Wednesday, June 28, 2017

Middle Littleton Tithe Barn

By Richard Denning

Recently I had reason to be driving to Evesham in Worcestershire. Having an hour or so to spare I decided to visit Middle Littleton Tithe Barn which is a National Trust Property in a small village near Evesham.

A tithe barn was a type of barn used commonly across most of northern Europe in the Middle Ages for storing rents and tithes. The tithe was paid by the villagers and farmers around a village and represented one tenth of a villagers income or a farm’s produce. As such the bulk of the tithe would be paid in the form of food or drink. The tithe was was given to the Church to help maintain the local church. In exchange the locals received spiritual care, healing and education. Tithe barns were built to store all this produce and was often close to the village church.

One of the largest and finest 13th-century tithe barns in the country is Middle Littleton Tithe Barn. It was once part of a more extensive estate consisting of a Manor House, Church and surrounding farms and fields. It is believed to date to circa 1250.

This out house once housed a cider press and behind it there is still an orchard between the Tithe Barn and the local church.

Upon the roof of the Tithe Barn is a Finial which was not just decorative but believed to keep away evil spirits.

The interior is a huge space. the roof is supported by what is called a raised cruck roof.

Here is another look at the roof structure:

For more details please visit the National Trust site...


Richard Denning is an historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord. Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.

Monday, June 26, 2017

When English Ale became English Beer

by Anna Belfrage

To modern people, ale and beer are more or less synonymous, their difference lying in their etymological roots rather than in any basic difference in the beverage. Ale is a word derived from the Old English ealu and bears a distinct similarity to the present day Scandinavian word for beer, öl. Beer, on the other hand, is an imported word. Well, if we’re going to be correct there is an Old English version of this word as well, but it was rarely used—until the 15th century when England first began importing beer from the Low Countries. It is thought beer derives from the Latin word bibere which means to drink.

For the discerning 15th century Englishman, ale and beer were two different beverages. Ale was the traditional drink without hops while beer was brewed using hops. The English were, as a rule, distrustful of hops. Or maybe they simply preferred the fruiter flavour of ale.

No matter what we call it, beer has been around since many thousands of years. Take some barley, add water and a yeast agent, and you’re well on your way to making a rudimentary beer. Spice things up with some honey and you get that sweeter variety our ancestors called mead. Parties in the long-halls of old, whether for Vikings or Anglo-Saxons, would have required enormous quantities of this rather potent brew.

While humanity has been quaffing beer for thousands of years, the addition of hops is a relatively new invention. In the early ninth century the French developed a partiality for using hops instead of gruit (the traditional bouquet garni of beer making, including such delicacies as dandelions and marigolds—and fruit) as a flavouring and preserving agent, but at the time our French brewers were in the minority. So essential were hops to the French beer-making process that most monasteries tended to have hops gardens so as to ensure a steady supply of this key ingredient.

As so often in history, France set some sort of standard. By the 12th century, German brewers had embraced the new fad, switching between hops and gruit depending on which was taxed the highest. Hildegard of Bingen was not a fan of hops, expressing a dislike for their bitter taste—but she did give hops credit for its preservative qualities, saying that if added to a drink it would stave off putrefaction. Always a good thing, IMO, to avoid putrefaction in your beer—and a major plus for the usage of hops. In difference to beer (with hops), ale (with gruit) did not keep well. Once fermented, it had to be drunk within a couple of days or it would spoil.

Now, while hops had not been used for making beer, they had been used for other purposes. Hops were considered calming, and anyone suffering from insomnia was recommended to add hops to the stuffing in their mattress or pillow. Hops were also used to treat wounds and cure infections, this due to its anti-bacterial properties.

Some of our tenacious hops tendrils
In our country house we have a hops plant that had been growing on the same spot since 1842. That year, someone made a detailed inventory of the garden, and the hops plant was described as thriving. What we have today is a vigorous monster of a plant that defies all attempts to bring it under control, shooting long tendrils overnight to compensate for what we may have cut back during the day. That’s the thing with hops—it grows so fast you can actually see it grow, easily growing 30 centimetres (12 inches) between sunrise and sunset.  It is also extremely hardy and very invasive, which may go some way to explaining why it was labelled “a wicked and pernicious weed” in the early 16th century.

Anyway: back to the 15th century and the impact of imported frothy beverages on the domestic English ale market. With the influx of imported beer, it became important for the English brewers to uphold the distinction between their traditional ale and this new-fangled beer. Accordingly, in some places laws were passed forbidding the use of hops when brewing ale. Norwich passed such a law in 1471, not so as to forbid beer, but so as to protect the uniqueness of ale. Late 15th century English brewers fell into two categories: those that went for hops and produced beer, or those that stuck to tradition and brewed ale. No brewer was allowed to brew both types.

In 1516, the brewers in Bavaria implemented the “Reinheitsgebot”—the most famous of the German Purity Laws—which stipulated that beer was to be made with water, barley, yeast and hops. No gruit. Nope, not anymore. This did not please the Catholic Church which effectively controlled the medieval gruit trade.  After Martin Luther’s break with Rome in 1517, those who adhered to the new Protestant faiths therefore took pride in only drinking beer made with hops. Selecting your beverage had thereby become a statement of faith.

In England, ale still held its own. Henry VIII enjoyed both ale and beer and had both brewed at his court (by different brewers)—at least until he broke with Rome over his marital issues. Once Henry VIII had appropriated the Catholic lands and incomes (including the profitable gruit production) ale production returned to normal and the traditionally-minded English could heave a sigh of relief at having their precious ale back.

The English clung to their ale. When Henry VIII joined forces with Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in the 1540s (and I can’t help but wondering how these two gents avoided discussing the HUGE elephant in the room, i.e. Henry’s shoddy treatment of Charles’ aunt, Katherine of Aragon. Maybe it helped that Katherine was long since dead...) and invaded Picardy, his men-at-arms were quite horrified when they realised they were out of ale and had to subsist on beer for ten whole days. May seem like quite the non-issue for us modern people, but at the time average consumption was somewhere around fifteen pints per week, which made the lack of ale a major, major problem.

Over time, ale and beer merged. Already by the 17th century we see the first of the pale ales, which were rich in hops. After all, hops came with the huge benefit of ensuring the beer could be drunk for weeks after it was brewed, thereby making it much easier to produce, store and transport. Just the thing for a nation eager to explore—and conquer—the world. How else to still the thirst of the sailors manning the ships that crossed the seas?

These days, hops are grown all over the world. Unsurprisingly, Germany is the biggest hops producer, followed by the US, where I suppose the huge influx of German settlers introduced this versatile beer-making plant. In England, where commercial hops cultivation began in 1428, hops are still grown, principally in Kent and Herefordshire. And yes, it is still used to make beer—and ale!

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


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

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. And yes, Edmund of Woodstock appears quite frequently. 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, was published 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!

Sunday, June 25, 2017

Editors' Weekly Round-Up, June 25th, 2017

By the EHFA Editors

Enjoy these wonderful articles from the blog.

by Richard Denning

by Kim Rendfeld

Wednesday, June 21, 2017

Coppices: Materials for Home and Heat in the Dark Ages

By Kim Rendfeld

An early medieval commoner might chop down a young willow for timber, but that was not the end of the tree’s usefulness. Far from it. A peasant could use the shoots emerging from the stump to build a home or heat it.

Coppicing—cutting down a tree and harvesting the shoots from the stump four to eight years later—goes back to the Neolithic, about 10,000 years. The practice allows people to take advantage of a tree’s established root system to produce timber rather than starting all over from seed. In the forest, coppices coexisted with standard trees and other flora and fauna. Woodlands could be coppiced for hundreds or thousands of years. With the added sunlight, plants and animals that typically lived at the forest’s edge would have a little more space.

Coppicing reminds us of how resourceful our ancestors were. While it’s not too much of a stretch to imagine the discovery of coppices as accidental, the folks’ lack of education as we know it was not a lack of intelligence, skills, or discipline.

Not all trees made good coppices, but ash, oak, hazel, birch, and willow were among the species that were used. Some coppiced trees, like hazel, live much longer if their shoots are collected on a regular basis.

A sweet chestnut coppice (Clive Perrin,
CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons)
Early medieval Britain especially needed resources close to home, like coppices. With the departure of the Romans around 410, the economy had collapsed. Instead of growing food and making factory goods for export to customers throughout the empire, Britons needed to become self-reliant. The forest had a lot of resources such as food and herbs, acorns for pigs, and lumber.

Coppices provided raw materials for wattle-and-daub houses, barns, and sheds. Wattle-and-daub has been around for 6,000 years, and its materials were free and easily acquired in Britain and on the Continent. Stone, by contrast, was expensive and required workers for a quarry. If stones were scavenged from an abandoned structure, transporting them far from the site would be a challenge.

For a wattle-and-daub shelter, the builder could weave coppice shoots between stakes and create rigid wattle panels for the walls, supported by posts. Timing was essential. The best season to cut coppice shoots was winter, when the wood had less sap and was less susceptible to insects and fungi. But the builder need to use the shoots before they stiffened and would snap when bent. Warming the shoots over a fire would soften them.

Hazel shoots that had grown for six to 10 years were supple and a popular choice. Willow, which can be harvested every one to three years, was another possibility as were slender rods of birch and ash. The woven wooden rods—called withies—would have been one-half to one-inch thick.

Once the panels were in place, a builder could push handfuls of daub—a mix of earth, clay, sand, hay, and dung—into both side of the wattle. People could patch the cracks in the dried daub with more of the mixture (perhaps making the structure less drafty than a stone building) and finish the walls with a limewash (a paint from limestone). Thatch was often used for the roof, and strips of hazel could secure it to the dwelling.

By Jiel Beaumadier (CC BY-SA 3.0 or GFDL,
via Wikimedia Commons)
The people living in those homes required fires for cooking and to keep warm in winter. They could use the sticks, twigs, and branches from the forest floor, but charcoal was a better fuel, burning hotter and slower than ordinary wood. Again, the folk looked to coppices, even though the process to convert a freshly cut shoot to charcoal was long and complicated.

The shoots need to be dried for six months, not an easy thing in early medieval Britain, where the climate had turned cooler and wetter. Perhaps oiled, tanned skins protected the shoots.

Kilns often were often built near coppices. Using the same site for repeated firings improved the ground foundation and made the kilns work better. When the shoots were dry enough, they were cut into three- to four-foot lengths and packed tightly around a central timber in a mound or cone, about 10 feet in diameter. The mound was covered with dirt, with a few vents in the bottom. The charcoal-makers removed the central timber and dropped a hot ember into the space, which formed a chimney.

The trick was to keep the fire burning for several weeks, using as little air as possible while it extracted the moisture, saps, and resins (a byproduct was tar). Some kilns were shielded by wind breaks. Still the kiln needed constant tending to ensure it remained intact and the fire was just the right temperature. The wood inside the kiln would be charred but not burned. An experience charcoal burner could gauge the process by the smell. Medieval people often made charcoal for their own homes, but by the early modern period, this craft had become a specialty, and it was easier to buy the product, rather than make it.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Charcoal had more uses than warming homes. Iron smelters relied on the fuel for fires hot enough to extract iron from rock. Smiths need the fuel to create weapons and tools.

Coppices supplied wood for other needs. The shoots could be made into stools to furnish the home. Supple wood could be woven into fences. Thin strips could be made into baskets.

With changes in forestry, agriculture, and river management, coppices fell out of favor in the 20th century and have become neglected. In many modern eyes, a stump with emerging shoots doesn’t seem to be good for much. Our ancestors would beg to differ.


Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

Ecology and Management of Coppice Woodlands, edited by G.P. Buckley

Wattle and Daub: Craft, Conservation and Wiltshire Case Study,” by
Tony Graham


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.

Monday, June 19, 2017

Treasures of the Norse and Old English Gods

by Richard Denning

Before the coming of Christianity to the English lands the English shared a common mythology and belief structure to the peoples that would later be called Vikings and the Germanic tribes from which they themselves sprang. They believed in the many gods and goddesses (over 40 possibly) that included Woden (Odin), Thunor (Thor), Heimdall, Freya and Loki. These god and goddess owned and used marvelous treasures.

I take a look at some of them in this article.

Megingjörð (the Old Norse words mean “power-belt”) is a belt worn by the god Thor. The Prose Edda lists this as one of Thor’s three main possessions, along with the hammer Mjölnir and the iron gloves Járngreipr. When worn, the belt doubled Thor’s already immense strength.

Mjölnir (the name derived from Old German for “grinder” or “crusher”) is one of the most fearsome weapons, capable of leveling mountains. Snorri Sturluson relates how the hammer was made by the dwarven brothers Eitri and Brokkr. Due to a mishap in its manufacturing it had a characteristically short handle. The pendants and icons of the hammer were a common symbol of the god of thunder in North European mythologies and are found in burials and other locations.

Járngreipr (Old Norse “iron grippers”) are the iron gloves of the god Thor. Thor requires the gloves to handle his powerful hammer. The reason for this may come from the forging of the hammer, when the dwarf working the bellows was bitten in his eye by a gadfly (secretly Loki in disguise) which caused the handle of the hammer to be shortened.

Gungnir (Old Norse for “Swaying;”) is the name of the mighty spear that belongs to the god Odin. Images of the god often depict Odin bearing a spear. Such images date back all the way back to Bronze Age rock carvings of a spear god. As with most of the treasures it was created by the dwarves and had runes carved on its point. The real historical Norse and other Germanic peoples did in fact carve runes into some of their spears, presumably to call upon the same powers that made this weapon so fearsome.

Gjallarhorn (Old Norse for “yelling horn”) is a horn associated with the god Heimdall. Its use is mentioned three times in the Poetic Edda. Heimdall uses the horn to drink from Mímir’s well at the root of Yggdrasil and gains much wisdom. Elsewhere it is said that Heimdall is the owner of the “trumpet” and that “its blast can be heard in all worlds”. Finally it is foretold that in Ragnarök, Heimdall will blow into Gjallarhorn and the the gods will assemble. A figure holding a large horn to his lips appears on a stone cross from the Isle of Man. Gosforth Cross in Cumbria, England depicts a figure holding a horn and a sword standing in front of two beasts. Both of these figures have been theorized as depicting Heimdall with Gjallarhorn.

Draupnir (Old Norse for “the dripper”) is a gold ring made by the dwarves for Odin. It has the ability to multiply itself so that every ninth night, eight new rings ‘drip’ from Draupnir, Odin laid the ring on the funeral pyre of his son, Baldur.

Brísingamen (It might mean Fire Necklace or Amber Necklace) is the necklace of the goddess Freya. At one point Thor borrows Brísingamen when he dresses up as Freya to infiltrate a wedding in Jotunheim. On another occasion Loki steals the necklace and is pursued by Heimdall. The necklace is also possibly mentioned in the Old English Beowulf saga: Hama bore off to the shining city the Brosings’ necklace. 

Helskór ( which means “hel-shoes”) were given to the dead so that they could walk to Valhalla. In one saga these shoes are hanging from a large and beautiful linden-tree. Only travelers that had exercised mercy during their lives were given these. The significance became apparent to the dead because after they had passed this tree they had to cross a heath two miles wide in which thorns grew. This was followed by a river full of irons with sharp edges. Whilst the just could use the shoes to avoid theses perils those deemed unjust suffered immensely.


Richard Denning is an historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord. Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.

The Nine Worlds series is a Historical Fantasy Adventure for Ages 9+. The historical world of Anglo-Saxon England meets the mysterious world of myths and legends, gods and monsters our ancestors believed in. This is the world as it might have been had those stories been true…

The first e-book is available free on many e-book sites.

Sunday, June 18, 2017

Sir John Soane: Georgian Neo-Classical Architect

by Mark Patton

In an earlier blog-post, Grace Elliot explored the remarkable London home (now a museum) of the Georgian architect, Sir John Soane (1753-1837). I have visited the museum many times, sometimes with friends, sometimes with my students, and, each time, have discovered something new, but my intention here is rather to explore his life and the buildings he designed, some of which are still standing, some of which have subsequently been demolished, and some of which were never built at all. At some point in the next few weeks, I will visit the Royal Academy's Summer Exhibition, where, among the paintings and the sculptures, I will see designs by some of our greatest living architects. Soane was there before them; he was Professor at the Royal Academy and regularly exhibited his designs at the Summer Exhibition.

Sir John Soane, in the regalia of the
Masonic Grand Lodge of England

Soane's father has sometimes been described as a bricklayer, but it is probably more accurate to think of him as a builder. He was wealthy enough to secure for his son a private education, albeit not at one of England's great public schools. Soane went on to serve his apprenticeship as an architect with George Dance the Younger, and then, at the age of 25, embarked on a Grand Tour, travelling via Versailles to Rome and Naples and returning via Switzerland after three years.

A Grand Tour would not normally have been a possibility for a man of limited means, such as John Soane, but he had a travelling scholarship, courtesy of the Royal Academy. Travelling with another young architect, Robert Furze Brettingham, he seems to have approached the experience with rather more seriousness than many of his wealthier contemporaries, earnestly sketching the ruins of the Forum Romanum, Hadrian's villa at Tivoli, and the recently excavated buildings of Pompeii and Herculaneum.

During his travels, he also proved himself an effective networker, meeting a number of influential men who would later become his clients and patrons and would recommend him to their friends. On his return to England, he struggled, at first, to win commissions, but he landed a particularly important one in 1788 with the Bank of England. His scheme for the bank was executed, but almost nothing of it survives. Inspired, however, by the ruins that he had seen in Italy, he even considered how his own buildings might appear as ruins, many centuries after his death.

Lothbury Court, part of Soane's design for the
Bank of England, by Thomas Malton Junior, 1801

Soane's ground-plan for the Bank of England

Soane's Bank of England,
imagined as a ruin, by J.M. Gandy, 1830 

One commission led to another; he designed private homes, churches (although he was not, personally, religious), and even, at Dulwich, in South London, one of Europe's very first purpose-designed art-galleries. He designed an extension to the Freemasons' Hall in central London, having been initiated into the craft in 1813 (this was built, but no longer survives), and he drew up plans for a new royal palace (probably on the site of London's Green Park), which was never built. All of his designs show the influence of the Roman and Renaissance buildings that he had seen in Italy in his formative years.

The Dulwich Picture Gallery. Soane's use of skylights to light the building was inspired by Roman "cryptoportico" structures. Photo: Bridgeman (licensed under GNU).

The Mausoleum of the Bourgeois and Desenfans families, Soane's patrons at the Dulwich Picture Gallery: Soane's use of coloured glass to create light effects was a characteristic and innovative element of his design. Photo: Fae (licensed under CCA). 

Soane's design for a royal palace, 1821

Unlike his aristocratic contemporaries, Soane had not returned from his Grand Tour with a large collection of antiquities, but he made up for this, as a successful architect, by buying up the Greek vases and sculptures brought back by younger tourists, who had (after the fashion of many Grand Tourists), overstretched their budgets.

When his beloved wife, Elizabeth, died, Soane designed a funerary monument at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard, which would, in time, become his own sepulchre, as well as hers. It would also become his most ubiquitous and visible legacy, since it inspired a much later architect, Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, in his (1935) design for a telephone kiosk, which was rolled out across the British Isles.

The burial vault of the Soane family, at Old Saint Pancras Churchyard.
Photo: David Edgar (licensed under CCA).

Telephone kiosks designed by Sir Giles Gilbert Scott,
Covent Garden, London.
Photo: Enzo Plazzotta (licensed under GNU).


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

Editor's Weekly Round-Up, June 18, 2017

by the EHFA Editors

Enjoy these wonderful articles from the blog.

by Mike Williams

by Antoine Vanner
(Editor's Choice, from the archives)

Friday, June 16, 2017

King John’s Castle – Medieval Stronghold

by Antoine Vanner

The term “medieval castle” brings immediately to mind images of high castellated walls, massive gatehouses and vast keeps, and many such fortresses did indeed exist. The vast majority of castles were however much smaller structures – “strongholds” – built for local defence, even if on occasion they did serve as royal residences. One such is King John’s Castle, near Odiham, Hampshire. Though it is little more than a ruined shell today it has a most spectacular history and provides insights into what many more like it looked like.

The remains of King John's Castle today

The castle consisted of a single massive octagonal keep of three stories and was surrounded by one or possibly more deep moats, which survive today only as dry, overgrown ditches. The walls, with cores of flint boulders held together by mortar, were externally clad with stone. This has however been stripped away over the centuries since here, as elsewhere in Britain, neighbouring communities exploited it as a quarry after it had been abandoned.

Now only the cores remain and indeed two sides of the octagon are gone completely. The site is preserved by Hampshire County Council as well as is possible given the castle’s ruined condition. A number of very informative notices are provided, each featuring delightful illustrations in the medieval style by the artist Andy Bardell. Some are shown here.

The structure was built in the 1207-1214 period on the orders of King John, a monarch who has had a deservedly bad reputation, as compared with his older brother Richard, who had an undeservedly good one. John’s entire reign consisted of conflicts with the Church, with the French and with his own barons. The castle at Odiham is associated with the single most important event of John’s reign, as it was from here in 1215 that he rode to Runnymede, under pressure from his rebellious barons, to sign the Magna Carta, and thereby to lay the foundation for the liberties of the English-speaking world in centuries to come.

King John rides out to Runneymede

A year later invading French troops besieged the castle for two weeks. The defenders were allowed to surrender with honour and were found, to the amazement of the French, to consist of fourteen men only. This is a commentary on just how invulnerable such structures were in the days before gunpowder and when hunger and thirst were the most effective weapons against determined defenders.

King John’s young son, Henry III, ordered repairs to the castle in 1225, the refurbished roof being of lead and weighing some 22 tons. It was supported by the outer walls and by a central column that no longer exists. On each of the two floors above ground level, beams extended from this central beam, like spokes of a wheel, to joist holes in the outer walls.

Eleven years later Henry III gave the castle to his younger sister, Eleanor, who was married to the powerful French nobleman, Simon de Montfort. He in due course became Earl of Leicester and was a key figure in the “Barons’ War” against his royal brother-in-law. While a residence in this period, the castle’s interior was likely to have been richly furnished. It can only however have been very cramped by modern standards and one assumes that most of the retainers and servants were lodged in smaller dwellings, of which no trace now remains, in the area between the castle walls and the moat.

Eleanor and Simon prepare for a banquet (note Eleanor's household roll)

This period ended when Simon de Montfort was killed in 1265 at the Battle of Evesham, in which he was fighting the future King Edward I, son of Henry III. Family ties notwithstanding, Eleanor was exiled to France, where she spent the rest of her days, taking with her the household rolls, which give an insight to life at the castle and which can be seen in Andy Bardell’s illustration. 

Edward succeeded his father in due course and spent Christmas 1302 there. His own son, Edward II, proved to be one of the most disastrous kings in English history and his reign was not only marred by civil war but by his ultimate overthrow by his wife, Isabella, abetted by her lover. Odiham Castle was once more besieged in 1322, but again survived.

Edward III, unlike his father, proved to be perhaps the most powerful English king of the medieval period and he not only initiated the Hundred Years War against France but scored notable victories over the Scots, Scotland at that time still being an independent kingdom, and almost invariable an ally of France. Edward granted Odiham Castle to his queen, Phillippa of Hainault, and it appears that she may have had a garden planted around it, an indication that its role was no longer primarily military.

Edward III and Phillippa prepare for bed

The castle was to play its last significant role in history in this period. In 1346 Edward’s army smashed an invading Scots force at Neville’s Cross (today a suburb of Durham) and in the process captured the Scottish king, David II. Held captive until an enormous ransom of 100,000 marks was paid, Davis was held for part of the time at the Tower of London, and for three years at Odiham. Here, in the agreeable rural surroundings of East Hampshire, he was provided with a well-furnished room and with good food, wine and other luxuries. The nature of his detention was unlikely to have been rigorous since honour would forbid escape prior to payment of ransom and one can well imagine David hunting in the surrounding area.

With David’s release Odiham Castle, now relegated to the status of a hunting lodge, started to fade from history. By 1600 it seems to have been in ruins and the process of quarrying it for stone seems to have started. Its day had however been a long one and despite its small size it was witness to some of the most dramatic events of England’s Middle Ages.

Odiham Castle today

A particularly attractive way to reach the castle today is by barge from the nearby modern village of Odiham, and the photograph  below shows a lucky group en route to King John's Castle in August 2013.

In preparing this article I am indebted to the splendid notices posted by Hampshire County Council at the site and which are so beautifully enhanced by Andy Bardell’s illustrations.
An Editor's Choice, originally published on September 9, 2013
Antoine Vanner had had an adventurous and rewarding life, living and working long-term in eight countries and doing short-term assignments in many more. He is fascinated by history, especially of the nineteenth century, and this provides the foundation for his Dawlish Chronicles novels, the first of which, Britannia's Wolf was published early in 2013. Volume 5, Britannia's Amazon, was published in November 2016. He maintains a very extensive website:

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

The 'Mystery Boats' of Tresco Island

By Mike Williams

Five inhabited islands of outstanding beauty, together with over one hundred islets and large rocks rising out of the Atlantic make up the Isles of Scilly. Lying some 28 miles west of Lands End, they provide an ideal anchorage for flotillas of small boats engaged in covert operations. During the English Civil War Royalist privateers operating out of Scilly became the scourge of both Parliamentarian and foreign merchant ships - especially the Dutch. It eventually took an uneasy alliance between Cromwell’s General-at-Sea Monk and the Dutch admiral van Tromp to bring the piratical Royalists to heel.

Almost 300 years later, Churchill’s rallying cry to “Set Europe ablaze!” did much to galvanise both SOE (the Special Operations Executive) and the SIS (the Secret Intelligence Service) into action, following the fall of France in 1940. One immediate result was the emergence of many so-called small “Special Forces” units. While SOE quickly began to regard itself as a striking force, attacking the enemy wherever it could, SIS was intended to be responsible for the infiltration and exfiltration of Allied agents and vital intelligence, between Great Britain and Nazi-occupied Europe.

Working under Commander Slocum RN, who had been tasked with re-establishing direct communications with Resistance groups in Nazi-occupied Europe, RNVR Officers- Stephen Mackenzie, Daniel Lomenech - a Breton - and others began exploring the use of converted fishing boats to convey both agents and intelligence to and from Brittany.

The idea quickly turned into workable reality as two such “spy-boats” were quickly developed with the professional help of British marine architects and small boat manufacturers. The traditional style of fishing boat was chosen because they were accepted by the Germans who allowed them to remain at sea for up to three nights at a time. This relaxation of rules played right into the hands of British intelligence.

A major issue was the need for far greater speed than the usual plodding pace of a genuine fishing boat. In order to enter the coastal waters of occupied France and mingle with the large fleets of Breton fishing boats, without raising suspicion, the British boats would need to race from Scilly across approximately 100 miles of sea, under cover of darkness, to arrive off the Breton coast by early dawn. Coded radio messages and mast-head pennants of pre-arranged colours would identify which of the local Breton boats would be the contact vessel for the inshore transfer of agents, crucial intelligence, or weapons and explosives, off the Breton coast.

Lomenech who was familiar with the Breton fishing industry personally oversaw much of the conversion work to ensure as much authenticity as possible in the transformations He knew that the real test was not to convince the Germans, but to avoid raising questions in the minds of the patrol boat crews of the French Harbour Gendarmerie.

In consultation with Lomenech and other RNVR Officers, British boat designers cleverly re-configured the boats’ underwater hulls and fitted new far more powerful engines, giving the boats a top speed in excess of 30 knots. Because of its remoteness, privacy from prying eyes and sheltered waters, Tresco Island’s New Grimsby Sound was chosen as the base for the new secret flotilla. The former World War One flying boat base also conveniently situated at Tresco provided storage facilities, workshops and also some accommodation. . . .

One of the secret flotilla’s first tasks was to deliver two key French agents to the Resistance movement, close to Concarneau, during April 1941.The French Resistance had talked about using a submarine for the job, but were over-ruled by the British Admiralty who viewed such craft as pure gold. Instead it was agreed to deliver the agent by Angele Rouge one of the two “doctored” fishing boats newly arrived in Tresco’s New Grimsby harbour anchorage, under the shelter of Braiden Rock.

The boats were delivered to Tresco painted British “Pusser’s grey” so that they blended in with other RN boats at anchor, giving the impression to curious observers that they were some sort of minor naval auxiliary vessel. It was at the eleventh hour, before a cross-Channel operation into enemy waters that, under Daniel Lomenech’s expert direction, the boats were painted in the garish colours typical of Breton fishing vessels. One trick devised by the crews painting the boats was to mix iron filings in with the paint. On contact with the sea the fresh paint quickly took on a convincing weathered appearance. Locals quickly dubbed them “The mystery boats”.

Aerial View of the Scilly Isles (Public Domain Image)

Lobsters, crabs and other fish freshly caught in Scillonian waters were packed in barrels, in ice, to add a touch of authenticity and crew members filled the strategically placed “operations boxes” with their personal weapons also covered with fish. These ensured that should they be stopped and fail to convince the Authorities that they were Breton fishermen, they could call upon significant firepower in a fire-fight. Adding to the illusion of Breton fishermen, RNVR personnel wore similar working rig to their French counterparts. All boats carried at least one Breton who could speak his native tongue, as well as French.

A model of a Breton fishing boat, built & photographed by the author

At midnight Angele Rouge, slipped her moorings at Braiden Rock, the secret flotilla’s anchorage below Cromwell’s Castle, on Tresco’s western shore, heading south. The incoming tide saw her cautiously navigate the shallow waters of Tresco Flats, before she opened up her two 500 hp Hall Scott engines and began punching her way, at over 20 knots, through the rolling whitecaps of St Mary’s Road. Once through St Mary’s Sound and with St Agnes astern to starboard, her youthful skipper ordered his coxswain to maintain maximum revolutions, to arrive off the Breton coast in time to mingle with the French fishing fleets around dawn.

Below decks, each with their private thoughts and fears, the two agents sat huddled in silence, sipping steaming mugs of “kye”, the Royal Navy’s own glutinous chocolate nectar. Both were SOE French Section recruits. One was a former French army lieutenant, code-named “Antoine”, who had escaped from France in the evacuation from Dunkirk. The other, “Marie-Claude”, a young woman of Anglo-French parents, had been selected for espionage operations by SOE’s formidable Vera Atkins.

Vera Atkins (Public Domain Image)

SOE’s creative technologists - the real-live versions of James Bond’s “Q” - developed the weaponry and kit essential in covert operations - some of them so bizarre as to beggar belief. One such example was that of ingeniously crafted dummy lobsters, to be used for carrying secret intelligence.

Unfortunately the design team had only ever seen cooked lobsters, which turn pink as a result of boiling. It was a fisherman who told them in no uncertain terms that lobsters, as caught in the sea, are dark blue! Many an SOE face turned bright red when the error was spotted. On this trip, Angele Rouge carried no fanciful confections from the “Gadgets” Section - only radios packed in tobacco and sealed in French petrol drums, for the Resistance.

With the first signs of dawn beginning to lighten the sky, Angel Rouge was some 12 miles north of Ushant. To preserve the anonymity essential to her cover, her skipper ordered “Reduce speed to six knots, we’ll shortly be joining the locals.” Poring over their charts, with Ushant astern, the skipper and coxswain navigated Angele Rouge through the scattered islands and rock outcrops west of the Brittany coast, maintaining a course due south.

The entrance to the sheltered waters of Brest on her port bow, Angele Rouge flying her yellow mutual recognition pennant, slowly turned heading for Camaret, the RV with the local crabber, Monique, which would take the agents ashore. Almost right on the ETA of 07.30 hours, the crabber appeared, flying a similar yellow pennant. Three miles offshore, under the guns of the German coastal batteries, the two boats drew alongside feigning a noisy chance meeting, of old fishing colleagues. Under the pretence of energetically hauling in nets, the crew slipped the agents from one vessel to the other. The confidential intelligence and radios in the fuel drums were also transferred and after more boisterous exchanges the two boats appeared to resume their fishing. Later, under cover of darkness, mission accomplished, Angele Rouge returned to her anchorage at Braiden Rock - and a fresh coat of Admiralty grey paint, minus iron-filings, securing around 23.00.

Map showing Brest and Camaret (See Commons attribution here)

Shortly after the transfer of the two agents, the Tresco flotilla was called upon to bring to England a leading Resistance Leader - Colonel Gilbert Rénault a.k.a. Colonel “Remy” - who had been betrayed and was in immediate danger of capture, inevitable torture and execution, by the Gestapo. The operation to rescue Colonel “Remy” and his family took the fishing boat Le Dinan to the remote Îles de Glénan, lying some twenty miles west of L’Orient.

65 feet in length, Le Dinan was longer than Angele Rouge and offered slightly more civilised accommodation for the Colonel, his wife and their children - including a 6-month-old baby. Because the waters around Brittany are among the most dangerous in the world - especially at night - the date of the pick-up was influenced by the weather, as well as the risks to Remy. Up-to-date weather forecasts were relayed to the crew on Tresco via a “scrambler” telephone, hidden in the heather at New Grimsby - as were top secret calls from SOE in London, and Government Communications at Bletchley Park. Inevitably it was the Gestapo’s imminent arrest of Remy which ultimately decided the date and RV of the rescue at sea.

Until three hours before nightfall, Le Dinan was given air cover by Beaufighters which, with a farewell waggle of wings, peeled off just north of Ushant, to return to Cornwall. This time, there would be no masthead recognition pennant, to look out for, but simply a white sail above a green hull. By 10 am the following morning, with the sea unusually calm, Le Dinan was plodding slowly through the Concarneau crabbing fleets. Skirting the towering Penmarc’h lighthouse she set course east and headed for the Îles de Glénan, her RV with the small fishing vessel bringing Remy and with him, vital up-to-date intelligence about the latest German coastal defences along the Normandy coast. Some 30 minutes ahead of schedule, Le Dinan’s crew sailed in among the islands to wait.

Map showing Ushant (See here for Commons attribution)

After an hour-and-a-half, lurking between the scattered islands, while awaiting the now well overdue lone white sail of the Colonel’s small boat to appear, the crew of Le Dinan were horrified to see a flotilla of five German corvettes belching black smoke and heading straight for them. Had the Colonel been picked up by the Kriegsmarine? Had the mission been compromised? Under the guise of hauling in their nets, the British held their nerve as the Germans steamed past them, at less than a cable’s distance, binoculars trained on them.

Shortly after the corvettes passed them in line astern, the awaited green hull and white sail appeared from behind one of the islands. Minutes later the Colonel - complete with German top secret intelligence of “Festung Europa”, his wife and children - including the tiny baby was safely onboard Le Dinan. After transferring supplies of tobacco, food and much needed oil and petrol, to the fishermen who brought Colonel “Remy”, she set course for Tresco.

Some 36 hours later and with their passengers now enjoying the fresh air, on deck, after the cramped conditions below, Le Dinan sailed into New Grimsby Sound and hove-to off Braiden Rock. Colonel Remy and his family were safe and British Intelligence had top secret German plans of the Normandy beach defences, so vital for planning the forthcoming D-Day invasion. Many more such hazardous operations were to take place before peace in Europe arrived in May 1945.

At a moving ceremony in July 2000 a commemorative plaque, honouring these gallant men was unveiled at Braiden Rock anchorage. Today, over 70 years later, the “mystery boats” and their crews are still remembered by Tresco’s older inhabitants.


Mike Williams MSc. is the published author of a trilogy of novels, based on a clandestine naval unit which operated out of the Isles of Scilly, during World War 2. Its role was to take secret agents and intelligence to and from Brittany, under the noses of the Nazis.
Published by Thorogood Publishing, London, titles are -
The Secret Channel
The Channel of Invasion
The Channel to Freedom
In September 2011 he presented his trilogy at the Marlborough LitFest. Available on Amazon.                                                  
His Cold War sequel -The Judas Trap -   is a story of counter-intelligence in response to a the insertion of Soviet spies in the Uk .
Available from the author:
Currently he is undertaking research for a novel about espionage in the English Civil War (In Treachery’s Shadow) set in the western counties,
Mike is a member of the Historical Writers’ Association.