Friday, 5 August 2022

The Lordship of the Three Castles

The Lordship of the Three Castles, Skenfrith, Grosmont, and White Castle, were part of the Marcher defences against the Welsh— a people the Normans would eventually subdue. Specifically, the castles were built to defend the Monnow valley, a key route to Hereford. Now they make for a nice walk, but if you dig beneath the stones, there are stories to be told.

Grosmont is now little more than a romantic ruin, as the pictures below indicate.

Even so, you can see at a glance the fertile lands it dominated and controlled. 

White Castle, penetrated further into Wales and faced with increasing threats was heavily fortified in readiness. No attack came, not surprising when you see the strength of the walls and surrounding moat, which perhaps illustrates the truism 'if you want peace, prepare for war.'

White Castle, Grosmont and Skenfrith eventually fell into the hands of one of the most significant power-brokers of the C13th, one now who is largely unheard of.

Hubert de Burgh is a character who could carry off a TV series, a major film, or prize-winning novel. With characters like King John and pirates like Eustace the Monk, what could go wrong? Great dramas and award winning books have been written about Cardinal Wolsey and his successor Thomas Cromwell, but who on God’s earth has heard of Hubert de Burgh?

Born, probably in Norfolk, he emerged from obscurity to become King John’s fixer in chief and remained loyal to the king through thick and thin. There was only one known instance when his loyalty wavered. In 1203, Duke Arthur of Brittany, a dangerous rival* to the English throne was captured and held in one of Hubert’s castles. John’s reaction was swift. He ordered the young duke to be castrated and blinded; this, for Hubert, was an order too far. From there the story becomes a little confused. Hubert told the king the deed had been done, and outrage, based largely on rumours followed. At that point Hubert confessed to the king he hadn’t been able to go through with it, and yet, nevertheless,  Arthur disappears from history and is never seen again. 

Hubert’s brief loss of nerve, or perhaps a flicker of scruple was forgiven, and he rose to become the most powerful man in England and continued to be so after John died. Hubert became regent and guardian of the nine-year-old heir – the future Henry III.

Looking back, Hubert de Burgh provided a masterclass in political manipulation, especially when it came to exploiting  marriage. Apart from using his own children and others as marriage pawns, he was quite the gamer himself.  

In 1209 he married the widowed Beatrice de Warrenne and thus began his steady acquisition of land and estates. In 1217 he married Isabella of Gloucester, King John’s former wife and acquired even more land. Conveniently or otherwise, Isabella died a few weeks after the marriage. 

Four years later, in 1221, he married the Scottish king’s daughter, Margaret,  making him brother in law of the young Henry III who’d married her sister, Joan, in the same year. In the process, he made powerful enemies. He was accused of siphoning royal revenues and surrounding the young king with middle-aged advisors, all of whom had served under King John and were loyal to Hubert de Burgh.

Like other over powerful royal advisers, Hubert met his nemesis in the thwarted ambitions of others allied to the king, who may have been flighty, resentful or  petty; to my mind, all three.   And yet despite several near misses where his life hung by a thread, Hubert survived albeit diminished. 

Unlike the later Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas Cromwell, Hubert enjoyed a prosperous old age, no doubt looking back on years of states-craft, warfare, and skullduggery. His fall deserves its own story but this, just one of the many castles and estates he held, bears mute testimony to a key but little known figure in English history. 


*said to be King Richard’s preferred choice as his successor

Friday, 29 July 2022

Night Terrors


 I finally got around to reading: Night Terrors: The Ghost stories of E F Benson, better known perhaps as the author of the Mapp and Lucia books. For me, the stories evoked interest, rather than horror. If I was to generalise, you’d have to call them ‘comfortable terror’ or perhaps ‘cosy terror,’ set in a world of gentlemen’s clubs, old country houses and Constable landscapes of meadows and woods, Turneresque coasts. His writing is lyrical when he describes landscapes and, translated into TV suggest Morse, Lewis, or Midsomer Murders’ production values. 

The stories as horror, however, too often fail to hit the spot. This is not altogether Benson’s fault; he set many of the templates others have followed for almost a century, and so the originals seem at times stale. Where he is at fault is in his endings. Too many of them are neatly glib or worse, damp squibs. Unease is generated, the story builds, you turn the last page and then meh. 

There is one story that stood out: Sanctuary. This is a story rich in menace and genuinely creepy with shades of Dennis Wheatley, and it has an almost complete conclusion, with just two dangling threads: the equally villainous mother and daughter. What happens to them? We’ll never know; perhaps because they are women, or Benson simply lost interest.

There is though, another reason for my interest in Sanctuary. Its male villains, Horace Elton and Owen Barton, resonate with two historical characters that E F Benson might well have known via gossip and mutual acquaintances. Benson was discreetly homosexual and so part of a necessarily secretive but intimate world. Benson’s brother, Robert Hugh Benson for example, knew Evan Morgan in a biblical sense when both boys were at Eton.

 It seems likely that the villain of Sanctuary, Horace Elton, physically at least was based upon Aleister Crowley although there could also an argument for the occultist, Montague Summers. It is also more than possible that the other villain, Owen Barton, was based upon the infamous Evan Morgan – Lord Tredegar after 1934. 

Evan Morgan

Aleister Crowley

Montague Summers

Other than the physical descriptions: Horace Elton – ‘a grey-haired man of middle age, large and extremely stout with a cushion of jowl overlapping his collar.’ Owen Barton: ‘a young fellow, perhaps twenty-five years old, clean shaven and slim . . . there was something queer about him, something sinister.’ the parallels are obvious. In the book there is a country house with a secret ‘magic room’ where depraved ceremonies take place. Evan Morgan, too, had a secret ‘Magic Room’ in Tredegar House, and like the story’s villains, Elton and Barton, a predatory homosexual with a preference for young boys. Evan also, like Benson’s protagonists, had a penchant for clerical garb being not only a practising satanist but a Papal knight to boot.

If the hidden story of Evan Morgan interests you—marketing hat on—read the ‘Gift’ Trilogy, an occult ‘Downton Abbey’ involving Satanists, aristocrats, and Nazis. It initially adopts the form of a traditional family saga before subverting it as elements of the supernatural slip in.

The Gift follows the rise of a Liverpool orphan, Lizzy McBride, and the degradation but ultimate redemption of one of the richest heiresses in Edwardian England, Lady Gwyneth Ericka Morgan. Though there are elements of the fantastic, the novel is grounded in historical fact. It involves real people and historical events as it explores the occult underbelly of the English aristocracy and its links with the emergent Nazi movement.

It is, however, the first book of a trilogy, beginning in 1912 and ending in 1941. The three books trace the magical rivalry between two sisters, Elizabeth and Elsie McBride and interweaves between historical events involving such figures as Aleister Crowley, Churchill, Brendan Bracken, Litvinov, Shaw and Guy Burgess among other leading lights of interwar society. 

Marketing apart, it’s based on extensive research of the Morgan family and the circles in which they moved. One of the joys of such research is being able to make unexpected connections, such as for example, the likely/probable connection between Sanctuary and Lord Tredegar’s interest in the occult.

For those who enjoy delving into aristocratic rabbit holes—the footnotes are a joy—check out William Cross

Friday, 22 July 2022


Good friends, good books and a sleepy conscience: this is the ideal life. Mark Twain


The death of a friend hits like an iceberg. It brings life into focus, reminds you of lost chances and the importance of friendship. It is family and friendship that gives meaning to life along with its mystery. Why do they appear when they do? Why did I bump into a strange Yorkshire man motor biking through Morocco all those years ago? I remember we discussed the weather. Too bloody hot. And he urged me to visit Yorkshire for a spot of pot-holing before roaring off into the desert. I took him up, and he took me on the Lyke Wake Walk which nearly killed me, followed by potholing which gave me nightmares. And yet somehow we remained friends. Our last few visits to Yorkshire were especially poignant because he’d been diagnosed with terminal cancer. We drank in the knowledge that this could be the last pint we shared. And one day it was.

Henry was another friend, a gifted musician, craftsman, animator, artist, and father. When I met him, he was in search of anyone who could scratch a tune—first as another musician for a Welsh dancing group called Gwerin Yr Gwent, and later for his own band that became Devil’s Elbow. 

Those years were amongst the happiest of my life, he and his wife, Lol, firing the band with enthusiasm and joy. He carried the show on stage; he carried all of us, and it nicely derailed my teaching career: why strive to climb the badly paid greasy pole when a ceilidh a week more than made up a small increase in pay—and with the bonus of beer? The band eventually folded, and though remaining friends, we saw each other less often. 

Four weeks ago, he died, and past and present fused, the years in-between suddenly meaningless as memories flooded back; and with them the realisation of what had been and what had been lost; the realisation that I’d lost my chance to invite them to Monmouth for a long weekend and a meal.

A week after his death, another friend died. We’re dying off faster than rock stars. Peter, I had known from university days when we had been studying for our Masters in the stacks of Swansea University. It had been pure chance, nothing else, that saw us in adjacent cubicles, our desks piled high in books. After a hiatus where we briefly (ten years) lost touch, chance brought us together again via an article in the Times Educational Supplement. The friendship remained as strong as ever, our respective children playing together, as though they, too, had always been friends. 

It brings to mind the mystery of friendship, what it is, and why some last longer than others. I have friends from university days and before, friends with wildly different political views, which matters not a jot. What matters is a enjoying their presence and the ease of picking up threads as if a five or ten year break has been a mere blink.

And yet with some people, it’s impossible, like flogging a dead horse. You can be polite but never be friends, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It is as it is. A person’s nature can repel as well as attract.  

But as for friendship, it’s not a question of size, weight, political views, bone-structure, or the contortion of the face in a smile. Some talk of ‘chemistry’ which is a slippery metaphor. I prefer ‘spirit’ sometimes seen in the eyes, but an equally slippery concept, hard to grasp until sensed. 

Though we had little in common other than teaching, I ended up making a good and generous friend in a chain-smoking, beer-swilling misogynist rugby fanatic, neither of us knowing quite how or why.

It's why I think the much maligned ‘Facebook friend’ or cyber-friends in general can be the real thing: without the confusion of a physical presence, spirits converse via keyboards – the equivalent of a high-tech Ouija board. Generosity, empathy, and good deeds don’t require proximity, and friendship doesn’t end in death.

Death though is a gamechanger: when you have more friends dead than alive, and face being alone but for the grave-digger. Friends, keeping and making them should be a life-time’s joy.

As stated early on, it’s family and friendship that gives meaning to life and as for its mystery, sometimes it’s best not to question but gratefully accept and strive to be an equally good friend—above all strive to avoid the worst kind of regret when a friend or a family member dies: Why didn’t I say . .? Why didn’t I ask . . .? Why didn’t I do this, that, or the other? 

Addendum. And just to tone things down a notch:

The holy passion of Friendship is of so sweet and steady and loyal and enduring a nature that it will last through a whole lifetime, if not asked to lend money Mark Twain

Friday, 15 July 2022

Tom Tufton's Toll


I recently bought a first edition of Tom Tufton’s Toll, published in 1898, largely because I’m a sucker for old books and highwaymen. It’s not a great novel, but one that evokes atmosphere and much subliminal baggage. It’s one of the joys of reading old books, getting into the mindset of a previous age that bought and enjoyed them. 

It helps to know that its author, Evelyn Everett Green (1856 -1937) came from a Methodist family, and wrote over 350 books under several names, specialising in children’s  literature, romance novels, and boys’ own adventure. In that respect she continued the late imperial tradition associated with her contemporary Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) and the older, G. A. Henty (1832 – 1902.) She, like them, imbued generations with Victorian values through page turning fiction. 

Tom Tufton’s Toll is a case in point. Set  in the reign of Queen Anne, it's  essentially a story of redemption, how pride and circumstances can ambush a noble heart. Tom has everything, a country house, loving mother and sister and a sweetheart called Rosamund—all lost when led astray by the charismatic Lord Claud.

Tom Tufton confronting red-coats

Lord Claud exerts an almost sexual attraction but more potent. The Toxoplasma gondii parasite can turn a timid mouse into a bold, cat-teasing rodent. Lord Claud has a similar effect on those around him, seducing women and making men reckless and willing to lay down their lives for him. He is man of mystery, a Scarlet Pimpernel and Raffles with a touch of the brilliant Rik Mayall’s Captain Flashheart in Blackadder. 

One of the outlaws, Captain Jack,  rhapsodises:

‘He looks little older now than in the days he came first to me, his bright hair floating round his face, mounted upon a milk-white charger, clad in suite of white and silver – a very vision of grace and beauty. It was in the dawn of a summer’s morning that I saw him first. The long, level beams of golden sunshine were shining behind him. I never saw a fairer vision. I thought I was looking upon something more than mortals…

…I can see him now- the graceful boyish figure; the fair cheek, fresh and soft as a woman’s; the dreamy blue eyes, which could nevertheless flash and kindle; and the lips that seemed ready for the kisses of love.’

Be still, my beating heart! 

On to the plot. Despite the derring do and adventure, it is essentially a story of redemption. Captain Jack, never forgets Tom’s father saving him from the noose and giving him a second chance. (Your father) “spoke to me so earnestly and seriously of the sin of my past life, that my heart was quite changed and softened, and I promised him that if I had but the chance, I would turn over a new leaf and begin life afresh as an honest man.’ He fails and is tempted back to ‘the forest with other wild spirits full of lawlessness and the joy of life.’ And yet, in the end it is a redeemed Captain Jack that nudges Tom back into a more moral life. 

But that is much later; for now, Tom is in love with the outlaw’s life and every boy reading it would be too, with its shades of Robin Hood, and The Black Arrow.

For a start the outlaws have a den. They have several. This one is a ruined cottage deep in the forest made suitably comfortable: 

'…the stone walls were sound and thick, the thatched roof was warm overhead . . . Quantities of brake fern were always cut and dried in the autumn so that man and beast could lie warm and soft and the old cottage often resounded to the sounds of mirth and laughter …Though the snow lay white and deep without, the larder was well stocked with game, and the fumes of spirits mingled with the appetising odour of roasted venison and the clouds of tobacco smoke . . .'

It's all reminiscent of the Lost Boys in Peter Pan lacking the civilising influence of a ‘Wendy.’ 

We witness a pivotal adventure that will bring eventually bring disaster and turn Tom into a vengeful Robin Hood. They are set to destroy a villainous miser and redistribute his goods. As the adventure starts, you can almost hear the theme music accompanied by a British Pathe voiceover:

‘The moon had risen and rode high in the sky. A biting frost had the land in its grip. The snow was firm and hard, and crackled crisply beneath the feet of the little cavalcade as it started forth.

They had a matter of six miles to go to reach their destination; but that was nothing to the hardy sons of the forest. They had an adventure in front: wrongs to redress, vengeance to take upon the wicked and oppressive….’

Fired by Captain Jack, Tom Tufton assumes his role as ‘Robin Hood’ and gives his name to the book: ‘Tom Tufton’s Toll.’ 

He robs with purpose stealing only from ‘respectable’ thieves, and as for women, Tom and the newly rescued Captain Jack are Victorian gentlemen:

"There are women of many sorts in this world,” said Tom, with thoughtful mien – "good women like my mother and Rachel, and like Rosamund; and there are women such as I have seen in London – painted, mincing butterflies with no more soul than the winged insects themselves…." (but I could never  rob a woman using force.) 

"Right, Tom, right, " answered Captain Jack. “Never use force towards a woman, be she no better than she should; for it is womanhood in her, not the frailty of women that we reverence.”

He observes Tom’s face in the firelight, the formerly generous and reckless features now leavened with bitterness and hate for injustice. Tom throws back his head and declares:

"I have been a highway robber, a freebooter, a slayer of men, but I have been the champion of the oppressed. I have seldom gained by my robberies. I have taken gold to give to the needs of others.  I have punished evil doers…If God wishes to condemn me to hell for that, I will go at his bidding.” 

Here is the doomed romantic hero but one that Evelyn in the form of Captain Jack will now admonish. He confesses his unworthiness to preach but quotes from the Bible: we must not do evil so that good may come from it.

Tom remembers his dead father’s godly face and there ‘surged up in his heart a loathing of much in his past – of his pride, his self-sufficiency, his determination to judge for himself and be a law to himself.’

From there one, the message is unremitting. Tom returns to his mother, his sister, Rachel and sweetheart, Rosamund. He asks his mother, should he stay the fugitive or hand himself in? His mother buries her face in her hands: 

'She remained a long time without motion, her heaving shoulders alone betraying the violence of the storm raging within.’ At last, she looks up ‘and there was a strange and yearning intensity in her eyes.’

“Stay here, my son,’" she said; "let us have done with hiding and subterfuge. Meet your foes like a man; meet them in your father’s house. . .. And yet, Tom, it is hard – oh my son, it is hard!"

The arrest warrant

The consequences are capture, trial and judgement. Tyburn and the noose await, but only after a final visit from the fair Rosamund

“You shall not die! You shall not die!” cried Rosamund in an agony of passionate weeping. “Tom, Tom, hold me fast- hold me fast! You shall not die! God will never suffer it. It must not be – it cannot be!”

'He bent his face over hers and kissed her hair, her neck, her wet cheeks. She suddenly threw back her head and returned his kisses with hot feverish lips.’ 

After Rosamund's gone, the Chaplain approaches.

“Have courage, my good Tom,” said the chaplain kindly, his hand upon Tom’s shoulder. “Let us believe that all is ordered for our good. You have turned from evil course; you have repented in dust and ashes. Your peace is made with God. What does anything else matter? This life is but a span and hairbreadth; beyond us is the unfathomable depth of eternity.”

As to whether there is a happy ending or not, I’ll leave that hanging. I’m still getting over those ‘hot feverish kisses.’ 

What is interesting is Lord Claud. In him Evelyn Everett Green created a template for the modern fantasy hero: Elric of Melnibone, Gaynor Prince of the Damned. Claud is amoral and charismatic with a touch of the satanic. 

‘He is a strange being. He seems to me to be like a man without a soul. He can go on his way without fear or qualm. He evades peril, yet never shirks his share. He leads men into the valley of death, but he ever escapes himself. It is as though he has some compact with the princes of the powers of the air …’ And yet Evelyn, though describing the template, does nothing with it or him. His role is essentially deus ex machina, beyond that nothing, leaving a modern reader wanting more from his ‘strange’ smiles, and ‘pale chiselled features.’ 

What is equally interesting is the book’s publication date of 1898.  Raffles was written in 1898, Peter Pan, 1902/1904, and the Scarlet Pimpernel in 1902.  All are more fully developed but remain essentially Lord Claud in different guise. There must have been something in the air.

Friday, 8 July 2022

William the Scabby

I love showing people around Hereford Cathedral, entering Hereford itself is a tad less enjoyable marked too often by slow moving traffic. Once inside the cathedral however, all is peace and calm.

The official date for the founding of Hereford Cathedral is 696 AD and its first notable burial was that of Ethelbert King of Anglia who had come in the hope of marrying the daughter of King Offa of Mercia. The bad news was that he was promptly murdered on the orders of Offa or his queen. The good news was that he became a saint for his troubles and was buried in the Cathedral which was dedicated to him and the Virgin Mary. The bad news is that in 1055 a rebel Welsh army destroyed much of the cathedral and Ethelbert’s shrine and many other treasures were lost. It was the Normans who restored order and the cathedral itself. 

 The cathedral, too, has its own saint, Thomas Cantilupe.  Appointed Bishop of Hereford in 1275 and remained a trusted adviser to Edward I even when voicing different views to the king. This was not true, however, with John Peckham, the Archbishop of Canterbury who excommunicated him after a quarrel. Cantilupe immediately set off for Rome to bend the Pope’s ear.

He died at Ferento in 1282 but was buried at Hereford Cathedral after his flesh was boiled from his bones to simplify transport. The flesh was solemnly buried in Orvieto, his heart taken to a church in Ashridge, Buckinghamshire, and his bones buried in Hereford Cathedral. 

In 1307 the process of canonisation began. Exhumation of his body proved inconclusive since the bones had largely disintegrated.  One factor that might have delayed his canonisation was Cantilupe's support of the Knights Templar. Another fly in the ointment was his excommunication. You couldn’t really have an excommunicated Saint. The church agreed but ‘found’ he had been forgiven.  Then there were the miracles, one in particular— the case of William Cragh—or William The Scabby, (Cragh meaning scabby in Welsh)

Cragh was a Welsh rebel hung eight years after Cantilupe’s death but after fervent prayers to the dead Bishop of Hereford, Cragh was miraculously restored to life and undertook a pilgrimage to Hereford, walking barefoot with a noose dangling from his neck. The noose was subsequently placed alongside Thomas Cantilupe’s decaying bones in a tomb more befitting a saint—the last English saint before the Reformation. 

In subsequent years, the tomb became a place of pilgrimage where, it was said, prayers were answered. And, despite the excesses of the Reformation that saw the smashing of his tomb leaving only its base, Cantilupe's legacy lives on in the name of various schools and as an inspiration to the late Mother Teresa and the present Melinda Gates. 

The restored tomb of Thomas Cantilupe

There are other fine tombs in the Cathedral

Note the slavering hound at his feet.

The Denton tomb displaying the effigies of Alexander Denton and his wife, Anne Willison who died in childbirth in 1566. The baby is shown beside her. Alexander married again and died in Buckinghamshire in 1576

Close up of baby

The Triptych shows the Adoration of the Magi with Saint Gabriel and St Ursula and dates from around 1530. 

Sir Richard Pembridge, a warrior knight serving Edward III at the battle of Sluys, Poitiers and Crecy and one of the earliest knights to earn the 'garter'  shown on his knee

Whereas noble knights had hounds or mythical beasts at their feet, this celebrated cider merchant and benefactor to the Cathedral has a cider barrel. He had his priorities right. 

One of the chapels branching out from the nave

The Audley Chantry Chapel founded by Edmund Audley, Bishop 1492 - 1502 - a place where Masses could be said for his soul. Being a kind of 'belt and braces' man, he founded another chantry in Salisbury Cathedral when he later became bishop there. 

The windows were designed by Tom Denny in 2006 to celebrate the poet Thomas Traherne. Traherne was a C17th poet, priest and spiritual writer who saw God's love in creation, and his writings have only recently been rediscovered. The windows show his love for the Herefordshire countryside, the importance of love in general and the cross of Christ behind it all. The glass is deeply textured, and it is worth zooming in.

I tend to like old stained glass but modern is good too. Following the tradition of honouring warriors and saints (and cider merchants) a recent addition is the window commemorating the SAS whose base is in Hereford 

Its light staining nearby pillars

Richard Swinfield, Bishop of Hereford 1282 - 1317. Swinfield was chaplain to Thomas Cantilupe and succeeded him as forty-sixth bishop of Hereford. He pressed for Cantilupe's canonisation but never lived to see his success. The ornamental pigs in the arch are a pun on his name.

And joining Elgar's stature in admiring the Herefordshire sandstone Cathedral.

Friday, 1 July 2022

Sarah Dove

History is a funny old thing,  decades seeping one into another, ‘historical periods’ more porous than borders. Our small house had more pictures than many, largely due to our grandmother, a young widow who brought up two children without benefits. Her one vice was beautiful things, and in the interwar years she haunted auction houses and bought what she could afford. As a result, during the late fifties and throughout the ‘swinging sixties’ and beyond, our walls were covered with Victorian pictures, which coloured my imagination as a child. 

To either side of the kitchen door were these two beauties, pedagogic and slightly exotic.

In similar vein, this small water-painting 


With its country church and the suggestion of a cross in cloud and sun, the beam of light shining upon a man deep in thought. 


But my two favourites were these.

As a very young and simple boy, I assumed there were people still living like this. Rich people—the past merging seamlessly into my present. I didn’t see it then in such high-falutin terms, but imagined myself hiding under the table amidst their buckled shoes and swishing skirts, listening in, and after they’d gone seeing if they’d left any pudding. Later I gave them names: the butler was Mr Varney, the maid with the pudding Sarah. There was a Sir Rodney, a Mr Grove, Verity Sprim, Clara Brown, Lady Totter and little Ada in the red dress who seemed able to sense those looking from outside the picture. 

And here, a girl earnestly feeds pigeons in the courtyard of a country house; seventeenth century perhaps. I named her Sarah Dove and spent hours imagining what lay behind the windows, the lane outside, the countryside beyond. 

Pictures feed the imagination to varying degrees, some not at all: the inoffensive pastel swirls you see in some show homes or those houses where d├ęcor rules and pictures are unobtrusive adjuncts, else making 'a statement.,' They do little for a child, neither feeding the imagination or offering insights into the past.