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  • Dragon’s Blood - A Mystical Medieval Treatment or Natural Remedy?

    Dragon’s Blood and Willow Bark (Amberley Publishing April 2015) was the title of my original medieval medicine book. I chose the title to illustrate and contrast the use of both mystical and natural treatments in the middle ages and to consider the efficacy of these remedies.

    Willow bark had been used since ancient times to relieve inflammation and reduce fevers. We now know that this plant-based remedy contains salicylic acid, an active constituent of aspirin, so modern science understands how and why this would have benefitted the patient.

    As well as medicines derived from plants, medieval doctors also included animal-based remedies in their pharmacopeia. Some of these would horrify us today, such as a treatment for gout that required boiling newborn puppies! But others are far less grim, such as snail slime, used in medieval times to treat minor burns and scalds and currently making a comeback. Marketed as ‘snail gel’, this natural remedy aids the healing of cuts, insect bites and even acne spots. If you think how vulnerable the underside of a snail must be as it travels over spiky plant material and gritty soil, an antiseptic lubricant that promotes the healing of minor nicks and abrasions is an evolutionary asset. Modern medical research is now also looking at the possibilities of substances like snake venom and leech saliva as possible sources of new treatments.

    But what of the dragon’s blood mentioned in my book title? An ingredient mentioned in many medieval remedies, as the name suggests, was this some mysterious magical potion obtained from mythical creatures? Of course not. Dragon’s blood is neither mystical nor even animal-related.

    Microsoft Word - An article for Amberley Dragons Blood A Dracaena draco tree in Tenerife in the Canary Islands. Courtesy: Esculapio

    It is a red resin originally from the tree Dracaena draco, a native of the Canary Islands and Morocco. When the bark of the tree is damaged, it oozes a blood-red sap which hardens to form a resinous protective layer over the site of injury. Historically, it was sold by medieval merchants as either lumps of dark red resin or a bright red powder, its price hugely inflated by the incredible story told of its origins. According to these tales, trees were not involved at all; the resin was said to be the solidified blood of dragons.

    According to a thirteenth-century Bestiary[1] – the medieval equivalent of a zoology guide with Christian overtones – dragons and elephants were mortal enemies and any chance encounter between these creatures resulted in combat to the death. Apparently, the dragons weren’t as invincible as most legends suggested and the elephants were always victorious. This may explain why they are so much more common than dragons today.

    Dragon’s blood was used as a dye and a paint pigment as well as having medicinal properties. The first century Greek botanist-physician, Dioscorides, described its uses in his herbal, De Materia Medica, prescribing it as a treatment for respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, particularly for diarrhoea. Trotula of Salerno – who may have been a female lecturer in medicine at the University of Salerno in the twelfth century – recommended it in a long list of ingredients to make a remedy for treating women who suffer menorrhagia (heavy bleeding during their periods):

    After eating or during meals, let there be given to them to drink... a powder of coral and gum arabic, pomegranate, myrtleberry seed and purslane... great plantain, knotgrass, dragon’s blood, burnt elephant bones and quince seed[2].

    Dragon 1 An elephant meets a dragon: British Library, an English bestiary, dated to between 1236 and c.1250, MS Harley 3244, f. 39v.

    By 1402, the myth about the elephants and dragons was no longer widely believed and dragon’s blood was now understood to come from a plant, but it was still used in medicine as a cure-all. It was applied to wounds as a coagulant to stop the bleeding; it was taken by mouth for reducing fevers, curing diarrhoea and dysentery, mouth ulcers, sore throat, intestinal and stomach disorders, as well as for chest problems and it was applied to the skin as an eczema treatment.

    But did this exotic substance have any beneficial effects? The answer is yes, it probably did. Today, alternative medicine uses dragon’s blood as an antiseptic wash for wounds and internally for chest pains, menstrual problems and post-partum bleeding after childbirth. More orthodox medical research has found that dragon’s blood has not only antibiotic properties, but one of its components, taspine, has antiviral and wound-healing effects[3]. Animal and laboratory tests have shown some promise for the use of dragon’s blood in modern medicine but, to date, there are no human clinical studies verifying these effects.

    Dragon 2 Dragon’s blood (Daemonorops draco). Courtesy: Andy Dingley

    These days, dragon’s blood resin is still imported – at one time it was used to varnish Stradivarius violins – but Dracaena draco is just one source. The resin can also be obtained from Dracaena cinnabari which is native to the island of Socotra in the Indian Ocean and this may well have been another source available to Islamic medicine and to Europe via the Incense Road. Most supplies now come from various species of Daemonorops, native to Malaysia and Indonesia.

    For the most serious diseases, prevention was always better than cure, but some concoctions were reckoned to do both. The following was written by an anonymous chronicler, describing how the lives of the people of Winchester in England were saved when plague came to the city in 1471:

    The most sovereign medicine for the pestilence concluded by doctors of physic both beyond the sea and in England, also about the king in late days in the reign of King Edward the IV the tenth year [1471]. Take four spoonful of water and five spoonful of vinegar and treacle the size of a bean and mix all this together and drink it, fasting once a week or twice in a month and if you are not infected it will preserve you and if you are infected it will save your life with regular habits. This is proved and has saved 300 or 400 lives of men, women and children in the city of Winchester in the year of the king above said.

    Microsoft Word - An article for Amberley Dragons Blood Concocting Theriac, The Arcadian Library, Jacob Meydenbach's Hortus Sanitatis 1491 Nicolas of Poland

    This recipe sounds so cheap and easy. If “with regular habits” it prevented and cured plague why should anyone die of that dreaded disease? Water, vinegar and treacle sound simple enough. The trouble was this ‘treacle’ wasn’t just any old treacle. It was ‘theriac’. According to legend, theriac was invented by King Mithridates VI, King of Pantus (now in Turkey) in the second century BCE. The king had a great fear of being assassinated by poison[4]. To be certain of having the correct antidote, if anyone ever did succeed in poisoning him, he experimented on his prisoners with every known poison and all possible antidotes. His numerous toxicity experiments eventually led him to declare that he had discovered an antidote for every venomous reptile and poisonous substance. He then mixed all the effective antidotes into a single one, which he called ‘mithridate’, naming this incredible cure-all after himself. Mithridate contained opium, myrrh, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, castor oil and dragon’s blood, along with some forty other ingredients.

    When the Romans defeated Mithridates, his medical notes fell into their hands and Roman medici began to use them. The Emperor Nero’s physician, Andromachus, improved upon mithridate and brought the total number of ingredients to sixty-four, including viper’s flesh, a mashed decoction of which, first roasted then well aged, has since proved the most constant ingredient. Crushed amber and pearls added to its cost and exotic appeal. Apparently, the Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, took it on regular basis on the advice of his physician, Galen. After all, he was wealthy and could afford all those expensive ingredients.

    In the medieval period, the traditional name became corrupted and shortened to ‘theriac’ and this, the most elaborate of all medicaments, now with more than a hundred ingredients, was called Venice or Genoa treacle by the English, depending on which Italian city state the merchants imported it from. But even if you could afford this ‘sovereign medicine’ or ‘magic bullet’ the secret of success lay in those two words ‘regular habits’. What were one man’s perfect regular habits could be another man’s destruction, depending on his humoral complexion, so the outcome was still in doubt, even for the rich.

    As for the common folk, there was no chance of them getting hold of that ‘bean-sized’ amount of treacle, even enough for a single dose and, when it came to their ‘regular habits’, of course they were deplorably ‘irregular’ in every way. Especially irregular were the habits of women – ever unpredictable, according to medieval belief, but that’s another story.


    Toni Mount's new paperback edition of Dragon's Blood called Medieval Medicine: Its Mysteries and Science is available now.



    [1] British Library, English bestiary, MS Harley 3244, dated between 1236 and 1250

    [2] Green, M. H., The Trotula – An English Translation of the Medieval Compendium of Women’s Medicine (Philadelphia, USA: The University of Pennsylvania Press, 2002), p.70.

    [3] (accessed 27 September 2014)

    [4] Pickover, C. A., The Medical Book – from Witch Doctors to Robot Surgeons, 250 Milestones in the History of Medicine (New York: Sterling Publishing, 2012), p.44.

    © Toni Mount April 2016

  • The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine Nerdalicious feature with Toni Mount

    Toni Mount is back with another fascinating look at everyday life in the middle ages. Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine takes you on a journey through centuries of medical progress, from the ancient to the modern era. Packed full of intriguing anecdotes you’ll discover the elusive female physicians of the middle ages, medicine and the church, surprisingly modern ideas about medicine, wonderfully wacky cures, diseases that have disappeared and treatments that have endured for centuries and are still used to this day. Toni joins us today to discuss the amazing world of medieval medicine.

    Can you tell our readers how someone would train to become a doctor in medieval times?

    To be a physician, they would attend a university and learn medicine from the ancient Greek and Roman texts written by Aristotle, Hippocrates, Galen and others. To be a surgeon, they would have had practical training on the job,serving a seven-year apprenticeship to a master surgeon.

    And were there were various specialised jobs in the medical profession as there are now?

    Physicians and surgeons could be known for their particular skills in some area of their profession. Some physicians specialised in drawing up horoscopes, then regarded as a vital part of medicine. Not only were they checking the stars to see if it was an auspicious day to treat a particular ailment but they could determine whether a young couple were suitable marriage partners, how many children they would have and even in business matters, the best day to sign a contract. Some surgeons, like John Bradmore, specialised in battlefield surgery. He treated the future king Henry V, successfully removing an arrow from the young man’s face after the battle of Shrewsbury in 1403. There was also the possibility of specialising in making medicines – the apothecaries were the pharmacists of the day.

    Dragon’s Blood 1 Pregnant woman with possible positions of the foetus – The Apocalypse of St John, Germany, 1420 | Wellcombe Library MS 49

    How did midwives remain so integral in a profession completely dominated by males?

    Childbirth was seen as a women-only affair so, until the 18th century, men were more than willing to let midwives be in charge so they could remain aloof from the messy and – to them – mysterious business.

    How well did male doctors and surgeons understand the female body?

    Not very well. In the late 16th century, William Harvey – he who proved that blood circulated – did detailed studies of the development of chick embryos in birds’ eggs, so they had some idea of how babies grew. But into Victorian times it was still thought that the womb wasn’t fixed in place and could wander round the body. Hysteria – a word coming from the Greek/Latin word for womb – occurred if the womb reached the brain!

    And were there females practising in medical professions other than midwifery?

    Yes, there were certainly female surgeons and apothecaries, usually serving apprenticeships with their fathers or elder brothers. We know of Katherine, trained in surgery by her father, and Joan who tended the monks at Westminster Abbey and made medicines for them. Otherwise, few women are known to us by name. However, the wardens of the barber-surgeons’ company in London had to swear to oversee the standard of work ‘of all men and women practising the art of surgery’, so there must have been many others. A medical manuscript, Sloane 6 at the British Library, has a series of images showing a fashionable woman letting blood and tending a patient. In theory, there couldn’t be any female physicians because women couldn’t go to university, yet there is a case from 1350 when a female physician, Pernell de Rasyn, was accused of causing the death of a miller in Devon. She disputed the accusation and eventually received a royal pardon.

    Dragon’s Blood 2 Female physician blood-letting | British Libtrary British Library Sloane 6 f. 177v

    What role did religion play in medicine?

    It was because of religion that physicians and surgeons had such separate professions. Before 1215, most medical doctors were monks and priests who diagnosed illness, made medicines and carried out surgical procedures, like cataract operations and dentistry. But in 1215, Pope Innocent III forbade churchmen from shedding blood. That seemed reasonable and the intention was to stop them fighting in battle or passing a death sentence in court, but it also put an end to their practising surgery. Everyone who went to university had to take minor holy orders at least; hence, physicians who studied at uni could no longer do surgery. Now laymen had to fill the gap, completing apprenticeships instead. Also, religion came first and last in any medical treatment. Prayer was always the first resort if you fell ill because sickness was a punishment for sin. If your case looked hopeless, a priest was summoned before a doctor and hospitals were more concerned with preparing your soul for the next life, than restoring your body in this one.

    Did religious superstition interfere with medical procedures?

    As well as the answer given above, there was a big debate about treating the sick: if illness was a punishment from God, wasn’t any attempt at treating it flouting the will of God? There were those who believed physicians and surgeons not only put their patients’ souls at risk, but their own souls as well. Luckily, others had a quite different view: if a treatment for an ailment existed, then it must have been created by God. Therefore, not to make use of it went against God’s will. What a dilemma! To be on the safe side, medicines were often given to patients accompanied by prayers or in the name of the Trinity. Various herbs ‘belonged’ to specific saints and even the cooking instructions for potions might include ‘boil for the time it takes to say five Lord’s Prayers’. After all, you didn’t have a watch or clock in those days.

    Dragon’s Blood 3 The Four Humours – from the Guild Book of the Barber Surgeons of York | British Library Egerton 2572 f. 51v


    What other factors hindered medical progress? And why was the early modern/Tudor period one of so many advances?

    To answer these two questions together, it was the universities’ insistence that men like Aristotle and Galen were absolute authorities on science of any kind that held back progress. It was believed that when God had created Adam around 4,000 years before Christ, He had given Adam a complete knowledge of the whole world. After Adam fell from grace, his memory was no longer perfect and every generation since had forgotten a bit more of Adam’s encyclopaedic knowledge. Logically, to medieval thinking, the further back in history you went, closer to Adam’s time, the more knowledge men had, so Aristotle and co. knew far more and scholars couldn’t do better than learn from the ancient texts. However, from the 15th century, explorers were travelling to distant lands, discovering America, finding new plants, animals and peoples not mentioned by Aristotle and co. Could it be that the ancients didn’t know everything? Also, technology was advancing; telescopes and microscopes were revealing unknown worlds, both huge and minute. Remember I mentioned William Harvey who was sure that blood circulated? Within just a few years of his death, the microscope revealed the existence of blood capillaries – too fine to see with the naked eye but vital in completing the circuit of blood around the body. By the 17th century, men were finally prepared to think outside the box of ancient knowledge, prepared to experiment and discover new facts for themselves.

    Cancer is one of our biggest killers now, what sorts of diseases were medieval people at most risk from?

    Cancer did exist – cases of ‘canker’ of the breast are found occasionally. The big difference though was probably that diseases we treat today with antibiotics had no cure. Even the dreaded plague, still around today, is cured by antibiotics. Septicaemia or blood-poisoning was a big killer in that a small cut or splinter could be a death sentence if it became infected. Measles could be deadly, although it was sometimes confused with smallpox so the death rate is hard to guess. This confusion suggests that smallpox was less virulent before the 17th century. Queen Elizabeth I recovered from smallpox; a hundred years later, Queen Mary [of William & Mary] died of a more virulent strain which killed thousands.

    What diseases have disappeared over the centuries?

    Leprosy was on the wane in the Middle Ages and plague disappeared from England almost completely from the mid-17th century. Smallpox has been eradicated by vaccination and terminal conditions like renal failure can be managed by modern medicine. However, obesity wasn’t much of a problem then, smoking didn’t exist in Tudor times and modern addictive drugs were almost unknown. The problems of old age weren’t so prevalent either with life expectancy being much reduced.

    Dragon’s Blood 4 Run mouse, run! Cat and mouse from Peraldus’s Theological miscellany | British Library Harley 3244

    And, for fun, what were some of the stranger remedies you came across in your research?

    Not sure about fun but burnt, powdered owl was a treatment for gout. A Tudor cure for whooping cough was to pass the child under and over a braying donkey. Powdered mouse bones, mixed with honey and oil of roses, was believed to cure earache. Fried or roasted mice with onions were another cure for whooping cough or, if burnt to a cinder and mixed with jam would prevent bed-wetting. Mouse skin, rubbed on a wart then buried, would ensure the wart disappeared as the skin rotted away. Useful things mice! Spiders’ webs were used like sticking plasters or Band-Aid, to cover minor wounds. Believe it or not, cobwebs do help stop the bleeding and contain a powerful antiseptic.

    What new projects are you working on now?

    A new factual book for Amberley, ‘A Year in the Life of Medieval England’ – a sort of diary with 366 entries covering major events, battles, births, deaths, weather, fashion, gardening, cookery, remedies, divorces, murders, etc. is nearing its deadline of 15 January 2016, due for publication next July. My first novel, a medieval murder mystery set in 15-century London, has been accepted by MadeGlobal and is due for publication probably in May, with the title ‘TheColour of Poison’. On-line history courses are another new venture which it is hoped will be available before Christmas this year, again with MadeGlobal. I’m now working on a sequel to ‘Poison’, beginning a wills transcription project with the Richard III Society, plus the usual classes, talks, writing groups, magazine articles, etc.

    Written by Olga Hughes for Nerdalicious on November 27, 2015


    Toni Mount's Dragon's Blood & Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine is available for purchase now.

  • Erotic postcards of the early 20th century - BBC Historyextra feature

    By the early 20th century, hundreds of thousands of images had become available showing women in varying degrees of undress. Printed with postcard backs, in Britain the trade in these erotic cards was hidden, and they were often sold ‘under the counter’ in tobacconists, newsagents and bookshops...

    Erotic Postcards 1 The bathroom provided a natural setting in which a woman would be naked. This postcard was produced by the studio of Alfred Noyer in c1910. © Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy

    But, as Nigel Sadler reveals in his new book, in earlier years the aim of such images was to capture the female form rather than to titillate, andphotographers could only produce images of the female nude for use by artists.

    In Erotic Postcards of the Early Twentieth Century, Sadler explores the changes in social attitudes, fashions and technology through the medium of erotic postcards, and charts the journey from the partly clad to full nude.

    Here, writing for History Extra, Sadler summarises the history of erotic postcards, and shares some of the most fascinating images from his book…

    For centuries, artists have depicted naked females. Therefore, it was not surprising that when photography was introduced, some photographers gravitated to the female nude as their subject matter.

    The idea was to capture the female form rather than to titillate. However, as the genre progressed images became more risqué: clothing left on but unbuttoned; furniture added to suggest a bedroom; the model interacting with the camera by gazing at it.

    The authorities wanted to control the production and sale of these images. With daguerreotype images (the first photographic process) in the 1840s and 1850s this was easy, as there were few photographers, and in France photographers had to register with the authorities and could only produce images for use by artists.

    As photography became easier and cheaper, more studios opened and some, mostly in Paris, started to produce risqué postcards. At this point the authorities lost control.

    The heyday of the erotic postcard was between the 1890s and the 1930s, but in this instance the term ‘postcard’ is a misnomer: even though many were printed with a postcard back, they were intended to be collected rather than sent. The postcard size made it easier to hide and sell the cards ‘under the counter’.

    For studios the priority became maximising income rather than creating art. In the studio, photographers created one set of images and took a series of photographs of the model – starting fully dressed and ending topless or fully naked. These were then sold in sets of up to 12 cards, and became known as ‘French postcards’, as this was where most were produced.

    Due to the clandestine nature of the business (even though many cards carried studio logos), little is known about the studios or the photographers responsible for making erotic postcards. Very few photographers ‘signed’ their work, and even less is known about the models: they were originally believed to be Parisian prostitutes, but it in fact appears they were more likely working-class women who made money on the side by modelling.

    The postcards also reflect changing ideologies in the work of artists and in society generally. The ‘new sculpture movement’ of the 1870s introduced more realistic model poses, and pushed the boundaries of acceptable taste for nude figures – this opened the way for the wider range of poses used by early 20th-century photographers.

    By 1880, ‘art photography’ had developed, because photographers wanted their work to be accepted as an art form. Some extended this into the study of naked people and posed models following the rules of painting, experimenting with light and shade. The German avant-garde ‘new age outdoor’ or plein air movement popularised naturism in the 1920s and 1930s, and encouraged many photographers to step outside the comfort of the studio to utilise natural light and scenery.

    The risqué postcard genre in effect ended by the start of the Second World War, and post-war these types of images appeared in magazines and in a range of photographic formats.

    Erotic Postcards 2 One type of postcard rarely discussed when studying the First World War is the risqué image showing women in a state of undress or fully nude. This postcard, by Jean Agélou Studios in Paris, is from the start of a risqué sequence (a latter card probably showed this woman at least topless) and was sent to Miss Gladys Gamble by Corporal Black in 1916 informing her that he was in the Reading War Hospital recovering from shrapnel injuries. © Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy
    Erotic Postcards 3 At the turn of the 20th century Lucien Waléry (1863–1935) was a popular photographer who captured regular models and stars of the time like Nina Barkis (pictured here), an opera singer and dancer. He was happy photographing women both in body stockings and naked, and in the 1920s Waléry produced a series of photographs of a topless Josephine Baker (an American-born French dancer, singer, and actress). © Courtesy of Sands of Time Consultancy
























    Written by Jessica Hope BBC History extra online feature on Tuesday 17th November 2015

    Click here to view the other images from the feature.


    Nigel Sadler's Erotic Postcards of the Early Twentieth Century is available for purchase now.

  • Great British Eccentrics - BBC History magazine feature

    Great British eccentrics: 7 of the most peculiar people in history

    From the Scottish physician who pronounced lobsters as being capable of love and ‘damned crabs’ as having hearts of stone, to the peculiar aristocrat who invented a tiny gun for shooting wasps, Britain has long been a stronghold of eccentricity and peculiar behaviour

    In his new book, Great British Eccentrics, SD Tucker introduces readers to some of the most unusual people ever to have been eligible to hold a British passport. Here, writing for History Extra, he explores seven particularly noteworthy eccentrics…

    1) Lieutenant-Commander Bill Boaks

    My personal favourite eccentric in history is Lieutenant-Commander Bill Boaks (1904–86), a comically obsessive road-safety campaigner and politician.

    A Royal Navy man, Boaks returned to civilian life in 1945 in need of a new foe to fight, and found it in the rise of the motorcar. He was soon out canvassing on behalf of his ADMIRAL (‘Association of Democratic Monarchists Independently Representing All Ladies’) Party, of which he was the sole member.

    Boaks’s aim was to cause such traffic chaos that citizens spontaneously gave up their cars and began travelling by bus or helicopter instead – landing-pads for which he insisted be installed in every city. To this end, Boaks took to holding up traffic by repeatedly walking up and down zebra-crossings wheeling a pram full of bricks, or sitting in the middle of the A40 in a deckchair reading The Daily Telegraph.

    Ironically, Boaks’s death in 1986 was a result of injuries sustained in a traffic accident – he fell off a bus and banged his head.

    2) Sir Tatton Sykes

    Some of Britain’s most famous eccentrics were aristocrats – men like Sir Tatton Sykes (1826–1913), who had such a pathological hatred of flowers so extreme if he ever saw one while out walking he would immediately flog it to death with his walking stick. Tenants on his lands in Yorkshire, meanwhile, were expressly forbidden from growing any such “nasty, untidy things” in the gardens of their cottages. “If you want to grow flowers, grow cauliflowers!” was his habitual mantra.

    As he aged, Sir Tatton became a miserable old hypochondriac who obsessively followed various bizarre health-fads of his own invention. He lived on an almost exclusive diet of cold rice pudding and, so the story goes, in 1911 refused to leave his mansion of Sledmere House during a blazing fire until he had finished his bowl. “I must eat my pudding!” he is said to have told his servants as the flames consumed his property.

    Feeling that it was imperative to maintain a constant body temperature, Sir Tatton used to order his coats in sets of six to eight, all of slightly different sizes, and then wear them on top of one another in layers, like a living Russian doll. Then, when he began to get too warm, he would simply remove one coat at a time and discard it on the ground, relying on local boys to pick them up and bring them back to Sledmere for a small reward. Apparently, he had a similar arrangement with his trousers ...

    3) Lord Clancarty

    Equally strange were certain members of the House of Lords, such as one Lord Clancarty, also known as Brinsley le Poer Trench (1911–95), former editor of the world’s leading UFO publication, Flying Saucer Review.

    Prior to inheriting his earldom in 1976, Clancarty had penned a series of books with titles such as The Sky People, explaining his unusual view that alien beings had emerged through tunnels (including those at the North and South Pole) from a civilisation that still existed beneath the Earth’s crust.

    In 1964 Clancarty helped found a body called Contact International, which linked up ufologists from across the globe. Originally called the International Sky Scouts (pictured below) in order to appeal to children, the name had to be dropped after the real Boy Scouts threatened Clancarty with legal action!

    Clancarty was particularly popular in Japan, and in 1966 was invited there by a saucer-cult named The Cosmic Brotherhood to take part in a ceremony on top of a ‘sun-pyramid’ – his hosts thought an alien astronaut had descended to earth thousands of years ago to teach people how to grow vegetables.

    Clancarty was particularly interested in the issue of UFO propulsion-systems: in 1983 he said that an official from the Japanese car giant Honda had paid him a visit in London, asking to be let in on his secret knowledge about the matter. So, if Honda ever do manage to create an affordable family-saloon spaceship, you know who to thank.

    4) Henry de la Poer Beresford

    Some of our strangest aristocrats have been less neurotic, however. A good case in point is Henry de la Poer Beresford, 3rd Marquess of Waterford (1811–59), a notorious Anglo-Irish wild-man, drunkard and scrapper who enjoyed beating up night-watchmen and playing sick jokes on people, such as the time he wrote to the London and Greenwich Railway Company offering them £10,000 if they would arrange a deliberate train crash for him to observe so he could laugh at the victims.

    Known as ‘The Mad Marquess’, Beresford was known to do anything for a thrill. On one occasion he took several large casks of gin and stood in London’s Haymarket handing out mugs of the stuff to random passers-by for free to see what would happen. Eventually, everyone got so drunk that a riot broke out and Beresford had to be arrested for his own safety.

    Even more outrageous was Beresford’s alleged conduct after being summoned before a magistrate after riding his horse at high speed through a crowded street, heedless of any injuries he might cause. The story goes that he turned up at court on horseback and demanded his steed be questioned in the dock – after all, he explained, “Only he knows how fast he was going”. The case seems to have been rapidly dismissed.

    5) Colonel Thomas Thornton

    If these stories sound a little unbelievable to you, then they are nothing compared to the yarns spun by Britain’s greatest-ever liar Colonel Thomas Thornton (1757–1823), a former leader of Yorkshire’s West Riding Militia.

    It was blatantly obvious that Thornton’s tales were falser than those of Baron Münchausen, but that only added to their appeal. There was the time, for instance, he claimed to have fallen from his horse headfirst onto a scythe. According to Thornton, he was “the only man in Europe” to whom this calamity had ever happened, the scythe causing his head to literally split in two right down the middle, each half drooping down over either shoulder “like a pair of epaulettes” – quite how he managed to survive this catastrophe, he never fully explained.

    Drink, it has to be said, may have played a role in all this boasting, but a stranger would still have to be careful about dismissing all of Thornton’s boasts as false – if, for example, he tried to tell you that his wife was a champion jockey; that he had met Napoleon; or that he had invented a special shotgun with 12 barrels for shooting multiple targets at once with, then he would actually have been speaking the truth!

    6) Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson

    Generally known as Lord Berners, Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson (1883–1950) showed signs of eccentricity from an early age. As a child, he once threw a pet dog out of the window in an attempt to teach it to fly – a test the canine apparently failed. As an adult, Berners made his home at Faringdon House in Oxfordshire, and transformed it into his own personal playground. He dyed the feathers of the estate’s pigeons bright pink, and displayed various bizarre signs around the place. His most legendary notice was placed upon a tall tower in the grounds: “Members of the public committing suicide from this tower do so at their own risk”, it cautioned.

    Berners also liked to travel in style – his own style. He would drive around wearing a pig’s-head mask in order to disturb the locals, and, when forced to use public transport, would go to great lengths to secure a train-compartment for himself.

    Getting into empty carriages first, he would don a black skullcap and dark sunglasses before leaning out of the window and beckoning sinisterly to strangers on the platform, exhorting them to come and join him for some fun and games on the journey. Those few fools who took him up on the offer were then treated to Berners producing a large rectal-thermometer and constantly shoving it into his mouth while pulling anguished faces.

    7) John Tallis

    Some eccentric lives, however, seem more sad than amusing. In 1724, for instance, a 48-year-old man named John Tallis, (1676–1755) from the small village of Burcot in Worcestershire, decided that he had had enough of the outside world and retreated away from it forever. For some inexplicable reason, Tallis had arrived at the erroneous conclusion that the cause of all ill-health in humans was the very air we breathe.

    As such, Tallis ordered the windows in his bedroom to be bricked-up (although according to some sources he had an entirely new room built with only one window, which had glass three times thicker than usual), and then retreated permanently to his bed, tucking himself in tightly so that his head was the only exposed part of his body.

    Then, Tallis had his entire head wrapped in various coverings, caps and bandages made up of around 100 yards of flannel, like some kind of living Egyptian mummy, and fitted stoppers into both of his nostrils. A piece of ivory placed within his mouth also acted to lessen the inflow of ‘deadly’ air to his lungs and Tallis often had a piece of woollen cloth laid over his bandaged face, just in case.

    Tallis stayed locked in this peculiar tomb for nearly 30 years, during which time his sheets were never once changed – instead a new bed was brought into his room once per annum. His servants had to roll Tallis into it, his leg-muscles eventually having atrophied from lack of use.

    Written by Emma McFarnon for BBC History Magazine on Friday 9th October 2015


    S. D. Tucker's Great British Eccentrics is available for purchase now.

  • Eleanor of Castile by Sara Cockerill - feature

    Eleanor of Castile, the remarkable woman behind England’s greatest medieval king, Edward I, has been effectively airbrushed from history; yet she had one of the most fascinating lives of any of England’s queens. Her childhood was spent in the centre of the Spanish reconquest and was dominated by her military hero of a father (St Ferdinand) and her prodigiously clever brother (King Alfonso X the Learned). Married at the age of twelve and a mother at thirteen, she gave birth to at least sixteen children, most of whom died young. She was a prisoner for a year amid a civil war in which her husband’s life was in acute danger. Devoted to Edward, she accompanied him everywhere, including on Crusade to the Holy Land. All in all, she was to live for extended periods in five different countries. Eleanor was a highly dynamic, forceful personality who acted as part of Edward’s innermost circle of advisers, and successfully accumulated a vast property empire for the English Crown. In cultural terms her influence in architecture and design – and even gardening – can be discerned to this day, while her idealised image still speaks to us from Edward’s beautiful memorials to her, the Eleanor crosses. This book reveals her untold story.

    Read an Excerpt from Eleanor of Castile: The Shadow Queen:

    If you know anything at all about Eleanor of Castile, you may count yourself in the elite minority. By far the most common question I have been asked during the course of writing this book has been (with a puzzled frown) ‘Who was she, exactly?’ Perhaps one in ten of those asking has made the connection that Eleanor was the wife of England’s greatest medieval monarch, Edward I. And they are hardly alone. In a recent bestselling popular history a full-time historian and his editors managed to assign Philippa of Hainault to the first Edward, rather than the third; numerous other historians have also ‘lost’ Eleanor of Castile.

    The second most common question has been why I decided to write this book at all. The real answer is that I was labouring under a misapprehension. I thought that the record on Eleanor needed to be put straight and the perception that everyone had of her corrected. But it seems in fact that ‘everyone’ did not have a perception of her at all. Few knew that for centuries Eleanor has been wrongly lauded as the epitome of quiet retiring queens, with Botfield and Turner, upon whose work that of Agnes Strickland was substantially based, describing her thus: ‘No equivocal reputation is associated with Eleanor of Castile. She never swerved from the position which fortune assigned to her, or failed to perform the gentle and peaceful duties which belonged to it. The memory of her unobtrusive virtues and worth passed away with those who witnessed, or were the objects of her care and solicitude.’

    So why does Eleanor of Castile deserve to be rescued from the scrapheap of history? One very good reason is because she was far from unobtrusive; she was a remarkable woman for any era. Eleanor was a highly dynamic, forceful personality whose interest in the arts, politics and religion were highly influential in her day – and whose temper had even bishops quaking in their shoes. Highly intelligent and studious, she was incomparably better educated, and almost certainly brighter, than her husband. She was a scholar and an avid bookworm, running her own scriptorium (almost unique in European royal courts) and promoting the production of illustrated manuscripts, as well as works of romance and history. Equally unusually she could herself write and she considered it a sufficiently important accomplishment that her own children were made to acquire the skill.

    She also introduced numerous domestic refinements to English court life: forks, for example, first make their appearance in England in her household and carpets became sought after in noble circles in imitation of her interior design style. She was a pioneer of domestic luxury: she introduced the first purpose-built tiled bathroom and England’s first ‘fairy tale’ castle – both at her own castle of Leeds, in Kent. She revolutionised garden design in England, introducing innovations – including fountains and water features – familiar to her from Castile.

    Perhaps most interestingly she was also in many ways the obverse of the traditional mid-late medieval queen, who was expected to be humble and intercessory. She emphatically rejected the paradigm of submissive queenship, insisted on having a real job to do and was devoted to that work. As well as acting as part of Edward’s innermost circle of advisers, she also took on her own shoulders a whole department charged with accumulating properties for the Crown and acquired, through her own efforts, a major landed estate. In modern terms one might well see in Eleanor a parallel with Hillary Clinton – a real dynamic power behind the throne. feature on 30th October 2015


    Sara Cockerill's Eleanor of Castile is available for purchase now.

  • The Georgians: things you may not know - Britain Magazine feature

    Think you know the Georgians? Check out these weird and wonderful facts about the people who lived during an age of great social and political change, from Mike Rendell’s new book, The Georgians in 100 Facts.

    Jane_Austen_coloured_version Jane Austen, from a drawing by her sister Cassandra

    The Georgian era is known for its lavish fashions and sumptuous food, as well as being a time of great social and political change. It saw the birth of the Industrial Revolution, the abolition of the slave trade and the expansion of the British Empire.

    It was also the age of some of the most colourful and creative characters in British history, from Shelley and Wordsworth to the mad King George III and Capability Brown.

    Mike Rendell’s new book The Georgians in 100 Facts covers some weird and wonderful facts about the era, as well as debunking myths. Here’s a taste of what’s on offer.

    George III may not have been mad to start with, but he was by the end

    It has been fashionable to explain the various bouts of illness that affected George III throughout his reign as being caused by porphyria. Certainly, one of the symptoms of porphyria can be blue urine, apparently noted by the king’s doctors, but others argue that the discoloration was caused by his medicinal use of gentian root. Nowadays, he would probably be diagnosed as suffering from bipolar disorder.

    Whatever the cause, the fact remains that the behaviour of the king was at times extremely erratic. Contemporaries speak of his excessive loquacity, which would lead to him literally frothing at the mouth. He would scribble long sentences, only occasionally bothering to use a verb, and spend hours designing enormous palaces, filled with dramatic staircases by largely devoid of windows.

    ‘Capability’ Brown destroyed more gardens than anyone else before or since

    Capability Brown died on 6 February 1783, in London, leaving behind a legacy unparalleled in the history of English gardening. Indeed, one of the criticisms made against Brown was that he had destroyed so much of what had gone before. The architect Sir William Chambers complained that Brown’s grounds ‘differ very little from common fields, so closely is nature copied in most of them’.

    His works destroyed the three greatest Baroque gardens in England: Longleat House in 1757 and Chatsworth and Blenheim in 1760. In its place he brought a parkland style which became so popular that there can hardly be a stately home in the country which doesn’t show Brown’s influence to some degree.

    Jane Austen remained anonymous throughout her lifetime

    It is a truth universally acknowledged that although Jane Austen published four novels during her lifetime they were all published anonymously. Each book was described as having been written ‘by a lady’. While she was alive she received a certain amount of critical acclaim, from writers such as Sir Walter Scott, but derived very little financial return from her writings, and certainly not enough to lift her from a life of considerable straightened circumstances. Jane, like most of her heroines, was faced with the unenviable choice of remaining single and poor, or marrying and losing all independence. Unlike her heroines, who generally waited until love prevailed and all parties got their dues, Jane turned her back on the one proposal of marriage she did receive and paid the price by never getting to live happily ever after.

    Written by Sally Hales for The Official Magazine Britain feature on 4th September 2015


    Mike Rendell's The Georgians in 100 Facts is available for purchase now.

  • Dining with the Victorians Daily Express feature by Emma Kay

    Making a meal of it: How the Victorians influenced your eating habits

    From a cooked breakfast to our love of curries, many of Britain's familiar culinary habits were invented by the Victorians as a new book reveals.

    1. Victorians-eating-617709 Dining With The Victorians explores the impact they had on our eating habits today


    Many Victorians had an inexplicable obsession with the occult. In relation to food and cooking their superstitions were plentiful. Butter was thought to have healing properties, particularly for scalds and burns.

    In some counties such as Lincolnshire they used to throw salt on the fire as a portent for producing a good batch prior to the churning. In Lancashire it was considered important to insert a hot iron into the cream as a means of expel ling the witch believed to reside within.

    They also avoided bringing eggs into or taking eggs out of the house after dark to prevent bad luck and were the first to throw spilled salt over their shoulder.


    During Georgian times 15 plus courses would be prepared. It was Queen Victoria who made famous the two or three course meal with courses served in sequence one at a time. This was in contrast to the old French style of eating made popular by the Georgians of bringing out all the food at once.


    The Victorian era was also when the Sunday lunch came into its own. For many of the labouring classes, Sunday was the one day they would eat meat, usually a small joint of beef, pork or mutton accompanied by two types of green vegetable and potatoes. Invariably this would be followed by some form of fruit pie or jam roly poly pudding. If they were lucky enough to afford meat on any other day the poorer classes would indulge in offal, anything from liver to heart. Only the very poor or destitute would choose to eat soup, broth or boiled meat with any regularity as the labouring classes felt it had too many associations with poverty, often labelling it "slops".


    The food in workhouses did vary but in Charles Shaw's well known diary of his early life in Victorian Staffordshire he sheds an unappetising light on the fare on offer. He describes the bread as made of sawdust "blotched with lumps of plaster of Paris" which was served with a substance he called "greasy water" and a couple of lumps of something that "would have made a tiger's teeth ache". The supper consisted of something known as "skilly", which he described as "culinary making nausea". In prisons too the conditions were tough. Edward Du Cane, the surveyor general of prisons, believed in "scientific starvation" early in an inmate's stay. He thought abstinence from food was healthy and worried that if they were too well fed it might encourage others to offend. Most of the time prisoners were given stale hard bread, inedible suet pudding and gruel. There was little meat and no vegetables.

    By 1842 the government had decided that slops and gruel were detrimental to the health of prisoners and that "diet ought not to be made an instrument of punishment".


    The Victorian times were when people started eating a breakfast that we would recognise today. In the 18th century it had been dominated by cold meats, cheese and beer. The Victorians started having porridge, fish, bacon, eggs, toast and marmalade.

    They also changed the hour of dinner from 5pm to 7pm, which made the late meal of supper - taken around 9pm - less relevant.

    GOURMET CHEFSMany cooks of the Victorian era were women but the most fashion able families still employed highly skilled French male cooks at extortionate rates. The next best alternative was an English cook who had trained in France.

    While a top male cook could earn in excess of £80,000 a year in today's money, a good female cook would earn only half this.

    However, just because a family was wealthy does not mean they would have had a healthy diet. While they could afford more choice they were often ignorant in their food combinations, potentially leaving them as unhealthy as their poorer neighbours.


    One of the first kitchens to install a modern gas cooker was the elite Reform Club. So inspirational and innovative were the kitchens that they used to conduct tours around them and sectional views of the kitchen plans were mocked up, copied and sold to the public at a guinea for a coloured print and half a guinea for a black and white version. A total of 1,400 copies were sold. With the growth of the railways came the invention of food vending machines at stations. They quickly became regular features in railway stations and post offices, at first selling stationery and later food, particularly sweets.

    Nestle was one of the biggest manufacturers of these types of machine. Because they were so easy to scam - any old piece of metal would yield the machine's contents - it is surprising that it persevered with them.


    The Victorians were able to enjoy some foods that were imported from overseas. These included raisins from Malaga, grapes from France, dried tongues from Russia and Germany, and coconut oil from Manila and Ceylon. One of the big gest imports was sugar with more than 180,000 tons entering London in 1850. Not everything imported was exotic. Huge quantities of apples were brought in from the US, Belgium and France as well as a large amount of bacon and ham.

    A FRUITFUL BUSINESSPineapples became synonymous with wealth during the 19th century. Favoured by the upper classes they were served and displayed at dinner to indicate prosperity. In order to cultivate this fruit in cold, northern European temperatures Victorian gardeners invented "pineapple pits" which were essentially three trenches covered in glass. The walls of the trenches were bolstered with horse manure to generate heat and which had to be regularly topped up.

    CURRYING ROYAL FAVOURQueen Victoria loved curry. Her taste was influenced by her relationship with Abdul Karim, her controversial young servant, that began in 1887. It was at Osborne House where he first cooked for her using a spice box he had carried with him from India. He made her a chicken curry with a fragrant pilau and from that meal onwards the Queen requested Karim's dishes with greater regularity. In fact during the last decade of her life curry was ordered to be cooked on a daily basis.She only ever had curry for lunch, as was also customary for the British living out in India.

    Daily Express feature by Emma Kay on 7th November 2015

    Emma Kay's Dining with the Victorians is available for purchase now.


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