Pals Battalions of the First World War

Pals Battalions, First World War, Accrington Pals, Serre, Battle of the Somme, Soldiers

This November marks 100 years since the end of the First World War. Estimates say that the total loss of life reached nearly 20,000,000 people. Between 860,000 and 1,000,000 of those were from Britain alone. The loss to towns and cities across the country was significant. The impact was made worse by early recruitment methods.

When war broke out in July of 1914, the secretary of state for war, Lord Kitchener, had plans to flood the enemy with a sea of men. Unlike France, Germany or Russia, Great Britain didn’t have a conscription system. Most British soldiers were professionals who had dedicated their lives to the military. It became clear very quickly that Britain didn’t have enough men to fulfil Kitchener’s plans. General Sir Henry Rawlinson suggested creating Pals Battalions. His idea was simple, men were more inclined to sign up if their friends and neighbours were joining too. 


First World War, Somme, Serre, Accrington Pals, Pals Battalions, Soldiers
First World War British recruitment poster.

This worked incredibly well with thousands of men signing up together within days. In many areas enthusiasm was so high that they were able to form entire units from the local recruits. These units were often given whimsical names such as the Grimsby Chums, the Football Battalion or even the Stockbroker’s Battalion. Accrington, a small factory town in the northern county of Lancashire put together a small battalion of Pals. They formed the 11th Battalion East Lancashire Regiment, better known as The Accrington Pals.

Getting these men trained and ready for battle took time. The men  were seen in and around their home towns training and running drills. For the Accrington Pals, once ready, they were sent to Egypt to help protect the Suez Canal from the Turks. The danger here was short lived and by late June of 1916 they were moved on to the Somme in Northern France.

First World War, Somme, Serre, Accrington Pals, Pals Battalions, Soldiers

The Accrington Pals joined other Pals Battalions to relieve the French army and weaken the German line. The objective was to capture the hilltop fortress of Serre and form a defensive flank.  One problem they faced was that the chalky nature of the terrain gave the Germans the ability to build deep trenches, rendering enemy fire nearly useless. 

After several days of bombarding the Germans, the Pals were sent over the top through No Man’s Land to attack the enemy head on. 100,000 men were sent up, by the end of the day they had captured 3 square miles of land but it had cost the allied troops nearly 20,000. Among the dead were troops from the Accrington Pals. Out of the 720 soldiers from their battalion, 584 of them had lost their lives.

First World War, Somme, Serre, Pals Battalions, Accrington Pals, Soldiers
Men going over the top during the Battle of the Somme.

News soon reached home of the tragedy. Soldiers passing through the town by train stuck their heads out the window to ask where they were. When they learned they were in Accrington, their response was immediate, “Accrington Pals! They’ve been wiped out!”. Women standing at the train station quickly ran back into town to relay the awful news. The church bells rang for 24 hours and blinds were drawn throughout the town. Wives, mothers and daughters marched to the mayor’s office and stood outside demanding answers.

Due to the heavy losses held by all of the Pals Battalions, Kitchener insisted that recruits from the same community were separated into different units.  It wasn’t an apology but it was an acknowledgement of the devastating impact of the war on the communities at home.

To learn more about the Pals Battalions visit the Imperial War Museum. Here you will find information, photographs and artefacts.

Royal Advice From Britain’s Greatest Love Affairs

Love, History, Medieval, Victorian, Tudor, Katherine Swynford, Eleanor Cross, Wallis Simpson, Nell Gwynn, Joan Beaufort, Elizabeth Woodville

Wedding bells are ringing here in the UK as Prince Harry is set to marry American divorcée Megan Markle, who first found fame as an actress.  Although his choice of bride may seem unusual at first, throughout history the British royal family have fallen in love in unconventional ways. What lessons can Harry and Megan learn from their predecessors?  Here is some love advice from eight royal couples from the past:


Queen Eleanor, Edward I, Love, Eleanor Cross, Charing Cross, London,
Replica Eleanor Cross Charing Cross, London

Edward I and Eleanor of Castile- Create a simple memorial

Edward and Eleanor’s marriage was arranged by two ambitious kings, Edward’s father Henry III and Eleanor’s brother Alfonso X. Despite this, the two teenagers quickly fell in love.  During the course of their marriage they stood by each other as close allies. In the Second Baron’s War, Eleanor imported archer’s from her mother’s homeland to help Edward and when he went on crusade she accompanied him to Palestine.

Together they created a loving home and had sixteen children, six of them surviving to adulthood.  Edward is said to be one of the few medieval kings who didn’t have affairs nor have children out of wedlock.   

In 1290, while travelling North through the country, Eleanor became seriously ill.  They stopped in the little village of Harby in Nottinghamshire where the queen stayed for nearly two months.  On 28 November, Eleanor died with Edward at her bedside.  He later wrote to a friend, “I loved her tenderly in her lifetime and I do not cease to love her now she is dead.”

Straight after her death Edward had her body moved to Lincoln for embalming before the funeral procession headed south to London for burial at Westminster Abbey. It took nearly two weeks to reach the capital. In each of the towns where the procession stopped to rest Edward had a huge memorial cross built.  The Eleanor Crosses measured more than 40 feet in height and were erected in twelve spots, from Lincoln to what is now known as Charing Cross in London.


John of Gaunt, Katherine Swynford, Mistress, Love
John of Gaunt

John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford- Never lose hope

Katherine Swynford met John of Gaunt, son of Edward III and brother to the Black Prince, when they were both married to other people. In fact, it looks as if the two couples were allies, perhaps even close friends.  Katherine’s husband Hugh was a devoted soldier of John’s while Katherine was governess to John and his wife Blanche’s daughters. Hugh and Katherine’s eldest child was even named after Blanche and John of Gaunt was her godfather.

Hugh died in 1371 leaving Katherine a widow at twenty one. John of Gaunt had lost his wife Blanche a few years before and had since remarried.  The two long-time friends soon started an affair that would last decades.

John and Katherine were fairly open about their elicit relationship and she bore him 4 children. This is not to say that society condoned the couple’s affair.  Katherine was described as, ‘that unspeakable concubine, that witch, that whore, that enchantress’.

John’s older brother Edward, the Black Prince, died in 1376 and his father the king died a year later. John was left as regent to his young nephew Richard II.  This change of circumstances caused great upheaval throughout the land and John bore the brunt of the country’s ire.  It was during this time that John and Katherine’s relationship cooled.  He could no longer flaunt his mistress so publicly.

When John’s second wife Constance died in 1394, he returned to Katherine.  He petitioned the Pope for permission to marry and, in an unusual move, requested that their children be legitimised.

After being together for nearly 30 years, John and Katherine were finally married and lived out the rest of their lives together.


James I, Joan Beaufort, Marriage, Love, Scotland, King,
James I and Joan Beaufort

James I of Scotland and Joan Beaufort- Sometimes it really is love at first sight

James I of Scotland had been kidnapped as a young boy and held by the English for years as a valued member of the royal court.  He was given an education, a knighthood and even accompanied Henry V during his French campaign.  

It is said that James first saw Joan Beaufort from his window as she was walking the grounds of Windsor castle. Struck by her beauty he watched her over the course of several days. One day he dropped a rose out his window as she passed by. At dinner that night she was found wearing the flower pinned to her dress. 

Eighteen years after he was captured, his ransom was arranged and James was finally allowed to leave England. One of the terms of his release was that James could marry Joan Beaufort. The couple were married in February 1424 and returned to Scotland a month later. They were happily married for 13 years and had eight children together.


Edward IV, Elizabeth Woodville, Wedding, Love
Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville

Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville- Try to keep your relationship private

Elizabeth Woodville was the widow of a Lancastrian knight and had two young sons. She met the Yorkist King Edward IV when she approached him to plead for her son’s inheritance, kept from them by her former mother-in-law.  Edward was immediately captivated by Elizabeth, described as “the most beautiful woman in the Island of Britain.” Despite the fact that Edward was expected to strengthen alliances by marrying a foreign princess or the daughter of a Yorkist ally, Edward wanted Elizabeth, a wealthy commoner five years his senior.

Edward and Elizabeth were married in a secret ceremony attended by the bride’s mother, Jacquetta, and two ladies.  Neither the date nor the exact location is known but it is believed that they were married in May of 1464 near Elizabeth’s home in Northampton.  When the king’s advisors found out about the marriage, they were outraged. However, the deed had been done and Edward had Elizabeth crowned queen a year after their wedding.


Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn, Marriage, Love
Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn

Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn- Be willing to convert

Henry VIII had been happily married to Catherine of Aragon for 24 years. Unfortunately, due to a lack of a male heir, Henry began to grow restless.

He’d always had a wandering eye but Anne Boleyn was different. After Henry had fathered an illegitimate child with her sister Mary, Anne knew that she didn’t want the same fate for herself.  Anne was an accomplished courtier and understood the rules of courtly love. She repeatedly refused Henry’s advances, holding out for something more. This only served to stoke the flames of Henry’s desire. Anne held strong and refused to be his mistress, wanting only to become someone’s wife, or better yet Henry’s queen.

Henry decided that the only way to get Anne was with an annulment from Catherine.  When the Pope refused to grant Henry his wish, the king did something radical. Suffering from what can only be described as the world’s worst midlife crisis, Henry decided to bypass the Pope altogether and declare himself head of a new Protestant church in England.

His act dragged the entire country into turmoil but Henry was able to grant his own annulment and marry Anne.

Unfortunately for this couple, the happiness wasn’t to last.  Three years after they were wed Anne was charged with a number of transgressions including adultery, incest and treason. She was executed at the Tower of London on 19 May, 1536, leaving Henry free to find his next wife.


Nell Gwyn, Charles II, Mistress, Love
Nell Gwyn

Charles II and Nell Gwynn- No one likes a gold digger

In the late 17th century, when theatres were beginning to reopen after the Cromwell years, Nell Gwynn was a star of comedy in the West End.  She had started out as an ‘orange girl’, selling fruit and other confectionary to audiences inside what is now known as the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane.  Her good looks, charm and wit caught the attention of the theatre manager and he soon gave her a job on the stage. 

Nell was already famous when she met King Charles II. The pair were attending a comedy performance and their theatre boxes were right next to each other. Rather than watch the show, the two spent the evening flirting with one another. Afterwards, Charles invited Nell to supper and their 18 year love affair began.

As the diarist Samuel Pepys described her, Nell was ‘pretty and witty’ but more importantly, unlike the king’s other mistresses, she wasn’t greedy.  She was given a house in London and £500 per year, a small amount compared to her rivals. The couple had two sons together, one of them died at the age of 9 and the other became the 1st Duke of St. Albans. 

On his deathbed, Charles famously asked his brother James to ‘Let not poor Nelly starve.” James did as he was told by paying off Nell’s debts and granting her a yearly pension of £1500.

Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Love, Mourning
Queen Victoria and Prince Albert

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert- Never, ever, ever move on

Queen Victoria’s marriage to her first cousin Albert was a love match. This is despite the fact that the union was encouraged by her mother and uncle, both of whom had complicated relationships with the queen.   

Victoria and Albert’s marriage was filled with passion both in the bedroom and in their raging arguments.  With each pregnancy, of which there were nine, Albert took on more and more of Victoria’s royal duties which caused great conflict between the couple. Victoria’s tantrums were so severe that Albert often wondered if she had inherited the madness of her grandfather, George III. For the most part, though, they were happy.

In December 1861 Albert died of what is believed to be typhoid fever. Victoria was beside herself with grief. The queen wore mourning clothes for the rest of her life, rarely made public appearances and insisted that Albert’s private rooms were prepared as if he were still alive.  Victoria’s extreme mourning lasted 40 years and gained her the nickname, the Widow of Windsor.


Edward VIII, Wallis Simpson, Love, Abdicate
Edward VIII and Wallis Simpson

Wallis Simpson and Edward VIII- When in doubt, abdicate

Wallis Simpson was an American socialite on her second marriage when she was introduced to Edward, Prince of Wales by his then mistress Thelma, Lady Furness.  Wallis was no stranger to elicit affairs, having had many herself. When Lady Furness was away, Wallis stepped in and became Edward’s new lover.

Wallis was no shrinking violet, she was known for her domineering personality and her unwillingness to treat Edward with the respect due to his station. This, apparently, was a real turn on for the heretofore revered Edward and he fell head over heels for Wallis.

In January 1936, George V died and Edward became King Edward VIII. He made no secret to the fact that he wanted to marry Wallis even though she was still married to her second husband Ernest. Although the British press kept the love affair a secret, those in the know branded Wallis a social climber, out for Edward’s wealth and position.

Wallis filed for divorce from Ernest in October of 1936 and by November Edward was petitioning the parliament for permission to marry her, parliament refused. British laws and rules of the Church of England stated that the king couldn’t marry a divorced woman who’s former husband was still alive, as both her exes were. Having exhausted all options, the love sick king saw only one way out.  On 11 December, 1936, less than one year after ascending the throne, Edward VIII abdicated. His younger brother George became king and Edward was free to marry Wallis. 

Ironically, Wallis never wanted any of this.  She was happy to be Edward’s mistress and probably never expected it to last very long.  Although she loved him, her affection for him was never as ardent.  It was only Edward’s extreme infatuation that propelled the affair into something more. Wallis was horrified when Edward abdicated and felt trapped into marrying him. The couple did marry in June of 1937 and were given the title of Duke and Duchess of Windsor.  They lived together until Edward’s death in 1972.


Battle of Culloden: A New Campaign

Culloden, Jacobite, Highlanders, Scotland, Battle, Battlefield, Development

If you read my blog and Facebook page, you’ll be aware of the ongoing plight of the Stonehenge road tunnel. Archeologists have discovered that the site encompasses a much larger area than the Neolithic monument alone and yet a tunnel, intended to alleviate traffic, has been planned nearby which could destroy vital archeology and affect the famous solstice sightline. Unfortunately, this isn’t the only historical site at risk from development. As the modern world develops, places of historic or cultural importance are being put at risk to fit our growing population.  While decisions are made about a Neolithic site in the south of England, the Highlands of Scotland have their own troubles.  Culloden Battlefield, the site of the last pitched battle on British soil, has become the scene of bitter protests over the building of 16 new homes.

bonnie prince charlie, jacobites, culloden, scotland, highlands,
Bonnie Prince Charlie

The Battle

In 1745, the Jacobite army, mostly made up of Scottish Highlanders, met the Duke of Cumberland’s troops on a remote field in the Highlands of Scotland. Several months earlier, Charles Edward Stuart, better known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’, had landed in Scotland with the intention of taking back the British throne for his father, James Francis Edward Stuart.  James and Charles, the son and grandson of the deposed King James II, and had been denied any rights to the throne due their family’s Catholic beliefs.  Bonnie Prince Charlie, along with many Catholic supporters, wanted to set this right.

Within a few weeks of landing in Scotland, Bonnie Prince Charlie had amassed an army and began marching towards London.  They got as far as Derby, around 130 miles from their destination, when the army was stopped due to a lack of support and increasingly closed off routes. The Jacobite army chose to turn around and head back to Scotland with British troops following behind. On April 16th 1746, the two armies met on Drumossie Moor near the village of Culloden and five miles East of Inverness. The brutal fighting was over within an hour and 1,250 Jacobites lost their lives, compared to only 52 of Cumberland’s men.

Leanach, culloden, jacobite, battlefield
Leanach Cottage, Culloden Moor

Cumberland ordered that no quarter be given to the Jacobite rebels and his men set about killing any survivors.  A natural spring near the battlefield proved to be the death of many wounded as a sentry was placed here to kill any Jacobite who made their way to quench their thirst.  The dead, by this time numbering nearly 3,000, were buried in mass graves, more or less according to their clan regiment. Over the next several weeks, escaped survivors were hunted down and killed.  The lucky ones found themselves transported to the British colonies in North America and the Caribbean.

The loss of such a decisive battle would lead to the destruction of the Highland way of life. Within a year, traditional Highland clothes were banned outside of British military service, the Highlanders were disarmed of pistols, broadswords, dirks and ‘other warlike weapons’.  The clan chieftains were stripped of their power and the clan system dismantled.

Well of the Dead, Culloden, Jacobites, Scotland, Battlefield
Well of the Dead, Culloden Battlefield


In 2011 a developer submitted plans to build 16 houses at Viewhill Farm sitting just 400 meters (1/4 of a mile) from Culloden Battlefield.  Originally the Highland Council rejected the plans but the developer appealed and in 2014 they were given permission to build. Despite the win, the houses were never built.  In 2017, Kirkwood Homes acquired the site and submitted revised plans to build the 16 homes at Viewhill Farm.

Locals and historians alike were quick to lodge their protests against the development.  As soon as word got out of the 2014 plans, an action group was formed. They set up their own website and Facebook page, enlisted help from the media, passed around petitions and staged several demonstrations.  When the 2017 plans were submitted, they once again jumped into action.

Their complaints included:

  • The homes are large-scale luxury houses, completely out of place in the setting.
  • The new houses will clearly be seen from the official battlefield site which, until now, has been surrounded by unimpeded views of the Scottish landscape, enhancing the overall atmosphere.
  • Kirkwood Homes have named their new development Cairnfields, in direct reference to the Cairn monument that sits on the battlefield as a memorial to the dead.  This is seen as both insensitive and “mocking Scotland and her History”.
  • The area on which the houses will be built saw heavy action towards the end of the battle.
  • Historic Scotland, who consulted the Highland Council on the original proposal, relied on incorrect information about the battle’s geography. This misinformation was reused for the current development plans.
  • Concerns are that digging up the land to build these houses will disturb the archaeology and encroach on the war graves located here. (Seriously, who wants to live in a house built over a battlefield and war grave?  That’s just bad juju!)
  • This site and any disruption is a matter of national and international concern.
Memorial Cairne, culloden, jacobites, battlefield
Memorial Cairn, Battle of Culloden

Due to its remote location, Culloden is one of only a handful of battlefields almost completely intact.  90% of the site has been untouched and looks the same as it would have done over 270 years ago.

Historians and locals believe that approving this development will set a bad precedent for further encroachment onto the site.  Indeed, there has already been a new proposal for a holiday park with 14 lodges, a 100 seat restaurant and leisure facilities to be built northwest of the Culloden Battlefield Visitor Centre.  This plan looks less likely to go ahead but the builder is quietly optimistic.

The Highland Council has already met to vote on this issue.  In March of this year they voted on the proposal with the outcome being 5-3 in favour of the development.  However,  in a particularly farcical chapter in this story, confusion over whether the vote was about allowing the development to go ahead or sending the builders away with instructions for a more sympathetic redesign had two council members claiming they’d voted in favour of the wrong thing. This confusion has resulted in the application and any building work being suspended and a new vote put to a second committee in May.

Until a final decision is made, lovers of Scottish history the world over will have to wait to see whether this historic site will be preserved or, like so many other sites of historic value, become a forgotten sideline in our modern lives.


Follow these links for comprehensive information about the Jacobite Uprising:

More information about the campaign to stop the Cairnfields development:

Medieval Showdown: The King vs The She-Wolf

Edward II, Piers Gaveston, Isabella of France, She-Wolf, Hugh Despenser

On the 25th of January 1308, 12 year old Isabella of France married 23 year old Edward II. She was the daughter of Philip IV and Joan of Navarre.  He was the crown prince of England, son of Edward ‘Longshanks’, the Hammer of the Scots. It should have been a match made in mediaeval heaven, however Isabella would spend most of her marriage fighting for the attention of her husband from other men.

A month after their wedding the pair were crowned king and queen of England. In the beginning, Edward didn’t take much notice of his young wife. He was preoccupied with a young nobleman by the name of Piers Gaveston. The pair had been together for many years and Isabella was unlikely to come between them. Much to Isabella’s horror, Edward even gave Gaveston jewels he’d received as a wedding gift. He made Gaveston Earl of Cornwall and arranged a prestigious marriage for him. Edward also appointed Gaveston regnant when he was out of the country.

Edward II, Piers Gaveston, Isabella of France, She-Wolf, Hugh Despenser
Edward II & Piers Gaveston; Marcus Stone

Edward’s clear favouritism towards his companion didn’t just upset his queen, it created friction between the king and some of his barons. His behaviour also caught the attention of his father in law, King Philip IV of France. Philip was annoyed with Edward’s treatment of Isabella.  Seeing how precarious things were becoming, Edward was forced to exile Gaveston to France.

Through careful politicking, Edward was able to appease his barons and Gaveston was allowed back in the country. The king’s relationship with Gaveston continued for several years but by 1312, the barons were once again upset over Gaveston’s influence over the king. This time they didn’t wait for the king to send his lover away. Instead, they had him assassinated.

By this time, Isabella was pregnant with their first child, the future Edward III.  Without Gaveston in their lives, Edward and Isabella’s relationship flourished and they had three more children. Despite there being other ‘favourites’ (both male and female), the marital bliss between Isabella and Edward lasted around 10 years.  By all accounts the couple were infatuated with each other. One particular night Edward saved his wife’s life when a fire broke out in their tent. The king was seen carrying Isabella to safety, both completely nude.

Edward II, King, Isabella, She-Wolf, Hugh Despenser, Piers Gaveston
King Edward II; National Portrait Gallery

Unfortunately, the love affair wasn’t to last.  By 1322 Edward had another lover, Hugh Despenser the Younger.  Unlike Piers Gaveston, Despenser actively positioned himself between the king and queen, diminishing Isabella’s influence on Edward. It wasn’t just the queen who felt pushed aside for Despenser, the barons were once again feeling left out.

After war with France, which resulted in Edward confiscating Isabella’s lands, she was sent to negotiate a peace deal with her brother, Charles IV.  While there, an unhappy Isabella convinced Edward to send their son, Edward of Windsor, to join her.  Once the queen had control of their son she used him to try to force Edward to see reason.  Isabella demanded that her husband get rid of Despenser, return her lands and agree to continue their relationship as husband and wife.  Under the influence of Dispenser, Edward refused.  This decision would prove to be a huge mistake.

A few years before, Isabella had met Roger Mortimer when he was locked up in the Tower of London. He eventually escaped and fled to France where the two once again ran into each other. Although their relationship started out platonic they eventually became lovers. Mortimer had a longstanding grudge against Hugh Despenser and was willing to help the queen get rid of him, even if that meant removing Edward from his throne.

Isabella and Mortimer arrived in England and chased the king and Despenser out of the London. The barons played their part by rising up against Edward and his lover. Despenser was caught and executed and Edward was forced to abdicate, handing the throne over to his 14 year old son.

Edward II, Piers Gaveston, Isabella of France, She-Wolf, Hugh Despenser
Illustration of the execution of Hugh the Younger Despenser, from a manuscript of Froissart

Since Edward III was still underage, Isabella and Mortimer effectively ruled England for him.  However, their greed made them just as unpopular as the previous king.  Isabella was given the respect due to a queen and was sent to live under house arrest, giving up most of her exorbitant income.  Roger Mortimer didn’t fare so well.  In November 1330, Mortimer was hanged.

Edward II lived out his days away from court.  His cause of death and even the date is unknown. For centuries it was believed that Edward died a gruesome death, ordered by his wife.  It was said that a horn was shoved up his backside and a red hot poker inserted, burning out his insides. However, there are accounts of his activities long after he was meant to have died. As far as Isabella’s part in his death, she was known to have sent him gifts shortly before his supposed murder, hardly the behaviour of someone plotting the death of her husband.

All Isabella had wanted was a real relationship with her husband and to rule beside him as a true queen.  Even after suffering the humiliation of having to share Edward with other men, she still only asked to be allowed to live with him as his wife. Blinded by the influence of Gaveston and then Despenser, he had refused and it had cost him his throne.  As a scorned woman, the She-Wolf of France defeated a king.

Blood Sport- Royal Shrovetide Football

Ashbourne Shrovetide Football Royal Medieval

The little market town of Ashbourne in rural Derbyshire is a picturesque idyl filled with boutique shops and quaint cafés perched on the edge of the beautiful Peak District.  However, for two days out of the year the shops are closed, the windows boarded up, cars are moved out of the centre of town and the streets are flooded with people looking to get roughed up. This very gentrified town lets out its feral side for a tradition which dates back centuries, Royal Shrovetide Football.

Taking place every year on Shrove Tuesday and Ash Wednesday, thousands of people from all over gather to participate in or watch this world famous football match. However, this isn’t like any football (or soccer) match you’ve ever seen.  This version of game has its roots in the medieval period and is also known as mob football. It’s a free-for-all with no uniforms, only a handful of rules and where injuries are common. It is not for the faint hearted!

Ashbourne shrovetide Football royal
Ashbourne Royal Shrovetide Football
by Will De Freitas

The Game

Unlike regular football, players are allowed to kick, hold or even throw the ball. However, due to the close proximity of the players, the ball is rarely kicked but rather ‘hugged’ from one player to the next.  Play often happens around a scrum of people, similar to what is seen in rugby.

Teams are made up of players from opposite sides of the town.  Those born north of the Henmore Brook are dubbed the Up’ards and those from the south are the Down’ards.  Specially made stone obelisks act as the goals and are located three miles from each other, one in nearby Clifton and the other in the village of Sturston, on the opposite side of Ashbourne.

The rules are simple; the town’s picturesque memorial gardens, churchyards and cemeteries are off limits. The ball can’t be carried in (or on) a motorised vehicle and the ball can’t be hidden in a bag, coat, rucksack or anything similar.  Play stops at 10pm and to score a goal, the ball must be tapped 3 times on the the goal.  Oh, and there’s one other rule; you can’t kill anyone, even accidentally.  Otherwise, the aim of the game is to get the ball to your goal, how ever possible.

Play is held for 8 hours per day, starting at 2pm. The match starts in the centre of Ashbourne near the Henmore Brook when the ball is ‘turned up’ or thrown into the crowd.  To be chosen to ‘turn up’ the ball is seen as a great honour given to dignitaries or well respected locals.

Larger than a normal football, these balls are filled with Portuguese cork allowing them to float if they fall into the river, which they often do.  Local craftsmen hand stitch the leather then hand paint the balls with themes honouring the dignitary chosen to do the ‘turning up’.  Anyone who ‘goals’ the ball can keep it.  They are then hoisted up on his or her teammates’ shoulders before going off to celebrate at the Green Man pub.

Shrovetide Ashbourne Football Royal
Down’ards Goal Post

Early Days

All around Britain, a handful of towns and villages still host traditional mob football matches.  However, the largest and most famous of these games is Ashbourne’s Royal Shrovetide Football Match.

Ashbourne’s annual match dates back to at least 1667.  A fire at the Royal Shrovetide Committee office in the 1890’s destroyed the records, forever losing the exact origins of the tradition.

The Shrovetide match wasn’t always as revered as it is today.  In 1880, efforts were made to stop the games including placing signs in the town park warning players of imprisonment if they trespassed.  That year ten players were arrested after throwing bricks and stones at the police, forcing them to use their truncheons on the crowd.

Shrovetide Football Ashbourne Royal
Shrovetide Football
by Adrian Roebuck

Wartime Games 

When the First World War broke out the townspeople considered stopping the games since most of the their players were off fighting overseas.  However, at the request of those serving away, the match continued with some of the town’s younger men and a few servicemen on leave making up the teams.

Meanwhile over 300 miles away, in the French town of Sus-Saint-Léger a few men from Ashbourne and the rest of their regiment, played their own version of Shrovetide Football.  The town sent a decorated ‘typical ball’ to the C Company of the 6th Sherwood Foresters.  On Shrove Tuesday 1916 La Grand Rue (the main street) filled up with English servicemen playing a game of mob football as French locals looked on.  Private Jack H Robinson scored the first goal and was allowed to keep the ball.  He carried that ball with him in his pack for the rest of the war and eventually brought it home with him.

Royal Connections

In 1922 Princess Mary, daughter of King George V, was married on Shrove Tuesday.  The Shrovetide committee sent her a special Shrovetide ball as a wedding gift. As a mark of gratitude, the game was given the right to be called ‘Royal’ Shrovetide Football. Six years later Mary’s brother the Prince of Wales, the future King Edward VIII, was given the honour of turning up the ball. The prince earned a bloody nose for his efforts. In 2003 a different Prince of Wales, HRH Prince Charles, turned up the ball.  This time, it was done from the safety of a plinth overlooking the crowd.

Shrovetide Ashbourne Football Royal Princess Mary
Mary, Princess Royal and Countess of Harewood on her wedding day to Viscount Lascelles
by Bain News Service

The Play Stops

In all the years that the town has played the match, only twice has it been cancelled.  It wasn’t threats from the police or even war which put a stop to the games but rather disease. In 1968 and 2001 Foot and Mouth spread through the countryside.  Unable to freely roam the area, the games were called off.


It isn’t often that a game which causes bloody noses, black eyes, split lips and even a few broken bones is held in such high esteem by an entire community.  Despite the injury count, Ashbourne’s Royal Shrovetide Football is fiercely protected by the locals from the ravages of  litigation and Health & Safety.  Businesses and schools close over the two days when the match is played, not out of fear of the crowds but rather so they too can participate in this ancient blood sport.

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.