Sunday, 26 January 2014

Bettie, Cromwell's Favourite Daughter

NPG 514, © The National Portrait Gallery, London
Oliver Cromwell is a name that can conjure up strong emotions - even now, some 356 years after his death! To some, he is a glorious hero of republicanism - of freedom from monarchical tyranny. To others, he is the epitome of tyranny and hypocrisy. Utter the name of Cromwell, and images immediately come into view - of soldiers - Roundheads against Cavaliers - and battles such as Naseby, Marston Moor, Dunbar, and many others, flood into our thoughts. When we think of Oliver Cromwell, we think of the hard Parliamentarian - the man who became Lord Protector over the Commonwealth of England. We think of a man who ruthlessly crushed Royalists and Catholics in Ireland. We think of the man whose signature was elegantly penned onto the third spot on the death warrant of King Charles I. We think of a man who became a king in all but name - a man who eventually lived in the same palaces as the king whom he had sentenced to death. 
NPG D28739, © The National Portrait Gallery, London
But Cromwell had another side to his character - that of a loving husband and father. Cromwell's wife, Elizabeth, was a dutiful Puritan wife. Oliver's letters to his wife were full of love - so much so that I found myself completely taken aback by it. 
Oliver and Elizabeth had many children together - Their second daughter, Elizabeth, is perhaps the least well known of the daughters, and so I find her all the more interesting. To be perfectly frank, the only offspring of the Cromwells I had heard of was Richard Cromwell and Bridget Cromwell (since she married Henry Ireton). Therefore, I was pretty surprised to learn about Elizabeth Cromwell, who was affectionately nicknamed Bettie. She was painted by John Michael Wright in 1658 (the year of her death). 
NPG 952, © The National Portrait Gallery, London
Several sources claim that Elizabeth was Cromwell's favourite child, and she possessed a sweet disposition, although she seems to have suffered from what Cromwell referred to as 'vanity and a carnal mind'. Born in July of 1629, Elizabeth was the youngest of Cromwell's children, having followed several siblings, but she was then herself followed by three more. She was truly the apple of her father's eye. When I first saw the portrait featured above, I could see some facial characteristics that she had in common with her father, but I was also surprised by the rather sumptuous dress she is dressed in. Further research revealed that this portrait was most likely painted posthumously. It truly is a stunning work, as you can see - and the vibrant colours are typical of a Wright.
NPG 5497 © The National Portrait Gallery, London

It may amuse the reader to note that John Michael Wright was also a popular portrait painter during the subsequent Restoration. Wright's arguably most famous portrait is that of Charles II's volatile mistress, Barbara Palmer (nee Villiers), Lady Castlemaine, which appears on the right. One can imagine that the Lord Protector would have been quite displeased with the goings-on at the court of the Merry Monarch, but then again, when it came to the Commonwealth and the court of Charles II, it truly was a case of one extreme to the other!
The following is a rather romantic illustration of Cromwell, surrounded by his children (including Bettie), begging him not to proceed with the execution of King Charles. Apparently, Bettie was quite good at stopping prisoners from being executed, but this, sadly did not work out for the king, who was beheaded outside Whitehall Palace on the 30th of January, 1649.
NPG D32080, © The National Portrait Gallery, London
By the time she was sixteen years old, Bettie had fallen in love with the mild-mannered twenty-two-year-old Parliamentarian soldier (who was also her father's Master of the Horse) John Claypole, and she was lucky to have been able to marry for love. She and John were happy in each other's embrace and in the showers of gifts they received from her father (Cromwell made Claypole a peer, thus making his daughter Lady Claypole). The couple had several children.
In 1655, however, the then twenty-six-year-old Bettie began to have noticeable health problems. Lady Antonia Fraser states, 'Bettie Claypole was seriously ill (probably with the first manifestation of the cruel cancer that was ultimately to kill her)'. 
In August of 1658, and after a horrendously painful time, Bettie died. She was only twenty-nine! 
Cromwell was inconsolable. For such a would-be hard man, the death of his favourite little girl was almost too much for him to bear. His health went into rapid decline, and he died only a few months after Bettie. His son, Richard, became the next Lord Protector.
The poet Andrew Marvell wrote a beautiful long poem about the Lord Protector. In this, he alluded to Cromwell's devotion to his daughter when she was on her deathbed. The following is a brief excerpt from 'A Poem on the Death of Oliver Cromwell' :
'If he Eliza lov'd to that degree  
(Though who more worstly to be lov'd then she) 
If so indulgent in his own how deare 
To him  the children of the Highest were? For her he once did natures tribute pay 
For these his life adventur'd every day  
And it would be found could we his thoughts have  
Their griefs struck deepest if Eliza's last.' [2]
And so, Bettie was laid to rest in Westminster Abbey, where other members of her family (including her paternal grandmother Elizabeth) were buried. Cromwell would later be buried in the Abbey as well, but his body was later disinterred and put through posthumous execution during the Restoration. All other Cromwell family bodies were also disinterred and thrown into a pit outside the Abbey. As luck would have it, however, Bettie's tomb remained unnoticed (for it was in another part of the building), and was therefore spared the Stuart revenge. As a result, she is still interred in Westminster Abbey! You can read more about that on the Abbey's website
[1] Fraser, Lady Antonia. 'Cromwell, Our Chief of Men'. Weidenfeld & Nicolson Ltd, 1973.
[2] Marvell, Andrew. You can read the complete poem here.
Andrea Zuvich is a 17th-century historian and historical fiction writer. Her biographical fiction debut, His Last Mistress is about the Duke of Monmouth and his doomed relationship with Henrietta Wentworth. She also wrote the historical horror The Stuart Vampire and is currently working on William & Mary: A Novel.

Sunday, 19 January 2014

A mystery cloaked in the obvious

            Who is buried in Ulysses S. Grant’s tomb? Is the Pope Catholic? Who wrote Mary Dyer’s last letter?
In previous books about Mary Dyer, in internet genealogy sites that copy from one another, and going all the way back to the 17th-century Quaker chroniclers, we are told that Mary Dyer (known as the “Quaker Martyr”) wrote two letters in late October 1659: the night before her death sentence was to be executed, and again, after her reprieve. Those writers give us the text content of the letters. The inscription on the Mary Dyer sculpture in Boston is taken from the text of the second letter.
While researching my novels on the Dyers, I tracked down original documents to see what the penmanship was like. (I didn't attempt graphological analysis.) Were there cross-outs, ink blots, even margins, evidence of a bumpy surface on which the paper was placed, or did the text flow freely from mind to the page? Many men who were fairly high in colonial government could only make marks instead of signatures. William Dyer was a businessman, clerk, and eventually a colonial official (first attorney general in all of America)—was he measured in his phrasing, did he cram his handwriting to save space at the end of a line, did he write in even planes or slant it up or down, and did he use standard spellings of his day or write phonetically?
Of course, I had similar questions about Mary’s writing. Many women could read their Bibles, at least, but not every man or woman could also write (print or cursive), and if they did, it looked like chicken scratches.
So I set about looking for these original holographs. After many hours of research, I found two of William’s letters regarding Mary (the ones transcribed accurately on several websites), and one of Mary’s letters, in the Massachusetts Archive and its state library.

Fragmentary image of Mary Dyer's letter to the Boston court,
26 October 1659.

Image courtesy of Massachusetts Archive
As soon as I read Mary’s letter, I noticed that it bore little resemblance to the text she’s supposed to have written the night before she expected to die.
First lines of the letter everyone thinks Mary wrote:

Whereas I am by many charged with the Guiltiness of my own Blood: if you mean in my Coming to Boston, I am therein clear, and justified by the Lord, in whose Will I came, who will require my Blood of you, be sure, who have made a Law to take away the Lives of the Innocent Servants of God, if they come among you who are called by you, 'Cursed Quakers,' altho I say, and am a Living Witness for them and the Lord, that he hath blessed them, and sent them unto you: Therefore, be not found Fighters against God, but let my Counsel and Request be accepted with you, To repeal all such Laws, that the Truth and Servants of the Lord, may have free Passage among you and you be kept from shedding innocent Blood, which I know there are many among you would not do, if they knew it so to be: Nor can the Enemy that stirreth you up thus to destroy this holy Seed, in any Measure contervail, the great Damage that you will by thus doing procure: Therefeore, seeing the Lord hath not hid it from me, it lyeth upon me, in Love to your Souls, thus to persuade you: I have no Self Ends, the Lord knoweth, for if my Life were freely granted by you, it would not avail me, nor could I expect it of you,…

First lines of the letter Mary actually wrote (line breaks follow Mary’s line breaks in the original holograph):

from marie dire to the generall court now this present 26th of the 8 moth 59
assembled in the towne of boston in new Ingland greetings of grace mercy
and peace to every soul that doth well : tribulation anguish and wrath to all that doth evell
Whereas it is said by many of you that I am guilty of mine owne death by my
coming as you cal it voluntarily to boston: I therefore declare unto every one
that hath an eare to hear: that in the fear peace and love of god I came and in weldoing
did and stil doth commit my soul and body to him as unto a faithful creator
and for this very end hath preserved my life until now through many trialls and
temptations having held out his royal scepter unto mee by wch I have accesse
into his presence and have found such favoure in his sight as to offer up my
life freely for his truth and peoples sakes :

So what accounts for the huge difference in the two versions? The short answer is that somehow, Quaker minister and writer Edward Burrough received a copy of Mary’s original letter, and created his own letter, putting Mary’s name to it for persuasiveness and authority. And for 350 years, everyone has thought Burrough’s letter was Mary’s.
But it’s not.
Why would Burrough do that?  His purpose was not to preserve Mary’s words, but to put an end to the Quaker persecutions raging in England and New England by writing a pamphlet to King Charles II, refuting the defensive pamphlet written by the Boston magistrates after Mary’s unpopular execution in June 1660. Burroughs’ efforts succeeded, and the king ordered Governor Endecott to stop executions and refer any capital cases to England for trial.
Cover page of Burrough's 1660 pamphlet
My training and career have been focused on writing and editing magazines, books, and websites for nonprofit organizations, religious entities, and universities. It’s the practical, workhorse side of public relations and marketing. It was my job to mold (and often rewrite) the words of the CEO or other executives to more precisely fit the mission and message of the organization. If I may project backward by 350 years, I suspect that immediately after Mary’s execution in 1660, someone in Boston stole and copied Mary’s letter(s) to the General Court, and sent the copy to Burrough in England. It was his purpose to craft an image for the new Quaker movement, and do to King Charles what Mary had already done to the people of Massachusetts:
1.      create outrage that the Boston authorities were out of control,
2.      that they’d gone too far by killing a high-status woman who was innocent of a capital offense, and
3.      that they must stop the persecution of people who were only obeying God.

But Mary’s letter(s) contained words meant only for the Boston magistrates—words of softer persuasion, that they would listen to God’s voice in their hearts and stop the torture and killings of God’s people, the Quakers. So Burrough rewrote or ghost-wrote the letter in fiery, angry language to fit his agenda, presented the pamphlet (containing only the first letter) to the king in audience in winter 1661, and obtained the desired writ. Only one more Quaker was hanged after Mary, because of the delay in trans-Atlantic travel. Another Quaker who had been condemned to die was reprieved and banished because the writ came in time to save him.
Then in 1662, Burrough, a Quaker preacher and political advocate, was arrested for holding illegal religious meetings in his home. He was sent to Newgate Prison, and despite a release order from the king (which was ignored, probably by anti-royal Puritan rebels left over from the Cromwell days). Burrough remained in prison and died there at age 29 in February 1663. Prison conditions were extreme: starvation, filth, vermin, and disease killed many prisoners, and unheated dungeons in freezing winters would certainly hasten death.
With Mary Dyer and Edward Burrough dead and Quaker persecutions surging again, no one remained to think about or argue who wrote the letters. Somehow, Mary’s letter was returned to the General Court files kept by the malevolent Edward Rawson, secretary, and that’s the letter that remains in the archive vaults to this day. A second letter—if it ever existed—is not preserved, though someone wrote a letter that purports to be Mary’s, for which we have no holograph. It’s as strongly worded as the other letter’s Burrough version, so perhaps he wrote the second letter and didn’t use it in his pamphlet.
If Mary’s first letter was changed so radically, we have to assume that the second letter was also altered significantly. But we have no original with which to compare.
I used the text of Mary’s original first letter, making it more modern with paragraph breaks and conventional spellings, in my second novel, Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This. I used phrases from the second letter (whether written by Mary and edited or rewritten by Burrough) in dialog, but chose not to reproduce the second letter.
Someday, when my fantasy of all of this intricate and fascinating Great Migration-era story becomes a TV series on PBS and BBC, it would be fun to explore or invent who purloined Mary’s letters and sent copies to England.
Was there a Quaker mole in the midst of the Boston wolves?   
The letter in Mary Dyer’s hand
Mary came to the end of the large sheet of paper, and turned it over to write six more lines, the ghost image you see behind the words in the middle of this fragment. On the right vertical edge of the paper are water stains which smeared the ink. Perhaps it was raining when the messenger carried her letter from the jail to the Massachusetts General Court, presided over by Governor John Endecott. The letter was folded at some point, and the paper has flaked away at some folds and edges, but for the most part, it's legible, even after more than 350 years! 
Front of the Oct. 26, 1659 letter that
Mary Dyer wrote in prison.
Paper was a luxury commodity in seventeenth-century New England because it had to be imported. In Europe, paper was milled from macerated hemp, flax, and linen or cotton rags. (Wood pulp was not used until 1843.) Important documents like royal charters were written on vellum (calf skin) or parchment (sheep or goat skin).
William Dyer, Mary’s husband, would have had a ready supply of paper for his work as clerk, recorder, secretary, attorney general, and solicitor to the colonial assembly. His penmanship is fine, and contains few corrections, which means the documents were copied from draft notes, or that he was confident of his writing and reporting abilities and got it right the first time.
As I mentioned before, Mary Dyer was among the privileged few women who could both read and write. And judging from the even, consistent appearance of her handwriting, she had plenty of practice. Perhaps Mary kept a journal that was lost or burned, or wrote letters to friends that have been lost to the ages. In my novels, I suggested that Mary kept farm and business accounts for the family, and during her time in England, kept a journal and wrote letters. Keeping ledgers was common among merchant-class women, and in England the aristocratic women kept journals and wrote letters and books.
The letter she wrote to the General Court while in prison was very legible, but she had more words to write than she had paper, so she had to turn the paper over and write six more lines on the back, which most writers did not do because the ink could bleed through. She probably had to buy the sheet of paper and use of a quill pen and ink from the jailer, as Quakers were not allowed any books or writing materials in the prison—upon conviction, the law required that those items be burned to prevent them from proselytizing, journaling, or fomenting more rebellion.
(Of course, burning Quaker possessions also destroyed evidence that might have been used against them, but the Governor and assistants didn’t seem to have thought of that—nor  had they ever watched CSI or Law and Order. I find it amusing that one of the Plymouth Colony Quakers used the lack of evidence because his books were burned, to successfully to defend himself.)
All of New England’s paper was imported from England at this time. There, all the paper for books, broadsheets, pamphlets, government and private use, was made by one or two companies who held a monopoly on the process. Mary’s paper’s finish was a horizontal “laid,” which is a fine texture of parallel lines rolled onto the paper when it’s still wet. Cheaper paper of the era, made at most paper mills in England, was a coarse gray, but this paper’s original color may have been a white or cream, which browned with age. Its content was probably 100 percent linen rag. It appears it was a quality sheet of paper, perhaps obtained from the office of Edward Rawson, MassBay Colony secretary, and is the same type of paper that William Dyer used for Rhode Island business and the letters he sent to the Boston court on behalf of his wife.
I wondered if Mary had written the letter in a prison cell, or if she was in a room with a table and some light. There’s no evidence of an uneven or rough surface under the writing, so I think a table was used. In comparison to William’s fine-tipped pen which perhaps had a metal nib, Mary’s writing is much more thick or bold, so the pen might have been of low quality or needed trimming. But she had enough light to keep her lines and letters even. She didn’t write words that she scribbled over. And if she made a mistake, perhaps she was able to scrape off the ink and rewrite a word, but I can’t tell from a computer screen.
In the text she wrote, Mary Dyer cast herself in the role of biblical Queen Esther, a Jewess who threw herself on the mercy of the Babylonian King Ahasuerus to save her people from slaughter. No one approached the totalitarian, oft-drunken monarch Ahasuerus and lived unless the king held out his scepter in acceptance, which he did for Esther. Esther’s guardian, Mordecai, had told her that it was her destiny to persuade the king to stop the persecution and genocide, saying that God had brought Esther to her role “for such a time as this.” And Esther was successful in saving her people.
Mary saw herself as called by God to take a stand before the ultra-fundamentalist government of Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colonies, at “such a time as this,” the height of Puritan-on-Quaker persecution, by saying that they were persecuting Christ’s children, and therefore, Christ himself. She asked them to search themselves for any spark of the Light of Christ within them, and warned them of eternal damnation if they persisted in their policies and attitudes. 

Mary Dyer: "but to me to live is Christ and to die is gaine"
At the page turn, Mary asked that Quakers be allowed to attend the execution and clothe the bodies of her Friends Stevenson and Robinson (and herself) with shrouds. The aftermath of the death penalty was to strip the bodies after death and throw them naked into an open pit near the road where birds, tidewater, and nature would decompose them and serve as a warning and crime deterrent to passersby. There was a fence around the pit to prevent the bodies being taken away.
Boston court records do not show if Mary’s letter was read in court, or if they denied or accepted her request. Many letters of the time, in England and New England, show the date they were read and recorded. They say “endorsed” or “denied” and are dated. There was no such notation on her letter, although there’s a scrap of paper taped to the letter which states that it’s from Mary Dyer, with the date she wrote it. It’s not in Mary’s hand, though. It seems to be a file note.
Perhaps there was no resolution noted on the letter because nine days before the October execution, her fate had already been decided by the court.
Did Mary’s letter have any effect, then, on stopping Governor Endecott and Reverends John Norton and John Wilson from their bloody persecution and death penalties? Probably not.
But her death itself, seven months later, did cause considerable outrage amongst even the non-Quaker populace, and of course Edward Burrough used Mary’s letter as a model for his successful pamphlet.
The unintended effect of Mary Dyer’s letter is that 350 years later, we gain insight into the real story and intimate details behind the legend.

Christy K Robinson is the author of three books set in the 17th century: the biographical novels Mary Dyer Illuminated, and Mary Dyer: For Such a Time as This, and (nonfiction) The Dyers of London, Boston, & Newport. For more information:

Monday, 13 January 2014

CLAIMING THE REBEL'S HEART - a novel of the English Civil War

In earlier Hoydens blog posts about the English Civil War, I have written about the women who were left behind to defend their family and their husband's properties.   As I looked into the lives of women such as BRILLIANA HARLEY and the formidable COUNTESS OF DERBY, the writer's "what if" antenna started twitching and I started to play with the idea of a castle, a siege, a strong woman and a hero to love. I make no apology for the fact that I write historical fiction with a romantic theme. I like a hero and heroine and a happy ever after but I like to think it is the bit in the middle and how my hero and heroine earn their happy ever after that distinguishes mys stories from what is generally perceived as "historical romance". History first, romance second... or a very close equal first. 

I love my history and I love writing about the period of the English Civil War.  War throws up the possibilities for conflict so beloved of writers and in a civil war you have families pitted against each other. Doesn't matter whether you are English or American or Russian, or French or German... wherever there is civil war, emotions run high.

I also wanted the challenge of writing a story from the parliamentary perspective. It is too easy when writing stories set in this period to come down on the side of the losers, the cavaliers who were "wrong but wromantic" (to use Sellers and Yeatman's description from 1066 and All That). The "roundheads" tend to be universally depicted as "right but repulsive" (Sellers and Yeatman again). So how to make a hero, fighting for the parliamentary cause, "right AND wromantic". 

Drawing heavily on Brilliana Harley and the siege of Brampton Bryan Castle with a sprinkle of Lathom House and Charlotte, Countess of Derby thrown in, I started with a fictional castle in Herefordshire (just over the border from Shropshire...). Herefordshire was a stronghold for the royalist forces  and like Brampton Bryan, I have set my story in one of the few strongholds for the Parliamentary cause, the fictional Kinton Lacey.

A man…a woman… and a castle - CLAIMING THE REBEL’S HEART by Alison Stuart

Herefordshire, England 1643

As the English Civil War divides England and tears families apart, Kinton Lacey castle is one of the brave few loyal to the roundhead cause.

With her father away, Deliverance Felton will do whatever it takes to defend her family home against the royalist forces ranged against it. She can shoot and wield a sword as well as any man and anything she needs to know about siege warfare she has learned from a book...but no book can prepare her for what is to come.

Captain Luke Collyer, soldier of fortune and a man with his own reasons for loyalty to the parliamentary cause, is sent to relieve the castle. Everything he knows about siege warfare in general and women in particular he has learned from experience, but when it comes to Deliverance Felton has he met his match?

Deliverance will not give up her command lightly and Luke will have to face a challenge to his authority as fierce as the cavalier foe outside the walls. He will do whatever it takes to win Deliverance’s trust but will he run the risk of losing his own, well guarded, heart?

To find out more and to read an excerpt visit my website:  Click HERE


The following is an excerpt from the first chapter… meet the unbiddable Mistress Felton and Captain Luke Collyer - a man with secrets of his own!

Chapter 1
Kinton Lacey Castle, Herefordshire
July 25, 1643

Startled out of an uneasy doze by the crackle of musket fire, Deliverance sent books and papers flying as she rummaged through the detritus on the table in her search for the flint. As the candle sputtered into life, the door opened and her steward, Melchior Blakelocke, stood outlined in the doorway, holding a covered lantern.
“Are we being attacked?” Deliverance asked.
“I don't think so,” Melchior replied. “In fact, my lady, I think it is our besiegers who are being attacked.”
Hope sprang in Deliverance’s heart. “Is it Father? Has he come to relieve us?”
She reached for the elegant French Wheelock musket her father used for hunting, running her hand over the well-polished wood of the stock. It had a kick that threatened to dislocate her shoulder every time she used it, but she took pride in her mastery of the weapon.
Outside, the entire garrison of Kinton Lacey Castle had deployed along the walls, but to her relief, the firing and shouts came from beyond the crumbling walls of the old castle. She took her now accustomed vantage point on the northern tower of the bastion gate and squinted into the darkness and confusion.
Smoke and flame from burning outbuildings lent a surreal light to the melee of men that whirled and danced in the shadows as if re-enacting some ancient pagan ceremony. Only the clash of steel instead of cymbals brought home the grim purpose of the bizarre pageant.
Two men on horseback appeared out of the smoke and cantered towards the castle. Backlit by the fires, they could have been a pair of vengeful spirits.
Her heart pounding, Deliverance raised her musket and fired, cursing in a most unladylike manner as the musket ball skimmed past the two men, taking the taller man's hat. His horse, startled by its rider's jerk of alarm, reared up depositing the soldier on the ground. For a moment he lay still, before rising to his hands and knees. Shaking his head, he rose slowly to his feet, casting an upwards glance in the direction of the castle, as he dusted off his hat and remounted his horse.
Melchior cleared his throat. “While that is excellent shooting, I think you will find they are friends not foes.”
Deliverance’s stomach lurched. “How can you tell?”
“They wear the orange sash of the parliamentary forces, my lady.”
Deliverance leaned the musket against the wall, clenching and unclenching her hand in an effort to disguise her shaking fingers. Nausea rose in her throat. It was the first time she had fired the weapon intending to kill and she had nearly killed one of their own relieving force.
She took a deep breath, struggling to regain her composure as the two men came to a halt at the bridge over the castle’s defensive ditch. Facing them were the stout oaken gates to the castle that Deliverance had shut on her foe two weeks earlier.
“Hold your fire.” The man she had shot at called up to the defenders. “We are sent by Sir John Felton to relieve this castle.”
Deliverance picked up her musket and drew back to a vantage point where she could see without being seen. “You answer, Melchior.”
Melchior cast her a sidelong glance and stepped forward to the battlements. “Your name, sir?”
“Captain Luke Collyer.”
“How do we know they've come from Father?” Deliverance prompted her steward.
“How do I know you are sent by his lordship?” Melchior demanded.
The man who had identified himself as Captain Luke Collyer produced a paper from his jacket and waved it at the wall.
“These are my orders. While I don't wish to appear churlish, sir, we have no great desire to remain outside these walls when those knaves could be back at any moment.”
“What do you mean?” Melchior asked, leaning further over the ramparts.
“We appear to have seen off your besiegers for the moment.” The man’s voice rose to make himself heard by all on the castle wall.
Deliverance drew a sharp intake of breath as relief flooded through her. The siege was over but she still had to be careful. She put no trust in Farrington not to try and gull her in this fashion.
“Very well, Melchior, let them in, but I want every man with a weapon to have it trained on them.” She tapped a fingernail on the stock of her musket. “I will meet them in the Great Hall.”
“May I suggest a change of dress, madam?”
She looked down at her breeches. “Demure and ladylike?”
Melchior nodded. “Demure and ladylike.”

Sunday, 5 January 2014

I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War

For about a year now, I've been mentioning in the Hoydens' updates about my current title, I Had Rather Die: Rape in the Civil War. In this case, I mean the American Civil War, which took place during the 19th century. The fact that I ventured into nonfiction and a different century doesn't mean that I've stopped writing about the 17th. In fact, my upcoming title which should be released later this year is a continuation of The Dreaming: Walks Through Mist, so I should have plenty more 17th century tales to blog about.

Previous to writing Walks Through Mist, I had written an American Civil War trilogy. While researching the trilogy, I read quotes from historians that claimed the Civil War was a "low-rape" war. At the time, I didn't question their research, but as I learned more about the war, I began to doubt the belief. Around seven years ago, I started investigating the subject in earnest with the intent on writing an article. I found more historians repeating "low-rape" war without any citations or serious research.

Words like "restraint" were fairly common in explaining why Victorian men supposedly didn't rape during wartime. These same Victorian men had no difficulty shedding that restraint when it came to raping black or Native American women. So restraint meant white women specifically. As I dug into the material further, it became clear that restraint was reserved for upper-class white women, and even then, women of all classes had been raped.

As it turns out, I wrote an article, using mostly secondary sources. Eventually, a now defunct Civil War magazine published it, almost a year after submission. By that time, I had amassed a database numbering into hundreds of incidents of rape. Only then did I realize my article had grown into a book. At first, I scoured the period newspapers and the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, which are commonly referred to as the Official Records or OR for short. The OR consist of 128 lengthy volumes of the official reports, orders, and correspondence of the two armies.

This research was easy compared to gathering information from the next phase when I started collecting records from the courts-martial. For over two years, I traveled back and forth to the National Archives in Washington, D.C., photographing the trial records of soldiers who had been accused of rape. When I got home, I went through the tedious process of transcribing the records. At the same time, this method allowed me to maximize my time at the Archives by photographing as many records as possible in any given visit.

Sometimes, I'd miss a page or a couple of pages came out blurry. As a result, I had to pull the record again on my next visit and locate the missing pages. Fortunately, most court transcribers of the era numbered the documents, which usually helped my search. Some of the Confederate guerrillas had been accused of numerous crimes besides rape. Those particular trials could be over 100 pages in length, and I would have to scour through them to locate the relevant info for my book.

The title I Had Rather Die comes from a court-martial record. One woman testified that she would "rather die" than be raped. In that particular case, the two men were executed, which was fairly uncommon during the time, even though rape was considered a capital offense. The men in question had a history of trouble making, plus she had a sympathetic ear from General Marsena Rudolph Patrick. He located the assailants because one of the men had bragged about what they had done.

As anyone might guess, reading so many accounts of rape was daunting, and there were many times that I wanted to give up. The stories were heartbreaking. That's also the reason why I couldn't let go. The women who spoke of their torment had been silenced before, when their voices had been dismissed to a "low-rape" war. Like any other war, the Civil War had numerous rapes. At long last, the survivors' voices have been heard, and not to worry, next time, I'll return to blogging about the 17th century.

Kim Murphy