Friday, April 17, 2015

Sir Godfrey Kneller, the de Veres, and the Beauclerks

by Margaret Porter

Such are thy pictures, Kneller, and such thy skill,
That Nature seems obedient to thy will;
Comes out and meets thy pencil in the draught,
Lives there, and wants but words to speak her thoughts.
                                                       ~~ John Dryden

Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford
In 1678, two years after arriving in England with his brother, the German artist Godfrey Kneller produced a magisterial, much-admired portrait of King Charles II. As a result, "his reputation daily increased so that most noblemen and ladies would have their pictures done by him," irrespective of their political affiliation or religious preferences. Aubrey de Vere, 20th Earl of Oxford, a soldier and courtier boasting one of the longest pedigrees in the land, was among the artist's subjects. Kneller painted his illustrious client in battle armour. 

the first portrait
When the Earl's daughter Lady Diana de Vere first posed for Kneller, she was no more than ten years old. Holding up a floral garland, she stands beside her younger sister Mary, seated beside her. By the early 1680s, when this double portrait  was completed, the German artist was at the pinnacle of prominence.

Nell Gwyn, with her son and without, with or without her clothes on, was often painted by renowned portraitists Peter Lely and Simon Verelst. Kneller succeeded them as the most fashionable artist of the day, remaining so after Nell’s death in 1687 and the Glorious Revolution of the following year. King William III and Queen Mary II shared the deposed James II's preference for Kneller's work.

Charles Beauclerk, Duke of St Albans
By 1690 Nell's son and heir, the Duke of St Albans, had embarked upon a military career. At about that time the handsome young man posed for a three-quarter length portrait. This would be the first of many Beauclerk portraits produced by Kneller, now a naturalised Englishman. He'd established a residence and studio in the north east corner of Covent Garden. Not only the nobility flocked there--the Duke’s father, King Charles II, had also visited the artist to sit for his portraits, a mark of great favour.

One of Kneller's most memorable and presumably enjoyable commissions came a year after the double coronation of William and Mary. As the former battled foreign enemies on the Continent, the Queen decided to imitate her own mother's gallery of beauties at Windsor Castle, produced by Lely. Mary proposed a set of paintings for Hampton Court Palace, being altered by Sir Christopher Wren to suit her and William's architectural tastes. Her plan was mocked by her father’s former mistress, Lady Dorchester, who famously quipped, "Madam, if the King was to ask for portraits of all the wits in his court, would not the rest think he called them fools?"

Diana, a Hampton Court Beauty
Undeterred, Mary put Kneller to work, and her loveliest and most virtuous attendants made their way to his studio to have their charms preserved as life-sized canvases. Of the twelve original paintings only eight remain. The most admired of the set is that of Lady Diana de Vere, who at that time was either officially or unofficially attached to the court as maid of honor. She poses with an orange tree, holding an orange in her hand—doubtless designating the de Veres’ fealty to the new rulers from the House of Orange. The paintings of Diana and the other ladies were positioned in the narrow spaces between the tall windows of Hampton Court's riverside Water Gallery (later demolished). Each was set within a blue-and-white painted frame to complement the Queen’s extensive Delftware collection. Diana's portrait currently hangs in the King’s Dining Room, and is now surrounded by giltwood frame. Duchess of St Albans, the title she gained at her marriage to Charles Beauclerk, was inscribed at a later date. (A detail of this work appears on the cover of my novel A Pledge of Better Times.)

The 20th Earl of Oxford 
in Garter Robes
 Having pleased the monarchs with portraits of beauties and military men, on 3 March 1691/2, Kneller became Sir Godfrey. “His Majesty, to shew his Kingly approbation of his Art and Manners, was pleas’d to confer the Honour of Knighthood upon him…and as an extraordinary Mark of his Grace and Favour, Honour’d him with the Present of a Sword, by the Hands of the Right Honourable Lord Chamberlain." The artist also became a Gentleman of the Privy Chamber, and received an honorary doctorate from Oxford. An acquaintance reported, "In June 1693 Sir Godfrey Kneller told me he has had fourteen persons sett to him in a day." Some of those persons sat to him as many as a dozen times for a single portrait! Diana’s father, Lord Oxford, a Knight of the Garter, a member of the Privy Council, a Lieutenant General, and a Gentleman of the King’s Bedchamber, commissioned a splendid full-length Kneller likeness at approximately the time his daughter was posing for her Beauty portrait.

Diana, 1694
Author's collection
Upon her marriage in 1694, Diana became Duchess of St Albans and again sat to Kneller—for a third time. The painting was promptly delivered to engraver John Smith, who revised her features and hair somewhat when producing prints for public sale. One of these holds a special place in my personal art gallery!

 In 1695, the Crown granted Kneller an annuity of £200 per year. Two years afterwards he received additional proofs of William’s admiration, a large gold medal stamped with the King’s image and a golden chain worth £300. It appears in most of the later self-portraits (as seen below) and on the bust attached to his burial monument.
After her accession to the throne, Diana’s friend Queen Mary would sit only to Kneller. A copy of her portrait, or the King’s, could be purchased for the price of £50, and judging from their wide dissemination this was a reliable source of income for Kneller and his assistants. Not only were the paintings acquired for civic and government buildings, they went abroad as presents to fellow rulers, territorial governors, ambassadorial residences, and so forth. And Kneller even travelled with—or without—the King, to make portraits of foreign allies and friends in the Low Countries.

1st Duke of St Albans, 1704
Kneller produced a Kit-Kat style portrait of Charles Beauclerk wearing a blue coat in 1704, as the the Duke was falling out of favour with Queen Anne—not that he ever really had it. Probably at her husband's instigation, Kneller created additional pictures of Diana: seated in a landscape wearing “a dark blue dress with red scarf,” and an oval half-length in which she appears in a “white dress with red mantle and holding a chalice.” These two passed through auction houses and are privately owned. Lord Cholmondeley’s Houghton Hall holds another Kneller portrait of “the Duchess of St. Albans ... in a blue dress, her son in a brown coat and a purple mantle, at her side.”

Duke of St Albans
The private family apartments of a Gloucestershire castle contain large three-quarter sized portraits of both Charles and Diana, and I greatly appreciate the owners’ invitation to view and photograph these paintings. They appear to have been created in 1718, after Charles became a Knight of the Garter—he wears a handsome crimson coat crossed with a blue sash from which hangs a jewel-studded Lesser George medallion.

Diana, Duchess of St Albans

Diana sits serenely in a white dress, fingering a blue ribbon. By my count this later painting represents the seventh time she posed for Kneller, indicating that she must have got to know him rather well!

Kneller's Self-portrait
Kneller was a companion of Dryden, Addison, Swift, and Pope, most of whom wrote verses proclaiming his talent and fame and what they regarded as his genius. He died aged seventy-four on 7 November, 1723, three years ahead of his regular client the Duke of St Albans. Two days before his death his friend Pope visited him, and declared, “I believe, Sir Godfrey, if Almighty God had had your assistance, the world would have been formed more perfect.”

These laudatory lines were composed by Addison:

Thou, Kneller, long with noble pride,
The foremost of thy art hast vied
With nature in a generous strife,
And touched the canvas into life.

Though later critics were less enamoured of Kneller’s style and works than his contemporaries, I remain forever grateful to him for touching those canvases and presenting my characters as they appeared to him in life!

Images:, National Portrait Gallery, Wikimedia Commons, author's collection and personal photo archive

Sources: Documents in the British Library; Sir Godfrey Kneller: His Life & Times, Lord Killanin; Beauty, Sex, and Power: A Story of Debauchery and Decadent Art at the Late Stuart Court, Brett Dolman, David Souden, Olivia Fryman; Oxford Dictionary of English Biography


Margaret Porter, who can claim a few tiny drops of de Vere blood, is the award-winning and bestselling author of several historical fiction genres, and is also published in nonfiction and poetry. A Pledge of Better Times, the story of courtiers Lady Diana de Vere and Charles Beauclerk, 1st Duke of St. Albans, and of Diana's father Aubrey de Vere, was just released in trade paperback and ebook. Margaret studied British history in the UK and the US. As historian, her areas of speciality are social, theatrical, and garden history of the 17th and 18th centuries, royal courts, and portraiture. A former actress, she gave up the stage and screen to devote herself to fiction writing, travel, and her rose gardens.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Everyday Medieval Women

By E.M. Powell

So much of the fascination of history is accounts of kings and queens, mighty battles and events that helped shape the modern world. Medieval history is no exception. The murder of Thomas Becket, The Wars of the Roses, Magna Carta, Richard the Lionheart, the Crusades: all indeed showstoppers. But what of the everyday day life that millions of people had to lead? I confess to finding that equally, and at times, even more absorbing. When visiting re-enactments or museums, I’m less taken with sword A or helmet B, but more likely to watch as a woman makes a dish of pottage using twelfth century implements and ingredients.

Medieval Cooking Pot
© York Museums Trust used with permission.

The fascination for me is that it’s so relatable. Everyone has to make their way in the world and we (most of us, anyway) don’t do it from the battlements of a castle. Yet even in the history of the ordinary man, it tends to be just that. Men. Whatever sparse records exist tend to disappear almost entirely when it comes to women, as so many records are linked to land. We do know some of what life was like for a woman who was not at the top of the social tree: challenging is a word that springs to mind.

Everyday women were excluded from holding any kind of office. A woman’s legal rights were defined primarily by men throughout her life. Men defined her description. When she was a maiden, her father was in charge. As a wife, her husband. A medieval legal definition of married women from 1180 tells us that “every married woman is a sort of infant.” A wife has to agree to her husband’s sexual demands, cannot borrow money without his permission and is not able to make a will. A widow’s standing is based on her late husband’s status. This might suggest some level of independence.

But the widow of a villein (a tenant entirely subject to a lord) had, in reality, to remarry. She had a brief few months to make her own choice. If she did not, then the lord’s bailiff or reeve would select her next spouse for her. Refusal brought a fine, or imprisonment. Giving birth to an illegitimate child carried a fine called childwyte. This seems particularly punitive when one considers the law on rape. It was believed that conception could only occur when a woman experienced orgasm. And if she did so, then she had enjoyed the encounter with the man. And so it wasn’t rape. Blinding logic. For medieval men, that is. 

Childbirth was a terribly risky endeavour for medieval women, no matter what their status in society. It is estimated that for every pregnancy, a woman had a one in fifty chance of dying in childbirth. Women from the lower classes were often employed as wet-nurses for the wealthy.

The wives of peasants and villeins shared much of the agricultural labour with their husbands. They could earn money as labourers but were paid about half than men for the same work. Seasonal work paid better than service. Women’s tasks included sheep shearing, milking cows and looking after livestock and chickens, planting, winnowing and weeding. This was on top of all the domestic tasks: keeping a fire, cooking, washing.

The dark hours were put to good use also. Cheese making and brewing could yield a woman some extra income. Many women brewed ale. The demand for ale was high as drinking water was frequently dirty and unsafe. While the brewers were women, the tasters were male and women could be fined for sour beer. With the introduction of hops to brewing (which makes beer, rather than ale and preserves the drink for a lot longer), it became a male-dominated practice, through women continued to sell it.

With the expansion of towns and cities in the medieval period, women found other opportunities to earn an income. Many unmarried young women opted for service as it gave a yearly wage and moved from the countryside to secure a place. Women also worked as huxters. They would buy produce such as bread, eggs, vegetables or other foods and sell from baskets, either door-to-door or on foot in the increasingly busy marketplaces. The female ale sellers went by some rather wonderful names: gannockers, tapsters or tranters. The money earned in these ways was pitifully small.

Medieval towns also saw the rise of the apprentice, where a young person could be trained to learn a craft over many years. But there were no female guilds, and female apprenticeships do not occur in large numbers in the records. The skilled weavers, for instance, were men. The preparatory work for weaving, such as combing, carding and spinning of the wool tended to be done by women who would be paid little for this work. Silk weaving developed as an all-female craft in London, yet the silk-women only formed a collective, not a guild.

Laundry was an all-female preserve. Women did their own washing at home, often using unpleasant substances such as lye and urine as cleaning agents. They also worked as laundresses, travelling to the houses of the rich to carry out their duties. Naturally, the work in the laundry is dismissed by some chroniclers as a hot-bed of gossiping. It must in reality have been back-breaking.

Moving to towns and cities made women vulnerable to exploitation. Prostitution was rife. Female prostitutes were tolerated in fourteenth century London so long as they wore a yellow hood that marked them out. This was to save confusion on behalf of men who might mistake a respectable woman for a prostitute.

I like chain-mailed heroes as much as the next medieval history fan. But for me, these forgotten women were pretty darned heroic too. Speaking as an everyday woman, I'm so privileged I have my life and not theirs.

Included in the post above with Amazon links: there is so much more to discover in them about ordinary life in medieval times.


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

Giveaway: The Tutor by Andrea Chapin

Andrea is giving away a print copy of The Tutor to a winner within the UK and Ireland. You can read about the book HERE. Please comment below, leaving your contact information, to enter the drawing.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Sibling Relations in the Medieval World

by Helena P. Schrader

Throughout the Middle Ages family ties were imprisoning. Everything revolved around family. Families stuck together through thick and thin. They paid each other's ransoms. They stood as hostages for one another. They were witnesses for one another’s contracts. They were each other’s clients and lords. They fought together and were buried in the same crypt.

Henry II and Richard I, enemies in life, lie side-by-side in Frontevauld Abbey.

This does not, of course, mean that all family members got along with one another all the time. On the contrary, the tensions within medieval families could be brutal and bitter. (The best example is, of course, Henry II, who had to fight wars with his sons, and whose sons fought each other in a series of shifting alliances.) But where there was less at stake or where personalities (and egos) less grandiose, families usually worked together and presented a common front to the outside world regardless of how many rivalries and tensions they had among themselves.

This record is astonishing when one remembers how fluid medieval families were, with high mortality removing siblings and parents, and when one considers how short childhood was.  Princes were often set up in their own household at a very early age; Edward of Woodstock, for example, had his own household physically separated from his parents and siblings from the age of three. Even younger sons were expected to leave the parental home at the age of seven to serve first as pages and then squires in the households of other lords, not returning until they were knighted at 16 or 17. Admittedly, in some cases this may have helped forge the bonds between brothers, if they were close enough in age to serve together somewhere else, becoming natural allies, or where they were sent to the households of much older brothers as was the case of John of Gaunt, who was raised for a time in the Black Prince’s household. But for the majority of boys, the years of training would have been years of separation from their family.

Yet the history of the Middle Ages is littered with examples of brothers who had very close ties. With the notable exception of Henry II’s sons, most Plantagenet brothers were astonishingly close. Henry III and Richard of Cornwall, Edward II and the unfortunate Edmund of Kent, the Black Prince and John of Gaunt, Edward IV and Richard III are all examples of princes who supported one another even at the risk of their lives or beyond the grave as John of Gaunt did by supporting his brother’s son. Nor were such ties between brothers unique to princes. William Marshal tried to help his elder brother, even when the latter was on the wrong side of politics. The Lusignan brothers together tried to capture Eleanor of Aquitaine and, after that failed, all three younger brothers sought their fortune in the Holy Land with astonishing success. The Montfort brothers fought together to conquer their father’s intransigent Viscounty, and it was the death of one that discouraged the others and induced them to give up the struggle. In the following generation, Simon de Montfort the Younger’s sons fought together unfailingly. The “Ibelin brothers” are named together as if they were a single unit in many accounts of the Kingdom of Jerusalem. Robert the Bruce was at times abandoned by practically everybody except his brothers. Indeed, Medieval society expected brothers to stand together in right and wrong, and any other kind of behavior was considered unsavory or an indication of an individual’s exceptional unworthiness.

Sisters too were close, but this is more understandable as they were generally raised together — until they married. Marriage could, of course, occur at a very early age. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Marguerite Capet was betrothed at 8 months (yes, months) and married at age three, the age at which she moved in with her in-laws. But whether sisters by blood or marriage, young girls generally stayed together under the tutelage of their mother, mother-in-law or step-mother until they were sexually mature and old enough to run their own household as the wives of mature men. (By mature men, I don’t necessarily mean emotionally mature men, only legally mature, which was roughly 15 years of age in the medieval world, although it varied from kingdom to kingdom and across the centuries.) Notably, regardless of the age a girl was at her wedding, consummation of the marriage and co-habitation with a husband did not generally occur until after a girl had reached sexual maturity, which could be as young as 12 but was more often 14 or 15. As a result, it is hardly surprising that we have many examples of women retaining close ties to their sisters throughout their lives. One of my favorite examples is the enduring affection of Queen Eleanor, Henry III’s Queen, for her sister Marguerite, Queen of Louis IX of France, although their husbands were sometimes at war with one another.

More touching, given how often they were separated, are examples of brothers and sisters with strong ties. Richard I was so outraged by his sister Joanna’s treatment at the hands of her husband’s successor that he threatened to use his crusading army to obtain her rights and forced a very favorable settlement upon the King of Sicily. Henry III was so fond of his sister Eleanor that he let her marry far below her station, the third son of a French parvenu, Simon de Montfort, a decision he surely came to regret. Richard I, of course, might have been more concerned about a perceived affront to the English crown and his own honor than his sister’s welfare, but he did take her with him on crusade and there are other indications that they were close. Among the nobility there are many similar examples.

All of which goes to show that family ties, even when under stress — or perhaps particularly under stress — are amazingly resilient. Shared identity and shared nurseries appears to have forged remarkable bonds between siblings which could transcend political fronts (as in the case of the Marshal brothers or the Provence sisters) and certainly bridged long distances and long absences.


Helena P. Schrader is the author of numerous works of history and historical fiction.  She holds a PhD in History from the University of Hamburg.  The first book of a three-part biographical novel of Balian d’Ibelin, who defended Jerusalem against Saladin in 1187 and was later one of Richard I’s envoys to Saladin, is now available for sale.  Read more at: or follow Helena’s blogs:Schrader’s Historical Fiction and Defending the Crusader Kingdoms.

A Biographical Novel of Balian d’Ibelin
Book I

A landless knight,
                A leper King
                                And the struggle for Jerusalem.

Buy now in Paperback or Kindle format!

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Von Aufsess Occupation Diaries: A Remarkable Testament of the Second World War

By Mark Patton

From 1940 to 1945, the Channel Islands of Jersey, Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm were the only British territories occupied by German forces, an occupation that I have explored, in general terms, in an earlier blog-post. As one might expect, for such a recent conflict, there are a great many first-hand accounts of the occupation, written from a wide variety of viewpoints, but one stands out as being of particular interest.

Hans Max von Aufsess was a Franconian aristocrat, assigned to the islands in a quasi-diplomatic role to liaise with the civil authorities. Although he was always subordinate to the most senior German officers in the garrison, he was allowed a relatively free hand in his dealings with the Bailiff of Jersey, Alexander Coutanche, and the senior politicians of the islands.

Von Aufsess claimed, in a preface to the published diary in 1984, to have kept the diary as "a purely personal chronicle of the times, written rather for the relief of confiding to paper thoughts which could not be expressed aloud, than with the interests of the future historian in mind."

German officers in Jersey (Photo: Imperial War Museum, Non-Commercial License).

Although he spent most of the war on the islands, he did not start keeping the diary until July 1944. "The situation in the last ten months of the war," he later explained, was probably without precedent in the annals of military history and international law," and it was these months, specifically, that he was keen to document, a time during which the islands were by-passed by the fighting, and during which both occupiers and occupied, cut off from any supplies, came close to starvation.

The SS Vega, which brought Red Cross supplies to the islands. As combatants, the German garrison were entitled to none of these supplies, but senior officers, including Baron von Aufsess, were entertained on board. Photo: Imperial War Museum (Non-Commercial License, HU25968).

They were times, also, dominated by fear. Von Aufsess had nightmares about the fate of his wife (she was, in fact, arrested by the Gestapo, suspected of lending some form of support to those who attempted to assassinate Hitler). In his darkest moments, he feared even for himself: "Reason and a sense of proportion have become suspect as reactionary. The shadow of the gallows hangs over all of us, especially the nobility."

The allied bombardment of Saint Malo, in northern Brittany, the German garrison's last point of contact with the continent. Von Aufsess recalls the precise moment at which the guns (they could be clearly heard from Jersey) went silent. Photo: US Army (image is in the Public Domain).

"We discuss the delicate question of reprisals against the civilian population for sheltering escaped prisoners," he wrote in August 1944 (the prisoners in question were slave workers, Spanish Republicans and Ukrainians, Poles & Russians captured on the Eastern Front). "I am the only one in favour of restraint." Some islanders were indeed arrested and sent to internment camps for such offences, and not all of them survived the war, but Von Aufsess's policy of restraint seems to have prevailed in most cases.

He describes meals of "stinging nettles, sorrel ... and root vegetables ... with a small supply of beet syrup," but he somehow had Cognac stashed away, and was, as far as was possible, still living the life of an aristocrat, socialising with local families and even exercising horses on the beach: "Then came Froni, the white mare, wild, intractable ... I rode her bareback in my bathing trunks and managed to keep her, if with difficulty, under control."

Everything changed, however, in March 1945. A new Commandant was appointed over the islands, Admiral Friedrich Huffmeier, an ardent Nazi. Von Aufsess was summoned to a meeting, in which the admiral explained to him "his ideas for holding out in the islands for as long as possible," perhaps even after the end of the war. "It had come to his knowledge that I was not a good National Socialist." At one point, the baron, fearing his imminent arrest, actually planned an escape from Jersey with a group of islanders, but abandoned this when someone he trusted reassured him that his fears were groundless.

Von Aufsess seems to have had some plan in his mind to assassinate Huffmeier if he did attempt to hold the islands as some form of Nazi enclave when the war ended. In the end, however, his diplomatic touch may have proved more effective than a pistol. "The admiral, in a feat of silly pique and pride, at first threatened to fire on the English ships when they arrived a few hours ahead of the agreed time ... the admiral surrendered without, as he had threatened, blowing up all the arms and ammunition ... But his intentions came perilously close to being put into effect."

HMS Bulldog, one of the two Royal Navy warships sent to liberate the Channel Islands on 9th May, 1945. Photo: Imperial War Museum, FL1817 (image is in the Public Domain).

Of course, the full truth is unknowable. Despite his protestations that the diaries were purely personal, Von Aufsess is at pains to emphasise his anti-Nazi credentials, and to record each and every act of opposition to Huffmeier and the Nazi regime. By the time he started keeping the diaries, he had certainly concluded that an allied victory was inevitable, and he may, if only subconsciously, have been preparing the grounds for his defence in a trial that was never to come about. For all of this, the diaries are fascinating account of the political and psychological dimensions of an extraordinary moment in history.

Mark Patton blogs regularly on aspects of history and literature at His novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon UK or Amazon USA.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Death Becomes Her

by Sandra Byrd

Queen Victoria's Daughters, mourning
The Victorians cared very much about how outward appearances reflected inward sentiments and morality. One way they expressed themselves was through mourning clothes and jewelry. Queen Victoria famously wore black from the time of Prince Albert's death  in 1861 till her own death some 40 years later.  Mourning regulations were handy social signals to others. Deaths were announced via mourning stationary and sealed with black wax. Sally Mitchell, in Daily Life in Victorian England reminds us that, "Mourning clothes made other people aware of a loss and prevented intrusive personal remarks."

The Business of Mourning

According to Kristine Hughes (The Writer’s Guide to Everyday Life in Regency and Victorian England),  early in the nineteenth century ladies' magazines "regularly featured fashion plates depicting proper funeral attire, along with articles detailing proper etiquette for the occasion." She goes on to tell us that linen drapers shops offered mourning departments. Why? It was big, big business.  Who didn't know someone who had died? Women were limited to the colors black and then grey, but might creatively use different fabrics, textures, and styling to indicate status, wealth, and personal taste. Hughes claims that, "one of the first categories of clothing to be mass-produced was mourning clothes." Believably so!

What to Wear

Contrary to the Queen's lengthy example, a widow was expected to mourn her husband for only two years - most people didn't live as long as Victoria, and there was little time to waste. Mitchell reminds us that the widow, "could moderate her funereal clothing a bit after a while to 'half-mourning,' which consisted of pinstripe black." Later this also included grays, especially for the younger generation.

Mitchell continues, "During the first year of mourning, widows were to conduct themselves as veritable social outcasts, forced to refuse all invitations, the only visits permitted being to close relatives or church services, including weddings and christenings." The parent or a child of the deceased was expected to mourn for a shorter period of time: Twelve months in whole, which eventually moved in color from black, to grey before the full color spectrum was allowed along with full engagement in social activities. Siblings mourned for six months.


Unless the death was a suicide, funerals usually took place in the morning.  Mitchell says, "Among the gentry and prosperous middle classes, the coach was draped in black velvet and the horses wore black plumes," and, "Male friends or hired mourners called mutes walked alongside. Sometimes they carried the heavy black pall that was draped over the coffin. Everyone attending the funeral wore black garments made of wool and crepe. Men wore black gloves; flowing bands of black cloth known as weepers were tied around their hats. Even among the poorest, it was important for immediate relatives to wear black clothing."

No family? Few friends? No problem.  Mourners would be hired.  In fact, the British newspaper The Daily Express newspaper tells us that mutes, "looked tragic during the service and doubled as waiters for the wake. Dickens despised them and in the funeral in Martin Chuzzlewit he describes: 'Two mutes… looking as mournful as could reasonably be expected of men with such a thriving job in hand.'"

Black Baubles, Hair Rings and Pulled Teeth

One of the most fascinating, and perhaps creepy, aspect of Victorian mourning was the jewelry it inspired.

Items made of jet grew popular after the Queen wore it upon the death of Prince Albert, a custom she did not abandon clear to her own death in 1901. According to Hughes, "Jet jewelry has been associated with mourning for some time, though it was not mass-produced before the early 19th century. Jet is made from the fossilized driftwood of the monkey puzzle tree and is also found in the form of slate."  Mitchell adds," Very close relatives might wear a brooch or watch-fob woven from the dead person’s hair."

Yes, hair.

Hughes tells us that, "Jewelry made from the hair of the deceased was popular from 1790 to 1840, and this, too, was incorporated into mourning jewelry, being given settings of black or white enamel, jet with gold, and often embellished with the words 'In Memoriam.'" Sometimes they would take a tooth from a deceased and mount it in a ring or a necklace.  They didn't eat much sugar then so contrary to current opinion, their teeth were pretty good.  Just, perhaps, not pretty in the finger.

Memento Mori

Memento Mori is Latin for, Remember... you have to die.  During the early days of photography, the Victorians would take pictures of the recently deceased in their homes, gardens, or even beds, posed doing something they would have done while alive.  Perhaps it was a macabre way to remind the survivors to think of the fleetingness of life, and to number their days.  The oddest, most morbid photos included babies who had passed away settled neatly into their prams.

What's Old Is New Again

It's true that there is nothing new under the sun, and mourning is big business again. Black still predominates, and while pictures of those passed are not popular, The Daily Express reports that, "Rent A Mourner, an Essex-based company providing sad people for funerals when (as its website delicately puts it) 'here may be a low turnout expected'. Bookings are also on the up because people want something more dramatic than a mousey British send-off. They want sobbing, hair tearing and breast beating, in the way of excitable foreigners."

Perhaps this is an answer to temporary job needs. As Assistant Editor Jennifer Selway puts it, "Yes, a career in professional mourning could be the answer. Short hours, free booze and all the ham sandwiches you can eat."

No hairy brooches required.


To learn more about Sandra's new Victorian Gothic Romance series, Daughters of Hampshire, including the first book, Mist of Midnight, please visit:

Sunday, April 12, 2015

On Serendipity

by Jacqui Reiter

Depiction of "The Three Princes of Serendip"

I was 17 when I first stumbled on the word “serendipity”. I was undergoing interview at the university I later attended. The Director of Studies asked how much serendipity had gone into the finding of the sources for my high school Extended Essay. I didn't know what he meant, but explained my methodology, which turned into the right answer. As soon as I got within reach of a dictionary I looked the word up.

Serendipity” is a wonderful word for a phenomenon I have encountered again and again over the course of my historical studies and research. It was coined in 1754 by Horace Walpole, describing a story he had read entitled “The Three Princes of Serendip”, in which the characters kept making accidental discoveries.[1] It's a magnificent word for those kinds of historical discoveries of things you are not necessarily looking for, but which enrich your subject knowledge, open up an aspect of your research you never knew existed, or even change the direction of your investigations completely.

Research has to be based on a system: you can't just start reading and trust to fate to point you in the right (write?) direction. But, while following up research leads, I have encountered serendipity at every turn. It has happened so much that I have even started talking about a Research Fairy who follows me into the archives, tugging at my sweater and pushing certain documents my way, or leads me to just the right historical location, or turns my head in the right direction in the art gallery. It's happened so many times now that it can't possibly be a coincidence … can it?

To give you only three examples from my recent research experience:

1). The time my good friend and research sister, Stephenie Woolterton, and I went to Berry Brothers & Rudd looking for the records of the weight of my main character, John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham. Berry Brothers is a wine merchant but have a famous set of massive coffee scales on which they occasionally weighed wealthier customers in the 18th and 19th centuries.

(Wikimedia Commons)

The employees were slightly thrown to discover that we did not, in fact, want to see the world-famous entries in their ledgers for Lord Byron. They explained to us that Chatham's entry was probably off-site with the majority of their records, but after being pressed they gave us permission to look in the same ledger that contained Byron's entry.

The ledger fell open at Chatham's page.

Photo by Stephenie Woolterton

2.) I spent a while researching the 1799 Helder campaign for a sequence in my novel. While tracking the movements of my main character, I found that he stayed in a house called “Bifrons”, near Canterbury, while waiting to embark for the expedition. The house, alas, no longer stands, but I found enough information about it to be able to set a scene there reasonably confidently.

A few days later I decided to take my toddlers for a trip to Howlett's Zoo in Kent. While driving down I noticed a place name that was familiar to me from the correspondence I had been reading: Harbledown. A few minutes later I turned past a road named Bifrons Hill. Yes: I had casually stumbled on the former location of Bifrons House.

View across Barham Downs near the location of Bifrons (my photo)

3). I could give numerous examples of times in the archives when I have ordered one thing and discovered something much more interesting lurking in the background. On one occasion I called out a volume and looked at a letter I knew existed and which I had meant to consult. Casually, as I often do, I flipped through the volume and found another letter, an undated and unaddressed draft, filed a few items away, but which I immediately spotted was connected with the letter I had originally been reading. The more I read, the more I realised that the two letters added together pointed to a new and fairly major historical discovery.

Over the next few weeks I followed the lead. Everything suddenly fell into place: a whole mass of cryptic references in correspondence that had previously made no sense to me suddenly took on a whole new meaning. After a while it all seemed so obvious to me I wondered how nobody else had spotted it before. And all thanks to that one undated draft, which had been filed as though it were a continuation of another, completely unconnected letter.

So there you have it. Surely these things are not coincidental? And I have so many other examples too of how research has taken me down avenues I never even knew existed. Serendipity for sure (although I'm aware a lot of these examples are not “proper” serendipity, in that a lot of the time I was looking for something specific and merely found it in a serendipitous way).

It's probably coincidence: but it's happened so often that I almost believe in that Research Fairy I mentioned. Historical research does have a spark of magic to it, after all.



[1] Horace Walpole to Sir Horace Mann, 28 Jan 1754, The Letters of Horace Walpole, earl of Orford III (London, 1840), 35


Jacqui Reiter has a Phd in 18th century political history. She believes she is the world expert on the life of the 2nd Earl of Chatham, and has written a novel about his relationship with his brother Pitt the Younger. She is currently writing Chatham's biography, due to be published in September 2016 by Pen & Sword Books. When she finds time she blogs about her historical discoveries at  

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Like Father Like Son: We Know Little About Shakespeare’s Life, But What We Do Know Is Important

by Andrea Chapin

Most of William Shakespeare’s life is undocumented. Indeed, it was his “lost years” between 1585 and 1592 that compelled me to write The Tutor, my novel about a year in the life of Shakespeare. What was he up to between twenty-one, when he was living in Stratford with three children, and twenty-eight, when he emerged as an actor, playwright and poet in London? Was he a deer poacher in Stratford, horse handler for theaters in London, soldier, sailor, actor, musician? Was he a schoolmaster in the country? What perfect terrain, I thought, for a fiction writer.

There is as much speculation as to what Shakespeare was doing during those lost years as there is about what sort of person he was: kind or selfish, faithful or promiscuous, teetotaler or boozer? We know Shakespeare’s poems, sonnets, and plays. We know dates in his life: christenings, weddings, and deaths chronicled in church and town records. But we know little about his personality.

Scholars often warn against interpreting any of his writing as autobiographical. He left no letters—though there’s a story that many years after his death, in the late 1700s, several baskets of letters and papers with Shakespeare’s name on them were destroyed by a farmer who did not know their importance. The scant quotes from fellow poets and playwrights possibly give some clues as to Shakespeare’s knowledge and his character. Robert Greene, in a penny pamphlet, wrote a snarky gibe in a passage assumed to be about Shakespeare:
..for there is an upstart Crow, beautified with our feathers, that with his Tygers hart wrapt in a Players hyde, supposes he is as well able to bombast out a blanke verse as the best of you: and being an absolute Johannes factotum, is in his owne conceit the onely Shake-scene in a countrey
And in the preface to the First Folio, in Ben Johnson’s laudatory “Eulogy to Shakespeare” where he praises the Bard’s spectacular genius, Johnson remarks that Shakespeare knew “small Latine, and lesse Greeke…”

With all the worry about what we don’t know about Shakespeare, what I found perhaps most interesting when researching him is what we do know about him—especially the facts about his father.

John Shakespeare married up: Mary Arden was from gentry, a prominent land-owning family, whereas John Shakespeare was from the yeoman class, his family tenant farmers on Arden land. John left the life of farming, moved to Stratford and became a glove maker, probably starting as an apprentice. He did well enough to purchase a house on Henley Street in 1551 and another house
nearby in 1552. Records show that in the years after John’s marriage to Mary in 1557, he traded goods, including wool, malt and corn, and dealt in moneylending.

As John expanded into several businesses, he also embarked on a career within the Stratford town government:

1557: Ale-taster—Stratford was known for its brewing.

1561: Chamberlain of the Borough of Stratford, where he presided over the town council.

1565: Alderman—a position that brought with it a free education for his boys at Stratford’s grammar school.

1568: Bailiff of Stratford—equivalent to a mayor.

1570: Chief Alderman—top position in the town. During 1570, John sought the title of “gentleman” by applying for coat of arms—a symbol of his rise in the world. From Yeoman to Gentleman was a big leap. But John was denied the coat-of-arms—perhaps because during this same year John was accused of Usury for lending money at 20% and 25% interest. Perhaps there were other reasons.

From 1578 on: Documents show that when William is around 14 something went terribly wrong with John Shakespeare’s business and civic life. He incurred debts and fines, failed to show up for court dates and for church (for which he was fined). He started to lose property and even lost his wife’s large farm. Finally, he was removed from the town’s Board of Alderman. Was it illegal business dealings? Was he a Catholic? Was he sick? Again, there’s only been conjecture—no one knows why.

Intelligent young men from humble backgrounds did receive scholarships to Oxford and Cambridge at that time. Christopher Marlowe, who went to Cambridge, was the son of a cobbler. But if that son had to go to work because his father for some reason was out of work, then no such university was in sight.

John Shakespeare was clearly a very ambitious man. Perhaps a Johannes factotum—a Jack-of-all trades. Like father like son. Shakespeare was not content only to act, but he published poetry, had his plays produced and became part owner of a theater company and a theater, so he made money from every ticket sold (the way his father made money on the wool he sold and the money he lended—a percentage). As Shakespeare became successful in London, he purchased property. He bought Sir Clopton’s house in Stratford, a large house with ten fireplaces, far grander than the house on Henley Street where he grew up. And he applied for and was granted a coat of arms.

Robert Greene does not say the heart of a “bunny” or “mouse” in his snide remark about Shakespeare, but gives him the heart of a tiger—an animal that is aggressive, powerful, and controlling—who by his own conceit is the only “Shake-scene” in the country. In play after play, Shakespeare’s plots deal with the rise and fall of great men. Who, in a child’s life, is the greatest and most powerful person? His father. And who would know better about that “vaulting ambition” Shakespeare attributes to Macbeth, than Shakespeare himself.

Sources: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare by James Shapiro; 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare by James Shapiro; Shakespeare Unbound: Decoding a Hidden Life by Rene Weis; Will in the World: How Shakespeare Became Shakespeare by Stephen Greenblatt; Shakespeare of London by Marchette Chute; The Age of Shakespeare by Frank Kermode; and Shakespeare: The World As Stage by Bill Bryson.


Andrea Chapin has acted professionally, touring Germany in Edward Albee’s Seascape. She has been an editor at art, movie, theater, and literary magazines, including The Paris Review, Conjunctions, and The Lincoln Center Theater Review, and has written for More, Redbook, Town & Country, Self, Martha Stewart Living, Marie Claire, and other publications. Chapin is also a writing teacher and private book editor. The Tutor,her first novel, was published by Riverhead Books in the US in February and last month by Penguin Books in the UK.

Amazon US
Amazon UK
Amazon CA

Friday, April 10, 2015

Men have swords, women fans

by Maria Grace

"Men have the sword, women have the fan and the fan is probably as effective a weapon!" --Joseph Addison

For centuries fans have appeared in paintings as the quintessential fashion accessory. They are so ubiquitous they call for a closer examination.

Raimundo Madrazo - Reclining Lady Makers of fans

Originating with the guilds of Europe, City Livery Companies have existed in London for over one thousand years. These companies had the power to set wages, train apprentices, and control standards and imports of goods. A guild of fan makers existed as early as 1670 and was formed into a formal company, charted by Queen Anne, in 1709. 

By 1747, over 800 members were registered with the Worshipful Company of Fan Makers, with approximately twenty apprentices completing their seven year apprenticeships as fan makers a year. The membership even included some women such as Sarah Ashton who published at least thirteen designs for engraved fans. In 1809, the company was granted livery of scarlet gowns trimmed with fur for their Masters and wardens.

Anatomy of a Fan 

Although several types of fans exist, they share in common many of the same structures.


A fan’s sticks formed the basic structure of the fan. In the 18th and early 19th century they might be made of wood, bone, horn, ivory, metal, mother of pearl or tortoise shell. The sticks might be carved, pierced or painted, especially along the lower edge. The sticks might be arranged such that ‘daylight’ might be seen between them, or to form a continuous surface.  In more elaborate designs, the carvings on the edges of the sticks might form patterns or figures visible only when the fan was folded. 

Leaf or mount
Fan leaf - Google Art Project
Fans might consist only of sticks, or they might have a leaf or mount applied to narrow sticks. Leaves might be made of silk, kid (leather), crape, lace, paper or a form of vellum known as ‘chicken skin’(which was not a tanned chicken hide). Unless a fan was made of chicken skin, the mount was usually made of two pieces, one glued to each side of the sticks. Fan mounts were often elaborately decorated.

When a leaf or mount was used, ribs were the thin sticks to which the mount was glued.

The sticks on the ended might be slightly thicker and more highly decorated. When the fan was closed, these offered some protection to the sticks and leaf within.

The rivet or pivot holds the fan together is often set with a decorative gem. Brackets to attach the fan to a chatelaine might also be present.

Types of Fans
Several different forms of fans existed, going in and out of style like most fashion accessories. 

Fixed fan green silk straw embroidery c 1740 LACMA M82 122 2 2Fixed 
The earliest fans, often made of wood or feathers attached to a handle, did not fold. Thus, they were called fixed. Their popularity faded with the convenience of the folding fan.

Several forms of folding fans exist. 

Brise’ fans consist of sticks only with no leaf. Individual sticks that get wider from the rivet to the top are fastened together with a ribbon or decorative fabric band.   The sticks might be decorated individual with painting, gilding, piercing or carving, or together to form a scene or image when opened.  Inexpensive brise’ fans might be made of wood. Ivory, tortoise shell and mother of pearl could be very fashionable.

French - Folding Fan and Case - Walters 866Pleated
Pleated fans are the most common folding fans. Sticks are held together at the bottom rivet and a leaf or mount is attached to them. Leaves might be made from paper, silk or other fabric, kid, lace, feathers or vellum.  

Cockade fans are a type of pleated fan in which the stiff pleated leaf is attached to two sticks.  The sticks open full circle and fasten together to form a handle.


Cabriolet fans

are pleated fans with a leaf of multiple, separate strips.  These leaf strips were made of chicken skin (vellum) since it was the only material strong enough to withstand the wear and tear in such narrow bands.

While useful, fans are most often considered a fashion accessory and prized for their beauty. 

Eugène Delacroix - Fan with Caricatures - WGA06240Master artists and individual ladies alike decorated fans with paintings on silk and paper leaves. Landscapes were popular themes, as were the depiction of persons. Biblical and mythological themes were favored by some, while others leaned toward caricatures. As demand for decorative fans increased, designs were printed, rather than painted or paper or silk, permitting the production of less expensive fans. 


  • When Chicken-Skin Wasn’t , 13 December 2013 by Kathryn Kane
  •, November 19, 2012

 Maria Grace is the author of Darcy's Decision,  The Future Mrs. Darcy, All the Appearance of Goodness, and Twelfth Night at Longbourn and Remember the PastClick 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.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Lusitania's Fate Sealed by the Admiralty

by Ronald J. Walters

A hundred years after the tragic sinking of the RMS Lusitania, there are still many unanswered questions, in terms of what actually transpired and why. It has never been explained why the British cruiser, the HMS Juno, was recalled to her mooring station after having set sail to respond to the Lusitania’s distress call. Nor do we know why thousands of mines were dropped on the ship’s wreckage in the late 1940s. Unfortunately, we will probably never know what really happened that fateful day in May, 1915. But that certainly won’t stop us from speculating as to what dark secrets might be looming in the ship’s history.

Between 1707 and the start of World War I, The British Empire had been involved in ninety-five separate wars. As a contingency for future naval needs, the British government often subsidized the construction and operating costs of cruise liners, with the proviso that these ships could be converted into Armed Merchant Cruisers, if the need for them arose. These luxurious ships were designed to have secret compartments for carrying arms and ammunition. When WWI began, the RMS Lusitania and her sister ship, the Mauretania, were requisitioned by the Admiralty as armed merchant cruisers. This designation triggered their inclusion on the official AMC list and changed their status in Jane’s All the Worlds Fighting Ships, an annual reference book that contains information on every warship in the world. A copy of that book was standard issue for all German U-Boats and Naval vessels.

The Declaration of Paris, which was signed in 1856, established the rules of engagement for naval vessels, later known as the “Cruiser Rules.” In part, those rules stated that a passenger ship could not be fired upon without warning. The Germans followed those rules when engaging merchant and passenger ships. However, in 1915, Winston Churchill (who was, at the time, the First Lord of the Admiralty) issued a letter to Germany stating that he was considering arming merchant and passenger ships so that they could fire at the German U-Boats. In response, Germany declared open, unrestricted warfare, which essentially made the Lusitania – other cruise ships – fair game.

Up until this point, the United States had maintained a position of neutrality, even though they had been supplying the British with arms and ammunition. Passenger liners, like the Lusitania, were often used to convey these shipments. Perhaps the ship was carrying more than just the On May 7th, 1915, the German submarine, U-20, and its captain, Walter Schweiger, were on patrol just off the coast of Ireland. The Lusitania, carrying a total of 1,959 souls between the crew and the passengers, was steaming along a course towards its final destination, Liverpool, England. The ship’s captain, Captain Turner, wanted to take readings at four points along the shoreline to better determine his exact location. In doing so, he allowed the much slower U-20 to gain a tactical advantage in plotting an intercept course. At the time, it was standard practice for passenger liners to have destroyer escorts – but none were made available to the Lusitania.

The British government has never fully disclosed why. Furthermore, protocol dictated that the ship should have sailed on a zig-zag course at full speed when navigating U-Boat patrolled waters. Captain Turner did just the opposite.

When Captain Schweiger surfaced to periscope depth, he was shocked to see the Lusitania just 700 yards away! Naturally, he issued the order to fire a single torpedo, which struck the ship in the starboard bow. Less than eighteen minutes later, the massive “Greyhound of the Sea” was 300 feet below the surface of the ocean.

The sinking took the United States by surprise as just days before German Ambassador Count Bernsdorff had assured the US government that “passenger liners would not be sunk without warning and without ensuring the safety of the non-combatants aboard providing that the liners do not try to escape or offer resistance.” Yet this attack took the lives of many American citizens. In fact, it was this event that catalyzed the US’s involvement in the war.

After being rescued, Captain Turner appeared at a coroner’s inquiry on May 10th, 1915. He admitted that he had received warnings about submarines and stated that he carried out orders and instructions from the Admiralty which he was not allowed to discuss. Thirty minutes after the coroner’s inquest concluded, the crown solicitor for County Cork, Ireland appeared with instructions that Captain Turner be barred from giving evidence. He was not allowed to make any further statements about instructions he may or may not have been given concerning shipping, submarines, deviations from standing operating orders, or the cargo manifest of the Lusitania.

As we approach its centennial anniversary, there are still many unanswered questions regarding the sinking of the Lusitania. Until and unless the government of Great Britain releases classified documents (which would be an unlikely occurrence, indeed!) regarding the instructions sent to the ship’s captain and the reason behind calling off her destroyer escort, the truth will remain hidden. We very probably will never know exactly what happened that fateful day in May, 1915, but inspired by these real events, The Lusitania Conspiracy allows us to imagine what might have been and provides just one possible explanation of what really sunk the ship that fateful day.


Ron Walters has always been captivated by the Lusitania and the fact that its place in history has been obscured by the Titanic’s sinking. He researched everything available on the Lusitania for over three years and with the 100th anniversary taking place in 2015, decided to write a screenplay that is fact-based but has an entertaining twist that could offer answers to some of the lingering questions surrounding the conspiracy. After several productive meetings in Hollywood, Walters found himself on the Paramount lot when a film executive asked, “So, when is the book coming out?” From that conversation, the book The Lusitania Conspiracy was born. Walters lives in Traverse City, Michigan, where he enjoys working on his golf game.

Amazon US