I’m an author of historical fiction and non-fiction based in the beautiful county of Lancashire from where I draw many of my stories. On this site you’ll find the first chapters of my novels and some short stories to read for free. If you delve a little deeper, you’ll discover all sorts of interesting things that I’ve come across in my research – especially about the history of the de Lacys, Lords of Blackburnshire. Just click on the links to get started.
The Preston born suffragette, Edith Rigby, liked to be known as Mrs Edith Rigby. Conventionally she should have been known as Mrs Charles Rigby, the doctor’s wife. Women only reverted to their own Christian name on becoming a widow, but Edith wasn’t prepared to wait that long to regain her own identity. Besides, she wanted a vote!
Edith was the second of seven children born in 1872, in Preston in Lancashire. Her different way of looking at life, and in particular the role of women, was evident from an early age. Even as a child she questioned the division between the working women with their clogs and shawls and the ladies of leisure who paraded through Miller Park in their silks and satins.
On the Christmas morning after her twelfth birthday Edith was missing from the house when her family got up. She arrived home later to explain to her parents that she had been out distributing small gifts of chocolate, soap and candied fruit that she had been collecting over the preceding weeks to work people in the streets as they made their way to Mass.
The desire to help others was one that stayed with Edith all her life, although it is her newsworthy exploits in the pursuance of votes for women for which she is more readily remembered. Less is known about her love of fell walking, her distaste for having skirts flapping around her ankles, her penchant for wearing only sandals on her feet, her prowess as a swimmer and the fact that she was the first lady in Preston to ride a bicycle, in bloomers, a habit which was regarded as being improper and for which she was booed and pelted with vegetables.
Although Edith showed far more interest in other’s welfare than she ever did in men, she attracted many admirers and in September 1893, a month before her twenty-first birthday she married thirty-four year old Dr Charles Rigby and went to live with him at 28 Winckley Square in Preston. Her marriage, however, was far from conventional. Edith did not take on the traditional role of a middle class housewife, but busied herself trying to improve working conditions for girls and women in the local mills. She also continued her own style of living by renting a bungalow at nearby Broughton where she grew fruit and vegetables and spent much of her time.
She began a club for girls, where they could meet to sew, sing, play games and continue with an education that was curtailed for most of them at the age of eleven when they began to work part-time in the mills. Edith taught them about hygiene, took them swimming, taught them to play cricket in the park and bullied the owners of large country houses to hold garden parties on summer Saturday afternoons.
But it is for her involvement with the suffrage movement that Edith Rigby is best known. Never one to take up a cause without giving it her best attention, Edith is famous for the burning of Lord Leverhulme’s bungalow at Rivington and her hunger strikes which accompanied her many episodes of imprisonment.
She also planted a bomb in the Cotton Exchange in Liverpool as Sam Caslin explains in this short video:
Edith was sent to prison the first time after rising at half past five one sleety morning in February 1907 to take part in a suffragette march from Hyde Park to Caxton Hall, where the protesters tried to form a ‘Women’s Parliament’. Edith, along with Christabel and Sylvia Pankhurst and a handful of other women continued the protest to the Houses of Parliament, but rows of police forced them back to Caxton Hall, where fighting broke out and fifty-seven women were arrested. Given a choice between paying a fine or serving a month in prison, they all chose prison and Edith, who had been a prison visitor at Preston, now found herself on the other side of the bars.
“Prison is hopeless as a place of reform,” she told a press reporter on her release. And it certainly didn’t change Edith Rigby, because she went there again and again.
The hunger strikes were begun by a Miss Dunlop who refused to eat when her request to be treated as a political prisoner was denied. She fasted for four days of her month long sentence and was released. The suffragettes realised that this was a powerful weapon and from then on hunger strike was the unspoken order. And the government, given the choice of enfranchising women or letting them die, began a regime of force feeding.
Hunger strikers who resisted were held down by four wardresses whilst a doctor inserted a tube down their throats and a fifth wardress would pour in liquid. Later, when even this barbaric treatment failed to deter women from their aim, an Act of ‘cat and mouse’ was introduced, where women in danger of death after several days without food and water, were released to recover their health before being re-arrested to continue their sentences.
Despite all the campaigning and arson and imprisonments, it was probably the First World War that was the catalyst for some women at least to gain the vote. In 1914 an uneasy truce was called between the suffragettes and the government. The country needed women to fill the jobs of the men who had gone to fight. Nine months after the Armistice women over thirty who were local government electors (or wives of electors) were placed on the voters’ register, but it wasn’t until 1928 that women were allowed to vote on equal terms with men.
After the war, Edith Rigby turned to farming and became increasingly interested in the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. One of her friends commented “After the vote was won she gave up all her good works and took up with Rudolph Steiner.”
She cut her hair short, wore men’s clothes and bought a small holding just off the Preston to Southport road where she grew fruit and vegetables and kept animals and bees. Her methods nowadays would be called organic and following Steiner’s teachings she strove to produce good wholesome food, using no artificial means.
Strangely her marriage to Charles Rigby was a happy one. He eventually retired and went to live with her at the cottage known as ‘Marigold’ and although they had no children of their own they adopted a son, Sandy. Edith liked children and many of her nieces and nephews spent their summers with her where she taught them about nature and the universe.
In 1926 she moved to North Wales where she had been educated at Penrhos College as a girl. Sadly, her husband died just before the move, but Edith went anyway, to the place where she could walk in the mountains.
Here she soon surrounded herself once more with like minded people. She formed an ‘Anthroposophical Circle’ and her house was always filled with visitors, much as Winckley Square had been in the days of the suffragette movement. She bathed in the sea every morning, both summer and winter and took her visitors on long fell walking expeditions through the mountains. Edith also became interested in Steiner’s educational beliefs and visited New York to see one of his schools.
Even when she was past seventy she rose every morning at 4 a.m. to meditate. But old age and Parkinson’s Disease was something Edith Rigby found it impossible to campaign against and she eventually died at her house near Llandudno in 1948.
In her book ‘My Aunt Edith’ written by Edith Rigby’s niece, Phoebe Hesketh the author says “She had to be different and live differently from the rest of us. And yet we never thought of her as a crank. She was a person who made her presence felt, a dropper of stones into a pool whose ripples still have the power to disturb.”.
*My Aunt Edith – the Story of a Preston Suffragette by Phoebe Hesketh was published by Lancashire County Books, Bow Lane, Preston. It is now out of print but your local library may be able to source a copy. I can highly recommend it if you can get hold of a copy.
You can also read about Edith Rigby and other notable Lancashire born women and men in my own book Champion Lancastrians.
I’ve already written about Isolde de Heton, who was an anchorite at the church in Whalley, in this post about reluctant recluses. But during the research for my latest novel The King’s Appointed I’ve uncovered more about her life and it seems that she didn’t simply run away from the anchorage at Whalley because she didn’t like it there. Her reasons were more complex.
If you live outside Lancashire you’ve probably never even heard of Isolde de Heton. If you live in Lancashire, especially around the Whalley area, you may have heard the legend that has its foundations in The Lancashire Witches, a novel written by Harrison Ainsworth in 1848. In his story he claims that Isolde absconded with a ‘freebooter’ named Blackburn, who had visited her disguised as a monk, but with very unmonkish intentions! Isolde, finding herself pregnant, ran away with him, falling and breaking her leg as she escaped over Whalley Nab, and lived with him in the Malkin Tower, surviving to become the grandmother of Elizabeth Demdyke, one of the women who were convicted of witchcraft at Lancaster in 1612.
If you put the name Isolde de Heton into Google you’ll soon see that many people regard this story as being factual, with one book in particular, The Lancashire Witch Conspiracy by John Clayton, taking over a whole chapter to attempt to prove a figment of Harrison Ainsworth’s imagination to be fact. Even family research sites are repeating the story as fact even though the records are easily checked.
So, let’s take a look at the facts:
What is an anchoress?
An anchorite or anchoress was a man or woman who withdrew from the world to live in a small cell to pray and become nearer to God. It was similar to being a monk or a nun except that they lived alone and it was unlike being a hermit because they were not at liberty to leave their cell. It was a lifelong commitment. Once an anchorite took sacred vows and entered the anchorage they would remain there until death and many anchorites were buried in their cell.
Isolde de Heton was appointed as the anchoress at Whalley in Lancashire in 1437. The anchorage in the churchyard there had been founded by Henry, Duke of Lancaster in 1360 for a recluse nominated by himself or his successors to pray for his ancestors. By 1437, when Isolde was widowed, the Duke of Lancaster was the young king, Henry VI, and he nominated her.
She was given a small house in the churchyard with an adjoining chapel. She was provided with two maidservants to attend her and a monk, attended by a server, to sing mass daily in the chapel of her enclosure. She had a weekly ration of seventeen loaves, baked in the abbey, seven inferior loaves, and eight gallons of the best ale. Yearly, at the feast of All Saints she was given ten large stock fish, one bushel of oatmeal and one bushel of rye. For light and heat, she was provided with two gallons of oil for lamps, six loads of turf
and one of faggots. In return, she was expected to spend her time at prayer, and to offer advice and wisdom to visitors who approached her tiny window. It could have been worse. The anchoress in the church of Holy Trinity at Skipton in North Yorkshire was walled up in a tiny space at the back of the church.
Who was Isolde de Heton?
Isolde was the daughter of Lawrence Standish of Standish and his wife, Lora Pilkington. She was the sister of Alexander Standish and the widow of Richard de Heton of Heaton under Horwich. She had several children, but the heir was a son William who was about ten years old when his father died.
Did she leave the anchorage?
Yes. It’s true that she abandoned her vocation. We know this because the abbot of Whalley Abbey wrote to the king asking for the anchorage to be closed because of the trouble the monks had had to endure, particularly the arrangement that meant the anchoress’s maidservants had to go into the abbey kitchens to collect food. He mentions that Isolde had been living at liberty for the last two years ‘like as she had never been professyd’. He also mentions that the women who acted as servants to the recluses had been misgoverned and ‘gotten with child withyn the seyd plase halowyd’. He doesn’t mention Isolde or her maidservants in particular and definitely does not say that Isolde herself became pregnant.
Why did she leave the anchorage?
Isolde seems to have left the anchorage to safeguard her children. Her son, William, was the heir to his father’s lands and money, but as he was only around ten years old when his father, Richard de Heton died, he became the ward of his grandfather, William de Heton. A boy who was an heir was a valuable asset and parents with a suitable daughter were willing to pay for a marriage to be arranged because their daughter and potential grandchildren would benefit once the boy inherited. William de Heton arranged a marriage for his grandson, William, to Agnes, the daughter of his friend, Richard Barton, lord of Middleton, near Manchester. But Isolde had already arranged a different marriage before she entered the anchorage. This, she claimed, would bring in much more money, which would be enough to provide substantial dowries for her daughters. When she discovered what the elder William de Heton had done she was furious. From her cell at Whalley she wrote to her brother Alexander, to ask for his help, and between them they made a plan to kidnap young William from his grandfather and take him into hiding. So, it seems that Isolde fled from the anchorage and her holy vows to safeguard her son, his inheritance and the interests of her daughters. It’s rather a different story from the sordid tale told by Harrison Ainsworth.
What happened to Isolde?
After her disappearance from the anchorage there are few records of Isolde de Heton. However, in 1443 she wrote a letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of England asking him to intervene in the matter of her son’s marriage. In the letter she claims that she is an anchoress, enclosed at Whalley, when in fact she had long since left. The letter is witnessed by Gilbert Standish and John Weston, and these names may offer a clue as to where she was living, but so far I’ve had no success in tracing where she might have taken refuge.
What happened to William?
There are records of a William de Heton of Heton, although I can’t be entirely certain that all of them refer to Isolde’s son because there are many places called Heton or Heaton, including a village near Lancaster. It seems that William was married to Agnes Barton as her father states this is so in his letter to the chancellor. However, the marriage may have been annulled or they may have been divorced. Whether William married the girl his mother had chosen for him I can’t be sure. There is a record of a William Heton marrying a Jane Farington, but I’m not convinced this is the same William. He certainly inherited his father’s lands by 1473 as he appears in the Manchester Rental of that year. There is also a record of him in 1489, when he presented to the judges at Lancaster a writ from the king, which ordered his exemption from serving on a jury, possibly because of illness or old age as he would have been about 63 years old.
A William de Heton of Heton is also recorded as the father of Katherine who married Henry Blundell of Little Crosby in either 1488 or 1489. Another daughter Joan is recorded as marrying William Haydock of Cottam Hall. They had a son William, who became a monk at Whalley Abbey and who was hanged there for his part in the Pilgrimage of Grace. If this man’s grandfather was Isolde’s son then it makes her his great grandmother. So it is possible that she was the direct ancestor of a martyr rather than a witch.
Like many stories from history, it’s impossible to discover all the facts, but there are enough of them to disprove the fictional tale of Harrison Ainsworth.
Having said that, I’ve drawn on some of the ideas of the legend for my novel The King’s Appointed, although I hope that I’ve been kinder and fairer to Isolde this time.
If you are interested in the letters then here are the complete versions of what was written:
From Richard Barton:
To the right honourabill and reverent fader in God the Bisshopp of Bath and Chaunceler of England. Mekely besecheth your bedeman Richard of Barton that ther wher oon William of Heton the elder was seised and …. the bodye of William of Heton the yonger cosyn and heir to the saide William the elder that is to wete son to Richard son to the saide William the elder and …. isede bargained and sold the manage of the saide William the yonger to your saide besecher to be maried and wedded to Agnes doghter of your saide [besecher] which saide besecher for the saide bargayn to the saide William the elder hath paied xl. mark of moneye and he with other men sufficiantly bounden by severals [obligacions] to paie to the saide William the elder for the said bargayn xl. ii over the saide xl. mark atte certeins dayes in the saide obligacions specified and seth this bargayn [thus made] Alisaunder of Standish of the Counte of Lancastre and Ysote of Heton suster to the saide Alisaunder of the same counte haue taken and doon away the saide William the yonger and hym …. in to a straunge place prive (?) and aloigned wher ne into what place your saide besecher ne the saide Agnes that hath weddit the saide William the yonger may have no knawlege ne wetyng to the undoying of the saide bargayn and like to cause finall devorce betwene the saide William the yonger that is [yet within] the age of xiiii zeers and the said Agnes his wife but if ther be remedie in hasty tyme. That it please to your gracious lordshippe to consider the mischeves abovesaide and theruppon to graunt two wrettes sub pena oon wrette to the saide Alisaunder and the tother to the saide Ysote chargyng thaym severally by the saide severall wrettes either on payne of two hundreth pounde to appeer in their propre persons in the Chauncere of Englonde wher it be the daye next after the Purification of our ladie next to come to answer of thies premisses for the love of God and in waye of charite.
From Isolde de Heton:
To the most worshipfull fader in God and most gracious lord the Archbisshop of Caunterbury Chaunceller of Englond. Besechith mekely your poer Bed[e]woman Isot that was the wyf of on Richard Heton nowe beyng an ancrys closeyd at Qwalley in the counte of Lancastre that where on William Heton fader unto the seid Richard s . . . . eyd your seid Bedwoman to have William son and heire of the seid Richard and of your seid Bedwoman to marye and dispose aftur his discression promyttyng unto your seid Bedwoman for her gode will xl marcs your [seid] Bedwoman seyng that her son schuld be maryd ayenst his will and all his frendz will and also within age and furovere that sche had grete charge dayly with other of hur childer that is to sey a son and [? two] daughters I . . . . unmaryed and also where as sche was profereyd for the maryage of her seid son ccc marcs with the whech sche thought to have holpyn her other childer utterly refusid The seid William fader un to the seid Richard seyng anon aftur that your seid Bedwoman was disposeid to be an Ancrys and closeid and schuld have no power to maynten’ accion be the lawe ayenst hym come with grete power and toke away [the seyd Richard] her son & maryed hym ayenst the will of your seid Bedwoman and all her frendez will to the grete hurt and myscomforth of your seid Bedwoman, and also to the utter undoyng and disperysching of her seid [childern] stondyng un holpyn as aboveseid That hit please un to your gracious lordschyp consideryng these premissez aboveseid and that your seid Bedwoman hath no remedye in the lawe to recuvere ayenst hym and also that sche is not of power of gode to make rnenes nor to gete her lordschip to maynten1 hur in her ryght but utterly to her undoyng and to her chylder also with owt your gracious help and lordschyp in this [partie] And that ye wold of your gracious lordschip to graunt a wryt of sub pena direct un to the seid William, fader of the seid Richard to apere be fore yowe in the Chauncere at a certeyn day be yowe lymytteyd and under a certeyn payn and there to be examyneyd and to do as trouth and consciens requyren’. for the love of God and in wey of charyte.
Pleg’ de pros’ GILBERTUS STANDISH de Blecckeley in com
JOHANNES WESTON de gadem, Gent.
From the Abbot at Whalley:
To the Kyng owre sovereign Lord, &c. Be hit remembryd that the plase and habitacion of the said recluse is within place halowed and nere to the gate of the seyd monastre and that the weemen that have been attendyng and acquayntyd to the seyd recluse have recorse dailly into the seyd monastre for the livere of brede ale kychin and other thyngs for the sustentacyon of the seyd recluse accordyng to the composityon endentyd above rehersyd: the whyche is not accordyng to be had withyn such religyous places. And how that dyvers that been anchores and recluses in the seyd plase aforetyme contrary to theyre own oth and professyon have brokyn owte of the seyd plase wherein they were reclusyd and departyd therfrom wythout eny reconsilyatyon. And in especyal how that now Isold of Heton that was last reclusyd in the seyd plase at denomynatyon and preferment of owre sovereign lord and kyng that nowe is is broken owte of the seyd plase and hath departyd therfrom contrarye to her own oth and professyon not willyng nor entendyng to be restoryd agayn and so livyng at her own liberte by this two yere and more like as she had never been professyd. And that divers of the wymen that have been servants ther and attendyng to the recluses afortym have byn misgovernyd and gotten with chyld withyn the seyd plase halowyd to the grete displeasaunce of hurt and disclander of the abbeye aforesayd, &c. Please hyt your highness of [y]our espesyal grase to grant to your orators the abbot, &c.
At Avenham Park in Preston, there is an annual egg rolling competition on Easter Monday that attracts huge crowds. Known as pace egging, there is a long tradition of egg rolling in Preston and people have been doing it for hundreds of years. Originally decorated Pace Eggs were used, but now the eggs are more likely to be chocolate which may be a good thing because there is an old legend that says the broken eggshells should be carefully crushed afterwards or they will be stolen and used as boats by witches.
There is also pace-egging on Holcombe Hill near Ramsbottom on Good Friday when it is traditional to climb the hill as it is said to resemble Calvary where Jesus was crucified. Historically the gathering was for an act of Christian worship but after the service people would climb the steep slopes to roll their eggs, and at one time there were even special trains from Bury to bring the crowds.
In Rochdale the tradition was known as Bowl-egg Sunday with a line marked out at a set distance. At Blackpool people would roll their eggs down the sandhills near the promenade and in other parts of the county it’s recorded that ‘boys would throw the eggs in the air like throwing a ball’.
When I went to watch the egg rolling in Avenham Park last year there was a lot more throwing than rolling going on there. But everyone seemed to be having a good time.
This is an old tradition that may have its roots in the Crusades as it involves St George’s victory over a Turkish Knight as well as a resurrection. The word ‘pace’ comes from the Latin ‘pacha’ and means Easter and the Pace Egg Play has been performed at Easter for hundreds of years.
It has always been traditional to eat boiled eggs for breakfast on Easter morning as eggs would have been one of the forbidden foods during Lent. These eggs were usually decorated, but before paints were available the eggs would have been carefully wrapped in onion skins before they were boiled and this resulted in the shells taking on the appearance of mottled gold. If these weren’t eaten they may have been given as gifts, along with money and beer, to the ‘Jolly Boys’ who came to perform the Pace Egg Play.
The gifts were collected in a basket by the character of Owd Tosspot who traditionally wore a long straw pigtail, at one time full of sharp pins to prevent anyone grabbing it. This may have been before the performance or when it had finished.
The play is performed in verse and begins with the chorus:
Here’s one two three jolly lads all in one mind
We have come a pace egging and we hope you’ll prove kind
And we hope you’ll prove kind with your eggs and strong beer
And we’ll come no more nigh you until the next year
There are many variations of the Pace Egg Play, but the traditional story is that of Saint George and his victories over a variety of other characters. In some versions he fights Bold Slasher first. These two knights fight to demonstrate their knightly skills and Slasher is killed. But then the doctor, who has travelled to the East and discovered some miraculous medicine, is called and he brings Bold Slasher back to life to fight another day. Sometimes the doctor and Old Tosspot are the same character. Then there is another fight. This one is between St George and the Turkish Knight, with a blackened face, and, of course, St George proves victorious.
The next that comes in is a bold Turkish Knight,
From a far distant country he’s come for to fight.
He’ll meet with St George and will fight with him here,
To show him a hero knows nothing to fear.
There are many versions of the play and in later years Admiral Lord Nelson became a popular character. Other traditional Lancashire characters include Old Paddy, the King of Egypt, Mally Brownbags and the devil. The one thing that is common to all the plays is the comedy and the interaction with the audience. It was something like an early version of a pantomime.
In an early script Lord Nelson is the first character to appear:
The first that comes in is Lord Nelson you see
With a bunch of blue ribbons tied down to his knee;
He’s a star on his breast which like diamonds doth shine,
And he’s come-a-pace-egging, it’s pace-egging time.
By 1842 the Pace Egg Play was being performed less often, but in recent years there has been a renewal of interest in British traditions and folk customs and some of the old plays have been brought back to life by folk groups such as the Abram Pace Eggers and the Bury Pace Eggers.
Yesterday I visited Grange over Sands and was reminded that it was here, on Humphrey Head, that the last wolf in England was killed – or so the story goes.
I included this story in my book Tales of Lancashire, because Grange is in the original county of Lancashire, in an area known as Lancashire over Sands.
Sir Edgar Harrington of Wraysholme Tower had sworn to hunt out and kill every last wolf from Cartmel Forest. He had also promised that the man who killed the last wolf would receive the hand of his niece in marriage and half of his lands as well. His niece was a beautiful young girl named Adela who had been orphaned and was now Sir Edgar’s ward. Many of the local men were keen to make her their wife, especially a knight named Laybourne, but Adela was in love with her cousin, Sir Edgar Harrington’s son, John. Sir Edgar disapproved of this attachment and, following an argument, his son had gone away to fight in a foreign war, but before he left the young couple had sworn to be faithful to one another.
It was thought that John Harrington had been killed in battle, but the night before the wolf hunt a young knight, a stranger mounted on a white Arab stallion, came to Wraysholme Tower, calling himself Delisle. He was invited to stay and join the hunt.
The next day the huntsmen set out. Laybourne rode a large Flemish carthorse, of the type that could carry the heavy weight of a knight in chainmail and metal armour. The stranger, Delisle, rode his fleet-footed Arab.
They hunted the wolf from its lair through a long and tiring day, chasing it all around Cartmel Forest and even across part of Windermere, before heading it off towards Humphrey Head late in the evening. Out of all the men who set out, now only Laybourne and Delisle remained in the hunt. They chased the wolf up the limestone crag, but when they reached a gaping chasm in the rock, Laybourne’s heavy horse refused to jump across. But the knight Delisle was determined to win the hand of Adela and spurred his horse across the gap. It was too wide and the horse’s hooves couldn’t get a grip on the far side and it tumbled to its death, but Delisle managed to cling onto the ground and was unhurt.
Meanwhile, the wolf had cornered Adela who was watching from her horse nearby. It leapt at her barking and growling with bared teeth, and she was terrified, thinking that she would be torn apart by the ferocious creature. But Delisle drew his spear and flung it at the wolf, killing it. He then revealed his true identity as John Harrington – Sir Edgar’s long lost son and Adela’s true love. Sir Edgar welcomed back his son and told him that he would have Adela as his bride as he had won her so bravely.
As father and son embraced, the Prior of St Mary passed by to drink at the nearby Holy Well. The monk was asked to marry John and Adela on the spot, to which request he complied and the cave where the wedding took place was known afterwards as Sir Edgar’s Chapel.
The couple lived happily ever after, producing many healthy children, and used the image of the wolf on their crest. They are buried together in a quiet corner of Cartmel Priory, with their effigies cut in stone and a wolf carved at their feet.
In fact, John Harrington is buried in Cartmel Priory, although the name of his wife is Joan. But as a gesture towards the story, the weathervane on top of Cartmel Priory is in the shape of a wolf’s head and it is believed that Humphrey Head was the last place that a wolf was ever seen in England.
According to the astrological chart drawn up by her husband, John Dee, Jane Fromonds was born on Monday, 22nd April, 1555 at noon. She was the daughter of Bartholomew Fromonds of East Cheam and served as a lady-in-waiting to Lady Howard of Effingham, whose husband, Lord Admiral Charles Howard, later commanded the British fleet against the Spanish Armada.
She probably met John Dee at court. He was a widower who had been married twice before and was aged fifty when he married twenty-two year old Jane on 5th February 1578 at one o’clock – although he omitted to record the exact place in his diary.
Jane Dee was the mother of eight children, although not all survived to adulthood. Her first son, Arthur, was born on 13th July 1579. The same night at ten o’clock, records Dee in his diary, Jane’s father was seized with a fit and rendered speechless. He died the following day at four in the morning. It must have been a time of mixed emotions for Jane.
Most of what we know about Jane comes from the entries that John Dee made in his diaries. He recorded household affairs such as money he gave to her to pay wages to their servants, and added anecdotes about their children, such an accident to Arthur when he slipped and fell from the top of the Watergate Stairs at Mortlake and cut his forehead on the right eyebrow, and the time when Jane was so angry with their daughter, Katherine, that she boxed her ears so hard it made her nose bleed. He also recorded more intimate details about her, including her menstrual cycles, their sexual relations and his investigations into a foetus that she miscarried. It is also interesting to note that after the children were born they were sent to live with local wet nurses until they were old enough to be weaned and brought home.
John Dee often recorded that his wife was angry with him, which was perhaps not surprising when you consider that they were forced to leave their home at Mortlake and travel widely across the Continent as he sought patronage for his experimental work into alchemy and the discovery of the philosopher’s stone. Although he was well known at court and acted as an advisor to the queen, he was not a rich man and most of their marriage was beset by money worries. They also seemed to be often at odds over the role of Edward Kelley in their household and there are hints in Dee’s diary including this one from 6th May 1582 when he writes: Jane in a merveylous rage at 8 of the cloke at night, and all that night, and next morning till 8 of the cloke, melancholike and ch[?ided me] terribly for…. Exactly what she chided him for is unclear as the following part is illegible, perhaps erased, but Dee goes on to say that come to me only honest and lerned men, so it could be that she had made her opinion of Kelley well known to her husband.
Kelley remained with the Dees despite Jane’s protests and perhaps the best known incident in her life is the infamous wife-swapping pact. This was, according to Kelley, an instruction from the angels. Dee records in his diary that when he proposed this ‘cross-matching’ to his wife she wept and trembled for a full quarter of an hour before bursting into a fury of anger. He records that he pacified her as well as he could and it seems that she was eventually persuaded to obey him. “I trust,” said she, “that though I give myselfe thus to be used, that God will turn me into a stone before he would suffer me in my obedience to receive any shame or inconvenience.” She would eat neither fish nor flesh, she vowed, until this action, so contrary to the wholesome law of God, and so different from former actions, which had often comforted her; was confirmed.
The pact marked the end of the association between John Dee and Edward Kelley. The Dee’s returned to Mortlake to find that their house, which had been left in the care of Jane’s brother Nicholas, had been ransacked and much of Dee’s vast library was lost. Around nine months later, Jane gave birth to a son, Theodore, who may have been Kelley’s child.
Impoverished and in need of an income, in 1596 John Dee accepted the role of Warden at the Collegiate Church of St Mary in Manchester, now the cathedral. The family lived in what is now the Chetham’s Library. It was here that Jane died in 1605 during a plague epidemic. She was buried on March 23, but has no marked grave.
Some of the children may also have died at this time as only Arthur and Katherine survived their father who died at Mortlake in 1609.
Read Jane’s story in my novel The Merlin’s Wife
Norton Priory is the most excavated monastic site in Europe. Thanks to a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund, its brand new £4.5m museum tells its 900 year story, displaying hundreds of medieval and later period objects discovered during the extensive archaeological digs.
On Sunday, I visited the new museum at Norton Priory. The transformation from the previous museum, where I did a book signing of The de Lacy Inheritance, is delightful. Everything is now under one roof with a spacious central atrium where you can see the St Christopher statue. There are many more artefacts on display in the new galleries and it’s all updated with interactive touch screens, more information and new signage outside in the ruins to help interpret the site.
I had never heard of Norton Priory until I began my research into the de Lacy family and my original visit was to see the gravesite of Richard de Cestria (Richard FitzEustace in my novel). The Historia Lacieorum records that he was buried in the Chapter House: ‘Iste eciam Rogerus habuit quendam fratrem, Ricardum nomine, cui dedit villam de More; et hic postmodum fuit leprosus, et sepultus est in capitulo canonicorum de Northton.’
My first visit revealed a stone coffin at that site where a skeleton had been exhumed that showed signs of leprosy. It seemed that these remains were those of Richard, who was stored in a box in the archive apart from some finger bones that were on display. But history is rarely that simple, new information often comes to light and the latest work has thrown doubt on the identification. I chatted with Tom Hughes, who was taking guided tours around the site, and he told me that the finger bones that had been identified as showing signs of leprosy did not actually belong to the exhumed skeleton but were from a different female burial. He checked the archaeological records for me and it seems the Chapter House burial dates from the 14th century when the Chapter House was extended. So, probably it isn’t Richard after all. He may be there somewhere, but identification of his remains seems improbable at the moment.
Another burial at Norton that I researched was that of Alice, the first wife of John de Lacy. Again this is recorded in the Historia Lacieorum: “cui successit Johannes de Lacy (primus comes Lin. colniae) filius ejus et hacres, et duxit in uxorem Aliciam ﬁliam Gilberti de Aquila, qua defuncti et sepulta apud Norton.”
Alice’s parents were Gilbert de l’Aigle and Isobel (Warenne/de Lacy). Isobel was the second daughter of Hamelin, Earl of Warenne and sister of William Warenne. Her first marriage was to Robert de Lacy and after his death she married Gilbert. There had been connections between the Warennes and the de Lacys since the Conquest, so a marriage between John de Lacy and Alice de l’Aigle is not unexpected.
I’ve seen 1214 given as a marriage date but haven’t verified it. I’ve also seen 1216 given as a date of death for Alice, but she was certainly dead before 1221 when John de Lacy remarried (Margaret de Quincy). Given that Alice died shortly after her marriage it is possible she died in childbirth. With this in mind I was intrigued by a new facial reconstruction that is on display at Norton of a young woman who was buried there and was pregnant – the remains of the foetus being found in her grave. I asked for more information about her and the site of her grave was in a part of the church used for burials from the 14th century onwards. So it’s unlikely that this is Alice de Lacy. Death in childbirth was all too common at the time and it would not have been an isolated incident.
Another artefact that had previously interested me was an ornate coffin lid that marked the grave of another Alice. New research shows that this was a lady named Alice de Helsby.
Perhaps the most exciting discovery to come out of the new research is the identification of the remains of Geoffrey de Dutton. There has been a facial reconstruction of his skull to show what he may have looked like. It also seems that he came to an untimely end, not dying of natural causes as previously thought, but at the hands of a murdered. There’s more about it here. And there is another link with the de Lacy family. It seems probable that Geoffrey’s wife was a daughter of John de Lacy.
Norton Priory has lots more fascinating stories to tell and the research is ongoing, so new matches of remains with historical people are possible. If you’re in the area do go in and have a look and support their work. I can highly recommend it.