Sunday, March 18, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, March 18, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Every week, contributors to English Historical Fiction Authors post on various aspects of British history. Enjoy this week's round-up!

by Maria Grace

by Sarah Rayne

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Wednesday, March 14, 2018

An Ancient Legality that Named a House

By Sarah Rayne

The legal profession has always been a novelists’ treasure house, and lawyers themselves are a gift to writers of fiction. Old documents, particularly ones held by the family solicitor, such as a Will, can provide motives the reader hasn't yet suspected, and extra detail for the author to draw on.

Charles Dickens drew on his time as a solicitor’s clerk and court reporter to weave satirical portrayals of the English legal system, with characters caught like hapless insects in the dusty spider-strands of the law.

When, in Oliver Twist, Mr Bumble advised a court that, ‘The law is an ass’, Dickens may have been borrowing from a 17th century play called Revenge for Honour, which is attributed to both George Chapman and Henry Glapthorne, depending on which source you check. Not much seems known about Henry Glapthorne, but apparently Master Chapman signed an agreement for a loan which never materialised. According to the reports, he spent years petitioning Chancery to release him from payment, but at one stage was arrested for debt. (A fate which hovers over many writers to this day). Under those circumstances (supposing the facts to be accurate), it’s hardly surprising that Master Chapman did what a great many other writers have done: he wrote out his frustrations in the plot.

English law is peppered with all kinds of curious legalities – many of which had names that have almost vanished from the dictionaries. There are tithes and torts and peppercorn rents. There’s assumpsit (medieval breach of contract), and gavelkind (a Saxon form of limited land ownership). There’s something called aberemurder (spontaneous and gratuitous murder) and there’s witenagemote, which was an assembly of local elders in medieval England.

And there are one or two ancient laws, whose fragments still crop up…

Some years ago, when writing a novel, I searched for an appropriate house name for the brooding old orphanage/workhouse that played such an integral part in the plot. Names of places matter just as much as names of characters. You can’t call a Victorian asylum Rosemount Manor, or a gaol housing condemned prisoners Summerville Court.

Then I came across mortmain.

In medieval times, kings often had the amiable – if unthinking – habit of bestowing large swathes of land on religious houses. This was excellent for the abbeys and monasteries and churches of course – it resulted in them becoming extremely wealthy. Land yields profits, and in those days there would be all kinds of revenue to be scooped up: tenant farmers, who must pay rent to their overlord – fishing rights on stretches of river, grazing rights on open land. Market days and fairs, for which pedlars could set up stalls – and for which tolls were payable.

But if the abbeys and the monasteries were raking it in, the king was not. The problem was that religious houses do not succumb to mere mortality – they are never under age, neither do they marry, commit felony, or become attainted for treason. They do not, in short, fall victim to any of the fates that generate taxes. Thus, on the death of an abbot, the land simply passed to the next abbot – meaning that it was held in perpetuity, and that the medieval equivalent of modern death duties could not be enforced. This was known as mortmain – from Old French mortemain, and from the medieval Latin manus mortua. Mortmain was the possession of property in dead hands.

As tensions between the church and the Crown increased, ways to close this mortmain loophole were sought.

The first attempt seems to have been made by King John, in 1215, with Magna Carta – that ‘Great Charter of the Liberties’ that came into being at the famous meeting at Runnymede.

Magna Carta was never straightforward. John was not popular with the barons; he had squabbled rather disastrously with the French, and he was resented by the Church, who did not like being told what to do by an Angevin king, and, moreover, a king whom they had excommunicated in 1209. Magna Carta went into several editions, was the subject of many objections, and was tweaked until it squeaked. It almost makes the junketings of Juncker, Barnier and May seem like a parish council tiff.

But one of Magna Carta’s provisions was an attempt to prohibit the form of land ownership known as mortmain. It was unfortunate that John died in 1216 before he could get this fully established, because his son, Henry III, was not over-enthusiastic about enforcing it. Henry liked the Church. He liked its authority, and he liked knowing it was on his side. He was not going to get into tussles with it over the ownership of land and the sneaky side-stepping of taxes.

It was Henry’s son, Edward I, he of the lion-like appearance and warlike demeanour, who took up the cudgels and brought the prohibition of perpetual ownership centre stage. There were two Statutes – in 1279 and 1290 – and the 1279 one has no truck with ambiguity. It prohibits, “any person whatsoever, religious or other, to buy or sell, or under colour of any gift, term or other title, to receive from anyone any lands or tenements in such a way that such lands and tenements should come into mortmain”.

That, thought Edward and his advisors, would put the nuisance firmly in its place. More to the point, it would ensure that the kingdom’s revenues were preserved – and in time, increased.

A sceptic might wonder if a side-aim of this was to check the growing wealth and power of the church, and a cynic might call to mind how vastly expensive wars are, and how helpful taxation is in funding them. And Edward Plantagenet certainly fought a great many wars.

But even with the Statute of Mortmain firmly in existence, the problem persisted. Over the years, wise men and fools – kings and princes and chancellors – expended time and energy trying to break the legal grip of the church. Lawyers pondered and wrangled in leisurely and expensive fashion. It was an irritant and a constant cause of vexation. Not for nothing, does Shakespeare give a character in Henry VI the devout plea, ‘First thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers’.

It was not until more than two centuries later that matters were resolved. Henry VIII swept aside the old order, gave way to the new, and confiscated Church lands wholesale. Amidst the carnage that was the Reformation, the law of Dead Man’s Hand became more or less obsolete. It was, in fact, finally abolished in 1960.

But whatever mortmain’s complexities, it provided a splendid name for my fictional house in A Dark Dividing.

Sarah Rayne’s first novel was published in 1982, and since then she has written more than 25 books. As well as being published in America and Australia, her novels have been translated into German, Dutch, Russian, and Turkish.The daughter of an Irish comedy actor, Sarah began writing in her teens, with plays for the Lower Third to perform in her convent school.Much of her inspiration comes from the histories and atmospheres of old buildings, which is strongly apparent in many of her settings – Charect House in Property of a Lady, Twygrist Mill in Spider Light, and the Irish cottage,Tromloy, in Death Notes.  Music also influences a number of her plots: the music hall songs in Ghost Song, the eerie death lament ‘Thaisa’s Song’ in The Bell Tower, and the lost music in Chord of Evil that hides a devastating secret from WWII.
Connect with her at

Find out more about Death Notes here:

Monday, March 12, 2018

Newspapers, Gossip Columns, and Scandal Mongers

by Maria Grace

It seems people have always been hungry for news. Not unlike today with abounding media outlets, newspapers proliferated during the Regency era. In spite of heavy taxation, high costs, and government censorship (that could include prosecution for libel!) by 1816, thirty one national newspapers were published in Britain, including fourteen in London itself. Some published daily, some several times a week, and some even less regularly. Daily papers included: The Morning Chronicle, Morning Post, The Times, and The Morning Herald. (Bolen, 2012)

Newspapers were not cheap. Costing around seven pence apiece (over half the price being tax!), they were often shared among many readers at coffee houses and circulating libraries or passed among friends and family members around the neighborhood.

The dawn of serious journalism

What did these popular papers publish? Most of those who (could afford to) read newspapers were interested in parliamentary proceedings. Consequently, reports on those often took up at least half the print space. (Day, 2006) The rest of the space—often in relatively haphazard order—was taken up by the rest of the news. Reports on the visual and performing arts became increasingly popular during the era. News of crime and punishments including bankruptcies, duels and seductions appeared with almost monotonous regularity. (Fullerton, 2004)

Some news was difficult to report, particularly that related to the Peninsula war. Captain Rees Howell Gronow noted, “there was a very limited and imperfect amount of intelligence which the best journals were enabled to place before their readers (the progress of the Peninsular campaign was very imperfectly chronicled.)” (Summerville, 2006) To answer some of this difficulty, The Times of London sent the first war correspondent, Henry Crabb Robinson, to Spain to report on the Peninsula War. (Grum, 1975) In contrast, Adm. Nelson did not leave the job to reporters. He ensured that he received praise and public recognition by issuing press releases to the papers directly. (Summerville, 2006)

Such a wide variety of sources suggests a wide range in the reliability of various newspapers. Indeed, some had high standards, publishing what we would consider today to be important news including new of Parliament, war correspondence, current events and even the weather. (Journalism standards and ethics were also being established during this period, which considering what some papers printed, was a very necessary thing.)

James Leigh Hunt
For example London’s The Examiner, edited by the Hunt brothers, James Leigh and John, published serious news, even though it was not always popular. Among other things, they called the government to task for the heavy taxation. In 1812, they criticized the Prince Regent for gambling and womanizing and running up huge debts while not doing anything for the citizenry. Despite the truth of what they printed, the Hunts were sued for libel and James Leigh imprisoned for two years though he continued to edit The Examiner from prison. (Gaston, 2008)

…and not so serious

Other newspapers flourished by reporting the scandals of the “the celebrities of the day. Women of the peerage, like royalty, combined the glamour of present-day Hollywood with the power and prestige of modern political and economic elites. Aristocratic comings and goings, successes and failures, travels and travails, were avidly reported in the English press.” (Lewis, 1986) Reports of elopements were frequently published under the heading 'Fashionable World.' Other missteps might find their way under columns dedicated to ‘Fashionable Faux Pas.'

Even the ordinary news of a betrothal in the Morning Post, the Gazette or The Times could be spiced up by reporting the bride’s fortune—whether the reporter knew the actual amount or not. Sometimes, the announcements did not give the name of the bride, only that of her father and any titled connections—because of course that was what really of interest to readers. (Jones, 2009)

Reporters often purchased their juicy tidbits from servants less than loyal to their masters and gentlemen and ladies willing to expose their friends. Purchasing gossip could get expensive; blackmail was much cheaper. Some newspapers were known to take money to not print some embarrassing incident—which might or might not actually even be true. (Gaston, 2008)
Theodore Hook
One of the most notorious of such journalists was Theodore Hook. He lost a great deal of money in a government job when a clerk under him embezzled money he was responsible for. To make up for lost income, Hook started the Sunday newspaper, The John Bull.

Unlike the Hunts, he sided with the Prince Regent—not a bad idea considering his situation. In his paper, he freely criticized prominent Whigs and even Queen Caroline and her attendants. Even more endearing, while not above paying for gossip, Hook gleaned most of his information by keeping his identity as editor of The John Bull a secret, and essentially spying on his friends and connections. Charming guy, huh? (Gaston, 2008)
Away from London, country newspapers reported on the doings of the local landowners—the closest thing passing for a celebrity in the remote regions. Local gentry would then include these scintillating tidbits in their letter so local news did not stay local very long. Sufficiently scandalous items managed to find their way into the national papers.

Even with the use of initials and dashes to substitute for full names (ostensibly to protected editors from legal actions) little remained private. When things were especially salacious full names were often used citing the ‘concern for public morality.’ (Jones, 2009) Crim con trials were a particular favorite scandal to report on.

Crim con trials

Crim con trials, or more properly Criminal Conversation trials, were the part of a divorce proceeding where a wife’s infidelity was proven in a court of law. Since divorce required a literal act of Parliament, only the very wealthy and well-connected were able to even consider seeking a divorce, effectively guaranteeing that crim con trials would be newsworthy.

The trials tended to be colorful, highly publicized events open to the general public—as close to modern reality TV as the Regency era could get. For those not fortunate enough to be able to attend in person, most book sellers carried newspaper, pamphlets, transcripts and ‘true’ exposés documenting all the sexual misadventures of high society.
Barristers on both sides of the case played up the drama as much for the public notoriety as for the effect on the court’s decisions. During the 1809 Clarke scandal, the Duke of York bore the humiliation of having his love letters to Mrs. Clarke read out to the entire House of Commons and published in every scandal seeking newspaper in the country.

Trial proceedings called upon servants, especially young pretty ones, to deliver testimony for both the plaintiff and the defense. While servants could be (mostly) excused for presenting sensational tales in coarse language, the barristers were gentlemen and adopted notably euphemistic and flowery language to express the necessary elements with decency and taste. Some said it became something of an art form.

With so much at stake, both in terms of finances and reputations, truth and accuracy fell to the need to convince jurors. What better fodder for sensation hungry editors to use to sell newspapers? Not surprisingly, the papers sold out as fast as they could be printed. (Murray, 1998)

Of course, all this sounds nothing like the media today, does it? Uhm, yeah, sure. Absolutely—not. One more case of the more things change, the more they stay the same.


Bolen, Cheryl. "The Proliferation of Newspapers in Regency England.” The Beau Monde. March 22. 2012. Nov. 27, 2017 .

Fullerton, Susannah. Jane Austen and Crime. Sydney: Jane Austen Society of Australia, 2004.

Gaston, Diane. “Scandal! Gossip! Research.” Risky Regencies. August 25, 2008. Accessed Nov. 27, 2017 .

Gronow, R. H., and C. J. Summerville. Regency Recollections: Captain Gronow's Guide to Life in London and Paris. Welwyn Garden City, U.K.: Ravenhall, 2006.

Grun, Bernard. The timetables of history: a chronology of world events: based on Werner Steins "Kulturfahrplan". London: Thames and Hudson, 1975.

Harvey, A. D. Sex in Georgian England: Attitudes and Prejudices from the 1720s to the 1820s. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994.

Jones, Hazel. Jane Austen and Marriage. London: Continuum, 2009.

Laudermilk, Sharon H., and Teresa L. Hamlin. The Regency Companion. New York: Garland, 1989.

Lewis, Judith Schneid. In the Family Way: Childbearing in the British Aristocracy, 1760-1860. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1986.

Murray, Venetia. An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England. New York: Viking, 1999.

Wilkes, Roger. Scandal: a scurrilous history of gossip. London: Atlantic, 2003.


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, March 11, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, March 11, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Visit English Historical Fiction Authors every week for posts on various aspects of British history. Enjoy this week's round-up!

by Tim Walker

by Cryssa Bazos

Friday, March 9, 2018

Ralph Josselin: A 17th Century Vicar

by Cryssa Bazos

Every diarist leaves a little of themselves behind for the next generation. Samuel Pepys gave us insight into his city diversions and business in the shipyards, John Evelyn a political perspective, and Lady Fanshawe, her love for her husband. All three were political insiders, with a privileged front row seat to the royal entanglements and comings and goings. But from Ralph Josselin’s diary, we see a different aspect of 17th century Stuart society: the life of a middle class country vicar and family man.

Life and Times

Ralph Josselin - unknown artist
Ralph Josselin was born at Roxwell in Essex on January 26, 1617. About his beginnings, he wrote:
"I was the eldest son in our whole Family and yet possessed not a foot of land in which yet I praise god I have not felt inward discontent and grudging, god has given me himself, and he is [all] and will make up all other things to me."
Though his grandfather was a wealthy yeoman who left an estate valued at £1,000, Josselin’s father did a poor job of farming and whittled his inheritance away. But the elder Josselin did leave his son something more valuable—an education.

Ralph Josselin entered Cambridge in 1633 and earned his Bachelor of Arts in 1637 and his Masters three years later. It took him longer than most to complete his education as he had to juggle shortages in funds and take on various posts, including a stint as a schoolmaster. During this time, he discovered an aptitude for sermons which spoke to his keen spirituality. After graduating, he became a curate in Olney.

Now that Josselin had a living and was set for his life’s work, he looked to starting a family. A local Olney girl, Jane Constable, attracted his attention and on October 28, 1640, the young couple married. They eventually settled in Earls Colne where Josselin served as vicar for the rest of his life. Over the next twenty-three years, Ralph and Jane welcomed ten children into their family, six girls and four boys. Two of their children were infants when they died, and their oldest, Mary, died at the age of 8. Only five of their children survived him.

Earls Colne Church
Josselin sided with Parliament during the English Civil War and in 1645 he joined as a chaplain. He was a moderate in his politics and looked upon the more revolutionary factions, like the Levellers and the Quakers, with concern. When Charles II was restored to throne in 1660, he obtained the King’s pardon, which allowed him to continue living in peace.

Historical Anthropologist, Alan MacFarlane, conducted a thorough analysis of Josselin’s diary by recording quantifiable details about his sources of income and his wealth during the years of the diary and even more intriguing, qualitative information about his attitudes toward his life, society and his children. The study is fascinating and invaluable.


It was the norm during Stuart England for middle class couples to marry on average between the ages of twenty-three and twenty-five, far later than their aristocratic counterparts. Most men would not even consider getting married until they had their career firmly established.

Contrary to modern assumptions, marriage was not expected to be a loveless transaction. It was expected, even hoped, that couples would find a good match in personality and temperament. Ralph and Jane shared a loving marriage, though not without their ups and downs.
“You can consider, here I was won’t to see my dear Wife; here to enjoy her delightsome imbraces [sic]; her counsel, spiritual Discourses, furtherance, encouragement in the waves of God, I was won’t to fine her an help to ease me of the burthen and trouble of household-affaires, whose countenance welcomed me home with joy.”
Nor was theirs a one-sided marriage with Ralph making all the decisions and Jane merely obeying. The couple consulted over important decisions, such when they needed to consider suitors for their daughters. There was one situation where one young man came calling, and while Ralph favoured him, Jane didn’t agree. In the end, the suitor was turned away and their daughter ended up marrying someone else.


Josselin was a Puritan and that alone conjures up images of a stern and authoritarian father, however his relationship with his children, even his daughters, was warm and caring, not to mention involved. Josselin worried over their welfare and their health, grieving as much as his wife over their premature deaths. Even after they married, he did not stop worrying about their welfare.

Curiously, Josselin did not limit his observations to his children after they were born. He diligently recorded the progress of his wife’s pregnancy, when she weaned their children and most of her miscarriages. Breastfeeding ranged between twelve and nineteen months and often weaning perfectly coincided with the onset of the next pregnancy.

Apprenticeship and Education

Education was not limited to the boys. Josselin was at one time the schoolmaster at Earls Colne school and ensured all his children received a good education. The Josselin children were taught there between the ages of 4 to 10, and their education included numbers and reading, though writing appeared to be a skill taught later in their education. For instance, Josselin received his daughter’s first letter when she was fourteen.

It was a common practice to send away children to be educated (including apprenticeship) around the time of adolescence, girls included. Most of them were sent to London either as apprentices or in the case of the daughters, to serve in a household, and rarely to relatives. These arrangements can be seen as an extension of their education and not as a way to shift the financial obligation to his children’s care to someone else. For Josselin reciprocated this arrangement and took in apprentices from other families, providing them food and shelter. He approached his duties very seriously accepting the boys as part of his extended family. This was a highly efficient and affective way to expand social reach and alliances to beyond one’s family.


Not only did Josselin serve as a vicar, he was also a yeoman farmer and kept very detailed records of his income, expenditures and sources of wealth. The weather was the greatest source of worry and concern, and his diary also addresses the growing season, the weather conditions and the crop yields. February and September were the two months where he commented the most about the weather. The worst years for his crops were between 1646 to 1648 due to excessive rain. Interestingly, this happened between the first and second civil war, following years of food shortages due to free quarter by both Royalist and Parliamentarian armies.

Jocelyn’s source of income was varied. Income earned as a vicar provided a steady living, but he was able to supplement this through the rents he received on leased land (which he had either purchased over the years or had inherited), his farming, and for a brief time, his position as schoolmaster. Based on his diary notes, over the course of his working lifetime, approximately half of his income was derived from his ecclesiastical duties and just over a third from land (leases and farming).

Ralf Josselin’s diary gives us a much-needed insight into the personal life of a middle class family in the 17th century, and through his observations, the life of the women in his family.  I’ve only scratched a thin surface of what we can glean from his writings. If you’re interested in learning more, I would recommend the historical anthropological study, The Family Life of Ralph Josselin: A Seventeenth-Century Clergyman, by Alan MacFarlane.


East Colne Church: 'Plate 108: Church Towers', in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in Essex, Volume 3, North East (London, 1922), p. 108. British History Online.


Cryssa Bazos is historical fiction author and 17th century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. She is a member of the Historical Novel Society, the Romantic Novelist Association and is a co-editor and contributor of the English Historical Fiction Authors blog. Her award winning debut novel, Traitor's Knot, is published by Endeavour Media.

Connect with Cryssa through her blog, Facebook, Twitter (@CryssaBazos), and Instagram (@cryssabazos). Traitor's Knot is available through Amazon.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

In Search of King Arthur

by Tim Walker

The search for a tangible King Arthur remains as inconclusive as ever due to lack of compelling, physical evidence, although some continue to try and convince us otherwise. There are many places in Britain that lay claim to have connections to a ‘real’ Arthur – Tintagel where he was said to have been conceived; Camalat (South Cadbury in Somerset), an impressive iron age citadel; Glastonbury Abbey where monks in 1190 claimed to have found his grave; Camelford – a village in Cornwall that claims to be the site of the Battle of Camlann, where Arthur was mortally wounded around the year 515 AD (a date arrived at through research by historian John Morris). Avalon, or The Island of Apples, where Arthur’s body was taken, is thought to be near Glastonbury – its proximity to Camelford lending support to the claims of this patch of the West country. There are other ‘Arthurian’ sites at various locations in Wales, at Birdoswald on Hadrian’s Wall, and north of the wall at Caledonian Wood.

At the visitor centre near Camelford at the aptly-named Slaughterbridge, I followed a path to a low cliff above the River Camel and look across to the meadow on which Arthur is said to have fought his last battle. On the muddy riverbank below lies The Arthur Stone – a granite tombstone dated to 540 AD engraved with Celtic runes that have been interpreted as stating ‘here lies the son of Arthur’, throwing up the intriguing possibility that it was not Arthur but his heir who fought and died on this spot some years after his illustrious father (or that both father and son fought battles there, as the keepers of the visitor centre would like us to believe). Legend has it that the victorious Saxons desecrated his burial site and rolled the tombstone down to the riverbank where it remains to this day. Hold on a minute, did King Arthur have a son? In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s account, Arthur is succeeded by his cousin, Constantine of Cornwall.

In the absence of something more substantial from historians and archaeologists, these remain theories in the realm of legend. One theory is that Arthur may not have been a king at all, but a ‘leader of battles’ a ‘Dux Bellorum’ or a hired sword, working for a group of tribal leaders, in the immediate post-Roman era. Bernard Cornwell’s excellent novel, The Winter King, adopts this point of view.

Another perspective is offered by historical fiction author Chris Flynn (The Bear, The Dragon and The Wolf) who argues the case for a Northern Arthur who is a cavalry commander, possibly drawing on the influence of Sarmatian cavalry units once garrisoned at Hadrian’s Wall, who organises resistance to the spread of Anglo-Saxons in the north-east (www. Also in this corner is Alistair Moffat, who puts forward the case for Arthur being a warlord based in the Scottish borderlands north of Hadrian’s Wall in the years after Roman evacuation, in his book, Arthur and the Lost Kingdoms. His book builds a case based on literary sources, historical documents and interpretations of place names to build a compelling and intriguing case for a Scottish Arthur. Add this to the Welsh chroniclers’ Arthur, and you have a folk hero claimed by three home nations.

Clearly, it was a troubled time for the Britons, left exposed by the removal of Roman protection. However, there is no physical or archaeological evidence for who the leaders were, where battles took place and when. It has been suggested that the legend of King Arthur is a composite of the feats of a number of Briton leaders over a broad period stretching from the mid-fifth to the mid-sixth centuries, embellished by bards over the years until written down in 1136 AD by Geoffrey of Monmouth in his book, The History of the Kings of Britain.

Victories in as many as seventeen battles on British soil have been attributed to Arthur, plus his overseas adventures, giving credence to the notion that this was not the work of one leader but of several – collapsed together for the purposes of engaging storytelling by bards to make one great heroic figure who battled to preserve a Romano-Briton way of life.

Contemporary historian, Miles Russell (writing in History Revealed magazine), has re-examined Geoffrey’s claim that the inspiration for his work was based on an ancient book ‘in the British tongue’ and found that it may have some credence (despite the source text never having been found or mentioned by any other). To support his theory he uses as an example Geoffrey’s telling of the coming of Julius Caesar in 55 and 54 BC - an account that has similarities to the ‘official’ Roman version but differs in some details and is told from a British point of view. Geoffrey certainly did his homework, poring over source material as diverse as folklore, chronicles, church manuscripts, king-lists, dynastic tables, oral tales and bardic praise poems.

In Geoffrey of Monmouth’s ‘history’ we get a compelling story of a time of desperate struggle following the end of Roman Britain. He gives us a linage of Fifth Century kings – Constantine, Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus, Uther Pendragon and then King Arthur.

Arthur becomes king at the age of fifteen and marries Ganhumara (‘Guinevere’) who is from a noble Romano-Briton family. Arthur forms an alliance with his nephew, King Hoel of Brittany, and they inflict defeats on the Saxons at Lincoln and Bath before crushing a combined force of Picts (Scots) and Hibernian (Irish) tribes at Loch Lomond. They then attack Ireland, the Orkneys, Iceland, Norway, Sweden and parts of Gaul (France), forcing the people to pay them homage. He lays waste to fields, slaughters the population of these places and burns down their towns – the exact opposite of a chivalric king. Geoffrey’s Arthur is an arrogant, aggressive and brutal warlord who kills and takes what he wants.

But Geoffrey’s story does not end there – Arthur is summoned by the Roman Emperor to face charges of war crimes and responds by raising a large army, sailing to Gaul, and meeting the Roman army in battle, defeating and killing the emperor. Arthur’s mind is set on capturing Rome, but he is forced to return home at news that his nephew Mordred has taken his queen, Ganhumara, and seized the kingdom. In a bloody civil war in which thousands die, both Mordred and Arthur fall in battle – Arthur’s body is taken to the Isle of Avalon and he is succeeded by his cousin, Constantine of Cornwall.

This is a summary of Geoffrey’s account in his Historia, and it is an intriguing thought that he MAY have taken it from a lost manuscript. Later generations lightened the blood-soaked narrative, adding more sorcery, the romance of Camelot, chivalric heroes (the knights of the round table), the quest for the Holy Grail, an evil foe in Morgana, and a doomed love triangle involving Arthur, Guinevere and Lancelot.

Despite the fanciful tale of Arthur taking on the might of the Roman Empire, there is still the possibility that Geoffrey’s account was largely based on genuine source material that offers a glimpse of native Briton resistance to foreign invaders in the fifth and sixth centuries. Geoffrey’s King Arthur could not possibly have done all those things – he is most certainly a composite of several characters, including Ambrosius Aurelianus, who perhaps has better credentials as a noble leader who led the Britons to early victories over the Saxons.

Clearly, there was organised resistance to invaders, and tales of bravery told by chroniclers and bards from the Briton resistance point of view – and perhaps missing texts. Arthur is the embodiment of this oral tradition from the fifth and sixth centuries, offering us intangible glimpses of deeds in a period wedged between the gloating records of Roman and Anglo-Saxon conquerors.


Tim Walker is an independent author based in Windsor, UK. Tim’s background is in marketing, journalism, editing and publications management. He began writing an historical series, A Light in the Dark Ages (set in the Fifth Century), in 2015, starting with a novella set at the time the Romans left Britain – Abandoned. This was followed in 2017 with a novel – Ambrosius: Last of the Romans, and the third installment, Uther’s Destiny, has just been released in March 2018.

His creative writing journey began in July 2015 with the publication of a book of short stories, Thames Valley Tales. In 2016 his first novel, a futuristic/dystopian thriller, Devil Gate Dawn was exposed on the Amazon Scout programme prior to publication. Both titles were re-launched with revised content, new covers and in print-on-demand paperback format in December 2016.
In January 2017 his first children’s book, The Adventures of Charly Holmes, co-written with his 12-year-old daughter, Cathy, was published. In September 2017 he published a second collection of short stories – Postcards from London.

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In my historical book series, A Light in the Dark Ages, I have attempted my own alt-history of the period starting with the departure of the Romans and building to the coming of King Arthur, putting flesh on the mythical bones of early kings Vortigern, Ambrosius Aurelianus and Uther Pendragon.

Book one – Abandoned!
Book two – Ambrosius: Last of the Romans
Book three – Uther’s Destiny

Sunday, March 4, 2018

Editors Weekly Round-up, March 4, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Visit English Historical Fiction Authors every week for posts on various aspects of British history. Enjoy this week's round-up!

by Charlene Newcomb
(Editor's Choice from the Archives)

Thursday, March 1, 2018

The Mediums and the Messages

By Linda Stratmann

Victorian séances were almost always performed in darkness, which provided the perfect conditions in which unscrupulous mediums could produce convincing illusions.

There was one significant exception to this, and it was the brainchild of American Henry Slade. Born in 1836 he was already an established medium when around 1860 he devised the slate-writing séance, which he probably based on an established conjuring trick. In its simplest form, and there were numerous variations, it required only a schoolroom slate, slate pencils or chalks, and a talent for legerdemain.

Henry Slade

Slade and his client would be seated at a table. The medium would put a small piece of slate pencil on the surface of a slate, and hold it under the table. As far as could be seen the slate was pressed flat against the underside of the table, and it was impossible for any human agency to write on it. After a while there would be the sound of the pencil moving, and when the slate was withdrawn a message from the spirits would be found.

Henry Slade Seance

Before long other mediums were taking up slate-writing. Some used double hinged slates with the scrap of pencil enclosed between the two sections which were then locked, while others had trick slates specially made, with false surfaces that could be moved to reveal writing beneath. Crucially however, the actual writing was never done when the sitter thought it was happening. The noise was produced by the medium scratching at a convenient surface. Either the writing was prepared in advance and the slates switched, or it was done surreptitiously during the séance.

Slade was highly successful and made substantial sums of money. He was at the height of his popularity when he came to London in 1876, and aroused the suspicions of Professor Edwin Ray Lankester of the British Association for the Advancement of Science and his surgeon friend Dr Horatio Donkin. Lankester and Donkin attended a séance and both noticed Slade’s arm moving as if writing on the slate which was lying on his lap before being slid under the table, while trying to muffle the noise of the pencil by talking or clearing his throat.  Before the slate could be hidden, Lankester quickly snatched it away, and revealed the writing. Unappeased by Slade’s explanations, Lankester and Donkin wrote to The Times denouncing the medium as a fraud. Slade and his assistant were arrested and charged with conspiracy to defraud and obtaining money by false pretences.

Ray Lankester

There was a small sensation at Bow Street magistrates’ court when the conjurer John Maskelyne was called as a witness for the prosecution.  Slate-writing, he told the court was a very old trick, and proceeded to demonstrate. He placed a thimble on his finger with a pencil point attached, and used it to write a message on a slate under a table while the slate was held in place by the thumb of the same hand. He then showed how a message could be obliterated and revived by a sponge dipped in a chemical fluid. Warming to his theme, and ignoring the repeated protests of the defendants’ representatives, he then described how a medium with his hands secured could write a message with a pencil held in his mouth.

Evidence was also produced to show that the table used by Slade and made specially for him, was of an unusual construction, with moveable bars and ledges underneath, which it was believed would facilitate the deception. On 31 October Slade was found guilty under the 1824 Vagrancy Act of being a ‘rogue and a vagabond’ using a ‘subtle craft, means or device.’ He was sentenced to three months in prison with hard labour. Slade appealed, and due to a fault in the wording of the conviction it was quashed. A fresh summons was prepared, but before Slade could be re-arrested he had fled the country.

William Eglington

The best-known British slate-writer was William Eglinton. (Born Eglington) He first achieved fame as a medium in 1875, aged seventeen. Initially, he conducted dark séances involving levitation and the materialisation of his spirit control, Abdullah. Spiritualist Archdeacon Thomas Colley was present at such an event in 1876 and cut off a portion of the robe and beard of the ghostly figure. These were later found to match materials found in Eglinton’s portmanteau. This was not, however as one might imagine, a career-ending revelation. Colley, not wanting to bring disgrace to the spiritualist movement, decided not to act on his discovery and gave the medium the benefit of the doubt.

William Eglington with Abdulah
In 1882 Eglinton was accused of conspiring with theosophist Madame Blavatsky to commit a fraud. He had claimed that while on board the S.S. Vega from Ceylon he had written letters that were transported to a spiritualist circle in Calcutta by psychic means. It may have been as a reaction to this controversy that Eglinton, looking for some less detectable means of mediumship, turned to slate-writing, in which he enjoyed considerable success. In 1886 however the subject of slate-writing was examined in some detail by the Society for Psychical Research.

A young clerk, Samuel John Davey, had attended a number of séances with Eglinton, when he began to suspect that there was trickery involved. Rather than try to expose Eglinton directly, Davey decided to teach himself conjuring in order to show that all the manifestations of the slate-writer could be produced without any intervention by spirits. He then conducted a number of séances, which his sitters found wholly convincing and afterwards informed them that his results were achieved by conjuring. Davey’s experiments also highlighted how little the observation and memory of the sitters could be relied upon. His work, reported in the Journal of the Society for Psychical Research in 1887 sparked a furious debate. With letters to the Journal denouncing Eglinton as a fraud, spiritualists turned on Davey, accusing him of secretly being a medium. Several members of the SPR resigned in protest. Eglinton had been abroad, but on his return must have realised that even the world of slate-writing was too warm for him. He abandoned his career as a medium and took up journalism, in which he achieved notable success. He died in 1933, and his obituary in The Times makes no mention of his mediumship.

Davey, whose insight, enterprise and diligence had illuminated the dark surfaces of the slates, never completed his work. He died from typhoid in 1890 at the age of 27.

After a spell on the continent, which was not entirely free from controversy, Henry Slade returned to the United States, and was practising as a medium in New York, when he attracted the attention of the Seybert Commission for Investigating Modern Spiritualism. A Mr Henry Seybert, who had been a profound believer in spiritualism, had shortly before his death, gifted money to the University of Pennsylvania on condition that it appointed a commission, which, as one of its purposes was the investigation of spiritualism. Having no success with a Philadelphia medium, the commission sent for Henry Slade, and the results were such as could not have been anticipated by either Slade or the late Mr Seybert. 

The observers stated bluntly that whatever Slade might have done previously the manifestations they observed were ‘fraudulent throughout.’ It had not even been necessary to use any ‘elaborate method of investigation; close observation was all that was required.’ It was noticeable that general communications written by the spirits covered most of the slate and were well-written. On the other hand, where the spirit was answering a question put during the séance the message was brief and clumsily written. The conclusion was that Slade had prepared the long messages before the séance, substituting the written slate for a clean one. He had written the others while holding the slate under the table, concealing what he was doing with convulsive spasms of his body.

The Seybert report was published in 1887, and effectively destroyed Slade’s career. Unlike Eglinton he had no other means of making a living. He died in poverty in 1905.

The slate-writers were a curious diversion in the world of mediumship, but ultimately none of them was ever shown to be anything more than a clever and convincing conjuror.


The Case For and Against Psychical Belief, Carl Murchison, (ed), (Humphrey Milford, Oxford University Press, 1927) pp. 242-3
(Preliminary Report of the Commission Appointed by the University of Pennsylvania to Investigate Modern Spiritualism, (Philadelphia, J. B. Lippincott Company 1887, p. 7)
Vagrancy Act, 1824 Chapter 83, 5 Geo 4
The Bottom Facts Concerning the Science of Spiritualism, Truesdell, John W, (G W Carleton and Co, New York, 1883)
The Possibilities of Mal-Observation, &c., from a Practical Point of View, Davey, S J, Journal of the SPR, January 1877 pp 8-44
Mr Eglinton, Journal of the SPR, June 1886 pp 282-3
Mr W. Eglington, The Times, 11 March 1933, p. 12.


Linda Stratmann is the author of thirteen non-fiction books and eleven novels, including the popular Frances Doughty series set in 1880s Bayswater.

An Unquiet Ghost: Mina Scarletti Mysteries book 3
In 1871 Brighton, a betrothed couple want to solve a family murder by finding a medium who can contact the dead man. They go to Mr Castlehouse, a slate-writer, who claims to receive messages from the spirits. Will they find the answer they seek?