Wednesday, 24 January 2018

DESTRIER - A Recent Hunt in Progress by Elizabeth Chadwick

late 13th century apocalypse British Library
Social media has its problems, but I love it for the exchange of ideas and information which just wouldn't have been possible before the days of the Internet, or certainly not possible within the time frames to which we have now become accustomed.

About a fortnight ago, I got talking on a Facebook friend's page with him and other interested people about the word 'destrier' as a term for a medieval warhorse.   A debate began about when the word first came into use.  1400 was mentioned as a date for the word to enter the vernacular, and that the Normans would not  have used such a term for their own warhorses.

My area of expertise is from circa 1066 up to around 1230, and I had always used the word 'destrier' in my novels as a term for a knight's warhorse, so I was surprised to read that the name came in so late. It was pointed out to me that the 13th century History of William Marshal, which has a great deal of engagement with warhorses, doesn't once mention the word destrier.  Warhorses are always just known as 'chival' and indeed, that's where the word 'chivalry' comes from.  It's made clear that a knight's riding horse was a 'palfrey' his pack horse a 'sumpter' and his warhorse was a 'chival.' Ordinary riding horses are called 'roncins'.
Sumpter horses - Hortus Delicarum 

Made curious, and not convinced, I went digging.
I headed first to the Anglo Norman Dictionary.  It's a wonderful online resource of primary source evidence for Anglo Norman words.
website here for the Anglo Norman Dictionary  Looking up 'Destrier' I immediately got the word back to 1230 together with references to palfreys (high ranking riding horses) and coursers (fast horses for hunting).  So clearly 1400 as an assumption was wrong.   Looking up the word again in the same source for this blog, I glanced at the entry below 'destrier' - 'destries' (various spelt, sometimes without the 's' which means 'behind' but discovered when checking the source for an example citation that 'destrier' by chance, happened to be part of the sentence. - 'il est detries lui sur le destrier asis.'    The source was given as The Romance of Horn and dates to circa 1170.  Now I had the source back to the latter 12th century and a full two hundred and thirty years before 1400. 

I then turned to the Pipe Rolls to check if the word was being used in Latin in the twelfth century. The Pipe Rolls are basically the King's annual accounts for England.  Sadly not all of these account rolls have survived the vagaries of time and the early part of the 12th century and the reign of Henry I is barely covered. However, enough remain to reveal that 'destriers' glossed in Latin as 'dextrarii'  single 'dextrarius'  are constantly mentioned. In 1197, Joscelin de Amundeville gave a destrier and a hawk in homage to his overlord.  One Nicholas de Chavencurt gives 10 marks and a destrier he had promised to Count John (future King John).
The same thing happened throughout the pipe rolls of Henry II, and often as high status gifts and pledges, sometimes given with a hawk, which is strongly indicative of a gift denoting that the giver renders service and allegiance to his overlord. In other words it's always in a high status context.  When the Count of Toulouse was making an agreement with King Henry II in 1173, one of the terms was a payment of 100 silver marks or alternatively ten 'dextarii' worth ten marks each.  Around this time, a common soldier's riding horse - aforementioned roncin or rouncy - would fetch around one and a half marks. A surviving pipe roll from the last years of Henry I 3 times references the term 'dextarii'in the context of high status payments. 

Checking further primary sources I had on my shelves,  there was again a reference to 'dextarii' in William FitzStephen's Description of London, dating to around 1174, where he describes the horse sales held every Friday at Smithfield in London where earls, barons and knights, as well as ordinary citizens came to view the beasts on offer.  The destriers (dextarii) are described as 'beautiful in shape, noble in stature, with ears and necks erect and plump buttocks.'

I was also alerted to the fact that the Song of Roland, written circa 1129, contains the term 'destrer' for Count Ganelon's warhorse  named Tachebrun.  So now we're 170 years adrift of 1400 and clearly all the evidence points to the term referring to a high status war horse.  Destrier in Old French.  Dextarius in Latin.

As another note, there is a Welsh word meaning 'well fed horse' that is very similar to 'destrier' - 'edystir' and this will bear further investigation. It occurs in the laws of Welsh Prince Hywel Dda which are 10th century in origin, but surviving manuscripts in Welsh and Latin date to the mid 13th century.

The hunt continues, as does the question as to why the horses were actually known as 'destriers'.  There are two theories for which I am currently searching for proof.  I also acknowledge that the theories may blend and both may be right - or neither.  Without primary source evidence, it can only remain best guess.  I can find several secondary sources, but as yet none from the horse's mouth (pun intended!).

Tournament Guiron le Courtois Naples 1352 British Library

One notion goes that the horses were always led on the right hand side by the squires and grooms who tended to these expensive, magnificent beasts and would have to lead them in their lord's pack train.  Destriers were not used as ordinary riding horses, but generally led to the place of tourney or battle and then mounted at need.  For example in the Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal,  Patrick of Salisbury, William's uncle was killed while trying to get from his palfrey to his warhorse when his party was ambushed on the road.  Earlier in the Histoire, William's father John ambushed Patrick when Patrick was unarmed and riding casually, but heading to make war. (clearly Patrick didn't learn from experience!).

The other notion is that destriers were so called because they led on the right leg when commencing a gallop to the joust. But this doesn't fully explain the early 12th century use of the term with regards to jousting.  One on one jousts did exist as we hit the 1130's, but there were no barriers and they were always a preliminary to the main event which was a free for all with everyone piling in to fight over a wide area.   Having said that, warhorses were highly trained animals and the lead on the right leg could have been part of general fighting tactics. 

It will be interesting to find out if the word 'destrier' occurrs around the same time as the joust and organised combat sport meetings begin to take off in the early 12th century, or whether it goes back earlier.  I am still digging away at sources and pondering ideas and theories.  I have not carved anything in stone beyond the fact that the word had entered parlance long, long before 1400.

As always, my curiosity and my research continue, being refined as I go.  I started that particular day a fortnight ago, never knowing that such a fascinating research tunnel was waiting to open up in front of me!  If anyone has any primary source reference to the world going back before 1129, then do leave a comment - I'd love to know!

My thanks to Brendan Cronin, Nigel Amos and Joseph Pickett for conversations.

References - in very short.

The Anglo Norman Dictionary Online (linked in the text).
The Annals of Roger of Hovedon volume 1
William FitzStephen - Description of London
The Song of Roland
Various Pipe Rolls of the reigns of Henry I, Henry II, Richard I, King John
The Laws of Hywel Dda.
Histoire de Guillaume le Mareschal

Elizabeth Chadwick is a best selling author of more than 20 novels set in the Medieval period.  Her latest novel, Templar Silks, covering what William Marshal might have done during his pilgrimage to the Holy Land will be published in the UK in hardcover on March 1st.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

History restored: the Red Kite, by Leslie Wilson

Photo: Mike Prince from Bangalore, India
'The kites are gathering.' I don't know how many historical novels I have read those words in, and I can't find a reference now, which is annoying. But as a child, I knew that kites came to battlefields, and internalised those words. Perhaps the birds recognised the signs of incipient battle, which would mean food for them.

Nowadays, if I want to see a kite, all I have to do is go outside. There was one this morning, when we walked the dog; riding the wind, adjusting its wings with admirable skill. Riding on the rein of a wimpling wind, as Manley Hopkins wrote about the kestrel. It's been called the British vulture, though no vulture is as beautiful and elegant as the red kite. It's an enormous bird; when you see the odd kite that has landed and is sitting on the grass, you can see what large birds they are. Their wingspan can reach up to 195 centimetres, almost two metres.

You'd never think they were so big when you see them hanging in the sky. I love their display call, a confident, almost insolent whistle; Whee, whee-whee-whee! They look less confident, though, when they're being harried by a mob of crows. Crows seem to hate them, and probably they do raid crows' nests,but the crows raid theirs.

Robert Southey talks about kites squealing in the skies over the Lake District, where you won't hear them nowadays. Shakespeare says: 'When the kite builds, look to your lesser linen.' Kites haven't changed, then; they are fond of taking small cuddly toys and underwear to put in their nests. They were even known as the 'hat bird' because they were supposed to have removed hats from people's heads. Luckily, I don't wear a hat much in bird-nesting season.

They were apparently protected in England and Wales in medieval times, because they were useful scavengers; like vultures, they cleared up carrion and thrown-out meat that would otherwise rot or attract rats. Killing them even attracted the death penalty, according to a blogger. I'm sure I've seen references to kites hanging round the rubbish dumps on the outskirts of British cities. In Britain it was known in the past by a number of local names the most widespread being 'Glead' or 'Gleade' - a name derived from its gliding flight and 'Puttock'.

However, by the eighteenth century the kite was seen as a danger to game and even crops; it was relentlessly hunted, and it became vanishingly rare. Egg collectors were a further threat to the few remaining pairs, as they wanted to get the last eggs for their collections, which, frankly, makes me want to spit. 'On the authority of two good ornithologists' says my early 20th century The Birds of the British Isles and Their Eggs, 'we know that a pair nested in Devonshire in 1913, though unfortunately the eggs were taken.' Only a few birds managed to survive in Wales.

red kite (not captive) by Jason Thompson
It sounds hopeless; and yet very recent history tells a very different story, as inhabitants of the Home Counties and the south Midlands know. In the late 1980s, the red kite was considered to be one of the most threatened birds in Europe - and then the Chilterns reintroduction was launched by the RSPB and the Nature Conservancy Council. It began in 1989, shortly after we came to live on the lowest slopes of the Chilterns, and began to walk regularly at Christmas Common and Watlington Hill, where a wooden board went up; Red Kites in the Chilterns. You can still see it in the Watlington Hill car park, faded now, and rather superfluous. The few chicks who were brought from healthy populations of Spanish kites were kept in wooden pens in the Oxfordshire/Buckinghamshire beechwoods, and then released into the wild. The first pair bred successfully in 1991. In the early '90s, we still thought ourselves lucky if we saw a red kite at Watlington Hill. How different things are now! You can see them over urban Reading.

Can anyone tell me more about red kites in literature and history?

To see a map of current distribution of red kites in the British Isles, go to the RSPB, where you can also see a video of a kite flying, though unfortunately you don't hear the display whistle. What you can hear is all the little birds crying out in alarm when the kite stoops; it does have a bird of prey profile, after all, and they do take nestlings.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Diamond Annie and the Fearless Forty Elephants by Catherine Hokin

 Jewellery Displays at the Ritz Paris
In among all the Brexit misery and non-shuffling cabinet
re-shuffles that have dominated the press so far this year, there has been one story which has had more elements of farce than even the Prime Minister can conjure up: the recent jewellery heist at the Ritz Hotel in Paris. For those of you who missed it, a group of thieves (one dressed as a builder) armed with small axes smashed through a window and assorted display cases and stole items with a value of several million euros.

Not surprisingly their actions triggered the alarms: the hapless thieves (who were all known to police), ran, scattering their loot like confetti, and were pretty much immediately caught by security. More Wallace and Gromit than the Pink Panther. Perhaps they should have spent a bit more time studying history than the hotel layout and acquainted themselves with the shop-looting tactics of the Forty Elephants, a female-run gang which dominated parts of the London crime scene for almost two hundred years.

The gang worked out of the Elephant and Castle district and, although they are primarily documented between the 1870s to the 1950s, appear to have grown out of the Elephant gang of highwaymen operating around the area's Elephant Coaching Inn in the eighteenth century.

 Female Shoplifter
Their activities included blackmail and house-breaking but they were most notorious for ransacking department stores, including Selfridges and Whiteleys. Police reports describe thousands of pounds of clothing and jewellery being seized in a single swoop, to be stored away in deep pockets, muffs and the voluminous bloomers and crinolines of the period. Perhaps because of all the stowed loot, one report (in the 1925 San Jose Chronicle) reports many of the gang women as big handsome women about six feet tall. They are also described as fashionably dressed although the mention of razors in their corsages does cast a darker side on some of the rather glamourised reporting which focused on their good looks and excessive, partying lifestyle particularly in the 'decadent' 1920s. These girls were territorial and ruled their patch as much by violence as any of their male counterparts.

 Lilllian Rose Kendall, the Bobbed Haired Bandit
The gang seems to have been at its strongest in the 1920s and 1930s when they took full advantage of the newly available motor car to extend their operations beyond London and acquire get-a-way vehicles far faster than anything the police could manage. One police report describes how they would descend in taxis and limousines like a gang of locusts, stripping out a store within an hour. Others describe the arrest of one gang member at Whiteleys who had a bag hidden inside her clothes which hung from her waist to her knees and contained over 40 stolen items and one who used a false arm in her blouse. Techniques included the 'crush' where women crowded at a counter and then handed round or dropped items for others to hide. And fighting back, hard. During this period, the gang had its most famous queen: Alice Diamond or Diamond Annie as the police dubbed her after her jewel-encrusted rings which gave her a punch to beware of. Alice was born in Lambeth workhouse, came from a crime family and was a notorious shoplifter by her teens. She took over the gang in 1916 when she was 20, continuing to rule the mob even after she was imprisoned in 1925 after the 'Battle of Lambeth' when a dispute led to Alice leading an army of women armed with lumps of concrete and broken bottles into a brutal attack. The role of Queen passed next onto Lillian Kendall and the gang continued its operations into the 1950s.

Many of the women involved in the gang have colourful reputations but also stories of lives begun in terrible poverty. Alice was one of eight children born in the dreadful conditions of a workhouse and her father was a violent and illiterate petty criminal. Life had few choices for women in her position so perhaps the path the glamour-loving Alice chose is not so hard to understand. Last year it was announced that Marnie Dickens is developing a series for the BBC about the gang and its members - with so much 'glamour' involved it's easy to see why this could be a female Peaky Blinders but let's hope it tells a rounded tale. For anyone interested in finding out more, there are a number of books about the gang, including one by Brian McDonald whose uncles led the male Elephant and Castle gang who the Forty Elephants were linked to. It's quite a story.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Historical Research - Pelicans and Donald Rumsfeld by Imogen Robertson

Ned signing his contract
It’s been an exciting couple of months at our house. My husband Ned Palmer who crops up in my History Girls posts from time to time, has got a book deal. God help us, we are now a two author household. He’s a cheesemonger, and for the last few years has run a company providing cheese and cheese talks to all sorts of people from lawyers and lobbying firms to family groups and incidental gatherings of historians. 

His book is provisionally titled A Cheesemonger’s History of the British Isles. From Roman cheese moulds to factory cheddar of the 20th century; from 18th century squires promoting Stilton, to monasteries coming up with meaty tasting washed rind cheeses; from scientific farming to witchcraft and charms in the dairy, Ned examines history through a cheesy lens. The book is due out from Profile at the end of 2019.

Other than sharing my pride in the other half though, I wanted to talk about how watching him plunging into the research has reminded me of my old friend Donald Rumsfeld. His most famous quote (see above) has echoed in my mind since I started writing historical novels for a living and it's not just me see Antonia Senior's great piece about how the hunt for unknown unknowns can inspire a writer. 

But unknown unknowns can be a pain, and I fear by best beloved is feeling that pain. At the moment Ned feels his has to know everything about everything which has happened in the last 2,500 years with the depth and detail of a specialist scholar. This makes me afraid that A Cheesemonger's History will in fact become the Key to All Mythologies with cheese. 

Patrick Malahide as Casaubon in BBC's adaptation of Middlemarch

I’m in a better position to help than Dorothea Casaubon was though. I know for a fact that if I had a private income, I’d still be researching my second book. Now an extra eight years of research might have made for a slightly better book, but would probably made for a much worse one. We have to decide what is important to our characters, to our story and follow those threads. Of course we need to reserve some time for free and easy wandering through the archives, letting our curiosity lead us into dark corners where inspiring forgotten stories might lurk, but we mustn't become paralysed by a fear we'll be caught out as if preparing for some terrifying exam. 

I saw a great ‘Meet the Author’ interview with Conn Iggulden some years ago, and at one point, talking about research Conn confessed he’s always afraid that in his research he’s missed some key fact ‘like everyone in the 15th century had a pet pelican’. (I can’t find the interview online, so forgive the from memory paraphrasing). Anyway, I remember snorting into my coffee as I heard him say that, because it’s such a familiar feeling. You know that you have done your research and it’s unlikely that you’ve missed anything fundamental which your critics will gleefully point out to you, waving their pelican banners over bonfires of your book, but at the same time it’s incredibly difficult not to think that perhaps in the next book, the next scholarly article, the next newspaper or PhD thesis you are going to find something which fundamentally alters your understanding of a period. Learning to write historical fiction is learning to manage that anxiety, work out what is important to your story, and what is important to you as a writer. 

Detail of a "disgorging" medieval misericord in Ludlow parish church
via wikipedia

I care about getting the history right in my books, and hate it when I get things wrong. I noticed a reference to the Green Man in one of my books the other day - the shame now I know that phrase was only introduced as a descriptive of the foliate heads in churches by Lady Raglan in 1939 . I have to make sure as I disappear into the weeds of my research though that I remember what I’m actually doing for a living. Telling a story. Creating characters. Delivering a satisfying sense of their world. Sometimes I teach classes about writing historical fiction, and the most common question - most often from people who have the hollow eyed look of someone who has spent six months checking for pelicans - is how to manage your research. My answer is always go back to the story. Go back to the motivations and world which your character inhabits, concentrate your research on the world which is closest to them, which matters most to them, on their story. 

That said, sometimes I just need to know things. Even if they don’t end up in the novel I need to understand them so I feel I have the authority to describe a place or time in the book. For Paris Winter I had a chart of sunrise and sunset times and daily weather reports. A fellow writer and I were talking about the tide tables she wanted to study for her book. 

We all have our things, and often looking for them leads to some nugget of detail, some serendipitous discovery which can expand and enhance your story. We have to make sure there is time in our research to stumble upon things, but we also have to admit upfront what our goals are. For me, that’s tell a satisfying and absorbing story.

So to Ned I’m saying, your readers aren’t coming for a page summarising the current academic debate of invasion v. settlement in the Anglo-Saxon period, they are here to hear you talk about how a cheeseboard can be a lesson in history and culture, rich in anecdote and insight as well as delicious. Stop scanning for pelicans, search out the nugget. And so to lunch. 

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Self-sufficiency then and now… by Carolyn Hughes

have been musing recently on how, for the past, say, nine centuries or so, until perhaps the early or even middle of the 20th century, the communities in the Meon Valley were mostly self-sufficient, one way or another.

Map of the Meon Valley William J Blaeu, Amsterdam, 1645
In earlier centuries, people rarely left their village, for almost everything they needed was there, produced by themselves, or local farmers or tradespeople. People’s “needs” of course were, necessarily and aspirationally, much more limited than ours, and, apart from “Shanks’s pony”, most people didn’t have the means to travel far.
There might be a market of some kind in the village, where folk would buy and sell their produce, and itinerant pedlars might bring “extras” that couldn’t be made in the village. In the days when a lot of villagers worked the land in one way or another, they took their grain to the mill to be ground into flour and either made their own bread or bought it from a baker.
Many grew their own vegetables and perhaps some fruit. If they were wealthy enough, they might have a cow and be able to make cheese. More likely, they might have a pig and produce their own bacon, and even more commonly, have a few hens to produce eggs and eventually a stringy carcass for the pot. If they didn’t, or couldn’t, have their own livestock, others could provide it for a price. People made their own ale or bought it from the village ale-wives. For tasks they couldn’t do themselves, there would be tradespeople who could – smiths, farriers, wheelwrights, carpenters, builders, thatchers and so on.

That said, I am not clear about the nature of the “market” in rural communities. I have always imagined that villagers would have sold their surplus to their neighbours in some sort of “farmers’ market”: more affluent housewives who produced a lot of cheese, for example, or ran a large number of hens and had eggs to spare, or had a large holding and grew more vegetables than the family could eat.
So when a community was “granted” a weekly market by the lord, perhaps this was a different sort of event, when merchants (to use the term loosely) might also come from outside to sell their goods? Maybe this was where villagers would purchase a new cooking pot, for example, or tools of various kinds?
Titchfield already had such a market in the 11th century, for the Domesday Book says its “market and toll (are worth) 40 shillings”. Titchfield’s was one of the first markets in Hampshire and, in the 12th century, it was the only place in the Meon Valley to have one. It wasn’t until 1231 that Meonstoke was granted a weekly Monday market, and in 1269 that Wickham was granted a charter to hold one every Thursday.
Titchfield Market Hall, built in 1620s, now at the Weald & Downland Open Air
Museum, West Sussex. (MilborneOne at the English language Wikipedia
[CC-BY-SA-3.0 (,
via Wikimedia Commons)]
To buy something more exotic, folk might make the effort to travel a few miles to the nearest annual fair. Fairs were more than just over-sized markets. They were, as Ian Mortimer says, “the great gatherings of mediaeval England.” They were usually three-day events, held in honour of a specific saint, on the saint’s day and the day before and after it. Merchants would come from further afield with more exotic goods, spices perhaps, fine quality cloth, more sophisticated household and personal items than could be had in the markets. They were also places of entertainment as well as shopping.
In the Meon Valley, there were several fairs, though only one or two would be within walking distance of a particular village. At the sea end of the valley, in the 13th century, Titchfield was granted permission by King Edward I to hold an annual five-day fair, which was of enormous economic significance, and perhaps reflected the importance of the town after the establishment of its Premonstratensian abbey, which was almost certainly visited often by officials and even royalty. Further upstream, Wickham, at the same time as being granted its market, also received permission for an annual three-day fair on the anniversary of the Translation Of St. Nicholas (in May). The Wickham Fair attracted buyers and sellers from a wide area, dealing in goods of all kinds. The fair has continued more or less without a break, and is still held every 20th May, now more of an entertainment than a grand shopping experience. In the upper reaches of the valley, Meonstoke was also granted an annual three-day fair, in 1231, to be held on the “vigil, feast, and morrow” of St. Margaret. East Meon, too, held an annual fair on Lady Day (March), which continued until the 19th century, but has recently been revived as a May Country Fair.
Knowing how very rural and tranquil the communities of the Meon Valley are now, it is interesting to picture them hundreds of years ago as – once a year at least – the busy, bustling centres of trade they once were.
Interesting too, to note how relatively large some of these, now quite little, villages once were. The Domesday Book of 1086 has the details... East Meon for example was very large in relation to the norms of the day, with 138 households (perhaps 700 people), although the area covered was probably more than just the existing village. Only a short distance away was West Meon, also quite large, with 50 households (250 individuals). A few miles further to the south is Exton, still quite big at 46 households, as was Soberton with 35. By contrast, and rather intriguingly, three of the communities that were granted annual fairs – which one interprets as an indication of their power or importance – were not among the largest: Titchfield had only 33 households, Wickham had 26 and Meonstoke had 28. How curious! Mind you, the fairs and markets were granted to these places nearly two hundred years later than Domesday, so perhaps they had by then become more important places.
Obviously, the size of all communities has gone up and down over the ensuing centuries, but it’s quite interesting to see how the relative balance has changed since Domesday. In the most recent census (2011), East Meon and West Meon now have about 2000 individuals between them; Exton and Meonstoke, together with Corhampton (three villages that sit very close together) have 1600, with Corhampton now the largest of the three (having had only 60 or so individuals in 1086) and Exton the smallest. Soberton, too, has 1600. Wickham and Titchfield, however, have grown really quite large, at 4300 and 7200 respectively. As I have shown in a previous History Girls post, Wickham has been a thriving “townlet” for several centuries, and perhaps its location on a main route from the south coast at Portsmouth is a reason. In Titchfield’s case (see this History Girls post), it, too, was an important town for centuries, but eventually lost its status partly as the surrounding conurbation of Southampton/Fareham/Portsmouth grew and overwhelmed it.
Returning to the matter of the communities’ relative self-sufficiency, that way of life must have continued, more or less unchanged, for centuries, certainly into the 19th and in some places into the 20th. I am not clear to what extent the markets or the fairs continued, but change of a sort did take place during the 19th and early 20th centuries, when shops came to the villages. In the Meon Valley, two communities, East Meon and Soberton, offer good, if different, pictures of just how self-contained a village could still be, even up to a time that is well within living memory.
East Meon © Author
For example, East Meon was still virtually self-sustaining in the early 20th century, for then it had over 20 shops and tradesmen’s workshops. The East Meon History group ( has a wonderful website with all sorts of fascinating information about the village’s history. The website includes a map, drawn from memory by a resident, which shows all the stores and workshops serving the village in the 1920s, and where they were located (all now, of course, private and highly desirable homes). Inter alia, there were four bakers, a dairy, three grocers, three butchers, two mills, a saddler and cobbler, a wheelwright, farriers, a post office, a herbalist, and a wide range of craftsmen and building trades. One of the grocers, alongside food, also offered haberdashery as well as household goods, fabrics, boots and shoes, and apparently all the grocers sold paraffin, vital for cottagers without electricity. 
In Soberton, in the 1830s, it is thought that there was just a single shop in the High Street, a grocery, but, before long, more shops appeared: a butcher, a bakery, which was apparently also later the post office and sold beer and insurance too, and also a bicycle shop, a boot repairer, a blacksmith, and building craftsmen (carpenters, joiners, masons etc). In Soberton Heath, in the middle of the parish, there were a couple of grocery shops, and, in Newtown, at the southern end of the parish, a shop was opened in the 19th century, which, in the end, was the only shop in the parish and didn’t close until the 2000s. As late as, perhaps, the early 1980s most things could be bought in the village.
Wickham's market square © Author
Wickham and Titchfield, now with very much larger populations than any of the Meon Valley villages, are unsurprisingly rather better served in terms of shops and businesses. In 1939, Titchfield had about 40 shops and workshops, and Wickham’s great square was lined on every side with businesses of different kinds. Now, each little town has a small chain supermarket and a second “open-all-hours” store, as well as a butcher, a post office, a chemist, hairdressers, several pubs, restaurants and tea/coffee houses. Wickham also has two hardware stores, several antiques centres and gift shops, and a chocolate shop…
Titchfield, South Street, looking towards the square. Public domain.
However, there is no shop now in Soberton, and once bustling East Meon has just one shop, which is a general store and part-time post office. But there are also village shops in each of West Meon (which also has a butchers’ shop), Meonstoke and Droxford, all of which offer at least part-time post office services, and are village hubs, offering access to all sorts of local services and tradesmen as well as selling food and household goods.
In truth, it is perfectly possible to live quite well in either Wickham or Titchfield without having to travel further afield too often, provided one is prepared to accept a relatively modest lifestyle in the context of 21st century consumerism.
Yet, some of those village shops are also really striving to recover at least a degree of self-sustainment for the communities they serve. The post office and village store in Meonstoke (which also serves Exton and Corhampton) is a good example. It offers nearly everything you could need for day-to-day living: bread, meat, vegetables and fruit; ale and wine; logs and coal; as well as culinary treats, and access to many trades and services. Moreover, a good deal of what the shop provides is locally produced, much as it was in the Middle Ages. Its website ( sums up its credo: “Local produce, for us, is key for many reasons – to make sure you receive them when they are most fresh, to support local businesses and to promote a reduced carbon footprint.”.
There seems to be a growing desire (in truth, a need) for “local produce”, for reducing “food miles”, for greater “sustainment”. And some small communities are clearly beginning to return to at least a modicum of the self-sufficiency they had for so many centuries. What is happening here in the Meon Valley is undoubtedly happening in rural communities throughout the country. One wonders if the tide is beginning to turn.

Friday, 19 January 2018

So you want to be a Roman Emperor?

As this is my first post as a History Girl (and yes I shall be having a badge made with that title, which I shall wear at all times) I thought I’d introduce myself before launching into the subject of my post.

My name is LJ Trafford and I am obsessed with ancient Roman History.
This fixation kicked in whilst studying Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra for my English Literature A Level. Discovering that the arch villain in that play, Octavius Caesar, later became good emperor Augustus I was intrigued. Reading far and beyond my set texts I soon possessed the ability to draw a family tree from memory of the notoriously complicated and inter-marrying Julio Claudian dynasty.
It became clear that the best course for me was to spend three whole years fan-girling over Augustus with the similarly minded. Somehow, despite possessing absolutely no history qualifications, I managed to talk my way onto an Ancient History degree course.

I now write historical fiction and have just finished writing a four book series on the tumultuous Year of the Four Emperors, 69AD. I also have a day job as a Database Analyst.
I thought it might be fun for my first post to combine these two roles and crunch some stats on Roman Emperors .

*Disclaimer*  My Data set runs from Augustus who became Rome's first emperor in 27 BC to Romulus Augustulus the last Western Roman Emperor who was deposed in 476 AD.
There are some gaps in the knowledge of some of the short lived emperors and also some conflicting evidence. My figures are based on what data we do have and my own hunches on conflicting accounts.
*Second Disclaimer*  It's just for fun.

So you want to be a Roman Emperor?

First things first. Being a Roman emperor is extremely dangerous.

Yes, you have a whopping 63.95% chance of having an unnatural death.
This might rather put you off aiming for the purple. But never fear! I have some top tips that will help aid your likelihood of surviving a tumultuous life at the top.

1) Choose the time of your accession carefully.

As you can see from the above chart, you have a better chance of a natural death if you start your reign in the 2nd Century AD.
This is the era of Hadrian, Antoninus Pius and Marcus Aurelius, three of Edward Gibbon's 5 Good Emperors.
You will certainly want to avoid the 3rd Century for your Emperorship. This was a period known as the Crisis with a sudden, violent and rapid changeover of emperor. There were 28 emperors in 100 years, meaning an average length of reign of 3.6 years. The 2nd Century by comparison has an average reign of 11 years. Which is ample to make a name for yourself.

2) Are you ready to be emperor?

Though youthful exuberance and ambition has its place, it has no place in being a Roman emperor.
Of those who became emperor aged 30 or under a humongous 80% of them met an unnatural death.
Included in this total is Nero who became emperor thanks to his mother's machinations at 17 years old.
Geta, emperor at 20. Stabbed to death in his mother's arms at 22.
And Gordian III who ascended the purple at only 13 and was killed in battle, or assassinated by troops (neither of which is very nice).

Reassuringly, for those of us of a certain age, your chances of an awful death decline sharply once you pass 31. Indeed the best age to ascend to the throne and enjoy a long reign and peaceful death is between 40 and 45.

3) What to look out for.
 We've established that you want to begin your reign in the 2nd Century in comfortable middle age but what do you need to look out for to avoid that unnatural death?
Surprisingly, given the expansionist nature of Rome, those emperors killed in battles were for the most part in civil wars against fellow Romans.
Notable exceptions include Valens who was killed fighting the Goths, Valerian the only Roman emperor to be captured in battle and Julian, who like Valerian, was fighting the Persians.

By far the greatest risk factor is assassination.
A whopping 24 emperors were assassinated, giving you a 1 in 4 chance of ending your reign that way. Even extremely competent emperors such as Aurelian (who regained large tracts of territory during the Crisis era and was named 'Restorer of the World') fell to the assassin's dagger.

So who do you need to be aware of? Who are you most likely to be assassinated by?

4) The dagger wielders.
Though an army is a necessity for an emperor you might want to keep them and your own personal bodyguards, the Praetorians, in your favour. Preferably by using coinage. Emperor Galba was deposed and decapitated in the Forum after refusing to pay a bonus to the troops.
Pertinax was ousted because he only paid his Praetorian Guard half of what they were owed.

And keep looking over your shoulder at that 'friend' or relative of yours, they might just be hankering after your throne.

Other notable assassinations include Caligula whose death was organised by a Guard whose high pitched voice he'd made fun of. Caracalla who was stabbed by one of his troops whilst going to the toilet. And Commodus who was strangled in his bath by a wrestler named Narcissus after vomiting up the poison his mistress had given him.

In conclusion having faced up to what is an awfully dangerous job, it is worth remembering that there are some benefits to being a Roman Emperor.
Such as:

  • Wealth beyond your wildest imaginings. A recent report put Augustus second in a list of the richest men of all time, estimating his worth to be around $4.6 trillion in today's money.
  • Palaces! Who doesn't like a palace? Nobody. And certainly not Nero who used the excuse of the great fire of Rome to build his legendary Golden House. The Imperial Palace was later extended and improved upon considerably by Domitian and Septimius Severus to take up most of the Palatine Hill. So plenty of room for your ornaments and soft toy collection.
  • Fame. Or infamy, Or if you're lucky a month named after you. July and August are named after Julius Caesar and Augustus. But they were not alone in having a month named after them. Nero named April after himself. Domitian went one better by calling two months Germanicus and Domitianus after himself. And apparently Commodus was set on naming all twelve months. Though obviously none of these stuck. Trafforduary anyone?

Data set compiled courtesy of Timothy Vermeiren.

LJ Trafford.