Friday, December 9, 2016

Michael of Rhodes: a 15th Century Visitor to London

by Mark Patton

In an earlier blog-post, I introduced the topic of Medieval trade between London and Venice. Each year, a fleet of galleys would set sail from Venice, passing through the Straits of Gibraltar, along the Atlantic coasts of Portugal, Spain and France, and into the English Channel, half of them bound for London, the other half for Flanders. They brought with them silk thread and cloth from China and Persia; spices from India; and wine from Italy; and returned with woolen cloth, raw wool; expensive embroideries from London; and tin from the mines of Cornwall. Remarkably, we have a written record from one of the men who sailed on these ships, Michael of Rhodes.

A Flanders Galley, from the Book of Michael of Rhodes (image is in the Public Domain): these vessels were specially built to withstand the storms of the Atlantic.  

Michael was, ethnically, a Greek, and spoke Greek as his first language, although he seems only ever to have been literate in Venetian (his book includes prayers in Greek, presumably remembered from his childhood, but they are transcribed in Latin letters). He joined the Venetian navy as a humble oarsman in 1401, and, over the course of a 44-year career, which saw him sailing to Constantinople, Alexandria, Beirut, London and Bruges, rose through the ranks to be Nochiero (Midshipman), Paron (responsible for provisioning, ballasting and stowing of the ship), Comito (Sailing Master) and Armirao (effective commander of a fleet, responsible to a nobleman who did not necessarily have the skills of a master-mariner). He served on both commercial and military vessels, and was wounded in action at least once. Further details of his career can be found here.

Michael's first visit to London was in 1406, when he was a Proder (a senior oarsman, responsible for discipline on the benches). He would have had an uncomfortable journey, sleeping on his bench, exposed to the elements, and living on a diet of ship's biscuits and broth. Although the ship would have traveled under sail throughout most of her time at sea, Michael and the 180 oarsmen would have had to row her up the Thames. He would have stepped ashore, exhausted, at Galley Quay, close to the Tower of London.

The arrival of a galley signaled the beginning of an unofficial trade fair, since each member of the crew was entitled to a portata, a small package of goods that he could trade on his own account. This might have included trinkets of glass, pottery or copper made by his relatives in Venice or on Rhodes. If he was lucky, he might have been able to afford a few nights in a real bed (even if shared), and some decent meals washed down with ale.

Michael's second trip to London, in 1443, was under very different circumstances. He was now an experienced master-mariner, and a senior officer, a Homo de Conseio, selected by a panel chaired by the Doge. In London, he is likely to have been wined and dined by the Lord Mayor, and by the masters of those livery companies whose members traded with the Venetians: the Broderers, Haberdashers, Drapers, Woolmen and Vintners. He is unlikely to have spoken much English, but Venetian traders had permanent offices in London, which would have provided translators.

At sea, his responsibilities seem to have included the training of the Nochieri, men (some of them of noble birth), who were being prepared for careers as master-mariners. His book is, in large part, a training manual, encompassing ship-building; rigging; navigational and commercial mathematics; and sailing directions for voyages around the Mediterranean and Atlantic coasts. It may have played a role in securing his promotion to a senior post, and he seems to have sold it to another mariner on his retirement, an item of considerable value.

Diagram showing the construction of a ship's hull, from the Book of Michael of Rhodes (image is in the Public Domain).
A galley under construction, from the Book of Michael of Rhodes (image is in the Public Domain).
Diagram showing lateen sails, from the Book of Michael of Rhodes (image is in the Public Domain).
Mathematical calculations, from the Book of Michael of Rhodes (image is in the Public Domain).

Michael of Rhodes belonged to one of the last generation of mariners who sailed without charts. A draftsman of not inconsiderable talent, his book includes nothing that looks remotely like a map. Although he does not mention a compass, he probably did use one, but he would not have had a sextant, astrolabe or telescope. He would have followed the coastlines, using a Portolan (a list of landmarks - his book includes several of these, including one for the English Channel), making relatively frequent stops to take on fresh water, and other supplies, and using trigonometry (his book includes the relevant tables) to keep track of his position between anchorages.

A mock coat of arms gives us a rare insight into Michael's sense of humour. The turnips on either side may refer to the diet on board his ships, whilst the mouse firmly in control of a cat is an appropriate emblem for a man who has risen from humble origins to the top of his trade (image is in the Public Domain).

Written on paper (cheaper, and lighter, but less durable, than vellum), Michael's book is a remarkable survival. Although in private ownership, it has been extensively studied by academics, and a facsimile has been published, together with a full transcription and translation. It is one of the most important primary sources for anyone wishing to understand navigation, commerce, and applied mathematics in the Late Medieval Age.

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

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Manorial Courts

by April Munday

Rolls from the manorial courts tell historians a great deal about the lives of medieval peasants and how they interacted with their lord. The court governed their lives, determining when they could plant and when they could harvest. It fined them if they allowed their animals to stray onto the lord’s demesne, and it was where they took their claims against other villagers to be judged.

C:\Users\capri\Pictures\Blog Pictures\Battage_à_Fléau.jpg
Battage á Fléau *

The manor was made up of the lord’s demesne and the land that he leased to tenants. The demesne was the farm that the lord kept for his own benefit.  The people who worked the land were both freemen and serfs (cottagers, smallholders or villeins). The manorial court dealt with the serfs’ issues, while the freemen were able to go to other courts.  It was the rôle of the court to assess land, levy taxes and settle disputes. A manor court was also able to create new bylaws for the manor.

Some lords had more than one manor and could not look after all of them closely. Sometimes the lord would simply be away, at court or fighting in the king’s wars. The manorial court was one of the ways in which properties could be managed whether he was there or not. The lord had his steward, who looked after the lord’s interests in his absence, but it was the village officials (reeve, hayward and beadle amongst others) who made sure that things happened as they should. The court decided the land boundaries and the days on which animals could graze in the fields. The steward presided over the court, but the village elected the officials from among themselves. The steward could not tell the court what to do and the court could appeal to the lord if necessary. Usually the business transacted by the court had no direct reference to the lord, covering village problems such as loans not being repaid, men not turning out to work on the lord’s demesne, theft, the erection of a fence in the wrong place, and one villager injuring another.

The court was run by the rich villeins who provided the jurors and officials. The court was supposed to meet every three weeks, but some met less often. All the serfs in the village had to attend. Those who did not attend were fined. The court was often held in the nave of the church, the part that ‘belonged’ to the village. There were not many places in the village large enough to hold the court and many were simply held in the open air, often in the churchyard. Some manorial courts met in the hall of the manor house itself.

The jurors pronounced judgement on their fellow villagers (and occasionally on the lord) and this was sometimes put to the rest of the village as well for their assent. When making a judgement they had to take into account what they knew of the law, the custom of the manor and the manor bylaws. All the jurors and everyone else in the court knew both parties in every case that was brought before them, which was supposed to make it easier to come to a correct judgement.

Villagers had to pay a fee to get their case heard. This fee went to the lord. The lord of the manor benefited from any fines issued by the court and the court was often the source of a large part of the lord’s income. The manorial court also required payments to the lord on all kinds of occasions – death, inheritance and marriage all had their appropriate fee. All of these meant that part of the lord’s land was being transferred from one person to another and the fee was to obtain the lord’s permission for the transfer. The court could generate a lot of income for the lord, and fines and fees tended to increase after the Black Death (1348 – 1351) when there were fewer tenants to pay rents. The steward’s clerk recorded the cases and any fines or fees. As well as fines which went into the lord’s coffers, the court could also award damages to be paid by the guilty party in a case to the injured party.

Burying victims of Black Death - image Public Domain

Some freeholders had the right to attend the court, but they could also look to other courts for justice, which the serfs could not. Other courts included the church courts and the royal courts, but the villeins were unlikely to have dealings with either, since they did not have the right to be tried by a royal court, unless they were accused of killing someone. Twice a year the male villeins had to report to the hundred court, however, to demonstrate that they were members of a tithing.

One of the commonest cases to come before a manorial court was the accusation that someone was selling ale before it had been tasted by the ale taster. Ale was brewed at home and sold to the neighbours, who came to the brewer’s house to drink it. The ale taster’s rôle was to ensure that a consistent quality and price were maintained.

In the Great Revolt of 1381 legal records, including manor court rolls, were targeted and destroyed by the rebels. After the Black Death some lords increased their villeins’ rents in order to maintain their incomes after losing half, or more, of their serfs. At the same legislation was passed to keep wages low. One of the demands of the rebels was a cap on rents. They also wanted manorial courts to be abolished and villeins to be allowed to appear before the king’s courts. Everything in the manorial court was weighted in the lord’s favour. The decrease in the population caused by the Black Death and subsequent plagues between 1351 and 1381, and the reaction of those in authority to it made the yoke of serfdom much harder to bear for those who could not leave the land.

Corpus Christi College's Old Court, attacked by the rebels on 15 June
via Commons Licence

It is, of course, thanks to the surviving manor court rolls that so much is known about everyday life in the middle ages in rural England, although it is like looking through a distorted lens, since they show only the things that were brought before the courts.

*Image - Battage á Fléau – BnF, département des Manuscrits, Latin 12834, fol 64v – Calendrier-martyrologue de l’abbaye de St-Geramin-des-Prés, France (Paris). Image in the Public Domain via Wikimedia.

England in the Reign of Edward III – Scott L. Waugh
Medieval Lives – Terry Jones
Life in a Medieval Village – Frances and Joseph Gies
Making a Living in the Middle Ages – Christopher Dyer
The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England – Ian Mortimer
England, Arise – Juliet Barker


April Munday lives in Hampshire and has published a number of novels set in the fourteenth and early nineteenth centuries. They include The Traitor’s Daughter, His Ransom, The Winter Love and the Regency Spies Trilogy. They can be purchased from Amazon. Amazon.  A novel set around the sack of Limoges in 1370 will be available early in 2017. Her blog ‘A Writer’s Perspective’ ( arose from her research for her novels and is a repository of things that she has found to be of interest. She can also be found on Twitter (@aprilmunday)

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

A Dish Fit for a King: Feasts in Medieval England

By Kristin Gleeson

Those food critics who rated British food poorly over the years after the war wouldn’t have recognized the elaborate fare of a Medieval feast. No lumpy gravy, overcooked roast beef or soggy Yorkshire in sight.

The Medieval feast in England was truly something to behold as the chroniclers of the time tell us. Generally it was the monarchs, princes and high ranking prelates who held the feasts on suitable occasions, like religious festivals of Christmas and Easter, or secular occasions, like the end of sheep shearing, or harvests, and of course weddings and coronations.

The purpose of the feast, besides marking the occasion, was to demonstrate the host’s importance and power and for the guests to reinforce the hierarchy by their presence and where they sat. In the case of large, important feasts, a lot of planning was necessary. On the occasion of the marriage of Margaret, daughter of Henry III to Alexander in December 1251 the planning started before the summer. By the end of July beasts were being bought in York and other fairs, though they weren’t slaughtered until just before the wedding. At the same time orders were given to catch, slaughter and salt 300 deer. By November 1000 more deer were ordered. In October the sheriffs of the northern counties were ordered to supply 7000 hens, 170 boars, and various numbers of game birds, rabbits, hares and pigs. In November 68,500 loaves of bread were added to the order. By December the fish order was placed and included 60,000 herring, 1000 greenfish (salted cod?), 10,000 haddock and 500 conger eels. Added to that was the 25,000 gallons of wine ordered in early August and the rice, almonds and sugar at the end of November. Arrangements were also made for the collection of large amounts of wood in various forests.

 The dishes created were complicated to say the least. Colour was an important component that added to the complication, for the cook’s ambition was to disguise nature while conforming to the Medieval notions of the four humours that comprised a human. Each food was categorised for its humoral qualities and had to be brought into balance by the cooking method employed. This explains why, for example, beef (moist) was roasted (dry) and why fish (cool and moist) was generally fried. The endless chopping, grinding, sieving, straining and filtering were all designed to correct any humoral imbalances as well.

 Not unexpectedly versions of a dish changed over the years. In the case of “Mawmenny” which dates from Anglo-Norman times, the dish was originally ground beef, pork or mutton boiled in wine, served in a wine-based sauce which was thickened with capon meat and almonds. The sauce was seasoned with cloves and sugar, fired almonds were added and the dish coloured with indigo or a red dye. About 60 years later it had changed into a dish made from beef broth (no wine) capons cooked in milk of almonds and the whole thickened with rice flour or breadcrumbs. It was seasoned with stronger spices and coloured yellow with saffron. After another 50 years the wine had returned along with a lot more sugar, the beef had vanished, but the capon remained. There were more spices, the almonds replaced by pine nuts and dates the colour was a reddish orange. What remained constant was sufficient complication, a vibrant colour and high cost. 

For the most part each feast consisted of two, three, four and occasionally more courses consisting of many dishes. The more eminent the occasion the more dishes per course. At the coronation of Richard III in 1483 there were three courses of 15, 16 and 17 dishes. The first course consisted of five meat dishes, five fowl dishes, one fish dish and four indeterminate. The second included four meat dishes, probably two fish dishes, six fowl dishes and three indeterminate dishes. The third course consisted of three meat, two fish, five fowl, two fruit and four indeterminate dishes. Only those at the very top table were given the choice of all the dishes, though.

 Several of the dishes were typical of the period. The soup, for example, was partly “frumentie”, which was boiled, hulled wheat and milk of almonds, something like a porridge, to which was added a meat, in this case venison and saffron and other spices. With this was served a broth. A common broth contained rabbit, almond milk and spices such as ginger, cloves, nutmeg and galingale. Sometimes sugar or onions, cloves and raisins were added. Another of the exotic dishes was “blaundsorr” which was a pottage based on almond milk, thickened with rice and containing ground capon to form something of a meaty blancmange. Most records of feasts in the 13th and 14th centuries show they were like that of Richard III. They included things like roasts, rabbit in gravy covered in sugar, mawmenny and fritters. Earlier, in the 12th century, besides the fare already listed, were dishes that included a roast crane and peacock with pepper sauce.

Vegetables are rarely mentioned, but on occasion do appear, like in, for example, the special dish of peas and porpoise. Such dishes as “rapes” (turnips) or parsnips in pottage which also included onions, saffron and spices were made as well as “gourds” in pottage with onions, egg and pork and cabbage with onions, leeks and spices in pottage. Beans, frequently ground, were also eaten in various ways, as well as radishes and carrots which were mainstays in Medieval gardens. Salads were eaten at times, too. One recipe contained a wide range of herbs and vegetables including cress spring onions, onions and also purslane.

 At the end of each course a “sotelty” (subtlety) was often presented which was a table decoration. Sometimes it was an ornament made of sugar or “marchpane” (marzipan) that was eaten, though they weren’t always edible. The object was to impress the guests with the cook’s skill and the cleverness of the host who employed him. The subject of the creation could be the nature of the occasion. For example, at the coronation feast of Katherine, Henry V’s wife, they presented a pelican on its nest (an emblem of piety) and St Katherine (patroness of learning) disputing the heathen clerks, an image of St Katherine with a wheel in her hand (she was martyred on a wheel) and a heraldic tiger looking at a mirror, with a man riding away carrying a tiger’s whelp and throwing down mirrors behind him (an illusion to the marriage).

 Feasts weren’t only comprised of food. Entertainment, sometimes on a grand scale, took place between courses. Trumpets played before each of the courses as well as to signal the beginning and end of the feast, and music was usually played during the meal. Minstrels, several at a time, would be present on special occasions. Singers were popular too. They sang carols as well as “chansons de geste” (tales of romance and chivalry). Acrobats, tumblers, jugglers, conjurors, animal trainers and dancers were all part of the revelry as was the fool. There were also professional raconteurs accompanying themselves on the harp who retold romance tales.

“Disguising” was another form of entertainment and involved a group of strangely and richly clad people entering the hall and performing a dance or song before leaving as mysterious as they had come. It’s possible that kings took part in such displays, as they certainly did later. Mummers provided similar entertainment. Short plays were sometimes performed as well. Other spectacles were presented to give flare to a feast. Pies burst open to reveal jugglers or jesters, and challenges were issued. It might also be the occasion to swear important oaths- like to fight the infidel, or a specific foe.

 In the most elaborate settings a pageant might be enacted, usually of a historical nature, using elaborate moving structures. Cities, ships and mountains might be represented. Things didn’t always go to plan, though. On one occasion in 1389 a tower on wheels representing Troy accompanied by another representing an assault tower manned by Greeks and a model ship manned by 100 soldiers were pushed into the hall for a mock battle. There were so many people in the hall pressing in that a table containing a large number of people overturned. A door near the queen was opened to allow fresh air and all the tables had to be cleared to make room for everyone. The king and queen left in haste.

 The feast at the marriage of Katherine of Aragon to Prince Arthur was more successful, with various ceremonies going on for several days. Westminster Hall was hung with rich tapestries of Arras and contained a cupboard of seven shelves filled with rich plate of gold and gilt. There were three pageants displayed on some of the first pageant cars seen in England. There was a castle drawn into the hall on heraldic beasts and a ship on wheels. Speeches were made from all of these and dancers descended from the last. After the pageant was completed there was dancing. Ten year old Prince Henry suddenly threw off his long gown and danced with his twelve year old sister, Margaret, dressed in his jacket with a typical flare that would foreshadow things to come in the even more elaborate and lavish feasts of the Tudor and Stuart courts.


Originally from Philadelphia, Kristin Gleeson lives in Ireland, in the West Cork Gaeltacht, where she plays harp, and runs a book club for the village library. She holds a Masters in Library Science and a Ph.D. in history, and for a time was an administrator of a national archives, library and museum in America. She has also worked as a public librarian in America and now works at a library in Ireland. You can read more about Kristin on her website. You can read about a Medieval feast in Kristin’s novel, The Imp of Eye set in 15th century London.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

So Why Pineapples?

by Helen Hollick

Have you ever noticed stone pineapples outside houses? Maybe to either side of the gateposts? Maybe freestanding in front of the house? The latter is not so common in the UK, it is more of a US thing, especially along the east coast, in Virginia, for instance.

It is a tasty, sweet, and healthy fruit to eat, but why pineapples? What is so special about them?

Until the latter part of the 17th century the pineapple was almost unique to the New World. It was discovered by that intrepid explorer, Christopher Columbus when he 'sailed the ocean blue in fourteen-hundred and ninety-two’.

An edible species from the Caribbean islands, it was a favourite food of the native Caribs (along with, if myth is to be believed, cannibalising humans!). Originally the fruit came from Brazil and Paraguay, traded by the sea-faring peoples in their dugout canoes. The plant was called ‘anana’ – excellent fruit. In English it came to be called Pineapple because of its spiky likeness to pine cones, the first reference to the name being in 1664. In Spanish they are called piña, again for the pine cone. You would recognise the name from the drink, piña colada.

Columbus came across this edible treat on his second voyage in 1493 when he landed on the volcanic island of Guadeloupe. Going ashore to explore a deserted native village he found the freshly gathered fruit piled ready to eat. He and his crew tried the feast out, and enjoyed the experience. (It is rumoured that they also found cooking pots with human remains inside. Fact or fiction? Who knows?).

Sweet fruits were rare in Europe, sugar cane was as rare – although become popular thanks to Sir Walter Raleigh and his like who followed in Columbus’s footsteps and returned home to England with all sorts of edible delights – and tobacco, which in hindsight from our view in the twenty-first century perhaps he should have left where it was. Because of its rarity, and the difficulty in keeping pineapple fresh during a long sea voyage, well into the 1600s the pineapple was regarded as the food of kings. It was also difficult to grow in our colder climate. 

So rare and uncommon was it that in 1665 Charles II had a painting commissioned to portray him receiving the first pineapple grown in England by John Rose, his royal gardener.

Life and living in the American Colonies had somewhat improved since the days of the first settlers. Towns, like Boston, Philadelphia, Annapolis, Williamsburg and Charleston were expanding rapidly. For the well-to-do, ‘visiting’ either for afternoon tea, or to dine, was one of the prime sources of entertainment. Social intercourse was a way to show-off what you had and an essential way to keep up with the local gossip and news. Status, and the ability to show it, was an essential element. Keeping up with the Joneses is nothing new! The Colonial hostess would seek subtle ways to brag about what she had and take great pains to out-do her neighbours. Elegant furniture, sumptuous and elaborate gowns, exquisite china and silver tableware, fine linens, expensive tea… food was displayed on platters and arranged in elaborate pyramid styles, often dripping with sugar. Dinner was a culinary delight and always extravagant. The laid table would be kept as a surprise, behind closed doors until the moment to reveal all came... Fresh fruit was a grand thing to be displayed, but topping it all would be the pineapple. It was rare, expensive, and wonderful to look at, touch – and eat. It was the crowning celebrity-status glory of the feast. To have one on display meant you’d made it to the top of the tree.

Preserved pineapple chunks were brought in by trade ships from the Caribbean – candied, glazed, packed in sugar, but the ultimate prize was the whole fruit. Only the fastest ships, the more capable captains and crew could get from A to B without the fruit rotting in the hold. To be able to display a fresh(ish) pineapple as your table centrepiece was the ultimate goal; it showed wealth, rank and resourcefulness. Getting hold of one from the confectioners’ stores was no easy task. But they were rarely eaten at these elaborate dinners – they were display objects only. Why? Because the hostess had probably not actually bought it. She had rented it. The confectioner would rent the fruit out by the day. One day for Mistress Holystone up at Fairings, the next, the Appleby’s at Four Chimneys, then on to Colonel and Lady Dawson at Whitegates… and no one was any the wiser, because who would be brave enough to commit social suicide by admitting to the fact?

The image of the pineapple standing proud atop its pyramid of fruit, or on a glass or china pedestal to be admired and ooh-and-ahed over soon began to symbolise a sense of hospitality, friendship, good cheer, delightful company, enjoyment and heartfelt welcome. Craftsmen soon cottoned on and throughout the Colonies pineapples carved from stone or wood, or moulded in copper, or even bronze, began to appear atop gateposts or alongside the front porch or door. They decorated public buildings, were used as weather vanes, appeared on door-lintels, as jewellery and trinkets, as tableware and embroidered on linen as tablecloths and napkins. Were used as pots, jars, lamps, cups…

Newport House B & B Williamsburg
you can just see the pineapple atop its plinth by the first
window to the right of the front door
here it is in close-up
(photos Cathy Helms
Displaying a pineapple today is nothing more than a quaint old-fashioned tradition, yet who can resist picking up a nice, fresh, pineapple from the supermarket shelves? I doubt you will be inclined to display it rather than eat it, though.

ADDENDUM: my good friend John F. Millar from Newport House has reminded me:
"Pineapple was the only tropical fruit that could (frequently, although not always) withstand a sailing voyage up to mainland North America (for example, bananas, mangoes, guavas and papayas could not survive, and so they were only consumed up north as jam or syrup). Pineapples came ripe only in December, so they were one of the first plants subject to modern genetic modification, such that they can now come ripe any time of year. That meant in the old days when pineapples reached North America they were usually considered to be connected with Christmas. Ship captains who had brought a few pineapples home with them would place a carved pineapple on a post in front of their house in order to show the neighbors that there was pineapple to be had, so they had better come in quickly to eat some before it was all gone. From there, pineapples became a symbol of hospitality, which they still are today, even if no one remembers why."
Thanks John.

Tobacco Coast - A Maritime History of Chesapeake Bay and the Colonial Era
Arthur Pierce Middleton (John Hopkins University Press)


Helen Hollick lives on a thirteen-acre farm in Devon. Born in London, Helen wrote pony stories as a teenager, moved to science-fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published for over twenty years with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the 1066 era she became a ‘USA Today’ bestseller with her novel about Queen Emma The Forever Queen (UK title A Hollow Crown). She also writes the Sea Witch Voyages, pirate-based nautical adventures with a touch of fantasy - pirates being her present passion!

Connect with Helen through her Website, Blog, Facebook, Twitter (@HelenHollick), and through her Amazon Author’s Page

Monday, December 5, 2016

Giveaway - Scars From The Past by Derek Birks

Derek Birks is giving away a paperback copy of his new release, Scars From The Past:

An unwelcome legacy. An impossible love. A relentless enemy.

By 1481, England has been free from civil war for ten years. 
The Elder family have discovered a fragile peace in the lands they fought to win back, yet scars from the past remain with them all. 
Given time, they might heal, but when did the Elders ever have enough time? And close to home in Ludlow, trouble is stirring.

Born out of the bloody devastation of the Wars of the Roses, young John Elder is now the heir to his father’s legacy, but he finds it a poisonous one. Driven from the woman he loves by a duty he fears, John abandons his legacy and flees the country to become a mercenary in Flanders.

In his absence, stalked by a ruthless outlaw, the Elder family must face a deadly storm of blood and chaos. When the young heir to the throne, Edward, Prince of Wales, is caught up in their bitter struggle, the future appears bleak. Only if the Elders can put the scars from the past behind them, is there any hope of survival.

For a chance to win, leave a comment below. Don't forget to leave your contact details so that we can let you know if you've won!

Snuff - the medicinal cure-all and herbal panacea

by Deborah Swift

The Gawith Snuff Factory

I live close to Kendal in the Lake District in the North of England, and it is known as one of the foremost manufacturers of snuff; a brand known as 'Kendal Brown.' The reason snuff became established as an industry in Kendal can be traced back to two epidemics of Plague in the 16th and 17th centuries. The first epidemic in 1598 struck so badly that two thousand five hundred people died - an enormous number for a small town. The distress of the town was made worse by another epidemic in 1623, but this was not nearly so severe, and the reason was supposedly that people had begun to take snuff - then thought of as a remedy against all kinds of infection.

Outside of the factory with its distinctive sign showing a Turk
(tobacco was thought to be oriental) and his clay pipe
Kendal had easy access to the ports of Whitehaven and Lancaster, and so large quantities of tobacco were imported for the growing number of snuff mills in the town. Tobacco was grown in the British colonies of Maryland and Virginia. From Virigina alone, in 1629 one and a half million pounds of leaves were shipped to England from America. By 1700 Kendal was using its network of transport links, developed through the wool trade, to export snuff to London and the rest of the British Isles.

What is snuff?
Snuff is basically a blend of finely ground tobacco. It was discovered in the late 15th Century but its popularity grew in the 18th Century when it was used by everyone from Napoleon to Pope Benedict XIII. To produce snuff carefully selected, high grade tobacco leaves are sourced from all over the world and are aged for over 2 years. The leaves go through at least two fermentation processes before being ground to specific grades, such as Fine, Medium of Coarse. The Fine blend is the most intense, and the coarser less so, and suitable for beginners to snuff-taking. The snuff can also be moist, medium or dry, or flavoured with scents providing varying experiences for the user.

How snuff was made
the early method of making snuff was by hand, from the 'carrottes' or rolls of tobacco leaf - called carrottes from the French because of their resemblance to the shape of carrots. The carotte was gripped tightly at one end and then other end was ground against a 'rape', a rasp or grater.

A snuff box and grater
In aristocratic circles, the snuff grinding equipment was highly elaborate, and including several items strung on silver chains - a miniatire pick, grater, spoon and tiny rake for separating rough from smooth snuff. Some also included a silver-mounted hare's foot for brushing the snuff from the taker's upper lip. I long to include one of those in a novel!

This time-consuming method was soon superceded by water powered snuff mills in which the grinding process was automated. We tend to take this kind of thing for granted, but forget that heavy machinery of cogs and gears, and the heavy stone grindstones would have had to be transported by horse on carts and waggons, and often up and over hills or across bridges.The snuff itself was transported to the shops in barrels, boxes and bladders made of animal skin.

Snuff is one of the few forms of taking tobacco that has not succumbed to the modern world and the majority of English snuff blends are still made the traditional way. Samuel Gawith's 'Kendal Brown' uses heavy oak and stone pestles dating back to the 1700's to grind their snuff, while the rest of the work is done by hand.

The giant oak pestle still in use

Bottled precious and rare oils, such as Sandalwood and Rose Oil are stored in safes and are carefully blended in a secret room.When smoking was banned from the House of Commons in 1693 a silver communal snuff box was introduced with a supply of the famous 'English Rose' snuff, and surprisingly, is still used today.

'Insufflating' - a pinch of snuff
Traditionally you would take snuff from the back of the hand into both nostrils to take an even helping for each nostril. The portion taken would be half the size of a pea. Snuff was to remain in the front part of the nose, but sneezing was allowed. It was considered polite to use a kerchief or 'mouchoir' (French for handkerchief) to sneeze into, but loud sneezing was considered healthy and not rude.

Keeping snuff fresh
By the second half of the 17th century, ornate boxes were being produced to keep the precious powder dry. Snuff boxes or 'tabatières' are widely collected today, because they are often made from silver, engraved, chased, or enameled. Porcelain containers were also common, and sometimes snuff boxes were hand-painted with miniature landscapes or tiny portraits.

Snuff box with portrait of Marie Antoinette

Do read my previous post  on this blog(from 2013) for more on the fascinating art of snuff-taking.

As linked to pictures, also 'Kendal Brown' by J.W. Dunderdale (Helm Press). All pictures not linked are public domain


Deborah Swift is the author of several novels set in the 17th Century. The Lady's Slipper, about a rare wild orchid of that name, is set in and around Kendal, and features the new Quaker movement, and the aftermath of the English Civil War.

Follow her on Twitter @swiftsory
or on her website at

Saturday, December 3, 2016

The French King's Bastard, Harry Valois

by Linda Fetterly Root

spawned Angouleme Blazon,
Courtesy of Odejea, Creative Commons
Those who prefer at least a modicum of historical accuracy in historical fiction will wince at the mention of the glitzy fairytale fantasy called Reign, soon (ouch!) to begin its fourth season on syndicated television. Remember, if you dare, King Henri Valois's illegitimate son Bash, an entirely fictional character, a not especially surprising revelation since in Reign, so is the Queen of Scots. Unlike his father Francois I who sired many, Henri II is only known to have fathered three bastards. The firstborn was Diane of France, mistakenly believed to be the king's daughter by his mistress Diane de Poitier because Diane raised her at court perhaps to dispell rumors of Henry's impotence. Her mother was Filippa Duci, who seduced Henri in a one-night-stand when Diane’s back was turned.

Filippa Duci, Wikimedia
The talented but brutal Governor of Provence, Henri d' Angouleme, the 'Batard d'Valois, is often referred to as Henri’s favorite son. His mother was a Scot, Janet Stewart, Lady Fleming, illegitimate daughter of James IV, a paternal aunt and governess of Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots.

Henri d'Angoulême
 Pinterest- provenance unknown

Henri II had a penchant for older women. In his adolescence, he became infatuated with Diane de Poitiers, a woman more than eighteen years his senior. 

Diane de Poitiers Chenonceau in the Royal Chamber
She became his mistress after her husband Louis de Breze, died in 1531. But long before Louis’s death, she had become an important figure in Henri's life. When Henri was a child, he and his older brother were given to the Spanish in a prisoner's exchange that freed his father, King Francois, who had been captured by the Hapsburgs at the Battle of Pavia. Diane was asked by the king’s mother to escort the princes to the exchange. When they arrived, six-year-old Henri was overcome by fright. Diane took him in her arms and whispered words of comfort, and as they parted, she kissed him on the cheek. A romantic might call it a kiss that lasted thirty-four years, and ended with the king's last breath. He had asked for Diane while he lay in extremis following a jousting accident, but his consort Catherine d’ Medici and Diane's political enemies barred her from the room.

Due to his loyalty to Diane and his lack of attraction to his Italian bride, the first decade of the king's marriage to Catherine d' Medici was childless. When the situation threatened the dynasty, Diane encouraged Henri to perform his duty by occasionally sleeping with his wife. The frail Dauphin Francois was born the following year and was soon followed by the arrival of Princesses Elisabeth and Claud. Their births did not alter the king's relationship with Diane. The Queen was compelled to share supervision of the nursery at Saint-Germain et Laye with Diane. When competing in the jousts, Henri sported Diane’s black and white colors 

The King’s affection for Diane was enduring, but that did not mean he never took his pleasures elsewhere. In 1548, to escape the Rough Wooing instigated by the English King Henry VIII and prosecuted by his henchman Edward Seymour, the five-year-old Queen of Scots arrived in France with a governess in her entourage. The woman chosen to fill the role was the illegitimate Scottish princess Janet Stewart, Lady Fleming, the Queen of Scots’ paternal aunt. 

Lady Janet Stewart
Poets at the French Court called her La Belle Ecossaise--The beautiful Scot. She was fifteen years Henri’s senior and had given birth to eight children to her late husband Lord Malcolm Fleming, who had died in the battle of Pinkie in 1547. She spoke scant French when she arrived, but she was quick to learn. When Diane suffered a broken ankle in a riding accident and retired to her palace at Anet to heal, Henri and the governess discovered a way to communicate unhampered by a language barrier.
Diane de Poitiers, circa 1566
If Henri had expected Lady Fleming to exercise discretion, he did not understand the customs of the Scottish court, where royal mistresses were proud of their swollen bellies and not the least reluctant to announce who had planted the seed. Lady Janet had been but one of many illegitimate children of James IV who had so many mistresses that confusion exists concerning which of them was Janet Stewart’s mother. Her brother of the half, James V, had at least nine mistresses who gave him a daughter Jean and several sons. Only one of his surviving children was born on the right side of the sheets: Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots.

By the time the Queen of Scots was born, her mother’s family had become the power behind the French throne. The heart of their dynastic plan was to see the six-year-old Queen of Scots married to the five-year-old Dauphin, Francois, as soon as they were of legal age. However, the indiscretions of the governess could put an end to it. The Duke of Guise and his brother the Cardinal of Lorraine leaked news of Janet’s questionable morals to Diane, who shared it with Queen Catherine. What followed is a fascinating story of plots and counter-plots, but for purposes of this post, let it suffice that Henri’s mistress and his consort found common ground to form a truce. Because Janet’s behavior tarnished the reputation of the Queen of Scots, they sought support from Marie of Guise, who was in France visiting her royal daughter when Lady Fleming’s son was born. The most credible records place his birth in France at Aix-la-Chapelle, in1551.

The Dauphin Francois and Marie Queen of Scots

When the Dowager of Scotland, Marie d’ Guise, discovered how her sister-in-law had been spending her time while her royal charge was on holiday in Lorraine, she was livid. If Lady Fleming expected the king to intercede on her behalf, she had misjudged the strength of the temporary alliance between Diane de Poitiers and Queen Catherine. By the time Marie de Guise and the Queen of Scots returned to Saint Germain, the scorned Lady Fleming, and the infant she called ‘HarryValoys’ were long gone.

Marie de Guise
The story, however, did not end there. Marie de Guise’s return to Scotland was delayed by two tragedies, both involving her children. The adolescent Duke of Longville, son of her first marriage, fell ill and died in her arms on the day she was set to sail. His death and a thwarted attempt by a dissident Scottish soldier who sought to poison her daughter Queen Marie Stuart’s dessert left the Dowager too distraught to travel. She would have preferred to remain in France at the convent at Saint Pierre les Dames in Rheims where her sister Renee was abbess. However, her overbearing brothers insisted such a move would leave her daughter’s throne vulnerable to a competing claim by James Hamilton, Earl of Arran, the Scottish Regent, and next in line to the Scottish throne. Marie de Guise’s entire life had centered on a sense of duty instilled in her by her mother, Antoinette de Bourbon, the family matriarch. There was a plan afoot to make Marie de Guise the Scottish Regent as soon as her daughter was old enough to exercise a power of appointment, an event which occurred when the Queen of Scots turned eleven in December of 1553.

The Kirk at Biggar built by Malcolm, Lord Fleming.

The early history of Janet Stewart son to Henri II, Henri d’Angeloume, is sketchy at best and riddled with conflict. The source of the confusion stems from a childhood divided between the Fleming estate in Biggar and Henri’s castles on the Loire.

References describe an amicable relationship between Lady Janet and the King, and a bit of rather modern cooperative parenting. Henry’s father legitimatized him and presented him with property and titles in Provence. He is said to have been Henri’s favorite son, which infers considerable time spent at the French court. The welcome extended to young Henri did not include permission for his mother to travel in his entourage. Lady Janet sought permission to visit France during the winter of 1553, a proposal summarily vetoed by Marie de Guise, by arrangement with Catherine d’ Medici. Some historians assume Harry spent his youth in Scotland with his mother based on a 20th anachronistic premise that young children belong with their mothers. That was not the custom in the 16th century. Children of European sovereigns were often given their own establishments in infancy. Catherine d’ Medici’s reluctance to remove her children from the nursery at Saint Germain was the exception, not the rule.

While protocols establishing rank within the nursery existed in both the Scottish and French courts, it was common to find royal bastards being educated alongside their sisters and brothers ‘of the blood.’ The king’s son Henri d’Angeloume did not acquire his fluency in French, Latin, and Italian or his penchant for lyric verse at his mother’s home at Cumbernauld near Biggar. It is disingenuous to believe the French king would have developed a special fondness for a son he’d never seen, based on a lack of surviving travel documents at a time when French flagships frequented Scottish ports and citizens of France and Scotland enjoyed dual citizenship.

Sources insisting Lady Fleming’s right to travel was withheld until after the Dowager's death ignore evidence of a reconciliation of the sisters-in-law before the summer of 1560 but after Henri II's death in 1559. When the deposed and disheartened Regent died, Lady Fleming sat beside her coffin while Marie de Guise lay in state at Edinburgh Castle and was the chief mourner at her funeral. It is more reasonable to believe the restrictions were lifted by Marie de Guise before she died, and with the consent of Catherine d’ Medici. Harry had been in Scotland at Biggar, and with Henri dead, there was no further reason to enforcement them.

Lady Fleming lady made her last voyage to France in August 1560, a year after her royal lover’s death. She was well received at the French Court where her niece Marie Stuart was Consort and Catherine’s frail son was King Francois II. France was ruled by the senior members of the House of Guise, Duc Francois and his brother Charles, Cardinal of Lorraine, who welcomed Harry into their inner circle. protégé of the Guises. When Marie Stuart assumed the personal rule of Scotland after her husband Francois II died, Harry Valois and his mother were living in Provence. Lady Fleming did not live much longer. Some historians place her death at Richmond in 1562, presumably on her way to Scotland. Other sources day she died in France, not far from Paris. In my novels, I let her die at Saint Pierre les Dames where Marie de Guise was interred. I find no credible record of her grave.

Although Harry’s father legitimatized him and gave him land and titles, contrary to popular sources, his acquisition of the title Le Compte d’Angeloume did not occur until 15 years after his father’s death. Henri and Catherine’s son Henri of Anjou, who acquired the title at birth in 1551, passed it to his half-brother when Anjou became Henry III. Harry fought beside the Guises in the Wars of Religion, notably as a soldier at the siege of La Rochelle, later as a notorious butcher at the Saint Bartholomew’s Day massacre.

Catherine de Medici, The King's Mother, who with the Guises
orchestrated the Saint Bartholomew's Day Massacre
When the Queen of Scots was detained in England, and the Marian remnant in Scotland was besieged in Edinburgh Castle, Harry was tapped by the Guises to lead a French invasion into Scotland to break the siege, a plan the imprisoned Queen of Scots may have vetoed. He was known for his athletic dancing and his lyric verse. Five examples survive, but copies are precious.

When he was 35, Harry d’Angeloume was killed in a duel in which both parties suffered fatal wounds. There is no record of surviving issue. The Queen of Scots, who was his first cousin once removed, corresponded with him during her imprisonment in England and sent him books. She encouraged his poetry and openly mourned his death. The Queen was executed at Fotheringhay the following year.


Angouleme Blazon:  Odejea [CC BY-SA 3.0, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Filippa Duci: By unknown in source [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Diana in Royal Chamber: By AlMare (Own work) [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Diane de Poitiers: By Unknown - Transferred from en.wikipedia, Public Domain

Lady Janet Stewart: By George Jamesone (ca. 1587-1644) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The Dauphin Francois and Marie Queen of Scots: By Unknown - From Catherine de' Medici's Book of Hours, Public Domain

Marie de Guise: Attributed to Corneille de Lyon - Mary of Guise, 1515 - 1560. Queen of James V - Google Art Project.jpg|Attributed to Corneille de Lyon - Mary of Guise, 1515 - 1560. Queen of James V - Google Art Project.

The Kirk at Biggar: Biggar and the House of Fleming- an account of the Biggar district, archaeological, historical, and biographical (1867) (14804174683).jpg|thumb|Biggar and the House of Fleming- an account of the Biggar district, archaeological, historical, and biographical (1867) (14804174683)

Catherine de Medici and St. Bartholemew's Day Massacre: By Édouard Debat-Ponsan - Mairie de Clermont-Ferrandhttp, Public Domain


Linda Root is the author of The First Marie and the Queen of Scots, The Last Knight and the Queen of Scots, and four books in The Legacy of the Queen of Scots series, with a fifth coming in 2017. She lives in the hi-desert community of Yucca Valley, Ca, where she was a Supervising Prosecutor.

Friday, December 2, 2016

Battles and Bias in Bede’s Britain

by Matthew Harffy

Throughout history, conflict has been described by the victors. This is especially true in the cases where the victorious army is part of a civilization that put great store in writing things down, such as the Romans. So it is that there are many accounts of battles from the Roman perspective, and far fewer details from the point of view of the so called barbarians. When we read these accounts by such luminaries as Tacitus and Suetonius, the modern observer must always factor in the politics of the time and what propagandist message the writer was hoping to put forward.

Cavalier d'Arpin-Tullus-Hostilius-Caen

When we come to seventh century Britain, the wars and conquests are often only described in a couple of sources, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation. Both of these works were penned by Christian Anglo-Saxon monks, who clearly had their own agenda in the telling of the rise to power of certain royal dynasties. If you are a monk sitting in a scriptorium in Wessex, you are most likely to give a certain Wessex-centric spin to your history. Where Bede was concerned, Northumbria was his home, what he knew best and the most powerful kingdom of Britain at the time. He was also a devout Christian, so of course, he wished to paint a picture of the history of the land that showed the power of God to work through kings who chose to accept Him. Bede clearly loved tales of kings who chose to be baptised and brought conversion and the teachings of Christ to their people. It is not that Bede, or indeed any of the scribes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, openly twisted the truth or lied in their accounts, but I think all scholars would agree that those monks allowed their own beliefs and ideological leanings to bias their telling of history.

The Venerable Bede translates John 1902

And so it is that we find there is often no information about the placement of troops in battles, or even where the battles took place. In many cases we have practically no idea of why the conflicts occurred, though it must be assumed that conquest and expansion of land must have been at the root of many disputes. These things were not deemed to be of importance to the monks writing the accounts. Frequently, all we are given are the names of the kings involved, and who was beaten. For example, the entry in the Chronicle for 633 says:

“A.D. 633.  This year King Edwin was slain by Cadwalla and Penda, on Hatfield moor, on the fourteenth of October.  He reigned seventeen years.  His son Osfrid was also slain with him.  After this Cadwalla and Penda went and ravaged all the land of the Northumbrians”

So not much to go on… we know the year, and who killed who and where. Not much else. If we then turn to Bede, we get some more details:

“Cadwalla; king of the Britons, rebelled against him [Edwin], being supported by Penda, a most warlike man of the royal race of the Mercians, and who from that time governed that nation twenty-two years with various success. A great battle being fought in the plain that is called Heathfield, Edwin was killed on the 12th of October, in the year of our Lord 633, being then forty-seven years of age, and all his army was either slain or dispersed.” 

Holderness crossBede goes on to tell how “great slaughter was made in the church or nation of the Northumbrians” by Cadwalla (also known as Cadwallon). He highlights that “one of the commanders, by whom it was made, was a pagan, and the other a barbarian, more cruel than a pagan; for Penda, with all the nation of the Mercians, was an idolater, and a stranger to the name of Christ; but Cadwalla, though he bore the name and professed himself a Christian, was so barbarous in his disposition and behaviour, that he neither spared the female sex, nor the innocent age of children, but with savage cruelty put them to tormenting deaths, ravaging all their country for a long time, and resolving to cut off all the race of the English within the borders of Britain.”

Here you can see Bede’s faith and his national pride at odds. Both Edwin and Cadwalla are Christian kings and yet Edwin is defeated and Cadwalla perpetrates horrific acts of cruelty in some kind of genocidal retribution. It is hard to know how much Bede has exaggerated the atrocities committed after Edwin’s death, but it is clear that the narrative is not an easy one for him. It is not the Northumbrian Christian king who is victorious, rather it is the pagan and the savage barbarian. And so the tales of battle often go in the seventh century. Bede revels in a good success story for a Christian monarch, but all too often those he deems to be most worthy of Christ’s blessing meet untimely, violent ends.

AS kingdoms
Such is the ultimate end of one of Bede’s favourite kings, Oswald of Northumbria, later Saint Oswald. But before his demise at the battle of Maserfield and his subsequent miracles and sainthood, Oswald provides Bede with the wonderful tale of his return from exile, his victory over the cruel defiler of the land, Cadwalla, and the expansion of Northumbria into the foremost kingdom of Britain.

Bede describes the decisive battle of Heavenfield between “Oswald, a man beloved by God” and the evil Cadwalla in greater detail than other engagements. But he does not focus on the battle itself, he concentrates on that which is important to him: the intervention of Christ in granting victory to the rightful king of Northumbria.

He tells at great length how Oswald erected a great cross and helped to hold it up while it was set in place. He then bid all of his warriors to pray, saying the following, “Let us all kneel, and jointly beseech the true and living God Almighty, in his mercy, to defend us from the haughty and fierce enemy; for He knows that we have undertaken a just war for the safety of our nation.”

The cross and the place then becomes the site of many miracles and the victory is really the start of the cult of Saint Oswald, which can probably be traced back to this moment and Bede’s subsequent immortalisation of it and the great Christian king of Northumbria.

St Oswald's Cross, Heavenfield - - 1210275

Bede dedicates less space to the battle itself, describing how Oswald “advanced with an army, small, indeed, in number, but strengthened with the faith of Christ; and the impious commander of the Britons was slain, though he had most numerous forces, which he boasted nothing could withstand, at a place in the English tongue called Denises-burn, that is, Denis's-brook.”

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle describes Oswald’s ascension to power in a rather more matter of fact single line:

“Oswald also this year succeeded to the government of the Northumbrians, and reigned nine winters.”

Would Penda, the staunchly pagan king of Mercia, have been the hero of Bede’s narrative if he had been Christian? He certainly was the supreme power in the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms for decades during the first half of the seventh century, and was responsible for the deaths of five other kings.

Historians must try to peer into the primary sources and find the truth, peeling away bias and prejudice and propaganda. It is hard to piece together a true reflection of events from the sparse writings that have survived.

Conversely, the historical novelist revels in the scarcity of information, as it allows for creativity to fill in the gaps. The novelist relishes the not-so-subtle slant to one side or the other in the written accounts. This shines a light on how people thought at the time and can provide an author with a hook into a story, a flash of inspiration sparked from that very bias.

Battles are described by the victors. It is the historian's job to find the truth behind the victors' accounts. Some would argue that it is also the job of the novelist. I would disagree. It is the novelist's task to tell a good story, and that might just be a tale full of prejudice and untruths. You never know, it might even be from the perspective of the vanquished who never had the chance to write their own story.


Matthew Harffy is the author of the Bernicia Chronicles, a series of novels set in seventh century Britain.

The Serpent Sword, The Cross and the Curse and Blood and Blade are available on Amazon, Kobo, Google Play, and all good online bookstores.

Killer of Kings and Kin of Cain are available for pre-order on Amazon and all good online bookstores.

Twitter: @MatthewHarffy
Facebook: MatthewHarffyAuthor


La victoire de Tullus Hostilius sur les forces de Veies et de Fidena ---- Giuseppe Cesari [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Portrait of Bede ---- By The original uploader was Timsj at English Wikipedia (Transferred from en.wikipedia to Commons.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Holderness Cross ---- By portableantiquities [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Map of Anglo-Saxon Kingdoms ---- Amitchell125 at en.wikipedia [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Heavenfield Cross ---- Oliver Dixon [CC BY-SA 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Was Bishop Stephen Gardiner a Secret Tudor?

By Nancy Bilyeau

Finding illegitimate children in the Tudor royal family is a favorite pastime for some. Chief among the theoretical parents of such byblows would be Henry VIII, of course. (You'd be amazed to learn how many debates rage over whether Mary Boleyn's two Carey children were fathered by Henry VIII shortly before he fell in love with Anne Boleyn. Or maybe you wouldn't!) Elizabeth I is also accused of giving birth to secret babies, with theories targeting Thomas Seymour and Robert Dudley that would make TMZ reporters blush.  As for the Elizabeth-as-bad-girl premise of the movie Anonymous, we are not going there.

The one and only accepted illegitimate child of a royal Tudor is Henry Fitzroy, son of Henry VIII and Bessie Blount, a beautiful maid of honor to Catherine of Aragon. Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, may or may not have been considered as a possible heir to the throne by Henry VIII before the boy died in 1536.

But was there another Tudor male in the 16th century, born on the wrong side of the blanket as they used to say, who not only lived through four Tudor reigns but was a key player at court?

Stephen Gardiner

Stephen Gardiner, the bishop of Winchester, was the grandson of Jasper Tudor, Henry VIII's great-uncle, and a mistress named Mevanvy ferch Dafydd from Gwynnedd, according to a persistent theory. If the rumors are true, Gardiner's mother, Ellen, was first cousin to Henry VII. She married a cloth merchant named Gardiner and Stephen was one of their children. He attended Cambridge at a young age and studied the classics, even meeting Erasmus.

Before we go any further, it must be said that Gardiner brought out fear and dislike among many of those who knew him. Moreover, in Tudor television series, Stephen Gardiner has been portrayed with evident relish by a series of actors as a Grade A Jerk:

"The Six Wives of Henry VIII"

Wolf Hall

The Tudors

In these shows, he's the man you love to hate. When Edward Seymour punches Gardiner in the face during the last episode of The Tudors, you feel good. When the bruise-faced bishop goes running to Henry VIII to tattle and has the door closed in his face, you feel even better.

Screenwriter license aside, how did this loathsome churchman reach a position of power in the Tudor court? Was it that he was family? Not likely. Henry VIII didn't care for his extended family; he executed them steadily throughout his reign.

The reason for Gardiner's prominence in the 16th century was his brain. Even his enemies grudgingly conceded his intelligence. His nickname during his lifetime: "Wily Winchester." The lawyer, royal secretary, councilor, and bishop survived Henry VIII's reign. A religious conservative, he was thrown into the Tower of London during the reign of Protestant Edward VI and occupied a cell for years. One of Queen Mary's first acts was to spring him (along with his old friend the Duke of Norfolk). Gardiner crowned her and served as her lord chancellor. He distrusted Princess Elizabeth and pressured the Queen to imprison her half-sister after the Wyatt Rebellion. It's safe to say that if he had lived to see Elizabeth take the throne, he would have been ushered back into the Tower.

In her book Henry VIII: The King and His Court, Alison Weir describes Gardiner as "an able but rather arrogant and difficult man":

He was of swarthy complexion and had a hooked nose, deep-set eyes, a permanent frown, huge hands, and a "vengeable wit." He was ambitious, sure of himself, irascible, astute, and worldly. Henry came to rely on him, sending him on important diplomatic missions and telling everyone that, when Gardiner was away, he felt as if he had lost his right hand; yet he was also aware that the Secretary could be two-faced.

Henry VIII and Bishop Gardiner had a complex relationship. They feuded with each other (as much as one can feud with Henry VIII), and the king withheld promotions Gardiner obviously longed for. Then, suddenly, he would be back on top. When the king made him bishop of Winchester, he said, "I have often squared with you, Gardiner, but I love you never the worse." Gardiner was an enemy of Cromwell's who relished destroying him. He also despised Thomas Cranmer, archbishop of Canterbury, but was unable to turn the king against him. In 1540-1541 Gardiner was in Germany, representing England at a Diet convened to try a last time to heal the breach between Catholic and Protestant. (Both Calvin and Charles V also attended.) It was a delicate and important mission--which failed, through no fault of Gardiner's.

Henry VIII

But the bishop tried to have Henry's last wife, Catherine Parr, arrested for heresy, and when his plot failed, that contributed to his decline of influence. The king excluded him from his will. Henry's technique in controlling his councilors was to pit them against each other and stoke their fears. Gardiner's Protestant opponents claimed after Henry VIII's death that in excluding him from the will and list of councilors for Edward, the king explained that only he could control Stephen Gardiner.

The bishop's relationship with Henry's oldest daughter, Mary, also had its difficult moments. Early in his career, Gardiner devoted his legal brain to the king's case for annulment of the first marriage to Catherine of Aragon so that he could marry Anne Boleyn. Therefore, even though he was one of Mary's adherents, she never could bring herself to trust him completely. Once she was queen, Gardiner wanted her to wed an Englishman, and opposed her marriage to Philip of Spain, repeatedly trying to talk her out of it.

Mary I

Stephen Gardiner died in 1555. One story has it that on his deathbed he said, "Like Peter, I have erred. Unlike Peter, I have not wept."

A strange thing to say. He was, it's safe to say, a strange man.

But was he related to the Tudors, whom he served and quarreled with for so many years? Returning to Jasper Tudor, the man was something of a warlord in a time when he didn't have a choice. During the Wars of the Roses, Jasper possessed two qualities in short supply: loyalty and patience. He supported his half-brother, Henry VI, without question, and did everything possible to help his nephew, the future Henry VII.

It was very important that Lancastrian nobles marry and beget heirs--the Yorkists were way ahead in that regard. Yet Jasper did not marry until after the Battle of Bosworth when he was 54 years old, and he wed the dowager duchess of Buckingham. They had no children. Since much of his earlier life was spent in battle, regrouping from battle, going into hiding, and living in exile in France or Brittany, perhaps he did not feel a wife was possible. A mistress made more sense.

In Gardiner's lifetime, no one said he was the grandson of Jasper Tudor, or at least it hasn't shown up in contemporary letters and papers. In the 18th century, this "fact" popped up in Cockayne's Peerage and a reverend's genealogical table. It gained strength over the years, though some always had their doubts.

Recent studies of Jasper Tudor do not dispute that he fathered one or two illegitimate daughters but suggest there could be some confusion over whether Ellen married the Gardiner who was the father of Stephen or another man with the same last name. It's unclear. The suggestion that he would need discreet royal blood to get into Cambridge and then rise in legal and ecclesiastical circles is not true. Gardiner's father was a prosperous cloth merchant, and the Tudor period was a time of men rising on their merits: the "new men," as they were called.

And so Stephen Gardiner may have achieved every illustrious promotion and survived every shouting match with a strong-willed king or queen not because he had Tudor blood but .... because he was Stephen Gardiner. A reality I suspect that Wily Winchester would have been prepared to accept.


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the Tudor trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, published in nine countries. The main character is a Dominican novice named Joanna Stafford; an antagonist running through the plot of each book is Stephen Gardiner, bishop of Winchester.

The Crown was an Oprah selection in 2012. The Tapestry was a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier award for Best Historical Suspense this year.

Nancy is giving away seven signed hardcover copies of The Tapestry. To enter, please go HERE.