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.

Theatre
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’).

Opera
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. 

REFERENCES
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.

Buy Cuthbert of Farne: https://www.sacristy.co.uk/books/fiction/cuthbert-novel

Connect with Katharine: www.katharinetiernan.com


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 evokes 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: www.anniewhiteheadauthor.co.uk/
on Amazon
Facebook 
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: www.horthistoria.com


Sunday, May 5, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, May 5, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

The exiled King Dermot promises lordship over Wexford to Robert FitzStephen if he helps him take back his throne. It all began on May 1, 1169.

by Ruadh Butler



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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

The 850th anniversary of the Norman Invasion of Ireland


by Ruadh Butler

On this day, May 1st, 850 years ago, just as evening began to fall, three ships made land at a small island on an insignificant estuary on Ireland’s southern coast.

To the casual observer, the three vessels would’ve looked little different to the longships used by the descendants of Danish and Norse Vikings who had settled in Ireland three centuries before. They probably looked much like the ships often used by merchants crossing the Irish Sea between the big towns of Wexford, Waterford and Dublin, Bristol, Chester and Gloucester.

The strange attire and the numerous languages spoken by those in the ships might’ve confused the locals, though there is no doubt that any native Gael who laid eyes on the small fleet would’ve been wary. They would’ve recognised a warband as soon as they saw it. Would they have known that this was an army of Cambro-Norman invaders at Bannow Bay that May evening? And could they ever have imagined that within a few months those 400 people aboard the ships would’ve helped conquer a fifth of their country?

So how the blazes did they manage it?




A few days after landing, the Norman commander, Robert FitzStephen, led his small army eastwards from Bannow and clashed in his first skirmish in Ireland at Duncormick. Who he fought, what tactics he employed, or how the battle came about, we simply don’t know, but we do know that FitzStephen’s small force swept aside his enemy.

FitzStephen had been promised lordship over the Viking town of Wexford by an exiled King of Leinster, Dermot MacMurrough (Diarmait Mac Murchada), in return for helping him win back his throne. And in early May 1169 he launched his attempt to claim it. Three attacks were launched with ladders on the walls and three assaults were repulsed by the besieged Ostmen (‘East Men’ – the descendants of the Norse and Danish Vikings) at the cost of eighteen men. Thankfully, a bevy of bishops were on hand and they convinced the Ostmen that only worse was to follow and encouraged them to surrender to King Dermot. From a miserable prisoner in Wales, FitzStephen had, almost overnight, become lord of over 200,000 acres and began parcelling it out to his followers.



Robert FitzStephen
The first invader of Ireland, Robert FitzStephen
from the 1185 book, Expugnatio Hibernica by Giraldis Cambrensis

In addition to around 500 Gaelic warriors armed with spears, axes and throwing darts, the core of FitzStephen’s army was made up of just 50 heavy cavalrymen who would be today recognised as knights. Drawn principally from FitzStephen’s extended family, they were armoured in mail and had the distinctive spangenhelm and kite-shield. Their main weapon was a lance while a sword was merely their primary sidearm. Another 150 of his army were ‘half-armoured’ horsemen. Presumably made up of esquires (apprentice knights) and pages, they were most usually employed on scouting missions. The remaining 200 warriors in the Norman army were archers and crossbowmen. Drawn from the Welsh, Cornish and Flemish peoples of western Britain, they would play a critical role in the success of the Norman enterprise in Ireland.

On Leinster’s western border was the Kingdom of Ossory and any man wishing to be recognised as King of Leinster had to secure the submission of their neighbour. Three weeks after the fall of Wexford, FitzStephen led his army (now bolstered by a thousand Norse infantry) and Dermot’s 500 warriors over the Blackstairs Mountains and into modern day Counties Carlow and Kilkenny. Marching through the Gap of Gowran, they were faced by King of Ossory’s 5,000-strong army behind trenches and a palisade. Numerous assaults finally saw FitzStephen carry the day with the Ossorians fleeing back towards the lowlands. Sweeping up booty as they went, Dermot and FitzStephen moved north, hoping to take the Pass of Slieve Margy (near modern Leighlinbridge) back towards friendly territory. However, the King of Ossory was not finished and used his superior knowledge of the terrain to track the retreating invaders with his remaining 2,000 warriors. Obviously aware of his history, one Flemish cavalry commander, Maurice de Prendergast, used the age-old tactic of the feigned retreat to draw out the enemy and then turned to cut them down in the open ground.

The Normans followed up this victory with Invasion of Kildare and Wicklow, conducting a campaign that would become known as the chevauchée in later centuries, before a second Raid on Ossory culminated in a three-day Battle at Freshford. Again, FitzStephen’s Normans proved the decisive troops on the field, successfully storming the Ossorian lines and using their archers with devastating results.

With winter almost upon them and with it the end of the fighting season, the High King of Ireland, Rory O’Connor, at last recognised the threat posed by Dermot and FitzStephen. Raising all the other great kings and their armies, Rory pushed south towards Dermot’s capital at Ferns (modern County Wexford). But he arrived to find Ferns deserted. FitzStephen was ready and had prepared for a Stand-off at Dubh-Tir.

When he heard of Rory’s advance, FitzStephen knew that he had no hope of overcoming the disparity in numbers in open warfare. Instead he had ordered his army into the wilderness in the foothills of the Blackstairs Mountains (presumably near Mount Leinster), a region then known as Dubh-Tir, the dark country. Forested and mountainous, filled with bogs and uncharted rivers, FitzStephen began felling trees to build fences in defensible positions, carving paths into the wood to force the enemy to meet him in places he was prepared to defend.

High King Rory had never seen anything like FitzStephen’s defences in Dubh-Tir and immediately decided upon another tactic, trying to convince both the Norman commander and Dermot to betray his ally.

In the end it was Rory who blinked first, opening peace negotiations with his enemies and coming to a settlement whereby Dermot would submit to the High King’s rule in return for recognition as King of Leinster. Finally, four years after being exiled from his throne, he was back in power of his tribal homeland.

Amongst Dermot’s promises was that he would remain within the bounds of his kingdom and not make war upon his neighbours. As sureties for this good behaviour, his son, Conor, grandson Donal, and his foster-brother’s son, were handed over to Rory. There was another secret clause to the peace treaty between the two kings: Dermot promised to bring no more foreigners to Ireland and, furthermore, to eject FitzStephen and his men once Leinster had been pacified.

Once agreed, Rory withdrew from Dubh-Tir with all his troops, allowing Dermot to return to Ferns to muse on his campaign of 1170. FitzStephen journeyed back to his newly won lands at Wexford where, just before the turn of New Year, he was joined by reinforcements under his elder brother, Maurice FitzGerald. Together, they built the first castle in Ireland, a small timber stockade on a high bluff above the River Slaney at modern Ferrycarrig, just two miles from Wexford’s walls. From there, they aimed to control the town and any shipping hoping to move inland. From there, they hoped that they would conquer a kingdom of their own.

Baginbun Point, where the second landing of Normans would
occur in 1170, lies on the other side of the estuary from Bannow


~~~~~~~

Ruadh Butler is the author of Swordland, Lord of the Sea Castle and The Earl Strongbow. The series tells the story of the 12th century invasion of Ireland by Norman knights from Wales. Catch up with Ruadh on his website, on Facebook, or find him on Twitter and Instagram.

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