Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Bringing God to the Vikings - or the story of the talking heads

by Anna Belfrage

In those faraway times when the Scandinavian region spawned bellicose Vikings at a horrifying rate, most of Europe was already adequately christened. Not so Norway, Denmark or Sweden, where the ancient religion honouring Odin, Thor and Frey was alive and kicking well into the second millennium.  Adam of Bremen, writing in the 11th century, has left us with a detailed description of the heathen temples in Uppsala (just north of Stockholm, these days Uppsala is the home of the Swedish Archbishop), complete with dripping human sacrifices and the bloodied statues of the gods.

While both the Norwegian and Danish kings converted to Christianity in the tenth century, the Swedish kings were far more obdurate, laughing at the idea of replacing their powerful, lusty gods with that milksop, The White Christ. Turning the other cheek was to a Viking with any sense of self-respect an idiotic concept, and the “do unto your neighbour” part was not at all aligned with the idea of raiding and ravaging – although, to be fair, Swedish Vikings did less of the raiding and ravaging than their Norwegian and Danish brethren, no matter how nominally Christian they were.

Clinging to old faiths when everyone else is embracing the new can become a liability. Trade can be affected, for example. Treaties tend to be difficult to push through, and quite often Sweden would find itself defending its corner alone, against its (more or less) Christian neighbours. The king in Sweden during the first decades of the second millennium was Olof Skötkonung, step-son to Sven Tveskägg (Svein Forkbeard) and, one would assume, under this particular king’s influence. Sven had since some time back become Christian, the contemporary Norwegian king Saint Olav was also Christian (although this didn’t stop him from dismembering people who refused to accept the new God, or from continuing his raiding expeditions when he felt the urge to fill his coffers, or to do some disembowelling on the side when people didn’t toe the line) and at some point in time it seems Olof Skötkonung fell for peer pressure. He decided to convert, and sent to England for an adequate converter.

Sven Tveskägg celebrating at his baptism
At the time, the Anglo-Saxon influence on the Nordic countries was huge. (Well, it still is; a bunch of enthusiastic Anglophiles the lot of us, if we’re going to be frank) Yes, it was Sven Tveskägg who conquered England, not the other way around, but as a consequence, learned men and skilled craftsmen from England came in growing numbers to Scandinavia. Our early churches were staffed with English clerics, our budding administration was developed by intrepid Angles, even that new fad (new from a Nordic perspective), minting coins, was overseen by English immigrants. Actually, the organisation of the Scandinavian mints seems to have been a monopoly, with one Englishman by the name of Godwine popping up in Denmark, Norway and Sweden to set up new mints, each such mint producing coins very obviously modelled on Anglo-Saxon coins, complete with picture of English King Aethelred (!) on one side and a cross on the other. On top of all this cultural exchange, we have Gloucester-born Saint Sigfrid, the man responsible for bringing the word of God to the Swedish King.

Depending on what sources you read, Sigfrid was the Archbishop of York, or he  wasn’t. Adam of Bremen describes him as an English Benedictine monk, no more, no less. Mostly it’s Swedish sources citing him as an archbishop – I guess it made Olof feel more comfortable about his conversion if someone high up the hierarchy did it – but personally I doubt such a distinguished prelate would have left all behind to set off across the North Sea. Seriously, Olof Skötkonung’s immortal soul wasn’t that important…

So let us instead assume Sigfrid was a lowly Benedictine monk commanded to bring the word of God to this heathen king. With a sigh and a rustle of his heavy woollen habit he bowed to the will of his superior and started packing. Among the things he packed, were his three nephews, rather oddly named Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman.

Off Sigfrid went to Sweden and the eagerly awaiting king. In 1008, Olof Skötkonung was baptised a Christian, and in gratitude to Sigfrid, he named the Benedictine monk bishop of Växjö – or maybe he was being pragmatic, Sweden wasn’t exactly littered with men of God. Whatever the case, Sigfrid blessed the king and rode off into the dark forests that covered most of Sweden at the time, making for the non-descript hamlet of Växjö.

Olof Skötkonung now had a tricky situation on his hands; while the southern parts of his kingdom were already to a large extent Christian, the larger parts of it weren’t – and not too keen on having a silly bugger who had become a Christian as a king. After all, real men had no time for a wimpy weakling like the Christ, they wanted gods that roared and drank and fornicated – as real men should. Olof decided to address this by doing an Elizabeth – like five hundred years before her – and stated that he had no business dictating what beliefs a person should hold, as long as the beliefs in question didn’t threaten his rule. A happy compromise for everyone, with the people of the north continuing to do their midwinter blot stuff and Olof spending the last decade of his life bringing modernity to his backwards country , like issuing the first coins with aforementioned Godwine’s help, and endowing a church or two, complete with a literate priest.

St Sigfrid baptising the heathen 
Sigfrid must have enjoyed the rush of successful conversion. Step by step, he worked his way through the forests, baptising as he went. At his heels trotted his faithful nephews, and pretty soon Sigfrid could beam at a sizeable congregation come Sundays. His new followers were dazzled by this educated Englishman, and even more by the church silver he adorned his simple church with. They listened avidly as he told them stories from the Bible, and I’d guess a predilection for the somewhat bloodier stories in the old Testament – the one about Jezebel and the dogs would have gone down well.

One day, Sigfrid was called away for business – the king may have needed him. Rather reluctantly, he left his little congregation, comforted by the fact that his three godly nephews would keep them on the straight and narrow. Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman did as well as they could, but clearly they were not as revered as Sigfrid, and one dark night some of the more recent converts broke in to steal the church silver. The nephews protested, raised their arms up high and prayed and preached, telling the thieves to stop this stupid behaviour. The robbers, stressed by these constantly talking Englishmen, chopped their heads off, mid-sentence, so to say.

Sigfrid returned to find his church ravaged and his nephews gone. Well, he found their bodies, hastily buried, but their heads had seemingly gone up in smoke, something that had Sigfrid very worried, as how were his poor, faithful nephews to face Resurrection without their heads? (Valid question; one that must have worried all those poor blokes that were beheaded and quartered in the centuries to come) Sigfrid instigated a one man head-hunting team, looking under every bush, every rocky outcrop in the vicinity. But the forests were vast, three heads were ludicrously small – think grains of sand in a desert, although not as well camouflaged – and no matter how much he looked, he couldn’t put Unaman, Sunaman and Wineman together again. Until the night he went walking along the shores of a nearby lake.

Suddenly, Sigfrid saw a light come dancing over the darkened water. Hang on; there were three lights moving towards him, and as Sigfrid was a devout man who scoffed at superstition and did not fear death, he remained where he was as the lights approached him. Clearly, Sigfrid was an early upholder of the “stiff upper lip” approach to life. Me, I would have run screaming into the woods, which goes to show I lack Sigfrid’s fortitude – which is why he is a saint and I am not. Anyway, there was Sigfrid, standing still as the lights started to hover over the surface a short distance away. He took off his shoes and waded towards them, and “poof”, just like that, the lights were extinguished. Sigfrid looked everywhere for them, and in so doing he came upon a heavy barrel.

St Sigfrid holding the barrel with the three heads
In that barrel were the three missing heads, still talking thirteen to the dozen. On and on they went about God’s mercy and capacity to forgive.  Sigfrid wept and swore vengeance, upon which one of the heads said “It is already done.”
“Yes,” added the second head, “the Lord has seen it done.”
 “Upon the heads of their grandchildren shall vengeance be heaped,” said the third head. (Not entirely fair, in my opinion.)
Sigfrid was overcome with joy and fell to his knees. The barrel with the three preaching heads is depicted on the first formal seal of the Bishopric of Växjö.

I will leave it up to each and every one of you to decide whether you believe in this story of decapitated talking heads. What is, however, indisputable, is the enormous impact of Anglo-Saxon England on the budding Nordic states. When excavating the ancient parts of Lund, at the time Scandinavia’s largest town, time and time again the archaeologists stumble over English names,  English craftsmanship, English coins. The Scandinavian church was equally “Anglified” - to the huge irritation of the German sees - the courts of the Scandinavian kings teemed with English advisors. And just so you know, Sigfrid isn’t the only Englishman sanctified for bringing the word of God to this remote corner of the world – but he’s the only one to come complete with his own personal ventriloquist act.

Anna Belfrage is the author of five published books, A Rip in the Veil, Like Chaff in the Wind, The Prodigal Son, A Newfound Land and Serpents in the Gardenall part of The Graham Saga  Set in seventeenth century Scotland and Virginia/Maryland, The Graham Saga tell the story of Matthew and Alex, two people who should never have met – not when she was born three hundred years after him.
For more information about Anna's books please visit Amazon US or Amazon UK - or why not drop by her website?

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Merchant's Son -- Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell of Oakham

by Beth von Staats

Thomas Cromwell, 1st Earl of Essex
(Miniature, After Hans Holbein the Younger)
Most historians paint Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell, as slow intellectually. Even writer Hilary Mantel, acclaimed author of Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, describes him through the eyes of Thomas Cromwell this way, "Gregory is a good boy, though all the Latin he has learned, all the sonorous periods of the great authors, have rolled through his head and out again, like stones."

It is unclear why historians and authors make this assumption, and perhaps do so through mistaking his age or unfairly comparing him to the brilliance of his magnificent father, second only to King Henry VIII in prestige at the height of his power. In fact, historians disagree on the year of his birth, either 1514 or 1520 depending on the interpretation of sources studied.

Gregory Cromwell, son of the King's Chief Minister and husband to a consort queen's sister, chose a life quite understandably, and some would argue intelligently, away from court politics. Thus, unlike his father and brothers-in-law, he died a natural death, albeit far too young to the same sweating sickness that called his mother and two sisters over twenty years earlier.

Gregory Cromwell was born on a date lost to history in Putney, Surrey, England sometime between 1514 and 1520. Son of Thomas Cromwell and Elizabeth Wyckes Cromwell, he enjoyed a privileged childhood common to those with accumulated riches through the merchant class along with his two sisters, Anne and Grace. Tragically, Elizabeth Cromwell died in 1528 and both sisters died soon thereafter.

Raised by his father, albeit from afar, Gregory Cromwell was placed as a young child with a close, albeit seemingly unlikely family friend, Margaret Vernon. This remarkable Roman Catholic nun was Prioress of Sopwell, St. Mary de Pre, Little Marlow and Malling nunneries. Cromwell was then provided with a rich and largely humanist education at Cambridge University, were he studied from 1529 to 1533.

Unlike modern standards, children often were educated by selected tutors at Cambridge, so as Sir Henry Ellis contends Gregory Cromwell may have arrived there as early as age 8, leaving without a degree as early as age 14. Historian David Loades, however, is firm in his belief that Cromwell began studies at Cambridge at age 15, leaving at age 21.

Most commonly, children from the merchant class did not complete degree studies during the Tudor era unless in divinity, and with his age also unknown with certainty, Gregory Cromwell’s level of intelligence can't be assumed. Letters from tutor John Creke to Thomas Cromwell, commonly sited to illustrate Gregory Cromwell's lack of astuteness, need to be held within the context of his age being disputed.

Sir Richard Southwell
(Hans Holbein the Younger)
As Thomas Cromwell continued to rise in prestige through his law practice, merchant endeavors, counsel to Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and ultimate service to King Henry VIII, Gregory Cromwell was placed in the care of his father's prestigious friends Bishop Rowland Lee, Sir Richard Southwell and merchant Henry Dowes. By all accounts, Thomas Cromwell was highly involved in his son's upbringing, insuring an education reserved solely for the ruling class, along with exemplary mentoring from Vernon, Lee, Southwell and Dowes. Trilingual, Gregory Cromwell was fluent in Latin and French. He also played lute and virginals, and was reportedly athletic.

By 1537, Thomas Cromwell raised to the height of his power, then the King's Chief Minister, Vicar General, Vice Regent, Baron of Wimbledon and Lord Privy Seal. At least 17 years of age and perhaps as old as 23, Gregory Cromwell was deeded his own estate and came into the service of his father.

In March 1537, Thomas Cromwell received a correspondence from the sister of Queen Jane Seymour, widow Elizabeth Ughtred seeking a monastery to provide needed income. Whether proposed by the Lord Privy Seal or her brother Edward Seymour, then Viscount Beauchamp and later Duke of Somerset, or encouraged by them both, Elizabeth Seymour Ughred married Gregory Cromwell the summer of the same year at the Seymour family estate at Wulfhall. Thus, the commoner born of a Putney merchant became brother-in-law to Henry VIII, King of England.

The marriage was at least a congenial partnership and more likely a loving one, as five children were born to the couple: Henry Cromwell, 2nd Baron Cromwell, Edward Cromwell, Thomas Cromwell, Katherine Cromwell, and Frances Cromwell. Further evidence that the marriage was loving is illustrated in a letter Gregory Cromwell wrote to his wife from Calais in 1539.

"....I am, thanks be to God, in good health, trusting shortly to hear from you like news, as well of yourself as also my little boys, of whose increase and towardness be you assured I am not a little desirous to be advertised. And thus, not having any other news to write, I bid you most heartily well to fare. At Calais, the 9th of December. Your loving bedfellow, Gregory Cromwell."

Initially residing at Lewes, Sussex, the couple moved and resided at Leeds Castle until the fall of his father. In 1539, Gregory Cromwell was called to Parliament. He served in the House of Commons and later the House of Lords for the remainder of his lifetime, witness to the arrests and executions of Henry Howard, and brothers-in-law Thomas Seymour and Edward Seymour, as well as the arrests of Thomas Howard and Stephen Gardiner, the two men most responsible for his father's fall from grace, resourcefully remaining unscathed through each.

In 1540, Gregory and Elizabeth Cromwell survived the sudden arrest, imprisonment and execution of Thomas Cromwell, further risen to 1st Earl of Essex, through their own resourcefulness, along with assistance most likely from some or all of the following courtiers: Sir Ralph Sadler, Sir Richard Cromwell, Sir Edward Seymour, and Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury. Upon the Earl's arrest, his property, money and belongings were seized, leaving Gregory and Elizabeth Cromwell homeless. Where they lived until the dust settled is unknown, but they obviously would have needed assistance from one of Elizabeth's brothers or one of Cromwell's powerful friends.

This portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger
 commonly identified as Katherine Howard
is thought by some art historians to actually
 be Elizabeth Seymour Cromwell. 
Although Gregory Cromwell's marriage to the sister of the King's favorite wife and relation to Edward Seymour clearly helped the cause, he effectively deflected attention away from himself enough so that no known interrogation or arrest took place. Elizabeth Cromwell also very astutely intervened on their behalf by writing a letter directly to King Henry VIII. The remarkable letter's conclusion is noteworthy.

".... Most humbly beseeching your majesty in the mean season mercifully to accept this my most obedient suit, and to extend your accustomed pity and gracious goodness towards my said poor husband and me, who never hath, nor, God willing, never shall offend your majesty, but continually pray for the prosperous estate of the same long time to remain and continue. Your most bond woman, Elizabeth Cromwell"

Within five months of the execution, the tide had turned back in Cromwell's favor enough so that King Henry VIII named him Baron Cromwell of Oakham.

For the remainder of Gregory Cromwell's life, he chose willingly to refrain from the intrigues and inherent dangers of his father and brothers-in-law, so did not engage in service directly to the monarchy. Knighted on the day of King Edward VI's coronation, he primarily lived at his estate at Launde Abbey, managing his increasingly vast wealth and properties, while also serving in the House of Lords.

Does this demonstrate the decisions of a weak man? An intellectually slow man? If looked upon in it's most negative light, perhaps so. Instead, given Gregory Cromwell's life experiences, it seems far more likely that he was an intelligent and prudent man who learned through the tragic executions of his father and brother in-law, ultimately Lord Protector and King in all but name, that hard work and steadfast service to the crown is a dangerous business indeed. Then again, he may also wanted to enjoy the one thing his magnificent father was unable to provide him, despite his riches, prestige and powerful connections, a real family life.

Tragically, on July 4, 1551, Gregory Cromwell was unable to side-step his last major life hurdle and died suddenly of the sweating sickness, leaving his wife alone to raise her two sons from a previous marriage, their five children and the three children of her brother, Edward Seymour. Gregory Cromwell's youngest son, Thomas Cromwell, ultimately continued his father and grandfather's legacies through his highly respected service as a Parliamentarian in the House of Commons. His remarkable diaries are the world's most cherished source of Elizabethan Parliamentary Law.



Erler, Mary C., Thomas Cromwell's Abbess, Margaret Vernon, History Today.

Mantel, Hilary, Wolf Hall, Fourth Estate (UK)

Loades, David, Thomas Cromwell, Servant to Henry VIII, Amberley Publishing

Schofield, John, The Rise and Fall of Thomas Cromwell, The History Press

Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia, Gregory Cromwell, 1st Baron Cromwell


Beth von Staats is a short story historical fiction writer and administrator of 


Monday, April 21, 2014

Beowulf: Is the Oldest English Epic Historical Fiction?

By Kim Rendfeld

Was Beowulf the product of a poet’s lively imagination? Borrowed from tales told by the fire? Based on actual historical events? The more I look into the origins of oldest epic in the English language, the more I believe it is a combination of all of the above.

Beowulf was composed somewhere between the middle of the seventh century and end of the 10th, a period that overlaps with the migration of peoples who lived in Germany and Scandinavia. Faithful readers of the poem will remember that it’s set in Scandinavia, so it should come as no surprise that the migrants took their stories with them. They maintained cultural ties to the Baltic in the fifth and sixth centuries, and Anglo-Scandinavian trade in glass claw beakers (fancy drinking vessels) continued into the seventh.

The folk might have told tales about a ruler’s death in battle on a foreign land. They might have made references to a sixth century enemy from today’s Sweden. They might have woven in objects from daily life such as harps and helmets. If the purpose was to entertain rather than educate during long winter nights, someone might have embellished the tale with a hero and monsters.

A reenactor displays some replicas of grave goods
from the Sutton Hoo ship-burial
Photo by Ziko van Dijk
Today, we have tantalizing clues to where the poet borrowed from history. Gregory of Tours’s History of the Franks recounts a Danish-Frankish war, estimated to have occurred around 523, in which the Danish king was killed – similar to passages describing the death of Hygelac, Beowulf’s kinsman. A high-status burial mound in Sweden may be the final resting place of Ohthere, a king who is named a few times in the poem. Artifacts from Sutton Hoo are consistent with objects mentioned in the epic.

We might never know the true origin of the oldest epic in the English language and will likely never know who wrote it. But even with its mysteries, it reveals something valuable: the culture of its writer.

Through the poem, we see that the characters in Beowulf are Christian but practice their faith differently than most modern day believers. They are much more interested in justice than mercy. When Grendel, the monster descended from Cain, wreaks havoc, they want vengeance. The pagan influence was still strong. The image of boars on a helmet was a sign of strength as well as a beast sacred to a god, and the characters burned their dead, piling grave goods on the pyre.

Whoever wrote Beowulf likely meant to entertain his contemporaries, perhaps even a lord looking for a diversion or claiming descent from the hero to assert power, but the poet left a gift for all generations.


Beowulf, translated by Seamus Heaney (very good reading, even if you’re not doing research)

The Origins of Beowulf: And the Pre-Viking Kingdom of East Anglia, by Sam Newton

Formation and Resolution of Ideological Contrast in the Early History of Scandinavia (PhD thesis) Carl Edlund Anderson. University of Cambridge, Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse & Celtic (Faculty of English)

Images via Wikimedia Commons in the public domain or used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Kim Rendfeld studied Beowulf in college and rediscovered the epic poem as she was researching her second novel, The Ashes of Heaven’s Pillar (August 28, 2014, Fireship Press), a tale of the lengths a medieval mother with go to protect her children when she’s lost everything else. Her latest release is a companion to The Cross and the Dragon (2012, Fireship Press), a tale of love amid the wars and bloods of Charlemagne’s reign. For more about Kim visit her blog, Outtakes of a Historical Novelist, at or her website, or send an e-mail to kim [at] kimrendfeld [dot] com.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Captain Gronow, his Sicilian Valet & the Duchess of Marlborough

by Philippa Jane Keyworth

I have heard it said many times that Regency romances idealise that interesting, though regrettably short, period of history. I have also heard readers complain, ‘Oh, that would never have happened back then because of propriety, etiquette, etc.’ when being confronted by some scandalous event within the fictional world of the Regency romance they are at that moment reading. However, if you are one of those sticklers for proper Regency behaviour, then the tasty morsel I am about to serve up to you might just have you flummoxed!

Whilst I was reading Regency Recollections: Captain Gronow’s Guide to Life in London and Paris, edited by Christopher Summerville and leant me by the estimable M.M. Bennetts, I came upon a certain recollection that did have me giggling out loud and relaying it to all those unfortunate souls who were near me at the time.

The particular anecdote to which I allude involved Captain Gronow, his Sicilian Valet named Proyd, the Duchess of Marlborough and a set of fire tongs, and it went a little something like this:

When serving in the peninsular war, Gronow had managed to pick up a Sicilian man to serve him, who was perhaps the best scavenger in the army and always presented him with decent meat and bread when all others had none. So, he was rather a handy little fellow, and for this reason Gronow brought him back to England with him to serve as his valet.

However, Gronow hastens to add in his memoirs that,

“With all of these accomplishments, he possessed one fault: a too great admiration, unqualified with respect, for the charms of the fair sex, and he seldom lost an opportunity of stealing a kiss from any pretty girl that came his way.”

In spite of this fault Gronow took Proyd with him to White Knights, the seat of the Duke of Marlborough. For it must be remembered, Gronow was quite the dandy and did like to rub elbows with the ton!

Unfortunately for Gronow, the fault of his new manservant mentioned above, his weakness for the ladies, proved fatal at White Knights. On the very day that Gronow arrived, Proyd met the maid of Lady Macclesfield on the staircase,

“…without the slightest ceremony he attempted to kiss her.”

The maid, rather shocked by the suddenness of this stranger’s affection, proceeded to run away. Not easily deterred, the Sicilian hopped-to and chased after her through the main hall of the Marlborough residence and right up into the Duchess’ bedroom where the maid sought sanctuary.

The Duchess, who happened to be in the bedroom at the time, was so shocked she turned on the valet and shrieked loudly. Proyd promptly hid under the bed, most probably realising the error of his lustful ways, and refused to come out.

The Duchess then called for her husband who made use of the poker and fire tongs beside the bedroom fireplace to jab the miscreant out from under the bed. I imagine this caused quite a lot of embarrassment to Gronow who remarked,

“This incident, which created great confusion, rendered it necessary that the Sicilian should be sent to rejoin his regiment.”

Well, what a jolly good story, eh? Now, I am sure you agree that that is the silliest, funniest and most improper occurrence, and the best part about it is that it actually happened!

You see, as much as I agree, Regency romances cannot bend societal rules willy-nilly to fit their storyline, I would also argue that you can’t view the Regency period as all black and white with no room for grey.

You see, as much as romanticising the Regency in a book should not be done, neither should the applications of past rules never be questioned. Were you told not to use curse words when you were younger? I expect, if you are anything like me, that you did not keep that rule too well.

That is not to say that Regency romance writers, or any other historical fiction author for that matter, should indeed be willy-nilly with their storylines, nor should they be staunch about what they “know” happened. After all, we can never be one hundred per cent sure of what happened in the past. That is what makes it so captivating.


Philippa Jane Keyworth, known to her friends as Pip, has been writing since she was twelve in every notebook she could find. Whilst she dabbles in a variety of genres, it was the encouragement of a friend to watch a film adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice that would start the beginning of her love affair with the British Regency. Her debut novel, The Widow's Redeemer (Madison Street Publishing, 2012), is a traditional Regency romance bringing to life the romance between a young widow with an indomitable spirit and a wealthy viscount with an unsavory reputation.

The Widow's Redeemer - Regency Romance - Philippa Jane Keyworth

The Widow's Redeemer @ Amazon UK

The Widow's Redeemer @ Amazon USA

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Retting and Rippling - The Story of Linen

By Deborah Swift

My novels often include references to the growing of flax and also to linen, which is the cloth produced from it. It became less popular in the early twentieth century because it creases so easily, though it is now more widely used. But in the 17th century it was one of the most commonly used fabrics,and the flax plant was native to English, Scottish and Irish soil.

Sowing of flax was done after the winter frosts, and the growing season was about three months during which time the stalks would grow to three feet high. Sometimes one patch would be left uncut to provide seed for the next year's harvest. The stalks were pulled up by hand and gathered into bundles which were then stacked in stooks.

Fig. 104.   The stooks of flax.
Field of linen stooks

Next the stalks were laid out to decompose - called retting. Spread out on the grass they would rest there for thirty days or so to get the morning dew. If there was not enouigh dew or rain, then the flax would be watered. Sometimes flax was left in steams or ponds but this polluted the water, and clean water was a valuable resource. Once the woody part has decomposed then the flax was dried by turning it regularly in the sun.

Dressing the Flax

The straw had to be broken by a flax breaker, a wooden paddle to bash the stalks. Then the shoves (broken straw ) was removed, and scutching could take place. Scutching was separating the fibres by beating then still further and then dragging the fibres through a long comb (riddling) to take out any remaining straw and smooth the fibres.

Turning flax into linen takes work. This is a hackle. Some call it a heckle - and it is used to comb short fibers out. Moo Dog Knits Magazine.

Line and Tow

Line is the finest threads of flax, and tow the coarsest. Line (from which we get the word linen) produced a cloth suitable for wearing - shirts for example. Tow produced a harder wearing cloth for awnings, sacks and sails.

Spinning and Weaving

Dutch spinning wheels were introduced into Ireland in 1632 by the Earl of Strafford. Ireland was a big centre of flax production in the 17th and 18th centuries, employing thousands of women and the spinning wheel and distaff. (Shakespeare describes one of his characters as having hair 'like flax upon a distaff').

Bleach Green

Linen Garments

Once woven into cloth, linen was widely used for nightclothes and shirts because of its ability to absorb water (sweat) so it was very hygenic to wear next to the skin. Linen was often used for pleated cloths where it would be folded and dried into pleats. If it was ever washed it then had to be re-pleated, as the water would remove the pleats. Kerchiefs to cover the head were usually of fine linen. In England wool was the main industry, so the linen trade is often overlooked in historical novels. In the period I like to write about, tithes were often paid in bolts of linen cloth which, if the cloth was fine, were costlier than wool. White linen was much prized by the aristocracy for bed linen and table cloths. In Ireland the cloth was bleached by laying out the woven lengths on bleach greens, a  custom that actually continued right up until the 1930's.

1640's nighshirt in linen - Fashion Museum, Bath

One of my favourite parts of learning about old crafts is to learn the particular vocabulary associated with them, vocabulary that has almost disappeared from modern English.

And - here are my books! - You can find out more about them by clicking, which will take you to my website.


Friday, April 18, 2014

Chaos Between the Giants: The Possibilities of Roman Cultural Survival in Post-Roman Britain

by Danny Adams

For anyone seeking to sift real historical information out of legends, treading Sub-Roman Britain – the humble and chaotic era between the giants of Roman and Saxon Britain – means crossing dangerous ground. Sometimes people call it (almost in a whisper) the Arthurian Age, a name both inaccurate and appropriate all at once. If there was any period of British history in the last two thousand years that has a solid claim on myth-making alongside history, it is this one.

When I was writing my post-Arthurian novel Lest Camelot Fall (barely post-Arthurian, as Arthur has only been dead for a few hours when it starts), I didn’t just concern myself with researching whether or not Arthur was real. I also wondered if there was a society in late 5th and early 6th century England that was still Romanized. And if so, might it have fought to preserve Roman culture against invaders?

Happily, it’s no longer true that we know next to nothing about the period between the pullout of Roman troops in 410 – if indeed that was when they did pull out, which I’ll discuss more about shortly – and the early 7th century battles that finally established Saxon supremacy. An increasing focus on this period by scholars is turning up both more literary evidence – though this is still scant, and mostly adding to what we know about pre-existing sources rather than new material – as well as an archaeological record unfolding with renewed interest in the first stretch of Britain’s so-called Dark Age. New discoveries are bearing out the truth that this period was “dark” mainly because few to none were seriously trying to shine light on it for so long.

The archaeological record is also turning up more questions than answers – or at least, seriously questioning even our most fundamental assumptions about the Roman Empire’s westernmost territory.

What is becoming evident with digs down to the 4th and 5th century layers in city and country alike is that Britain might not have been as stable in the Empire’s last decades there as previously thought, certainly not as much as Rome’s continental holdings. Instead, evidence is mounting that cities in particular were already in decline by the late 4th century – and that, as Richard Reece argued over thirty years ago, the Roman economic paradigm was already being challenged by a renewed, traditional barter and gift-giving system as early as the 2nd century.

Archaeologists digging in ancient urban remains regularly find layers of black earth indicating urban spaces being used for gardening, for example. In the late 4th century the layout of the fort and colonia at York were altered to bring civilians and the military in closer proximity to one another. Historians and archaeologists have proposed the idea that perhaps the Britons, even the Romanized ones, didn’t take to the cities nearly as well as their neighbors in places like Gaul, but rather preserved a hot streak of country blood in their veins that began reasserting itself as soon as Rome’s hand began to weaken. That’s still up for debate, but if true it puts a very different spin on all aspects of Britain’s falling away from Rome.

Yet nevertheless, evidence is simultaneously accumulating that the Roman cities still in existence today were continuously occupied to some extent for centuries after the legions left. Even the now-abandoned Viroconium, in Shrewsbury, provides ample evidence for rebuilding between 530 and 570, a total of thirty-three new buildings “skillfully constructed to Roman measurements” according to Roger White and Philip Barker in Wroxeter: Life & Death of a Roman City. Viroconium may have survived all the way to the early 8th century.

This brings us to the famous year: 410, when thus-far accepted history tells us that Roman troops were pulled out of Britain. In fact it isn’t so simple – and may not even be true at all. Stilicho, the Vandal right arm of the seventeen-year-old emperor Honorius and the last man who had any real success at keeping the Western Empire together, withdrew troops from Britain in 402 to help fight threats from King (and former Roman officer and governor) Alaric’s Visigoths, among others. Five years later the usurper Constantine III declared himself emperor from Britain, and he took troops with him – perhaps most or all of the remaining legions – to Gaul to press his claim. He was recognized as co-emperor by the otherwise occupied Honorius, though in 411 Constantine ultimately abdicated after a failed march on Italy, and was executed. By all accounts, however, Constantine’s time in Britain did not make his local subjects happy, and they were likely just as happy to see him go – along with the bureaucracy that never sat well to begin with in a land so far from the empire’s heart.

The year 410 as the withdrawal date comes from the famous Rescript of Honorius, where the besieged emperor – this was the year that Rome was sacked for the first time in eight centuries, by Alaric’s Visigoths – sent out word that essentially told his subjects you’ll have to fend for yourselves. One of the places on the Rescript’s list is “Brettia”, which has traditionally been interpreted as Britain. But more recently scholars have been questioning this assumption, pointing out that the list primarily consists of locations in Italy, and so Bruttium could fit the bill just as well. If that is the case, then Rome may have considered Britain to still be Roman for long after Alaric had his way with the city.

More importantly, though, did the Britons?

Soldiers and bureaucracy do not a culture entire make, nor coins and luxury goods. Roman coins and other items of a higher order like mosaic tiles and Falernian wine may have become unobtainable, but trade, so vital to the preservation of civilization, continued. There is, of course, the ubiquitous survival of Roman city and other geographical names down to our own time. The Venerable Bede, writing in the early 8th century, documented that the language of “the Latins” still existed in Britain. An intriguing recently-discovered Welsh commemorative stone gives a Latin name with the message that the honoree was given the Roman title of prefect in 537 – the supposed year of Arthur’s fateful Battle of Camlann. Norman Davies’ The Isles – A History details evidence of thriving trade in the Sub-Roman period, particularly back and forth across St. George’s Channel and the Irish Sea. Roman historian Martin Henig, a strong advocate of Roman cultural survival in Sub-Roman Britain, has pointed out 5th, 6th, and even 7th century mixtures of cultures that include jewelry with elements of Celtic, Roman, and Saxon motifs blended together, and in places an unbroken survival of Christianity that blended the Celtic with the Roman, such as Latin records, inscriptions, and graves with Celtic names. This continuity primarily can be found in Ireland, but it managed to hold on in other places like Wales – where lived the famous author-cleric and would-be prophet Gildas.

Born in 500 – the possible date of Arthur’s battle at Mount Badon – along the Clyde River in what is now Scotland, Gildas is best known as the author of On the Ruin and Conquest of Britain, our only substantial history of the 5th and 6th century there. Gildas wasn’t particularly interested in being a historian. He wanted to be a prophet, scourging his fellow Britons for their sins, especially sexual ones. His On the Ruin wasn’t meant to be a chronicle but a lashing out at those sins by using historical figures and events as moral examples – good or evil ones. When Gildas lamented the destruction of the twenty-eight Roman-British cities, he was less upset by their physical obliteration or decay as he was the wrecking of them as Christian centers. Every person and story in his work was a religious lesson wrapped up into pessimistic pages.

He would have been a contemporary of Arthur – and Welsh legend says Gildas’ warrior brothers were among Arthur’s enemies – but he never actually mentions Arthur outright. Who he does talk about, though, are two renowned figures of the time: Vortigern, the king who supposedly invited the Saxons to be British mercenaries (a very Roman thing to do), and a warrior-leader with an unmistakably Roman name, Ambrosius Aurelianus.

Ambrosius, still a Welsh hero to this day, was a British native of Roman ancestry credited with winning a great late 5th century battle against the Saxons – perhaps the first great one – along with several smaller ones while leading the “citizens”, the Britons. He grew so powerful that even Vortigern feared him.

Gildas particularly liked Ambrosius. Living in an age where he called British kings tyrants, Gildas described the leader “a gentleman who, perhaps alone of the Romans, had survived the shock of this notable storm”. Ambrosius was almost certainly a Christian – it’s likely Gildas wouldn’t have talked about him so much otherwise, certainly not in glowing terms – and it didn’t hurt that he was a unifying leader against the Saxons, who Gildas considered to be heathens and a punishment from God for British sins.

According to the 9th century The History of the Britons, an Ambrosius (the name Aurelianus does not appear there) was the son of a Roman consul, and to him Vortigern turned over a fortress (possibly Amesbury, though that tradition is shaky) “with all of the kingdoms of the western part of Britain”, ultimately making Ambrosius "king among all the kings of the British nation".

Ambrosius’ ultimate fate is murky. Gildas tells us that Ambrosius’ family had “worn the purple”. While that could indicate that he was a member of the imperial family or a Senatorial family, which wore purple bands, or that they had been tribunes who wore a similar purple band meaning a heritage of military leadership, it could also be a Christian reference to martyrdom.

For Arthurphiles, Ambrosius, this Roman, is the first and earliest candidate for a historical King Arthur. He was said to have worn a bear skin cloak in the fashion of Britons wearing animal skins, and bear in Welsh was Arth. Gildas names him as the leader of an apparently coordinated campaign that dealt the Saxons their greatest defeat, Mount Badon, which chronicles from The History of the Britons onward attributed to Arthur. More to the point, the first great defender of Britons was considered one of “their own” by Britons and those who revered Rome, a blending of the cultures personified.

But whatever happened to Ambrosius, the Britons apparently never had another leader like him – unless there was an Arthur – and they never did as well as they had under him. The Saxons began advancing on British territory again by the 550s, little more than a dozen years after Arthur’s death. It got well underway in 556 with the British loss at the Battle of Beran Byrig at or near the 6th century hill fort of Barbury Castle, and reached a peak with another major loss at the Battle of Chester in the early 7th century. There would be further battles afterwards, but from 615 or so onward the Britons were in retreat everywhere.

So considering this, maybe “How much of Roman culture survived?” is ultimately the wrong question to be asking if we want to get to know the spirit of that time. By the point when the Battle of Chester was fought and lost, Arthur was already being turned into a legend in Wales, along with everything he represented – a golden age where the native Britons, even among Romans, could feel ascendant, or at least secure. The farther they were pushed back into the western hills the more they needed this remembrance of a kind of golden age.

So in the end, it may finally be that while the Britons were learning Latin, creating semi-Roman art, burying their dead under Christian graves, and revering a Roman warrior hero – or turning Arthur into one - it wasn’t Roman culture they were trying to preserve at all. This was a time when security was at a premium and their ageless traditional ways were inexorably being destroyed. It may simply be that while Rome was a hazy memory in Britain by the 7th century, it still invoked a longed-for time of security, prosperity, and peace.

Further References and Reading

The Arthurian Centre in Slaughterbridge, Cornwall, UK:
Martin Henig, “Roman Britons After 410”, Archaeology magazine, December 2002
Peter Korrel, An Arthurian Triangle, E.J. Brill (1984)
Frank D. Reno, The Historic King Arthur, McFarland & Company (1996)
Amélie A. Walker, “King Arthur was Real?”, Archaeology magazine online archive (1998):


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Lest Camelot Fall

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Thursday, April 17, 2014

Rochester, England, Good Friday 1264

by Katherine Ashe

The tales of Robin Hood tell of the longed-for return of the just and able king in an age when the sheriffs are oppressing the people with unheard of taxes and the occupant of England’s throne is wicked King John. According to the tales as we’ve received them, the yearned for king is Richard the Lion Heart. But history differs.

The sheriffs were not especially bad in the reign of King John, and the people so loathed not only him but also his elder brother Richard the Lion Heart that Richard remained in France and dared not go home. His foolishness on crusade had resulted in his being seized and held for ransom, and raising that ransom impoverished everyone in England.

Simon de Montfort
The longed-for king who was abroad and whose return was prayed for was Simon de Montfort. He had made the principals of elective government, set forth in 1258 in the Provisions of Oxford, a reality. He had seized control of England and King Henry III (King John’s son), but had not, like others with such opportunity, murdered his king and usurped the Crown.

Henry III
Instead, he treated Henry with deference and attended him to France to sign a peace treaty with King Louis IX. It was there in France that he realized Henry was maneuvering to undermine the young Parliament. The terms of treaty gave Henry an army for Crusade, but Montfort learned the army was to meet at Wissant, a port for embarkation to England, not Palestine. And Henry was delaying his return home until the army was fully assembled. Meanwhile, in England, the knights elected to represent the people were very vulnerably gathering for Parliament.

Montfort presented himself at the Duke of Brabant’s office, where kings hired mercenaries and where Simon had hired many in the past for Henry. He took command of the mercenaries already hired and marched them to England to the Parliament’s defense.

Plainly, he stole King Henry’s army. Later, on trial for treason, he would explain that he was simply “going where the King ought to have been going.” As for the armed men with him, he replied “I always travel with horses and men.” Margaret of Provence, Louis’s queen, and the Peers of France who judged the trial were moved to hilarity. King Henry was forced to drop his case.

It was during this time, between the establishment of Parliament in June of 1258 and the end of the trial, which had detained Montfort in France from 1260 to 1263, that the misbehavior of the sheriffs – which had been identified and stopped by the Provisions – was resumed and reached its peak, now virtually under license from King Henry.

A popular theologian, Joachim de Flor, in the 12th century had posited a New Age: the Third Millennium, which was to arise about the year 1260. It would be an age of gradual decline of the old order of kings and nations and the rise of a new, all-encompassing world order that would be led by a government elected by the common people.

The events at Oxford were hailed by the Dominicans and Franciscans as the first sign of the New Age. And Simon de Montfort was seen as the Angel of the Apocalypse who was initiating this new era. Even those less given to such beliefs saw him as the fighter for justice and good government. The common folk saw him as the people’s savior.

Kneeling Knight
Pleaders came from England to persuade Simon to return. He did once, with a letter testifying that Pope Alexander IV, on his death bed, gave his support to the Provisions. But he saw no effective movement at that time. His plan for his future was to return to Palestine where the Kingdom of Jerusalem was in confusion and Italian merchant factions were making mayhem in the streets. Once he had been the chosen candidate for Viceroy of Palestine, but the Emperor Frederic II had passed over him. Now Frederic was dead and his empire shattered. If Montfort was ambitious, the Crown of Jerusalem was well within his reach.

As he was preparing to leave for the East, a committee of young English lords came to plead again for his return. King Henry’s abuses had reached such a pitch that an army was gathering at Oxford and Montfort’s cousin Peter already was engaged in battle in the western shires.

Doubting, probably more curious than eager, Simon agreed to go and see what was happening at Oxford. Since King Henry had gained no satisfaction from the trial in France, Simon was at great risk of being seized and tried again for treason in a far less friendly court. He was smuggled from the coast to Oxford, traveling at night and wrapped in an engulfing black cloak.

At Oxford he found virtually all the young generation of lords and many of their fathers who had fought beside him in wars abroad. They were assembled with the single hope that he would lead them, seize England again and make the just and liberal government of the Parliament a permanent reality.

Stunned by the ardent spirit of the young lords and their utter faith in him, he replied to their plea, I’ll as willingly die here fighting faithless Christians, as die in Palestine fighting for Holy Church.

With this new army, in a sweep encircling England, he achieved domination and the restoration of the Parliament. But most of the old lords who still survived, who themselves had clamored for the Provisions, now saw that what curbed the freedoms of the king, curbed their freedoms as well. The old order with its flaws seemed better to them than the new. And they were enraged by the role that Montfort, their colleague, had stepped into -- what they saw as the glorified holy leader of a dangerous cult of reform.

The royalist faction gained increased strength from forces come from abroad. War directly against the king was averted only when, instead of joining in combat just outside London, both sides agreed to arbitration by King Louis in France.

Montfort had reason to feel confident that before the King and Court of France he could place the people’s case effectively and their position would be understood. Parliament was not a usurpation of the powers of the Crown, but a system devised to support a disastrously weak monarch, aiding him to serve his country better. King Louis well knew Henry’s faults.

But on the way to Amiens, where each side was to present its case, as he was crossing a frozen stream just a few miles from his home, Montfort’s horse slipped and fell, crushing its rider’s leg. Simon would have likely died of fever had he tried to travel further. He had to return home. At Amiens, the opinion of King Louis’s confessor prevailed. For elected representatives of the common man to have their will hold sway over a king was a reversal of Nature. It was as if a mouse dictated to an eagle. There could be no Parliament, although its supporters must be granted amnesty. That was the most that Louis could do for Simon, his life-long friend.

Kenilworth Castle
At home at Kenilworth, Simon received the news and refused to accept the decision. He sent his supporters to retake cities that the royalists occupied. His sons Henry and Guy went to seize Gloucester, but failed and soon returned to him. His son Simon led forces to Northampton. Gilbert de Clare, heir to the earldom of Gloucester, was to retake Rochester, on the London to Dover road. He himself would go to London, the center of his strongest support, to assess what military value was there.

His wounded leg had not recovered yet, so his military engineer, who had designed the defenses for Kenilworth, built an armored cart to convey the crippled leader. This fully enclosed steel vehicle became famous throughout England.

London Bridge
At London, Simon found the city strong in his support, every able man armed to fight the war. The city rabble was yearning to see action. To test them, Simon sent the Londoners muster, to the king’s brother’s fief at Isleworth. There the Londoners not only sacked the manse, but raped and murdered everyone they could catch. Simon judged the Londoners unusable in battle.

It was at this time Simon heard that his son Simon and his forces had been vanquished at Northampton and his son captured. He marched with his sons Henry and Guy and a mixed force of young knights, lordlings not yet knighted and archers from Wales, and perhaps from Sherwood and the Weald, north to the rescue – without the Londoners.

Only a few hours from the city, a fast messenger reached the march with news the Londoners were rioting and had attacked the city’s Jews, sacking their homes and businesses and setting their neighborhood on fire.

Abandoning the rescue of his son, Simon returned to the city and found the Jews’ street reduced to cinders and rubble and the whole of the city’s population in a dangerous state of agitation. He ordered the commoners to give up their arms. The order was ignored. So long as he remained among the Londoners a sullen quiet prevailed, but he dared not leave. And while this dangerous lull in his campaign persisted, King Henry’s army moved to attack Kenilworth, then dropped their siege and turned southward to meet more troops arriving from abroad.

Despite Gilbert de Clare’s siege, the royalists under Roger Leybourne and the Earl de Warenne held the city of Rochester and guarded the route from London to Dover and the southern ports. The taking of Rochester was essential. Montfort gathered the unruly men of London, made them a contingent of his army and marched south.

Rochester Castle
Rochester lies on the London road where it crosses the tidal River Medway. It is a city built upon a hill with its cathedral, its central square and its castle on the hill’s summit. Encamping upstream of the city, after consultation with de Clare, Simon apparently summoned the London river boatmen to gather all the boats they could find and to study the river’s tides, the movements of its flow.

The next day, which was Good Friday of the year 1264, the men guarding walled Rochester’s river gate tower saw a multitude of small boats approaching laden with the rabble of London. And before them floated a small ship unmanned and aflame.

Prodded on its drifting course by the boatmen, it rode inexorably on the tide and crashed into the wooden gate and tower. In moments its cargo of flaming pitch had the defense works on fire. Those in the tower leapt into the water where they were stabbed and bludgeoned by the Londoners as their boats crowded in.

The burning gate and wall it guarded were taken, and the rabble disgorging from the boats made their rampaging way into the city streets.

As the riverfront was being overrun, the bell of Rochester Cathedral, at city’s peak, began to toll, for it was nine in the morning of Good Friday: the bell tolled the Lord’s knell.* Within the cathedral, and in every church, the statues were draped in mourning as was customary.

On the far side of the city Montfort, his sons Guy and Henry and their army had joined Clare at the city’s landward east gate. His archers and the archers of Rochester’s militia were fully engaged. Then the arrows from the city slowed. There was a lull and in the lull everyone became aware the bell had stopped its tolling. There was a sound of screaming in Rochester’s streets.
Despite Leybourne’s and Warenne’s orders, the militia archers deserted, rushing to protect their own homes. Montfort and Clare’s men broke through the undefended gate.

The city was in turmoil. The Londoners were running wildly everywhere, committing rape and slaughter, breaking into houses and seizing what they pleased. Simon ordered his own forces to capture anyone seen in the act of rape, murder or theft. Except for Leybourne, Warenne and a few soldiers who’d taken refuge in the castle, the city was taken, but the chaos did not cease.

At the cathedral, across the town square from the castle, Simon found the bell ringer pierced with arrows and hanging from his rope high in the tower. Priests defending the golden objects of the altar lay murdered, the altar stripped. Montfort’s army turned from battling royalists to arresting Londoners. Hundreds were taken in the act of horrid crimes.

At dawn the next morning a large, stout block of wood stood in the square before the cathedral and in easy bow shot from the castle wall. Londoners who had been caught in crime, one by one were hauled to the block and beheaded. The beheadings lasted well into the afternoon, as the people of Rochester mourned their dead.

Leybourne and Warrenne and their men watched from the castle’s battlement but made no move. Nor did they when Montfort, below and well within their arrows’ reach, knelt for a Mass for Rochester’s dead. Then the long line of mourners bore the coffins of the London rabble’s victims to their graves.

Easter Sunday’s Mass was performed in the square. And again Simon, in penance for the sack of Rochester, knelt unarmed, an easy target below the castle wall. Again Warenne and Leybourne held back their archers.

Monday the siege resumed, the castle’s gate was taken by Clare. Montfort remained in his tent, his belief in his cause crushed. Soon he would beg King Henry’s peace, asking only for amnesty for those who’d followed him. But Henry would refuse.

*The hour of the Crucifixion according to the gospels of Matthew and Mark.


Katherine Ashe is the author of the award winning Montfort series, including Montfort The Early Years 1229 to 1243, an Amazon Historical Fiction Best Seller. The battle of Rochester will be found in volume four, Montfort The Angel with the Sword 1260 to 1265.

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Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Perkin Warbeck: The Man Who Would be King

by Pauline Montagna

Perkin Warbeck
On 3 July 1495, a small army landed in Kent, headed by a young man who claimed to be Richard of York, the younger son of Edward IV and rumoured to have been murdered with his brother Edward in the Tower of London ten years earlier. First lauded as the late king's son in Ireland in 1491, and now with the support of several European monarchs, he had finally arrived in England as Richard IV to claim his throne back from Henry VII.

This was not the first such claimant Henry had faced. Only eight years earlier, another pretender had come out of Ireland, acclaimed as Edward, Earl of Warwick, the son of George, Duke of Clarence, Edward IV's younger brother. In fact, the real Earl of Warwick, a simple-minded boy, was housed in the Tower of London, and even though Henry paraded the young Earl before the populace, the boy's supporters clung to their belief in him. On his capture, the boy proved to be Lambert (or John) Simnel, the son of a country artisan. Recognising he had been merely a puppet in the hands of his supporters, Henry pardoned him and put him to work in his kitchens.

Richard's small army was routed by Henry's men before he had even disembarked and he retreated to Ireland. There he again found military support, but when his siege of Waterford met resistance, Richard fled to Scotland and the court of James IV. Welcoming the young man as leverage against his arch-rival, James allowed Richard to marry his distant cousin, Katherine Gordon, daughter of the Earl of Huntley. In 1496 they planned an invasion of England together, but James was forced to retreat when the support he expected from Richard's army did not materialise. Disenchanted, James shunted Richard off back to Ireland while he made his peace with Henry, accepting the hand of his eldest daughter in marriage.

In 1497 Richard landed in Cornwall in the aftermath of a bloody rebellion. The Cornish declared him Richard IV and he was soon at the head of an army of 5,000 men. However, on hearing of the approach of Henry's, no doubt larger, army, Richard fled and found sanctuary in the Abbey of Beaulieu, from which he was extracted and taken as a captive to Taunton where Henry was then residing.

In Taunton, Richard was privately interrogated by Henry and then paraded before a panel of notable witnesses to whom he confessed he was not the son of Edward IV. Henry had a signed confession that he was instead the son of a Flemish boatman and that his name was Piers Osbeck (though he was later generally known as Perkin Warbeck.) Henry then made him confess the same to his wife, Katherine.

Henry kept the young couple in his household, treating Richard more as a royal hostage than a prisoner, yet parading him before the people and the court as an imposter and traitor, not pardoned by his King but spared. Meanwhile Katherine was made lady-in-waiting to Queen Elizabeth. Though they could often be seen in public together, Henry ensured they never slept together by putting Richard to bed in his own dressing-room behind lock and key. Their son was taken away from them and raised far from the court. Certain Welsh families later claimed to be descended from him.

After several months in this comfortable but humiliating imprisonment, Richard escaped. How is not known, but it could only have been with outside help. Re-captured only a few days later, he was put in the stocks before being imprisoned in the Tower of London in the room beneath that of the Earl of Warwick. Richard fared badly under these conditions and when brought out some months later to be inspected by representatives of his European supporters, they found him chained and shackled, his spirit broken and his face battered.

Before too long conspiracies began to take shape around Richard and Warwick, though Richard was too dispirited to take an active part and Warwick had no understanding of what was happening. Before anything came of it, an alleged plan for them to escape and usurp Henry was discovered. Now Henry had an excuse to execute not only Richard but young Warwick, as well. Both were tried for treason and condemned to death. As a nobleman, Warwick was beheaded in private. Richard was taken out into the city to be hung, drawn and quartered. After again publically confessing that he was not Richard of York, he mercifully died by hanging before the rest of the horrific ritual could be carried out. Nonetheless, his head was cut off and displayed on London Bridge.

Having never disavowed her husband, despite his confessed imposture, Katherine wore black for the rest of her life. Well-endowed by Henry, but not allowed to leave the court, she continued as Queen Elizabeth's lady-in-waiting until her death in 1502. Thereafter she remained at court, some believe as Henry's mistress, though with his health fast deteriorating, she may have simply been a companion. After Henry's death in 1509, Katherine made the most of her freedom, marrying well three times and becoming a woman of substance. Though her first husband was not mentioned in her will, her perpetual widow's weeds would attest to his never being far from her mind.

Who was Perkin Warbeck?

These are the bare bones of the story, and interesting as it might be, what makes this story fascinating is the mystery of who this young man actually was. Was he really Richard of York? Or was he, as Henry declared from the outset, an imposter trained up by the Yorkists as a mere figurehead? If he was Richard of York, how had he escaped from the Tower and how had he lived until he resurfaced?

Richard himself was rather vague on this question. In his own correspondence with his supporters, he wrote that, after Edward's death, the lord who was sent to kill him took pity on him and let him live and escape to Flanders, but only after he swore not to reveal his true identity for a number of years. Thereafter he wandered the country in misery until he appeared in Lisbon at the court of King Joao II and was quickly recognised as a prince. This tale raises more questions than it answers.

Although in the English translation of this letter, Edward is described as being 'put to death' the original French word he used was 'extinguere' which means 'to be extinguished', which does not specify execution or, in fact, any specific cause of death. Nor does it give any detail of the circumstances which suggest he might have witnessed, or even mourned Edward's death. Neither did Richard ever name the man who took pity on him, nor explain how he escaped to Flanders and who took care of him there. I cannot imagine a prince could really have survived on the streets. Was the truth harmful to his cause, or was he trying to protect those who had helped him?

Official history accepts the signed confession at face value and declares him to be the imposter, Perkin Warbeck. The confession gives chapter and verse of his parents, John and Katherine, as well as his grandparents and family associations. The Warbeck family can be traced in Tournai even today, and an independent deposition describes a Jehan Warbeck searching for his missing son Piers. Yet Henry never brought his prisoner face to face with the Warbecks to verify the confession and a letter purporting to be from Perkin Warbeck to his mother has proven to be a concoction. Even though he may have signed the written confession, in his public statements Richard never said he was Perkin Warbeck, only that he was not Edward IV's son.

While Henry publically declared that his prisoner was nothing more than the son of a boatman, he did not treat him as such, as he had in the case of Lambert Simnel. Rather than say, putting him to work as an oarsman on the royal barge, he, at first, treated him with all the courtesy due to a prince. This may well have been because Richard still had powerful supporters in Europe whom Henry did not want to antagonise, but it may well have been because he himself harboured doubts.

It is interesting to note that in both attempts to free Richard, he had outside help, and both attempts gave Henry an acceptable excuse to imprison and then execute him. Were these attempts actually engineered by Henry himself for his own purposes? Was he trying to justify to himself or to outside observers his treatment of his prisoner? Did Henry believe he had executed an imposter and rebel leader, or one more member of the House of York as he would execute many others?

Henry was right to be wary of Richard's friends who were among the most powerful European rulers and Henry's most dangerous antagonists. They included Maximilian, King of the Romans (later Holy Roman Emperor), Charles VIII of France, James IV of Scotland and Joao II of Portugal. All had met the young man and found his claim and his demeanour convincing, though in some cases, their desire to provoke Henry may have lent some strength to Richard's claims.

Richard's greatest supporter was Margret of York, Dowager Duchess of Burgundy, sister to Edward IV, aunt to Richard of York and virulent in her hatred of the usurper, Henry Tudor. Tournai, where Perkin Warbeck was said to originate, was within Burgundy's sphere of influence. Henry claimed all along that Margaret was the initiator of the conspiracy and it was she who plucked Perkin up and trained him to impersonate Richard of York. The fact that Margaret had been one of Lambert Simnel's supporters lends some credence to this claim.

However, Henry himself threw doubt on his own narrative of Perkin Warbeck's childhood as there were two versions of the confession, the one circulated in England, and a French version circulated on the Continent. While the English version sees Perkin as a lazy and rebellious boy who runs away from home and wanders the street until a soft hearted English merchant picks him up and takes him to Lisbon, the French version sees him as a young man with promise being educated by a well-placed sponsor to enter the church, a young man who may very well have been recommended to the Duchess of Burgundy as a good candidate to impersonate a prince.

So here we have two likely scenarios. The man sent to the Tower to kill the two princes kills Edward but takes pity on little Richard. He organises for him to escape to Flanders for safe-keeping, just as his uncles Richard and George had been sent during the Wars of the Roses. There he is protected by his aunt, the Duchess of Burgundy, who hopes one day to send him back to England to reclaim his throne, throwing her support behind Lambert Simnel to test the strength of the Yorkist cause. An alternative scenario is that after the failure of the Lambert Simnel rebellion, Margaret seeks out a likely young man to be trained up to impersonate her nephew.

However, Anne Wroe has identified a third possibility.

Despite all her prayers and penances, Margaret of York had remained childless, and there is evidence that in September 1478, after the death of her husband, she adopted a little boy who was to be raised in some luxury and well-educated in an isolated country retreat. He was then six years old, the same age as Richard. There is no record of who the boy might have been. He could well have been a neglected boy from Tournai who showed particular promise. However, there is evidence that in the summer of 1478 there was unusual activity at Edward IV's court which involved communication with Flanders.

Could the child have been one of Edward's by-blows sent to Margaret for his protection and to ease her loneliness? The child disappeared from the records in 1485 when he would have been twelve and about the time the Princes in the Tower were rumoured to have been killed. Had the boy been sent into service or to be raised in some noble household? Or had he been sent into even further isolation for his protection, to be brought forward in due course as 'Richard of York'? Richard himself, even when confessing he was not Edward's son, never called himself an imposter, but a substitute.

For my part, my own question has always been: why did Perkin Warbeck choose to identify himself as Richard, the second son, when someone else could easily have gazumped him by claiming to be Edward? Was it because it was known that Edward was dead and Richard had survived? Edward has usually been portrayed as serious and sickly and Richard as lively and healthy. Could it be that Edward did die of natural causes or a medical mishap? Was he bled too much, as one contemporary suggested, or die of septicaemia from bad teeth as a skull which might be his suggests?

Or was it because the child Margaret had in her care resembled Richard more nearly and was closer to his age? If he was not Richard of York, was he perhaps still of royal blood, so closely resembling Edward IV that there could be no doubt he was his son and raised from childhood as befitting a prince?

We'll never know the answers, but while this may be frustrating for historians, it's a godsend for novelists!


Ann Wroe, Perkin: a Story of Deception (published in the US as The Perfect Prince), Vintage (2003)


Pauline Montagna lives in Melbourne, Australia. She has published three books, The Slave, an historical romance set in fourteenth century Italy, Suburban Terrors, a short story collection, and Not Wisely but Too Well, a novel of the young Shakespeare and the first volume of a projected four volume series. You can find out more about her and her books on her website.