Babbitt, Edgehill, Essex, history,

The Earl of Essex – In Cromwell’s Shadow

When I started writing “Red Horse”, I knew it would be set around the battle of Edgehill, 1642, the early days of the English Civil War. I’d been lurking around Worcestershire since I was knee-high to a backsword. I’d been to Powick Bridge, I’d been to the Commandery in Worcester – been inside the cathedral, admired Prince Arthur’s Chantry Chapel: what Tyburn left of it. I’m a 17th century re-enactor, I know about the clothes and the food and the smell of black powder. 

What I needed was a villain, of course. And the chances of one plain provincial captain of horse getting close enough to the Royal household to have His Majesty as the villain of the piece were minimal. (Even if I thought he was. Which I don’t. But more on that another day.) 
Black-hat-wearing Puritan villain? Um, got a black-hat-wearing, if somewhat lapsed, Puritan hero, don’t need another one. I get one – don’t I, Russell? – but that’s not for another book. 
Oliver Cromwell? Not at Edgehill (turned up late, probably muttering darkly) and even if he was, I happen to know that one big, scruffy redhead with the ability to quote apposite bits of Biblical text quite gets on with another. For now. 

I settled, then, on Robert Devereux, the Earl of Essex. 

Now if you Google the Earl of Essex you see image after image of a handsome, charismatic courtier, beautifully dressed, a dark-eyed man with a fashionable beard and an enigmatic smile. 
Pity it’s not the same one.The second Earl of Essex was the spoiled favourite of Queen Elizabeth, possibly her lover, certainly her beloved: an intriguer, a true Renaissance man, who pushed his luck too far and was executed for treason in 1601. 

God alone knows how that political pirate produced such a pedestrian boy, but there he is: Robert Devereux, the third Earl of Essex. 

Life did not begin well for that young man. King James (not a man whose taste in women I would rely on, much) arranged a marriage for young Robert and at the age of fourteen he was married to Frances Howard, daughter of the Earl of Suffolk. He was under-age, and she wasn’t impressed. He was sent abroad, presumably to acquire a little finesse, a little polish, a little je ne sais quoi, and she acquired Sir Robert Carr in his absence. She was then granted a divorce in 1613 on the grounds of Devereux’s impotence. 

(Let’s just take a minute to think about that. Even now, even today, a young man would be hurt and ashamed and humiliated, at such a public declaration of his not being up to the manly job. Imagine how much more shame he might have felt in 1613, when divorce was a much rarer thing.) 

He went back to Europe and fought in the Low Countries, and an amateur psychologist might make much of that – a desire to be out of society in England until the behind-hand gossip and laughter had died down, a need to prove himself as a man in other ways, an understandable wish not to keep bumping into his ex-wife and her new man at every turn. It was a largely undistinguished military career, in which he served with Prince Maurice of Nassau (which must have been awkward, later) From 1620-4, Essex served in Protestant armies in Germany and the Low Countries. He joined Sir Horace Vere’s expedition to defend the Palatinate in 1620 and served with Prince Maurice of Nassau from 1621. In 1624, he commanded a regiment in the unsuccessful campaign to relieve the siege of Breda. The following year, Essex was appointed vice-admiral in Sir Edward Cecil’s expedition against Cadiz, which ended in disaster for the English. But although Essex’s military career during the 1620s was undistinguished, he earned the affection and loyalty of the troops who served under him because of his willingness to share their . 

Easily offended and acutely sensitive to the honour of his family name, Essex became estranged from court life and was associated with the parliamentary opposition to King James and his successor King Charles I. Because of his criticism of Buckingham after Cadiz, Essex was denied command of an expeditionary force sent to Denmark. He then turned down an offer to command a regiment on the expedition to La Rochelle in 1627. Essex refused to pay the forced loans demanded by King Charles, and he supported the Petition of Right in 1628. After the dissolution of the 1628-9 Parliament, Essex withdrew into private life at his estates in Staffordshire. In 1630, Essex married Elizabeth Paulet (who is Luce’s mother’s cousin, in “Red Horse” – there’s the family connection!) but six years later this marriage collapsed too, because of her adultery with Sir Thomas Uvedale. When Elizabeth gave birth to a son in November 1636, many believed Uvedale to be the father. Essex once again became the laughing-stock of the court. He accepted the child as his own and even forgave the countess, but when the child died the following month Essex gave up all hope of family life

His military career throughout the English Civil War was a history of missed opportunities, also-rans, and passed-overs. At Henrietta Maria’s request Essex was suddenly demoted to Lieutenant-General of Horse in favour of the Queen’s courtier the Earl of Holland during the Bishops’ Wars in Scotland, despite being the peer with the most military experience. He wasn’t offered any command at all in the Second Bishop’s Wars of 1640. In January 1642, Essex was told by the Countess of Carlisle, from gossip at court, that the King intended to arrest the Five Members regarded as his leading opponents in the House of Commons. Essex warned the MPs, who went into hiding. After the failure of his attempt to arrest them, the King was forced to make a humiliating withdrawal from London. Essex refused the King’s command to join him at York and was dismissed from his office of Lord Chamberlain. He was the first member of the House of Lords to accept Parliament’s Militia Ordinance in March 1642.

As the highest-ranking nobleman to support Parliament, Essex was appointed to the Committee of Safety in July 1642 and commissioned Captain-General of the Parliamentarian armies  He proved meticulous (or pedantic) in planning his campaigns but was always cautious in carrying them out, to the extent of anecdotally carrying his own coffin and winding-sheet on campaign, just in case he might require them. Although criticised for his lack of flair and initiative, “Old Robin” remained popular with his troops. (Apart, obviously, from Hollie Babbitt, who can’t stand him, but as the antipathy is entirely mutual, no loss on either part.)  

Essex commanded the Parliamentarian army at Edgehill, where he is said to have stood alongside his men wielding a pike at the head of an infantry regiment, and stood his ground in the defence of London later in 1642, though his refusal to pursue and attack the Royalist army as it withdrew from the capital disappointed many Parliamentarians. He was slow to begin campaigning in 1643 while peace negotiations with the King proceeded, but besieged and captured Reading in April. He was then unable to advance on the King’s headquarters at Oxford after becoming bogged down at Thame with sickness rife in his army and no money to pay his troops. Severe criticism of Essex’s leadership started to appear in the London newsbooks and members of the War Party praised his military rival Sir William Waller. When even his old ally John Pym rebuked him for inaction in June 1643, Essex angrily offered his resignation, but this was not accepted by Parliament. 

Hostility towards Essex reached a peak in July 1643 after he submitted an ill-considered letter to Parliament in which he complained that his army was so weakened by sickness and desertion that Parliament’s best hope was to seek a treaty with the King. This was widely interpreted as an indication that Essex was about to defect to the Royalists. However, Pym succeeded in turning the situation around by proposing a parliamentary investigation into Essex’s grievances that resulted in a resolution to settle arrears of pay in his army, to raise reinforcements and to issue a public vindication of his conduct. 

In justification of Pym’s confidence in him, Essex fought his most brilliant campaign when he successfully relieved the siege of Gloucester and fought his way back to London at the first battle of Newbury in September 1643. Essex’s Gloucester campaign halted a long run of Royalist successes and revived flagging morale in London. 

After John Pym’s death at the end of 1643, Sir Henry Vane emerged as political leader in Parliament. Vane had no confidence in Essex’s abilities as a general and manoeuvred to have him removed from command. Essex opposed the formation of the Committee for Both Kingdoms in February 1644, realising that it threatened his authority. His political influence was further undermined by the failure of his military campaigning that year when, after arguing with Waller, he disobeyed orders from Parliament, split his forces and marched into the West. Although he relieved the siege of Lyme, his subsequent invasion of Cornwall resulted in a defeat at Lostwithiel in September 1644 after which Essex left his troops to their fate and made an ignominious escape in a fishing boat. The Cornish campaign is the subject for another book in its own right. 

Although he was not officially censured by Parliament, the disaster of Lostwithiel finished Essex as a commander. Returning to the House of Lords, he supported the Earl of Manchester against Oliver Cromwell’s criticisms of Manchester’s leadership of the Eastern Association, and in December 1644 he joined an unsuccessful attempt to have Cromwell impeached for sedition. Essex led the opposition in the House of Lords to the measures proposed in the Commons for the re-organisation of Parliament’s army, but he was finally obliged to resign his commission, which he did with a dignified speech on 2 April 1645, the day before the Self-Denying Ordinance was passed. 

Thereafter, Essex lived in semi-retirement, a revered and respected figure once he had laid down his military commissions. He suffered a stroke after stag hunting at Windsor and died on 14 September 1646. He was buried in Westminster Abbey with great pomp and ceremony, and an effigy was erected to his memory. A month after the funeral, however, his grave was vandalised and his effigy beheaded by a former Royalist soldier. The effigy was refurbished but was finally destroyed on the orders of Charles II after the Restoration, though Essex’s body was left undisturbed. He died without male heirs, so the Essex title was extinguished until its revival at the Restoration, when it was granted to the son of the executed Royalist, Lord Capel. 

Now, like Babbitt, I think Essex must have been an absolute pain in the backside to serve with. Pedestrian, dutiful, and yet quick to take offence and slow to do much about it, possessed of an over-inflated sense of his own significance. I have seen one suggestion that his “impotence” was in fact down to medical grounds – an insufficiency of male hormones, although his lush facial hair and tendency towards aggression would indicate the reverse. 
And yet. And yet. I keep thinking of the young man he must have been – hurt and humiliated at court, the subject of public mockery and scorn – and the older man who married again, maybe full of hope, maybe not romantically in love, but hoping for some peace and comfort, only to find history repeating itself, as his wife took a lover And to have a son – who may, or may not, have been his own, but whom Essex was prepared to acknowledge as his own boy – and then to lose him, at a few months old. 

I hope someone loved Robert Devereux, just once, in his life.,_3rd_Earl_of_Essex 

Babbitt, food, Het,, Lucey, new books, silliness

Het Babbitt’s Good Frumenty – Her Receipt Shar’d




She’d see to it there was frumenty for breakfast tomorrow – a good creamy one, stiff with plums and flecked with spices – just as if both Thankful and Lucifer had been her own boys, in need of good feeding. There was always enough that she could set another place at table for her own baby nephew.” – A Wilderness of Sin

 Het is not entirely comfortable with this. She sees to the meals, and her dear Hollie eats what’s set in front of him, being an obliging sort of husband. (And one who knows what’s good for him – HB) To go around setting out her recipe for frumenty, which is a thing that everyone knows how to cook, surely – well, it’s like setting out a recipe for water, dear. No one will be interested in my frumenty. Don’t be silly.

It’s all about the wheat, you see. If you don’t soak it properly and cook it long and slow you could stand for days and it would be none the tenderer. What you must do, is get the proper, husked wheat. Pearled wheat, they call it, in some places. (Sorry, dear? Yes, barley will do as well, if you must, and if there really is no good wheat to be had.)

What you must do is wash it well in fair water, to clean all the dust and husks, and then set it to boil for five minutes of the clock, and then – and only then – can you take the pot down and stand it in a bake-oven or in the hearth overnight. At Fox Barton we cree the wheat on baking-day, and set it to stand in the oven while it cools for a full day. (Failing that, boil the hell out of it for ten minutes or so, clap a lid on the pot, leave it overnight. That’s the rough way. – HB)

Now, my dear Hollie would eat it exactly as it comes, with all the wheat grains burst and soft, though he does like it with milk and honey, the dear man. It sets like a jelly, and Lucifer says it does look most like frog’s spawn, to which I did say, well, dear, I did not see you refuse your third helping of frog’s spawn.

If you would have it the festive way – and I am told they have served it in Yorkshire this way since the Flood, with cheese and gingerbread, on Christmas Eve – then you must add a good measure of cream, and not milk. If I have all the boys to home I will put a quart of cream to the pot and stir it in well, with a good amount of honey, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, and one or two eggs. Some wealthy folk with nothing better to spend their money on will add raisins of Corinth, too, though they are too, too dear in this part of Essex, and dearer yet since Master Cromwell stopped their trade. 

It is a wonderfully nourishing breakfast, you know, served plain, and the girls love it. And so good for the sick, being easy to digest and to prepare, and very tempting to the tender stomach. In parts of Suffolk, not to say tthe parts of Yorkshire where my dear husband saw service in the late wars, they say it has been prepared and eaten so since the days of old. 

Why don’t you give it a try?

Meet Het Babbitt (and Hollie, and the girls, and Luce, and all the assorted household impedimenta of a 17th century Essex household) in the Uncivil Wars books, and, most recently, in the anthology “Steel and Lace”
All profits from the book go to Great Ormond Street Hospital!

Babbitt, new books, Russell, spoiler, writing

Babylon’s Downfall – an excerpt from the new novel

 1644 – and here we are, knee-deep in Yorkshire, after the battle of Marston Moor. Having mislaid Thankful Russell, briefly, but….

The scarred lieutenant was such a distinctive figure, though, tall and straight and stiff as a sword-blade, all the time. He never slouched. He never relaxed. 
He was wearing an tawny silk sash, a bright, barely-faded one, and his hair was so fair it was almost white, and he wore it long and tied back, and you couldn’t miss the bugger, even from the back. Pacing – not walking, pacing, on his dignity, managing to look like a man who was braced to receive blows even when he was just picking his way gingerly across the whins a quarter-mile distant. 
There was little less dignified than a cavalry officer sprinting in riding boots, but it was often said of Hollie Babbitt that he had no dignity anyway, and so he sped up. Careful of outflung hands and upturned faces, with the dew wet on open eyes and open wounds – of the just cause and impediment of battle, of spent shot and dead horses. “Russell.” 
The lieutenant didn’t look his way. Almost under Hollie’s feet there was a groan, and he shot sideways like a startled partridge, and then Russell looked his way, and came hobbling across. Still stiff and straight and upright, but limping like a man who’d been on his feet all night and who had the blisters to show for it. “Sir.”
“Hapless…what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
Some of the corpses looked better than Russell. He stopped, and looked up with his mouth open, and blinked, and then said, “I don’t know.” Thought about a second, and then said again, sounding surprised, “I don’t know.”
The wounded man at his feet groaned again, a horrible, graveyard noise, and Russell yelled, “And you can shut up, as well!” And then sat down abruptly in the ditch and burst into tears.
Hollie’s first reaction was that he was going to laugh, and that he couldn’t stop himself. His next, thank God, was to sit in the wet moss between Russell and the casualty – whose side? Buggered if he knew, a lad with his leg broke, badly broke, under a dead horse – and what with the wounded trooper whimpering on one side and Russell whimpering on the other, he wasn’t sure where to put his sympathies first.
“Right,” he said firmly, because he was the senior officer here, and that meant he was in charge. “I know who youare, Russell. No introductions necessary. Who’s your mate?”
The wounded man was crying, now, a sort of desperate, relieved, sobbing, as if he had been afraid alone and now he had other living men about him and he could let go, a little. “You’re not dying, old son,” Hollie said over his shoulder. “Not on my watch you’re not. Hapless, have you been preaching at this poor bugger or something? What have I told you about saving souls when you’re on duty?” 
And Russell looked up, blinking, affronted, and swiped the back of his hand under his nose like a little boy. Which did nothing for his dignity, especially since it was the hand with the armoured bridle-gauntlet on, and it hurt. “I – you – he said – “ and then stopped, and frowned, and looked at Hollie out of the corner of his eye. “I see. You are teasing me.” 
Hollie nodded, and stood up, and put his hand on the lieutenant’s shoulder. “Aye. I’m teasing you. Blow your nose, and let’s get this poor sod out from under.” 
There were two of them, and the hurt trooper – and he was on the wrong side, he was one of Widdrington’s horse, and Hollie sat back on his heels and whistled through his teeth at that, knowing how close Widdrington’s men had been to Rupert’s troops – was starting to run a fever, after a night on the moor, and was neither use nor ornament. He did know who he was, though. His name was Will Bailey and he was Northumbrian-born and he was twenty-six and he wanted his wife, very badly. 
Now you can do a bit of praying, if you like, Hapless,” Hollie said grimly. 
Bailey’s horse had stiffened, in the night. “How are you going to –“ Russell began, and Hollie cut him off. “Faith, sir. If ye have faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye shall say unto this mountain, Remove hence to yonder place; and it shall remove. Faith, and a musket butt, and you are going to pull like a bastard, lad. I got a bad wrist. You, on the other hand, are fit as a butcher’s dog. Now stand to, and on my command, heave like hell.” 
Bailey screamed like a rabbit, and even with the leverage of a musket-butt under the dead beast it was only possible to rock the horse’s bulk a finger’s breadth or more, and it was barely enough to drag the trooper a few inches. “Do it again,” Hollie said, panting, and Russell was sobbing again, because it was horrible, it was undignified and agonising and Bailey had pissed himself in his pain – 
It took forever. It probably didn’t, but it felt like it did. Bailey was out cold and bleeding badly, and Russell was all but useless, gone beyond shock into a shaking numbness. “He’s going to lose that leg,” Hollie said, because it needed to be said, while the Royalist trooper was unconscious. “If he’s lucky, he’ll go home. Better off with one good leg and a peg ‘un than dead in a ditch.” 
The scarred lieutenant was staring at his bloodstained hands. “I walked out to – to see if I might be of help.” He blinked, without his gaze shifting the once. “There are so many dead men. Colonel.” 
“Hollie. I can’t be arsed with colonel.”  

“Dead men. Everywhere. Dead, and dying, and hurt, and –“ And still not looking away, still looking at his blood-sticky hands. “I killed one of them. Colonel.” 
“Me. I thought I could. I’m not sure I can. It was horrible. And what if –“  
“What if he wasn’t dead? What if he’s just lying there? With a hole in his belly – and the worms crawling in, and the –“  
“Russell.” He shook the lad, not hard, just hard enough to stop him, because thinking like that did nobody any favours. “You killed someone. Aye. You did. You’re a soldier. That’s your job. What the hell did you think, Hapless, you’d do a bit of smiting and the Lord would bear the buggers off in a fiery chariot?” 
And it was hard to tell with Russell, but his level brows drew sharply together, as if he was shocked, and anything that that shocked him out of that mad spiral of blame was good. “I – “ he lifted a shoulder in a tiny shrug. “Suppose I did. Rather.” 
“Well, that was a bit bloody stupid, wasn’t it? Hey!” Hollie could hear voices. He raised a hand. Looked down at Bailey’s limp, broken form. “Got a live one over here, lads!” He looked at Russell. Russell looked back, quite level, and quite sane.

“He’s one of ours,” Russell said coolly. “Be so good as to take him to our –“ his voice broke a little, “to Witcombe. I imagine he will be able to attend to Trooper Bailey’s hurts somewhat quicker than awaiting the attentions of the Army’s own surgeons. He has the less to deal with. Witcombe,” he said again, and they hoisted Bailey’s body onto a makeshift hurdle, “of Babbitt’s company. And should he wake – should he be afraid – tell him – tell him that Lieutenant Russell is praying for him.” His voice cracked, and he got up and fled, abruptly.

“Bloody funny lad, that one,” the soldier on the head end of the hurdle said, shaking his head. Looked down at Bailey. “You reckon he’s going to make it?”
Hollie shrugged. “Bloody will if Hapless has got anything to do with it.”
new books, ponderations, Russell, writing

Restoration Revels with Russell

…. otherwise known as – yes, and what happens next??

There are times when my lads are about as far from me as Awbre-cat is. (Perhaps not… the day I find Luce Pettitt sitting in my lap with his chin resting on the space bar, there will be Words Had.)

But I tell you what, having Hapless Russell glowering at you at short range is a sobering experience.

It’s a bit like this. You may – or may not – know, Russell and his sister have never got on, not since he was a little boy being brought up by Fly and her husband (badly), not since she decided after Edgehill that he was an object of pity and contempt, certainly not since she showed up at White Notley after Naseby and said – things. Bad things. She disowned him after that – as if he gave a tinker’s – and they didn’t set eyes on one another again.

Mind, he looks a lot less ragged, since he got married. (You didn’t know Russell was married? Oh yes – well, you could have seen it coming, mind.) Had a bit of a rough patch after the Civil War, what with one thing and another, went a little bit odd – odder, then – sort of lost touch with everyone except Babbitt, acquired himself a recurring fever in Scotland under General Monck that nearly killed him, cut all his hair off, gave up caring what he looked like –
and then he got married, and, well, Mistress Russell won’t put up with none of that sort of silliness, so he bucked his ideas up something remarkable.

He’s got it in his head that there was something odd about his sister’s death, though. And you know what Hapless is when he sets his teeth in something.

And he’s not going to give over worriting at it, till he finds out.

But – sorry, Russell, old son. You’ve got four more Uncivil Wars books, a series of short stories, and then the Thirty Years’ War stuff to wait for. (And you weren’t even born then, Hapless, so just be patient!) 

Standard, ponderations, present, society, writing

Is History a Privilege?

I went to an event recently.
I went in an authorial capacity, and chatted to some people, and sold a few books and made a few new friends, including the very wonderful Laura Quigley, historian of Plymouth, and the equally wonderful Paul Diamond, founder of Hidden Heritage.

I was with some friends, and my husband and my little boy, in our re-enactment guise as the Napoleonic 32nd Cornwall Regiment. And there’s your bit of scene-setting.

There was a group of children there, unaccompanied, unattended, who spent the whole day tearing around the venue laughing and shrieking and generally creating the sort of havoc that unattended children mob-handed with energy to burn, often create. (And, you know, there’s maybe a whole other post about whether it’s a good idea to get a hall full of complete strangers to babysit your children, but it won’t be this one. So.)
The girls wanted to talk to us, and the boys didn’t like that. All of about 8 or 9 years old, maybe a little older, and the girls wanted to ask questions or just to talk to us. One little girl kept coming back, bringing her doll’s pushchair that she’d bought for £8 with her own pocket money, and she’d just stand at the table and show us her things: her doll, her plastic pirate gold coin, her pushchair. (It was a little bit broken, and one of the boys she was with kept trying to make it more broken. She said her dad had mended it last time but he might not be able to do it again, and she didn’t want it to be any more broken. The small boy and I had a go at mending it. I think we did okay.)

Anyway, she thought we were fascinating. And that made me ever so sad, that she – and her friends – didn’t think, “I could do that!” or “that looks interesting!” – they just didn’t think of us as real people, who had real lives. Or that we were dressed as real people, who’d ever had real lives. We were like something out of a film, and we didn’t have any relevance to them, although we were very glamorous and exciting.

And one of the other little girls wanted to buy a book, and that almost broke my heart, because she really, really wanted to, and how can you say “it’s too grown up for you” without sounding like an absolute heel? And she didn’t have enough money (although to be honest if she’d been older and asked, I’d have probably given it to her, just because I so much wanted her to have it.) She wrote a story at school. She asked me how long it took me to write a book, and I said about a year, but when I wrote a story for the small boy it was normally an hour or two, and she looked thoughtful.

See, what I found so heartbreaking was that these children – and they lived in a regeneration area, and they were clearly from families where money was tight – they wanted to know, and they wanted to ask, but they didn’t think history was anything to do with them. It was a little magic circle of people, a privileged class of people – people with money, who could afford to buy books, and wear impractical clothes.
(People who make their children little wooden toy muskets, and have the time and the skill to do so.)
They didn’t know how to dream big dreams, other than the wild fantasy of one day going to Legoland AND Butlins. That was the compass of that little girl’s ambition. That’s heartbreaking. You can be anything you want to be, in your head – a princess, or an astronaut, or a monster from space – and she wanted to go to Butlins and Legoland.

And I didn’t have anything that I could do for them. I didn’t have any books for little girls, that they could buy with their own money, and read for themselves, and be part of the magic circle.

That made me sad, and I’m going to do something about it.