Tuesday 31 December 2013

December Competition

Open to UK residents only - sorry!

To win one of five copies of Elizabeth Wein's Rose Under Fire, please answer the following question in the Comments section below:

What's the most convincing historical novel you've read where the author
had no personal experience of the book's events?

Closing date 14th January (we are giving you some extra time to recover from the festivities)

Monday 30 December 2013

My Mysterious Mayan Shell - Katherine Langrish

Here's one for our Cabinet of Curiosities. I would be very glad to know what this is.

Well, in a sense I know what it is. It's part of a very large shell, engraved with Mayan figures and glyphs. I bought it about fifteen years ago in a junk shop in a town called Horseheads in upstate New York, for fifty dollars.  Before I bought it, I turned it over, half expecting to see a legend on the back reading 'A Present from Guatamala City'. But no:

I asked the owners of the shop if they knew anything about it.  Was it old?  Or a modern souvenir? What did it mean?  They hadn't a clue. They'd shown it to someone at Cornell University who'd told them that the scene depicted on it is a trial.  But that was it.  That was all they knew.  I have to say that the characters look stern enough.  Is this the plaintiff?

Is this the judge?

Is this tall resplendent person standing behind him, gesturing, arguing his case?

And why is there another shell depicted on this shell?

All I know for sure it that it's a beautiful object, the workmanship is wonderful, and I'm lucky to have it. But I'd love to know more. If there's anyone out there who can tell me anything about it - do get in touch!

Sunday 29 December 2013

Authority and Authenticity by Elizabeth Wein

Photo: David Ho
Our December guest is Elizabeth Wein and we are thrilled to welcome her to the blog. Elizabeth's Code Name Verity, shortlisted for the Carnegie Medal, was hard-hitting and unusual, winning it rave reviews. Here she talks to us about Authority and Authenticity: An Author's Dilemma.

My recent book, Rose Under Fire, is partly set in the women’s concentration camp at Ravensbrück in Germany during World War II. I am not a witness to the horrors that were the concentration camps. I do not even have a family member affected by those horrors. So what gives me any right to tell this story? Indeed—what gives anyone any right to tell a story that “belongs” to someone else? This seems like a question that those of us who write historical fiction of any kind must ask ourselves over and over again: What do I know? How can I ever know enough? How can I ever do this justice?

Sue Purkiss addressed this issue in her recent History Girls review of Boy 30529 by Felix Weinberg pointing out that there is also a duty to “keep the memory alive, and introduce new generations to the appalling truth that such a thing can actually have happened, and not so very long ago.” I also hope that anything I write, even if it’s set in the past, has reason to resonate with the reader in the present. There’s a message in there not only to remember the atrocities of the past, but to be aware of the atrocities in our world today.

The gate
As I began writing Rose Under Fire, I thought hard about whether I should try to “experience” a little of what my fictional characters experienced—namely, on the simplest level, hunger and cold. And I couldn’t even begin. What would be the point? If I didn’t eat anything for three weeks and slept in the garage all winter, I was never going to experience the despair, the filthy conditions, the disease, the heartbreak, the dehumanization. It didn’t seem right to pretend even the smallest of deprivations. And, too, I was deeply touched by Micheline Maurel’s retrospective on her two years in the Ravensbrück satellite camp at Neubrandenburg:

“…behind us is the multitude of the dead left at the camp, who fix us with crazed and envious eyes. Those millions of people, envy us and wish they could shout, ‘You fools, don’t you see that you are happy?’

“Isn’t it so? What did we ask of the living when we were like the dead? To think of us? To pray for us? Yes, a little, in the beginning. But mainly to do all they could to send us material help, and then, when they had done all they could, oh, above all, to enjoy life to the fullest! We so often cried out to them, ‘Be happy, be happy! Be happy, you who eat, and you who expect alms and receive them. Be happy, you who live in fine apartments, in ugly houses or in hovels. Be happy, you who have loved ones, and you also who sit alone and dream and can weep. Be happy, you who torture yourself over metaphysical problems, and you who suffer because of money worries. Be happy, you the sick who are being cared for, and you who care for them, and be happy, oh how happy, you who die a death as normal as life, in hospital beds or in your home. Be happy, all of you: millions of people envy you.”


 The one thing I could do, and felt I must do, was to visit Ravensbrück. There is an annual week-long European Summer School held at the museum and memorial site, and I felt that by attending this seminar it would give purpose to my visit. I would not just be a tourist making a pilgrimage, but I would be learning something in addition to what the site itself had to offer, and I would be interacting with people. The theme of the summer school when I attended it in 2012 was “Remembrance and Media Biographies,” and the questions addressed by this theme seemed so appropriate to the fictional survivor account I was creating—which is, of course, based on many authentic survivor accounts, including the one quoted above.

The seminar considered the following: Is there a memory without its media presentation? How do different media shape our memory and perception? Does media overwrite real memories? Underlying these and other questions is the very real concern that the reality will disappear in time, with its attendant torrent of images and accountings. With the death of the last witness, the transfer of authentic memories becomes increasingly important.

During the course of the discussion at the summer school I was given much food for thought regarding the authenticity and authority of narrative—both in fiction and as documentary—and specifically regarding the reliability of my own role as an author, recreating a “witness” account of a concentration camp. Whether or not I have the right to tell this story is a dilemma that has bothered me from the beginning, and ultimately it comes down to this: I want to tell it and nobody has stopped me from telling it—quite the opposite. I’ve been encouraged. Tell the world—this is the mandate of the true witnesses, those who were dragged to their deaths in the gas chambers.

The academic and mental experience of the 2012 European Summer School was balanced by the physical and practical experience of actually being on site at the Ravensbrück Memorial. In addition to the obvious—the moving international museum in the original “Bunker” prison, the roses floating in the lake just beyond the concrete walls, the sober crematorium and empty factory blocks—there were other things to process. The fact that we were sleeping in the former SS guards’ quarters, now a youth hostel, made many of the attendees uneasy. For me, being the dummy who spoke no German was a new and eye-opening experience. I had never before, in an academic situation, had to rely on the kindness of strangers to open up even the simplest communication (“Do you have a pen I can borrow?”). And I found myself continually amazed at the beauty of the changing sky of northern Germany, a thing that many Ravensbrück survivors have remarked on.

Bunker and crematorium
Indeed, my visit made me feel that I was returning to a place I’d been many years ago and finding it changed but recognizable—it was impossible for me to separate the pictures in my mind, built up over years of immersing myself in survivor narratives, from the solid landscape beneath my feet. The place is real. The physical place is real to me, and now legitimately part of my memory. Yet the reality of the concentration camp exists for me only in my imagination. It’s almost as though I’ve created a kind of false memory for myself.

Claudia Lenz, Head of Research & Development at the European Wergeland Centre and author of The Holocaust as Active Memory (http://www.academia.edu/3499728/The_Holocaust_as_Active_Memory._The_Past_in_the_Present), told the seminar attendees: “Take your own personal expertise very seriously.”

On the third day of the seminar, I found myself giving a tour of the Ravensbrück memorial site to a group of my German colleagues from the seminar. Unlike me, most of the people attending were there primarily for the summer school course and not specifically for the location. So in fact I knew considerably more about Ravensbrück itself than many of my companions, and because our time was restricted by our course schedule, we couldn’t always get tours with site staff. Not only did I know the layout of the camp without needing a map, I also knew its history and many individual stories associated with its existence.

So I gave a tour. I did it because there was a demand for it, and because I could, and because I wanted to. And this makes me think that maybe I should look at my attempt to write a fictional account of this place as a kind of tour: there is a demand for it, and I can, and I want to. I don’t mean that “I can” in the sense of “no one can stop me”; I mean it in the sense that I have the background to give voice to this story, and I feel it needs telling. Mine is not an authentic voice. But I have listened to the authentic voices, and I can tell you whose they are, and I need to pass on their messages of despair and hope.

Tell the world. For all the faults and flaws of my telling, I have no choice but to tell this story as best I can.

Elizabeth Wein writes fiction for young adults. She is the author of Code Name Verity, as well as the The Lion Hunters cycle, set in Arthurian Britain and sixth century Ethiopia. Her most recent novel, Rose Under Fire, has been shortlisted for the Costa Award in Children’s Fiction. Originally from Pennsylvania, Elizabeth has lived in Scotland for over fourteen years. She is married and has two teenage children.

Saturday 28 December 2013

'Joyeux Noel', by Clare Mulley

Earlier this month I was invited to contribute to a three-hour festive marathon; Channel 5’s ‘Greatest Ever Christmas Movies’ special, which was shown on Christmas Eve. As I went in to the studios, Aled Jones came out. My specialist subject was war films. War may not typically be associated with the Christmas film feel-good factor, but it led to some merriment in our house as we tried to work out whether Christmas had featured in The Eagle Has Landed, Downfall or The Hurt Locker. In the end it turned out there was only one war film among Channel 5’s festive top 40 list: Christian Carion’s very beautiful French film Joyeux Noel from 2005, about the Christmas truces down the Western Front in 1914.

The Joyeux Noel poster (2005)

Joyeux Noel is a visually stunning film, with wonderful music – not least the singing of ‘Stille Nacht’ and ‘Ave Maria’ between the trenches. However it does rather romanticize this most powerful moment of peace and humanity amidst one of the most violent episodes in modern history, the First World War. When it was released, the New York Times film critic, Stephen Holden, neatly declared that the film was ‘as squishy and vague as a handsome greeting card declaring peace on earth’. But while it is tempting to write off Joyeux Noel as purely Christmas feel-good, with a narrow focus that does little to help widen our understanding of this remarkable moment in the war, the film does prick interest in the truly extraordinary story of the 1914 Christmas truces.

Joyeux Noel is pegged around a rather feeble love story. A handsome and feted German opera singer has been drafted to the front. His beautiful wife, who hails from the same trade, has negotiated his return from the trenches for the night of Christmas Eve so that they can duet at the officers’ party. Our hero then forgoes a night of peaceful romance to dutifully return to the front, prompting his wife to follow. As far as I am aware, there are no reports of female opera singers performing at the Christmas truces, but the premise certainly provides lots of powerful cinematic and surround-sound opportunities. However, despite this, and a few other historical inaccuracies, the fundamental premise of the film, the most apparently unbelievable thing of all, is entirely true – there were a series of unofficial ceasefires down the length of the Western Front, during which the men who had been killing each other one day put down their arms, climbed out of their opposing trenches, and met in no man’s land for a day of shared Christmas peace.

German soldiers of the 134th Saxon Regiment
with men of the Royal Warwickshire Regiment
in no man’s land, Christmas 1914

At the start of the Great War, as it was then known, there were several localized cease-fires and some fairly accepted codes of conduct among soldiers of both sides. In late 1914, the first winter of the war, 101 British women wrote an ‘Open Christmas Letter’ to the women of Austria and Germany, hoping to promote peace. Pope Benedict XV followed their lead, calling for an official Christmas truce, sadly without success.

Nevertheless, on 24 and 25 December 1914, around 100,000 troops stopped fighting along the length of the Western Front. As in the film, along some stretches of the trenches, German soldiers set up small Christmas trees, lit with candles. Carols were sung collectively by the men of both armies, and some later met to exchange uniform buttons, photographs and gifts of wine and Christmas puddings. Over the following days the fallen were retrieved and buried in peace, religious services were held and, if not refereed football matches, there were at least informal kick-arounds.

The ceasefires were not official policy, and they were not ubiquitous. In some places the peace lasted just one night, in others several days. Some soldiers were shot under cover of the truce, and along much of the front there was no cessation of hostilities at all. Most commanders opposed the truces as did, famously, one young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry called Adolf Hitler. But the truces did take place, as hundreds of letters from both sides of the front testify.

Letter from Major Hawksley, Warwick Regiment,
27 December 1914

‘The Germans were quite friendly with us’ Lance Corporal Cooper of the 2nd Northampton’s wrote home. ‘They even came over to our trenches and gave us cigars and cigarettes and chocolate and of course we gave them things in return.’ ‘Fancy shaking hands with the enemy!’ scribbled Private B Calder of the 6th Gordons, ‘I suppose you will hardly believe this, but it is the truth’. Despite attempts at censorship the British press were quick to cover the story, some more sentimentally than others, and many quoted the soldiers’ letters. The Times endorsed the men’s lack of malice, and The Mirror regretted that the ‘absurdity and tragedy would begin again’.

The Daily Mirror: 'A Historic Group;
British and German soldiers photographed together'

Like most of those articles, Joyeux Noel is a film with an intimate focus. It does not consider the political or military causes, or wider morality, of the First World War. At most, it hints at the later public swell of feeling to never let such an atrocity happen again, which led to the establishment of, among other organisations, the League of Nations, the Save the Children Fund, and the German Youth Hostel Association, the latter founded by a returning soldier who had taken part in the Christmas truces. There is also a poignant reference to the failure of this movement, when the Iron-Cross holding German commanding officer mentions that he is Jewish.

Essentially however, Joyeux Noel is a statement about the insanity of war, the shared horror of trench warfare and, above all, about the men who found humanity in this least human of situations. Its message, that war is dehumanising, and that even our soldiers must not be made to demonise their enemies, is sadly still relevant today. With its sentimental romance, it might not make a list of top war films, but it does Channel 5 credit to include it in their Christmas list. Films about snowmen can be beautiful and important, but war, and peace, should be remembered at Christmas too.

Friday 27 December 2013

Someday I'll Fly Away . . . . by Louisa Young

Plans changing . . .  requirements shifting . . . online flight-change situation . . .  £35 - no that's £35 per flight . . . yes per person . . . arrival time . . . onward journey . . . baggage . . . insurance . . . bus timetable . . . oh dear . . . taxi? Sweet Jesus! . . . Hire car . . . oh Lord . .  And the name of the child the festivities are in celebration of becomes mostly used as an expression of dismay/disgust at the inconveniences and expense of travel. Stop a moment, to think of the 99 per cent of humanity who over the centuries had to walk. Everywhere. Or maybe get a boat, row for years, and then drown.

Ah, but when you write fiction things can be so convenient. As with the cinematic phone calls of yore, with dialling phones, where the beautiful actors only ever dialled three digits, because the full seven/ eight/nine digit numbers would take FOREVER and the audience would have fallen asleep, so we can if we choose gloss over the travel arrangements of our characters. Elizabeth Jane Howard famously observed that one has to get the numbers of the London busses right - no point saying that someone took a 31 to Harrods, when everyone knows the 31 goes from Chalk Farm to World's End, and not via Knightsbridge. Except - that it doesn't any more. The part that used to go from Notting Hill to Chelsea was renamed the 328, and then the 31 itself was extended from Notting Hill to Westfield at Shepherds Bush. No doubt the historical novelists of 1920, as they pored over ancient timetables and route maps, lamented in their turn the decline of the Horse Bus 36 (Finchley Road to Chelsea) which they had known by heart since their childhood days.

So what do we do? We can leave the bus number out, we can gloss over, or - if its that kind of book - we can use new-yet-historical forms of transport.

Oh, let's make a little leap of imagination.

I'm sorry, EasytJet, but we will not be flying you. We will be flying -

Hmmm - Icarus? 
Perhaps not. 

Flying squirrel? That could be good. A living breathing Flying Carpet.

Carousel! Just don't think about Hitchcock.

or -  a beautiful Lippizaner from the Spanish Riding School - we all know they can fly. 

Certainly best to avoid a Threstal . . . the Ryanair of fictional modes of winged equine transport

No. For me, it's always back to the best, the bravest, the finest, the original.
Pegasus - take me away from all this -

If I did have that pony, I wouldn't even need to ride him on a boat: 

Wishing you all Bon Voyage in your seasonal movings around, 
or, as they say in Ghana, 
Travelling Mercies.

Thursday 26 December 2013


If you buy a cake on 6th of January, chew carefully, you might find a porcelain charm in your mouth.

I’m jumping ahead to the 6th to the feast of Epiphany when the arrival of the three kings, la fete des rois was celebrated with a cake. The custom dates back to the Middle Ages when a cake made of flaky pastry filled with frangipane paste, was cut into equal slices and placed on a table. Originally the trinket in the cake was a real bean, now replaced by a porcelain charm. A child was put under the table and when the mother pointed to a slice the child had to call out who the slice was for. Whoever found the feve in his slice became king for the day and wore a gold paper crown.

The kings are of course Gaspar, Melchior and Balthazar. But the festival is a relic of pagan times when during the period of the winter solstice, the return of the sun was celebrated with a feast and during the festivities even a slave could become king for the day. Why a bean? Because of its similarity to the shape of a human embryo. The bean plant is usually the first to emerge from the earth after winter and celebrates life.

I can’t recall celebrating Epiphany with a feve in a cake as a child. It seems it’s a Catholic custom but perhaps someone reading this might have their own memories of this cake known as the gâteau des Rois in France, the bolo rei in Portugal, rosca de reyes in Spanish countries but tortell in Catalonia, vasilopita in Greece and Cyprus and banitsa in Bulgaria. The closest I come to these feves, are the tiny chalky porcelain figurines that my mother took out of a box in the cupboard every year to put on top of the Christmas cake.

Who remembers the scene in Barbara Kingsolver’s "Lacuna" when that fabulous cook Leandro is teaching the boy, Hamilton William Shepherd to make the Epiphany cake?

The rosca de reyes is hardest to make: the cake called Ring of the Kings using white flour the same as for tortillas. A blob of dough fit for a king is rolled out on the table as long and fat as a sea slug. Poking it and laughing. The thing of a king… (the text is a bit ruder here but I’ve left off some words in case of complaints!)

Leandro is usually much more pious. He made the cake into a ring by putting the-thing-of-a-king in a circle and pressing the ends together. The token goes inside, a small baby Jesus that looks like a pig.

All the rest of the year, the clay token sits in a jar in the cabinet waiting to go into this cake. Leandro took the little pig Jesus out of the jar and kissed it before putting it in the rosca. Round jellied fruits go on top but he put a square piece where the token was inside, his way of marking it. Reach for that one he said when the dish of cake is passed around.”
I first discovered feves at the market of L’Isle sur la Sorgue in the south of France. The little handful I bought with their exquisitely painted faces, is not with me now as I’m writing this from the southern tip of Africa. They are sleeping safely on gauze in their porcelain box in London – so I can’t show you my own Mary on her donkey, nor the shepherd with his crook, or my wise kings. Apparently there are so many collectors of feves nowadays that in France they have their own name – fabophile.

The best feves to collect go back to before 1914. They were manufactured originally in Germany. And from about 1874 onwards bakers began to replace the original bean with a tiny doll made of soft paste hand-painted porcelain. Then after the war, Limoges took over production and the baby doll evolved into other shapes. The last manufacturer of traditional porcelain feves in France is a factory in Clamecy, Burgundy. 

In Guy de Maupassant’s short story, Mademoiselle Perle from 1886, he writes:

“They brought in the kings’ cake. Every year Monsieur Chantal was king and he always proclaimed Madame Chantal queen. So I was astounded when in a mouthful of cake, I felt something hard and came near breaking my tooth. I quietly removed this object from my mouth and discovered it was a tiny china doll, no larger than a bean.”

So if you eat cake in the next few days, be warned – you might find a feve and be king for the day. But you might equally end up at the dentist


Dianne Hofmeyr's latest picture book is The Magical Bojabi Tree

Wednesday 25 December 2013



Here we are again.  It's the History Girls' third Christmas, and if you are stuck for something to read, you could do worse than to work your way backwards through the hundreds of posts there have been so far.
Today, I'm giving you all a Christmas cracker.

Here's what's inside:
Instead of a silly paper hat, you're getting a crown.

This is the ancient crown of Polish royalty, known as the Crown of Boleslaw the Brave.  More than a thousand years ago, he was given it by Otto III, the Holy Roman Emperor.  Actually, this is a replica - one of many.  Several replacements had to be made in the first seven hundred years of its existence. Polish royalty being a pretty precarious thing, the crown jewels have been hidden, stolen, and taken into exile over the centuries.  In the 18th century Boleslaw's crown was melted down by the Prussians to make gold coins, some of which were used in the most recent reconstruction, early this century.
Of course, there's no one to wear the crown today, and it's held in a museum in Krakow.  Here's a picture of it atop King Stanislaus II August in the 1700s, shortly before the Prussian army arrived.

Most crackers come with a little present - maybe a something useful like a keyring or a miniature screwdriver.  You get one of my favourite objects from the Victoria and Albert Museum.  It's a lock made in around 1680 by the master craftsman John Wilkes.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London
It has the most intricate mechanism for locking and unlocking.  The keyhole is hidden behind the man's right leg and, best of all, the dial records how many times the lock has been opened.

You can see a video of the lock in operation on the V&A site at /http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/videos/w/video-wilkes-detector-lock/

 I did think of giving you a really old joke in your cracker.  Instead, you're getting a very old film.  I've been researching the film company founded by the great inventor Thomas Edison (for my new book, Montmorency Returns, available on Kindle and as a real book very soon). In 1910, Edison issued a version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol with what were then amazing special effects.  Here are some frozen frames:

You can watch the whole thing (it's only about ten minutes long) at https://archive.org/details/AChristmasCarolhttps://archive.org/details/AChristmasCarol
And then you can return to your own family, and your own Christmas, a better person for having seen it.
As Tiny Tim would say,  "God bless us, every one."


Tuesday 24 December 2013

IF IT'S CHRISTMAS IT MUST BE CHINON... the festive season itinerary for Henry II

Medieval kings, especially Angevin ones were a busy,  peripatetic bunch.  If they stayed in the same place more than a week it was a miracle. The task of government in the Angevin period was a hands on one. The King had literally to be seen exerting his authority and the royal itinerary was one of pillar to post and back again across England, and vast swathes of what is now modern day France, not to mention Ireland.  Accommodation was generally the Medieval equivalent of a five star hotel, often with a splendid few days' hunting laid on for the benefit of the King and courtiers.  Much of the royal finery was carried in the baggage wains that lumbered to the same destinations as their sovereign, although frequently along different roads or earlier in the day.

I thought it might be interesting to look at where King Henry II spent the Christmas feasts of his reign from 1154 - 1188 (he died before Christmas 1189). Christmas gatherings were politically important events. While there was sport, mirth and merriment and largesse, it went hand in glove with meetings, with decisions of policy and government, with the declaration of interest and the issuing of charters.
As an aside with reference to the entertainments, we know that one Roland le Pettour held his estates in Norfolk for the performing of one particular festive jape for King Henry II.  His brief was to appear at court each Christmas and perform a 'leap, a whistle and a fart' for the royal entertainment. The particular service was hereditary and the responsibility was passed on to his son.  What can I say?  Having watched the inimitable Mrs Brown's Boys on television, not a lot changes!

To the itinerary:
Beginning in 1154:  Henry had been crowned King of England at Westminster Abbey on December 19th, aged just 21 years old.  Red-haired, freckled, grey-eyed and bursting with energy, this was the promising start to a magnificent new reign after a generation of bloody civil war.  Henry's wife, Alienor of Aquitaine was most probably crowned with him. She was 7 months pregnant with their second son, and their heir, William was two years old.
The Christmas celebration itself was held at the manor of Bermondsey across the river from the Tower of London.  Westminster royal Palace was not an option for the new king and queen. It had been neglected during the civil war and was something of a ruin.  Indeed, it was the first task of Henry II's newly appointed chancellor, Thomas Becket to put Westminster Palace in order and make it splendiferous.

1155.  Christmas was held at Westminster this time around, so presumably Becket had pulled out all the stops and made the place habitable for a gathering.  By January 1, Henry was busy in Canterbury.

1156.  No one is quite sure on this one, but Bordeaux is a likely candidate.  Certainly Henry was in his wife's lands rather than his own northern climes.  Sadly during this year he and Alienor had lost their firstborn son - cause unspecified. They had also had a daughter, christened Matilda after her formidable grandmother the Empress Matilda.

1157.  The King and Queen were at Lincoln this year.  In September Alienor had produced another son, Richard, later to become Richard the Lionheart.

1158. Cherbourg this year. Alienor had been in England until late in the year where she had given birth to yet another son, Geoffrey.

1159. The royal pair spent Christmas at Falaise in Normandy. Earlier in the year Henry had tried and failed to take Toulouse which Alienor claimed belonged to her. What the atmosphere was like at this gathering is anyone's guess.
The donjon at Falaiser

1160. Henry and Alienor were at le Mans in Anjou this time.

1161.  Christmas was kept at Bayeux in Normandy this year.  In October, Alienor had given birth to her second daughter, also christened Alienor at Domfront.

1162. Henry and Alienor were intending to spend Christmas somewhere in England but because of bad weather in The Channel, had to keep the festival at Cherbourg.

1163. Christmas this year was at Berkhamstead and marks a sign of the growing discord between Henry II and his recent Archbishop, Thomas Becket.  The castle, although belonging to the Queen, had been loaned to Becket on a chummy personal basis.  Now, with the dispute over criminous clerks looming large, Henry made a point of taking Berkhamstead for his own use and ousting Becket.

1164. 1164 was another Christmas spend in England, at the royal castle of Marlborough in Wiltshire.

1165.  Henry and Alienor spent Christmas apart.  He was in Oxford busy with politics and she was in Angers in Anjou, perhaps still recovering from the birth of their third daughter Joanna. Was the marriage in trouble or was it just politics?  We just don't know, but it is more likely the former, even if trouble was looming.

1166. Another Christmas apart for the royal couple.  Henry was in Poitiers, the heart of Alienor's great Duchy of Aquitaine, and he was joined by his almost 11 year old son Prince Henry.  Alienor, meanwhile, was in Oxford giving birth to their last child, John.

1167. This particular year the royal couple managed to have a family Christmas at Argentan, although some sources say Rouen.

1168. The Christmas court this year was definitely at Argentan and Henry was still there at New Year.

1169.  This year Henry was at Nantes in Brittany for Christmas with his third son Geoffrey who was Count designate of Brittany.  This was definitely politics. Queen Alienor inthe meantime was keeping her own court and Christmas in Poitiers.  Many historians and novelists see this period as the time of the split between Henry and Alienor, with her returning to her Duchy and occupying herself with her own concerns.  There is the suggestion (rather fanciful) that Henry had taken up with a nubile young mistress, Rosamund de Clifford and that Alienor had gone off in a jealous snit, but given Alienor's political acumen, it's not a likely scenario, even if it is soap-operishly romantic and dramatic.

1170.  Henry and possibly Alienor were at Bures for Christmas not far from Bayeux.  It's from Bures, supposedly on misunderstanding Henry's orders, that the four household knights set out to cross The Channel and murder Thomas Becket on the steps of Canterbury Cathedral  on December 29th.

1171.   Henry spent Christmas 1171 in Dublin, sorting out the Irish and keeping away from all the furore over Becket's slaughter. Alienor was probably in Poitiers.

1172.  In 1172, Henry and Alienor got together again at Chinon in Anjou.

1173.  King Henry was in Caen. During the last year his sons Henry, Geoffrey and Richard had rebelled against him, as had their mother and he was still busy dealing with uprisings and insurrection.  His sons were still rioting but he had captured Alienor and imprisoned her. She spent Christmas at his pleasure, but we don't know where, although Chinon and Falaise are both likely.

1174.  Henry spent Christmas at Argentan.  Alienor, now a permanent prisoner for the rest of his reign, was confined to various fortresses in the south of England, predominately Old Sarum and Winchester.

1175. Henry was at Windsor with his eldest son Henry, now reconciled.

1176.   Henry spent Christmas at Nottingham with his two youngest sons Geoffrey and John. His oldest son Henry was at Argentan with his wife, daughter of Louis VIII, and Richard was at Bordeaux.
Restored gatehouse of Nottingham Castle

1177  Henry was at Angers.

1178  Henry kept Christmas at Winchester with his sons Geoffrey and John. There is no mention of Alienor being there, but she may have been.

1179  The venue for Christmas this year was Nottingham for the second time.

1180  This time the King was back across The Channel at Le Mans.

1181  This year Henry spent Christmas at Winchester

1182  Henry was at Caen.

1183 Henry spent Christmas at Le Mans and Prince John now 17 was with him.  Henry's eldest son, Henry had died in rebellion against him in the summer of that year.

1184  This was a big family gathering year. Christmas was spent at Windsor with Alienor joining the court, together with her sons Richard and John, her daughter Matilda who was now Duchess of Saxony with her husband and their children.

1185.  Christmas this year was at Domfront.

1186. Henry kept Christmas at Guildford with Prince John.

1187.   Henry was in Normandy, at Caen this year.

1188  Henry spent the last Christmas of his life at Saumur in Anjou.

So in his 35 year reign, Henry II spent 12 Christmases in England,  2 in Aquitaine,  12 in Normandy, 1 in Ireland, 1 in Brittany and 6 in Anjou. All travel courtesy of horse, wagon, and occasionally Shanks' pony.

A Happy Christmas/festival/holiday break to all wherever you happen to be!

Elizabeth Chadwick

Monday 23 December 2013


When my mother-in-law was clearing out her house, prior to going into sheltered housing, she said to my husband and me, who were there for a visit: 'Fetch that out from the wardrobe. That's Mammy's post-card album. I'll put it in the bin.
In chorus, we said: 'Oh no, you won't!

The album opens a fascinating window on Ulster Protestant culture in the Edwardian era. Maggie Milford was clearly quite a lass, to judge by the amount of valentines that were sent to her. 'Are they from Grandpa?' David asked. 'Not at all!' said Maggie's daughter, proudly.

This one, however, was not addressed to her or even sent by her, as the signature on the front is 'Sally' and it's addressed to  Mr Jim Craig at Point Street Bakery, Larne. I can't completely make out the message from Sally to Jim on the front, but the rear side sports this remarkable verse:

If my heart it were a cabbage
I would cut it fair in two
I would share the leaves with many
But the heart I would give to you
Yours faithfully till Death do us Part

Most of the postcards, however, are addressed to Maggie, and some of them are startlingly improper and not at all what I would associate with a good Presbyterian lass of that era. Like this one, dated 1906.
Whoever wrote it wasn't too hot on spelling, that's for sure, and 'waste' for 'waist' is a little offensive, I think..For those not familiar with the old Imperial avoirdupois, Twelve oz means 12 ounces.
This next one is even raunchier. The message says: 'This is the sort of trade goes on/Down by the six mile waterside. Just look how happy they are in each others arms, with love.'  Presumably there is some irony there, given the precarious-looking position of the snogging couple. And the rear side says:
Just like the ivy on yone (sic) Garden wall cling so tightly whatever may fall, As love grows older I will be constant and true. Just like the ivy I will cling to you sweet heart.' I think the message beneath the array of kisses is 'in a hurry' but I'm not quite sure. Perhaps this one was from William John Curran, since they got married about 1908-ish, and at that time they were saving up. He had inherited half of his father's farm, but no farmhouse - his elder brother got that - and so he had to build one. That was Ferndale, which David can just remember visiting before they retired, whose driveway was lined with daffodils in spring, planted by Maggie. She became a great gardener. By the way, the Six-Mile Water is a river in southern County Antrim.
Here is Marie Studholme, a much-photographed music-hall star of the period. My grandma-in-law must have liked her, for she appears twice. She was one of the Gaiety Girls once, was divorced and remarried, scandalous even in my childhood! and also learned jujitsu! She toured the British provinces, so I wonder if she came to Belfast. Going there to see her would have been one big outing for Maggie, to whom even Larne or Ballyclare would have been the Bright Lights.

And here is the metropolis of Ballyclare on a typical busy day.. The postcard comes from another lovesick swain. However, there is a postcard of the Big City, Belfast, and even one of New York with its skyscrapers. 

The message on the front of the New York postcard is all the writing there is.
Talking of lovesick swains, this one is really passionate, and it makes you wonder about the goings-on at the Bethel Harvest Home.   I hope this one was actuallly from the future Grandpa Curran! Especially with all the ferns, and the fact that they called their farmhouse Ferndale. Pity it is in such poor condition.
We thought at first that this one must be, and that he was telling her he had saved so much towards building 'Ferndale' but the verse on the back is signed 'K' so this is another one who hopelessly adored Maggie Milford. There must have been some hearts broken when she did get married. There is probably some socio-historical significance to the clergyman, and I wonder whether Anglicans wore those kinds of hats, or whether this is a Catholic priest, in which case it would be a bit of Protestant cynicism about the methods and morality of the 'Cartholic' priesthood? If anyone has any idea, do let me know.
This one has a definite Russian-ballet look about it. On the back, however, it says 'Kiss me Quick.'
I picked out this one because it is much more what I would think of as a typical Edwardian postcard, though why is the lad got up like a Pearly King? Again, if you know, do tell me. However, the back reflects the usual preoccupation with love and flirtation.
I must apologise for inadvertently chopping off the last line of this postcard. It reads: 'We were in the Belfast. Louisa. I wonder if the nice young man actually came in and was introduced to Louisa's parents, or whether he only saw her home? My impression of one-time Northern Irish country mores, gleaned from my mother-in-law's family, was that followers weren't encouraged at home until the engagement had happened. Indeed, 'not encouraged' is the understatement of the century, though when people did manage to get married, they were given a slap-up wedding. So these postcards happened in the midst of a hot-bed of romantic and sexual fantasy, which was kept, like farm dogs and cats, strictly outside the house, but crept in on the postcards, to be giggled over between the girls, probably in their chilly bedrooms, with innuendoes and blushes and cries of 'Away out o' that wi' you!' (one of my mother-in-law's exclamations which we use now with affectionate mimicry).

That's just a small sample of the cards, some of which are just like today's text messages: Like this one - how idyllic Glenoe must have been, with practically no traffic! But a couple of stereotypically picturesque 'Irish types' and I think that is a jaunting car.
 The message on the rear side reads:
Now who sent this, and was the shop a romantic rendezvous?

There are plenty more of the raunchy ones, which all goes to show that our grandparents and great-grandparents were a lot less prudish, perhaps, than the likes of the Sitwells would have us believe. To be sure, it was the Edwardian age, but if you read Matthew Sweet's excellent 'Inventing the Victorians', you can see that the stereotypes were created and superimposed by the Victorians' children. Well, nobody wants to think about their parents having sex, do they?
Since we are coming up to Christmas, here is the last postcard.
A very happy Christmas to all our readers, from the Edwardians and from me.