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Monday, August 26, 2013

The Great Escape - Part 2 TO CATCH A KING

In my last post - THE GREAT ESCAPE PART 1 - I wrote about the events of 1650-1651. The young King Charles II, had marched with a Scots army into England and met with Oliver Cromwll and the New Model Army at the Battle of Worcester, September 2, 1651. The battle lost, a small band of loyal supporters, led by Lord Wilmot, guided the King out of Worcester, leaving behind thousands dead and for those who survived, a fate worse than death, facing slave labour in the West Indies.
The Route of the Great Escape
We pick up the story...

Lord Wilmot had a problem. He had safely brought the King to a sympathetic Catholic house (“Whiteladies”). However the fact remained that they were many, many miles away from the coast and with every road in England bristling with soldiery all on the look out for “a tall dark man some two yards high” (in an age when the average height of a man was about 5’ 10” – being over 6’ set him apart from his fellows) , their chances of getting the defeated King safely back to France seemed slim.


The "Wanted" Poster
The King was stripped of his distinctive clothes and dressed in a green jerkin, grey cloth breeches, leather doublet and greasy soft hat – “a la mode the woodman”. His precious Order of St. George was given to one of his party and after surviving its own adventures (including being hidden in a refuse heap) it would eventually be reunited with its owner. His hair was cut and his face and hands were stained with walnut juice.


Charles and Carlis hiding in the "Boscobel Oak"
Charles first struck out for Wales but was forced to turn back when he found the access routes across the Severn heavily guarded. He turned back to Boscobel where he took refuge in a massive oak tree in company with a Major Carlis (also on the run from Worcester). The two remained secure in their tree (a descendant of which still exists today) while below them the soldiers scoured the wood. After a few days rest at Boscobel, he began his journey to freedom. He reunited with Wilmot at Moseley Old Hall, where he was forced to take refuge in a priest hole while the house was searched.


Jane Lane
From Moseley he and Wilmot travelled to Bentley Hall, the home of a Colonel Lane. There one of the great heroines of history enters the tale – Jane Lane. As Jane had planned to travel to Abbot’s Leigh ( a few miles beyond Bristol) to visit her sister, who was about to give birth, it was agreed that Charles would travel with her, as her servant. His disguise moved up market and he became William Jackson, servant to Mistress Lane. A servant who had no idea how to ride a double horse or even how to doff his hat with proper subservience. Lord Wilmot, whose idea of a disguise, was to carry a falcon on his wrist, rode with them.

They reached Abbots Leigh on September 12, after encountering troops on the road and hearing from a blacksmith that “that rogue Charles Stuart had been captured, who deserved to hang…”. There he was forced to keep to his room on pretence of fever when he discovered one of the household had served in his regiment. With a hefty reward on his head, his former soldier posed more of a risk than a regiment of roundheads.

Unable to find a boat in Bristol and with the Welsh ports watched, the party decided to head south still with Jane Lane to provide the cover story. They passed through Somerset and were forced to bypass the most obvious point of escape, Dorset because of the heavy enemy presence. Their aim was to reach Lyme (later awarded the “Regis” in recognition of its loyalty). There a boat was arranged to depart from nearby Charmouth. Charles parted company with the courageous Jane Lane and in company of another fearless woman, Juliana Coningsby, the party went down to meet their boat. The boat never arrived (the skipper having been locked in his bedroom by his outraged wife!) and once more the King’s party were forced back on their own resources. They were now in a part of the country where Charles was well known and he risked detection at every turn.

His refuge (or his “Ark” as it was described by the lady of the house) was the home of Colonel Wyndham, Trent Manor. There the King spent two weeks while Wilmot scoured the coast looking for a boat. On 13 October, Charles set out again, heading for Sussex. A boat had been arranged under the cover story of transporting a pair of illegal duelists and for the price of 60 pieces of silver, a boat was arranged to leave from Shoreham harbor. On Wednesday 15 October at 4am, King Charles II finally sailed away from England to spend the next nine years in penniless exile in France.

Some interesting facts about the great escape:
Charles II c1653
• Some 60 people were “in” on the secret (and ‘so many of them women’!) but not one claimed the reward
• Despite being forced to sleep on hard pallets, being squashed into priest holes or forced to spend days in trees, the main source of discomfort for the King were his shoes. Shoes could not be found to fit his feet and so he suffered dreadful blisters and in his later years developed something of an obsession for well fitting shoes!
• The King learned more about the way his people lived than any other monarch. While he was at Boscobel he asked for mutton for his supper. Mutton was a meat reserved only for the most special of occasions and could not be readily provided.
• In his travels he encountered for the first time the hidden world of the English catholics and his talks with Father Huddleston would have a profound effect on him.

The "Royal Oak" became a cult, a "symbol of royalty and romance" (Fraser). After the Restoration the King's birthday, May 29th was designated "Oak Apple Day" and remained a public holiday until the 1850s.

Postscript on Jane Lane. Once her part in the Great Escape became known she was exiled in France until the Restoration after which she was granted £1,000 a year for life. Jane married to Sir Clement Fisher of Great Packington, Warwickshire in 1663 by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In later life she lived rather extravagantly and became deeply in debt. When she died, her estate was valued at only £10.


The "Boscobel" Oak today
To read a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the Battle of Worcester and the Great Escape, my own award winning novel BY THE SWORD is set in this period: 


"When Kate Ashley finds herself the unwilling inheritor of the Thornton family estate of Seven Ways in Worcestershire, she could not have foreseen that along with the impoverished estate she, the respectable widow of a parliamentary officer, would find herself drawn into the last conflict of the English Civil War by her love for the royalist, Jonathan Thornton. Jonathan has returned from exile, carrying with him the vain hopes of the young King Charles II and the demons of his own dark past. In the aftermath of the battle of Worcester, Kate is caught between Jonathan and the man who has hunted him down over the years, the dour parliamentarian, Stephen Prescott. Jonathan comes face to face with his nemesis and learns the price he has paid for his long dead love; a secret that will change his life, and Kate's, forever."

Friday, August 9, 2013

Sex, snot and Vikings

Come on, what did I expect? I watched the first two episodes of Vikings on SBS last night and I didn’t actually vomit. However, I do need to vent quite a bit of spleen.

Ragnar Lothbrok preparing to murder monks on Lindisfarne
(and no, this was not the first Viking 'discovery' of England, whatever the series might imply)

It began with the snot.

Remember the scene in the second episode in which, before embarking on their voyage to the West, Ragnar and his companions engage in what looks like an arcane ritual face-splashing and snot sharing? A slave-girl, the one Rollo so recently raped, passes around a wooden trough and each Viking solemnly clears his nostrils into the communal washing water. Erk! Are we to understand this as some kind of gross pagan ritual undertaken to appease the gods of the sea? Or is this just evidence of standards of Viking hygiene, i.e. worse than non-existent?

Nope, it is simple abuse of an historical source.

Let me explain. Some years ago I presented a conference paper entitled ‘Sex, snot and sacrifice’. It concerned the 10th century account of Vikings by Ibn Fadlan, a cultured man of Muslim faith from Baghdad.  Baghdad was centre of exquisite civilization, but Ibn Fadlan was exiled on a mission through the wilds of central Asia. In his account he relates colourful tales of the peoples he meets, generally contrasting their barbarity with the Islamic culture of his home. One of the peoples is a group of ‘Rus’, tall, fair-headed traders and slavers sailing upon the Volga. These Rus are generally accepted to be ‘Vikings’. Ibn Fadlan is fascinated by these impressive physical specimens, but expresses certain reservations about their personal habits. Memorably, he describes the morning hygiene routine of the Rus:

Every day the slave-girl arrives in the morning with a large basin containing water, which she hands to her owner. He washes his hands and his face and his hair in the water, then he dips his comb in the water and brushes his hair, blows his nose and spits in the basin. There is no filthy impurity which he will not do in this water. When he no longer requires it, the slave-girl takes the basin to the man beside him and he goes through the same routine as his friend. She continues to carry it from one man to the next until she has gone round everyone in the house, with each of them blowing his nose and spitting, washing his face and hair in the basin.

Fadlan’s disgust partly stems from cultural and religious difference. For this Muslim, ritual washing is necessary before prayer and after impure activity such as intercourse. The Rus are barbarians who worship idols in his account.

And then there is the sex.

Ragnar's brother Rollo 
(played by Clive Standen)

Of course the TV series has Vikings engaging in rough-and-ready sexual activity. Vikings are randy rapers and pillagers, are they not? Of course the hero, Ragnar Lothbrok, does not rape – but his nasty elder brother does. Again, Ibn Fadlan is evoked. The Rus he met on the Volga, he says,

are accompanied by beautiful slave girls for trading. One man will have intercourse with his slave-girl while his companion looks on. Sometimes a group of them comes together to do this, each in front of the other. Sometimes indeed the merchant will come in to buy a slave-girl from one of them and he will chance upon him having intercourse with her, but <the Rūs> will not leave her alone until he has satisfied his urge.

You can see why purveyors of popular Vikingism love this source!

Did the maker of Vikings, Michael Hirst, bone up on his Ibn Fadlan before filming the series? Perhaps, but Fadlan’s account is more readily available in excerpt form than in its entirety and in this form the civilization/barbarity theme is effaced. Then there is Michael Crichton’s novel, Eaters of the Dead, used as the basis for the 1999 movie The Thirteenth Warrior, in which Crichton cleverly combines Ibn Fadlan’s account with the Old English tale of Beowulf


Ibn Fadlan, played by Antonio Banderas in the movie, is the narrator and central character. Both the book and the movie make much of the morning ablution scene, although surprisingly enough the Vikings’ rampant sexuality is distinctly underplayed. Crichton’s Vikings may be barbarians, but they are admirable barbarians and the effeminate Ibn Fadlan is shown to learn valuable lessons in masculinity under their tutelage.

I have the feeling that the series is promoting much the same image as Crichton of its Vikings – impressive physical specimens with healthy sexual appetites (only a bad guy would actually lower himself to rape), yet barbarians all the same. And everyone knows that to qualify as a barbarian you must be dirty. Perhaps Hirst needs to read a few more primary sources, in which Vikings are in fact the dandies of the medieval world, whose standards of grooming and hygiene were such that the Anglo-Saxons worried their women were losing their hearts to those damn Viking posers.

As a thirteenth-century chronicle tells us:

The Danes made themselves too acceptable to English women by their elegant manners and their care of their person. They combed their hair daily … and took a bath every Saturday, and even changed their clothes frequently, and improved the beauty of their bodies with many such trifles, by which means they undermined the chastity of wives.

So come on, break out of the sex-and-snot stereotype, Mr Hirst! You're no different from the 10th-century cultural snob Ibn Fadlan in modelling your Vikings as the antithesis of the civilization you come from, as unwashed barbarian hyper-masculinity. 

Sunday, August 4, 2013

Looking for Medieval Bath

No, I didn’t say ‘looking for a medieval bath’. Popular wisdom has it that such a thing is a raging anachronism, but that’s a story for another time. The subject of this post is almost as peculiar – this is about my search for the medieval bones of the overwhelmingly 18th-century English city of Bath.

even the YHA in Bath is a Georgian mansion

Bath was subject to a massive makeover in the 1700s. The hot mineral springs that give the city its name were re-discovered by those with money to spend and ailments to cure. Bath became a spa town, a newly booming tourist attraction, and its beautiful pale-gold Oolitic limestone was mined for the elegant Georgian architecture that makes the city a World Heritage Site today. (By contrast, most medieval houses in Bath were likely built of timber and thatch.) A side-effect of this stylistic coherence was that almost all that had gone before was erased. As I discovered, one must look very hard to discover medieval Bath.

I started, as most people do, with the famous bath.

the King's Bath, complete with medieval recesses

(Actually, at least three hot springs were exploited within the medieval city, but the most important was the King’s Bath.) The bathing facilities the Romans built were disused and crumbling when William the Conqueror’s son, William Rufus, granted the medically-minded John of Tours the bishopric of Wells and with it control of the city of Bath. The new bishop immediately set about building a fine priory complex to encompass the ‘King’s Bath’, now named in honour of Henry I. One monk at least approved of bathing. The lower level of the King’s Bath with its arched recesses still appears much the same as it did after Norman rebuilding on Roman foundations, although the water level then was much higher due to masonry debris left in the pool. (The old water level can still be discerned by the staining on the walls.)

Medieval Bath was surrounded, as many towns and cities were, by defensive walls. Nothing remains of them now except the east gate, out of sight behind a modern building.

William Smith's 1568 map of Bath,
showing the medieval walls

To the east of these walls, two mills harnessed the power of the Avon. One at least became a fulling mill, used for processing the woollen cloth that was the mainstay of the later medieval city’s economy. Here, newly-woven fabric was pounded underwater to matt the fibres together before stretching and drying.

the river Avon to the east of Bath,
location of two medieval water mills

Nothing remains of the Priory that once dominated the city-scape of Bath. Even the priory church is gone, replaced by the exquisite early-Tudor Bath Abbey, although a fragment of a Norman arch remains in embedded in the south aisle choir. All five medieval parish churches too are long removed. 

It seemed to me that, beyond the well-stocked local-history shelves in Bath Library, the medieval city had irretrievably vanished. Downcast, I took refuge in Sally Lunn’s Eating House and drowned my sorrows in a cup of tea.


Sally Lunn's Eating House

Here at last, down the tiny, winding stairs that led to the basement of one of the oldest remaining houses in Bath (originally built c.1482), I caught a sniff of the medieval past. Damp stones. Layers of the medieval past set down in rock far below street level. A few shards of pottery and glass. 

excavations in the basement museum, 
Sally Lunn's

Sally Lunn’s has preserved its (16th-century?) kitchen, although preservation occurred more by accident than design. (The cellar became a rubbish dump for the premises above.) Although now at basement level, this centuries-old kitchen once used to open onto the street. 

the early modern kitchen, 
recreated in the basement

So all that remains of medieval Bath lies buried beneath the Georgian street-scape, or recycled in Georgian architecture, or find sad echoes in street-names like ‘Southgate’ or ‘Upper Borough Walls’.

But the bones remain. The beautiful green rolling hills with their store of golden stone. The river that curls around the town. The King’s Bath. Further, I am in the process of bringing medieval Bath back to life. One of medieval poet Geoffrey Chaucer’s most famous characters came from this town. I am currently rewriting Chaucer’s Canterbury Tale of the Wife of Bath and, through her, her home town will breathe again.