Saturday, 26 July 2014

Blood feud in early medieval Francia

Francia was the largest and most sophisticated kingdom in early medieval Europe, lasting from the 5th to 9th centuries. At it greatest extent, Francia was twice as large as modern France, stretching from the Pyrenees to Bavaria, from Rome to Saxony. It was huge and unwieldy. Given this, how was a Frankish king supposed to maintain law and order? It seems almost an impossible task. This was a time when horse and rider was the fastest method of communication, and local lords were not always willing to tolerate royal control. As the king could not possibly micro-manage everything, Frankish law and order depended upon complicated local systems of justice which interpreted and enacted the major bodies of centrally composed law codes, with more or less success.

Blood-feud - or the threat of it - was an integral part of maintaining law and order in early medieval Francia. Frankish law presents blood feud as a legitimate way of redressing wrongs; families were allowed to violently avenge insults and injuries perpetrated on a kin member. The mentality behind this sort of retribution is very much of the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" variety. Law codes make it clear that no-one was to interfere in blood vengeance; there is a clause in Lex Salica which forbade killing any man 'whom his enemies have left mutilated [at a crossroads]', and any violation of this law incurred the not inconsiderable fine of 100 solidi. Clearly, vengeance killing was seen as a potent form of justice and a means of recovering a family's honour, but the fact that it was codified in law seems rather an attempt to regulate killing than to encourage it at all costs. It may be that the threat of 'mutually assured destruction' was designed to act as a brake upon lethal crime. J.M. Wallace-Hadrill has argued that the kings of the "Barbarian West" sanctioned blood feud in their law codes as a means of preserving peace in their realms for want of anything better.

Frankish territories from 481 to 814

However, this is not exactly what we think of as 'blood feud' today. The Oxford English Dictionary defines a feud as "a state of prolonged mutual hostility, typically between two families or communities, characterised by murderous assaults in revenge for previous injuries". Blood-feud as defined in Frankish law, however, was a specific remedy used to avenge one deed. There is no indication that, after the vengeance had been carried out, the family and friends of the victim had any right to continue committing acts of violence against the offender. The historian David Halsall has attempted to pin down the exact nature of Frankish blood feud as opposed to 'true' blood feud, by differentiating between tactical violence and strategic violence. Tactical violence, he maintains, aims directly at the resolution of a dispute, whereas the latter aims not at terminating the dispute directly, but rather at drawing attention to it. Blood vengeance as defined in Frankish law would appear to fit the former definition, whereas the latter approach (strategic violence) seems better suited to the modern understanding of 'true feud'. I'm not sure how helpful the terms 'tactical' and 'strategic' are - they are linguistically interchangeable - but Halsall's differentiation is nonetheless quite useful.

In a further departure from the classic definition of blood feud, it is clear from Frankish law codes that killing the offender was not supposed to be a measure of first resort. The Lex Salica, a major body of Frankish law, clearly stipulated that the punishment for homicide should be compensation first and foremost; only after a lengthy process of ritual and court appearances should the murderer be killed as compensation, and that only if he could not pay the fine. In 6th century Francia, vengeance could not be exacted until the local count or judge had found in favour of the wronged party. For instance, in the famous feud of Sichar and Chramnesind (585-87), Chramnesind forfeited half of the compensation otherwise due to him, for attacking Sichar's household contrary to the findings of the tribunal. In a tight-knit community it may have been more sensible to settle for compensation, since although a dead body restored honour and justice for the victim's kin, it could not buy seed and livestock like monetary compensation (weregild) could. It would, however, be misleading to suggest that all families of the victim were more eager for money than vengeance. Stephen White, who studied violence in the Touraine around 1100, found that aggrieved parties delayed or rejected compromise and compensation for quite lengthy periods. This allowed them to make the most of their opponent's contrition, and capitalise upon the community's awareness that they had suffered a wrong and had the right to avenge it.

King Clovis dictates Salic Law (Lex Salica). 14th century depiction

The blood vengeance in early medieval Francia which most closely paralleled the modern definition of blood feud was waged by the Merovingian royal family. Since the king was above the law, and given that the Merovingians often feuded with dynasties in other countries where the same law codes did not apply, one cannot say that Merovingian vengeance attacks were part of a progression of penalties as outlined in the Frankish law codes. Rather, they fit the pattern of classic blood feud in that they often involved a lasting state of hostility between families or family members. Halsall's argument seems apt here: he observes that a 'true feud' is very difficult to terminate, and almost never ended through violence, because the feuding groups are perpetually in a state of  debtor and creditor; every time the debt of blood is paid off on one side, the roles and relationships are reversed, and it keeps on going.

The Merovingians were very into blood feud even by the standards of medieval royal dynasties. They tended to attack opponents in order to avenge insults to their kin. Such feuds could stretch out over generations. Gregory of Tours records Queen Chrotechildis, a Burgundian by birth, urging her sons to avenge the deaths of her parents on the murderer's sons (her nephews Sigismund and Godomar). It seems that in royal circles, not engaging in blood feud to avenge a kinsman's death was seen as positively shameful. The mid-9th century Gesta Dagoberti recounts how, supposedly, the sons of Sadregisil did not manage to obtain their heritage because they had not avenged their father's murder.

Sometimes avenging an injured family member was linked with ideological considerations. For instance, King Childebert invaded Spain in 531 after hearing from his sister Chrotilda that her husband, Amalric of the Visigoths, was grossly mistreating her due to her Catholic faith (Amalaric was an Arian). Childebert defeated the Visigoth army and Amalaric was assassinated after fleeing to Barcelona. Unfortunately, Chrotilda herself never made it back to Paris, dying of an unknown cause en route, but the victory presumably enhanced Childebert's reputation. Ideological concerns aside, the Merovingians also used blood feud for less exalted ends. One such case developed in the aftermath of a lurid royal scandal involving King Chilperic I (c.539-584). Chilperic murdered his wife, Galswintha, on the instigation of his mistress Fredegund, apparently strangling her in bed. Chilperic's brothers saw their chance and decided to 'avenge' Galswintha by killing Chilperic. This, of course, left the throne open to them, and had the added bonus of being able to steal Galswintha's dowry  in the process.

Chilperic strangles his wife, Galswintha.
14th century
A second depiction of the strangling of Galswintha

We start to see an end to vengeance killing as an official form of justice under Charlemagne, who was crowned the first Holy Roman Emperor in 800. He opposed blood feud as part of his campaign against any violence not committed by royal consent. His Capitulare Missorum Generale attempted to ban all blood vengeance. Any attempt to settle a dispute had to be conducted through the medium of Charlemagne's own officers. A murderer had to agree to pay compensation and the victim's relatives had to accept it, once paid. Anyone taking vengeance of their own would be punished. It's impossible to know how strictly these laws were followed; Francia was a huge realm and royal powers to enforce such regulations were limited. At any rate, perhaps it is not too much to see Charlemagne's laws against blood feud as the beginning of the medieval expansion of more centralised royal justice. It was, however, not until the Holy Roman Empire's Reichstag in 1495 that the right of waging feuds was totally abolished, with the Imperial Reform proclaiming an "eternal public peace".

  • Fischer Drew, Katherine (ed.). Lex Salica, 1991, University of Pennsylvania Press
  • Halsall, Guy. 'Reflections of Early Medieval Violence: The Example of the "Blood-Feud" Memoria y Civilización 2 (1999), pp. 7-29

~ By Caecilia Dance

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Gals and bone-grubbers: more Victorian street traders

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London's working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations from the people themselves, describing their lives. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London's forgotten underclass. Here are some excerpts from Mayhew's interviews with street traders (more here). The illustrations are all drawn from actual daguerreotypes.

               The bone-grubber
The bone-grubber

"I don't go out before daylight to gather anything, because the police take my bag and throws all I've gathered about the street to see if I have anything stolen in it. I never stole anything in all my life, indeed I'd do anything before I'd steal. Many a night I've slept under an arch of the railway when I hadn't a penny to pay for my bed; but whenever the police find me that way, they make me and the rest get up, and drives us on. The Jews around here give a great deal of victuals away on Saturday. They sometimes calls one of us in to light a fire for them, or take off the kettle, as they must not do anything themselves on the Sabbath.  There's a great deal more than 100 bone-pickers about here, men, women, and children.The winter is the best time for us, for there is more meat used, and then there are more bones. I've lost my health since I took to bone-picking, through the wet and cold in the winter, for I've scarcely any clothes, and the wet gets to my feet through the old shoes; this caused me last winter to be nine weeks in the hospital of the Whitechapel workhouse.

                                                                      The groundsel man

The groundsel man
"I sell chickweed and grunsell, and turfs for larks. That's all I sell, unless it's a few nettles that's ordered. I believe they're for tea, sir. I gets the chickweed at Chalk Farm. I pay nothing for it. I gets it out of the public fields. Every morning about seven I goes for it. I've been at business for about eighteen years. I'm out till about five in the evening. I never stop to eat. I am walking ten hours every day - wet and dry. My leg and foot and all is quite dead. I goes with a stick".

                                                                         The blind boot-lace seller

The blind boot-lace seller
"At five years old, while my mother was still alive, I caught the small pox. I only wish vaccination had been in vogue then as it is now or I shouldn't have lost my eyes. I didn't lose both my eyeballs until about twenty years after that, though my sight was gone for all but the shadow of daylights and bright colours. I could never see a star. I got to think that a roving life was a fine pleasant one. I didn't think the country was half so big and you couldn't credit the pleasure I got in going about it. I grew pleaseder and pleaseder with life. You see, I never had no pleasure, and it seemed to me like a whole new world, to be able to get victuals without doing anything. On my way to Romford, I met a blind man who took me into partnership with him, and larnt me my business complete - and that's just about two or three and twenty year ago".

                            The London coffee stall

The London coffee stall

"I was a mason's labourer, a smith's labourer, a plasterer's labourer, or a bricklayer's labourer. I was for six months without any employment. I did not know which way to keep my wife and child. Many said they wouldn't do such a thing as keep a coffee stall, but I said I'd do anything to get a bit of bread honestly. I went to the tinman and paid him ten shillings and sixpence (the last of my savings, after I'd been four or five months out of work) for a can. I heard that an old man, who had been in the habit of standing at the entrance of one of the markets, had fell ill. So, what do I do, I goes and pops onto his pitch, and there I've done better than ever did I before".

            The coster-girl

The coster-girl
"My mother has been in the streets selling all her lifetime. Her uncle learnt her the markets and she learnt me. I suppose by sitting at the stall from nine in the morning till the shops shuts up at ten o'clock at night, I can earn about 1s. 6d. a day. If I'm unlucky, mother will say, "Well, I'll go out tomorrow and see what can do"; and if I've done well, she'll say "You're a good hand at it: you've done famous". Yes, mother's very fair that way. Ah! there's many a gal I knows whose back has to suffer if she don't sell enough.

"I dare say there ain't ten out of a hundred gals what's living with men, what's been married Church of England fashion. But it seems to me that the gals is fools to be 'ticed away. The lads is very insinuating, and will make a gal half tipsy, and then they makes their arrangements. Then perhaps a man will have a few words with his gal, and he'll say, "Oh! I ain't obliged to keep her!" and he'll turn her out: and then where's that poor gal to go?

"My parents often talks about religion. I've heerd Father talk about the first man and woman as was made and lived - it must be more than a hundred years ago. Father told us how our Saviour gave a great many poor people a penny loaf and a bit of fish each, which proves him to have been a very kind gentleman. We poor gals aren't very religious, but we are better than the men. We all of us thanks God for everything - even for a fine day; as for sprats, we always say they're God's blessing for the poor, and thinks it hard of the Lord Mayor not to let 'em come in afore the ninth of November, just because he wants to dine off them - which he always do. I know where heaven is; it's above the clouds, and it's placed there to prevent us seeing into it. That's where all the good people go, but I'm afeered there's very few costers among the angels - 'specially those as deceives poor gals."

~ By Caecilia Dance

Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Cripples and baked potatoes: Victorian street traders

In 1851, the journalist Henry Mayhew published  London Labour and the London Poor, a groundbreaking and influential survey of London's working classes and criminal underbelly. What is particularly striking about the work are the lengthy quotations from the people themselves, describing their lives. The result is a poignant and sometimes humorous portrait of Victorian London's forgotten underclass. Here are some excerpts from Mayhew's interviews with street traders. The illustrations are all drawn from actual daguerreotypes.

                           The baked- potato man

The baked-potato man
"Such a day as this, sir, when the fog's like a cloud come down, people looks very shy at my taties. They've been more suspicious since the taty rot. I sell mostly to mechanics, I was a grocer's porter myself before I was a baked taty. Gentlemen does grumble though, and they've said, "Is that all for tuppence?" Some customers is very pleasant with me, and says I'm a blessing. They're women that's not reckoned the best in the world, but they pays me. I've trusted them sometimes, and I am paid mostly. Money goes one can't tell how, and 'specially if you drinks a drop as I do sometimes. Foggy weather drives me to it, I'm so worritted - that is, now and then, you'll mind, sir".

                                        The crippled street bird-seller

The crippled street bird-seller
"I couldn't walk at all until I was six years old, and I was between nine and ten before I could get up and down stairs by myself. When I could get about and went among other boys, I was in great distress, I was teased so. Life was a burthen to me, as I've read something about. I learned to read at a Sunday school, where I went a long time. I like reading. I read the Bible and tracts, nothing else; never a newspaper. It don't come in my way, and if it did I shouldn't look at it, for I can't read over well and it's nothing to me who's king or who's queen. It can never have anything to do with me. There'll be no change for me in this world. I've been bird-selling in the streets for six-and-twenty years and more. I liked the birds and still do. I used to think at first that they was like me; they was prisoners, and I was a cripple. And I think of the next world sometimes, and feel quite sure, quite, that I shan't be a cripple there. Yes, that's a comfort".

                                               The street rhubarb and spice seller

The street rhubarb and spice seller
"I am one native of Mogadore in Morocco. I am an Arab. I left my countree when I was sixteen or eighteen years of age, I forget, sir. Dere everything sheap, not what dey are here in England. Like good many, I was young and foolish - like all dee rest of young people, I like to see foreign countries. The people were Mahomedans in Mogadore, but we were Jews, just like here, you see. In my countree the governemen treat de Jews very badly, take all deir money. I get heer, I tink, in 1811 when de tree shilling pieces first come out. I go to de play house, I never see such tings as I see here before I come. When I was a little shild, I hear talk in Mogadore of de people of my country sell de rhubarb in de streets of London, and make plenty money by it. All de rhubarb sellers was Jews. Now dey all gone dead, and dere only four of us now in England.

                      The street comb seller

The street comb seller
"I used to mind my mother's stall. She sold sweet snuff. I never had a father. Mother's been dead these - well, I don't know how long but it's a long time. I've lived by myself ever since and kept myself and I have half a room with another young woman who lives by making little boxes. She's no better off nor me. I has very few amusements. I goes once or twice a month, or so, to the gallery at the Victoria Theatre, for I live near. It's beautiful there, O, it's really grand. I don't know what they call what's played because I can't read the bills. I'm a going to leave the streets. I have an aunt, a laundress, she taught me laundressing and I'm a good ironer. I'm not likely to get married and I don't want to".

                   The rubbish-carter

The rubbish-carter
"I was brought up on the land, sir, in the county Wexford. I lived with my mother and father, and shure we were badly off. Father and mother - the Heavens be their bed - died one soon after another, and some friends raised me the manes to come to this country. Two Londoners came to find men as they wanted for rubbish-carters One of 'em said, I was a b----- Irish fool, and words came on, and thin there was a fight, and the pelleece came. I was taken to the station, and had a month. I had two black eyes next morning, but was willin' to forget and forgive. No, I'm not fond of fighting. I'm a peaceable man, glory be to God. I sarved my month, and it ain't a bad place at all, the prison. I tould the gintleman that had charge of us that I was a Roman Catholic, God be praised, and couldn't go to his prayers. "O very well, Pat", says he. And next day the praste came, and very angry he was, and said our conduc' was a disgrace to religion, and to our counthry, and to him. Do I think he was right, sir? God knows he was, or he wouldn't have said so".

                                               The street seller of nutmeg-graters

The street seller of nutmeg-graters
"Persons looks at me a good bit when I go into a strange place. I do feel it very much, that I haven't the power to get my living or to do a thing for myself, but I never begged for nothing. I never though those whom God had given the power to help themselves ought to help me. My trade is to sell brooms and brushes, and all kinds of cutlery and tinware. I learnt it myself. I was never brought up to nothing, because I couldn't use my hands. Mother was a cook in a nobleman's family when I was born. They say I was a love child. My mother used to allow so much a year for my schooling, and I can read and write pretty well. With a couple of pounds, I'd get a stock, and go into the country with a barrow, and buy old metal, and exchange tinware for old clothes, and with that, I'm almost sure I could make a decent living".

~ By Caecilia Dance

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The Mitford sisters: the duchess, the novelist and the communist

This is one of two posts on the notorious Mitford sisters. I have written about the two fascists, Unity and Diana (Lady Mosley) here, and this post is about Jessica the communist, Nancy the novelist and Deborah the duchess.

Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah and their brother Tom were born between 1904 and 1920 to the politician David Freeman-Mitford, the future Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles. The children grew up in a cold and reserved family atmosphere. Nancy would later describe her mother as "abnormally detached", and their father was a formidable man prone to raging at everyone. He once remarked that each child was sillier than the last, and one of his favourite pastimes was chasing his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds. Lord Redesdale was rude to all of Nancy's friends who came to stay, and would shout "don't these people have homes to go to?" at the dinner table.  According to Jessica, their father wouldn't receive any "outsiders" as guests; that meant that "Huns", "Frogs", Americans and Asians were definitely out. Another point of contention was that whilst he sent their brother Tom to Eton and Oxford, he refused to let the girls attend school, maintaining that they would develop thick calves from playing hockey. There was also strife between the siblings. Nancy would torment Deborah; the latter mused in a recent interview, "I should think the social services would be called in now".

The Mitford family in 1921

In the politically charged inter-war years, it was political beliefs as well as scandalous affairs and elopements (see Diana Mosley) which would tear the Mitford family apart. Jessica, or Decca, was the red sheep of the family. Eschewing the fascist sympathies of most of her family, Decca was an ardent Communist even as an adolescent. When forced to share a room with Unity, Decca plastered her side of the room with pictures of Lenin and the hammer and sickle, whereas Unity proudly displayed swastikas and photographs of Hitler. Decca despised the notion of entering the marriage market as a debutante, felt alienated from her family's upper class milieu and resented her mother for forbidding her to attend school and university.

It was in this state of mind that she met Esmond Romilly at a weekend house party when she was 19 years old. Esmond was Winston Churchill's nephew by marriage, and despite his young age had already published several books and been to Spain where he had fought with the International Brigade against Franco. He and Decca fell in love and eloped, hoping to go to Spain to continue work against Franco's fascist regime. Their families were deeply disapproving and begged the two to come back to England. However, Decca became pregnant, and their families were forced to allow the couple to marry in order to avoid an even greater scandal.

Decca and Esmond Romilly in 1939

Decca and Romilly moved back to England and lived for a while in the East End, but in 1939 they both moved to America where they travelled around working odd jobs, even running a bar in Florida at one point. Romilly, who had joined the Royal Canadian Air Force at the outset of World War II, went missing in action over the Atlantic on his way home from a bombing raid over Germany. Decca threw herself into war work and married Robert Treuhaft, a civil rights lawyer, in 1943. Both became active members of the Communist party and in 1953, at the height of McCarthyism and the 'Red Scare', they were hauled up in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where they refused to testify about their participation in radical groups.

Decca spent the rest of her life working as an investigative journalist supporting the Civil Rights movement. She ended up quarrelling with most of her family on grounds of her elopement and opposing political views. Her father refused to see her ever again, even on his deathbed in 1958; he never got over the fact that her second husband was not only a Communist, but a Jew as well.

Several of the Mitford sisters were gifted with literary ability and were friends with authors such as Evelyn Waugh,  but it was Nancy who turned her talent for fiction into a career. The novels Love in a Cold Climate and The Pursuit of Love, based on her own upbringing, established her literary reputation in the late 1940s. Although Nancy enjoyed professional success, she was persistently unlucky in love. She had a long on/off engagement with the Scottish aristocrat Hamish St Clair-Erskine, a homosexual Oxford undergraduate four years her junior, which ended in 1933 when he announced his intention to marry the daughter of a London banker. Nancy was distraught, and wrote to him saying, "I thought in your soul you loved me & that in the end we should have children & look back on life together when we are old".

Nancy in the inter-war years

Yet just a month after her final split with Erskine, Nancy went on to make a very respectable match with the Hon. Peter Rodd, the son of a diplomat. Nancy's friend Harold Acton described Rodd as "a young man of boundless promise", but the cracks in their marriage started to show within a short time. Biographers have since blamed the couple's unhappiness on money worries, along with Rodd's infidelity and fecklessness. They both joined a French relief organisation in 1939 which assisted Spanish refugees from Franco's regime in the last years of the civil war. The experience hardened Nancy against fascism to such an extent that she wrote, "I would join hands with the Devil himself to stop any further extension of the disease". Nancy herself adhered to a moderate socialism, but was not so dedicated that she could not laugh at herself; she observed that "left-wing people are always sad because they mind dreadfully about their causes, and the causes are always going so badly".

Rodd joined the Welsh Guards in 1940 and departed to fight for king and country. Nancy also contributed to the war effort by helping Jewish families in the East End during the Blitz. In 1942, Nancy met Colonel Gaston Palewski, Charles de Gaulle's Chief of Staff, and had a brief but passionate affair with him. In 1946 she moved to Paris in order to be near Palewski, and plunged into a hectic social life with other British expatriates. She told her mother how much she loved France: "I am so completely happy here...I feel a totally different person as if I had come out of a coal mine into daylight...oh my passion for the French!"

Nancy managed to get a divorce from Rodd in 1958, but never married Palewski. Although he was the love of her life, the affair was somewhat one-sided; he did not return her intense passion, and in an unfortunate repeat of the Hamish Erskine affair, left her in order to marry a wealthy divorcee. Nancy lived in Paris for the rest of her days, writing fiction and historical biographies. In 1972 the French government made her a Chevalier of the Légion d'Honneur, and later that year she was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire. At the time she was suffering greatly from Hodgkin's lymphoma, though she tried to keep her spirits up, writing "it's very curious, dying, and would have many a drôle amusing & charming side were it not for the pain". She died in 1973.

Nancy Mitford in 1956

It certainly says something about this family that the second least famous daughter became the Duchess of Devonshire upon her marriage, an illustrious title dating back to the 17th century which had been held by Georgiana Cavendish, one of the celebrated personalities of the 18th century. Deborah, or 'Debo', ran Chatsworth House for decades, masterminding extensive restorations and developing various social and business activities based around the estate, such as the Chatsworth Farm Shop. She led an impeccably well-behaved aristocratic life and kept out of the fascist activities which made Diana and Unity so notorious. She did have tea with Hitler when visiting Munich with her mother and Unity in 1937; in an interview in 2007 she was asked who she would now like to have tea with, Elvis Presley or Hitler. Looking at the interviewer with astonishment, she answered, "Well, Elvis of course! What an extraordinary question". Debo is the last surviving Mitford sister; aged 94, she spends her time involved in charitable endeavours and writing books on topics ranging from chickens to Chatsworth, including The Duchess of Devonshire's Chatsworth Cookery Book which is the ultimate guide to aristocratic country house fare.

A young Debo in hunting gear

The Duchess of Devonshire in front of Chatsworth House

~ By Caecilia Dance

The Mitford sisters: the fascist and the Hitler-lover

This is the one of two posts on the notorious Mitford sisters. I have written about Jessica, Deborah and Nancy here, and this post is about Unity and Diana (Lady Mosley), the two dedicated fascists of the family.

Nancy, Pamela, Diana, Unity, Jessica, Deborah and their brother Tom were born between 1904 and 1920 to the politician David Freeman-Mitford, the future Lord Redesdale, and his wife Sydney Bowles. The children grew up in a cold and reserved family atmosphere. Nancy would later describe her mother as "abnormally detached" and their father was a formidable man prone to raging at everyone. He once remarked that each child was sillier than the last, and one of his favourite pastimes was chasing his two youngest daughters with bloodhounds. Lord Redesdale was rude to all of Nancy's friends who came to stay and would shout "don't these people have homes to go to?" at the dinner table.  According to Jessica, their father wouldn't receive any "outsiders" as guests; that meant that "Huns", "Frogs", Americans and Asians were definitely out. Another point of contention was that whilst he sent their brother Tom to Eton and Oxford, he refused to let the girls attend school, maintaining that they would develop thick calves from playing hockey. There was also strife between the siblings. Nancy would torment Deborah; the latter mused in a recent interview, "I should think the social services would be called in now".

The Mitford family in 1921

Diana was considered by many contemporaries to be the most beautiful of the Mitford sisters; Evelyn Waugh wrote gushingly that her beauty "ran through the room like a peal of bells". No-one could foresee the scandal which would go on to envelop her. She married Bryan Guinness, the heir to the huge brewing fortune, and seemed destined for a life of ease and society gatherings. This all changed when she met Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Union of Fascists, in 1932. Something about this man, 14 years her senior with a Hitler-inspired moustache, fascinated her. So much, in fact, that she ran away from her husband at the age of 22. At the time, Mosley was married with children and he made it clear to Diana that he had no plans to leave his long-suffering family. Diana did not let this deter her, however, and installed herself in a flat where Mosley might visit her whenever he could spare time from his work and family duties. Conveniently for Diana, Mosley's wife died in 1933. Bryan Guinness divorced Diana and three years later, she married Mosley in a civil ceremony attended by Hitler, held in - of all places - Joseph Goebbel's drawing room in Berlin. Of course, her misconduct didn't endear Diana to her strict parents. After she ran away from her husband, she was utterly disgraced and Unity was forbidden from visiting her.

Diana Mitford, later Lady Diana Mosley
Sir Oswald Mosley

Since Mosley's position necessitated links to Nazi Germany, Diana soon met Hitler and they became friends. She attended the 1937 Nuremberg Rally with Unity and their brother Tom. This friendship, and her fascist principles, led to her and Mosley being interned in Holloway prison for three years during the war. MI5 wrote of Diana, "[she] is said to be far cleverer and more dangerous than her husband and will stick at nothing to achieve her ambitions". Nancy, motivated by her strong anti-fascist sentiments, actually managed to lengthen Diana's internment by testifying that she was a "ruthless and shrewd egotist, a devoted fascist and admirer of Hitler and sincerely desires the downfall of England and democracy in general".

After the war, Mosley was arguably one of the most hated men in Britain. His attempts to revive his political career failed miserably, and the couple moved to Paris. Diana spent her time writing reviews for various newspapers and published an acclaimed biography of her close friend, the Duchess of Windsor. She tried to hide her antisemitism, which the downfall of the Third Reich had not weakened, but she could not help exposing it on occasion. When a a journalist interviewing Oswald let slip that he was Jewish, Diana reportedly "went ashen, snapped a crimson nail, and left the room". Afterwards she wrote to a friend, saying, "a nice, polite reporter came to interview Tom [as Oswald was known] but he turned out to be Jewish and was sitting there at our table. They are a very clever race and come in all shapes and sizes".

Diana with her brother Tom at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally

Yet if Diana was a devoted fascist, her sister Unity took it one step further and became truly infatuated with Hitler, spending years at his side. Unity was a wilful and moody teenager and, disappointingly, ended her first season without a husband. When she expressed a wish to learn German, her parents agreed to let her move to Munich at the tender age of 19, perhaps glad that she was showing any sign of purposefulness. The truth was that she was intent upon meeting Hitler after having seen him from afar at the 1933 Nuremberg Rally.

Once in Munich, she set about trying to encounter her idol. She spent her days stalking him, which was made rather easy by the fact that he tended to frequent certain cafes and restaurants at specific times. She started sitting nonchalantly at tables wherever he happened to be, and after around ten months, her strategies paid off. Perhaps intrigued by her Aryan good looks, Hitler invited Unity to his table where they spent half an hour talking. Unity wrote to her father describing the incident, saying "it was the most wonderful and beautiful [day] of my life. I am so happy that I wouldn't mind a bit, dying. I'd suppose I am the luckiest girl in the world. For he is the greatest man of all time".

Hitler and Unity in a casual setting

She gradually became part of Hitler's inner circle. Biographers have suggested that Hitler was attracted to Unity because it amused him to see this member of the British aristocracy worshipping at his feet. He praised her as "a perfect specimen of Aryan womanhood", and seemed to see strange coincidences which bound them together. He was struck by Unity's connections to Germanic culture; her middle name was Valkyrie and her grandfather, Algernon Freeman-Mitford, had been a friend of Richard Wagner and translated the works of Houston Stewart Chamberlain; both men were Hitler's idols.

Unity used to stride around Munich and Berlin in a black uniform, pictured with Hitler in both formal and casual settings. Rumours flew thick and fast about what Unity got up to with Hitler. Was she his lover? Various biographers have argued that she actually bore his child. David Litchfield claims that she participated in sadomasochistic orgies with SS officers, which she would recount in detail to Hitler. However, there is no good evidence to support any of this. Her family also denied such rumours. We do know that the two certainly enjoyed a close relationship. Unity's diary shows that they met at least 140 times between 1935 and September 1939, which is approximately once a fortnight. They were also intimate enough to make Eva Braun jealous, who wrote in her diary, of Unity, "She is known as the Valkyrie and looks the part, including her legs. I, the mistress of the greatest man in Germany and the whole world, I sit here waiting while the sun mocks me through the window panes". Eva only managed to regain Hitler's attention after a suicide attempt.

Unity and Diana performing a Hitler salute
Diana and Unity surrounded by SS officers
at the 1937 Nuremberg Rally

Unity entered fully into Nazi sentiments (a British government report from 1936 described her as "more Nazi than the Nazis") and was not shy about expressing her antisemitism. In a letter to a German newspaper, she wrote: "The English have no notion of the Jewish danger. Our worst Jews work only behind the scenes. We think with joy of the day when we will be able to say England for the English! Out with the Jews! Heil Hitler! P.S. please publish my name in full, I want everyone to know I am a Jew hater". The letter sparked outrage in Britain, but Hitler rewarded Unity with an engraved golden swastika badge, a private box at the 1936 Berlin Olympics and a ride in a party Mercedes to the Bayreuth Festival. Hitler bestowed other gifts on her. In 1938 he offered her an apartment in Munich which belonged to a Jewish couple. She is reported to have visited the apartment to discuss her decoration and design plans, while the soon-to-be-evicted couple sat crying in the kitchen.

Unity was devastated when war was declared in 1938. Despite her closeness to Hitler and love for Germany, she always maintained that she was loyal to Britain, notwithstanding the assertions of MI5 chief Guy Liddell that her actions had come "perilously close to high treason". She had always hoped for a peace between the two countries, but torn between loyalties to England and Germany, she attempted suicide by shooting herself in the head. The attempt failed and left her brain-damaged. Unity was taken to hospital at Hitler's expense, and collected from Berne by Sydney and Debo at Christmas 1939. She was permanently changed and died in 1948 after an infection in the head turned into meningitis.

Unity Mitford in Nazi uniform

~ By Caecilia Dance