Monday, June 29, 2020

When Kensington Palace became a Royal Residence

by Andrea Zuvich

There’s something about Kensington Palace that immediately conjures up the word glamorous. Perhaps it is because in recent memory, it has been the home of notable, glamorous royals such as the late Princess Margaret, the late Diana, Princess of Wales, and also because of its current inhabitant, Catherine, Duchess of Cambridge. But what we now know of Kensington Palace is very different from what it once was. As I had the great honour to have been on the original team that developed the Garden History Tours at Kensington Palace, I learned first-hand about the history and rather more humble origins of the great royal palace – and I hope to share some of that here with you all today. 

Before modern Kensington became the playground of the world’s richest people, it was a sleepy verdant little village renowned for its purity of air. Royals have only inhabited the house since the late 17th-century, when William III and Mary II moved in. But the history of the land goes back farther than that. According to Kensington Palace by W.J. Loftie, a late Victorian historian, the land upon which Kensington Palace now lies was (in the 14th century) on an area called Neyt Manor, one of three manorial estates owned by the Abbey of Westminster. Indeed, archival documents and archaeological assessments from the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea state there was a Neyt Manor in 1386. Whatever building was left standing is believed to have been demolished in 1602.

A Jacobean house was built in 1605 for Sir George Coppin three years after the Neyt Manor structure was razed. Following Coppin’s death in 1619, it was purchased by the Finch family. Much later on, the house was named “Nottingham House” because Sir Heneage Finch was the Earl of Nottingham (since 1681).

In 1688, what is known as the “Glorious Revolution” occurred in which James II was ousted from power by his nephew/son-in-law William of Orange and James’s daughter/William’s wife and cousin, Mary. In 1689, William and Mary were crowned King and Queen, and they soon set out to find where to live. Why? You may well wonder, considering that they already had St. James’s Palace and Whitehall Palace. But Whitehall rested in an area by the River Thames that was full of fog, smoke, and generally unpleasant air. This wreaked havoc with King William’s chronic asthma and so more verdant climes were sought. They soon purchased Nottingham House from Daniel Finch, the 2nd Earl of Nottingham (who happened to be his Secretary of State), for a whopping £14,000-18,000.

After this, they hired Sir Christopher Wren to expand and modernise the Jacobean building into something bigger and more fashionable. Construction work went on between 1689-1690. Unfortunately, Mary was a bit impatient with what she perceived to be the slow progress of the building. This can probably be attributed to her desire to make a comfortable home for William. She wrote to her beloved:

“the schafolds are up, the windows must be boarded up, but as soon as it is done, your own apartment may be furnished.”

Her over-eagerness to get the building works completed meant that the workman built too quickly, and so the quality of their work became a secondary consideration. Mary wrote (original spelling maintained): “This made me go often to Kinsington to hasten the worckmen, and I was so impatient to beat that place, imagining to find more ease there.”

As a result of this, sadly, November 1689 saw part of the newly-built building fall down ‘killing seven or eight workman’ – and this tragedy also occurred during renovation work to Hampton Court Palace. Mary characteristically blamed herself for these deaths.

Her diary continues: “This I often reproved my self for and at last it pleased God to shew me the uncertainty of all things…All this much as it was the fault of the worckmen, humanly speacking, yet shewed me the hand of God plainly in it, and I was truly humbled.”

The gardens were redone at this time as well, with heavily manicured box hedging – elaborately formed in the formal Baroque (modern) style which was then so popular. William and Mary spent nearly the same amount on these magnificent gardens as they did on the house! They both loved gardening and their previous homes in the Dutch Republic (The Netherlands), especially Paleis Het Loo, also had wonderfully symmetrical parterres in this elegant style. Sadly, none of their Kensington gardens exist to this day!

In 1690, the interior of the house began to be decorated with glorious woodcarvings from Baroque carver Grinling Gibbons. Visitors to Kensington Palace’s State Apartments can see these for themselves, in the King’s Presence Chamber and in Queen Mary’s Gallery. Outside the Queen’s Entrance, the monogram (entwined initials) of William and Mary is clearly visible above the doorway.

Mary died from haemorrhagic smallpox in 1694, plunging her husband into a deep grief. John Evelyn, the diarist and courtier, visited the now-sole-monarch William in 1696 at Kensington House and said of it:

“I went to the King’s house at Kensington with some Ladys: The House is very noble, tho not greate; the Gallerys furnished with all the best Pictures of all the Houses, of Titian, Raphael, Correggio, Holbein, Julio Romano, Bassan, V. Dyke: Tintoret, & others, with a world of Porcelain; a pretty private Library; the Garden about it very delicious.”

King William III died in 1702, leaving the throne to his sister-in-law, Anne, who became the last of the Stuarts. The famous statue of William III that faces High Street Kensington is a 20th-century addition – a gift from Kaiser Wilhelm of Germany in 1907. I hope that those who are able to visit Kensington Palace in the future will take a moment and think about this – about the time when Kensington Palace first became a royal residence.

All photos © Andrea Zuvich.
·         Ashworth, Helen. York Place Kensington. The Heritage Network, via Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Access date: 27/02/2015.
·         Beard, Geoffrey. The Works of Grinling Gibbons. John Murray Publishers Ltd, London, 1989.
·         Evelyn, John. Diary.
·         Faulkner, Patrick A. Nottingham House: John Thorpe and his Relation to Kensington Palace.  Archaeology Data Service. Access date: 27/02/2015.
·         Howard, Philip. The Royal Palaces. Hamish Hamilton, London, 1970.
·         Loftie, W.J. Kensington Palace. 1898.
·         Mary II, Queen. Letters & Memoirs, 1689.
·         Tinniswood, Adrian. His Invention So Fertile: A Life of Christopher Wren. Pimlico, London, 2002.
·         Williams, Neville. Royal Homes of Great Britain from Medieval to Modern Times. Lutterworth Press, London, 1971.
·        WORK 38/428. Sir George Coppin’s House, Kensington. National Archives, Kew, UK.

This is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published February 28, 2015.


Andrea Zuvich is an independent seventeenth-century historian and anthropologist specialising in the House of Stuart (1603-1714). Zuvich obtained degrees in History and Anthropology at the University of Central Florida and is the host of the popular ‘The Seventeenth Century Lady’ blog. Zuvich is also a historical consultant for TV, film, and radio. She most recently appeared in BBC Four’s ‘Charles I: Downfall of a King’. She was one of the original developers of and leaders on the award-winning Garden History Tours at Kensington Palace and has written six books about the Stuart period. Zuvich is also a trained actress and professional voice-over artist, narrating audiobooks and providing voice work for several mobile apps.

Connect with Andrea on social media:

Friday, June 26, 2020

Elizabeth Evans, Businesswoman and Philanthropist

By Lauren Gilbert

Elizabeth Evans was the daughter of a wealthy, self-made businessman.  She married a man who was the son of a businessman, who was successful himself in his family's business, and, after his death, married his half-brother.  During her second marriage, as a partner in the bank and businesses, Elizabeth utilized talents to make her mark as a businesswoman and as a philanthropist.  During the Georgian era, women were theoretically subsumed into their husbands.  However, there were some women who managed to make their marks in the business world.  Elizabeth Evans was one of them.

Elizabeth Strutt was born sometime around 1755-1758 at Darley, Derbyshire, England. She was the second child and first daughter born to Jedediah Strutt and his wife Elizabeth Woollatt. Jedediah was born to a farming family on July 25, 1726 in South Normanton, Derbyshire, England. He became a cotton spinner and invented the Derby Rib Machine for making stockings, and was in partnership with Richard Awkright in cotton manufacturing. In partnership with his wife’s brother, Richard Awkright and others, Jedediah built mills, becoming a wealthy and influential man. He died May 6, 1797 in Derbyshire and was buried in the Unitarian chapel in Field Row, Belper. Elizabeth’s mother Elizabeth Woollatt was born in 1729 in Belper, Derbyshire, England. She married Jedediah on September 24, 1755 in Blackwell by Ale, Derbyshire, England, and died in May 1774 in London.

Photo of porttrait of Jedediah Strutt by Joseph Wright of Derby
taken by Nero Reising-Wikimedia Commons-Creative Commons license
Jedediah became a member of the Unitarian Dissenters, and had a strong belief in philanthropy. His church founded schools and churches, and supported reform. Among other things, Jedediah built housing for workers. He built and educated his family on the Unitarian principles.

Elizabeth had three brothers and one sister: William Strutt (born July 20, 1756, died December 9, 1830), Martha Strutt (born 1760, died 1793), George Benson Strutt (born 1761, died in September, 1841) and Joseph Strutt (born 1765, died Jan 13, 1844). After their mother’s death, her father did not return to his young family for nine months, leaving Elizabeth (in her mid-teens) responsible for her brothers and sister as well as the family home, farm and dairy.

Jedediah Strutt believed in education. Elizabeth’s father may have provided her with a governess or sent her to school. He provided her with books, which he expected her study, and she also had French lessons. She also encouraged her younger brothers William and Joseph in their studies.

Jedediah Strutt subsequently married Anne Cantrell in 1781; she died in 1802 (they had no children).

William Strutt, oldest son of Jedediah Strutt,
by Ramsay Richard Reinagle, Wikimedia Commons-Public Domain

Elizabeth married William Evans on October 30, 1785 at St Peter’s Church, Derby, Derbyshire England. William was born about 1755, and was the elder son of Thomas Evans who had founded a bank in 1771, owned paper mills at Darley and other ventures. William and his half- brother Walter were partners in the bank with their father by 1780. The family built the Boars Head Cotton Mill, which was fully operational in 1782-1783 at Darley Abbey, where they had other business interests.

Darley Abbey-Boars Head Mills
taken by Dave Bevis August 21, 2015-
Wikimedia Commons-Creative Commons license
Thomas Evans and his children first lived at Darley Fields (later renamed Darley House), construction of which had begun in 1791. William and Elizabeth took up residence at some point. The Strutts and the Evans families were known to one another.  They were involved in various improvements in the community of Derby, such as streets, lighting bridges, etc. and did business together. (William and Walter’s sister Barbara married Elizabeth’s brother William, so there were other family as well as business ties.) 

William and Elizabeth had six children: Elizabeth (Bessie), born in 1786; William, born in 1788; Frances, born in 1790; George, born in 1789, died in 1804 (he drowned at the age of fifteen); Ellen, born in 1795 and Thomas, born in 1796, died April 4, 1797. Upon her marriage, Elizabeth also took on Samuel Evans, her husband’s illegitimate infant son born in 1785. Samuel was raised by Elizabeth, but not as the eldest son and heir. 

According to the DERBY MERCURY of Thursday, March 24, 1796, William died the previous Friday (March 18, 1796). Upon William’s death, Elizabeth was appointed a partner in the bank. Their infant son Thomas died not long after William. Their combined deaths were devastating to Elizabeth.

There was a connection at that time to Samuel Taylor Coleridge through their Unitarian faith and ideals. He became acquainted with the Strutt family in 1796. Elizabeth wanted to engage him as tutor to her children, and he intended to accept, but both families objected (possibly because of Coleridge’s political ties, possibly because of a concern that Elizabeth might be too fond of him), so the plan was abandoned.

Subsequently, Elizabeth married her late husband’s half-brother Walter two years later in 1798. They had one child, Arthur, born in 1800. Available data indicates Elizabeth began to become active in the bank with Walter at this time. Massive expansion of the mills occurred between 1818-1821. She also had partnership in other Evans businesses. Her brother William continued the cotton factory and paper mills at Darley. She and Walter and their family lived at Darley House.

Elizabeth continued in the Unitarian faith, and both she and Walter were deeply involved in philanthropy. Elizabeth was also interested in political reform (her correspondence indicates Elizabeth had abolitionist sympathies). The Evans family also built workers’ homes, with homes at Darley Abbey as early as 1795 and possibly earlier. School rooms were also built between 1797-1800. Walter also oversaw the building of a church.

In her mature years, Elizabeth continued in the bank partnership until she retired from that in 1808. She retired from her other business activities gradually, and was completely retired by 1810. Her father-in-law Thomas Evans died March 1, 1814 in Derby. Elizabeth died in early 1836 at approximately age 78, and was buried March 24, 1836 at Darley Abbey. According to the DERBYSHIRE COURIER of September 14, 1839, Walter died the previous Monday, (September 9, 1839) at Darley. He was buried at Darley Abbey on September 14, 1839.

Her stepson Samuel was an active partner in the bank. Her son William took less interest in the bank and other family businesses. He was knighted, served as a Member of Parliament, and settled into life as a politician and country landowner at Allestree Hall.


Dawes, Margaret and Selwyn, Nesta. Women who made money WOMEN PARTNERS IN BRITISH PRIVATE BANKS 1752-1906. 2010: Trafford Publishing, Bloomington, IN. Derwent Valley Visitor Centre. “Jedediah Strutt” (pamphlet-pdf). HERE “Belper Unitarian Chapel” (pamphlet-pdf). No author or date of publication shown. HERE “Darley House” by Steve Orme, posted February 27, 2017. HERE DERBYSHIRE MISCELLANY. Vol. 8 Autumn 1979, Part 6. “The Borough of Derby between 1780 and 1810” by John E. Heath. PP. 181-197. HERE Burke, Sir Bernard. A GENEALOGICAL AND HERALDIC HISTORY OF THE LANDED GENTRY OF GREAT BRITAIN AND IRELAND, Volume 1. 1882: London: Harrison, Pall Mall. HERE ; Lee, Sidney (ed.). DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY, Volume 19. “Strutt, Jedediah (1726-1797). Pp. 64-67. 1909: London, Smith, Elder and Co. HERE THE COLERIDGE BULLETIN The Journal of the Friends of Coleridge, NS 28 Winter 2006. “Coleridge and the Unitarian Ladies” by Felicity James. HERE “Evans, William (1788-1856), of Allestree, Derbys. by Simon Harratt. HERE “W & W Evans & Co.” (no author or post date shown). HERE

An avid reader, Lauren Gilbert was introduced to English authors early in life. Lauren has a Bachelor of Arts degree in liberal arts English with a minor in Art History. A long time member of JASNA, she has presented a number of programs. She lives in Florida with her husband. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is available. A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT is her newest release. Both can by found at Amazon and other booksellers. A long-time contributor to the English Historical Fiction Authors blog, her work is included in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also working on a nonfiction book about powerful women in Regency era Europe. For more information, visit her website HERE.

Wednesday, June 24, 2020

Maud Has No Statue

By Dr John Little

In these days of falling statues we have a timely reminder that such public edifices are erected for a purpose.

The Romans put up statues of all of their gods, and just in case they had missed one out, they also bought insurance against divine wrath by erecting one to the ‘unknown god’. There are lessons to be learned as well, from those people that society did not choose to honour in such a way. The First World War was the cause of many statues being subscribed for, and many of the great commanders now stand in bronze, in marble and acting as rests for weary pigeons. In Whitehall we see General Haig on horseback, whilst Foch sits outside Victoria Station. Joffre has his statues, and Admirals Jellico and Beatty have their busts in Trafalgar Square. To complete the set of armed forces commanders the founder of the RAF, Lord Trenchard, has his own likeness towering by the embankment. It is ironic that perhaps the most successful commander on the Western Front from 1914- 18 has no statue, her contribution being marked solely by a blue plaque on the wall of her former home. Equally ironic is that whilst some of the others are still virtually household names, hers has been almost forgotten.

Dame Emma (Maud) McCarthy already had a distinguished career behind her as matron of large military hospitals before the War Office appointed her principal matron of the British Army in 1910. Born in Australia, she commenced a nursing career in 1891 but then left the London Hospital to serve in the Boer War in South Africa. To say that her service was outstanding would be a small understatement as her actions won her the King’s medal for nursing, the Queen’s medal for nursing, and the Royal Red Cross. She was also very active in the setting up of Queen Alexandra’s Imperial Military Nursing Service. (QUAIMNS)

When she arrived in France in August 1914, there was no organization in place that could possibly cope with the rapid expansion  of the British Army from 200,000 to 2.5 millions within the space of eighteen months. The scale of the casualties and the accompanying medical requirements were gargantuan. To be sure the Royal Army Medical Corps (RAMC) had doctors and began to set up hospitals, but as with so many things it could have been chaotic. A casualty on the Western Front would receive their first medical attention at a regimental aid post run by the RAMC. There were no women there as essentially they were on the battlefield. From the aid post they were stretchered to Casualty Clearing Stations (CCS); here were doctors under the command of the army surgeon general, and nurses who now came under the command of Maud McCarthy. There were fifty six CCS’s in France staffed by QUAIMNS and Red Cross nurses. Later in the war, selected and suitably trained volunteers from the Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) were also allowed into the CCS’s.

From a CCS, casualties were taken either by hospital barge or train to a base hospital; each barge and train was staffed by nurses. The casualty would arrive at one of ninety eight general or stationary hospitals; some were Red Cross, some were QUAIMNS and some were funded privately by organizations such as City of London Guilds like the Drapers. Other hospitals were slotted into the organization as they arrived from places like Canada and Australia. All had to be kept up to numbers with staff, supplied, fed, billeted  and their comforts looked after. Procedures had to be standardized, standards had to be kept up and medical supplies had to be assured. The responsibilities attached to the task of coordinating all this were almost endless. From the Mediterranean Sea to the Western Front Maud McCarthy was directly responsible to the War Office in London and over this vast area commanded over six thousand nursing staff. She was everywhere and soon had a name for the most ferocious efficiency, though she herself was quiet and softly spoken.

One army general reportedly said of McCarthy: “She’s perfectly splendid, she’s wonderful … she’s a soldier!… If she was made Quartermaster-General, she’d work it, she’d run the whole Army, and she’d never get flustered, never make a mistake.” Her base was at Abbeville and many of the base hospitals were within easy reach, but she was no remote administrator. She toured the front and the back areas constantly and local matrons never knew when the Matron in Chief was about to descend on them. She was no shouter, but had her own quite standards upon which she insisted. She did not baulk at taking on authority either; she reported directly to the Secretary for War and regarded herself as being of equal rank to any general in her own field.

As she toured she carried on a practice which she was long used to, and kept a diary. This begins from when she was first posted to France and may be found here. It is a revealing testimonial to the ability and energy of the woman.

She did not choose to limit her visits to safe areas as this extract perfectly illustrates.

‘Left for Ypres – thawing and fearfully muddy. Arrived at about 11 o’clock and drove and walked all round the town, inspecting the ruins and all the terrible desolation. We were constantly stopped and asked whether we were in possession of steel helmets and gas helmets. We tried to visit the cemeteries and see the graves of some of the officers and men who fell at the First Battle of Ypres, but it was not considered safe to do so as the bombardment was considerable. ‘

Her inspections included hospital ships, laundries and facilities of any kind that were concerned with the care of the wounded, and she was determined to impose the highest possible standards wherever she went. This was especially so in the well being of her nurses, who were not always given the attention they deserved. One ongoing problem was the distance her staff were expected to walk from their quarters to their work.

‘The same difficulty exists as always here and that is the long distance the nursing staff have to go to their quarters. I asked the OC to see if it could not be arranged to transfer the huts on the top of the hill to the open space in the compound left vacant by No.30 CCS.’

Some of the abuses she had to deal with were more blatant and she did not hesitate to ring General Haig to complain in person. This was in January 1918 and the nurses must have been frozen during their mealtimes.

“The nursing staff are accommodated in small rooms at the ends of the big wards and their mess and ante-room was in a single-lined marquee in the grounds, badly lighted and with not even suitable or adequate heating conveniences, whereas the Medical Officers had a large hut, with kitchen, scullery, ante-room and mess, with fine big open brick grates in each room. Here we had lunch. I reported this matter to the General later as it is one of the exceptions in all the Armies where the Medical Officers have failed to consider the comfort and actual necessities of the nursing staff.”

She did not scruple about what she thought either and if necessary said it; this of one hospital,

‘The sick officers’ accommodation at this unit is not satisfactory. The division is at the top of the hotel and is not in any way up to the standard of other hospitals in France. There is a lack of interest and a want of knowledge of what is really required for officers.’

Of another, 

‘There is a great deal which requires improvement in this unit. The few wards I went into were not up to the mark. I pointed out that the Matron must do more inspections and must look into cupboards, etc. The Officers’ equipment had been certainly neglected and the femur wards were not satisfactory in any way.’

Sloppy nurses were interviewed and grilled as to their reasons for not doing their job properly. Dancing was forbidden, as were bicycles. Nurses were in France for a serious purpose and the job came first.

Maud was not above a touch of professional pride either. The Harvard Medical Unit was an American outfit which did some cutting edge and pioneering surgery, but it fell under Maud McCarthy’s aegis when she inspected it at the beginning of 1918. Her exchanges with the American nurses are quite revealing.

No.13 General Hospital (5th Harvard Unit, USA). The difference in the organisation and management was remarkable, and the American ladies kept whispering to me why was it that our units were so different to those run by American personnel. I explained that they had all to learn and get into the ways of military and active service conditions, which it had taken us many years to accomplish.’

The organization of the nursing force in France and Belgium from 1914-1918 stayed in Maud McCarthy’s hands almost the whole time save for one bout of illness when she had to take time to recover. The formidable administration she built up simply kept functioning. There can be little doubt that hundreds of thousands of wounded men, whose lives were saved because of the efficient medical care she organized and ensured, owe their survival to her. A general, as Ambrose Burnside said in the US Civil War, wins battles by getting there fustest with the mostest. That is exactly what Maud McCarthy did; as much a soldier and a warrior as Haig or any of the others, her enemies were infection, wounds, pain, suffering and disease. In a hard campaign she won many battles against them, her final struggle being against the great flu epidemic that gripped the armies in 1918 and even in this she had some success, one of hospitals even producing its own pioneering vaccine.

Maud ended the war in 1919 and went home to Chelsea; she was seen off in a ceremony where representatives of the French government and medical services did her honour. She also had a chest full of medals and had been created a Dame. It does seem strange that there are so many statues to men who organized the mass slaughter of thousands, yet a woman who organized and enabled the saving of hundreds of thousands does not have even one. Maud McCarthy never married and died in 1949 at the age of 89.

Perhaps on this one we need to examine what society’s parameters are for meriting such a thing?


Dr John Little spent almost forty years teaching in various schools in London and the South East. He was head of History at Meopham School and Rochester Independent College. He gained the first History PhD  awarded in the University of Westminster.
He has written nine books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also gives talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes. Maud McCarthy features in his book, The Light Over The Solway

Monday, June 22, 2020

The Smuggling Gangs

by Helen Hollick

Brandy Kegs - a smuggler's treasure chest!
© Nctfalls – Purchased Adobe Stock

Fiction, movies and TV tend to portray the smugglers of the past as small groups of local fisher-folk from isolated coastal villages hoping to make an extra penny or two to feed their starving children. Or you see the lone villainous ruffian out to bully some vulnerable young lad into breaking the law by smuggling in a keg or two of brandy in his poor, very ill pa’s rowing boat. Both are true to a point. But only to a point.

The Big Trade, the big money-makers were very far from this romantic idealistic view. The smuggling gangs were little more than vicious thugs, especially when smuggling became organised by efficient gang leaders – an 1700-1800 Mafia equivalent.

The ‘smuggling companies’ mostly operated in the south-east of England, from Sussex, Kent and Hampshire. (Not our fictional vision of a rugged, isolated Cornish cove as in Poldark… although the West Country did have smugglers – but that will come later in a different article!)

Gang members were not always seamen, but landsmen based along the roads leading to London and the larger, inland towns. Seamen brought the cargo in, the gangs collected and dispersed it, and if there was trouble from the Revenue Men... the gangs were well ready for them!

These gangs often comprised of forty to fifty men, but on a prosperous run with a large haul of contraband the different gangs would unite into as many as two or three hundred men. The Revenue, ill-informed, under-manned, under-armed and under-paid rarely had any hope of intervening, let alone putting a stop to such formidable opponents, especially when burly smuggler bodyguards formed two lines of protection by wielding stout ash poles. (Think Robin Hood fighting Little John and his quarterstaff on the bridge in Sherwood Forest.)

Smuggling soon started to hit the purses and coffers of the government, and the wealthy. Something had to be done. By the mid-to-late 1780s the militia and customs men were getting their act together. Better equipped with better firearms, better ships, with better firepower and more reliable ‘intelligence’ meant they stood more chance of stopping the gangs and seizing the contraband. Even so, these gangs were no pushover. They were armed, rough, tough men, and were ruthless when ensuring potential informers kept their mouths shut. Betray a gang, and it was very likely you would end up dead with no hope of your murderer even being identified, let alone caught.


The Colonel of Bridport Gang operated in Dorset, under the leadership of ‘The Colonel’. One contraband cargo was nearly intercepted by the revenue men, and had to be hastily sunk in the sea to hide it, but it floated free of its makeshift anchor and was washed ashore near Eype Mouth, not far from West Bay and Bridport, to the great delight of the locals who discovered and ‘liberated’ it!

Lyme Bay, Dorset
© Tony Smith 

Apart from this mishap, the Colonel’s gang was highly successful, and were never caught. They supplied many of the taverns in Bridport and the Lyme Bay area with contraband liquor from France.

The Groombridge Gang named for a village a few miles west of Tunbridge Wells were active from about 1730. Several of them had wonderful nicknames such as ‘Yorkshire George’, ‘The Miller’, ‘Old Joll’, ‘Towzer’, ‘Flushing Jack’ and my favourite, ‘Nasty Face’. Nicknames, were commonly used among smugglers and highwaymen not as familiar terms of friendship but because they hid a true identity.

The Groombridge Gang was first mentioned in legal documents in 1733 when thirty men were bringing a cargo of tea inland using fifty or so horses. A group of eager militiamen challenged them, but outnumbered, were disarmed and forcibly marched en-route at gunpoint until the cargo was safely delivered. An inconvenience for both sides, for the whole affair lasted four hours. The militiamen were eventually set free, unharmed, but on oath not to renew their interfering.

The oath was made, but did not last long.

The Hadleigh Gang from the Suffolk town of the same name were known for fighting against the local dragoons in 1735, with the intention of recovering a seized cargo that had been confiscated and stored in a local tavern. More than twenty men of the gang were determined to retrieve their property. In the fight which followed several dragoons were injured and one was killed, the smugglers, however, managed to reclaim their goods. Seventeen of them, alas, had been recognised and were arrested, with two of them hanged immediately after their trial.

The interesting thing about Hadleigh is that it is not a coastal town, but lies a good forty miles inland!

The North Kent Gang worked along the coast from Ramsgate to the River Medway. In 1820 their use of violence increased when the Blockade Men came across the gang. A fight followed in which one officer was seriously injured, but the gang fled with their cargo. During the spring of 1821 forty of the gang gathered at Herne Bay to land a cargo, with more than twenty more men armed with bats and pistols to protect them.

Unfortunately for the gang, the batsmen had partaken of too much pre-run ‘hospitality’ at the nearby inn. Led by Midshipman Sydenham Snow, the men of the blockade appeared - drawn by the rowdy noise that the drunken smugglers were making. Eighteen of the smugglers were arrested. Four went to the gallows, with the others transported for life to Tasmania.


The Northover Gang were from Dorset and named for their leaders. In December 1822 Preventative Men, William Forward and Timothy Tollerway were on patrol: hearing whistling they saw two boats coming into shore with four men already on the beach. Forward and Tollerway then met with three of the men who dropped the kegs they were carrying and ran off. Tollerway kept guard on the abandoned contraband, while Forward seized a dozen more kegs after firing his pistol to summon help, but the gang surrounded him and forced him towards the waterline. Tollerway ran to give assistance. The gang leader, James Northover Junior, was subsequently arrested when more Preventatives arrived, and he was sentenced to fourteen months in Dorchester gaol.

Lessons were obviously not headed. James Northover was to serve time in gaol twice more and was then impressed into the Royal Navy in 1827 for yet another offence. We do nor know what subsequently happened to him.

The Hawkhurst Gang. Hawkhurst is about ten miles inland from the Kent and East Sussex coast, and between 1735-1749 the gang became known as the most notorious and feared in all England. They brought in silk, brandy and tobacco which had been landed at Rye or Hastings, with up to five-hundred men able to help out when needed.

Tobacco. The smuggler's fancy
© Stephen Orsillo –  Purchased Adobe Stock
The gang joined with the Wingham Gang in 1746 to bring ashore twelve tons of tea (that is a lot of tea!) but the Wingham men were set upon by their so-called partners. Seven Winghams were injured and the Hawkhurst lot made off with the tea and several valuable horses. There is no account of whether the horses were ever returned, either amicably or by stealth.

Inevitably, despite the benefits of smuggling, villagers grew fed-up with the gang’s increasing tyranny and led by local militiaman, William Sturt, a retaliation was made in April 1747. Confident of their power the gang jauntily marched to the village not expecting to meet with a small army of people determined to put a stop to their bullying. One of the gang’s hierarchy, George Kingsmill, was shot dead and he is buried in Goudhurst churchyard. His brother, Thomas, was later arrested and hanged at Tyburn in London, with his body taken back to Kent to be hung in chains and left to rot on the gallows.

Does his ghost linger in the village I wonder?

  © stocksnapper
Smuggling in Fact and Fiction by Helen Hollick is due to be published by Pen & Sword Press in January 2019


Smuggling In The British Isles by Richard Platt
Smuggling: A History 1700-1970 David Phillipson
Smuggling In Fact and Fiction Helen Hollick (not yet published)

This article is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published April 20, 2018.

Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon, England. Born in London, she wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a USA Today bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown.) She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy. She has written a non-fiction about pirates and one about smugglers in fact and fiction.

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Helen is also the founder of Discovering Diamonds, a review blog for historical fiction, submissions welcome.

Friday, June 19, 2020

Anglo-Saxon Women who left their Husbands

By Annie Whitehead

When were women legally allowed to petition for divorce? Perhaps one might guess at the late nineteenth or even early twentieth century?

In fact, the laws of King Æthelberht of Kent (c. 589-616) state that ‘if [a maiden married with proper payment of bride-gift] wishes to go away with the children, she is to have half the goods.’ I must admit, though, this is a little vague and hard to interpret.

However, even up to the eleventh century, women couldn’t be forced to marry a man whom they disliked, and widows could not be forced into remarriage. Women were not necessarily trapped in wedlock.

There are certainly a number of high-profile cases where women decided that married life was not for them. True, their (eventual) destinations were abbeys. But ‘Get thee to a nunnery’? No, it was more a case of ‘I’m off’. They weren’t banished, they chose to go. And in rather spectacular style, too...
Let’s meet some of them.


Wimborne Minster (Image credit)

Cuthburh was a West Saxon princess, a sister of King Ine of Wessex. She was instrumental in founding the first West Saxon monasteries. The Anglo-Norman chronicler William of Malmesbury recorded that she ‘was given in marriage to Aldfrith, king of the Northumbrians, but the contract being soon after dissolved, she led a life dedicated to God.’ William’s notes echo the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle which tells us that Cuthburh founded a monastery at Wimborne, and that she had been married to Aldfrith but that they separated ‘during their lifetime’. Clearly then, it was acceptable for a marriage to end and although the result was the religious life for Cuthburh, we don’t know if that’s the reason why the marriage was dissolved. It was, remember, ‘soon after’ dissolved, so maybe the couple took an instant dislike to each other?

In the next case, the yearning for the religious life probably was the driving force behind the divorce, but the route to that life was rather more dramatic.

Domneva (Sometimes Domne Eafe, or Eormenburg)

The Saxon remains of Minster (in Thanet) Abbey
by kind permission of the Sisters

Domneva, daughter of a king of Kent, married Merewalh, who might have been the son, or son-in-law, of Penda of Mercia. The marriage lasted for a little over a decade before Domneva left Mercia and returned to Kent. The circumstances under which she left are recorded in a text known as the Mildrith Legend and the story concerns the murder of Domneva’s brothers by their cousin, Ecgberht, or rather by a servant of his, Thunor. Whether he ordered the killings, or was merely guilty of failing to stop his servant from committing murder, King Ecgberht was deemed liable. A wergild (man price) was owed in compensation, and Ecgberht paid this wergild to Domneva in the form of land on Thanet for her to found a monastery.

According to the Mildrith Legend, Domneva requested that she have as much land on Thanet as her tame hind could run around. As the hind ran, it was followed by the king and the court, but Thunor attempted to stop the animal and was swallowed by the earth. When the hind had finished running, Domneva was able to claim forty-eight hides of land, compensation had been duly paid, and Thunor got his comeuppance. As we’ve seen, seventh-century traditions allowed for royal couples to separate in pursuit of the religious life and Domneva would have been free to leave Merewalh even without her brothers being murdered. Were their deaths really the catalyst, and is the story true? If it is, it shows a shrewd woman who was wily enough to ensure the maximum grant of land for her religious foundation.

Perhaps the most fascinating story, though, is that of our next lady.

St Æthelthryth

Æthelthryth (Image info)

Æthelthryth was the daughter of King Anna of East Anglia and in fact she was married twice, the first time to a man named Tondberht who was a high-ranking member of an elusive tribe known as the South Gyrwe. That first marriage lasted only a few years and she was apparently still a virgin when Tondberht died. Given what we know of her later life and the fact that, according to one source, she resisted for some time before agreeing to her first marriage, it is perhaps surprising that she agreed to the second, but it’s interesting to note that this indicates a certain amount of choice in the matter of marriage. She had retired to Ely Abbey and been a widow for five years before her marriage to Ecgfrith of Northumbria.

Ecgfrith was young, perhaps around 15, when he married Æthelthryth in 660. Æthelthryth was older than Ecgfrith by some margin, perhaps as much as a decade. Bede records that Æthelthryth refused to consummate her marriage and was encouraged in this by St. Wilfrid. In around 672, Æthelthryth became a nun, and apparently received her holy veil from Wilfrid.

Bede relates a simple tale, that ‘at length and with difficulty’ Æthelthryth gained her husband’s permission to enter a monastery, staying first with the abbess at Coldingham and then becoming abbess of Ely.

But what of her initial escape from the clutches of her husband? There is another version of her story. The Liber Eliensis, (the history of Ely Abbey) relates how Ecgfrith, having initially agreed to the divorce, then tried to remove her forcibly from the convent. The abbess of Coldingham advised Æthelthryth that her only option was to escape. The king set off in pursuit, but Æthelthryth and her two lady companions climbed to the top of a steep hill where divine intervention caused the water levels to rise. The king could not get near, and eventually returned to York.

In reality, it’s likely that Ecgfrith would have been glad to be rid of an older wife who refused to give him children. Nevertheless, whichever version one chooses to believe, note that even in the more dramatic version, Ecgfrith had initially agreed to the divorce. Æthelthryth clearly had a lot of say over her marital status.

(Incidentally, it is from her that we get the word ‘tawdry’ from her modernised name, Audrey. A fair held in Ely on her feast day became popular and items which had apparently touched her shrine were of low quality, hence ‘tawdry’.)

It must be remembered that life as an abbess was no punishment. Many of the abbeys were double houses, where monks and nuns lived, and it was not an isolated life. Abbesses ruled rich estates and were highly influential politically. They just didn’t always retire quietly!


Annie Whitehead studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA.  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, is published 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)

Wednesday, June 17, 2020

Hot-beds of fake news and misogyny? The rise of the Coffee Shop in 17th century London

By Kate Braithwaite

Coffee was not new to England when Pasqua Rosee opened the first London coffee shop in 1652. Coffee houses had gradually spread from the Muslim world in medieval times, finding their first European home in Venice in 1645 and from there to Oxford. But Rosee’s business in St Michael’s Alley in Cornhill, at the heart of the City of London, although probably little more than a stall initially, advertised by a sign portraying a Turk’s head, marked the beginning of an explosion of popular coffee shops across the capital.

Initially coffee shops were hailed as a positive new force in London life. Rosee claimed his brew would cure hangovers, dropsy, gout and even scurvy. Coffee shops predominantly did not sell alcohol and had at least those grounds on which to claim to be healthier than the already well-established taverns and ale houses. A penny entry fee was charged – to keep the poorer Londoners at bay – and a list of rules was displayed in many coffee houses, calling on patrons not to shout, quarrel or gamble. Smoking, on the other hand, was almost compulsory and almost all early descriptions of London coffee shops, describe a fog of pipe smoke hanging in the air. Coffee shops were the province of men only, the sole female presence, likely a woman employed as the “dame de comptoir” with the work of grinding, brewing and serving the coffee being the responsibility of coffee boys wearing long aprons. Patrons sat at long tables to talk and debate with strangers and friends, sharing news, gossip, business deals and more.

Interior of a London Coffee-house, 17th century - Attribution
The diarist Samuel Pepys makes frequent mention of Will’s Coffee House in Covent Garden, where the celebrated poet and playwright John Dryden held court. Often named after their proprietors, coffee shops quickly gathered clique-ish clientele. While literary types chose Will’s, stockbrokers were drawn to establishments near the Royal Exchange such as Jonathon’s and Garraway’s on Exchange Alley in Cornhill. Sir Isaac Newton preferred the Grecian Coffee House in Devereaux Court by the Strand, with its reputation of drawing an intellectual crowd. During the Restoration years after 1660, a time of fomenting political thought and debate, coffee shops were the perfect place for thinking men to collect their letters, read newspapers and pamphlets and share opinions and news. But they were far from popular with everyone.

In 1675, worried that coffee shops were hotbeds of plot and sedition against his rule, Charles II issued A Proclamation for the Suppression of Coffee Houses which, although it had little legal impact or effect, clearly demonstrates the concerns felt in government about the impact of Coffee Shops on London society. They were centres, the authorities believed, for the deliberate spreading of false news and anti-government sentiment. But they were also places where government spies could be placed and whispers of conspiracies and plots could be heard and acted upon. Despite Charles’ frustration, coffee shops continued to thrive but they had already attracted criticism from another part of the population – women.

The Women’s Petition against Coffee, featured here in more detail, claimed coffee made men not only anti-social and unsupportive of their families, but also impotent: “as unfruitful as the sandy deserts, from where that unhappy berry is said to be brought.” The response was swift and The Men’s Answer to the Women’s Petition was direct to a fault. After claiming that coffee rather aided men’s ability to perform under the bedcovers, its author went so far as to claim that coffee increased the chance of fertility, adding “a spiritual escency to the Sperme, and renders it more firm and suitable to the Gusto of the Womb.”

Such criticisms had no effect on the growth of the coffee shop however. In 1681 when the Thames froze from December to February and a Frost Fair was established on the ice, a central feature was Duke’s Coffee Shop a temporary building erected mid-stream. By the turn of the century it is estimated that there were at least 1000 coffee shops in London, vital to the economic and cultural life of the city.

In The London Spy, published in 1703, Ned Ward gives the following colourful picture of typical establishment:
“Come, says my Friend, let us step into this Coffee-House here, as you are a Stranger in the Town, it will afford you some Diversion. Accordingly in we went, where a parcel of Muddling Muck-Worms were as busie as so many Rats in an old Cheese-Loft; some Going, some Coming, some Scribbling, some Talking, some Drinking, some Smoaking, others Jangling; and the whole Room stinking of Tobacco, like a Dutch-Scoot, or a Boatswains-Cabbin.”
Suggestions for further reading:

Life in a 17th Century Coffee Shop by David Brandon

1700, Scenes from London Life by Maureen Waller

Ned Ward, The London Spy, published 1703 text available online at

[This is an archive Editor's Choice post originally published on EHFA 13 June 2018]


Kate Braithwaite was born and grew up in Edinburgh, Scotland. She is the author of two historical novels set in the 17th century.  The Road to Newgate, a story of lies, love and bigotry in the time of the Popish Plot, will be published by Crooked Cat Books on July 16th. Kate and her family live in West Chester, Pennsylvania.

Monday, June 15, 2020

Those Seventeenth Century Goldsmiths

by Liz Kales

Hôtel de Charost, home of the ambassador of Great Britain
Gold pieces from diner room

In 1613, English Renaissance playwright, Thomas Middleton wrote a comedy entitled “A Chaste Maid in Cheapside.” One of the plots of this somewhat convoluted play centers on a wealthy goldsmith by the name of Yellowhammer who uses his daughter, supposedly a maiden, to climb the social ladder.

He betroths her to Sir Walter, a philandering knight eager for the girl’s dowry. In return, Sir Walter promises Moll’s brother, Tim a “landed niece” from Wales as a wife. She is in reality one of Sir Walter’s mistresses, who has in fact no land at all. In the end, the goldsmith’s plans go awry and Moll ends up marrying the poor gallant she truly loves.

The play was published in 1630 by the bookseller, Francis Constable and is considered to be among the best and most characteristic of Jacobean comedies. It would seem that the goldsmiths of the day were not above enjoying a laugh at their own expense.

Actually, a story about goldsmiths and their upward mobility in society is not as farfetched as one might suppose. Quite a number of wealthy goldsmiths in 17th century England were able to attain knighthood; mostly by dint of their ability to amass considerable wealth.

One example is Sir Richard Hoare, who was knighted by Queen Anne in 1702, appointed Sheriff of London in 1710, and elected Lord Mayor of London for the year of 1712. He was awarded these privileges because of his immense wealth, having been a goldsmith and establishing a private bank in 1672. As we shall later discover, history often credits the goldsmiths of the 17th century with the invention of modern banking.

Courtesy of Wikimedia user Aramgutang.
Gold was the first metal widely known to our species. In fact, it is mentioned in the second chapter of Genesis before even the first couple’s fall from grace. In Genesis 2:10-12 it states: “Now there was a river issuing out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it began to be parted and it became, as it were, four heads. The first one’s name is Pishon; it is the one encircling the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good.”

Gold is one of the earliest commodities equated with value. Early in man’s history, its brilliance, natural beauty, and luster along with its malleability gave it intrinsic appeal and power. Although the earliest history of human interaction with gold is lost to us, still its association with the gods, with immortality, and with wealth itself are common to many cultures throughout the world. As time progressed, gold and silver in standardized coins came to replace bartering arrangements and made trade in the Classic period much easier.

Of course, as is so often the case, where there is wealth there can be the propensity for crime. Coining became one of the major crimes associated with goldsmiths. Coining occurs when the perpetrator shaves or files off some of the metal to ‘diminish’ the coins value in any way. Such treatment of the coin of the realm was considered an act of treason against the king and was punishable by death. In the files of the Old Bailey, one finds many accounts of goldsmiths who became parties to such offenses and paid dearly for their actions.

To become a goldsmith was not easy. Apprentices were required to be skilled in forming metal through filing, soldering, sawing, forging, casting, and polishing metal. And since many goldsmiths were also jewellers, it took a great deal of skill and experience to become a master in the field. The exquisite pieces of art crafted by the most gifted goldsmiths were highly sought after by the beau monde of the period.

However, perhaps the most fascinating aspect of 17th century goldsmiths is how they branched out to become bankers. It is the main reason that a few of them actually accumulated far more wealth than some of the richer members of the nobility.

In the early part of the seventeenth century, the wealthy people commonly kept their gold in vaults at the Tower of London. But when Civil War broke out in 1642, King Charles the First needed some ready cash. He somehow figured those reserves in the Royal Mint belonged to him, and he took it all for his war effort.

Naturally, people with lots of gold began looking for other places to keep their wealth secure. The goldsmiths had strong vaults and were quite happy to take the job upon themselves. They issued certificates for the amounts their clients had lodged with them and would return the gold on demand.

As it turned out, the amounts the owners wanted to take out were usually only a fraction of what was stored for them. So eventually, the goldsmiths believed it would be harmless to loan out the gold on hand at a good rate of interest. In time, instead of actual gold, they circulated paper certificates redeemable in coin. People considered these certificates as good as gold.

However, towards the end of the century, the issuance of all these certificates was getting somewhat unwieldy and the Government determined that a newly established bank called the Bank of England would take over the process. As the massive doors to the Bank of England opened in 1694, the opportunity of greatly increasing their wealth by this form of fractional reserve banking closed to hundreds of London’s wealthier goldsmiths. Once again, they were forced to rely on skill and creativity as their only key to upward mobility in the social classes.      

This is an Editor’s Choice from the #EHFA archives, originally published November 30, 2013.


Elizabeth Kales is the author of The Silk Weaver’s Daughter, a family saga focussing on the story of a young Huguenot girl who flees France with her family in 1685, leaving behind her cousin, the love of her life. Once settled in London and faced with an unwanted pregnancy, her father forces her to marry a wealthy English goldsmith, twenty years her senior. “The Silk Weaver’s Daughter” is a novel of faith, love, and unwavering loyalty.

The sequel, Night of the Gypsies, takes the family on a further adventure through the wilds of Bavaria at the turn of the 18th century.

Friday, June 12, 2020

Æthelflæd: Lady, or Queen?

By Annie Whitehead

On 12 June, 918, Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, died at Tamworth. Her body was taken for burial at Gloucester, to be laid alongside her husband who had died seven years earlier.

Her profile has been raised in recent years with, among other things, her fictional portrayal in the Bernard Cornwell novels/television series and, in 2018, conferences, festivals and re-enactment events to celebrate the 1100th anniversary of her death. A new statue was erected at Tamworth.

The New Statue - Image by Annatoone via Wiki Commons - Link here

We know the basic facts of her life which are that she was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, and was married to the lord of Mercia around the time that the Mercians aided Alfred when he freed occupied London from the Danish invaders. This would suggest that Æthelflæd’s marriage took place in around 886, when she was probably sixteen or seventeen. Since he is named as fighting alongside Alfred, and was clearly a warrior deemed capable of leading Mercia during such turbulent times, it is likely that her husband was a good deal older than her.

His name was Æthelred and in all the extant charters his title is given as lord of the Mercians, not king. The last two kings of Mercia, Burgred and Ceolwulf II, came from rival branches of the royal family. Burgred, who was married to Alfred’s sister, fled overseas when the ‘Vikings’ invaded Repton in Mercia. Ceolwulf II, whom the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle dismissed as a ‘foolish king’s thegn’ was, in fact, considered a legitimate king who minted coins jointly with Alfred and issued charters in his own name. His date and place of death are not known for certain, nor is it clear where Æthelred came from and nothing is known of his lineage.

Æthelred was clearly considered a worthy husband for the daughter of the king of Wessex and he proved himself an invaluable ally, fighting alongside not only Alfred but also Alfred’s son, Edward.

In 902 though, his name disappeared from the records. His death was recorded as having occurred in 911, and most historians agree that he was incapacitated in some way for nearly a decade.

Very few even near-contemporary chroniclers mention Æthelflæd by name, most often referring to her - if at all - as Edward’s sister. We do, however, have a portion of an annal incorporated into the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and referred to as the Mercian Register. It isn’t very long, but it chronicles the years 902-918 and it focuses on the programme of burh-building, where fortified towns were built in the campaign to push the invaders back and as part of the strategy of retaking areas overrun by the ‘Vikings’. This building campaign was not random, either, but saw Æthelflæd and her brother working strategically to aid one another and provide mutual support and back up.

The Mercian Register. British Library - Link here

The Mercian Register mentions three specific incidents which are not related to the burh-building, however, although not until near the end of her life. The first is that Æthelflæd sent an army into Wales to avenge the death of an abbot, the second is the taking by her forces of Derby, in which she lost four men who were ‘dear to her’ and the third is that when she died, her daughter was considered the rightful heir to Mercia but was ‘deprived of all authority’ by Edward of Wessex.

So it seems that Æthelflæd did far more than oversee building projects and she was accepted as a leader of an erstwhile kingdom as was, briefly, her daughter [1]  but even so, while it begins in the critical year of 902, the Mercian Register gives no hint that Æthelflæd was in charge of Mercia during her husband’s illness, most of the activity seemingly occurring after his death.

Fortunately, we have another source which, although not considered hugely reliable, does fill in some gaps for us. It is an Irish annal, known as the Three Fragments, and it explains how, when the ‘Vikings’ overran Chester, a message was sent to Æthelred, whom it refers to as the king, and who was in disease and at the point of death. He, apparently, gave instruction to his wife who then successfully restored Chester, driving out the enemy.

Image from the Abingdon Cartulary

It may not be true, but it does seem to corroborate the idea that Æthelred was ill, but still able to command. And it does put some flesh on the bones of the stark statement in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle that in 907 ‘Chester was restored.’ And, a point to consider is that at other times the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is happy to name Æthelred when he was involved in various campaigns and battles, but it doesn’t give a name here. Perhaps we can safely assume then, that Æthelflæd was indeed acting in her husband’s stead.

After her husband’s death, Edward took Oxford and London under the direct control of Wessex but left the rest of Mercia under his sister’s command. I’ve discussed elsewhere [2] his possible motives for this and for his annexation of Mercia following his sister’s death but, whilst there are political implications, it’s hard not to conclude that he saw personal strengths in his sister.

14th century depiction of Edward

Leaving aside the later Anglo-Norman chroniclers’ depictions of her as a warrior queen who could be compared to Caesar, what we have are very ‘bare bones’ accounts of her life and deeds but it’s more than enough. We know that she cared deeply about Mercia, ruled in her husband’s stead while he was ill, and worked in tandem with her brother after Æthelred’s death, building fortresses and pushing back the invaders.

What we cannot settle is the debate over her title. She was Lady, not Queen. And yet that word implies so much more than nobility, especially if her daughter was then deprived of ‘all authority’. Indeed, Æthelflæd's own mother, wife of Alfred the Great, was remembered as 'Lady of all the English', so the title carried some implication of nobility of the highest order. Many might argue that Æthelflæd's status, and that of her husband, was downplayed by the main, Wessex-based, chroniclers but it seems unlikely to me that Æthelred was considered a king, even by the Mercians and he was never styled so in the charters he issued. It has been suggested that he was in fact the son of King Burgred, who married Alfred’s sister, but if so why was he not called king, as his father had been? Barbara Yorke [3] has suggested that he was descended from the ealdorman Æthelmund of the Hwicce (a sub-kingdom of Mercia) who was named in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle as being killed in 802 fighting at Kempsford.

So whether by bias or reality, Æthelflæd was a Lady. But she certainly acted like a queen and if we once again turn to sources not English, then we see how other nations viewed her. The Three Fragments referred to her as queen of the Saxons and the Annales Cambriae, the Welsh annals, erroneously give the date of her death as 917 but the entry is succinct: 'Queen Aethelflaed died.'

Today, in Tamworth and elsewhere, she will be remembered, not for her title, but for her deeds.

Tamworth Statue erected in 1913. Author's photo


[1] England would have to wait for more than another 600 years before a woman succeeded a woman to the throne.

[2] In my nonfiction books, Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom and Women of Power in Anglo-Saxon England

[3] Æthelflæd 1100 Conference Tamworth, June 2018


Annie Whitehead studied History under the eminent Medievalist Ann Williams. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and an editor for EHFA.  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, is published 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)