Tuesday, May 25, 2021

Luminous: Now on Audible!


Luminous is now available as an audiobook! Listen to Catherine Donohue's story of courage against the radium industry now on Audible.

Saturday, May 22, 2021

The Grief of Martha Washington

Martha Washington is primarily remembered for her husband's sake, a truth she would be accepting of as a devoted 18th century wife. She travelled through difficult terrain to join General George Washington during winter camps of the Revolutionary War and kept the family plantation, Mount Vernon, running throughout the other seasons. As America's first First Lady (not that she was ever referred to by that title during her lifetime), Martha supported her husband while setting precedents and expectations for her own role. What is less known about Martha Washington is the amount of loss that she endured through it all.

Before her beloved George, Martha was married to Daniel Parke Custis, one of the wealthiest plantation owners in Virginia. The couple was married in 1750 and had four children before Daniel died in 1757. Martha had lost one of her children in 1754 and a second died within months of her husband. Therefore, Martha, at twenty-six, was a widow who had buried two of her four children. This was not unheard of for the era, but Martha could not know what she would later face. She, like most women of the time, turned to her faith for comfort.

She did not remain single for long, as was also typical of that time when it was difficult to manage a household and raise children alone. George Washington was young and ambitious when Martha met him. His wealth was no match for the Custis lands, but he had grand plans for the future. When Martha married him 6 January 1759, she surely expected more children to follow. In this the couple were disappointed, but George treated Martha's children, John and Martha - known as Jacky and Patsy, as his own.

Martha was also the eldest of eight siblings. By the time of her marriage to George, two of them had died. Through the years, Martha buried her siblings one-by-one, outliving them all despite being the oldest. It caused her to constantly concern herself with the health of her loved ones, and most of her letters include updates on the health of those in her household and inquiries or prayers for those to whom she was writing. The hour each day that Martha spent in Scripture and at prayer included many requests for good health and recovery from illness.

When Martha realized that she would have no more children, the two that remained became even more precious to her. Patsy, who was always in delicate health, died during an epileptic seizure in 1773, sending Martha into a deep depression. She had frantically searched for a cure or treatment for her daughter's 'fits' but epilepsy was not understood in the 18th century, and Martha's daughter died at age 16. 

Only Jacky remained of Martha's four children, but his fiancé, Nelly, became a substitute daughter to Martha. She also took in extended family members, like niece Fanny Dandridge, who grew up thinking of Martha as her mother. Martha loved to be surrounded by family and took in those who were in need of one.

Patsy Custis

After losing Patsy, Martha struggled to be comforted enough to join normal activities. George Washington wrote that Patsy’s death 'reduced my poor wife to the lowest ebb of misery.' She lobbied George to approve Jacky's marriage despite his youth, but then she could not bring herself to attend the wedding. All this, before the Revolutionary War even started.

The war took friends and loved ones from most Americans, and Martha was no exception. She feared for George's life through the long years of conflict, but it was Jacky who died of camp fever shortly after witnessing the surrender of the British at Yorktown. He left four small children, and Martha, crushed by the death of her last child, devoted herself heartily to her grandchildren.

Martha was worried for her 'old man' several times during his terms as President (he was actually 8 months younger than his wife). A painful tumor and bout of anthrax threatened the President's life in 1789, followed by pneumonia in 1790. Both his wife and the young country would have suffered severely had George Washington died while in office. Although, George recovered from these illnesses, Martha did lose Fanny to tuberculosis, a blow that was like losing her own child.

While they never were able to return to their golden years at Mount Vernon, the Washingtons did enjoy several years of retirement at their home, even if they did have to endure a constant flow of visitors. When George died on 14 December 1799, a part of Martha died with him. She never returned to the bedroom they had shared and did not participate in his funeral. 'Tis well. All is now over. I shall soon follow him. I have no more trials to pass through,' she said as he breathed his last.

By the time Martha peacefully passed away on 22 May 1802, she was eager to join the many loved ones that she had grieved the loss of over her almost seventy-one years. She had buried seven siblings, two husbands, and four children, but held on to her faith and left America with the national memory of a strong and devoted first First Lady.


Martha Washington: An American Life by Patricia Brady

Washington by Ron Chernow

Women of the American Revolution by Samantha Wilcoxson, available from Pen & Sword

Get your copy of Women of the American Revolution from Pen & Sword, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Book Depository, or your favorite bookseller.

Available now in audiobook format from Audible and audiobooks.com!

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

A Solemn Christmas for Cecily Neville in 1461


My guest today is well-known for her compassionate portrayals of medieval women. In her latest novel, The Queen's Rival, Anne O'Brien explores the eventful life of Cecily Neville, mother of Edward IV and Richard III. Christmas of 1461 would have been one of both celebration and mourning for Cecily, as Anne explains below. 

Welcome, Anne!

~ Samantha


A Solemn Christmas for Cecily Neville in 1461

Guest Post by Anne O'Brien

Cecily Neville, Dowager Duchess of York, King's Mother, made the decision in December 1461 not to celebrate Christmas and the New Year at Greenwich with her son Edward, the newly crowned King Edward IV of England. Instead she celebrated at the palace of Eltham. It was one year since she was widowed.

Christine de Pisan advised that 'a wise princess who is widowed' should stay in seclusion for a time, with only a little daylight, and dressed sombrely 'according to decent custom'. Always politically aware, this was not possible for Cecily, however much she might have wished a time of quiet mourning after the tragic death of Richard, Duke of York. Whereas once she might have seen herself as 'Queen in Waiting', her new role was that of supporting the rule of her son through intercession and good advice as King's Mother. Cecily knew that it would be important for her to see and be seen at this festive time of year when her son's reign was still so new. To shut herself away would not be the choice of 'a wise princess'.

We know that Cecily must have marked the occasion at Eltham with the usual high degree of medieval feasting and merriment since it was placed on record by the London Chronicler of the day. Although no details remain, it is presumed that a feast was held, all seemly and dignified. Strict protocol was laid down in the Ryalle Book about the seating and serving of guests appropriate to Cecily's household on special occasions. Cecily would not share dishes with anyone except her younger sons. Any bishop present would be seated at the upper end of Cecily's table whereas the nobility took the seats at the lower end. Cecily's daughter Margaret - later to become Duchess of Burgundy - would be seated above all the Duchesses of England, in spite of her lack of title at this time.

We presume that as well as the feasting, the usual games and festivities, with music and dancing, were held to mark the birth of the Christ Child.

But midway through this festive time, Cecily pursued a distinct change in atmosphere. The 30th day of December was the first anniversary of the death of Richard, Duke of York, at the Battle of Wakefield where he and their son Rutland were both decapitated, their heads placed with that of Salisbury, Cecily's brother, on Micklegate Bar in York. A paper crown adorned York's brow in a final act of malicious humiliation.

To mark this sombre occasion Cecily held the 'year's mind', the solemn Requiem Mass on the anniversary of her husband's death. Such a service would by custom be held in the church where the body of Richard was buried, but on this occasion, this was not so. Richard's body, recovered from the battlefield, had been hurriedly buried in the Priory of St John the Evangelist at Pontefract, where it still lay with the earthly remains of Rutland and Salisbury.

Instead, Cecily held the 'year's mind' in great splendour in Old St Paul's Cathedral. A hearse covered with a pall was set up before the High Altar with banks of candles burning around it. The funeral rites were then repeated as if in the corpse's presence. Thus it was as if the dead were re-called, being brought before the living once more, for prayer and and a final re-commital to the grave.

It must have been a magnificent memorial, although the names of those who attended were not recorded. We know that Cecily spent one hundred and fifty pounds on the candles to illuminate the pall-covered hearse, a vast sum in 1461 and indicative of the impression she wished to make.

What a bitter experience this was for the Dowager Duchess as she looked back over her year of mourning, in spite of the victory and coronation for her son Edward. Did she find some consolation in the severe words of the Requiem, in the sacred ceremony with its weight of death and judgement and all its candles. A heart-wrenching occasion before she returned to Eltham to the festivity of New Year's Gift Giving.

What we do know is that the Duchess was not satisfied with the burial of the Duke of York and her son in Pontefract. It was her intention to bring their bodies home to Fotheringhay, to be buried there in the most important of Yorkist bases. This was not achieved until sixteen years later.


The Queen's Rival

England, 1459.

One family united by blood. Torn apart by war…

The Wars of the Roses storm through the country, and Cecily Neville, Duchess of York, plots to topple the weak-minded King Henry VI from the throne.

But when the Yorkists are defeated at the battle of Ludford Bridge, Cecily’s family flee and abandon her to face a marauding Lancastrian army on her own.

Stripped of her lands and imprisoned in Tonbridge Castle, the Duchess begins to spin a web of deceit. One that will eventually lead to treason, to the fall of King Henry VI, and to her eldest son being crowned King Edward IV.


Connect with Anne

Sunday Times Bestselling author Anne O’Brien was born in West Yorkshire. After gaining a BA Honours degree in History at Manchester University and a Master’s in Education at Hull, she lived in East Yorkshire for many years as a teacher of history. Today she has sold over 700,000 copies of her books medieval history novels in the UK and internationally. She lives with her husband in an eighteenth-century timber-framed cottage in the depths of the Welsh Marches in Herefordshire. The area provides endless inspiration for her novels which breathe life into the forgotten women of medieval history.

Connect with Anne on her website or Amazon Author Page or through social media on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Pinterest, or Goodreads.

Saturday, May 8, 2021

Historical Scandals: The Hamilton-Reynolds Affair

Alexander Hamilton

Alexander Hamilton is famous for many accomplishments. As the first American treasury secretary, it is not hyperbole to credit him with the survival of the young United States. Before that, he had served as an aide-de-camp to George Washington and knew first-hand the struggle of managing the states and resources as separate entities, hence his passionate lobbying for a strong central government. He created America's Coast Guard to increase import taxes, the first national bank to stabilize US debt and currency, and the New York Evening Post to share his side of the story with Americans. 

One might say that Hamilton was an over-sharer. He struggled to turn the other cheek when on the receiving end of insults or even when someone simply expressed an opposing opinion. Most infamously, he clashed with future president Thomas Jefferson on almost every issue facing the nation's first administration. Jefferson, a wealthy plantation owner, liked to paint himself as a rural common man while claiming that Hamilton, an orphan from the West Indies who worked his way to the top, was an elite monarchist. It was quite a political spin. 

Hamilton wrote tirelessly, leaving little doubt how he felt about any issue and leaving us some of the most impressive records of the creation of the United States, including most of the Federalist Papers. In 1797, he wrote the pamphlet that clouded his many accomplishments in the shadow of scandal. The Reynolds Pamphlet (actually titled Observations on Certain Documents Contained in No V & VI of ‘The History of the United States for the Year 1796,’ In Which the Charge of Speculation Against Alexander Hamilton, Late Secretary of the Treasury, Is Fully Refuted) was intended to convince Hamilton's peers and the public that he had not been involved in any illegal financial activities during his time as treasury secretary. After a lengthy rebuttal of the charges against him, Hamilton penned the lines that have gone down in infamy:

"The charge against me is a connection with one James Reynolds for purposes of improper pecuniary speculation. My real crime is an amorous connection with his wife, for a considerable time with his privity and connivance, if not originally brought on by a combination between the husband and wife with the design to extort money from me.

This confession is not made without a blush. I cannot be the apologist of any vice because the ardour of passion may have made it mine. I can never cease to condemn myself for the pang, which it may inflict in a bosom eminently intitled to all my gratitude, fidelity and love. But that bosom will approve, that even at so great an expence, I should effectually wipe away a more serious stain from a name, which it cherishes with no less elevation than tenderness. The public too will I trust excuse the confession. The necessity of it to my defence against a more heinous charge could alone have extorted from me so painful an indecorum."

Hamilton's version of events has been widely accepted as truth, but not by everyone. For the few remaining years of his life, he defended his work as treasury secretary while admitting that he had been an unfaithful husband, but some continued to believe that Hamilton and other family members had benefited from insider information and financial schemes. Was the Reynolds scandal financial or adulterous? 

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton

Elizabeth Schuyler Hamilton, popularly known as Eliza, was the party most impacted by her husband's confession. Biographer Tilar Mazzeo believes Eliza's passion for preserving her husband's memory (she outlived him by 50 years) is evidence that the affair between Alexander and Maria Reynolds never happened. Mazzeo believes the letters referring to their escapades are fake and that Eliza may have even helped Alexander concoct the story to cover up a financial scandal that could have ruined him. Mazzeo insists that forgiving and defending Alexander for a torrid extramarital affair was simply out of character for the strong, loyal Eliza, that it would make her appear foolish. But is Eliza's biographer judging this 18th century wife too much by 21st century standards when she claims that the independent minded Eliza was 'nobody's fool' and would not have acted the way she did if she believed the truth according to her husband's lengthy pamphlet?

Eliza burned her personal correspondence, a common habit at the time to preserve one's privacy, which makes it difficult to know what she believed of the Reynolds affair. What we do know is that she defended her husband's name for half a century after he had died, never accusing him of wrong-doing or infidelity. Her children remembered her repeating well into old age that, ‘Justice shall be done to the memory of my Hamilton.’ She tirelessly tracked down his papers and letters, hiring multiple biographers to make sense of it all. Eliza did not behave like a woman wronged, but how did a wronged 18th century housewife behave?

18th century wives had few legal rights, and societal expectations clearly defined their roles in the home. The infidelity of a woman was considered unacceptable, after all it could lead to a man raising another man's children. However, infidelity of a husband was, if not acceptable, considered something a wife may have to tolerate. It sometimes reflected as poorly upon the wife if a husband strayed, for she might be blamed for not keeping him content. This was Eliza's world, and these attitudes may explain how she could forgive a tryst and publicly defend her late husband as an eminent Founding Father.

The Reynolds Pamphlet

To support her theory, Mazzeo points out that of James Callender wrote of it in his History of the United States for 1796. It was this publication that Hamilton was responding to when he wrote the Reynolds Pamphlet. Callender, a National Inquirer sort of journalist, was renewing years' old accusations of Hamilton's alleged financial speculation, including copies of documents that Hamilton’s enemies had presented to him for explanation back in 1791. Callender dismissed adultery as the key scandal, calling it out of character and 'eminently foolish' for Hamilton to go to such length to cover a mere extramarital affair. But, if the treasury secretary were going to participate in illegal financial schemes, would he do it with a disreputable partner and only $50 at a time?

Eliza and her children were left in debt and at the mercy of friends when Alexander was killed in a duel with Aaron Burr at age 49. There is little evidence in the charity they were forced to seek that Hamilton had been participating in get rich quick schemes. Even less do Eliza's words about her husband indicate that she resented anything he had done. She accepted his faults with his astounding strengths, calling him 'my beloved, sainted husband and my guardian angel.' It was her duty to 'look forward to grief' after a life that included a 'double share of blessings.'

According to historian Ron Chernow, Hamilton kept a trunk of papers marked 'JR' which held correspondence from James and Maria Reynolds as well as Alexander's records and rebuttals of the various accusations against him. As Chernow writes, ‘Hamilton’s strategy was simple: he was prepared to sacrifice his private reputation to preserve his public honor.’ He did. In excruciating detail that left little doubt that he had betrayed his wife. In contrast, there is no reliable evidence that Hamilton ever participated in illegal financial schemes. When Thomas Jefferson became president, he tasked the new treasury secretary with searching, once again, for evidence against Hamilton. Even those who wished to discredit him the most couldn't find anything to charge him with.

Eliza said her last words on the Reynolds scandal three decades later when James Monroe, by that time a former president, visited the elderly widow. Sure that Monroe had betrayed her husband by failing to secure the documents that fell into Callender's hands, Eliza never forgave him. Whatever made him attempt to see 'past differences...forgiven and forgotten,' he was dismissed with vehemence. 'Mr Monroe, if you have come to tell me that you repent, that you are sorry, very sorry, for the misrepresentations and the slanders and the stories you circulated against my dear husband, if you have come to say this, I understand it. But otherwise, no lapse of time, no nearness to the grave, makes any difference.'

What do you think of the Hamilton-Reynolds Affair? Sexual escapade or financial scheme?


Reynolds Pamphlet: https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Hamilton/01-21-02-0138-0002

Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

Eliza Hamilton: The Extraordinary Life and Times of the Wife of Alexander Hamilton by Tilar Mazzeo

Women of the American Revolution by Samantha Wilcoxson

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

The Physical Prowess of Henry VIII

I am pleased to welcome Judith Arnopp's return to my blog today. Her post on Margaret Beaufort cast an intriguing new light upon Henry Tudor's mother in much the way I expect Judith's new book, A Matter of Conscience, will make us all think a bit differently about Margaret's grandson, Henry VIII. 

Welcome back, Judith! 

~ Samantha


The Physical Prowess of Henry VIII

A Guest Post by Judith Arnopp

The popular modern view of Henry VIII is as a fat despot who happily murdered several of his six wives. We enjoy being scandalised by the goings-on of this long dead philandering monarch, with his stinking ulcerated legs and his penchant for young brides. If you were to ask the average person for four words to describe him, I’m pretty sure that ‘fat’ ‘cruel’ ‘butcher’ and ‘womaniser’ would be among them. Henry has become so familiar to us that we have forgotten he was a human being, and he has become little more than a figure on a postcard, the historical ‘fat’ joke.

Nobody is born old or flawed, we all enter the world in a perfect state; the corrupting element is life itself. In his early years Henry was lauded as a strong lusty boy, and he matured into a strong lusty young man. Henry was affectionate, fun loving, sentimental, romantic and his accession to the throne was hailed with joy. He was a ray of hope for the future. The Venetian diplomat, Pasqualigo, writing in 1515 described him as follows.

“His Majesty is the handsomest potentate I ever set eyes on; above the usual height, with an extremely fine calf to his leg, his complexion very fair and bright, with auburn hair combed straight and short, in the French fashion, and a round face so very beautiful, that it would become a pretty woman, his throat being rather long and thick. He was born on the 28th of June, 1491, so he will enter his twenty-fifth year the month after next. He speaks French English, and Latin, and a little Italian, he plays well on the lute and harpsichord, sings from book at sight, draws the bow with greater strength than any man in England, and jousts marvellously. Believe me, he is in every respect a most accomplished Prince;”

Unfortunately, Holbein wasn’t around to record Henry in his youth, all we have are a few unremarkable panel portraits that do little to hint as to his character or confirm reports of his physical prowess. For the formative years of Henry’s life we have only written descriptions to draw upon, many of which refer to the sporting activities he took part and excelled in. The Venetian ambassador witnessed Henry indulging in one of his favourite activities.

“He is extremely fond of tennis, at which game it is the prettiest thing in the world to see him play, his fair skin glowing through a shirt of finest texture.”

This presents an image of a vital, energetic young man. Henry also enjoyed jousting, sword fighting, wrestling, fencing, archery and bowling. These activities, together with his regular hunting trips, his love of dancing can only have resulted in a strong supple physique.

When Henry was in his twenty-eighth year Guistinian made a statement that would have delighted the king had he ever come to read it. The Ambassador stated that Henry VIII was:

‘much handsomer than the king of France. He is very fair and his whole frame admirably proportioned. Hearing that King Francis wore a beard, he allowed his own to grow and as it was reddish he … got a beard that looked like gold.’

He sounds like a virtual Midas! The Ambassador goes on to describe Henry’s piety, his love of hunting in which he tired ‘eight or ten horses which he causes to be stationed along the line of country he means to take.’

Henry not only wore sumptuous clothing but adorned himself with impressive jewels. One diplomat remarked that the king wore a diamond as ‘big as a walnut.’

And this was all before he engaged Holbein to paint the series of what I like to call Power Portraits; the familiar images that exude Tudor permanence and dominance.

Descriptions made when he was around the age of forty still sound impressive.

‘His face is angelic rather than handsome; his head imperial (Cesarina) and bald, and he wears a beard, contrary to English custom. Who would not be amazed when contemplating such singular corporal beauty, coupled with such bold address, adapting itself with the greatest ease to every manly exercise.

He sits his horse well, and manages him yet better; he jousts and wields his spear, throws the quoit, and draws the bow, admirably; plays at tennis most dexterously; and nature having endowed him in youth with such gifts, he was not slow to enhance, preserve, and augment them with all industry and labour. It seeming to him monstrous for a Prince not to cultivate moral and intellectual excellence, so from childhood he applied himself to grammatical studies, and then to philosophy and holy writ, thus obtaining the reputation of a lettered and excellent Prince. Besides the Latin and his native tongue, he learned Spanish, French, and Italian. He is kind and affable, full of graciousness and courtesy, and liberal; particularly so to men of science (virtuosi) whom he is never weary of obliging.’

Of course, all these descriptions were made before his accident in 1536 that marked the beginning of both his physical and mental decline.

In that year he was unhorsed during a joust, reports say he was unconscious for up to two hours and suffered a chronic leg injury. In the years that followed, recurring ulcers perplexed his physicians and restricted his physical activity.

In 1540, the French ambassador, Charles de Marillac described Henry rather differently.

'This Prince seems tainted with three vices; the first is that he is so covetous that all the riches of the world would not satisfy him. Thence proceeds the second, distrust and fear. This King, knowing how many changes he has made, and what tragedies and scandals he has created, would fain keep in favour with everybody, but does not trust a single man, expecting to see them all offended, and he will not cease to dip his hand in blood as long as he doubts his people. The third vice lightness and inconstancy.'

After the jousting accident, due to his hearty appetite and little exercise, his weight piled on and as his size increased, his temper declined. Henry ended up a disappointed man, too aware of his failure to live up to the promise of his once glorious golden image. But the decline was slow and Henry fought against it for as long as he could, even going so far as to ride to war against France in 1544, three years before his death.

During the course of writing A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, The Aragon Years, I have paid a great deal of attention to the ambassadors. Even if we consider the requirement to flatter Renaissance monarchs, the early glowing descriptions are as convincing as the latter, and we should remember that these reports were not written for Henry’s eyes.

It has been an honour to walk beside the young Henry who, it seems, really was a strong, god-like king who could have stepped from the pages of the story books. In this book of course, he is still in his prime and only just showing signs of the man he would later become. The next book in the series that will cover his middle years, might be more tricky and it is doubtful if we shall get along so well.

A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII: The Aragon Years

‘A king must have sons: strong, healthy sons to rule after him.’

On the unexpected death of Arthur Tudor, Prince of Wales, his brother, Henry, becomes heir to the throne of England. The intensive education that follows offers Henry a model for future excellence; a model that he is doomed to fail.

On his accession, he chooses his brother’s widow, Catalina of Aragon, to be his queen. Together they plan to reinstate the glory of days of old and fill the royal nursery with boys.

But when their first-born son dies at just a few months old, and subsequent babies are born dead or perish in the womb, the king’s golden dreams are tarnished.

Christendom mocks the virile prince. Catalina’s fertile years are ending yet all he has is one useless living daughter, and a baseborn son.

He needs a solution but stubborn to the end, Catalina refuses to step aside.

As their relationship founders, his eye is caught by a woman newly arrived from the French court. Her name is Anne Boleyn.

A Matter of Conscience: the Aragon Years offers a unique first-person account of the ‘monster’ we love to hate and reveals a man on the edge; an amiable man made dangerous by his own impossible expectation.

Available now on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Connect with Judith

A lifelong history enthusiast and avid reader, Judith holds a BA in English/Creative writing and an MA in Medieval Studies.

She lives on the coast of West Wales where she writes both fiction and non-fiction based in the Medieval and Tudor period. Her main focus is on the perspective of historical women but more recently is writing from the perspective of Henry VIII himself.

Her novels include:

A Matter of Conscience: Henry VIII, the Aragon Years

The Heretic Wind: the life of Mary Tudor, Queen of England

Sisters of Arden: on the Pilgrimage of Grace

The Beaufort Bride: Book one of The Beaufort Chronicle

The Beaufort Woman: Book two of The Beaufort Chronicle

The King’s Mother: Book three of The Beaufort Chronicle

The Winchester Goose: at the Court of Henry VIII

A Song of Sixpence: the story of Elizabeth of York

Intractable Heart: the story of Katheryn Parr

The Kiss of the Concubine: a story of Anne Boleyn

The Song of Heledd

The Forest Dwellers


Judith is also a founder member of a re-enactment group called The Fyne Companye of Cambria and makes historical garments both for the group and others. She is not professionally trained but through trial, error and determination has learned how to make authentic looking, if not strictly HA, clothing. You can find her group Tudor Handmaid on Facebook. You can also find her on Twitter and Instagram.

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