The other wooden horse

We’ve all heard of darkest dungeons and may have visited a few. At Warwick Castle, one of the tourist “experiences” is the dungeon complex featuring a spiral stair case and live witch trials etc. All calculated to give you delicious goose bumps. But reality? To my great disappointment I was told they had been the castle store rooms. The real dungeon was a hole in the ground – short on visuals. Its sole memorable feature was a carving of a cross done by some unfortunate long-dead prisoner. An aid to prayer? Presumably it gave him some comfort. I preferred the dramatic possibilities of the store rooms so ended up using them (as store rooms/emergency dungeons) in The Welsh Linnet.

Clutching hopelessly at thin air, Harry fell headlong down a flight of spiral stairs. Shaken and hurt, he lay trying to catch his breath at the bottom while the guards laughed. They pulled him roughly to his feet, placed the torch in a metal sconce and unlocked a door. By the flickering light of the torch, Harry saw a small room, empty but for a few discarded sacks. The air was dank and musty. (The Welsh Linnet)

At Sudeley Castle in Gloucestershire, the 15th century Dungeon Tower has three dungeons on top of each other. A skeleton was discovered there in the 19th century. Could it be some forgotten prisoner from the civil wars? Sudeley was “slighted” ie partially demolished in 1649 at the orders of Parliament to ensure that its royalist owner could not use it again as a fortress, so perhaps?

The discovery of forgotten skeletons tends to get everyone from archaeologists to historical novelists very excited. I have stored the Sudeley one away for possible future use. However Daphne du Maurier may have monopolised this particular gem of an idea, using the 19th century discovery of a skeleton in a secret room at her Cornish house Menabilly in her civil war novel The King’s General.

And so to the wooden horse. Not the Trojan one, needless to say, but slightly sinister and definitely painful. It was a popular punishment device in the army. The ‘horse’ was a sawhorse with a sharpened apex. ‘Riding’ it entailed being tied onto it, sometimes with muskets or other heavy weights strapped to the legs. The weights stopped the soldier falling off, but the main purpose was to increase the pressure and the pain.

Charles’s chubby face became earnest, his brow puckering. “Alexander, your father will flay your hide if you take a dispatch he is meant to carry.”

“He would never do so, Charles,” Alexander argued. “Not a flogging. An hour riding the wooden horse, perhaps. It is worth the risk.” Charles groaned. If his friend was happy to contemplate an hour astride the sharpened apex of the army’s punishment device known as the wooden horse, heavy muskets tied to his legs, there was clearly no point in remonstrating further. (The Tawny Sash).

The wooden horse was also known as the Spanish donkey among other names and was still in use during the American Civil War.

Wooden horse (artist unknown)

Another oddity, which gradually went out of fashion during the following century was “tying neck and heels” for a specified period of time such as a quarter hour. This involved being bent over a board backwards. One court martial proceeding from June 1644 prescribed this punishment – presumably for somewhat longer as the prisoner was to “be fed with no other food than bread and water” until the army marched.

Eighty years later, regimental courts martial were still prescribing a wide variety of punishments. Some sound fairly innocuous but (Running) the gauntlet could apparently result in serious injury and death. All of which may have persuaded some reluctant combatants that the battlefield was preferable to life in the army camp…

Sources: Gilbert, A. N. (1976). The Regimental Courts Martial in the Eighteenth Century British Army. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, 8(1), 50–66.

The Court Martial Papers of Sir William Waller’s Army, 1644

Fog rising from the Loddon- a place as well as a time

“Don’t go any further.” The guide at Warwick Castle put a cautionary hand on my arm. The room at the top of the ancient gatehouse had once been the quarters of the military governor during the English Civil War – but the floorboards were rotten. I had written scenes set in the governor’s quarters for my (then half written) first book, The Welsh Linnet.

I found myself in a warm and spacious room, clearly the Governor’s living quarters.  The roof was lofty and the room well lit by large, curtained windows at either end. The stone walls were whitewashed, unadorned other than by two racks for clothing. On the one nearer the door dangled a sword in an ornate scabbard, a lobster pot helmet and buff coat hanging next to it. The further rack held a cloak or two. 

The wooden rack just inside the door was what really excited me, for I had already written:

Will shoved him aside and erupted into the room. He snatched Major Chatterton’s sword from its hook and drew it from its scabbard in one fluid motion.

Guy’s Tower, Warwick castle

Setting a series of novels in the past is all about recreating the time and the place. Writing convincingly about the place is easiest when I have visited, got the feel for it and ideally talked to someone- the owner, a guide or a “local”, who knows it well. After that, I can decide whether to present it as accurately as possible, as I did with Warwick castle, or I can play with it a little. This is generally when I have used a real place as a fictitious one. Tretower Court and castle in south Wales appears as The Allt. I have used many features of the real house but shifted it nearer to the town of Crickhowell, added a room or two and did not worry too much about the details of the local topography.

Warwick Castle was very easy – everything was there but the furniture. At the other extreme was Banbury Castle, of which not a trace exists today, having been destroyed by Parliament in 1648 for its loyalty to King Charles I. Chester Castle was nearly as bad. I walked the city walls with a knowledgeable guide, but my schedule did not allow me to go inside the surviving Agricola Tower. Rolling up my sleeves, back in Melbourne, I dug into the internet, which helpfully produced plans of the layout of the castle as it had once been.

John, Lord Byron, Field Marshal General of North Wales, … resumed his former posture, leaning on the windowsill. The spartan quarters at the top of the gatehouse, known as Agricola’s Tower, commanded an excellent view of the ancient castle’s outer and inner bailey; and Byron appeared wholly engrossed in watching the comings and goings below him.

At first, I felt aggrieved at the winners of the war who had ordered the demolition of a number of castles which had been garrisoned for the king. But in fairness the draughty and uncomfortable medieval buildings were already falling out of use. The Vaughans of Tretower had used some of the stone from their own castle when they decided it was time to build a modern gentleman’s house 200 years earlier. Much hasty patching up of such abandoned castles ensued when war came to Britain once more in 1642.

Tretower Castle

 “The old castle is the only defensible part of The Allt. I believed you were to make a few repairs. A little work will render it capable of withstanding attack. The ramparts on the house may enhance its majesty and impress visitors, but, alas, they will not withstand ordnance for a single day.” Gabriel Vaughan reproaches his father in The Tawny Sash.

Thanks to the staff of Loseley Park in Surrey, I discovered that the house, which appears as Chadshunt Hall in my novels, once had a west wing incorporating a long gallery, the coach house and a chapel.

Boconnoc House in Cornwall was a bit of a challenge. Beautifully restored in recent years, it retains few of the medieval features of the original house. The owner kindly allowed me to look around house and grounds and I bought a copy of the fine book about Boconnoc and its history. From visit and book, I discovered that the original house was an S shape, with towers and that it originally faced west.

Boconnoc House, Cornwall

The mass of the house, a tower at each end, loomed as a dark and silent presence in the night. The thick walls shut out any sound of those within, and no candles could be seen. It could have been deserted, but the family were held prisoners.

And what would a wander around Britain’s historic places be without a visit to a pub at the end? In this case it was the 16th century Globe Inn in Lostwithiel at which I stayed, gleefully inserting it into Tawny Sash. Sadly, the owner, although telling me something of its history, could not tell me what its name was in the 1640s when the roundhead army occupied the town. A dramatic moment ensued there.

Emerging from the inn was a tall officer. Walking briskly, he grabbed the drunkard by the arm and thrust him out of the way. He wore a tawny sash knotted across his shoulder which marked him as one of Essex’s officers. …

“Wait!” The anguished cry went unheard in the hubbub of the crowded street.

Globe inn, Lostwithiel

I had intended a further visit to such places in 2020, for the War without an enemy of 1640s Britain is not yet at an end. Sadly, there is another war we are all fighting in 2020 and so, for the moment, I can only visit these places through books, the miracles of technology and in my imagination.

And the fog rising from the Loddon? That must wait for a separate blog about Basing House.

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