Lord of Misrule: Medieval Chaos at Christmas

Lord of Misrule, Christmas, Boy Bishop, Tudor, Medieval,

We all know one, that person who takes Christmas to the next level.  They wear Santa hats, they have several Christmas trees decorated according to a theme. Their house is usually covered in Christmas lights, they throw the best Christmas parties and they run the whole of Christmas with military precision.  This Hyper-Christmas Spirit is not a new phenomenon.  In fact, up until the 17th century that job was outsourced to someone known as the Lord of Misrule.

The Lord of Misrule was appointed to organise events and ensure that everyone was partaking in the festivities. He was deliberately chosen from the lower classes meaning that for a few weeks out of the year, the positions of Lord and servant would be swapped. He even had his own attendants, livery and was treated with due respect, all in good fun, of course!

The Lord of Misrule would invite travelling actors to perform Mummer’s plays, he would host elaborate masques, hold large feasts and arrange the procession of the annual Yule Log.  Games that were usually illegal the rest of the year were allowed during the Christmas season and The Lord of Misrule was in charge of organising them.

Lord of Misrule, Christmas, Boy Bishop, Tudor, Medieval
Laughing Fool

During the early days of this position, he was simply appointed to preside over the Feast of Fools.  This occasion took place on January 1st in which a mock Bishop or pope was elected from the lower classes to parody ecclesiastical rituals. Soon, this tradition grew to include the courts of Kings, noblemen’s houses and universities.  His period of reign grew as well, The Lord of Misrule could be in charge anywhere from 12 days to 3 months.

This tradition has its roots in the Roman festival of Saturnalia. Held at the same time of year, the Romans would appoint a slave to be a representation of the god Saturn, the King of Saturnalia.  His job was very similar as the Lord of Misrule except at the end of his reign instead of going back to his life as a Roman slave he was sacrificed on the altar of Saturn.

Scotland had its own version of the Lord of Misrule, called the Abbot of Unreason.  His job was more or less the same as their neighbours to the South.  In cathedrals around the country, a Boy Bishop was appointed from a selection of choir boys.  His rule began on the Feast of St Nicholas (the patron saint of children), December 6th and ended on the Feast of the Innocents, December 28th.  He was set with the task of performing all of the official rituals of the church apart from mass.

Boy Bishop, Lord of Misrule, Christmas, Tudor, Medieval
Boy Bishop

Henry VIII banned the practice of the Lord of Misrule after the Reformation but it was soon taken up again when his son, Edward VI took the throne. During the reign of Elizabeth I The Lord of Misrule fell out of favour due to disorderly behaviour. It was finally abolished altogether when Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan Order took power.

What’s more terrifying than witches? The Witch-Finder General

Matthew Hopkins, witch trials, Witch-Finder General, 17th Century, Essex, East Anglia,

One of the most popular Halloween costumes in history is that of the witch.  Green skin, pointed hat and broomstick, her image is a universal sign of the dark arts. For centuries all around the world witches have been persecuted for their beliefs. However, in the mid 17th century, an even scarier character emerged, that of the Witch-Finder General.

In 1644 in the the village of Manningtree in Essex, 33 women would be accused of a crime so heinous it would change their lives forever. At the same time one man would use their downfall to build his career.

In Britain during the medieval and Tudor periods, the state left matters of witchcraft to the church to handle. Witches were only treated as criminals if their actions harmed another person or their property. This all changed once James I came to the throne. Deeply distrustful of the supernatural, he produced a book called Daemonlogie, a sort of handbook on how to recognise and punish witches, spirits and necromancers. He then petitioned parliament for an update on the Witchcraft Act making witchcraft itself a felony punishable by the courts.

Forty years later, with the rise in Puritanism a man named Matthew Hopkins would use James’ book and The Witchcraft Act to tragic ends.

In 1644 John Stearne overheard a group of women discussing how they had recently met the Devil. Believing this to be witchcraft, Stearne set out to prosecute the women and recruited Matthew Hopkins to help him.  Although it was Stearne who originally started the hunt, it was Matthew Hopkins, later dubbing himself Witch-Finder General, who soon led the way.

Relying heavily on James I’s book Daemonologie, Hopkins and Stearne tortured women into confessing. They were made subject to humiliating full body searches looking for Devil’s Marks. A Devil’s Mark was a spot on the body where a witch’s imp, or ‘familiar’, would suckle. In these paranoid times any unusual blemish such as a scar, extra nipple or even a birth mark could be seen as a Devil’s Mark. The marks were then pricked with a long sharp pin.  If they didn’t bleed or if the women didn’t feel any pain, it was proof that these blemishes were indeed Devil’s Marks.

Other forms of torture included sleep deprivation and ‘walking’ where the accused were forced to walk until they had blisters on their feet. Most shockingly was the ‘swimming’ test. Women were tied up and thrown into a body of water, if they sank (and drowned) then they were innocent but if they floated then this was seen as a sign that the water (God’s holy element used for baptisms) had refused to receive the person and had cast them out, thus proving their guilt.

Elizabeth Clarke who was over 80 years old and with only one leg was the first to break. While under torture she named the other women.  However, during their trial it was Rebecca West who had the most compelling evidence. She claimed that a group of women, including her own mother, had forced her to participate in a strange supernatural ritual. During this ritual they commanded the spirits to kill a man’s horse, his cows and a child.  She then claimed that later that night the devil came into her room to marry her before consummating their relationship.

A minister by the name of Mr Long testified against them as well. He claimed that after accusing a local woman of being a witch she swore before God that she was innocent but was immediately struck to the ground trembling and crying. She stayed like this for two days. Afterwards she confessed to Mr Long that she had made a pact with the devil who had visited her in the shape of a squirrel.  She also confessed that she and her fellow witches had caused the storm which had hit the area in March, killing several people who had been onboard a small boat.

Even their gaoler in Colchester believed they were witches. He accused them of magically stealing his lunch, a shoulder of mutton.

In total 33 women were accused of witchcraft and tried in the courts in Chelmsford. The confessions of Elizabeth Clarke, Rebecca West and Reverend Long were all that was needed. A total of 19 women, including Elizabeth Clarke and Rebecca’s mother Anne were hanged for witchcraft. Rebecca and eight other women were given reprieves.

The Manningtree Witch Trials were the first of many for Matthew Hopkins and his associate John Stearne. Over the next two years, they were paid handsomely for extracting confessions from so called witches all over the region of East Anglia.

Hopkins was accused by many of wrongfully persecuting innocent people for profit. It was claimed that he made around £1000 during his time as Witch-Finder General. A staggering amount of money for that time.

His methods were also deemed to be overly cruel and were responsible for hundreds of false confessions.  He addressed his critics shortly before his death in his book, The Discovery of Witches.  In it Hopkins directly answers some of the questions people had about the efficacy of his work. He claimed that no confession had been extracted during torture, that confessions were only accepted in between sessions. He said that the reasons for forcing women to walk for hours was due to the fact that when they sat, their familiars would come to them, frightening the interrogators.  Although sleep deprivation was used, the accused were given a full night’s sleep before extracting confessions.  The method known as ‘swimming’ was claimed to be used at the request of the women themselves.  Anyone who feared they had a Devil’s Mark could asked to be tested. If they sank they knew they would be cleared of any wrongdoing.

The Witch-Finder General, Matthew Hopkins died of consumption in 1647.  During his short career, he was directly responsible for around 300 deaths in East Anglia alone. His book would go on to inspire other witch hunters including those involved in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of New England.

Unless you’re a Templar, you can stop worrying about Friday 13th

Knights Templar Execution Medieval crusades

This month will see the year’s second Friday the 13th, and to make it worse it lands in October, the scariest of all months.  For centuries the superstitious have feared this day as bad luck, although there is little evidence to suggest that Friday the 13th is any different to any other day.  Why then, does this day strike such fear into the hearts of those who choose to believe the superstition?  To answer that question we must travel back 710 years.

In the medieval period, the Knights Templar were the most powerful organisation in Europe.  They were an elite group of monk-soldiers who fought holy wars and protected pilgrims along their journey to the Holy Land.  They were Christendom’s special forces, body guards and eventually their bankers.

Pilgrims and Crusaders would hand their assets over to a local Templar before leaving home. In return, they were given a letter of credit, a sort of early cheque, which could be cashed on their arrival in the Holy Land. With no need to carry large sums of money, pilgrim’s and crusader’s assets were protected in the event they were robbed on the journey.

Rulers and aristocracy all over Europe began donating their land, castles and other assets to the Templars. The Templars then used their vast network of resources to move horses, men and supplies to the Middle East. Despite their wealth as an organisation, each individual Templar took a vow of poverty.

By the late 13th century, the Crusades were coming to an end with Islam still the dominant religious power in the Holy Land.  This loss brought heavy criticisms to the Crusaders, including the Knights Templar.

Despite their decline in influence, their wealth coming in from their banking facilities was still very strong.  Much of Europe’s aristocracy, including kings, found themselves in debt to the Templars. Philip IV, King of France was one such monarch.  A year earlier, he had gone after the jewish banking industry to help alleviate his debts, this time he targeted the Knights Templar.

At dawn on Friday 13th of October 1307, Phillip struck. Using the charge of heresy, the king ordered the simultaneous arrest of Templars all over France. This including their leader Templar Grand Master, Jacques de Molay. Over the next several weeks the Templars were systematically tortured resulting in confessions to a series of bizarre crimes.  Amongst these crimes, the men confessed to spitting on the cross, homosexuality and worshipping the god Baphomet.

Templar Knight Execution Medieval Crusade Jacques Molay
Execution of Jacque de Molay

The scandal caused Pope Clement V to issue a Papal Bull dissolving the Order and handing over all of their assets to the Knights Hospitaller. Many kings, including Edward I of England chose not to believe the accusations and refused to order their arrest.  This created a sanctuary for knights running from persecution.

This sanctuary lasted only a year when Edward I finally agreed to obey the papal bull.  His heart was clearly not in it as he arrested only a handful of knights, none of whom were found guilty.  Still, the king seized their assets and the Order either disbanded, joined the Knights Hospitallers or carried on in secret.

temple church London knights templars
Temple Church, London. Built by the Knights Templar

The cruelty and suddenness of Philip’s attack reverberates even today. Friday the 13th leaves some people fearful for what the day may bring. Unless you’re one of the Knights Templars, you can relax, Friday the 13th is just another day.


For a bit of fun regarding Templar history, visit the Knights Templar: Site Mapping Project                                                                                                                                  It’s an interactive map listing various places around the world which have connections with the Knights Templar

1703- The Year of England’s Great Storm

storm 1703 ships disaster

My parents waited out Hurricane Harvey from their home just north of Houston. As the flood waters rose, they watched helpless as their neighbours houses were submerged. Sitting slightly higher up, their house remained thankfully dry. From where I live, in the UK, I regularly checked in for updates.  Although they were stuck in their home until the waters receded, they were very lucky.

Listening to the drama back home and on the news I wondered about storms in Britain. No stranger to poor weather, gale force winds frequently batter the country, especially in the Autumn. Hurricanes could theoretically reach the British Isles but had that every happened?  What was Britain’s worst storm?  If you know any Brits over the age of 40 they will all harken back to the Great Storm of 1987. That night, 22 people were killed, and 15 million trees were uprooted including 6 of the 7 oak trees which gave their name to the Kentish town of Sevenoaks.  As bad as that storm was, it pales in comparison to the Great Storm of 1703.

In the weeks leading up to the 26th of November 1703 (7th of December in the Gregorian Calendar) the weather was typical for Britain in the Autumn/Winter.  In other words, it was terrible.  Strong winds and heavy rain battered the country, particularly in the south. However, on the night of the 26th, things would get much worse.

London had only recently been rebuilt after the Great Fire which destroyed most of the city less than 40 years before. Thatched roofs had been outlawed within the city limits, forcing everyone to use tiles.  Those same tiles became perfect projectiles as the storm blew them off their roofs, smashing windows as they sailed through the air.  Chimneys collapsed in their hundreds trapping and killing people in their homes. Queen Anne was forced to take refuge in the cellars of her home at St James’s Palace to hide from the tempest outside.  On the River Thames, the tide rose high and swept ships out to sea.  Others were ripped from their moorings and smashed together in large wooden heaps.

In the county of Berkshire, a tornado, described by locals as a ‘spout’, snapped an oak tree in half, crossed a road and sucking up water along the way before destroying an old barn and removing the thatch off of a nearby building. Finally, the tornado hit a man, knocking him off his feet before disappearing.  Luckily, the man wasn’t hurt, just shaken up.

Richard Kidder, Bishop of Bath & Wells wasn’t so lucky.  He and his wife were both killed when two chimneys at their home at The Bishop’s Palace in Wells, Somerset collapsed, crashing through their room and into the floor below.  The Bishop was found wearing his morning gown  some distance from the bed as if he had gotten up to check on the state of the weather when disaster struck.

The River Severn rose by 20 to 30 feet inland drowning people and livestock and driving ships onto the land.  Windmills whirled around with such force that their sails collapsed or the friction caused the mills to catch fire.

Most accounts of the event come from the clergy, therefore it is unsurprising that we know of a great many churches which were damaged. Countless church spires collapsed during the storm. St Mary’s in Fairford, Gloucestershire, well known even today for its medieval stained glass, had its Great West Window blown in.

The worst disasters happened at sea.  Sitting on a reef off the South East coast of Cornwall, was the Eddystone lighthouse.  Having undergone extensive improvements just four years earlier it stood proud as the first ever off-shore lighthouse.  On the night of the great storm, high waves swept the lighthouse away, killing all six of its occupants including its architect Henry Winstanley.

Lighthouse eddystone

Ships in distress fired their guns to each other as a cry for help, survivors told of how they could hear the cries but were powerless to help.  Unfortunately, there was no way to save them.  The force of the winds blew some ships miles off course.  There were reports of ships being blown to The Netherlands and at least one ship reaching Gothenburg in Sweden. More than forty merchant ships and thirteen Royal Navy ships were lost.

The novelist Willem Dafoe had noted that leading up to the storm, his barometer dropped as low as he’d ever seen it.  So awestruck was he by the devastation that he took it upon himself to chronicle it.  He soon advertised in local publications for people’s written accounts then compiled them into his 1704 book, The Storm.  Using his description, researchers have speculated that the storm was consistent with a Category 2 hurricane.

The death toll to this great storm is estimated to be somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000 people. Without today’s forecasting methods, the country was completely unprepared.

As I write this piece, Hurricane Irma is due to reach Florida in a matter of hours.  I wish them all good luck, especially those close friends on the West coast.

To learn more about the Great Storm of 1703,  you can purchase a copy of Daniel Defoe’s The Storm or follow this link for a free audio version:               Daniel Defoe’s The Storm

Update:  Hurricane Irma passed through the Caribbean and the Florida Keys with devastating effects. By the time it hit mainland Florida, its winds had greatly reduced. Although still a serious storm, most of Florida was spared the devastation seen throughout the Caribbean and the Keys.  My close friends escaped with nothing more serious than a yard full of debris.  Many were not so lucky, Irma killed 32 people in the state of Florida alone.


The Best Places in the UK to Celebrate American Independence Day

America, 4th of July, Independence, England, Museums, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, Events

As an American living in the UK, I’ve had to get creative with some of the yearly celebrations that those living in the United States take for granted.  For example, when my children were very young, I went around to the neighbours houses a few days before Halloween every year to ask if they would participate in my children’s Trick or Treating and, so as not to put anyone out, I even offered to provide candy for them to give back to us on the night.  Some neighbours I had to avoid as I knew that they wanted nothing to do with the Pagan Holiday of Halloween. Most however kindly accepted and even insisted on providing their own treats.  When the big night arrived, each of our neighbours would coo over the children’s costumes, hand them their chocolate (usually full size bars) then, in true English fashion, invite us in for a cup of tea. As it would be considered the height of rudeness to refuse, we would dutifully stay for a ‘cuppa’ and a 20 minute chat.  Halloween night would last hours!

Fast forward twelve years, Trick or Treating is now widely accepted and the numbers of children wandering around the village Trick or Treating has grown. No longer does anyone need to be pre-warned of the festivities, they provide their own treats and some of them have even gotten to grips with the ‘leave the porch light on only if participating’ etiquette of Trick or Treating.

Fourth of July

That’s great for a holiday which has much of its roots in the UK. What about that uniquely American celebration of Independence Day?  It isn’t a British Holiday at all, in fact, you could say that it is Anti-British.  Luckily, the 241 years that have since passed has soothed old wounds.  Whilst you won’t find a fireworks display (at least I haven’t found one yet) in July many British institutions take advantage of the marketing opportunity and offer things like Free Drinks to Americans or Screenings of Independence Day.  My favourite way to celebrate Independence Day in the UK is to visit one of three museums, Benjamin Franklin’s House in London, Sulgrave Manor- the ancestral home of George Washington or The American Museum in Britain.

Ben Franklin Wuz Here

Benjamin Franklin’s House sits a short walk from Trafalgar Square.  It is an unassuming brick townhouse that blends in perfectly with the other houses on the street.  Although sparsely decorated, it boasts being the only surviving residence of Benjamin Franklin in the world. Each fourth of July, they invite members of the public in for tours, cake and bubbly. While it isn’t the most exciting place to be on Independence Day, it is a glimpse into the life of a Founding Father you couldn’t see an America.


George Washington Never Wuz Here

Sulgrave Manor in Oxfordshire is the ancestral home of George Washington.  His great great grandfather lived here before he immigrated to the Virginia Colony in 1656. In 1914 it was purchased and converted into a museum to celebrate 100 years of peace between Britain and America. As a museum, it tries to strike a balance between a 16th century historic house and a British link to American History.  On Independence Day it hosts special events such as battle reenactments, American dancers, exhibitions, tours and even American bbq’s.  The American link can seem a little tenuous here, however taken as a period house in its own right, it is a charming way to spend an afternoon.


Bath Does it Best

While both Benjamin Franklin’s House and Sulgrave Manor are lovely places to visit, they pale in comparison to the enchanting American Museum in Britain.  This museum sits on the outskirts of the city of Bath overlooking the green valleys of the Somerset countryside. Inside you will find American hand made items such as quilts, ceramics and Quaker furniture. The period rooms allow you to step into a 17th century Puritan home, an 18th century tavern and a mid 19th century New Orleans bedroom. As you wander through the various galleries, you can admire the decorative arts and craftsmanship that has been present throughout America’s history. The quality of what they offer visitors isn’t restricted to the galleries. Their events are pretty special too. Around the fourth of July every year they host an Independence Day event which can include Revolutionary War re-enactments, friendly games of American Football, Harley Davidson displays and even the odd Elvis impersonator.  You can easily spend a day here and forget that you aren’t actually in America.


Not a Bad Substitute 

While I deeply miss watching the fireworks display from a picnic blanket in the local park or a tailgate party in the mall parking lot, there is something inherently special about the Independence Day celebrations provided by the very people from whom we became independent.  After nearly 250 years since we signed that Declaration, there is a sort of acknowledgment of the rich contribution American culture has made to the rest of the world and that without that original fight for independence, much of this richness may never have shone through.

Emperor Claudius and the Invasion of Britain

Rome Claudius Invasion Britannia Emperor Celts

If you follow me on Facebook or Instagram, you will have seen that I recently deviated from my usual subject of British History and posted several photos of a recent trip to Rome.  True history lovers can appreciate all history and no one can deny the rich contributions of the Roman Empire. Of course, it’s important to remember that Britain too was once a part that great empire.  On that note, let’s take a look at the first Roman Emperor to rule over Britain, Claudius, the Accidental Emperor.

During his early years Claudius’ destiny seemed so far removed from greatness that his own family tried to remove him from public life.  Claudius suffered from a disability.  Throughout history, disabilities were seen as a physical manifestation of a character flaw or physical proof that someone was inherently ‘bad’ or ‘stupid’.  Over the centuries, historians have argued over whether Claudius had Cerebral Palsy, Polio, Tourette’s or if his disabilities were completely made up; an elaborate hoax to avoid the close scrutiny of power hungry relatives. What we do know is that he had weak legs which were known to give out under him, his head and hands shook, he foamed at the mouth, trickled out of the nose and spoke with a stammer.  However, as he got older, his symptoms seemed to improve.

Claudius was the uncle of Caligula, the young emperor vilified for his debauchery and cruelty.  Unlike his nephew, Claudius lived a quiet life hidden away from public view where he worked as an historian. However, Caligula soon brought Claudius into the political sphere by appointing him as co-consul. Despite this, Caligula bullied his uncle mercilessly by mocking him and his disabilities, playing pranks on him and encouraging others to do the same.

Caligula’s irrational nature didn’t stop with family, his behaviour towards the senate and Rome’s nobility eventually caught up with him and he was assassinated in AD41.  The conspirator’s plans may have been to assassinate the entire royal family, including Claudius, and restore the empire to a republic.  However, a member of the Praetorian Guard found Claudius hiding behind a curtain and declared him ‘princeps’ or boss, before whisking him away and putting him under their protection.  The senate, sensing an end to their original plans, probably saw the ‘weak-minded’ Claudius as someone who could be easily manipulated and agreed to install him as Emperor.

There has been some debate on whether or not Claudius was in on the conspiracy to murder Caligula and his family. Whether or not he was, he certainly benefited from their deaths.  However, he knew that he was greatly underestimated and needed to prove himself.

Emperor Claudius Rome Roman Empire
The Emperor Claudius

So, what does a new emperor do to prove his worth?  He conquers a new land.  Claudius set his sites on the previously unattainable island of Britannia.  The remote region was known for it’s fertile fields, livestock and abundance of tin and gold.  The Romans had wanted Britannia since Caesar launched his unsuccessful campaign in 55 BC. If Claudius was going to be taken seriously as a ruler, he needed that island.

The real weakness of Britannia was that it didn’t have one single ruler.  The country was split into several independent Celtic tribes.  These tribes rarely got along nor did they often work together.  With the help of an exiled Celtic client king (a puppet king loyal to Rome), the Romans were able to launch their invasion.

Claudius appointed Aulus Plautius as general to lead the invasion.  After a successful landing the Romans chased the Celts through the countryside and across two rivers with heavy battles throughout. Towards the end, Plautius called for Claudius’ assistance. This was probably a symbolic gesture as Claudius wasn’t trained for military command. Still, the emperor arrived with extra men, war elephants and heavy armaments.  Leaders from eleven Celtic tribes surrendered to Claudius at Colchester, the ceremonial capitol of the Celtic people.

Although this defeat was important, it would take another thirty years to conquer all of Britain (Scotland not included). Still, the underdog of Rome had done what even the great Julius Caesar couldn’t accomplish, he’d conquered Brittania for the Roman Empire.

His physical ailments caused his own mother to describe him as “A monster of a man, not finished but merely begun by Dame Nature”.  Yet this ‘monster of a man’ gained the respect of the people and with his conquests, he proved himself worthy of the term Emperor.

The Eyam Plague: A Hero’s Tale

Eyam plague

Covid-19  is currently wreaking havoc throughout the world. People are emptying stores to fill their cupboards with supplies.  What lessons can we learn from those who dealt with these sorts of epidemics in the past? One village can teach us all a lesson in self sacrifice and community responsibility.

In the summer of 1665 the bubonic plague was sweeping through London. This was the same virus that had decimated Europe 300 years earlier and now it was back. Victims would start off with flu like symptoms of fever and vomiting, their lymph nodes would swell, creating ‘buboes’, and their skin decayed. After days of agony, they would succumb to the contagion.

In September of that year, one hundred and sixty miles north of London in the Derbyshire village of Eyam, Alexander Hadfield, the village tailor, received an order of cloth from London.  His assistant, a travelling tailor by the name of George Viccars, unwrapped the cloth and hung it over the fire to dry. Unbeknownst to him, burrowing in the weave were fleas infected with the plague.  George Viccars soon fell ill and by the end of the week became the first victim of the Eyam outbreak. From the tailor’s house, the virus spread quickly throughout the community and by the end of the year 42 people had died.

A Selfless Plan 

During the cold winter months, the death rate slowed but by June of 1666 it had once again risen. Frightened residents prepared to flee the area, most heading to the city of Sheffield. The rector, William Mompesson, recognised the risk to surrounding communities if potentially infected people moved away. He believed that the village needed to take the radical decision to be quarantined. The people of Eyam would need to sacrifice themselves to keep the virus from spreading any further.

Mompesson had replaced the former vicar, Thomas Stanley, a few years before and he wasn’t well liked by his new parishioners. He knew he’d need Stanley on his side in order to convince the villagers. After approaching his predecessor, the two agreed on a plan.

They called an outdoor meeting of all healthy residents and put forward their plan. Many people expressed concerns, after all a quarantine would mean certain death for many of them. In the end, they reluctantly agreed.

Mompesson promised his parishioners that they would not starve or lack necessities. The Earl of Devonshire, who lived in nearby Chatsworth House, and the neighbouring villagers at Stoney Middleton agreed to provide whatever the townspeople needed.  They drilled small holes into the village’s boundary stones then filled them with vinegar, a disinfectant. Goods would be left on the stones and coins could be dropped into the holes as payment. Residents were also asked to dispose of their own dead.

A Lover’s Tale

Emmett Sydall was a young woman who lived with her family in Eyam.  She was betrothed to Rowland Torre of Stoney Middleton.  When the outbreak made it impossible for the two to visit each other openly they would secretly meet at a secluded spot between their two villages.  To protect Rowland from any infection, they took care to stand at a reasonable distance.

In April of 1666, Emmett stopped meeting Rowland. He had to wait until the outbreak ended and the quarantine was lifted to find out that his fiancé had died.

And A Mother’s Agony

Elizabeth Hancock lived with her husband John and their six children on the outskirts of the village at Riley’s Farm. The plague struck their house in August of 1666.  Within eight days her entire family were dead.  Following the rules of quarantine, Elizabeth had to dig plots in a nearby field and bury each of her loved ones herself.  Some of them were too big for her to carry so she was forced to drag them along the ground to their final resting place.  People from Stoney Middleton were said to have watched her from a distance but due to the quarantine were unable to help.

The End Finally Comes

In late October 1666, Abraham Morten died, he was the last of the plague victims. After 14 months, Eyam’s hellish ordeal was finally over. Out of a population of around 700, it is believed that nearly 260 people had died, including Mompesson’s beloved wife Catherine. The lives that they saved by stopping the spread is immeasurable.

Modern Implications 

350 years later the descendants of the survivors of the Eyam outbreak are providing genetic information about their ancestors. In December 2000, a study done on the DNA of 100 descendants still living in Eyam showed a higher than normal proportion of those villagers carried the Delta 32 genetic mutation.  This mutation gives them immunity to the Bubonic Plague. Also, if  inherited by both parents, Delta 32 is known to give immunity to HIV/AIDS.

Eyam village is now a popular tourist destination with museums, shops and tearooms. In front of some of the houses are plaques telling the story of the plague victims who once lived there. The Riley Graves, the final resting place of Mrs Hancock’s husband and six children, has been preserved by The National Trust and visitors are welcome.

Eyam is now known as a beautiful little village in the picturesque Peak District National Park but its story of sacrifice in the face of certain death has attracted people from all over the world. Considering the incredible heroism of those residents of Eyam, we can’t help but ask ourselves if we could have made the same decision.

If you’d like to take a stroll through the village of Eyam from the comfort of your computer, follow these Google Street View Links:

Plague Houses and Church

The Riley Graves

The Other Princess Charlotte: The Tragic Death of a Nation’s Hope

The Other Princess Charlotte: The Tragic Death of a Nation’s Hope

200 years before the birth of Kate and Will’s daughter Charlotte, there was another Princess Charlotte who captivated a nation. Her father the Prince Regent and future King George IV was universally disliked for his excesses. Years of too much drinking, partying and general unrestrained living had not endeared him to the nation. His disastrous marriage to Caroline of Brunswick had ended in separation shortly after Charlotte’s birth, a mere nine months after their wedding. Charlotte was George’s only legitimate heir and a ray of hope in the eyes of a fed up nation.

On the 2nd of May 1816, Charlotte married Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coberg-Saalfeld. It was a love match for which Charlotte had fought hard. However, with King George III nearing the end of his life, while completely held in the grips of insanity, and her unpopular father acting as Regent, there was no time to waste in producing an heir.

After two miscarriages, it was announced in April of 1817 that Charlotte was once again pregnant. The nation was captivated by the news and bookies began taking bets as to the sex of the baby, economists were predicting a stock market rise after the birth.

After gaining what was considered too much weight, her Accoucheur (male midwife) Sir Richard Croft put her on a strict diet and occasionally had the princess bled. Unfortunately, this only served to weaken her. Leopold’s physician, German doctor Christian Stockmar, was appalled by what he saw as archaic prenatal practices. He had been asked to join Charlotte’s royal medical team but refused on the grounds that if something went wrong the foreigner would be blamed.

On the 3rd of November, Charlotte went into labour. The first stage went very slowly with weak contractions dragging out for 26 hours. Charlotte was not allowed food during this time. Early on, Dr Croft diagnosed the baby as breach but he took the decision not to intervene. Using forceps would have assisted in the delivery but, in a time before anaesthetics, forceps could have resulted in injury to the baby or even death to the mother.

The second stage of labour, which is characterised by the actual pushing, lasted an incredible 24 hours. The doctors became concerned when they spotted meconium, a dark green sludge which comes from a newborn’s bowels, a clear sign that the baby was in distress.

At some point during the labour, Charlotte’s personal physician, Dr. Matthew Baillie, sent for the noted obstetrician Dr. John Sims but Richard Croft refused to let him see her. On 5th of November, a full 50 hours after her water broke, an exhausted Charlotte gave birth to a 9 pound stillborn baby boy. The placenta was only partially separated after the birth and was manually removed.

The doctors afterwards determined that Charlotte was in relatively good health. They allowed her to eat then left her to rest. Around midnight the princess began to vomit and was having trouble breathing. Dr Croft arrived to find her cold to the touch with a feeble and erratic heart rate, she was also bleeding.

Leopold, who had not left his wife’s side throughout her difficult labour and delivery, had gone off to get some rest. When his wife took a turn for the worse, Dr Stockmar went to get him but found him difficult to rouse. At this point, Stockmar heard Charlotte shout his name. He ran in to see her but found that he was too late, Princess Charlotte was dead.

The accepted diagnosis for Charlotte’s death was a haemorrhage. Early intervention would have sped the labour along but still may not have saved the princess’s life. It is believed that her forced diet and sessions of being bled during pregnancy resulted in the princess almost certainly being anaemic during childbirth. A major loss of blood would have been too much for her overworked body to cope with.

The Prince Regent was so distraught by the death of his daughter that he could not attend her funeral. Charlotte’s mother Caroline fainted on hearing the news of her daughter’s death. Of Leopold, his physician and friend Dr Stockmar wrote, “November saw the ruin of this happy home, and the destruction at one blow of every hope and happiness of Prince Leopold. He has never recovered the feeling of happiness which had blessed his short married life.”

The rest of the country also grieved for the loss of their princess. Fabric suppliers ran out of the colour black as people went into mourning. It was said that even the poor and homeless wore black armbands. Shops closed for weeks and even gambling dens closed their doors on the day of Charlotte’s funeral. Charlotte was buried on the 19th of November 1817 at St George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle.

Despite assurances from both the Prince Regent and Leopold that he was not to blame, Dr Croft was wracked with guilt over his part in Charlotte’s death. Three months later, he was found dead in his home from a self inflicted gunshot wound.

With the loss of The Prince Regent’s only legitimate heir, it fell on his brothers to provide for the future of the throne. George III’s fourth son, Prince Edward Duke of Kent soon proposed to Leopold’s sister Victoria, Dowager Princess of Leiningen. Together, they had Alexandrina Victoria who would later become Queen Victoria, one of the United Kingdom’s greatest monarchs.

The medical professional also learned a few lessons from this senseless tragedy. The use of contraction stimulants were implemented, birth anaesthesia became more widely used, doctors began experimenting with blood transfusions after birth and they were more likely to intervene with the use of forceps in prolonged second stages of labour. Queen Victoria would find birth anaesthesia especially useful in her nine pregnancies.

The Secret of York Minster

The Secret of York Minster

York Minster, one of the most important religious sites in Europe, has a secret. Underneath this mighty cathedral lie the remains of nearly 2,000 years of history. Some of the events that happened on this site still have implications for us today.


Across from the Minster stands a reminder of a once great empire. A single Roman column marks the site of the principia, or headquarters, of Eboracum—as York was then known. On the exact spot where York Minster now sits was a basilica, a ceremonial room within the principia.

It was almost certainly in this basilica in AD306 that Constantine was proclaimed Emperor of Rome.  He was visiting Briton when news of his father’s death reached him. The Sixth Legion, stationed in Eboracum at the time, quickly proclaimed him Emperor.

Constantine would later convert to Christianity and make the religion legal in the Roman Empire. No longer could Christians be persecuted here for their beliefs, paving the way for Christianity to spread throughout Europe and onto the rest of the world.  It is especially symbolic then that in the spot where he was first declared Emperor now stands one of the most important religious buildings in all of Christendom.

The Normans

Centuries after the Romans left Britain, William of Normandy became king of England.  The North, led by its unofficial capital of York, rebelled against William’s right to rule.  In the winter of 1069 William began a merciless campaign to punish the region, dubbed the Harrying of the North.  The Northeast of England was literally set ablaze as towns, livestock and crops were destroyed and a reported 100,000 people lost their lives from either direct Norman aggression or starvation.

William replaced the Northern ruling class with his own men including appointing Thomas of Bayeux as York’s Archbishop. Originally, Thomas repaired the Saxon Minster which had been badly damaged during the Harrying of the North. However, a few years later it was completely destroyed by the Danes. Thomas took this opportunity to begin building a Norman masterpiece which he placed directly on top of the remains of the old Roman fortress.

The new Cathedral was impressive, spanning around 365 feet with a large nave and three semi-circular apses. The interior was decorated with ornately carved columns and brightly painted with biblical scenes. Its size, beauty and noticeably French architecture was a symbol of Norman superiority.

Gothic Rivalry

By the early 13th century, cathedrals were being built in the Gothic Style. Pointed arches, flying buttresses and soaring ceiling heights allowed these huge buildings to soar higher than ever before, reaching up towards heaven.

The new Archbishop of York, Walter de Gray, watched as Canterbury Cathedral, York Minster’s historic rival, was rebuilt in this new style.  In response, Walter began what would be a 250 year building programme to make York Minster the largest Gothic building in Britain.

Alongside all of the things one would expect from a Gothic building, high ceilings, flying buttresses and pointed arches, York Minster boasts enormous painted glass windows and a 235 foot (72 m) central tower. This tower is large enough to fit the entire leaning tower of Pisa inside!

Modern Discoveries

In the mid 1960’s a study of the Minster’s stonework began.  To their horror, they discovered that the central tower was buckling under its own weight.  Subsidence had caused huge cracks, distorted walls and rotting foundations.  The central tower was very near collapse.

Although they knew that the Minster sat on top of the foundations of the old Norman cathedral, it was believed that those foundations were sufficient to hold up the newer one.  Unfortunately, they discovered that the Norman foundations sat on top of the remains of the Roman basilica which was not built to hold such a mighty building.  This proved to be the ultimate cause of the near collapse. Work began in the early 1970’s to repair the cause of the damage.

The opportunity for an archeological excavation could not be passed up. So, over the course of the next few years engineers and archaeologists worked together. The engineering work was so impressive that even now engineers will come to look at the restoration. Archaeologists found a huge number of artefacts that tell us about the early life of the church and of Eboracum

Filling in the excavations created by the engineers was deemed to be too costly. The decision was made to convert the new space into an undercroft museum. In 2013 a newly refurbished and interactive Undercroft Museum opened to the public. Visitors can see Roman walls, early coins, a Viking ceremonial horn and Norman pillars. The museum takes you through 2,000 years of York’s history including the day-to-day operations of the Minster.

If you would like more information about York Minster or the Undercroft Museum, click on the links below:



Explore York Minster yourself by following this link to Google Earth.  Drag and Drop the little man (bottom right corner) over the dots to get the best views.  https://www.google.co.uk/maps/place/York/@53.9621362,-1.082884,239m/data=!3m1!1e3!4m5!3m4!1s0x4878c340e19865f1:0x4774ab898a54e4d1!8m2!3d53.9599651!4d-1.0872979

Between a Rock and a Stonehenge

Between a Rock and a Stonehenge

Stonehenge, the world’s most famous Neolithic megalith, is under crisis.  Built around 4,500 years ago, it is only recently that archaeologists have begun to understand the true complexity of this ancient site. Unfortunately, time is running out on archaeologists as the modern world encroaches on the ancient one.

The Henge

For centuries it was believed that Stonehenge was simply an isolated outcropping of stones put there by ancient men to celebrate rituals that we no longer understand.  In the early 2000’s a new archaeological project was begun to study the surrounding area.  It discovered that Stonehenge is far more than the large standing stones everyone recognises.  It is, in fact, part of a much larger complex spanning several miles which encompass up to 17 other henges including Avebury, Woodhenge and the newly discovered Bluestonehenge.  Also unearthed are various pathways, pits and dozens of burials.

In 2013 a brand new visitor centre opened its doors to better accommodate the site’s 1.3 million yearly visitors.  It replaced a smaller centre opened as a temporary structure in 1968.  By 1989, that same structure was dubbed a ‘national disgrace’ yet somehow it remained in place for a further 20 years.

The original visitor centre sat directly across the A344 road from the ancient monument. Visitors could park in its small car park, pay the entrance fee then use an underpass to take them under the busy main road and out into the large field where Stonehenge resides. From here they could get a 360° view of the ancient monument.

For those not wanting to pay the entrance fee and not worried about seeing Stonehenge from all angles, they could walk along the footpath on the main road, getting almost as close as the paying visitors.  While the nearness of the road was great for tourists wanting free access to the site, it was a disaster for traffic as drivers inevitably slowed their cars down to look.

The solution to both the ‘national disgrace’ of a visitor centre and the traffic, was to close the A344 altogether and move the visitor centre to Larkhill, a mile and a half from the monument. The new visitor centre cost £27 million and is simply amazing.  It holds archaeological finds, replica Neolithic houses, and even the reconstructed face of a Neolithic man, based on a skeleton found on the site.

The Rock

Closing the A344 was an important step, however the nearby A303 road also runs within eyesight of Stonehenge.  Although the monument is now further off in the distance, tourists can still get a decent look at the ancient stones from the road, making slow traffic a continuing problem.

In response, central government has approved a plan to build a 1.8 mile long tunnel as part of a £2 billion scheme to improve the A303. Leading cars underground will stop them from slowing down as they will no longer be able to see the monument.  The problem is that Stonehenge isn’t just what people can see from their cars.  Not only will underground archaeology be compromised by a tunnel, the sightline from Stonehenge will also be in danger. The Western entrance to the proposed tunnel would be bathed in artificial light creating a permanent glow over the horizon, blocking the last rays of the setting midwinter sun.

The Hard Place

It has long been known that Stonehenge aligns with the sunrise during the Summer Solstice. On the longest day of the year, the sun can be seen rising over the nearby ‘Heel’ stone, casting a shadow into the centre of the stone circle.  Recently, it has become apparent to historians that Stonehenge hosts another solar phenomenon in the winter. On the shortest day of the year, the tallest stone, Stone 56, aligns with the midwinter sunset.

The Winter Solstice is the shortest day of the year and was a significant time for early civilisations. Animals would be slaughtered both for food and because it was difficult to keep them fed during the harsh winter.  For people living during the this time, the Winter Solstice was potentially far more important than that of the Summer Solstice. Unfortunately, the creation of a tunnel will stand directly in the line of site of the midwinter sunset, thus stopping any future study of its alignment.

During a public consultation, archaeologists raised concerns that a tunnel would require “expensive and time consuming” work to recover and record findings.  As a World Heritage Site, they also worry that the tunnel “lowers the bar for allowing development to overrule conservation”.

The council has asked why Ministry of Defense land, which surrounds Stonehenge, was not being considered for use. However, the ‘big guys’ in historic sites, English Heritage, the National Trust and Historic England have stated that the tunnel “has the potential to deliver huge benefits if designed and sited well”.  On the other hand, they have particular concerns over the location of the western portal of the tunnel, presumably as this will be the point which compromises the sightline for the Winter Solstice.

With the public consultation finished, it is now up to the Highway Agency to consider all of the options and come up with a final plan.  In the meantime, we wait to learn the fate of Stonehenge.

What do you think about the proposed plans to build a tunnel near Stonehenge?

To see for yourself how close the road is to Stonehenge, follow the link below for Google Street View.  Then click on the Satellite button along the bottom menu and zoom in to see the location of the A344 and the old Visitor’s Centre :


To learn more about Stonehenge follow this link to the English Heritage website: