Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The London Monster

By Donna Scott

Almost everyone has heard of Jack the Ripper, the villain who wandered the streets of London in 1888, killing prostitutes in the dead of night. Few people are aware, however, that he had a predecessor, a sexual miscreant who terrorized those same streets exactly one hundred years earlier. Although he did not have a predilection for prostitutes, his weapon of choice was the same. That man was known as The London Monster.

His reign of terror lasted from March 1788 to June 1790. Within that timeframe, he attacked approximately 56 women. This number remains in question, however, because many believe some of his attacks were not reported and others were fabricated. But more on that later.

The Monster going to take his Afternoons Luncheon
(etching by James Gillray 1790)
The victim is wearing a copper cuirass over her bottom
to protect her from his attack

In 1790, London was a highly sexualized city. There were over 10,000 prostitutes, women of all ages from various backgrounds, many of whom were wives trying to earn an extra shilling or two to help with household expenses. Brothels and molly houses existed in every part of town from Pall Mall to Charing Cross and Drury Lane and, of course, in Covent Garden.  Erotic novels, vulgar songs, and pornographic prints abounded. Members of all classes frequented live shows with both male and female nude dancers. Naturally, the sexual malignance of the city brought with it crime and corruption. In essence, London was rife with whores, vagabonds, and thieves and, therefore, was the perfect place for the monster to thrive.

The Monster Cutting a Lady (print by
Isaac Cruikshanks 1790) He is seen
herewith a blade in his hands and blades
attached to his knees, attacking a lady

Over time, the monster’s modus operandi evolved. As the story goes, he approached only beautiful women with a comment, many times of a sexual nature, which was met with reproach and disgust. His actual words were said to be so indecent that the women who reported his attacks wouldn’t repeat them. In the testimony of two sisters—Anne and Sarah Porter—they accused him of using “very gross,” “dreadful,” and “abusive” language so, out of decency, much of what he said was never disclosed in the court transcripts.  He would insult, abuse, and cut his victims with a knife, sometimes slicing through their gowns and into their flesh.  Some claimed he had a sharp object connected to his hand or knee and would use it strategically in the assault.  Most of the time, the point of impact was in the hip, thigh, or buttocks, some suspecting those areas were targeted with sexual intent. It wasn’t until April of 1790, that one of his victims was sliced through her nose when he asked her to smell a nosegay with a sharp object hidden inside. All of these varied attacks stirred up an hysteria that led women to wear copper cuirasses underneath their skirts that covered their backsides, should the monster attack.

The London Monster stabbing Miss Anne Porter
(aged 21), her sister Sarah (aged 19), beside her.
(Drawing from the Newgate Calendar, 1790)

Men everywhere started to worry over their wives, sisters, and daughters, demanding that the villain be caught. As a result, John Angerstein, a wealthy insurance broker and art collector, offered a reward of 100 pounds—50 pounds for the capture and arrest of the monster and the remaining 50 pounds once he was convicted.  This brought about a slew of vigilante monster-hunters roaming the streets at night, accusing and restraining innocent men throughout London.  Angerstein pasted posters all over the city with various descriptions of the monster, all obtained from the victims and witnesses, and none of which quite matched. He eventually acknowledged the frenzy he created over finding the monster, ironically stating that “it was not safe for a gentleman to walk the streets, unless under the protection of a lady”.

Because of this hysteria, historians believe many of the attacks may have been fabricated.  As the monster was known to attack only beautiful women, several women were suspected of slashing their own gowns and mildly injuring themselves to gain social celebrity. Essentially, it became a statement of one’s great beauty and, thus, an “honour” to have been selected by the man. These victims often reclined in their parlours, inviting curious visitors to take a peek at the gash or scratch where blade met flesh. During the height of the hysteria, the reports were numerous.

On June 13th 1790, a twenty-three-year-old unemployed, artificial flower maker named Rhynwick Williams was arrested as the London Monster. A day later, he was examined by the justices at the Bow Street public offices. The Porter sisters were the first to give evidence against him, identifying him as the same man who used coarse language to offer indecent proposals that eventually resulted in an assault. He was tried at the Old Bailey, and although he had at least seventeen character witnesses testifying on his behalf and several victims agreeing that he was not the man who attacked them, he was pronounced guilty by a unanimous jury and sent to Newgate.  

Rhynwick Williams, 1790

If not for the support of the Irish poet and conversationalist Theophilus Swift, who came forward to argue his innocence, Williams may have rot in prison.  His efforts resulted in Williams being granted a second trial six months later. Swift maintained that because Williams was poor and of Welsh descent, he was easy to use as a scapegoat to stop the hysteria.  Additionally, Swift maintained that Williams’s young and inexperienced solicitor did a horrible job defending him, his incompetence actually making the case for the prosecution. He also discredited the victims—attacking their character—and believed the Porter sisters and the fishmonger, John Coleman, conspired to declare Williams as the monster in order to claim the 100-pound award.  He argued the contradictions in their testimonies also highlighted their unreliability. But all of Swift’s efforts were to no avail. Rhynwick Williams was once again found guilty and imprisoned in Newgate for 6 years. Upon his release, he was fined 200 pounds plus two sureties of 100 pounds each.

In time, the people of London quickly forgot about the monster and his depraved crimes. Many believed Williams to be innocent, yet his fate was already sealed. What is unanimously agreed upon is that the London Monster was a man with perverse sexual desires and a vulgar tongue who—although he never seriously injured anyone, and no one died from his attacks—posed a grave threat to the stability of the city and general welfare of its people.


The London Monster:  A Sanguinary Tale by Jan Bondeson.  De Capo Press, 2001.


Donna Scott is an award-winning author of 17th and 18th century historical fiction.  Before embarking on a writing career, she spent her time in the world of academia.  She earned her BA in English from the University of Miami and her MS and EdD (ABD) from Florida International University.  She has two sons and lives in sunny South Florida with her husband.  Her first novel, Shame the Devil, received the first place Chaucer Award for historical fiction and a Best Book designation from Chanticleer International Book Reviews.  Her newest novel, The London Monster, will be released in January 2021.

Facebook: Donna Scott
Instagram: DonnaScotttWriter
Twitter: D_ScottWriter

Sunday, November 22, 2020

Elizabeth I: The Final Days of the Great Queen

by Nancy Bilyeau

On Wednesday, March 18, 1603, as the defeated Hugh O’Neill, rebel leader, made his preparations to surrender in Ireland, Queen Elizabeth, victorious monarch, resided with her court at the Palace of Richmond. The royal household of some 1,700 people had moved there on January 21st in “very foul and wet weather.” For her entire reign, Elizabeth favored Richmond, a handsome castle that loomed over the Thames like a dense forest of turrets, because she relished the privacy its park afforded for the vigorous walks she always craved. It felt warmer within, compared to her other river castles, and this was an unusually cold, damp winter. “The sharpest season that I have lightly known,” wrote John Chamberlain, a London gentleman.

'The Rainbow Portrait' of
Elizabeth I in 1600
It was not a realistic depiction.

Some say that in the past the Queen ordered the court there with frequency so that, out of sight of gossips, she could pay visits to a neighbor of Richmond: John Dee, the scholar and necromancer who spoke to angels through special mirrors and divined the future through communing with the dead. He had advised Elizabeth since the beginning, selecting a coronation date that was most propitious. Dee was still alive in 1603 but had finally fallen out of favor with Elizabeth. The times had waxed for hardheaded Puritans and waned for wizards casting spells.

But now a certain tension, a dread made up of fear for the future and a morbid excitement, filled every corner of Richmond. There was no celebration over the defeat of O'Neill, the Earl of Tyrone, after years of war. The sixty-nine-year-old Queen was ill—just how ill was the question. After surviving a serious bout with smallpox when she was twenty-nine, Elizabeth enjoyed good health. Some attributed it to her “abstinence from wine and temperate diet,” so unlike her father in that respect. Arthritis plagued Elizabeth as well as recurring toothaches and a leg ulcer, and she’d always been bedeviled by headaches, but overall Elizabeth’s vigor impressed all who observed her, whether it was a Londoner peering from a distance or a foreign ambassador conversing with her in Latin, French, or Italian.

Passionate for dancing, she executed the most complicated steps well into her sixties. The preceding April, she entertained the Duke of Nevers with a “costly banquet, and opened a ball with him, dancing a galliard.” Afterward, the duke kissed her hand—and her foot. She detested all mention of her age and told the French ambassador, “I think not to die so soon, and am not so old as they think.” Dressed in all her finery and jewels, wearing a wig a shade of red not found in nature, she still dazzled, though up close one could see her teeth were rotted, the unhappy consequence of her weakness for sweets.

When a noticeable change came over the Queen the winter of 1602-1603, it was first perceived in her mood, rather than her body. She was alternately listless and short tempered. John Harrington, her godson, tried to cheer her up by telling the sort of joke she’d always liked in the past, but she waved him off, saying, “When thou dost feel time creeping at Thy gate, these fooleries will please thee less.”

Robert Carey, a cousin of Elizabeth’s who did not often reside at court but was close to her nonetheless—she’d once paid a large debt of his, and later took offense at his choice of wife, both distinct signs of partiality—saw a startling change in the queen when he came to Richmond. “I found her in one of her withdrawing chambers, sitting low upon her cushions,” he wrote in his memoirs. “She called me to her, I kissed her hand, and told her it was my chiefest happiness to see her in safety and in health, which I wished might long continue. She took me by the hand, and wrung it hard, and said, ‘No, Robin, I am not well,’ and then discoursed with me of her indisposition, and that her heart had been sad and heavy for ten or twelve days, and in her discourse she fetched not so few as forty or fifty great sighs.”

An 18th century drawing of the Palace of Richmond
An 18th century drawing of the Palace of Richmond

It was obvious to everyone that the Queen was seriously depressed. The French ambassador wrote that she did not sleep more than a few hours a night. Some said that she seemed preoccupied with the downfall of Robert Devereaux, the Earl of Essex. He was a handsome, posturing, adventurous, and fatally ambitious aristocrat, thirty-two years her junior, whom she’d flirted with and indulged. Essex was executed in 1601 because, after botching his command of the Queen’s army in Ireland, he returned to England without permission and, feeling misunderstood and then threatened, led a London rebellion against the Queen that soon fizzled.

Throughout the crisis, the Queen remained remarkable cool. The crisis passed, Essex lay headless in the Tower of London’s straw, and she rallied herself, nine months later, to deliver her Golden Speech to Parliament.

But the Essex episode took a toll. Many were startled to see her keep a sword nearby in 1602. Harrington wrote that she “constantly paced the privy chamber, stamping her feet at bad news and thrusting her sword at times into the arras [tapestry] in great rage.” A contemporary wrote that “she was the torment of the ladies who waited upon her.”

Other people besides Essex preoccupied her. Hugh O’Neill, Earl of Tyrone, her Irish “arch traitor,” bedeviled the Queen. During John Harrington’s visit in February of 1603, “she had the Archbishop ask me if I had seen Tyrone. I replied, with great reverence, that I had seen him with the lord deputy [Essex]. She looked up with much choler and grief in her countenance and said, ‘Oh, now it mindeth me, that you are one who saw this man elsewhere.’ And she dropped a tear, and smote her bosom.”

Who did she weep for? For Ireland, which had suffered so grievously? Or was it for herself, over a memory lapse at her godson having seen Tyrone in the flesh already? Harrington had no idea.

When the illness came, it seemed only a chill, then developed into a cold. She had “swellings of the throat.” The illness slowly took grip. As the Queen struggled, in mind and body, she received sad news. Katherine Carey, the older sister of Robert Carey and the Queen’s close companion, her lady of the bedchamber for more than forty years, died on February 20th.

Portrait thought to be of Katherine Carey

Elizabeth had suffered other losses of those close to her. The most grievous were William Cecil, her chief councilor and right hand for many years, and Robert Dudley, the Earl of Leicester, the only man some say she’d ever loved. When told in 1588 of Dudley’s death, she locked herself away for days.

The Careys were special. Elizabeth rarely spoke of her mother, Anne Boleyn, and never her execution when Elizabeth was not even three years old. Some of her deeply private feelings about her mother can be guessed at by the loyalty and affection, the trust she felt for her cousins on the Boleyn side, in particular the children and grandchildren of Mary Carey, the sister of Anne Boleyn. Though there are few mentions of Elizabeth’s activities in childhood, it’s possible the Careys gave her unconditional support while she lived under a cloud due to her mother’s ignominy.

A glimpse into the heart of a young Queen Elizabeth comes through a story revolving around Katherine Carey. Her councilors, her court, the foreign ambassadors, everyone talked about the Queen’s seeming infatuation with Robert Dudley, whom she’d known since childhood and now appointed her Master of Horse. Whenever the two spoke to each other, others watched, and gossiped. One day, Dudley, a superb athlete, horseman, and hunter, planned to shoot at St. James Park, and Elizabeth disguised herself as Katherine Carey’s maid so that she could watch Dudley, unobserved.

Elizabeth I at the time of her coronation

Decades later, it was Katherine Carey’s death that sent the Queen spiraling into depression, what the French ambassador described as a “deep melancholy” of “many tears.” Earlier in February, it was discovered that Elizabeth’s coronation ring “had so growne into her flesh, that it could not be drawne off.” The ring, which she wore on her wedding ring finger, was sawn off. This, wrote Camden, “was a sad presage, as if it portended that the marriage with her Kingdome, contracted by the ring, would be dissolved.”

Elizabeth’s cold worsened. In early March the Queen suffered a fever, her throat and stomach burned, and she felt “continual thirst.” She sat on cushions on the floor, saying little and refusing food. “The Queen grew worse and worse, because she would be so,” wrote Robert Carey.

Another court observer wrote that the Queen “sleepeth not so much by day as she used, neither rest by night. Her delight is to sit in the dark damp; sometimes with shedding of tears.” Elizabeth would not go to bed or eat, she would not change her clothes. The latter was particularly uncharacteristic for the fastidious Elizabeth. The Earl of Northumberland wrote, “For twenty days she slept very little. Since she is growing very weak, yet sometimes gives us hope of recovery, a few hours after threatens us with despair of her well doing. Physick she will not take any.”

Another contemporary wrote the Queen had seen herself as a ghostly form in “a light of fire” and was terrified of another nightmare. There were other whispers that the Queen believed if she went to sleep, she would not wake up. “She feareth death.” The crisis made the palace tremble as one. Robert Cecil, the Queen’s principal secretary and the son of her greatly mourned William Cecil, knelt before her and begged the Queen to do as her physicians asked.

She refused.

On March 18, the French ambassador wrote, “The queen is already quite exhausted, and sometimes for two or three hours together, does not speak a word. For the last two days, she has her finger almost always in her mouth, and sits upon cushions, without rising or lying down, her eyes open and fixed on the ground. Her long wakefulness and want of food have exhausted her already weak and emaciated frame, and have produced heat at the stomach, and also the drying up of all the juices, for the last ten or twelve days.”

There was only one man still alive who might be able to persuade the Queen to take to her bed. Cecil sent for him, in desperation, and when the word rushed through the palace that Charles Howard, the Earl of Nottingham, had arrived, there was a sigh of relief.

Charles Howard was the Queen’s cousin, too, but not of Boleyn blood. Anne Boleyn’s mother was a Howard, and that grand, proud, brave and foolish family played an important part in many Tudor dramas. Some Tudors found the Howards fatally attractive. Henry VIII took as his fifth wife Catherine Howard, still a teenager, and was so besotted with her, an ambassador wrote he could not keep his hands off her. But for Catherine, as with so many Howards, it did not end well. Margaret Douglas, the king’s niece, had secret affairs of some sort with not one but two young Howard men, behavior that landed her in the Tower of London. The Earl of Surrey was executed by Henry VIII in his final year. The 4th Duke of Norfolk was beheaded for treason by Elizabeth in 1572. The fanatically Catholic Philip Howard, Earl of Arundel and the Duke of Norfolk’s son, was imprisoned for ten years in the Tower for conspiring against the Queen, before he died, wasted away, in 1595.

Charles Howard,
Earl of Nottingham

Yet the Howard family was as divided in religion as many other English families. Charles Howard, like his father, was a staunch Protestant, both men completely loyal to Elizabeth for her entire life. The Earl of Nottingham enjoyed a rare quality in the factional, backstabbing court: he inspired universal admiration. He was not only the Queen’s first cousin but also the Lord High Admiral who had commanded the English navy when the Spanish Armada sailed to invade and conquer in 1588.

Cecil had hesitated to summon him before this time because Katherine Carey was Howard’s wife; her death sent him into solitary retreat for a fortnight. Theirs was a strong, fruitful marriage of many years standing. But he roused himself that March day—his Queen, his cousin and friend, needed him again.

Elizabeth’s nearing the age of seventy aroused admiration in her century and our own. It is sometimes assumed that this was freakishly old because of the shorter life span in the early modern age. But it was high infant mortality that cut a swathe in lifespan; some people, particularly those with regular access to fresh food and air, did reach old age.

Still, the Tudors were not known for their longevity. Elizabeth’s great-grandfather, Edmund Tudor, died of disease at twenty-six. Her grandfather, Henry VII, died at fifty-two. No monarch in her family made it to sixty beside herself. But the Howards had a tough streak. The third Duke of Norfolk was thrown into the Tower in his seventies, freed by Queen Mary, and survived long enough to lead soldiers in her defense before dying at eighty. Elizabeth was part Howard.

The man who passed through the curved archway of the red-brick gatehouse of the Palace of Richmond that day had his complexities. The Earl of Nottingham was a vain man. A portrait of him when young shows reddish hair, neat features, and a beard trimmed with exquisite care, a feathered cap sitting just so atop his well-shaped head. He had his portraits commissioned with frequency. At the age of eighty-three, in a grand finale, he was painted by the Dutch master Daniel Mytens the Elder, wearing a gold embroidered skull cap and elaborate Garter robes of white and red velvet, carefully parted to showcase his legs in white hose, his shapely octogenarian calves.

It was another Howard-commissioned artwork that drew Elizabeth’s acquisitive instinct the preceding year. She made a small summer progress in the vicinity of London, a round of visits of her favorites. One of those houses, naturally, was the London residence of Charles Howard and his wife, Katherine. On display was Howard’s commissioned set of sumptuous tapestries depicting the victory over the Armada. Each of the ten tapestries was fourteen feet tall, woven with gold and silver thread.

At many of her visits to houses of the nobility, in London or in the country, Elizabeth dropped heavy hints when she saw something she liked. Pressured, the heartsick owners delivered “gifts” to the Queen’s palace. Agnes Strickland, her Victorian biographer, wrote, “It is expressly noticed that, on her visit to the Earl of Nottingham, she was disappointed, because she was not presented with the costly suit of tapestry hangings, which represented all the battles of her valiant host with the Spanish Armada.”

The amount that Howard paid for the tapestries is some eighty-seven times what the average Londoner earned in a year. Throughout history, the haves and the have-nots regard each other across a divide, but it was a savagely deep chasm in the twilight of Elizabeth’s reign. It has been estimated that two-fifths of the population in the late 16th century lived below subsistence level. The number of people in England had doubled in a century, far too many for its resources. When a bad harvest struck, as happened repeatedly between 1590 and 1603, it was a disaster. People went hungry, and there were reports of starvation deaths. Disease, the partner of starvation, struck, particularly influenza. Bubonic plague also stalked the population, causing such terror in London that the Globe Theatre was closed in 1603.

More than anything else, the financial demands of war drained the English economy. It is difficult for some to comprehend the fatigue and depression suffered by Elizabeth I because her reign is often accepted as one of peace and prosperity. But England was enmeshed in near-constant war from 1585 onward. By 1602, there was 300 percent inflation. When she died, Elizabeth left the country in debt by £420,000.

The Queen was no war monger. But the Pope’s excommunication of Elizabeth I in 1570 and her execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 put her on a collision course with Catholic Europe and specifically Spain. Those who served in Elizabeth’s navy in the Spanish wars suffered a shocking fate. To save money, Elizabeth refused to pay most of them after the Armada triumph. Charles Howard, their commander, paid some of them from his own accounts, but it was not enough. Some died in the ports after returning.

As for the Irish wars, very few Englishmen wanted to serve. The jails were emptied to fill their ranks, and periodically men were rounded up and forced at gunpoint to leave for Ireland. Thirty thousand English soldiers died in the Nine Years War in Ireland, although more from disease than in combat. Dysentery was the most common killer.

"Arch Traitor" Hugh O'Neill,
the Earl of Tyrone

It is unknown if most English families had heard of the recent deaths of so many Irish families in the famine orchestrated by Lord Mountjoy to crush support for Tyrone. The English may have been informed by Protestant colonists who returned to England, those who survived, for some were murdered by Irish rebels. The best-known colonist is Edmund Spenser, the poet author of The Faerie Queen. In 1598, his home was burned down by forces led by Hugh O’Neill and he ended up in London, where no one took up his cause. While celebrated for his poetry, he had “always wrestled with poverty,” Camden wrote. In January 1599, Spenser was dead. 

While ambassadors and courtiers—and biographers ever since—have struggled to identify the specific reason, in her last weeks, for Elizabeth’s enervating despair, the question was dwarfed by a more pressing one in 1603: Who would succeed her? There was no officially named heir to the throne of the childless queen. Today, knowing that it was the Scottish King James VI who came next, it is difficult to appreciate the anxiety that obsessed people in the late 16th century, building to a crescendo of panic in 1603.

James VI had Tudor blood; he was descended from Henry VII, the founder of the Tudor dynasty. Many, though not all, thought that he would come next. Certainly James wanted to be king of England, and he fumed in Edinburgh over Elizabeth’s refusal to formally name him as heir.

Not only did she decline to designate any heir her entire life, Elizabeth never wrote a will at all, unlike her grandfather, father, half-brother, and half-sister. Due to an avoidance of the specter of death that reached the pathological, she would not take legal steps to provide for a peaceful succession for England, even knowing that in the 15th century England was torn apart in bloody disputes over the throne.

Elizabeth identified herself with her father, Henry VIII. She gloried in the fact she resembled him more than her half-sister Mary with her height, her bright red hair, her ability to give a brilliant speech extemporaneously, and her capacity for charm. It may give one pause, since her father had her mother executed, but she always spoke of him with respect. “I may not be a lion, but I am a lion’s cub and I have a lion’s heart.”

Yet she defied her father’s will, both in law and in spirit, over the all-important matter of the succession. Henry VIII had not wanted the descendants of Scotland’s James IV to succeed. There were centuries of strife between the two kingdoms. He very deliberately placed the children of his other sister, Mary Brandon, next in line after Elizabeth. That group included the doomed Lady Jane Grey, but there were others. Elizabeth, however, hated her Brandon cousins, in particularly Jane’s sister, Catherine. They never had her support. Indeed, Catherine spent some of her adult life in the Tower of London.

Henry VII, the family patriarch, had not wanted the Stuarts to follow the Tudors either. Although it was his idea, Henry VII had some last-minute doubts about the wisdom of marrying his oldest daughter, Margaret, to James IV. It seemed a remote possibility, yet he worried that all his other descendants would die without children, and Margaret’s potential Stuart offspring could prevail. However, he decided to go forward with arranging the marriage, reasoning that “should anything of that kind happen, and God avert the omen, I foresee that our realm would suffer no harm, since England would not be absorbed by Scotland, but rather Scotland by England.”

James VI of Scotland

Margaret Tudor married James Stuart in 1503. Exactly one century later, their great-grandson James VI was poised to take the English throne. What deepens the irony is that the severed, rotting head of James IV, killed in the Battle of Flodden after he declared war on the English, was most probably lying within the vicinity of the Palace of Richmond as Elizabeth sickened, to the despair of the court.

At Flodden, the Scottish were defeated by armies led by Thomas Howard, Earl of Surrey and later Duke of Norfolk. James’s corpse was embalmed and sent on to London. The monastery in Sheen was chosen to house the coffin until it was decided what to do with the vanquished king. Richmond Palace was called “Sheen” before being renamed after the earldom once held by Henry VII, and the monks kept the name. Monasteries often served as burial places for inconvenient royal corpses, as the world realized with the discovery at the Franciscan friary in Leicester of Richard III.

But Henry VIII never got around to arranging the burial of his brother-in-law, James IV. At some point the Sheen monastery adjoining Richmond was dissolved as part of Henry’s attack of the monasteries. Some say that James IV’s coffin was shoved into a woodshed. According to antiquarian John Stow, in the reign of Elizabeth, “workmen there for their foolish pleasure hewed off his head.” No one is sure what happened to James IV’s remains after that.

It is doubtful that Charles Howard knew that James IV’s head had become something of a football on the palace grounds as he arrived at Richmond. The three families of Tudor, Howard, and Stuart were intertwining yet again.

Howard had ridden through a London filled with fear, for by the middle of March, the news of the Queen’s worsening health had leaked. For some Londoners, this was a period of unearthly quiet. She had been their queen for forty-four years. Most people in England did not remember a time when she was not their ruler. Her illness “wrought great sorrow and dread in all good subjects’ hearts.” An English Jesuit imprisoned in the Tower, Father William Weston, wrote that “a strange silence descended on the whole city, as if it were under interdict and divine worship suspended. Not a bell rang out. Not a bugle sounded—though ordinarily they were often heard.”

In reality, a great deal of frantic activity had commenced. The navy was alerted, the ports were closed. The watches over “discontented persons” were stepped up, unlawful assemblies outlawed, potentially dangerous “Papists” were thrown into jail. The Venetian ambassador reported that five hundred vagrants were seized in taverns and confined. The Queen’s jewels were locked in the Tower, not too close, one assumes, to the cells of the potentially dangerous Papists and other troublemakers.

Howard did not write memoirs or describe in letters his encounter with Elizabeth. But according to contemporary accounts, he found her in a bad state. She told him, “My Lord, I am tied with a chain of iron around my neck. I am tied, I am tied, and the case is altered with me.”

It’s not known how many hours it took, but Charles Howard, through friendship, through appeal to reason, through the bonds of family, finally broke through. “What by fair means, what by force,” wrote Robert Carey, but the old earl was able to get the old queen to take to her bed.

The kitchens prepared broth for the Queen; the Archbishop of Canterbury was sent for; Elizabeth’s musicians played softly to try to soothe her.

The Queen did not speak to anyone. Reports circulated that she indicated through “signs” that she would like to see her privy council. When they appeared, “by putting her hand to her head, when the king of Scots was named to succeed her, they all knew he was the man she desired should reign after her.” This dubious story of designation of James was not challenged by anyone at court. Cecil had already begun a secret correspondence with Edinburgh.

Elizabeth turned her face to the wall. At about two in the morning on March 24th, she died.

One courtier wrote, “She made no will, nor gave anything away, so that they who came after her shall find a well-furnished house, a rich wardrobe of more than two thousand gowns, with all things answerable.”

The Tudor age was over.

* all images courtesy of Wikipedia.


Nancy Bilyeau, a magazine editor, is the author of five historical novels. Her debut, The Crown, is being discounted by Simon & Schuster to $1.99 on Amazon and Barnes & Noble for the month of November. Her website is www.nancybilyeau.com.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

Masters of Stone: the Medieval Stonemasons

 By E.M. Powell

In our twenty-first century urbanised world, buildings of enormous height and size are all around us and are so familiar a sight that we rarely pay them much attention. We are accustomed to living, working and shopping in them. When a new one is built, we see huge cranes and other heavy machinery employed, with elevators and lifts taking contractors up to where they need to be. 

Canterbury Cathedral
© E.M. Powell

Anybody time-travelling from the medieval world to now would be understandably astonished by what we can achieve. Yet the reverse is also true. We cannot of course travel back to medieval times. But we can stand next to a vast cathedral such as Canterbury and wonder how on earth it could be constructed by people who had only the most basic of tools.  

There has been a cathedral in Canterbury for more than 1,400 years. Saint Augustine consecrated the first cathedral there not long after his arrival in the year 597. There is no trace of the original building, as a fire in 1067 destroyed it and it had to be completely rebuilt. Archbishop Lanfranc oversaw much of the construction, but it was his successor, Archbishop – and later Saint – Anselm, who built the ‘glorious quire’ –of which more later––and the enormous crypt. 

The credit might be Anselm’s but his hands were not the ones that wielded axes, hammers and chisels, and mixed mortar that is still holding up the walls after almost a thousand years. Those people, with their remarkable skill and ingenuity, were the medieval stonemasons. 

Building- Canterbury or Anglo-Catalan Psalter 12th Century
Public Domain- British Library

The stonemasons’ guild, the Worshipful Company of Masons, is one of the ancient Livery Companies of the City of London. It was formed for the purpose of regulating the craft of stonemasonry and ensuring that standards could be properly maintained and rewarded. The earliest available records of regulation from the Court of Aldermen are from 1356.

The preceding two centuries had already seen massive growth in stone construction–royal, ecclesiastical and municipal–and alongside that came major developments in the skill of stone masonry. Stonemasons were by no means a homogenous group. Their skills ranged from the most basic to outstanding artistry, though categories of worker were fluid. Rates of pay varied from job to job too.

Before stone could be used as building material, it first had to be dug from the earth and that was the task of the quarrymen. The records use the term ‘quarrymen’ to refer to those who owned the quarries as well as those who worked in them. While the quarry owners were frequently men of means and high social standing, those who actually worked within the quarries were not. The work was back breaking, digging and breaking stone in poor conditions that led to health problems like silicosis, a lung disease induced by inhaling flinty or siliceous particles. The quarriers also partially or completely worked the stone before it was transported to its destination, as this saved on cost. In addition to providing the supply of stone, the quarries often served as schools where stoneworkers could learn the basics of the craft, before moving on to more skilled employment and better rates of pay. 

Canterbury Cathedral interior stonework
© E.M. Powell

Roughmasons and layers prepared wall stone with scappling hammers and might also hew stone with an axe into the approximate shape required. Fine carving was done with a mallet and chisel and this was the work of the freestone mason. The freestone mason did not simply step in and apply the last artistic flourishes. He would also have had to be an expert stone hewer and layer to ensure that intricate work fitted perfectly and robustly together. Building work was not solely the preserve of men either. The records show women working as masons’ servants and plasterers. 

Overseeing any project was the master mason, frequently assisted by an undermaster or a second master mason. Master masons were not just the most skilled stone workers: they were architects, designers and visionaries as well as capable administrators. They had shared responsibility with the abbey or nobleman who had embarked on the construction project for the financial accounts. These covered every aspect of expenditure: wages, materials and transport. The master masons were involved in the hiring and dismissing of their workers. 

Mason and carpenter, Bruges, 15th Century
Public Domain- British Library

In general, masons were a highly mobile group. They travelled to where the biggest and best-paying jobs were, including from country to country. Quarrymen tended to live locally to their work. 

In order for the best work to be produced, the most suitable materials had to be sourced. Huge quantities of wood went into building a structure like Canterbury Cathedral. But wood is much easier to source and transport than stone. And it could not be just any stone: it had to be soft and easy to carve. Canterbury’s cream limestone came from Caen in Normandy as it could be delivered by ship, rather than trying to move stone along medieval roads. 

Canterbury Cathedral Choir
© E.M. Powell

Such transport was not without risk. An account exists from the days of William I of a flotilla of fifteen ships that were sailing from Caen with cargoes of stone. Fourteen carried stone for the king’s new palace at Westminster and one was full of stone for Saint Augustine’s abbey in Canterbury. The ships foundered in a terrible storm and fourteen were lost. The one with the Canterbury stone was about to suffer the same fate. The master and crew prayed to Saint Augustine himself, bailed furiously and made it as far as the Sussex port of Bramber, where the ship split open and all the stone ended up on the sands. The master got hold of another ship, reloaded his cargo and delivered the stone to the abbey. A delighted abbot paid the master ‘a bonus of some shillings’. A relieved master offered half the money to God and Saint Augustine in thanks for his miraculous escape. 

Speaking of saints and miracles, Canterbury Cathedral’s most famous archbishop is another saint: Thomas Becket, who was murdered there on 29 December 1170. He was slain by four knights acting on one of King Henry II’s legendary outburst of temper. The knights’ original intention may have been to arrest Becket, who had been engaged in a monumental power struggle with the King for several years. But the situation quickly deteriorated, and Becket was hacked to death on one of the altars. The Martyrdom is still maintained in the cathedral and one can stand at the very spot. 

Sculpture of the sword's point at the Martyrdom
- site of Becket's murder in the cathedral.
© E.M. Powell

The miracles quickly began. Word quickly spread and the devotion to Becket the Martyr began, with his tomb becoming a major site for pilgrimage. 

It was a huge stroke of good fortune that the monks had chosen to place Becket’s body in a stone tomb in the crypt while they set about constructing a shrine. For on 5 September 1174, fire broke out in three cottages near the cathedral. Unknown to everybody before it was too late, the blaze spread to the roof of the cathedral. A monk, Gervase of Canterbury, wrote a vivid account of the fire, with its black smoke and scorching flames. Consumed by flames, the roof collapsed into the choir and its wooden seats. The flames rose up ‘a full fifteen cubits, scorching and burning the walls’ and causing terrible damage to the stone pillars. Anselm’s choir was destroyed. Gervase describes the reaction of those who witnessed it. He talks of people overcome with ‘grief and perplexity’ blaspheming at such an event and unable to comprehend that it had happened. 

Notre Dame Fire
Baidax, CC BY-SA 4.0 

A modern reader might dismiss this as an overreaction. But on April 15 2019, fire broke out in the roof of Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris and millions worldwide witnessed a medial cathedral burn in real time.  People’s reactions on social media and on news reports were almost identical to those reported by Gervase eight centuries ago.  

Back in twelfth century Canterbury, the monks were faced with the daunting task of reconstructing their fire-ravaged choir. They commissioned master mason William of Sens, known for his brilliance and technical expertise. Unfortunately for him and for future generations, William fell from faulty scaffolding in the choir in 1178. He was badly injured and never recovered. He was replaced and the work was finished by another mason, William the Englishman. 

Stone conservation work, Canterbury Cathedral
© E.M. Powell

The stonemasons of Canterbury Cathedral continue their work to this day, with a team of over two dozen. Their job is to conserve and to preserve the building. And they work with tools on blocks of stone brought in from a quarry near Caen- just as the masons of a millennium ago did. 

Anselm's Crypt in Canterbury Cathedral, original site of Becket's tomb.
The figure is Transport by sculptor Antony Gormley.
The work is made from nails from the repaired roof of the cathedral.
© E.M. Powell

Foyle, Jonathan, Architecture of Canterbury Cathedral (London: Scala Publishers Ltd., 2013).
Gimpel, Jean, The Cathedral Builders (New York: Harper Colophon Press, 1983).
Guy, John Thomas Becket (London: Viking, 2012).
Keates, Jonathan and Hornak, Angelo, Canterbury Cathedral (London: Scala Publications Ltd., 1980).
Knoop, Douglas and Jones, G.P., The Mediaeval Mason: An Economic History of English Stone Building in the Later Middle Ages and Early Modern Times (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1933).
Urry, William, The Normans in Canterbury: Occasional Papers No.2 (Canterbury Archaeological Society, 1959)
Urry, William, Canterbury Under the Angevin Kings (University of London, The Athlone Press, 1967).
Woodman, Francis, The Architectural History of Canterbury Cathedral (London, Boston and Henley: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981).


© E.M. Powell

E.M. Powell’s historical thriller and medieval mystery Fifth Knight and Stanton & Barling novels have been #1 Amazon and Bild bestsellers. The third Stanton & Barling mystery, THE CANTERBURY MURDERS, was released in November 2020. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She’s represented by Josh Getzler at HG Literary. Find out more by visiting her website www.empowell.com or follow her on Twitter @empowellauthor

Saturday, November 7, 2020

Where’s the Hill? The Mystery of Abingdon

By Richard Denning

What's in a name?

Well, let's find out.

Abingdon is a small town in rural Oxfordshire that is tucked into the confluence of the River Thames and the River Ock. It is a pretty town of medieval Abbey ruins, half timbered houses and a stone bridge and has a strong claim to be oldest continually inhabited settlement in England with archaeological evidence of an ongoing population here from the Iron Age onwards. Unlike other places which have periods of abandonment, here one period of history seems to blend into the next – Iron Age to Roman, Roman to Saxon (early medieval), Saxon to Norman and on into high medieval period.

Yet in the name of the place there is a bit of a mystery. The name is of Old English in origin and seems to mean ‘Hill of a man named Æbba'

This then generates two questions. Who was Aebba and where is the hill?

You see, Abingdon stands in a valley. It is right next to the River Thames and certainly not on a hill.

So how did the town come by its name? To try and answer this we have to delve into legends, myths and what exist of records relating to the founding of an Abbey in this town as well as to the earliest years of Anglo-Saxon Britain.

Amongst the early manuscripts and charters recorded by the monks of Abingdon several survive in the volumes of the Cotton Manuscripts now in the British Library. Cotton was a 16th to 17th century collector whose Library preserved many of the early documents that are critical evidence in piecing together these earlier years. Many of the Cotton Manuscripts were named after Emperors. One of the manuscripts named after Claudius -Claudius C tells us about the founding of an Abbey at Abingdon in the 7th century.

The Abbey was founded by a certain Hean under the supervision of a sub king of Wessex called Cissa who was uncle to Hean. The Abbey was founded circa 680 A.D. The Abbey was later sacked by the Vikings but then in 954 King Eadred appointed Æthelwold, as abbot. He was a very significant figures in the English Benedictine Reform, and so under his leadership Abingdon became one of the most important Abbeys in England. Here it was that the Chronicle of the Monastery of Abingdon was written in the 12th century. Most of what we know including the Cotton manuscripts comes originally from that chronicle.

The chronicles record the history of the Abbey very well from the 10th century, but the original founding of the abbey and how the town got its name requires us to dig a bit deeper. 

The Treachery of the Long knives

There is a tale recorded in 9th century Historia Brittonum attributed to the Welsh historian Nennius and later elaborated upon by Geoffrey of Monnouth in his 12th century Historia regum Britanniae (The History of the Kings of Britain). The historical reliability of these accounts is debatable – particularly in the case of Monmouth’s work which is basically historical fiction. Never -the-less given the paucity of documentation these are all we have to go on for some of the events. The sections relevant to Abingdon relate to the so called ‘Treachery of the long Knives’ or the ‘Night of the Long Knives’ which was an occasion when Hengist and the first Saxon lords to come to Britain were invited to dine with Vortigern, High King of Britain. The Saxons were invited in peace but each took a knife hidden upon them. When the British were drunk, Hengist called on his men to pull out their blades and the result was the massacre of the nobles and leaders of the British. Vortigern was spared both as he was married to Hengist’s daughter and probably in order to be ransomed.

The traditions of the founding of the Abbey of Abingdon, mostly recorded in the medieval period contain a story that a young man survived the massacre and fled north from the scene of the atrocity (Stonehenge) and up the Thames valley. There he retreated to a hill which became a holy site and according to the legend the beginnings of a monastery. The man’s name was Aebba and so it was that the hill upon which he created the hermitage became the ‘Hill of a man named Æbba”

Another account in another manuscript about the founding of Abingdon Abbey talks about a monastery being founded by an Irish monk called Aben who came to the area “before the Saxons came to Britain”.

Whether our man is a British nobleman or an Irish Monk we have a man called Aebba or Aben coming to the area and setting up a retreat or monastery around the time the first Saxons are coming to Britain – so some time in the 5th century.

What about the Hill?

So if we have the origins of the Aebba or Aben in Abingdon, what then of the hill? Where did that come from? Abingdon lies on a flat valley bottom along the Thames with no obvious hill close at hand. 

In the Cotton Manuscripts (Claudius C) there is talk of land being granted to the monastery officially in the form of a deed. The deed contains the bounds of the land in the form often used in these documents – it literally describes a particular stream, a hollow, a road and a place where two parish boundaries meet at a hill. That hill is called Abbendun. Historians have examined this description and located the spot described. The map below is a suggested location in Biddle, M, Lambrick, G, and Myres, J N L, 1968 The Early History of Abingdon, Berkshire, and its Abbey, Medieval Archaeology XII, 26-6.

It is now believed that a hill once called Abbendum can be identified as Boars Hill some miles north and west of Abingdon. I visited the hill recently. Apparently in the last century or so the formerly bare hill side which afforded great sweeping views across the countryside has become a popular location for building on and along with the buildings have come trees. Thus it is difficult to both see the hill and get an idea what it would have one looked like.

We did locate a mound built on Boars Hill to allow views across the area but alas the view is blocked by trees! It is still pleasant area for a walk on a summer’s day however.

So what happened?

If a man called Aebba came to a hill now called Boar’s Hill in what is now Oxfordshire and made a monastery there and left his name as the name of the hill – Abbendun, how did that become the name of a town a few miles away? This raises another question. What in fact was the settlement called originally?

There is a manuscript (MSS 933) at Trinity College Cambridge which contains entries about the year 688 which refer to the foundation of the Abbey at Abingdon.

This talks about Hean under Cissa’s command bringing the abbey of Abbendun down from a hill to a village called Souekesham.

Can we be sure that Abingdon was once called Souekesham? Souekesham would mean the dwelling of a person called Soueke. There is another other place name in the area with a similar origin – the modern day Seacourt (Old English Seuecurda) – so maybe evidence of a couple of locations named after the same figure. Maybe Soueke was a 5th century Saxon who settled in the area. We know from the archaeology of the Saxton Road side at Abingdon that this place was settled by Saxons as early as the mid 5th century. The Thames river provided an easy route for Saxons to migrate into the heart of Britain and many Thames valley locations show early evidence of this settlement.

The evidence of St Helens

Cotton Claudius C and Cotton Vitellius A tell of the founding of not just a single monastery but a joint monastery and nunnery. Hean was to found the monastery and his sister - a certain Cilla - a nunnery. The name for the site of the nunnery was Helenstowe. Cilla is recorded as having made a small black cross of iron made (from one of the nails from the true cross) and was to be buried with it. Aethelwold’s monks digging in the area of what today is called St Helen’s church in Abingdon were supposed to have found the cross so it seems that Cilla built here nunnery on the spot of what today is the church of St Helen’s and Hean his monastery or Abbey were the medieval Abbey would later stand.

Putting it all together

So the story might go like this – a man called Aebba fleeing from the masacare of the long knives, or alternatively an Irish monk called Aben come to a remote hill in Oxfordshire in the 5th century and found a retreat or monastery. In time it is named after him. Thus Abbendum is named.

Two centuries later a brother and sister are given instructions to found a joint monastery and a nunnery in the area. There is already perhaps a religious community at Abbendum of sufficient significance for Hean to want to use the name. Yet the location is not ideal. A small river side village nearby called Souekesham is far better suited. There is a river for a mill and fish aplenty. There is space for both his sister’s nunnery and his monastery there.

So the existing name was taken and in time Souekesham as a name passed into legend and was forgotten – preserved only in an ancient manuscript in the early records of the Abbey.

Souekesham took the name Abbendum which in that form or as Abingdon is now the name it has been known as for over 13 centuries.

I find these origin stories of places fascinating. Often we walk about seeing names of places and are unaware what the story is behind them. What’s in a name? Often quite a lot.


Richard Denning is a historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord. The 5th book in the series, Kith in Kin is now available.

Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.

Richard's Website                                                 

Tuesday, November 3, 2020

No Reasonable Expectation of Privacy

 by Michael Paul Hurd

A kraamkamer (birth-room). Watercolour. [Wikimedia Commons]
CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

In the United States, the United Kingdom, and other developed countries, childbirth has only recently become a family event. Parents, grandparents, and even future siblings are all involved in the process. Of course, not all of them are in the birthing room without permission from the mother – but less than a century ago, childbirth was a very public event for royal families, especially when the baby would be in the line of succession.

Before the 20th Century, infant and maternal mortality rates were quite high, with little improvement having been realized over the previous several hundred years. It wasn’t until the early 1900s when the medical community began treating childbirth as a medical event rather than “women’s business” that the statistics switched in the other direction and improved survival rates for both mothers and their babies. It was during this time that the childbirth process moved from the mother’s home to a hospital setting, making technology of the day readily available to the attending physician – who was quickly replacing the midwife in most non-rural settings.

Let’s move the clock back several hundred years, to the time of Henry VIII. For commoners, childbirth was a private and dangerous affair. Pregnancy tests and prenatal care were non-existent. Maternal and infant mortality was high, with one in three women dying in childbirth and babies dying before their first birthday a frequent occurrence.

Royals, and especially the wives of reigning monarchs, had a totally different experience with pregnancy and childbirth, most notably in situations where the birth could potentially produce an heir to the throne. Royal or noble women had “pampered pregnancies” and as their postulated delivery date approached, began a period of “lying in.” Sadly, women in the lower social classes did not have this luxury as they needed to work right up until their labor pains started and delivery was imminent.

During the Tudor “lying in” period for royals and nobility, no men were allowed in the Lady’s (or Queen’s) chamber and the expectant mother was only attended by other women. The birthing room was decorated to resemble a womb (darkened and relatively quiet), and a midwife generally cared for the mother unless extreme difficulties arose that required a physician -- whose own knowledge and understanding of gynecological issues likely was limited and nowhere near that of the midwife’s.

Regardless of who assisted with or attended to a royal birth, public speculation likely abounded during Henry VIII’s reign about the royal marriages’ abilities to produce a viable male heir. Henry’s first three wives (Catherine of Aragon, Anne Boleyn, and Jane Seymour) bore only three children who survived to adulthood out of at least twelve pregnancies between them. Repeated miscarriages and stillbirths may have been the foundation for a requirement that English royal births be observed by outside parties to ensure that there was no “baby swap” of a viable male infant for a stillbirth or female child shortly after birth. Unfortunately, there is no written record of this requirement, and was over 100 years and three Civil Wars later before there was any record of a potential heir-producing royal birth being observed in England and elsewhere by outside parties.

It should also be noted that it was also customary for the consummation of royal marriages to be ceremonialized. Most European cultures had a “bedding ceremony” where royal and noble newlyweds were escorted to the marital bedchamber for their first… encounter… as man and wife. It was unlikely that the actual act was observed; rather, that the newlyweds were encouraged to do the deed once the bedcurtains were drawn closed and the well-wishers dispersed. In Germanic traditions, the couple was even expected to return to the wedding celebration after consummation. 

By Simon Pietersz Verelst -
Public Domain - Wikimedia Commons

Mary of Modena, second wife and Queen Consort to King James II/VII, reportedly was on public display in 1688 for the birth of the child that would later become known as “The Old Pretender,” claiming the throne as James III/VIII in the controversial Jacobite line of succession. Of the Queen Consort’s ten previous pregnancies, only one of the children lived past their first birthday. That one child, a girl named Isabel, died before her fifth birthday. James II/VII and his first wife, Anne Hyde (a commoner) already had a record of infant or childhood mortality. She was known to have been pregnant eight times; only Mary and Anne lived to adulthood, both with Anglican upbringing as demanded by their uncle, King Charles II, before his death and James II/VII’s accession.

The June 1688 birth was fraught with scandal in its own right. James II/VII had converted to Catholicism after Anne Hyde’s death, and as long as he produced no Catholic heir, Protestants tolerated his government as a temporary inconvenience. It was the popularly-held Protestant opinion of the day that the baby who would have become James III/VIII was smuggled into the birth chamber as a surreptitious substitute for a stillborn baby – which had some specious merit based on the devoutly Catholic Queen Consort’s gynecological history. However, the birth process was widely attended by over 70 witnesses, and the room was full almost to the point of overcrowding. Among them were the Lord Chancellor, the entire Privy Council, James’s mother, court ladies, and royal physicians. There really was no way that a “baby swap” could have taken place without being observed. The entire situation was extremely embarrassing to the Queen, as all of the Privy Council was reportedly at the foot of the birthing bed in observation.

The birth of a son to two Catholic parents should have excluded the Anglican Princess Mary from the line of succession. However, Mary and her husband, William of Orange, were offered co-regency following James II/VII’s deposition in the Glorious Revolution – and restored Anglicanism as the prevailing religion of England. 

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert and the Royal Family,
By Lytton StracheyArtist F. Winterhalter -
Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

Queen Victoria and her consort, Prince Albert, were lucky in comparison to many of her predecessors. She was pregnant nine times, carrying each of them to term. Victoria made no secret of her enjoyment of the act of getting pregnant, but she seemed to detest everything associated with pregnancy, childbirth, and breastfeeding. By her eighth pregnancy, chloroform had come into vogue for pain relief during childbirth, even with religious opinions to the contrary. Regardless, all nine of Victoria’s births were attended by her husband, Prince Albert, physicians James Simpson and Charles Locock, and nurse Mary Lilly. Outside the birthing room, with the door left open for a good view, were senior British statesmen of the day, including the Home Secretary.

Prince Charles was the last British heir-apparent in direct line of succession, born on 14 November 1948, who was not born in a hospital. The Prince’s birth was a relatively private event: it was the first line-of-succession birth not attended by the Home Secretary since the inception of the Cabinet post in 1782. Even the Duke of Edinburgh was in another part of the palace, reportedly playing squash with his private secretary. By the time Prince Edward was born in 1964, Prince Philip was present in the delivery room – at Her Majesty’s request. She had reportedly become fascinated by the very modern idea of involving fathers in childbirth.

It was actually a carry-over courtier from King George VI’s reign, Tommy Lascelles, who pushed for an end to the archaic practice of outsiders observing line-of-succession births. However, Queen Elizabeth II felt it was important that the Home Secretary be “in attendance” when Charles was born. The issue came to a close when Lascelles offered a counterpoint to the Queen, claiming that the British Dominions (Canada being one) had as much interest in the forthcoming heir as did subjects in the British Isles. Lascelles reportedly argued that if the ritual of observed birth was enforced, there would be no less than seven government ministers sitting in the passage outside the Queen’s bedroom. Buckingham Palace announced an end to the archaic custom that very day; when Charles was born, only the Queen’s medical staff attended.


Michael Paul Hurd
 was born in Michigan in 1959. During his formative years, Michael Hurd lived in Michigan, Virginia, and New Hampshire. Hurd is a veteran of the United States Air Force, serving from 1978 until 1992, and while on active duty, he earned a Bachelor's Degree from the University of Maryland/European Division during an assignment to England. Once honorably discharged, he was employed for another 26 years as a civilian employee of the United States Government and retired in 2018. It is during this time that Hurd developed a love for the written word and work on Lineage started in late 2018 and was completed in February of 2019, with a Second Edition being released in May, 2019. As of October, 2020, three more books have been released in the Lineage series and a fifth book is a work in progress, with publication likely before January 2021.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

The Great Plague of 1665 Through the Eyes of Samuel Pepys

By Maren Halvorsen

The Great Plague of 1665, which struck London during the spring and summer before fading away as winter set in, is perhaps more meaningful to us now than it has been for many years. As we move through our own time of worldwide pandemic, we look back at earlier disease outbreaks, most famously the Black Death of 1348. The Black Death drastically reduced the population of Europe, with lasting political, social and economic consequences. But there was also the Great Plague, which victimized London just as it was recovering from the period of the Civil War and Interregnum.  It is estimated that one-quarter to a third of the population of London perished. We ask ourselves: how did people feel then about the threat of the illness, since they did not know what caused it and had no cure? How did they cope, emotionally, with its impact? What role did government play in the control of the epidemic, if any? These are all questions that concern us with our own crisis, but they weren’t, necessarily, the questions that interested these earlier victims.  

Samuel Pepys

The diaries of Samuel Pepys offer an important, if slightly smudged, window on the Great Plague of 1665. They serve as perhaps the most detailed source we have about the epidemic. Pepys was an English government official, a city man who not only had a prosperous career in the Admiralty but a busy social life as well. His diaries, which cover the years 1660-1669, show a man who loved nothing better than an evening out with friends, fine food, theater and music. He was acquisitive, curious, and industrious, and had a keen sense of humor that tended toward slapstick. He loved to play practical jokes on his stuffy colleague William Penn (father of the William Penn). Married happily to his French wife Elizabeth, he nonetheless engaged in frequent dalliances and affairs, usually with women of lower status who did not have much of a choice in the matter. Once a year, he celebrated the anniversary of his successful surgery for kidney stones, a brush with death that heightened his enthusiasm for life. There is a liveliness to his writing that can make him seem very modern; he doesn’t hesitate to describe his fears and flaws, from petty to profound. Because he wrote using encryption, we can wonder who was his intended audience: his code wasn’t broken until a century later, leaving his diaries open, finally, to the public gaze. The authoritative edition of the Diaries is that of Robert Latham and William Matthews, first published in 1972, but there were several earlier versions of varying quality.

The peculiar power of the diaries comes out with Pepys’ encounter with the Great Plague. He is not writing this as a historian, gifted with 20/20 hindsight; he is in the middle of what is happening. He does not know how things will turn out and so his reactions to the events of 1665 are immediate and authentic. From the earliest rumor of disease to the daily encounters with corpses lying in the streets of London, Pepys weaves his descriptions into the more mundane events of his daily life. Inevitably, we want more; we, at this great distance, know how important the 1665 Plague is, and it can be frustrating to read Pepys’ all-too-brief references to the disease before he moves on to his dinner plans and his arguments with his wife. But this is all part of his authenticity: Pepys was simply living his life, and to him the Plague was one of many things happening to him during the summer of 1665. We can watch as his uneasiness grows, from the first warnings of disease to its spread across the city:

Great fears of the Sickenesse here in the City, it being said that two or three houses are already shut up.  God preserve us all.  (Diary, April 30, 1665)

This is Pepys’ first mention of the outbreak. It highlights two key ways of coping with the illness: the city government’s decision to close up infected houses, and the reliance, ultimately, on God’s will. People did understand that proximity to someone with the disease made it likely that they could be infected, though they had no idea about the means of transmission. Infected individuals, and their entire households, were quarantined in their homes for at least forty days, based on the number of days Jesus spent in the wilderness. Given that the source of contamination was the flea population, to sequester people in their homes pretty much guaranteed that they would all get sick and most of them would die.

Bill of Mortality

Pepys’ own reaction was complicated. On the one hand, he had trust in, and obeyed, the government’s policies (including a curfew; a rule requiring the six-day airing out of hackney coaches after use by someone who came down with plague; and fires set towards the end of the epidemic, presumably to clean the air); on the other hand, he also invoked, frequently, God’s will, and thus went fatalistically about his daily business and activities as usual. Pepys was always very social, and continued to host dinner-parties, meet up with friends, and attend to his official duties undeterred by illness. He notes the closure of the theatres (a favorite if self-described frivolous activity of his) and the occasional closure of various public houses, but seems to have been one of the few with the confidence to move about in the city:

The streets mighty empty all the way now, even in London, which is a sad sight.  … poor Will that used to sell us ale at the Halldoor—his wife and three children dead, all I think in a day.  (Diary, August 8, 1665)

Human nature being what it is, Pepys also took note of those who resisted laws put in place to prevent the spread of illness: 

Church being done, my Lord Brouncker, Sir J. Mennes, and I up to the Vestry at the desire of the Justices of the Peace … in order to the doing something for the keeping of the plague from growing; but Lord, to consider the madness of people of the town, who will (because they are forbid) come in Crowds along with the dead Corps to see them buried.  (Diary, September 3, 1665)

Besides the government’s policies, citizens took it upon themselves to find other ways to ward off the illness. This was difficult, since the cause was not known, but everyone had their theory. As much as he relied on God’s will, Pepys did make use of possible preventatives:

This day…I did in Drury-lane see two or three houses marked with a red cross upon the doors, and “Lord have mercy upon us” writ there—which was a sad sight to me, being the first of that kind that to my remembrance I ever saw. It put me into an ill conception of myself and my smell, so that I was forced to buy some roll-tobacco to smell to and chaw—which took away the apprehension.  (Diary, June 7, 1665)  

The idea that somehow the disease moved through the air, a kind of miasma of poison, seemed like common sense to a lot of people at the time. Covering one’s face with a cloth, or holding sweet scents up to one’s nose, were seen as possible prophylactics, going back to the time of the Black Death. Tobacco was held to have medicinal qualities, and rumor had it that no tobacconist died during the Great Plague. This is the only preventative that Pepys mentions in his Diary. Because the disease was linked, somehow, to the body, even after death, social custom fell away in the face of fear:

I went away and walked to Greenwich, in my way seeing a coffin with a dead body therein, dead of the plague, lying in an open close belonging to Coome farme, which was carried out last night and the parish hath not appointed anybody to bury it—but only set a watch there day and night that nobody should go thither or come thence, which is a most cruel thing—this disease making us more cruel to one another then we are [to] dogs.  (Diary, August 22, 1665)

The social costs of the plague are laid out in this passage. It was not unusual for Pepys to run across dead bodies as he made his way across London that summer of 1665. But in this passage he considers the loneliness of that coffin, bereft of mourners, seen as a mysterious but potent agent of infection. The normal, traditional customs of grief were interrupted, out of fear and ignorance. It reminds us of our own pandemic experience, the sick kept separate from their families, with only Facetime to provide some sort of contact as they fight the novel corona-virus. The traditional gathering at the death-bed forbidden, funerals and memorials postponed.

Pepys’ diary is a curious mix of this melancholy alongside pure delight in living. In one passage, he dolefully describes the emptiness of the streets:

But Lord, how everybody’s looks and discourse in the street is of death and nothing else, and few people going up and down, that the town is like a place distressed—and forsaken.  (Diary, August 30, 1665)

Yet within a couple of paragraphs, we have this description of Pepys’ sartorial splendor (a subject he never seemed to tire of):

Up, and put on my colored silk suit, very fine, and my new periwigg, bought a good while since, but darst not wear it because the plague was in Westminster when I bought it.  And it is a wonder what will be the fashion after the plague is done as to periwigs, for nobody will dare to buy any haire for fear of the infection—that it had been cut off of the heads of people dead of the plague.  (Diary, September 3, 1665)

This is a good example not only of Pepys’ frequent pivot from fashion to fear, but of the all-too-familiar blend of rumor and anxiety. There was no real evidence that victims’ hair was being shorn for wigs, nor that anybody could catch the disease via such a route, but the very thought of it was enough to defer purchase. As it turned out, periwigs had a ways to go; it would be the French Revolution of 1789, and not the Great Plague of 1665, that helped to do them in, once and for all.

But Lord, how empty the streets are, and melancholy, so many poor sick people in the streets, full of sores, and so many sad stories overheard as I walk, everybody talking of this dead, and that man sick, and so many in this place, and so many in that.  And they tell me that in Westminster there is never a physitian, and but one apothecary left, all being dead—but that there are great hopes of a great decrease this week:  God send it.  (Diary, October 16, 1665)

This passage was one of the last that Pepys entered having to do with the Plague; it would soon fade from the scene, sent into hibernation by the winter cold. He was fortunate; although his in-laws came down with an illness, it is never clarified whether it was the plague, and his immediate household survived. Every illness in Pepys’ time was grounds for worry; that is why Pepys celebrated the survival of what would be to us a relatively minor surgical procedure. Death was ever-present, and every sickness was a mystery. Agues, fevers, infection, and the perils of childbirth made every day of survival a triumph. In some ways, as ill-prepared as the people of Pepys were in facing the Plague, they were mentally and emotionally well situated for its likely outcome. Pepys himself went on to live a long life of sociability, industry and amusement, with never a backward glance.

[Source used: Robert Latham and William Matthews, eds., The Diary of Samuel Pepys.  London:  Bell & Hyman Ltd., 1972.]


Maren Halvorsen is a novelist whose most recent manuscript, The Bailiff’s Wife, was a Finalist in the category of historical fiction at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association annual literary competition.  Earning her Ph.D. in History at the University of Washington in 2002, she is a specialist in Medieval and Early Modern Europe.  She currently lives on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington State.