Category Archives: English Civil War

Children at war- ‘And when did you last see your father?’

Many of you will recognise this painting; it is called ‘And When Did You Last See Your Father?’ and was painted by William Frederick Yeames in 1878 (oil on canvas). It is a painting which I have always found fascinating as there is so much going on. With the deftly painted depictions of people and emotions you can’t help but be drawn into the story, in fact I have seen this work of art used by school teachers as an introduction to the topic of the English Civil War. So, what exactly is going on here, and how does it fit into this period of our history?

The scene depicts events in a Royalist household when a young boy is questioned about when his father was last at home. The house has obviously been captured by Parliamentary forces as can be seen by the central figure lounging in a chair – he wears the military clothing of a Roundhead cavalry officer, including long riding boots and orange sash.

The young boy and the females are all dressed in Royalist style; the young girl who is crying appears to be next in line for interrogation whilst the mother, and possibly elder daughter, watch.  The man with his arm around the shoulders of the young girl is carrying a halberd which identifies him as a sergeant; it is likely that his role was to arrest the family and bring them before the Parliamentarian questioners. Amongst the other characters in the painting are a clerk who is making notes and bringing the air of a courtroom to the proceedings, and two Puritans (wearing the tall black hats and white collars) who appear stern and obviously pleased to have another dangerous Royalist within their grasp.

Most people believe that this is a fictional scene although John Adair, who wrote ‘By the Sword Divided’, says that it depicts what happened to the family of Bulstrode Whitelocke whose house at Fawley Court near Henley was ransacked by both Royalist and Parliamentary forces during the war. I suppose we will never know whether this painting is a depiction of a real event or pure fiction, but for me at least that doesn’t really matter. What is important is the quite accurate glimpse which it gives into a conflict which tore England apart in the seventeenth century, dividing people on grounds of politics and religion. It is interesting to note that although the painting depicts a frightening time for the Royalist family it is not overly aggressive. One can almost imagine the sergeant has placed a hand on the young girl’s shoulder to comfort her, and the lead questioner appears to be leaning sympathetically towards the little boy. But that does not take away from the seriousness of the situation, or the conflict which the child faces. A young boy in his position would have had the ideal of honesty instilled into him from an early age, and he would know that he should not tell a lie. Yet, on the other hand, to tell the truth might put his father’s life in danger. What should a small boy do? How would he respond to such pressure?

My admiration for this beautiful piece of art, and the way it fired my imagination as to ‘what happened next’, led to my writing a particular scene in The Cavalier Historian where the young hero of the novel is questioned about his father’s whereabouts as things begin to look increasingly bleak for the followers of the King…

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Civil War in England – the raising of the King’s Standard

375 years ago saw the start of the last civil war to be fought on British soil when King Charles I raised his royal standard in Nottingham on 22nd August 1642. But what had led a ruling monarch to declare war on his own people?

Charles I

Charles I was a complex man who, like most people, had his good and bad points. He was a principled and conscientious ruler, believing he had been divinely appointed by God and therefore had a duty to rule for the good of the people. Yet he was also reserved, stubborn and politically unskilled. Charles believed that everyone was subject to his will, all his actions were for the good of the people and he could do no wrong as God’s chosen king. Such a belief made the need for deft political intrigue totally irrelevant in his eyes.

Charles had been crowned king in 1626, and it was not long before many of his subjects began to feel uneasy about his religious beliefs and policies. England had been a Protestant country since the time of Elizabeth I, and many of the more zealous Puritan Christians were afraid that the King planned to overthrow their faith and restore Catholicism as the state religion.

Thomas Wentworth, 1st Earl of Strafford by Sir Anthony Van Dyck

In 1633 King Charles sent Thomas Wentworth to Ireland as his Lord Deputy to ‘civilise’ the Irish and force them to conform to the Church of England. The titles of Irish landowners were challenged and many old plantations taken over or new ones set up with English landowners in charge. Charles had hoped that this would isolate the Catholics, but what he didn’t foresee was that the Protestant ruling elite would feel alienated too. Similar problems arose in Scotland when Charles tried to ‘manipulate’ land titles there, and things finally came to a head when he tried to introduce a version of the English Book of Common Prayer into that country, provoking riots and leading to the drawing up of a National Covenant to demand immediate withdrawal of the offending book. The Covenant was a hard-hitting tract against the authoritarian rule of Charles and tacitly implying that revolt against him would be justified.

King Charles believed that the Scots had no right to oppose him and tried to crush them by force, with disastrous results. The ‘Covenanters’ overwhelmed the poorly trained English army which had been sent against them, and the king was forced to sign a peace treaty at Berwick. Charles was even more desperate to crush the opposition after this humiliation and so he summoned the English Parliament in October 1640 to ask for more funds. Unfortunately for him, Parliament took the opportunity to complain about his policies and refused to grant him funds until he had dealt with their complex grievances, some of which dated back to the beginning of his reign. Charles was furious and dissolved Parliament. The Scottish Covenanters invaded northern England again and, lacking funds, it was another poorly trained and poorly-equipped army which Charles sent north. Unsurprisingly, it was soundly beaten once again.

John Pym

The embattled and embittered king was forced to recall Parliament, once again leaving himself open to attack by the politicians who opposed him. The Catholic Irish and Scottish Covenanters also took the opportunity to work together and put pressure on Parliament to impeach Wentworth (who had been created Earl of Strafford by the King) because of the trouble he had caused in Ireland. The leader of Parliament, Pym, helped to organised the opposition to Stafford who was tried, found guilty, and executed.

If problems in England weren’t bad enough for Charles, the Catholic Irish decided to take advantage of the situation and rebelled against their Protestant English rulers in 1641. Many Protestant English and Puritan Scottish settlers were killed and panic began to spread in England yet, rather than unifying people, it only emphasised their religious differences and the two camps – Puritan and Royalist – became even more sharply divided. Charles and Parliament argued about who should be put in charge of the army which was to be sent to crush the Irish rebels. Parliament would not agree with the king until he had addressed their grievances but Charles, believing in his divine right to rule, would not allow them to bully him and decided to raise an army himself. He believed that the Members of Parliament had tried to humiliate him once too often and needed to be put in their place; on the other hand, Parliament believed that the King would never accept their input into his rule which, in their eyes, made him a tyrant. Both sides were entrenched and there was no going back. England was irrevocably divided and embarked on the final descent into civil war.

Raising the King’s Standard

Yorkshire’s forgotten battle – Marston Moor

Today marks the anniversary of the Battle of Marston Moor on 2nd July 1644. This was an important battle in English history but few people know much about it. So why was there a battle on Marston Moor? Who was fighting and what impact did this have?

The English Civil War of the 17th century pitted Parliament against the King and was one of the defining moments in the development of the United Kingdom as a parliamentary democracy. There were a number of battles and skirmishes during the two civil wars (the first with King Charles leading his forces and the second whilst he was being held prisoner by Cromwell and Parliament), the three major battles being Edgehill, Naseby and Marston Moor.

The Battle of Marston Moor, which took place in the evening of 2nd July 1644, was critical for the control of the north and is believed to have been the largest battle ever fought on English soil in terms of numbers of combatants. Surprising as it may seem for a battle of such massive proportions and such a pivotal role it only lasted for about two hours. The action took place on open fields and moorland which still exist relatively unchanged, this has enabled historians to get a very good understanding of how the battle unfolded as most of the key features of the local landscape are still there to be seen by historians and visitors alike.

Memorial to those who fell during the Battle of Marston Moor.

At the outbreak of the conflict England was divided along lines of political persuasion and religious beliefs, families were torn apart and no community was immune to the terrible divisiveness of civil war yet, on the whole, the north of England tended to side with Parliament and was a centre of opposition to King Charles in the early part of the war. The prosperous city of York was the major religious centre in the north so control there was seen as vital – whoever held York would have a distinct advantage over their enemies.

The Marquis of Newcastle led a Royalist army to York in the spring of 1644 and although he took possession of the city he soon found himself besieged there by Sir Thomas Fairfax who was leading a joint force of Parliamentary and Scottish men. King Charles was desperate to hold on to York and sent his nephew, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, to try to relieve the siege. Although young, Rupert had a reputation as a good leader in battle and so when Fairfax heard about the approach of the relief force he abandoned the siege and moved out towards Marston Moor (7 miles from York). Prince Rupert led the King’s forces into York on 1st July 1644 and, together with his command team, decided to pursue the enemy the following day. Unfortunately for Prince Rupert some of his commanders allowed their men to loot the city or take rest so his forces marched at different paces and only arrived on the moor near the village of Long Marston in dribs and drabs, disorganised and perhaps a little over confident after taking York. They arrived to find that Parliament already had control of the roads and so Rupert was forced to marshal his men on the desolate moors, setting up his front in fits and starts as his men arrived whilst the Parliamentarians were already organised in a good defensive position.

Prince Rupert of the Rhine by Anthony van Dyck

Although Rupert was at a disadvantage numerically – both sides had more or less equal cavalry forces of around 7,000, but the 20,000 combined infantry of the Scots and Parliament far outnumbered the 11,000 Royalists – he did have the advantage of protection offered by the varied geography of the moorland. The Royalists were able to position themselves amongst the numerous ditches and hedges which would impede attacks by the enemy, whether on horse or foot. Rupert felt confident that his left flank was particularly well defended in this way.

Fairfax’s Parliamentary forces occupied a low hill (barely 100 feet high) which gave them the advantage of higher ground on the flat moor and farmland, although a number of cornfields did make it difficult for him to deploy all of his forces. The Royalists tried to take advantage of this and seize a rabbit warren to the west of the fields so that they could infiltrate the Parliamentary positions, but they were forced back and Cromwell put the left wing of his cavalry there. Next to this was a very strong central force made up of more than 14,000 infantry and almost 40 artillery pieces; Sir Thomas Fairfax held the right wing with a cavalry of at least 2,000. Both cavalry wings were interspersed with musketeers and dragoons.

The Royalists were positioned on the moor, below the enemy and behind a drainage ditch which it was hoped would prevent, or at least disrupt, any cavalry charge. Like the enemy forces opposite, their wings were made up of cavalry and musketeers, the centre consisted of infantry and 14 artillery pieces, whilst Rupert held 600 cavalry in reserve behind these. As evening approached on 2nd July Rupert could hear the enemy singing psalms and presumed that they were getting ready to bed down for the night and there would be no attack before the morning. Yet, as the Royalists settled down to supper, the enemy attacked just as a thunderstorm broke over the moor.

The cavalry on the Royalists right wing was almost immediately driven back and Rupert was forced to commit his reserve of cavalry there, far earlier in the battle than he would have liked. The fighting was fierce but Cromwell eventually broke Rupert’s men and the Prince himself only avoided capture by hiding in a bean field!

There was also success for the Parlimentarians in the centre although their right wing initially had more difficulty when some of Fairfax’s forces were caught in a ditch where they were an easy target for the Royalists who forced them back. The battle ebbed and flowed chaotically for a time; at one point during the confusion of battle and the thunderstorm a number of Fairfax’s infantry believed they had been defeated and fled the field. Yet the Parliamentary centre stood firm against repeated charges by Royalist cavalry.

Oliver Cromwell

By this point it was almost dark, but the full moon was rising and it was possible to see confused men from both sides running away across the field. Taking advantage of the confusion Cromwell led his cavalry in a last charge against the tired and disorganised Royalist cavalry which eventually withdrew and retreated towards York. The final desperate stand was made by Newcastle’s ‘Whitecoats’ who fought fiercely, giving no quarter and refusing to surrender until just thirty of their number remained. In just two hours the Royalist forces had been defeated and, although a number of areas such as Bolton and Scarborough still held for the king, the north belonged to the Parliamentarians.

In the course of a battle which only lasted for two hours the Royalists lost around 4,000 men killed with an estimated 1,500 taken prisoner. In contrast the Scottish and Parliamentarian loses may have been as few as 300 killed (although some historians put this figure at over 1,000). During the battle Oliver Cromwell was able to show how a well-trained, disciplined and well-equipped army could win against the more experienced Royalists, and cemented his reputation as a great commander.

Marston Moor was a pivotal point during the English Civil War and, as such, I felt that I could not write ‘The Cavalier Historian without a description of the battle as seen through the eyes of one of my main characters, Thomas Hardwyke, a member of the Royalist cavalry and staunch supporter of Prince Rupert and the King.

 

A British Game Of Thrones

Imagine the scenario:
There was once a king of a northern country who had a distant claim to the throne of a country in the south. When the ruler of the southern land died childless the King of the North also became King of the South, and although there was one king to rule them both the two realms remained separate and continued with their longstanding enmities. When the king died his son came to sit on the thrones of both countries but the lords of the southern lands were not happy with how he ruled and so went to war against him. The land in the north supported the southern nobles for a time, then their support moved to the king, then shifted back to the nobles once more. Power ebbed and flowed until the king was finally captured and executed. What would happen now? Who would rule? Would the lands be united at last or continue divided and at war?

Sounds like the plot to a book in the style of A Game Of Thrones, doesn’t it? Yet this is real history. The history of Scotland and England. It is a history I had to grasp to enable me to write my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’, and it is a part of the story which many people find fascinating. So, what was the situation between the two nations in the seventeenth century and how did that impact on the English Civil War?

James I

Queen Elizabeth I, daughter of Henry VIII and granddaughter of Henry VII, died childless. The next in line to the throne was James VI of Scotland, son of Mary Queen of Scots and great great grandson of Henry VII. James VI and I (as he is sometimes known) moved from Edinburgh to London; England and Scotland were now united under one monarch BUT this was a dynastic union only, the Stuarts reigned over two separate and distinct countries even though King James wanted them to be united as one.

Part of the problem which James I faced was that the Scottish Church would not accept the High Anglican Church of England. When his son, Charles I, succeeded him he introduced a Scottish version of the English Prayer Book in 1637. The Scots responded with anger and rioting, culminating in a meeting of the National Covenant in 1638 which overwhelmingly objected to the prayer book; and when the General Assembly met in November 1638 all bishops were expelled from the Scottish Church which became fully Presbyterian. Charles put together a military force to bring the Scottish to heel, but didn’t like using soldiers from his southern kingdom to invade his northern one, so a settlement was reached under the ‘Pacification of Berwick’. The peace didn’t last for long, hostilities broke out again and Charles’s English forces were defeated by the Scots at the Battle of Newburn.

Charles I

This was how Charles I found himself to be the king of two kingdoms with a history of dislike for each other and widely differing views on religion. Once civil war broke out in England, with parliament looking to exercise more control over the king, his taxes, and the religion of the country, things got even more complicated. The English Parliament entered into a ‘Solemn League And Covenant’ with the Scottish Church and Scottish troops played an important role in the defeat of Charles I, constantly playing one side against the other from the outbreak of war:

22nd August 1643 Charles I raised his standard in Nottingham, formally declaring war on Parliament.

August 1643 The Solemn League And Covenant promised to preserve the Scottish Church and reform religion in England and Ireland in return for Scottish help against the king.

6th May 1646 Charles I surrendered to the Scots in the hope that they would support him as their king against the old enemy, England. At the same time he was trying to negotiate with the English Parliament – unaware that the Scots were doing the same!

30th January 1647 The Scots handed Charles over to the English Parliament and he was imprisoned at Holdenby House in Northamptonshire.

November 1647 The king escaped but was soon re-captured. From his prison Charles I carried out secret negotiations with the Scots, hoping for uprisings in England to coincide with an invasion from Scotland which would free him and put him back on the throne.

28th December 1647 An ‘Engagement’ was signed, with the Scots agreeing to support the king as long as he imposed the Presbyterian Church on England for three years.

Spring 1648 The uprising began in Wales and England, but the Scottish forces were delayed which enabled Cromwell to put down the Royalist forces throughout most of the country although the king’s forces held out under a long siege in Colchester. When the Scots finally invaded they were defeated at the Battle of Preston on 17th – 19th August 1649. This effectively brought the Second English Civil War to an end.

Charles I was in prison in England throughout this second war, and at the defeat of his forces was put on trial for treason, and executed. With the death of Charles I Cromwell invaded Scotland and brought it into his Commonwealth, but after his death Charles II became king and Scotland became an independent country once more. It wasn’t until 1707, during the reign of Queen Anne, that the ‘Acts of Union’ were signed in England and Scotland in which the two separate states with their different legislatures but with the same ruling monarch were ‘United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain’.

Union Flag

With such complex relationships between Scotland and England, as well as divisive politics and religion within England itself, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be conflict under Charles I. It is a period of history which makes for a great story and I thoroughly enjoyed the research I conducted for my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’. I hope my readers will find the novel equally enjoyable!

Experience An English Civil War Battle Near You!

In England we are lucky with the resources available to us if we want to learn about the civil war which tore our country apart during the 17th century. As well as countless books on the subject you can conduct research online or maybe visit the National Civil War Centre in Newark, but to get a real experience of what life was like when parliament rose up against the king we have a number of wonderful re-enactment societies.

Cavalry (copyright Sealed Knot)

Both the Sealed Knot and the English Civil War Society provide authentic re-creations of both civilian and military life, and the information they provided was very helpful to me whilst I was conducting research for my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’. You may think that re-enactment societies glorify war but that is far from the truth, and those who take part in these activities would say that their aim is to honour those who died in battle as well as to educate people about life in the 17th century. I can well remember the re-enactment of a battle which I attended at Faringdon in Oxfordshire some years ago with its guns and smoke, its sights and sounds of civil war. The battlefield commentary explained tactics and weaponry, and as I strolled around the campsite I was able to see authentic artefacts and clothing. I certainly felt that this was a great learning experience for the whole family.

Musketeers (copyright Sealed Knot)

If you have never seen a re-enactment featuring Cavaliers and Roundheads I would heartily recommend it. Wherever you are in the country you should be able to get to an event hosted by either the Sealed Knot or the English Civil War Society. Maybe you will be lucky enough to see a full scale battle with hundreds of infantrymen on each side as well as artillery, cavalry, and a huge array of camp followers. Perhaps it will be the re-creation of a specific battle, or maybe just a fictional episode designed to demonstrate the art of 17th century warfare. If you are not able to get to a battle then maybe you can see a skirmish, which is much smaller and has a focus on infantry with only a few cannons or cavalry men.

Copyright English Civil War Society

Whatever event you are able to attend you should also have the opportunity to see what camp life was like during the civil war. Take the time to wander around the tented areas where you will see re-enactors dressed in authentic costumes and carrying out authentic trades. There may be blacksmiths and armourers, barber-surgeons and laundresses, as well as kitchen areas providing food for both the officers and ordinary soldiers.

Army camp (copyright English Civil War Society)

As well as re-enactments these two societies will also visit schools to give students a taste of 17th century life, or sometimes staff a whole house with a costumed population for a truly immersive experience (this is part of the premise of The Cavalier Historian). So, if you are interested in the English Civil War, or history in general, why not try to see a re-enactment this year? I’m pretty sure you won’t regret it!

Cannon (copyright Sealed Knot)

The Sealed Knot

The English Civil War Society

Lord Thomas Grey’s Regiment of Foote

Sir William Pennyman’s Regiment

National Civil War Centre

Upcoming events:

English Civil War Society Events

Sealed Knot Events

The poisoned witches – a scientific explanation for witchcraft

What would you do if someone told you that there was a witch living in your town or village? Most people in the western world of the 21st century would smile and treat it as a joke at best, and at worst as someone trying to stir up trouble. But things would have been very different in the past.

During the Middle Ages witches were thought to be behind many illnesses from fevered nightmares to sick animals and dying children. This supposed interference in the natural order of things was known as bewitchment and struck at regular intervals, blighting the lives of thousands of people over hundreds of years.

During the period of the 15th to 17th centuries bewitchment reached epidemic proportions with over 40,000 men, women and children in Europe being executed as witches.  It was not only the poor who believed in witchcraft, even well-educated people of the time feared the supernatural and the Vatican sent out a decree warning people against bewitchment.  England was no different to the rest of Europe and many witch finders made it their life’s work to hunt down witches, one actually took 250 people before the courts in just two short years. Witches were greatly feared, and witchcraft was punishable by death.

220px-uk_warboys_sideaA well-known example happened at a manor house in the village of Warboys near Cambridge in 1589 when a mysterious illness struck down the five little daughters of the Throckmorton family and seven of their maidservants. The illness bore all the hallmarks of witchcraft, and fear spread throughout the village. The distraught family called in doctors and church leaders to try to diagnose what was wrong (at the time many doctors were willing to accept the idea of witchcraft after all other available explanations for an illness had failed).  The sick victims at Warboys had all the classic symptoms of bewitchment – hellish visions, often of wild animals (one said she saw a cat tearing her flesh off); the bodies of those affected went into violent fits and writhed in agony on their beds.  Once it was decided that witchcraft was the source of the problem someone had to be blamed and, as with most cases at the time, it was an innocent local misfit, Alice Samuel, who was singled out.  Standard practice was to torture a witch, who would often be branded or held under water; witchcraft was so feared that it didn’t matter how much the accused suffered as  any method used to see the curse of bewitchment lifted was deemed totally acceptable.  Many people believed that if you scratched a witch to draw blood it would help to relieve the suffering of the person who had been bewitched and so this was done to Alice on several occasions.  After a year of continuous pressure Alice Samuel finally confessed to being a witch. As punishment, and to keep the village safe in future, she was hanged, along with her husband and daughter.

salemAnother well know incident of witchraft happened in Salem on the east coast of America.  The Salem Witch trials of 1692 played out in a very similar way to the Alice Samuel case, and Arthur Miller later wrote about what happened in his play The Crucible. In December1691 many settlers in Salem had been struck by a horrifying disease, similar in its symptoms to what happened in Warboys and, as in England, it was believed that the Devil was responsible. The town doctor was convinced that what was happening was the result of witchcraft, particularly as eight girls said that they had been bewitched; for the next year the young girls regularly testified in court against other town members. Based on the evidence of the children 152 people were imprisoned on charges of witchcraft, and although none of them confessed 19 men and women were found guilty and executed as witches.

Linnda Caporael
Linnda Caporael

So what was going on? Was there simply a widespread primitive belief in the devil and witchcraft, or was there something else behind these incidents? Professor Linnda Caporael is a Behavioural Psychologist who studied what happened at Salem. Many people believe that the girls had made it all up, but Linnda could think of no reason why they would have done that, or kept up the pretence for so long. The more she studied, the more she began to believe that most of what the girls had experienced had not been faked, particularly when they suffered from severe convulsions. Another factor which made her question accepted belief was that the girls were not the only ones to have experienced visions, many other men, women and  children in the village reported hallucinations to the doctors and clergymen. When Linnda re-read another account it made her think that the symptoms were very similar to those experienced by people who had taken LSD (acid) which is an hallucinogenic drug from the 1960’s. People who have taken LSD say that they experience hallucinations like living nightmares which are very similar to what the victims of witchcraft said in Salem.  This left Linnda with one big question – if the cause of witchcraft was LSD, where had the drug come from?

220px-albert_hofmann_oct_1993
Albert Hofmann

LSD did not exist in the 15th to 17th centuries, in fact it was not until 1943 that the Swiss neuro-physiologist Albert Hoffman experimented with a natural fungus called ergot whilst looking for medical applications for a drug.  As part of his experiments he made an extract from the ergot fungus, accidentally spilling some of it onto his hand.  Within hours he began to hallucinate. When he finally recovered from the horrific hallucinations he set to work and derived LSD from the extract.

Linnda Caporael began to look at ergot poisoning as a possible explanation for bewitchings.  The descriptions of the effects of the drug on people which she found in medical books matched the symptoms from Salem and she was convinced that she had found an explanation for witchcraft in nature.  The next question, then, was how the settlers had come into contact with the drug? As it was not only the settlers in Salem who were affected by witchcraft but their animals as well (cattle acted strangely and died of no natural causes) Linnda began to wonder if a food common to both humans and animals could be the source, so she began looking at grain.  The dominant crop in Salem was rye, so the question now was to find out how ergot could have got into the rye fields. To help her Linda looked at the work of fungal toxicologist, Professor Maurice Moss.

A fungus contaminates its host and gradually replaces the original seed with its own material so, Linnda surmised, if the rye in the fields was contaminated with ergot then the bread would have been contaminated too. This was important to her theory because the nerve toxins now contained in the bread would account for the hallucinations, pin pricking sensations, the feeling of insects crawling beneath the skin and the powerful fits which meant that the sick people could barely be held down by their friends and family.  Ergotamine (taken from the word ergot) is a drug used in Holland to treat migraines and has been shown to have constrictive powers which can lead to convulsions, and to the blood draining from the skin causing pricking sensations.

ergotonrye

Linnda then turned to look at the environment which, again, supported her theory. Ergot thrives in wet, damp soil, and in 1691 the Salem crops had been planted in low marshy ground.  For a mass infection of the harvest to take place it would have needed a warm wet spring and summer; the spring of 1691was stormy and wet and was followed by a wet summer, the crop grown in Salem was rye.  Most of the sickness was on one side of the village where the homes backed onto the western farms with swampy marshlands. Rye was also the staple diet in Europe in the Middle Ages which, if Linnda  Carpoael is correct, could explain the witch persecutions which took place so frequently; particularly as the poor peasant classes were hit most, and rye was their staple diet.

An historian by the name of Professor Mary Matossian has mapped outbreaks of witch trials which were localised in Britain – these were mainly, but not exclusively, in Essex and East Anglia – the surprising result is that the outbreaks coincided with the main rye growing regions.  As the weather conditions at the time were different to today, with wetter and warmer summers, the conditions were ideal for the formation of ergot on rye.

Grauballe man

Supporting scientific evidence for this theory about the causes of witchcraft comes from the ‘peat bog man of Grauballe’.  He was buried in a bog in Denmark during the Iron Age and found in 1952.  The man had been murdered with a knife and club then dumped naked into the bog – his throat had been cut from ear to ear and a blow to the right temple had fractured his skull.  Although this sounds brutal this ritual was often carried out if someone was thought to be possessed by demons, the fracturing of the skull would allow the demon to escape and the victim could rest in peace. A post mortem was carried out on the Grauballe man in 1952 and his stomach contents showed that his last meal had largely comprised of ergot.  Chemical tests on a gut sample showed that ergot alkaloids were present, therefore the man would have been hallucination, convulsing, vomiting etc. and would probably have been killed as a witch.

The most recent case of a mass poisoning happened in 1951 when an entire village in France had ergot poisoning caused by infected bread.  In Pont St Esprit (Provence) in August of that year 250 people were struck down, several were taken to hospitals and psychiatric asylums in the weeks which followed.  They were sick, had stomach cramps, couldn’t sleep, suffered from violent convulsions and terrifying hallucinations.  Many had to be strapped down to stop them jumping out of windows to escape their torment.  At least five people died during the outbreak and when ergot poisoning was finally found to be the cause many people did not believe the explanation.  The Bishop of Nimes was called in to exorcise the devil from the bakery which had been the source of the outbreak.  Interestingly, a dog which had been fed on scraps of the rye bread ran in circles and was biting at rocks until it broke its teeth on them and then died.  This was an exact parallel to what happened to the animals in Salem.

affaire-pain-rend-fou-avait-300x200

Cover_Kindle_front coverSo, was witchcraft really a problem in the past, or were bewitchments caused by ergot poisoning?

I am fascinated by the fact that scientific research is constantly revealing more about our past.  I have come to believe that the misinterpretation of ergot poisoning is responsible for reports of witchcraft over the centuries, and this is what lead me to write the conclusion to the story of Rebekah and Simon in my novel ‘The Cavalier Historian’.

 

An incorruptible crown – The Execution of Charles 1

Is it ever right to depose a ruler who has a legitimate right to rule? That is a question which  many people ask in the modern world where tyranny and democracy come face to face and conflict ensues. But this is not an exclusively modern problem.

charles-iCharles I was a monarch who believed in the divine right of kings, that God had placed him on the throne and so no mere mortal should be able to tell him what to do. This attitude meant that he was constantly at odds with Parliament who wanted a role in ruling the country, particularly when it came to setting taxes. Charles would not listen to them and constantly dismissed Parliament, only recalling it again when he wanted more money. To make matters worse, Charles was considered to be too close to the Catholics in his religious observances. Henry VIII had made himself Head of the Church of England, a position inherited by Charles, yet Charles married a Catholic princess and many people were afraid that he would take England back into the hands of the Pope. There was simmering tension throughout the country which eventually broke out into all-out war in 1642.

The English Civil War ebbed and flowed across the country. With The king losing ground in 1645 he surrendered to the Scots in the hope that this would help him, but instead his forces north of the border handed him over to the English Parliament and Charles was imprisoned. He refused to compromise and give up any of his powers, and escaped in November 1647. But his freedom was short lived; he was recaptured and imprisoned on the Isle of Wight. From his captivity Charles organised a Scottish invasion to coincide with uprisings of his supporters in England, but this attempt to regain power was unsuccessful and, by the end of 1648, the English Civil War was over.

Charles I was tried for treason in January 1649, still believing in his divine right of kingship and refusing to give up his powers to Parliament. He was found guilty and executed on 30th January 1649.

On 29th January Charles was able to say goodbye to two of his children who were under the control of Parliament. On the following morning he donned two shirts as the weather was cold and he did not want to shiver and make people think he was afraid. The execution took place in front of Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. The most complete record of the only execution of an English king is an anonymous account which is quoted by all the major historians. I have used this account as the basis for the scene of the execution of Charles I in my novel, The Cavalier Historian.

Excerpt from ‘The Cavalier Historian’.

Simon shivered and pulled his cloak closer around himself. It kept out the bitter cold of January, but failed to warm his heart, or to banish the chill of a dread which reached deep to his bones. From their position at the top of a flight of steps leading to a shop, he and his father looked out over the silent crowd. No one moved. No one spoke. All eyes were focussed in one direction. Simon did not want to look, but could not help himself. His eyes turned slowly towards the raised scaffold with its block. He turned to look at his father. Sir Thomas stood straight and still, outwardly calm, although Simon could see the tension in his clenched jaw and the nervous twitching of one eye. Turning back towards the scaffold, the young man thought back to the time the King had visited Marston Manor. They had felt so sure of victory back then. No one could have predicted that things would end in this way.

The crowds thronging Whitehall stood silent and still around the black draped scaffold, come to see the execution of their King. Simon was glad that they had got there early and were close to the block. Not that he wanted to see what happened in detail, but he knew that his father wanted to be able to offer comfort and strength to the King, if at all possible. They had tried so hard to get to see him after sentence had been passed, but had not been allowed. Sir Thomas had ranted about the unholy actions of the Rump, called down all kinds of curses upon the heads of Cromwell and Ireton, threatened revenge for the cruel way the King had been treated. But as the hours passed he had calmed, accepting that what was now ordained was inevitable, wishing only to say goodbye and take an oath to his sovereign that he would continue to support the Stuart cause. Such a meeting would have been an equal comfort to himself as to the King. The denial of access had wounded him deeply.

There was a low murmur of anguished voices as all heads turned towards the Banqueting House. The execution party had arrived.

The King, wrapped warmly against the bitter January morning, was flanked by a bishop and his executioner. He said something in a quiet voice to the bishop, who nodded. The King stepped forward. Simon was unable to hear the first words the King spoke, and leant forward to listen more intently. Due to the soldiers who stood between him and the crowds, Charles’s voice did not carry far, but Simon and Sir Thomas were able to make out what he said.

‘For the people, truly I desire their liberty and freedom as much as anybody whomsoever. But I must tell you that their liberty and freedom consist in having of government, those laws by which their life and their goods may be most their own. It is not for having share in government, sirs; that is nothing pertaining to them. A subject and a sovereign are clear different things. And therefore until the people have the liberty of good government, as I say, certainly they will never enjoy themselves. Sirs, it was for this that now I am come here. If I would have given way to an arbitrary way, to have all laws changed according to the power of the sword, I need not to have come here. Therefore I tell you, and I pray God it be not laid to your charge, that I am the martyr of the people.’

Simon was impressed by the calm assurance of the King’s voice. As with his trial, there was no trace of the stammer which usually marked his speech. As he spoke in those final moments of life, he was truly a monarch to be proud of.

The condemned man turned to his executioner.

‘I shall say but very short prayers, and when I thrust out my hands…’ The executioner nodded, no further words were needed. Charles turned to the bishop and asked for his cap, which he placed on his head before turning back to the axeman. ‘Does my hair trouble you?’

‘It would be best, Sire, if you placed it all beneath the cap.’

The King nodded and proceeded to do so, aided by the bishop and executioner. Simon found it hard to believe that this was all real. The King behaved so calmly, spoke so calmly. The execution party was polite. The crowd restrained. It felt to him like play acting, as though the scene would soon be over to loud applause, and the actors leave the stage. But no. The reality continued as the King spoke again.

‘My Lord Bishop, I fear not. I have a good cause, and a gracious God on my side.’

‘There is but one stage more, Your Majesty, which, though turbulent and troublesome, yet is a very short one.’ Simon could hear the catch in the man’s voice, as though he struggled with the words. It was obvious that the man was not comfortable with his task and wanted to do all that he could to aid the King. ‘You may consider it will soon carry you a very great way; it will carry you from earth to heaven; and there you shall find to your great joy the prize you hasten to, a crown of glory.’

The King nodded. ‘I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible crown; where no disturbance can be, no disturbance in the world.’

‘Indeed, Your Majesty. You are exchanging a temporal for an eternal crown. A good exchange.’

Simon stole a look at his father. Sir Thomas stood calmly, his gaze sure as he kept his eyes on the King’s face. For a moment he caught the condemned man’s eye. There was recognition in Charles’s eyes, and gratitude for a faithful servant who had dared to come forward to offer his support. He inclined his head slightly in acknowledgement. Simon heard a deep intake of breath from his father as he fought to control his emotions, focussing on giving all of his strength to the King, who now turned back to his executioner.

‘Is my hair well?’ At a nod from the man he removed his cloak, which he handed to the bishop. His hand went to his neck, to the jewelled pendant of Saint George, symbol of the Order of the Garter. He held it in his fist for a moment, as though reliving in his mind past days of glory. Then he removed it and handed it to the bishop. Next came his doublet and waistcoat before he put the cloak back over the crisp white shirt, as though to lessen the impact of the bright flow of blood which must soon cover it. He breathed deeply and held his hands out in front of him.

‘When I put out my hands this way, then.’

The executioner nodded.

The King of England stood for a moment, his lips moving in silent supplication, his eyes lifted towards heaven. Then he knelt and laid his head on the block. After a moment in which he composed himself, the King held out his hands.

The heavily muscled executioner raised the axe above his head. It held for a moment at the apex before he brought it down with all his might. With one blow, the King’s head was severed from his shoulders.

Simon found himself trembling, his knees weak, his stomach wanting to disgorge his breakfast as the head fell to the wooden boards with a thud. Bright blood fountained from the neck and began to pool as the body slipped to the side, an arm still twitching. He looked at his father and took strength from the way he stood, unmoving, seemingly unaffected. Simon straightened and turned back to the block in time to see the executioner pick up the severed head and hold it for the crowds to see. There was no cheering. No sign that this execution was the will of the people. Instead a collective groan went up, like the sighing of the wind before a storm. Only the soldiers cheered, and this seemed to Simon to be more out of a sense of duty than from the heart.

Two soldiers stepped forward and lifted the King’s body, placing it in a coffin. The executioner placed the head with the body and the coffin was covered with black velvet. More soldiers stepped forward, lifted it to their shoulders and carried it solemnly back into Banqueting House.

Simon and his father stood unmoving. Unable to move. They watched as people came forward, soaking handkerchiefs and pieces of cloth in the King’s blood. No doubt some did so as tokens of their wish to see the King dead, but they were few. Simon could see by the reverent, tear-stained faces that most people took the blood to cherish it as the sacrifice of a martyr, as a blessing from a divinely appointed monarch who now wore his incorruptible crown.

England no longer had a king.

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