Susan Higginbotham's Blog: History Refreshed by Susan HIgginbotham

July 10, 2014

Let’s face it, history discussions on Facebook (and other social media) can be rough.


But there’s really no need to stress, because here are twelve handy lines for you to whip out whenever you’re on the verge of losing a historical discussion. Use any of the following, hit “send,” and your opponents, reduced to dejected silence, will gather up what’s left of their shredded dignity and slink off to FarmVille.

Well, it could have happened. We’ll never know.
You weren’t there, and neither was I.
It’s Tudor propaganda.
I’ve been reading about this period for 30 [40/50/60] years.
My parent/sibling/spouse/partner/child is a historian, I’ll have you know.
I know it’s from a novel, but there has to be some truth to it or the author wouldn’t have written it that way.
I saw it in a book. Look it up.
 [Insert historical figure from 18th century or earlier] was my grandparent.
I was [insert any historical figure, provided he or she was reasonably attractive and very well known] in a previous life. I just sense what happened.
I’m entitled to my opinion.
I don’t have time to read that.
History is written by the victors.

N.B. : None of these lines need be deployed alone, but can be combined (and augmented with use of ALL CAPS and lots of exclamation points!!!!!).

Happy discussing!!!!!

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Published on July 10, 2014 20:20 • 74 views

July 4, 2014

As readers of this blog know (I was going to say “regular readers,” but this blog has been a bit, er, irregular over the past few months), I’m very fond of wills. When I was researching Margaret Douglas, Countess of Lennox,  for a now-defunct project, I had her will transcribed, and it’s been sitting forlornly in my files ever since. So here it is! I’ve modernized the spelling and broken it into paragraphs for ease of reading.

Margaret died on March 9, 1578, having made her will on February 26, 1578. Note that the new year officially began on March 25, so Margaret gives the date of her will as 1577. She was buried at Westminster Abbey at the expense of Queen Elizabeth. Later, King James VI and I (the King of Scots mentioned by Margaret) erected a monument to his grandmother’s memory.


In the name of God Amen I Margaret Countess of Lennox widow late wife of Matthew Earl of Lennox Regent of Scotland deceased, being of good and perfect mind and remembrance and in good health of body (thanks be to Almighty god) the six and twentieth day of February in the year of our lord God a thousand five hundred seventy and seven [new style date: 1578] and in the twentieth year of the reign of our sovereign lady Elizabeth by the grace of God queen of England France and Ireland defender of the faith etc do make, ordain and declare this my present last will and testament in manner and form following

First I bequeath my soul unto Almighty God my savior and redeemer, And my body to be buried in the great church of Westminster in the monument, sepulcher or tomb, already bargained for, and appointed to be made and set up in the said church. Also I will that the body of my son Charles shall be removed from the church of Hackney and laid with mine both in one vault or tomb in the said church of Westminster / And I give appoint and bequeath for my burial and funerals to be bestowed and employed thereupon the sum of twelve hundred pounds alias one thousand two hundred pounds of lawful money of England to be made and furnished of my plate household stuff and movables to be sold therefore / And I will that forty pounds of the said twelve hundred pounds shall be given and distributed to the poor people at the day of my burial / And that there be one hundred gowns furnished and given to a hundred poor women at the said day of my burial to be paid for and furnished of the said sum of Twelve hundred pounds.

Also I give and bequeath to the king of Scots for a remembrance of me his Grandmother my new fielde [field? filled?] bed of black velvet embroidered with flowers of needle work with the furniture thereunto belonging as curtains, quilt, and bedstead, but not any other bedding there unto / And the same to be delivered to the said king within six months after my decease if God shall grant him then to be living.

Also I give and bequeath to Margaret Wilton my woman (if she be with me in service at the time of my death) the sum of fifty pounds of lawful money And to every other servant of mine (as well women as men) that at the time of my decease shall be in my service ordinary, one year’s wages according to the rate of their entertainment they then have of me yearly. Also I give and bequeath to old Mompesson my servant (if then at my death he shall be living) twenty pounds of lawful money / All and every which sums I will to be made raised paid and satisfied of my household stuff with in any my houses wheresoever to be sold therefore within one year next after my burial and Funerals performed as aforesaid / Also I give and bequeath to Thomas Fowler my servant for his good and faithful service done to me and mine many years past all and every my stock of sheep as well young as old of all sorts and kinds / And now in the use and custody of Lawrence Nessebett, Symonde Doddesworth and Rowland Fothergill and every or any of them within and upon my lordship of Settrington in the County of York being in number eight hundred at six score to the hundred / And where I owe unto the said Thomas Fowler my servant seven hundred threescore eighteen pounds and fifteen shillings of lawful money of England upon the determination of his last account made and cast up by my auditor at my audit held at Michaelmas last past which debt I acknowledge to be due and owing to him by me I will that the same sum of money as my due debt be paid and satisfied to the said Thomas Fowler of my goods, chattels, plate and jewels / Also I give and bequeath to the said Thomas Fowler all my clocks, watches, dials with their furnitures.

And I make ordain will constitute and appoint John Kaye of Hackney Esquire and the said Thomas Fowler my full and lawful executors / And I give and bequeath to the said John Kaye for his pains forty pounds to be made of my goods as aforesaid / And I will, ordain and provide my very good Lords William Lord Burghley Lord Treasurer of England, and Robert Earl of Leicester my overseers / And I give and bequeath to them for their pains viz to the said Lord Treasurer my Ring with four diamonds set square therein black enameled and to the said Earl of Leicester my chain of pomander beads netted over with gold / And my tablet with the picture of King Henry the eighth therein / All the rest of my jewels goods chattels movable and unmovable, my funerals and legacies performed and my due debts paid I give and bequeath to the Lady Arbell Daughter of my son Charles deceased / Provided always and I will that where the one of my said Executors Thomas Fowler hath for sundry and divers bargains made for me and to my use by my appointment, authority and request entered into sundry bonds and covenants of warranties in sundry sorts and kinds that by law he may be challenged and constrained to answer and make good the same he the said Thomas Fowler my said executors shall out of my said goods, chattels movables plate and jewels whatsoever be answered allowed satisfied recompensed and kept harmless from any loss recovery forfeiture actions suits demands whatsoever may be and shall be of and from him my said executor lawfully recovered and obtained by any person or persons at any time or times after my decease / And provided also and I will that the rest and portion of my jewels, goods or movables whatsoever shall fall out to be shall remain in the hands, custody and keeping of my said executor Thomas Fowler until the said Lady Arbell be married or come to the age of fourteen years, to be then safely delivered to her if God shall send her then and so long to be living.

In witness whereof, and that this is my lawful last will and testament made and determined advisedly by good deliberation, and upon good considerations / I the said Lady Margaret being in good and perfect health and memory have put here unto my hand and seal of arms, the day and year above expressed and specified / witnesses to the same these persons hereafter subscribing their names.

Memorandum that whereas this will was sealed up with a label and the seals of D. Huicke and D. Caldwall set unto or upon the same label the eleventh of March 1577 [1578] the said D. Huicke and D. Caldwell were present at the breaking up of the same label and did acknowledge the same to be sealed with their seals / And that the testament within written was before them and others whose names be endorsed, acknowledged by the within named Lady Margaret to be her last will and testament / In the presence of me William Drurye Doctor of the law and other witnesses underwritten Robert Huicke Richarde Caldwall, Robert Boys N. Paine, Robert Weldoms / Witnesses to this her grace’s last will and Testament are we whose names be underwritten Margery Will[ia]ms Robert ?Hewicke, Richarde Caldwall, John Wolpe, Lawrence Nessebett / Will[ia]m Mompesson

Translation of the probate

This testament was proved at London before master William Drurye, doctor of laws, commissary of the Prerogative Court of Canterbury, on the 27th day of the month of March in the year of the lord 1578 by the oath of Thomas Fowler, the executor, named in this will. To whom was committed the administration, etc, sworn, etc, well, etc, with John Key, the other executor, renouncing [the will].



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Published on July 04, 2014 21:21 • 36 views

May 28, 2014

George Boleyn cover

I’m delighted to be part of the George Boleyn Virtual Blog Tour for Clare Cherry and Claire Ridgway’s new biography of George Boleyn, a figure whose accomplishments and talents are too often overlooked, as we learn here. I’m also delighted to be able to offer a giveaway of one copy of their book! To be eligible, leave a comment here before June 5 (U.S. time), and I’ll pick a winner the following day.

And now, over to Clare and Claire!

George Boleyn: A single-minded and ruthless Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports

In June 1534, Henry VIII appointed George Boleyn as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports and Constable of Dover Castle.

The Cinque Ports is a group of port towns on the southeast coast of England. The original five were Sandwich, Dover, Hythe, New Romney and Hastings, but Winchelsea and Rye were also added. The port towns were of strategic importance for the defence of the country from potential foreign invasion. As such, they were responsible for the fitting-out and manning of ships for the transport of the King’s army, and defence of the coast. In return, they received extensive immunities and liberties, which they guarded jealously. Every ambitious man in England wanted the distinction of being granted the position of Lord Warden, so much so that the post was held by princes of the realm such as Edward I, the Duke of Gloucester (later Richard III) and Henry VIII himself prior to becoming King. Ominously, the Duke of Buckingham had held the post prior to his execution in 1521 on trumped up charges of treason. In the sixteenth century, it was the most powerful appointment of the realm. The Lord Warden had “lieutenant’s powers of muster” and admiralty jurisdiction along the coast, and served as the Crown’s agent in the ports. His responsibilities included collecting taxes, arresting criminals and returning writs. He held court in St James’ Church, near Dover Castle, and the jurisdiction was similar to that of Chancery. The merging of the Constableship of Dover Castle with the office of Lord Warden meant that the Lord Warden also had a garrison at his disposal.

The appointment was made by the Crown, and the Lord Warden’s first loyalty was to the sovereign, who was often intolerant of any rival jurisdiction. This resulted in the Lord Wardens having conflicting loyalties, because they were also bound by their oath of office to maintain and defend the ports’ liberties. The ports looked to their Lord Wardens to be their protectors against external pressures, in particular those exerted by the Crown. This was not an easy balancing act for any Lord Warden, let alone one who was the King’s brother-in-law. George Boleyn’s position as Lord Warden meant that when he was not abroad on embassy, much of his time would have been spent in Dover. His influence is referred to in correspondence between England and Calais. The post was not a sinecure, and he was not merely a figurehead; he took a very active role. For example, in April 1535, two men, Robert Justyce and his son James, were ordered to make certain payments together with further penalties for other misbehaviour, including a verbal refusal to make payment to the complainants as ordered. On 8 May Sir Richard Dering wrote to Lord Lisle complaining that he was being blamed by the Justyce’s for the making of the order, when it was in fact “my Lord Warden’s own personal act and judgement, sitting in court, and sitting with him then there present Sir William Haute and Sir Edward Ryngeley, knights and divers other gentlemen”, whereby George “commanded them both to prison”. Dering goes on to say that George:

Not only at his departing from the Castle did straitly command me, but also by his several letters in like manner did command me that they both should satisfy the said parties complainants their demands adjudged and also pay the penalties and moreover be bound with sufficient sureties for their good abearing before they should depart out of prison.

Eventually, the two men paid the sums they were ordered to pay, less sums which the complainants relaxed, and were thereby released by Dering, even though they had not given the sureties George had ordered. Dering also discharged them from part of the penalties they had been ordered to pay.

The fact that the complainants themselves relaxed part of the judgement suggests that the amount awarded by the young Lord Warden had been excessive. Upon hearing the judgement, Robert Justyce had exclaimed that “he would rather be cut in two with a sword than pay the demands the complainants adjudged or pay the penalties” – hence the Lord Warden’s decision to command themto prison. Robert Justyce had been foolish enough to challenge the authority of George Boleyn in a court full of high-ranking officials, and such audacity could not be allowed. The fact that George sentenced both father and son to prison confirms our view of him as a young man capable of a single-minded ruthlessness, particularly when openly challenged. In this instance he went further. Not only did he verbally reiterate his orders to Dering, he also did so in several letters. This was not simply a question of making an example of the men. George was obviously furious, and he pursued the matter with a single-mindedness bordering on the vindictive. By the tone of Dering’s letter, and from his actions, he clearly thought the Lord Warden had over reacted. He wrote to Lisle, “Of my own zeal, good will, and contrary to the commandment of my said Lord Warden, I have… set them both at liberty”. However, he does express anxiety as to the “non-doing”, of the Lord Warden’s commandments.

In November 1534, there were signs of a rather fraught relationship between George Boleyn, as Lord Warden, and Thomas Cromwell. Cromwell had attempted to undermine the young Lord and the following letter shows George’s unrestrained indignation:

On Sunday last the mayor of Rye and others were with me at court, and I have taken such order and direction with them as I trust is right and just. I have commanded the mayor to return to Rye, and see the matter ordered according to the order I have taken in it before. He now advertises me that you have commanded him to attend you, and not obey this order. If you have been truly informed, or will command the mayor to declare you the order I have taken, I trust you will find no fault in it. Touching the last complaint put up to you by one of London, I never heard of it before; but when the mayor goes down he may cause the other party to appear before you at your pleasure.

Cromwell had countermanded one of George’s orders given as Lord Warden, and this was something the young Lord was not prepared to tolerate. The young man was not only angry, but also probably humiliated at being made to look as if he were subservient. The tone of the letter is quite obviously self-righteous indignation. Dangerously, he was not afraid to show his anger to the King’s chief minister, or to make no attempt to camouflage his displeasure.

For George Boleyn to have undertaken the position of Lord Warden would be today’s equivalent of appointing a 30 year-old with no legal experience as a leading High Court judge. The Boleyn self-assurance and self-confidence meant that the high responsibility was merely viewed as a challenge to be embraced. To be able to undertake the role with panache and competency would further endorse the perception held both by the court and the general public that the Boleyn brother was an intelligent and gifted young man in his own right, not one who had to rely on his sister for preferment.

George clearly embraced the role of Lord Warden. Examples of writs he issued and examples of his influence are contained in the state papers. The energy and efficiency required to fulfil the duties of Lord Warden, while still maintaining a political and ambassadorial role and a high court profile, confirm what a hardworking and remarkable young man George Boleyn was.

Notes and Sources

Fleming, Peter, Anthony Gross, and J. R. Lander. Regionalism and Revision: The Crown and Its Provinces in England, 1200-1650. Bloomsbury Academic, 1998., 124.

Letters and Papers, Foreign and Domestic, Henry VIII, Volume 7: 922 (16), 1478.

St Clare Byrne, Muriel, ed. The Lisle Letters. Vol. 2. University of Chicago Press, 1981., p180, p480–481.

Clare and Claire

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Published on May 28, 2014 22:00 • 26 views

May 17, 2014

I belong to several Wars-of-the-Roses-related groups on Facebook, and every week or so, the inevitable question arises: Did Richard III murder his nephews? Each time, at least one person comments that Richard did not; rather, the murderer was Margaret Beaufort, Countess of Richmond. After all, we’re told,  she was a ruthlessly ambitious woman who would do anything to put her son, Henry Tudor, on the throne.

But there was another formidable matriarch in England in 1483, one who almost never gets named as a suspect, but who arguably had as good a motive , means, and opportunity as Margaret. Her name? Cecily, Duchess of York, mother to Edward IV and Richard III.

220px-Cecily_nevilleBefore I go further (and before some of you start writing indignant comments), let me make myself clear: I do not believe that the Duchess of York was responsible for the deaths of her grandsons. I do not believe that Margaret Beaufort was responsible for their deaths either. Rather, I am writing simply to point out that if one can entertain the idea that Margaret was a murderer, logic dictates that one should also entertain the idea that Cecily was one. Why?

Cecily’s objection to her son Edward IV’s marriage to Elizabeth Woodville is well known, and there’s little indication that she ever warmed to her daughter-in-law. On these lines, it has been suggested that she supported her son Richard III’s bid for the throne, preferring to see him as king instead of her half-Woodville grandson Edward V. Assuming for the sake of argument that Cecily did indeed approve of Richard III’s actions, it stands to reason that she would want to see him remain on the throne once he got there. The plot to free Edward V and his brother from the Tower that emerged soon after Richard’s coronation could well have made Cecily to decide to help Richard’s cause by eliminating her grandsons.

Cecily had at least as good means and opportunity to kill Edward IV’s sons as did Margaret Beaufort, and quite probably better ones. As the mother of two kings, Cecily would have had the best of connections at court, and her house in London would have given her contacts in the city as well. Even if she couldn’t get into the Tower herself, she certainly had as much ability as did Margaret Beaufort to gain access to those who could. Indeed, as the boys’ grandmother, she had a perfectly plausible excuse to visit them in the Tower (perhaps taking them some poison-laced treats), unlike their more distant relation Margaret.

Furthermore, if Margaret Beaufort arranged for the deaths of Edward IV’s sons during Richard III’s reign in order to advance the cause of her son Henry Tudor, she was taking an enormous risk: if caught, she faced imprisonment at best, execution at worst, and her actions could have been used to discredit her son, putting paid to his chances of gaining support for his invasion. If Cecily, on the other hand, arranged for the boys’ deaths, she ran comparatively little risk, for even if Richard did not welcome such meddling,  it would have hardly benefited him to publicize the fact that his own mother killed her grandsons.

One could argue that Cecily was too pious to arrange for the deaths of two innocent boys. But Margaret was equally pious, and those who argue for her guilt have never allowed this to stand in their way.

Cecily and Margaret had each known more than her share of trouble. The daughter of a possible suicide, Margaret was a widow and a mother by age fourteen. From 1455 to 1471, her male Beaufort relatives were killed one by one by the Yorkists, and her only son grew up in exile abroad. Cecily herself suffered the deaths in battle of her husband and her son Edmund, the execution of her son George, and the demise of a number of her children by natural causes. If life had hardened Margaret, there is every reason to believe that it hardened Cecily as well.

Moreover, the men in Cecily’s life had shown themselves to be ruthless when the occasion demanded it: her husband, Richard, Duke of York, had taken the opportunity to rid himself of Edmund Beaufort, Duke of Somerset, on the streets of St. Albans; her son Edward had ordered the execution of his own brother George; and her son Richard had executed William, Lord Hastings, without a trial. Perhaps Cecily, convinced that she was acting for the good of the realm, followed their example.  Perhaps she even decided to take the sin of murder upon herself to spare Richard the responsibility.

Of course, there is a glaring difficulty in assigning guilt to Cecily: lack of evidence.  No contemporary source suggests that Cecily had a hand in the deaths of Edward V and his younger brother. But no contemporary source suggests that Margaret did either. As the evidence stands today, neither the duchess nor the countess could be convicted in a court of law of murder. Yet whereas as far as I know only one or two rather obscure novels have cast Cecily in the role of murderess, Margaret (thanks largely in part to the television series “The White Queen”) has become a leading suspect, often crowding out Richard III and the perennial favorite, Buckingham.

Asked for evidence of her guilt, those implicating Margaret point rather vaguely to her ambition and her devotion to her son  and, more specifically, to her role in the rebellion of October 1483. But while one could try to build a case for Margaret’s guilt upon this shaky foundation, it certainly doesn’t rule out Cecily as an alternative suspect.

As I said earlier, I do not believe that either Margaret or Cecily was responsible for the deaths of the Princes in the Tower. But for those who are convinced that Margaret was responsible, I leave with a parting thought. Motherly love is among the strongest of motivators. If maternal feeling could have driven Margaret to commit infanticide in order to bring her only son to the throne, why couldn’t it have driven Cecily to commit infanticide to keep her last surviving son there?

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Published on May 17, 2014 22:30 • 89 views

May 4, 2014

As you know, I’m currently writing a novel about Mary Surratt and one of her boarders, Nora Fitzpatrick. To my delight, the  room  in which Mary and seven other accused conspirators were tried, located in Grant Hall on the Fort McNair army base, has been reconstructed. Last Saturday, it was open to the public (and will be so again in August, November, and February).  This is the courtroom as it appeared in a contemporary sketch:lincoln-conspiracy-3

This is the reconstructed area where the conspirators (who were not allowed to testify) sat during their trial, which was a military rather than a civilian proceeding. A heavily veiled Mary Surratt sat at the far left,  a short distance from the seven male defendants–Lewis Powell, David Herold, George Atzerodt, Ned Spangler, Samuel Arnold, Michael O’Laughlen, and Dr. Samuel Mudd–and their guards. One of the tour guides is in front of the chair in the area where Mary would have sat.



These are the tables where the judges and the press sat (press on the left, judges on the right). Witnesses testified while standing in the box.


A sizable audience of spectators (both  men and women) squeezed into the courtroom to watch the proceedings. Bear in mind that this was the era of the spittoon and of the hoop skirt, and that temperatures in a Washington, D.C., summer commonly rise into the 90′s, accompanied by high humidity, and you can imagine just how miserable everyone here was.

This is the building in which the courtroom is housed (on the third floor).



The building you see here is what remains of a much larger complex of buildings known as the Old Arsenal Penitentiary. There the eight accused conspirators were held prisoner before, during, and after the trial, which dragged on from mid-May 1865 to late June 1865. If you looked out of these windows on July 7, 1865, as Nora does in my book, this is what you would have seen:



Mary Surratt, Lewis Powell, David Herold, and George Atzerodt were hanged that day. The other four were sentenced to hard labor and imprisoned at the Dry Tortugas in Florida. They were eventually pardoned and released, except for Michael O’Laughlen, who died of yellow fever there.

This photograph, part of the exhibit inside the courtroom, shows  Grant Hall as it appears today superimposed upon the scene of the hanging photographed by Alexander Gardner. Note the modern-day tennis court close to the gallows, which were constructed specially for the executions of the conspirators:



Mary and the four other conspirators were buried on the Arsenal grounds, where the man who had dragged them into trouble in the first place, John Wilkes Booth, had already been secretly buried. Eventually, the families of the dead were allowed to retrieve and rebury the bodies. Mary’s children took her body to Mount Olivet Cemetery in Washington, D.C., where her modest gravestone receives the occasional tribute from a visitor.


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Published on May 04, 2014 21:48 • 97 views

April 9, 2014

I’m pleased to welcome a guest to my blog today: Elizabeth Loupas, whose new novel, The Red Lily Crown: A Novel of Medici Florence, was published this month. Elizabeth’s subject today is mithridates, about which I knew nothing until I read this fascinating post. Over to Elizabeth!

Elizabeth Loupas headshot

One of the most mysterious and sought-after substances in medieval and Renaissance alchemy was called a mithridate—a universal antidote, which supposedly protected the person who took it from every conceivable kind of poison. Considering the danger of poison in many of the royal and noble courts of the day (up to and including the Vatican), a genuine mithridate was worth a fabulous price.

Was there such a thing?

Well, no, not really—from our twenty-first-century vantage point, we can look back and smile at the thought of our credulous forebears, believing an alchemist’s concoction could protect them from poison. It’s rather like the supposed powers of the unicorn’s horn or the toadstone (neither of which had anything to do with the creature they were named for). But alchemy in the middle ages and the Renaissance was the research science of the day, and there’s a grain of validity in the idea of taking a substance which consists of infinitesimal doses of fifty or sixty different poisons, and thus building up some form of immunity to at least some of them. After all, many of our “miracle drugs” today are poisonous in large enough quantities, and at the same time, the more we take of them, the more we build up a resistance, rendering smaller doses ineffective.

So the idea of a mithridate isn’t entirely mythical.

Why was it called a mithridate?

There was an ancient (134-63 BC) king of Pontus named Mithridates VI, the Great. His father (Mithridates V, of course) was assassinated by poison, so Mithridates VI came up with the idea of making himself immune to poison by regularly taking sub-lethal doses of different poisonous substances. There are different descriptions of his “universal antidote” in ancient literature: in Celsus’ De Medicina (probably written around the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus) it’s called Antidotum Mithridaticum. Here’s his rather astonishing recipe:

“But the most famous antidote is that of Mithridates, which that king is said to have taken daily and by it to have rendered his body safe against danger from poison. It contains costmary 1·66 grams, sweet flag 20 grams, hypericum, gum, sagapenum, acacia juice, Illyrian iris, cardamon, 8 grams each, anise 12 grams, Gallic nard, gentian root and dried rose-leaves, 16 grams each, poppy-tears and parsley, 17 grams each, casia, saxifrage, darnel, long pepper, 20·66 grams each, storax 21 grams, castoreum, frankincense, hypocistis juice, myrrh and opopanax, 24 grams each, malabathrum leaves 24 grams, flower of round rush, turpentine-resin, galbanum, Cretan carrot seeds, 24·66 grams each, nard and opobalsam, 25 grams each, shepherd’s purse 25 grams, rhubarb root 28 grams, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, 29 grams each. These are pounded and taken up in honey. Against poisoning, a piece the size of an almond is given in wine. In other affections an amount corresponding in size to an Egyptian bean is sufficient.”

A lot of these things aren’t actually poisonous—cardamom, anise, saffron, ginger, cinnamon, which sound like a recipe for spice cookies—but presumably they were in the recipe to make the “active ingredients” more palatable.

Pliny the Elder, in his Naturalis Historia (written a few years after De Medicina), does credit Mithridates with originating the idea of taking a tiny dose of poison every day, in order to render oneself immune to poison. On the other hand, he didn’t have much use for the supposed recipes for Mithridates’ antidote:

“The Mithridatic antidote is composed of fifty-four ingredients, no two of them having the same weight, while of some is prescribed one sixtieth part of one denarius. Which of the gods, in the name of Truth, fixed these absurd proportions? No human brain could have been sharp enough. It is plainly a showy parade of the art, and a colossal boast of science.”

Mithridates himself might have agreed, because his own recipe (as quoted by Pliny) appears to have been:

“…two dried walnuts, two figs and twenty leaves of rue were to be pounded together with the addition of a pinch of salt; he who took this fasting would be immune to all poison for that day.”

Which doesn’t sound very effective, unless one expected to be poisoned with rue.

Many classical works were lost and ignored in the early Middle Ages. Not so with Celsus and Pliny—their encyclopedia-like compendia were just practical enough that they were preserved and copied, and incorporated into the arcane literature of alchemy. As the centuries passed alchemists made their formulas for mithridates more complicated, rather than less—this made them more mysterious and, of course, more expensive. Ingredients were often written down in code—the fictional mithridate I created for The Red Lily Crown, called sonnodolce, is composed of ingredients identified by the four colors of the most ancient alchemy texts, black, white, yellow and red.

Eventually mithridates were considered to be a precaution against the plague as well as against poison. They were generally kept in elaborate vessels consistent with their supposed value. Here’s a picture of a sixteenth-century Milanese jar used to hold a mithridate:

I first became intrigued by Mithradates VI when I read A Shropshire Lad, A.E. Housman’s collection of poetry. Shropshire seems worlds and millennia away from ancient Pontus, but in “Terence, This is Stupid Stuff” Housman wrote of Mithridates:

And easy, smiling, seasoned sound,

Sate the king when healths went round.

They put arsenic in his meat

And stared aghast to watch him eat;

They poured strychnine in his cup

And shook to see him drink it up:

They shook, they stared as white’s their shirt:

Them it was their poison hurt.

—I tell the tale that I heard told.

Mithridates, he died old.

The last line still gives me a chill. Mithridates, he died old. Although sadly, Mithridates didn’t exactly die old. When he was finally defeated by his own son, who sided against him with the Romans, legend says that he attempted to kill himself by drinking poison, and found he could not die. Eventually he was dispatched, at his own request, by a Roman officer. True? No one knows for certain.

Whether the intricate alchemical mithridates of the Middle Ages and Renaissance actually saved anyone from poisoning and allowed them to truly “die old,” it’s impossible to say. But the kings and popes and noblemen who paid huge prices for them believed in them. There is some medical merit in the idea of building up a resistance to a drug by taking small, and possibly increasing, doses. So somewhere in history there may indeed be a thwarted poisoner, and an intended victim whose miraculous, expensive mithridate in “a piece the size of an almond” kept him—or her—safe to live another day.


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Published on April 09, 2014 09:23 • 64 views

April 1, 2014

I’m sorry I haven’t posted for a while, but I’ve been busily researching/writing my work in progress. I did, however, want to stop by and tell you about a contract I just signed for a new novel, which I have to complete in 2016. Its working title is The Milk of Human Kindness, and here’s the working blurb:

When Cecily, Duchess of York, bears a frail little son, Richard, no one expects him to live more than a few days. But under the loving nourishment of Avice, a young wet nurse, Richard not only survives but thrives. A bond is formed between them that will be broken only with Richard’s death at Bosworth Field.

As Richard grows into a deeply principled man, dismayed by his brother’s corrupt court and the dominance of the greedy Woodvilles, Avice is always there to offer him her unconditional support and love. Richard, in turn, is Avice’s only comfort as her own son drifts into a life of crime. When Richard has to make the most difficult decision of his life–one that will change the course of history–it is Avice to whom he turns for advice.

Told by Avice, The Milk of Human Kindness offers a fresh perspective on Richard III by the woman who loved him best–and who inspired him to create the system of bail that we all enjoy today.

You can pre-order The Milk of Human Kindness at Amazon at the link here.

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Published on April 01, 2014 06:29 • 59 views

March 1, 2014

Anne Boleyn, known chiefly as the mother of Elizabeth I

Anne Boleyn, known chiefly as the mother of Elizabeth I

A short while ago, an author of literary mysteries, Lynn Shepherd, devoted a Huffington Post column (titled “If JK Rowling Cares About Writing, She Should Stop Doing It”) to the decidedly peculiar idea that the enormously popular J. K. Rowling should stop writing adult fiction in order to give “other writers, and other writing, room to breathe.” Rowling, Shepherd graciously allowed, could return to writing for children: “By all means keep writing for kids, or for your personal pleasure – I would never deny anyone that – but when it comes to the adult market you’ve had your turn.”

I won’t comment further on this, except to observe that perhaps only a literary novelist, used to receiving accolades from other literary novelists, could have possibly thought that her post would be met with delighted cries of “How witty and clever!” I’ll also observe that Shepherd’s published books, two of which were inspired by Charles Dickens’ Bleak House and Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, one of which is based on the lives of Percy Bysshe Shelley and his wife Mary Shelley, wouldn’t have been possible if Dickens, Austen, and the Shelleys had thoughtfully stopped writing in order to give other writers room to breathe. No, instead, I’ll ponder this: what if a few historical figures had followed Shepherd’s advice?

1. Richard III

Soon after taking the throne, Richard III, concerned that Richard I and Richard II as well as his brother Edward IV will be overshadowed, decides to step down and let his nephew Edward V be crowned after all. Allowed by his nephew to retire to his northern estates, Richard devotes the rest of his life to sheep farming and dies in relative obscurity. Future generations hopelessly confuse Richard, Duke of Gloucester, with Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, and obsess about Edward V’s very colorful sex life.

2. Anne Boleyn

Having failed to deliver on her promise of a son, and not wishing to overshadow other sixteenth-century women, Anne offers to step aside so that Henry VIII can find another wife. Delighted at her gracious retreat, Henry helps to free Anne’s old beau Henry Percy from his own marriage, allowing Anne to become the new Countess of Northumberland. Anne promptly bears Northumberland twin boys but only gets to gloat for a few days before dying of childbed fever. Jane Seymour, without Anne’s beheading to learn from, spends rather too much time alone with her brother Thomas and dies on the scaffold.

3. Abraham Lincoln

Not wishing to overshadow other Presidents, Lincoln decides not to run for a second term and retires to Springfield, where he accumulates rather too many cats and Mary Todd Lincoln accumulates rather too many bonnets. Salmon Chase, the next President, not only refuses to go to the theater on Good Friday, April 14, but on any other occasion. Unable to find any opportunity to assassinate President Chase (and not wishing to overshadow other assassins), John Wilkes Booth finally gives up his plan and marries Lucy Hale. He lives long enough to play the lead in a silent version of King Lear, but neither this nor any of his other silent films have been preserved.

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Published on March 01, 2014 08:32 • 57 views

January 19, 2014

The cat-naming committee convened this morning, and, after giving the matter great thought, selected a name:


Several of you thought of this name, so there are multiple winners. Congratulations, Evelyn Dangerfield, Cyndi Williamson, Julia, Jayne Smith, and Libby Hunt! (Some of entries were via e-mail or private message on Facebook, so you won’t see all of them in the comments. None of the comments were published until after the contest ended.)

“Cecilia” by Katy was a very close second, so Katy will also be getting a copy of the published book.

Thanks for entering, everyone! Now to turn to the important question of what Rochester should look like . . .

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Published on January 19, 2014 08:02 • 61 views

January 9, 2014

Everyone is doing great with the cat-naming contest. Keep those entries coming–you have until the fifteenth, after which Kitty shall no longer be nameless!

For those of you who are wondering, I’ll still be dealing with medieval/Tudor topics on this blog, albeit mixed in with topics related to the book I’m currently writing–one set in Civil War America. Today’s post happens to have a foot in both camps.

In the winter and spring of 1865, John Wilkes Booth and a handful of his companions were plotting to kidnap President Lincoln. One of those involved in the kidnap plot was young John Surratt, whose mother, Mary, ran a boarding house in Washington. With the idea of kidnapping the president, a frequent theatergoer, as he watched a play, the conspirators decided to scout out the theater by taking in a performance. Accordingly, John Surratt and another plotter, Lewis Powell (staying at the boardinghouse in the guise of a Baptist minister, and using an alias), escorted two of Mrs. Surratt’s boarders, nineteen-year-old Nora Fitzpatrick (whose cat you’re busy naming) and ten-year-old Catholic schoolgirl Mary Apollonia Dean, to Ford’s Theatre on March 15, 1865.


The idea, according to another boarder, Louis Weichmann, had been to take the youngest boarders to the theater, but as the second-youngest girl on the premises was preparing for her first Communion, Nora was chosen in her place. Weichmann, who would be a star government witness at both Mary Surratt’s trial in 1865 and her son’s in 1867, was already in a suspicious frame of mind, having seen John Surratt and Paine at the house that very afternoon surrounded by bowie knives, spurs, and revolvers. He claimed that John Surratt refused to include him in the theater party for what Surratt said were “private reasons.”

The party had a carriage for the short ride from the boardinghouse at H Street between 6th and 7th Streets to the theater at 10th Street. John Surratt had a ten-dollar ticket for a box seat. Although Nora at trial claimed not to be able to remember where the box was located, beyond thinking it was an upper seat, the box may well have been the presidential one, which consisted of two adjoining boxes with the partition between them removed on those occasions when the President decided to take in a play. At some point in the performance, Booth visited the box and had a private talk with the men.

Nora in her testimony was never asked the name of the play the party saw, but thanks to Mary Apollonia, who chatted to Weichmann about her evening at the theater, we know it: Nicholas Rowe’s Jane Shore, first performed in 1714. In fact, as the Washington Evening Star advertisement below shows, the play was part of a double bill of one tragedy and one comedy. No one ever mentions the second play, The Love Chase, which must not have made much of an impression on young Mary Apollonia.

jane shore ad

“Jane” Shore (actually named Elizabeth; the first name was the invention of playwright Thomas Heywood), of course, was the mistress of Edward IV. The daughter of John Lambert, a London mercer, she had married a William Shore, another mercer, but the marriage was annulled because of his impotence. Following Edward IV’s death, she was said by Thomas More to have become the mistress of William, Lord Hastings, while Richard III claimed that she was being held in adultery by Thomas Grey, Marquis of Dorset. For reasons which are not entirely clear–most likely her association with Dorset, a wanted man at the time, although More claims that she was accused of plotting with Elizabeth Woodville against Richard–she was jailed at the king’s orders. Later, however, when Richard’s solicitor, Thomas Lynom, fell for her charms, Richard allowed her to leave prison and marry him. Lynom went on to serve the Tudors after Richard’s defeat at Bosworth, and he and Elizabeth had a child or children together. According to More, she was still alive in 1526-27, albeit reduced to poverty. Lynom had died in 1518.

Rowe’s play–described by Rowe himself as a “she-tragedy”–tells a very different version of “Jane’s” story. When the play opens after Edward IV’s death, the evil Duke of Gloucester is chortling over his triumphs over the Woodville faction, and Jane is regretting her fall from virtue and bewailing the sexual double standard:

Mark by what partial justice we are judg’d;

Such is the fate unhappy women find,

And such the curse entail’d upon our kind,

That man, the lawless libertine, may rove,

Free and unquestion’d through the wilds of love;

While woman,—sense and nature’s easy fool,

If poor, weak, woman swerve from virtue’s rule;

If, strongly charm’d, she leave the thorny way,

And in the softer paths of pleasure stray;

Ruin ensues, reproach and endless shame,

And one false step entirely damns her fame;

In vain, with tears the loss she may deplore,

In vain, look back on what she was before;

She sets, like stars that fall, to rise no more.

No “merry mistress” here!

Hoping that he will intercede with Gloucester to restore her land to her, Jane turns to Hastings, who attempts to force himself upon her. She is saved by the intervention of a servant, Dumont, who in fact is Jane’s disguised husband. His boldness toward a social superior earns Dumont a stay in prison. Jane then takes her case directly to Gloucester, who tells her that Hastings opposes his plan to seize the throne. Horrified, Jane praises Hastings for his loyalty to Richard’s nephews and refuses Richard’s demand that she use her wiles to win over Hastings to Richard’s side. Richard then condemns Jane:

Go, some of you, and turn this strumpet forth!

Spurn her into the street; there let her perish,

And rot upon a dunghill. Through the city

See it proclaim’d, that none, on pain of death,

Presume to give her comfort, food, or harbour;

Who ministers the smallest comfort, dies.

Her house, her costly furniture and wealth,

We seize on, for the profit of the state.

Away! Be gone!

Meanwhile, Jane’s false friend Alicia, spurned by Hastings because of his infatuation with Jane, lies to Gloucester that Jane has persuaded Hastings to plot against him. Gloucester, of course, orders Hastings’ execution, but Hastings is given time for a long farewell scene with Alicia, who confesses her guilt and received his forgiveness. Unfortunately, Hastings’ last words for Alicia are a warning for her not to wrong Jane. A bitter Alicia determines to make Jane share her misery.

Actress Sarah Siddons as Jane Shore

Actress Sarah Siddons as Jane Shore

Newly released from prison, Dumont/Shore hears from his friend Belmont of Jane’s public penance and destitution and determines to reveal his true identity to her. Meanwhile, Jane, exhausted and famished, seeks shelter from Alicia, who refuses to aid her. Belmont then leads in Shore, who reveals his identity to the fainting Jane and offers her his forgiveness and his protection. Gloucester’s henchmen rush in to arrest the men for aiding Jane, but Shore, realizing Jane is near death, breaks free, allowing Jane to die in his arms.  A grieving Shore orders the king’s men:

Now execute your tyrant’s will, and lead me

To bonds or death, ’tis equally indifferent.

Belmont is left to expound the moral:

Let those, who view this sad example, know

What fate attends the broken marriage vow;

And teach their children, in succeeding times,

No common vengeance waits upon these crimes,

When such severe repentance could not save

From want, from shame, and an untimely grave.

No doubt Nora and Mary Apollonia took heed, although one suspects that young Mary Apollonia might have been puzzled by some aspects of the story.

After the show, the men escorted their female companions home,  and then headed back out again, lingering at the boardinghouse just long enough for Surratt to grab a pack of playing cards. For the ladies, the night had ended; for the men, it was just beginning.

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Published on January 09, 2014 22:35 • 34 views