The Battle of Pinkie Cleugh

Fa’side Castle, Pinkie Cleugh by Kim Traynor (Wikimedia)

On September 10th 1547 the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh was fought on the banks of the River Esk near Musselburgh in Scotland. It was the last pitched battle between Scottish and English armies and took place during the wars of the Rough Wooing. The Scottish defeat was so severe that it became known as Black Saturday in Scotland.

At the end of his reign, Henry VIII was keen to marry his young son, Edward to the baby Mary, Queen of Scots. Diplomatic efforts failed as the Scots preferred a French alliance, so Henry invaded Scotland to secure the young queen, sparking the conflict which became known as the Rough Wooing. When Henry died soon afterwards the war was continued by the Lord Protector, Edward Seymour, Duke of Somerset.

Somerset was keen to pursue the policy of pushing Scotland into an alliance by marrying Mary to Edward and hoped to force an Anglican Reformation onto the Scottish church. In September 1547 Somerset led his army into Scotland, supported by a large fleet. He marched along the east coast of Scotland to keep contact with the fleet in order to secure his supplies. His troops were constantly harassed by local horsemen but their advance could not be stopped.

Meanwhile, to the west, Thomas Wharton and the Scottish Earl of Lennox, who chose to support the English invasion, invaded with 5000 men in an intended diversion, burning Annan and taking Castlemilk. The Earl of Arran had raised an army which consisted mostly of local pikemen and some Highland archers. He had some guns although these were not mobile enough to be particularly useful, and 2000 cavalry under the Earl of Home, consisting mainly of Borderers, whose loyalty tended to be somewhat fluid.

Arran decided to make his stand on the west bank of the River Esk to stop Somerset’s march. His left flank protected his left flank and a boggy area was on his right. The Scots constructed basic fortifications to mount cannon and arquebuses, some of which were pointed into the Forth to keep English ships at bay.

Part of Somerset’s army took possession of Fawside Hill to the east of Arran’s position on September 9th and later in the day, occupied the Inveresk Slopes with guns, overlooking the Scottish position. Lord Home, in a dramatic and pointless gesture, led 1500 cavalry towards the English and challenged them. Lord Grey accepted the challenge and led a force of men-at-arms and demi-lancers against the Scots. The Scots were routed and pursued for three miles westwards, depriving Arran of the bulk of his cavalry. During the night further challenges were issued, one from Arran asking that the dispute be settled by single combat between Arran and Somerset and a second for a battle between 20 champions from each side. Somerset rejected both of these anachronistic proposals; he was probably astonished that they had been made at all.

On the morning of Saturday, 10 September, Somerset moved his army to join up with his guns at Inveresk. He realised that Arran had moved his army across the Esk by the Roman bridge and was marching rapidly to meet him. Arran knew that he was badly outgunned in terms of artillery and hoped to force close combat before the English guns had time to deploy. Unfortunately, this advance moved him out of the protection of his guns on the Forth and the Scottish left flank was badly mauled by fire from the English warships.

The Roman Bridge over the Esk where some of the fleeing Scots came under heavy fire (Kim Traynor, Wikimedia)

Thrown into confusion, Arran’s left wing crashed into his centre while on the other flank, Somerset send in his cavalry. The Scottish pikemen drove them back, inflicting heavy casualties onto the cavalry and Lord Grey was wounded by a pike through his throat. Despite this success, the Scottish advance had faltered and their army was now under heavy fire from the warships as well as English artillery and archers. Unable to stand any longer they broke and ran, just as the English cavalry, which had regrouped, joined the battle, preceded by the English vanguard of 300 men under Sir John Luttrell. The fleeing Scots were chased towards the Esk and into the bogs. Many were drowned or slaughtered while trying to escape and the retreat turned into a bloody rout.

The Scottish army was shattered but their government stubbornly refused to come to terms with the English. The young Queen was sent into hiding as Somerset occupied Scottish castles and towns along the border and held large swathes of territory in the Borders and Lowlands. Still the war dragged on, costing men and money, and Somerset was distracted by political problems at home. On 7th August, Mary sailed to France from Dumbarton and French troops were beginning to arrive in Scotland to support their allies. The war formally ended with the Treaty of Norham on 10 June 1551 and the last English troops were withdrawn from Scotland.

Despite the disaster at Pinkie Cleugh, the English failed to achieve their aims and probably felt that the war had resulted in a waste of men and money. The Franco-Scottish alliance went ahead, and Mary was married to the young Dauphin of France. She remained in France until her young husband unexpectedly died in 1560 and suddenly, the marriage of the Scottish queen became, once again, a matter of interest to England, now under the very different rule of her cousin Elizabeth. While the battle’s political consequences were slight, military historians have given it a greater significance as what may be seen as the first ‘modern’ battle on British soil, an idea explored in more detail in this article by Gervase Phillips originally published in Military History magazine in 1997.

A Marcher Lord - a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders
A Marcher Lord – a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

My own introduction to Pinkie Cleugh, which I had never heard of before, was in the first of Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond chronicles A Game of Kings, where the battle is a key point of the story. The battle is significant in A Marcher Lord, set on the Borders during the War of the Rough Wooing where defeat at Pinkie Cleugh sends Will Scott back to his border fortress along with many other loyal Scots to try to hold it against the invading English. I love the Scottish borders and have spent many hours walking the hills and driving through the valleys, my feet in the present and my head very much in the past. There is an excellent battlefield walk which I would recommend to anybody visiting the area, and especially on a misty day as it was when I visited, it is very easy to imagine the sound of guns, the clashing of pikes and swords and the screams of dying men and horses on that Saturday in 1547…

Haunted Castletown

Castle Rushen
Castle Rushen, on the Isle of Man

What better way to spend a beautiful evening than to take a tour of haunted Castletown? That’s how I spent yesterday evening, courtesy of Isle of Man Ghost Tours, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’ve done a few ghost walks in the UK over the years. The York one was particularly good and I also enjoyed Chester and Shrewsbury. A few years ago a friend invited me to join her work evening out which turned out to be a ghost walk around Douglas followed by a meal and drinks. It was winter, a freezing cold evening and I think the early darkness contributed to the atmosphere although by the end I suspect we were all too cold to enjoy the final few stories.

It was a different experience yesterday and we toured Castletown in the evening sun. It was a very small group; the walks have only just started up again for the summer season and it was Tynwald Day, a bank holiday on the Isle of Man, so I suspect a lot of local people were at St John’s or else at home enjoying the weather. My own family chickened out so I went alone.

The appeal of a ghost tour for me is only partly about the supernatural. I’m not really a believer in ghosts but I have always loved a good ghost story. As a child I was very susceptible to nightmares and I can remember my mother banning me from taking books of ghost stories from the library as she was fed up with being woken up in the night by an eight year old hearing imaginary bumps in the night. As an adult I still enjoy them and was a huge fan of the novels of the late, great Barbara Mertz who wrote some fantastic ghost stories under the pen name of Barbara Michaels.

But in addition to the supernatural element, I just like a good story, and that is what I got from the tour last night. The guide interspersed tales of hauntings and mysterious figures with comic anecdotes about such local characters as Gerald Gardner, the founder of the Wicca movement, who lived in Castletown and apparently had to be warned by the local constabulary for holding meetings in his home which included a collection of naked women. Gardner was obliged to get curtains put up to avoid offending the neighbours and to get rid of the horde of peeping Toms who used to hang around in the street outside.

The tour guide had clearly done his research, both in the archives and by talking to local people and visitors with stories to tell. He was a good speaker, very engaging, and the two hours passed very quickly. Some of the stories were genuinely funny; I particularly liked the one he apparently found in an old book telling of the ghost of a black headless dog in Castletown which can only be seen by another dog. A talking dog, presumably. I must take my boys down there and they can tell me if they see anything…

Other stories genuinely had a spooky feel about them. The ghostly woman in black seen around Castle Rushen is a very traditional ghost story but there’s a reason it’s a classic and the mysterious light coming on at night in one of the rooms of Compton House was also an odd one.  I also enjoyed the haunting of the Old Grammar School; ghostly children’s voices singing in an empty building is a definite chiller.

I was curious to find out if there were any ghosts from the Napoleonic War period but there were none mentioned on this tour. A lot of the Manx chapters of An Unwilling Alliance are set in and around Castletown and it would be fun to come up with a story from that period. I’m currently looking out for an idea for a nice Manx ghost story for Hop tu Naa this year, so watch this space.

All in all, I’d really recommend this as a way to spend an evening. I’d like to go back to do some of the other tours as well; I’ve a feeling there are many more spooky tales to come.

It was growing dark as I walked back to the car past the gates of Castle Rushen and the old House of Keys. I honestly don’t believe in ghosts, but passing Compton House I couldn’t stop myself from looking up at the windows. No light came on. I was laughing at myself as I got to the car because I’m aware that I didn’t look back a second time. Just in case…

The Battle of Orthez, 27 February 1814

Memorial to Foy’s men at the battle of Orthez

The Bridge at OrthezThe Battle of Orthez took place on 27 February 1814. After the fierce fighting through the Pyrenees, storms and torrential rain prevented any action for two months.

Researching the second half of the war for my Peninsular War Saga is interesting. When I did the first trip through Portugal and Spain last year, I had already written four and a half books in the series in draft form. I knew where my fictional regiment was going to be during every battle and it was a matter of checking my research against actual locations to be sure that my story would work.

From book six onwards, I am in the dark. I know the history and I know what the Light Division would have been up to for most of the time, but now I am in a position to plan as I go along. I can look at the sites and visualise my characters there; where they were fighting and what they were doing. It is both exhilarating and slightly strange and I have to keep reminding myself that this is a holiday as well or I’d be back at the hotel and writing half the night…

Eventually Wellington cut off Bayonne when he crossed the Adour to the west of the city. Soult believed that the Allied attack, which required them to cross rivers, would be held up due to a lack of boats or pontoons but on 23 February, Hope sent eight companies from the 1st Division across the Adour  to form a bridgehead. During the evening, two French battalions were sent to investigate and were dispersed with the use of Congreve rockets. The following day,  34 vessels of 30 to 50 tons were sailed into the mouth of the Adour, moored together and a roadway built across their decks. By the evening of 26th, Hope had marched 15,000 men over the bridge onto the north bank. The Allies successfully captured the Sainte-Étienne suburb with a loss of 400 dead and wounded to the French 200 and encircled Bayonne on 27 February. From then on a very relaxed siege was maintained until 14 April when a French sortie led to the the bloody and pointless Battle of Bayonne at the end of the war.

Wellington pursued Marshal Soult’s army eastwards, away from Bayonne. Soult’s army was already weakened and Wellington hoped to divide them further while Soult hoped to trap the Allied army within French occupied territory.  Bayonne blocked the north side, three French divisions held a line along the Adour to Port de Lanne and the east was held by four French divisions along the Joyeuse River to Helette. From there into the Pyrenees, Soult’s cavalry patrols closed the cordon.

Wellington started his offensive towards the east on 14 February. Hill’s corps took the right flank, including the second and third divisions, some Spanish and Portuguese troops and Fane’s cavalry while Picton took his men down the left flank and Morillo moved through the foothills on the right. On February 15 Hill defeated Harispe’s division at Garris and forced the French back.

Beresford’s left flank corps advanced the following day towards Bidache. It consisted of the 4th, 6th, 7th and Light Divisions as well as some cavalry. Over the next two days both sides manoeuvred their troops. The French had greater numbers but Soult sent  Abbé’s division to help defend Bayonne, a move which left his army with fewer troops to fight Wellington. By 18 February, Soult had his troops in position on the Gave d’Oloron at which point the weather broke again, causing another delay in operations.

On 24 February, Wellington launched a new offensive. For this operation, Hill was reinforced by the 6th and Light Divisions. Beresford with two divisions mounted a feint attack against the northern end of the French line. Picton was supposed to do the same opposite Sauveterre but he exceeded his orders, having found an apparently unguarded ford about 1,000 yards from the bridge. Picton decided to send  four light companies from Keane’s brigade across.  After a steep climb, they reached high ground only to be overpowered by a battalion of the 119th Line Infantry from Villatte’s division. In their flight down the slope and across the river, they lost about 80 of the 250 men who were either killed, captured or drowned. Somewhere in my head I could hear the ghost of Robert Craufurd laughing, remembering Picton’s refusal to support him during his own unauthorised crossing at the Coa in 1810.

Meanwhile Hill built a boat bridge and sent 20,000 troops across the Gave d’Oloron at Viellenave de Navarrenz, a move which led Soult to pull back to Orthez. Wellington was not particularly keen to fight a battle at this point and tried to outflank the French, sending Beresford to cross the Gave de Pau downstream at Lahontan to circle around Soult’s right flank. At the same time, Hill’s corps moved directly toward Orthez. By 25 February, Soult had gathered his army at Orthez and was ready to fight the Allies.

The French marshal commanded 33,000 infantry, 2,000 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers with 48 field guns. Wellington had 38,000 infantry, 3,300 cavalry, 1,500 gunners and sappers, supported by 54 guns. With Soult ready to fight, Wellington intended to send Beresford to break Soult’s right flank while Picton and three divisions attacked the French centre. Meanwhile, Hill’s corps was to attack Orthez, get across the Gave de Pau and attack the French left flank effectively crushing Soult between Beresford and Hill.

Orthez is a pretty little town with the Gave de Pau running from southeast to northwest. Since Beresford was already on the same side of the Gave de Pau, the river only protected Soult’s position to the east of Orthez. However, there is an east-west ridge on the north side of Orthez that ends at the village of St Boes to the west. It rises to about 500 feet with the road running along the crest, with threeknolls rising even higher, as far as 595 feet above the village. These knolls held French artillery.

Soult posted four and a half divisions along this ridge, one division in Orthez and one division in reserve. Going from right to left, the ridge was held by the divisions of Taupin, Claude Pierre Rouget, Darmagnac and Foy. Rouget was in temporary command of Maransin’s division. Harispe’s remaining two brigades held Orthez while Villatte’s division was in reserve north of Orthez. Reille commanded Taupin, Rouget and Paris on the right flank, Drouet commanded Darmagnac and Foy in the center and Clausel had Harispe and Villatte on the left flank. The cavalry was scattered.

Wellington planned to send Cole’s 4th Division supported by Walker’s 7th Division to attack the western end of the ridge under the direction of Beresford. Picton would lead his own 3rd Division and Clinton’s 6th Division in attacking the French centre and Hill’s corps was to feint against Orthez with a Portuguese brigade and hold his two divisions ready to cross the Gave de Pau to the east of Orthez. Charles von Alten’s Light Division was placed under cover behind the old Roman camp where Wellington set up his headquarters located between Beresford’s and Picton’s columns.

It was frosty but not frozen on the morning of 27 February, difficult for me to imagine yesterday, exploring the battlefield in soaring temperatures. At 8.30 the 4th division attacked Taupin at St Boes and quickly seized the church. Ross’s brigade swept into the village but were driven back by the battery on the Plassotte knoll. Cole brought up a KGL battery to duel with Taupin’s guns. This immediately became the target of the French batteries on the Plassotte and Luc knolls; two guns were hit and Captain Sympher was killed. Cole deployed a Portuguese brigade on Ross’ right and sent his line forward again. The result was a second repulse in which Ross was wounded and the counterattack by Taupin’s troops recovered part of St Boes. For a time there was a lull as the two sides fired away at each other from the houses, but the Portuguese had no cover and began to fall back. Wellington sent over the 1st Caçadores Battalion from the Light Division. Cole’s line collapsed just as the reinforcements arrived and Taupin recovered the entire village and drove the Allies back to their starting point. Ross’ brigade suffered 279 casualties and the Portuguese brigade lost 295.

Picton’s attacks against the French centre also met stiff resistance. He had split the 3rd Division, sending Brisbane’s brigade up the right spur towards Foy and Keane’s brigade up the left spur toward Darmagnac’s division. Keane was supported by Power’s Portuguese brigade while Brisbane was followed up the right spur by Clinton’s 6th Division. Since the valleys between the spurs were deep and muddy, both advances were restricted to narrow fronts.

Picton’s skirmishers quickly drove back the French outposts. When the leading brigades came under accurate artillery fire from the Escorial and Lafaurie knolls, Picton held back his formed troops and reinforced his skirmish line to seven British light companies which moved forward until they came into contact with Soult’s main line where they were unable to advance any further. For two hours, Picton waited for Beresford’s attack as the two sides skirmished.

Wellington adjusted his plans after seeing his flank attack fail converting his holding attack with the 3rd and 6th Divisions into a full  assault beginning at 11.30am. He threw every available unit against the French right flank and centre, holding back only the second and third battalions of the 95th, the Portuguese 3rd Caçadores and the 17th foot. He also withdrew the battered brigades of Ross and Vasconcellos and sent in the 7th Division.

The struggle for St Boes began again when Walker’s division and Anson’s brigade attacked supported by two batteries firing from the church knoll. Taupin’s tired men, who had been fighting for about four hours, were driven back behind the Plassotte knoll.

Brisbane’s brigade came under damaging artillery fire. The brigade finally reached dead ground where the guns could not hit them, but then came under intense fire from French skirmishers who began picking off the soldiers. Nevertheless the 45th fought its way close to the top of the ridge where Fririon’s brigade of Foy’s division held the ridgeline. On the left of Brisbane’s brigade, two companies of the 88th were guarding the divisional artillery battery as it began pounding the French line. Soult spotted the threat and ordered a cavalry squadron to charge. The cavalry overran the two companies, inflicting heavy losses, and then went after the gunners. The remaining companies of the 88th immediately opened fire on the French horsemen, mowing most of them down to a loss of 165 men. The 88th suffered the highest casualty rate of any British unit at 269 killed and wounded.

At this point, Foy was wounded by shrapnel in his shoulder which affected the French morale. Brisbane’s brigade was replaced in the front line by two brigades of Clinton’s 6th Division. These fresh troops fired a volley from close range and advanced with bayonet, driving the French down the ridge’s rear slope.  Berlier’s brigade of Foy’s division fell back after Fririon’s retreat exposed its flank. With Berlier gone, Harispe’s two battalions in Orthez were compelled to retreat in order to avoid capture. On the left spur, Picton’s two brigades under Keane and Power pressed against Darmagnac’s division. After Foy’s division gave way, Darmagnac retreated to the next ridge in the rear, where his troops took position on the right of Villatte’s division. The divisional batteries of Picton and Clinton immediately attacked the new French position.

Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade began to pull back after Darmagnac’s retreat which opened a gap between Rouget and Taupin. Wellington ordered the 52nd under Colborne to advance from the Roman Camp and drive a wedge into the French defensive line. Colborne led his men across marshy ground and then up the slope toward the Luc Knoll, winning a foothold at the top of the ridge on Taupin’s left flank. Wellington led the 3rd and the 6th in behind them and musket volleys created havoc in the French ranks.

In the thick of the fighting, Wellington’s Spanish liaison officer, Alava was hit in the buttocks by a spent bullet. As Wellington was teasing Alava, he was knocked off his horse when a spent ball struck his sword hilt, bruising his hip. Wellington remounted and continued to direct the battle. Against the advice of his doctors he ignored the injury with the result that he was later unable to ride for a week.

With both flanks turned, Taupin’s division retreated in haste to the northeast, the last French unit to be driven back. To the rear, Rouget’s division and Paris’ brigade joined together and fought a hard battle against the pursuing Allies.

Buchan’s brigade skirmished with the French defenders of Orthez all morning. Having received orders to cross the Gave de Pau, Hill marched for the Souars Ford at 11:00 am and brushed aside the French troops defending the ford. Hill’s troops were soon across the river in strength and pressing back Harispe’s outnumbered division. They were joined by Buchan’s Portuguese who crossed at the Orthez bridge the moment the town’s defenders pulled out. Joined by some newly arrived conscript battalions, Harispe attempted to make a stand at the Motte de Tury heights but the raw recruits were too inexperienced and Hill’s men broke Harispe’s line and captured three guns.

By now Soult had realized that Hill’s column might cut him off and ordered a retreat which began well but quickly disintegrated into chaos down narrow paths and across country. Soult had lost six field guns and 3,985 men including 542 killed, 2,077 wounded and 1,366 prisoners while the Allies sustained losses of 367 killed, 1,727 wounded and 80 captured for a total of 2,174.  In addition, many of the recently conscripted French soldiers promptly deserted. Soult did not attempt to defend the Luy de Béarn with his demoralized army but retreated north to Saint-Sever on the Adour.

Soult realised he could not defend both Bordeaux and Toulouse. He decided to head for Toulouse. Wellington sent Beresford with two divisions to take Bordeaux which Beresford did on 12 March. There was a brief lull in the fighting while Wellington sent for more troops and Soult ’s men recovered. When the Allied army finally marched towards Toulouse, they were marching towards the end of the war.

Orthez is just over thirty miles to the east of Bayonne, a pretty little town on the river Gave de Pau. The original bridge, with its distinctive sentry tower in the centre, is still there and can be seen from the modern bridge. We drove through the town to view Wellington’s deployment area up past the church and then drove up towards Baights de Bearn to see the spurs where Picton’s men would have been deployed to the right of the road.

Further on it is possible to view the ridge to the right which the Light Division used to climb up to the village. The location of St Boes has apparently changed  since the battle but the church marks the area where much of the fighting took place and it is possible to walk down the road towards the Roman Camp to see where the Light Division was engaged.

Memorial to Foy’s men at the battle of OrthezTurning right after St Boes we drove along the ridge held by Soult’s men. The 52nd would have climbed up the gulley to the right to appear between Taupin and Rouget’s division. It doesn’t look like a particularly easy climb and given the time of year it may well have been very boggy. There is a memorial to General Foy’s men on the left-hand side further along the road.

Having flown into Toulouse to begin this trip, for convenience sake, we are doing the battlefields backwards. By this time Soult was very much on the run, his troops battered and exhausted with many desertions among the new recruits. But at the beginning of Wellington’s attacks on the Pyrenees the matter was by no means certain. Tomorrow the plan is, to visit some of the sites of the Battle of the Nive.

Cambo-les-Bains, 21 April, 2018

 

 

 

 

 

Portsmouth Historic Dockyard – a review

HMS VictoryThe Historic Dockyard at Portsmouth is more than just a museum.  It is a site containing a collection of museums, all of them connected to the Royal Navy and Britain’s maritime heritage and you need more than one day to do all of them.  Since we only had one day and since the aim of my visit was to soak up some background information about naval warfare and life in the 19th century navy, I was very specific about the museums we chose but we had time for one or two extras and I will definitely be back to do the rest.  This place is absolutely brilliant.

Aboard the VictoryHMS Victory

We went first to visit HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar.  She is looking a little odd at the moment since a new phase of restoration and conservation is taking place, and the top half of her masts is missing.  Despite that, there is no way that this ship can look anything other than impressive and beautiful.

HMS Victory left the Chatham Royal Dockyard in 1765.  Over an unusually long time in service she would lead fleets in the American War of Independence, the French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic War and in 1805 she achieved lasting glory as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar when Britain defeated the French and Spanish fleet in what is often seen as Britain’s greatest naval victory.

In 1808 the Victory was re-commissioned to lead the fleet in the Baltic.  Four years later, no longer required in this role she was relegated to harbour service as a residence, flagship and tender.  In 1922 she was saved for the nation and placed permanently into dry dock where she is today visited by millions of visitors from around the world; a museum of the sailing navy and the oldest commissioned warship in the world.

For me, the Victory was a chance to step aboard a warship of the age.  My current work-in-progress, An Unwilling Alliance, is about a Manx sea captain who survived Trafalgar and has just been given command of his own warship.  The Iris, Hugh’s ship, is not as big as the Victory, being a third rate 74 gun ship, but there is still a strong sense of what life might have been like aboard such a ship and the task of writing about the Iris and its crew suddenly feels more manageable.

The Victory is set up to give a very good sense of life aboard a warship.  Sections of the lower deck have hammocks set up and some of the tiny officers and midshipmen’s cabins are furnished as they would have been at the time.  You can see the captain and admiral’s quarters and it is fascinating to see how the crew slept and lived alongside the guns.  With a battle approaching, furniture would be cleared away and the entire area would become a battleground.

Naval battles at this time were not just about the pounding of heavy guns.  Ships fought close together and sailors and marines fired muskets and pistols at the enemy crew as if in a land battle.  Nelson’s fatal wound at Trafalgar was caused by a shot down from the enemy rigging which shattered his spine.  Once ships were close together the aim was to board the enemy ship and close and savage hand to hand fighting with sword, bayonet and axe would ensue.  The ship’s guns did not fire exploding shells, they acted as battering rams, smashing the enemy ship to pieces, and a lot of the wounds treated by the ship’s surgeon came from wooden splinters which could be lethal.

One of the big assets of this museum are its guides.  Most are volunteers, often former navy personnel and their knowledge and enthusiasm for their subject is very impressive.  These are not people who have done a bit of background reading on the subject; they know it all.  We spent a fair bit of time chatting, not just about the Victory and the Napoleonic wars but about other ships and other combats.  It would be easy to spend a day just talking to them.

If there is a downside to the Victory, it is the lack of written information.  There is a guidebook and an audio-guide.  I’m not a fan of either as I find wandering around with a book in my hand or listening through headphones detracts from the experience for me, so initially I found the complete absence of any kind of information boards irritating.  I quickly realised that there was always a guide close by to ask, and they always know the answer, but if you’re not one to start talking freely to complete strangers, make sure you get a guide of some kind before you board or you’ll miss out.

The other thing to be aware of, is how low the lower decks are.  We were told that some of the warrant officers were six feet or more and it must have been an enormous strain working below decks at that height.  At 5’6” I had to stoop a fair bit and my 6’ husband had a backache by the end of the tour.

Having said that, it was a completely brilliant experience and I would recommend it to anybody.

Portrait of Sir Home Popham in the museumNational Museum of the Royal Navy

There is a lot of this, it needs plenty of time.  The museum is in two parts, one dedicated primarily to Nelson and his war and the rest covering the history of the Royal Navy up to modern times, including a fabulous exhibition about women and their role in the navy, especially the history of the WRENs.  It’s a great museum, well-set out with a huge amount of information and something for everybody.  We had to rush some parts of it, so be warned and give it time.

Queen Elizabeth, taken from the boatHarbour Tour

This boat trip around the harbour is included in the price of the museums and is well worth doing.  It takes about 45 minutes and looks at the history of Portsmouth as a naval base as well as taking a look at any modern Royal Navy vessels that happen to be in port at the time.  This was a treat for us as it gave us the chance to get a very good look at the brand new Queen Elizabeth aircraft carrier which is astonishing.  There were a couple of great photo ops including the Victory – the old and the new navy side by side.  Well worth doing but wrap up warmly if you’re doing it in January…

The Mary Rose Museum

This was my bonus treat of the day.  Completely out of my period, but the skeletal remains of Henry VIII’s flagship, raised from the Solent and preserved along with many artifacts, is one of the most haunting sights I have ever seen.  The museum is very new and combines the history of the ship and its sinking with the story of its recovery very effectively.  The technology used to display the ghostly hulk of the Mary Rose, with images of its daily life projected onto it, is impressive.  I can remember following this story as a history student back in the eighties and what they’ve done since then defies belief.  Along with the Victory, this has to be the highlight of the Dockyard and is one of the most incredible things I’ve ever seen, so atmospheric.  Go and see it.

The Mary Rose was the end of our day.  I plan to come back and spend a few days in Portsmouth.  I want to see the rest of the historic dockyard: there is a lot more to see, including the Victorian HMS Warrior, the Submarine Museum, HMS M.33 and several other attractions that I didn’t have time to explore.  This would be an excellent place to visit with children, they have their own dedicated play areas but the exhibits themselves are very much designed for all ages.  Mine are older now but they would have loved this place.  I would also like to spend time looking at the town itself.  I definitely got what I came for, but I want more.

I’ve been worried about taking on the mammoth task of writing about the navy in 1807 when I feel so much more comfortable with the army, but Portsmouth Historic dockyard is a big step forward for me.  After months of reading and making notes I suddenly feel that I’ve got a sense of my locations in the same way I did when I stood on the walls of Ciudad Rodrigo in Spain.  Writing the navy is very different; although they lived and loved on shore, when they went to work they did it in a small space, bound by wooden walls but with the ocean all around them.  That must have shaped the character of the men who fought and died with Nelson and I’m looking forward to getting to know some of them better.

An Unwilling Alliance is due for publication in April 2018.

 

 

 

 

The National Maritime Museum and Greenwich

By Txllxt TxllxT Wikimedia Commons

Working on a book based around a navy captain during the Napoleonic Wars, a visit to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich seemed like an ideal way to start this visit to London.  I can remember going to all the Greenwich museums growing up, but it has been a very long time.

The National Maritime Museum is the leading museum of its kind in the UK and probably one of the best in the world.  It is part of a complex known as the Maritime Greenwich World Heritage Site and includes the Royal Observatory and 17th-century Queen’s House In 2012 the complex was given the overall name of Royal Museums Greenwich along with the famous Cutty Sark which stands nearby.

Greenwich has always had associations with the sea and the navy has roots on the waterfront while Charles II founded the Royal Observatory in 1675 for “finding the longitude of places”. The home of Greenwich Mean Time and the Prime Meridian since 1884, Greenwich has long been a centre for astronomical study, while navigators across the world have set their clocks according to its time of day.  Something about this knowledge has always given me a slight sense of awe when visiting this part of Greenwich.

The National Maritime Museum has a huge collection on Britain’s seafaring history including art, maps and charts, manuscripts, models and plans, navigational instruments and personal items belonging to important historical figures such as Nelson and Captain James Cook.

Flamsteed House, the original part of the Royal Observatory, was designed by Sir Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke and was the first purpose-built scientific institution in Britain.  In 1953, the Old Royal Observatory became part of the Museum.

The 17th-century Queen’s House, an early classical building designed by Inigo Jones, is the keystone of the historic “park and palace” landscape of maritime Greenwich.  The Queen’s House was refurbished in 2001 to become the heart of displays of art from the Museum’s collection.

In May 2007 a major capital project, “Time and Space”, opened up the entire Royal Observatory site for the benefit of visitors. The £16 million transformation features three new modern astronomy galleries, four new time galleries, facilities for collections conservation and research, a learning centre and the 120-seat Peter Harrison Planetarium designed to introduce the world beyond the night sky.

The National Maritime Museum has galleries exploring various aspects of Britain’s maritime history.  A gallery dedicated to Nelson and the Navy tells the story of Admiral Nelson, his battles, his life and his death at Trafalgar, and sets the battle in the context of the wars against the French in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.  It describes the ships, the sailors and how they lived and the way the navy was perceived at home.

Figureheads, National Maritime MuseumThe gallery concerned with traders explores the relationship between Britain and the wider world, particularly the powerful East India Company which spread its influence until it controlled huge areas of territory in India.  I found this fascinating, partly because I studied this at University and partly because I spent time researching the Company in India when I was writing about Assaye in An Unconventional Officer.

Another gallery covered the difficult subject of the transatlantic slave trade, both up to abolition and beyond.  I thought this topic was well-handled, looking at both slavers and abolitionists as well as the slaves who fought back against their masters in places like Haiti.

Naval Heroes, National Maritime MuseumOther galleries explored the maritime history of London, the first world war and in Voyagers, the personal significance of Britain’s maritime story.  I particularly liked the exploration of Turner’s famous painting of Trafalgar which analysed the painting and it’s meaning in the context of national pride and naval power following the battle.

The museum is huge and there is so much to see and do that it is easy to miss things.  Work is in progress on a new gallery and there are various temporary exhibitions, a children’s play area and the fabulous Great Map.

If the museum has a fault, it is that the various galleries are sometimes hard to follow in the correct order.  Especially as it is sometimes possible to enter a gallery from either end it is easy to find yourself going around in the wrong order and there is no numbering of exhibits to help with this.  With a fairly good background in history it didn’t really bother me that much, but I can imagine it would irritate some people.

I loved the museum along with the Royal Observatory, which completed the story of some of the scientific aspects of navigation and the Cutty Sark, standing 400m outside.  I didn’t manage the Queen’s House this time around, although I’d like to go back to it.

The Cutty Sark is one of my clearest childhood memories.  It was a Sunday afternoon treat, even just going to see it.  Going aboard was even better.  The ship was one of the fastest tea clippers in the world and there was something romantic for me as a small girl, standing on the deck gazing up at the tall masts and trying to imagine billowing sails and a fresh breeze at sea.  I was devastated in 2007 when the ship was badly damaged by fire and have followed the progress of the restoration.

Greenwich Foot TunnelWe used to take the bus to the Isle of Dogs back in the sixties and seventies and then walk through the foot tunnel to Greenwich.  The foot tunnel is a piece of history in itself, a masterpiece of late Victorian engineering which opened in 1902 and was built to replace an expensive and unreliable ferry service which took workers living south of the river to work in the docks and shipyards.  The entrances at each end are beneath glazed domes and I can remember the joy of running through the tunnel calling out and hearing my voice echo, bouncing off the walls eerily.  We used to count the steps at each end.  There were lifts but for some reason we seldom used them.

The Cutty SarkA visit to Greenwich is both a research aide for the new book and a trip down memory lane.  The strong sense of standing with both feet in maritime history is just what I need as I embark on the second half of my book which places me aboard a Royal navy ship bound for Copenhagen in 1807 under Admiral Gambier.  But there is also a sense of standing with at least one foot in my own past, a child growing up in the East End with parents who took us to some historic site almost every weekend.  There is a strong link between that excited little girl standing on the deck of an old ship and trying to imagine how it felt to sail in her and the woman writing a novel of those who did.  I owe that as a debt to the parents who gave me that sense of history and why it matters to all of us.

The new book, An Unwilling Alliance, is due for publication in April 2018.

The Border Reivers

A Marcher Lord - a story of the Anglo-Scottish borders

LiddesdaleFor 300 years the people of the Anglo-Scottish Border region lived in a war zone. Invading armies caused terror, destruction and death and the ongoing conflict forged men who were expert raiders and cattle thieves, owing loyalty to none but their own clan, their own surname.  We have come to know them as the Border Reivers.

Since the Middle Ages, England and Scotland were often at war, and the people who suffered most were the ordinary folk of the Anglo-Scottish borders.  Their livelihood was torn apart by the wars and even in times of peace, ongoing tension was high and royal authority on either side could not be relied upon to keep their people safe.

The Borderers found their own solution.  Families, kindred and surnames sought security through their own means, using strength, cunning and a degree of ruthlessness which was nothing less than piracy on land to improve their lot at the expense of whoever appeared to be their enemy at the time.  Over the years feuds and enmities grew to enormous proportions and loyalty to kin and surnames overrode any sense of national loyalty.  With any man and his family a potential target for depredations, it became important to know where it was safe to bestow trust.

It was a predatory way to live, not helped by the local inheritance system of gavelkind, by which estates were divided equally between all sons on a man’s death, so that many people owned insufficient land to maintain themselves.  Much of the border region is mountainous or open moorland, unsuitable for arable farming but good for grazing. Livestock was easily stolen and driven back to raiders’ territory by mounted reivers who knew the country. The raiders also often stole portable household goods or valuables, and took prisoners for ransom.

The attitudes of the English and Scottish governments towards the border families moved between indulgence and encouragement, as these martial families acted as the first line of defence against invasion across the border, to furious and brutal punishment when their lawlessness became impossible for the authorities to tolerate.

“Reive” is an early English word for “to rob” and is related to the  old English verb reave, meaning to plunder or to rob and to the modern English word “ruffian”.  The reivers were both English and Scottish and raided both sides of the border impartially, so long as the people they raided had no protection and no connection to their own kin. Their activities, although usually within a day’s ride of the border, might extend both north and south of their main riding areas. English raiders had been known to raid the outskirts of Edinburgh, and Scottish raids had been seen as far south as Yorkshire. The largest of these was The Great Raid of 1322, during the Scottish Wars of Independence, which reached as far south as Chorley. The main riding season ran through the early winter months, when the nights were longest and the cattle and horses fat from summer grazing. The numbers involved in a raid might range from a few dozen to three thousand riders.

When riding, the reivers rode light on hardy nags known as hobbies, renowned for their ability to pick their way over the boggy country.  They wore light armour such as jacks of plated steel, a type of sleeveless doublet into which small plates of steel were stitched and metal helmets such as burgonets or morions; hence their nickname of the “steel bonnets”. They were armed with lances and small shields, and sometimes also with longbows, or light crossbows and later on in their history with one or more pistols. They also carried swords and dirks.

During the sixteenth century, areas of the borders were a virtual “no man’s land”.  The Wardens of the Marches, both Scottish and English, made periodic attempts to bring some of the major riding families under control although corruption was rife and some of the Wardens were reivers themselves while many of them turned a blind eye to raiding, theft and the system of Black Rent – the origin of the work Blackmail.

The ordinary people of the borders adjusted to the system, suffered, paid, were burned out and sometimes died.  It was a time of great brutality and intermittent wars between England and Scotland only added to the confusion and the problem.  Feuds between families could last for decades and the original reason for the blood feud was often forgotten in the blood and death which followed.  Scott killed Kerr and Maxwells hunted Johnstones, and surnames across the border united against a common enemy with kinship held far higher than national loyalty.

In 1525, the Archbishop of Glasgow took it upon himself to excommunicate the Border thieves.  It is doubtful if the riding surnames were very impressed having long since given up on both church and state but the curse was ordered to be read from every pulpit in the diocese and be circulated throughout the length and breadth of the Borders.

I DENOUNCE, PROCLAIMS, AND DECLARES all and sundry the committers of the said of innocents murders, slaughters, burning, inheritances, robbery, thefts, and spoilings, openly upon day light and under silence of night, as well as within temporal lands as church lands; together with their part takers, assisters, suppliers, knowingly and of their persons, the goods snatched and stolen by them, art or part thereof, and their counsellors and defenders, of their evil deeds generally cursed, waking, aggravated, and re-aggravated, with the great cursing.

“I CURSE their head and all the hairs of their head; I CURSE their face, their eyes, their mouth, their nose, their tongue, their teeth, their skull, their shoulder’s, their breast, their heart, their stomach, their back, their womb, their arms, their legs, their hands, their feet, and every part of their body, from the top of their head to the sole of their feet, before and behind, within and without. I CURSE them going, and I CURSE them riding; I CURSE them standing, and I CURSE them sitting; I CURSE them eating, I CURSE them drinking; I CURSE them walking, I CURSE them sleeping; I CURSE them rising, I CURSE them lying; I CURSE them at home, I CURSE them from home; I CURSE them within the house, I CURSE them without the house; I CURSE their wives, their children and their servants (who) participate with them in their deeds.

I Worry their corn, their cattle, their wool, their sheep, their horse, their swine, their geese, their hens, and all their live goods (animals).
I Worry their houses, their rooms, their kitchens, their stables, their barns, their byres, their barnyards, their cabbage patches, their ploughs, their harrows, and the possessions and houses that are necessary for their sustentation and welfare. All the bad wishes and curses that ever got worldly creature since the beginning of the world to this hour might light upon them. The malediction of God, that lighted upon Lucifer and all his fellows, that struck them from the high heaven to the deep hell, might light upon them. The re and the sword that stopped Adam from the gates of Paradise might stop them from the glory of Heaven, until they forbear and make amends. The bad wishes that lighted on cursed Cain, when he slew his brother just Abel guiltless, might light on them for the innocent slaughter that they commit daily. The malediction that lighted upon all the world, man and beast, and all that ever took life, when all were drowned by the flood of Noah, except Noah and his ark, might light upon them and drown them, man and beast, and make this realm free of them for their wicked sins. The thunder and lightning that set down as rain upon the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, with all the lands about, and burnt them for their vile sins, might rain upon them, and burn them for open sins. The bad wishes and confusion that lighted on the Gigantis for their oppression and pride, building the tour of Babylon, might confound them and all their works, for their open disregard and oppression. All the plagues that fell upon Pharaoh and his people of Egypt, their lands, corn and cattle, might fall upon them, their leases (of land), rooms and buildings, corn and animals. The river of Tweed and other rivers where they ride might drown them, as the Red Sea drowned King Pharaoh and his people of Egypt, pursuing Gods people of Israel. The earth might open, split and cleave and swallow them alive to hell, as it swallowed cursed Dathan and Abiron, that disobeyed Moses and command of God. The wild re that burnt Thore and his fellows to the number of two hundredth and fty, and others 14,000 and 700 at anys, usurping against Moses and Aaron, servants of God, might suddenly burn and consume them daily disobeyed and commands of God and holy church.

The malediction that lights suddenly upon fair Absolom, riding contrary to his father, King David, servant of God, through the wood, when the branches of a tree knocked him off his horse and hanged him by the hair, might light upon them, untrue Scots men, and hang them suchlike that all the world may see.

The malediction that lighted upon Olifernus, lieutenant to Nebuchadnezzar’s, making war and hardships upon true Christian men; the malediction that lighted upon Judas, Pilot, Herod and the Jews that cruci ed Our Lord, and all the plagues and troubles that lighted on the city of Jerusalem therefore, and upon Simon Magus for his treachery, bloody Nero, cursed Ditius Magcensius, Olibrius, Julianus, Apostita and the rest of the cruel tyrants that slew and murdered Christ’s holy servants, might light upon them for their cruel tyranny and martyrdom of Christian people. And all the vengeance that ever was taken since the world began for open sins, and all the plagues and pestilence that ever fell on man or beast, might fall on them for their open evil, slaughter of guiltless and shedding of innocent blood. I SEVER and PARTS them from the kirk of God, and deliver them alive to the devil of hell, as the Apostil Saint Paul delivered Corinth. I exclude the places they come in for divine service, ministration of the sacraments of holy church, except the sacrament of baptising only; and forbid all churchmen to take confession or absolve them of their sins, which they be rst absolved of this cursing.

I FORBID all Christian man or woman to have any company with them, eating, drinking, speaking, praying, lying, standing, or in any other deed doing, under the pain of deadly sin.

I DISCHARGE all bonds, acts, contracts, oaths and obligations made to them by any persons, other of law, kindness or duty, so long as they sustain this cursing; so that no man be bound to them, and that they be bound to all men. I Take from them and cry down all the good deeds that ever they did or shall do, which they rise from this cursing. I DECLARE them excluded of all matins, masses, evensongs, mourning or other prayers, on book or bead; of all pilgrimages and poorhouse deeds done or to be done in holy church or by Christian people, enduring this cursing.

“And, nally, I CONDEMN them perpetually to the deep pit of hell, to remain with Lucifer and all his fellows, and their bodies to the gallows of the Burrow Muir, rst to be hanged, then torn apart with dogs, swine, and other wild beasts, abominable to all the world. And their life gone from your sight, as might their souls go from the sight of God, and their good fame from the world, which they forbear their open sins aforesaid and rise from this terrible cursing, and make satisfaction and penance”.

The Archbishop seems to have lost patience with the Reivers and one imagines he was not the only one to do so.

In modern times the story of the Border Reivers has been brilliantly told in histories by George MacDonald Fraser in The Steel Bonnets and by Alistair Moffat in The Reivers.  In fiction, Dorothy Dunnett covered the difficulties of establishing law and order on the borders in the literary brilliance of the Lymond Chronicles and more recently P F Chisholm, alias Patricia Finney has told the fictional story of the real life Warden Sir Robert Carey in an excellent series of novels which have recently been reissued in omnibus editions, the first of which is Guns in the North.

My own contribution to the story of the Border Reivers is A Marcher Lord, set during the Wars of the Rough Wooing when Edward VI’s government under the Lord Protector Somerset tried to capture the baby Mary Queen of Scots in order to marry her to their young King.  The novel tells the story of a Scottish border lord, loyal to the Crown and a young Englishwoman new to the borders with no fixed loyalties but a wealth of experience of the mercenary bands of Europe.

The Anglo-Scottish borders are one of my favourite parts of the world.  I love the countryside, the history and the people.  Many of my books are set in the Peninsular War of the early nineteenth century but I enjoyed my research into sixteenth century Scotland and I intend to return soon to find out what Will and Jenny did next…

 

Jewish Museum in Berlin

Jewish Museum Berlin

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Jewish Museum in Berlin, August 2017 – a review by Lynn Bryant

The Jewish Museum in Berlin was one of a list of places we wanted to visit while we’re here, and it just happened to be the first we picked.  We had several other places on that day’s itinerary and we made it to none of those because the Jewish Museum kept us going all day long.

The buildings themselves are fascinating.  The entrance is in the Collegienhaus, the last baroque palace in the Friedrichstadt area of Berlin, a protected building in it’s own right.  Once inside, the permanent exhibitions are housed in the Libeskind  building, which zigzags with a titanium zinc facade and is open to interpretation as to what Daniel Libeskind, the American architect intended to represent.

I found the building itself slightly disturbing.  For some reason I felt at times as though I had become caught in an Escher maze with a bewildering variety of levels, sloping floors and unexpected corners.  The building itself seems to be part of the exhibitions, demonstrating the sense of displacement and confusion of the history of Jewish people in Berlin.  But it isn’t the building that I will remember in years to come.  It is the variety, the depth and the sheer volume of the information contained in the exhibitions.

The various galleries take the visitor through the history of the Jews in Germany from earliest mentions through to thriving communities in towns and cities.  All to often these were disrupted by violent pogroms where people were killed, tortured and driven into exile.  The impressive thing about the German Jewish community, looking at some of the episodes in it’s history, is that it survived as well as it did coming into the twentieth century.

How many people know about Gluckel of Hameln who was a Jewish businesswoman and diarist in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth century?  Anyone?  I certainly didn’t, but the section devoted to her is completely amazing, with maps showing not only her business interests but the way she married off her many children to advantage.  Her story is definitely on my list to read, she is a woman I could write about.

The story of the rise of Hitler, the holocaust and the subsequent fate of the Jews in Europe is very well known.  Married to a Jewish man, I always find exhibitions like this very moving and at times quite distressing.  This one covered not only the events of the war but some of the war crimes trials which followed it.  Most of this was already known to me which did not make it any less interesting or emotional.

What I didn’t know was very much about the history of German anti-Semitism through the nineteenth century and early twentieth century.  Reading the long list of events and acts against Jewish inclusion into German society I was slightly shocked.  At the same time, I felt as though it put the rise of the Nazis into perspective for me as nothing else had.  Suddenly it became very clear how Hitler was able to tap in to this traditional suspicion of the Jews to create the scapegoat he needed.

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This museum hid nothing and excused nothing and held nothing back and I have an enormous respect for it’s honesty.  There is so much there, we quickly gave up any idea of moving on to other museums, went for a break in the cafe and then returned to do the rest of the exhibition properly and it was well worthwhile.  Everything is translated into English, films and visual exhibits have English subtitles and there is a very good audio guide which can be borrowed.  I came away with a strong sense of having learned a lot about a subject that I thought I knew fairly well and that is always the sign of a good museum for me.

A bonus was the temporary exhibition entitled Cherchez la Femme which presented a wide range of ideas and views regarding women’s head and body coverings in both a religious and secular context.  The exhibition looked at historic and modern day attitudes in various religions and gave a balanced and often provocative view of how much choice a woman has over how she dresses depending on where and how she lives.  It was completely fascinating and one of the highlights of the museum, genuinely causing me to rethink some of my own positions on this.

This was one of the best museum visits I’ve had in a very long time.  I’ve now got a long list of new subjects to research and read about and a lot of new ideas burbling around in my brain.  And it was only day one of our trip.  I was worried I’d be exhausted by day three…

 

 

 

 

 

 

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner - Tower Bridge, London
Tower Bridge, London

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner was played at my mother’s funeral a few years back.  It was very appropriate for her, because although for the last few years of her life she moved to the Isle of Man to be near us, she saw herself as very much a Londoner.  She was fiercely proud of it, would defend London as the best city in the world – in fact the best place in the world – against anybody.

A cat called Monty
Monty the Cat

I was in London myself recently for a few days, cat sitting for a friend of my sisters and getting some quiet time after the complete madness of the past few months.  It was as hot as Hades and I spent a few days with my sister catching up, being a tourist and getting sore feet after which she went home and I was alone and peaceful with Monty the cat.  My intention wasto catch up on a lot of admin jobs that I’ve left for too long and then to get a really good way into my new Regency novel.  It was a lovely flat with a balcony and the temptation to doze in the sun with Monty was huge, although I did try to resist.

It’s always odd being back in London.  I’m not so familiar with this part, but we took a bus out through the East End where I grew up, to Stratford and then went on to Canary Wharf and had lunch by the river.  In my childhood, Stratford was our local shopping centre and Canary Wharf was a place we simply didn’t go – it consisted of rotting and boarded up warehouses with a few dingy businesses still struggling on.  I’ve watched the evolution of docklands through my life and it’s been a fascinating process.

Despite being born and raised in the East End, I’m not really a city person.  I don’t mind small towns; Douglas is about right for me.  But I love the countryside and the coast, the feeling of fewer people and wider spaces and not feeling trapped.  I don’t think I’d ever choose to live full time in a city again, especially a city as overcrowded as London now is.

Nevertheless – and maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner – I actually do still love London.  It’s the place of my birth and my childhood.  I love the history and the parks and the odd little corners that many people never visit.  I was so lucky as a child to have parents who adored both history and walking.  Every Sunday, unless the rain was torrential, we were dragged out to the number 8 bus stop at the end of the road, to “go for a walk”.  This did not mean a twenty minute stroll through a park.  It meant a four or five hour marathon through parts of London I would never have known existed.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner: Wellington Statue
Wellington statue in London

We walked through the City and listened to my mother’s stories of the blitz and of her first jobs in old fashioned offices, learning the switchboard and typing on an old fashioned typewriter.  We wandered through the Inns of Court and the world of legal London, with my Dad stopping to read every plaque on every wall.  We discovered hidden gems like the Museum of the Order of St John and Postman’s Park.  On wet days we did every museum in London including ones I’ve forgotten even existed.  We went into obscure but beautiful churches which were always open to visitors back then, and if it was late enough in the day we would stay for evensong before getting the bus home.  When people ask me why I write historical novels rather than any other kind, I find it hard to answer apart from to say I always loved history.  But I know that this is why.  At times, wandering through the ancient streets, I would whinge about the fact that my friends from school were all off ice skating or swimming or just hanging out in the street.  But Mum was adamant that unless there was a genuine reason not to (like a broken leg – arms didn’t count, I once saw her scale the cliffs at Hastings with her arm in a sling) we would all go out together on Sundays.  Church, Sunday lunch, walk or other outing and then home for tea and whichever series was on TV on Sundays.  Saturdays were ours; on Sundays we belonged to her.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner: Tower of London
Tower of London

As I grew older the rule relaxed, but by then she didn’t have to nag me, I was hooked.  At secondary school by then, I visited exhibitions relevant to whatever I was studying, sometimes with the school but sometimes on my own.  I would think nothing – and still don’t – about taking myself off to the British Museum on a free day.  A boat trip down to Hampton Court or Greenwich was a joy.  I loved the Cutty Sark and the Tower of London – just wandering around outside them was enough.  And I adored – and will always adore – the River Thames, where my parents did a lot of their courting.

All of this came from a family with very little.  We lived, for the first thirteen years of my life, in an old rented house with no bathroom or indoor toilet.  We washed in the kitchen sink and bathed in an old fashioned tin bath by the oil stove in the kitchen because there was no central heating.  We ate healthily but with few luxuries on a daily basis although it made a meal out for a birthday or the extra treats at Christmas incredibly special.

When we moved to a council maisonette when I was thirteen, it was luxury.  I can remember squabbling over who would be the first to use the new bath until we realised my mother was already in it.  Curiously, we missed our old fashioned house; the new place had no garden.  My parents were good managers and saved for their old age but we didn’t have that much stuff.

What we did have was experiences.  We had one week’s holiday every year, always in the UK but always somewhere special.  When we were small we went to holiday camps a lot as they were cheap and there was entertainment but as we got older we rented cottages and we explored Devon and Cornwall, the Lakes and Yorkshire, the Isle of Wight and parts of Scotland.  We did it all by coach and bus and train; they had no car.

We went to the cinema to see every good new film going.  We went to the London Palladium to see the Pantomime every Christmas.  If there was a school trip to anywhere, they would find the money for us to go.  My love of music came from endless school trips to concerts, the opera, and to hear Gilbert and Sullivan.  My love of good plays and literature came from school trips to the Young Vic and Stratford upon Avon.  They had never been abroad, but I went to Russia at sixteen with the school because my Dad did overtime to pay for it.

George and Iris Bryant
My parents, George and Iris Bryant

I’m aware as an adult of everything they did for us and everything they sacrificed so that we could absorb as many different experiences as they could afford to give us.  It’s not that surprising that we both did so well.  But I don’t think they thought it was that much of a sacrifice, I think they loved doing all these things with us, enjoyed introducing us to the city they both loved.

They were poor when we were young, got more comfortable as we grew up and travelled a bit more, spent more on themselves although they still never had a car or bought a house.  They ate out a lot, discovered different cuisines and enjoyed it.  They both still walked until arthritis and old age prevented them.  But they never resented poverty or saw themselves as victims.  They were never angry.  They simply worked out what was important to them and what they could easily do without and if they needed more they worked a bit harder to get it.

They weren’t political although they never failed to vote, but they both voted on issues rather than blind loyalty to a party so at different times they voted for all three main parties.  My mother voted for Margaret Thatcher simply on the grounds that it was time there was a woman in charge.  She was a feminist without ever knowing what the word meant, or caring.  My father voted Labour that year.  Neither of them cared what anybody else voted.  Their friends and family could be Labour or Tory or Liberal or nothing at all.  It was considered rude to get personal about such matters as religion or politics.  They were old enough to appreciate the welfare state, the NHS and any help they were given.  They were gracious about it, didn’t see it as a right, said thank you when help was given.  During the IRA bombings they continued to take us to all the same places, do all the same things.  We missed the Ideal Home Exhibition bomb by a few minutes only, but there was no sense of anxiety.  We were in London and that city belonged to us, not the bombers.

Maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner.  But when I’m back here, no matter how much it has changed, no matter how much I know that I’d never come back to live here now, I still feel a very primitive sense of belonging.  This is my city, my home, my childhood.  I feel an enormous sense of familiarity and of love and gratitude both to the people who raised me and the city that shaped all of us.  I’ve lived in many places now and loved a fair few of them.  But when I come back to London, I know I’ve come home.

Photographs of our Peninsular War Saga Tour, April 2017

An Uncommon Campaign, 110th at the Battle of Fuentes d'Onoro

I wanted to share some of the photographs of Spain and Portugal which were taken when we visited some of the settings for An Unconventional Officer and the rest of the Peninsular War Saga.

Many thanks to Richard for the brilliant photographs.  It was the most amazing feeling to stand looking at some of the buildings and places associated with my story – I’d read endless descriptions and battlefield guides but actually going there gave the whole thing a completely different feeling.

They also gave me some fantastic new book covers.  I’ve been unsure about the original covers for these books from the start.  Partly this was because despite all Sheri’s amazing efforts, I just couldn’t find the right couple to portray Paul and Anne as I saw them.  I don’t have the money to pay a commercial artist to draw them and the couple on the book just don’t work for me.  They were a brilliant compromise to get me started and I love all Sheri’s other covers for me, but I was unsettled about these.

Secondly, I am aware that the covers gave a very strong impression of a romantic novel, with the couple being the main feature.  I’m all in favour of romantic novels, but these books are something more and I wanted to convey that.  Richard, who is as good with technology as he is with photography, offered to try to create something different, and the results are actually rather stunning, with a scene from each book layered with an old map of the Peninsula.  I love them to bits and I genuinely think they’re helping to sell the books to people who would probably not have thought to try them before.  They’re only available on the kindle version at present, but we are working on the paperback covers.  None of this detracts from the great work done by Sheri McGathy on all my covers and I will continue to use her and heartily recommend her, especially for romance and fantasy novels.  Her prices are reasonable, she’s quick and reliable and very patient with fiddling around to get the result you want.

An Irregular Regiment
Book 2 of the Peninsular War Saga

Working on the new covers with the man I married was definitely a challenge at times.  I can’t speak highly enough of his patience and tolerance of my uncertainty about “home made covers”.  In the end he came up with something which I think is better than some commercially produced covers that I’ve seen.  There is a theme, and I’m looking forward to going back to the Peninsula next year, and possibly to Waterloo as well to take more photographs for future covers.  I’m also going to get him to design one for my Manx themed novel since we’d be spoiled for choice for beautiful photographs here.

The areas of Spain and Portugal we visited were not major tourist areas, and having a car is essential, although there are a number of very good tour companies which do Peninsular War trips for those who don’t want to drive.  I loved both countries, but on this trip I think Portugal won for me.  In A Redoubtable Citadel,  Paul is described as having fallen in love with Portugal: the language, the culture and the people.  I think the same thing happened to me.

There are several blog posts from the trip but I’m currently putting together a section of the website specifically for travel and reviews of historic sites which I’ll share when it’s complete.

In the meantime, enjoy the photos and if you want to see more, there are galleries associated with all my books here

This is the link to Richard’s flickr page which has a variety of photographs on it and is well worth a visit.

For regular updates on this site including history, travel, book reviews and plenty of labradors (and a few freebies thrown in) please join the e-mail list here.

 

Not Just the Army…Marines and the Navy in the Peninsular War under Wellington – and a possible Manx connection?

I had one of those very odd little coincidences today which caused me to look at the role of not just the army but also the Marines and the Navy in the Peninsular War under Wellington.

I’ve been thinking about a story, either a short story or a novella, associated with the Peninsular War books but possibly with a Manx connection. I already have a Manxman ready to pop up into the action when the time is right. It was always likely to happen. I don’t know much about Manxmen in the Napoleonic armies, but I do know the navy just loved them. It’s hard not to be good at the sea when you live on an island this small. The most famous of them, a certain Captain John Quilliam RN was a Royal Navy officer and the First Lieutenant on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar.

When I was researching the young Paul van Daan’s early career in the Royal Navy, I was not sure of my ground. I knew a fair bit about Wellington’s army but the navy was a bit of a mystery. I knew that at fourteen Paul was far too young to be pressed, but I also knew that it happened all the time especially with well grown lads who clearly had seafaring experience. But I wanted Paul’s time in the navy to have some purpose. Those early years are vital, because in the hell below decks in Nelson’s navy fighting skirmishes and then at the battle of the Nile, Paul van Daan grew up. He arrives in the army at 21 not a naive young officer with no experience but as a tough, battle seasoned commander, a petty officer who rose from being a pressed man. He’s been through hell and back, not in the company of officers and gentlemen but alongside the lowest of the low in Nelson’s navy. No wonder he’s often happier down with the men than up in the mess…

But was it possible? Google came to my rescue, and with regard to naval promotion from being a pressed man, the first significant name to pop up was none other than my neighbour from up the road in Marown who was the son of a farmer, an apprentice stonemason until he was picked up by a press gang. From those humble beginnings he rose to be first lieutenant on HMS Victory with a place in history. I could have hugged him. Suddenly, Petty Officer Paul van Daan was not only possible but highly likely.

So when I came to thinking about a Manx connected story I naturally went back to Paul’s navy days. There were a lot of Manxmen in Nelson’s navy and it’s entirely likely that when Wellington asked for the navy and the marines to help with the defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras, one or two of them came along. I’d got my connection, and I’ve already come up with a name. Some research about their role comes next, and as I was working on that from my sickbed, I came across the following story, linked to a JustGiving page for a Royal Marines charity.

The Royal Marines 1664 Global Challenge 2017 – linked to Royal Marine history in Portugal

During the Peninsular War (1810-1812) the Royal Navy, Royal Marines and Royal Marine Artillery were deployed in support of Wellington’s defence of the Lines of Torres Vedras.

At Wellington’s request Vice Admiral Berkeley deployed ashore a naval brigade consisting of 500 seamen and 500 marines to guard the left bank of the Tagus, to provide the signalmen along the Lines of Torres Vedras and to provide Marine artillery. The main force worked in co-operation with the flotilla of naval ships in the North part of the River Tagus to ensure that the French troops could not out-flank the British lines and move on Lisbon, while Naval signalmen ensured that messages could pass along the 29 miles of the Lines in 7 minutes.

Marines along with Artillery were landed on the 3 islands to the North in the Tagus where they worked with the British Army on the left bank and the Naval ships to stop French attempts to use the islands to cross. Later a large number of Marines were moved to Fort San Julien to provide protection for the deployment of maritime logistics to Wellington’s force ashore. This area was also the 3rd Line of Torres Vedras and is close to the current site of HQ Naval Striking and Support Forces NATO, STRIKFORNATO.

When the Marines were finally returned to the UK in February 1812 the British General in charge of the Army in Lisbon wrote that he “cannot part with the Royal Marine Battalion without expressing the lively concern he feels in being deprived of their service, and requesting their acceptance of his best thanks for their uniform good conduct whilst in his garrison”.

In recognition of this part of Naval and Royal Marine history, the four Royal Marines based in Portugal are aiming to complete a physical challenge that will start with a canoe to the Islands in the Tagus, to run around the Islands before returning to the left bank. They will then cycle along the first line of defence taking in the signal tower overlooking Wellington’s HQ where Naval signalmen worked before turning south and arriving at St Julian Fort a distance of 64 miles.

This is part of the Royal Marines 1664 Global Challenge that will see Royal Marines around the world complete 100 challenges in 100 days, raising funds for wounded and injured Naval Service Marines and Sailors.

It made me smile. The lines of Torres Vedras are unheard of to most people in the UK, even if they know a bit about the Peninsular Wars, although having visited them very recently in Portugal I’m aware of how crucial a part of modern Portuguese history they are. Somehow I love the idea that these guys are raising money for charity in the name of that little piece of obscure history. They aren’t going to get the recognition of the lads running around the UK and it doesn’t really matter since it all goes to the same cause, but I still somehow felt a connection. I made a donation because I wanted my name on that page. It has meaning for me.

I’m going to start the story tomorrow, even though I ought to be working on my final revision of ‘An Unconventional Officer’. I love these little obscure bits of history which turn up in the oddest places. I hope you’re as interested as I am. And if you feel like making a donation, this is the link.