First wipe your spoon

He took a last mouthful of potage, wiped the worst of the mess off his spoon and replaced it in his purse.

The Tawny Sash

I may have mentioned before the common misconception (born of Hollywood) that table manners were non existent during the times of the Tudors and the Stuarts. Wrong! Sitting down to eat with unwashed hands was an absolute no-no.

But it was only when I started researching the civilian aspects of 17th century life that I discovered cutlery was pretty much BYO. Only in the houses of the wealthy were you likely to find cutlery for your personal use (possibly silver) beside your trencher.

If you were incredibly lucky, you might have encountered knives with musical notes on the blade, known as notation knives. This would enable grace to be sung before and after the meal. The one in the possession of the Victoria and Albert museum was the inspiration for this scene from The Tawny Sash.

Did you ever see the singing knives from Italy?

No, Father.”

“Nor will you, for they are gone. The first Marquess bought them. Fine silver knives, the blades engraved with musical parts, with Latin prayers. They are a part of the birth right of the present fifth Marquess. They have disappeared and who would take them but one of the Protestants in the garrison, for their private gain?”

You were unlikely to encounter forks except in the grand houses belonging to a handful of “early adoptors” – gentry who had seen them in France. Forks, for those who used them, were for pinning down your food while cutting it with your knife. Nobody at that time thought you should put the fork, if you had one, in your mouth!

The use of forks was similarly frowned on in the American colonies in the 1630s, but the gradual increase in their use, combined with the change in the shape of knife blades, led to different fork etiquette evolving on each side of the Atlantic during the 17th and 18th centuries. Americans cut food up and then switch the fork to their right hand, while Europeans “hang on to their knives” as an American character in a novel complained.

Knives and spoons, on the other hand were in universal use, but that did not mean they were necessarily provided by your host. Carrying your knife and spoon was like carrying your mobile phone today. Soldiers carried them on campaign. Civil war armies supplied their soldiers with snapsacks (a kind of kitbag) but no cutlery.

Roundhead soldiers screamed abuse at other men rifling through their handful of belongings, while their comrades tried to drag them away. Horn spoons, eating knives, odds and ends of match and ribbon, a cup, a wooden fife, a small soldiers’ bible and a tattered blanket, all strewn in the mud.

(The Tawny Sash)

In the Great Hall of a manor or castle, everyone ate together in the sense of under a single roof. What we now call share plates were the order of the day. People ate in “messes”, usually of four. The word “mess” has survived in this context for the military.

Everybody ate from their own plate, but if a bowl of soup or stew was brought to the table it was shared between the four people, who all ate from the same dish with their spoons. At the end of that course, hygiene consisted of wiping your spoon on a napkin before reusing it for the next course.

As to the idea that floors were covered in dirty rushes and dogs chewing bones, contemporary books of etiquette prohibit throwing bones on the floor (or spitting). Left overs from each person’s plate were placed in a “voider” which was removed, and the table cloth brushed, at the end of each course. Diners were to wipe their messy hands and mouth on their shoulder napkins, not on the tablecloth!

And after dinner and supper “the place to be swept and kept clean and sweet, with perfumes, flowers, herbs, and boughs in their season,” instructed the young Viscount Montague in his “book of orders and rules“, a last ditch attempt to make his sloppy household staff behave properly.

(And) when did you last see your father?

When Did You Last See Your Father? - History

The Victorians have a lot to answer for. I love this famous 19th century painting by Yeames, with all its colourful, misleading detail. The bad guys are dressed in black with tall hats. The good guys (who are mainly damsels in distress) wear lace, velvet, satin. Unfortunately for the story, it is somewhat spoiled by the fact that King Charles I, the doomed commander of The Other Side also sometimes dressed in black.

Yes, Puritans wore clothes in dark, subdued colours, but so did many people, and the wealthy wore black as a sign of wealth. Black dyed cloth was very expensive. Hats with tall crowns were popular, whatever your political leanings.

But we shouldn’t let the truth get in the way of a good story. The Victorians were romantics and so the image of the ‘romantic’ cavalier, heroes dressed always in silks and satin, was born. Sadly this contrasted with the reality which on closer investigation was often plundering troops, drunken officers who turned a blind eye.

The king’s nephew, the handsome, brilliant cavalry commander Prince Rupert, paid so little attention to the niceties of how to treat civilians that he was nicknamed “Prince Robber”. Disorganised royalist supply chains partly explained the plundering; and a haphazard approach to medical care which often left the sick and wounded royalist soldier at the mercy of the goodness of the local populace. Parliament on the other hand set up some proper hospitals for their own forces.

He pushed past her to see two malignant soldiers… setting down a make shift stretcher on the floor of his parlour. On it lay an unconscious man, presumably an officer, ashen faced. His white shirt and pale blue breeches were soaked in blood. A young officer was bending over the stretcher … Seeing the minister he gave a stiff nod.

“Sir, I require you to allow our Captain to be tended here. He is gravely wounded. … I understand you are the minister for this village and I have judged your house the most proper place …”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

And returning to the vexed question of military attire – this is how cavalry on both sides dressed on the battlefield. And yes, it got very confusing at times.

Cavalry uniform 1640s Britain

A mass of Horse ahead, men fighting, dimly seen through smoke-drenched air. The din like a thousand tinkers mending pots that was the clash of swords, the steady beat of drums, screams from man and horse alike… an officer riding right at him, an enemy officer. But no, that could not be, for Will had seen the white paper in the man’s helmet, the token that declared him a king’s man. “Hold!” That had been his own voice. Flinging up his left hand and dropping the reins. “God with us” he had shouted, but the man struck with his sword.

(From The Tawny Sash)

And not a plumed hat in sight!

Tracking the Real Virginia: The Invisible Woman by Erika Robuck

Erika Robuck’s sixth novel The Invisible Woman (PenguinRandomHouse 2021), is something of a departure from her previous works. Robuck is best known for “wife-of-famous-male-writer” plots, as the author herself describes it.  Ernest Hemingway’s wife Pauline in Hemingway’s Girl (Berkley 2012) and Zelda Fitzgerald in Call me Zelda (Penguin Group USA 2013) are typical examples. In 2014, Robuck was named Annapolis’ Author of the Year.

In her latest novel, Robuck once more chooses a real-life story featuring an American woman of the 20th century, but this time the woman, Virginia Hall, World War II spy in occupied France, is the centre of the story. The man in her life, who she later married, is only introduced towards the end of the book. “Paul came late to the war and their story began after most of her work was complete,” Robuck says. “It felt like a breath of fresh air that she would meet him when she did.”

Robuck is constantly seeking “extraordinary people from the past who come from places familiar to me, or to whom I feel a personal connection”. Virginia hit the mark on both counts, growing up in Robuck’s home state of Maryland and being such an extraordinary woman that Robuck suggests she could launch a subgenre of “husband-of-famous-woman” books. Virginia was an unlikely choice for an undercover spy in a foreign country. Although, as her niece described her to Robuck she was “intimidating and scary-smart” she came with two great disadvantages – one was that despite being fluent in French she spoke it with a strong American accent. The second was that she had lost a leg below the knee following a hunting accident in her twenties.  Her wooden prosthetic leg (nicknamed Cuthbert) gave her a pronounced limp. Once the Gestapo discovered her existence, they called her “The Limping Lady”.

Robuck overcame a number of challenges writing the book. First was the difficulty of writing it in the Covid year of 2020 which ruled out her travelling to the site of the events of the novel. Virginia Hall’s work covered in the story took place in France, while Robuck lives in the USA. For settings, she relied on Youtube, firsthand accounts, and her video treadmill that allowed her to “walk” and “hike” the paths Virginia traveled.

Fortunately, a great deal of material exists about this woman who was not only a much-decorated war heroine, but an early member of the CIA. Robuck researched her subject using periodicals, biographies, buried mentions in war memoirs, even Virginia’s declassified personal files at the National Archives to get the details of her missions. Some of the source material was written in French. She was thrilled at being granted access as a researcher to the museum at CIA Headquarters in McLean, Virginia. Among the exhibits are Virginia’s Distinguished Service Cross, one of her passports, and a wireless transceiver, tricks of the trade (including rat “letterboxes”), and a painting of Virginia Hall with one of her maquisards—“Les marguerites fleuriront ce soir” (the daisies will bloom at night).

Perhaps more important to Robuck’s research was Virginia’s niece Lorna in Baltimore who Robuck met with many times. Lorna coloured in the details behind the “black and white sketch” Robuck had built up, “with her photographs, artifacts, and remembrances of her ‘Aunt Dindy’.”

author photo by Catsh Photography

Next came the task of making this brilliant and forceful character, the ultimate strong woman, into a heroine that readers of a novel could sympathize with and wish to succeed. Robuck confesses that this was difficult. Multiple readers gave feedback that she needed to make Virginia more likeable. Even Virginia’s landing partner on her third mission did not think highly of her because of how she cut him off from the network. Several leaders of French resistance fighters had contentious relationships with her. The dangerous rivalries between groups reminiscent of Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia and the insubordination from male resistance leaders resentful of having a female commander imposed upon them, all contributed to Virginia as an unapproachable figure. It was Robuck’s editor, Amanda Bergeron, who suggested a solution to the problem might be giving the reader a look at young Virginia in a prologue. Robuck took her up on the idea, showing Virginia before the war and all its losses—not only before the amputation—and the early days of Virginia’s love affair with Paris.

The last major challenge was deciding on which parts of Virginia’s life to focus on. After training by the British she spent 13 months in France in 1941-42, working for the United Kingdom’s clandestine Special Operations Executive (SOE). She organized spy networks, ran safehouses, and delivered important intelligence to the British government – all while staying one step ahead of the Gestapo. After narrowly escaping from France, she returned in 1944 shortly before the D Day landings, this time working for the Americans.

It took two and a half years and four iterations of the novel, to find the story that needed to be told told, Robuck says. She began writing the book as a dual period novel including a female Iraq War veteran. The second version was a dual protagonist novel with another SOE agent, but Virginia “insisted this was all about her”. Robuck started the novel again, set during Hall’s first WWII mission to France, but decided that was all backstory. Finally, she wrote the novel as it is, set during Hall’s second WWII mission to France, overcoming the guilt and trauma of having survived the destruction by the Nazis of her first network, conquering her demons as she builds, arms and trains a new network. It was a painful exercise to chop all those pages, Robuck says, but the sacrifice has clearly been worthwhile.

About the contributor: AJ Lyndon is based in Melbourne. She writes fiction set in 17th century England during the English Civil War. Book 2 The Tawny Sash will be released in 2021. You can follow updates on her blog.

This feature by AJ Lyndon first appeared on the website of the


Ghostly warriors

“Would Byron’s men haunt the Down in years to come, a restless and wild eyed horde charging into the guns of Waller’s army for evermore?”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Visiting battle fields is a melancholy, but addictive, pursuit. At some places the air remains thick with the ghosts of the dead. I visited Culloden at the age of 11 with my parents and I still recall the shivers which ran down my spine as we inspected one weather-beaten clan memorial after another. In the days before the existence of a visitors’ centre, we were the only visitors on a summer’s day among a host of highland warrior war dead.

Since then (but sadly not in 2020) I have visited other battlefields, particularly those of the English Civil War.  Thanks to Zoom (and a certain amount of very early rising due to the time difference between the UK and Australia) I am currently able to participate in Battlefields Trust and National Army Museum talks on everything from Boudica to my personal consuming passion, Basing House. The other Zoomees clutch glasses of wine, while I hold a mug of coffee and wear a sweatshirt hastily tugged on over my PJs. It is an unexpected, beneficial side effect of the Plague Year.

But writing historical fiction about battlefields is so much easier when you have climbed the hill to appreciate a particular vantage point. Despite being partly obscured by trees, the view from Edgehill’s 700 ft high ridge of where the fighting took place below gives wonderful perspective.

“From his position high on Edgehill, Rafe … could see empty fields stretching before him, far down below…

So distant they could have been pieces on a chessboard, Rafe saw the forces of the enemy streaming onto the fields below the ridge. As he watched, the antlike columns assumed the shapes of men and horses. Regiments were taking their places, the patterns changing as they moved from marching order into battle formation.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

View of the battlefield from Edgehill

In other places both view and landscape have remained the same. I was so haunted by the carpet of poppies on Roundway Down above Devizes, with its associations of the Great War overlaying those of the 1643 cavalry battle between the forces of King and Parliament, that the photo became my screensaver for many months.

“He shuddered at the thought his corpse might be left upon the Down to rot…until nothing remained of him but bones bleaching among the poppies.”

(From The Welsh Linnet)

Roundway Down, Devizes

As I discovered when I began writing historical fiction, and searching for “what really happened”, the location of a battle is not always clear. Those present at the battle were not generally concerned with pinpointing the location for future generations. “Facts” in their reports were obscured by clouds of gun smoke, their inability to see the entire battlefield from where they were fighting, and the desire to portray their own performance in the best possible light.

They would refer to “a little hill”, a wood, or rising ground. Sometimes archaeologists come to the rescue when a dig uncovers civil war ammunition. This may pinpoint where the action took place, and what types of soldiers were fighting. Musket balls mean infantry or dragoons, while pistol suggests cavalry. A complete lack of any pistol (or musket) balls suggests the battle took place in a different location. If they are lying thickly in the ground it is evidence of heavy fighting (but beware, it might also mean the baggage train, with its stores of ammunition, was waylaid at that point).

For a writer of fiction, a dispute is not necessarily a bad thing – it gives us more wiggle room. But it can be fantastic to get an indisputable feel and proof of how an event went horribly wrong.  Walking the site of the battle of Cheriton (March 1644), I became lost in the maze of narrow lanes the Royalist cavalry had charged down. So narrow I could touch them with both hands, no wonder the cavalry were beaten for the first time in open battle.

“Bramdean Lane was so narrow that it scarcely permitted the passage of two horses side by side. The enemy would pick his men off as they filed into the open two by two like the animals into Noah’s ark…

Behind him, the riders were forming up in two files, their movements hampered by the confinement of the lane and the musketeers crouching in the hedges.

… Ahead were confused sounds of fighting from the unseen battlefield, the clash of sword play, gunfire, screams of man and beast mingling with the urgent beat of drums.”

(From forthcoming novel The Tawny Sash)

Cheriton battle field

The best illustration for me was when visiting Chester in 2018. King Charles I was said to have “watched the battle” of Rowton Moor, which lay outside the city, from a tower on the city walls now known as “The King’s Tower”. My guide took me inside the tower where I inspected the view from the window. Then she drove me out to the site of the battle which, even today, remains well outside Chester’s suburbs. I tramped across the rising ground (now farmland) and agreed with her that even with a telescope (which did exist in 1644), It would have been totally impossible for the king to watch the battle. That particular battle is yet to feature in my writing, but watch this space…

Review of Thorne Moore’s “The Covenant”

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This historical saga, subtitled “The Life and Death of a Righteous Woman” is set in rural Wales in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is a prequel to Moore’s first novel “A Time for Silence” and follows the lives of the Owen family, tenant farmers on a small piece of land “twenty-four acres, one rood, eight perches.”

The righteous woman is Leah Owen, daughter of Thomas Owen, “Tada”, a towering and uncompromising figure of biblical proportions whose relationship with the land he farms and his rigid attitudes to life and faith, dominate his family.

Leah herself is strong, patient and loving although she hides softer feelings beneath a rigid exterior born of duty and suffering. Her siblings gradually take different means of escape, leaving her with the responsibility of the farm and their father. Her younger brother Frank’s life is tainted from childhood because he is not their beloved older brother Tom, the lost heir to Cwmderwen. Gradually Frank himself becomes a malignant figure, struggling with an unwished-for destiny and the evil influence of his friend Eli John.

The other characters, Leah’s sisters, the rising man David George and the irritating but harmless Betty, contribute to the plot, providing a contrasting perspective and occasionally intervening in major events.

Each chapter is from a different time period as we follow Leah and the Owen family from the tragic prologue, back to their childhood and then forward, a few years at a time, from the 1880s until the 1920s. From the very start, we know that Leah’s life will not be a happy one. How the tragedy unfolds is gradually revealed as one after another the people she loves, those who might offer her support and save her, vanish from her sphere through fate, bad choices or the awful pressures of life on the Owen land.

If the prologue promises personal tragedy, it is Tom’s death aged 16 which seals it, shaping much of the ensuing succession of disappointments and disasters. My one criticism is that although we are told repeatedly that Tom’s early death changes his father’s character, the brief glimpses of Eden before the fall are insufficient to highlight the subsequent transformation.

The plot could not exist without the landscape, the harsh depiction of the Pembrokeshire countryside and claustrophobic village life reminiscent of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex. But, undoubtedly, we are in Wales not England, surrounded by the grim “chapel” culture without the male voice choirs. A light sprinkling of Welsh phrases reinforces the place and the time.

Sometimes the next chapter in the unfolding cataclysm is clearly foreshadowed so that I was mouthing “No, don’t do it”. Alas, my warnings did not prevent a single murder, accident or drowning.

This is a well-constructed novel, beautiful but painful and raw, filled with the inevitability of an inescapable fate. If you enjoy books like Tess of the d’Urbervilles or Anna Karenina, you will love The Covenant.

(This review by AJ Lyndon first appeared on Rosie Amber’s blog 6 December 2020.)

Bloody Dock

(extract from short story published by Sundial historical literary journal)

Ned’s sudden, violent death had left no clues as to his wishes for the disposal of his body, nor the settling of his affairs. “Roses,” was his final word as blood gurgled from his mouth.

Robert had paid the sexton to dig a grave in a quiet corner of the Oxford churchyard, bought a shroud and wrapped its woollen folds about the bloated, lifeless flesh. The parson had read in English from the Book of Common Prayer while Robert, the only mourner, bowed his head, praying silently in other, different, words. He took note of the spot so that Ned’s family might visit the anonymous mound. It was May, and Robert heaped a cloud of bluebells from a nearby wood upon the piled earth.

The City of Oxford surrendered to Parliament’s red-coated New Model Army in June. The civil war was over, and Robert was released to resume his bleak and cheerless existence. Now he was writing a letter to Ned’s family. It was not easy informing a father of his son’s death. He stared at the blank sheet of paper as if willing the words to write themselves while the ink dried on the nib and the tallow candle smoked its way down the untrimmed wick. There was a creak from the door and his mother entered silently, her skirts brushing the worn rush matting.

“Robert, why did you not call for a fire? How many hours have you sat like this, my son, growing chilled?”

He lifted his head, the flickering flame throwing the long scar on his cheek into grotesque relief.

“A cold hearth is no hardship to an old soldier like me. You should go to bed, Mother. I too. The candle is almost burned down, and they are too precious to waste now that we must pay Parliament to live on our own estates.”

“Robert, will you not say the rosary with me first?” He kissed her hand and picked up the candlestick.

“Tomorrow, Mother.” He must beg the forgiveness of man before he sought that of God. He must finish the letter.

* * *

The Google rabbit hole (trivial research worries of an historical novelist)

When Lewis Carroll decided to make a white rabbit a central character in Alice in Wonderland, did he wonder what breed of rabbit it was? Did he dress him in a suit and waistcoat because it was easier than working out what breed of rabbit was likely to frequent the Surrey countryside? Rabbit holes remain a major trip hazard in 2020 for the novelist. Google rabbit holes, that is.
In the case of my novel The Tawny Sash, the rabbit hole is not just a metaphor.

Gabriel Vaughan is hiding from some enemy soldiers and a rabbit runs past. The soldiers go in pursuit of the welcome addition to their dinner and one says ‘should be some more varmints about’.
Which got me wondering – was ‘varmint’ a word in use in 1644? Online dictionaries are good for this -giving the origin of words and the date when they were first used. So the answer was yes. I might have left well alone then, but decided (second question), I had better find out the literal meaning of the word.
The answer to this was ‘vermin’. Oh – but were rabbits considered vermin in 1640s England? Rabbits were introduced into Britain by the Romans, but were prized for their meat and fur for many centuries. Landowners were still cultivating burrows for the meat and fur. As we all know rabbits breed like… So at some point they became a pest. Might they have been protected under the Gaming Acts at that time? Were the Gaming Acts in force?

Conclusion – it was really not worth the effort. I deleted the word ‘varmints’, having just got lost down THE GOOGLE RABBIT HOLE!!

Not only rabbits, but hares. Like rabbits, introduced to Britain by the Romans in all probability. Earlier in the book, Will Lucie’s cavalry troop is saved because he catches sight of a hare.

This caused another brief diversion – what colour were hares? Were they considered a delicacy at the time? How were they caught? With dogs as it turns out, but I decided a dissertation on hare coursing was probably superfluous as the hare only had a bit part.

A movement behind a bush caught his eye. He inched towards it. A flash of long, black-tipped ears as the brown hare, disturbed, lolloped away at great speed. They were good eating, if you could catch them, he thought regretfully.

Fortunately for the hare, Will was too busy on cavalry patrol to round up a dog or two and give chase. It had fulfilled its purpose – catching Will’s eye so that he spots an enemy troop emerging from the direction the hare has obligingly vanished in.

A fine day for killing

It would be a fine day tomorrow, a fine day for killing or being killed.” My hero, wandering through the camp the night before the 1644 battle of Cropredy Bridge (a bit like Henry V), muses philosophically on the weather.

Living in Melbourne, it is sometimes hard to remember how cold and wet British summers can be. During the English Civil War, the weather was particularly bad. The battle of Edgehill in 1642 was renowned for the cold night after the battle. As darkness fell on that October day, the armies remained on the field along with the dead and wounded and (in all likelihood) some of the prisoners taken in the battle.

The cold and damp of the muddy ground is soaking into his breeches and chilling him to the bone. He is beginning to believe he will freeze to death before being moved.

Visiting the UK to research the civil war while writing The Welsh Linnet, my tour of the Naseby battlefield coincided with a particularly wet day, one of many in June 2016. My hire car sloshed manfully through muddy lanes. I peered through the misted windscreen for signposts among hedgerows bursting with green and dripping vegetation. On my return to Melbourne I wrote bad weather into the book. A lot of bad weather. I was not making it up.

And bad weather would have had many adverse effects. Baggage and artillery carts would have become bogged down, horses likewise. On a cold March day, as at Cheriton in 1644, a lengthy delay posed a risk to the armies before the fighting even started.

Miller, Williams! Stand straight in your files.” An exasperated corporal shepherded the two men back towards the infantry lines. “Baaaa,” mocked one of Will’s men. Will could not repress a chuckle. The corporals of the Foot were hard pressed, keeping their hungry, half-frozen men from wandering off to forage for food or find shelter from the cold.

On a rare sunny day I visited Roundway Down outside Devizes. The presence of a blue sky helped enormously in imagining the fleeing roundhead cavalry, blinded by the setting sun, galloping full tilt over an escarpment to their deaths.

I discovered that the marshy area by the River Loddon near Basing House in Hampshire is prone to fog. This helped Sir William Waller’s army in 1643 as they launched a surprise attack on the royalist fortress.

Gabriel, standing on the roof of the Great Gate House, was peering out. A thick fog had descended, making it difficult to see very far beyond the precincts of the house.

Foggy day tick! How far could you see from the roof of a (now demolished) gatehouse which was four storeys high? Descend from upper floor of my city office down to fourth floor and peer out of window towards distant cyclists, (who are unaware they are standing in for galloping horses). Tick!

At this point my research came unstuck. Despite visiting the ruins of Basing House (another day wet enough for Noah), I had failed to ask my historian guide about the movements of the local fog. The thick fog should have risen, not descended. It rises, apparently, from the river on a regular basis.

This is why historical novelists invariably have a disclaimer in their books “All mistakes are my own”. I am no exception.

(Photo of Basing House N.Turton )

Letting Go

Don’t be afraid to “murder your darlings” is frequent advice to writers. Letting go of scenes (or characters) can be tricky. When writing my first novel The Welsh Linnet I set an early scene at Petworth House in Sussex, where the heroine met a charming young man who I later killed off in battle. As readers of this blog know, I do try to visit the locations in my books, but Petworth made it no further than my ‘to-do’ list. In the course of writing the Petworth scene, I researched what it is like now, what it was like then, (before it was rebuilt in 1688), the tennis court, and whether the Earl of Northumberland was likely to have been in residence at the requisite time (early 1641).

Eventually I decided reluctantly that the scene wasn’t needed. Dashing Rafe became a friend of the heroine’s eldest brother Will, and Bess met him when Will brought a party of friends home for Christmas. Much simpler, and it cut out unnecessary complications in the lengthy lead up to the start of the English Civil War.

And then there was the prologue – 2 prologues to be precise. Both ended up on the cutting-room  floor. I was a bit sad about scrapping the first one, which featured 12 -year- old Bess running away from home like Maggie Tulliver in George Eliot’s Mill on the Floss. I had spent days on it, with several rewrites and much checking of facts. The sheepdog, for example, which featured at the opening of the scene had to be replaced by an authentic 17th century hunting spaniel (see photo).  But although it illustrated Bess’s adventurous spirit, it also suggested the book was going to be a light-hearted romp. Readers attracted by the prologue were unlikely to enjoy “The stench of smoke has faded, replaced with that of sweat, fear, blood. The cold and damp of the muddy ground is soaking into his breeches and chilling him to the bone” once the fighting starts…

Undeterred by my own decision, I then wrote a prologue to Tawny Sash, but dropped that too. Prologues are a bit ‘love them or hate them’. To be honest, I think their main use is at the start of murder mysteries when the prologue features the murderer or victim and the reader spends most of the book waiting for a clue to how the events of the prologue relate to the plot. But in my civil war saga? Not so far.

Let them eat cake

If Marie Antoinette had little idea, supposedly, of what her own, poorer fellow countrymen ate, the task for the historical novelist is of course harder.

So what was available in 1640s England? “Can’t they eat something but stew?” my editor complained, tired of the monotonous diet of the roving armies. They could, of course. But army rations, for the luckier soldiers whose commanders had organised food for them, were pretty unexciting – bread or biscuit, cheese, bacon, pease pudding (a kind of lentil stew) were the staples. Sometimes an army took their meat on the hoof, driving cattle and sheep along with the foot soldiers – and making for a very slow pace of march.

Vegetables were generally conspicuous by their absence. This was partly because they had a shorter life than hard cheese and salted bacon; and partly because diets, at least for those with the means, were very meat-centred. A soldier in the field, marching long distances while carrying heavy weapons and his personal possessions, needed 4000-5000 calories a day. That meant around 1lb of meat and 2lbs of bread. And beer was part of the daily ration.

Fish was a normal part of the diet of most of the population, whether it came from their nearest river or lake or from the ocean. So much so that London apprentices petitioned to be given salmon no more than 3 times a week. But during the civil war Parliament controlled the fishing ports. This led to King Charles, in his capacity as head of the Church of England, suspending the statutes prohibiting the consumption of meat during Lent for fear his soldiers, deprived of fish, the usual substitute during Lent, would be too weak to fight.

When billeted in a town or village overnight, soldiers dined on whatever their host family did. They did better if they were part of a garrison, for the inhabitants of the town and surrounding villages would be obliged to supply cattle, pigs, poultry and eggs. This might be a formal procedure in the form of demands sent to each “hundred”. Cavalry attached to a garrison spent much time on the mundane task of collecting these levies. Sometimes the garrison just raided the local market town, as did the Basing House garrison in 1644.

“Villains, papist thieves!” Men and women traders grabbed at their baskets of cheeses, herbs or ribbons. Eggs smashed as stalls overturned. Shop keepers yelled at their apprentices to get the shutters up again. Those with livestock vainly tried to herd their startled beasts from the square. Two loose bullocks added to the confusion. (The Tawny Sash)

And in our own days of obsessive hand washing, I was interested to discover that in an earlier era of “share plates” it was the height of bad manners not to wash your hands immediately before eating. Forks were a very recent invention and even the gentry ate with knife, spoon and fingers. Most soldiers (and civilians) carried their own spoon and knife around as a matter of course. More on that another day.

References: Going to the Wars by Charles Carlton and Malmesbury Garrison Accounts

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