Royal mistresses since 1066, this week, if you please. We’ll leave Elizabeth I’s romantic attachments to one side and Queen Anne’s as well. Some monarchs are remarkably discreet, others less so. Henry VII for example was not known for his mistresses – but his account book reveals payment to “dancing girls” …they may just have been dancing. Other mistresses have achieved notoriety and in the case of Henry VIII’s mistresses, in many instances, the Crown itself. You may find yourself dealing with potentially bigamous monarchs as well this week. Good luck.
Myosotis is part of the borage family and there are various folk lore based stories for it’s name. One of them is based on courtly love. A knight was walking with his lady beside a river. Obviously when one goes courting it is essential to wear full armour – in this case the knight was very chivalrously carrying the lady’s flowers when he slipped and tumbled into the raging current – as he was swept away he threw her flowers to her crying “Forget me not!” And there you have it!
Courtly love is of course the medieval form of ritualised love expressed by a knight for a married lady who is outside his reach – so duty, honour, devotion and courtesy were all important as they were part of the chivalric code. Ideally a knight’s love should be unrequited. Lancelot and Guinevere became very popular at this time. For a more in-depth article about the literature of courtly love follow the link to the British Library:
By 1190 the monks of Glastonbury had cashed in on the popular stories of the knights of the Round Table with the discovery of the graves of King Arthur and his queen.
Courtly love became the rage in the twelfth century at the point where tournaments also became the height of fashion. The use of courtly love as a motif in England grew when Eleanor of Aquitaine became queen. It was William IX of Aquitaine (Eleanor’s grandfather) who made it fashionable in 1101. Aquitainean troubadours carried songs of romance around Europe. It should be noted that William’s love was not unrequited – he appears to have been something of a serial seducer.
Henry of Bolingbroke adopted the forget-me-not as an emblem during his exile in 1398 when Richard II banished him from England for ten years. When his father John of Gaunt died the following year Richard turned the sentence into banishment for life – setting in motion the events that led to his usurpation.
Anyway, back to the forget-me-not, in medieval times if you got bitten by a dog or a snake you might be treated with forget-me-not. Gerard called it scorpion grass named due to the shape made by the curling bract of flowers.
Phillips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plants in Myth, Legend, Magic and Lore. London: Robert Hale
Swabey F. (2004) Eleanor of Aquitaine, Courtly Love and the Troubadours
According to Gerard Solomn’s seal will mend a black eye within a coupe of days caused, and I quote, by “women wilfnulnes, in stumbling upon their haste husbands fists.” I make no comment other than to be grateful that Gerard’s humour would no longer be regarded as acceptable in any way shape or form. The roots of the plant will also help heal wounds and mend broken bones.
It took me years and years to find some Solomon’s seal of my own as wasn’t very popular in garden centres at that time. I assume because it grows in such profusion that those with the plant are more than happy to share it – the knack is to find a gardener with the aforementioned plant. Consequently I have been carefully to pot up some of the plant with each successive move I have made and there is always the concern that it won’t like it’s new home but it is currently spreading happily.
The plant is called Solomon’s seal after the marks on the root which are said according to folk lore to come from King Solomon’s seal when he first discovered the plant’s medicinal properties. Rather alarmingly the notes in my dictionary of plants inform me that the fumes that come from he brewed flowers were used to inspire painters and poets and keep evil spirits at bay. I shan’t be eating it anytime soon even if it a very useful medical plant, not least because my Alnwick Poison Garden guide observes that everything about the plant is toxic -it contains saponins and convallamarin demonstrating that medieval medicine really was a case of kill or cure.
Philips, Stuart. (2012) An Encyclopaedia of Plants: in myth, legend, magic and lore. London: Robert Hale
In 1688 William and Mary were invited take the throne – thus deposing Mary’s father James II (pictured left) after the birth of a Mary’s half-brother also called James by Mary of Modena. But not everywhere took to the Protestant usurpation of James’ throne so easily. I usually steer clear of Irish history and its complexities but the Treaty of Limerick on 3rd October 1691 saw Patrick Sarsfield first Lord Lucan, a Jacobite come to terms with William’s army and bring the Williamite War in Ireland to a close.
Under the terms of the treaty Jacobite soldiers could freely leave Ireland with their wives and children. They also had the option on becoming part of William’s army. The rest could stay in Ireland so long as they gave a pledge of allegiance to William. The nobility would even be allowed to carry weapons. So far so good. Unfortunately by the mid 1690s the terms of the treaty were being ignored by the victors as they enforced new Penal Laws – though that is not what this post is about.
The men who chose to leave their home for a Catholic country such as France or Spain became known as wild geese. Regiments of Irish can be found in the French army from the sixteenth century onwards. In fact Sarsfield had experience of warfare from his years in the French army during the 1670s. He returned to Ireland in 1689 in support of James II.
The so-called “flight of the wild geese” refers to the large number of Jacobites, with Sarsfield at their head, who chose to leave their homes rather than swear allegiance to William. The Irishmen formed James II’s army in exile but in 1692 became part of the French army which also had an Irish Brigade composed of men who’d left their home shores in previous years.
The tradition of the wild geese continued into the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – Napoleon had an Irish legion clad in green tunics.
And why wild geese? Well apparently that’s how the men were described on ship’s manifests when they sailed from Ireland to the Continent disguising their identities and protecting the ship’s captain.
Now, I know this isn’t necessarily going to be popular but Sir Francis Drake is one of my heroes. He has been since I was a child and I’m not about to change tack now. The problem with the global circumnavigator (the Golden Hind is smaller than some modern bath tubs) is that he was also a privateer – or put another way a pirate licensed by the queen for a spot of pirating which is apparently quite different from being a lawless thug who deserves to be strung up.
Our story begins in September 1568 when Francis was approximately twenty-eight. Francis, he had elven younger brothers not that it has anything to do with the story, was on a moneymaking expedition with his cousin Sir John Hawkins. They’d been doing a spot of trading with Spanish settlers which was illegal because the Spanish wanted their settlers to buy all their goods from approved sources. Inevitably there had also been a spot of light piracy on the side. Their little fleet of vessels put in to San Juan to carry out some repairs. A Spanish fleet also arrived. Drake and Hawkins thought they’d arrived at a “live and let live gentleman’s agreement” but the Spanish had other ideas. Drake was lucky to escape. It was the start of a lifelong animosity.
He was very good at being a pirate. Hutchinson identifies the fact that for every £1.00 invested with Drake there was a £47.00 profit. No wonder Elizabeth I gave him a knighthood.
As the relationship between England and Spain deteriorated Drake occupied ports, burned towns and pinched lots of loot. Philip in Spain was not amused. One of the reasons, apart from adding to her treasury, that Elizabeth was pleased to encourage Drake was because Spain had its own financial difficulties and for every carrack and galleon that Drake captured there was another ratchet of financial pressure to be twisted on Spain. The bigger Philip’s financial problems the more likely that any projected invasion would have to be deferred.
Unfortunately Pope Sixtus V was quite keen on re-establishing Catholicism in England and, even though he was as almost famously tightfisted as Elizabeth I, he stumped up the cash – well he promised 1,000,000 ducats for the venture provided the invasion was successful. Until that time the money was held by a middle man. In any event the Enterprise of England was underway.
Walsingham received news of Philip’s planning and preparations in February 1587. In assorted coastal locations across the south various officials suffered from palpations at the thought of the Spanish landing on their doorstep- let’s just say there were one or two false sightings. John Hawkins and Francis Drake argued that it was time to take the war to Spain rather than sitting around waiting for them to turn up – their arguments were entirely militarily sound but undoubtedly the lure of profit held its own siren call.
Walsingham and the earl of Leicester supported the idea. On 25 March 1587 Elizabeth I agreed that Drake could go and do nasty things to Spanish vessels on the pretext of supporting Dom Antonio, a claimant for the Portuguese Crown which Philip II had collected for himself. She sent off the Elizabeth Bonaventure, the Golden Lion, the Dreadnaught and the Rainbow. The rest of the vessels under Drake’s command were financed by private investors hoping to turn a profit (think of London Merchants as being a bit like modern hedge fund investors.) The Merchant Adventurers even had an appropriate contract for the occasion which is somewhat eyebrow raising to a modern reader.
It was all very hush hush because, after all, England was not at war with Spain.
Vessels sailed from London to Plymouth. The entire fleet sailed on the 12 April, Drake having penned a cheery note to Walsingham, prior to his departure. Once his vessels were out of sight over the horizon Elizabeth changed her mind and ordered him home because piracy is as we all know a very wrong thing, as is setting fire to other people’s boats. She sent a fast pinnace with the new orders to Drake…it never reached him, perhaps because its crew was too busy engaged in piracy on their own behalf.
Drake, meanwhile, was bound for Cadiz. The original plan was that he should aim for Lisbon but Cadiz was the Armada’s supply base. There was also only one entrance channel to the harbour and it passed directly beneath the gun strewn city walls. It would take a daring commander to assault the ships at anchor there.
On 29th April Drake arrived, held a council of war, lowered his flags and sauntered in battle formation toward the harbour entrance. The citizens of Cadiz only realised that they had sighted a hostile force when Drake opened fire and then raised his flags once more. Panic erupted. Cadiz’s mayor tried to send the town’s women and children to safety in the castle but it’s captain had the gates shut causing further pandemonium.
Meanwhile Spanish galleys tried to lure the English warships onto the sandbanks that surrounded Cadiz with no success. During the next two days Drake and his men sank or fired a variety of Spanish vessels as well as Geonese merchantmen.
The Spanish militia was sent for in a bid to prevent the English gaining access to the inner harbour and they also attempted to send fireships out amongst the English fleet. These were promptly towed off whilst the English burned something like 13,000 tons of shipping and as usual looted where possible. The Spanish claimed they had lost twenty four vessels but one of Drake’s men put the total closer to sixty.
One of the key successes to the venture was the loss to the Spanish of the wooden staves that had been destined for the manufacture of barrels which would have held the Armada’s fresh water and salted meat. Poor provisioning was one of the key reasons for the number of Spanish deaths associated with the Armada.
During the action there was even time for an exchange of prisoners with the English offering their recently captured Spanish prisoners in return for English galley slaves. Drake took the opportunity to ask about the size of the Armada and when told that it was more than two hundred warships in size is alleged to have shrugged his shoulders and said that it wasn’t such a lot. You might not like the man or his methods but you have to admire the swash in his buckle.
Drake and his fleet eventually sailed off and spent the rest of the month looking for Spanish vessels to capture. On the 14 May he was off Lagos but the town was too strongly defended to be attacked so he went on to Cape Sagres where he ransacked various churches and a fortified monastery. He continued to be a nuisance in the shipping lanes. On 27 May he celebrated his success in his usual understated style;
“We have taken forts, barques, caravels and divers other vessels.”
Drake was clearly a man with one eye on his own press cuttings.
On the 18th June the San Felipe was sighted. It had cargo worth £108,049 13s and 11d in precious jewels, silks and spices. Elizabeth’s share in the profit from the capture was £40,000. Drake was not arrested for piracy as soon as he arrived back on English shores (I can’t imagine why!) Elizabeth was heard, somewhat gleefully, telling the French Ambassador that Cadiz had been destroyed. The inference being that if it had happened once it could very well happen again.
Drake would go on to be hailed as an English hero for his part in the Armada Campaign – his alleged game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe is part of national folklore. Inevitably after the first part of the battle in which the English fleet chased after the Spanish Drake couldn’t help but revert to form. Drake shadowed the Spanish fleet with a light burning at his stern as a guide to the following English fleet. Unfortunately the light went out. Once a pirate always a pirate. The Spanish ship Rosario was in dire straits and Drake couldn’t resist taking it as a prize which was unfortunate as without the light to give some indication of what was happening the rest of the English vessels ran the risk of running straight into the back of the Spanish fleet which is what Lord Howard of Effingham aboard the Ark Royal almost did. Drake would later claim that he had gone off to investigate a strange vessel which turned out to be a German merchant but Lord Howard wasn’t totally convinced. Hutchinson makes the point that court marshalling the queen’s favourite pirate probably wasn’t on the cards either. Martin Frobisher was less circumspect in his account noting that Drake wanted the spoils of war for himself but that he, Frobisher, was going to get his share.
And just for the record, despite what most folk might think, it was not Sir Francis Drake who commanded the English fleet during the Armada it was Lord Howard of Effingham. So why you might ask is Sir Francis on my list of heroes? I’ve even posted about him before now (click here to open new page) Well, I would have to say that the actual historical man isn’t. Quite frankly he sounds like a bit of a chancer albeit a lucky and a courageous one with a strong sense of self. The Sir Francis who I admire is the romantic and literary creation, or perhaps propoganda, of post-Armada England. He is brave and chivalrous and probably rescues kittens stuck up trees before helping braces of little old ladies across the road. The popular perception of Sir Francis Drake is that of the plucky Englander with a heart of oak and virtues to match – his heirs can be seen on any repeat of Dad’s Army – overcoming adversity through bravery and guile. He is representative of a long line of almost mythical defenders of an Island Nation.
With Elizabeth the concept of a Medieval European empire of the kind ruled over by Henry II, dreamed about by Edward III and written about by Shakespeare in his history plays was finally consigned to the History books. Mary Tudor may have died with Calais written on her heart but her sister and her closest advisers set about creating something new during Elizabeth’s forty year reign. Elizabeth and her government painted a picture of a Protestant sea-faring nation standing David-like against the Catholic Goliath in its Spanish guise. England’s new band of brothers would be sea farers. This, undoubtedly, was playing fast and loose with the truth but I do like a good story, and besides, my Dad told it to me – which is, of course, how History turns into folklore.
Hutchinson, Robert. (2013) The Spanish Armada. New York: Thomas Dunne Books
Sir William Brereton from Cheshire has cropped up several times in my reading during the last couple of weeks. Initially it appears that Cheshire tried to sit on the fence. It sent no petitions to the king in the summer of 1642 whilst he was at York. Sir William Brereton, who had been an MP for Cheshire until Charles I dissolved Parliament, was a Deputy Lieutenant for the county and was in receipt of a memorandum from Parliament with regard to the recruitment of soldiers for the Earl of Essex’s army. He turned up at Lichfield, Nantwich and most importantly in Denbigh in 1645 when he was responsible for the defeat of the Royalists there, so who exactly was he?
He was born shortly after James I succeeded to the throne and by the time Charles I was king he had become a baronet. He seems to have travelled in the Low Countries and France. He was married to the daughter of Sir George Booth of Dunham Massey. Booth was well known for his puritanism. It is also apparent from William’s diaries that he leant towards puritanism and that as a JP in Cheshire he closed taverns and fined Catholics. It is perhaps not surprising to discover that by the end of 1642 he had been appointed to the position of commanding officer for the Parliamentarian troops in Cheshire.
An article in History Today reveals why history knows so much about the man. He was an inveterate letter writer. He wrote, it turns out, rather often with requests for assistance and cash in turning Cheshire into a godly Royalist-free county not that his ideal was realised during the 1643 summer of Royalist victories.
Initially Brereton tried to take hold of Chester for Parliament but was unable to capture it. Instead having taken Nantwich for the Parliamentarian cause in 1642 he made that his headquarters. From there he ranged along the Welsh marches on Parliament’s behalf and down through Cheshire to Stafford. He came with Sir John Gell of Hopton in Derbyshire to the siege of Lichfield and was concerned at the later siege of Tutbury that his colleague was far too lenient on the Royalist defenders. Across the region Brereton was only defeated once at the Battle of Middlewich on December 26 1643 but he swiftly recovered from this as he had to return with Sir Thomas Fairfax to Nantwich when Sir George Booth managed to get himself besieged by Lord Byron and Cheshire was more or less completely in the hands of the Royalists not that this stopped Brereton from establishing an impressive network of spies loyal to Parliament.
In January 1644 Sir Thomas Fairfax crossed the Pennines with men from the Eastern Association Army. On the 25th January his men were met by a Royalist army headed by Byron who was defeated. The place where the two armies collided was Necton but the disaster for the royalists has become known in history as the Battle of Nantwich. It meant that the king could not hold the NorthWest. Even worse Royalist artillery and senior commanders were captured along with the baggage train. None of this did any harm to Sir Thomas Fairfax’s reputation nor to Brereton who had command of the Parliamentarian vanguard.
It should be noted that one of his relations, another William Brereton was a Royalist. William Brereton of Brereton Hall at Holmes Chapel was married to the royalist general Goring’s daughter Elizabeth. Parliamentarian William did not hesitate to besiege his own relations who happened to disagree with him. Brereton Hall found itself under siege after the Battle of Nantwich.
In March 1644 Parliament granted him the right to “take subscriptions” in Cheshire to maintain his army not only against the Royalists but most especially against the hated Irish Forces for the “timely prevention of further mischiefs.”
From there Brereton became involved in the siege of Chester – at Nantwich Byron had been outside the town whilst at Chester he was inside the walls. In September 1645 Bristol in the command of Prince Rupert surrendered. The only remaining safe harbour to land troops loyal to the king was Chester. Lord Byron had withdrawn there following his defeat at Nantwich and Brereton had followed him. Byron held the river crossing and in so doing was denying the Parliamentarians a way into North Wales which was Royalist.
Bereton began by trying to scale the walls. When that strategy failed he set up blockades and tried to starve them out. In March the slimline Royalists and disgruntled townsfolk were given some respite by the arrival of Prince Maurice but in April Brereton returned and Chester’s rather lean diet continued. It didn’t help that Maurice had removed more than half of Byron’s men leaving only six hundred soldiers to defend the walls. By September the parliamentarians had pressed forward and were shelling Chester’s inner walls. The king himself set out to relieve the siege and possibly to break out from the Midlands and Wales.
Charles and his men were able to enter the city over the River Dee from the Welsh side of the city as that was still in Royalist hands. The idea was that Chalres and his cavalry would nip around the back of the besiegers and at the appropriate time Byron and his men would come bursting out of Chester squashing Brereton like a slice of meat between two Royalist slices of bread. King Charles took his place in Chester’s Pheonix Tower to watch the action. Unfortunately the Battle of Rowton Heath on 24 September 1645 did not go according to plan. Charles left Chester the following day with rather fewer men than he arrived, returning to the safety of Denbigh. From there he would go to Newark and on 5th May 1546 surrender himself into the custody of the Scots at Southwell.
Meanwhile Byron absolutely refused to surrender so Brereton’s men started mining beneath Chester’s walls, kept up a constant artillery barrage and ultimately encircled the city. It was the mayor of Chester who persuaded Byron that enough was enough. After Chester surrendered in January 1646, Brereton mopped up what royalists there still were in his region and in the course of his endeavours travelled as far south as Stow-on-the-Wold becoming the parliamentarian commander to take the surrender of the last royalist army in the field in 1646. It is perhaps not surprising given his capabilities that like Oliver Cromwell he was excluded from the Self Denying Ordinance that prevented members of Parliament from holding military commissions.
Interestingly after the end of the second, short lived, English Civil War he took no real part in the politics of the period. For instance he refused to sit as one of Charles I’s judges. It is perhaps for this reason that upon the Restoration in 1660 that he was allowed to continue to live in Croydon Palace which had been the home of the Archbishop of Canterbury but which a grateful Parliament had given to Brereton. Brereton had expressed his puritan views about Archbishop Laud, Charles I’s arminian archbishop by having his private chapel turned into a kitchen.
Brereton died the following year and managed with his death to add to the folklore of Cheshire. He died at Croydon Palace on the 7th April 1661 but he wished to be buried in Cheshire at Handforth Chapel near Cheadle where several of the family were buried including Sir Urien Brereton. Unfortunately it would seem that his coffin didn’t get there being swept away by a river in full spate as the funeral cortège was crossing it which is unfortunate to put it mildly although having said that he appears, according to findagrave.com to be safely buried in the church of St John the Baptist, Croydon also known as Croydon Minster.
For reference, and I don’t think I can describe it as a surprising connection given that the name is the same, the family was related to the earlier Sir William Brereton who had a bit of a reputation as a womaniser in Henry VIII’s court which was unfortunate because having delivered jewels to Anne Boleyn from the king and also given her a hound (which she named after Urien Brereton- the one buried At Handforth Chapel) he found himself in the rather unfortunate position of going from one of the king’s most trusted men (even being present at the wedding between Henry and Anne Boleyn) to being accused of being one of Anne Boleyn’s lovers in 1536. He was tried for treason on the 12 May 1536 and was beheaded on the 17th May.
‘March 1644: An Ordinance to enable Sir William Brereton Baronet, one of the Members of the House of Commons, to execute the several Ordinances of Parliament for advance of money within the County of Chester, and County and City of Chester, and to take Subscriptions for the better supply and maintenance of the Forces under his Command, for the security of the said places, and for prevention of the access of the Irish Forces into those parts.’, in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London, 1911), pp. 409-413. British History Online http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances-interregnum/pp409-413 [accessed 24 February 2018].