A Forgotten Princess

Hello everybody – may I introduce an author whose work I admire, and who has proved a wonderfully supportive friend over recent years.

An expert on the Georgian era, Catherine Curzon writes with delicious authority and I am delighted to introduce her herewith”-

Whilst researching Life in the Georgian Court, I soon learned that the daughters of the house of Hanover were not, it must be said, the most robust young ladies ever to reside in the palaces of England. One of the most delicate of all the girls was undoubtedly Princess princess-elizabeth-caroline-by-jean-etienne-liotardElizabeth Caroline, a girl who is little remembered today. Her life was short and not particularly eventful, the inevitable outcome no less tragic for its predictability.

In 1741, Princess Elizabeth was born at Norfolk House, St James’s Square, to Frederick, Prince of Wales, and Augusta of Saxe-Gotha. Her grandparents were George II and Caroline of Ansbach, and the newborn princess began life as it was means to go on, in splendour. She was christened by Thomas Secker, at that time Bishop of Oxford and later Archbishop of Canterbury.

Bright and cheery, the little girl was, nevertheless, physically painfully weak. A gentle child adored by her siblings, Princess Elizabeth enjoyed nothing better than indulging in theatrical entertainments at home, battling her own infirmity to do so. There was no question that one so frail would enter into the tumultuous royal marriage market and so she was kept safely at home, away from the hustle and bustle of society.

In fact, Elizabeth would not have lived long enough to make anyone a bride and at the age of eighteen, the princess fell ill with an inflammation of the bowels from which she would never recover.

It was the last and most serious blow in all her years of ill health and despite being born into what should have been the most powerful house in the land, nothing could be done to save the weakened young lady from her suffering.

Within days of falling ill, Princess Elizabeth passed away at Kew Palace. As her family mourned, the unfortunate girl was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, her name fading into history.

About the Author

Catherine Curzon is a royal historian and blogs on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life.

Her work has featured by publications including BBC History ExtraAll About History, History of Royals, Explore History and Jane Austens Regency World. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, will she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here).

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Her book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository and all good bookshops!

About Life in the Georgian Court

As the glittering Hanoverian court gives birth to the British Georgian era, a golden age of51iwzbtuhjl-_sx345_bo1204203200_-8 royalty dawns in Europe. Houses rise and fall, births, marriages and scandals change the course of history and in France, Revolution stalks the land.

Peep behind the shutters of the opulent court of the doomed Bourbons, the absolutist powerhouse of Romanov Russia and the epoch-defining family whose kings gave their name to the era, the House of Hanover.

Behind the pomp and ceremony were men and women born into worlds of immense privilege, yet beneath the powdered wigs and robes of state were real people living lives of romance, tragedy, intrigue and eccentricity. Take a journey into the private lives of very public figures and learn of arranged marriages that turned to love or hate and scandals that rocked polite society.

Here the former wife of a king spends three decades in lonely captivity, Prinny makes scandalous eyes at the toast of the London stage and Marie Antoinette begins her last, terrible journey through Paris as her son sits alone in a forgotten prison cell.

Life in the Georgian Court is a privileged peek into the glamorous, tragic and iconic courts of the Georgian world, where even a king could take nothing for granted.


Edwards, Averyl. Frederick Louis, Prince of Wales, 1701-1751.London: Staples Press, 1947.

Hadlow, Janice. The Strangest Family: The Private Lives of George III, Queen Charlotte and the Hanoverians. London: William Collins, 2014.

Hatton, Ragnhild. George I. London: Thames and Hudson. 1978.

Shawe-Taylor, Desmond and Burchard, Wolf. The First Georgians: Art and Monarchy 1714-1760. London: Royal Collection Trust, 2014.

Tillyard, Stella. A Royal Affair: George III and his Troublesome Siblings. London: Vintage, 2007.

Worsley, Lucy. Courtiers: The Secret History of the Georgian Court. London: Faber and Faber, 2011.


Sex, Romance, and Medieval Misinformation Part 2: The Role of Women

mw hunting.jpgThe English mid to late medieval was a period when romance was idealised with the advancement of chivalry (in theory anyway), and a somewhat more delicate manner in which most women were treated, especially in courtly circles.

It has been suggested that the introduction of chivalry actually invented the whole concept of courtly love. Many suppose that the troubadours inspired a whole new attitude to desire which had not previously existed. I find this exceedingly unlikely. Humanity – even the dour English – surely did not need a sudden influx of poetry in order to discover what idealised romantic yearning felt like! Clearly the stories and songs of chivalry were largely a reaction to whatever already existed. However, the minstrels no doubt fired up some new romantic ideals and gave eloquence to what had earlier seemed more mundane.

Chivalry – to some extent – stuck! Women (until Henry VIII, who was chivalry in reverse even though he seemingly loved the joust) were not usually executed, whatever they had done, and were generally treated more kindly than their masculine counterparts. This might also seem patronising – but beware imagining they were all automatically treated with contempt.

The popular vision of any strong woman of the times being called a She-Wolf is somewhat
mw hunting.jpgmisleading. A strong and capable women was usually admired, and meek little ‘pawns’ were not the ideal. Wifely obedience – well that was perhaps more common then than now, but don’t tell me every wife constantly obeyed her husband, and the insults of argumentative nag were just as common. True – married women of that period owned little or nothing since all their property legally belonged to their husbands – in fact I remember some aspects of this still being enforced in the 1950s when my husband seemed to think he owned my tax rebate.

However, back in the 1400s women did have a voice. I have so frequently read books or articles that see the female of the past as being voiceless and utterly overlooked. It is true that we have little existing documentation regarding how they felt or reacted to the turmoil around them – but nor do we have much documentation of any other kind. Men’s opinions were rarely recorded and even kings’ private feelings were kept very much to themselves. The documentation which still exists is invariably ecclesiastical in origin since monks and priests were the scribes and the record keepers of the time. So a woman’s opinion was rarely passed down to us. That does not mean it was not made clear at the time.

Women joined the Guilds, created and carried on their own businesses, studied and read widely, and in their husband’s absence (and in his company) took over the defence of their homes under siege, arranged armaments, secured trade, and enlarged the family’s security, influence and interests. The abbess of a convent could be an extremely powerful woman, while a back-lane brewer, although not exactly powerful on a national scale, could earn an excellent wage, run her own business, and become a woman in demand, much respected and admired.

Some strong women were certainly disliked for their actions and attitudes, but so were many strong men. It was legal for a man to beat his wife should he believe she deserved punishment, and naturally that is abhorrent to us. But it is quite clear that good men did no such thing, brutality was considered unacceptable, and few women obediently accepted marital attack. Besides, marital abuse is certainly not legal now – but it equally certainly exists.

Male and female were not equal of course, but nor were the inequalities as huge as some would like to have us believe.

The medieval period in England (I am particularly interested in the late 1400s) was not a time of puritanism. Sexual pleasure was sometimes considered by doctors to be a cure for particular ailments, and this applied to women as well as men. Although the church tried its level best to set strict moral standards, and after all the church of the time was a good deal more powerful than it is today, the general public did not behave and obey as meekly as it might sometimes be presumed.  Sex was not generally thought shocking, kings and lords openly kept mistresses (and certainly ordinary folk as well) and illegitimate children, although they could not legally inherit, were treated with normal respect and courtesy while the word ‘bastard’ was no particular insult.  Brothels were legal as long as they conformed to certain standards. The illegal sort were pretty common too.


Stich, Abbildung, engraving, gravure : 1909

It was the church, and the frustrations of a priesthood obliged to commit themselves to celibacy which has left us a record of indignation towards women in general. Their diatribes, sermons, legal strictures and basic beliefs  comprise the vast majority of surviving written documentation. A horror of womankind and the temptations of sexual attraction led many of the clergy to denigrate femininity. They blamed women for the temptations they felt themselves, and so have left us with a deluge of disgust regarding female anatomy and behaviour. But we should definitely not assume that men in general felt the same way.

Religious restrictions on sexual practise were rigorous, but how many people readily obeyed these demands can only be guessed at. The general public had a very clear example of clerical hypocrisy to follow.

Some brothels were accustomed to a clientèle where up to a third of all their customers were priests, monks and bishops. The so-called Winchester geese, who were the prostitutes of Southwark (south of London) paid rent to the Bishop of Winchester, in an area where Molly Houses (brothels where the prostitutes were young boys) also abounded, and where the taverns, slums and thieves’ gatherings were amongst the worst in the land. So the idea that the church preached one thing and practised another was fairly widely accepted. A general condemnation of adultery, fornication and sexual deviations was certainly demanded by the clergy – but just as certainly not always heeded. The very fact that priests and friars complained so frequently about immorality does not show how placidly controlled the public was. It shows the exact opposite.

The clergy bellowed about sin, then went off to sin privately themselves, bellowing again when they saw their neighbours doing the same thing. Errant priests were known to be put into the stocks and pelted with rotten eggs by their flock. Pregnant nuns were a great subject for gossip.

Within this confusion, some strange advice was given by the church regarding sin and sex. A good deal of anatomical and medicinal ignorance was the main reason. One piece of moral advice offered by priests which I find particularly delicious, was that a woman could calm her blatant but improper sexual desires by drinking the man’s urine. I can well understand how this might put her off. But unless she had already crept into his bedchamber to discover his chamber-pot and directly quench her thirst that way, I just cannot imagine her approaching the man of her passionate dreams, and demanding a nice cup of his urine the next time he went to the privy. I would love to see his expression.

Part Three, the final part, to follow.

Sex, Romance, and Medieval Misinformation Part 1

Sex, romance, love and marriage – these are the themes we seem obsessed with. They dominate our popular music, most films, and the vast majority of our books. Yet we cannot always agree with each other even on such universal subjects, so it is normal to presume that in the pa
st folk were as individual in their wishes and beliefs as we are now.

It is therefore a continuing problem for authors of historical fiction since therthumbnail.aspx_4e
is considerable argument over how sex and romance were viewed in centuries past, in particular regarding the place of women.

Now the recent 50 Shades of Grey has been such a bestseller, the question of how much sexual content a bo
ok should (could) contain, and how graphic the text should (could) be, has become even more problematical. How do we approach the new standards? Yet are they so new? We appear to forget that several decades ago the sexual content in films and television in many European countries was often far more provocative than today. In other words, a so-called sexual revolution has occurred on many, many occasions over the years.

Of course human desire has always been a part of human nature, but how we behave is invariably coloured more by the society in which we live. It is exceedingly difficult to judge the attitudes of our ancestors as regards culture and society unless clear contemporary documentation still exists. Luckily some does.

For instance, artists of the Renaissance brought a new perspective, and the previous religious monopoly was no longer the master of the arts. Nudity was unashamedly depicted. At the same time in England, however, massive new Tudor taxes began to undermine the tentative prosperity of the increasing middle and working classes, and women in particular began to lose much of their previous independence.

Moving onwards through history, Restoration theater and literature was, for instance, clearly unabashed. Women could appear publicly as actresses on the stage for the first time, but most were also prostitutes on the side. Has anyone read the beautiful but frequently pornographic poetry of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, who wrote during the late 1600s? Obviously sexual liberty, in particular at court, was fully accepted even though rigid standards applied elsewhere. It appears that for many the Puritan attitudes immediately preceding this period had a thoroughly contradictory affect. Rather like the American Prohibition, it served to increase the public taste for whatever had been banned. I believe this is precisely how human nature so often works, and has worked constantly over the centuries.

Following the horrors of WW1, the flappers of England in the 1920s startled conventional society, and another sexual revolution was born. It happened again in the 1960s following the deprivations of post-war rationing, when it was humorously suggested that sexual intercourse was virtually invented. Free love was the motto, public nudity was promoted by some and accepted by many, and an abhorrence of prim conservatism seemed normal especially amongst the carefully non-conformist youth.

Certainly we accept more now than we imagine was normal in the Victorian era – but are we even sure about that? We are told that Queen Victoria was not amused (although this is entirely apocryphal) and pianos had to wear skirts to hide their legs, while certainly my respectable grandmother would never have mentioned anything more shocking than a vague reference to birth pangs. But the slums of London were rife with drunkenness and prostitution, and the literary giants of the times were indulging – and writing about – practises which the good secluded ladies of the era would not even have understood. The birth of the Gothic novel may not have contained explicit sexual language, but a brooding undercurrent of lust was certainly guiding the plot.

With regard to the late medieval period which serves as the background to most of my novels,medieval-marriage-medievalists-dot-net there seems to be some considerable modern misunderstand concerning that period’s attitudes to sex and romance. Our historical fiction tends to swing between extremes – either the heroine is presented as a feisty modern miss who rebels against her father’s insistence on an arranged marriage – or she is a ‘pawn’, reluctantly forced into dreadful situations by an ambitious father, leaving her powerless even to complain.

Frankly I am quite
sure both these extremes are exceedingly misleading. Women, especially those of aristocratic families, were often strong-minded, determined and ambitious. And not all marriages were loveless by any means, whether arranged or otherwise many developed into deep love and friendship, and both men and women (of various classes) were frequently married to the partner of their choice. Depending on class and financial status, parental pressure was not normally tyrannical and most young women were at least consulted on their choice of bridegroom. In particular, widows and widowers usually had free choice. But yes, marriage was a practical business and arrangements were generally accepted and also welcomed.

These invariably benefited both parties and the poor little pawn in the hands of the cruel and ambitious father was far more likely to be a well satisfied miss, extremely pleased to find herself betrothed to a man of influence and wealth. The woman came with a dowry, but that did not make her a chattel, and the extent of her dowry could also be considered her power. Even the po
orer classes frequently made such arrangements, and so a woman brought her share to enhance the marital prosperity. It was not considered humiliating – it was good business. And after all, the young man was equally expected to conform to his parents’ plans – but no one seems to call him a pawn.

However as usual society covered all shades and some prospective brides did complain – and were forced. Some unwelcome male suitors could also be chastised. There were famous instances of just those situations (Abelard and Eloise, for example). Even those who did not outwardly object did still dream of some more romantic situation in private. We know this from the extreme contemporary popularity of romantic books and stories. There is nothing unexpected in this. Happily married women who love their husbands still read romantic novels and secretly fall for fictional heroes and celebrities, while India, a culture of arranged marriage, proudly presents us with the ultra-romance of Bollywood.

But sex is a rather complicated subject – and the woman’s place is just as varied. So – PART TWO to follow!

Time Travel – I Wish!

imgresNo – sorry – it hasn’t been invented yet. I only wish it had. For me, as a passionate researcher and writer of historical novels, I could imagine absolutely nothing more exciting. Time travel is my ultimate dream.

Of course, some element of control would be necessary. It would be all too frustrating to be yearning for medieval exploration, only to find oneself in the middle of the Australian outback facing gigantic monitor lizards with huge appetites. Whereas the eager palaeontologist dreaming of meeting the extinct creatures of forgotten worlds, could discover himself wandering my beautiful medieval cobbled streets, staring with melancholy at the surge of the Thames beneath London Bridge while wishing desperately to come face to face with some sweet placid Tyrannosaurus Rex instead.

And even supposing I could control the time itself, I would also need some element of control over place of arrival and my own appearance. There is, for instance, a good deal I long to know about Richard III. So I need to fiddle with the control buttons on my Tardis, manipulate the settings back to 1483, arranging to land in one of those apposite spots within London (The Tower, Baynards Castle, or beyond the London Wall in Westminster Palace) – but only perhaps to find myself thrown bodily from the premises because I’m dressed indecently in modern clothes (yes, that would give them all a shock, I would be considered either a hussy of the worst kind or a dangerous lunatic) – or I could be handed a mop and bucket and told to get scrubbing. So I must insist on the right clothes, the right bearing, and the right place.

I want to be dressed as a minor noblewoman – the sort of gown I personally would adore. Woman_in_Medieval_Dress_or_Costume_(18)I can just imagine those amazing medieval materials which I would just love to touch. No artificial silks, no nylon velvets, no plastic or polypropylene, but the real thing – hand woven and sumptuous with gold thread and damask shot with indigo. Woad and lapis, madder and kermes, cinnabar and azurite. Bliaut and baukerkin – fabrics so lustrous I would fear to touch them.

Some clever and adventurous modern-day souls do make an eager hobby of sewing up very accurate copies of medieval clothes, and they research assiduously, getting every detail as perfect as possible. But we don’t know enough to be sure of everything, and some aspects of clothing are still entirely mysterious. Besides, the main difficulty is the fabric. Those sumptuous materials of the past do not and cannot possibly exist anymore.

Yet I cannot appear so richly dressed that I arouse curiosity or even suspicion.  A woman appearing as a lady so grand that everyone should immediately recognise her and know her name and title already (nobility was a small world and most were loosely related to each other)  – and yet be entirely unrecognisable – would be suspicious indeed. There were laws about dressing within one’s station, and false pretence would hardly be the best way to start up friendships.  But I cannot be a serving woman either, for I have no desire to be punished for not getting on with my work, and even a vague attempt to clean up somewhere would completely confuse me. I would not know where to collect the required soaps and cloths – nor even how to do such things in the proper medieval way. Besides, I desperately want to find out exactly what was going on with the high and mighty of the period – and I can’t do that if I’m locked out of state rooms and sent to the laundries. I might still get the local unsubstantiated gossip – but gracious – that’s exactly what we get already. Most of what we now call history is little more than old gossip!

So – we have that sorted. A minor noblewoman, please. But there’s a lot more I need to control. The principal aim of my first time travel is to have a good close look at Richard III, and if possible to get some detailed knowledge of exactly what he did, what he didn’t do, and how he was viewed by others. Of course like all passionate writers of historical fiction, and one who believes firmly in research and basing fiction on truth, I already have a firm idea of what England’s most controversial king was like and how he behaved. But I could be wrong. I accept that. And whether I am right or wrong, I want to understand what this fascinating man really accomplished, and why. But as a woman, can I do that? Women were not admitted into council chambers or meetings of parliament. I might sneak into some places, but I would need some sort of respectable companion, or preferably a full retinue.

So it’s getting more complicated. Perhaps I need to stop and think. And while I’m at it I need to beware of draughts, since women wore no knickers. Yet they had to keep their hair respectably covered. Frankly, I’m used to the other way around.

Perhaps a different period of history would be easier. I’m eager to see every century, glimpse every fascinating character  and witness every intrigue. Not that I want to witness executions or battles, since I have a good enough imagination without being there on the vile and bloody scene. I’d probably be extremely sick, and that would certainly spoil my anonymity.

But to meet Shakespeare – oh, that would be utterly glorious – to speak to him, and to see what he was really like. Then, less glorious but almost as interesting, there’s Henry VIII,  and the chance to discover whether he really was entirely unpleasant, cruel and dangerous as I imagine he was. And what about Anne Boleyn, Elizabeth I, Cromwell, Cecil and Walsingham? Then I could go back further, for I am curious about King Richard II and those thoroughly rigid and unbending kings Henry IV and V who took his throne.

Charles II would probably be more approachable. Any young and attractive looking female (yes, I’d have to make sure the Tardis arranged that too since I’m afraid even Charlie the promiscuous wouldn’t  look twice at me as I am) seemed fairly able to get close to that particular monarch. Actually it’s one of his more glorious courtiers, the sublimely talented and fascinating Earl of Rochester, who interests me more. And I know full well that an attractive female could get close to him too, and without much difficulty at all. Now wouldn’t that be fun! I could become a time-travel groupie.

Then there’s the distant but exotic past of other countries. I would adore to get a look at the much maligned Emperor Nero, maybe Spartacus, and certainly Genghis Khan. The Medicis were such amazing characters, De Vinci, the illusive Caravaggio, certainly Machiavelli, and there were some very exotic and dubious popes too.

I have my historical favourites, though the list is so long it would take me a lifetime of time-travel to meet them all. I also have historical characters I dislike very much – but since I believe in keeping an open mind where possible, perhaps it would be more to the point to discover what I could about the so-called villains. And that, of course, would include most of the Tudors. They have a lot of fans, those mad, bad larger than life Tudor personalities – and I can understand why, even though I don’t share the admiration. After all, it was such a colourful period of time, and everything sounds so dramatic.

I have other pet-hates. William the Conqueror, for instance. Now that’s a man who makes Henry VIII sound like a congenial hampster. And there’s Napoleon, who sounds like megalomania on speed. I suppose I could even get very adventurous and attempt to meet up (carefully from the shadows, with both my camera and my pistol at the ready of course) with Jack the Ripper, and discover who he really was.

time-travel-7-638Time travel is the ultimate dream, because history is made up of riddles, mysteries and endless questions. The documentation remaining to us is often limited, sometimes non-existent, and at the best, is written with the bias of the existing political imperative. There is everything to discover, and nothing to take for granted.

But in the end it is often the tiny things that fascinate me the most. The smell of the cities, and the bustle of the markets, the taste of the food and the touch of the old stone and plaster, the language of the past, the howling of wolves and the tolling of the bells. That’s what I want time travel for. I want to genuinely experience the absolute inside truth of what I imagine and write about every day.

So is there anyone else out there who has time travel all worked out yet? Where would you go first?

The Bones In The Urn

princes-in-the-towerThe drama, the tragedy and the thrill of a good colourful story obviously attracts. Villainy can seem far more interesting than honest hard working decency. So can we ever be convinced to relinquish our attraction to myth and propaganda.

The recent discovery of King Richard III’s burial site has renewed so much public interest that many of the old controversies are once again being discussed. Some articles and FB posts are astonishingly antagonistic, even when the writer clearly has never researched the subject at all, let alone seriously studied the few known facts. So why do people still feel so strongly about a historical figure who died more than 500 years ago?

Of course the main accusation against Richard III has always been the assumption that he murdered his nephews, and the discovery of the skeletons of two children under a Tower staircase in the 17th century has often been quoted as virtual proof of this dastardly act.

I should like to try and put a few of these assumptions into perspective.

In 1674 at the Tower of London a group of workmen were employed to demolish a stone staircase attached to the White Tower, and over several days had dug a full ten feet down to the level of the Tower foundations, when they came upon two human skeletons. Seeing little of interest in this discovery, they threw the bones, along with the surrounding rubble, onto the rubbish dump.

When they related these facts afterwards, others realized that this find could be of some importance. Since the skeletons appeared to be of two young people, being neither of fully grown adults nor of small children, someone began to wonder if these could be the remains of the so-called ‘princes in the Tower’ – i.e. the two sons of the late King Edward IV who had seemingly disappeared during the subsequent reign of King Richard III. Sometime later the bones were therefore recovered from the dump. The reigning monarch at the time (Charles II) subsequently ordered the bones entombment in an urn, to be kept in Westminster Abbey. The assumption, given that forensic examination was unknown at that time, was to accept the bones as those of the allegedly murdered ‘princes’.

This was certainly not the first time that human bones had been discovered in and around the Tower. However, not only did these particular skeletons seemingly, judging by size alone, match the ages of the king’s lost boys, but they were discovered under a staircase, and this rang bells with the unfinished story written long before by Sir Thomas More and entitled “The History of King Richard III.”

So those are the simple facts. But a considerable number of myths, misinterpretations and assumptions have gathered around these facts ever since, and the principal one concerns that same unfinished story left by Sir Thomas More.

Neither at the time, nor during the Tudor age following, did anyone else conjecture as to such precise details concerning the boys’ fates – though assumption continued and increased as the blackening of Richard III’s reputation became a political tool of the Tudors. The only reliable account of when they were last sighted (at least by anyone who cared to write of it) appears in a monkish chronicle which indicates they were still resident in the Tower in late August or early September 1483. Yet surprisingly the actual contemporary evidence appears to indicate that little interest was aroused in the vicinity at the time of this disappearance, and Londoners went about their business as usual. Whether the sons of Edward IV then died, were murdered, or were simply smuggled safely away, was guessed at but never proved.

It was not until around 1515 (30 years after the death of Richard III) that Sir Thomas More started to write his ‘history’. Over the years he wrote several versions of this but neither finished nor published any of them. They have survived however, and many researchers have chosen to take them seriously in spite of the anomalies, excessive number of mistakes, and insistence on recording discussions word for word even when the possibility of knowing what had been said was completely non-existent.

Within his pages, More initially records that the fate of the boys remained in doubt. Then later and quite suddenly he offers a detailed scenario of their heinous slaughter. He gives no explanation of how he could possibly know the exact details which he relates, however the story appears to be partially inspired by Polydore Vergil, the man recently employed by Henry VII to write a history of England. More, however, elaborates hugely on Vergil’s account, adding no end of specific extra colour. How (more than 30 years after the fact) he suddenly came by this wealth of gossip is difficult to imagine. Did More chat afterwards with the murderers? Did he talk with the priest, yet decide to confide in no one else even though he then wrote it down for anyone to read? Did he receive information from some other nameless soul, who also chose to disclose these essential facts to no one else? More, however, now confidently tells us that after their violent deaths the two sons of Edward IV were secretly buried at the foot of a staircase in the Tower of London. He then goes on to explain that Richard III (who had ordered the murders) objected to such an improper burial and ordered a priest to dig up the corpses and rebury them in another more suitable (but unnamed) place, and that this was promptly done.

So the burial under a stairwell is certainly mentioned. Yet according to More, (the only one ever to mention burial under a staircase at all) that is NOT where the two bodies were finally left. He specifically says they were moved to a secret place more appropriate to their station. And here the secret supposedly remained – no longer under a staircase at all.

Yet the actual ‘bones in the urn’ were originally found under a stone stair attached to the exterior of the White Tower (known as the Keep). Apart from the contradiction within More’s story, such a rigorous endeavour is difficult to accept as this area was the access point to the only entrance, and would certainly have been one of the busiest parts of the Tower. Anyone digging there would have been clearly visible. So we are asked to accept that a couple of amazingly determined murderers managed between them to dig 10 foot under solid stone, avoiding all passing gentry including the guards, and to deposit there two suspicious bundles – all while the ‘princes’’ staff raised no alarm nor even blinked in curiosity. And the subsequent solitary priest somehow dug them up again? As the night quickly passed, was he, in absolute secrecy, able to dig 10 foot under stone to rebury the boys’ remains? And if so, in accordance with More’s little book – why were they still found under the staircase?

At that time hundreds of busy people, many with their entire families, lived and worked in the Tower. This was no dreadful place of isolated dungeons and cold haunted corners. It was a royal palace with grand apartments and a number of council chambers, beautiful gardens complete with gardeners, clerks and administrators, a menagerie and its keepers, the Royal Mint and all its wealth of workers, a whole garrison of guards, kitchens, cooks, scullions and cleaners. How a pair of strange and suspicious ruffians could have dug such a deep secret grave in one night completely unnoticed by anyone is frankly an impossible situation. Even at night the Tower really was a hive of industry and activity, and the ‘princes’ themselves had servants day and night. They were not under arrest and nor were they locked in the dungeons – they lived together in a comfortable apartment and more than 14 personal staff were paid to look after them. Yet we are asked to believe that their murder was magically accomplished without anyone at all knowing how, who, or even exactly when.

But let us leave that puzzle and return to the urn. It rested undisturbed in the Abbey for many years, but in 1933 it was decided to open it and discover just what was inside.

The complete description of the contents is on record of course, and the boy’s remains were immediately examined by experts of the time.

Apart from the human remains, there were a number of animal bones – clearly all collected together from the rubbish pit. There were, however, no textiles of any kind. So please – let’s forget that other silly myth of the scraps of expensive velvet. Yes – hundreds of years ago an anonymous scribble in a margin evidently mentioned velvet – but no such thing is mentioned elsewhere, no such thing has survived in any form, and the anonymous scribble has also disappeared – if it ever existed in the first place. So no velvet. Another red herring.

I have also read that a dark stain which ‘could’ be blood, was found on one skull. After 200 years underground we are asked to accept an anonymous stain as an indication of violent murder??? And when this same skull had been left for some time rolling around with fresh animal remains from the butchers? Indeed, those who mentioned the possibility of the stain being blood, later entirely retracted their statement, although this important development is often overlooked. So please! Another ludicrous exaggerated myth.

Now the more important evidence – the scientific examination. Oh – but, wait a moment. This was 1933 and science has moved a long, long way since then. No DNA examination was possible back then. Carbon dating was not employed – too suspect, especially with bones that had been so contaminated for so long. Their antiquity could not therefore be established, so simple assumptions were made – which have been seriously questioned since. The age of the children when they died is also extremely open to opinion. There is absolutely no possibility of sexing these bones. They could have been girls and this remains perfectly likely. At the time a conclusion was made that the two children had been related (this from an examination of the teeth and not from DNA) which has now been shown as probably erroneous. Historians and orthopaedic experts are divided. Some still maintain that these remains ‘could’ be the sons of Edward IV, while others point out the inconsistencies and inaccuracies. There really is no consensus of specialist opinion. The arguments have occasionally become quite heated and no confirmed or complete conclusion has been reached. And there are other anomalies.

For instance, it has been shown that the lower jaw bone of the elder child indicates the presence of a serious bone disease. This would have been both painful and visible. Yet the young Edward V is documented as having been fit, active, prepared for coronation, and described as ‘good looking’. No record is shown of any such existing disease which would have seriously undermined his future life and reign.

There’s another red herring here. Doctor Argentine, the elder prince’s long-standing physician, related that, “the young king, like a victim prepared for sacrifice, sought remission of his sins by daily confession and penance, because he believed death was facing him.”

But Dr. Argentine did not visit his charge because of ailing health. All junior royalty were under the permanent care of doctors who were responsible for their day to day health. A doctor’s appearance here was a consistent matter of course, and would have been ever since birth. And the prince’s recorded statement, apart from being second-hand hearsay, is extremely ambiguous. I doubt he was cheerful at the time, poor boy – with his status in doubt, and his expected coronation suddenly delayed. He may well have expected (and been warned by his dour and pessimistic Lancastrian and Woodville guardians) a bitter end. This does not mean it actually occurred.

So these are the basic facts, and as anyone can see, they do not point specifically in any direction. They prove nothing, not even circumstantially, and any assumption that the bones in the urn are almost certainly those of the two lost boys of Edward IV is absolutely unjustified. Until permission is finally given (many have asked and always been denied) for the urn to be opened once more and the contents subjected to up-to-date forensic examination, we cannot know anything at all. So far the very sketchy facts seem to point towards the bones dating from Norman, or even from Roman times, and at least some experts strongly suggest that the elder is female.

Those interested authors of articles claiming these bones are definitely those of the lost boys, are either fooling themselves or attempting to fool their readers.

Should the bones eventually be examined and proved by DNA matching to be the ‘princes’ after all – we may with our present level of technology discover roughly when they died (to the nearest 50 years). We may perhaps also ascertain the causes of their deaths, but unless there are signs of injury it is unlikely we will learn whether they were killed – still less who killed them.

If, on the other hand, as seems most likely, they are proved NOT to be the ‘princes’ it will settle a long-standing controversy, and provide some very interesting material for archaeological study. In particular it will silence some of the more exaggerated and erroneous myths.

There remains the bigger question – WHAT exactly happened to Edward IV’s sons, and on whose orders? Well that is quite another problem – and there is as yet no answer to that either.

Dragons: An Endangered Species?

cute-dragons-paintings-illustrations-lynton-levengood-2The common species of dragon, Draconem Drakontos to give the full title, has actually been in decline since the days of Job. Indeed, it is a considerable time since I have glimpsed one in the wild. Are they perhaps already almost extinct?

I well remember those sweet months in my youth, now long gone, when I lay back, eyes closed on a summer’s afternoon in the sweet perfumed valleys of Crete, Kerkira or Rhodes, listening to a mother dragon crooning to her young. Those less aggressive species – the Popinjay Drakon for instance, or the smallerMagentium Grekos – once nested in large numbers in the foothills, hunting in the warm evenings when the thermals lifted their lazy wing beats.

But no more. I have again tramped the primrose fields, the buttercup slopes, and the forests of wild thyme beneath autumn’s saffron birches. I have stood amongst the foothills and whistled, waiting for the young ones to chirp in answer. I have even climbed the crags, cautiously peering into the mouths of the darkest caves. But there are no rumblings, no smoky breath rising from the shadows, and no sudden glint of a heavy lidded golden eye. I fear the worst.

There are warnings of climate change. For a thousand years the weather has been mild and even the mountains have shone in the sunshine up to their highest points. The snow bright tips have long glimmered, melting into fast rivulets in the spring. These were the dragons’ favourite haunts, offering balmy pastures for sun-soaking, and giving clean water for drinking and bathing. No respectable lizard of any size would flash his tail unless it dazzled, nor present grubby scales to the dawns’ pastel rainbows. Each species needs these sparkling springs, and each species loves the heat, for their chilly blood needs warming throughout the daylight hours.

But now the freezes are longer and more severe, the ice creeps down as far as the tree line and the villagers go hungry in winter. They protect their domestic stock more fiercely, and so have made war on the dragons. The great beasts of the skies are not easy to kill, but the younger ones, more used to man’s friendly wave than the aim of his arrows, have become easy targets. Yet who can blame a shepherd desperate to save his flock, or a new husband eager to provide a better living for his bride?

The last dragon I ever saw in the wild was a huge black Serpentium Drakos, flaming the topscanstockphot0 of the trees as he swept towards the cliffs. He disappeared over the ocean, a vast shadow rippling the Adriatic’s turquoise swells. I still dream of that final sighting, wondering if it will ever be repeated.

There are still a few sorry creatures in captivity of course, though taming them is not easy. George, patron saint of the Rus and of England, kept an elderly female I believe, which was permitted to scavenge after the candles were extinguished in the family kitchens in ancient Rome. This was probably one of the smaller Zmey Gorynych. But we all know dragons do not breed at all when kept confined, and although their natural lifespan is extensive, no eggs have ever been laid unless both male and female are permitted to fly free. Their aerial courtship is indeed wondrous, and the roars of a mating male can be heard for many miles. But will that majestic cry ever be heard again?

There are islands in the east where a lesser species, Varanus Komodoensis, is said to exist in plentiful numbers, and young Marco Polo has described the beasts in some detail. But evidently this poor animal is dull coloured and has no wings. Although beautiful in its own way, it can only plod the hillocks and beaches, spitting venom as it lumbers along. I have heard it cannot even breathe fire, but I doubt that is true. What sort of dragon is it that cannot set alight to its own nest to warm its toes each night? Perhaps, rather than a true dragon, this is a form of giant monitor lizard, which, as everyone knows, is an affiliated species of inferior appearance. For instance, they seem to be mainly ambush predators, ungainly since they are confined to land, and are understandably bad tempered.

There are, I admit, some European dragons of a particularly vicious character. Dragon-lover though I am, I should not wish to come face to face with a full grown Smithsonian Wilberforce on a dark evening, or the even more fearsome Izzyontus Floentius, which is a night prowler with an enormous appetite. Indeed, I once knew a pleasant young man who lost three wives to one such specimen of this particular species. I found it a little surprising that this bereft husband had not taken better care of his family – nor had removed his household to a place somewhat more distant – but I sympathised with him for all that. He never seemed especially heartbroken to me, but then I cannot judge the difficulties of others. I only know I would not build my own home within the confines of a small valley directly beneath such a creature’s nesting cave. However, I was not amused when one other young man, when hearing that I feared dragons were in sharp decline right across the mainland, announced loudly that he believed the sooner they died out, the better. I challenged him over this, but he explained that in his childhood he had lived in a small kingdom far to the west where dragons had terrorised the inhabitants until finally they left out food for them each week. The occasional sheep – bales of nesting hay – sometimes an inadvertent virgin (when one could be found) – were chained to the town’s maypole and then everyone retired to their homes, locked their doors, pulled their shutters tight, and listened in terror to the dragons’ screeches and their wretched prey’s screams.

images (4)Islands of England and the Nor-Way sightings were never plentiful. Once, long ago, according to the story of Beowulf, there lived a dragon which the men of the viks eventually slaughtered. It had been a bad tempered creature by all accounts, hardly surprising given the chilly weather conditions in that area, but then the men of the Viks always did enjoy a good bloody murder to keep themselves warm. The English Isle is no better and they say a large fat red haired king now rules there, and without dragons to slaughter, he kills off his wives instead. Those people do at least celebrate the great stories of the past, for they paint dragons on their helms and pennants, and one small dark tribal culture adorns their castle doors and sword hilts with the dragon’s familiar shape, referring to the once local species

And so there we have it. Draconem Drakontos will soon be no more. What will future generations of animal lovers think, I wonder? They may hardly even believe in the existence of dragons, and call it a fantasy or a myth. Of course such an idea may seem ludicrous to us now – and anyone absurd enough to deny the existence of dragons might just as well deny the existence of giants, monopods or the phoenix. And after all, we will at least leave behind us plenty of stories and paintings of our glorious wildlife. But then, with the decline of the dragon, and the equally obvious decline of standards, manners and education in the younger generation, the children of the future may prove ignorant indeed.

Medieval Markets

medieval-merchant-guildThere’s birdsong and the swoop of the ravens looking for fallen scraps, but loudest of all are the calls buzzing in the sunshine and echoing across the field; come buy my apples and cabbages, tin whistles, kidney pies and wooden beads. There’s the old man ready to pull rotten teeth for a penny a tooth, and your blood may soon stain his apron. There’s the goose-boy with his flock hissing and trying to flap their way past his guiding stick. Their flat feet are tarred, ready for the long walk to the shambles and the butchers’ shops.

The sun shines on the awnings, stripes on oiled canvas and a protection if it starts to rain. But the sun is gleaming across the brass where the  candlestick maker is polishing his wares and the sky is clear and cloudless. No wood smoke spirals from the thatched cottages and their tall chimneys surrounding the market square..

“Hot pies straight from the oven, four pence farthing and worth twice as much.” “Fresh turnips, still damp from the earth.” “Cockles, muscles and  herrings still bright with salt.” “Silk ribbons for your lady-love,” and “Strawberries, pretty as your wife’s cheeks in the morning.”

There’s a perfume of beeswax from the chandler’s stall, and warm crusty bread from the communal ovens, then there’s the rotten stench from the piled gutters where the offal, blood, and the spoiled fruit collects, but above them al, floating free on the golden air there’s the sweet fresh smells of herbs and ripe berries.

Markets in the late medieval period might open weekly, others only monthly, but in the old City of London some were daily and the housewives could shop as they wished. But markets not only had goods for sale.

Dog fights were staged and wagers taken. Cock fighting was popular, and even bull and bear baiting. These were spectacles mainly for men, but some women also join the spectators, or take bets.

On –the-spot medicine, crafts such as wooden puppet carving and stalls where coopers, shoemakers and tailors would sit and work, attracted customers who passed and stopped to watch such skill.

The market was also the place to meet friends, to discuss business, to pick up a prostituteDaily routine of medieval merchant (medieval woodcut) behind one of the stalls, to swap the latest scandal and rumour, and to shout “Stop Thief” and set up a hue and cry.

This was the centre for surreptitious illegal practises as well as excellent ones. Not pick-pocketing since there were no pockets in those days – but purse snatching, a quick grab from one of the stalls, or the theft of one thing while the stall-keeper was busy selling something else. There was no police force and citizens were expected to do their own policing, unless the crime called for the Constable and his assistant to come from his nearby chambers and sort matters out. Yet what went on behind the hedge and the shadowed awnings was ignored by most.

The life of medieval London was my first temptation into what has become my passionate fascination with research. I have read and studied for many, many long years until now I can walk the old cobbled streets with my eyes shut, am haunted by the cries of the market vendors, and dream of The Tower, the river in flood, and the everyday lives of the people, rich, poor, noble and criminal.

Who could resist the markets of the past?

The Deliciously Wicked Earl of Rochester

John_WilmotThe perfect romantic hero means something rather different to different people. One of my favourite historical figures comes very close for me.

John Wilmot, the 2nd Earl of Rochester, (1647-1680) was one of Restoration England’s most fascinating and unusual characters.  His life was hardly routine – and it started with his father. The first earl earned his title when he loyally and most courageously helped the young Charles II escape England during the civil war, both in outrageous disguise before successfully escaping to safe haven abroad. So the first earl was quite a character too, heavy drinking, firmly royalist and unstoppable when roused. Not that young John ever saw much of him. The first earl seemed to fear only one thing – the responsibility of his wife and child. So John was left to grow up in puritan England with his strictly religious mother, a clever and sensitive young man who heard of his father’s heroic exploits – but did not meet him and knew himself unwanted.

As the puritan age was eventually swept away with the return of the roistering new monarch, it must have been quite an adjustment for most people. Brought up to consider even Christmas carols, the hint of a dance, bright clothes and any dash of decoration in a church as heinous blasphemy, quite suddenly England was rollicking with song, colour and bawdy celebration. Fashionable clothes became sumptuous with luxury, long wigs, lace and jewellery. This was a time when those who had lived under sufferance when puritanism was law, now raged in rebellion against all that pious suffocation.

John Wilmot’s mother tended to cling to past moral standards, but her clever son was accepted into Oxford University by the age of 12, and later the following year was taken on the grand tour of France and Italy where he discovered many more exciting temptations. He lost his virginity, and was possibly further introduced to vice by his accompanying tutor.

Whatever the facts, John Wilmot returned to England with a good deal more knowledge than he had left it. His father dead, he was now the 2nd earl, with a head full of inspiration and dreams. He loved poetry, which was most definitely in fashion at court during that time, and began tentatively to write his own. However, living a life of ease and pleasure was considered not only the God-given right of a gentleman but also essential, since no nobleman could be seen to trade  – let alone work!! But the Earldom of Rochester came with virtually no land, property or acquisitions, and the 2nd earl was as poor as a church mouse. The king made allowances, but the king rarely paid up and his promises were frequently empty ones.

So how has Rochester become the inspiration for a multitude of historical romances? It all started when he attempted to abduct the woman he wanted to marry. Elizabeth Malet was an heiress, and her two greedy guardians refused Rochester, the poverty stricken young earl, all permission to court her. She was being approached by far more eligible suitors, although she had refused them all. She was very young, attractive, high spirited and rich. What more could any man want?

It does seem that Rochester was genuinely in love with the lady, and it became clear that abduction was the only way to get her. Sadly it failed when the coach was seen and stopped. The prospective bride was saved and the 18 year old Rochester was arrested and thrown into the Tower of London. Not into a cell, rather a tiny apartment – but the door was locked and with the plague rife in London at the time, there was considerable danger. He pleaded with the king and was eventually set free. He promptly joined the Dutch wars and following his father’s example, acted with considerable courage, becoming a naval hero.

The Lady Elizabeth, had declined all offers of marriage in his absence and on his return to England, they immediately escaped her guardians and eloped. This action leads me to suspect that it was Elizabeth herself, rather than Rochester, who actually organised the earlier abduction. She was in love with the handsome young man with an infectious sense of humour who had secretly wooed her with poetry and wildly romantic demonstrations. Besides, her strict guardians must have been driving her mad!

And so they were married. But they failed to live happily ever after, although it would seem they were gloriously happy at times and managed to produce four children, three girls and a boy. But Rochester was soon in the employ of the king and therefore obliged to stay in London at court while his wife stayed on the country estate. When separated, Rochester was anything but faithful. He followed the court’s and king’s example and frequented the brothels and theatres. Actresses at that time were little different from prostitutes and Rochester became particularly involved with one – Elizabeth Barry who he tutored until she became the most lauded actress of her time. I think some historians have over-exaggerated the seriousness of this affair, but in any case they did produce one child, a little girl named Elizabeth whom Rochester quickly adopted onto his own estates after breaking up with the mother. Thus at one time he had a wife named Elizabeth, a legitimate daughter Elizabeth, a mistress Elizabeth and an illegitimate daughter Elizabeth. Well at least he wasn’t in danger of saying the wrong name by mistake at impolitic moments.

The revolt against the previous regime of enforced puritanism had also led to an age ofJohn_Wilmot2 heavy drinking, and here again Rochester was no exception. Far worse – he contracted syphilis which was rife at that time. A hideous disease, it was both misunderstood and incurable. The ghastly agonies that syphilis brought to its many sufferers is almost unimaginable, and Rochester began to die. It took years of collapse and remission during which time he wrote swathes of the most glorious poetry, and also finally converted from atheist to religious believer

Some of his shorter verses introduced ideas which have since been copied a thousand times by modern comedians, poets and philosophers without them realising where those ideas originated. From the vulgar:

Oh that I could by some chemic art,

To sperm convert my vitals and my heart,

That at one thrust I might my soul translate,

And in the womb myself regenerate:

There steeped in lust nine months I would remain;

Then boldly f— my passage out again.

To the melancholy:

Since death on all lays his impartial hand

And all resign at his command;

The Stoic too, as well as I,

With all his gravity must die;

Let’s wisely manage this last span,

The momentary life of man,

And still in pleasure’s circle move,

Giving our days to friends, and all our nights to love.

He has long been famed as a libertine but during the Restoration period the king and nobility indulged in a form of sexual licence rarely known before or after. Drunken libertines were common currency, but Rochester was an awful lot more than that. He made friends with the king although the friendship was a rocky one, adored his wife though hurt her badly, loved and was loved by his children, fought duels, led a madly adventurous life of escapes, disguises, pretence, artistic creation of the highest quality, dissolution and uproarious humour. There was certainly no one quite like him, even in that era of extravagance and accepted moral corruption.  He was tall, handsome, eloquent and dashing, and as far as we can tell from his poetry, he certainly knew how to make love. His courage and honesty continued, he was unafraid of telling the truth even to royalty, and although he had married an heiress, it would seem he took little advantage of her wealth. Religion was a matter of supreme importance back then and Protestants and Catholics were bitter enemies, but Rochester stood apart as unashamedly atheist until his final and heartfelt conversion. Some of his poetry is astonishingly vulgar, hilariously shocking, but most is exceptionally beautiful, insightful and often impressively intellectual. He was probably the best satirist, wit and poet of his age (and there were many around) whilst also the most outrageously interesting character of that era. But he died tragically young at the age of 33, leaving a reputation which has lasted more than 400 years.

Now, how many fictional romantic heroes does that remind you of?

The Torture of the Rack

The RackNot far from me, soar the unexpected battlements of a small castle. Standing in the neat pastoral greenery of the Australian countryside, it is fairly easy to spot that this is a modern replica. Sadly there are not many genuine medieval castles in the Australian countryside! No – this castle is purely for children and tourists and I have played the tourist there myself. It is good fun, well made and well presented. Entertainment takes many forms.

But one aspect I actually found rather sad, for there is a large replica rack set up in one of the courtyards – the most common form of early authoritarian torture. Below this there is a torture chamber complete with gory exaggeration, magnified screams and oozing artificial blood. The children love it!

But in the past, the rack was all too horrifyingly real. There is no record of who originally invented this vile instrument, but there is documentation of its use back in Roman times. The exact dimensions were probably altered over the centuries but the basic method of use remained the same. The medieval design we now recognise consisted of a rectangular wooden frame with a large roller at one or both ends. Chained by his ankles to the lower roller, and by his wrists to the higher, the victim was gradually stretched as the interrogator or his assistant would turn the levers, forcing the rollers to turn contrary to the victim’s body.

The pain would be utterly excruciating as the chains or ropes pulled taut and then wound away over the rollers, possibly (if the prisoner persistently refused to confess) to the point of dislocating and finally breaking his knee, ankle, elbow, wrist and eventually even his shoulder and hip joints. The muscles and tendons would be torn beyond mending, and the victim would be crippled for life. Eventually the bones, cartilage, ligaments, muscles and tendons could all be entirely destroyed. But since he (or sometimes she) would undoubtedly talk and confess at some point during this relentless torture, he would then be executed anyway. Many could no longer walk to the place of execution, bend their knees, nor raise their hands.

As if this terrible agony was not sufficient, other abuses could be applied at the same time. Castration, the brutal extraction of toe and finger nails, and burning with red hot branding irons were all sometimes applied. When the sufferer fainted, he was brought round and forced to face his fate again. Certainly this brutality confirms that those employed to inflict such horrors were undoubtedly sadistic by nature. However, this awful pain was not actually considered simply as a punishment.

At the time it was generally supposed that if a suspect of some serious crime refused to answer questions or acknowledge his sins, then he (or she) should be encouraged to do so by the use of torture. Fear and pain, it was believed, would enforce cooperation. No doubt this was frequently true. However, such agony as that produced by prolonged use of the rack would also force the victim to say anything and everything, whether true or not, in order to put a stop to the suffering. Clearly victims often implicated other innocent people in order to save themselves.

But it is only recently that we realise the obvious – which is that information obtained under torture is by no means reliable.

This form of torture was more commonly used in France during the medieval period, but the rack was brought to the Tower of London in the mid 1400s by the 2nd Duke of Exeter who was Constable of the Tower at the time, and thus gave the rack its nickname, i.e. The Duke of Exeter’s Daughter. However, any use of torture was illegal in England during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III, but was then legally permitted during early Tudor times specifically for the crime of treason. Those suspected of treason could, in this way, be ‘persuaded’ to admit their own complicity, and name their co-conspirators.

Gradually this practise became more readily sanctioned and as the Tower turned from a royal palace and centre of diverse and busy occupation into a collection of dungeons with a reputation of dread and terror, the screams of the victims of torture grew more regular. As the Tudor reigns continued, so other methods of torture were also devised, and use of the rack became a frequent ‘deterrent’.

I researched the use of the rack and its terrible consequences for my recent novel3-the-rackSumerford’s Autumn’ and quickly realised the appalling possibilities of Tudor torture. What haunted me even more than the vile device itself, was the state of mind of someone who could invent such a device, the state of mind of someone who would willingly put it into practice – and finally the state of mind of the wretched victim, knowing what he was about to face. Indeed, sometimes victims were forced to watch the torture of some other accused prisoner first, with the expectation that what he saw would make him quickly confess rather than experience such agony himself. Yet the courage of some was phenomenal, and there were those who refused to talk even after hours of undergoing such cruelty.

The enforced dislocation of one joint after another must have been excruciating. I personally find it hard to imagine the sheer horror of both my knees being ripped apart at the same time. Nor can I easily visualise the methodical sadism of the torturer as he slowly rotated the lever, to further cripple the victim. I am haunted by those sounds echoing in the cold stone chamber – the creak of the cogs and wheels, the rumble as the rollers once again begin to turn, the jangle and snap as the chains pull suddenly taut, the murmured demands of the torturer and finally the agonised screams of the prisoner.

Perhaps pain was accepted as a little more inevitable in those days when few diseases were curable and everyday comfort was comparatively rare. Ordinary folk worked crushing hours at backbreaking toil, and there was no proper anaesthetic to help with the cut and slice of surgery and amputation, the pain of childbirth and the frequency of common accidents. Beyond all such average conditions, there was also battle, which was a matter of hand to hand violence involving intense brutality, enormous bloodshed and appalling suffering before death. Certainly the preaching of the church at the time was considered imperative, and devotion to God was an accepted principal of everyday life. Sadly however, the church itself was not beyond advocating violence. The earlier conflicts of the crusaders for instance, often shockingly cruel on both sides, were born from the beliefs of Pope Urban II in 1095, while the Vatican considered that heresy should be punishable by burning alive, and torture was authorised by the church itself during the Inquisitions.

But there was equally an understanding of love, empathy, kindness, care, generosity and loyalty just as strong as we have now. People in general were by no means stupid nor cruel by nature. So one cannot help wondering about the conscience of those who sanctioned and applied the use of torture themselves, while fully understanding its implications.

So use of the rack continued, and was accepted right up until the 17th century. Copies of the terrible device still stand in many places, reminding us of the horrors once inflicted. Yet now I have researched the truth, it is definitely not something I will ever be able to laugh at, nor treat as amusing entertainment. I can only wonder at the dread of living in the past, when even an innocent soul might sometimes be faced with torture. Writing of such an episode in my historical novel ‘Sumerford’s Autumn’, I found quite a harrowing experience.

Richard III: Elected Monarch or Usurper?

Facebook-20160110-073124Very little reliable documentary evidence survives from the Middle Ages. The life and times of Richard III therefore remain a period of frustration and fascination for historians, scholars and interested amateurs alike. So why is it – when one very clear contemporary document survives from that period – that so many people choose either to ignore it, or disbelieve it?

This one original and incontrovertible document dates from 1484. It sets forth in plain language (of the time) the entitlement to the throne of the man crowned Richard III, and states that, after certain facts were brought to light which made it clear that King Edward IV’s sons were now considered illegitimate and young Warwick, Clarence’s son, was debarred by his father’s attainder, Richard, at that time Duke of Gloucester, stood next in line.

After lengthy investigation and consideration of the newly disclosed situation by the Royal Council and the members of Parliament originally called to London for the expected coronation of the young prince, (most of whom were present) the agreed conclusion was that the crown should be offered to Richard, who was already ratified as Protector of the Realm. He was petitioned by the three estates, being the Lords Temporal, the Lords Spiritual, and representatives of the Commons who included a good many leading citizens of London. He was officially and legally asked to take the throne. It could actually be said that he was elected. Indeed, the wording of Titulus Regius includes the words ‘this Eleccion of us the Three Estates’, And yet he is consistently accused of being a usurper, and of having ‘seized’ the throne.

The accepted modern meaning of the verb ‘to usurp’ according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is simply: “To take a position of power illegally or by force.”  Using this definition alone, it is perfectly clear that a man who was asked after due deliberation by England’s government to accept the throne, a right which was then ratified by the full parliament, did not in any manner usurp that position.

However, the modern definition of usurpation does not always sit easily in history. After the initial
tyranny of kings was firmly established in 1066 with the unarguable usurpation of William I, over subsequent reigns England gradually began to modify and moderate her attitude to the royal rights of inheritance and the power of both kings and lords of the realm. Unlike the French model which continued doggedly with absolute power resting in the hands of royalty, England changed, adapted, and finally adopted a system of government by which an alternative administration could substitute for the rule ofher monarch in certain matters when he was considered incapacitated either by age or health.

The Plantagenet line continued to uphold the right of kings to pass down the crown todrawing_richard_III1-134x300 their sons or grandsons, but clearly this was not always possible and under such circumstances, suitable but less direct heirs were necessarily sought within the bloodline. With this in mind, accusations of usurpation have been levelled against the first Lancastrian king, Henry IV who took the throne in 1399 and even against King Edward IV (1461). This went to the heart of the Wars of the Roses, but it is important to remember that in both cases, i.e. the enforced abdication of Richard II and the crowning of Henry IV as monarch in his place, and later the official acceptance of Edward IV’s father Richard, Duke of York, as the heir to Henry VI, these were actions carried out in circumstances where the monarch of the day had forfeited confidence and support by showing himself to be dangerously unfit to rule. And, of course, both these irregular successions were enacted and confirmed by Parliament. The term ‘usurpation’, therefore, now depends on whose side the speaker is on. Clearly the succession rights of kings were not inviolate and the later opinion (of Tudors and Stuarts, for instance) that an anointed monarch held an unarguable God-given right to absolute power, did not at all apply in the 15thcentury.

In 1483 following the death of Edward IV, it was expected that his eldest son would inherit the throne as Edward V. Yet shortly before his coronation, Robert Stillington (Bishop of Bath and Wells) announced that Edward IV’s marriage to the mother of the heir to the throne had been, to state it simply, bigamous, and that therefore all his children were illegitimate.  Stillington was an important and respected ecclesiastical figure, and a previous Lord Chancellor of Edward IV, so his word would have been taken very seriously indeed. It is hard to see what possible benefit he would have gained from lying. Indeed, a good deal of detriment was the far more likely result had his story been false. His announcement, however, would never have been accepted without enormous investigation. Whatever proofs he offered we can no longer know. There is no surviving record of his exact report, nor of any witnesses called or other evidence shown at the time. But the lady who was named as Edward IV’s first wife was the Lady Eleanor Talbot, daughter of the Earl of Shrewsbury and sister to the Duchess of Norfolk, a widow and member of a noble and highly important family. Not someone to make the subject of ludicrous and improper rumours. The Lady Eleanor was now deceased, but she had been very much alive when Edward married Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of his children. Many close and high-powered members of Lady Eleanor’s family were still alive and would certainly not have stood silent if they knew the lady was being wrongfully slandered.

Some now choose simply to disbelieve Stillington’s claim. Yet they have not one shred of evidence to support this, nor one hint that this first marriage never took place. Certainly direct proofs that it did take place are also lacking. A few bewildered souls ask where’s the marriage certificate? But no such thing existed in 15th century and you could, for instance, take a lady’s hand, vow to wed her, and if she accepted, you then tumbled her into bed to consummate the match – and lo and behold – you were legally man and wife. The church was naturally not happy with this sort of clandestine affair without banns being called and often without witnesses – but it happened all the time and it was legally binding.

That King Edward IV favoured this type of thing was blatantly obvious, because that’s also exactly what happened the second time around. He wed Elizabeth Woodville in secret, in exactly that same manner. Indeed, he is often said to have ‘married for love’ – an unusual thing for a king in those days. But it was a very strange sort of love – for he made no mention of his secret wedding for 5 whole months. During those months the lady was never invited to the palace, she was entirely unacknowledged, her existing sons (she was a widow), instead of being taken in and elevated by the king, were given elsewhere as wards, and the king even sent his courtiers off abroad to start negotiating for a foreign princess to become his wife. But then, quite suddenly after those long silent months, to the bewilderment of almost the entire country and the dismay of most of the lords. King Edward announced the marriage. He brought his suddenly admitted queen to court, and that was that. A clandestine wedding led to a new queen and eventually a parcel of royal children.

So had he done this on other occasions in the past, yet never acknowledged it? Certainly Lady Eleanor Talbot came into some unusual bequests for which there is no known explanation, nor clear manner in which they could have been acquired. She then retired into permanent religious seclusion.

It does seem strange to many that this wronged and misused lady did not complain, did not announce her legal status as queen, nor denounce her legal husband, even when he took another wife. I have no answer to this beyond pointing out the logic of the situation. This was a high-born lady, and ladies, especially of a religious nature, did not whine or openly humiliate themselves by publicising the fact that they had been used, bedded, ravished, and then abandoned. Nor did they try to cause rebellion and unease (in a land so recently returning to peace) by accusing the king of dishonesty and immorality. She also ran the risk, if she made public announcements, that the king might deny the marriage and thus humiliate her further. Instead she accepted his apology and his gifts (my assumption), though continued to act (as in the manner of making her last will and testament) as a married woman with a living husband. And after all, while the king lived, it was a personal matter anyway and did not yet affect government or the people. It was not until he died and his eldest son’s legitimacy was in question, that the truth of this situation became politically imperative.

So with Edward V no longer considered of legitimate royal descent, Richard, Duke of Gloucester, stood as the one direct and legally legitimate heir.

The document itself (Titulus Regius) states clearly that incontrovertible evidence existed and could be forthcoming if and when required. It was later stated that proofs had already been brought before the Council “authentic doctors, proctors and notaries of the law, with depositions from divers witnesses.” Lady Eleanor Talbot’s powerful family surely stood witness. Certainly none of these relatives came forward to deny the claim, or to defend the lady’s honour by refuting the existence of this clandestine marriage. So why doubt such proofs existed? People were no more stupid at that time than they are now and it is highly ridiculous to presume that they would have accepted such a dramatic and inconvenient fact on the eve of the new young king’s coronation, unless they were well and truly convinced.

The frequent modern assumption that Stillington’s claim of bigamy was not only untrue but a clear manipulation by the evil and ambitious Richard III to usurp and seize the throne, is not only a leap of huge unproven prejudice, but it completely and naïvely overlooks the known power and position of the Royal Council and Parliament of the day. Ignoring the delightful genius of Shakespeare’s dramatic fiction, and the less delightful fiction of Tudor chroniclers who supplied the stories he told, we should at least respect the experience and intelligence of the lords, remembering also the obvious precedent of parliamentary decision regarding Richard II and Henry VI as mentioned above.

Stillington’s announcement must have been made during the latter half of May 1483. It is clear that in the following weeks the Royal Council and those representatives of Parliament present in London met in discussion many times.

The supposition  that Richard of Gloucester had the power to threaten and bully all those poor cringing medieval lords is frankly laughable. For a start, Richard’s troops were miles away in Yorkshire, whereas most of the lords had their own armed retinues, not to mention huge private armies on which they could call. Many held particular powers and all were men of substance. These were not lords to be easily bullied, nor convinced without very good reason. A figure of 32 lords temporal, 66 knights, 44 lords spiritual with access to the Pope should they feel obliged to call on him, and 30 members of the Commons have been recorded during meetings of four hours or more, although the Royal Council itself was smaller in number.

Are we now arrogant enough to suppose that these were all corrupt fools to be duped or bribed, incompetent cowards to be frightened into compliance, or men without the slightest interest in the future of the land in which they lived and which supported them and their families and property? It appears that many of us completely underestimate the power of the lords, council and parliament during the 15th century and are happy to ignore the legal precedent for the lords and parliament to debate and determine the situation when the king’s rule was, for whatever reason, in question.

Some now argue that even if proved illegitimate, Edward V could still, with parliamentary agreement, have been accepted as king. But it is clear that parliament rejected any such compromise, since the lords logically and clearly preferred the proven competency of a grown man already ratified as Protector of the Realm and known for his leadership quality.

We also need to remember that King Edward IV had several illegitimate children by various mistresses. Making one illegitimate child legally able to inherit the throne, could even possibly have opened a chain of claims by others. Besides, bastardy called into question not only the capability of the bastard himself to inherit, but looking ahead down the generations, even if overlooked in Edward V himself, it invited later questions as to his dynasty.

The often repeated cries of “Bigamy? A pre-contract? No. It couldn’t be true. It was too convenient,” or “Too much of a coincidence,” can come only from those who already assume Richard guilty of ambitious connivance and malicious manipulation.  Only by assuming his guilt and duplicity before the fact, can these accusations be made. This is why we cannot take at face value the handful of hostile narratives from those times, because their preconceptions are evident to even the most cursory scrutiny. And significantly, there are no surviving records from the governing council that supported Richard.

Opnamedatum:  2012-07-31

Opnamedatum: 2012-07-31

Once you set aside any existing bias, it is clear that this was highly inconvenient, and there was no coincidence at all. It threw everybody into chaos. We cannot even be sure if Richard wanted the throne. Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps he did. It doesn’t matter. He was the remaining heir and he was asked to accept the throne. Thant’s on record. The matter was put to the three estates of English government who decided that Richard of Gloucester had a clear duty to take the throne. Richard accepted. Actually he had little choice.

Conflicting loyalties and self-interest produced protestors as always, but no one at the time actually refuted the accusation of bigamy posthumously directed against Edward IV. Even Elizabeth Woodville, the mother of the ‘princes’ now declared illegitimate, apparently placed no objection.  She was now living within the precincts of Westminster sanctuary, comfortably in the Abbot’s house, where she had direct access to the considerable higher authority of ecclesiastical power (her own brother was Bishop Lionel Woodville) and could easily have made a direct plea to the Pope for a church ruling and intervention. She did none of these things. She accepted the ruling, just as if she had already known the truth of the matter.

Therefore whether you like the sound of King Richard or not – one thing is entirely clear. He was officially and legally petitioned to accept the throne of England, and contemporary legal documentation proves this. He did not usurp nor seize anything. He could be said to have been legally elected by Parliament. He was fully acknowledged and anointed as monarch when his coronation was duly attended by virtually every peer in England, even those whose families supported the Lancastrian dynasty.

So those, including those claiming to be ‘open-minded,’ but who begin their articles by calling Richard III a usurper, or stating that he ‘seized’ the throne, are either proclaiming their secret bias, or they should enlarge their area of research.

With thanks to many, and to various sources, but with particular gratitude to Annette Carson and her books “A Small Guide to the Great Debate,” and “Richard III: The Maligned King.”