“They don’t like it up ’em…” Revisiting the sordid deaths of Edmund Ironside, Edward II, Kenneth II and James I of Scotland

Edward II – still the only English monarch to be subject of his own ‘anal rape narrative’

To be a king and to be murdered – one might say – is no more than a hazard of the job. To be a king and to be murdered in one’s privy, however, is to suffer a considerable indignity. Yet precisely this fate was visited on at least two British royals, if certain sources are believed – and to that number we might add the awful fate of a third king, Edward II, popularly thought to have been done in by means of a red-hot poker forced into his rectum, not to mention the fortunate if malodorous escape of a royal consort, Gerald of Windsor, whose ravishing Welsh wife, Princess Nest, lived an adventurous life early in the twelfth century. More

Erotic secrets of Lord Byron’s tomb

Byron in death, Greece, spring 1824.

It was hot and dusty in the crypt, and it had been hard work breaking into it. Now the vicar had gone, along with his invited guests, to take his supper. The churchwarden and two workmen armed with spades were left to wait for their return, loitering by the grave they had come to examine – the tomb of Lord Byron the poet.

We didn’t take too kindly to that,” said Arnold Houldsworth. “I mean, we’d done the work. And Jim Bettridge suddenly says, ‘Let’s have a look on him.’ ‘You can’t do that,’ I says. ‘Just you watch me,’ says Jim. He put his spade in, there was a layer of wood, then one of lead, and I think another one of wood. And there he was, old Byron.”

“Good God, what did he look like?” I said.

“Just like in the portraits. He was bone from the elbows to his hands and from the knees down, but the rest was perfect. Good-looking man putting on a bit of weight, he’d gone bald. He was quite naked, you know,” and then he stopped, listening for something that must have been a clatter of china in the kitchen, where his wife was making tea for us, for he went on very quickly,  “Look, I’ve been in the Army, I’ve been in bathhouses, I’ve seen men. But I never saw nothing like him.” He stopped again, and nodding his head, meaningfully, as novelists say, began to tap a spot just above his knee. “He was built like a pony.”

“How many of you take sugar?” said Mrs Houldsworth, coming with the tea. More

The chupatty movement

Why were thousands of chapatis – an Indian unleavened bread – carried by night across the interior of India in the months before the outbreak of the great Sepoy Rebellion? And why did not even the people who bore them know what they were for?

Thousands of chapatis – an Indian unleavened bread – carried by night across the interior of India in the months before the outbreak of the great Sepoy Rebellion. But why did not even the people who bore them know what they were for?

“There is a most mysterious affair going on throughout the whole of India at present,” wrote Dr Gilbert Hadow in a letter to his sister at home in Britain dated March 1857. “No one seems to know the meaning of it… It is not known where it originated, by whom or for what purpose, whether it is supposed to be connected to any religious ceremony or whether it has to do with some secret society. The Indian papers are full of surmises as to what it means. It is called ‘the chupatty movement.’” [Hibbert p.59]

The “movement” that Dr Hadow was describing was a remarkable example of rumour gone wild. It consisted of the distribution of many thousands of chapatis – unleavened Indian breads – which were passed from hand to hand and from village to village throughout the mofussil (interior) of the Subcontinent. That these chapatis really existed is beyond doubt; what made their distribution truly bizarre and inexplicable was that nobody knew for sure what they were for. More

The Monster of Glamis: a first draft

Glamis[For a completely revised and more detailed account of the same mystery, featuring the fruits of much new research, see here.]

Glamis Castle, in Scotland, is a famous place: a picture-postcard tourist destination, childhood home of the late-lamented Queen Mother Gawd Bless ‘Er™, and – not incidentally for the purposes of this blog – notoriously the most haunted ‘house’ in Britain. Any number of spook stories are associated with the castle, from tales of ghosts materializing in visitors’ bedrooms to the legend of the infamous Earl Beardie, the so-called “Tiger Earl” – a fifteenth century Earl of Crawford whose soul is said to have been claimed by the devil while he unrepentantly played cards at Glamis upon the Sabbath day.

Best known by far, however, is the strange story of the Monster of Glamis, which (thanks in large part to its vague royal associations) has some claim to be ranked among the more pervasive legends of the twentieth century. In its evolved form (and it took some time to evolve, as we will see), this legend relates how, in the early nineteenth century, the wife of the then heir to the Earl of Strathmore gave birth in the castle to an boy who was so hideously deformed that the family took the decision to lock the child away in a secret room, denying him the chance to succeed to the earldom. More

Ghosts, witches, vampires, fairies and the law of murder

Francis Smith meets the Hammersmith Ghost

Thomas Millwood meets his end. From a contemporary book illustration.

Late on the evening of 3 January 1804, a bricklayer by the name of Thomas Millwood left his home in Hammersmith, to the west of London. He was smartly dressed in the sort of clothes favoured by men of his trade: “linen trowsers entirely white, washed very clean, a waistcoat of flannel, apparently new, very white, and an apron, which he wore round him.” Unfortunately for Millwood, though, those clothes proved to be the death of him. At 10.30pm, while he was walking alone down Black-lion-lane, he was confronted and shot dead by a customs officer called Francis Smith – thus setting in motion one of the strangest, best-remembered and most influential cases in British legal history.

The Millwood murder is of interest to us because Smith’s motive for killing him was decidedly peculiar. Hammersmith, then a village on the outskirts of London, had been terrorised for more than a month by reports that some sort of malignant ghost or spirit was haunting the graveyard of St Paul’s chapel-of-ease. Today this cemetery stands in the shadow of the A4 flyover and right next to the busy four-lane Hammersmith roundabout, but 200 years ago it was considerably more isolated. St Paul’s was then still surrounded by fields, and the paths that ran past the graveyard were unpaved and unlit. It’s not difficult to see how, in the depths of winter (the Hammersmith ghost scare ran from December 1803 to January 1804), frightening stories could readily circulate, nor why several local men took it upon themselves to patrol the darkened streets in the hope of encountering and ‘laying’ the ghost. Milwood, in his all-white clothes, had been mistaken for the apparition twice earlier that same day. It was his bad luck that the third time the same mistake was made, the man facing him was not just nervous but armed with a shotgun.

Smith, when he realised his mistake, was horrified. He gave himself up immediately and was swiftly charged with murder and tried at the Old Bailey less than a week later. More