Dame Edna and the English Civil Wars

Female musketeer reenactors – photo Devereux’s regiment, English Civil War Society

From pantomime dames to principal boys, from drag queens to Dame Edna, cross dressing has a long history, Using it as a form of entertainment is not new. The first pantomime dame in the UK dates back to 1806 when a Mr Simmons played Mother Goose in Harlequin, and the Mother Goose at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden.

But travel back in time and while it was ok, indeed compulsory, for boys to play all the female roles in plays in Shakespeare’s time, women dressing as men was considered outrageous.

This didn’t stop a minority of women deciding not only to follow the English Civil War armies on campaign but to dress as men and become “she soldiers” as they became known. In 1643, King Charles’s army was drawing up written standards of behaviour for soldiers. With typical attention to detail the king reviewed the draft himself and made notes in the margin, ‘lett no woman presume to counterfeit her sex by wearing mans apparall under payne of the severest punishment’.

But as in so many other things, the king was doomed to disappointment if he expected his ban on women soldiers to be observed. The fact that he considered it worthy of comment suggests that this may have been commonplace. Armies throughout history have been followed by camp followers – women, families, dependents of the soldiers who either had no way to survive if left behind or who preferred to stay with their men, cooking for them and tending them if they were sick or wounded. It seems probable that many of the she soldiers who fought would have been accompanying a man (family member or lover). The disguise would have made it considerably more likely they would be able to spend their days and nights with their men, rather than left behind with the baggage train. It is not clear what proportion of these female soldiers simply wished to fight and had chosen a different method of helping the war effort to the many women who acted as spies and messengers.

In circumstances where changing clothes, undressing or washing anything but hands or face was difficult, it may have been relatively easy for women to remain undetected. The long shirts, baggy breeches and thick coats the men wore would also have helped. And both sides of the conflict were constantly losing soldiers through desertion, so officers may have turned a blind eye to a practice which helped fill the constant gaps in their ranks. But when captured or seriously wounded, the deception, if it so was, would come to light. Jane Ingleby, daughter of a Yorkshire yeoman is said to have been wounded fighting in the royalist cavalry at Marston Moor. One young soldier in the parliamentary garrison of Gloucester went undetected for a year before being discovered and reported when visiting a tailor.

It was not just the poorer sort of woman who followed the armies dressed as a man. When the royalist Lord Henry Percy was captured by Oliver Cromwell in the course of a raid at Andover in 1645, the raiding party included his mistress, dressed as a man. The youth being “of so fair a countenance” Cromwell ingeniously requested that he sing “which he did with such a daintiness” that Cromwell confronted Lord Percy who admitted that the youth was in fact a “damsel”.

Tempting as it is, I have not included any female soldiers in my civil war novels – not yet.

Sources – Going to the Wars by Charles Carlton and ‘Give mee a Souldier’s Coat’: Female Cross-Dressing during the English Civil War by Mark Stoyle

Why churches are better than pubs

Nothing to do with praying although, back in lockdown for the sixth time in Melbourne, we could all do with a little prayer. But this is, of course, about writing. And, specifically, about recreating the past. Most churches, especially in Europe, have been there a very long time, 5,6, 7 hundred years and more. There are quite a few old pubs too but, unlike the pubs, churches usually retain their original names.

Cue repeated moans about the Globe Inn, Lostwithiel in Cornwall. Definitely old, 16th century without dispute. Was there when the roundhead army of Robert Devereux, 3rd Earl of Essex, arrived in 1644 in the middle of the civil war. Next to the bridge over the Fowey. Appearing in my second book as itself. But had to be “the inn by the river”, because the owner told me it had only been The Globe for a couple of hundred years. Then there is The Reindeer in Banbury, dating from 1570. In the absence of evidence of a name change I have assumed The Reindeer is the original name. But I have my doubts, and feel a little anxious whenever I reread the scene in my first book, The Welsh Linnet.

Even churches can be problematic. I have found quite a few that were rebuilt at some point. Usually the tower which may now be square and previously had a spire, that sort of thing. Fonts and pulpits may look ancient- but are they the originals? If only all churches had been left untouched with the original bullet holes, like St Lawrence in Alton.

Civil war damage from shot St Lawrence Alton (author photo)

As for the changing shape of old houses- probably one of the most famous is Hampton Court which has a Tudor front and a William and Mary back. Two totally different styles. Many owners of stately homes decided to improve and modernise, losing all trace of the original features in the process. In the late 17th century (Charles II era) a wave of Restoration optimism (or the damage of the civil war) caused the knocking about of many gentlemen’s houses. The better off remodelled and expanded (Boconnoc House for example) while many others such as Loseley House demolished a wing, either through dilapidation or to cut costs.

Basing House, pulled down on Cromwell’s orders after its capture in 1645, was ironically, falling down at the time. Its owner the Marquess of Winchester had been living elsewhere and only moved back into the immense Basing House when the civil war made him seek a more secure and defensible residence.

Using Boconnoc House as a setting for part of the plot would have been impossible if it hadn’t been for the kindness of the present owner and a recently written book on the history of the house. Writing a novel set in 1644 entailed reconstructing a house which faced west rather than east and was s-shaped with towers instead of square with no towers. But it is still surrounded by the deer park which was clearly visible on a contemporary map.

The mass of the house, a tower at each end, loomed as a dark and silent presence in the night…Gabriel and the remaining men crept in single file up the southern slope from the deer park (The Tawny Sash)

Sometimes I strike gold. The staff at Loseley House showed me a painting of the house with the west wing intact. The details of the layout are quite clear so that I was able to write things like

First removing their shoes so they would not make a clatter on the wooden floors, the brothers crept through the door from the west wing into the stables. They were crowded with tenants’ horses and wagons. (The Tawny Sash)

At Cardiff Castle a helpful guide was a bit surprised when I showed very little interest in the beautiful rebuilding and decoration from the 19th century but insisted in climbing to the top of the spartan but intact Norman keep and taking photos of it from all directions.

Terrain can be just as frustrating. Google maps is wonderful (especially satellite view) and where possible I tramp or drive around a location. But even visiting a location doesn’t always help. Trees for example are a perennial problem. The view from Edgehill in 2016

View of battlefield from Edgehill (author photo)

Apparently in 1642 there was a good clear view from the top. Sometimes a river has silted up (Fowey in Cornwall) or a canal has been driven through an area (Basingstoke Canal at Basing House in 1794). After all the mucking around in the Basingstoke area over the last 200+ years, the River Loddon is little more than a stream. But in 1644, wider, deeper and dammed to stop the enemy crossing, it would have been different. How different? After all the research, in the end I must fall back on my imagination.

This was no great stretch of water like the Severn. In summer it ran clear, and children picked the wild watercress, but not since damming the river had muddied its crystal waters, not since the war began. (The Tawny Sash)

How the Great Plague might change your writing

For a writer, no experience is worthless, however bad. No more immune from tragedy than the rest of us, writers can at least share that experience with readers, hoping that by doing so they may dull their pain, or that of others. Shakespeare lost his only son and in her enthralling novel Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell suggests it inspired him to write his greatest play, Hamlet.

Not long before Covid hit, I was reading another historical novel set during London’s Great Plague outbreak in 1665. Growing up in the UK I had learnt in primary school of the bare facts, the date, the Great Fire which followed in 1666, but it had no particular emotional significance for me. And reading that novel in the heady days of 2019, the worst outbreak of bubonic plague since 1348 was no more than an interesting backdrop to a murder mystery. I shuddered at gruesome and heart rending facts, thrown in as historical colour- the mass burials, the nailing up of doors of infected houses, condemning the healthy to die with the sick. But it had happened so long ago in another world. Nothing lingers in British folk lore other than (perhaps) a grim glimmer of memory filtering down the centuries through the prism of the nursery rhyme “Ring a ring of roses”.

And now, in the stark light of this 2021 day? I picked up my first novel The Welsh Linnet recently and reread the sections on “camp fever” (probably typhus) in 1643 Oxford.

“Stanley’s small and gloomy room stank of sickness… I would not have recognised Matthew … His eyes were immense in his face with the fever. There were tell- tale purple spots on his chest and arms. He felt very hot to the touch... As it began to grow dark, … the sick man spoke his first coherent words. “Nicholas, don’t die. Hold on, I’m here.” 

The Welsh Linnet by AJ Lyndon

The deadly sickness brought by armies to Oxford during the civil war was a convenient tool I used for development of the characters’ personal relationships, but if I were writing the book now, I believe those nursing the sick would be more fearful; and would spend time brooding on the random nature of the pestilence and praying for its end.

Perhaps it is natural that the reality of outbreaks of dangerous contagion, common throughout the world until discovery of vaccines, should have been forgotten by most people, even those born before the last polio epidemic in the 1950s.

Somehow I doubt that when this war against the 21st century plague is over, those of us who lived through it and survived will spend time reminiscing about the “good old days” of Covid. But for those of us who write fiction, whether we choose to omit any reference to these events from our fictional worlds or include them as a backdrop to thriller or romance, I do not think our stories will mirror those we might have penned in that parallel universe where Covid-19 did not exist.

It’s not only memories of diseases which disappear from collective memory. I have often wondered why the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, the usual subject of this blog, have been forgotten more completely than Plague or Fire, almost as if airbrushed from history. They killed a greater percentage of the British population than the First World War.

Was it fear that dredging up any talk of the recent conflict might reignite the smouldering embers of discontent and revolution? Might bring back the days of daily fears – that today would be the day that brought death or starvation to their town or village in the shape of marching troops from either side. Or was it relief that with the Restoration of Charles II it was all over and best forgotten? An “enemy” had been defeated, but it was an enemy within and a brief flirtation with republicanism – the short-lived English Revolution which preceded those in America and France by a hundred years, had failed.

A literary critic, writing during the Franco era, dismissed George Orwell’s passionate account of the Spanish Civil War Homage to Catalonia with the comment that “the Spanish are a fine people” and it did not do to dwell on the past. That patronising comment made me cringe. Yet I think I am a little more able to understand than I was 18 months ago, why those in England, Wales and Scotland who lived through the horrors of brother killing brother and friend friend, wanted only to resume whatever remained for them of “normal” life. Why they kept their memories to themselves and did not pass them down the generations.

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.

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