Saturday, December 24, 2016

Merry Christmas to all our readers!

One of the wonderful things about Jane Austen's novels is that they give us a realistic portrait of family life in the Regency period. This extract is taken from Persuasion. It gives us a cheerful image of lively children, indulgent parents and conflicting views on what does and doesn't make a perfect Christmas!

Immediately surrounding Mrs Musgrove were the little Harvilles, whom
she was sedulously guarding from the tyranny of the two children from
the Cottage, expressly arrived to amuse them.  On one side was a table
occupied by some chattering girls, cutting up silk and gold paper; and
on the other were tressels and trays, bending under the weight of brawn
and cold pies, where riotous boys were holding high revel; the whole
completed by a roaring Christmas fire, which seemed determined to be
heard, in spite of all the noise of the others.  Charles and Mary also
came in, of course, during their visit, and Mr Musgrove made a point of
paying his respects to Lady Russell, and sat down close to her for ten
minutes, talking with a very raised voice, but from the clamour of the
children on his knees, generally in vain.  It was a fine family-piece.
Anne, judging from her own temperament, would have deemed such a
domestic hurricane a bad restorative of the nerves, which Louisa's
illness must have so greatly shaken.  But Mrs Musgrove, who got Anne
near her on purpose to thank her most cordially, again and again, for
all her attentions to them, concluded a short recapitulation of what
she had suffered herself by observing, with a happy glance round the
room, that after all she had gone through, nothing was so likely to do
her good as a little quiet cheerfulness at home.
Louisa was now recovering apace.  Her mother could even think of her
being able to join their party at home, before her brothers and sisters
went to school again.  The Harvilles had promised to come with her and
stay at Uppercross, whenever she returned.  Captain Wentworth was gone,
for the present, to see his brother in Shropshire.
"I hope I shall remember, in future," said Lady Russell, as soon as
they were reseated in the carriage, "not to call at Uppercross in the 
Christmas holidays."

Whatever your own idea of a perfect Christmas, whether it's a noisy family gathering or something more sedate, everyone here at Historical Romance UK hopes it will bring you whatever you wish for.

A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year from all of us at Historical Romance UK

Tuesday, December 13, 2016

Trials and Punishments in Eighteenth Century England.

Specifically England, because the process was different in Scotland.
Recently I’ve been researching trials for crimes in the mid eighteenth century, and oh my, how different they were!
We wouldn’t recognize the legal system then. From a system dominated by the Waltham Black Acts (the ones that said you could be hanged for almost any offence) to the way criminals were caught and prosecuted, it was all very different.
For trials, first of all prosecutions had to be brought by somebody. The state did prosecute some crimes, most notably treason. Not petty treason, though, which was killing a spouse. There had to be an accuser and an accused, and in most cases the Crown didn’t stand in for that. I’m still coming to grips with what all that meant.
If this was your first offence, you could claim Benefit of Clergy. That meant if you could read a passage from the Bible, then you were let off. It was meant to encourage literacy and education. The trouble was, they used the same passage every time. And there were no centralised records. So if you were taken in a different passage, or you gave a different name, you could get away with it as long as you didn’t come in front of the same magistrate and he happened to remember you.
There was no police force, no civilian law enforcing organisation. There were thief-takers, but they were often corrupt, and took money from both sides. The populace were against setting up a police force. In short, it was a vote-loser, and it wasn’t until the 1790’s that England had any kind of police force; the Thames River Police, a privately funded organisation in its early years. The great reforms instituted by Sir Robert Peel in the 1830’s included the establishment of a civilian police force, so all through the Georgian period, there was exactly nobody to keep the peace.
So that meant there was nobody, barring the parish constable and the magistrate to enforce the law. The parish constable, the night watchmen and the beadle did what they could, and if anyone was taken, imprisoned and brought to trial, there were officials for that. The magistrates were generally drawn from the gentry, but the Lord Lieutenant of the county was usually an aristocrat. County and Country were at loggerheads for much of the century, providing checks and balances, but once the population began to move to the city, and Britain slowly became an urban country instead of a rural one, that had to change.
I’ve read over fifty accounts of murder trials in the Old Bailey records (that’s where I’ve set the trial in my story). You can read them online, and I do. They’re real slice of life accounts, freezing moments in time. That’s probably why they are so popular. One thing they have in common; they pass with dizzying speed. A man could kill his wife, be tried and executed in the space of a month. No waiting months for a trial, prepping for it, or having time to consider. It was done and dusted.

Wednesday, December 07, 2016

The Phantom Tree's Wiltshire Roots

It started with a picture, a small portrait of a lady in Tudor dress that I saw on the wall of my uncle’s house in Wiltshire. It fascinated me She looked demure but with a little smile, as though she was hiding a secret. There was one pearl missing from her headdress. The portrait was inscribed with the name of Anne Boleyn but it wasn’t a copy of any picture of Anne that I had ever seen. I started to speculate, as writers do. What if the inscription was false and this was quite a different lady, the same era, and with royal connections, but someone whose story was yet to be told.

That was the first inspiration for The Phantom Tree, my new timeslip book that
is out at the end of the month. Tudor history had been my first love as a child and it was exciting to return to it. I write about women from history who have fascinating, but less well known stories and one of the people I had been interested in for a long time was Mary Seymour. Mary was the daughter of Katherine Parr, the sixth wife of Henry VIII and her second husband, Thomas Seymour, of the Seymours of Wolf Hall in Savernake Forest. Mary was born at Sudeley Castle in 1548 but it isn’t long before she disappears from the historical record. I wanted to research her story and imagine the life she might have had.

I live on the border of Wiltshire and first visited Savernake over twenty years ago. I’ve have seen it in all the seasons, when the trees are ghostly winter skeletons and the frost is thick on the bracken, through the new life of spring, the drowsy heat of summer when the Purple Emperor butterfly darts through the leaf canopy, and into the vivid colour of autumn. I love the atmosphere of the forest and the sense of peace. There aren’t many places left in the British Isles where you can lose yourself for hours amongst green lanes and oaks that have stood for a thousand years.

Researching the local roots of the Seymour family was a fascinating process. I love looking at the story behind the story and here was a family that rose from being country gentry to be one of the most prominent dynasties in the land. What better way to get a feel for their journey than to walk in their footsteps in Marlborough and Savernake and the villages around?

I made several trips to Marlborough and to Savernake during the year that I was writing The Phantom Tree. The first was in the summer and we took the dogs and a flask of tea and homemade chocolate brownies. Several years before we had started to visit and map all of the ancient named oaks. This was difficult in the summer because many lie in the heart of the forest off the beaten track. The paths become overgrown with brambles and bracken, strands of wild rose and honeysuckle, and tiny, sweet raspberries and strawberries growing wild in the clearings. They were a delicious supplement to our afternoon tea. We followed tracks whose names recall a lost age and a mysterious past: The Charcoal-Burner’s Road, Long Harry, Postwives Walk. We found the Big Belly Oak beside the modern A346 Marlborough to Salisbury road. It is the oldest tree in the forest, a sapling at the time of the Norman Conquest. It is not known when the convention of giving the oldest oaks names was introduced although the King Oak is recorded in a document of 1634. It is matched with The Queen Oak, in honour of Henry VIII and Jane Seymour, his third wife, the aunt of my heroine Mary.

In the depths of the forest, standing near the ancient park pale that once marked the boundary of the medieval hunting ground, we found the Green Fluted Oak, so named because the vertical grooves in its trunk look like a Grecian column. I was on the hunt for one particular tree, The Duke’s Vaunt. This is another thousand year old oak deriving its name from Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset and Lord Protector of England, the elder brother of Jane Seymour. In its prime it was a huge tree but today it is in decline, having split, and is only a shadow of its former glory.

The dogs love visiting the forest in autumn and winter, as do I. The scents are different, the paths
coated in frosty leaves and the ponds frozen over. You catch a glimpse of the deer disappearing through the bare trees like wraiths, or hear their sharp bark on the cold air. The Savernake of today looks different from the forest of Tudor times. In the 1740s Capability Brown landscaped large parts of the woodland, creating ornamental lawns and planting vistas of trees, designing the grand avenues and rides. Yet beneath the landscaping and the hum of traffic you can still sense the longevity of the forest and the myths and legends stretching back into time.

Once upon a time, Wolf Hall, the medieval manor of the Seymours, was in Savernake Forest but today the woodland covers a smaller area than it did in the sixteenth century and to seek out Wolf Hall I had to take the road to Burbage. On the corner of a minor road is Wolf Hall Farm, built near the site of the earlier timber-framed manor house. Jane’s father, Sir John Seymour, had served with Henry VIII in France and the family were ambitious for advancement at the Tudor court. In 1535 Henry VIII stayed at Wolf Hall as part of a royal progress and it is said he courted Jane Seymour there.  Rumours that Henry and Jane were married at Wolf Hall are false but it is certainly the case that he returned there in 1539, when there was a lavish feast in one of the old barns at the manor.

By the time my story, The Phantom Tree is set, some twenty years after King Henry hunted in Savernake Forest, Wolf Hall had become an old, draughty, inconvenient manor that was no longer considered grand enough for the status of the Seymour family. In the book, I write about it as a house in a state of ramshackle neglect, ignored by the Duke of Somerset’s son, who had plans for a magnificent house nearby at Tottenham Park. Stone from Wolf Hall was taken to build the new house; eventually Wolf Hall became derelict and fell down. There is a trace of overgrown earthworks still visible that mark the spot of the original manor and I found another remnant of the original Wolf Hall when I visited the church of St Mary at Great Bedwyn. It is a stained glass window that features a crown, Jane Seymour’s heraldic device of a phoenix rising from a castle between two red and white roses, the Prince of Wales feathers, and a Tudor rose, and it is said to have been taken from the medieval manor. This is also the place where Jane's father Sir John Seymour is buried.

The Phantom Tree, like Savernake Forest itself, has its roots set deep in the history and landscape of
Wiltshire, drawing on this fascinating part of the county for its inspiration. Wolf Hall may be long gone leaving only a name and a legend, but Savernake Forest is a place whose ancient oaks and woodland paths lead us in the footsteps of the past.

Monday, December 05, 2016

The Savoy Chapel: A John of Gaunt whisper

Some years ago, at a Romantic Novelists’ Association conference, I heard Professor Jenny Hartley give a talk on popular Women’s Fiction – she was researching it at the time. At the end, after the questions, she said, ‘I’d now like to ask you a question: how many of you have read Katherine by Anya Seton?’


Cover of ‘Katherine’ by Anya Seton (1961)

A forest of hands shot up. The entire conference had read it. I myself read it as a teenager and loved it. It’s a terrific read. First published in 1954, it’s the story of a herald’s daughter, Katherine Swynford, who was first the mistress and then the third wife of John of Gaunt, a marriage which scandalized all Europe. It is one of English History’s great love stories and it truly changed the course of history; for Katherine became the ancestor of the Tudors and thus of Queen Elizabeth II.


Alison Weir’s ‘Katherine Swynford’

More recently, at a Historical Novel Society conference, the historian Alison Weir spoke about her new biography of Katherine Swynford. She was aware that most of the audience had probably read Anya Seton’s book, and she began by telling us she, too, had learnt of Katherine’s existence from Katherine, and paid a graceful tribute to Anya Seton’s research and the power of her story-telling. Research, however, has moved on and now we know much more about Katherine's life.


The Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy

So, when the opportunity came up to visit the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy, standing on the very site where John of Gaunt had built the Savoy Palace which features largely in Katherine, (who can forget that love scene in the Avalon Chamber?) I jumped at it. I knew that the Savoy Palace had been ransacked and burnt during the Peasant’s Revolt in 1381 but I assumed that the chapel must have survived.

Before the tour, our guide, Squadron Leader Thomas Leyland, asked me if I knew anything about the Chapel. I said, ‘Yes, wasn’t it part of John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace?’ He gave a sigh and said, ‘I don’t know how many times people have asked me that question - dozens of times. The answer’s “No.”’ 


John of Gaunt: a 17th century copy of an earlier painting, now lost

I thought, and I bet all of them were female, had read Anya Seton’s Katherine, and were in love with that golden-haired, sexy Plantagenet, John of Gaunt. (Except that now I see that he probably wasn't golden-haired and sexy, but dark, saturnine and sexy. Still, I can live with that.
Having said all this, and despite my initial disappointment, the Queen’s Chapel of the Savoy doesn’t disappoint. The Savoy Palace remained a ruin until the site was cleared on the orders of Henry VII (John and Katherine’s great-great grandson) in order to build a charitable foundation for a hundred ‘pour and nedie’ men, including the present chapel, in 1515.


The elegant 19th century ‘Gothic’ font

Two hundred years of subsequent neglect (it was never properly endowed) followed. In the early 19th century, the most of it was demolished and in 1820-21, the ruinous chapel was restored by Sir Robert Smirke, architect of the British Museum. Only the east, west and north walls and the perpendicular windows of Henry VII’s chapel survive. (Unusually, the chapel is orientated north-south rather than the usual east-west.) It was engulfed by another fire in 1864. The chapel we see today is the result of sympathetic post-fire reconstruction by Sir Robert’s brother, Sidney; I think he did a good job.

The altar
The early 16th century perpendicular style is a sort of airy Gothic which I find very attractive. I love the view towards the high altar with the delicate 19th century Gothic-style reredos behind the altar.

The ceiling

The wonderful blue and gold ceiling is believed to be a copy of the original Tudor building and it’s decorated with shields within quatrefoils with the coats of arms of various dukes of Lancaster associated with the Savoy, including, of course, John of Gaunt’s, with its gold on red Plantagenet lions quartered with the gold on blue fleur de lys of France.


Geoffrey Chaucer

To my pleasure I realized that there were, in fact, a couple of small reminders of John and Katherine’s story. As well as John’s coat of arms on the ceiling, one of the chapel windows has Geoffrey Chaucer’s coat of arms. Katherine had known him well; he had married her sister, Philippa, who was lady-in-waiting to Queen Philippa, Edward III’s wife, and John of Gaunt’s mother.  


Plantagenet shield

The chapel itself is, and always had been, a private chapel of the Sovereign, and thus independent of Church of England jurisdiction. Like Westminster Abbey, it is a ‘royal peculiar’. It is an integral part of the royal Duchy of Lancaster and its coat of arms is everywhere.


Princess Anne’s banner with her coat of arms

Since 1937, it had been the chapel of the Royal Victorian Order, an order which is solely in the gift of the sovereign for exceptional service to the crown. Princess Anne is the current Grand Master of the R.V.O. and her banner hangs from the chapel wall.   

It is very much a working chapel with regular services and a fine men and boys’ choir which the public are welcome to attend. There are also special services for members of the Royal Victorian Order, for examples, weddings and memorial services, where members of the Royal Family may be present.

It’s a lovely and tranquil place to visit.

Elizabeth Hawksley