Archive for the ‘Historical Gleanings’ category

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.]

Victorian Girl Power: The Education of Miss Josephine Willoughby

March 31st, 2018

Josephine Willoughby (bottom left), with Constance Maynard (centre) and Frances Ralph Gray (bottom right)

Contrary to the popular view, the Suffragettes were not the only activists in the movement for female equality. Long before Suffragettism was at its peak in the early 1900s, other women had been making an often quiet and invariably courageous stand, particularly in the field of women’s education.

Of these, the best known are Emily Davies, the co-founder in 1869 of Girton College, Cambridge; her lifelong friend Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, who in 1865 was the first woman to qualify in Britain as a physician or surgeon; and Garrett Anderson’s younger sister Dame Millicent Fawcett, the suffragist (and opponent of the militant Suffragettes), who is considered instrumental in gaining the vote for six million British women over 30 years old in 1918.

According to the legend, it had begun with a momentous conversation one evening in 1860 at Alde House, the Garrett home near Aldeburgh. As Emily Davies and her best friend Elizabeth Garrett brushed their hair by the bedroom fire, the two young women had discussed their future lives, with Millicent, aged thirteen, observing silently. ‘Well Elizabeth,’ said Emily, ‘it is clear what has to be done. I must devote myself to securing higher education, while you open the medical profession for women. After these things are done we must see about getting the vote.’ She had then turned to the little girl, still sitting quietly on her stool. ‘You are younger than we are, Millie,’ she said, ‘so you must attend to that.’ (Jo Manton, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson (London, 1965), p.72.)

To women of less steely character, the barriers would have seemed insuperable. ‘The Victorian view of women,’ recalled a contemporary, ‘is that she was a creature born to please, whose personal individuality was strictly limited to, and by, this obligation. However politely expressed, it was a view in effect Oriental. Women were secondary adjuncts to the life of man … Woman’s destiny and sufficient purpose was to marry. Her education was directed to equipping her with graces and accomplishments calculated to attract a husband.’

This writer continues: ‘For “the average girl”, the “correct thing” was to be brought up at home.’ (Mary Agnes Hamilton, Newnham: An Informal Biography (London, 1936), pp.32, 47.) A clergyman’s daughter, Emily Davies had ‘learnt Latin with her brothers for her own pleasure and had written weekly English essays for criticism by her father. Yet she was forced to stay at home, her time frittered away in a multitude of small duties.’ Elizabeth Garrett Anderson had as her governess ‘a decayed gentlewoman’ who bored her rigid, followed by a few years at a private ‘Boarding School for Ladies’, the stupidity of whose teachers she remembered ‘with shudders’ (Manton, pp.32-4, 40). Even for the daughters – like her – of rich parents, the opportunities for secondary schooling were extremely limited.

Plymouth High School

It is perhaps not generally appreciated that the three renowned girls’ schools founded in the middle of the nineteenth century – Queen’s College, Harley Street (1848), North London Collegiate (1850) and Cheltenham Ladies’ (1854) – were ‘pioneering achievements’; that North London was ‘held up to scorn as a perilous innovation’; and that these were ‘tiny islands in the great sea’ (Hamilton, p.47). Fortunately, they were followed by an impressive number of similar foundations in the 1870s, particularly those of the Endowed Schools Commissioners and the Girls’ Public Day Schools Company, who between them had established, by 1880, some forty schools of the new type. St Leonard’s School, St Andrews, and Oxford, South Hampstead and Plymouth High Schools are worthy examples of these.

The pride of the Willoughbys - with an assortment of Willoughby feet

My great-grandfather’s elder sister, Caroline Annie Josephine Willoughby, born at Plymouth on 5 June 1863, was one of the original pupils at Plymouth High School (founded in 1874) and, for that reason alone, can be considered a pioneer in the history of women’s education. Of course this was made possible by well-to-do, liberal-minded parents who were not appalled by the prospect of their daughters’ being as well educated as their sons. Josephine had nine brothers and sisters, and the boys were all sent to Plymouth College, close to their home in Mutley, which, dating from 1877, is a slightly later foundation than the High School.

The father of this brood, Joseph Willoughby, was an engineer and iron founder, a long-standing member of the Town Council, and for fifty years the managing-director of Willoughby Bros. Ltd., from whose yards in Rendle Street were to emanate, in the 1890s and 1900s, such sturdy vessels as the Torpoint and Saltash chain-ferries; whilst man-hole covers in the Plymouth area are still stamped with their name. Joseph had married Ann Mason, a farmer’s daughter from Kenwyn, near Truro.

Newnham College, Cambridge

These paragons went even further, and placed themselves in a tiny minority even among the most enlightened parents. Realising that Josephine was just as clever as the most brilliant of her brothers, three of whom were to achieve doctoral degrees, they were prepared to support (in every sense) her continuing education at a university.

At Cambridge, there were now two colleges for women, who were allowed to pursue the same courses as the men and also to sit the Intermediate and Tripos examinations, though they were not permitted, as yet, to take degrees. The first of these women’s colleges was Girton, Emily Davies’s foundation of 1869. It was followed by Newnham, in the founding of which, in 1871, Millicent Fawcett had the guiding hand. Josephine was duly admitted to Newnham in 1882, to read Natural Sciences.

Her choice of college was surely influenced by her older High School contemporary, Frances Ralph Gray, who had preceded her there, whilst the presence of another Willoughby at the University – her first cousin Frederick, a second-year undergraduate at St Catherine’s – must have been reassuring for her parents. (Frederick was the son of her uncle Samuel, one of the partners in Willoughby Bros.) They were joined in 1884 by Josephine’s younger brother James, although he was to migrate after a couple of years at Selwyn Hall to Jesus College, Oxford. Both Frederick and James were marked out for clerical careers. Josephine’s youngest brother Willoughby (my great-grandfather) arrived at Caius much later, in 1894, also to read Natural Sciences and to launch himself on the brilliant medical career to which, in another age, Josephine herself might have aspired. (J. Venn, Alumni Cantabrigienses, I, ii, 4, pp.510-11.)

Predominant among Josephine’s contemporaries at Newnham were the daughters of intellectual families like those of Professors Skeat (the Anglo-Saxonist) and Rolleston (physiologist) and Longfellow (the American poet), mingled with those of enterprising business people like the Willoughbys themselves, the Colmans (mustard manufacturers of Norwich) and the Naishes (Wilton carpet manufacturers). The three Naish girls at Newnham were the sisters of William Vawdrey Naish of Emmanuel, later an M.D., who was to marry Josephine’s sister Madeleine. The aristocracy was represented too, in the person of Eva Knatchbull-Hugesson, daughter of Lord Brabourne and, appropriately, a great-grand-niece of Jane Austen. (Newnham College Register, 1871 – 1923 (1963), pp.65, 66, 72, 76, 77, 109, 121.)

Westfield College, London

Despite achieving a ‘First’ in the Natural Sciences Tripos in 1885, Josephine did not pursue the option of a medical career. Thanks to Elizabeth Garrett Anderson and the Medical Act of 1878, the profession was gradually opening up to women.

Instead, she was invited by Constance Maynard, its co-founder in 1882 and first ‘Mistress’, to join the staff of Westfield College for Ladies, the University of London’s equivalent of Newnham, whose premises were in Maresfield Gardens, Hampstead. The key recommendation was no doubt that of Frances Ralph Grey, her schoolfriend from Plymouth and forerunner at Newnham, who had herself joined the Westfield staff in 1883, as Resident Lecturer in Classics.

It seems that Josephine was initially appointed to cover for Katherine Tristram during her sabbatical. Constance Maynard documents their meeting in her intimate diary, which for the most part combines reflections on her rather oppressive spiritual life with her barely-suppressed lesbian yearnings. ‘May 31st 1885 – I went to Newnham & got Miss Willoughby to take Katie’s place for a year or two. It was not like getting Ralph. Gentle, guileless, good, I knew I cd live with her & work with her & be happy, yet it was not with the awe of a sudden inspiration. “Dove, I cd love you, if some day you will let me.” (Queen Mary, University of London Archives, MAYNARD PP7/1/20). In other words, Josephine would never be a substitute for Frances Ralph Grey, pointedly called ‘Ralph’ in the diaries, with whom Maynard appears to have been madly in love.

There were unseemly discussions about money, the miserly college council insisting that Josephine’s first term be unpaid; Maynard had subsequently to fight on her behalf for a salary (Pauline A. Phipps, Constance Maynard’s Passions (Toronto, 2015), p.136 and n.31). Her temporary position was, however, confirmed in 1887, when she was given charge of all the elementary teaching in Science for the B.Sc. degree, which accounted for about half the student body of thirty woman – for the progressive University of London, unlike Oxford and Cambridge, had been allowing women to take its degrees since 1878.

The teaching staff at that time consisted of six women, all but one of whom were ‘Resident Lecturers’. They lived in a genteel maternal atmosphere, waited on by servants, dressing formally for dinner and observing rituals such as afternoon tea (Phipps, p.128). Josephine was to reside at Westfield for a total of nine years, but her own inclinations were to marriage and she became engaged in 1888 to William Adams Clark, a fellow medical student of her brother George at Bart’s. Their wedding was inevitably deferred until the time when he was fully qualified.

Westfield staff and students, 21 June 1889. Josephine is seated on a chair, second from left

Within a couple of years, Josephine had made herself indispensable at her college, and was considered ‘the great authority on all practical matters: it was to her, for example, that the heating engineer explained the hot water system of the “New Westfield” – the College’s expanded premises on Kidderpore Avenue, West Hampstead – “pouring facts upon her which she absorbed with the intuition of a true genius” (Constance Maynard’s Diary February 1891, quoted in Janet Sondheimer, Castle Adamant in Hampstead (Westfield College, 1983), p.31). She was also remembered as ‘the organiser of an annual river picnic for Matriculation candidates, to which her fiancé bought some of his fellow medical students’ (ibid.).

It was therefore a great loss to the college (and a personal tragedy for Maynard, who was heartbroken) when ‘Ralph’ and Josephine both departed in 1894, Miss Gray to become a headmistress and ultimately the High Mistress of St Paul’s Girls’ School in London, Josephine to married life with William Adams Clark, now an M.D.

A model of the new Westfield development shows 'Willoughby' at top right, facing onto Kidderpore Avenue. To the left is Kidderpore Manor, which is to be sold as a single dwelling

Their wedding took place on her thirty-second birthday, 5 June 1895, after which they settled, improbably, in unglamorous Penge, with William in general practice in the High Street, and Josephine, equipped from 1896 with the Society of Apothecaries’ Assistants’ Certificate, as his partner in all but name, dispensing medicine and performing unofficially all the functions of the modern general practitioner. She had a son and two daughters, one of whom, Dora, was to qualify as a doctor. After a reunion of the original Westfield staff in 1905, Maynard aptly described her appearance as ‘motherly’ (Phipps, illustration p.192). She died on 15 August 1945.

Josephine Adams Clark, who was finally conceded her M.A. from Cambridge in 1923, would have thought herself in no way a revolutionary or even have described herself as a ‘feminist’ – pictured at my grandparents’ wedding, the couple appear highly conventional, Uncle William resplendent in his silk ‘topper’ – though it is women such as she who have made possible the education of women on equal terms with men.

A particular beneficiary is my own daughter, Josephine’s great-great-grand-niece, who has recently been offered a place at Westfield’s successor college, Queen Mary. I myself, though a member of another college, attended courses at Westfield in the late 1980s, unaware of the family connection, and can attest to the maternal atmosphere that still prevailed there. In what by then was a mixed college, the men on the Medieval History courses were a distinct minority, but the feminine preponderance was very enjoyable, and they all seemed to live as a close and cheerful family, carefully overseen, and organised on weekend activities and trips, by their equivalent of a Resident Lecturer, the redoubtable Brenda Bolton.

I was saddened less by the college’s merging with Queen Mary in 1989 than by the abandonment of the Hampstead campus in 1992. King’s College now uses some of the buildings. The least attractive teaching blocks have made way for the ‘Westfield Apartments’, a complex of luxurious flats. To our delight, part of it, between Kidderpore Hall and St Luke’s Vicarage, whose later occupant, coincidentally, was Josephine’s brother James, is to be known as ‘Willoughby’ in Josephine’s honour (

St Luke's Vicarage, Kidderpore Avenue, was later occupied by Josephine's brother James. It is flanked by St Luke's Church and (behind the trees) by the building that is to be named 'Willoughby' in her honour

[See also,-3-January-1885—12-August-1887.pdf – Constance Maynard’s diaries online – and – historical information from the college. Comments are welcome, but please notify the administrator at, to spare him from sifting through the abundant ‘spam’.]

Shalfleet: Church Tower or Castle Keep?

August 28th, 2017

The Tower of Shalfleet Church is the oldest on the Isle of Wight, and the most remarkable. Were there not a church attached to it, one would assume it was a defensive keep. The walls of this massive structure are over five feet thick, and there was originally no means of access from ground level: one had to climb an external ladder and scramble over the parapet. It is a structure that takes one’s breath away and has been described as ‘practically unique’. (Percy Stone, The Architectural Antiquities of the Isle of Wight, II, London 1891, pp.51-2.)

The Old Vicarage, Shalfleet: was it the site of the Saxon church? The Norman foundation is on the left.

The Tower was built in the later eleventh century, probably between 1070 and 1085, and may have been positioned at a distance from the Saxon church, the cemetery for which was in the garden of the Old Vicarage. (Ruth Waller, Archaeological Excavations in Shalfleet (Shalfleet, 2008.)

William fitz Osbern, the Conqueror’s cousin and close friend, to whom he had granted the lordship of the Island, had presented the manor of Shalfleet to Gozelin fitz Azur, his own subordinate knight who had probably fought beside him at Hastings, while the church was part of his endowment to the Abbey of Lyre in Normandy. The Tower that they quickly raised would not have been free-standing for long, for it was soon connected to a new church on the present site, with an arch giving access to the Tower from the nave. Apart from the Tower, their North Door has survived the subsequent alterations to the building, with its ‘quaintly carved tympanum … an ordinary Romanesque enrichment’. The best guess is that the curious scene of a man with two lions represents Daniel in the Lions’ Den.

It has been suggested that a tower of such strength was intended as a refuge, for Shalfleet, with its flat shore, was particularly vulnerable to raiders from France (Stone, II, p.52; Brian Mead, The Church of St Michael the Archangel, Shalfleet, 2004). However, what Frenchman in the 1070s would have dared to invade the newly-annexed territory of William the Conqueror, given that he was the ‘strong man’ of northern France and notoriously swift in his retribution? Moreover, how would the frail and elderly have been expected to scramble up the Tower in times of danger? Although it undoubtedly served later as a defence against the French (and was equipped with its own three-pounder gun until 1779), it seems to me most unlikely that that was its original purpose.

Was it not, rather, an outpost of the lordly control that was now being exercised from Carisbrooke Castle? Conspicuously more solid and expensive than the usual motte and bailey, a commission worthy of the Island’s central authority and ideally placed to hold sway over the West Wight, might it have been intended not to shelter the local populace, but to cow them into submission?

The Tympanum, probably illustrating Daniel in the Lions' Den

The Shalfleet Skillet: A Story of Genocide on the Isle of Wight

August 27th, 2017

The Odinist Fellowship, a body representing 2,000 so-called ‘pagans’, has applied for reparation from the Church of England ‘for its former crimes against the Odinists’ (‘We want our stolen churches back, pagans tell Archbishop’, The Sunday Telegraph, 27 August 2017). It suggests a public apology and the symbolic handing over of two churches, one from the diocese of Canterbury, one from that of York. The Bishop of Chichester has sensibly responded by saying ‘As yet I am unconvinced as to the strength of Odinist faith in these parts’; and it is difficult to see how these cranks can in any way be considered the heirs to the dispossessed pagans of the past, or even to have any coherent grasp of their religion. There is no doubt, however, that the Christianisation of England was an often brutal process, as the following story reveals.

The copper-alloy saucepan or ‘skillet’ discovered in 2005 in a shallow ditch at Shalfleet on the Isle of Wight has been dated to the late seventh century A.D. and, its long handle decorated with a cross, is the earliest Christian object to have been found on the Island. It is in remarkably good condition, given its age, and is associated with a particularly dramatic episode in Island history.

In 686 A.D, the Jutish kingdom of the Isle of Wight, then a thinly-populated place of 1,200 families, had been invaded and captured by the Saxon Caedwalla, King of Wessex. Though an uncommitted Christian, Caedwalla had, according to Bede, pledged ‘the fourth part of the land and of the spoil to the Lord, if he took the Island’, which ‘till then was given over entirely to idolatry’. Caedwalla was himself wounded in the fierce assault, his aim being ‘by merciless slaughter’ to destroy the entire population of the Island and to re-colonise it with his own people. His motives, clearly, were political rather than religious, but he was prepared to pay a high price for what was then the most impressive spiritual support on offer. (Bede, The Ecclesiastical History of England, IV, xvi, trans. A.M. Sellar (London, 1907).)

When the two young brothers of the defeated King Arwald fell into his hands, they, too, were put to death, despite having been hurriedly baptised. The genocidal Caedwalla was nevertheless true to his word. The promised quarter of the spoils was duly handed over to St Wilfred, the exiled ‘Bishop of the Northumbrian peoples’, who is said to have landed at Bembridge and to have set up his first church at Brading. Thus was England’s last pagan enclave brought to Christ.

The skillet was no doubt used by the first generation of Christian colonists in Shalfleet (‘shallow stream’ to the Saxons), perhaps in their religious ceremonies. (They were only the latest wave of incomers, for Bronze-Age chiefs had been buried in mounds to the north and south of the village and the Romans had come in their turn to build houses there.) In 2005, excavations in the garden of the Old Vicarage revealed the remains of eight of these early Christians, their skeletons orientated east to west, as was proper for people of their religion. The bones, both of men and women, were in a poor condition, in death as in life. Arthritic spines are suggestive of, literally, back-breaking working conditions on the land; pitted eye-sockets indicate dietary deficiency; all had suffered injuries of some sort (though not obviously in battle) and had rotten teeth. Half had died in their twenties or early thirties and the other four may have made it to forty-five. One of the skeletons has been carbon-dated to the years between 660 and 734 A.D., which fixes it firmly in the period described by Bede. (Ruth Waller, Archaeological Excavations in Shalfleet (Shalfleet, 2008.) The burials are evidence of the swift realisation of Caedwalla and Wilfred’s policy to pacify and Christianise the Island.

The site of the Saxon cemetery was subsequently developed for housing. In July 2008, the displaced skeletons were fittingly reinterred in the adjacent churchyard. A stone, with a touching inscription, marks the spot. The skillet, which had been discovered by a metal-detectorist, was bought by the Isle of Wight Heritage Service and can be viewed in the Museum of Island History in Newport’s former Guildhall, for the price of a mere £2.00.

The First Mrs Willoughby – or The Quest for my Inner Viking

August 10th, 2017

Wilby in Suffolk is flat, featureless and sparsely-populated, with a fine old church, a handful of cottages and a few scattered farmsteads

Most English families are lucky to trace their line back to the reign of Elizabeth I, and mine is no exception. John ‘Wilbie’ of Colchester was described as a yeoman and it was the emigration of his son Thomas to Cornwall, in 1647, that turned us into West Countrymen – Poldarkian characters who in the eighteenth century combined hard farming on the county’s bleak north coast with a little light wrecking. In default of other evidence, can the surname itself tell us about our earlier origins?

The names ‘Wilby’ and ‘Willoughby’ seem always to have been interchangeable, and to have been borne by a number of distinct and unrelated families to indicate their place of origin. There are villages called ‘Willoughby’ in Leicestershire, Lincolnshire, Nottinghamshire and Warwickshire, and others called ‘Wilby’ in Norfolk, Northamptonshire and Suffolk.

Thus the remotest ancestor of the earls and dukes of Ancaster and the lords Willoughby de Eresby, Willoughby de Broke, Willoughby of Parham and Middleton was a certain William Willoughby of Willoughby-in-the-Marsh, Lincolnshire, in the time of Richard I. With their roots firmly in that county, they were entirely unconnected to Willoughbys originating in, say, Norfolk or Suffolk.

The various ‘Willoughbys’ and ‘Wilbys’ were etymologically distinct, too. The Lincolnshire Willoughby is called ‘Wilgebi’ in Domesday Book, a combination of the Old English wilig, for willow, with the Old Scandinavian byr, for a settlement or homestead. The name describes, picturesquely but prosaically, a ‘farmstead by the willows’.

The Wilbys, on the other hand, are called ‘Wilebi’ in Domesday, and are the byrs, or homesteads, of one or more men called Willa, who presumably were Viking marauders of the Danelaw period (A. D. Mills, A Dictionary of English Place-Names, (Oxford, 1991); P.H. Reaney, A Dictionary of British Surnames (1976), pp.383, 385.) As Wilby in Suffolk is the closest of the three villages to Colchester, I believe my ancestors to have originated there, and very probably to have included the eponymous Willa himself.

When might Willa, my putative ancestor, have arrived in England, and what sort of man was he?

Belying the urbanity of his current-day descendants, Willa was, no doubt, irredeemably uncouth, but charming enough for the first Mrs Willoughby

The Viking raids, the memory of which is seared on our national consciousness, had been sporadic at first. The coming of the Vikings in 793 had been announced, according to the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, by ‘immense whirlwinds and flashes of lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the air. A great famine followed, and a little after that, on 8 June, the ravages of heathen men miserably destroyed God’s church on Lindisfarne.’ After 835, raids are regularly recorded in the south and west. The attacks soon escalated into a full-scale invasion, with a ‘great army’ landing in 865. It proceeded to conquer Northumbria (867), East Anglia (869) and – reinforced in 871 by a ‘great summer army’ – most of Mercia (874-7). Wessex itself barely escaped after a series of bloody battles in 871, but in 878 was occupied by the Danish king Guthrum, who had surprised Alfred, the new king of Wessex, at Chippenham.

Forced into hiding in the Somerset marshes, Alfred returned to win a decisive victory at Edington. The vanquished Guthrum now accepted baptism and agreed to withdraw, becoming ruler in 880 of the short-lived kingdom of East Anglia. In a subsequent treaty, Guthrum and Alfred, who had beaten off attacks by a third ‘great army’, fixed the boundary between the English and Danish spheres of influence on the line of Watling Street, between London and Chester. The old Saxon kingdoms to the north and east of this line, including East Anglia, disappeared for ever. This was to be the ‘Danelaw’, a wild, politically-fragmented area that was, for the time being, beyond the sphere of any English king.

The Gokstad Ship, now at the Viking Ship Museum in Oslo

Ocean-going Viking longboats could accommodate about thirty men, or even fewer if horses, camp followers and enslaved captives were on board, so the number of settlers would not have been excessive. (A ninth-century example of such a ship, discovered in a royal burial mound at Gokstad in Sweden, is largely of oak and is 75 feet 5 inches long, with a keel of sixty feet. It has seating for 32 oarsmen.) The typical raiding fleet after 850 comprised 150 to 250 ships. Yet the impact of the Viking settlement of the Danelaw endures in aspects of our law and language, including much everyday vocabulary (anger, blunder, gift, leather etc.), and even personal pronouns like they, them and their. (James Campbell ed., The Anglo-Saxons (London, 1982), pp.132-4, 147.) Moreover, the place-names of the former Danelaw are, to this day, predominantly Scandinavian, proof of the permanence and extent of the Viking settlement. It has been pointed out, for example, that to the north of Watling Street there are some six hundred place-names ending in -by – and scarcely one to the south of it. (Taylor’s Words and Places, p.38.)

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle refers (e.g. under the years 876, 877 and 880) to the ‘sharing out of the land’ by the Viking army and their proceeding ‘to plough and support themselves’ (Michael Wood, Domesday: A Search for the Roots of England (London, 1987), p.129). New lords were thus imposed on the native peasantry, and new neighbours who spoke a foreign tongue. Many of them are identifiable, for ‘the former abodes of Grim, Biorn, Thor, Guddar, and Haco go by the names of Grimsby, Burnthwaite, Harroby, Thoresby, Guttersby, and Hacconby’ (Taylor’s Words and Places, p.52), to cite only a few examples.

As long as they were compliant, they may have interfered little with the indigenous population, cultivating virgin land in outlying areas rather than ousting them from existing farms. It is noticeable that many of the ‘-bys’, including that of our Willa, have no church attached to them in 1086, suggesting that they stood apart from the main settlements. In parts of East Anglia, the Vikings spread themselves rather thinly. In Suffolk there are only ‘a few scattered Danish names, chiefly near the coast – such as Orford, Thorpe, Barnby, and Lowestoft’ (Taylor’s Words and Places, p.42), and Willa was daring indeed to have penetrated so far into English territory.

Intent on turning their swords into ploughshares, the colonisers relied for their security on standing armies that were garrisoned in the main towns, and were generally unmolested by the disgruntled English. Their status, however, was privileged, their descendants, many still with Scandinavian names, standing out as free men (sokemen) among the enserfed peasantry of Domesday. Indeed, it is remarkable that the largest concentration of the sokemen in Domesday Book – who comprise only fifteen per cent of the entire population – is in those eastern counties. (Wood, Domesday, pp.129-30, 142, 149.)

Filed teeth on a Viking skeleton - an unimaginably painful process

Belying the urbanity of his current-day descendants, Willa was, no doubt, irredeemably uncouth. In battle, he would have worn a coat of mail and a plain, conical helmet, but his appearance may have been distinctive in other ways. There is evidence of the sea-rovers enjoying their reputation as louche outsiders, like modern-day punks or Hell’s Angels, whose demeanour alone is unsettling. They wore shoulder-length hair and beards. Some were tattooed from head to foot, others filed and decorated their teeth; some even wore dark eye make-up to make themselves look all the more outlandish and frightening (The Vikings: Life and Legend, ed. Gareth Williams et al. (London, 2014), p.80).

The annual Horn Dance is an immemorial custom at Abbots Bromley in Staffordshire. The horns are reindeer antlers and one has been carbon-dated to the eleventh century. They are evidence of Viking settlers' sending home for their herds

Willa was, quite possibly, a frenzied, homicidal maniac, like the berserkir of later tradition, crazily biting his shield while preparing for battle. The Vikings, moreover, were pitiless in their assaults on the English. When raids from Scandinavia were resumed in the late tenth century, marauding bands of sea-rovers preyed at will on the populace, setting fire to the houses of the English, feasting on their cattle, killing anyone who dared oppose them (Anglo-Saxon Chronicle, s.a. 991). Powerless even to defend their own homes, the English thegns were forced to witness the rape of their womenfolk, sometimes by a dozen Vikings in turn. People watched helplessly as gangs of their fellow Christians were driven to the ships by two or three seamen to be sold as slaves (Sermo Lupi ad Anglos, in English Historical Documents, I (1955), ed. David C. Douglas, pp.857-8). It is too much to hope that Willa would have handled his victims any less roughly. (I am neither proud nor ashamed of my Viking ancestry: are we not all descended from the rapists and murderers of the past?)

Willa may have been the younger son of a lordly family, fated, like so many Scandinavians, to be a wanderer, but with a significant following of his own. The imperative for all was seek out their kinsfolk and connections and to attach themselves to a community, with the great hall of a benevolent lord at its heart – a place for feasting, gambling, gift-giving and entertaining, and for the recitation of heroic poems. Willa must have re-created this for himself at Wilby, perhaps on the site of the present moated manor-house, Wilby Hall, but a key ingredient for his happiness was lacking:

The man has now

laid his sorrows, lacks no gladdeners;

he has a hoard and horses and hall-carousing

and would have everything within an earl’s having

had he my lady with him.

So we are not surprised to discover from a twelfth-century court poem, The Husband’s Message, that the settlers would often send home for their womenfolk, once they had established a safe homestead on which to raise a family (Frank Barlow, Edward the Confessor (London, 1970), pp.19-20). So I imagine the first Mrs Willoughby as a Dane, rather than a local girl, who had crossed the North Sea on a ship loaded with her dowry and her lord’s reindeer herd, never once looking back to the land of her birth.

Appendix: The two Wilbys – relevant Domesday extracts (from Domesday Book (Penguin, 2003), pp.1219 and 1254):

Lands of Robert Malet in Suffolk: ‘In Horham 1 free man, Aelric, by commendation [a form of vassalage] holds 1 carucate of land … In Wilby Leornic holds 20 acres which the same Aelric held. 1 bordar [a cottager, a peasant of lower economic rank than a villein]. It is the same valuation. It is 12 furlongs long and 4 furlongs broad …’

The fief of the Bishop of Thetford in Norfolk: ‘In Wilby, 1 free man with 10 acres … In Wilby, 1 free man by commendation and soke [a specific right of jurisdiction enjoyed by a lord][held] 40 acres. Then as now 1 bordar.’

See also

The moat at Wilby Hall, which perhaps occupies the site of Willa's homestead

The Flight of La Vouivre from Dole to Vadans: Reflections on the House of Poitiers-Valentinois

August 1st, 2017

Continuing my quest for the serpent-fairies of France, whom I have traced from Lusignan in the Poitou (via the Starbucks logo) to Sassenage in the Dauphiné. Now I track down a monstrous specimen in the Franche-Comté …

The domed clock-tower of the Collégiale at Dole, completed in 1596, is one of the landmarks of the Jura, visible from miles around. When one squints at it from a distance, it often appears to be crooked. The folklore of the region offers a ready explanation: that La Vouivre, the serpent-woman of local legend, has carelessly knocked it with her wing. She prefers to train her single, luminous eye on the ground below, scouring it for evidence of buried treasure.

In mortal life, she was a lady of the house of Poitiers, lords of Vadans on the far side of the mighty Forêt de Chaux, whose name she had tainted with her avarice. The ‘Noblesse de Poitiers’ was proverbial in Franche-Comté, and indeed was the family’s adage, a sort of secondary motto. In those days, great people were expected to be generous with their hospitality. At the Château de Menthon, in neighbouring Savoy, passing pilgrims were regaled at a massive board (which still exists) in the so-called Salle des Pèlerins. At cheerless Vadans, alms were refused to the needy, and none was made welcome by Madame de Poitiers, for which she was condemned by the good fairies to take this terrible shape. Vouivre is a corruption of the Latin word, vipera, for a serpent.

Every Christmas, at midnight, she passes Dole on her flight from Mont Roland to the circular donjon of Vadans, pausing at the village of Falletans to drink and bathe in the stream. A true franc-comtoise, la Vouivre is a good housekeeper, careful to remove her monstrous eye and to conceal it in the undergrowth before dipping her head. If only one could catch her at this moment and take possession of the eye, it would be the key to great riches, yet she always manages to slip away, usually tipping her would-be abductor into the icy stream with a flick of her tail. (Livre d’Or de Falletans 1950.)

The Poitiers of Vadans were a cadet branch of the comtes de Valentinois in Provence, whose line stretches back to the twelfth century (Europaïsche Stammtafeln, III/4, t.740-43). They are thought to have taken their name from Peytieux, near Châteauneuf-de-Bordette, and in early Latin documents are called ‘Pictavinus’. Though the family was unconnected with the town of Poitiers in the Poitou, ‘Poitiers’ and ‘Peytieux’ are etymologically the same, both places formerly inhabited by branches of a wandering Celtic tribe known variously as the Pictavii or Pictones.

Vadans was the dowry (and favourite residence) of Marguerite de Vergy, wife of Comte Louis, who died in 1345, and was inherited by his nephew Philippe. Also lord of Arcis-sur-Aube, near Troyes, Philippe de Poitiers was killed at the Battle of Agincourt, and is one of the 500 out of the 6,000 French casualties whose names are known to us. Among those 500 are representatives from all the northerly regions of France, though the Seigneur d’Andelot, from Pesmes, is the only other franc-comtois to be listed (

Diane de Poitiers - unabashed nudist (by François Clouet)

The line of Philippe’s grandson Charles, Baron de Vadans, was soon thoroughly assimilated into the noblesse of the Franche-Comté, intermarrying with local families like that of the Chancellor Jean Carondelet, who is commemorated by an impressive tomb in the Collégiale, and whose daughter married Charles’s son. The Poitiers of Vadans died out in 1717, but have left numerous female-line descendants. They include, for example, the seigneurs de Faletans, whose connection with the illustrious Poitiers was recited in the letters-patent on 1712 that elevated them to the rank of marquis. Their seat at Falletans was hard by the stream that la Vouivre is said to haunt annually on her Christmas migration.

An elder brother of the Philippe who died at Agincourt, Louis de Poitiers, succeeded their father as lord of Saint Vallier (on the River Rhône, 19 miles north of Valence). Louis’s son, Charles, was one of the companions-in-arms of Joan of Arc, and played a leading role in the assault of occupied Paris in 1429. The last of the Saint Vallier line was Charles’s great-granddaughter, Diane de Poitiers, the charming mistress of King Henry II, a woman schooled in Latin and Greek, a natural athlete and an unabashed nudist, as her several portraits suggest.

As for Vadans, the forty-metre-high keep alone attests to the former strength and importance of the castle, which overlooks the old Roman road from the site of a Roman encampment. A handsome residence of 1667 occupies the grounds.

See also and

The Statue of Jane Austen in Basingstoke, and its Missing Inscription

July 21st, 2017

Photoshoot for a still-veiled Jane Austen (courtesy of Nicola Turton)

My friend James Arnott, stalwart of the Hampshire Regency Dancers, asks Jane Austen for a dance

In my 2010 monograph, Basingstoke and its Contribution to World Culture, I describe the ‘catastrophe’ that befell Basingstoke in the 1960s, when it was redeveloped, in the most vulgar fashion, as a ‘New Town’ fit for London ‘overspill’.

In ‘Even at Ulubrae’, the final chapter of my work, I ponder how the town might overcome its reputation for ‘rampant philistinism’. My first suggestion is that an elegant portico be built in one of its bleaker quarters, like that erected in his home town by Diogenes of Oinoanda in the second century A.D. Diogenes had his portico inscribed with a 25,000-word statement of the teachings of Epicurus, intending it ‘as a corrective to the greed and consumerism of his neighbours’.

Robert Cottle's view of the Market Place, Basingstoke, dated 1831. Jane Austen would have recognised the scene, although none of the buildings survives today. The elegant Town Hall, built in 1657, was soon to be demolished: it was thought to intrude into the square. The scene of her dancing triumphs, Jane would surely have mourned its loss. The site of her statue, unveiled this week, is in front of the buildings on the right.

My second, more practical suggestion is ‘the raising in appropriate locations in Basingstoke of four dignified statues, based on descriptions and surviving portraits’, to commemorate its most distinguished sons and daughters, namely Walter de Merton, Jane Austen, Thomas Burberry and Margaret Chandler. I even offer appropriate inscriptions for each statue.

Much to my satisfaction, a statue of Jane Austen has been unveiled this very week, by the Countess of Portsmouth, in the Market Place at Basingstoke. There appears to be no inscription, but the text that I propose in my book is as follows:

Remember Jane Austen (1775 – 1817), who shopped here before you. She spent her early years at Steventon, and came to Basingstoke for all necessary purchases. John Ring of Church Street supplied her bed and the portable writing-desk on which she wrote her great novels. These were intended to amuse her family, but have since delighted the whole world. She describes assemblies like those she attended at Basingstoke, where once she danced twenty dances in an evening without any fatigue. When on her travels, she changed coaches here. Sic parvis magna.

Jane Austen's writing-desk, now preserved in the British Library, was made by John Ring of Church Street, Basingstoke, in 1794. On it, she was to compose every one of her great novels. There's a 'contribution to world culture' if ever there was one!

The position of the new statue is only yards from the site of the old Town Hall where those assemblies took place. The Crown Inn, where she often changed coaches, is only a little further away. Most of her shopping would have taken place within a hundred-yard radius.

I look forward to the raising of the other three statues.

Upper House, Painscastle, Radnorshire – A Court fit for King Arthur

January 9th, 2017

Radnorshire, an obscure Welsh county bordering Herefordshire, is small and mountainous, a place of mainly pastoral farming, where, historically, gentry were sparse and the farmers were content to live as their fathers had done. As a result, it stills abounds in ‘unimproved’ houses which are often of considerable historical interest. An example is illustrated here – the seemingly unprepossessing, and decidedly forlorn, Upper House at Painscastle.

A planned medieval town with a stupendous castle in its midst, Painscastle, or ’Castell-Paen’, is named for a Norman adventurer called Pain fitz John, who died in 1137. Pain’s motte and bailey are still impressively intact, but nothing remains of the imposing masonry that was added by Henry III – a round tower keep, a curtain wall with flanking D-shaped towers and a gatehouse at the east end, of which even the foundations have been grubbed up. Traces of Roman pavements have been found, however, and the rectangular shape of the site suggests that it was originally a Roman fort. (Mike Salter, The Castles of Mid Wales, Folly Publications, 2001; Paul M. Remfry, The Castles of Radnorshire, Logaston Press, 1996;, with illustrations.)

The castle of Painscastle was comprehensively robbed by the locals of its stone, which was used to construct buildings like Top of Lane Cottage, pictured here, said to date from the fifteenth century

Upper House nestles against the outer bank of the castle, on its east side. It is thought to date from the mid-fifteenth century, when the castle, by then a possession of the Earl of Warwick, was already in decline. Upper House was a fitting new residence for the earl’s constable, Lewys ap Gwatcyn, a Welsh gentleman of the line of Roger Fychan of Bredwardine. It was a classic H-plan hall-house, consisting of a mini-Great Hall of two full bays, open to a roof of massive and dramatic timber work, set between the two cross-wings, each with an upper storey. The position of the house on sloping ground helped to emphasise its hierarchical plan. There was a step up from the dais-end of the hall to the upper cross-wing, leading into the lord’s parlour on the ground-floor, from which there was access to his solar above. The lower cross-wing – that furthest from the bank – was the service wing.

Other houses of similar age and status are to be found in this area, but, remarkably, there is a surviving praise-poem by the Welsh bard Lewys Glyn Cothi that describes Lewys ap Gwatcyn in the newly-built Upper House, referred to as his ‘white hall’, for most impressive to the bard were the large, infilled panels of the box-framing that would, indeed, have been gleaming white. The master of the house is described as ‘the tower of Bredwardine, a chieftain for Warwick’s seal (pendefig dros Warwig sêl), the lion’s claw, and a leader’, who, above all, ‘is kind to the court poet’. He keeps a traditional house. It is a place of ‘wine and feasting, drunkenness and carousel, braggart and wassail’, even at dead of night. There are games of chance with dice and cards, there are chequers, dances, carols and friendship, and seemingly unlimited supplies of mead and beer. (For a translation of the poem, see

Upper House is overshadowed today by its grander neighbours

Lewis Glyn Cothi progressed from one great marcher house to another, laying on the flattery as the price of his supper. At Cefnllys, he sang of its constable, the ‘famous’ Ieuan ap Phylip, and of another newly-built ‘triple court’ in the midst of the castle, which no longer survives, but was apparently very similar to the one at Painscastle. Lewis Glyn Cothi’s description of a roof ‘with close-fitting shields to protect it in thunderstorms’ is thought to refer to a tile-stone roof that would have been common to both houses. Lewis rhapsodises the ubiquitous ‘pale oaks’ that are such a contrast to the encircling stone walls of the old castle, and he even names the master carpenter, Roger ap Owen (Rhosier ab Owain), who may also have built Upper House. Ieuan’s hall, too, was the scene of unrestrained hospitality, like a second Ehangwen, as King Arthur’s hall is traditionally known. As many as sixty guests were gathered there on one occasion, bedding down afterwards on the floor of the hall, sustained by the luxury of white bread and an ocean of drink.

Such houses subsequently fell out of fashion and Upper House at Painscastle was inevitably reduced to a farm-house. The lower (service) wing was rebuilt and projections for a porch and stair have been added at both the front and the rear of the hall. An upper floor, and a stair, have been inserted into the hall. In recent years the magnificent roof timbers of the hall were severely charred by fire damage, to the extent that accurate tree-ring dating is now impossible. The house today is sadly derelict. One hopes that it will soon be restored in the manner of similar houses in the region – and that the jovial shade of Lewys ap Gwatcyn may animate it once more.

Cefnllys and Upper House are described in Richard Suggett, Houses and History in the March of Wales: Radnorshire 1400 – 1800 (Royal Commission on the Ancient and Historical Monuments in Wales, Aberystwyth, 2005), pp.37-43.


Additional Note (15 April 2024): Lewis ap Gwatkyn’s descendants, the Watkins of Cwrt Robert, and Their Arms

It seems that Lewis ap Gwatkyn gave rise to the ‘Watkins’ family of Cwrt Robert in Tregear. By a vague tradition they bore the arms of Prince Moreiddig Warwyn, Sable three boys’ heads, couped at the neck proper, a snake about the neck of each one Vert (pictured above), such as were borne also by the Vaughans of Bredwardine, Tretower and Hergest.

At their visitation of Monmouthshire in 1683, the English heralds were unimpressed. ‘Mr Watkins alledgeth that their name was anciently Vaughan, and that these arms belong to them, but produce nothing in justification thereof.’ (Michael Siddons ed., Visitations by the Heralds in Wales, Harleian Society, New Series XIV, London, 1996, p.196.) However, Lewis Glyn Cothi makes it clear that Lewis ap Gwatkyn was of the line of Roger Fychan of Bredwardine, and, in view of their heraldry, it seems highly likely that the Watkins were descended from Lewis.

For further accounts of the Vaughans and their heraldry, see…e-vaughan-family/.

Looking north from the Begwyns, the earthworks at Painscastle can be glimpsed on the right-hand edge of the picture

Notre-Dame de Paris: 1482: How Victor Hugo Failed to Save the Medieval City

October 29th, 2016

Quasimodo rescues La Esmeralda, a painting that belonged to Hugo himself. He deplored the misleading title given to many English editions of his book - 'The Hunchback of Notre-Dame'

Victor Hugo’s strange, brilliant, early novel, Notre-Dame de Paris: 1482 (published in 1831), is a literary curiosity, in which sensational melodrama is combined with searing polemic. Hugo’s target is the prevailing opinion that scorned the remaining monuments of Gothic architecture and readily acquiesced in their destruction.

The carved figure above - by Viollet-le-Duc - is more like the sinister Frollo of the novel than the real-life Canon Guillot de Montjoye of the painting

The ‘eye of the novel’, the Cathedral of Notre-Dame itself, was in a pitiful state of neglect; Robert Louis Stevenson described it as an ‘old church thrust away into a corner’ (Familiar Studies of Men and Books, London, 1917, pp.11-12). It was certainly not appreciated as a Gothic masterpiece. ‘In the minds of progressive Parisians,’ writes Hugo’s biographer, ‘it was a shabby relic of the barbarian past.’ (Graham Robb, Victor Hugo, London, 1998, p.158) The style of the book is as ‘Gothic’ as the architecture it praises, ‘a style that had long been under a cloud in France, from which it took Romanticism to save it … The novel is thus meant in part as a redemption of an architecture in eclipse’ (John Sturrock, introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of Notre-Dame de Paris, London, 2004, pp.16, 17).

The strength of Hugo’s feeling is best expressed in a fiery pamphlet from about that time entitled War on Demolishers!, in which he deplores the plan of a municipal council – that of Laon – to demolish one of its landmarks, a medieval tower: ‘It took the nineteenth century, the marvels of progress! A goose quill, drawn more or less at random across a sheet of paper by a few infinitely insignificant men! The miserable quill of a fifth-rate town council! A quill that haltingly draws up the idiotic dictates of a peasant divan! The imperceptible quill of the Lilliputian senate! A quill that makes mistakes in French! …’ (trans. Sturrock, introduction to Notre-Dame de Paris, p.19). As the historian of Basingstoke, I am myself keenly aware of the devastation that can be wrought on a community and a landscape by the arbitrary decisions of pygmies and philistines, especially when justified in the name of ‘progress’. The famous tower of Laon, like the historic heart of Basingstoke, was inevitably reduced to a pile of rubble.

Fragment of the 'famous slab of marble' from which the king dined and on which plays were performed

Poor Hugo was subsequently forced in his long life to witness the almost wholesale destruction of the medieval fabric of Paris, and a restoration of his beloved Notre-Dame (by Lassus and Viollet-le-Duc) that veers on pastiche. Yet the lost city is to some extent preserved in his novel, in which he so convincingly evokes the ‘inextricable web of bizarrely twisted streets’ and the life that went on in them.

What, then, remains of medieval Paris and the locations of Hugo’s novel? The vast Grande Salle of the Royal Palace, scene of the novel’s energetic opening chapter, has disappeared, but the equally vast lower hall beneath it, the Salle des Gens d’Armes, is preserved intact as the bowels of the Conciergerie, a place haunted by its associations with the Revolution. Also preserved are the two impressive towers that guard the entrance to the building. It is in the Grande Salle that Pierre Gringoire is to stage his play on ‘the famous slab of marble’ at one end of the room (p.35), that served the king as a table dormant. A fragment of this, strewn with fleurs-de-lys, hangs on the wall of the Salle des Gens d’Armes.

The Hôtel de Sens

The medieval layout, and a few medieval buildings, are to be found across the river in the Marais. In the rue du Fauconnier, one can visit the Hôtel de Sens, newly constructed in 1482. During his harrowing childhood on the streets of Paris, the porch of this building was the resort of the homeless, shoeless, orphaned Gringoire, who would huddle under it and attempt to warm himself in the winter sun (trans. Sturrock, p.120).

Nearby, only the imprint remains of the ‘immense, multiform enclosure of the miraculous Hôtel de St Pol, where the King of France had the wherewithal to lodge in great splendour twenty-two princes of the rank of the dauphin or the Duke of Burgundy, together with their domestics and retinues’ (trans. Sturrock, p.142). Unimaginatively redeveloped in the 1970s, it is a curious complex – deserted, forlorn, atmospheric – marked by such oddities as a shop purveying antique erotica.

The old city walls, with tower

Just across the rue des Jardins, however, a significant portion of the city walls of Philip Augustus – already redundant in 1482, and falling into ruin – forms the boundary to a school yard, with, at one end, the scant remains of one of the ‘huge old towers of the ancient walls of Paris’, to which one of Hugo’s characters alludes:

‘My dear Colombe,’ put in Dame Aloïse, ‘do you mean the hotel that belonged to Monsieur de Bacqueville, in King Charles VI’s days? There are indeed some magnificent high-warp tapestries there’ (trans. Sturrock, p.249).

Further north, on the rue des Francs Bourgeois, one encounters a real curiosity, not strictly medieval but dating from within a few decades of Hugo’s story – the tall, turreted Hôtel Hérouet, on the corner with the rue Vieille-du-Temple, built for the royal treasurer Jean Hérouet in the early 1500s. There is now a draper’s shop on the ground floor, and original features such as fireplaces are not visible.

The Hôtel Hérouet

Most evocative to me is the gatehouse to the Hôtel de Clisson in the rue des Archives, built in the 1380s for the Constable Olivier de Clisson, companion in arms of Bertrand du Guesclin (and later, as the Hôtel de Guise, home to the mother of Mary, Queen of Scots).

It is to the Île de la Cité, the historic and actual heart of Paris, that one must always return. To the pioneering heralds of the reign of Philip Augustus, the island resembled a great ship that had somehow been stranded in the middle of the Seine, with its stern to the east and its prow to the west. Moreover, its five bridges (each of them lined with houses) seemed to moor this vessel to the two opposing banks. The great cathedral church of Notre Dame, the true heroine of Hugo’s story, was at the stern end of the ship.

The Hôtel de Clisson

Hence – as Hugo points out, the inclusion of a ship in the city’s coat of arms – Gules, on waves of the sea in base a ship in full sail argent, a chief azure semé-de-lys or (illustrated here on a public building in the 5th arrondissement). ‘For those who can decipher it,’ he writes, ‘blazonry is an algebra, a language. The whole history of the second half of the Middle Ages in written in blazonry’ (trans. Sturrock, p.136). Incidentally, the last bridge to be lined with houses, one of which plays a significant part in the story, was sadly felled in Hugo’s lifetime.

My Great-Aunt Hermione, Supercentenarian – An Appreciation

January 10th, 2016

Centenarians are less of a rarity than they used to be, but there are believed to be only eleven people in the U.K. who have survived their 110th birthday, witnesses to one of the most transformative periods in the whole history of mankind.

When Hermione Cock came into the world, the motor-car was still a rich man’s toy and the Wright brothers were only just poised to develop the first fixed-wing aircraft. She grew up in an English countryside where the horse was still dominant, recalled the shock of the Titanic disaster as if it were yesterday and experienced the terror of a Zeppelin raid. She took the jet-age in her stride, but felt that credit cards were only useful as ice-scrapers.

A certain disdain for the pace of innovation could be forgiven someone of her seniority. At the time of her recent death at Shrewsbury, aged 111 years and 237 days, she was the second oldest person in Britain and one of the world’s 50 or so authenticated ‘supercentenarians’.

She was born Hermione Hawkins on 1 March 1904, to a family of prominent Dorset farmers. Their holdings were at one time considerable, stretching from the outskirts of Dorchester almost to Chesil Beach. A relative, Catherine Hawkins of Waddon, had been Hardy’s inspiration for Bathsheba Everdene in Far From the Madding Crowd.

Hermione’s father, John (‘Jack’) Hawkins, was dashing, romantic and unconventional. A landless younger son, he had been recruited by Dr Cecil Reddie, founder of the ‘New School’, Abbotsholme, as its Gardening and Farming Master.

Abbotsholme, in Staffordshire, was a progressive boy’s school which encouraged ‘co-operation rather than competition’, and the Farming Master had a key role. All the boys were put to work on the school’s 140-acre farm, with classes suspended during haymaking. The rigours of Abbotsholme soon overwhelmed one of Jack Hawkins’s frailer pupils, Lytton Strachey, who barely survived two terms at the school.

The autocratic Reddie abhorred womankind in general, and refused to employ married men. With a newly acquired wife and son, Jack became agent to his cousin, John Ward, on his 3,800-acre Red Lodge estate at Braydon, Wiltshire. It was in the agent’s suitably home-spun residence, ‘The Bungalow’, that Hermione was born.

Her mother died a year later from the effects of a complicated birth. Hermione and her elder brother John, known as ‘Buster’, were brought up by their kindly maternal grandmother (an admiral’s daughter and niece of the 12th Earl of Huntingdon) and their two maiden aunts, Madge and Blanche Whicher, in a cottage in nearby Purton.

Hermione recalled a blissful rural childhood, the aunts reluctantly complying with Jack’s progressive views. On one occasion, he summarily removed from the person of his daughter several layers of petticoat that he deemed unnecessary.

He insisted, too, on their running around barefoot, though this was considered shameful by conventional Edwardians. In elementary schools at the time, a child turning up without shoes could expect to be caned; poverty was no excuse. Hermione vividly remembered an encounter with an angry passer-by, who denounced her negligent parenting and declared her blameless aunt Madge to be a ‘very wicked woman’.

Madge adored Jack and was a model of devotion and self-sacrifice, deferring her own marriage, to Colonel Albert Canning of Restrop House, until her sister was dead and she herself was 75. She loved the children as her own and took them to stay with their numerous relatives, including a nonagenarian great-aunt born in 1822.

Buster, Hermione and their beloved Aunt Madge outside Purton Church, c.1910

Another pre-Victorian that Hermione knew was the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould (born in 1834), the author of numerous best-selling books and the hymn ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’. Baring-Gould’s son had married their cousin, so the children were duly presented to him at Lew Trenchard, his manor-house on the edge of Dartmoor. On an inspection of his cabinet de curiosités, a back-scratcher consisting of a carved ivory hand on a stick was brought out and inserted under Buster’s shirt. To great consternation the stick emerged without the hand, which had become detached.

Jack, meanwhile, had returned to Abbotsholme, but his remarriage in 1914 obliged him again to resign. Installed on a farm in Derbyshire, he was in a position to reclaim his children, whose removal from the cottage in Purton was described by Hermione as ‘traumatic’.

Whilst Buster had proceeded from Abbotsholme to the Royal Naval College, Osborne, Hermione was sent to Bedales, ‘the noted school for the children of all the worst cranks in England’. Its founder-headmaster, John Haden Badley, had been Reddie’s right-hand man at Abbotsholme, but had not shared his aversion to women, and, indeed, had left in order to marry.

Unlike Abbotsholme, Bedales was a co-educational school, a concept that was deeply shocking to most people. Despite its liberal reputation, Hermione remembered that boys and girls were strictly segregated and that Badley, ‘the Chief’, imposed iron discipline.

As at Abbotsholme, the aim was to re-create a pre-industrial idyll, albeit at the expense of modern convenience and comfort. There was an insistence on daily cold baths, on keeping windows open in all weathers, on earth closets and, notoriously, on naked bathing in open cold water. The masters commonly wore beards and sandals, and a typical meal might consist of a banana.

Many, however, found the environment liberating and Hermione’s distinguished contemporaries included Frances Partridge, John Wyndham and Sir John Rothenstein. Her closest friend from Bedales was the Hampstead thinker, Margaret Gardiner.

Staying with the Gardiners in Kensington in 1917, Hermione was caught in a daylight Zeppelin raid and, underestimating the danger, hurried home with the younger children. Their angry father, Sir Alan Gardiner (the Egyptologist who later assisted Howard Carter in the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb), instructed her in future to make for the nearest air-raid shelter.

In 1919, Jack Hawkins installed his family at Broom Hall, Shrewsbury, and in 1927, aged 23, Hermione married James Cock, whose family (originally Koch) ran a centuries-old tannery in Barker Street. The bridegroom wore spats, while Hermione had swathed a family veil round her face and ‘looked like a 14th-century nun. The most beautiful bride I ever saw,’ wrote her aunt. ‘She looked like an angel.’ The honeymoon was spent skiing in Chamonix, which in 1924 had hosted the first Winter Olympic Games.

The couple resided for a while with Jim Cock’s mother (Shrewsbury’s first woman mayor) at Cruckton Hall. The presence there of Jim’s ‘Uncle Ted’, the monocled former Home Secretary Sir Edward Shortt, guaranteed a permanent police guard. However, by the late 1930s they were settled with their three children in a large country house called The Grange, adjacent to the ruined Roman city at Wroxeter.

During World War II, while Jim served as an army officer in Africa, Hermione volunteered as a St John Ambulance nurse at the Shrewsbury Infirmary. The couple were married for nearly 57 years and lived in and around Shrewsbury for the rest of their lives. Hermione relished her regular trips to America to see their son.

Hermione had a remarkably calm, gentle and kindly nature and an artistic temperament, and was sustained by a deep faith. She spent her last years in a nursing home, piling up royal telegrams, but her longevity had become a curse, especially as her failing eyesight and hearing had left her increasingly isolated.

She came from a family of long-lived women, including her beloved aunt Madge, who died aged 99. Curiously, her fellow Bedalians, Frances Partridge and Margaret Gardiner, lived to 103 and 100 respectively. She is survived by her two daughters, and by many grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her son and a granddaughter predeceased her.

Hermione Cock, supercentenarian, was born on 1 March 1904. She died on 24 October 2015, aged 111.