Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Unsung Heroines of World War One

By Hilary Green (writing as Holly Green)

This article is about the lives of three remarkable women; Grace Ashley Smith, Mabel Stobart and Flora Sands:

Ashley Smith joined the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry in the early years of the 20th century and rose to take command at a time when the organisation was in danger of collapsing. The FANY had been founded in 1907 with the idea that it would provide a corps of mounted nurses who could gallop onto the battle field to render First Aid to the wounded but there had been disputes and the membership was dropping off.  She 'pulled it up by its boot straps' and instituted a training regime that made it so efficient that it was commended by Sir Arthur Sloggett, the Chief Commissioner of the Red Cross.

There was rigorous training in all aspects of First Aid, and the skills needed to survive in conditions near the front line. For the first time women went under canvas and learned camp cookery, signalling and related subjects. However, when she offered the corps' services at the beginning of World War I they were turned down by the War Office, who wanted nothing to do with women at the front line. Nothing daunted, Smith arranged with the Belgians to set up a hospital in Calais, where the FANY girls did wonderful service collecting and caring for wounded men. They were the first women to drive ambulances under fire and many of them received awards for gallantry.

Mabel Stobart was born in 1862. She married and lived in Africa and British Columbia but after the death of her husband she returned to London in 1907. She found the city, and indeed the whole country, gripped by the fear of invasion by Germany. In that climate a play, 'An Englishman's Home', was staged which pointed out how helpless the average middle-class household would be in that event, and in particular how ill-equipped the women would be to do anything to help their menfolk.

This inspired Stobart to take steps to rectify the situation. She was a supporter of women's suffrage but did not approve of the suffragettes. In her autobiography, Miracles and Adventures, she wrote:
'My feeling was that if women desired to have a share in the government of the country, and this seemed a legitimate ambition, they ought to be capable of taking a share in the defence of their country. I thought that in the present agitation women were putting the cart before the horse, and I made up my mind to try to provide proof of women's national worthiness, in the belief that political enfranchisement would be the natural corollary ... I certainly did not want them to fight, to take life. Nature asks us to create life, a responsibility we have accepted much too lightly ... What was there we could do, or should be allowed to do, in case of foreign invasion?'

To begin with she joined the FANY, but around 1912 a dispute arose, the origins of which are somewhat mysterious, and several members broke away, Stobart among them. She then founded her own organisation, The Women's Sick and Wounded Convoy. Its aims were very much the same as those of the FANY, i.e. to render First Aid to those wounded in battle and to transport them to the nearest Field Hospital. When the First Balkan War broke out between Serbia, Bulgaria and Greece on the one hand and the Ottoman Empire on the other Stobart saw this as a perfect opportunity to prove that her ideas could work in practice. She took a group of women nurses and doctors to Sophia, the capital of Bulgaria, and persuaded the Tsar and his generals to allow them to set up a hospital in Lozengrad, the nearest point to the front line which they were allowed to reach. The journey took six days, in ox carts over roads deep in mud, and when they arrived they had first to find a suitable building and then set it up as a hospital from scratch. That they achieved this was a remarkable tribute to their tenacity and determination. It was the first field hospital to be staffed entirely by women.

When the First World War started in 1914 Stobart joined with Lady Muir McKenzie to found the Women's National Service League. She went to Belgium to set up a hospital but was captured by the Germans and almost shot as a spy. However, she escaped and once the hospital was established she left for the Balkans again, this time for Serbia where she had been invited to set up a hospital outside Kragujevac. From there she led a mobile field hospital up to the front line but, when the Bulgarians - who were now fighting on the side of the Central Powers - attacked, the Serbian army was forced into a desperate retreat through the mountains of Albania in the dead of winter. It is one of the epic stories of the war. The conditions were terrible; the roads were merely tracks, often too narrow even for a cart to pass and the snow was up to the horses' knees. There were no supplies and the local people were hostile. Thousands died. Somehow Stobart brought her unit through to safety on the Adriatic coast, often spending eighteen hours a day on horseback - an amazing feat for a woman of fifty-three. They were taken off by ship and reached Italy, from where they were able to return to England. If Stobart expected a hero's welcome and recognition of her aim to prove women as capable as men of enduring hardship in the service of their country, she was disappointed.

Meanwhile, as mentioned above, the FANYs were doing sterling work in France.

In her book, A Woman Sergeant in the Serbian Army, Flora Sandes relates how she, too, went to Serbia as a nurse. She does not say under whose auspices, but FANY records show her as one of those who split from the organisation at the same time as Stobart so it seems likely that she went with The Women's Sick and Wounded Convoy. In the course of the retreat she was separated from her unit and taken into the protection of a company of Serbian soldiers.

She witnessed their conduct in several rear-guard actions and finally demanded a gun of her own so that she could play her part. She, too, was involved in the epic retreat through Albania. On reaching Durazzo (Durres) on the Adriatic coast many of the remnants of the Serbian army were taken by ship to Corfu and instead of going home Flora went with them. There they found that no facilities had been set up to receive them. There was no firewood and no food supplies. Single-handedly, Flora made her way to Corfu Town and confronted the British and French military authorities, who had taken over the island for the duration, forcing them to acknowledge the problem and take the necessary measures.

By this time she had been accepted as a regular member of the Serbian Army and at a ceremony a few months later she was given the rank of sergeant - the first woman to be officially recognised as a fighting soldier. After some months, the Serbs were re-equipped and sent to Salonika (modern day Thessaloniki) where a small force of British, French and Greek soldiers was prevented from advancing into Macedonia by superior numbers of Bulgarian troops. Eventually they succeeded in breaking out and the Serbs fought a bitter campaign, regaining their lost homeland mountain peak by mountain peak, until at last they re-entered Belgrade. Flora fought with them, in spite of being wounded and enduring the death of the soldier with whom she had fallen in love and almost dying from Spanish 'flu, which killed so many all over Europe. The collapse of German resistance in Serbia was the event which triggered the end of the war and brought about the Armistice.

[all photographs in the Public Domain, via Wikipedia. This is an archive Editor's Choice post, first published on EHFA on Nov 26, 2018]


Hilary Green who also writes as Holly Green, is the author of fifteen historical novels, ranging from Bronze Age Greece to the Second World War. She has a B.Ed degree (First Class) and an MA in Writing. This post details the inspiration for three novels originally entitled Daughters of War; Passions of War and Harvest of War but recently republished by Penguin as Frontline Nurses, Frontline Nurses on Duty and Secrets of the Frontline Nurses.  Book 1 is available as a paperback, books 2 and 3 are available on line and will be in print in due course.
Connect with Hilary:

Monday, April 27, 2020

Wealth, Power and Influence in Later Anglo-Saxon England

By Annie Whitehead

The great magnates of Anglo-Saxon England were not poor men. Land has always been the most recognisable sign of wealth, and these men had plenty of it. The amount of land which a pre-Conquest nobleman could amass can be seen clearly in the case of Harold Godwineson. [1] As well as their own family lands, such men could hold land from their lord as reward for service. Bookland, as it was called, was originally granted by the king to his thegns with an ecclesiastical purpose in mind. By the tenth-century, however, land was being booked without any pretence that it would go to endow a church. Many thegns and ealdormen were benefactors of religious houses though - Wulfric Spott founded Burton Abbey, Athelstan 'Half-king', ealdorman of East Anglia 932-956, used his wife's lands to form the nucleus of the large endowment of Ramsey Abbey, [2] and Aelfhere, ealdorman of Mercia 956-983, cited in the Anglo-Saxon chronicle as the destroyer of monasteries, [3] was a great friend to the religious houses at Glastonbury and Abingdon.

Dunstan - one-time abbot of Glastonbury

The nature of the land grants varied little, and each one set out the conditions under which the land was booked. King Edgar granted to his thegn, Aelfwold, land at Kineton in Warwickshire as

"an eternal inheritance ... and after the conclusion of his life (he may) leave it unburdened to whatsoever heirs he shall wish. Also the aforesaid estate is to be free from every yoke of earthly service except three, namely fixed military service and the restoration of bridges and fortresses." [4]

It was not only the king who granted land. Oswald, bishop of Worcester, sets out the conditions under which he has granted his land in his letter to King Edgar. [5]

"That they shall fulfil the whole law of riding as riding men should and that they shall pay in full ... church Scot and Toll. In addition they shall lend horses, they shall ride themselves, and, moreover, be ready to build bridges, ... they shall always be subject to the authority and will of that archiductor who presides over the bishopric..."

King Edgar

The will of Wulfric Spott [6] is a fine example of the extent of lands in the possession of an influential thegn. He had lands in Staffordshire and Derbyshire, estates in Shropshire, Leicestershire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire, Gloucestershire, Lincolnshire and South Yorkshire. The will also refers to lands in South Lancashire and Cheshire.

The family of Wulfric Spott was one of the most influential and powerful of its day, with branches linked to the royal family and a regular involvement in power struggles and political rivalry. Wulfric Spott's brother, Aelfhelm, ealdorman of Northumbria, was murdered in 1006, and his sons Wulfheah and Ufegeat were blinded. Wulfheah was one of the prominent ministri during the period when Aethelred II (Unready) was restoring royal favour to the Church (see below).

It is easy to believe that Eadric Streona, ealdorman of Mercia 1007-1017, was Aelfhelm's murderer. His rise to power certainly would not have been hindered by the removal of such prominent men who had surrounded the king. The rivalry does not seem to have stopped there, for Eadric is named as the murderer of the thegns Sigeferth and Morcar.

These brothers were members of this same family; Morcar was married to Wulfric Spott's niece. There is a possibility that they were related to King Aethelred through his marriage to the daughter of Thored of Northumbria.

Vacillating between the causes of Edmund Ironside and Cnut in the war of 1015-16, Eadric was playing a dangerous game. Edmund had defied his father, Aethelred II (Unready), and married Sigeferth's widow, thereby gaining the allegiance of the northern Danelaw. Cnut's English wife, Aelfgifu of Northampton, was the daughter of the murdered Aelfhelm, and the cousin of Ealdgyth, Morcar's widow. It is also possible that this family was connected to that of Leofwine, who held Eadric's ealdordom after the latter's death. His son succeeded him, and his son Aelfgar married Aelfgifu who may have been the daughter of Ealdgyth and Morcar. So far, so confusing!

Encomium Emmae Reginae 
But the Encomium Emmae Reginae shows us how important this family really was. It was written for Cnut's second wife Emma, as a propaganda exercise for the claims of her son Harthacnut, and in Book III it denies that Harald is Cnut's son. This in itself is not enough to refute Harald's claims, and the Encomium further denies that he is Aelfgifu of Northampton's son. Clearly his position as her son is important. If Emma denies that he is of this family, then she is not attacking them. The importance of Aelfgifu's kinship is clear, and Emma does not wish to offend this great family.

Cnut with his sons Harald and Harthacnut

A simple equation which has always held true is that wealth equals power. King Aethelred II was called 'Unraed' because he was badly counselled. It is certainly true that for much of his reign he was guided by councillors acting in their own interests. The 980s were a period which Aethelred came later to regret. Many churches were deprived of their lands; an Abingdon estate was acquired by a king's reeve, and Rochester was besieged. Aethelsige, one of the five most prominent men at this time, was responsible for the damage done at Rochester. The king himself admitted that this was a period when he was being manipulated by a group of men who, taking advantage of his youth, were acting in their own interests at the expense of various churches. In the next decade the prominent men were associated with the monastic cause and royal generosity to the Church was re-established.

The king needed his councillors and officials. He rarely acted without the consent of the witan (council). Royal authority could only be made to be felt throughout the kingdom through the king's representatives. Yet it was all too easy for these men to become too powerful. The king rarely strayed from the south, and to the inhabitants of England north of the Humber, royal authority was remote.

Northumbria was never free from the Scandinavian threat, and the eorls (as they were called in the north) often had to deal with this problem on their own. It must have been difficult to trust them, but many thegns were encouraged to acquire estates in areas settled by the Danes, to help break down the isolation of the north. Another policy instigated was that of appointing archbishops to York who had sees elsewhere. This pluralism was designed to ensure ecclesiastical loyalty, and would also help to bring Northumbria out of isolation. Royal control was difficult to establish in areas with separatist feeling, and Mercia was another of these areas. The ealdormen, if they wished to assert themselves, had to establish links in order to gain and retain control, and at times this must have looked suspiciously like treachery. Poor communications also did nothing to alleviate the danger of an over-concentration of power in too few aristocratic hands.

Aethelred II

During the reign of King Alfred, ealdormen usually controlled single shires, but as the West Saxon kingdom expanded the ealdormen were given greater responsibility. Athelstan of East Anglia's nickname 'Half-king' demonstrates how powerful these men could become. His ealdordom included East Anglia proper (Norfolk and Suffolk), Cambridgeshire, Huntingdonshire, north-east Northamptonshire, and he probably governed the whole of the eastern Danelaw. [7]  He kept his ealdordom under such control that Kings Edmund and Eadred were able to recover first the northern Danelaw, then Northumbria, and finally to conquer Strathclyde.

It is not surprising to discover that men like these did not always work together in complete harmony. The anti-monastic reaction which followed the death of Edgar in 975 found ealdormen Aelfhere and Aethelwine on opposing sides in the succession dispute. Doubtless Aelfhere was antagonised by the triple-hundred of Oswaldslow which had encroached upon his area of authority, but it has been suggested [8] that he had other, more personal reasons for opposing Aethelwine's and Dunstan's support of Edward; namely that Aethelwine's ealdordom was East Anglia, and this meant East Anglia proper, Essex, and the shires which had at one time been the eastern part of the old kingdom of Mercia, and were still called Mercian in the tenth-century. Aelfhere, Aethelwine and Eorl Oslac of Northumbria were the most influential ealdormen of their day. Ambition and power perhaps inevitably cause conflict.

Page from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle

Thorkell the Tall, a Danish invader turned mercenary of Aethelred II, became the leading secular lord of Cnut's reign. He was made governor of Denmark for a time and guardian of the king's son. Cnut's letter to the people of England [9] instructs Earl Thorkell to deal with those who defy the laws. Dorothy Whitelock* suggested that this was because the letter was sent to him from Denmark by Cnut and that Thorkell was acting as regent in Cnut's absence. Power and trust indeed for a man who had earlier fought on the side of the English. Doubtless this was the kind of reward Eadric Streona had been seeking to secure himself when he changed sides during the war of 1015-16. He, of course, was not so fortunate. [10]

It is interesting to note that open conflict only occurred in times of unrest, for example during the succession dispute of 975, or the war of 1015-16. Athelstan 'Half-king' was loyal, as we have seen; Aelfhere of Mercia was invaluable to King Edgar when he was trying to assert himself as king of the Mercians. Only after Edgar's death did Aelfhere's resentment manifest itself. The king may have been ill-served upon occasion, and there is some doubt as to the effectiveness of the reeves as checks against the power of the ealdormen, but there was nothing in England to compare with the rise to power of the Capetians in France, and royal authority was never seriously challenged by the servants of the crown.

[1] Ann Williams - Harold Godwineson Battle 80
[2] CR Hart (in Anglo-Saxon England 2)- Athelstan Half-king and his Family
[3] Anglo-Saxon Chronicle (E) 975
[4] EHD (English Historical Documents) 113 page 519
[5] Origins of English Feudalism 42 p133
[6] EHD 125 p541
[7] CR Hart ibid
[8] Ann Williams - Princeps Mercorum gentis; the family, career and connections of Aelfhere, Ealdorman of  of Mercia 956-983
[9] EHD 48 p415
[10] The Encomium Emmae Reginae tells us Eadric's fate: "He (Cnut) said 'pay this man what we owe him; that is to say kill him, lest he plays us false.' He (Eric of Hlathir) indeed raised his axe without delay and cut of his (Eadric's) head with a mighty blow."
*Author of The Beginnings of English Society, & Wulfstan and the Laws of Cnut (English historical Review 62 1948)

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published May 30, 2016.


Annie Whitehead
studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA (English Historical Fiction Authors.) She has written three award-winning novels set in Anglo-Saxon England, one of which was long-listed for the Historical Novel Society (HNS) Indie Book of the year 2016, and a full-length nonfiction book, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom. She has contributed to fiction and nonfiction anthologies and written for various magazines, including winning the New Writer Magazine Prose Competition. She was the winner of the inaugural Historical Writers’ Association/Dorothy Dunnett Prize 2017. She has recently been a judge for that same competition, and for the HNS Short Story Competition. Annie’s new book, Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England, will be published on May 30 by Pen & Sword Books.

For more information, visit Annie's Website or her Author Page. Also connect with Annie through her Blog and Twitter (@AnnieWHistory).

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Countess Dowager of Carlisle

by Lauren Gilbert

Coat of arms of Henry Howard, 4th Earl of Carlisle, KG
by Rs-nourse / CC BY-SA

The Honourable Isabella Byron was born either October 11 or November 10, 1721; her place of birth is shown as Lancashire, England, possibly in Clayton. Her father was William Byron, 4th Baron Byron of Rochdale, born January 4, 1669/70 Newstead, Nottinghamshire. He died August 8, 1736 Newstead, Nottinghamshire and was buried at Hucknall, Nottinghamshire. Her mother was the Hon. Frances Berkeley, who was born c 1702. Sir William and Frances Berkeley were married December 3, 1720. She was his third wife. They had at least five children prior to Sir William’s death. Lady Byron married again to Sir Thomas Hay, Baronet. She died sometime in September 1757, and was buried September 21, 1757 in Twickenham, Middlesex, England. Sources indicate the family had financial difficulties.

Isabella had four younger brothers (her father had had children by his second wife, but they seem to have all died young). She was described as pretty and charming. Apparently, she was considered rather exotic with her black hair and dark eyes. As a young lady with an aristocratic background, she acquired accomplishments: writing, music, drawing and etching (she primarily made copies of Rembrandt’s works). She may have been taught with her brother by artist Joseph Goupy. Her known works were done mostly during her marriage to Earl of Carlisle.

Isabella's first marriage occurred on June 8, 1743 at St. George’s Hanover Square, London. The groom was Henry Howard, 4th Earl of Carlisle. He was born in 1694. He was much older: about 49 to her 21, and she was his second wife. (He had had four children by his first wife: two sons who had died and two daughters who survived.) Lady Mary Wortley Montagu seemed somewhat taken aback by the marriage, describing the new Lady Carlisle as very agreeable and very gay. Note that, at that time “gay” meant merry and light-hearted, but also had a connotation of wantonness and lasciviousness, so Lady Mary was not necessarily being complimentary. To see portraits of Henry, Earl of Carlisle and Isabella, visit the Castle Howard website.

Isabella and Henry had four living daughters and one surviving son. Lady Anne was born in 1744, and went on to become a Lady of the Bedchamber to Princess Amelia, aunt of George III. She died about 1799. Lady Frances was born in 1745. She married John Radcliffe Esq. in April 1768. He died in April 1808 and she died Sept 4, 1825. Lady Elizabeth was born in 1746. She married twice: first, in 1769 to Peter Delme’ Esq. who died in 1789; second, on Jan 13, 1794 to Charles Garnier Esq., Captain in the Navy, who died in 1796. She died in June 1813.

Their only son Frederick was born May 28, 1748 in Westminster, London, England. He became the 5th Earl. He was a close friend of Charles James Fox, Lord Fitzwilliam and George Selwyn. He married Lady Margaret Leveson Gore and had children. He built a career in politics. He died Sept 4, 1825. The youngest surviving child was Lady Juliana, born in 1750. She died unmarried on Jan 22, 1849. She was very involved with Isabella in Isabella’s old age.

The Peerage of England of 1768 listed a fifth daughter, Margaretta, but showed no details of birth, marriage or death. Most other sources do not mention her at all. The Peerage may have been in error, or possibly she died in infancy and her dates were not captured. There is also an indication that Isabella may have had a miscarriage in 1749.

As a wife and the mistress of Castle Howard, a large Yorkshire estate, as well as a London home, Isabella dealt with household accounts, and was interested in the gardens, including fruits and vegetables. She was reputedly not above getting her hands dirty, and was interested in how the products were used. She compiled a book of receipts for culinary dishes and medicinals. Available data indicates she was happy at Castle Howard.
AdCastle Howard, Stately Home in Yorkshire, UK
by jcw1967 from Leeds, UK (CC BY-SA

Lord Carlisle died September 3, 1758, leaving Isabella a jointure of 2000 pounds and control of her children and the estate. These arrangements also specified that remarriage would cost her custody of the children and loss of the estate (leaving her only the income). He was buried in the Castle Howard mausoleum. His heirs were left considerable debt. Her son Frederick, who was now the fifth Earl, was only ten years old.

Her second marriage, which was considered rather shocking as her husband had been dead just over a year, occurred on December 10, 1759 at St Margaret’s, Westminster, London. The groom was Sir William Musgrave, 6th Baronet of Hayton Castle. Sir William was born c. 1737, making him much younger than Isabella. He had no other marriages. Her remarriage cost her the custody of her children and the estate; it also resulted in a reduction of her income, in spite of the fact that such a reduction was not required by the late Earl of Carlisle’s will. (Her son and the trustees of the estate obtained this reduction. Apparently, it was considered that, it now being her new husband’s responsibility to support her, she was not entitled to the full amount.)

Sir William was interested in history and art (he assembled a number of biographical papers, and a collection of lists of portraits), which presumably attracted Isabella, but was also of a rather cold and bookish character, which led to conflicts. Such incompatibility resulted in her leaving Sir William. They were living apart by March 10, 1769. They had a separation agreement of March 15, 1769, which protected what she brought to the marriage.

Isabella went abroad to live, spending time in France, Italy and Switzerland. She also spent time in Cologne in the 1770’s. She was reputed to have had many affairs, particularly a long-running relationship with a man known as “Baron de Weinheim” is documented. (He was not a baron, just plain Monsieur Larcher.) Apparently they socialised with an artistic set, and she turned her attention to writing. Her poem “The Fairy’s Answer to Mrs. Greville” c. 1770, which has also been attributed to the Margravine of Anspach (Elizabeth Craven), was a response to a poem by Mrs. Frances Greville titled “Prayer for Indifference”, c. 1770.

Isabella also wrote THOUGHTS IN THE FORM OF MAXIMS ADDRESSED TO YOUNG LADIES ON THEIR FIRST ESTABLISHMENT IN THE WORLD (published in 1789-90). This was a book on conduct and household management. According to World Cat, fifty editions have been published between 1789 and 2018. Her collection of receipts for culinary dishes and medicinals, and some household hints, titled My Book of Receipts, was held in the Castle Howard Archives. She included some French remedies acquired during her time abroad, as well as some requested from England in her correspondence, in this compilation. It can be read on line.

Isabella’s expenses exceeded her income and she accumulated significant debt. In the late 1770s, Frederick and the family sent Rev. John Warner to settle things (a sale of her jewellery and personal possessions was held) and conduct her back to England. She managed to evade returning to England, citing various excuses, and remained in Europe. Her credit was publicly ruined and, as a result of action taken by her family and the trustees, her income was reduced again. Embroidery became an interest during this trying period. She was reputed to be reclusive and eccentric as well. She left her home in Moulins, France when she chose to return to England in November, 1783. Fanny Burney was reluctant to meet her, considering her a “demi-rep”, (a woman who intrigues with men; compromised).

At some point, she returned to France to rejoin her baron. Subsequently, her second and final return to England happened in 1787. Her relationships with her children had been difficult after leaving Sir William Musgrave. Upon her return, she lived with her daughters or in the London house. Her finances were poor. Her children supported her but were reluctant to relinquish any of their own funds to provide her additional income, although they did look into establishing a pension for her. They were determined that she would not ruin the family, financially or otherwise.

It is interesting to note that, when THOUGHTS IN THE FORM OF MAXIMS ADDRESSED TO YOUNG LADIES ON THEIR FIRST ESTABLISHMENT IN THE WORLD was published in 1789, Isabella’s name as author was shown as Countess Dowager of Carlisle. I found no indication that she used Sir William’s name after she left, nor that either of them made any attempt at contact or reconciliation. She died on Jan 22, 1795, age 73. I was unable to determine the site of her burial. Sir William survived her, passing away January 3, 1800. She is not mentioned in his obituary in THE GENTLEMAN’s MAGAZINE.


THESES: (A lot of information was gleaned from these works.)

Larsen, Ruth M. “Dynastic Domesticity: The Role of Elite Women in the Yorkshire Country House, 1685-1858.” 2003: University of York, Department of History. HERE

Day, Julie. “Elite Women and Household Management: Yorkshire, 1680-1810.” 2007: University of Leeds, School of History. HERE

Duncan, Andrew I. M. “A Study of the Life and Public Career of Frederick Howard, Fifth Earl of Carlisle, 1748-l825.” 1981: University College, Oxford. HERE

OTHER SOURCES: Thoughts in the Form of Maxims Addressed to Young Ladies on Their First Establishment in the World by Carlisle, Isabella Howard, Countess of, 1721-1795. Pre-1801 Imprint Collection (Library of Congress) DLC. HERE “Isabella Musgrave (Biographical details).” Sloan (Cat. No. 159). HERE HERE Troide, Lars E. and Cooke, Stewart J. THE EARLY JOURNALS AND LETTERS OF FANNY BURNEY, Volume V. 1782-1783. P. 449. 2012: McGill-Queen’s University Press. HERE; Roscoe, E. S. and Clergue, Helen, ed. GEORGE SELWYN: His Letters and His Life. 1899: T. Fisher Unwin, London. HERE; THE NEW PEERAGE; Or, Present State of the Nobility of England, Scotland, and Ireland: Containing an Account of the Peers, Their Descent and Collateral Branches, Their Births, Marriages and Issue, Also Their Paternal Coats of Arms, Crests, Supporters and Mottoes, Volume 1. 1769: R. Davis, London. HERE; Burke, John Esq. A GENERAL AND HERALDIC DICTIONARY OF THE PEERAGE AND BARONETAGE OF THE BRITISH EMPIRE, 4th edition, Volume I. 1832: Henry Colburn and Richard Bentley, London. HERE; Collins, Arthur Esq. THE PEERAGE OF ENGLAND; Containing a Genealogical and Historical Account of All of the Peers of the Kingdom, Now existing by Tenure, Summons or Creation. Volume III. 1768: London. HERE THE GENTLEMAN’S MAGAZINE Vol. 70 Part I. 1800. P. 87. HERE ; Wharcliffe, Lord, ed. THE LETTERS AND WORKS OF LADY MARY WORTLEY MONTAGUE, 1689-1762, Vol. 2, 3rd edition. P. 120-121. 1861: Henry G. Bohn, London. HERE “A Question of Disputed Authorship?” posted November 10, 2017 by Julia Gasper. HERE “THOUGHTS IN THE FORM OF MAXIMS TO YOUNG LADIES, ON THEIR FIRST ESTABLISHMENT IN THE WORLD. BY THE COUNTESS DOWAGER OF CARLISLE.” HERE

Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life, and the passion has never left. An avid reader, she earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. She is a contributing writer to both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She has written two novels, including her new release, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT. She is working on a non-fiction book about powerful women in Regency Europe, and is also researching material for another novel. Visit her website for more information.

Wednesday, April 22, 2020

Woodes Rogers - The Man Who Cleaned up the Piracy in the Caribbean

by Mike Rendell

I would like to look at a man who helped herald the end of what has been called the Golden Age of Piracy. A man of courage, a man of dedication, he had been born in Poole, on England’s South coast in 1679 before moving to Bristol in his teens.

The blue plaque outside his house
at 50 Queen Square Bristol

In every good cowboy film there have to be a number of bad guys in black hats – the desperadoes intent on destruction and mayhem – and there has to be at least one good guy wearing a white hat. He is the hero who lays down his life in pursuit of some noble dream or fine idea, or to save a damsel in distress. Well, in the history of piracy Woodes Rogers was the guy in the white hat, and the pirate hordes, holed up in their stronghold of the damned on the Bahamian island of New Providence, were very definitely the bad guys wearing black. Of course, as it was not Hollywood it was not as clear-cut as that, but the fact remains that Woodes Rogers devoted the best years of his life to eradicating a scourge which he saw as undermining the whole basis on which Britain had become great, that is to say, trade. He got precious little thanks for his efforts, ending up bankrupt and in prison, but had the satisfaction of knowing that he left the world, and in particular the Caribbean, a better place than when he found it.

William Hogarth's painting of Governor Woodes Rogers being presented
with a map of Nassau Harbour by his son

In 1718 it is estimated that there were at most 2000 pirates in the Caribbean. This increased to perhaps 2500 by 1722 but as piracy started to come under control, and as the pirates dispersed in the face of prolonged naval attrition, numbers dropped to perhaps 500 by 1724. By 1726 there were fewer than 200 pirates left.

Woodes Rogers must take much of the credit for implementing the anti-piracy movement in the area. He arrived in the Bahamas in 1718 as Governor, with an aura of success: he had already circumnavigated the world, becoming only the third Briton to do so. Not only that but he returned with both his ships intact and with many of his original crew. He had achieved wealth following his capture of the Spanish treasure ship Nuestra Señora de la Encarnación y Desengaño, and fame due to his association with the rescue of Alexander Selkirk (the inspiration for Defoe’s story of Robinson Crusoe) and the subsequent publication of the story of his voyage as A Cruising Voyage Round the World.

He was a sailor’s sailor, a man to be respected by the pirates based in the Bahamas. This was no pen-pusher, no stuffed shirt bureaucrat. Yet, when he first appeared off the harbour of New Providence island there was little sign of respect from the pirate Charles Vane. He had arrived in harbour shortly ahead of Rogers' small trans-Atlantic fleet, after having captured a French brigantine loaded with brandy, claret, sugar and indigo. Vane cheekily sent a message to Rogers saying that if Rogers allowed him to loot and keep the cargo from the captured prize, he would then accept the King’s pardon and retire from piracy. Rogers declined to respond but had to suffer the humiliation of being unable to enter the harbour and stop the looting. The tides and the shallows in the harbour favoured Vane, and having looted the captured brigantine, he set it adrift, in flames, in the direction of the support vessel Rose. The captain of the Rose was forced to cut his cables and head out to sea to avoid the flames, but not before Vane had raked the rigging with cannon shot. Rogers was not going to have an easy job in bringing law and order to the pirate’s den.

Rogers entered the harbour the following day (27 July 1718) disembarked his independent company of infantrymen, numbering one hundred, along with a hundred and thirty intrepid colonists. These were Protestants drawn from the Rhineland area of south-west Germany.

Rogers had the sense not to try and take on the whole world at the same time: he picked his time, and he picked his enemies off one by one.

First of all he took possession of the island’s dilapidated fort and appointed various key officials from the men he had brought with him: a Chief Justice, Judge of the Admiralty, Customs Collector, and so on. To these six newcomers he added another six from the existing inhabitants to constitute a representative council of twelve people.

Apart from the pirates he was confronted with multiple problems – the threat of invasion, economic stagnation, disease, and under-manning. New settlers had been avoiding the Bahamas because of the lawlessness, and the residents who were there were indolent, elderly or infirm. When the front of the fort collapsed, there were insufficient labourers to rebuild it. And when a mysterious disease struck the island, believed to be linked to the pile of rotting hides on the harbour foreshore, it led to widespread sickness among almost all of the newcomers, civilian and infantrymen alike. Many died.

Problems were compounded when Rogers was alerted to the fact that the newly appointed Governor of Cuba had been charged with the task of eradicating every single one of the Bahamian settlements. An invasion was imminent. The French were also rumoured to have cast a proprietorial eye on the Bahamas.

A paper-cut made by my ancestor Richard Hall in 1780

These belligerent threats were one of the reasons why the King’s Pardon had been proclaimed the previous year – Britain desperately needed experienced sailors to man its ships. King George had therefore issued a proclamation giving an amnesty to any pirate willing to surrender to the authorities and abandon piracy. These pirates were nothing if not experienced sailors – and of course chasing pirates tied up Royal Navy personnel and equipment playing ‘cat and mouse games’ when they could be better used safeguarding the colonists by defending them from attack. One of those who accepted the pardon was Benjamin Hornigold, and he was immediately employed by Rogers to go off and hunt down Vane, and any other pirates he came across and to bring them to face justice. Hornigold did not return for some time, and Rogers must have feared the worst i.e. that Hornigold had reneged on the terms of his pardon, or alternatively had been captured by Vane. When he did return, Hornigold brought not Vane but another pirate, Nicholas Woodall. He was clapped in irons ready to be sent back on the next ship for England to face trial.

When Hornigold returned having captured another ten pirates, Rogers felt that his position was strong enough to be able to hold their trial there and then, on the island. He convened the twelve-strong Court of Admiralty. One man was acquitted but the remaining nine were found guilty and sentenced to die on 12 December 1718. The hangings were to be carried out with a maximum show of strength, with all the militia called out to ensure that no attempt was made to free the convicted criminals. The scaffolding had been erected high up on the ramparts, facing the sea. The prisoners were all to be dispatched together, in a mass hanging which was expected to be watched by hundreds of the islanders, many of them pirates or former pirates.

Some of the accused were penitent and seemed resigned to their fate. Others saw it as an occasion to swagger and display coloured ribbons from their stockings. Some used the opportunity to address their former colleagues, and one of the condemned, Thomas Morris, commented as he climbed the gallows: ‘We have a good Governor, but a harsh one.’

It was widely anticipated that Rogers would pardon the pirates at the last moment, but this was not to be. One lad called George Rounsival was pardoned, but the rest were all executed in a very clear display of the Governor’s authority and determination.

Tough on one hand, Rogers could also be merciful: he extended the period in which pirates were allowed to surrender. The islanders responded to the threat of imminent invasion from Spain by labouring furiously to rebuild the island fortifications, and before long fifty guns could be brought to bear on any attackers. Upwards of 250 men could be called on to defend the island. In February 1720 a somewhat half-hearted attempt was made by Spanish forces from Cuba to land troops on New Providence, but the threat was repelled. By now Rogers was exhausted, mentally and also financially, for it became clear that he had been financing the defence works out of his own pocket. In the summer of 1721 he returned to England to face his creditors. He was adjudged bankrupt and thrown into prison, a shameful reward for a man who had devoted his energies so selflessly in the interest of the Crown.

Eventually his creditors took pity on Rogers and absolved him from his debts. This was no doubt helped by the fact that once again he was enjoying the status of national hero, by virtue of the praise heaped on him in the recently published A General History of the Pyrates. The King awarded him a pension, backdated to 1721, and George II went further and appointed him as Governor for a second term. In 1728 Rogers returned to the islands and quickly realized that the defences again needed re-building. However, his proposal to levy a local tax to pay for the work was vetoed by the Assembly, and Rogers responded by suspending the Assembly. This precipitated a constitutional crisis which quickly left Rogers worn out and dispirited. His zeal for change and improvement had gone, and before long he headed for Charles Town to recover his health. Eventually he returned to Nassau and died on 15 July 1732. By then the world had moved on: the face of New Providence had changed, with new settlers and new industries. War with Spain had ended, the threat of invasion had disappeared – and the pirates had largely faded away, been pardoned, or had died of natural causes.

Today, there is a monument to Woodes Rogers outside the Hilton British Colonial Hotel in Nassau, but there are precious few other memorials to a rather remarkable man.

[This is an archive Editor's Choice post, first published on EHFA 1 November 2017]

Mike Rendell's book, "In bed with the Georgians - Sex, Scandal & Satire" is published by Pen & Sword Books. He has also written "Trailblazing Women of the 18th Century" and and his "Trailblazing Georgians: The Unsung Men Who Helped Shape the Modern World" was published by Pen & Sword in January 2020.

Monday, April 20, 2020

A Delightful Curse on a Lead Scroll

By Kim Rendfeld

Only a historical novelist would use the word “delightful” to describe a curse inscribed on a rolled thin sheet of lead. Well, maybe an archaeologist or historian might know what I mean.

In research for my short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” I came across this tidbit. Followers of the Celtic deity Sulis would write their requests to her on a lead scroll or tablet and toss it in a sacred hot spring at Bath. When the Roman ruled over Britain, that spring did some double duty as a space for devotion to Sulis and the Roman goddess Minerva. In fact, she is often called Sulis Minerva.

To polytheistic Celts, it was not a big deal. They could still worship Sulis and let her know their wishes, a lot of them calls for justice. If the Romans wanted to call her Minerva and ask for her assistance, fine. The Romans cared little about the religion of the people they conquered except for one thing: acknowledge their emperor as a god. A lot of polytheistic religions likely greeted this with a shrug. What was one more god after all? They could even distance themselves and say that the Romans have their gods and we have ours.

Roman Baths of Bath Spa, England
(photo by David Iliff, license: CC-BY-SA 3.0,
via Wikimedia Commons)

The Jews were having none of it, but they were not proselytizing. So their belief was confined. Christians posed another problem. Like the Jews, they refused to accept any other deity, and they were trying to convert other people to see the world as they did. That was one reason Christians were persecuted, especially when a natural disaster like a drought hit. Pagans and Christians believed the cause was an angry deity, but they disagreed on who offended what supernatural being.

Christians got a break in 313, when Constantine the Great proclaimed they would be tolerated. Their faith became mainstream in 337, when the Roman emperor accepted baptism shortly before his death.

Yet religion among Britons in the fourth and fifth centuries was fluid. Seemingly disparate sets of beliefs could coexist not only in society, but within the same person. No one would fault a midwife who whispered a spell to an expectant mother to ease her labor. Nor did wearing an amulet alongside a cross draw much attention.

Some habits are just too hard to break. When your harvest or victory in battle depended on pleasing deities (or at least not angering them), it didn’t hurt to hedge your bets.

A request to Sulis Minerva on a small scroll of lead is more tangible evidence of Christianity and paganism existing side by side. About 130 such requests, or curse tablets, were excavated from Bath, and many more remain buried. Throughout Britain, there are about 500.

These tablets are thin pieces of lead or pewter inscribed in a somewhat formulaic way. In the case of theft, it’s a complaint, name of the thief or catch-all phraseology if the perpetrator is unknown, name of the victim, and the appeal to the goddess. The piece is then rolled and folded to be legible only to the goddess and pierced with a nail.

A folded curse, photo by Mike Peel (,
CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The reason I find delight in one from a guy named Annianus is that I am hearing the beliefs of an ordinary Christian in his own words (in translation).

Annianus, son of Matutina, signed his name, so it’s not like he’s hiding anything. Annianus is believed to be Christian because he used the word “pagan,” a term only an early medieval Christian would use to distinguish other religions. Apparently Annianus doesn’t know the thief, but on the back of his request, he provides Sulis Minerva with 18 names, probably people he suspects.

What Annianus asks for is anything but Christian: “Whether pagan or Christian, whosoever man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free has stolen from me, Annianus, six silver coins from my purse, you lady goddess are to extract ... the blood of him who has invoked this upon me.”

Apparently, Annianus set aside that part of no other gods for the moment, and that part about forgiving your enemies hadn’t gotten through to Annianus.

In Annianus’s defense, those lost coins might have been six days of wages. One of those coins would have bought enough wheat for 20 loaves of bread. If he were a soldier, six silver coins could buy him a pair of boots and a good cloak.

The fellow likely just wanted his coins back. Appealing to Sulis Minerva might have been his best chance at justice.

This article is an Editor's Choice and was originally published August 23, 2017.


Daily Life in Arthurian Britain by Deborah J. Shepherd

Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, edited by John G. Gager

Brigid: Goddess, Druidess and Saint by Brian Wright

Curse Tablets of Roman Britain

What Were They Worth? The Purchasing Power of Ancient Coins,” CoinWeek


Kim Rendfeld has written three books set in 8th century Francia. In The Cross and the Dragon, a Frankish noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor and the fear of losing her husband (available on Amazon). In The Ashes of Heaven's Pillar, a Saxon peasant will fight for her children after losing everything else (available on Amazon). In Queen of the Darkest Hour, Queen Fastrada must stop a conspiracy before it destroys everyone and everything she loves. The book is available on Amazon, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Smashwords.

Kim's short story “Betrothed to the Red Dragon,” about Guinevere’s decision to marry Arthur, is set in early medieval Britain and available on Amazon.

Connect with Kim at on her website, her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at, on Facebook at, or follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Of Refinement and Good Manners

by Maria Grace

Etiquette is an integral part of every culture. Although the details differ among regions and historical periods, the concept of correct and incorrect ways to behave remains constant. Rules of polite behavior are essential elements of communication within a society, a social code that enables individuals to understand motives and subtle messages that are otherwise cumbersome to display through words alone.

These social rules are adopted and adapted over time. Some may be written into elaborate manuals, though many are unwritten, caught rather than taught among the population at large.

In general these rules reflect the values of a society. Following these rules demonstrates respect for the common morality and for other people. Obedience to the guidelines of good manners also reflects on the character of the individual and suggests one is well bred and refined.

In periods of great social transition, like the Regency, published manuals are especially abundant. Many pages in these manuals were filled with comments on general deportment and the behavior to be exhibited by individuals of good breeding. When trying to rise into higher levels of society, a family’s social standing could be made or broken by the ability to conform to all the conventions associated polite behavior.

Although these patterns of etiquette might appear awkward and restrictive, especially for women, they did act as a safeguard against misunderstanding and embarrassment for both parties. This was particularly true as well-bred women were thought to have a "natural" sense of delicacy. Taste and poise should come naturally to a lady, and it was an indictment against her breeding to be worried about looking correct.

Marks of Good Breeding

In line with the emphasis on elegance and formality, people were encouraged to maintain an erect seating posture when sitting or standing. Slouching or leaning back was regarded as slothful unless the individual was infirm in some way. Similarly, a well-bred person walked upright and moved with grace and ease. Moreover, such a person maintained an elegance of manners and deportment and could respond to any social situation with calm assurance and no awkwardness.

Etiquette demanded a person behaved with courteous dignity to acquaintance and stranger alike at all times. Well-bred individuals and those seeking to be seen as such were instructed to keep at arm's length any who presumed too great a familiarity. Icy politeness was the best weapon in putting so-called 'vulgar mushrooms' in their place.

To be considered wall-mannered, an individual had to control their features, their physical bodies, and their speech when in company. Extremes of emotion and public outbursts were unacceptable, as was anything pretentious or flamboyant. A woman, though, could have the vapors, faint, or suffer from hysteria if confronted by vulgarity or an unpleasant scene.

All forms of vulgarity were unacceptable and to be continually guarded against. Laughter, too, was moderated in polite company, particularly among women. Men might engage in unrestrained mirth in the company of other men or among women of low repute for whom the rules of etiquette were more or less irrelevant.

Showing Respect

These marks of good breeding were one means by which respect for others was demonstrated. Rituals of bowing and curtsying accomplished similar ends.

A bow or curtsy would be performed according to the status and relationship of the person encountered and with respect to the particular circumstance. For example, a bow or curtsey would be made on entering or leaving a room, though good friends and family were not always bowing to one another.

Bows and curtsies were expected at the beginning and end of a dance, and on encountering any person one wished to acknowledge. Children generally bowed or curtsied on meeting their parents for the first time each day.

When encountering people in public, etiquette suggested it was the woman's duty to acknowledge an acquaintance first by a slight bow with the head and shoulders. If she did not make such an acknowledgement, a gentleman should not acknowledge her.

Such recognition could only occur if the two individuals had been previously introduced.


It was unacceptable to speak to anyone of good breeding without a formal introduction by a third party.

The higher ranking individual (or the woman in the case of two equally ranking individuals) would indicate whether he or she wishes to permit the introduction of an inferior. In the case he or she desired an introduction, a third party would be asked to make one. At a public ball, the Master of Ceremonies would conduct this service to enable gentleman and ladies to dance. However, if the higher ranking person did not desire an introduction, one could not be forced upon them.

In some circumstances, the higher ranking person could introduce him or herself to the lower one. When introduced the people of lower rank bowed or curtsied. Gentlemen and ladies of equal rank bowed and curtsied when formally introduced to each other and again when parting.

Touching and tipping one's hat was a standard salutation, not returning it would be very rude. After being introduced, individuals always acknowledged each other in public, at minimum with a tip or touch to the hat or a slight bow of the shoulders. Failure to acknowledge an acquaintance was a breach in conduct and considered a cut. Manuals warned that a lady should never ‘cut’ someone unless ‘absolutely necessary’ and only ladies were truly justified in delivering a ‘cut’.


Servants and social inferiors were, of course the exception to this rule. They were always kept at a proper distance but without arrogance, pride or aloofness. The well-bred individual spoke to servants with an appropriate degree of civility and avoided the casual informality with which a person might address an equal. Private business was not discussed in the presence of servants and they were generally ignored at mealtimes. Mocking or belittling servants or their families was deemed undignified and a sign of bad manners.


The heart of polite sociability was conversation. The whole purpose of conversation was to please other people and to be deemed pleasing. In general, conversation was tightly controlled by rules of etiquette as well. The list of unacceptable topics far outnumbered the acceptable ones.

A polite individual did not ask direct personal questions of someone they had just met. To question or even compliment anyone else on the details of their dress might also be regarded as impertinent. Personal remarks, however flattering, were not considered good manners. Etiquette manuals counseled such comments should be exchanged only with close family and intimate friends.

Similarly, scandal and gossip should be omitted from public conversation. Any references to pregnancy, childbirth, or other natural bodily functions were considered coarse and carefully sidestepped. A man could sometimes discuss his hunters or driving horses in the presence of ladies though it was generally discouraged. Greater latitudes of conversation were allowed when the genders were segregated, particularly for the men.


Not surprisingly, good manners required all forms of touching between members of the opposite sex were to be kept to a minimum. Putting a lady's shawl about her shoulders, or assisting her to mount a horse, enter a carriage and for a gentleman to take a lady's arm through his to support her while out walking were considered acceptable forms of courtesy.

Shaking hands though was not. In the Regency era, shaking hands was considered a mark of unusual affability or intimacy. Only gentlemen of about the same social class, who knew each other well, shook hands. Moreover, the intimacy of shaking hands was a mark of condescension, if offered by one of a higher rank.

Shaking hands with a person of the opposite sex was less frequent and less proper. A pressure of the hands, was the only external sign a woman could give of harboring a particular regard for certain gentleman and was not to be thrown away lightly. According to some contemporary conduct guides, a woman should avoid even touching the hand of a man who was not a family member.

Between sisters or ladies of equal age or rank a kiss on the cheek was acceptable. A gentleman might kiss a lady's hand, but kissing it 'passionately' was a gesture of excessive intimacy.

Though these rules might seem excessive, adherence to them was crucial, especially for ladies whose reputations were especially brittle. For those seeking admission to higher society, any breech in etiquette could be fatal to one’s social standing.

A Lady of Distinction - Regency Etiquette, the Mirror of Graces (1811). R.L. Shep Publications (1997)
Black, Maggie & Le Faye, Deirdre - The Jane Austen Cookbook. Chicago Review Press (1995)
Byrne, Paula -in Jane Austen in Context. Cambridge University Press (2005)
Day, Malcom - Voices from the World of Jane Austen. David & Charles (2006)
Downing, Sarah Jane - Fashion in the Time of Jane Austen. Shire Publications (2010)
Jones, Hazel - Jane Austen & Marriage. Continuum Books (2009)
Lane, Maggie - Jane Austen's World. Carlton Books (2005)
Lane, Maggie - Jane Austen and Food. Hambledon (1995)
Laudermilk, Sharon & Hamlin, Teresa L. - The Regency Companion. Garland Publishing (1989)
Le Faye, Deirdre - Jane Austen: The World of Her Novels. Harry N. Abrams (2002)
Ray, Joan Klingel - Jane Austen for Dummies. Wiley Publishing, Inc. (2006)
Ross, Josephine - Jane Austen's Guide to Good Manners. Bloomsbury USA (2006)
Selwyn, David - Jane Austen & Leisure. The Hambledon Press (1999)
Trusler, John - The Honours of the Table or Rules for Behavior During Meals. Literary-Press (1791)
Vickery, Amanda - The Gentleman's Daughter. Yale University Press (1998)

An Editor's Choice from the #EHFA Archives, originally published April 11, 2013


Though Maria Grace has been writing fiction since she was ten years old, those early efforts happily reside in a file drawer and are unlikely to see the light of day again, for which many are grateful.

After penning five file-drawer novels in high school, she took a break from writing to pursue college and earn her doctorate. After 16 years of university teaching, she returned to her first love, fiction writing.

Click here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, or follow on Twitter.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020


By Toni Mount

Medieval apothecaries were the equivalent of our modern pharmacists. An apothecary’s shop was full of various cures, most of which he prepared himself. He was usually a trusted member of the community, but at times, apothecaries were accused of practising magic or witchcraft. In an age before folk had easy access to doctors and when hospitals were religious foundations, more interested in curing your soul than your body, the apothecary was an ordinary person’s best hope of a cure or relief from an illness. Because apothecaries saw different people with various illnesses each day, most had a huge knowledge of the human body and herbal remedies.

Early in the Middle Ages, an apothecary would have cultivated all the plants and herbs needed for his medicines himself. Later, supplies became more organised, especially in cities like London, York and Bristol, with individuals growing plants to order for the apothecaries.

The recipes for the wines, syrups, cordials and medicines were passed down through the generations, from master to apprentice. They were closely guarded secrets too, since the most successful apothecary would have the most customers. While some apothecaries worked on a casual basis from their own homes, many had their own retail premises, usually a small shop. The front of the shop would have shelves full of medicines and herbs and in the back section, the apothecary would prepare medicines as and when they were needed. Ideally, he would also have access to a garden, where he could grow some of the less exotic herbs and plants he needed to prepare his cures. Some of the most popular medicines were prepared in advance, ready for sale, just as in a modern-day pharmacy. Other cures were prepared as and when needed, and were made up precisely, with the apothecary using his knowledge of the patient and the illness to prepare what he thought would be the ideal remedy.

Apothecaries were often spicers or pepperers as well. Because their work involved weighing out small amounts of herbs and spices for use in medicine, or for direct sale to customers, their trade was regulated by the Grocers’ Guild. It was impossible to separate the two businesses completely as both were involved in importing and distributing spices from abroad, for use in cooking and in the preparation of products such as spiced wines. In addition to food and drugs, apothecaries also sold inks and pigments to the stationers, beauty products and perfumes, substances used in fumigation and pest control and even good luck charms and novelties such as serpent-stones – what we know to be ammonite fossils.

A collection of medical recipes from the fifteenth century [now MS136 at the Literary Society of London] has remedies which make use of herbs that really could have performed the cure as intended:

For the Migraine take half a dishful of barley, one handful each of betony, vervain and other herbs that are good for the head; and when they be well boiled together, take them up and wrap them in a cloth and lay them to the sick head and it shall be whole – I proved.

A sick headache might well be eased by this poultice. Betony was a favourite herb in medieval times and was taken internally for a range of ailments. It’s still used today in treatments for nervous headaches and some types of migraine. Vervain is also used in modern medicine as a nerve tonic and as a calming restorative for patients in a debilitated condition. It too is used to treat migraine and depression.

For those troubled with digestive problems, this fifteenth century remedy would have helped:

To void Wind that is the cause of Colic take cumin and anise, of each equally much, and lay it in white wine to steep, and cover it over with wine and let it stand still so three days and three nights. And then let it be taken out and laid upon an ash board for to dry nine days and be turned about. And at the nine days’ end, take and put it in an earthen pot and dry over the fire and then make powder thereof. And then eat it in pottage or drink it and it shall void the wind that is the cause of colic.

Both these spices, anise and cumin, are carminatives, so this medicine would do exactly what it said on the tin – or earthen pot. The herbs dill and fennel could be used instead to the same effect – twentieth century gripe water for colicky babies contained dill. Wind and constipation were common preoccupations in the Middle Ages because folk ate so many pulses and little roughage, apart from cabbage.

Despite such suitable treatments as these, other remedies, despite the use of some exotic ingredients, could only have worked as panaceas. These concoctions are for gout:

Take badger’s grease and swine’s grease and hare’s grease and cat’s grease, dog’s grease and capon’s grease and suet of a deer and sheep’s tallow, of each equally much and melt them in a pan. Then take the juice of herb-robert, morell, mallow and comfrey and daisy and rue, plantain and maidenhair, knapweed and dragance, of each equally much juice, and fry them in the pan with the aforesaid greases, and keep it well, for the best ointment for gout is this. Or:

Take an owl and pluck it clean, and open it clean and salt it. Put it in a new pot and cover it with a stone and put it in an oven and let it stand till it be burnt. And then stamp [pound] it with boar’s grease and anoint the gout therewith.

A cough cure was more pleasant, consisting of the juice of horehound to be mixed with diapenidion and eaten. Horehound is good for treating coughs and diapenidion is a confection made of barley water, sugar and whites of eggs, drawn out into threads, so perhaps a cross between candy floss and sugar strands. It would have tasted nice and sugar is good for the chest, still available in an over-the-counter cough mixture as linctus simplex. Another pleasant cough treatment was coltsfoot comfits, like tiny sugary sticks of pale brown rock. King Henry III had the apothecary, Philip of Gloucester, supply him with 7½ lbs of diapenidion when the king visited the West Country in May 1265, along with 5lbs of grana, all together costing 7s 6d. My source for this [The Royal Apothecaries by Leslie G Matthews, 1967, pub by the Wellcome Historical Medical Library] suggests ‘grana’ meant aromatic seeds to aid digestion, like caraway or cumin, or it could have been Grains of Paradise, a kind of pepper. But ‘grana’ was also a name given to the exotic ‘kermes’ – dried scale insects, imported as a crimson dye. Could they have been used medicinally? Or was grana to be used to dye the king’s robes?

Another medicinal possibility is that grana was for dyeing the bed linen and curtains as part of the treatment of smallpox, in which the sickroom was swathed in red. Today we know this wasn’t so daft since red cloth filters out UV light, to reduce the production of scar tissue and to protect the eyesight of patients with smallpox or measles (these two diseases were hard to tell apart in the early stages anyway) – red light works for burns victims and would have decreased the pock marking in the case of smallpox. The medieval apothecary, like Gilbert Eastleigh in ‘The Colour of Poison’, was expected to know so much about such treatments, even if the reasons why they worked – or didn’t – were beyond the medical knowledge of the time.

N.B. One fifteenth century school book gives a list of collective nouns, including ‘a poison of treaclers’ (i.e. apothecaries who sold medicinal treacle).

[This an archive Editor's Choice post. It originally appeared on EHFA on 28 April 2016]


Toni Mount earned her research Masters degree from the University of Kent in 2009 through study of a medieval medical manuscript held at the Wellcome Library in London. Recently she also completed a Diploma in Literature and Creative Writing with the Open University. Toni has published many non-fiction books, but always wanted to write a medieval thriller, and her first novel “The Colour of Poison” is the
result. Toni regularly speaks at venues throughout the UK and is the author of
several online courses available at