Thursday, February 4, 2016

Walking the Tight-Rope of Historicity and Fiction

Richard Denham, co-author of the Britannia series with M J Trow, discusses the joys and sacrifices of writing historical fiction. The third book in their series ‘The Warlords’ is now available and Richard talks to us about walking the tight-rope of historicity and fiction.

When I first set out to write the Britannia series with Mei, I was keen for it to be as historically accurate as possible. However, I soon learned that fiction and historical accuracy don’t make the best of friends. If you lean too much towards historicity, a book becomes too heavy, too scholarly and far too sluggish for the average reader. If you lean too far the other way, towards fiction, the story runs away, and glaring historical errors will put off readers to the point that the story should be considered fantasy rather than historical fiction.

So this was the challenge Mei and I faced when we first put pen to paper for Britannia. As is well known, the Dark Ages weren’t called that for nothing! However, search through the rubble long enough and you start to pick up interesting pieces of information. The hagiographies of Saints of the age, though arguably embellished and dramatized – do provide an interesting glimpse into this enigmatic time. Historical arguments are also very useful; compare the Welsh folklore of Macsen Wledig in the Mabinogion for example with the panegyrics and damnatio memoriae of Rome and you can start to make sense of it all.

There are many compromises that have to be made to keep a work of historical fiction engaging and well-paced. If we were too orthodox with timings and years of events, the pace of the story would suddenly stop and we would find empty years where our characters were sitting twiddling their thumbs – which would no doubt put off the average reader who is looking, above all, to be entertained. So occasionally, some events must be concertinaed.

Some changes we hope won’t cause any problems for the reader. For instance the spirit and governmental structure of Rome had changed considerably from the days of Caesar and Anthony – the time which most people think of when they think of Rome. Britain itself was called a diocese, ruled by a vicarius but because of the ecclesiastical connotations which didn’t exist then, it simply didn’t ring true for us and thought it confused matters so we didn't use that word at all.

Another example is Valentinus, our protagonist from Part I: The Wall. His involvement in the ‘Great Conspiracy’ of Britain in 367 and later events is unclear, but we were quite comfortable making him our villain throughout the story.

There is no question that the Dark Ages were an enigmatic time, with the British outside of the Church rarely writing things down, and preferring instead the oral tradition of Bardic culture. However, the same can be said for all history – history is not science, some things are beyond dispute, but history is written by people with an agenda, and that is an unavoidable part of human nature. The significance of a German-style military belt dug up somewhere in Essex by an archaeologist can be interpreted a dozen different ways. Where history is like science is that it is always improving, disagreeing with itself and challenging accepted beliefs. It is not so much a case of proving what happened, but disproving what didn’t. Think for example of the legends of King Arthur, the layers of myth piled on top of him and all the historical paradigm shifts he has been facing since he was (or wasn’t) alive.

Being an author of historical fiction is much like being a detective in some messy and confusing crime scene. Disagreements with colleagues over the significance of certain evidence, analysing claims and counter-claims from those involved, filtering through the irrelevant and biased to find some core element of truth. Luckily for Mei and me, this is something we enjoy.

Of course, it is all open to debate – and the writer of historical fiction will soon discover that. There will be those who disagree with you at either end of the spectrum. What is important is to try to find an acceptable middle and come to terms with the fact that you have written a work of fiction, and historicity will always take collateral damage as a result. Mei and I enjoy the challenge; history and storytelling is a passion of ours. As we creep closer to the elusive figure of King Arthur and move away from the relative evidential comforts of Roman Britain, this is something that will be all the more challenging.

Ultimately, if Britannia sparks people’s interest in the Age of Heroes and encourages them to do their own research and make up their own minds, then that for me is the best success of all.

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Britannia: Part III: The Warlords has been published by Thistle Publishing and is available in e-book and paperback formats from Amazon. For more information visit www.britannia-series.co.uk



Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Dinner with Mrs. Rundell

by Maria Grace


Mrs. Rundell
New System of Domestic Cookery: Founded up Principles of Economy; and Adapted to the Use of Private Families, by Mrs. Maria Eliza Ketelby Rundell (1745-December 16, 1828). ‘Mrs. Rundell’ as it was often referred to, was the most popular English cookbook of the first half of the nineteenth century. The first edition came out in 1806, several later editions were published with additions by other contributors.

At the time, few books on domestic management were available. Mrs. Rundel collected tips and recipes for her three daughters out of her thirty years’ experience running her household in Bath. Initially she planned to have four copies made, but Jane Austen’s publisher got involved and the rest is, as they say, history.

For anyone interested, replica editions have been published and the original itself is available free on line:http://digital.lib.msu.edu/projects/cookbooks/html/books/book_03.cfm  or
http://books.google.com/books/about/A_new_system_of_domestic_cookery.html?id=H3UEAAAAYAAJ

Mrs. Rundel’s book includes not only recipes, but advice for every day living in the early 1800’s. Who would have guessed stale white bread was good for cleaning wallpaper?

Just as cleaning methods changed, what foods are served for a meal have changed as well. For dinner I might serve a lasagna, green salad and dinner rolls, just a few dishes, covering the major food groups. Late Georgian dining was an entirely different affair.. A whole host of unfamiliar dishes and meal plans awaited me in the pages so generously penned by Mrs. Rundel.

She offered a number of dinner plans for family dinners. Her meal plans begin with five dishes at minimum and work very quickly all the way up to two courses of eleven dishes plus removes. (Removes were dishes that were replaced with something else part way through the course). I have to admit, the thought makes my head swim. For a big Thanksgivig dinner with all the relatives coming, I might make twelve dishes, not including dessert, which I try to have someone else bring. Twenty two to twenty four dishes and you might just need to lock me up in a room with very soft walls!

The contents of Mrs. Rundel’s menus were also very heavy on the meat dishes. For example, a five course meal might include: Half Calf's Head, grilled, (Remove and replace with Pie or Pudding.)Tongue and Brains, Carrot Soup, Greens round bacon, Saddle of Mutton, and Potatoes and Salad, at side table.  That’s three meat dishes out of the five.

Her most elaborate meal plan, ‘eleven and eleven, and two removes’ (below) made my head spin. It is hard to imagine how much kitchen staff it would take to accomplish this meal, especially when you take into consideration the lack of refrigeration and other modern conveniences. Notice the mix of dishes too. I would never serve a raspberry tart and lobster and duck all on the same course.

FIRST COURSE

Salmon, (Remove and replace with Brisket of Beef stewed, and high Sauce,) Cauliflower, Fry,
Shrimp Sauce, Pigeon Pie, Stewed Cucumbers, Giblet Soup, Stewed Peas and Lettuce, Potatoes, Cutlets Maintenon, Anchovy Sauce, Veal Olives braised, Soles fried. (Remove and replace with Quarter Lamb roasted.)





SECOND COURSE

Young Peas, Coffee Cream, Ramakins, Lobster, Raspberry Tart, Trifle,  Orange Tourt,
Grated Beef, Omlet, Roughed Jelly, Ducks.

Mrs. Rundel kindly includes recipes for many, though not all of these dishes. (I cannot for the life of me figure out what ‘Fry’ is.) A few of them are rather interesting.

I am not sure how many of these are going to show up on my dinner table. But I may just try the Stewed Cucumbers one of these days.


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

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Banqueting House

By Cryssa Bazos

A few days after the anniversary of the execution of King Charles I in 1649, I am reminded of the place where this drama played out--the Banqueting House at Whitehall.

The Banqueting House- Wikimedia Commons

Completed in 1622, the Banqueting House is the only remaining structure of Whitehall Palace and is situated across from Horse Guards Parade. During the Tudor age, the original Banqueting House was little better than a temporary venue. When King James I of England (VI of Scotland) succeeded Elizabeth on the throne in 1603 and ushered in the Stuart Age in England, he got down to work building a proper Banqueting House. His queen, Anne of Denmark, had been fond of masques and was a patroness of the arts.

The famous 17th century architect, Inigo Jones, was commissioned to design the building. What you have is a beautiful example of Palladian architecture with stately pillars and expansive high ceilings. Galleries line the upper hall. But what is truly a marvel in the Hall did not exist until King Charles I succeeded his father to the throne.

Interior Hall: Photo by C. Bazos

Charles commissioned the great Flemish artist, Peter Paul Rubens, to create a series of paintings to grace the ceiling. The panels were completed in Ruben's workshop before being shipped to England for installation.

The paintings were a delight of classical gods and motifs, the most noteworthy being the centre panel titled The Apotheosis of James I. The scene glorifies his late father, James I as though he were being crowned by the heavens. It is meant to reinforce the concept of the king being God's representative on earth and his divine right to rule.

Detail of ceiling:Wikimedia Commons

These paintings remain the only work of Rubens on display outside of a museum. Fortunately for the preservation of the paintings, masques ceased to be performed following their installation. The smoke from the candles would have damaged them over time.

Below the Banqueting Hall is an area known as the Undercroft. During King James's time, it was used as the royal party den, but in later years, they held other amusements such as lotteries. It's curved ceilings gives the impression of a cosy cave. One can imagine how it once looked, crowded with men drinking and gambling while lit with golden torchlight.

The Undercroft: Photo by C. Bazos

Ironically, the Banqueting House, which evolved as a testament to the divinity of kings, would stand as a confirmation of their mortality.

On a cold winter day, on 30 January, 1649, a scaffold was erected outside the Banqueting House, accessed from a second story landing. King Charles I stepped out on the scaffold, clad only in two shirts and a cap. Facing his subjects, he left them with his famous parting words, "I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown." Here ended his reign.

There is so much art and history wrapped up in the Banqueting House. The next time you are visiting London, I encourage you to visit this marvellous building. You may even be greeted by a Parliamentary soldier.

Parliamentary guard: Photo by C. Bazos

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Wikimedia Commons attribution:
The Banqueting House: "Banqueting House London" by en:User:ChrisO - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Banqueting_House_London.jpg#/media/File:Banqueting_House_London.jpg

Apotheosis of James I: "Banqueting House 03" by The wub - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Banqueting_House_03.jpg#/media/File:Banqueting_House_03.jpg

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Cryssa Bazos is a historical fiction writer and 17th Century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War (ECW). For more stories about the English Civil War and the 17th Century, visit her blog.

Monday, February 1, 2016

IMBOLC, St Brighid & the arrival of Spring

by Elaine S Moxon

In the northern hemisphere, February is a harsh month, but long-hoped for signs of new life begin to emerge at this time. The first shoots appear - the first stirrings of spring in the womb of Mother Earth; the first ploughing is carried out; lambs are born; calves are born; larks sing; the sea can be calm enough to occasionally launch fishing boats and corvids nest in the trees. Well, the pair of crows is back in the oak tree outside our house and it’s wonderful to see them. It means February is here and spring is around the corner. They always arrive around Imbolc, or ‘Ewe’s Milk’ as our Celtic ancestors called it. A Pagan festival for the returning of the light, often associated with St Brighid, it is my personal favourite of the 8 Celtic festivals (and incidentally the only one associated solely with a female deity within this polytheistic belief system). For many it is a time of wondrous inspiration as we emerge from the dark nights and into the lighter, longer days; re-birthed if you will.

Celebrations at this time of year are not confined to a single belief however. It is, or has been, a significant time in many cultures around the world including Aztecs, Christians, Druids, Greeks, Romans and Tibetans. It remains the Tibetan New Year as well as the Aztec New Year (the latter now celebrated in Mexico). The Romans carried candles through the streets to celebrate the Goddess Februa, the mother of Mars. An old hag figure would also release a dragon to be fought and overcome, possibly representing winter, while a young maiden released a lamb. For Christians it is Candlemas, representing the presentation of the infant Christ in the Temple. In the pastoral calendar it is the lambing season, and so is fitting that this festival celebrates the bringing of children into the world and provides a derivation for its Celtic name.

Connecting with the candle-carrying of Candlemas, it is interesting to note that Imbolc is a ceremony of light. For the Celts and Druids, of which I write about in my books, it is the time of the maiden/virgin goddess. Known as Bride or Brighid, from the Celtic name for a fire goddess – Breo (fiery) Saigit (arrow) – her symbol is the 3 fire arrows of ‘inspiration’, ‘healing’ and the ‘hearth’ or ‘forge’. One might say her influence on our ancient ancestors was so strong, Christianity embraced her into their light ceremonies and Breosaigit the fiery goddess merged with the image of Mary: virginal maidens who both gave life.

Part of 'Feast of Presentation' by Bellini, via www.churchyear.net

Brighid is the muse of the poet, the midwife and the smith and can be found depicted with 3 objects: the mirror, the spinning wheel and the cup or grail. The goddess worshipped by our Celtic ancestors was portrayed with a comb and mirror, as the mermaid still is to this day. The mirror, used for scrying and divination reveals other worlds as it does for Alice in Wonderland. The spinning wheel depicts the revolving cycle of sun and moon, the great cycle of life-death-rebirth and the Norns of fate, spinning the threads of creation in Norse mythology. Its power reveals itself even today through fairytales such as ‘Sleeping Beauty’. Lastly the cup is the womb, from which all life is born (and as was shared from the Holy Grail – the cup of life) and from which all things are sustained, as the ewe’s milk sustains the new-born lambs. Also known as Imbolg or Oimelc, in Gaelic it means ‘in the belly’.

Usually portrayed in a white cloak, Brighid bears a lantern and birch walking staff with a wolf by her side. The staff – a fertilising phallus – is used to regenerate life in the land and its animals. Birch, having white bark, is associated with purification and was used by the Celts and Druids to ritually drive out dark spirits and unwanted, lingering remnants of the old year. Brighid is also known as the ‘White Swan’, hinting at other ancient forms of the goddess in snake or bird form. This connects too with her image cloaked in white and an older tradition of Celtic women painting themselves and going naked to honour ‘the Veiled One’. Swans also echo Nordic legends of the ‘Swan Maidens’, a form of Norns or Valkyries who lure men as do, incidentally, mermaids. The wolf is a guardian, ruler of the winter quarter of the year beginning at Celtic New Year with Samhain and ending at Imbolc. February was ‘the wolf month’.

Detail of antlered figure, via archeurope.eu

Gundestrup Cauldron, via en.wikipedia.org

Wolves and hounds appear frequently in Celtic mythology as helpers or guides. They are the companion of the forest god Cernunnos and appear on the Gundestrup cauldron. The mother of the Celtic god Lugh, whose son is venerated at the festival of Lughnasadh (August 31st-September 1st) was killed while in the form of a hound. The Irish King Cormac claimed to have been suckled by wolves and tribes often claimed descent from wolf-packs, both Celtic and Germanic. In my novel ‘WULFSUNA’ the tribe name literally means ‘Wolf Sons’ and the warriors affiliate themselves closely with the animal, in behaviour as well as appearance, by wearing wolf pelts; the howling and gnawing on shields by ‘Berserkers’ is very animalistic and was done to instil fear into the hearts of the enemy.

For the Celts and Druids, the virgin goddess or ‘Bride’ is the Winter Goddess or Hag who has regained her youth, emerging from the womb of the Earth anew. The custom of corn dolls made at the last and first ploughing to safeguard crops evolved into the St Brighid’s Cross made today from rushes or straw – these are not a crucifix, but a cross of equal points reminiscent of a more ancient sun symbol.

Cross of St Brighid

In Scotland, young girls would make the ‘Bride’ dolls and visit neighbours, who would pay homage by giving gifts of bannocks, butter or cheese. Older women would make the ‘Bride’ doll a bed in a basket and welcome the effigy of the saint into their home for the night. The next day young men visited to pay tribute after which there was much merrymaking and feasting and sharing of the food gifts with the poor. An elderly neighbour, who a few years ago had to go into a home, would secretly leave me a small pot of hyacinths on my back windowsill. He did it for 15 years and it warmed my heart. So in these lean times, in the spirit of our ancestors, I invite friends or family for a meal, or make apple butter for neighbours from my winter store of home-grown cooked apples. However you show it, bring some light into another’s life and spread the spirit of spring!

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Elaine writes historical fiction as 'E S Moxon'. Her debut Wulfsuna was published January 21st, 2015 and is the first in her Wolf Spear Saga series of Saxon adventures, where a Seer and one named 'Wolf Spear' are destined to meet. She is currently writing her second novel, set once again in the Dark Ages of 5th Century Britain. You can find out more about Book 2 from Elaine's website where she has a video diary charting her writing progress. She also runs a blog. Elaine lives in the Midlands with her family and their chocolate Labrador.

Sunday, January 31, 2016

Collared...

by Lauren Gilbert

Cook with Food

While you may suspect that this article is about the capture of a criminal, today we are actually looking at food.   English cuisine in the Georgian and Regency era is a special interest for me. I enjoy learning about old cooking techniques and dishes.  As a reader and writer of historical fiction, I think the inclusion of the foods of a given period makes the work more interesting and brings the time alive.  After all, we all have to eat, and we can all relate to a discussion of food.

Collaring involves seasoning, rolling and binding your food material.  It can be rolled and tied in a cloth or bound with string. The roll itself is referred to as a collar.   It can be pickled or boiled or baked.  It can be chopped or shredded, or a whole piece.

I have found several recipes for collared beef, pork and mutton, and a few for collared eel.  The results range from a pickled dish to one that sounds similar to a rolled stuffed roast.  Many of these dishes are heavily salted, and the recipes indicate that they can be stored for a time.   Recipes for collared meats go back to Elizabethan times and were popular through the Georgian and Regency eras.

The Elizabethan recipe for collared beef that I read had no list of ingredients.  Quantities are not shown, so the amount of seasoning used would have been a matter of personal taste.  I suspect the particular spices and herbs used would have varied with what the cook could afford and the season of the year.  The recipe and technique, which includes soaking in salted water, can be read in its entirety at the link provided below for the Elizabethan Era site.  The finished product would be cooled, and served in slices.  As you can see, the final dish sounds very much like a rolled roast we might serve today.


In THE ART OF COOKERY MADE PLAIN AND EASY, Mrs. Glasse’s recipe for collared beef is included in the section TO CURE HAMS, &c.  Mrs. Glasse used a dry brining of salt, salt petre, and sugar combined, with which she rubbed the beef flank.  The meat was turned and rubbed with the brine for 8 days, then rinsed and dried.  It was then seasoned with herbs and spices, rolled very tight, wrapped in a cloth and tied.  The collared beef was then boiled in water  (five hours if a small one, 6 if a large one), then removed and cooled in a press (or between two boards with a weight).  When cooled , the collar was removed from the cloth and sliced for serving.



Eliza Smith, in THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE, included recipes for collared salmon and collared eel.  Her salmon was brushed with egg yolk, and then spread with a wide range of ingredients including oysters, lobster, sweet herbs, spices (including cloves, nutmeg and pepper) and breadcrumbs.  It was then rolled and bound.  After a mixture of water, salt and vinegar was brought to a boil, she put in the salmon collar with more herbs and spices.  It was boiled for about 2 hours, and then removed to a pan.  When the cooking liquid was cold, the salmon was replaced in the liquid and let to stand until used.  If not to be eaten at the time, the salmon collar and liquid could have been placed in a pot, which was then filled with purified butter for storage.

On the blog The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies, a recipe for collared brawn is discussed.  Raw meat from the head of a pig was removed, and the pieces placed in salt for 3 days, spiced (including cloves and mace), and wrapped in a cloth.  Then it was boiled in a mixture of vinegar, salt and water until tender.  After being removed from the liquid and cloth, the brawn was wrapped tightly in a fresh cloth and tied, then cooled.  The liquid (referred to as “pickle”) was then brought to a boil with fresh water, and then cooled, and the brawn was kept in the liquid.  (The recipe advises making fresh liquid or liquor every two weeks.)

Although I am not sure how long these dishes could actually be held, I can see how some of these and similar recipes maintained their popularity in English cuisine for several centuries.  The preparations and seasonings used in collaring meat and fish would have allowed for varied flavors and textures.  In the days before refrigeration, being able to prepare and store a dish must have been a blessing, especially if serving an unexpected visitor. Some of these recipes could be readily adapted for modern taste as well.

Sources include:
Glasse, Hannah.  THE ART OF COOKRY MADE PLAIN AND EASY.  First published 1747, new edition published 1805: Cotton and Stewart, Alexandria.  Facsimile of 1805 edition with historical notes by Karen Hess, published 1997: Applewood Books, Bedford, MA.
               
Smith, Eliza.  THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE.  First published 1758.  Facsimile edition published 1994: Studio Editions, Ltd., London, England.

The Cookbook of Unknown Ladies.  "To Collar Meat."  Posted October 2, 2013 by Westminster City Archives.  HERE.  Last viewed 1/30/2016.

Elizabethan Era.  Alchin, L.K., author.  “Collar’d Beef Old Elizabethan Recipe.”   HERE.

Image for THE ART OF COOKERY MADE PLAIN AND EASY from Wikimedia Commons  HERE

Image "Cook with Food" by Franz Snyders (1579-1657) from Wikimedia Commons HERE

Image for THE COMPLEAT HOUSEWIFE from Wikimedia Commons HERE

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Lauren Gilbert is the author of HEYERWOOD, A Novel and a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America.  She lives in Florida with her husband, and is working on another novel, A RATIONAL ATTACHMENT.  For more information, visit her website.




Saturday, January 30, 2016

The Lusitania Cover-Up

By Greg Taylor

The Lusitania Cover-Up was published in July in i-Magazine in the UK.

Nearly 100 years after the 9/11 of its day, the truth comes out.

On May 1st last year, the government archives at Kew released declassified documents. What documents are kept secret? Those that are dangerous or embarrassing to the government. In the case of documents related to RMS Lusitania released on May 1st 2014, both are true.

The sinking of the Lusitania was the 9/11 of its day. On May 7th 1915, the 31,550-ton Cunard Liner was en route to Liverpool from New York with 1,959 souls aboard when a German U-Boat torpedoed her just 11 miles off the coast of Ireland.

Everyone is familiar with the tale of the Titanic but what about the Lusitania?

She was launched into the River Clyde to the strains of “Rule Britannia” on June 7 1906, the largest moveable object ever created by man. On the Lusitania rested the hopes of the Empire and Cunard Lines that Britain would reclaim from the German liners the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic.

By George Grantham Bain [Public Domain]
via Wikimedia Commons

She was financed with government loans on the condition she be available for troop transport in time of need. Despite this, the Lusitania was fitted out to a standard of luxury never seen before. She reclaimed for Britain the Blue Riband on her third Atlantic crossing with a speed of 23.99 knots.

Dining Saloon RMS Lusitania,
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

In 1915, the Lusitania was the fastest, most luxurious ship making the transatlantic run. When she sailed from New York on May 1st 1915, the New York Times and other papers carried a warning from the German Embassy. Everyone ignored it - confident the fastest ship in the world could outrun any German submarine that might dare to threaten a passenger liner travelling from a neutral country.

Submarines of that period had a top speed underwater of only nine knots. They could reach speeds of fifteen knots on the surface but were vulnerable of being rammed. This led the Admiralty to issue such instructions to the merchant fleet in February 1915, a command that was intercepted and known to the German High Command.

The U20 spotted the Lusitania on the 7th of May, the last day of her crossing. The submarine nearly lost her due to the liner’s superior speed but a last minute change of direction gave the U20 an excellent shot. After being hit by a single torpedo, the Lusitania sank in eighteen minutes at a list so severe that only eight of the forty-two lifeboats were launched. Due to the thirty-degree list, the lifeboats on the port side smashed into the decks below, while those on the starboard side hung eight feet from the doomed ship.

Knowing the speed of the Lusitania might flip lifeboats put into the water, Captain Turner ordered the boats lowered to the Promenade Deck and kept empty until the ship slowed. He did not realise that he and his passengers would have only eighteen minutes before the stern slipped under the water.

By Winsor McCay (Living Lines Library)
[Public Domain] Wikimedia Commons

Kapitänleutnant Schwieger, who ordered the torpedo strike, was shocked when he saw through his periscope a second, much larger explosion. He refused to permit his crew to look at the drowning passengers of the Lusitania.

To this day, experts continue to debate the cause of the second explosion that sealed the Lusitania’s fate after the torpedo struck. Imperial Germany immediately claimed the ship was loaded with explosives destined for the front.

In June 1915, during the official inquiry into the sinking of the Lusitania, the Admiralty manipulated testimony so that Lord Mersey reached an erroneous conclusion that multiple torpedoes struck the ship. The Admiralty knew from an intercepted message that Kapitänleutnant Schwieger had fired only a single torpedo. It was important to many that the inquiry blame only Imperial Germany. Lord Mersey waived his fees for the case and formally resigned two days after the verdict, saying, "The Lusitania case was a damned, dirty business!" Documents related to the closed sessions of the inquiry have never been released and Lord Mersey’s personal copy is claimed to be lost.

The Admiralty had withdrawn the Lusitania’s escort ship, HMS Juno, once the submarine threat became known. Like the Lusitania, the Juno was built with longitudinal coal bunkers that protected vital machinery from shellfire but made the ship vulnerable to listing when hit by a torpedo. It was also known that First Sea Lord Winston Churchill had remarked that the loss of an ocean liner such as the Lusitania might help bring America into the war on the side of Britain.

Beginning in 1922, Germany repeatedly requested international dives on the Lusitania wreck to determine whether the second explosion was a result of contraband munitions on board. The alleged use by the British Navy of the site for testing depth charges is considered by some an effort to destroy evidence.

What was in the documents released at Kew last year?

Under the 30 Year Rule, the British National Archive released internal memoranda between the Commonwealth Office and Ministry of Defence that showed that in 1982 the Government was concerned that divers to the Lusitania wreck were at risk because the wreck contained explosives. One of the memos went so far as to say that this disclosure might “blow up on us all”. The British government was worried about ramifications for British-American relations because the discovery of explosives on the wreck would imply the Lusitania had been a legitimate target.

The novel, Lusitania R.E.X, weaves fiction around the known facts to create a plausible explanation of some of the mysteries surrounding the sinking. The story is centred on one of the wealthiest men in the world, Alfred Vanderbilt, who lost his life after giving his lifebelt to a woman passenger. This historical fiction is replete with spies, secret societies and superweapons, as well as millionaires, monarchs and martyrs. In the book, Alfred and his fellow members of Skull and Bones, a Yale secret society that in 1911 included the President of the United States, the Secretary of War and the Secretary of the Treasury, have taken a secret cargo aboard the ship. The story unfolds on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in settings that range from gilded palaces and the Lusitania to the blood-soaked trenches of Ypres.

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Greg Taylor is the author of Lusitania R.E.X and the inaugural winner of the M.M. Bennett's Award for Historical Fiction. Lusitania R.E.X is also a finalist in the People’s Book Prize. For more information, visit his website at www.lusitaniarex.com



Friday, January 29, 2016

Marriage in British India

by Merryn Allingham

When I set out to write the Daisy’s War trilogy, I knew a fair amount about the Raj and its customs, including marriage. I’d read books, visited India a few years ago, and my own parents had married there. But in order to chart my heroine’s destiny over ten years between 1938 and 1948, I found I needed to know a lot more.

Captain Colin Mackenzie, Madras
Army, in Afghan Dress, 1842
The caricature of the Englishman in India - disdainful and contemptuous of Indian culture - is familiar from countless films and TV dramas, but the stereotype belies a much richer history. Before the 19th century, intermixing and cross-cultural marriages were common, with East India officials and English military men happily marrying local women. Some of the British men even took on Mughal customs, wearing Indian dress, writing Urdu poetry, establishing harems and generally adopting the ways of the Mughal governing class they replaced.

William Dalrymple’s research for his book, White Mughals, provides evidence for this. Reading through the wills of employees of the East India Company, he found that in the 1780s more than one-third of the British men in India left all their possessions to one or more Indian wives, or to their Anglo-Indian children. The wills suggested, too, an affection and loyalty on both sides, with British men asking their close friends to be executors and to care for their Indian partners. It was the rise of the Evangelical movement in England in the 1830s and 40s that slowly killed off this intermingling of ideas, religions and ways of life. Later wills written by East India Company servants show that the practice of marrying or cohabiting with Indian women had all but disappeared by the middle of the 19th century.

Khair-un-Nissa
Following his marriage to Khair-un-Nissa in 1800, James Achilles Kirkpatrick, the British representative to the court of Hyderabad, converted to Islam and adopted a Mughal way of life.

In 1858, following the Indian Mutiny, the British government disbanded the East India Company and the Raj became a discernible entity. Clear rules came into being regarding marriage for British men serving in India, whether they were military personnel or worked for the Indian Civil Service. Marriage to an Indian became taboo and marriage to Anglo-Indians, heavily frowned upon. Early marriage was seen as an impediment to a young man’s career and marriage was forbidden in the ICS before the age of 30 and made very difficult in the Indian Army. A marriage allowance was not paid until an Indian Army officer was 26, and it was customary to seek the Colonel’s permission to marry. He could refuse, and mostly did, until the young officer had achieved the rank of Captain. The military’s informal rule was that subalterns cannot marry, captains may marry, majors should marry, colonels must marry.

Bingham Arbuthnot
Indian Army cavalry
Husbands in the military were much sought after, and the most popular were those serving in what were seen as ‘good’ regiments in both the British Army and the Indian Army – the cavalry, in particular, was seen as having high status. Often young men from wealthy families were attracted by the hunting and the polo which were very much part of cavalry life, as well as the colourful and romantic dress uniforms: long blue jackets, scarlet and gold cummerbands and knee-length polished leather boots.

As soon as an officer decided to marry, there would be questions about the background of his proposed spouse. In a small community of British officers, it was necessary for a bride to get along well with other wives and to fit in with regimental arrangements. For the girl herself, marrying into the army meant a major readjustment. She was entering a male oriented society, dominated by military discipline, and one in which wives tended to matter only in terms of the rank of their husbands. She was forced to become part of the regimental ‘family’ whether she liked it not, and this left little room for individuality. The army wife was an appendage. Nothing more was required of her than to support her husband socially. Ideally she should be decorative, though presentable would do. She should be a good listener and not show cleverness. This wasn’t too difficult since most of the wives had enjoyed an indifferent education and had not been trained to do any job of work.

A tennis party

For the memsahib, life could be boring, claustrophobic and confined, though attitudes gradually changed over the early years of the 20th century. The pioneeers of the 1920s, who undertook voluntary work in nursing and teaching, had become more commonplace by the end of the Thirties. But overall memsahibs lived a life of intense boredom. Once they had agreed the day’s meals with their cook, there was nothing for them to do. People might visit for a game of bridge or for coffee and gossip. Husbands came home to lunch, then a siesta. After that, there was tennis at the Club, where our memsahib might stay drinking until dinner and then go on to a dance or perhaps a party. She might very occasionally have a love affair but it had to be extremely discreet – living was too communal and she dared not be discovered.

Amateur dramatics in British India

In no way did she live in a cultured society.The drama group of the cantonment might occasionally put on a version of The Pirates of Penzance or Kiss Me Kate, but there was little in the way of artistic pusuits. This was particularly true of the military – high ranking ICS members of the Club could be highly cultured and intellectual.

There were always more men serving in India than there were women to marry them. The advent of the steamship had for a long time meant quicker voyages and allowed men more easily to return home on leave to find a suitable bride, but there still remained a considerable surplus of males in the British India community. In Britain itself, the situation was reversed during the interwar years, with a desperate shortage of eligible men after World War I. It led to shiploads of hopeful girls traversing the Indian Ocean in search of a husband.

The season was crammed full of entertainments, and dances, balls, tennis matches and gymkhanas were all ways to meet the man of your dreams. This yearly influx of husband hunters acquired its own ironic tag, The Fishing Fleet. The Fleet sailed out to India in the Autumn, and any girls who had failed to find a husband or disliked the country too much to stay returned to England in Spring. They then acquired a new tag, that of The Returned Empties.

Other women, besides those in the Fishing Fleet, made the trip to India with marriage on their mind. These were the fiancées of serving soldiers (my mother included!) and ICS men. A special government dispensation had done away with premarital residence requirements, and they were allowed to wed immediately after they docked. A few hours after my heroine steps from the ship that has brought her to India, she is married in St John’s Afghan Church in Colaba, a suburb of what was then Bombay. Hopefully most brides did not face the dangers that were to confront Daisy!

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Daisy’s Long Road Home is the third and final part of the Daisy’s War trilogy.
Amazon UK

Merryn Allingham worked for many years as a university lecturer and between job, family and pets, there was little time to do more than dabble in writing. But when the pressures eased, she grabbed the chance to do something she’d always promised herself – to write a novel. Over the next few years, she published several Regency romances but in 2013 adopted a new genre. Daisy’s War, a suspense trilogy, is the result. The books are set in India and wartime London during the 1930s and 1940s and the first in the series, The Girl from Cobb Street, was published in January last year. Books two and three followed in May and August, 2015.





Thursday, January 28, 2016

With the whole world in his hand

by Anna Belfrage

Some kings peer out at us from the mist of history as rather forgettable characters. One such king, IMO, is Henry III. Yes, I realise he has the misfortune of being squished between the upheaval that characterised the reign of his father, King John, and the rather impressive persona of his son, Edward I, but all the same, Henry comes across as passive – and seriously inept, as demonstrated by the rebellion of men like Simon de Montfort.

To be fair to Henry, he did not have an easy start in life. Becoming king at the tender age of nine, with your kingdom invaded by French mercenaries, your barons at each other’s throat, and your father vilified by every man around, cannot have been easy. Things were probably not made better when his mother, the famously beautiful Isabella, Countess of Angouleme, decided she was not cut out to play the part of grieving widow. In 1217, a year after Henry had lost his father, Isabella chose to return to her native Angouleme where she subsequently married Hugh de Lusignan and went on to present Henry with nine half-siblings.

Henry must have been lonely. Yes, he had a brother he loved dearly, and yes, he definitely had older men who acted as regents in his name, but ultimately he was still a child, however much a king he was expected to act.  In such an atmosphere, it is not surprising if Henry grew up to be reserved, turning inwards rather than outwards. Neither is it a surprise that he found solace in his faith – Henry is described as being a most pious king. And here, dear readers, lies the seed to the magnificent legacy Henry III did leave us: Westminster Abbey.

I have previously written a post about Westminster Abbey, and so as not to bore you to tears regarding my fascination for this place, today I thought we’d talk a bit about what drove Henry to invest such immense amounts in rebuilding the old and somewhat dark original abbey church into what it is today. And the starting point, I believe, is Henry’s determination not to be outdone by Louis IX of France.

St Louis
The two young kings were of an age – Henry was born in 1207, Louis in 1214. They were also brothers-in-law, both of them married to daughters of the Count of Provence. And they were both pious – very pious. If Henry went to mass every day – so did Louis. Louis fed hundreds of orphans – so did Henry.  One gave alms – so did the other. If Henry went on pilgrimages, chances are Louis would also go. When Louis washed the feet of lepers to show his humility, very soon after, Henry was also washing leprous feet.

The two kings seemed to be involved in an unspoken competition, a determination to show the world just who was the most pious, devoted and Christian king around. So when Louis proudly paraded the True Cross through Paris, Henry did not rest until he’d acquired the Relic of the Holy Blood (and no, let’s not go there…) and could just as proudly carry the vial with its priceless content to Westminster Abbey.

Sainte-Chapelle Photo by Michael D Hill Jr
Then, of course, Louis went ahead and started building Sainte-Chapelle – he needed an adequately beautiful church to store all those precious relics of his. Sainte-Chapelle was (is) a work of art and light. The upper part of the chapel was given fifteen huge stained glass windows, allowing light to stream in and illuminate the magnificently painted walls, the resplendent fabrics, the life-size statues of the apostles, and, of course, the huge silver chest in which Louis stored his precious relics.

What did Henry have that could match this? Nothing. Yes, Westminster Abbey was steeped in history, but did it have a lofty nave, did it invite the heavens to come within? Nope. So Henry rolled up his sleeves – figuratively speaking – and decided to rebuild, determined to create something as magnificent and imposing as Louis had done.

Henry had a trump card: within the abbey was the shrine to St Edward the Confessor – Henry’s patron saint – and Sainte-Chapelle had no such shrine, no such saint (although, to be honest, I find it difficult to understand why Edward was ever canonised. Neither here nor there…)

The shrine was remodelled. It was decked out with paint and gold-leaf, it was so adorned it immediately drew the eyes of any visitor, rising huge beyond the altar. The nave was rebuilt, rising to new heights. Light streamed in – not, perhaps, as much as in Louis’ chapel, but substantially more than before. And then Henry turned to the decoration within.

We may be excused for believing medieval churches were austere, mostly whitewash and wood – modern man has a tendency to equate starkness with piety. In truth, entering a medieval church was an assault on the senses, and especially that of sight. The walls were painted with scenes from the bible, statues glowed in blues and reds and golds, pillars rose towards the ceiling decorated with stonework and colour.  Candles cast further light on gold decorations, glimmered off priceless church silver. Sunlight streamed through stained glass windows, dappling the floor with coloured reflections. A bit, I imagine, like entering a full-size kaleidoscope, with so much to see, so much to gawk at.

This was the reaction Henry strived for. He wanted people to enter and stop, amazed at what they saw within. So not only did he lift the nave, order the walls to be painted and decorated, St Edward’s shrine to be adequately highlighted and gilded, he also added a magnificent floor just before the shrine, and to top it all off, the high altar was adorned with a magnificent retable.

St Peter with the key to Heaven
Amazingly, the Westminster Retable is still with us. Close to eight centuries old, badly damaged and scuffed, it is still there, still retains sufficient traces of the images that must at one time have had people going ‘ooooo’ and ‘aaaa’. To be frank, it is difficult not to do the ‘ooo’ and ‘aaa’ thing now as well – assuming you’ve taken the time to find the retable, which relatively few visitors to the abbey do, seeing as they never feel sufficiently motivated to visit the museum.

Divided into five panels, the retable was made of oak, decorated with enamels and jewels, meticulously painted using linseed oils. The frames of each panel was gilded, to the furthest left was St Peter, holding the keys to heaven, to the right St Paul, brandishing his sword. And in the central panel, decorated so as to resemble a gothic church, complete with stained glass windows, was, of course, Christ the Saviour, flanked by St John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary.

The whole world in his hands...
I must admit to being somewhat in love with the retable. Specifically, I am intrigued by one image, that of Christ holding the whole world in his hand. Because you see, dear readers, the world Christ is holding is round. It’s a sphere. On a work of art from the 13th century. I shall leave you to mull that one over…

It is somewhat of a miracle that the retable is still around. When the Reformation happened, churches were often stripped of what was considered as excessively popish decorations, wall paintings were hidden under whitewash, statues of saints and the Virgin destroyed. And then, during the English Civil War, the Puritans had a tendency to go wild and crazy when it came to what they perceived as idolatry. The retable was not destroyed. It was just bundled off into storage somewhere, and in the 18th century someone came up with the bright idea to use the ancient thing – newly painted – as a cask for William Pitt the elder’s wax effigy.

These days, the retable is restored to a fragment of its original magnificence, but it is sufficient to conclude that the English (and French) craftsmen involved in its creation were true artists – and that the king who ordered it did not consider money a limiting factor.

Photo: Bede 735
It is, I suppose, an open question which king succeeded in best demonstrating his piety to the world. In their constant competition, they left the world two marvels, the pure gothic beauty of Sainte-Chapelle and the somewhat more grounded Westminster Abbey, its ancient roots still visible. And as to which one of them was the most devout, that too must remain an open question, although Louis would probably sniff and tell me not to be an idiot: after all, there is no St Henry while there most definitely is a St Louis – and by all accounts deservedly so.

In 1272, Henry III died. He left behind a devoted and extremely capable son and a work of art. Not a bad legacy, for a man who began his days as a frightened child-king and grew up to be a rather deficient ruler. Not bad at all.

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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, was published on November 1, 2015.

Anna Belfrage is also the author of the acclaimed  The Graham Saga. Set in 17th century Scotland, Virginia and Maryland, eight books tell 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.

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.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Saint Columbanus Forsakes All Women – Even His Mom

By Kim Rendfeld

Saint Columbanus (543-615) had tremendous following during his missionary work on the Continent, but a story from his youth indicates he, like several saints, might not have been an easy guy to be around.

Details of his childhood in West Leinster, Ireland, are hazy. If we are to believe his hagiographer, Columbanus’s mother while pregnant with him had a dream of the sun rising from her bosom and shedding a resplendent light. She took that to mean the baby she was carrying was going to be a genius who would aid in her and her neighbors’ salvation. Little did she know the price she would pay.

Photo by Andreas Praefcke
(released to public domain,
via Wikimedia Commons)
One clue to Columbanus’s youth is that he was educated and lived at home, which implies that he might have come from a noble family who hired a tutor. Peasants commonly needed their children to help with the farm or the household rather than allow their children to devote time to lessons. We don’t know what Columbanus’s parents intended for him. Perhaps, they saw him as a member of the clergy, a common reason to teach a child grammar and science.

As a young man, he was good-looking and, his hagiographer says, “aroused against him the lust of lascivious maidens.” (Yep, medieval people knew the women enjoyed intimacy. In fact, conjugal relations were a wife’s right, too.)

He enjoyed the attention and feared it would destroy what he had worked for thus far. Eventually, he found a holy woman who has removed herself from the world for 12 years. She said she would have crossed the sea to live among strangers if not for the weakness of her sex. (For some reason that wasn’t a problem for Saint Ursula and her fellow martyrs maybe a century or two earlier, and almost 200 years later, nuns from Wimborne heeded Saint Boniface’s call to become missionaries on the Continent.)

The holy woman reminded him of how other men – Adam, Samson, David, and Solomon – had fallen because they succumbed to feminine charms and warned that he would do no better. She exhorted him to, “Flee from corruption, into which, as you know, many have fallen. Forsake the path which leads to the gates of hell."

For a frightened Columbanus, the flight was literal – he was going to leave home. He justified his departure with a verse from the Bible, Matthew 10:37, one that I struggle with: “He that loveth father or mother more than me is not worthy of me: and he that loveth son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me” (King James version).

That was no consolation to his mother. In fact, the weeping woman laid herself across the threshold to block his way. Columbanus simply leapt over her. His hagiographer says that “he asked his mother not to give way to her grief; she would never see him again in this life, but wherever the way of salvation led him, there he would go.”

Salvation led him to a holy man then a monastery in Bangor, about 130 miles away – quite a distance when an army could go about 15 miles a day – and then across the Channel to Gaul.

To a medieval audience, this story, whether truth or legend, illustrates his piety – how his love for God was stronger than his love for his family. But I think even medieval mothers would be furious.

Sources

"St. Columbanus" by Columba Edmonds, The Catholic Encyclopedia

Medieval Sourcebook: “The Life of St. Columban by the Monk Jonas

Kim Rendfeld is the author of two books set in Carolingian Francia, The Cross and the Dragon and The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar, and is working on Queen of the Darkest Hour. For more about Kim and her fiction, visit kimrendfeld.com or her blog, Outtakes. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Dark Ages

By Mark Noce

Not just a controversial nickname for the medieval period, I’m talking about true dark ages in history. Entire epochs where next to nothing has survived in writing or archaeology. Eras after the fall of Rome or Troy. Yet something must have been happening, right? People and life go on, don’t they?


I’m fascinated by these dark ages of history, and none more so than the early medieval periods in the British Isles, particularly the centuries from 400-700AD. An age of legends, like those of King Arthur and the Mabinogion. But what was actually happening then?

Here’s what we do know for certain. At least hundreds of thousands of people were living in the British Isles at the time, and what little archaeology remains from the time period suggest a backwardness in the movement of technology (i.e. no new stone fortifications were built, only older Roman ones were repaired or modified). Many habitations show signs of plunder and burning by fire. In addition, hoards of valuables were buried and later abandoned or forgotten (probably because something happened to their owners). Not an indication of a very peaceful time.

On top of that, writing sources are even more scarce. The most extensive primary source to survive from the 500s alone comes from the monk, St. Gildas – and his longest surviving manuscript is less than 50 pages! Even books and those writing them were not spared from the onslaught of barbarians, famines, and plagues.

Yet the local people clearly survived. Genetic evidence shows that despite genes mixing from various invaders, the overall population of Britain and Ireland is still largely descended from the initial Stone Age inhabitants who first populated those islands.

So what’s it all mean?


To me, it shows a resilience of the human spirit and the indomitable character of those villages and kingdoms scattered across England, Wales, Scotland, and Ireland in the early medieval period. Despite the worst of conditions they still managed to survive, pass on their heritage to their children, and give birth to some of the most inspiring Arthurian legends we have today.

No small feat, and one that I think is worthy of their legacy and their descendants who live on in the rest of us to this day.     
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Mark Noce writes historical fiction with a passion. His medieval Welsh novel, Between Two Fires, comes out with Macmillan and St. Martin’s Press on August 23, 2016.

Learn more at marknoce.com or preorder his novel here.