Friday, May 29, 2020

Charles and Nancy Wollstonecraft

By Lauren Gilbert

Botanical illustration and description by Nancy Anne Kingsbury
Wollstonecraft of the Cuban Blue Passion Flower, Vol. I, Pl. 25, ca. 1826

In 2019, we learned of an astonishing discovery: the manuscript of a work long thought lost created by American Anne Kingsbury Wollstonecraft titled SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA. This remarkable work consists of three volumes, in which Mrs. Wollstonecraft described various specimens. She also illustrated them beautifully in watercolors herself. Although we know little about her, data shows that she was married to Charles Wollstonecraft, the youngest brother of British author Mary Wollstonecraft, who wrote VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTS OF WOMAN, among other works. I was immediately intrigued. How did Charles Wollstonecraft get to America? What is their story?

Mary Wollstonecraft in 1790-91, By John Opie - Tate Britain

In April 1789, Charles went to Cork, Ireland to stay with family, but returned to his father in the spring of 1791. That didn't work out, so he returned to his brother Ned in the fall. (It appears that Charles had difficulty finding himself.) He was supposed to go to America in 1792 with Joel and Ruth Barlow, American acquaintances of sister Mary. Mr. Barlow was a speculator in land. Mary bought Charles clothes and put him on a farm in Leatherhead so he could learn something of agriculture until his departure. However, Mr. Barlow ended up in France and Charles went to America alone, possibly later in 1792 or in 1793.

There are indications that Charles dabbled in land speculation, and he may have purchased land in Ohio. He was in Philadelphia, PA in late 1794, and wrote to his sisters telling them how well he was doing. In 1795, he became involved with a calico mill with Archibald Hamilton Rowan, another acquaintance of Mary's who was also a speculator. Although he continually wrote in optimistic terms, he did not respond to requests for financial assistance from his family in England.

Apparently, Charles' efforts at speculation in land and calico did not pay off, as he enlisted in the U.S. Army in Pennsylvania in 1798. He was a Lieutenant in 2 Artilleries and Engineers June 4, 1798 and went to Artillery April 1, 1802. Charles married Sarah Garrison of New Orleans in 1804, and they had a daughter named Jane Nelson Wollstonecraft about 1806. Data indicates he divorced Sarah for adultery in 1811, and kept their daughter. He was promoted to Captain March 15, 1805. He served as captain of the Regiment of Artillerists (known as Captain Charles Wollstonecraft's Company from 1806 until late 1815). He himself was transferred to Corps Artillery May 12, 1814 and was present in the British bombardment of Fort St. Philip, Lower Mississippi River, Louisiana from Jan 9-18, 1815 (in the aftermath of the Battle of New Orleans).

A general map of the seat of war in Louisiana & west Florida :
shewing all the fortified points and encampments of both
the American and British armies also the march of
Genl. Jackson's army on his expedition against Pensacola. 1814

Charles married Anne Kingsbury in 1813 in New Orleans. (Her name is commonly shown as Nancy or even Nancy Anne.) She was born October 29, 1791 to Benjamin Kingsbury and Abigail Sawin. She had multiple siblings, and her mother died when she was 12 years old. I found no information on her youth, education or when (and why) she came to New Orleans. I also found no information on how Charles and Nancy became acquainted. She would have been approximately 22 years of age, and he would have been about 43 years old when they were wed.

Charles became brevet major on March 15, 1815, as a reward for 10 years' service in one grade. He died in Louisiana, possibly of fever, September 28, 1817. He left his daughter Jane (then age 12) in Nancy's care, with Nancy as her guardian. Nancy placed Jane in other people's custody, the last being Rev. Richard Hall in New Ipswich, NH. Jane's mother Sarah managed to find and take the child to New York. A custody battle ensued, which resulted in Sarah being awarded custody of the child in August 1819, based in part on Jane's expressed desire to stay with her mother.

Nancy apparently remained in New Orleans for a time. She was a benefactor of the Poydras Female Asylum (an orphanage) in 1817. In 1819, she moved to Matanzas, Cuba. The reason for this move is unclear; health seems a likely possibility as Cuba's subtropical climate made it a destination for sufferers of various health problems, including lung complaints, for which warmth and sea air were specifics.

Throughout the 1820s, Nancy worked on SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA. She was very knowledgeable in the study of botany, showing familiarity with the work of Carolus Linnaeus (18th century Swedish botanist who pioneered classification and naming of organisms), Olof Swartz (another Swedish botanist, noted for his work with orchids) and other contemporary scientists. At this time, it is unknown where she studied or if she was self-taught. Besides her scientific knowledge, she was also a talented artist as her illustrations show. (The 3 volume manuscript has been digitized and can be viewed here.)

Portrait of Carl von Linne (Carolus Linnaeus), 1774

In 1825, Nancy visited New England. Under the pseudonym, "D'Anville", she began publishing articles about her botanical studies and about women's issues. "The Natural Rights of Women" was published in the Boston Monthly Magazine in August  1825, in which she appeared to echo many of her sister-in-law Mary Wollstonecraft's views, especially on women's education. (It is tempting to imagine that Charles told Nancy about his sister, and that Nancy read her works. It is certainly not impossible.) Nancy's "Letters from Cuba" appeared in the Boston Monthly Magazine in April and May 1826. On June 10, 1827, her father Benjamin Kingsbury died.

At some point around 1827, Nancy sent her manuscript for SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA to New York for publication (her manuscript was known to be there in April 1828, even thought it was not published). There are indications that she was still working on notes for her manuscript when she died on May 16, 1828 in Matanzas, Cuba, aged 46 years.


Todd, Janet. MARY WOLLSTONECRAFT A Revolutionary Life. 2000: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, London.

AtlasObscura. "A Forgotten Botanist's Stunning 19th Century Manuscript Is Now Online" by Jonathon Carey, February 5, 2019. HERE

Cornell University Library. “Rediscovering a pioneering botanical illustrator.” (no author shown) February 1, 2019. HERE “Edward John WOLLSTONECRAFT/Elizabeth DIXON”, Family Tree Maker, 2/19/05. HERE

Feminist History of Philosophy. “An ‘Exciting New Discovery’: Anne Wollstonecraft, Botanist and Woman’s Rights Writer” by Sandrine Berges, April 25, 2019. HERE

GoogleBooks. Davis, Paris M. AN AUTHENTICK HISTORY OF THE LATE WAR BETWEEN THE UNITED STATES AND GREAT BRITAIN with a Full Account of Every Battle. 1829: ATHAEA. HERE ; Hamersly, T.H.S. COMPLETE REGULAR ARMY REGISTER FOR ONE HUNDRED YEARS (1789-1879). 1881: T.H.S Hamersly, Washington D.C. HERE

Hathi Trust Digital Library. “The Natural Rights of Woman” by D’Anville. Boston Monthly Magazine, Vol. 1, No. 1-7 (1825). HERE ; “Letters from Cuba No. 11”. Boston Monthly Magazine, 1825-1826, S.L. Knapp, Boston. HERE ; Wollstonecraft, Anne Kingsbury. SPECIMENS OF THE PLANTS AND FRUITS OF THE ISLAND OF CUBA, 1826? V. 1, 2 and 3. HERE

National Geographic. “.'Lost' Book of exquisite scientific drawings rediscovered after 190 years” by Czerne Reid, April 22, 2019. HERE “Historical Memoir of the War in West Florida and Louisiana, 1814-1815” by Major A. Lacarriere Latour, translated by H. P. Nugent, Esq., Philadelphia 1816. Bombardment of Fort St. Philip, in Placquemines Parish [reproduction of an item in the Louisiana Historical Quarterly, published by the Louisiana Historical Society] Bill Thayer, no date of post. HERE

University of Florida. “The Cuban Botanical illustrations (1819- 1828) of Nancy Kingsbury Wollstonecraft (1781-1828) at Cornell University Ithaca, New York” by Emilio Cueto, November 8, 2018 (PDF). HERE

U.S. Army Center of Military History. McKenney, Janice E. FIELD ARTILLERY PART 1. 1985: Center of Military History, Washington D.C. p. 311.HERE


Botanical illustration and description of the Cuban Blue Passion Flower, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. HERE

Mary Wollstonecraft by John Opie, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. HERE

A general map of the seat of war in Louisiana & west Florida 1814. Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain. HERE

Carolus Linnaeus, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain, HERE

An Editor's Choice from the EHFA Archives, originally published May 30, 2019.

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, May 27, 2020

The Women who Worked for SOE

By Hilary Green

In my last blog (Click here) I wrote about the work of the First Aid Nursing Yeomanry during the First World War. When the conflict was over the FANY did not disband, although there was some difficulty in keeping membership buoyant in the inter-war years. Nevertheless, a loyal core continued to train, although now the emphasis was not so much on nursing as on transport. It was clear that there was no longer any need for mounted nurses, the function for which they had been founded in 1907, but their ability to drive and maintain motor vehicles had been crucial during the 1914-18 period. So now they concentrated on this aspect of the training and shortly before the outbreak of World War II it was suggested that they should come under the aegis of the ATS as the Women's Motor Transport Company. And it was in this capacity that many of them did sterling work driving ambulances and chauffeuring high ranking officers during the war. (It was into this corps that Princess Elizabeth, now our Queen, was recruited in order to 'do her bit'.)

Princess Elizabeth in the ATS - Public domain Image

Some long-standing FANYs, however, refused to be subsumed into the ATS. Their independence from other authorities had always been a matter of pride and they insisted on maintaining it, becoming known as the 'Free FANY.' It was this independence that made them ideally suited to working with SOE.

When the Special Operations Executive was first set up at the behest of Winston Churchill to 'set Europe ablaze' by dropping secret agents behind enemy lines, its existence was so secret that not even the army high command was allowed to know about it. So when a need arose for help on 'the home front' with such activities as radio communications and coding and decoding messages to and from agents in the field it was impossible for them to turn to the ATS or any other recognised women's service. Fortunately Colin Gubbins, who was in charge of operations, knew that a neighbour of his, a Mrs Phyllis Bingham, belonged to the FANY and he turned to her for help. So was born 'Bingham's Unit', a branch of the FANY whose function was known only to a few.

Member of ATS - Public Domain image

In order to fulfil their new tasks it was imperative to recruit extra personnel. What was required were young women with experience of wireless telegraphy, perhaps those who had worked for the Post Office, or who had a mathematical background or an aptitude for crossword puzzles. These last, it was felt, would have the right kind of brains for dealing with codes and cyphers. Girls with the right attributes found themselves being referred to a vicarage in Wilton Place, in London, where they encountered the redoubtable Marion Gamwell. (Marion and her sister Hope were long-standing members of the FANY, having volunteered in the First World War, when they provided, from their own funds, a mobile bathhouse in a converted lorry where troops could bathe and get their clothes washed.) Other young women who applied to the Women's War Work Bureau in Oxford Street were sent to Bingham's office in Baker Street. None of them knew what they were being recruited for, but if they were considered suitable after an induction course at Overthorpe Manor, they were then asked to sign the Official Secrets Act. Not even their parents knew what they were doing. They were told that their daughters were being trained as drivers.

Potential radio operators were sent to Fawley Court, near Henley, for four months’ intensive training. If they passed they then went to SOE's communications centre at Grendon Underwood, one of the many country houses taken over for the duration of the war. Conditions were grim. They lived in Nissen huts in the grounds and were often cold and hungry. They worked six hour 'skeds' or schedules in shifts round the clock and each girl was allotted her own agent (or Joe as they were fondly called). In this way, she would get to know his 'fist' – his unique touch on the Morse key – so that she could detect if someone else was impersonating him. Messages were in code and sent in groups of five letters which did not make words, so if one letter was missed it was impossible to guess what it should have been, and they were often sent in haste and in poor atmospheric conditions. It was intensive and demanding work.

Fawley Court via Wiki commons - click here for attribution

Once the message had been received it was handed over to the coding section to be rendered into plain English. Codes were based on poems. Each agent was asked to memorise two or three lines of verse and each message was based on one or two words from those lines, the letters of which were then transposed by using a cypher on a silk sheet which could be folded very small and concealed. The process is described by Leo Marks, a brilliant young man who was SOE's Head of Coding in his book 'Between Silk and Cyanide'. (Those who have read or seen '84 Charing Cross Road' will be interested to learn that Leo was the son of the man who owned the eponymous bookshop.) Many agents maintained that they were unable to remember even short pieces of poetry, so Leo suggested that the girls at Grendon might make up verses that would be easier for them to learn. Some of the results were scatological in the extreme -but presumably all the more memorable for that!

Leo Marks at the opening of the Violette Szabo Museum
Image via Wiki Commons - click here for attribution

Because the messages were sent under very dangerous and difficult conditions they often arrived garbled, making the decoding almost impossible. Marks describes how, on his first visit to Grendon, he told the girls the story of a young Belgian radio operator who was caught while transmitting by the Nazis and suffered terrible tortures in an effort to make him reveal his associates. He pointed out that the longer an operator was at his set, the greater the chances that the enemy detector vans would be able to pinpoint his location. It was vital, therefore, that no operator should be asked to send a message twice. After that, it became a point of honour among the decoders that, no matter how garbled, every message was decoded – even if they had to sit up all night to solve it.

Radio communications was not the only area where the FANYs gave invaluable help. Agents in training or those waiting to be sent into the field, were housed in more great mansions taken over by SOE. In fact, there was a standing joke among them that the letters stood not for Special Operations Executive but for Stately 'Omes of England. While there, they had to be looked after, fed and above all entertained to keep their minds off the dangers ahead of them. Here the more traditional FANY personnel were ideally suited. Many of them had come from backgrounds where social life was at the hub of their existence, but this did not mean they were not prepared to roll up their sleeves and get down to hard work. But at the end of a long day cooking and cleaning they would change into evening dress and after dinner the carpet would be rolled back and they and the agents would dance till midnight to the music of a gramophone.

It was not long, of course, before some of them developed the urge to become agents themselves. Once SOE became convinced that women could play a useful role they began to train with the men, and many of them who were not already members of the FANY were enrolled into their ranks to give a cover to their real purpose. One such was Violette Zsabo, whose exploits form the basis for the film Carve Her Name With Pride.

[This is an Editor's Choice archive post which was originally published on EHFA on 6 December 2018]

One aspect of this change in the role of the FANY that particularly interested Hilary was the social implications. When they were founded the FANY was unashamedly elitist. It was a Yeomanry, an organisation for the daughters of the land-owning classes. To a great extent it had preserved that ethos up to the beginning of World War II. Many of the young women had been 'debs', had been presented at court and 'done the season'; some even had titles. But the expansion of the work had required the influx of a large number of girls from very different backgrounds. The heroine of  'We'll Meet Again' is a working class girl recruited into Bingham's Unit who becomes a coder for SOE, ultimately finding herself parachuting into enemy-occupied Italy.
The heroine of Never Say Goodbye is  Frankie's best friend, a girl from the opposite social background, who volunteers to be dropped into France as an agent.

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Monday, May 25, 2020

Equestrian Pageantry in Tudor and Stuart Times

by Margaret Porter

William Cavendish, 1st Duke of Newcastle

The basis of equestrian pageantry began with Xenophon of Athens, who first codified the movements. His treatise On Equitation (circa 400 BC) was first printed in 1512, inspiring centuries of artistic horsemanship, the origin of modern-day dressage. It was then referred to as the Art of Manège, or High School Riding. Riding academies were founded--initially in Italy and Spain. Over time the horse trainer, noble rider, choreographer, composer, and costumier united to develop a popular and exclusive entertainment. During the Renaissance, horse ballets or carrousels rose to prominence at European royal courts, eventually replacing jousting tournaments. A carrousel featured a mock battle, with group manueuvres, quadrilles, and individual feats showcasing elements of the balancing, leaping, jumping, and flying 'airs above the ground': the levade, croupade, courbette, ballotade, and capriole.


English royalty preferred court masques to carrousels. But everyone liked a clever horse and rider. The common people tended to prefer low comedy to balletic grace.
Marocco & William Baknes
Marocco, sometimes referred to as Bankes's horse, was the most famous dancing horse of the Renaissance. Born 1586, he was alternately described as a bay, a chestnut, or white. Petite and well-muscled, he was extremely agile, intelligent, and easily trained. His owner, William Bankes of Staffordshire, took his marvel to London. Marocco's initial performances took place in Gracechurch Street, and he was later stabled at the Belle Sauvage Inn and performed there. Marocco, who wore silver horseshoes, could dance a jig, count, play dead, walk on his back legs, and urinate on command. He could also identify which ladies in his audience were sluts, and which were virtuous. He made his bow to Queen Elizabeth I. And he bared his teeth at King Philip of Spain. John Donne and Shakespeare knew of Marocco (there's a reference in Love's Labours Lost) and almost certainly witnessed performances similar to this:

Banks perceiving, to make the people laugh, saies; 'seignior,' to his horse, 'go fetch me the veryest foole in the company.' The jade comes immediately, and with his mouth drawes Tarlton [a famous clown and comedian] forth. Tarlton with merry words, said nothing but, 'God a mercy, horse.' In the end Tarlton, seeing the people laugh so, was angry inwardly, and said: 'Sir, had I power of your horse as you have, I would doe more than that.' 'What ere it be,' said Banks, to please him, 'I will charge him to do it.' 'Then,' said Tarleton: 'charge him bring me the veriest whore-master in the company.' The horse leades his master to him. Then 'God a mercy horse indeed,' saies Tarlton. (1611)
The horse was immortalised in various verses. One example:

Bankes hath a horse of wondrous qualitie
For he can fight, and pisse, and daunce, and lie,
And finde your purse, and tell what coyne ye have:
But Bankes, who taught your horse to smell a knave?

In 1601 he performed his greatest feat, climbing the thousand steps to perform on the rooftop of St. Paul's Cathedral--the medieval one, not the Christopher Wren one with the dome. After touring England and visiting Scotland, he travelled to Europe. In Paris he caused such a sensation that Bankes was accused of sorcery, and to save himself revealed that he controlled the horse primarily through hand gestures. Marocco performed in Germany and travelled as far as Portugal. Returning to England, Bankes worked as a trainer in the royal stables during James I's reign, and also trained the Duke of Buckingham's horses.

Bankes's acquaintance Gervase Markham produced A Discourse on Horsemanship (1593), in which he writes of 'that most excellent and prayse worthie gyft, the breeding and ryding and trayning uppe of horses.' In his multi-volume Cavelarice: Or the English Horseman (1608) dedicated to Prince Henry, James I's son and containing William Bankes's secrets for training Marocco. Markham attributes human emotions to horses, stating, 'It is most certaine that everie horse is possest with these passions: love, joy, hate, sorrow and feare.' He also charts the different 'humours' during the lifetime of the horse as it matures: 'Now these tempers do alter, as the powers of a horse either increase or diminish, as thus, a Foale is said to have his temper from the Fire and Ayre, a horse of middle age from the Fire and the Earth, and a horse of the old age from the Earth and the Water.'

1st Duke of Newcastle
William Cavendish, the polymath First Duke of Newcastle was one of the great riders of his age. Margaret Cavendish, his duchess and biographer, describes the admiration his riding excited at the English court, where was responsible for the education of the future King Charles II. In that role imparted his riding skills to the then-Prince of Wales:
But not only strangers but his Majesty himself, our now gracious Sovereign, was pleased to see my Lord ride, and one time did ride himself, he being an excellent master of that art, and instructed by my Lord, who had the honour to set him first on a horse of manage when he was his governor [instructor, tutor]...his Majesty's capacity was such that being but ten years of age he would ride leaping horses and such as would overthrow others and manage them with the greatest skill and dexterity to the admiration of all that beheld him.
A firm and devoted Royalist, Newcastle spent Interregnum on the Continent. In Antwerp, where he occupied the house associated with painter Peter Paul Rubens, he established a riding school. Then, and later, he published books on horsemanship and established his famous riding-school, exercised 'the art of manège' (High School riding), and published his first work on horsemanship, Méthode et invention nouvelle de dresser les chevaux (1658). After the Restoration and his return to England, he published A New Method and Extraordinary Invention to Dress Horses and Work them according to Nature (1667).

He was not humble about his abilities and their effect upon spectators:
The Marquess of Caracena was so civilly earnest to see me ride that he was pleased to say it would be a great satisfaction to him to see me on horseback, though the horse should but walk...he came to my manage [manège] and I rid first a Spanish horse called Le Superbe, of a light bay a beautiful horse, and though hard to be rid yet when he was hit right he was the readiest horse in the world. He went in corvets forward backward sideways on both hands made the cross perfectly upon his voltoes and did change upon his voltoes, so just without breaking time that a musician could not keep time better, and went terra a terra [terre-á-terre] perfectly. The second horse I rid was another Spanish called Le Genty, and was rightly named so for he was the finest-shaped horse that ever I horse ever went terra a terra like him so just and so easy and for the piroyte [pirouette] in his length so just and so swift, that the standers by could hardly see the rider's face...truly when he had done I was so dizzy that I could hardly sit in the saddle. The third and last horse I rid then was a Barb that went...very high both forward and upon his voltoes and terra a terra. And when I had done riding, the Marquess of Caracena seemed to be very well-satisfied, and some Spaniards that were with him crossed themselves and cried 'Miraculo!'


Grand  Carrousel, 1662

Many English aficionados of equestrian skill were exposed to the carrousel at the French court. Antoine de Pluvinel (1555-1620), a well-born Frenchman, studied equitation and other subjects in Italy, returned to found an academy at Faubourg St. Honore. He served as chief instructor, or gouveneur, to the Dauphin, the future Louis XIII, and his precepts for riding were published in The Maneige Royal, or L'Instruction du Roy (1623), written as a dialogue between master and pupil. In 1612, Pluvinel devised a fifteen-minute carrousel celebrating the marriage of ten-year-old Louis and Anne of Austria.

Like father, like son. The 1662 Grand Carrousel at the Tuileries, performed over two days, celebrated the birth of the Dauphin, son of Louis XIV. It was a grand display of the young King's power and splendour. Louis participated, as did the royal dukes. The riders and their horses were elaborately costumed, and the characters were allegorical and representative in nature--Romans, Turks, famous warriors from history. Teams of participants, each led by a duke or the king, performed this ballet to music created by the court composer Lully. The horses' decorations alone cost one hundred thousand livres. Though not English by birth, England's Dowager Queen, Henrietta Maria, witnessed her nephew's performance.

Louis XIV in Le Grand Carrousel

Monsieur, the King's brother

In May 1686, the two-day Carrousel des Galantes Amazones was held at Versailles. All the most important people received tickets, including the English ambassador, Sir William Trumbull, and his wife. The story depicted was that of Alexander the Great (portrayed by the now adult Dauphin) and the Amazon Queen Thalestris (the Duchess of Bourbon). This was the first time ladies appeared in a carrousel, and all, men and women, were spectacularly attired in costumes by Jean Berain.
Carrousel des Amazones at Versailles, 1686

The King's Champion

After every English coronation, an elaborate banquet was served to the participants, and it included a unique and historic ceremony involving equestrian spectacle. A designated 'King's Champion' (or Queen's) mounted on a steed, rode into Westminster Hall and dared anyone to challenge the new ruler's right to succeed. For more than six hundred years members of the Dymock family held this position, although the George IV coronation in 1821 was the occasion that a Dymock was called on to perform his hereditary role, described thus in 1660: have on the Coronation day one of the King's great coursers with a saddle harness and trappings of cloth of gold and one of the best suits of armour with cases of cloth of gold, and all such other things appertaining to the King's body...if he was going into mortal battel. And on the Coronation day to be mounted on the said courser ...being accompanied by the High Constable and Marshal of England and the King's Herald with a trumpet sounding before him to come riding into the Hall to the place where the King sits at dinner with the crown on his proclaim with an audible voice these words following...that if any person of whatsoever degree he be, either high or low, will deny or gainsay that Charles the Second King of England Scotland France and Ireland son and next heir of our late sovereign Lord Charles the First deceased defender of the faith... ought not to enjoy the crown thereof here is his Champion ready by his body to assert and maintain that he lyes like A false traitor, and in that quarrel to adventure his life on any day that shall be assigned him. And thereupon the said Champion throws down his gauntlet, and in case no man shall say that he is ready in that quarrel to combat then as hath been usually done at all former Coronations of Kings and Queens of this realm...

James II's Champion (British Museum)


The famed Royal Lippizzans of Vienna's Spanish Riding School are modern equivalents of the dancing horses of centuries past, as are the Olympians in the dressage competitions in the Summer Games. Modern groups recreate versions of carrousels that were seen by Henrietta Maria, Charles II, and their kinsmen Louis XIII and Louis XIV, and French courtiers. The one I attended in Brussels is an indelible memory. A video of a similar performance is here. A section of Lully's music for the Grand Carrousel can be heard here.

This is an Editor's Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published December 15, 2016.
Margaret Porter is the award-winning and bestselling author of twelve period novels, whose other publication credits include nonfiction and poetry. The Carrousel des Amazones is the setting for a scene in A Pledge of Better Times, her highly acclaimed novel of 17th century courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans.

Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

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Friday, May 22, 2020

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

By John Pilkington

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

Margaret Hughes

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

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

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

Nell Gwyn

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

Moll Davis

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

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

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

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

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

Aphra Behn

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

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

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


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

Twitter: @_JohnPilkington

Wednesday, May 20, 2020

The Making of a Nation: England

By Annette Burkitt

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

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

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

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

Author's drawing of a coin of Athelstan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public Domain image of Eadgifu in Canterbury Cathedral

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

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


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

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

Monday, May 18, 2020

William Longchamp – Richard the Lionheart’s Chancellor

by Charlene Newcomb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Friday, May 15, 2020

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

By Paula Lofting

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

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

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

King Cnut

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

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

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

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

[all above images in the public domain]

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


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

Find Paula on her Blog