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  • 03/11/18--23:30: Hidden Gems

  • In my role as The Times' reviewer of historical fiction, I read a lot of books. I've also been a judge for the Historical Writers Association in two of the past four years. I estimate that over those four years I have read more than 300 works of historical fiction. Most engage, some disappoint, a few utterly transport me.  But there is, from what I can see, minimal correlation between excellence and sales.

    I was thinking of this on Wednesday night. I was at a talk by the brilliant writer of comic spy novels, Mick Herron. Mick told us that he had made slight ripples with his first six books. He wrote primarily to amuse himself. His career is a story of late blooming. He changed publishers and his new outfit, John Murray have championed him onto the bestseller lists.

    But this is, as he said, unusual these days. It is all about the debuts. Make waves with your first book and a decent career beckons. Make ripples, and you will bob unnoticed forever. It is, to the say the least, dispiriting.

    In further musings, I thought of those writers of historical fiction whose books ought to thunk into the public consciousness with a tremendous splash. The underrated ones. The unsung ones. The ones whose prose shimmers in the darkness.

    I thought I would share a few of those on my very subjective list.

    Maria McCann.
    Maria McCann is a historical ventriloquist. There is no writer of historical fiction I know whose words feel so steeped in time and place. She is the queen of authenticity. Her first two books were set in the seventeenth Century. Her debut, As Meat Loves Salt, is a dark tale set in the English Civil War. Her third, Ace, King, Knave, used thieves cant to bring the eighteenth century to life. McCann has garnered praise, fans, and even a slot on the Richard and Judy list - but this doesn't seem to have translated into an extensive audience. Why not? It's a mystery.

    Philip Kazan.
    Oh, how I love Philip Kazan's novels. My favourite is his last one, The Painter of Souls, about the early life of Filippo Lippi. It has everything you would want a in a book about early Renaissance art: beauty and an unmatched sense of place. But it also has a joyousness to it. Lippi loves life. It's easier I think, to write tragedy than joy. Kazan's next book is out next month. It's a departure - moving to the second World War in Greece. I'm almost scared to start it; I just keep looking at it and stroking it.

    Livi Michael
    The War of the Roses has enjoyed a flurry of popularity in recent times. There have been some big names tackling the interminable toing and froing of Henrys and Edwards. I am an admirer of Toby Clements' Kingmaker series. But Livi Michael's trilogy of books Rebellion, Succession and Accession ought to be widely lauded. They are astute, vibrant and beautifully written.

    I asked around among my writer friends. Who should be more successful than they are? ME was the unspoken answer, but with typical generosity, other names were proffered. Jason Goodwin and Susan Fletcher were new names to me, but were championed by writers who know their stuff. Carol Birch, too, was mentioned. I adored her book Jamrach's Menagerie and yes, she definitely gets a spot on the list.

    Who else should we be lauding, History Girls?

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    ‘We are gentlemen of Japan:
    On many a vase and jar -
    On many a screen and fan,
    We figure in lively paint:
    Our attitudes queer and quaint -
    You’re wrong if you think it ain’t, oh!’

    A hundred and thirty three years ago today, on March 14th 1885, The Mikado premiered at the Savoy Theatre in London. It was hugely successful and ran for a record 672 performances. As W.S. Gilbert wrote, he was inspired by a Japanese executioner’s sword hanging on the wall of his library. Setting the opera in distant and exotic Japan allowed him to satirise British politics and institutions by disguising them as Japanese. He was certainly not overly bothered with authenticity. As he wrote, ‘I believe the chief secret of practical success is to keep well within the understanding of the least intelligent section of the audience.’

    Nevertheless he did take steps to give his opera a few Japanese elements. The Mikado really was the word used by the Japanese for their emperor and the Miya sama chorus, which Gilbert and Sullivan unashamedly filched, words and all, was the marching song of the Mikado’s troops as they advanced on Edo (soon to become Tokyo) in 1868, written by Yajiro Shinagawa, a samurai, and put to music by his geisha lover.

    Gilbert also sent for a young woman from the Japanese Village which had just opened in Knightsbridge to give the Three Little Maids lessons in dance, deportment and use of the fan. He describes her as ‘a very charming young lady’ who came every day to put her charges through their steps and adds, ‘It was impossible not to be struck by the natural grace and gentle courtesy of their indefatigable little instructress, who, although she must have been very much amused by the earlier efforts of her pupils, never permitted them to see that the spectacle of three English ladies attempting for the first time a Japanese dance in Japanese dress had its ridiculous side.’ She must have taught in the Japanese way, by imitation, as she didn’t speak any English other than ‘Sixpence, please’, being a tea server, and the English actresses only knew ‘Sayonara’.
    Kate Forster, Geraldine Ulmar and
    Geraldine St Maur as
    the Three Little Maids 1885 

    It’s rather extraordinary to think that there was a Japanese Village with 100 residents in the middle of Victorian Knightsbridge. Japan had opened to the west only 27 years earlier, in 1858, when the first American consul, Townsend Harris, signed the Treaty of Amity and Commerce. The prohibition forbidding Japanese to leave the country under threat of execution was lifted shortly afterwards.

    People soon began to take advantage of the new freedom to go abroad. The first were official delegations and diplomats, plus students and circus artists. The first Japanese performing artists arrived in England in 1867. Led by a man called Matsui Gensui, the troupe consisted of twelve Japanese jugglers - seven men, two women, two boys and a girl. ‘The children are whirled around in huge humming tops,’ reported The Times. ‘The others walk on the slack rope and do the famous butterfly trick’ (which involved making paper butterflies appear to flutter at the end of a fan). Other acrobats and jugglers quickly followed.

    Meanwhile, with the end of the old order, daimyo warlords and samurai found themselves broke and took to selling their swords and other heirlooms, to be snatched up at bargain prices by western collectors. Japanese artefacts flooded the west - screens, fans, kimonos, lacquerware, blue and white porcelain, vases, curved swords, netsuke and bonsai. Japonisme became the flavour of the day and fashionable ladies disported themselves in kimono, as in James Tissot’s distinctly un-Japanese-looking 1864 La Japonaise au Bain and Monet’s 1876 La Japonaise, later to cause a scandal at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.
    La Japonaise, Claude Monet 

    The Japanese Village opened in January 1885 in Humphrey’s Hall, a large splendid building used for exhibitions, a kind of Victorian Earls Court. It was in Knightsbridge Green, near Albert Gate, a couple of blocks from Hyde Park, around the corner from Charles Digby Harrod’s recently established Harrods’ Stores Limited and a couple of streets behind Harvey Nichols, founded some fifty years earlier in 1831 by Benjamin Harvey and James Nichols.

    Humphrey’s Hall was ‘very handsome’, open, light and ‘exceedingly well ventilated,’ with a single span arched roof, a raised skylight, white marble floors and a gallery at either end.

    The Village was intended to enable visitors to imagine they really were in Japan. Running down the centre was a broad street of one or two storey Japanese houses built by Japanese workmen of bamboo, wood and paper, with sliding trellis shutters and translucent paper screens, with red lanterns hanging from shingled or thatched roofs. Behind this main road were five more streets of smaller shops where there were displays of pottery, wood and ivory carving, toys, fans, cabinets, inlaid metalwork, lacquerwork, textiles and embroidery, though nothing was for sale. Painted backdrops showed distant hills and snow-capped Mount Fuji. Here Japanese in traditional dress strolled up and down and engaged in all the activities of everyday life.
    Photograph of the Japanese Village
    by W.S.Gilbert

    Everything was done to bring the Village to life. Visitors could watch artisans at work, then take tea, served on lacquered trays by kimono clad attendants, in two teahouses equipped with chairs in deference to stiff western joints. There was a Shinto shrine and at the far end a Buddhist temple where two priests officiated, though they steered clear of any rites that might offend their hosts’ Victorian sensibilities. There was also a Japanese garden.

    In a second hall, the newer part of the building, there were displays of kendo, sumo wrestling and martial arts. There were rickshaws to ride in and ‘Japanese Musical and other Entertainments’ throughout the day. Posters promised Wire Walking, Pole Balancing, Top Spinning, The Great Ladder Feat, ‘The Gayshas or Dancing Girls’, Wrestling, Sword Exercise and much else.

    All this was greeted with considerable consternation in Japan. The government there wanted to present themselves as an advanced civilisation on a par with the west, that should be treated on equal terms - whereas the Japanese Village was patronised largely because westerners thought of the denizens in their quaint costumes as medieval. The hundred performers had had a hard time getting passports because they were thought to be low class travelling players, not the sort of people the Japanese government wished to represent their country in the west. The government feared the Japanese Village would bring shame on Japan. As Ito Hirobumi, who became Japan’s first prime minister that same year, 1885, put it, ‘How can they take us seriously if we dress as novelty dolls?’
    The Mikado, Casternet Club Montreal, 1886

    In fact the hundred were made up of all sorts of people - samurai down on their luck, metalworkers, rickshaw pullers, artisans and dancers. The mastermind behind the project, a man who went by the splendid name of Tannaker Buhicrosan, emphasised that they would not take any geisha (contrary to what was promised on the posters); they would not do anything that would tarnish the image of Japan. Nevertheless a lot of applicants were refused passports and a couple travelled illegally without passports. Some got passports allowing them to go only as far as Hong Kong and had to leave Yokohama rather quickly before they were found out. A couple got passports to Paris then crossed the Channel to London.

    The Village was a huge success. Cost of entry was one shilling (sixpence for children) and it was open 11 to 10 daily. Two hundred and fifty thousand visitors passed through the gates in the first few months. But then on May 2 1885 came disaster. The Village caught fire and burnt down, destroying the hall, damaging nearby Albert Gate Mansions and killing a Japanese woodcarver. It was immediately rebuilt bigger and better. While it was being rebuilt the troupe went to Berlin. By the end of the year there was a new Japanese Village with several streets of shops where goods were offered for sale. There were also two temples, ‘various free standing idols’, a pagoda and a pool spanned by a rustic bridge. The Sun Music Hall next door had been acquired by J.C.Humphreys just before the fire and now offered ‘astounding entertainments’ by Japanese artistes.

    In all over a million people visited. The Japanese Village finally closed in June 1887. As for The Mikado, that continues to delight audiences to this day and has bestowed immortality on the 1868 marching song of the Mikado’s troops.

    Lesley Downers latest novel,The Shogun's Queen, an epic tale set in nineteenth century Japan, is out now in paperback. For more see www.lesleydowner.com.

    The poster of the Japanese Native Village is private collection. All other pictures courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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    I quite often go to Brussels, because I have family living there. While there a couple of weeks ago, I visited two museums that were new to me. The first, the House of European History, I'd never heard of before: I'd read about it in the free magazine they give you on the Eurostar, and it sounded interesting, so my son and I went off to visit it, knowing next to nothing about it.

    The House of European History

    It's in what's known as the Eastman Building, in the complex which also houses the European Parliament. An icy wind howled around our ears and numbed our fingers, and we were relieved to find the entrance - it took some doing: then a little startled to go through airport-style security. We realised straight away we hadn't allowed enough time to visit it; it covers six floors. Less than a year old, it's the most modern museum I've ever been to: there is nothing so old-fashioned as a label on any of the displays - you are given a tablet, and you have to use that to find out what you're looking at. It's fine when you get used to it, and of course it has the advantage that you can set it to any one of a number of languages - but I couldn't help feeling a little wistful for the simplicity of a label.


    The museum focuses on the history of Europe since 1789. It doesn't do it country by country, but focuses on different strands, or significant events. But at the moment there is a temporary exhibition downstairs (which actually looked pretty permanent) of Europe's earlier history - which was interesting and had helpful audio recordings, to familiarise you with, for instance, the Thirty Years War, or the way that banking developed. This exhibition did have labels - though it was almost too dark to read them. I sound a little carping, but I don't mean too; the exhibits are imaginatively displayed, and it's intriguing to see history presented from different viewpoints. A concrete example of this was a display of maps in the permanent exhibition; one was a Chinese map, so naturally it showed China at the centre - and Europe, with all its multiplicity of countries, suddenly looked strangely small. Another was an upside-down view of the world, which showed the southern hemisphere at the top and the northern at the bottom. That was odd.

    Shell cases from the First World War. I found it utterly bizarre that they were so beautifully decorated.

    There were exhibition areas devoted to the First and Second World Wars, and one to the Shoah. There was a display about the legend of Europa, the nymph abducted by Zeus in the form of a bull. I'm really not sure what that choice of names signifies.

    And that's really all we had time for - but I will certainly go back. I know now (thanks, Wikipedia) that the museum cost vast sums of money, and is therefore the subject of controversy. I expect they said the same about the Louvre and the Prado, and I'm not sure where I stand on that. But I love the idea of a museum which looks at the story of Europe as a whole, and I'm impressed by the innovative design. As it happens, we heard just afterwards that my grandson is going there with his school, and the children have been asked to take along a story of immigration from their own family - and I like that too: that the museum is not merely a means of recording the past, but that it also reflects on and celebrates the disparate origins of the city's present inhabitants.

    I hadn't intended to go to the second museum. This was the Magritte Museum. I'd planned to go to the Fine Art Museum - but I'd forgotten that most galleries etc are closed on Mondays; for some reason Magritte's doors were open. He must be one of Belgium's most famous artists, but I'm not much of a fan of surrealism, so I'd never bothered to go before. You'll be familiar with some of his paintings: a man with a bowler hat and an apple in front of his face, for instance. I still don't really understand surrealism - I suspect Magritte might say that's fine: you don't need to understand - just look. And that's all I did - all I could do, as I'd stupidly failed to spot the audio-guides at the entrance.

    And as I walked round, I became more and more intrigued. I saw that he is an incredibly skilled at the actual craft of painting: that apple, for instance, is exquisitely painted. He rarely uses texture: the surface is usually satin smooth. His portraits may have strange things going on, but they usually give a crystal-clear impression of the person who's his subject. Most of all, I liked the paintings he did not long before he died, which feature trees, the moon, and often a house. But the moon, impossibly, is in front of the foliage; and the sky is blue and sunny - but the house and garden are in darkness, lit perhaps by a lamp. They're beautiful, but eerie and a little unsettling: rather like the maps in the House of European History, they make the familiar seem strange - they make you see things differently.

    'The Dominion of Light'. You can't see from this small image, but it is exquisitely painted: the reflections in the water are quite beautiful.
    I was still thinking about Magritte as I travelled home the next day. I tried to take a picture of the Belgian countryside as it flew past, and when I looked at the image, I saw it contained reflections from the carriage and even the view from the windows opposite. Aha, I thought. There's a touch of Magritte there. It's good to find your perceptions have shifted.

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    This week, I am sorting through the too-many books here at home. I am culling some, and collecting others into “families”: shelves of books inspired by the same theme. 

    One bookcase is now home to a family of books about aspects of the English landscape, from Alison Utley’s A Country Childhood through to Oliver Rackham’s books about trees to George Ewart Evans Ask the Fellows who Cut the Hay and more. Some we bought and some were given as gifts. Others, often the hardest to discard, were inherited. 

    Standing within the waves of scattered volumes, I start wondering what other titles should join this family: those by Robert Macfarlane, perhaps, or Roger Deakin? Or large-format books about landscape art or painting or photography? Where does the family of "landscape" end?

    All at once I remember landscapes by a favourite artist: Eric Ravilious, painter, wood-engraver and designer. I went to the Dulwich Picture Gallery’s retrospective Ravilious exhibition in 2015, and in the video below you can see James Russell, the curator, talking about Ravilious and his pictures and the “scratch” technique that gives the artists pieces such luminosity.

    Entry was for strictly limited periods but, once inside, I avoided the exit. I wove my way up and back though the exhibition, living with the Ravilious paintings throughout a wonderful afternoon. His work seems full of rolling downs, of chalk cliffs overlooking the sea and of lanes winding through peaceful fields: an essentially English rural landscape. 
    For some time, Eric Ravilious and Tirzah Garwood (also an artist and wood engraver) were part of an influential group of figurative artists living around Great Bardfield in Essex, although the landscapes of the South Downs dominate many of his most popular images.

    In 1939, Eric Ravilious signed up as a war artist with the Royal Marines, moving from one posting to another. He painted on land and from the moving decks of warships, watching the planes overhead. Ravilious brought the same sense of enigmatic light to all these harsher subjects: the airfields, the waiting planes and broken machinery, the men walking across wet sand to defuse a beached mine. 

    He learned to fly and was sent to Iceland. On the first day of September 1942, he joined one of three planes sent out to search for a lost aircraft. Ravilious’s aircraft never returned and, four days later, he and the crew were reported lost at sea.

    I am often intrigued by how the making of art can run in families, both through what could be called the genes and also through the family culture: those families where the possibility of making art is acknowledged and celebrated. So, very recently, hearing the same surname again, I was immediately interested. 

    This “new” name was James Ravilious, Eric’s middle child. Born in 1939, James's only memory of Eric was running down the lane to hug his father as he left for war, and being given a threepenny coin from father's coat pocket. Sadly, after Eric's death, Tirzah’s already poor health worsened. She died, leaving her children orphans. James was only eleven. Growing up, he studied at St Martin’s School of Art, and afterwards taught painting and drawing in London. He fell in love and married a kindred spirit, Robin, in 1970. She was the daughter of the glass engraver and poet Laurence Whistler, and she also shared a sorrowful childhood.

    During 1972, James and Robin left London for the countryside, and around that same time, James abandoned drawing and painting and took up photography. They settled by the village of Beaford, in what was then a largely unspoilt area of North Devon. James started taking photographs to record the landscape, the seasons, community, customs and people, but what began as a short project grew into a seventeen-year archive covering the changing rural life of the area. James added to it as well, copying earlier photographs of the same area. All the collected images now form the Beaford historical archive, whose images have been exhibited around the world.

    Whether James’ talent was inherited though the genes, or learned through the artistic culture of his parents and family friends, one thing stands out for me. James Ravilious’s black and white photographs seem to share the same quality of quiet observation and love of the light visible in his father’s work. They both seem filled with a quiet but real passion for the English landscape.

    James Ravilious died too, in 1999, but his wife Robin has published an account of his life in 2017.  Here, also is a clip about an influential film that James Ravilious made about photography:

    So how does this post link with History Girls and writing? 
    James Ravilious met the French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson and was very influenced by him, adopting Cartier-Bresson's approach in his own photography, even down to using the same model of camera, a LeicaM3. James followed Cartier Bresson’s approach, including the rule about never posing a subject or cropping an image, so his subjects display a natural grace.

    Additionally, James also took to heart Cartier-Bresson’s most fervent mantra:
    There is such a thing as The Moment. 
    It is mysterious, but if you look at several shots of the one scene, 
    there is one that has it – as if there were a little poem there.

    Today, revising a piece of fiction, I paused and pondered about this concept of that one essential mysterious “Moment”. Although painting and photography are visual art forms, I think that writers, too, try to choose that one specific “Moment”, try to write the one specific, telling scene, try to capture that one perfectly imagined visualisation in the hope that the magic (and poetry) will make the words live?

    Oh, and then the scene after? And then the scene after that . . .?

    I’m going back to sorting out my book families: it’s easier than art.

    Penny Dolan

    ps. A travelling exhibition, “Ravilious and Co”, about Eric and his contemporaries opens at Compton Verney Gallery, Warwickshire, in March 2018.

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    At the start of the centenary of the 1914-18 war I had a notion that we would by now, as a nation, have found some sort of collective closure on the individual suffering of the dead of the Great War, and be ready to move on, to toss their bones in the air as it were, and free the spirits of the fallen to join with our distant ancestors.

    As a writer, I agreed with Pat Barker’s comment that World War I had “come to stand in for other wars … it’s come to stand for the pain of all wars.” Our stories might be about that particular conflict, but the larger subject was war itself.

    "Voie Sacrée"supply line to the militarized French region of Verdun
    Researching and writing my own First World War novel, The Goose Road, dented that conviction. Wherever I looked, the power of individual suffering endured and the personal stories were endlessly shocking, intimate and enthralling.

    I fell under their spell time and again while listening to the first-hand accounts of veterans of the Western Front, their scratchy voices forever locked in a sound archive, or when reading a collection of letters home, or interviews granted to earlier researchers. I’d suddenly be caught unawares by a moment of humanity or courage, or dark gallows’ humour.

    Occasionally an old soldier would admit to cruelty. More often they shared memories of the drudgery of the trenches, punctuated by terror. To walk those trenches – or at least one of the few fragments that remain, in Beaumont Hamel, say, zig-zagging through a meadow – is to walk in a haunted place.
    Near Verdun, there’s a hill called Mort Homme. The name isn’t connected to the 1914-18 war, although the WW1 artillery battles fought there between the French and the Germans were so fierce that engineers found afterward that meters of the entire hilltop had been blown off. Local farmers still aren’t allowed to plough its soil because of the human remains.
    The French memorial to the fallen of Mort Homme: “They did not pass”
    When researching closer to home I found that WW1 objects as well as places had the power to take my breath away. Once I was in the Royal Artillery Museum in Woolwich Arsenal, investigating a particular week in October 1916 and a specific section of the Western Front near the occupied French town of Peronne. The archivist bought me out a trolley laden with original material from that time and that place, on top of which was a small moleskin notebook, written in pencil by an English major, the pages still stained with the mud of the Somme. I sat and stared at it for ages, feeling as if the battle itself was within touching distance.

    Poppies and cornflowers planted by the local council on the road to Pozières in remembrance of Australian, Allied and German troops who died during fighting in the immediate area
    Just before I returned for the second of four research visits to France, my mother died unexpectedly. It was a release: she’d been ill for a long time. Among the heirlooms she left to me was a forget-me-not locket with a photograph of her father, Frederick Clarke, in his WW1 uniform. A stern old lady stares out of the locket’s other frame – my great-grandmother, Selena, I believe.

    My great-grandmother (I think) and her younger son, Frederick
    Mum also left me a heart-shaped locket, which I think must have belonged to Selena as it contained the pictures of two uniformed soldiers, her sons. One is Frederick, who served in the 10th (Irish) Division as a medical clerk and stretcher bearer in the Dardanelles in 1916 and later in Salonika. The other is Frederick’s older brother, Thomas Clarke, a private in the 19thKing’s Liverpool Regiment, killed in action on the Somme, on July 30th, 1916.
    I’d never seen Thomas Clarke’s picture before I inherited this locket. Mum thought he’d died near Ypres, and as far as I know, until my husband tracked down his regiment’s military records, no one in the family knew the details of his last day. The official War Diary and Intelligence Summary of that engagement is chilling:

    “29/7/16 battle position in the MALTZ HORN TRENCH.
    30/7/16 BATTLE began. Zero hour 4.45 am. The Battalion reached its objective, but suffered heavy losses, and had to evacuate its position owing to no reinforcements. At 12 noon the roll call was 7 officers and 43 men.
    Total casualties were: Lieutenant-Colonel G. Rollo wounded.
    KILLED. [Six officers named]
    WOUNDED. [One officer named.]
    WOUNDED AND MISSING. [Three officers named.]
    Total casualties in Other Ranks: 425, of which 76 were killed, 172 wounded, 177 missing.”
    Barry Cuttell’s account of that morning in 148 Days on the Somme is more detailed: “Morning mist prevented communication by visual signals, and almost all underground cables had been damaged. The only way of relaying messages to divisional headquarters was by runner, which would be a dangerous task once the fog had lifted as the runners had to cross the open ground between Guillemont and Trone’s Wood, over which German machine guns … enjoyed an excellent field of fire.
    “While waiting for zero hour, 19/King’s Liverpool were subject to High Explosives and gas (shelling) … The 19/King’s in the centre was also badly hit by enemy fire, only a few men reaching the road. A little further north, a company of the 19/King’s succeeded in getting forward towards the south-eastern entry to Guillemont.” But later that morning, “Under the impression they were cut off, the 19/King’s withdrew from the edge of Guillemont.”
    Thus out of 486 soldiers of the 19th King’s Liverpool Regiment who advanced at dawn on that summer’s morning, north and east from the Maltz Horn Trench towards the German artillery and machine guns, only fifty remained standing seven hours later. The rest were wounded, dead or “missing”, that is, their bodies were either too badly mutilated for individual identification or otherwise unrecoverable from the battlefield.
    The rolling fields where Thomas Clarke fell were bronzed with ripening wheat when I saw them, flanked by the once devastated trees of Trone’s Wood. My husband, a former Royal Marine, returned there on July 30th, 2016, to pay our respects, both on the battlefield and at his graveside in the Bernafay Wood cemetery. Perhaps his locket – the brother to the forget-me-not one I inherited – is buried there with him.
    Bernafay Wood cemetery
    Rowena House’s debut novel, The Goose Road, a coming-of-age quest set in France in 1916, will be published by Walker Books on April 5th. Website: rowenahouse.com

    Thanks, Rowena, for your timely post. (Celia Rees will be back on 18th April)

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    The fortress of Masada.
    The Roman war machine: All powering, all conquering. A huge force of highly trained soldiers who created and maintained an empire the likes of which the world had never before seen.
    It wasn’t just the sheer number of recruits that made Rome a power to reckon with. It was also their innovation in battle, and particularly in sieges.
    Roman history is rich with some truly impressive examples of siege warfare. There was Veii in the 4th century BC where, after years of stalemate, the Roman forces dug a tunnel underneath the walls and conquered the town from within.
    The siege of Carthage in the 2nd century BC lasted three whole years. It was finally broken when Scipio Africanus ordered a series of massive siege walls to be built outside the town. These were used to relentlessly attack, and ultimately conquer Carthage.

    In 70 AD to gain access to the Judaean Fortress of Masada, which sat on top of a hard to navigate rock, the Romans built an alternative route up the cliff that they could haul their siege towers up. They also built a seven km siege wall in an impressive 3 days.

    Battering rams, siege towers, ballista and archers were often used in besieging fortresses and towns.

    The story I am about to tell is not of an impressive victory . It is not a story of Roman ingenuity and cunning. Nor is it a tale of the type of patience and persistence that felled Carthage. It’s the story of an unsuccessful siege. A gloriously unsuccessful siege; the siege(s) of Placentia.

    A Bit of Background
    The year is 69AD. On 15th January Marcus Salvius Otho enacted a coup against emperor Galba in one singular day of bloodshed. The emperor and his associates were decapitated in the Forum whilst all around was bloody mayhem.
    By sunset the Senate had no choice but to declare Otho emperor. Escorted up to the palace the new emperor soon realised he had made a horrible, horrible mistake. For amongst Galba’s papers was a horrifying revelation: There was another emperor .

    Otho hadn’t known, couldn’t have known when he staged his coup, that two weeks earlier on the banks of the Rhine the German legions had declared their Governor, Vitellius emperor. Vitellius‘ two generals, Valens and Caecina, were on the road marching a force of  nearly 70,000 men to Rome.
    The Rhine legions were the toughest of the Roman legionaries. Otho had nowhere near the same number of men at his disposal. Realising he was hopelessly outmatched, he tried everything to turn them back. Vitellius was promised money beyond his wildest dreams, influence and a quiet spot to retire in. This didn't move Vitellius and so assassins were sent to Germania. Though evidently not terribly good assassins for Vitellius continued to breathe and the German legions marched onward.

    There could be only one emperor and there could be only one way to decide who that should be: War.

    The Othonians
    Emperor Otho
    The town of Placentia was situated in the north of Italy between modern day Milan and Bologna. In the spring of 69AD this was where Caecina was marching his half of Vitellius' forces, some 30,000 men, straight towards.

    Charged with holding Placentia for Otho was a pragmatic general named Spurinna. At his command he had three cohorts of Praetorians (the emperor's private bodyguard, and cause of much of Rome's current instability), 1000 infantry and a small gang of cavalry. At most this was 4000 men. 4000 men versus 30,000. Even worse Spurinna's forces were untrained novices, they'd no experience of battle. Neither had the Praetorian Guard who mostly spent their days in the capital enacting crowd control on the locals and thinking up plots. Marching ever closer to these keen amateurs were Caecina's highly experienced, battle scarred German legions

    Spurinna was a sensible and practical man. He knew his troops had absolutely no hope against the Germans in an open battle. Every last one of them would be slaughtered within hours. So he ordered that the gates of the town be closed and that they should prepare for a siege.
    It was by far the most sensible of decisions. However, Spurinna's men disagreed. Eager for battle they insisted they could take on the German legions. That insistence grew throughout the day until Spurinna realised he was facing a mutiny
    Fine, the general demurred, if they wanted to fight, what were they waiting for?

    So off they all marched, Spurinna included, to intercept Caecina's army. 20 miles into this march it was decided to set up camp for the night. The Roman way was to construct a camp from scratch, it's what Caecina's forces had been largely doing the whole long march from Germany. But these were new recruits and Praetorians (whose own camp was already nicely built for them on top of the Viminal Hill in Rome). Neither was prepared for such hard labour. Spurinna we can assume watched their efforts with dry amusement. This hard graft broke their mutinous spirits and when someone suggested that Caecina's forces might stumble upon them at any moment, panic ensued. Which was when Spurinna stepped forward and calmly suggested that maybe they'd be better off safe within the fortified walls of Placentia. Lots of eager nodding and then back they marched the way they'd come.
    Back behind the walls of Placentia they set to building up ramparts, adding parapets and collecting up anything and everything of any use.

    Then they waited for the German legions.

    The Vitellians.
    Emperor Number 2, Vitellius

    The famously critical Tacitus describes Caecina as "Young good-looking, tall and upstanding." From which we may deduce that he was six foot plus of man hunk. Tacitus also grudgingly accepts he had superficial charm. So let us put him firmly in the fanciable and charismatic camp. Even more strikingly, despite having only been stationed in Germania a few years, Caecina had gone full native and habitually wore Germanic trousers, tunic and plaid cloak.

    This trousered giant of manhood had marched 30,000 of Rome's meanest, toughest soldiers thousands of miles across country and mountainside. Though they'd fallen foul of a local Gallic tribe on route, the soldiers were itching to meet a real enemy. One that would challenge them. The town of Placentia was firmly in their sights.

    The First Siege Of Placentia
    It should have been a foregone conclusion. 30,000 hardened fighters against a small force of boys and Praetorians grown soft by too much hanging around the palace. And yet Caecina's Germans failed to conquer the town. Why?
    Fear not this is not going to be a dissection of battle techniques, an exhaustive examination of tactics. There will be no little diagrams with arrows pointing all over the place to denote troop movements. There will be no pictures of the battlefield terrain from every perceivable angle.

    The reason Caecina's soldiers failed to penetrate the walls of Placentia can be explained in four words: they showed up drunk.
    Actually make that very drunk. Very, very drunk. They were so drunk that they turned up to besiege the town without bringing any siege equipment with them. Tacitus tells us they advanced without cover. One can only imagine Spurinna's expression as 30,000 German troops ran at his walls, presumably hoping that they would just fall down spontaneously. Though Placentia got off dent free from this attack, the amphitheatre next to the town mysteriously burnt down. Which shows someone's aim was decidedly off.

    Unable to break into the town without equipment and under heavy missile fire from Spurinna's troops, Caecina and his men were forced into a humiliating retreat.
    As Tacitus drily notes; "The first day's action was marked by a vigorous offensive rather than by the skilled techniques of a seasoned army."

    Which is polite a way as ever committed to papyri of describing a total cock up.

    The Second Siege of Placentia
    I think it is safe to say that the Germans had been a little over confident in their abilities. A little bit cocky and reliant on their scary reputation. I think we are right to suspect that their trouser wearing hunky general may have given an over rousing speech to them prior to the disaster.

    Celtic trousers the like of which Caecina might have worn
    But the fact that they all on mass happily believed they could bring Placentia down by sheer force whilst highly intoxicated, does show they were a cohesive army.
    They were bruised, they were no doubt suffering horrendous hangovers, but they were not out. Pride needed to be restored. Caecina set them to work overnight constructing the siege equipment they so casually forgot the first time round.

    At first light the plains outside the town began to fill with men. Bare chested men. They'd opted to fight the traditional German way: Nipples alfresco.

    The soldiers battered and smashed their shields together, singing traditional German war songs. These were soldiers of Rome, yes, but there wasn’t much of Rome about them.

    Such was how it must have looked to Spurinna’s young troops as they saw the semi naked troops commanded by a trouser wearing giant line up outside their town. It must have been horrifyingly clear quite how outnumbered they were.
    The Germans advanced under cover of the towers they'd spent the night building and set to the gates with crowbars. Others dug down trying to undermine the foundations of the town. An earthen siege mound was constructed. These were proper Roman techniques.
    Above them the Othonians rained down javelins at them. Slingshotters and archers bombarded the Vitellians. But by far the deadliest weapon was one Spurinna's men had gathered together overnight from the town; huge millstones. These the praetorians rolled down from certain parts of the wall directly onto the Vitellians beneath. Tacitus tells us the injuries were drastic, men were crushed to pieces beneath the pounding weight. To others seeing their comrades so destroyed, panic set in when further millstones were pushed forward.

    Under such a barrage Caecina ordered a retreat. The plucky underdogs had held onto the town!

    The Aftermath
    There was no third siege of Placentia. The epic patience witnessed in those sieges of old was not present in this army. This army, and more particularly their young commander, were itching for a victory.

    In the grand scheme of things Placentia was not so important. Or so Caecina no doubt told himself. The best thing was to plough on and face down Otho’s main forces. One highly suspects that Caecina’s eagerness was linked to the fact that Valens was now only a few days march away with his army. Caecina did not want to share any of the glory with his colleague.

    Caecina however did not get his great victory. The Othonians had no intention yet of facing the Rhine legions in battle. Instead they sent a small force of gladiators (which gives you some idea as to how hard up Otho was for troops) on ambush missions. Through these skirmishes Caecina lost most of his auxiliary soldiers.

    In the end Caecina had to wait until Valens arrived with his own fresh forces to achieve his much desired victory. The Othonians were finally overwhelmed by their enemy's greater numbers. Vitellius was sole emperor.

    L.J. Trafford's latest book, Otho's Regret, covers the strange siege of Placentia and other notable failures of the handsome Caecina.

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    As the second part of my post about industry on the River Meon, today I am looking at brick making, which, like iron working, was, for centuries, carried out principally around the lower reaches of the Meon, at Titchfield and a little further upstream at Funtley, but also in other locations along the valley.

    Brick-making in England

    The first brick-makers in Hampshire were the Romans, who used the local clay to make roof tiles, bricks and hollow tiles for their hypocaust central heating systems. Roman bricks were more like thick floor tiles, about 18 in. (45 cm) by 2 in. (5 cm).
    Although the Romans were the first to make bricks in England, it seems that the craft died out once they left in the 5th century. Then, after the Normans came in the 11th century, bricks were imported from Flanders but, gradually, brick-making became established again in England, and by 1330 there were at least twenty makers. They were known as “wall-tylers”, and not generally “bryke makers” until about 1430. The “tyles” used for wall construction were typically rather thin bricks, similar to those Roman floor-tile style bricks.
    Medieval craftsmen were of course obliged to join guilds, initially church guilds and later specific craft guilds, which controlled wages, apprenticeships and the quality of work. For tilers and brick-makers (who were also builders) the earliest such specific guild, the Worshipful Company of Tylers & Bricklayers, was founded in 1416, chartered by Elizabeth I in 1568 and, by 1600, was the country’s principal brick-makers’ guild. The company still survives.

    After the Great Fire of London of 1666, the king, Charles I, decreed that all new buildings in the city had to be built of fireproof materials. There was so much work to be done that the Tylers’ Guild did not have enough brick-makers in the London area to do it, and began to train people from the provinces. These new brick-makers eventually went back to their villages and set up hundreds of new brick-making businesses around the country. Nearly all brick-makers were itinerant, going to the construction sites to make the bricks using the local clay.

    The Great Fire of London by an unknown painter, depicting the fire as it would have
    appeared on the evening of Tuesday, 4 September 1666 from a boat in the vicinity of 
    Tower Wharf

    Improvements in transport, with canals and, later, railways, and then the development of steam power, in the first half of the 19th century, eventually brought mechanisation to brick-making. Machinery was developed to speed up the process, and permanent brickyards were established, producing thousands of bricks a day. By 1850 the majority of brick-makers were using mechanised brick production. But the small country businesses, unable to invest in machinery, were either bought out or closed, and itinerant brick-makers could not compete with the big factories.
    By 1914 there were probably no more than fifty travelling brick makers in the British Isles. Prior to World War Two, this reduced to half a dozen and today there seems to be only one, Tony Mugridge in Shropshire (http://www.ajmugridge.co.uk). Today, nearly all brick manufacture is carried out in permanent brickworks.

    The process

    For most of the period up to the middle of the 19th century, brick-makers were itinerant. Because bricks were heavy and roads were poor, it made sense to make the bricks close to the construction sites and the makers generally travelled to the sites and made bricks from whatever local clays were available.
    Brick-making was also essentially a seasonal occupation. The clay was dug out during the autumn and left to weather over winter, to break it down into lumps. Then, in the spring, it could be cleaned of stones and other debris and the brick-making process began.
    The method used was to immerse the clay in water, then beat it in some way to remove any air before shaping it into wooden moulds and leaving them to dry in the open air, perhaps for up to three months, depending on the weather and the time of year. The bricks were then stacked to form a simple kiln, a fire lit inside and the bricks “burnt”. After a few days’ firing, the kilns were allowed to cool naturally before being dismantled and the bricks were then stacked ready for use.
    The beating of the clay seems to have been done either by treading (puddling) by barefoot labourers, or by hand throwing. It must have been a very physically demanding and tiring task, and one that was apparently sometimes done by children. Children were also employed in moving bricks around the site. It must have been horrifically hard work.
    However, at some point in the 19th century, the pug mill was invented, a machine in which the clay was mixed with water mechanically and then beaten with paddles to produce the right consistency for making bricks.

    The colour and texture of bricks depended largely on the composition of the local clay and the fuels and additives used to fire them. So, for example, the presence of iron oxide gave a red colour to a brick, whereas limestone or chalk gave a yellowish colour.
    Historically, the size of bricks varied according to the moulds used by the travelling brick-makers. Initially, size didn't really matter, as many of these bricks were used in panels in timber-framed buildings. However, in 1784, the government introduced a "brick tax", initially 4s for a thousand bricks, used to help pay for George III's wars in America. To mitigate the effect of the tax, brick-makers began to increase the size of their bricks, but the government responded by introducing a maximum volume for a brick. One of the consequences was that some small brick-makers went out of business, forced to sell their stock to meet tax bills. But it also had an effect on house design with some areas returning to the use of timber and weatherboarding, or "brick tiles" to imitate brickwork on a timber-framed building. The level of taxation was increased three times before it was eventually abolished in 1850, when it was understood to be detrimental to industrial development.

    Brick-making in the Meon Valley

    Brickworks were of considerable importance in the Meon Valley during the medieval period and for centuries afterwards, especially in the Titchfield area. Traces of them can be seen in the brick kilns shown on the 1826 Greenwood map of the area, which shows “Brick Kilns” just south of the village of Funtley, and “Fareham Kilns” a little to the east.

    On the Ordnance Survey Old Series map of Hampshire for this area, dated 1855, a “Brick Kiln” is also shown on the road between Fareham and Wickham. 

    The village called Funtley (from the Anglo-Saxon, “Funtaleg”, meaning “Springs”), also spelt as Fontley, was first mentioned in the Domesday Book. It’s a couple of miles north of Titchfield and is where the iron-making that I discussed in my previous post was also carried out.
    Funtley grew from the development of a clay quarry, the clay being used to make chimney pots and bricks. The Fontley Brick and Tile Works was, at one time, the most important in the district. Handmade bricks from here (“Fareham Reds”, a well-known red-tinged clay brick) were used in the building of Ravenswood House at Knowle Hospital (previously known as Hampshire County Lunatic Asylum) and, more famously, in the construction of the Royal Albert Hall in London. The works at Fareham also supplied bricks for the forts being built around Portsmouth and Gosport and the docks at Portsmouth and Southampton in the 19th century. Fort Widley on Portsdown Hill, finished in 1868, is one of the forts above Portsmouth, built for the city’s defence from the land side and called “the best self-contained castles to be built in England”. Large amounts of brickwork were used in the fortifications and in the large dry moats. The high walls were flint faced but the corners, parapets and other defensive buildings were built of Fareham red bricks.
    The Funtley company produced hand-made bricks from the mid-19th century up to 1923, when they moved over to mechanised production. The works closed in 1967, and the clay quarry is now a fishing lake. But even though the pit is worked out, the different colours of the clay strata can be seen: the lower bed of the Bracklesham and the top layer of the Reading Beds were used for brick and tiles. The London Clay, generally dark blue in colour, containing significant quantities of iron pyrite or marcasite, was used for making blue bricks (“Funtley Blues”, mainly used for paving).
    The clay was also used to produce art pottery of a standard high enough to be presented to Queen Victoria. At one time the works was producing red bricks, blue bricks, roofing tiles, floor tiles, terracotta objects, art pottery, copings, channelling and drain pipes.
    But it was hard work for some! A man who worked as a “clay digger” at Funtley after the Second World War, with his mate, dug twenty tons of clay a week and got £4 a week in wages… (http://titchfieldspirit.btck.co.uk/PeoplesStories/AndrewMills).
    Another important brickworks, quite close to Titchfield and Funtley, was at Bursledon. It was founded in 1897 by the Ashby family, where abundant clay was known at the site and very good transport links by both rail and river were available. The clay was originally dug by hand in pits close to the buildings. The clay pits were deep – nearly 40ft – and very extensive. The clay was brought back to the factory using narrow gauge railway wagons, but eventually the pits were too far away for this to be practical. Mechanised digging started in the 1930s. Eventually the local clay was worked out, and the site closed in 1974. Now, the lakes form a nature reserve, and the buildings are a museum of the brick-making industry. 
    Brick-making also took place in other villages in the Meon Valley. In Soberton, for example, ten miles north of Funtley, clay from the southern part of the village was used for making bricks for centuries. In 1741, a brick kiln was recorded in a house in Soberton, when a certain John Pafford occupied a house with a kiln in his garden. A century later, his descendant, William, who lived in an area of Soberton called Charleswood, was described as a brick-maker on both the 1841 and 1851 censuses. In 1678 and 1701, the Gisby brothers, William and John, were referred to as brick-makers as well as farmers. Names of locations in the village – Kiln Hill, Clamp Farm and Clamp Kiln Farm – also indicate areas of brick-making, and there is evidence from trade directories of brick-making in the village right up until the mid-20th century.
    Brick-making has not been a huge industry in the Meon Valley, but certainly one of significance, and how fascinating it is once again to follow the clues left by the past to learn how our forebears made their living.

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    Unbearable Pain

    We are fortunate to live in an age where smallpox has practically been eradicated. In the eras when my novels are set, this disease struck indisciminately, both rich and poor alike. Researching the plague, I have read a lot about smallpox epidemics in my research. Although we often hear of the plague in the 17th century, smallpox killed more people and was just as deadly.

    If you caught smallpox you would begin by suffering a high fever, along with vomiting, and severe stomach pains. This would often be followed by delirium and a red rash which started on the arms and legs and then spread to the face. The pox proper - pustules filled with liquid, usually appeared after about six days, beginning on the forehead and wrists and spreading into the mouth and throat.

    A case from 1886
    Unlike chickenpox, smallpox affected the palms of the hands and soles of the feet, which made touching anything unbearably painful. If there was no-one to look after you, you were likely to die of starvation or dehydration. If that weren't bad enough, smallpox brought other complications in its wake - bronchial infections, ear infections, gangrene, and even paralysis. No wonder the disease was so feared.
    A Colonal Treatise on smallpox

    Smallpox Scars
    Probably the most famous smallpox sufferer was Elizabeth I, who covered the resulting pitting with her now trademark white lead. As a queen, her power was such that it did not affect her fortune, but in an age where a woman's trade was her looks, catching smallpox could change lives forever. Those who survived an attack were often severely pockmarked, and to counter this effect, women wore veils, masks or patches (beauty spots) to hide the worst of them.

    Hannah Woolley in her book 'The Accomplish't Lady's Delight' advises a 'lemon and sea salt wash', whereas the physician William Salmon (1695) recommends bacon dripping scented with rosewater to soothe pitted skin.

    Scars were a mild discomfort, for death from the disease was common and in the 17th Century John Evelyn records in his diary how his daughter, Mary, suffered and eventually died at the age of 19, causing him 'unspeakable sorrow and Affliction.' 

    Woman at Toilet - Gilles Petit, showing patches
    The effect of the virus grew during the 16th century but reached epidemic proportions by the early 17th century. At most risk were those in the capital, where crowded conditions made the spread of the disease easy, and the epidemic of 1694-1695 killed Queen Mary.

    Causes and Cures
    John Aubrey writes that;
    'the small-pox is usually in all great towns...at one of them every seventh year and at the other every ninth year...which the physicians cannot master.'
    Like many, he believed the disease to be cyclical, and to be caused by infected air. Thomas Sydenham (1624-1689), a physician, noticed that the rich seemed to die more often from smallpox than the poor. His conclusion was that the treatments killed as many as they cured. Though I have to say, his own methods seemed extreme; here is  a patient's description:
    “Whilst I lived in Dr Sydenham’s house, I had myself the Small Pox, and fell ill on the Twelfth Day. In the beginning I lost twenty two Ounces of Blood [from bloodletting]. He gave me a Vomit, but I find by Experience Purging much better. I went abroad, by his Direction, till I was blind, and then took to my Bed. I had no Fire allowed in my Room, my Windows were constantly open, my Bed-Clothes were ordered to be laid no higher than my Waste. He made me take twelve Bottles of Small Beer, acidulated with Spirit of Vitriol, every twenty Four hours. I had of this Anomalous Kind [of smallpox] to a very great Degree, yet never lost my Senses one Moment.” 
    Thomas Dover, The Ancient Physician’s Legacy to His Country
    A Old Crypt Causes Fear of Infection
    The excavation of the crypt of Spitalfields church in London in 1985 raised the genuine possibility of re-introduction. The bodies - three thousand of them, preserved in lead-lined coffins, were from the 18th and early 19th centuries, and about 10% were known to have died of smallpox. The Victoria & Albert Museum staff used medical precautions when dealing with them, as it is not known how long the organism can survive.

    Thread Inoculation
    A Norwegian vicar in about 1700 reported that people “bought pox”  to ensure a mild attack. They rubbed a coin on open smallpox sores, then made a thin cut in the skin of healthy children and tied  the coin tightly to the wound; this acted as primitive immunisation.

    Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762) hit upon the same idea and is credited with introducing variolation or 'ingrafting' to Britain in 1721. Severely pockmarked herself, after surviving the illness from which her brother died, she learnt about variolation in Constantinople, where her husband was the British Ambassador. 

    Ingrafting consists of taking a small amount of infectious matter from a sufferer and using a thread, introducing it to a small cut. After that, the wound would be bandaged and a mild case of small pox would ensue. This prevented a more severe infection. Lady Montagu, who lost her eyelashes completely to the disease, had her children inoculated and persuaded the Princess Caroline to do the same, thus earning a Royal seal of approval.

    In 1796 the idea was developed further by Edward Jenner, widely credited with being the instigator of immunology. He noticed that milkmaids, who often contracted cowpox, were immune to smallpox.
    Jenner infects his gardeners son
    So he infected James Phipps, the son of his gardener, with cowpox from Sarah Nelmes, a milkmaid who had caught the infection from a cow called Blossom. The boy was then exposed to smallpox and did not contract the disease. Somewhat risky - I don't think I would have been prepared to risk it for my child! But thank goodness he did, for the deadly and disfiguring disease is now a terror of the past.

    Maladies and Medicine -Jennifer Evans and Sara Read
    Epidemics and History: Disease, Power and Imperialism - Sheldon J. Watts
    Images from wikipedia

    Coming Soon from Deborah: A Plague on Mr Pepys
    Find me on Twitter @swiftstory

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    Fake news, data scamming, trolls…. there are times when it seems the internet or those who control it are trying to nudge us off a cliff. We are distracted and confused, clicking away at our screens to chase away the monsters real, imagined or dressed up as personality quizzes. 

    Obviously you fine people have chosen to read something sensible, so that’s ok, enjoy your time on The History Girls, but once you’re through reading our years of musings, where should you go next?

    I’m a great fan of podcasts, and have recommended a few of my favourites here in the past, recently though I’ve come across a trove of content which is making me particularly happy. Waiting for you out there in the ether is an astonishing collection of lectures recorded as they were given to hordes of eager undergraduates at Yale, Oxford, Cambridge and dozens of other institutes of higher education. The sound quality is often a bit poor, sometimes the links to the handouts are broken, you might only have an audio version when someone is obviously pointing at a slide, but I'm not complaining. For the first time in history you can listen in to the great educators of your time without having to leave your room. For example, Dale B. Martin’s Introduction to New Testament History and Literature is available via Open Yale Courses and has made me very irritating at dinner parties, it also offers  interesting ways to think about the context and use of scripture in the first century and now. I listened to his lectures while playing Candy Crush on my phone for the whole 21st century undergraduate experience. 

    Some tempting things from Coursera

    Yale offers lecture series on economics, chemistry, geology, astronomy and more as well as history, so go enjoy and become wise while the world around us grows ever less so. Also, go look sooner rather than later. Many of the Yale courses are being moved over to Coursera. For many that will probably be a good thing. Coursera is slick and the content is broken down into shorter sections, supported with quizzes and peer-marked assessments. You can even pay for a certificate if you choose to do so. I tend to scramble away from sites which invite me to ‘introduce yourself to your fellow learners’ though, so I’ll be listening to the echoing halls and coughing undergrads for as long as I have that option.  

    I have seen those adverts in LRB and Literary Review for The Great Courses for years, and am the sort of person who goes - yes, yes I think I would like to own a series of thirty lectures on how to play chess - luckily I’ve always just been a bit too poor to actually buy them. Now via Amazon video, I’ve signed up for their ‘signature collection’, which will probably cost me just as much in the long run but they take the money in small, relatively pain free bites so I hardly notice it. The ones I’ve watched so far all look like they were shot in 1985. Lecturers deliver a paragraph to camera one, then inhale, turn and deliver the next to camera two, then back to camera one again. Sometimes there are pictures, which is nice, even if the borders look my grandmother’s Red Room wallpaper. However that doesn’t matter too much if you are playing Candy Crush, so I just listen to the talking. History of Food has some valuable insights, Reading Biblical Literature is a personal take, but a honestly presented one and a sensitive literary reading, and I’m looking forward to the Cathedrals one. 

    Or if you are a Netflix person and haven’t watched all of the Ken Burns work available, then do so, now. We’ll be here when you get back in a week or two. His histories of Jazz, The American Civil War, Prohibition, The Roosevelts and The West are beautifully produced - I put down my phone quite often - and offer a fascinating, intimate, illuminating and often harrowing history of the United States. I feel absorbing hours of his work has helped me understand where we are now with more empathy, and more subtlety than I would ever otherwise have done. Which is, after all, the larger point of history, don’t you think?

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    “If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairytales. If you want them to be more intelligent, read them more fairytales.” ~ Albert Einstein

    I've been spending a lot of time immersed in fairy stories and folk lore lately. Partly because I've been writing some rather dark ones (see January's Writers' Forum and the current Mslexia, apologies for the shamelss plug) and partly because I've been reading fellow History Girl Anna Mazzola's rather wonderful The Story Keeper (out in July, no apologies for the plug).

     The Story Teller by Arthur Rackham
    There is very little difference in general terms between fairy and folk tales. Although the former is likely to include a higher degree of magic or fantasy, there is a lot of crossover and both owe their origins to an oral tradition which is 'popular' in the sense that they derive not from an elite but from the masses, the Volk. Literary fashions come and go but the fascination with fairy tales is a constant. They act both as a nostalgic link to our, perhaps romanticised and certainly mythologised, past and also live very much in the present, providing a form of entertainment which can act as a common vehicle for shared fears, values and dilemmas. Pyschologist Bruno Brettelheim describes them as carrying important messages to the conscious, the preconscious, and the unconscious mind or, as GK Chesterton rather more whimsically puts it: Fairytales are more than true, not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be beaten. It is that message, with its important caveat can be not will be, which keeps them relevant. The use of fear and violence in fairy stories has always been contentious, perhaps because of a refusal to accept that sweet-little children like dark things. The Victorians didn't believe the red-in-tooth-and claw scenarios or malevolent fairies of earlier incarnations were suitable for children, and don't get me started on the horrors perpetrated by Disney's prettifying. Having always been of the opinion that a bit of fear is good for the rug-rats (and having spent a lot of my own childhood as an unsupervised reader) mine grew up with the un-sanitised versions which probably made them responsible for a lot of wide-eyes among their friends.

     Company of Wolves - a good time to go home
    Every culture has its own tales and its own collecting history. Historian Marina Warner has described this as a map with two prominent landmarks: Charles Perrault’s
    Tales of Olden Times (1697) which included Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty, and the Grimm Brothers’ Children’s and Household Tales (1812–57). This map then widens to include The Tales of the Thousand and One Nights in the east, Hans Christian Anderson in Denmark; Alexander Afanasyev in Russia; Walter Scott collecting the rich cultural heritage of Scotland and women such as Fannie Hardy Eckstorm in America who focused particularly on ballads. Perrault himself was quite clear on the moral element of his stories, particularly the warning about predatory men in Little Red Riding Hood: I say Wolf, for all wolves are not of the same sort; there is one kind with an amenable disposition – neither noisy, nor hateful, nor angry, but tame, obliging and gentle, following the young maids in the streets, even into their homes. Alas! Who does not know that these gentle wolves are of all such creatures the most dangerous! A sentiment echoed in Angela Carter's updated version of the story, Company of Wolves, to never trust a man whose eyebrows meet in the middle. The original Ms Red jumped into bed and was, of course, eaten.

     The Crown Returns to the Queen
    of the Fishes. HJ Ford. The
    Orange Fairy Book
    I must have dipped in and out of all the above collections at some point but my favourite set of books has never changed: Andrew Lang's Fairy Books of Many Colours. Lang (1844-1912) was a Scottish poet, novelist, literary critic and collector of fairy tales whose first book on the subject, The Blue Fairy Book, was published in 1889. The full set comprises 25 books published between 1889-1913, of which the 12 beautifully illustrated coloured books (named for their covers) are probably the most well known. The stories come not just from Scotland and Europe (which were already familiar to me) but from all over the world, including America, Persia, Australia and China, adding a further layer of magic for a child growing up in the isolation that was 1960s and 1970s Cumbria. I lived in those books for years. The stories were unfiltered and unprettied - in publishing them Lang was fighting the traditionalists of the day who, in the words of writer and academic Roger Lancelyn Green, judged the tales' unreality, brutality, and escapism to be harmful for young readers, while holding that such stories were beneath the serious consideration of those of mature age. The popularity of the collections, however, completely changed this perception and spawned a raft of imitators.

     Hansel & Gretel
    HJ Ford
    Was I frightened by the parade of monsters and murderers? Yes, and so were my children and it did us no harm. Fairy stories gave the monsters that live in childhood fears a name and make us realise that everyone fears the same things - the nameless predator, the lurking disaster. As Mary Wakefield of The Spectator put it a few years ago and the original Little Red Riding Hood rather harshly learned: in folk tales, but only rarely in modern children’s tales, there’s a strong feeling that the hero or heroine really could screw up; that they must stay on their mettle to survive. Good intentions are no excuse in fairyland...if you ignore sound advice...you end up as wolf bait...In Disney-land, a heroine need not be on her guard, because the good guy always wins. And we all know how that turned out.

    Fairy stories provide some valuable real-life lessons with a bit of entertainment to sweeten the message and they do it so well because they tap into our deepest darkest dreads. It's no surprise that many of the countries trying to re-introduce wolves face objections from local communities which the worthies describe as irrational - or why we're all terrified of the robot dogs currently featured everywhere, it's in our folklore DNA.  Fairy stories are still the first shared experience most of us have of story-telling. We will continue to read and pass them on, they will continue to evolve. We live these days in strange, dark times when we need to remember our commonalities not our differences. Perhaps the stories we should tell on these never-ending winter nights need less pitchforks pointed at those we shouldn't be afraid of and a lot more banding together to beat the big bad wolf still hiding in plain sight.

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    photo: Graham Horn
    This is the signpost that fascinated me when we first came to live in this area. I guess we were driving home from Watlington Hill, where we might have hoped to see the then-rare red kites. But it took some while before we felt we had time to make the detour to go and see this thing. When we went, we were not disappointed.

    Nowadays, charities often install wells in what we call the developing world, and certainly India was the focus of such activity in the nineteenth century. In 1831, Mr Edward Reade, the squire of Stoke Row in the Oxfordshire Chilterns and Lieutenant Governor of the North Western Provinces, was chatting to his friend the Maharajah of Benares about water shortage problems.
    'The scenery' (of that part of India) Mr Reade told the Oxford Times in 1872, 'is not unlike that of the Chiltern Hills: the inconveniences, owing to deficiency of water supply were the same. The measures the Maharajah was adopting for the relief of his people were the subject of much of our conversation, in the course of which it would seem I must have mentioned the result of boyish knowledge in the upland of my own district, such as the people being dependent for water retained in dirty ponds and eserted clay-pits. In dry seasons the water used for cooking in one cottage was passed on to do the like office in others, urchins being cruelly thumped for furtive quenchings of thirst and washing days being indefinitely postponed.'

    I can understand the problem; though the Thames runs at the foot of the Chilterns, they are dry, chalky, clayey hills, and there are few streams. There are springs, but they dry up in summer and are capricious, appearing in one place for a few years, then disappearing again.

    And so the Maharajah set up a charity to help the people of England. That in itself is extraordinary, and salutary, I think, for we always think of charity going out of Britain to the global South. The Maharajah had been educated in England, and he was fond of the country, and fond of Mr Reade, apparently. That's how the people of this rural Chilterns village found themselves with this edifice in their midst.

    Wellcome foundation
    To get to water, the engineers had to dig through twenty-five feet of clay and gravel subsoil (I know them well, under the thin topsoil of my garden), and then through three hundred feet of chalk, interspersed with two layers, about eight foot deep, of sand. After that they got to a mixture of chalk and shells, and to groundwater at last. There was usually fifteen to twenty-five feet of water in the well, and the daily yield was estimated at between 600 to 700 gallons of water. There were two buckets, one which came up as the other one went down, which were operated by the big, delightfully Victorian mechanism underneath the canopy. What is missing on the print I've posted here is the elephant, which we have been taking small grandchildren to see for years. The exotic structure is no surprise to them, but it must have been for the villagers. It does look as if a small seaside bandstand had decided to decamp to the Chilterns.

    photo: Graham Horn
    Here is a photograph of the well today, showing the pumping mechanism and the elephant. The Vicar of Stoke Row, the Reverend Cyril Isherwood, who grew up in the village, wrote: 'I can remember well, on a beautiful summer evening, having a drink of the lovely, clear water, which in summer was ice cold, but in winter would often be slightly steaming.'

    Another sight for the grandchildren is the Well Warden's cottage, a tiny little octagonal house, which looks only suitable for dolls, yet two couples were among the Well Wardens. It was finally extended in the 1980s, adding on a bedroom and a bathroom. It's still amazing that anyone can fit into it.

    photo: Graham Horn
    There is also a cherry orchard. Some of the trees have gone, but it's still reasonably well populated. This was an Indian custom: well keepers could make money from selling the fruit, which was used to maintain the well. The Cherry Orchard was bought for two hundred pounds. Women used to go up the high ladders and pick the cherries and people used to come out from Reading in charabancs to see the cherry blossom in spring, and in the summer to buy the fruit. In the cherry season someone would be there from dawn onwards with a pop-gun or a rattle, to scare the birds away. Only cows were allowed to graze in the orchard, because they are sacred in India.

    In 1906, mains water was first brought to parts of Stoke Row from Woodcote, and gradually, every house was served. It didn't taste as good as the well water, but nor did one have to walk to get it carrying two buckets on a yoke. It was also hard to turn the windlass, partly because the cable that pulled the buckets up was getting rusty. The cable was taken away during the Second World War.

    The well was restored, as a monument, at the beginning of the '80s, shortly before we came to live in the area.  I can imagine how lovely the water must have tasted, because our water, though it's supplied by the water company, comes from local springs at the top of the hill. Thames Water then put chlorine into it, but when filtered, it is delicious. I wouldn't want to have to carry well water home in buckets, though. We take water so much for granted, but all one has to do is to travel in a country where it's not readily available to realise how wonderful it is to have it piped into our homes. All the same, the Maharajah of Benares's Well represented a major technological advance, and a huge improvement in the lives of the people of Stoke Row.

    I have got the information and quotes from Angela Spencer-Harper's book'Dipping into the Wells', which was published in 1999, a fascinating mine of information about the people who once lived in two Chilterns villages, Stoke Row and Highmoor.

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    purbeck marble columns Temple Church. (I am the distant
    figure in the brown skirt at the back!). 
    Purbeck Marble, is not actually a marble, but a sort of limestone that can be polished and is characterised by being composed of the tightly packed fossil shells of the water snail viviparus carinfer. It comes in a wide variety of shades including blue-grey (as in the columns of theTemple Church) red-brown and green. The vein of this limestone is between 18 and 24 inches thick and was quarried from the surface.  As a building and embellishment material it was very highly prized in the Middle Ages.  It could only be obtained from one place and that was the area around Corfe on the Isle of Purbeck in south-eastern Dorset, hence the name.  It did have rivals and substitutes such as stone from Tournai, or more local Petworth Marble, but by 1200, Purbeck was the material of choice.

    During the medieval period from 1170 and through to the mid 16th century, Purbeck was highly prized and thousands of architectural objects were crafted by the marblers of Purbeck and London. The aforementioned columns at the Temple Church are a fine example (although the current ones are replicas and a second set of replacements following bomb damage in World War II). William Marshal's tomb effigy is carved from Purbeck Marble.  There was once a fine Purbeck fountain that stood outside the private apartments at the Palace of Westminster.  In the 12th century, Henry of Blois, Bishop of Winchester and brother to King Stephen used Purbeck for wall shafts, capitals and bases at Wolvesey Palace, and also for elaborate collonettes at Hyde Abbey. The cloister shafts at Canterbury Cathedral are Purbeck marble, as is King John's tomb effigy.

    Working the marble was tricky because of its density and its craftsmen had to be experts. It was not usually worked in fine detail because of the difficulty, and only the expert master marblers had the skill.

    Purbeck was successful in part because of the coastal location of the resource, which made transportation easy.  In 1175, columns were shipped from Corfe to Durham Cathedral.  Capitals and bases went to Norwich, to Westminster, to Vale Royal.  In 1375 a ship called the Margarite out of Wareham was listed as transporting cargoes of Purbeck to London, including two high tombs for the Earl of Arundel, and a large slab for the Bishop of Winchester. In 1386 the same ship transported Purbeck from Dorset to London for the tomb of Edward III below.

    The London crafstmen of Purbeck orginally came from Corfe but settled in their own community in the capital.  The biggest influx of craftsmen seem to have arrived during Henry III's drive to build and beautify Westminster Abbey from 1245. By 1253 there were 49 marblers at work on the site, all cutting and polishing the Purbeck blocks and shafts.  It is likely that there were marblers at work on other cathedral sites such as at Salisbury.  The latter was sending worked marble down to Southampton in 1231-2.

    The most successful Purbeck items for the mass market during the 12trh and 13th centuries were tomb slabs and effigies and these can be found in numerous locations round the country. William Marshal, Henry bishop of Winchester, King John, Hubert Walter Archbishop of Canterbury, Giles de Bridport, Bishop of Salisbury, Edward III.
    tomb of King John 

    Purbeck marble continued to be in high demand during the fashion for effigies depicting funeral brasses as it was used as handsome background slabbing to offset the brass.  It also continued to be used for panelled tomb chests and large canopied wall tombs.

    Today, Purbeck is no longer quarried on former sites except for specialist projects for restoration - as in the case of the heat-damaged Temple Church columns.

    Elizabeth Chadwick is an award winning best selling author of historical fiction set in the Middle Ages and a member of the Royal Historical Society.  Her novel Templar Silks, the story of William Marshal on pilgrimage was released on March 1st 2018.

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       Last Christmas I went to a candlelit carol service at St Bartholomew the Great and was struck by the beauty and age of this Romanesque church. How did it survive both the great fire and the Blitz? I decided to learn more about the history of this stunning church and the great teaching hospital next door - which turns out to be a microcosm of a thousand years of London life. Unfortunately, I only have enough space here to whizz through the centuries.

       Both the church and the hospital were founded in the 12th century by Rahere, a courtier and jester at King Henry 1’s court, who later became a priest. It may have been the death of the king’s wife Matilda, followed two years later by the drowning of the heir to the throne, Prince William, in the White Ship disaster, that changed him so profoundly. On a pilgrimage to Rome Rahere fell ill and saw a vision of St Bartholomew, who told him he would get better and must found a hospital ( the foundation legend of Bedlam, or the Bethlem Royal Hospital, is very similar).This story intrigued Kipling, who wrote a poem called Rahere and made the mysterious holy fool a character in Rewards and Fairies. Rahere also appears in Rosemary Sutcliff’s historical novel for children, The Witch's Brat . He became Prior of the Augustinian church he founded and is buried there. In an annual ceremony a rose is laid at the foot of Rahere's tomb, traditionally by a member of the nursing staff at Barts.

       The modern entrance is in Little Britain, through this 13th century arch with a half-timbered gatehouse above, which leads to the churchyard. The original priory was much bigger and grander. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, the nave and transepts were pulled down and part of it became a parish church. Some of the lady chapel was incorporated into a private house and the rest of the building was used, at various times, as a stable, factory and blacksmith’s forge. Traces of this can be seen in the church, like this curious, very domestic looking window. In the parish church William Hogarth, that great observer of Londoners, was baptised.

       The Hospital lost its saintly title but survived the Dissolution as “The House of the Poore in West Smithfield in the suburbs of the City of London.” One of many fascinating physicians who worked there was Rodrigo Lopez, who fled Portugal during the Inquisition because he was a Marrano – someone of Jewish faith who had been forced to convert to Christianity but secretly observed Judaism. His patients included Robert Dudley and Francis Walsingham. and he became Physician-in-Chief to Queen Elizabeth. Robert Devereux accused him of conspiring with Spanish spies to poison the Queen and he was arrested - his character and trial might have been the basis for that of Shylock in The Merchant of Venice. Lopez was hung, drawn and quartered at Tyburn in 1594

       It was at Barts that William Harvey conducted his research on the circulatory system. He was appointed Physician Extraordinary to James I and, In 1628, published his seminal work, De Motu Cordis et Sanguinis in Animabilus, which described for the first time the circulation of the blood as a complete closed circuit with dual components.

       When the plague hit London in 1665 the doctors “retired to the country.” But a remarkable woman called Margaret Blague, who was theThe Matron at Barts and was also the widow of a Barber-Surgeon, stayed in the hospital. She continued to nurse the sick and, surprisingly, survived to live until 1675. The following year the Fire of London was finally halted at Giltspur Street, where the entrance to the outpatients’ department now stands, and is marked by a golden statue.

       This is the glamorous cover of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's A Study in Scarlet (1887). Sherlock Holmes, whilst using the laboratories at The Hospital, is introduced to Dr Watson, an alumnus of the Medical College. In the most recent incarnation of Holmes on the BBC, Benedict Cumberbatch threw himself from the roof .

       The hospital, like the church, is well worth visiting. Just inside the main entrance on your left is the charming little parish church of St Bartholomew the Less, where Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian library in Oxford, is buried and where Inigo Jones was baptised. Hogarth’s paintings,The Good Samaritan and Christ at the Pool of Bethesda, are on the magnificent staircase that leads to the Great Hall and there is also a very interesting medical museum.

       Female medical students were finally admitted to the Medical College in 1947 and, the following year, the hospital became part of the NHS.

       Through all these centuries the great meat market of Smithfield swirled around the church and the hospital. Animals were slaughtered here and executions also took place, including that of of William Wallace in 1305. For four days every year Bartholomew Fair was held on Smithfield, a cloth fair that developed into a wild carnival. Bartholomew Fair, a panoramic comedy by Ben Jonson, shows the vivid life of the fair, from pickpockets and bullies to justices, prostitutes and aristocrats.

        Two hundred years later, Wordsworth describes Bartholomew Fair in his Prelude:

    All moveables of wonder, from all parts,

    Are here--Albinos, painted Indians, Dwarfs,

    The Horse of knowledge, and the learned Pig,

    The Stone-eater, the man that swallows fire,

    Giants, Ventriloquists, the Invisible Girl,

    The Bust that speaks and moves its goggling eyes,

    The Wax-work, Clock-work, all the marvellous craft

    Of modern Merlins, Wild Beasts, Puppet-shows,

    All out-o'-the-way, far-fetched, perverted things,

    All freaks of nature, all Promethean thoughts

    Of man, his dulness, madness, and their feats

    All jumbled up together, to compose

    A Parliament of Monsters.

    It was all too much for Victorian sensibilities and in 1855 Bartholomew Fair was abolished. 

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                                              Looking out from a window at the Ritz across the Place Vendôme.

    "When I dream of an afterlife in heaven, the action always takes place at the Ritz, Paris." Ernest Hemingway wrote. I wonder whether he would offer the same opinion today, or perhaps he would consider some of the latest episodes in this new era of the Ritz as definitely worthy of a novel.

    I am not quite sure why I should have been on the list, but a few days ago I received an email notification informing me that the Ritz in Paris is selling off at auction a large collection of furniture, bathroom accessories, lights and decorations from the hotel's past. The hotel has recently undergone a four-year renovation, closing for the first time in its history between 1st August 2012 and June 2016. The renovations cost in the region of 220 million dollars and are the first since the late 1980s.

    The auction will include more than a century's worth of history in amongst the luxury items and
    will take place from 17th to 21st April at the Artcurial headquarters on the Ronds-Points des Champs-Elysées, 8th arrondissement, Paris.
    If you are interested, there is a varied collection of furnishings and furnitures, some of which they expect to go under the hammer for around 600 euros while other pieces are price-estimated in the thousands.
    I shan't be attending or bidding. However, I am fascinated by the history of this  iconic hotel.

    The Egyptian, Mohamed Al-Fayed, once owner of Harrods, has been the Ritz's proprietor since 1979 when he bought the hotel for 30 million dollars. During this time, it is has been stained with one or two scandals. Jonathan Aitken, former Conservative Member of Parliament in the UK, was jailed for perjury after a long drawn out trial and public investigation into his stay at the Ritz in Paris while Lebanese and Saudi Arabian arms dealers were also residing there.

    In January of this year, three armed men entered the hotel by a service door, used hatchets to smash hotel jewellery stands and broke into a store within the hotel, grabbing watches and various other valuable items. The men threw the loot out to two others waiting outside with a motorbike and a car. The trio within the hotel were apprehended while the two outside escaped with some 4.5 million euros worth of luxury goods. The three suspects were swiftly charged while the two who had escaped let go the bags of stolen goods and made off, according to a spokesperson for the police. The Paris authorities did manage to recover all the stolen jewellery.

                                             Dodi Fayed and Princess Diana in the South of France

    The Ritz is, of course, where Princess Diana and Dodi Fayed, son of Mohamed Al-Fayed, ate their last meal in the Imperial Suite before their fatal car accident on the night of 30th August 1997 in the Pont d'Alma.

    Al-Fayed in front of his memorial to his son and Princess Diana.

    Ritz garden terrace (1904),  Pierre-Georges Jeanniot. The first of two paintings Ritz garden paintings by the Swiss-French artist.

    From 1909, Proust found himself a spot in this garden to write sections of Le Temps Perdu, Remembrance of Things Past. Today, the hotel has a Salon Proust.

    In earlier incarnations, the reputation of the hotel on Place Vendôme was a little less dubious than it has been of late and was certainly full of glamour and style. It was founded by the Swiss hôtelier, César Ritz, in collaboration with, as a junior partner, the French chef, culinary king, Auguste Escoffier. They met at the Grand Hotel in Monte Carlo where they were both working. The Ritz opened its doors in 1898. It was one of the first hotels in Europe to provide en suite bathrooms. It also offered telephones in the rooms and electricity and within a short time, by the turn of the century, had certainly established itself as an address of luxury, grand luxe.
    When César Ritz died in 1918, his son Charles inherited the hotel and it was only at the time of Charles's death in 1976 and a short period of decline that it was sold to Al-Fayed in 1979 who immediately embarked on its first renovation, which took ten years and was achieved without closing its doors.

    Over the years, the hotel has played host to the rich, the famous and fashionable society. Cinema stars, royalty, heads of state and artists. Scenes from three films that star Audrey Hepburn were filmed at the hotel.  Fitzgerald, Hemingway - in 1988 the famous bar was given his name. I have to confess it is a bit of thrill to go and sit there and sip a cocktail. Coco Chanel made the hotel her Paris home for thirty years and died there. I have read that along with the hotel's renowned barman, Frank Meier, in 1925 Coco also created the Mimosa cocktail which was inspired by the scented flowering of the mimosa trees in the south of France where she had built a home. The spa at the hotel is the world's first Chanel Spa. Chanel skincare products are used in the treatments.

    During the Second World war, from 1940 onwards, it was the headquarters for the German Luftwaffe along with their chief, Hermann Goring.

    Of course, the adjective 'ritzy' and the noun 'ritz' as in 'putting on the ritz' are born from the elegance and opulence this hotel has become synonymous with. Today it is a member of the Leading Hotels of the World, boasts a staff of over six hundred and is considered by many to be Europe's finest. It is one of the very few hotels in France to claim Palace status, which means a 6, rather than 5 star rating.
    I will finish with another quote from Hemingway: 'The only reason not to stay at the Ritz is if you cannot afford it.'

    I cannot, alas. If you wish to attend or participate in the auction, take a look at the Artcurial website. I will content myself with slipping in from time to time, wandering its elegant public areas and treating myself to a drink.


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    Fritillaria meleagris have been around for thousands of years
    One of the joys of living in Oxford is the annual blooming of snakeshead fritillaries, or fritillaria meleagris, a historic flower.  They appear in the first week in April, sometimes a bit later, but don’t be fooled if you can’t spot them. You can wander into a meadow where they were last year and think you are too early. Then suddenly there is one right under your nose. Snakeshead fritillaries have the magical property of being invisible until you get close, and then suddenly there are thousands round you. The best way to view them is to lie down among them and look through them up to the sky. Admire the bell-shaped silhouette of the flower against a (hopefully) blue sky, and smell the fresh spring earth. Individually, the flowers are extra ordinary and somehow too exotic to be growing wild in Britain. The petals are tessellated in dark purple and pale pink in a geometric checkerboard fashion, as if a graphic artist has drawn each one separately. Inside is a bright orange stamen where you may spot an early bumble bee pollinating the flower. And en masse they are spectacular: a blurred haze of purple sweeping over a green meadow of fresh new grass and yellow dandelions. You may also hear a cuckoo, who lay their eggs in reed warbler’s nests in the surrounding water meadows. 
    Sometimes fritillaria meleagris are white
    A member of the Liliaceae family of the genus Fritillaria, they are herbaceous perennials with slender stems and lance-shaped greyish-green leaves. Their habitat is damp meadows at altitudes up to 800 m (2,625 ft).  The word Fritillaria comes from the Latin fritillus meaning dice-box, probably referring to the chequered pattern on the flowers. Meleagris means "spotted like a Guineafowl" and "snake's head" refers to the snake- shaped flower heads nodding on their long stems. Some of the flowers are pure white. The bulb, about 2 cm in diameter, contains poisonous alkaloids. They grow about one foot above the spring grass which then masks and protects them as they shed their seeds, to germinate for next year. 
    An exotic combination of a snakeshead, a guineafowl and a dice box.
    Fritillaria meleagris is native to Europe and western Asia. In Croatia, the flower is known as kockavica and is the country's national symbol. The Swedish name, kungsängslilja means ‘Lily of King’s Meadow’ which is where it grows in large quantities in Sandemar Nature Reserve in the Stockholm Archipelago. They are known to have been around for at least 7,000 years but the flower is increasingly endangered as ancient water meadows disappear.
    No-one is sure whether the fritillaries in Britain are indigenous or were introduced by horticulturalists and then spread into the wild. The plant was first described in the 16th century by herbalist John Gerard who knew it as a garden plant. Not until 1736 was it recorded in the wild, so some people claim it must be an escapee. However, it does not easily spread from damp meadows to adjoining land,which means that it could be native and became isolated when Britain was cut off from mainland Europe after the last Ice Age about 12,000 years ago. 
    Dandelions grow among Snakeshead Fritillaries in Iffley Meadow, Oxford.
    You can grow them yourself from bulbs. Fritillaria meleagris thrives in moist, well drained soil. Plant the bulbs 10cm (4") deep and 10cm (4") apart in a damp spot in your garden, with plenty of well-rotted manure or garden compost.
    In Britain, there are now only a handful of meadows left in the Midlands and the south of England. You can find them at North Meadow and Clattinger Farm nature reserves in Wiltshire; and Fox Fritillary Meadow and Mickfield Meadow in Suffolk. They can still be found in Botley war cemetry meadows, Oxford ; and the Oxfordshire  village of Ducklington holds a "Fritillary Sunday" festival. After a poll in 2002, it was chosen as the county flower of Oxfordshire. The plant was once so common in the Thames Valley  and parts of  Wiltshire  that it was picked in vast quantities and sold in the markets of Birmingham, London and Oxford. But most of the plant's habitat was destroyed when ancient meadows were ploughed up during the Second World War to grow food crops. 
    At this time of year, Magdalen College meadow in Oxford is filled with the fritillaries which have been here since at least 1785. Once the flowering is over, deer are moved in for the summer and autumn. Their cloven hooves tread in both the seeds and their fertilizing droppings - a perfect combination. Around the edge of the meadow is Addison’s Walk, lined with mature beech, chestnut, yew and lime trees. It is a beautiful and tranquil walk, favoured by students, dons and local historians.
    My favourite place, however, is Iffley Meadow beside the River Thames on the edge of Oxford. Every year they are counted, and last year there were 75,508 plants – up from 500 in 1984. Also in the ditches around Iffley Meadow are king cups, dragon flies, reed and Cetti’s warblers, and cuckoos.
    After all that strenuous flower-watching, pop into the 19th century Isis Farmhouse on the Thames Towpath. There is no road leading to it – you have to walk or cycle there, but it serves home-made cakes, often accompanied by live jazz.
    This time last year, I posted a blog about Cowslips or Concrete. Sadly, despite huge opposition from local residents, Oxford City Council decided that cowslips are not important. First they cut down the flood- preventing willow trees, then they bulldozed the soil, burying the wild flowers. The use of all this gravel and tarmac? To store flood equipment!
    This what the cowslip meadow in Marsh Park now looks like. 

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    In the world of classical music, if asked to name six great composers from, say, 1050 to 1950, most people would probably come up with a list including Bach, Beethoven, Mozart, and could add several others to the list with little difficulty.

    But if asked to name six great women composers from the same period…?


    Most of the great composers of the past have been men.  Only in the last sixty years or so has it been considered that women could ever become composers.

    And yet… human nature doesn’t change.  Nor does human talent or achievement.  It is extremely unlikely that during that period of 900 years there were no women capable of composing music to at least equal that of men.  There must have been many prodigiously talented women whose progress in the field of classical music was hindered by lack of expectation, encouragement and opportunity.

    However, there were one or two whose names shouldn’t be forgotten.

    The first really bucked the trend of her time: Hildegard of Bingen (1098 – 1179).  Renowned 900 years ago for her theological, scientific and prophetic writings, Hildegard is best known today for her “unique and glorious” music.  For most of her 80-plus years she was shut away in an obscure hilltop monastery in the Rhineland, but she left behind a treasure-trove of illuminated manuscripts, scholarly writings and songs written for her nuns to sing at their devotions.  No lack of talent there, then.

    Today this remarkable woman is recognised as one of the first identifiable composers in the history of Western music (most medieval composers were “Anon”). But there were no mentions of her music in any reference book before 1979 and she barely warranted an entry in the 1990 edition of The New Grove Dictionary of Music.

    After Hildegard there appear to have been few others to take on the baton for the next 800 or so years – or at least, none whose names have been remembered.  Composing music was considered to be purely a male preserve.

    However, in the mid 18th century two young child progidies toured Europe, performing together as “Wunderkinder”.  They were Maria Anna Mozart (called Marianne and nicknamed Nannerl) and her younger brother Wolfgang. Contemporaneous reviews praised Nannerl, and she was even billed first - until she turned 18.  After that her father decided that although a little girl could perform and tour, a woman doing so risked her reputation.  So he took Wolfgang on their next journeys around the courts of Europe, leaving Nannerl behind in Salzburg.  She never toured again.

    But she did not give up. She wrote music and sent at least one composition to Wolfgang and her father – but although Wolfgang praised it and encouraged her to write more, her father made no comment.  Sadly, none of her music has survived.  We may never know if she destroyed it, or if some of it has survived but been wrongly attributed to her brother.   

    Fanny Mendelssohn (1805 – 1847) was a German pianist and composer, composing over 460 pieces of music.  Several of her songs were originally published under her brother, Felix Mendelssohn’s, name, but again she was limited by the attitudes of the time towards women.  These attitudes were apparently shared by her father, who was tolerant, rather than supportive, of her activities as a composer.  In 1820 he wrote to her “Music will perhaps become his [i.e. Felix's] profession, while for you it can and must be only an ornament".  

    Although Felix was privately broadly supportive of her as a composer and a performer, he was cautious (professedly for family reasons) of her publishing her works under her own name. He wrote:  “From my knowledge of Fanny I should say that she has neither inclination nor vocation for authorship. She is too much all that a woman ought to be for this. She regulates her house, and neither thinks of the public nor of the musical world, nor even of music at all, until her first duties are fulfilled. Publishing would only disturb her in these, and I cannot say that I approve of it.

    Clara Schumann (1819-1896)

    In an era when women, apart from singers, almost never performed in public or composed, Clara Schumann did both.  As a pianist she distinguished herself as the foremost interpreter of her husband Robert’s work, but she was also a primary force in reintroducing eighteenth-century keyboard music to the public.  Unfortunately, her own compositions remained unknown until the second half of the twentieth century.  Many are still unpublished and owned by private collectors, so we still cannot appreciate the full extent of her compositional achievements.

    During their marriage, Clara was pregnant ten times and bore eight children.  However, even with such a large family, Clara continued to perform, compose, and teach piano, while at the same time she supported Robert and his career.  Schumann encouraged Clara’s composing and contracted publishers for her, but made it clear that his creative work took priority over hers.  

    Cécile Louise Stéphanie Chaminade (8 August 1857 – 13 April 1944) was a French composer and pianist.  Born in Paris, she studied piano and violin and music composition, despite her father’s disapproval of her musical education.   At the age of 8 she played some of her own compositions to Georges Bizet, who was much impressed with her talents. She gave her first concert when she was eighteen, and from that time on her work as a composer gained steadily in favour. She wrote mostly character pieces for piano, and salon songs, almost all of which were published.

     Ambroise Thomas, a fellow composer and Director of the Paris Conservatoire, once said of Chaminade: "This is not a woman who composes, but a composer who is a woman." In 1913, she was awarded the Légion d’Honneur, a first for a female composer.

    She was a contemporary of Dame Ethel Mary Smyth, DBE (22 April 1858 – 8 May 1944)  Dame Ethel was an English composer and a member of the women’s suffrage movement. She was born in Sidcup, Kent, the fourth of a family of eight children. Her father, John Hall Smyth, who was a major general in the Royal Artillery, was very much opposed to her making a career in music.

    Undeterred, Ethel was determined to become a composer, studied with a private tutor, and then attended the Leipzig Conservatory, where she met many composers of the day. Her compositions include songs, works for piano, chamber music, orchestral and concertante works, choral works, and operas.  In recognition of her work as a composer and writer, she was made a Dame in 1922, becoming the first female composer to be awarded such an honour.  She received honorary doctorates in music from the Universities of Durham and Oxford, and died in 1944 at the age of 86.

    Nowadays, fortunately, women composers are less rare, which one hopes is because of the change in attitudes among the general population, as well as among the musical elite.  There is still a long way to go, but at least now we have the likes of organist and composer Judith Weir, who in 2014 became the first female Master of the Queen's Music. 

    And Debbie Wiseman, who writes music for films and television, and is the resident composer for Classic FM. 

    It is to be hoped that they and their fellow-female composers will never become forgotten women.

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    Our guest for March is Elise Valmorbida. Welcome, Elise!

    Photo credit: Geza Singer

    Elise Valmorbida grew up Italian in Australia, but fell in love with London. She’s a designer, writer and teacher of creative writing. In recent years, she produced a feature film. Her fiction includes Matilde Waltzing, The TV President and The Winding Stick. Her non-fiction includes Saxon —The Making of a Guerrilla Film, and The Book of Happy Endings, now published in four languages and four continents.

    Last year I went to a screening of In Guerra per Amore (At War With Love), the latest feature film written and directed by the Sicilian satirist known as Pif. He also stars in the movie as the sweetly goofy Italian-American who’s prepared to leave USA peace for WW2 Italy—all for love. Renowned for his earlier film The Mafia Only Kills In Summer, Pif is tireless in his pursuit of gangsters, using comedy as his weapon of choice. In Guerra per Amore shows how the American liberators of 1943 not only released—but promoted to positions of real political power—the Mafiosi who’d been languishing in Italian prisons courtesy of the Fascists. This political promotion gave new life to the Mafia, and Italy lives with the consequences today. It’s one of the dark sides of the Liberation, a huge and controversial subject.

    But discussion at the London Q&A, like too many of the reviews, was waylaid by the issue of the helicopter.

    What helicopter? There’s a pivotal scene in the film, where a navy helicopter delivers innocent Pif into war-torn Sicily. He is already seated on a donkey in a giant sling. It’s like a stork delivering an absurd baby, and a sly cinematic nod towards the Christ-carrying helicopter in Fellini’s La Dolce Vita.

    But, some critics point out, the navy didn’t use helicopters during WW2.

    This is an issue of historical accuracy. Never mind all the other fantastical gestures and inventive flourishes that make up a movie I love. What’s more, this is an issue of transport, and there’s nothing like transport—trains, planes, automobiles, buses, timetables, routes, engine types, bogies, you name it—to get historical hackles up.

    I’ve never written historical fiction before, although my first novel Matilde Waltzing leans in that direction. I’m a writer of fiction, or non-fiction. I don’t think in terms of genre. But something happens when a storyteller delves into the past. Suddenly the specialists are out in force, alerting us to the fact that the horses should have been smaller, or that the ladies’ dresses shouldn’t have had bustles. I do understand such concerns. A dropped stitch can unravel the immersive weave of the fiction. But do people get this bothered when aliens from another galaxy speak English? Or when a dog narrates an entire novel?

    At two Historical Novel Society conferences, years apart, I was struck by how many established writers had become very used to saying, more or less: “I’m not a historian, but I can claim to be a novelist.” Melvyn Bragg noted that Herodotus “made all that up”, that history and fiction have been intermingled from the beginning. Manda Scott talked about hoping to achieve an authentic-sounding, authentic-feeling concept of what might have been, a concept that is “not wholly incorrect”. Eileen Ramsay suggested having a note at the back of your book covering your approach, your fact-and-fiction principles.

    In non-fiction, you can always say that scholarship is divided over this or that issue. In historical fiction, you have to make a decision and go with it. This applies to the big stuff (how you choose to interpret famous figures and events) as well as the small stuff (how people spoke to each other in an unrecorded remote community).

    In Italian, there are different verbs for ‘knowing’ a person (conoscere) and ‘knowing’ a fact (sapere)—but the word for ‘history’ and ‘story’ are one and the same word. They are both storia. How vital! It is all the telling of tales.

    Of course, there is a truth that must attach to some past events—those that are witnessed or documented by a significant number of credible people. And there is concrete evidence, which can be rationally examined and interpreted to create a mosaic of perception. Even so, many voices are unheard, evidence can be lost or misused, and historians do disagree.

    Then along comes the novelist, who declares from the outset that s/he is making it all up anyway. If only it were that simple! We know that there are rules, the internal logic of the worlds we create.

    When I was researching The Madonna of the Mountains—set in the Veneto region of Italy, from 1923 to 1950—I found myself thinking that history is written by the victors, and the victors are men.

    It was easy enough to find out about politicians and campaigns, public figures, mass movements of workers and refugees, the experiences of military men and resistance fighters, the hardware of war… And I certainly didn’t want to get my helicopters wrong. But I wasn’t that interested in helicopters. I wanted to write about the life of a woman. Not one of Mussolini’s lovers, not an aristocrat, not a leader, not a political heroine. An ordinary peasant woman. Finding out about my protagonist’s day-to-day life was not so easy.
    Maria Vittoria doesn’t have the education or worldliness to analyse ideology, nor the heroism to overcome pragmatism. And she is of her time. What was important to her? How did she make sense of the violence of her era? How close could she come to self-determination, without taking an implausible redemptive leap into feminism…? This was inviting territory for me, like a landscape of fresh snow.

    I had a flying start. I grew up Italian in Australia, and as a child I was spellbound by stories about the Veneto and the World Wars. I moved to London as a young adult and started filling notebooks on my frequent trips to Italy with random personal observations and ideas… landscape, weather, architecture, sayings that fascinated me, unwritten recipes, foraging and growing plants for food or medicine. I had no specific project in mind. Over decades, I listened to the reminiscences of elderly relatives, neighbours, strangers—it was like a haphazard oral history project. I heard stories about ordinary people in a very specific time and place. I was given old letters, prayer books, pressed flowers. Cumulatively, it helped me to know a kind of truth, the sort of truth that is difficult to find in history books.
    Once the novel writing was underway, my research became disciplined, even obsessive. I read what I could in English, Italian and dialect. I watched countless films. I scoured the internet. I visited churches, museums, cemeteries, historic sites, places that are nowhere on a map. I studied ephemera, from family hand-me-down trinkets, to items for sale on Ebay. In between all that, I did a lot of imagining. I had to. Despite research, despite fragments of real people’s stories, Maria Vittoria’s story emerged from somewhere deep inside me.

    Still, throughout the months of editing and proofing, I’d wake in the middle of the night, with a terror of ‘The Facts’—dates, road surfaces, supplies, hardware… I’m not a historian! I’d make lists of things to check in the forensic light of day. (For the record, I didn’t have this neurotic experience with my other novels, my not-historical-fiction.)
    The Madonna of the Mountains was already being printed when I found an antidote to my nightmares about truth and accuracy. Antonio Pennacchi’s preface to his brilliant novel Canale Mussolini has a wry note about his fact-and-fiction principles. Please forgive me for quoting him at length (with credit to Judith Landry for her translation). I think he speaks for many of us who find ourselves writing about not-famous people in our historical fictions…

    “Naturally enough, there was no real Peruzzi family in the Pontine Marshes to whom all these things happened. Although this book contains references to historical figures, both the Peruzzi family and the series of events in which they were caught up are pure invention. But there was no family of settlers in the Pontine Marshes—whether from the Veneto, Friuli or around Ferrara—this too is a fact—who did not experience at least some of the events in which the Peruzzi were caught up. In this sense, and in this alone, all the events recounted in this book are to be regarded as true.”

    I’d like to borrow that, with a few swapped names, for The Madonna of the Mountains. Meanwhile, there’s all the other truth for which there is no preface.

    Elise Valmorbida’s novel The Madonna of the Mountains is published in the UK by Faber & Faber on 29th March 2018. Liberty London Fabrics designed the bespoke jacket and endpapers of this hardcover first edition, launching their new partnership with Faber. You can buy the book from Amazon, all good booksellers, or direct from the publishers. Signed first editions are available from Goldsboro Books.

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    Pineapples are having a fashion moment. Everywhere I look, I seem to see them: on clothes, jewellery and homewares, from shoes to jumpers, necklaces to candle-holders, pots and knick-knacks. It isn’t hard to see why. They are immediately recognisable, brightly coloured and – at this drab end of winter - evoke tropical sunshine and exotic locations. As a design feature, what’s not to love?

    It isn’t the first time the pineapple has been at the centre of fashion. In the eighteenth and nineteenth century there was a craze for the ‘king of fruits’ – and the reasons for it were very different from today.

    Dunmore Pineapple
    Source: Wikimedia Commons
    Pineapples originated in South America. They were cultivated very early, due to the fact that in the right conditions they will fruit all year around. Early western explorers brought them back to Europe – and across to other tropical regions, where they quickly spread - as an example of the abundance and exciting discoveries of the New World. During the seventeenth century, such was their rarity that they were given to royalty as gifts. The symbolism around them – as the king or queen of fruits, as a representation of a new Eden, or of a new tempting ‘apple’, even associations in Catholic countries with the Virgin Mary – quickly grew, as did their reputation as the most delicious of all fruits.

    By the early eighteenth century, the quest was on to grow pineapples in Europe. This was difficult – they need a constant tropical air and soil temperature to thrive, and the technology was not initially available. This changed with the development of hothouses, initially in the Netherlands. These swiftly spread across Europe and by the middle of the eighteenth century, it was fashionable for rich aristocrats to have their own ‘pinery’.

    C18th Wedgewood tea canister, pineapple design.
    Source: Victoria and Albert Museum, London
    No-where, it seems, was this trend more pronounced than in England. A movement towards conspicuous consumption meant that pineapples became the ultimate in luxury. Hothouses were incredibly expensive to build and expert gardeners were needed to nurture the delicate plants over the two-three years it took for them to fruit. In the eighteenth century, it was estimated that the “the average total cost of the cultivation of just one pineapple was about £80 (nearly £5000 today) – about the cost of a new coach.”*

    Pineapples became a necessity at the grandest dinner parties and country-house gatherings, crowning a pyramid of fruit as a mighty centrepiece. But such was their expense that they were often left intact, not eaten, and re-used over several weeks until they started to rot. In some places, it was even possible to hire a pineapple if you wanted to impress your guests, although of course it was much better if you could take them on a genteel tour of your very own hothouse.

    The craze for pineapples went further than just for the fruit itself. They swiftly became used in all sorts of places, on items as diverse as clothing, reticules (small handbags), snuffboxes, wallpaper and crockery. Having your portrait painted with a pineapple also seems to have been a popular choice, as the example below from the Cwmmau Farmhouse, owned by the National Trust, shows.

    Gentleman proudly holding his pineapple,
    Cwmmau Farmhouse, National Trust.
    Photo: author's own
    The motif became embedded into architecture, with stone pineapples often decorating the tops of pillars and gates, especially at the entrances to grand stately homes. No-where is this shown more clearly than in the mighty Dunmore Pineapple (which can now be rented as a holiday cottage from the Landmark Trust!) This has led to the supposition that the pineapple was seen as a symbol of hospitality, although Fran Beauman convincingly argues in her 2005 book ‘The Pineapple: King of Fruits’ that for many it was much more about asserting status and conspicuous consumption than hospitality per se.

    By the mid-nineteenth century, the first imported pineapples started to appear, at much lower prices than the home-grown version. Although this meant that a taste of the fruit was within the reach of a middle-class household for the first time, the fruit was often in poor condition and English pineapples remained a true luxury item for the time being. The advent of refrigerated shipping and improved canning methods towards the end of the century and in the early years of the twentieth, however, spelled the end for the pineapple as a symbol of social cachet.

    * Fran Beauman, The Pineapple: King of Fruits (2005, Vintage)

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  • 03/30/18--16:01: March competition
  • To win a copy of Elise Valmorbida's Madonna of the Mountains, just answer this question in the Comments section below:

    "What is the most powerful truth you have found in a work of historical fiction?"

    Then copy your answer in an email to maryhoffman@maryhoffman.co.uk so that I can contact you if you win.

    Closing date: 7th April

    We're sorry our competitions are open to UK Followers only.

    Good luck!

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    You might expect an April Fool's Day post, looking at this title, but I promise you it's not that. I actually have a horror of April Fools; like "banter" and "prank" and "practical joke" these are words that make my heart sink.

    (I do make an exception for the elaborate Guardian hoax about The Island of San Seriffe in 1977. It was shaped like a semi-colon and its capital was Bodoni.)

    No; although my posting day is 1st of every month and once in twelve it will land on the dreaded day, this is a serious post and indeed a review of a fascinating book.

    For the possible inventor of the handkerchief was none other than the English King Richard, the second of that name. His tailor, Walter Rauf, describes "small pieces [of linen] made for giving to the lord king to carry in his hand for wiping and cleaning his nose.'

    For this fascinating fact I am indebted to Kathryn Warner, author of a new biography Richard ll: A True King's Fall (Amberley Publishing). It is of a piece with what we already knew of him. He was a fastidious, elegant man, much given to spending exorbitant sums on clothing and personal adornment for himself and his queen.

    His was also the first known commissioned portrait of an English king. So we have a slightly better notion of what he looked like than can be gleaned from earlier kings' depiction in illuminated manuscripts or funerary effigies.

    You can't see the handkerchief but he probably did have one tucked away somewhere in those gorgeous robes, his hands being occupied with orb and sceptre.

    I have been interested in this particular king since I first read Shakespeare's play. I think this was when I was still a teenager because Henry lV Part One was a set text for O level and I developed early the habit of "reading round the text." I didn't understand what was going on in the opening scene in which it looks as if there is going to be a joust between Henry Bolingbroke and Sir Thomas Mowbray but then the king steps in and stops it.

    I didn't know who Aumerle was but thought he had a very romantic name. And I thought Bushey, Bagot and Green sounded like a trio of stage villains. What I loved was the language. Not so much John of Gaunt's "This royal of throne of kings ..." speech, which had been done to death by singing Parry's setting in the choir, but Richard's "Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the deaths of kings."

    I loved it all - even the  gardener - "Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks."

    But it was only in 2007/8 when the RSC put on the full cycle of Shakespeare's History plays that I got so involved with them.

    I saw each play individually and then the whole sequence again in what was called The Glorious Moment, although it was in truth a full weekend from Thursday to Sunday. It was this that fired my interest in the Plantagenets.

    "Our" Richard ll was Jonathan Slinger (who also in the rest of the cycle played Richard lll, Fluellen and the Bastard of Orléans). He gave us an epicene, arrogant and ultimately fragile king, incredulous that his people could turn against him.

    Kathryn Warner gives a fully rounded picture of the monarch too and reminds us of much that shaped his character. His father, Edward of Woodstock (not known as the Black Prince till two hundred years later), was the oldest of Edward lll's many sons and the recognised heir to the throne. But campaigning in France turned him into an invalid and the heir died before the king.

    Then Richard had an older brother, another Edward, who, if he had lived, would have been King Edward lV and changed the course of history. But little Edward of Angouleme died before he was five. Richard's mother Joan, the Fair Maid of Kent, had what was regarded even then as a rather colourful marital history. She was, while still a teenager, married to two men at once, had five children with the one deemed to be her legal spouse, then married the Prince of Wales within nine months of her husband's death. She was still only thirty-three.

    Not surprisingly, King Edward and his wife Queen Philippa were not overjoyed about their eldest son's infatuation with this woman with the rackety reputation. Her second husband was still alive, and - to make matters even more complicated - she was Edward's cousin so that a dispensation was needed from the Pope. Normally the heir to the English throne would have been expected to marry a foreign princess for dynastic reasons, as his father and grandfather had done before him. So it was clear this was a love match.

    But it meant that when Richard ll was crowned at the age of ten, he had the following disadvantages: he wasn't the son of the previous king; he was a minor and his mother had a scandalous past, leaving him open later to rumours of illegitimacy.

    At the time of his coronation, Richard had three living uncles: John of Gaunt, Duke of Lancaster, Edward of Langley, Duke of York and Thomas of Woodstock, Duke of Gloucester (all named after their birthplaces, Gaunt equalling Ghent). John of Gaunt had a good claim, being the first living (though third-born) son of the dead King Edward but he didn't pursue it - something he might later have regretted.

    When he was fifteen, Richard married Anne of Bohemia, who was a few months older than him. If you think of him as an effeminate king with "favourites" or lovers like the Earl of Oxford, it might surprise you to know that it was a very happy marriage. The teenaged Richard doted on his young bride and took her everywhere with him.

    It was imperative for Richard to produce some heirs but sadly there were no children from this marriage and Anne died at the age of twenty-eight. Meanwhile, Henry Bolingbroke, son of John of Gaunt, was busy producing four sons and two daughters with his wife Mary de Bohun. How galling must that have been?

    The having of legitimate male heirs has coloured the history of England's kings. Too few, as with Henry Vlll, and it dominates their reign and causes problems after death. None, like Queen Elizabeth the First and the outcome is the same. Too many, however, like Edward lll and you get the Cousins War (or Wars of the Roses).

    Richard was reluctant to name an heir but eventually chose his cousin Edward, the son of his uncle the Duke of York, who later held the title Aumerle (=Albemarle). Richard took a second wife, Isabella of Valois, but she was just a child, only nine when her husband was deposed. There is every evidence that he treated her kindly and was fond of her but she is not the adult beloved of Shakespeare's play, who seems more modelled on Anne of Bohemia.

    The play deals with  the last year of the king's reign, with Richard's sending his dangerous and fertile cousin into exile and later seizing his lands and property when old John of Gaunt dies. From then on it is inevitable that Henry Bolingbroke will return from exile to claim first his title and rights but then move on to seize the crown.

    All of this is covered in Kathryn Warner's excellent biography, along with what is now called the People's revolt of 1381, which was Richard's first test of kingship, his troubles with his uncles and the Lords Apellant, his conflcts in Scotland and Ireland and the uneasy peace with France.

    As well as the handkerchief story, there is a the sad anecdote about Richard's dog, who deserted him for the usurper, Henry Bolingbroke. It was "a greyhound of wonderful nature," who had belonged to Richard's half-brother. It then lived alongside the king for two years but when Richard left South Wales, the dog ran away for a hundred miles to Bolingbroke's camp at Shrewsbury Abbey and sat in front of him "with a look of the purest pleasure on its face." Henry took this as a good omen and adopted the dog, letting him sleep on his bed.

    (History doesn't relate how Henry knew it was the king's hound).

    Maybe this is the source (The Chronicle of Adam Usk 1377-1421) of the touching scene at the end of Shakespeare's play when Richard asks a groom which horse the usurper-king Henry rode in triumph and was told it was his own roan Barbary. Richard exclaims:

    "So proud that Bolingbroke was on his back!
    That jade hath eat bread from my royal hand;
    This hand hath made him proud with clapping him.
    Would he not stumble? would he not fall down,
    Since pride must have a fall, and break the neck
    Of that proud man that did usurp his back?"

    Apart from some passages which are inevitably studded with names and genealogical details as a Christmas pudding is with dried fruit, Warner's is a very readable and engagingly written book. It gives you a real sense of the contradictory personality of this capable but ineffective, loyal but vengeful, generous but greedy and ultimately flawed king.

    Kathryn Warner

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