited Caerleon decades ago as a student when I’d been working on the archaeological dig at Usk, and more recently when I was at a writing conference. But I’d never visited its twin, Exeter.

Exeter – Isca Dumnoniorum
The name is a Latinisation of a Brythonic name describing flowing water (Uisc), in reference to the River Exe. Like many early settlements Exeter began as a place of  dry land by a navigable river; in Exeter’s case on a ridge ending in a spur overlooking the Exe. The bonuses were a fertile hinterland, a river full of fish and access to a large protected estuary and the open sea. Although there have been no major prehistoric finds, these advantages suggest the site was occupied early. Coins have been discovered from Hellenistic kingdoms, suggesting the existence of a settlement trading with the Mediterranean as early as 250 BC.

Isca Dumnoniorum Castrum

In mid first century Exeter, a civilian community (vicus or canabae) inhabited by local tribespeople and soldiers' ‘unofficial’ families, grew round the Roman camp, mostly to the northeast.

When Legio II Augusta left around AD 75 to go north to fight tribes in Wales, the camp grounds were converted for civilian purposes; its very large legionary bathhouse was demolished to make way for a forum, basilica and a smaller-scale bathhouse.

In the late 2nd century AD, the ditch and rampart defences around the old fortress were replaced by a bank and wall enclosing a much larger area, around 92 acres. The course of the Roman wall was used for Exeter's subsequent city walls; the stones are a mixture of Roman and medieval. About 70% of this wall remains, and most of its route can be traced on foot.

The settlement served as the tribal capital (civitas) of the Dumnonii and Isca Dumnoniorum seems to have been most prosperous in the first half of the 4th century: more than a thousand Roman coins have been found around the city and there is evidence for copper and bronze working, a stock-yard, and markets for the livestock, crops, and pottery produced in the surrounding area.

Trade with the Mediterranean continued bringing luxuries like wine and fine pottery. In the 3rd century AD new stone wall and gatehouses were built. Rich people lived in townhouses with costly mosaic floors; other areas of housing fell into disuse or were converted into farmyards.

Display of pottery and glassware, Exeter Museum

In the museum, the Roman military presence is testified by hooks from legionary helmets, knives, armour hinges, armour tie hooks, armour buckles and hinged fittings, belt buckles, legionary apron fittings, strap ends, tent pegs, and horse harness fittings. These are all small things of life then, but precious to us now for the story they tell. But beside those, the cases display a rich variety of military and civilian basins, strigils, pots, jars, cooking implements, even glassware. And of course, tiles, mosaics, plaster and stone remnants alongside domestic rings, brooches, weaving weights, board games, keys and styli. And, of course, silver coins. As in any other part of the Roman Empire, the pickings show a rich diversity and sheer numbers of objects that even humble people possessed.

Display of military clips, ties and buckles, Exeter museum

In 410 AD the last Roman soldiers left Britain to defend Rome against attacks by hostile tribes. By then Isca’s suburbs were being abandoned; there are few remains from this time. Dates of coins discovered so far suggest a rapid decline: virtually none have been discovered with dates after AD 380. By around 500, the basilica had fallen down and Isca Dumnoniorum’s busy urban life was over.

Circling back to AD 75, when the Legio II Augusta soldiers strapped on their marching boots and filed out of the castrum gate, I wonder what the effect was on the Devonian Isca. The heavy military presence was lifted; the drinking, rowdiness, the casual brutality, the gambling, testosterone, the whoring and the unwanted pregnancies.  Many unofficial wives upped sticks and with their children followed the soldiers to their new home.  However, the economic effect must have been significant for the the innkeepers, brothels, tailors, weavers, leather and knife suppliers, laundries and local food suppliers and grain merchants.

Caerleon – Isca Augusta (Isca Silurum)
The Brythonic name Isca referred to the River Usk  which literally means ‘river of flowing water’ (tautology alert!). The suffix Augusta, an honorific title taken from the legion stationed there for 200 years, appears in the Ravenna Cosmography, a list of place-names covering the world from India to Ireland compiled by an anonymous cleric in Ravenna around ad 700. It’s also referred to as Isca Silurum to differentiate it from Isca Dumnoniorum and because it lay in the territory of the Silures tribe. However, there is no evidence that this form was used during the Roman period. Caerleon, the name we know today, is derived from the Welsh for "fortress of the legion".

Isca Augusta was founded by Governor Sextus Julius Frontinus during the final campaigns against the native tribes of western Britain, notably the Silures in South Wales who had resisted the Romans’ advance for over a generation.
It became the headquarters of the Legio II Augusta, a large fortress base on the typical rectangular castrum pattern and built initially with an earth bank and timber palisade. It remained their headquarters until at least 300 AD.

The camp interior was fitted out with the usual array of military buildings: a headquarters building, legate's residence, tribunes' houses, hospital, large bath house, workshops, barrack blocks, granaries and, unusually, a large amphitheatre.

The excavated amphitheatre

Britannia was one of the most heavily militarised provinces due to its frontier status and hostile neighbours. Isca Augusta is uniquely important for the study of the conquest, pacification and colonisation of the island. It was one of only three permanent legionary fortresses in later Roman Britain and, unlike the other sites at Chester and York, its archaeological remains are relatively undisturbed beneath fields and the town of Caerleon.

Excavations continue and one of the most exciting discoveries is a complex of very large monumental buildings outside the fortress between the River Usk and the amphitheatre. This new area of the canabae (settlement of traders, families and discharged soldiers) was previously completely unknown.

And in August 2011 it was announced that remains of a Roman harbour had been discovered in Caerleon.  I have a little secret about that. Walking by the fortress wall in the fine rain a month before, loving and absorbing everything, I bumped into a fellow walker. We chatted and he obviously caught on that I was a ‘Roman nut’.  He told me he was a member of the University of Cardiff faculty involved in digging the site. Poor man! I bombarded him with questions.

Mosaic and pottery finds, Roman National Legion Museum

But as he was speaking to another enthusiast, he told me they were developing excavations as there had been indications there was much more to find. There always is, of course, but his was a humdinger. He revealed that remains of a Roman harbour had been found in a meadow by the river.. All very hush-hush, so please not to speak about it. I almost jumped up and down, but did manage to keep my dignity. You can look through the gallery of pictures for more images of what Roman Caerleon might have looked like.

Most of the sites I have been to are ruins, but there is memory in those stones. Touching walls, walking on mosaics, breathing the air of the place and sometimes seeing the same view they saw.

Prysg Field Barracks

The walls of Prysg Field Barracks at Caerleon, the only Roman legionary barracks visible in Europe are gone, but the foundations are still there showing their outline.  The amphitheatre – the largest ever uncovered in Britain and once romantically (and mistakenly) said to have been the site of Arthur’s Round Table of Camelot – is grassed over. The timber grandstand which would have seated some 6,000 shouting, cursing and cheering legionaries and townspeople is no more.  These and the legionaries’ swimming pool, the make you wonder who the people were who trod the same pathways, swam in the pool, placed bets, got drunk, made assignations. The light grey sky, the misty rain, the waves and slopes of the landscapes, your hand touching the stone and concrete in a place where so many people had lived and worked two thousand years ago give you something that no book or picture or film can give you.

Bidwell, Paul T. (1980). Roman Exeter: Fortress and Town. Exeter City Council.
Hoskins, W. G. (2004). Two Thousand Years in Exeter (Revised and updated ed.)
National Roman Legion Museum, Caerleon
University of Cardiff, Dr Peter Guest [Accessed 20/2/2017]

For more on Caerleon discoveries see [Accessed 20/2/2017]

[Photographs - author’s own, one time use allowed for this article]


Alison Morton has misspent decades clambering over Roman sites throughout Europe. She holds a MA History, blogs about Romans and writing. Now she writes, cultivates a Roman herb garden and drinks wine in France with her husband of 30 years.

She writes the Roma Nova thriller series featuring modern Praetorian heroines. She blends her deep love of Roman history with six years’ military service and a life of reading crime, adventure and thriller fiction.

All five books have been awarded the BRAG Medallion. SUCCESSIO, AURELIA and INSURRECTIO were selected as Historical Novel Society’s Indie Editor’s Choices.  AURELIA was a finalist in the 2016 HNS Indie Award. The sixth, RETALIO, is due out in April 2017.

Buying links:

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Cyneburg: A Child of Wodan Who Became a Saint

By Kim Rendfeld

When she was growing up, Cyneburg might have believed she was a descendant of the god Wodan and expected to marry to strengthen her family’s political alliances. So how did this 7th-century Mercian princess feel when she learned she would wed the son of her father’s enemy and abandon her gods?

The marriage was before 653, which puts Cyneburg’s birth year around 640 or before. We don’t know what her childhood household was like, but judging by Cyneburg’s and her sisters’ names, Queen Cynewise must have had some influence. Cyneburg grew up with her father, King Penda, constantly at war with Northumbria, the union of Deira and Bernicia.

Although the kings of Mercia and Northumbria practiced different religions, the disparate faiths didn’t cause the conflict. Penda likely used his lineage to Wodan as his claim to power, but he was remarkably tolerant. Both Christians and pagans believed deities determined victory in war or success of the harvest – and they wreaked havoc if displeased. Yet Penda did not bother Christian missionaries on his lands. His reasons might have been political; it would be easier to make alliances with Christian rulers against a common foe if he didn’t persecute their holy men.

At the battle of Maserfield in 642, Penda killed Northumbrian King Oswald, then ritually dismembered his foe and displayed his head and arms as trophies. To the Mercians, Penda got rid of an oppressor. In Northumbrian eyes, Oswald was a martyr. (A year later, Oswald’s brother and successor, Oswy, retrieved the remains, which became relics.)

Penda’s attacks on Bernica went on years. It’s easy to imagine Cyneburg seeing Oswy, his children, and his people as oppressors and loathing them.

We don’t know which father suggested two marriages between their children. Cyneburg would marry Oswy’s heir, Alchfrith, and her eldest brother, Peada, would marry Oswy’s daughter. A condition for the marriages was that Cyneburg and Peada accept baptism.

Saint Chad, with Peada and Wulfhere at Lichfield Cathedral
(by Sjwells53, CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL,
via Wikimedia Commons)
We can assume the royal families were trying to make peace. The heaviest burden fell on the daughters: both fathers and husbands expected the women to use their connections to help the men get their way. If the wife gave birth to a healthy son, her position would be that much stronger.
History doesn’t record what Penda and Cyneburg discussed when she was betrothed. Did Cyneburg have doubts about leaving her old gods behind? About her husband? About whether the marriage would stop the wars?

The hoped-for peace was not to be.

In the 655, Oswy killed Penda in the battle of Winwæd and took over Mercia, but he allowed Peada to ascend to the throne. That is, until Peada’s untimely death a year later because of his wife’s betrayal.

Was Cyneburg heartbroken as her father, then her brother, died at the hands of her in-laws? Her husband was not innocent. He had fought alongside his father and was rewarded by being crowned subking of Deira.

The sources conflict on what happens next. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle says Wulfhere, also a convert to Christianity, succeeded his brother and worked with Oswy to donate land to the monastery at Medeshamstead (later Peterborough), which Oswy and Peada had started. Wulfhere did this with the counsel of Cyneburg and sister Cyneswith.

From Encyclopædia Britannica, 1911
(public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Bede tells a different story: Wulfhere was a youth and hid from Oswy. Then with support from noblemen, he wrested Mercia back from Oswy in 658, and Oswy accepted that loss.

Despite this turmoil, Cyneburg appears to be a faithful wife. She and her husband might have had six children (this fact depends on which source you believe). She also seems to have embraced her adopted faith. Like Cyneburg, four of their children were later revered as saints.

Cyneburg and her husband were responsible for building monasteries at Ripon and Stamford. Ripon got off to a rough start. The monks renounced the gift when they learned they had to give up the Celtic practice of Christianity and follow the Roman rule as Alchfrith wanted. The land was then entrusted to Wilfred, a cleric who followed Roman tradition.

The clash over Celtic vs. Roman rule would extend to Alchfrith and his own father in the 660s. Cyneburg was with her husband the 664 Synod of Whitby, where Oswy relented and agreed to the Roman rule. But father and son didn’t stop fighting. This time, they disagreed over who should be bishop. Alchfrith rebelled. And then disappeared.

We don’t know how the widowed Cyneburg reacted. Did she regret, or question, why she had become part of a family that fought each other? In Mercia, her enemies were not close relatives. Did she grieve for her husband? Did she despise Oswy? Or did she accept the tragedy as God’s will?

Her children probably stayed in Oswy’s court, but Cyneburg left. Was that departure yet another loss on top of so many?

She turned to Wulfhere and must have still been important in her homeland. Joined by her sister, Cyneburg became the abbess of Castor (originally Cyneburgecaestre). It was common for widowed queens to retire to abbeys. In her case, the nunnery might have been a refuge, and for Wulfhere, the move ensured that the land was in the hands of an ally.

Castor (By John Salmon, CC BY-SA 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)
Perhaps, Cyneburg wielded more power at Castor than in Northumbria. Although she was officially under the authority of a bishop, difficult travel and lack of instant communication meant she controlled the convent’s land and made decisions over the nuns she ruled. This was also a time when Christian kings wanted monks and nuns to pray for them. The act would please God, who would then allow pious kings win battles and stay healthy.

She embraced the religious life, showing compassion to the poor and zealously instructing the women in her care. She tried to influence her brothers – Wulfhere and his successor, Æthelred – to give alms and show mercy.

After her death around 680, her reputation for virtue lived on. The Bewcastle Cross, a stone monument created in the late 7th or early 8th century, has an inscription with her and Alchfrith’s name in rune. In the 10th century, she and two kinswomen were translated to Peterborough—a tribute to her fidelity to Christ.


The Lives of the Saints by Rev. Alban Butler

“Cyneburg,” New Catholic Encyclopedia

Woman Under Monasticism: Chapters on Saint-lore and Convent Life Between A.D. 500 and A.D. 1500 by Lina Eckenstein

"Cyneburg of Mercia (fl. 655)." Dictionary of Women Worldwide: 25,000 Women Through the Ages, edited by Anne Commire and Deborah Klezmer, Gale Virtual Reference Library

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, translated by E.E.C. Gomme

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
‘Penda (d. 655)’ by S.E. Kelly
‘Alchfrith (fl. c.655–c.665)’ by Rosemary Cramp
‘Wulfhere (d. 675)’ by S.E. Kelly
‘Osric (d. 729)’ by D.J. Craig


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.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

The Unpopular Tudor

by Samantha Wilcoxson

On February 18, 1516, the Tudor court celebrated the birth of Princess Mary. After struggling to give her husband an heir, Katherine of Aragon was thrilled with the healthy baby regardless of her gender. King Henry VIII was pleased to have evidence of their ability to procreate, even if he would never grow comfortable with the idea of this little girl as a future queen. While Mary is at best ignored and at worst villainized in modern discussions of the Tudor era, she was looked upon more favorably during her own lifetime.

Mary's early childhood was charmed. She was beloved by both parents and praised by those visiting her father's court for her beauty and precociousness. Henry may not have wished for Mary to inherit his kingdom, but he understood her value as a potential wife. He was proud of his daughter and ensured that she received an exceptional education.

Henry VIII's Great Matter and Queen Katherine's fall from favor is often offered as a reason for Mary's actions during her reign. However, this reasoning fails to demonstrate a comprehensive understanding of Mary Tudor. Rather than vengeance, she was motivated by her belief that it was her duty to shepherd her people in the faith.

Queen Mary I has become known as Bloody Mary, and one cannot deny that almost 300 Protestants were burned for heresy during her reign. But there is so much more to this devout woman who endured much hardship and heartbreak during her brief life. She is remembered much less positively than her sister, Elizabeth I, who also executed and imprisoned people over disagreements on faith. Others suffered simply because they had not pleased Elizabeth. Their father ruled in much the same way. Why then has Mary become the unpopular Tudor?

Mary may have struggled to have her father recognize her as legitimate once he had set aside her mother, but her more serious issues began on the accession of her brother, Edward VI. Henry's Church of England had, by and large, been Catholicism with Henry at its head rather than the Pope. Those who advised the young Edward had something rather different in mind. Mary held as steadfastly to her faith as one might expect of the daughter of Katherine of Aragon, causing some to call for her arrest. The most bold encouraged Edward to have her executed, whether for treason or heresy made little difference.

Edward VI's Devise for the Succession
The young King Edward refused to go that far. As his once close relationship with his eldest sister disintegrated, he badgered her about the mass being held on her estates and imprisoned some members of her household, but he would not take legal action against Mary herself. The most significant step he took against her was his Devise for the Succession, written when he suspected that he was dying.

Edward had never taken the step of legitimizing either of his half-sisters. Therefore, Mary and Elizabeth were still legally bastards throughout his reign, though still his heirs based upon the Act of Succession made law by their father's Parliament. Had Edward lived longer, he likely would have had this rescinded with the succession altered to fit his own desires, but when he died in July 1553 only his will had been updated.

Bypassing both sisters and his cousin, Frances Grey, who were the next three in line according to the Act of Succession, Edward attempted to leave his crown to Lady Jane Grey, Frances' daughter. Neither Edward nor his council foresaw the popular support that went to Mary instead. There was little love for Queen Jane, for few knew her. However, many remembered the widely celebrated Princess Mary and saw her as the true heir of her father and brother.

Mary quickly and effectively took the throne with little resistance. Once John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland, left London to lead Queen Jane's forces, support fell away as if a dam had collapsed. The people would have Mary as their queen, and many of the older generation among them also welcomed the return to traditional faith and worship. The immediate concern upon Mary's accession was not her religion but her marriage plans.

Many betrothals had been proposed over the years, but Mary remained single at age 37. As queen, the bearing of an heir was paramount, but everyone remembered her mother's sad childbearing history. Mary needed to be married quickly but to the proper spouse. In a country that had never before been ruled by a woman, Mary's choice of husband was a scary prospect. Any English subject she chose to marry raised his family up astronomically, but marriage to a foreign prince could be even worse.

Despite much encouragement for her to accept the suit of Edward Courtenay and the York blood flowing through his veins, Mary chose a cousin from her mother's side of the family, Philip of Spain. Philip's father, Charles V, had long been a great supporter of Mary and her mother, and Mary trusted him more than almost any other. When he offered his son, she quickly accepted, but the rest of the country feared that England would become part of the Holy Roman Empire of which Charles was king.

This outcry against Philip became fused with the younger generation's reluctance to accept the old faith. Had Mary better understood her subjects, she may have made a different decision, for she was as dedicated to serving her country as her sister would later be credited for. Her misjudgment was severe, causing Protestant uprisings against Philip and all he stood for.

It was in the name of ensuring her people's salvation and rescuing them from heresy that Mary reinstituted burnings in 1555. In the 16th century, salvation was not a private issue as it is today. Monarchs saw it as their duty to care for their subjects on this earth and to provide them with worship that gave them the hope of heaven. All across Europe, leaders were struggling with what this meant in the face of the Reformation. Mary was determined that reformist heresy would not damn her people to hell, and her hope was that, by punishing a few, she would save the masses.

Burning as a punishment is horrific to the modern mind. To the 16th century mind, it was a foretaste of the fires of hell that encouraged the sufferer to repent and therefore be saved from the eternal fires. Those punished might be saved at the last minute, and those who witnessed would be forced to reconsider their beliefs. Mary believed that she was doing her duty to her people and her God in her attempts to end heresy.

Her contemporaries, by and large, agreed with her. Some became enraged when local authorities in charge of fulfilling Mary's commands used their power to punish rivals rather than heretics, but Mary's actions were widely accepted. Were it not for the biased writing of John Foxe and efforts of her own sister after Mary's death, the Marian burnings would scarcely be a notable historic event. In truth, fewer were executed by Mary than her fellow Tudor monarchs.

The rejection of Catholicism in England has become connected with the negative view of Queen Mary, so that, even today, people remember her more as Bloody Mary than the first Queen Regnant of England. The lack of sympathy with which she is viewed and misunderstandings of her abound, but Elizabeth significantly benefited from her sister's example.

Lesser known than the persecution of heretics and false pregnancies of Mary's reign are her acts of mercy and ability to inspire loyalty of her people. During Wyatt's Rebellion in 1554, an uprising determined to stop Mary's marriage to Philip, Mary refused to leave London and gave a rousing speech to the people of the city, encouraging them to stand by her and oppose the rebels. They did.

In her speech, Mary used words that would later be employed by her sister.
What I am loving subjects, ye know your Queen, to whom, at my coronation, ye promised allegiance and obedience, I was then wedded to the realm, and to the laws of the same, the spousal ring whereof I wear here on my finger, and it never has and never shall be left off.
I cannot tell how naturally a mother loveth her children, for I never had any, but if the subjects may be loved as a mother doth her child, then assure yourselves that I, your sovereign lady and your Queen, do earnestly love and favour you. I cannot but think you love me in return; and thus, bound in concord, we shall be able, I doubt not, to give these rebels a speedy overthrow.
I am neither so desirous of wedding, nor so precisely wedded to my will, that I needs must have a husband. Hitherto I have lived a virgin, and I doubt not, with God's grace, to live still. But if, as my ancestors have done, it might please God that I should leave you a successor to be your governor, I trust you would rejoice thereat; also, I know it would be to your comfort.

The rebellion failed, but Mary found herself tested. She had thus far shown mercy to Lady Jane, despite the usurpation, but her father had been involved in the rebellion. The Duke of Suffolk was beyond saving, but Mary did not concede to sign Jane's death warrant until she was convinced that Philip would not come until known traitors were dealt with. In a eerie replay of Edward of Warwick's execution to clear the way for Mary's mother, Jane went to her death to please the Spanish. To soothe her conscience and demonstrate mercy where she could, Mary forgave 400 rebels who had been sentenced to hanging.

While this one act of mercy saved more men than all those who had died for heresy, it is not acts such as this that Mary is remembered for. Neither is she given credit for demonstrating to her younger sister that a woman could indeed rule. Elizabeth learned from Mary's mistakes and made many of her own, leading to the end of the Tudor dynasty. She ensured her own reputation as Gloriana, in part by blackening the name of the sister who preceded her. Mary may be the unpopular Tudor, but her story is one that inspired her sister to greater glory and might deserve to be more sympathetically remembered today.

Additional Reading
Catholic England under Mary Tudor by Eamon Duffy
Mary Tudor: Princess, Bastard, Queen by Anna Whitelock
The First Queen of England by Linda Porter
Edward VI: The Lost King of England by Chris Skidmore

All images in the public domain through Wikimedia Commons

Samantha Wilcoxson is the author of the Plantagenet Embers Trilogy. A incurable bibliophile and sufferer of wanderlust, she lives in Michigan with her husband and three teenagers. You can connect with Samantha on her blog or on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Prehistoric Orkney: The People of the Stones

By Mark Patton

In an earlier blog-post, I examined the evidence for the earliest human settlement of the Orkney Islands, between 4000 and 3700 BC. Using stone axes (since they had no knowledge of metals), these Neolithic settlers rapidly cleared the islands of whatever tree-cover they may once have had, in order to create fields in which they might grow barley and oats, and graze their cattle and sheep. The islands have been almost entirely devoid of woodland ever since, the strong westerly winds, laden with salt, being hostile to any potential regeneration. Across much of prehistoric Europe, wood was an important building material, but on these northerly islands, stone took its place: the sandstone of the Orkneys fractures into flat-faced rectangular blocks, giving these buildings, among the most ancient in the world, a surprisingly modern appearance.

The settlement of Barnhouse, dating to around 3400 BC, is significantly larger than the earlier one at the Knap of Howar, with fifteen houses. Its inhabitants seem to have fished, as well as growing cereal crops, and keeping cattle, sheep and pigs. The finds from the village include several elaborately carved stone balls: quite what significance these had is unclear, but similar artefacts have been found across the Scottish mainland, as well as in Ireland and northern England, showing that the island populations were by no means cut off from what was happening elsewhere.

One of the Neolithic houses at Barnhouse. Photo: Martin McCarthy (licensed under GNU).
Neolithic carved stone balls, Kelvingrove Art Gallery & Museum, Glasgow Photo: Johnbod (licensed under CCA).

The people who lived at Barnhouse (and doubtless at many similar settlements which either have not survived the ravages of time, or have yet to be discovered) buried their dead in stone-built tombs. A visitor to Orkney will encounter many of these, but I will focus on just two, both of which are located on the small island of Rousay (one of the less-developed islands in modern times, on which more of the prehistoric sites have consequently been preserved).

The tomb of Midhowe is what is termed a "stalled cairn:" an elongated stone chamber, divided into "stalls" by stone slabs, with most stalls containing human remains, in some cases complete skeletons, in other cases disarticulated bones. The remains of at least twenty-five people were found at Midhowe, together with bones of cattle, sheep, and seabirds. "Stalled cairns" are distinctively Scottish, but not uniquely Orcadian (there are many examples across Caithness), although the island tombs are, in some cases, larger and more elaborate than those on the mainland.

The Midhowe chambered cairn. Photo: Lawrence Jones (licensed under CCA).
Plan of the Midhowe chambered cairn, showing the position of burial deposits. Image: Fantoman400 (licensed under CCA).

The tomb of Taversoe Tuick, by contrast, is a "passage grave," or "passage tomb," with a narrow stone passage leading to a larger chamber, covered by a mound. In architectural terms, it represents a variation on a theme more widely distributed along the Atlantic coast of Europe, with examples found in Iberia; western France; the Channel Islands; Wales; Ireland; the Hebrides; Denmark; and Sweden. Taversoe Tuick is unusual, perhaps unique, as a "double-decker" passage grave, with two tombs, one on top of the other, and entered from opposite sides of the mound.

The chambered cairn of Taversoe Tuick. Photo: Colin Smith (licensed under CCA). The entrance shown leads into the lower tomb. 
The passage of the lower tomb at Taversoe Tuick (Photo: Stephen McKay (licensed under CCA). 
The junction between the upper and lower tombs at Taversoe Tuick. Photo: Stephen McKay (licensed under CCA).
Plan of the chambered cairn of Taversoe Tuick. Image: 
Neolithic pottery ("Unstan Ware") from Taversoe Tuick. Image: Fantoman400 (licensed under CCA).

Both "stalled cairns" and "passage graves" have been seen as "territorial markers" ("this land is our land, because it was cleared and cultivated by our ancestors, whose bones stand as witness to the fact"), and both are constructed in such a way as to facilitate ongoing "communication" between the living and the dead. This may reflect a belief system in which death was seen, not as a journey from one world to another, but rather as a changed state of being ("the dead remain among us, but, as ancestors, they differ from elders, just as elders differ from adults, and adults differ from children"). This "communication," however, seems to have been a largely private affair, the narrow entrances of the passages, and the small size of the chambers, limiting the number of people who could participate in whatever rituals were conducted within.

Some archaeologists, notably Lord [Colin] Renfrew, have seen, in the structure of these tombs, a reflection of a "segmentary lineage society:" a form of social organisation observed by ethnographers in tribal societies in Africa and elsewhere, in which a tribe is made up of clans; which themselves are made up of major lineages; which in turn are made up of minor lineages; each division defined by descent from a historical or mythical ancestor.

Diagram of a segmentary lineage society (adapted from E.E. Evans-Pritchard).

Such societies may have been widespread in Neolithic Europe, but are, perhaps, more easily imagined in a context such as Orkney, where both the houses and the tombs are built in durable stone, and have been relatively undisturbed by later agricultural and industrial development.


Mark Patton is a published author of historical fiction and non-fiction, whose books may be purchased from Amazon.