Monday 31 October 2016

October competition

To win one of five copies of Sarah Gristwood's Game of Queens, just anser the following question in the Comments section below:

"Which powerful woman from continental Europe deserves to be better known in the English speaking countries, and why?"

Then put your answer in an email and send it to, so that you can be contacted if you win.

Closing date: 7th November

We are afraid our competitions are open to UK Followers only

Sunday 30 October 2016

Cabinet of Curiosities by Mary Hoffman

We have a "Cabinet of curiosities" post on the 30th of each month that has 31 days, i.e. seven months in every year. Usually one of our number writes about an object she possesses, perhaps something handed down through the family and carrying a host of personal associations. Some of them are objects of obscure historical significance.

Others are simply items seen in a collection of a museum or gallery and just blatantly lusted after.

Today I want to write about the objects I assemble around me when ever I start writing a new book. Of course the main thing is other books - all my research materials kept in a plastic crate under the coffee table in my study, where I can easily reach anything I need. I'm not precious about notebooks - though I do like a beautiful notebook. I am happy to write my research notes on an ordinary reporter's notebook, spiral bound at the top. And especially now I have found Scrivener, I can faff around to my heart's content on the laptop when the real business of writing begins.

No - I'm talking about specific objects. I won't call them "inspirational" as I loathe the very thought. They are more like focus points to stop my attention wandering off to other books I might write, other things I might do.  I can't remember when I acquired this habit - probably with the Stravaganza sequence of novels set in Italian cities in an alternative universe.

The characters were transported to Talia (my parallel world version of Italy) by the possession of talismans and hunting for the right one for each book was important each time - a marbled notebook, a flying horse, a blue perfume bottle, a leather-bound book, a bag of silver mosaic tesserae and a paperknife in the shape of a small sword.

But the talismans, although important for the narrative, were not necessarily my object. For example, I didn't acquire the model of the black winged horse until after City of Stars was published, when a fan found one and gave it to me. While I was writing the book it was this tile, bought in Siena that worked for me.

I bought a tapestry in France to commemorate the writing of The Falconer's Knot, a small wooden trebuchet in John Lewis toy department when I was writing Troubadour and a marble miniature in the Accademia shop in Florence when I was working on David. (The marble base comes from Carrara, like the block Michelangelo turned into David - though I bought it in Pisa).

My most recent historical novel, to be published next April, is The Ravenmaster's Boy and it has very satisfactory  flibbertigibbet-controllers: two plush ravens from the Tower of London. I spent some time there with the current Ravenmaster, Chris Skaife, and his birds.

Huginn and Muninn, my plush ravens
Me and my favourite Tower raven
Chris Skaife, Ravenmaster at the Tower of London

I am currently writing a short novel about the model for the Mona Lisa but have not found a focus object. So if you hear of a daring theft from the Louvre ...

What objects do writer friends like to keep about them and are they specific to the work in hand?

Saturday 29 October 2016

The girlie side of history by Sarah Gristwood

Our October guest is Sarah Gristwood, who - as well as being a well-respected historian -  is a History Girl Reserve, one of that splendid band of writers who give us "anytime posts" that can be used when one of our regulars needs to take a break for a month.

Sarah has written two bestselling Tudor biographies, Arbella: England’s Lost Queen and Elizabeth and Leicester; and the eighteenth century story Perdita: Royal Mistress, Writer, Romantic which was selected as Radio 4 Book of the Week.  In  2012 she brought out a new  book – Blood Sisters: the Women Behind the Wars of the Roses. Her latest title is  Game of Queens, about the chains of women and power running through the sixteenth century.

Shortlisted for both the Marsh Biography Award and the Ben Pimlott Prize for Political Writing, Sarah is a Fellow of the RSA, and an Honororary Patron of Historic Royal Palaces.

Sarah Gristwood by Oliver Edwards

The name of the group demands it, really. The History Girls . . , and what I’d call the girlie moments from my particular chunk of history! When, in a publicity meeting for my new book, Game of Queens: The Women Who Made Sixteenth-Century Europe I offered a list of top ten girlie moments, the women got it instantly. My male commissioning editor was too nice to say anything. But I swear his eyes roamed around the room, hoping the cricket scores would materialise on the walls and sweep him spiritually away.

Where to start, chronologically? The sixteenth century saw an explosion of female rule. Large swathes of Europe were under the hand of a reigning queen or a female regent - mothers and daughter, mentors and proteges. Game of Queens traces the passage of power from Isabella of Castile to her daughter Katherine of Aragon, and on to Katherine’s daughter Mary Tudor. From the French regent Anne de Beaujeu to Louise of Savoy, through Louise’s daughter Marguerite of Navarre to her own daughter Jeanne d’Albret, as well as to Marguerite’s admirer Anne Boleyn and finally to Elizabeth Tudor.

Anne de Beaujeu, regent of France, wrote a manual of instruction for powerful women. Lessons for My Daughter. One piece of advice was not to pay too much attention to clothes - ‘Past 40, no finery can make the wrinkles on your face disappear’. Perhaps Margaret Tudor should have read it. When her brother Henry VIII sent her the present of some wonderful dresses, Margaret was in such pain from sciatica she couldn’t even bear to be turned in bed. But she still made her attendants hold up the dresses so she could see them, every day.

And there was, after all, a serious point here. Clothing was an important signifier of rank. Margaret - widowed when her brother’s armies killed her husband, James of Scotland - had now been forced to flee that country. She wasn’t being treated as a queen any longer - but the dresses made her seem queenly.

While Henry VIII was looking for a new bride, after beheading Anne Boleyn, his eye lit on Marie de Guise. He said that they should get on together, because they were both ‘large in person’. ‘I may be large in person’, she retorted, ‘but I have a little neck!’ Christina of Denmark, similarly honoured, said that if only she had two heads, one of them would be at the English king’s disposal. Sometimes girl power means talking sassy.

And it’s something, after all, to be allowed to be girlie. In the early part of the sixteenth century, the heyday of what I see as the Age of Queens, Margaret of Austria not only ran the Netherlands during the minority of her nephew, the future Charles V, she was at the very heart of European diplomacy. Margaret ‘is the most important person in Christendom, since she acts as mediator in almost all the negotiations between the princes’, wrote her one-time father-in-law Ferdinand of Aragon, flatteringly.

Margaret of Austria

The childless Margaret was called ‘the great mother of Europe’ - but by the time she was succeeded as Regent of the Netherlands by her niece Mary of Hungary, ambassadors were reporting gleefully that Mary was ‘a little mannish’, and that everyone knew she wouldn’t have children - she was far too sporty. When Mary in turn was succeeded by her niece, Margaret of Parma, there was much talk of her moustache . . . After all in a woman in power couldn’t be entirely a woman, could she?

It was Mary Queen of Scots who liked actually actually to dress up in men’s clothes and go roistering around the Edinburgh streets with her ladies. (There was always the joke that the best way to end the troubles between Scotland and England would be for Mary and Elizabeth I to marry.) Her own minister would describe Elizabeth as ‘more than a man - and in truth sometimes less than a woman’. But how’s this for a girlie scene? - in that stereotyping, cat fight kind of way. When Mary sent Sir James Melville on a diplomatic mission to Elizabeth, the Tudor queen kept pressing him as to whether she or Mary were the taller, the better dancer, the prettier. Mary was the fairest queen in all Scotland and Elizabeth in all England, answered Melville - diplomatically.

It all depends, after all, what we mean by ‘girlie’. In 1572 when Catherine de Medici and Jeanne d’Albret met to negotiate the marriage that was supposed to end France’s Wars of Religion, they broke off their discussions for a day’s shopping round the Paris boutiques, disguised as ordinary bourgeoises. Or so it was reported, anyway . . . Were the men who reported it trying to point up their womanly weakness, or did they understand that this could be a real bonding ritual? (‘As woman to woman, make her mad, while remaining calm yourself’, one negotiator on the Catholic side had urged Catherine de Medici.)

When Mary of Hungary heard about the execution of Anne Boleyn, and Henry VIII’s hasty marriage to Jane Seymour, she declared that she had to be glad, in a way. Anne had been a Francophile, and thus no friend to Mary’s Habsburg family. But, all the same, Mary wrote ‘It is to be hoped, if one can hope anything from such a man [as Henry], that if this one bores him he will find a better way of getting rid of her. I believe that most women would not appreciate it very much if this kind of habit becomes general. And although I have no inclination to expose myself to dangers of this kind, I do after all belong to the female sex. . .’ It was an expression of sisterhood, even if the term is of today.

Because I’d say this was a sisterhood - at least in that earlier part of the century, before religious differences tore Europe apart, and fractured bonds A band of powerful women, of sisters, who recognised both their own bonds as female, and their ability to exercise power in a specifically feminine way.

Louise of Savoy

In 1529 Margaret of Austria, the Habsburg emperor’s aunt, and her former playmate Louise of Savoy (now mother to the French king François) met to negotiate the ‘Ladies’ Peace’ of Cambrai. War between France and the Habsburgs was the curse of the century, but the women agreed they could probably do something about it, if their men would only stay out of the way. The men would be concerned about their honour, as Margaret put it tactfully. ‘On the other hand, how easy for ladies… to concur in some endeavours for warding off the general ruin of Christendom, and to make the first advance in such an undertaking!’

This idea - of women coming together in the interests of peace - would recur through the sixteenth century and beyond. Perhaps no others would achieve the success of Margaret or Louise . . . But perhaps, too, this is what we ought to mean by ‘girlie.'

Friday 28 October 2016

Simple Charm by Julie Summers

This autumn I went to visit the National Trust's Nuffield Place, the home of William Morris, Lord Nuffield, from 1933 until his death thirty year later at the age of 85. William Morris was one of the wealthiest men in Britain and yet he lived frugally and privately with his wife who he met at a cycle club in Oxford before he was 20.
He started life mending bicycles and was himself a winning rider. His workshop was soon turned over to motor cycles and he designed by Morris Motor Cycle in about 1902. At this stage he moved into buildings in Longwall Street, Oxford, opposite Magdalen College, where he repaired bicycles, operated a taxi service and repaired and hired out cars. In 1912 he designed his first car, the bullnose Morris. His work was interrupted by the First World War but in 1919 he sold 400 cars and by 1925 he was selling 56,000.
At the height of his career he was reputed to be earning £2,000 per day (about the same in dollars given the woeful state of sterling at the moment!). When asked about his great wealth he replied 'Well, you can only wear one suit at at time.' What struck me about this lovely 1930s house was its modesty that reflected its owners'. No ostentatious decoration or chandaliers, no leathery portraits of ancient ancestors dragged up from a past that didn't truly exist, and no extravagant gold bath taps.
For me the most exciting discovery was that the cupboard in his bedroom was not full of clothes but was in fact a miniature workshop. It was a vignette into his life that I had not expected. Apparently he was a light sleeper and would often 'worry out'a problem in the night. I had a vision of him sitting in his pyjamas in front of his cupboard, allowing his mind to rest on the various objects in there that might provide an answer to his questions. Lord Nuffield was famous for his philanthropy. There are well-known foundations that bear his name, such as the Nuffield Orthopaedic Centre, which was established in 1931 or the Nuffield Foundation (1943) which he endowed with a capital sum of about £10,000,000 'to provide medical and social relief'. This grew out of his work in the 1920s and 1930s to help relieve the 'sick, crippled and the poor and to alleviate social injustice.' But what really interested me were the smaller donations made with aforethought and great generosity that would go almost unmentioned and at times almost unnoticed. On his 62nd birthday, on 10 October 1939, he put a cheque into a nurse's collecting box at the Mansion House. The logo on the poster she was holding read 'Give freely' to the Lord Mayor's Red Cross Fund. When the cheque was unfolded it was in the sum of £100,000 (about £4 million in 2016).
My favourite donation he made is even less well-known than the Red Cross cheque. During the five and a half years of the Second World War he donated sanitary towels to the women's forces. This was the most thoughtful thing I could think of and I was deeply touched by his concern for the comfort and reassurance of a steady supply of these vitals items, known by the recipients as 'Nuffield's Nifties'. You really couldn't make it up. William Morris, Lord Nuffield, gave away £30,000,000 (or over £2 billion in today's money) over the course of his life. He will remain the most famous of British philanthropists for all time but for me he will be the modest millionaire who knew enough about the real world to know what was really needed.

Thursday 27 October 2016

Your Last Paper Five Pound Note by Janie Hampton

For the past fifteen years, all of us who live in Britain have looked at this woman many thousands of times. But within the next few months she will disappear from public view as paper notes are replaced with plastic ones.. Who is she? 
The last paper £5 note
She is Elizabeth Fry, the woman on the “back” of the £5 note. (The woman on the “front” is Queen Elizabeth II, who appears on all British sterling notes.) So why was she chosen?
Elizabeth Fry changed the lives of prisoners in the 19th century, in Britain and all over the world. Much is already known about her extraordinary humanitarian work , so I’ll tell you a bit about her early life.
Betsy, as she was known, was the daughter of devout Quakers from East Anglian banking families – her mother Kitty (1755-1794) was a Barclay; and her father John Gurney (1749-1809) was a partner in Gurney’s bank. Eventually the two banks married too.  Born in 1772, Betsy grew up the third of eleven children in Earlham Hall, a country house in Norfolk built over many centuries. It had 80 cupboards for ‘hide and seek’ and was set in beautiful park land - now the site of the University of East Anglia. There were at least two dozen indoor and outdoor staff, who were treated as part of the larger family.
The Gurneys of Earlham were known as ‘Gay Quakers’ – they loved to dance and sing, and they wore cloaks with colourful linings. Kitty believed in liberal and equal education so Betsy and her six sisters were taught French, Latin, Botany, History and Geography, as well as needlecraft and family economics. Drawing lessons were given by John Crome and John Sell Cotman, leading members of the Norwich School. As part of their social and moral education, Kitty would fill jugs with soup and march her children off to feed the local poor.
Unlike her rowdy siblings, her mother described her third daughter as ‘my dove-like Betsy, scarcely ever offends and is truly engaging’. Her sisters found her moody, self-absorbed and difficult. She resisted joining them in the North Sea at Cromer or duck-shooting on the Norfolk Broads. Following Quaker practice, the children were encouraged to write their true feelings, and faults, in daily journals – and then had to read them out to the family. Betsy was unsparingly honest about the sins of both herself, and her sisters. Her four younger sisters were often irritated by her goodness: ‘she does little kindnesses, even to those who ignore her.’
When she was only 37, Kitty died of erysipelas, a skin infection which is easily treated nowadays. The Gurney children were then aged between one and 16 years; Betsy was just 12. To keep them cheerful, their father would hire a blind fiddler on Saturday evenings who could not know that the sound of laughter and dancing came from Quakers. Despite being shy, Betsy had a beautiful singing voice and danced with grace. She observed in her journal that dancing made her flirt more and at 17 she wrote, ‘I must beware of being a flirt, it is an abominable character’. Much to the disapproval of the Plain Quakers, her father invited guests belonging to other Christian denominations, and encouraged his children to know about the world. Just as many of us boycotted South African wine to bring down apartheid, as early as 1800 the young Gurneys resisted eating sugar to try and end slavery.
On Sunday mornings, the family walked the three miles into Norwich for “Goats”, the Goat Lane Friends Meeting House. On the way there any child who lapsed from speaking French was fined a farthing. Quaker meetings lasted three or four hours, sometimes in complete silence. For children who loved riding, swimming in the river, dancing and drawing, this was an agony of self-sacrifice and they found  it “extremely dis” [disagreeable]. By the end they felt “thoroughly goatified” until they got home to Earlham for a “romp and a dance”. Their journals refer as often to dancing, as they do to their sins.
A watercolour of Betsy's Quaker cousins at Friends Meeting House, Gracechurch Street, London in 1778.  Twenty years later, Betsy would have been sitting on the left and William Savery speaking from this platform.  Note the speakers hat hanging above him.
One Sunday in February, 1798, the seven sisters were sitting in the front row at Goats. Betsy intended to spend the meeting contemplating the beauty of her new pair of purple boots with red laces. But she became transfixed by the speaker, an American Quaker called William Savery (1750-1804). ‘I had a feint light spread over my mind…it has caused me to feel a little religion,’ she wrote. Determined to hear Savery speak again, she asked her father to take her to London. During the week, she attended Drury Lane theatre, Covent Garden opera, saw performances of Hamlet and Bluebeard, went dancing, had her hair done, and finally on Sunday went to hear Savery again. Her life was never the same again. Much to her family’s annoyance, she gave up dancing and singing, wore only plain grey clothes, spoke quietly and determined to overcome her fear of the dark. She visited the sick and poor with clothes and food, started a Sunday school and became a Plain Quaker. Two years later she married a fellow Quaker, Joseph Fry (1777–1861) – whose family made their fortune in chocolate, although Joseph was an unsuccessful banker.
The 'Angel of Prisons' reading in Newgate Gaol.  The man on the left wearing spectacles is her brother-in-law Thomas Fowell Buxton MP. Painting by Jerry Barrett, 1816, on which £5 note is based.
The couple lived in London where in 1813 Betsy visited Newgate Prison. She was horrified by the filthy, overcrowded conditions of women, many imprisoned with their children. Five years later she became the first woman to present evidence to Parliament, which led to the MPs John Peel and  Thomas Fowell Buxton supporting the ‘Gaols Act of 1823’. She formed the “British Ladies' Society for Promoting the Reformation of Female Prisoners”, the first national women's organization in Britain; and campaigned against capital punishment. She established a "nightly shelter" in London for the homeless,and in towns all over Britain she organized volunteers to help the poor in their homes. After Betsy set up a college for nurses, Florence Nightingale took some of them to the war in the Crimea. Queen Victoria supported her work and the King of Prussia even joined her on a visit to Newgate Prison. Betsy visited over 100 convict ships before they set sail, giving each woman a ‘useful bag’ for her transportation. She wrote, “My mind is too much tossed by a variety of interests and duties — husband, children, household accounts, Meetings, the Church, near relations, friends, and is a little like being in the whirlwind and in the storm; may I not be hurt in it, but enabled quietly to perform that which ought to be done.”
Betsy died of a stroke aged 65 and was buried in Essex. There are many buildings named after her, including an 1849 women’s refuge in Hackney; part of the Home Office headquarters; and a school in Greensboro, North Carolina, USA. There are statues of her in Wormwood Scrubs Prison, East Ham Library, and the Old Bailey Court, London.
“Oh Lord, may I be directed what to do and what to leave undone.”
Statue of Betsy in The Old Bailey,  the site of Newgate Prison, London.
There’s even a National Elizabeth Fry Week in Canada every May. Many thousands of people, mostly unknown to her, benefited from her humanitarian work. Nevertheless some people criticized Elizabeth Fry for neglecting her domestic duties - despite the fact that all but one of her eleven children reached adulthood. Sadly, this is a problem women still face today. So before you spend your last paper five pound note, think about this woman who changed the way we think about the homeless, prisons and slaves - and yet still managed to annoy her sisters!
Elizabeth Fry, née Gurney, 1780-1845.
Janie Hampton is descended from four of Elizabeth Fry’s Gurney siblings.
This blog uses her mother's book: 'Friends and Relations - three centuries of Quaker families', Verily Anderson, Hodder & Stoughton, 1980.

Wednesday 26 October 2016

France as my Inspiration, by Carol Drinkwater

                                       The famous green boxes used by the Parisian bouquinistes
                                         They have been designated a World Heritage Site status

I am deep in work at present, lost in the brambly mire of editorial notes on my still untitled novel due for publication in 2017. As well, I am also preparing or rather allowing to gestate the novel I am about to begin writing. I am not a Plotter. I start with grainy images of characters and places. Once I have a first instinct about what these people, this particular character - usually a woman – wants, I begin to trail her, as it were. What period am I traversing? Where are we? What is at stake for HER? The questions are endless. It goes back to my drama school days when I was taught to build the inner life of my character, the role I was rehearsing. "Get to know everything about her".

Agents and publishers like material they can sell, they can establish you with. In my case, in one broad word, it is FRANCE.

My six memoirs set on our Olive Farm in the South of France became international best sellers. They established me, as it were, as one of those Brits who had upped sticks and moved abroad, to France. A rather simplified summation of the facts, but never mind.
My agent is happy that he can sell the combination of moi and France.

But no one wants to write the same book over and over so I am always looking for new approaches, different angles for stories. And this is great fun.

My latest novel, published this year, THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER, is set on a vineyard overlooking the Mediterranean somewhere not far from  Cannes or St Raphael. There are also several scenes set in Paris. But at the heart of the book, where its dark family secret lies, I take the reader back to the last days of the Algerian War of Independence in 1962. The fallout when war is in its dying throes. The people who are affected by the retreat. Sometimes the characters might be victims, sometimes perpetrators. Right at the core of THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER is a choice, a decision taken when no other direction seemed possible.

The research involved a trip to Algeria – an expansive, varied and very beautiful country with many layers of its own fascinating history. I was fortunate because I had recently returned from a four week trip there for research on a previous book, a travel book: THE OLIVE TREE.

So powerful were the images and history of the country that they stayed with me; they haunted me until I decided to use them for THE FORGOTTEN SUMMER. The story took root within me and would not go away until I wrote it. I think it’s a fair claim that this is a good situation for a writer. The emptiness of no inspiration and the silent question: what on earth am I going to write about next? is not what any of us wants.

So, when I am inching towards that empty stage where, somewhere there, the next story is waiting to be told, I look about me in earnest, on the hunt as it were, for spoors, threads.

I make trips to brocantes – junk and antique stores - which in any case is a form of relaxation for me. I am searching for objects that might kickstart my imagination. I visit galleries and stare into paintings. I watch old movies.

A few weeks ago I drove to the edges of the Champagne region to visit a huge jumble yard; one I know quite well. It is so sprawling that usually I only stroll about the Art Deco or Art Nouveau sections or the garden furniture. But on this occasion I was trying to solve a writing problem and so just meandered about not really looking at anything. I found myself in the book section. This is a very fusty, dark room where lorry loads of books that have been collected from House Emptying expeditions are stacked in piles. There is no order to it; you just have to rummage. There I found in excellent condition a biography of Francois Truffaut, a director I greatly admire. It was a snip at 2 euros.

                                                           A bouquiniste's treasure trove

It took me back to an era of modern France that has always fascinated me. France in the late 60s and the 70s. An evocative period in which to set a novel. Last week, I was wandering the bouquiniste stalls in Paris and I spotted a rare black and white magazine hanging from a clothes peg on one of the stalls on the Left Bank. It was not a snip at 32 euros. Still, I couldn’t resist and bought it. It brought to life through pages of black and white photographs the period when Truffaut was making such films as Fahrenehit 451, Stolen Kisses ...

And so I have found a key, a door into my next novel.

Fascinatingly, an episode from my early past that I had completely forgotten until now was that in 1971 or 1972 I met Truffaut. He would have been about forty. He was in London casting, looking for the lead for the film that won him his Oscar for Best Foreign Film: La Nuit Americaine or Day for Night. I lost out to Jackie Bisset who was given the role. My French, Truffaut decided, was not sufficiently fluent.
And now here I am living in France, living my life in the French language, reading his biography in French. How life turns!

                                                           François Truffaut 1932 - 1984

Truffaut died at the age of fifty-two. Tragically young, but he has left behind him a body of masterpieces. He changed the direction of French cinema and his work acutely chronicles two generations of modern history.
He is buried in Montmartre.

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Liberty Poles and Trees by Miranda Miller

    Liberty poles sprouted all over Europe after the French Revolution. Until I found this watercolour by Goethe of the Liberty pole at the border of the Republic of Mainz in 1793, I was unable to visualise them. In their need to replace the religious and monarchical symbols they had just destroyed, the revolutionaries needed to find new symbols to inspire people. So they erected a tall wooden pole, usually a flagstaff, which is also of course related to a maypole as a traditional and rather obviously phallic symbol of fertility and celebration. A Phrygian cap was hung on the top of the pole and, in this example, there is also a tricolour ribbon.

   The Phrygian cap (in French, le bonnet Phrygian), was a soft, brimless, conical hat. It is sometimes called the red cap (le bonnet rouge) or liberty cap (bonnet de la Liberté). Its link with Phrygia in Minor Asia seems to be that Phrygia was a source of slaves who, if they were freed, wore their traditional headgear again. During the Roman Empire the Phrygian cap (in Latin, pileus) was worn on festive occasions such as the Saturnalia, and by former slaves who had been emancipated by their master and whose descendants were therefore considered citizens of the Empire. Immediately after the assassination of Julius Caesar the plotters went to meet a crowd of Romans at the Forum where they brandished a pole with a pileus on top of it to symbolize the liberation of the Roman people from the tyranny of Caesar. During the Enlightenment these Phrygian caps became a symbol of liberty.

   The French took this useful symbol directly from the American revolutionaries, who were inspired by the Liberty Tree, a famous elm tree that stood in Boston near Boston Common, In 1765, colonists in Boston staged the first act of defiance against the British government at the tree in the years before the American Revolution. As trees took years to grow Liberty poles were often erected in town squares in the years before and during the American Revolution. Tom Paine wrote a widely distributed poem in honour of these trees:

For freemen like brothers agree

With one spirit endued

They one friendship pursued

And their temple was liberty tree.

Liberty trees and poles were often destroyed by British authorities and then defiantly replanted.

   In the following decades Arbres de la Liberté became an international symbol of the French Revolution, the first being planted in 1790 by the pastor of a Vienne village. When General Berthier marched on Rome 1798 he established the short-lived Roman Republic, known by many Italians as La Repubblica per Ridere or the Ridiculous Republic. When the Pope protested he was deposed and taken to Valence where he died the following year, at 81. A liberty pole topped with a cap of liberty was planted in the Forum.

   Members of the Assemblies of Paris were obliged to wear a Liberty cap, which replaced the royal fleur-de-lis as a national symbol. However, Napoleon is said to have detested the Phrygian cap and after he proclaimed himself First Consul for Life the capped figure of Liberty was replaced by the less revolutionary helmeted Minerva. Liberty caps were then removed from all public monuments but reappeared as a potent symbol of rebellion during the Hundred Days in 1815, when Napoleon escaped from Elba, marched on Paris and seemed likely to seize power from Louis XV111.

   Of course one person’s liberty is another’s slavery; people suspected of being aristocrats or counter revolutionaries were often hanged on Liberty poles and trees. James Gillray, who has been called the father of the political cartoon, started as a radical but later supported Pitt’s reactionary government. In 1797 Canning arranged for Gillray to receive regular payments from the government as a reward for his attacks on the Whigs (William Cobbett claimed that Gillray had been granted a pension of £200 a year). In this brilliant satirical etching he shows us The Tree of Liberty, with the Devil Tempting John Bull.
   A serpent with the head of Charles James Fox, the leader of the Whigs, is wound around a tree (an oak, naturally). At the tip of the serpent’s tail, coiled round the upper branches, is a large cap of 'Liberté', decorated with tricolour cockade and ribbons. Serpent Fox is holding out a rotten apple inscribed 'Reform' to John Bull, who wears the Windsor uniform of blue coat with red collar and cuffs. The pockets of his coat and waistcoat bulge with round golden apples.

   Diabolical Fox hisses, "nice Apple, Johnny! - nice Apple". Doughty reactionary John Bull replies: "Very nice N'apple indeed! - but my Pokets are all full of Pippins from off t'other Tree: & besides, I hates Medlars, they're so domn'd rotten! that I'se afraid they'll gie me the Guts-ach for all their vine looks!"

   The trunk of the tree is labelled 'Opposition' and its roots are: 'Envy', 'Ambition', 'Disappointment'. The main branches are 'Rights of Man' and 'Profligacy'. Each rotten apple or medlar has an inscription: 'Democracy.', 'Treason.', 'Slavery.', 'Atheism.', 'Blasphemy.', 'Plunder.', 'Murder.', 'Whig Club', 'Impiety', 'Revolution', 'Conspiracy', 'Corresponding Society', 'Deism', 'Age of Reason' (Paine's deistic book).In the background (right) is an oak in full leaf: its trunk is 'Justice', the roots 'Commons', 'King', 'Lords', the branches 'Laws' and 'Religion'. From it hangs a crown surrounded by 'pippins', some inscribed 'Freedom', 'Happiness', 'Security'. In another dazzling Gillray print, Promis’d Horrors of the French Invasion, Gillray shows William Pitt, the Prime Minister, tied to a liberty pole while Charles Fox flogs him. French troops march down St James’s Street and the palace is on fire.

   Liberty poles resurfaced In 1945, following the liberation of the Netherlands from Nazi occupation, when one was erected on Dam Square in Amsterdam. Marianne, the feminine representation of the French Republic, is sometimes shown wearing a Phrygian, or Liberty, cap, which has now become a rather chic pixie beret. Do any of you know of any more recent examples of liberty poles or trees?


Monday 24 October 2016

William Marshal and the immediate aftermath of The Death of King John By Elizabeth Chadwick

Newark Castle today
On the dark and stormy night of October 18th 1216, King John died at Newark Castle, a couple of months short of his 50th birthday.

His reign had been a troubled one for the country and seldom politically joyous. On his watch the vast swathes of land that had been ruled by his father and his brother Richard, and that  constituted the 'Angevin Empire' had mostly been lost to the French.  John had quarreled with the Church and his barons, alienating both so badly that at one point he was under threat of excommunication from the former and facing an overthrow by the latter. By the time he died John had managed to mend fences with the clergy and put himself and the realm under papal protection, but his situation with the barons was still extremely precarious and the previous year had seen John forced to put his seal to the Magna Carta, a charter of demands and curbs, which he regarded as flagrant infringement on many of his royal prerogatives, and which he rejected the moment he left the table. When he died, England was in a state of civil war. The rebellious barons had invited Louis, son of the French king Philippe, to come to their aid and become King of England.  John died in the middle of a war to hold onto his throne, bring his rebel barons to heel and oust Louis from the country.

His heir was his nine-year-old son Henry, and given the situation at the time of his father's death, there was no guarantee that the child would grow up to claim his inheritance. However, he did have some staunch supporters on his side including the great magnate William Marshal, Earl of Pembroke who was about 70 years old when John died.  William had risen from the moderate nobility to great heights by dint of his strong military abilities as both a fighter and a commander, his can-do, amiable but ambitious personality, and his ethos of absolute loyalty to whoever he served.  Consistently rewarded by his Angevin masters, William was liked and respected by the majority of the English barons whatever their faction, and had useful diplomatic ties at most of the courts in Europe, as well as the ear of the Templars, whose ranks he was to join on his deathbed.

William Marshal's tomb effigy at the Temple Church, London.
William Marshall had had his own difficulties with King John during the reign even to the point of having his two sons taken hostage by John who suspected William of plotting behind his back. William, however, had weathered the King's paranoia, caused in part by  some moments of questionable judgement from William himself. Nevertheless, the bonds held and during the crises that swamped John in the latter part of his reign, William came to his rescue and remained staunch. William possessed the advantage of having friends and connections on both sides of the divide. He had close relatives in the rebel camp - his son-in-law Hugh Bigod for example and his own son William. But he also had good working relationships with the barons still backing John as well as the important members of the clergy including Stephen Langton Archbishop of Canterbury.

William was not at King John's death bed in Newark; he was in Gloucester, keeping an eye on the Welsh Marches, but his nephew John Marshal was attending at the King's bedside and William was quickly apprised of the King's final illness by a swift messenger.  William immediately set out from Gloucester and rode to meet the King's body which was being borne the 100 or so miles from Newark to be buried at Worcester as per the instructions in John's will.
William is known to have sent to a royal storehouse to obtain palls to cover the bier and the tomb, thus helping to make the King's burial a regal and dignified occasion despite the difficulties of civil war.  Around this time he also sent a household knight of King John's called Thomas of Sandford, (his younger brother Hugh was one of the Marshal's inner core of knights)  to Devizes to fetch John's 9 year old heir, Henry, who was in the castle there with his mother, Isabelle of Angouleme.

tomb of King John, Worcester Cathedral
Once King John had been interred in Worcester Cathedral between the tombs of Saint Wulfstan and saint Oswald following 'a magnificent funeral service', the mourners, including William Marshal and the papal legate Gualo Bicchieri, returned to Gloucester some thirty miles away, there to decide what to do with a country at civil war and cast adrift.  William Marshal, together with other barons and churchmen had been appointed arbiters and administrator of John's will.

A meeting was held at Gloucester on October 27th, eleven days after the King's death. The Earl of Chester was summoned to it, since he had not been present at the funeral and was reckoned one of the most important men of the realm and a firm supporter of the former king. The barons who had remained loyal to John were also summoned to Gloucester.

William Marshal then set out straight away to join up with the party bringing John's son to Gloucester and met him not far from Malmesbury.  William greeted the young lad and according to William Marshal's biography, the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal (which should be read with caution but in its broad brush strokes is true), swore his oath of loyalty to the child, who placed himself in his care.

The young soon to be king was brought to Gloucester and a debate was held whether to hold back the coronation until the Earl of Chester arrived or perform it there and then.  The decision was taken to crown young Henry immediately because the sooner he was anointed, the less chance and validation the opposition would have for filling the empty throne with their own candidate the Dauphin Louis of France whom they had already unofficially appointed as their sovereign.

Gualo Bicchieri. papal legate crowns
 the 9 year old Henry III. Matthew Paris
The boy was duly prepared for his coronation and William Marshal dubbed him a knight, which was deemed an essential part of the ritual.  Young Henry was 'dressed in his child-size robes of state; he was a fine little knight.'  The barons there bore him into the abbey of St Peter where he was anointed and crowned by the Papal Legate.  Supposedly much of the royal regalia had been lost during the crossing of the Wellstream Estuary shortly before King John's death when the baggage train had foundered. How true this actually is, is open to conjecture, but whatever the reason, supposedly the boy had to be dressed from what his mother had to hand, including a golden coronet of her own rather than anything that had belonged to King John.
Following the coronation, the new King Henry III was borne from the abbey and taken to a room to be divested of his coronation robes which were 'very heavy' and somewhat lighter robes were found for him to wear.

As the men were sitting down to the coronation feast, serious news arrived that Goodrich Castle was under siege from the Welsh. William Marshal sent soldiers and crossbow men to deal with the matter, but it enhanced everyone's feelings of insecurity and it was decided that rather than wait for the Earl of Chester to arrive, a leader needed to be chosen to rule the country as Regent for the young King right now. The Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal, which as aforementioned, puts its hero, William Marshal in a very positive light, says that everyone immediately turned to William and asked him to take responsibility. It may not have been as immediate as that and William may have been more eager for the job than the Histoire makes out but the fact remains that someone had to take a leadership role and William Marshal was the man best suited. 
The Histoire gives us a very moving and detailed account of that decision and its aftermath. William at first refused the job because he said he was too old. However, he retired to deliberate with his men about what he should do because he acknowledged that 'it is is a difficult task to carry out the role of Governor.' His men advised him to take the job. 'People say that a man who does not finish what he set out to achieve has reached only the point where his efforts are totally in vain, and that he has wasted his time. Do it, for God will assist you and much honour will accrue to you.'   However, one of his closest companions , John D'Earley, was concerned for the state of the Marshal's health because he was ageing, and the new young King  had very few resources to fight his enemies. He believed that the pain and trouble involved would take a heavy toll on his lord.

The Marshal decided to wait until the morning and ponder the details overnight. In the meantime the Earl of Chester arrived and the candidacy for the role of Regent was contested between these two men. Discussions between the nobles ensued and it became clear that William Marshall was the man that the majority desired to follow. Although the Earl of Chester was later to protest to the Pope about this ( a fact not mentioned in the Histoire for obvious reasons). The Pope turned down the Earl of Chester's protest, saying that 'power prefers no partner.'

Although William Marshal was elected Regent, the Histoire tells us that he was still a little concerned about what he had taken on - and had apparently only done so when granted remission for his sins.  Finally persuaded, he retired to a private chamber and there called his men together again and voiced his doubts. He said to them:

'Give me your help and advice, for, by the faith I owe you,I have embarked upon the open sea, where no man, wherever he sails or wherever he sounds the depths, can find a bottom or shore,and from which it is a miracle if he reaches port and a safe haven. But may God, if it please him, sustain me! I have been entrusted with this task, which is already close to coming to grief, as you know and sense. And the child has no wealth, which is very damaging and a source of grief to me, and I am myself an old man.' Then his heart became full to overflowing and his eyes began to fill with tears. Tears streamed down his face, and those present there, who loved him and were entirely devoted to him, began to weep out of pity for him. And he, after looking up, said 'Have you no more to say than this?'

His men rallied round after this and assured him  that whatever happened, great honour would come to him from the task he had taken on. William did the equivalent of bracing his shoulders, taking a stiff drink, and wiping his eyes, left the room to get on with the job of ruling England, reuniting its people,dealing with the French and repairing the economy so that at least it worked after a fashion. By re-issuing a revised version of Magna Carta which was to enter the statute books for posterity he also laid the groundwork for the nation to go forward.

Come the moment, come the man.  I quite often ask myself these days 'What would William Marshall do?'  or 'Where is William Marshal when you need him?'

Select Sources:
Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal vols II and III Edited by A.J. Holden with English translation by S. Gregory and historical notes by D.Crouch.  Quotes in Italics are from the Histoire in Translation.

William Marshal 3rd Edition by David Crouch

King John: Treachery and Tyranny And the Road to Magna Carta by Marc Morris

The Minority of Henry III by David Carpenter

Elizabeth Chadwick is currently writing a novel titled TEMPLAR SILKS about William Marshal's missing years on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land between 1183 and 1186.  Her latest novels pictured below cover the life story of Eleanor of Aquitaine.

Sunday 23 October 2016

A Chest full of Treasures by Elizabeth Laird

Miss Winslow was a well-to-do farmer's daughter in Oxfordshire, and this chest contained the trousseau she took into her marriage in around 1810. Remarkably, many items still remain: lawn caps, lengths of exquisite lace, a deep-fringed silk shawl, net mittens. They've been joined by later arrivals: baby vests, strips of embroidery brought back from China by an adventurous family member, a black taffeta apron with fancy tassels. All these items were carefully hoarded by Cassandra Winslow's daughters and granddaughters down the generation. I inherited the chest and its trove of contents from my mother-in-law, who had loved to look through it. It impressed me mightily, and I will always treasure it.

We are all, of course, made up of multiple strands of inheritance. And the more we travel around the globe, mixing and marrying all over the place, the more diverse our family histories become.

To my husband's family, Cassandra Winslow's chest meant femininity, domesticity and elegance. But it was originally a military chest, made for an officer in the army or navy, as the label still pasted into it shows. Whenever I look at it, I think of a very different thread of family story.

My grandmother's grandfather was a poor farm boy in Ulster, so unhappy in his foster home that at the age of nine he ran away. He was quickly pressed into the navy, where he became a powder monkey, one of that band of urchins whose job it was, when a battle was underway, to carry cartridges of gunpowder up from the magazine in the bowels of the ship to the sweating gunners on the gun decks, a job fraught with danger. His name was John Allan.

John Allan's adventures in the navy, the battles in which he fought, the thrilling rescue of the army at Corunna, his years as a French prisoner of war, his eventual emigration to New Zealand with his sturdy sons, and their new lives as pioneer farmers, were the stuff of legend to me as a child. There's only one thing to do with material as rich as that, and that's to turn it into fiction, and so I wrote Arcadia, the hardback cover of which featured a picture of my old linen chest, with the contents artistically draped over the edges. The novel is now sadly long out of print, but has, like so many other books, a shadowy afterlife thanks to and other such websites.

Why did I never write another historical novel for adults? I'm not sure. I tried, but somehow the siren call of young fiction drew me back. Old John Allan and his thrilling naval adventures were also the inspiration for Secrets of the Fearless, my first historical novel for children. Others followed: Crusade, The Witching Hour and The Prince Who Walked with Lions.

There's something especially heart-warming about history seen through the perspective of one's own ancestors' experiences. One feels a close connection, a blood tie, that makes the history come alive, and that feeling, one hopes, flows through the pen on to the paper and into the imagination of the reader. I am delighted that researching one's ancestors has now become such a popular activity in the UK. The many online archives make discoveries easy, and help people to connect with our history in a way that can only enhance their lives – and the culture of our whole nation.