Tuesday, December 29, 2020

An Amiable Wife

 By Lauren Gilbert

Portrait of Anne Law, nee' Towry, 1st Lady Ellenborough by John Linnell

As a female, I cannot help being interested in the lives of women of earlier times. Finding information about some is easy, thanks to published letters and memoirs, newspaper archives, and (because of their own personal status or accomplishments or notoriety) even biographies. With others, it is a challenge, and we may find ourselves finding that little data is available, and that as side details provided in the information related to a father, husband or other male relative. One such lady is Anne Law, Lady Ellenborough. The November/December issue of JANE AUSTEN’S WORLD magazine included a reference to her in “What Made The News in November & December 1812” that caught my attention.

Anne was born about 1769, and possibly christened in St. Pancras Church in London. Her father was George Phillips Towry and his wife Elizabeth More. Mr. Towry served in the Royal Navy, commissioned a lieutenant in 1757. He inherited an estate from his uncle in 1762, and subsequently married the well-to-d0 and well-connected Miss More (possibly descended from Sir Thomas More) in June 1766 at St. Martin’s in the Fields. She had two brothers George Henry and Charles George. Elizabeth died, and her father remarried on April 3, 1770 to Susannah Haywood. In November of 1770, Mr. Towry won 20,000 pounds in a lottery. He became a Commissioner of the Naval Victualling in 1784, rising to Deputy Chairman of the Victualling Board November 4, 1803. He was considered an able administrator.

I found no information about Anne’s youth or education or her introduction to society. She was considered a great beauty, with regular features, rosy complexion, and a good figure. She was painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds in March of 1789, but that portrait was lost at sea. She had numerous admirers, among them a successful lawyer named Edward Law.


Mr. Law was the son of the Bishop of Carlisle, had attended school at the Charterhouse, and went on to Cambridge, obtaining a B.A. and an M.A. He decided to pursue law and was admitted to Lincoln’s Inn as a student in 1769. In 1771, he studied in London with George Wood (a special pleader (a lawyer who specialised in drafting statements of cases, give opinions, and prepare papers for various court proceedings) who was knighted, taught many students, and became famous). In 1775, Mr. Law became a special pleader himself, and was called to the bar in 1780. He built a successful practice and was elected to the Inner Temple in 1782. He gained a level of fame as leading counsel for Warren Hastings, a long-drawn-out trial that began in February of 1788. Although he was not handsome and was apparently socially awkward, he had acquired the reputation as something of a rake (and kept a mistress), prior to meeting Anne Towry. He pursued her fixedly, and asked her father for her hand. Being of good family and successful in his work, her father gave his consent to Mr. Law’s courtship.

Regardless of her father’s approval, Anne Towry refused his hand as she had already refused other suitors. In fact, she refused him three times. Each time, Mr. Law continued to court her despite her determined refusal. Finally, Anne consented to marry him the fourth time of asking. There is a suggestion that, at this point, members of her family pressured her to reconsider because he was such a promising suitor. According to THE LIVES OF THE CHIEF JUSTICES OF ENGLAND From the Norman Conquest Till the Death of Lord Tenterden, “…her aversion was softened, and she became tenderly attached to him.” (1) They were married by special license at her father’s home in Great Ormand Street on October 17, 1789.

On all counts, the marriage was successful. The couple had their first child, a son named Edward, about September of 1790. He was the first of thirteen children. Mr. Law’s career continued successfully-he became quite wealthy, he was involved with numerous high-profile cases and was instrumental in the ultimate acquittal of Mr. Hastings in 1795. He became Attorney General February 1801, and was knighted February 20, 1801 by George III. Shortly after being knighted, Mr. Law was returned as member for the borough of Newtown, Isle of Wight, to the House of Commons. His career in the House was short-lived, as he was appointed Lord Chief Justice April 11, 1802. On April 19, 1802, Mr. Law was created Baron Ellenborough in the county of Ellenborough, sworn a member of the privy council on April 21, and took his seat in the House of Lords on April 26th.

What little data is available indicates that Anne was busy with home and children, acting as her husband’s hostess. After their marriage, she was known to have retained her beauty, causing her to be pursued by followers at social events, and strangers gathering to watch her tend her flowers at their home. Their marriage was considered an affectionate and harmonious one. (2) She was painted by Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1811 and again in 1813, and by other artists. In addition to residence in London, the couple also had for some years a principal residence at Waldershare in Kent near Dover. This property was owned by the Earl of Guildford, and apparently leased by Lord Ellenborough.

The reference to Anne as Lady Ellenborough in JANE AUSTEN’S WORLD occurred in December of 1812: because of her generosity, one hundred poor women and girls were completely clothed, taken to church and then back to the mansion where they were provided with soup to take home and a shilling each. (There were 12 pennies in a shilling; in 1812, a pound of cheese cost about 9 pence.) This action was mentioned in the SUN (London) of Wednesday, September 16, 1812, in which Lady Ellenborough was described as “the amiable hostess of Waldershare-house”. While similar acts of charity were not uncommon, one of the things that struck me about this was the specific focus being on women and girls.

In early 1816, Lord Ellenborough began experiencing health problems but continued working. Anne’s father died March 12, 1817. His obituary describes him as “Commissioner of the Victualling-office, father of Lady Ellenborough.” Lord Ellenborough went abroad in the fall of 1817 in an attempt to improve his health, and returned to the bench on his return. He was very upset about the acquittals resulting in the winter of 1817, and his health deteriorated to the point that he was periodically absent from court. In September of l1818, he gave notice of his intent to resign, and executed his deed of resignation on November 6, 1818. He died December 13, 1818 at home in St. James’s Square. He was buried in the chapel of the Charterhouse, and a monument was raised there in his honour. At the time of his passing, he was survived by nine of his children with Anne, including their son Edward (now married) ranging to their youngest a daughter named Frances Henrietta born in 1812. (It appears he was also survived by some children born out of wedlock.) Anne was left a very wealthy widow.

The house at Waldershare was no longer in their possession, as it appears to have been occupied by the Earl of Guildford at the time of Lord Ellenborough’s death. Anne was seldom mentioned in print, other than at attendance at weddings. She outlived her husband by almost 25 years and never remarried. She apparently suffered ill health before her death at her home in Stratford-place in London. She died August 16, 1843. She left a rather detailed will, in which she left specific requests of jewelry to her daughters with other provisions, which was proved September 13, 1843. 



2. Ibid.

Sources include:

JANE AUSTEN’S REGENCY WORLD. November/December 2020, Issue 108. “WHAT MADE THE NEWS IN NOVEMBR & DECEMBER 1812”, compiled by Judy Boyd from the British Newspaper Archives.

Britishnewspaperarchive.com.uk  Numerous articles including the Hereford Journal for Wednesday, October 28, 1789; the Derby Mercury for Friday, December 7, 1770; the Leeds Mercury for Saturday, December 19, 1818; the Kerry Evening Post for Saturday, October 23, 1841; the Lincolnshire Chronicle for Friday, August 25, 1843; the home page is HERE

Thegazette.co.uk  THE LONDON GAZETTE for Tuesday February 17 to Saturday February 21, 1801. P. 202. https://www.thegazette.co.uk/London/issue/15338/page/202 ; THE LONDON GAZETTE FOR TUESDAY APRIL 13 to SATURDAY April 17, 1802. P. 386. HERE

Books.google.com FRAGMENTIA GENEALOGICA, Volume 10. Great Britain: Private Press of Frederick Arthur Crisp, 1904. P. 43 HERE ;  The Annual Register or A View of the History and Politics of the Year 1843. London: F. & J. Rivington, 1844. P. 286.HERE ; THE UNIVERSAL MAGAZINE, NEW SERIES. VOL. XVIII. July to December, Inclusive. 1812. London: Sherwood, Neely, and Jones. P. 521 HERE; THE ROYAL KALENDAR AND COURT AND CITY REGISTER FOR ENGLAND, SCOTLAND, IRELAND, AND THE COLONIES FOR THE YEAR 1820. London: William Stockdale. P. 31. HERE

Minnesotalegalhistoryproject.org Campbell, John Lord, LL.D, FRSE. THE LIVES OF THE CHIEF JUSTICES OF ENGLAND FROM THE NORMAN CONQUEST TILL THE DEATH OF LORD TENDERDEN. Third Edition. In Four Volumes-Vol. IV. London: John Murray, 1874. Pp. 163-164. (PDF) HERE

Wikisource.org THE DICTIONARY OF NATIONAL BIOGRAPHY 1885-1900, Vol.32. “Law, Edward (1750-1818)” by George Russell Barker. HERE


Anne Law, nee’ Towry, 1st Lady Ellenborough by John Linnell. Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Wmpearl, May 21, 2012. HERE
Edward Law, 1st Lord Ellenborough by Sir Thomas Lawrence. Wikimedia Commons. Photo by Donan.raven, November 20, 2012. HERE


Lauren Gilbert lives in Florida with her husband. She earned a B.A. degree in liberal arts English, minoring in Art History. She has presented programs for the South Florida region of JASNA. Her first book, HEYERWOOD A Novel, is still in print, and her second novel,  A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT, is out now. She has articles in both volumes of CASTLES, CUSTOMS AND KINGS: True Tales by English Historical Fiction Authors. She is also working on a non-fiction book about seven powerful women.  Please visit her website for more information. 


Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Behind the Scenes of Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol'

by Nancy Bilyeau

It may well be the most beloved Christmas story ever written. Charles Dickens' novella, originally titled Christmas Carol. In Prose. Being a Ghost Story of Christmas, was published on December 19, 1843, and sold 6,000 copies by Christmas Day. It has never gone out of print and is the basis for countless adaptations, giving way to debates over who is the best Ebeneezer Scrooge: Alastair Sim or Reginald Owen, George C. Scott or Patrick Stewart.

Autographed manuscript of the title page of 'A Christmas Carol,' signed by Dickens. Purchased byJohn Pierpont Morgan before 1900. Image courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum Media Department.
While the story itself is both touching and mythic, taking a closer look at Dickens' decision to write the book and the personal history that he poured into it is illuminating.

Dickens, to put it bluntly, wrote A Christmas Carol because he needed the money. He'd found literary fame due to the success of The Pickwick Papers and Oliver Twist, but his new book, Martin Chuzzlewit, was not as successful.

Dickens had a wife and four children to support; his wife, Catherine, was pregnant with their fifth. He came up with the idea to rent the family’s London home and live on the Continent for a year. A Christmas Carol was written to fund this move. A story of spirits who appear at Christmastime was not invented by Dickens. For centuries, during the longest and darkest nights of the year, it was thought that the barrier between this world and the afterlife was at its thinnest. This was the time for ghosts to show themselves to the living.

The original cover of A Christmas Carol. Dickens insisted that it be bound in crimson morocco, a  durable goatskin leather. The binding is elegantly decorated in gilt with the name "Thomas Mitton Esqre." Dickens presented the bound manuscript to Mitton, his close friend and creditor, possibly as a Christmas gift. From the J.P. Morgan collection, courtesy of the Morgan Media Department 

Dickens penned the book in six weeks. He wrote in a concentrated burst from 9 am to 2 pm every day. Writing would be followed by long brainstorming walks.

He scribbled many notes in the margins as he went, making swift corrections. According to curators of a Dickens exhibit at the Morgan Library & Museum, owner of the original manuscript, "Deleted text is struck out with a cursive and continuous looping movement of the pen and replaced with more active verbs—to achieve greater vividness or immediacy of effect—and fewer words for concision. This heavily revised sixty-six-page draft—the only manuscript of the story—was sent to the printer in order for the book to be published on 19 December, just in time for the Christmas market."

Page 2 of the original manuscript of A Christmas Carol,
showing Dickens' corrections.
From the collection of the Morgan Library & Museum,
image courtesy of the Media Department 

Literary historians believe that because he needed to write so fast, Dickens focused on a topic already close to his heart. He fueled the story with his own feelings about the terrible conditions for the poor in England. The 1834 New Poor Law went far toward criminalizing poverty. Dickens was furious about the grim fate of the working class, and he used this novella to write about it.

As for the book's characters, debates go on about which real-life "misers" Dickens based the elderly Ebeneezer Scrooge on or his partner Jacob Marley. When it comes to the younger Scrooge, though, Dickens' own youth can be seen in glimpses. His years of loneliness and resentment come through.

In the story, the boy Ebeneezer Scrooge has been sent away to a boarding school (one with dirty rooms and cracked windows) by a father who seems to want nothing to do with him.

 Dickens had a complicated relationship with his father, John Dickens. When he was 12, Charles Dickens was removed from school and forced to work at a blacking factory for 10 hours a day, six days a week. The reason: his father, John Dickens, had been sentenced to Marshalsea Prison because he was unable to pay a debt of 40 pounds; his wife and younger children joined him there, while Charles lived alone in lodgings. 

This means that when still a child, Charles Dickens was under intense pressure to make money and relieve this debt. It was the family's only way out of prison. These memories never left Dickens: “My whole nature was so penetrated with grief and humiliation,” he told a friend.

Charles Dickens,
photo courtesy of the Morgan Library & Museum, media department.
The character of Bob Cratchit, Scrooge's weak, hapless, but warm-hearted clerk, bears some resemblance to Dickens' father. This makes Scrooge's abuse of Cratchit in the first three-quarters of the story all the more interesting.

A crucial character in A Christmas Carol is Scrooge's older sister Fan, who is the only person to love him unconditionally but dies as a young woman after giving birth to her son, Fred.

"Always a delicate creature, whom a breath might have withered," said the Ghost. "But she had a large heart."
"So she had," cried Scrooge.
Fan, it seems clear, was based on Dickens' older sister Frances, known in the family as Fanny, who was close to her brother when they were children. 

She was "clever and accomplished," according to Dickens biographer Claire Tomalin. A talented musician,  in 1823 she became a student at the Royal Academy of Music in London.  She was expected to become the star of the family, not Charles. Biographers believe that he was often envious of Fanny.

According to the Charles Dickens Museum, "Fanny’s schooling was, however, often marred by her father’s inability to pay her fees. A letter survives from John Dickens, dated 25 May 1826, in which he suggests a payment plan, offering to pay '£10 quarterly from the 24th June next and the same to continue until the account is finally closed.' "

 Christmas Carol, London: Chapman & Hall, 1843
Illustration by John Leech depicting Marley's Ghost.
Photo courtesy of Morgan Library & Museum, media department
Fanny did have a career as a professional singer, with a "pure" singing style. In 1837, she married a fellow musician and they settled in Manchester. The couple had two sons. Harry was a bright child with some sort of physical handicap. "Once Fanny Dickens married and had children, her career declined," wrote Tomalin.

Fanny became ill with tuberculosis and went into a long decline. When Fanny died, Harry passed away shortly afterward at the age of 8. Some have speculated that the child was Dickens' inspiration for Tiny Tim.

Such family tragedies would seem to provide strong inspiration for Dickens in his character creations of Fan and Tiny Tim. What is chilling is that Fanny and Harry died years after Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.  

By the time his sister fell ill, Dickens was in a much better financial position. He hired the best doctors for Fanny, but nothing could save her. She died at the age of 38 on September 2, 1848. Dickens arranged for her burial in Highgate Cemetery. Harry was buried there too, as were Charles Dickens' parents and other members of his family.

Charles Dickens, the great writer, did not join them. He is buried elsewhere.

Highgate cemetery, where many members of Dickens' family were
buried, including his sister Fanny and his nephew Harry

Nancy Bilyeau is a novelist and magazine editor. She has published four historical novels. Nancy recently published a novella, The Ghost of Madison Avenue, set in 1912 New York City and telling a Christmas story. For more information, visit Nancy's website at http://www.nancybilyeau.com/.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

“Good fences make good neighbours”: Enclosure in Georgian England

By Elizabeth Grant

A lawn sweeping down to a stream, expanses of undulating turf dotted with clumps of trees rising to a wooded skyline, a bridge giving focus to the scene – it is the quintessential English landscape. 

View from Chatsworth House, Derbyshire

In fact, it is a man-made park. The harmonious view reflects the ideas and style propagated by the dominant figure of eighteenth-century gardening history, Lancelot “Capability” Brown (1716–1783). It also reflects a social order dominated by landowners, because laying out the grounds in this style required exclusive ownership of vast tracts of land. And that meant enclosing.

Enclosing describes a process by which small or fragmented parcels of land are merged into homogeneous blocks, absorbing the common land that lies in-between. On the ground, that meant building fences. The common land previously accessible to all was now reserved for one deeded owner. At the political level, enclosing required an Act of Parliament. This was easy to obtain in a country where political power was tied to land ownership.

Enclosing meant building fences

Good fences make good neighbours: the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations traces the proverb cited in the heading back to the mid-seventeenth century. This was the time when enclosure, which had begun in the Tudor era, reached a significant scale. It intensified during the Georgian period, with around two thousand Enclosure Acts passed during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. From 1760 to 1800, approximately 21 million acres of land were enclosed by statute. The process accelerated still further after 1800. (Charles Quest-Ritson, The English Garden: A Social History, London 2001, pp. 13, 137)

Was England a nation of wealthy aesthetes, then, desperate to improve their view? Garden historian Charles Quest-Ritson explains: “Landscaping the grounds of an estate was … closely linked to other forms of improvement – above all, better economic use of the land. It may seem at first that there is an obvious contradiction between improving the income of the estate and turning much of it into an extensive landscaped park. But, in fact, the opposite is true.” (Quest-Ritson, p. 137)

Compact land holdings were much easier to administer and improve. Enclosing made it possible to reorganize the farms on an estate and free up space around the landowner’s house for a landscaped park. Parks were ornamental and expensive to build, a perfect status symbol. But once a park had been created, it could be highly profitable. Not only was it low in maintenance – the mowing or grazing by deer, sheep or cattle which it required actually generated income. The rents from pasture exceeded rents from agriculture by up to 50 per cent. Stock-breeding became an elegant fashion, seen as a leisurely pursuit far removed from the more energetic arable farming. The handsome copses and clumps of wood dotting the pasture produced firewood, props, poles and hurdles. Their valuable hardwoods would swell the purse of the landowner’s descendants when cut and sold seventy or ninety years hence. (Quest-Ritson, pp. 140ff.)

Enclosing made huge pastures available for profitable
sheep farming

Agricultural improvement, in turn, was slow to gain ground. Most landowners concentrated their efforts on increasing their land holdings rather than increasing the yields of the land they already had – even though they were living in a time of profound demographic change, and knew it. Thomas Malthus had published his Essay on Population in 1798, and in 1817 Lord Liverpool wrote to Sidmouth: 
“If our Commercial Situation does not improve, Emigration, or Premature Deaths, are the only Remedies. Both must occur to a considerable Extent. It would be most inhuman in such Case, to encourage the latter, by prohibiting the former.” (John Plowright, Regency England: The Age of Lord Liverpool, London 1996, p. 8).

Historian Boyd Hilton asks the pertinent question, “How on earth did agricultural output manage to rise to meet the needs of townsfolk?” And explains, 

“This was a period of agricultural expansion rather than revolution. The number of acres increased from around 10 to 15 million between 1770 and 1850, while the area under wheat rose from about 2.8. million to 3.8 million … Most of the increase took place between 1790 and 1812, when scarcity prices due to population pressure and the difficulty of importing food in wartime led the margin of cultivation to be pushed up the hillsides.” (Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad & Dangerous People? England 1783–1846, Oxford 2006, p. 8)

You will object that there are no fences to be seen in the view from Chatsworth House, nor from scores of similarly grand or less grand houses in England. That’s because they’re hidden behind the trees. But they’re there all right. While historians continue to argue about the actual value and yields of the enclosed land, most of them agree that the social consequences were dire. Local labourers had customary shared-use rights to grazing, crops, brushwood, and fuel from the common land. You could graze a couple of goats on the commons, or a flock of geese. You could drive your pigs into the woods to fatten on acorns or beech mast. You could collect firewood or cut staves to repair your house or your fences. You might even fish or make hay (Wikipedia, s. v. common land). 

To claim compensation for lost use, however, you needed to be able to claim a legal right which few possessed. And even if they did, the compensation mostly came in the form of small allotments that could never yield the benefits a large tract of common land could. (Hilton, pp. 8f.). The Honourable John Byng, later the fifth Lord Torrington, wrote in 1781: “I hate enclosures, and as a citizen I look on them as the greedy tyrannies of the wealthy few to oppress the indigent many, and an iniquitous purchase of invaluable rights” (see Quest-Ritson, p. 138).


Elizabeth (Elsie) Grant
writes romantic fiction set in the early nineteenth century. Her first novel, An Independent Heart, takes place in a country house surrounded by just the kind of park described here. It also involves an enclosure scheme, parliamentary ambitions, and the landed interest, but never fear – these only form a sketchy background against which the romance is painted in delicate hues.

Elsie grew up in Germany, Yugoslavia (as it was then), and the United States. After studying languages in Glasgow and Berlin, she went on to work as a translator and proofreader, specializing in medieval art and contemporary architecture. She is currently working on her second novel, which revolves around a bright young heiress and a one-armed sea captain and is partly set in Greece.

An Independent Heart is available at:

Bod Buchshop

Amazon UK


Please visit Elsie at elsiegrant.blogspot.com

Or follow Elsie on Facebook

Sunday, December 13, 2020

Quaker Women in the Seventeenth Century

 By Maren Halvorsen

The image of the Quakeress, from the 18th century on, is the very picture of decorum: a woman dressed in gray, solemn, even dour, her head covered, her eyes lowered. Quakers in general were seen, and are understood even now to be, plain and quiet. Even the Quaker women of the 19th century, active in their opposition to slavery and advocates of their own liberation, displayed a public image of rectitude and sobriety. The modern weekly Meeting can often be a peaceful place of utter silence, as the participants, men and women, wait for God’s Light to speak through them.  

But when we take a close look at the first generation of Quakers, those who followed the Quaker leader George Fox (1624-1691) as the movement swept like fire through the North of England and beyond, we are confronted with a very different picture. At the heart of the theology of the Society of Friends was, and is, their belief in the spiritual equality of all, and this belief trumped everything else. They refused to use honorifics, refused to doff their hats to their “betters,” and insisted on the primacy of faith over the concerns of this world. They adhered so closely to a literal interpretation of Scripture that they refused to take oaths,and insisted that “the sprinkling” (baptism) did no good. Some early Quakers took to heart Fox’s exhortation to “run naked for a sign,” stripping off their clothes and running naked through towns as a way of protesting worldly wealth. Their refusal to take oaths, combined with their disregard for earthly governments, made them suspect to the authorities, and for most of the 17th century they were subject to arrest and imprisonment.  

Fox by Lely

A key aspect of the egalitarianism of the Society of Friends was the inclusion of women as central figures in the spread of the movement. The most famous of these early converts was Margaret Fell (1614-1702).  Married to a barrister, prominent and wealthy, Margaret Fell met Quaker founder George Fox in 1652 and became an early member of his movement. She was sufficiently active as a proselytizer to be arrested more than once, her imprisonment lasting years as she continued to write pamphlets and letters to encourage her fellow Friends and win over new believers. After the death of her husband Judge Fell, Margaret married George Fox in 1669. Her subsequent canonization as the “Mother” of the faith lends her a propriety and formality that is at odds with her vibrant, fiercely iconoclastic defense of the movement. In fact, even her marriage to Fox was unconventional; they spent most of their married life either in jail or separate, as Fox continued to preach all over the British Isles until his death in 1691. It is worth noting that Fell was very much opposed to the plain “uniform” that was beginning to be adopted by the Quakers and instead celebrated her own fashion sense at every opportunity.  

Margaret Fell

In 1666 Fell wrote an essay answering St Paul’s injunction against women speaking in church. Women's Speaking Justified cites the numerous examples of powerful women in the Bible, from Judith and Sarah of the Old Testament to Mary Magdalene’s discovery of the empty tomb in the New. A century ahead of such early feminists as Mary Wollstonecraft, Fell demanded that women’s voices not only be heard but that they be central to the Quaker movement. By highlighting the discovery of the empty Tomb, one of the most significant moments in the development of the Christian faith, along with Mary Magdalene’s role, Fell is insisting upon the value and power of women’s speech. Parsing the language of Scripture, she argued that while women should seek the advice of their husbands before speaking in church, they themselves were the final arbiters of their decision to speak. 

While Margaret Fell was perhaps the most prominent, there were several other first-generation Quaker women who were viewed as leaders during that time of persecution and prophecy, both in England and the Colonies, including Elizabeth Hooton (1600-1672), Mary Fisher (c. 1623-1698), and Mary Penington (1623-1682). It’s easy to imagine the exhilaration and sense of possibility that these early Quaker women felt, being part of a new movement that at its very core rejected many of the societal values they had been raised to accept.  The days of the week were renamed, and the religious holy days that marked even the Protestant calendar were gone. Mary Penington, in her brief memoir written for her children, talks of a youth and young adulthood of spiritual seeking, resisting the religion of her family, and eventually finding her way to the Friends after her second marriage. There is a powerful sense of agency in her narrative, refusing to attend the church of her guardians, composing her own prayers, and eventually, as a young widow, refusing to have her own daughter baptized. During her second marriage, to Isaac Penington the Younger (1616-1679), she devoted much of her time to the design and reconstruction of their home near Chalfont St. Peter while Isaac was continually hauled off to jail for his religious writings and for his refusal to show proper deference to a local nobleman. Her daughter by her first marriage later married William Penn.  

Margaret Fell and Mary Penington exemplify the radical nature of that first generation of Quakerism, as it spread throughout the British Isles in the 17th century. Its appeal, for many, lay in its rejection of the rigid hierarchy of power, both spiritual and material, which the Quakers saw as oppressive and false. Unlike Fell and Penington, most new converts to the Friends tended to be from the lower or middling classes. They found in its message a powerful critique of the established order. For women too, there was a clear hierarchy that many chafed against. The Society of Friends was the pathway to making their voices heard.  

To some extent this seizure of power was short-lived: the Women’s Meeting, originally a feature of Quakerism fought hard for by women such as Penington, and seen initially as a symbol of women’s power within the movement, quickly became more of a women’s auxiliary, focused mostly on “women’s issues” having to do with children, family, and service. Indeed, the writings of Mary Penington likely only survived because of the fame of her husband and her son-in-law (see Norman Penney’s introduction to her memoir in Experiences in the Life of Mary Penington, Friends Historical Society, 1992). On the other hand, the potential was there, and we see a “second wave” of Quaker feminist activism especially in the United States, mostly linked to the abolitionist movement of the 19th century. Lucretia Mott (1793-1880) and the Grimke sisters (Sarah, 1792-1873, and Angelina, 1805-1879) went well beyond finding their place within the faith to making real change in the world around them.


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. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

Finding Rosa Mingaye, Cumbrian Artist

By Dr John Little

Like all English historical fiction authors my writing deals with a mixture of reality and truth, of actual and dreams; of fiction and fact. It is my wish to make it so that my reader may, in the style of Leopold von Ranke, walk in the shoes of dead men and women, even for just an instant. This desire is shared by every writer of historical fiction. Last year I lit upon the figure of Dr William Perry Briggs, a Cumbrian doctor who somehow found himself tending wounded Turks at the town of Plevna during a murderous siege in one of the major wars of the nineteenth century; the Russo-Turkish conflict of 1877-8. It seemed an interesting adventure story and so I set out to write it, and found that the borderline between researching for historical fiction, and unearthing unknown history is a very fine one.

Of course, any adventure has to have a back story or two; the protagonist must have a family, friends, motives, a background of some sort and some personal details. I found that Briggs married a woman called Rosa, and that he thought she was three years older than him. She was, in fact nearly eight years older. Of itself that detail is fairly quotidian for the day; many people faked their ages, particularly on marriage certificates. Rosa’s gravestone claims a birth date of 1853, whereas the census of 1851 reveals that she was born in 1849; her husband was born in 1856.  

So far, so not very exceptional, but it was enough to spark an interest in finding more. Her father was Joseph Richardson, and her brother was Augustine; both men were well known artists, and the brother in particular was renowned for stained glass windows in churches, some of which survive today. For some reason unknown, both men were using ‘Mingaye’ as their professional name; it had been the surname of Joseph’s dead wife. They were not alone in this, for Rosa was also signing ‘Mingaye’ on her own work.

Rosa Mingaye has been long forgotten, yet as I wish to demonstrate, she was an artist of flair, great talent and an extremely fine water colourist. In her day she was celebrated, and though her works sell for small amounts today, I believe that in real terms they sold for far more when she was making her living from them. Women artists are all too often airbrushed from history, and my research for my novel led me to one who deserves to be known. I have not found her name on any of the long lists of Victorian artists that may be found on the internet; perhaps it is time to revise them.

I believe that the above painting is the River Thames, near Oxford, where Rosa lived and worked before her marriage. Her work seems to comprise landscape scenes, but also some rural buildings. Human figures appear as above, small and in the distance. I am led to think that she was working to please a market of well do do town dwellers who wished to adorn their walls with such things, not only for decorative purposes, but to show their wealth. Iffley Mill (below) stood on the River Thames; it was destroyed by fire early in the twentieth century.

Rosa's work seems to comprise landscape scenes, but also some rural buildings. Human figures appear as above, small and in the distance. I am led to think that she was working to please a market of well to do town dwellers who wished to adorn their walls with such things, not only for decorative purposes, but to show their wealth.

Her work was displayed across the country; this one is from a gallery in Norwich; the spelling of her name may be put down to the reporter.

Not all of her paintings are extant. To judge from the contemporary description of this one (below) from Manchester, it was worth seeing.

She continued her career after her marriage where she and William Briggs lived in the small Cumbrian town of Aspatria. It is not very far from the English Lake district, and of course the area became her studio. These are studies of Derwentwater.

That I have come across this undoubtedly talented, but unknown English water-colourist of the nineteenth century, is an accident of writing fiction. 

Rosa Mingaye was not a fiction and it may be that a serious art historian with access to more resources than I can command, may be able to find more about this artist. It is a basic understanding of feminism, and of plain common sense, that men and women are of equal dignity. This artist deserves a place, even just a mention, in the pantheon of nineteenth century water-colour painters. Neglect, surely, is not an option.


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 ten books, mostly novels, and has settled into historical fiction as his favoured genre. His work is based on real evidence, people and events contained in plausible narratives. He also gives talks and presentations on the topics about which he writes. His novel about Dr Briggs featuring Rosa Mingaye, ‘Love and War - a Romance of Old Aspatria’ will be published early 2021, and although based on real people, and accurate in detail, it remains a fiction.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Hangings and Gibbeting

By Donna Scott

Death by hanging was used as a form of capital punishment in England as early as the fifth century. Other methods of execution found their way into history over the years as well, yet never managed to maintain the longevity of death by hanging. Castration, blinding, beheading, boiling, burning, and dismemberment all made an appearance in England between the time of William the Conqueror and the 18th century when hanging became the favoured method of punishment. Even children as young as seven were subject to pay for their crimes at the end of a rope.

A 17th-century hanging at Tyburn

Those unfortunate enough to find their necks in a noose prior to the late 19th century, when the long drop was introduced, would die from strangulation, as the height of the drop was not long enough to snap the neck. Once the long drop was employed, the actual cause of death was dislocation of the vertebrae and the rupturing of the jugular vein. But those who were fortunate to survive their hangings—be it through fate, good fortune, or divine intervention—were subjected to a different fate.

In the early 18th century, the British government mandated that anyone who survived his execution would either be hanged again, sent to the colonies, or set free. Although there are several recorded cases of convicted criminals surviving their hangings, the majority clearly did not.  In a few cases, prisoners were accidentally decapitated during the process. But, as they say, accidents happen.

Those felons convicted of capital offenses—like murder—who didn’t survive their hangings, were additionally gibbeted or “hanged in chains” and placed on display after their deaths as carrion for birds and rodents. Like placing a traitor’s head and other body parts on the point of a pike and displaying them for all to see, gibbeting was used to warn citizens to behave within the confines of the law. The Murder Act of 1752 reinforced the practice of gibbeting. It was created "for better preventing the horrid crime of murder" and that "in no case whatsoever shall the body of any murderer be suffered to be buried" but instead be hanged in chains or publicly dissected. This punishment was mandated until 1834, when the Act was abolished.

Gibbeting involved moving the corpse to a new location to be displayed on a gibbet. The placement of the gibbet and hanging cage were of utmost importance, as the ideal location would be one that was easily seen or frequented.  In some cases, gibbets were located at or near the scene of the crime. This could be a rather unpleasant experience for those who lived nearby or owned a business in the area since the offensive stench of rotting flesh traveled at the whims of the wind.

Possibly “Jack the Painter’s’ gibbet irons.
Jack—or James Hill—was accused of burning down
His Majesty’s Dockyard in Portsmouth in 1776.
(Winchester Museum)

The mid to late 18th century was a particularly popular time for gibbeting. Between 1730 and the turn of the century, there were approximately 293 recorded cases of criminal corpses being gibbeted in England and Wales. London, of course, had the most instances of gibbeting, likely due to the large population and social and economic problems of the time.  

Typically, a body was gibbeted within a couple of days of the execution unless it had to be transported to another place. The poles were quite high—20 to 30 feet—and sometimes studded with spikes or nails around the bottom so the corpse could not be tampered with. Since bodies could be displayed for years within these cages, it was rare that any were ever reused.

Gibbet irons were shaped like the human body so that the bands would help the decaying form keep its shape over time. On occasion, the smith who fashioned the cage would travel to the place of execution to measure the accused’s proportions, ensuring a good fit. Once that was established, the smith could then solder or weld the irons shut over the corpse. For this reason, it was possible that a body could be furthered desecrated by the smith as seen in the case of Stephen Walton, whose skeleton was discovered buried in Norfolk in 1899. The skull had clear scorching marks on it where it had been burned by a hot iron.

Female criminals were not gibbeted like male criminals. Because there was an increased interest in the female anatomy, women’s cadavers were often sold to anatomists and surgeons for research through dissection.

In 1868, approximately 30 years after gibbeting was no longer practiced, the last public hanging took place. Future executions were mainly performed within prison walls. It would be a long time before hanging would disappear completely from the British justice system, the last one happening in 1964.


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.

Website: www.donnascott.net

Facebook: Donna Scott

Instagram: DonnaScotttWriter

Twitter: D_ScottWriter

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.