Thursday, 29 January 2009


The 30th January marked the 360th anniversary of the execution of Charles I.
In my blog on Hoydens and Firebrands of January 8, I wrote about the commission set up to try Charles. The trial of a King for treason was unprecedented and the public execution of a monarch unthinkable and yet it happened.
The jury duly found the King guilty of the crimes levelled against him and he was sentenced to die by the axe. The execution was scheduled for the morning of January 30 and a scaffold was set up outside the Inigo Jones designed dining chamber of Whitehall Palace (the only part of the old palace that still survives today).

Several books have been devoted to the trial and execution of Charles I and I recommend in particular: CV Wedgwood THE TRIAL AND EXECUTION OF CHARLES I and the more recent book about the prosecution of the trial by Geoffrey Robertson THE TYRANNICIDE BRIEF.
For a visual, nothing goes past the incomparable Alec Guiness’ portrayal of the quiet dignity of a man going to his death in the 1970 film CROMWELL. You will find an excerpt on You Tube

However the best account of the execution comes from an eye witness (the spelling is original). The full text is at
“About ten in the morning the King was brought from St. James's, walking on foot throughthe park, with a regiment of foot, part before and part behind him, with colours flying, drums beating, his private guard of partizans with some of his gentlemen before and some behind bareheaded, Dr. Juxon next behind him and Col. Thomlinson (who had the charge of him) talking with the King bareheaded, from the Park up the stairs into the gallery and so into the cabinet chamber where he used to lie.

... Where he continued at his devotion, refusing to dine, (having before taken the Sacrament) only about an hour before he came forth, he drank a glass of claret wine and eat a piece of bread about twelve at noon. From thence he was accompanied by Dr. Juxon, Col. Thomlinson and other officers formerly appointed to attend him and the private guard of partizans, with musketeers on eahc side, through the Banqueting house adjoining to which the scaffold was erected between Whitehall Gate and the Gate leading into the gallery from St. James's. The scaffold was hung round with black and the floor covered with black and the Ax and block laid in the middle of the scaffold. There were divers companies of food, and troops of horse placed on the one side of the scaffold towards Kings Street and on the other side towards Charing Cross, and the multitudes of people that came to be spectators, very great. The King being come upon the scaffold, look'd very earnestly upon the block and ask'd Col. Hacker if there were no higher. And then spake thus, directing his speech chiefly to Col. Thomlinson...

(Full text of speech omitted)
...Then turning to the officers, said, "Sirs, excuse me for this same, I have a good cause and I have a gracious God. I will say no more."
Then turning to Colonel Hacker, he said, "take care that they do not put me to pain. And Sir, this, an it please you---" But then a gentleman coming near the Ax, the King said "Take heed of the Ax. Pray take heed of the Ax."

Then the King, speaking to the Executioner said "I shall say but very short prayers, and when I thrust out my hands—"

Then the King called to Dr. Juxon for his night-cap, and having put it on said to the executioner "Does my hair trouble you?" Who desired him to put it all under his cap. Which the King did accordingly, by the help of the executioner and the bishop.

Then the King turning to Dr. Juxom said, "I have a good cause, and a gracious GOD on my side." Dr. Juxon: There is but one stage more. This stage is turbulent and troublesome; it is a short one. But you may consider, it will soon carry you a very great way. It will carry you from Earth to Heaven. And there you shall find a great deal of cordial joy and comfort.

King: I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.

Doctor Juxon: You are exchanged from a temporal to an eternal crown, a good exchange.
The King then said to the Executioner, "Is my hair well?"

Then the King took off his cloak and his George, giving his George to Dr. Juxon, saying, "Remember—." (It is thought for to give it to the Prince.)

Then the King put off his dublet and being in his wastcoat, put his cloak on again. Then looking upon the block, said to the Executioner "You must set it fast." Executioner: It is fast, Sir. King: It might have been a little higher. Executioner: It can be no higher, Sir. King: When I put out my hands this way (Stretching them out) then— After having said two or three words, as he stood, to himself with hands and eyes lift up.

Immediately stooping down laid his neck on the block And then the executioner again putting his hair under his cap, the King said, "Stay for the sign." (Thinking he had been going to strike)

Executioner: Yes, I will, an it please your Majesty.

And after a very little pause, the King stretching forth his hands, the executioner at one blow severed his head from his body. When the Kings head was cut off, the executioner held it up and shewed it to the spectators. And his body was put in a coffin covered with black velvet for that purpose. The Kings body now lies in his lodging chamber at Whitehall.

NB: The image used in this blog is said to be a contemporary portrayal of the execution (from a decidedly royalist point of view...the King is pictured on the left and his executioner on the right. The executioner bears a strong resemblance to Thomas Fairfax - who took no part in the trial and execution of the King. A woman faints and others run forward to dip cloth in the 'martyred' king's blood.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Premio Dardas Award

Rita Gerlach, Historical Fiction Author has awarded ‘Hoydens and Firebrands’ with the 'Premio Dardas Award'.

In her words:

"This award 'acknowledges the values that every Blogger displays in their effort to transmit cultural, ethical, literary, and personal values with each message they write.' Awards like this have been created with the intention of promoting community among Bloggers. It's a way to show appreciation and gratitude for work that adds value to the Web."

As Hoydens and Firebrands has only been on the web for a few weeks, this is a lovely surprise and we all feel honoured for the mention. To reciprocate, we are asked to nominate blogs of our own for this award and link the nominator to keep the network going.

Here is our list of Blogs

1) Wonders and Marvels

2) Julianne Douglas - Writing The Renaissance

3) Historical Tapestry Blog

) Unusual Historicals Blog

5) The Virtual Dime Museum

6) Ginger Simpson ‘Dishin It Out’

) Texty Ladies

8) Romancing The Blog

9) Versailles and More

10) Duchess of Devonshire’s Gossip Guide

Friday, 23 January 2009

Martyrs of the Solway

The Martyr of the Solway by Sir John Everett Millais 1871

It is summer 1637 and the cathedral of St. Giles in Edinburgh is packed. Among the congregation are serving women seated on three-legged stools keeping places for their mistresses. Dean John Hanna appears carrying a brown leather bound copy of the English Prayer Book and the murmurs begin. He also wears a white surplice, not the black Geneva gown approved of by the Reformed Church.

Suddenly, a servant girl named Jenny Geddes hurls her folding-stool at the pulpit screeching "Daur ye say mass in my lug" (Dare you say mass in my ear). Her stool is followed by others, until the church is in uproar and the Dean pulls off his surplice for fear of being torn to pieces. David Lindsay, recently appointed Bishop of Edinburgh, tries to quieten the crowd but beneath a tumult of sticks and stones, the Dean and the Bishop take cover in the vestry.

This demonstration seem ludicrous today, but for the citizens of Edinburgh it was in deadly earnest. The Stuart King Charles I, believed the Divine Right of the Monarch made him the spiritual head of the Church of Scotland. The Scots believed this was a position only Jesus Christ could hold.

The Story of the Two Margarets

In 1684, Gilbert Wilson, a Wigtonshire farmer and his wife attended conformist services. However, their children, Margaret 18, Thomas 16, and Agnes 13, became Covenanters and attended illegal ‘conventicles’ to hear prayers and sermons. Mr Wilson was fined for his childrens’ nonconformity, so the children took themselves into the hills of upper Galloway and spent months hiding from the troopers.

On the death of Charles II, in February 1685, the persecution was briefly relaxed when King, James II, himself a Catholic, tried to introduce relaxation of the laws against Dissenters, but the Anglican Church and Parliament fought him all the way.

Margaret and Agnes Wilson left their hiding places and went to Wigton to visit some of their fellow sufferers in the same cause, and particularly the aged Margaret McLauchlan, a Presbyterian widow in her sixties. Their brother Thomas, stayed in the mountains and was lost to history.

Reputedly betrayed, the two Margarets and Agnes were arrested and ordered to demonstrate their loyalty to the King’s authority and swear an oath of abjuration. All three refused and were brought to trial before Sir Robert Grierson, of Lagg, Colonel David Graham (brother to the bloody Claverhouse), Major Windram, Captain Strachan, and Provost Cultrain at Wigton, on the 13th of April 1685.

After the mockery of a trial, they were sentenced to death by drowning. This was to take place in Wigtown Bay, a leg of the Solway, where the wide sands extend two miles out. They were to be tied to stakes fixed in the sand to await the incoming tide.

Gilbert Wilson sold almost everything he owned and borrowed from friends and family, managing to raise a hundred pounds, a vast sum. He rode to Edinburgh to buy his daughters’ pardon, but was forced to choose between the girls. He chose the youngest, Agnes.

On the day of execution, Troopers marched the two women down to the sand, where Margaret MacLachlan was tied to a stake far out in the firth, so that the young girl should witness the death of her aged friend and hopefully recant.

The older Margaret was reputed not to have spoken at all as the sea crept toward her, at which one of her tormentors shouted: "It is needless to speak to that damned old bitch; let her go to hell."

The cold sea waters engulfed the old woman while Margaret Wilson, tied to the stone stake further in shore, was forced to watch her drowning struggles. As the limp form of the old woman was being tossed about by the swirling tide, the waters began to engulf Margaret Wilson, who sang the stirring words of Psalm 25.

When the water reached the young Margaret’s head, the soldiers loosened her cords and held her above the water so she might, ‘Pray for the King. For he is supreme over all persons of the church’. Margaret said she would pray for the salvation of all men as she wished no one to be condemned. The soldiers pushed her head under the water and tried again, even the crowd begged her to say the oath and save her life. Margaret remained firm and so the soldiers waded ashore and left her to drown in the incoming tide.

The bodies of the two Margarets were buried in the churchyard of Wigton, where a flat stone memorial lies. The stone stake Margaret Wilson was reputed to have been tied to stands as a memorial, although the sea has receded and the flood plain of the Cree is now a vast merse. (salt marsh).

Thursday, 15 January 2009

Historical Research on Horseback

My forthcoming novel, A Light Far-Shining: A Novel of the Pendle Witches, arose directly out of the rugged Pennine landscape where I have lived for the past eight years. Writing and researching this novel has been such a joy for me, because I could visit all the locations where the story played out: the characters lived their lives almost literally in my backyard.

In April 2008 I achieved my life-long dream of buying a horse: a beautiful chestnut Welsh Section D mare named Booshka. She is stable near Read, Lancashire, an idyllic setting with stunning views of Pendle Hill.

The author (in woefully unfashionable high visibility hacking gear) and her Noble Steed

One day last autumn, I decided to combine my twin passions of riding and historical research by hacking Miss Boo to Read Hall, former home of Roger Nowell, the Magistrate and High Sheriff responsible for arresting and prosecuting the Pendle Witches in 1612. The present Read Hall is a 19th century structure, but it occupies the same ground as the Read Hall that existed in Roger Nowell’s day.

18th century engraving of Old Read Hall

Before the 17th century, witch persecutions in England had been relatively rare compared with Scotland and Continental Europe. But when Scottish King James ascended to the English throne in 1603, he brought the public’s attention to his own obsession with the occult. His book Daemonologie presented the idea of a vast conspiracy of satanic witches threatening to undermine the nation. Shakespeare wrote his play Macbeth, which presents the first depiction of a witches’ coven in English literature, in James I’s honour.

To curry favour with his monarch, local magistrates such as Roger Nowell read Daemonologie and, acting under its spell, sought to identify and prosecute witches in their communities. In 1612 Nowell arrested no fewer than twelve individuals from the Pendle region and even went to the far fetched extreme of accusing them of conspiring their very own Gunpowder Plot to blow up Lancaster Castle. Two decades before the more famous Matthew Hopkins began his witch-hunting career in East Anglia, Roger Nowell had set himself up as witchfinder general of Lancashire.

With these historical facts in mind, I tacked Booshka up one October morning and off we went, heading down the winding lane to Read Village. To access the grounds of Read Hall, one must go down a private road, but one that was also marked with a public footpath sign. I wasn’t sure if horses were allowed to go here or not, but decided to risk it. Miss Boo and I cautiously proceeded. There was nothing explicitly stating that one couldn’t ride a horse there.

About one hundred yards down this private road, my faithful steed and I encountered an archetypal Decent English Lady out walking her dogs. I asked her if it was okay if my pony and I continued down the road. She smiled in commiseration and said, “Go on, love! If anyone rushes out to shout at you, claim ignorance!”

Thus do Decent English Ladies beget and encourage innumerable acts of anarchy.

My steed boldly stepped forward, only to shy a bit further down when we encountered a house with loud hip hop music blasting from the back garden. Clearly my mare is of delicate sensibilities and prefers the gentler strains of baroque music.

Nonetheless we persevered until we reached the end of the private road and entered the grounds of Read Estate. There was no gate or livestock grid to bar our access. While I couldn’t see any of Read Hall itself, as it was surrounded by a tall stone wall and thickly planted trees, both Miss Boo and I took surreptitious peeks into the dense greenery beyond that wall. We had gone about 50 yards down the tarmac path when we encountered rather unsubtle signage:


Sadly we turned around and beat a hasty retreat. When we reached the house with the blaring hip hop, Miss Boo threw in a few gratuitous strides of trot.

Still, thanks to an anarchic but Decent English Lady, we at least captured a glimpse of Read Estate.

Wednesday, 7 January 2009

A Regicide and a Family Legend

On January 8, 1649, 53 men met to discuss the trial of the King of England, Charles I. England had endured seven years of civil war between the King and Parliament and the King had been effectively a prisoner of Parliament for three years. All attempts to negotiate a settlement between the King and the Parliament had failed and on January 6 the Rump Parliament had passed the necessary legislation to establish a special High Court to try the King.

One of the Commissioners present at that meeting on January 8 was Sir Michael Livesey, a Kentish baronet, staunch puritan and member of the Rump Parliament . His signature appears fifth on the Death Warrant of Charles I which would imply he was eagerly waiting, pen in hand, at the front of the queue! The men who signed the death warrant (pictured below) became collectively known as the regicides (which literally means killer of a king).

Like most families we have some wonderful family legends and my great-grandmother, Lilian Livesey, staunchly believed to her dying day that she was a direct descendant of Sir Michael. Not only did this red-headed firebrand maintain his republican beliefs but also, I believe, on occasion refused to take the Loyal toast! As the wife of the Sheriff of Worcester, this must have been viewed as rather a peculiar attitude by her contemporaries. Poor Lilian, she would be sorely disappointed to learn that the family’s more recent genealogical researches have been unable to trace a direct connection between her and the regicide (he died without a male heir). However this is the stuff of good family legends and as a child the story probably contributed to my passion for the English Civil War. A regicide…in the family!
Legends aside, as a historian, it is always interesting to know more about the personalities who brought about the death of a King (my own personal hero of this tale is Sir Thomas Fairfax and his redoubtable wife, Anne, but more on them in a later blog) so I thought I would look today at the “family” regicide, Sir Michael Livesey.
In discussing the characters of the men who met on that day in January CV Wedgwood in her book, The Trial of Charles I, makes the comment that the royalists were quite justified in describing some of the commissioners as “rogues and knaves” and in the list that follows she describes Sir Michael as “ambitious, irresponsible and reputed a coward” . Oh dear, I wonder if Lilian knew his reputation?

From what little I can glean about the history of Sir Michael, he sided with Parliament on the outbreak of the war. Typical of many local landowners he raised and commanded his own local force and resented any form of military command structure. In 1644 he removed his forces from the command of Sir William Waller in 1644 (leading to the claims of mutiny and cowardice) and subsequently refused to join the New Model Army. While it appears he maintained his own force in Kent, he turned back to politics, being appointed the Recruiter MP for Queensborough in Kent. During the second civil war (1648) he remained in Kent, harshly suppressing any attempt at royalist uprisings.

Following the execution of the King, he remained a member of the Rump Parliament and as Sheriff of Kent (Ah ha! Being a Sheriff DID run in the family!) busied himself with local duties during the Protectorate (to which he was opposed as contrary to his concept of a republic). At the Restoration he was denounced as a regicide and fled to the Continent where his ultimate fate is unknown, but it is likely he died between 1660 and 1665, probably at the hands of Royalists. The baronetcy was extinguished and all his lands were given to James, Duke of York.

In retrospect, as glamorous as it would be to claim a regicide on the family tree, I am quite glad to shake Sir Michael out of the foliage!

*For more information on Sir Michael see
*For a fictionalised movie account of the politics leading up to the execution of Charles I, TO KILL A KING (2003) starring Dougray Scott as my hero Sir Thomas Fairfax.
*reproduction of the death warrant of Charles I is subject to Parliamentary copyright

Thursday, 1 January 2009

New Year's Day in 17th century France

In France, New Year's Day is known as Le Jour de l'An — or Le jour d'étrennes, day of presents, because of the very old custom of giving gifts on that day. Early in the morning, children give their mothers and fathers something hand-made, tradesfolk send gifts to their patrons, and all day long people bearing gifts make social calls to family and friends. (One wonders how it was co-ordinated: who stayed in to receive, who ventured out to call?)

The gifts were often candies, preserved fruit, sugar-plums or candied chestnuts. Confectionary could take delightful forms, disguised in the shape of a sucking pig, a ham, a hat, a boot, or even a carrot or birch rod, for example — each hollowed out to hold bonbons. Chocolate was popular during the Court of the Sun King (although I've read that by 1693, his second — secret — wife, Madame de Maintenon, had it banned — this is quite possibly untrue).

(Note: Bonbon — or bon-bon — comes from the French word bon, meaning “good”. In Europe, a bonbon is any sweet. The most simple bonbon is a sugar-coated almond.)

Then, as now, it was a day of friendship — although the gifts, at times, could carry a threatening message. After the French Revolution, for example, grenadiers presented the young dauphin with the gift of a domino made of stone and marble from the fallen Bastille. It was a sad and ironic gift, for the child was destined to die in prison. (From Mémoires sur la vie privée de Marie-Antoinette by Madame Campan.)

During the Court of the Sun King in late 17th century, the gifts bestowed could be lavish. On New Year's Day in 1679, for example, Mademoiselle de Fontanges presented the King's official mistress — Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan — with a magnificent diary, the binding studded with gems. I doubt very much that Athénaïs cared very much for this gift since young, beautiful (but not too bright) Fontanges was the King's newest love interest.

That same year, Athénaïs's son by the King, the Duc du Maine, gave her a collection of his letters to her — "Diverse Works of a Seven-Year-Old Author." Charming, no doubt, but for the fact that the collection had been edited and put together by his governess, Madame de Maintenon, a woman for whom the King was also showing rather too much interest.

From left to right, the warring mistresses: Athénaïs, Madame de Montespan; Duchess de Fontanges; Madame de Maintenon.

In 1685, her favour fading, Athénaïs presented the King with an album with covers of solid-gold. Inside were hand-painted miniatures illustrating all the towns of Holland the King had won during the campaign of 1672. By the following year, however, Athénaïs was no longer welcome in the King's company, and by November 18, 1689, while he was recovering from an operation, it was Madame de Maintenon (compiler of the Duc du Maine's letters), who turned Athénaïs away from the King's chamber.

One wonders what gifts they exchanged six weeks later, on New Year's Day.

Sandra Gulland