Bristol’s other slave trades…

Bristol may be synonymous with the Transatlantic slave trade but prior to this dark period in its history it was also involved in three types of slavery…. 

The Saxon and Viking slave trade 

The city of Bristol may have originated in Anglo Saxon times although there is argument the site may have been occupied as early as Roman times. Its name is derived from the Saxon words ‘Brycg Stowe’ meaning the settlement by the bridge. Much of Anglo-Saxon Bristol is located in what is now the financial and business districts of the city and Castle park.  


Bristol old bridge in 2011 looking towards Castle Park (above. Photographer unknown).

Bristol does not appear in the Byghal Hidage (Anglo Saxon list of burhs) of 919 AD although the original plan of the town follows the exact grid pattern of many other Saxon settlements with fortifications to withstand attacks from Vikings. There is little archaeological evidence as yet for Vikings raids on Bristol but we do know that a lot of the white slaves that were taken by the Vikings were either spoils of war or kidnap victims. Certainly they could not have operated the slave market out of Bristol without the compliance of the local Saxon population, who were not averse to slavery themselves but saw it as an integral part of society which had existed for hundreds of years.  

The Viking’s dominance of Britain and Ireland was between the 8th and 11th centuries but they left no written records of their own. What we do have is from Saxon eyewitness accounts and archaeological evidence and we do know that their modus operandi was mainly to ‘raid and trade’ whether it was cattle, goods or slaves, so we can safely assume that the slave markets operated all throughout the land. Vikings treated their slaves savagely murdering on a whim and raping female slaves to fetch a higher price if they became pregnant. They were mostly shipped the largest slave market at the time in Dublin, which was easily accessible by boat from Bristol.  

slave colar from viking age Dublin

A Viking slave collar in Dublin museum (above)

Viking heirarchy

Viking social hierarchy  (above)

It wasn’t until 1000.A.D that more accurate records show how Bristol was organised and how it traded and more specifically, with and whom it traded. By the turn of the millennium the city had its own mint which shows that it was an important trading centre in the Kingdom. It was around this time that we see the emergence of one of the first abolitionists in Britain –  Wulfstan II, Bishop of Worcester.  

Wulfstan was born around 1008 AD in Warwickshire and ordained in 1038 before joining a monastery in Worcester. He made it his mission to end the practice of selling Christian slaves and spent months preaching to the people of Bristol against the practice. At first they were hesitant but he eventually won them around. There are even reports that the townspeople attacked any slaver they came across. Eventually the example made by the people of Bristol was held up by King William and the practice of selling slaves was banned throughout the land by 1102. However, the practice of slavery continued underground for a time by the Norse traders who would entice people on board their ships and then kidnap them by sailing away to Dublin where they would be sold.  


Bishop Wulfstan II depicted on a stained glass window in Worcester Cathedral.

Serfdom & slavery 

Economic records for the city show that after the 12th century onwards, Bristol’s main export to Ireland, France and Iberia was wine, cloth and metals. Although the Saxon/Viking slave trade had officially ended, a form of slavery still existed called serfdom which was prevalent until the black death of 1347-1351.  

Serfs were different to the previous definition of slaves as they were not classed as property and were entitled to some protection and justice. However, all had a debt-bondage to their Lord and were legally tied to the land. They were forbidden to move without consent and in return for shelter they were required to pay tribute in the form of cash or labour and required to take up arms for the lord if required.  

Feudal society

Feudal society pyramid (above)

Records such as the Doomsday Book record the manors near Bristol and not the city itself. This is due to the books primary purpose being an economic survey of the land – that is land that produces wealth for taxation. It was a feudal society at the time and power and wealth came from land ownings. Craftsmen, merchants, women, children and serfs outside of and not working on landholdings were generally not included in this survey. 

In Bristol, there are a number of entries for manors in the area (classed as being under Gloucestershire). The households of the manors were the peasantry also known as serfs. They were the lowest social order in society and extremely poor. Although some might have leased land it was usually a very small plot that could only sustain their own families. There is a lot of debate amongst historians but generally the term of villager in the book meant a member of the peasant class but who had the most land. A smallholder was a middle-class peasant who usually had less land than a villager but more than a Cottar. Freedmen (including Cottars and Bordars) were former slaves but only just above them in terms of status.  

The manors around Bristol were listed as follows – 

  • Barton Regis: 22 villagers. 29 smallholders. 9 slaves. 18 freedmen. 
  • Bedminster: 25 villagers. 22 smallholders. 3 slaves. 1 priest. 
  • Bishopsworth: 2 smallholders. 3 slaves. 
  • Long Ashton: 23 villagers. 18 smallholders. 11 slaves. 
  • Clifton: 6 villagers. 6 smallholders. 3 slaves. 
  • Stoke Bishop: 51 villagers. 40 smallholders. 35 slaves. 3 female slaves. 20 freedmen. 
  • Horfield: 262 villagers. 147 smallholders. 136 slaves. 15 female slaves. 58 other. 
  • Mangotsfield: 22 villagers. 29 smallholders. 9 slaves. 18 freedmen. 
  • Pucklechurch: 23 villagers. 8 smallholders. 10 slaves. 11 other. 1 burgess 
  • Stoke Gifford: 8 villagers. 3 smallholders. 4 slaves. 1 priest. 
  • Kings Weston: 262 villagers. 147 smallholders. 136 slaves. 15 female slaves. 58 other. 
  • Henbury : 51 villagers. 40 smallholders. 35 slaves. 3 female slaves. 20 freedmen. 
  • Harry Stoke: 2 villagers. 1 smallholder. 6 slaves. 
bristol 13th cetury

 Bristol in the 13th Century (above)

The Doomsday Book showed that the majority of the population tied to lands were made up of 12% freemen/freeholders, 35% villeins, 30% cottars and 9% were slaves so we could justifiably assume that Bristol showed similar divisions in numbers at the time of the Norman conquest, with the remaining 9% morphing into cottars as the traditional form of slavery was eventually phased out.  


The Transatlantic Indentured servants 

It wasn’t until the discovery of the ‘New World’ and colonisation, did Bristol again enter the murky world of slavery. However, Bristol first supplied slaves to the America’s not from Africa but from Britain itself in the form of indentured servants. It was mainly the poor of Bristol and West Country that were forced into indentured servitude which meant they signed a contract of seven years service in the colonies America or the Caribbean in return for passage and a possible payment or plot of land at the end of it. Prisoners could also swap life in an English prison for life as an indentured servant. There are even reports from the 17th century of adults and minors either being kidnapped or tricked from the streets of Bristol and taken to plantations for life as an indentured servant. 

Place-name index in Peter Wilson Coldham, The Bristol Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations (Baltimore- Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1988),

Previous Residences of Indentured Servants Departing from Bristol, England for the New World, 1654-1686 (Peter Wilson Coldham, The Bristol Registers of Servants Sent to Foreign Plantations (Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1988), 447-458)

 The conditions that these ‘servants’ suffered was as every bit hard and sometimes horrific as other slave victims. They had little to no rights and had every chance of dying from disease, malnutrition or violence in the first few years of life on the plantations. It is estimated that up to 40% of the indentured servants died in their first year and up to 75% of those who lived beyond that died before completing their term of servitude. By the end of the 17th Century and with the end of the monopoly by the Royal Africa Company, the slave trade would transition from white English, Irish, Welsh and Scots men, women and children to those from Africa.  

white slaves

The Irish made up the overall majority of white slaves in the caribbean .







Slavery in History

Slavery has existed for millennia in varying forms in all parts of the world. Affecting all races, gender and age groups. It is only in recent times that it has been globally outlawed with the United Nations General Assembly adopting the declaration of human rights in 1948 that specified that freedom from slavery is a universal human right and it is to be prohibited in all forms.

Historically, there are many different types of slavery including chattel, bonded, forced labour and sexual slavery. The key characteristics of slavery are ones generally agreed such as the loss of freedom of movement and legal rights.

In the ancient world, slavery developed for a number of reasons including economic necessity especially in civilizations and agricultural economies where larger workforces were needed. Domination was another factor. War produced not only spoils such as gold but also people to take as slaves which eventually also became a form of status symbol. The more slaves you had, the wealthier and more influential you were.

The oldest known slave society was the Mesopotamian and Sumerian civilisations located in the Iran/Iraq region between 6000-2000BCE. The oldest known written reference of slavery is found in the Hammurabi Code of 1754 BCE which states “If anyone take a male or female slave of the court, or a male or female slave of a freed man, outside the city gates, he shall be put to death.”

Egypt was also another civilisation whose economy also depended on slavery. The relationship between slave and master was set down in law with some restrictions such as slave owners could not force child slaves to do unduly harsh physical labour. There were no slave markets and any transaction of buying or selling slaves had to be overseen by government officials. There is also the famous biblical narrative of the Exodus whereby the Israelites were led to freedom by Moses with archaeologists theorising that this may have happened in the New Kingdom period (1550-712 BC). This old testament narrative is one of the earliest known written record of slaves attaining freedom.

Ancient Greece could be argued to be the world’s first true ‘slave society’ whereby the majority of the economy was dependent on slave labour. Slaves made up a third of the total population with the wealthier classes viewing manual labour with distain. However, Ancient Greece did offer a form of manumission for slaves whereby they could buy their freedom or were freed at their master’s discretion. It wasn’t total freedom, as they never were legally allowed to become a full citizens and the majority were still obligated to provide some duties to their former masters. There is also some evidence of the ethics of slavery being questioned. One such case is Bishop Gregory of Nyssa who lived in the 4th century BC who argued that ‘slavery was incompatible with humanities creation in the image of God’.

roman slaveryA Roman slave market.

With the decline of Greece and the expansion of Rome, slavery also expanded. At the height of the Roman empire up to 30% of the total population were enslaved with the majority being made up of conquered peoples. We also see the emergence of slavery used for ‘sport’ rather than labour such as gladiatorial fights and large-scale brothels. Slave revolts were not uncommon during this time. There were again strict rules around slavery and even harsher punishments for slaves who revolted. One such case included a slave who killed his master. As retribution, all the slaves in the master’s house were executed. Slaves during this period could also operate as skilled craftsmen and women such as hairdressers, painters and even tutors to young children. Rome differed from Greece in that freed slaves could become full legal Roman citizens with rights.

The fall of the Roman Empire led to what is commonly known as ‘the dark ages’ or medieval period. With the decline of the Roman empire came the loss of large-scale markets. We do not concretely know what happened to the large proportion of Roman slaves, presumably with the large-scale loss of the estate of the masters and ruling classes, slave prices crashed or slaves were simply left to their own devices. In Britain we can see a slow reorganisation of society after the Romans left and the emergence of serfdom much later. One interesting story is of an English slave called Balthild, who rose to be queen of the Frankish king Clovis II in the 7th Century. As Queen Regent for her young son, she abolished the trading of Christian slaves and freed all young child slaves.

During the Anglo-Saxon years slavery was still prevalent especially so when Vikings had invaded and conquered large parts of the island. Vikings left no written records (few could read nor write) but there is plenty of archaeological evidence of slave markets, the largest being in Dublin. Bristol also had a thriving Viking slave market years before becoming infamous with its links with the Transatlantic Slave trade. Viking slaves were mostly made up of captives or spoils of war or were simply kidnapped in raids. Slaves had absolutely no rights under the Vikings and were treated as little more (or less) than cattle and murdered at random for fun or part of rituals. Many slaves were beheaded and female slaves were frequently raped as pregnant slaves fetched higher prices at markets as a ‘2 for 1’ deal.

viking slavery

A Viking slave market

After the conquest of Britain by William the Conqueror in 1066, the Doomsday book was commissioned to survey the land for tax reasons. What also became apparent in this manuscript is that approximately 10% of the British population were classed as slaves. In 1102 the church condemned slavery, but it held no legislative power to act. Slave market still thrived but culturally the practice of slavery began to change with early abolitionists such as Bishop Wulfstan of Worcester who preached regularly to the crowds at Bristol to end the practice. By the 1200’s slavery by its old definition had completely died out in the British Isles.


With the decline of ‘traditional’ slavery, we see the emergence of Serfdom in the British Isles and in feudal Europe. Serfs were different to the previous definition of slaves as they were not classed a property and were entitled to protection and justice. However, they did not have free movement and had a debt-bondage to their Lord and legally tied to the land. They were forbidden to move without consent and in return for shelter they were required to pay tribute in the form of cash or labour. If they grew their own corn, they were legally obliged to pay the Lord to use the mill he owned to grind it. Serfdom continued for a few centuries until the ‘Black Death’ in the 14th Century.  The ‘black death’ is the main catalyst for the decline of serfdom. With a reduced population and a high demand for workers, serfs found themselves in a position where they could negotiate for their freedom as well as their wages. The black death also transformed feudal lords into landlords with the end of feudal dues however, we still see serfdom survive in some places such as Eastern Europe and Russia until the 19th century.

serfdomMedieval Serfs

Indentured servitude was another form of slavery that emerged much later during the colonial era. This was a form of contract whereby a person would enter a fixed term of servitude for a certain number of years. Prisoners could escape capital punishment and agree to become an indentured servant for a period of 7 years or more in the colonies or a person could enter this willingly in exchange for passage to the America’s. Usually it was the poorest of society who entered this form of debt-bondage. For the duration of their servitude they were bonded to their ‘master’. Their freedoms were restricted, they were forbidden to marry without consent, did not have freedom of movement and did not receive the level of justice in courts that a non-indentured person would receive. If a female indentured servant became pregnant during the contract, 9 months plus was added on at the end as she would not have been able to fulfil all that was required of her labour-wise.

This type of servitude (or ‘slavery’) carried on alongside the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the 17th, 18th and partly into the 19th centuries. With the decline of the workforce on indentured slaves, a new labour force had to be found which brings us to the most infamous of trades in Africa.
Slavery in Africa had been around for thousands of years and many rulers in Africa were keen to trade with Europeans for goods and materials not locally available such as tin and other metals. The Portuguese were the first ‘Western’ slavers in Africa and with Papal support captured the African port of Ceuta in 1415. Slave trading of native Africans was relatively small scale during the 15th century as the Portuguese and Spanish were enslaving the native populace in central and southern America. It was after these natives started to die out in large numbers of European diseases that they started to look for other sources of manual labour. Large scale sugar production started around the area of Brazil and it was this enterprise which could be argued to have kick started the Transatlantic Slave Trade. There were plenty of voices however who were against enslavement such Bartolomé de las Casas in the 1500’s.
Between the period of early 1400’s to the mid-17th Century, it was the Spanish and Portuguese who pioneered and dominated this slave trade. The British did not yet have any established and fully-fledged colonies until the mid to late 17th century and so looked for easier markets whilst Spain guarded the trade. Between 1570 to 1640, Britain only made 3 slave trading voyages (discounting any smuggling and privateering). Peace between Spain and Britain marked the beginning of Britain’s entry into full scale slave trading with the flourishing of British colonies in the Caribbean and Americas. However, most of the early slaves were not of African descent but European. 75% of 17th century emigrants were indentured servants.
As tobacco and sugar became products of mass consumption, the Royal African Company was founded in 1672 and had a monopoly on the trade which only ended in 1698. As this monopoly ended, the transatlantic slave trade began to be dominated by British merchants. Bristol was a major port for commerce for the trade (shipping goods to Africa in exchange for slaves and importing goods from the Americas) between 1720 – 1740 before Liverpool took over as the dominant port until abolition in the early 19th century. In total. 3.4 million Africans were taken from their homeland and shipped across the Atlantic.


Other slave trades were also ongoing included the Barbary pirate raids on various European countries (including Britain). Ordinary people were taken forcibly from sea ports and villages and taken to northern Africa. It is estimated up to 1.2 million Europeans were enslaved between 1500 to 1900 and lost in the Ottoman empire. The trade declined after the United States, Great Britain and other European nations fought a war against the pirates in the early 19th century. It finally ended after France conquered and colonised the North African region.


Barbary Slave markets in North Africa

Slavery soon disappeared from western nations throughout the 19th century and wasn’t fully outlawed globally until the 20th century with the UN resolution although a few further countries still kept the practice even up to the 1980’s. Sadly, slavery has evolved and disappeared into the shadows and people smuggling is still very much a lucrative trade well into the 21st Century with the majority of victims women involved in sex trafficking. It is estimated that there are currently 40million victims of slavery today.

For more information on modern slavery, please visit


10 facts on Blackbeard

Edward Thache (aka ‘Blackbeard’) met his fate on 22nd November 1718 and was thus immortalised as a pirate legend. We take a look at some little known facts about this infamous highwayman of the seas.

1. Blackbeard’s real name was Edward Thache and was likely to have been born in Bristol sometime around 1680.

2. Blackbeard’s father – Edward Thache senior was born in Stonehouse, Gloucestershire on June 14, 1659, and was baptized two weeks later at St Cyr’s Church, which is next door to a large manor house which is now Stonehouse Court Hotel. Blackbeard’s grandfather, the Rev Thomas Thache, was the rector at the church before eventually moving to nearby Sapperton, Gloucestershire where most of the family is buried.

(St Kenelms church, Sapperton on the left and St Cyr’s Church Stonehouse on the right. The Canal in front of St Cyr’s was added much later than when the Thache’s were here)

3. Edward Thache Senior was a mariner and moved to Bristol after his marriage with his first two children Edward ‘Blackbeard’ and Elizabeth. He later remarried after the death of his first wife and had a further 3 children.

4. Bristol at the time was a major port for slave merchants. Although no slaves en masse were transported into Bristol (the slave markets were in The America’s and Caribbean), the goods made in exchange for slaves were loaded onto ships here and goods such as tobacco and sugar were unloaded from the West Indies. Bristol was a hub of activity as it was one of the ports that operated under the Royal Africa Company (RAC)’s monopoly of slave trading.

British School; Broad Quay, Bristol

(Above – Bristol as it was during the Slavery era)


5. Records show the Thache family with a young Blackbeard moved to Spanish Town in Jamaica around 1695. The family owned a plantation and slaves which were deeded to Blackbeard in 1706. Sometime between 1706 and 1713, Edward Thache Junior went from being a sailor in The Royal Navy aboard HMS Windsor to becoming a pirate.

6. Blackbeard had a fearsome reputation but multiple witness accounts never report any violence from him until his last, fatal battle. His reputation clearly preceded him! However, his crew were another matter….

7. Blackbeard freed a lot of slaves during his piracy career but he was no abolitionist. A number of ships he captured were slave ships, which tended to be larger to account for maximum ‘cargo’. Upon capture, a large proportion of slaves joined the pirates – clearly the better choice rather than life on a plantation. However, reports also account that Blackbeard and his associates also returned slaves to the mainland to be sold at auction. Even up to his death, Blackbeard’s crew were made up of both free men and former slaves.

8. His famous pirate ship was originally a British-turned-French vessel called ‘La Concorde’. When Blackbeard captured the ship a year before his death, most of its defences (such as cannon) had been stripped away to make room for more slaves. It was easily out manoeuvred due to it’s size and load on the open water and the crew promptly surrendered the ship when the pirates caught up with them. Blackbeard and his crew refitted her and renamed her ‘Queen Anne’s Revenge’. In 2011 the State of North Carolina declared they had found the wreck just off the coast near The Beaufort inlet.

9. Blackbeard married a local girl when he settled for a time before his death in North Carolina. They had a daughter called Elizabeth who later died young with no issue.

10. Blackbeard met his fate during a battle with Lieutenant Maynard at Ocracoke. At one point, Blackbeard’s crew had seemingly ‘won’ after killing a few men aboard the other sloop. However, when he went to board Maynards vessel he was ambushed by a group of hidden sailors (including Maynard himself) in sword-to-sword combat. Blackbeard was killed and was noted to have received 5 shots and 20 deep cuts. His body was thrown overboard but not before his head was severed and strung from the bow of the ship.


The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 – a very brief history 


On 28thAugust 1833, the Slavery Abolition Act was given Royal Assent and came into force on the following 1stAugust 1834. Its full bill title was “An Act for the Abolition of Slavery throughout the British Colonies; for promoting the Industry of the manumitted Slaves; and for compensating the Persons hitherto entitled to the Services of such Slaves.”

There were lots of different factors that led to the 1833 Abolition Act. Slave revolts, home grown abolition movements, religious arguments, government policies and the economy. By the time of the act coming into force in 1833/4, the economy wasn’t as reliant on the triangular trade as it had been during its heyday in the early 1700’s.

Prior to the act of 1833, the abolition movement began to gain momentum a number of years earlier in 1772 with the Mansfield case. This case was pivotal as it reached the verdict that slavery was unsupported in English law. Any slave that set foot in England or Scotland was legally free. People soon began to question that if everyone was free in England, why were they in bondage in the colonies? By 1787 the committee for the abolishment of the slave trade was established by a mixture of Quakers and Evangelical Protestants. Their numbers grew and eventually they had gained around 40 seats in parliament by allying themselves with key people such as William Wilberforce.  They gained a victory in 1807 with the bill of the abolition of the slave trade being passed. However, this bill abolished the trade in slaves but not slavery itself.

With the 1807 bill, the Royal Navy’s newly formed ‘West Africa Squadron’ could seize and fine any captain £100 for each and every slave found on board his ship. The tragic consequence of these patrols meant that a number actually murdered slaves by throwing them overboard into the sea rather than risk a substantial fine. However, it soon became apparent that the trade could not be effectively stopped and that it even encouraged smuggling rings leading to slaves increasing in value.

The trade in slaves was also becoming less cost effective. The triangular trade usually involved two trips for each enterprise – one slave ship and one cargo ship. The slave ship would be sent from Britain to the markets on the African coast, and be docked there for some time whilst the crew waited for enough slaves to be brought to the market for purchase before eventually setting sail to the Caribbean. Secondary ships would then have to be sent directly from Britain to the Caribbean to pick up the produce. This process could sometimes take up to 2 years. Slave ships and cargo ships also had to be equipped differently for their load. A slave ship would be infused with weeks and months of human excrement, vomit, blood as well as food waste. No trader would then load perishable and valuable goods onto the same vessels. In addition, plantation owners encouraged ‘breeding programs’ so slaves would reproduce, effectively gaining more slaves at no extra cost rather than purchase at market.

In 1823 the ‘Anti-Slavery Society’ was formed and included notable luminaries such as Wilberforce and Henry Brougham. Its goal was not only the continued suppression of the trade but the end to slavery itself – but gradually and not immediately. Wilberforce argued that “It would be wrong to emancipate (the slaves). To grant freedom to them immediately would be to insure not only their masters’ ruin, but their own. They must (first) be trained and educated for freedom.” However, there were also numerous voices at the same time calling for immediate and full emancipation.

In 1831 there was a slave revolt in Jamaica, also known as ‘The Baptists War’. In what was supposed to initially be a peaceful general strike, it soon escalated after Baptist preachers (who had been following the abolition movement in the UK) received news that no emancipation had been granted to them by the British King. Violence soon erupted with crops and plantations being burnt to the ground. The rebellion was squashed with force by the slave owning establishment and resulted in a number of deaths and later on numerous executions. The damage to the islands economy and the plantations finances, plus two inquiries into the revolt added to the case for emancipation at home and abroad.

By July 1833, the act was read for the third time in parliament and a few days before the death of Wilberforce. The same year, parliament received several more petitions calling for the end of slavery. Finally, the act was passed and received Royal assent on 1stAugust.

The act had two major parts to it – the emancipation of all slaves throughout the British colonial empire except those held by the East India Company, the island of Ceylon (modern day Sri Lanka) and Saint Helena) and compensating slave owners for the loss of the slaves. Interestingly, the government at the time took out a loan to pay for the slave owner’s compensation. The loan was at the time a large proportion of (40%) of total government expenditure and was only paid off in full in 2015 (mainly due to the gilt system of debt rather than the amount owed). The slaves themselves received no such compensation and were made to work as apprentices and given board and lodging for another 6 years. Children under 6 were immediately emancipated. Full emancipation for all was made legal on 1stAugust 1838.

In 1998, the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833 was repealed. Slavery is still illegal and is incorporated into The Human Rights Act 1998 and The European Convention on Human Rights which prohibits the holding of any person as a slave.

Infamous Royal marriages

“This is the stuff of which fairytales are made” or are they? Royal marriages are of course a celebration (as with any marriage) but do Royal marriages have a history of fairy tales or controversy? Let’s take a look at some of the more unusual marriages over the centuries that were mired in scandal and intrigue.

Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine

One of the most fascinating women of the medieval period, Eleanor of Aquitane was Queen of France for 15 years before annulling her marriage to Louis VII on the grounds of consanguinityin 1152. Almost immediately she became engaged to Henry Duke of Normandy – later Henry II of England. This raised eyebrows as the bride was 11 years older than her husband. It was said to be a somewhat argumentative but genuine love match and the couple produced eight children over the next 13 years. However, the two soon became estranged with Henry embarking on a notorious affair with ‘The Fair Rosamund’ (Rosamund Clifford) which certainly didn’t help relations between the two. Henry also imprisoned Eleanor when she supported their eldest son’s revolt against his father. She was immediately freed on his death by their second son Richard the Lionheart who succeeded after his elder brother predeceased their father.

Eleanor and Henry


Edward II and Isabella of France

Marrying young (Isabelle was 12 to Edwards 24) in 1308, Edward was already king by the time of the marriage and devoted to his favourite Piers Gaveston. Isabella was astute and intelligent and initially supported her husband, bore children and found a way to work with her husband’s favourite and be a go-between England and her native France.  This accord was not to last, as Gaveston was soon to meet his end at the hands of the barons leaving Edward distraught. Soon enough, he found a new favourite in Hugh De-Le Spencer, someone with whom Isabella could not work with in the same way she had with Piers. It was this new ‘relationship’ that ultimately broke the marriage and at one point, Isabella publically went down on her knees and asked her husband to banish Hugh and his family. He did, but not for long with the Despencers coming back with vengeance, even carelessly putting Isabelle’s life in danger by leaving her unguarded and too close to the Scottish army which were advancing south. Eventually Isabella embarked on an affair with Roger Mortimer using the young future Edward III as bait between his warring parents and eventually forcing Edward II to abdicate the throne. He was later murdered in Berkley Castle in Gloucestershire.

John of Gaunt and Katherine Swynford.

John of Gaunt was the third surviving son of Edward III and in total had 3 wives. His first wife, Blanche brought much of the wealth to the marriage and their son went on to become Henry IV. Banche predeceased her husband after providing a number of children. His second wife was Constance of Castille and provided him with a claim to the crown of Castille, which he would endeavour to pursue but never fully grasp. Throughout this second marriage he started an affair with Katherine Swynford who was governess to his daughters. This affair resulted in four children – The Beauforts. After the death of his second wife, he controversially married Katherine and had their children legitimised on the proviso that they would never inherit the throne. Due to the number of people in front of them in the succession, perhaps they never thought this would ever need to be thought considered, let alone put into legal documents but history proved otherwise. The Beaufort line culminated down to Margaret Beaufort, mother of King Henry VII and the Tudors.

Edward IV and Elizabeth Woodville

Edward first sighted his future queen as she waited by the roadside in 1464 to petition him over a pension from her deceased first husband. Was it love at first sight? Who knows. Edward was not known for his fidelity. What was unusual about this marriage is that the bride was not from a Royal house and was a ‘commoner’. We do know that the two were married in a ‘private’ ceremony with Edward fully acknowledging the marriage to his court and both regarded their children as legitimate. After Edwards death and the ascension of his brother Richard III, the children were declared illegitimate from a pre-contractual agreement Edward had made early in life with Eleanor Butler. If true, it would certainly have meant that his marriage to Elizabeth was not valid.

Henry VIII and 6 wives…

Not that Henry VIII needs much introduction as we all know the famous rhyme of ‘divorced, beheaded, died, divorced, beheaded, survived’. For the first part of Henry’s reign there was no matrimonial conflict as he married his brothers widow Catherine of Aragon, who was much loved and revered by the people of England and by Henry himself. However as time wore on with no prospect of a male heir, Henry began to look elsewhere and this is where Anne Boleyn steps into the spotlight and launches the controversial matrimonial career of Henry VIII. We all know the rest….


Charles I and Henrietta Maria of France

Initially a second choice after Charles’s failed attempt at brokering a marriage deal with Spain, he stopped off at the French Court after being rejected and Henrietta Maria was proposed as a bride instead. Charles and Henrietta Maria were married shortly after his accession to the throne.  She wasn’t particularly popular with the English as she was unapologetically Catholic and didn’t speak the language. Even towards her later years she still struggled to speak and write English. She was also never crowned as she refused an Anglican service and the King and court were not keen on the idea of a Catholic one. The early years of Charles and his queen’s relationship were difficult as the King had his favourites and the Queen continued to surround herself with French courtiers. It was only after the death of the King’s primary favourite,The Duke of Buckingham and the ejection of most of her French companions that the two grew close and they conceived a child. The loving and peaceful marriage was not to last with the looming crisis between monarchy and parliament resulting in the English Civil war, the execution of Charles I and the exile of Henrietta Maria to France.


James II & VII Anne Hyde and Mary of Modena

His first marriage was only controversial at the start as Anne was a ‘commoner’ and the daughter of a minister. The marriage was a success and both were supportive of one another. Anne died young at the age of 34, survived by her husband and their two daughters. As time wore on with the increasing prospect that Charles and Queen Catherine would not produce any heirs, it became apparent that the Duke of York would one day become king. This was controversial because James has converted to Roman Catholicism and there was much anti-Catholic feeling throughout the kingdom. His second marriage to 15 year old catholic Mary of Modena drew further paranoia due to her faith. Mary, would over time would be devoted to her husband.  Upon James’ Succession to the throne, all did seem calm for a number of years until he began to fill important posts with Catholics and began alienating a largely Anglican populace. Opinion quickly swung against him after a series of disastrous political decisions and even more so with the birth of a catholic male heir – James Francis Edward Stuart, kick-starting ‘The Glorious revolution’ and his son-in-law William of Orange’s invasion.

George IV and Caroline of Brunswick

George’s matrimonial career would start with a bigamous and invalid marriage to twice-widowed Maria Fitzherbert – a Roman Catholic (Catholics being barred from the throne by this point). The marriage was also invalid, as he has not sought permission from the King as per The Royal Marriages Act. It was this same rebellious and carefree streak that led the Prince to drink heavily and gamble culminating in an astonishing amount of debt throughout the years. At one point the debts were so large, his father, King George III agreed to pay off his debts if his son would marry Caroline of Brunswick. The marriage was doomed from the start and was not a happy one. Both sides disliked the other and eventually they separated after the birth of their one and only child Princess Charlotte, a year after the wedding.

Edward and Wallis Simpson

Probably the most infamous marriage of the 20thcentury, Wallis grew up in the US and was married to her second husband when she was introduced to The Prince of Wales by his then mistress Lady Furness. Wallis soon took over this role (whilst still married) and they conducted their affair with some secrecy in the early stages. However, it soon came to the public’s attention when his father died and the Prince became King Edward VIII. By October of 1936, Wallis applied for a divorce from her second husband and the scandalous affair was by then well known throughout the UK and the world. The relationship between the two and Edward’s determination to marry Wallis triggered a constitutional crisis, culminating in Edward abdicating the throne on 10thDecember the same year. In part of his abdication speech he said he “found it impossible to carry the heavy burden of responsibility and to discharge my duties as King as I would wish to do without the help and support of the woman I love”. By the following May, Wallis was granted her divorce and married Edward (now the Duke of  Windsor) a few weeks later.



The devastating storm of 1953

The devastating North Sea flood of 1953 caused catastrophic damage and loss of life in Scotland, England, Belgium and The Netherlands and became one of the worst peacetime disasters of the 20th century. 307 people died in England, 19 died in Scotland, 28 died in Belgium, 1,836 died in the Netherlands and a further 361 people died at sea.

The flood caused a major rethinking of coastal defences, weather prediction and warning systems after it became obvious that the majority of deaths could have been avoided had these already been in place. The failure of any preventative measures meant many people – babies, adults and the elderly – went to bed that on that fateful night of Saturday 31 January 1953 not knowing of the devastation to come and for many that they would not wake up in the morning

How did the storm form?

What made the storm of 1953 so different from others was the fact that it had a number of elements combined together to make it so deadly and devastating. Annual spring tides with a deep pressure system (which in itself can cause the sea to rise) and severe gale force winds. The wind was recorded 126mph at Costa Hill in Scotland.  All of these elements funnelled those high tides southward toward the narrow (and shallow) English Channel, causing the swell to rise even further. The storm surge was recorded at 5.6 metres (18.4ft) at its peak.

The Terrain

The east coast of the UK has a number of low lying areas, some of which are barely above sea level, most notably in Lincolnshire, Norfolk, Essex and the mouth of the Thames area. The Netherlands also has 50% of its territory less than 1 metre above sea level and 20% of it is below.

Sea defences in the UK were of inadequate design for flooding and tidal surges in 1953. What little there was had been designed in World War Two and was designed to keep invading armies out, not invading seas. The natural sea barriers such as sand dunes had also seen much erosion and had numerous gaps where people had walked over and worn away the natural height.  Tragically, these would later prove to be natural inlets and gateways for the sea surge to flow inland.

Post war housing shortages also saw a rise in the number of pre-fabricated buildings (mainly in a bungalow design) in many of these low lying areas. This cheap type of housing was also popular with the rising post-war trend of seaside holidays especially in places like Essex and were nearly always located very close to the shoreline. The design of this type of house was never intended to withstand such force and many collapsed or were simply washed along with the current, ending up metres away from where they originally stood or washed out to sea entirely.

Lack of warning

That afternoon of 31 January 1953, a number of people noticed a weak tidal ebb. However, it didn’t seem to cause any alarm and people carried about their daily business as usual. Fishing boats still went out as usual and buses still ran their routes along the seafront. It was a typical Saturday for the people living on the coast. The official weather forecast was a slight drizzle and strong winds but nothing regarding waves and tidal flow.

This calm evening was soon to change. At different points during the evening, the tide surged over the sea walls taking many by surprise and leaving no time to warn others. One survivor in Norfolk said it took less than 15 minutes from the water first tricking in, to reaching almost 5 ft inside his property. Those living closest to the sea reported that a wall of water came over almost immediately with many homes collapsing instantaneously with the force of the water rushing in.

The force of the sea also snapped telephone and electricity cables, rendering communication impossible. Similar stories were reported in Belgium and The Netherlands. The coastal residents on both sides of the North Sea were entirely at the mercy of the tide.

The death toll at sea also included those from a number of smaller fishing vessels to the larger passenger ferry MV Princess Victoria, which sailed from Stranraer to Larne with 179 people on board including 51 crew. A rogue wave broke open the already damaged ferry doors whilst sailing in the Northern channel. One survivor recollected seeing one of the lifeboats crashing back into the sinking ferry, capsizing and pulling all the women and children on board down to their deaths. Of all the passengers and crew on board the ferry that night, no women or child survived. 133 lives were lost in total and only 44 men survived.

Immediate aftermath

The preliminary emergency response came from the surviving community itself due to delays in communicating for outside assistance. Outside of the affected areas, the first that many knew of what had happened was many hours after the majority of people had been killed.

In the UK, 1600km of coastline was damaged destroying mile upon mile of sea wall and inundating 160,000 acres of land with seawater, rendering it unusable for a number of years for agricultural purposes. Livestock and domesticated animals were killed in the thousands and washed out to sea. Over 24,000 homes in the UK were seriously damaged. 40,000 people in the UK were left homeless and many people’s livelihoods were ruined. In the Netherlands where the death toll was much higher, 9% (337,300 acres) of Dutch farmland was devastated by sea water. Over 47,000 homes were damaged, 10,000 of which were completely destroyed.

When the official UK search and rescue operation was launched on the morning of 1 February it involved the police, ambulance staff, the fire service, army, the Navy and RAF personnel.  The ‘blitz’ spirit was once again in full swing with temporary shelters popping up and soups kitchens opening. The story of the flood went worldwide with offers of help coming in from many places abroad such as Canada, Finland and even from schoolchildren in Kuwait.

In The Netherlands, the US Army (based in East Germany) sent aid as well as other surrounding European countries. A national donation program was implemented as well as international aid pouring in. The Red Cross was so overwhelmed with contributions; they actually gave away funds to other countries in need.

Post flood

Questions soon began to emerge regarding the complete lack of warning given to the population and the consequent number of deaths. UK priority was initially given to repairing sea walls in addition to rehousing the displaced population. Long-term, building new flood defences were based much more on a cost/risk basis. The Thames Barrier is one such example that was designed and built following the lessons from the 1953 flood. Warning sirens were put in place at the most at risk areas and are still in use today. The response in the Netherlands was immediate with the Dutch government quickly forming the Delta commission to study the floods and eventually the ‘Delta Works’ were commissioned, enabling the closing of estuaries to prevent upstream flooding and included dams, sluices, locks, dykes, levees, and barriers. Taxes were implemented and readily accepted with a national mind-set that this must never happen again. Even today, commemorations still happen on every anniversary for the dead.

Weather and tidal forecasting leapt forward in the ‘60s with the use of satellites, which provided more accurate predictions and data. The Met office began working with the National Oceanography centre and the environment agency was created. We also saw the emergence of more immediate communication with TV and regular weather reports.

Despite all the huge improvements made since 1953 and as the famous story of King Canute and the waves showed, man can never control the sea. However, we can be better warned of its actions ahead of time. Sadly for the coastal residents of 1953, neither time nor tide could wait.

First published at

Llywelyn – The last true Welsh Prince Of Wales?

Llywelyn the Last was born into the Royal family of Wales as the grandson of Llywelyn the Great. Wales had been unified under his grandfather so just how did Wales come under English control within one generation?

When Llywelyn the Great died, his eldest legitimate son by his Queen (Joan, daughter of King John), Dafydd ap Llywelyn, inherited the throne and imprisoned his brother Gruffydd ap Llywelyn (Llywelyns the Last’s father) who under Welsh law was the rightful heir (both legitimate and illegitimate sons could inherit during medieval times in Wales). He also imprisoned Gruffydd’s oldest son Owain and transferred them to the custody of King Henry III via the Tower of London. Sadly, Llywelyn’s father fell 90ft to his death in an escape attempt from his prison.

Relations soon deteriorated between Henry and Dafydd and war broke out. Surprisingly, Llywelyn choose to fight on the side of his uncle. Henry released Owain in the hope that he would challenge his uncle’s rule and spark a civil war. However, this proved in vain with Owain taking up residence in Chester. This was fortunate for Llywelyn as Dafydd died soon after without leaving an heir and leaving him of being in the position of being the only candidate around for the throne.

After inheriting his Uncle’s throne, Llywelyn, Owain and King Henry soon came to terms, signing ‘The Treaty of Woodstock’ in 1247. This wasn’t quite as favourable to Llywelyn as it meant the splitting of Gwynedd in half, with the land east of the River Conwy under English control.

When Llywelyn’s younger brother Dafydd ap Gruffydd came of age, King Henry then proposed Llywelyn’s half be shared with him, splitting west Gwynedd even further. Llywelyn refused and was soon pitted in battle against both his brothers with Owain siding with Dayfdd. He prevailed at the Battle of Bryn Derwin in 1255 and his sole rule of East Gwynedd was confirmed.

Llywelyn then began looking at expanding his borders after the population in East Gwynedd (living under English rule) complained about heavy taxation. He and his army marched over the River Conway with his brother (having made peace again) and gained further lands including those from his Anglophile brother-in-law Rhys. Pretty soon he became the ruler of all of Gwynedd. After a few more skirmishes over the intervening years, Llywelyn was confident enough to use the title ‘Prince of Wales’ by 1258. This title was recognised by the Scottish nobility and eventually by King Henry himself in 1267.

However, peace was not to last as by 1272 King Henry was dead and the English throne was inherited by his son Edward. There was no love lost between the two, as Llywelyn had a long term alliance with one of Edwards’s enemies, Simon De Montfort. This alliance continued even after Simon’s death as Llywelyn hoped to marry his daughter Eleanor. In 1276 after a few too many diplomatic clashes over the years, King Edward I declared Llywelyn a rebel and in 1277 invaded with the intention of unseating Llywelyn and conquering Wales. The English force was triumphant in gaining territories in North Wales and managed to cut off the food supply for Llywelyn’s army and forcing him to terms under the treaty of Aberconwy. This treaty meant once again, Llywelyn was confined to the East Part of Gwynedd, losing all his previously held lands. He also had to submit to Edward being his Sovereign in order to marry Eleanor De Montfort. He duly obliged and they were wed in Worcester Cathedral in what was thought to be a genuine love match.

However, history was soon to repeat itself when the Welsh population in East Gywnedd began to complain of the heavy-handedness of their English overlords and the heavy taxation they were forced to pay. By 1277, frustrations boiled over when Llywelyn’s younger brother Dafydd attacked an English castle, forcing Llywelyn’s hand into a revolt that he had not prepared for. Revolts continued to spread in Wales over the next few years and battles ensued. Personal tragedy also followed for Llywelyn with the death of his wife Eleanor shortly after the birth of their daughter in early 1282.

In 1282 there was an attempt at mediation between Edward and Llywelyn by the Archbishop of Canterbury. After an offering of a large estate in England in return for his claim on Wales, Llywelyn refused, declaring that he could never give up on his people, whom his family had protected since the days of Camber and Brutus (descendants of Troy). Llywelyn marched south to rally support, leaving his brother Dafydd in charge of the protection of Gwynedd.

What happened next has conflicting versions, but if we take the account as told from his daughter Gwenllian of Wales, Llywelyn was tricked into believing that the forces of Edmund and Roger Mortimer wished to pay homage. Instead they were forced to engage in the furious battle of Orewin Bridge at Builth Wells. Llywelyn became separated from his men and was chased into the woods at Aberedw where he was surrounded and killed. Legend states, that at first his killers did not know his identity but after finding out who he was, his corpse was decapitated and the head sent to London and ‘crowned’ with ivy in mockery of ancient Welsh prophecies that one day a Welshman was to be crowned in London.

Welsh morale diminished after Llywelyn’s death and never recovered, even after his brother Dafydd briefly held the throne for a matter of months before also being deposed.

King Edward then vanquished Llywelyn’s lands and invested his son as the new (English) ‘Prince of Wales’.

*First published at