Wednesday, 25 May 2011

Albert and Victoria's Family Home.

Today I'm doubly delighted: firstly to welcome historical fiction author, Debra Brown, to the blog, and secondly because Debra writes about Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, a place very close to my heart.
Welcome Debra!

 Osborne House - the main building can be glimpsed through trees for miles around.
 Albert and Victoria's Family Home
(Note that I did not say Victoria and Albert!)

The very first years of their marriage was a real trial for Albert. He had grown up in The Rosenau, the country residence of the Dukes of Coburg, enjoying the rural delights of life. After marrying the Queen, he was stuck in HER homes, Buckingham Palace, with so much soot in the air that they could barely breath (nor could anyone else in the Town)and Windsor Castle, which at the time had not the parks and grounds that it does today. Indeed, they were hemmed in tightly in comparison. Albert was relegated to the position of a disapproved foreigner and an observer at first, but over some months began to insist that things be run more efficiently and economically at Buckingham. He truly did make some excellent changes, but it was still the English people's Queen's home.

Victoria had grown up as a city girl, mostly within her palatial homes, but hated Buckingham, which had been built by the spendthrift George IV and so it was hated and resented by the taxpayers of her time. Victoria was the first monarch to live in it. Windsor reminded her much of her very painful childhood. There was much animosity amongst the family members, and she was in the middle of it all. Besides that, Victoria adored her Albert and wanted him to be happy. So when he wanted to find them a home that they actually owned and could adjust to their own tastes, she supported him eagerly.

Shanklin beach - just one of the many natural attractions on the Isle of Wight.
 Osborne House became available on the Isle of Wight. The couple decided to rent the house for a year and spend some time there to see if they would be able to make it what they wanted. Within six days, they were sold on it and began the process of buying it with their own money. Albert took the lead in designing a new section, remodeling and landscaping. He changed rough and natural landscape with leveling, terracing and regal balustrades, urns and fountains. The home was wonderfully adapted for their growing family. The couple spent much time with their children in comparison to the aristocratic practices of the day. Albert carefully oversaw the goings on of the nursery and those who were employed to work in it. Osborne House was Albert's provision for his family, where he could fulfill the role of husband and father in his way. Although Albert died in his early forties, Victoria thoroughly enjoyed all that he created for the rest of her life.

Debra Brown, Author of The Companion of Lady Holmeshire
To be published in 2011 by World Castle Publications

Book Website:


Grace: Thank you so much for visiting Debra.
(I'm lucky enough to have an advance copy of 'The Companion of Lady Holmeshire' and its next on my list...I can't wait to get reading!)

Have you visited the Isle of Wight? Do you have a special hideaway you love to visit?
We'd love to know - please share with us and leave a comment.
G x

Sunday, 22 May 2011

The 'Sin Tax'.

King John - as pictured in an early manuscript.
Today’s blog post looks at the‘Sin Tax’imposed by King John.
King John (whose name is inextricably linked with stories of Robin Hood) came to the throne (1199) after the death of his brother, Richard the Lionheart. The one thing historians seem to agree on is that John’s personality was dangerously flawed: greedy, petty and selfish, with an inability to see anyone’s viewpoint but his own.

King John imposed heavy taxes, for example, a tax of sixteen pence in the pound on a wide range of imported goods. But one of his more unusual taxes was the ‘Sin Tax’, imposed after John was excommunicated for refusing to approve the Pope’s choice for Archbishop of Canterbury.
King John signing the Magna Carta at Runymede.
John ordered his men to seize the wives, and ‘hearth-mates’ or concubines, of the clergy, to be held for ransom. The women would only be released on payment of a high price or 'Sin Tax'.
However it wasn’t just the clergy who felt aggrieved. By 1215 the nobility had had enough of John’s heavy taxation and rebelled. They seized London, forcing John into a meeting at Runnymede to accede to their demands and sign the Magna Carta, or ‘Great Charter.’ This document lay down rules to protect individuals from the unfair demands of the monarch. After the Magna Carta:
“The church is free to make its own appointments.”
“No more than the normal amounts of money will be collected by the government.”
And accordingly the tax was abolished on the wives and hearth-mates of clergymen.

King John's tomb - Worcester Cathedral.

If you had the power, what unusual tax would you put in place, and why?

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Cat Gut Your Tongue?

Some Cat Gut Trivia.

What are violin strings traditionally made from?

A)    Cat gut,
B)     Steel wire or
C)    Sheep intestine.

The answer, of course, is (c)  sheep intestine.
So why then are violins, stringed instruments and tennis rackets said to be strung with ‘cat gut’?
It seems the answer lies with a medieval myth about16th century saddle maker, Erasmo. (*)

The story goes that Erasmo, working in the Italian mountain village of Salle, heard wind blowing musically through a drying rack laced with sheep intestine. It occurred to him what a good string the gut would make for a musical instrument. He experimented with a form of renaissance fiddle, the forerunner of the violin, and the resulting sound was so good he worried his idea would be stolen. When competitors asked what his strings were made from, his answer was “Cat gut,” since it was considered extremely bad luck to kill a cat and he hoped to deter imitation.

PS - Dont breath a word of this to Widget!
 Erasmo was made the patron saint of string makers and Salle became the centre of Italian violin string manufacture for 600 years. The best strings were made by stripping the fat from warm, freshly removed sheep’s gut, which was then soaked in cold water. The best sections were then cut into ribbons, twisted and scraped until a string of the required thickness was made. As late at the early 20th century, the change to steel strings was made, because of a shortage of sheep intestine with the advent of the First World War.

(*) Some say that ‘Cat gut’ may be an abbreviation of ‘Cattle gut’, or indeed a corruption of ‘Kitstring’, where ‘kit’ refers to a folk term for a fiddle. However, to my ear, Erasmo’s story has the ring of human nature about it….

[With thanks to for the last image.]

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Rats or Cats? - Facing Phobias.

My mid week blog post involved the Emperor Napoleon and 30,000 rabbits. Writing that post reminded me of Napoleon’s reputation for being afraid of cats. Apparently this was an open secret amongst his contemporaries, friend and foe alike. Indeed, during an important political debate, an opponent got the upper hand and threw Napoleon off his stride, merely by bringing the subject of cats into the conversation.

Another example of this deep seated fear happened during the campaign for the Battle of Wagram. An Aide de Campe passed Napoleon’s tent and was alarmed to hear screams and cries for help. Fearing his leader to be in mortal danger, the Aide drew his sword and burst in.... to find Napoleon sweating profusely and wildly stabbing at the air…because a stray cat had wandered into the tent!

My favourite Napoleon-and-cat story, and wonderfully demonstrates the British sense of humour, takes place after the Emperor’s defeat by Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. Sent into exile on the island of Saint Helena, Napoleon’s new residence was the damp, vermin infested estate at Longwood. Contemporary accounts report:

“Rats…came out at night…so thick as the floor appeared black.”

Over time reports filtered back to England that the French Emperor had been bitten by a rat. Magnanimous in victory and ever compassionate, posters appeared in English market places offering the princely sum of sixpence per cat for those collecting felines go to Napoleon’s aid. Strays and farm cats were rounded up by the wagon load and a special ship commissioned to carry this special live cargo to Saint Helena and rid the prisoner of his vermin infestation.
Poor Napoleon, this must have been a case of “good news” and “bad news” when that shipped docked!

Ahhh - Widget! (Guess where I stand on cats!)
I’m not a fan of spiders (to put in mildly) and if my house was infested with flies, I wouldn’t be overly pleased to receive boxes of spiders….so how about you? Would you rather put up with rats and flies….or be prepared to face a phobia?

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Exit Napoleon Pursued by Rabbits.

My midweek blog post is a blend of animals, history and trivia! This almost Monty Pythonesque tale involves the French Emperor Napoleon, his Major General ‘Berthier the Ugly’ and 30,000 rabbits.
But first, some background  to the story.
Events are reported by Andrew Roberts (historian and biographer) in his book:
 “The Battle of Waterloo – and the great commanders who fought it.”
Roberts’ book aims not just to give a factual account of battles, but to get under the skin of the main protagonists: Bonaparte and Wellington.
In 1815, the Battle of Waterloo was Napoleon’s greatest defeat but, according to Roberts, it wasn’t the Emperor’s most embarrassing one. This award goes to an afternoon’s sport in 1807, after Napoleon signed a peace treaty with Russia and Prussia.To celebrate ‘The Peace of Tilsit’, Napoleon ordered his Chief of Staff, Major General Berthier, to entertain the Imperial Courtwith an afternoon rabbit shoot.

Known as ‘Berthier the Ugly’ because of his squat build and talon like nose, he had a healthy respect for Napoleon. In fact this successful General, with many victories under his command, is quoted as saying:
“I don’t know why but that little b*****d scares me.”

Napoleon Bonaparte.
In order to make the hunt a success Berthier ‘imported’ 30,000 rabbits. However, what he didn’t realize was high taxation had forced peasants to trap and eat all the wild rabbits. In order to fulfill Berthier’s demands for game, local gamekeepers had to buy captive bred rabbits, fattened up for eating, and release them into the wild. These same rabbits, not having eaten for 24 hours, when they saw a short man in a big hat (Napoleon) approaching, assumed it was food being delivered and mobbed him.
Napoleon’s retainers beat the rabbits off with whips, but there were just too many and the Emperor was forced to flee back to the safety of his carriage…making this by far his most humiliating defeat.

TEASER: But of course, Napoleon was terrified of cats….more of this in another post!

Sunday, 8 May 2011

Shorter by a Head - Some Guillotine Trivia!

King Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn from 'The Tudors.'

For Mother’s Day I was lucky enough to be receive The Tudors DVD box set (and I didn’t even hint that hard!) So this morning you would have found me ironing along to Season Two…with tears streaming down my face. Anne Boleyn was executed. Say no more. An extremely moving episode, which is perhaps why, when it came time to write my blog post, my mind turned to thoughts of beheading… and the guillotine.

Where was the guillotine invented?

a)      18th century Revolutionary France
b)      Medieval Halifax in Yorkshire, England.
c)      Medieval Scotland.
'The Maiden' - medieval decapitation in Scotland.

The correct answer (although all options have some merit- read on) is B) – Halifax.

The Halifax Gibbet.

Records show that between 1286 and 1650, at least 53 people were executed in Yorkshire using ‘The Halifax Gibbet.’ This device consisted of two 15 foot upright poles, with a weighted cross beam on which an axe was mounted.
The wealth of medieval Halifax came from textiles. As part of the manufacturing process valuable cloth was left drying on outdoor frames and a suitably fearsome deterrent was needed to change the mind of would-be thieves.
A similar device called ‘The Maiden’ was developed around the same time in medieval Scotland.

Doctor Guillotin - his humane intention backfired badly.

Poor Dc Guillotin.
Synonymous with 18th century Revolutionary France, the guillotine as we recognize it with a diagonal blade was actually designed in 1792 by Dc Antoine Louis. He picked up the initial idea from Dc Guillotin, and modified it. Dc Louis’ device was called ‘Louisette’ but for some reason, despite protests from Dc Guillotin’s family, the name ‘Guillotine’ stuck.
Poor Dc Guillotin! His intention was never to create a machine for mass murder, but to develop a humane way of execution. His aim was to make a “Truly democratic device,” that cleanly beheaded.
Prior to this, if you were condemned to death, your suffering was largely determined by your wealth. The rich could afford a swordsman, to painlessly smite your head from your shoulders, whilst the poor suffered at the hands of an inept axe man or a prolonged death by hanging. Guillotin’s initial design (modified by Louis) meant a guaranteed clean death regardless of rank.

Anne Boleyn (from 'The Tudors') about to be executed.

Historical Urban Myth.
Finally, contrary to popular myth, Dc Guillotin did not die by the device he helped conceive. Instead he died in 1814 due to septicaemia from an infected carbuncle on his shoulder.

On a lighter note, what is your favourite ‘ironing’ programme, and does it make you cry?

The last moments of Anne Boleyn.

[With thanks to makers of 'The Tudors' for the images.]

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Sir Walter Raleigh - Famous for Doing Things he Didn't.

Sir Walter Raleigh - Elizabethan adventurer and explorer.

It’s funny how times change. My youngest son tells me at school they no longer study ‘history’, but something called ‘Opening Minds’. I suppose this is fair enough, after all nothing stays the same, especially what we assume are facts!
Take Sir Walter Raleigh as an example. What most school children can tell you about this famous Elizabethan adventurer is that;
 - Raleigh put his cloak over a puddle to let Queen Elizabeth I pass.
  - He brought potatoes back as a gift for Elizabeth.
 - And he introduced tobacco to England.

Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!  On all counts wrong!

Millais' famous painting - 'The Boyhood of Raleigh.'

Elizabethan Chivalry.

It’s a fantastic image, the chivalrous Sir Walter spreading his cloak beneath Elizabeth’s feet – but it never happened. This myth arose from Walter Scott’s romantic novel ‘Kenilworth’ written in 1821, over 200 years after Raleigh’s death. The scene struck the public imagination and it quickly became the Victorian equivalent of an ‘urban myth’, whereas in reality there was no basis in fact.

A Chip off the Old Block.

Popular history has it that Raleigh brought the first potatoes to England, after his voyages of exploration to the Americas. However, more likely is the potato came from Spain and was already widespread in Europe around the time of Raleigh’s birth.
Happily Raleigh does indeed have a link to potatoes. He grew the vegetable in the garden of his manor in Ireland, to the displeasure of his neighbours who threatened to burn his house down. Potatoes are a member of the Nightshade family, and thought to be poisonous, and the villagers were suspicious of his motives….

Up in Smoke.

Again, Raleigh is widely attributed with introducing and popularizing smoking in Elizabethan England. Not so! Legend has it that one of his servants, thinking his master was on fire, doused Raleigh’s pipe with water. Although Raleigh was a smoker he didn’t discover tobacco.
That plaudit falls to a Frenchman, Jean Nicot. (It is from Nicot’s surname that the word ‘nicotine’ derives.) The first recorded mention of smoking was in 1556 (Raleigh was four years old) when a Bristol sailor was seen;
‘Emitting smoke from his nostrils.’

So there we have it. Perhaps that’s what the teachers mean by ‘Opening Minds’ instead of ‘history’ – studying facts instead of fables. (Although I doubt it somehow…)

Sir Walter Raleigh and his son.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Sue Perkins and her latest book 'BLITZ.'

Today it's my pleasure to welcome Sue Perkins to the blog. Sue has published books in diverse genres from fantasy to YA and romance. Although Sue now lives in New Zealand, she originates from Devon and it is her parents experiences in Plymouth during World War II that inspired her latest book. So without further ado....over to you Sue.

Seventy years ago in March 1941 and April 1941 the city of Plymouth, Devon was intensively bombed for two or three days at a time. The period went down in history as the Blitz. This year the people of Plymouth have been remembering the Blitz with exhibitions and memorial services for those who died in these horrific raids. My novel “Blitz” is set immediately prior to the outbreak of World War II and during the troubled years of fighting.

Velma and Jack fall in love and plan a future together. Her sisters try to force Velma to take things slowly. For the first time in her life Velma shows she will not be bossed around any more. She is determined to show her family she is an adult.

Jack’s life in the Royal Army Service Corps often separates the young couple. The absence of her love makes Velma to question Jack’s commitment to her. Both of them are concerned by the dark clouds of war gathering on the horizon. Will the turmoil break them apart for ever?

My original inspiration for this novel came from my parents real life romance. My mother lived through the blitz of Plymouth and, although she didn’t talk much about the war, she did mention some of the hazards she endured.

Dad went overseas like most of the fit young men of that era. He visited many countries and experienced several different cultures. His travels took him to the battles in Europe, Africa and the Far East. Both parents experiences are woven into my novel, but the majority is fictional.

I have written many romance novels, but this is the first historical story. Inspired by my parents lives during the war, I wrote the first draft as the events came to mind. I stuttered to a halt at various times when dates and details needed to be checked. I had grown up in Plymouth so most of the history was familiar. The internet is a good tool for research and my sister, who still lives in Plymouth, also became a source of information.

The amazing aspect of the research came from looking into things I thought of as part of my life. I could envisage the ball and the prows of four ships on the top of the War Memorial on Plymouth Hoe, but I had no idea they represented the four winds. The roads and green spaces have also changed with the years. Again I had to research to find out how Plymouth looked in the 1930s and 1940s.

The British monarchs visited Plymouth during the war. The Queen during World War II later became known as the Queen Mother. To introduce the visit I had to research the station they arrived at, when they came, how long they stayed. Speech patterns also differed from the words used now. The word “Okay” did not come into common use in England until after the war. I believe the American GIs used it and the English copied the word.

I have to admit research is not my favorite pastime. Funnily enough I enjoyed looking into the history of Plymouth. Mainly because I could relate to the details I uncovered.

Thank you so much for hosting this part of my blog tour and I hope your readers enjoy learning about World War II in Plymouth.

Bomb disposal in wartime Plymouth.

"Can I help you?" Velma didn't glance at the customer on the other side of the counter. She concentrated on putting the last of the screws into their respective boxes.
"I hope so." Startled by the unexpected, Velma looked up into Jack's smiling face.
"What are you doing here?" she hissed. "You'll get me into trouble." "Sorry. I had to see you." Jack didn't seem at all sorry. How could he when he had a wide grin on his face?
"Can't it wait until lunchtime?" The happy expression disappeared to be replaced by a worried frown. Fright rushed through Velma. What had happened to make him so unhappy?
"Can you grab a few moments? I have to speak to you." Velma glanced around to find her supervisor. To her dismay the woman stood glaring at her from the end of the counter. The store discouraged talking to friends during working hours and Mrs. Harris followed the rules to the letter. Velma's mind desperately sought for an excuse to exchange a few words with Jack. Nothing came immediately to mind. Jack must have seen her glance towards the supervisor. Velma watched in horror as he approached the woman. He spoke a few words to Mrs. Harris who turned to beckon to Velma.
"This young man is apparently related to your sister, Miss Field." The woman looked disbelievingly at Velma.
"Yes, Mrs. Harris. Mr. Stanley is my sister Florence's brother-in-law."
"Apparently he has an urgent message from your sister so you may take a few moments to speak to him. I shall expect you to deduct this time from your lunch hour."
"Thank you, Mrs. Harris."
Velma ducked through the counter opening and walked to the stock lift entrance where she and Jack could talk privately.
"What on earth did you say to her? There usually has to be a death in the family before she'll let any of us out from behind the counter."
"I said Florence is unwell and could you please visit her on your way home as she needs you to take care of Sam for a few hours."
"Is she really sick?" For a moment Velma forgot about Jack's sudden appearance as a flutter of anxiety surfaced regarding Florence.
"No, she's fine. She knows about this excuse so she'll play along."
"Why do you need to see me so urgently you can't wait until lunchtime?"
"I'm sorry, Velma. I received a telegram this morning. I have to report back by this evening." His hands twitched and for a moment Velma thought he would pull her to him. He didn't but his eyes showed the depth of his misery. "I'm on my way to the station now. I couldn't leave without saying goodbye."
Darkness flooded over Velma and she thought she would faint. They should have had another evening together before he had to go. Now, their last night had been snatched away from them. Desperately she tried to look and sound brave. She didn't want Jack to worry about her as he made his way back to camp.
"You will write won't you?" he pleaded. "I'll be waiting for your letters telling me all you're doing. I'm going to write to my mother to tell her all about you and we'll arrange when I can get away to coincide with your days off."
"Yes Jack, I'll write to you, but you have to promise to reply. I'm not going to send letters into a bottomless pit." She glanced over at Mrs Harris who pointed at her watch. "I have to go. Take care and have a safe journey."
It broke her heart to leave him without a kiss of farewell. She couldn't embrace him with her supervisor watching. She had to let her eyes tell him how much she loved him.
"Everything all right, Miss Field?" Mrs. Harris asked as Velma squeezed behind the counter. A glance to the lift bay told her Jack had already left.
"Yes, thank you, Mrs. Harris. Mr. Stanley wanted to make sure I visit Florence on my way home. Apparently, she's not well and needs help with my nephew."
She knew by the expression on the older woman's face Mrs. Harris had been waiting to see if her story and Jack's matched up. What little satisfaction she gained from this soon dissipated as she thought of the days ahead without Jack by her side.

BUY link:

Sunday, 1 May 2011

How Many Wives Did Henry VIII Have?

My current guilty pleasure is watching The Tudors on DVD (a mother’s day present from my boys – clever chaps.) All of which set me thinking: How well do you know your Tudor history?
So here’s a simple question:
How Many Wives did Henry VIII have?
a)      6
b)      5
c)      4
d)      2

Now those of you with an English education will be counting on your fingers: Divorced, Beheaded, Died, Divorced, Beheaded, Survived.
So would it surprise you to learn the correct answer is d)?  TWO wives.

History has it that Henry VIII had six queens (In order)
-         Catherine of Aragon
-         Anne Boleyn
-         Jane Seymour
-         Anne of Cleves
-         Catherine Howard.
-         Catherine Parr.

A young Catherine of Aragon.
Catherine of Aragon.
Henry VIII himself annulled this marriage in his capacity of the head of the Church of England.
Annulment is very different from divorce, in that it means a marriage never took place.
Prior to Henry taking control of the church, there were two grounds for annulment – none consummation or pre-contract.
Henry argued that since Catherine had previously been married to his deceased brother, Arthur, it was “God’s Law” that the marriage did not stand, regardless of what the Pope thought, and declared they had never been married.

Natalie Dormer as 'Anne Boleyn' (apologies to the purists out there.....)

Anne Boleyn.
This time it was the Pope who declared the marriage invalid, since in the eyes of the Catholic Church, King Henry was still married to Catherine of Aragon.
Ironically, shortly before Anne’s execution, Henry annulled the marriage himself, which begs the question: - If they weren’t married, how could her supposed ‘infidelity’ amount to treason?

The famous Holbein portrait of 'Anne of Cleves.'

Anne of Cleves.
Both reasons for annulment, none consummation and pre-contract, came into play here. Henry found Anne’s physical appearance so repulsive that he wasn’t able to consummate the marriage…and… Anne was contracted to marry Francis, Duke of Lorraine, until Henry’s advisors singled her out.
In the long run Anne did rather well from her none-marriage, since Henry, glad to be easily rid of yet another ‘wife’ showered her with gifts and gave her the honoury title of ‘Beloved sister.”

Catherine Howard.

Catherine Howard.
It seems likely Catherine Howard was unfaithful before and during the marriage to Henry. When he found out, once again he used his power to declare the marriage invalid and had Catherine executed. Another none- marriage!

Jane Seymour.

And Finally.
The TWO incontrovertible marriages were to Jane Seymour (who died from puerperal fever after giving birth to Edward) and Catherine Parr (who out lived Henry, remarried, and then died in childbirth.)

Catherine Parr.

Does it bother you, that programmes such as 'The Tudors' take liberties with historical accuracy? Does it matter that the lead actor, Johnathan Rhys Meyers, doesn't have Henry's famous red hair...or is it a more important to popularise history and bring it to life?
Leave your comments below.