Thursday, 23 April 2009

Green Ribbon Club

James II as Duke of York

The Kings Head Club was so-called because they met at the King's Head Tavern at Chancery Lane End. Founded around 1675, it was a resort for Whig political party hostile to the court, specifically James Duke of York, due to his Catholic persuasion. The members wore a bow, or bob, of green ribbon in their hats, as a badge useful for mutual recognition in street brawls.

In 1679, the name was changed to the Green Ribbon Club. The 'Green Ribbon' being the badge of The Levellers in the English Civil Wars in which many of the members had fought.

Club members were the extreme faction of the country party, those who supported Titus Oates and his anti catholic rantings. They were also concerned in the Rye House Plot and Monmouth's rebellion. According to the playwright, John Dryden, drinking was the chief attraction, and the members talked and organized sedition over their cups.

Apart from the Duke of Monmouth himself, and statesmen like Halifax, Shaftesbury, Buckingham, Macclesfield, Cavendish, Bedford, Grey of Warke, Herbert of Cherbury, writers such as Scroop, Mulgrave and Shadwell, with remnants of the Cromwellian régime like Falconbridge, Henry Ireton and Claypole, profligates like Lord Howard of Escrick and Sir Henry Blount, and those ‘scoundrels’ such as Thomas Dangerfield and Oates.

The members went about in silk armour, supposed to be bullet proof, in which any man dressed up was as safe as a house, 'for it was impossible to strike him for laughing;' while in their pockets, for street and crowd-work, they carried the weapon of offence invented by Stephen College and known as the Protestant Flail.

The pope-burning processions in 1680 and 1681, on the anniversary of Queen Elizabeth's accession, were also organized by the club. They ended by the lighting of a huge bonfire in front of the club windows that proved an effective means of inflaming the religious passions of the populace.

The failure to carry the Exclusion Bill, followed by the flight of Lord Shaftesbury was a blow to its influence, as was the discovery of the Rye House Plot, in which many of its members were implicated.

In 1685 John Ayloffe, who was found to have been a dubber at the King's Head Tavern and a green-ribbon man, was executed in front of the premises on the spot where the pope-burning bonfires had been kindled; and although the Kings Head Tavern was still in existence in the time of Queen Anne, the Green Ribbon Club which made it famous did not survive the accession of James II.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Cornish Magic Revisited

As a sequel to last month's post on Cornish witchcraft, I'd like to share some magic from my recent visit to Cornwall, which was enchanting indeed.

One of the highlights was the otherworldly St. Michael's Mount, pictured above. The Cornish counterpart of France's Mont St. Michel, this tidal island can only be reached on foot by a granite causeway during low tide, otherwise one has to go by boat. Legend has it that the rocky promotory received its name when local fishermen received a vision of the archangel Michael hovering over the island. A Benedictine monastery was founded and dedicated to St. Michael, attracting many pilgrims. One can still visit the 15th century chapel.

Over the centuries, the monastery became a military fortress. Held for a time by Royalist supporters in the English Civil War, the Parliamentarians took hold of it in 1646. John St. Aubyn bought the Mount in 1660 and his descendants have been living there ever since. Though still in residence, the St. Aubyns sold the Mount to the National Trust in 1964 and the castle attracts many visitors.

Further down the coast, tucked away behind a hedge not far from the road, I came across one of the numerous holy wells, associated with healing and traditional folk magic from time immemorial. The well pictured below is dedicated to St. Ruan--Cornwall is the only part of England to keep its Celtic saints--although these holy wells most likely have pre-Christian origins. St. Ruan's well was obviously well visited and well tended, a peaceful place to light a candle and spend some time in contemplation.

On the last day of my visit I stopped by the Museum of Witchcraft in Boscastle, a beautiful village set in a rugged cove. More a testament to 20th century Neo-Pagan witchcraft and occultism than the historical witchcraft and magic, it was certainly worth a visit. I can't help thinking, though, that the real magic resides within the landscape itself.

Monday, 13 April 2009

THE GREAT ESCAPE (Part 1): The Battle of Worcester

One of the world’s most thrilling “great escape” stories has to be the escape of Charles II after the defeat at the Battle of Worcester on September 3 1651. Just about every old house or inn on his route lays claim to having sheltered him and it has been the subject of many works of fiction (including the basis for my own BY THE SWORD).

The young Prince Charles had fled to the continent at the end of the first civil war (1645). There he kicked his heels at the court of his cousin, the young Louis XIV, very much the poor relation. His chance to return to England and regain his throne came in 1650 when the Scots, disenchanted by their former allies, invited him to Scotland. He was crowned King of Scotland as the Scots raised an army to defeat the English Parliamentarian forces. The Scots kept such tight control over their young King that his life was a misery and many of Charles’ most talented commanders were denied a role in this new army. After the Scots were roundly defeated at the Battle of Dunbar on September 3 1650, it is said Charles threw his hat in the air and laughed.

Undeterred by their defeat, the Scots Army marched into England. As they made their way down the west coast, Cromwell (the new commander of the Parliamentary forces since the resignation of Sir Thomas Fairfax) and his army raced down the East coast. They met at Worcester. The forces Charles had expected to flock to his banner did not eventuate. The King’s supporters in England had wearied of war and weighed down by debt and fines lacked the heart for another fight. The Earl of Derby bringing supporters from the Isle of Man was intercepted at Wigan and escaped with only a handful of men.

Charles dithered in Worcester as Cromwell closed in on him. At the age of twenty one he relied heavily on his advisors and their advice contradicted each other. The poor young King was harangued from every side…should they abandon Worcester and retreat into sympathetic Wales or stay and make a fight of it? The debates in The Commandery (a building that still exists in Worcester and is well worth a visit) raged on until it became too late to do anything but stand and face whatever Cromwell would throw at them.

Cromwell chose September 3 (the day of his victory in Scotland the year before) to launch his attack. The King’s forces failed to capitalise on Cromwell’s one moment of vulnerability when he sent half his forces across the River Severn to attack Worcester from the South while the main force attacked from the East. Watching the progress of the battle through a spy glass from the tower of Worcester Cathedral, dressed in his buff leather coat with a red sash and his Order of St. George around his neck, the young King ordered his forces out of the city to take on Cromwell in the field.

It was a bold move and leading his men, on foot, up the hill out of the Sidbury Gate, no one would question the King’s courage. He believed that General Leslie would appear with cavalry in support of his charge. Leslie failed him and after three hours of pitched battle, with Fort Royal lost, the King’s men began a mad retreat back inside the city. Sidbury Gate was blocked with an overturned cart, its animals dead in the traces. Undeterred the desparate royalists clawed their way back into the city as night fell with the parliamentary forces hot on their heels.

By chance Charles’ lodgings were in a house near St. Martin’s gate, the only gate still open to them (the house still exists - see Picture. Led by Lord Wilmot, a small, loyal band of his men, harried the shocked and desparate young King out of the city and north to an even more uncertain fate.

The fate of those who were captured after the battle makes a sad postscript. The Earl of Derby was beheaded, the Duke of Hamilton died of his wounds and the many rank and file of the Scottish Army were largely sent as "white slaves" to the Barbardos, Guyana or Virginia (ah yesl...the subject of another of my books THE KING'S MAN - can you tell this is one of my favourite subjects?).

Next month…THE GREAT ESCAPE Part 2: “Read on and Wonder…” (Thomas Blount in his introduction to Boscobel written in 1660)

Tuesday, 7 April 2009

The New World

I must make a confession. I've watched the movie The New World twice. On the first occasion, I had no preconceptions. Except for the usual Pocahontas myth, I knew little about the history, and I loved the Virginia scenery. Drawn to the accuracy of recreating Jamestown, I was impressed that the movie also didn't seem to dismiss the Powhatan as "Savages." Although extremely slow moving, I enjoyed it.

So why would I sit through watching an overly long movie a second time? Simple. Since my first viewing, I've extensively researched the era. Forearmed with some knowledge of the actual history as well as having learned more about the Powhatan, I wanted to see what I had missed in the first viewing.

The story of The New World begins with English colonists landing at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607. It focuses on the love story of John Smith and Pocahontas. Because this story has been repeated so many times in history classes and through a Disney cartoon (one that I have not seen), most people are familiar with some aspects. As I mentioned earlier, the myth is perpetuated yet again in this film. Pocahontas was around eleven years old when the colonists first came to Jamestown, so unless people are willing to admit that Smith was a pedophile, there was no love story. Oops, there goes the plot!

Pocahontas is also portrayed saving Smith's life. This is a much disputed point among scholars, which I'll save for a future blog as it's a topic in itself. The movie continues on at a rambling pace and shows the Starving Time, which occurred in Jamestown during the winter of 1609-10. In reality, Smith had returned to England in the fall of 1609, never to return to Virginia.

Later, viewers see Smith punished for opposing the abduction of Pocahontas. Mind you, the real Smith was in England, and Pocahontas, by this time, had married a Powhatan warrior by the name of Kokum. Smith did claim in his writings that he had been against the abduction, but it was from a distance and long after the fact.

After the abduction, Smith leaves for New England, having other colonists tell Pocahontas that he has died. Again in reality, Smith did sail for New England, but he sailed from England, not Virginia. In the movie, Pocahontas grieves until she is saved by the love of John Rolfe. The plot closely resembles a poorly written romance novel.

After Pocahontas marries Rolfe, she's thrilled at dressing and behaving like the English. Eventually, she has a son, and the happy family sails for England, where she's entertained by royalty. Nothing is said about how she was on exhibition to show that the Indians could indeed be "civilized." And when she meets Smith again, which actually took place, the producers didn't see fit to show how angry she was with him. The colonists had told her that he had died when he left Virginia, and several hours passed before she composed herself enough to speak with him. The real confrontation was glossed over for a fairytale meeting, so that she realized Rolfe was her true love, and they could live happily ever after. The truth is she died, and shortly after, Rolfe abandoned their son in England.

Was the movie all bad? No. The Virginia scenery was lavish and breathtaking. The attention to details in the rebuilding of the Jamestown fort was fantastic. Even the Powhatan town was great. However, there was no depth to the Powhatan themselves. The men's hairstyles were correct, as well as the fact that the men painted themselves when they went into battle or performed rituals. But they were shown painted in most of the scenes as if they never took it off. Heaven forbid, showing the women attired correctly was out of the question. Someone might be offended by a bare breast.

The battle scenes seemed staged, which of course, they were, and they never truly showed off the Powhatan warriors' abilities with their bows. Contrary to what most believe, Powhatan archers held superior weapons to the colonists' matchlock rifles. I was also bothered by the unrealistic, jerky arm movements of the Powhatan, which more resembled chimpanzee motions than anything human.

All in all, The New World perpetuates the Native American myths and stereotypes, not only in retelling the story of Pocahontas, but the fact that they needed to be "civilized." The beautiful scenery was land free for the taking. Why else would the movie have been called The New World when for the many inhabitants already living in the Americas it was anything but new? My heart goes out to the descendants, wondering if they will ever be allowed to tell their side to the story.

Kim Murphy

Friday, 3 April 2009


I've been enchanted, of late, reading The Discovery of France by Graham Robb. It's largely about 18th-century France, but I would recommend it highly to anyone interested in the 17th-century most anywhere. It's chock-full of fascinating details about life in the past. As much research as I've done over the last decades, this book is a constant revelation. Yes: it's that good.

For example: bells.

I live half the year (the cold half) in San Miguel de Allende, an ancient colonial town in central Mexico. There are many, many churches, and all of them have bells, and the sound of those bells is a beautiful part of life here. It evokes, for me, a hint of what life must have been like in the past: the sound of horse hooves on cobblestones, the deep resonance of church bells.

In The Discovery of France I've learned more about the importance of bells. When a bell was being cast, for example, villagers would add their personal mementos to the metal: coins, candlesticks, plates. They became part of the bell — their village voice.

Bells marked the hour and important events: the harvest, the departure of domestic animals for winter pasture.

(Image at left: 17th century woodcut of men ringing bells. )

Bells chased away witches and warned of danger (which recalls to mind the air-raid sirens of my youth). The sound of a bell ringing was believed to protect against thunder and hailstorms (hence the poor bell-ringers who died in a storm). The sound of a village bell served as a guide when the weather was foggy.

Bells marked out territory. The size of the bell and the height of the bell tower were a good indication of the extent of the village: one lived within hearing distance of the village church bell.

So now, when I listen to the bells of San Miguel, I wonder what personal trinkets went into them — tiny Milagros, no doubt: miracles.

Sandra Gulland