ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “17th century”

In pursuit of the Early American Dream

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Crossing the seas to new shores…

I have something of a fascination with those intrepid ancestors of ours who decided to uproot themselves from everything they knew and start over, in lands they had never seen. Okay, so I must admit to these not being my ancestors – my ancestors remained very rooted to their few acres of land, complementing that income with long shifts in the nearby mines.

People left for various reasons: some needed to re-invent themselves, some had to escape from baying creditors, others had no choice, many went because of religious persecution, and quite a few set off to become rich. These were often young men, with their heads filled with dreams of finding gold, or silver, or at least some copper. They hoped for rivers filled with sturgeon, for welcoming lands in which crops grew more or less by themselves. Boy, were they disappointed.

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“And bring us back gold. Lot’s of gold!” Isabel & Fernando w Columbus

One of the reasons behind this belief in a land of riches was due to propaganda. People were needed to populate the colonies, and selling a permanent trip to the other side of the Atlantic as being “harsh and difficult, with years of toil before you, and possibly you’ll die” would not exactly have volunteers lining up. The Spanish explorers, needing to justify the costs of sending repeated expeditions over the seas, promised their financial backers (ergo Their Most Catholic Majesties, Fernando and Isabel) gold and silver. Ultimately, as we know, the Spanish Conquistadores found gold aplenty in Peru, silver in Potosí, and a very much impenetrable jungle elsewhere.

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Welcome to the New World, a veritable cornucopia. Not!

Anyway; young men (it’s always the young men who bounce about on their toes, eager for adventure and pots of gold) who wanted to rise above their original standing in life listened to these rather imprecise descriptions and salivated. Go out, make a fortune, return home and marry well – seemed like an excellent plan, like an early version of the American Dream, although at the time it would have been labelled the Colonial Dream.

Most of them failed dismally. But some made good – good enough to be toted as examples of just how true the dream of riches was. One such man was William Claiborne, a man born in Kent to Thomas and Sarah Clayborne, who would carve himself quite the excellent life in Virginia. Along the way he would also instigate the first naval battle in North America and cause quite some tension between the colonies of Virginia and Maryland. One of the movers and shakers of this world was William Claiborne – and definitely not afraid of taking on new challenges and unknown coasts.

William C 001Claiborne was born in Kent, England, in 1600. As his family did not have the means to offer him a promising career back home, William set off for Virginia in 1621, where he was appointed land surveyor. He was granted 200 acres, and through a combination of astute business sense and perfect timing, his original grant quickly expanded to well over 1 000 acres. Already here, William had more than realised his dreams of future wealth, but this was an ambitious young man, with his eyes set not only on gold but also on achieving a standing in society.

Life in Virginia was not exactly a walk in the park. In William’s second year there, the Powhatan rose in anger against the white settlers, and over one very bloody night more than a third of the settlers were killed. William was (obviously) not among the dead – and I suppose all those deaths increased the opportunities for an intrepid young man to further his own position. Our young hero capitalised on the situation, and at the age of 26 was appointed Secretary of State for the Colony of Virginia.

Being a landowner was not sufficient for our restless protagonist, and after some pondering, William decided to try his hand at trade. Off he went to develop the fur trade, sailing up and down the coasts of the Chesapeake to trade with the local Indians. I guess it was very much glass beads for furs, although now and then William probably offered a musket or two as well.

William C 202_w_fullDuring his travels round the bay, William came upon the perfect place for a trading post, a small island just off the eastern shore of the bay. In a burst of nostalgia, he named it Kent Island and appropriated it in his own name. His Virginian financial backers cheered William on. Others did not, foremost among them Lord Calvert, who was looking for land in which to establish his very own colony, one of his options being future Maryland, to which territory Kent Island belonged. Calvert’s first attempt at founding a colony, in Newfoundland, had failed dismally. (And let us not here spend time wondering why on earth Calvert chose Newfoundland in the first place)

Lord Calvert came to Virginia in 1629. At the time, he was more interested in colonising south of Virginia (the Carolinas) than north of it (Maryland). As far as the Virginians were concerned, Lord Calvert had no business being in their neck of the woods at all. Not only did Lord Calvert’s desire for his own colony pose a threat to Virginia’s territorial expansion, but to add insult to injury, Lord Calvert was a Catholic, and to make matters worse, the demented man actually argued for religious toleration, making the staunch Virginia Protestants squirm in their boots.

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Cecil Calvert, Lord Baltimore

Lord Calvert was not a man to give up. He returned to England to urge the king to give him a charter for his own colony. The Virginians had no intention of giving Lord Calvert as much as a square inch on their precious shore, so they sent their Secretary of State to London to argue against any grant to Calvert. William was more than willing to go.

The Privy Council listened to Calvert. It listened to William. In between, the Privy Council yawned and thought of other things – after all, what happened in Virginia stayed in Virginia, and few Englishmen other than the merchants cared all that much about the colonies. The merchants, however, saw huge opportunities – this was the age when sugar and tobacco were becoming popular crops – and one such rich merchant took a liking to William Claiborne and his plans for Kent Island. Suddenly, William had the means to recruit indentured servants for his future trading post, and in May of 1631 William left London and sailed back home, quite convinced Calvert would never get the grant of land he so wanted.

It must have been somewhat of a shock to William – and his fellow Virginians – when the Privy Council awarded Lord Calvert a charter for the colony of Maryland. The charter included Kent Island, but William made it very clear to Calvert that he answered only to Virginia and the king, not to some upstart Catholic. The upstart Catholic in question had received Maryland as a personal grant, so the colony was in effect Lord Calvert’s property, and Lord Calvert intended to enjoy all his lands – including Kent Island.

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William looking elegant

Kent Island became a symbol. William refused to hand it over to Calvert, calling for Virginia to come to his aid. The Virginia Governor, one John Harvey, was loath to do so: Lord Calvert came with an impressive Royal Charter, and Harvey was not about to pick a fight with the king. William was livid and probably expressed this. The Governor retaliated by having him dismissed as Secretary of State. The Virginia Assembly did not like that one bit, most of them being firm friends of Claiborne, and so Harvey was ousted from office.

Not that it helped William all that much. A Maryland commissioner captured one of William’s ships, and in 1635 the first two naval battles on North American waters took place, both of them in Chesapeake, both of them involving William and his (unfairly according to William) impounded ship. Three Virginian died, things simmered down a bit, and still William hung on to Kent Island, but all this turmoil was not good for business. William’s intended profitable trading post was doing less than well, and in 1637 a London attorney popped up on Kent Island, representing William’s disgruntled London financiers. William was sent back to London to attend court proceedings against him, and while he was gone the attorney invited Maryland to take over Kent Island. Rather back-stabbing, and we must suppose William fumed and protested, but to no avail.

For some years, William was occupied elsewhere – in Honduras, to be precise – but with the advent of the English Civil War, William saw an opportunity to reclaim Kent Island once and for all. One wonders just what it was about this little island that had William so determined to control it. Was it simply a matter of pique? Was there a place on the island that reminded him of home? Hmm. William doesn’t strike me as the nostalgic type.

Whatever his reasons, William joined forced with Richard Ingle, a Parliamentarian Puritan merchant whose ships had been seized by the Maryland authorities in response to a royal order to do so. With England being torn asunder by civil war and religious tensions riding sky high, William and Ingle used Calvert’s Catholic faith as a pretext and attacked in 1644. William reclaimed Kent Island, Ingle took over St Mary’s City. I imagine William did a little happy dance, complete with hand-clapping and stamping, but already by 1646 Kent Island was back under Calvert control.

One cannot fault William with lack of perseverance. In 1648, as the newly appointed Parliamentary Commissioner and Secretary of Virginia – William declared for Parliament and the Puritan faith – he was also made responsible for bringing Maryland to heel. Yet again, up popped the question of Calvert’s Catholicism and how far a papist could be trusted. (I know; this becomes very repetitive, but blame it on the times, not on me). Calvert’s Governor was outnumbered by the vocal anti-papists and submitted to Claiborne’s authority – for a while.

In 1653, to William’s outraged surprise, Cromwell confirmed Lord Calvert as owner of Maryland. In 1654, Calvert’s man in Maryland, Governor Stone, declared that William Claiborne’s property – and life – could be taken at the Governor’s pleasure. The purpose was to scare William into leaving Maryland alone, but instead William and his co-commissioner, Bennet, overthrew the hapless Stone and ousted all Catholics from Maryland’s Assembly. This did not please Lord Calvert. Stone was told to get his act together and regain authority ASAP. Stone tried and failed. By 1655, the colony of Maryland was in the hands of Puritan colonists who went on quite the burning spree, destroying any Catholic institution they could find.

At last it seemed to William he was in a position to permanently claim Kent Island back. Together with Bennet, he sailed for England with the intention of convincing Cromwell to once and for all tear up that irritating Royal Charter which granted Maryland to Lord Calvert. Didn’t work. Instead, Lord Calvert was granted total control over Maryland for the rest of the Protectorate, and William Claiborne had to kiss Kent Island away for ever.

William C The-Great-Southern-PlantationOnce Charles II was restored, William Claiborne’s political career was dead. A former Parliamentarian and Puritan had no future in the royalist and Anglican Virginia, and so William retired from public life, living out the rest of his years on his huge estate, Romancoke. He may not have acquired everything he desired, but when William Claiborne was laid to rest in 1677 he left behind a substantial fortune. The young penniless man who set sail from England in 1621 had indeed realised the American dream. He wasn’t the first to do so, nor was he the last – but he was definitely one of the few.

From royal sweetheart to Iron Lady

Kalle-nioIn October of 1611, Karl IX, king of Sweden, died. And no, one should not judge this gentleman by his umm…creative hair-do. Karl was a competent (if rather ruthless) man who used religion as an excuse to wrest the Kingdom of Sweden from his nephew, Sigismund, leaving behind a realm in order, a half-grown son and a rather impressive wife.

The recently bereaved Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp headed the regency council set up to rule Sweden until her son, Gustav II Adolf, came of age. This happened sooner rather than later, the just seventeen-year-old young king deciding in December of 1611 that he was ready to rule on his own, thank you very much. Proud mama acquiesced and so the personal rule of Gustav Adolf began.

Now, one of the things a young king needed was a wife—and heirs. Gustav Adolf probably felt he’d  solved that issue some time later. You see, our young and dashing king was in love. Head over heels in love to judge from his surviving letters to Ebba Brahe, who was two years younger than him and one of his mother’s ladies in waiting.

Ebba Brahe was by no means a bad choice. Her family belonged to the upper echelons of Swedish nobility and she was closely related to Gustav Vasa’s third queen (This Gustav was the grandfather of “our” Gustav Adolf). When Ebba’s mother died, the Dowager Queen invited Ebba to court—Kristina had been a close friend of Ebba’s mother and had promised to oversee Ebba’s education. The girl was pleasing to the eye, well-mannered and obviously intelligent, which initially had her finding favour with her new mistress. Until Kristina realised her son had fallen utterly and irrevocably in love with Ebba, pretty and manipulative little minx that she was. This was not good. Oh, no: Kristina had far loftier plans for her son.

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Gustav Adolf wooing Ebba

The young king, who lived under the delusion that he could decide who to marry without his forceful mama’s consent, went as far as to offer Ebba marriage. In one of the surviving letters he asks her to raise the issue of impending nuptials with her father. After all, king or not, his bride needed her father’s consent. The reply from Magnus Brahe was a resounding no. He was not about to anger the Dowager Queen by approving a marriage she was so set against—it would make his daughter’s (and his) life hell on earth. Clearly, Kristina of Holstein-Gottorp was a respected woman, fully capable of holding her own among her male contemporaries.

Crestfallen, Gustav Adolf retired to lick his wounds. His mother was unrelenting: Ebba Brahe would not be the queen of Sweden unless it was over Kristina’s dead body. So when Gustav Adolf was next out and about in the world, bringing havoc and fear in his wake as he led the Swedish Army to more victories, he fell under the charm of a married lady and took her to bed. I imagine several people made it their objective in life to inform Ebba of her sweetheart’s betrayal. Maybe that’s why she supposedly engraved “Jag är förnöjd med lotten min och tackar Gud för nåden sin” (I am content with my place in life and thank God for his mercy) on a window. Or maybe this is a case of everyone over-interpreting a young woman’s spontaneous graffiti.

It is more likely that Ebba had long since reconciled herself to the fact that she would never be allowed to marry the man of her dreams. Her future life indicates a substantial pragmatic streak, ironically very much in line with Kristina of Holstein Gottorp’s temperament. Ebba even tried to dissuade her ardent suitor, repeating over and over again that she was not worthy to be Gustav’s wife. It drove him crazy when she said stuff like that, hence him drowning his sorrows in the welcoming arms of another woman. Erm…

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Maria Eleonora

With mama cruelly nipping the Ebba-Gustav love story in the bud, Gustav Adolf went on to marry a princess, Maria Eleonora of Brandenburg. His mother was delighted—at first. Over the years, I suspect she came to regret her insistence on having her son wed for dynastic reasons only. The marriage was unhappy, Maria Eleonora was not the most mentally stable of people, and even worse, there were no surviving sons, only a puny little daughter, the future Kristina of Sweden. (One of Gustav Adolf’s big, big plus points is that he seems to have delighted in his daughter, confident she could become as capable a ruler as any man).

Life did not end for Ebba Brahe just because she gave up on Gustav II Adolf. In fact, well before she engraved her famous little quote her father had been approached by the dashing Jacob de la Gardie who had his heart set on Ebba. After some consideration, Ebba accepted his proposal and in 1618 the twenty-two-year-old former royal sweetheart married Jacob.

Jacob was the son of a French wannabe-monk turned condottiere turned royal counsellor and loyal servant of King Johan III of Sweden. Pontus de la Gardie was generously rewarded for his loyal service. King Johan was so fond of Pontus (born Ponce d’Escouperie , but Swedish peeps had a problem with pronouncing such a fancy name) that in 1580 he gave Pontus his own daughter, Sofia Johansdotter, as his wife. The groom was thirty-six years older than the bride but this was no impediment to getting things going, hence baby Jacob was born in 1583 as the third of three children. Sofia expired at childbirth and the sixty-three-year-old Pontus was left alone to raise his children. Seeing as he died some years later, Jacob was orphaned at a very young age and grew up to become an accomplished military commander.

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Jacob

By the time he wed Ebba, Jacob de la Gardie had built quite a reputation. After all, he’s one of the few non-Russians who has led a successful campaign through Russia, all the way to Moscow. At the time, Russia was a mess, one faction after the other putting forth their candidate for the new tsar. De la Gardie took advantage of the chaos to strengthen the Swedish position and so admired were his military methods that the young Gustav Adolf spent 1615 campaigning with him to learn the art of war from an expert. At the time, Gustav Adolf was still hopelessly in love with Ebba. At the time, Jacob had already proposed to Ebba. I bet they never discussed that subject over dinner…

Anyway: once wed, Jacob swept his young wife into his arms and carried her off to Reval (present day Tallinn). Jacob was the governor of the Baltic states and constantly busy with his military career. Ebba, therefore, handled their private affairs and estates.

The Jacob and Ebba union is described as being very happy. They complemented each other, with Jacob trusting his wife to capably manage their various investments. She was openly devoted to him and over nineteen years she was brought to bed of fourteen full-term children. Of these, seven would live to adulthood, the most famous being her gallant of a son, Magnus de la Gardie.

Jacob and Ebba settled in Sweden in 1628. Together, they built an impressive empire, featuring everything from palaces such as Makalös (which means Incomparable. It apparently was, which did not always please the king) to successful business ventures.

Ebba excelled at the business side of things. She was especially interested in developing the iron works she owned. Early on, she caught on to the correlation between consistent (and high) quality and premium pricing. The iron produced at the de la Gardie works was of the highest quality. In fact, the iron Ebba sold was so good she was known as Countess Iron – a true iron lady, one could say. This had Ebba laughing all the way to the bank—well, it would have, if our Ebba had not been something of a high spender, with an obvious taste for life’s luxuries. Her clothes, her jewels, her furnishings, the art that decorated her walls – all of it was sumptuous. The de la Gardies also had a huge household. Approximately one hundred people were employed by them to keep their domestic life turning smoothly, plus they had all those palaces to maintain, children to raise in adequate style, horses and dogs and carriages and landscaped gardens, preferably a la francaise. Let me tell you, it was fortunate Ebba had such a well-developed nose for business!

In her business ventures Ebba was supported mostly by one of her daughters, Maria Sofia de la Gardie. Just like her dear Mama, Maria Sofia was possessed of an innate head for business and was one of Sweden’s first industrial entrepreneurs, amassing a huge fortune. That, however, was all in the future when Ebba taught her daughter about USPs and the like.

However, not everything was roses in Ebba’s life. The seventeenth century was not always generous to powerful—and wealthy—women, and in 1651 rumours started making the rounds in Stockholm. The young queen, Kristina, had been spelled by none other than Ebba Brahe, how else to explain the queen’s firm opposition to marriage? Yes, the gossipers whispered, this was Ebba working behind the scenes and using magic to keep Queen Kristina enthralled to Ebba’s much-loved son, Magnus Gabriel de la Gardie, royal favourite par excellence.

We find such accusations mildly amusing. Ebba, however, was probably quite terrified. The accusation of witchery had a tendency to stick like tar. It was therefore fortunate that the accusers in this case were a certain Arnold Messenius and his father, Arnold Johan Messenius. As the elder Messenius had already been convicted of treason on a previous occasion and also came with the stigma of having been educated by Jesuits and potentially being a closet papist, the end result of all these whispers was that Messenius father and son were executed for treason. Ebba could breathe easy again. Well, she would have, had she not had her hands full caring for her ailing husband.

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Ebba as a widow

It is somewhat ironic that Jacob de la Gardie, always a man on the move, always involved in one military campaign or the other, should spend his last few years afflicted by a disease that robbed him of his eyesight, thereby making it difficult for him to leave his home. Ebba invested her considerable energies in making his life as comfortable as possible but in 1652 her husband of thirty-four years died, leaving her a very wealthy widow. I dare say she was devastated.

Ebba was to expend the rest of her life on furthering the interests of her children—and more specifically those of Magnus Gabriel—and on expanding her business empire. When she died in 1674 she left behind a considerable fortune and the persisting legend of a young heartbroken girl, who wanted nothing but to marry her king but ended up with de la Gardie instead. I think Ebba would have been most displeased by this: after all, she spent far more years as Jacob de la Gardie’s trusted and respected wife than she did as Gustav Adolf’s heart-throb. But hey, we all have a thing about tragic love stories, don’t we? Even when they’re not one hundred percent true.

Going back to my roots – or why there now are NINE books in The Graham Saga

There is always a tomorrow-pb-eb@0,5xToday is the publication date for the ninth book in the Graham Saga. Ninth. What began as a book (with a very sad and depressing ending involving two lonely people dying far, far from each other) developed into a saga and by now I am quite convinced Matthew and Alex and their large family are quite, quite real.

I know how they think, how they feel. I know what they like and dislike, what convictions they hold and why. I know how Alex’s childhood shaped her (or rather how her weird mother shaped her. Mercedes was a woman whose life had involved so much time travelling her sanity was somewhat affected) and what adventures and experiences shaped Matthew as he grew from boy to man while serving in the New Model Army.

Now, I wasn’t planning on writing a ninth book. I was pretty happy with the eight I had out there. Plus, the older Matthew and Alex get, the closer I get to the inevitability of their demise and that is not something I want to write about.
“But you already know when we die,” Alex says.
I do. I also know how. But that still doesn’t mean I want to share this with anyone. As long as I don’t write those scenes, they remain alive and well.
Alex smiles and pats my hand. “That’s nice of you. But we all die, Anna. No one lives for ever.” She tightens her hold on my wrist. “But make sure I die first. I couldn’t cope with the pain of losing him.” She glances at her man, standing some distance away. A ray of sun filters through the cloud cover and lightens up his features. He looks good, my Matthew—err, Alex’s Matthew—no matter that his hair is grey.

Anyway: in There is Always a Tomorrow, both Matthew and Alex are alive and kicking. It is 1692 and up in Massachusetts the legal scandal named the Salem Witch Trials are in full swing. There is unrest in Maryland: after the Protestant Associators ousted the Catholic governor some years ago, the colony is no longer a haven for people of various Christian beliefs. Catholic priests are not allowed and those who cling to the papist faith have a hard time advancing themselves up the ladders of power. But Maryland has a large amount of Catholic settlers—the colony was founded by Cecil Calvert specifically to create a territory in which Catholics were welcome, albeit Maryland has always welcomed other Christian faiths as well.

In brief, things get messy. Especially when Father Carlos Muñoz, a long time Graham friend, is betrayed to the authorities by one of the Graham children… Things get even messier when little Rachel’s life unravels.

The big challenge with diving back into the world of Matthew and Alex is that I had to re-acclimatise myself to the 17th century. These last few years have been mostly spent in the 14th century with a relatively recent detour to the 13th and a constant back and forth with the time of Ancient Troy & the present day. (What can I say? I like bouncing about on the human timeline. Something all of you who follow my blog probably have realised ages ago, right?)

When visiting with Alex, I can have her drink tea. There is even hope of some chocolate (albeit of the bitter type) and a majority of people know how to read and write. Major progress compared to my 14th century world…

There is also a constant religious tension. Ever since Luther posted his theses in 1517, European humanity split down the middle, some clinging to their Catholic beliefs, some embracing one of the new reformed versions of Christianity. Mind you, this does not mean that there wasn’t religious controversy among Christians prior to Luther. Of course there was which is why John Wycliffe (a 14th century man) was declared a heretic after his death, his corporal remains dug up and burned to ashes. Wycliffe, in turn, influenced Jan Hus, the great Czech reformer and thinker who was burned at the stake in 1415. Luther, a century or so later, was greatly influenced by Hus, as was Calvin. John Knox was a great admirer of Calvin which is why the Scottish Reformation was Calvinist—and why my Matthew Graham is a proud member of the Presbyterian Scottish Kirk. See? It all comes together somehow: what begins as a ripple in one era grows into a roaring wave some generations down the line. And in the 17th century, that roaring wave of Protestantism crested and crashed head on with the equally roaring wave of the Counter Reformation, as launched by the Holy Catholic Church.

Reading this last paragraph, I realise I get a bit carried away by all this and yes, I will happily admit that all the religious strife that characterised both the 16th but mainly the 17th century (think the Thirty Years’ War) is quite fascinating. As a consequence of the Reformation more people learned to read (the Reformers were great believers in people reading the Bible) which in turn led to a market for political pamphlets. Suddenly, a growing percentage of the population had the opportunity of making their own mind up, of reading and drawing their own conclusions—which led to lively debate about how a country should be governed.
“Not something you need to worry about,” Charles I might have said. “I, the king, am best placed to take the right decisions on your behalf.”
Turns out very, very many didn’t agree. As you all know, the English Civil War ended with a victory for the republicans and an executed king. Some years later, however, England joyously welcomed Charles II back as their sovereign.
“Not me,” Matthew mutters. True. Matthew’s convictions remain the same throughout his life. Sometimes, this causes a lot of heartache for the Graham family.
“Tell me about it,” Alex says. But she takes her man’s hand. Fingers tighten round each other, they share a brief smile and then “poof”, just like that, my reluctant time traveller and her 17th century man fade away. For now. I suspect they’ll be back soon enough to pester me about book number ten. As I am a person who likes symmetry and even numbers, I suspect they’ll convince me to write one more. One. Maybe. We’ll see. For now, I hope There is Always a Tomorrow will bring my readers as much joy in reading as I had in writing!

 

The adventures of that perennial herbalist, Mr Nicholas Culpeper

NC d7107f99f9f5f33b5c78b6be93e2de61Some people are born with a major interest in flowers. Take my eldest son, who at the tender age of fourteen months methodically chomped his way through every single one of my hundred odd tulips, leaving half chewed petals in his wake. Or take Nicholas Culpeper, whose interest in flora was somewhat more scientific. I don’t think he ever ate a tulip – but that may have been more out of parsimony than disinclination, as tulips were rare (and expensive) plants during Nicholas’ lifetime.

My son no longer remembers what tulips tasted like, and seeing as these plants – or at least their bulbs – are mildly poisonous, he was never given an opportunity to repeat his gastronomical excursions. Culpeper tells us nothing of the tulip in his writings. I guess we can conclude that Culpeper wasn’t all that interested in flowers that were “merely” beautiful .

Not many authors can boast at having their book in constant publication for more than 350 years. Obviously, this is to some extent due to the fact that very few authors live long enough to experience such a long print run, but leaving witticisms aside, Nicholas Culpeper is one of the few authors around whose book has been in constant demand since it was first published, back in 1652.

NC English_PhysitianSo what was so great about his book? Did he reveal the secrets of alchemy? Was he perhaps an early George R.R. Martin, riveting people to their seats by a complex and convoluted tale involving dragons, feuding kings and resilient damsels? Nope – although Nicholas’ own life contained enough adventure to fill a book or two, what with the times he lived in. But what Nicholas experienced in life resulted in an entirely different kind of book; Nicholas published a herbal, The English Physitian, a DIY manual to keeping hale and hearty in a time when what medicines were to be found came from plants.

If we start at the beginning  – always a good idea, IMO – Nicholas was born in 1616, the posthumous son of Reverend Nicholas Culpeper, lord of Ockley manor in Surrey. The manor slipped through baby Nicholas’ fingers, and instead he was raised by his maternal grandfather, yet another reverend. By the time he was ten, little Nicholas had a good grounding in Greek and Latin, was familiar with both astrology and medical tracts and was well on his way to becoming a master herbalist. One must assume this passion for plants came from his grandfather, and I have this image of two figures, one stout and leaning on a cane, the other agile and all legs and arms, standing side by side as they inspect a stand of digitalis.

At the age of sixteen, Nicholas was sent to Cambridge to study divinities. He wasn’t all that interested – he wanted to study medicine – and as a consequence he never graduated. Besides, Nicholas had other plans. Since childhood, he had held a special fondness for Judith Rivers, a well-to-do heiress, and the two young lovers were committed to a life together. Judith’s parents disapproved. Nicholas was not a catch, and their precious Judith could do better. I imagine Judith wept. She trailed her mother like a whipped puppy and begged her parents to reconsider – she loved Nicholas, would love no other. Mr and Mrs Rivers remained unmoved. Judith was meant for other, richer, men.

Well, we all know what teenaged fools do for love, right? Faced with her parents’ continued opposition, Judith and Nicholas devised a plan. After all, theirs was not a puppy love, theirs was the real thing, and a life without each other was not to be contemplated. They decided to elope to Holland (Gretna Green had not come into the vogue yet) and stay there until the furore died down. As an aside, parental consent was not required for marriage in the 17th century, but to wed without Mama’s and Papa’s approval was to risk end up being disinherited. I suppose Judith was hoping that old adage “distance makes the heart grow fonder” would apply to her parents as well.

Whatever the case, Judith and Nicholas were not destined for a happily ever after. On her way to her rendezvous with Nicholas, Judith’s carriage was struck by lightning and she died. With one bolt of thunder, Nicholas’ hopes of a rosy future were obliterated – even more so when his grandfather decided to disinherit him, shocked to his core by Nicholas’ duplicitous behaviour. (Obviously, the old reverend had little experience of being young and madly in love…)

Nicholas was now in dire straits. There was no money to pay for his education, there was no bride, no welcoming home. After rousing himself from grief-induced depression, Nicholas apprenticed himself to an apothecary in London. He taught his employer Latin, his employer taught Nicholas everything he knew about plants.

NC downloadIn 1635, Nicholas took over his former master’s apothecary shop on Threadneedle Street. Due to his extensive reading and an inquisitive mind, Culpeper’s education was as extensive as that of a physician – but it was an informal education, and as such of very little value professionally. To his medical interests, Culpeper added astrology, blending these two disciplines into a holistic approach to healing. The Royal College of Physicians were not pleased with this interloper. Nicholas Culpeper retaliated by describing the physicians as “bloodsuckers, true vampires” – not the basis for a long-lasting loving relationship.

In 1640, several years after the sad affair with Judith, Nicholas married Alice Field. His new wife had recently inherited a considerable fortune after her merchant father, and using her money the couple established themselves in Spitalfields, far enough from London proper to allow Nicholas to continue with his healing endeavours despite not being an accredited member of the Royal College of Physicians. In Spitalfields, Nicholas opened the doors of his practise to everyone who needed his help. (How fortunate his wife was rich)

NC Digitalis_purpurea_Koehler_drawingMost of Nicholas cures were based on herbs. Some were true advancements in medical science, as when he documents the use of foxgloves to treat heart conditions (definitely works. The dosage, however, is somewhat tricky, and if too high will kill your patient). Some sound decidedly strange, such as boiling your bedstraw in oil to make an aphrodisiac.

Otherwise, he shares that willow can be used to stem the bleeding of wounds, roses can alleviate the discomfort of menses , raspberries and strawberries are excellent ways of ridding your teeth of “tartarous concretions” (plaque?). The seeds of nettles can be used against the bites of rabid dogs (I think not), meadowsweet is recommended against fevers (works, as meadowsweet contains high doses of salicylic acid)and fleabane helps with bites from venomous beasts. Hmm. My general conclusion after browsing through Nicholas’ suggested cures is to take them with a pinch of salt – and to make sure I have a herbal with me to ensure I’m picking the right plant!

NC zodiac manOur innovative healer did more than just list plants. He combined his herbal lore with his other passion, astrology, and borrowed heavily from Galen’s humoral philosophy, which is why in his herbal the plants are sorted by planets. Some belong to Venus, others to Mars and yet others to Saturn or Jupiter. To all this he added his own personal opinions – like when he dismisses black currants as having a “stinking and somewhat loathing savour”, thereby dismissing a plant we know to contain very high levels of vitamin C as well as a number of anti-inflammatory agents.

After some years of contented calm in Spitalfields, things were to change yet again for our intrepid healer. By now, the ravages of the Civil War were upon the people of England. Culpeper was a radical republican and wanted to do his thing for the cause. Besides, there was the matter of a slanderous accusation for witchcraft, plus an increasingly more infected relationship with both the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. These august bodies disliked Culpeper’s translations of medical texts from Latin to English, making hitherto restricted knowledge available to the broader masses. It sort of undermined their business concept…

Nicholas kissed his wife goodbye, may have stooped over a cradle to coo at one of the many children his wife was to give him – puny little things that all but one died young – and rode off to fight for Parliament. The recruiting officer was less than flattering regarding Nicholas’ physique, but more than impressed when he heard Culpeper’s credentials, and instead of fighting, Nicholas was put to work as a field surgeon.

He attended the wounded at the battle of Edgehill, joined in the initial fighting at the battle of Newbury but was quickly called upon to use his medical skills instead. Culpeper was operating on an injured soldier when a stray musket ball wounded him severely in the chest, effectively ending his military ambitions.

Back in London, Nicholas returned to treating the poor. His own health was deteriorating rapidly, through a combination of too much work, his unhealed injury and tuberculosis. It didn’t help that his children kept on dying, causing both Nicholas and his wife more than their share of grief. On top of this, Nicholas took up a one man crusade against the “closed shop” policies of the Royal College of Physicians and the Society of Apothecaries. This “closed shop” policy was effectively a monopoly, based on the fact that so many of the guidelines to making medicines and treating diseases were only in Latin and only available to a few.

Nicholas made it his purpose in life to crush this monopoly. He translated one text after the other, he wrote treatises on diseases, on midwifery, on the properties of plants. He translated Galen into English, he devoted time to his destitute patients, and in all this he also managed to produce his masterpiece, The English Physitian – a giant handbook on what herbs to use for what diseases.

NC In_Effigiam_Nicholai_Culpeper_Equitis_by_Richard_GaywoodBy now, Nicholas knew he was dying. He was burning his candle both ends as life gasped and fluttered within him, driven by a need to write down as much as possible to help his fellowman. And he was clearly very productive, because when he finally did die, in January of 1654, his wife wrote that her husband had left her “79 books of his own making or translating in my hands.”

Nicholas Culpeper was an idealist. He was a man who combined compassion and passion into a constant endeavour to help the sick and ailing. He considered it a human right to have access to medical care – a precursor of the future welfare state – and like Don Quijote he was not afraid to take on an army of windmills while fighting for what he thought was right. In difference to Don Quijote, Culpeper fought using pen and ink rather than lance. And the fact that his book is still there, is still being read, is a testament to his success.

NC IMG_1227The English Physitian quickly became very popular. Housewives all over wanted a copy, and when people set off for the wild unknown of the New World, many of them carried with them a precious copy of Culpeper’s book, hoping to find cures for whatever ills might afflict them in their new homeland within the covers. I think Nicholas would have been pleased. I also think he would have liked my tulips – no matter that they have very few medicinal uses.

A colony, a colony – we need a fricking colony!

Sweden hasn’t given American culture all that much: one very famous hymn (How Great Thou Art), one so-and-so famous revolutionary (Joe Hill), and one most emblematic building (the log cabin).  The log cabin? I see my American readers wrinkling their brows. Isn’t the log cabin a home grown invention? Nope. It’s as Swedish as zippers (oh, yes) and dynamite (sadly, yes).

But let’s take it from the beginning, shall we?

In the 17th century, every country that aspired to greatness needed a colony.  It was the accessory, so to say, and those that didn’t have one, didn’t really qualify as an important nation.

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Fernando & Isabel

This vogue started in the 15th century. After years of vicious bickering between Spain and Portugal, in 1493 Pope Alexander IV decided enough was enough and divided up the world between these two countries by establishing a dividing meridian 100 leagues west of Cape Verde. Portugal wasn’t too happy with the pope (who was Spanish and therefore, as per Portugal, biased) and after a lot of noise, the Portuguese king and Their Most Catholic Majesties of Spain, Fernando and Isabel, signed the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494.

As per this treaty, Spain and Portugal divided up the non-Christian world, establishing a separating meridian approximately 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde islands. Anything west of that line befell to the Spanish – should they want it. They most certainly did, blatantly claiming everything beyond as theirs. And it was so easy to claim, wasn’t it? They just planted a flag in the sand and said “this is ours”.

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Columbus planting flags & thanking God

What the original inhabitants might have thought of all this was neither here nor there – at least as per the Europeans. In fact, the Spanish argued they were doing these poor savages a favour by bringing them the word of God. Unfortunately, with the word of God came such things as measles and smallpox and slavery, but hey, small price to pay for eternal salvation.

While Spain was busy sinking teeth and claws into the newly discovered continents to the west, Portugal was hogging everything else, from Africa to the Far East.

However, claiming and holding on to are two very different things. The Dutch had no intention of leaving all of Asia or Africa to the Portuguese. After all, the Dutch considered themselves as great a  nation of seafarers and merchants as the Portuguese – the Dutch would argue they were even greater – and where the Portuguese sailed, so did the Dutch. Nor did the Dutch intend to leave all of America to Spain and Portugal, being very quick to establish their own presence in Curacao.

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Handsome Raleigh

England had no intention of being left behind in this “grab what you can and annex it” rally. After all, what the Dutch could do, the English could do better. Men like Raleigh and Drake set their eyes on North America and with them came shiploads of their compatriots, all of them eager to claim their share of this virgin land.

Attendez! As any self-respecting Frenchman would tell you, there was nothing the English could do that they couldn’t do, and so off they went to claim their share of this new continent.

By the first decades of the 17th century, that old Treaty of Tordesillas was a dead duck in the water. Yes, the Spanish still insisted all of America was theirs, but no one listened to them. With French colonies here, English colonies there, the odd Dutch outpost somewhere else, it was apparent even to the haughty Spaniards that they were fighting a losing battle in North America. Instead, the Spanish government decided to concentrate its resources on defending South America and Mexico (after all, that was where the gold was).

Some European countries felt very left out. Take Sweden, which at the time was suffering from severe megalomaniac delusions. Had not that magnificent Swedish warrior king, Gustavus Adolphus more or less singlehandedly conquered all of Europe? (No. But us Swedes like to think he did…) And yet, something was missing, a je-ne-sais-quoi to raise Sweden to a station equivalent to that of Spain or France (Sweden never compared itself to England: too small, too poor…)  After some consideration, it dawned on the Swedes that what they needed was a colony.

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“I get lands, you get beads, yes?” 

For those of you familiar with Swedes, you know we dither a long time over taking decisions (it’s called “creating consensus”) but are amazingly effective in implementing once the decision is taken. Once the Swedish Government had decided to go for a colony, off we went, and as Swedes can be quite pragmatic when necessary, in this case Sweden decided to hire a Dutch guy to find a colony for them. The Dutch guy in question was Peter Minuit, a true colonial veteran. This was the man credited with buying all of Manhattan from the natives for the equivalent of 60 Dutch guilders. Not only had he been governor of New Amsterdam, he had also been a director of the Dutch West India Company, and was therefore very familiar with who was claiming what where.

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Kalmare Nyckel

After some consideration, Peter Minuit directed the two Swedish ships, Kalmare Nyckel and Fågel Grip to the Delaware River. Somewhat devious, as this effectively meant he was infringing on land claimed by the Dutch. Not that Peter Minuit cared; he had scores to settle with his former colleagues in the Dutch West India Company, still smarting after having been ousted from the job as Governor of New Netherlands. Besides, Minuit insisted the Dutch only had deeds to the eastern shore of the Delaware River, and upon arrival in March of 1638, Minuit immediately assembled the local Indian chiefs and had them sign deeds which effectively gave Sweden the western shore.

The Dutch protested loudly. I dare say a bottle or two of genever must have been thrown to crash against a wall as angered Dutchmen cursed Minuit for his treachery. Minuit shrugged and went on with organising his little colony – at least until he drowned, a year or so later.

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Kristina, pre-huzzah to judge from her sour expression

A fort was hastily constructed and named Fort Christina after Sweden’s twelve-year-old queen. I imagine Christina celebrated this event by exclaiming a rousing “huzzah!”  At last the young Swedish queen could hold her head up high among her royal peers; she too had a colony now.

Two years after that first landing, a further 600 immigrants arrived in New Sweden. Towns were established, an embryonic administration was created, and the little colony thrived. Although the Dutch continued to grumble and moan, they had other concerns, even if now and then they glanced at New Sweden with covetous eyes. The English were as irritated as the Dutch by these Nordic latecomers to the party, but England was engulfed by the initial stages of the Civil War, and so Sweden’s little piece of America was left alone. For now.

The Swedish colonists were used to living in dense forests. Most of them grew up with trees standing thick around them, and what land they cleared, they cleared by the slash-and-burn method – as effective in their new home as in their old. The trees they felled, they used to build log cabins in the tradition of their homelands, constructions where dovetailed logs were stacked into four walls, often topped by a shingle roof.

The benefit of the log cabin is that it is relatively quick to build and very robust. Chinks between the logs would generally be filled with moss, and the resulting sturdy structure did as well in Delaware winters as it had done in Swedish winters – or should I say Scandinavian winters? This is probably an opportune moment to come clean. You see, the majority of those Swedish immigrants who arrived in Delaware in the 1640’s were not really Swedish. They were Forest Finns, a derogatory word used by Swedes to describe the Finns that were forcibly transferred from Finland to Sweden to clear land in Western Sweden.

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Log Cabin, courtesy of Norsk Folkhem Museum

These Forest Finns leapt at the chance of going to the New World. Few of them had any warmer feelings for Sweden, where they were often treated with scorn. None of them remembered Finland – they were second or third generation poor immigrants by the 17th century – and all of them knew they would never be allowed to return to Finland. (Sweden was doing its own form of ethnical cleansing by moving stubborn Finns to Sweden, oppositional Danes to Finland, truly obstructive people to the Baltic States, Baltic people to Sweden – in brief, stirring the pot so that local loyalties were effectively disarmed) Having to settle for second best, the Forest Finns opted for New Sweden, where they were promised land of their own.

I suppose this means that the emblematic log cabin is as much a Finnish invention as a Swedish one. If you ask a Norwegian, he’ll tell you they’ve been building log cabins since the Ice Age. So maybe we should agree on the log cabin being a Scandinavian contribution to the American architecture – but introduced in the land of the free and brave by the colonial ambitions of Sweden.

Sweden’s forage into the world of colonial matters was destined to be brief. After some years of uneasy if not unfriendly cohabitation, the Dutch decided to build a fort of their own, Fort Casimir, uncomfortably close to Swedish land. In a rash act of daring, the dashing governor of New Sweden, Johan Rising, captured Fort Casimir in 1654. In doing so, he inadvertently signed New Sweden’s death sentence. Enraged, the powerful Governor of New Netherlands, Peter Stuyvesant, attacked New Sweden in 1655. In a matter of weeks, the Swedish governor was forced to surrender, and with that the Swedish foothold on the American continent was gone.

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Swedish colonists conversing with the locals

Or was it? During the 17 years that Sweden had its colony, close to 1 000 settlers had come over from Sweden. No matter that the Dutch now controlled the area the settlers were still there, still speaking Swedish (or Finnish) to each other, still holding on to their customs and traditions. Their Dutch overlords didn’t mind, and everyone seems to have rubbed together quite happily for a decade or so. I guess the Dutch and the Swedes could meet over their common love of herring (and genever).

In the early 1660’s, the English were done with their Civil War. Peace was restored, the king was back where he belonged, and the English government at last found the time to study the situation in America. What they saw, they did not like. Like a huge sore thumb between the northern English colonies such as Massachusetts, Rhode Island and present day Connecticut, and the southern colonies Virginia and Maryland was New Netherlands.
“Well, we can’t have that, can we?” uttered the Duke of York, and so the English set out in force to take control over “their” continent.

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The Nothnagle Log House, dating from the 17th century

By 1664, Delaware – together with the rest of New Netherlands – was taken over by the English. With the English came new colonial administration, new laws – and a new, more practical language. (Even back then, Swedish suffered from being a language VERY few speak) The original settlers held on to their antiquated Swedish when at home or in church, but overtime their language and those traditions and customs they’d carried with them from their homeland faded into obscurity – except for one small and utilitarian building: the log cabin.

Over time, this ingenious and simple little piece of architecture would go walk-about all over the North American continent, home to an endless number of intrepid settlers who, just like the 17th century Swedes (and Finns) came to America in search of a better life. Not a bad contribution, all in all. On the other hand, neither is “How Great Thou Art”

(And for those of you interested in one of the more colourful inhabitants of New Sweden, allow me to introduce you to Armegott, a determined Swedish Amazon)

The road less travelled

Today, I’ve invited Cryssa Bazos to drop by for a visit. Cryssa has recently released her first book (CONGRATULATIONS!!!) and you can find more information about Traitor’s Knot at the end of this post, including my thoughts. Traitor’s Knot is set in 17th century England, which makes me a very happy camper seeing as I love that particular era. So does Cryssa, and her knowledge of the period is quite impressive – as can be seen in the following post!

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The award for best true-story adventure of a monarch goes to Charles II of England for the six weeks that evaded his enemies following the Battle of Worcester.

CB Battle_of_WorcesterThe final battle of the English Civil War unfolded at Worcester on September 3, 1651. Oliver Cromwell’s forces outnumbered the King’s Scottish army 2 to 1. By late afternoon, the King’s forces had been captured, killed or were in retreat.

Charles was one of the lucky ones to escape the city. He headed north and got as far as Shropshire before needing to find a place to rest. An officer in his party led them to White Ladies, a farmhouse owned by the Gifford family. But the Giffards weren’t in residence, and instead their servants, the Penderells, were on hand to attend the weary king.

Charles’s situation was desperate and his options limited. He could either head back to London to find a ship bound for France or make his way to Scotland. Charles rejected the latter idea and waffled on the former, but remained firm that wherever he would go, he’d do it alone. After his companions rode off, he finally resolved to cross into Wales.
With the Penderells help, Charles disguised himself as a commoner. They cut his hair, darkened his skin with a rubbing of walnut and exchanged his royal clothes for a coarse noggin shirt, a green suit and leather doublet. Then at dark, Charles and one of the Penderells, Richard, set out on foot to reach the closest ferry crossing into Wales.

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Boscobel House, By Oosoom at English Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, 

Around midnight, they stumbled upon a belligerent miller who chased them off like thieves in the night. They searched along the Severn for another crossing, but dragoons watched every route. Admitting defeat, Charles and Richard returned, this time to Boscobel House, a hunting lodge also owned by the Giffards.

The patrols were now scouring the area, and the lodge would be the next place for them to search. While Charles hid in an oak tree, dragoons passed right underneath him and not once did they look up. To this day, a descendent of the original Boscobel tree is known as the Royal Oak.

Next the Penderells spirited Charles away to Moseley Old Hall in Wolverhampton, the home of Sir Thomas Whitgreave, a former Royalist officer. It was there that Charles ran into one of his fugitive companions, Lord Wilmot.

The King's Room at Moseley Old Hall, Staffordshire.

The King’s bedroom, Moseley Old Hall;
Photo courtesy of Moseley Old Hall

Thomas settled Charles into a guest chamber with the additional amenity of a priest’s hole. The following afternoon, a company of soldiers rode up to the manor to arrest Thomas, not for harbouring Charles (they hadn’t a clue), but for breaking parole. Rumours had reached them that Thomas had broken his parole and fought with the King at Worcester (he didn’t). While Charles crouched in the priest’s hole, the dragoons questioned Thomas for hours. In the end, they left without once searching the manor.

Thomas wasted no time to arrange for the next safe house in case the dragoons should return. Charles travelled to Bentley Hall, the home of Colonel John Lane. The Colonel had recently secured a travel pass for his sister Jane and a servant to travel to Bristol where she was to visit a close friend. Originally, the travel pass was meant for Wilmot, but the King’s need was greater. The next morning, they dressed Charles in a grey coat with matching breeches and gave him the role of servant in charge of Jane’s horse, while Wilmot rode ahead on his own.

CB King_Charles_II_and_Jane_Lane_riding_to_Bristol_by_Isaac_FullerThe party had no trouble until they reached the village of Wootten Wawen, near Stratford and found five hundred dragoons blocking their way. Charles hesitated. He didn’t want them to see him turning away for that would stir their suspicions. There was nothing to do but go forward. Bold as brass, the most wanted man in England rode straight for his enemies. As the party approached, the dragoons inexplicably saddled up and pulled out.

When Charles’s party finally reached Bristol, they found their hosts with a house-full of guests. The butler was the only one who took notice of Jane’s ‘servant’. He didn’t immediately recognize Charles, but when he overheard talk about Worcester, he finally recognized Charles. Instead of giving him away, the man pledged to help him find a ship.

None could be found, and the party couldn’t risk staying longer in Bristol. The butler arranged for their next safe house—Trent House in Somerset, the home of Colonel Wyndham. At this point, Charles and Jane parted. Years later during the Restoration, he bestowed upon her a sum of £1000 with which to buy a jewel, this being the price of the reward for his capture.

While Charles hid at Trent House, Colonel Wyndham continued the search for a ship and found a willing master, Captain Limbry. Charles and his party arrived at Charmouth to wait for Limbry, but the captain never arrived. The man’s wife had become suspicious of his venture and locked her husband in the water closet.

Charles’s party arrived in Bridport and found the port town clogged with Parliamentarian troops. Instead of slinking away, he rode up to the Old George Inn, manoeuvred a stable yard full of dragoons, cutting a path straight through them. However, his luck soured when he reached the stables.

The ostler knew his face, but he had not yet placed him. Charles, being an astute observer of human nature, took the offensive. He questioned the ostler about where he had lived and soon had him convinced they were old friends. But before the ostler could rethink their acquaintance, Charles and his party slipped out of town.

Over the next couple of weeks, they went from one Royalist house to another until they learned of a small barque for hire near Brighton. They arranged to meet the master, a Captain Tattersell, in a private room of an inn. Tattersell recognized Charles immediately. Years ago, when Charles had been briefly in command of his father’s fleet in the Channel, he had seized Tattersell’s ship. But Charles had released the vessel, and now that he needed help, Tattersell remembered that kindness and agreed to help.

Charles wasn’t taking any chances. Ships were hard to come by, and captains willing to accept the risk even more rare. To keep Tattersell close, Charles plied him with drinks for the rest of the night.

On October 15th, the slightly hung-over party set out for Shoreham. They reached the Surprise without incident, and after weeks of hiding, Charles and Wilmot finally sailed for France.

Before we mark this as “The End”, there is an alternative story that was circulating in the days and months following the battle. As Cromwell beat the countryside looking for the King, rumours were spreading through London that a highwayman had helped Charles escape. Parliament was so convinced that the rumours were true, when they captured a Royalist highwayman named Captain Hind they tried and executed him for High Treason.

In my novel, Traitor’s Knot, I’ve chosen the road less travelled and explored the alternative version of Charles’s escape.

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CB Traitors_Knot_4Thank you, Cryssa, for that. Quite the exciting story , isn’t it? In Traitor’s Knot, Cryssa’s highwayman James Hart is very much involved in getting Charles to safety, and things are further complicated by the fact that James has an implacable enemy in a certain Puritan named Ezekiel Hammond. Plus, of course, there’s James’ wife who is very much at the mercy of said Hammond. All in all, Traitor’s Knot is a great read, breathing life into both the well-developed characters and the tumultuous events of the time. Warmly recommended!

Traitor’s Knot is available through Amazon.

CB fullsizeoutput_d9Cryssa Bazos is an awardwinning historical fiction writer and 17th century enthusiast with a particular interest in the English Civil War. Her debut novel, Traitor’s Knot, is published by Endeavour Press and placed 3rd in 2016 Romance for the Ages (Ancient/Medieval/Renaissance). For more stories, visit her blog cryssabazos.com. Follow Cryssa on FB or Twitter

 

 

The Queen and the Cardinal – a love story?

cristina_de_suecia_a_caballo_bourdon-1It’s a tough job being a 17th century queen. Well, in this case, we’re talking ex-queen, but Christina of Sweden was a tad sensitive about the ex, so if you didn’t want her to yell at you, it was best to stick to the “Your Majesty” when addressing her. After all, there were days when Christina seriously regretted abdicating in 1654 on behalf of her cousin. There were others when she didn’t, when she remembered why she abdicated, starting with the fact that she had secretly embraced the Catholic faith, thereby making it quite, quite impossible to remain reigning queen of the Very Protestant Sweden.

Instead, Christina moved to Rome – an early version of Escape to the Continent, if you will, albeit that 17th century Rome was a disconcerting mixture of fabulous art (think Bernini) and primitive entertainment such as forcing Jews to run naked through the streets. Christina stuck to the arty stuff – and to the various princes of the Church she regularly interacted with (She also put a stop to the tradition of making the poor Jews run naked) . Well, when she wasn’t dabbling in politics that is. Or enraging the French by executing poor Monaldesco without a preceding trial in France. But mostly, she stuck to invigorating discussions about everything from God to philosophy to the art of war – and her principal companion was one Cardinal Azzolino.

garbo_-_queen_christinaEver since Greta Garbo depicted Christina on the silver screen, people seem to believe this Swedish queen was quite the beauty. Err…no. Christina may have been extremely gifted intellectually, she rode as well as any man, and by all accounts was as adept with a rapier, but she was not drop-dead. A lot of dark hair, a beak of a nose adorning a face that had little feminine softness to it – well, except for her large eyes. Not that Christina ever expressed much interest in how she looked or dressed. Initially, because she knew it didn’t matter  whether she is pretty or not – her courtiers sucked up to her anyway, falling over their feet in their eagerness to compliment the little queen and win her favour. The little queen was too smart to take this at face value. And when men swore they loved her, chances were she’d snort. She didn’t believe in love – and she didn’t believe these men loved her. If anything, they loved her crown.

Christina grew up with few examples of loving relationships. Her father, Gustav Adolf, died when she was not yet six. Her mother, Maria Eleonora, had never reconciled herself to the disappointment of having birthed yet another daughter, not the much-longed-for son, and had a tendency to take this disappointment out on Christina, by dropping her down the stairs and the like. Gustav Adolf and Maria Eleonora were very different people: he had his sights on conquering Europe and establishing a mighty Swedish Empire, she was clinging and needy, and felt abandoned whenever he set off to fight. Accordingly, Gustav Adolf preferred to avoid his wife as much as he could, which only made her more clingy and needy.

When Gustav Adolf died at the Battle of Lützen, Sweden reeled with shock. Their gallant young king, cut down before he had presented the kingdowm with a male heir, before he had won the Thirty Years’ War! Now what? Woe, woe, and even worse, their new queen was a child of six. Maria Eleanora wailed with the best of them. In her role as grieving widow, she gave the Oscar performance of her life and would spend her nights with Gustav Adolf’s embalmed heart by her bed. Little Christina quickly learnt that love could morph into morbid obsession, which in turn could impact your sanity. Christina liked being sane and in control. Ergo, love was something to be wary of.

So when, in 1655, Christina arrived in Rome, I think it is a safe bet to assume she was relatively inexperienced when it came to matters of the heart. Yes, she’d had a teenage crush on her cousin, the future Carl X Gustav, yes, there was the matter of her infatuation with Ebba Sparre, yes, she’d flirted a bit with Swedish gallant Magnus de la Gardie, but all in all, Christina was still an innocent, had not been struck by Cupid’s arrows. Yet. Because, you see, in Rome there was that handsome cardinal, Decio Azzolino.

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Decio Azzolino

A cardinal? I hear you ask. Well, dear peeps, I hate to break it to you, but many of the cardinals of the 17th century – and the popes – weren’t exactly moral rolemodels. Those seven capital sins afflicted several of the princes of the Church, everything from greed and gluttony to lust. Those who became cardinals were not necessarily the most pious among priests. Rather, they were the most brilliant, the most ambitious, the most well-connected. In Azzolino’s case, he was among the truly brilliant, having received doctorates in law, philosphy and theology. He was also a skilled cryptographer, an able administrator, and ambitious. Some years older than Christina, he would have been in his early thirties when they first met, and by then it was well known Cardinal Azzolino liked beautiful women, had a knack for writing poetry and also had a burning interest for science.

So far in her life, Christina had openly expressed her distaste for marriage – one of the reasons she abdicated was because she refused to entertain the notion of marrying anyone as it would reduce her to a subservient status. (She was also of the firm belief women should not rule, being too weak, too affected by emotions. I dare say she considered herself something of an exception) She found love and emotions in general ridiculous and unreliable and preferred to be guided by her intellect and rational thought. In truth, she saw herself as the Minerva of the North – wise, cool, unobtainable.

christina_queen_of_sweden_1644-1654_-_google_art_projectDecio Azzolino was an attractive man who carried himself with elegance. He was also well-educated, shared Christina’s interests for science and philosphy, and was appointed to help her settle into her new life in Rome. Soon enough, he had become indispensable to her, and there are rumors suggesting she took to carrying his portrait around, extracting it from wherever she was hiding it to peek at it. Hmm. Doesn’t sound quite like Christina, but hey, maybe this was Cupid’s bolt hitting home.

As to rumors, Cardinal Azzolino was surrounded by many of them. It was said he got no work done due to all his amorous affairs, that he had a fondness for busty actresses (and Kristina seems to have been aware of this, sending him a letter in which she snarkily comments that she assumes he only spends time in the company of these lady thespians to offer his services as a priest). There is, however, no proof to support the notion of Azzolino as a serial womanizer. His love of the theatre and of the arts is well-known, but other than that, Decio Azzolini seems to have invested most of his time in church politics.

Whatever the case, soon enough “everyone” in Rome knew that Christina and Azzolino were spending their days, their nights, their mornings and afternoons together. The pope was so worried he expressed his concerns to Azzolino who replied in writing (the letter, dated 1656, still exists) stating that there was nothing untoward in his relationship with the young Swedish queen. And maybe that was true for Azzolino, but Christina herself was soon in the grips of a passion, a love so strong it would last for the rest of her life.

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Christina

Over the coming decade, Azzolino and Christina indulged in an exclusive friendship. He was fond of her, was perhaps even slightly attracted to her – but only slightly, because Christina was, as stated before, not a particularly attractive woman. But where Azzolino liked Christina – a lot – she loved him, all the way to the depth and breadth and height her soul could reach when it was safely out of sight. Some spreculate that they did, in fact, have a physical relationship during the early years of their relationship, but I’m not so sure.

How do we know that Christina loved Azzolino? Well, mainly because of the letters she wrote him – and in particular a letter dated in 1667, when she was moping in Hamburg, far from Rome and her cardinal. While Christina’s letters glow with feelings, Azolino’s missives are borderline dry – well, at least the ones that have survived are. Azzolino took the precaution of destroying most of his archives in the days before his death, and we will never know just what it was he was so anxious to reduce to ashes.

All the same, from reading her letters to him, it’s pretty clear that where she burns, where she loves, he retreats into cool friendship, going so far as to admonishing her for her emotional outbursts. Now, at the time, (and we’re in 1666 – 1667 by now) Christina was going through a rough patch. She was pushing forty and had been back to Sweden in an effort to convince the council to appoint her as regent for the new little Swedish king (Carl X Gustav died young-ish) and received a resounding “NEJ!” in reply. No way was this Catholic ex-queen going to be allowed anywhere close to the little boy.

She was also struggling with financial problems – something Azzolino helped her deal with as she had effectively given him a carte blanche to do what was needed to salvage her economy. Azzolino was of the opinion Christina needed to cut back on her expenses. She wasn’t too thrilled at having most of his letters to her consist of long lists of excessive spending she needed to curb. What she wanted were expressions of love – or at least affection – instead, she got rebukes. To add to her burdens, she was suffering health problems, some of which she was certain would be cured if only she could ensure a steady supply of fresh milk (!)

Christina was a proud woman. As proud as Lucifer. some would say. And yet, in her letters to Azzolino she grovels. She begs for scraps. She requests to be allowed to adore. This is a woman desperate to consummate her love. Unfortunately for her, he does not share her passion. Unrequited love is a bummer, people, even more so when Azzolino forbids her to love him- or at least to express such feelings for him. And while she is up north, our dear cardinal is not exactly without beautiful female company, which drives Christina crazy.

Where he in one letter assures her of his warm friendship towards her, she replies by telling him she more than deserves his friendship, seeing as she has the tenderest of passions for him. “I know I will never again be happy, but I also know I will love you until the day I die.” She speaks of love, he wants friendship… This is in the summer of 1666, and clearly the cardinal is a tad worried by her declaration of love. As the summer progresses, he turns down the temperature in his missives, warm friendship becoming cool friendship, and by September, Kristina is devastated by what she perceives as his distance. She writes: “Whatever change of heart you may experience, it will not affect me, and I will be loyal to you unto death.”

In October she writes: “I can neither change my feelings for you, nor share them with you without hurting you.” Azzolino has by now forbidden her to declare her love to him. But she perseveres. “No matter how coldly you treat me, it will not stop me from adoring you for the rest of my days.”  This is a woman writing her heart’s blood onto the paper, while the recipient is frightened rather than flattered by all that pent-up passion. After all, Azzolino was a cardinal, and to openly indulge in a carnal affair with someone as closely watched as Christina would be the equivalent of professional suicide. Plus, she wasn’t his type.

In January of 1667, Christina throws caution  to the wind and writes the following: “I would like to add that is not my intention, by the grace of God, to offend Him, or to lure you into sin ; but this intention cannot stop me from loving you unto death, and as your piety makes it impossible for you to be my lover, I find it impossible to have you as my servant. Instead, I want to live and die your slave.” (I’ve included the original French further down – for those fluent in the langauge, this may offer further nuances my translation may not convey)

cupid-piero_della_francesca_-_cupid_blindfolded_-_wga17587Wow. I can see Azzolino sitting back and fanning himself after reading that. I also suspect he’d have wondered if she was being ironic – after all, dear Decio was not known for his piety. Personally, I don’t see anything ironic in the above. I just hear the voice of a sad, heartbroken woman, fully aware of the fact that cruel Cupid has made her fall in love with an unobtainable man. Sometimes, love sucks.

The letters between Christina and Azzolino went back and forth for almost two more years. Letters in which she is at times bitter, at times abjectly begging for forgiveness, terrified at the thought of losing what little affection he had for her. At the end of this period, Kristina had learnt her lesson: she no longer wrote about love, she wrote about the deep friendship they shared. She tried to find other interests and submerged herself in the study of alchemy (an interest they shared, to the extent of setting up a laboratory together in Rome) Slowly, she buried her love, her fiery passion underneath layers of steel. It displeased him to know she loved him. She, therefore, had no choice but to pretend she no longer did.

Azzolino may have been reluctant to become Christina’s lover, but he was her friend, a loyal and devoted friend throughout her life. When, in April of 1689, Christina died, Azzolino was the main beneficiary of her will. He did not live long enough to enjoy it, as he followed her to the hereafter some months later. Instead, Kristina’s collection of artworks and books fell into the hands of Azzolino’s nephew, who quickly sold it and cashed in. Said nephew also inherited his uncle’s books and stuff – and Azzolino’s severely depleated personal archive, with most of his letters to Christina (and from Christina) destroyed. We have no idea what secrets he chose to take with him to the grave. Maybe, just maybe, there was an early declaration of love from him to her? Or maybe not.

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And as promised, here’s the French version: “J’ajouterai toutefois que mon intention est de n’offenser jamais Dieu, avec sa grâce, et de ne vous donner jamais sujer d’offenser, mais cette résolution n m’empêchera pas de vous aimer jusqu’à la mort, et pusique la dévotion vous dispense d’être mon amant, je vous dispense d’être mon serviteur, car je veux vivre et mourir votre esclave.” 

 

Sleeping with the enemy – a royal duty

Throughout history, Denmark and Sweden have mostly been at war. Sometimes, Denmark has had the upper hand – mostly, in fact – but now and then Sweden has stomped their southern neighbours into the dust, like they did in the 17th century. Along the way, Sweden took over substantial lands previously belonging to Denmark, and this did not go down well with the Danes.

In 1658, Denmark was forced into a humiliating treaty whereby they gave up the entire province of Scania (which is the southern-most tip of present day Sweden). Why the treaty? Well, it all had to do with the very intrepid Swedish king Karl X Gustav, nephew of Gustav II Adolf, who surprised the Danes by leading his army across the ice to the south of Denmark, thereby attacking them in the back while they were expecting the Swedes to come across the seas to the north.

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Little Karl

Fortunately, as per the Danes, Karl X Gustav was not long for this world. He died in 1660 and suddenly the mighty Sweden had a five-year-old child as king, the as yet very puny and un-martial Karl XI. Hmm, thought the Danes, maybe now would be a good time to reclaim some of that lost territory? Not. The little king had an impressive mother and good men around him to keep him and his reign safe, so for now the Danes had to hold their peace. Besides, Fredrik III of Denmark had learnt at his own expense not to bait the Swedish wolf, and preferred to live out his last few years in peace.

Karl XI was not the most socially gifted of people. He was interested in facts, in war and in numbers. He was also determined not to let that French pompous king by the name of Louis XIV hog all the limelight – which didn’t work out all that well. After all Louis was king of France, while Karl XI was king of Sweden. And while Sweden in the second half of the 17th century was big – much, much bigger than France – it wasn’t exactly the centre of the world. Rather the reverse, actually.

From the day of Karl XI’s birth, his potential wedding was a hot topic of discussion – as it was for any prince or princess of the blood. In little Karl’s case, a suitable bride was found very close to home: he had a cousin, Juliana, who was brought to court to be raised with her future husband. Now Juliana came with something of a blemish – or rather her mother did, having admitted to her husband that she’d had an affair with a French Lute player. Obviously, expectations were that nurture would beat any adulterous genes little Juliana might possess, and things were ticking along quite nicely – until Juliana gave birth to a child while out riding in a carriage with her prospective mother-in-law. The Queen Mother was not amused. Juliana, of course was disgraced and discarded as a bride-to-be. Karl himself seems not to have cared overmuch. (More about Juliana – and her mother – can be found here)

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Ulrika Eleonora as a child

Instead, Karl decided to follow his council’s advice and do what most young princes did: he was going to wed where it suited his political interests best, which is why, in 1675, he sent off an embassy to Copenhagen to request the hand in marriage of Ulrika Eleonora, youngest sister to the new Danish king, Christian V. At the time, Christian V was already planning war on Sweden. The lands his father had lost called to him, so to say, and Christian considered himself a far better general and leader than his father – and superior in all things to the young Swedish king, at the time a slight youth of twenty who had not begun shaving regularly.

Being of a devious inclination (but that may be the Swede in me), Christian V chose to pretend he was all for this match. In fact, to really lull the Swedes into a sensation of false security he encouraged his sister to accept the proposal – without telling her of his double-dealing. Ulrika Eleonora is one of those people in history who mostly impress by being good and kind, and in this case she innocently agreed to the match, being more than mortified by the fact that her stiff skirts did not allow her to curtsey properly to the Swedish ambassador.

Some months later, war exploded. Christian immediately rescinded on his promise to wed his sister to the soon-to-be Swedish loser, but his sister insisted she had given her word – and her heart (which seems strange as she’d never clapped eyes on Karl) – to the Swedish king.
“He’s the enemy!” the somewhat upset Danish Dowager Queen said. “You can’t go to bed with him.”
“Of course, I can. It’s my duty to do so – as his wife,” Ulrika Eleonora said, her eyes acquiring a somewhat misty look.
Difficult situation, one could say, even more so when the Danish princess made a point of taking a personal interest in the Swedish prisoners of war that soon began streaming into Copenhagen. You see, initially Christian seemed to be winning. Rephrase: he was winning, big time, with the very young Karl pushed further and further north. Until, in December of 1676, the Swedish army pulverised the Danish forces at the battle of Lund, with over 10 000 men killed in one day.

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The victorious Karl

The war continued – and not only in Scandinavia. France allied itself with Sweden against Holland who were allied with Denmark, more nations joined in, and it was all quite the mess – until the French defeated the forces of present day Netherlands in 1678. Louis XIV, who considered himself the senior member in the Swedish-French coalition (duh!) pushed through a treaty in 1678 without consulting Sweden, and so, according to Louis, things were neatly concluded.

The Swedes were miffed at having the French treat on their behalf without consulting with them. Never mind that the Swedes got everything they wanted from the treaty, this was a matter of national pride. Who did the French think they were, lording it over everyone, hey? Too right, the Danes agreed, after all they were perfectly capable of negotiating their own treaty with Sweden, weren’t they? And so the Swedes and Danes met in Lund where they did just that: negotiate a treaty that was already signed (!)

As part of that treaty, the matter of the royal marriage was yet again raised by the Swedish representatives. At the time, Karl lived under the assumption that his match with Ulrika Eleonora was as dead as any of the poor frozen corpses that had recently decorated the field in Lund. No one thought to inform him that this particular corpse was now back to living and breathing again – in fact, the king was presented with a fait accompli – his Danish princess would soon be his wife.

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Ulrika Eleonora

Karl took this pretty much in stride, albeit that he was heard to grumble a bit about Ulrika Eleonora’s purported plainness (they had still not seen each other). And yes, to judge from her portraits, Ulrika Eleonora was not a major looker, having been gifted by an oversized nose that sort of dwarfed all her other features, but Karl was not exactly prince Charming either.

In the spring of 1680, the Swedish nobleman Johan Gyllenstierna was dispatched to Copenhagen to fetch the bride-to-be. Now Johan had quite the ostentatious streak in him – in contrast, Karl XI was anything but, being somewhat miserly when it came to spending money – so Johan arrived in Copenhagen in style travelling with an entourage of 130 people and close to seventy horses.

In Wonderful, Wonderful Copenhagen, there were balls and dinners and more balls and more dinners, and everyone was waiting for Karl to ask Johan to bring Ulrika Eleonora over to Sweden. Instead, Karl prevaricated. Twice, Johan was forced to delay their departure on the king’s orders, but when Karl tried to delay things a third time, Johan refused to comply.

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Karl striking a pose

One doesn’t exactly get the picture of an eager bridegroom, even less so when Johan had to remind his king that maybe he should send his fiancée some gifts – she’d sent him plenty. At long last Karl sent over a pearl necklace and some matching earrings, and then managed to really irritate Johan by absolutely refusing to take part in a huge, public wedding. Nope, the king said, he wanted something small and private, with no family present except for Ulrika Eleonora’s two brothers. Johan scratched his hair in despair. The French ambassador was insisting he be invited! Tough, Karl said.
“You’re not stopping me,” the French ambassador, a gentleman by the name of Feuquières said. “I’m coming whether you like it or not.”

Karl couldn’t very well stop the stubborn Frenchman – but he could make it uncomfortable for him, by ordering his noblemen not to offer him lodgings. Feuquières, however, was a man of the world and found lodgings on his own in the insignificant town of Halmstad where the wedding was to be held.

Karl sniffed. He was adamant that the wedding ceremony be private, and so he rode out to meet his bride in the late afternoon, suggested they travel over to the nearby manor of Skottorp, and then more or less surprised everyone by insisting the wedding go ahead just before midnight. A blushing bride, her not quite as enthusiastic groom, the groom’s mother, an assortment of noblemen and that was it. No fuss, no major expense – just like Karl liked it.

After the wedding ceremony, Karl retired to eat dinner with two of his officers. Ulrika was served a light dinner in her mother-in-law’s rooms. At one o’clock in the morning, she was escorted to the bridal chamber and her waiting husband. Whatever transpired between them, we don’t know, but come four in the morning Karl was already up and about. I imagine he looked quite smug when Feuquières popped up to offer his congratulations.

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The happy family

Whether these congratulations were also extended to the new queen of Sweden, I don’t know. In fact, I don’t think there was all that much to congratulate her about, as in Karl’s life other things would always be far more important and interesting than his wife. He did, however, perform his marital duties regularly if with little passion, and over the coming years Ulrika Eleonora would be brought to bed of five sons and two daughters. All but one of the sons died very young, their deaths having the single upside of bringing the grieving king and his wife closer together.

In 1693, Ulrika Eleonora died. By then, the shy, dutiful and kind Danish princess had won the hearts of her subjects – even that of her husband. In an uncharacteristically emotional entry in his diary he writes “I have lost a Godfearing, virtuous and very dear wife, leaving me in despair and grief.” She was 36 years old. Four years later, Karl also died, leaving behind yet another very young king, the fifteen-year-old Karl XII.

Of royal oaks and sinking ships

oaks-20161008_100237Behold a baby oak. Well, baby and baby – as per my reckoning, this thin little thing is at least 7 years old, but from the perspective of an oak, I suppose that means it is an infant.

Hubby has recently scythed the meadows, but whenever he comes across an oak sapling, he detours, saying we have a responsibility to ensure a new generation of quercus robur. It’s not as if there is a scarcity of oaks in our neck of the woods, but as hubby reminds me, they take a loooong time to grow.

oaks-20161008_100510This oak is reckoned to be 300 years old. No way can I reach round the trunk. All I can do is gawk at it in awe. And climb it. This oak stands sentinel over our yard, and one day I’m going to put a rope swing in it. Well, maybe, seeing as there is this huge stone wall behind it, and I don’t want people falling off to land with a splat on the stones.

It used to be that all Swedish oaks belonged to the king. No matter where they grew, on whose land, every single oak had an invisible “for royal use only” stamp on it. Those not of royal blood were forbidden to as much as break off a twig, and any oak sapling found growing on your land had to be left alone to grow into maturity. Only with royal dispensation could an oak be taken down, and many are the writs where the king graciously has allowed yeoman this or that to take down an oak to use as posts in a new build or for a new door. Armed with such a writ, the happy recipient could essentially take down any oak that took his fancy in the neighbourhood – e.g., the tree did not have to grow on his land.

Should someone be foolish enough to poach an oak (and I imagine this would be an endeavour which is very, very difficult. It’s not as if you stuff an oak into your rucksack and skip off, humming Waltzing Matilda) the consequences were severe: for the first offence, the penalty was 40 Swedish Daler, roughly the equivalent of 1-2 full year’s wages. The second offense cost you 80 Daler, and third time round, you lost your life.

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Sweden’s oldest oak, estimated to be 1000 years old

So why all this hullabaloo re an oak? Ah. The answer to that lies in Sweden’s ambitions to expand beyond its natural borders. Sweden wanted more. Sweden wanted recognition as a force to reckon with. Sweden needed a navy, and at the time, ships were built of oaks. On average, 2 000 oaks were required to build one ship. If you wanted a navy, that meant a lot of oaks. Very, very many oaks.

Obviously, things didn’t always go according to plan. Take the proud ship Vasa, for example, built in the early 17th century. The then king, Gustav II Adolf, was a bellicose sort – he was also a self-proclaimed defender of the Protestant faith in the Thirty Years’ War. Over time, Gustav II Adolf became the figurehead of the various Protestant armies fighting the might of the Holy Roman Empire. While I have no intention to dig myself into the complexities of the Thirty Years’ War, suffice it to say that what began as a religious conflict (The Holy Roman Emperor wanting to impose Catholicism on his unruly Bavarian subjects) quickly escalated into a political conflict in which various European countries saw an opportunity to once and for all curb the power of the Hapsburg Emperors.

Neither here nor there in this post. Let us instead get back to the proud ship Vasa. This, our most famous Swedish ship ever, was built by a Dutchman named Henrik Hybertsson, and if we’re going to be picky, it wasn’t even named Vasa, it was actually named Vasen, which is Swedish for sheaf. Why a sheaf? Because it figured prominently on the Vasa dynasty’s coat of arms. Now, of course, everyone knows it as Vasa, so insisting on using its correct name will probably be a useless exercise.

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Battle of Oliwa, in which the Swedish navy suffered severe losses

Work on the Vasa began in 1625. Gustav II Adolf commissioned four ships at the same time – he was desperate for more ships to transport his troops across to the continent and also do some harrying when so needed, like when keeping the Danish king Christian IV firmly on his mat. Besides, his ongoing war with Poland had cost him quite some ships in various naval battles, and he needed them replaced. Like ASAP.

Our Dutchman Henrik was delighted at receiving an order for four ships – two larger, two smaller – and soon enough the shipyard rang with the sound of axes and hammers. Not that Henrik did much chopping, sawing or hammering himself: he was the designer, responsible for constructing a ship that would handle the seas and whatever storms may come her way.

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Gustav II Adolf

Now Henrik was no novice – he’d been building ships since ages. But the king wanted more than your average ship with 12 cannon on one gun deck. Gustav II Adolf wanted TWO gun decks, and he wanted all of 72 cannons. Plus, he wanted the standard superstructures, which allowed for firing platforms from which to shoot down at your enemies. A (not so) lean, mean killing machine powered by sails. Gustav II Adolf likely salivated at the thought.

At the time, ships with two gun decks were still very rare. The technology was unproven, and the trade-off between more guns and less stability was as yet not fully understood. Not that it mattered: what the king wanted, the king would get, and so Henrik began working on the initial design sometime in 1625. These were presented to the king who reviewed and approved them. With the project having been given a royal go-ahead, oaks were ordered to be cut down en masse. Sails were ordered from France, rigging and hemp rope from Holland.

In 1627, Henrik died, and the responsibility for the half-finished ship passed to yet another Dutch Henrik, this time with the patronym Jacobson. Things progressed more or less as planned, and in 1628, it was time for the first stability test. Thirty soldiers in full kit were to run back and forth over the deck under the eagle eye of Klas Fleming, the Vice Admiral. The purpose of the test was to set the ship rolling, and see how she handled the motion. After only three test runs, Fleming aborted the tests, fearing she was about to capsize. I imagine him groping for a huge handkerchief and mopping his sweaty brow, all the while debating just how – or if – to tell the king this ship of his was dangerously unstable.

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Vasa, prior to sailing

There is nothing to indicate Fleming ever informed his king about the result of the stability tests. Instead,  Gustav II Adolf kept on sending letter after letter asking about his ship. He ordered it to be lavishly decorated, he asked about the cannon, of which 64 had now been delivered. Despite certain misgivings, the work went ahead, and in August of 1628, the ship was ready. Crowds assembled to watch this huge construction set off on its first journey. The crew was allowed to take their family with them on the first short leg of the journey, and in general it was all very festive. Flags snapped in the wind, there was beer, there was food, it was sunny if windy, and at long last the ship glided away from the pier.

For the first few hundred metres, the ship was towed, but once on open water, she unfurled her sails. The cannon ports were opened, and a massive salute was fired, causing people to cheer and clap their hands over their ears. Behold the might of Sweden, this huge impressive warship decorated in gold and red and blue, with three masts and all those cannon snouts poking from the open ports.

oaks-bok20A sudden gust of wind had the ship heeling to port. She righted herself ponderously. Yet another gust of wind, and she tilted heavily to the left – so heavily that water gushed in through the open cannon ports. In a matter of minutes, the ship sank, settling on the seabed 32 metres below. Thirty or so people died, most of them trapped inside. The top of the masts stuck up over the surface, with survivors holding on for dear life, and from all over, small craft came to the rescue, dragging half-drowned sailors out of the water. And so, dear readers, ended the glorious career of the Vasa – like ten minutes after it started.

ekskogen-visingsoWell, there you have it: She sailed, she sank, and thanks to that disaster, we have an almost perfectly preserved 17th century ship to gawk at in the Vasa museum – a ship made of oak (as is the museum itself). With Vasa, an equivalent of 2000 royal oaks or so sank into the deep. Fortunately, those Swedish kings of the past were wise enough to plant new oaks to replace those they’d used, ensuring a continuous supply of oaks well into our times. Not that we use oaks for warships anymore – we use steel. Instead, those oaks planted by our kings as late as in the early 19th century or so, have now grown into magnificent forests, like this one on Visingsö. A sea of oaks, where the wind rustles through leaves that are vivid light green in spring, shifting through dark green to a faded, yellowing hue in autumn.

“A beautiful tree,” hubby says, patting the bark of our biggest oak. Yes, because these days it is ours. The king no longer owns every single oak in Sweden – a sure sign of progress, right?  The oaks, of course, couldn’t care less who owns them. They live out their long, long lives, from acorn to rotting trunk, in one place, their branches spreading protectively over the ground beneath them.  But hubby is right: it’s a beautiful, beautiful tree.

Of a man and his wandering head

Oliver_Cromwell_by_Samuel_Cooper National Portrait Gallery

Oliver Cromwell by Samuel Cooper (National Portrait Gallery)

Today, I thought we’d spend some time with a certain Oliver Cromwell. Well, to be quite correct, not so much with dear Olly himself as with his mortal remains. (I call him Olly, ok? Others call him Noll. I imagine he prefers Oliver when amongst casual acquaintances, and as to what his wife calls him in private, we will never know – the man just smiles) Rarely has a decapitated head seen so much adventure as Mr Cromwell’s did – not that I think Olly cared all that much. After all, he held the opinion that once the spirit had fled, all that remained was dust.

Oliver Cromwell is one of those historical figures who triggers a black-or-white response. Either you’re with him or against him, and all those rooting for the dashing royalists (futile: they lost) will mostly be against him, holding up the execution of Charles I as the prime example of just what a low-life Oliver was.

There is no doubt Oliver Cromwell has a lot of black marks against him – I would personally consider his treatment of the Irish to be far more reprehensible than the execution of an inept king far too enamoured of the concept of Divine Right – but there are other aspects to the man. No man rises to the heights Olly did without having considerable talents, and whether or not we buy into his religious beliefs (somewhat harsh, I would say) there is no denying Olly was a devout man – and a man determined to take up arms against what he perceived as the despotic rule of Charles I.

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Charles I, by Anthony van Dyck

Olly wasn’t the only one who disliked Charles I. Initially, he wasn’t even the leader of the Parliamentarian faction, but as the Civil War went from skirmish to battles, from polite crossing of swords to fields filled with blood and gore and screaming men, Cromwell worked his way methodically to the top, this very much because of his excellent command of his men.

After the king’s execution in 1649, the monarchy was abolished and replaced by a Commonwealth. Initially, Cromwell was one of many leaders, but over the coming few years he established himself as the effective ruler of the country, and as of 1653 he became Lord Protector. Depending on your biases, you may consider Cromwell as being a man dedicated to ensuring an inclusive and relatively tolerant regime, geared at returning permanent peace to the country, or as a bigoted dictator. I lean towards the former – albeit that, as stated above, I have certain issues with some of Olly’s policies.

In general, I find Oliver Cromwell an intriguing man – on the one hand a capable and ruthless general and leader, on the other a caring family man, whose letters to his wife breathe love and affection, even after thirty years of marriage. Driven, courageous, gifted with an innate understanding of tactics – both on the battlefield and on the political stage – Cromwell was also a visionary, and a man most concerned with the state of his immortal soul.

Much has been made of Cromwell’s religious fervour and his determined efforts to clamp down on all kinds of sins. Absolutely, this was a man who believed in upholding high morals and went as far as to banish certain customs (such as Christmas) to reduce the risk of sin. But he was also a man who believed firmly in “liberty of conscience” whereby man (and woman) should be free to worship as per their own beliefs – assuming, of course, that their beliefs fell within the overall umbrella of Protestantism.

In 1658, Oliver Cromwell died. He was magnificently buried in Westminster Abbey, next door, more or less, to Henry VII and Elizabeth of York. I imagine these royal corpses were less than thrilled with their new neighbour, but seeing as they were dead, no one asked their opinion. With Oliver’s death, the backbone of the Commonwealth sort of evaporated, and after a couple of years of general confusion, Parliament decided to invite Charles II back. Needless to say, our man Charles Stuart leaped at the opportunity.

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Charles II

Now, if you were Charles II, it would have been very, very difficult to endow Olly with any positive traits. After all, Cromwell had been one of the most vociferous proponents of executing Charles I, and it is hard to forgive a man for having condemned your father to death – or for having forced you to live as an impoverished exile for close to a decade.

To give Charles II his due, he did not return to his kingdom to wreak revenge on all those accursed Parliamentarians who had caused him, his family, and their loyal retainers so much grief. Instead, Charles II showed admirable restraint, issuing a general amnesty. Well, with one exception: the men who had sentenced Charles I to death – the so called regicides – were all to be subjected to being hanged, drawn and quartered.

At the time, many of the 59 men who’d signed the execution order were already dead. Twenty of them, to be exact, including our Olly. Nine of the remaining 39 were to suffer  that most gruesome of deaths, a number fled abroad, and several were granted the mercy of having their sentence commuted to life imprisonment.

Three of those already dead were condemned to posthumous executions. One of these, unsurprisingly, was Olly. (One of the others was his son-in-law, Henry Ireton). While it may seem more than petty to disinter people and subject their remains to an execution, I suppose that Charles II felt there was a high level of symbolism in doing this.

Whatever the case, the whole thing was rather ghoulish. First, the bodies were disinterred. Due to his relatively recent death and a competent embalmer, Olly’s corpse was in better shape than the two other gents who were to share the gallows with him. Ireton had been dead close to a decade, and the other corpse belonged to a certain Mr Bradshaw who had presided over the court that had sentenced the former king. Bradshaw had only been dead for a year or so, but someone had screwed up with his embalming, so he probably smelled a LOT more than the other two.

Cromwell head Execution_of_Cromwell,_Bradshaw_and_Ireton,_1661

The “execution” of Cromwell – the heads are already on their pikes…

The remains were transported to Tyburn, still in their cerecloth wrapping, where they were “hanged” mid-morning. After some hours of swinging back and forth, they were then taken down and the executioner proceeded to hack off their heads. In Olly’s case, all that cerecloth required several blows with the axe before his head finally separated from his body. I imagine there was some weak cheering – the evil Protector had been justly punished.

In difference to Olly, who ensured Charles I was buried WITH his head, Charles II ordered that Oliver’s embalmed – and now decapitated body – be thrown into a pit, while his head was to be mounted on a spike and set to adorn Westminster Hall.

And here, with Olly’s bits and pieces rotting in a pit, the head slowly disintegrating on its spike, things could have ended – rather ignominiously. If it hadn’t been for that storm late in the reign of James II which toppled the stake upon which Olly’s head balanced, thereby sending the skull to crash land on the ground far below.

By some miracle, the skull did not disintegrate, and as per tradition one of the sentries – a former Parliamentarian – found the head, swept it into his cloak and carried it home. Some years later, said sentry died, and his daughter sold the head – by now not much more than leathery skin and some stubborn strands of hair attached to the bone – to an eager French collector. Here, at last, was a nice gory exhibit for his little museum.

At some point, Cromwell’s blood relatives heard of the exhibited head, and one of his indirect descendants bought his skull and brought it home to Huntingdon. Unfortunately for Olly’s head, some generations later another member of the family – something of a drunk wastrel – took possession of the skull which was now paraded around various pubs. By now, there was not all that much left of the so carefully embalmed features. Olly was missing an ear, people had gouged out keepsakes from his desiccated facial skin, and as to his hair, well… Apparently, stealing a lock from the severed head of Cromwell was something many wanted to do.

Eventually, the drunk wastrel – Sam to his pub mates – had gone through all his assets. The only single thing of value he had left was the skull of his distant relative. After signing one IOU too many, he no longer had that, his creditor a certain jeweller named Cox who walked off with something of a spring to his step, Olly’s poor head cradled in his arms. Why the jeweller wanted something as ugly as an old skull is beyond me – maybe he was an admirer of Cromwell. Or maybe he was gambling on the value of the head increasing.

Cromwell's_head,_late_1700sIn the event, Cox did make quite the handsome profit when he sold the skull in 1799. The eager buyers, a pair of brothers named Hughes, paid him twice as much as the original value of the IOU. Cox’s walk was, I assume, even springier this time round, and brothers hastened off to exhibit Cromwell’s head to the public. At the time, there were TWO heads exhibited as being Olly’s, and whatever we may think of him, he was no two-headed monster, so one of them was obviously a fake. As per the brothers, theirs was the real thing, but it was becoming difficult to prove.

The brothers died, the head changed hands yet again, this time ending up in the hands of a doctor Wilkinson. Our good doctor had the head examined and decided it had to be the genuine thing. For the coming century or so, the Wilkinson family hung on to the head, now and then showing it to specially invited guests. Somewhat macabre, IMO. “Want to join me for a nightcap and a peek at my skull?” is not a line that would have me skipping with eager anticipation…

In the 1930s, the head was subjected to a thorough examination by cranial experts. These specialists concluded that the head had belonged to a man in his sixties, had been trepanned after death – as required to embalm a body in the 17th century – and that several strokes had severed the head from the neck post-mortem. Not that many embalmed bodies would have been subjected to such treatment. Add to this the remnants of a moustache and beard, the depression left behind by a wart over one of the eye sockets, and it was considered more than likely this was, in fact, Oliver Cromwell’s rather battered head.

Finally, in early 1960 a certain Horace Wilkinson died and bequeathed the head to Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge. Why this particular college, you may wonder, and the simple reason is that this was Cromwell’s college, back when he was young and eager, not yet twenty years old but already determined to make his mark on the world. After spending his entire childhood and youth in a household dominated by women – his widowed mother and seven sisters – college must have seemed a bright new world indeed, although Olly seems to have been one of those men who genuinely liked and respected women. Right: neither here nor there…

Cromwell's head 800px-Sidney_Sussex_College,_Cambridge,_July_2010_(01)

Sidney Sussex Chapel, photo Ardfern Creative Commons Attr

Anyway: the college decided the time had come to bury this rolling stone of a head, and so, more than three hundred years after his death, Cromwell’s skull was secretly interred, somewhere close to the chapel. No plaque marks the spot itself, but I don’t think that old skull really cares. It lies safe at last, hidden from gawking eyes and grasping hands. And as to Olly, I imagine he now and then pops by to check on what little remains of his remains, a gust of a chuckle escaping his soul as he considers just how hardheaded his skull must have been to survive all its adventures!

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For those that want to know more about Cromwell’s head, I warmly recommend the entertaining – if at times fictitious – The Embalmed Head of Oliver Cromwell – a memoir by Marc Hartzman.

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