The Story So Far ...

Monday, 20 November 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours - Georgian London

I asked a group of talented writers and historians to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time. 

This month it's the turn of author and historian Catherine Curzon, who takes us back to eighteenth-century London...


What would be my fantasy day? 


Well, since writing became my full time job, I’m fortunate enough to say that I’ve had plenty of days like that. Whether it’s going into the National Portrait Gallery and seeing my books there on the shelf or sharing a stage with Adrian Lukis, an actor I’ve admired for decades who I can now call a friend and colleague, I get to make my dreams come true more often than I ever thought I might.

As a historian of the Georgian era with a speciality in Georgian royalty, it’s not going to be a surprise to learn that I’d life out my fantasy 24 hours in London. I'm going to be a little woolly on the exact year, but somewhere in the early 1780s would do nicely. Let’s say 1782, just to give Mrs Robinson time to get really annoyed at the Prince of Wales, and to give Mrs Siddons time to get settled back into the London theatre scene.

Mrs (Sarah) Siddons

What might surprise those who know me well, however, is that I’ve got no intention of going digging about the palaces of George III and his family. George’s court was built on strict protocol and wasn’t exactly renowned for being a rip-roaring and entertaining way to spend a day. So, since I’ve got just 24 hours to live out my fantasy, am I going on a breathtaking, whirlwind tour of the sights of Georgian London?

Not a chance of it, because I’m going to spend them sitting around and drinking tea.

The trick to sitting around and drinking tea, as anyone who does it often will tell you, is who you do it with, and I won’t be drinking tea alone.

I’d like to start the day with a stroll through the streets of London alone, soaking up the sights, sounds and of course the smells of the world into which I’ve been happily plunged. I want to walk beside the Thames and potter about Hyde Park and just watch, experiencing that lost land in which I spend so much of my creative time. I’ll gaze into print shop windows and peek into coffeehouses, hear the cries of the street traders and potter along quite happily, unremarkable in the sort of unshowy frock that lets you pass unnoticed as part of the Georgian crowd. It doesn’t do to stand out when you’re pretending to be one of the locals, after all!

A lady cannot live on sightseeing alone though, and that’s where the sitting around and drinking tea comes in.

After my morning of strolling, I’ll head up to Strawberry Hill for lunch and an afternoon in the company of that glorious Georgian, Horace Walpole. Walpole is probably my absolute favourite Georgian and a few hours in his company will be worth a year in the city, because he knew everything about everyone. An inveterate gossip, taleteller and wit, what Walpole didn’t know about 18th century movers and shakers wasn’t worth knowing and I can’t think of a better fellow to spend an afternoon with. 

Horace Walpole

After a leisurely lunch, Horace and I will be joined by Mary Darby Robinson and Richard Brinsley Sheridan and, with the tea still flowing, we’ll while away an afternoon. Happily, with three Whigs together, political arguments - always a mainstay of Georgian society - might just about be kept to a minimum!

Richard Brinsley Sheridan

There’s nothing I love more than tea, theatre and Georgians, so this would be an absolute dream come true. Between them this trio had an intimate knowledge (literally in Mary’s case) of the House of Hanover and the world of Georgian theatre and in my dream world, they’d be more than happy to share it!

Mary Robinson

We’d wander Strawberry Hill with Walpole as an enthusiastic guide, learning about this dreamy Gothic palace from the man who created it. Then, as the evening began to draw on, where better to end the day that at the theatre? A little trip to Drury Lane would be in order, I think, to fulfil the dream of everybody who loves there and the 18th century - the chance to see the legendary Sarah Siddons in action.

It was Sheridan who brought Mrs Siddons back to London after her disastrous earlier appearance alongside Garrick, and her appearance at Drury Lane in Fatal Marriage in 1782 launched her into the stratosphere, so to see her perform with Sheridan in the seat beside me in the company of Sheridan would be utterly epic!

Going round after a performance is always fun so we’d join the divine Mrs S after the show for a drink or two and that would, I think, crown the perfect day. I would come home to the 21st century feeling very happy indeed!

So, I’ve got nothing in my diary for the next couple of days and I’m raring to go - when do we leave for 1782?


Catherine Curzon is a royal historian. She is the author of Life in the Georgian Court, Kings of Georgian Britain, and Queens of Georgian Britain

Her work has been featured on, the official website of BBC History Magazine and in publications such as Explore History, All About History, History of Royals and Jane Austen’s Regency World . She has appeared with An Evening with Jane Austen at venues including Kenwood House and Godmersham Park and has spoken at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, Lichfield Guildhall, the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich and Dr Johnson’s House, among others.

An Evening with Jane Austen - Cast Photo

Catherine holds a Master’s degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, writes fiction set deep in the underbelly of Georgian London. Her novels, The Crown Spire, The Star of Versailles, and The Mistress of Blackstairs, are available now.

She lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

[All illustrations in the Public Domain. Photo supplied by the author]

Monday, 13 November 2017

Writing to Music: Guy Donovan

For the latest in the series, Writing to Music, I am delighted to welcome author Guy Donovan to the blog:

An Ex-animator’s Take on Music and Writing

Before becoming a struggling, unknown indie writer of epic historical fantasy, I was a struggling animator and designer in Los Angeles. Working on such films as “Quest for Camelot,” “Osmosis Jones,” and, my personal favorite, “The Iron Giant,” I used music to keep the outside world at bay so I could focus on churning out all the drawings required by traditional animation. While I sometimes listened to music with lyrics, I tended toward instrumentals. 

Now I rely on music even more. Rather than working on someone else’s property, with most of the real creativity already done long before my job even started, the written world I create is all on me. Even though my “Dragon’s Treasure” series of e-novels is set in the very real world of 5th century Wales and Scotland, the fact that so little is known about that time period opens up a tremendous opportunity for me to “fill in the gaps.” 

The music I listen to while doing that provides as much inspiration as it does distraction from whatever is going on right around me in the “real” world. 

Classical, especially the bombastic stuff, is a great means of transport, but I’ve been a lover of film scores since the mid ‘70s, so I most often go that route. While other kids my age were rocking out to Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, et al, I was more interested in John Williams (Star Wars, Jaws, etc.), and Jerry Goldsmith (Patton, The Omen, Logan’s Run, yadda yadda…), along with many, many more. It’s only natural that those composers provide the fuel for my own creation. 

So when I’m writing a thoughtful conversation between Domelch, my Pictish caregiver of eleven-year old Princess Cerys of Môna, and Owena, a lady-in-waiting to the queen, about the conflicts between Christianity and their own pagan faith, I’ll rely on a track like Randy Edelman’s “Cora,” from “The Last of the Mohicans” to help set the mood. 
'Cora' - Last of the Mohicans (Youtube)

Alternately, a hyper-energetic scene like the one in which my series’ dragon, Talorc, defends his adoptive family of Humpback whales against a pod of hungry Orcas requires a more rousing piece like Thomas Bergerson’s “Star Child” to pump me up. 
Star Child' (Youtube)
The years I’ve spent writing “The Dragon’s Treasure” has led me to patch together a “score” for the series. Like a film’s temp track (prior to the composer writing music specifically for the film), I use that collection of pre-existing music to back up the scenes I see so clearly in my head. Rather than underscore specific action beats though, as that sort of editing and direction need to come from my reader as much as from me, my “score” sets the mood, or maybe a rhythm, that reflects what’s going on in the story. In one very specific instance, however, I needed something more precise.

Throughout the series’ first novel, “The Forgotten Princess of Môna,” the titular princess, Cerys, habitually hums a tune that her father taught her. By the second instalment, “A Cold, White Home,” Cerys is pressed into coming up with lyrics for it. Now Dirty Harry taught me as a young child that “A man’s gotta know his limitations,” and one of mine is poetry. There I was though, faced with writing a poem. My wife also writes, so I asked if she would be willing to help out. When she finally stopped laughing long enough to say “No, good luck with that,” I resigned myself to the task. 

To be politely honest, my best efforts were…trash. Then my previous career came to mind. Typically, new animators start in something called “cleanup” (essentially taking someone else’s rough, off-model drawings and redrawing them to not only move right, but also look right). Armed with that thought, I looked up a piece of music that I thought sounded right, and then researched songs of the period (or at least as old as I could find), mining them for ideas. I selected Jerry Goldsmith’s title theme for the film “Rudy,” as I liked the simplistic, honest “feel” of it. Then, as a lyrical springboard, I picked an old Welsh song (possibly 17th century) called “The Ash Grove.” Between them, and a head full of my fictional character’s hopes, fears, and dreams, I formulated a song that fit her needs. 

While the music as written doesn’t accommodate my lyrics perfectly, it’s easy enough to mentally rework it some to fit. I’ve included a link and my lyrics below for you to listen yourself and see if you agree. Even if it’s not quite perfect, my more musically inclined readers can no doubt imagine something they like better. 
'Rudy' Main Title (Youtube first track)

My Cold, White Home

“When I think of my home, I see only a place 
That is lonely and cold and white. 
And I dream of the day when I’ll finally join those 
Who have left my sight. 

“I’m alone and I’m traveling through 
Many places with nobody who 
Knows my pain. 

“Every step that I take wakes many mem’ries 
As aimlessly free I roam. 
And I know in my heart that my journey will end 
In a cold, white home. 

“Each night as I lie in my bed, 
I see faces of those who are dead 
In my mind. 

“There’s no dream of the future my spirit can cheer. 
I can only brood on my plight. 
For the dead that I mourn are all waiting for me 
In that cold and white. 

“My tears, they will no longer flow 
For I know where I’m going to go 
When I die. 

“So I lift up my eyes that are red and so dry 
As I look up to clouds like foam 
For some sign that my family is waiting for me 
In that cold, white home.” 

So there you have it. I hope you enjoyed my musings on music, lyrics, and resurrecting facets of old careers to benefit the new. Please feel free to leave a comment. 


More information abut Guy Donovan's Dragon Treasure series can be found HERE

And you can find him on his Amazon Author Page HERE

Guy was also a contributor to the Horde of Dragons anthology which can be found HERE

Thursday, 9 November 2017

Sun Dancing - Skellig Michael

Sun Dancing by Geoffrey Moorhouse is a book which has been sitting on my shelves, unread, for many years. 

I bought it during those optimistic years when I was at home with three small children, thinking I'd have plenty of time for reading, and in the days when the History Book Club sent a paper magazine out every month, featuring a selected Book of the Month. 

I bought many such books, mainly because one didn't have to do much, because they were sent out automatically. Little did I know how long it would take to get to a stage when I had the time to read them all.

But now, after all these years (my kids have all left home) I am finally clearing the backlog. 

Skellig Michael - by Jerzy Strzelecki

Skellig Michael has been making itself known to me recently in a number of ways: a recent programme about the coastland of Ireland, for example, and a song by Loreena McKennitt.

Skellig - Music, Lyrics & Images: Youtube

Sun Dancing is a book of two halves. The first is an imagining, a story of the founding of the Christian Monastery told through the centuries and through the eyes of various monks, beginning with Fionán in 588, who sets out to the rocky island to found the community and ending in 1222 when the brothers decide to abandon the community.

The second half of the book explains the background to the supposed events, drawing on the primary sources and explaining how the author has come to his conclusions, beginning with an exploration of the likely identity of Fionán, and going on to explain the daily lives of the brothers, the differences between the Irish and the Roman Church, the building of the boats that took them out to the island and introductions to such characters as Brian Boru and Olaf Tryggvason and how they fit into the story.

Having read this book so many years after purchasing it, I am now reading it as an author myself. As such, I found that the fictionalised chapters are perhaps lacking a little drama, but this is not supposed to be a novel. As a device for bringing the daily existence of the monks to life, it works really well.

How often have we all read historical fiction and wondered whether or not it was 'true'? With this book half the chapters are taken up with explaining the information on which the stories are based. 

We only stay with each character for a chapter, so it is hard to get to know them, but this was not the intention of the author. Rather it was to allow us to see these people as 'real', in a way that I think only historical fiction can do. So here we have the best of both worlds, both fiction and non-fiction. I might not have needed to know the minor details about monastic life (although much of it was familiar to me anyway) but what I did come away with was a sense of who these people were. Their treacherous journeys out to the island, their daily struggles for existence. 

The graveyard and oratory - by Jibi44

Look at pictures of Skellig Michael now, perhaps listening to the McKennitt song. It is an eerie place. Visit, if you can - it is some 12 kilometres from the Kerry coast and boat trips are available. Moorhouse's book allows us to visualise the people who inhabited the place for over half a millennium. (Some might also recognise it as a location in the Star Wars films.)

George Bernard Shaw, visiting in 1910, described the "incredible, impossible, mad place" as "part of our dream world...I hardly feel real again."  

To be given names, to read about daily lives, adds substance yet leaves the mystery, the sense of other-worldliness. 

I recommend reading this book if you want to get a sense of time and place and learn more about this intriguing island.

Saturday, 4 November 2017

Blōtmōnað - Blood Month

It's November, or Blōtmōnað as the Anglo-Saxons called it. 
(the Old English letters ð and þ are represented in modern English by the combination th)

So, what's Blood-Month all about? 

Unlike the days of the week, where the words are recognisable, the Anglo-Saxon calendar is not so obvious.

Days of the Week
Sunday: Sunnenday (Middle English translation of Greek Hemera heliou): the sun's day,
Monday: Monan daeg (Anglo Saxon, monan, moon; daeg, Anglo Saxon, day): the moon's day,
Tuesday: Tiwes daeg (Anglo Saxon Tiw, war god, related to Greek god Zeus): Tiw's day,
Wednesday: Woensdag (Danish, Woen, Woden, Chief Norse god, Frigga's husband; dag, day): Woden's day,
Thursday: Thursdaeg (Old English; Thorr, Icelandic, thundergod): Thor's day,
Friday: Frigedaeg (Anglo Saxon; Frige, Frigga, chief Norse goddess, Woden's wife): Frigga's day,
Saturday: Saeterdaeg (Anglo Saxon; Saeter, Saturn, Roman god of time): Saturn's day.

Looking at the original words, it is easy to see how they developed into the modern names for the days of the week.

Not so with the months, however. They weren't so much named after deities, as named for specific seasonal events

Months of the Year
January: Æfterra Gēola
 "After Yule", or "Second Yule"
February: Sol-mōnaþ ('mud month,' Bede: "the month of cakes, which they offered in it to their gods." Either the cakes looked like they were made of mud due to their color and texture, or literally it was the month of mud due to wet English weather)
March: Hrēþ-mōnaþ "Month of the Goddess Hrēþ" or "Month of Wildness"
April: Easter-mōnaþ "Easter Month", "Month of the Goddess Ēostre"
May: Þrimilce-mōnaþ "Month of Three Milkings"
June: Ærra Līþa "Before Midsummer", or "First Summer" Brāh-mānod

Þrilīþa "Third (Mid)summer" (leap month) I'll come back to this one!

July: Æftera Līþa "After Midsummer", "Second Summer"
August: Weod-mōnaþ "Plant month"
September: Hālig-mōnaþ "Holy Month"
October: Winterfyllēð "Winter full moon", according to Bede "because winter began on the first full moon of that month [of October]."
November: Blōt-mōnaþ "Blót Month", "Month of Sacrifice"
December: Ærra Gēola "Before Yule", or "First Yule"

What can we deduce from these month names? 

Gēola is the same word as ‘Yule’, as seen above,and may also have something to do with the ‘wheel’ of the year. The explanation for Sol-mōnaþ is not universally accepted. Perhaps just as contentiously, Easter is linked with the word ‘east’, where the sun rises on the spring equinox, or with the pagan goddess. Ðrīemilcemōnað or Þrimilce-mōnaþ (May) may suggest that cows could be milked three times a day during this month.

With the months representing distinct times of the year and activities associated with them, it's probably no surprise that they were also divided in accordance with the phases of the moon, which meant that there were always a few days left over each year. Thus there was a need for a leap-month, which is where Þrilīþa comes in (Þri - three, līþa or līða - possibly mild, summer.)

An Anglo-Saxon Calendar which shows the 7th November - the beginning of winter

It has been suggested that the blood month refers to human sacrifice. But Bede, who would have been at pains to point out any non-Christian practices, says in De Temporum Ratione (The Reckoning of Time) that
"Blod-monath is month of immolations, for it was in this month that the cattle which were to be slaughtered were dedicated to the gods."
People might have slaughtered their own animals, or received help from kinsmen, otherwise a professional butcher would come their premises. It would have made sense to pay a butcher so that the meat could be quickly salted and hung, thus avoiding deterioration. Payment for the service was perhaps in kind, so that the butchers had meat to sell on.

Man beating acorns to fatten his pig - from the November page of the
Peterborough Salter MS 53 p6

In the latter years of the tenth-century, slaughter had to be carried out in the present of two witnesses. With a biblical proscription on the strangulation of animals, the beasts would generally have had their necks cut with an axe. The assumption is that the animals were then bled.

A large animal will take longer to lose its body heat; Anglo-Saxon domestic animals were smaller than our modern breeds, so this will have helped. Meat produced in the summer months would, equally, go bad very quickly and so it makes sense that November would be the traditional month for slaughter. There would, of course, have been no waste, and there is evidence to suggest that marrow, tongue, brain, offal and fats (smeru - grease) were all used. What better to warm you on a cold winter's night than healfne cuppan clœnes gemyltes swices (half a cup of pure bacon fat melted)?

Something to consider if you haven't yet had your Bonfire Night party?

Days of the week: Source - Caltech
Months of the Year: Source - Germanic Calendar
Further Reading: Anglo-Saxon Food Ann Hagen

Friday, 27 October 2017

Heroines of the Medieval Age - a Review

Author Sharon Bennett Connolly has been a guest on the blog a couple of times already. That's not our only connection - in fact we have a few:

Firstly, we have met, in real life, which was lovely. We had dinner together and chatted about all things history, a passion which we share.

Secondly, we are both signed to Amberley Publishing, she with her new book, Heroines of the Medieval World, and me with my history of Mercia.

Thirdly, we have both written about Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, me with my novel To Be A Queen, and of course in my forthcoming history of Mercia, and she in her new book.

So, it was with great interest that when my review copy of the book arrived, I went straight to the pages which concentrate on my favourite Medieval Heroine.

Often, I come across brief articles on the internet whose aim is to sum up the life of a medieval person. And often I'm left seething at the inaccuracies. I appreciate that it is difficult to sum of the life and career of an historical person in a few lines, or pages. Mistakes, repeated assumptions, and lack of understanding of the sources often make these pieces inaccurate and lacking in depth and substance.

But Sharon has succeeded, brilliantly, with her summation of 

In researching a novel of 120,00 words +, and then researching again, in depth, for a lengthy chapter on Æthelflæd and her family for the non-fiction book, I often feel that there's nothing written about her which I haven't read, and either agreed with, or dismissed.

Inevitably, for my purposes, I have needed to delve very deeply and read widely. So has Sharon, in order to deliver a really good, chunky book, about all her heroines. 

So, what can readers expect? The book is arranged thematically, rather than chronologically, so there are chapters on Warrior Women, Scandalous Heroines, Literary Heroines... you get the picture. Familiar women are featured - the afore-mentioned Lady of the Mercians, Eleanor of Aquitaine, Joan of Arc - but also some less well-known ones: Eleanor's daughters, for example, and Gwenllian of Wales, Anne of Woodstock, Constance of Castile, and many more intriguing and admirable women, all of whose stories deserve to be told.

What I loved about the pages concerning Æthelflæd is that, even allowing for the fact that she had many heroines to research and write about, Sharon has taken her research as far as time and resources would allow, and produced a succinct, accurate* portrayal, summing up what we know from the sources available, and not once falling into the trap of repeating unsubstantiated assumptions.

Occasionally, when reading it, I would know that there was more to a particular episode, but that is for the reader to discover, should they choose to research for themselves. Not once, though, did I think, "that's wrong," or, "not that old chestnut again."

I've not yet had the chance to read the whole book, but all I can say is this: based on the pages pertaining to Æthelflæd, what we have here is a well-researched, well-written and very accessible book about a series of remarkable women.

An excerpt from the book:

The daughter of Alfred the Great, King of Wessex, one of England’s greatest kings. Æthelflæd was born about 870, the eldest child of King Alfred and his wife, Ealhswith. Alfred’s biographer, Asser, says Ealhswith was a member of the Mercian royal house through her mother, Eadburh. Around 886 Æthelflæd was married to Æthelred, ealdorman of Mercia and a trusted lieutenant of her father. Æthelred ruled over the English half of the Mercian kingdom, which had been dissected by the Vikings but submitted to King Alfred’s overlordship. The marriage was a political alliance, intended to strengthen Saxon resistance to the Danes, who were now occupying Northumbria, Yorkshire and East Anglia. The resulting close relationship of Mercia and Wessex was only further strengthened by the renewed Viking attacks of the 890s. During the early years of their marriage the young couple appear to have settled in London, the city that had been entrusted to Æthelred’s care by Alfred. Æthelflæd seems to have taken after her father – she was a strong, brave woman and is often regarded more as a partner to Æthelred than a meek, obedient wife. The couple jointly presided over provincial courts. The ‘Mercian Register’, a fragment of a Mercian chronicle, included in some versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, records that Æthelflæd was exercising regal powers in the region even before her husband’s death. In his final years Æthelred increasingly suffered from illness, during which time Æthelflæd assumed greater authority. The couple had only one child, a daughter, Ælfwynn. According to William of Malmesbury (writing in the 12th century) the lack of more children was due to Æthelflæd’s avoidance of marital relations, possibly due to a fear of dying in childbirth. Malmesbury quotes her as saying it was ‘unbecoming a daughter of a king to give way to a delight, which after a time produced such painful consequences’. 

Sharon has been fascinated by history for over 30 years now. She has studied history academically and just for fun – and even worked as a tour guide at historical sites, including Conisbrough Castle. Born in Yorkshire, she studied at University in Northampton. For Christmas 2014, her husband gave her a blog as a gift. Sharon started researching and writing about the lesser-known stories and people from European history, the stories that have always fascinated. Quite by accident, she started focusing on medieval women. She is currently working on her second non-fiction book, Silk and the Sword: The Women of the Norman Conquest, which will be published by Amberley in late 2018.

Find Sharon on her blog, History...The Interesting Bits

Other blogs in this blog tour for Sharon's book include:

There's an additional review HERE

* as far as we can ever be truly accurate about events which happened over a millennium ago

Tuesday, 24 October 2017

Historical Fantasy 24 Hours - Restoration London

I asked a group of talented writers and historians to imagine their 'Fantasy Twenty-Four Hours.' I placed no restrictions on time period, place, or format, save that they must go back in time.

This month it's the turn of author and historian Jessica Cale, who takes us back to seventeenth-century London...


If I could go back to any time in history, I would like to be a tourist in Restoration London. My series is set there, and being able to see everything first hand would be incredible. But where to start? 

I would like to go back on November 5th, of any year between 1660 and 1665. My chances of making it back to my own time would obviously be improved if could avoid any hint of the plague of 1666, and I would love to see all of the medieval and Tudor architecture that was lost in the Great Fire of that year. London would have been unrecognizable to a modern visitor; there was no real street plan. Instead, the city was a jumble of buildings piled on top of each other to make a maze of alleys and narrow lanes. These were so close together that the fire was able to spread faster than those fighting it could tear the burning buildings down. Much of the London we know today was planned by Christopher Wren during the reconstruction of the city, and I would love to see what it had looked like before. To see what I mean, check out this animation HERE

On my tour of lost London, I would follow the forgotten river Fleet as far as I dared--or, as long as my scented handkerchief could hold out--to see if it really was as bad as Ben Jonson described it in 1602: 
Your Fleet Lane Furies; and hot cooks do dwell,That, with still-scalding steams, make the place hell.The sinks ran grease, and hair of measled hogs,The heads, houghs, entrails, and the hides of dogs:For, to say truth, what scullion is so nasty,To put the skins, and offal in a pasty?Cats there lay divers had been flayed and roasted,And, after mouldy grown, again were toasted,Then, selling not, a dish was ta’en to mince them,But still, it seemed, the rankness did convince them.For, here they were thrown in with the melted pewter,Yet drowned they not. They had five lives in future.
Assuming the stench of the Fleet did not render me unconscious, I would spend the afternoon scouring the Royal Exchange for cosmetics and bath products. It was the beginning of the Age of Extravagance, and a surprising variety of products were sold in every imaginable scent. I would stock up on washballs, salves, eye crayons, and Spanish leather for a long-lasting lip stain, but I would pass on the ceruse. As enviable as a smooth, porcelain-white complexion was, we now know that the the product’s high lead content is profoundly toxic and did more harm than good to the skin (and mind). 

From the Exchange, I would take a leisurely walk up to Covent Garden, people-watching for famous faces, such as the Earl of Rochester and his libertines. At this point, composer Solomon Eccles could often be spotted running through the streets naked with a chafing dish of burning coals on his head, shouting at passersby to repent. I have seen people do this on Oxford Street with microphones and rather more clothes on, but I think I would appreciate Eccles’ commitment to his unique brand of madness.

In Covent Garden, I would listen in on the caffeinated political discourse at the coffee shops and try a little dark coffee for myself, although it would probably be too much for me. Coffee in 17th century England was thick and black, made by boiling coffee powder and water together for an hour or more. After that, I’d stop into the Hole-in-the-Wall on Chandos Street and try some aqua vitae, or “strong waters” while waiting around to see if I could spot Claude Duval, a highwayman so famously handsome, charming, and successful with women, his tombstone called him “the second conqueror of the Norman race.” 

The celebrations would start late afternoon and rage on through the night. At this time, Bonfire Night was known as Gunpowder Treason Day, and its celebration had been enforced by law since the Observance of 5th November Act of 1606. The holiday took on new life under Charles II as it became a celebration of “God’s preservation of the English Throne.” London’s apprentices built huge bonfires all over the city, and it became a kind of festival attacking sobriety and good order. Treacle cake and potatoes were sold by street vendors, and the streets ran red with wine. It was a night of drunken madness until celebrations got so out of control that fireworks were banned by the militia in 1682. It was the craziest night of the year in a notoriously wild period, and that sounds like something I’d like to be a part of. 

If you would like to see more of what daily life was like common people in Restoration London, check out my series The Southwark Saga


Jessica Cale is an award-winning author and historian based in North Carolina. Originally from Minnesota, she lived in Wales for several years where she earned a BA in History and an MFA in Creative Writing while climbing castles and photographing mines for history magazines. She kidnapped (“married”) her very own British prince (close enough) and is enjoying her happily ever after with him in a place where no one understands his accent. She is a member of the Royal Historical Society and the editor of Dirty, Sexy History. You can visit her at

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Did Charlemagne's Imperial Coronation Change Anything?

Last month I blogged about administration in the reign of Charlemagne. This time I’m looking at what, if anything, changed after the imperial coronation in 800.

After Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor on Christmas Day 800, there was no real profound transformation of royal power or fundamental reform of it, but the imperial power supplemented it. Certainly there was a quest for definition; Einhard (Charlemagne’s biographer) mentions that Charlemagne ordered unwritten laws and customs to be defined and written.


Along with the concept of imperial power came new ideas of fidelity and devotion. The basic element of feudalism arose; Charlemagne would safeguard the Christian Church and its people, in turn they must observe the laws of Christ and the Emperor.

The Imperial Coronation by Friedrich Kaulbach

In March 802, there was a meeting of the Diet at Aachen. Missi were dispatched to all parts of the empire. These missi were not chosen, as they were usually, from the palace vassals, but from ecclesiastical and lay aristocracy; archbishops, dukes and counts who would be less open to corruption. They had with them a written document in support of the oral instructions, a Capitulare Missorum. 

This fourth great capitulary of Charlemagne’s reign came about because of a psychological crisis within Charlemagne himself. His coronation had given him a more acute awareness of his responsibilities before God. From this arose a clearer view of the contrast between what ought to be, and what was, in the Frankish state. The capitulary presents a programme of imperial government of Church and State in the Empire and contains numerous purely ecclesiastical dispositions and many others of an administrative, judicial and political nature, and articles defining a new and more exacting concept of the fidelity owed to the emperor.

One of Charlemagne's capitularies

To initiate the new regime, it was necessary to lay down and enforce rules of conduct to be observed in the future, confirm and apply rules already in force, but most of all to eradicate existing abuses. It was hoped that these new missi of high standing would be conscientious. They were instructed to investigate complaints, take note of the existing situation and where possible remedy abuses. 

Where there were abuses that they were unable to remedy, the emperor would deal with them himself. They were to report on any gaps or defects they found in the laws, and they were to publish the regulations contained in the capitulary and see that they were enforced.

Homage in the Middle Ages

The duty of fidelity to the emperor was no innovation, and the concept was fundamentally negative; to do nothing that would endanger him to whom fidelity was owed. After the coronation, the duty was not only to refrain from certain actions, but there were certain positive obligations. These included obedience to the divine precepts and to the commands of Christian charity, obedience to the emperor’s orders and respect for imperial property, performance of military service and promotion of the regular course of justice. There was also a new formula for the oath; it became more like the oath sworn by vassals, and more religious in character. 

Swearing the oath of fealty

The whole programme was markedly religious in nature. Charlemagne became aware of his new power, bestowed on him by God. The way the emperor discharged his power indicated reward or punishment in the next world. Charlemagne was also responsible for the attitude of his subjects; they must also perform their duty to God. 

As Charlemagne had to protect the Church, his subjects were obliged to do likewise. There had to be harmony between the lay and ecclesiastical authorities. Bishops and abbots were ordered only to appoint upright and conscientious men. Charlemagne’s fate in the next world depended on the attitude and conduct of churchmen who wielded authority. It was ordered that the clergy should lead a common life. There was also a call for a stricter observance of their rule by monks and nuns.

There were 15 articles in the capitulary relating to religious matters, and religion enters into other aspects. The missi, as we have seen were chosen for their piety, and the capitulary also deals with protecting churches and their property. Disorders in monastic establishments annoyed Charlemagne, so autonomy for houses of monks and nuns was discouraged, indeed many were placed under very strict control of the bishop or even archbishop.

Among the more political articles, Charlemagne’s increased sense of power is clearly detectable. He demanded much more personal devotion from his subjects. He placed a strong emphasis on his Bannum, his power to command or to prohibit and to punish any contravention of his orders or prohibitions. Some of these orders and prohibitions he proclaimed permanent by making them law. They forbade the harming of churches, widows, orphans, or the ‘economically weak’. They prohibited rape, group assaults on a house, and arson. They sought to secure more dependable military service for the king. These eight examples are the best known and Charlemagne frequently called attention to their permanent character in his capitularies. 

The Coronation - by assistants of Raphael

After the imperial coronation, refusal to submit to the Bannum, or evasion of it by trickery, or attempts to restrict its application (in particular the eight examples) could not be tolerated. Non-obedience would in future count as infidelity. 

No-one was to refuse military service, and counts were not to grant unwarranted exemptions. Future contraventions would count as infidelity. This was important to maintain the quality and strength of the imperial fighting force.

As emperor, Charlemagne was the successor of Christian emperors who had been legislators, and he henceforth engaged in legislative activity with less caution, even in the realm of private law. Like the Roman emperors, he ordered that judgement should be made in accordance with the written text of the law where one existed. The chief object of his judicial reforms was to guarantee everyone an opportunity to claim and exercise his rights under the law. So there was a series of measures imposing on the courts a strict regard for the law. 

The Construction of Charlemagne's Palace at Aachen

A knowledge of the law was required of the judicial officials concerned with the administration of justice in courts under the jurisdiction of ecclesiastical authorities, in their capacity as seigneurs of great estates, especially when the church in question enjoyed the privileges of immunity. It was considered important for the law to be applied strictly in the seigneurial courts, in particular in those under the jurisdiction of churches with immunity.

There was much more personal intervention from the emperor, and it is implied that he actually presided over a palace court. This was another indication of his awareness of his responsibilities for his subjects, and of his heightened sense of his accountability to God. The punishment for perjurers, the amputation of the right hand, was no novelty, but now the responsibility for suppressing this crime was placed on the palace courts.

Charlemagne's Throne: attribution

These measures and reforms were not entirely effective, but the ideas remained for Charlemagne’s successors to take up. More than anything they show how his sense of responsibility increased with his new power. It is obvious that he took these new responsibilities seriously, especially where the welfare of the Church and his subjects was concerned. Once he had determined the significance of imperial power, he undertook to instigate reforms which would carry out the obligations he now had as ruler of his people, and as a successor to the Christian Roman emperors.

Further reading:
The Life of Charlemagne – Einhard University of Michigan Press
The Coronation of Charlemagne – Robert Folz
Frankish Institutions under Charlemagne – FL Ganshof
The Carolingians and the Frankish Monarchy – FL Ganshof

[images are in the public domain unless otherwise attributed]