Friday, May 22, 2020

'All Women's Parts to be Acted by Women'

By John Pilkington

So runs a commanding phrase from one of the earliest Acts of Charles II’s reign. Following the demise of Cromwell’s short-lived Republic, 1660 saw the Restoration of the Monarchy: the return from exile of the son of the executed Charles the First. The Restoration ushered in a new, liberal era after the Puritan years - and among many changes the new King brought was the appearance of the first actresses on the English stage. Prior to that, all female roles had been taken by men and boys.
Soon after his arrival Charles gave two of his supporters, Thomas Killigrew and Sir William Davenant, royal patents to run theatres in London, their patrons being, respectively, the King himself and his brother James, Duke of York. Killigrew soon founded the King’s Company, based at first in a converted tennis court. Here, on 8th December 1660, the first actress to perform publicly stepped out: Margaret (‘Peg’) Hughes, taking the role of Desdemona in Othello. Soon afterwards, the great diarist -and keen theatre-goer - Samuel Pepys would write: ‘I to the Theatre, where was acted Beggars Bush… and here the first time that ever I saw women come upon the stage’ (3rd January 1661). In terms of theatre history, it was a revolution. Within a few years Pepys could record: ‘Tomorrow, they told us, should be acted… a new play called The Parsons Dreame, acted all by women’ (4th October 1664).

Margaret Hughes

By then, Killigrew had moved (in 1663) to a new theatre adapted from a former riding school in Brydges Street, off Drury Lane in lively Covent Garden – the burgeoning West End. The courtier Davenant, meanwhile (once rumoured to be an illegitimate son of Shakespeare, though no real evidence exists), had lost no time in founding the Duke’s Company, also in a former tennis court (Lisle’s, in Lincoln’s Inn Fields). He opened in 1661 with one of his own plays, The Siege of Rhodes, featuring the actress Mary Saunderson who the following year would marry leading actor Thomas Betterton. Davenant, who had produced plays and court masques before the Civil War, was the guiding spirit of this first wave of English actresses: eight young women he had tutored and even boarded at his house. Very soon they were an accepted - and expected - sight on the stage.

So began what we now term ‘Restoration Theatre’, often characterised by alluring costumes and witty ‘Comedies of Manners’ in which the pursuit of women was a common theme. Now, however, instead of cross-dressing boys there were real, flesh-and-blood females to take the roles. So, who were they?

To begin with they were not only talented, being expected to sing and dance as well as to act: they were strong-willed and courageous. They had to be, to survive in what was exclusively a men’s domain. Some, it must be said, took to the stage merely to attract well-to-do suitors with marriage as a goal, since many theatre-goers came from the gentry and upper classes, even the aristocracy. Others settled for becoming mistresses, this being a notoriously licentious age with men taking their example from the King himself. The most famous, of course, was Eleanor (‘Nell’) Gwyn. Nell starred alongside the actor Charles Hart in Killigrew’s first Drury Lane production, The Humorous Lieutenant. She was 14; a year earlier she had been a poor orange-seller in the theatre. Within a few years she would catch the eye of the King, go on to bear sons by him and become his most famous mistress with her own servants and a set of rooms in St James’s Park.

Nell Gwyn

The actress Mary (‘Moll’) Davis became another of Charles’ mistresses, and was set up in similar fashion. While Mary Lee, a leading tragedian with the Duke’s Company, married a baronet and became Lady Slingsby.

Moll Davis

Other actresses apart from Mary Saunderson married theatre people, like Anne Gibbs who became Mrs Shadwell, wife of the celebrated playwright Thomas. But most of them had to shift for themselves, in a precarious world with very few opportunities for women outside of marriage. The wage, for the time, was good: up to fifteen shillings a week for a regular female player - well above the wage of the working man – which gave them a degree of independence. Though this was offset by the insecurity of the profession, since the theatres might be closed at any time for a variety of reasons. The fact remains that many of the actresses were obliged, if not prepared, to use their sexuality to advance their careers. The ‘casting couch’ surely dates from this era, for all actresses were considered fair game – not only by leading actors, but also by the men (Pepys among them) who haunted the backstage areas before, during and after performances, many doubtless deserving of the soubriquet ‘Blowflies of the Tiring Room’. At least there were separate changing rooms (known as the ‘Men’s Shift’ and the ‘Women’s Shift’), as there were now seamstresses and ‘tiring-maids’ to look after the costumes, in this age of extravagant fashion.

How the women managed, in a climate of casual sex with virtually no contraception, let alone legal protection, would be a challenge to the staunchest of souls. Yet Mary Betterton forged a successful career on her own merits, and Elizabeth Barry – though given a helping hand by that famous libertine, the Earl of Rochester – gained a well-deserved reputation as a serious tragic actress. While Hester Davenport, often known as ‘Roxalana’ after her celebrated role in The Siege of Rhodes, left the stage to become the mistress of the Earl of Oxford. She was still only 20, and had been tricked into a fake marriage with the Earl. The pace of change was sometimes slow, but it was inevitable. There was even an opportunity for a woman to take a prominent role in theatre management: when Davenant died in 1668, his widow Henrietta Maria, along with two of their nine sons, took over the running of the Duke’s theatre, with the help of the forward-looking Betterton.

We should not forget that this was a vibrant theatrical scene. These new indoor theatres, with their lighting and elaborate scenery, were a far cry from the rough-and-tumble of the great Elizabethan playhouses like the Globe, the Swan and the Rose. Their day was over, and had been since the closure of the theatres on the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642. Davenant, who like the King had been impressed by theatres on the continent, where female actors already performed, introduced moveable scenery at the Duke’s: painted flats sliding into place along grooves in the stage. Killigrew soon followed the practice at the King’s. Equally important was the lighting: great candelabras hoisted above the stage, with side-lighting from candles in reflectors. It was a striking development from the open-air stages, natural daylight and minimal scenery of the pre-Civil War theatres – and it was also considerably more upmarket. In the old theatres you could stand in the yard for a penny; in the Restoration playhouses the cheapest gallery seats (there was no standing room to speak of) cost a shilling. A seat on a bench in the ‘pit’ – today’s stalls – would set you back two shillings and sixpence, a tidy sum at that time.

These theatres were also quite intimate spaces, seating around 500-800 (the old pre-war theatres had accommodated thousands). It was an excellent platform for an actor to shine and to command the stage. Usually a leading player spoke the prologue on the forestage in front of a ‘festoon’ curtain, which was then raised to open the first scene – and many of these speeches were made by actresses.

The companies of the time generally contained around 24 actors, of whom a third were women. No longer were playwrights restricted in the number of female parts they could write as they had been in earlier times, to be played by the boys in the company (never more than four). Nor had the company to rely on the singing abilities of boys whose voices had not yet broken, but could exploit the full range of mature female voices. For dancing, the looser gowns now in vogue (despite the upper-body corsets) allowed greater freedom of movement, as Pepys noted with his customary relish: ‘I was pleased to see [Elizabeth] Knipp dance among the milkmaids, and to hear her sing a song… [in] the comeliest dress that ever I saw’ (17th August 1667). And equally noteworthy was the arrival of the first female playwright, Aphra Behn, an adventurous widow who had briefly been a spy. She wrote successful plays which provided strong roles for women as well as men – with shrewd observations on the predatory behaviour of the latter.

Aphra Behn

Nowadays we are accustomed to seeing female actors feted and honoured on a par with men (even if equal pay remains an issue). The profession is no longer considered a disreputable one, or even particularly dangerous. It is easy to forget how brave those first, pioneering actresses had been back in the 1660s, and how revolutionary was their arrival.

Even if it had come about at the whim of a profligate king, it was a beginning.

Further reading:
Elizabeth Howe, The First English Actresses (1992).
John H. Wilson, All the King’s Ladies: actresses of the Restoration (1958).
Graham Hopkins, Nell Gwyn; a passionate life (2003).
Montague Summers, The Playhouse of Pepys (1964).


John Pilkington wrote plays for radio and theatre as well as scripts for BBC television before turning to historical fiction, which soon become his lifelong passion. He has since published around twenty books, including seven in the popular series The Thomas the Falconer Mysteries, set in the late Tudor period (now republished by Sharpe Books), four in the early 17th century Marbeck spy series (Severn House) and a children’s series, the Elizabethan Mysteries (Usborne). His Restoration-era mysteries, featuring actress-turned-sleuth Betsy Brand, are now being published in revised editions by Joffe Books.

Twitter: @_JohnPilkington

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Making of a Nation: England

By Annette Burkitt

The pre-conquest period in England is a largely unknown and misunderstood period for the general reader. It hardly figures in educational settings below the undergraduate. It is associated with generalised themes of horned helmets, blood and gore; its kings with unpronounceable names and unknown characters. Can a writer put this right? It takes significant research and an academic approach to unlock the surprisingly large amount of surviving information to reach the treasure trove that is Anglo-Saxon history.

Mercia and Wessex became the dominant later kingdoms of the established Saxons. Their political interplay shaped the development of the nation. By the mid-10th century Wessex kings were calling themselves kings of all Britain, ‘rex totius Britanniae’. How did this come about? And what became of the British inhabitants of Dumnonia, the kingdom of the ‘Celtic’ south-west? Looking in detail at the local landscape can help to answer this puzzle of hidden history.

Our understanding of the early years of the development of England suffers from the survival of few contemporary documentary sources, but settlement and events can be recognised and surmised through the archaeological record and from some well-known writings, notably by Gildas (6th century), Bede (8th century) and Nennius (9th century). The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and the Welsh Annals provide a framework for these and later years. A synthesis of research involving, in addition to original and secondary sources and archaeology, landscape studies, folklore, beliefs and place-names can give meat on the bones of this otherwise poorly recorded period of English history. Thankfully, later medieval writers, such as William of Malmesbury (12th century) were able to refer to or make copies of records of earlier times, which have fed the modern historian’s understanding.

By the 10th century, Wessex, the last surviving Saxon kingdom after the Viking assaults of the late 9th century, stood out as the pre-eminent Saxon kingdom, with Winchester in Hampshire as its capital. The ancestor of King Alfred, Ecgberht, set the stage in the 9th century for the rise of the Wessex dynasty. By Athelstan’s reign in the second quarter of the 10th century, Alfred’s bloodline and his vision of a united England had become a reality. Wessex stretched across the whole of the south of Britain. Mercia, in the midlands, acquiesced to its dominance, somewhat unwillingly. Northumbria fluctuated in its loyalty to Wessex, disturbed by insurrection from the Scots, Irish Norse and Cumbrians. The mid-10th century inheritors of Alfred’s vision, Edmund, Eadred, Eadwig and Edgar enjoyed the fruit of the earlier battles against Wessex’s enemies by Edward, Alfred’s son and his grandson Athelstan.

Author's drawing of a coin of Athelstan

They gathered troops, held witans (parliaments), hunted and practised diplomacy at star-studded palaces throughout southern and midland England, travelling from palace to palace, requiring the presence of archbishops, bishops and ministers, as well their individual retinues. The English were known on the continent for their rich apparel, their willingness to entertain foreigners, diplomatic or learned, their ordered and well controlled civic life, their system of justice and particularly their wealth, in treasure as well as enviable relics. The Church was well connected with the most notable monasteries in Europe and encouraged by Popes and kings in its bold attempts to sustain a balance between civic and religious life, to the benefit of all. Naturally, the royal family of Wessex had close involvement with its chief protagonists, Dunstan, Aethelwold and Oswald.

One of the many palaces to which the Wessex kings travelled was Frome on the eastern border of Somerset, UK, from which a charter was published in December 934 AD. We know from this charter that King Athelstan attended a witan, in what would have been a palace building in Frome, for the Christmas court. He had led a campaign in Scotland in the previous summer which attempted to unite all English and British kingdoms under his rule. He is considered by many to be the first Saxon king to rule a united state of England.

Author's drawing of 1st-2nd century brooch, a
souvenir for visitors to a local Romano-British Shrine
The Frome area, now on the border between the counties of Somerset and Wiltshire, had been on the eastern frontier of Dumnonia with Wessex. The barrier forest of Selwood had assisted the British kingdom to remain independent for 200 years after the significant battle of Badon (c.517 AD), identified by some as Bath, not far from Frome, which the British won. The Saxons, newly Christianised, swept westwards in the late 7th century. The Celtic Christian British of Dumnonia were allowed to live on, as second-class citizens, as shown by Alfred’s laws. After 720 AD, when Taunton in the west of Somerset was captured and the last Dumnonian king, Geraint, was killed (probably at Langport), the Britons gradually disappear from historical view, absorbed by inter-marriage, slavery or becoming peasantry. Their language, however, remains, fossilised, in some place-names, for instance in Bath (Bathon). The hilly landscape around Frome, dotted with prehistoric and later burials, forts and temples, on the Wiltshire and Somerset border, retains traces of their long-established presence in place-names associated with pre-Christian belief systems and Christian saints. Somerset retains many town names associated with the post-Roman wave of Welsh Celtic Christian missionaries of the 5th and 6th centuries, for instance Lantocai, in Street near Glastonbury, Lan referring to the church of a Welsh saint.

Author's drawing of one of the carvings from the Saxon cross shaft sculptures, St John's, Frome

In 934 AD Frome was already a place of significance in Wessex. As a religious missionary centre with church (St John’s) and monastery, it had been established more than two centuries before by Aldhelm, a close contact of King Ine. In addition to Athelstan’s visit, King Eadred died in Frome in 955 AD, probably being nursed for his long-standing stomach ailment by monks. The palace and monastery buildings are long gone and the only trace of Saxon archaeology to be seen in Frome today is two stone cross shaft sculptures which have been incorporated into an inner wall of the restored parish church.

Author's drawing of another of the carvings from the Saxon cross shaft sculptures

The town was, with Amesbury and Cheddar, one of the favourite places of Athelstan, who relished hunting. The forest of Selwood would have been ideal for his needs. In 934 AD, 15 bishops, as well as both Archbishops, the kings Athelstan and Hywel Dda (the Good) of Wales, plus 25 ministers stayed here. By the early 11th century Frome was important enough to have its own mint and was still owned by the Saxon kings at Domesday in 1086, but by then the monastery was no longer in existence, perhaps destroyed in the early 11th century by the invasion of Sweyn Forkbeard and his son, Canute, who were active in the south-central England.

Author's drawing of St John's, Frome, as it is today

The physical layout of the land and the doings of kings and bishops can be seen, but what about women and ordinary people and their thoughts?

The bare skeleton of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, together with the hagiographies, contemporary accounts and accounts by later historians give a flavour of the early medieval period in England, especially of the delicate balancing act of Church and State. During the tenth century, a massive religious movement, a reformation, was underway. This was a successful, organised attempt to enforce the stricter forms of Roman Catholicism, led by powerful bishops, notably Dunstan and Aethelwold, a process which was brought to an end in the 16th century by Henry VIII and his chief minister, Thomas Cromwell. How and why the growing tenth century mindset of pilgrimage, relics, miracles, saints and their related monetary indulgences, along with the concept of Purgatory, came to be preeminent in the lives of all social strata of the tenth and later centuries are fruitful areas for the interested writer. We can follow the birth of the Benedictine reform movement in the Lives of Saint Dunstan and Aethelwold, who determinedly navigated their way, at many times thwarted by kings, through many years and many reigns. They both enjoyed long, active lives. They were often assisted by the women of the Wessex court, particularly Eadgifu, the wife of Edward, mother to kings Eadmund and Eadred and grandmother to two more kings, Eadwig and Edgar.

Public Domain image of Eadgifu in Canterbury Cathedral

Historians and writers may guess at the struggles of power between the tough-minded Church leaders and their equally hard-nosed secular rivals in the Wessex dynasty. As in any age, jealousy, espionage, murder, bigotry, bribery, greed and a contradictory wish to be seen to be altruistic and to save one’s soul must have been rampant then, as now. A deeply-held belief by the lower orders in the efficacy of relics to maintain health, win wars and quell devils, threads through the imaginative mind of the age like the serpents on stone cross-shafts. Thegns, freemen and slaves would all have been subject to the delights and terrors of the 10th century vision of Heaven and Hell.

The palaces of the Saxon kings are long gone, like the homes and habitations of the Britons before them. The early English kings hardly figure in history books. Their names are forgotten, too difficult to say, their achievements unheeded. The Church, through its two reformations, won the battle of longevity. The everyday struggle for power and dominance, the survival of the fittest, peeps through in the landscape and historical record. Look at the detail nearby and one can find clues to a nation’s progression – and demise. The cultural palimpsest of peoples of the south-west, the landscape’s hidden history, lies waiting to be unlocked, by the imaginative and informed writer, as well as the academic. There is a key to the British and English pre-conquest past with its rich potential, if you know where and how to look.


Annette Burkitt grew up and lives in Frome, Somerset, UK. She has a degree in archaeology and geography. It has been her life’s interest to understand the landscape around her and to consider the palimpsest of history and archaeology of the people living here in the past. She also paints and has illustrated her first  book, ‘Flesh and Bones of Frome Selwood and Wessex’, published in December 2017 by local history publisher, Hobnob Press, which tells the story of King Athelstan and the landscape features of eastern Dumnonia. Sequels are underway, flowing events and characters of the tenth century, set largely in Wessex.

You can find her on Twitter (@annetteburkitt), Instagram and Facebook.

Monday, May 18, 2020

William Longchamp – Richard the Lionheart’s Chancellor

by Charlene Newcomb

Richard I
Whilst preparing to depart on crusade in 1189, King Richard, the Lionheart, invested the authority to act in his name in the Bishop of Ely, William Longchamp. A cleric likely trained at Bologna, Longchamp had been a trusted advisor to Richard and had served him as chancellor of Aquitaine. Longchamp’s family was Norman and not of high birth, but his father had risen in power during the reign of Henry II and held lands in Normandy and in England.

To serve as co-justiciar with Longchamp, Richard named the Bishop of Durham, Hugh of Le Puiset; and three others, William Marshal, Hugh Bardolf, and William Briwerre, were named associate justiciars. Richard is not known as being a capable administrator and he failed to delineate the specific authority of these men, which led to major upheaval in 1190-91.

For the sum of £3000, Richard named Longchamp chancellor and asked the Pope to make him papal legate to England. To his contemporaries, William Longchamp became “a man with three titles and three heads,” exercising power as justiciar, chancellor, and papal legate. His critics claim he was greedy, ambitious, and unscrupulous and he eyed co-justiciar Le Puiset’s authority with envy. Longchamp did not know the language, did not adapt to English customs, and “openly professed his contempt for the English.” The author of a biography of the gentle Bishop Hugh of Lincoln writes that Richard “left behind a little lame, black foreigner, Longchamp…who had been adviser, schemer, general brain box and jackal to Lion-heart.” Perhaps Richard did not know Longchamp as well as he thought.

Contemporary sources note that Longchamp was short, had a limp, and “possessed the face of a dog.” It did not take the chancellor long to alienate his co-justiciars or the English barons after Richard left England behind. The chronicler Roger de Hoveden writes “the said bishop of Ely, legate of the Apostolic See, chancellor of our lord the king, and justiciary of England, oppressed the clergy and the people, confounding right and wrong; nor was there a person in the kingdom who dared to offer resistance to his authority, even in word.” The chancellor deposed Le Puiset, had him arrested and forcibly taken to London. He appointed numerous relatives to high positions, removed sheriffs and castellans, and suspended clergy.

Lincoln Castle
As Longchamp attempted to consolidate his own power, many barons turned to Richard’s brother John. John, who eyed Richard’s crown and expected to be named his heir, garnered the support of these men. When Longchamp removed Gerard de Camville as Sheriff of Lincolnshire, de Camville joined forces with John to take over Nottingham and Tickhill Castles, whilst his wife, Nichola de la Haye, held Lincoln Castle against Longchamp’s forces in a 40 day siege in 1191. Compromise was reached due to the efforts of Walter de Coutances, archbishop of Rouen, whom Richard had sent back to England from Sicily after hearing of the many complaints against Longchamp.

For a very brief period it appeared that Longchamp and John might come to a peaceful coexistence after John secured word that the chancellor would support him as heir should Richard not return from the crusade. But Longchamp made a fatal error, taking action against Richard’s half-brother Geoffrey, the archbishop of York, when he landed at Dover.

Dover Castle
Longchamp denied ordering the rough treatment against the archbishop, but his supporters physically dragged Geoffrey from the sanctuary of a church (recalling Beckett’s murder 20 years earlier). John and the justiciars called Longchamp to appear to explain his action, but he fled and barricaded himself in the Tower of London for three days before surrendering. The bishops excommunicated him and the justiciars removed him from office and ordered him to relinquish custody of his castles.

Longchamp attempted to flee and, according to one of his enemies, Bishop Hugh of Nonant, he was caught trying to board a boat in Dover dressed as a woman. De Hoveden writes that “He chose to hasten on foot from the heights of the castle down to the sea-shore, clothed in in a woman’s green gown of enormous length instead of the priest’s gown of azure colour… a hood on his head instead of mitre… [he] became so effeminate in mind… Having seated himself on the shore upon a rock, a fisherman, who immediately took him for a common woman, came up to him; and having come nearly naked up from the sea, perhaps wishing to be made warm, he ran up to the wretch, and embracing his neck … began pulling him about, upon which he discovered that he was a man.”

Incarcerated for several days, Longchamp was released and sailed to Flanders at the end of October 1191. Armed with a message from the Pope, he landed at Dover the following year and attempted to be reinstated to his former position, but was ordered by Queen Eleanor and the justiciars to leave the country.

When word of Richard’s imprisonment became public knowledge in 1193, Longchamp ended up at the king’s side in Germany, negotiating for terms with the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI. He delivered information to the justiciars in England about the ransom agreed to by the king, bringing Richard’s instructions about collection and delivery of the money. Richard sent him to negotiate with King Philip and later with John. Longchamp was with the king when he released from captivity in Mainz in February 1194, and returned to England with him.

Longchamp continued to serve Richard on numerous diplomatic missions to Germany and France. His last task for the king was to go to Rome and ask the Pope to lift an interdict the Archbishop of Rouen had placed on Richard. Longchamp fell ill on the journey and died in January 1197.


Richard being anointed during his coronation. by Unknown. - A 13th-century chronicle. Public Domain,

Gate at Lincoln Castle. by Rodhullandemu - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

Dover Castle. by Misterzee - Own work, CC BY 3.0,


Appleby, J.T. (1965). England Without Richard. Ithaca : Cornell University Press.

Lloyd, A. (1973). King John. Newton Abbot Eng.: David & Charles.

Marson, Charles L. (1901). Hugh, Bishop of Lincoln: a short story of one of the makers of Medieval England. London : Edward Arnold.

Norgate, K. (1902). John Lackland. London : Macmillan.

Turner, R.V. (2009). King John: England’s Evil King? Stroud, Gloucestershire : The History Press.

Turner, R.V. “Longchamp, William de (d. 1197)”, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, May 2007 [, accessed 24 April 2016]

This is an Editor's Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published June 4, 2016.


Charlene Newcomb is the author of the Battle Scars series, 12th century historical fiction filled with war, political intrigue, and a knightly romance of forbidden love set during the reign of Richard the Lionheart. She is currently working on a new medieval tale set during King John’s reign; and in summer 2020 will publish Echoes of the Storm, a sci fi/space opera filled with rebels and traitors and battles and romance in a galaxy far, far away (no, not Star Wars). Sign up for Char’s Newsletter for exclusives, including a free short story, and other special offers. Find her books on Amazon & connect with Char on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram.

Friday, May 15, 2020

Ælfgyva: The Mystery Woman of the Bayeux Tapestry – Part One

By Paula Lofting

Ælfgifu, or as it was sometimes spelt Alfgyva, or even Ælfgyva as it is on the Bayeux Tapestry, must have been a popular name and one of some significance, for when Emma of Normandy was espoused to Aethelred, the witan insisted that she be called Ælfgifu, which incidentally had been the name of a couple of Æthelred’s previous partners, though none of those women had been given the title of queen, unlike Emma. Perhaps they had been so used to referring to their king’s women by the same name they thought it more expedient to refer to Emma as Ælfgifu too, lest they forget themselves and mistakenly call Emma by the wrong name. I say this tongue in cheek, but it is unclear as to why the name Emma was objectionable to them, after all, it was not unlike the English version of Ymma.

But changing a queen’s name is not an unheard-of phenomenon; later Queen Edith, great-granddaughter of Edmund Ironside, was sneered at for her Saxon name and was forced to become Queen Mathilda when she wed Henry the first.

There were so many Aelfgyvas/ Aelfgifus amongst the women of the 11th century that it must have become quite confusing at times. Even Cnut’s first consort was called Aelfgifu, mother of Cnut’s sons Harold and Sweyn. She was known as Aelfgifu of Northampton whose father had been killed during Aethelred’s reign. So one can see that if anyone called Emma, Aelfgifu, by mistake, it would not have mattered as they could be referring to either of them! Even Cnut would not have been caught out by this one.

King Cnut

There was a story about Cnut’s Aelfgifu, that she had been unable to produce her own off-spring and involved a monk to help her pass off a serving maid’s illegitimate babies as her sons by Cnut. In another version, it was said that the monk himself had fathered them.  Were they a monk’s children fathered on a serving maid so that Aelfgifu could present them as hers and Cnut’s? Or, were they lovers themselves, the monk and Aelfgifu? These are questions that, after reading the evidence, I am pondering upon. However, Emma, it is said, hated Aelfgifu and the two women were at odds with each other for many years until Aelfgifu died. It would not be implausible that these tales, rumours, Chinese whispers if you may, could have been put about by the Queen to destroy her rival’s reputation.

Which leads me now to the mystery of Aelfgyva on the Bayeux tapestry. Aelfgyva is the same name as Aeflgifu, just a different spelling, much like Edith and Eadgyth. For centuries people must have pondered over this scene, where a slim figure, clad in what would appear to be the clothing of a well-bred woman, stands in a door way, her hands are palm upwards as if she could be explaining something to a monk, apparently behind a doorway.  He is reaching out to touch the side of her face whilst his other hand rests on his hip in a stance of dominance and he looks as if he might be touching her face in a fatherly way, perhaps admonishing her for some misdeed, or perhaps he is slapping her?  On the other hand he could be caressing her face.

The text sewn into the tapestry merely states ‘where a priest and Aelfgyva…’ and the onlooker is left with no more than this to dwell on. So just what is the author alluding to? Why did he/she not finish the sentence? Perhaps they were referring to a well-known scandal of the time and they had no reason to describe the events because everyone would have known about it anyway. Who knows what the truth is? It seems the answer to the questions of the lady’s identity and the relevance the scene has to the story of the downfall of Harold Godwinson, died with the creators of the tapestry long ago. Those who presented it to the owner must have given a satisfactory explanation to him about the scene. One can only wonder as to what it might have been and was it a truthful explanation, or did it have a hidden story?

This brings me to my burning question. Was this scene depicting the scandal of Aelfgifu of Northampton and the monk and if so why and what did it have to do with the tapestry? What was its creator alluding to? Or had someone woven them into the tapestry, mistakenly confusing Cnut’s Aelfgifu/Aelfgyva with a similar story that did have some legitimacy with the story of the conquest? I have an interpretation, but it is just that, and most likely the fanciful ramblings of my imagination, although it could perhaps be close. I will attempt to explain my idea further sometime in part two soon. Watch this space as the mystery unfolds!

[all above images in the public domain]

This Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives was originally published on November 22, 2017.


Paula Lofting is an author and a member of the re-enactment society Regia Anglorum, where she regularly takes part in the Battle of Hastings. Her first novel, Sons of the Wolf, is set in eleventh-century England and tells the story of Wulfhere, a man torn between family and duty. The sequel, The Wolf Banner is available now. Paula is currently working on the third book in the series, Wolf's Bane.

Find Paula on her Blog

Wednesday, May 13, 2020

Entailment in English Inheritance Laws during the Regency Era

By Josi Kilpack

Rosings Park in Pride and Prejudice 1995 

Have you ever found yourself looking sideways at a plot element in an historical fiction novel or period drama movie or television show and wondered—but why? Why did Mr. John Dashwood kick out his stepmother and half-sisters after their father Henry Dashwood died in Jane Austen’s Sense and Sensibility? Why would Anne de Bourgh inherit Rosings Park after her mother dies, and why wouldn’t Mrs. Bennet inherit Longbourn, thus securing a living for her and her daughters in Pride and Prejudice?

Jane Austen uses English inheritance laws as a plot element in many of her novels. It can be very confusing to the modern reader. Entailments feature prominently. The word gets batted around often enough that it is easy to believe that all estates are entailed, all entailments are bad, and the English inheritance laws hate women. I’m not a historian or an expert, but I have researched this and believe I’ve got it right. If I didn’t, please let me know if the comments.

What an Entailment is:

An entailment is essentially a clause in a will that extended beyond the life of the person who made the will. The clause, therefore, survives the grantor of the entailment for a certain number of generations. Usually, three or four. So Bob Sr. draws up his will with an entailment that settles the estate he’s worked so hard to build on the next male heir for four generations, which means Bob Jr. becomes the automatic owner when Bob Sr. dies, Bob III becomes the automatic owner when Bob Jr. dies, and Bob IV becomes the automatic owner when Bob III dies. When Bob IV inherits, the entailment is satisfied. He can do whatever he wants with it—divide it, sell it, turn it into a killer skate park, and leave it to whoever he wants to.

Sounds terribly controlling to make such a big decision for four generations of Bob’s, right? But there is method to the madness and there are legal remedies. The purpose of entailments was not to be egomaniacs (well, for most people that wasn’t the purpose) it was to assure that estates were not broken up, which divided the necessary income to sustain the houses and buildings. Keeping estates intact also assured those making the entailments that the status of their family line would remain strong. Land was power—still is—and it can’t be too hard on the man for looking at the twelve-year-old heir apparent and thinking “I have to protect him from himself.” Creating an entailment that didn’t let an owner ruin everything prior generations had built ensured that the status and wealth could continue.

Entailments were also not only reserved for the first-born son, or a son at all. If someone owned property not bound by an existing entailment, they could entail it on whoever they wanted. The second born son, the youngest son, the eldest daughter. The entailment usually ran with a position in the family, but there was no restriction on what position and what gender that position had to be in order to receive the entailed property. That we see it so often entailed on the oldest son was due mostly to the cultural adherence to primogeniture—first born sons inheriting, which is based upon inheritance laws that the courts used to determine who inherited if someone died without a will. This type of inheritance law still exists for intestate persons in most developed countries, though in most developed countries it would be equally split between all children (I think.)

David Bamber as the odious Mr Collins in the television series of Pride
and Prejudice (1995). Because of the entailment of Mr Bennet's estate,
he is the heir to Longbourn, not his wife and daughters

It was also possible to break an entailment. Let’s say that Bob Jr. thinks this whole entailment thing is a bad deal—it’s not fair that “his” property has already been decided for him. He can’t sell it, he can’t divide it, he’s limited in the way he uses it all because Dad made these decisions. He can break the entailment by getting Bob III—the next generation of direct male heir entitled to the entailment—to agree with him and together they can submit affidavits or something of the sort saying they want the entail broken. If Bob III goes along with this, he will be forgoing his inheritance of the land and allowing Bob Jr. to make his own decisions. This is a little risky for Bob III. Maybe Bob Jr. is a drunk, maybe he’s a gambler. Surely they make some decision so that Bob III isn’t cut out—otherwise why would Bob III go along with breaking the entailment at all—but if Bob Jr. in some way messes things up, Bob III could end up with nothing. 

In the case of Mr. Bennet in Pride and Prejudice, Longbourn was entailed on the next male heir in line to receive—probably the first born. Mr. Bennet only had daughters, which meant there was no direct heir—heir apparent—for the entailment to pass to. The entailment then went sideways in the family tree to the next male heir, a cousin of Mr. Bennet, Mr. Collins who is the lucky guy. The option of getting Mr. Collins to break the entailment is not available because an entailment can only be broken by the heir apparent and Mr. Collins is the heir presumptive—presumptive because there is still a chance that should Mrs. Bennet die, Mr. Bennet could sire a son with his next wife who would then be a direct heir to Mr. Bennet and the entailment would settle on him. Until Mr. Bennet’s death there is still a chance for an heir apparent. The entailment, therefore, can’t be broken by a “possible” heir. Mr. Collins will inherit, leaving Mrs. Bennet and the five Miss Bennets without financial security.

What an Entailment is not:

Infinite. The grantor determines a number of generations, but it can’t go on forever. Back to our Bobs—Bob IV would have been the last to receive the entailed property. He could then decide if he wanted to create a new entailment or take the chance of the estate being broken up by future generations. He’s going to spend his life taking care of it—does he want to risk the chance of Bob V undoing it?

Entailments were not the only way a person inherited. People could will things however they wanted. Entailments were usually reserved for large estates and plenty of inheritances had nothing to do with entailments. If a person in an entailed position purchased additional lands or houses or whatever, those items would be outside of the entailment and he could leave them to whomever he wished however he wished to.

Maggie Smith as Lady Violet Crawley, the Dowager Countess of Grantham
in the television series Downton Abbey (2010-2015). The first season revolved around
her desire to break the entailment set up by previous generations of the Crawley family
so that her granddaughter Lady Mary Crawley could inherit the estate.

A men’s only club?:

So, then, how does it work out for women? Women could have entailments settled on them as well—Lady Catherine de Bourgh from Pride and Prejudice and Mrs. Ferrars in Sense and Sensibility were probably recipients of entailments—one way or another they both controlled their own fortunes out right. Things got tricky, however, when a woman married because anything she owned would legally become her husband’s on marriage. This was viewed as a process of simplification for a government who viewed a married couple as one legal person. The reason women didn’t have the right to vote during this time was because it was assumed that the husband and wife would agree on an issue and therefore the husband’s vote represented them both. Granted, there were a lot of people talking about women having smaller brains and less capacity that makes us struggle to give the benefit of the doubt on this issue, but this was the law’s defense.

Women were also not always left out in the cold when their husband died and the entailed heir took possession. Most men created a settlement for their wife when they married as part of the marriage contract for this exact reason, often investing a portion of his wife’s dowry to ensure she was cared for in case of his death. Mr. Bennet explains that he should have done this, and he didn’t because he assumed, he would have a male heir. It was lazy and irresponsible on his part but made for a good plot devise. A husband could also create a jointure at any point in his marriage, which was money set aside to provide for his wife upon her death—this money could not be part of the entailment, however.

The defense on the male-centric trickle down of wealth during the Regency era was the same defense that had been reflected in most societies over time—men would take care of women. And most of them did. But when they didn’t, the cultural limitations on women put them in a very disadvantaged position. A woman could not vote, so she could not vote for any candidate who might champion her cause politically. She could not hold office, which meant the positions were always held by men and voted in by men—women’s rights were likely not very high on their list of concerns in need of being addressed.

A widow could inherit from her husband if he chose for her to be the beneficiary. She could also tie up her property in what was called a separate estate before marriage which appointed a trustee to manage her holdings so that her husband couldn’t get it. This sort of arrangement did not happen often, and certain factors would have to line up just right for it to work, but it did happen. Many estates had “Dowager Cottages” which was a house set up for the widow to live in for the rest of her life. The Dowager Lady Grantham from Downton Abby lived in the Dowager House after her husband’s death. Sons commonly did look after their mother and sisters after they inherited which caused little change in living situations and secured women’s futures for them.

Am I grateful that inheritance laws provide for equality these days? Absolutely, but it was somewhat of a relief to understand that the reasons behind the inequality of the Regency era wasn’t “necessarily” due to meanness, it was cultural ideals translated into law that usually worked for the good of everyone.


Josi S. Kilpack is the bestselling author of several Proper Romance and Proper Romance Historical series and a Cozy Culinary Mystery series. Her new Regency romance novel, Rakes and Roses, was published by Shadow Mountain Press on May 05, 2020.  A Heart Revealed and Lord Fenton's Folly were Publishers Weekly Best Romance Books of the Year. She and her husband, Lee, are the parents of four children.

Monday, May 11, 2020

The gallant turncoat - or how a Covenanter became a Royalist

by Anna Belfrage

James Graham, Marquis of Montrose
Chances are that if the subject of gallant soldiers during the English – British – Civil War comes up, Prince Rupert of the Rhine gets all the votes. Personally, I am not all that fond of Rupert, however brave and committed he was to Charles I’s cause. I dare say it may be a contrary streak in me – or, alternatively, it is because my heart fixed at a very early age on another of the royalist heroes, namely James Graham, Marquis of Montrose, who is often referred to as The Great Montrose.

Little James was the last – and only son – of the six children born to his parents. He lost his mother when he was still a small child, and in 1626 his father, John Graham, also died, leaving fourteen-year-old James as Earl of Montrose.

James was the chief of the Clan Graham, and he was destined to be an influential man in Scotland. By the mid-1630s, James was looking forward to an ordered life, enlivened by the odd heated debate in Scottish parliament. Plenty of time for his growing family and for his more romantic hobbies, such as writing poetry. Not to be – and all because of the mounting tension between Charles I, King of England, Ireland and Scotland, and his subjects.

There were various reasons for the strained relationship between Charles I and his people. First and foremost, Charles was a firm believer in Divine Right, as per which he ruled by the will of God, and was only accountable to God – definitely not to Parliament. Secondly, Charles perceived himself entrusted with the spiritual well-being of his subjects – which included a major say in how his people worshipped. Thirdly, Charles was a firm believer in hierarchical power constructions – at least within the church – so he advocated a church ruled by bishops (and himself, seeing as Charles was the Head of the Anglican Church).

In Scotland, none of this went down well. Specifically, the powerful Presbyterian Scottish Kirk growled in warning. In Scotland, the Kirk was ruled by the General Assembly, had no time for such fripperies as bishops, and as to the ridiculous notion of having the king as some sort of head of church…No: absolutely not.

Things might never have come to a head had not Charles I been advised by William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury and deeply distrustful of Calvinism in all its forms – which included the Scottish Kirk. Laud recommended that Charles play hardball, insisting the Anglican Church had to take precedence.

Charles was no fool – far from it – and recognised that imposing the Anglican Church in one fell swoop on the Scots would not go down well. Instead, he aimed for a compromise, an attempt to create a cohesive approach to religion, which is why he presented his subjects with a Common Book of Prayer, a little writ based on Anglican rites and prayers.

To the Scots belonging to the Kirk, Anglicans were borderline papists. To the Scottish Highlanders who clung to the Catholic faith, the Anglicans were as horribly Protestant as the Lowland Presbyterians – with the added disadvantage of being English. In brief, no one in Scotland wanted the Common Book of Prayer, and when Charles tried to enforce its use, hell broke loose.

(c) City of Edinburgh Council; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation.
The Signing of the National Covenant
This, very briefly, is the background to the National Covenant, a document drawn up in 1638 by the Scots which subtly told Charles I to back off when it came to matters of religion – or face the consequences. (For more detail, see this post)  Charles was not good at compromising – comes with the territory when you believe you rule by God’s decree – and soon enough he had a war on his hands, as more or less every adult male in Lowland Scotland signed their name to the Covenant, including the majority of the Scottish nobility.

One of the signatories was Montrose, not because he was a fervent Presbyterian, but because he disliked the fact that Charles had decided to promote politically powerful bishops in Scotland. As far as Montrose was concerned, temporal power was best left in the hands of the Scottish Parliament and the king.

Another of the signatories was a certain Archibald Campbell, future Earl of Argyll. Just like Montrose, Argyll was far from being a rabid Presbyterian – but like Montrose he was a firm believer in Scotland being separate from England in all matters, including religion. Very little other than this conviction united these two men. Where Montrose was tall, dashing and charming, Argyll was neither dashing nor tall – or much inclined to ooze charm. But Argyll was rich – very rich – and as the chief of the Clan Campbell he was a force to be reckoned with – far more powerful than Montrose.

Archibald Campbell, 8th Earl of Argyll
Argyll had not had an easy start in life. His mother died young, his father remarried a Catholic lady and decided this new love of his life was far more important than his son and heir, so he converted to the papist faith and departed for Spain and the 17th century version of the Costa del Sol. (Not really: Archibald Campbell senior took service with Felipe III of Spain) Little Archie was left quite abandoned in Scotland, albeit with a guardian to keep an eye on him. His father made over the estates and titles to his son, but granted himself a hefty annual income, which caused considerable strain on the Argyll finances. Once little Archie came into his own (Papa died in 1638) he had his work cut out for him in repairing the damage done to his wealth – and to his family name, what with his father defecting to the papists.

Anyway: the whole debacle surrounding the Common Book of Prayer resulted in war, with Montrose capably leading the Covenanter armies against Charles I. At the time, things were pretty straightforward for Montrose: he was defending his country and its unassailable rights against a king who tried to impose foreign practices.

While Montrose was off fighting, Argyll was busy constructing a Presbyterian powerbase. Soon enough, the previously so united Covenanters were divided into a faction that demanded Scotland be ruled by the Kirk and the estates, and a more moderate faction who sought some sort of compromise with the king. As the Bishops’ War progressed, Montrose moved towards the Royalist party, torn between loyalty to his country and to his king. Truth be told, he was having second thoughts about the whole Covenanter thing, concerned that too much power was ending up in the hands of the Kirk and men of a most Puritanical bend. Men like Argyll. By now, the temperamental differences between the two men had hardened into personal dislike.

By Divine Right - Charles I
The First Bishops’ War was concluded by the Treaty of Berwick in 1639, at which Charles was obliged to grant major concessions to the Covenanters. Charles, however, had no intention to bide by the terms, and instead planned an invasion of Scotland. Montrose was caught between a rock and a hard place: betray his country or his king? In the event, his loyalty to Scotland won out, and accordingly he was instrumental in leading the troops that yet again defeated Charles.

In 1641, Charles decided to visit Scotland –  a belated attempt to smooth things over, perhaps? Montrose decided to take the opportunity of ridding Scotland of Argyll, whom he considered dangerously radical and far too powerful. Montrose planned to accuse Argyll of treason before Parliament, but Argyll found out and disarmed the plot by arresting Montrose. Obviously, the two men detested each other, and things weren’t exactly improved when Montrose was appointed Lord Lieutenant of Scotland by Charles in 1644.

By this point, England had for some years been embroiled in the Civil War, which spilled over into Scotland. Montrose led the Royalist forces, David Leslie and Argyll headed the Covenanters, now allied with the Parliamentarian and Puritan factions in England.  Montrose called out the Highlanders who had little love for the Covenanters and augmented his forces with 2 000 well-trained Irish infantrymen. Over the coming year, he led his men to one victory after the other.

Mind you, not everything Montrose did was brilliant and honourable, as demonstrated by the atrocities unleashed on Aberdeen in the autumn of 1644. The little town had refused to yield when Montrose asked them to, and when one of the drummer boys accompanying the heralds was shot by a member of the Covenanter garrison, Montrose swore revenge. So when Aberdeen fell, Montrose allowed his soldiers to go on a murderous spree through the town, doing nothing to contain his men as they ravaged and raped, pillaged and killed.

At Inverlochy, Montrose destroyed Argyll’s beloved Campbell clansmen and went on to defeat the Covenanter army on several occasions before crowning his efforts by the victory at Kilsyth in August of 1645. Montrose was now effectively in control of all of Scotland, Argyll and his companions forced to flee before his victorious army. It was time, in Montrose’s opinion, to proclaim Charles I as the true ruler of Scotland.

Unfortunately for Montrose, the Royalist faction in England suffered a decisive defeat at the Battle of Naseby earlier in 1645. So instead of basking in the glory of his victories, Montrose was obliged to hasten to Charles’ aid, with David Leslie and the Covenanter Army in hot pursuit. The Highlanders deserted en masse, so it was with a substantially reduced force that Montrose faced Leslie at the battle of Philiphaug in September of 1645. What followed was a rout and a massacre, with the grim Covenanters exacting revenge on the defeated Irishmen for Aberdeen. A distraught Montrose escaped, riding for the protective wilderness of the Highlands.

In 1646, Montrose was ordered to lay down arms by the captured Charles I. He did so reluctantly and went into exile, but being a restless sort, he could not stay away – especially not after hearing Charles I had been executed. He offered his services to the young Charles II, was restored to the post of Lord Lieutenant of Scotland, and began to plan his return. In 1650 Montrose landed in Scotland to raise an army on behalf of Charles II, but the clans did not rally, and at the battle of Carbisdale Montrose was yet again defeated and forced to flee. He sought protection from a certain Neal MacLeod, who happily turned him over to the Covenanter regime and claimed the promised reward, which was why Montrose found himself transported towards Edinburgh as a prisoner.

Charles II was quick to wash his hands of Montrose, eager to comply with the terms dictated by Argyll to recognise him as king, and so a gleeful Argyll was in a position to accuse the valiant and loyal Montrose of treason. The sentence, of course, was a foregone conclusion. It is said that as Montrose was paraded through the streets of Edinburgh, the crowds stood in respectful silence. Likewise, it is said that at some point the cart on which Montrose was seated passed beneath Argyll’s window. For an instant, their eyes met, after which Montrose went on to pass his last night on earth at the Tolbooth.

On 21 May of 1650, Montrose met his end with style. Dressed in scarlet and lace, with beribboned shoes, white gloves and stockings, he was taken to the thirty-foot high gallows. He had been forbidden the right to address the crowd, and instead he was bundled up the ladder, had the noose placed round his neck and was shoved off by the weeping hangman.  Once hanged, he was quartered, his head affixed on a spike and his torso buried in unconsecrated ground.

Montrose's tomb (photo Kim Traynor)
Over a decade later, a restored Charles II attempted to make amends for his betrayal by arranging for a magnificent state burial, at which Montrose’s various body parts were brought together and interred in St Giles. Too little, too late, in my opinion, but today, Montrose’s remains rest in the northern aisle of the cathedral. Ironically, more or less opposite, along the southern aisle, is a monument to Montrose’s nemesis, Argyll, who was to follow Montrose onto the gallows a decade or so later. Fittingly, Montrose himself has written the verse that adorns his grave:

Scatter my ashes, strow them in the air
Lord, since thou knowest where all these atoms are,
I’m hopeful Thou’lt recover once my dust
And confident Thou’lt raise me with the just

(All images from Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain unless otherwise indicated)

This is an Editor's Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published June 23, 2016.


Had Anna been allowed to choose, she’d have become a time-traveller. As this was impossible, she became a financial professional with two absorbing interests: history and writing. Anna has authored the acclaimed time travelling series The Graham Saga, set in 17th century Scotland and Maryland, as well as the equally acclaimed medieval series The King’s Greatest Enemy which is set in 14th century England. She has recently released A Flame through Eternity, the third in a new series, The Wanderer, a fast-paced contemporary romantic suspense with paranormal and time-slip ingredients.

At present, Anna is working on a new medieval series in which Edward I features prominently as well as a book set in 1715 where magic lockets and Jacobite rebels add quite the twist.

Find Anna:


BUYLINK A Rip in the Veil:

Friday, May 8, 2020

The Hudson's Bay Company

by Cryssa Bazos

The Hudson’s Bay Company recently celebrated their 350-year anniversary, which is a considerable achievement, but HBC (also called The Bay) is more than just a Canadian retail store. Its history is entwined with the formation of Canada.

Our story starts in the 17th century, a time of exploration and early colonization. France and England were establishing settlements and carving out the eastern part of North America, with France taking what is Quebec today and England establishing the New England colonies. With the formation of the Hudson’s Bay Company, England sandwiched France by establishing a foothold in the north through a vast stretch of land that is approximately a third of the size of Canada. Ironically, this win for England was only made possible by two Frenchmen.

Pierre-Esprit Radisson
Wikimedia Commons 
[Public Domain]
Pierre-Esprit Radisson and Médard des Groseilliers were fur traders (coureurs de bois) and explorers as well as brothers-in-law. Radisson arrived in New France around 1651 and settled in the Trois-Rivières area with his sisters, one who eventually married Groseilliers. Radisson’s early life was one harrowing adventure after another. He spent years with the Mohawk, learning their culture and traditions, and had been fortunate to escape death after being captured by the Iroquois.

Groseilliers emigrated to New France several years earlier than Radisson and initially became a lay person at a Jesuit mission, but his passion was exploration. He travelled from New France, westward to the Great Lakes and spent time with the Huron peoples.

During this time the fur trade had become a highly lucrative business, in particular the trading of beaver fur. Wealthy Europeans were mad for the thick, warm, and waterproof furs. French traders concentrated their trapping along the St. Lawrence waterway, but having explored north and west of New France, Groseilliers was aware that the thickest beaver furs could be found to the north, around Hudson’s Bay.

In 1659, Radisson and Groseilliers applied for a trading license from the governor of New France, the Marquis d’Argenson, to explore the upper Great Lakes. The governor initially declined the request but then agreed provided that the expedition included several cronies and friends. Radisson and Groseilliers agreed, but at the first opportunity, they struck out on their own, leaving the governor’s people behind. During this trip, they travelled north of the Great Lakes, trapping far superior furs than they had found before.

When they returned to New France, the furious governor fined them, seized their furs and imprisoned Groseilliers. Rather than dampening their taste for adventure, the experience further inflamed their desire to reach Hudson’s Bay. They realized that their best chance was to do so from the water as opposed to undertaking a long arduous journey over land. For this, they needed financial backing.

They did attempt to find investors in France, but they found no interest. Eventually, they turned their attention to the English colony of Massachusetts, where in Boston, they met Colonel George Cartwright, a commissioner of King Charles II of England. Cartwright immediately saw the potential and together with Radisson and Groseilliers they travelled to London and presented their opportunity to the king in 1665. Charles II was a forward-thinking monarch who was eager for exploration. There in London, the king’s cousin, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, was brought in. Being at heart an adventurer, Rupert was eager for the venture and invested £270 on the expedition. 

Prince Rupert of the Rhine
Wikimedia Commons
After a few years of not being able to get their venture off the ground (caught between a perfect storm of plague and war against the Dutch), they finally secured two small ships to travel to Hudson’s Bay, the Nonsuch and the Eaglet. On June 5, 1668, the two ships left Deptford for Hudson’s Bay.

Unfortunately, Radisson aboard the Eaglet never made it across the Atlantic. The vessel experienced crippling damage during a gale and was forced to turn back to Ireland.

Groseilliers was more successful. The Nonsuch arrived at James Bay, the little southern dip of Hudson’s Bay. There they founded the first trading fort, calling it Charles Fort, which is modern day Waskaganish, Quebec (although it was better known as Rupert’s House) and named the major river that flowed into James Bay as Rupert River.

The company trapped and traded the winter of 1668 and when fall arrived the following year, the Nonsuch returned to England carrying a prized cargo of beaver furs. The value of the pelts was valued at £1,233, the equivalent (at that time) of a laborer’s lifetime wages. Even still, the first venture did little more than cover costs.

The Hudson’s Bay Company was officially incorporated on May 2, 1670 by royal charter granted by King Charles II with Prince Rupert named as its first governor. The company had control of the entire area around Hudson’s Bay known as Rupert’s Land, spanning approximately 1.5 million square miles!

Rupert's Land via Wikimedia Commons
en:User:Decumanusderivative work: Themightyquill / CC BY-SA )

Over the next two centuries, the Hudson’s Bay Company became synonymous with exploration and solidified British interests in Canada. Its founding is truly a Canadian story, only possible as a multicultural joint venture thanks to an English King, a German Prince and a pair of French trappers.


Cryssa Bazos is an award-winning historical fiction author and 17th-century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. Her debut novel, Traitor's Knot is the Medalist winner of the 2017 New Apple Award (historical fiction), a finalist for the 2018 EPIC eBook Awards (historical romance) and a finalist for RNA Joan Hessayon Award. Her second novel, Severed Knot, is a B.R.A.G Medallion Honoree and has been shortlisted for the 2019 Chaucer Award.

For more information, visit her Website or connect through Facebook or Twitter.

Traitor's Knot is available through Amazon
Severed Knot is available through all Online Retailers 

Wednesday, May 6, 2020

John Brown: Victoria's Lover or Rasputin-like Figure?

By Emma Rose Millar

Since first watching Dame Judi Dench and Billy Connolly in the 1997 film, Mrs Brown, I have been intrigued by Queen Victoria’s relationship with her ghillie: were the pair really lovers, or was he simply her loyal servant and protector?

There is no doubting Victoria’s early love for Albert. She was an obsessive letter writer and journal keeper. Aged twenty, she wrote in her diary about her first evening of married life:
“I never ever spent such an evening! My dearest, dearest, dear Albert sat on a footstool by my side, and his excessive love and affection gave me feelings of heavenly love and happiness I never could have hoped to have felt before! He clasped me in his arms and we kissed each other again and again! His beauty, his sweetness and gentleness—really how can I ever be thankful enough for such a husband.”
She often wrote of her pride in his achievements, particularly the Great Exhibition of 1851. Albert was indeed intelligent and enterprising, and often, especially in the early years, he was frustrated by his lack of power. However, as Victoria became increasingly occupied with her children, Albert took on more responsibilities. Victoria sometimes resented Albert’s authority, and fierce arguments between the couple were a regular occurrence. Frequently, they would cease to be on speaking terms and communicated only in writing. Many of these letters survive and have given us a fascinating insight into their relationship.

When Albert died of typhoid fever in 1861, Victoria was devastated. She wrote to her eldest daughter, also called Victoria, asking: “How I, who leant on him for all and everything – without whom I did nothing, moved not a finger, arranged not a print or photograph, didn’t put on a gown or bonnet if he didn’t approve it shall go on, to live, to move, to help myself in difficult moments?”

For years Victoria mourned Albert, retreating from public life and wearing black for the remaining forty years of her life. After his death, whenever decisions needed to be made, Victoria felt the absence of Albert acutely. She attempted to guess what the Prince Consort would have advised and attended many séances in order to communicate with him directly. Victoria famously consulted Daniel Dunglas Home, one of the most lauded mediums of the era, and Georgiana Eagle, whom she gave an engraved watch, for supposedly channelling Albert’s ghost.

In 1861, a 13-year-old medium, Robert James Lees, held a séance in Birmingham during which he went into a trance and delivered a message from the Prince Consort that he wished to speak with his wife, the Queen. One of the sitters there was a professional editor, who published his account, which was subsequently brought to Victoria’s attention. The Queen’s position dictated a cautious approach. She sent two courtiers to Lees’ next séance in her place, instructing them that they were not to reveal their identities. During the séance, Lees again went into a trance and produced a voice phenomenon which the courtiers instantly recognised as Prince Albert. The spirit then addressed the courtiers by their real names and gave intimate details of life at the palace, which they considered only Albert could have known.

Following the séance, Lees wrote a letter to the Queen, using the supposedly supernatural gift of automatic writing, where the spirit takes over the body of the spirit medium long enough to write a message. Lees’ letter was filled with personal details and signed by a pet name used only between Albert and Victoria. Victoria was utterly convinced that the letter was genuine and sent at once for Lees, who conducted a further séance at the Palace, again channelling Albert’s voice.

Lees as an older man

According to Lees’ children, he performed another nine séances, impressing the Queen so much that she invited him to join the Royal household. However, he refused the offer on the advice of his spirit guides. Speaking through Lees, Albert’s final words of comfort were, “You will still be able to receive messages from the boy who used to hold my gun at Balmoral.”

The boy who carried Albert’s gun was John Brown.

After Lees revelations, Brown was sent for to become the Queen’s personal groom at Osbourne, her house on the Isle of Wight. The relationship between John Brown and Queen Victoria remains a source of conjecture. Her courtiers were pleased at first that he was able to coax her out of her misery, but they soon became concerned that she had fallen utterly under his spell.

Brown immediately adopted a bullying and familiar manner with the Queen that astonished courtiers and caused her daughters to refer to him as ‘Mama’s lover.’ He became increasingly domineering, towards the rest of the royal household. Other servants came to despise him, and secretly dubbed Brown ‘the Queen’s stallion.’ Brown encouraged the Queen to drink whisky with him, Begg’s Best being their preferred tipple. She was soon referring to him as ‘fascinating Johnny Brown’.

A shocked Foreign Secretary, the Earl of Derby, recorded that ‘contrary to etiquette and even decency,’ Queen Victoria and John Brown slept in adjoining rooms, with only a door between them. Some sources suggest that the pair even married in secret. Lewis Harcourt, First Viscount Harcourt’s diaries state that one of the Queen's chaplains, Rev Norman McLeod, made a deathbed confession repenting his action in presiding over Queen Victoria's marriage to John Brown. Victoria was buried with a lock of Brown’s hair, his photograph, Brown’s mother's wedding ring, along with several of his letters.

However, Irish author, J. H Brennan claims in his book, Whisperers, the History of the Spirit World that far from being lovers, John Brown was a spirit medium who was channelling messages from Albert’s ghost. In the blue room, which Victoria had turned into a shrine to her late husband, she would sit with Brown and a few trusted courtiers, in the dark, where she would sit and wait. John Brown would then begin to speak, not in his own voice, but in the voice of the Prince Consort, telling Victoria what she should do.

After John Brown’s death in 1883, Victoria wrote to the Earl of Cranbrook, “the Queen feels that life for the second time is become most trying and sad to bear deprived of all she so needs.” This letter could perhaps be alluding to her losing Albert for the second time – she was no longer able to communicate with him through Brown.

Whether or not John Brown was behind Lees’ claims to be able to channel Albert’s spirit, we do not know, although it is telling that when recounting his first experience of Spiritualism, Lees wrote:
“I am personally aware that as a child I cried at being left in the darkness unless I saw a mysterious and to others invisible kilted Highlander who remained beside me talking or singing till I fell asleep. And even now, after a lapse of half a century the vivid memory of his strong but kindly face is as freshly recalled as if he had sat beside me whilst this New Year was born.”

[This is an Editor's Choice archive post, originally published on EHFA 29 October 2018]


Emma Rose Millar writes historical fiction and children’s picture books. She won the Legend category of the Chaucer Awards for Historical Fiction, with FIVE GUNS BLAZING in 2014. Her novella THE WOMEN FRIENDS: SELINA, based on the work of Gustav Klimt and co-written with author Miriam Drori was published in 2016 by Crooked Cat Books, and was shortlisted for the Goethe Award for Late Historical Fiction. Her third novel, DELIRIUM, a Victorian ghost story, published by Crooked Cat Books was shortlisted for the Chanticleer Paranormal Book Awards in 2017.


Saint Anne’s Lunatic Asylum, London.

One woman whose secret has driven her to the brink of insanity; another who claims she can tell fortunes and communicate with the dead. With seemingly no way out – and everything at stake – only one of them has the tenacity to survive.

Lies, murder, obsession... Delirium.

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