Saturday, 25 April 2015


When I was a History student (in the 1970s and again at the turn of the century) one of the things I liked most was being buried in the library.  In those days, part of the joy of historical research (and one of the main things we were being tested on) was slogging through cardboard indexes and untangling illegible handwriting.  We were looking for something no one else knew about, or which had been routinely overlooked.
In those days, it was perfectly in order to spend several years doing a PhD.  Some people never finished at all.  In the great mahogany stacks there were old men who never spoke to anyone, but shuffled to the same seat every day to slog away at a great work no one would ever see.  The true professionals sat in a strange huddled posture, their arms guarding their books and papers from the prying eyes of rival scholars, like children protecting their chips from hungry siblings.

Not much changed for four hundred years
Those of us who were on time limits of three or four years for delivering a thesis laughed about the Gnomes, as we called them, but I'm sure I'm not the only one who silently envied their secret world. I learned, like them, to feel a frisson of superiority when a new person arrived at an archive, unaware of the particular bureaucratic gymnastics that particular institution had invented for ordering something up.  I remember the thrill of finding letters and notebooks that ad languished, unread, for hundreds of years.
My excitement was only slightly dimmed by the knowledge that I was the only person in the world who cared.
I was even a little sad at the thought that when my thesis was done, anyone with the detective power to trace a copy, and the muscular strength to lift it down from the shelf, would be able to find the location of 'my' documents in the bibliography.
My idea of a fun place
But then, in the early years of this century, the grown-ups taught me to share.

I was lucky enough to be taught by some truly wonderful scholars.  They were all equally brilliant, but in academic esteem, some were more equal than others.  Those whose books were commissioned by commercial publishers and sold in normal bookshops were condemned by the Gnomes as 'popular' historians.  Their success in spreading their knowledge to people outside the magic academic circle was taken as proof of their intellectual inferiority.  It's not surprising that the collective noun is a 'malice' of historians.
The popular historians got their own back in the late 20th and early 21st century, when well researched, beautifully produced history books temporarily became money-spinners, but that was also the time when the Gnomes' contempt for such authors reached its highest point.

When broadband came along, even popular historians were tested in their belief that their work - and, more importantly, their source material, - should be available to the masses.  Many ancient documents are now online in facsimile form.  You can zoom in and out of indistinct lettering until a meaning emerges. You can compare documents housed a world apart, wearing your pyjamas or over a cappuccino. And you can do all this without any entrance exams, just for fun.

Try deciphering this by the light of a 40 watt bulb in a library
I know that is a good thing, and I love using the Internet. But I'm ashamed to say that somewhere deep in my heart, I am sad. I miss our old secret world.  I'd like to think that there's something noble in that sentiment, but if I'm honest it's founded on a pretty despicable form of snobbery.  I liked knowing things that other people didn't know - and stood little chance of finding for themselves.  I adored my old work tools (pencil, notebook, magnifying glass and silence).  I thrived on the simultaneous torture of being kept away from my source material when the library was shut and the blissful encounter with real life that the closure forced on me. 

Many professionals whose status depends on feats of memory are being undermined by our new world of information.  Imagine how medics feel when patients arrive having correctly diagnosed their own illnesses online. It is becoming more difficult for them to appear omnipotent, or to bury their mistakes.

It is still (just) possible to do an historian's work in the old way.  Some of the Gnomes are still there, bending over their books.  Many more must have died of starvation in a world that only rewards published results.  Others may have been driven out by the clicking keyboards of students using the library as a place to access the Internet while saving on heating bills at home.

I have said goodbye to my inner Edward Casaubon.  But sometimes I secretly wish that I'd been born a little earlier, and could have carried on gnoming forever.

pictures :Wikimedia Commons.  Library picture: Benjamin D. Esham / Wikimedia Commons.

Friday, 24 April 2015

ISABEL DE WARENNE: An exercise in joining the dots by Elizabeth Chadwick.

When an author writes about people who actually lived, one of the challenges is finding out about the secondary characters; the people who interacted with the stars of the show but have left less of a trace. When writing my Eleanor of Aquitaine trilogy, I needed to find out about the life and circumstances of a lady called Isabel de Warenne, countess of Surrey and Warenne. She was a contemporary of Eleanor's and sometimes moved in her circles. Although she has left traces in the historical record, they're more hidden and fragmentary than Eleanor's, so it has involved some digging around.

I became interested in Isabel de Warenne because her second marriage was to Henry II's illegitimate half brother Hamelin, the latter of whom features as a strong secondary character in my Eleanor trilogy.  As I wrote his story into the fabric of Henry and Eleanor's, it became obvious that his wife was a major part of that thread, and when I began digging, I came across some very useful details and plot opportunities.

 Isabel de Warenne belonged to an illustrious line of Anglo Norman nobility with extensive lands in England and Normandy. Lewes Castle belonged to her family and they had the patronage of the Cluniac priory there founded by Isabel's grandfather.  Castle Acre in Norfolk, Conisbrough Castle and Sandal in Northern England were also theirs. In Normandy the castles of Bellencombre and Mortemer were de Warenne strongholds.   We don't know exactly when Isabel was born; dates are obscure, but a ball park of 1130 is not unreasonable to suggest.  Her family were one of the first to adopt a distinctive personal blazon of blue and yellow chequers and were already using the chequered device on their seals by the mid 12th century.
seal of John de Warenne, Isabel and Hamelin's grandson: 13th century

Her father, William de Warenne joined the Second Crusade in 1146 and never returned. He was cut to pieces when the army of Louis VII of France was crossing the slopes of Mount Cadmos (now  Mount Honaz) in Turkey and suffered a heavy mauling from the Saracens,

 Isabel's widowed mother married again, to Patrick Earl of Salisbury. Isabel herself, now in her teens and a great marriage prize as the sole child of the Earl of Warenne, was married to William of Boulogne, the youngest son of King Stephen, who, was a child of about eleven years old.  King Stephen at the time was at war with his cousin Matilda over the right to the English crown and Isabel would have grown to adulthood during a time fraught with anxiety and violence.  The situation was eventually resolved  when Stephen came to an agreement with Empress Matilda's son Henry, that the crown would pass to him when Stephen died.  Stephen's sons would be required to step down from their claims to the throne. Stephen's older son Eustace, died during these negotiations (some say very fortuitously) thus removing one stumbling block from the agreement. During this delicate time of settling the matter of the succession, there seem to have been plots by both sides to be rid of the opposition. An assassination attempt on  Henry II was foiled, and there may have been one on Isabel's young husband William, whose leg was broken in a fall from a horse.

Eventually, matters settled down.  William abjured his right to the throne. Given a different set of circumstances, he may have become King, and Isabel would then have been queen of England,  In the event, Stephen died and  Isabel and William of Boulogne swore allegiance to the new king.  Henry kept William on a tight leash and he was obviously watched just in case there was a chance that others would see him as a figurehead for rebellion.  Did Isabel stay on her estates during the early years of Henry;s reign or play her part at court?  We don't know, but she and her husband had no children and in my novel The Winter Crown I have thought it not inconceivable that some of her time was spent at court with the Queen to whom she could have imparted valuable information about the dealings of the English court prior to Henry's accession.  She was also in the same position as Eleanor of having married a husband several years younger than herself.

Isabel and William were still childless in 1159 when he went on battle campaign with King Henry to Toulouse and died later that year of disease during the retreat. He was buried at the abbey of Montmorel in Poitou.
His death left Isabel an heiress of considerable wealth, still only in her twenties. In usual medieval fashion this state of affairs had to be remedied and Henry II thought she would be the perfect wife for his youngest brother, also called William like her first husband.  What Isabel thought about this notion is not recorded, but if she had been at court in earlier years, she probably knew him and he her.
As it happened, the marriage never took place because Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury banned the match on the grounds that it was consanguineous.  Usually when this happened - that the couple were too closely related within the proscribed degree - a dispensation could be obtained, but Becket, whose quarrel with Henry II was beginning to escalate made his position clear. There was to be no dispensation.  Becket may have been making a stand because of Henry's dreadful behaviour in 1159/60  where he was behind the hauling of Isabel's sister in law Mary of Boulogne out of the convent where she had been a nun (an abbess no less) for ten years and forcing her to marry his nephew Matthew of Alsace.
There was nothing to be done. William went off empty handed to Normandy to visit his mother, and died soon afterwards - of a broken heart so the anti-Becket propagandists of the time were quick to say. However, no Angevin princeling ever died of such a complaint. One of the murderers of Becket, Richard Brito, had been one of William FitzEmpress's knights and as he struck his blow is supposed to have said 'And that is for the love of my lord William, brother of the King.'  One suspects that as a household knight Brito would have been hoping for gifts of land and money from the largesse William would have access to by marrying Isabel. This now being denied to him, he was bound to be miffed!

Henry II was furious at being thwarted but there were always ways round. Becket had played the consanguinity card, but there was still another Angevin brother waiting in the wings - Hamelin, Henry's bastard half brother and he had no blood ties to Isabel that would prevent the marriage taking place. Thus Henry still managed to draw the de Warenne estates firmly into his own family enclave.

Hamelin and Isabel were married at Easter 1164.  In March of that year a record appears in the pipe rolls for clothes for Isabel amounting to £41 10s 8d, presumably a wedding dress and trousseau.  She was now the King's sister in law and also sister in law to Eleanor of Aquitaine. Did this bring the women closer to each other still? We don't know, but there is a later reason to think that the two branches of the family kept close company - some of the time at least.  Isabel was no mere cipher and witnessed charters under her own seal during her widowhood and in her own court.

'coram Isabel comitissa Warennie domina nostra'  heads one such charter. 'Before Isabel, our lady, Countess of Warenne' is the heading on one such charter.
Example of 12th century silk textile from Sicily. Possibly Isabelle's wedding dress was
made of fabric like this.  She and Hamelin may have visited Sicily in 1176. V&A
We don't know from this far distance of time if Hamelin and Isabel's marriage was a happy one, but certainly in financial and business terms it appears to have been compatible, and was also a dynastic success.  Isabel had not borne any children to her first husband William of Boulogne, but she and Hamelin were to have three girls and a boy. William, their son and heir, and daughters Isabel, Adela and Matilda.  We don't have a specific birth order for the children,  Hamelin took his wife's family name and became Hamelin de Warenne, Earl of Surrey and Warenne.
In 1176, Hamelin escorted his niece Joanna, daughter of Henry II to Sicily for her marriage. We don't know if Isabel was with him, but Joanna would have had female attendants, so it's possible her aunt Isabel accompanied her, although again it is one of those grey areas where novelists have the leeway to explore the spaces between the lines.

Some time in the 1170's Hamelin set out to build a fine castle for himself and his countess at Conisborough in South Yorkshire.  The keep, recently refurbished by England Heritage is well worth visiting and features Isabel's own chamber near the top of the keep.  You can see a cutaway diagram of the keep at Conisbrough on the Castle's English Heritage website. with Isabelle's chamber near the top of the keep and Hamelin's below. There was also a chapel dedicated to St. Philip and St. James.
Conisbrough today
Isabel's chamber, complete with fireplace

An artis's impression of the chamvber brightened up and lived in.

Access onto the battlements from the chamber
One of the reasons I am positive that Isabel and Hamelin kept in close touch with their royal Angevin kin is because of an event that happened some time after 1180.  One of the de Warenne daughters became pregnant by her cousin John Count of Mortain, later to become the infamous King John.  We don't have a date for the event and we don't know which daughter.  Only one chronicle tells us that a daughter of Hamelin de Warenne bore John's son, and there are no charters mentioning her name in connection with the birth to give us any sort of idea. Popular histories online make all sorts of claims for this one or that one, but basically it's all utter speculation because we just don't know.  What we do know is that young John was sufficiently close to his de Warenne cousins to get one of them with child. While royal illegitimate children were often accepted as a matter of course, I suspect this particular pregnancy was regarded with a degree of dismay!
The child was christened Richard and can be found in various charters and in Henry III's pipe rolls. He is variously known as Richard of Dover, Richard of Chillham, Richard Fitzroy, and Richard de Warenne. There may be a clue to his mother in that Richard named his own daughter Isabel, but at the same time it was his mother in law's name (and his grandmother's), so there are no guarantees, however, it may be a pointer.

Another link that Isabel may have had with Eleanor of Aquitaine is Old Sarum which in the 12th century housed a royal palace and a cathedral. (It was the original Salisbury. The town and cathedral we now know as Salisbury was relocated from Old Sarum in the first quarter of the 13th century).  Eleanor was kept here under sometimes strict house arrest several times in  her 16 year imprisonment by Henry II.  Isabel may have visited her here, or have had some access to her because her own half-brother was the Earl of Salisbury and her mother the dowager countess, and family connections counted for much.  Again, it's one of those things we can't say for certain but it's one of those areas where as the novelist I can explore the possibility as a story line and know I am not going wildly outside the parameters of what is known.

To complete Isabel's story, she died on July 12th 1203, a year after her husband Hamelin and 9 months before Eleanor herself died at Fontevraud Abbey. Isabel was buried at Lewes Priory beside Hamelin and although their graves have been lost over the centuries, their bones are still there somewhere and near each other.

Since William Marshal and his family are my specialist subject I was interested to discover that Isabel's mother Adela was William Marshal's aunt by marriage, and her son William, Isabel's half-brother, was the Marshal's cousin.  There is a further link in that Hamelin and Isabel's son William, later married William Marshal's eldest daughter Mahelt when her first husband died in 1225.
When you begin looking, everything is connected to everything else!

Selected Sources:
Early Yorkshire Charters Volume 8 edited by William Farrer and Charles Travis Clay - Cambridge University Press
Noblewomen Aristocracy and Power in the 12th century Anglo Norman Realm by Susan M. Johns. Manchester University Press
Thomas Becket by John Guy - Penguin
Blog article by Elizabeth Chadwick Hamelin de Warenne
Online Dictionary of National Biography - article by Susan M. Johns
The Image of Aristocracy in Britain 1o00-1300 by David Crouch

Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling, multi-award winning author of fiction set in the Middle Ages. She is currently completing The Autumn Throne, the 3rd book in  trilogy of novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine - and featuring among its cast Isabel and Hamelin de Warrene and their children.

Thursday, 23 April 2015


My novel 'Last Train from Kummersdorf' will be reissued  next month, and it made me think about its inception and the ingredients that went into it. I'd started to write it seven years before it was actually published, and it was a very different book then.

I began to write it because:
I went to see 'Schindler's List' and the images of heaped-up personal goods from murdered Jews suddenly fired up such fury and rage in me, I knew it would have to find an outlet in writing.
Because I read about the Battle of Berlin, how in the last stages lads as young as twelve were drafted in to fight, and the SS shot these kids if they cracked and begged to go home.
Because my mother is German, and one day - I think we were looking at an episode of 'Heimat' together - the Nazi Horst Wessel song was played and she began to sing along with apparent pleasure. I was horrified, but to her it was just a bit of her youth, and she didn't even connect it with the horrors of a society that had threatened both her parents' lives.
Because though I adored her when I was small, I found it harder and harder to understand her as I grew up, and I hoped, through finding out and writing about childhood in Nazi Germany, to somehow get to understand her.
So it was about things that I found intolerable, incomprehensible - and really needed to understand, because your mother is part of you, in a way.
I began with the boy, Hanno. He was the hardest to write. He's fourteen (almost fifteen) and he's been drafted into the 'Volkssturm', the Home Guard, to fight against the incoming Russians. This was an organisation that was largely characterised by the phrase in Henry Reed's 'Naming of Parts,' 'which in our case we have not got.' Hanno's entire unit has been wiped out around him, including his twin brother (I couldn't have done this now, not since the birth of my twin grandsons). Aching with loss, cut off from his mother and sister - who have fled to the West to escape the Russians - Hanno has no idea where to go or what to do now. In that state, he meets Effi.

Effi is a mass of prickles, and Hanno can't understand why she's so hostile to him, but they stay together, at first just because it's better than being completely alone. She is the daughter of a political refugee from Nazism, and got marooned in Germany when her mother insisted on coming back to be with her own mother, who was dying. The war broke out before they could get back, and then Effi's mother died of TB. Effi then went to her aunt, who was part of the Communist resistance to Hitler, and remained with her till she was also killed by a bomb. Now she is trying to cross the battle zone and get to the US army, because she knows her father is with them.

In writing about Effi's life in the then working-class district of Prenzlauer Berg, I owe an enormous debt to Bernt Engelmann, whose two books of mixed autobiography and oral history (published in Britain as 'In Hitler's Germany' told me about that left-wing resistance. I'd had no idea about it; I suppose the Cold War led to its suppression, so that all most people in England know about is the attempted coup of July 1944. But Communists and Social Democrats did what they could; admittedly, it wasn't much, but it included sabotage of munitions factories, at enormous risk, by those who worked there, getting Jews and others at risk out of Germany, and also reporting on conditions in the country.
Effi has learned to keep her mouth shut, and has a very different perspective on things from Hanno's - and of course, she wasn't difficult to write at all, because I could put my own thoughts and feelings on the page through her. She's jazz-obsessed, uses music as a way to get along in a dreadfully dangerous world. She carries a bag of things that might be useful to sell after the war's ended, and a harmonica which she uses to express her feelings, to torment other people when she feels like it. My brother sent me Sonny Terry's 'Freight Train rolling', so I could hear how Effi might imitate a train when she and Hanno are selling fake tickets. When she wants to be nice to Hanno, she calls him 'Swing Boy,' and promises him a great life when everything's over, listening to hitherto forbidden jazz. She wants to be a singer and have a lion, like Josephine Baker. She isn't callous, but she's tough, a survivor - I think it was good for me to write her.
Hanno from the hardback jacket

Hanno was the difficult proposition, but he was the reason I wrote the book, to try and understand what it was like to see the world through the lens of Nazi lies, I was enormously helped by my tai chi teacher, whose father was persecuted in Soviet-era Czechoslovakia, who told me: 'You didn't have the language to see that things could be different.' At university, we had a unit in History of the German Language on the language of propaganda in the Nazi period. I found it really fascinating, I think because there were things in it that spoke to me subliminally, from my family background. It chimed in with what the 'Eighties women's movement pointed out, that society can gag people by withholding the means to name what is going on. Hanno was very young, younger than my mother, when Hitler came to power, and the Nazi society is all he has really known. Effi - often brutally - forces him to understand the reality behind the lies and the glorification of inhumanity.
My mother was on the run, in the open, in April 1945, as some readers of this blog know, escaping from Russians who'd tried to rape her. When that trauma, which she repressed for many years, came back to her, I was a young child. I can remember it well, because she had nobody but the family to talk to, and I, as well as my father, became her therapists. I've met other people who found themselves, as children, the only available people to listen to their parents' trauma. I can see why it happened, but of course she shared the horror with me, which is perhaps why I feel partly as if I had experienced these things. It's a common phenomenon known to therapists, who call it 'reverse transference', I think. I've written about second generation trauma before on this blog, so shan't go on about it now.
I heard that my mother had seen a man crucified on his own barn door for trying to stop the Russians raping his wife and daughter; she also told me about a child of eleven or twelve who was haemorrhaging to death because she'd been gang-raped. That dreadful image haunted me, and even now, I can't write it without crying. I was able to give it expression in the novel when Effi exclaims about a child who has been raped: 'That little Barbara, what has she done?' - If you want to hear more details of what the Russians did to German women and children, there are plenty of sources. Me, I've never been able to read the sections of Anthony Beevor's 'Berlin, the Downfall' that deal with rape. Or the diary of the unknown Berlin woman that is now published in English and so many people have told me about. The challenge was to write about the rapes without going into too much horrible detail, and I got the image that would carry the horror without being explicit, in an account by a Russian officer, Lev Kopelev (who was himself horrified at this crime - not all of the Russians raped) of a child with blood streaking down her stockings.

The other issue was how you survive, when you're on the edge, in the open, with very little to eat. It was a situation my mother knew all too well, from the post-war period. You barter. You filch, even. You forage if you can, but in springtime, there's not much to eat except nettles. If a horse is killed, it's valuable meat. And every bit of food counts.
The crucial difference between the 'adult' version and the 'Young Adult' version, was determined by what happened in between the initial drafts and when I took the book up again. I had gone to Berlin and read my grandfather's file. Rachel Seiffert, in her debut novel 'The Dark Room,' writes about a grandson who sets out to discover the truth about a beloved, kindly, grandfather. It turns out that he was involved in the murder of Jews in Russia.
Shortly after reading that book, I investigated my grandfather's file. He was an authoritarian, angry man, and frankly, I could always imagine him involved in incredible brutality. I expected to make a similar exposé; but in fact, what I found was the story of his persecution in 1933, and the only evidence regarding an atrocity was the underlining (in red ink) by a British investigator of a demand to know why he had not come back to his regiment at a certain date. I do still feel that when my brother and I were told that our grandfather had 'seen terrible things', it probably means that he also did them.
All the same, reading his file made me understand the pressure that there was on him to conform; that Germany under Hitler was truly a terror society. And just before I began to rewrite the novel, I was volunteering for the Refugee Support Group in my home town, and the stories I heard from refugees drove it home that those of us who condemn people who went along with the Nazis should be grateful they haven't had to make those kinds of choices. None of us knows what we'd do in a terror state; and it's not just an issue of onesself, but of the people who depend on one. 'I could have resisted,' my grandfather told my mother after the war, 'but there was you, and your mother to consider.'
The line between victim and perpetrator is not anything like as finely drawn as we'd like to believe - and I apologise to anyone who's read me saying this before on this blog. And so the novel's tone changed, very importantly, I think. It was no longer the vehicle for sheer anger (why did my grandparents' generation load up my generation with all this guilt and shame?) and really became a journey to understanding. If what I came to understand was bitter and dreadful, I think it has made me stronger.It was a great help that I actually went and walked round the area, with a reluctant teenage daughter in tow, when I first started to write, making notes about terrain, trees, plants, soil, animals and birds. I must assure my readers that I did give her a nicer time in our other days in Berlin, and she was glad she'd come with me - though not glad she'd had to trudge round those Zossen woods.
the pond where Effi and Hanno go fishing?
Things I enjoyed about writing the book: that knowledge of the place, which made it vivid to me, and, thank goodness, to my readers as well, as the many responses to it have shown me. The black humour, drawing on the jokes people told at the time. The music. The dog, Cornelius, who did magical things while behaving exactly as dogs do.
And however dreadful the events that surround this novel are, it turned out to be about hope, and new growth with a new generation; and about unexpected humanity and humour, love, even, in bad places. People often ask authors which is their favourite book, and I am usually cagey about replying; but Last Train from Kummersdorf is my favourite book, and I feel privileged to have been able to write it.

Last Train from Kummersdorf will be published by Faber and Faber on the 7th May

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

The Big Haboob by Kate Lord Brown

As I write, the doors and windows are rattling, sand piling up on the steps outside. The shamal is blowing flurries of sand along the road, snaking, disappearing like djinns. The wind is always unsettling - I remember working for a children's charity in Westminster, and anarchy reigned in the playground on windy days. If people are driven mad by the Mistral, living in the only true desert country in the world also has its challenges. The photo above was taken in our garden last week during what has already become known as 'The Great Sandstorm of 2015'. Sandstorms or 'haboobs' sound rather Lawrence of Arabia, make you think of Cain's lovely etching of a camel train ...

The reality was screeching shamal winds bringing a dust storm of such magnitude from Saudi that the government closed all the schools. It felt apocalyptic, the sky a sulphurous yellow, all the plants coated with a dense grey dust. Physically, your throat and eyes burn, you can't breathe - even indoors there is an unsettling smell like burning, and the dust gets everywhere.

Throughout history, duststorms have proved devastating - the five year 'Dustbowl' of 1930 - 35 in the US, the sandstorm that preserved the 'Pompeii of the Silk Road' in Western China, or the Persian King Cambyses II whose entire army was buried alive by a vast storm. I first learnt about desert life, and the challenges of surviving in a harsh environment when the photographer Ronald Codrai visited the gallery I worked at in Chelsea some years ago. He brought with him a portfolio of stunning photographs, taken over many years in the Arabian Peninsula. Like his contemporary, Sir Wilfred Thesiger, Codrai captured a changing world on film. Life altered rapidly in the region thanks to the oil industry, but his photographs of Bedouin preserved Cain's world of camel trains and trading routes, skilled falcons and hounds and a strong nomadic people whose way of life had changed little for a thousand years.

'Bedu' literally means an inhabitant of the desert. Whether defined by their beliefs and culture, or a wandering, migratory lifestyle, Bedouin traditions are valued here, and the qualities of chivalry, courage and patience. Famed for their generosity and hospitality, any guest of the Bedouin would be given food and water for three days, and protection. The tribes were ruled by sheikhs chosen for their wisdom and skill, and they have passed on a rich culture of storytelling, poetry and music.

By the 1950s only a thousand Bedouin were still living a migratory lifestyle in the region, and many had settled as 'hadar' town-dwellers. It is a fast changing world, but in Qatar some of the oldest residents can still remember a life spent travelling by camel, and this "longing for a simple past" was recorded in a recent anthology 'Qatari Voices'. These memories are to be treasured before they fade, just like the work of the photographers who recorded a vanishing way of life. Perhaps it is inevitable that the past is romanticised. On moving to the desert, I'd hoped it would all be more Kristin Scott Thomas reciting Herodotus by a camp fire than cleaning up dust. Inevitably, someone said last week: 'Call this a sandstorm? You should try being stuck in the middle of the Sahara'. If it involved Ralph Fiennes reciting the names of the wind, it does sound tempting:

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Five hundred Years in Five London Houses by Imogen Robertson

What my world looks like

I’m at the white knuckle stage of writing my new book so am refusing to leave the house, but I’m taking the opportunity of my monthly post to give you a list of the London places I would be visiting were I not chained to the keyboard and unfit for human society. My historical fiction tends to involve the not so great and the not so good, so I’m always on the look out for the smaller London museums and lesser known houses which can give you a sense of how people lived when they didn't have a palace to call home.

Here are my top five for the last 500 years of London life:

16th century - Sutton House
A gem built by a courtier of Henry VIII in 1535 this red brick survival has hosted gentlemen, weavers, squatters and fire wardens. Some of the 16th century wood carving survives and you can see portraits there by the brillaint Mary Beale (1633-1699).

17th Century - Fenton House
Once the home of a London merchant, this is an often overlooked gem with an astonishingly varied collection. I’m particularly fascinated by the 17th century needlework and in weather like this, a visit to the 300 year old orchard is a must.

18th Century - Handel House
OK, so Handel was both great and good, but this is still a domestic space beautifully recreated to give a real sense of what it must have been to live and work there in the 18th century. The restoration is immaculate and there are portraits, manuscripts of Handel’s works and some beautiful instruments. There are regular concerts so you can get the full experience. Highly recommended

19th century - Carlyle House
This house in Chelsea was Georgian, but is preserved as it was in the times of historian and critic Thomas Carlyle and his wife, Jane in the mid to late 19th century. You can read the letters documenting their tempestuous marriage here 

20th century - 575 Wandsworth Road
Something a little different. A house that was transformed into a work of art by Kenyan poet Khadambi Asalache and preserved as he left it on his death in 2006. Just one of those astonishing treasures in which London abounds. You’ll need to book a tour to see it, but do.

Monday, 20 April 2015

Bridewell, Bedlam and Bluecoats - by Ann Swinfen

If you were a pauper in Tudor England, how could you survive? Or would you survive at all?

Throughout the Middle Ages, there had been two principal supports for the poor – the church and the rich citizen. Almsgiving was part of general church policy, but the mainstay for the poor consisted of the monastic institutions, which provided medical care for the sick, temporary lodgings for wandering labourers and craftsmen seeking work, and more permanent housing for the aged and infirm. The more generous-hearted of the aristocracy and gentry handed out leftover food and sometimes discarded clothing and small coins to the poor of their neighbourhoods.

This system of aid was in contrast to a series of laws which regarded the poor as a blight on society, needing to be dealt with severely. These laws had developed during the period of social disruption following the Black Death, and were to be extended during the Tudor period. There was some compassion for those who were genuinely disabled or infirm, who might be given a licence to beg at certain locations within their own parishes, though this was hardly a generous provision for the poor, depending as it did upon voluntary gifts by other parishioners.

The paupers who did not fall into the category of the ‘deserving poor’ were labelled ‘sturdy beggars’, no distinction being made between those who were lawless vagrants through circumstance or choice, and those who were merely unemployed and seeking work. The harsh solution to dealing with such people was a period in the stocks or a public whipping (or both). The victim would then be forcibly returned to his parish, which was hardly a solution for those who had left home in order to seek work. Repeated offences could result in more severe penalties, such as the loss of an ear or branding.

Parishes were so reluctant to take on the responsibility for the poor that cruel practices were not unknown. There are documented cases of unmarried or vagrant pregnant women being hastily dragged off by the constables to a neighbouring parish before giving birth, so that the baby would become the responsibility of the latter.

With the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII, the system of welfare which they had provided collapsed completely. What had been a minor problem throughout the country escalated in a few years to disastrous proportions. It was further aggravated by the early period of enclosures, when large landowners – and sometimes wealthy townsmen with an eye to a profitable venture – began to fence in and seize control of the ‘commons’, the pastures and village fields which were held in common by the peasant community of a village. Deprived of their only means of a livelihood, these unexpectedly impoverished peasants flocked to the towns, and especially to London, in the hope of finding employment.

Suddenly there was a huge proportion of the population which was dispossessed and poverty-stricken. Something needed to be done.

Unfortunately, the old perceptions remained. The poor were still classified as either sturdy beggars or the deserving poor, the latter being those who were old, frail, or disabled. Provision was therefore made with this distinction in mind.

Medical Care

Various issues had to be addressed. Medical care was needed for those who could not afford the services of a private physician. Given the terrible epidemics which swept through the country, particularly London, it was quickly recognised that this had a high priority. The monasteries had established two hospitals in London, providing medical care for the sick and hospices for the permanently infirm: St Bartholomew’s north of the river, just outside the western City wall, and St Thomas’s south of the river, in Southwark. The city authorities persuaded Henry VIII to allow them to take over St Bartholomew’s and reopen it under the governance of London in 1547. It took a little longer to re-establish St Thomas’s, which reopened in the reign of Henry’s son, Edward VI, in 1551. Both hospitals play a part in my Christoval Alvarez series.

These two hospitals cared both for the destitute and for the working poor from Tudor times onward, and both are still major hospitals to this day, although they no longer retain their additional function as almshouses. Both were originally founded in the twelfth century, and St Bartholomew’s is the oldest hospital in Europe, possibly in the world.

St Bartholomew the Great gatehouse

 Further care for the deserving poor came in the form of the many individual almshouses for the old and infirm established during this period. A few were built by towns or guilds, but more were the gift of charitable individuals. Many are still in existence.


A particular group of the helpless poor were the children, especially orphans and foundlings, although it was recognised that there were also children whose parents simply could not support them. The frequent epidemics of killer diseases led to a large number of orphans living as street children. Unwanted babies were abandoned on doorsteps and in public privies. Children were exploited by beggars who used them to illicit sympathy. In times of hardship and starvation, such as the famine years of the 1590s, poor families could not feed their children. What was to be done about this growing problem of destitute babies and children? Those who managed to survive swarmed in the streets as beggars and potential criminals. It was an acute crisis.

King Edward VI wrote to the Lord Mayor of London, asking him:

to take out of the streets all the fatherless children, and other poor men’s children that were not able to keep them, and bring them to the late dissolved house of the Greyfriars…where they should have meat, drink and clothes, lodging and officers to attend upon them…the sucking children and such as for want of years were not able to learn should be kept in the country…

Remarkably, Greyfriars, located in Newgate, across the street from Newgate Prison, had not been torn down, though it was in a derelict state. The Lord Mayor assembled a committee of thirty solid and benevolent citizens who immediately set to work to raise funds, repair the buildings and appoint a large staff. The first children were admitted in November 1552, before winter set in. They were issued with the famous ‘bluecoat’ uniform of blue tunics and yellow stockings, still worn by the pupils of Christ’s Hospital school today. 

The site, which can be seen on the Agas map of London, was huge, incorporating a church, dormitories, quadrangles (like an Oxford or Cambridge college), and numerous outbuildings, which provided everything necessary for this model orphanage: bakery, brewery, laundry, and so on. Moreover, there were to be two schools, a petty school for the small children and a grammar school for the older ones. These children were not to join the unskilled and indigent paupers of London when they left Christ’s. They were trained in basic clerical skills, some were later apprenticed to craftsmen, some very clever boys would even go on to university and rise to high positions in the church.

The numbers were initially to be limited to 250, then 300, but they frequently rose to as many as 700. From the outset it seems to have been a kindly and humane home, for cases are recorded where children apprenticed to cruel masters ran away and came home to Christ’s Hospital. At a time when life could be unbelievably brutal, Christ’s was an extraordinary exception. The orphanage plays a major part in the fifth Christoval Alvarez novel. 

Children could be given a home, cared for, educated, but what was to be done about the adult sturdy beggars, the authorities’ nightmare, the nursery of crime?

Sturdy Beggars

Bridewell Palace, located near the confluence of the Fleet River with the Thames, was one of Henry VIII’s palaces during the early years of his reign. Later it was used for a time as the French ambassador’s residence and it was during this period that it formed the setting for Holbein’s famous trick painting of the two ambassadors (1533).

However, during the 1550s, when many of these social problems were being tackled in London, Edward VI gave Bridewell Palace to the City of London Corporation (1553), to serve a double purpose as a place of correction for ‘disorderly women’ and an orphanage. By 1556 it was functioning fully as Bridewell Prison, where the sturdy but troublesome vagrants and beggars – both men and women – were confined and spent their time employed in useful labour. 

The Prospect of Bridewell John Strype (1720)

Its secondary function as an ‘orphanage’ served to supplement the much more extensive Christ’s Hospital, mainly providing training and apprenticeships for older boys, apprenticeships which came to be well regarded. The combined institution was run by a Court of Governors.


There remained one further group of troublesome citizens – those who were insane, or were believed to be insane. After the disruption of Henry VIII’s break with Rome, many of the ecclesiastical institutions in London (like the two hospitals) were destroyed or converted to secular use. Just outside the northern part of the City wall at Bishopsgate, in the parish of St Botolph, stood the Bethlehem Hospital, which had served a variety of purposes since its foundation in 1247. From the late Middle Ages it was certainly housing some mentally ill inmates, but – as with St Bartholomew’s and St Thomas’s – the ending of ecclesiastical care had led to the collapse of the institution, which was sorely needed.

 In 1546, the Lord Mayor, Sir John Gresham, petitioned the king to grant Bethlehem Hospital to the City. Henry VIII was reluctant, and insisted on retaining possession of the building, although he granted the City Council ‘the custody, order and governance’ of Bethlehem Hospital and of its ‘occupants and revenues’ in a charter which came into effect in 1547, the year of Henry’s death.

 The mention of revenues is significant, because Bedlam, as it was popularly known, did not provide a free service. Those who could afford it paid for their insane relatives to be housed in Bedlam. Poorer patients might be confined there if the courts judged it appropriate and agreed to pay the fees or imposed the fees on the inmate’s parish. The position of Master was regarded as a sinecure, which yielded a comfortable income, and little seems to have been done to treat the inmates, apart from keeping them out of trouble. Contemporary thinking advised confining them in darkened rooms away from any disturbing stimuli and shaving their heads once a month to cool the brain. (Compare the confinement in the dark of Malvolio in Twelfth Night.) Documents of the period refer to them as ‘the poor’ or ‘the prisoners’, not as patients.

A later image of shackled inmate of Bedlam

In 1557, the Court of Governors of Bridewell took over the management of Bedlam as well, and if inmates of Bridewell were transferred to Bedlam, the Bedlam fees were paid from Bridewell Hospital funds. In 1598 the Court of Governors made a long overdue inspection of Bedlam, finding it neglected and in a disgusting state: ‘it is so loathsomely and filthy kept not fit for any man to come into the said house’. This in the one fee-paying hospital in London.

Poor Laws

All through the latter years of Henry VIII’s reign, and the reigns of Edward VI and Mary, various acts were passed to try to cope with the growing numbers of the poor. The introduction of a parish-based Poor Rate in 1547 went some way to provide for the impotent poor through compulsory contributions from those parishioners who could pay, the relief being in the form of money, food or clothes. More destitute paupers might be accommodated in almshouses. However, the treatment of sturdy beggars grew ever more severe as their numbers increased. Where in the early part of the period the punishment might be three days in the stocks, it increased to greater and greater physical punishment, including burning through the ear or – for a second offence – hanging.

In this contemporary illustration a beggar is being whipped in the foreground. In the background, another is being hanged.

 Elizabeth’s government finally tackled the problem as a whole, requiring, in the Poor Act of 1575, that all parishes have institutions similar to Bridewell, where sturdy beggars could be put to productive work, instead of simply suffering physical punishment. These institutions were required to keep a supply of ‘wool, hemp, flax, iron and other stuff’, to provide useful employment. The inmates did wire-drawing, knitted woollen caps, carded, spun and wove various fibres, and stuffed mattresses.

 The Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1597 further developed earlier provisions and established the position of Overseer of the Poor, responsible for the distribution of poor relief. There were to be two in each parish, appointed for a year. In addition to distributing poor relief, they were required to estimate the number of poor in the parish, use this as a basis for setting the poor rate, and then collect it from the parishioners. (Not a popular job!) This was followed by the Act for the Relief of the Poor of 1601, which further codified the duties of each parish. With a few modifications, it remained in force until the shift from a rural to an industrial society demanded a major overhaul. The Poor Law Amendment Act of 1834 was passed after the report by a commission set up in 1832. Interestingly, the whole act was not repealed until 1967!

 Today our attitudes toward the less fortunate members of society have changed radically. Some of the treatments meted out in Tudor times seem extraordinarily harsh, yet life in general was much harsher then. Faced with the collapse of the social welfare provided by the monasteries, officials and private individuals struggled to cope with what must have seemed at the time like a serious threat to peace, safety and health. They did their best. The provision of orphanages and poor relief by city authorities and Parliament, and the establishment by individuals of almshouses for the destitute and free grammar schools to educate poor boys, demonstrate how well they succeeded. The fact that the Elizabethan Poor Laws survived in part down to our own times speaks volumes for their achievements.

Ann Swinfen

Sunday, 19 April 2015

'Sitting on a sofa, playing games of chance' by Christina Koning

My latest novel, Game of Chance - the second in a series of detective stories set in the late 1920s - centres, as the title suggests, around a game of cards, specifically, Solo Whist. I chose this particular game, rather than Bridge (which was actually more popular in the period I’ve been writing about) for two reasons. One was the relative simplicity of the game, which lent itself to the plot structure I had in mind; the other was the peculiar resonance of the terminology. For a story featuring both an amateur detective and a policeman, the fact that one of the ‘calls’ in the game is ‘Prop & Cop’ was irresistible; so, too, were the no less resonant calls ‘Misere’, ‘Misere Ouverte’ and ‘Abundance’. Other details - the fact that the ‘play’ goes clockwise, and that the individual players are identified by the points of the compass - provided further indications of how the novel should unfold. 
Nor was it a wholly arbitrary decision to make card-playing a dominant motif in the second of my stories about the ‘Blind Detective’. My protagonist, Frederick Rowlands, whom we meet a decade after he lost his sight at the Third Battle of Ypres, is a keen card player - as was my grandfather, Charles Thompson, on whom the character is loosely based. I still have two packs of Charles’s braille cards, marked in the upper left-hand and lower right-hand corners with the raised dots that denote their suit and value. With these, my grandfather was able to play to competition standard - against sighted, as well as blind, opponents. And so it made absolute sense to have him matched, in my fictional version, against a murderer, both playing for higher stakes than the shilling or two which might have changed hands in the drawing room.

In researching the book, I started to think about the literary predecessors of my particular ‘game of chance’. Because of course card games - like chess, or billiards, or even croquet - are often to be found in novels, and films. They lend themselves so well to the dynamics of relationships. Card games are mock battles, in which much is at stake - not least the winner’s pride. Over the centuries, the language of card playing has become essential to the way we describe our experience. We talk about ‘keeping your cards close to your chest’, ‘putting your cards on the table’ and ‘playing your trump card’; about having been ‘dealt a bad hand’, having ‘a card up your sleeve’, being ‘unlucky at cards, lucky in love’, and so on. A number of these card playing analogies found their way into Game of Chance. In thinking about the novel, I also rather liked the idea that ‘Chance’, that mythical figure on whose favour all such games depend, is usually regarded as blind.

And so to the literary antecedents - of which of course there are many. Card games are thought to have originated in China during the T’ang Dynasty, and the first reference to card games dates from the 9th century. The game - perhaps closer to what we now know as dominoes, since it was played with tiles rather than paper cards, was exported to Persia, from where the idea of dividing the cards into suits seems to have come. Further modifications of the design were to occur before the emergence, in Europe at least, of the familiar ‘deck’ of cards, with its four suits: Hearts, Spades, Diamonds and Clubs, with their numbered sequences and ‘court’ cards. This standardisation is by no means universal, by the way: some countries (Spain, for instance) still use the older suits of Coins, Swords, Cups and Clubs. (I have in front of me a pack I bought some years ago in Venezuela, which looks like this.) Swiss German packs use Roses, Bells, Acorns and Shields instead of the more traditional images.

But for Alexander Pope, writing in 1717, the pack looked like this:

‘Behold, four Kings in Majesty rever’d,
With hoary Whiskers and a forky Beard;
And four fair Queens whose hands sustain a Flow’r,
Th’expressive Emblem of their softer Pow’r;
Four Knaves in Garbs succinct, a trusty Band,
Caps on their heads, and Halberds in their hand;
And Particolour’d Troops, a shining Train,
Draw forth to Combat on the Velvet Plain.
The skilful Nymph reviews her Force with Care;
Let Spades be Trumps! she said, and Trumps they were.’

Card games were enormously popular during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, as any reader of the novels of Jane Austen will attest. References to card playing are to be found in most of her novels - one thinks of Lydia Bennet’s fondness for ‘making bets’ in the game of whist being played while Lizzie and Mr Wickham are having their heart-to-heart in Pride and Prejudice. Here, as elsewhere, the game offers an analogue of the shifts and ambiguities inherent in the characters’ relationships. This is perhaps most clearly seen in the famous card playing scene in Mansfield Park, when Mary Crawford, conscious that she is in danger of losing the affection of Edmund Bertram, the man she hopes to marry, makes a last ‘bid’ for his attention:

‘Miss Crawford, a little suspicious and resentful of a certain tone of voice and a certain half-look attending the last expression of his hope, made a hasty finish of her dealing with William Price, and securing his knave at an exorbitant rate, exclaimed, “There, I will stake my last like a woman of spirit. No cold prudence for me. I am not born to sit still and do nothing. If I lose the game, it shall not be from not striving for it”…’

As always in Austen, it is the psychological aspect of the ‘game’ the characters are playing which most interests her. This is no less the case in another famous literary card game - the one played by Pip and Estella in Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations, in which the themes of betrayal and sexual cruelty are explicitly set out:

‘“What do you play, boy?” asked Estella of myself, with the greatest disdain.
“Nothing but beggar my neighbour, miss.”
“Beggar him,” said Miss Havisham to Estella. So we sat down to cards…’

This, incidentally, is the game in which the youthful femme fatale shows her ‘disdain’ for her unfortunate playmate in a single telling phrase: ‘“He calls the knaves, Jacks, this boy!” said Estella…’ Enough to send a shiver up one’s spine.
In Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, and its wonderful film version, directed by Terence Davies, card playing has moved from being simply a metaphor for the human interactions to being an integral element of the plot. Here, the impoverished Lily Bart, who has hitherto refused to become embroiled in the ruinously expensive games of bridge which are a feature of the country house weekends to which she is invited, is forced to conform - or else risk being ostracised from the ‘best’ social circles:

‘For in the last year she had found that her hostesses expected her to take a place at the card-table. It was one of the taxes she had to pay for their prolonged hospitality, and for the dresses and trinkets which occasionally replenished her insufficient wardrobe. And since she had played regularly, the passion had grown on her…’

Aficionados of E.F. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia stories (and I am one) will be familiar with the ‘passion’ that bridge inspires in its devotees - none more addicted to this particular game of chance that the two principals, Elizabeth Mapp and Emmeline ‘Lucia’ Lucas. Bridge is a thread which runs throughout this deliciously funny series of novels (the first of which was published in 1931) and gives rise to some of the most hilarious scenes. Here, Miss Mapp is indulging in a little bit of gamesmanship - to the annoyance of her fellow players:

‘Upstairs the geniality of the tea-table had crumbled over cards. Elizabeth had been losing and she was feeling hot. She said to Diva “This little room - so cosy - is quite stifling, dear. May we have the window open?” Diva opened it as a deal was in progress, and the cards blew about the table: Elizabeth’s remnants consisted of Kings and aces, but a fresh deal was necessary. Diva dropped a card on the floor and put her foot on it so nimbly that nobody could see what it was… Elizabeth demanded another fresh deal. That was conceded, but it left a friction.’

Sometimes the ‘friction’ engendered by games of chance - especially, it would seem, by bridge - can end in murder. Agatha Christie’s Cards on the Table, a story I found extremely helpful when plotting my own murder mystery, concerns such a game. Set up by the sinister Mr Shaitana, it centres around a dinner party, to which four detectives - one of them our old friend Hercule Poirot - and four suspected murderers have been invited. When dinner is over, the guests sit down to cards.

‘“Thank goodness there’s to be bridge,” said Mrs Lorrimer in an aside to Poirot. “I’m one of the worst bridge fiends that ever lived. It’s growing on me. I simply will not go out to dinner now if there’s no bridge afterwards…”’    
Of course it all goes horribly wrong. But at least Mrs Lorrimer gets her game of cards.