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.
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.
It’s ten years since Champion Lancastrians was published. One of the people I wrote about was Francis Egerton, the third Duke of Bridgewater, and his canal building exploits. I also briefly mentioned James Brindley, who was the engineer who assisted him. This year marks 300 years since the birth of James Brindley so it seems appropriate to say a little more about him.
Brindley was born in 1716 at Tunstead, near Buxton in Derbyshire. In 1733 he was apprenticed to the millwright, Abraham Bennett at Sutton, near Macclesfield, and later founded his own millwright business in Leek. In 1752 he designed and built an engine for draining coalpits at Clifton in Lancashire and in 1755 he built a machine for a silk mill at Congleton in Cheshire.
It was in 1759 that the Duke of Bridgewater commissioned him as an engineer to help build the Bridgewater Canal. Egerton’s idea was to build a canal that would transport coal from his mines at Worsley directly to his customers in Manchester. He planned a canal that would cross the River Irwell with locks on both sides of the river, but Brindley suggested carrying the canal over the river and when it opened in 1761 it included the Barton Aqueduct, the first navigable aqueduct to be built in England. This engineering success brought Brindley more clients. In 1762 Brindley began surveying for his ‘Grand Trunk’ scheme to link the four great rivers of England – the Mersey, Trent, Severn and Thames. In 1766 the Trent and Mersey Canal was authorised by an Act of Parliament and Brindley was appointed as the principal engineer for the project. The first sod was cut by Josiah Wedgwood. Work on the canal included the construction of the 2,633 metre long Harecastle Tunnel, once said to be the longest man-made tunnel on earth.
Although James Brindley was a clever engineer he lacked formal education and in a letter a relative of the Duke wrote that he could not read or write. This became accepted fact over the years. However, four of James Brindley’s notebooks, currently on display at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port, shed doubt on his illiteracy.
He tended to solve problems in his head and when he was seeking a solution would retire to his bed to think the problem through. He also, famously, took a cheese to a meeting of a parliamentary committee to explain his plans for the Barton Aqueduct. He also invented ‘puddled’ clay to provide the canals with a watertight lining.
His reputation as an engineer led to other projects. He was commissioned to build several canals around the Midlands, including the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. In 1767 Droitwich Council asked Brindley to survey a route from the town to the River Severn and the following year an Act of Parliament authorised the Droitwich Canal Navigation, with Brindley appointed as ‘Inspector of the Works’. In 1768 the Coventry Canal Company was formed and Brindley was commissioned to build the waterway. Also in 1768 an Act of Parliament authorised a canal to be built from Birmingham, through the coalfields of the Black Country, to join up with the Staffordshire and Worcestershire Canal. This was followed by the Oxford Canal and the Chesterfield Canal.
James Brindley was a ‘hands on’ engineer who went out in all weathers to survey the routes of these canals. Whilst working on a new branch of the Trent and Mersey Canal, between Froghall and Leek, he was drenched in a severe storm and contracted pneumonia. He died eleven days later at the age of 56 and is buried at the church of St James in Newchapel, Staffordshire.
He left a widow, Anne Henshall, who he had married in 1765, at the age of almost 50. They had two daughters, Anne and Susannah, and Brindley also had an illegitimate son, John Bennett.