Archive for the ‘Historical Gleanings’ category

Faith and Fresh Air: Medieval Reading’s Response to an Epidemic

June 9th, 2020

Sometime in the twelfth century, perhaps soon after the consecration by Thomas Becket of the Abbey Church, a terrible plague fell upon Reading. Young and old alike, anyone vulnerable to the bite of an infected flea in an age where everyone was permanently flea-bitten, succumbed like wheat before the scythe to this terrifying disease.

All normal commerce was suspended. The townsfolk kept to their houses, their anxiety almost unbearable. When a sufferer exhibited the first symptoms of the disease – a headache to start with, then debilitating chills and fever – it was like the delivery of a death sentence.

People very occasionally recovered, but most would suffer appallingly for a week, until, sapped of all their strength, death brought the release for which they must, by then, have craved. Nauseous, aching all over, they shrank with anguished cries from the light, the brightness being more than they could stand. Then came the swellings, usually after a couple of days, agonising, hard swellings that sometimes grew to the size of an orange, on the neck, arms, inner thighs, swellings that were soon black in their vileness and bursting with pus and blood. Yet this was not the most excruciating phase of the disease, for then they started to bleed internally, and to leak blood from every orifice. Sufferers already stank of death by the time they expired, with their helpless husbands, wives, parents or children looking on in horror and wondering when their own turn would come. They was nothing they could do, other than wait to load the battered, unrecognisable corpses onto the carts that came to carry away the dead.

The poor and afflicted would usually have turned to the monks of the Abbey for succour, but the infirmary there was already packed with their own people. Thirteen Reading monks perished from the disease in the course of that year. Their only hope was in prayer, for a strong wind that would blow away the foulness in the air, yet it seemed to the monks that God was punishing them for their sins and that they needed to persuade Him of their merit.

In a great act of faith, the monks of Reading Abbey, who had complete authority over the town, resolved at length on a course of decisive action. A decree was issued to all the able-bodied townsfolk. Rather than wait to put out their dead, they were told to lay out their sick relatives on litters in the streets. Fearful of leaving their homes, they were told nonetheless to assemble in the vast Abbey church for a service. A fast was proclaimed, and special litanies were sung in front of the congregation. The monks then led a solemn and orderly procession through the streets, holding aloft their most sacred relic, the hand of St James the Greater, and invoking him before God as their protector.

It was subsequently affirmed that a miracle was worked that day, that the sick lying on their litters, having once caught sight of the bejewelled reliquary containing the hand, were cured of their affliction. It was as if the Lord had been appeased in that hour and had instantly allayed the grief of His people, who returned joyfully to their homes, to be free of the epidemic for many years to come.

In the decades since the founding of the Abbey by Henry I, who had entrusted this prized relic to its care, a number of miraculous cures had been credited to the saint. There had been a catalogue of incidents in the mid-1150s. A knight called Mauger Malcuvenant had been restored to life by drops of water in which the holy reliquary had been dipped; a woman from Earley, a nearby village, had been cured of her dropsy after praying in the Abbey church; and a man from Barking had, after keeping vigil there overnight, miraculously regained the power of speech. The lifting of the Reading plague was St James’s most dramatic intervention to date, greatly enhancing his reputation as a miracle-worker and, as a centre of pilgrimage, that of the Abbey, where he was believed to be a living presence.

The Becket Casket in the V & A is contemporary with the events described above

A MacGregor Miscellany: The Real Rob Roy

March 30th, 2020

Scottish Highlanders differed from Lowlanders in that they routinely carried arms, and indeed were militarised from birth. They used to say in the Highlands: ‘When a male is born they put a sword or a knife in his hand’. They were further distinguished by their language (most spoke only Gaelic); their dress (shirt, plaid, stockings, brogues and bonnets); and their modest dwellings, generally of unmortared stone, with turf roofs. Even the mighty Lochiel, chief of Clan Cameron, lived until 1746 in a wooden house with two stone gable ends (Moncreiffe and Hicks, The Highland Clans, pp.15-16).

Baby girls were not given arms at birth but a spindle to grasp. To the great convenience of genealogists, married women retained their maiden names. Thus the baptismal records of my ancestors Alexander McEwen and Catherine Campbell reveal that their mothers were MacGregors, where no other trace of them exists.

They were a tough breed, adept at negotiating the mountainous terrain. It has been pointed out that Rob Roy MacGregor would have made the nine-mile journey from Glengyle, where he was born, to Inverlochlarig Beg in Balquhidder, where he died, on foot. Today it is a 49-mile journey by road (David Stevenson, The Hunt for Rob Roy, Edinburgh, 2004, pp.1-4, 12, 34).

Rose Bonheur, 'Highland Raid' (1860)

The tradition in the family is that my ancestors were ‘caterans’ or cattle-raiders. This was by no means a shameful secret, as cattle-raiding was a way of life until the eighteenth century and was not considered a crime like murder or stealing money. They generally spoke of cattle having been ‘lifted’ rather ‘stolen’.

Though men of many other clans were involved at one time or another, raids were almost invariably blamed on the men of Clan Gregor, who were thought of as a race of cattle thieves. The defiant, marginalised MacGregors, described in 1745 as ‘a hardy, rough people, but noted for pilfering’, had been forced into such activity for their survival and, intensely proud of their lineage, regarded it as an occupation worthy of them as gentlemen.

Both the raiders and their victims complied with a well-established code. Only one or two cattle would be ‘lifted’ at a time, and the drovers were usually unmolested, their trade being vital to the Highland economy. Some farmers would tether a few cattle in places from which they could be easily ‘lifted’, for to cause trouble to the raiders was ‘against the rules of Highland politicks. Amongst these people a quarrel is easily begun but not forgott for many generations’.

Other tenants employed ‘watchers’ to keep guard, paying for them by means of a levy known as ‘blackmail’. The raiders themselves often took on the role, in effect being paid to protect the cattle by not stealing them (Stevenson, pp.7-9, 32, 110, 117).

This genuinely old tartan, worn by the Earl of Wemyss in a portrait of 1740, was later ascribed to Rob Roy to help market it

The father of Rob Roy, Donald Glas (‘the Pale’) MacGregor of Glengyle, who died in 1693, was a professional organiser of watches, earning his living by blackmail. Strictly speaking, Donald was ‘in’, rather than ‘of’ Glengyle, as the holding was not a feudal barony; but as de facto chief of the clan – in default of any strong leadership from the rightful claimant, Gregor MacGregor ‘in Stucharoy’ – he was felt to merit the distinction. Rob Roy was to follow him into the ‘profession’ and used to send his wife Mary out on horseback to collect the blackmail, clad in laced riding cloths and accompanied by a couple of bodyguards. They were described as ‘unwelcome visitants’.

Rob Roy’s sons carried on the family tradition and also turned their hand to horse-theft. On one occasion a woman whom they had robbed of her horses went bravely to confront Rob at his house in Balquhidder and was handsomely compensated by the old rogue, who liked to pose as a Robin Hood figure (Stevenson, pp.11-13, 196, 215).

The theft of sheep, however, was for some reason frowned upon. As an Englishman, Edmund Burt, observed in the 1720s, ‘the Highlander thinks it less shameful to steal a hundred cattle than one single sheep, for a sheep-stealer is infamous even among them’ (Stevenson, p.7). I was sure that my great-aunt had said we were sheep-stealers, but my memory (I was a child) may be defective, or perhaps she had misremembered what she heard from her own aunt. In any case, desperate men would no doubt steal anything.

John Ramsay of Ochertyre says Rob was ‘a gentleman by birth, in a clan where every man, however poor, finds no difficulty in making out a long and honourable pedigree’ (Stevenson, p.269). During the centuries of persecution, the MacGregors clung doggedly to their name. As the law was often loosely enforced, many even dared to use it in official contexts, though it would have been unwise to include it on deeds of any import as they would have had no legal validity.

Most unhelpfully for genealogists, MacGregors tended to switch their legal pseudonyms at will, often as a mark of allegiance to their latest protector. Rob Roy originally called himself Campbell, but became a Drummond when their chief, the (Jacobite) Duke of Perth, dealt favourably with him. To flatter him further, he became a rather insincere Catholic (Stevenson, pp.22, 34, 214, 243).

In 1745 the MacGregors were said to be ‘dispersed through the Duke of Perth’s estate’, which included a considerable part of Perthshire. It is perhaps significant that Stobhall, the ancestral seat of the Drummonds, is a mere bend in the Tay from Kinclaven, where my McEwens were settled. It is conceivable that we descend from the branch of the MacGregor chiefly line calling themselves ‘MacEwin’. Documented in her two-volume Clan Gregor by the family historian, Amelia MacGregor of MacGregor, until the seventeenth century, these ‘MacEwins’ are said to have ‘disappeared without trace’.

The Highlanders were greatly attached to their traditional burial-places. The Balquhidder MacGregors favoured the island of Inchailloch on Loch Lomond. Bodies used to be carried over the pass still known as Bealach nam Corp (Stevenson, p.12). The Macnab chiefs were likewise buried on an island, similarly picturesque, that of Inchbuie in the River Dochart. The Macnab in the late eighteenth-century used his possession of ‘the most beautiful burying-ground in the world’ as a chat-up line. It failed to procure him a wife, though he managed to beget thirty-two bastards and it was rumoured that several lasses in the district got ‘the bad disorder’ from him (Moncreiffe and Hicks, The Highland Clans, p.14).

Reluctant Jacobites

Highland funerals were occasions for great gatherings and involved the traditional coronach or ‘keening’ when the assembled women wailed their lament. This would be followed by a ‘compleat narration of the descent of the dead person’. As Rob Roy’s body was carried to his grave, the pipers struck up the haunting MacCrimmon’s Lament (Stevenson, pp.220-1). As late as 1879, the funeral procession for Sir Malcolm MacGregor of MacGregor at Balquhidder was several miles long. A drunken wake would traditionally ensue (Moncreiffe and Hicks, The Highland Clans, p.15).

It is not surprising that the persecuted MacGregors lived permanently on the qui vive. Iain Moncreiffe wrote that his MacGregor cousins ‘taught me as a boy to eat the old staple diet porridge standing up, ready to run for it lest they be raided by Campbells’ (Lord of the Dance, p.194). Others hold that porridge should be eaten standing up in any case, merely out of respect for the dish.

Ancestors of mine would have been ‘out’ in the Fifteen and the Forty-Five. The MacGregors were said in 1711 to be dispersed over a wide area, but ready on their ‘watchword’ to assemble and follow their chief. The Pretender offered the promise of restoring their name. MacGregors who refused to join the rising in 1715 were threatened with death. There were many reluctant recruits, from all clans, in the Jacobite rebellions.

Rob Roy, his nephew Glengyle and MacGregor of Balhaldie led their forces south and launched an expedition to capture the boats on Loch Lomond, but were thwarted by the Royal Navy. The MacGregors under the slippery Rob Roy stood aloof at Sheriffmuir, as if ready to switch sides, and thus contributed to the Jacobite defeat. In January 1716 Glengyle led 134 MacGregors into Fife in quest of forage. For a few weeks they occupied Falkland Palace, which Cromwell had left half-derelict, with Rob serving as deputy governor (Stevenson, pp.74, 102-4, 110, 118-19).

The Real Rob Roy

Liam Neeson: not the real Rob Roy

Rob Roy had less to lose than most in these ventures, as he was already an outlaw. Having by his early thirties built up a successful, and entirely legitimate cattle-dealing business, he had been faced by 1711 with bankruptcy. In an attempt to recover his finances, he had defrauded his customers, including the powerful Duke of Montrose, his overlord for Glengyle. Protected by the rival Clan Campbell, Rob was able to escape justice and live openly in their country, first at Auch, then at Brackley, with forty or fifty men, including a personal piper, in his service (Stevenson, pp.33-44, 62-3). The MacGregors, incidentally, are described as a leading piping family, with many individual tunes to their name (

A vengeful Montrose has ever since been represented as the villain of Rob Roy’s story. In the 1995 film, Rob Roy, which gullible viewers may mistake for a factual account, he is played with sneering relish by John Hurt. But the betrayal of trust had been Rob’s, and the real Montrose was far from being an oppressive landlord, many having ‘tenures of kindness’ on his lands. He appears to have been a gentle, courteous man, much like his descendant, the present duke, who still lives on Lomond-side. Yet Rob set out purposefully to humiliate his former patron, even stealing 32 of his best cows in a raid on Buchanan Castle in 1717, and returning later to steal his grain. By the 1720s Rob Roy’s daring exploits had made him a legend throughout Scotland (Stevenson, pp.53-6, 154-6, 184).

James Graham, First Duke of Montrose: not the John Hurt caricature

Rob Roy is described as a huge, hairy redhead, with such long arms that he could tie his garters without stooping, like a human orang-utan. If so he would have been noticeably deformed, the account being clearly an exaggeration. Sources agree that he was remarkably affable and ‘jolly’, a most beguiling individual, with an aversion to gratuitous violence. In 1725 he prevailed upon General Wade to procure him the King’s pardon, and was cheerfully prepared to betray his fellow Jacobites for money (Stevenson, pp.53, 199, 203, 230).

Rob’s intelligence led to the arrest of James Stirling of Keir who was one of the Pretender’s leading agents in Scotland, a blatant act of treachery which his admirers have chosen to ignore. Aged nearly sixty, he supplemented his income with the proceeds of cattle raids. Many of the best stories about him are garbled or unverified. He is said to have made his famous ‘leap’ over the Leuchars Burn in full spate at Peterculter, but the entire story – immortalised in the 1953 Disney version of his life – was probably an invention for the benefit of tourists. He died of an injury sustained in a duel – the details are uncertain – at Inverlochlarig Beg on 28 December 1734 (Stevenson, pp.206-8, 219). An unprincipled rogue, he at least had charm and a degree of humanity, which is more than could be said for his psychopathic sons, one of whom was hanged for rape and murder.

In The Braes of Balquhidder (1914), F. Watson summed up Rob with refreshing common sense: ‘it must be admitted that he was not overly scrupulous nor truthful, and the long and the short of it is that it is wiser not to look for public school ideas in a Highland cateran’ (quoted in Stevenson, p.286). My considerable debt to another wise and indefatigable author, David Stevenson, for his brilliant biography of Rob Roy, will be evident from the many citations above.

Rob Roy, the Children of the Mist and the Outlaw in Me: Were the McEwens of Little Dunkeld and Kinclaven really MacGregors?

November 27th, 2019

An Incident in the Rebellion of 1745, by David Morier

My paternal grandmother, though born and brought up in Hong Kong, was a Highland Scot, a McEwen from East Perthshire. We wear McEwen regalia on the rare occasions that demand it, such as my brother’s appearance as a pageboy at our aunt’s wedding, when he was bedecked in natty trews in the Hunting McEwen tartan. A few family traditions were preserved, such as patronage of McEwen’s of Perth, a very old-fashioned department store in John Street (now sadly defunct), and an unhistorical obsession with orthography (never McEwan with an ‘a’). From ‘Grandpa McEwen’ we seem also to have inherited great height. My father stood at 6’4, my son at 6’3, myself at 6’2.

I also vividly remember from childhood my great-aunt Anne’s account of a meeting with her maiden aunt in Scotland. It must have taken place in 1939. On hearing that Anne was engaged to a ‘Sassenach’, Aunt Kate stiffened. ‘Then you’re nae niece of mine.’ Anne persisted, politely enquiring what their ancestors had been. Kate’s reply was equally forthright. ‘Why, sheep stealers of course!’ She must have had a soft heart, as she was later to leave some fine linen to my grandmother and instructed that a ‘kilt pin’ should be provided for her half-English daughter (my aunt still has it: a silver thistle with an amethyst flower).

Richard Todd as Rob Roy. Somehow I acquired this handsomely-bound, already vintage book as a child, presumably after seeing the film. My father later met the dashing Todd and described him as 'knee-high to a grasshopper'.

I lapped up Aunt Anne’s story, as I was already developing a passion for Scottish clan history. Aged no more than six, I had been taken to the cinema to see the 1953 Disney film, Rob Roy (hardly the ‘latest release’, but nobody minded in those days). There is a thrilling scene in which Rob Roy, played by Richard Todd, evades English troops by leaping across a waterfall. That scene in particular, along with the outlandish outfits and the claymores, had sparked in me a romantic fascination. It was to be fuelled in the ensuing years by D.K. Broster’s Flight of the Heron, John Prebble’s Culloden and the writings of Iain Moncreiffe.

Aunt Kate’s memory of family brigandage, activity that must have been relatively recent (three generations is the usual reckoning), had also left me enchanted and intrigued. What is the truth of it? I now know that Kate’s father, my great-great-grandfather John McEwen (1842 – 1910), farmed at Muirhead in Kinclaven, where he was the tenant of Major-General Richardson Robertson of Tullybelton and Ballathie. The family were keen churchgoers and appeared to be perfectly respectable.

Muirhead is marked on old maps but has since been demolished. It was said to have consisted of ‘four farm steadings with a few acres of land attached to each’. Apart from the grand Ballathie House, the parish of Kinclaven was made up of a church and manse and a scattering of similar homesteads. It occupied an isolated loop in the River Tay (there was no bridge in those days), but fortunate guests at Ballathie were treated to the finest autumn salmon fishing in Scotland.

John, who settled at Muirhead on his marriage to Ann Duncan Gardiner, the daughter of the house, had been born further up the Tay at a place called Balinish, the steading in the parish of Little Dunkeld that had been farmed by his father Alexander, as it had also been by his maternal grandfather, John Fisher.

Born in 1810 or 11, Alexander was probably the son of another Alexander McEwen who was baptised at Little Dunkeld in 1780. This Alexander was the son of Robert McEwen, who may have been born in the immediate aftermath of the 1745 rebellion. With Robert, disappointingly, the line fizzles out.

On this truncated family tree, a name stands out, that of MacGregor, that does indeed launch us into an authentic world of brigandage. Robert McEwen’s wife was Margaret MacGregor, while John Fisher’s wife, Catherine Campbell of Fortingall, was the daughter of Elizabeth MacGregor. These two women of the same generation  could even have been sisters. The implication, which I would never have guessed, is that the real Rob Roy, my boyhood hero, most celebrated of all the MacGregors, was a putative kinsman!

Scottish clans are dynastic, extended families in the most literal sense (with a few strays adopted here and there). Clan Gregor was one of the proudest. Their Gaelic motto, S’rioghal mo dhream, means ‘royal is my blood’. They are believed to descend from the hereditary Abbots of Glendochart, who were always men of Celtic royal race. MacGregors maintain that they were of the line of Alpin, King of Argyll, who died in 841. In honour of him, the chief is known as An t’Ailpeanach.

The name-father of the clan was, however, a fourteenth-century Gregor ‘of the Golden Bridles’. Generations of his line held their beleaguered lands in Glenstrae by the sword, an inconvenience to the neighbouring Clan Campbell. In 1519, the powerful, canny Campbells contrived to establish their own nominee, a cadet who was ‘not righteous heir’, as Chief. The head of the dispossessed line, Duncan MacGregor of Ardchoille, was forced to lead his loyal clansmen into the hills, where he became an outlaw. The years of freebooting, raids and murderous mayhem began, many of the family being hanged or meeting other violent ends. Holed up in their fastnesses, braving the snows and ravening wolves, they were like the fictional Doones on Exmoor.

A document of c.1587 refers to them as ‘the House and Gang of Gregor MacIain’, but the landless Gregarach had acquired a far more romantic name. They were called ‘the Children of the Mist’, although the Gaelic might equally translate as ‘the Fog Folk’ or, some say, ‘Sons of the Wolf’. Soon, even the usurping chiefs were implicated in the brigandage, to the extent that in 1603, after a murderous attack on the Colquhouns, ‘the whole Clan Gregor were outlawed and the Name of MacGregor proscribed on pain of death’. The edict of James VI, declaring the name to be ‘altogidder abolisheed’, was confirmed by an Act of the Scottish Parliament in 1617.

In the early days of their outlawry the Gregarach were regularly pursued by blood-hounds, the fearful conn dubh, until the last of these was shot by their chieftain in 1624. The place (near Lochearnhead) is still called Meall a Mhadaidh, the Hill of the Wild Dog, and the long-barrelled ‘Fuzee’ or gun that he used has been passed down to the present chief. Recalcitrant MacGregors, if caught, could expect immediate execution. Their wives would be stripped bare, branded and whipped through the streets, then packed off to the American colonies as indentured slaves, along with their children.

There was a brief reprieve between 1661 and 1693, when the persecution resumed. Absurdly loyal to the wrong-but-romantic House of Stuart, they fought for James II at Killiecrankie, turning out again for the ‘Old Pretender’ in 1715 and for the ‘Young Pretender’ in 1745. Indeed it was Major Evan MacGregor, Bonnie Prince Charlie’s aide-de-camp, who fired the first shot at Prestonpans. Twenty-two MacGregors were wounded that day and one killed, for which Prince Charlie regaled the whole clan to dinner that evening, the officers sitting with him at a table set ‘upon the middle of the field’. In 1746, the Gregarach were fighting in Sutherland and missed the slaughter at Culloden, marching home past Finlairg Castle with colours flying and heads held high. It was reported with great satisfaction that the garrison, a regiment of militia recruited from the bullying Clan Campbell, ‘durst not move more than pussies’.

The outlawed Gregarach had been obliged to conceal their identity behind assumed or imposed names, including such oddities as ‘Beachly,’ ‘Landless’, ‘Telford’ and ‘Skinner’. Their chieftains called themselves Murray. Some branches were to keep these adopted names permanently, like the one calling itself Stewart, from which the Marquesses of Londonderry (including the Foreign Secretary Lord Castlereagh) are thought to descend. Others fled abroad. The then chieftain’s brother, James, emigrated to America, only to be scalped by angry Indians. There was even a line of martial ‘Greigs’ who became ennobled in Russia.

‘Rob Roy’ MacGregor, born at Glengyle in 1671, used the alias of Campbell, his mother’s name. Heavily romanticised by Sir Walter Scott in his novel Rob Roy (though he makes only fleeting appearances), not to mention Disney, he was, in reality, a fearsome and rather enthusiastic brigand (and a fine swordsman with abnormally long arms), who once led a terrifying raid on Dumbarton, though he was pardoned in time for a peaceful death at Balquhidder in 1734. ‘Don’t Mister me nor Campbell me!’ Scott has him say. ‘My foot is on my native heath, and my name is MacGregor!’

The persecution of the MacGregors came to an end in 1774, their legal status restored. General Sir John Murray was at last recognised as the ‘righteous chief’, MacGregor of MacGregor. Though they had been reduced for long years to the status of cattle thieves, the pride of the clan was undiminished. The chief petitioner had been a certain Captain Gregor Drummond, nicknamed Boidheach, ‘the beautiful’, a MacGregor of the chiefly line who, like all his family, had been obliged to live under a pseudonym. In 1743, King George II had commanded that three soldiers of the Black Watch be sent to St James’s for review. The then Private Drummond had been one of the men selected. The story is told that the soldiers gave perfect satisfaction to His Majesty, who handed them each a guinea. These ‘they gave to the porter at the palace gate as they passed out,’ thinking that the King ‘had mistaken their character and condition in their own country.’ S’rioghal mo dhream!

The two MacGregor women from whom I descend were born, and possibly even married, in the period of persecution. It has been said of the MacGregors that ‘they are perhaps the only clan who can be reasonably certain that all who bear the surname are genuine scions of the ancient chiefly blood, although some branches have never yet resumed it.’ The Clan Gregor Society publishes a list of the known aliases which, remarkably, includes ‘Campbell’, ‘Fisher’ and ‘MacEwin’, three of the names that figure on my ‘tree’. Who more likely to marry an outlaw than a fellow outlaw? Might Alexander McEwen and his neighbour John Fisher at Little Dunkeld, and indeed John’s father-in-law Archibald Campbell at Fortingall, have themselves been MacGregors who had, for the sake of convenience, retained their aliases, yet proudly passed on the cattle-raiding memory to their children and grandchildren?

The McEwen tartan that we wear is a variant of the Campbell one. The MacEwens of Otter, on Loch Fyne, had themselves been dispossessed by the Campbell chief in the fifteenth century. The chiefly line long ago disappeared without trace. The clan badge is that of the McEwens of Bardrochat in distant Ayrshire, who, as Moncreiffe concedes, ‘may have taken their name from a completely different Ewen’. An end to such nonsense! The wearing of tartan and Highland dress was banned for civilians in Scotland after the ’45. After the lifting of that prohibition in 1782, they were somewhat artificially revived. The tartans and Highland dress of today are mostly nineteenth-century inventions. Yet the red-and-black check design known as ‘Rob Roy’s Tartan’ – the lumberjack tartan – is one of the oldest and most appealing. Henceforth I shall proudly bear the tartan and badge of MacGregor – trusting that Aunt Kate would not disapprove.

[Iain Moncreiffe and David Hicks, The Highland Clans (London, 1967), especially pp.19, 30, 99-100, 209-11; James D. Scarlett, The Tartans of the Scottish Clans (Glasgow and London, 1975); Burke’s Peerage and Baronetage, II (London, 2003), article ‘MacGregor of MacGregor’; Information on the McEwens of Muirhead from includes The Perthshire Ordnance Survey Name Books, 1859-62, Perthshire Vol.40, Communion Roll for Kinclaven, 1880-2 and Kinclaven Kirk o’ the Muir Parish Records. The relevant Census Returns and records of baptism and marriage are available on]

Detail from John Frederick’s Lewis’s A Frank Encampment, one of my favourite pictures. It depicts the then Lord Castlereagh on his Oriental tour of 1842. He is the image of the unruffled English gentleman, able to retain his composure and comforts in the most unpromising conditions. In fact his ancestry was mainly Irish and Scottish. The family’s prospects had improved considerably when they adopted the name ‘Stewart’ in place of ‘MacGregor’.

Au hasard, Balthazar! The Château des Baux de Provence and its Lords – Ancestors of Elizabeth Wydvill

November 7th, 2019

The proud and fractious lords of Les Baux were named for the eagle’s nest, the great yellow castle on a precipice – or ‘balc’ in the local speech – from which they reigned.

The donjon

Before the end of the twelfth century, an alternative story was proposed, thought up by some ingenious clerk or minstrel: that ‘Baux’ derived from Balthazar (Bautezar in Provençal), one of the three magi or wise men, whose son, they said, had come out of Ethiopia to settle in those parts and was the founder of their line. The arms of the family are thus gules, a comet with sixteen rays argent, representing the very star that had guided the magi on their journey ‘from the east’. In their war-cry, ‘à l’asard Bautezar’ (to chance, Balthazar), they succinctly proclaimed their sanctified ancestry along with the recklessness of their ambition.

The castrum Balcius is first cited in a charter of 981, when the head of the family, Pons, held the office of ‘vicomes’; whilst their line can be traced back to a Germanic-sounding Count Liebulfe – no Ethiopian he! – who was born in the late 700s. Sovereign lords for a spell, minting their own coins, the Les Baux came to rule over 79 dependencies, ranging from Vaccarès in the Camargue to the principality of Orange. Yet that was not enough. They must also contest the countship of Provence, to which, admittedly, they had a sound claim; but years of bitter conflict with the rival House of Toulouse ended with their utter defeat in 1162, the ravaging of their lands and the razing of their Château des Baux. Au hasard, Balthazar! Everything chanced on the roll of the dice.

A spectral ruin, like an abandoned city of troglodytes

The castle rose again, and was occupied by the family till 1426. In 1632, on the orders of the king, it was comprehensively slighted by the application of gunpowder. The remaining habitable parts were destroyed in 1793, the hateful charters burnt. Hewn out of the very rock, Les Baux is now a spectral ruin, like an abandoned city of troglodytes. The dressed stone that fronted each range of buildings has been removed, exposing their cave-like interiors. There is barely a single room with its four walls intact.

Military headquarters and court, this was once a throbbing community, with its capacious stables, stores and refectories (‘tinels’), and subsidiary residences for important vassals. Searching for any recognisable feature, one notices stonework up above resembling a giant honeycomb: a pigeonnier of course, for all these people must be fed. There were fishponds, too, and a windmill, and the castle supported a large hunting establishment. The plains below were not the neat vineyards of today but were forested for deer, a vast sporting ground.

The walkways on the ramparts are picturesquely worn and weathered. The narrow, slippery staircase that leads to La Tour Sarrasine is dissected by a deep gutter, an attempt to channel the torrents of rainwater. Best preserved are the service rooms cut deep into the rock below the donjon. The blackened fireplace in the kitchen and the empty bread ovens are powerfully evocative of the former life here.

The ruins of Les Baux are difficult to read but one can make most sense of the donjon, which is relatively well preserved. This thirteenth-century reconstruction of its damaged predecessor is a simple, but very grand and rather elegant two-storied structure. It has only a few small windows and was poorly insulated. The huge fireplaces of which we see traces would have been very necessary to raise the temperature and control the humidity in winter. Beam holes mark the position of the floors. There were reception rooms at ground level, and fifteen chambers above, with names like the chambre de la Tour (that of the Lady Alix des Baux in 1426), the chambre de la Rose and the chambre du Pape (after Pope Clement VII, who used to visit from Avignon).

A reconstruction of the castle in the twelfth century

Despite the sumptuous tapestries on every wall (mentioned in an inventory for Lady Alix), these rooms were sparsely furnished (the odd coffer and trestle table) and rather forbidding. They would, however, have been crowded with people and there was always the softening presence of troubadours – Raimbaut d’Orange in the twelfth century, Paulet de Marseille in the thirteenth. Think of the stamping of feet to their estampidas or dancing songs, the endless gallantries, the rapt attention to their tales of unhappy love in the uvularising Provençal.

Perched vertiginously on its rock – one shudders to think of prisoners being thrown to their deaths in 1394 – Les Baux is beautiful but unnerving, an expression of brutal feudalism. Its prideful lords were driven by their greed and ambition, launching pointless wars that destroyed countless innocent lives. Like most of their kind, they were lovers of strife, and of the spectacle of strife.

The arms of Les Baux - the Star of Bethlehem

Marguerite des Baux, Grandmother of Elizabeth Wydvill

Their ambitions thwarted in Provence, the Les Baux sought a new destiny in Italy. Barral des Baux (patron of the troubadour Raimbaut d’Orange) took the cross and enlisted with Charles of Anjou in 1252. His younger son Raimond led the cavalry charge at Benevento in 1266, the battle that won the kingdom of Sicily for Charles. Barral was appointed Grand Justiciar; his elder son, Bertrand, Count of Avellino. Bertrand’s descendant Alix was the last of the line to reside at Les Baux, where she died in 1426, in the chambre de la Tour.

Their cousin, another Bertrand, also shared in the spoils, becoming duke of Andria, a fair city on the coast of Apulia. Bertrand’s son François, Duke of Andria, married Sueva, daughter of Niccolo Orsini, Count of Nola, in 1381. The Orsini were a Roman senatorial family whose line can be traced back to the tenth century; as Scott Fitzgerald described them (Tender is the Night, Book II, Chap.XXII), ‘they’re the ones who got possession of the temples and palaces after Rome went to pieces and preyed on the people’. They picked up some interesting connections along the way. Sueva Orsini’s mother, Jeanne de Sabran, was the great-grand-niece of St Thomas Aquinas; her grandmother, Anastasia, the daughter of Simon de Montfort’s exiled son Guy.

François des Baux (who died in 1422, aged over ninety) had a son by Sueva, Guillaume, who succeeded as Duke of Andria and was also the designated heir to his cousin Alix des Baux, last of the senior line. Louis III of Anjou, Count of Provence, refused, however, to honour the terms of her will, seizing the territory for himself and finally severing the troublesome House of Les Baux from their ancestral home.

The dragon-eyed Elizabeth Wydvill, queen of Edward IV

The couple also had a daughter, Marguerite, who married Pierre de Luxembourg, Count of St Pol. Marguerite’s daughter, Jacquetta of Luxembourg, contracted an illustrious first marriage with John of England, Duke of Bedford, which was childless. Her second marriage was to someone far beneath her, an aberrant love-match with one of the old duke’s retainers. Sir Richard Wydvill was an obscure Northamptonshire knight, though he was later created Earl Rivers and appointed a Garter knight. Those honours would not have come his way but for the even-more-scandalous marriage, in secret, of the beautiful, dragon-eyed Elizabeth Wydvill, Sir Richard’s daughter by Jacquetta, with King Edward IV of England. From Elizabeth, her brother and her sisters (who all quartered the arms of Les Baux) there are numerous lines of descent to the modern day.

The noblest families of southern Italy and Sicily invariably descend from the companions of Charles of Anjou, like those of Corbera and Falconeri in Lampedusa’s Leopard. The ‘del Balzo’ line subsists in several branches in Italy to this day, still holding ducal rank, but far removed from the precipice in Provence for which they are named.

[Paul Pontus, Les Baux (Paris, 1971); Famille des Baux at; Steven Runciman, The Sicilian Vespers (Cambridge, 1982), pp.73-6, 84); Lt.Col. W.H. Turton, The Plantagenet Ancestry, pp.228-9.]

Le Duche d’Uzès: Remembering Proust in a Ducal Fortress

September 6th, 2019

Le Duche d’Uzès: ducal abode in the middle of a city

When Proust was travelling ‘the Guermantes Way’ in the 1890s, charming the aristocratic hostesses of the Faubourg Saint-Germain and frequenting their salons and soirées, one of the families he encountered was that of Crussol d’Uzès. The duc d’Uzès (creation 1565) was the second most senior duke in France, only a short head behind the duc de La Trémoïlle (1563). That line died out in 1933, so the duc d’Uzès has since been France’s premier duke and peer.

Ducal carpet in the salon

The Crussols had been intimates of the royal family since at least the fourteenth century, the holders of high office and active on many a campaign. Their motto, indeed, is Ferro non auro, ‘By steel, not gold’. Louis XVIII once expressed his surprise that none of them had ever been a Marshal of France. ‘Sire,’ replied the duke, ‘nous nous faisons tuer avant (we always seem to get ourselves killed beforehand).’

The first part of the family name recalls their long-abandoned stronghold in the Rhône valley, opposite Valence, while the second marks their lordship of Uzès, an ancient city in Occitania. They also maintained an hôtel in the rue Montmartre, for these places are in the deep south, far indeed from Paris and the court. ‘Uzès!’ said André Malraux, General de Gaulle’s Minister of Culture and a friend of the family, ‘but that’s even further away than China!’

Inside the courtyard

The dominant member of the family in Proust’s time was the ‘Grande Duchesse’ (born Anne de Rochechouart de Mortemart), a talented sculptress who contributed the figure of Saint Hubert to Sacré Coeur, a yachtswoman, a feminist and a fanatical rider-to-hounds; also the first woman in France to hold a driving licence (1889) and the first to receive a fine for speeding (1893), after her Delahaye had topped 15km per hour in the Bois de Boulogne. Whilst admiring this formidable lady for her varied achievements, Proust was unable to detect in her any of the famed ‘Mortemart wit’. She was, however, the granddaughter and sole heiress of the Veuve Cliquot, and thus introduced an intoxicating and enriching dose of bourgeois blood to the Crussol line.

Determined that her son Jacques should avoid a more flagrant mésalliance – he ‘became infatuated with the cocotte Émilienne d’Alençon, who was exhibiting a troupe of performing white rabbits – though nobody had eyes for the rabbits’ – she packed him off to Africa, where he died of enteric fever in 1893. The last straw had been Émilienne’s disporting herself in public with the family jewels. The episode made an impression on Proust, for in his Recherche it apparently ‘suggested Saint-Loup’s exile to Morocco as punishment for his extravagant gifts to Rachel’. (George Painter, Marcel Proust: A Biography, I, New York 1959, pp.163-4;

The dining-room

Though it is usual to pronounce the final ’s’ in Uzès, Proust discovered that the gratin had their own rendering of this and other famous names, whether from long tradition or as a way of enhancing their exclusivity. In Sodome et Gomorrhe (Bouquin edition II, Paris 1987, p.665), the snobbish outsider, Mme de Cambremer, is disconcerted to hear an acquaintance speak of ‘ma tante d’Uzai’ and of ‘mon onk de Rouan’, not immediately recognising the famous names that she herself pronounced ‘Uzès’ and ‘Rohan’. The very next day, when a friend refers to a bust of the duchesse d’Uzès, Mme de Cambremer is delighted to correct her. ‘Vous pourriez au moins prononcer comme il faut (you could at least pronounce it correctly),’ she says haughtily: ‘Mame d’Uzai.’

The snobbery that Proust encountered in the Faubourg – and documented in his novels – was breathtaking. The present duke, however, is a man of the people. I am reliably informed that the taxi that conveys him from Nîmes airport for his monthly visits to Uzès is instructed to call first at McDonald’s restaurant, whose ‘drive-thru’ facility is conveniently located on the edge of the modern city.

The Duché d’Uzès: An Appreciation

His modest address in the Place du Duché, Uzès, hardly prepares one for the grand residence of France’s premier duke and peer. Approaching through a narrow side street, one glimpses a turret on a tall building ahead, a fluttering banner, an elaborate escutcheon worked into the brown tiles of a steep roof. Emerging into the Place, one is suddenly confronted by a full-blown castle in the middle of the historic city, one that, most unusually, is occupied by its original family as it has been for a thousand years.

The three elements to the castle are instantly laid bare in the main courtyard that is accessed through a door from the Place. The oldest and most prominent of these is La Tour Bermond, a massive square keep, fifty metres high, named for the lord of Uzès who built it in the twelfth century.

Then there are the fourteenth-century ramparts, projecting from one side of the keep, which were added by lord Robert after his elevation to vicomte in 1328. Robert’s apartments, the so-called ‘vicomté’, which are built into these ramparts, are disguised behind a nineteenth-century façade, though with a tall hexagonal turret at one end.

Simone d’Uzès: prized heiress

Finally, another medieval range that projected from the keep was aggrandised in fine Renaissance style by the Crussols, for Charles de Crussol, Grand Pantryman of France, had in 1486 married Simone d’Uzès, the prized heiress to Bermond and Robert’s line. Their grandson, Antoine, became the first duc d’Uzès in 1565. An associate of the sinister Catherine de’ Medici and a trimmer, renouncing his Protestantism in timely fashion in 1572, Antoine employed a sensitive and learned architect on his renovated apartments, ‘le Duché’, the striking façade of which features Doric, Ionian and Corinthian columns in layers for each floor.

His father Charles had already paved the way with the splendid vaulted staircase of c.1515, quite taxing to any but the nimble, that now leads to these rooms. The first of them is a hallway containing two exceptional treasures, laid out on cushions: a helmet from the time of Joan of Arc, in excellent condition; and – a great curiosity – a lamp said to be a relic from the Crusades, lords of Uzès having participated, as vassals of the Counts of Toulouse, in the Fourth and probably also the First Crusades. It seems to me very rare that a family should preserve any artefact of so early a date.

Crussols in ruffs and lace gaze down from the walls (including the Grand Pantryman Louis with his trim beard, last of the family from whom I myself am directly descended). The room is simply furnished, even austere, as is fitting in a living fortress: ‘In our halls is hung armoury of the invincible knights of old,’ as Wordsworth puts it. The theme is continued in an adjoining vestibule, where there are portraits of more recent Crussols, including a full-length one of the present duke, a sleek and elegant figure in a dinner jacket, his arms casually folded.

Louis de Crussol, Grand Pantryman and Governor of the Dauphine (died 1473)

These rooms lead to a grand ‘state’ room, a Wedgwood-blue salon with a lot of white-and-blue porcelain and Louis Quinze chairs with red and gold covers. Despite the warm colours, there is a coldness to rooms of such conventional formality, and the modest fireplace tucked into one corner would hardly have raised the temperature. I was struck, however, by the elaborate carpet commissioned by the present duke that bears his achievement of arms, with its multiple quarterings, which, indeed, is ubiquitous throughout the castle; and was tempted by the glimpse of a more intimate room beyond, all in red, into which one is not invited.

Instead, one is steered through a long, cool passage into one of the many bedrooms that lead off it – the ‘Yellow Room’, with its memories of ‘la Grande Duchesse’ – and the dining-room, where an immaculate Aubusson tapestry is framed by hunting trophies (hers, probably). A large, fifteenth-century triptych depicting members of the royal house hangs nonchalantly above a sideboard, on which a portrait of that precious commodity, Simone d’Uzès, has been propped – a happy-looking girl with rosy cheeks and a hint of a smile. The fifteenth-century chapel beyond was refurbished in 1838 and includes a colourful wall-painting of the family’s heraldry.

There is only a small, formal garden at the back of the Duché. The park, watered by the river Alzon, is across the city, outside the walls, and is a public amenity.

The charming and expertly trained guides at le Duché, looking like matelots in their white denims and T-shirts, are as well-versed in heraldry and genealogy as any Guermantes. Le Duché is a carefully managed stage-set, a romantic anachronism, yet is perfectly pitched at anyone, like me, who thrills in Grand Pantrymen and crusader lamps.

Crusader lamp

A Dickensian Landmark in London: The Site of Fagin’s Lair on Saffron Hill

March 14th, 2019

The border between Bloomsbury and Clerkenwell is seamless and invisible but one is instantly aware of passing from a genteel quarter into a raffish one. I ventured in that direction last week on a particular quest: to discover one of London’s great literary landmarks, the site of Fagin’s lair. In Dickens’s novel Oliver Twist, begun in 1837, the squalid apartment of the ‘pleasant old gentleman, and his hopeful pupils’, is located with precision on Saffron Hill.

Oliver, a bemused and exhausted runaway, has joined up with the Artful Dodger on the Great North Road. That highway, known at the London end as ‘Liverpool Road’, is bordered here by market gardens, by open fields and by the cattle lairs that the drovers use on their way to Smithfield Market. The turnpike by which the boys enter London is hard by the Angel at Islington, an old coaching inn that had been entirely rebuilt in 1819. It is approaching midnight as the pair proceed along St John Street into Clerkenwell, then, by way of Exmouth Street and Coppice Row, to the prettily-named Saffron Hill, ‘along which the Dodger scudded at a rapid pace, directing Oliver to follow close at his heels’.

Descending into the pit: Saffron Hill, Clerkenwell

This had once been a country lane through the Bishop of Ely’s estate, where saffron was grown, but since the late seventeenth century it had been developed into an overcrowded and impoverished residential area, a ‘rookery’. Oliver ‘could not help bestowing a few hasty glances on either side of the way as he passed along. A dirtier or more wretched place he had never seen. the street was very narrow and muddy, and the air was impregnated with filthy odours. There were a good many small shops; but the only stock in trade appeared to be heaps of children, who, even at that time of night, were crawling in and out at the doors, or screaming from the inside. The sole places that seemed to prosper amid the general blight of the place were the public-houses, and in them, the lowest orders of Irish (who are generally the lowest orders of anything) were wrangling with might and main. Covered ways and yards, which here and there diverged from the main street, disclosed little knots of houses where drunken men and women were positively wallowing in the filth; and from several of the doorways, great ill-looking fellows were cautiously emerging, bound, to all appearance, upon no very well-disposed or harmless errands.

‘Oliver was just considering whether he hadn’t better run away, when they reached the bottom of the hill: his conductor, catching him by the arm, pushed open the door of a house near Field-lane, and, drawing him into the passage, closed it behind them.’ [Book I, Chapter 8.]

Field Lane was an alley at the south end of Saffron Hill that connected it to Holborn Hill. The name has since disappeared from the map. Dickens knew it well and hardly exaggerates the wretchedness of the place. Peter Cunningham, author of a Hand-book of London, 1850, describes Saffron Hill as a ‘squalid neighbourhood between HOLBORN and CLERKENWELL densely inhabited by poor people and thieves … The clergymen of St Andrew’s, Holborn, (the parish in which the purlieu lies), have been obliged, when visiting it, to be accompanied by policemen in plain clothes.’ Hepworth Dixon in The London Prisons, also published in 1850, writes that Field Lane ‘is narrow enough for [one] to reach across from house to house, and the buildings so lofty that a very bright sun is required to send light to the surface … The stench is awful. Along the middle of the lane runs a gutter, into which every sort of poisonous liquid is poured.’ A foreign observer, Flora Tristan, describes it in 1842 as ‘a little alley … too narrow for vehicles to use,’ where ‘there is absolutely nothing to be seen but dealers in second-hand silk handkerchiefs.’ Intrepid enough to visit at night, she adds: ‘There is a bustle of activity in the street as prostitutes, children, and rogues of every age and condition come to sell their handkerchiefs’ (London Journal, p.175). These had been stolen, of course, by the likes of Fagin’s crew, and the saleswomen, invariably ‘daughters of Israel’, were ‘fences’. Dixon was incensed by their attempts ‘to seduce you into the purchase of the very handkerchief which you had in your pocket at the entrance’ (The London Prisons, pp.227-8).

There is a palpably villainous and mournful air to Saffron Hill, which is still oppressively enclosed by tall buildings. The street is paved now, the original houses have all gone, and the River Fleet, a filthy open sewer that ran along its east side, is covered over; but there is a paucity here both of smart offices and of trendy warehouse developments, as if it is still a demoralised place, forsaken by the world and left to its ghosts.

The One Tun: not recommended by Charles Dickens

Descending the hill, one passes The One Tun (rebuilt in 1875, over the original cellars), which is claimed, not unreasonably, as the model of the ‘low public-house, situate in the filthiest part of Little Saffron-Hill,’ that Bill Sikes frequents with his dog. It is described as ’a dark and gloomy den, where a flaring gas-light burnt all day in the winter-time, and where no ray of sun ever shone in the summer’.

The best editions of Oliver Twist are those accompanied by George Cruikshanks’s original illustrations, where the impoverished, under-nourished boys always appear like old men. Cruikshanks’s illustration of the pub, headed ‘Oliver claimed by his affectionate friends’, shows a doorway festooned with misspelt notices: ‘To be drunk on the premises’; ‘Licensed to sel Beerly Retail’; ‘Fine Ale 3d pr. pot’.

As for Fagin’s dwelling, it was ‘a very dirty place; but the rooms upstairs had great high wooden mantel-pieces and large doors, with panelled walls and cornices to the ceilings, which, although they were black with neglect and dust, were ornamented in various ways; from all of which tokens Oliver concluded that a long time ago, before the old Jew was born, it had belonged to better people, and had perhaps been quite gay and handsome, dismal and dreary as it looked now.’ [Book I, Chapter 18.]

At this end of Saffron Hill, one feels trapped and cornered, as if one has descended into a pit. A steep flight of steps leads up into the street beyond and the relief of sunlight and fresh air, or what passes for it in this part of London. Literary pilgrims  in search of the authentic Dickensian atmosphere will not be disappointed.

Longman's former premises on Saffron Hill: gloomy enough for Fagin

Footnote. Halfway down Saffron Hill were the premises of Longman & Co., the publishers, from 1887 – too late to have inspired Fagin’s lair, but the dirty curtains and the piles of rubbish outside evoke Dickensian squalor.

See also: and

Lieutenant John Loftus Otway Mansergh, Royal Warwickshires, killed in action at the Battle of Loos

November 12th, 2018

Royal_Warwickshire_Regiment_Cap_Badge.jpg (419×464)

My family emerged relatively unscathed from the Great War. My grandfathers were too young to serve, my great-grandfathers too old, apart from one, Major Cyril Mumby, who survived the war, despite being severely wounded on the Western Front.

The war was, literally, a shattering experience for Cyril and was to alter the course of his life, but the same could also be said of his sister, Isabel (born in 1882).

The Mumbys were well-heeled mineral-water manufacturers, whose life before 1914 had been extremely easy and pleasant. Isabel had been adequately educated at a boarding-school in Bournemouth before embarking on a life of obvious idleness, as befitted an affluent young lady. The family regularly holidayed at Montreux, the intensely social, intensely romantic resort on Lake Leman, where, partying among Europe’s fashionable elite, Cyril met and fell in love with his future wife, a young French girl called Nicole de Faletans.

On another family holiday at Montreux in the late 1890s, Isabel had met a good-looking young man, fresh from Haileybury College, called Loftus Mansergh. His father was a major in the Warwickshires, and the Manserghs were a prominent and wealthy Anglo-Irish family. A newspaper cutting refers to a ‘Mr Mansergh’ who appeared as a Hussar at the Annual International Ball at the Kursaal, Montreux’s casino, in January 1899. It may have been around this time that he encountered Isabel.

Commissioned in December 1899 into the Royal Irish Regiment, Loftus had served in the Boer War until 1902. He had kept in touch with Isabel, sending her photographs of himself at bivouacs on the weld, which she pasted into her album. Later he had proposed to her and been accepted.

With no intention of forming a connection with trade (even if holders of a Royal Warrant), his stuffy parents had refused their consent. He had headed off to Africa instead, serving as an Assistant District Commissioner in Kenya. Isabel had eventually settled with her mother and sister at Udimore Cottage, Otterbourne (near Winchester), resigned to spinsterhood.

However, on Loftus’s return to England in May 1914, he had renewed his proposal. With a hastily-procured licence, the couple had been married at Otterbourne. A daughter, Elisabeth, was born nine months later, in April 1915.

Loftus had been recalled as a lieutenant in June 1914. On 4 August, he went out with the 2nd Battalion of the Warwickshires to France. Before embarking he had telephoned his sister-in-law, Nicole, and asked her to dine with him, as Isabel was too upset to see him off. He was killed in action at the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915. No remains were ever recovered.

Condemned to a long widowhood, Isabel died at Otterbourne in 1959. At this hundredth anniversary of the Armistice, these memories of Cyril, Isabel and Loftus have been foremost in my mind.

See also:

Easter Island or Isle of Wight? The Luccombe Chine Head

September 9th, 2018

The small museum at Newport Roman Villa includes something quite remarkable, a carved, near life-sized stone head that is every bit as powerful, mysterious and evocative as any of the Easter Island heads – and considerably older too, as it is thought to date from the late Iron Age or early Roman period. The head was discovered at Luccombe Chine, one of the prettiest places on the Island, but otherwise is entirely inscrutable.

Easter Island head in the British Museum ...

... and in situ (photo courtesy of Arthur Willoughby)

The Red Roman Villa on Cypress Road, Newport, Isle of Wight: An Appreciation

September 9th, 2018

The kitchen and corridor beyond are imaginatively re-created above the original mosaic floors

Among the undistinguished suburban villas on Cypress Road, Newport, is a gem of an archaeological site. It was discovered there in 1926, while foundations were being dug for a garage.

The extremely well-preserved remains are of a Roman villa that is thought to date from the late 270s, long before the existence of any town on the Isle of Wight. It was a single-storey building with a corridor, or possibly open verandah, at the front, giving access to a series of rooms and to wings on each side. It faced southwards onto a courtyard that would have been enclosed by farm buildings. Without the modern streetscape, there would have been pleasant views across open country to the surrounding hills.

The plan of the house can clearly be read on the ground, as the stone bases of the walls are virtually intact. Above them, the timber frame of the house was infilled with wattle and daub, proofed with limewash and – it seems – painted red. The building was roofed with heavy slabs of Bembridge limestone, many of which, pierced with single holes for nails, were found on the site, along with the arched tiles that once finished the roof-ridge. Fragments of window-glass reveal that at least some of the windows were glazed. For others, wooden shutters probably sufficed.

Taking the plunge - the frigidarium

The interior walls were brightly painted, and some of the rooms had elaborate mosaic floors. As if these were not luxuries enough, the entire west wing was a purpose-built bath-house, with the classic sequence of a frigidarium (‘cold room’) leading into a tepidarium, sudatorium and caldarium (‘warm room’, ‘sweat room’ and ‘hot room’). These last three rooms were heated by an underfloor hypocaust, which depended on the stoking by a slave of a furnace outside. The pools are of similar size to a modern hot-tub – and opportunities for serious pampering.

The exterior walls of the bath-house wing may have been entirely of stone, while the three heated bathrooms were crowned by white plastered domes (domed ceilings were necessary to reduce condensation), constructed from the tufa blocks that were discovered in abundance by the excavators. The front room of the opposite (east) wing also benefited from underfloor heating, with hot air circulating from a separate furnace.

Roman hot-tub: the caldarium

It is extraordinarily easy to make a mental leap back in time, to see this place as it once was and to marvel at the level of luxury that was enjoyed here. The owners were no doubt indigenous Britons who had flourished under Roman rule and taken full advantage of its opportunities. Within about fifty years, however, the way of life here had declined to such an extent that fine mosaic floors had been taken up, and the grandest room of the house turned into a smithy. In the ensuing century, it is perhaps Saxon or Jutish raiders who were, literally, the death of the place, for the skull of a woman in her early thirties, with two huge cracks in it, was found in the corner of one of the rooms, into which her decapitated head had been heartlessly tossed.

There is even a reconstruction, based on a model from Pompeii, of a formal garden

Muslim Ancestry of the English Royal House: Zaida of Seville and Madragana of Faro, Two Moorish Ladies and Their European Descendants

June 16th, 2018

Zaida of Seville at home? John Frederick Lewis, ‘A Lady Receiving Visitors’ (1873)

Zaida of Seville

From the eighth to eleventh centuries, the greater part of what is now Spain and Portugal was under Moorish rule, the vast Muslim province of al-Andalus. The Christians huddled in their enclaves in the far north of the peninsula, until a succession of vigorous kings brought the Reconquista to its southernmost shores, reducing the once-mighty Caliphate of Córdoba to a handful of tiny taifas or republics.

The Taifa of Seville, for example, was created in 1031 by its former qadi or governor who, declaring his independence from the Caliphate, reigned there as Abbad I. The third and last Emir of Seville, Abbad’s grandson Muhammed ibn Abbad al Mu’tamid, was thus the ruler not of a glorious Islamic capital but of a tiny, weakened outpost beset by powerful enemies.

Crippled by tribute to the Christian king of Castile, al Mu’tamid rashly appealed to the Almoravids of Morocco for help. By 1091, the Almoravids had themselves occupied the remaining Islamic taifas. Seville was besieged and captured, al Mu’tamid ordering has sons to surrender the Alcazar or citadel in exchange for their lives. He himself died mysteriously in exile at Aghmat, in Morocco, in 1095.

Another of al Mu’tamid’s sons, Abu Nasr al-Fath al Ma’mum, Emir of the Taifa of Córdoba, had perished in March 1091 during the siege of that city, but had previously sent his wife, Zaida, and his children to Almodóvar del Rio, where they had sought the protection of Alfonso VI ‘El Bravo’, the Christian King of Castile. No details are known, but the widowed Muslim princess had caught the fancy of the lusty king, whose mistress she had become, though he had also been prompt in arranging for her baptism in the name of ‘Isabella’.

Isabella, formerly Zaida, duly gave birth to Alfonso’s beloved only son, Sancho, whose death at the Battle of Uclès in 1108 was to career Alfonso, broken-hearted, to a premature grave. Some say that Alfonso later married her, for his fourth wife, who died in childbirth, was also called Isabella and her identity is otherwise unknown. If so, Zaida was also the mother of Elvira and Sancha, the two daughters of that marriage. These two girls were to become the wives respectively of Rodrigo González de Lara, a Castilian nobleman and crusader who died in the Holy Land in 1143, and of Roger II, Count of Sicily. From both couples there are numerous lines of descent to the present day. (See, for example, the table of descent from Sancha of Isabella of Castile, wife of Edmund, Duke of York, in Iain Moncreiffe and Don Pottinger, Blood Royal (Edinburgh, 1956), p.16.)

It was asserted by Bishop Pelayo of Oviedo (died 1135), in his Chronicon Regum Legionensium, that ‘Ceida’ was in fact the daughter of King ‘Abenabeth’ of Seville (al Mu’tamid), but this authority is expressly contradicted by the more reliable Islamic sources. Pelayo’s account has nevertheless given rise to a persistent myth about Zaida, whom a much-later tomb inscription confidently describes both as ‘uxor regis Adefonsi’ and as ‘filia Benabet’. For what it is worth, Pelayo of Oviedo does not speak of her as queen, but as one of Alfonso’s ‘duas concubinas’.

The scholarly consensus is that Zaida was indeed al Mu’tamid’s daughter-in-law and that her parentage is unknown. Her identity with the later Queen Isabella is ‘undetermined’. It is unlikely that the truth of the matter, and whether she was indeed the mother of Elvira and Sancha, will ever now be revealed.

(Evariste Lévi-Provençal, ‘La “Mora Zaida”, femme d’Alfonse VI de Castile, et leur fils l’Infant Sancho’, Hesperis 18 (1934), pp.1-8, 200-1; Alberto Frutos Montaner, ‘La Mora Zaida, entre historia y leyenda’, in Barry Taylor and Geoffrey West eds., Historical Essays on Hispano-Medieval Narrative (London, 2005), pp.273-352.)

Madragana of Faro

John Frederick Lewis, ‘The Coffee Bearer’ (1857)

In contrast to the case of Zaida of Seville, lines of descent from another Andalusian, Madragana of Faro, are well established.

The Reconquista had continued apace and, in 1249, a final assault was launched on the remaining Muslim enclaves in Portugal. The Crónica da Conquista do Algarve describes the capture of Faro by the Portuguese king, Afonso III. The city had fallen without fuss, Afonso promising the Moors that they would enjoy ‘the same laws in all things as they had received from their own king’, and that they would retain ‘all their houses, vineyards and inheritances’. They were free to move to other Moorish lands if they wished, taking their goods with them. Those who remained would become his vassals and would be treated with ‘honour and mercy’.

As a modern historian observes, these ‘businesslike negotiations were carried through without any indication of culturally based animosity’ (Stephen Lay, The Reconquest Kings of Portugal (London, 2008), p.258). By the end of 1250 the remaining Muslim strongholds had all surrendered to Afonso’s forces, having wearily resigned themselves to the inevitable. The Portuguese Reconquista was thus complete.

According to medieval sources, Afonso, having deposed Aloandro, the last qadi (governor) of Faro, had taken his daughter, Madragana, as his mistress. She had at once been baptised in the name of ‘Mor Afonso’, ‘Mor’ being short for Maior, a common female name in medieval Portuguese. The patronymic ‘Afonso’ denotes that she was the ‘daughter of Afonso’, the king himself presumably acting as godfather. Other sources refer to the girl as Mourana, a version of Ouroana which is another traditional Portuguese name.

The sources are very clear that Madragana bore two children by Afonso: a son, Martim Afonso Chichorro, born about 1250, and Urraca, born about 1260. Eventually, the royal passion seems to have waned and Madragana was married off to one Fernão Rei, whose surname (‘of the king’) suggests that he had been employed a servant at the court.

Madragana’s son Martim was married in 1274 to Inès Lourenco de Sousa de Valadares and founded the house of Sousa-Chichorro. The Duke of Lafões is its head and it is said that all the great families of Portugal can claim Sousa ancestry. So too, can many families in northern Europe, for a contingent of Sousas accompanied their cousin, Isabella of Portugal, to the Netherlands in 1429 for her marriage to Duke Philip the Good of Burgundy. Two years later, Isabella de Sousa-Chichorro, daughter of Afonso-Vasques, married one of Philip’s nobles, Jean de Poitiers-Valentinois, lord of Arcis-sur-Aube, near Troyes, and of Vadans in the Franche-Comté; while her niece, Marguerita de Castro e Sousa, was soon to marry another Burgundian lord, Jean de Neufchatel, Lord of Montagu and Fontenoy.

The Poitiers lords of Vadans are the subject of a previous blog ( I myself am descended from them, and from Madragana, through my great-grandmother, a franc-comtoise. It is from Marguerita de Castro y Sousa that the modern British royal family descends. Her granddaughter, Antoinette de Neufchatel, married Philipp, Graf von Salm. Antoinette’s daughter in turn married a Graf von Erbach. Four generations later, Sophie Albertina von Erbach married a Prince von Sachsen Hildburghausen. Their granddaughter, Charlotte von Mecklenburg-Strelitz, was George III’s queen and the grandmother of Queen Victoria (

This tenuous link has given rise to much tendentious, indeed ludicrous speculation about the genetic make-up of the modern royal family, especially in the light of Prince Harry’s marriage to Meghan Markle. Madragana has unhistorically been described as ‘black’, and her remote descendant, Queen Charlotte, as ‘Britain’s first black queen’, especially as her ‘negroid’ features were often commented upon. Queen Charlotte is even listed by campaigners among ‘100 Great Black Britons’, along with such luminaries as Diane Abbott and Joan Armatrading (

A soi-disant ‘historian of the African diaspora’, Mario de Valdes y Cocom, has gone so far as to describe the Sousas as ‘a black branch of the Portuguese royal house’ (Mario de Valdes y Cocom, ‘The Blurred Racial Lines of Famous Families’, A more reasonable presumption is that the ancestors of Madragana were from north Africa, possibly blue-eyed Berbers or even Vandals, a Germanic tribe who had settled there. There are even claims that the family was Jewish, descended through the Exilarchs of Babylon from King David himself (Manuel Abranches de Soveral, ‘Origen dos Souza ditos do Prado’, in Machado de Vila Pouca de Agular (Porto, 2000)). They may have been distantly descended from Jews and indeed from sub-Saharan Africans – the current fad for DNA testing reveals many surprises – but, by any stretch of the imagination, it is a ridiculous distortion to describe Queen Charlotte, the Sousas or even Madragana herself as ‘black’.

[Duarte Nunez do Lião, Primeira parte das Chronìcas dos reis da Portugal (cota RES, 574v, p.97; António Caetano de Sousa, História Genealógica da Casa Real Portuguesa, Tomo XIV, Parte III (Lisbon, 1600), pp.702-3: ‘Alguus differaõ, que fora sua mãy Moura, como foy o Desembargador Duarte Nunes de Leaõ, o que segnio o Chronista Fr. Antonio Brandaõ, dizendo ser filha de Aloandro, hum dos Alcaides de Faro, quando El Rey ganhou esto Cidade no ano de 1250, e que sendo dotada de grande fermosura, El Rey tivera trato com ella’. For the wilder theories see Stuart Jeffries, ‘Was this Britain’s First Black Queen?’, The Guardian (Race Issues section), 12 March 2009; Doreen, Lady Lawrence also alluded to Prince Harry’s ‘black’ ancestress, Ouroana, on Radio 4 the day after his wedding.]