Welcome to my website

I’m an author of historical fiction and non-fiction. On this Sept 2013 052front page you’ll find details of my current novels. If you delve a little deeper, you’ll discover all sorts of interesting stuff. Just click on the links above or keep scrolling down to get started.

A large print edition of Favoured Beyond Fortune has been P1040212published by Ulverscroft. Look out for it in your local library.


The first of March is publication day for the audiobook of

An Honourable Estate An Honourable Estate audiobook cover

Many Kinds of Silence

MKOS cover 22 Sept-page-0– the lost years of William Shakespeare.

When William Shakespeare leaves his home in Stratford in the company of a Catholic priest he knows that he is walking into danger, but the vast libraries held in the name of God are enough to tempt him to risk his life in the pursuit of knowledge. However, the capture and death of his mentor, Edmund Campion, and his return to Stratford set William on an altogether different path. Marriage to Anne Hathaway means he must turn his back on the priesthood, but there are other ways for a clever and charming young man to be of use to the faith.

Many Kinds of Silence traces the story of a young William Shakespeare and his patron, Ferdinando Stanley, and reveals how religion, science and choosing in whom to place your trust meant the difference between life and death in Elizabethan England.

Now available as paperback and ebook for kindle.

 amazon.co.uk amazom.com 

Read the first chapter

Many Kinds of Silence is a cleverly conceived and captivating novel, casting adrift a young and restless William in a maelstrom of religious strife and intrigue whilst exploring the adventurous spirit of a generation in pursuit of scientific knowledge. Lancashire Evening Post

The Circle of Fortune  


is now available as an ebook and a paperback.

When Roger Mortimer escapes from the Tower of London, Alicia de Lacy and her husband, Eble le Strange, support his campaign to rid England of Edward II and his hated favourite, Hugh le Despenser. But as Mortimer’s power increases he becomes as corrupt as his predecessors, and Alicia and Eble are forced to decide where their loyalties really lie.

Buy from Amazon

 Favoured Beyond Fortune


Alicia de Lacy was one of the richest noblewomen in England. But  lost everything when her husband, Thomas of Lancaster, led a rebellion against King Edward II.  

Everything except the love of one man.

Read the first chapter 

The ebook is now available from Amazon UK, Amazon.com and other Amazon sites. Paperback also available.


By Loyalty Bound

is  available as an ebook and a hard cover book from Pen and Sword Fiction 

Or buy from Amazon

Watch the book trailer 

Still not convinced? Read the first chapter here

When 17 year old Richard, Duke of Gloucester, defies his elder brother, Edward IV, and 

BLB book jacket jpegrides to Hornby Castle in the north of Lancashire to help James and Robert Harrington defend their birthright against Sir Thomas Stanley, he engenders a chain of events that will have repercussions for years to come. His fight for justice for the Harringtons and his relationship with Anne Harrington, whose wardship has been given to Thomas Stanley, cause a rift between the two men that will never be healed, and which will lead to Richard being betrayed when he most needs Stanley’s support.

By Loyalty Bound tells the story of defiant Anne Harrington, the woman who would later become mistress to the enigmatic Richard as a consequence of his involvement in the trials of her family. With her father and grandfather killed fighting for the Yorkists at Wakefield in 1460, Hornby Castle falls to her as an inheritance at the tender age of five years old. When her ward-ship is handed over to Thomas Stanley by the king himself, Anne’s uncles and the influence they might otherwise have wielded are virtually cut off. The story traces the Harringtons fight to keep possession of their ancestral home, the support given to them by Richard, Duke of Gloucester, and Richard’s tumultuous and beguiling relationship with Anne as she is forced into a marriage arranged for her by her guardian, a man who has objectives beyond the determination to secure her future happiness. 

Here is the cover for the hardback edition. Out now!

BLB hardback cover


An Honourable Estate 

is based on the legend of Mab’s Cross at Wigan and is available as a paperback and an ebook. 

England 1315

Famine and unrest spread across the country and when Sir William Bradshaigh joins Adam Banastre’s rebellion against their overlord, the Earl of Lancaster, things do not go to plan.  

Sir William is lucky to escape with his life after a battle at Preston and, as a wanted man, has no choice but to become an outlaw.  Meanwhile, the lands at Haigh are forfeit to the king and are given to Sir Peter Lymesey for a year and a day, and Lady Mabel Bradshaigh must make a hard choice if she is to protect her children and herself.

Watch the book trailer

Buy from: Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

The novel has its own page on the website here: http://elizabethashworth.com/an-honourable-estate/ where you can read more about the historical background to the story and follow the reviews.

You can also visit The Honourable Estate facebook page here: https://www.facebook.com/AnHonourableEstate

Also available as a large print book and an audio book:


P1020997 (2)

An Honourable Estate audiobook cover







The de Lacy Inheritance

was published by Myrmidon Books in 2010.  It was followed by a large print edition from Ulverscroft and an audiobook version from  ISIS Soundings.  The printed books and the audiobook are all available for sale or from your local library.

The de Lacy Inheritance is set in Lancashire and Cheshire.

When Richard Fitz-Eustace returns from the crusade suffering from leprosy he resolves to live as a hermit and seek forgiveness for his sins. But first he must fulfil an obligation to his grandmother.  He must seek her kinsman, Robert de Lacy, and ask his consideration of her claim to his estates. Meanwhile, Richard’s sister, Johanna is distraught. The fate of her brother has done more than leave her bereft. Her mother has contrived a marriage for her and without Richard’s protection there seems little she can do to prevent it. 

Buy it at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

If you’ve read the book, why not take the quiz at Goodreads – http://www.goodreads.com/trivia/work/5478660

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Halton Castle

If you have read The de Lacy Inheritance you will know that it begins at Halton Castle in Cheshire as Richard is read the Mass of Separation. I visited the castle when I was researching the novel but didn’t write about its history at that time, so when I made another visit at the weekend I decided it was time for some photos and a bit more information.


The remains of Halton Castle.

The hill where Halton Castle is sited must have been a defensive position long before the Norman Invasion. The view is amazing, even on a fairly dismal day, and I must try to visit again when the weather is clear and remember to take my binoculars with me. You can see across the river Mersey to Lancashire, to the distant mountains of north Wales, across the Pennines to Yorkshire, to Derbyshire and of course swathes of Cheshire. So, it isn’t surprising that it was on this sandstone outcrop that Nigel of Cotentin, the first Baron of Halton, built his Norman stronghold.


The Barons of Halton Castle.


Looking out over the Mersey towards Stanlow. The castle controlled a strategic river crossing.

It was Nigel’s son, William FitzNigel,the second Baron of Halton, who in 1115 founded an Augustinian Priory in Runcorn, which was later moved by his son, William FitzWilliam to Norton in 1134. The castle and the priory are still linked today under the care of The Norton Priory Museum Trust, although after a varied history the castle is now part of the Duchy of Lancaster.

Those familiar with the story of The de Lacy Inheritance will know that Albreda de Lacy, the cousin of Robert de Lacy (2) was the wife of Richard FitzEustace, the fifth Baron of Halton and she bequeathed her share of the de Lacy estates to her grandson Roger who took the name de Lacy. He became the seventh Baron of Halton and from that time the castle remained in the ownership of the de Lacy family until it was surrendered to King Edward II on the execution of Thomas, Earl of Lancaster who had married Alicia de Lacy. You can read more about that story in Favoured Beyond Fortune.

The castle may have lost some of its importance after it came into the possession of the de Lacy family. They had bigger and better castles, such as Pontefract, and probably didn’t spend much time living at Halton, although it would have been an important administrative base. There was a visit from King John in 1207 and he gave £5 towards the upkeep of the chapel.


By 1362, John of Gaunt was using the castle as a hunting lodge and between 1450 and 1457 a new gatehouse was built at a cost of £347. A survey  from 1476 mentions a number of  buildings  at the castle, including a great chamber, a withdrawing room, a chapel, a hall and domestic buildings including a stable.

During the English Civil War, the castle was a royalist stronghold in the charge of Earl Rivers, who was Steward of Halton. The priory, which had passed into private ownership following the Dissolution, was owned by the Brooke family who were parliamentarians. There were two sieges of the castle and it was eventually taken by Cromwell’s men. Much of the castle was deliberately ruined at this time to prevent its future use by the royalist supporters.

P1040494In 1737, the gatehouse was demolished and a courthouse was built in its place. You can see the remains of the lock-ups in the castle bailey. The building currently houses a pub.

In the 1800s, the Brooke family kept the castle as a ‘romantic ruin’, building new follies and creating a sunken Victorian garden.

Remains of the Victorian sunken garden.

Remains of the Victorian sunken garden

Today, what remains is a Grade I listed building and research into the castle’s history is ongoing. This summer (2015) there was an archaeological dig which uncovered, amongst other items, two skeletons. The age of these remains and whether they were buried within the castle chapel is part of an ongoing investigation. I’ll be interested to see what is revealed.


Priory or Friary – Who Lies Where?

The histories of various well-known people, including Richard, Duke of York and Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, record that they were buried at Pontefract. However it takes a little more digging to discover exactly where, because Pontefract had both a priory and a friary and even the information displayed on the signage board at the site of St John’s Priory seems to be incorrect when compared with historical records.

P1030922 The Cluniac Priory of St John is the older of the two monastic establishments. There are no remains above ground but the site of the priory is preserved and the outlines of the buildings can clearly be seen on images from Google Earth. The site can be found on Box Lane, close to Pontefract Castle.

The Priory of St John was founded by Robert (1) de Lacy in the reign of William Rufus, although the exact date is unknown. Norman lords were keen founders of ecclesiastical institutions and the foundation of St John’s near to the castle at Pontefract was no doubt an attempt to ease the passage of the de Lacys to heaven. The priory was founded ‘for the good estate of the founder, and the souls of William I, the founder’s parents – Ilbert and Hawise – and all his ancestors and heirs’.

The priory was a daughter house of La Charité-sur-Loire. The first monks came from thereP1030926 and were housed in what later became St Nicholas’ Hospital. The appointment of the prior was by the mother house in France and a yearly payment was sent from Pontefract, although this was confiscated in the reign of Edward III.

It’s recorded in the Historia Laceiorum, a 15th century genealogy of the de Lacy family, that several members of the de Lacy family lie here. Robert’s parents, Ilbert and Hawise are said to be buried at the right and left of the altar. Robert’s son Ilbert is recorded as being buried between the tomb of his mother, Matilda, and the wall at the altar of St Benedict, and the founder himself is recorded as being buried at the right hand corner of the altar of St Benedict, within the priory church. Most historians dismiss this information and record that the date of death and place of burial of both Ilbert de Lacy and Robert de Lacy is unknown. The probable reason is that the Historia Laceiorum is a flawed document with provable errors which has led to it being widely mistrusted, but it would be reasonable to suppose that at least Robert’s wife, Matilda, and son, Ilbert, were buried here.

Another burial in the priory was that of Archbishop Thurstan. He retired here in January 1140 to fulfil a vow taken in his youth to become a monk of the Cluniac order. He died on 5th February after reciting the office of the dead. ‘Whilst the rest were kneeling and praying around him he passed away to await in the Land of Silence the coming of that Day of Wrath, so terrible to all, of which he had just spoken.’ Some years later his grave was opened and his remains were found to be sweet smelling and undecayed.

It was also in St John’s Priory that Thomas, Earl of Lancaster, was buried in 1322 following his execution after the Battle of Boroughbridge where he had led a rebellion against Edward II. After he was beheaded on a nearby hill, the monks begged for his body and buried it at the right hand of the high altar. It was to this church that pilgrims, who viewed Thomas as a martyr, began to come in their thousands as stories of miracles began to spread. ‘Certain miracles which were said to be done near the place both where he suffered and where he was buried caused many to think that he was a saint. Howbeit, at length, by the king’s commandment, the church doors of the priory where he was buried were shut and closed, so that no man might be suffered to come to the tomb to bring any offering or to do any other kind of devotion to the same.’ 

P1030950The Dominican Friary of St Richard at Pontefract has also disappeared, although traces were found during the construction of the new hospital when it was discovered that it lies somewhere to the east of Friarwood Valley Gardens.

The friary was founded by Edmund de Lacy in 1256. After the death of his father, John de Lacy, Edmund became a ward of the king and was given into the care of a tutor, Richard Wych, who later became Bishop of Chichester and was made a saint after his death on 3rd April 1253. Edmund chose the town of Pontefract to establish the friary in his honour and the story of the foundation is told by a contemporary Dominican, Ralph de Bocking, in his life of Richard Wych. Edmund de Lacy, accompanied by discreet men, both religious and secular, laid the foundation stone with his own hands, saying: ‘To the honour of our Lady Mary, mother of God and Virgin, and of St Dominic, confessor, to whose brethren I assign this place, and also of St Richard, bishop and confessor, formerly my lord and dearest friend, I wishing to found a church in this place lay the first stone’. Upon these words, the stone split into three parts, as if to approve the choice of the three patron saints.

Unlike the Cluniac order, the Dominicans were an open order who went about the countryside in pairs, preaching. They were known as the Black Friars from their black habits.

When Edmund de Lacy died on 22nd July, 1257, he left his heart to be buried in the Dominican church at Pontefract. It’s probable that the church was not complete at this date and the rest of his remains were buried beside his father and grandfather at Stanlaw Abbey in Cheshire, but were later moved to Whalley Abbey when the monks transferred there.

A list of burials at St Richard’s Friary was compiled by John Wriothesley, Garter King-of-Arms, who died in 1504. Presumably taken from the friary records, he records that the heart of the founder, Edmund de Lacy, is buried there. Also listed are Edmund’s wife, Alice, daughter of the Marquess de Saluzzo, their infant son John and daughter Margaret; also the heart of Alice’s husband, George de Cantlowe, and their infant son; also Agnes de Vescy, who was Alice’s sister.  He also lists the hearts of Richard, Duke of York and his son Edmund, Earl of Rutland; also Richard Nevill, Earl of Salisbury, and his son Thomas. These are the Yorkist noblemen who were killed at, or executed following, the battle of Wakefield. It is sad, however, that when I visited Pontefract, the information board that has been put up on the site of the Priory of St John claims that those who were killed at Wakefield were buried there.

The bodies of the duke of York and his son Edmund were transferred from Pontefract in 1476 when the duke’s son Edward was king. They were taken in procession to the church near to their family home at Fotheringhay.  Richard Nevill and his son Thomas were removed to Bisham Abbey.

At the reburial of Richard III earlier this year, Benedict Cumberbatch commented that P1030934having found the king under a car park, in the remains of the Greyfriars, he hoped the tomb in Leicester Cathedral would not be lost to future generations. It was a thought-provoking thing to say because I’m sure that Robert de Lacy and Edmund de Lacy never even considered that their magnificent religious foundations would one day no longer exist and that their tombs would be destroyed. It took the actions of only one man – Henry VIII. We must strive to ensure that someone in the future doesn’t destroy the history we have now and that what remains is recorded accurately and preserved.

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The Secret Burial of Saint Margaret Clitherow

Stydd Chapel: Up a narrow track on the outskirts of the village of Ribchester is the small Stydd Chapel and Ribchester 001chapel of St Saviour, Stydd. It is a tranquil place and the simple building with its stone-flagged floor and plastered, white-washed walls is one of only a few early medieval churches in Lancashire still in use as a place of worship; monthly Sunday services are held here in the summer, as well as at Christmas, Easter and on other special occasions.  Yet, in this unprepossessing place it is believed a saint is buried. Beneath the altar at Stydd chapel are thought to lie the remains of St Margaret Clitherow, also known as St Margaret of York or the Pearl of York.

There has been a place of worship here since the 12th century when deeds refer to ‘the hospital of St Saviour, under Longridge and the Master and brethren also serving God there’.  It could have been a monastery and perhaps a place where travellers could stay on their journey, as the term ‘hospital’ referred to hospitality before it became widely used as the name of a place to cure the sick.  And as Ribchester, once a Roman settlement, was sited at an important road junction where the north/south crossing of the Ribble met the east/west route across the Pennines it would seem reasonable to assume that such a resting place would have been welcome.

In the mid 13th century there is a record that the Knights Hospitallers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem acquired the site from Adam, the Chaplain-Warden of the house of St Saviour at Dutton, ‘together with the surrounding plough-lands, wood and moor and with rent from land in Dutton, Ribchester and elsewhere.’ 

By the 14th century the religious community was gone and the Knights Hospitallers rented out the land for agriculture use, although the chapel survived as the tenant was required to keep it maintained and to provide a chantry chaplain to sing masses for the dead.  In 1501 Nicholas Talbot endowed a priest to sing for twelve months at Stydd, where his mother and father were buried.  Local parish registers record that the burial ground surrounding the chapel was still in use up until 1879 when burials were formally discontinued.

 After the Reformation in the reign of Henry VIII, land owned by the Knights Hospitallers was forfeit to the crown and Stydd was sold to Sir Thomas Holt of Grizehurst, though still on condition that he paid a small stipend to a chaplain to hold occasional services in the chapel.

In 1686, Stydd Manor, including St Saviour’s, was bought by a group of local gentlemen (all Roman Catholics) including James Stanford, Richard and John Shireburne of Bailey Hall and their cousins Richard and John Walmsley of Showley Hall at Clayton-le-Dale.  It is possible that they purchased the chapel and burial ground to use quietly for religious purposes.

The shrine to Margaret Clitherow in her former home on the Shambles in York

The shrine to Margaret Clitherow in her former home on the Shambles in York

Margaret Clitherow was born in York in around 1553. She was the fourth child of Thomas and Jane Middleton. In 1571 she married wealthy local butcher John Clitherow, who was a widower with two young sons, and they lived in the Shambles area of the city.

Although she had been raised as a Protestant and her husband also conformed to the new religion, she found ‘no substance, truth or comfort’ in that faith and having undertaken instruction she became a Roman Catholic in 1574.  It is said that she prayed for an hour and a half every day, fasted four times a week and went regularly to confession and mass.

But the increasing religious suppression in the reign of Elizabeth I resulted in a requirement by the law that everyone attend their local parish church every Sunday and every feast day. And although her husband willingly paid her fines for non-attendance, Margaret was imprisoned on a number of occasions after recusancy was made a treasonable offence in 1576.  However she continued to hear the mass in her home and housed a schoolmaster to instruct her own and other local children in the Roman Catholic faith.

Then a law was introduced in 1585 that made it high treason, punishable by death, to aid or harbour a Roman Catholic priest. Yet Margaret had a secret room constructed that could be accessed from the upper floor of her home where priests and their vestments could be hidden. She also sent her son to Douai in France to study for the priesthood.

When her step-father Henry May became Lord Mayor of York on 15th January 1586, he pursued the policies of the Council of the North in rounding up and punishing recusants.  The sheriff’s men raided and searched the Clitherow’s home and although the schoolmaster escaped through the secret passage, everyone else in the house was arrested – including a twelve year old Flemish boy who was stripped naked and threatened with a flogging if he didn’t reveal the hiding place.  The terrified boy showed them the secret room where they found enough evidence to charge Margaret with treason.

She was arrested on 10th March 1586 and accused of harbouring priests and hearing the mass. Shw was put on trial at the Guild Hall on 14th March. When she was asked for her plea, she replied: “Having made no offence, I need no trial.  I will be tried by none other than God and your consciences.”

Her refusal to plead condemned her to peine forte et dure, being ‘pressed to death’. This consisted of the victim lying on the ground with a sharp stone under their back, their arms outstretched and their hands tied and bound to two posts. Then a wooden board or door was placed on top of them and weights were added to the board until the person was crushed to death. Margaret took fifteen agonising minutes to die, during which time she cried out for Jesus to have mercy on her. 

After her death, at just 30 years of age, on the 25th March 1586, which was Good Friday, her body was taken by her executioners to be buried at midnight in an obscure corner of the city where no one would find it.  However, it was found six weeks later and was secretly taken away, embalmed and properly laid to rest, although one hand was removed as a holy relic.  It is now kept in the Bar Convent in York.

Although there is no absolute proof of St Margaret’s final burial place it is recorded that the body was brought ‘a long journey on horseback’ that took a week, and as Lancashire was a place where many families stayed true to the old religion, and there was a connection between priests that Margaret had known and William Hawksworth of Mitton it is possible that the body was brought to this area.

In 1915, historians from Stonyhurst excavated the ruins of a chantry chapel which had been attached to Bailey Hall, the home of the Shireburn family, who remained Roman Catholic.  Beneath the site of the altar they discovered thirteen stone steps that led down to a crypt, laid out as a lavish shrine to a martyr; it was empty. The hall and the chantry chapel had been founded in the 14th century by Robert de Cliderow, so it does not seem unreasonable that this burial place was where Margaret’s body was brought.  However, in later years Richard Shireburn joined Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rebellion and when it was unsuccessful his estates were forfeit.  So was the body of Margaret moved before the house was handed over?

The grave reputed to be the burial place of St Margaret.

The grave reputed to be the burial place of St Margaret.

As already mentioned, St Saviour’s at Stydd had been bought by a group of gentleman, including John Shireburn. As the Anglicans had their own church of St Wilfrid in Ribchester, they didn’t need the chapel at Stydd and it’s possible that it was quietly used by Roman Catholics for their worship.  It is also recorded that the Anglicans in Lancashire were sympathetic to the defeated Jacobites and that the Vicar of Ribchester had accepted two men ‘executed for treason’ for burial in his churchyard. Father Sir Walter Vavasour, who is also buried at Stydd, must have been on good terms with the vicar and it seems there would have been little to prevent the body of Margaret Clitherow being re-interred in the chapel. There is a story that says: “She was taken a horse’s journey at night and was buried; there she will remain until the church is restored to its own”.

 She was canonised as a saint and martyr on 25th October 1970 by Pope Paul VI.  She is also the patron saint of the Catholic Women’s League.

Her two sons, Henry and William both became priests.  Her daughter Anne, to whom she sent her shoes and stockings on the morning of her death so that she could follow in her footsteps, became a nun at St Ursula’s, Louvain, although she was imprisoned in Lancaster Castle in 1593 for ‘causes ecclesiastical’. What she was doing in the region is not recorded, but it may have been to visit her mother’s grave.


This article is an extract from my book Lancashire: Who Lies Beneath?

P1030687Originally priced at £8.99 the publisher Countryside Books have decided to sell off some stock and I have some signed copies at the special price of £3.99 including postage. UK only. If you would like one, please send your postal address to: ‘elizabethashworthauthor@gmail.com’

and I’ll send you payment details for either a cheque or paypal.


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The Queen, the Duke of Lancaster!

Lancaster Castle

Lancaster Castle

Tomorrow (Friday 29th May 2015) the queen will make a private visit to Lancaster Castle to mark the 750th anniversary of the creation of the Duchy of Lancaster. She will also visit a farm in Myerscough which has been owned continuously by the Duchy since its creation in the 13th century when King Henry III, gave the honour, county, town and castle of Lancaster to his younger son, Edmund ‘Crouchback’ (brother of Edward I), along with the title Earl of Lancaster.

After the death of Edmund, the earldom passed to his son, Thomas, who was married to Alice de Lacy, daughter and heiress of Henry de Lacy, Earl of Lincoln, in an agreement that would see the de Lacy lands also pass to Thomas, combining the honour of Clitheroe with the honour of Lancaster. However, Thomas rebelled against his cousin Edward II and was defeated at the Battle of Boroughbridge in 1322. He was executed as a traitor and all his lands were forfeit to the crown. (You can read more about Alice de Lacy in my novels Favoured Beyond Fortune and The Circle of Fortune.)

Thomas’ younger brother Henry, the 3rd Earl of Lancaster, recovered some of the lands during the reign of Edward III.  In December 1326 he was granted, ‘to hold during the King’s pleasure’ the honours of Lancaster, Tutbury and Pickering with their castles and other former family estates.  After Henry’s death in 1345 his son, Henry Grosmont succeeded him as Earl of Lancaster.  Henry Grosmont was one of the most celebrated noblemen of his day.  He took part in many of Edward III’s military campaigns and ‘in recognition of astonishing deeds of prowess and feats of arms’ Edward III created him 1st Duke of Lancaster on the 6th March 1351.  In the same charter, the king raised Lancashire to a County Palatine for Henry’s lifetime.  This meant that the Duke had sovereign rights in the county.  The law courts were under his administration and he appointed the sheriff, judges, justices of the peace and other senior officials.  In medieval England, Palatinate powers were used in regions where central government was difficult and the creation of Lancashire as a County Palatine may have been intended as a protective barrier against the Scots.

When Henry Grosmont died in 1361 without a male heir, the ducal title became extinct and the palatinate powers reverted to the king.  Henry Grosmont left two daughters, Maud and Blanche.  Blanche, who held Lancaster as part of her dowry, had married the third son of Edward III, John of Gaunt, in 1359 and when her sister Maud died without children in 1362 the whole of her father’s inheritance passed to her.  John of Gaunt was created 1st Duke of Lancaster (second creation) in 1362.  John recovered many more of the Lancaster possessions that had been lost in 1322 and on 28th February 1377, Edward recreated the Palatinate for John’s lifetime.  Then, in 1390, the grant was extended to include John’s heirs.

Pontefract Castle

Pontefract Castle

When Edward III died in 1377 his ten-year-old grandson, Richard II, became king and John of Gaunt acted as Regent.  But John’s son, Henry Bolingbroke, had a disagreement with the king and in 1398 he was banished from the kingdom for six years.  When John of Gaunt died in 1399, Richard II confiscated the Lancaster inheritance and extended Henry’s banishment to a lifetime sentence.  However, Henry returned to claim his lands and, with the support of leading families, he regained control of the Lancastrian strongholds, captured Richard II, forced his abdication and imprisoned him in Pontefract Castle (the original seat of the de Lacy family).

Henry Bolingbroke was crowned Henry IV on 13th October 1399 and one of his first acts was the Charter of Duchy Liberties, later known as the Great Charter of the Duchy, which specified that the Lancaster inheritance should be held separately from other Crown possessions and should descend to Henry’s male heirs.  This meant that even if Henry lost the throne he would not lose his Lancastrian inheritance.

The Duchy passed down through Henry V to Henry VI and when Edward IV took the throne during the years known as the Wars of the Roses, Henry VI’s possessions, including the Duchy, were declared forfeit and held by the new king, although Edward IV kept the arrangement by which the Duchy was administered separately from other Crown possessions.  By Act of Parliament, he incorporated the Duchy possessions under the title ‘The Duchy of Lancaster’ to be held ‘forever to us and our heirs, Kings of England, separate from all other Royal possessions.’

After Henry VII defeated Richard III at Bosworth in 1485, the houses of Lancaster and York were united but a charter of that year confirmed the Duchy of Lancaster as separate from other Crown lands, and under its own management. There has been no new settlement since.

During the reign of Elizabeth I in 1556 the Duchy was described as ‘one of the most famous, princeliest and stateliest pieces of the Queen’s ancient inheritance’, however James I and Charles I sold large parts of the Duchy to make money.  After the execution of Charles I in 1649 the Duchy ceased to exist although Cromwell did preserve the jurisdiction of the County Palatine of Lancaster.

Following the restoration of Charles II in May 1660 the Duchy was returned, but sales or grants of the land continued.  During the next century the Duchy was almost bankrupt and when George III surrendered his other hereditary estates (except the Duchy of Cornwall) in return for an annual Civil List payment the Duchy of Lancaster was not even mentioned, either because it was worth so little or because it was separate from the hereditary revenues of the Crown.

During the reign of George III the fortunes of the Duchy improved and in the reign of Queen Victoria the Chancellor of the Exchequer considered giving up the Duchy to the public purse.  The Duchy Council successfully argued that this would increase public expense but it was agreed that the Duchy should publish a full financial report to both Houses of Parliament, an arrangement that continues to this day.

The River Hodder at Whitewell.

The River Hodder at Whitewell.

The Duchy of Lancaster continues to provide the Sovereign of the day with a source of income independent from Government and the public purse. The Duchy is self-financing and does not rely upon public funds in connection with its activities.  The present Queen, the Duke of Lancaster, retains a keen interest in the Duchy and was once quoted as saying that she would like to retire to the Whitewell Estates in the ancient Royal Hunting Forest of Bowland, which was an ancient Duchy possession.  In Lancashire the Duchy owns five agricultural estates located between Preston and Lancaster, covering an area of 11,500 acres.  They are Myerscough, Wyreside, Whitewell, Salwick and Winmarleigh.  Only Myerscough has been owned by the Duchy continuously, the others having been purchased or repurchased over the years.  Of course, Lancaster Castle is also a Duchy possession. And in Lancashire the loyal toast remains ‘The Queen, Duke of Lancaster!’ I’m sure she will be made very welcome tomorrow.





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Nicholas Owen – builder of priest holes

Speke Hall (2)I was recently at Speke Hall, a Tudor house near Liverpool. In an upstairs room, you can see where a priest hole has been built into the fabric of the building to make it invisible to anyone who did not know it was there. It is of an ingenious design and is just one of many to be found in Catholic houses across England where priests were able to hide to escape arrest during the years following the Reformation.

Many of these hiding places are the work of one man – Nicholas Owen, also known as

Statue of St Nicholas Owen

Statue of St Nicholas Owen

‘Little John’. Owen was born in Oxford in 1562, one of four sons of Walter Owen who was a carpenter. His brother John was a priest, his brother Walter died in 1591 and third brother, Henry, was apprenticed to a printer and engaged in the secret printing of Catholic literature. In 1577, Nicholas Owen was apprenticed to the Oxford joiner William Conway and learned the skills that he later put to use designing and building secret hiding places. By 1588, he was in the employment of the Jesuit priest, Father Henry Garnet and later became a Jesuit lay brother. He travelled from house to house, accepting only a bed and food as reward for his work and in a letter dated 1596, Father Garnet speaks of ‘a carpenter of singular faithfulness and skill who has travelled through almost the entire kingdom and, without charge, has made for Catholic priests hiding places where they might shelter the fury of heretical searchers’.

His nickname was ‘Little John’ as he is reputed to have been very small. He walked with a limp after his leg was badly set following a fracture when a horse fell on him. He also had a hernia, but none of this prevented him from working alone and in secret, usually during the night, to break down stone walls and reconstruct them in such a way as to create secret places that were almost impossible to find if you did not know where to look. He made false entrances in fireplaces and staircases, trap doors, sliding doors and in the case of Speke Hall a crawl space above a ceiling accessed by a rope ladder in a small space at the side of a bedroom. He is said to have favoured sites away from outside walls and had the ability to think in three dimensions and in curves. He used false perspectives and illusion, now more often employed by stage magicians, to hide the priest holes, many of which have since been discovered, although it is possible that there are still more waiting to be found. The guide at Speke Hall told visitors that the owners of one Elizabethan manor house uncovered a priest hole, complete with priest, during renovations. At Hoghton Tower, also in Lancashire, one priest hole was only discovered when an electrician fell into it, and at Astley Hall in Chorley a priest hole was discover as recently as 2004.

When the search parties arrived at the houses of suspected Catholics, perhaps tipped off by suspicious neighbours, they brought with them their own carpenters and masons to help in the search. Measurements were taken to try to find spaces not accounted for by the length of the wall or height of the ceiling and if anything didn’t seem quite right panelling would be pulled down, floors taken up and swords thrust into any gaps that might conceal a priest. These searches could go on for days, even weeks, and all the time the priest in his hidden chamber had to remain still and silent faced with either discovery or starvation. Some priests were discovered and arrested, but many more escaped detection and ‘Little John’ is remembered by modern Catholics for saving many lives.

Nicholas Owen is also credited with engineering the escape of Father John Gerard from the Tower of London by means of a rope strung across the moat, but, sadly, there was no escape for Owen himself after he was arrested at Hindlip Hall in Worcestershire in the aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot in the reign of James I. The house was surrounded by 100 men at daybreak on Monday, 20th November and the searchers began to rip the house apart. Nicholas Owen and another man seem to have allowed themselves to be discovered creeping along a gallery, possibly to detract attention from the two priests, Father Garnet and Father Oldcorne, who were also in hiding there. But after eight days, the priests were found and also arrested.

When he heard the news of Owen’s capture, Secretary of State,Robert Cecil, wrote ‘Great joy was caused all through the kingdom by the arrest of Owen, knowing his skill in constructing hiding-places, and the innumerable number of these dark holes which he had schemed for hiding priests throughout the kingdom.

Despite a law that forbade the torturing of anyone with a disability, Nicholas Owen was

The torture of Nicholas Owen

The torture of Nicholas Owen

tortured following Cecil’s instructions that ‘the secret is to be wrung from him’. He was first manacled by the wrists and suspending in chains from a ceiling. This resulted in his hernia bulging from his body to such an extent that his intestines were protruding, so the tortures strapped an iron plate to him to hold them in. It was this plate that eventually killed him. Refusing to divulge any information he was racked and the result was that the plate cut into the hernia and ruptured it causing him to bleed to death in his cell in the early hours of 2nd March 1606. He took his knowledge of his priest holes to the grave, having divulged nothing to his torturers. The official stance was that he had committed suicide by ripping himself open with the knife given him to eat his meat. It is an unlikely story as the torture had left him unable to use his hands at all and suicide, for a Catholic, was a mortal sin that would have endangered his soul. He was buried in the Tower.

Father Gerard said of him ‘I verily think no man can be said to have done more good of all those who laboured in the English vineyard. He was the immediate occasion of saving the lives of many hundreds of persons, both ecclesiastical and secular.’ It is true that many priests must have owed him their lives and many Catholic families were able to receive the sacraments from a priest because of his work.

So next time you are visiting a Tudor house and you are shown a priest hole, spare a thought for Nicholas Owen − for his ingenious work and for his horrific and painful death at the hands of the English government.

  • Harvington Hall in Worcestershire has four priest holes attributed to Nicholas Owen.
  • There is a Roman Catholic Church dedicated to Saint Nicholas Owen in Little Thornton, Lancashire.
  • He was beatified by Pope Pius XI on 15 December 1929 and canonized by Paul VI on 25 October 1970.
  • His saint’s day is 22nd March.
  • Priest holes at Hoghton Tower and at Rufford Old Hall feature in my novel Many Kinds of Silence.
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John de Lacy – Magna Carta baron

John de Lacy was one of the twenty-five barons who forced King John to agree to the The de Lacy armsterms of Magna Carta in June 1215. He was probably the youngest of the barons and the last to withdraw support from the king and join the rebel army.

John de Lacy was the son of Roger de Lacy and his wife, Maud, or Matilda, de Clere. He was born about 1192 and was still a minor when his father died in 1211, becoming a ward of the king, although he may have already been living at court as he had been held as a hostage during his father’s lifetime to ensure Roger’s loyalty.

John came of age in September 1213 and had to pay a huge fine to King John of 7000 marks, repayable over the coming three years, for possession of his father’s estates, which comprised more than 100 knights’ fees along with the baronies of Pontefract, Clitheroe, Penwortham, Widnes and Halton.  He took an oath and signed a charter confirming the terms of payment, which included a clause that if he left the king’s service and joined his enemies he would forfeit all the lands.  Twenty of his tenants guaranteed these terms and agreed that they would remain loyal to the king even if their lord turned against him.  He was also forced to surrender his castles at Pontefract in Yorkshire and Donington in Leicestershire to be garrisoned by the king at his own expense.

It was not surprising then that, at first, John de Lacy appeared to be loyal to King John. In June 1214, he was given some respite in the terms of his payments and Castle Donington was returned to him in return for the surrender of hostages, including his younger brother. The following month he accompanied the king in his, ultimately unsuccessful, attempt to win back his lost lands in France. He was still at court in March 1215, and on the fifth of that month was pardoned the final 4200 marks that he still owed to the king for his inheritance.

When King John refused to meet with the barons at Northampton in April to reply to their demands and London opened its gates to the rebels, civil war seemed inevitable. As late as 31st May, John de Lacy appeared to be loyal to the king, but, in the end, he withdrew his support and was named as one of the baronial council of 25 at Runnymede – an act for which he was excommunicated by the Pope. He was given command of the rebel forces in Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire.

Although he added his seal to the Magna Carta, King John did not abide by its terms for long.  He captured Castle Donington on 1st January 1216, forcing John de Lacy to make terms with him and once again surrender his brother as a hostage.  In the April, John de Lacy was restored to his manor of Lytham in Oxfordshire, and in May he was in Kent with the king, but he had rebelled again before the king’s death in October that year.

After the defeat of the rebel army at Lincoln, John de Lacy swore fealty to the new king, Henry III, under the regency of William Marshal, but his thoughts had already turned to the Holy Land and in May 1218, he accompanied Ranulph, Earl of Chester on crusade.  It seems that he was also accompanied by two priests from his lands – one from Kippax and one from Aberford, as they were witnesses to a charter granted in Damietta that year of land to the church at Pontefract.

John returned to England with Ranulph in 1220 and the following year was married to Ranulph’s niece, Margaret de Quincy. This was his second marriage. He had been previously married to Alice de l’Aigle who was the daughter of Gilbert de l’Aigle and Isabella, the widow of Robert de Lacy (2). Alice had died. There is no date of death recorded for her but she was buried at Norton Priory.

The only place I have seen the banner displayed is in the great hall of Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire.

The only place I have seen the banner displayed is in the great hall of Gainsborough Old Hall in Lincolnshire.

Margaret de Quincy was the daughter of Robert de Quincy and Hawise, who was the sister of Ranulf. It was agreed before Ranulf’s death, in 1232, that his title of Earl of Lincoln should pass through his sister Hawise to John as her son-in-law.  On 22nd November 1232, John was granted the third penny of the county of Lincolnshire although Ranulf’s principal barony, Bolingbroke, was retained by Hawise until her death in 1243. On receiving the earldom, John de Lacy adopted the arms of the rampant purple lion on a golden background.

John de Lacy became influential at court during the reign of Henry III.   In February 1221, following the rebellion of William de Forz, he assisted in the siege of Skipton Castle. He witnessed the reissue of the Magna Carta in 1225 and in 1226 was appointed a justice in Lincolnshire and Lancashire. In 1227, he was one of the royal envoys who went to Antwerp for negotiations with the German princes and in 1230 he accompanied the king’s expedition to Brittany and Poitou, receiving the manors of Collingham in Yorkshire and Bardsey in Lincolnshire as a reward for his service.

He was present at the marriage of Henry with Eleanor of Provence in his official role as Constable of Chester and it is recorded that  ‘according to his office’ he kept back the crowd ‘with his rod or warder’ when they pressed forward in a disorderly manner.

In the autumn of 1233, he helped to defend the Welsh marches against a rebellion headed by Richard Marshal.  The chronicler, Roger of Wendover, claims that he was bribed to abandon Richard Marshal, an allegation substantiated by the award to John de Lacy of the wardship of the heir and lands of Nigel de Mowbray in return for a relatively modest 1000 marks.

John retained his position at court and was a leading royal counsellor, but he began to suffer ill health and died on 22nd July 1240, leaving a son, Edmund, who had been born in 1230 and a daughter, Maud, married to Richard de Clare, heir to the earldom of Gloucester – an arrangement for which John de Lacy paid 3000 marks. It is thought that Peter of Chester, the long-lived rector of Whalley in Lancashire, was also a son of John de Lacy.

John de Lacy was buried near his father, Roger de Lacy, at Stanlaw Abbey and his remains were later removed to Whalley when the monks transferred there.


The remains of the de Lacy grave at Whalley Abbey.

The remains of the de Lacy grave at Whalley Abbey.

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Dr John Dee demonstrates a solar eclipse

The novel I am working on at the moment is about the life of Jane Dee, wife of the famousJohn Dee scientist and mathematician John Dee, who is also remembered for his magical conversations with the angels through his scryer Edward Kelley.  Much, although not all, of John Dee’s writing has been preserved and whilst reading his diary I noticed that he mentions a solar eclipse on the 25th February 1598. He says that it was cloudy but that a great darkness fell about half past nine – the same time that we will see the solar eclipse tomorrow (20th March 2015).

In 1672, Elias Ashmole was planning to write a biography of John Dee and he went to visit an elderly lady named Goodwife Faldo, who was aged around 80 years and who was the last person alive at that time who had personally known Dr Dee. She told him that her memories of the magus were vivid and that he had been a very handsome man, tall and slender with a fair complexion. He dressed in an artists’ gown with hanging sleeves and had a long pointed beard, which turn snowy white in his old age. Amongst other recollections, she described how she and her mother, who later nursed Dr Dee, had been invited into his house where, in a darkened room, he had shown them the solar eclipse projected through a pinhole. Goodwife Faldo was six years old at the time and it must have made quite an impression on her. Maybe she was afraid too – not of the eclipse, which Dr Dee would have explained to his assembled guests – but because the local children would run away screaming if they caught sight of Dee because he ‘was accounted a conjuror’.

Another version of the story about the eclipse records that Dr Dee demonstrated the eclipse to the Polish ambassador. Perhaps this is also true. I don’t suppose that he put on the show especially for Goodwife Faldo and her mother, but rather that there would have been a room filled with excited observers as they watched the moon creep across the face of the sun. I think what interests me especially is that Dr Dee gathered these people to watch the eclipse safely. The little six year old’s eyesight was not damaged by looking directly at the sun. So, do the same tomorrow. Watch carefully!

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