Monday 29 February 2016

Place and the Novel by Antonia Senior + February Competition

Our February guest is Antonia Senior - welcome! It's not often that February has 29 days and hence a guest slot on The History Girls. There's a competition too, so please scroll down when you have read Antonia's post.

Photo credit: Nick Roe
Antonia Senior is a writer and journalist. After studying History at university, she worked at The Times for fourteen years in a variety of roles, including acting Business Editor and Leader Writer. She became a freelance after the birth of child number 2, to concentrate on writing and reviewing books. Antonia writes the monthly round-up of the best new historical fiction in The Times’ Saturday books section. She is a judge for this year’s Historical Writers’ Association debut fiction crown. The Winter isles, the story of Somerled, the first Lord of the Isles, is out in paperback in April.

How the landscape of Scotland inspired and shaped my book: The Winter Isles.

No one thought I should write The Winter Isles. Its hero is a twelfth century Scottish warlord - a man more mythical than historical. A warrior in a brutal age. Me? I’m a middle-aged Mum who lives in London, and cries when my eyebrows are plucked. My agent was kind but wary, my publisher was tremulous. I was furious at my own obstinate insistence that this was the story that I wanted to tell.

The compulsion to write about Somerled was rooted in one thing: my absolute love of the place in which he lived. The wild West coast of Scotland is my favourite spot in the world. From beautiful Barra, with its machair-backed beaches and music-filled pubs, to the empty, purple hills of Ardnamurchan – this is the land that makes my urban soul howl to the moon with joy and hope. And I wanted to write about it.

I learned about Somerled, the first Lord of the Isles, at Finlaggan on Islay. This is the inland home of the later Lords, an eerie, rush-filled loch hemmed in by heather and grey skies. Somerled’s descendants – the Donalds from whom all the MacDonalds and others are descended – were based here.

There are places where you history breathes on your neck, whispers in your ear. That moment when the curtain shivers, and you can hear the clamour of voices, the stories that demand to be told and retold. I have felt that shiver in grand places: Hagia Sofia in Istanbul or the Pantheon in Rome. I have felt it in humble places: the ruined village of Mingulay, the grey mud left behind by the Thames at low-tide, where the hangman’s noose falls from the Prospect of Whitby sign in Wapping. There I was, at Finlaggan, amid the old stones and the drizzle, with an insistent voice in my head. I am the Lord of the Isles. Write my story.

So I did. I went looking for Somerled in the records - where he appears fleetingly and rarely as a sometime friend of, and sometime rebel against, the Canmore Kings of medieval Alba. I looked for him in the myths, where he is a pure Gaelic hero who fought off the rapacious Vikings. I looked for him in the DNA studies – which show him spreading his tangled Norse-Gaelic genes with near Genghis Khan levels of enthusiasm.

But there was not much to go on. His was not a culture of the written word. It was a culture of swords and sung poetry. As a historical fiction writer, I take the factual research incredibly seriously. My books on the English Civil War have been written on the shoulders of giant historians and mounds of primary material. The Somerled shelf on my bookcase – although as complete as I could make it – is slightly stocked.

The Winter Isles, therefore, called for much historical imagination – all rooted in a sense of place. How would this landscape shape the men? What burden would the women bear? How would they cope with the cold, the relentless wind, the winter storms? What would it feel like, to lie in the damp, dark heather, watching the light spill from your enemy’s hall – to be the eyes watching in the darkness? To be the watched?

Clues came from unlikely places. My husband and I were climbing a munro in winter with a lovely guide. His friend had experimented with hillwalking in thick, traditional tweed. It kept out the weather as well as modern gortex, said our guide, but once inside and by a fire, it steamed dry in great white clouds. The best historical fiction is filled with texture, with details like this one.

There were big problems with the knowledge gap. No one knows where Somerled’s main stronghold was. He must have had one. Local legend in Morvern places him at Ardtornish, near Lochaline – a nub of land which juts out into the Sound of Mull. The name means Thor’s Headland in Norse. There is an atmospheric ruined castle at Ardtornish – but its dates are out. There is no archaeological evidence that sites our twelfth century hero here.

Still, one morning, when staying alongside the incomparably beautiful Loch Aline, we walked out to Ardtornish Castle. It was a day of cool blue skies and violent winds. The waves whipped up the Sound of Mull, white-tipped. Across the water, Mull’s Ben More was snow speckled and unforgiving. From the water’s edge in front of the Castle, we could see all along the Sound in both directions. It was empty, but for the skirl of sea-birds. In the times of Gaelic dominion, these were busy seas – full of traders and merchants and travellers.

It seemed to me, standing on the edge of Somerled’s Morvern, that there was only one place he could have lived. Here. Scoured raw by the wind, and a rain that comes in sideways. But visible and dominant, and proud. Fact? No. But all historical fiction is a tangle of knowns and unknowns – and where there are known unknowns we must do our best to imagine fiercely and in good faith. We must rely on a sort of historical instinct.

So I wrote the book that no-one – least of all me - wanted me to write. It was inspired by the land, and rooted in it. And, readers, it has been greeted with a gratifying enthusiasm. Sometimes, perhaps, you have to write with your heart, as well as your head.


To win one of five copies of Antonia's fabulous-sounding book, just answer the question below in the Comments to this post:

"Which historical fiction book do you think most successfully evokes place, as well as time?"

Then send a copy of your answer to Mary Hoffman at

Closing date: 7th March

We are afraid that our competitions are open to UK Followers only

Sunday 28 February 2016

Every Picture Tells a Story

Every picture tells a story is an old cliché but it is true. When it comes to illustrating non-fiction, well-used and thoughtfully captioned images can enhance understanding of a story. However all too often books contain pictures that are either poor quality reproductions or badly explained: pictures have to earn their place in books and that the author then has a duty to ensure that they are appropriately captioned.

One of the most extraordinary photographs is of The Endurance. On the face of it this picture is of Shackleton’s ship sinking into the ice of the Weddell Sea in November 1915.

What is significant about the photograph, taken by Frank Hurley was that Shackleton carried it with him in his pocket when he sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia to raise the rescue mission for the men left behind. Now here’s the critical thing as far as I am concerned: Frank Hurley took a photograph of a sinking ship. Fine. He developed the glass plate (approximately 12" x 8”). Where? On the ice. In a tent. Then he made a little print for Shackleton. Not a big one. Shackleton could not have fitted a big one into his pocket. Where? Also in a tent on the ice. Moving ice at that. In fact we know that Hurley kept a selection of the photographs he had taken on the voyage, prior to The Endurance sinking, because it is recorded that he and Shackleton had to make the terrible decision to jettison the majority of the glass slides as they were so heavy. Shackleton succeeded in making his extraordinary journey in a lifeboat, the James Caird, from Elephant Island to South Georgia, some 800 miles across some of the heaviest seas in the world. He carried this photograph with him in order to prove who he was and what had happened to his ship. It is only slightly more remarkable that the actual photograph still exists.

When my editor was looking for a photograph for the front cover of my book about evacuees she chanced up a famous image of three little children sitting on suitcases with luggage labels round their necks. The picture says everything about the mass evacuation of unaccompanied school children from Britain’s cities to the countryside in the Second World War. Except that this picture is not quite what it seems. It was taken not in 1939 but in 1941 when the children were about to leave from King’s Cross Station for Northampton. They had in fact been evacuated with their parents to Chislehurst Caves in Kent at the beginning of the war but returned to Greenwich before Christmas 1939. It was only when their father got a job as a driver in the RAF that their mother decided the children needed to be evacuated. Barbara, the oldest of the children, seated in the middle, had no recollection of the photograph being taken. Her memories of that day are of being left by their mother and ending up in a beautifully clean house smelling of lavender polish. She and her sister, Rosie, spent eighteen very happy months with Mr and Mrs Rice. 
Their brother John was sent to another family for the duration. They returned to Greenwich after the war and Barbara’s strongest recollection from that period was her determination to be as clean and tidy as her foster parents. Fast-forward sixty years and imagine Barbara’s surprise when her daughter phoned to tell her that the photograph had appeared in the Daily Mirror in 2005. The Royal Mail used it on a stamp for their Britain at War series and the memory of wartime evacuation returned to the forefront of Barbara’s mind. When I interviewed her in 2009 she said: ‘Although I was happy in Northamptonshire and well looked after I never quite lost that nagging sensation of sadness that I would so very much rather have been with my mum, despite all the difficulties of life at home.’

Brigadier Sir Philip Toosey DSO, CBE, 1974. His role as senior
British officer at the Bridge camp in Thailand was immortalised
by Alec Guinness in The Bridge on the River Kwai
A third image (below) is one of my all-time favourites and it helped me better to understand a family story that I wrote about in The Colonel of Tamarkan. Sergeant Major Saito was a Japanese guard in the prison camp on the Thailand-Burma railway where my grandfather and 3,500 men built the bridge over the River Kwai. My grandfather, Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier) Philip Toosey, was in charge of the camp and had difficult dealings with the Japanese and Korean guards. On one occasion two officers and six other ranks escaped from the camp into the jungle. This caused a terrible scene and Saito, second-in-command at the camp knew that the deeply-feared Kempei Tai (the equivalent of the Gestapo) would be called in to investigate. Toosey realised the implications of this so took responsibility for the men’s escape. He told Saito he and he alone had known of their intentions to run away (they were later all caught by the Japanese and executed). Saito beat him severely and ordered him to stand to attention for 24 hours in the full heat of the sun, badly knocked about. It was a public punishment intended to humiliate him in front of his own men but it was also for the benefit of the Kempi Tai who would not feel the need to investigate further, thus sparing the camp a much worse fate. Through this and various other contretemps, Saito and Toosey developed a mutual respect and understanding. At the end of the war Toosey was called to screen camp commanders for war crimes. It was here that he came face to face with Saito for the last time. To the guard’s intense surprise Toosey shook him by the hand and told him he was free to go. In his opinion, Saito had treated the POWs firmly but fairly. Thirty years later Saito wrote to him: ‘I especially remember in 1945 when the war ended and when our situations were completely reversed. I was gravely shocked and delighted when you came to shake me by the hand as only the day before you were prisoner. You exchanged friendly words with me and I discovered what a great man you were. You are the type of man who is a real bridge over the battlefield.’

Saito at Toosey's grave 12 August 1984, on what would have been my grandfather's 80th birthday

Saito had wanted to visit Toosey in Britain but the old man was too sick. In 1984 he finally managed to get to Landican cemetery on the Wirral where he visited Toosey’s grave on what would have been his 80th birthday. This is the photograph taken that day by Toosey’s son, Patrick. Saito wrote to him the next day: ‘I feel very fine because I finish my own strong duty. One thing I regret, I could not visit Mr Philip Toosey when he was alive. He showed me what a human being should be. He changed the philosophy of my life.’

Saturday 27 February 2016

The View From My Desk by Janie Hampton

The view south from my desk
When I finished writing the biography of Joyce Grenfell, my mind was overflowing with facts, dates and details. I needed to do something practical, an activity that required a different kind of concentration. Not being much good at carpentry, constructing a fitted desk seemed an ideal way of expunging three years’ research. The perfect place to put it was in the corner of my first-floor study between two windows: one facing south, the other west.  My skills were stretched and my brain emptied as I sawed, drilled and screwed my new desk, complete with a sliding shelf for my keyboard.

On the shelves above my computer are the books I might want instantly – addresses, diary, dictionary, and some I just like looking at, such as 14 volumes of Chamber’s Encyclopaedia. Two other walls are filled with shelves crammed tight with books and on the floor are piles of papers, always waiting to be sorted. A few years ago, when the shelves overflowed and the piles began to topple, I designed a staggered staircase up to the attic and filled it with more bookshelves. They soon filled up too.

Looking out of the South window, I decided it needed to be extended into a full-length window. The construction of that was a severe test of my marriage. The sliding window arrived in many unlabelled pieces, with instructions translated from Chinese. ‘Make the several parts (B) to commit inwards besides themselves(Y).’  By committing ourselves to extreme patience, both the window and the marriage held firm.
The new window looks over the back garden, in summer a jumble of artichokes, raspberries and rambling roses. Skittling between the vegetable beds are our moving flowers –coloured Peking, Frizzle and Mille-fleur bantams. The Indian runner ducks compete with robins and blackbirds for grubs in the soil.
Moving flowers, or bantams.
View of my desk  (top left)
In spring, the view is filled with a blaze of bridal white pear and blushing pink apple blossom, followed by the intense blue of wisteria cascading over a self-seeded ash tree. In the winter, beyond the tangle of oak and silver birch branches, I can see Temple Cowley Pool. Many a paragraph was untangled in my mind as I swam up and down the slow lane.  But that’s history now:  the pool has closed, soon to be replaced with flats.
To the left is the tower of St Luke’s Church. When it was built by Lord Nuffield in 1938, the workers of his Morris Motors factory threatened to go on strike. ‘If you can afford to build a church, you can pay us more.’  So he paid them more. But by 1999, the factory had declined from over 20,000 workers to a few robots and the church had become redundant.  My oak kitchen table was the altar which I rescued from a pile of rubble during the building’s renovation as the Oxfordshire History Centre. It’s a quiet place to research local history, where I discovered that my house was built in 1929, and belonged to a vet called Mr Snodgrass.
Through the West window I can see squirrels leaping through a beech tree, wheeling red kites, down Cowley hill to the dreaming spires, and beyond the city to Boar’s Hill. 
Looking West to Oxford's 'dreaming spires'.
The wall opposite has a large whiteboard with scribbled ideas, lists and reminders. Many of these have spilled onto the surrounding glass-framed drawings of a Norfolk lane, a Russian monastery and the 1908 Olympics. In the afternoon, a myriad of ‘camera obscura’ images of the sun, formed in the tiny gaps between the leaves, appear dancing on the wall.
Husband and grandchildren waiting in the view.

As the sun sets, I spot my husband wandering down the garden to the bay tree, carrying a bottle of wine and two glasses. It is time to leave my desk and join him in the view.

Friday 26 February 2016

Queen Victoria tours the French Riviera, by CAROL DRINKWATER

I won’t pretend otherwise. This February is proving to be a very bittersweet month. As I mentioned in last month’s blog, my new novel THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER was published on 11th February with a few nice events lined up by Michael Joseph/Penguin to launch it. A special and exciting moment for me as this new novel has been a while in the writing and I am very proud of it.

Unfortunately, my wonderful Irish mother, Phyllis, – a best friend and big sister to me – died in my arms totally unexpectedly on 4th February. It was a gift for her that her passage between life and after-life was so swift and painless but a terrible shock and heartbreak for me. Obviously, the show goes on and THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER was published. It has - I am writing this just a couple of days beyond its publication - been receiving some wonderful five-star reviews and seems to be selling very healthily.

So, because I am locked in pre-funeral arrangements, I am going to cheat this month and post here the text I wrote for an article published in the Mail on Sunday Travel section on 14th February. It tells a little about my patch of Provence.

"Provence is a large region of southern France. Officially, it is Provence-Alpes-Côte d’Azur, PACA. My corner is the geographically stunning tip that stretches to the borders of Monaco and Italy to the east, the Alps to the north, Hyères to the west and the sparkling Mediterranean to the south. The French Riviera or Blue Coast. Its reputation is so celebrated with tales of wealth, resplendence, decadence and all-night jazz hotspots that you expect it to disappoint, yet it never does.


"Queen Victoria loved the French Riviera. She visited on nine occasions and did a great deal to bring this wintering resort its international reputation. Her first trip in 1882 delivered her from a damp Windsor by carriage, train, crossing the channel on her yacht, Victoria and Albert, descending by train to Menton, the last hilltop stop before Italy, appreciated today for its Val Rahmeh Botanical Gardens and its exuberant Lemon Festival. Victoria was entranced by the palm and citrus vegetation, the sweeping views and the benign microclimate. She made expeditions along the coast, eulogising the landscape, which she later described in her diary as ‘a paradise of nature’. The local shepherds, she wrote, were ‘very handsome’ in their breeches and ‘large, black felt hats’ that protected from the sun.

"The widowed, ageing Queen returned regularly for the balmy climate. Her stays grew longer. One outing took her to the perfume town of Grasse, to Alice de Rothschild’s Villa Victoria. Alice had purchased 135 hectares of olive groves to construct her chateau. Spending millions, she laid out magnificent grounds and employed eighty full-time gardeners. Each year, she imported literally tons of violets to bed in the olive groves, giving vibrancy to the silvery fields while her forests of yolk-yellow mimosas perfumed the air.

"According to gossip, our doughty Queen stepped clumsily and crushed several plants underfoot. Alice, infuriated, told her royal visitor in no uncertain terms to ‘get out’. Other versions of the tale suggest that Victoria planted a tree as was the tradition, digging it in herself, to commemorate her stay, or perhaps to offer her apologies? Baroness Alice, who suffered from rheumatic fever, spent six months of every year in Grasse returning to Buckinghamshire for the summers. 

                                Statue of Queen Victoria in Cimiez district of Nice where stayed.

"By the beginning of the twentieth century, Cannes and the coastal strip that winds its rocky way to Monaco was the winter resort for the rich, the royals and a few well-heeled writers and artists such as the Impressionist Auguste Renoir who in 1907 settled in Cagnes-sur-Mer where he hoped to cure the rheumatism that had crippled his hands. Renoir’s home is now a museum dedicated to the artist. A must see.

"Around the turn of the century, two other members of the Rothschild banking dynasty constructed sumptuous properties along this coastline. The Villa Rothschild in Cannes was purchased by the local council and transformed into a media library while the Villa Ephrussi on Cap d’Antibes encircled by nine gardens with breath-taking views is open to the public and well worth a visit. If you are a budding painter, look out for Painters’ Day. In June, the villa opens its blossom-filled gardens to artists, offering them the inspiration and tranquillity required to create. In August, Ephrussi’s covered patio hosts a small, intimate opera festival.

"Although much construction has taken place around Grasse destroying many of the jasmine, rose and lavender hills that serviced the perfumeries, a visit to the traditional houses, Galimard, Molinard, Fragonard, with their old copper vats on display is de riguer. Or drop by Le Jardin de la Bastide, a paradisical garden, where Michelle Cavalier is producing organic rosewater products.

"Alice’s Villa Victoria is now Palais Provençal, an apartment block.

"Only after the Great War did the area became a summer venue. In 1921, the American composer Cole Porter with his heiress wife, Linda Lee Thomas, rented a house in the little-known fishing village of Juan-les-Pins. They invited fellow Americans Gerald and Sara Murphy, also both heirs to fortunes, to accompany them. So enchanted were the Murphys with this magical coastal playground that they persuaded the palatial Hotel du Cap in Antibes to stay open for the summer. Friends were beckoned south. Amongst the wide circle of prestigious guests were Picasso with his first wife, the Russian ballerina, Olga Khokhlova, Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and the Hemingways.

                                    The Murphys with guests on the beach 1923 at La Garoupe

"In 1924, the Murphys purchased a ‘seaside chalet’ near Plage de la Garoupe and christened it Villa America. The summer season was here to stay. Taste that mythical Jazz Age by dropping in to the Art Deco piano bar at the Hotel Belles-Rives, once Villa Saint-Louis, the rented home of the Fitzgeralds and incarnated in his classic novel, Tender is the Night. Sip your cocktail and gaze out at the emerald sea bobbing with linen-white yachts while a photograph of Josephine Baker with her pet cheetah gazes down on you.

"In 1923, while in Monaco, Coco Chanel was introduced to the stupendously wealthy 2nd Duke of Westminster, known to friends as “Bendor”. The affair between designer and Bendor lasted a decade. While out sailing along the coast in the company of his couturier mistress, the Duke spotted a plot of land on a terraced hillside in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. It had been part of the private hunting grounds of Monaco’s royal family. Bendor bought it and gifted it to Coco. When she returned to Paris, Coco was seen in a backless dress and bronzed skin. Until this time, to sport a tan was judged vulgar. Only peasants were bronzed, but Chanel’s appearance in the city of fashion confirmed that sunbathing was the new mode. In 1928, Coco built the exquisite villa, La Pausa on the plot Bendor had given her. This hillside property with its lazy summer warmth remained her residence until 1953. 

                                          Bendor and Coco on his yacht, The Flying Cloud 
"If you are fortunate to have friends like Bendor to take you sailing, the passage between Menton and Cannes gives marvellous coastal sightings of many iron-gated, stone-walled Belle Epoque mansions clinging to the rocks. Otherwise, healthy walks along the littoral offer you glimpses into the mysteries of how the other half lives. Who knows you might cruise by Ecstasea, built for Roman Abramovich, or Zaca, anchored in Pont de Fontvielle. One time it was Errol Flynn’s and it is whispered his ghost walked it decks at twilight. His other yacht, Sirocco, is docked near St Tropez and has been rechristened, Karenita.

                                                                          Léon Blum

"In 1936, the Jewish socialist and three times Prime Minister, Léon Blum, revolutionised France by bringing in two weeks annual paid holiday for all employees. For the first time, the ordinary man could take a vacation. The luxurious Le Train Bleu, the Calais-Mediterranée Express which, apart from the Great War years, had been transporting the elite to the south since 1886, added second and third class sleeping carriages. Middle and working class families were off to the seaside and the Riviera was to change forever.

"During WWII, the Cote d’Azur as a holiday destination closed down, but once the Allies had liberated the coast in 1944, the French Riviera’s infrastructure grew rapidly. In 1946, the Cannes Film Festival was inaugurated. Cannes was glamorous and chic while the international airport of Nice opened up the region to mass tourism. And so it has remained.

"Provence-Côte d’Azur offers everything. Walking tours, camp sites, Greco-Roman history, vineyards, chic beaches, glitzy casinos, dozens of music or flower festivals, luxury villas, open-top cars, magnificent art galleries, Provençal markets. In winter, every Sunday coaches depart Nice airport at 9am delivering skiers one hour inland to the slopes, then back home in time for dinner. The spectrum is as broad as you wish and it’s all yours. Léon Blum would have been proud."

I hope, if you have enjoyed this little snippet of South of France history, you might be tempted by THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER. It is set on a vineyard set back from the French Riviera coast. A love story with family secrets at its heart.

Thursday 25 February 2016

Ossian, by Miranda Miller

Imogen Robertson’s fascinating January blog about Cherubina de Gabriak, a disabled school teacher who tried to reinvent herself as a beautiful aristocrat and had a brief success as a poet, set me thinking about literary charlatans. Ossian was perhaps the greatest poet who never was. In the 1770s James Macpherson  published his ‘translation’ of an epic cycle of Scottish poems written in Scottish Gaelic in the third century. Ossian, a blind bard, sings of the life and battles of Fingal, a Scotch warrior. Macpherson claimed that Ossian was based on an ancient Gaelic manuscript but nobody ever saw the manuscript and, in fact,  there are no dark-age manuscripts of epic poems, tales, and chronicles and so on from Scotland because ancient Scottish poetry and lore were then purely oral. 
Whether the epic was genuine or not, Ossian caught the zeitgeist of a revolutionary, nationalistic  age.  When you’re reading about the eighteenth century Ossian pops up all the time: Napoleon carried a copy into battle; Goethe admired it and translated parts of it; the city of Selma, Alabama was named after the home of Fingal; Voltaire wrote parodies of the poems and Thomas Jefferson thought Ossian was "the greatest Poet that has ever existed".  His poems were considered equal to Homer’s and were tranlated into most European and Scandinavian languages. Writers as diverse as William Blake, Henry Thoreau, George Byron, Walter Scott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Matthew Arnold praised or imitated Ossian’s poems.
Napoleon commissioned one of Ingres' most romantic paintings, the Dream of Ossian, (shown here), and many other  painters, including Turner, Girodet, Angelica Kauffman and James Barry were also inspired by Ossian; the opera Ossian, ou les Bardes was a great success at the Paris Opera in 1804; Schubert composed Lieder setting many of Ossian's poems and In 1829 Mendelssohn composed the Hedrides Overture, better known as "Fingal's Cave". The cave itself, on the island of Staffa,was actually  renamed by Sir Joseph Banks at the height of Ossianmania (its original Gaelic name is "An Uamh Bhin" or  “the melodious cave"). Scandinavian and German princes were named Oscar after one of the characters in Ossian, as was Oscar Wilde
Various Irish historians, including Charles O’Conor, pointed out errors in chronology and in the forming of Gaelic names and challenged Macpherson to produce the original manuscripts, which he never did. Samuel Johnson was convinced the poems were forgeries, he  called Macpherson "a mountebank, a liar, and a fraud.” When he was asked, "But Doctor Johnson, do you really believe that any man today could write such poetry?" he famously replied, "Yes. Many men. Many women. And many children." 
However, Macpherson flourished. He ended up as MP for Camelford and became rich enough to buy a  large estate in Invernessshire. His sentimentality about Gaelic culture didn’t prevent him from being a ruthless landlord when it came to the Highland Clearances. When he died in 1796  he was buried in Westminster Abbey ( a privilege he was said to have paid for), together with Chaucer, Shakespeare Spenser and Dryden.  
Does each generation get the forgeries they deserve? Although I don’t know anyone who reads Ossian now Macpherson’s contemporaries certainly thought he was a great poet. So was he?   I’d love to know what you think about this.

Wednesday 24 February 2016

CROSS YOUR LEGS AND HOPE TO DIE: What those effigies are really telling you by Elizabeth Chadwick

Cross-legged effigy of William Marshal II in the Temple Church (he didn't go on crusade)
I belong to several forums on the Internet, dedicated to Medieval history.  One of the questions that arises on a regular basis concerns knightly effigies and what their poses mean with particular reference to those that have crossed legs.  If I had a pound for every time someone has replied to the query with 'It shows they went on crusade,'  I could have retired on the proceeds by now.  Another favourite is that if they are shown drawing a sword, then it's because they died in battle.  If there's no shield they didn't die in battle.  If the arm is crossed over but he lacks a sword, then he died in battle but using his fists. His crossed legs show that he's been castrated by a Saracen! Or, crossed legs at the ankle equals one crusade.  Crossed at the knee and it's two.  It sounds rather like a game of Effigy Top Trumps doesn't it! (a card game detailing the properties of objects whereby one wins points by having the best statistics).

These discussions and the constant repetition of the notion that crossed legs on knightly effigies meant that the men had been crusaders led me to wonder where the ideas originated and if there was any truth in it.  When asked for sources people usually don't know. 'I read it somewhere,' they say,  or 'somebody told me.'  I set out to do a bit of sleuthing.

The connection of cross-legged effigies to crusading is still alive in the mainstream as proven by the constant iteration on the above mentioned forums. It seems that many church guide books, internet and heritage sites offer the information as fact.  For example, Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, the 2009 edition states that 'crusaders were generally represented on the their tombs with crossed legs.'  Stephen Friar's Companion Guide contains similar information. However, the idea that the crossed legs of knightly effigies of the medieval period have symbolic meaning connected with warfare or the crusades is not unanimous and there are also guidebooks and websites that do not subscribe to the theory.  Frank Bottomley in his 'Church Explorer's Guide' informs the reader that effigies with crossed legs have nothing to do with crusading.  So different information is available depending on where the reader looks. 

So, having sorted out that a variety of information exists in modern publication, I decided to rewind a few centuries and see where the crossed legged crusader began.

14th century knight, Temple church, crossed legs, praying hands
First to the effigies themselves.  The cross-legged attitude in tomb sculpture was the height of fashion  throughout the British Isles between the mid 13th and mid 14th centuries. Indeed, the majority of military effigies were posed this way and it became a kind of cliche.  There were different poses within the fashion. There were those whose hands were placed in restful positions and they tend to belong to the early part of the epoch.  Then there were the knights who were handling their swords - either drawing them or sheathing them. The upper body action combined with the crossed legs made for an active, lively effigy appearing to be in motion rather than at rest.  The third batch had hands are clasped in prayer and these were to eventually supersede the action knights. The legs too, after the main period were gradually to straighten out once more.  This may have shown French influence because French effigies of the period generally depict hands in prayer and legs parallel.  Another reason for the return of the straight-legged pose may have been the development of plate armour - it looks better on straight legs!
There is also the matter of technical development as sculpting techniques improved and styles changed.  The early 13th century effigies show stiff, straight legs without any bending of the knee and without undercutting. As the century advanced, the knees were bent more and more and the effigies came to look more naturalistic and more realistically rendered.

So now let's leave these knights to the vagaries of time for a few hundred years and see what happens when antiquarians start to become interested in them. The first observations in the mid to late 16th century note that the effigies are 'old'  'ancient', 'antiquated' and 'venerable' etc.  These terms are applied more to cross-legged effigies than straight ones, and it would appear that the antiquarians knew their older knights from those nearer to their own time.  In 1587 the poet Thomas Churchyard described the late 13th century wooden effigy of Reginald de Briouze at Brecon  as ' was the ancient trade.'   There was even a popular belief for a time that these cross-legged effigies dated to before the Norman Conquest, such was the shaky grasp of timeline. By the 17th century, however, that particular idea had died out.
Late 13th century effigy of Robert Curthose, son of William the Conqueror (d.1134)  He did go on
crusade which may have helped to promulgate the idea that crossed legs = crusader

Allied to this developing interest in all things of the forgotten past, the historical detectives of their day began examining the tombs of the 12th and 13th centuries and attempting identification, often on very unreliable evidence or completely misunderstanding their physical source material.  So for example, Sir Henry Sidney brought a 14th century wooden effigy twenty five miles from Drogheda to Christ Church Dublin and had it installed as 'Richard Strongbow' Earl of Pembroke - who died 1176.  In the 1590's John Lord Lumley acquired a 14th century effigy to become the 12th century William de Lumley, founder of the dynasty.  There also seems to have been a particular interest in the 16th century for either altering real medieval effigies to represent one's ancestors or having fake ones made and giving them crossed legs. 
Southwark Cathedral wooden effigy.  Possibly a de Warenne.
Late 13th century. Relaxed pose.

One William Wyrely writing in 1597 may be the man unwittingly responsible for the notion of crossed legs being a crusader image on effigies. While refuting notions that the cross-legged effigies were pre-Norman Conquest, he remarked that such armour was known to have been in use after the 'Palestine Wars.' Within a decade of that statement, Chinese whispers had done their worst and antiquarians were now equating crossed legs on effigies with the conviction that the effigies so portrayed were crusaders or knights who had taken crusading vows. On contributory factor may have been the effigy of Robert Curthose (d.1134) who did go on crusade and has just such an effigy, albeit not created for him until the late 13th century.  There was also a detailed interest in the knights of the Temple Church in London.  Here the crusading associations were very strong and the Inns of Court surrounding the church were  hotbeds of inquisitive antiquarians.

The first reference, linking cross-legged effigies with being crusaders comes from William Camden in 1594, in the fourth edition of his work Brittannia. 

"Many noblemen were buried among them, whose images are to be seen in the Temple with their legs transverse in a cross; for I have heard, so all were buried in that age, who had pledged themselves to the Holy War, or who, (as was then said) had taken the cross."

A straight-legged William Marshal (d. 1219) and an early example of a knightly
effigy.  He DID go on pilgrimage but his legs are straight. 
Note Camden says 'I have heard'.  So even then people were 'hearing it somewhere'!   He would have known that Gilbert Marshal, in possession of crossed legs on his effigy, had taken crusading vows, although had not fulfilled them.
Four years later, John Stow in his 'Survey of London'  was straightforward and stated without equivocation that the men with cross-legged effigies were all vowed to the Holy Land and that the straight-legged ones weren't crusaders.  He also said that of course these were post Conquest effigies because of the period of the First Crusade (1095) and that there would be no cross legged effigies after the suppression of the Templars in 1310.  So he nailed his flag to the mast and used the cross-legged effigies as his dateline.

Throughout the 17th century other antiquarians jumped on the bandwagon and the idea entered popular culture and entrenched itself.  It's been there ever since.

There was a theory among many of the antiquarians that cross-legged effigies had to be Templars, but this was debated and eventually fell from favour.  However, in the course of the argument the leading antiquarians of the day concluded that the cross-legged effigies were 'intended to preserve the memory of such persons as had either actually been in Palestine during the rage of what was called the Holy War, or of such who had vowed to go hither....and some perhaps for persons who had made pilgrimages thither merely out of private devotion.'  - Smart Lethieullier 1744. 

William Longespee Earl of Salisbury. Another example of the straight-legged form
And relaxed, not drawing his sword. First quarter of the 13thc

Although the notion of all cross-legged effigies being Templars fell from favour among the antiquarians, the Templar idea had managed to enter other areas of culture.  The Templar Masonic Lodge at Douglas in Lanarkshire customarily drank toasts with their legs crossed in deference to the Templar knights of the past and effigies with crossed legs in ordinary churches would still be referred to by locals as 'The Templar.' 

By the end of the 18th century, tombs with crossed leg effigies were now viewed as being representative of someone who had taken a crusader's vow and that this vow then entitled them to have crossed legs on their effigy. The same with donations.  If a person had donated to the crusading cause in their lifetime, then they too were entitled to that kind of tomb sculpture. New twists on the theory were emerging (the aforementioned 'Top Trumps' syndrome).  Where the legs were crossed had symbolic meaning as to the number of times the knight in question had been on crusade.  Score one for ankles, two for shins, three for thighs!  A letter to The Gentleman's Magazine of 1789 declared that there were three different positions. Hands in prayer with the sword sheathed, drawing the sword and returning the sword to the sheath.  These meant that either the knight had died in peace at home after a crusade, had died in holy war, or who had died on the way home.

"Sometimes the figure on the tomb of a knight has his legs crossed at the ankles, this meant that the knight went on crusade.  If the legs re crossed at the knees he went twice; if at the thighs he went three times." ' Ditchfield: Our Villages 1889. 

These views held sway throughout the 19th century but there were people who challenged them.  Historian Matthew Holbeche Bloxam in 1834 stated that the crusading link to these effigies was 'conjectural  and can be traced to no sufficient authority.'  He also added that the depictions continued for more than half a century after the end of the last crusade. Another historian Charles Hartshorne in 1840 declared the crusader attribution to be 'a fanciful idea' without 'actual proof.' 

Gradually, among academia, it became generally accepted that such attribution was indeed a 'fanciful idea'.  However, among the public at large, the notion of the cross-legged effigy as crusader remained entrenched. It was far too romantic to give up. Wordsworth, Dickens and Tennyson all made allusions.  

In 1923, the crossed-leg crusader theory was condemned by A.S. E. Ackermann in his handbook of 'Popular Fallacies.'  However, it continues to be a 'popular fallacy' even if not as universally promoted as in the mid 17th to mid 18th centuries.

Modern historian Oliver Harris, having studied the subject in depth is of the opinion that while the antiquarians declared that 'We speak from fact not theory'  they have in fact shown a 'recurrent willingness to allow judgement to be swayed by preconception and prejudice.'  And that the issue has been obfuscated down the centuries by successive waves of 'religious nostalgists, chivalric romantics and modern conspiracy theorists' among others.  He makes it clear, however that the roots of the false notion of crusader cross-legged imagery in effigies lies with the 'Elizabethan and Jacobean passion for imagery, allegory and symbolism' and that the 'Crusader and Templar theories of crossed legs are manifestations of this same tendency.'

The bottom line is that while some of the knights represented by effigies with crossed legs did take crusader vows or visit the Holy Land, they are only a proportion of the whole represented and this type of effigy is one that developed from the mid 13th to the mid 14th century as a stylistic form and is of its time. The entire crossed legs business was invented in the 16th century and has been tangling historical truth ever since!

Antiquarian Attitudes: Crossed Legs, Crusaders, And the Evolution of an Ida by Oliver D. Harris - The Antiquaries Journal 90, 2010.

Early Secular Effigies in England by H.A. Tummers Brill Academic 1980
Elizabeth Chadwick pay tribute at the Temple Church to straight-legged William
Marshal, a crusader, and his non crusader bent-legged son, examples of early and mid period styles.

Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling author of fiction set in the Middle Ages.  She is currently at work on Templar Silks, a novel about the time William Marshal spent in the Holy Land and about which he said very little!

Tuesday 23 February 2016

Letters from the Longest Battle, by Leslie Wilson.

French trench at Verdun: public domain

The battle of Verdun was the most drawn-out and probably the most futile battle of World War One; and it began a hundred years and two days ago, on the 21st of February, 1916, and lasted till the eighteenth of December that year.

Briefly, it represented an enormous 'push' on the part of the German army to make a significant advance, and capture the Verdun forts. Von Falkenheyn, the German commander, intended to 'bleed France dry.' To that end, the most modern instruments of death were used; poison gas, flame-throwers, advanced guns. At the Franco-German commemoration of the centenary, Germany's ambassador to Paris, Nikolaus Meyer-Landrut said Verdun, in German memory, 'was the epitome of the pointlessness and savagery of World War One.' Nine villages were obliterated.

'Long Max' , a high-tech German gun. (Bundesarchiv)

I have two connections to Verdun; on the one side, my great-uncle Leo Kolodziej fought and was killed there. His head was blown off, blown to smithereens, I guess, since only his decapitated body was found, something that gave my mother nightmares during her childhood. I know next to nothing else about him, except that he was the youngest of my grandmother's brothers, (and I think my mother said, my grandmother's favourite brother) which, since she was only fifteen in 1916, may well have meant that he had only just gone to the Front (soldiers were taken from age 17, in Germany.) But that last is only conjecture.

The other connection is via close family friends in France, the Dufours. Achille Dufour, the father of Marc, who was my parents' age, and a kind of functional uncle for me, was a private in the French army, and survived, and I have the transcripts of some letters he wrote home to his wife Félicie, which Marc, before his death, very kindly authorised me to use in any way I wanted, though this is the first time I've been able to.
photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Within a very short time, the battlefield had become a landscape of craters - which you can still see, and the woods had been turned to stumps under the unrelenting bombardment of weaponry from both sides. The entire landscape was permeated by the smell of rotting corpses, especially in the summer, as it wasn't possible to get them and bury them. Achille told his children how the men often had to drink rain water from the craters, but there was also a stream they got fresh water from. One day, they found the corpse of a German lying across the stream, and so their officer gave them bleach to add to the drinking water; this was known as 'Verdunisation', so presumably it was a common expedient. The food was dreadful (better for the officers) and Achille succumbed at least once to dysentery.

In his first letter, written from a brief spell behind the lines in May 1916, Achille says: 'I have spent seven days and a night at.. (presumably deletions by the censor) Mort Homme.' (The name, meaning 'Dead Man', derived from an unidentified corpse found there in the 16th century; a strategically important hill whose name had become horrifically appropriate by then.) 'There Bochart Robert was killed, and Léonce Dubois from St Martin disappeared, and the last brother of Mérique (Saint Sauveur) was killed… a very considerable bombardment,' he ends, rather calmly. He rejoices in being able to get clean 'I really needed it,' he says. 'I had to sleep on a plank, but it's nice and dry, and I needed to rest so much, I never noticed that was hard.' But he was pretty bullish, at that stage. 'I can assure you that we fought well, and the Boches didn't have time to sleep, we demoralised them so much. They were surrendering a trench at a time, saying they'd had enough. We found that very encouraging. Our artillery is dealing out countless shells, and inflicting ravages on the enemy lines. You can see the Boches exploding, and when we attacked, the survivors almost all surrendered. We can be optimistic.. They wanted to hit us hard, but they've got hit hard themselves.. they aren't capable of attacking us any longer… it's hard to hold the line, but when we see the situation changing like that, we're all encouraged and full of enthusiasm.'
French medal: Wikimedia Commons

How much of that was for the censor, I wonder? In July, he was less cheerful. He misses his wife terribly (there are a good deal of complaints, in his letters, about the need for more leave, because France has to be repopulated) and says 'I'm thirsty for love. How much longer will this go on? It's already been two years… At our age, when everything should be cheerful, when we should have joy and happiness in our lives, this is a dark black hole dug into our existence, an indescribable waste of our lives. And how will it end? Will we have the chance to be reunited, safe and healthy in body and in mind?' But he strikes a hopeful note. 'You are undoubtedly suffering, but since I suffer too, this common suffering can only make us happier in the future.'

Leave was certainly a problem, since the constant bombardment often made it near-impossible to bring in new troops to relieve the front line. Often companies lost half their men just on the way to the battle. 'I fear,' Achille wrote in September to Félicie, 'that I shan't be able to come home this winter to warm your feet up… How long this cursed war is, that's keeping us apart for such a long time,' and ends up: 'My treasure, have the tenderest kisses that my loving heart can contain.'

'Humanity is mad,' wrote a French officer, less optimistically than Achille. 'It must be mad to do what it is doing. What a massacre! What scenes of horror and carnage! I cannot find words to translate my impressions. Hell cannot be so terrible.'
German medal: my grandfather's

Achille wrote to Félicie in October: 'You have no idea how much hatred I feel for the bandits (and he does mean the Germans) who have been depriving me of happiness and your tenderness for two years now.' At the end of December, when the battle was over, he wrote: 'Let us hope that the good times will return. But alas! What a terrible trial, how much we have suffered, and what sufferings are still to come? I wish I could forget, in the circle of your arms, these sad episodes of my life. This happiness, lost forever, stolen from us by the determination of imperious bandits.. tomorrow - 1917 - will we be successful? Shall we see the happiest day of our lives?'

Achille did survive, and was reunited with Félicie at last. But this is the estimated toll of Verdun; on the French side, between 315,00 and 542,00 dead and wounded; 156,000 to 162,000 killed. On the German side, 281,000 -434,000 dead and wounded; about 143,000 killed. (I don't understand why the massive uncertainty - perhaps someone can tell me?) One of the dead was my great-uncle. 
German war graves. Photo, Julian Nizsche, Wikimedia Commons.

At the end of those terrible months, the front line had barely moved at all. It was simply an exercise in mutual slaughter. To quote Tolstoy, in 'War and Peace,' it was 'an event counter to all the laws of human reason.'

And the 'war to end all wars' only brought forth a second world war, in which Achille's son Marc became part of the Resistance, and one day found himself obliged to shoot a German soldier who wanted to know what he had on his bicycle (it was full of rifles). And yet Verdun has since become a symbol of Franco-German reconciliation, and in the Sixties Achille's son, daughter-in-law and grandchildren formed an enduring and loving friendship with the daughter of a German officer, her husband and her children. In our two families at least, peace was truly made.

In memoriam: Leo Kolodziej, and all the thousands of others whose lives were thrown away at Verdun. And with grateful thanks to dear Marc Dufour.

Monday 22 February 2016

Town and Country by Kate Lord Brown

The thought of a flock of sheep running wild in Cavendish Square seems bizarre to say the least, but in the eighteenth century it was all part of the trend to create ‘rus in urbe’. Then as now, the emulation of country life was promoted as a soothing therapy for the stresses of life in the capital. Not everyone was convinced. As John Stuart said of the Cavendish Square fiasco in 1771‘to see the poor things starting at every coach, and hurrying round their narrow bounds requires a warm imagination indeed to concert the scene into that of flocks ranging in fields with all the concomitant ideas of innocence and pastoral life … The ‘rus in urbe’ is a preposterous idea at best’.

Some would say there has always been a strong element of the country in town – you only have to look at the number of 4x4s, Labradors and Barbour jackets in Fulham. Indeed, it is over two hundred years since the great royal parks, garden squares and pleasure gardens came to life. The parks still enjoyed today were famously described as the ‘lungs of London’ by William Pitt in 1808, and the face of the capital was transformed by the eighteenth century fashion for all things picturesque and rustic. At Richmond, Charles Bridgeman turned the royal gardens into a pastoral idyll, introducing ‘cultivated fields and morsels of forest appearance’ according to Walpole. John Nash inspired the exodus to the suburbs with his developments at Park Villages East and West. Soon speculative developments of lesser villas were springing up all around the fringes of the capital, capitalising on the burgeoning desire of the middle classes to live like the gentry in country houses near to town.

In the eighteenth century, the rural idyll became a panacea for urban ills, restoring and comforting the body and mind of the frazzled Londoner. Trips to holiday villages like Islington were immensely popular. Those who could afford it built themselves rustic cottages and follies, such as Dr Johnson’s summerhouse at Kenwood. As ever, some had a naïve view of the delights of country living. James Malton described in 1798 how ‘the greatly affluent involuntarily sigh as they behold the modest care excluding mansions of the lowly contented.’

As a major capital London still has the benefit of some of the best green public spaces in the world. Lose yourself on a spring day on Hampstead Heath or Wimbledon Common and you feel like you are a million miles from the centre of town.

Look at a map of London, and you will see that the heart of the city is alive with green areas. The other half of Dr Johnson’s famous quote about the capital says ‘there is in London all that life can afford’. Nowhere is this clearer than where town meets country. There may no longer be sheep in Cavendish Square, but ‘Rus in urbe’ is a luxury we can't afford to be without.