Friday, January 31, 2020

Diana Hill, Miniaturist

by Lauren Gilbert

Diana was born about 1760, possibly in London, to George Dietz, a jeweller. Her mother’s name is unknown. Very little is known about her youth, except that she learned how to paint miniatures from Jeremiah Meyer, who painted miniatures for King George III and Queen Charlotte, and was a foundation member of the Royal Academy in 1768. In 1775, Diana Dietz exhibited miniatures at the Society of Artists. That year, for “promoting the Polite and Liberal arts”[1], she also won a silver palette and five guineas from the Society of Arts (Society for the Encouragement of Arts Manufactures and Commerce) for her drawings of flowers. During the period 1777-1798, she exhibited miniatures at the Royal Academy, under her own name Diana Dietz from 1777-1780. One such painting was a portrait exhibited in 1778.

Jeremiah Meyer: Her Majesty Queen Charlotte of England,
Wife of King George III (reproduced in Photogravure)

On February 3, 1780, Diana was the victim of a theft at her father’s house. A record of her testimony, which provided her father’s name and occupation, is available on-line at the Old Bailey website.

On February 1st, 1781, at age 21, Diana married Haydock Hill (born around 1746-1750), at St. Mary’s, Marylebone, London. She exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1785 under the name of Mrs. Hill as an “Honorary Exhibitor”; two of her three exhibited works were flower pictures. The couple had a son, Haydock James Hill in 1782, at least one daughter, and possibly more children. Haydock Hill reportedly died in London in 1785 aged in his mid to late 30’s. There is an indication he was buried in May of 1785. (Some sources show a date of death of 1816 for him; there was no conclusive documentation for either year. 1785 seems most likely.)

John Cary: A New Map of Hindoostan
from the latest authorities, 1806.

After Mr. Hill’s death,  Diana obtained permission on September 21, 1785 from the court of directors of the East India Company to work as a portrait painter in India. Elizabeth Hill (her mother-in-law) and a merchant named T. C. Blanchenhagen stood as approved securities for her. Her brother-in-law John Hill worked for the East India Company's civil service in Bengal. The involvement of her in-laws supports the date of death for Haydock Hill in 1785. It also seems possible that, as Mr. Meyer was still living, he or his son (who went to Calcutta, and was employed as a civil servant there) may have provided assistance with this enterprise, providing references or other support. Diana arrived in Calcutta in 1786. According to Janet Todd’s essay “Ivory Miniatures and the Art of Jane Austen” in British Women's Writing in the Long Eighteenth Century, she may have taken such a drastic step because there was so much competition within the market for miniatures in England. Apparently other female artists of the time made similar moves. I found no reference to indicate whether her children by Mr. Hill accompanied her.

The arrival of the widow was noted by artist Ozias Humphrey, in that he identified her as competition, acknowledging that her work was good. One of her subjects was General Lord Charles Cornwallis, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, painted in 1786, now in the Mount Vernon collection. Another miniature painted in 1786 was that of a lady, Mrs. Robert Graham. Diana was successful as an artist due to her undoubted talent, as well as her connections.

On November 15th, 1788, she married Lieutenant Thomas Harriott of the 1st Native Infantry (an officer in the East India Company’s service) who was then acting brigade major for the 3rd brigade. She painted a miniature of Harriott about 1791, currently on display at the Victoria and Albert Museum. She stopped working professionally after this marriage. However, a miniature of Elizabeth Steuart, which appears to have been painted about 1790, has been attributed to Diana, although it was not signed.

Diana and Thomas had four children, at least one, possibly two of whom were born in India. They took their family back to England in 1806. They lived in West Hall in Kew for an unknown period of time. Thomas died April 19, 1817. He left a will leaving Diana and their children as beneficiaries, which was proved June (day unclear) 1817.

Diana died February 10, 1844 in  Twickenham, Middlesex, and was buried at St. Mary, Mortlake, Surrey February 17, 1844. She also left a will, which was proved February 22, 1844. She outlived all but two (possibly three) of her children. In her day, she was a prize-winning artist, exhibited at the Royal Academy. Sadly, she fell into obscurity, even though her work is known and valued today.

[1] Transactions Of The Society Instituted At London, For The Encouragement Of Arts, Manufactures And Commerce, With The Premiums Offered In The Year 1784, Volume II.  p. 124.

Sources include:

Aronson, Julie and Wiseman, Marjory E. Perfect Likeness: European And American Portrait Miniatures From The Cincinnati Art Museum p. 209. 2006: Yale University Press.

Transactions Of The Society Instituted At London, For The Encouragement Of Arts, Manufactures And Commerce, With The Premiums Offered In The Year 1784, Volume II. London.

Library of the Fine Arts, or Repertory of Painting, Sculpture, Architecture and Engraving, Vol. III. 1832: M. Arnold, London. Catalogue of Pictures Exhibited at the Rooms of the Royal Academy, Tenth Exhibition, 1778, p. 259.

Batchelor, Jennie and Kaplan, Cora, ed. British Women’s Writing In The Long Eighteenth Century: Authorship, Politics and History. 2005: Palgrave Macmillan, Houndmills, Basingstoke. P. 80. “Past Residents at West Hall.” (no author or post date shown).

Old Bailey Proceedings Online (, version 8.0, 29 January 2020), April 1780, trial of WILLIAM BAGNALL ELISABETH ROSE otherwise BAGNALL (t17800405-19).

Peach, A. (2008, January 03). Hill [née Dietz; other married name Harriott], Diana (d. 1844), miniature painter. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 29 Jan. 2020, from

“Pencil Sketch Portrait Biography.” Retrieved from ; posted October 2, 2013.

Meyer, Jeremiah (DNB00). (2013, February 27). In Wikisource. Retrieved 23:21, January 29, 2020, from,_Jeremiah_(DNB00)&oldid=4325744


An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. Lauren has a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. A long time member of JASNA, she has presented a number of programs. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available. Just released in December 2019, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is her second novel. Her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also researching material for a non-fiction work.

Buy links on Amazon (worldwide)

A Rational Attachment
Heyerwood: A Novel

Wednesday, January 29, 2020

Did he or didn't he? Of a hangman and the royal blood on his hands

by Anna Belfrage

Being an executioner has never been a career choice to endear you to your neighbours. While our ancestors may have liked to witness a good hanging or two, they were wary of bonding with the man responsible for this gruesome entertainment. After all, one never knew if, someday, it would be you on the receiving end of the brutal justice dispensed by the executioner. It didn’t take much to be condemned to death—steal a horse and you’d swing. I imagine it would make an already uncomfortable situation quite unbearable if the man arranging the noose around your neck also was the man with whom you'd shared a number of pints...

However, being an executioner came with some perks, like a steady income. Plus, someone had to do the dirty deed, right? Very often, the job passed from father to son. This was the case with Richard Brandon, the common hangman in London in the 1640s. His father, Gregory Brandon, had been the hangman before him, and had somehow managed to acquire a coat of arms to go with his name and chosen profession. Gregory does not come across as a nice cuddly person. At one point he was even accused of murder but somehow wiggled out of by claiming benefit of clergy. This, of course, makes one wonder how he could do that – were executioners also priests?

Rumour had it that Gregory was the grandson of Charles Brandon, Duke of Suffolk. The duke had sired an illegitimate son who purportedly was Gregory’s father, but the timing was wrong, as Brandon’s illegitimate son died well before Gregory was born. Still, Gregory Brandon had no reason to refute the rumour. Being descended from someone as well-known as Charles Brandon was not exactly bad for business and added a je-ne-sais-quoi to Gregory’s (probably rather dull) ancestral tree.

James I & VI
Gregory was kept busy during James I’s reign. And once he retired, he passed the baton to his son. Did Richard dream of another life? No idea. Maybe wielding a head-axe appealed to him. Supposedly he spent his childhood practising his axe-work on stray cats and dogs, and as his father grew older, Richard helped him with his duties, thereby perfecting his noose-tying skills. But it was the axe that was Richard’s favourite implement, and so good was his eye, so steady his arm, that most of the people he executed had their head severed by the first blow. Something to be grateful for, I suppose.

By 1639, Richard had replaced his father as common hangman. The first few years of his tenure were marred by an accusation of bigamy, and for a while Richard lingered in Newgate before being released and allowed to return home to Whitechapel and his wife Mary. (Whether she was his “real” wife or the one for which he was accused of bigamy is unclear)

In 1641 our Richard stepped into the limelight when he executed Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford. Thomas was a loyal servant of the king whom Charles I abandoned when parliament turned against him. He could have refused to sign the death sentence—but he didn’t. To be fair to Charles, he had a very volatile situation on his hands, and it didn’t help that the bishops were divided on the issue, some urging the king to refuse to sign, others insisting he should. Still, Wentworth’s death for being loyal to his king would weigh heavily on Charles’ conscience. As it should.

As we all know, the coming years were turbulent. People died in the battlefield, of wounds and injuries. Some died because of their crimes, and if they were sentenced in London, it is likely Richard did the killing—oops, execution.

In January of 1645, Brandon added another famous scalp to his belt when he executed the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud. I have little time for Laud, whom I consider to have fanned the flames of religious intolerance and thereby contributed to the outbreak of the English Civil War, but beheading an infirm old man seems a bit harsh. In Laud’s case, Charles I issued a royal pardon, but by that time Charles’ word carried little weight in England.

Charles I
In January of 1649, Charles I himself was tried for treason by Parliament. Charles refused to plead, informing the so-called court that they had no right to try their king. The men in charge of the proceedings proceeded anyway, and on January 29, fifty-nine men, now commonly known as the Regicides, signed Charles’ death sentence. It was time to call in the services of Richard Brandon, and this time he’d be spilling royal blood.

Apparently, Brandon was not that keen on beheading the king. In fact, he refused. This did not help. A company of troopers was dispatched to fetch him, and on January 30 a disguised Richard Brandon was standing on the scaffold, wearing a false beard and periwig. He had to wait a long time for the king to appear, as Parliament was rushing through an Ordinance making it treason to claim the throne after Charles I was dead. Finally, the legalese was done and Charles was ordered to present himself on the scaffold which had been erected beside the Banqueting House. The king, famously wearing two shirts so as not to shiver, was calm and collected. He spoke his piece, kneeled, and at his signal the axe came down. A perfect blow, it severed the king’s head neatly.

An hour or so later, Richard was back home in Whitechapel, 30 pounds richer. He had also received one of the king’s handkerchiefs in recognition of his services. And an orange, studded with cloves, which he sold for ten shillings. At the time, Richard kept a low profile. Bragging about being the one who lopped off the king’s head was not the smart thing to do, not when so many were appalled by the killing of the king. Besides, Richard was not proud of what he’d done. Rather the reverse.

In March of 1649, Richard did some more axe work. This time, he dispatched the Earl of Holland, the Duke of Hamilton and Lord Capel with the same axe that had ended the king’s life. But he was not his usual self and complained of headaches, saying he’d been afflicted by relentless pain ever since that day in January. Richard Brandon, common hangman and axeman extraordinaire, was plagued by remorse for his part in the king’s death. Or maybe he was worried about the consequences for his immortal soul: spilling the blood of an anointed monarch could probably be something he'd pay a heavy price for in the hereafter.

Richard died in June of 1649. Prior to expiring, he had confessed that he’d been the executioner wielding the axe when Charles died. The identity of the man who’d severed the royal head was not exactly a secret. After his death, various pamphlets circulated naming Brandon as the man on the scaffold. Some time after his death, a note was added to the burial register, identifying “R Brandon out of Rosemary Lane” as the man who lopped off the king’s head. However, royalist propaganda spread a different story, stating the common hangman was a man of integrity who had refused to do the foul deed, thereby obliging two troopers to handle the axe themselves.  Nothing points to this being the truth.  Instead, Richard Brandon, accused bigamist and proud inheritor of his father’s job as London’s hangman, is the likely candidate for the man who brought down the blade that so expertly ended Charles Stuart’s life. At least it only took one blow...

All pictures in public domain and/or licensed under Wikimedia Creative Commons

This is an Editor's Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published February 23, 2018. Anna notes that her character Matthew Graham, protagonist of The Graham Saga, was present at the king's execution as a battle-weary 19 yr old Parliamentarian soldier.


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:

Monday, January 27, 2020

Something about Mary

by Judith Arnopp

Anthonis MorMuseo del PradoMadrid, 1554 - Public Domain

Mary was the eldest of Henry VIII’s children. In her infancy she was lauded as a princess, the king referred to her as his ‘pearl’ and she was afforded every honour due to a Henrygirl in her position. Her mother, Catherine of Aragon, after suffering numerous miscarriages and still births was growing old. and her fertile years were at an end. As her fertility died, so did Henry’s love for her.

Anne Boleyn was everything the queen was not; young, fertile, witty and entrancing and Henry was unable to resist. In the years that followed, Mary and her mother’s status was brought into question, the marriage declared illegal and Mary was branded illegitimate. Teenage years are often difficult. Our emotions are in turmoil as we struggle to come to terms with the adult world. Imagine the thirteen year old Mary, isolated from those she loved, separated from her mother and compelled to deny the validity of her parent’s marriage and condemn herself as illegitimate.

Anne Boleyn National Portrait Gallery - Public Domain

In 1533 Henry and the now pregnant Anne Boleyn were married – seventeen-year-old Mary was heartbroken, the hurt intensified when she was sent as a servant to the household of her new sister, Elizabeth.

I would imagine there are difficulties for anyone accustomed to being the apple of their father’s eye when suddenly supplanted by the arrival of a new sibling but Mary was not just replaced in her father’s affection but in every aspect of her former life. Her titles were stripped, her property removed and her status demolished along with any hope of ever becoming queen. Her father’s love must have seemed like some distant dream, and since her nebulous status made her all but unmarriageable her future looked bleak.

Yet, she seems to have borne no ill-will toward Elizabeth. The same cannot be said for Anne however, whom Mary refused to acknowledge as queen and declared she knew no queen of England other than her mother. The Spanish ambassador, Chapuys, began a rumour that Anne was plotting to poison Mary, a rumour (if it were a rumour) that undermined Mary’s security even further.

During my studies of Mary, I discovered an isolated figure, never more so than during this traumatic period. She was not allowed to see her mother again and was inconsolable when Catherine died in January 1536, just four months before Anne Boleyn herself went to the scaffold. With Anne’s demise one might have imagined Mary’s trials were at an end but although her new step-mother, Jane Seymour, went out of her way to reunite Mary and Henry and persuaded the king to bring her back to court, Mary’s humiliation was not over. Henry insisted she accept him as head of the church in England, renounce papal authority and acknowledge Henry and Catherine’s marriage was invalid and she herself illegitimate. One would imagine that this was a very high price to pay for paternal love that should have been her due.

Henry VIII Holbein - Public Domain

Even after Mary returned to court and her household was reinstated and she was reunited with her lifelong friend, Susan Clarencieux her life continued to be difficult. As the dissolution of the monasteries intensified, Mary saw the church she saw as the ‘true church’ all but demolished. She had to sit quietly while monks and nuns were punished. Henry was no longer the golden king of Mary’s infancy but became increasingly ruthless, a trait that grew worse after Queen Jane died shortly after childbirth, providing Henry with Edward, the son he’d longed for.

After the execution of her fifth step-mother, Katherine Howard, Mary was invited to act as hostess at court until the king married his final wife, Katheryn Parr. For a short time the royal family were reunited and almost ‘normal’ or at least as normal as the Tudors ever managed. Encouraged by Parr, Henry welcomed all three of his children back into the fold and, although they remained illegitimate both Mary and Elizabeth were reinstated in the line of succession, after Edward. It was only a brief respite for Mary, who under her brother’s strictly Protestant rule, was to suffer further subjection and torment.

All things considered, there is little wonder that Mary grew into a troubled adult, and ultimately became as harsh a ruler as her father. Of all the women I have studied and written about in my novels, Mary strikes me as the most pitiful. She wasn’t friendless; the people loved Mary from her cradle to her deathbed but for much of the time were afraid to show it.

Edward VI Attributed William Scrots - Public Domain

From infancy she suffered trauma that would have broken most people. But Mary stood firm for as long as she could under constant pressure from her father and his councillors, her brother and his protectors and never ceased to champion her religion. Isolated and terrified, she stood for what she believed was right and, once the crown was finally within her grasp, she did not hesitate to step up to the mark and fight for it.

In a premeditated act, the Duke of Northumberland persuaded Edward to name his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, as his heir in Mary’s place. Having previously married Jane to his son, Guildford Dudley, Northumberland clearly planned to manipulate her and rule in her stead. But Mary was having none of it and rallied an army at Framlingham Castle where support for Northumberland quickly crumbled.

Mary’s reign has been largely regarded as a failure and from our perspective it is easy to see how she earned the title Bloody Mary. As queen, Mary married against the will of the people. She failed to understand the desire of the populace to worship in the manner of their choosing. She failed to provide an heir, suffering phantom pregnancies and dying before her innovative plans for England came to fruition. Yet some of those plans were promising.

She began many policies that have since been laid at Elizabeth's door: reforms to the economy, naval expansion and colonial exploration and had her reign been longer, she may have been remembered very differently. Her success is always measured against Elizabeth's yet Mary had just five years against Elizabeth's forty-four. As with her father, Mary is remembered for her very worst acts yet there was much more to her than religious persecution and brutality. I do not seek to whitewash her actions but to consider the events of her life as she saw them, and it cannot be denied that Mary flew the Tudor banner bravely. She was stalwart, stubborn and loyal. She was sometimes unwise, she was overly passionate and she could be harsh but despite everything, she was loved by her people.

Mary Tudor by Hans Eworth. National Portrait gallery - public domain

Judith Arnopp is the author of twelve historical fiction novels, her latest being in The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England available on Kindle, in Paperback and soon on audible.

To find out more please visit her website

Friday, January 24, 2020

The Banqueting House

By Cryssa Bazos

January 30 is the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I in 1649, and I am reminded of the place where this drama played out--the Banqueting House at Whitehall.

The Banqueting House- Wikimedia Commons

Completed in 1622, the Banqueting House is the only remaining structure of Whitehall Palace and is situated across from Horse Guards Parade. During the Tudor age, the original Banqueting House was little better than a temporary venue. When King James I of England (VI of Scotland) succeeded Elizabeth on the throne in 1603 and ushered in the Stuart Age in England, he got down to work building a proper Banqueting House. His queen, Anne of Denmark, had been fond of masques and was a patroness of the arts.

The famous 17th century architect, Inigo Jones, was commissioned to design the building. What you have is a beautiful example of Palladian architecture with stately pillars and expansive high ceilings. Galleries line the upper hall. But what is truly a marvel in the Hall did not exist until King Charles I succeeded his father to the throne.

Interior Hall: Photo by C. Bazos

Charles commissioned the great Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, to create a series of paintings to grace the ceiling. The panels were completed in Ruben's workshop before being shipped to England for installation.

The paintings were a delight of classical gods and motifs, the most noteworthy being the centre panel titled The Apotheosis of James I. The scene glorifies his late father, James I as though he were being crowned by the heavens. It is meant to reinforce the concept of the king being God's representative on earth and his divine right to rule.

Detail of ceiling:Wikimedia Commons

These paintings remain the only work of Rubens on display outside of a museum. Fortunately for the preservation of the paintings, masques ceased to be performed following their installation. The smoke from the candles would have damaged them over time.

Below the Banqueting Hall is an area known as the Undercroft. During King James's time, it was used as the royal party den, but in later years, they held other amusements such as lotteries. It's curved ceilings gives the impression of a cosy cave. One can imagine how it once looked, crowded with men drinking and gambling while lit with golden torchlight.

The Undercroft: Photo by C. Bazos

Ironically, the Banqueting House, which evolved as a testament to the divinity of kings, would stand as a confirmation of their mortality.

On a cold winter day, on 30 January, 1649, a scaffold was erected outside the Banqueting House, accessed from a second story landing. King Charles I stepped out on the scaffold, clad only in two shirts and a cap. Facing his subjects, he left them with his famous parting words, "I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown." Here ended his reign.

There is so much art and history wrapped up in the Banqueting House. The next time you are visiting London, I encourage you to visit this marvellous building. You may even be greeted by a Parliamentary soldier.

Parliamentary guard: Photo by C. Bazos

Wikimedia Commons attribution:
The Banqueting House: "Banqueting House London" by en:User:ChrisO - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

Apotheosis of James I: "Banqueting House 03" by The wub - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons -

This post is an Editor's Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published February 2, 2016.
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

Severed Knot is available through all online retailers:

Wednesday, January 22, 2020

The Passionate Tudor Siblings

by Geraldine Evans

King Louis XII of France
‘No, I won’t marry that feeble, pocky old man.’

These are the words reputed to be those of Mary Rose Tudor when she declined the proposition of her twenty-three-year-old elder brother, King Henry VIII, that she marry the decrepit King Louis XII of France.

Mary Rose was eighteen and in love, a passionate first love with Charles Brandon, her brother’s bosom friend.

It was these reputed words of Mary Rose that immediately attracted me to the idea of writing about her. It was, of course, a time when women were often subjugated by their supposed male betters. And royal princesses were expected to marry the man selected for them by their family. But, sometimes, love got in the way. Any author keen to write a biographical historical novel would be delighted to find such a strongly-etched character. To oppose Henry VIII’s desires, even when he was a young king, required courage.

Mary Rose Tudor
Yes, Mary Rose was forced to capitulate in the end; perhaps as she might have known she would be, but her capitulation gave her a result of sorts—her brother’s promise that she could please herself when it came time to take a second husband.

All the three Tudor siblings, Margaret, Henry and Mary, seem to have been the victims of a fiercely-struck Cupid’s Dart. The Tudors were an unusual family for their times—the 16th Century wasn’t, as we know, a period when English royals and aristocrats were free to choose their own life partners. But these Tudors pursued their passionate marital desires until they achieved them. Margaret, the widow of James IV of Scotland, had submitted to the match with the Scottish king when she was no more than thirteen, and by the time she was widowed, (by her brother, Henry’s forces at Flodden) ten years later, she was determined to marry Archibald Douglas, Earl of Angus, a young man of her own age, which she did in August 1514 – the same year her younger sister Mary Rose unwillingly married King Louis XII – and less than a year after the death of her first husband James IV.

But Margaret’s marriage to Angus of the powerful Douglas family aroused the enmity and jealousy of the other Scottish lords, and the Scottish Parliament decided that, by her marriage to Archibald Douglas, she had forfeited her right to be Regent for her son by the king. After being besieged in Stirling Castle by the Scottish lords, Margaret managed to escape to England, though she was forced to leave behind her two young sons by King James. Margaret returned to Scotland in 1517, but by the mid-1520s, her second marriage was a battleground. Margaret, while estranged and not yet divorced from Archibald Douglas, became a scandal for the second time when she began a liaison with the handsome young courtier, Henry Stewart, whom she later married as her third husband; Henry VIII wasn’t the only Tudor who went in for multiple marriages—Margaret ran him a close second and was rather more successful at achieving her aims than Henry.

Mary Rose must have studied her sister and her marital manoeuvres to choose her second husband because she, too, managed to do what her kingly brother had promised she might, and she secretly married Charles Brandon, the love of her life, a scant few weeks after the death of King Louis her first husbanda scandalous action for a widowed queen. She spurned the lusts and promises of marriage of the already married new King of France, Francis I, her late husband’s cousin and son-in-law, and the not unlikely possibility that he would divorce the saintly but unattractively overweight Queen Claude in order to possess her.

Mary Rose could, quite possibly, have been Queen of France twice over if she had chosen to play Francis as later, Anne Boleyn played King Henry. But Mary Rose, like her brother and sister, held passion and love higher than crowns and kingdoms. She spurned that second chance at queen-ship. Margaret threw hers away when she chose to marry Archibald Douglas, and the Council offered the Regency to the French-raised Albany.

Henry, too, threw his throne and his country into the ring for the sake of the love of Anne Boleyn. The world knows that Henry’s passion for Anne consumed him to the extent that he risked his own destruction by the Pope and the Catholic rulers on the continent after he threw off the yoke of the Pope and the mighty Catholic Church. He dared the threat of Excommunication, robbed the Church of its riches and destroyed many beautiful religious buildings in England—we can still see their stark ruins in many a country landscape—not just because of his need for a son, but also for his burning desire for Anne. Of course, he then went on to have a long history of marrying and discarding the loves of his life. He also knew Catherine of Aragon, his brother Arthur’s widow, well before he married her and was, at the least, presumably sufficiently attracted to her to wed her.

Love – the love that the court poets wrote about and that troubadours sang about – was a pretty unusual experience in marriage for those at the top end of society. Yet all three of the surviving Tudor siblings accomplished marriage for love.

Perhaps Henry and his sisters inherited from their maternal Yorkist grandfather, Edward IV, the knowledge that betrothal or marriage needn’t be something that had to last for a lifetime. Because Edward IV entered into a secret marriage with a widow, Lady Elizabeth Grey. Worse, she was a widow from the Lancastrian side during the desperate years of the fight for the English throne known as the Wars of the Roses. And Edward, in his lust, chose to ignore the fact that he was already promised to Eleanor Talbot. This at a time when betrothals were supposedly regarded as seriously as marriage.

Two of the tragic children of Edward’s ‘marriage’ to Elizabeth Grey, were the ‘Princes in the Tower’, killed, as the history books and Shakespeare have it, by Edward’s ‘wicked’ brother so he could take the throne as Richard III. But, if it is true that Edward IV’s children were bastards because of his pre-contract with Eleanor Talbot, the ‘wicked’ Richard was doing no more than take his rights, which, as the next surviving son of Richard Duke of York, he was fully entitled to do (historians still dispute who was really responsible for the death of the young princes), especially as the young son of his executed elder brother George of Clarence lost his right to inherit the throne owing to his father’s traitorous behaviour.

Or perhaps Henry and Margaret learned about the disposability of betrothal and marriage by studying the marital adventures of Henry’s friend, Charles Brandon. Brandon’s behaviour was notorious even for those cavalier times. He had three weddings/betrothals in the space of three-four years; the first in 1505 to Anne Brown, when he was twenty-one. He repudiated Anne Brown after their first betrothal – easy to do as they made their vows ‘Per verba de praesenti’; that is with no ceremony or witnesses although this form of betrothal was considered a binding contract under Canon Law. He left Anne in order to marry her wealthy aunt, Margaret Mortimer. He then proceeded to divorce Margaret Mortimer, help himself to her fortune and, in 1508, re-marry Anne Brown, who must have been a forgiving kind of woman. She must also, by then, have had a far greater understanding of Brandon’s character, because on the second occasion they said their vows at a well-attended public ceremony. Anne died four years later.

Brandon’s next marital ambition was Elizabeth Grey. Elizabeth was a child of eight and he was twenty-nine. She was an orphan, an heiress and Brandon’s ward. Henry VIII had given him the wardship for the explicit purpose of allowing his friend to become Viscount Lisle by right of his young betrothed. Brandon at this time was an untitled country gentleman. Elizabeth later repudiated him.

Notwithstanding his betrothal to little Elizabeth, in 1513, Brandon, who had accompanied King Henry to France, sought, with Henry’s complicit assistance, to persuade Margaret the Regent of the Netherlands to marry him. The pair went so far as to exchange rings. But Margaret’s good sense rescued her, and she demanded the return of her ring.

And this was the man that Mary Rose Tudor desperately desired to marry. But she was only eighteen, an emotional, headstrong girl and can perhaps be forgiven for refusing to heed the advice of older and wiser heads. Love’s Dart had claimed her and Mary Rose, always more of a woman than a princess, wanted to follow her heart.

Mary Rose and Charles Brandon
And Brandon, whatever his protests, when on a diplomatic mission to the French court, allowed himself to be persuaded to go through with this secret marriage by the besotted Mary Rose, the ‘Nymph from Heaven’, who was widely regarded as one of the most attractive young women in Europe. Mary, newly-widowed and desperate to marry him, won the day by virtue of her tears and hysteria.

They went through with their secret marriage, consumated it, and then awaited the reaction of King Henry, who, needless to say, was furious. Or at least he pretended to be so because he allowed his agreement to be bought at the expense of most of Mary’s lavish French dower and the many splendid jewels the besotted old King Louis had showered upon her. I wonder if, knowing his sister (and by sending Brandon, in particular to the French court at this time), this secret marriage to Brandon was something Henry had hoped would happen so he could enrich himself at Mary Rose’s expense. Sometimes, the story of the Tudors reads like a television soap opera!

Yes, they were a passionate lot, those Tudor siblings. They dared all for love and confounded the world. But perhaps they would have been better off if they had married solely for duty. Because their passionate desires for the ‘wrong’ partners and stubborn insistence on following their hearts, brought none of them lasting happiness.

A little love can be a dangerous thing for a royal.

[This archive post is an Editor's Choice, originally published on the EHFA blog on 31st July 2104]


Geraldine Evans is the author of Reluctant Queen: The Story of Mary Rose Tudor, the Defiant Little Sister of Infamous English King, Henry VIII, her first biographical historical novel (Geraldine is also the author the two mystery series as well as other work).

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Monday, January 20, 2020

A Vicar Saves His Flock

By Dr John Little

Dearham in Cumbria (formerly Cumberland) was a mining village in the north west of England and at Easter 1894 that village received a profound shock. The world price of coal had fallen and the owner of Dearham Colliery, Mr Ormiston, could not sustain the costs of keeping the mine open. Over 260 men and boys were thrown out of work with immediate effect. They had never envisaged such a thing because there had been two generations of stable and reasonably lucrative employment; the local steam coal was the best in the world and was in demand by the navy, ocean liners and anywhere that steam engines were in use.  It was also hard to win, the seams being thin and fractured, the mines liable to flooding, and so the end product was expensive; the miners were used to earning among the highest wages in the whole of the UK and were the ‘aristocrats’ of their profession. Certainly there were other collieries in the area but at some distance; unless something happened to employ the miners thrown out of work then their village would empty, the community break up and hundreds would move away; the knock-on effects on local businesses would be calamitous.

Dearham Colliery Brick

The Lord helps often those who help themselves, but the impetus to do something about the plight of the village came from an unlikely source.

The Reverend Thomas Melrose might be seen as an excellent example of late Victorian muscular Christianity. His main claim to fame before 1894 was as an enthusiastic cyclist and he with his entire family were often to be seen bowling along the country lanes for miles around on an assortment of bicycles. He initiated the annual service for the Cumbrian Cycling Association to be held at his own church, St Mungo’s and made of it a local spectacle to which hundreds of people flocked to see what was happening. Dozens of cyclists from all over the county would gather on the outskirts of the village and then would process through the main street led by the Dearham Brass Band all the way to the church. Afterwards Reverend Melrose would bless the machines; on a good day it was a grand fete for people from miles around.

St Mungo's

Shortly after the miners lost their jobs word went round that the vicar had called a meeting in Sinkle Lonning and asked that the men who had lost their jobs would attend. They did so and Melrose announced that he was going to lead an attempt to reopen the mine as a cooperative, owned by the men who worked in it. Cooperatives were not a new idea of course, but the notion of a cooperative coal mine was rather revolutionary. It was favourably received and Melrose gave the men time to think about it by asking that any who were interested could meet in a few days at the local school. There he revealed that he had failed in persuading the colliery owner to keep the pit open, and that opinion among mine engineers was that it could not be done economically. He then offered the bright spark of Hope by revealing that he had asked a mine engineer, a Mr Heslop, to have a look at an old coalmine, the Crosshow Colliery, to see if it was a viable business proposition. On the outskirts of the village this mine had closed years before, but Heslop reported that it was not exhausted; it had closed for economic reasons. Melrose proposed the setting up of a cooperative to reopen this colliery and put forward a scheme for raising £1000 by subscription  for that purpose. The idea was supported enthusiastically. 

Unfortunately within a week or so it became apparent that the money could not be raised among the miners in the village. They did manage to subscribe over £250, a considerable sum, but it was not enough. Melrose was not finished though. The Maryport Cooperative Industrial Society was a large concern in the local area with several large stores in West Cumberland. One of these was in Dearham where it had opened in 1889; profits over a five year period had been in excess of £43,000 which was a considerable return. Reverend Melrose was acquainted to Mr Fawcett, the president of the society and put it to him that it was very much in his interests to maintain his profits. If his customers stayed unemployed then the Cooperative stores would lose customers. On the other hand if the miners stayed employed then the store would stay profitable. It would make sense for the Cooperative society to open a colliery and run it so that there would be wages to be spent. Mr Fawcett saw the point and put it to the members of his committee, who in turn were quite enthusiastic about the idea. It was agreed that the idea was good but the membership of the society would have to be balloted to see if they agreed to the venture.

The word ‘Socialism’ was well known and although this idea predated the establishment of a British Labour Party, there were plenty of people around who would not agree with a move so politically charged as Co-operativism. However because the idea came from a Church of England vicar it was much easier to regard the scheme as an act of Christian fellowship, with members of a community helping each other out in time of need.

At an open meeting of the Cooperative society it was proposed that the mine be run by a manager appointed by the 'Coop' (pronounced coh-op). Shares would be sold in a limited liability company with the aim of raising £8,000 of capital. £1000 of this would come from the Coop itself, £200 in shares and the rest as a loan. The colliery would aim to produce 75,000 tons of coal a year and would also supply coal to an associated brickworks which would yield a profit of £400 a year. The return to shareholders would be set at 6% per annum. The motion for a ballot was carried by the members and 2900 ballot papers were sent out; votes were to be placed in sealed boxes in each of the Cooperative’s five shops. Two weeks later 1,071 people had voted; 398 against the proposal and 673 in favour.

Within a very short time a management board was appointed and Mr Robert Steel, the duly appointed manager descended onto the site of the old Crosshow colliery. By late August, just four months after they had fallen unemployed, the first miners went down the shaft and began to cut coal. It quickly became apparent that the old shaft was not big enough for modern equipment so a new one would need to be sunk. New and powerful pumps were installed at a cost of £450 to cope with a persistent water problem and on Tuesday 15 January 1895 Reverend Melrose came to the colliery with his wife and a ceremonial spade. The Vicar’s wife had been invited to cut the first turf where the new shaft was to be sunk.

It was not expected that the new mine would make a profit in its first few years and it did not, a fact which caused some trepidation in the Cooperative Committee. However it had to be admitted that profits from the Dearham store had held up, so the nerve of investors held. The mine was never far short of making a profit in its first years, but never quite got there. It did however employ 111 men and Dearham village kept its heart. The only moment of real drama came in 1897 when the hewers were digging along a seam close to the surface and breached the bed of the Barley Beck, a sizable stream near the village. A considerable amount of water entered the workings causing the miners to evacuate extremely quickly, some of them almost naked. Outside it was March and a cold day; looking like a platoon of imps newly released from Hell the shivering of the miners was alleviated quickly by the shawls of their anxious wives who had heard that there had been an incident at the mine and hurried up to find out what was going on. Mr Steel the manager, a man of great pluck, descended the mine shaft on a rope to find that the bottom was dry and that the stream water was flowing down to the bottom of the works from where the pumps were expelling it. Full production was resumed within a couple of days and no one was hurt.

Dearham Coop

By 1902 the Crosshow Colliery made a handsome profit, the first year it had done so and its future looked secure. Unfortunately globalism is no new phenomenon, and mining, like all industries, is subject to the vagaries of the world market. Mines in the USA, German and Poland were flooding the stock exchanges with cheap coal produce by modern methods and machinery. However good the Dearham coal was, it was hand hewn and expensive. The world price of coal slumped at the beginning of 1903 and it became evident that Crosshow Colliery was going to swallow far more money that year than it could produce. Members of the Cooperative Society began to agitate in favour of pulling out and cutting their losses.

Reverend Melrose was no longer living in Dearham. In 1896 his ten year old son had been on the way home from school and attempted to board a moving train at the station in Maryport. He had been dragged along between train and platform and had died very quickly. Such a thing can only bring grief and sadness. Whatever the reason for his decision Melrose had moved away and was now Vicar of Westward, not far from Wigton. There was no eloquent advocate to plead the case for Crosshow Colliery. The manager did his best. Over eight years they had produced a million and a half tons of top quality steam coal. All debts had been paid off and wages of over £40,000 had kept a community alive. There was a strong case to be made for tiding the business over until the price of coal improved. There was no ballot of Coop members on the decision; this time it was voted on solely by the committee. By 39 votes to 29 the society decided to pull out; 150 men were thrown out of work again and the mine closed.


Dr John Little spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster.
He has written nine books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also gives talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes. His great grandfather was a Dearham miner and John wove his tale into that of Thomas Melrose and wrote an historical novel, The Collier's Daughter, about the extraordinary venture of a Church of England vicar in the 1890s. 

Friday, January 17, 2020

Romancing the Tower of London: William Harrison Ainsworth

By Nancy Bilyeau

On a December night in 1840, a sizable group of writers, editors, publishers, printers and illustrators gathered at the Sussex Hotel, in the fashionable town of Royal Tunbridge Wells, for a dinner party. It is possible that Charles Dickens, the young author of Oliver Twist and The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, was invited to the party. Most definitely in attendance was George Cruikshank, the talented illustrator of Oliver Twist.

The host of this lavish affair was the famed 35-year-old novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. The occasion: the successful serialization over the last year of his fifth novel, The Tower of London: A Historical Romance, which told the story of the tragic Lady Jane Grey, beginning with her arrival by barge at the Tower to launch her nine-day-reign and ending with her decapitation on Tower Green on July 10, 1553.

William Harrison Ainsworth

The novelist was sure to have cut quite the dash at his own party: He was tall, slim and dark, with a fondness for stylish clothes that earned him the description dandy. From the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: "Lady Blessington, whose salon he attended, said he and Count D'Orsay were the two handsomest men in London."

In a passage accepted as autobiographical, a character in one of Ainsworth's novels says, "Some people told me I was handsome, and my tailor (excellent authority, it must be admitted) extolled the symmetry of my figure, and urged me to go into the Life Guards."

Ainsworth was at perhaps the zenith of his career in 1840. He was a friendly rival to Dickens; in fact, his 1839 novel Jack Shepard outsold Oliver Twist in early editions, and Ainsworth had recently replaced Dickens as editor of Bentley's Miscellany, the predominant fiction magazine.

The rivalry with Dickens would not last; nor would the friendship. Dickens would become a colossus as Ainsworth slowly sank into oblivion. His 39 historical novels, all of them romances and adventures, were astoundingly popular with the reading public of Victorian England, but not with the critics. Although Ainsworth was himself a genial and generous man, he was often on the receiving end of literary volleys almost hysterical in their dislike. When his books no longer sold as well, he had no circle of supporters to buoy him. Quite the opposite. One writer said of him in 1870: "Let us start with an opinion fearlessly expressed as it is earnestly felt, that the existence of this writer is an event to be deplored." Ainsworth was still alive when this sentiment was published, and in reduced circumstances.

That dazzling night at Royal Tunbridge Wells, Ainsworth, mercifully, could not know that his books would go out of print, that fellow writers such as Edgar Allan Poe would describe his prose as "turgid pretension."

Yet he is not without a legacy. The book celebrated that night, The Tower of London: A Historical Romance, triggered a new kind of interest in William the Conqueror's castle keep. It was an interest that deepened through the Victorian age, and is part of the reason visitors pour into the Tower, to the tune of 2 million a year.

Ainsworth was born on February 4, 1805, in Manchester, as the city became the center of the industrial movement. Thomas Ainsworth was a prominent lawyer and pressured his oldest son to follow him in that profession, which he did for a time, but without much enthusiasm. There was a younger son, Thomas Gilbert Ainsworth, who at university suffered a "brain fever" and was incapicitated by mental illness his entire life.

Two years after the father died, Ainsworth, newly married, published his first novel, the romance Sir John Chiverton. It brought him to the attention of Walter Scott, who befriended Ainsworth but privately referred to him as an "imitator." His next two books, the historical novels Rockwood and Jack Schepard, both featuring famous outlaws, were tremendous successes. Yet some criticized the romanticizing of criminals, a complaint Dickens was also hearing with Oliver Twist.

It was time to try something different.

When Ainsworth, along with his illustrator, George Cruikshank, researched the Tower of London, it was far from the smoothly operating tourism operation of today. It had been two centuries since the last monarch, Charles II, resided there. Dickens wrote: "Once a fortress, a royal residence, a court of justice and a prison, {the Tower} is now a government storehouse and armory." An outbreak of disease caused by poor water supply (and blamed on the filthy moat) killed three men of the garrison.

A visitor in 1851 wrote:

"Every one must be struck with the incivility and want of accommodation therein. Upon entering the gates this afternoon I found some hundreds of persons, male and female, huddled together, striving to obtain tickets from a window under a portico where no two persons can pass abreast, and the scene there reminded me of what might be expected at the gallery entrance of a theatre on boxing night. After waiting just one hour we obtained our tickets and were ordered into what is called the ante or refreshment room. This room is about 12ft. by 18ft., with a counter containing ginger pop, buns, &c., immediately behind which are two waterclosets (I understand recently erected). I will not attempt to describe the stench one had to contend with, the place being completely crammed with persons waiting their turns or numbers to be called, but merely add that this room seems to be the resort of pickpockets, two ladies having been eased of their purses, containing some pounds, during the half hour I was present therein."

Ainsworth opened the door to a more illustrious period in the Tower's history. It's true that the novel's prose is melodramatic ("heaving bosoms," "piercing black eyes" and "sinister smiles") and the pages are crowded with Gothic characters (not one or two but three supporting characters who are giants--and a dwarf!) along with august personages of the past. But Ainsworth's diligent research brings to life the grounds, the kitchens, the passageways, the prison cells and the beautiful chapels of the Tower. He made full, imaginative use of the Tower of London, as a setting for a story of high drama. And Cruikshank's 40 engravings and 58 woodcuts play their suggestive part.

Cruikshank's depiction of Lady Jane Grey
And in the center of it all is Lady Jane Grey, a character of undeniable pathos, surrounded by conspiracies. Ainsworth invests the Spanish ambassador, Simon Renard, with the malevolent abilities of a Blofeld straight from Bond. Northumberland is formidable indeed.There is an energy to the book, and an eerie, even frightening atmosphere. The rack, the Scavenger's Daughter and the infamous Little Ease are all present and accounted for.

The current official Historical Royal Palaces Tower of London "fact sheet" on torture emphasizes how little actual torture has taken place within its walls: "Myth-making reached its peak in the 19th century, spurred on by novelists who wished to evoke the Tower of London in its former days as an ancient fortress and stronghold e.g. Ainsworth’s The Tower of London." Ainsworth may have put the devices of torture to Gothic uses, but they were very much present in the 16th century. Ironically, government-approved torture of prisoners ebbed during the reigns of Edward VI, Jane Grey, and Mary, only to rise to highest levels during reign of Elizabeth.

After The Tower of London, Ainsworth's career went on for more than thirty years. The characters in his books were not dimensional; bosoms continued to heave and black eyes to snap. R.H. Horne, Dickens' friend and collaborator, described Ainsworth as "a reviver of old clothes" whose novels are "generally dull except when revolting." Punch satirized Ainsworth as an aging Tudoresque dandy with the caption "The Greatest Axe-and-Neck Romancer of Our Time."

By the time of the Punch jab, Ainsworth, a widower, was responsible for his mentally ill brother. He had accepted a government pension because...he needed it. A year after a dinner in his honor in Manchester, arguably the only place where he was still esteemed, William Harrison Ainsworth died at the age of 77.
But the Tower felt the lingering impact of Ainsworth. In the foreword of his book, he had called for the opening to the public of Beauchamp Tower, the place of imprisonment of the Lady Jane Grey, where she is thought to have written on the wall of her cell. The cause was taken up by powerful patrons, including Prince Albert. Beauchamp was restored by architects and made available to visitors; other buildings were opened too.

Ainsworth's influence, as explained in The Tower of London: The Official Illustrated History:

"In The Tower of London: A Historical Romance, the Tower was first and foremost the setting for an endless series of heart-rending events and foul play. The author tells of dungeons though in fact the Tower has very few basement rooms and of a time when Tower Hill boasted a scaffold and "its soil was dyed with the richest and best blood in the land.” Such fantasies, backed by the relentless march of the romantic movement, helped create and fuel an ever-increasing demand to see and experience such events.”

No matter how much the novel's violence veers into fantasy, the faintly menacing image of the Tower that draws the throngs of the curious today was created in part by William Harrison Ainsworth. He was the greatest neck-and-axe romancer of his time...and perhaps of ours too.

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published August 19, 2012. 


Nancy Bilyeau is a historical novelist and magazine editor based in New York. She wrote the Joanna Stafford trilogy, a trio of thrillers set in Henry VIII’s England, for Simon & Schuster. Her fourth novel is The Blue, an 18th century thriller revolving around the art & porcelain world. Her latest novel is Dreamland, set in Coney Island of 1911, is published by Endeavour Quill. A former staff editor at Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, and InStyle, Nancy is currently the deputy editor at the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College and contributes to Town & Country, CrimeReads, and Mystery Scene magazine.

For more information, visit

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Opera in Early 18th Century London

by Lucy May Lennox

Today opera has an (undeserved) reputation for being stuffy and dull, with the stereotypical image of a fat woman shrieking in a horned helmet. Opera in Georgian London was very different—it was the equivalent of our big budget superhero movies today, all about spectacle and popular entertainment.

The style of opera popular throughout Europe in the first half of the eighteenth century is called opera seria. Opera seria originated in Italy, which is why operas composed and performed in England were in the Italian language, and the most celebrated singers were from Italy. Unlike later opera styles, opera seria features solos almost exclusively; there is very little choral or ensemble singing. There are only a few duets, usually performed between lovers to highlight their emotional connection. The performance was very stylized, not intended to be naturalistic, and the singers showed their skill through vocal ornamentation rather than emotional expression. The plots were heroic and/or tragic, borrowed from Greek and Roman mythology, and the stagecraft featured all kinds of spectacles such as flying horses, mythological creatures, and magic. In contrast to performances in Italy, opera seria in London was popular entertainment for high and low alike, and the performances tended to be much more raucous.

Caricature of Handel opera seria Flavio featuring castrato Senesino
on the left and soprano Francesca Cuzzoni center.

London opera in the early eighteenth century is synonymous with the composer George Frideric Handel (1685-1759). Although Handel is best remembered today for his oratorios, particularly the Messiah (1742), he made his name in London in opera seria. Born in what is now Germany, Handel studied opera in Italy before moving to London in 1712. Over the course of his career, he composed forty-two operas, most of which were produced by the Haymarket Theater and the Theater Royal, Covent Garden. His operas were dramatic spectacles including dance as well as virtuoso singing, and drove the craze in London for opera seria. Today his best known aria is “Ombra mai fu” from Serse (Xerxes, 1738), written for castrato voice.

Handel composed oratorios throughout his career as well, but the most famous of these he composed in the 1730s and 1740s. In part he turned to oratorios in reaction to changing tastes in London, as the exotic appeal of opera seria waned. In contrast to opera seria, which was performed in Italian, most of Handel’s oratorios were composed in English. While the plots of opera seria were taken from classical antiquity, the text of the oratorios came from the King James Bible. In fact, Handel first wanted to stage bible stories as operas, but the Bishop of London would not allow it. Performing scenes from the bible in Covent Garden theaters, associated with prostitution, was considered blasphemous. Bible stories should only be performed in a church. Oratorio, in which the singers did not wear costumes or act out the scenes, but stood on stage beside the orchestra, was a compromise between theatrical and church music, and allowed the religious theme to be performed in a secular setting. Several of these oratorios were conducted by John Stanley, a blind composer and organist who worked closely with Handel for many years.

Portrait of Farinelli
The most popular voice type in opera seria was the castrato, a man castrated before puberty so he maintained a soprano range into adulthood. The practice of creating and training castrati was limited to Italy, although they performed all over Europe. The most popular castrato in London was Farinelli (1705-1782). There was a film about him made in 1994, although it is not very biographically accurate. The popularity of Farinelli and other castrati in London was intense but brief, peaking in the 1720s-1730s. There was an equally intense backlash against castrati, not only because they challenged gender norms, but because they were not English. Male social clubs called beef-steak societies were one source of this backlash. In particular the Sublime Society of Beef Steaks was founded in 1735 by John Rich, the manager of the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, as a means of expressing a British masculine identity. Rich was also the producer of the Beggar’s Opera (1728), written by John Gay as a parody of opera seria and the style popularized by Handel. Some of this xenophobic sentiment can be seen in the broadside “London” penned by beefsteak society member Henry Carey:
There your English actor goes, with many a hungry belly
While heaps of gold are laid, God wot! on Signor Farinelli
What did a castrato performance sound like? There’s no way to know exactly. Castration not only affected the vocal cords, but the entire physical development. Castrati had elongated limbs and large barrel chests, which gave them tremendous lung capacity and vocal power. Musically, their high voices symbolized virtue and purity, but certainly part of the appeal for audiences was the spectacle of a man with an almost inhuman high voice. After the castrati disappeared, revivals of opera seria tended to use female singers in their place through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, but lately there has been a trend for male countertenors to reclaim these roles.

Although men with high voices were the superstars of the era, there were women opera stars as well. One of the biggest stars in London was Anna Maria Strada del Pò (1719-1741) who was brought from Italy by Handel and performed the soprano lead in many of his operas. While she was celebrated for her fine vocal technique, she was also mocked for her appearance, particularly for inelegant facial expressions as she sang. Charles Burney noted that, “she had so little of a Venus in her appearance, that she was usually called the Pig.”

Portrait of Anna Maria Strada

Not all the prima donna were Italian. Kitty Clive (1711-1785), who was from Ireland, was another major star of the era. While Kitty Clive sang the role of Delila in Handel’s oratorio Samson (1743), she was best known for her comedic roles in David Garrick’s company. Likewise, Lavinia Fenton (1708-1760) was famous as a singer and comic actress, originating the role of Polly Peachum in The Beggar’s Opera (1728). The English singer Susannah Cibber (1714-1766), a contralto, sang many male roles in Handel’s oratorios. She was praised for her expressivity in tragic roles, although her vocal technique was not considered as polished as that of Italian singers.

Scene from The Beggar’s Opera, by William Hogarth. Lavinia Fenton as Polly Peachum is in
the center, and the Duke of Bolton is in the box to the right. Note the audience members sitting on
 the stage, talking during the performance.

Handel also innovated the inclusion of extensive dance scenes in opera seria, as another form of titillating spectacle. One of the most famous (or infamous) dancers was Marie Sallé (1707-1756), a French ballerina born to a family of circus acrobats. John Rich brought her to the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, where she appeared in several of Handel’s operas. She was known for dancing in loosely-fitting, revealing costumes, to the scandalized delight of audiences. She was also rumored to have female lovers, and was not the only performer to do so (for example, actress Elizabeth Ashe, the lover of Caroline, Countess of Harrington).

Attending a Covent Garden opera performance in the early eighteenth century was a very different experience than today. Opera performances only occurred at certain times of year, and when the season was over, there was no way to hear the same performances again. In an age of recorded music, we tend to forget how precious and rare live performance could be.

Opera performances could stretch on for four hours or more, although audiences might come and go as they pleased. Before the overture, there were usually three pieces played to entertain the crowd as they arrived at five o’clock to secure seats until the show began at six o’clock. Called the First, Second, and Third Music, these might be instrumental pieces or solos by up and coming singers, followed by a prolog or speech by the manager. Likewise, during the intermission (intermezzo or entr’acte), there would be additional performances as the sets and costumes were changed.

Audiences were loud and disruptive. A Trip Through the Town (1735) describes the theater audience thus: “They talk continually no matter of what, for they talk only to be taken notice of, for which reason they raise their voices to be taken notice of by those who pass by.”

Riot at the Theater Royal, Covent Garden, 1763
over increased ticket prices.
There was very little separation between the audience and the players. Although the interior of the theater was similar to theaters today, there was no curtain. The boxes, or balcony seats along the edge of the theater, extended alongside the stage. The wealthiest patrons were allowed to have seats right on the stage. Some Covent Garden theaters had rows of spikes along the proscenium to prevent overly amorous or critical audience members from leaping onto the stage during a performance.

Audiences might shout at the players or throw rotten fruit if they did not like a performance. Riots were not uncommon. Burford writes,
In 1738, after a riot in the Haymarket Theater in protest at the appearance of some French players, it was enacted that the public had a legal right to manifest their dislike of a play or the actors. In 1744 there was a riot at Drury Lane Theater over contemplated rises for admission. In another fracas in 1755 there was a free fight with gallants jumping from the boxes into the pit, their swords being drawn and blood being shed while the women screamed when the mob tore up scenery and smashed up the seats.
Audiences might also take sides in a rivalry between singers, booing the rival and cheering their favorite loudly, as happened with Handel’s singers Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bourdoni. The two women even fought each other on stage. Handel threatened to throw Cuzzoni out a window when she refused to sing an aria during rehearsals.

All this meant that the life of an opera star was precarious indeed, especially for women. The actresses were all assumed to be prostitutes. The sad fact is that many were forced to become the mistress of a wealthy patron or engage in outright prostitution because the wages were so low. Many of the celebrated divas died alone and penniless, as happened to La Strada. Lavinia Fenton, on the other hand, married her much older lover the Duke of Bolton after the death of his first wife, and became a duchess.

Susannah Cibber’s personal life also erupted in scandal. She married actor Theophilus Cibber, son of playwright Colley Cibber, but she was far more famous and rich than her husband. As all of a wife’s assets belonged solely to the husband, she attempted to circumvent this law by placing her money in trust, but he managed to spend it all anyway. To pay the bills, they took in a tenant named William Sloper, which led to an affair that twice landed all three in court, with competing claims that Cibber forced Susannah at gunpoint to have sex with Sloper, or that she fell in love with Sloper and they slept together while a spy observed them from a closet. Nevertheless, she continued to perform through this scandal, which only increased her popularity.

Marie Sallé and Lavinia Fenton used their status to improve the working conditions and treatment of women on stage. Clive campaigned publicly for better pay for actresses, and for separating the career of actress from prostitution. She also wrote several short plays satirizing the poor treatment of actresses.

There have been some recent revivals of opera seria that attempt to capture the flavor of the era. This excerpt of a German production of Serse, with the cross-dressed singers arguing with the conductor, gives us a small taste of what it might have been like to attend the opera in the eighteenth century.

Selected sources:

Burford, E. J. Wits, Wenchers and Wantons: London’s Low Life: Covent Garden in the Eighteenth Century. Robert Hale: London, 1990.

Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians

Parker, Roger, ed. The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera. Oxford University Press, 2001.

Schœlcher, Victor. The Life of Handel. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.


Lucy May Lennox is the author of The Adventures of Tom Finch, Gentleman, a novel set in the opera world of eighteenth century London.

London, 1735. Tom Finch, composer and conductor, approaches life with boundless good cheer and resilience, despite his blindness. Join Tom for a picaresque romp through high and low Georgian society among rakes, rovers, thieving whores and demi-reps, highway robbers, bigamists, and duelists, bisexual opera divas, castrati, mollies, and cross-dressers, lecherous aristocrats, and headstrong ladies. This meticulously researched, witty and lively tale overturns stereotypes about disability and revels in the spectacle and excitement of 18th century opera.