Thursday, November 30, 2017

Frozen Moments in Time - The Art of Anthony van Dyck

by Anna Belfrage

Las Meninas, D Velázquez
Say Philip IV of Spain and chances are people will visualise a series of portraits by Diego Velázquez, principally that rather impressive work of art Las Meninas. What the great Velázquez did for the Spanish Hapsburgs in the 17th century, today’s protagonist did for the court of Charles I of England, painting a series of portraits that qualify as masterpieces. His skills made him the most sought after portraitist in England and as a result Anthony van Dyck became very, very rich and just as famous.

Anthony (Well, if we’re going to be correct his birth-name was Antoon) saw the light of the day on the 22 of March in 1599. His father was a well-respected and wealthy cloth merchant in Antwerp, and Anthony was his seventh child and second son. Where Papa travelled to sell his silks and gossamer-thin linens, Mrs van Dyck remained at home to raise their children and devote herself to her embroidery. Gifted with an artist’s eye, Mrs van Dyck embroidered landscapes and figures and little Anthony was quite enthralled by the end results. Soon enough, when Mama was sewing he was drawing on whatever he could find and so impressed was his mother that she managed to convince her husband to allow little Anthony to pursue the career of an artist by apprenticing him to the Flemish artist Hendrik van Balen from the age of ten.

Etching by van Dyck
It was apparent to everyone that Anthony had talent in spades. At the age of fourteen he painted his first commissioned portrait, proudly inscribing his age as well as his name on the finished work of art. At age sixteen, he and his friend Jan Brueghel Jr. opened their own studio. By now, Anthony was making a name for himself, not only as a painter but also as a draughtsman and an excellent etcher. (Some would argue that the art of etching peaked with Anthony’s work, never again to reach similar heights of artistry)

Anthony, self-portrait 1613-14
At nineteen, he was admitted into the guild of St Luke’s in Antwerp, thereby effectively recognised as a master of painting. With this under his belt, Anthony van Dyck was hired by Peter Paul Rubens as his chief assistant, which essentially meant he had made it to the top. Rubens was the most famous Northern European artist of the time, his studio churning out a stream of high quality paintings, many of them featuring religious themes. Rubens was a leading figure within the cultural aspect of the Counter Reformation, the Catholic movement spearheaded by Spain that had as its aim to limit the “spiritual damage” caused by the Reformation.

Tiger Hunt, Peter Paul Rubens. A lot of life (and death)

Anthony van Dyck shared Rubens' Catholic heritage and thrived under Rubens' tutelage, producing not only portraits but also a number of religious paintings and a few historical works. Rubens was very fond of historical paintings, huge canvases brimming with life and figures. He was also very impressed by his young adept, telling whoever wanted to hear that van Dyck was the best young painter he had ever met. He also encouraged van Dyck to foster his obvious talent for portraiture—a talent that required not only impressive skills as a painter but also a diplomatic flair to ensure the sitter was pleased with the end result. In effect, if a portrait painter wanted commissions, he had to be willing to do the 17th century equivalent of photo shopping to flatter whoever was being depicted.

Thomas Howard by Rubens
Rubens and van Dyck parted ways in the early 1620s. Rubens urged van Dyck to go to Italy and study the Italian masters. Our Anthony was all for going to Italy, but before doing so he detoured to England where for some months he was in King James’ employ. While in England, he met the Catholic peer Thomas Howard, Earl of Arundel, who was something of a fanatic art collector. Born in penury due to his father’s refusal to abandon his Catholic faith, Thomas was destined to end up heavily in debt due to his collection which contained everything from antique marbles to paintings by da Vinci, Rubens and a certain Titian. Our Anthony spent hours gawking at Arundel’s Titian portraits, realising just how much he had left to learn—and how right Rubens was when he repeatedly told van Dyck to go to Italy.

Anthony returned to Flanders to prepare for his trip to Italy. While at home, he fell in love and for a while there all thoughts of furthering his career by studying in Italy went AWOL as our handsome youth pursued tender caresses and kisses. However, youthful passions tend to be ephemeral, so after some months of cow’s eyes and ardent courting our young man did depart for Italy where he was to remain for close to six years.

Elena Grimaldi by van Dyck
A much wiser (if still rather young) Anthony van Dyck returned to Antwerp in 1627. By now, he had built quite the reputation and as he was not only a skilled artist but also charming and well-spoken he could soon add the Hapsburg regent of Spanish Flanders, Archduchess Isabella, to his clients. However, remaining in Flanders came with one major hurdle for someone as ambitious as van Dyck: there was one undisputed painting master in Flanders, and his name was Rubens, not van Dyck.

Meanwhile, in England King James had departed this world and been succeeded by his son, Charles I. While this king had about as much political skill as a bull in a china shop, he did have a genuine interest for art. Early on, he began amassing an impressive collection of paintings and during van Dyck’s years in Italy he had now and then facilitated a transaction on behalf of the English king.

Feeling somewhat frustrated by always walking in Rubens’ shadow, in 1632 Anthony van Dyck decided to try his luck in England. He was welcomed with open arms by King Charles and his wife, Queen Henrietta Maria. In fact, he was welcomed with open arms by more or less everyone in the English aristocracy. Once the king had decided he would only sit for one artist—van Dyck—his courtiers fell over their feet in their haste to have themselves and their families immortalised by the Dutchman.

King Charles, three aspects by A van Dyck
King Charles gave van Dyck a house and a studio at Blackfriars and was a frequent guest, together with his wife. The following years saw van Dyck churn out one portrait after the other, many of them of his royal patron and his family.

The Stuarts that gaze back at us from van Dyck’s canvases are a handsome lot, with soulful eyes and regular features. Such defects as buckteeth or excessive frailty are glossed over—van Dyck had no intention of risking his lucrative income by being too honest which of course has me wondering just how reliable van Dyck’s portraits are.

Charles I, by A van Dyck (and that horse HAS to be Spanish!) 
In his forty or so portraits of Charles I, the king is depicted riding, sitting, standing—always with a regal air that speaks of power and determination. Never is he presented as being as short and slight as he was. However, despite the potential airbrushing, the formal poses and the rich attires, the portraits pulsate with frozen life, as if at any moment the king will call for his horse, or the queen bend down to whisper something in the dwarf’s ear, or the young princes and princesses break apart from their tight group, the boys running one way, the girls another.

King Charles' children. IMO one of van Dyck's best portraits

Margaret Lemon (van Dyck)
All this painting made Anthony van Dyck rich. Very, very rich, which was fortunate as this was a man with little thought of tomorrow and a tendency to spend as lavishly as those he painted. He redecorated his house, he kept his various mistresses in style, dressed in the most expensive fabrics and in general lived life to the full. So profligate was his spending that his various friends at court became concerned and decided it was time their favourite painter settled down with a wife and got rid of his expensive ladies—especially his favourite mistress and sometime muse, Margaret Lemon, who according to malicious gossip had the temperament of an aggravated bear.

Mary, Lady van Dyck (van Dyck)
The king hoped that by ensuring van Dyck married an Englishwoman the artist would remain forever in England which is why he suggested van Dyck should marry a Mary Ruthvens, former lady-in-waiting to Henrietta Maria. Didn’t really work out as planned. Van Dyck spent months away from England both before and after his wedding, sometimes in Flanders, sometimes in France, where he tried (with little success) to win commissions from the French court.

To the left, Titian's portrait of Charles V
To the right, van Dyck's portrait of James Stuart.
Titian's influence is evident...

Anthony van Dyck returned to England for the last time in 1640. By then, the political unrest that was to explode into the English civil war was already evident, and the king had other things on his mind than being preserved in oils. Where before Anthony had had more commissions than he could cope with, now it was rather the reverse. It got to him, and the last months of his life were plagued not only by ill health but also by depression.

In December of 1641, Anthony van Dyck died at the age of forty-two. Other than his widow and two little girls he left behind an impressive collection of portraits, paintings that would set the standard for English portraiture for the coming century or so. Compared to Velázquez, van Dyck’s work can come across as bland, the little imperfections that give character toned down. But his undeniable skill with brush and pigments have given us vibrant snapshots of a world since lost, a time when gallants proudly wore lace and satin, long flowing hair and extravagant clothes. Young lions who would, to a large extent, lose both lace, ribbons, silk and life in the devastating English Civil War.

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. The ninth book, There is Always a Tomorrow, was published in November 2017.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

A Dull, Deaf, Peevish Beast

by Catherine Curzon

Henrietta Howard by Charles Jervas

In the dying days of Queen Anne’s reign, the courtiers of Great Britain looked to George, the Elector of Hanover, their king in waiting and the man who would one day decide their fates. With the queen’s health failing and this unknown character from Germany waiting to take the crown, a good relationship with the heir to the throne was imperative. The only problem was, George loved Hanover and was in no rush to leave until his duty compelled him to do so. In that case, the ambitious nobles decided, if George wouldn’t come to them, they would come to George.

From across the sea they travelled to Hanover with one aim: to ingratiate themselves now, to win the favour of the soon-to-be-king and his family, no matter what it took. Among them was Henrietta Howard, a woman who had struggled against the odds to make the journey to the Hanoverian court. She had sold everything that was dear to her and, wed to a brute, was seeking protection, security and the future she feared she could not have if she remained in England. In fact, Henrietta was destined to be George II’s mistress for decades.

George II by Enoch Seeman
Orphaned at a young age and torn from an idyllic life, young Henrietta Hobart had sought what she hoped would be security in marriage to Charles Howard, son of the Earl and Countess of Suffolk. She soon came to bitterly regret the decision. Charles was a violent, womanising drunkard with a penchant for the gaming table. As soon as he and Henrietta were wed he took what money she had and abandoned her in favour of dissolute fun. Henrietta might have lost even more but for a quick thinking uncle who placed her inheritance in trust, keeping it safe from the grasping hands of Charles.

Henrietta dreamed of joining those courtiers who were making a new life in Hanover and she began to accrue a travelling fund, hiding every spare penny she had. Sometimes Charles found her stash and squandered it but eventually they had enough to their name and the couple travelled to the faraway court. Here Henrietta found favour with the dowager electress and, through her, Caroline of Ansbach, the wife of the man who became George II.

That man was George Augustus and when she met him, the sparks flew. Under the approving eye of Caroline, who would rather her husband’s mistress be a known quantity, the couple began an affair. As Lady Mary Wortley Montagu noted:

"[Caroline was] so devoted to [George Augustus’s] pleasures, […] that whenever he thought proper to find them with other women, she even loved whoever was instrumental to his entertainment."1

As the years of George I’s British reign sped past, Henrietta remained as his son’s official mistress. When that son was crowned, becoming King George II, Henrietta Howard remained at his side.

Yet George wasn’t an easy man to know. Possessed of a foul temper, he was given to furious rants and temper tantrums. Caroline had no patience for such displays and let Henrietta soothe his troubled brow whenever he felt like kicking his wig across the bedroom. Caroline, after all, had a political ambition that Henrietta lacked. Whilst the mistress was content to live a quiet life, the queen was busy empire building.

Henrietta was Caroline’s woman of the bedchamber. She was a devoted servant even when Caroline pulled rank just to keep her in her place. Caroline always made Henrietta kneel when assisting with her toilet, holding the basin from which the queen would wash. One day, after years of this and when her husband had finally assumed the title of Earl of Suffolk, Henrietta dared to complain. Needless to say, Caroline slapped her down hard.

"[…] the first thing this wise, prudent Lady Suffolk did was to pick a quarrel with me about holding a basin in the ceremony of my dressing, and to tell me, with her little fierce eyes, and cheeks as red as your coat, that positively she would not do it; to which I made her no answer then in anger, but calmly, as I would have said to a naughty child, 'Yes, my dear Howard, l am sure you will; indeed you will. Go, go! Fa for shame! Go, my good Howard; we will talk of this another time. About a week after, when upon maturer deliberation she had done everything about the basin that I would have her, I told her I knew we should be good friends again; but could not help adding, in a little more serious voice, that I owned of all my servants I had least expected, as I had least deserved it, such treatment from her, when she knew I had held her up at a time when it was in my power, if I had pleased, any hour of the day, to let her drop through my fingers thus."
Caroline of Ansbach
by Jacopo Amigoni
Yet Henrietta was ultimately powerless in the face of the queen’s spite, for employment with Caroline kept Henrietta safe from her own violent husband. Don’t be fooled into thinking that Charles was intimidated by Caroline’s rank though, for he was anything but. In fact, he even personally confronted Henrietta and violently insisted that she dismiss Henrietta from her service. Caroline, doughty, strong and no-nonsense, refused point blank even though she was far from ignorant of the very real threat he might pose.
"I was horribly afraid of him (for we were tete-a-tete) all the while I was thus playing the bully. What added to my fear upon this occasion […] was that, as I knew him to be so brutal, as well as a little mad, and seldom quite sober, so I did not think it impossible but that he might throw me out of that window…"3
George II paid off Charles and the couple were legally separated. Although glad to be away from her spouse, the separation was conditional on Henrietta’s surrendering her rights to see her only son. She agreed, opening a fracture that never healed.

Over the years the affair between George II and his mistress had long since cooled into friendship. Now, tired of court intrigues, Henrietta longed for a quiet life. She had no interest in politics and soothing the king’s tantrums, all she wanted were days to call her own. When her brutish husband died in 1733, Henrietta knew that her moment had come. No longer would she have cause to lament that, “I have been a Slave 20 years without ever receiving a reason for any one thing I ever was obliged to do.” 4

When Henrietta asked Caroline if she could be relieved of her duties, the queen was doubtful. She dismissed Henrietta’s claims that her relationship with the king had cooled and warned that life would not be nearly so rosy in the real world. Caroline was determined to keep Henrietta close for she was the best sort of mistress: unpolitical, unassuming, popular and with no ambitions to take her place.

However, when Caroline mentioned to George II that she had prevented Henrietta’s departure, she did not get the thanks she might have been hoping for. Instead he raged about her intervention, roaring, “What the devil did you mean by trying to make an old, dull, deaf, peevish beast stay and plague me when I had so good an opportunity of getting rid of her?” 5

Marble Hill
And that was that. The king had spoken, the mistress agreed and the queen could do nothing. Henrietta Howard, Countess of Suffolk, twenty years a mistress, was bound for a private life at last. When Henrietta left the court, she took up a peaceful, happy residence at Marble Hill. Twenty five years later she saw the king again, just days before his death. When the former lovers passed in a London street the monarch barely glanced at his former mistress Yet this was no deliberate attempt to shun her; in the quarter of a century that had passed, Henrietta had avoided the limelight so successfully that George no longer recognised her.

Henrietta, however, was no lonely recluse. In fact, she got her very own happy ending in 1735 when she married her long-time friend, George Berkeley, a Member of Parliament. The couple were deeply in love and would remain so until his death eleven years later. On the occasion of the marriage Berkeley’s sister, Lady Elizabeth Germain, wrote to Jonathan Swift. In her letter she shared her hoped for the happy couple.

"…he [George Berkeley] hath appeared to all the world, as well as me, to have long had (that is, ever since she hath been a widow, so pray don’t mistake me) a most violent passion for her, as well as esteem and value for her numberless good qualities. These things well considered, I do not think they have above ten to one against their being very happy; and if they should not be so, I shall heartily wish him hanged because I am sure it will be wholly his fault. "6
George II, of course, would not be without a mistress for long and when Henrietta was swiftly replaced by a young beauty named Amalie von Wallmoden, Caroline’s nerves were well and truly rattled. Now she had the interloper she had always feared, and Amalie’s continued residence in Hanover was a threat in itself for the more time George II spent there, the less he seemed to think of Caroline at all.

For Henrietta, however, life was sweet. Her marriage to Berkeley was blissful and even after his death she was happy. She lived peacefully at Marble Hill until 1767 and perhaps is best summed up by her friend, Alexander Pope who once wrote of her, "Handsome and witty, yet a friend.”

What better epitaph is there than that?


1. Wharncliffe, Lord. (1837). The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Vol I. London: Richard Bentley, p.118.

2. Hervey, John and Croker, John Wilson (ed.), (1848). Memoirs of the Reign of George the Second: From his Accession to the Death of Queen Caroline, Vol II. London: John Murray, pp.16-17.

3. Hervey, John and Croker, John Wilson (ed.), (1848). Memoirs of the Reign of George the Second: From his Accession to the Death of Queen Caroline, Vol II. London: John Murray, p.14.

4. Borman, Tracy (2010). King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard. London: Random House, p.174.

5. Hervey, John and Croker, John Wilson (ed.), (1848). Memoirs of the Reign of George the Second: From his Accession to the Death of Queen Caroline, Vol II. London: John Murray, p.179.

6. Swift, Jonathan and Hawkesworth, John (1737). Letters, Written by Jonathan Swift: Vol III. London: A Pope, pp.76-77.

All images courtesy of Wikipedia.

Further reading

Borman, Tracy (2010). King's Mistress, Queen's Servant: The Life and Times of Henrietta Howard. London: Random House, p.174.

Campbell Orr, Clarissa. Queenship in Europe 1660-1815: The Role of the Consort. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

Doran, John. Lives of the Queens of England of the House of Hanover, Volume 1. New York: Redfield, 1819.

Hervey, John and Croker, John Wilson (ed.), (1848). Memoirs of the Reign of George the Second: From his Accession to the Death of Queen Caroline, Vol II. London: John Murray. Kiste, John van der. King George II and Queen Caroline. Stroud: The History Press, 2013.

Swift, Jonathan and Hawkesworth, John (1737). Letters, Written by Jonathan Swift: Vol III. London: A Pope.

Wharncliffe, Lord. (1837). The Letters and Works of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Vol I. London: Richard Bentley.


Catherine Curzon is a royal historian. She is the author of Life in the Georgian Court, Kings of Georgian Britain, and Queens of Georgian Britain

She has written extensively for publications including, the official website of BBC History Magazine, Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and Jane Austen’s Regency World. Catherine has spoken at venues and events including the Stamford Georgian Festival, the Jane Austen Festival, Lichfield Guildhall, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and Dr Johnson’s House. In addition, she has appeared with An Evening with Jane Austen at Kenwood House, Godmersham Park, the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, the Jane Austen Festival, Bath, and the Stamford Georgian Festival.

Her novels, The Crown Spire, The Star of Versailles, and The Mistress of Blackstairs, are available now.

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Connect with Catherine through her website (, Facebook, Twitter (@MadameGilflurt), Google Plus, Pinterest, and Instagram


Sunday, November 26, 2017

Friday, November 24, 2017

Dunfermline - Kings, Queens, and Legends

By Annie Whitehead

The King sits in Dunfermline town,
Drinking the blood-red wine;
"O where shall I get a skeely skipper
To sail this ship o mine?"

Then up and spake an eldern knight,
Sat at the King's right knee:
"Sir Patrick Spens is the best sailor
That ever sailed the sea."
So begins the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens,  which commemorates two tragic incidents: the drowning of many Scottish nobles returning from accompanying Margaret, the daughter of Alexander III of Scotland, to her marriage to King Eric of Norway, and the death on board ship twenty years after Alexander's death of his grandaughter Margaret, the Maid of Norway, heiress to the Scottish throne, on her voyage to Scotland.

Dunfermline was a royal centre from very early in Scottish history. Malcolm Canmore had a palace there in the eleventh century, and it was in Dunfermline that he married Margaret of England, who was canonised and was remembered as Saint Margaret.

In 1070, Queen Margaret established the first monastery on the site, and the small priory was enlarged into an abbey by her son David.

The abbey became a mausoleum for  Scottish royalty, and was the burial place of Malcolm and Margaret, their son David I, and Robert I (more generally known to the English as Robert the Bruce)

The abbey and lands were given as a wedding gift by James VI (son of Mary, Queen of Scots) to his bride, Anne or Anna of Denmark. Saint Margaret's power was believed to have protected women in pregnancy, and certainly, Anne-Marie, one of the guides at the abbey, told me that many Scottish queens felt a great affinity for the palace and abbey, and she believes the reason is that it was, unlike many other palaces, so strongly associated with a queen, rather than kings.

Visitors to Dunfermline Abbey will see that there are two distinct parts, one being the older abbey building, with the nave built by David I and said to be the most complete surviving example of its type in Scotland.

As with so many Scottish religious buildings, the reformation of 1560 meant that anything associated with Catholic worship was removed and/or destroyed and within three years the choir was roofless. In 1817 William Burn designed a new parish church and it opened on the site of the old choir in 1821. During this time, the remains of Robert the Bruce and fragments of his tomb were unearthed, and the modern church is home to a memorial for him. Major repairs undertaken in the 1840s exposed the the earlier church, under the nave floor.

Above, a bronze case of Robert I's skull; below, his memorial

It was the west side of the monastic cloister which was reused  to become the royal residence gifted by James VI to Anna of Denmark. Anna wanted a residence befitting her status, and William Schaw, the king's Master of Works, was commissioned to build it. This once glorious building is now a ruin, but illustrations show what it once would have looked like.

 the window marked as 2 above, is shown below

below, all that remains of the building shown above

The 'nursery' referred to would have been that of Anna's children: the future King Charles I was born here, as was his sister, Elizabeth of Bohemia. I was told by the guide that Anna was opposed to her sons being sent away for schooling, demanding that they be kept with her.

The history of Dunfermline is not confined to the abbey and palace, however, although my journey did bring me back to the churchyard in an unexpected way...

Across the road from the abbey is the park is Pittencrieff Park, an area popular for walks, and picnics. Within the park itself lie the remains of Malcolm Canmore's Tower, tucked well away from the modern, tarmacked path. The tower is all that marks the centre of Malcolm's centre of government, built on a defensible peninsular outcrop of rock above a deep ravine. The opening lines of the Ballad of Sir Patrick Spens are thought to refer to the tower:

Scattered around the park are also signs to 'Wallace's Well', again, hard to find, and easy to miss:

This unprepossessing slab of stones and metal grate gives little away. But an information board explains that in William Wallace's time, the Glen of Pittencrieff would have been a densely wooded area, and the legend has it that Wallace hid in this well shortly after the Battle of Falkirk. It's said that in 1303 he visited Dunfermline with his mother, to pray at the shrine of St Margaret, and that his mother died there and was hastily buried in the churchyard, under a thorn tree. I'd not noticed this tree on my arrival, so this is why I returned to the abbey.

the thorn tree, above, and the plaque, below

Dunfermline had not quite given up all its secrets, however. St Margaret's reputation for piety was not without justification. She used to pray regularly in a little cave, and in her day access was via a wooded path and a short climb up to the cave. Nowadays, visitors must descend a steep tunnel, which was built when the local council built a car park, obscuring the original entrance to the cave.

There is little left of St Margaret's shrine and all that remains now is the stone slab. Originally, her relics were encased in a carved casket covered with gold leaf. It seems likely that her remains were moved from their resting place in the original church when her son, David, began construction of his new church.

The association of Dunfermline with Margaret is hard to escape. Later queens favoured the place, as mentioned above, and it's likely that Anna of Denmark also made arrangements to be buried here when her time came. A burial vault near the south-east doorway was probably intended for her. In the event, the last member of the royal family to be buried here was Robert Stuart, infant son of James VI, in 1602. After James became James I of England, the family moved south, and Anna was buried in Westminster Abbey.

It's said that from the 1590s onwards she and James were all but estranged. I wonder if she yearned to return to her wonderful palace at Dunfermline...

[all photographs by and copyright of the author]


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. Her first two novels are set in tenth-century Mercia, chronicling the lives of Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, who ruled a country in all but name, and Earl Alvar who served King Edgar and his son Æthelred the Unready who were both embroiled in murderous scandals. Her third novel, also set in Mercia, tells the story of seventh-century King Penda and his feud with the Northumbrian kings. She is currently working on a history of Mercia for Amberley Publishing, to be released in 2018.
Amazon Page

Monday, November 20, 2017

Cats in the Days of King Arthur

by Kim Rendfeld

In 5th-century Britain, cats helped humans survive winter, but the way people regarded them depended on their religious beliefs.

Romans introduced housecats to Britain in the 1st century. The island already had native feline species: the lynx (now extinct) and the Scottish wildcat (now endangered). But these animals had no interest in humans—today a Scottish wildcat remained wild, even if it’s raised in captivity. The most significant difference between the housecat and the wildcat is temperament. Housecats live with us, although we’re big enough to be predators.

Unlike a lot of other animals, the early medieval housecat is similar to today’s domestic shorthair. By contrast, horses and sheep were smaller in the Dark Ages. Pigs had bristles and tusks. While some dog breeds such as greyhounds and mastiffs go back to the ancients, many were quite different from today. Some canines, like a hunting and herding dog called alaunt, have since become extinct.

Cat and parrots mosaic (detail), in the National
Archaeological Museum of Naples
(by Massimo Finizio,
CC BY-SA 2.0 Italyvia Wikimedia Commons)

Cats brought by the Roman descended from the Near Eastern wildcat, a species that hunted mice in granaries about 10,000 years ago. Today’s Near Eastern wildcat (Felis silvestris lybica, also called the African wildcat) looks like a large housecat with longer legs and a more upright posture when sitting or walking. In ancient times, the friendlier felines domesticated themselves by hanging out with the humans who fed them table scraps. Just like a cat who decided to live with me and my husband in the 1990s. After my husband fed her, she left a dead mouse on the doormat. A thank-you gift, apparently.

We named the cat Ellie, and she went on to become a pampered pet, still killing rodents on occasion. Had she lived in Arthurian Britain she would have had a job to do—just like every human and every other animal. The only pets, as we understand them, were toy-breed dogs for the wealthy who wanted to show off that they could have an animal that didn’t need to do anything. I suppose those dogs had a job, too—status symbol.

Housecats, along with ferrets and weasels, had the essential job of killing rodents that would otherwise eat the stored grain humans needed to get through winter. Perhaps, it is not too far a stretch for the Egyptians to see them as divine.

When the Romans occupied Britain, housecats and other rodent killers played an important role in the international economy, too. Surplus grain from Britain was exported to the rest of the empire. A lot of people depended on cats’ hunting skills.

Cat and two ducks, Roman artwork, 1st century BC
(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Cats had a spiritual role as well. With their reproductive abilities—a female cat can have two to three litters a year, with up to eight kittens—they were symbols of fertility, an important thing in an age when aristocrats needed heirs and people didn’t know how many children would live to adulthood.

Romans might have smuggled housecats from Egypt, where they were believed to be too sacred for export, and some Egyptian beliefs about the cat-headed Egyptian goddess Bastet might have seeped into Greco-Roman mythology. Bastet, goddess of fertility and motherhood and protector of the home, became associated with the Greek Artemis and by extension the Roman Diana. A dream about a cat was a good omen and a sign of a good harvest.

Roman amulets to ward off evil have images of cats. Feline images appear on a sistrum, a bronze musical instrument a handle and a rounded open frame with bronze rods that rattled. Common in Egypt, the sistrum, associated with fertility, also was used throughout the Roman Empire and even as far as London.

The Celts, particularly the Irish and Scots, had their own belief about cats. It’s possible the Kellas cat, a black hybrid of the Scottish wildcat and housecat, had something to do with it. In the Highlands, the large black Cat Sidhe or Cat Sith could steal the soul of the dead before the gods claimed it, and the folk had several rituals to distract the creature until the body was laid to rest. At Samhain, they left a saucer of milk for the Cat Sidhe, who would bless the house. Those who neglected to leave the treat would be cursed.

Kellas cat on display in the Zoology Museum,
University of Aberdeen (By Sagaciousphil, CC BY-SA 4.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)

Christian clergy saw them as companions—purring sphinxes. Greek monks who came to Europe brought cats with them to share their cells. One of the most delightful poems about a churchman’s relationship with his pet is the 9th century “Pangur Ban.” The Irish monk compares his hunt for knowledge to his white cat’s hunt for mice and the joy each of them feels.

In 5th century Britain, religious beliefs were fluid. Pagan and Christian beliefs coexisted, often in the same person. A Christian might wear an amulet with a cat right beside their cross. They might interpret a dream of a cat as a good omen right before they attend sunrise Mass.

Regardless of religious beliefs, people would have appreciated how the felines preserved the food supply. That furry creature who killed and ate mice in the granary was still essential.


Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

Greek and Roman Household Pets by Francis D. Lazenby

“Cats were so nice, they conquered the world twice” by Nsikan Akpan, PBS News Hour

Classical Cats: The Rise and Fall of the Sacred Cat by Donald W. Engels

A cat that can never be tamed” by Bec Crew, Scientific American

The Cat Sidhe by Deborah MacGillivray

"House Cat Origin Traced to Middle Eastern Wildcat Ancestor" by Brian Handwerk, National Geographic News

"Pangur Ban"


Kim Rendfeld’s short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur, is set in early medieval Britain and available on Amazon.

She has also written two novels set in 8th century Europe. In The Cross and the Dragon, a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband (available on Amazon). In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, a Saxon peasant will fight for her children after losing everything else (available on Amazon).

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.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Lord Rhys; Welsh First, Henry’s Second

by Jean Gill

We all know something about King Henry II of England and Thomas Becket, but few have heard of another powerful man who sparked off the temper of that fiery king and then, against all odds, gained his trust: Lord Rhys.

When Henry died in 1189, Lord Rhys, the Welsh ruler of the kingdom of Deheubarth, had been the royal Justiciar of South Wales for seventeen years, an alliance arrived at through war, truce and stubbornness on both sides. At the peak of their conflict, frustrated in battle, Henry ordered that twenty-two Welsh hostages, including Rhys’ son, should have their eyes gouged out.

Yet the two rulers then became firm allies. How is that possible? How could a father accept such an alliance? The answer might lie in Rhys’ own style of leadership and his background. Maybe he accepted such an action in war because it’s exactly what he himself would have done.

Certainly, the alliance was politically expedient for both rulers as, although Rhys could never win against Henry’s superior manpower, Welsh guerilla warfare could harass and tire the slow, heavy English soldiers, ad infinitum. An alliance gave them both peace and a means to keep in check the greed of the Norman Marcher Lords. However, their truce held strong through later trials, when expediency for Rhys was not in loyalty to Henry, suggesting something deeper between the two men. For his part, there is no doubt that Henry felt respect for Rhys and his countrymen.

‘In one part of the island [of Britain] there is a race of people called the Welsh who are so brave and untamed that, though unarmed themselves, they do not hesitate to do battle with fully armed opponents’

King Henry II 1176

Lord Rhys 

Who was Rhys? His praise-singer described him as ‘golden’ and it might be that he was ‘fair’ like his mother Gwenllian, a princess of North Wales, who eloped with Gruffydd, Prince of Deheubarth to become a legend in her new kingdom. ‘Fair’ and ‘golden’ are compliments with many possible meanings: attractive, just, gifted, lucky, or, of course, blonde (no longer the compliment it once was!). The only other clues to his appearance are in a 14th century effigy on a tomb in St David’s Cathedral, thought to be of Lord Rhys, in which he sports a moustache worthy of a WW2 RAF pilot.

Nobody would have expected him to rule Deheubarth. Youngest of six brothers, he was four years old when his mother, Gwenllian the Warrior Princess, was betrayed by a Welshman and beheaded by the Norman, Maurice De Londres, on the battlefield now known as Maes Gwenllian. One brother, Morgan, died in the same battle and another, Maelgwyn, disappeared, never to be heard of again. Rhys’ father died a year later, of illness or grief.

The eldest surviving brother, Anarawd, then became leader until he was murdered in 1143 by order of his future brother-in-law, Cadwaladr of North Wales. The next brother, Cadell, was so badly injured by Normans from Tenby in 1151, when he was out hunting, that he renounced all worldly matters, retiring to a monastery after going on a pilgrimage.

The coat of arms of Deheubarth
Cadell left his two younger brothers, Maredudd and Rhys as joint rulers in his absence, which turned out to be permanent. Closeness between noble Welsh brothers was rare as they were usually fostered while young and competing for inheritance (with the support of their foster families) as they matured. Gelding and/or blinding were not uncommon ways of showing mercy to the loser while protecting an inheritance. However, Rhys and Maredudd, two years older, had never been fostered and had survived losses that were cruel even by the standard of the day. What little evidence remains suggests that they were close, that they rode together and fought together to win back the lands lost during their father’s time.

Wales 1153
1153, the year my fictional troubadours arrive in Gwalia (Wales), was indeed a golden year for Henry, who was named heir to the English throne by its incumbent Stephen, and also for Rhys and Maredudd. They were on a winning streak and continued to regain castles and land; Carmarthen, Llansteffan, Tenby and St Clears – a 21st birthday present for Rhys in his first sortie as Commander. They even regained Ceredigion, which the North Wales allies had helped them to defend, years earlier – and had then kept for their own, at the time Anarawd was murdered. Now there is a story begging to be told!

Both images are Llansteffan Castle © Jean Gill

I have reconstructed the taking of Tenby and St Clears from details of the building structures there in 1153, starting from the terse statement in the Brut y Tywysogion. ‘There was not much time afterwards before the sons of Rhys attacked the castle of Tenby, and by a night plot, after breaking the gate, they got possession of the castle, and delivered it into the [custody] of William, son of Gerald. And when that was accomplished, Rhys, son of Gruffudd, with an immense host, laid waste the castle of Ystrad Cyngen.

So, a night plot it was! Unfortunately, ‘an immense host’ seems to be poetic license, as on-the-spot research from Tenby sent me records showing the 12th century castle to be a small stronghold, little more than a watchtower, and St Clears (Ystrad Cyngen) was an even smaller motte and bailey.

This is why, in my version of events, my hero Dragonetz observes, ‘It’s smaller than I thought it would be,’ before the men lay siege. There is also some disagreement as to whether events took place in 1152 or 1153, a minor matter considering how little information there is on major events!

I can’t find any indication of how Maredudd died but it seems that this happened in 1155 and Rhys became sole ruler, Prince of Deheubarth, or ‘the Lord Rhys’, the title he’s known by nowadays. He continued to build his kingdom, and not just figuratively. He built castles in the Norman style, and as solidly expensive as theirs; Cardigan, Cilgerran, Dinefwr and Llandovery, among others.

According to the cleric and writer, Gerald of Wales, a relative who stayed as Rhys’ guest on his Journey Through Wales, Rhys was ‘kindly’ and ‘discreet’, a perfect host. He was highly cultured and drew poets and musicians to his court. You can imagine the harper playing in Rhys’ castle in Cardigan, as at King Henry’s court, where a Welsh harper was also employed. Steeped in this musical tradition, Lord Rhys is credited with hosting the first Eisteddfod, at Christmas in 1176.

He also started the codification of Welsh laws, later continued by Hywel Dda. I would argue that, when he did so, he had read The Usatges of Barcelona, laws that influenced law-making throughout Europe.

He founded Cistercian monasteries but hated bad clerics. Rhys was nicknamed ‘the Good’ and yet he died excommunicate for arguing with a bishop over a horse theft. His body had to be scourged before burial, in penance.

He was reputed to be charming, a man who loved many women, and this proved to be damaging for the succession in Deheubarth. Linked to Henry II in their life-times, Rhys faced the same problem; his children’s conflicts, with him and with each other. Rhys had at least nine children by various mothers and as legitimacy was not important in Welsh law, claims to Deheubarth were violently disputed.

Notwithstanding the conflicts, Rhys’ children played their own parts in history. Through one daughter named Gwenllian (there were several, just to add to the confusion), Rhys could claim ancestry to the Tudors, and from them to several of the ruling houses in Europe today, including the UK. Henry Tudor flew a Welsh dragon banner at Bosworth field to acknowledge his descent from this remarkable man, Rhys, Prince of Deheubarth.

Further reading/ Acknowledgements This is the version of Brut y Tywysogion translated by William ab Ithel in the 19th century.
The Lord Rhys – Roger Turvey
The Journey through Wales and The Description of Wales – Gerald of Wales

1) Effigy of Rhys ap Gruffydd in St David's Cathedral, Wales scanned from the 1810 engraving by John Conlon   
Credit: Rhion Pritchard 2/3/2006. Public Domain Image.

2) The coat of arms of Deheubarth
By AlexD (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 ( or GFDL (], via Wikimedia Commons

3) Map of Wales in 1153
Adapted from Map of Wales 986-99 (Maredudd ab Owain) courtesy of AlexD under the Creative Commons license

4 and 5 Llansteffan Castle © Jean Gill

6 Welsh dragon on plate © Jean Gill


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