Sunday, May 26, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, May 26, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Contributors to English Historical Fiction Authors bring us posts that delve into various aspects of British history. Read the fascinating story of John and Jane Loudon, and also visit a castle in Wales on this week's round-up.

by Annie Whitehead

by Judith Taylor

Friday, May 24, 2019

An Unlikely Power Couple in British Gardening

By Judith Taylor

He only had one arm and she was a penniless orphan when they married but what he lacked in limbs he made up for in intelligence, sheer bloody-mindedness and perseverance.

John Claudius Loudon, 1783 – 1843, was born in Scotland, where else. British horticulture depended very largely on the skill of these well trained Scottish men and their capacity to live on oatmeal for six months at a time. There is talk of re-naming the British Empire to be the Scottish Empire but that is for another time.

John Claudius Loudon

Loudon’s father was a “respectable farmer” in Lanarkshire, a southern county of Scotland. “Respectability” meant that his father was sufficiently prosperous to educate his very promising son at Edinburgh University and even to send him abroad on a grand tour. Being educated meant that the crippling arthritis he developed as a very young man was less of an impediment than it would have been to a man having to live from hard physical labour.

Loudon grew up on a farm in the depths of the countryside. He learned about plants and their qualities in a way no city -bred man could. That knowledge, combined with the modern science he learned at Edinburgh, led him into landscape ”planning” (his term) and horticulture as a profession. He moved to London. After working on the design of a farm for George Stratton at Tew Cottage he began to write. Before long he opened his own practice.

He was frequently in pain and used laudanum in excessively large quantities. The first synthetic drug not directly from a botanical source, acetyl-salicylic acid, “Aspirin”, was not released until 1899. Unlike Thomas De Quincy, he was later able to overcome his addiction. The joint pain was attributed to rheumatic fever. He lost his right arm in 1826 after a botched attempt to repair a fracture. It had to be amputated at the shoulder.

With that remarkable persistence of his and massive will power Loudon trained himself to use his left hand to write. He could no longer draw the plans needed for his work but retained the services of a professional draughtsman

Gardening has long slow cycles of fashion and the first quarter of the nineteenth century was a transitional period. Just as in so many other aspects of life new ideas arose in reaction to the old ones and lasted until even newer, often better, ideas emerged. Creating a great garden or park was mostly done by wealthy aristocrats with a view toward posterity. They planted trees and shrubs which would not reach maturity until long after their death.

The results were staggering. One man managed to capture almost everyone’s imagination for the middle years of the eighteenth century, Lancelot “Capability” Brown, 1716 – 17163.
A slyly designed landscape gave the impression that the park was open countryside, completely changing the ancient view of British gardens as fussy art. Brown was succeeded by Humphrey Repton, 1752-1818, who offered a slight variation in his plans. With Repton’s death there was a vacuum and Loudon was ideally placed to fill it. Commission after commission rolled in for gardens, parks and interestingly, cemeteries.

At the same time Loudon wrote copiously about his ideas and about the professions of gardening, horticulture and landscape planning. He was not alone in doing this. Many of   these masters spent much of their time writing, presumably as a form of advertising. It was also a source of income. The accumulation of contemporary botanical and horticultural information in the magazines they founded and edited gives a vivid cross section of what went on for the modern scholar.

Their industriousness commands enormous respect. There was no artificial light other than candles, paper was very expensive, rooms were cold if one moved a few feet away from the open fire and it was almost impossible to find a quiet and private place without constant interruption and distraction.

He wrote several seminal books on city planning, the design of hothouses, cemeteries and an encyclopedia of gardening. Loudon created the word “arboretum” to describe a garden in which trees were collected systematically for scientific study, “Arboretem et Fruticetum Britannicum” (1838).

A page from "Arboretum et Fruticetum Britannicum 1838
by Loudon via Internet Book Archives (Wikipedia)

The design of cemeteries was being completely revised in the United States at that period. Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was the first one to reflect the new ideas. Before anyone understood how infection was caused and transmitted, diseases like malaria were believed to rise from swampy land or “miasmas”. The air surrounding a cemetery was to be considered to be a prime suspect for causing disease, emanating from the corpses buried under the ground.

Dr Jacob Bigelow, noted medical practitioner in the community, thought that if cemeteries were turned into parks with many trees and plants and wide-open paths the miasma could be dissipated. Families liked to gather at cemeteries to remember those they had lost. Making the places more attractive and healthier had many benefits. It took him five years to persuade the authorities and find suitable property. The cemetery opened in 1831.

Both Loudon and his wife were welcome guests among London’s literary groups. They enjoyed considerable social success that way and were among the leaders together with figures like Charles Dickens.

From: Jane Loudon "Ladies Flower Garden
of Ornamental Annuals"

Loudon moved away from the openness and spatial qualities of Capability Brown’s gardens and offered a new concept of “gardenesque”. It was a way to show off the exotic plants which were flooding into England as countries like China and Japan grumpily permitted Westerners to explore their plants. Instead of placing these trees and shrubs in graceful groups they were planted singly at intervals.

Loudon was a very important figure but gardenesque is not an attractive style. The best that can be said for it was that it allowed a middle-class family with modest means to decorate their small gardens with at least one fancy plant. From such things is democracy achieved.

Jane Webb Loudon, 1807 – 1858, was born in Edgbaston, Birmingham, to a wealthy businessman and his wife and had a very genteel upbringing before misfortune struck. Her mother died when she was twelve and her father lost all his money and died when she was seventeen. The genteel upbringing and 19th century attitudes toward women working did her no good at all when it came to earning a living. If such a woman did not marry, her choices were stark but there was steel under the prim and proper surface. Jane became a writer.  There are several examples of women doing this in similar circumstances.

Jane Webb Loudon

One of the best known was Fanny Trollope, Anthony Trollope’s mother. Her husband, also Anthony, was a very belligerent barrister who managed to alienate the few clients he had. Fanny was obliged to write novels at a furious pace to try and pay the bills but her masterpiece is  “Domestic Manners of the Americans”, a hilarious account of taking her family to live at a commune in Ohio when that was still the “Western Reserve” and not yet tamed for white people.

Jane had only travelled on the Continent a little with her father when times were good but she was fascinated by the discoveries coming out of Egypt in the early 19th century. Napoleon had conquered Egypt and his soldiers were finding things like the Rosetta Stone. Jane wrote “The Mummy,” : Or a Tale of the Twenty Second Century” and it was published anonymously in 1827. Nowadays such a novel would be called science fiction but there was no term to apply to Jane Webb’s book at the time. Lacking a better descriptor some critics labelled it “Gothic” but no one had seen anything quite on this order before.  At the time scholars were developing the basic sciences, using logic and not supernatural powers to explain everyday phenomena.  Perhaps galvanic action could revive the Egyptian mummies or be used to do all sorts of helpful things.

She set her novel in the England of 2126 when the monarch had become a tyrant. Jane imagined that it could be possible to cool the hot summer air, that machines would make the coffee and even that people could connect via invisible means, an early foretelling of the internet.

John Loudon had a rather surprising feeling for the fantastic under his sober surface and enjoyed the book. He reviewed it favourably in his Gardeners Magazine. A friend had told him who the author was and shortly after he was introduced to her, they married in 1830. John was 47, Jane was 23. They had one daughter, Agnes. Even she became a writer though she was not driven by need. She had married a solicitor, Mark Spofforth.  Agnes died giving birth to her third child at the age of 33. They were all at the mercy of the disastrous medical care of the epoch.

In spite of Loudon’s renown and significant accomplishments he never made very much money. By the time he embarked on his last project, another cemetery, he was dying from lung cancer. He returned to London and died in his wife’s arms. He was penniless but he left an extraordinary legacy.

Jane lived until 1858, editing his work, writing her own manual of gardening for ladies and fulfilling many of his plans. One can safely say they were a power couple.


Elliott, Brent 1990     Victorian Gardens   London,  Batsford & Co

Hadfield, Miles 1960       Gardening in Britain        London,  Hutchinson & Co

Images sourced from Wikipedia


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject.

Dr Taylor’s  books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and “An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past” (Ohio University Press  2018).
         In 2019 she published “A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989”.
        Dr Taylor’s web site is:

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Gwydir Castle: Treasure of the Conwy Valley

By Annie Whitehead

Recently, I paid my second visit to Gwydir Castle. This lovely historic house was built on the edge of the River Conwy flood plain – of which more later – just about a mile or so from Llanrwst. The fertile Conwy Valley, land worth owning, was fought over for several centuries so Gwydir held an important defensive role, although it is more of a fortified manor house than true castle.

Its first owner was a man named Hywel ap Coetmor, who was recorded fighting in France as a commander of longbowmen who served the Black Prince at the Battle of Poitiers in 1356. But his is not the building that visitors see today, for it was destroyed during the Wars of the Roses when, following a Lancastrian assault in the area, Edward IV issued orders for the earl of Pembroke to retaliate and attack Nantconwy (‘Nant’ meaning Vale, or Valley).

Hall of Meredith - image courtesy Judy Corbett
The castle was rebuilt in the late fifteenth century by Meredith ap Ieuan ap Robert (born 1460), who bought it from Hywel’s son, Dafydd ap Hywel, and who was the founder of the Wynn dynasty. Meredith was a staunch supporter of the Tudor king, Henry VII and he had held the lease for another great Welsh castle, Dolwyddelen. During the tenure of his son, John ap Meredith, who also established Gwydir School, (possibly, the teachers were monks from Maenan) Gwydir was enlarged, using stone from the nearby – recently dissolved – Maenan Abbey. The square turret at the rear of the Solar Tower has a spiral staircase which was part of the masonry re-used from the abbey. John Wynn’s initials can be seen above the main entrance in the courtyard, with the date: 1555. The oldest part of the present building is the Solar Tower, but the castle was extended by Sir John Wynn, a descendant of the first John, in the seventeenth century.

The Wynn family was influential throughout North Wales during the Tudor and Stuart periods and Plas Mawr, an Elizabethan house in Conwy – which I’ve mentioned in a previous blog post – was built by Robert Wynn, son of John ap Meredith.

Sir John Wynn, the first baronet, (1553-1627) was John ap Meredith’s grandson, his father, Morris, being the first to use the name Wynn as a surname. Sir John Wynn claimed, in his History of the Gwydir Family, that his family was descended from Gruffudd ap Cynan (1054/5–1137), king of Gwynedd, but this has been disputed. The aim seems to have been to establish links with the Welsh royal dynasty to maintain connections with the present monarchy. Sir John, who went to Oxford, was wealthy and powerful, serving as an MP and a JP. He was less successful in his commercial ventures, losing money from his investment in Parys Mountain (a copper mine on Anglesey). He died at Gwydir on 1 March 1627 and was buried in Llanrwst parish church.

Gwydir Uchaf Chapel

A hidden delight (I only found out about it through a chat with the current owner) for the visitor to Gwydir is Gwydir Uchaf Chapel – not to be confused with Gwydir Chapel in Llanrwst, of which more in a moment – which is just a short walk from the castle, where the key is held. The chapel was built in 1673, by Sir Richard Wynn, the fourth baronet, as a family memorial chapel for the Wynns, although apparently there is no record of its ever having been consecrated. Sir Richard was also an MP, though he was rarely present in the commons, due to his drink problem, and served as Groom to the Bedchamber to King Charles I and his consort, Queen Henrietta Maria. The king was Sir Richard’s guest at Gwydir in 1645.

Interior of the chapel 

Next to the chapel is a smaller building, now used as Forestry Commission offices, which I only discovered after my visit was originally a smaller home owned by Sir John Wynn, built in 1604. Sir Richard died of the plague in 1674 and the property passed to his daughter Mary. Her marriage, at the age of seventeen, in 1678, to Robert Bertie, Baron Willoughby de Eresby, later duke of Ancaster, meant that during the late seventeenth century to the late nineteenth it was the possession of the Barons Willoughby de Eresby of Lincolnshire. In 1895 it was bought by Charles Wynn Carrington who sold it in 1921.

Following a fire in the Solar Tower in 1922, the house fell to ruin. There was an attempt in the 1940s to restore it, but by the 1980s it was once again derelict and was bought by its current owners in 1994.

The restored dining room - image courtesy Judy Corbett
The wood panelling in the dining room was bought by William Randolph Hearst and was subsequently located in the Metropolitan Museum in New York and bought back by the current owners of Gwydir. Princes Charles officially opened the restored dining room in 1998.

Ghost Room - image courtesy Judy Corbett
Visitors to Gwydir might feel a chill in the rooms (as I did, on both occasions!) because it is said to be haunted. In fact, it is known as being one of the most haunted of all the stately homes in Wales. The gardens, Grade I listed, are a delight. The resident peacocks are numerous but friendly, and the Cedars of Lebanon are recorded as having been planted in 1625. Follow the Chinese Walk down to the river, and you will see the remains of Gwydir Quay. This area is prone to flooding and there is a constant battle to keep the fabric of the building safe from floodwater. Followers of Gwydir on Twitter are familiar with the regular calls for help to ‘plant’ sandbags when bad weather is forecast. Click the link HERE for more details about the fundraising efforts and the scale of the problem.

The current owners, Judy Corbett and Peter Welford, fund the restoration project themselves, with only a small grant from CADW (the Welsh government's historic environment service.) Their approach ensures that the castle can be seen by the visitor very much as it appeared in its time as the home of Meredith and his descendants.

Tu-hwnt-i'r bont, now a tea room
The strong presence of the Wynn family can also be seen in Llanrwst, just a short walk away. To get there from Gwydir, you walk past probably the most famous tea room in the UK* and then on to the parish church of St Grwst where Sir Richard Wynn built Gwydir Chapel in 1633, which was used as the family chapel until Gwydir Uchaf was built. Many family members were buried here, including Sir John as mentioned above, but not, as it turns out, Sir Richard, who was buried in Wimbledon. I’m informed that the pews are the originals, where the family sat during service.

There is an effigy of the original owner of Gwydir, Hywel ap Coetmor. The chapel now also houses the sarcophagus of Llywelyn Fawr, thirteenth-century prince of Gwynedd, but I’ll return to that in a future post. In the mid-eighteenth century, the chapel, to the consternation of those who wished to keep the memory of the Wynn family alive, was closed off from the main church when panelling was placed across the doorway. Happily, the castle they built is being lovingly cared for and the restoration project continues.

Effigy of Hywel, who began the story of Gwydir

* Tu-hwnt-i’r-bont dates from the fifteenth century and was used for a while in the sixteenth century as the local courthouse.

Images: Taken by and copyright of Annie Whitehead, unless otherwise credited. Grateful thanks to Judy Corbett of Gwydir for permission to use images of the interior from the Gwydir Castle Website


Annie Whitehead is an author and historian, and a member of the Royal Historical Society. She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon Mercia. Her history of Mercia, from Penda the pagan king to the last brave stand of the earl of Mercia against the Conqueror, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom, is published by Amberley. Annie has a deep and abiding love of North Wales and its rich history and takes every opportunity to visit.

Connect with Annie: Website, Facebook, Twitter, blog, Amazon

Friday, May 17, 2019

King Arthur: Surviving into Modern Times?

By Richard Denham

Who was King Arthur? What stories and legends about him have survived into the modern day and where, in fact, did these stories come from?

Treatment of the king and his story has become a cottage industry in the twenty-first century, with serious historical research, novels, art, music, film and television, all vying to hijack the king who still sleeps, unperturbed by it all, under his hill.

A number of works with supposed Arthurian connections are spurious, however, particularly in the realms of science fiction. There are those who see the original Star Trek series (1966-69) as an Arthurian adventure. For Arthur, see Captain James T. Kirk, played by William Shatner; for Merlin, the ‘sage’ Spock (Leonard Nimoy); for Camelot, the Starship Enterprise. Its mission, a la the Grail, is to seek out new worlds in space – ‘the final frontier’. The point about Star Trek – and the various much older Arthurian stories – is that it represents action, adventure, excitement. The poets who wrote The Mabinogion; Nennius and Geoffrey of Monmouth, not to mention Thomas Malory, knew the elements that made up a good story; so did Gene Roddenberry, who created Star Trek. These elements are universal – the Bible has them too.

For whatever reason, relatively few dramatists found inspiration in the legends for their plays. One who did was J.C. Carr, who wrote King Arthur for the stage in 1895. The heart-throb of the day was Johnston Forbes Robertson, who played Lancelot. In publicity photographs, he looks every inch the worthy knight, even if his mail does leave rather a lot to be desired. The costumes and sets, working from his own earlier paintings and sketches, were designed by Edward Burne-Jones of the pre-Raphaelites. Fast forward to 1923 and we find the ex-war poet Laurence Binyon writing King Arthur. In true heroic mould, a musical score for the play was written by Edward Elgar, the musician’s answer to the flag-waving Rudyard Kipling.

Perhaps because dramatists could not take the Arthurian legends seriously (and, practically, because both shape-shifting magic and pitched battles are difficult to pull off on stage) the more recent Arthurian treadings of the boards are musicals. Camelot, by Lerner and Loewe, famous for their double-act creations, was based on White’s The Sword in the Stone and was made into a film in 1967. Merlin was the creation of the illusionist (a magus of our time!) Doug Heming, with music by Elmer Bernstein. Spamalot, itself a spin-off from the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail, starred Tim Curry as Arthur and Hank Azaria as Lancelot (and, as usual with Azaria ‘other characters’).

In the world of music, the Arthur stories have not found the conventional outlets. There have been a number of Arthurian titles and characters in very recent albums but the latest full-blown opera was Gawain, written by Harrison Birtwhistle in 1991. Before that, the only truly famous composer to tackle the theme was Richard Wagner, drawing on the rich legacy of the German Medieval romances. Forever associated with Bayreuth and tainted by the adulation of his works by Hitler, Wagner wrote Lohengrin in 1848, the year of revolutions throughout Europe. Tristan und Isolde followed in 1865 and the last creation was Parsifal seventeen years later.

Screens Great and Small
At least one movie has survived from the silent era, pre 1927, but there may have been more, cheaply made and quickly told, which ended up corroding in a reel tin somewhere. The first version of A Connecticut Yankee appeared in 1931 at a time when Hollywood was already dominating the world of cinema. As we have seen, Bing Crosby took over the Will Rogers role in 1949 when he and Cedric Hardwicke were ‘busy doing nothing, working the whole day through, trying to find lots of things not to do’. It was a subconscious throwback to the ‘roi faineant’, the do-nothing king of the French Medieval romances.

What made every little boy’s heart leap for joy in 1953 was Knights of the Round Table, filmed in Technicolor and perpetual Hollywood sunshine. Robert Taylor was stoic as Lancelot; Ava Gardner beguiling as Guinevere; and who could look more noble and put upon, than Mel Ferrer as Arthur? What was particularly pleasing to the little boys who paid their threepence to watch the movie at ‘the pictures’ was the fact that Messrs Brittan, the toy company, produced authentic copies of the mounted knights made of metal. Collect the set!

The next year, Alan Ladd was the black knight in the film of the same name. The story bore little relationship to Arthur, but at least some of it was filmed at Castell Coch, a real-life (if nineteenth century!) castle in South Wales, home of the Silures tribe and a possible haunt of Arthur 1,500 years earlier.

Two years later, television, which had already got America in its thrall, was fast hooking the younger generation in Britain. William Russell, good-looking and clean-cut, with a 1950s ‘short back and sides’ haircut, was the star of The Adventures of Sir Lancelot. It was the first British television production to be filmed in colour, but during its run, British audiences could only watch it in black and white. And because it was shown during Children’s Hour, there was absolutely no hanky-panky between Lancelot and Guinevere.

Animation revolutionised Arthur. Today there are a large number of animé adaptations of the legends, but it was Walt Disney’s The Sword in the Stone in 1963 that captured everybody’s heart. Merlin’s owl Archimedes was pure Disney and the silly old duffer tripping over his beard was the perfect foil for the cute kid who grabbed said sword, utterly unaware of his future destiny.

Four years later, the Lerner and Lowe musical Camelot hit the big screen, complete with big names. Richard Harris as Arthur had no clue ‘how to handle a woman’ and no clue how to sing either. Franco Nero as Lancelot, all silver armour and piercing blue eyes, had a much better grasp of things female, in this case, a willowy Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere; as so often, life imitated art and they became a couple, marrying many years later and after a long separation, in 2006.

Julie Andrews and Richard Burton in Camelot

Then came the riotous Monty Python vehicle, The Holy Grail, played entirely for laughs. There wasn’t a single horse in the film – all ‘mounted’ characters simply miming a horse and pulling on non-existent reins – but the thirteenth century armour was quite authentic and the various quests into the Otherworld were no sillier than they are in Malory or the Mabinogion.

Two gloomy movies followed, trying to re-establish some sort of gravitas. The first was Excalibur in 1981. Directed by John Boorman, it is regarded as a classic today, but at the time the violence was found excessive. Nigel Terry was an ambivalent Arthur, not the hero we expected, and both Nicol Williamson as Merlin and Helen Mirren as Morgan Le Fay, unleashed their dark sides. The armour had now slid forward to the fifteenth century, the only real nod to Malory.

Battle between Arthur and Mordred by William Hatherall

In 2004, King Arthur, accompanied by a documentary made for television, purported to be historically accurate fifth century stuff. It wasn’t. Clive Owen, never off the big screen in those days, mumbled his incomprehensible way through the role of Arthur, Ioan Gruffudd (a Welshman at last) was the Frenchman Lancelot and newcomer Keira Knightley, who, of course, can handle a bow better than any man, was Guinevere. Everybody was trying just a bit too hard and what most people remember of the film now is that Knightley’s upper half was enhanced somewhat by CGI for the posters!

A similar ‘authentic’ series, this time made for television, was Arthur of the Britons in which a suitably smouldering Oliver Tobias played the Romano-British warlord; no castles, no plate armour, no round table. There were none of these things either in Merlin (2008-12) which told the story of the teenaged Arthur and his equally teenaged sage (!) There wasn’t the remotest attempt to create period through costume or set, the actors often dressed in almost unaltered tees and jeans, but the kids loved it.

Gawaine and the Green Knight, with Murray Head and Nigel Greene respectively, was good back in 1973. First Knight starring Richard Gere as Lancelot and (everybody’s idea of a king) Sean Connery as Arthur, was not. And don’t get me – or anyone else interested in finding Arthur – started on the Last Knight in 2017 – that was part of the Transformers cycle!

Warhammer board games, role-playing games, video games (Wikipedia lists 24 which is probably not even close to a definitive number) – it goes on and on because Arthur goes on. His character, his stories, are timeless and capable of endless adaptability. In 2018, the name Arthur was the twenty-third most popular boys’ name, up eight from the previous year.

Yet somehow, in all the magnificent creations barely touched upon in this chapter, we have lost sight of him. But even so, I believe we will never really believe the words we sometimes hear in darkness; Arthur is gone …

[all above images are in the Public Domain]


Richard Denham is the co-author of the best-selling 'Britannia' series. These books follow a group of soldiers and their descendants through a chain of events which will eventually lead to the fall of Roman Britain and the descent into the Dark Ages. His other titles include 'Weird War Two', a collection of strange facts and unsolved mysteries from the Second World War. When not working, reading or writing, Richard enjoys dogs, real ale, music and is, unsuccessfully, trying to make pipe smoking cool again. In a previous role, Richard worked in local government where he helped expose deep-rooted corruption and sexual misconduct within Hampshire Constabulary. He's done with that now, preferring to spend his evenings watching Netflix and drinking tea with his loved ones.

Buy Richard's latest release, Arthur: Shadow of a God, HERE

Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Bede’s Life of Cuthbert: The Remarkable Life of a Mediaeval Best-seller

By Katharine Tiernan

Any visitor to the magnificent Romanesque cathedral in Durham will be drawn to the tomb of Cuthbert, the great saint of the north in whose honour the cathedral was built. His shrine is in the most sacred place in the cathedral, immediately behind the high altar. Originally hung with an ornate canopy, his tomb is now covered with a simple block of stone with his name, Cuthbertus, inscribed upon it. 

The visitor may ask, who was this Cuthbert? How did a seventh-century monk from a remote corner of Northumberland come to be at the heart of one of the most powerful and influential cults in mediaeval England?

Title Page - Bede's Life of St Cuthbert

Part of the answer to these questions lies at the other end of the cathedral, in the Lady Chapel. In these more secluded surroundings our visitor can find another tomb, that of the Venerable Bede. Bede was thirty-nine years Cuthbert’s junior, and the two men never met. But without Bede, Cuthbert might be nothing more than a vague legend, like many other saints of the period, and the great cathedral at Durham might never have been built.

The story begins with a young Anglo-Saxon warrior, who at the age of seventeen took the decision to enter a monastery. Cuthbert’s monastery was close to the old Roman settlement of Trimontium, now Melrose in the Scottish Borders. At that time it was part of the great Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Northumbria. The year was 651, and the Christian faith had only recently arrived in the kingdom.

Cuthbert spent the rest of his life as a monk, but not in seclusion. He was an evangelist for the new religion and was also involved in the bitter power struggle which was to take place between the original Celtic Christianity of Northumbria and the nascent power of the Roman Church. In the latter part of his life he became a hermit on Inner Farne for eight years, bearing witness to the austere values of the Celtic tradition. While he was there, his fame as a wise man and miracle worker started to spread. As the Roman Church under his contemporary, Bishop Wilfrid, grew in wealth and power to rival the state, Cuthbert embodied the alternative values of the Northumbrian Church. When Wilfrid eventually fell from power, the King himself sailed to Inner Farne to implore Cuthbert to return to lead the Church as Bishop of Lindisfarne, which he eventually agreed to do. He went from the solitude and contemplation of a hermit’s life to the busiest job in the Church.

Cuthbert was already regarded as a saint by the time he died in 687. But the final proof of his sainthood was discovered eleven years after his death. The Lindisfarne monks wished to move his relics into the church for veneration, and opened his coffin, expecting to find a skeleton. Instead, they found his body incorrupt, the grave clothes fresh.

This was sensational proof of Cuthbert’s sanctity. Lindisfarne was to become a major pilgrimage centre and the monks decided a record of his life and miracles was needed. A Life was compiled by one of the monks of Lindisfarne, now known as the Anonymous Life. It must have been widely copied and circulated, and a copy reached Bede, a monk in St Peter’s monastery at Monkwearmouth.  He clearly felt a strong affinity with the saint’s story. In 716, when Bede was in his early forties and already a distinguished scholar, he composed a version of the Life in Latin verse.  Impressed, the Lindisfarne brothers begged Bede to write a new and more comprehensive prose life of the saint. He undertook the task with his customary scholarly rigour.  In his Preface to the Life Bede tells us that he ‘has passed on nothing to be transcribed for general reading that has not been obtained by rigorous examination of trustworthy witnesses’. Of particular importance was a monk named Herefrith, who was with Cuthbert when he died. Bede quotes verbatim Herefrith’s account of the days leading up to Cuthbert’s death, and the death itself.

19thC Image of St Bede

The new Life was a great success. It is not difficult to see why. Although it is in some ways a conventional hagiography designed to give proofs of Cuthbert’s sainthood, it is also full of human interest and lively description. Bede loves a good story. He gives us a clear idea of Cuthbert’s character, and some of the miracles described are endearingly mundane – when the brothers forget to bring over a suitable plank to construct his latrine on Inner Farne, God obligingly arranges for a suitable piece of wood to be washed up on the shore.

Some of the stories have become iconic, for example the tale of St Cuthbert and the otters, reported by one of the monks. He saw the saint leave the monastery where he was staying late at night and followed him, curious. He saw Cuthbert go down to the sea where he remained all night in prayer, standing in the icy waters. When he left the sea at dawn, two sea otters followed the saint out of the water and dried his feet with their fur. The watching monk was overcome with guilt at having spied on the saint and fell at his feet to beg forgiveness.

Cuthbert Praying in the Sea

Bede completed his Life of Cuthbert in 721. He went on to include an abridged version in his Ecclesiastical History of the English People, published ten years later. Bede’s monastery, St Paul’s, was one of two Benedictine monasteries at Monkwearmouth established in the Roman tradition. It was a thriving centre of scholarship and culture with a busy scriptorium. It was here that the Codex Amiatinus, the earliest complete Latin bible, was produced as a gift for the Pope. We can be sure that once completed, the Life of Cuthbert would have been copied many times and circulated to churches and monasteries in the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms as well as Northumbria and further afield in Frankia and Italy. It was a true mediaeval best-seller.

This wide distribution was essential to the survival of the work. A hundred and fifty years later the Viking invasions destroyed the monastic culture of Northumbria. The monks and nuns were an easy target for pagan raiders who had no compunction in looting the monasteries and enslaving their inhabitants. The written word had no value for the Vikings. The monastic libraries with all their books, deeds and records were destroyed; St Paul’s at Monkwearmouth became a roofless ruin. In 875, with the Danes now in command of York and heading northwards, the monks took the coffin containing the incorrupt body of the saint, together with the illuminated Gospels created in his honour, and left Lindisfarne.

 Seven years later, in 882, they established a new monastery at Chester-le-Street after the miraculous intervention of the saint enabled them to make terms with Guthred, the Danish king of York. The cult of St Cuthbert, together with its lands and possessions, survived. It continued to attract pilgrims, not least from the royal house of Wessex.  We are not told whether a copy of Bede’s Life had been popped into the coffin alongside the Lindisfarne Gospels, but certainly copies would have still existed elsewhere in parts of the country which had escaped the brunt of the Danish invasions.

Chester-le-Street was the only surviving monastery in the north of England for close on a hundred years. Although the Community diligently preserved the Lindisfarne traditions associated with the cult, monastic discipline started to slip. Monks married and had families, and the senior positions in the Community became hereditary, with each family holding a portion of the lands owned by St Cuthbert. The monastic reform movement of the tenth century which sought to end such practices was confined to the southern half of England, which enjoyed more stability than the north. For the Community the main aim was survival.

By the end of the tenth century, renewed threat from Danish armies led the Community to move again, this time to a promontory above the River Wear. Uninhabited at the time, it was cleared with the loyal help of the local population and the saint’s new shrine was established at Durham. It proved to be an excellent choice and highly defensible.

Cuthbert Welcoming Visitors

However, 1066 saw the arrival of a new and different threat to the Community: the Normans. The threat this time was less physical – the Normans were, after all, Christians – but ideological. The Normans regarded Anglo-Saxon culture, including their saints, as backward and inferior.  As the Normans started to take over the English Church, they often replaced Saxon saints with their own continental saints. Although St Cuthbert’s incorrupt body gave him claim to special status, King William was not convinced. On a visit to Durham he demanded that the Community open the coffin before him and threatened to kill all the senior clergy if it proved to be a fake. However, during a mass for All Saints’ Day, which was to be followed by the opening of the coffin, the King was visited by a terrible heat and fever. He leapt up, called for his horse and galloped out of the city. He was never to return to Durham. The Community was reprieved – for the time being.

Sometime after this incident King William appointed a Norman to the bishopric at Durham. The man was Walcher, a cleric who had been a canon at Liege, one of the great centres of learning in mid-eleventh century Europe. What view would he take of Cuthbert’s claims to sainthood? Walcher was an educated man with access to monastic libraries. Before he came to Durham he read Bede’s Ecclesiastical History and his Life of Cuthbert.  They convinced him of the exceptional status of the saint and in turn, he convinced the King of the importance of the cult. Its future was secured – thanks to Bede.

There were to be changes, though. Having read Bede, Walcher knew that Cuthbert had been a celibate monk and that the original guardians of the shrine had been celibate monks also. Walcher’s plan was to oust the married canons and found a Benedictine monastery at Durham whose monks would be the new guardians of the saint.

Astonishingly, Bede was to play a role here too. A few years earlier, the prior of Winchcombe Abbey, a Saxon man named Aldwin, had acquired copies of Bede’s Life of Cuthbert and the Ecclesiastical History for the monastic library. They had an electrifying effect on him. The chronicler Simeon of Durham records:

He understood from the History of the Angles that the province of the Northumbrians had previously been peopled with numerous bands of monks, and many troops of saints … .these places, that is, the sites of these monasteries, he earnestly desired to visit, although he well knew that they were reduced to ruins, and he wished, in imitation of such persons, to lead a life of poverty.

Aldwin travelled north and with two companions set up camp in the ruins of St Paul’s Monastery. His single-handed revival of northern monasticism caught on, and others came to join him. By the time Walcher was planning to establish a monastery at Durham, there were local monks ready to help him.

Before Walcher could realise his plans he was murdered in a feud with the local Northumbrian nobility. The bishopric went to another Norman cleric, William St Calais. The new bishop energetically followed through on Walcher’s plans. Not only did he successfully found the new monastery, he went on to initiate the construction of a new cathedral in St Cuthbert’s honour to replace the existing Saxon church. The magnificent cathedral and the shrine of St Cuthbert would become the leading pilgrimage destination in the country. Bede’s Life of Cuthbert gained new popularity with lavishly illustrated versions appearing. The best-seller was back – and the fame of the saint it chronicled. 

Two Lives of Saint Cuthbert, trans. Bertram Colgrave Christ the King Library
The Age of Bede, trans. J.F. Webb, ed. D.H Farmer Penguin Classics
Simeon’s History of the Church of Durham Llanerch


Katharine Tiernan is a writer, teacher and passionate nature-lover. She grew up close to the dramatic coastline of North Northumberland and continues to draw inspiration from its history and landscape. She is currently working on a series of historical novels based on the legacy of St Cuthbert and his Community. Her first novel Place of Repose: A Tale of St Cuthbert’s Last Journey was published by Ningaui Press in 2013. Following its publication Katharine went on to hone her writing skills with an MA in Creative Writing (Distinction) at Newcastle University.

Her latest novel, Cuthbert of Farne: A novel of Northumbria’s warrior saint, published by Sacristy Press, traces Cuthbert’s life and spiritual journey against the background of his turbulent times.
Katharine lives in Berwick-upon-Tweed, with a view from her writing desk across the Tweed estuary to Lindisfarne.

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Sunday, May 12, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, May 12, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

English Historical Fiction Authors covers various aspects of British history every week. Our contributors may give you saints and sinners, politics or war. Learn about kings, queens, and nobles, or the common man and woman, and legends from ancient to post-WWII.

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Friday, May 10, 2019

Fallen Flowers: The Battle of Halidon Hill

By Annie Whitehead

There is a beautiful song, written by Steve McDonald and performed by him and Hollie Smith. It’s called Fallen Flowers and it features the most sublime cello playing. It is not an easy song to listen to, especially if you are, like me, a mother. It talks about a young man who lies dying after the Battle of Halidon Hill and what his mother wouldn't give just to have him back again. The images it invokes are haunting. So, when I found myself near Berwick-upon-Tweed recently, I visited the battlefield, and set out to find out what I could about the battle.

The site itself is bleak, even on a sunny day. And yes, it is definitely a hill, rising some 600 ft above sea level. The battle took place in July, 1333, during the second war of Scottish independence, when the forces of Edward III of England fought the Scots, although this wasn’t a straightforward case of England V Scotland, for Edward had ridden north to support the claim of one Scots king against another.

Edward III, having overthrown Roger Mortimer, was free to turn his attention to Scotland where, just four years earlier, Robert Bruce had died, leaving as his heir his seven-year-old son, David II. The Bruces were not the only ones who laid claim to the Scottish throne, and Edward III supported the rival claim of Edward Balliol. Balliol was crowned, but deposed very soon afterwards, fleeing to Carlisle from where he sent an SOS to the English king.

The Scottish chronicler Walter Bower was vehement in his condemnation of ‘Edward de Windsor king of England’, whom he described as a ‘breaker of oaths and violator of his own pledge’ who ‘disregarded the promise of eternal peace … and promised speedy help, [breaking] ‘the bonds of peace [and assembling] a very large army against his brother-in-law King David.’ (At the tender age of four, David had been married to Joan, daughter of Edward II.)

Edward III responded to Balliol’s call for help by marching his forces to Berwick where he besieged the town. The Scots, led by Sir Archibald Douglas, meanwhile, marched down and occupied Tweedmouth. The townsfolk of Berwick, represented by Governor Anthony Seton, promised to surrender if the town had not been relieved by 11 July. When the Scots managed to destroy a bridge over the River Tweed, Sir William Keith took a small contingent into the town and rescinded the promise of surrender. Unfortunately, Edward III had taken hostages, and he began to hang them, starting with Seton’s own son, Thomas, hung from a gallows in full view of the town. He vowed to hang two more for every day the town continued to defy him. A new surrender agreement was reached.

Douglas, who in the meantime had gone to raid Bamburgh, where Edward's queen, Phillipa was ensconced, waited until the eleventh hour before surrender was due. It was a bad decision. Approaching from the northwest, he had to position his troops high above Berwick at a place beyond Halidon Hill, known as Witches’ Knowe. He then faced the task of leading his troops downhill while Edward, holding Halidon Hill, controlled the surrounding area. Had the Scots made any attempt to enter Berwick, Edward would have seen. The view from the hill towards the Tweed is a clear one, as this picture, taken on a hazy day, still shows.

The English army stood between the Scots and Berwick, and the Scots had to cross a marsh to get to them.

Boggy terrain and English archers made for a deadly combination. It was said that the Scots turned their faces away for the storm of arrows was like sleet.

Douglas was killed, the fleeing Scots were pursued by the English on horseback, and the following day, Berwick surrendered.

If contemporary accounts can be believed, the Scottish losses included ten earls, sixty-nine barons, 105 ‘knights-batchelors', 4,250 men-at-arms, 63,200 ordinary folk, and 5,000 residents of Berwick and the surrounding area.

The losses were certainly catastrophic, not just in terms of numbers but because those who could mount an effective challenge to the might of the English army were now either dead, or in hiding. Edward III, victorious, reimposed Balliol as king.

In October, Edward Balliol held a parliament in Perth. At this parliament, he reversed many of the land grants made by Robert Bruce. Edward III left him alone but Balliol’s position as puppet king was not a free one. He had to pay homage to the English king and grant him all the English-occupied southern shires of Scotland. Edward’s attention soon turned towards France and Balliol, whose decision to reverse the grants of Robert Bruce had been unpopular to say the least, was left increasingly isolated.

The young David Bruce grew to adulthood in exile in Normandy, living at Chateau Gaillard with his wife, Joan, and returning to Scotland in 1341. He did not find it easy to re-establish himself. He gained strength, though, and in 1346 he advanced his troops towards Durham. His army was caught out at Neville’s Cross where Balliol fought for the English. David was wounded and captured. The complicated political situation was to rumble on and on - enough to be the subject of at least one other, completely separate article!

A visit to Berwick shows that the town is still partly encased by sturdy defensive walls. These are not the medieval walls, however, which originally spanned a greater area of the town. These walls, when built, actually cut the town in half and were built in the sixteenth century. Peace between the two countries it seems, was never assured.

Halidon Hill was only one of a vast number of battles between Scots and English. What of those losses? Some estimate the number of Scots lining up against the English at 14,000, with the English fielding some 10,000. Other sources put the numbers of casualties anywhere between 20,000 to 40,000, while yet different figures suggest that somewhere between 18,000 and 25,000 Scots took part in the battle.

It is difficult, even when standing on top of the hill, to envisage anything like this number of men fighting for their very lives at this spot. I’d venture to say that Halidon Hill isn’t one of the better-known battle sites. Yet, in visiting such sites, it is also hard to forget that, in amongst however many men who were truly fighting that day, each man who died was mourned by someone. The song I mentioned at the beginning of this post helps to bring home the tragedy of any conflict and I’m glad to say that at least part of this site remains free from crops and it is marked with a memorial stone.

[all photos by and copyright of Annie Whitehead]


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

Find her at:
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and Twitter
and on her own blog, Casting Light upon the Shadow

Tuesday, May 7, 2019

Sweet Peas in Worcestershire: Horticulturalist Hilda Hemus

By Judith Taylor

This is a story about a family. Their name was Hemus. The action took place near the River Severn and the time was the turn of the twentieth century. Upton was a quiet town, surrounded by farms and it followed the country rhythms of its forebears. Thomas and Harriette Hemus had six children, four girls and two boys but it is with the second eldest daughter, Hilda, we are concerned.

Hilda Hemus

Unlike so many fathers of the time Thomas decided his daughters should be properly educated, not just taught by a simpering governess. The end of the nineteenth century was punctuated by scientific advances which challenged and excited the imagination. Perhaps nothing caused as much interest as genetics and the tantalizing new view of heredity.

Thomas had bought a much larger farm to accommodate his growing family and every summer needed temporary help to bring in the harvest.  One summer in 1899 Rowland Biffen rode his bicycle from his home in Cheltenham to Upton. He was a student at Emanuel College, Cambridge but needed some extra money. His father, Rowland Biffen Sr, was a school master and very intellectual but not very well paid. It was up to young Rowland to seize every opportunity. Science was his passion and the idea of working on a farm with its crops was just the thing.

Thomas Hemus approved of the lad and allowed him to try a few experiments in the corner of a field. Rowland was able to see which type of wheat did best in the circumstances. Rowland also observed the charming young women about him. Hilda had a striking personality and was really handsome. Two summers later he asked her to marry him, based on his success at Cambridge and high probability of becoming a don. (The possibility of a prosperous father in law contributed mightily to his passions.)

Hilda did not feel like marrying anyone and turned him down. Rowland was unfazed. He turned round and proposed to her elder sister Mary who was delighted with the offer. Exit Rowland and Mary for now.

Hilda had bigger ideas. The most fashionable flower of that epoch was the sweet pea. Grown for its fragrance since it first arrived in 1699 from Sicily no one paid much attention to its appearance.  That changed in the last part of the 19th century. Slowly and painstakingly James Carter developed new forms and colours and in 1865 received a first class certificate for them at the Royal Horticultural Society’s Chelsea show. The world took notice.

She now knew what she wanted to do. She wanted to grow sweet peas as a crop and also try her hand at breeding new kinds. By this time her brother in law at Cambridge was a prominent agricultural geneticist. Both he and her sister used Mendelian methods to improve the sweet pea. Indeed Lady Mary Biffen won the Royal Horticultural Society’s medal for Mendelian studies, submitting a set of new and improved sweet peas.

Hilda’s father had bought a large fertile field, “Paradise,” adjacent to the farm and gave her free rein. The name “Miss Hemus of Upton, Worcs” started to appear in the records of the National Sweet Pea Society and she won prizes at many regional flower shows in the north of England during the first decade of the twentieth century. There was a very long list of new cultivars of sweet pea with the prefix ‘Paradise’, meaning they came from Miss Hemus.

Then she won a first class certificate at the Chelsea flower show. That was very special, an exceptional achievement and it is now we have to introduce her younger sister Evelyn.

The sisters worked together in the sweet pea fields and Evelyn held the fort when Hilda had to go Harrogate or London for a show. Neither of the other two sisters contributed very much to the enterprise because they now had their own families. Their brothers were also involved with other matters.

Evelyn Hemus

Evelyn lacked Hilda’s beauty and began to feel very resentful. On the one hand she was jealous of her sister Mary who now had a title and on the other had she believed her efforts were what kept the business going and that Hilda scooped up all the glittering baubles as if she had done everything herself. Things came to a head with this particular flower show.

By then Queen Victoria had died and Edward VII was king.  He awarded the prizes and shook Hilda’s hand, maybe holding it just a shade longer than was considered proper. Everyone knew that Edward VII had an eye for pretty women.

Sweet peas may be exquisitely pretty and fragrant but growing them on a large scale is every bit as hard labour as any other farm job. Soil had to be turned and fertilized, seeds planted, weeds pulled and then finally the crop harvested. The sisters needed men and horses for the heavy labour but the women were in charge. That in itself was hard on Hilda and Evelyn. Early twentieth century Englishmen were not happy to take orders from women.

Evelyn’s resentment boiled over. She stopped talking to Hilda and quit. They never spoke again. She wanted to be married and needed a larger pool of men than were available jn a small provincial town to overcome her lack of looks. India was the place, full of lonely civil servants and soldiers just dying to marry an English woman. Evelyn found her husband on the ship going to India. The price of the passage paid off. When she had children she never told them she had a sister Hilda. Exit Evelyn.

Hilda was a very good businesswoman. She had met Sir Samuel Ryder at the Harrogate flower show and signed a contract to supply his seed company with sweet pea seed. Every amateur gardener in the British Isles worth his or her wellies grew sweet peas. Sir Samuel was a farsighted man. He put a few seeds into a pretty envelope and sold them for tuppence at unexpected shops like Woolworths. The tuppences added up over the years and Sir Samuel was able to endow the famous Ryder Cup for golf with the proceeds.

When World War One started things changed radically in Upton as in all the other English towns. Growing food was a priority. No one was allowed to use men and horses for mere flowers and anyhow, the men were called up and horses requisitioned. Hilda showed her mettle in this situation as in every other. She put all her fields into wheat and when German prisoners were billeted nearby was one of the first farmers to use these gangs of prisoners. Raised eyebrows did not bother her.

She too married, a Major Ashworth, formerly of the quartermaster service and thus quite unscathed by the horrors of war. The conventions of time dictated that a married woman had no independent identity. Whatever she had built up or accomplished was now attributed to the major. Miss Hemus of Upton vanished.

The Ashworths had one daughter, Jean. The whole family emigrated to New Zealand to enjoy a warmer climate a few years after the end of the war and settled in Napier. Jean married a surgeon who died while still quite young. She survived into her nineties and kept all her mother’s records. She never heard from her Aunt Evelyn though her Aunt Mary sent her clothes and other gifts when she was still a little girl.

The Ashworths thus did not know that Aunt Evelyn, now Mrs Fyfe, had also emigrated to New Zealand but to Wellington on the west coast. Hilda’s daughter did not know she had cousins across the country. Evelyn’s children did not know of their relatives in the eastern part.

Things might have stayed that way were it not for a busybody (the author) trying to learn more about the sweet peas. Enough of the family remained in Upton and were dimly aware of this ancient history to be a starting point. With a great deal of help and assistance from the Upton historian Simon Wilkinson this busybody made the connection and the two wings of the divided family came together in the third generation.

All hail to busybodies.


Judith M. Taylor MD is a graduate of Somerville College and the Oxford University Medical School and is a board certified neurologist. She practiced neurology in New York and since retiring has written six books on horticultural history as well as numerous articles and book reviews on the same subject. 
        Dr Taylor’s  books include The Olive in California: history of an immigrant tree (2000), Tangible Memories: Californians and their gardens 1800 – 1950 (2003), The Global Migrations of Ornamental Plants: how the world got into your garden (Missouri Botanical Garden Press 2009), Visions of Loveliness: the work of forgotten flower breeders (Ohio University Press 2014) and “An Abundance of Flowers: more great flower breeders of the past” (Ohio University Press  2018).
         In 2019 she published “A Five Year Plan for Geraniums: growing flowers commercially in East Germany 1946 – 1989”.
        Dr Taylor’s web site is: