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Wednesday 31 October 2012

Another Strange Story from Princess Marie Louise

For Halloween, here is another true story from the wonderful Princess Marie Louise, who was undoubtedly naturally gifted with the sensitivity of a psychic.

The princess recounts a visit to Littlecote, the home of a cousin of her lady-in-waiting, but formerly the home of the infamous ‘Wild William Darrell’, a member of the notorious Hell Fire Club. Wild Darrell had, according to legend, had an affair with a local girl, who was about to give birth to his child. Darrell took the girl to a room in the house and summoned a midwife whom he blindfolded before leading her to the room. The moment the baby was born, wicked Darrell seized the poor child and threw him into the fire. The midwife, realising something was wrong, cut a piece of chintz from the curtains surrounding the bed and smuggled it out with her as proof that she had been present when the event occurred.

Princess Marie Louise goes on to describe her experience at Littlecote. She was being shown around the house by the owner, Lady Wills, when:

“...we eventually came to the Long Gallery which is supposed to be haunted by the distracted young mother looking for her baby. As we reached the end of the gallery Lady Wills pointed to a door in the wall and said, “This is where the gamp [midwife] came up.” I promptly replied, “Oh no, you are mistaken,” and, pointing to another door, in the wall said, “This is where she was brought up.” Then I shut my eyes – why I cannot tell – and walked on a few steps, turned around and said, “Evelyn, take care, here are two steps so be careful not to fall.” I pushed open a door in front of me (still with my eyes shut), entered a small room and again said, “Here is the fireplace where Wild Darrell burnt the child.” I then crossed the room, took hold of the curtain around the bed, and pointed to the place where the gamp had cut the bit of chintz. Only then did I open my eyes and rather bewildered asked how I could have known all that I had seen and done.”

In her wonderful book: My Memories of Six Reigns, Princess Marie Louise describes several other equally intriguing experiences.

Happy Halloween!

Friday 26 October 2012

"Bring Him Home"

A rather unusual exchange took place yesterday in the House of Commons when an MP for Leicester and one for Yorkshire briefly debated where the remains of Richard III – presumed to have been recently discovered under a car park in Leicestershire – should be buried. The MP for Leicester pointed out that Richard has been his county for so long that he should remain there, while the Yorkshire MP believed that the Yorkist leader should be returned to York or its surroundings. The debate was unfortunately cut short when a third MP objected that it was beginning to bear resemblance to the debates between ancient cathedrals about where the relics of saints should be kept!

As an inhabitant of Yorkshire, I absolutely believe that here is where Richard belongs. He loved this county and was – and always has been – loved and respected in York. Far from being seen as the eponymous villain in Shakespeare’s play, he is remembered for the benefits he brought to the country and particular to the north of England. His Council of the North was one of the first to pay real attention to the wishes and requirements of northerners (who, alas, are still often viewed by some in the south as rather backward and uncultured!). Richard arranged for government business and law courts to be conducted in English; he established the Court of Requests to grant a fair hearing to those who could not afford a lawyer to defend them; and he was also a loving husband and father. Many believe that the recent premature deaths of his son and his wife led him to take such a reckless stand in the Battle of Bosworth, where, of course, he was killed by Henry the Usurper...and thus began the reign of the very nasty Tudors!

To quote a song from Les Miserables....‘Bring him home’! If these are proved to be Richard’s remains, he surely belongs in Yorkshire!

Monday 22 October 2012

The Betrayal

Coming soon:

The final book of the Shattered Crowns trilogy: The Betrayal.

As the trilogy nears its conclusion, I am struck by the way in which empires fall. Ancient empires took decades to crumble and collapse but in 1917 and 1918, three major European powers were destroyed in a matter of days. There was something decidedly orchestrated about this and the same pattern played out in all three countries, resulting in the removal of the monarchies, the destruction of their economies and a shifting of their resources. Throughout my research it has become so clear that nothing, absolutely nothing, about the First World War was quite as it has been generally presented by the victors or even by the vanquished. I am struck, too, by the similarity with many modern day events which result in overseas wars, and I wonder if someone in the future will look back on this time and ask, "why did they really fight all these 'wars'? Who gained from them and how many people's trust was betrayed?"

Saturday 20 October 2012

King Leopold Writes to Queen Victoria

On 21st May 1845, King Leopold of the Belgians sent his niece, Queen Victoria, a portrait of his late wife, Charlotte – the Queen’s cousin who had died in childbirth twenty-eight years earlier. The King was, by now, happily remarried but it is touching to read his portrait of his first wife and gives a rare glimpse into her character. It seems very clear, too, that this is an attempt on the part of the wily King Leopold, to give Victoria a little sermon about her own behaviour since she, too, had been somewhat imperious with Albert during the early years of her marriage and had been greatly under the influence of her interfering governess Baroness Lehzen! :

...My gift is Charlotte’s portrait. The face is extremely like, and the likest that exists; the hair is a little too fair, it had become darker. I take this opportunity to repeat that Charlotte was a noble-minded and highly gifted creature. She was nervous as all the family have been: she could be violent but but then she was full of repentance for it, and her disposition highly-generous and susceptible of great devotion.

I am the more bound to say this as I understood that you had some notion that she had been very imperious and not mistress of her temper. Before he marriage, some people by dint of flattery had tried to give her masculine tastes; in short pushed her to become one day a sort of Queen Elizabeth. These sentiments were already a little modified before her marriage. But she was particularly determined to become a good and obedient wife; some of her friends were determined that she should not; among these Madame de Flahaut must be premiere ligne.

This became a subject which severed the intimacy between them. Madame de Flahaut, much older than Charlotte, and of a sour and determined character, had gained an influence which partook on Charlotte’s part a little of fear. She was afraid of her but when once supported took courage.

People were much struck on the 2nd May 1816 at Carlton House with the clearness and firmness with which she pronounced ‘and obey’ etc. as there had been a general belief that it would be for the husband to give such promises. The Regent [Charlotte’s father, later King George IV] put me particularly on my guard and said, “If you don’t resist she will govern you with a high hand.” Your own experience has convinced you that real affection changes many sentiments that may have been imparted into the mind of a young girl. With Charlotte it was more meritorious as from a very early period of her life, she was considered as the heiress of the Crown; the Whigs flattered her extremely and later...the Tories...also made great efforts to please her.

Her understanding was extremely good. She knew everybody and I even afterwards found her judgement to be generally extremely correct. She had read a great deal and knew well what she had read. Generous she was, almost too much, and her devotion was quite affecting, from a character so much pushed to be selfish and imperious.

I will end here on the subject of my poor, dear Charlotte but I thought that the subject could be interesting to you. Her constancy in wishing to marry me, which she maintained under difficulties of every description, has been the foundation of all that touched the family afterwards. You know, I believe, that your poor father was the chief promoter, though also the Yorks were; but our correspondence from 1814 to 1816 was entirely carried on through his kind intervention; it otherwise would have been impossible as she was a sort of prisoner....”

Wednesday 17 October 2012

A Prisoner-of-War

As my Shattered Crowns trilogy nears its conclusion with the forthcoming book The Betrayal, I am struck by the fact that, in the midst of all the horror, deceit, myths and downright evil of the First World War, there are countless stories of humanity at its finest and most natural. Apart from the well-known story of the football match between British and German troops in No-Man’s-Land at Christmas 1914, there are accounts of French soldiers, lured by the smell of cooking, sneaking into the German trenches to share supper with the ‘enemy’, and German soldiers throwing notes, wrapped around stones, into the British trenches to warn them when the next bombardment was about to begin. There is also the story of the young English soldier who, following an offensive, found the dead body of young German who looked very like him, and, when he went through the pockets of the dead man, he found letters and photos of his family and fiancée, and realised at once how similar their lives were. From then on, amazingly, that machine-gunner continued to 'play at soldiers' until the end of the war but never killed another German because he always ensured that his gun was aimed at an empty space.

Today I discovered something else, too. My grandfather, who at the age of 18 was a soldier in a Lancashire regiment, was wounded (I think!) and taken prisoner by the Germans. He had great respect for his captors and said that they had twice saved his life. Firstly when he was captured and secondly when, as a prisoner-of-war, he was sent work in a salt mine and was involved in a potentially fatal accident. He was well cared for in a hospital and shown great kindness, as a result of which he made a complete recovery. Even in the middle of all that slaughter, his enemies cared enough to save his life...twice.  

It constantly and happily surprises me that, just as plants grow through concrete and make their way through the cracks in paving stones, no matter how wicked events might appear, true humanity – the true nature of Mankind – will always shine through in one way or another. 

Thursday 11 October 2012

The Paradise

The beauty of the BBC’s Lark Rise to Candleford was so unique that the creators must have faced quite a challenge in deciding on a new project, knowing there was so much to live up to.

At first it seemed impossible that anything could equal Lark Rise but, three episodes into the brilliant Bill Gallagher’s new series The Paradise, it’s clear that the writer is using the same successful formula in creating something very beautiful!

Loosely based on a novel by Zola, The Paradise is set in a department store in the north of England in the late 19th century. As with Lark Rise, the producers’ attention to detail in the settings and costumes is superb, and while Lark Rise was an absolute delight for the wonderful pastoral and village scenes, The Paradise is exquisite for its portrayal of the luxury of beautiful gowns and other items on sale in the extravagantly grand setting of the cathedral-like shop. The acting is convincing and the characters so well-cast, and I am now convinced that the excellent Sarah Lancashire is the new Maggie Smith (though considerably younger!)!

The real charm of both series, however, lies in the beauty of the characters and Bill Gallagher’s wonderful story-telling. When so much air time is taken up with dark and depressing crime and forensic programmes, it is beyond lovely to find a series in which there are genuine people with real-life problems but, without being twee, no one is truly evil and the viewer knows that nothing really nasty or degrading is about to happen. There are, of course, difficulties and misunderstandings in relationships as well as financial problems and other challenges that people meet every day, but – as happened in Lark Rise – each week’s story ends in kindness and the triumph of good. It is so refreshing and I am sure it is ‘good for the soul’ to find a series that is beautiful on every level – one that is both delightful to the senses and truly uplifting!

Thank you Mr Gallagher and thank you BBC for such beauty!

Tuesday 2 October 2012

The Best Job in History

Tony Robinson’s interesting series ‘The Worst Jobs In History’ included a programme on the worst royal job in history. From cess pit cleaners and similarly nasty occupations to the whipping boys who took the punishments for young princes, there have been some pretty unpleasant roles in the royal households. Even the most powerful people at court often found themselves in a perilous position when their fate depended on the fluctuating whims of a monarch: Thomas Cromwell, Thomas More and Cardinal Wolsey to name but a few. Those who managed to retain the monarch’s favour were still prey to the occasional revolution or the jealousy of other members of the court and if the head that wore the crown was uneasy, life could be equally troubled for his devotees. 

A few days ago, however, I discovered what might be viewed as one of the best royal jobs in history: The Royal Herb Strewer.

Twelve pounds a year must have been a considerable sum in the 17th century, and with a few yards of fine cloth included in the salary, it must have been a lucrative position. In the early days, there would undoubtedly have been a lot to do, trying to mask the stench of the insanitary royal palaces, but by the time of George IV, things must have been improving. All in all, it must have been a very pleasant job and one that wasn’t likely to provoke a great deal of rivalry.

Having recently begun to study and cultivate herbs, I am absolutely in awe of them. Their scents and texture are so beautiful and their healing and cleansing properties are positively amazing! At the moment I am in the very early stages of learning about them but the great herbalists of the past and present have worked some incredible ‘miracles’ using various concoctions of them. It is quite remarkable that they grow so freely and people pass them by on their way to doctors’ surgeries, unaware that Nature has provided a remedy for virtually every ailment and a natural way of dealing with many domestic situations such as preventing moths from coming indoors, repelling insects or cleansing pans and crockery. As a minor example, I was recently bitten a mass of midges and having read that basil is good for insect bites, I rubbed the leaves on my arms and the bites stopped itching instantly. The next time I walked among the midges, I rubbed lemon balm on my skin and came home with no bites at all.

The natural wisdom that comes from being close to nature seemed to have been temporarily lost with the industrial revolution. Happily nowadays many more people are rediscovering that ancient wisdom and I pray that the big pharmaceutical companies which are already seeking to suppress the use of alternative healing methods and several herbs, will realise that just as plants sprout through concrete and cracks in the pavement, you cannot suppress Nature.