Thursday, December 31, 2015

"Happy New Year" from the Court of Henry VIII

by Sandy Vasoli


King Henry VIII
Joos van Cleve, 1531


On the afternoon of 31 December 1533, the Great Hall in the Palace of Placentia, Greenwich, was astir with industrious stewards, yeomen, and kitchen staff. They hastened to ready the massive chamber once again for a large holiday gathering – a festive celebration; the second such in a week. On New Year’s Day, King Henry VIII, his family and chief courtiers would exchange gifts, as was the custom. And this observance of the New Year would, of course, be accompanied by feasting and merriment.

On the massive hearth, the Yule log continued to smoulder and crackle. Dragged into the Hall and lighted on Christmas Eve, its flame had been nurtured and kept alive, and would be through Twelfth Night, 7 days hence. Once this Christmas season was concluded, a piece of that very log would be saved and used to enkindle the Yule timber laid for Christmas 1534. It would be sure to bring good fortune.

Fresh, aromatic rushes were being spread on the floor, and for the special day, the mix was heavy with rosemary, sage, sweet fennel and lavender. Many slippered feet, as they trod upon and crushed the herbs, would release a heavenly bouquet.

Still green and verdant, the decorative Christmas boughs of evergreen pine, holly, ivy, and yew hung from the gilded rafters. Fresh candles were being placed in the many candelabra positioned about the room. The buffets were being situated to receive platters of food and to allow ease of service for all the guests once the feasting commenced. The dais upon which the King and Queen Anne would sit was laid with a beautiful Turkey carpet, gilt chairs of estate and the royal dining table were placed upon it. At the fore of the room, a stage was constructed. During dinner, the minstrels and choir would create music from the platform. Once dinner was concluded, a colourful mummer’s play would take place on the stage, to the delight of all in attendance.


Queen Anne Boleyn
Artist Unkown


In late morning, the King was being dressed by his Gentlemen of the Chamber. His attire for this day would be especially magnificent, with a white velvet doublet edged in gold thread, white silk shirt puffed through slashes in the doublet. His jewelry would be well coordinated with the clothing, all in diamonds and gold. He would look every inch the splendid monarch his subjects expected. In the Queen’s closet, his wife and consort Queen Anne Boleyn was preparing for her appearance, and she was not to be outshadowed by her husband. Wearing a gown of deep Tudor green velvet, she too was accented with white satin and powdered ermine, and wore a hood edged in pearls. Around her neck was a carcanet of diamonds, and on her fingers were rings of emerald and gold.

Ready at last, Henry strode through the long galleries, accompanied by Henry Norris and George Boleyn. Through the mullioned gallery windows, falling snow was visible. The king entered the Hall to a fanfare of sackbuts and cornets, and delighted applause from the room full of guests awaiting him. There was great anticipation among them, for this gathering marked the giving of gifts from the King to his closest subjects. And, in return, they gave him tokens of their esteem and gratitude. Many were nervous. The King did not always graciously receive his gifts. His degree of appreciation served as a marker of one’s level of good standing with Henry. Nor was it easy to know what to gift a man who truly had everything!

Henry approached his Queen and she honoured him with a deep curtsey. He raised her to standing by placing her hand in his, then lifted her hand to his lips for a kiss. It was clear to all that Henry was still very much in love with Anne. Together, they moved to the dais. Their personal exchange of gifts had taken place in his privy chambers early in the morning. Henry might decide later whether or not to display their gifts for all to see.



At the signal of the Chief Steward, the many gentlemen ushers rushed to an anteroom to bring forth the King’s gifts, while the courtiers formed a receiving line to process past the King and Queen. The first assembly were the Dukes and Earls of the realm: Lord Chancellor Thomas Cromwell, the dukes of Richmond, Norfolk, and Suffolk, the lord marquis Exeter, the Lord Steward, and the earls of Oxford, Northumberland, Westmoreland, Rutland, Wiltshire, Huntingdon, Sussex, Worcester, Derby, and Essex. To them, Henry presented gilt cups, bowls, and silver and golden basins.

In exchange, each nobleman bowed and offered the King their own gift. Cromwell presented his sovereign with a walking staff, wrought with gold. The duke of Norfolk gave Henry a woodknife, a pair of tables and chessmen, and a tablet of gold. Henry’s close friend Brandon, the duke of Suffolk, smiled as he held out a gold ball which was to hold perfume (which Henry was well known to love). The marquis of Exeter offered a bonnet trimmed with aglets and buttons and a gold brooch. The earl of Shrewsbury gave a 9 ounce flagon of gold for rosewater. The earl of Oxford provided 10 sovereigns in a kidskin glove. The earl of Northumberland deferentially handed the King a stunning gold trencher. The earl of Westmoreland had creatively designed a golden statuette of St George on horseback. The earl of Rutland provided a white silver purse. Thomas Boleyn, the King’s father-in-law and the earl of Wiltshire, gifted a box of black velvet, with a steel looking glass set in gold. The earl of Huntingdon handed the King a set of two silver gilt greyhound collars. The earl of Sussex stepped up next and knelt to the King, holding a doghook of fine gold. The earl of Worcester had made for Henry a doublet of purple satin embroidered in gold. The earl of Derby opened a box, displaying 2 bracelets of gold, worked with blue enamel.


Thomas Howard, 3rd Duke of Norfolk
Artist: Hans Holbein the Younger


Next came the Lords. The ushers stepped forward to assist in the gift exchange. One by one, they moved past the King and Queen, bowing and offering words of greeting and good cheer on the holiday. They each received from Henry golden and silver gilt bowls, salt cellars, cups, goblets and trenchers. In exchange, they presented gifts of great value and even greater creativity – all wanting to provide ‘the” gift of the festive season. Creating a growing pile in one corner of the room, once Henry and Anne had acknowledged their givers, were satin purses, beautiful carpets, gold swords, books, and fine shirts sewn of cambric.

The ladies of the court next filed past. With great deference Henry greeted them, handing them their royal offerings of golden plate, servingware, goblets and salt cellars. The women tended to give their monarch gifts which they had made themselves, or had been designed for his more personal use.
The old duchess of Norfolk proudly presented a beautiful Nativity scene with carved figurines in a wooden box. The young duchess of Norfolk held out a gold pomander. Lady Marquess Dorset had commissioned a great buckle and pendant of gold, at enormous expense. Lady Wiltshire, Anne’s mother and Henry’s mother-in-law, had completed a coffer of needlework which contained 6 shirt collars, 3 in gold and 3 in silver; a very personal gift for her son-in-law and the father of her beautiful new granddaughter Elizabeth. Lady Westmoreland struggled to hold a brace of greyhounds who strained to break free, but were gratefully acknowledged by the King who prized beautiful dogs. Lady Worcester gifted Henry with two cambric shirts sewn with black work. And on and on it went, the pile of riches growing, and the givers pleased with the King’s smiles and nods of appreciation – even if the gift cost them a significant portion of their earnings.

The Court of Henry VIII
Artist: Fortunino Matania

Once the parade was completed, the servers laid the tables with food for the hungry and thirsty guests. As they ate, and listened to the music played by the minstrels, they were permitted to ooh and ahh over the gifts which had been exchanged amongst the royal family. Two stewards carefully placed on a front facing table a mere sampling of that which Henry had given to Anne: gilt plate, beautiful gilt pots with round knobs behind the lids, a pair of gilt flagons embossed with the arms of France, 3 gilt salts done in a Parisian style , and golden candlesticks, basins, and chafing dishes. For his new daughter Elizabeth, Henry had commissioned from his goldsmith Cornelius Hayes stunning gilt pots and bowls, beginning her collection of gold plate.

Adding to the wonderment and excess of the day, the end of the meal was marked by a special mummer’s performance. The actors, dressed in disguises of feathers and elaborate masks, entertained the crowd with mimes and stories of Christmas and the saints. The mummers added jests and jokes, and the guests laughed uproariously, thoroughly enjoying themselves.

The day of festive introduction into the new year finally drew to a close as darkness fell. Some may have wandered outside afterward to breathe the crisp air and to throw snowballs, thus continuing the merriment.

The palace staff began to clear the Hall of the remains and the riches. They needed to prepare the Palace yet again for the final celebration of the Christmas season, which was to come: Twelfth Night, held on the 6th of January.

As the harbinger of a promised good year, there was no more magical place to be than in the court of Henry VIII of England on January the first.

Sandra Vasoli, author of Anne Boleyn’s Letter from the Tower and Je Anne Boleyn: Struck with the Dart of Love, earned a Bachelor’s degree in English and biology from Villanova University before embarking on a thirty-five-year career in human resources for a large international company.

Having written essays, stories, and articles all her life, Vasoli was prompted by her overwhelming fascination with the Tudor dynasty to try her hand at writing both historical fiction and non-fiction. While researching what would eventually become her Je Anne Boleyn series, Vasoli was granted unprecedented access to the Papal Library. There she was able to read the original love letters from Henry VIII to Anne Boleyn—an event that contributed greatly to her research and writing.

Vasoli currently lives in Gwynedd Valley, Pennsylvania, with her husband and two greyhounds.


Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Birth of Cipher in England

by Lizzy Drake
Finally, forasmuch as the ciphers which sir Thomas Spynell (whose soule God pardon!) had, have come to the hands of sundry persons since his decease, soe that damage might ensue, by the disclosing of seacrets, unles a new ciphr were provided; thereofre the kings highness, by the advice of his counsaile, hath not only conceyved and made such a cipher, but also sent the same, by his serveaunt, this bearer; who is purposely sent only for the sure deliverance of them to his said ambassadours; by which ciphers they may have knowledge in the contents of such articles as shall be written in ciphers to them at any time hereafter.
Henry VIII's Instructions to Sir Thomas Bolayn and Doctor Sampson (Galt, Appendix, p.lxxxv-xcvii)

The use of ciphered letters was well in use in other countries before it reached the court of Henry VII in Tudor times. Ferdinand of Spain, among others, was reputed to have been using cipher in correspondence for some time; a coded letter that only the recipient (in theory) could decipher via a cipher key (held within the cipher itself or sent separately). When Catherine of Aragon was sent to Henry VII's court as a bride-to-be to his firstborn son, Arthur, Catherine's father continued to send ciphered and coded letters to avoid spies getting wind of what he was planning. Catherine, clever and highly educated, would have been aware of the use of cipher, but didn't hone her own unique ciphering skills until she was deep within Henry's court. She was, as believed by some, to be Ferdinand's pawn in securing England's support of his war campaigns and suffered greatly while the two men played their political games.

England at this point was new to the cipher, but with Catherine's constant use of the code, it became more and more common for political players to adopt a code of their own. Spanish ciphers were reputed to use two ciphers for one text, a style that the first (this is arguable by some) ciphered letter to be used in England was written (in 1505 written by Henry VII in regards to approaching Maximilian of Rome about both a marriage and the fate of Edmund de la Pole. It was deemed to be of such sensitive nature that it was advised to be made in cipher, though historians have different theories on the nature of the letter and its encoding). This document has the key to the cipher embedded within the document itself. The cipher was supposedly hidden within one paragraph whilst a second cipher key was within a postscript to aid the location of the first cipher in the text.

The use of cipher is well known by many an amateur historian, but not so much the actual ciphers themselves. Not many of them survive today, but the 19th century historian Bergenroth, describes one cipher beautifully, remarking on how three lines contained twenty-one signs each, corresponding to the number of the letters of the alphabet while other lines contained between twenty-two to twenty-three letters. He had come to suspect that the lines look very much like the rest of the writing, and had concealed within them the key to the cipher. The man placed the alphabetical letters, starting with A (in the same order that we learn them today) over the signs, which he claimed to provide him with the key. If this is true, it was a cleverly hidden cipher and key in one document, that only few would be able to decode and only when they knew what they were looking at in the first place.

The Spanish ambassador De Puebla had once written to Ferdinand that he had deciphered, on his own, the letters that were to be delivered to Henry VII. Later, Catherine of Aragon had confessed to her father that De Puebla was not to be trusted as he was more of an ambassador to the king of England than that of the Spanish Ambassador (once again showing her strong alliance with Spain when she was in the English court). This is when she began to write many of her correspondences to Spain in her own cipher that she was confident could not be intercepted or transcribed by De Puebla and thus pass on to Henry VII who made her life at court difficult both before her marriage to Arthur and after his death. Yet while De Puebla even admitted that Catherine's was 'one of three ciphers' he was unable to decipher, Ferdinand still sent his ciphers to Catherine via De Puebla; ciphers that he knew De Puebla could translate (according to De Puebla) and share with the king of England. One can only assume that Ferdinand's attempts were to make Henry feel he was not being made a fool of.

In one of Catherine's first letters to her father Ferdinand in July 1509 (just a month after her marriage to Henry VIII), she gushes her deep affection for her new husband. However, in what is deemed by some as an 'important part of the letter' (Earliest English Diplomatic Ciphers) was written in a cipher. What is strange about this is that she did not use the usual Spanish cipher she was known for, but instead used a cipher made up of strange symbols. This part of the letter is left undeciphered by historians who have viewed it and Bergenroth leaves it out of his history (though it may have been because he himself could not decode it, something that he seemed to pride himself on).

Catherine's first use of the Cipher was probably in 1507 when her sister Juana was being thought of as a match for Henry VII. Ferdinand decided in the spring that his daughter Catherine should be the ambassador for this match and all letters and correspondences went through her. 'When she turned to the subject of the prospected marriage between Henry VII and Juana, Queen of Castile, she said she would like to be able to write in cipher. Although she had succeeded in deciphering his letters, she did not dare to make use of cipher in her writing, and much less to confide the ciphering of her letter to any other person. Thus, she wrote in plain Castilian.'(Earliest English Diplomatic Ciphers, citing Bergenroth p.412, Supplement p.99-104)

Catherine had indeed shown her cleverness as she was able to decipher many of the ciphers Ferdinand had sent without any aid or cipher key, but was at that time, still not confident on writing her own. Her first cipher she'd sent to Ferdinand was so confusing that she wrote it again in plain text so that it could be understood. Of course, as time went on, she became much more confident with her ciphers and the use of a cipher key.

Much later, in 1514 there is evidence that ciphers are very much still in use. Bergenroth references a ciphered letter from John Stile to Henry VIII, dated 21 March 1514. He comments on the cipher used therein: 'The cipher in which this despatch is written is of the rudest and simplest kind imaginable. Every letter has one and not more than one sign, and the words are even separated from each other. Any person, not entirely unaccustomed to reading and writing in cipher, could find out at the first glance such words as "that", "the", "and," &c., and by means of them form in a very short time the whole key of the cipher.'

Stile's grumbling letter is a godsend for researchers, he makes such a detailed complaint about the 'rudest and simplest kind' but in so describing it in his letter to Henry, he has given us a glimpse into the wonderful and complicated world of ciphered diplomatic letters of the time.


Bergenroth, G.A. (ed.) (1862), Calendar of State Papers, Spain; Vol. 1, Vol. 2, Supplement; British History Online

J.S. Brewer (ed.) (1920), Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Vol. 1 (2nd ed.); Internet Archive, British History Online, Letters and Papers, Foreign and Diplomatic, Henry VIII, Volume I

Fox, Julia (2011), The Noble, Tragic Lives of Katherine of Aragon and Juana, Queen of Castile; Ballantine Books, New York

Galt, John (1812), The Life and Administration of Cardinal Wolsey

Wood, Mary Anne Everett (ed.) (1846), Letters of Royal and Illustrious Ladies of Great Britain; Internet Archive: Vol. I

Pollard, A.F. (ed.) (1913), The Reign of Henry VII from Contemporary Sources; Internet Archive Vol. I, II, III

Tremlett, Giles (2010), Catherine of Aragon – Henry's Spanish Queen; Faber and Faber, London

Author unknown, Earliest English Diplomatic Ciphers;

Archaeologia, Or, Miscellaneous Tracts Relating to Antiquity (1838); Society of Antiquaries of London


Lizzy Drake has been studying Medieval and Tudor England for over 15 years and has an MA in Medieval Archaeology from the University of York, England. She has been writing for much longer but the Elspet Stafford Mysteries began her writing career in the genre. The first Elspet Stafford mystery, A Corpse in Cipher - A Tudor Murder Mystery, is available now.

When not writing or researching, Lizzy can be found reading or gardening. She balances time between her two homes in Essex, UK and California.

You can follow her on Twitter (Lizzy Drake @wyvernwings)


Monday, December 28, 2015

Surviving a Beggar's Curse

By Grace Elliot

The fascinating thing about history is the fleeting glimpses into how people lived in the past. Letters and diaries give us a chance to do just that. A letter written on December 27th, 1864 by Mrs Jane Welsh Carlyle (1801 – 1866) to a Mrs Russell reveals a vivid exchange with a beggar, during which she was cursed – but survived.

Jane Welsh Carlyle - lady of letters

The scenario in the letter is an interesting one, a complete story in itself, but it also bears breaking down to contrast Ms. Carlyle’s life with that in the modern age. The first point being, that Jane Carlyle is writing a letter which survived over 150 years…the same can’t be said for an email.

Her letter starts thus:
“I was waiting before a shop in Regent Street [London] for some items of stationery; and a young woman black-eyed, rosy-cheeked, with a child in her arms; thrust herself up to the carriage window.”
Mrs Carlyle was shopping for stationery. In Victorian times the shops’ opening hours varied depending on the season: 6 am in the summer and 8 am in the winter.
Mornings were the time when servants shopped, and it was late morning or early afternoon when gentlefolk like Jane Welsh Carlyle took to their carriages to go out. However, well-to-do shoppers had to be wary of thieves and pickpockets were rife on London’s streets, and this was perhaps one reason she stayed in her carriage.

Regent Street in the 19th century

The letter continues:
“[The beggar] broke forth in a paroxysm of begging, refusing to stand aside even when the shop man was showing me some envelopes.”
The shopkeeper had brought his goods to the carriage for the customer to view, rather than the other way round – a whole new take on home-shopping! Indeed, the shopping experience was very different to the modern day. There was no obligation to display the price of the goods and it was common practice for the shopkeeper to alter the price, depending on what he thought the customer would pay.

“Provoked at her noise [the beggar]…I said. ‘No, I will give you not a single penny as an encouragement to annoy others as you are annoying me.’”
Around 25% of the population of Victorian England lived below the poverty level. For those in extreme poverty there was the option of the workhouse, but conditions were so severe that many people preferred to chance their luck on the streets.
There was a cycle of poverty in that a young man may be able to work and earn a living to support himself. But when he married, his wife would no longer be allowed to be in employment so his same wage had to support two people. Things got worse still when children arrived – as this beggar clutching a child would suggest.

25% of the population lived in poverty

“That beggar woman fixed the evil eye on me and slowly said, ‘This is Wednesday lady, perhaps you will be dead by Christmas Day, and have to leave all behind you. Better to have given me a little of it now!’ And she scuttled away leaving with the sensation of being under a curse.”
This may sound dramatic to our modern ears, but in the 19th century people took superstitions much more seriously. Indeed, one superstition was “overlooking” where, in a type of witchcraft,  a specific ‘look’ could curse the individual and cause them to be “sunken in spirits”, lacking in concentration, and taken to an extreme, to waste away.

“I can’t say I took it to heart. At the same time, I was rather glad when, Christmas Day being over, I found myself alive and just as well as before.”
Alas, Mrs Carlyle seems so engrossed with her own situation that she failed to spare a thought for what drove the poor woman to beg in the first instance. Perhaps after all, some things never change….But there again; this is a quote by Mrs Carlyle about children:
“Children as such nasty little beasts”

So perhaps she wasn’t the most warm-hearted person in the world. Move over Ebenezer…

Merry Christmas!

Click for link

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Mrs Gaskell's Tower Part II - Illegitimacy in History

By Annie Whitehead

A few weeks ago, I was at the enchanting village of Silverdale in Lancashire, situated on the northern tip of Morecambe Bay and nestled in an AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty). I envisaged another photo tour, as I've done before on these pages, but, whilst along with some stunning scenery and some rather large houses with Maseratis parked on the drives, there's plenty here of historical note, there is not much else to connect Mrs Gaskell with the place.

However, it was while staying here that she wrote her novel Ruth and this book is noted for its subject matter - that of illegitimacy. A discussion of this theme in literature would probably be enlightening, but is not for the pages of this blog. Instead I began to think about 'bastards' in history generally; how they fared, whether their illegitimacy hindered them and whether in fact we would know of them today had their parents been married.

Henry I's bastards were many in number and have not remained, to be a bit 1066 and All That, "memorable", but the fact that his only legitimate son drowned had a long-lasting impact on the country, resulting in the civil war between Henry's daughter, Matilda, and his nephew, Stephen, which ultimately saw the Plantagenets ruling until there was a bit of a skirmish in a field near Bosworth in 1485. And speaking of Plantagenets, it's still a matter of fevered speculation that Edward IV might have been a bastard - his mother Cecily seems almost to have confessed as much - but at the time it didn't seem to harm his career. No, what made folks a bit po-faced about him was his marriage to the 'commoner' Elizabeth Woodville. Still, she had the last laugh, as there was more of her blood in subsequent kings and queens than Edward's, if rumours about his mother are true (Elizabeth's daughter married Henry Tudor).

Chucking a bastard son or two into the mix is always bound to muddy the waters - there are those who argue vociferously that Richard I, he with the Lionheart, was homosexual. And yet, Phillip of Cognac was his illegitimate son and may not have been the only one.
While we're on the subject of homosexuality, James I seemed happy to flaunt his preference for men but managed to sire two sons, so perhaps that argument against Richard I's generally accepted proclivities doesn't hold much water.

Conjecture also surrounds the legitimacy of Charles II's most famous 'bastard', James, Duke of Monmouth. Charles was not above acknowledging his offspring and handsomely endowing his children and mistresses with lands and titles. But, like Henry I, he had no legitimate male heir, he was getting old, and trouble was brewing. The problem hinged upon the details of Charles' relationship with Monmouth's mother, Lucy Walter, and the existence, or not, of a piece of paper that would prove the couple was officially married - a marriage certificate kept in a secret Black Box, the existence of which was denied by Charles. Whether or not he believed himself to be illegitimate, (he claimed he wasn't), it didn't stop Monmouth making a bid for the throne upon the death of Charles II. Religion being another 'slight' problem, many people preferred the 'bastard protestant' Monmouth to any legitimate but Catholic offspring of Charles' legal heir, his brother James II.

So, the history of the English monarchy is fairly well sprinkled with bastards, some of whom - like Henry VII's 'natural' son - gained no more notoriety than to be awarded the constable-ship of Beaumaris on the island of Anglesey and some of whom attempted, unsuccessfully, to change the line of succession in their favour.

Of course, a few weeks ago in October, we 'celebrated' the anniversary of one of the most famous battles in English history, and we can say without doubt that illegitimacy was no hindrance to William the Conqueror, or William the Bastard, to give him his proper name. A couple of days ago it was Christmas Day, a significant date for William, for that was when he was crowned in Westminster.

Say what you like about William (and I frequently do), a nice little footnote is that unlike most of his successors, he seems to have remained completely faithful to his wife. Was he a loving husband, or was he simply anxious that no child of his should be taunted by the tilt-yard bullies?

Annie Whitehead is an historian and author of To Be a Queen. She also writes articles for various magazines.
Find her at her blog: Casting Light upon the Shadow
and find details of her novel HERE

illustrations: Mrs Gaskell's tower - author's own photograph
all others licensed under Public Domain via 'commons':
Richard I - author Adam Bishop
Monmouth - portrait by Messing

Saturday, December 26, 2015

The More Things Change...

by Maria Grace

There’s an old saying: The more things change, the more they stay the same.  It rang very true as I  was reading my newest, or should I say oldest, favorite cookbook: New System of Domestic Cookery: Founded up Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families, by Mrs. Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell (1745-December 16, 1828). ‘Mrs. Rundell’ as it was often referred to, was the most popular English cookbook of the first half of the nineteenth century. The first edition came out in 1806, several later editions were published with additions by other contributors.

She begins her cookbook with a rather lengthy discussion of the need to manage a household properly. Her first recommendation is that the mistress of a household should be aware of the state of her household’s fortune and be careful to manage with a mind to her budget. How often does that bit of advice appear in ladies’ magazines of today?  Language and style aside, Mrs. Rundell could have been writing for a magazine of today.

Mrs. Rundell laments the effects of increasing prices. “Generally speaking, dinners are far less sumptuous than formerly, when half a dozen dishes were supplied for what one now costs; consequently those whose fortunes are not great, and who wish to make genteel appearance, without extravagance, regulate their table accordingly.” When we bemoan inflation at the grocery store, we are certainly standing in the shadow of our ancestors.

To cope with the effects of increasing prices and limited incomes, she recommends careful accounting.  To that end, she insists “few branches of female education are so useful as great readiness at figures.” Long before it was fashionable or popular, Mrs. Rundell recommended that girls study math! Who would have guessed?

Not only were her educational recommendations forward thinking, but her practical suggestions were too. She recommends using cash not credit for every day purchases and argues that the use of credit “may have much evil influence on the price of various articles.” Likewise, she cautions ladies to avoid buying unnecessary articles just because they are good bargains. However, they should stock up on paper, soap and candles which keep well and are in constant consumption. Though for my household it would be light bulbs, toilet paper and laundry detergent, the advice remains sound.

One final point Mrs. Rundell made left me laughing out loud, not because it was ridiculous, but rather because I had taught the very same advice in a budgeting and money management course my husband and I have taught over the years. She says, “Some people fix a stated sum to be appropriated to each different article and keep the money in separate purses.” Sounds remarkably like setting a budget for each category of spending and the setting aside that amount of money in separate envelopes, doesn’t it? I would never have guessed that bit of advice had been penned at least 200 years ago.

It just goes to show that there really is nothing new under the sun!

For anyone interested, replica editions of Mrs. Rundell’s book have been published and the original itself is available free online.


 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at LongbournRemember the Past, and Mistaking Her CharacterClick here to find her books on Amazon. For more on her writing and other Random Bits of Fascination, visit her website. You can also like her on Facebook, follow on Twitter or email her.

Friday, December 25, 2015

The Other Mary: Mary of Guise

by Marie Macpherson

Portrait of Mary of Lorraine, Queen
 of Scotland in the Royal Collection
2015 marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of Marie de Guise, mother of Mary, Queen of Scots, on 22 November 1515. Throughout her short life this twice widowed, dowager queen regent of Scotland surmounted many personal tragedies and handled public crises with the pragmatism and prudence of a skilled politique but she is rarely given the credit she is due. The tragic misfortunes of her more famous daughter have eclipsed the achievements of this French-born warrior queen who fought to keep the Scottish throne for the Stewarts.


The eldest child of Claude de Guise and Antoinette de Bourbon, Marie was born into ‘arguably the most powerful dynasty in sixteenth-century France’, the prestigious House of Guise, a scion of the House of Lorraine. However, she did not enjoy the cosseted upbringing that her royal daughter later did. Marie was no pampered princess but lived with her devout grandmother, Philippa de Gueldres, who had retired to the convent of Pont-à-Mousson. There, Marie endured the privations of a Poor Clare, sleeping on a bed of straw and undertaking menial tasks. This austere, ascetic regime undoubtedly stood her in good stead, forging a character strong enough to withstand the many tragedies, trials and tribulations that fate flung at her.

When she was fourteen, her striking good looks and robust figure – Marie would grow to nearly six feet – as well as her intelligence and wit – greatly impressed her uncle Antoine, duc de Lorraine. Declaring his niece to be too precious a prize to be closeted in a convent, he withdrew her from the cloister to groom her for the French court and marriage to a prince. Though Marie swiftly found favour with François I, the king did not match her with the hoped-for prince but with a duke – Louis de Longueville. Their wedding on 4 August 1534 was the event of the season.

Duchess of Longueville

The golden couple’s marriage seemed blessed, firstly with the birth of their son, François, on 30 October 1535, and then again when Marie became pregnant in 1537. However, that year Marie was to suffer the first of the many tragedies that blighted her life: the sudden death of her husband in June 1537.

If the 21-year-old widow assumed she would live out her life as a dowager duchess rearing her sons (her second son, Louis, was born in August) and overseeing their inheritance at Châteaudun, King François had other plans for this highly desirable marital asset. In 1537, he had wed his eldest daughter to James V, King of Scots, but Madeleine suffered poor health and, weeks after arriving in damp, dreich Scotland, succumbed to consumption.

Although devastated by her untimely death, James V was anxious to acquire a French princess, but François was not keen to sacrifice another daughter.

Instead, he proposed the recently widowed duchess. As well as her many physical and intellectual attributes she had proved to be fertile. Marie was reluctant for it would mean leaving behind her sons and travelling to Scotland, a very rough and backward place, she had heard.

Nevertheless, she must have given thanks that James got his offer in first because his uncle Henry VIII, newly widowed after Jane Seymour’s death in childbirth, was also back on the marriage market. Hearing that the ‘lusty and fair’ duchess with the rich dowry was ‘big in person’ he retorted that he had need of a big wife. Neither his manner of wooing nor his marital history impressed Marie. ‘I may be big in person, but my neck is small,’ she famously retorted, demonstrating a sharp tongue as well as a brass neck. Henry’s reaction to this, if his envoys ever dared to pass it on, is not recorded.

Although Marie had no choice but to accept James’ proposal, the doughty widow asserted herself during the dowry negotiations, refusing to agree to his unreasonable demands and drawing up a pre-nuptial agreement that would secure her sons’ inheritance. In the midst of this crisis, Marie suffered another blow: her four-month-old son Louis died, leaving her bereft.

To persuade his reluctant bride, James wrote an emotional cri de coeur that began: "Madame, I am only twenty-seven years old and life already weighs as heavily upon me as my crown does … Fatherless since childhood, I have been the prisoner of my ambitious nobles." Going on to list the deceit, treachery and greed of his rebellious nobles who continually threatened his position, he confessed his need for a strong and capable wife to help him govern. Forewarned should be forearmed, and a lesser woman might have balked at such a frank description of the trials that lay ahead, but perhaps his frankness disarmed her. And Marie de Guise was made of sterner stuff. She had smeddum – the Scots word for backbone, mettle, or determination – in spades. Hastening the wedding plans, she was married by proxy on 9 May 1538 at Châteaudun.

Engraving of the Proxy Marriage of Mary of Lorraine and James V

Queen of Scots

After meeting his bride at St Andrews, James took her on a tour of the properties he had been refurbishing in preparation for his marriage to Madeleine. The palaces of Falkland, Linlithgow and Holyrood and Stirling Castle enchanted Marie who confessed that Scotland was not such a barbarous country after all. However, the honeymoon was short-lived as Marie learned that James was a deeply troubled man who suffered from bouts of depression and mood swings. Then she had to accept his various illegitimate children by at least six different mistresses were being brought up at court.

Portrait of James V and Marie de Guise

Marie had to tread a fine line and deploy all her tact to deal with the resentment and jealousy that her arrival had aroused, especially in Margaret Erskine, mother of his eldest son, James Stewart. After her failed attempt to divorce her husband so as to marry James V, Lady Douglas nursed a deep-seated grudge that she bequeathed to her son, drumming it into him that he should be the rightful heir to the throne.

Marie’s increasingly strained relationship with the mentally unstable king eased when she produced an heir and a spare. When she gave birth to James on 22 May 1540 followed by Robert on 24 April 1541 Marie was crowned Queen of Scots in reward for doing her duty. However, fate dealt a double blow when both sons died within hours of each other. When she aired her suspicion about their being poisoned in a letter to her mother, Antoinette de Bourbon consoled her with the thought that she and the king were young yet and had plenty of time to have more sons.

In the spring of 1542, Marie was delighted to be pregnant again, but her joy was overshadowed by the threat from England. For centuries the English had fought to gain sovereignty over their northern neighbour, and now Henry VIII was scouring the ancient records for proof of his claim to be overlord of Scotland. When this failed, he planned to kidnap his nephew and seize his kingdom. He sent a small force led by the Douglas brothers, Archibald, Earl of Angus (ex-husband of Henry VIII’s sister Margaret Tudor; he was James V’s stepfather). James had warned Marie about the fickle Scottish lords, but here was proof that ‘assured Scots’ in the pay of Henry VIII were willing to betray their country for English gold.

In November 1542, James sent an army under the command of Oliver Sinclair to face the English force at Solway Moss. Whatever the reason for the Scots’ defeat that day, the rout sent James spiralling into a deep depression, ‘his mind near gone through dolour and care’. He embarked on a final tour of his properties, stopping off at Linlithgow where Marie was in the last days of her confinement before crossing the Forth to Falkland. When asked where he would spend Christmas he replied he could not tell, for, "On Yule day you will be masterless and the realm without a king". He then took to his bed with a high fever.

The news that his wife had given birth to a daughter on 8 December was the last straw. Reputedly muttering the prophecy about the Stewart dynasty that: "It cam wi a lass an it’ll gang wi a lass", James V turned his face to the wall. The thirty-year-old monarch died on 14 December, probably of dysentery but also despair.

Dowager Queen

Marie of Guise
Widowed once again, Marie held in her arms an important ‘dynastic entity’, as Merriman described her six-day-old daughter and during the fierce battle for control of the infant Queen Mary, Marie was helpless. For over a month she not only had to observe the Roman Catholic ritual of purification for a newly-delivered mother but also the strict rules of mourning for a royal spouse. Released from her enforced seclusion she was surprised to find that she had not automatically become regent. Cardinal David Beaton had produced a will purportedly signed by James on his deathbed appointing him as regent but contested by James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, next in line to the throne, who accused him of forging it. At a convention in January 1543, the lords voted for Arran as regent and Lord Governor of Scotland and Beaton as Lord Chancellor.

These bitter rivals would head the two factions that defined Mary Stewart’s regency. The Anglo-Scottish alliance – led by Arran – intended to reform the Church along Protestant lines while the Franco-Scottish alliance – headed by Beaton – sought to maintain the authority of the Roman Catholic Church in Scotland.

Meanwhile, in England, Henry VIII saw the perfect opportunity to unite the two kingdoms. By marrying his son, Edward, to Queen Mary, Henry could achieve peacefully what his predecessors had fought over for centuries – sovereignty over Scotland. With that in mind he released prominent noblemen captured at Solway Moss in return for their promise to support the union of Edward and Mary and his claim to Scotland. Marie was pushed into a corner. If she refused Henry’s proposal, he would invade Scotland and take the infant queen by force. With no choice but to dissemble and play for time she replied that nothing would please her better.

Despite heated debates, the Scottish Parliament finally signed the Treaty of Greenwich on 1 July 1543 agreeing to peace between the two kingdoms and to sending Mary to England on her eleventh birthday to marry Edward.

Meanwhile, the queen mother was playing off rival suitors for her hand. Dangling the bait of marriage she had invited back to Scotland Matthew Stewart, Earl of Lennox. A Catholic with a strong claim to the Scottish succession he would present a serious challenge to Arran’s authority.

Not to be outdone, Patrick Hepburn, Earl of Bothwell, divorced his inconvenient wife in order to throw his hat into the marital ring. During the autumn of 1543, the comical sight of the two earls vying with each other for the queen’s hand kept the court entertained. Marie had no intention of favouring either: her ploy was to keep both earls on her side. (Growing impatient, Lennox flounced off to England in the huff to wed Margaret Douglas, daughter of the Earl of Angus and Margaret Tudor. As fate would have it, both men turned out to be fathers of her daughter’s future husbands. Such was the incestuous relationship of the Scottish nobility!)

The Rough Wooing

The ink on the Treaty of Greenwich was hardly dry when the Scottish parliament revoked it. On the eve of Mary’s coronation as Queen of Scots, twa-fangelt Arran lived up to his nickname. Leant on by his half-brother the Abbot of Paisley, the vacillating, indecisive, opportunistic regent repented of supporting the Protestants. Now he supported the Auld Alliance between Scotland and France.

Infuriated, Henry ordered his commander, Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, to burn Edinburgh and Leith, sack Holyrood, "putting man, woman and child to fire and sword without exception". So began the period of ‘rough wooing’ that lasted until 1548.

Henry also ordered St Andrews, the seat of the Scottish Roman Catholic Church and Cardinal Beaton’s stronghold, to be razed to the ground. Beaton fortified the castle, but Henry plotted with Protestant sympathisers in Fife who were only too ready to get rid of this turbulent priest.

"Cardinal David Beaton" by Quicumque; Own work. 
Licensed under Public Domain via Commons* 
The wealthy, worldly cardinal, who kept a concubine and had fathered several offspring, symbolised all that was corrupt in the Roman Church. In 1546 he sentenced the popular Protestant preacher, George Wishart, to be burned at the stake for heresy. In retaliation, the Fife lairds stabbed him to death and then barricaded themselves inside the castle. Thus began a long siege during which Wishart’s disciple, the firebrand John Knox, stepped into his master’s shoes to become preacher to the Castilians, as the conspirators were called.

On Henry’s death in January 1547, Seymour, now Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of Edward VI, insisted on the Scots abiding by the Treaty of Greenwich and continued the policy of aggression. In September 1547, with the aim of taking Queen Mary by force, he marched on Edinburgh. The two armies clashed at Pinkie Cleugh, six miles south of the capital, where the Scots suffered a disastrous defeat.

Fearful for her daughter’s safety, Marie hid her daughter at the priory on Inchmahone Island in the Lake of Menteith but that was only a stopgap. To spring the trap, the new French king, Henri II proposed marriage between his three-year-old son, Dauphin François, and Mary, Queen of Scots, on condition that Mary was brought up at the French court as the future queen of France. In return he sent ships to break the St Andrews siege and capture the Castilians, amongst them John Knox who was sentenced as a galley slave.

On 7 July 1548 Marie signed the fateful Treaty of Haddington at the Cistercian abbey on the banks of the Tyne, and a few weeks later Mary sailed from Dumbarton (in a galley rowed by her nemesis Knox, in a quirk of fate, I like to imagine!)

Sojourn in France

In 1550, Marie left for France not only to visit her children and newly widowed mother but to petition Henri’s support in her bid for the regency and oust Arran who was bleeding the coffers dry. I also think she was anxious to meet her daughter’s intended. On receiving Lady Janet Fleming’s unfavourable reports about the dauphin’s poor physical condition, Marie was concerned he may not live to adulthood. And what would Mary do then, poor queen? She may also have intended to bring back her son to groom him as a future regent, but sadly, on the way to Dieppe, François, died in her arms. "Our Lord must wish me for one of his chosen ones, since he has visited me so often with such sorrow," broken-hearted Marie wrote to her mother.

Queen Regent

Back in Scotland, Marie toured the realm to find out how many lords would support her bid for the regency. Quite a lot, it turned out, if given enough financial inducement. Arran, too, had his price. In return for substantial financial benefits he surrendered the governorship, and Marie was at last declared Queen Regent of Scotland in February 1554. Her letters reveal that she saw herself as ‘mother of the commonwealth,’ with a God-given mission to turn the unruly infant nation into a well-organised, well-behaved state.

Bringing together all the various divisions under one rule was not an easy task, for Scotland was a disunited country not only religiously but politically, geographically. In the highlands, the clan chiefs ruled their own roosts while uprisings amongst the rebellious borderers in the Debatable Land were forever breaking out.


John Know woodcutting
Marie de Guise may have been brought up in a convent, but she displayed remarkable tolerance towards her Protestant subjects – unlike Mary Tudor who sent countless martyrs to the stake. The controversial burning of Walter Milne in 1558 was by order of Archbishop Hamilton, and during 1555-56 she allowed Knox to carry out his preaching tour of Scotland (much to Hamilton’s chagrin) though she famously brushed aside his attempt to convert her – a snub Knox never forgave.

Marie did not escape the lash of John Knox’s vitriolic tongue in his notorious tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women –not, as is commonly supposed a sexist rant against a battalion of battleaxes, but a denunciation of female rule – Mary Tudor, Mary of Guise and Mary, Queen of Scots. To be fair, Knox was voicing what most men of the time believed – that being weak, vacillating and immoral creatures, women were unfit to hold power – though much more vociferously.

Despite her policy of tolerance and non-persecution, a group of the lords banded together in December 1557 to sign the first covenant, ostensibly to establish the Protestant faith in Scotland but more likely to gain the rich properties held by the Roman Catholic Church. For Marie suspected the grubby mitts of Mammon rather than the divine hand of God guided the motives of these Lords of the Congregation.

With the threat of the Catholic Anglo-Imperial partnership south of the border (Mary Tudor had married Philip of Spain) the lords pushed for Mary’s marriage to the dauphin in 1558 as the lesser of two evils. However, the commissioners sent to negotiate the marriage contract were unaware of the secret documents signed by Mary stating that, in the event of her death, France would retain the kingdom and revenues of Scotland until all the expenses incurred for Scotland’s defence and Mary’s education had been repaid. In other words, France would gain full control of Scotland. What would the Congregations’ reaction have been if they’d found out? The marriage took place in April 1558 but with Mary Tudor’s premature death in November, the game of thrones changed once again.

The Protestant Rebellion

Emboldened by the accession of the Protestant Elizabeth and the removal of the Habsburg threat, the Lords of the Congregation became more forceful in their demands for reform. On 1 January 1559, an anonymous notice, the ‘Beggars’ Summons’, was pinned to the door of every religious house in Scotland warning the friars that if they did not hand over their property to the poor and infirm by Whitsunday they would be evicted.

Spurred into action, Marie ordered the four most outspoken preachers to answer charges of usurping the ministerial office and preaching sedition, but they refused. To show their support for the preachers, a multitude assembled in Perth ready to march on Stirling. Taken by surprise, Marie could not imagine that this act of defiance would spark a wholesale rebellion in Scotland, a civil war led by John Knox.

Invited by the Lords of the Congregation, Knox had left Geneva and landed in Scotland on 2 May 1559. On 11 May he preached a fiery sermon at St John’s Kirk of Perth that provoked riots and destruction throughout Perthshire and Fife.

Over the next few months a bitter civil war ensued with defeats and victories on each side and agreements drawn up only to be broken again. The French ambassador’s report best sums up the sorry state of affairs in mid-16th century Scotland:
Because of the aforesaid divisions, the realm of Scotland was, and still, is at the present time under arms, for all the friends of one faction mistrust all those of the other faction so much so that not merely is the nobility in arms, but churchmen, friars and country people only travel through the countryside in large companies, all armed with pikes, swords and shields.
Suffice to say that there was deceit and dissimulation on both sides and downright treachery on the part of the lords.

At first Marie had the support of her stepson, Lord James Stewart, and the Earl of Argyll, husband of her stepdaughter, and Secretary William Maitland, but when she broke the Perth Agreement by garrisoning the town with soldiers in the pay of France, they defected to the other side.

When Marie ordered a contingent of French troops to fortify Leith, Arran, now Duke of Châtelherault, used this as an excuse to switch allegiance. Ever the opportunist, he had been conspiring with Elizabeth’s principal adviser, William Cecil, to unite the two countries by putting his son on the Scottish throne and wedding him to Queen Elizabeth. An even more serious danger was the treachery of Marie’s secretary Maitland who betrayed her plans to the Congregation.

After Henri II’s death from a jousting wound in July 1559, the new monarch and son-in-law François sent a fleet to Scotland, but it was driven back by storm to Calais. In the meantime Knox, Maitland and Châtelherault had been negotiating with Cecil and in February 1560 signed the Treaty of Berwick giving Elizabeth I the right to military intervention and renouncing the Franco-Scottish Auld Alliance. In March 1560 when an English army invaded Scotland Marie took refuge in Edinburgh Castle.


All this stress was taking its toll on Marie who was now showing signs of heart failure. Despite suffering from dropsy, she battled on, pleading with her lords to break from England – in vain as one by one they deserted her. By 1 June she was gravely ill – her mind began to wander and she was unable to eat and speak at times. Knowing she was near to death she wrote her will and sent for the lords including James Stewart, Châtelherault and the Earl of Argyll. After pleading with them to maintain the French alliance she begged their forgiveness if she had ever offended them and forgave them for all their offences against her. For some reason she consented to a visit from the Protestant preacher John Willock, a colleague of Knox, rather than her French bishop.

Shortly after midnight on 11 June 1560 she died in her 45th year. Her body was placed in a lead coffin and taken to St Margaret’s Chapel on the highest point of the castle rock where it lay until being transferred to France in March 1561 to be buried in the abbey church where her sister Renée was abbess. Marie had come full circle.

Mary of Guise Commemorative Tablet at Edinburgh Castle

Two symbols are attributed to Marie de Guise. One, a crown set above a rock beaten by winds and waves, bears the motto Adhuc stat – And still it stands. The other, according to Margaret Swain, is a phoenix, the bird that rises anew out of the ashes from the flames that destroyed it. It has the motto that her daughter chose to embroider on her cloth of state: En ma fin gît ma commencement – In my end is my beginning. Added together both symbols and mottoes sum up the arduous life of this remarkable woman.


Ritchie, Pamela E., Mary of Guise in Scotland, 1548-1560 (2002)
Dawson, Jane E. A., Scotland Re-Formed 1488-1587 (2007)
Dawson, Jane, John Knox (2015)
Marshall, Rosalind K., Mary of Guise (2001)
Merriman, M.H., The Rough Wooings: Mary, Queen of Scots, 1542-1551 (2000)
Swain, Margaret, The Needlework of Mary, Queen of Scots (1973)

All illustrations are in the public domain.


Scottish author Marie Macpherson writes historical fiction set in the 16th century during the turbulent time of the Scottish Reformation. Her first novel in the Knox Trilogy, The First Blast of the Trumpet (published by Knox Robinson Publishing 2012) is a fictional account of the early, undocumented life of the reformer, John Knox.

Marie de Guise’s valiant struggles to preserve her daughter’s throne are depicted in the second book of the Knox trilogy. The Second Blast of the Trumpet, due out in 2016, follows Knox’s life after his release from the galleys; his exile in England and Geneva, his marriage to Marjory Bowes (as well as his relationships with other women), the circumstances that led him to write his notorious tract, The First Blast of the Trumpet against the Monstrous Regiment of Women and his role in the Protestant uprising of 1559-60.


Wednesday, December 23, 2015

A Short Introduction to the Medieval Burgh in Scotland

by Louise Turner

If I asked you to name a historic settlement in Scotland, chances are you would immediately respond with ‘Edinburgh’ or ‘Stirling,’ because these are the places that immediately spring to mind. They have castles, they’re associated with historic churches or cathedrals, and above all, they are in possession of this intangible thing called ‘history.’

But there’s much more to Scottish history than the well-trodden and the celebrated. My post today is devoted to a more humble aspect of Scottish medieval life: the burgh. Some have been with us for almost a thousand years, and most still survive in some form or other. They’ve grown and modernised and they’ve been transformed through the centuries, but underneath a late 18th/19th century veneer, their medieval or post-medieval past can often still be identified – so long as you know what you’re looking for.

The medieval burgh in Scotland represents a seriously underused and under-represented resource in historical fiction, which is a real shame, because in archaeological terms, it’s one of the most widely-studied aspects of medieval life we’ve got. It’s certainly one of the most rewarding to explore upon the ground. My aim today is to help introduce you to these treasures and to do this, I’m going to take a multi-disciplinary approach. I’ll start off talking about the history, before moving onto the more physical aspects, in particular the archaeology, before considering the way in which the modern burghs have evolved from their medieval predecessors and explaining how you can still appreciate their historic origins by examining modern townscapes.

We know from the historical record that the arrival of the burgh in Scotland was down to one man - King David I – who introduced the concept from Norman England in the early 12th century (Hall, 2002, 11). Unlike their neighbours south of the border, the Scots never enjoyed the benefits of Romanisation, so the idea of the planned town was an alien concept to them. That nucleated settlements of some kind were developing prior to this date is highly likely, but unfortunately we do not yet have much in the way of evidence for these ‘pre-burghal settlements,’ as they are known. In a way, they remain an elusive holy grail of Scottish medieval archaeology: some argue (Ewan, 1990) that the adoption of the burgh as a working concept was grasped so quickly and so completely in Scotland that the pre- (or even ‘proto?’- ) burghal settlements must have been sufficiently well-organised to make the transition to the new system a fairly painless one.

Where the burghs probably departed from their predecessors was in the fact that they shared a very formalised layout. Each consisted of a collection of ordered plots set out to a standard pattern. Whether the burgh in question is Aberdeen, or Lanark or any number of towns in between, the form is similar. The burgh is laid out in linear-fashion along a single main street, which is overlooked on one (or both) sides by a series of ‘burgage plots.’ These were independent land holdings created by the landowner which were then sub-let to interested investors: their layout follows a consistent pattern, with the front elevation of the house usually overlooking the street frontage, and the ‘backlands’ stretching out to the rear. Access to the backlands is through a narrow lane or pend, with each plot of land demarcated from their neighbours by way of boundary ditches or hurdle fences. Every burgh had at least one church, and often a castle, too: many of these new burghs potentially occupied pre-existing ‘castletouns’ or ‘kirktouns’ which had grown up around these important administrative buildings.

Scottish burghs were rarely enclosed by walls in the manner of English cities like York or Chester: a ditch to the rear of each burgage plot was often the only means of delineation, and this was only required to stop livestock from straying. Gates were fitted to control access into and out of burgh, but these were introduced more to facilitate the collection of tolls and duties than as a defensive measure. There were some exceptions – Berwick being an obvious example – but such defences were often built in response to a direct threat rather than in anticipation of it. The Flodden Wall in Edinburgh, built after the Scots’ defeat in 1513 is a good example of such a reactionary measure.

As the burghs grew and prospered, new streets might be laid out running parallel to the Main or High Street – Saint Andrews, with its three parallel streets, is a good example of how this growth manifested itself. However, despite the varying layouts, the use of linear plots remained consistent until well into the modern period.

The Remains of a Burgh Weighing Machine,
or ‘Tron’ at Culross, Fife (1)
At the heart of every burgh was its market place. Here the main street was broader, to accommodate an area where commerce could be conducted on market days and fair days. The market place was where the three key elements of burgh life were located: the mercat cross, the ‘tron’ (the burgh weighing machine) and the tolbooth. In the early days, burghs might conduct their business within open spaces such as churchyards, but most aspiring burghs opted to construct a tolbooth at some point. The tolbooth was the burgh’s beating heart, the building in which its day-to-day running was carried out by its officers. Legal disputes were dealt with in its chambers; there was an on-site jail for the punishment of offenders and transgressors.

The burgh’s laws were strict, but fair. They were put in place to benefit the burgesses, of course, by protecting their property and their interests, but safety nets were also introduced which both limited the degree to which individual members of the trading community could gain at the expense of others, and protected consumers through centralised control of weights and measures, and strict regulation of the quality of goods for sale, particularly foodstuffs. Adulterated flour and underweight loaves, for example, were serious areas of concern for burgh officials. It should be borne in mind, however, that this well-meaning system had its limitations: these principles worked on the assumption that burgh officials could never be guilty of corruption, but – human nature being what it is- I’m sure that through the centuries there were numerous examples of burgh officials who were less than exemplary in their conduct.

First to benefit following the introduction of the burghs were immigrants from the Low Countries who were encouraged to settle there. This first wave of burghs comprised the Royal burghs, where duties and taxes were collected on behalf of the king. The introduction of the ‘burghs of barony’ followed, with these foundations becoming increasingly popular from the late 15th century onwards: here, the beneficiary was a local landowner such as the church or a member of the nobility. But it wasn’t just the foundation of a burgh of barony which brought benefits to the landed classes: they’d already been profiting following the growth of the Royal burghs. Power and influence could be won through service to the King as a burgh servant, with offices such as bailies and Sheriffs being highly sought-after positions which were often hereditary, the possession of which occasionally sparked long-running and violent disputes. The feud between the Montgomeries and the Cunninghames, for example, which caused unrest between the two families for over a hundred years in North Ayrshire, had its roots in a disagreement over the appointment of a Montgomerie to an important office which gave him authority throughout the burgh’s rural hinterland. This had a direct impact on the local burgh of Irvine, where Montgomerie also enjoyed the role of Constable: historical sources tell us that the town’s bailie courts were disrupted for several years during the late 1480s by armed bands loyal to these contesting families to such an extent that King James IV ordered their suspension.

Unicorn Figure on the
Mercat Cross in Stirling (2)
[Practical Note For Burgh Sleuths #1: Today it is often still possible to establish whether a burgh originated as a burgh of barony or a Royal burgh from the design of its mercat cross. After the reformation, medieval mercat crosses, with their religious imagery, were superseded by a secularised version featuring a stone shaft with a heraldic beast sitting on the top. Royal burghs are graced with a unicorn (like the mercat cross at Stirling with its unicorn), while burghs of barony have a lion. This difference in design has been faithfully replicated even in the many modern, 19th century mercat crosses built to replace lost medieval and post-medieval originals.]

Right from the outset, the burgh’s key function was as a centre for trade and commerce. The burgh had a monopoly on produce derived from its rural hinterland, with producers only permitted to ply their wares within the limits of the burgh on recognised market and fair days. Foreign trade was even more fiercely protected, permitted only within the Royal burghs. Scotland’s exports throughout this period were almost exclusively restricted to hides, woolfell and salted herring (during the late 15th century, salted herring was consumed in particularly huge quantities in the Low Countries as a Lenten foodstuff, with Irvine being a particularly important supplier). Raw materials were imported into the Continent and transformed by skilled craftsmen into high quality goods and products which the Scots were all too keen to acquire. This meant, of course, that the merchants of the Low Countries made a vast profit by putting a huge mark-up on the finished items.

[Practical Note for Burgh Sleuths #2: Luxury goods for the Scottish market were often shipped in vessels which carried a ballast of roofing tiles. These ‘pantiles’ with their distinctive ‘s’ curve to the section, became widely used in the post-medieval period as a roofing material on the east coast of Scotland: even today, many of the buildings in east coast burghs around the Firth of Forth (such as Culross and Crail in Fife) are roofed with pantiles. The use of clay tiles gives these burghs an entirely different appearance and character to those of the west coast, where the earlier thatched roofs were ultimately replaced with slate.]

Much can be learned about Scotland’s burghs by studying the towns themselves and interpreting their street plans and the standing buildings which still survive there. But it’s fair to say that our understanding of the Scottish medieval burgh has been transformed through information recovered during a succession of urban excavations undertaken in Scottish burghs since the early 1970s. It was recognised then that physical evidence which could improve our understanding of the history of Scotland’s towns and cities was at risk of total annihilation through the ongoing redevelopment of historic city and town centres. At the vanguard of developer-funded work at this time was the Scottish Urban Archaeological Trust, which carried out important excavations in Perth, Aberdeen and Glasgow. Around the same time, a series of well-respected publications were released which summarised the history and development of a number of Scottish historic burghs, and highlighted those areas most at risk of destruction through uncontrolled redevelopment. The Scottish Burgh Surveys are an excellent resource for archaeologists and writers alike, with new publications in the series still being released to this day.

The excavations at Aberdeen and Perth showed us that the majority of houses were built of wattle-and-daub around a timber frame, and that the ‘backlands’ to the rear of the main house were often used for a variety of uses, ranging from horticulture to industries such as tanning, tawing or brewing. They also showed us that all manner of imports were being brought into the country, ranging from shot silk cloth to exotic pottery types which included Valencian lustre ware (a brilliantly-coloured majolica type ceramic from 15th century Spain) and stoneware from Germany. In the decades since these early excavations took place, developer-funded archaeology carried out by commercial units has continued to inform us about life in the Scottish medieval period, with excavations undertaken in a wide range of burghs (though usually on a much smaller scale) such as Ayr, Dumbarton, Linlinthgow, Paisley, Rutherglen and – more recently - Irvine.

Right from the outset, life in the burgh became an attractive option for Scots. For a peasant tied to the land and the incessant demands of landowner and agricultural cycle, the freedom to pursue a craft or a trade within the burgh must have seemed enticing. To qualify as a burgess, an individual had to reside in the burgh for a year and a day – from that point on, they could have a say in the running of their own affairs which gave them a degree of autonomy which would have been unheard of in the rural hinterland. As successful burgesses became increasingly wealthy, ultimately they became important landowners and political figures in their own right.

Not only were the burgesses expected to maintain law and order within the burgh by pulling their weight in the nightly duties of watch and ward, but they also played a vital role in providing soldiers to fight for the Scots kings. Burgesses were expected to maintain a set of arms and prove their willingness to fight by attendance at regular wappenschaws, though as time progressed they might instead pay hired soldiers to take their place. The Royal burghs sent representatives to parliament, and as burgesses started to accumulate land, they became members of the minor gentry in their own right. The local landed families were also quick to see the advantages of working with the burghs rather than against them: even before the days when they could profit directly by establishing a burgh of barony, they were able to benefit by feuing property within the burgh which could be sub-let at a profit, or by negotiating their way into holding hereditary offices such as sheriffs or bailies. This was not always without risk: when there was political stability on a national scale, the burghs and their inhabitants suffered, too. The Wars of Independence are an obvious example: numerous burghs suffered violence and destruction as they pledged their allegiance to one side, or the other, and the Royal burgh of Berwick was lost to the English for good despite numerous attempts by Scottish kings to get it back. On a more regional scale, we see situations like the ongoing rivalry mentioned previously between the Montgomeries and the Cunninghames at Irvine: this quarrel was exacerbated by a regime change in 1488, and during the same period, we see tensions between another neighbouring burgh - the Royal burgh of Renfrew – which ended up in dispute with the nearby abbey town of Paisley. This came to a head when Paisley declared itself a burgh in its own right and started collecting its own customs and dues, creating a loss of revenue to Renfrew which wasn’t taken lightly by the burgesses. A period of unrest ensued which included the physical destruction of Paisley’s mercat cross, with Royal intervention ultimately required in order to stabilise the situation.

Throughout the centuries, the burghs changed and adapted as the requirements of their inhabitants shifted. Early changes were largely material: thatched roofs were replaced by slates or pantiles; timber and wattle buildings were replaced in stone in the late medieval and post-medieval periods. This was probably a response provoked at least in part by fire: records indicate, for example, that substantial portions of the burgh of Irvine burned down on at least two occasions between the 1500s and the 1800s. The all-embracing character of the early burgh also soon fell by the wayside: as the burghs became wealthier, and their inhabitants more well-heeled, so the more unpleasant and antisocial craft industries were banished from the centre of the burgh and sometimes entirely from within its bounds. Potteries and tanneries were early casualties of an increasing desire to improve the residents’ quality of life, and areas for slaughtering livestock – the so-called ‘shambles’ – were also tightly segregated. The disposal of domestic waste also became an issue – to begin with, many people buried their rubbish in massive pits behind their houses (inadvertently creating the mainstay of the urban medieval excavation), but as the backlands became increasingly crowded and built-up, this became more difficult. In the post-medieval period efforts were made to collect this material for use on agricultural land beyond the burgh and this led to the accumulation of extensive (and smelly) middens outside front doors and in the streets which caused much consternation and annoyance.

Loudon Hall, Post-Medieval Building in Ayr 
Associated with the Campbells of Loudon, 
Sheriffs of Ayr (3)
In the long centuries since their foundation, it is inevitable that some burghs have prospered more than others. And as relict medieval or post-medieval townscapes, it is the most successful examples which have lost most of their original character. Old cluttered streets and cramped buildings have been swept away, in order to accommodate increased levels of traffic and to present a more classically refined facade to visitors, and early tolbooths have been demolished to make way for modern town and city halls. Glasgow has suffered in this way; so too have Perth, Dundee and Irvine, to name but a few. Even so, the old lines of their medieval street plan can often still be traced and sometimes original buildings survive, like Loudon Hall in Ayr. In Edinburgh’s case, the old burgh was left more or less intact, and an entirely new town built to provide more spacious accommodation for the Georgian rich. In Glasgow, too, 19th century development shifted the city centre, leaving some relict elements of the city’s medieval origins intact until very recent times: visitors to Glasgow can still see the 17th century tolbooth steeple in its original location, but few realise that this is just the surviving remnant of a much larger building demolished as late as 1921 in order to make way for a traffic-improvement scheme.

The Tolbooth Steeple, Glasgow (4)

Looking Towards the Mercat Cross
in Culross, Fife (5)
If you want to get a real feel for Scotland’s post-medieval past, you should seek out those burghs that didn’t quite make it into the premier league. Forget the cities and the Scottish equivalents of the county towns like Paisley or Ayr: go instead to places like Culross in Fife or Sanquhar in Dumfries and Galloway. The main streets may be narrow and difficult to navigate by car, but the failure of these burghs to keep with the metaphorical Joneses during the 19th and early 20th centuries has done us a real favour, for these picturesque locations remain a tangible link with Scotland’s post-medieval – and in some cases medieval - urban past.


1) By Palickap (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
2) By Kim Traynor (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
3) George Rankin [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons  
4) User:kilnburn, via Wikimedia Commons
5) "Little Causeway Culross - - 1419729" by Jim Smillie. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
 Further Reading

If you’re interested in reading more about Scotland’s medieval urban past, here’s a selection of titles which are worth investigating:-
Bogdan, N. Q. and Wordsworth, J. W. 1978. The Medieval Excavations at the High Street, Perth Perth High Street Archaeological Excavation Committee
Ewan, E. 1990. Townlife in 14th Century Scotland. Edinburgh University Press.
Hall, D. 2002. Burgess, Merchant and Priest: Burgh Life in the Scottish Medieval Town Birlinn
Holdsworth, P. 1987. Excavations in the Medieval Burgh of Perth 1979-81 Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph No. 5
Murray, J. C. 1982. Excavations in the Medieval Burgh of Aberdeen 1973-81. Society of Antiquaries of Scotland Monograph No. 2
Plus any of the Scottish Burgh Surveys (now in their third series), which provide comprehensive guides to individual burghs throughout Scotland, from Aberdeen to Wick.


Born in Glasgow, Louise Turner spent her early years in the west of Scotland where she attended the University of Glasgow. After graduating with an MA in Archaeology, she went on to complete a PhD on
the Bronze Age metalwork hoards of Essex and Kent. She has since enjoyed a varied career in archaeology and cultural resource management. Her initial expertise in prehistoric archaeology has expanded over the years to include the medieval and modern periods, and she recently authored a paper on Thomas Telford, James Watt and their contribution to the evolution of Glasgow’s water supply, published in last year’s Proceedings of the Society of Antiquaries of Scotland.

Writing fiction has always been an important aspect of her life and in 1988, Louise won the Glasgow Herald/Albacon New Writing in SF competition with her short story Busman’s Holiday. Her debut novel Fire and Sword, published in 2013 by Hadley Rille Books, recreates real characters and events and is set in the turbulent early years of James IV’s reign. Fire and Sword explores the challenges faced by a Renfrewshire laird, John Sempill of Ellestoun, whose father is killed defending the murdered King James III at the Battle of Sauchieburn in June 1488 .

Louise, who lives in west Renfrewshire with her husband, has recently completed her second novel, a follow-up to Fire & Sword provisionally titled The Gryphon at Bay.