Monday, 12 December 2011

Mystery People of History – Perkin Warbeck, Prince or Pretender?


Few mysteries of history have fascinated us as much and prompted so much speculation as the mystery of the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower.  Were the two young princes really murdered in their beds, and if so who by and why? Or were they somehow spirited away from the Tower of London in secret and taken to a safe place to live out their lives in obscurity?  Against the chaos and political instability of that period of English history known as the War of the Roses, it is perhaps not surprising then that several figures came forward during the reign of King Henry VII claiming to be one of the lost princes and becoming a focus for rebellion, and one of the most famous of these royal pretenders was a young man know as Perkin Warbeck.

After Henry VII defeated King Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 and claimed the English throne by right of conquest, his main tasks were to secure his kingdom and win the loyalty of his nobles and people.  He married Elizabeth of York, the eldest daughter King Edward IV, in an attempt to further legitimise his claim to the English crown and unite the Lancastrian and Yorkist factions, even though to do this he had to overturn the ruling that had declared that she and all her siblings were illegitimate due to their father’s alleged pre-contract of marriage with Lady Eleanor Talbot.  But if Elizabeth of York and her sisters were once again recognised as being the legitimate children of Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville, then so too were her two brothers, King Edward V and Richard, Duke of York.  Many historians consider that to have overturned this ruling, Henry VII must have believed that the two young princes were indeed already dead, as if either of the two boys were still alive, they had a much greater claim to the throne than Henry himself, and he knew that there were still powerful forces both in England and across Europe who would back a Yorkist claimant to the throne.


Perkin Warbeck

One of these powerful forces was Margaret of Burgundy, the sister of the two dead kings Edward IV and Richard III and the aunt of the Princes in the Tower, and it was at her Court that Perkin Warbeck first came to public attention and claimed the throne of England. It is not known whether Margaret of Burgundy genuinely believed that Perkin Warbeck was her nephew or whether she was fully aware that he was a fraud and groomed him in the ways of the Yorkist Royal Family in order to create a focus of rebellion against Henry VII.  The other major European player to get involved was King Charles VIII of France, and both he and Margaret officially recognised Perkin Warbeck as King Richard IV of England.  For a while Perkin Warbeck was feted across Europe, attending the funeral in Vienna of the Holy Roman Emperor, Frederick III, and gaining the recognition of his successor Maximilian I, spending time at the French Court in 1492 and then residing at the Court of Burgundy. However, in 1492 Charles VIII signed the Treaty of Etaples with England to prevent a threatened invasion of France and part of the treaty was an agreement to expel Perkin Warbeck from French territory.  Warbeck’s presence in Burgundy rattled Henry VII so much that he imposed a trade embargo on Flanders in 1493, even though this would lose England a great deal of revenue.

Perkin Warbeck’s first foray into rebellion against the English crown had been in 1491 when he arrived in the Irish city of Cork, which had long been a Yorkist stronghold. The good people of Cork thought that Warbeck was actually the Earl of Warwick, the son of the hapless George, Duke of Clarence, who had been attainted for treason and executed in the Tower of London after trying the patience of his brother Edward IV one time too many, who was currently being held captive by Henry VII.  Warbeck’s English was apparently not very good, but he managed to deny his being the Earl of Warwick and declare himself as Richard, Duke of York. However, little became of this rebellion and he was forced to return to Europe.







With the support of Margaret of Burgundy, he tried his hand again in 1495 and landed with a small force in Deal on the Kent coast.  His small force was effectively routed and Warbeck was forced to sail on to Ireland without even disembarking onto English soil.  Once in Ireland, he gained the support of the Earl of Desmond and laid siege to the town of Waterford, but was once again unsuccessful.  He fled to the Court of King James IV of Scotland, where he was graciously received, given a pension of £1200 a year and the hand of the Scottish King’s cousin, Lady Catherine Gordon, in marriage.  At that time James IV was happy to use any means at his disposal to rile Henry VII, so he encouraged Perkin Warbeck to use his pension for funding for attempting to mount an attack across the English border.  However, Warbeck received no support whatsoever from the English and was forced to retreat back into Scotland.  Henry VII may still at this point in his reign have felt insecure on his throne, but he had set up an effective network of spies and had rooted out and dealt with any English supporters of Perkin Warbeck.  In 1495, Sir William Stanley was tried and executed for treason due to his support of Warbeck and the Yorkist cause, which is ironic in the light of the fact that he was the very same William Stanley who switched sides at the Battle of Bosworth ensuring the defeat of the Yorkist King Richard III. Henry VII’s steward Lord Fitzwalter was also attainted and executed and it seems that they were being informed on by one of their co-conspirators Sir Robert Clifford, who was secretly working for Henry.  Clifford’s reward for his participation in the conspiracy against the crown was not the more usual short trip to the scaffold but a full pardon and a hefty reward.

After Warbeck’s failed attempt to enter England, James IV of Scotland gave up on the idea of being a thorn in the side of the English King, and signed the Treaty of Ayton that brought him peace with England and Henry’s daughter Margaret Tudor as a bride. Warbeck was once more expelled and returned again to Ireland to make another attempt at laying siege to the town of Waterford.  This attempt was swiftly defeated and he was chased from Ireland by four English ships.  Left with only a handful of supporters, Perkin Warbeck sailed to Cornwall, where he hoped to capitalise on the discontent still fomenting there after the uprising that had taken place only a few months earlier. The Cornish people welcomed him and declared him King Richard IV on Bodmin Moor.  The support of the Cornish swelled his army by 6000 and he marched on Exeter and then on to Taunton.  Henry sent an army to counter Warbeck’s rebellion, and when Warbeck heard that this force had sighted he fled to Beaulieu Abbey in Hampshire, where he was captured. Henry VII was initially merciful to Perkin Warbeck, allowing him to stay at Court under supervision.  However, he attempted to run away, so was removed to the more secure environment of the Tower of London.  In 1499 he allegedly tried to escape again, this time supposedly in the company of the real Earl of Warwick, and was hanged at Tyburn.




So was Perkin Warbeck really Richard, Duke of York?  It is popularly believed that he was actually a Fleming born in Tournai in around 1474, the son of a French official called John de Werbecque and his wife, Katherine de Faro, and that he had spent his boyhood years working as a servant in several different households. He then became an apprentice for a fleece merchant called Pregent Meno, and it was while he was working for Meno that he first arrived in Ireland and declared himself to be Richard, Duke of York.  Perkin Warbeck also supposedly bore a strong resemblance to the dead Yorkist monarch, Edward IV, and it has been speculated that Warbeck could actually have been Edward’s illegitimate son. But what of Margaret of Burgundy’s support of Perkin Warbeck.  Would she really have supported an imposter as her nephew?  Would she really have wanted a non-royal foreigner on the throne of England, however much she despised Henry VII’s regime?  She declared that she recognised Warbeck as Richard of York because of certain birthmarks on his body and his supposedly detailed knowledge of what life had been like living in the English Royal Household.  In return for Margaret’s support, Warbeck had to promise to return all her lands in England to her that had been confiscated after the Battle of Bosworth when he gained the English crown. But was this enough to make her support an imposter? 

Moreover, if Perkin Warbeck really spoke such poor English and was uneducated, would sophisticated monarchs like Maximilian I and Charles VII even have deigned to let him into their presence, let alone backed him as a pretender to the throne of England? In the 15th century class was all important, and people rarely moved out of the milieu into which they had been born.  There was also a mystique and a reverence surrounding royal blood, and preserving royal bloodlines and family ties was regarded as all important, so encouraging someone who had worked as a servant to make a bid for a crown would have been almost unthinkable.  After all, the real Richard, Duke of York had been excluded from the possibility of ever sitting on the throne of England purely because his father might have made a pre-contract of marriage with another woman before he married Richard’s mother Elizabeth Woodville.

Like all great historical mysteries, we shall never probably really know the truth about Perkin Warbeck.  Perkin Warbeck made a confession before his execution that gave his parentage and early history, some of which has been backed up by documentary evidence.  But was he forced into this confession by Henry VII, who would have been very eager to ensure that there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that that Perkin Warbeck was an imposter and not a Yorkist prince? Most likely he was just an apprentice from Flanders, who by chance bore an uncanny resemblance to a dead king and was in the right place at the right time, but there is always the chance, however slight, that he really was Richard of York and that he had been spirited away from his imprisonment in England and brought to Europe for safety.

Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain



Famous Royal Mistresses – Prinny and Mrs Fitzherbert


When is a famous royal mistress not a royal mistress? When perhaps, like Mrs Fitzherbert, she may actually have been a royal wife? The British Royal Family has been much in the news recently, with the wedding of Prince William to Kate Middleton having just taken place at Westminster Abbey, but members of our Royal Family have throughout history found themselves the centre of attention, written about in newspapers and pamphlets and even finding themselves in the centre of a scandal. One royal who was no stranger to scandal was George, Prince of Wales, the son of King George III and Queen Charlotte, who went on to become Prince Regent and then King George IV. Known to his friends as ‘Prinny’, Prince George led a decadent life at the head of a group of beaus and dandies known as the Carlton House Set, spending his days gambling, drinking, decorating his houses and running up a huge amount of debt. When he was a young man, George was handsome and a great favourite with the ladies, but as he grew older the ravages of his lifestyle caused him to become bloated and pile on the weight, prompting Beau Brummell to utter his famous caustic remark ‘Alvanley, who’s your fat friend?’  Prince George also enjoyed an extensive and varied love life and had many mistresses throughout his life, but perhaps he ever only truly loved one of them?

Mrs Fitzherbert


The lady in question is known to history as Mrs Fitzherbert, although she was born Maria Ann Smythe on 26th July 1756.  She was the eldest child of William Smythe and Mary Ann Errington, who were Roman Catholics and well-connected with the British aristocracy, as her mother was a half-sister of the Earl of Sefton. She was sent to Paris for her education, but was married at the age of 18 to Edward Weld, a wealthy Catholic landowner who was 16 years her senior. Unfortunately for the young Maria, her new husband was thrown from a horse only three months after their wedding, without having yet made a new will. This left the young widow in dire financial straits and in desperate need of a new husband to support her, so three years later she wed another older man, Thomas Fitzherbert of Swynnerton in Staffordshire. This time she was ten years younger than her spouse, and the couple had one son who tragically died very young. She was widowed again on 7th May 1781, but this time she was more fortunate in the inheritance stakes as she gained a smart house in Park Street, Mayfair and a healthy annual income.

When she came out of mourning, Mrs Fitzherbert was sponsored into the glittering whirl of London Society by her uncle Lord Sefton and her half-brother Henry Errington. She was now a very eligible young widow, and probably had many suitors. But in the spring of 1784 she was introduced to the very cream of this Society, when Maria Fitzherbert caught the eye of the 22 year old Prince of Wales when she attended the opera in the company of Lord Sefton. Although, at 27, Mrs Fitzherbert was older than Prince George, the impressionable young prince was smitten and immediately began to pursue her. Rumours soon started flying around Polite Society that Mrs Fitzherbert was the Prince’s latest mistress. The pair seemed to be genuinely in love, and in July 1784 her besotted prince offered her a ring as a gift. The ring was initially refused, but Mrs Fitzherbert finally accepted the gift, after Prince George threatened to commit suicide. The ecstatic Prince believed that this acceptance of his ring meant that Maria Fitzherbert had agreed to marry him,  and knowing that marrying the Prince would be nigh on impossible she escaped to Europe.  Maria Fitzherbert’s whereabouts were eventually traced, and she returned to London in December 1785. It was at this point that the couple underwent a secret marriage ceremony in the drawing room of Mrs Fitzherbert’s house in Park Street.





So why was there so much secrecy surrounding this wedding? It was because under English law the marriage was regarded as invalid. This was because George was the Prince of Wales and the 1689 Bill of Rights stated that any heir to the throne who married a Roman Catholic would be lose their place in the succession and the Royal Marriage Act of 1772 required that the King’s consent had to be obtained before one of his children could wed. As Mrs Fitzherbert was a Roman Catholic and it was highly unlikely that King George III would give consent to his eldest son and heir marrying a Catholic widow, the couple can have been only too aware that it was unlikely that their marriage would ever be recognised by the Royal Family and legitimised. We may never know why the couple took the risk of getting married in secret, but there were rumours flying around Society at the time that Mrs Fitzherbert was pregnant, and being a Roman Catholic may well have been deeply worried about having a child out of wedlock. It must be remembered that before she met the Prince of Wales, Maria Fitzherbert had led the life of a very respectable woman and had a high standing in the Society of which she was a part. In fact, they had to approach three different clergymen before they found one who would perform the ceremony, and it was one of the Prince of Wales’s own chaplains, the Reverend Robert Burt who finally agreed. There has been speculation that Reverend Burt only agreed because the Prince had agreed to pay off his debts or even got him out of debtor’s prison, but there is no real evidence to support this, and Burt came from an affluent family who had made their fortune in the West Indies.



The rumours continued to fly about the Prince of Wales and Mrs Fitzherbert, but they lived together as a married couple until 1794. It was Prinny’s extravagance and decadent lifestyle that was to be their undoing as he had reached a point where he was unable to discharge his debts. He had already once been financially bailed out by his father, the King, and so to ensure that he stayed in his father’s good books, Prince George finally agreed to marry a foreign, protestant princess called Caroline of Brunswick. To complicate matter further, in 1794 George started a romantic liaison with Frances Villiers, the Countess of Jersey, who was strongly counselling him to marry Princess Caroline and get rid of his mountain of debts. Lady Jersey was very keen on retaining her status as his royal mistress, and felt that Caroline of Brunswick was much less of a threat to her position than Mrs Fitzherbert, a lady who he had been in love with for nearly a decade. The question has to be did Prince George really believe that he was already married, and if so was he worried and unhappy that in some people’s eyes he was committing bigamy by marrying another woman? Although how do you divorce someone that you may or may not be legally married to? When the Prince broke off his relationship with her, Maria Fitzherbert fled first to Margate, and then to Marble Hill in Twickenham, ending up in Ealing in the October of 1795.

It is quite safe to say that the Prince’s marriage to Caroline of Brunswick was a disaster, and by 1799 Prinny was once more back in the arms of Mrs Fitzherbert. They lived together in Brighton until around 1807 where Mrs Fitzherbert owned a house called Steine House that had been designed for her by the architect William Porden, and the Prince was building his fantastical piece of Eastern architecture, the Brighton Pavilion. The couple seemed to have had a shaky relationship for the next two years, but it seems that they had finally parted forever by 1811, the Prince having embarked on what would be a 12 year long affair with the somewhat curvaceous Lady Hertford.

Mrs Fitzherbert continued to live quietly in Brighton in Steine House until her death in 1837, and she was buried in the Roman Catholic church of St John the Baptist in the Kemp Town area of the town. One of the big questions asked about Mrs Fitzherbert was whether or not she ever bore the Prince of Wales any children? There were those rumours of her pregnancy at the time of her morganatic marriage, and many people believe that James Ord, who was born in 1786, was that child. James Ord was taken to the United States and became a Jesuit priest there, but left the order to first join the US Navy and then the US Infantry. However, In Maria Fitzherbert’s will there is no mention of a son, but in the second codicil she does make references to ‘two dear children’ who were Mary Ann Smythe and Mary Dawson-Damer. Mary Ann Smythe became Mary Ann Stafford-Jerningham after her marriage and was nominally a niece of Mrs Fitzherbert, and Mary Ann Dawson-Damer was known as the daughter of Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour and his wife Lady Anna Horatia Waldegrave. The Seymour’s son was one of the executors of Mrs Fitzherbert’s will and received a minor bequest from her, and his father has been a lifelong friend and confidant of the Prince of Wales. However, until concrete historical evidence comes to light, the question of whether Mrs Fitzherbert had any natural children with the Prince Regent will remain unanswered. The two women mentioned in her will may well just have been children that she had been very attached to and felt motherly towards, and we perhaps may never know the truth about James Ord either.

So to the world, Mrs Fitzherbert, may have been nothing more than another famous royal mistress, but I think that she sincerely believed that she was the true wife of the Prince of Wales. And although Prinny left her to make a marriage of convenience with a foreign princess, and enjoyed several other mistresses during his lifetime, it does seem that Mrs Fitzherbert was the woman who held his heart and whom he loved until his dying day. After his death in 1830, it was discovered that the recently deceased monarch had kept all of the love letters and correspondence that had passed back and forth between him and his beloved Mrs Fitzherbert, but, unfortunately for us, these undoubtedly fascinating documents were then destroyed. The new king was William IV, a brother of George, who offered Mrs Fitzherbert a dukedom when he came to the throne, to compensate her for all of the trials and tribulations that she had suffered at the hands of his sibling. Maria Fitzherbert turned this honour down stating that ‘she had borne through life the name of Mrs Fitzherbert; that she had never disgraced it, and did not wish to change it’. This was a lady who had done what she did for love and not to gain money or fancy titles; she just wanted to live her life as the beloved wife of her prince.

Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain




Thursday, 8 December 2011

Paneb – An Ancient Egyptian Bad Boy?

Have you ever heard of Paneb, the notorious Ancient Egyptian bad boy? These days we hear horror stories on the news all too often about people who commit murder, violence, and theft and display general bad behaviour. But would it be any comfort to you to know that these stories are nothing new, and that even in a small worker’s village in Ancient Egypt there was one of these rascally characters living and, for a while at least, flourishing?

This ancient Egyptian villain of our story was a man called Paneb, and he was born in the workman’s village of Deir el-Medina around 1244 BC during the reign of the great Pharaoh Ramses II. Deir el-Medina was a unique community set in a hollow of the cliffs on the west bank of the Nile at ancient Thebes, peopled by the workmen who cut and decorated the magnificent tombs of the pharaohs in the Valley of the Kings and their families.

Our bad boy Paneb was one of these workman, and he would have worked long hours in the dark, hot, stuffy conditions of the pharaoh’s tomb.  Paneb had been raised in the home of his adopted father Neferhotep, who had also generously provided Paneb with his education. At Deir el-Medina, jobs were passed down from father to son, and Paneb succeeded to Neferhotep’s coveted position as one of the two foremen of the gangs of workmen in the Valley of the Kings. Paneb, however, was not the type of guy who would repay these kindnesses with the respect and consideration due to his adopted father.


Deir el-Medina - Own Image


However, before we go on any further with Paneb’s tale of debauchery and criminal behaviour, we have to ask how come we know so much about an ordinary ancient Egyptian workman? Well we know so much about Paneb’s dubious career because of a remarkable papyrus, the Papyrus Salt 124, which is now housed in the British Museum.

Papyrus Salt 124 was probably initially found at Deir el-Medina and it arrived in the British Museum from the collection of the early 19th century collector and Egyptologist, Henry Salt, who had obtained it in the Luxor area.  Putting an exact date on the papyrus is problematical, although a clue comes from a later recorded event where one of Paneb’s descendants in year 29 of the pharaoh Ramses III referred to Paneb’s trial taking place during the time of the Vizier Hori.

However, Hori fulfilled the office of Vizier from the reign of the pharaoh Siptah through to the reign of Ramses III, a period of many years.  The first translation of the papyrus was not released until 1870, when it was published by François Chabas with a short summary, and the first translation into English was in 1929 by Jaroslav Cerny. Papyrus Salt 124 is in the form of a letter to the Vizier of the day, Hori, and consists of  a list of accusations against Paneb all designed to let the Vizier know that Paneb was not fit to hold the post of foreman in the Valley of the Kings. The letter was written by a scribe called Amenakht, who, as he was Paneb’s adoptive father’s brother and believed that the post of foreman should have been his, was not what we might have called an uninterested and unbiased party.

It is fair to say that Amenakht did not hold back when it came to his accusations against Paneb, and the papyrus mentions murder, adultery, tomb robbing and general debauchery.  So whatever the truth is about these accusations, it is clear that he had managed to very badly rub Amenakht up the wrong way. Paneb was a married man and had produced at least ten children with his wife the Lady Wabet, but according to Amenakht’s accusations, this did not stop Paneb from committing adultery and even violating women of the village against their will.

One of the bitterest accusations in the papyrus is that Paneb had violated the Lady Yemyemwah against her will on top of a wall, which was very unwise of Paneb if it was true, as this lady was Amenakht’s sister. He also managed to fit in a very lengthy affair with a lady of the village called Hunro, who herself had gone through three different husbands in this time.  One of Paneb’s sons, who was called Aapakhte, was almost as disreputable as his father and even got involved in some of his exploits with the ladies.

Drunkenness and fighting were apparently a way of life for Paneb, and he reputedly managed one night to scrap with and injure nine successive men. Before his adoptive father Neferhotep was killed, Paneb had himself chased him and threatened to kill him. Neferhotep was murdered on the orders of a shadowy figure called ‘Msy’.  It is not really known who this ‘Msy’ was, but it could have been an ephemeral Pharaoh called Amenmesse or one of his agents.

By this time the area around the ancient city of Thebes was very unsettled, with the Pharaoh Seti II fighting for dominance in the region with Amenmesse, although evidence shows that Amenmesse did gain control over Thebes for several years during Seti II’s reign. Whether Paneb was involved in this incident is not known, but it was alleged that Paneb had bribed the Vizier Pra’emhab with a gift of five of Neferhotep’s servants in order to persuade him to give him Neferhotep’s job as foreman.

 Paneb also seemed to have had a very casual attitude towards other people’s time and property, even if the property belonged to pharaoh himself.  When he was promoted to foreman he was working on the tomb of Seti II, and one of the accusations in the papyrus was that he stole stone from the tomb and had the workmen use this stone to build pillars in his own tomb at Deir el-Medina.

He also allegedly took a chariot cover, a statue, and some fine oil, incense and wine that belonged to pharaoh. In the Valley of the Kings the tools used by the workers were very valuable, but that did not deter Paneb from taking them and even breaking one before he could return it. It seemed as though he used the workmen as his own personal workforce, as he made them build a plaited bed for him and also made their wives weave clothes for him.

Paneb was also accused of tomb robbing, which was regarded as a very serious crime because to disturb the eternal rest of a pharaoh was regarded as sacrilege. His rebellious act of sitting on the sarcophagus of Seti II, would have been seen as a hugely disrespectful act. Among the objects that he purloined from tombs supposedly included a mummified goose from the tomb of one of Ramses II’s daughters and a bed and other funerary articles from the tomb of a fellow worker called Nakhtmin.

No one is really sure what happened to Paneb in the end. Soon after these accusations were made against him, Paneb and his son Aapakhte disappear from the records of the workmen’s village of Deir el-Medina. Some experts believe that he was executed for his crimes, as there is an ostraca dating from year 5 of Ramses III which refers to the ‘killing of the chief’.

This chief could well have been Paneb, but as there is no name mentioned on the ostraca, it may not have been him. Also this would have meant that Paneb would have been around 67 when he was executed, which was a very great age for an ordinary Ancient Egyptian worker. Paneb is also known from his damaged tomb in the cliffs at Deir el-Medina and also from a carved offering table that would have once stood at the entrance of his tomb, so that his descendants could make their offerings to their deceased ancestor.





So do you think that Paneb was really as bad as he was portrayed by the obviously bitter and resentful Amenakht? Or was he just a bit of character, who liked a bit of drunken debauchery and petty crime, which made it easy to make all those accusations stick?  Unless some further evidence is unearthed from the sands of Egypt, we shall probably never really know, but Paneb’s story shows that despite the passage of the years and our advanced technology, we are not so different from those Ancient Egyptians, and that human nature never really changes.




Tuesday, 29 November 2011

How To Murder Your Tudor Royal Relatives – King Henry VIII


So how many of his own relatives do you think that King Henry VIII murdered?  Well of course he would probably argue that he had them legally executed and that after all he was the king? Most of us these days would be horrified at the idea of sending one of our nearest and dearest to the block, but even now the police will always have a good look at the relatives first if someone is found dead in suspicious circumstances.  Medieval monarchs were known for being fairly ruthless when it came to removing obstacles in their path, but it has to be said that when it came to permanently taking out his relations when they crossed him, Henry Tudor was in a class of his own.  So who were these unfortunate family members who met their ends on the scaffold on either Tower Green or Tower Hill?

Henry VIII was only the second king of a new dynasty; a dynasty that was founded on a very weak claim to the throne and by defeating the previous incumbent, Richard III, at the Battle of Bosworth.  His father Henry VII had been fairly restrained when it came to executing relations, but that could have partly been due to the fact that he had not been blessed with very many.  Henry VIII was determined to secure his new Tudor dynasty which meant eliminating any possible rivals for the throne as well as filling his own nursery with healthy Tudor sons to succeed him.  History was to prove, however, that he would be rather more successful with the former than with the latter.  His father Henry VII had married the Yorkist heiress Elizabeth of York to both strengthen his claim to the throne and to bring to an end the years of military conflict that was called the ‘War of the Roses’.  Elizabeth of York came from a much larger family than her husband and those that survived into Henry VIII’s reign arguably had a stronger claim to the throne than he did.

Henry VIII


The first family victim of Henry VIII proved to be Edmund de la Pole, Duke of Suffolk who was beheaded in 1513.  Edmund de la Pole was the son of Elizabeth of York, Duchess of Suffolk, a daughter of Richard Duke of York and also sister to King Edward IV.  His elder brother John de la Pole, Earl of Lincoln had been named as the heir to the throne by Richard III, but after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485 he pledged his allegiance to the new monarch Henry VII.  He soon rebelled, however, and joined the campaign to put Lambert Simnel on the throne in 1487 and was killed at the Battle of Stoke.  This left Edmund as the most serious Yorkist claimant to the English throne, and in 1491 Henry VII allowed him to succeed to the title of Duke of Suffolk, although he was later demoted back down to being an Earl.  In 1501 he decided to shake the dust of the English court off his shoes and escaped abroad to live at the court of the Holy Roman Emperor, Maximilian.



But fate was not kind to Edmund de la Pole, as Maximilian’s son Philip of Burgundy’s ship was blown off course and stranded him on English shores during his journey to lay claim to the throne of Castile and was captured by Henry VII.  As Philip of Burgundy really didn’t have time to hang around the English Court, he entered into a bit of horse brokering with Henry, and agreed to exchange Edmund de la Pole in return for his freedom, as long as there was an agreement that the Earl of Suffolk would not be physically harmed.  Edmund de la Pole was to be safe as long as Henry VII was alive, but as soon as Henry VIII took the throne his days were numbered.  Totally lacking his father’s scruples Henry had this potential threat to his security executed in 1513, his flimsy excuse being that he needed to ensure that nobody could take it into their heads to make the Earl of Suffolk a focus for rebellion while he was away campaigning in France.



The next royal relative to meet their end courtesy of the axe was Edward Stafford, 3rd Duke of Buckingham in 1521.  The Duke of Buckingham was a cousin of Henry VIII’s mother, as he was a son of Henry Stafford, Duke of Buckingham and Katherine Woodville, who was the sister of Henry’s maternal grandmother.  His father Henry Stafford had also been executed by Richard III, so you could say that this grisly fate ran in the family.  During the reign of Henry VII, Edward Stafford has his father’s lands and titles returned to him and took an active part in the life of the court.  He married Lady Eleanor Percy and they had four children together.  All was going swimmingly until 1510 when the Duke discovered that Henry VIII was having an affair with his sister, the Countess of Huntingdon. The Countess’s enraged husband packed her off to a convent, but it is thought that Henry carried on seeing her until 1513.  The royal cousins patched up their quarrel, but around 1520 Henry VIII launched an investigation against the Duke of Buckingham on suspicion of his having been involved in treasonous activities.  He was arrested and tried in 1521 on charges of plotting the King’s death and listening to prophecies that foretold the King’s death.  It would seem that Henry VIII had already decided on the outcome of the trial, as he personally questioned some of the witnesses. The Duke of Buckingham was executed on Tower Hill on May 17th 1521, and an Act of Attainder was brought against him in 1523.

In probably what was the most infamous act of his blood stained reign, Henry VIII had another cousin, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, executed in 1541.  Margaret Pole was the daughter of George, Duke of Clarence and Isobel Neville, and her brother Edward, Earl of Warwick had been executed in the wake of the Perkin Warbeck rebellion by King Henry VII.  She was married off to Sir Richard Pole, a relative of Henry VII’s mother Margaret Beaufort, and they had five children.  For much of her life she was very much in favour at the Tudor court, and was governess to the young Princess Mary.  She fell out of favour during the reign of Anne Boleyn as she remained fiercely loyal to her royal charge, but was reinstated after the fall and execution of the queen. One of Margaret’s sons, Reginald Pole was vehemently opposed to the King’s divorce and had written to Henry VIII from Italy clearly and with great scholarship outlining his objections to the divorce and the changes in the royal succession.  He was made a Cardinal by the Pope in 1536 and named as the papal legate to England.  Henry VIII took umbrage at what he perceived as Reginald Pole’s lack of support and arrested his brother Lord Montague and his mother, Margaret Poles on suspicion of treason.



Montague was executed on Tower Hill in 1538, but his mother was held in custody at a house belonging to the Earl of Southampton until early 1539, when she was taken and imprisoned in the Tower of London. She suffered greatly while in prison, as she was by this time an elderly lady of 67, and was not even given enough clothing to keep her warm, but it was generally thought that she would eventually be released.  However, in 1541, following a rebellion led by Sir John Neville in Yorkshire, Henry VIII decided to summarily execute the Countess. The legend is that she refused to lay her head on the block as she asserted that she was no traitor and had committed no crime, and so was pursued around the scaffold by the headsman who had to hack the poor old woman to death.  However, it is also said, and perhaps more likely, that the executioner was a novice who thoroughly botched the job, hacking at the Countess’s neck and shoulders before managing to sever her head. Whichever version is the correct one, it would be true to say that Margaret Pole did not have an easy passing from this life.

So, as you can see, Henry VIII was more than prepared to eliminate any perceived or real rival to his throne and power, and being a blood relative was not enough to save your skin.  Of course, Henry VIII’s most famous victims were two of his wives, Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard, but they probably deserve an article all too themselves!

Henry VIII image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain








Sunday, 27 November 2011

Cathar Heresy – Count Raymond VI of Toulouse


During the time of the Albigensian Crusade, the most powerful nobleman in the Languedoc was Count Raymond VI of Toulouse.  When we look at momentous events in history like the Albigensian Crusade, it is sometimes only too easy to lose sight of the fact these were real people that were involved. That it was the personalities and temperaments of these individuals that helped to shape the events that unfolded around them and in the case of someone as powerful as Count Raymond, even be pivotal in deciding what happened next.
So what did it mean to be the Count of Toulouse at the end of the 12th century? Raymond was born into the mighty Saint Gilles family in 1156, at a time when the Languedoc was a prosperous and cultured region in the south west of France. It was a patchwork of petty nobles and fiefdoms, with the Counts of Toulouse holding the largest swathe of territory.  His many titles included Marquis of Provence, Count of Melgueil, Duke of Narbonne and Count of Agen. 

The largest portion of Raymond VI’s lands he held as a vassal of the King of Aragon, but he also held lands in Provence from the Holy Roman Emperor, the King of England and the King of France. This inevitably led to conflicting loyalties and the need for a great skill in diplomacy when dealing all these different interests. At the end of the 12th century, the city of Toulouse was one of the largest in Europe, with only Venice and Rome being bigger.  It was a centre for the poetry of the troubadours, courtly love, commerce and was also very welcoming and tolerant of different cultures and religions.

So what type of person was this pre-eminent nobleman of the Languedoc? In contrast to some of the other nobles of the region, who liked nothing better than waging war, besieging castles and raiding monasteries, Raymond VI preferred using diplomacy to secure his estates and further the interests of his dynasty.  He was a cultured man and a poet, but he also enjoyed a reputation as a lecher. In this he seems to have been a chip off the old block, as he spent much of his early career stealing his father’s mistresses. His own mother, Constance, fled back to the court of her brother the King of France after Raymond’s father allegedly mistreated her and had her marriage annulled.

This was another pattern that Raymond would repeat, as he was also  to enjoy many marital adventures, marrying at least five times, and maybe even six.  His first wife was Ermessende, Countess of Melgueil, who died after only a few years of marriage in 1176. Raymond VI then married Beatrice of Béziers, a strategic match as she was a sister of Roger II Trencavel, another powerful Languedoc nobleman. They had one daughter Constance of Toulouse, who grew up to marry King Sancho VII of Navarre.  The couple divorced in 1189, with Beatrice apparently choosing to become a Cathar Perfect.

His next marriage to Bourgogne, a daughter of King Amalric II of Jerusalem, also ended in divorce in 1194. Then in 1197 he won the hand of Joan of England, who was a sister of Richard the Lionheart and the infamous King John. Joan was so impressed with her marriage she ran away from Raymond in 1199 to become a nun.  The poor lady died in childbirth shortly after, providing Raymond with his only male heir, the future Count Raymond VII of Toulouse (1197-1249). It is believed he then married a daughter of Isaac Comnenus of Cyprus, or at least had a relationship with her. The last of his wives was Leonor, a daughter of King Alfonso II of Aragon and Sancha of Castile. It would seem that being an ideal husband was not one of Raymond’s strengths.



It would seem that in the early days Raymond VI of Toulouse enjoyed a near perfect life as a medieval nobleman; he was wealthy, powerful and knew how to enjoy himself. However, there were clouds gathering on the horizon, and his nemesis would prove to be none other than the Catholic Church.  Unfortunately the Vatican would come to regard Raymond VI to be almost as big a menace as the Cathar heretics he refused to persecute.  For Raymond VI was to find himself truly stuck between the proverbial rock and a hard place and was destined to turn excommunication into an unfortunate career choice.

For in the lands of Count Raymond of Toulouse, there flourished a heresy that was anathema to the Church of Rome. This heresy was Catharism, a form of Christianity that believed the world and our material life was inherently evil and the god they worshipped was a purely spiritual being that only dwelt in the heavenly realms. As the Catholic Church was an earthly institution, the Cathars regarded it with the same suspicion they held any other material entity. Although outwardly a good Catholic, Raymond was very supportive of the Cathar cause.  Many of his own family and friends were Cathars, as were many of his retinue and vassals.  He also appointed Jews to official positions in his administration, in direct contrast to the lot of Jewish population in most of the rest of Christian Europe.

When Innocent III became pope in 1198, one of his first acts was to pardon Raymond VII, who had been excommunicated for his somewhat irregular dealings with the Saint Gilles monastery. However, Innocent III was expecting substantial rewards for this act of clemency, and that reward was for Raymond VI to start showing some real zeal for ridding his lands of the stains of Cathar heresy and also to rein in his noble’s enthusiasm for appropriating Church property and murdering priests.

The local churchmen, however, were themselves a problem and Raymond VI was a great friend of one its most degenerate members, Raymond of Rabastens, the bishop of Toulouse. This enterprising clergyman had managed to bankrupt his diocese by paying mercenary troops to wage war against his own flock, which did nothing to endear him to his superior in Rome and did nothing to boost Raymond’s reputation either.

Events began coming to a head in 1207. The petty nobility of the Languedoc, who were vassals of Raymond, were busy fighting amongst themselves and employing mercenaries to do so. They were also in conflict with their liege lord, Raymond.  A papal legate, one Peter of Castelnau, travelled among these nobles exhorting them to drop their private wars and turn their energies towards persecuting the Cathars instead.  They agreed to this demand, but Raymond refused. He had no stomach for persecuting his own people and moreover, needed the paid mercenaries to achieve his territorial ambitions.

His punishment was to be excommunicated once again, which office the papal legate Peter of Castelnau performed in front of a large crowd, publicly humiliating Raymond. Unfortunately, being excommunicated meant that, in theory, Raymond VI was now once more beyond the pale and that his nobles and followers were no longer under any obligation to their liege lord.  To get out of this bind, Raymond made the promise he would rid his lands of both Cathar heretics and mercenaries, which led to him being restored to favour in August 1207.

However, it soon became apparent to the Pope that Raymond had no intention of fulfilling either promise and a list of his offences against the Church was drawn up. This extensive list of misdeeds included stealing Church property, being a Cathar sympathiser, allowing Jews to hold public office and not showing senior clergymen their due respect. He was once more excommunicated, so he invited the papal legate Peter of Castelnau to spend some time at his estates in Saint Gilles so he could renegotiate his position.

These negotiations, predictably, did not go well and culminated in Raymond threatening his papal guest in front of witnesses. Peter de Castelnau left in high dudgeon, but unfortunately for Raymond, disaster struck when he was murdered on the road by an unknown assailant. The identity of the murderer was never discovered, but it more than suited the Church to make Raymond VI responsible for this crime, although he was never tried for it. 

The murder was the spark Pope Innocent III needed to spur the monarchs and nobility of northern Europe into action.  In 1209 a Crusade was amassed to march south on the Languedoc and, although Raymond VI protested his innocence, he had to voluntarily subject himself to a public whipping in the square at St Gilles in order to have his excommunication revoked. He was also ordered to get on with eliminating the Cathars, purge his retinue of Jews, renounce any of his rights to the monasteries on his land, and make an apology to any clergymen that he had upset.

In order to protect his estates, Raymond VI reluctantly gathered together a fighting force and joined the Crusade; his logic being that if he was with the advancing army they would give his lands a wide berth. To say this move did not go down well with the other large landowners of the Languedoc, such as the Trencavels, was an understatement as it meant the Crusade would inevitably concentrate their efforts on their lands instead.

The towns of the Languedoc were besieged and fell one by one. First Béziers was sacked and the inhabitants were massacred and then Carcassonne was taken by trickery.  At the end of the campaigning season the ruthless northern baron, Simon de Montfort was named the new Viscount of Béziers and Carcassonne.  Raymond VI returned to Toulouse, where he still refused to persecute the heretics and also gave sanctuary to Cathars fleeing from the lands of Simon de Montfort, who was zealous in upholding his Catholic duty when it came to matters like heresy. Rather predictably, this led to Raymond once more being excommunicated in 1209. To make matters even worse, the civic government of Toulouse was also excommunicated and the city placed under interdict, so no religious sacraments could be carried out.

Raymond and his advisors travelled to Rome to plead their case directly with Pope Innocent III, who partially restored Raymond back to ecclesiastical favour and ordered a tribunal to be set up to investigate. The tribunal had been ordered by the pope so that Raymond VI would have a chance to exonerate himself, but the papal legate Arnold Amaury had no intentions of letting Raymond off the hook lightly or with any dignity. He spoke first at the tribunal, and put forward a defence that Raymond should not be allowed to speak, as he had been proven to be a liar and a perjurer. Raymond was not given the chance to defend himself and was punished by having his excommunication indefinitely extended. 

To support Raymond VI, who was his vassal, King Pedro II of Aragon totally bypassed the rightful Trencavel heir and recognised Simon de Montfort as his vassal in his place. The implicit deal was that by making this conciliatory gesture, the papal legates should return the favour by restoring Raymond to his lands and the full favour of the Catholic Church.  However, Arnold Amaury the papal legate, was not prepared to play the game and handed Raymond VI a document containing terms that left him and King Pedro literally stunned.

The legate demanded that all of Raymond’s property and possessions were forfeit to the Crusaders, that Raymond was to demolish all of his castles and strongholds, that Raymond and his subjects could only partake of one meal containing meat a week and that they all had to dress in rough, brown robes. And the real sting in the tail was that Raymond was to take himself off to Palestine and remain there until the Church allowed him to return.  Not surprisingly these terms were not acceptable to Raymond VI and he rode back to his estates, never to join the Crusade again.  Equally not surprising was the fact that Raymond was excommunicated again.

Seal of Raymond VI of Toulouse


During the campaigning seasons of 1211 and 1212, Simon de Montfort and his force of Crusaders rampaged through the lands around Toulouse burning, destroying and massacring. Eventually in 1215 Simon de Montfort besieged the city of Toulouse itself, which led to Raymond VI having to accept the insulting conditions laid out by the papal legates.  He had his lands taken off him and he had to flee to the sanctuary of the court of his former brother-in-law, King John of England. However, such was the depth of papal spite against the beleaguered Count of Toulouse that the Pope threatened King John with excommunication if he continued to harbour him, so Raymond was soon sent packing from the English court.

Raymond decided to once more plead his case directly to Pope Innocent III and went to Rome to attend the Fourth Lateran Council accompanied by Raymond Roger of Foix. The Pope initially was sympathetic to Raymond’s pleas and he started to believe there might be a positive outcome. But the usual behind scenes politics took place and the outcome was that Raymond was forced to hand over his lands and possessions to Simon de Montfort. The only consolation he was given was that he retained the titles of Marquis of Provence and Beaucaire for his son and heir.

Once more an exile, Raymond VI sought sanctuary at the court of Aragon where he amassed an army and retook his city of Toulouse in 1217. Simon de Montfort and the Crusaders besieged the city in 1218 in an attempt to gain it back, but the mighty warrior that was Simon de Montfort was killed in June of that year. A major thorn in Raymond’s side was now gone and de Montfort’s son Amaury was not the fighting machine his father had been. 

So by the time of Raymond’s death in 1222, he managed to retake most of his lands.  However, because his last excommunication had never been lifted, he had had to abdicate in favour of his son before his death or his estates would have been forfeited.  The final indignity of Raymond VI’s life was that because of his excommunication at the time of his death he was denied a Catholic burial – a truly Christian act!

‘May you live in interesting times’ is a Chinese curse, and Count Raymond VI of Toulouse certainly enjoyed some very interesting times in his life. As the Catholic Church saw it, he had brought it all on himself because he refused to light the bonfires for the Cather heretics to roast on across his domains.  But although Raymond VI had to duck and dive at times and make promises he had no intentions of keeping, surely this was more honourable than persecuting his own family, friends and vassals for their religious beliefs?

Raymond VI may have been a lecher, paid mercenaries to do his dirty work and was happy to help himself to Church property, but he was also a tolerant man who refused to bow to any pressure to persecute heretics, even if this put him beyond the favour of the established Catholic Church for eternity.

Image Raymond VI of Toulouse Wikimedia Commons Public Domain









Sunday, 16 October 2011

The Gunning Sisters – A Georgian Cinderella Story


When you were younger did you ever dream that one day you would meet a prince, be swept off your feet, and then get married and live happily ever after?  Well, then you may not be too surprised to learn that during the Georgian period two beautiful sisters from fairly humble origins took London Society by storm and then married into some of the most aristocratic families in the land. These two beauties were Maria and Elizabeth Gunning, and their wit, liveliness and good looks captured the public interest and their fame led to them being mobbed when they promenaded in the park and spectators standing on chairs when they were presented at Court.

So how did two unknown girls, lacking in fortune and connections, ever reach these dizzy heights?  The sisters were born around 1733 in Hemingford Grey in Huntingdonshire, the daughters of an Irishman called John Gunning and his wife the Honourable Bridget Bourke.  They were raised in genteel poverty and in 1740 or early 1741 the family returned to Ireland where they rented a house in Dublin and also resided in the ancestral home of Castlecoote House, County Roscommon. As soon as they were old enough it seemed that the Gunning sisters started working in the theatres of Dublin to boost the family income, which was very unusual for daughters of the gentry during the Georgian period, as it was widely assumed that most actresses were also courtesans.

However, in 1748 they were still regarded as respectable enough to be invited to a ball hosted at Dublin Castle by Viscountess Petersham.  It is said that at this point the Gunning sisters were so impecunious that they could not even afford to buy suitable ball gowns for the occasion, and that they were rescued by a theatre manager called Tom Sheridan who lent them a Lady Macbeth and a Juliet costume to wear to the dance. At some point during the ball they were presented the Earl of Harrington, who was the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and they made such a good impression on this noble personage that in 1750 he granted their mother a generous pension.

On receipt of her pension their mother immediately swept the Gunning sisters back to England and their house in Huntingdon, where they entered local Society.  The two beautiful girls were an instant hit at nearby Assemblies and balls, and soon their fame had even spread as far as London. They soon moved to the capital, where their celebrity continued to grow, taking Polite Society by storm.  They were even accorded the honour of being presented at Court in December, 1750, an event which was even chronicled in the newspapers of the day.

The Gunning sisters were much courted and admired, and in January 1752 Elizabeth Gunning was introduced to the Duke of Hamilton.  This fateful meeting led to a whirlwind courtship and at a St Valentine’s Day party in Bedford House the Duke threw caution to the wind and demanded that a local parson marry them then and there.  The parson refused as the Duke of Hamilton had not procured a licence and the banns had not been called.  Undeterred by this setback, the Duke took his bride-to-be to the Mayfair Chapel, where they were married without a licence and with a ring taken from a bed curtain.  These ceremonies were known as ‘clandestine marriages’ and although regarded as somewhat improper were legally binding and valid.

As Duchess of Hamilton, Elizabeth Gunning bore three children, but unfortunately the Duke passed away in 1758.  She had not lost her allure, however, and attracted the attention of the Duke of Bridgewater, and entered into an engagement with this illustrious gentleman.  However, for reasons that are not known, the engagement was terminated, and in 1759 she married John Campbell, Marquess of Lorne.  In 1770 Elizabeth Gunning became the Duchess of Argyll when her husband succeeded to the dukedom, and she went on to have a further five children.  She was a great favourite with the royal family, and between 1761 and 1784 she served as a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte and King George III created her the Baroness Hamilton of Hameldon in her own right. The impoverished Irish beauty had become one of the greatest ladies in the land and she was also the darling of some of the period’s finest artists, being painted by both Gavin Hamilton and Sir Joshua Reynolds.  She lived to the age of 57 and passed away on 20th December 1790 in her London home, Argyll House and was laid to rest at Kilmun in Argyllshire.

Elizabeth Gunning


In contrast, her sister, Maria Gunning, lived a much shorter and arguably less respectable life.  As beautiful as her sister, Maria Gunning was also well known for being incredibly tactless.  In London Society this tactlessness just added to her popularity, and she even told King George II that the spectacle that she would most like to witness was a royal funeral.  Fortunately George II found this comment amusing, and Maria went on to marry the 6th Earl of Coventry in March 1752.  The noble couple took themselves off on a tour of the Continent for their honeymoon, taking along Lady Petersham in their train.  The two women did not seem to overly enjoy this trip, and the new Countess of Coventry took a special dislike to the romantic and sophisticated city of Paris.  This might have been because her husband was beginning to show his controlling tendencies, and was refusing to allow her to wear the excessive rouge on her face that was so fashionable in Paris at that time.  As the story goes, the Earl even went as far as wiping her face with his handkerchief when she appeared at dinner with an overly made up face.

When they returned to London, Maria Gunning’s popularity had not waned, and she even had to have her own guard to keep her from being mobbed in the park that was headed by the Earl of Pembroke.  She was not immune from scandal however, as her husband became involved with the notorious courtesan Kitty Fisher, and the two women even clashed over the Earl in public. She was probably no angel either, as it was rumoured that she had an inappropriate romantic liaison with the Duke of Grafton.

But the Countess of Coventry was not to enjoy a long life.  Despite her husband’s protestations, she continued to wear the heavy face make-up that was so fashionable at the end of the eighteenth century.  Unfortunately these cosmetics contained lead and arsenic, which are both highly toxic.  These toxic ingredients would have caused the skin to become highly irritated and break out and would probably have prompted Maria Gunning to have plastered on even more of the make up to cover these skin imperfections.  Continued overuse of the toxic cosmetics eventually caused lead poisoning, which in this case proved fatal, and Maria died on 30th September 1760 at the tragically young age of 27.


So, it was possible for two unknown and impoverished Irish beauties to capture the hearts of fashionable society and marry rich, powerful men. For one of the Gunning sisters it was unfortunately not a case of happy ever after, but is shows that the rest of us can still dream on. One day our prince just might arrive on his white charger!













Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The Extraordinary Murder of Stanford White


Imagine that you are part of High Society in New York at the turn of the 20th century.  You are relaxing with your friends, the drinks are flowing and you are all enjoying the premiere of a new musical show called ‘Mam’zelle Champagne’ being staged at the fashionable Madison Square Roof Garden when all of a sudden a smartly dressed man in an unseasonably heavy overcoat walks up to a table and shoots another man in the face three times at point blank range.  At first you and your friends laugh as you think that it is just another of the famous practical jokes that are so in vogue at that time, but then people start screaming and you see the blood – you have just witnessed the extraordinary murder of Stanford White.

So what led to this cold-blooded killing in a social venue thronged with potential witnesses?  As with so many acts of violence it was born out of one unbalanced man’s rage and jealousy, as he failed to come to terms with the fact that the woman he wanted had, initially, been with someone else.  This man was a millionaire called Harry Kendall Thaw, who had been born in 1871, the son of Pittsburgh coal and railroad baron William Thaw.  Harry Thaw, according to his own mother, had been trouble since the day he was born and even all of his father’s immense fortune and social clout could prevent him from being expelled from several elite private schools.

He went to the University of Pittsburgh to do a law degree, and used his father’s money and contacts to get a transfer to Harvard.  He spent much of his time in College drinking, taking drugs, gambling and chasing women.  He was eventually sent down after an incident where he pursued a cab driver through the streets of Cambridge with a shotgun, although Thaw claimed it was not loaded at the time.

He moved on to mingle with the rich and famous of New York society, where he carried on his dissolute ways and spent much of his time watching Broadway shows and trying to ingratiate himself with the chorus girls.  It was here in New York that he became aware of a much older man called Stanford White who was a great socialite, very sophisticated and very popular with the ladies. Stanford White’s popularity and prowess with the fairer sex drove Thaw to a frenzy of jealousy and paranoia. This was allegedly triggered by an incident when Thaw was desperately trying to impress a trio of chorus girls without success and White, who just happened to be present, made some denigrating remarks about Thaw to the girls. When all of the chorus girls turned Thaw down, he became convinced that it was the fault of Stanford White and from that day on his jealous obsession was born.

Evelyn Nesbit


So who was Stanford White?  He was an older, sophisticated man about town in his late forties.  He was born in 1853 and was a well known architect in New York who designed palatial homes for the wealthy and grand public buildings. Ironically he had been the architect who drew up the plans for the Madison Square Roof Garden where he would be murdered fifteen years later.  Despite his age, White was a great success with women and was rumoured to have several apartments where he would entertain chorus girls and actresses. One of these apartments on West Twenty Fourth Street was especially notorious, as it was where Stanford White had installed a red velvet swing, so that he could enjoy watching scantily clad young girls disporting themselves.

In 1901 Stanford White stated paying court to one very beautiful and very young chorus girl – she was sixteen and he was forty seven – called Evelyn Nesbit.  Evelyn Nesbit had been born in Pittsburgh in 1884, but her father died young leaving his widow to struggle to bring up their two children.  As Evelyn was a very beautiful girl, she started working as an artist’s model at a very young age.  Her mother moved the family to New York and Evelyn started modelling for some very famous artists and was also one of the first popular photographic models, and was a favourite model of Charles Dana Gibson.  She also started working in the shows and when she was sixteen was dancing as a gypsy in the chorus of Florodora. This is where Harry Thaw spotted her and, mainly because he knew that she was connected romantically to Stanford White, became infatuated with her.  He was determined to lure her away from White and pursued her ardently.

Stanford White tried to warn Evelyn about Harry Thaw and for a while she stayed out of his way, but then she was sent to hospital with suspected appendicitis and Thaw started to visit her, showering her with gifts and bouquets of flowers.  White arranged for Evelyn to convalesce in a sanatorium in upstate New York and for a time both men visited her there, but White lost interest, leaving the field open for Harry Thaw. He whisked both her and her mother away to Paris on her release and lavished money and designer clothes on her.  Certain of success he proposed to Evelyn.  She refused him, but he wouldn’t give up and eventually she admitted that she didn’t feel she could become his wife as Stanford White had taken her virginity, after drugging her with champagne. Eventually he persuaded her mother to return to New York and took Evelyn to a castle in a remote region of Germany where he repeatedly beat her and forced himself on her to try and get her to accept his offer of marriage.

Despite this bad treatment, Evelyn did not part from Thaw and eventually she persuaded him to let her return to New York.  For several years Thaw continued his pursuit of Evelyn’s hand, but it wasn’t until Thaw’s mother turned up on her doorstep begging Evelyn to marry her son and get him to settle down a bit that she gave in and went to Pittsburgh to marry him. Fairly predictably, once Evelyn Nesbit was his, Thaw lost interest in her and continued his drinking, womanising and drug taking ways.  He would regularly take long trips abroad on his own and would disappear for days on end.

Fatefully, in the spring of 1906 the couple decided to take a trip together to New York and then on to Europe.  While they were out socialising in New York, Thaw encountered Stanford White in the Cafe Martin and found out that they would all be attending the premiere of the new show ‘Mam’zelle Champagne’ that evening.  Thaw immediately hustled his wife back to their hotel, and disappeared, returning only in time to escort Evelyn to the show.  Although it was a hot summer night, he also insisted on wearing a heavy, black overcoat, and would not hand it over to the hat check girl however many times she asked him for it.  He was seen acting suspiciously during the show, often seeming to approach Stanford White’s table and then backing away, and it wasn’t until the final provocative number ‘I Could Love a Million Girls’ that he did march up to Stanford White and shoot him in the face, killing him instantly. Thaw then coolly walked through the crowd and out of the room, meeting Evelyn who was waiting for him by the elevator and informing her that he had probably just saved her life.

The ensuing trial of Harry Thaw in 1907 became a media sensation and became known as the ‘Trial of the Century’. Harry Thaw had pled insanity and the jury was deadlocked over their verdict.  Evelyn Nesbit had refused to testify at this trial, but as the retrial was being prepared for Thaw’s mother asked her to testify and say that son had only being trying to protect her from Stanford White’s unwanted advances.  If she agreed Harry Thaw would give her a divorce and $1 million.  Evelyn testified, and though she got her divorce, she never saw the money.  Harry Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was placed in Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. He was not restrained there in any way and in 1913 he just decided to leave and crossed the border into Canada.  He was extradited back to the United States, where a court deemed him to be sane and he was released in 1915.

Harry Thaw would go on to live until the age of 76, although he had to undergo another period of incarceration for insanity as he attempted to slit his own throat after being accused of sexually assaulting and horsewhipping a young student called Fred Gump Jr whom he had brought to New York. Evelyn Nesbit’s career after the trial did not mirror her earlier success, and she also made several suicide attempts as she had become an alcoholic and dependent on morphine.  She, however, overcame these addictions and during her life she wrote two memoirs and lived to the grand old age of 82.







Monday, 5 September 2011

Mystery People of History – Arthur Duke of Brittany


Poor old Arthur of Brittany! They say that you can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family, and for this royal prince, born into a brood of constantly fighting and cantankerous Plantagenets, this was a very apt saying.  There have been many mystery people of history and in medieval times even a royal prince could disappear without trace. Probably the most famous princes to mysteriously vanish off the face of the Earth were the Princes in the Tower, supposedly murdered by their much vilified uncle, King Richard III. But Richard III was not the only Plantagenet monarch who was thought to have murdered a nephew.  King John enjoys a very bad reputation in English history; he tried to steal his brother’s crown while he was away fighting in the Third Crusade, when he became king riled up his barons so that they rebelled against him leading to the signing of Magna Carta and at the end of his long and not very illustrious career he has thought to have lost the crown jewels while he was crossing the Wash in bad weather. But what is not so well known, is that he is also thought to have been responsible for the death of his nephew, Arthur of Brittany.

Arthur of Brittany & Philip II of France


King Henry II, his queen, Eleanor of Aquitaine and their sons were famous for their quarrelling and for fighting among themselves for territory and prestige.  This was a time when primogeniture was not yet firmly established and the King could name his heir, which tended to set brother against brother and cause long-festering family feuds.  Arthur was the only son of Geoffrey, Duke of Brittany and his wife Constance.  The couple already had an elder daughter Eleanor, known as the Fair Maid of Brittany, but Arthur was a posthumous child, born in Nantes in 1187 after his father was killed during a tournament in 1186. Although a claimant to the throne of England, Arthur was French through and through, and never once visited the British Isles during his short life and could not speak English.  The Plantagenets wanted this royal infant to be named Henry after his grandfather, King Henry II of England, but his mother Constance chose the name Arthur, in honour of the mythical king who was so revered by her Breton subjects. Arthur was to be much influenced by his mother and it was probably from her that he gained his leanings towards France and the French crown

When the old King Henry II died in 1189, he was succeeded by his son Richard I, known as the ‘Lionheart’. Richard I decided that it was a good idea to patch up his ongoing feud with his younger brother John, in order to try and maintain peace in his realms.  In those days the Angevin Empire encompassed huge swathes of France as well as the kingdom of England, and Richard I was really not much interested in his English fiefdom, preferring to spend his time rampaging around France.  However, early on in his reign he decided to take up the Cross and join the Third Crusade. At this time Richard the Lionheart was unmarried and childless, so named the infant Arthur as his heir, just in case he came a cropper at the hands of the Saracens.  As part of the deal, he also arranged the betrothal of Arthur to a daughter of Tancred of Sicily, although this alliance was broken when the Holy Roman Emperor Henry VI conquered Sicily in 1194. He also made his brother Prince John swear an oath that he would not set foot in England while he was away.  Was this a red rag to a bull or what?  With his nose well and truly put out by Richard’s naming of Arthur as his heir, John duly proceeded to land in England and tried to get the English crown onto his own head.   Over in Brittany, Constance was also taking advantage of Richard I’s absence, and to try and wrest more autonomy for Brittany had Arthur hailed Duke of Brittany in 1194 at the tender age of 7. Unfortunately for Prince John, after a series of adventures, his brother Richard returned in 1194 and very firmly reclaimed his crown.


Once again in 1196, Richard I named Arthur as his heir, and to cement this relationship he summoned both Arthur and his mother to where he was currently residing in Normandy.  However, unfortunately Constance was abducted on the road by her estranged husband, one Ranulf de Blondeville, Earl of Chester.  This English aristocrat had been married off to Constance at the age of 17, as King Richard did not trust where her loyalties lay and wanted to ensure her continued obedience by wedding her to one of his more trusted barons. However, the marriage had not been a success and the couple were living separate lives. The abduction infuriated Richard I, who then led his army to Brittany to secure possession of Arthur, but the young Duke was whisked away in secret by his tutor to the French court where he was brought up alongside Prince Louis of France. In 1199 Constance managed to escape from her unwanted spouse and their marriage was dissolved on the grounds of desertion.

Richard the Lionheart died on April 6, 1199 during the siege of the castle of Chaluz-Chabrol.  He had been walking around the castle perimeter without his chainmail when he took a hit in his left shoulder from a crossbow.  He first tried to pull the missile out himself, and then had it removed by a bungling surgeon.  Richard developed gangrene in his wound, which proved fatal, and before he died he named his younger brother John as his heir.  Richard feared that as Arthur of Brittany was only 12 years old at this time that he was too young to be a decisive leader and, moreover, was far too much under the influence of the French Court. John was actually staying with Constance and Arthur in Brittany, when the news of his brother’s death and his elevation to the throne of England was brought to him.  He immediately made haste to secure the royal treasury that was housed in the castle at Chinon, while the intrepid Constance raised an army and took the town of Angers.

John’s claim to the English throne was supported by his indomitable mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine and William Marshall, a powerful English Baron.   However, the French nobility were resentful of the new King John, and favoured Arthur’s claim to the throne, especially as Arthur had declared himself as a vassal of the King of France, Philip II. The French King recognised Arthur of Brittany’s rights to the territories of Anjou, Maine and Poitou and headed up an army, which he took to Anjou and Maine to reinforce Arthur’s claim.  From April 18 of that year, Arthur styled himself Duke of Brittany, Count of Anjou and Earl of Richmond. Unfortunately, the young Prince’s staunchest supporter, his mother Constance, died in 1201, leaving him bereft of support.  Constance had remarried after her early union had been dissolved, to one Guy de Thouars, bearing him twin daughters, and she may well have died while giving birth again.

Philip II of France’s championing of Arthur of Brittany was due to the fact that he was always keen to exploit any family rifts among the Plantagenets for his own ends in order to extend the territory and influence of the French crown.  However, this stirring led to King John invading France in 1202, which forced Philip to recognise John as his late brother’s legitimate heir to the English throne at the Treaty of Le Goulet. The French King abandoned his support of the young Prince Arthur and forced him to acknowledge his uncle as his new overlord.  Arthur was mortified by this turn of events and fled to the sanctuary of his uncle’s Court where he was warmly welcomed, but soon became wary of King John’s real objectives, and swiftly returned to Angers.  King John’s marriage to Isabella d’Angoulême once again stirred up the resentment of the French nobility against him, as this lady had previously been betrothed to a French baron called Hugh de Lusignan.  Hugh de Lusignan rounded up his supporters and rebelled against King John, appealing to the French King for aid.  Philip II firmly requested that King John appear at his Court to explain his actions, and when John was a no show, Philip declared all of the English monarch’s land in France forfeit, and awarded Normandy and Anjou to young Arthur of Brittany.

Despite his youth, Arthur was shaping up to be just as warlike and belligerent as the rest of his Plantagenet forbears, and besieged his own grandmother, Eleanor of Aquitaine, where she was holed up in Mirebeau Castle. Queen Eleanor managed to get a message to John, who managed, in a huge feat of endurance and determination, to march his army the eighty miles between Le Mans and Mirebeau in just two days.  Arthur was captured by john’s forces and imprisoned in the fortress at Falaise in Normandy, under the watchful eye of Hugh de Burgh.  His sister Eleanor was also captured and sent to England to be imprisoned in Corfe Castle.  The following year Arthur was transferred to Rouen and put in the charge of William de Braose, and in April 1203 he mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again.

Now to our modern minds it may seem utterly incomprehensible that a royal prince, the ruler of large territories in northern France, could just vanish without trace, but you have to remember that we are talking about a time where there was no mass media, no CCTV cameras and no photographs.  Very few of the ordinary people in Rouen would ever have seen Arthur of Brittany in the flesh, so would not recognise him without his royal regalia and retinue.  This was also a period where there was little portraiture, so many would not have even seen a likeness of the prince. Inevitably stories about Arthur’s disappearance soon started to circulate, and unfortunately to King John, most of them put him firmly in the frame.  Hugh de Burgh supposedly made a claim that he knew the details of Arthur’s demise, and that the young prince had been blinded and castrated by John’s henchmen, and had died of shock.

Another account offered in the Margam Annals, penned by an unknown Welsh monk, stated that one night King John got very drunk.  Arthur, being at the time a stroppy adolescent, rubbed his uncle up the wrong way by being rude and defiant, which caused John to kill him.  To get rid of his body, John weighted it down with stones and dumped it in the River Seine. The body then became caught in the hooks of local fisherman, who hauled it onto the shore.  They recognised the corpse as being that of Arthur of Brittany, and fearing reprisals from King John if he got to know about their discovery, took the body for secret burial at the priory of Notre Dame de Pres at Bec. Arthur’s jailer at the time of his disappearance, William de Braose, suddenly rose very high in John’s favour, being showered with lands and titles in the Welsh Marches, which led people to think that he had been complicit in Arthur’s demise.

It was unfortunate for William de Braose that many years later, after arguing and being in conflict with King John, William’s wife Maude de Braose openly accused John of being responsible for the murder of his nephew. As at the time of these accusations William de Braose also owed King John a large sum of money, the English monarch demanded that they hand over their son William as a hostage to enforce their continued loyalty and ensure that they kept their mouths shut.  Maude had apparently made audible comments in the presence of the King’s officers that ‘she would not deliver her children to a king who had murdered his own nephew’. This naturally outraged the hot-tempered King John, so he seized their lands in the Welsh Marches, which caused them to flee to Ireland, where Maude and her eldest son were eventually captured trying to escape to Scotland. They were sent back to England and imprisoned in Windsor Castle, and then sent on to Corfe Castle, where they are believed to have been starved to death.  William de Braose managed to escape to France, where he is thought to have written an account of the true fate of young Arthur of Brittany, but no traces of it remains.

William Shakespeare incorporates the tragedy of Arthur of Brittany into his play King John, where the young prince is portrayed as an inexperienced youth, who has no responsibility for the fate that befalls him.  Shakespeare kills off Arthur by having him jump from the walls of the castle where he was imprisoned, while fleeing from the tyranny of his wicked uncle.  But then, wicked uncles slaying their blameless nephews was a favourite historical theme used by Shakespeare in his plays. I feel that it is unlikely that King John himself would have dirtied his hands by personally killing his nephew, but it is more than likely that it was he who ordered the boy’s death.  If Arthur had remained alive, he would have been a continual thorn in John’s side, and as the boy got older he could have made a strong alliance through marriage and built up a dynasty that would have been a constant threat to John’s power and prestige in northern France.  Arthur’s sister Eleanor of Brittany fared no better in life, as King John and then his successor and son Henry III kept her captive in England until her death at the age of 57.  The French barons were inclined to believe in John’s guilt, and used it as another reason to unite against him, eventually taking Richard the Lionheart’s mighty Chateau Gaillard and pushing John and his army back across the Channel to England. The dukedom of Brittany, which should have gone to Eleanor, was passed on to Arthur’s half-sister Alix de Thouars, who was married Peter de Dreux, creating a new Breton dynasty of rulers.

So will we ever really know what happened to poor Arthur of Brittany? Probably not, unless some amazing new discovery is made.  But written evidence from that period is scanty, and it is unlikely that new documents regarding Arthur’s fate will be uncovered now. It is possible that Arthur died of natural causes or was whisked away into hiding somewhere, but then why was his body not given the funeral due to a prince of the blood, and surely if he had gotten away at least some rumours of his whereabouts would have circulated?  So do you think that it was a case of a wicked uncle slaying his innocent nephew, or do you think that Arthur’s fate was due to other causes?


Image Wikimedia Commons Public Domain