Mrs Macaulay – The Historian In Petticoats – Britain’s First Female Historian

Born Catherine Sawbridge on the 23rd March 1731, she gained an informal education in her father’s library alongside her brother at their family home in Kent. She moved to London in 1760, upon her marriage to Dr George Macaulay and three years later published the first of her extensive eight volume History of England that spanned from the succession of James I to the Revolution. Part way through the third volume of her history, her husband passed away, leaving her widowed with a single daughter (Catherine Sophia) from the marriage. She remained in London for a while, before moving to Bath in 1774 where she met her second husband William Graham. The marriage caused scandal. As the brother of her physician, son of a saddle maker, and only a mere Surgeon’s Mate1, William was considered beneath Mrs Macaulay. They remained together until her death on the 22nd June 1791 at the age of sixty at their home in Binfield on the Thames, near Windsor. In her memory, William dedicated a memorial to her in the local parish church nearby.

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Shropshire Witches – Witchcraft In The Early Modern Era

Researching witchcraft in Shropshire is similar to panning for gold when the river has run dry. These days, there is a wealth of information regarding the ‘European Witch Crazes’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but Shropshire is rarely mentioned. Even when Shropshire does come up, it’s for no more than a sentence or two. This lack of history can perhaps be accredited to the narrowness of the field of study. Between 1563 and 1736, less than 500 executions were carried out for the crime of witchcraft in England.1 Europe on the other hand saw 100,000 individuals tried and less than 50,000 put to death.2 Accusations of witchcraft also rarely saw just one person implicated, resulting in numerous ‘suspects’ popping up once once the accused was questions. This resulted in localised pockets of witches being discovered in certain towns and villages, rather than nationwide witch hunts.

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History Fandom

I have always been a fan of history, right from when I was a small child. For those of you who read my posts regularly you’ll have noticed already the I have something of an obsession for the old and the half-forgotten. For this post I decided to combine my love of history with my love of scribbling. I don’t claim to have any great talent for drawing, but I do find it relaxing and really good fun.

The first of the doodles above is taken from a 1337 French illustration. I’m assuming that it’s Philip VI of France but that might be wrong.  The original image doesn’t name the character but Philip VI fits with the time and provenance of the artwork. The original illustration depicts St Eligius pinching the devil’s nose, a story from the First Crusade.

Image number two is a doodle of a Norman helmet. It’s a little more ornate that the traditional image of a Norman helmet but I quite liked the extra challenge the detail added to the piece when trying to sketch it correctly. The knot-work going up the top of the helmet took the longest to draw, especially where the two lines intercept. According to my Grandfather’s side of the family, my mum can trace her roots back to the Doomsday Book and Sir William Swinnerton, a Norman knight who came over with William the Conqueror. I’ve not seen any proof of the connection for myself but it’s a nice story to pull out at parties.

Anyway. That’s my contribution for yesterday’s Daily Prompt. Not much I know, but hopefully is this case short equals sweet.

Happy Holidays.

Ditherington Flax Mill – Grandfather To Skyscrapers?

Have you ever had one of those moments where you feel so proud of your own local knowledge that you haven’t got a clue what to do with yourself when it turns out you were wrong? It’s soul crushing. In that moment being a hedgehog sounds like a fantastic idea because curling into yourself seemed like the only way you could possibly escape the shame.

“Hey, you know the Maltings? Did you know it was the first iron framed building in the world!”

No. No it was not. It isn’t even completely iron framed but that doesn’t bother me quite as much as being told I was wrong about the ‘first ever’ claim, or that I’d been proudly toting it as my tip-bit of cool history from my native soil of Shropshire whenever I got the chance.

For those of you who don’t know, the Maltings are a building in Shrewsbury, Shropshire. Half an hour drive from where I live when I’m at home with my parents, this crumbling building is something of a National Treasure. Originally Ditherington Flax Mill built in 1796, it is accredited with being the Grandfather of skyscrapers, standing itself at a rather modest five-stories tall.

Interestingly the first time the term skyscraper was officially used was in 1882 for the Brook Brothers of Boston’s ten-story Montauk Block. (Designed by Daniel Burnham and John Wellborn.)¹

But back to Ditherington. Ditherington Flax Mill is the oldest standing iron framed building in the world, that much is true, but before that there were some predecessors who have just happened to slip beneath the notice of history books.

Between 1792-1793 William Strutt, (a friend of Ditherington Flax Mill Architect Charles Bage) built a cotton factory in Derby. Here cast and wrought iron was used as integral parts of its brick and wood structure. There is evidence of Bage acknowledging Strutt’s influence in correspondence now housed at the Shrewsbury Archive and Strutt went onto the repeat the process with a six-story West Mill in Belper.²

So Shrewsbury does not host the first iron framed building it seems. Never-mind. I’m quite happy to host the oldest one.  I mean we’re the birthplace of Charles Darwin, as far as historic sites go we’re not doing too badly.


1. Encyclopedia of Architectural and Engineering Feats pg.311

2. http://www.search.revolutionaryplayers.org.uk/engine/resource/exhibition/standard/child.asp?txtKeywords&lstContext&lstResourceType&lstExhibitionType&chkPurchaseVisible&txtDateFrom&txtDateTo&x1&y1&x2&y2&scale&theme&album&viewpage=%2Fengine%2Fresource%2Fexhibition%2Fstandard%2Fchild.asp&originator&page&records&direction&pointer&text&resource=4923&exhibition=1613&offset=0 [Accessed 27/11/14]


I want to say thank you to Trish Farrell for inspiring this post. I love my random history posts now and again but it was her article on Ditherington Flax Mill that reminded me of my own mistake about the place. Now seemed a good a time as any to do a blog it.

Rebels, Plots and Spies

Calling all NaNoWriMo fantasy writers out there! Are you ready for November yet? How’s your world-building going? Have you got those factions sorted out yet? What about races? Are you going to have any? Will there be friction between them? Who’s ruling your world? Is there more than one ruler? Do they get along? Are there wars? Who’s winning? Why are they fighting? Does one side thing they’re fighting because of one issue and does the other side think their fighting because of something completely different? Wait! Are there more than two sides even? Dear flubberworts, writing a fantasy-fiction novel can be confusing.

For those of you who haven’t checked out the about page I’ll let you in on a secret  well known fact about me. I love my history. Especially medieval and early modern Europe. Anything under two hundred years old can suck it, you’re too young and I’m just not that into you. But I digress. My point is, history is awesome and if you have any sort of background studying history in the medieval or early modern eras then you’re probably going to find it pretty useful when it comes to writing your novel.

Yes. This is one of those “oh she’s off on one again and is trying to disguise it as an somewhat educated blog-post”. Haha, you guys know me so well.

Anyway, my madness aside, a little knowledge is great for world building and yes I’m now going to refer to Game of Thrones. Now the books by no means reflect the real events of The Wars Of The Roses and for those of you not in the know The Wars Of The Roses were a fifteenth century civil war that took place in England. If you want more detail leave a comment and I’ll write a blog post about it but explaining it in any more depth here will lead to a very, very long rant and I’m trying to avoid those when talking about other things. So back to Game of Thrones. You can see a lot of themes from The Wars Of The Roses in the first book, and from my own reading of it I found more than a few characters who seemed to match up with the historical figures. The Wars Of The Roses lack dragons though I’m afraid.

You know that depth Game Of Thrones has? How complicated the characters are, how scheming everybody is? It some ways it seems to almost mirror reality in the fifteenth century. Did anyone reading this watch The White Queen? It’s based on a historical fiction by the same name written by Phillipa Gregory and in the T.V series you see Margaret Beaufort, mother of Henry VII and grandmother of Henry VIII (Divorce, beheaded, died, divorce, beheaded, survived.) No Margaret Beaufort was only fourteen when she gave birth to her son, and she spent the rest of her life scheming and plotting to get her son on the throne of England. Really Henry Tudor should never have taken the throne. There were questions about the legitimacy of his bloodline, he lived in exile most of his life with his Uncle in Europe and there were others with much stronger claims. He still got there though. He may of usurped Richard III to do it, but he managed it. (And thus we have the end of The Wars Of The Roses and the start of the Tudor reign which in itself gives you a whole host of plots and rebellions to be dealing with.) All in all I’m saying the English monarchy is complicated and more than that there was always something threatening the monarch just as there is in Game of Thrones. More often than not more than one thing.

Another example would be Mary I (I’ve just finished reading an article called The English Exile Community In Italy And The Political Opposition To Queen Mary I by Kenneth R. Bartlett.) In her case you have Protestant exiles staying in and receiving support from a Catholic Venice against a Spanish-Anglo marriage between Mary I and Phillip of Spain. There was an established Inquisition in Venice! Surely that should have made Venice a big no, no for Protestants since they would be considered heretics, but here we have an example of politics taking precedence over religion because there was common ground. Phillip of Spain was a Hapsburg, a family which coveted the title Holy Roman Emperor and large swaths of land across Europe. They did not want England allied with Spain against them. At the same time France has Mary Queen of Scots in their grasp who also has claim to the throne, there are plots to put Elizabeth, English Mary’s sister, on the throne and a guy called Wyatt even throws a rebellion into the pot. And that’s a basic overview.

Now imagine your writing a book. Character A is on the throne, but you want your plot to end with character B taking it. History can give you the basic outline of how that happens with a few plot-twists already formulated on the way. I’m not saying give your reader the history of […] between […] and […] but if you’re stuck working out how your fantasy kingdom works go and do some research. Have imprisoned heirs vanish without trace, rebellions of all scales for all sorts of reasons. Hike up the price of grain just to piss off one remote corner of the Kingdom that never even gets mentioned in the book only your planning. History is complicated to the extreme with connections between people in the most unusual places, put some of that into your writing.

Also be aware that everyone can be a spy and under Henry VIII the Royal Bottom Wiper was a job of huge privileged since it brought you into regular contact with the King. Royal Bottom Wipers can be useful message carriers.

And on that note I shall leave you. Good luck NaNoWriMoers!