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  • Charles Brandon by Steven Gunn

    Charles Brandon, duke of Suffolk, won’t go away, but we always see him out of the corner of our eye. In panoramic sixteenth-century paintings like those showing the Field of Cloth of Gold and the sinking of the Mary Rose he is usually somewhere just behind the king. Seventeenth-century sight-seers in the Tower of London were shown two great jousting lances among the collections of royal armour: one, they were told, was Henry VIII’s, the other Charles Brandon’s. In 1953, as Disney tried to tap the market for swashbuckling historical epics, they made The Sword and the Rose about Brandon’s shocking love-match with Henry VIII’s sister, Mary, the newly widowed queen of France; but Richard Todd’s solid Brandon was outshone by Glynis Johns’ charming princess and James Robertson Justice’s booming king. In our own age a rather dim-witted Brandon has cropped up in Wolf Hall, while in The Tudors he was a more rakish and athletic friend for Henry, as befitted the casting of Henry Cavill, who went on to play Superman.

    Charles Brandon 2 Henry VIII by Hans Holbein. (Amberley Publishing)

    What is true in popular culture is also true in the historical record. Brandon is always there, with the king at court, sitting on the council, commanding armies, in every decade of Henry’s reign. But he is always just out of focus. When Henry came to the throne, Brandon was just one in a gaggle of athletic young men around the king. His friends died in Henry’s first French war or faded from the scene, but no sooner had he reached the top with creation as duke of Suffolk than Cardinal Wolsey established his suffocating primacy as Henry’s chief minister. Wolsey’s fall brought noblemen like Brandon back to the centre of politics, but the rise of Anne Boleyn and Thomas Cromwell edged him aside again. In the five years before his death in 1545 he served the king in a more collective, conciliar regime, but it was bureaucrats like William Paget and younger generals like Edward Seymour and John Dudley who rose to the top, as they planned for the reign of Henry’s son Edward.

    Brandon was always a supporting actor, but we can learn a lot from him. No-one survived as long at Henry’s bloody court or rose so far and so fast, from esquire to duke in just five years. If he lived today, airport bookshops would sell bulky paperbacks promising lessons for success drawn straight from his life. Such a book would have, I think, seven chapters.

    The first lesson would the importance in a personal monarchy of one’s relationship with the king. Brandon’s family were courtiers under Henry VII and that gave him a good start, but it was the interests and pleasures he shared with Henry VIII, from jousting, dancing and romantic dalliance to building great houses and invading France, that built a lasting relationship of confidence between them, making Brandon, as Henry once put it, ‘the man in all the world he loved and trusted best’. That relationship was tested at various points, by his unauthorised marriage to the king’s sister, by accusations that he was compromised by his promotion of Anglo-French amity to secure her dower income from France, by various military failures and by his difficult relationship with Anne Boleyn, but it always survived.

    Charles Brandon 3 Henry VIII jousting at the tournament to celebrate the birth of a prince, February 1511. It was at this tournament that Henry and Brandon fought one of their most dashing combats. (Amberley Publishing)

    One reason for his survival, and material for lesson two, was that he could protest to the king that his aim had always been to serve him rather than to do down his colleagues: as he once put it to Henry, ‘there was never none of them in trouble but I was glad to help them to my power, and that Your Grace knows best’. He worked well with Wolsey early in his career, cooperated more readily than other noblemen with Cromwell, and late in life managed, remarkably, to collaborate closely not only with the moderate core of Henry’s council, older men like John, lord Russell and younger like the earl of Arundel, but also with the reformists like Edward Seymour who would dominate Edward VI’s reign and the conservatives, like Thomas Wriothesley, whom they would push aside. His own ambiguous, not to say confused, attitude to religious change was probably no disadvantage in keeping contemporaries on both sides of the Reformation debate happy.

    A third chapter would have to point out that long careers under Henry rested not only on amiability but also on talent. The young Brandon was good at jousting, good enough to fight the king well but make sure he won, but more important in the long term was his ability in military command. Ellis Gruffudd, the Welsh soldier of the Calais garrison who served under the duke in 1523 and did not mince his words about incompetent commanders, called him ‘the flower of all the captains of the realm’. He played an important part in the capture of Tournai in 1513 and that of Boulogne in 1544, the two great conquests of Henry’s reign. In between he led English troops closer to Paris in 1523 than they had ever been since the loss of English France in the Hundred Years War, suppressed the Lincolnshire rising in 1536 and helped plan Seymour’s lightning attack on Edinburgh in 1544. No wonder Henry entrusted him with the defence of southern England in 1545 as French invasion threatened.

    Charles Brandon 1 Double portrait of May and Charles Brandon, by an unknown artist. (Amberley Publishing)

    Another chapter would have to deal with marriage, an area in which Brandon’s record was ambitious but unscrupulous. As a young man he flirted with bigamy, marrying one lady for love and another for her money in a tangle that had later to be sorted out by papal authority. He then contracted to marry a youthful ward to get control of her lands and apparently made overtures on the 1513 campaign to the widowed but vivacious Margaret of Austria, regent of the Netherlands, in an affair which probably started as an embarrassing joke of Henry’s, but turned into a diplomatic incident. The marriage to Henry’s sister Mary followed, bringing with it wealth from her French dowry and a powerful position in the royal family as well, it seems, as romantic fulfilment. After her death came another lucrative but controversial match, to Katherine Willoughby, heiress to large lands in Lincolnshire, but originally intended as a bride for Brandon’s probably sickly son Henry.

    The fifth lesson to draw from Brandon’s life is that for a nobleman, as for the king, the overriding aim of marriage was to have sons to continue his line. His two sons by Mary, each called Henry, died in his lifetime but two by Katherine Willoughby, Henry and Charles, survived him. They would doubtless have played a significant part in the reign of an adult Edward VI had they not succumbed to the sweating sickness in 1551.

    The landed power and local following Brandon built up for himself and his sons would make for another chapter. He started in East Anglia, Oxfordshire and Berkshire, trying to replace the previous dukes of Suffolk, the De la Pole family, but his success was mixed. He never gained control of all the De la Pole lands, he relied too heavily on his own relatives in local affairs and his relationship with the other great lords of East Anglia, the Howards dukes of Norfolk, was tense. He managed to serve the king locally in raising troops in 1523 and calming down the Amicable Grant risings in 1525, but he was never as comfortably in command of local affairs as he was in his last years, when the king gave him monastic land in Lincolnshire in exchange for his earlier estates. Together with the Willoughby inheritance of his last wife, this built a solid base for local power which he consolidated in building a following among the county gentry and settling Lincolnshire after the revolt of 1536.

    516,Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk,by Unknown artist Charles Brandon late in life by an unknown artist, perhaps after Holbein, c. 1540-45. (Amberley Publishing)

    The last lesson of Brandon’s career was that power had to be displayed to be effective. Throughout his life he was active as a patron who could ask the king for favours for those who sought his help. Poets praised him, picking on the virtues closest to his heart: Robert Whittinton likened him to Achilles, John Parkhurst to Mars. He built or extended great houses, Suffolk Place in Southwark, Westhorpe in Suffolk, Grimsthorpe in Lincolnshire. He decorated them with fashionable turrets and terracottas, fitted them out with luxurious tapestries and Turkey carpets, and filled their stables with fine horses. He made his greatness visible in ways acceptable to his contemporaries, suggesting open-handed magnificence rather than self-seeking pride.

    As a graduate student I hit on Charles Brandon as the subject of my doctoral thesis rather on the rebound. I had wanted to write a study of Henry VIII’s wars and their effects on his people, but as I set to work it seemed much too ambitious and I was wisely advised by my supervisor, C.S.L. Davies, to find a project that would make more easily for a focused and original piece of research. In a sense my original idea hatched many years later as this year’s James Ford Lectures in British History, ‘The English People at War in the Age of Henry VIII’. Meanwhile the study of Charles Brandon enabled me to investigate many areas of Henry’s reign – court politics, diplomacy, warfare, Welsh government, art patronage, noble power at county level, the exploitation of landed estates – and see how they all fitted together in one man’s career. The study became my thesis and my first book. Years after it went out of print people were emailing me asking if I knew how they could get copies, as originals were selling on the internet for hundreds of pounds. It was clear that Charles Brandon would not go away. So I was pleased when Amberley Publishing asked if I would like to produce a second edition. Charles Brandon has come back, and I hope others will find his career as fascinating a way into the world of Henry VIII and his people as I have done.


    Steven Gunn's book Charles Brandon: Henry VIII's Closest Friend is available for purchase now.

  • Class 52 Westerns: The Twilight Years by Stephen Dowle

    The British Railways Modernisation Plan of 1955 brought many innovations, but most visible to the layman or ordinary rail passenger was the replacement of steam by diesel locomotives. It should have been a time for clear vision, decisiveness and a firm hand on the tiller. Instead, screeching and clattering over the points went the bizarre twenty-strong Metro-Vick Co-Bo class and the ten 'Baby Deltics', which proved too heavy for the lines they were intended to operate. There were others.

    Class 52 2 IC63, the 13.15 Paddington-Cardiff (Class 52 Westerns, Amberley Publishing)

    The B. R. regions, legatees of the pre-Nationalisation 'Big Four' companies, retained considerable autonomy in the management of their affairs. Three of the four regions adopted the diesel-electric locomotive. This, properly understood, was an electric locomotive that carried a diesel engine to generate its own current ... more flexible and cheaper in infrastructure costs than a pure electric locomotive, which uses current generated at a power station. The Western Region, descendant of the Great Western Railway and noted, like its predecessor, for unorthodoxy ...not to say bloody-mindedness... decided to build diesel-hydraulic locomotives. The application of diesel-hydraulic technology to railways had been pioneered in Germany. The engines and transmissions for the W. R.'s locomotives were of German origin, though built, for political reasons, by British licensees. The first five locomotives, of A1A-A1A axle configuration and wished upon the W. R. by the British Transport Commission, were constructed on heavyweight principles appropriate to diesel-electrics, thereby squandering one of the main advantages of the diesel-hydraulic system, a high power-to-weight ratio. After this false start came three main types, known as the Warships, the Hymeks and, finally, in 1961, the Westerns.

    Class 52 3 DI047 Western Lord (Class 52 Westerns, Amberley Publishing)

    Considered as part of the whole B. R. fleet the locomotives were decidedly non-standard, but they were unlike the numerically small, dead-loss designs that had appeared elsewhere on the system. The Hymeks were perhaps the most successful and enjoyed a good record of reliability and performance throughout their short working lives. The other two classes, like all thoroughbreds, were given to episodes of temperament, but once early problems had been remedied they settled, in their mature years, to a record as good as any contemporary diesel-electric. The Westerns, so called because all were given two-word names beginning with 'Western', were the Region's flagships ... it’s most powerful line-service locomotives and successors to the Great Western's King class steam engines. They were a handsome, clean design that made the diesel-electrics look like their ugly sisters. Much of their appeal derived from the impressive acoustics of their paired, fast-idling Maybach engines. These were a turbocharged and intercooled version of the Warships' engines, crammed, with difficulty, into a body reduced from German dimensions to fit the smaller clearances of British loading-gauge. Unlike the diesel-electric system, which requires power to be applied in gradual increments, hydraulic transmission demands a vigorous application of power at the start. Because of this characteristic, riding behind a Western, especially if running late, could be an exhilaratingly noisy experience.

    I first came to railways in the last days of steam, but lost interest when steam disappeared. I had not kept abreast of developments and it came as a surprise when, one day in 1973, I overheard someone say that the Westerns were being withdrawn and scrapped. As long ago as 1967, I learned, a decision had been taken to rectify the problem of the Modernisation Plan's small and too numerous locomotive types. The diesel-hydraulics, though performing well by this time, amounted to little more than 10% of the BR fleet. Inevitably, they had to go. Even back in my steam days I had admired the Westerns and had assumed they would see out a normal service lifetime, perhaps lasting into the 21st century. A plan formed in my mind and I bought a new camera. It was already too late for the Warships, which had all been withdrawn by 1972; the Hymeks were down to a handful of survivors; but the Westerns were still almost intact and I could assemble a collection of photographs. The intention to eliminate the Westerns (by now officially 'Class 52') by the end of 1974 proved too ambitious and they battled on, increasingly dilapidated but extremely tenacious of life, until the last were withdrawn in February 1977.

    Class 52 1 DI003 Western Pioneer (Class 52 Westerns, Amberley Publishing)

    My collection of photographs now meets its destiny, forty years on, in this Amberley publication. It is very much a 'one man's view' sort of book, giving an account in pictures, accompanied by a chatty text, of the events as I experienced them. However deplorable the early proliferation of non-standard types may have been from the point of view of operational efficiency, it was an interesting time for enthusiasts. Alas, railways are not operated for the entertainment of railway enthusiasts. Looking back and comparing, one is impressed by how packaged, sanitised and generally joyless railway travel has become. Today's traveller, eyes down to his smart phone for relief from the sterility of his surroundings, is packed into high density seating in a sealed, soundproofed, air-conditioned, fiberglass-infested multiple unit of gimcrack appearance, humming along on continuously-welded rails.

    So climb aboard and let the years fall away. Take care, as the heavy door slams with a solid double snap behind you, not to spill your scalding plastic cup of B. R. chicory substitute. Settle your hindquarters, with a jangle of springs, into the deep cushions of the veneer-lined compartment. Lower the upholstered arm rest and turn the heating control knob above your head. With faint ticking sounds, little zephyrs of warmth begin to circulate around your lower legs. Reach for your Lyon's individual fruit pie and sit back for a swaying, lurching trip into the rusty, overgrown sidings of a forgotten railway epoch.


    Stephen Dowle's Class 52 Westerns: The Twilight Years is available for purchase now.

  • The Jane Austen Files by Helen Amy

    Jane Austen 1 Jane Austen by Cassandra Austen (Amberley Publishing)

    After the publication of my book Jane Austen In Her Own Words & The Words of Those Who Knew Her I was asked to compile a volume containing all the Austen family biographical material which I had used. I was also asked to trace the development of the biographical knowledge of Jane Austen.

    Although she is one of England’s greatest and best-loved novelists whose works are still widely read nearly two centuries after her death, it was not until the 1860’s that Jane Austen was recognized as a great writer.

    As Jane’s popularity grew readers wanted to know more about her and people began to flock to her grave in Winchester Cathedral. There was no indication on her gravestone that Jane was a famous writer and a puzzled verger was heard to ask “Is there something particular about that lady?”

    Jane Austen 2 James Edward Austen-Leigh, the author of the first biography of Jane Austen (Amberley Publishing)

    The first biography of Jane Austen was written by her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh, partly to satisfy the growing curiosity about her. His Memoir of Jane Austen, which was published in 1869, sold so well that it was soon followed by a second edition.

    As the interest in Jane continued to grow, her letters and further biographical material were published by later generations of the Austen family. The Jane Austen Files, which also contains forty-three illustrations, brings these memoirs, letters and a family diary together in one volume. As well as showing how knowledge of this much loved author has developed over time, this book also opens a fascinating window on the England in which she lived and set her novels*. It will be of interest to students of English literature and all those who love the works of Jane Austen.

    *My current project is a highly illustrated book about Jane Austen’s England.


    Helen Amy's book The Jane Austen Files is available for purchase now.

  • Ryan Giggs Fifty Defining Fixtures by Tony Matthews

    Ryan Giggs, OBE, was born in Cardiff on 29 November 1973 and made his senior debut for Manchester United in 1990. He became a first team regular at Old Trafford during the 1991-92 season and went on to score 168 goals in more than 960 competitive games for the club, as well as gaining 64 caps for Wales and playing in four Olympic Games matches for GB, before retiring (as a player) in 2014.

    Ryan Giggs pic 1 Ryan Giggs in action during the friend;y match between Singha All Star XI and Manchester United at Rajamangala Stadium on 13th July 2013 in Thailand (mooinblack/

    Renowned for his tireless running, ball control, ability to create chances and scoring goals, he is one of the most decorated players in British football history, and during his playing days, he helped United win 13 Premiers League titles, the FA Cup four times, the League Cup on three occasions and the Champions League twice, as well as collecting several runner’s-up prizes.

    The first footballer in history to win two consecutive PFA Young Player of the Year awards (in 1992 and 1993), he was also named PFA Player of the Year in 2009 and is the only player to score in every Premier League season, starting in 1992-93

    Chosen in the PFA Team of the Century in 2007, the Premier League Team of the Decade in 2003 and the FA Cup Team of the Century, he was, being the youngest player to represent his country (Wales) when making his debut in 1991, and he captained Team GB at the 2012 London Olympics

    Made an OBE in 2007 for his services to English football, he was named BBC Sports Personality of the Year in 2009 and in January 2011, was voted Manchester United's greatest ever player.

    Ryan Giggs pic 2 Ryan Giggs, again during the Singha All Star XI v. Manchester United friendly at Rajamangala Stadium (mooinblack/

    After acting briefly as United’s interim manager at the end of the 2013-14 season, he was subsequently appointed as Louis van Gaal’s assistant (May 2014) and is also co-owner (with some of his former Manchester united team-mates) of non-League club, Salford City.

    Ex-Ajax Amsterdam, CF Barcelona and Holland legend Johan Cruyff said: "Eric Cantona was a great player, but he was not as good as Ryan Giggs."

    To choose fifty out of the 1,000 plus football matches Ryan has played in was mighty tough… I can tell you that for nothing. In fact, 200 who have been hard going, even 100, but to narrow it down to just fifty was nigh on impossible. But with the help of some diehard supporters I got there in the end and although I know for sure that I have upset a few people simply for not including their ‘favourite’ match, I just hope that the ones I have reported on, bring back some find memories.


    Tony Matthew's Ryan Giggs Fifty Defining Fixtures is available for purchase now.

  • The Wars of the Roses by John Ashdown-Hill

    History is full of myths – and a prime example is the so-called WARS OF THE ROSES - a name which has now become so well-known that it is difficult to avoid using it, but a name which was only invented two or three hundred years after the event it purports to describe.

    The traditional story of THE WARS OF THE ROSES depicts a fight between the rival royal houses of Lancaster and York. But this takes little account of other families such as the Mortimers, the Beauforts, the Woodvilles and the so-called ‘Tudors’ who played an important role in the contest – and who therefore figure significantly in this book.

    rose A modern reproduction of one version of the rose-en-soleil badge of Edward, Earl of March (Edward IV) (The Wars of the Roses, Amberley Publising)

    And of course, the traditional WARS OF THE ROSES story depicts the two rival armies as wearing respectively either red or white roses. However, there is not a shred of surviving evidence that any single one of the three kings of the house of Lancaster ever used a red rose badge. As for the house of York, it certainly did use a rose badge – but as for the COLOUR of that Yorkist rose, the evidence is less clear.

    In the modern world the word WAR means a continuous and ongoing series of battles. But THE WARS OF THE ROSES had no such continuity. There were sometimes many years of peace between the fighting. Also, a modern war normally has fairly clear dates of starting and finishing. But in the case of THE WARS OF THE ROSES we have no such clear dates. The royal dynastic conflict actually began towards the end of the fourteenth century, as the childless King Richard II confronted arguments in parliament as to who should be regarded as the heir to his throne. As for the ending of the contest, this is often dated to the battle of Bosworth in 1485, at which the last Yorkist reigning monarch, King Richard III, was killed. But that is based on hindsight, and the fact that the winner – King Henry VII – thereafter remained king of England until his natural death, and was succeeded by one of his sons. However, that takes no account of the ongoing Yorkist attempts to regain the throne. Although all of these were ultimately unsuccessful, such attempts went on well into the sixteenth century.

    So we need to take a new look at THE WARS OF THE ROSES – a look which goes back to primary contemporary evidence. This book does so, and the result is an authentic – but intriguingly different account of the famous contests for the English crown.


    John Ashdown-Hill's new book The Wars of the Roses 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.

  • The Bristol Avon by Steve Wallis

    I am not a very good tourist. I find it difficult just to go somewhere and enjoy looking around for its own sake – I need an added purpose like taking photos to show to friends or colleagues. So writing a book about the Bristol Avon was ideal for me – between January and August of this year I got to make a series of visits to a very attractive and diverse part of the country, some of it well-known to me, some a wholly undiscovered country, and explore, make notes and take pictures.

    The Bristol Avon was also an excellent subject because it occupies a relatively small area. Though it is around eighty miles long, it flows in a something of a loop so that every point on its course is no more than fifteen miles from a spot just north-east of Bristol. So people who live near the river can explore all the places along it with relative ease, and this is something I wanted to let them know about.

    This route takes it from the rural Cotswolds around the Gloucestershire-Wiltshire border, down through the historic towns of north-west Wiltshire such as Chippenham and Bradford-on-Avon, then back north-west past the Cotswolds (and through some particularly lovely countryside) until it reaches Bath. Not far on the river flows through Bristol, after which it is named, then its final stretch has more spectacular views, especially in the Clifton Gorge.

    The more I looked, the more I realised the importance of the river to the development of the towns and cities along its route as a source of power and enabler of trade, and this is especially the case for Bristol, which owed its original existence to the river and then grew rich on trade along it and out across the Atlantic. Bristol’s links to early exploration of the New World, possibly even before the time of Columbus, was something that I found utterly fascinating.

    It was not all plain sailing, though. I was following the ‘From Source to Sea’ formula of books in this series, but found this a little difficult as there is no single agreed source for the river, just a number of streams flowing out of the Cotswolds that join together around Malmesbury. Then at the other end the river flows out into the Severn estuary at a point that may not really be the sea!

    And then there was the wait for a train. One Saturday just outside Chippenham, I found a lovely spot where a bridge crossed the river. Nearby a family of swans were swimming around, and in the distance there was a railway line. What a lovely juxtaposition between the swans and a passing train, thought I, and settled down to wait for one of the latter. Very obligingly the swans hung around, but after twenty minutes there was still no train. This seemed odd, since this was one of the main lines from London to the South-West. Fortunately I then had the sense to check train times on my phone as this told me the line was closed that day for engineering works, saving me from a much longer wait!


    Steve Wallis' The Bristol Avon 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.

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