Friday, 7 October 2022

Rediscovering Shōgun - by Lesley Downer

‘In 1600 an Englishman went to Japan and became a samurai ...’               

In the late 1970s I lived in a provincial town an hour’s train ride from Kyoto. Most weekends I’d go to visit. Each time I’d look for a new temple to explore and spend the day there.

One day I wandered into a little temple called Kōtō-in. I sat on the veranda, gazed at the sand and rock garden and idly picked up the English-language leaflet. The temple, I read, had been founded in 1601 by Hosokawa Tadaoki, a samurai lord whose wife had been a Christian convert and who was a famous bowman. There in one of the paper shoji screens was the very hole through which he had shot three arrows - one after the other, with perfect precision.

Map of Japan with picture of Will Adams meeting
shogun, 1705, by Pieter van der Aa

I was staggered. It was the very story that I was reading at that moment in Shōgun. Hosokawa was Buntaro. This was Buntaro’s temple! Clavell had changed his name but not his story. Did that mean that all of Shōgun - despite the changed names - was true?

Reading it again more than forty years later, having spent much of that time absorbed in Japanese culture and history, I’m hugely impressed with how accurate it is, not just in the historical detail but in Clavell’s insight into how it feels to be Japanese.

James Clavell
Clavell led quite a life himself. Born in 1921 into a Royal Navy family, he was captured by the Japanese and interred in Changi prison throughout most of World War II. He went on to become a screenwriter and director in Hollywood. He wrote his first novel, King Rat, in 1960. Shōgun was published in 1975 and sold more than 15 million copies. Apparently it took him three years to research and write and he didn’t plan it out. Some of the plot twists, he said, were as much of a surprise to him as to the reader. He died in 1994.

Closeup of Will Adams meeting the shogun,
1705, Pieter van der Aa

For some reason everyone thinks that Shōgun is not literature. I was interviewed once by Mariella Frostrup and was supposed to speak on books on Japan. She was horrified when I began with Shōgun.

Literature or not, it is undoubtedly one of the most enjoyable books you will ever read and a brilliant source not just of Japanese history but of east west relations at the time, not to mention ships and nautical matters. Clavell’s skills as a screenwriter are readily apparent. Shōgun is dramatic, cinematic, a master class in historical fiction, immersing you in seventeenth century Japan and keeping you hooked from beginning to end.

William Adams the Pilot
Will Adam's ship Liefde lands in Japan -
monument  in De Liefde arrival memorial
park, Kurushima, Usuki City, by N. Tamada 

Clavell takes as his starting point the true and amazing story of William Adams (1564 - 1620), shipwrecked in Japan in 1600, the first Englishman ever to arrive there. Adams was a contemporary of Shakespeare, a ship’s pilot who under Sir Francis Drake helped repel the Armada and fought in the ongoing war against Spain and Portugal. The Japan in which he found himself was at an equally pivotal moment. It was the climax of the warring powers era, when samurai armies battled to control the country. The Portuguese had arrived half a century earlier and were making converts and sizing the place up for colonisation. The last thing they wanted was a Protestant Englishman turning up to tell the Japanese that the outside world was not as they portrayed it. Adams revealed their deceit and changed the course of Japanese history.

Clavell leaves the framework of history pretty much as it is. But he changes the names of the players which allows him to fictionalise freely, taking liberties with the details to make the story even more gripping and exciting. Readers are kept on their toes, anxious to find out how the characters will weather the next terrible ordeal that befalls them.

Tokugawa Ieyasu
by Kanō Tanyū (1602 - 1674)

The story begins in the stinking claustrophobic innards of Blackthorne’s storm-tossed ship, the Erasmus, ‘two hundred and sixty tons, a three-masted trader out of Rotterdam, armed with twenty cannon and sole survivor of the first expeditionary force sent from the Netherlands to ravage the enemy in the New World.’ Most of the Dutch crew are dead or dying of scurvy. The survivors are on the brink of mutiny.

Only one man can control them - Blackthorne, tough, competent, fearless and, as we soon discover, the best pilot on the planet. We learn about their nightmarish two year voyage, in which all the other ships in the fleet were lost, and the rough Elizabethan world that he comes from. As a Navy man, Clavell lards his tale with colourful and authoritative detail about ships, seas and how ships work, the job of the pilot, who commands the ship, and the importance of rutters - the annals which pilots kept, laying down their routes and recording their daily activities.

After the horrors of the tempest comes a complete change of pace. Blackthorne wakes up in a small house in a fishing village in Izu. We see Japan through his eyes - the neatness, cleanliness and occasional nakedness, the Portuguese priest who declares him a pirate and demands he be killed, the samurai casually lopping off a man’s head. Clavell has a lot of fun with cultural differences such as the bath, a daily necessity to a Japanese but a death sentence to an Elizabethan Englishman. The bath becomes a marker of how Blackthorne is adjusting, as he starts to compare the sparkling clean Japanese houses and cities with the disease-ridden filth back home.
Will Adams meets Shogun Tokugawa
Ieyasu - by William Dalton 1866

Like Gulliver in Lilliput, Blackthorne and his crew endure a series of humiliations and ordeals, which Blackthorne overcomes through sheer obstinacy, refusal to be cowed and the quickness of wit to fathom how to get by in this disorienting new world.

As the canvas broadens we meet an extraordinary range of people and start to see their world through their eyes as well as through Blackthorne’s. We also begin to discover how much goes on that Blackthorne knows nothing about.

We meet Mura the village headman, ‘small and lean with strong arms and calloused hands’ and a secret judo master; it’s many pages before we find out who he really is. Then there’s Omi, the handsome young samurai, who behaves with suitable disdain to Blackthorne and his crew and equally suitable deference to his uncle, Yabu, the daimyo of the region.

Yabu is a wonderful character, ‘short, squat and dominating,’ forever plotting who to betray in order to advance his own interests. He’s fearless and without scruples and finds death, his own and others’, both erotic and poetic. Early in the story he is trapped at the bottom of a cliff by the incoming tide. Having ascertained that there is no escape he sits down calmly to compose his death poem. Blackthorne meanwhile desperately seeks to rescue him even though Yabu has committed terrible deeds that make them deadly enemies. Yabu survives and continues to be a lethal yet strangely likeable and entirely untrustworthy presence throughout the book.

The women too are vividly portrayed. There’s Kiku the courtesan, exquisitely beautiful yet down to earth too. Her kimonos ‘sigh open’, ‘whisper apart’. Like a flower, her task is to rise above earthy reality, to laugh gaily and take men’s minds off whatever is going on around them, no matter how terrible. There’s also Gyoku-san, the Mama-san, who knows everyone’s darkest secrets, wielding them to advance her own position while appearing to be utterly humble, as a person such as she, on the bottom rung of society, has to be.

Will Adams with daimyo and attendants
by William Dalton 1866 

Meeting the Shōgun
The canvas expands to encompass the entire country as Blackthorne arrives in the giant metropolis of Osaka and is ushered into Osaka Castle, a gargantuan fortress which ‘makes the Tower of London seem like a pigsty.’

Here he meets Toranaga, Clavell’s name for the great warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 - 1616) who was to become shōgun, taking over the whole of Japan and bringing about 250 years of peace. Toranaga is a consummate politician and statesman who controls and manipulates whatever happens and gives nothing away. He’s also likeable, warm and funny.

Blackthorne also meets Mariko, the Christian convert, modelled on Gracia, the wife of the warlord famous for his archery skills. Buntaro, Clavell’s fictionalised Hosokawa, is rather a tragic character. ‘A short, thickset, almost neckless man’, he is a brilliant warrior and a poet with the bow, utterly loyal to his lord. But he is also a man of terrifying rages, driven mad by his hopeless love for his wife.

Mariko is tiny, beautiful and fearless, a true samurai, prepared to die for her lord. She becomes Blackthorne’s interpreter, confidante and ultimately lover. She shows him how to flourish in this alien world by becoming more Japanese, finding inner peace.

Tokugawa Ieyasu by
Utagawa Yoshitora (1836 - 1880)

Blackthorne communicates with his crew in Dutch and in Portuguese with Mariko, the Japanese Christians and the Portuguese fathers and seamen. With Mariko he also has a secret language of love - Latin; though the two have to be wary. There are always samurai around who may turn out to be secretly Catholic and to understand them.

At one point Mariko and Blackthorne are talking. ‘How childish’, she says to herself, ‘to speak aloud what you think.’ Like children, the westerners are what they appear to be. The Japanese conversely are eternally acting. Apart from Blackthorne, who is an outsider, they all know that this is how you play the game. Clavell gets a lot of fun out of the difference between what the Japanese say and what they’re thinking, let alone what they really intend to do. It’s a key distinction that Japanese recognise between one’s true feeling and the face that one chooses to present to the world.

As the story goes on the focus changes. Blackthorne slips into the background as we step more and more inside the fascinating and complex mind of Toranaga. Clavell spends a great deal of time unravelling the great daimyo’s innermost thoughts as he plays everyone like chess pieces in order to achieve his ultimate aim - to master and bring peace to Japan. Which is why the book is called quite accurately Shōgun.

There are occasional errors. Clavell confuses the shamisen (a lute) and the koto (a zither). He uses the wrong tea for the tea ceremony, and there are small mistakes with the Japanese language. Some of the names are a little odd. But none of this matters. The book is written with such verve that we are totally swept up in the excitement of the narrative and barely notice the occasional small hiccup.

To read Shōgun is to be picked up and thrown into Japan at one of the most exciting moments in its history. For Clavell totally gets Japan. He gets it right, it’s totally convincing, which makes it a great and very satisfying read even for a Japan hand after forty years of engaging with the country.

All pictures courtesy of wikimedia commons.

Lesley Downer is a lover of all things Asian and an inveterate traveller. She is the author of many books on Japan, including The Shogun’s Queen, an epic tale of love and death, out now in paperback. For more see

Friday, 30 September 2022

Women of the Road - Real-Life Highwaywomen

by Deborah Swift

There is something very appealing about the highwayman’s disguise – the tricorne hat, the cloak, the breeches and boots – and even more so when this disguise is worn by a woman. Contrary to popular belief, records show that there were women who risked the noose, to make their living on England’s rutted and treacherous roads, and who showed their own unique brand of ruthlessness and courage.

Double – Crosser Joan Phillips

Joan was the daughter of a rich and well-established farmer. Her beauty (and wealth) brought her to the attention of Edward Bracey, a small-time crook, who planned to seduce her, persuade her to marry him, and then abscond with her dowry, leaving her flat. 

Joan was intelligent enough not to fall for this plan, and though allowing herself to be seduced, foiled the rest of the plan. Edward Bracey, according to the Newgate Calendar ‘was very agreeably deceived; for Joan was as good as he … she consented to rob her father, and go along with him on the pad; all which she accordingly accomplished.’ 

So Joan was determined to gain an upper hand, and they never did marry, but Joan and Edward frequently robbed together on the highway, though it seems Joan was always the one in control.

Joan had a long criminal career including running an inn, but eventually, the Law caught up with her and she was arrested in 1685 after robbing a coach.  She was tried under the name Joan Bracey, found guilty, and executed the same year in Nottingham. Records diverge on how old she was when she died, some saying she was as young as twenty-one. 

Watch a video about her 

BBC Criminal Histories "The Highway Woman"

Tudor Highwaywoman Mary Frith

Mary Frith (nickname - Moll Cutpurse) was the daughter of a shoemaker and lived in Aldersgate Street near St Paul’s Cathedral. From an early age she was often in trouble with the law for stealing. To try to reform her, a minister tried to ship her off to New England in America, but Mary dived off the ship and swam back to shore.

From then on, she was arrested frequently for robbery and was held in various prisons - The Old Bridewell, the Compters and Newgate. She was branded on the hand on several occasions – this was a common punishment for thieves. Her stamping ground was St Paul’s Church (now the re-built Cathedral) where she would cut the strings of purses, (hence her nickname) and she also traded as a ‘fence’ for stolen goods and a pimp for younger women. Victims of pickpockets who had lost jewellery or valuables would come to Mary, and she would trade with the criminal underworld to return the items for a cost.

Mary was nearly always dressed as a man, drank in taverns and carried a sword. She is also credited with being the first woman to smoke a long clay pipe. She had a long association with the theatre and by the turn of the century she was performing on stage in men's clothing at the Fortune Theatre. On stage she bantered with the audience, fenced in mock fights, and sang, accompanying herself on the lute.

She was a keen horsewoman and was once bet twenty pounds that she wouldn’t ride from Charing Cross to Shoreditch dressed as a man. Of course she won the bet, and made it all the more entertaining by doing it on Morocco, the most famous performing horse of the day. Her riding skills enabled her to turn highwaywoman during the English Civil War. A staunch Royalist, she robbed the Roundhead general, Sir Thomas Fairfax by holding up his coach on Hounslow Heath.

We know a lot about her because The Life of Mrs Mary Frith of 1662 was one of the first biographies of a female criminal to be published in England and was highly influential in bringing women’s lives to the public interest. It is thought that Defoe’s book, Moll Flanders, was based on her life.

Heiress and Highwaywoman Katherine Ferrers

Lady Katherine Ferrers was the inspiration for the 1945 film The Wicked Lady, starring Margaret Lockwood and James Mason, which tells the story of a 17th century aristocrat and heiress who turns to highway robbery. Katherine was supposedly persuaded to a life of crime by her highwayman lover Ralph Chaplin, but he was caught and hanged on Finchley Common. After his death she worked alone, but was caught when she held up a coach and shot the driver; unfortunately it was a trap, and two of the occupants of the coach were armed and shot back. Fatally wounded, she galloped home to Markyate Manor, where she was found lying on the front steps - dead, but still dressed as a highwayman.

This of course is not the real story. The real story is one of plunder and possession in The English Civil War, and a time when rural farmers were trying to keep their lands out of the pockets of the aristocrats and were experimenting with new ways of communal living. In my young adult books about the life of Katherine Ferrers I explore these themes, and I enjoyed deconstructing and reconstructing the legend.


Outlaws and Highwaymen - Gillian Spraggs 

The Elizabethan Underworld – Gamini Salvado

Dunstable History Society

Pictures: Wikipedia, East End Women's Museum, Project Gutenberg

Find me and my books on my website

Friday, 16 September 2022

‘Veni, Vidi, Vocab’: the story behind my Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon by Caroline K. Mackenzie

When in Rome… Photo © Caroline K. Mackenzie

I have a confession to make: although I loved Latin at school, I didn’t enjoy learning vocab. In fact, I usually left it to the last minute and would end up revising while on the school bus on the morning of a test. [Note to any Latin pupils who may be reading this - this is not a good idea!] Fortunately, I had a lovely teacher who encouraged me and eventually I looked forward to discovering new Latin words and the access they gave me to some amazing Latin literature, such as Virgil and Ovid.

Years later (after a Classics degree and a decade as a lawyer in which I regularly used Latin), I found my true vocation (or ‘calling’, as ‘voco’ means ‘I call’). I became a Latin and Greek teacher. Vocab was something I taught (and still teach) each day. Some of my pupils found the long lists of words at the back of textbooks rather daunting. Together we created some fun ways to approach these lists. One idea was to think of an English derivative from the Latin, e.g. ‘dormio’ (I sleep) gives us ‘dormitory’ and ‘dormouse’. Likewise, ‘nox, noctis’ (night) gives us ‘nocturnal’ and when combined with ‘ambulo’ (I walk) produces ‘noctambulation’. That’s a great word for ‘sleepwalking’!

‘insula’ illustration © Amanda Short

‘insula’ in Latin means an island or a block of flats. It gives us words such as ‘insular’, ‘insulate’ and ‘peninsular’ 

Some pupils drew pictures in their vocab books to help them memorise tricky words. So when I decided to write a Latin vocab book I asked the artist Amanda Short to create 20 special illustrations to help bring the book to life. Amanda (whose name appropriately derives from ‘amo’ (I love) !) carefully researched Roman life and mythology before producing her beautiful designs. Of these, if asked to choose a favourite I am tempted to say the ‘tandem’ one as it is so ingenious and witty [see my earlier blog on my first Latin Lexicon: ]; another contender is the ‘insula’ illustration which cleverly depicts two different meanings in one image. However, the gorgeous dormouse (for ‘dormio’, mentioned above) steals the show for cuteness!

‘dormio’ illustration © Amanda Short

Bloomsbury and I wanted to create a book that would help students and teachers whichever GCSE syllabus they are following, so we have included every word on each of the vocab lists for the two exam boards. The book includes notes to help explain some grammar and a glossary of Latin words and phrases in common use. Some of these appear in this blog, such as ‘e.g.’. Also, I couldn’t resist this more unusual one: ‘quidnunc’. It refers to an inquisitive, gossiping person - the Latin literally means ‘what now?’.

The word entries are spread out with lined spaces next to each one for readers to add their own notes or more derivatives. I hope students will really enjoy the Lexicon and that it makes learning vocab a fun and fascinating part of their Latin studies. Of course, the book is not just for GCSE pupils - it may also be useful for anyone interested in languages and etymology generally. It could be your secret weapon when tackling the daily crossword or even playing Scrabble. Did you know you can even buy a Latin version of Scrabble?

Latin Scrabble, anyone? Photo © Caroline K. Mackenzie

As its name suggests, the Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon is small enough to fit into a schoolbag - so it can even be read on the school bus. However, for any GCSE pupils still reading this, a caveat: unlike I did, don’t leave it until the last minute! When it comes to learning your Latin vocab, don’t delay: seize the day. As the Romans would say, ‘carpe diem!’

Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon by Caroline K. Mackenzie is now available to order from the Bloomsbury website:

With thanks to: everyone at Bloomsbury Academic, Amanda Short, Professor Paul Cartledge, Dr John Taylor, Caroline Lawrence and Dr Daisy Dunn.

Twitter: @carolinetutor

Post Scriptum

Given the historic events of this week following the sad death of Queen Elizabeth II, it seems only fitting to conclude this post with the following addendum. 
The Lexicon happened to be published on the day that Queen Elizabeth II died. When someone contacted me to say their copy had strangely fallen open on page 107, I looked at the entries on that page to check the significance. I shall let the page speak for itself (‘res ipsa loquitur’).

Extract from Pocket GCSE Latin Etymological Lexicon

Friday, 9 September 2022

Ghosts on a Wire by Linda Wilkinson

We welcome Linda Wilkinson as a guest to our blog today. Her play, Ghosts on a Wire, opens at the Union Theatre on 21st September.


Linda Wilkinson by Tony Hutchings

Drama and Industry in Blackfriars

The Bankside in Southwark has been home to many innovations of note, not least of these being the first steam powered grain mill in the world and then the largest gas fired electricity generator, the Pioneer, which in a later incarnation stands as Tate Modern.

From the 18th century onwards, this area was a place of “dirty” Industries. It was a cash cow for City of London businessmen, who were happy to keep the filth over the river on the south side and rake in the profit.

The Pioneer, built to serve the square mile, resulted in the decimation of swathes of streets and communities. The pollution it unleashed was monumental. It physically destroyed the sole remaining pub, the Waterman’s Arms, which was next to this smoke, heat and vibration spewing leviathan.

It also saw some of the earliest attempts by Victorian philanthropists to address the resulting air-pollution. One of these being Octavia Hill, who has a long history in the area, which is present up to this day.

In 2019 Southwark Council under its Blackfriars Stories stream commissioned a play about the Albion Mill, the aforementioned steam powered grain mill, which was performed at the Union Theatre, a stones’ throw from the site of the Mill itself.

In 2020 a second play, this time about the Pioneer and its historical impact on the environment and peoples of Southwark was planned. Little did anybody know then then that Covid would see this endeavour, and the production of the play that became Ghosts on a Wire, halted for two years.

London is awash with history and this particular part of the south bank of the Thames is particularly rich in Industrial heritage and also the presence of some intriguing characters.

30 August 2022 was the 225th anniversary of the birth of Mary Shelley, who features as one of the ghosts in the new work. She, like Michael Faraday, the putative inventor of electricity, and William Blake the visionary were habitués of Blackfriars where the historical events enacted in the drama take place.

Germane to the plot is the Leverian Museum. This natural history and ethnographic collection stood for some years at 3 Blackfriars Road, not far from Michael Faraday’s later workshops.

Leverian Museum © Adrian Chappell

It was a place of curiosities and strange skeletons and fed into the growing interests into the natural world and inexplicable phenomena, such as lightning, which in turn led to early experiments into electricity. Here at the Leverian, luminaries of the period would gather to watch demonstrations and hear readings from works. Blake would most certainly have been an attender of this collection, which was famous in its day.

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries when the industrial pollution of Blackfriars was at its height, Octavia Hill, co-founder of the National Trust, was working on building some of her model cottages in Southwark. This inventor of social-casework, was also an early proponent of the clean-air-movement who fought to keep London’s open spaces clear and free for the working population to use freely as they wished. With a group of like-minded women, she also founded the Blackfriars Settlement, which functions to this day, its ethos unchanged during the 130 years of its existence, to create and provide community services and support.

Octavia Hill's Blackfriars Settlement © Adrian Chappell

Given this multifarious series of events, endeavours and notable people, all of whom circulated around a small area of Blackfriars, it shouldn’t be surprising that modern echoes come through. In 2020, when the play was mooted, the cost-of-living crisis was not a consideration. The Housing crisis was already upon us, but not the choice between heating, eating, cooking or indeed washing. That energy prices would rise by thousand-folds and that the poor might die as a consequence was not on any agenda.

A play about the poor versus the wealthy, about electricity profiting one sector of society whilst the lack of it causing others to go hungry and become homeless, one had hoped to be something for the historical records, but sadly no.

However, it’s always amazing to find the resilience, joy and hope that people find in their lives, even when facing adversity. The Publicans of the destroyed Watermans’ Arms being of note. The court case which they took “Shelfer versus the City of London Electric Lighting”, stood for over a century. Life went on, even for the Watermen who did the final “Bovril” runs on the Thames who found work in newly Unionised industries. Octavia Hill, whose fight for the disadvantaged seemed endless, in the end gave the Nation one of its greatest gifts.

Interior The Waterman's Arms © Adrian Chappell

London’s rich and varied history is cyclical, always winners, always losers. Places of dearth, become places of wealth until the pendulum reverses. Today St Paul’s cathedral looks over the river at the Tate Modern where, if you can but imagine it, a pike-pond once provided fish for Mediaeval Royal Tables. Ghosts of the past exist everywhere in our great City, you need not look far to find them.

Linda Wilkinson

Friday, 2 September 2022

'Defiant to the End' by Karen Maitland

Remains of the Novices Dormitory in Battle Abbey
Photo: Giogo, Wikimedia Commons
There are many infamous people in history I am thankful I never had to encounter, but some historical characters I would love to have met. One of those is the redoubtable dowager Lady Magdalen, Viscountess Montague, (1538-1608), mistress of Battle Abbey. Alhough I think, in life, she might have been just as intimidating as the fictional dowager Countess of Grantham, immortalised by Maggie Smith in ‘Downton Abbey’.

For even in her 70th year, Lady Magdalen was still bravely defying King James I and his ministers by hiding Catholic priests disguised as servants in her house and hosting forbidden Masses for as many as 120 people in her secret chapel, right under the noses of the men sent to trap her. She also allowed an underground Catholic printing press to operate from one of her houses. The authorities believed she was using Battle Abbey to smuggle priests into England from Europe and helping fugitives to escape from England. But though the notorious spy-master, Robert Cecil, tried repeatedly, he never managed to bring her to trial.

Mary of England (1516-58)
 & Felipe II of Spain (1527-1598)
Painting - 16th Century
Royal Museums Greenwich

Magdalen Dacre was born at Naworth Castle, Cumbria. At 13 she was sent as gentlewoman to the Countess of Bedford. At 16, she joined Queen Mary’s household, and became the Queen’s great friend and confidante. In 1554, when Mary married Felipe II of Spain, Magdalen was one of the bridesmaids. Magdalen was unusually tall and pretty, but was very religious, spending much time in prayer and wearing a coarse linen smock under her court clothes.

In 1558, Magdalen married widower, Anthony Browne, Viscount Montague. Montague owned three estates, including Cowdray House in East Sussex and Battle Abbey. Magdalen, raised Montague’s twin children from his first marriage, his first wife having died in childbirth, and bore ten children of her own.

In February 1555, her husband went to Rome on Queen Mary’s behalf to try to persuade Pope Julius III to actively back the restoration of Catholicism in England. In 1557, he joined the Privy Council. He was an executor of Queen Mary’s will and chief mourner at her funeral. After Elizabeth became Queen in 1558, Montague publicly denounced proposals to elevate the status of the Protestant religion and was replaced on the Privy Council.

In 1569, Viscount Montague, together with his son-in-law, the Earl of Southampton, and Magdalen’s brother, was implicated in the ‘Rising of the North’, a plot by Catholics to depose Elizabeth, but escaped punishment.

Part of the ruins of Cowdray House
Photo: Simon Burchill, Wikipedia Commons

In 1586, Montague proved his loyalty to Elizabeth as one of the peers who tried Mary, Queen of Scots, King James' mother. In 1588, Montague prepared to defend England against the approaching Spanish Armada, raising a troop of cavalry. 

In August 1591, Elizabeth visited Montague at Cowdray House, where he entertained her lavishly for a week whilst hiding his Catholic priests and servants within the house throughout her visit. But though he was favoured by Elizabeth, he was also kept under close watch, not least because his estates were so close to the coast, where foreign spies could easily come and go.

The 1st Viscount Montague died suddenly in October 1592 and his widow, Magdalen, afterwards lived mainly in Battle Abbey until her death. Battle Abbey was said to contain a subterranean passage through which priests were smuggled into England and it would have been easy for her to move fugitives between her three properties.

Anthony-Maria Browne
2nd Viscount Montague
Circa 1592
Artist: Unknown.
Source: Christie's

Under Elizabeth, Magdalen’s house was searched only twice, and only one of the priests she was hiding was discovered and arrested. But she always refused to aid treasonous plots. However, Guy Fawkes was for short periods in both her husband’s and grandson’s employ, and after the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, her grandson, Anthony-Maria Browne, 2nd Viscount of Montague, was arrested because of this association, but released for lack of evidence.

Whereas under Elizabeth, Magdalen’s ‘crimes’ had been largely ignored, King James and spy-master, Robert Cecil, were determined to close down what had come to be known as ‘Little Rome’ and have Lady Magdalen arrested. She drew the particular attention of the notorious pursuivant, Richard Topcliff, who claimed to have discovered a holy well in Battle Abbey grounds to which she led women ‘as if on pilgrimage’. Three men were sent to try to get proof that Lady Magdalen’s servants were priests in disguise, but all three failed. Two she managed to get imprisoned themselves on various charges and the third, Master N. Benet, mysteriously fell into a shallow pit at the end of the town and was killed. This was bizarrely deemed to be ‘suicide’ by the local coroner and Magdalen’s chaplain, Father Richard Smith, records gleefully that as a result Benet ‘was buried like a dog at the roadside’.

In 1607, the Privy Council announced Lady Magdalen should not be sentenced for her refusal to attend Protestant services, because of her age, status and former loyalty to Queen Elizabeth. It was decision which infuriated both Robert Cecil and King James, because ‘age and status’ certainly hadn’t prevented many others being fined, imprisoned or their property confiscated. The influence of a family friend, Lord Buckhurst in the Privy Council probably helped to prevent her from being prosecuted for recusancy in 1607, but after his death, she was left without a protector.

Effigy of Lady Magdalen, 
now in Easebourne Church, Sussex
Source: Tudor Effigies

Lady Magdalen died at Battle Abbey, Sussex on 8th April 1608 at the aged 70. Five priests came to her house the day before to say Masses for her. It wasn’t until after the death of this remarkable woman, that the Privy Council actively pursued and punished her tenants and servants.

Writing as KJ Maitland, her new novel, 'Traitor in the Ice', the 2nd in her Jacobean crime thriller series, is set at Battle Abbey in 1607 when Daniel Pursglove tries to infiltrate Lady Magdalen’s household. 'Traitor in the Ice' is published by Headline, 2022.

Friday, 19 August 2022

Is this even the right place? Sheena Wilkinson

Last week my husband, his three sisters and I set out to walk to their late mother’s home place – the small one-storey farmhouse where she had been born and reared until she married in 1962, in a place known locally, though not on any maps,  as the Muck (which doesn't sound pretty, but possibly comes from the Irish for pig). Shortly afterwards, the house was abandoned. It may already have been run down; the lane was too far from the road; it was the sixties, and the appetite was for new bungalows, not damp old cottages. There are so many places like it all over Ireland. Their skeletons have become one with the landscape – houses fallen into roofless walls, walls tumbled into ditches and buried under ivy and nettles. I wrote about it here a couple of years ago. (


But this was different: this was a house whose descendants still live in the same area. And yet my husband had never been here in his life. There was uncertainty as to whether we even had the right place, much checking of the landscape against her long-ago stories – could that be the hollow where the dog fell through the ice and drowned? Was that the path she would have taken up to school? We discarded the other two or three abandoned houses in sight – that one was too big; that one too small, only a byre, and the other one still had a roof and walls so did not fit my late mother-in-law’s description of ‘a ruin’. 

The August landscape was stunning – we had walked up a lane bursting with wild raspberries and honeysuckle, leading to a land of undulating green drumlins, yellow fields of stubble, with the dark shadow of the Mournes in the background. A piebald cob and his friends grazed the field where the house lay derelict, fresh dung suggesting that they used its walls for shelter. We clambered over nettles and stones, marvelled at the tree growing right up through what might have been an outhouse, argued about which way round the house faced, looked up with some trepidation at what was left of the roof – would it withstand our visit? 

How could you not have been here before? I demanded. Surely you were interested in where your mammy grew up? I suppose, for a child, a long walk up a lane to an empty house wasn’t that exciting. But I could have stayed all day, trying to reconstruct the house in my mind, noticing how the stone walls had been panelled over at some stage; trying to work out if the room we stood in was a living room or a bedroom -- the small fireplace suggested the latter; wondering what would have hung from the hooks which clung stubbornly to the remains of a door. The people who lived here died before I married into this family, but I knew their names and had seen their photographs. 

How long does a house sit derelict before it stops being sad and starts being interesting?


I don’t think it ever stops being sad. 

I don't blame my husband for not making the pilgrimage earlier, when his mother could have filled in the blanks for us. Not all children are budding History Girls, as I had been, pestering Mummy for stories of the olden days – her girlhood in the fifties and sixties, and my granny for tales of the real olden days – she was born in 1908. The houses they told me about – the big house in Irish Street, Downpatrick where my granny took in lodgers; my other gran’s more modest terraced house in east Belfast – are long gone too, and not reclaimed by the kindness of nettles and grass, but demolished and built over. 

I will return to the Muck. It's not my family history, not really, but these old houses and their secrets are everyone's history. 



THE REST IS HISTORY. Tom Holland, Dominic Sandbrook and the best podcast of all. By Adéle Geras


At the beginning of 2021, I was still doing my one hour Lockdown Walk every day. I would come out of my front door, turn left or right and see where the road took me. I wear hearing aids and used to listen to radio  all the time, as I trod the streets. This was usually LBC radio because I like most of the presenters and during this solitary-ish time, it was good to hear voices, opinions and arguments from everywhere about  what was happening in the world. 

Here are two things you may not know about me. First, I'm a  news junkie. I read two newspapers every day and still have one of them delivered. I watch tv  news and discussion programmes. I loved the daily press briefing during the pandemic and followed the whole Covid saga from the beginning.
Secondly, I have various bees in my bonnet and a stable full of high horses on to whose backs I like to clamber from time to time. 


One of these is a passionate belief in the paramount importance of History as a subject for study. I think everyone should have History lessons until  they're at least 16 years old.  When a poll appears telling us that  75% of teenagers think Churchill is an actual bulldog advertising a building society, I could weep. The utter ignorance I see everywhere I look depresses me greatly.


That's background. Here's the story. On one of these walks I came across a new podcast. Someone had mentioned it on Twitter. It was called The Rest is History and I loved it instantly. I have since listened to every single episode.  

The excellence starts with the format.  Two good friends chatting informally. That's it. They share a love of  History and of the odd nooks and  corners and fascinating titbits that crop  up all the time.  They talk about everything, from the  history of Ancient China to the Cold War, taking in fashion that can kill you, childbirth, Burgundy, (the territory not the wine)  Alexander the Great, Justinian and Theodora....on and on. I've put up some pictures here to demonstrate the range, but this leaves out delights like the World Cup of Kings, (and Queens and Gods) and the wonderful Historical Love Island, which was won by Stanley Baldwin and the Empress Theodora. She  would, believe me, have been right at home there, at least in her youth. I can't begin to tell you how many excellent topics there are to be found on the podcast. Most recently, the podcasts Tom and Dom have given us about Russia, Putin and the Ukraine War have been unmissable.

They often bring in experts. Tom's brother James knows everything about the Second World War and I like imagining the  Holland brothers' childhood and what life must have been like in their house when they were children.  

The two men have different specialisms. Crudely put, Tom is Ancient and Dom is Modern. (You will find their  photographs at the end of this post and it's not a reflection either of their merit nor of my opinion of them that the sizes are so different. What this this means is: I'm very bad at putting up photos on the blog....that's the size they were when they appeared on my computer and I don't know how to make them the same as one another! Apologies.)

My best advice is: look each of them up on Google. They are writers. They are thinkers. They appear on television. Tom is a cricketer. One of the best short series on the podcast has Tom taking Dom around London pointing out all kinds of historical glories which Dom doesn't appreciate nearly enough, possibly because he's wearing new shoes and they're killing him. Other series on the Falklands, Watergate, the American Civil War are also brilliant. One of my favourite recent shows had Sarah Churchwell speaking about Gone with the will see it in a different light, I promise you, after you've heard this podcast.

There's now a Rest is History Club, complete with chatrooms and privileges. You get ad -free podcasts and special episodes.  They do live events. They're on Twitter and very active there.

Best of all, they're tireless. They simply never stop. A new episode airs almost every day and the standard remains impeccable. The lovely banter and fun between the two of them seemingly never flags. Listen to one episode....I guarantee  you will be hooked.