Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Celtic Feast of Samhain and Hallow'een

by Arthur Russell

Aerial view of the earthworks on Tlachtga's Hill
Celebrating Samhain 

The Hill of Ward near Athboy in Co Meath is regarded as the site where the traditional celebration of Samhain was centred in pre-Christian Ireland. The ancient Celtic name for the Hill is Tlachtga (from the old Gaelic words meaning “Earth Spear”). This derives from the name of the Celtic goddess of Fertility. An associated legend about her tells that Tlachtga (pronounced Clackda) was a Witch and the daughter of the powerful wizard and chief Druid, Mug Ruith.

Note  Older legends of Mug Ruith suggest he was a Sun God.

The legend speaks of Tlachtga and Mug Ruith journeying to Italy to put themselves under the tuition of a powerful wizard called Simon Magnus. In course of this, the three constructed a flying wheel called the Roth Rámach, which they used to sail through the air to demonstrate their powers. Mug Ruith and Tlachtga returned to Ireland and brought the flying wheel with them. The legend also relates that the wizard’s three sons raped Tlachtga and fathered triplet sons on her. She died after giving birth and the earthworks that can still be seen on the summit of the Hill of Ward (Tlachtga) were raised over her grave and the annual Samhain festival inaugurated to her honor.

Whatever the Festival’s origin, the Hill of Ward, then known as Tlachtga, was established as a center of Celtic religious worship over 2,000 years ago focusing on the celebration of the feast of Samhain. From the beginning it was overshadowed by the more famous and prestigious neighboring site at the Royal seat on the Hill of Tara less than 10 kms to the east, but it remained for centuries the center of the annual Great Fire Festival of Samhain that signaled the onset of winter. 

The rituals and ceremonies carried out here by the pre-Christian Irish offered assurance to the people that the powers of darkness, which had by that time of year become strongly established over the land would be overcome, and the powers of light and life would eventually prevail. Animal bones were cast into the fires of Samhain, which added a special spiritual significance to the ceremonial flames. The fire was called 'tine chnámh' (pronounced tina kin-awve) or bone fire, from which the English word ‘bonfire’ is derived. The Celts believed that Oiche Samhain (the Night of Samhain) marks a time of year when the veil between the world of the Living and the world of the Dead melts away for a short while. During those hours the souls of all who had died since the last Samhain moved into the next life and there was relatively free movement of the dead as they made return visits to their former lives. The Celtic Druids considered the Hill of Tlachtga to be a place where the veil between living and dead was at its thinnest on that night.

The pre-historic landscape of the Boyne Valley. 

Map of the Boyne Valley area showing pre-historic sites
The ceremonial Hill is located midway between the Royal site on the Hill of Tara and the Neolithic burial sites of Loughcrew to the North-west; both of which have their own burial structures which are aligned to the seasonal position of the Sun as it goes through its annual cycle around the sky.

Mound of the Hostages at Tara
Note - The Mound of the Hostages on the crest of the Hill of Tara is actually aligned to the rising sun on November 1st. Tlaghtga is located at the edge of the Boyne Valley, an area which is already rich in pre-historic sites. These include – Tara, the ancient site for the Irish Árd Ríthe (High Kings), Brú na Bóinne encompassing Newgrange (associated with the Winter Solstice), and the structures of Knowth and Dowth, Tailteann – which is associated with Loughcrew – which has a complex of passage tombs aligned to the equinox sunrises in March and September. 

Samhain Rituals

The Celtic feast of Samhain (Samhain is the Gaelic word for November) marks the beginning of Winter. The tradition was to extinguish all fires across the countryside before sunset on the eve of the feast. After darkness fell, the druids who had gathered on top of the Hill called Tachtla lit the first fire. The fire from this was transported by chariot to both Tara and Loughcrew as well as to five other designated sites throughout the land to relight fires there. From these fires all other fires in the land would be relit. The night sky would be illuminated by the spreading Samhain fires as they worked their way through the countryside. After Christianity arrived, the old pagan festival of Samhain were transformed into a celebration of All Souls or All Hallows to honour their dead who had passed to a better world. The notion that it was possible to more easily communicate with the dead during the darkening days as winter approached seemed to persist. From this came the name Hallow'eve (the eve of All Souls day) or Hallowe'en. Many of the associated traditional practices and games were kept and developed over succeeding centuries to what we know today.

Note  Among the many Hallowe'en traditions that developed over the centuries in Celtic countries such as Ireland, Scotland, Wales and the Isle of Man was the making of Hallowe'en lanterns using the humble turnip grown on many farms. Selected turnips were chosen and had the central pulp removed; holes were cut in the shell of the bulb to represent eyes, nose and mouth and a lighted candle placed inside to be placed on gateposts and on windows on the night of Hallowe'en. Emigrants to the New World during the 18th and 19th century brought the lantern making tradition with them but adapted the much bigger and softer pumpkin as Hallowe'en ware. It is interesting to note that the tradition of using pumpkins (not turnips) as Hallowe'en lanterns has during the last century effectively come from the New World to replace the turnip as the favoured vegetable for the Hallowe'en lantern.

It is also interesting to note that the Pilgrim Fathers were not in favour of celebrating Hallowe'en at all, so it awaited the arrival of later waves of immigrants from Europe, especially Ireland and Scotland, to establish the celebration of Hallowe'en in the New World.

The Samhain Festival revived at Tlachtga’s Hill: 

In recent years, the Samhain celebration has been revived at the Hill which is regarded as the centre for Samhain celebrations. It is expected that on the evening of each October 31st over 1000 people from many countries will gather in the Fairgreen of Athboy to observe the ancient ritual of Samhain on the ancient site. Tlachtga’s Hill is close to the town of Athboy in Co Meath, where on the evening of October 31st townspeople and anyone who cares to join them will assemble in the centre of the town, some wearing druid costumes and carrying lanterns, to walk the short distance to the hill outside the town. There they will light the traditional Samhain bonfire. In doing this, they will repeat and recall the actions of their ancestors of centuries before as they mark the passing of another year and the beginning of the coming winter.

 As always, the emphasis will not be just to look back but also to look forward. The dead will duly remembered and honoured, as they should be.

 The living, those who have lived through the year that is winding down to its annual sleep and who are alive to see this night, will be reminded by the fire that the dark winter days of November and December will pass. Light and life will return once more, all in due time, for everything under the Heavens has its season.


Arthur Russell is the Author of Morgallion, a novel set in medieval Ireland during the Invasion of Ireland in 1314 by the Scottish army led by Edward deBruce, the last crowned King of Ireland. It tells the story of Cormac MacLochlainn, a young man from the Gaelic crannóg community of Moynagh and how he and his family endured and survived that turbulent period of history. Morgallion has been recently awarded the IndieBRAG Medallion and is available in paperback and e-book form.

More information available on website -

Turtle versus Eagle... A Tale of Submersible Warfare

by Catherine Curzon

If you don't like confined spaces, look away now for today we travel back more than two hundred years to 7th September 1776 and find ourselves not so much all at sea, as all under a river as Sergeant Ezra Lee makes history with the first submersible attack, safely ensconced in the American vessel, Turtle. His mission was to approach the British HMS Eagle, attach explosives to her hull and then make good his daring escape! Needless to say, all did not go quite according to plan.

A model of the Turtle
A model of the Turtle

The Turtle was built by David Bushnell in Old Saybrook, Connecticut, in 1775. Buoyed by government funding and convinced that the Turtle was the answer to vanquishing the British permanently, Bushnell handed over the completed submersible following extensive tests and waited for his invention to play its part in the destruction of the flagship vessel.

At eleven o'clock in the evening of 6th September, Lee took to the Hudson River in the Turtle, guided out by rowboats to start his journey until, finally, he began to pilot his craft towards the Eagle. In fact, the submersible barely moved at all until favourable currents caught it and propelled it towards the ship. Just as all seemed to be going to plan, Lee was faced with what would prove to be an insurmountable obstacle as, when he attempted to drill into the Eagle to attach the explosives, he had the misfortune to choose a spot directly atop the iron plates that protected the intricate rudder.

A cutaway depiction of David Bushnell's Turtle from The story of the submarine By Farnham Bishop, 1916
A cutaway depiction of David Bushnell's Turtle 
from "The Story of the Submarine", by Farnham Bishop, 1916

Not to be deterred, he continued to try to drill into the ship for some time until exhaustion forced him to stop. A somewhat cursory attempt to go directly under the hull and drill again proved futile and the thoroughly beaten Sergeant decided that the time had come to call off the operation. As he fled at a couple of miles an hour, Lee set off the explosives anyway to distract British lookouts and the Eagle lived to sail another day. Although Lee reported that the charge set off an enormous explosion and columns of water rose from the river, the British reported nothing untoward and appear to have been utterly unaware of the failed assault on their fleet.

The Turtle itself met a sticky end in October when the vessel that was carrying it was sunk at New Jersey. Submarine warfare would, of course, go on to be a major part of combat but for Lee, Bushnell and the Turtle, the underwater battle was over.

Compton-Hall, Richard. The Submarine Pioneers. Sutton Publishing, 1999.
Swanson, June. David Bushnell and His Turtle: The Story of America's First Submarine. Atheneum, 1991.


Glorious Georgian ginbag, gossip and gadabout Catherine Curzon, aka Madame Gilflurt, is the author of A Covent Garden Gilflurt’s Guide to Life. When not setting quill to paper, she can usually be found gadding about the tea shops and gaming rooms of the capital or hosting intimate gatherings at her tottering abode. In addition to her blog and Facebook, Madame G is also quite the charmer on Twitter. Her first book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now, and she is also working on An Evening with Jane Austen, starring Adrian Lukis and Caroline Langrishe.

Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dr. Richard Russell and Brighton

by Lauren Gilbert

Dr. Richard Russell by Benjamin Wilson c 1755

A blue plaque honouring Dr. Richard Russell on the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton says, “If you seek his monument look around.” Who was Dr. Russell and how did he come to be honoured with the same words applied to Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s?

Richard Russell was born in Lewes in November 26, 1687, the son of Nathaniel and Mary Russell, and the oldest of seven children. He was baptized in the parish of St. Michael on November 27, 1687. Nathaniel Russell was a surgeon and apothecary. Richard was educated at a grammar school in Lewes. Destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, he studied and worked with his father. The elder Dr. Russell’s patients included William Kempe, Esq. of South Maling Deanery, near Lewes, and his family. Young Richard became acquainted with Mr. Kempe’s only daughter, and their mutual affection combined with their disparate social standings resulted in an elopement. Although Mr. Kempe was not happy, he ultimately came around.

Richard went to the University of Leyden in Holland to study medicine and qualified with a dissertation in 1724.  Upon his return to England, he was at some point elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He returned to practice in Lewes. Ultimately, he and his wife moved into his father-in-law’s house in South Maling Deanery after Mr. Kempe passed away. He continued his medical studies, becoming very interested in glandular conditions, and wrote several works on the subject including  “Glandular Diseases, or a Dissertation on the Use of Sea-Water in the Affections of the Gland” in Latin, published in 1750 (it went through 6 printings), where he discussed both bathing in and drinking seawater as treatment for these problems. He was far from the first to espouse the sea as a cure, but was extremely successful with it. Brighthelmstone was a fishing village near Lewes at the time, and was considered one of the most accessible places to take the seawater cure. (Sources indicate that the village was not a poor one, as sometimes noted.)

As Dr. Russell’s fame and standing grew, more and more of his patients went for treatments.  Lodging houses and other amenities sprang up, and the town became known as Brighton.  (Ultimately, it overtook Lewes as a town of note, Lewes becoming known as “Lewes, near Brighton.”)  Dr. Russell built a house in Brighton (subsequently the site of the Royal  Albion Hotel), Russell Street was named for him, and his portrait was hung in the Old Ship. His house was large and had easy access to the sea, which was convenient for him and for his visiting patients. He moved there permanently in 1754. His treatments were apparently considered very successful.

Dr. Russell was a noted physician, known for his skill, until his death in December 1759. He was buried in the family vault at South Maling Church. After his death, his house was rented to seasonal visitors, including the Duke of Cumberland (brother of George III). The Duke's nephew, the Prince of Wales, visited the Duke there, which was the beginning of the prince’s love affair with Brighton and completed the transformation of the fishing village to modern seaside town. The house was demolished in 1823, and the Royal Albion Hotel was built on its site. The hotel opened in 1826.

Dr. Russell’s oldest son William inherited his estate but chose to practice law and finally changed his name to his mother’s maiden name of Kempe.

Sources include:

The Argus on line. “Old Man of the Sea”  by Adam Trimmingham, posted January 2, 2010, here
Brighton and Hove on line.
“Russell Dr. Richard, Proponent of Brighton’s Seawater Cure, c 1750s.” Reproduced with permission from the Encyclopedia of Brighton by Tim Carder, 1990. [Extract] here
Brighton Works on line.  “Brighton Bathing.” here
France Thalasso.  “Doctor Richard Russell.”  here
GoogleBooks. Lower, Mark Anthony.  The Worthies of Sussex: Biographical Sketches of the Most Eminent Natives or Inhabitents of the County from the Earliest Period to the Present Time.  Printed for subscribers only by George P. Bacon, Lewes, 1865. PP. 59-61. here
Jane Austen's Regency World.  “Every possibility of earthly happiness” by Chris Cole.  Issue 16, July 2005.  PP. 7-10.

Image from Wikimedia Commons: Dr. Richard Russell by Benjamin Wilson c. 1755 here


Lauren Gilbert is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and the author of Heyerwood: A Novel.  Her second novel, A Rational Attachment is in process.  She lives in Florida with her husband.  For more information, visit her website here.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Of Talking Wolves and Severed Heads

by Anna Belfrage

The other day I drove by a place called Hoxne in Suffolk. As many English place-names, Hoxne is not pronounced as it is spelled, no this is ”Hoxenn” – although one must admit the alternative would have been difficult to enunciate.

Anyway: Hoxne swished by in 20 seconds. The name gnawed at me, somehow, and when my friend said “this is where some king or other died”, I knew I had heard the name. Problem was, I couldn’t quite remember…

Those among you who know your Anglo-Saxon kings are of course leaping up and down by now. Me, I had to mull it over before it came to me: Edmund. Or, if we’re going to be quite correct, St Edmund.

All old European kingdoms have a martyred royal or two. In Sweden it’s St Erik – whom I seriously doubt ever existed – in Norway it is St Olof (who definitely existed), Scotland has St Margaret, and England has St Edward. And St Edmund. Two royal saints – one of whom was martyred by the ancestors of St Erik and St Olof.

So who was this Edmund, and what did he ever do to deserve the honorific of saint? Well, obviously he died – rather painfully – but many people throughout history have done that without being rewarded with a sainthood.

Very little is known about Edmund. In fact, what comes down through the ages is a story of a beleaguered hero, a symbol necessary to keep the fire burning in the hearts of his people, cowering under the weight of the Viking yoke. Because it was a yoke, the Nordic raiders returning year after year. At times, attempts were made to buy them off, but in the latter half of the ninth century, Ingvar Benlös (Ivar the Boneless), as per the sagas one of Ragnar Lodbroke’s sons, headed a huge Viking army – adequately nick-named the Great Heathen Army  - and landed on English soil. This time, they did not want plunder. This time, the Vikings wanted land.

Due to all that Viking raiding and pillaging, most East Anglian written records of the time have been lost. Vikings didn’t read books – they burnt them. We do know there existed an Edmund – coins with his name testify to this. Those same coins indicate he succeeded a gentleman named Aethelweard as king of East Anglia. It is thought he was related to Aethelstan, king of Kent, and whatever the case, the general supposition is that he was of a “noble and ancient race”, i.e. of royal Saxon blood.

Edmund became king at the tender age of fifteen – or so the Anglo Saxon Chronicle tells us, which means we need to take things with a pinch of salt, as the Chronicle showed little interest in the events unfolding in East Anglia until twenty years after Edmund’s supposed death. But let us assume the Chronicle had it right – if nothing else because it makes for a better story. A young, gallant prince takes up the ermine (well…no ermine at the time) and proceeds to lead his people. By all accounts, he did a good job of this, showing plenty of promise.

He was also a good Christian – a pious young man who in everything was the perfect role model for all those future young men who aspired to be brave and heroic. Here we had a king who refused to compromise when it came to his faith – no matter what it might cost him.

In the 860s, the Viking army landed in England with the intention of staying – for good. This did not go down well with those already there, but the Vikings were ever a somewhat brusque race, and what people didn’t give them, they took. They marched north and conquered York and Northumberland, entered Mercia and forced the Mercians into accepting a treaty, before turning southeast to formally conquer East Anglia.

Edmund defended his kingdom as well as he could. But however competent Edmund may have been, he wasn’t much of a match for the battle-hardened Vikings, and his men were pathetically inadequate in facing up to the roaring Northern horde. To be fair, all of the Saxon kingdoms except Wessex were to succumb before the Viking warlords.

In November of 869, Edmund and his men ended up surrounded by the Vikings. The various versions of the story are somewhat different, but I prefer the one where Edmund yielded to save the lives of his men. There’s another variant whereby Edmund hid himself under a bridge in Hoxne – hoping no doubt to live and fight another day – but his spurs caught the sunlight and a young girl gave him up. However it came about, our Edmund was now in the less than tender care of the Danes.

Vikings were practical people. Why kill someone you could milk until they were dry? They therefore suggested that Edmund buy his life by giving them half his treasure. But, they added, he would have to embrace their faith as well. Anathema to Edmund. He might consider parting with what little treasure he had left, but his faith was not up for discussion. Edmund squared his shoulders, prepared to meet his fate. A young man still, not yet thirty, about to be cut down in his prime.

The Vikings found this rather hilarious – or intriguing. In general, Vikings couldn’t quite understand how anyone could worship such a weakling as the White Christ – the silly man got himself nailed to a cross, and as far as the Vikings could make out, he hadn’t even tried to fight himself free. Very strange, as per the Norsemen. It therefore amazed them that so many men were willing to die for this – in their opinion – useless god.

Edmund was tied to a tree. He was whipped with chains until he was bleeding from all over. He still refused to disavow his god. If Christ could die for all humanity, then Edmund could die for Christ. Very well, said Ubba the Viking, and ordered the half-dead man to be peppered with arrows. Still he didn’t die, but by now his tormentors had tired of their game, so they chopped off his head and threw it into the surrounding woods, leaving the decapitated corpse tied to the tree.

No sooner had the Vikings ridden off, but Edmund’s men cut him down, weeping (I suppose) at this futile death. They searched everywhere for the head, but it was dark and cold, and no matter how they looked they couldn’t find it. But Edmund had friends among the wild creatures that lived in the woods, and so it was that a wolf found the head, and called out a series of “hic, hic, hic” until Edmund’s men cottoned on and came charging through the underbrush, marvelling at the miracle of a talking wolf (in Latin, no less).

Edmund was buried in a nearby church and there he remained for twenty-odd years. By then, the myth and legend of Edmund, the brave and handsome young king who died for Christ, had found its ways to the Church, and it was decided that the saintly king needed a more suitable shrine – which is how Edmund ended up in Bury St Edmunds.

By then, the Viking raiders had settled firmly into their new land. The Danelaw covered most of England, but interestingly enough those savage heathen warriors developed a softer side when living in peace. Many of them became Christians, and thirty years or so after Edmund’s death, the mints of East Anglia produced pennies with the legend SCE EADMUND REX (St Edmund King). Those ferocious Vikings and their descendants were proud of their brave saint, somehow conveniently choosing to forget he wouldn’t have been a saint had the Vikings not killed him.

The cult of St Edmund grew so rapidly that some years on it required a separate community devoted to this English saint. The abbey of Bury St Edmunds grew fat and happy thanks to their resident saint. Until the Reformation, the cult of the saint remained strong, and when the shrine was defaced and destroyed in the 16th century, it is said gold and silver to the value of 5 000 marks were carried away. Interestingly enough, at the time the shrine was probably empty, as it is said the French invaders who fought King John in the early 13th century stole away the body. As per this story, St Edmunds remains ended up in Toulouse and were venerated by the French for centuries.

In the early 20th century, some of the remains in the French shrine were returned to England. It has never been determined if they belong to Edmund, which is why these sad little fragments remain in Arundel, under the care of the Duke of Norfolk rather than being buried under the high altar of Westminster Cathedral as originally intended.

And as to Hoxne, not everyone agrees that this is where it all happened. But Hoxne clings to this claim to fame, and after seeing this minute little village I am thinking it could have been there – just at it could have been elsewhere. Thing is, it doesn’t really matter, does it?

Well over 1100 years ago, a young king was tortured to death by barbaric invaders. To this day, his name is remembered, even if the man behind the saint remains forever enigmatic. Me, I hope he did other things in his life but die. I hope there was love, and comradeship, and moments of silent awe at the beauty of being alive.


Anna Belfrage is the successful author of eight published books, all of them part of The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, this is the story of Matthew Graham and his wife, Alex Lind - two people who should never have met, not when she was born three centuries after him.

Presently, Anna is hard at work with The King’s Greatest Enemy, a series set in the 1320s featuring Adam de Guirande, his wife Kit, and their adventures and misfortunes in connection with Roger Mortimer’s rise to power. The first instalment, In the Shadow of the Storm, will be published in November 2015.

For more information about Anna and her books, please visit her website. If not on her website, Anna can mostly be found on her blog.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Coins, Clipping, and Condemnation

by Grace Elliot

“Elizabeth Hare, lately condemned for high treason in clipping his Majesty’s coin, was according to her sentence, burnt alive in Bunhill Field”.

Diary of Narcissus Luttrell October 30th, 1683
Look deeper into this one sentence and a whole microcosm of the 17th century is brought to life. We could look at the life of Elizabeth Hare and the maidservant who condemned her mistress or discover how Bunhill Field got its name. But instead, let’s look at the crime for which Elizabeth Hare is condemned: Clipping coins.

Coin Clipping

In the 17th century, coins of the realm were real silver or gold. These metals, although precious, are also soft, and regular handling meant chips and knocks were normal. It was rare to handle a perfectly round coin, which offered the perfect cover for people cutting or ‘clipping’ some of the valuable metal away.

Examples of clipped coins

‘Clipping’ was the simple act of using sharp pincers to clip away metal from the edge of a coin, which was then doctored to make the loss less obvious. Then the clippings, once melted down, were formed back into new coins, with a considerable profit to clipper.

But defacing coin of the realm was an act of treason. The penalties were harsh: Men were hung, drawn, and quartered (a traitor’s death), whilst women – like Elizabeth Hare – were burnt alive. Not that these punishments did much to deter this extremely profitable trade.

The numbers of people involved in clipping seem extraordinary, especially given the punishment. In 1692, the authorities had information about 300 clippers in London alone, and arrest warrants issued.

A hanging taking place outside Newgate Gaol

Earlier that century an informant, Gregory the butcher, estimated there were 100 people involved in a clipping gang which brought in £6,000 a month. [* As a general guide, in the 17th century, one penny was worth £1 four centuries later. This sum is therefore equivalent to around £600,000 or $920,000, a tidy sum each month even when split between 100 people.]

To prove a point, in 1696 a tripe man, John Moore, imprisoned in Newgate Goal accused of being a clipper tried to buy a pardon for £6,000 - a huge amount of money for a humble tripe man to possess! Then there were the three clippers arrested in St James’ Street, London, with £400 on their persons. When times were hard, it seemed the risk was worth it.

Conditions within Newgate Gaol were harsh

Indeed, coin clipping seems very much a way of life – even when in prison. The debasement of currency and smelting of new coins went on even within the confines of Newgate Goal. Three prisoners were caught in the act and equipment confiscated included a sophisticated stamp bearing the likeness of James I, which was used to imprint on the new coin.

And finally, some of those accused of clipping continued to thumb their noses at authority in a most blatant manner.  Some prisoners struck a token inscribed on one side with “Belonging to the cellar on the Master’s side, 1692” [The Master’s side being the better half of Newgate Prison] with a picture of Newgate struck on the other side.

Sweet irony indeed.

[*] Money and Exchange Rates in 1632 – Francis Turner


Grace Elliot is a veterinarian,
freelance writer, and author of historical romance.
Visit her blog: Fall in Love with History
for a healthy blend of history and...cats.

New Release: Available now!
Georgian romance
The Cook's Apprentice

The Cook's Apprentice

Monday, October 26, 2015

Medievals and Their Dogs

by E.M. Powell

If I were to ask you to name a twelfth-century figure who was known to be afraid of dogs, you are unlikely to come up with Genghis Khan. Yes, he of the Mongol hordes infamy and conqueror of twelve million square miles had a fear of our four-legged friends. But before we pour too much scorn on the mighty conqueror's head, it's worth reminding ourselves of the animals which he feared. Mongol dogs were a type of large mastiff, know for their savagery. Travellers reported that the dogs could leap at a man even if he sat on the back of a horse or a camel, and described them as 'bony brutes...loud-voiced and vicious.' Perhaps, then, Genghis was more realist than coward.

Mastiff-type dogs were one just one breed of dog favoured by the medievals. Alaunts were the largest and heaviest of these, guarding the houses and flocks of their owners. Their size, weight and powerful jaws made them a popular choice as attack dogs in the brutal pastimes of bear-baiting and bull-baiting. They could also be used for hunting.

Hunting with hounds played a major role in the life of the medieval nobility. Stags and harts became the preferred quarry. Some packs of hounds stayed on a huntsman's leash; others ran free alongside their mounted masters. Dog packs could range from around twelve animals to up to fifty. In the 1360s, Edward III spent the exorbitant sum of £80 on his pack of seventy dogs and the huntsmen that looked after and worked the animals. Henry of Lancaster paid a goldsmith to make a silver chain for one of his dogs.

The fourteenth century Sir Gawain and the Green Knight contains scenes of hunting dogs in action. The unknown poet tells us 'Such a clamour arose from the assembled hounds, that the rocks around rang with the noise.' The dogs bring down deer, but meet their match when they disturb a wild boar: 'Full oft he stands at bay, And maims the pack on all sides. He hurts the hounds and they, Full piteously howl and yell.'

The Gawain poet also shows his appreciation of one particular breed: 'And the greyhounds so great, Could pull down prey in the blink of an eye.' The greyhound had a peerless reputation among the medievals for its speed and for taking down quarry. I doubt if these qualities of the breed would surprise many people. But the greyhound who was also a saint perhaps will.

On a visit to thirteenth-century Lyon, the cleric Stephen de Bourbon discovered to his horror that the Saint Guinefort revered by so many was, in fact, a greyhound. In life, the dog was alleged to have saved the baby of its master from a snake. The master had not realised, believing the bloody-jawed dog to have killed the infant and so slew the dog. He realised his mistake, and the dog's loyalty, when he found the dead snake. He erected a shrine to Guinefort, which grew in popularity. Local women carried out rituals at the site of the dog's death, praying for their sickly children.

Numerous examples exist from medieval times of people attributing deep loyalty to dogs. Gerald of Wales praised canine faithfulness. People believed that dogs would never desert their masters, would die for them or would hunt down their master's murderer if necessary. Such attribution even found its way into heraldry. John of Guildford's  fourteenth century Tractatus de armis has the heraldic symbol for a dog representing a loyal man who would never desert his master and who would lay down his life for him.

One could say that all of the above relationships with dogs are of their time. But there are many instances of people enjoying dogs exactly as we do today. People loved to see performing dogs. There's a twelfth-century account of a dog imitating actions on command. Dancing dogs, their owners accompanying them on drums and whistles, proved a huge draw at fairs and feast days. A tenth-century Scandinavian king employed an entertainer with a dog to make him laugh.

People kept dogs as pets, too. Many people favoured smaller breeds. The members of religious houses frequently kept dogs as pets. Chaucer's fictional Prioress in The Canterbury Tales has small dogs, '...which she fed, With roasted meat, and milk, and wastel bread.' 

And, all those centuries ago, people loved their dogs too. The very real twelfth-century Bernard of Clairvaux is credited with the popular phrase: 'Qui me amat, amet et canem meum. Who loves me will love my dog also.' or, more succinctly, 'Love me, love my dog.' But my personal favourite is from John of Salisbury's 1159  Policraticus. He simply says: 'Having a dog at your heel is most comforting.' Quite.

All images are in the Public Domain and are part of the British Library's Catalogue of Illuminated Manuscripts. 
Cawley, A.C. ed. Pearl, Cleanness, Patience, Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Ltd. (1976)
McLynn, Frank. Genghis Khan: The Man who Conquered the World. London: The Bodley Head. (2015)
Mortimer, Ian. The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England. London: The Bodley Head. (2008)
Resl, Brigitte, ed., A Cultural History of Animals in the Medieval Age. Oxford: Berg (2007)


E.M. Powell’s medieval thrillers The Fifth Knight and The Blood of the Fifth Knight have been #1 Amazon bestsellers. Born and raised in the Republic of Ireland into the family of Michael Collins (the legendary revolutionary and founder of the Irish Free State), she lives in northwest England with her husband, daughter and a Facebook-friendly dog. She blogs for EHFA, reviews for the Historical Novel Society and contributes to The Big Thrill.

Book #3 in the series, The Lord of Ireland, based on the Lord John's disastrous 1185 campaign, will be published by Thomas & Mercer in March 2016. Find out more at
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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Ruthin - From King Arthur to the Beatles in 528 ft

by Annie Whitehead

Packing to stay at Ruthin Castle Hotel, my plan was to write a piece about the history of that building, and the medieval castle ruins in the grounds. As history goes, it packs a punch: the 'modern' castle, built in 1828, was owned by the Cornwallis-West family who entertained Lady Randolph Churchill and Edward VII, who in turn entertained his mistresses, including Lilly Langtry and Patsy Cornwallis-West, the chatelaine, whose daughter married the Duke of Westminster.

Outside, the crumbling walls of the original castle bear testament to the onslaught of Owain Glyndwr in 1400. Created originally by Dafydd, brother of the last native prince of Wales, (and who was executed in 1282, the first high-profile recipient of Edward I's hanging drawing and quartering), the castle was granted to Reginald de Grey, ancestor of Lady Jane Grey.

In 1923 Ruthin Castle opened a clinic for "Internal Diseases" run by the wonderfully named Dr Sir Edmund Ivens Spriggs.

So far, so interesting. But stepping through the archway that takes you on a short walk to the market square, I found a beautiful street with astonishing architecture.

And on almost every house, there was a plaque. I hadn't initially realised, because the first house caught my eye only because it was for sale (alas, well out of my reach.)

The house belonged to Sir John Trefor, one-time speaker of the House of Commons. It seems that Sir John lost his position after an accusation of bribery, but my admittedly limited research points to some aspect of decidedly unfair play on the part of his accusers.

I walked on, thinking little more than how lovely and quaint this street was.

But at the end of Strydd Castell (Castle Street) are the buildings that make up the outline of Ruthin Square. Here I found the old court house, now a bank. At first glance, it is notable for having been the first building subjected to attack by Glyndwr. But a plaque on the wall told me a little bit more about its history:

Here, it seems, a Franciscan Friar, Charles Mahoney, was hanged from the gibbet in 1679. Why was a Friar hanged? I discovered that he had been on his way home to Ireland having been preaching in Europe when he was shipwrecked off Milford Haven and tried to make his way north on foot, in hope of finding passage back to Ireland. Alas, he was arrested, charged with being a catholic priest and hung, drawn and quartered.

He'd had the misfortune to be caught at a time when Titus Oates was having success with his anti-catholic 'smear campaign', the Popish Plot.

On the other side of the square is another building (also now a bank).

Outside this bank is a stone where King Arthur reputedly slew Huail, the brother of Gildas the historian.

According to the life of St. Gildas, written in the 12thc by Caradoc of Llancarfan, when Gildas heard the news of his brother's death, he came from Ireland and was able to kiss Arthur and forgive him.

Walking back towards the castle on the other side of the street, I came upon the 'oldest timber-framed building in Wales'. Nantclwyd y Dre dates from 1435/6 and belonged originally to a wealthy weaver named Goronwy ap Madog. The house was extended throughout the centuries and each room inside is decorated to show the different periods during which the house was inhabited.

Work will begin next year to extend the Tudor garden, to which I was allowed access, even though the house was shut for the winter.

This section of Strydd Castell is a tenth of a mile and by the time you get to Nantclywd y Dre you are almost back at the castle gateway. One last building brings us almost up to date, though. For this is the home occupied until recently by Cynthia Lennon, wife of John. She ran a restaurant in the town for a number of years.

I spoke to a local estate agent who pointed out that Ruthin is practically unique, in that one can drive straight from the countryside into a medieval town centre - there is no modern 'urban sprawl'.

On other streets in Ruthin you will find Siop Nain, a grade II listed building which, as a print shop in 1850, was used to print the Welsh national anthem, for the first time, in Welsh. In the square is a house which was bought by Hugh Myddleton in 1595. He, apparently, provided London with its first clean water supply.

Further down the hill is Ruthin Gaol, the 'only purpose-built Pentonville style prison open to the public as a heritage attraction' (Ruthin Gaol official website.)

Should you wish to venture a little further away from Ruthin, the abbey of Valle Crucis is unusual in having an upper floor dormitory complete with roof and partially remaining inner walls. At Llangollen is the famous Pontcysyllte aqueduct, an example of the work of engineer Thomas Telford. If you can manage the climb you can ascend 1818 ft up Moel Famau to see the - alas, never completed - Jubilee Tower, planned in honour of George III's golden jubilee in 1810.

I'm never surprised by the wealth of history and historical sites in Wales, but for me, there was a joyous astonishment to discover how much history is contained within that short walk between Ruthin Castle and the town square. 528 ft only, but 16 centuries. I came looking for a medieval castle; I found so much more.

All photos taken by and copyright of the author.


Annie Whitehead's novel To Be a Queen is set in 9th/10thc Mercia, and her characters interact with the Welsh across the border. Her second novel, due out next year, also contains many scenes set in medieval Wales. When she's not writing, she is to be found frequently holidaying 'over the border' or trying (and mostly failing) to learn the language.

You can find her at: Casting Light upon the Shadow

Saturday, October 24, 2015

The Politics of Love

by Linda Root

The pages of history are crowded with tales of great passions that proved deadly when it cooled.  The first example that comes to mind is Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, but there are others. In modern times, attractions between an American President and a movie star left her suicidal.  However, there is another phenomenon equally tragic.  We’ve all heard the trite saying Love Conquers All.  The truth is, not always.  History is populated by lovers whose passions never cooled, but the character traits of the one brought down the other.  There is another  group whose strengths and weaknesses interplayed in a manner proving fatal to them both, and a final group in which the passions or the partners were largely a construct of historians with an agenda or movie moguls who believe fiction sells better than fact.

When perusing lists of history’s greatest loves, on most lists most of the nominees are fictional or mythic.  Of lists I viewed, none mentioned Elizabeth Barrett and Robert Browning, but many included Elizabeth Bennett & Fitzwilliam Darcy, and Tristan & Isolde. Of the actual historical characters appearing on several lists such as Antony and Cleopatra, fictionalized versions prevailed over the factual.  Out of the American candidates, the clear front runners were Bonnie & Clyde. I would have included Rachel and Andrew Jackson, or John and Abigail Adams, but apparently my view of historical lovers is too…historical.

Wallace Warfield Simpson and King Edward VIII came out second on one of the lists.  I have not chosen them for detailed analysis because they were the subjects of my last post, but if I were to have included them, I would have had to design a category just for them.

It does seem that the Duchess perceived she had been used by the Duke to get him out of a job he did not want. One might agree with Sir Winston Churchill and credit her for doing modern history a colossal favor. My personal list of famous and infamous couples is purely mine. In this first segment, I chose three whose love stories I find compelling, each for different reasons.

Antony and Cleopatra – A Union of Expedience or a Tragic Love Affair?

I do not recall how old I was when I first became interested in Antony and Cleopatra, but it antedated my fascination with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton. I remember dressing as Cleopatra on Halloween when I was a child in Cleveland. I would have been nine or ten. I did not know the history, but I loved the costume. Although the charismatic couple has been dead for more than two thousand years, books are still being written about them, many of them focusing on the romance and downplaying the politics. No matter how their stories are shelved in the bookstores, all of them appear to contain a large amount of fiction. The reason is, most of the early historians were subsidized by politicians.

If we accept the recent analysis of Adrian[i] Goldsworthy in his recent book Antony and Cleopatra, we may conclude that Liz and Dick, not Antony and Cleopatra were the only star-crossed lovers on the 1960’s movie set.[ii][1] The characters they portrayed were political shakers and movers.  Their romance was coincidental to the power play, a natural result of the late hours they spent together endeavoring to redraw the map of the ancient world.

According to Goldsmith, their attraction was indeed political. If Cleopatra had been in anyone’s thrall, it would have been Caesar. She and Antony were allies in a civil war they lost.  Goldsmith also draws attention to the fact that in lists of formidable ancient rulers (i.e., those who ruled before the Fall of Rome) Cleopatra is often the only female mentioned.

Other modern biographers of Cleopatra, especially Stacy Shiff, in her Cleopatra: A Life[2], suggest it was Caesar, not Antony, who was the Queen of Egypt’s soul mate. They had compatible aspirations and philosophies, and there is little doubt they had a passionate love affair.  Antony, to put it in a cinematic context, was Cleopatra’s Eddie Fisher, following after the death of Taylor’s personal Caesar, the cinemascope tycoon Michael Todd.  The historic coupling of the actual Antony and Cleopatra was a partnership of two ambitious people endeavoring to grab what they could, and later, as Octavian’s power increased, seeking to retain what portion of the ancient world remained in their grasp. This does not mean the relationship was asexual.  Three children prove otherwise.  The twins Cleopatra Selene and Alexander Helios were conceived during their first meeting. A third child, Ptolemy Philadelphus  was born four years later,  when Antony returned to Egypt from Rome to secure a power base there. On the second trip, the couple married in an Egyptian rite of a questionable effect since Antony was already married to his rival Octavian’s sister.  William Shakespeare and George Bernard Shaw’s characters are artful literary constructs. Politics, not romance, was the passion making the Roman soldier and the ethnic Greek Queen of Egypt partners.

At the time Caesar came into Cleopatra’s life, she was a young girl in a power struggle with her brother Ptolemy. The Macedonian Greek Ptolemy dynasty’s hold on Egypt was tenuous at best. Caesar’s arrival stabilized the country.  He tried to negotiate a peace between the warring siblings, but that was not easily done. Cleopatra's brother was having none of it. There is apparently more than a hint of truth in the tale of Cleopatra having herself rolled into a rug and delivered to Caesar’s chambers to make her pitch.  It is an example of her ingenuity, and it worked.

When Caesar was assassinated, Antony was the muscle on the scene.  Unbiased accounts support a view finding him a better senator than a military leader and far less intelligent than the woman with whom he co-ruled Egypt for three years after his falling out with Caesar’s son and political heir Octavian until he and Cleopatra were defeated in the naval battle of Actium.  Rather than face humiliation, and possibly believing Cleopatra was already dead, Antony stabbed himself in the heart.  Some historians report Octavian had him transported to Cleopatra, to die in her arms. Cleopatra's suicide a few days later was just as likely an act to avoid capture and display in a victory parade as in despair over Antony’s death.

Painting her as a harlot who was utterly dependent on the powerful men she had seduced was the practice among Roman historians, and was largely propaganda inspired by Octavian and his supporters.  Although Cleopatra’s expertise as a military commander and a noteworthy a naval strategist should have been acceptable to Elizabethan audiences and the English Queen, those were not the traits stressed by Shakespeare’s Cleopatra, who modeled his queen on Plutarch’s works. Thus,  it is the Shakespearean seductress whose image has endured.

A few recent historians have dared to take an unbiased look at her.  To them, she appears as the most capable leader of the romantic pair. Antony was no Caesar. Even the Roman hierarchy was willing to concede that she died well, like a soldier. It is believed Octavian supervised her burial in a secret tomb she shares with Antony, and stage-managed the drama of her death.  Until modern times, suicide was considered a noble death. While poison is likely, Octavian liked the imagery of the snake bite better, and Octavian, who became the mighty Caesar Augustus, ruled. At least one of her biographers declares Cleopatra too much a pragmatist to have left her fate to anything as uncertain as a snake bite. New technologies have sparked current efforts to find Cleopatra’s tomb. One hopes she does not sleep alone.

Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots, and James Hepburn, 4th Earl of Bothwell: A Mismatched Pair

Recently, on a Facebook page devoted to Victoria and Albert and their children, a member proposed a thread on the Queen of Scots, particularly dealing with her guilt or innocence of the murder of her second husband Henry Stuart, Lord Darnley. Her relationship with her third husband, James Hepburn, best known by the title of his earldom, ‘Bothwell’ became a hot topic.  I doubt anyone could have predicted the high degree of participation or the passions of the debates that followed. Arguments became so heated there was talk of closing down the thread.  The discussion was finally upstaged by an announcement in the Scottish press claiming a scholarly tribunal had ‘cleared’ the queen of guilt in her second husband’s murder.

Marie Stuart’s husband and consort, King Henry Stuart, aka Darnley, was found dead at a bizarre crimes scene in an Edinburgh suburb, on February 10, 1567. He was lodging there while recovering from a bout of tertiary syphilis. His illness was being treated by his supposedly doting wife. But was she a sympathetic caregiver or a deceiver who was conspiring with a new lover, Bothwell, to have Darnley killed?

Thanks to the factionalism in Marie Stuart’s Scotland, and powers unfriendly to the queen, almost four hundred fifty years later, a debate still rages as to whether she had her second husband murdered to make way for the third.  I doubt a panel convened by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and reported in the Daily Mail will silence the discord. [3]  The queen did little to stifle the scandal when she chose Hepburn as her champion and confidante. Hepburn was a committed Anglophobe. With him guiding the queen through the political quagmire that followed Darnley’s murder, there was no question of Elizabeth promoting a union of the crowns by making the Queen of Scots her heir. Unfortunately for Marie, her formidable advisors William Maitland of Lethington and her brother James, Earl of Moray, were only a few of the high placed Scots who had staked their futures with England and Elizabeth. On the other hand, Bothwell was a reiver warlord of considerable military prowess and a large following, but he was also an ardent Anglophobe. He was inordinately intelligent and highly educated,  not the sort of man to take advice from politicians. However, at the time of the queen’s son’s Baptism in December 1566, Darnley’s behavior had become unpredictable and dangerous, as the saying goes, politics makes strange bedfellows Such unions rarely last. After Darnley’s murder late in the winter of 1567, Bothwell and the queen closeted themselves for long hours in the queen’s private apartments discussing the governance of the nation. Bothwell began holding audiences and bestowing grants and favors as if he were the king.  The queen gave her new confidante her dead husband’s suite of gilded armor.

In spite of the scandal surrounding the queen’s abbreviated period of mourning and her obvious preference for Hepburn, when Parliament opened in April, there was yet no sign of the open hostility that had surrounded Darnley before the queen’s second marriage. After the last session of Parliament, Hepburn hosted a dinner party for the leading parliamentarians, including many high ranking peers and members of the clergy.  The site of the event may or may not have been at Ainslie’s Tavern, but historians refer to the accord reached at the end of the evening as the AinslieTavern Bond.  A large majority of Bothwell’s dinner guests, including eight bishops, nine earls, and seven lords, signed it[4]. When and where and under what circumstances is unclear.  The queen’s brother James, Earl of Moray, who had led a rebellion when the queen married Darnley, is named as one of the signatories.  However, according to historian John Guy[5], Moray was out of the country and could not have signed it. The Bishop of Ross and Lord Elphinstone apparently left early to avoid being pressured, and Sir William Kirkcaldy of Grange, who hated Bothwell, declined the invitation. [6] According to Guy,[7] Argyll refused to sign the bond and, like Kirkcaldy, Maitland and Atholl  did not attend the dinner, although they may have signed a copy later. Like many of the operative documents during the last days of Marie Stuart’s personal rule, the original bond has disappeared. The instrument urged the queen to take Bothwell for her third husband.

The events of the next few days are puzzling and pivotal as to what followed. According to Antonia Fraser, [8] on the day after the signing of the bond, Bothwell, Bellenden  and Maitland of Lethington visited the Queen at Seton House and delivered the bond to the queen, who was in seclusion there.  Guy, however, reports an incident at Holyrood in which Bothwell incurred the wrath of the garrison on a issue of nonpayment of wages, and the queen intervened and paid them from her little-embroidered purse. Hepburn was upstaged and displeased.  In any event, the queen later stated that April 20th was the date when Bothwell first plied his suit.  All parties agree she refused, on grounds it might tarnish her honor due to the lingering questions concerning Bothwell’s role in Darnley’s death.  It may well be that both versions are true. 

If Bothwell took Maitland to Seton house to present the bond, it would have been solely to give his presentation credibility. Although, in March, when Bothwell was tried and acquitted of Darnley’s murder before a highly biased court, Hepburn had selected Maitland to escort him to the hearings, he and Maitland were never friends. Their joint trip to Seton House  may have been a coincidence since the Queen and Maitland were planning a trip to Stirling the net day ostensibly to collect the prince. In either case, the queen’s rejection of Bothwell’s proposal in Maitland’s presence would have enraged a prideful man like Bothwell and might explain his actions four days later when he waylaid the Queen’s party on its way home. There are other indications the queen returned to Holyrood with Maitland to prepare for her trip to Stirling the following day, April 21, 1567, which makes both Fraser’s and Guy’s versions feasible. Both events, taken together, would explain why at day’s end on April 20th Bothwell would have been seething.

By early spring of 1567, the queen had grown increasingly dependent on the man who had been tried and acquitted of her husband Darnley’s murder, but she still had the determination to refuse him her hand in marriage or let him alienate her palace guard. Yet, the puzzle then and a mystery even now is whether they  were lovers before April 24, 1567, the day Hepburn hijacked the queen and carried her off to Dunbar.  In a nutshell, was she so in love with him she was unable to see the political implications of acknowledging him as her lover, or was she responding as a classic rape victim?  On this point, I have the audacity to disagree with my hero, historian John Guy, based on my expertise as a prosecutor dealing with victims of sexual assault.  While my analysis is by no means dispositive, my personal training and experience, her behavior is consistent with that of a rape victim. Even in the last decades of the Twentieth Century when new Rape Shield Laws were enacted in the United States, the bold, empowered victim ready to publically wreck vengeance on her assailants by pointing her finger and calling sexual assault  a rape was the exception, not the rule.

After April 24th, the queen acted very much like a woman who had been humiliated in a very personal way. She cried at the slightest provocation, but she also hardened, adopting the crude language for which Bothwell was known. At times, she called for a dagger so she could kill herself. She was given to bouts of both histrionics and hysterics, not at all the woman whose personality had been shaped by the cool, politically astute Diane de Poitiers, and whose public imagine and personal belief was as one ordained a queen by God. Whatever happened to Marie Stuart on April 24th changed her, and it does not sound like love, or as some writers have suggested, the attainment of her first orgasm. There is, however, another explanation consistent with the queen’s behavior in the past which adds a new dimension to the mystery.

Due to his past loyalty and willingness to pursue both the queen’s mother Marie de Guise’s and her own agenda, might the Queen of Scots have come to look upon the bold Border warlord as her champion? Certainly, she trusted him. The year before when she traveled to Alloa to recuperate from a difficult childbirth, she left her son in Bothwell’s care at Edinburgh Castle. Guy’s account and others suggest at least a portion of the events of April 24th were contrived. There were rumors the queen’s trip to Stirling to retrieve custody of Prince James and Bothwell’s side trip to the Borders to enforce the law were part of a two-pronged scheme to shift the guardianship of the prince from the Earl of Mar to Bothwell, who would spirit the infant off to Dunbar.  Guy and others, including Sir James Melville, who was there, believe the queen’s show of surprise when Bothwell and a force of 800 intercepted her entourage. She apparently dispatched at least one rider to capital to sound the alarm.

However, later in the encounter, she and Bothwell spoke privately, and thereafter, she instructed her escort of thirty armed men to stand down.  It is possible that after two days of simmering over the humiliation of a rejected suitor, the earl had changed the game plan and instead of a peaceful rendezvous to take custody of the prince, he decided to go for the higher stakes by carrying her off and raping her?  A young woman with the background of the Queen would have been devastated, not because she did not love James Hepburn, but because she did.

Yet, there is no credible evidence they were lovers before that fatal week in April. Fables identifying them as long-time conniving paramours are a construct of Marie Stuart’s political and religious critics. A confession made by Bothwell toward the end his life indicating the queen was blameless of Darnley’s murder is often cited as evidence of his fidelity and love, but they are equally consistent with a man seeking to unburden himself of heavy guilt. In my analysis, the combination of his pugnacious arrogance and the queen’s naive obsession with honor combined to ruin them both.  Regardless of whether what occurred between them at Dunbar was a rape or a lover’s tryst, without having the prince in their custody and control, they were doomed.

The banner flown by the Lords of the Congregation at Carberry was one of the factors that gave the day to the Lords. Large numbers of the Queen's army deserted.

The queen surrendered to Kirkcaldy of Grange while Bothwell (shown in the background of the watercolor) rode away. They never saw one another again.

Linda Root from The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots

John and Sarah Churchill, the Duke and Duchess of Marlborough: A Love Story

Not a single list I reviewed mentioned John Churchill, Duke of Marlborough and his Duchess Sarah Jennings Churchill, although there was a dynamic love that endured long after the Duke’s death. Marlborough was every bit the military hero Henry V had been at Agincourt. He came close to handing France to Queen Anne on a platter.

But he was only half of a dynamic partnership that in almost any light comes across as an unlikely love story. Both John Churchill and Sarah Jennings were incredibly ambitious people, and each of them was looking to make an advantageous marriage at the time they met and quite accidentally, fell in love. Churchill had risen from a mere page to become a favorite of the Duke of York, later James II.  Sarah came from lower tier aristocracy, but became an intimate of Princess Anne. Although neither had the social status to be a likely candidate for marriage at the time they met, they simply found one another irresistible. Sarah’s parents had urged her to hold out for someone rich.

When Sarah was an equal partner, theirs was a winning team.  John was the military strategist and statesman.  Sarah was the politician and courtier, both at the Court of James II, and later, at the courts of William & Mary and later, Queen Anne.

It was during Queen Anne’s reign that Sarah Churchill became the power behind the throne.  Unfortunately, she did not wield her power graciously. While her husband was in Europe waging war, his duchess was heavy-handed in her management of the Queen and at times was a notorious bully. Sarah was incredibly bright and spared no words in letting Anne know which of them was the superior intellect. She also was an avid Whig, who made every prominent Tory  her personal enemy. As time went on, Sarah overplayed her hand with the queen and Marlborough paid the price.  Queen Anne withdrew her support of Marlborough’s military efforts on the eve of a complete capitulation of the opposition, and Marlborough was recalled.  His political enemies lodged trumped-up charges of embezzlement against him over a government contract for bread, what today would be called a kickback. Soon thereafter, The Queen was so embittered by Sarah’s insensitivity over the death of her son that she and her ministers reneged on their gift of funds to complete the Marlborough’s mammoth construction project  near Woodstock, Blenheim Palace.

In the wake of a campaign to discredit the duke, the Marlboroughs withdrew not just from the court, but from the country. They lived in high style in the German principalities and the Netherlands, where the Duke’s military genius  and statesmanship during the War of the Spanish Succession was a legend. Even the French king held him in high esteem.

When Queen Anne died childless and the crown passed to the House of Hanover, the Churchills were again in favor at home in England. King George and Marlborough had fought side by side and were good friends. Nevertheless, the Duke would probably have been happy staying away, but Sarah wanted to go home.  However, even in an England ruled by the House of Hanover, Sarah’s strong will and irascible temper alienated Queen Caroline.  They devoted most of their attention to managing their properties. When the Duke died, Sarah Jennings Churchill was one of Europe’s wealthiest women.  She completed construction of Blenheim Castle after her husband’s death and made life close to unbearable for its architect.

Even in her advanced age, she was plagued by suitors young enough to be her son.  She is said to have spurned one of them in the language quoted by Sir Winston Churchill in his famed biography[9]:
“If I were young and handsome as I was, instead of old and faded as I am, and you could lay the empire of the world at my feet, you should never share the heart and hand that once belonged to John, Duke of Marlborough."
If that quotation does not provoke a tear, it is hard to imagine what would. Theirs was so torrid a love affair that the Duchess once remarked to a friend that when he came home from the wars, they made love before he took his high boots off.

While Sarah’s outspoken politics and rude treatment of the Queen prevented her husband from achieving total domination of Europe, he is widely  credited for raising England from a minor to major power.[10] There is no doubt his success was aided by the support he received from Queen Anne at the insistence of his Duchess.  In conclusion, there is more to the life and times of the Duke of Marlborough than politics and romance. While I was in college in the late 50’s, I discovered John and Sarah Churchill and fought the battle of Blenheim on my cot.  For those who have the slightest interest in military history, it is worthy of a reenactment.

Thank you for joining me in a brief glimpse of three of history’s many great love stories.  I predict there will be more to come.


Linda Root is the author of six historical novels set in the late 16th and early seventeenth century, The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, (2011) and The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots (2013), both large historicals, and the Legacy of the Queen of Scots Suite consisting of four books to date and the fifth coming in November. She also writes historical fantasy under the name J.D. Root. Root is a former major crimes prosecutor living in the high desert above Palm Springs with husband Chris and two Alaskan malamutes Maxx and Maya.  Visit her Visit her author’s page.

Artwork from Wikimedia Commons, original art by Linda Root.

[1] Goldsworthy, Adrian, Antony and Cleopatra, Yale University Press; 1St Edition edition (September 28, 2010)
[2] Shiff, Stacy, Cleopatra: A Life
[3] Daily Mail, Keiran  Cochoran, September 25, 2015, Mailonline ‘Mary Queen of Scots is CLEARED of murdering her husband by a panel of experts who re-examined the evidence... just 428 years after she died.
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[4] Wikipedia Commons, Ainslie Tavern Bond
[5] Guy, John, Queen of Scots, The True Life of Mary Stuart, pp 314-318.
[6] Wikipedia, op. cit.
[7] Guy, op cit.
[8] Antonia Fraser, Mary Queen of Scots,
[9] Marlborough: His Life and Times. By Winston S. Churchill. 4 vols. (London: George G. Harrap and Company, 1933-38).
[10] Politics and War in Churchill’s Life of the Duke of Marlborough by James W. Muller. The Imaginative Conservative