Saturday, October 25, 2014

The Handfast Ceremony - Then and Now

by Octavia Randolph

Bound in love.

OVER the years I have received several requests from readers seeking advice in planning their upcoming handfasting - that is, wedding. Seeing as though Love and mutual attraction continues - thankfully- to exert its pull upon humans, I thought perhaps it was appropriate to build upon my responses to these initial requests and present some information in a more formal way, in the hope that it may serve as an inspiration for those so inclined to celebrate their union in this manner.

It must be stated at the onset that very little is reliably known of the heathen handfast. Few historians whose reports have come down to us saw fit to record these occasions, and if others did their records do not survive. The Christian clerics Bede, Asser (biographer of King Ælfred), and Nennius did not deign to cover this topic and what we can glean comes from Anglo-Saxon law codes, wills, poetry, and incidental writings by Roman historians observing the continental Saxon tribes. Although in my novel The Circle of Ceridwen two handfastings take place, these ceremonies are what I term well-reasoned imaginings or reconstructions of what the old Anglo-Saxon and Norse handfastings might have been, based on the scant historical documentation left to us. So this essay will begin by touching upon the reliable, historical, attested information that has come down to us - a truly skeletal tree - and then branch out into ways in which the twenty-first century couple can through their imaginations clothe these barren boughs with vivid and fresh new greenery.

Prince William weds the lovely Kate Middleton.
The cope about their wrists is a reminder of the "making fast of hands".
BBC image

Let's look first at the word handfast, a word quite similar to the Old English original and related to the Old Norse handfesta, "to strike a bargain by joining hands". One of the early English meanings is "a contract, specifically a betrothal or marriage contract." At times this referred to a trial marriage, or to the betrothal period, but the term was also used to distinguish a marriage not blessed by the Church - a heathen marriage, legal just the same.

What were the elements of these early handfasting ceremonies? Certainly the clasping or binding together of hands, and exchange of some sort of vows. Such ceremonies were honoured whether witnessed or not; a liturgical blessing was not required. The important element was the free choice of the participants:
If anyone's marriage is in question, all that is needed is that they gave their consent, as the law demands...If this consent is lacking in a marriage then all the other celebrations count for nothing, even if intercourse has occurred.
- Pope Nicholas I, 866 CE
Secular laws agreed; the law code of Ælfred the Great (849-899) specifically states that no woman can be forced to wed against her will. The scholar Dorothy Whitelock addresses Anglo-Saxon weddings in her book The Beginnings of English Society:
There were two parts to a marriage: the 'wedding', that is, the pledging or betrothal, when the bride-price was paid and the terms were agreed on; and the 'gift', the bridal itself, when the bride was given to the bridegroom, with feasting and ceremony. Ecclesiastical blessing was not necessary to the legality of the marriage, though the Church advocated it.
Christian couples generally wed at the church door. If a priest was available he may have simply blessed the couple. Not until the 12th century was the wedding ceremony formalized by the saying of a Mass.

One oftentimes hears a couple saying, "Rev. Jones married us" or "Judge Brown married us." This is true only if you are now living in a menage-a-trois. In fact bride and groom marry each other - you create the legal and moral bond; the person who may stand before you may be designated by church or State as a qualified witness, and is "officiating" but the marriage is performed by you two. (Indeed, even when the Church held greatest sway it has upheld the idea that the man and woman were the actual "ministers of the sacrament", and Pope Alexander III (1159—81 CE) reasserted this.)

An exchange of meaningful gifts is another element. The Roman historian Cornelius Tacitus (circa 54-117 CE) in De Origine et Situ Germanorum wrote in some detail concerning the exchange of gifts amongst Germanic couples as part of their union, not chosen to please a woman's whim or gaily deck a young bride, but oxen, horse with reins, shield, spear and sword. For such gifts a man gets his wife, and she in turn brings some present of arms to her husband...
- H. Mattingly translation
These Germanic peoples were formidable warriors, and the most valued personal objects of any such people are likely to be their weaponry. Fine weapons were expensive and whenever possible passed down from generation to generation. The exchange of heirloom weapons to mark the union of two families linked not only man to woman but clan to clan.

The poem Ruodlieb, written in Latin circa 1050 by a German poet/monk (possibly of the Bavarian foundation of Tagernsee) contains a description of a wedding in which the bride is passed a ring on the hilt of a sword. This underscores the seriousness of the bond now between husband and wife - the honour of the young couple is now linked to the honour of the family sword.

The sword has obvious phallic symbolism and is thus a potent fertility symbol. It also embodied the idea of fidelity (vows taken on a sword to a war-lord were common around the world), the honour of one's acts, and indeed even life and livelihood itself, for warriors lived and died by their steel.

Using these three elements - the exchange of vows, the exchange of symbols of livelihood and honour, and the actual "act of the handfast", we will now turn to the construction of your own handfast ceremony.

A ribbon-bound handclasp.

First Things First

Ascertain that your handfasting will be legally recognized as a wedding. In many places all it truly takes is for the exchange of vows to be witnessed by at least two persons of legal age who then sign the certificate which is registered at the local town hall or whatever local government you have. So research this first, and avoid having to have an additional "civil" or other ceremony (unless of course you plan an additional ceremony for family reasons.)

For the exchange of vows, we have no precise historical record of what may have been said, save that the man and woman spoke openly their intentions. This could be as simple as "I take you for my wife" and "I take you for my husband" or as complex as you both see fit. (In my novel two handfastings are depicted, one of actions only, and one with spoken vows. Of the vows the man makes, he begins by stating who he is, and saying he will defend her body with his life. The young woman he is pledging to responds by saying she will never harm him or bring dishonour.) You might have an elder or friend ask you both at the beginning if you enter into this bond with open and loving hearts and free wills, and also to inquire of the gathered if anyone protests this union, but the point is that the pledging is performed by you two.

Then there is the exchange of the tools of livelihood, such as we read of Tacitus' account. Perhaps this was always a mutual exchange, and not only the man offering some symbol of his ability to provide for the woman. (In the first of the two handfastings I write of the bride is marrying a warrior chief, and he gives her his sword to hold for a moment. She as new mistress of his hall must preside over all the provisioning of his men and supervision of the stores, and she hands him a weaving shuttle as her willingness to take this responsibility.)

So think about this: you two will want to exchange temporarily or permanently some token of your livelihoods. Think of what best carries this message. Are you in the medical field? You could come to your partner carrying your stethoscope and hand him that. A teacher or lawyer? You might carry a school-book or law book. An artist - a brush. Does your man work in construction? - a hammer. Is he a writer? A pen, charmingly archaic as that may be. Software developer - a flashdrive with one of his best programs upon it (I'm serious). You get the idea - each of you appear before the other with this important symbol of what you bring to the union for its economic viability. If the woman intends to be at home and begin a family - then a weaving shuttle or drop spindle, simple and ancient as it is, would be beautiful and appropriate.

Now the actual handfasting. You could simply face each other and clasp one or both hands and say, "May we be made one". Or perhaps your eyes will lock as your hands have in a moment of profound and silent communion. Or the left hands could be placed together and wrapped for a brief moment with a special cord, ribbon or sash. Perhaps it is something one or both or you have made, or embellished with embroidery or other ornamentation. The bride could come to the ceremony wearing it as a sash if she likes, or it might be a braided leather cord borne by the groom. If a friend or elder is officiating she or he could wrap your hands, or you two could do it yourselves. If rings or other jewellery are to be given, exchange them first, before the actual handfast. Then the wrists are unbound, and the cord or sash or ribbon goes into the new wife's keeping.

The simplest of gestures can be full of meaning and import to you. Perhaps there are elements from your ancestor's lives or even weddings that you could incorporate into your ceremony. Or you and your beloved may be committed members of a historical reenactment group. In this case you will have well developed personas in your era of interest to further guide your choices. One couple who wrote to me were part of a Viking reenactment society, and I suggested that the man come to the ceremony wearing a hammer of Thor to place around his bride's neck to ensure her protection. Likewise such a couple devoted to Norse and Anglo-Saxon deities might choose a Friday as their handfast day, the day sacred to the Goddess Frigg, protector of marriage and childbirth.

Now you have spoken your vows, faced each other and exchanged your tokens of livelihood, and then wrapped your wrists briefly with this special ribbon. What else would be appropriate? Perhaps share a small goblet of mead - apple-cider will work just as well, for abstainers. The new husband should take up this cup, lift it to his lips, and sip. He then passes it to his bride for her to sip. She returns the cup to him and he drains the rest in a single draught.

Multi Ribbon Handfast.

The sharing of cake is an ancient ritual, and before you you might have a small cake, no larger than a scone. This is a seeded cake much like a soul cake. It should be baked not by either bride nor groom, but by a female friend or relation of either. She should add any kind of seeds to the batter, be they poppy, sesame, caraway or rye, but only one variety. A bit of honey should be used to sweeten this little cake. She should bake only one, discarding the rest of the batter. The wife should break off a bit of this cake and gently feed it to her husband, and he do the same. Needless to say the seeds represent fertility and abundance, the honey concord between the new couple. No one else should taste this little cake; it is only for the newly wedded pair. If you do not eat it all then, wrap it in a linen napkin and do so in bed that night.

What else might you do? The stories of the Norse gods (who with very little alteration were the Saxon ones; Thor = Thunor, Oden = Woden, Tyr = Tiw) will supply much inspiration. I suggested to one young woman that she might come to the ceremony with a friend holding an apple, one with a yellow skin, which she take from her and place upon the altar and ask Idunn, keeper of the Golden Apples (the daily eating of which kept the Gods youthful and beautiful) to always make her fair in her husband's eyes.

Planting a tree together could provide another important focal point to the ceremony. The tree would represent your hopes for your married life together. A tree could also be planted to commemorate the birth of each child, a custom once widespread but now too infrequently practiced. Such a tree would grow to become a sacred symbol in one's life, similar to what Anglo-Saxon scholar Stephen Pollington refers to as
...the Scandinavian notion of the barnstokkr (barn 'baby, child' stokkr 'tree trunk') which was a potent symbol of the regeneration for the family - a reminder of one's place in eternity, a link with both past and future generations who revered it. It was customary at a wedding for the groom to thrust his sword into the barnstokkr to judge from the resultant gash what the luck of his marriage would be (according to the evidence of Volsungasaga), and in a difficult childbirth, the wife would invoke or even clasp the tree for assistance. Such trees were, then, 'guardians' of the well-being of the people who venerated them." - Leechcraft: Early English Charms, Plantlore and Healing
One aspect of Anglo-Saxon weddings of which we have reliable information (as they are mentioned in wills and other legal documents) is the morgen-gifu or morning gift. This should be as costly a present as the new husband can afford (as it is a point of social pride to him, and status to his new wife) and the nature of it should be a complete surprise to the bride.

It might be an exceptionally beautiful piece of jewellery, a wooden chest or jewel casket, anything sumptuous that would please her. If she has been given a ring at the ceremony he might give her quite a simple one then and a magnificent one in the morning after they are truly man and wife. My point is not to bankrupt the poor fellow, but to stress that this gift should equal several Yule and birthday gifts combined, and that if it means the bride goes with very little in the way of presents for a while it will be well worth it to have a meaningful morgen-gifu. (Think about it: she has given him her body - it is supposed to be splendid gift in return.)


Of course one can't hold a wedding without a feast to follow.  Enter The Circle of Ceridwen Cookery Book(let), ten easy, delicious, and authentic 9th century recipes, charmingly illustrated with medieval woodcuts and filled with fascinating facts about medieval cookery.

And it's FREE. Receive your two PDF versions when you sign up on my mailing list at  Be my guest, and enjoy!

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Silhouettes, Paper Cuts, and a Brilliant French Profilist

by Mike Rendell

I recently gave a talk about 18th Century paper-cutting at the Holburne Museum at Bath. It included a section about the life and works of a remarkable French profile-cutter who rejoiced in the name of Auguste Armand Constant Fidele Edouart. He had been born in 1789, served under Napoleon, and fled to England as a penniless refugee when the Bourbon monarchy were restored to the French throne. I find his work fascinating because it was a peculiarly time-sensitive “art” which became largely overtaken by the development of photography towards the middle of the eighteenth century – suddenly black “shades” went out of fashion and in came daguerreotypes and other photographic images.

When he first fled from France as a young man he tried to eke a living teaching French to the English and making mourning pictures - usually portraits on ivory, made with hair from the deceased. But one day he was shown a shadow picture (as silhouettes were called) which had been cut by a machine. Never modest about his talents, Edouart announced that he could do better - and promptly did just that! He describes the scene as follows:
I ... took a pair of scissors, I tore the cover of a letter that lay upon the table, and took the old man by the arm and led him to a chair. I placed him in a proper manner so as to see his profile, then in an instant I produced his likeness.

The paper being white I took the black snuffers
[in other words, candle snuffers covered in soot] and rubbed it on with my fingers.

This likeness and preparation, made so quickly, as if by inspiration, was at once approved of… the ladies changed their teasing and ironical tone to one of praise and begged me to take their mother’s likeness, which I did with the same facility and exactness.

Note the small boy on the right trying to distract the boy on the chair,
earnestly declaiming poetry, by tickling the back of his neck.

It led to a total change of course for Edouart - he gave up teaching, and hair pictures, and concentrated on what he called "silhouettes" - named after the despised French finance minister Etienne de Silhouette. The term 'a la silhouette' was originally intended to be derogatory, because the man was renowned for being a cheapskate. Etienne de Silhouette's 'crime' was trying to balance the books of the French economy by melting down the gold table settings used by the royal family, and replacing them with silver plate and gilt. For that he got the sack - and a reputation for being miserly. But Edouart was happy to adopt the term, in order to distinguish his profile cuts from the inferior ones made by machine. The point was: if you could afford it, you would have your portrait painted in oils; if not, you could have your profile cut out of paper for just a few pence. It was a substitute - but a very popular and effective one.

He spent time in Bath and Cheltenham before moving to Edinburgh, cutting hundreds and hundreds of portraits along the way. And then he decided that he would go to the States, and prepare likenesses of all the great and the good. His years there involved creating some 4,000 portraits, including profiles of four U.S. presidents, five members of the Supreme Court, six state governors, six college presidents, eighteen mayors, six commodores, thirteen generals, thirty state or federal court judges, fifteen authors, and at least twenty-nine physicians....

He also became a favourite with the Quaker community, who felt that it was mere vanity to hang a portrait done in oils on the wall, but were perfectly happy "to display a copy of their shadow".

The Gibbs brothers playing squash

But somehow you get the impression that Edouart measured his own importance by the importance of the people whose likenesses he took!

The famous violinist Paganini fiddling away

A magic lantern show, the silhouettes
positioned against a lithographed background.

He meticulously kept copies of every single silhouette he ever made - indexed and cross-indexed five times over, with the records kept in numerous leather-bound books. But by 1849 he decided to return to France - and set off aboard the good ship Oneida. The vessel got as far as the Channel Islands where it was wrecked in a bad storm - Edouart escaped with his life, but lost most of his luggage, including many of the volumes of duplicates.

The poor man was devastated - he had set such store by keeping a complete record of his life's work, and he suffered something of a nervous breakdown. Certainly he never cut another profile ever again. Mind you, his withdrawal from the world of silhouettes may have had something to do with the fact that Mr Daguerre had brought out his 'daguerreotype' in 1839. The same year had seen Fox-Talbot patent his system of recording photographic images on paper, and the new-fangled photography was spelling the death-knell of the silhouette. It was a shame - some of Edouart's profiles are beautifully done, and his surviving cut-outs are a fascinating record of the movers and shakers of the period between 1825 and 1850, on both sides of the Atlantic. I particularly like the way he captured a sense of movement.

And my own interest in all this? I have a collection of some fifty or sixty paper cut-outs made by my great great great great grandfather Richard Hall in the 1780's and they give a wonderful insight into the everyday life of families living in England at that time. Almost certainly they were made to amuse the family - you can just imagine him, scissors in hand, cutting out a paper replica of his rapier, or showing  farmyard scenes.

He also made a very fine 'in memoriam' picture to mark the death of his beloved wife Eleanor. It measures just an inch and a quarter across and is like fine lace.

More information on my collection can be found here.


Mike is the author of a book about his ancestor Richard Hall called 'The Journal of a Georgian Gentleman' and is currently working on a book about the loose morals of the Georgian era, due to be published next year under the title 'Sex, Scandal and Satire - in bed with the Georgians'.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The Edinburgh Vaults

by Richard Denning

Any visitor to the city of Edinburgh cannot fail to be aware of the various bridges that are an integral feature of the city center. The city stands on a number of hills with deep valleys in between. Constructing bridges over these valleys massively improved the ease of moving around the city. Any visitor to the Edinburgh Fringe (as I was in the summer of 2014) will spend a great deal of time crossing and recrossing the city via these bridges.

Many of the visitors may be unaware that beneath the South Bridge is a hidden world of passages and catacombs called the South Bridge Vaults.

The South Bridge was built to cross the gorge along which Cowgate runs and to link the city to the University to the south. Building work on the bridge started in 1785. The bridge consisted of 19 stone arches. Towering tenements, shops and workshops were built alongside the bridge, sealing off the archways. As part of the construction some 120 chambers of varying sizes were built. The idea was that these would be store rooms and workshops for the businesses above.

The Cowgate arch - today the only visible archway.

The bridge officially opened for business in 1788 in a manner which seemed to single it out as cursed right from the start. The wife of a local judge was selected to be the first across the bridge, but she died just before the official opening, so she was pushed across in her coffin instead! Many locals refused to cross the bridge after that incident.

As for the vaults being used as warehouses and workshops, this proved a failure. The builders had not waterproofed the vaults and soon water was leaking down the walls. Stocks of goods rotted and became mildewed, and the traders soon abandoned the vaults - within thirty years of their being opened.

Abandoned by the legal owners, the vaults started to attract an underclass of inhabitants. The poorest people who could not afford accommodation elsewhere moved in. So too did Highlanders trying to evade the clearances. Criminals found the dark places ideal lairs or places to find victims or store stolen goods. In 1815 local authorities raided the vaults and found and shut down a distillery.  Burke and Hare, the infamous serial killers who sold corpses to medical schools, are rumoured to have selected their victims in the Edinburgh Vaults.

Between 1835 and 1875 the vaults were gradually cleared and sealed off. There is poor documentation of this operation. What we can say is that the vaults passed out of use and into memory and in time even out of that. Forgotten, they lingered sealed off for over a century.

Students moved in to many of the tenements in the post war period. In 1985 one of the walls of these student flats was accidentally knocked through. Curious, the land lord excavated further and so opened a way into some of the Vaults. So it was that over a hundred years after they were sealed off, the Vaults were rediscovered.

Nowadays the vaults on the south side of Cowgate are home to nights clubs as well as containing remnants of houses that were mostly demolished to create the bridge.There is even a well in one chamber.

The vaults on the north side of the Cowgate arch are used mainly for tours. This summer my family and I went on one of these tours. Apart from historical tours the guides also run ghost tours (mainly at midnight). The links with ghosts have featured on a  number of TV programmes with reported recordings of strange voices such as that of a  priests recanting a prayer.

Some of the chambers do have have obvious links with the occult and witchcraft - like this one which is owned by the local Wiccans and in which weddings and other rituals are performed:

Or this one below in which the circle is rumoured to be haunted. The guide challenged us to walk across the center but warned us that visitors who had reported after effects such as scratches!

None us took up the challenge!

All in all it is a fascinating and atmospheric place. When the lights are off you can almost feel Burke and Hare creeping around. I recommend taking the tour.


Richard Denning is a historical fiction author whose main period of interest is the Early Anglo-Saxon Era. His Northern Crown series explores the late 6th and early 7th centuries through the eyes of a young Saxon lord.

Explore the darkest years of the dark ages with Cerdic.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Whalley Abbey

by Elizabeth Ashworth

The Cistercian monks of Whalley originally had an abbey at Stanlaw in Cheshire, founded by John FitzEustace, constable of Chester on the eve of his departure for the Holy Land in 1178. It was built on a sandstone outcrop at the confluence of the rivers Mersey and Gowy, and was surrounded by low-lying marshland. In 1279, a great storm flooded much of the abbey and representation was made to the Pope for permission to leave and build a new monastery on another site.

Whalley Abbey
When John FitzEustace’s son, Roger, had inherited the Honour of Clitheroe from his grandmother and taken the de Lacy name, he had granted the valuable rectory of Rochdale to Stanlaw Abbey. Roger’s son, John de Lacy, who became the Earl of Lincoln, also granted various lands in Lancashire to the abbey, including the rectory of Blackburn. So it wasn’t surprising that the monks looked to Henry de Lacy (the great, great grandson of the original founder) when seeking a new home. Neither Rochdale nor Blackburn was deemed suitable, but when the site at Whalley, on the banks of the River Calder, was offered the monks agreed to migrate to there.

Henry de Lacy agreed to give the land at Whalley on certain conditions: the remains of his ancestors and others buried at Stanlaw would be reburied at Whalley, and the name of the abbey would continue to be Locus Benedictus (the blessed place). On 23rd July 1289, Pope Nicholas IV granted a licence for the translation of the abbey and the appropriation of the church at Whalley on the resignation or death of its aged rector, Peter de Cestria (Peter of Chester), who had held the benefice for 54 years. But he was so long-lived that the monks had to wait until January 1295 before the move to Whalley could begin, leaving behind a cell of four monks at Stanlaw.

On the 4th April 1296, St Ambrose Day, a small group of monks took possession of the land. The monks lived in Peter de Cestria’s manor house whilst building work began. It progressed slowly owing to financial difficulties, changes of abbot, problems with the weather and a lack of wood for buildings and fires, and it was not until June 1308 that Henry de Lacy laid the foundation stone for the new abbey church. Even then, the monks were not entirely happy at Whalley and after the death of Henry de Lacy in 1311, they asked Thomas of Lancaster for an alternative site, but in the end nothing came of it and under the leadership of Abbot Robert de Toppecliffe serious building work began in 1330.

Peter de Cestria's chapel.
Around this time the monks moved out of Peter de Cestria’s house into temporary accommodation, probably a collection of wooden huts in the midst of a busy building site. But their religious life would not have been neglected. Prayers would have offered and mass said every day in Peter de Cestria’s small chapel, which pre-dates the other abbey buildings. 

The chancel of the church must have been complete by 1345 when the burial of John of Cuerdale, a benefactor of the abbey, is recorded. This calls into question the re-interment of Henry de Lacy’s ancestors. He may not have lived to see the remains of his ancestors brought from Stanlaw and there is, in fact, no record of this happening, but I doubt the monks did not carry out the full terms of their licence. Henry de Lacy’s daughter, Alice did not die until 1348 and would have been eager to see her father’s wishes for her own ancestors fulfilled. And in the ruins of what would have been the chancel of the church there is a broken gravestone that clearly shows the de Lacy lion. I believe that this is the site of the burial of Roger de Lacy, John de Lacy, Edmund de Lacy and maybe their wives and other family members.

This gravestone shows the
engraving of the de Lacy lion.

In 1348, the Black Death came to England and this seems to have interrupted the work on the church as permission was given to build a crenelated wall around the outer precincts of the abbey, probably to guard against the plague being brought in by casual visitors. When the sickness passed work began again on the central tower of the church, which was built in a plainer style than the chancel. It held a bell and a lantern and would have been three times the height of the present gatehouse. Work must have been well advanced by 1356, when Brother Ralph of Pontefract was killed by a falling stone.

Whalley Parish Church
After Henry de Lacy's death, his lands had passed to his son-in-law Thomas of Lancaster and after Thomas's execution for his rebellion against Edward II, to his younger brother Henry. In December 1360, Henry Duke of Lancaster gave land at Ramsgreave and Standen for the maintenance of a recluse or anchoress to live in a hermitage in the churchyard at Whalley. However, it seems that many of the recluses were somewhat reluctant and in 1437, a widow, Isolde Heaton, ran away from the hermitage. You can read more about it in my blogpost here: Reluctant Recluses

By 1425, the Chapter House was brought into use when William of Whalley was the abbot and an account of the dedication of the Dormitory records: Lord William, the Abbot, and the whole Convent standing in processional order sang the hymn ‘Te Deum Laudamus’. Then the Abbot, clothed in a cope and carrying his pastoral staff, sprinkled all the beds with holy water…

The north east gatehouse.
The last building that completed the abbey was the North East Gatehouse and this remains today with its original great oak doors and the heavy bolt with which they can be secured. In all it took until 1444, which was 136 years after Henry de Lacy laid the foundation stone, for the abbey to be completed and even after that new buildings were added.

Life at Whalley Abbey settled into a routine of prayer, care for the sick and poor, and sheep farming. Abbot followed abbot until John Paslew entered the Novices' Cell at Whalley on St Matthew's Day 1487. His father is listed as a gentleman from Wiswell, although the family were originally from Yorkshire and had connections with East Riddlesden Hall. He became the abbot and built what seems to have been a spectacular Lady Chapel to attract both pilgrims and income, although no trace of it remains. It was during the time that John Paslew was abbot that Henry VIII decided to close down the monasteries and use their wealth for his own purposes. It was not a popular decision and throughout the north of England there was rebellion, culminating in the Pilgrimage of Grace.

Although Abbot Paslew seems to have taken no active part in the uprisings, other than giving sanctuary to a monk from nearby Sawley Abbey after it was closed, he was arrested and taken to Lancaster for trial on five counts of treason. For an inexplicable reason he pleaded guilty and at the age of 70 was hanged as a traitor. Local legend says that he was hanged outside the abbey, but as there are no records it is impossible to verify whether he was killed at Lancaster or Whalley. 

After the dissolution, the site was stripped of its valuables: lead from the roof, books, plate and embroideries were taken away on carts by Thomas Cromwell's men, although some of the vestments were saved by the Towneley family of Burnley. 

The remains of the abbey were bought by Ralph Assheton who made his home in the abbot’s lodgings. The ruins of the abbey and its church remained until Mary Tudor came to the throne and brought back the Catholic faith. The families who were now living on former abbey lands became concerned that Mary would reinstate the monasteries and so Assheton, like many others, set about destroying what was left so that it was beyond use and would not be reclaimed for the church. 

The church windows were 1
probably taken from Whalley Abbey.
Windows from the abbey were taken away to be used in other places. They can be seen in the chapel of Samlesbury Hall, for example, where the Southworth family remained Catholic, and it seems that the church of St Leonard at Old Langho, one of only a handful of Catholic churches built during Mary's reign, was constructed using stones and timbers from the abbey. 

St Leonard's Old Langho

The Assheton family continued to live at Whalley Abbey until they ran out of male heirs. The house was sold to John Taylor, who in turn bequeathed it to Colonel John Hargreaves, but after the upheavals of the First World War, the role of country houses was declining and many owners found their upkeep too expensive. Colonel Hargreaves put the house up for sale in 1923 and its function was brought full circle when it was purchased by the Diocese of Manchester for use as a training college and conference centre. When the diocese was split up and the Diocese of Blackburn created the abbey came into its care and remains so.

In the 1930s, when Canon J R Lumb became the Warden of Whalley Abbey, he suggested that work could be created for the large numbers of unemployed men in the area by beginning an excavation of the gardens to see what traces of the abbey remained there. By 1936, the foundations of the church had been uncovered and on 14th June that year, the site was rededicated as a place of worship, with an altar placed on the site of the original one in the chancel of the church. Today the abbey is used as a conference centre. The grounds are open to the public for a small fee and if you are ever in the area, it is well worth a visit.


Elizabeth Ashworth lives in Lancashire close to Whalley Abbey and has traced her ancestors in the village back to the 1600s. She has a particular interest in the history of the de Lacy family and they feature in several of her historical novels: The de Lacy Inheritance, Favoured Beyond Fortune, and The Circle of Fortune.

The George and Its Patrons – Lord Nelson, Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower

by Margaret Muir

Lord Nelson
The George Hotel in Portsmouth was long regarded as a prestigious establishment providing rooms and meals for weary travellers arriving by coach from London. It was frequented by admirals and sea captains alike, including Horatio Nelson who stayed there on several occasions. The most notable was his last day on English soil before embarking on HMS Victory.

While factual history fixes the George on the map, nautical fiction authors, Patrick O’Brian and CS Forester used the venue to colour the exploits of Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower respectively. Patrick O’Brian refers to the George at least 10 times in his 21 books, and CS Forester not only made several mentions of the famous coaching inn, but (in ‘Hornblower and the Hotspur’) chose the hotel’s coffee-room to host the wedding breakfast following Hornblower’s marriage to Maria.

Russell Crowe as Jack Aubrey

Because of the intriguing connections existing in both fact and fiction, when I planned a 5-day visit to Portsmouth (from Australia), there was only one hotel I wanted to stay at – the George. But in the words of Robert Burns, ‘The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley’.

On arrival at the hotel, full of anticipation, I was confronted by a building dating back to 1781. And for a visitor, it was ideally located only a stone’s throw from the Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. But this was neither the original George Hotel, nor the one I had come looking for. I soon learned that the famous coaching house had been severely damaged by German bombs on 10 January 1941 and subsequently demolished. Disappointed but not undaunted, I set about to locate the site where the original George had stood and, if possible, secure an image of the old hotel.

Having ascertained the coaching house was located near Portsmouth’s Anglican Cathedral, I headed for the High Street and found a pair of post-war lamp posts gracing the curb where a pair of gas lamps had one stood. They marked the spot where the London coaches came to a halt outside the George’s front entrance. It was here Lord Nelson had stepped from his post-chaise from Merton and entered the building. It was here, in fiction, that Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower had entered the premises to spend many a happy hour.

Today, on the pavement between the two lamp posts is a bronze plaque that reads: ‘Lord Nelson rested at this old Posting House on 14th September 1805 before embarking on his flagship H.M.S. Victory’.

Because of the devastation caused by the WW11 air raids, the site was levelled and, in 1954, an uninspiring block of flats arose in its place. It was named "George’s Court". On the wall of the latter-day building is another plaque paying tribute to Nelson’s visit.

But my search had not been for the ghosts of the past but for the building that had accommodated them. While the first hotel on this site had been a thatched-roofed house called the “Waggon and Lamb”, I can only presume the name George Hotel was adopted during the reign of George I, when the new building, with its Georgian façade, was constructed.

At that time, High Street was a busy thoroughfare, not only with horse-drawn carriages, coaches and carts, but sailors, soldiers, local traders and pedestrians.

In 1739 a Town Hall and Market House had been constructed in the centre of the road. This seemingly odd location created a thriving hive of shops, stalls and offices, but it also created a massive bottleneck to the traffic passing along the street. For that reason, it was eventually demolished in 1837.

Also situated on High Street, only a cable’s length from the hotel was the Church of St Thomas à Becket or St Thomas of Canterbury (now Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral). It was here CS Forester’s characters Horatio Hornblower and Maria were married before repairing to the George for the wedding breakfast.

Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral
Continuing along to the end of High Street brought the visitor to the fortifications that had defended the town since the reign of Henry VIII to one of the sally ports and the beach. But when Nelson left the George in the early afternoon of the 14th, he did not head down the High Street; instead, to avoid the already congested thoroughfare and the well-wishers who were eager to accompany him, he slipped out of the hotel’s back entrance into Farthing Street.

As a further means of avoiding attention, from Fighting Cock Lane (Pembroke Road), he detoured across the garden of the Governor’s residence. At the time, this was part of the complex occupied by the Garrison Church – a building dating back to 1212. Sadly, the Church’s nave was also badly damaged in the war-time bombings.

Accompanied by George Rose, the Vice-President of the Board of Trade, and George Canning, the Treasurer of the Navy, Nelson headed across a narrow bridge over the moat to the triangular shaped fortification – the Spur Redoubt, which protruded into the sea, and to the beachfront beyond. There, with pebbles crunching under his feet, he was able to gaze across Spithead and see the fleet gathering for departure to the Cadiz Road.

Nelson’s diary entry of Saturday, Sept 14th, 1805 reads, “… embarked at the Bathing Machines with Mr Rose and Mr Canning at 2: got on board Victory at St Helen’s; who dined with me; preparing for sea.”

Mermaids at Brighton,
William Heath, 1829
As an aside – I find it hard to imagine bathing machines, normally associated with the Victorian era, being present on the beach in Nelson’s time. They are described in Outon’s Traveller’s Guide of 1805 as:
“four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”

Goodbye, My Lads! by Fred Roe
Fred Roe’s 1905 stylized painting “Good bye, my lads” depicts Lord Nelson, with a ship-of-the-line in the background, waving farewell when he departed Portsmouth. It is a far cry from the image I conjure in my mind of a senior naval officer standing on a shingle beach with bathing machines and swimmers in the water nearby.

Nelson’s final hours on English soil had been busy and included two visits to the George Hotel. But they were to be his last. The hotel long remembered the Admiral’s visit with pride and preserved his room for the next 136 years until the hotel, like the British admiral, fell to enemy fire during an unforgettable conflict that would long be remembered.

Note: this follows an earlier post – “The Portsmouth Road aka the Sailor’s Highway

Images to blog post.

1 – Admiral Lord Nelson – statue in Trafalgar Tavern in Greenwich

2 – Jack Aubrey - Russell Crowe from Master and Commander:

3 – Two street lamps on High Street mark the old coaching stop

4 – Plaque on wall of George’s Court.

5 – The George Hotel (Pre-war image – taken from plaque outside George’s Court.)

6 – Town hall and Market Place from Portsmouth Image Town Hall images

7 – Portsmouth Anglican Cathedral

8 – Pembroke Road and the Garrison Church

9 – ‘Mermaids at Brighton’ by William Heath 1829

10 – ‘Good-bye, my lads’ Fred Roe - 1905

Photo images by Margaret Muir (2012)


Margaret Muir is author of 4 historical fiction novels set in Yorkshire (her birthplace) and a nautical fiction series written under the by-line M.C. Muir. Inspired by her love of tall ships, Muir’s latest adventures are set during the Napoleonic sea wars. The first 3 books in the series have been published as an e-book boxed set: “The Oliver Quintrell Trilogy”. Book 4 is due later this year. Other individual titles are available from Amazon.

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Independent English Domestic

by Diane Scott Lewis

In the eighteenth century, a time when domestic service was seen as easier than toiling in a shop or factory, a poor farmer’s sons and daughters would go happily into this type of work. Even a parson’s family did not look down on the occupation. However, the English domestics thought of themselves as a cut above.

The English servant was quite independent and rarely satisfied with low wages. Instead of being content in the early part of the century with £2 a year, they were demanding as much as £6 and £8. Writer Daniel Defoe wanted to see wages fixed at no more than £5, or soon this rabble would insist on as much as £20.

Lord Fermanagh, when writing to a friend about his butler, who had the audacity to ask for £10, said: "I would have a sightly fellow and one that has had the smallpox, and an honest man, for he is entrusted with store of plate, and can shave, but I will give no such wages as this."

The English servant stood up for himself, giving notice or running away if ill-treated. One servant, after being struck by his master, turned on the man and killed him with a pitchfork.

Foreigners were amazed—since they treated their servants like slaves—to see a nobleman like Lord Ferrers hanged in 1760 for the murder of his steward.

In the earlier part of the century there was a scarcity of women servants, but later, after years of bad harvests, starvation sent many girls into service. One lady, upon advertising for another housemaid, had over 200 applicants.

If wages were low, servants in a large house could supplement their pay with vails (tips). One foreigner complained after dining with a friend at his home: "You’ll find all the servants drawn up in the passage like a file of musqueteers from the house steward, down to the lowest liveried servant, and each of them holds out his hand to you in as deliberate a manner as the servants in our inns on the like occasion."

One clergyman reported that when he dined with his Bishop, he spent more in vails than would have fed his family for a week.

At lease the Duke of Ormonde, when inviting a poor relation to dine, always sent him a guinea ahead of time for the vails.

A movement, rumored to have started in Scotland, was put forth to abolish vails, but nothing came of it.

If servants believed themselves independent, striving for respect, their employers often demanded too much from them for little pay. Mrs. Purefoy advertised for a coachman who can not only drive four horses but must understand husbandry business and cattle, plus he’d also be expected to plough. She also required a footman who could "work in the garden, lay the cloth, wait at table, go to the cart with Thomas, and do any other business that he is ordered to do and not too large sized a man, that he may not be too great a load for the horse when he rides."

Servants were derided by their "betters" as being lazy and selfish, especially when they’d leave their positions for higher wages and vails.

Of course, many servants during the eighteenth century—especially in the larger towns and cities—were mistreated and far underpaid, if paid at all.

Still, some servants were honored and treated as members of the family, as shown by this epitaph on a coachman’s headstone: Coachman the foe to drink and heart sincere; Of manners gentle and of judgment clear; Safe through the chequered track of life he drove; And gained the treasure of his master’s love...


Diane Scott Lewis. To learn more about her eighteenth-century novels, please visit her website:

Source: English Country Life in the Eighteenth Century, by Rosamond Bayne-Powell, 1937

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Giveaway: The Kraals of Ulundi by David Ebsworth

David is giving away a copy of The Kraals of Ulundi. You can read about the book HERE. Please comment below to enter the drawing. Be sure to leave contact information.

A Visit That Changed a Life and Led to Sainthood

by Kim Rendfeld

What did those Irish missionaries say to Richarius that made him give up what he knew and devote his life to Christ?

As with many early medieval saints, information about the seventh century Frank also known as Riquier is scant and contradictory, but the stories are tantalizing. Whether they’re true is up to the reader.

Richarius was born in a village then known as Centula in today’s France. Either he was working class guy who pursued rustic occupations or he was a nobleman, depending on which source you consult. With the events that follow, I think he was an aristocrat. Whatever his background, the visit of the two Irish missionaries, Caidoc and Fricor, changed his life.

When visitors arrived in Centula, they were mistreated by the locals. Except for Richarius, who offered his hospitality. After listening to their preaching, Richarius repented of his sins. So much that one story has him surviving only on barley bread strewn with ashes and water often mingled with his tears. Another has him offering protection to his guests so they could preach freely – something a nobleman could do.

A 17th century illustration
of St. Riquier Abbey (public domain)
Richarius later became a priest providing relief for the sick and poor and redeeming captives. He spent a few years as a missionary in Britain, then returned to Centula, where he founded a monastery around 625 and served as its first abbot. Such an accomplishment would be easier for a nobleman, especially if he already owned the property to give to the Church. Apparently, Richarius remained close to Caidoc and Fricor. They joined him at Centula and spent the rest of their lives there.

As an abbot, Richarius would be in a position of influence. He had control over land, which was power in early medieval times, and could make alliances among fellow noblemen, both lay and clergy. In addition, the medieval populace believed that prayers from the monks could sway events here on earth, including who won the battles.

During a visit from Frankish King Dagobert, Richarius impressed the monarch by giving him good advice, especially not to listen to flatterers, and the king rewarded him with a generous gift.

Richarius could have kept his place as abbot for life. Or if illness prevented him from performing his duties, he could retire in relative comfort at the monastery. Instead when his health was failing, he traveled 15 miles away to a forest and lived in a hut with only one companion, Sigobart.

St. Riquier’s relics in the abbey he founded
(photo by Paul Hermans,
used under the terms
of the GNU Free Documentation License)
Shortly before his death, believed to be April 26, 643, he told Sigobart to make a coffin. His grieving companion felled an oak in whose trunk the body was placed. The monks at Centula must have guessed that Richarius would soon be declared a saint, a decision of local bishops at the time, and took his relics back to the monastery.

About 150 years later, that monastery, named St. Riquier, became a center for learning with Angilbert as its abbot. His close friend, Charlemagne, provided a golden shrine for the founder’s relics.

Images via Wikimedia Commons


Lives of the Saints, Omer Englebert

A Dictionary of Christian Biography, Literature, Sects and Doctrines: Naamanes-Zuntfredus Sir William Smith, Henry Wace

The Lives of the Fathers, Martyrs, and Other Principal Saints, Alban Butler

Daily Life in the World of Charlemagne, Pierre Riché (translated by Jo Ann McNamara)

An Ecclesiastical History of Ireland, from the First Introduction of Christianity among the Irish to the Beginning of the 13th Century, John Lanigan

Kim Rendfeld’s latest release, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (2014, Fireship Press), has a few scenes taking place at St. Riquier monastery 12 years before Angilbert became its abbot. During a trial there, the characters swear on a piece of wood from a tree the monastery’s founder liked to rest under. The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, Kim’s second book, is a tale about a medieval mother who will go to great lengths to protect her children. It is a companion to Kim’s debut, The Cross and the Dragon, in which a young noblewoman must contend with a jilted suitor bent on revenge and the anxiety her husband will die in the coming war.

Kim's book are available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other retailers. To read the first chapter of either book, get purchase links, or find out more about Kim, visit or her blog Outtakes of a Historical Novelist at You can also like her on Facebook at, follow her on Twitter at @kimrendfeld, or contact her at kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.