We herewith present an (admittedly) random selection of Easter snippets from the early 19th century newspapers; a true Easter miscellany.
On the 25th March, 1802, The Treaty of Amiens, which signalled peace between Great Britain and the French Republic, was signed. It was also the signal for a proposed long school holiday for the Eton schoolboys. Do any of our readers know if the Prince of Wales’ request was granted?
His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales has interceded with the Head Master of Eton School for extending the Easter holidays of the Etonians a week longer than usual, in consequence of the Peace.
(Salisbury and Winchester Journal, 26th April, 1802)
The following year, with the truce breaking down, and Britain about to declare war on France, while a few of the nobility remained in London, battle-lines were being drawn elsewhere.
The fine weather, and the Easter holidays, scatter a few of our fashionables around the Metropolis, that they may inhale a little fresh air, preparatory to the suffocating routs and balls of May. The SALISBURYS are gone to Hatfield; the ABERCORNS to Stanmore; the DERBYS to the Oaks; the MORTON PITTS to Corfe Castle; Earl ROMNEY to the Mote, near Maidstone; Lord and Lady HOBART to Roehampton; and Lord HAWKESBURY will take the air between Combe and Downing-street, though he may not always be able to take his breath.
(Morning Post, 5th April, 1803)
Tuesday evening a most furious battle took place between a Chimney Sweep and a Jack Ass Driver, at a small fair which is held on the Easter Holidays at the end of Tottenham-court-road. After half and hour’s hard and obstinate fighting, both being beat to that degree that neither was able to stand, they were forced to give up any farther contest.
(Hampshire Chronicle, 18th April, 1803)
Epping Hunt – Monday, at an early hour, the industrious sons of Spitalfields, Bethnal-green, and Whitechapel, disdaining the somnific powers, rose at the blush of Aurora, and prepared for the far-farmed Epping hunt, big with the fate of Cockneys. The road from town to the sportive scene was thronged by hunters of every description. Some were heavily dressed, and others as bare of covering as Meleager when he killed the Calydonian boar. The gallant troop displayed all the colours of gay Iris, and the sable bearings of a chimney-sweeper were often blazoned by the powderings of a barber’s apron. The cattle were composed of horses, asses, and mules, all high in bone and low in flesh; and the pack displayed every class of the canine species, from the bull to the lap-dog.After having regaled with copious libations of geneva, the motley group arrived at The Eagle, Snaresbrook, and other houses contiguous to the forest. A fine stag had been previously carried from a stable. His horns were sawed off, as usual, except the front antlers, which were braided with ribbands, and he was turned out to the mercy of his pursuers, near Buckets-hill. Finding himself at liberty, he dashed into Fairmaid Bottoms and sought refuge in the forest. The scent was then given, and off went the Cockneys,
“Like wind and tide meeting.”
In a few moments the ground was covered with hats, wigs, and the bodies of fat Citizens. Riders were seen looking for their horses, and horses for their riders. The vendors of gin and eatables, who stood prepared for the scene, immediately rushed in to dispose of their ware, and glasses of cordial consoled the downcast hunters for bruises and pain. Several Nimrods, who had pursued the sport of the day in taxed carts, were overthrown with the loss of their wheels, and the confusion which prevailed produced considerable mirth, at the expence of tailors, tallow-chandlers, weavers, and soap boilers, who had not been able to restrain the fury of their vicious kicking donkeys, and mischievous cart-horses. The stag, as usual, escaped from the fury of its unqualified pursuers, and many of the hunters who had lost their horses returned on foot to the Bald-faced Stag, to celebrate their lucky escape from the perils of the chace. After sacrificing at the shrine of the Jolly God, they returned to town.
(Oxford University and City Herald, 8th April, 1809)
Owing, no doubt, to the extreme coldness of the weather, the Park yesterday was not so prolific in the display of the Spring fashions as was expected, and is as usual on Easter Sunday. Custom, assuredly, is the arbiter of fashion; but the closer such adheres to nature the better. Long waists, and tight stays, although much worn, are not deserving of panegyric. Natures always looks most beautiful as herself, without capricious whimsicalities of stiff ornament. Among the newest articles in the female costume, we noticed the Polish dress, or pelisse, composed of slate coloured sarsenet; it is made open in front, with a gold bordering, and gold buttons. The bonnet, boots, and redicule, were made of the same materials. Among the fashionable equipages were those belonging to the Duchesses of GRAFTON and LEEDS; Marchionesses of WELLESLEY, LANSDOWNE, and HEADFORT; Ladies CASTLEREAGH, CLONMELL, KINGSTON, MEXBOROUGH, D. SMITH, MANSFIELD, and SEFTON. A sudden storm of hail and snow, about half-past three o’clock, destroyed all the fair beauties of the scene in a moment. The company, male and female, who were in the pedestrian promenade, scampered off at the first approach of the enemy, to seek refuge under any covering, however humble, so that it afforded them a secure retreat from the pitiless element. The Park was completely deserted during the after part of the day.
(Morning Post, 3rd April, 1809)
Easter was also a time for Balls; the ones held at the Mansion House in London being particularly spectacular:
The decorations and alterations making at the Mansion-house for the Easter ball are extremely splendid. A carpeting is made to imitate a gravel walk, and each side of the avenues leading to the Egyptian-hall will be ornamented with orange trees, and flowering shrubs.
The Prince of Wales has accepted the invitation of the Lord Mayor to dine and the Mansion-house on Easter Monday. This will be the first public visit ever made by his Royal Highness into the City, and the only instance, for many reigns, of an Heir Apparent going there on such occasion.
(Bury and Norwich Post, 14th April, 1802)
Yesterday John Hawkins, an extra constable, was charged before the LORD MAYOR with concealing a diamond drop, which he found at the Mansion House on Monday night, at the Easter Ball, the property of the Duchess of GORDON, being part of a pair of elegant diamond ear-rings worn by her Grace that day, value above five hundred guineas, and for the recovery of which a reward was advertised.
Mrs. HORSFALL, of the Mansion House Coffee-house, stated, that she saw a constable have such an article in his possession that night, which he said he had picked up in the Mansion House, and described the man, from which circumstance he was discovered. The prisoner at first denied it, but the diamond drop being found, he pretended not to know the value of it. His Lordship, conceiving that he detained it with a felonious intent, fully committed him to take his trial for the same.
(Morning Post, 11th April, 1806)
And if you were attending such a Ball, then, as a fashionable lady, you would need to look your best.
THE EASTER BALL and GALA will be particularly grand in Honour of the Regency, and as the Ladies will appear with extreme lustre on this occasion, it certainly accounts for the present great demand for HUBERT’S ROSEATE POWDER, which effectually removes superfluous hairs on the face, neck and arms, and highly improves the whiteness, delicacy and softness of the skin, thus bestowing a new charm on natural beauty. – May be had of the Proprietor, 23 Russell-street, Covent-Garden; Rigge, 35, and Overton, 47, Bond-street; Dunnett, 3, Cheapside; Davison, 59, Fleet-street, Thorn, 45, Oxford-street; Bowling and Co. 38, Blackman-street, Borough; Harding and Co. 89, Pall-mall; and of all Perfumers. – 4s. and 7s.
(Morning Chronicle, 8th April, 1811)
And we end with the best Easter Gift, (although personally, as chocoholic’s, we’d rather have an Easter egg . . . ), and an Irish Easter cake.
The best Easter Gift, a present to a young Lady, is a Ticket in TOMKINS’S Picture Lottery; which are selling in New Bond-street at Three Guineas each; and a red ticket and a black ticket are sure to gain a prize.
(Morning Post, 25th April, 1821)
CURIOUS CUSTOM – In Ireland, at Easter, a cake, with a garland of meadow flowers, is elevated upon a circular board upon a pike, apples being stuck upon pegs around the garland. Men and women then dance round, and they who hold out longest win the prize.
(Manchester Courier and Lancashire General Advertiser, 17th December, 1825)
Is it worth mentioning that Easter is both a festival for western Christian religions and a holiday for both those with an ecumenical bent and for those of a more secular disposition? Maybe not for we know that for many it is a win win situation, the best of both worlds as they say.
The religious know that Easter is a celebration in honour of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead, as described in the New Testament as having occurred three days after his crucifixion at Calvary. It is also the weekend when children excitedly wait for the Easter bunny to arrive, along with the delivery of their chocolate egg treat.
Easter is, as everyone knows, is a ‘movable feast’ which corresponds with the first Sunday following the full moon after the March equinox. It therefore occurs on different dates around the world because western churches use the Gregorian calendar, while eastern churches use the Julian calendar. So where did this ‘movable feast’ begin, and what are the origins of the traditions and customs celebrated on this important day around the world?
Most historians, including Biblical scholars, agree that Easter was originally a pagan festival and the word Easter is of Saxon origin, namely, Eastra, the goddess of spring, in whose honour sacrifices were offered at Passover time each year. By the eighth century Anglo–Saxons had adopted the name to designate the celebration of Christ’s resurrection. However, even among those who maintain that Easter has pagan roots, there is some disagreement over which pagan tradition the festival emerged from. Here we will explore some of those perspectives.
Resurrection as a symbol of rebirth
One theory that has been put forward is that the Easter story of crucifixion and resurrection is symbolic of rebirth and renewal and retells the cycle of the seasons, the death and return of the sun.
According to some, the Easter story comes from the Sumerian legend of Damuzi (Tammuz) and his wife Inanna (Ishtar), an epic myth called “The Descent of Inanna” found inscribed on cuneiform clay tablets dating back to 2100 BC. When Tammuz dies, Ishtar is grief–stricken and follows him to the underworld. In the underworld, she enters through seven gates, and her worldly attire is removed. “Naked and bowed low” she is judged, killed, and then hung on display. In her absence, the earth loses its fertility, crops cease to grow and animals stop reproducing. Unless something is done, all life on earth will end.
After Inanna has been missing for three days her assistant goes to other gods for help. Finally one of them Enki, creates two creatures who carry the plant of life and water of life down to the Underworld, sprinkling them on Inanna and Damuzi, resurrecting them, and giving them the power to return to the earth as the light of the sun for six months. After the six months are up, Tammuz returns to the underworld of the dead, remaining there for another six months, and Ishtar pursues him, prompting the water god to rescue them both. Thus were the cycles of winter death and spring life.
Drawing parallels between the story of Jesus and the epic of Inanna “does not mean that there wasn’t a real person, Jesus, who was crucified, but rather that the story about it is structured and embellished in accordance with a pattern that was very ancient and widespread.”
The Sumerian goddess Inanna is known outside of Mesopotamia by her Babylonian name, “Ishtar”. In ancient Canaan, Ishtar is known as Astarte, and her counterparts in the Greek and Roman pantheons are known as Aphrodite and Venus. In the 4th Century, when Christians identified the exact site in Jerusalem where the empty tomb of Jesus had been located, they selected the spot where a temple of Aphrodite (Astarte/Ishtar/Inanna) stood. The temple was torn down and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre was built, the holiest church in the Christian world.
The story of Inanna and Damuzi is just one of a number of accounts of dying and rising gods that represent the cycle of the seasons and the stars. For example, the resurrection of Egyptian Horus; the story of Mithras, who was worshipped at Springtime; and the tale of Dionysus, resurrected by his grandmother. Among these stories are prevailing themes of fertility, conception, renewal, descent into darkness, and the triumph of light over darkness or good over evil.
Easter as a celebration of the Goddess of Spring
A related perspective is that, rather than being a representation of the story of Ishtar, Easter was originally a celebration of Eostre, goddess of Spring, otherwise known as Ostara, Austra, and Eastre. One of the most revered aspects of Ostara for both ancient and modern observers is a spirit of renewal.
Celebrated at Spring Equinox on March 21, Ostara marks the day when light is equal to darkness, and will continue to grow. As the bringer of light after a long dark winter, the goddess was often depicted with the hare, an animal that represents the arrival of spring as well as the fertility of the season. The idea of resurrection was ingrained within the celebration of Ostara: “Ostara, Eástre and seems therefore to have been the divinity of the radiant dawn, of up-springing light, a spectacle that brings joy and blessing, whose meaning could be easily adapted by the resurrection-day of the christian’s God.
Most analyses of the origin of the word ‘Easter’ maintain that it was named after a goddess mentioned by the 7th to 8th-century English monk Bede, who wrote that Ēosturmōnaþ (Old English ‘Month of Ēostre’, translated in Bede’s time as “Paschal month”) was an English month, corresponding to April, which he says “was once called after a goddess of theirs named Ēostre, in whose honour feasts were celebrated in that month”.
The origins of Easter customs
The most widely-practiced customs on Easter Sunday relate to the symbol of the rabbit (‘Easter bunny’) and the egg. As outlined previously, the rabbit was a symbol associated with Eostre, representing the beginning of Springtime. Likewise, the egg has come to represent Spring, fertility and renewal. In Germanic mythology, it is said that Ostara healed a wounded bird she found in the woods by changing it into a hare. Still partially a bird, the hare showed its gratitude to the goddess by laying eggs as gifts.
The Encyclopedia Britannica clearly explains the pagan traditions associated with the egg: “The egg as a symbol of fertility and of renewed life goes back to the ancient Egyptians and Persians, who had also the custom of colouring and eating eggs during their spring festival.” In ancient Egypt, an egg symbolised the sun, while for the Babylonians, the egg represents the hatching of the Venus Ishtar, who fell from heaven to the Euphrates.
In many Christian traditions, the custom of giving eggs at Easter celebrates new life. Christians remember that Jesus, after dying on the cross, rose from the dead, showing that life could win over death. For Christians the egg is a symbol of Jesus’ resurrection, as when they are cracked open, they stand for the empty tomb. Regardless of the very ancient origins of the symbol of the egg, most people agree that nothing symbolises renewal more perfectly than the egg – round, endless, and full of the promise of life.
While many of the pagan customs associated with the celebration of Spring were at one stage practised alongside Christian Easter traditions, they eventually came to be absorbed within Christianity, as symbols of the resurrection of Jesus. The First Council of Nicaea (325) established the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the March equinox.
Whether it is observed as a religious holiday commemorating the resurrection of Jesus Christ, or a time for families in the northern hemisphere to enjoy the coming of Spring and celebrate with egg decorating and Easter bunnies, the celebration of Easter still retains the same spirit of rebirth and renewal, as it has for thousands of years.
The ‘Spring’ or ‘Vernal Equinox’, which was once called ‘Ostara’, occurs on either 20th, 21st or 22nd March when the sun enters ‘Aries’ according to the Earth’s orbit and the insertion of leap years. The Spring Equinox marks the time when the sun crosses the celestial equator northwards or the ‘half way point’ resulting in equal twelve hours of day and twelve hours of night. At the equinox the sun rises exactly in the east and sets exactly in the west after which the daylight hours grow increasingly longer until the sun reaches its highest point in the sky at the ‘Summer Solstice’, which occurs in June.
The Oestra Hare in folklore and tradition
Have you ever wondered how the symbol of the rabbit became associated with the Easter Festival? The origin of the Easter Bunny probably goes back to the festival’s connection with the pagan goddess Eostre.
Eostre (sometimes spelt Oestre) was a fertility goddess from whom we derive the word “oestrogen” and she is closely associated with fertility symbols such as eggs. The rabbit is known as a highly fertile creature and hence an obvious choice for Easter symbolism.
In fact the use of the rabbit is probably a mistake – the Easter “bunny” is more likely to have been a hare, since it is the hare that is usually considered the sacred creature of Eostre.
Pagan fertility festivals at the time of the Spring equinox were common. It was believed that at this time, when day and night were of equal length, male and female energies were also in balance.
The hare is often associated with moon goddesses; the egg and the hare together represent the god and the goddess respectively. The earliest known reference to our modern Easter Bunny tradition appears to be from 16th century Germany. In the 18th century, German settlers to America brought the tradition with them. The Bunny was known by them as Oschter Haws (a corruption of the German Osterhase ) and brought gifts of chocolate, sweets and Easter Eggs to good children. Often children would make up nests for Oschter Haws, sometimes using their Easter bonnets, and the Bunny would leave his treats there.
It is because of this strong connection with pagan traditions that Hares were strongly associated with witches and witchcraft in Christian times. People claimed that a witch could shape shift her form at night and become a hare. These solitary creatures, rarely seen, sometimes standing on their hind legs like a person, aroused suspicion. When in distress they uttered a strange, almost human-like cry, which gave the animal a supernatural quality. For its behaviour would mimic that of a supposed witch. In this form she stole milk or food, or destroyed crops. Others insisted that hares were only witches’ familiars.
With Easter almost here, how about we share with you some snippets about the way Georgians spent their Easter as shown in a few extracts from the newspapers of the day – partying being the most obvious! Let us begin with a letter of complaint, clearly, from someone who didn’t appreciate many of the celebrations that took place during the year and felt it appropriate to vent annoyance to the editor of the Whitehall Evening Post – focusing on a section about Easter…..…
Whitehall Evening Post (1770), August 2, 1783 – August 5, 1783
Some things customary refer simply to the idea of feasting, according to the season and occasion. Of these, perhaps, are lambs-wool on Christmas eve; furmety on Mothering Sunday; Braggot (which is a mixture of ale, sugar and spices) at the festival of Easter … lamb at Easter to the Paschal Lamb. This, perhaps, may be the case also with respect to pancakes on Shrove Tuesday; unless that shall be supposed to allude to ‘the egg at Easter’ an emblem of the rising up out of the grave; in the same manner as the chick, entombed as it were in the egg, is in due time brought to life. So also the flowers, with which many churches are ornamented on Easter-day, are most probably intended as emblems of the resurrection having just risen from the earth during the severity of winter, they seem to have been buried.
A custom, which ought to be abolished as improper and indecent, prevails in many places of lifting, as it is called, on Easter Monday and Tuesday. Is this a memorial of Christ being raised from the grave? There is, at least some appearance of it; as there seems to be trace of the decent of the Holy Ghost on the heads of the Apostles in what passes at Whitsuntide fair in some parts of Lancashire; where one person hold a stick over the head of another, whilst a third, unperceived, strikes the stick, and thus gives a smart blow to the first. But this, probably is only local.
The Hampshire Chronicle, Sunday, March 31, 1788
Of the multitude of customs and ceremonies which formerly commanded attention at this season, but very few are preserved; it is however, universally considered as a time appropriate to recreation and innocent festivity. Amongst the common people it is even now a custom in the North to rise early, in order to see the sun dance. We suppose this o have arisen from some metaphorical expression in the sacred writings. Boys carry a vessel of water into the fields, that the sun may seem to dance from the tremulous motion of the water.
Paper eggs, properly pasche eggs, are stained of different colors and covered with gold leaf, and given to young children in the North of England as a fairing. This is a relic of Popish superstition; an egg being considered a type of the resurrection. This custom prevails in Russia; a long account may be seen in Hackluyt’s voyages. Dr. Chandler also in his travels in Asia Minor says ‘they made us presents of coloured eggs and cakes of Easter bread’.
(It was a family tradition to make pasche eggs for Easter by binding the flowers to eggs with strips of sheeting then boiling the eggs in onion skins. The flowers would act as a resist, creating prints on the hardboiled eggs.) – To continue:
Durand says, that on Easter Tuesday wives used to beat their husbands, on the day following when husbands beat their wives.
In the city of Durham the following custom is still preserved: On one day the men take off the women’s shoes, which are only to be redeemed by a small present. On another day the women take off the men’s in a like manner.
In Yorkshire tansy puddings and cakes are made, which custom Seldon, in his ‘Table Talk‘, has referenced to the bitter herbs which the Jews greatly use at this season. At Newcastle, on Easter Monday a great match is always played at hand ball for a great tansy cake.
Many other incidents might be enumerated, most of which are obsolete, and many generally forgotten; we sincerely however regret, that the memory of anything should be lost, which, by introducing innocent merriment, strengthens the sweet bond of social life.
The Hampshire Chronicle, Monday, April 28, 1794
The belles and beaux, from the fineness of the weather, exceeded far, very far, any number that ever were seen at that favourite spot. From six to eight o’clock, on their return to London, it was one continued throng of holiday people of all ranks and descriptions, from Greenwich park to Westminster bridge. There was no resisting the torrent; and many an honest young woman who was so yesterday morning, will have fatal cause to repent, before this day twelvemonth, the frolic of tumbling down the hill in the park – drunkenness, riots, battles and thefts, as usual, dignified the proceedings. Not less than one hundred thousand persons were present.
At ten in the morning, at least ten thousand equestrians and pedestrians were upon the forest: every species of vehicle from the hand cart and buggy to the light waggon and splendid chariot was there. At one, the stag, bedecked with ribbons was turned out on Fairmaid Bottom – and then the fun began, with running, riding, crossing, jostling, tumbling, hooting, shouting, screaming and howling; which formed the scene that may be seen, but cannot possibly be described, and that indeed never before was exhibited but in a nation of madmen. At four, the stag was at bay in a thicket, near the Royal Oak and was taken and put in a cart and with continual shouts was brought to the starting house in order to afford fresh sport in future.
In 2017 the following article by David Barnet, appeared in The Independent newspaper. Readers of this Blog, who might have missed the article some two years ago, or might not wish to click on the originator’s link (below under ‘Sources’), can read it for themselves here. Apologies for a few minor tweaks to the original article, and for leaving out the advertising and other extraneous matter which only detracts from an interesting article. Read on:
The future of folklore is bright. It might not be all about fairies and goblins, but the art of story-telling and traditional legends is alive and the country’s best-loved tales are rebooted for the 21st century.
Gather round, children, for I tell you a story of things lost, or perhaps about to be. Bide a while as I stir the embers of our fire and gaze into its dancing flames, contemplating the old tales of our people. Folklore, myth and legend, the glue that holds the disparate tribes of these islands together, the narratives that pre-date written history, that try to make sense of the world at the same time as hinting at the other, at places and things that reside beyond the veil of night. About to be lost, all of it – Well, that’s if Center Parcs is to be believed.
OK, that’s enough. Turn the light on and unmute the TV. Center Parcs, did you say? The company that provides woodland lodge holidays for those of us who like the idea of getting back to nature but don’t want to eschew heated swimming pools and well-Tarmaced paths? Indeed. Center Parcs has commissioned a study into what they call the future of British folklore, to mark the company’s 30 years having sites at Sherwood Forest and Elvedon, Norfolk, places obviously redolent in the folk legends of Britain thanks of course to its associations with the mythical outlaw Robin Hood and Black Shuck etc.
The survey reveals that almost a quarter of those asked could not even name one story from folklore. While 80 per cent of respondents were familiar with Robin Hood, when presented with a list of other classic folklore tales and characters – the report mentions King Arthur, Jack the Giant Killer and the Loch Ness Monster among them – on average those questioned could only recognise two.
And despite two-thirds of respondents believing that traditional stories help fire children’s imaginations, about the same number (64 per cent) said they had no intention of passing on folklore tales to their own children, and a fifth said they didn’t really remember being told the stories in the first place.
Of course, Center Parcs has a dog in this fight (this being about folklore, a spectral dog, of course; maybe even Norfolk’s Black Shuck or Yorkshire’s Gytrash), and wants to encourage special family time of sharing folklorish tales, and if that’s at one of their parcs then all the better. And they’ve teamed up with the Folklore Society to create a map of the UK locating some of the country’s best-loved tales.
Jeremy Harte, a committee member of The Folklore Society, said, “Countries aren’t just made up of rocks and rivers. They’re also made up of the stories we tell each other, about the places we know. There are stories about heroes and heroines like Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest and Lady Godiva in Coventry, tales of mermaids around the coasts, giant warriors on the mountains and hidden treasure in the earth. These tales give a special character to our homes, and poetry to our landscape.
“However, we’ve seen from this research that our rich folkloric tradition may be slipping through our fingers, which is deeply saddening and an issue we are passionate about tackling alongside Center Parcs. While there is a wealth of information about folklore on various tourist, council and heritage organisation sites, there clearly may be a decline in stories being passed from generation to generation in the traditional way. By curating this map, we hope to remind people of the fabled history in their local areas, and hope to see these stories re-told for generations to come.”
But are we really in danger of losing the old tales? It almost goes without saying that children today have more distractions than ever before, and we are regularly told that not enough of us are reading to our children, thus losing that perfect bedtime opportunity to impart the classic stories, or variations of them. But while the days of gathering around the hearth to share stories on a dark and stormy night might be long gone, folklore still seeps into our daily lives, and rather than technology killing off folklore, it’s actually revitalising it. Go on to Twitter today and search the #FolkloreThursday hashtag and you’ll find hundreds of posts from people sharing old stories, photographs, drawings, local legends……. it’s a hugely popular weekly event on the social network, with an international reach.
Dee Dee Chainey is one of the co-founders of #FolkloreThursday, and she says: “What we’ve actually seen is a massive increase in interest in folklore over the last two years since it began. I’m amazed to say that we still find the hashtag trending most weeks, testament to its popularity, and we now have a community of almost 16,000 people – and these are just the ones on Twitter.
“There are many more on Facebook, and others who don’t use social media at all that we’ve been able to reach out to through our newsletter and website, which serves as an online folklore magazine with contributors ranging from local community folklore groups, museums, and best-selling writers and artists from around the UK and the world.
“Each Thursday, people come together to explore folklore and tales from their own communities on #FolkloreThursday, as well as learn about traditions from all over the world. We’ve been hugely excited to see people spending all week researching folklore from around Britain as well as globally, and asking their parents and grandparents about their old traditions, just so they can come on Twitter that week and share them. It’s been lovely to see people from the global community engaging with us, too – we’ve now got people coming on from the US, India, Japan, South America and the Arabian Gulf, all sharing their folklore, and listening to stories and traditions from the UK, which is where #FolkloreThursday started – it’s now a global thing”.
“It’s great to see everyone coming together to share centuries of stories, and a wealth of tradition, and using it to create a really exciting conversation, that has no boundaries, and easily transcends differences and division, to really bring people together, and show us how we’re all so similar, and yet so wonderfully different at the same time. And, we shouldn’t worry about our children missing out on the classic stories; they get them, but just in different forms. Chainey says, “While watching out for fairies in the barrows of the land might be a thing of the past, almost all of us have heard of Sleeping Beauty’s endless sleep, a story that was revamped and told from the side of the villain in the film Maleficent with Angelina Jolie.”
“While Disney has been accused of ‘prettifying’ fairy tales, we’ve all seen parades of little girls dressed as Belle from Beauty and the Beast, which teaches about inner beauty. The popularity of more obscure folklore is also rife: we only need to think of Frozen, inspired by ‘The Snow Queen’, Tangled, which modernises and reinterprets ‘Rapunzel’ or Moana, which touches on folklore from Polynesia. People are flocking to cinemas with their children to watch these versions of time-old tales.”
Literature still mines myths, legends and fairy tales; from Angela Carter to Philip Pullman, from Joanne Harris to Neil Gaiman – both of who have recently retold Norse myths, for example. Chainey also cites authors Carrie Ann Noble and Jackie Morris, and adds: “They are more popular than ever, and they’re using folklore to explore contemporary issues like the plight of refugees in their work. Storytelling, too, is far from a dying art, and people are clamouring around to hear traditional tales from all over the world. Jan Blake is a fantastic teller of diverse stories, and she’s seen huge success over recent years – the importance of folktales is not going unnoticed, evidenced by her TEDx talks on the power of telling traditional stories.”
Chainey has no beef with the Center Parcs research, and she and her co-founders of #FolkloreThursday do work closely with The Folklore Society. “It’s excellent to see the traditional tales of Britain being brought to life with a folklore map of Britain, and the project from Center Parcs and The Folklore Society is admirable, and certainly something that many people will really enjoy engaging with,” she says. But she takes issue with the prophecies of doom for folklore, and certainly thinks there’s life in the old black dog yet.
“These stories are still relevant, as by listening and retelling them we explore social norms, and through engaging with them, we form our own identities and work out where we stand in our communities; in essence, traditional tales help us reflect on what it means to be human,” says Chainey. “By telling stories from our communities, and delving into the stories and traditions of other cultures, we can explore the similarities that run through the global community, and learn to appreciate the differences, and appreciate each person and community in all of their glorious humanity, each a melting pot of traditions, stories, and things that make them wonderfully unique.
“Folklore is not just something old and dead; it’s not all about goblins and fairies, and certainly not restricted to the stories we tell. Folklore is very much alive, and stretches to the food we eat and customs we teach our own children: It’s the food our grandparents taught us to make at the kitchen table that we now pass on, it’s the songs and games our children learn from their friends in the school yard, it’s the little traditions each family observes at their festivals – whether that’s kissing under the mistletoe, or having something old, new, borrowed and blue at a wedding.”
Easter traditionally is a celebration of the resurrection of Jesus Christ three days after his death and is considered to be one of the most important Christian dates in the calendar. In Christianity, the celebration of Easter (or Eastertide) and the giving of Easter eggs symbolises the empty tomb of Jesus, or the stone of the tomb over his cave.
Looking further back, Pagans believe that the name ‘Easter’ is derived from ‘Eostre’, the name of the Anglo-Saxon fertility goddess. Eostre’s feast day was held on the first full moon following the vernal equinox, a similar calculation to Easter among Western Christians. On this day, the goddess Eostre is believed by her followers to mate with the solar god, conceiving a child who would be born 9 months later on Yule, the winter solstice.
Two of Eostre’s most important symbols were the hare because of its fertility, and the egg, which symbolised new life. Ancient people also reportedly saw a hare in the full moon. The Easter Bunny nowadays carries on the theme, representing fertility and life. From both a Christian and Pagan perspective, eggs in general are a traditional symbol of fertility and rebirth.
Easter is preceded by Lent, a period of fasting and penitence in preparation for Easter, which begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts forty days. The week before Easter, known as Holy Week, includes Palm Sunday and also Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday. Many Christians abstained from eating meat during the Lenten season prior to Easter. Easter was the first chance to enjoy eggs and meat after the long abstinence. Easter celebrations were reported widely in the Victorian press. Here we see The Illustrated London News of 1844 reporting the Pope washing the feet of poor Priests on Maundy Thursday and on Palm Sunday.
Hot Cross Buns
The Hot Cross Bun is traditionally eaten on Good Friday in the UK, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and Canada, but is now popular all year round. In many historically Christian countries, buns are traditionally eaten hot or toasted during Lent, beginning with the evening of Shrove Tuesday (the evening before Ash Wednesday) to midday Good Friday, with the ‘cross’ standing as a symbol of the Crucifixion.
In English folklore, there are many superstitions regarding this particular bun. Buns baked or served on Good Friday were believed to last through the year, and giving someone a piece of hot cross bun were said to help people recover from illness. Sharing a hot cross bun with someone will ensure a lasting friendship throughout the year, and buns taken on a sea voyage will protect against a shipwreck. Finally, if a hot cross bun is hung in the kitchen, this will protect against fires and ensure all bread turns out in a perfect condition!
For many, these beautiful trumpet-shaped white flowers symbolize purity, virtue, innocence, hope and life— the true themes of Easter.
The earliest Easter eggs were hen or duck eggs decorated in bright colours with vegetable dye and charcoal. A notation in the household accounts of Edward I of England showed an expenditure of eighteen pence for 450 eggs to be gold-leafed and coloured for Easter gifts. The 17th and 18th centuries saw the manufacture of egg-shaped toys, given as Easter gifts.
Germany first made chocolate eggs for Easter in the 19th century. The French closely followed in the new tradition. As techniques for mass-producing chocolate were still some way off, the first chocolate eggs were a painstaking process. Nowadays, 90 million chocolate eggs are sold each year in the UK. Recent statistics show each child receives an average of 8.8 Easter eggs per year! Sales at Easter time make up 10% of UK chocolate sales for the whole year.
One of the major businesses behind the development of chocolate Easter Eggs in Britain was Cadbury’s. Cadbury’s was founded almost 200 years ago. The Cadbury family themselves were a fairly affluent family of Quakers from the West Country. John Cadbury opened the first Cadbury shop in Bull Street Birmingham in 1824, selling cocoa and drinking chocolate that he prepared himself. The Cadbury tea, coffee and cocoa business was initially run by the brothers, John and Benjamin Cadbury. Their father was a linen draper as can be found in the comprehensive details in the nonconformist collection on TheGenealogist. The records contain a copy of the index of John Cadbury’s birth record, as well as a certificate for his birth.
John Cadbury made his first ‘French eating chocolate’ in 1842, but it was not until 1875 that the first Cadbury Easter eggs were produced, by his sons, Richard and George Cadbury who had taken over the business. The earliest eggs were made with dark chocolate and had a smooth, plain surface. They were filled with sugar-coated drops. Later the Cadbury Easter eggs were decorated and had their plain shells enhanced with chocolate piping and marzipan flowers.
The mass production of Easter Eggs was only developed on a larger scale with the invention of a method for making the chocolate flow into moulds. Once this was developed the industry was in a position to market the chocolate Easter Eggs to a mass market.
We can find the Cadbury Brothers listed in the Directories collections on TheGenealogist. The 1849 White’s Directory for Birmingham shows the Cadbury Brothers as they build up their tea and coffee business.
Here the business features in an advert in The Illustrated London News in 1878. The developments in cocoa and chocolate are documented in great detail!
In 2018 the following article by Ben Johnson, appeared in the Historic – UK Website. Readers of this Blog, who might have missed the article or do not wish to click on the originator’s link above, can read it for themselves here. Apologies for a few minor tweaks to the original article, and for leaving out the advertising and other extraneous matter which only detracts from an interesting article. Read on:
Wessex, also known as the Kingdom of the West Saxons, was a large and influential Anglo-Saxon kingdom from 519 to 927AD. From its humble beginnings through to the most powerful kingdom in the land, we trace its history from Cerdic, the founder of Wessex, through to his distant descendants Alfred the Great and Æthelstan who were responsible for defeating invading Viking hordes and uniting Anglo-Saxon England under a single banner.
Cerdic c. 520 to c. 540:
As with many of the early Anglo-Saxon kings, little is known about Cerdic other than that written in the 9th century Anglo-Saxon Chronicles. According to the Chronicles, Cerdic left Saxony (in modern day north-west Germany) in 495 and arrived shortly afterwards on the Hampshire coast with five ships. Over the next two decades, Cerdic engaged the local Britons in a protracted conflict and only took the title of ‘King of Wessex’ after his victory at the Battle of Cerdic’s Ford (Cerdicesleag) in 519, some 24 years after arriving on these shores.
Of course, it is worth remembering that the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles were written around 350 years after Cerdic’s supposed reign and therefore its accuracy should not be taken as verbatim. For example, ‘Cerdic’ is actually a native Briton name and some believe that during the last days of the Romans, Cerdic’s family were entrusted with a large estate to protect, a title known as an ‘ealdorman’. When Cerdic came to power he was then thought to have taken a rather aggressive approach towards the other ealdormans in the region, and as a consequence started to accumulate more and more lands, eventually creating the Kingdom of Wessex.
Cynric c.540 to 560: Described as both the son and grandson of Cerdic, Cynric spent much of his early years in power trying to expand the Kingdom of Wessex westwards into Wiltshire. Unfortunately he came up against fierce resistance from the native Britons and spent most of his reign attempting to consolidate the lands that he already held. He did manage some small gains however, namely at the battle of Sarum in 552 and at Beranbury (now known as Barbury Castle near Swindon) in 556. Cynric died in 560 and was succeeded by his son Ceawlin.
Ceawlin 560 to either 571 or c. 591: By the time iof Ceawlin’s reign, most of southern England would have been under Anglo-Saxon control. This was reinforced by the Battle of Wibbandun in 568 which was the first major conflict between two invading forces (namely the Saxons of Wessex and the Jutes of Kent). Later conflicts saw Ceawlin focus his attention back to the native Britons to the west, and in 571 he took Aylesbury and Limbury, whilst by 577 he had taken Gloucester and Bath and had reached the Severn Estuary. It is around this time that the eastern portion of Wansdyke was built (a large defensive earthwork between Wiltshire and Bristol), and many historians believe that it was Ceawlin who ordered its construction.
The end of Ceawlin’s reign is shrouded in mystery and the details are unclear. What is known is that in 584 a large battle took place against the local Britons in Stoke Lyne, Oxfordshire. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles writes:
This year Ceawlin … fought with the Britons on the spot that is called Fretherne … And Ceawlin took many towns, as well as immense booty and wealth. He then retreated to his own people.
It is strange that Ceawlin would win such an important battle and then simply retreat back towards the south. Instead, what is now thought to have happened is that the Ceawlin actually lost this battle and in turn lost his overlordship of the native Britons. This then led to a period of unrest in and around the Kingdom of Wessex, leading to an eventual uprising against Ceawlin in 591 or 592 (this uprising was thought to have been led by Ceawlin’s own nephew, Ceol!). This uprising would later be known as the Battle of Woden’s Burg.
Ceol 591 – 597: After deposing his uncle at the Battle of Woden’s Burg, Ceol ruled Wessex for the next five years. During this time there are no records of any major battles or conflicts, and little else is known about him except that he had a son called Cynegils.
Ceolwulf 597 – 611: After Ceol’s death in 597, the throne of Wessex went to his brother Ceolwulf. This was because Ceol’s son, Cynegils, was too young to rule at the time. Little is known about Ceolwulf , and the only reference to him in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles is that ‘he constantly fought and conquered, either with the Angles, or the Welsh, or the Picts, or the Scots.’
Cynegils (and his son Cwichelm) 611 – 643:
After Ceolwulf’s death in 611, the throne of Wessex fell to Ceol’s son Cynegils (pictured to the right) who was previously too young to inherit the throne. Cynegils’ long reign started with a great victory over the Welsh in 614, but the fortunes of Wessex were soon to take a turn for the worse.
Concerned about the rise of Northumbria in the north, Cynegils ceded the northern half of his kingdom to his son, Cwichelm, effectively creating a buffer state in the process. Cynegils also forged a temporary alliance with the Kingdom of Mercia who were equally concerned about the growing power of the Northumbrians, and this alliance was sealed by the marriage of Cynegils’ youngest son to the sister of King Penda of Mercia.
In 626, the hot-headed Cwichelm launched an unsuccessful assassination attempt on King Edwin of Northumbria. Rather annoyed by this, Edwin subsequently sent his army to confront Wessex and both sides clashed at the Battle of Win & Lose Hill in the Derbyshire Peak District. With the Mercians at their side, Wessex had a far larger army than the Northumbrians but were nevertheless defeated due to poor tactics. For example, Northumbria had dug into Win Hill and when the Wessex forces started moving forward, they were met by a barrage of boulders that had been rolled from above.
This was a humiliating defeat for both Cynegils and Cwichelm, and they subsequently retreated back within their own borders. The following years saw the Mercians take advantage of the weakened Wessex by taking the towns of Gloucester, Bath and Cirencester. To stop a further Mercian advance, it is thought that the western portion of Wansdyke was built by Cynegils during this time.
The final blow came in 628 when Mercia and Wessex clashed at the Battle of Cirencester. The Mercians were overwhelmingly victorious and took control of the Severn Valley and parts of Worcestershire, Warwickshire and Gloucestershire. As a result Wessex was now considered a second rate kingdom, although a truce was made with Northumbria in 635 which helped it to at least maintain its own borders.
Cynegils eventually died in 643 and his mortuary chest can still be seen in Winchester Cathedral today.
Cenwalh 643 – 645: King Penda of Mercia 645- 648: Cenwalh 648 – 673:
Cenwalh was Cynegils youngest son and had previously been married off to King Penda of Mercia’s (pictured to the right) sister in order to seal an alliance between the two kingdoms. However, upon succeeding to the throne in 643, Cenwalh decided to discard his wife and remarry a local woman called Seaxburh, much to the annoyance of King Penda.
‘…for he put away the sister of Penda, king of the Mercians, whom he had married, and took another wife; whereupon a war ensuing, he was by him expelled his kingdom…’
As a result, Mercia declared war on Wessex, drove Cenwalh into exile for three years, and took control of his lands. In essence, Wessex had become a puppet state of Mercia. Whilst in exile in East Anglia, Cenwalh converted to Christianity and when he finally managed to reclaim the throne of Wessex in 648, he commissioned the first ever Winchester Cathedral. Little else is known about the remainder of Cenwalh’s reign as most written texts covering this time period are focused around Mercian history.
Seaxburh 673 – 674: Seaburgh, wife of Cenwalh, succeeded to the throne after the death of her husband in 673 and was the first and only queen to ever rule over Wessex. However it is now thought that Seaxburh acted more as a figurehead for a united Wessex, and that any real and executive power was held by the various sub-kings of the land.
Æscwine 674 – c. 676: Upon the death of Seaxburh in 674, the throne of Wessex fell to her son, Æscwine. Although the sub-kings of Wessex still held the real power during this time, Æscwine nevertheless rallied his kingdom in defence again the Mercians at the Battle of Bedwyn in 675. This was an overwhelming victory for the Wessex army.
Centwine c. 676 to c. 685: Centwine, uncle of Æscwine, took the throne in 676 although very little is known about his reign. It is thought that he was a pagan in his early years (whereas his predecessors had been predominantly Christian), although he did convert sometime in the 680s. He is also said to have won ‘three great battles’ including one against the rebellious Britons, although once again most of the power in Wessex during this time was held by the sub-kings. It is widely believed that Centwine abdicated the throne in c. 685 to become a monk.
Cædwalla 659 – 688: Thought to be a distant descendant of Cerdic, and almost certainly hailing from a house of nobility, to say that Cædwalla had an eventful life would be an understatement! In his youth he was driven out of Wessex (perhaps by Cenwalh in an effort to expel troublesome sub-royal families) and by the time he was 26 he had gathered enough support to begin invading Sussex and building his own kingdom. During this time he also obtained the throne of Wessex, although it is not known how this feat was accomplished.
During his time as King of Wessex he suppressed the authority of the sub-kings in an effort to consolidate his own power, and then went on to conquer the kingdoms of Sussex and Kent, as well as the Isle of Wight where he is said to have committed acts of genocide and forced the local population to renounce their Christian faith.
In 688 Cædwalla turned to Christianity and subsequently abdicated after being wounded during a campaign in the Isle of Wight. He spent his last few weeks alive in Rome where he was also baptised. As the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles writes:
‘[Cædwalla] went to Rome, and received baptism at the hands of Sergius the pope, who gave him the name of Peter; but in the course of seven nights afterwards, on the twelfth day before the calends of May, he died in his crisom-cloths, and wasburied in the church of St. Peter.’
Ine 689 – c. 728: After the abdication of Cædwalla in 688, it is widely believed that Wessex descended into a period of internal strife and infighting between the various sub-kings. After several months a nobleman called Ine emerged victorious and secured the crown for himself, beginning 37 years of uninterrupted reign.
Ine inherited an extremely powerful kingdom stretching from the Severn Estuary through to the shorelines of Kent, although the eastern portions of the kingdom were notoriously rebellious and Ine struggled to maintain control of them. Instead, Ine turned his attention to the native Britons in Cornwall and Devon and managed to gain a large amount of territory to the west.
Ine is also known for his widescale reforms of Wessex which included an increased focus on trade, introducing coinage throughout the kingdom, as well as issuing a set of laws in 694. These laws covered a wide range of topics from damage caused by straying cattle to the rights of those convicted of murder, and are seen as an important milestone in the development of English society.
Interestingly, these laws also referred to the two types of people that lived in Wessex at the time. The Anglo-Saxons were known as the Englisc and lived mainly in the eastern portions of the kingdom, whilst the newly annexed territories in Devon were mainly populated by the native Britons.
Towards the end of his reign Ine became week and feeble and decided to abdicate in 728 in order to retire to Rome (at this time it was thought that a trip to Rome would aid one’s ascension to heaven).
Æthelheard c. 726 – 740: Thought to have been the brother-in-law of Ine, Æthelheard’s claim to the throne was contested by another nobleman called Oswald. The struggle for power lasted for around a year, and although Æthelheard eventually prevailed this was only through assistance from neighbouring Mercia.
For the next fourteen years, Æthelheard struggled to maintain his northern borders against the Mercians and lost a considerable amount of territory in the process. He also battled continuously against the growing hegemony of this northern neighbour, who after supporting him to the throne demanded that Wessex fall under their control.
Cuthred 740 – 756: Æthelheard was succeeded by his brother, Cuthred, who inherited the throne at the height of Mercian dominance. At this time, Wessex was seen as a puppet state of Mercia and for the first twelve years of Cuthred’s reign he helped them in numerous battles against the Welsh. However, by 752 Cuthred was tired of Mercian overlordship and went to battle to regain independence for Wessex. To the surprise of everyone he won!
‘This year, the twelfth of his reign, Cuthred, king of the West-Saxons, fought at Burford with Ethelbald, king of the Mercians, and put him to flight.’
Sigeberht 756 – 757: Poor old Sigeberht! After succeeding Cuthred (thought to have been his cousin), he ruled for only a year before being stripped of the throne by a council of nobles for ‘unrighteous deeds’. Perhaps out of sympathy he was then given sub-king status over Hampshire, but after deciding to murder one of his own advisors he was subsequently exiled to the Forest of Andred and then killed in a revenge attack.
Cynewulf 757 – 786: Supported to the throne by Æthelbald of Mercia, Cynewulf may well have spent his first few months in power acting as a sub-king for the Mercians. However, when Æthelbald was assassinated later that year, Cynewulf saw an opportunity to assert an independent Wessex and even managed to expand his territory into the southern counties of Mercia.
Cynewulf was able to hold many of these Mercian territories until 779, when at the Battle of Bensington he was defeated by King Offa and forced to retreat back to his own lands. Cynewulf was eventually murdered in 786 by a nobleman that he had exiled many years earlier.
Beorhtric 786 – 802: Beorhtric, thought to have been a distant descendant of Cerdic (the founder of Wessex), had a rather eventful time as King. He succeeded to the throne with the backing of King Offa of Mercia, who no doubt saw his ascendancy as an opportunity to influence West Saxon politics. Beorhtric also married one of King Offa’s daughters, a lady called Eadburh, probably to gain further support from his more powerful neighbour to the north.
If legend is to believed, Beorhtric died through accidental poisoning by none other than his wife, Eadburh. After being exiled to Germany for her crime, she was subsequently ‘hit on’ by Charlemagne with a rather peculiar chat up line. Apparently Charlemagne entered her chambers with his son and asked “Which do you prefer, me or my son, as a husband?”. Eadburh replied that due to his younger age she would prefer his son, to which Charlamagne famously said “Had you chosen me, you would have had both of us. But, since you chose him, you shall have neither.”
After this rather embarrassing affair, Eadburh decided to turn to nunnery and planned to live the rest of her life in a German convent. However, soon after taking her vows she was found having sex with another Saxon man and was duly expelled. Eadburh spent the rest of her days begging on the streets of a Pavia in northern Italy.
Egbert 802 – 839:
One of the most famous of all the West Saxon kings, Egbert was actually exiled by his predecessor Beorhtric sometime in the 780s. Upon his death however, Egbert returned to Wessex, took the throne and reigned for the next 37 years.
Strangely, the first 20 or so years of his kingship are not very well documented although it is thought that he spent most of this time trying to keep Wessex independent from Mercia. This struggle for independence came to a head in 825 when the two sides met at the Battle of Ellandun near modern day Swindon.
Surprisingly, Egbert’s forces were victorious and the Mercians (led by Beornwulf) were forced to retreat back to the north. Riding high from his victory, Egbert sent his army south-east to annex Surrey, Sussex, Essex and Kent, all of which were under either direct or indirect Mercian control at the time. In the space of a year, the balance of power in Anglo-Saxon England had completely shifted and by 826 Wessex was seen as the most powerful kingdom in the country.
Egbert’s dominance of southern England continued for the next four years, with another major victory against Mercia in 829 which allowed him to completely annex the territory and claim all of southern Britain up to the River Humber. Egbert also was able to receive the submission of the Kingdom of Northumbria at the end of 829, leading the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to call him ‘Ruler of Britain’ (although a more accurate title would have been ‘Ruler of England’ as both Wales and Scotland were still fiercely independent!).
Only one year after annexing Mercia for himself, the exiled King Wiglaf organised a revolt and drove the army of Wessex back into their own territory. However, the Mercians never reclaimed their lost territories of Kent, Sussex and Surrey and Wessex was still to be considered the most powerful kingdom in southern England.
When Egbert died in 839 he was succeeded by his only son, Æthelwulf.
Æthelwulf, 839 – 858:
Æthelwulf was already the king of Kent before his ascension to the throne of Wessex, a title awarded to him by his father in 825. Keeping to this family tradition, when Egbert died in 839 Æthelwulf subsequently handed Kent to his own son, Æthelstan, to rule it on his behalf.
Not much is known about Æthelwulf’s reign except that he an extremely religious man, prone to the occasional gaffe, and rather unambitious, although he did fairly well at keeping the invading Vikings at bay (namely at Carhampton and Ockley in Surrey, the latter of which was said to have been ‘ the greatest slaughter of heathen host ever made’.) Æthelwulf was also said to have been rather fond of his wife, Osburh, and together they bore six children (five sons and a daughter).
In 853 Æthelwulf sent his youngest son, Alfred (later to become King Alfred the Great) to Rome on a pilgrimage. However after the death of his wife in 855, Æthelwulf decided to join him in Italy and on his return the following year met his second wife, a 12 year old girl called Judith, a French princess.
Quite to his surprise, when Æthelwulf finally returned to British shores in 856 he found that his oldest surviving son, Æthelbald, had stolen the kingdom from him! Although Æthelwulf had more than enough support of the sub-kings to reclaim the throne, his Christian charity led him to cede the western half of Wessex to Æthelbald in an attempt to keep the kingdom from breaking out into civil war.
When Æthelwulf died in 858 the throne of Wessex unsurprisingly fell to Æthelbald.
Æthelbald 858 – 860: Little is known about Æthelbald’s short reign except that he married his father’s widow, Judith, who at the time was only 14! Æthelbald died ages 27 at Sherborne in Dorset from an unknown ailment or disease.
Æthelberht 860 – 865: Æthelberht, brother of Æthelbald and third eldest son of Æthelwulf, succeeded to the throne of Wessex after his brother died without having fathered any children. His first order of business was to integrate the Kingdom of Kent into Wessex, whereas previously it had been merely a satellite state.
Æthelberht is said to have presided over a time of relative peace, with the other Anglo-Saxon kingdoms too preoccupied with Viking invasions to worry about domestic rivalries. Wessex was not immune from these Viking incursions either, and during his reign Æthelberht saw off the Danish invaders from a failed storming of Winchester as well as repeated incursions to the eastern coast of Kent.
Like his brother before him, Æthelberht died childless and the throne was passed to his brother, Æthelred.
Æthelred 865 – 871:
Æthelred’s six years as King of Wessex began with a great Viking army storming the east of England. This ‘Great Heathen Army’ quickly overran the independent Kingdom of East Anglia and had soon defeated the mighty Kingdom of Northumbria. With the Vikings turning their sights southwards, Burgred King of Mercia appealed to Æthelred for assistance and he subsequently sent an army to meet the Vikings near Nottingham. Unfortunately this was to be a wasted trip as the Vikings never showed up, and Burgred was instead forced to ‘buy off’ the Danish horde to avoid them invading his lands.
With Northumbria and East Anglia now under Viking control, by the winter of 870 the Great Heathen Army turned their sights on Wessex. January, February and March of 871 saw Wessex engage the Vikings on four separate occasions, winning just one of them.
Alfred the Great 871 – 899: The only English monarch to have ever been bestowed the title of ‘Great’, Alfred is widely acknowledged as one of the most important leaders in English history.
Before King Æthelred died in 871, he signed an agreement with Alfred (his younger brother) which stated that when he died the throne would not pass to his eldest son. Instead, due the increasing Viking threat from the north, the throne would pass to Alfred who was a much more experienced and mature military leader.
The first of King Alfred’s battles against the Danes was in May 871 in Wilton, Wiltshire. This was to be a catastrophic defeat for Wessex, and as a consequence Alfred was forced to make peace with (or more likely buy off) the Vikings in order to prevent them from taking control of the Kingdom.
For the next five years there was to be an uneasy peace between Wessex and the Danish, with the Viking horde setting up base in Mercian London and focusing their attention on other parts of England. This peace remained in place until a new Danish leader, Guthrum, came to power in 876 and launched a surprise attack on Wareham in Dorset. For the next year and a half, the Danish tried unsuccessfully to take Wessex, but in January 878 their fortunes were to change as a surprise attack on Chippenham pushed Alfred and the Wessex army back into a small corner of the Somerset Levels.
Defeated, short on troops and with morale at an all time low, Alfred and his remaining forces hid from the enemy forces in a small town in the marshes called Athelney. From here, Alfred started sending out messengers and scouts to rally local militia from Somerset, Devon, Wiltshire and Dorset.
By May 878 Alfred had gathered enough reinforcements to launch a counter offensive against the Danes, and on the 10th May (give or take a few days!) he defeated them at the Battle of Edington. Riding high from victory, Alfred continued with his army northwards to Chippenham and defeated the Danish stronghold by starving them into submission. As part of the terms for surrender, Alfred demanded that Wulfred convert to Christianity and two weeks later the baptism took place at a town called Wedmore in Somerset. This surrender is consequently known as ‘The Peace of Wedmore’.
The Peace of Wedmore led to a period of relative peace in England, with the south and west of England being ceded to the Anglo-Saxons and the north and east to the Danish (creating a kingdom known as Danelaw). However, this was to be an uneasy peace and Alfred was determined not to risk his kingdon again. He subsequently embarked on a modernisation of his military, focused around a ‘Burgal system’. This policy was to ensure that no place in Anglo-Saxon England would be more than 20 miles from a fortified town, allowing reinforcements to flow easily throughout the kingdom. Alfred also ordered the construction of a new, larger and much improved navy to counter Danish seapower.
Alfred also embarked on a series of academic reforms, and recruited the most prestigious scholars from the British Isles to set up a court school for noble-born children as well as ‘intellectually promising boys of lesser birth’. He also made literacy a requirement for anyone in government, as well as ordering the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles to be written.
When King Guthrum died in 890, a power-vacuum opened up in Danelaw and a set of fueding sub-kings started fighting over power. This was to mark the beginning of another six years of Danish attacks on the Anglo-Saxons, although with Alfred’s newly improved defenses these attacks were almost entirely repelled. Things came to a head in 897, when after a series of failed raiding attempts the Danish army effectively disbanded, with some retiring to Danelaw and some retreating back to mainland Europe.
Alfred died a few years later in 899 having secured the future of Anglo-Saxon England.
Edward the Elder 899 – 924:
In 899 the throne of Wessex fell to Alfred’s eldest son, Edward, although this was disputed by one of Edward’s cousins called Æthelwold. Determined to expel Edward from power, Æthelwold sought the help of the Danes to the east and by 902 his army (along with Viking help) had attacked Mercia and had reached the Wiltshire borders. In retaliation Edward successfully attacked the Danish kingdom of East Anglia but then, on ordering his troops back to Wessex, some of them refused and continued northwards (probably for more loot!). This culminated in the Battle of the Holme, where the East Anglian Danes met the stragglers of the Wessex army and subsequently defeated them. However, the Danes also suffered some heavy losses during the battle and both the king of East Anglia and Æthelwold, pretender to the Wessex throne, lost their lives.
After the Battle of the Holme, Edward the Elder spent the rest of his years in almost constant clashes with the Danes to the north and east. With the help of the Mercian army (who had long been under the indirect control of Wessex), Edward was even able to defeat the Danish in East Anglia, leaving them with only the kingdom of Northumbria. On the death of Edward’s sister, Æthelflæd of Mercia in 918, Edward also brought the Kingdom of Mercia under the direct control of Wessex and from this point on, Wessex was the only kingdom of the Anglo-Saxons. By the end of his reign in 924, Edward had almost completely removed any threat of Viking invasion, and even the Scots, Danes and Welsh all referred to him as ‘Father and lord’
‘This year Edward was chosen for father and for lord
by the king of the Scots, and by the Scots, and King Reginald,
and by all the North-humbrians, and also the king of the
Strath-clyde Britons, and by all the Strath-clyde Britons.’
Ælfweard July – August 924: Reigning only for around 4 weeks and probably never crowned, all we know about Ælfweard is a single sentence from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles:
This year died King Edward at Farndon in Mercia; and
Ælfweard his son died very soon after this, in Oxford. Their
bodies lie at Winchester.
Æthelstan August 924 – 27th October 939: Æthelstan, the first ever King of England, took the Wessex throne in 924 after his elder brother’s death. However, although he was very popular in Mercia, Æthelstan was less well liked in Wessex as he had been raised and schooled outside of the kingdom. This meant that for the first year of his reign he had to rally the support of the sub-kings of Wessex, including one particularly vocal opposition leader called Alfred. Although he succeed in doing this, it meant that he was not crowned until the 4th September 925. Interesting, the coronation was held in Kingston upon Thames on the historic border between Mercia and Wessex.
By the time of his coronation in 925 the Anglo-Saxons had retaken much of England leaving only southern Northumbria (centered around the capital of York) in the hands of the Danish. This small corner of the old Danelaw had a truce with the Anglo-Saxons which prevented them from going to war with each other, but when the Danish king Sihtric died in 927, Æthelstan saw an opportunity to take this final vestige of Danish territory.
The campaign was swift, and within a few months Æthelstan had taken control of York and received the submission of the Danish. He then called for a gathering of kings from throughout Britain, including those from Wales and Scotland, to accept his overlordship and acknowledge him as King of England. Wary of the power that a united England would have, the Welsh and Scottish agreed under the proviso that fixed borders should be put in place between the lands.
For the next seven years there was relative peace throughout Britain until in 934 Æthelstan decided to invade Scotland. There is still a great deal of uncertainly over why he decided to do this, but what is known is that Æthelstan was supported by the Kings of Wales and that his invading army reached as far as Orkney. It is thought that the campaign was relatively successful, and that as a consequence both King Constantine of Scotland and Owain of Strathclyde accepted Æthelstan’s overlordship.
This overlordship lasted for two years until in 937 when both Owain and Constantine, along with the Danish king Guthfrith of Dublin, marched against Æthelstan’s army in an attempt to invade England. This was to be one of the greatest battles in British history: The Battle of Brunanburh (follow the link for our full article about the battle).
By the time of Æthelstan’s death in 939 he had defeated the Vikings, united the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms of England under a single banner, and had repeatedly forced both the Welsh and Scottish kings to accept his overlordship of Britain. Æthelstan was therefore the last king of Wessex and the first king of England.
The 16th century was a time of religious upheaval caused, in part, by the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. As the aftershocks of religious division extended across Europe, fear spread that the Day of Judgment was nigh. Catholics viewed the rift as a sign that the antichrist was increasing his works in the world, while Protestants saw the corruption of the Catholic church as proof that the devil was near.
Fuelling concerns about the pernicious influence of magic and the devil was the revolution of print, which saw an influx of written texts from the continent, such as the Malleus Maleficarum (c1486), urging people to take decisive action in the battle with witches and magic. It was against this emotionally charged backdrop that Henry VIII introduced the first English statutes addressing witchcraft in 1542, followed by new, stricter, legislation by Elizabeth I in 1563 and James I in 1604. No one was safe from an accusation of witchcraft, even clergymen. However, marginalised women bore the brunt of the accusations – particularly elderly spinsters, widows, and those living alone. In fact, 80 per cent of those tried in Britain were women.
Begging, a standard method of survival, lay at the root of many witchcraft allegations, and beggars were often blamed for misfortunes that occurred after they were refused help. More often than not, accusations of witchcraft resulted from neighbourly disagreements, inextricably bound to a deep-rooted fear of malevolent magic and the devil.
As stories of continental trials spread and as the new witchcraft laws filtered down through society, some took it upon themselves to lead the witch hunts, gathering evidence before trial as self-proclaimed ‘witchfinder generals’. The most notorious of these in England was a Puritan called Matthew Hopkins who launched an unprecedented campaign of terror against suspected English witches during the 1640s. These led to some 300 trials and the deaths of around 100 people in eastern England. Hopkins was by no means the only witch detector, but his reputation spread far and wide and he had a profound impact on those around him. One source from the time commented: “It is strange to tell what superstitious opinions, affections, relations, are generally risen amongst us, since the Witchfinders came into the Countrey.”
Although the use of torture to extract a confession was illegal in England, less ‘formal’ types of torture were often used by men such as Hopkins at a local level, often presided over by a magistrate or local constable. One such method was sleep deprivation, whereby the accused would be forced to walk back and forth until exhausted and then denied rest. Another, more public and informal type of trial was ‘swimming’ the accused to prove their guilt. The victim’s right thumb would be tied to their left big toe and they would be thrown into a nearby pond or river. If they sank, they were innocent; if they floated, they had been rejected by the water as a servant of the devil, in a type of reverse baptism.
As a capital offence, witchcraft trials in England were held before a judge and a jury under the common law system, during which evidence against the accused was presented. Court records reveal extraordinary stories of witches flying out of windows on broomsticks or cavorting with satanic imps. There are many theories to explain why the accused related such fantastical stories to open-mouthed juries – some historians cite mental health disorders; others attribute it to attention-seeking.
Contrary to popular belief, witch trials were not a foregone conclusion for only 25 per cent of those tried across the period were found guilty and executed. It has been said that the total number of people tried for witchcraft in England throughout the period was no more than 2,000.
By the late 17th century – thanks to a combination of judicial scepticism, low prosecution rates and the costs of pursuing a case through the courts – the number of accusations of witchcraft had plummeted. Many people turned instead to ‘cunning folk’ (‘wise’ men and women who practiced ‘good’ witchcraft) and healers to combat the malevolent forces they believed to be at large. Witchcraft was finally decriminalised in Britain in 1736 – though people were still being accused of it as late as the 19th century.
Three East Anglian Places Where History Happened:
1) Brandeston village, Suffolk
As the witch hunting momentum grew, self-appointed ‘witchfinder generals’ sprung up around Britain, devoted to extracting confessions of guilt. Matthew Hopkins, the most notorious of these, was responsible for one fifth of the total number of executions in England over the period. One of his targets, John Lowes, was the elderly vicar of Brandeston who was accused of witchcraft in 1642.
After being ‘swum’ in the moat at Framlingham Castle, and proclaimed guilty after floating to the surface, Hopkins “kept [Lowes] awake several nights together while running him backwards and forwards about his cell until out of breath… till he was weary of his life and scarce sensible of what he said or did”. Ultimately, Lowes ‘confessed’ to sending imps to sink a ship near Harwich and allegedly proclaimed that he “was joyfull to see what power his imps had”. Lowes was hanged at Bury St Edmunds in August 1645.
All Saints Church has a plaque dedicated to Lowes and an image of his hanging is depicted on the village sign.
2) Sible Hedingham, Essex
Right through to the 19th century, magic and witchcraft were still very much a part of everyday life, and although trials by swimming were frowned upon in the eyes of the law, they continued to be used by the population at large long after the repeal of the witchcraft statutes in 1736.
The last recorded case of swimming in England occurred in the village of Sible Hedingham in 1863 when an elderly man by the name of Dummy was dragged from the taproom in The Swan public house to a nearby brook. The man, who was deaf and dumb, gained a living by telling fortunes and was a figure of curiosity in the village. He was accused of bewitching the wife of the beerhouse owner, Emma Smith, who complained that she had been ill for some ten months.
After Dummy refused to ‘remove the curse’, Smith struck him “several times” with a stick and pushed him into the brook, encouraged by other villagers, in particular master carpenter Samuel Stammers. Dummy died a few days later from shock and pneumonia caused by the constant immersion and ill treatment, and both Smith and Stammers were sentenced to six months’ hard labour.
Although no longer a working pub, The Swan Inn still stands, and the stream in which Dummy was swum flows nearby.
3) Tring Hertfordshire
Long after the Witchcraft Act of 1736, people continued to administer their own justice on those they suspected of being witches.
Sometime in 1745, a Ruth Osborne went to a farmer by the name of Butterfield, who kept a dairy at Gubblecut, near Tring, in Hertfordshire, and begged for some buttermilk. Butterfield, with his brutal refusal, angered the old woman, who went away muttering that the Pretender would pay him out. In the course of the next year or so a number of the farmer’s calves became distempered, and he himself contracted epileptic fits. In the meantime he gave up dairy-farming and took a public-house.
The wiseacres who he met there attributed his misfortunes to witchcraft, and advised Butterfield to apply to a cunning woman or white witch for a cure. An old woman was fetched from Northampton and confirmed the suspicion already entertained against Ruth Osborne and her husband John.
Notice was given by the crier at the adjoining towns of Winslow, Hemel Hempstead, and Leighton Buzzard, that witches were to be tried by ducking at Longmarstone on 22 April 1751.
A large and determined mob mustered at Tring on the day specified, and forced the parish overseer and master of the workhouse by threats to reveal the hiding-place of the unfortunate couple in the vestry of the church, where those officers had placed them for better security.
The Osbornes were then stripped, and, with their hands tied to their toes, were thrown into Longmarstone pool. After much ducking and ill-usage the old woman was thrown upon the bank, quite naked and almost choked with mud, and she expired in the course of a few minutes. Her dead body was tied to her husband, who was alleged to have died shortly afterwards from the cruel treatment he received, but who ultimately recovered, though he was unable to give evidence at the trial.
The authorities determined to overawe local sympathy with the rioters, and to make a salutary example. At the coroner’s inquest the jury brought in a verdict of wilful murder against one Thomas Colley, a chimney sweep, and against twenty-one other known and unknown persons. Colley had taken a leading part in the outrage, and had collected money from the rabble for ‘the sport he had shown them in ducking the old witch.’ He was tried at Hertford assizes on 30 July 1751, before Sir Thomas Lee, and his plea that he went into the pond as a friend to try and save Mrs. Osborne being unsupported by evidence, he was found guilty and sentenced to death.
“Good People I beseech you all to take Warning, by an Unhappy Man’s Suffering, that you be not deluded into so absurd & wicked a Conceit, as to believe that there are any such Beings upon Earth as Witches.
It was that Foolish and vain Imagination, heightened and inflamed by the strength of Liquor, which prompted me to be instrumental (with others as mad-brained as myself) in the horrid & barbarous Murther of Ruth Osborn, the supposed Witch; for which I am now so deservedly to suffer Death.
I am fully convinced of my former Error and with the sincerity of a dying Man declare that I do not believe there is such a Thing in Being as a Witch: and I pray God that none of you thro’ a contrary Persuasion, may hereafter be induced to think that you have a Right in any shape to persecute, much less endanger the Life of a Fellow-Creature.
I beg of you all to pray to God to forgive me & to wash clean my polluted Soul in the Blood of Jesus Christ my Saviour & Redeemer.
So Exhorteth you all the Dying
Signed at Hertford Augst the 23rd 1751”
He was escorted from Hertford gaol to St. Albans and the next morning, 24 Aug., was executed at Gubblecut Cross in Tring, and afterwards hanged in chains on the same gallows.
“The infatuation of the greatest part of the country people was so great that they would not be spectators of his death; yet many thousands stood at a distance to see him go, grumbling and muttering that it was a hard case to hang a man for destroying an old wicked woman that had done so much harm by her witchcraft”.
The inquest into Ruth’s death was held at the Half Moon pub in the village of Wilstone, The pub still stands, as does the church of St Peter and St Paul at Tring.
Georgian England is remembered now as a period of great elegance and refinement but it was also notorious for the brutality of its judicial system and as a time when more than 200 crimes on the statute book carried the death penalty, when imprisonment for debt was commonplace, and public floggings and executions were a popular source of entertainment.
The Government was not expected to improve the life of the people and it had no desire to do so. It was however expected to protect the land and property of the lawmakers themselves, the wealthy 3% of the population who were permitted to vote in elections even though they were unlikely to be the victim of crime unless it was the pickpocket on the street, the robber on the highway, or from poaching on the rich man’s estate. The true beneficiaries of the draconian laws were more often middle class shop owners and tavern keepers who along with the poor were always more vulnerable to being the victims of crime, but this was a by-product of and not the intention of those who made the law.
The man most responsible for the shaping of Georgian England was Robert Walpole. He was born near Houghton in Norfolk on 26 August 1676, the son of a prominent Whig politician who upon his father’s death in January 1701, was elected as Member of Parliament for his old constituency of Castle Rising.
British politics in the eighteenth century reflected a society divided between the pro-Church and pro-Monarchy landed aristocracy and the rapidly expanding commercial class that sought the primacy of Parliament in all things (the vast majority had no say at all) and it was a fraught arena where tensions often ran high. The Tories and the Whigs were not political parties as we would understand them today but factions who formed alliances to best serve their own interests, and it was no friendly rivalry. They were in effect two warring camps with both willing to take up the cudgel if required. Their mutual enmity was reflected in the names they called one another – a Tory was an Irish bandit or thief – a Whig a Scottish rebel or Presbyterian fanatic.
The fact that elections were held every three years guaranteed a febrile atmosphere with members of the different factions meeting in their own coffee houses to conspire with one another and plot their opponents, downfall. Also, Political meetings were violent affairs, graft and corruption was commonplace, votes and constituency seats bought and sold and the behaviour on the hustings would often border on riotous assembly.
Yet this would be the world in which Robert Walpole, the great manipulator not to say enabler, would thrive and prosper. Walpole’s connections ensured that he soon gained political office and he proved himself an able administrator and earned a reputation for probity at a time when such a thing was transparently lacking in politics, this despite the fact that he had been briefly imprisoned for embezzlement in 1712. Having gained the favour of King George I, as he would later his son George II, he began to rise through Government ranks but his ambition was a secret to no one and he was hated by the Tories who time and again tried to discredit him and have him impeached. But, Walpole’s reputation was to soar following the fiasco of the South Sea Bubble.
The South Sea Company had been formed in 1711 as a joint-stock company which through the sale of bonds would purchase the national debt but in reality it was a get rich quick scheme underpinned by promises of vast profits to be made from trade. After all, the Company had been granted a monopoly of trade with South America. The fact that Britain was at the time at war with Spain meaning there was little real trade to be had was a fact that was seemingly overlooked by most investors. The rich flocked to buy shares but by 1720 it was apparent that the South Sea Company was an empty shell and the rush to sell shares caused it to crash spectacularly.
Though Walpole had also invested heavily he had earlier been advised to sell his shares. Even so, he tried to re-invest but his purchase of further shares was delayed in the mail and did not arrive in time. This was to prove a stroke of good fortune both financially and more significantly politically for coupled with a few minor criticisms he had made of the Company’s behaviour in the House of Commons it appeared to many that he’d had the foresight to see the crash coming. However, nothing could have been further from the truth but it provided him with a reputation for financial rectitude at a time when others who should have known better had allowed their greed to overwhelm their common sense.
The King now turned to Walpole to help the Government out of the financial mess it now found itself in, and he seized the opportunity with aplomb. Walpole was quick to smooth things over making a series of emollient and reassuring speeches in the House of Commons and confiscating the estates of the Company’s Directors to pay off those worst hit financially in the crisis. He also deflected criticism away from the King who as Governor of the Company was heavily implicated in its wrongdoings. For this both the King and his successor George II would be eternally grateful. Appointed to the position of First Lord of the Treasury alongside a number of other high offices Walpole was the King’s indispensable man and effectively Britain’s first Prime Minister and he would remain so for the next 15 years. It was to be the beginning of the Whig Supremacy and Walpole was to refashion Georgian England in his own image – a country of both conspicuous wealth and extreme poverty, of unapologetic self-interest and punitive laws.
First Walpole, or Cock Robin as he was known, not always with affection, secured his own position. He accumulated for himself a vast array of patronage, ensured that people who would be his men in Parliament were elected to Rotten Boroughs, and aware that he could break as well as make political careers where bribery didn’t serve his purposes he wasn’t adverse to a little intimidation. As a last resort he could always turn to the King for support. Walpole’s policy would be to maintain the status-quo by appealing to the naked self-interest of those who mattered. He adopted a peace policy avoiding ruinously expensive wars, kept taxes low especially those on land, and introduced laws that would protect property, game, and livestock. The rich could sit back and enjoy their wealth comfortable in the knowledge that they were safe from ideological dispute, revolution, robbery, or foreign invasion, and as long as the calm waters of conspicuous self-indulgence and display remained undisturbed then all was well in Georgian England. It would prove for the time being at least a winning formula.
The most potent symbol of Walpole’s England was to be the Debtor’s Prison. Every major city had at least one and there were seven in London alone, the most notorious of which were the Fleet Prison in Farringdon Street and the Marshalsea Prison in Southwark. These prisons were Government owned but privately managed, and were run for profit. For example in 1728, Thomas Bambridge purchased the Letters of Patent to run the Fleet Prison as its Warden for £5,000, and like most Warden’s he immediately divided the prisoners into those who could pay for their keep and those who could not. Indeed, Bambridge was to become particularly notorious for extorting money from his inmates even manacling them on occasions until his demands were met. It was possible to be imprisoned for a debt as little as £2 and incarceration would often come as the result of a request from the creditor.
Whilst in prison the interest on the debt would continue to accrue and release would only come after a financial arrangement had been made for repayment of the debt or the creditor himself relented, and with no specific time to be served a prisoner could be wrangling for his release ad nauseam. For those able to pay imprisonment would be less onerous and depending on how much money they had they might get a cell to themselves with a bed, they would also be able to purchase food, and beer that was often brewed on the premises. They could receive visits from their family, if they were not already imprisoned with the inmate which sometimes happened, and could even conduct business.
The Fleet Prison even permitted prisoners to live within a short distance of the confines of the prison itself, a practice known as the “Liberty of the Rules”. If you were unable to pay for your keep then you would be left to rot in the squalor of the common cells, the damp, windowless, rat-infested rooms situated on the ground floor where the petty criminals were confined. Forced to sleep on a bare floor strewn with straw, fed on gruel twice a day, and with nowhere to urinate or defecate disease was rife and life expectancy short.
The “Bloody Code” as it was to become known, saw offences ranging from poaching, the theft of a loaf of bread, and sheep stealing through to murder and treason carry the death penalty. It was harsh in the extreme, as also were the penalties for those crimes that did not carry the ultimate sanction such as being publicly whipped, branded with hot irons, and confined to the pillory for days on end. In the case of many women and children, and those men who could show themselves to have been of previously good character there was always the option of transportation to the colonies as an indentured slave.
Despite the many laws that now made up the statute book there were few formal structures in place with which to enforce them. There was no police force at this time and instead every parish was obliged to have at least a Constable but these were unpaid volunteers often concerned only with the status their position brought them and little concerned with the actual enforcement of the law. In London and other major cities there were paid Watchmen, these were often elderly ex-soldiers who patrolled the streets at night and at the top of every hour would ring a bell to declare the time and cry – “All is well.” Though they were much-maligned at the time they did play a role in keeping the streets safe at night and provided reassurance if nothing else.
In 1749, the author Henry Fielding who had been appointed Chief Magistrate for London along with his brother John founded the Bow Street Runners. They now largely replaced the “Thief Takers”, the men often recruited from amongst the criminal underworld itself who would investigate crimes and arrest people for a fee. This had always been an unsatisfactory arrangement to say the least for the Thief Takers were most likely involved in the crime itself and were merely turning in their associates for money. The Bow Street Runners did not serve as policemen as we would understand them, they did not patrol the streets at night or make themselves available for emergencies. They did however serve writs and make arrests on the authority of the Chief Magistrate, and they travelled the length and breadth of the country to do so.They were also paid for the first time by central Government.
Justice was administered by Local Magistrates who were invariably drawn from amongst the wealthiest of any parish. They were unpaid and often found their work burdensome and time consuming. Also there was no oversight as to their activities and they were not necessarily disinclined to act maliciously or take a bribe. Indeed, the gothic novelist Horace Walpole, the son of Robert, remarked of the Magistrates in London: “The greatest criminals of this town are the officers of justice.” More serious crimes such as burglary, murder, and treason would be tried before the Quarterly Assizes and in London at Newgate, later to become the Old Bailey.
Unlike the trials for petty crime more serious offences were tried before a jury of the accused person’s peers. Even so, it was commonplace for such cases to be dealt with quickly as it was rare for there to be a defence barrister as none was provided by the State. Also, the presumption on the part of the Magistrates was always one of guilty. Also, the fact that the Courtroom itself would be liberally sprinkled with fresh smelling herbs and flowers to mask the smell of the filthy and unwashed prisoners indicates the attitude of those dispensing justice.
A guilty verdict at the Quarterly Assizes would invariably carry the death penalty and such trials were popular events that would be well attended and raucous affairs. The crowd would heckle and jeer throughout but a silence would descend upon the courtroom as the Judge would place the black cap upon his head and speaking these words pass the sentence of death:
“Prisoner at the bar, it is now my painful duty to pronounce the awful sentence of the law which must follow the verdict that has just been recorded, that you be taken to the place of execution there to be hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may the Lord have mercy on your sinful soul.”
Public executions in London were carried out at Tyburn and were occasions for a social gathering in an atmosphere that often resembled that of a fairground. Thousands of people would gather in the field where the gallows were located whilst others lined the streets of the three mile journey of the condemned man from his place of incarceration to his place of execution. Carried on a cart where he would be sat upon his own coffin and accompanied by the Sheriff, a Chaplain and an armed escort the condemned man was for a short period at least the centre of attraction and sometimes as the cart passed a tavern the landlord would offer him a last drink to which the Sheriff would invariably reply: “Not for him, he’s on the wagon.” There would be a celebratory feel to the day with music played, pies sold, and many people drunk. As in the Courtroom however once the condemned man mounted the gallows the crowd would fall silent to hear the Chaplain’s last words:
“You have been adjudged by the laws of this country unworthy any longer to live, unworthy to walk this earth, unworthy to breathe its air, and that no further good to mankind can be expected from you, only the example of your death to warn others in the future, and may God have mercy on your soul.”
The common people knew full well that the justice system was not there to serve them as a popular saying of the time testifies: “The laws grind the poor, and the rich make the law”. As a result the more notorious a criminal, no matter how brutal, the more likely he was to be treated as a folk hero in the tradition of Robin Hood, and Highwaymen such as Dick Turpin, Claude Vall, and Sixteen String Jack who intercepted and robbed the Stage Coaches ridden by the rich were particularly admired and became celebrities. In 1774, when the famous Highwayman John Rann was found not guilty of robbery thousands of people who had gathered outside cheered and carried him aloft from the Court.
The most popular hero of his day however was the 22 year old apprentice carpenter, Jack Sheppard. He had served five years of his apprenticeship and had been showing great promise at his chosen profession when encouraged by the other apprentices he began to frequent the Black Lion Tavern in Drury Lane, a popular haunt of the local criminal underworld and with his newly acquired taste for alcohol and having made the association of a local gang leader, Joseph “Blueskin” Blake, he soon found that there was easier money to be made in crime than there was in having to work for a living and he quickly progressed from petty theft and pick-pocketing to burglary.
Arrested on numerous occasions it was to be his increasingly spectacular prison escapes that made him a popular hero. Arrested once again and sentenced to hang he promised to escape on the day of his execution but the pocket knife he was carrying to cut the ropes that bound him was discovered. Nonetheless, he had another plan and remained supremely confident that he would not hang and boasted of his forthcoming escape calling upon public to come and witness it. The people expected him to be as good as his word.
Jack Sheppard, a wide-eyed young man with a ready smile was only 5’2” and weighed barely 100 pounds and he firmly believed that as the cart was wheeled away to leave him hanging he would not be heavy enough for the noose to break his neck, and so he had arranged for his friends to cut him down and take him to a doctor to be revived. On 24 January 1724, more than 200,000 people turned out to see Jack Sheppard hang – or escape?
On his journey to the gallows Sheppard joined in the celebratory mood revelling in the banter and urging on the crowd. He even persuaded the Sheriff to stop off at the City of Oxford Tavern so he could down a pint of ale.
As he stood beneath the gallows with his neck in the noose he continued to play to a crowd that truly expected him to escape once again. As the cart was pulled away from beneath his feet the raucous crowd descended into a hushed silence as they watched his body squirm and twitch. But there was to be no escape this time and his Sheppard was to dangle from the rope for a full 15 minutes as he endured the agonies of slow strangulation. When the body was at last cut down the crowd surged forward to grab their souvenirs, they pulled out tufts of his hair, cut off his fingers, and gouged out his eyes.
His friends who had planned to rescue him before death’s deadly embrace took hold never even got close to retrieving his lifeless corpse. Such had been the popularity of Jack Sheppard that newspapers were forbidden to write of his exploits and theatres were banned from using his name for the next forty years.
London was the largest city in the world with a population of over 800,000 and was growing all the time. It was a place like no other with more than 50,000 shops, taverns, restaurants, coffee houses, and brothels where every need and desire could be catered for; a place of both outlandish display and grim squalor, with beautiful parks and filthy streets; a place of hucksterism and gaudy self-indulgence. A city of vice, violence and disease its many iniquities were vividly captured in the paintings and lithographs of the artist William Hogarth, and no problem was more evident than that of public drunkenness.
By the 1720’s London was quite literally awash with gin, or “Mother’s Ruin,” as it was known. The craze for gin had caught on in the 1690’s following its cheap importation from the Netherlands and within a decade distilleries producing it were cropping up not just in London but throughout the country. Of the 15,000 drinking establishments in London alone more than half were Gin Palaces. By 1743, it is estimated that the English were drinking up to 10 litres of gin per head of population a year.
Drunkenness had become a common feature on the streets of all England’s major cities and with it a corresponding rise in the crime rate, and the number of abandoned children that thronged the streets and dead babies that littered the gutters had become a national disgrace. Attempts to stamp out the craze for gin were easier said than done, however. The Gin Act of 1736 that priced it at 20 shillings a gallon and required a licence to sell it at a fee of £50 per annum provoked disturbances so violent that they lead to it being repealed in 1742. A further attempt to curtail its production and distribution the following year were to lead to the Gin Riots that were to leave many dead and cause widespread destruction throughout London. Learning the lessons of past mistakes a series of more moderate measures were introduced which over time saw a decline in the consumption of gin and by 1757 it was perceived to be no longer a problem.
By this time Robert Walpole, the man who had done so much to forge Georgian England in his own image was long gone. He had by the early 1740’s ceased to be seen as the guardian of wealth but as an impediment to increased prosperity and people had tired of the widespread corruption that had so come to mark his time in power. His peace policy of placating Britain’s enemies abroad had come to be seen as a national humiliation and his increased taxes on commodities to ensure that the tax on land remained low was damaging the economy. Many amongst an aspiring and growing middle-class, and even many of his natural supporters amongst the nobility and gentry, now saw their futures in overseas trade and the expansion of Empire and so with his enemies, and he had always had many, gathering in Parliament and fearing impeachment on 11 February 1742 he resigned, returning to his palatial home at Houghton Hall a bitter and resentful man. There he died in great splendour three years later on 18 March 1745, aged 68, a bloated caricature of himself and the country he had created. The draconian laws that Walpole had introduced did not go with him, however.
Indeed, the number of capital offences on the statute book increased. It still remained possible to be hanged for impersonating a Chelsea Pensioner, going out at night with a blackened face, damaging a turnpike, and writing a threatening letter. Most of these offences would continue to carry the death penalty late into the Victorian era though as the decades passed they were rarely enforced. Even so, between 1791 and 1891, long after the Bloody Codes had first been introduced more than 10,000 people were hanged in England alone, and imprisonment for debt and Debtor’s Prisons were not abolished until the Bankruptcy Act of 1869. The first professional police force wasn’t established until 1829 when the Home Secretary Sir Robert Peel formed the Metropolitan Police to maintain law and order on the streets of London.
The patriotic song ‘Rule, Britannia!, Britannia rule the waves’, is the regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment; it is also traditionally performed at the ‘Last Night of the Proms’ which takes place each year at the Royal Albert Hall.
Originally, Great Britain was called ‘Albion’ by the Romans, who invaded Britain in 55BC, but this later became ‘Britannia’. This Latin word referred to England and Wales, but was no longer used for a long time after the Romans left.
The name was then revived in the age of the Empire, when it had more significance. The word ‘Britannia’ is derived from ‘Pretannia’, from the term that the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus (1BC) used for the Pretani people, who the Greeks believed lived in Britain. Those living in Britannia would be referred to as Britanni.
The Romans created a goddess of Britannia, wearing a Centurion helmet and toga, with her right breast exposed. In the Victorian period, when the British Empire was rapidly expanding, this was altered to include her brandishing a trident and a shield with the British flag on, a perfect patriotic representation of the nation’s militarism. She was also standing in the water, often with a lion (England’s national animal), representing the nation’s oceanic dominance. The Victorians were also too prudish to leave her breast uncovered, and modestly covered it to protect her dignity!
The ‘Rule, Britannia!’ song that we recognise today started out as a poem co-written by the Scottish pre-Romantic poet and playwright, James Thomson (1700-48), and David Mallet (1703-1765), originally Malloch. He was also a Scottish poet, but was less well-known than Thomson. The English composer, Thomas Augustine Arne (1710-1778), then composed the music, originally for the masque ‘Alfred’, about Alfred the Great. Masques were a popular form of entertainment in 16th and 17th century England, involving verse, and, unsurprisingly, masks! The first performance of this masque was on 1st August, 1740, at Cliveden House, Maidenhead.
It was at Cliveden that the Prince of Wales, Frederick, was staying. He was a German, born in Hanover, son of King George II. His relationship with his father was strained but he came to England in 1728 after his father became king. The masque pleased Prince Frederick because it associated him with the likes of Alfred the Great, a medieval king who managed to win in battle against the Danes (Vikings), and linked him to improving Britain’s naval dominance, which was Britain’s aim at this time. The masque was performed to celebrate the accession of George I (this was the Georgian era, 1714-1830) and the birthday of Princess Augusta.
There were various influences on the poem. Scottish Thomson spent most of his life in England and hoped to forge a British identity, perhaps the reason for the pro-British lyrics. Another of his works was ‘The Tragedy of Sophonisba’ (1730). Rather than giving in to the Romans and becoming a slave, Sophonisba chose to commit suicide. This could have had an influence on ‘Rule, Britannia!’, with ‘Britons never will be slaves’. The words vary slightly between the original poem and the song we know today. Below is the poem, as it appears in ‘The Works of James Tomson’ by Thomson (1763, Vol II, pg 191):
When Britain first, at Heaven’s command/ Arose from out the azure main; floor/ This was the charter of the land,/ And guardian angels sang this strain:/ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The nations, not so blest as thee,/ Must, in their turns, to tyrants fall;/ While thou shalt flourish great and free,/ The dread and envy of them all./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
Still more majestic shalt thou rise,/ More dreadful, from each foreign stroke;/ As the loud blast that tears the skies,/ Serves but to root thy native oak./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
Thee haughty tyrants ne’er shall tame:/ All their attempts to bend thee down/ Will but arouse thy generous flame;/But work their woe, and thy renown./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
To thee belongs the rural reign;/ Thy cities shall with commerce shine/ All thine shall be the subject main,/ And every shore it circles thine./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The Muses, still with freedom found,/ Shall to thy happy coast repair; Blest Isle!/ With matchless beauty crown’d,/ And manly hearts to guard the fair./ “Rule, Britannia! rule the waves:/ “Britons never will be slaves.”
The first public performance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’ was in London in 1745, and it instantly became very popular for a nation trying to expand and ‘rule the waves’. Indeed, from as early as the 15th and 16th centuries, other countries’ dominant exploratory advances encouraged Britain to follow. This was the Age of Discovery, in which Spain and Portugal were the European pioneers, beginning to establish empires. This spurred England, France and the Netherlands to do the same. They colonised and set up trade routes in the Americas and Asia.
Throughout the 17th and 18th centuries, England’s dominance grew, hence the significance of ‘Rule, Britannia!’. England had been unified with Wales since 1536, but only in 1707, by the Act of Union, did England join parliaments with Scotland, after years of tense relations. This occurred because it would benefit both countries. Scotland’s failed attempt to establish a colony in Panama costing £200,000, made a union with England look very appealing.
Scotland could use English trade routes without having to pay. England, which was experiencing fractious relations with the French, felt it made sense to have someone on their side, to fight for them, but also to simply not present a threat themselves. The Kingdom of Great Britain, the United Kingdom had been formed.
In 1770, Captain James Cook claimed the east coast of Australia, setting a precedent for later expansion in the Victorian era. In 1783 however, the nation experienced a set-back after the American War of Independence, in which 13 American territories were lost. Britain then turned her efforts to other countries, to try and establish more permanent colonies.
In 1815 after years of Napoleonic Wars, France was finally defeated at the Battle of Waterloo, and this heralded the start of Britain’s century of power. At the height of the Empire, Britannia was in control of approximately one quarter of the world’s population and a fifth of the land mass.
The original words of the song altered with the fluctuations of Britain’s power; ‘Britannia, rule the waves’ later became ‘Britannia rules the waves’ in Victorian times, because Britain did, indeed, rule the waves! The famous phrase, ‘the sun never sets on the British Empire’ at first seems simply hopeful and poignant, ever-glowing and successful. However, it was actually coined because Britain had colonised so many areas across the world, that the sun had to be shining on at least one of them!
The 19th century, though, was also a time of growth for Germany and America which led to conflict resulting in both World Wars in the 20th century. This began the decline of the British Empire. There was also subsequent decolonisation, and today only 14 territories remain.
Since 1996, ‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been transformed into ‘Cool Britannia’. This play on words reflects modern Britain, the stylish nation of music, fashion and media. It particularly encapsulates the atmosphere and buzz of cosmopolitan London, Glasgow, Cardiff and Manchester.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ has been so popular that it has been used in a variety of ways. In 1836, Richard Wagner wrote a concert overture based on ‘Rule, Britannia!’. Arthur Sullivan, who wrote comedy operas in Victorian times, quoted from the song too.
‘Rule, Britannia!’ became the Regimental March of the Royal Norfolk Regiment in 1881, and even today, some Royal Navy vessels are called HMS Britannia. The BBC’s Last Night of the Proms always includes an arrangement of the song too. ‘Britannia’ still conjures a sense of pride and patriotism today:
“Rule Britannia!/Britannia rule the waves/ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves./ Rule Britannia/ Britannia rule the waves./ Britons never, never, never shall be slaves.”
Footnote: The mistake that seems always to be made by ‘Promenaders’ (at the Last Night of the Proms) is that ‘rule’ becomes ‘rules’ and is expressed as a statement. It is more correct for the first line of this ‘anthem’ to be an instruction – or aspiration! We no longer have a ‘Navy’ worth boasting about.