[Review] 1666 by Rebecca Rideal

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1666 was a watershed year for England. An outbreak of the Great Plague, the eruption of the second Dutch War, and the devastating Great Fire of London all struck the country in rapid succession and with devastating repercussions.

Shedding light on these dramatic events and their context, historian Rebecca Rideal reveals an unprecedented period of terror and triumph. Based in original archival research drawing on little-known sources, 1666 opens with the fiery destruction of London before taking readers on a thrilling journey through a crucial turning point in English history as seen through the eyes of an extraordinary cast of historical characters.

While the central events of this significant year were ones of devastation and defeat, 1666 also offers a glimpse of the incredible scientific and artistic progress being made at that time, from Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity to the establishment of The London Gazette. It was in this year that John Milton completed Paradise Lost, Frances Stewart posed for the iconic image of Britannia, and a young architect named Christopher Wren proposed a plan for a new London—a stone phoenix to rise from the charred ashes of the old city.

With flair and style, 1666 exposes readers to a city and a country on the cusp of modernity and a series of events that altered the course of history.

I’d been meaning to pick this book up for a while, being incredibly interested in the Restoration and the reign of Charles II. And when I eventually did download it on my kindle and started reading. I was not disappointed. I must admit now to having a bit of a historical crush on Charles II and John Wilmot, 2nd Earl of Rochester, and (sadly) I’m a bit of a fangirl over Samuel Pepys. So the moment I loaded the book up and saw the name ‘Samuel Pepys’, there was a bit (a lot) of a fangirl moment.

This book tells the story of 1666, a year of turmoil for England. It started with the plague, killing thousands of people and sending those who could scurrying for the countryside and ended with the Great Fire of London, an event that destroyed swathes of the city and ruined the lives of many. In between times the English were at War with the Dutch. It was a rough year – and a year that affected nearly everyone.

What I particularly enjoyed about this book was that you got to know the people – I mean the real people. This wasn’t just the story of the nobility at the time, but local traders and families. It was heartbreaking to read about how the lives of these ordinary people were ruined by plague and fire, and you really do end up feeling for them. Quite often in historical biographies you don’t get that level of understanding with the characters, characters who lived and worked, so it was a pleasant change to read a book that allowed for this.

Rideal’s writing style in this work made it accessible – it is a great read for someone new to seventeenth century history and wanting to know about this particularly infamous year. It’s also a fantastic resource for those more ‘in the know’, as it were. I must admit, after a bit of a break from Seventeenth Century History, this book reignited my love for it – I feel a research party coming on regarding Rochester…

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18 April 1480 – Lucrezia Borgia is born

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Portrait of a woman by Bartolomeo Veneto, traditionally said to be of Lucrezia Borgia

On 18 April 1480, Lucrezia Borgia was born in Subiaco just outside Rome – the daughter of Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia and Vanozza Cattanei. She would have been born outside of the city as a method of keeping her birth and parentage discreet – Rodrigo Borgia had his own personal policy of discretion, unlike some other Cardinals. He wished for his family to be kept out of the public eye. It was only after his election as Pope Alexander VI that Rodrigo moved his illegitimate family closer to the Vatican, openly acknowledging him as his own.

Lucrezia’s name has been vilified and maligned throughout the centuries – accused of incest and murder, the reality of her life was quite different. The rumours came about by those who wished to tar the name of Borgia – the rumour of incest only started after her divorce from Giovanni Sforza when it was whispered that the Pope wanted his daughter for himself. As for the rumours of murder, it was a brush that tarred the entire family. Lucrezia was, in fact, a political pawn in her father and brother’s plans for her. She was also incredibly intelligent – she spent time in charge of the Vatican as well as Spoleto – and pious.

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Lucrezia Borgia in Pinturicchio’s Disputation of Saint Catherine – the Borgia Apartments, Vatican Museum.

Her bad image isn’t helped by modern television adaptations that show her as a murderer and guilty of incest. The evidence and historical fact paint a very different story – however today I have seen an awful lot of comments floating about on social media stating that she was a harlot who poisoned her enemies. There is no evidence for this at all, only rumour brought down through the centuries started by those who wished to darken the Borgia name. Lucrezia Borgia was more sinned against than sinner, and a woman who deserves to be recognised for what she was rather than what people want her to have been.

Historians have worked solidly to get rid of Lucrezia’s bad image and it is my hope that my own work will help contribute to this. But for now?

Happy birthday, Lucrezia Borgia.

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Maria Valverde as Lucrezia Borgia in “Los Borgia”

Borgia Season 1

Isolda Dychauk as Lucrezia Borgia in “Borgia: Faith & Fear”

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On This Day In History – Leonardo da Vinci is born.

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The Mona Lisa – Louvre Museum, Paris

On 15 April 1452, Leonardo da Vinci was born in the little town on Vinci, in Tuscany. He was born to the Florentine Notary Piero Fruosino di Antonio da Vinci, and Caterina – a peasant girl. The little bastard boy would go on to become one of the most famous artists that the world had ever seen. At the age of 14, he was apprenticed to Verocchio and by the age of 20 he had qualified as a Master.

Leonardo would go on to produce some of the finest works of art Italy had seen at the time, and indeed would ever be seen. Although it has to be said that Leonardo was awful at getting his commissions finished – he never completed the altarpiece in the Palazzo della Signoria, nor did he complete his commission to pain the Adoration of the Magi for the monks of San Donato a Scopeto. Not only was he an artist, but he was an inventor as well. In 1502 he entered the service of Cesare Borgia as his military architect and produced some of the most accurate maps ever seen, including a map of Imola.

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Da Vinci’s map of Imola

Leonardo spent his last years in France, in the service of King Francis I. Legend states then when Leonardo was dying, King Francis held the dying man’s head in his arms. He died on 2nd May, 1519 at Clos Lucé, and was buried in the Chapel of Saint-Hubert in Château d’Amboise.

Today, Leonardo da Vinci’s legacy lives on through his art work. In a recent trip to the Louvre in Paris, I was struck by just how many people crowded around the tiny Mona Lisa. She is the most famous of his works, people wondering just what on earth she was smiling at. It seemed to me as I stood in front of the Mona Lisa that many of those people didn’t even realise da Vinci had created other, much more beautiful works of art – some of which were on display in the very same room that they were crowded in. In fact, one only has to read his notebooks to understand that Leonardo da Vinci is very much more than the man who painted the Mona Lisa.

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Leonardo da Vinci – self portrait

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An Update.

So the Doctor signed me off work last week due to problems with my diabetes. “Great”, I thought, “I can get on and do a bit of writing”.

I thought wrong.

Now I know I probably shouldn’t feel guilty about the fact that I just couldn’t concentrate to get words down on paper for my next couple of projects. But I do feel incredibly guilty about it. I just about managed to finish off an article for the lovely guys at Medievalists.net, and managed to get maybe…a page or two done for another project I’m working on with the guys at Medieval Courses. But in my mind, it wasn’t enough. Instead I was spaced out feeling rough as anything, cursing my broken pancreas and getting bored watching daytime TV.

I did manage to go out and grab coffee with a dear friend of mine, and signed her copy of Cesare Borgia In A Nutshell – despite it only being a short little outing it really did exhaust me, not helped by the new tablets the doctors had put me on for the nerve damage I suffer from. Still, towards the end of the week I was feeling much better (hence being able to at least do a little writing) and headed out for a walk in the early morning Southampton sun.

There’s loads of history in Southampton and above are just a few pictures of the sort of thing I get to walk past every day. There are signs dotted all over the city that point out where Jane Austen lived, worked, went to parties etc.  I feel incredibly lucky to live in a city with such amazing history.

But I digress – I’m back at work now and feeling much better, so that means I’ll be able to get back on with my writing projects. There’s LOADS of exciting stuff in the works – my second book “Girolamo Savonarola: The Renaissance Prophet” will be coming later this year and I’m also working on something exciting for Medieval Courses. The holiday to Florence is also just around the corner so that means plenty of opportunities to see Savonarola’s old stomping grounds and where the Medici family lived and worked. Crazy, exciting times. I’ve also started on book three, so that will keep me super busy!

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[Looking Back] The Battle of Cheriton – 29th March 1644

As I’ve been signed off sick from the day job for a week, I don’t really have it in me to write a whole new blog post especially when I still have loads of other work to do (news on that coming soon!). So, as it’s the anniversary of the Battle of Cheriton, I thought I would share a post I wrote back in 2012…

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The photo above doesn’t look like much does it? It just looks like a field, a little brown from the summer heat with a wood in the background against a clear, bright blue sky. But what if I were to tell you that these fields once saw thousands of men fighting and killing each other, that it was the site of a battle of the English Civil War that not many people know about, but a battle that turned the tide of the war? The fields shown above are just a small part of a huge area known to be the site of the Battle of Cheriton which took part on 29th March 1644 – Cheriton has long fascinated me, since (for my sins) I took part in a reenactment of the battle in Cheriton Wood. I fought on the side of the Royalists, and we got a thrashing but it was good fun. But as we were on our way back to the pub for a few well deserved pints I began thinking about the battle a bit more; what had it really been like? Obviously it wouldn’t have been fun like today had been with pretending to fall down dead from a musket shot so what would it have been like in the Woods? How did Parliament come to win the battle? And it woke something up in me that kept eating away at me until I completed a rather large piece of work on the site, argued with historians over the battlefield location and spent many an hour traipsing around the battlefield taking in the landscape. It didn’t take long while I was wandering these fields for my imagination to take over.

It is of course, important to place this battle in the context of the English Civil War. The war itself lasted from 1642-1646, with a second civil war igniting in 1648, and as mentioned in my previous post on Charles I the war started because of many causes including Parliament disliking Charles’ belief in the Divine Right of Kings, religious differences and Charles’ need for money to fight various wars. All of this created friction and on 22nd August 1642 the War officially began when Charles I raised his standard at Nottingham. The Battle of Cheriton itself happened half way through the original 4 year period of fighting, on 29th March 1644 in fields to the east of the small village of Cheriton (or Cherrytown as it was known in contemporary records) with both armies represented by their respective generals: for the Parliamentarians there was Sir William Waller and for the Royalists Sir Ralph Hopton. These men were close friends and had previously served together in Bohemia perfectly embodying how the Civil War separated friends and even family. Yet even throughout the war, and fighting each other the two men still wrote letters of friendship to each other:, often urging each other to change sides:

To my Noble frend Sir Ralph Hopton at Wells: The experience I have had of your worth, and the happinesse I have enjoyed in your frendship are woundinge considerations when I look upon this present distance betweene us…Wee are both upon the stage and must act those parts that are assigned us in this Tragedy: Lett us do it in a way of honor and without personal animosities, whatsoever the issue be, I shall never willingly relinquish the dear title of your most affectionated friend and faithful servant…William Waller

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 Sir William Waller by Cornelius Johnson

NPG 494,Ralph Hopton, 1st Baron Hopton of Stratton,after Unknown artist

 Sir Ralph Hopton by an Unknown Artist

Why Cheriton though, and why did the battle happen right there? Charles wanted the Parliamentarians out of their stronghold in Southern England and so Hopton’s troops marched from Winchester on 27th March 1644 leaving the town completely undefended, and at the same time Waller was ordered to stop Hopton from taking the south. Thus Parliament sent supplies and ammunition to East Meon in Hampshire where an army of 10,000 men were mustered. This army made their way towards Alresford but the Royalist army of 6000 men held it. Waller’s army withdrew east to Cheriton and Hopton’s troops began to form up on Gander Down, 3 miles east of Winchester. The 28th saw small skirmishes between both sides, but the main event was yet to begin.

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View from the North Edge of Cheriton Wood where most of the action took place (photo from http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/resource-centre/medieval/battleview.asp?BattleFieldId=11)

The Battle of Cheriton began at 8am on the morning of 29th March, and the battle is often split up into three phases. The first of which is more commonly known as “The Battle for Bramdean Heath”, beginning when the Parliamentarians saw the advantage of Cheriton Wood which lay to the left of the Royalist position. Orders were issued for its occupation and the previous night Waller had created a rather clever ruse to convince the Royalists that Parliament were retreating. The noise worked! And Hopton was advised of this and sent a troop of 1000 horse to follow them. In fact, Parliamentarian troops had occupied the wood with 1000 musketeers and 300 horse. However the royalists soon gained the Wood and there was immense confusion in the confined space thanks to both sides using the same battle cry of “God With Us!”. Hopton eventually sent 1300 Parliamentarian troops running from the wood. This was the first victory of the Royalists during the day but it soon went downhill. After Hopton ordered his troops to move forward and take up position within an area of the field known as The Arena things started to go wrong for the Royalists – Hopton tried conferring with his generals over tactics but they had taken their own initiative, engaging the enemy on their own and Colonel Bard took it upon himself to have his troops take over Hinton Ampner and set fire to hedges as they went. This proved fatal, particularly as Arthur Hesselridge lead his troop of Lobsters (horsemen in big lobster like armour) and slaughtered Bard’s men. Later the Royalists tried to charge the Parliamentarian army with their troops of Horse later in the day but it proved too difficult thanks to the very narrow lanes surrounding the fields and in fact the failure of these charges was blamed on the fact that the horses could only move down the lanes in single file!

The final phase is known as Alresford Fight and was when the Royalists retreated back towards Basing House. This phase saw Parliament pushing forward in a pincer like movement, pushing the retreating Royalists from hedgerow to hedgerow. This seems to have been fought ferociously by Hopton’s troops, allowing for a swift retreat to Basing.

What about losses? Indeed, this battle was a Royalist defeat that really began to turn the tide towards a Parliamentarian victory in the war. It was said in contemporary documents that Parliament lost less than 60 men whereas Royalist losses were said to be much more, perhaps not unexpected as they were defeated, and they lost a few Commanders and members of the nobility including Lord John Stuart, King Charles I’s third cousin. But why did the Royalists lose this battle? Whilst there are many reasons it seems as if many, many mistakes were made. But for myself, the biggest reason seems to have been the sheer lack of communication between the Royalist commanders although another reason may well have been the landscape of the battlefield – the lanes are incredibly narrow, hence the Cavalry charges failing and Parliament were able to get the upper hand thanks to the mistakes made by the Royalists.

The battlefield at Cheriton has to be one of my favourite places in the world and during my time at University I took it upon myself to study the landscape of it in depth. My aim was to find the location of the battlefield through landscape archaeology as there are two possible sites in the area; the traditional site (being the one spoken about above) and a site proposed by military historian John Adair which, whilst very similar, places the main bulk of the battle slightly further south. After speaking with Adair (and still being very in awe of this wonderful man!) and playing around with technical maps I discovered that Adair’s site was actually in the middle of a river valley which at the time would have been quite full of water! So in my opinion, and I hope backed up by my work on the battle site, it seems that the traditional site is much more likely (and not only that but previous archaeological work on the area of retreat rather backs it up too!). However Adair’s book is still my absolute bible on this wonderful place and always will be – I’m forever looking things up in it and it’s getting rather battered these days. To me, there is nothing better than wandering around those fields and gazing over the quiet fields which on one day in history were full of men fighting for what they believed in. It is a very eerie place, yet exceptionally beautiful at the same time, and I urge anyone with an interest in the English Civil War to take a walk around the public footpaths of the battlefield and follow the battlefield trail.

Further reading

Adair, J, 1973, Cheriton 1644: The Campaign and the Battle, Kineton: Roundwood Press

The Battlefields Trust, Battle of Cheriton, available at http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/resource-centre/medieval/battleview.asp?BattleFieldId=11 (accessed 27th March 2012)

Maclachlan, T, 2000, The Civil War in Hampshire, Salisbury: Rowanvale Books

Sawyer, R, 2002, Civil War in Winchester, Salisbury: Rowanvale Books

Sawyer, R, 2005, Cheriton: A Battle of the Civil War Friday 29th March 1644: Facts and Findings by  Richard Sawyer, Alresford: John Seal Publications

Picture credits:
Cheriton fields – taken by me
William Waller, wikimedia commons: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/7/7a/Sir_William_Waller_by_Cornelius_Johnson.jpg
Ralph Hopton, wars of Louis XIX: http://warsoflouisxiv.blogspot.co.uk/2010/02/hoptons-narrative-of-his-campaign-in.html
Cheriton from the Wood: The Battlefields Trust: http://www.battlefieldstrust.com/resource-centre/medieval/battleview.asp?BattleFieldId=11

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