Pushed for time this week, so here’s a reblog of an early post that drew quite a big response – my ‘top ten’ repositories in the UK. There have been a few changes since I originally posted this: the British Library has recently permitted photography (hurrah!); the National Library of Scotland has a shiny new manuscript reading room; the Pepys Library has finally liberalised its opening hours; and, less positively, the Imperial War Museum is considering charging researchers ridiculously high daily fees for access. The Bodleian has also just opened a huge new reading room which I haven’t had the chance to visit yet, but no doubt I’ll report back when I do.

Originally posted on Gentlemen and Tarpaulins:

This year marks the thirtieth anniversary of the start of my research into the seventeenth century navy – or at least, the formal, funded, full-time student start, as I’d been tentatively examining the subject during the previous couple of years, when I was still teaching in Cornwall. Apart from the fact that realising it’s been thirty years is making me feel really, really old, one of the great pleasures of spending all that time on research has been that it’s enabled me to work in some of Britain’s (and the world’s) greatest repositories and libraries. So I thought one of the things I’d do to celebrate my ‘thirtieth’ is to share my experiences of those institutions – their good points, their quirks, and their sheer infuriating inanities. I’ve also visited very many of the local archives and record offices in Britain, from Perth to Truro and from Haverfordwest to Norwich…

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I spent last week at a remote cottage in Shropshire, brainstorming ideas for new books. Shropshire, of course, is quite a long way from the sea, but even though I didn’t venture outside my ‘man cave’ very much, I still came across several interesting naval and maritimeOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA connections. In one sense, of course, Shropshire was arguably ‘closer’ to the sea in earlier centuries than it is now; the River Severn teemed with trading craft such as the Severn trows, and Bridgnorth was a busy port, with as rough a reputation as many a coastal town. One of Britain’s most famous admirals, John Benbow, hailed from Shrewsbury, where a new statue is to be erected to commemorate him. A reminder of this neglected maritime heritage can be found in the quiet churchyard of Benthall, a village on the edge of the sprawling new town of Telford, where I came across this grave, unexpectedly adorned with the anchors one might expect to find only on memorials in coastal cemeteries – the last resting place of Eustace Board, trowman, who died in 1761.

Whenever I stay in an area, I always make a point of visiting the local churches, and I was fortunate that the most local one of all, Kinlet, contained some outstanding features – one of the best preserved chantry chapels in England, for example, and some superb Tudor tombs. One of these was that of Sir George Blount, who had a long career as a middling Elizabethan politician. But in his younger days, Blount had been a warrior, and as was so often the case, he alternated between land and sea service, commanding a warship in the English expedition against Scotland in 1544, the war known as ‘the Rough Wooing’. However, Blount’s fame was easily overshadowed by that of his sister Elizabeth: she was a mistress of King Henry VIII, and provided him with a son, Henry Fitzroy, Duke of Richmond, who at one point was seriously considered as a possible solution to the king’s lack of a legitimate male heir (after all, Richmond had been Henry VII’s title before he won the crown).

The tomb of Sir George Blount, Kinlet Church

The tomb of Sir George Blount, Kinlet Church

St Leonard’s church, Bridgnorth, is a huge building, its interior redolent of civic pride and Victorian values (including the Victorian value of comprehensively ruining the interiors of many fine old churches in the name of ‘improvement’). It stands opposite the house where Richard Baxter, the famous Presbyterian cleric, lived just before the Civil War, and contains a couple of very pleasant surprises – a wall memorial to a William Skelding, a surgeon in the East India Company’s service (no relation, as far as I know, despite the fact that my grandmother was a Skelding from a very adjacent part of Worcestershire), and another, below, to Captain John Barnsley, formerly of the Somerset and Namur, who ‘resigned his life (worn out in the service of his King and Country)’, aged 56, on 12 July 1745. The memorial describes him as a good friend of Admirals Sir John Norris, Charles Wager and Nicholas Haddock, so John Barnsley was clearly a significant figure of the navy of his time, albeit now entirely forgotten; and the information on his memorial in Bridgnorth actually provides much more detail about his antecedents and fate than the very vague entry on him in John Charnock’s Biographia Navalis. 

More ‘dead admirals’ (little known naval and maritime memorials, in other words) in the not too distant future!


Sir Anthony van Dyck is rightly regarded as one of the towering figures of European art. However, he had only one legitimate child, Justina, or Justiniana, and tragically, he died just days after his daughter was born, on 1 December 1641. She was baptised on the 9th, the very day of her father’s death, at St Ann’s church, Blackfriars, a few stones of which remain in an alley near St Paul’s Cathedral. Van Dyck’s widow, Justina’s mother, gave her an even more illustrious and tragic bloodline, for Mary Ruthven was the niece of John, third and last Earl of Gowrie, and Alexander, Master of Ruthven, both of whom had been killed on 5 August 1600 in deeply suspicious circumstances and in the presence of James VI, King of Scots, soon to be James I of England. James and his ministers claimed that the Ruthvens had attempted to assassinate the monarch, and used this as the legal justification for the confiscation of their estates; but many believed a diametrically opposite story, one that had James ordering the deliberate destruction of a noble dynasty that had become rather too powerful for his liking.

Mary Ruthven; engraving after the portrait of her by her husband

Mary Ruthven; engraving after the portrait of her by her husband

Mary’s father, Patrick, the rightful Earl of Gowrie, spent nearly twenty years in the Tower of London for no other crime than being the brother of two dead traitors, but following his release, he became a noted medical practitioner and alchemist, as well as a minor figure at the court of King Charles I and his wife, Henrietta Maria. By the late 1630s, his daughter Mary was one of the ladies-in-waiting to the queen. Although she had no fortune to bring to any marriage, her status, high birth, and obvious friendship with the queen made her an attractive proposition for the eligible bachelors who thronged the court. Better still, Mary was undoubtedly very beautiful. That much is certain from her portrait, painted by the man who won the contest for her hand; and few would dispute her new husband’s ability to record a face on canvas.

On the frosty morning of 27 February 1640, Mary Ruthven, aged about 17, married Sir Anthony Van Dyck, aged 40, in Queen Henrietta Maria’s private Catholic chapel at Somerset House. On that day, Patrick Ruthven, ‘of St Martin’s in the Fields’, assigned £120 of his pension to Mary, perhaps in lieu of the dowry that he could not afford. Mary Ruthven had a small dowry all the same; it was provided, not by her father, but by King Charles himself; the days when the Ruthvens had been seen as a threat to the monarchy were long gone, as were the days when the family had been counted among the most loyal adherents of the Presbyterian Kirk. Sir Anthony was a devout Catholic, the queen’s chapel was the only legal Catholic place of worship in England, and the glorious portrait that he painted of his young wife shows her delicately fingering her rosary. At some point Van Dyck also painted a double portrait of himself with his new father-in-law; this was seen at Knole in Kent in about 1785 by Joseph Gulston, who married one of Patrick’s great-great-great-great-granddaughters. Gulston described ‘the Earl of Gowry’: ‘hand very fine, glove on the other. Full front breastplate. Melancholy. Long hair hid and white slash’d habit. Leans on his sword. Green sash, buff apron’. The painting has disappeared long since, as has the extraordinary and unprecedented group painting that Van Dyck made of himself, his new wife, and their closest friends: the King and Queen of Great Britain.

The tiny sutviving fragment of St Ann's church, Blackfriars

The tiny sutviving fragment of St Ann’s church, Blackfriars

When Van Dyck died at his home in Blackfriars, he was surrounded by unsold and unfinished artwork; an inventory of his possessions apparently totalled some £13,000-worth of jewels, paintings, and ‘rich household stuff’. Under the terms of Van Dyck’s will, the infant Justina Mariana became the co-heiress with her mother of Sir Anthony’s very substantial fortune, and in due course, she would also become the heiress of the Ruthvens, Earls of Gowrie.

In July or August 1642, as England and Wales slid inexorably into civil war, Mary Ruthven married again, this time to Sir Richard Pryse of Gogerddan, a few miles outside Aberystwyth in Cardiganshire. When the new Lady Pryse went down to Wales, her inherited wealth caused much Cymric jaw-dropping: she brought with her the likes of a £400 pearl necklace, a rich Arras hanging and a damask bed. But before the end of 1644 Mary, Lady Pryse, formerly Lady Van Dyck, née Ruthven, was dead, aged no more than 21. An orphan at the age of three, Justina was left in the care of her stepfather, miles behind Royalist lines, while most of the fortune to which she was now sole heiress was still in her father’s house in Parliamentarian London. But she still had one person who could speak out for her in the capital: her grandfather. In March 1645 Patrick Ruthven petitioned the House of Lords on behalf of his ‘fatherless and motherless’ granddaughter Justina. He claimed that one Richard Andrews had been removing Van Dyck’s paintings from his house at Blackfriars, under-valuing them to pay off Sir Richard Pryse’s creditors, and then sending them abroad, where he sold them on at huge profits. Other of Pryse’s creditors were simply wandering into the Blackfriars property and taking what they wanted. Ruthven asked the Lords to order a halt to further exports, which they seem to have done, but in February 1647 he had to go back to them, complaining that Andrews had flouted their order and was continuing to send Van Dyck’s possessions abroad.



There is evidence suggesting that Sir Richard Pryse was not quite the innocent party in all of this that he initially seems to be. Years later, a former employee of his testified that, although the story of the Blackfriars paintings was correct as far as it went, it was also true that Pryse was systematically siphoning off for his own and his son’s use that part of Van Dyck’s inheritance that he and Lady Mary had managed to get out from London before travel between the capital and Cardiganshire became well-nigh impossible because of the war. The civil war and its aftermath made it virtually impossible to prevent Andrews and Pryse doing what they liked. Patrick probably never saw his grand-daughter again, for she was brought up by her stepfather in Cardiganshire. A witness later testified that Sir Richard Pryse could not have spent very much on her education, ‘for he only gave her diet and clothes as a gentlewoman ordinarily [has] in the country … [but] that she had a maid for most of the time to wait on her’.


Portrait believed to be of John Stepney, 4th baronet

Portrait believed to be of John Stepney, 4th baronet

In 1653, aged thirteen, Justina made a superficially unlikely marriage to a relatively obscure Welshman of minor gentry status, namely John Stepney. This was a remarkably illustrious match for Stepney, and in later years it was to give his and Justina’s descendants grounds for believing that they were the rightful heirs to both the lost Ruthven titles and the equally lost fortune of Sir Anthony Dyck. Stepney family tradition held that the romance of John Stepney and Justina Van Dyck was a case of ‘love at first sight’ when John was a student at Christ Church, Oxford. However, the truth must have been rather more prosaic. As noted above, she was effectively brought up by Sir Richard Pryse of Gogerddan, and her availability would thus have been well known to John Stepney’s uncle Charles, who was married to Pryse’s daughter and might well have been the key figure in facilitating the marriage.

Justina was said to be dark-haired, blue-eyed and round-faced. Much of the fabulous inheritance that should have come to her had gone ‘missing’ from her father’s studio in Blackfriars during the confusion of the civil war. Her grandfather Patrick Ruthven, the claimant to the lost earldom of Gowrie, appeared before the House of Lords in March 1645 on behalf of his ‘fatherless and motherless’ granddaughter Justina. He claimed that many of Van Dyck’s paintings had been removed from his house at Blackfriars, under-valuing them to pay off Sir Richard Pryse’s creditors, and then sending them abroad, where they were sold on at huge profits. A temporary embargo on exports was ordered, but this proved ineffective. However, it is possible that Pryse was not quite the innocent party in all of this that he initially seems to be. Years later, a former employee of his testified that, although the story of the Blackfriars paintings was correct as far as it went, it was also true that Pryse was systematically siphoning off for his own and his son’s use that part of Van Dyck’s inheritance that he and Lady Mary had managed to get out from London before travel between the capital and Cardiganshire became well-nigh impossible because of the war.  Patrick probably never saw his grand-daughter again, for she was brought up by her stepfather in Cardiganshire. His intervention on her behalf had been to little avail, although some limited recompense did eventually come the way of Justina and her new Stepney relations. In 1656 the Earl of Northumberland paid John Stepney and his father Thomas, then of Sandy Haven, Pembrokeshire, the sum of £80 to establish that he had been briefly the legal owner of Titian’s great painting, Perseus and Andromeda, which ‘disappeared’ from the collection of Sir Anthony Van Dyck in the 1640s, eventually ending up in Northumberland’s possession rather than passing to his heiress Justina, as Van Dyck’s will had specified. After all of these vicissitudes, perhaps the only item which Justina actually inherited from her father was an item alleged to be his paint box.

Even if it was true that Sir Richard Pryse did not spend very much on Justina’s education, he evidently complied with the wishes of her dead parents in one crucial respect: she was brought up as a Catholic. Indeed, in 1660 she and her husband went through a second, Catholic, marriage ceremony at the St Jakobskirk in Antwerp, subsequently living in her aunt Susanna van Dyck’s house. John Stepney’s conversion, if such it was, was markedly mistimed; the restoration of the monarchy shortly afterwards made it essential that a man in his position should be a Protestant, especially if he wished to hold the offices that would naturally come the way of a future baronet. He seems quickly and quietly to have concealed this inconvenient truth, and duly joined King Charles II’s Horse Guards. Meanwhile Justina became an eminent artist in her own right, giving her aunt Susanna a painting of the Crucifixion by her own hand and being considered important enough for Cornelis de Bie to include her in his study of women painters in Het Gulden Cabinet, published in 1661. In 1662 Justina was granted a pension of £200 per annum by the restored monarchy of King Charles II. This was kept up for the rest of her life, although like so many similar obligations of Charles’s permanently impoverished regime, it was often in arrears – by nearly five years in 1673, by over six in 1684. She also returned to Antwerp in 1665 in order to claim the half share of Susanna’s estate that was left to her, so despite the loss of much of her father’s inheritance, Justina was hardly left in poverty.

St Elli's church, Llanelli: the memorial to Justina's son, Sir Thomas Stepney (which claims, wrongly, that he was descended from King Henry VII)

St Elli’s church, Llanelli: the memorial to Justina’s son, Sir Thomas Stepney (which claims, wrongly, that he was descended from King Henry VII)

John Stepney became the fourth baronet of Prendergast, Pembrokeshire, when his uncle died in 1676. But John did not enjoy the title for very long: he was buried at Kidwelly on 1 July 1681, so the baronetcy devolved to his son Thomas, aged about thirteen. Justina’s life, too, was drawing to its close. She made a second marriage, to Martin de Carbonnel, a French Huguenot, but this was childless. Thus when Justina died in 1688, the bloodline of both Sir Anthony Van Dyck and the Ruthven Earls of Gowrie continued solely in her Stepney descendants, initially through her only son Thomas, the fifth baronet of Prendergast. They became the owners of Llanelly House, a glorious and recently restored Georgian town house, became the friends of princes and prime ministers, and had more than their fair share of scandals and bizarre vicissitudes. Several members of the family believed that they had inherited artistic talent from Sir Anthony van Dyck, although the efforts preserved in their sketchbooks usually suggest otherwise! The family continued to own land in west Wales until 1998, and descendants still live in Cumbria, Scotland and Italy.


(Taken from the relevant sections of my book Blood of Kings: The Stuarts, the Ruthvens and the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’, and the current draft of my unpublished book on the Stepney family of Prendergast and Llanelli. The latter is currently on ‘indefinite hold’, in part due to the disastrous situation at the Carmarthenshire Record Office, the main repository of manuscript material on the family.) 



We spent last week enjoying some ‘R&R’ at Rosslyn Castle, just outside Edinburgh. This is a Landmark Trust property, and regular readers of this blog will know that I/we are big fans of Landmarks, having notched up fifteen of them to date; indeed, I’ll be off to another one in just a few weeks time, to brainstorm the plot of ‘Quinton 7′ and some exciting new fiction ideas. But Rosslyn Castle is a bit unusual for the Landmark Trust in that they don’t actually own the property. Instead, they manage it on behalf of its owner, the seventh Earl of Rosslyn, who still retains it as a family home – hence the fact that family photos and memorabilia adorn the castle’s splendid (if rather chilly) rooms. These bear witness to the long-standing connections between the St Clair-Erskines of Rosslyn on the one hand and the British royal family on the other. The current Earl’s grandmother, a glamorous Australian described in one of the castle’s artworks as ‘impossible Sheila’, and who eventually ended up married to a Russian prince, was friendly with both the future Kings Edward VIII and George VI. Moreover, the seventh Earl, a career policeman,* was until recently the head of the Royal Protection Squad, and was allegedly ‘the Queen’s favourite policeman’. He’s since taken up a new post as head of the Prince of Wales’ household – an organisation supposedly so full of politicking and back-stabbing that it was recently described as a modern ‘Wolf Hall’, so the appointment might be regarded as something of a poisoned chalice.

Rosslyn Castle, still entered by its original bridge. Note to those who are inclined to drive very large cars at very high speeds: don't go there. Literally.

Rosslyn Castle, still entered by its original bridge. Note to those who are inclined to drive very large cars at very high speeds: don’t go there. Literally.

But then, if anybody ought to know how to deal with a dodgy chalice, it should be a St Clair of Rosslyn. This, after all, is a family that can prove descent from Rognvald the Viking, that went on crusade (taking the heart of King Robert the Bruce along on one occasion), that might or might not have discovered America (of which more anon), and which once possessed royal status themselves, as Princes of Orkney. And, of course, if you believe Dan Brown and any number of the esoteric ‘non-fiction’ tomes about the Holy Grail, the history of Freemasonry and the Knights Templar, this was the family that might have brought the Grail itself, and/or the Ark of the Covenant, and/or the Holy Lance, back to Scotland from the Holy Land, and hid it/them within the astonishing chapel they had built just up the hill from their castle. I’d been to Rosslyn Chapel before, some fifteen years ago, when the whole place was concealed beneath an ugly protective metal structure and the interior was literally green from many years of neglect and rampant damp. It was great to see it in its full glory both externally and internally – or at least, as much of the full glory as hadn’t been destroyed by Cromwell’s men, catastrophically inappropriate 1950s ‘restoration’ techniques, and the various other travails that have beset the chapel over the centuries. It was also good to have missed the height of the chapel’s Da Vinci Code phase, when it was being invaded by four or five times the normal number of visitors per annum, at least a few of whom were taking it all far too seriously – including the one who turned up with an axe, intent on smashing open the famous ‘Apprentice Pillar’ in the belief that this (all too obviously load-bearing) structure was hollow and was actually the hiding place of the Holy Grail.

Rosslyn Chapel: small but perfectly (if peculiarly) formed

Rosslyn Chapel: small but perfectly (if peculiarly) formed

In fact, there’s more than enough mystery at Rosslyn without entering into Dan Brown / Indiana Jones crossover territory and conspiracy theories centred on some of the stranger aspects of Scottish, Masonic and western religious history. (Not that I’m entirely disparaging of any of the latter, given some of the frankly astonishing evidence and connections I came across while writing Blood of Kings.) Why, for example, does this chapel, built in the mid-fifteenth century, perhaps contain both Templar symbolism, when the Templars had been proscribed over a century before, and what might be carvings of maize, made some forty years before Columbus sailed? Legend has it that Henry St Clair, Earl of Orkney, sailed to north America at the end of the fourteenth century and made contact with the Mi’kmaq people. While, for a Welshman, any such tale inevitably sounds suspiciously similar to the story of Prince Madoc’s ‘voyage’, the number of discoveries of pre-Columbian relics in north America probably suggests that such legends shouldn’t necessarily be dismissed out of hand, either.

The interior of Rosslyn Chapel, with the Apprentice Pillar in the left background. Taken in the pre-Dan Brown days when the chapel had mould, relatively few visitors, and no ban on interior photography

The interior of Rosslyn Chapel, with the Apprentice Pillar in the left background. Taken in the pre-Dan Brown days when the chapel had mould, relatively few visitors, no ban on interior photography, and a ghost who kept nudging photographers slightly to the left

It’s easy to see why the crazy symbolism present throughout Rosslyn Chapel gives rise to such stories: when you have portrayals in stone of angels with bagpipes and over a hundred ‘green men’, pretty much anything goes. But to give credit to those currently responsible for the chapel, they make very certain that the building’s true purpose doesn’t get entirely subsumed beneath all the myth. Every day at twelve, visitors are invited to stop, sit, and join in a brief service of prayers. It’s both revealing and sad that, the first time we visited during our recent trip, most of those in the chapel chose to sidle out, somewhat embarrassed, rather than listen to the words for which the entire edifice was built. After all, how dare these nasty believers in some sort of mythical spirituality disturb tourists who’ve paid quite hefty admission fees and are intent on seeing the crypt where Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou uncovered the, umm, fictional truth about, umm, pretty much that exact same mythical spirituality? But that is Rosslyn’s mystery in a nutshell: it’s truly a place where the worlds of history, spirituality, myth and fiction collide, presenting us with the question of where each of those worlds begins, and where it ends.

Finally – ‘the throne of doom’? Well, all Landmark Trust properties have log books, in which each party of visitors can record their experiences or pass on advice to their successors. At Rosslyn Castle, the consistently Arctic downstairs loo has been christened ‘the throne of doom’, and thoroughly deserves the moniker. Trust me – if you ever want first hand experience of what it was like to be in a castle garderobe in winter in the Middle Ages, this is the place to get it.


(* There’s a reasonably substantial tradition of aristocrats serving in the police: the ninth Earl Nelson, descendant of the admiral’s brother, also served with the ‘boys in blue’, as have a number of others over the years. So the fictional Earl of Asherton, who’s the hero of the Inspector Lynley Mysteries in print and on TV, isn’t too far removed from the truth.)

So there’s this history-based TV programme, based on a famous historical novel, which has a capricious King who’s desperate for a male heir, a flighty Queen called Anne who’s prone to sleeping with other men, an all-powerful Cardinal who dies part way through the story, a ruthless and charismatic royal advisor with divided loyalties, all of it shot in locations to die for –

Oh come on, people, how much more proof do you need that Wolf Hall is blatantly plagiarised from The Musketeers?

Before I suffer a Wicker Man fate at the hands of a rampaging mob of enraged Tudoristas led by Hilary Mantel in all her most terrifying Thatcher-assassinating fury, please bear with me. The odd parallels between the plots of the heavyweight adaptation of a double Booker-winning modern classic, which began airing on the BBC last week, and the lightweight froth of the Beeb’s Friday night Dumas ‘reboot’, is, of course, due entirely to the fact that early modern states often had very similar structures and concerns. Hence the ever-present pressure on monarchs to perpetuate the male lines of their dynasties, the political pre-eminence of high ranking churchmen (better educated and better connected than virtually all of a nation’s aristocracy, let alone the population at large), and so forth. True, any resemblance between the brilliantly drawn Thomas Cromwell of Hilary Mantel, as realised with equal brilliance by Mark Rylance, and the ‘panto villain’ Comte de Rochefort in the Musketeers – either the original books or the current series – is purely coincidental. On the other hand, the ‘arch-fixer’ Cromwell’s multiple loyalties to the King, to Cardinal Wolsey, to the idea of religious reform, and so forth, and the BBC Rochefort’s tangled allegiances to Queen Anne and to his supposed Spanish masters, make them brothers under the skin.

King Louis XIII and the Comte de Rochefort discuss a cunning plan. Hang on...or is this the other one...?

King Louis XIII and the Comte de Rochefort discuss a cunning plan. Hang on…or is this the other one…?

This, of course, is where the similarity ends. While The Musketeers is enjoyable mindless fun, Wolf Hall is simply classic television – one of those once-in-a-generation experiences that completely change perceptions of what dramatised history on TV should be like. For example, I gather that a few disgruntled viewers took to the Twitterverse to complain that the lighting was too subdued. No; the simple fact is that the lighting on every other historical TV programme they’d ever seen was far too bright. (And if you don’t believe me, try a candlelit dinner in a really old building, or a candlelit evensong or concert in a cathedral. Or just wait for a power cut, light your own candles, and take some selfies.) Add such scrupulous attention to an authentic period ‘feel’ to subtle but brilliant acting from an outstanding cast, and a highly intelligent script that – wait for it – doesn’t tell the audience everything in easy soundbites, and assumes said audience actually has some basic level of prior historical knowledge, and you really do have TV history the way it should be made.

The same is true of the thorny issue of factual accuracy. Both Mantel and Peter Straughan, who adapted the two books for TV, stick closely to the known facts, and especially to the known chronology. The Musketeers, on the other hand, happily drives a coach and horses – no, the entire French army artillery train – through chronological exactitude, although it has to be said, this wasn’t necessarily entirely of the writer’s making. After all, who could have known that Cardinal Richelieu would have to die twelve years early in order to take command of a time machine? Let’s just hope that, before the BBC inevitably films the forthcoming third Mantel book, The Mirror and the Light, Mark Rylance isn’t made an offer he can’t refuse and goes off to Hollywood to star in Transformers VII. Much has been made of Wolf Hall‘s one conscious departure from historical accuracy that wasn’t driven purely by budget issues (the latter including, for instance, the distinct shortage of boats on the Thames, the M25 of the sixteenth century): namely, the unduly diminished size of the actors’ codpieces. No doubt someone at the BBC took an executive decision that the risk of having delicate spinsters in rose-clad country cottages fainting at the sight of enormous protuberances, and subsequently recovering sufficiently to write indignant letters of protest to the Mail and Telegraph, was too great to contemplate. For once, I tend to agree. Having lived through the early 1970s as a teenager, and – yes – having worn the flares and ludicrously vast collars that characterised the epoch, I concede that certain fashion excesses of the past should never, ever, be portrayed on screen in their full and unadulerated awfulness. That apart, though, Wolf Hall passed pretty much every test, even if – and despite all his protestations to the contrary – Damian Lewis’s Henry VIII of 1529 really is a tad too skinny. As far as I was concerned, the ultimate ‘much respect’ moment in terms of the production’s quest for authenticity was the ZZ Top beard on the entirely mute actor playing the Papal Legate, Cardinal Campeggio. Which means someone, somewhere, knew that Cardinal Campeggio looked like this.

Cover art of ZZ Top’s little known album about the nature of the transformation of the host during the eucharist


Overall, then, Wolf Hall‘s levels of accuracy are pretty astonishing by modern TV standards: for example, contrast it with The Tudors, set in the same period and inevitably containing largely the same characters, but bearing about the same degree of resemblance to authenticity as my village football team does to Manchester United. Indeed, Wolf Hall looks so right that even the omni-hating Dr David Starkey might conceivably give it the thumbs up. (For those who’ve never heard of him, Dr Starkey was once a moderately competent historian of aspects of early Tudor government. Would that he had been content with such a distinction.) Of course, no historical film or TV programme – or novel, come to that – can ever be completely ‘accurate’, in the narrow sense of the word: the real people simply didn’t say those words, in those accents, in those precise rooms in those precise buildings, and so on. It’s that old fact/fiction distinction once again. All that a screenwriter or novelist can do is to create as powerful a sense of the times, and of the people who lived in them, as they possibly can; and in that regard, both Hilary Mantel and the TV adaption of her books succeed brilliantly.


At short notice, I’ve agreed to do some teaching for the next few weeks to cover staff illness at Bedford Modern School, where I worked for many years. I’m not yet sure whether this will affect my ability to blog as regularly as usual, so there may or may not be a post next week – updates on Twitter!

There was quite a big response to last week’s post on King Charles I’s possible illegitimate daughter, Joanna Bridges, so I thought I’d follow it up by instituting a new occasional series, ‘Highways and Byways of the 17th Century’, covering some of the odd or lesser known stories that I’ve come across during over thirty years’ research into, and teaching of, this endlessly fascinating period. This will complement my other occasional series, ‘Dead Admirals Society’, which provides pictures and descriptions of various interesting naval graves and memorials; I’ll try to add a new post in that series within the next week or two.

For this week’s post, I’ve chosen a footnote in one of the best known of all the stories in 17th century British history – the escape of King Charles II after the Battle of Worcester in 1651. By far the best known element of this is the legend of the ‘Royal Oak’ at Boscobel House, where the King hid while Parliamentarian patrols passed below. Other aspects of the story are almost equally well known, such as the very tall and swarthy Charles disguising himself as a woman at one point. But equally important to the King’s safe departure into exile was the ship that eventually carried him across the Channel. On 15 October, after taking a tortuous and often fraught route across southern England, Charles reached the coast at Brighton. The ship chosen to receive him was the collier Surprise, about 34 tons, 42 feet long and 30 feet broad. Her captain and owner, Nicholas Tattersell or Tattersall, had already agreed to take an unnamed passenger and his attendants across to France, but when he met the party and recognised the King, he was furious at being exposed to such danger. Delicate negotiation followed, but Tattersell eventually agreed to make the voyage in return for a further £200. The Surprise duly crossed the Channel, and on 16 October, Charles landed at Fecamp.

The Royal Escape, by Van de Velde the Younger

The Royal Escape, by Van de Velde the Younger

When the monarchy was restored in 1660, Charles promptly bought the vessel from Tattersell and renamed her the Royal Escape. The King had her moored in the Thames off Whitehall Palace, and showed her off to important visitors. Perhaps she was also a reminder of the potential insecurity of his position, or of God’s providence in preserving his life (or both).  The Royal Escape was put into commission between July 1672 and October 1674 under Captain Augustus Birtch, before returning to her moorings in the Thames, eventually ending up in Deptford Dockyard. She long survived the King who owed so much to her, and was nominally rebuilt at Deptford in 1714. This Royal Escape continued to serve as a stores vessel at Deptford Dockyard until broken up in 1750, by which time a lighter in the same yard had taken the name. This, in turn, was replaced by a new vessel built in 1792 to exactly the same dimensions, which survived until 1877 – so in one very tenuous sense, the Royal Escape continued to be a part of the Royal Navy until Winston Churchill, the 50th anniversary of whose death takes place this week, was three years old!

As for Nicholas Tattersell, Charles II treated him with considerable generosity. He commissioned him captain of the frigate Sorlings on 25 July 1660 and of the powerful Third Rate man-of-war Monck on 20 April 1661, in which capacity he served until 12 February 1663. But he then returned to his old life, albeit cushioned by the security of a £100 annuity for life, and by 1669 was skipper of the ketch Happy Entrance, trading between Sussex and London. He served as High Constable of Brighton in the following year, becoming a particularly vicious persecutor of dissenters in that role. He later bought the Old Ship Inn in the town, and died on 26 July 1674, probably aged 59. His tombstone in St Nicholas Church, Brighton, states that ‘he preserved the Church, the Crown, and the Nation’. His son continued to receive the pension from the crown until after the Glorious Revolution.

One of the great delights of writing this blog, of having a website, and of being moderately active on Twitter, is that I sometimes gets really interesting feedback from those who follow me. Last week’s post, for example, brought a reply from Steve Mercer of the Grimsby Wargames Society, who are already well advanced in planning a detailed reconstruction of the great Four Days Battle of 1666 – the subject of the fifth Quinton novel, The Battle of All The Ages - to mark the 350th anniversary in June next year. It’s great to hear that, and really appropriate, too, given the strategic importance of the Humber estuary during the Anglo-Dutch wars. Back in October of last year, I also heard from Michael Lowe, who’d picked up on a statement I made in a previous post about Joanna Bridges, a possible illegitimate daughter of King Charles I (and Michael’s direct ancestor). Her story provided the inspiration for one of the storylines in the third novel, The Blast That Tears The Skies, where one of the characters (which is about as spoiler-free as I can make this…) is similarly an illegitimate child of the King. I picked up this idea from Joanna’s story, which forms a very odd footnote in the histories of both the British Civil Wars and my home county, Carmarthenshire. So, somewhat belatedly, here’s the curious tale of Joanna Bridges, Michael’s ancestor.

Famously, Charles I’s attitude to sexual morality was very different to that of his two sons, who racked up the grand total of some sixteen or seventeen illegitimate children between them. But this very much reflected the situation after Charles’ marriage, when he and Queen Henrietta Maria became devoted to each other. His behaviour as Prince of Wales, and in his first years as King, was not necessarily quite so conventional – or, as one of the 19th century sources used for this blog put it, he was led astray ‘under the guidance of the dissipated and licentious [Duke of] Buckingham’. If he really had an illegitimate child, its birth almost certainly took place during a period in the 1620s, probably between c.1622 and c.1627. According to the legend of her paternity, Joanna Bridges was the child of Charles and the Duchess of Lennox, who was then raised ‘in much privacy’ in Wales, growing into a young woman who ‘both in circumstance and disposition…displayed a striking resemblance to her unfortunate father’. The only Bridges family of gentry status in Wales seems to have lived in Radnorshire, and that may have been where Joanna was brought up.

The Duchess of Lennox

The Duchess of Lennox

There is some evidence to support the otherwise very unlikely theory. The thrice-married Frances, Duchess of Lennox, was a prominent member of the circle around Buckingham and Charles when the latter was Prince of Wales; her husband Ludovic, a cousin of the Prince and of his father King James, had actually been the heir to the Scottish throne for some twenty years, and he plays a very prominent part in my book Blood of Kings: the Stuarts, the Ruthvens and the ‘Gowrie Conspiracy’. Although she was in her forties, it’s quite conceivable that the Duchess might have had a ‘Mrs Robinson’ affair with the young Prince, and Pauline Gregg, Charles’ biographer, documents the fact that the latter presented the Duchess with a chain of diamonds valued at over £3000 – although the latter was actually a gift from King James, who also seems to have been a target for the Duchess’ affections. (She had serious ‘form’ when it came to winning much older men – her second husband, forty years her senior, was Edward Seymour, Earl of Hertford, a nephew of Henry VIII’s Queen Jane Seymour.)

Further circumstantial evidence is provided by Joanna’s marriage, at some point in the mid-1650s, to Dr Jeremy Taylor, a prominent Anglican clergyman and religious writer who had served as a chaplain to King Charles I’s court at Oxford. Taylor was in Wales by the beginning of 1645, when he was in Lord Gerard’s force that was defeated at Cardigan Castle, and he then became a schoolteacher at Llanfihangel Aberbythych in the Tywi valley. This was almost immediately adjacent to Golden Grove, the home of the influential Vaughan family and its head, the Earl of Carbery, one of the most prominent Royalists in south Wales. Taylor soon became chaplain to Carbery and remained in west Wales for ten years or thereabouts. This explains his meeting with, and eventual marriage to, Joanna Bridges – she owned a small estate at Mandinam, a little further up the Tywi valley (possibly a telling fact in itself). But the most curious, and telling, connection of all is recounted by Pauline Gregg in her biography of King Charles. Following his defeat by Parliament, Charles was imprisoned at Hampton Court from August to November 1647. Taylor was among those who attended him there, and as Gregg records, ‘Charles gave Taylor a ring with two diamonds and a ruby, a watch, and a few pearls and rubies which ornamented the ebony case in which he kept his bible. There was no reason why he should give these to Taylor unless they were to pass on to Joanna Bridges…’

The couple married at some point between 1652 and 1656, had two children, and moved to Ireland, where Taylor became Bishop of Down and Connor; he died in August 1667. The date of Joanna’s death is unknown, but her eponymous daughter still owned Mandinam in 1707. The house still exists, and now provides holiday accommodation. Perhaps one day I’ll carry out more intensive research into the legend of Joanna Bridges – and of course, that would provide an ideal excuse to go and stay at her former home!



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