Hearts Through History Romance Writers

Scotland Bound: The Maid of Norway

The Referendum on Scottish independence brings to mind the fate of a little girl born to forge a much earlier Union.

In 1283, some three hundred years before England and Scotland were joined under a single monarch, a daughter was born to the sea-king of the north, Eirik II of Norway. The little Maid of Norway, as the baby Margaret came to be known, was the only surviving grandchild of the Scottish king, Alexander III.


In Scotland, Alexander set about rectifying the matter at once. Perhaps he did so too hastily, for he died of a fatal accident on horseback, hurrying to the side of his new wife, the young Yolande de Dreux.


Downton’s Destruction

In Dowton Abbey, Tom, Downton’s agent, disagrees with Lord Grantham’s plan to sell off bits and pieces of land to pay the estate’s death taxes. Lady Mary considers his argument, and the inescapable conclusion that without the land, how will the cost of the house be borne? Tenant farmers pay rent–that’s how the great house pays its way. 

The decline and eventual destruction of Downton Abbey is hypothetical, but the fact remains a great many country houses and estates in England suffered such a fate. At least 1200 and very likely more were lost in the twentieth century.

Sutton Scarsdale Hall. Photo licensed by Philip Thompson, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Sutton Scarsdale Hall. Photo licensed by Philip Thompson, This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

What happens to houses and the humans who live in them during this period of change? Julian Fellowes has drawn on his own memories, mostly from the 1950s, when old retainers retired and new ones were not hired, the stables were empty of horses and there was nothing for it but to pack up the lot and sell it off:

“And you’d go into the attics of some of these houses and there would be lines of bedrooms, and in some cases, there’d be nameplates, and it would say ‘Mary’ on it, and inside was an old iron bedstead. And you had a real sense, then, of a life that you just missed. And sort of, cupboards lined with blue felt with nothing in them.” — interview with Julian Fellowes, Feb. 3, 2013

The first to sense an unease might be the guests who come for a shooting or hunt ball at the great country house. Remember poor Mabel Nesbitt from Fellowes’ other drama Gosford Park, wife of the Honorable (italics mine) Freddie Nesbitt. She had nothing to wear for formal events in the evenings but one frock, in green–“very tricky color.” What is not shown is her probable embarrassment before Elsie, the head housemaid who must stand in for the lady’s maid Mabel cannot afford, even though she was the heiress of a glove factory which went bankrupt.

By the 1930s, the great house had seemed very obsolete, even to its occupants, yet the Duke of Richmond recalled, “World War One didn’t make a lot of difference to life, except that people started disappearing.” Younger generations of owners liked their flats in London and wondered over the bother that came with the running of a great house in the country. Those that remained were clinging to the old ways or just needed a job in an era of high unemployment. The result was “spectral and superfluous” as noted by a guest visiting the Marquess of Bath in 1936. When he wished to go for a bicycle ride:

“A row of liveried footmen gathered in ranks on either side of the steps to see (the guest) bicycle away down the drive; one of them solemnly carried his bicycle to the front of the steps while his host stood at the top watching until he had vanished.” — Servants: A Downstairs History of Britain by Lucy Lethbridge

Newspapers and shoelaces were still smoothed every morning by flat irons heated in front of the fire. This and other observations were made by Margaret Powell, a cook and long-time servant, in her book Below Stairs. When others were making do with processed food like that newfangled margarine, the country house was still serving vast quantities of food from its home farm, including real butter in the servants’ quarters.

A strange warping of economies would occur, however. Feeding vast households was fine as long as one had the home farm, but paying for them was quite another. One lone baronet, served by ten servants, would demand the sixpence found in Christmas pudding be reused year after year. Everything was mended and even the thread used for such repairs had to be conserved.

 How does it all end? One touching example is that of Holland House, whose last occupant was the dowager Lady Ilchester. An invalid, she still maintained a large staff, including a chauffeur, in what had used to be a house in the country, but now surrounded by London. One of her hall boys recorded the following as reprinted in Lethridge’s Servants:

“When I look back over my three and half years at Holland House, I can see now there was something particularly sad, almost unreal about them. We were propping up something that belonged to another age, trying to pretend that what had passed still existed or even if it didn’t that if we tried hard enough to keep the old order of things going, it might come back.”

Holland House was partially destroyed in the Blitz. Photo by Steve Cadman, originally on Flickr now licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.

Holland House was partially destroyed in the Blitz. Photo by Steve Cadman, originally on Flickr now licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.




The Yorkshire Witch

They say she mixed with gypsies as a child. Mary Bateman (1768 – 1809) was born to a prosperous farmer and went into service at around age twelve. She was dismissed from her post for theft and soon employed her skill at concocting potions (and stealing on the side) to make a living. She made public displays of her skill, the most famous of which was her magical laying hen who produce eggs that said “Crist is coming.” It cost a penny to view them, these eggs that the hen would lay before one’s very eyes, appropriately labeled beforehand and inserted into the “unfortunate” hen.

Filip Maljković took this picture in 2006--he doesn't ask for attribution, but he deserves it

Filip Maljković took this picture in 2006–he doesn’t ask for attribution, but he deserves it

She didn’t like children:

“One day, the whole family had been out for some time, when one of the children, a boy of about 7 years of age returned and found on the table a small cake; the mother and the others of the children soon after returned and partook of this cake, which they soon discovered had a very keen and pungent taste, this however did not prevent them from eating several mouthfuls of it; they soon after became sick to such a degree, as to render medical aid necessary.”

Extraordinary Life and Character of Mary Bateman, the Yorkshire Witch (1809)

 The trial of the Yorkshire witch was filled with a great cloud of witnesses, not unlike those old medieval proceedings immortalized in the minds of folks from the 70s thanks to Monty Python:

— John Rodgerson and Roger Stockdale – declared she had mysterious bags about her person.

— Thomas Gristy – was sent by the witch to procure poison, but then he was a wee lad at the time.

— Mr. Clough, Leeds surgeon — refused to allow two boys sent by the witch to procure arsenic, although the identity of said boys is not known as it has been several years hence

During preparation for trial, the witch was examined by a Mr. Hemingway, Solicitor, “a gentleman whose patient and laborious investigations contributed materially to the development of this dark and mysterious affair.” He recorded she denied poisoning anyone.

Nevertheless, the jury found her guilty and she was condemned to death. Yorkshire Witch

Curiously, it was her long record of fraud that the court dwelled upon:

“You entered into a long and premeditated system of fraud, of which you carried upon for a length of time, which is most astonishing..”

She pled a stay of execution by reason she was pregnant. The court appointed a group of matrons to examine her and when they returned a verdict of “not pregnant,” Mary Bateman was executed forthwith.

Her skeleton is on display today at Thakray Museum in Leeds.




Adventures in England

Bodiam-castle-10My8-1197  My experience at Bodiam Castle, one of our adventures in England.


In 2004 my husband and I took a trip to England & Scotland.  This was one of my dream trips as I have a MA in History (specializing in Tudor and Stuart England) and taught Western Civilization at the college level.


After a week in London, we rented a car and took off to tour the country, staying in B&Bs.  At one point we stopped in a small village to get snacks, and the store keepers, knowing we were tourist by our accents, asked we we’d been to Bodiam Castle and recommended we see it.  So next morning we went to see.  As you can tell from the photo, Bodiam Castle was a moated castle built in the 14th century, the very iconic fairy tale castle with crenellated four towers.  The castle was partly dismantled in the 16th, but in the 1829 was partially restored.  Now it belongs to the National Trust and open to us tourist.  The exterior is almost complete, and even the gatehouse has the original wooden portcullis. 


Since we arrived early before the castle opened, we visited the souvenir shop.  While in the shop we talked to one of the locals who ask about our visit.  Learning I was a history teacher, he mentioned that later that evening the local historical society was having a reading of Rudyard Kipling and would we still be in the area.  He asked, “Do you like Kipling?” A pause while my inner American/Groucho Marx took advantage of an opening too good to pass up.  “I don’t know,” I replied, “I’ve never kippled.”  Apparently even old American jokes are new in England and everyone laughed.  Then I apologized as we would have to miss Kipling as we were leaving that afternoon.


The castle is only about half there as the timbers and wooden or lath walls are gone.  Was really interesting, you cross the moat, and at the barbican, the murders’ holes (pics).  Once inside, it’s quickly obvious that medieval people were much smaller that we are.  I’m not a tall person (5’4”) anyone taller than I probably would have to duck to get through the door ways.  Once inside one of the room that was still complete accept for the roof, it would have been very dark.


The really fun part was going up one of the towers.  As we’re going up the clockwise staircase (with very little steps, couldn’t get my whole foot on the steps), I’m explaining to my husband that the stairs are this way so that most people being right-handed, any invaders wouldn’t have room to swing their swords.  And right after I said this, we met a husband and wife coming down the stairs, the husband swing his cane to show his wife how the defenders would have the advantage over any invaders.  I forget if we backed down or they went back up, but there was no room to pass on those stairs. 


Once we got to the top of the tower, here was a great view over the country side.  You could have seen anyone who was coming a long way off.  We had a great time at Bodiam Castle all because we stopped and talked to people in small shop.



Have you ever stopped and without planning found an interesting place?


The True Story of Richard and John

Here’s a bit of real history for you in honor of the release of the final book of my “Noble Hearts” Medieval romance trilogy, The Courageous Heart.  The underlying history of the trilogy surrounds the years from 1191 – 1194 when King Richard I was fighting the Crusades and then getting his butt captured and held for ransom while his brother, Prince John, schemed his little schemes back home in England.  Sound familiar?  Sound like one of the most classic tales of all time?  Think you already know what happened in this chapter of history? 

Chances are you have it dead wrong.  Why?  Because the Robin Hood story is one of the most grievously falsified accounts of what things were actually like in all of the annals of popular history. 

Here’s how things really went down….  (more…)