Tag Archives: Southampton

Medieval Dovecotes


Dovecote Tower, Barnard Castle

A few months ago I mentioned dovecotes in the Anatomy of a Castle series. At that time I had seen the remains of one dovecote, but didn’t have any photographs. In the space of a couple of weeks in April I photographed two. One was part of a castle and one wasn’t. Both were incorporated into towers.

Dovecote Tower at Barnard Castle in County Durham is shown in the photograph at the top of the post. The holes are nesting boxes.

A similar arrangement is found in the Round Tower in Southampton. The dovecote was partially demolished to make way for a wall a century or so after it was built, so there’ not much of it left. As you can see, the cleaner doesn’t get down there very often.

Round Tower, Southampton

Round Tower, Southampton

I’m not sure who the dovecote in Southampton belonged to. It’s close to the friary, so it might have belonged to the friars.

The dovecote at Barnard Castle was built in the early twelfth century, the one in Southampton dates from a century later.

Pigeons, as well as doves, were housed in the dovecotes. Both were used for food. They were a good source of fresh meat during the winter. Their eggs could also be eaten. Pigeons and doves don’t lay many eggs a year, especially when compared to chickens, but a large flock would produce a few that weren’t used for breeding.

As we’ve seen, bird dung was often used for medicinal purposes. It was also used during the tanning process. I don’t have a date for that, though, so it might have been later than the fourteenth century. Feathers could be used to fill pillows and mattresses.

Collecting live birds, eggs, dung and feathers would have involved the use of ladders or scaffolding within the tower. There wouldn’t have been much light for the person doing the collecting, as I’m assuming this was carried out during the night while the pigeons and doves slept.  I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to be in there when they were awake.


Barnard Castle by Katy Kenyon


April Munday is the author of the Soldiers of Fortune and Regency Spies series of novels, as well as standalone novels set in the fourteenth century.

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Thomas Telford and St Mary Magdelene


I was in Shropshire earlier in the week and had intended to visit some of the castles in the Welsh Marches. The weather was dreadful, so I gave up on that plan and spent a day in Bridgnorth instead. This is the parish church of St Mary Magdalene, designed by Thomas Telford. As you can see, it’s rather unusual if you’re used to English churches from earlier or later centuries. It was built in the 1790s and is not at all in the Gothic Revival style of the majority of English parish churches erected in the nineteenth century. In the late eighteenth century it wasn’t yet fashionable to ape the Middle Ages and the churches designed and built then reflected that time’s obsession with all things classical. The church that Jane Austen attended when she lived in Southampton was built around the same time and was built in a similar style with four columns at the front and a clock tower.

Telford was a Scot who left his mark all over Shropshire where he was Surveyor of Public Works and the new town in the Wrekin district of the county is named after him. Born in 1757 in Glendinning in Dumfriesshire, he died in 1834 in London and was buried in Westminster abbey, which wasn’t bad for the self-taught son of a shepherd. He had little formal education and was apprenticed to a stonemason at the age of fourteen. He learned as he worked and became very successful.


Telford’s other contribution to Bridgnorth is a bridge over the Severn. There had always been a bridge over the Severn here, hence the name, but flooding was, and still is, common, and the bridge was frequently damaged during the eighteenth century. Heavy floods almost destroyed the bridge in the 1790s and many plans were offered for a new bridge or for ways to repair the bridge. In 1812 the bridge was repaired to Thomas Telford’s plan. There were further repairs later in the nineteenth century and the bridge was also widened.  He built about 40 bridges in Shropshire alone.

I can still remember a school project on Telford over forty years ago, which involved me writing up the findings of my small group for display, because I was the only one who could write in a straight(ish) line on unlined paper. The associated fear of complete humiliation should I fail to do so has lived with me ever since and ensures that I have never forgotten Thomas Telford. The project was about the toll roads that were beginning to be built all over England in the eighteenth century. Tolls had been charged for the upkeep of bridges since the early Middle Ages. Most bridges replaced ferries for which a fee was payable and paying to cross the bridge was acceptable, especially if its users could see that improvements were being made. There were also tolls to enter towns and ports. In the late eighteenth century tolls were being used to improve the roads in order to increase the speed of travel. Telford’s contribution was on the London to Holyhead route along what is now mostly the A5 and was originally (from London to Wroxeter) the Roman road known as Watling Street.  This improvement also included the building of the Menai Suspension Bridge across the Menai Strait, which is between Anglesey and the mainland.

There are also tollhouses all over the country based on Telford’s design. They were made fairly comfortable, because the owners of the road wanted to attract the right sort of toll-collector, i.e. one who would collect the tolls honestly and pay them to their employer. They’re easy to identify, as they’re usually very close to the road. About 100 of them still exist in Shropshire, but you can go into the one at Blists Hill Museum and see how the family of the toll-collector would have lived. There is a picture of it here. The last time I went there there was a fork upright in the garden as if the toll-collector had just been called away to collect a toll. There were 300 tollhouses in Shropshire alone.

Telford wasn’t just prolific, his experience was also broad including bridges, canals, churches, aqueducts, viaducts, roads, harbours. He built bridges over the Severn at Montford (his first bridge) and Buildwas; the Ellesmere Canal; the Caledonian Canal; over 1,000 miles of road and 120 bridges in Scotland. He also wrote poetry. He was a founder and first president of the Institution of Civil Engineers.


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Jane Austen lived here: Part Five

Return to Castle Square

Medieval Merchant's House

The Austens had barely arrived in Southampton before they were thinking of leaving and they received the happy news that a house would be made available for them towards the end of 1808. The house was a property owned by Jane Austen’s brother, Edward, in Chawton, fifteen miles away from where she had grown up in Steventon. Edward had been adopted by a distant cousin as a child and had inherited Chawton House in Hampshire and Godmersham Park in Kent.

In Southampton the Austens were far from cut off from their family, even after Frank and his wife went back to sea. Austen and her sister Cassandra went often to Godmersham Park. Usually they visited alone and it is to this that we owe Austen’s letters during their time in Southampton. She wrote frequently to her sister either to or from Southampton. Her eldest brother, James, was the rector of Steventon, the post formerly held by their father. James and Edward visited Southampton often. Another brother, Henry, a banker at that time (for he had a number of careers), lived in London and the sisters usually visited him on their way to and from Kent. The youngest brother, Charles, was, like Frank, making a successful career at sea. Along with the brothers came sisters-in-law and various nephews and nieces. When Edward’s wife died while Cassandra was visiting Godmersham Park, two of his sons stayed with their Aunt Jane and their grandmother in Southampton. Austen’s letters told both of their morning and of the things she had done to entertain them, as well as asking if Cassandra had seen their sister-in-law’s body.

As they had been wherever they lived the Austen were busy. Austen’s letters tell about altering dresses and bonnets. They walked almost every day in the Spa Gardens, by Southampton Water which was doubtless very bracing. They visited friends, although, knowing that their stay in Southampton was not permanent, they did not make a great effort to make new friends. They visited locally, taking ferries across Southampton Water to the New Forest and across the Itchen to Northam. As we have seen, they attended balls. As well as in the Dolphin they danced in the Long Rooms, which were even closer to Castle Square. Dances were held there four nights a week. Nothing remains of this building. Its location would have been in the road by the second lamppost in this photograph.

View from the bottom of the garden

It’s very easy to forget that there was a very real fear of invasion at the time. The invasion of Britain had long been one of Napoleon’s aims, although the threat had diminished greatly after Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar in 1805. Southampton was very much involved in the war. Austen talks in her letters about seeing warships being built. With two brothers in the navy, she would have taken an interest in this. As well as being a port, Southampton also had shipyards and ships were also built on the other side of Southampton Water at Bucklers Hard. Until shortly before the Austens arrived the town had been a busy garrison.

The Austens also went to the theatre. The Theatre Royal was in French Street, a few minutes’ walk from their house in Castle Square. It was a few yards past the Medieval Merchant’s House which is [pictured] at the beginning of the post. It, too, is no longer with us. The Austens loved amateur dramatics and the theatre must have provided them with much entertainment.

It was this very busyness that probably kept Austen from writing as much as she would have wanted while she lived in the town. Even though the Austens could not afford to keep a carriage, there was a wealth of diversions within walking distance. The Austens left Southampton in July 1809 for Chawton, where they lived very quietly. There was little to distract Austen from her writing and she entered her most productive period.

Due to the RNA Conference and a concert there will be no post next week.


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Jane Austen Lived Here: Part Four

Other Delights

This week I’m looking at some buildings within the Southampton town walls that Jane Austen would have known well.

St Michaels

Not far from Castle Square is the medieval church of St Michael. It dates from 1066-1076 and is the oldest church still in use in Southampton. It stands a couple of hundred yards from Castle Square. The spire dates from 1732, so the Austens would have been familiar with it. The church was built over several centuries, with new sections being added to the original structure and different styles can be seen in different parts of the church. As with the cathedral in nearby Winchester, building was interrupted by the Black Death. Unlike the cathedral, where the temporary west front, put up because it was clear that the plans were never going to be completed, has lasted six hundred and sixty years, work on St Michael’s was resumed, resulting in a change of building style. This was the norm for medieval churches, which were rarely built in a single style.

St Michael’s was the church of the French population of the town shortly after the Conquest. At that point Southampton was approximately two thirds French and one third English. This division is shown in the names of the roads; French Street was to the west and English Street (now the High Street) was to the east. It was ironic, then, that it was in this church that a massacre took place during the French raid on the town in 1338. The building was reconsecrated a year later.

The church escaped the bombing raids of 23rd and 30th November and 1 December 1940 with minor damage. It was said the German pilots were told to avoid destroying the church, since the spire was used by them as a landmark, together with the clock tower of the Civic Centre in the centre of the town.

Tudor House

On the other side of St Michael’s Square is Tudor House. Now a museum, it is a late fifteenth century timber-framed building. It backs onto the same stretch of walls as the Austens’ garden. Built by Sir John Dawtrey, who was Southampton’s Member of Parliament, it contains graffiti from Tudor sailors and privateers.

It was almost demolished in the 1880s, but was purchased by a philanthropist, who refurbished it and sold it to the town for a museum. During the Second World War the wine cellar was used as an air raid shelter. At the beginning of this century it was closed for almost a decade for significant structural repairs.

Bargate from High Street

The Bargate is the most famous building in Southampton and is the symbol of the modern city. It was the main gate out of the town to the north, going to Winchester and London. Jane Austen would have seen it almost every day. It was at the top of the High Street, which was the main shopping street of the town. It is a hundred yards from All Saints’ Church which the Austens attended. This is the view that they would have seen. The statue in the middle of the four windows is George III in Roman dress.

It dates back to the end of the twelfth century and is the earliest of the town’s fortifications. The earliest part is the Norman tower enclosed in the north front. The first floor was built in the fourteenth century.

Bargate from Above Bar

Henry II arrived in Southampton from the continent in 1174 to put down a rebellion. Realising that the rebellion was seen as just retribution for his part in the murder of Thomas Becket, Henry decided not to go north to quash the rebellion, but east to Canterbury, to do public penance. He set off through the Bargate. Those responsible for the Southampton Plot (the Earl of Cambridge, Lord Scrope and Sir Thomas Grey) were executed in front of the Bargate at the beginning of August 1415. Henry V then set sail for France and Agincourt. The Southampton Plot was a plan to replace Henry V with Edmund Mortimer, Earl of March. The latter had a better claim to the throne than Henry V. Over the centuries thousands of soldiers have marched under the arch to join ships taking them to fight, mainly France.

This has nothing to do with Jane Austen, but is a rather wonderful film taken from a tram passing through the Bargate in the 1900s. Because of the shape of the arch, special trams had to be built to pass through it. The film shows the tram pass from the High Street, which was well-known to Austen, into Above Bar, which was an area that was being built up in her time. In Jane Austen’s time there were buildings on either side of the Bargate. These were demolished in the 1930s. This a photograph of a road which runs parallel to Above Bar and contains some Georgian terraced houses and were close to the Spa Gardens where Austen walked most days with her mother.

Portland Terrace


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Waterloo 200

There’s a break in transmission this week, as I’d like to write about an event I attended at the University of Southampton recently. The university houses the papers of the first Duke of Wellington and it is currently putting on an exhibition displaying some of the papers that are connected to the Battle of Waterloo, including a draft of Wellington’s despatch to Lord Bathurst, Secretary of State for War. The exhibition is called Wellington and Waterloo: ‘the tale is in every Englishman’s mouth’.

 The exhibition is in the university’s Hartley Library. It’s not a large exhibition and it doesn’t need to be. The papers have such historical significance that it would be a mistake to dilute their impact in order to display more.

There are papers showing some of Wellington’s instructions for the Congress of Vienna; drafts of reports from Wellington at Vienna to Lord Castlereagh, Secretary of State for Foreign affairs; pages from Le Moniteur Unversel reporting Napoleon’s activities in Paris during April 1815; estimates of the number of French soldiers and the number of allied soldiers in the run up to the battle; a letter from Wellington requesting additional troops after the battle; and letters about the eventual abdication of Napoleon and the occupation of France.

Save for a few papers at the bottom of the cabinets, the documents are easy to see and to read. The explanatory material is helpful and to the point. The catalogue is also useful, as it contains extracts from the documents on display.

Probably the most interesting document, since we have been remembering the bicentenary of Waterloo on Thursday, is Wellington’s despatch from Waterloo. It seems he started writing it on the battlefield and finished it in Brussels. This was the document that officially brought the news of Bonaparte’s defeat to London in the evening of 21st June, although there had already been rumours reaching the capital throughout the day.

Even allowing for the haste in which Wellington drafted his despatch after the battle, his writing is dreadful, almost illegible, but his thinking is clear. Given how exhausted he must have been when he wrote it, there are remarkably few crossings out and most of the corrections relate to information that must have been brought to him while he was writing.

It’s a very interesting exhibition for anyone interested in Wellington or the battle itself. It runs until 26th June and again from 13th to 24th July.

The link for further information is here

The university has also launched a free Massive Open Online Course about Wellington and Waterloo which makes use of many papers from the collection. The link for this is here. I’m participating in this course and learned about the exhibition as a result. I hope to review the course in some detail once I’ve completed it.

Jane Austen Lives Here will return next week.

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Jane Austen Lived Here: Part Three

Jane Austen Danced Here

The Dolphin

The Dolphin is one of two coaching inns still standing in Southampton. Jane Austen attended balls here and it’s rumoured that she celebrated her eighteenth birthday here.

When Austen lived in Castle Square winter assemblies were held in the Dolphin every other Tuesday. At the beginning of December 1808 she wrote to tell her sister Cassandra that she had been asked to dance at the ball on the Tuesday before by a man she had met on Sunday and whose name she was unable to remember, which makes her sound very flighty for a spinster a few days short of her thirty-third birthday. In her letter she reminds Cassandra that they had danced there fifteen years earlier, which would have been around her eighteenth birthday. Viscountess Palmerston, mother of the future prime minister, travelled from the Palmerston estate in Romsey for a ball at the Dolphin. It was clearly a very fashionable place.

The first recorded mention of the Dolphin was in 1267. In 1454 it was documented as being the property of the wardens of the parish of Holy Rood and it stands only a few doors away from the ruins of the fourteenth century church in the High Street. It wasn’t uncommon in the fourteenth century for an inn to be built fairly quickly near the site of a church so that it could accommodate the travelling artisans who would build the church over several years. Like Austen’s own parish church of All Saints, Holy Rood was bombed in the air raids at the end of 1940. The site is now a memorial to sailors in the Merchant Navy killed during the Second World War.

The Dolphin Hotel that you can see in the photograph above dates from the mid-eighteenth century and reflects the prevalent coaching inn style of the time. The building fronting the street allows entry to a coach or a carriage from the street through a central arch into a courtyard and the stables are at the back. In the Dolphin’s case the stables date from the sixteenth century.

The bow windows mark the Dolphin as a particularly elegant example of its type. It is much more elegant than the Star, Southampton’s other remaining coaching inn. Both are hotels today.

The Dolphin managed to escape destruction during the Second World War and remains the most elegant building in the High Street. It is said that William Makepeace Thackeray wrote Pendennis sitting in one of the bay windows. Other visitors have included Nelson and Queen Victoria.

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Jane Austen Lived Here: Part Two

In Castle Square Again

Catchcold Tower

When Jane Austen moved into the house in Castle Square, the castle that she knew was not the medieval castle, but a modem gothic building built by the Marquis of Lansdowne, who had purchased the site in 1804. It was from this building that she reported seeing the marchioness leave in a carriage being pulled by 8 small ponies and attended by liveried staff.

The marchioness must not have looked very appealing, for Austen wrote to her sister Cassandra in February 1807 about the painter from the castle, Mr Husket, who had allowed her and her mother to make a dressing table out of a kitchen table belonging to the castle, “I suppose whenever the Walls want no touching up, he is employed about my Lady’s face”.

As Austen knew, the marquis was in bad health and he died in November 1809. The castle was demolished in 1819. Even the castle mound had been levelled and flats now stand where the castle used to be.

The son of the Earl of Shelburne, the Prime Minister who negotiated the Peace of Paris and recognised the independence of the United States, John Henry Petty had been an MP. On his father’s death he became the Marquis of Lansdowne. The purchase of the castle site was funded by the sale of his father’s book collection and the sale of manuscripts to the British Library. Very little remained of the medieval castle itself, but what was left was incorporated into a house built in the gothic style with castellations. It was generally considered ugly and disproportionately large for the site. The marquis entertained the town’s nobility in the house and these events were the high points on the social calendar.

The original castle was founded at the end of the eleventh century, when the Normans began their programme of building castles to reinforce their defeat of the Saxons. The medieval castle was a serious defensive building and the main building work was carried out at the end of the fourteenth century. Southampton was vulnerable to attacks from France and had suffered a dreadful raid in 1338, during the One Hundred Years’ War, which killed many inhabitants and destroyed much property, including some of the king’s wool and wine, which was being stored in the town. Believing that the burgesses had connived at the town’s destruction, Edward III ordered defensive walls to be put up and improvements made to the castle. Richard II later had further improvements made when the threat of French invasion loomed again. It was one of the first castles in England to be defended by cannon.

Many monarchs stayed in the castle until it became redundant in the early seventeenth century. Even before the Civil War there was little left, as stones had been removed to build houses and strengthen the medieval walls. The Stuarts sold the site and it was eventually purchased, as we have seen, by the Marquis of Lansdowne.

I was quite disappointed to discover that Austen didn’t know the real castle, but a gothic make-believe replacement. Perhaps that was why she found it so easy to mock the marchioness.

I included the photo of Catchcold Tower at the top of the blog, not because it was part of the castle, we’ve already established that nothing much remains of it, but because the Austens would have seen it almost daily on their way to and from their walk in the Spa Gardens. The gardens were more or less under the shopping centre that can be seen above and to the left of the tower.

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Jane Austen Lived Here

Part 1: In Castle Square

Juniper Berry

Clearly Jane Austen didn’t live here, not in this building. The pub, The Juniper Berry, was built fairly recently, only dating from the late 19th century. It was built on the site, more or less, of the house in Castle Square into which Jane Austen, her sister Cassandra, their mother and their friend Martha Lloyd moved to live with their brother Frank and his wife Mary in 1806. Up until then the Austen women had been living in Bath, but Reverend Austen died and they couldn’t really afford to continue living there. They moved to Southampton where they had had friends for many years. Like Bath, Southampton was a spa town, but was much cheaper than Bath, as it was nowhere near as fashionable.

This is the first post in a series about places Jane Austen knew in Southampton. I work in Southampton, just outside the walls of the medieval town and ten minutes’ walk from Castle Square, so it was easy enough to go out on a Friday on the way home and take some photos of places Austen knew.

The Austens knew Southampton well and Jane Austen had first visited their friends in the town as a child. Rather annoyingly to a native Sotonian, it was never the Austens’ intention to stay long in Southampton. From the beginning they were looking for somewhere else to live, so they made no real effort to make friends or to put down roots. They set up home with Frank and Mary, but he was recalled to sea and his family went with him.

When the Austens lived in Castle Square part of the castle was still standing. None of it remains now, save part of the outer wall of the bailey, which is now on the edge of a very strangely-shaped car park.


Many of the buildings Jane Austen knew in Southampton were destroyed by the Luftwaffe or the town planners, but I have taken photographs of the sites that remain, sometimes with their views, and have looked into their history. Most of the centre of the town (where the Austens lived) was destroyed in air raids on 23rd and 30th November and 1 December 1940. One of the casualties was the church in which the Austens worshipped. All Saints was a modern building (finished in 1792) in the High Street when the Austens knew it. Now there is only a plaque to show where it stood.

All Saints

The Spa Gardens just outside the medieval walls where they used to walk most days is now a shopping mall, although it has long pleased me that the plaque commemorating their walks is on a wall of Waterstone’s.

In Castle Square the Austen’s garden went down to the medieval walls from which they could see across Southampton Water to the New Forest. In the photograph below you can see a view looking along the walls and the New Forest can just be glimpsed between the buildings and the trees. The river used to come to the quays at the bottom of the walls and everything in this photo would have been underwater. Thanks to a reclamation project, the water is now much further away from the walls.

View from the bottom of the garden

Over the next few weeks I shall visit the places Austen knew in Southampton and discuss some of the events that occurred during her stay in Castle Square.


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The Black Death – An Introduction

black death

I’ve been interested in the Black Death for a long time, specifically in how it changed people’s lives and how people managed to get life ‘back to normal’ afterwards. This post is by way of an introduction to the subject and there will be other posts about more specific aspects of the plague later.

There has been a lot of research into how the plague started, how it was transmitted and how it arrived in each country in Europe from the East. All of this research is about the beginning and middle of the plague, whereas I’m interested in the end and afterwards.

I set one of my novels The Traitor’s Daughter some years before the arrival of the Black Death in England and it was only after I finished it and was thinking of Alais’ and Hugh’s life after the end of the novel that I realised that, excluding accident or death in childbirth, they and their children and friends would have to face the horror that the plague brought with it, perhaps succumbing themselves. I haven’t had the courage to set a novel before the Black Death since.

It is believed that the plague arrived in England via Melcombe in Dorset in the summer of 1348 and spread west, north and east from there. There were three types of plague: bubonic (the version with the black boils and black fluids), which took several days to kill; pneumonic, which killed in hours; and septicaemic, which caused bleeding under the skin and diarrhoea, but would often kill before any symptoms were displayed. None of this, however, is certain, as there is still disagreement about what the Black Death really was and how it was spread. One current theory blames Asian gerbils Gerbils replace rats as main cause of Black Death. For those who are interested, the full text of the paper is here.

Estimates of the death toll vary from one third to two thirds of the population, with historians accusing the medieval chroniclers of gross exaggeration. In some ways it doesn’t matter whether they exaggerated or not; the death toll was such that society broke down in many places and people thought the end of the world had arrived. You only have to think for a few minutes about how frightening it would be if a third of the people you work with died in the space of a few weeks, or a third of the people in your street, or your village to understand why they thought it was the end of the world.

Since more records of the time have survived in England than in any other European country, more is known about the effects of the Black Death in this country than anywhere else. Many communities were destroyed or came close to destruction. My home town was one that came close to being wiped out entirely. Southampton was the largest port on the south coast and hadn’t recovered from a raid by the French in 1338, which left many dead and much of the town destroyed by fire. So much had been lost that the town had to appeal against taxes in the 1340s. When the Black Death arrived in late 1348 or early 1349 it almost meant the end of the town.

The plague wasn’t choosy about its victims. High born as well as low died, beggars as well as princesses. Edward III’s fourteen year old daughter, Joan, succumbed on her way to Castile to be married. The king’s letter expressing his grief at her loss shows the depth of his feeling for his many children. The Pope in Avignon famously spent his days sitting between two braziers and seeing no one to avoid infection, only leaving for the country in the height of summer and returning in the autumn. It was not so easy for the poor to protect themselves.

A recent area of study that has yielded a lot of information about medieval life is the examination of wills written as the Black Death arrived in a town. If it looked as if you were going to die, it was only sensible to make a will setting out the disposal of your goods and chattels. These wills reveal a great deal about life in the middle of the fourteenth century. They show what people thought was worth passing on to those who survived.

Many books have been written about the Black Death. Possibly the most famous is Philip Ziegler’s ‘The Black Death’, which is a summary of published research up to 1969 when it was written. It almost gives a county by county break down of its progress and effects across England, although he does give an overview of what was happening elsewhere in Europe.

Ole Bendictow’s The Black Death 1346-1353: The Complete History’ is a very clinical study of the causes and transmission of the plague, trying to work out why it spread so quickly in some areas and why others were unaffected. He also makes a case for the death rate being about two thirds of the population. This is a very dry, academic read, but full of facts.

John Hatcher has written a book about the effects of the Black Death on a single village The Black Death: The Intimate Story of a Village in Crisis 1345-50: An Intimate History. I haven’t read this yet, but will write a review here when I have.

A good fictional account of the effects of the Black Death on a small community can be found in ‘Doomsday Book‘ by Connie Willis.

And there’s always ‘The Decameron’, an eyewitness account of the plague in Florence by Boccaccio, although some question whether he was in Florence at the time.

Whatever its causes and regardless of how it was transmitted, everything changed after the Black Death. The way people thought about death changed, the church was seen as less worthy of trust and crime levels rose. In future blogs I’ll be taking a look at each of these themes.

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First Catch Your Husband

A Regency ball could take more than one form. There were balls in assembly rooms that could be attended by anyone able to afford the entry fee, private balls to which one needed an invitation and court balls which met various political and social needs.

Balls could be lively affairs. They allowed young men and young women the opportunity to get to know one another and for each to appraise the other as a possible marriage partner. It was a chance to show off one’s skill, stamina and body in dancing and it also permitted moments of intense conversation. A single dance could go on for twenty minutes or more and couples could take advantage of being unchaperoned to discuss things that they needed to know about one another, but might not be able to discover under other circumstances.

Learning to dance was part of the education of a gentleman or gentlewoman. For centuries men and women had been showing off their bodies to one another at dances of some kind, demonstrating their good health and stamina. A woman who could dance her way through a ball was more likely to survive the rigours of childbirth than one who could not and a man who could do the same was likely to live long enough to provide for a wife and children.

The rooms in which balls were held would usually be fairly small for the number of people attending. The physical effort involved in dancing and the heat generated by the many candles meant that everyone involved would become unbearably hot fairly quickly, even in winter. Although the woman might be wearing light gowns, the men would be wearing woollen jackets, which were unsuitable for an evening’s dancing.

Clever hosts used mirrors to make the room in which the ball was held appear larger and brighter. Candles were expensive and mirrors would reflect their light. The length of the candles would also tell the guests how long the ball would last. Once the candles had been lit it would have been difficult (impossible in the case of the chandelier) to replace any that burned out, so they had to be long enough to last the whole evening without waste. Everyone would know at a glance how much longer the ball would continue.

At private balls, at least, a fair amount of alcohol would be imbibed and this could lead to incautious behaviour, making balls even more interesting for those in attendance. They would also be a rich source for gossip afterwards.

There was very little physical contact during the dances, at least until the waltz became popular and respectable. Gloved hands would touch as a couple made an arch for the other couples or as the gentleman led the lady through the steps. A gloved hand might touch an arm as the gentleman accompanied his partner to and from the dance floor.

Married people tended not to dance, making it even clearer that the purpose of a ball was to allow young people to get to know one another. The married men (and some of the unmarried ones) often sat in another room playing cards while their wives chaperoned the young women who were sitting out or gossiping about the dancing couples.

The ball would be broken by supper. In a private house this would usually be a lavish affair with many elaborate dishes. The supper dance, the one that preceded supper, was the most important dance of the evening, for the gentleman was expected to lead his partner into supper and to sit with her during the meal and to attend to her. It was an opportunity to get to know her better so the gentleman had to ensure that the woman he chose for the supper dance was someone with whom he wanted to spend the meal. Supper would not normally begin until after midnight, by which time the dancing would have been going on for three or four hours.

One of the most famous balls of the Regency period was one that came to a premature end. The Duchess of Richmond’s ball was in progress in Brussels when the officers in attendance were called away after supper to fight Napoleon at Waterloo. Wellington briefed most of his senior officers there and they left Brussels in the early hours of the morning.

The Dolphin

This is a photograph of the Dolphin Inn in Southampton taken during the recent solar eclipse, which was pretty much like any other cloudy day on the south coast. It’s a coaching inn where assemblies were held in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Jane Austen attended some of them when she lived in the town. Later in the year I’ll be doing a series on places Austen knew in Southampton which will include photographs of buildings and places she would have known.

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