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.”

Pollution And Privies: Medieval Delights

bath-houseThe question of hygiene in past eras is a fascinating one. It is a subject which seems to invite a feast of different assumptions – and I have heard everything from “They were filthy – never washed because the church said it was sinful – and stank the place out,” through to: “No, they were regular bathers, washed their clothes frequently and smelled no worse than we do today.” The truth is probably somewhere in the middle, but during the period that interests me which is the late 15th century, I veer more towards a belief in cleanliness rather than the opposite. However – nothing is ever quite that simple.

We have it on record, for instance, that in one large noble household all linen, including the intimate apparel of the nobility themselves, was thoroughly washed every three days. We are given to assume from this that bedding was changed often, also shifts and sweaty shirts, whilst the gentlemen changed their braies (underpants) that frequently. But of course this information, although fascinating, is as deceptive as most of the rest.

Since wealthy gentlemen would certainly have owned more than one pair of braies, it is perfectly possible that they put on a clean pair every morning rather than waiting for wash-day, and the three day wash cycle would therefore be irrelevant in that respect. On the other hand, some men might have refused to keep such hygienic habits. Washing whatever was passed to the laundry girls every three days does not prove everyone discarded their dirty underwear that often. Nor can we be sure that other establishments carried out laundry duties with the same regularity. Some may have been even more diligent. Others may have been far more lax.

I also imagine that having been jousting for most of the day, or after having spent several days in the saddle, (not an unusual practise) the clothes would be sweaty and grimy, however often they were usually washed at home. So cleanliness was considered advisable up to a point – but what probably did not happen was the sort of shocked disgust at dirt and smells which we now experience. They would all have been far more accustomed to grime.  So his grubby knickers might not be the worst of your problems when your gallant knight came riding home.
Bed and table linen was regularly washed and then spread out on the hedges to dry in the sun. However, the nobility’s outer clothes were rarely washed. The great sweeping velvets and heavy brocades with their golden laces, fur trimmings and satin ribbons were kept clean by extensive brushing and wiping, and with the use of steam and Fuller’s Earth. More personal hygiene was considered equally important. Teeth were cleaned with specially cut birch twigs, and soap came in various different qualities from the cheap brown liquid available for the poor, up to the expense of solid white Spanish soap.
On the other hand, human waste was an accepted part of the everyday experience and wasdfdf01ae9e863344398263cd32b1be2b used as part of normal manure spread as fertilizer on country crops. Urine was considered a useful ‘crop’ in itself and was used in the process of tanning hides and in dying fabrics amongst others. Animal blood and brains were generally allowed to disappear into the shallow central gutters around the butchers’ quarters in any township, the animals that roamed most streets (dogs, goats, pigs and others) would add their own contributions, and most mornings the average housewife would empty the family chamber pots into the gutters as well. Much of this muck would remain until washed away by the rain, although large towns employed ‘raykers’ to clear the gutters on a regular basis, while diligent shopkeepers cleaned the gutters directly outside their own premises – sweeping the filth down to the next shop along!
In medieval times, privies were not an entirely wholesome affair, although they certainly existed, both in private homes and for public use (though public privies were men only). They were usually small cubicles tucked away in dark and quiet areas of the house, but invariably without any enclosing door.

Some public privies were built on London Bridge, not exactly private at all. These would take the form of a long polished wooden bench with several neat holes in a row. You would therefore be sitting in extremely close and undivided proximity to the next man. It was generally considered bad manners to talk directly to someone who was seated upon the privy. These ‘jaykes’ or ‘seats of ease’ as they were often known, usually opened directly down into the river, the cess pit or the moat below. Plumbing was unknown. One precarious set of London privies built to jut out with direct access to the Thames beneath, unfortunately collapsed after much use. They and their occupants hurtled into the river, and that is a picture I just cannot bear to visualise.

b_zps28de9931I have an idea that the general public went about their daily business with a constantly full bladder, suffering from the continuous discomfort of having very few opportunities to empty it. Certainly men urinating in public is mentioned as a fairly normal occurrence, (the gutters again) though surely only in some areas. Women, I imagine, found the situation even more inconvenient. Later this problem was overcome with several ingenious and hilarious methods, but during the late medieval it was a matter of suffering in silence until able to hurry home.
There were communal cess pits and these would be emptied from time to time by the busy gong-farmers, but I imagine the stench was fairly strong. Many busy waterways became almost clogged with general waste; The Fleet, for instance. The pollution, however unpleasant, was, of course, of a natural kind and not in any manner chemical – so the fish did not object. The Thames continued to be heavily fished for many years in spite of what else floated there.
So no wonder the water was, in general, unsafe to drink, although it was accepted for use in washing and cooking. It was safer when boiled, whilst ale, beer and wine were for drinking. In country areas, however, there would be fresh streams where the water would be drinkable, and usually deep wells would also be uncontaminated. 
Bathing was certainly a generally accepted necessity and quite luxurious baths were known to exist in all great houses. Wooden and barrel shaped for the most part, they could be linen lined and cushioned

with head rests. Hot water was carried in bucketfuls by the servants, with water boiled in cauldrons over the kitchen fires. The water could be perfumed with herbs, towels were warmed, and apart from condensation dropping from the ceiling beams, this would be a hygienic and very cosy affair.

Of course, the poorer folk had far fewer advantages. Few if any would have a private privy within the house or even outside it (a chamber pot would be the best they could do) and would be unlikely to own their own bath. There were public wash-houses however, which sometimes had a reputation for other activities apart from simply getting clean – but bathing and the washing of clothes and household linen still took place.
Naturally, it was hundreds of years before a scientific knowledge of hygiene and its connection with health was understood. Germs were undiscovered, and the cause of infectious diseases unknown. Even polluted water was avoided not because it could cause dysentery, typhoid or at least diarrhoea, but simply because it looked and tasted vile. Therefore the disposal of waste directly into the waterways continued and increased as the population grew. Vegetables and salads would be washed to remove the earth still attached before cooking but for no other reason, contact with animals was not thought in any manner unhealthy, and I doubt that hand washing after using those doubtful privies was considered imperative either.
These conditions naturally encouraged parasites and the poor could rarely escape the problems of lice, fleas and intestinal worms. Indeed, the habits of farmers, the use of manure, and the accepted behaviour of cooks and scullions even in the most illustrious establishments, ensured that although the nobility might avoid fleas and lice, (although Henry VII’s father, Earl of Richmond, died from the plague, and that meant a flea bite).they would certainly suffer frequent if not continuous infestations of intestinal roundworms. This actually continued up until and including the 2nd World War – so hardly a matter of wonder or concern. The roundworm was virtually universally tolerated until less than a hundred years ago, and unless these parasites accumulated in unusually huge numbers, they gave few if any symptoms. The recent over-dramatic reaction on this score is absurd, since the roundworm remains virtually undiagnosed, unnoticed and unimportant, yet flourishes almost worldwide to this day.
Conduits existed, and water carriers supplied the households of larger towns and cities but this often came directly from those same contaminated rivers, so on the whole it is surprising that the population managed to avoid disease as well as it did. There is another point to consider, of course. Our natural bodily immunity is often enhanced after becoming much habituated, and we are now told that our compulsive cleanliness only adds to our vulnerability, weakens our immune systems and brings about endless allergies. But I cannot imagine this means we would in any manner benefit from returning to the chamber pot and the use of medieval gutters.
So during the late medieval there were few standards we’d wish to copy today, indeed the smell of the cities was certainly rank, dysentery was common – and usually fatal. However, a desire for cleanliness was an accepted part of life at that time and considerable effort went into bathing and keeping clean.
It was many years later when the grosser behaviour, the overcrowding, the increased filth, cholera and typhoid became almost unbearable. After the Puritan horror of nakedness (dirt was holier, it seems) we then hear of the great balls and parties of the nobility during the 16th to 19th centuries, with their incredible luxury and sumptuous clothes. But our romantic fiction rarely tells us that the crush of a ballroom would have been overheated and noxious with the stench of old stale sweat and the cloying sickly smell of the perfume attempting to disguise it, the rampant lice in the unwashed wigs, and the fleas visibly leaping on some of the bodies. 17th century gentlemen were known to urinate in the fireplace, though hopefully not in female company, and the licentious habits of the Restoration era included some other unsavoury habits. So it got worse before it got better.
But at least I can imagine my late 15th century characters without having to hold my nose! The desire for cleanliness was both determined and accomplished within most 15th century households and considerable trouble was exercised in order to accomplish a standard of cleanliness which in those days was none too easy.

The Dastardly Death Of William, Lord Hastings

William HastingsIt appears that the traditional assumptions surrounding the execution of William, Lord Hastings in June of 1483, generally incline towards the idea that the Lord Protector, Richard Duke of Gloucester, simply lost his temper and so, without lawful trial or consultation, ordered the immediate beheading of his previous friend, virtually on the spur of the moment.

This assumption is derived from depictions in Tudor literature claiming that the Duke of Gloucester was infuriated by Hastings’ rigid support of the uncrowned Edward V, contrary to the wishes of the wicked duke who was eager to usurp the throne in the prince’s stead. This account of these events was written down after many preceding decades of indoctrination, when the Tudor-era orthodoxy of the usurping, murdering king had become imprinted on popular consciousness.

The writer who invested the confrontation with its best-known dramatic scenario, later adopted by Shakespeare, was Sir Thomas More, whose various attempts at a ‘history of Richard III’ are loathed by some, beloved of many, and seriously analysed by all too few. Since there exists no official contemporary documentation of exactly what happened, More’s chatty details attract those searching for explanations. It is often further assumed that, although More’s various elaborate accounts concern a time when he was a child and certainly not present, on the occasion of Hastings’ death, John Morton, Bishop of Ely, was certainly present and must therefore have witnessed exactly what happened. More, it is said, would thus have been told the truth by Morton some years afterwards when the young Thomas later lived as a page in Morton’s household.

However, regardless of assumptions, Thomas More himself reveals no source of information for his dramatic construction concerning the Duke of Gloucester’s peremptory execution of Hastings pursuant to a hissy fit. It is unsupported by any contemporary source, although the execution itself was condemned by some contemporary chroniclers. Sadly, very few later commentators appear to have bothered to take into account the bias of those contemporary accounts, or the probable circumstances (leaving dramatics aside) that actually led to Hastings making an attempt on Gloucester’s life.

Let us take one point at a time:

1) The incident occurred in the context of two events which are generally agreed to have464472629 preceded it, i.e. the disclosure that there was an impediment to Edward IV’s marriage with Elizabeth Woodville which rendered their offspring potentially illegitimate, and the discovery by Gloucester of threats to his life which prompted him to call for protection in the shape of forces from the North, combining in an atmosphere of heightened tension and insecurity.

2) Contemporary accounts report that Hastings was officially accused of treason. The simultaneous arrests of several others support the existence of a treasonous conspiracy. Any assumption that this accusation of treason was untrue is unsupported by any existing evidence. The crime of treason at that time was the most serious in the land, and could not be slung at just anyone, in particular someone as powerful as Lord Hastings, without any substantiation. In days leading up to the arrest and execution, Hastings is reported to have been seen visiting the houses of Morton and others who were caught up in the arrests. Morton and Hastings were most unlikely companions and this report – if true – raises considerable suspicion.

3) Some people mistakenly suppose that the crime of treason related only and exclusively to violent actions against the ruling monarch’s person. This is untrue and there are many sources which indicate that treason took many and varied forms. The further assumption that Hastings was simply attempting to support the true king (the young uncrowned Edward V) against the actions of the Protector, and therefore his attack on the Protector was not treason but loyalty to the crown, is an even further exaggerated train of suppositions without support, evidence, or even logic.

4) Others accused of having been involved in the same treason were arrested at the same time:- three present in the council chamber, and several others across London – their arrests carefully timed to coincide. This points to the uncovering of a treasonous conspiracy and the planning of a lawful reaction which would stop that treason before it became any more dangerous.

5) There is an account of a public proclamation made immediately after the execution, regarding the treason and the culprits’ arrest. There was neither secrecy nor lack of explanation given to the public concerning the situation. The accusation of treason and its consequences remained undisputed by any legal challenge or recorded public outcry at the time.

6) More’s account, written so many years later, denies the legality of the Protector’s actions. But More had no possible way of knowing the details he recounted. The mighty and extremely busy John Morton (by then Archbishop of Canterbury and Lord Chancellor) chatting at length with his insignificant page and telling him stories of what happened many years previously, is not only highly unlikely but somewhat ingenuous. Indeed, Morton would rarely even have been at home let alone conducting cosy discussions with one of his pages. However, if such an improbable little scene did take place, the fact that Morton himself was one of those arrested and accused of treason, would certainly place a huge doubt on the veracity of any tale he told.

7) Richard of Gloucester’s proven record of rationality, of intelligent administration and commitment to the rule of law, would make this supposed hissy fit exceedingly out of character.

8) The arrests and following events took place in a council meeting at the Tower, in front of members of the Royal Council – the most powerful and influential lords of the land, together with their attendant officers. It is both naive and absurd to suppose that Richard could behave in some highly improper and illegal manner in such company without consequences to himself including a virtual battle in the council chamber.

9) Kindly old Hastings, simply standing loyally by the rights of his old friend’s son, is a total illusion. Hastings was a massively ambitious man. His many years of fighting bitterly against Thomas Grey, Marquess of Dorset, the queen’s elder son and Lord Rivers, her brother, (largely regarding disputed land borders) show him to have been ruthless and capable of cruelty. He had recently quarrelled with Edward IV and been deprived of some of his power, but this was – after warnings given – returned to him just before the king’s death. Hastings was certainly no cosy daddy-figure.

10) As for the allegedly illegal execution – and this is the most important ingredient in the murky soup of supposition – the accepted legal powers of the High Constable, (one of Richard of Gloucester’s long-held and most powerful offices) empowered him to hold an immediate trial of Hastings for treason in that place and at that time, and to pass sentence without leave of appeal. The other members of the council present would have stood witness, thus there was no outcry against the following execution. Since no documentation survives (and indeed the Court operated under the Law of Arms and was not required to keep records), it is impossible to say if any such trial took place. There is no specific evidence that it happened. Nor is there any specific evidence that it did not. However – since Richard of Gloucester was most certainly empowered to hold such a trial, it is logical and natural from what is known of his concern for the justice system, that he would have used the legal powers at his disposal. What is now doubted and frowned upon by modern judges with little or no comprehension of the medieval mind, would have seemed utterly right in those days – and in fact utterly necessary according to the situation. Summary courts with powers of life and limb, such as that of the High Constable, were important elements in the exercise of authority during the Middle Ages, and in fact Hastings himself presided over just such a summary court at Calais.

For this knowledge I am entirely indebted to Annette Carson and her recently published book RICHARD DUKE OF GLOUCESTER, AS LORD PROTECTOR AND HIGH CONSTABLE OF ENGLAND which outlines with considerable clarity and detail, based on existing documentation and clear historical precedent, the official powers the Duke of Gloucester held in 1483. This book does not set out to prove the rights and/or wrongs of the situation regarding Hastings’s execution, nor does it prove that any trial took place. It does indicate, however, that a trial could immediately have been called, and that if the proceedings found him guilty of treason Hastings would have been justly and legally executed.

In the first months of 1483 after King Edward’s death, the country was in a perilous position, and it was the duty of the Lord Protector and Defender of the Realm to keep the land and its people safe. There had already been an attempt to raise an army and civil war might have ensued (certainly the queen’s family continued organising uprisings, which came to fruition in the autumn months). It was Richard’s principal responsibility to be aware of all dangers and put a stop to them before the risk might escalate. Such an attitude must have been paramount when faced with whatever treason was discovered. That his actions are now seen as suspicious is a function of the villainy later attributed to his actions, and appears to ignore the pressures and demands involved in his personal responsibility for national security.

Today, amongst those interested (whether or not they have researched the era or the life of Richard III at all) there is a somewhat irritating attitude by which if you argue and judge Richard III guilty of something, then you are being open minded and unbiased. Whereas if you argue and judge him innocent, then clearly you are prejudiced and are making an attempt to exonerate and justify him and treat him as a saint.

But most of those who exhibit the former attitude appear to think the powerful lords of the late fifteenth century must have been weaklings and brainless puppets, too stupid or frightened to stand up for themselves. They sat meekly, it seems, while the wicked Duke of Gloucester got away with anything and everything. It is unwise to so vastly underestimate the over-riding power of the lords and the church, the three estates of parliament and the Royal Council during this period. Had they so meekly acquiesced to apparent villainy, they would, in fact, have been complicit to it. Instead no single man ever held absolute total power, not even the king.

See Annette Carson’s book RICHARD III; THE MALIGNED KING which remains a reliable source for the arrest and execution of Lord Hastings and the other important events of 1483 following the death of King Edward IV.