Saturday, March 31, 2018

The Abducted Nun or What Happened when the Abbess became an Heiress

by Anna Belfrage

In medieval times, women of high birth essentially only had two “career” options: marry or become a nun. Not that the choice was theirs—in medieval times the future fate of a child was decided by his/her father—but a young woman who openly expressed a vocation to serve God could often sway her father. Becoming a nun was a way of avoiding the uncertainties of childbirth, plus, of course, it allowed the lady in question to theoretically lead a somewhat more tranquil life.

In some cases, women who had every desire to marry and have babies still ended up as nuns, usually because their father felt this was a good idea. Take, for example, the case of the three de Geneville sisters in the late 13th century, where it was decided the family would best benefit by concentrating the sizeable dower on the eldest girl, thereby making Joan de Geneville a most attractive bride (snatched up by Roger Mortimer, no less). The two younger girls were sent off to a nunnery to take the veil. What they might have thought of all this we don’t know.

There were also cases when girls were forcibly veiled by others than their family so as to get rid of them. Such was the fate of Llewellyn the Last’s daughter Gwenllian of Wales, whom Edward I had locked away with the nuns at Sempringham Priory. Such was the fate of Hugh Despenser’s three young daughters, who in 1327 were sent off to three different convents and there veiled, thereby removing them for ever from the marital market.

Sometimes, however, a nun ended up being a marital pawn no matter what vows she had taken. At times, it may have been the nun herself who regretted her choices and absconded (but to do so was to risk everlasting hellfires). More often, the nun in question ended up being the sole heiress to lands and wealth, thereby attracting ambitious suitors who were willing to risk the opprobrium of the church to feather their nests.

King Stephen
One such nun was Marie of Blois. She was also one of those girls who’d had little say in how her life was ordered, seeing as she was destined for the cloisters already as a young child. Her parents, King Stephen of England and Matilda of Boulogne, were devout and what better gift to God than their own precious daughter?

Marie was very young when she was placed in a convent. Whether she was delighted at the idea or not, she seems to have adapted, and by the time her father died in 1154, she was about twenty years old and the Abbess of Romsey. Had things gone according to plan, likely Marie would have remained there for the rest of her life, capably managing her little universe.

Marie lived in uncertain times. Prior to her father’s death, England had for decades been submerged in a bloody civil war between King Stephen (who effectively usurped the crown) and Stephen’s cousin, Empress Matilda. Initially, Matilda fought to claim the crown for herself. Over time, her son, the future Henry II, took over her claims and managed to force through a treaty with Stephen whereby Henry would inherit upon Stephen’s death. I imagine this did not please Marie—after all, she had a surviving brother who also had a claim on the crown. However, William of Blois was no fool. He swallowed his pride, submitted to Henry and was rewarded with a nice heiress and the earldom of Warenne.

None of the above would have had much of an impact on Marie’s life. But in 1160, William died—childless. In one fell swoop, Abbess Marie became a major landowner, inheriting the substantial Boulogne lands that came from her mother. Having said lands under the control of a woman sat somewhat uncomfortably with Henry II, who preferred his lords to be adequately beholden to him for their fiefs and grants: besides, what was a woman—and a nun to boot—to do with all that wealth, all that power?

Henry wasn’t the only one thinking along those lines. One of those considering the possibilities offered by William’s demise was Matthew of Alsace, younger son to the Count of Flanders. Being a man of action Matthew decided to make a grab for the prize in the literal sense. Marie, Abbess of Romsey, was therefore forcibly abducted in 1160 and carried off by Matthew who was determined to make her his wife.

According to most contemporary sources, Marie was anything but delighted by this turn of events. No matter her reluctance, soon enough she was hauled before an altar and wed. I suppose by then her virtue had been compromised, as demonstrated by the birth of a daughter, Ida, in 1160/61. I’m thinking Marie derived some pleasure from presenting her husband with a girl and not a boy, but truth be told I have no idea what her feelings were for Matthew. She seems to have actively disliked Henry II, thereby indicating he may have given Matthew a discreet go-ahead, this despite the fact that abducting an abbess was a serious breach of canon law. So serious, in fact, that Matthew was placed under interdict.

I suppose a marriage that began with an abduction was not destined to be successful. Or maybe it was – after all, Marie stayed with Matthew. This may have been because she had nowhere else to go, but it could also indicate some level of affection. Whatever her thoughts, the Church was not about to let this go: a nun had promised herself to Christ, and unless she received a papal dispensation, those vows were binding unto death.

There was no papal dispensation—or at least we can’t find any records of one. Besides, would the Church have kept up the pressure had there been one? But keep up the pressure they did, and by 1170, Matthew’s father was beginning to have serious fears for his son’s eternal soul. So much so, in fact, that the ailing Count of Flanders urged Matthew to accept the Church’s demands that the marriage be annulled.

Suddenly, Marie was neither married nor a nun. The man who had once imperilled his own soul—and hers—no longer wanted her enough to risk the Church’s wrath. Poor Marie was in limbo, but the Church offered to welcome her back, and whether this was what she wanted (she had just been delivered of a little girl, so one would have thought she might have wanted to stay with her baby) this was what she did. Obviously, her forays into the outside world had left her religious reputation torn to shreds, which meant Marie returned to her cloistered life as a plain nun. Not for her the lofty station of abbess, not anymore.

As to Matthew, he continued to rule Boulogne on behalf of his eldest daughter, Ida. I’m betting there’d been some horse-trading behind the scenes, along the lines of “yes, I can send my wife back to the convent, but my daughters must be declared legitimate”. After all, this was what Matthew had always wanted: to pass Boulogne down to his heirs. Yes, he’d have preferred male heirs, but any heirs were better than no heirs.

Matthew died in 1173. Marie remained in her convent, and her daughters were raised by their paternal uncle, the new Count of Flanders. In 1182, Marie died, no doubt relieved to know her eldest daughter was already safely married. Not for her Ida an existence as tumultuous as her own, Marie probably thought, sending off a prayer or two of gratitude to God for having arranged it thus. Turns out all that gratitude was premature, as Ida of Boulogne’s private life would eclipse her mother’s, featuring various husbands and one well-orchestrated abduction. But that, I think, is a subject for another post.

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. The fourth instalment, The Cold Light of Dawn, was published in February 2018.

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.

Thursday, March 29, 2018

‘Watch the Wall my Darling, While the Gentlemen Go By…’

by Helen Hollick

Gentleman - or smuggler?
image purchased from ©Adobe Stock
 A Smuggler's Song by Rudyard Kipling

IF you wake at midnight, and hear a horse's feet,
Don't go drawing back the blind, or looking in the street.
Them that ask no questions isn't told a lie.
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by.

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the parson, 'baccy for the clerk.
Laces for a lady; letters for a spy,
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!

Running round the woodlump if you chance to find
Little barrels, roped and tarred, all full of brandy-wine,
Don't you shout to come and look, nor use 'em for your play.
Put the brishwood back again –  and they'll be gone next day!

If you see the stable-door setting open wide,
If you see a tired horse lying down inside;
If your mother mends a coat cut about and tore,
If the lining's wet and warm –  don't you ask no more!

If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red,
You be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.
If they call you ‘pretty maid,’ and chuck you 'neath the chin,
Don't you tell where no one is, nor yet where no one's been!

Knocks and footsteps round the house –  whistles after dark –
You've no call for running out till the house-dogs bark.
Trusty's here, and Pincher's here, and see how dumb they lie
They don't fret to follow when the Gentlemen go by!

'If you do as you've been told, likely there's a chance,
You'll be give a dainty doll, all the way from France,
With a cap of Valenciennes, and a velvet hood –
A present from the Gentlemen, along o’ being good!

Five and twenty ponies,
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the parson, 'baccy for the clerk.
Them that asks no questions isn't told a lie –
Watch the wall my darling while the Gentlemen go by!
                       Copyright permission by courtesy United Artists, London

Joseph Rudyard Kipling was born in India on the 30th December 1865. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1907 and died in London at the age of seventy on the 18th January 1936. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. Initially, he was a journalist but his penchant for storytelling and evocative poetry is what we remember him for – who does not love Mowgli’s adventures in the Jungle Book, chuckle at the Just So stories, recite lines such as “If you can keep your head when all about you are losing theirs…” or quote the final line of Gunga Din: "You're a better man than I am, Gunga Din"?

Rudyard Kipling, by Elliott & Fry
(Wikimedia Commons media repository)
Kipling’s children’s book, Puck of Pook’s Hill is a collection of short stories set in varying periods of English history and narrated by two children and an elf, Puck. One of the items included is the above poem, A Smuggler’s Song.

Written as a smuggler issuing a warning to curious children to keep what they have seen secret, the poem uses different rhythms and rhymes to enhance the feeling of mystery and imminent danger: “Knocks and footsteps round the house - whistles after dark…”. It conjures the atmosphere and detail of a smuggling run by using stanzas with each concentrating on a particular topic, which in turn emphasises the need for secretiveness. “If you meet King George's men, dressed in blue and red, you be careful what you say, and mindful what is said.” The repetitive chorus highlights the emphasis of the poem: keep quiet when the smugglers are about their business.

Smuggling. The word conjures an image of a moonlit night, a tall ship rocking gently at anchor in a wind-ruffled bay, and men wearing three-cornered hats making their swift, but silent, way along remote West Country lanes that zigzag between high banks and thick, foxglove and cow parsley-strewn hedgerows. The men are leading a string of pack ponies tied nose-to-tail, their hooves muffled by rough sacking. On their backs, casks of brandy or kegs of tobacco… 

But is that how smuggling really happened? Is Kipling's poem nothing but fancy romance? 

Exmoor ponies were used
as smugglers' pack ponies in Devon
photo © Kathy Hollick-Blee 
Contraband goods were brought in on moonless nights and taken away as swiftly as possible via pack pony or ‘tubmen’ who carried small kegs on chest and back strapped together across the shoulders. A cargo could be landed and on its way within the space of a few hours – secretively and in the dark. Or if it could not be moved quickly it was hidden safely until the next night - church crypts made a good hiding place ('brandy for the parson...') or in the hayloft above the stables where tired horses dozed, or in the wood pile... Thomas Hardy, as a boy, recalled his grandfather stowing mysterious kegs in the cupboard under the stairs, and hearing muffled calls and whistles.

image purchased from © Adobe Stock
Smuggling, however, despite the romance, is the illegal importation of goods to avoid paying tax and, ultimately, to make a decent profit. The smugglers of the past would argue a different way to look at things. They bought and paid for the goods, so these were not stolen items. The contraband was transported, carried and delivered at the smugglers’ own expense so there was nothing illegal there. The items were in high demand by the majority of the population, many of whom could not afford the legal cost of purchase. The smugglers’ conviction was that to refuse to pay government duties on prohibited goods such as fine French lace, tea, tobacco and brandy, (or wool in the Medieval period,) was justified because of the right to buy or sell with the freedom of choice, unrestricted by laws, and that ‘freedom of choice’ should not be a crime. After all, the only ones who suffered from the effects of smuggling (leaving aside the aspect of violence where organised gangs were concerned,) was the government who did not collect the required taxes. Few of us, I think, would lose much sleep about that small fact!

But were smugglers ‘Gentlemen’? Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language describes the smuggler as: ‘A wretch who, in defiance of justice and the laws, imports or exports goods as either contraband or without payment of the customs.’ It seems he was not impressed by the Gentlemen Free Traders. On the other hand, the eighteenth-century economist and supporter of Free Trade, Adam Smith, proclaimed: ‘The smuggler is a person who … would have been in every respect an excellent citizen had not the laws of his country made that a crime which nature never meant to be so.’

We tend to ignore the fact that the smugglers of the past were, from fisherman to country gent, lawbreakers. Except, how many of us occasionally break the law by speeding, or paying the gardener or handyman in cash to avoid paying V.A.T? Minor things, but to many a historical smuggler bringing in a few kegs of brandy, or packets of tobacco, was equally as minor. All well and good, except, unfortunately, rogues and ruffians often corrupt the subtle bending of the law to new extremes of outright criminality to suit their own mind. What started with the relatively harmless smuggling of everyday items by a small group of villagers and quiet-minded fisher-folk was soon swept aside by ‘big business’ and the greed of making money.

The smuggling business was not just a few men out for a lark after an inebriating tot or two at the local pub, with a sudden fancy to row across to France, pick up a couple of half-ankers of grog and row back again. Smuggling was highly organised and many of the men thought nothing of violence to gain that essential profit. When one of King George's men came sniffing round, one gang member from East Sussex, without any hesitation, calmly sent the customs official to his death over a cliff… So, alas, derring-do romantic rebels and ‘gentlemen’, most smugglers were not. So take Mr Kipling's advice - best to watch the wall, m'dears, and not look out of the windows... just in case.

‘Baccy: short for tobacco
Brishwood: Sussex dialect for brushwood
Laces: this can either mean French Lace, or silk threads for tying stays
Woodlump: a woodpile
Valenciennes: French lace from the town of the same name

Next time: Some of the more notorious smuggling gangs.

Smuggling In The British Isles by Richard Platt
Smuggling: A History 1700-1970 David Phillipson
Smuggling In Fact and Fiction Helen Hollick (not yet published)
The Kipling Society


Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era, she became a USA Today bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction which is due to be published in 2018.

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Twitter: @HelenHollick

Amazon Author Page (Universal Link)
Helen is also the founder of Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Grosvenor Chapel

By Lauren Gilbert

Current Exterior of Grosvenor Chapel

St. George’s, Hanover Square was (and still is) the most venerable church in Mayfair, the most fashionable district of London by the end of the 18th century. This district was home to the bluest of blood. Consequently, St. George’s, Hanover Square was the chief site of baptisms, burials and, most importantly, weddings for the highest society in London during the Georgian era and beyond. (Over 1000 marriages were conducted there in 1816 alone.) Grosvenor Chapel, located nearby at 24 South Audley Street, is not as well known.

Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Baronet

Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Baronet, was the head of a family long established in Cheshire, whose wealth came primarily from Welsh mines. He significantly increased that wealth when he married Mary Davies, the heiress to the Ebury estates in 1677. The property he acquired through this marriage covered a large area of what is now Mayfair, Pimlico and Belgravia. Sir Thomas started building in the 1660s but died July 2, 1700. His son Richard inherited his title, becoming Sir Richard Grosvenor, 4th Baronet. He pursued the development of the Mayfair area, including Grosvenor Square. A church or chapel at the Audley Street location had been considered as early as 1723. He signed a 99-year lease on the property with four builder-proprietors (also referred to as “under-takers”), one of whom was Richard Timbrell, a well-known builder, and the first stone was laid April 7, 1730 by Sir Richard Grosvenor himself. He had previously sold 1 ½ acre of land on Mount St. (neighbouring property) to St. George’s, Hanover Square, for burial purposes, and the original plan required that the vaults under the chapel not be used for burial purposes. The design of the chapel was similar to St. Peter’s, Vere St., which was not surprising considering Richard Timbrell was involved with the construction of both.

The chapel was finished in about a year, two ministers were appointed, and the rector of the parish was petitioned to open the chapel in April of 1731. Originally called the Audley Chapel, the name evolved to the Grosvenor Chapel. The chapel was constructed as a commercial enterprise for the landlords and builder-proprietors based on pew rentals and additional income generated by people moving to the area due to further development. (For example, in 1873, pew rentals at Grosvenor Chapel generated over 1000 pounds for the year.) At some point, in exchange for 500 pounds, Sir Richard gave the rector and churchwardens immediate freehold of the vaults and the land between the chapel and burial grounds, and gave up the rent for the site. In 1732, at Sir Richard’s expense, the original organ was built by Abraham Jordan and installed. Sir Richard died July 12, 1732.

A font was installed in 1790. Residents in the neighbourhood attended services, and the chapel was frequently used as a burial chapel. When the lease expired in 1829, the chapel was brought under the parochial system, and the freehold of the chapel itself reverted to the parish. By this time, the chapel was in poor condition, so extensive repairs and some changes were initiated. The Act of 1831 caused Grosvenor Chapel to be consecrated as a chapel of ease to St George’s, Hanover Square. This allowed the rector to appoint the priest in charge (also called the perpetual curate) to serve the congregation. Evan Nepean was the first minister so appointed, and he served at Grosvenor Chapel until his death in 1873. St. George’s benefited by having additional space for the congregation, as the seating in St. George’s was limited to approximately 1200 souls, in a district which housed roughly 36,000 people by 1850. Grosvenor Chapel added almost 1000 seats to St. George’s communicants.

Interior-note font to the left

In 1841, the font was replaced. Additional building and repairs were started in 1873 by R. H. Burden. In 1877, the pulpit was made smaller and moved from the center to the side, box pews were cut down to benches, and choir stalls were installed. Rebuilding the entire chapel was proposed but the Duke of Westminster refused to entertain the project. (Over time, the Grosvenor family were further ennobled; in 1874, the head of the family was made Duke of Westminster, the title being created by Queen Victoria. The Grosvenor family still owned land and buildings in Mayfair, and their connection to the chapel was maintained.) The churchyard at the rear of the chapel (land originally sold to be St. George’s burial ground) became a public garden in 1899, now known at the Mount Street Gardens. Significant renovations to the interior were proposed, and some carried out between 1890-1920, and the organ was reconstructed and enlarged by J. W. Walker and sons and moved in 1930. Exterior work was done in 1951-52, 1966 and 1969. A new organ was installed in the original Georgian organ case in 1990.

View of organ

The pew rent books were lost, so few of the regular congregants during the Georgian era are known. However, Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington, was known to have attended services at Grosvenor Chapel regularly. His parents, the 1st Earl and Countess of Mornington, were buried there (the earl in 1781 and the countess in 1831). The walls have numerous memorial tablets. Burials in the chapel include Lady Mary Wortley Montague in 1762, Lord Chesterfield in 1773, and John Wilkes (the radical MP) in 1797. Ehrengard Melusine von der Schulenburg (mistress of George I) was also buried here in 1743. The vaults were sealed in the 19th century, so are no longer accessible for burials.

Wall monument

The chapel continues to offer services as chapel at ease to St. George’s, Hanover Square, serving nearby residents and members of Parliament. American troops stationed in Britain during World War II, including General Dwight D. Eisenhower, attended there, and the chapel continues to be popular with American tourists and visitors from other countries as well as other parts of London.

Sources include:

Callendar, Ann, ed. GODLY MAYFAIR. (London: Grosvenor Chapel, 1980).

British History Online. “South Audley Street-East Side.” HERE ENTERTAINMENT-Elizabeth Taylor Baby Christening-Grosvenor Chapel, London. HERE

The Grosvenor Chapel website. HERE

History of Parliament Online. “Sir Richard Grosvenor, 4th Baronet (1689-1732), of Eaton Hall, Cheshire” by Eveline Cruikshanks. HERE ; “Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Baronet (1655-1700), of Eaton Hall, Cheshire” by Gillian Hampson and Basil Duke Henning. HERE Mitten, Geraldine Edith. MAYFAIR, BELGRAVIA AND BAYSWATER

The Fascination of London. Sir Walter Besant, ed. (London: Adam & Charles Black, 1903). HERE “St George’s Hanover Square-A Regency History Guide” by Rachel Knowles. Posted September 24, 2015. HERE

All images from Wikimedia Commons.

Exterior-by John Salmon, Creative Commons license, here

Sir Thomas Grosvenor, 3rd Baronet, here

Interior showing font-by John Salmon, Creative Commons license, here

Interior showing organ-by John Salmon, Creative Commons license, here

Interior of wall monument-by John Salmon, Creative Commons license, here


Lauren Gilbert holds a degree in English, is a long-time member of the Jane Austen Society of North America, and lives in Florida with her husband.  Her first published book is HEYERWOOD: A Novel.
Her second novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is in progress.  Please visit her website here for more information.

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Editor's Weekly Round-up, March 25, 2018

by the EHFA Editors

Enjoy this week's posts from the blog!

by Debra Brown
(Editor's Choice from the Archives)

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Cwenthryth: A Maligned Royal Abbess

By Kim Rendfeld

The story of Cynehelm and Cwenthryth has envy, sibling rivalry, lust for power, murder, and divine justice. Too bad it’s just not true.

According to an 11th-century passio (account of martyrdom), Mercian King Cenwulf died in 819, and his realm passed to his 7-year-old son, Cynehelm (also spelled Kenelm). Lusting for power, Cwenthryth persuaded Cynehelm’s tutor to decapitate the child while the young king was hunting. Cwenthryth got the crown, but a dove miraculously delivered a parchment to the pope, telling him where Cynehelm was buried. The pope sent a delegation, led by Wulfred, archbishop of Canterbury, to recover the body and have it enshrined at Winchcombe. Apparently, Cwenthryth was not satisfied with her brother’s death; she wanted to curse him. So she read the psalter backward as the procession passed by her window. Her eyes, literally, dropped to the page, and she soon died in disgrace.

Any resemblance between this tale and actual history is purely coincidental.

Sculpture of St. Kenelm (photo by
Sjukmidlands,  CC BY-SA 4.0, via
Wikimedia Commons)

The real Cwenthryth was the daughter of King Cenwulf, who reigned from 796 to 821. She did witness a charter as the king’s daughter in 811, the same year Wulfred dedicated a church at Winchcombe.

Cenwulf, who claimed descent from Penda’s brother, had succeeded Offa’s son Ecgfrith, whose death might not have been from natural causes. Offa had a reputation for ruthlessness (Alcuin said Ecgfrith paid for his father’s sins). But Cenwulf had his moments. Early in his reign, he suppressed a rebellion in Kent and had its leader blinded and his hands chopped off. He released his crippled rival to Winchcombe, an abbey Cenwulf had founded in 798 and a center of power.

If Cynehelm was Cenwulf’s son—it is possible with such similar names—Cynehelm preceded his father in death. When Cenwulf died in 821 (two years after the legend says he did), the king did not have a male heir, and his brother Coelwulf ascended to the throne.

Coins with Cenwulf's image (drawing by DrKay,
public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

If she had a living brother, Cwenthryth likely would have wanted him remain alive and influence him. What happened to Cwenthryth raises a more nuanced question: Why did she become an abbess? As a late king’s daughter and current king’s niece, and one with ties to a dynasty, she would have been a desirable bride. Marriage was a way for noble families to forge alliances. Yet kings sometimes gave daughters to the Church as a thanksgiving for a victory in battle. Did Cwenthryth herself feel pulled to the religious life? Or did she simply not want a husband ordering her around?

As the abbess of Winchcombe, as well as Reculver and Minster-in-Thanet in Kent, she led communities and controlled land. And she was determined to keep control of those properties.

When her father died, Cwenthyth inherited a years-long dispute between Cenwulf and Wulfred (who happens to be one of the good guys in the legend). At the center was who controlled the Kentish churches. Wulfred had reached an agreement with Cenwulf shortly before the monarch died and expected those properties.

Wulfred was a powerful churchman, having anointed Cwenthryth’s uncle Coelwulf as king, but Cwenthryth did not give in to the archbishop’s demand for rent or her obedience.

Unfortunately for Cwenthryth, Coelwulf had a short reign. He was deposed in 823. Perhaps Wulfred saw an opportunity in the new king, Beornwulf. But he underestimated Cwenthyth.

Finally, Wulfred filed a lawsuit against her in 825, demanding those two church properties in Kent and submission from Cwenthryth. Beornwulf was less sympathetic to Cwenthryth and ruled against her, but before she surrendered the Kentish lands, she managed to drag out the process until 827, a year after Beornwulf was killed by East Angles.

Cwenthryth disappears from the historical record after 827. She likely remained abbess at Winchcombe for the rest of her life, and the abbey might have passed to her cousin Ælfflæd, daughter of Coelwulf.

Photo by Philip Halling, CC BY-SA 2.0,
via Wikimedia Commons

So why defame Cwenthryth? Her defiance to a male authority did not make her an ideal woman in medieval eyes, but she wasn’t a murderer.

Like some historical fiction such as The Song of Roland, the passio might have been more about the times it was written in. The 11th century story might reflect the culture of England right before the Norman Conquest. It is similar to Edward the Martyr—a young king killed by treachery of female relative.

Winchcombe, where Cynehelm is interred, might have become a center for pilgrims who wished to pray before a martyr’s relics. Its cathedral was rededicated twice between 970 and 1070. The first was for an Anglo-Saxon revival; the second, to introduce the Norman church.

A religious story like a hagiography or a passio is meant to be a tale of faith rather than a literal historical record. In this case, it might be the message of divine punishment and spiritual blindness manifesting as a physical one.


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, including
“Cenwulf” by M.K. Lawson
“Cwenthryth” by S.E. Kelly
“Beornwulf” by S.E. Kelly
“Cynehelm [St Cynehelm, Kenelm]” by David Rollason

Wicked Queens and Martyred Kings – the 819 Murder of S. Kenelm of Mercia,” The Postgrad Chronicles

Kim Rendfeld has written two novels set in 8th century Europe, and a third, Queen of the Darkest Hour, will be published this summer. 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). Her short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur, is set in early medieval Britain and 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.

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

Don't forget to follow us on Twitter and Facebook

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.
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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.