Thursday, 29 March 2012

The Battle of Cheriton: 29th March 1644

The photo above doesn't look like much does it? It just looks like a field, a little brown from the summer heat with a wood in the background against a clear, bright blue sky. But what if I were to tell you that these fields once saw thousands of men fighting and killing each other, that it was the site of a battle of the English Civil War that not many people know about, but a battle that turned the tide of the war? The fields shown above are just a small part of a huge area known to be the site of the Battle of Cheriton which took part on 29th March 1644 - Cheriton has long fascinated me, since (for my sins) I took part in a reenactment of the battle in Cheriton Wood. I fought on the side of the Royalists, and we got a thrashing but it was good fun. But as we were on our way back to the pub for a few well deserved pints I began thinking about the battle a bit more; what had it really been like? Obviously it wouldn't have been fun like today had been with pretending to fall down dead from a musket shot so what would it have been like in the Woods? How did Parliament come to win the battle? And it woke something up in me that kept eating away at me until I completed a rather large piece of work on the site, argued with historians over the battlefield location and spent many an hour traipsing around the battlefield taking in the landscape. It didn't take long while I was wandering these fields for my imagination to take over.

It is of course, important to place this battle in the context of the English Civil War. The war itself lasted from 1642-1646, with a second civil war igniting in 1648, and as mentioned in my previous post on Charles I the war started because of many causes including Parliament disliking Charles' belief in the Divine Right of Kings, religious differences and Charles' need for money to fight various wars. All of this created friction and on 22nd August 1642 the War officially began when Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham. The Battle of Cheriton itself happened half way through the original 4 year period of fighting, on 29th March 1644 in fields to the east of the small village of Cheriton (or Cherrytown as it was known in contemporary records) with both armies represented by their respective generals: for the Parliamentarians there was Sir William Waller and for the Royalists Sir Ralph Hopton. These men were close friends and had previously served together in Bohemia perfectly embodying how the Civil War separated friends and even family. Yet even throughout the war, and fighting each other the two men still wrote letters of friendship to each other:, often urging each other to change sides:

To my Noble frend Sir Ralph Hopton at Wells: The experience I have had of your worth, and the happinesse I have enjoyed in your frendship are woundinge considerations when I look upon this present distance betweene us...Wee are both upon the stage and must act those parts that are assigned us in this Tragedy: Lett us do it in a way of honor and without personal animosities, whatsoever the issue be, I shall never willingly relinquish the dear title of your most affectionated friend and faithful servant...William Waller

 Sir William Waller by Cornelius Johnson

 Sir Ralph Hopton by an Unknown Artist

Why Cheriton though, and why did the battle happen right there? Charles wanted the Parliamentarians out of their stronghold in Southern England and so Hopton's troops marched from Winchester on 27th March 1644 leaving the town completely undefended, and at the same time Waller was ordered to stop Hopton from taking the south. Thus Parliament sent supplies and ammunition to East Meon in Hampshire where an army of 10,000 men were mustered. This army made their way towards Alresford but the Royalist army of 6000 men held it. Waller's army withdrew east to Cheriton and Hopton's troops began to form up on Gander Down, 3 miles east of Winchester. The 28th saw small skirmishes between both sides, but the main event was yet to begin.

View from the North Edge of Cheriton Wood where most of the action took place (photo from

The Battle of Cheriton began at 8am on the morning of 29th March, and the battle is often split up into three phases. The first of which is more commonly known as "The Battle for Bramdean Heath", beginning when the Parliamentarians saw the advantage of Cheriton Wood which lay to the left of the Royalist position. Orders were issued for its occupation and the previous night Waller had created a rather clever ruse to convince the Royalists that Parliament were retreating. The noise worked! And Hopton was advised of this and sent a troop of 1000 horse to follow them. In fact, Parliamentarian troops had occupied the wood with 1000 musketeers and 300 horse. However the royalists soon gained the Wood and there was immense confusion in the confined space thanks to both sides using the same battle cry of "God With Us!". Hopton eventually sent 1300 Parliamentarian troops running from the wood. This was the first victory of the Royalists during the day but it soon went downhill. After Hopton ordered his troops to move forward and take up position within an area of the field known as The Arena things started to go wrong for the Royalists - Hopton tried conferring with his generals over tactics but they had taken their own initiative, engaging the enemy on their own and Colonel Bard took it upon himself to have his troops take over Hinton Ampner and set fire to hedges as they went. This proved fatal, particularly as Arthur Hesselridge lead his troop of Lobsters (horsemen in big lobster like armour) and slaughtered Bard's men. Later the Royalists tried to charge the Parliamentarian army with their troops of Horse later in the day but it proved too difficult thanks to the very narrow lanes surrounding the fields and in fact the failure of these charges was blamed on the fact that the horses could only move down the lanes in single file!

The final phase is known as Alresford Fight and was when the Royalists retreated back towards Basing House. This phase saw Parliament pushing forward in a pincer like movement, pushing the retreating Royalists from hedgerow to hedgerow. This seems to have been fought ferociously by Hopton's troops, allowing for a swift retreat to Basing. 

What about losses? Indeed, this battle was a Royalist defeat that really began to turn the tide towards a Parliamentarian victory in the war. It was said in contemporary documents that Parliament lost less than 60 men whereas Royalist losses were said to be much more, perhaps not unexpected as they were defeated, and they lost a few Commanders and members of the nobility including Lord John Stuart, King Charles I's third cousin. But why did the Royalists lose this battle? Whilst there are many reasons it seems as if many, many mistakes were made. But for myself, the biggest reason seems to have been the sheer lack of communication between the Royalist commanders although another reason may well have been the landscape of the battlefield - the lanes are incredibly narrow, hence the Cavalry charges failing and Parliament were able to get the upper hand thanks to the mistakes made by the Royalists.

The battlefield at Cheriton has to be one of my favourite places in the world and during my time at University I took it upon myself to study the landscape of it in depth. My aim was to find the location of the battlefield through landscape archaeology as there are two possible sites in the area; the traditional site (being the one spoken about above) and a site proposed by military historian John Adair which, whilst very similar, places the main bulk of the battle slightly further south. After speaking with Adair (and still being very in awe of this wonderful man!) and playing around with technical maps I discovered that Adair's site was actually in the middle of a river valley which at the time would have been quite full of water! So in my opinion, and I hope backed up by my work on the battle site, it seems that the traditional site is much more likely (and not only that but previous archaeological work on the area of retreat rather backs it up too!). However Adair's book is still my absolute bible on this wonderful place and always will be - I'm forever looking things up in it and it's getting rather battered these days. To me, there is nothing better than wandering around those fields and gazing over the quiet fields which on one day in history were full of men fighting for what they believed in. It is a very eerie place, yet exceptionally beautiful at the same time, and I urge anyone with an interest in the English Civil War to take a walk around the public footpaths of the battlefield and follow the battlefield trail.

Further reading

Adair, J, 1973, Cheriton 1644: The Campaign and the Battle, Kineton: Roundwood Press
The Battlefields Trust, Battle of Cheriton, available at (accessed 27th March 2012)
Maclachlan, T, 2000, The Civil War in Hampshire, Salisbury: Rowanvale Books
Sawyer, R, 2002, Civil War in Winchester, Salisbury: Rowanvale Books
Sawyer, R, 2005, Cheriton: A Battle of the Civil War Friday 29th March 1644: Facts and Findings by  Richard Sawyer, Alresford: John Seal Publications

Picture credits:
Cheriton fields - taken by me
William Waller, wikimedia commons:
Ralph Hopton, wars of Louis XIX:
Cheriton from the Wood: The Battlefields Trust:

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Review: A Gambling Man by Jenny Uglow

Charles II has to be one of my favourite monarchs, I'm sure you're all aware of that by now. In fact I can even go as far as saying I have a mild historical crush on the man - which I have absolutely no shame in admitting whatsoever. He certainly wasn't the perfect man, he enjoyed his women a little bit too much, enjoyed his drink and made a heck of a lot of mistakes (THAT foreign policy after all!) but at the same time he was loved by many, he cared about his subjects, strove to make sure that religion wasn't as issue and he helped his own subjects fight against the Great Fire in 1666. He was a man of the people and why? Because he understood their plight, the plight of the poor. After all, he spent many a year in exile as a poor and penniless King. In simple terms, he got it.

It has been a long time since I have read a good biography of Charles II, and the last one I read was by Antonia Fraser which, although a gallant attempt, just didn't cut it for me. It started out good, giving a brilliant account of Charles' years in exile but soon it got very, very dry. That's the thing with the politics of the era, it can get very dry very quickly and there aren't many who can write a particularly riveting account of the stuff that Charles and Parliament got up to in those years. That was until I read this book by Jenny Uglow - a biography of Charles II that is slightly different to the majority of the books out there. This one concentrates solely on the first decade of his reign from 1660 and his triumphal return to England, up until 1670 when he said goodbye to his beloved sister Minette for the final time.

Now 10 years may not seem like a very long time in the world of history, but during Charles II's reign you could write an entire library on his reign and Uglow does a wonderful job of telling the stories of these first ten years mixed in with quotes from the diaries of Pepys and Evelyn as well as letters that Charles wrote to his sister. And more so, Uglow's writing style flows really very nicely making it an absolute pleasure to read. Now I will admit that it took me a while to read it, despite how well written it is, because not only is it a rather large book but there were a lot of rather complicated ideas and events in there too (as expected) - and whilst the chapters on Charles' early foreign policy and religious policy were certainly very interesting I did find them a times. That however cannot be helped, as there is only so much politics that a girl can take before she puts a book down due to her head hurting slightly. Despite this, those chapters were a lot more engaging than many I have read in the past and really helped my understanding of Restoration politics - I remember at school being overly confused at the idea of Whigs and Tories and had no idea what it meant - now though I have to say that I'm pleased to have a lot more understanding on these political parties, what they did and what they wanted. Mixed in with this we get to read about life at court, court factions, the mistresses of Charles II and how he spent his down time; but as well we see how Charles earned the respect of his subjects and the chapters on the Plague and the Great Fire moved me to tears - how Charles was out there with his people, ordering houses pulled down to stop the spread of the fire, carrying buckets of water and promising Londoners that he would rebuild the city bigger and better than ever. You can't help but feel a little proud of this man as he worked alongside his subjects.

This book isn't perfect, perhaps a bit like Charles himself, but it is certainly one of the best books I have read on him in a very long time. Reading about how he helped his subjects, how he adored his sister Minette, how he endeavoured to tolerate all religion and how he managed difficult political and foreign issues has just made me adore this monarch all the more. But more so I loved how he let his hair down, we know how he loved the theatre, how he reinstated sport after the Interregnum but I honestly did not know that there were times he dressed up in disguise and ran amok with his friends and go to the brothels in London! There was also one line that made me feel very sorry for this King - after dealing with the Plague, the Great Fire and the War with the Dutch Uglow states, "Rochester said of this period that he was completely drunk for five years" - despite his outward appearance of being the "merry monarch", is it any wonder that after so much worry for his subjects both due to disasters like the Plague and Fire, and a war that threatened his country, he turned to the drink? And it is these moments that show Charles as a human being rather than a King.

I would highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Charles II and the Restoration, not only to those who already have a sound knowledge of the period but those who are looking for a good introduction. Uglow's book is a great read, full of interesting information that will keep the reader hooked even through the parts that may get a little complicated or dry. It's definitely worth getting through these complicated parts as it provides an important part of Charles' reign, and after all it wasn't all fun and games for Charles. A great read and highly recommended!

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Charles I

For a very long time, Charles I has been a man who has fascinated me greatly. Not only for his rather ostentatious moustache but also for the fact that he was King during a time of great darkness in England, and he fought for keeping tradition in England. Unfortunately his belief in the Divine Right of Kings would see him brought to the block charged with treason.

Charles was the son of James I (VI of Scotland) who became King after the death of Elizabeth 1 on 24th March 1603. Charles was never supposed to be King, he was the spare heir but when his brother Henry died in 1612 Charles became the heir - a story that sounds rather similar to how Henry VIII became heir to the English throne! Charles became king on 27th March 1625

Charles married Henrietta Maria on 11th May 1625, by proxy at Notre Dame in Paris - many members of parliament were opposed to the marriage due to Henrietta Maria being Catholic, so Charles married her before parliament could meet and ban the marriage. Parliament feared that if Charles married a Catholic, he would lift the restrictions on Roman Catholic religion and change the Church of England. Charles promised to his parliament that he would not do this and the laws would stay in place, however he then promised to the French King Louis XIII that he would do exactly that and a secret marriage treaty was arranged. Charles and Henrietta Maria were married in person on 13th June 1625 at St Augustine's Church in Canterbury. Charles was crowned King at Westminster Abbey shortly after, on 2nd February 1626 however his wife was not there due to the controversy of their marriage.

Charles caused a stir even early on in his reign with his friendship to George Villiers who ended up being assassinated in 1628. There was also huge tension between King and Parliament due to the huge cost of wars abroad, and Charles needing money to support these wars - for instance with the 30 years war which was raging in Europe, and unrest with both Scotland and Ireland. Religion of course also caused problems between King and Parliament - not only did Parliament dislike Charles' marriage with the Catholic Henrietta Maria, but Charles himself favoured a high Anglican approach to religion which, although a form of protestantism leaned more towards the beliefs and practises of Catholicism. This made many suspicious and caused friction in Parliament, particularly amongst those with a more Puritan leaning. After so much friction, Charles dissolved Parliament three times between 1625 and 1629, before dissolving Parliament once more in 1629 and resolving to rule alone. This period of personal rule meant that he could not rely on Parliament to provide money when he needed it, thus meaning he had to find other methods of raising money which made the King more and more unpopular. In particular, and the method that is always mentioned, was the Ship Money - this tax was normally only levied on coastal times at times of War, however to raise funds Charles imposed the tax on everyone and it caused a lot of opposition with many refusing to pay it. The Ship Money, along with the issues of religion and Charles' deep belief in the Divine Right of King all contributed to the English Civil War.

Tensions in Scotland were caused by Charles introducing a new prayer book which was met with hard opposition. This put and end to Charles' era of personal rule as he was forced to call Parliament as he needed money to fight the Scottish. In 1641 tension rose even more with disagreements between King and Parliament over who should command the army and suppress uprising in Ireland. All of this lead to Charles attempting to have 5 members of Parliament arrested (which failed, the got wind of this and escaped) - war was on and the King raised his standard in Nottingham in August 1642. The English Civil War had begun.

The English Civil War was a brutal time for England, and often split families right down the middle. Often sons fought their own brothers and fathers - there is a rather harrowing story in Tristram Hunt's "The English Civil War at First Hand" showing just how this happened:

"The most tragic case of family warring took place during a battle at Wardour Castle. As he lay dying from his wounds the Roundhead soldier, Private Hillsdeane, confirmed that it was his own Royalist brother who had fired the fatal shot"

When you mention the English Civil War most people know that Parliament were the victors and can name a few of the big battles such as Marston Moor and Edgehill. However to start with the Royalists had the upper hand - however this changed after the advent of the New Model Army in February 1645. The NMA was the first professional army that England ever had, and it changed the tide of the War. After 1644, the Royalists began to lose their grip on the War, and Parliament had the upper hand.

In 1646, Charles surrendered to the Scots and he was handed over to Parliament and thus was imprisoned. He tried many plucky escape attempts, and managed to escape from the Isle of Wight in 1647. Thus began the Second English Civil War and Charles convinced the Scots to help him. It was over within a year, the Royalists yet again being defeated. Charles was a prisoner again and put on trial for treason

The trial began on 20th January 1649. Charles refused to enter a plea, stating that they had no right to put their monarch on trial for treason. After all, treason was a crime against the King so how could he be guilty of it? He was convinced that he was given the right to rule by God himself and no man had the power to overturn that and thus insisted that the trial was illegal. It was in truth a kangaroo court, and the outcome was already decided - Cromwell and Parliament wanted rid of the King and they would get their way. Over the week of the trial Charles refused to enter a plea three times and at that time it was normal to take refusal to plea as an admission of guilt. On Saturday 27th January 1649 Charles was declared guilty and sentenced to death.

On 30th January 1649, Charles I was executed on a scaffold outside of the Banqueting House at Whitehall Palace. It is often told that he wore two shirts because of the cold weather and he didn't want the watching crowds to think he was shivering out of fear. Charles stepped out of a window onto the waiting scaffold, separated from the crowds by a line of soldiers. In his final speech he spoke of how he only ever wanted the liberty and health of his people, and how due to his previous agreement to execute an innocent man (The Earl of Strafford - executed in 1641 he was a long time advisor to the King, who at first refused to sign his death warrant). Also in his speech he spoke of how he never tried to subvert the religion of the Church of England. In short he was reminding those watching, and Parliament of his innocence. At 2pm, the King knelt before the block, telling the executioner that he would say but very short prayers before thrusting out his hands as a sign he was ready to die. He also asked the executioner whether his hair troubled him, and then with the help of the Bishop with him and the executioner was placed all under a nightcap. Just before the axe fell, Charles spoke a few words which never fail to bring a slight tear to my eye:

"I go from a corruptible to an incorruptible Crown, where no disturbance can be"

After a short pause, Charles thrust his arms out and the executioner removed the King's head with one swift blow. The typical words of the executioner following an execution were "behold the head of a traitor" whilst holding up the head of the condemned. However, although Charles' head was displayed the words were not spoken, instead the executioner and crowds were silent.

Following his execution, Cromwell allowed the head of Charles to be sewn back on and the body given to his family for burial. Charles was buried in a secret ceremony at Windsor Castle on 7th February 1649. He was interred in the same vault as Henry VIII and his Queen Jane Seymour.

Charles I lead a remarkable life and fought hard for what he believed in. He fought for the traditions of the English and inspired loyalty from those who fought with him. His death was a tragedy, thankfully Charles' son Charles II extracted revenge on those who signed his fathers death warrant after he became King in 1660. Even Cromwell could not escape, despite already being dead and buried. The body of Cromwell was dug up, put on trial for regicide and beheaded at Tyburn. Despite the fact that Charles I reigned during an exceptionally dark period in English history, he is one of the most colourful characters in the country's varied history and a man who certainly did not deserve the end that he received.

Further reading:

Braddick, M, 2008, Gods Fury, England's Fire: A New History of the English Civil War, The Penguin Group: London

Hunt, T, 2002, The English Civil War at First Hand, Penguin: London

Purkiss, D, 2006, The English Civil War: A People's History, Harper Perennial: London

Wedgewood, C.V, 1964, A King Condemned: The Trial and Execution of Charles I,  Tauris: London

Picture Credits:

Charles I Equestrian Portrait by Van Dyke, (accessed 24th March 2012)

Charles I: (accessed 24th March 2012)

Henrietta Maria: (accessed 24th March 2012)

Execution of Charles I: (accessed 24th March 2012)

Charles I Grave: (accessed 24th March 2012)

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Review: A Visitor's Companion to Tudor England by Suzannah Lipscomb

Did you know...Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester entertained Elizabeth I at Kenilworth Castle for 19 long days in 1575, in one last attempt to win her hand in marriage? In Oxford you can still see the charred door of Balliol College that was licked  by the immense fire that Mary I had built to burn three famous martyrs who refused to renounce their protestant faith. Mary Queen of Scots was imprisoned many times in cold and dank Tutbury castle, before plotting to assassinate Elizabeth I by smuggling messages out in beer barrels. But she was led into a trap, which cost her her head. Henry VIII was twice betrayed at Pontefract Castle. It was overrun during a rebellion in 1536, and Katherine Howard entertained her lover, Thomas Culpeper, there is 1541.

I know I said not long back that I was tired of the Tudors, and I still am. Or rather tired of that TV show, and people thinking that whatever was shown on it is fact. But anyway, it makes a change to read a book about the Tudor dynasty that really can refresh you, and reawaken an interest. I have previously read Suzannah Lipscomb's "1536" which was absolutely brilliant, and this book is just as brilliant. But what I liked most about this book is that it doesn't bog the reader down with complicated analysis - this book is aimed at everyone, not just those who want to read academic history. It can be used as a guide as you explore the buildings of Tudor England, explaining the main stories that happened there during the Tudor era; or it can be a starting point if you want to read a little introduction in the way of the houses, castles and buildings of Tudor England. And Lipscomb does this in a clear, concise and interesting way that makes the book a wonderful page turner.

Lipscomb splits the book up into geographical areas - London and Greater London, South East, South West etc which means that the pages flow nicely. It also helps if you're going to be visiting a particular area and fancy picking a few Tudor sites to see while you're there! What I also liked was that for each building, Lipscomb was very to the point and gave the reader only what is needed - the main reason why said building is an interesting place for Tudor history as well as a few other little bits of Tudor-esque stuff to see there. This meant that each building had just a matter of pages to explain its importance, and it does just enough to whet your appetite.

What surprised me was just how many Tudor buildings there actually are in the country. I knew about the main ones such as the Tower, Hampton Court etc but it seems there are a lot more Tudor treasures kicking about the country than one first thinks, For example, I went to University in Winchester and knew that the Cathedral was where Mary I and Phillip of Spain were married but I had no idea that nestled in the local neighbourhood was The Vyne, a once massive mansion (almost the size of Hampton Court in its hey day!) owned by William, Lord Sandys. The fact that it is so close to where I live even now has got my feet itching for a sojourn up there! In fact it seems wherever you are in the country, there is a Tudor treasure just around the corner. Next time I'm visiting my family up in the West Midlands I'll be making a point of re-visiting Kenilworth Castle and Shakespeare's birthplace after reading about them in this book, and reading the short chapters on these two fantastic places brought back some really rather good memories. But always among the places I knew, were little gems that I had no idea about. For instance - I had no idea that the doors of Balliol College in Oxford show scorch marks from the flames that burnt three famous protestant martyrs, Ketts Oak and the many mansions/palaces that still stand today. The stories that go with each of these places are enough to make your mind race.

As I found with "1536", Lipscomb's writing style is very easy to read, and it flows nicely. There is something about the structure of her work that makes the words seem to dance off the page. And I have to say, as I read this at the same time as a rather large tome on Charles II which is full of politics (and thus can get rather dry), it was a nice change to be able to escape into something light and that wasn't bogged down with huge lists of academic references. Now don't get me wrong, I am a big, BIG fan of references and in academic books they are an absolute god send. In my Charles book, they are proving to be very helpful (and it does irritate me no end when an academic book isn't referenced properly) HOWEVER Lipscomb's book is not meant to be a full blown academic book. She says both in her introduction and in the acknowledgements section that the book isn't meant to be just for academics, but for everyone and thus, a fully referenced "visitors guide" just wouldn't have cut it. This, for me, was a very brave thing for Lipscomb to do and in my opinion she managed to pull it off exceptionally well.

This book will certainly help out hugely when looking for my next trip out to a sixteenth century house/palace/cathedral and I intend on going back to it. As I mentioned above, it is a great starting point and stepping stone into the history of these wonderful places - and if you want to learn any more information then you can (especially as Lipscomb provides a rather excellent further reading list at the end of the book also). I honestly recommend this book to anyone interested in Tudor history, and to anyone interested in visiting some of the wonderful Tudor sites dotted around the English countryside.

Friday, 16 March 2012

Review: The English Civil War At First Hand by Tristram Hunt

It's been quite a while since I sat down and read anything about the English Civil War, mainly because despite my huge interest in the period I have found that many of the books on the subject are excceptionally dry. That is of course through no fault of the author but there is just so much going on in the lead up to the wars that you can't help but find dry, no matter how much love you put into it. I suppose that's the thing with a war that started through a King hacking off his Parliament (and other reasons, but more on that below) - politics comes into play. And politics can get boring very very quickly. But then I came across this little gem - I'd read it before and used it when I was writing my dissertation on the English Civil War but for some reason it didn't really strike me back then. A few days ago I started re-reading it and I'm glad I did as I can safely say that this is one of the better books I have read on the period.

The book is littered with quotes, and is literally the story of the English Civil War through the eyes of the people who were there. You have letters from Charles I, the memoirs of a Roundhead wife, A Cavalier officers journal, letters from Oliver Cromwell - and these offer such an eye opening insight into the years of war. A lot of these quotes really made me stop and think, particularly the stories of the horrors of the war and how it split families right down the middle. One particular part of the book really made me shudder:

"The most tragic case of family warring took place during a battle at Wardour Castle. As he lay dying from his wounds the Roundhead soldier, Private Hillsdeane, confirmed that it was his own royalist brother who had fired the fatal shot"

This sort of thing was all too common and throughout the book Hunt really makes us aware that quite often neighbours fought neighbours, friends fought friends and fathers fought against their own sons.

Hunt splits the book up into very readable chapters which takes the reader through how the Wars were caused, the reasons behind them, the wars themselves, Charles I's downfall and the reign of Oliver Cromwell. The chapters are not overly long, and Hunt let's the words of the people who were there tell their own story, instead of launching into complicated analysis. Nor does Hunt stray into the realm of conjecture, which has to be one of my biggest pet hates in historical non fiction. Even when talking about Charles I's execution, he doesn't start on about how Charles felt but rather let's the reader get an indication of how Charles felt through the writings of those who bore witness to the events, and the writings of those who spoke with Charles before the event such as the quote below which was recorded by King Charles' attendant Thomas Herbert:

"Nothing of the fear of death, or indignities offered seemed a terror, or provoked him into impatience, nor uttered he a reproachful word reflecting upon any of his judges...or against any Member of the House, or officer of the Army; so wonderful was his patience, though his spirit was great, and might otherwise haxe expressed his resentments upon several occasions"

I will say it again and again, but the words of those who were there, and the documents that Hunt quotes from just speak for themselves. Through the words of those who lived during the years of war right up until the years of Oliver Cromwell's Commonwealth, we can get a sense of what it was like to be there, the fear they felt, their thoughts on the unlawful execution of their monarch. Not only that, but you can get a sense of what life was like in the years following Charles' execution thanks to the work of groups of people such as the Ranters (a religious group who believed that God was a part of every individual being and rather enjoyed fornication, and I may be oversimplifying this. They do seem like an interesting bunch of people though), and the Levellers (a group who supported popular sovereignty, equality and religious tolerance) - both groups were looked down upon by the Parliamentarian state, and ended up being repressed. An edict by parliament in 1650 is quoted by Hunt, clearly aimed at the Ranters:

"To Parliament holding it to be their all good ways and means to...advance religion in all sincerity, godliness and honesty have made several ordinances and laws...there are divers men and women who have lately discovered themselves to be most monstrous in their opinions, and loose in all wicked and abominable practices..."

Reading the chapters on the years post execution, I really got the sense of an England in the grip of a strange hysteria, with people trying out new religious ideas (only to be suppressed by Cromwell) - because after all, they had no theater or sport and Christmas had been turned into a day of fasting by Parliament (and let's not forget that the law banning the eating of Mince Pies on Christmas Day was never repealed!).

I honestly feel as if this review has been rather jumpy, however I will say that I thoroughly enjoyed this book and it has really reignited my love of the English Civil War. It was really refreshing to read a book that made the years of politics and war really accessible, and it was really quite amazing to have the stories told by the people that loved there with very little analysis from the author. Because I don't know about you, but sometimes when I read a history book about a subject that is really rather full of politics, too much analysis over the minute little details can become very boring, very quickly. Now, these details are very important, and must be studied by historians to get a sound understanding on their chosen periods - I remember pouring through primary resources on my dissertation subject and getting myself so immersed and lost in what I was reading but you can so easily fall into the trap of over analysing every little detail. Sometimes you just have to let the sources, and the words speak for themselves and this is what Hunt has done with this book. He has made an era that is often overlooked as complicated very, very accessible through his very simple and appealing approach and for this I completely commend him.

If you want a great introduction to a completely fascinating era in British History then I definitely recommend this book!

Friday, 9 March 2012

Inspirations from History: Nell Gwynne (Part 3 - Mistress to a King)

In my previous post on Nell, I spoke briefly about her career in the theatre and how she caught the eye of Charles II. Now I will concentrate on her years spent as Charles II's mistress, her life at court and her relationship with the other mistresses.

"Pray good people, be civil! I am the protestant whore!" is the famous quote, as Nell climbed out of the coach loaned to her by Louise De Keroualle to face a mob surrounding it. They thought she was Louise, due to the fact that the coach had Louise's device on the doors. Yet as Nell emerged the crowd quietened, and began to shout words of support to her. She was certainly popular, and not afraid to admit who she was and what she was.

Before we go into details on Nell's life as mistress to Charles II, it's important to put her into context with Charles II's other women. In particular I want to mention Barbara Villiers and Louise De Kerouelle - both of these women have gone down in history as women who were power hungry, women who got their own way and knew how to wrap Charles around their little fingers. With Barbara I am certainly of the belief that she wanted power, money and status, and she knew how to get her own way. As the mother of many of Charles' bastards, there came a point where she wanted status for them too and there is a wonderful story of her threatening to dash her son's brains out on the floor in front of Charles unless he have the child a title. Nell also did something of the sort, jealous that both Barbara and Louise's sons had been elevated. She hung her son - she hung little Charles Beauclerk (born in 1670) out of the window threatening to drop him unless the King granted her child a title. Charles, below was shocked and shouted out, "God save the Earl of Burford". Barbara Villiers was also notoriously greedy, demanding land from Charles and then selling it off so she could pay off her gambling debts - Charles gave her Nonsuch Palace (the beautiful palace built by Henry VIII) and she sold the land and building materials off, destroying the palace in the process (The Friends of Whitehall 2007). Barbara never changed it seems, and remained controversial until her death. According to Hopkins she "grew old disgracefully" and married Major-General Robert Fielding who gambled away her fortune. She died on 9th October 1709.

Louise De Kerouelle was not quite so bad, however she still had that lust for power and status. Louise, french and Catholic, knew she had to rule the King as if she were his Queen and knew how to do so, knowing that his own Queen was no threat whatsoever. However Louise was the jealous type, and could not tolerate the other mistresses. She would outshine all others, knowing that Barbara Villiers was past it and she believed that Nell was just a passing fancy of the king - in her mind, class would outshine class and she would come out on top. But her way of getting things was to turn on the tears, and she had many, MANY bouts of public uncontrollable sobbing. It was this that made Charles take refuge with Nell, she was down to earth and could make him laugh. Not only that, she rarely asked for anything. With Nell, what you saw was what you got.

So what was so different about Nell? First and foremost, she could make the king laugh and there are many examples of her doing so (in particular when it came to her making fun of Louise!). One such example comes from December 1674 when Louise went into a great period of mourning for the Chevalier De Rohan (a man from an ancient and noble French family). Despite not being related, Louise believed she had the right to go into mourning for this man due to her own ancient nobility. The next day Nell entered the court dressed in black, crying and moaning. She was asked by a confused courtier in front of the King and Louise what was wrong and Louise answered, "Why, have you not heard of my loss in the death of the Cham of Tartary?". The Courtier the asked what relation this man was to Nell and she replied, "Oh, exactly the same relation that the Chevalier de Rohan was to Cartwheel". You can imagine a certain wicked twinkle in her eye as she said it. The comment made the King burst into laughter. And this was not the first time Nell would do things like this to Louise, whenever Louise went into mourning for a member of the nobility she had no relation to - for instance when Louise went into mourning over the death of the King of Sweden, Nelly arrived dressed in black again for the death of the king of Portugal. She then suggested that they should divide the world in two, and Louise could have the northern hemisphere whilst she would have the south. Of course the King found this particularly funny.

During Nell's time at court she also spent a lot less than the others. Her annual expenditure was about £60,000 whereas both Barbara and Louise's was much more (forgive me for I do not have figures for Barbara or Louise). Indeed, Nelly's annual pension was less than the other two also - she was paid approximately £6000 per year, and along side which she also received wine licences for around £8000 per year, along side other such licenses Hopkins reckons she brought in around £30,000 per year. Alongside Barbara's £2.25 million and over £4 million by Louise, it was certainly a very modest amount. Indeed unlike Barbara and Louise, Nell certainly seemed unphased by jewellery - her only known vice was a necklace known as the Ruperta Necklace, a present from Prince Rupert of the Rhine to Elizabeth of Bohemia (his cousin). Another piece of work she allowed herself was a rather extravagant bedstead costing over £1000, the decorations of which included the kings head, eagles, crowns and cupids as well as (rather morbidly) Louise lying in a grave with an unnamed Eastern pomegranate. An estimate in today's prices has come up with an amount of £250,000, if a bedstead of the same extravagance were to be commissioned. It seems she also had a taste for silver and commissioned many items to have her initials on them, particularly her silver plate.

During the 1680's, Nell had a rough time. She learned in particular that her youngest son, James, had died. He was just eight years old, and had died in Paris where he was being tutored. So little is known about him that we are unsure of when exactly he died, but in a letter filed between 27 May and 2 June, Sir John Verney write's to Sir Raph Verney that "Nell Gwynne;s second son is dead in France". According to Hopkins, Nell was a broken woman following this news, as can be expected. There is very little mentioned of her for the rest of 1680 which suggests she went into a deep mourning.

Nell was certainly very kind to her friends. In 1679, it has been suggested that she aided Samuel Pepys in his release from the Tower, where he was imprisoned on the charge of selling secrets to the French.

There is also a very strong tradition that during her time as mistress, Nell helped found the Royal Hospital at Chelsea, after she listened to the story of a disabled soldier begging for money in the street. According to the tale, taking pity on the man and remembering her own father, she appealed to Charles to provide something for them, thus resulting in the hospital. Whilst we cannot be sure whether this is true or not (there are other versions), it certainly seems like Nelly despite it being of doubtful authenticity. The legend still rings true today however (Please see

Come 1680, it seems that Charles II began to calm down somewhat. By 6th February 1685 he was dead - he had the ports closed to a message could be prevented from getting to his eldest son Monmouth and his brother James was close at hand. Charles converted to Catholicism on his death bed - he also blessed each of his sons (except for Monmouth) and is famously quoted as saying:

""Let not poor Nelly starve"

The evidence is conclusive, both Evelyn and Bishop Burnet, Bartillon and the Dutch Ambassador of the time confirm it.

Following Charles II's death, and his brother's accession Nell found things more and more difficult. Credot's chased her for money and she feared that she would end up in a debtors prison like her father. James II, thankfully, sorted everything for her, and emphasised that she always held the love of the people above positions at court.

By March 1687, Nell was seriously ill and contemporary letters tell us that she was paralysed down one side of her body. By 14th November 1687 the most outspoken woman of her time, the most famous, was dead. Nell Gwynne had her final breath.

In my opinion, Nell Gwynne had the most remarkable life of any woman in history. Her story was that which is seen in modern day fairy tales; that of rags to riches. She went from orange seller, to actress to royal mistress and held the love of a King. She didn't hold his love through her ambition or her greed, but because she was down to earth and could make him laugh. She truly is an inspiration.

Further reading
Beauclerk, C, 2005, Nell Gwynn: A Biography: Pan Macmillon: London

Fraser, A, 1979. King Charles II, Weidenfeld & Nicholson: London

Fraser, A, 1984, The Weaker Wessel, Phoenix Press: London

Friends of Whitehall, 2007, Nonsuch Palace, available at: (accessed 09 March 2012)

Hopkins, G, 2000, Nell Gwynne: A Passionate Life, Robson Books: London

Picture sources

Barbara Villiers, (accessed 09 March 2012)

Nell Gwynne (believed), 2012, (accessed 09 March 2012) Many sources believe this to be Nell Gwynne rather than Barbara Villiers

louise de keroualle (accessed 09 March 2012)

Monday, 5 March 2012

Tired of The Tudors

Picture by me

The Tudors have been a huge interest of mine since I was at least 8 years old, when we did a big project at primary school about Henry VIII's six wives. We had to paint a particular wife, and I chose to do Anne Boleyn. My picture ended up looking like a big mess, but I ended up falling head over heels in love with them. I thought Henry VIII was proper cool, and two of his wives ended up being my utter favourites: Anne Boleyn and Katherine Howard. And that love stuck with me for many years. But when I was at University I discovered the joys of the Stuart Dynasty, Charles I and the English Civil War and of course Charles II and the Restoration. From there I was hooked, more so than I ever had been with the Tudor dynasty. It was kind of like the Stuart's spoke to me in some kind of odd way. Don't get me wrong, I still loved the Tudors, I still read about them, still devoured everything I could get my hands on about them.

But then I discovered the online world of history blogging, and the Showtime show The Tudors.

I'm sure you're all aware that I have posted on The Tudors on this here blog, that I still have a huge fascination with Katherine Howard and get rubbed up the wrong way when someone turns around and says that Anne Boleyn was a witch who had six fingers. But saying that, the Tudors are just everywhere. I can't even turn a corner without hearing something about Henry VIII, there are so many books coming out about Henry and his wives, and there is nothing NEW. A few months back I ventured into reading about Mary Boleyn and was shocked at how bad the book was, so full of maybes and "Mary Boleyn was thinking this at this exact moment". It's great that authors are trying something new, writing about individuals within Tudor history who little is known about but when the history books start speculating, it makes me want to tear my hair out. 

In a way I blame Showtime's "The Tudors" for making so many people start loving the dynasty and it is great that people are now getting an interest. But when people start believing that everything in the show is fact? Cue more hair tearing out. The show was a great bit of entertainment don't get me wrong, but it was so full of inaccuracies it was unreal. The horse and carts? They didn't come into play until much later. Anne Stanhope and her affairs with Thomas Seymour and Francis Bryan? NO. Edward Seymour's first wife Catherine Filliol was the unfaithful one. And don't even get me started on the fact that the show had Henry VIII having just the one sister...I love the show, I honestly do. As I said it was a great bit of entertainment but since seeing it, I have seen so many people believing everything that happened in it as fact. 

I have so many Tudor-esque books on my shelf to read and right now I am loathe to even pick them up. So much so I've resorted to the world of historical fiction for a bit (1066 and the Bayeaux tapestry anyone?), and part of me doesn't want to pick a Tudor book up for a very long time. But me being me, I will because I like to learn. A lot of it will be stuff I already know but there are two books which I am intrigued about - one on Henry Fitzroy, the other on Thomas More. These should be interesting, and part of me hopes the authors don't resort to speculation but if I'm honest I'm not holding out much hope. 

Not only that but there are so many out there who think they are the reincarnation of various Tudor people. I've come across at least 20 people claiming they are a reincarnation of Anne Boleyn, all of which claim to have "memories" of her. But do you want to know what the funny thing is? All of these memories either come directly from "The Tudors" or Phillipa Gregory's "The Other Boleyn Girl". And when I see stuff like this I don't know whether to laugh or cry.

I apologise to any Tudor fans who aren't the type to base their stuff on TV shows and rubbish historical fiction, I have seen some amazing Tudor blogs who base their stuff on solid research and sources but I still can't help but think that the Tudors are everywhere right now and there's nothing new coming to light. I will certainly slog through the rest of the Tudor books I have to read but I can't promise I'll enjoy them as much as I once did. For now I think it's time for me to start reading around other areas of history that interest me - the English Civil War, Charles I, the Restoration, Renaissance Italy, The Crusades. Anything but the Tudors right now thank you very much.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Inspirations From History: Nell Qwynne (Part 2 - From Actress to Mistress)

In my previous post I talked about Nell Gwynne's birth, the arguments over which town she was born in and her early career. In this post I will talk about how Nell became one of the most famous Comediennes of her day and how she ended up catching the eye of King Charles II.

Nell became an "Orange Wench" in the new theatre built by Thomas Killigrew, located between Bridges Street and Drury Lane, which opened on 7th May 1663. This new theatre was a gateway for Nell to escape her old life, and she was one of the first orange girls in this theatre. According to Beauclerk, Killigrews Company - which later became known as the King's Company - has given a license to a Mary Meggs stating that she had:

"full, free and sole liberty, license, power and authority to vend, utter and sell oranges, lemons, fruit, sweetmeats and all manner of fruiterers and confectioners wares" (Beauclerk 2006, pp54)

It seems that Meggs, now known as Orange Moll due to her work as an orange seller, was an old friend of Nell's mother and two of the three places that Moll had available for orange sellers were given to Nell and her sister Rose.

Evidence that Nell was indeed an orange girl is strong. One incident certainly stands out, and that is a remark made by Louise de Keroualle (Nell's rival mistress), "Anyone might have known she had been an orange wench by her swearing". Rather than being the put down that Louise intended it just confirmed the confidence, charm and ability to talk that made Nell who she was. And to be an orange seller you certainly had to be able to talk the talk and resort to hard sell tactics; and the girls indulged in banter, flirting, promises to carry messages from the audience to the actors and embarrassing or charming people into buying their ways. The job needed confidence and wit, something that Nell had in bucket loads and would stand her in good stead for her career in the theatre (Hopkins 2000, pp24-25).

Nell's confidence made her perfect for the stage and joined the Company in 1664, and was trained by Charles Hart (her drama teacher) and John Lacey (her dance teacher). Hart in particular is an interesting character as he is often referred to as the "great-nephew of Shakespeare" and was seen as one of the best actors of the age. Even King Charles II stated that Hart "might teach any King on earth how to comport himself". Nell made her debut certainly by 1664 when her name is mentioned on a manuscript of Thomas Killigrew's Thomaso or The Wanderer. According to the manuscript a Nelle played the part of Paulina, a courtesan (Beauclerk 2006, pp73; Hopkins 2000, pp40-41). According to many sources, Nell would have been 14 when she first walked the boards of the stage, all of these sources seem to take Nell's birth date definitely being 1650 and seem convinced that the astrological chart is clear evidence of Nell's date of birth (Bax 1932, pp44; History Today, 2011; Powell 2010, 5). However if we take the other date of birth suggested then she would have been 22. But due to a lack of evidence all we can say is that Nell could have been an age anywhere between 14 and 22 when she first starred in her play.

During her short theatre career Nell starred in many productions but her main strength was comedy. So much so that Samuel Pepys, who was a regular visitor to Nell's theatre, commented on the fact that she was much better in comedy than tragedy. In his diaries, he says about The Maiden Queen (a play about two mad lovers which became a huge hit):

"Which indeed the more I see, the more I like, and is an excellent play, and so done by Nell, her merry part, as cannot be better done in nature" (Hopkins 2000, 62)

Indeed, King Charles was also a big fan of the play and "graced it with the title of his play". Was this when Nelly first caught his eye?

It was after Nell briefly left the Company and moved to Epsom with her lover Buckhurst that things really started picking up for her. She left for Epsom in July 1667 but was back in London 6 weeks later and back on the stage. And by the time Nelly was starting to perform The Great Favourite at the end of 1667 she had certainly caught the Kings eye. Pepys was informed on 11th January 1668 that "the king did send several times for Nelly, and she was with him" (Hopkins 2000, 86).

And even in those early stages Nell was proving to be one of Charles' favourite mistresses. She was not power hungry like his other mistresses were or would be, and she knew how to make him laugh. For instance she came up with a nickname for Charles - she called him Charles III due to the fact that she had already had two previous lovers by the name of Charles. In fact Nell never asked for anything from the King, unlike the others such as Barbara Castlemaine or Louise de Keroualle and in return she got nothing from the King other than his attention, and she was fine with this.

Her life at court was just beginning and soon she would leave the theatre behind. Her wit would make her popular at court and she would find herself locking heads with Charles' other mistresses.

Bax, C, 1932, Pretty Witty Nell: An Account of Nell Gwyn and her Environment, available through google books ( PR9&dq=nell+gwynne&ots=cyAIZk_J7e&sig=
8tka9CtAAyR1SmDJwWXKEWjRUjo#v=onepage&q=14&f=false) accessed 03 March 2012

Beauclerk, C, 2006, Nell Gwyn: A Biography, Pan Macmillian: London

Crow, C, 2011, The First Actresses: Nell Gwynne to Sarah Siddons, History Today (online) available at ( accessed 03 March 2012

Hopkins, G, 2000, Nell Gwynne: A Passionate Life, Robson Books: London

Powell, S, 2010, The Life of Nell Gwynne: Staging A Legacy, Meredith College (online) available at ( accessed 02 March 2012

Picture Source

Brown, M, 2011, Portrait of Nell Gwynne Uncovered, The Guardian (online) available at ( accessed 02 March 2012

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Inspirations from History: Nell Gwynne (Part 1 - Birth and Early Life)

Originally I intended to write one long post on Nell and why she is so amazing. However I realised after starting this that it would have to be split up into multiple parts. Her life is so interesting and so full of controversy. Therefore I decided that this first post would be all about Nell's early life and the arguments surrounding her date and place of birth as well as information on her family and early career. Not surprisingly, decent sources on Nell are very few and far between but I have done my best with what I have to hand - the sources get better the further into her life and career at court you go and so as of the next part you will see a far larger list of sources.

Everyone has heard of Nell Gwynne, even if people don't know who exactly she was they mostly know she was an orange seller and an actress. In fact, Nell Gwynne was much much more than that, she was one of the first actresses in England and one of the finest Comediennes, and she caught the eye of King Charles II. Nell was so well known by the people, they loved her and according to various stories (which may or may not be apocryphal but more on that later) she was heavily involved in charity work also. She was, in the words of Samuel Pepys, "pretty, witty Nell" and she was certainly a woman who could make not only King laugh, but the entire court as well.

But who was Nell, and why did she catch the eye of the King, and why did she stay by his side until his death? The first time I ever heard of Nell, or Nelly as she is so often known, was when I watched Charles II: The Power & The Passion for the first time some years ago. I loved her character - this cockney girl who caught the Kings Eye whilst he was watching one of her plays, a girl who won people over and who could make anyone smile. Recently I have been doing quite a bit of reading in and around Nell, and I have come to admire her more and more. She certainly had a remarkable life, and her story really is one of "rags to riches". This is her story.

Nell's date of birth is widely believed to be 2nd February 1650 at a time of 6 o'clock in the morning. This is based on an astrological chart attributed to Elias Ashmole. Whilst Nell's place of birth is left blank many of Nell's previous biographer's seem to agree that the horoscope gives a true portrait of Nell's character - beautiful, charming, witty (Beauclerk 2006, 5). However, in "Nell Gwynne: A Passionate Life" by Graham Hopkins (2000, 5) it is stated that this date of birth is based purely on that one source and the likelihood of someone from such humble beginnings knowing their exact time and date of birth with such precision is rather odd - these things did not tend to be recorded. Hopkin's study of Ashmole's horoscope brings to light some problems - firstly Ashmole was a contemporary of Nell and certainly would have known she was mistress to the King and the most famous lady of the time, and he was a name dropper, and in his diaries there is no mention of Nell or her horoscope. Secondly the horoscope itself does not contain the persons name rather was added as an afterthought and in different handwriting. According to Hopkins, the fact that the place of birth is left blank also causes concern as these horoscopes had to be based somewhere, and why is it that someone would know the time and date of their birth but not the place? The only other date that has been suggested for Nell's date of birth is "about 1642" and based on "The Managers Notebook" published in 1838 - although Hopkins states that there is no evidence cited for this, and most of the information provided in the article is wrong anyway (Hopkins 2000, 5-7). Regarding her place of birth, there are 3 cities which have been argued thanks to tradition rather than any historic proof - London, Oxford and Hereford. The claim held by Oxford is based entirely on the basis that Nell's son Charles Beauclerk was granted the title of Earl of Burford and Baron Headington in 1676 - both towns being close to Oxford. However could this be due to other reasons than respect of his mothers birthplace? Indeed Charles may have respected Burford due to the town being the site of a Levellers mutiny against Cromwell in 1649 (Hopkins 2000, 7). Another connection is that Nell's father may well have died there in a debtors prison, which may well be why Nell was argued to be so charitable in memory of her father. According to Beauclerk (2006, 11) Nell's father may well have been a man named Thomas Gwynne, a man who fought with the Royalists during the English Civil War, and Oxford became the base of Charles I's during this time. London can also be argued against despite the fact that Nell spent the majority of her life there and the fact that she is often portrayed as a fun loving girl with a cheeky, cockney accent. Hopkins shows us that both suggested sites of Nell's birth come from hugely unreliable theories written by Captain Alexander Smith. Hereford really seems like the most likely and the town goes to huge lengths to promote Nelly as their own and the town is hugely awash with evidence. Albeit circumstantial in many respects it certainly speaks volumes - for example Pipewell Street where she was supposedly born was renamed Gwynne Street in 1855; and Nell's Grandson Dr James Beauclerk was bishop of Hereford for 40 years during which he did not dismiss the claims and surely had he not believed it then he would have said something? However the Bishop mentions nothing of it in any of his writings so perhaps this may be a step too far. It is also said that James brought the house where Nell was born and had it pulled down to make more space in ground owned by the church. However whilst the records show this land was owned by the church, the house was demolished at some point between 1858 and 1859, a good few years after the death of Nell's grandson! A plaque was fixed on the outer face of the garden wall surrounding the grounds commemorating the birthplace of Nell Gwynne, and Hopkin's makes a remark that certainly rings true; "it would still appear to be a brave move by any member of the clergy, let alone a bishop, to promote the birthplace of such a notorious courtesan. Unless of course, there was a convincing historical reason to do so" (Hopkins 2000, 10). Maybe this is why the plaque mentioned her role in the founding of Chelsea Hospital, although in the original plaque her date of death was incorrect, showing 1691 instead of 1687 - and indeed her role in founding the hospital is questionable. The original plaque was vandalised and replaced with the circular plaque that can be seen today.

Whether Nell was born in 1642 or 1650 and whether she was born in London, Oxford or Hereford she was certainly born into an uncertain time, into a country that was split apart by Civil War. Surviving records of the time have not survived well and certainly parish records were often not kept well enough to survive the years. Of course, if a record of Nell's birth could be found it would settle the debate once and for all. I have to say that I agree more with Hopkins' argument that Hereford is the more likely, despite still being clouded by doubt and circumstantial evidence. The argument put forward by Beauclerk just does not ring true and is based much more on conjecture than the arguments given by Hopkins. Beauclerk argues that Oxford is the more likely birth place due to its links with Nell's supposed father being held in the debtors prison in the town and his links to the royalist army, as well as Nell's sister Rose stating in a petition for bail that her father had "lost all he had in service to the late king", and that it is likely following his death that Nell's mother took the girls back to London (Beauclerk 2006, 12)

What of Nell's early life? It seems according to both works by Hopkins and Beauclerk that not too much can be said about it as we have very little to go on. Indeed Beauclerk seems intents with making wild guesses about a little girl who would have run around causing trouble in the slums of London, seeming to know exactly what she would have thought and what she would have dreamed about. In fact, there is a whole chapter which seemed dedicated to young Nelly dreaming about her future with the King including lines such as "Nell would have been in her element" and "she would have had little difficulty procuring a pair of stilts on which to tilter out onto The Strand...and the little girl on stilts would have rejoiced to stand level with the man who would one day share the secrets of her soul"(Beauclerk 2006, 12). We cannot make assumptions like this on Nell's early life, instead we must look at the evidence and Hopkins does this much more convincingly. For instance his chapters on Nell's family and early life give good discussion into how Nell fit into the historical world around her rather than making assumptions. For instance, Hopkins tells us that Nell's mother Helena worked in various brothels and taverns, and that she died after having drowned whilst drunk and that we can get a good idea of Nell's early career thanks to plays written (possibly) by John Lacey, who knew Nell well, in 1677:

"To whose employment was with open throat
To cry fresh herrings, even at ten a groat"

Children were often employed to sell merchants wares in the streets, and Nell has also had work attributed to her including that of an "oyster wench" and "cinder-wench" (someone who raked up cinders, burnt coal and wood to resell as cheap fuel. We also know, reliably coming from Nell herself regarding her early career in which she mentions she was "brought up in a brothel to fill strong waters to the gentlemen" following a falling out with a fellow actress. It is likely that the brothel in which she worked for the notorious Madame Ross (Hopkins 2000, 14-21). However, it was being given work as an orange seller in the new theatre built by Killigrew in the Drury Lane area that Nell really began to make her mark and it opened doors for her to step into the shoes of an actress and eventually catch the eye of a King.

Beauclerk, C, 2006, Nell Gwyn: A Biography, Pan Macmillian: London
Hopkins, G, 2000, Nell Gwynne: A Passionate Life, Robson Books: London

Image credits:

Portrait of Nell Gwynne by Sir Peter Lely: (accessed 01 March 2012)
Nell Gwynne and Charles II from Charles II: The Power and the Passion: (accessed 01 March 2012)