Category Archives: Historical Tales

The amazing race… to the altar!

History is full of royal mistresses and marriages based on political alliances rather than love, but the union of King George III and Charlotte was a rare case of an arranged marriage that was both successful and happy. George met his bride for the first time on their wedding day but he never took a mistress and the couple had 15 children. With seven sons and six daughters surviving to adulthood the succession seemed ensured.

But at 32 their eldest son George, Prince of Wales, was still not suitably married and his extravagant lifestyle had put him deeply in debt. His father refused to lend him money but Parliament offered an increased salary as well as repayment of all his debts if would marry his cousin Caroline of Brunswick, so the Prince reluctantly agreed. The marriage was a disaster. It was consummated only once (with him drunk) and the couple formally separated after the birth of a baby girl, Charlotte.

With her parents constantly at war, it’s not surprising that Charlotte had an unhappy childhood. She had a strict upbringing and came to believe that the only solution to her problems was marriage. Charlotte wasn’t in love with Leopold of Saxe-Coburg-Saalfeld, nor he with her, but he set out to win her love and Charlotte fell for the handsome Leopold. On May 2, 1816 Leopold married the heiress to the British throne. Later he would train his nephew Albert to win the heart of another English Princess… Victoria.

Charlotte had miscarried twice in the early months of their marriage before she became pregnant again. In November she delivered a stillborn son. At first Charlotte seemed to be recovering from the long labour but later she began to have difficulty breathing and passed away, likely of an internal hemorrhage. The devastated Leopold wrote ‘Two generations gone – gone in a moment!’

The double tragedy also left open the question of who would inherit the throne. George III had many surviving sons, all of whom were in their forties or fifties, but none had produced legitimate offspring under the Royal Marriages Act of 1772. The Act said that:

“no descendant of the body of his late majesty King George the Second, male or female, (other than the issue of princesses who have married, or may hereafter marry, into foreign families) shall be capable of contracting matrimony without the previous consent of his Majesty, his heirs, or successors, signified under the great seal, and declared in council… and that every marriage, or matrimonial contract, of any such descendant, without such consent first had and obtained, shall be null and void, to all intents and purposes whatsoever.”

It went on to add that if the descendant wished to marry someone the King disapproved of, they could apply to Parliament for permission and then wait twelve months before doing so. Despite the restrictions of the Royal Marriages Act, there was a large incentive to marry within its limits – married Princes would receive an extra income from Parliament!

When Charlotte died in 1818, George III’s insanity had taken hold and he was in seclusion at Windsor Castle while The Prince of Wales ruled as Prince Regent. After the 55 year-old Prince George the succession went as follows: Frederick (age 54), William (52), Edward (50), Ernest (46), Augustus (44) and Adolphus (43). All seven sons were supported by Parliament and had been called “the damnedest millstones around the necks of any government that can be imagined” by the Duke of Wellington. Of the seven, only George, Augustus, and Frederick were already married and none with legitimate offspring so the race to the altar began…

William already had 10 children with his mistress Dorothy Jordan but married the German Princess Adelaide. Their union was by all accounts a happy one, but it produced only one child who lived more than a few days.

Ernest married Frederica of Mecklenburg-Strelitz and, two weeks after Charlotte’s death, Adolphus married Augusta of Hesse-Kassel. Edward married a widower, the Princess of Leningen, who had originally refused him because she was happier as a widow and already had two children. After the double tragedy Edward proposed to her again, this time through her brother Leopold, and was accepted.

In March 1819 William and Adelaide bore a daughter who died within hours of her birth, but the seventh brother Adolphus produced a son named George.

In May, the fifth brother, Ernest, became a father. His son was also named George.

But on May 24th, Edward, Duke of Kent, and his wife delivered a daughter. As the child of the fourth brother, little Princess Victoria became the heir presumptive to the British throne.


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Filed under British History, Historical Tales, The Regency

Victoria Weekend at Truth in Fiction

This Monday marks the birth of the longest reigning British Monarch in history, Queen Victoria. Born on the 24th of May, Victoria reigned from June of 1837 until her death in 1901 and her 9 children and 42 grandchildren married into other royal families across Europe. In Canada her birth is celebrated on the Monday before the 25th of May and marks an unofficial start to summer.

We don’t often consider the Queen whose birthday we are celebrating though. For most of us Victoria Day, a statutory holiday, is simply a long weekend and a time for fireworks or enjoying time with our families. It’s even referred to as the May two-four weekend rather than Victoria Day. But with The Young Victoria now on DVD, it’s a great time to reflect on this fascinating woman, and I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate here at Truth in Fiction than with a weekend of posts devoted to her. I’ll be reviewing The Young Victoria, taking a look at both fiction and non-fictional works about the Queen, and providing some historical tales about her life.

But the end of May marks the birth not only of the longest serving British Monarch but also one of its longest serving Prime Ministers. As an admirer of William Pitt the Younger, I couldn’t let the anniversary of his birth go unnoticed and will also be posting on his life and portrayal in pop culture.

I wish you all a happy and safe Victoria Day Weekend!

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Filed under British History, Historical Tales, Victorian

A dish best served cold

George Canning

Standard dueling procedure was to send a friend with a note asking for satisfaction shortly after an insult occurred. In 1798, Prime Minister William Pitt had accused opposition Member of Parliament George Tierney of harboring a desire to ‘obstruct the defense of the country’ and was challenged the next day, yet Lord Castlereagh waited a full nine days before demanding satisfaction from George Canning.

In those nine days Castlereagh learned nothing new, but his resentment grew after he was shown the months worth of correspondence that took place behind his back. Letters revealed that all of his colleagues had agreed that he should be removed from office as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies and, in a more damaging blow to his pride, that they had thought him incapable but continued to act as though he had their full confidence while making important decisions regarding the war with France. Although Canning was not the only man involved in the deception, and not the most deserving of blame, the Duke of Portland was elderly and had suffered a stroke in August, and Castlereagh’s uncle Lord Camden’s selective retelling of events had made Canning the target of his wounded pride.

As he had guessed back in July, Canning took the blame, which came in the form of an unusually worded challenge. Challenges were usually notes that asked for an explanation of the perceived insult and demanded satisfaction, but Castlereagh’s long note reads more like a compilation of grievances. “You continued to sit in the same cabinet with me,” he writes, “and to leave me, not only in the persuasion that I possessed your Confidence and Support as a Colleague, but… to originate and proceed in the Execution of a new Enterprize [referring to the failed Walcheren Expedition] of the most arduous and important nature with your apparent concurrence and ostensible approbation.”

Although the challenge addressed the dishonourable conduct in detail, what it didn’t do was give Canning a chance to respond to the allegations levelled against him. In fact, fellow Member of Parliament William Wilberforce later called it ‘a cold-blooded measure of deliberate revenge’, although he strongly disapproved of dueling in general. Canning sent his reply to the challenge the next day:

My Lord, The Tone and the Purport of your Lordship’s letter (which I have this moment recieved) of course preclude any other answer, on my part, to the Misapprehensions and misrepresentations with which it abounds, than that I will cheerfully give to your Lordship, the Satisfaction which you desire.

The duel was set for the morning of September 21st, 1809 at Putney Heath.
Although duels were slowly becoming less murderous, there were still fatalities and participants used the night before the duel to put their affairs in order. Canning wrote a letter to his wife Joan that reads as a farewell… and for good reason. Lord Castlereagh was known as a good shot while Canning had never fired a pistol in his life. Reflecting on the events leading up to the challenge, he wrote that,

“The poor old Duke’s procrastination and Lord Camden’s malice or mismanagement have led [to these] circumstances. If anything happens to me, dearest love, be comforted with the assurance that I could not do otherwise than I have done… I hope that I have made you happy; and if I leave you a happy mother and a proud widow, I am content. Adieu, Adieu.”

The next morning Canning and Castlereagh’s seconds, whose job was to ensure fairplay and attempt to defuse the situation, decided on a distance of twelve paces (one of the longer distances between participants) and that both would shoot at the same moment. Both statesmen missed their first shot and Castlereagh’s second Yarmouth commented that it was a pity Canning hadn’t fired into the air because his friend would be unable to demand a second shot honourably under those circumstances. Instead, the seconds agreed that a second shot would be the last regardless of the result. Canning’s second shot also missed, but Castlereagh’s hit his opponent in the thigh. Agreeing that honour had been satisfied, Canning was helped off the field.

Undoubtedly the wound put him out of commission while he recovered, but Canning had been fortunate that the bullet missed all major arteries, only passing through ‘the fleshy part of the thigh’. He wrote a reassuring letter to his aunts later that day:

Pray, young women, had either of you ever a Ball pass through the fleshy part of your thigh? If not you can hardly conceive of how slight a matter it is…if you have a mind to try the experiment, I would recommend Lord Castlereagh as the operator. For here I am just as well as if I had not undergone the operation two hours ago – without pain, without fever, and with only two little holes which I daresay you could see through… upon my word of honour there is not the slightest danger, pain, or inconvenience in my wound.

Although both statesmen had survived the duel, they were now faced with navigating the murky waters of public opinion…


Filed under British History, Historical Tales, The Regency

The Historical Tourist visits Glasnevin Cemetery

Officially known as Prospect Cemetery, Glasnevin is the largest non-denominational cemetery in Ireland. It spans 120 acres and over one million individuals have been laid to rest within its limits, beginning with Michael Casey of Francis Street, Dublin. Amazingly this one cemetery contains many of Ireland’s best known public figures, including statesman Daniel O’Connell, who achieved Catholic Emancipation in 1829, Home Rule proponent Charles Stewart Parnell, and Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, a mining magnate whose art collection is now housed in the magnificent Chester Beatty Library in Dublin.

The history of “Ireland’s Necropolis” begins with the repressive penal laws. England’s conversion to Protestantism during Tudor rule left the problem of what to do with the neighbouring Catholic Ireland. In the early eighteenth century several new laws were passed discriminating against Catholics. Under the penal laws Catholics could not vote, were excluded from most public offices, could not be called to the bar and, of course, could not sit in parliament. These laws also placed restrictions on the public performance of Catholic services. As a result Catholics conducted their own services in Protestant cemeteries.

In the 1820s an incident took place at St. Kevin’s cemetery during which a Protestant sexton reprimanded a Catholic priest for only performing a limited version of a funeral mass. The incident provoked a public outcry and Daniel O’Connell, a Catholic who was able to practice law due to the Catholic Relief Act 1791, prepared a legal opinion to prove that there was no law that forbade praying for a dead Catholic in a graveyard. The “Act of Easement of Burial” Bill passed and nine acres at Glasnevin were bought and consecrated. O’Connell’s push for a cemetery where both Catholics and Protestants could bury their dead in dignity became a reality.

The most visible feature in the cemetery is the round tower marking O’Connell’s grave. Erected in the 1860s to honour “The Liberator”, O’Connell’s body rests in the crypt beneath. When I visited Glasnevin in March 2009, O’Connell’s crypt was locked but the tour guide admitted our group, providing this admirer of O’Connell with a unique thrill that I will not forget. A notice on the cemetery’s website states that as of October 22nd O’Connell’s crypt was officially opened as “a fitting tribute to his memory and an appropriate place for those of us who owed him so much to come in respectful pilgrimage”. Access to the crypt had been limited due to damage caused to the tower by a suspected loyalist bomb in 1971. On the beautifully painted walls O’Connell’s dying wish can be read, “My body to Ireland – my heart to Rome – my soul to Heaven.”

Inside Daniel O'Connell's crypt.

But O’Connell is not the only noted statesman to be buried at Glasnevin. Also buried is Charles Stewart Parnell, who was president of the National Land League and leader of the Home Rule movement in the 1880s. Although his affair with a married woman caused his fall from political life, the “uncrowned King of Ireland” (a title also given to O’Connell) remains popular. More than 200,000 people attended his 1891 funeral and in 1940 a gravestone of granite from county Wicklow was erected with just one word, “PARNELL”.

Parnell's gravesite.

More recent burials include the famous Michael Collins, who fought in the General Post Office in the 1916 Easter Rising and was a member of the delegation who negotiated the Anglo-Irish treaty, his contemporary Eamon de Valera, author of the Constitution of Ireland and two-time President of Ireland, and Countess Constance Markievicz. Markievicz became the first woman to be elected to the British Parliament (in 1918), but in accordance with Sinn Féin policy she refused to take her seat. She was instead a member of the ‘First Dáil’ , established by Sinn Féin MPs elected to the House of Commons during the 1918 General Election, in which she was Minister of Labour.

Grave of Michael Collins.

With the centenary of the 1916 Rising approaching, the cemetery is undergoing restorations and there are plans for a new heritage centre which will form a suitable introduction to the cemetery. The Glasnevin website displays a virtual map and an index of notable grave sites. By clicking on the marker, those interested can read biographies of the deceased.

Few places offer such a deep connection to Irish history as Glasnevin. The cemetery offers daily guided tours at 2:30 P.M. for five euros. These tours last one and a half hours and are a wonderful way to learn some of the fascinating history of Ireland, and to admire the architectural artistry of the many monuments.

Base of a beautiful Celtic Cross.


Filed under Historical Tales, The Historical Tourist

Wellington’s Boots

Portrait of The Duke of Wellington by George Dawe, 1829

During the Regency period, men’s fashion underwent a change as knee breeches were exchanged for trousers. Although trousers had been entering fashion since 1800, they only became appropriate casual and semi-casual wear for men between 1810 and 1820. In America, James Madision (in office 1809-1817) was the first President to wear trousers instead of knee breeches, and the future Duke of Wellington, Arthur Wellesley, had been turned away from a fashionable London social club in 1800 both for tardiness and for wearing trousers, which were against the strict dress code.

Hessian boots, which had begun as standard issue military footwear but became widely worn, accompanied knee breeches. With a semi-pointed toe and a low heel, Hessians also included decorative tassels. In fact, Dickens’ famous character Jacob Marley likely wore Hessian boots in A Christmas Carol:

“The same face: the very same. Marley in his pigtail, usual waistcoat, tights and boots; the tassels on the latter bristling, like his pigtail, and his coat-skirts, and the hair upon his head.”

But Hessian boots were unsuitable for wearing under the newly acceptable trousers, so Wellington instructed his shoemaker Hoby of St. James Street, London to modify the popular boot. The result was cut higher in front to cover and protect the knee and had the back cut away, in order to make it easier to bend the leg. It was also cut closer to the leg. They quickly gained a reputation as hard wearing in battle yet comfortable for evening wear. After Wellington’s defeat of Napoleon, “Wellington boots” became extremely popular as stylish footwear that could be worn with trousers.

In an 1839 letter from his residence at Walmer Castle, the Duke instructed his shoemaker on how to make a pair of his boots:

“Mr Mitchell
I beg that you will make for me two pairs of Boots, of the usual form only four (or the thin of an hand) lines longer in the foot than usual. Send with new false soles that will fit this new size. If needed make them broader. If these boots should suit me I will send another [pair] of galoshes. If I fit them; and [a pair] of shoes of the same size. I beg to have these boots as soon as possible, as I am pained by those which I wear at present.
Your obedient Servant

The boot evolved again when Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process for rubber. In 1852 Goodyear met American Hiram Hutchinson, who bought the patent to manufacture footwear and established his company A L’Aigle in France. The footwear was an immediate success, replacing wooden clogs among farmers. Four years later, entrepreneur Henry Lee Norris established the North British Rubber Company (which would later become the Hunter Rubber Company) in Scotland.

Initially produced in limited quantities, the popularity of the rubber Wellington boot skyrocketed during World War One. The United Kingdom Office of War hired the North British Rubber Company to produce a boot suitable for the trenches in France and Belgium, and during the course of the war nearly two million Wellington boots were sold to the army.

Wellingtons remain popular today and come in assorted colours and patterns to suit your fashion needs, although it’s hard to picture the Iron Duke wearing a pair of these!

A pair of the Duke of Wellington’s boots is on display at Walmer Castle, where he lived for 23 years.

For more information on changing men’s fashions in the Regency, visit Jessamyn’s Regency Costume Companion.


Filed under British History, Historical Fashion, Historical Tales

His ears must have been burning…

We’ve all had times when we worry, usually unnecessarily, that someone is talking behind our backs. But one man who should have worried more is Lord Castlereagh.

By 1809, Foreign Secretary George Canning had become disillusioned with the government, writing that “the government as at present constituted, does not appear to me equal to the great task which it has to perform.” Led by the Duke of Portland as Prime Minister and Spencer Perceval as Leader of the House of Commons, the government had already mishandled the ‘Duke and the Darling’ scandal involving Frederick, Duke of York, and his mistress Mary Anne Clarkes’ trafficking of army commissions.

Increasingly frustrated at being part of a government he believed to be ineffective, Canning pressed for reform. In April he threatened to tender his resignation unless changes were made, namely the removal of Lord Castlereagh from his position as Secretary of State for War and the Colonies. Castlereagh had been ill for months and Canning thought that he was mismanaging the War Office, but a change would also benefit the ambitious Canning on a personal level. He suggested that Lord Wellesley, a supporter of his, replace Castlereagh. The Prime Minister was elderly and he had never been a firm man. Unwilling to lose Canning, he agreed to remove Castlereagh from the War Office, as did Castlereagh’s Uncle and fellow statesman Lord Camden.

The Prime Minister, Castlereagh’s Uncle, and fellow minister in the Foreign Office George Canning, had all decided that Castlereagh would be replaced. Unfortunately, no one had bothered to tell him this!

First the Duke of Portland assured Canning that he was asking Castlereagh to accept another office (the Government of India), but he put off telling Spencer Perceval (The Chancellor of the Exchequer and Leader in the House of Commons), who explained that no changes could be made to the cabinet because a plan had just been approved that Castlereagh would have to see through.

Meanwhile, Lord Camden had assured everyone that his nephew had agreed to the proposed change, when poor Castlereagh was, in fact, completely unaware. Canning learned of the deception himself in mid-July, wisely guessing that in the end he would be blamed for it.

A few months passed in which nothing was done before Canning attempted to resign. Not only did King George III refuse to accept it, he also forbid the Duke of Portland from saying anything about the planned change of office to Castlereagh. The Duke of Portland was further silenced by a stroke in August.

So the all-important plan that Castlereagh had to see through went ahead. The campaign, an expedition to the Netherlands in hopes of assisting the Austrian Empire against the French, was a disaster. British troops seized a swampy island called Walcheren, but they began to suffer from Malaria. In early September the expedition was called off, but not before 4000 men had died, only 106 of them in combat. The failed campaign cost the government eight million pounds.

With the Prime Minister’s health precarious, the ambitious Canning thought he would be asked to form a government next, but he was passed over for office in favour of Spencer Perceval. This time Canning did resign, remaining Foreign Secretary only until a successor could be appointed, but he didn’t attend a cabinet meeting on September 9th. Noting the absence, Lord Castlereagh asked his Uncle why Canning wasn’t there and Lord Camden finally told him (likely leaving out the whole part where he assured the cabinet that his nephew knew about and approved of the plan), about the maneuvers that had been taking place behind his back for the last five months.

Nine days later Lord Castlereagh challenged George Canning to a duel.


Filed under Historical Tales, The Regency