Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Mistress of More Variety: Actress Susanna Verbruggen

by Margaret Porter

Drury Lane Theatre in the late 17th century

Susanna/h Percival was likely born in 1667. Her father, Thomas Percival, was a lesser actor in the Duke's Company of players, and as did many a young person of her era, she entered the family business. Her initial stage appearances may have taken place during her childhood but by 1681, when she was about 14, she was performing with the King's Company in Drury Lane. Her first known role was the vulgar character Welsh Winnifred in Thomas D'Urfey's play Sir Barnaby Whig. In 1683, as a member of the United Company at the Dorset Garden Theatre, she was seen in a breeches role, listed in the bill as Mrs Percival--actresses, whether wed or not, were typically referred to as "Mrs". From the start of her career her skill for comedy and her attractiveness in male costume were apparent to playgoers, and managers and playwrights exploited these assets.

She married a handsome and popular fellow player, William Mountfort/Mountford, on 2 July, 1686, at the church of St. Giles in the Field. Apparently she was one of the rare respectable actresses who maintained her virtue until her wedding day, for Sir George Etheredge observed that, "Mrs Percivall [sic] had only her youth and a maidenhead to recommend her." He, along with Dryden, thought little of Mrs Mountford's talents in these early years--perhaps because of the limited, low-comedy nature of her parts.

Over time, however, she was given more sophisticated roles, often performing opposite her charming husband. Playwrights sometimes relied on the couple's marital partnership as inspiration. Mountford, who wrote as well as performed in plays, included his wife in his compositions,  creating more of the breeches roles for which she was so popular. He is also credited with inventing the immortal phrase "be still my beating heart," a line in his play Zelmane.

Thomas Southerne
In 1690, Thomas Southerne provided Susanna's most successful character in his play Sir Anthony Love. Its principal character Lucia disguises herself as "Sir Anthony" in order to live as freely as the male rakes. The epilogue contained a reference to Susanna: "You'll hear with Patience a dull Scene, to see,/In a contented lazy waggery,/The Female Mountford bare above the knee." Not only were her legs admired. According to Anthony Aston, she was a "fine, fair woman, plump, full-featured; her face of a fine, smooth Oval, full of beautiful and well-disposed Moles on it, and on her Neck and Breast… Whatever she did was not to be called acting; no, no, it was what she represented. She was neither more nor less, and was the most easy actress in the world."

Her home life must have been as taxing as her professional life. She bore three children in quick succession: Susannah (b. 1690); an infant son who died (1691); and Elizabeth, who suffered the same early death as her brother (1692). By late 1692 she was pregnant once more, but tragedy prevented her husband from meeting his fourth child.

Captain Richard Hill was an admirer of the popular and outwardly chaste actress Anne Bracegirdle, who frequently appeared opposite William Mountford. When she rebuffed Hill's overtures, he jumped to the mistaken conclusion that she granted her favours to her on-stage lover Mountford. Madly jealous, he and his crony Lord
Charles, 4th Baron Mohun
Mohun, aged only fifteen, concocted a plan to kidnap the actress from the theatre and force her into marriage. The intended abduction was prevented at the last minute, further provoking Hill's rage, and he hastened to Mountford's house in Howard Street to lie in wait. The actor returned home from the theatre quite unaware that his life was in peril. As he conversed with Mohun, Hill moved forward with sword brandished. After stabbing his supposed rival, he promptly fled. Lord Mohun was seized. The wounded Mountford was carried to his bed, where he died the next morning.

A thousand people attended the actor's funeral at St Clement Danes. His popularity with the monarchs was such that the Royal Chapel choristers sang at the service, and court musician Henry Purcell played the organ. On that sorrowful occasion, the great church bell cracked from repeated tolling.
Susanna gave birth to a fatherless daughter the following April and christened her Mary at St Clement's. Captain Hill had escaped, first to the Channel Islands and then to the Continent, and thus could not be tried for the actor's murder. But the House of Lords did hear the case against his conspirator Lord Mohun, and promptly voted acquittal. Susanna fully intended to appeal what she regarded as a most unjust verdict, but was prevented by another family tragedy.

On 17 Oct ’93 her father, Thomas Percival, was sentenced to death for clipping coins—a capital offence. Only by abandoning her appeal, she was told, could she save him from hanging. One account indicates that that she directly petitioned Queen Mary II:

Under this most unparalleled affliction she was introduced to Queen Mary, who being as she was pleased to say struck to the heart upon receiving Mrs Mountfort's petition, immediately granted all that was in her power, a remission of her father's execution, and afterwards was graciously pleased to procure a mitigation of his sentence, which was changed to that of banishment [transportation]. But Mr Percival being weakened by his long imprisonment fell ill upon the road and died at Portsmouth.

Susanna's widowhood was brief, for on 31 January, 1694, she married her fellow actor John Baptista Verbruggen at St Clement Danes. He had previously performed under the stage name Alexander, and first appeared at Drury Lane in 1688. This was apparently a union of necessity at worst, convenience at best, rather than a romantic one. Verbruggen was an energetic and skillful actor, for according to Aston, "That rough diamond shone more bright than all the artful polished brilliants that ever sparkled on our stage...nature without extravagance, freedom without licentiousness, and vociferous without bellowing." He was also  rough of speech,  short-tempered, and prone to violence. As for Susanna, “She was cautious, lest fiery Jack should so resent it, as to breed a quarrel--for he would often say--‘Damme! tho’ I don’t much value my wife, yet nobody shall affront her!’ and his sword was drawn on the least occasion.”

Thomas Betterton, actor and manager
The United Company with which they performed became disunited late in 1694. Hoping for better pay, the Verbruggens were tempted to desert managers Rich and Skipworth and follow Thomas Betterton into a new acting company. But they would not have had as many leading parts, and the Lord Chamberlain urged them to continue with their Drury Lane employers. Jack's pay was raised from £2 to £4 per week, with a share of profits, placing him at the highest tier of the pay scale, and articles drawn up in the spring of 1695 indicate Susanna's salary:
1. John Verbruggen agrees that, for a payment of £75, his wife will act in the theatre.
2. Susanna Verbruggen to have £4 out of £20 ... if this does not amount to £105 per year (i.e £3 a week for 35 weeks) this sum shall be made up to her. At the end of every 6 acting days (except when the young actors play for their own benefit) she shall have £3 till the whole £105 is completed. If, on the other hand, her share comes to more than £105 she shall be allowed to keep it.

Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St Albans
Later that year a backstage scandal threatened the Verbruggens' livelihood. One evening after a Drury Lane performance of Southerne's Oronooko, the Duke of St Albans (illegitimate son of King Charles II and actress Nell Gwyn) visited Susanna's dressing room. This infuriated her husband, who struck the duke and called him the "son of a whore." Assualting and insulting a peer of the realm was a most unwise action, considering that players were royal servants. And the duke, though illegitimate, was by blood first cousin of the King and the Queen.

On learning of the incident, the Lord Chamberlain advised Verbruggen to make a public apology to St Albans from the stage, or else lose his place in the company. The next evening the actor complied, however his apology was couched in such terms that it hardly negated the insult. He retained his place at Drury Lane. Susanna's opinion of what occurred, and her precise relationship with the duke, if any, remain a matter of speculation.

In 1697 Verbruggen broke with Drury Lane, after verbally abusing Skipworth, striking another individual, and breaking the peace. When he left to join Betterton's troupe at Lincoln's Inn Fields, Susanna remained at Drury Lane--fortunate for its proprietors.  Her importance and popularity was as considerable as her talents. She played society coquettes, ladies disguised as men, and low-life characters with equal flair and success.

One of Susanna's greatest admirers was Colley Cibber, as proved by his descriptions of her in his memoirs.

Mrs Mountfort, whose second marriage gave her the name of Verbruggen, was mistress of more variety of humour than I ever knew in any one woman actress. This variety too was attended with an equal vivacity, which made her excellent in characters extremely different. As she was naturally a pleasant mimic, she had the skill to make that talent useful on the stage a talent which may be surprising in a conversation and yet be lost when brought to the theatre….But where the elocution is round, distinct, voluble, and various as Mrs Mountfort's was, the mimic there is a great assistant to the actor. Nothing, though ever so barren, if within the bounds of nature, could be flat in her hands. She gave many heightening touches to characters but coldly written, and often made an author vain of his work that in itself had but little merit. She was so fond of humour, in what low part soever to be found, that she would make no scruple of defacing her fair form to come heartily into it….

Colley Cibber, actor and dramatist

In the summer of 1703 she failed to accompany her fellow players to Bath, pleading illness--she was pregnant. She went into labour on 2 September, and died in childbirth. Her husband, who after her death performed with various London companies and in Dublin, outlived her by just five years.

One hopes that she found satisfaction in the artistry that pleased her audiences so well. Several incidents described above appear in my recent novel about the Duke and Duchess of St Albans, and in researching Susanna I both liked and pitied her. On stage she portrayed independent women of spirit, yet it seems that the men in her offstage life--to whom she was so valuable--held the balance of power. And it is these men only whose portraits survive, and illustrate this article.

[This article is an Editors' Choice, originally published on 21 April 2016]

Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, whose other publication credits include nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, is her latest release, available in trade paperback and ebook. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.
Margaret's latest novel is A Beautiful Invention: A Novel of Hedy Lamarr, available fore pre-order HERE 

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Editor's Weekly Round-up, September 16, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Maria Grace takes the spotlight on this week's round-up.

by Maria Grace

Interested in writing for English Historical Fiction Authors? We need 800-2000 words of previously unpublished non-fiction about any aspect of British history. Email us at ehfablog at yahoo dot com for our guidelines.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Role of the Circulating Library

by Maria Grace

During the Georgian Era literacy rates among the ‘common man’ rose. Consequently, the demand for reading materials increased, driving the rise of two new literary forms, the newspaper and the novel. By 1720, twenty four newspapers were published in Britain. By the 19th century there were fifty four newspapers printed in London alone.

The High Cost of Reading

Unfortunately, the cost of reading material did not decrease with the increase in demand. But, where there’s a will, there’s a way. People banded together to form “newspaper societies” where groups of people, usually those in a local parish, would contribute a weekly sum. With these pooled funds, the society would purchase subscriptions to one or more newspapers. The newspapers would be shared among those in the society.

While they might not be the first to get the news, society members did manage to get their hands on what they might not be able to individually afford. By 1820, around five thousand of these societies were still going strong.

Whether booksellers took note of the idea or came upon it on their own, they realized that, as with newspapers,  there were far more readers who wanted books than could actually afford to pay for them. For some perspective, in 1815, the average (three-volume) novel cost a guinea (a pound and a shilling). Based on the current worth of a guinea's gold content, that was roughly the equivalent of $100 in modern currency.

This doesn’t tell the whole story though. In the early 1800s, a comfortable middle class salary for a family of four was in the neighborhood of £250. (A guinea was slightly more than a pound, but let’s keep the math a little easier.) At the price of a guinea, a typical novel would cost you 1/250 of your yearly income. If you consider the median US income in 2018 as $60,000 (rounding up just a smidge for the sake of the math), then that same novel carries a price tag on the order of $240. Ouch!

Enter the Circulating Library

Booksellers, particularly those in big cities like London, had already begun making changes in their business practices to reflect these economic realities. By the mid-1700s, they had started encouraging clients to linger at their shops “offering comfortable chairs, a warm fireside in cold weather, some even offering refreshments. The best of these shops soon became places where those with literary interests congregated regularly. Even if a bookseller made enough to afford to employ an assistant or two, most spent a goodly portion of their time in their shops, chatting with their customers. In the days before published book and theater reviews, it was these discussions which enabled people to keep up with the news of the literary world. By the mid-eighteenth century, the social aspects of these literary bookstores were nearly as important as the books they housed.” (Kane, 2011)

From here, it was only a short leap for booksellers to allow their best patrons to take books home with them to continue reading, for a fee of course. Trustworthy patrons were often allowed to rent books to read and return. The idea grew and by 1728, James Leake had established the first circulating library in England. (Hilden, 2018) In 1742 Reverend Samuel Fancourt, opened the first circulating library in London. He has also been credited with coining the term circulating library. (Kane, 2011) By the end of the 18th century there were 1,000 circulating libraries across England. (Hilden, 2018)

Libraries Holdings

Early library holdings varied according to the anticipated subscribers of the library. Sometimes existing social clubs or book clubs formed libraries to cater to the interests of their members. These libraries might feature books on science, arts, the classics, law, history, religion or philosophy. Other “club” libraries might feature somewhat broader topics and even some newspapers or magazines which could be made available to members in a separate reading room. These libraries were not open to the public though, available only to members of the club. (Kane, 2011)

Music libraries formed in places like Bath, specifically to allow subscribers access to sheet music. (McLeod, 2017)
Bath Chronicle and Weekly Gazette - Thursday 11 April 1816 

Since the circulating library was first and foremost a business, it behooved the library to cater to as many as could afford the price of a subscription. So, most library catalogs reflected a much wider selection of books, appealing to the tastes of both men and women since most libraries could not afford to discriminate on the basis of gender. Savvy proprietors quickly realized that the most profitable sort of book was the fashionable novel.

Novels were different than traditional nonfiction books. Where nonfiction works might be read and reread, consulted through the years as a valuable reference, this was not so with the novel. The novel was in fact a “consumable” good. Typically one read a novel once and never again. It was exactly the sort of book that made little sense to purchase (as an individual) and a tremendous amount of sense to rent.

Library catalogues reflected the (largely female reading) public’s hunger for novels. The average circulating library’s catalogue typically listed around five thousand titles. About twenty percent of those were fiction. However, many libraries boasted multiple copies of those novels, sometimes as many as twenty five copies. So that twenty percent of titles probably made up a much larger percentage of the libraries actual holdings. Research on smaller libraries, those averaging less than four hundred and fifty titles, reveals collections of up to seventy five percent fiction titles. Some research suggests that fiction was checked out three to four times as much as nonfiction, implying that for some of these smaller libraries almost all of their stock and trade was in the renting of novels. (Erickson, 1990)

Libraries as a social space

Libraries were first and foremost a business, not a public service as we think of them today. Generally, they required a town with a population of at least two thousand to be profitable. Consequently, they were almost exclusively found in larger towns and resorts.

Libraries could exist in smaller areas, but in those places, they were more of a sideline, added to an existing business. “In 1791, William Lane, famed for the Minerva Press, advertised ‘complete CIRCULATING LIBRARIES . . . from One Hundred to Ten Thousand Volumes' for sale to grocers, tobacconists, picture-framers, haberdashers, and hatters eager for a profitable side line.”(Benson, 1997) Other libraries (those small or not so small) supplemented their income with additional lines of luxury goods like haberdashery, hosiery, hats, tea, tobacco, perfume and even patent medicine. (Erickson, 1990) They might even go so far as to advertise these goods in the local paper.  (McLeod, 2017)

Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser - Thursday 09 February 1815 

Since libraries survived on traffic from the local public, they sought to draw public attention from the local newspapers. Construction of a new library was often publicized in the newspaper as were additions to a library’s collections.

Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette - Saturday 10 January 1807 

La Belle Assemblee, the popular ladies' journal, carried advertisements for circulating libraries: (McLeod, 2017)

To encourage their customers to visit and to linger, libraries, especially in resort areas, often installed reading rooms and “daytime lounges where ladies could see others and be seen, where raffles were held and games were played …” (Erickson, 1990) These rooms were often gathering places for acquaintances to meet or for people to stop and rest during a long excursion into town.

“Since it was the custom to subscribe to the libraries immediately upon arrival in the watering places and resorts, their subscription books became a useful guide to who was in town. In Sanditon the subscription book is used this way. Mr. Parker and Charlotte Heywood go to Mrs. Whitby's circulating library after dinner to examine the subscription book. When they look into it, Mr. Parker ‘could not but feel that the List was not only without Distinction, but less numerous than he had hoped.’” (Erickson, 1990)

Libraries as a business

The circulating library’s profits (primarily) came from lending books to readers for a fee and later selling the used copies for a reduced price after a book (usually a novel) declined in popularity, typically about nine months after its publication.

Subscription prices varied but were generally affordable for the middling classes. Lending periods could vary depending on the kind of book borrowed—two to six days might be the period for a popular new work. Beyond the price of subscription, heavy fines, which could include purchasing the book, could be imposed for returning books late or damaging the books. (Erickson, 1990)

A catalogue of Hookham’s circulating library, 1829

Just how much did a library subscription cost? “The Nobles' brothers charged ten shillings sixpence per year, or three shillings per quarter. The subscriber was then entitled to any two books from the collection at any time. For an additional charge they would even deliver books to your London residence… Some libraries, such as Hookham's, had sliding rates according to services selected.” (Benson, 1997)

(Sanford, 2010)

Most lending libraries had a reading room with the daily newspapers and the most popular magazines available occasionally. Some had a few bookshelves with the most popular current books on them. What they did not feature were rooms of shelves where patrons could browse. In general, the books were kept in closed stacks, away from the public.

In order to borrow a book, a subscriber would peruse the library catalogue lists and select a title. Then, they would go to a clerk who would consult their lists to find the press mark which would allow them to identify what shelf and position to find the book on. The clerk would retrieve the book and allow the patron to determine whether or not they wanted to borrow said book. Clerks tended to be very knowledgeable on the latest books available and might offer recommendations as well. (Kane, 2015) While waiting for the clerk to retrieve their book, patrons might spend time in the reading room, looking over the goods for sale, or even enjoying some light refreshments.

Library failures

In The Use of Circulating Libraries, Thomas Wilson warned that not one circulating library in twenty is, by its profits enabled to give support to a family, or even pay for the trouble and expense attending it; therefore the bookselling and stationary business should always be annexed, and in country towns, some others may be added, particular small, expensive luxury items. (Erickson, 1990) Though it may seem a rather dire warning, running a circulating library required significant business savvy.

Because novels were largely a consumable good, they had a limited shelf life and depreciated quickly, rather like fruit. A substantial portion of a library’s income had to be reinvested in new stock in order to keep new, attractive titles on their shelves. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, rising book prices made this particular difficult task, with many libraries declaring bankruptcy. Mrs. Martin’s Circulating library in Basingstoke to which Jane Austen subscribed, opened in 1798, and failed in 1800. Half the library failures from 1732 to 1799 took place in the nine year period from 1790 to 1799. (Erickson, 1990)

Over the course of the 19th century, books became less expensive. Declining taxes and falling prices on paper, the rise of the paperback cover, and industrialization made books more affordable. Moreover, public libraries came on the scene and allowed individuals to borrow without a subscription fee. Together, these forces brought about the decline of the circulating library, but their influence on the reading public is still felt today.


“British Newspaper History”. Accessed September 6, 2018 https://www.999inks.co.uk/british-newspaper-history.html

Book Shops” Georgian Index. 2003 Accessed August 29, 2018. http://www.georgianindex.net/books/Hatchard.html

Austen, Jane. Ed. R. W. Chapman. Jane Austen's letters to her Sister Cassandra and others. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1979.

Benson, Mary Margaret. “Parasols & Gloves & Broches & Circulating Libraries.” Persuasions # 19, 1997 Jane Austen Society of North America.

Erickson, Lee. "The Economy of Novel Reading: Jane Austen and the Circulating Library." Studies in English Literature, 1500-190030, no. 4 (1990): 573-90. doi:10.2307/450560.

Feather, John. The Provincial Book Trade in Eighteenth-Century England. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1985.

Glover, Anne. Regency Hot Spots: Bookseller Shops and the Subscription Library. Regency Reader. November 6, 2015. Accessed August 1, 2018. http://www.regrom.com/2015/11/06/regency-hot-spots-bookseller-shops-and-the-subscription-library/

Hatch, Donna. Circulating Libraries in Regency England. Historical Hussies. Friday, November 7, 2014. Accessed July 0, 2018. http://historicalhussies.blogspot.com/2014/11/circulating-libraries-in-regency-england.html

Hilden, L. A. Circulating Libraries in Regency England. L.A. Hilden. July 23, 2018. Accessed July 31, 2018. http://www.lahilden.com/index.php?categoryid=6&p2_articleid=206

Jacobs, Edward and Antonia Forster. "'Lost Books' and Publishing History: Two Annotated Lists of Imprints for the Fiction Titles Listed in the Circulating Library Catalogs of Thomas Lowndes (1766) and M. Heavisides (1790), of Which No Known Copies Survive." The Papers of the Bibliographical Society of America 89 (1995): 260-97.

Kane, Kathryn. Before the Call Number: The Pressmark. The Regency Redingote. January 16, 2015. Accessed August 29, 2018. https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2015/01/16/before-the-call-number-the-pressmark/

Kane, Kathryn. Regency Circulating Libraries — Why, How and Who? The Regency Redingote. October, 211, 2011, Accessed August 12, 2018. https://regencyredingote.wordpress.com/2011/10/21/regency-circulating-libraries-why-how-and-who/.

Manley, K. A. "London Circulating Library Catalogues of the 1740s." Library History 8 (1989) 3,74-79.

Mc Leod, Lesley Anne. Who Doesn't Love a Library? Lesley Anne McLeod. Wednesday, November 8, 2017. http://lesleyannemcleod.blogspot.com/2017/11/who-doesnt-love-library.html

Sanborn, Vic. The Circulating Library in Regency Resorts. Jane Austen’s World. August 30, 2010. Accessed August 15, 2018. https://janeaustensworld.wordpress.com/2010/08/30/the-circulating-library-in-regency-times/

Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Editor's Weekly Round-up, September 9, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Here's what you missed last week on English Historical Fiction Authors. Enjoy!

by Karen V. Wasylowski
(Editor's choice from the Archives)

by Annie Whitehead

Friday, September 7, 2018

Winchcombe and its Royal Connections

by Annie Whitehead

Winchcombe is a pretty Cotswold town, not far from Tewkesbury in Gloucestershire. Walking or driving along its main street, one can immediately see that it has history.

Pretty cottages nestle side by side, the yellow stone seeming to soak up and yet reflect the sunlight. But the history of Winchcombe goes much further than these old buildings would suggest. In fact, at one time, there was a separate 'county' of Winchcombeshire.

The town lies in what was once the ancient tribeland of the Hwicce, an area which was absorbed into the greater area of Mercia, but which originally had its own kings. These kings gradually had their status reduced, eventually issuing and witnessing royal charters as sub-kings of Mercia.

Osric, Sub-king of the Hwicce, founder of Gloucester Cathedral

Winchcombe first made the 'headlines' in the eighth century, when Cenwulf became king of Mercia. Cenwulf succeeded after the death of Ecgfrith, son of Offa. Ecgfrith's reign was short, a matter of some five months, and Cenwulf had no direct links with the previous kings. It is possible that he was descended from a sister of Penda, the pagan king of Mercia, but equally he may have been connected to the Hwicce, for he made claims to 'hereditary lands' in the heart of the Hwiccan territory.

Cenwulf was no less a warlord than previous kings, and in 801 he was attacked by the king of Northumbria. He also, notoriously, captured the king of Kent, who went by the name of Eadberht Præn. Cenwulf put his own brother on the Kentish throne, thus bringing the kingdom of Kent under direct Mercian control.

But Cenwulf's hold on Kent was weakened by his long-running dispute with the archbishop of Canterbury, and it is perhaps this for which he is most remembered. His argument centred around Kentish minsters and the question of whether there should be lay control of ecclesiastical lands. Cenwulf went so far as to threaten to exile the archbishop unless the matter was resolved, and the dispute involved not only Cenwulf, but his daughter, too.

Carving of Cenwulf at Winchombe
Cwoenthryth was not only the daughter of the king, but she was an abbess too. She was the first abbess of Winchcombe Abbey, and her father had also appointed her abbess of the royal minsters of Reculver and Minster-in-Thanet in Kent. The arguments about whether Church or State should control these lucrative sites rumbled on. Some believed that the archbishop even forged documents to support his case.

When Cenwulf died (he was buried at Winchcombe), Cwoenthryth was named as his heir. This doesn't mean that she succeeded to the throne, but that she inherited his property, which included the minsters. The Councils of Clofesho debated her right not to be an abbess, but to own the abbeys themselves. The councils found in favour of the archbishop, but Cwoenthryth was allowed to remain as abbess and retained possession of Winchcombe, although she had to surrender the lands in Kent.

There is a legend surrounding her, which may or may not have something to do with her long-running dispute with the Church. According to this legend, she arranged to have her young brother Kenelm murdered because she wanted to be queen. A dove dropped a message on the altar of St Peters in Rome, alerting people to the whereabouts of the body, which was then re-interred with all ceremony at Winchcombe. The story goes that when she saw the funeral procession, she recited a psalm backwards in order to cast a spell, and her eyeballs promptly fell out, splattering the psalter in front of her with blood.

Winchcombe Abbey fell into decline in the latter part of the ninth century, and in the tenth it was reformed as part of the Benedictine Monastic Reformation in Edgar's reign, when the clerks were replaced with Benedictine monks.

In the eleventh century, Winchcombe was once again in the 'news'. One of the most reviled earls of Mercia went by the name of Eadric Streona - whose epithet has been translated as 'the Grasper' - and it is possible that part of his notoriety stemmed from his treatment of Winchcombeshire. By this time, Mercia was no longer a kingdom, but its earls were still powerful men, ruling vast areas of land.

Eadric made his career in politics and warfare, and famously vacillated at crucial moments. He was accused more than once of murder, and he was a notorious turncoat. Supposedly on the side of Æthelred the Unready - he was married to the king's daughter - he went over to Cnut's side, changed his mind to fight with Edmund Ironside - son of Æthelred - before once again changing sides and leading his men from the battlefield at a pivotal moment in 1016, ensuring that Cnut had the victory over Edmund. After this it was agreed that the country be divided between the two, but Edmund died shortly afterwards, and Eadric's family were, according to some sources, involved in that death, too.
A page from Hemming's Cartulary

But it seems that Eadric's nickname, which might more accurately be translated as 'Acquisitive' came from his administrative dealings. Hemming, a monk of Worcester, compiled what has come to be known as Hemming's Cartulary, and in it, Hemming reports that ‘He [Eadric] joined townships to townships and shires to shires at will; it was he who amalgamated the hitherto independent county of Winchcombe with the county of Gloucester.’

There has been huge and long-standing debate about when and how the shires of Mercia came into being. The old territories such as that of the Hwicce disappeared, with new boundary lines cut through traditional areas. Whether or not Eadric can be blamed for this, it is clear that Hemming thought him to be a grasping man, acquiring lands at the Church's expense to line his own pockets, and local men would have no cause to remember Eadric fondly.

So Mercia's status had been reduced from that of kingdom to that of ealdordom and then earldom, and the independent county of Winchcombeshire was no more. There is no trace left of the original abbey building, although it is said that stones from the abbey have been incorporated into other buildings in the town, and some of the stones are housed in a collection at nearby Sudeley Castle.

If you are immune to nettle stings and don't mind climbing steep hills, you can visit St Kenelm's Well, a site where the funeral procession rested before the little murdered king, Kenelm, was buried at Winchcombe. But your intrepid researcher has done all that for you:-

So, instead, take a walk through the pretty town of Winchcombe and wonder where the stones of the once famous abbey now hide within the walls of the newer buildings.

[all photographs by and copyright of the author. Illustration of Hemming's Cartulary is a Public Domain image via Wikipedia]


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, will be published by Amberley on 15 September 2018.

Find out more at www.anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

September in British History

by Karen V. Wasylowski

Did you know that absolutely nothing happened in Britain from 3 September to 13 September, 1752? It is a fact. Nothing.

The reason is pretty simple. The calendar used during this period was the Julian Calendar, based on a solar year, 365.25 days. Problem was, it ran a little over time and eventually the calendar fell out of line with the seasons.

The solution: Britain decided to dump the Julian Calendar and adopt the more favorable Gregorian Calendar, and September 3 instantly became September 14. Eleven days were gone, eliminated, abolished. People protested in the streets believing their lives would be shortened. They chanted: “Give us our eleven days back!”

September 24 was traditionally the start of the Harvest time in Medieval England and a lovely ceremony, a race to harvest, called “Calling the Mare.” As the very last of the crops would be brought in the farmers would hurriedly fashion a straw horse then go to a neighboring farm that was still rushing to finish and throw the straw mare over his hedge. They would taunt “Mare, Mare” and that farmer would gather his final crop and do the same to any other farmer still trying to harvest. The last man to finish had to keep the straw mare all year and have it on display to show he was the slowest of them all.

And when the tenauntes come
To paie their quarter's rent,
They bring some fowle at Midsummer
A dish of fish in Lent
At Christmas, a capon,
At Michaelmas, a goose,
And somewhat else at New Yere's tide
For feare the lease flie loose.
--George Gascoine, English poet, 1577

“Michaelmas” is the feast day of St. Michael the Archangel, the patron saint of the sea and boats, horses and horsemen. “Michaelmas Day” is the final day of the Harvest Season, and it was also the first day of the winter night curfew and the church bells would ring once for each night of the year until that point. The bells are still rung to this day in a city called Chertsy from Michaelmas Day, 29 September, to Lady Day, 25 March.

There are traditionally four “quarter days” in a year (Lady Day (25th March), Midsummer (24th June), Michaelmas (29th Spetember) and Christmas (25th December)). They are spaced three months apart, on religious festivals, usually close to the solstices or equinoxes. They were the four dates on which servants were hired, rents due or leases begun. It used to be said that harvest had to be completed by Michaelmas, almost like the marking of the end of the productive season and the beginning of the new cycle of farming. It was the time at which new servants were hired or land was exchanged and debts were paid. This is how it came to be for Michaelmas to be the time for electing magistrates and also the beginning of legal and university terms.

Michaelmas Superstitions
– The devil stomps or spits on bramble bushes so don’t pick Blackberries after Michaelmas.

– Victorians believed trees planted on this day would grow really well

– In Northern England and Ireland if you eat goose this day you will have good luck for the rest of the year.

– In Ireland if you found the ring hidden in the Michaelmas pie you would soon marry.

In a town called Abbotts Bromley in Staffordshire a colorful tradition takes place. Six men carrying long sticks with horns attached to the top march down the street. Two sets of three men each, their horns are painted blue on one team and white on the other and they charge each other as if to fight, then they retreat, people dance, Maid Marion is there also, along with a boy with a bow and arrow, a triangle player, a musician and a Fool.

Holy Rood Day – (rood is another name for cross) Children were traditionally freed from school to gather nuts.


September 2 – 6, 1666 – The Great Fire of London
September 7, 1533 - Queen Elizabeth I born
September 9, 1087 - William the Conqueror dies
September 28 - St. Wenceslas Day
September 29, 1758 - Nelson is born

An Editor's Choice from the Archives, originally published September 30, 2011.