Newsletter 17

Welcome to the Christmas (November 2009) issue of our occasional newsletter.

Jack Tar paperback

As we said in the last newsletter, our book Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy is now published in paperback (by Abacus, ISBN 978-0-349-12034-8) under the revamped title of Jack Tar: The extraordinary lives of ordinary seamen in Nelson’s navy, and with a refreshed jacket design. It’s very difficult these days for paperback versions of books to get reviews, because the number of review pages in newspapers and magazines has been drastically reduced. We were therefore very pleased indeed to pick up excellent paperback reviews, including the Sunday Times and the Sunday Telegraph (a 5-star review). The sales of Jack Tar have increased interest in our other naval history books, and the paperback editions of Trafalgar, The War for All the Oceans and Jack Tar were all reprinted in October. Hopefully this will mean there is plenty of stock available for a trilogy of Christmas presents!

Mountbatten Maritime Literary Award

We were thrilled to learn at the beginning of September that Jack Tar had been nominated for the Mountbatten Maritime Literary Award. The nominees for this award and for two or three other Mountbatten media awards were invited to attend a dinner at the Institute of Directors in London on 28th October, with the awards presented by HRH The Princess Royal (i.e. Princess Anne). The awards are under the umbrella of the Maritime Foundation, which is a registered charity that promotes Britain’s maritime industries, commerce and defence through education, training and research. The literary award is made annually to a work that can be fiction, poetry, biography or technical writing.

The whole point of such literary awards is to bring publicity to the sponsoring organisation and to those nominees on the shortlist and to give an extra boost to the winners. Our publisher kept trying to find out more, such as the list of other nominees, but until a week or so ago the Maritime Foundation’s website was lamentably out-of-date. Sadly, we weren’t able to attend the dinner, and sent our apologies, because it was far too expensive – £85 per head, not to mention all the travelling and other costs. Our publisher declined to pay for us, as they said it was extraordinary for nominees to be asked to pay to attend. It’s also extraordinary that the shortlist was never publicised, and as we write this (in late November), it says on the Maritime Foundation website that the nomination list will be shortly available! It should of course have been made available at the beginning of September, so it’s all very strange. The winner was a biography published by the National Maritime Museum called Alan Villiers: Voyager of the Wind, so congratulations to the author Kate Lance.

Jack Tar (and other) talks

We have just given talks at Ugborough (near Plymouth) and Taunton (in Somerset). The first one was to the Ugborough Local History group, and this was on Trafalgar Day. The weather forecast was for awful weather, so we were very lucky that it died down that evening. Many thanks for the excellent turn-out, not only from the history group but all those non-members who came from far and wide. We had never been to this village before, which lies just below Dartmoor, not far from Plymouth, but we managed to do a visit there a few days before the talk and found it to be very attractive, with two pubs and a shop. It also has an enormous medieval church, with a churchyard packed full of fascinating old gravestones. Three weeks later we gave a talk at the Waterstones bookstore in Taunton, Somerset, which was very enjoyable, and once again the stormy weather subsided. The Waterstones bookstore used to be the County Hotel, but was converted over a decade ago to retail use for Waterstones and Marks & Spencer. Until the mid-1990s, there had been an inn on this site since at least 1529. At that date it was known as the Three Cups Inn. Cheers to everyone in this branch of Waterstones for their support.

Magazine articles

The ‘Latest News’ section of our website will keep you informed of any new publications or talks, including magazine articles. Our latest magazine articles are: ‘Warship Women’, on the wives and mistresses in Nelson’s navy, published in the magazine Family History Monthly for November 2009; and ‘The Great Fire of Tyneside’, on the disastrous fire at Newcastle and Gateshead in 1854, published in Ancestors, the National Archives family history magazine, also for November 2009. These family history magazines (and there are two or three others as well) often have much more down-to-earth history than the mainstream history magazines, as they deal so much more with the lives of ordinary people. Even if you are not researching your family history, these magazines are addictive. You can subscribe to most of them, which is cheaper, or else purchase them in places like WH Smith.

Russian Roman Handbook

Our revised Handbook to Life in Ancient Rome (Facts On File) has now been translated into Russian. It is published by the Moscow publisher Veche, ISBN 978-5-9533-1978-2. It is 528 pages long, and looks really good. It provides detailed explanations of various aspects of life in the entire Roman world (not just Rome, as the title implies). Veche has also published our revised Handbook to Life in Ancient Greece.

Devon Witches

The city of Exeter in Devon has a long and varied history, with many plaques and monuments comemorating local events. A recent plaque is on one surviving wall of the medieval castle (known locally as Rougemont Castle). This plaque reads: ‘The Devon Witches. In memory of Temperance Lloyd, Susannah Edwards, Mary Trembles of Bideford. Died 1682. Alice Molland. Died 1685. The last people in England to be executed for witchcraft. Tried here & hanged at Heavitree. In the hope of an end to persecution & intolerance.’

The plaque in memory of the Devon Witches, Rougemont Castle, Exeter
The plaque in memory of the Devon Witches, Rougemont Castle, Exeter

The ambiguity here, with different people and different dates, is a good example of the vagaries of historical records. Over the years there have been several other claims for the dubious distinction of being the last witch hanged in England, but either these have proved to be fictional, or the person was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced but not executed. This leaves these four women, but uncertainty surrounds Alice Molland, because there is only one source for her trial and conviction. Although reliable, no definite evidence exists that the death sentence was ever carried out. On the other hand, there is no such doubt about the three women from Bideford in north Devon.

The large-scale persecution of people suspected of witchcraft arose in Tudor times because the Reformation of the Christian Church and the split into Protestantism and Roman Catholicism were thought to have unleashed dark forces. All kinds of superstitions abounded. Particularly worrying for the Royal authority was the possibility of magicians being able to predict and even cause the death of the King. An Act of Parliament against witchcraft became law in 1542 but was soon repealed. Even so, Church courts continued to hear witchcraft cases, and witchcraft became a crime once again in 1563. One reason for witchcraft continuing to be seen as a threat was the idea that witches gained their power by a pact with the devil. For the civil authorities in England, where the official state religion was the Protestant form of Christianity, this was problematic. On the one hand, a belief in a pact with the devil was reminiscent of some of the superstitions of Catholicism. On the other hand, even though the power of witches was reckoned to be illusory, where did the power of their convincing trickery come from, if not from the devil?

King James I is often thought of as increasing the persecution of suspected witches, because of his writings on witchcraft and his paranoia when he was a young king in Scotland. While still King James VI of Scotland, he was convinced that his enemies were trying to kill him and that they were using black magic against him. In Scotland there were many more convictions and executions for witchcraft than in England, largely because torture was allowed there as a means of gathering evidence. By the time he succeeded to the throne of England, James was taking a more reasoned, less emotional approach, although he still believed in witchcraft. While often condemned for his Act of Parliament against witchcraft in 1604, his actions probably helped to ameliorate the situation. The legislation brought the matter within the laws of the realm and forbade exorcism. It was designed to reduce the influence of Catholic doctrines on witchcraft, and it also reduced some of the worst excesses. It was always the religious extremists, initially Roman Catholics but later the Puritans, who were the most obsessed and delusional about their belief in witches, pacts with the devil and the like. King James was more concerned with actual threats to his life and his authority (the gunpowder plot of 1605 was a Catholic plot against a Protestant king, not a popular conspiracy against an unpopular government). He took a keen personal interest in cases where the victims were supposed to be possessed by devils and exposed a number of frauds, which also kept the judiciary in check. Previously, credulous magistrates and judges were happy to convict on the flimsiest of unreliable evidence, but tended to be more cautious once they were aware they might attract the wrath of the King.

By the time King Charles I came to the throne in 1625, belief in pacts with the devil was waning, and the King himself was sceptical. Everything changed with the Civil War and the interregnum. The whole country was disrupted, including the civil administration and the rule of law. In many places people took the law into their own hands, and the different armies criss-crossing the countryside completed the chaos. It is no coincidence that the worst of the hysteria over suspected witches, and the rise of self-appointed witch hunters, occurred at this time. Puritans in particular, being opposed to all forms of idolatry (imagined or real), once again subscribed to the notion that witches made a pact with the devil in return for their powers.

There was a tragic irony with most of the witchcraft cases – the accused women were often living on the margins of their local society, frequently widows or spinsters with no close family or friends to defend them, and people were wary of them simply because they were a little different. They made easy scapegoats. Their fate contrasts markedly with that of the many ‘cunning men’ and ‘wise women’ who operated in local communities, curing illnesses and solving problems with herbal remedies, spells and charms. Although they operated much more like witches, some were careful to put a Christian gloss on their spells and charms. They rarely came under suspicion or were accused – for two very good reasons. Firstly, they performed a service for those who sought their help. In a time when physicians were few and far between, expensive and often worse than useless, a herbal remedy or the placebo effect of a charm was usually more successful. Secondly, such people were thought to have real powers such as ‘the sight’ – the ability to see the future. It was therefore unwise to antagonise them. While the cunning men and wise women were useful to the people they lived among, those accused of witchcraft were often much-bullied outcasts.

So, what of the four women mentioned on the plaque? Of Alice Molland (or Alicia Welland, as she is sometimes known) there is only the evidence that she was found guilty of practising witchcraft against Jane Snow, Willmott Snow and Agnes Furze, and that she was sentenced to death. There seems to be no surviving proof that this sentence was carried out, nor any indication from such sources as ballads and broadsides on the subject. She might just as easily have died in prison, been released or served a lesser sentence. The other three women, the ‘Bideford Witches’ as they came to be known, were tried in Exeter towards the end of Charles II’s reign, in August 1682. They were convicted of harming people by witchcraft. Two of them, Mary Trembles and Susanna Edwards, were found guilty of murder by witchcraft. The women had confessed before their trial, but there is some evidence to suggest that they were not particularly intelligent and may have been mentally impaired, if not mentally ill, at the time. It seems they were easily made to confess by the leading questions that were put to them, although they later denied much of what they had said. They were sentenced to death and were hanged eleven days later, on 25th August 1682, in Heavitree, a suburb of Exeter. There continued to be convictions for witchcraft, mostly of women, and one was even sentenced to death in 1712, but was saved by a Royal Pardon. The 1604 witchcraft Act was finally repealed in 1736.

Oil, Wine and Bread

In wintertime in Britain the cold, wet and windy weather and the short, dark days make many people long for the sunny shores of the Mediterranean. This is doubtless something we have in common with the ancient inhabitants of this island, such as the Roman troops who garrisoned the outposts in the province of Britain. These soldiers, who came from all over Europe and even Africa, would have missed the kinder climate of stations in the Mediterranean. They also missed the more tangible benefits of southern Europe – the olive oil, wine, bread and pastries, which were expensive imports in the north. It is sometimes said that European civilisation began in the central Mediterranean area and spread outwards along trade routes, following the wheat, oil and most especially the wine that was sold to the barbarians in the outer darkness in return for raw materials and slaves.

Shores of the Mediterranean
Shores of the Mediterranean

It all began with the Greeks! Actually, it began much earlier than that, but by the time of the rise of the Greek city states such as Athens and Sparta, the way of life (for the élite at least) was recognisably civilised. They had olive oil, wine and bread as staple foods, with plentiful fish from the sea and slaves to do the labouring. They also had literature, parts of which have survived, giving us a few windows into their way of life. The Greeks gradually expanded eastwards, forming colonies on the coast of what is now Turkey, and westwards to Italy and eventually the Mediterranean coasts of France and Spain. These colonies began as trading outposts, and the key to such trade was ports, because goods were more easily transported by water. The first Greek colonies were therefore on the coast, usually where there was a good natural harbour. Transport by merchant ship was not particularly fast, since most were coastal vessels, rarely out of sight of land and often spending the night on a suitable beach. Nor did many ships travel during the winter months because of the stormy Mediterranean weather. Nevertheless, it was still quicker and generally safer than overland transport.

One of the Greek colonies founded on the French coast was Marseilles, and by 525 BC it was well enough established to have its own treasury at the sanctuary of Delphi on the Greek mainland. The harbour at Marseilles was to the east of the present town, clear of the marshlands of the Rhône delta and with a good sheltered anchorage for trading ships. It was close enough to the mouth of the River Rhône to give good access right into the heart of Europe. Marseilles has been a major port ever since.

The old port at Marseilles, now a marina
The old port at Marseilles, now a marina

Under Alexander the Great the Greeks spread their influence eastwards until the Romans took control of the Greek world. The Romans then moved mainly westwards and northwards until Britain was invaded in AD 43 in the time of the emperor Claudius. Trade routes to Britain had been well established long before the Romans, but imports increased greatly with the presence of so many Roman soldiers and administrators and also with the many native Britons who now aspired to a Roman lifestyle. The number of actual ‘Romans’ in Britain at any one time was relatively small, and the number of native-born Italians from Rome itself was even smaller, since soldiers were drawn from all parts of the Roman empire. Like the Imperial British in India, the influence of the Romans had an impact much greater than their physical presence. Even after the Romans abandoned the province of Britain, and Europe entered what used to be called the ‘Dark Ages’, trade between Britain and the Mediterranean continued, despite the difficulties of travel and transport. The archaeological evidence suggests that the bulk of this trade imported the same staples of wine and oil, but less is known about what might have been used to pay for these goods. With the Norman Conquest came a distinct bias towards wine over the native beer and mead in Britain, and the wine trade has continued and grown until the present day.

And the lessons from all this? Well, after such a long association we should not be surprised that ships, sailors and alcohol can rarely be separated, but also that British links with the Mediterranean have very deep roots. The fact that many of the Romans intermarried with the native Britons means that many of us must have ancestors from the Mediterranean, Africa or Asia, if we could only trace our family tree back two millennia. So perhaps when you look out on a bleak December day and dream of sunny southern shores, it is not so unreasonable to imagine you would feel more at home there rather than throwing another log on the fire or turning the central heating up and wishing the relentless winter would end.

Monument of the Month

In the marketplace of the town of Sandbach in Cheshire (which lies just to the west of junction 17 of the M6 motorway) stand two imposing Anglo-Saxon stone monuments known as the Sandbach crosses. They belong to a relatively small number of monuments that are protected by being both a Grade 1 listed building and also a Scheduled Ancient Monument. If ever the local authorities wanted to move them, the rules and regulations they would have to satisfy would be so costly and long winded as to make this almost impossible. It was not always so, for the original site of these stone pillars is unknown. They were probably brought to Sandbach and erected here during the medieval period.

The Sandbach crosses
The Sandbach crosses

From the style of their carving they are thought to have been made in the 9th century, when England was divided into smaller kingdoms. At that period, Sandbach lay within the kingdom of Mercia. It was in the latter half of the 9th century that King Alfred of the kingdom of Wessex (better known as Alfred the Great) defeated the Danes at the Battle of Ethandune in 878 and began the amalgamation of these smaller kingdoms into what would become the kingdom of England. Mercia had already been Christianised, and the crosses at Sandbach are decorated with a mixture of carved animals and scenes from the Bible, including the Nativity and the Crucifixion, and they were originally colourfully painted. They are reckoned to be among the finest of surviving Anglo-Saxon high crosses, the classic example of which is the Ruthwell cross in the village of Ruthwell, near Annan, just over the border in Scotland.

That the Sandbach crosses have survived at all is quite remarkable. They are both set in sockets on a stone base with three steps. The cross head of the taller one (on the left of the picture) is mutilated. The shorter cross is not as tall as it originally was, and its mutilated head is actually from a different monument. They are first recorded standing on their present site in Elizabethan times. By 1623 they seem to have been broken into pieces, probably destroyed as ‘idolatrous’ monuments around the time of the Civil War. The fragments were dispersed, a few being used for building materials and others as ornamental stones. Some fragments came to be transported over 10 miles away to Oulton Park and Tarporley.

Towards the end of the 18th century, when there was a great deal of interest in antiquities, it was proposed to re-erect the crosses, and a fund was set up for that purpose. Among many local subscribers, the largest benefactor was Sir John de Grey of Oulton, who also handed over the largest fragments of the crosses. George Ormerod, the author of a history of Cheshire, was in charge of tracking down the missing fragments. John Palmer, a Manchester architect, supplied the expertise for re-erecting the crosses. They were finally reassembled and set up in 1816. Without this effort, these much-visited monuments in Sandbach would still lie in scattered fragments, lost from view, with perhaps a few pieces used as garden ornaments. What do you have in your garden?

Monument of the Month

The competition in the last newsletter asked what an off-duty song was called in the Royal Navy. The correct answer is a ‘forebitter’, a name derived from ‘afore the bitts’. Off-duty sailors were usually allowed to gather on the forecastle for recreation, and this was in front of the bitts. The bitts were strong pieces of timber securely fastened to the ship’s beams that acted as an anchorage for cables, in much the same way as dockside bollards. When a ship was riding at anchor, one end of a cable was fixed to the anchor and the other end was secured to the bitts. If the whole length of the cable had to be used, the cable was let out right to ‘the bitter end’, which was fixed to the bitts, and then there was no more cable left to allow some slack. Congratulations to the two winners of the competition, Michael Card from California and Paul Stokes from London. Copies of Jack Tar are on their way to you.

This is the final newsletter for 2009, and we hope you all have an enjoyable festive season.We’ll be back in 2010 in what we hope will be a much better year across the world.