Friday, 17 March 2023

‘Digging for Lullingstone’ – Dr Anne Thick shares her memories of the excavations of Lullingstone Roman Villa over 60 years ago. By Caroline K. Mackenzie.

Dr Anne Thick spoke to Caroline K. Mackenzie about her life-changing experience as a teenager working on the original excavations of Lullingstone Roman Villa, the kindness of the custodians of the site, and the ‘golden days’ of being part of discovering such an important archaeological and historical site. It led to lifelong friendships, a rewarding career and a legacy which we can all enjoy today.

How old were you when you were involved in the dig at Lullingstone?

I was 14 and 15 as it was in 1959 and 1960. I was born in 1944 and am 78 now.

I love the photo of you on the dig!

Thank you. The story behind that is that the Daily Mail (I think) came down to do an article on the dig. I never actually saw the published article. After they had been and taken their photographs, Lieutenant-Colonel Meates, leader of the excavations at that time, gave me that photo so I assume it wasn't used in the article but they had distributed photographs that they had taken.

 Anne excavating the well at Lullingstone Roman Villa in 1959, aged 14. 

What I really like about it is that you have a pen and notebook in your pocket!

Yes I did, although I had forgotten that until you pointed it out! I have looked at that photograph a number of times. I am not sure what I was putting in the notebook, mind you!

You don’t happen still to have the notebook, do you?

Not that I know of, no. All I have dating from that time is my trowel. I used it on every subsequent dig that I went on. When I was accepted onto the Lullingstone dig, my Dad bought a trowel from a local ironmongers but it was too big so he had to cut it down for me to make it the right size for me to use on the dig. I know that I still have it somewhere!

Perhaps you should frame it! That’s a lovely story about your Dad. What did your parents make of your fascination with the dig? Were they interested in Roman things at all?

Absolutely. My Mum didn’t have any formal education over the age of about 14 but she was interested in lots of things and history was certainly one of them. I can’t remember a time when (well, we didn’t have a car when I was very little but, as soon as we were mobile) we weren’t going to places like Lullingstone. My Dad just went along with it! He did the driving and he was funny because he would go to these places and then pretend to do the guided tour afterwards - he was quite hilarious. But anyway, my Mum and Dad were totally happy about me being involved in the dig - otherwise they wouldn’t have kept taking me each week.

They must have been quite tickled because I think it is brilliant that you did it at that age. You have described the time you spent on the dig as a teenager as the ‘golden days’. My equivalent would be my teenage years spent at Greek summer school! But I would also have loved to have gone on a Roman dig! It is so hard to capture that feeling again.

Absolutely. It is part of being young. Your teenage years are quite formative in some ways (I don’t think you really know where you are going at that age) and so to go to Lullingstone and be involved was for me an amazing thing. For me it has always been that contact with original sources and, of course, in the end I went into archives (although that was partly because there weren’t at that time many jobs for archaeologists) and archivists were slightly better paid! The parallel is that if you are on a dig and handling artefacts, or handling documents as an archivist, you are in direct physical contact almost with those people who created either the artefacts or the documents and that means a very real connection with the past. That was very important to me.

Would you be able to tell me a bit about your career as an archivist and how it all started? You were doing your O’ Levels when you were involved with the dig.

Yes. I remember that when I passed my O’ Levels I was given a jewellery box as a well done present from Mr and Mrs Rook who were the custodians of the site at the time. I still have that jewellery box and I definitely know where that is as I take it every time we go on holiday. The Rooks were a lovely couple and I have strong memories of them - they were very nice, kind people and that’s what counts.

Mr and Mrs Rook, the first custodians of Lullingstone Roman Villa. 
© Dr Anne Thick.

Absolutely. And how kind of them to realise that, at your age then, passing your O’ Levels was such a milestone for you and they wanted to mark that.

After O’ Levels I did A’ Levels in History, French and Latin. I then went to the University of Cardiff (which was then part of the University of Wales) to study History and Archaeology. In the first year we had to do three subjects so I did Latin but I very quickly gave up the Latin as it was beyond me! My Latin was never very good.

I am sure you are just being modest!

The funny thing was (my Latin mistress could not really get over this) that after I started digging at Lullingstone suddenly my Latin got an awful lot better. I am not sure I would have even passed my Latin had I not been on the dig, but suddenly I seemed to connect with Latin.

I love that you were inspired by Lullingstone and that you somehow channelled the Latin which you saw at the Villa. [Lullingstone Roman Villa boasts a beautiful mosaic which is accompanied by a Latin inscription –  See earlier blog on Lullingstone .] I wonder if, even subconsciously, it spurred you on!

Europa mosaic, with Latin inscription (see further below). c. AD 330-60.
© Historic England Archive.

I think again it was that real connection because Latin was the language spoken by the people (or at least some of the people) who lived there.

At University after I gave up Latin I did Ancient History instead which is a lovely subject to do. In the second year I did Archaeology and History as I was studying for what was known as a ‘Mains degree’ and for that we focused on two subjects and I had already decided by then to go into archives.

I had met Frances Neale while on the dig and she was on the archive course at London University and she went on to a job at Bristol City Archives and so I had that at the back of my mind. Getting a job in archaeology was quite difficult in those days (mid 1960s) - there were slightly better prospects in archives. So I then did a diploma in archive administration at Liverpool University and got my first job at Berkshire Record Office in 1966, in Reading. I was there until 1971 by which time my husband and I had got married (in 1969) and then we went to get a job in Southampton and I got a temporary job in Hampshire Record Office. They created a job for me later which was very nice so I was an archivist there until the end of 1974. I then was away for 11 years when I had my children. I then had a short stint at Southampton archives then back to Hampshire Record Office in 1987. I was in post there until 2010 when I retired. So that is my career. But most of my work when I returned to the record office was business archives. It had a lot of interesting facets to it. It was the time in the 1990s when a lot of businesses were collapsing and so there was a lot of work to rescue archives in that period, talking to people whose situations had completely changed, due to privatisation and so on. It was very interesting to hear what people had to say about the situation.

So it was living history at that time, in a way.

Yes, almost. I started my PhD in 1994 - I was 50 when I started it - and I finished it in 1997. It was based on Southampton archives and medieval stewards’ accounts. The reason I started it sounds crazy! I did a university course in the history of science and technology - not that I am at all scientific or technological! It was just for interest.

That’s a good enough reason!

One of the things we had to do was a dissertation and mine was on whether Roman garden design had continued through to the medieval Roman period or if it had just been rediscovered. I had done some previous work using the medieval stewards’ accounts which were the financial records for the city and what it could tell me about the dockside cranes there. Southampton was a very important port in the fifteenth century - more important than London - mainly because it had trade coming in from the continent, especially Venetian ships. The two cranes there were town property used for unloading, and the stewards’ accounts record the expenditure of the town on repair and build. So I wondered what we could learn about their structure from references to repairs and rebuilding. There are very few cranes which survive from that period, none in this country at all. Germany has a few, the best known one being at Trier. The cranes in the end contributed a chapter to my thesis which was based on using the stewards’ accounts to say that Southampton contributed to its own success by managing its finances so well. Whereas the received thought is that Southampton just got jolly lucky. But they did things themselves like improving the financial system and maintaining and increasing their property so they could maximise income.

And you mentioned Roman gardens?

The book I used extensively on this topic was about the gardens of Pompeii by Wilhelmina Jashemski. The inspiration in this country came from Fishbourne Roman Palace because we have the plan of where the hedging had been planted and it was preserved in the ground there so they were able to replant where the hedges originally had been. There is some evidence of Roman gardens in this country but not very much.

Reconstruction drawing of Great Witcombe Roman Villa, with garden, in the fourth century AD (illustration by Ivan Lapper). © Historic England Archive.

On the subject of gardens, do you recall if there was any sign of a garden at Lullingstone? Do you remember it being discussed?

No, not at all. Although it wasn’t something I was even thinking about at that stage, or I would have asked the question. It will mainly depend, of course, on the soil and whether you find evidence of holes where shrubs might have been or trenches dug. That could easily be destroyed by later ploughing, etc.

Lullingstone Villa in its landscape, with imagined garden, in the later fourth century AD
(illustration by Peter Urmston). © Historic England Archive.
I know they found various fruit tree pips and seeds in the kitchen area. I am sure there would have been some sort of garden but it is unlikely to have been quite as grand as Fishbourne!

As you know, it also depends on whether they are looking for it.

How lovely that a fellow digger, Frances, inspired you. It sounds like she was a great role model.

Definitely. She was always very good to me - I think she took me under her wing! Just like Mrs Rook did, which was rather nice. It’s been a lifelong friendship.

Frances Neale, Anne's mentor and lifelong friend, on site at Lullingstone Roman Villa.
© Dr Anne Thick.

Frances was known as ‘Pixie’ on the dig and I asked her why and I think it was because she used to wear a hood and so that was what Mr Rook called her. She did a lot of sketches of us all while on the dig. Her sketchbook resurfaced in 2019 at the 70 year reunion of the diggers and she was really pleased to see it again.

Frances Neale's sketch of Anne busy at work during the excavations. 
© Dr Anne Thick.

Who else do you remember from the dig? For example, what was Lieutenant-Colonel Meates (‘Meates’) like?

I didn’t have a lot to do with him personally but of course he was around. My memory was that he was the sort of man who was quite polite to the women but might have told the boys what to do. He looked like a military man with his moustache and so on and his bearing. But I always got the impression that, although he wasn’t a trained archaeologist, he did the job well. I don’t know if there has ever been any criticism of him in his recording or his publishing. My impression at the time was that he knew what he was doing and he kept quite a well-run dig as far as I could tell. There was no messing about!

I think he lived in the Gatehouse at Lullingstone Castle at the time of the dig?

I think that is correct, just as Mr and Mrs Rook lived in some part of Lullingstone Castle too, although I don’t remember which part. I remember visiting them there with my Mum and Dad and I think it was a flat.

Mr and Mrs Rook were custodians of the site - how did that differ from what Meates was doing? Did they organise visits to the site, for example?

They were doing what the Ministry of Works did when they had a custodian on site – e.g. take the money from people coming in, give them some information about what was happening there and so on. I can’t remember when the Ministry of Works became involved but I do have a memory of Mr Rook wearing a uniform.

Lullingstone Roman Villa during excavations, with viewing platform for visitors.
© Dr Anne Thick.
I read that you wrote to Meates and had a lovely reply from him. How did you first find about out him and the dig?

I went with Mum and Dad as a visitor as the dig was already happening. I probably spoke to Mr or Mrs Rook and asked if it was possible to join (I saw other young people there) and they probably said just write to Col Meates. I am sure that somewhere I have either a draft of my letter to him or his reply to me. At the moment I can’t find them but I am sure I will come across them again at some point!

I love the photos of Mr and Mrs Rook- and it is interesting how smartly everyone is dressed - quite different attire from a dig today! You also mentioned Jim and Hilda?

Jim used to smoke a pipe. He and Hilda were probably in their 40s.

Tony and Evelyn were the same sort of age as Frances who was about 5 years older than me. Evelyn was about 10 years older than him. I didn’t know them well but I remember them being there.

             Lullingstone Roman Villa during excavations.
© Dr Anne Thick.

Were you supervised or just given a job to do?

I was just given a job to do. The one where the photo was taken was in the well, just starting it off in fact. I am sure someone came along and said what I should do but I don’t remember anyone in particular supervising me but that is not to say that someone wasn’t! I am sure they would not have just let me loose!

Perhaps they thought you were so efficient with your notepad and pen that you would be fine! I like your recollection of seeing Mrs Rook washing the mosaics and the mosaics coming alive.

Yes, as you know the site is on a slope, so we would be above and could look down and see her with her mop and the colours really came out brilliantly then. I don’t know if they would do that now but it worked at the time!

Apparently if you wet mosaics it’s a real trick to bringing the colours out.

Mrs Rook washed the mosaics periodically so that they looked nice for visitors - housework, if you like!

The mosaics are one of the things that many visitors get most excited about. As you may know, one of the four seasons is unfortunately missing. Do you remember that being discussed or when they uncovered the bit that was damaged?

That was all before my time.

Bellerophon on Pegasus, spearing the Chimaera, surrounded by the four seasons. c. AD 330-60.
© Historic England Archive.

One of my personal favourites in the Villa is the wall-painting of the water nymphs. These are in a cult room (also known as the Deep Room) which was created c. AD 180, around the same time as the baths in the Villa and demonstrate the Villa owner’s reverence for water. The niche which housed the wall-painting was later covered up with plaster and could have escaped the excavators’ notice but, in a twist of fate, the site flooded mid-excavations and dislodged the plaster concealing the water nymphs. Do you remember anything about this?

I heard about that from Frances and, if I remember rightly, it was Mr Rook who discovered the water nymphs but I didn’t know the preamble to the discovery.

Reconstruction of ‘Deep Room’ shown at underground level, c. AD 380
(illustration by Peter Dunn/Richard Lea). © Historic England Archive.

It was a fortuitous discovery and one which I think was rather magical, given it was a cult room to the water nymphs, and it was water that revealed them again. I think the Lullingstone owner would have loved that.

Yes, it was water ‘wot dunnit it’!

Have you been back to Lullingstone often since the dig?

Whenever we have had a holiday in Kent we have gone back – so a handful of times. The last time was in 2019 but, of course, we have had the pandemic since then. If we are in the area, I always want to go back and see it!

Does it look different? Does it bring all the memories back?

What is very different is that when we were digging there was no cover over it and when, many years ago that cover was put on, that was the biggest surprise and change that I had seen. When I was on the dig and we broke for lunchtime for our sandwiches, etc. we would sit at the top of the bank and you could look right down on the site so you could see all of it and then the river beyond it. Of course, you couldn’t do that now with the cover on but that was part of the magic of it – being there and being able to look down over the site and it was so beautiful to my mind – it was just something we did. I think it was just seeing the whole thing and just soaking it up – it was very atmospheric. I thought the cover was a brilliant thing to do because it preserved it. I also think it is a good exhibition inside – it gets the right balance between explaining to people who perhaps don’t know a lot about Roman archaeology but then also has panels which expand if you want a bit more information so it is well set out. It is a very good idea that it has been covered like that as that will preserve it and virtually the whole Villa is inside the cover.

             Lullingstone Roman Villa during excavations.
© Dr Anne Thick.

Yes, it does almost feel like you are walking round someone’s home. With a bit of imagination, you feel like you are going round all the different rooms and I like the fact you can go upstairs to a first floor gallery and look down on the Villa.

Getting that view from above is very important to understand a place like that. We went to Vindolanda when we were at Hadrian’s Wall recently and I have been there before but to try and get a sense of the buildings when you are there and you are only on the same level as the foundations, I find incredibly difficult. Some buildings I could identify as a granary, etc. but on Countryfile recently they did a little bit on Vindolanda and they showed it from above, the aerial view, and then of course it makes so much more sense. You can see the road going into the fort and then its regular shape and the shapes of the buildings inside it but you don’t get that sense if you don’t see it from above.

I agree, and because a lot of the time it is just the foundations that are there, it makes it even harder, as you almost have to create a 3D image in your mind. You mentioned a granary, which reminds me to ask if you saw any of the Lullingstone granary when you were digging?

I don’t remember that - I wasn’t involved in that. I have seen that there was a granary from later reconstructions but I don’t remember the excavations of it.

If you had to choose your best memory of the whole experience, what would that be?

That’s a difficult one! I have no memory of any specific thing in terms of finding anything particular. I dug up some pottery but you can’t dig a Roman site and not turn up some pottery! I think what I remember was just that sense of being there and that connection – that was the main thing that I brought away, but it was my first dig so it reinforced the love that I have had of Roman archaeology ever since. I did excavations while at University – I was at Corbridge for a couple of weeks and for two years running I was on at the excavation at Winchester Cathedral on the Cathedral Green site with Martin Biddle. Then I was on an Iron Age dig at Oxford – we actually found an Iron Age skeleton which was very unusual, I believe. I was also involved with an Iron Age hillfort in Shropshire.

So Lullingstone was just the beginning!

That’s right – that was my real introduction so it has to be my favourite!

Which site in Roman Britain would be your second favourite?

That would have to be Fishbourne. We are Friends of Fishbourne Roman Palace and we do like going there very much, it is a great site.

This may sound like an odd question but one of the things I think about a lot at Lullingstone is who might have lived there. We don’t know for sure who lived there although we can speculate about the sort of person he or she was, whether the owner or inhabitant. Whoever that person (or family) was, someone did live there as their home and that is one of the things I love about the Villa most. Whenever I visit, I feel as if I am there as a guest, just like I might go to a friend’s house today, so there is an imaginary host there. Assuming that, if you could speak to that person what would you say to him/her?

That’s a very difficult question! It’s not one I have ever considered.

I wondered if you had imagined it as a 14 year old when you were there. It is something I think about a lot although I am not sure what I would say to them! I would have lots of questions for them, such as why they put the inscription on the mosaic and would just like them to talk to me about why they had done certain things.

Or perhaps you have some thoughts generally about the possible owner of the Villa?

It would be very interesting to know what sort of person was there. Obviously, they had enough depth of learning that they could put that inscription on that mosaic and also I am interested in the significance of the images on the mosaic. Presumably also the marble busts that they found in the Deep Room suggests that they were a bit more than your average family. Of course, we don’t know what the continuity of the family there was, or whether several families lived there. The fact that Christianity was introduced there is another factor again – does that represent a change of family? Or just a change of belief? There was also the temple-mausoleum at the top of the slope behind the Villa (which I was not involved in during the dig), although it is not visible to visitors today.

 Lullingstone Villa with temple-mausoleum behind, in the late third century AD
(illustration by Peter Urmston). © Historic England Archive

The skeleton of the man (but not the woman) who was discovered in the temple-mausoleum is on display in the Villa.

Were those people connected with the busts in the Deep Room? There are lots of questions it would be lovely to have the answers to about who lived there.

Wouldn’t it be brilliant to know who lived there! Although maybe that is also part of the appeal of the Villa: the mystery surrounding it.

I would also love to hear whoever lived at the Villa speaking Latin! Latin spoken by a Roman!

Absolutely! And did they pronounce their ‘v’ like a ‘v’ or a ‘w’?

Exactly! There has been so much written about that by people who think they know in subsequent centuries but nobody knows for sure, unless they have a recording.

There is something else that I have been trying to find an answer to in my research: whether the Villa owner/inhabitant actually composed the two lines of the inscription himself. There is a popular view that he did and I tend to subscribe to that, because we haven’t found those two lines anywhere else, they fit with the mosaic so he could have chosen the image and then written something specifically to accompany it. It is obviously someone who has had a Classical education, given the lines appear to have been inspired by Ovid and Virgil. It’s intriguing. I also love the way the lines are a bit wonky – they don’t look as if they have come from a pattern book, as the letters have been squashed in to fit. It’s amazing and the inscription still gets so much of coverage in academic papers and books, which is great.

Europa mosaic (detail of inscription). c. AD 330-60. © Historic England Archive.

We are also lucky that the mosaicist was literate or careful enough that when he put in the inscription he got it right as there are examples where the mosaicist didn’t have the skill to put down what he was given to do and has got it quite wrong.

Quite. In some ways it is probably best that it is that part of the mosaic that was undamaged. It is, of course, a shame that we lost one of the four seasons but we can quite easily imagine what would have been there whereas who could have guessed the inscription? I am so intrigued by the whole site and I am always dabbling a bit and updating my research into it so it has been fascinating to hear first-hand a bit more about the dig and I am really grateful to you. I also wanted to say thank you for taking part in the dig because, although you said you didn’t find anything specific, you excavated part of the Well, and you contributed in so many other ways too. For people like me researching the site, we couldn’t have done any of that if it wasn’t for you and all the volunteers and your hard work all those years ago so I think you are all owed a huge thank you.

Well, it was fun! I wouldn’t have done it if it hadn’t been fun!

Illustration of the baths, including the well (far left) which Anne excavated, at Lullingstone Roman Villa, Kent as they may have appeared in the late third century AD. (Illustration by Peter Dunn/Richard Lea.) © Historic England Archive.

It’s wonderful that you had such a lovely time, it’s given you a lifelong friendship with Frances, and it inspired you in your work. Lullingstone is hopefully going to be looked after forever so it is an amazing legacy that you have been part of it.

I hope so. It deserves it – it’s a great site.

It is amazing. A lot of school children still visit – they can dress up in Roman outfits and play Roman games, which always goes down a real treat!

Finally, is there anything we haven’t discussed that you would like to talk about?

I don’t think so. I am surprised how much we have discussed as I didn’t think our conversation would take very long! It has been nice talking about it, it has certainly made me think about it a lot more. I have very fond memories of my time there. I think it is also nice that the staff at Lullingstone value that as well – the fact they organised the reunion for the diggers in 2019 was a very nice tribute.

They definitely value what you all did. Part of what they are doing is carrying on looking after what you brought to light and discovered. Maybe there will be another reunion in 2024, which would be 75 years since the commencement of the excavations. That might be a good excuse to have a bit of a party at the Villa!

We’ll have to suggest it to them!

At the end of each season, Lieutenant-Colonel Meates used to host some sort of party. I don’t remember them at all, I would have been too young. Frances went to some of the parties but when it got to the stage where a bit too much drink was flowing, her parents collected her and took her home!

Party time! Reconstruction of the dining and reception area at Lullingstone Roman Villa c. AD 330-60. (See earlier blog on Lullingstone.) (Illustration by Peter Dunn.) © Historic England Archive.

Thank you to Dr Anne Thick for kindly giving the interview to the History Girls and for permission to use her photographs of the dig. Thank you also to Mr Gordon Thick, and to Emma Freeman, Site Manager at Lullingstone Roman Villa.
Thank you to Historic England Archive for permission to use the images of Lullingstone Roman Villa.

LinkedIn: Caroline K. Mackenzie

Friday, 10 March 2023

History – fact or fiction? By Mary Hoffman


Most of us in this group, since it started in 2011, have been writers of historical fiction. We’ve had “straight” historians, like John Guy, as guests and some of our number, like Clare Mulley have written non-fiction, Some people do both – and it can be quite confusing.

Take Alison Weir, for example. She, who has also been a guest on The History Girls blog, is a prolific writer on historical subjects such as the Wars of the Roses, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Henry Vlll and the Boleyn sisters. But she also writes novels about some of the same characters, notably her Six Tudor Queens sequence about Henry’s notorious marriages.

So how do they differ, since they inevitably share the same events and characters? I’ve had an opportunity to compare two books that cover some of the same period to see how a novelist chooses to write about the same plots that appear in a historian’s account of the identical events. The novelist is Alison Weir herself, in her new novel, published last May by Headline, Elizabeth of York: The Last White Rose. The non-fiction writer is Michèle Schindler, whose De la Pole Father and Son: the Duke, the Earl and the Struggle for Power, was published by Amberley last December.

So, two books about Plantagenet history and those famous roses, partly invented by Shakespeare, who was more a writer of fiction than he was a historian. Elizabeth of York was the daughter of Edward lV and his wife, Elizabeth Wydeville and was destined to become the wife of Henry Vll and Queen of England, uniting the houses of York and Lancaster. Weir’s novel about her is the first in a trilogy.

John de la Pole did not feature in a play by Shakespeare, although his father did. But it’s not that father and son combo Schindler writes about. That was William, the duke of Suffolk who stood proxy for Henry Vl at his wedding to Margaret of Anjou. No, it is John who inherited his murdered father’s title and married another Elizabeth, not Edward iV’s daughter but his sister. Are you muddled enough yet? John de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk, became Elizabeth of York’s uncle when he married her aunt.

The titles don’t really help: Weir’s doesn’t sound like a novel, although “The Last White Rose” does. Schindler’s might have been “The de la Pole dynasty,” since it begins with William, goes on to John and ends with John Junior, who was Richard lll’s named heir. Those de la Poles continued to be a thorn in the side of Henry Tudor for many years.

But if we look at 1470, we can see how different a novel is from a work of history. In this year, the Earl of Warwick (the “kingmaker”), conspired with George, Duke of Clarence to overthrow Edward lV, with a long-term view of putting George on the throne. In the short term, they made do with releasing the previous king, Henry Vl, from the Tower of London and parading him through the streets as the true king. Edward had fled to Burgundy with his younger brother Richard and Queen Elizabeth, heavily pregnant, had sought sanctuary with her mother and daughters in Westminster. 

Elizabeth Wydeville
These events come 130 pages in to Schindler’s book and are described thus: “This must have been a tense time for John and Elizabeth. Since the party seeking exile in Burgundy included two of Elizabeth’s brothers, she must have been very worried about their fate…[T]hey would have learnt that Edward’s heavily pregnant wife, Elizabeth Woodville [sic], and their three daughters had fled to sanctuary in Westminster Abbey, that Elizabeth gave birth to a son shortly afterwards and that Henry Vl had been released from confinement in the Tower after five long years and reinstalled on the throne.”

This paragraph in the de la Pole book summarises twenty pages and more of the opening chapter of Weir’s novel, where the reader is thrust in medias res, as the princess Elizabeth and her sisters are bundled into a wherry and taken down the river, where they are warmly welcomed by the Abbot and given shelter. The long-awaited son and heir is born at the beginning of the second chapter.

But, since Elizabeth is only rising five, a lot of the history that has gone before can by explained to her by her grandmother and Weir can take the reader through recent events by this device, which she does very skilfully.

The elder Suffolk is barely mentioned in Weir’s novel, unsurprisingly since Schindler tells us how he kept himself out of politics and was not often at court. But there are occasional references in the novel to “Aunt Suffolk and her son Lincoln” and the younger John assumes an ever more important role. He was the Earl of Lincoln and would have inherited his father’s title if he had not come to a sticky end. 

Coat of Arms of John, 2nd Duke of Suffolk

One thing that emerges both from the history book and the novel is the sheer number of children born to noble and royal women and the number of babies and children lost. John Senior and his wife Elizabeth, the Duke and Duchess of Suffolk, had thirteen children. Elizabeth of York’s parents had ten together and Elizabeth Wydevile had already had two sons by her first husband, Lord Grey.

What the novelist does is show you that a factual history can’t (and mustn’t): the emotions stirred by every birth and death. Even, or perhaps especially, the loss of an older child, is a cause for great grief. Here is Weir describing the death of Elizabeth’s closest sister, Mary, at fifteen:

“Elizabeth slept in her chair that night. She woke to find Mother rocking a corpse in her arms, keening softly, her cheeks streaked with tears. She burst out wailing.

Father came running, summoned by the doctor. He folded Elizabeth in his arms and held her tightly. ‘She is with God now. You must be glad for her.’ His voice broke, and he turned to the bed. ‘Our sweet angel is at peace, Beth.’ He embraced both the Queen and his lost child, then gave way to the most piteous weeping.”

There are many such losses described in the novel - siblings, infants, young adults - and it is touching to read in the Autor’s Note that Weir herself lost a son in 2020, which must have informed her accounts of royal grief.

Back to John Junior, Earl of Lincoln, who in 1480 married Margaret FitzAlan, a union arranged by the King, Edward lV. His wife was much younger than his eighteen years and they did not live together. Indeed his marriage doesn’t seem to have affected the Earl’s life at all and his star was rising at court. He played a part in the baptism ceremony for Bridget, the youngest child of the King and Queen. 

Edward lV

Then came the shock of the unexpected death of the King in 1483. “The King’s eyes had closed. His face looked grey; his lips were blue. Gradually, his rasping breath slowed – and then there was silence.” Or, as Schindler succinctly puts it, “Edward’s death was sudden and shocking.” He was forty-one.

John Junior was chief mourner at the King’s funeral and soon came out in support of his uncle Richard of Gloucester as the new king. One of the new king’s closest friends, Francis Lovell, had been John’s foster brother and they were both part of the new court.

Elizabeth of York, however, was back in sanctuary at Westminster with her mother and siblings. In Weir’s novel, Richard is referred to as “the Usurper” and Elizabeth is stunned that her kindly “Uncle Gloucester” could have behaved so badly towards her family. 


So we come to the most crucial events in Richard’s brief reign: the disappearance of “the Princes in the Tower” and Richard’s plan to marry his niece. The princes, Edward’s heir and his younger brother, the Duke of York, were kept in the Tower of London while, in justification of his seizing the throne, Richard claimed they were bastards, as King Edward had made an earlier, secret, marriage, before wedding Elizabeth Wydeville.

Weir’s novel is divided into sections: Princess, Bastard, Queen and Matriarch, the second section set during her uncle’s reign. Her mother is convinced that Richard has had her sons murdered and is prostrate with grief. Their old life has disappeared and everything is uncertain.

In Schindler’s book, John Junior “chose to remain loyal to his uncle,” as did his parents. In Weir’s novel, Elizabeth embraces all the different theories that have been put forward about the princes’ fate, beginning by sharing her mother’s belief. Then, when she has returned to court, Richard convinces her that the boys were put to death on the orders of Buckingham and he knew nothing about it.

Later, after Richard’s death, she suspects that her husband to be, Henry Tudor, or his mother might have been responsible for removing such strong claimants to the throne, smoothing the way for his accession. Towards the end of the novel, she hears evidence from relatives of Sir James Tyrell that he commissioned two named thugs to carry out Richard’s orders.

When Richard’s heir, the Prince of Wales, dies in 1484 he makes John Junior his heir. John is heir presumptive anyway, as the oldest son of Richard’s older sister Elizabeth, Duchess of Suffolk. (He is also the eldest living grandson of Richard Duke of York).

Soon after their son died, Anne Neville, the King’s wife, also succumbed, probably to tuberculosis. But before she died, rumours were flying around that Richard planned to marry his own niece, Elizabeth of York.

This is a major plotline in Weir’s novel. Quite apart from what seems to us like incest and the need for a Papal dispensation, how could Elizabeth even consider marrying the man who usurped her young brother’s throne and probably killed him and his younger brother? And yet the historical Elizabeth did write a letter to the Duke of Norfolk to advance her marriage to the king, vowing she was “his in heart and in thoughts, in [body] and in all.” 

Elizabeth of York

Weir’s explanation is reasonably convincing: Richard had been a favourite uncle when he was Duke of Gloucester and Elizabeth couldn’t rid herself of the idea that he was kind and loving. He had explained away the absence of her brothers by blaming Buckingham and he implied in his proposal to her that his wife, her cousin Anne Neville, knowing she was dying, had virtually blessed the match, encouraging him to take another wife, one young and healthy, to give him more heirs. It works, more or less.

Schindler barely mentions this part of the story, dismissing it as rumour. And anyway, in January 1485, Richard let it be known he was pursuing a marriage with a Portuguese princess. Shortly after Anne’s funeral he made a public announcement that he had never intended to marry his niece. It looks remarkably as if he had flown a kite and been deterred by the negative public reaction. 

Richard 111

Richard was famously defeated at the Battle of Bosworth Field and Henry Tudor claimed the throne by might and right. His claim was pretty tenuous, as, with the deaths of the princes and the impossibility of the young Earl of Warwick inheriting, since his father Clarence had been attainted as a traitor, the rightful heir was Elizabeth of York. Weir is excellent on this angle, with Elizabeth wanting to reign jointly with Henry and not just to strengthen his claim by their marriage. And marry him she did, though her coronation was put off for some years.

And what of John de la Pole, Richard’s heir presumptive as long as the Yorks were excluded by the parliament ruling that they were illegitimate? Although the new king imprisoned several Yorkists, he seems, as Schindler informs us to have taken rather a shine to John Jnr and given him positions at court. His trust soon proved misplaced, as Lincoln and his foster brother Francis Lovell were fiercely loyal to the dead Richard and were plotting Henry’s overthrow.

Some embryonic rebellions fizzled out but then the opportunity came with the claims of Lambert Simnel. Simnel was a Pretender from Ireland, who claimed to be the young Earl of Warwick. The problem was that Warwick was still imprisoned in the Tower. But the boy had been so well coached that Henry suspected another Yorkist was behind the plot and his eye fell on John Junior. 

Henry Vll

Indeed, Weir does not buy Schindler’s notion that Henry found Lincoln trustworthy: “He means to be king, Bessy. I have suspected it all along.” Lincoln had fled to Burgundy under protection of the Duchess, Margaret, Elizabeth’s aunt, who seems to have been convinced by Simnel’s imposture. Simnel was crowned in Dublin as “King Edward” and Lincoln and Lovell’s forces joined and fought the king’s army at Stoke in June 1487.

It was to be fatal for Lincoln, who died fighting bravely, thwarting Henry of the chance to have him executed. The king took no revenge on John Senior but when he died and his son Edmund inherited the dukedom, Henry took back all John Junior’s possessions. Edmund was so short of funds that Henry demoted him from Duke to Earl and turned the whole family against him.

First Elizabeth John’s widow and then her sons Edmund and Richard fled to the Duchess of Burgundy. The unfortunate William was imprisoned in the Tower where he stayed till his death in 1539. Both his brothers continued to make attempts on the English thrones until their deaths. 

Both books are handsomely produced, especially Alison Weir’s novel and both have the family trees, which are so essential to histories and, increasingly, to Historical novels. I think there is room for both for anyone as obsessed with the Plantagenets as I am.

Friday, 3 March 2023

'Putting it on Ice the English Way' by Karen Maitland

'Scheherazade and Shahryar'
Artist: Marie-Elenor Godefroid (1778-1849)

When I was a little girl, I was enchanted by the idea of someone reclining on silken cushions on a hot sultry evening, sipping iced sherbet. I think image must have come from Scheherazade and the 'The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights'. But it was only as an adult, I wondered how Scheherazade would have got ice to put in her fruit cocktails on those hot Arabian nights, centuries before fridge-freezer was invented.

A bizarre legend says the 16th century Mughal emperor Babur, who was very fond of iced sherbet, used to send his servants to the mountains of the Himalayas to hack off a chunk of ice or snow, every time he fancied a glass, but this must have caused quite a delay in the drinks service. Ice clearly needed to be stored.

The simplest technique was to take ice or compacted snow from mountains or from frozen lakes and store in underground to preserve it through the summer. In the 4th century BC, Alexander the Great, on his campaigns, had pits dug and covered with vegetation to keep ice through the heat of summer in order to preserve food.

Entrance to Icehouse, Brantwood
Photo: Peter James

Down through the centuries, ice harvested in winter was stored in natural caves, or in deep underground cisterns and tunnels beneath towns, which had often been dug by earlier civilisations for water or shelter. But this meant that the ice was frequently stored some distance from where it was needed, a great disadvantage on a hot summer’s day. So, by the 17th century in Europe, purpose-built ice-houses were in use for wealthier houses.

The oldest known ice-house in England that still exists is in Felbech Hall, Norfolk built around 1633. It is reached via a tunnel and is 28ft deep. But England’s climate was unsettled and since it had its own mini-ice-age beginning in first decades of the 17th century when the Thames regularly froze for weeks, the construction of ice-houses didn’t become widespread until after the Civil War.

The first ones were circular pits dug into some shady spot in the grounds of a manor house or palace, with thickly thatched roof, a wooden floor with holes to drain off the water, and the narrowest-possible door near the top, which was insulated with straw. This style was a direct import from the continent. 

Icehouse at Battle Abbey
Photo: Nilfanion

The English quickly evolved their own version consisting of brick-lined, conical pits which could store ice for up to two years. Many refinements were added including vermin grids and air-traps in the drains helping to keep damp air out in order to slow the melting.

But the biggest problem the English had was where to get the ice to store in them. We don’t have snow-capped mountains close at hand and even our winters don’t regularly produce thick blocks of ice on lakes or falls of deep snow. The answer lay in bowling greens and shallow ponds.

Interior of Ickworth Icehouse
Photo: Bob Jones

In medieval and Tudor times, abbeys and great houses had a series of ponds, usually created by diverting a natural stream, in which fresh fish were fattened to feed the huge households. Often villages too had their own medieval fish ponds. By digging out new shallow ponds and connecting them to the old fish ponds or streams by sluice gates, it meant that if the temperature was likely to drop over-night, these ‘freezing pools’ could be flooded and, because they were very shallow, ice would form on them where it wouldn’t in deeper water.

In the morning, the thin sheet of ice was collected, smashed into tiny grit-like pieces, poured down into the ice-house from an opening above and pounded to compact it.  A film of water might be spread over it to ensure it formed a solid block.

'The Bowling Green and Octagon Pond'
Circa 1700's. Artist Unknown
Hartweel House, Buckinghamshire
National Trust

Many great houses had a bowling green or a croquet lawn surrounded by little grassy dyke to keep the balls in play, and these too were often deliberately flooded in winter, if a frost was expected, to make ice.

By the eighteenth century, ice was being transported by barges all over England having been harvested from the marshes where again it formed easily in shallow bog pools, even when the weather was not cold enough to freeze lakes. But the ice, having been made from fishpond water or marshes was too dirty to be put directly into drinks or food. It could only be used to chill containers of food or bottles. The English had to wait until clean ice could be imported from abroad before it could actually be added to their drinks.

Ice Cutting on the St. Lawerence River
Montreal, Quebec
Photo Alexander Henderson, circa 1870

The first import from Norway proved a bit of a disaster, since by the time customs had decided ice was ‘dry goods’ they were left with nothing but a warehouse full of water.  But by 1830, 150 tons of imported ice was stored beneath the Haymarket in London, collected by steam-driven cutters from lakes in Scandinavia or the Great Lakes of America, brought over by ship and transported round England by barge.

The American lawman, Bat Masterson, (1853-1921) once said, ‘We all get the same amount of ice. The rich get it in summer. The poor get it in winter.’ But finally, that was changing – people could buy clean ice cheaply for their kitchens and in time, cooks in even in modest households could attempt Mrs Beeton’s famous ice creams and lemon-ice recipes.

As for sipping iced sherbet while reclining on silken cushions – it’s still on my bucket list!

Ice Formation Edge of pond
Photo: ThomasLendt















Friday, 24 February 2023

LUCY BOSTON: An artist in everything she did. Edited by Victor Watson. By Adèle Geras

Victor Watson (see photo at the end of this piece)  was for many years  an academic at Homerton College, Cambridge and an expert on children's books. He edited The Cambridge Guide to Children's Books in English (CUP 2001). He was Chairman of Seven Stories during its development and eventual opening in 2005 as the National Centre for Children's Books. He has written novels for children and a novel for adults called Time After Time. I ought to say that he and his wife Judy are friends of mine and  I have visited their house  and admired their beautiful garden. I only mention this because Lucy Boston, the subject of the book I'm writing about here, was also a passionate gardener  and many visitors to the  Manor House in Hemingford Grey go precisely to see the beautiful garden Lucy Boston created. I have written about it on this blog.


This collection of essays has many Japanese contributors because Japanese academics had put together a book of essays about Boston and many of their pieces are translated here.  In  Japan, Lucy Boston is a much -loved and much- studied writer. Many Japanese visitors come to England and visit the Manor, paying tribute to her not only as a writer but also as a patchworker, a poet, an artist, and a gardener.  The book is very well-titled. Victor himself has written an essay on her Green Knowe books and another on her other fiction, as well as an introduction.


Diana Boston, Lucy's daughter in law and the devoted chatelaine of the Manor,  has written about the patchworks, Lucy's garden and about Lucy as an artist. When you visit Hemingford Grey, Diana is the one who shows you the patchworks which lie spread out on a bed and can be seen one by one. Last time I visited, Diana asked me to put on the white gloves (to protect the fabric) and help her fold back each quilt so that other visitors could see their full beauty. I"ve never forgotten that day. 

Hemingford Grey  is perhaps the oldest inhabited house in England.  If you visit as a reader of the Green Knowe books, you will find many objects and places you will recognise from the novels. Victor's work in bringing us these essays is cause for rejoicing.  It will help enormously in encouraging new readers, new fans to Boston's works, and hopefully enthuse a whole new generation of fans. 

There's a piece by Jill Paton Walsh at the end of this book which is very moving and personal. She was a good friend of Lucy Boston's and she wonders whether the novels will be enjoyed at a time which is on the surface so very different from the days when the Green Knowe books  first appeared.  Tik Tok, the metaverse, AI bots and the like are the prevailing background to reading today, but I am quite sure there must be those people still who would greatly appreciate the haunting prose and wonderful narratives of these novels. They were only published as children's books because their author insisted on her son's beautiful illustrations being part of the whole. The Japanese, of course, are quite relaxed about adults reading illustrated stories and they are also perfectly accustomed to's no wonder that Lucy Boston is still being studied there. I hope very much that this lovely volume brings new readers to the work and new visitors to Hemingford Grey. Victor Watson has put together a collection that's both enjoyable to read and beautiful to look at. Lucy Boston would definitely have approved. 

Friday, 17 February 2023

No amount of Wright's Coal Tar -- a trip to the Museum of Brands Sheena Wilkinson

I’ve spent the last few months in the 1930s. It’s a grim place in many ways, with the rise of the political far right; poverty and deprivation, and the displacement of millions as people are forced from their homes by political or economic cruelty. Part of the grimness is not how alien these issues are to us today, but how depressingly familiar. 

the reason for my immersion in all things 1930s

But the books I have been writing and editing, though firmly grounded in political reality, have been essentially upbeat in their tone. Yes, there’s fascism, but also bias-cut frocks and black-and-white matinées. My three historical novels for children (Name upon Name, Star by Star and Hope against Hope, Little Island 2015-2020) dealt with Politics with a capital P, as they looked at various aspects of Irish history a century ago. In Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau (HarperCollins Ireland, 2 March 2023, and its unnamed-work-in-progress sequel) the focus is much more domestic. And that’s what took me to the wonderful Museum of Brands in London a couple of weeks ago: an afternoon’s immersion in 200 years of packaging, with particular attention to the 1930s. The museum’s permanent display is based on the extensive Robert Opie collection.

Note the biscuit tin from the exact year

I’ve always loved material culture. Even as a child, I loved reading as much about the minutiae of everyday objects as about huge historical events – more, probably. It’s one reason why I always loved Noel Streatfeild: her emphasis, in books like Ballet Shoes, on what they wore, and how much things cost, was endlessly fascinating to me. Having said that, I’ve always been suspicious of what I call the product placement type of historical fiction – you know what I mean: too many brand names at the expense of a genuine feel for the period. If characters speak with 21st century accents and voice 21st century opinions, no amount of Wright’s Coal Tar soap is going to wash that out.

But there’s nothing like looking at the chocolate bars and shampoo bottles and dress patterns that your heroines would have been familiar with. Luckily the museum was quiet that afternoon because I kept exclaiming at things I recognised. Sometimes this was the visual memory of a childhood sweet, or a biscuit tin the same as the one Gran kept her buttons in. More often I was excited to see evidence of the brands and labels that I had mentioned in the text but wasn’t personally acquainted with. For example, my heroine April offers to wash some curtains in Reckitts Blue – a product I knew from my reading of 1930s fiction would bring them up nice and white, but which I’d never actually seen in the flesh until then. And there it was, reassuringly promising to do just that.

As always I was surprised at both the longevity of some of my favourite brands, and the disappearance of others. My 1930s characters could have joined me in a bar of Aero, but I can only imagine what grapefruit filled chocolate tastes like – and I don’t think I’d have given them a bar, because for the reader to start thinking, Gosh: grapefruit chocolate, how odd. I wonder what tastes like? might well have plucked their interest out of the story.

grapefruit chocolate, anyone?

And maybe that’s key to using brands and products: of course it’s important to be accurate – my browser history is full of questions like When were tampons invented? and What breakfast cereals were popular in 1934? – but that needs to be balanced by not distracting the reader. After all, in a book set in 2023, I wouldn’t even mention brands unless perhaps as an economic signifier. One of my favourite displays was the 1930s chemist’s shop. I could imagine my characters choosing a shampoo, or trying to find a patent recipe for period pains. And although they don’t make their own clothes, the range of 1930s dress patterns helped me to imagine their frocks and cardigans.

some frocks for Martha and April 

Mrs Hart’s Marriage Bureau will be published on 2 March. It’s my first novel for adults, and I absolutely loved writing it. I hope the little domestic details will charm the readers as much as they charmed the writer. And at the launch, I’ll be serving little boxes of traditional toffees. And yes, they did have Mackintosh’s in 1934.

(all photos taken at the Museum of Brands, 31 January 2023)