Wednesday, July 31, 2019

Gertrude Jekyll - Sedate revolutionary

By Judith Taylor

Gertrude Jekyll (1843 - 1932) was a late Victorian spinster who helped to turn English gardening on its head. She transferred the insights gained from training as a painter to designing gardens. She treated a garden as a canvas, using plant color to express her vision. Together with William Robinson she unshackled the Victorian garden from its straitjacket.

Gardening has long fashion cycles like so much else. After the naturalistic style emphasized by Capability Brown ended the Victorian garden became fussy and rigid with carpet bedding and trees dotted at random across a lawn. Carpet bedding, low growing plants in often primary colours pushed together to make geometric patterns, was possible because so many new annual flowers came on the scene in the nineteenth century. John Claudius Loudon was the apostle of this style. One extreme was the Floral Clock in Edinburgh.

Sooner or later someone was bound to rebel at this soul destroying artificiality. The first salvo was fired by William Robinson in his book “The Wild Garden”. He was as unlike Miss Jekyll as it was possible to be but they shared a vision which made them colleagues for life.

There was nothing revolutionary about Miss Jekyll’s appearance. If I might coin an expression she was beyond frumpy. It was not her fault. That was how elderly unmarried ladies dressed and did their hair at the end of the nineteenth century but behind that uncompromising gaze there lay a luminous mind.

Nicholson's portrait
This exterior was a very poor guide to what lay underneath it and her memory has not benefited from the stereotype. Once William Nicholson had painted her portrait resembling Queen Victoria in later life, the image was sealed. It concealed a restless intelligence, an original artistic imagination, vast knowledge of plants, skills of many sorts, a boundless capacity for hard work and even a wicked sense of humour.

One of her biographers believes she intentionally adopted this utterly unthreatening style as a disguise so as not frighten the horses. She could be very intimidating. It puts one in mind of Florence Nightingale, another Victorian iconoclastic spinster who conveniently claimed unspecified illness while sending poor Sidney Herbert out to do her dirty work in the legislative trenches. Both women skillfully manipulated society’s expectations.

Gertrude Jekyll wrote fifteen books, edited a major horticultural magazine and published two thousand articles. She had a hand in the design and installation of numerous gardens and influenced countless others by her writings. If she had been a man she would have had a three page entry in the Dictionary of National Biography. There was none for Miss Jekyll. Only years after her death did the publication grudgingly decide to include her in its Supplement.

The Jekylls were what used to be called the “backbone of England”, upper middle class families which supplied professional men, soldiers and servants of the Crown generation after generation. The first Jekylls to be recorded were in Lincolnshire in the early sixteenth century. They pronounced the name “Jeekyll”, like Jeep.

Her father, Captain Edward Jekyll, had been in the Guards but retired early and devoted himself to his family and many amateur craft and engineering pursuits all carried out with considerable skill and efficiency. There was nothing amateurish about his approach. He had this leisure because of money in his mother’s family. When he first married he and his wife Julia, née Hammersley, lived in Mayfair where all of their six children were born. Gertrude was the fourth. Although they had a key to the garden in Berkeley Square London was still a very dirty and unhealthy place and if at all possible it was better to take children out into the country.

Captain Jekyll purchased Bramley House south of Guilford in Surrey. Gertrude was allowed to run freely in their grounds. As she grew older she could explore the countryside around them. A series of governesses taught the children but her father also showed her how to use his tools and make things with him. When she asked for her own little garden he made sure it was in a part of the property where plants would grow for her. Her lifelong fascination with plants began in her childhood.

These were all powerful formative influences and quite rare for a young girl of the period. Instead of adopting the rather vacuous existence of a young lady of good family Gertrude developed into an independent minded person, devoted to art, nature, music, books and crafts. The Jekylls moved among artistic circles and followed cultural movements and thought closely. It was at the time when John Ruskin was publishing his epoch making work on the nature and meaning of art. In the Jekyll household he had almost god- like status.

One of the corollaries was that she chose to go to art school in 1861, very soon after the Central School of Art and Design had opened on the land left vacant by the Great Exhibition of 1851 in South Kensington. That too was quite unusual for women in her era though there were precedents in their acquaintance.

Gertrude was exceptionally conscientious in spite of the dry and grueling curriculum. The professor of anatomy, John Marshall used material from her class notebooks as part of a book he was writing but gave her no credit. In addition to anatomy there were essential classes in botany which held her attention. The students also learned about the science and meaning of color. The most effective use of color was to be a principal tenet of her work in garden design. Chevreul’s observation that as soon as one color is placed next to another, it seems to change imprinted itself on her.

Chevreul colour wheel

The switch in emphasis from painting to gardening came slowly. While Gertrude was  preoccupied by many of the other decorative arts she was steadily working on the family garden which she had laid out when they moved from Surrey to Berkshire. She also came to realize that she lacked some of the gifts needed for a career in painting in spite of her dogged application. She had been myopic all her life and used spectacles to correct her vision. The face saving explanation that her eyes were letting her down allowed her to give up painting very honorably.

The Jekylls’ social position was a major factor in her knowing vast numbers of wealthy and influential people. Although she had no need to earn a living she worked just as hard at networking as if she did. The world had to take her on her own terms and somewhat surprisingly it did. Several decades later the impoverished socialite gardener Norah Lindsay did the same thing only she desperately needed the income from her rich friends.
By the 1880s Gertrude Jekyll became synonymous with gardens and garden writing.

Some of this was enhanced by her collaboration with horticultural leaders already at work.
It was not long before Dean Hole and William Robinson realized how skillful she was . She slid into horticultural journalism very gently. The first year she contributed a dozen short unsigned articles to Robinson’s weekly magazine “The Garden”, mainly about arranging flowers to the best advantage. She wrote only of what she herself was doing. Gradually she broadened her focus, writing about plants in depth and how to put them in the right place in the garden. Nothing horticultural escaped her attention and she wrote it all down.

Miss Jekyll met Edwin (“Ned”) Lutyens, (1869 – 1944) when he was nineteen years old, still very dreamy and inexperienced but with a spark she recognized. She took him under her wing and watched him grow and prosper with her guidance. Her wide social connections meant she would hear of a need for an architect very early and be able to secure him the commissions. That could only happen because he was so good at his job. His very first commission was for a small house in rural Surrey.

After her parents’ death Miss Jekyll commissioned him to design and build her house, Munstead Wood, in a quiet part of Surrey, near Godalming. Gertrude had owned the wooded property adjacent to her mother’s land for fifteen year before deciding to build. That had given her time to establish a phenomenal garden. One of her lasting insights was that a garden can start out by being quite “civilized” with strong colour and symmetry near a building and gradually soften its focus until its boundary vanished into the vista beyond.

The garden at Munstead Wood in 2009, showing a
nuanced use of colour

Today we call that a “borrowed landscape”. Within the actual garden she always liked to build a pergola, to have broad color coordinated borders and tree lined grassy avenues, very often using nut trees for this purpose. Miss Jekyll was also an alpine enthusiast. There was almost always a rock garden somewhere. If there were a dearth of natural rock outcroppings she knew a masonry firm which could manufacture a very satisfactory substitute. Munstead Wood is on the National Registry and is open to the public.

Munstead Wood, designed by Edwin Lutyens

Lutyens is mainly remembered today for building much of the imperial centre of New Delhi and for that uncomfortable signature bench still found in so many gardens. (Did he ever try sitting in one?) In his day he was considered the greatest British architect since Christopher Wren.

He combined the English vernacular style with some classical characteristics, producing a hybrid style. In my personal opinion the residential applications have not worn well though major public structures like the massive arch in New Delhi still command considerable respect.

To anyone who has read John Galsworthy’s “Forsyte Saga” Lutyens seems like a good candidate for the character of Philip Bosinney, the radical young architect who causes so much  disruption in the stuffy Forsyte family. Lutyens’ first commission for a house in Surrey, Crooksbury in Farnham, even forms part of the story.

Gertrude Jekyll has worn better. We are still in her debt for theories of garden colour and patterns. It was her view of colours being either ”hot” or “cool” which stimulated Vita Sackville-West’s imagination when she redid Sissinghurst Castle’s garden with its celebrated “rooms” and white garden. Miss Jekyll’s artistic style and attitudes were also strongly influenced by William Morris and the arts and craft movement, developed in protest against soulless machine production.

A big drawback to the Jekyll garden is its need for many gardeners. Once she set a colour framework for a border she had to change the actual plants as the seasons changed to maintain the scheme, ie if she used salvias for scarlet in the spring then she had to find other scarlet flowers for the summer and fall to take their place. There was an enormous amount of work to keep flower covered pergolas in shape and complex walkways clipped.

Miss Jekyll working in her garden, by
Lionel Besson

Gertrude Jekyll continued to work into very old age. She finally died on December 8, 1932, aged 89. Not long before that a seven year old boy visited her with his mother. Miss Jekyll put her hand on his head and as it were, blessed him. That was Christopher Lloyd, one of England’s most innovative and prominent gardeners and garden writers.

The foregoing can only be considered an exceedingly superficial sketch of an amazing life. It is fitting to close with my favourite Jekyll aphorism: ”There are no bad plants. There is only a poor sort of gardening which makes it seem that way.”

Gertrude Jekyll’s books

Wood and Garden 1899
Home and Garden 1900
Lilies for English Gardens 1901
Wall and Water Gardens 1901
Roses for English Gardens (with Edward Mawley) 1902
Old West Surrey  1904
Some English Gardens; After Drawings by George S. Elgood 1904
Flower Decoration in the House 1907
Colour in the Flower Garden 1908
Children and Gardens 1908
Gardens for Small Country Houses (with Lawrence Weaver) 1912
Annuals and Biennials 1916
Garden Ornament 1918
Old English Household Life 1925
A Gardener’s Testament 1937 (posthumous)


Elliott, Brent  1986  “Victorian Gardens”
London  Batsford

Festing, Sally  1991   “Gertrude Jekyll”

Massingham, Betty  1966   “Miss Jekyll”
London   David and Charles

Robinson, William  1895  “The English Flower Garden”
London   Murray

Info/images at


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:

Sunday, July 28, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, July 28, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Enjoy this week's articles from English Historical Fiction Authors.

by David Ebsworth

by Lauren Gilbert

Friday, July 26, 2019

Beautful Malvern

by Lauren Gilbert

The author at Catstlemorton in the Malvern Hills
Not far from the Cotswolds are the Malvern Hills. I had the good fortune to visit that area last year, and enjoyed it greatly. Officially designated an Area of Outstanding Beauty, the Malvern Hills occupy a large range in Worcestershire, Herefordshire and a small portion of Gloucestershire. The area has long been famous for its natural springs and wells. Picturesque towns and villages abound, such as Great Malvern, Little Malvern (3 miles from Great Malvern), Malvern Wells (2 miles from Great Malvern), Upton upon Severn, Castlemoreton, Guarlford, Newland, and others. The entire locale has a long and fascinating history.

An Iron Age fortification is located high in the hills which housed ancient Britons. Initially considered a defensive structure, it mayhave been a permanent fortification, housing up to 4000 residents for a 500-year period. The name “Malvern” appears to have been derived from “Moel-Bryn” (or “Mal-Bryn”), ancient Briton meaning “the bare hill”. The fortification subsequently housed, in turn, Romans, Saxons and Vikings; it was also used by the Normans.

Central mound of the British camp viewed from the
south-layered earthwork defense can be seen.

Great Malvern Priory’s history is cloaked in legend. St. Werstan escaped from the Norsemen and found refuge a hermitage in the Malvern Hills near St. Ann’s Well. He was found and murdered. The Normans arrived shortly after the Battle of Hastings and started work on a monastery called Malvern Chase in c 1085 (“chase” is unenclosed land used for hunting) which evolved into Great Malvern Priory. By 1135, there were 30 monks under Aldwyn, the first prior who was appointed by St. Wulfstan, then Bishop of Worcester. With work completed c. 1100, the Priory church was part of the monastery complex which (it turns out) was built on land belonging to Westminster Abbey. In 1154, it was placed by papal bull under the jurisdiction of Westminster Abbey, putting it under the control of the crown instead of the parish. Tensions with the Bishop of Worcester resulted. Richard, Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) and Henry VII both donated stained glass windows in the 15th century. In 1539, at the will of Henry VIII, the monks surrendered the lands and buildings, which were plundered. The Priory church itself was saved by Malvern parishioners whose parish church was derelict and it became the parish church.

Great Malvern Priory from the Churchyard 
There was no money for repairs or maintenance up to 1800. The mediaeval stained glass was kept as the parish had no funds to remove and replace it. In the mid to late 1800s, the priory was repaired, restored and renovated, with the work being funded primarily by wealthy businessmen. Between 1910 and 1915, the glass was repaired and restored. During WWII, the windows were removed, and the glass was stored in zinc-lined boxes. The windows were replaced after the war by organist Dr. L. A. Hammond.

Great Malvern Priory-"King Solomon" Window by Shrigley and
Hunt, 1908 (some 15th century glass still remains)
Little Malvern Priory (Our Lady and St. Giles) was a small monastic cell founded about 1125 from Worcester Cathedral (independent of the Great Malvern Priory), and was originally known as St Giles Priory. A Benedictine monastery built in the village of Little Malvern 3 miles south of Great Malvern Priory evolved from St. Giles and the church was completed 1171. It was dissolved Aug 31, 1534 when the prior subscribed to Henry VIII’s supremacy over the Church of England.

Little Malvern Prior, in the village of Little Malvern 
The area around Great Malvern was a natural watering place. Wells, fountains and springs, including Holy-Well, St. Anne’s Well, Pewtress Spring (now known as Primeswell spring) were found throughout the Malvern Hills area. Holy-well water was bottled as early as 1622. Richard Banister’s book, published in 1622, ‘Breviary of one Hundred and Thirteen diseases of the Eyes and Eyelids” mentions the curative properties of Malvern water (Richard Banister was an occulist. By 1688 the waters were known as a cure for cancers and sores of all descriptions. In 1756, Dr. John Wall (a famous doctor, involved with Royal Worcester pottery) analysed the water and established that it had an exceptionally low mineral content (he claimed he found nothing in it at all). He wrote a treatise “Experiments and Observations on the Malvern Waters” which went to three editions, with the third 3rd being published in 1763).

The clean air and clean water led to a drastic population increase from about 1800 on. By the early 1800s, Malvern was a popular summer resort. A GUIDE TO ALL THE WATERING AND SEA-BATHING PLACES for 1813 by the Editor of THE PICTURE OF LONDON (John Feltham) extolled the clean air, clean water, beautiful countryside and the attractions of the surrounding area, including the ancient cam and the churches in Great Malvern and Little Malvern. A list of notables who had chosen to live in the area was also provided, and mention was made of stately homes to visit. Malvern’s proximity to Worcester was also a significant advantage.

The Malvern area had its heyday as a Victorian era spa thanks to the popularity of hydrotherapy (the use of water for medical benefit-soaking and swimming, drinking, application in packs, etc.). In 1842, the first “water cure” clinic was established by Drs. James Gully and James Wilson in the Belle Vue Terrace. Queens Victoria and Adelaide, Charles Darwin, Charles Dickens, Florence Nightingale, and other notables visited the spa to receive the benefits of the cold springs water. Both doctors published materials discussing water treatments and cures.

Malvern water was bottled commercially by J. Schweppes & Co. in 1850. The reputation of the water itself was long established and the Malvern water bottled by Schweppes appeared at the Great Exhibition in 1851. The popularity of the spa increased dramatically over the next several years, a process further accelerated when a railway link from Worcester was completed in 1859. Unfortunately Malvern’s popularity as a watering place began to decline in 1870’s due to the death of Dr Wilson in 1867 and the departure of Dr Gulley in 1873, an outbreak of typhoid fever in the area, and competition from less expensive and equally effective treatments at other facilities (especially in Europe).

Malvern today is a popular and thriving area. Spas are still to be found in Malvern. There are numerous luxury spa hotels in the area (although they are different from the Victorian spa clinics). The springs and wells still attract people for health matters and the area has attracted practitioners of holistic medicine. Holy-well water, once bottled by Schweppes/Coca Cola, seems to be sold today to a limited market and is reputed to be a favourite of the Royal Family. It is also a popular tourist destination, due to the beauty and charm of the towns and surrounding countryside. Outdoor activities are very popular in the summer, including camping, hiking and biking. The area’s status as an Area of Outstanding Beauty has resulted in the preservation of the countryside, with the hills and springs and wells.
Sources include:

A GUIDE TO ALL THE WATERING AND SEA-BATHING PLACES For 1813. With A Description of The Lakes; A Sketch of A Tour In Wales; And Itineraries. By the Author of The Picture of London. London: Printed for Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme and Brown, Paternoster-row. PP. 294-303. WHERE I LIVE Hereford and Worcester. “Malvern Hills: British Camp” (no date or author; page archived). HERE ; HEREFORD AND WORCESTER Malvern Hills “The History of British Camp” by Paul Renfry, September 24 2014 (page archived). HERE; “MALVERN HILLS-the water cure” last updated 5/1/2009. HERE “About Us: Malvern’s History with Holistic Medicine” (c) Drs. Martin and Sue Allbright, major update 2012.HERE

British History Online. A HISTORY OF THE COUNTY OF WORCESTER, Vol. 4, “Parishes: Great Malvern With Newland”, pages 123-134. Ed. William Page and J. W. Willis-Bund. Originally published by Victoria County History, London 1924. HERE

GoogleBooks. EXPERIMENTS AND OBSERVATIONS ON THE MALVERN WATERS. THE THIRD EDITION, Enlarged with an Additional Appendix by J. Wall, M.D. Worcester: Printed and sold by R. Lewis, bookseller, 1763. HERE

Great Malvern Priory. “History” (no author or post date shown).HERE

HistoricUK. “Malvern, Worcestershire” (no author or post date shown). HERE

InformationBritain. “The History of Malvern Wells” (no author or post date shown). HERE

Little Malvern Priory. “History of LMP” by Glynnis Dray (2009). HERE


A view of Castlemoreton Common-author’s personal photo.

British hill fort by Spoonfrog at English Wikipedia [Public domain].

Great Malvern Priory: Wikimedia Commons-published under Creative Commons license by the author Poliphilo (all rights waived)- HERE

Great Malvern Priory-“King Solomon” Window by Jules & Jenny from Lincoln UK: Wikimedia Commons-licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License - HERE

Little Malvern Priory by Saffron Blaze: Wikimedia Commons-licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 HERE 

About the author: Lauren Gilbert holds a BA in English with a minor in Art History, and is a long-time member of the Jane Austen Society of North America. Her first published work, HEYERWOOD: A Novel was released in 2011. She is in the process of completing a second novel while doing research for a nonfiction work. She is a member of the Florida Writers Associations and the Society of Authors. Lauren lives in Florida with her husband Ed. You may visit her website for more information.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Elihu Yale and his “Wicked Wife”

By David Ebsworth

Elihu Yale should be one of our better-known historical celebrities, yet he’s now largely forgotten. And perhaps there’s justice in that. Born in Boston, in 1649, to a Welsh family of merchant adventurers, but raised in London, Yale was perhaps the first true nabob, eventually becoming the Honourable English East India Company’s Governor at Fort St. George, Madras.

And there he made a fortune, buying and selling diamonds and also managing the lucrative trade in Indian slaves. This aspect of Britain’s involvement in slavery may be less familiar than the African trade, but Elihu Yale exploited it to the full, returning to England in 1699, a multi-millionaire by today’s standards.

That wealth allowed him to make significant donations to the Church and to the Collegiate College of Connecticut – later to become Yale College, now Yale University.

Author's own 1933 Elihu Yale Toby Jug -
More Famous Then Than Now

His biography has been written many times, yet Yale’s biographers have consistently paid scant regard to his wife, Catherine, who was married to him for 41 years. If Catherine gets a mention at all, it’s because of Yale’s last will and testament in which he most notably wrote: To my wicked wife… and then left a very large blank, not even giving the poor woman her name. Yet Catherine’s story turns out to be at least as intriguing as Elihu’s own tale.

So, this is what we know about Catherine from the available archive evidence.

She was born Catherine Elford in 1651, the daughter of Walter and Anne Elford. Her father was a merchant who had traded in Smyrna and later in Alicante. Their whole world revolved around that spider’s web of international commerce – not just the East India Company, but also the Levant, Hudson’s Bay, Muscovy and Royal African Companies, plus all those others that would provide Britain with the roots from which to build her empire. Yet Catherine certainly grew up in London, where Walter Elford later acquired a famous coffee-house.

In 1669, aged 18, Catherine married Joseph Hynmers, ten years her senior. He had already been to India twice, and was now scheduled to return there for the East India Company. Catherine and Joseph sailed together for the Company’s outpost at Fort St. George, Madras – then a tiny village on the Coromandel Coast.

Parish Record of Catherine's Marriage to Joseph Hynmers, 1669

Joseph’s position was important, Second to the Governor, and they enjoyed a comfortable house with several Indian servants. Catherine gave birth to their first child, Joseph Junior, in 1670; then to Richard in 1672; Elford in 1676; and Benjamin in 1678.

The journey to and from Madras was a hazardous one, at least six months at sea and often much longer. Once there, the residents were at risk from the wars raging between the Muslim Mughal Emperor and the armies of the Hindu Marathas. But mortality rates at Fort St. George were high from sickness too, forcing Catherine to send her boys home when she felt them old enough – usually by the time they were ten.

Then, in 1680, after a prolonged fever, Joseph Hynmers died and left her a considerable fortune. He bequeathed sums of money to the oldest three boys but not the youngest – since he had written his will before Benjamin was born. But Joseph was buried in a fine mausoleum, beneath a tall pyramid that still stands in modern Chennai.

Within six months of Joseph’s death, however, Catherine had married again, this time to Elihu Yale. Yale had gone out to Madras as a clerk for the Company in 1672 and in 1680 he still held a relatively junior position. But over the next few years he invested the wealth gained from his marriage to become a very prominent trader in his own right and, eventually, Governor of Fort St. George – by this time the centre of an astonishingly expanded Madras.

Now married to Yale, and her eldest boys sent back to England, Catherine began a second family – David Yale born in 1684; Katherine in 1685; Anne in 1687; and Ursula, probably in 1689. Tragically, little David died at the age of three and is buried in the same mausoleum with Joseph Hynmers, at Chennai.

Mausoleum for Joseph Hynmers and David Yale
at Fort St. George, Chennai

In 1689, Catherine returned to England with her girls and one Hindu servant. Her boys were already with her mother. Things were not going well for Catherine at Fort St. George and we know that, by then, Elihu was sharing a second home with a Portuguese woman called Jeronima de Paiva, with whom he had another son, Carlos Almanza. It’s likely he was also having a further relationship with a woman named Katherine Nicks.

We know little of Catherine’s life back in London, but it would have been a city she hardly recognised – rebuilt after the Great Fire and occupied by William the Third’s Dutch troops in the aftermath of the Glorious Revolution. She settled in the parish of St. Peter-le-Poor, and soon her eldest son, Joseph Junior had also joined the Company and sailed for Madras. Meanwhile, around 1697, Catherine’s second son Richard died, probably abroad.

By now, Elihu himself had come under suspicion from the Company’s Directors, accused of financial irregularities and even the murder of three witnesses against him. He was replaced as Governor while the investigations took place and though the charges had all been dropped by 1696, his days at Fort St. George were numbered. He sailed back to England, as we’ve already seen, in 1699, along with John Nicks, Katherine Nicks’s husband, plus her youngest children – those that, according to rumour, had actually been sired by Elihu. Personally I think this is unlikely but we know that, when John Nicks returned to Madras, the children remained, in boarding school and pretty much at Elihu’s expense.

From the time of his arrival in London, Elihu kept up a steady flow of correspondence with Katherine Nicks in Madras (over fifty letters during the following eight years) and from these we know that he bought a house in Austin Friars to accommodate his family – so, back with Catherine, though it seems this did not last long. He was soon dividing his time between a new property in London (Queen Square) and Plas Grono in Wrexham.

Sample of the letters from Yale to Katherine Nicks, Courtesy of Yale University Archives. 

Catherine’s remaining sons began a law suit against him, claiming they should have been entitled to a larger share of their father’s inheritance, and the youngest son, Benjamin, testifying that he had never received any of the inheritance due to him through his mother’s marriage settlement with Elihu. The cases would rumble on for many years.

The biographies refer to tragedy striking again in 1704 when news arrived that Joseph Junior had died in Madras. But it’s likely that Catherine would actually have received news of Joseph’s death in 1706. The biographies are usually equally careless about Yale’s money-lending practices and, most notably, in the case of Josiah Edisbury, Yale’s neighbour in Wrexham, and the man who originally built the fine mansion known as Erddig Hall. Edisbury needed a loan to complete furnishing of the house but Yale called in the loan at such an extortionate rate of interest that Edisbury was bankrupted and ruined.

In 1706, Catherine and Elihu’s daughter Katherine married Sir Dudley North and, in 1707, the first of Catherine’s grandchildren was born. In that same year, yet another of Catherine’s sons – Elford – also died, again, probably abroad as a merchant adventurer. Catherine herself was now just 56 and four of her sons – David, Richard, Joseph and Elford – were already dead.

On 6th July 1708, their second daughter, Anne Yale, married Lord James Cavendish, younger brother of the 2nd Duke of Devonshire. Lord James leased his property, Latimer House in Buckinghamshire, to Catherine, where she lived for the rest of her life, along with her only surviving son, Benjamin, and her youngest daughter, Ursula.

In 1711, the courts finally decided that Benjamin was entitled to £8765 as the portion from the estate of Joseph Hynmers, his father, owed to him by Elihu Yale. The current equivalent value of that settlement is about £1 million.

In the following year, news arrived that the illegitimate son of Elihu Yale and Jeronima de Paiva, Carlos Almanza, had died in Cape Town. Jeronima died soon after and, by that time, the other alleged mistress, Katherine Nicks, was also dead in Madras.

Elihu himself died in 1721, having earlier made many philanthropic donations – one of which went to the college in New Haven, Connecticut. He was not the biggest benefactor, however, and that honour fell to a gentleman called Charles Dummer. But the governing body of the establishment felt that “Yale College” had a better ring to it than the alternative.

Elihu was buried at St. Giles in Wrexham, where his impressive tomb still stands. It’s a famous landmark inscribed with an equally famous poem. The poem was probably penned by Yale himself, and this is how it reads now:

Born in America, in Europe bred
In Africa travell’d and in Asia wed
Where long he liv’d and thriv’d; In London dead
Much good, some ill, he did; so hope all’s even
And that his soul thro’ mercy’s gone to Heaven
You that survive and read this tale, take care
For this most certain exit to prepare
Where blest in peace, the actions of the just
Smell sweet and blossom in the silent dust.

Elihu Yale's tomb in Wrexham

He left behind too, of course, that last will and testament: To my wicked wife… Why? Had she supported her sons’ Chancery Court claim against him? Or is there a clue in one of those letters to Katherine Nicks? The only reference, it seems by the context, to his wife: “I have got my old affliction by me, a hair-brain’d crazed ill-natur’d toad that loves nothing so well as her bottle. God rid me of her, for she makes me very uneasy.” Is this Catherine? It seems likely. And, addicted to her bottle? If so, more probable that she might have suffered from that curse afflicting women of her class far more than alcohol, the curse of laudanum.

The will, however, was never signed and the probate battle therefore raged for some while.

Catherine’s youngest daughter, Ursula, also died in 1721, at Latimer, where Catherine remained with her son Benjamin until her own death on 8th February 1728. Catherine and Ursula were both buried at the Latimer House chapel.

Despite the number of grandchildren to Catherine and Elihu Yale, their line now seems to have vanished, with no direct descendants still surviving. So what is their legacy?

Yale University is synonymous with liberal education, regardless of any flaws there may have been in the character of the man whose name it bears. And it is therefore nonsense that the name should be changed, as some have suggested, because of Elihu Yale’s involvement in the Indian slave trade. Our inconvenient truths need to be explained, rather than airbrushed away, and Elihu, I think, still deserves his place in history.

Like Robert Clive, Elihu Yale is also a controversial figure in helping, through the East India Company, to lay the foundations for the British Raj. Historians and social commentators, both in India and Britain, are still at odds about the various pros and cons of British colonisation in the Sub-Continent. Yet, warts and all, this was a hugely significant period in the history of both nations and, as such, Yale deserves his place there too.

[all above images in the public domain unless otherwise stated]


David Ebsworth is the pen name of Liverpool-born author Dave McCall. Currently living in Wrexham, North Wales, with his wife Ann. He was asked in 2018 to consider writing a novel about Elihu Yale but initially declined, due to Yale’s involvement with the Indian slave trade – though he later decided the story could perhaps be told through the eyes of Yale’s much maligned and largely forgotten wife, Catherine. The result is The Doubtful Diaries of Wicked Mistress Yale – the first part of David Ebsworth’s Yale Trilogy. More details of the novel and its buying links can be found on the author’s website: This is Dave’s seventh novel, his previous titles including the Jack Telford series, set during the Spanish Civil War, as well as historical fiction set variously in 6th Century Britain, the Anglo-Zulu War, the Waterloo Campaign of 1815, and the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

Editors Weekly Round-up, July 21, 2019

by the EHFA Editors

Contributors to English Historical Fiction Authors bring us posts that delve into various aspects of British history. This week, Chris Thorndycroft takes a look at King Arthur, and Judith Taylor introduces us to the founder of the National Rose Show. Read these fascinating stories, and never miss a post on EFHA.

by Judith Taylor

Friday, July 19, 2019

The Many Faces of Arthur – 3 Historical Candidates

by Chris Thorndycroft

It is widely believed that the King Arthur of legend has some kernel of truth in a real, albeit shadowy, 5th century warrior called simply Arthur. No King of Camelot. No Merlin. No Round Table. Just Arthur. The History of the Britons credited to the 9th century monk Nennius calls this Arthur a ‘Dux Bellorum’ (leader of battles) who rallied a British resistance against the invading Anglo Saxons after Rome severed its ties with Britain in the 5th century. Aside from a couple of mentions in the Welsh Annals that claim Arthur won a great victory at the Battle of Badon and fell at the ‘strife of Camlann’ along with somebody called Medraut, everything else we know about him comes from poetry, folklore and fiction.

But there are several figures in the late to post-Roman period whose exploits have some parallels with what little we know of him and his more fanciful exploits in later legend. Much theorising has been done in trying to establish various figures as the ‘real King Arthur’. Let’s take a look at three popular candidates.  
Funerary memorial from late 2nd/early 3rd century dedicated to 'Lucius Atorius Castus'. Found in Podstrana (Croatia) in 1850 and published in Francesco Carrara “De’ Scavi di Salona nel 1850: Con cinque tavole” (1852)

Lucius Artorius Castus
This Roman military commander probably lived between 175 and 250 A.D. which is a good two centuries before the end of Roman rule in Britain. All we know of him comes from a couple of stone inscriptions found in Croatia which give an outline of his military career, listing the legions he served in. One of these legions - the VI Victrix - (of which Artorius was a prefect) was stationed in Britain from around 122 A.D. It seems that Artorius was later promoted to Dux Legionum (General of the Legions) and commanded ‘Brittannician’ units (possibly referring to auxiliary units that had served in Britain) against either the Amoricans or Armenians. 

His name alone makes him an interesting candidate. 'Arthur' comes to us via the Latin family name ‘Artorius’ which was borrowed into Welsh and there seem to have been no Artoriuses/Arthurs in Britain before the time of Lucius Artorius Castus. It was the historian Kemp Malone who first put forward the idea of Artorius as the original King Arthur. C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor expanded on this theory, linking him to 5,500 Sarmatian auxiliary troops sent to Britain in 175 A.D. after their defeat by Emperor Marcus Aurelius. 

Parallels have been drawn between Sarmatian customs and elements of Arthurian legend such as carrying a dragon standard and worshiping a sword thrust into the ground reminiscent of the sword in the stone. However, most of these Sarmatian customs cannot be reliably traced back to Roman times and their counterparts in Arthurian legend are relatively late additions. Also, there is no evidence that Lucius Artorius Castus had anything to do with the Sarmatian auxiliaries other than that they were both in Britain at the same time.  

The stone fragments in Croatia are in poor shape and there has been much debate as to their interpretation, specifically of Artorius’s rank. Malcor suggests that ‘prefect of the legion’ meant that he was a fort commander who became an unofficial ‘commander of the region’ leading Sarmatian cavalry units. Others interpret the rank as ‘camp prefect’; a different rank and mainly an administrative role given to soldiers at the end of their career meaning he wouldn’t have seen much action while in Britain. That does however, make his subsequent promotion to Dux Legionum a little unusual. Incidentally, while this title may echo the ‘Dux Bellorum’ bestowed on Arthur by Nennius, the former was an official Roman title while the latter seems to have been an informal way of saying ‘military leader’ in the Latin tongue.

The 2004 movie King Arthur starring Clive Owen and Keira Knightley is based on the Sarmatian theory (Linda A. Malcor was a consultant on the film). Set in 467 AD, Artorius is a descendant of the original Lucius Artorius Castus and his Sarmatian ‘knights’ include the unlikely names of Lancelot, Galahad and Gawain. 

The Arthurian prototype? 'Emrys Wledig' (Ambrosius the Ruler) from a 15th century Welsh language version of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain
Ambrosius Aurelianus
The most damning argument against the existence of a real Arthur is that the 6th century monk Gildas – the closest thing we have to a contemporary commentator – makes no mention of him. In his religious rant On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, Gildas makes it clear that it was Ambrosius Aurelianus who was the champion of the Britons and then goes on to mention the siege of Badon Hill as the last great defeat over the Saxons (a battle later credited to Arthur in the History of the Britons).  

An explanation for Arthur’s absence is suggested in the 12th century Life of Gildas by the cleric Caradoc of Llancarfan. Arthur, Caradoc explains, slew Gildas’s older brother Hueil and one might assume that Gildas would be less than enthusiastic to sing his praises and may even strike his name from the record entirely. 

Gildas presents Ambrosius Aurelianus as a man of noble Roman stock whose parents were killed in the wars with the Saxons. The History of the Britons later expands on this making him ‘king among the kings of Britain’. It also includes a strange tale about a boy called ‘Ambrose’ who is something of a child prophet. The tyrant Vortigern struggles to build a tower and is told by his councilors to sacrifice a fatherless boy and sprinkle the earth with his blood. When young Ambrose appears to fit the bill, the lad tells Vortigern that he is unable to build his tower because within the hill are two dragons; a red one signifying the Britons and a white one the Saxons. Upon learning that Ambrose is the son of a Roman consul, Vortigern gives him all the western provinces of Britain. It is unclear if Ambrose and the ‘king of kings’ Ambrosius Aurelianus are one and the same in the History of the Britons although it does seem likely. 

The 12th century cleric Geoffrey of Monmouth clearly thought they were two different characters as he reproduces the two dragons story in his fantastical History of the Kings of Britain. He conflates the boy with the legendary Myrddin the Wild (a bard who was driven mad with grief and retreated into the Caledonian Forest to become a prophet) and calls him ‘Ambrosius Merlinus’ (Merlin). This is an entirely separate character to the military commander ‘Aurelius Ambrosius’ whom Monmouth makes the high king of Britain, brother of Uther Pendragon and King Arthur’s uncle. 

Whoever Ambrosius Aurelianus was, he seems to have made enough of an impact on British history and folklore that he became entwined with the Arthurian legend or was perhaps even something of a template for the fictional Arthur. 

Kingdom of the Visigoths (in orange, light and dark) circa 500 AD. The Visigothic king Euric consolidated the nation resulting in the Roman Emperor Anthemius's request to Riothamus and his 12,000 warriors to lend their aid. 
One of the more fanciful bits of Geoffrey of Monmouth’s History of the Kings of Britain (and that’s saying something) is when Arthur leaves Britain to conquer most of northern Europe before taking on the might of the Roman Empire. He is forced to return to Britain to deal with Mordred, his nephew, who has seduced Guinevere and seized his throne in his absence. 

There is a historical figure who may have done something vaguely similar that inspired Monmouth. Most of what we know about the military commander Riothamus comes from The Origin and Deeds of the Goths by the 6th century historian Jordanes. In it, Riothamus, king of the Britons, comes to the aid of the Roman Emperor by bringing 12,000 troops to fight the Visigoths around 470 A.D. 

It is unclear if Riothamus was king of the Britons in Britain or of the various British kingdoms in Armorica which was well on the way to being settled at that time (hence its modern-day name of Brittany). The name Riothamus seems to be a Latinisation of the British name Rigotamos meaning ‘great king’. This could mean that it was a title held by somebody (Arthur? Ambrosius Aurelianus?) but a letter from the Gaulish bishop Sidonius Apollinaris asking him to intervene in a dispute is addressed to ‘his friend Riothamus’. Surely a friend would use a personal name rather than a title?     

The historian Geoffrey Ashe is the strongest proponent of the Riothamus theory. He even went so far as to say that Riothamus might have been betrayed by Arvandus, the Praetorian prefect of Gaul, mirroring Arthur’s betrayal by Mordred in Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work. Ashe’s further claim that Riothamus died near the French town of Avallon (thus inspiring the tale of Arthur’s death on the island of Avalon) is unsupported by any evidence.

While it is fun to look for parallels between known historical figures and King Arthur, none of the candidates are without problems. Lucius Artorius Castus may have been in the right place but he was a couple of centuries early and doesn’t seem to have been a great military leader, at least during his time in Britain. Had his middle name been different, he would not even be a candidate at all. The parallels drawn with Riothamus are largely parallels with Geoffrey of Monmouth’s work of fiction rather than the early records of Arthur and although Ambrosius Aurelianus led a very similar career to Arthur, why isn’t he called Arthur? 

In all eventuality, Arthur was just Arthur; the 5th century war leader described in the History of the Britons who held the Saxons at bay for a time and about whom we know frustratingly little. But whoever he was, his deeds had an impact that is still felt today in the legends told of him. 

4. Ashe, Geoffrey (1985). The Discovery of King Arthur. London: Guild Publishing 


Chris Thorndycroft is the author of the Hengest and Horsa trilogy. His follow-up, Sign of the White Foal, is the first part in a trilogy that re-tells the legend of King Arthur in an historical setting. Set in 5th century North Wales, it combines Celtic myth with real history and is based on the earliest elements of the Arthurian legend. 

You can follow Chris on Twitter, Goodreads and Facebook or join his mailing list and get a free Arthurian novella!

A generation after Hengest and Horsa carved out a kingdom in the east, a hero of the Britons rises in the west...

North Wales, 480 A.D. The sons of Cunedag have ruled Venedotia for fifty years but the chief of them – the Pendraig – is now dying. His sons Cadwallon and Owain must fight to retain their birthright from their envious cousins. As civil war consumes Venedotia, Arthur – a young warrior and bastard son of the Pendraig – is sent on a perilous quest that will determine the fate of the kingdom. 

The Morgens; nine priestesses of the Mother Goddess have found the cauldron of rebirth – a symbol of otherworldly power – and have allied themselves with the enemy. Arthur and six companions are dispatched to the mysterious island of Ynys Mon to steal the cauldron and break the power of the Morgens. Along the way they run into the formidable Guenhuifar whose family have been stewards of Ynys Mon for generations. They need her help. The trouble is, Guenhuifar despises Arthur’s family and all they stand for…

Based on the earliest Arthurian legends, Sign of the White Foal is a rip-roaring adventure of Celtic myth and real history set in the ruins of post-Roman Britain.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

Samuel Reynolds Hole, Dean of Rochester and Founder of the National Rose Show

By Judith Taylor

It is not given to many respectable churchmen to see themselves described as ”very large, double, resplendent in carmine -pink, with silvery shading and salmon yellow highlights” in their life time but the Very Reverend Dean Hole was the apotheosis of an active Victorian rosarian and had been immortalized in a new hybrid tea rose by Alexander Dickson, a leading Northern Irish rose grower of the period. There are still Dicksons growing roses today. The dean reveled in the fun.

Dean Hole

Roses inspire a completely irrational passion in the least likely of bosoms, akin only to that caused by orchids. Trying to understand it involves a tiny bit of garden history. Modern gardens evolved from tiny patches of lawn with a few flowers around them safely enclosed behind the high walls of a Mediaeval castle keep to faux tapestry parterres, great natural seeming parks, huge shrubberies and serried masses of annual flowers by the Victorian era.

Those initial gardeners used whatever plants were at hand. The native British flora was beginning to be augmented by new plants from the continent. England had its own red and white native roses which only bloomed once a year. The Normans brought wallflowers and carnations with them as weeds attached to the stone for building castles. The Crusaders later brought anemones from their travels.

What ignited the singular obsessions for a particular plant was the arrival of huge numbers of newly discovered plants from North and South America, China, Japan, South Africa, India, India, Indonesia and the Antipodes during the nineteenth century. They were gorgeous, exotic and came in many different colours and varieties. For the first time there was extraordinary choice within the same sort of flower.

The roses from China which were not only beautiful but bloomed at least twice a year gave rise to a new frenzy. I have referred elsewhere to the ”What If” brigade, imaginative plant growers who saw wonderful new flowers emerging from combining two different kinds. Once the religious prohibition on deliberate cross breeding dwindled away in the early 1830s, the race was on. The first repeating Chinese rose was a delicate pink, small and modest but what if it could have larger and more striking blossoms. It is perhaps a bit surprising that clergymen were quite often in the forefront of this movement, clergymen and station masters.

Samuel Reynolds Hole, 1819 – 1904, was born on December 5, 1819 in Caunton, Nottinghamshire. He outlived Queen Victoria by three years. While still a very young man he made a note in his diary that “his eye had rested on a rose”. That seemed to be a simple casual comment but the next day he returned to that garden with paper and pencil as well as a small book about roses by William Rivers. The Duke of Devonshire underwent a similar epiphany with an oncidium orchid. It captured his soul. Reynolds Hole’s index rose was Rosa gallica ‘d’Aguesseau’.

Rosa gallica ‘d’Aguesseau’

After taking holy orders Hole became the vicar of Caunton in 1850. In 1887 he was elevated to dean of Rochester Cathedral. Everyone who met him remembered his warmth, largeness of spirit and genuine concern for all who suffered. He took his pastoral work very seriously and nothing stood in its way. The plight of the children who slaved away in monstrous factories for pennies a week really distressed him and he, together with Mrs Gaskell, worked very hard to improve their lot.

Rochester Cathedral

This warmth and caring were also clearly seen within his family. His wife and children doted on him. Lord David Cecil once said “If you want to know about a man’s talents, you should see him in society. If you want to know about his temper you should see him at home”.

All this is by way of saying he had his priorities correct but now back to the roses. At that period rose fanciers were like islands in an archipelago until Dean Hole came up with the idea of a national society where they could get together and compare notes. The example  of the London Horticultural Society, later to become the Royal Horticultural Society in 1861 by edict of Prince Albert, lay before him. There was a National Carnation and Picotee Society too. The National Rose Show began in 1876.

Deans wore 'Shovel' hats

The show held meets during the year. This was very serious business. There were cups and awards to be won. Placement on the show benches was very important. The founders set very high standards and rigid rules about how it would proceed.  It was not unknown for a staid clergyman to have a tantrum out of frustration with these rules in the most indecorous way.

Consider the Reverend Joseph Pemberton, normally a very mild mannered man who lived with his sister Florence in Havering-atte-Bower, Essex. Joseph had joined the new society in 1877 and his sister a year later in 1878. They worked as a team. The rose malaise had seized him while he was still a schoolboy. He and Florence spent all their spare time in their three acre garden reaching for perfection in their roses.

He had won other competitions so was feeling very confident when he entered the 1877 National Rose Show. There was some sort of mishap and his entry arrived the day after the closing date for submissions. Previously he had found that other club officials were very flexible about such matters but the NRS said no.

Pemberton went to expostulate in person and was shown other equally gorgeous entries which had been rejected. That made no impression on him. He simply took his roses from space to space  around the hall until the Reverend D’Ombrain, club secretary, threw up his hands and allowed him to remain.

The love of roses led to unusual camaraderie across the social classes. Earls and dukes would chat easily with middle or even working class men over how to grow a better rose. The head gardener of a great estate was an absolute ruler in his domain, telling his employer quite candidly when he was wrong and the employer meekly accepting the rebuke. This led Dean Hole into close acquaintance with many aristocrats who would not otherwise have paid any attention to a rural vicar or even the dean of a cathedral.

The Duke of Rutland had told him to visit his gardens at Belvoir Castle whenever he was in Leicestershire. When the dean got there the head gardener realized that this was no ordinary tourist but someone who understood roses. He asked to whom he had the pleasure of speaking. As the dean told him his name the gardener turned round to his underlings and shouted “Turn on the fountains”! It was a sure sign of his esteem.

Dame Sybil Thorndike, the very well known English actress, grew up in Rochester and visited the dean as a girl.  She is the one who remembered this anecdote.

Belvoir Castle

The dean had been absorbing knowledge about roses from many sources over the years such as other men’s books, his own observations and conversations with experts. In 1869 he published “A Book About Roses”. This work cemented his reputation. When he was just beginning he read books by William Rivers and William Paul. They were true pioneers. The hybridization movement had only got under way in the mid-1830s though some earlier gardeners were crossing flowers subrosa for fear of offending the church. Roses are genetically very flexible. Even one which has several ancestors and might be considered to be sterile can still be used to breed successfully. William Paul’s book appeared in 1848 and went through many editions.

Dean Hole wrote ten other books, including some “memories” in 1892. He remained president of the rose show which later became the National Rose Society and then the Royal National Rose Society for many years. He corresponded with friends and colleagues at length. The move from the vicarage at Caunton to the Deanery at Rochester was a very emotional event. Not least was having to leave his garden behind.

The dean lectured about roses all over the British Isles and made one tour of the United States. Wherever he was he sat down and wrote to his beloved wife Caroline all the time.

Whatever flaws the dean might have had were completely neutralized beneath the fullness of his life and integrity of his spirit. There went a man.


Harkness, Jack 1985  “Makers of Heavenly Roses”
London          Souvenir Press

Massingham, Betty 1974  “Turn on the Fountains: the life of Dean Hole”
London         Gollancz

Quest-Ritson, Charles  2003  “Climbing Roses of the World”
Portland, Oregon     London      Timber Press

Paul, William  1848  “The Rose Garden”
London           Shirwood, Gilbert and Piper


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: