Endings and beginnings

Regular readers may have noticed that my posts have been thin on the ground during the past academic year. This is because I was preparing for my Finals exams at Oxford and had lamentably little time for extra-curricular history, as it were. I finished Finals in June, but the intervening time has been a whirlwind of travelling and waiting for my results.

I will soon take up a job abroad, teaching history, and hope to devote more time to Dance’s Historical Miscellany. I am keen to write more frequently and on a wide range of subjects.

In this, I remain inspired by the pleasure I derive in writing for this blog, and by the encouragement I receive from my wonderful readership, whom I thank wholeheartedly.

Me, just after my last exam. (I am wearing a gown over sub fusc, the traditional garb for Oxford exams)
Me, just after my last exam. (I am wearing a gown over subfusc, the traditional garb for Oxford exams)

“Dance’s Historical Miscellany” is one year old today!

751px-Hipp_hipp_hurra!_Konstnärsfest_på_Skagen_-_Peder_Severin_Krøyer 1888

Exactly one year ago, on 25th May 2013,  I posted my first article, writing about my inspiration and aspirations for this blog. 18,888 page views later, “Dance’s Historical Miscellany” has been more successful than I could have ever hoped. When I started, I imagined that it would remain very small scale, perhaps read mainly by friends and family. Yet since then, my blog has attracted readers from all over the world, and I have been thrilled by all the positive feedback I have received through social media and word of mouth.

To celebrate this anniversary, I have created two new sections, to be found at the top of the page: “Archive” and “Resources”. In the “Archive” page I have gathered all my posts under specific themes, which I hope will be easier to navigate than the traditional chronologically ordered archive. The “Resources” page is an extensive list of useful online historical resources, featuring links and short descriptions. It will be updated and expanded periodically and will, I hope, be helpful to anyone with an interest in history who wants to learn more and gain access to quality primary sources.

Over the last 12 months, my blog has undergone considerable changes in design and layout. However, my aim has remained the same: to share my enthusiasm for history with a wider public, by writing about interesting stories, people and things from all eras of history. I have gained enormous enjoyment from writing this blog and hope that you too have enjoyed reading it. Many thanks to all my readers – keep coming back for more articles on a diverse range of historical topics!

Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, Vol. V

Here is Vol. IV Part II of William Thackeray’s Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, a satirical series published in Punch magazine in 1842. Here, the fictional amateur historian Miss Tickletoby gives a unique, unintentionally hilarious and staunchly monarchist take on the years following the Norman Conquest of 1066, starring “Prince Shortlegs”…
Harold being dead, His Majesty King William – of whom, as he now became our legitimate sovereign, it behoves every loyal heart to speak with respect – took possession of England, and, as is natural, gave all the good places at his disposal to his party. He turned out all the English noblemen from their castles, and put his Norman soldiers and knights into them. He and his people had it all their own way; and though the English frequently rebelled, yet the King managed to quell as such disturbances, and reigned over us for one-and-twenty years. He was a gallant soldier, truly – stern, wise, and prudent, as far as his own interests were concerned, and looked up to by all other Majesties as an illustrious monarch.
But great as he was in public, he was rather uncomfortable in his family, on account of a set of unruly sons whom he had – for their Royal Highnesses were always quarrelling together. It is related that one day, being at tea with her Majesty the Queen and the young Princes, at one of his castles in Normandy (for he used this country to rob it chiefly, and not to live in it), a quarrel ensued, which was certainly very disgraceful. Fancy, my darlings, three young Princes sitting at tea with their papa and mamma, and being so rude as to begin throwing water at one another! The two younger, H.R.H. Prince William and H.R.H. Prince Henry, actually flung the slop-basin, or some such thing, into the face of H.R.H. Prince Robert, the King’s eldest son.
His Royal Highness was in a furious rage, although his brothers declared that they were only in play; but he swore that they had insulted him, and that his papa and mamma favoured them and not him, and drawing his sword, vowed that he would have their lives. His Majesty with some difficulty got the young Princes out of the way; but nothing would appease Robert, who left the castle vowing vengeance.This passionate and self-willed young man was calling Courthose, which means in French short inexpressibles, and he was said to have worn shorts because his limbs were of that kind. Prince Shorts fled to a castle belonging to the King of France, who was quite jealous of Duke Robert, and was anxious to set his family be the ears; and the young Prince began forthwith robbing his father’s dominions, on which that monarch marched with an army to besiege him in his castle.
Here an incident befell which, while it shows that Prince Robert (for all the shortness of his legs) had a kind and brave heart, will at the same time point out to my beloved pupils the dangers – the awful dangers – of disobedience. Prince Robert and his knights sallied out one day against the besiegers, and engaged the horsemen of their party. Seeing a warrior on the other side doing a great deal of execution, Prince Robert galloped at him sword in hand, and engaged him. Their visors were down, and they banged away at each other, like – like good-uns [Hear, hear]. At last Prince Robert hit the other such a blow that he felled him from his horse, and the big man tumbling off cried, “Oh, murder!” or “Oh, I’m done for!” or something of the sort. Fancy the consternation of Prince Robert when he recognized the voice of his own father!
He flung himself off his saddle as quick as his little legs would let him, ran to his father, knelt down before him, besought him to forgive him, and begged him to take his horse and ride home. The King took the horse, but I’m sorry to say he only abused his son, and rode home as sulkily as possible. However, he soon came to be in a good humour, acknowledged that his son Prince Shortlegs was an honest fellow, and forgave him; and they fought some battles together, not against each other, but riding bravely side by side.
So, having prospered in all his undertakings, and being a great Prince and going to wage war against the French King, who had offended him, the famous King William I of England, having grown very fat in his old age, received a hurt while riding, which made him put a stop to his projects of massacring the Frenchmen, for he felt that his hour of death had come. As usual, after a life of violence, blood, and rapine, he began to repent on his death-bed, uttered some religious sentences which the chroniclers have recorded, and gave a great quantity of money which had been robbed from the people to the convents and priests.
The moment the breath was out of the great King’s body, all the courtiers ran off to their castles expecting a war. All the abbots went to their abbeys, where they shut themselves up. All the shopkeepers closed their stalls, looking out for riot and plunder; and the King’s body being left quite alone, the servants pillaged the house where he lay, leaving the corpse almost naked on the bed. And this was the way they served the greatest man in Christendom!
[Much sensation, in the midst of which the Lecturer retired].


Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, Vol. IV

Here today for your enjoyment, I present Vol. IV Part I of William Thackeray’s Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History  (satires published in Punch magazine in 1842), in which the (fictional) amateur  historian Miss Tickletoby gives a unique take on the events of what is perhaps the most famous year in English history – 1066.


King Canute, whose adventures at the watering place my young friend Mr. Simcoe described last week in such exquisite verse (and I am afraid that the doings at watering-places are not often so moral), died soon after, having repented greatly of his sins. It must have been Gravesend, I think, where the King grew so thoughtful.
[Here Miss T. was rather disappointed that nobody laughed at her pun; the fact is, that MISS BUDGE, the usher, had been ordered to do so, but, as usual, missed the point]
Before he died, he made a queer sort of reparation for all the sins, robberies, and murders that he committed: he put his crown on the head of the statue of a saint in Canterbury, and endowed no end of monasteries. And a great satisfaction it must have been to the relatives of the murdered people, to see the King’s crown on the saint’s head; and a great consolation to those who had been robbed, to find the King paid over all their money to the monks.
Some descendants of his succeeded him, about whom there is nothing particular to say, nor about King Edward the Confessor, of the Saxon race, who succeeded to the throne when the Danish family failed, and who was canonized by a Pope two hundred years after his death – his Holiness only knows why.
‘Spooney’, my dears, is a strong term, and one which, by a sensitive female, ought to be employed only occasionally; but SPOONEY, I emphatically repeat [immense sensation], is the only word to characterise this last of the regular Saxon kings. He spent his time at church, and let his kingdom go to rack and ruin. He had a pretty wife, whom he never had the spirit to go near; and he died, leaving his kingdom to be taken by anyone who could get it.

A strong gallant young fellow, Harold by name, stepped forward, and put the crown on his head, and vowed to wear it like a man. Harold was the son of Earl Godwin that we spoke of in the last lecture, a great resolute fellow, who had been fighting King Edward’s enemies while the King was singing psalms and praying the saints to get rid of them, and turned out with his sword in his hand and a coat of mail on his body, whilst the silly King stayed at home in a hair-shirt, scourging and mortifying his useless old body.
Harold then took the crown (though, to be sure, he had no right to it, for there was a nephew of the King, who ought to have been first served); but he was not allowed to keep undisturbed possession of it for very long, for the fact is, somebody else wanted it. You all know who this was – no other than William, Duke of Normandy, a great and gallant prince (though I must say his mother was no better than she should be*), who had long had a wish to possess the noble realm of England, as soon as the silly old Confessor was no more. Indeed, when Harold was abroad, William had told him as much, making him swear to help in the undertaking. Harold swore, as how could he help it? – for William told him he would have his head off if he didn’t – and then broke his oath on the first opportunity.

*Miss Tickletoby’s rancour against Edward’s treatment of his wife, and her sneer at the Conqueror’s mother, are characteristic of her amiable sex.
Some nine months, then, after Harold had assumed the crown, and just as he had come from killing one of his brothers (they were pretty quarrelsome families, my dears, in those days), who had come to England on a robbing excursion, Harold was informed that the Duke of Normandy had landed with a numerous army of horse, foot, and marines, and proposed, as usual, to stay. Down he went as fast as the coach could carry him (for the Kentish railroad was not then open), and found Duke William at Hastings, where both parties prepared for a fight.
You, my darlings, know the upshot of the battle very well; and though I’m a delicate and sensitive female, and though the Battle of Hastings occurred – let me see; take 1066 from 1842 – exactly seven hundred and seventy-six years ago, yet I can’t help feeling angry to think that those beggarly, murderous Frenchmen should have beaten our honest English as they did. [Cries of “Never mind; we’ve given it ’em since”]. Yes, my dears, I like that spirit; we have given it ’em since, as the Duke of Wellington at Badajos, and my late lamented br-r-other, Ensign Samuel T-t-tickletoby, at B-b-bunhill Row, can testify.

[The Lecturer’s voice was here choked with emotion, owing to the early death of the latter lamented hero].

But don’t let us be too eager for military glory, my friends. Look! We are angry because the French beat us eight hundred years ago! And do you suppose they are not angry because we beat them some five-and-twenty years back? Alas! and alas! this is always the way with that fighting; you can’t satisfy both parties with it, and I do heartily hope that one day there’ll be no such thing as a soldier left in all Europe. [A voice, “And no police neither”].

Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, Vol. III

Here today for your enjoyment, I present the third of William Thackeray’s Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History (satires published in Punch magazine in 1842), in which the (fictional) amateur historian Miss Tickletoby elaborates on that little-known period in English history – the Danish Conquest.

Could this be the learned Miss Tickletoby herself?


In the olden time our glorious country of England, my dears, must have been a pleasant place; for see what numbers of people have taken a fancy to it! First came the Romans, as we have seen, then the Saxons; and when they were comfortably established here, the Danes, under their Sea-Kings, came gallantly over the main, and were not a whit less charmed with the island than the Saxons and Romans had been. Amongst these distinguished foreigners may be mentioned the Sea-King Swayn [Sweyn Forkbeard], who came to England in the year nine hundred and something, landing at Margate, with which he was so pleased as to determine to stop there altogether – being, as he said, so much attached to this country that nothing would induce him to go back to his own. Wasn’t it a compliment to us? There is a great deal of this gallantry in the people of the North; and you may have observed, even in our own days, that some of them, ‘specially Scotchmen, when once landed here, are mighty unwilling to go home again. Well, King Swayn’s stay became preposterously long; and his people consumed such a power of drink and victuals, that at length our late beloved monarch, King Ethelred the Second, was induced to send to him.

A-reading of the newspaper, in meditation lost,
A bard of those days has recorded, with considerable minuteness, the particulars of Swayn’s arrival; and as his work has not been noticed by Turner, Hallam, Hume, or any other English historian, it may be quoted with advantage here. Snoro the Bard (so called from the exciting effect which his poem produced on his audience) thus picturesquely introduces us to the two kings*:

Sat Aethelred of England, and took his tea and toast;
Sat Aethelred of England, and read the Morning Post.
Among the new arrivals the Journal did contain,
At Margate, on the twentieth, His Majesty King Swayn
Of Denmark, with a retinue of horsemen and of Dane!
Loud laughed King Aethelred, and laid the paper down:
“Margate is a proper place for a Danish clown”.
“Take care”, said the Chancellor, “he doesn’t come to town”.
“Let him come”, said the King (in his mouth buttered toast popping),
“At Wapping or at Redriff this boatswain will be stopping”.
“Take care”, says Chancellor Wigfrid, “he don’t give you a wapping”.
“I’m certain”, says wise Wigfrid, “the Sea-King means us evilly. –
Herald, go to Margate and speak unto him civilly;
And if he’s not at Margate, why then try Ramsgate and Tivoli”.
Herald, in obedience to his master dear,
Goes by steam to Margate, landing at the Pier;
Says he, “King Swayn of Denmark I think is lodging here?”

*The poems are translated, word for word, from the Anglo-Saxon, by the accomplished Adolphus Simcoe, author of Perdition, The Ghoul, editor of the Lady’s Lute, etc.

The ballad, which is important to the archaeologian as showing how many of the usages of the present day prevailed nine hundred years back (thus fondly do Englishmen adhere to their customs), and which shows that some of the jokes called puns at present were in existence at this early period of time, goes on to describe, with a minuteness that amounts almost to tediousness, the interview between Swayn and the herald. It is angry, for the latter conveys to the Danish monarch the strongest exhortations, on the part of King Ethelred, to quit the kingdom.


Falling into a fury, Swayn then abuses the King of England in the most contumelious terms; says that he will make his back into a football, and employ his nose for a bell-rope; but finally recollecting himself, dismisses the herald with a present of five-eighths of an Ethelred groat – twopence-halfpenny (a handsome largesse, considering the value of money in those days) – bidding him at the same time order what he liked to drink at the hotel where he (king Swayn) resided. “Well”, says the chronicler pathetically – “well might he order what he thought proper. King Swayn of Denmark never paid a copper”. A frightful picture of the insolence and rapacity of the invader and his crew!

A battle, as is natural, ensues; the invader is victorious. At Swayn’s death, Snoro is lost in grief, being, however, consoled in the next stanza by the succession of his son Canute to the throne. After following King Canute through his battles – in one of which the celebrated GODWIN (who, I believe, afterwards married Mary Wollstonecraft) showed the valour of Englishmen – after going through a list of murders, treasons, usurpations, which the great monarch committed, the bard comes to that famous passage in his history which all little boys know; when King Canute tried to order the sea to retreat. I have the pleasure to show a copy of an Anglo-Saxon drawing which is to be found in the manuscript, and which never has been seen until the present day.
[This drawing was handed round to the company by Miss Tickletoby and excited an immense sensation, which having subsided, the lecturer proceeded to read from the same MS., Claud. XXVII. XXVIII., “The Song of King Canute”, at which point – without wishing to disparage the abilities of the great bard Snoro – the editor feels it is right to stop].

Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History, Vol. I

Miss Tickletoby’s Lectures on English History is a series of great satires written by William Thackeray for Punch magazine in 1842. The imaginary Miss Wilhelmina Maria Tickletoby is an august old lady who tutors rich people’s children; a formidable teacher who has “none of the new-fangled notions regarding the uselessness of corporal punishments, but, remembering their effects in her own case, does not hesitate to apply them whenever necessity urges”.

The lectures, which take place in her house, are addressed principally to her pupils, but adults “of rank and fashion” and the press are also present. I like them because Thackeray’s imitation of Miss Tickletoby’s voice and his parody of Victorian perspectives on British history are nothing short of hilarious. Over the next few weeks and months I’ll be posting the best bits of each lecture, from the ancient Britons to Edward III, together with Victorian illustrations of the events being described. Take them as reliable accounts at your peril…


‘MY LOVES, – With regard to the early history of our beloved country, before King Alfred ascended the throne, I have very little indeed to say: in the first place, because the story itself is none of the most moral – consisting of accounts of murders agreeably varied by invasions; and secondly, dears, to tell you the truth, I have always found those first chapters so abominably stupid that I have made a point to pass them over…

Well, then, about the abominable Danes and Saxons, the Picts and the Scots, I know very little, and I must say have passed through life pretty comfortably in spite of my ignorance. Not that this should be an excuse to you – no,no, darlings: learn for learning’s sake; if not, I have something hanging up in the cupboard, and you know my name is Tickletoby. [Great sensation.]

How first our island became inhabited is a point which nobody knows. I do not believe a word of that story at the beginning of the “Seven Champions of Christendom”, about King Brute and his companions; and as for the other hypotheses (let Miss Biggs spell the word “hypothesis”, and remember not to confound it with “apothecary”), they are not worth consideration. For as the first man who ever entered the island could not write, depend upon it he never set down the date of his arrival; and I leave you to guess what a confusion about dates there would speedily be – you who can’t remember whether it was last Thursday or Friday that you had gooseberry pudding for dinner.

Those little dears who have not seen Mrs. Trimmer’s “History of England” have no doubt beheld pictures of Mr Oldridge’s Balm of Columbia [a product which promised hair growth and preservation]. The ancient Britons were like the lady represented there, only not black; the excellent Mrs. T’s pictures of these no doubt are authentic, and there our ancestors are represented as dressed in painted skins, and wearing their hair as long as possible. I need not say that it was their own skins they painted, because, as for clothes, they were not yet invented.

Perhaps some of my darlings have seen at their papa’s evening parties some curious (female) Britons who exist in our own time, and who, out of respect for the country in which they were born, are very fond of the paint, and not at all partial to clothes.

As for the religion of the ancient Britons, as it was a false and abominable superstition, the less we say about it the better. If they had a religion, you may be sure they had a clergy. This body of persons were called Druids. The historian Hume says that they instructed the youth of the country, which, considering not one boy in 1,000,000,000,000 could read, couldn’t give the Druids much trouble. The Druids likewise superintended the law matters and government of Britain, and in return for their kindness were handsomely paid, as all teachers of youth, lawyers and ministers ought to be. [“Hear, hear,” from Lord ABINGER and Sir ROBERT PEEL].The ancient Britons were of a warlike, rude nature (and loved broils and battles, like Master Spry yonder). They used to go forth with clubs for weapons, and bulls’ horns for trumpets; and so with their clubs and their trumps they would engage their enemies, who sometimes conquered them, and sometimes were conquered by them, according to luck.

The priests remained at home and encouraged them – praying to their gods, and longing no doubt for a share of the glory and danger; but they learned, they said, to sacrifice themselves for the public good. Not only did they sacrifice themselves; I grieve to say that it was their custom to sacrifice other people: for when the Britons returned from war with their prisoners, the priests carried the latter into certain mysterious groves, where they slew them on the horrid altars of their gods. The gods, they said, delighted in these forests and these dreadful human sacrifices, and you will better remember the facts by my representing these gods to you as so many wicked Lovegroves, and their victims as unfortunate Whitebait. [Immense sensation.]

And as your papas have probably taken some of you to see the opera of “Norma”, which relates to these very Druids that we are talking about, you will know that the ancient Britons had not only priests, but priestesses – that is, clergywomen. Remember this, and don’t talk commit an error which is common in society, and talk of two clerical gentlemen as priestesses. It is a gross blunder. One might as well…talk of having your breakfasteses, as I have heard the Duchess of ____ often do…What is the singular of Breakfasts, Miss Higgins?

Miss Higgins. I don’t know.
Master Smith (delighted and eager). I know.
Miss Tickletoby. Speak, my dear, and tell that inattentive Miss Higgins what is the singular of “breakfasts”.
Master Smith (clearing his voice by rubbing his jacket sleeve across his nose). The most singular breakfast I know is old John Wapshot’s, who puts sugar in his muffins and takes salt in his tea!
[Master Smith was preparing to ascend to the head of the class, but was sternly checked by MISS TICKLETOBY, who resumed her discourse.]It was not to be supposed that the wickedness of these Priests could continue forever; and accordingly we find (though upon my word I don’t know upon what authority) that, eighteen hundred and ninety-seven years ago, Julius Caesar, that celebrated military man, landed at Deal. He conquered a great number of princes with jaw-breaking names, as did the Roman Emperors, his successors – such as the Trinobantes, the Atrebates, the Silures, all richly deserving their fate, doubtless, as I fear they were but savages at best. They were masters of the Britons for pretty near five hundred years; and though the Scotch pretend that the Romans never conquered their part of it, I am inclined to suppose it was pretty much for the reasons that the clothes are not taken off a scarecrow in the fields – because they are not worth the taking.
About the year 450, the Romans, having quite enough to do at home, quitted Britain for good, when the Scots, who were hungry then, and have been hungry ever since, rushed in among the poor unprotected Britoners, who were forced to call the Saxons to their aid.

Can we ever fully understand the past?

One of the most interesting things about history is that it’s both far and near. Sometimes I read something and suddenly feel very close to the people of the past, realising that they often endured the same trials and shared the same joys. The tablets found at Vindolanda, an ancient Roman fort near Hadrian’s Wall, are a great example. One of them is a birthday invitation from a lady to her sister – “Claudia Severa to her Lepidina greetings. On the third day before the Ides of September, sister, for the day of the celebration of my birthday, I give you a warm invitation to make sure that you come to us, to make the day more enjoyable for me by your arrival.” Linguistic style aside, there is barely any difference between this and the average birthday party invitation on Facebook. Then there is the message to an anonymous soldier from (presumably) his mother, saying “I have sent you…pairs of socks from Sattua, two pairs of sandals and two pairs of underpants…Greet all your messmates with whom I pray that you live in the greatest good fortune”. In other words, here are some clothes for you, and I hope you’ve not fallen out with your colleagues! Some things truly never change.

But then I’ll read about something which is utterly strange to our eyes, such as Symeon the Stylite, the 5th century Syrian saint who lived on top of a pillar for 37 years in order to get closer to God. Or I’ll come across attitudes and practices which the majority of people today would probably find repulsive. For example, the Arab traveller Ahmad ibn Fadlan reports the burial of a Viking chieftain where one of his slave girls apparently volunteered to join her master in the afterlife. He recounts how “the men started to beat on the shields so her screams could not be heard. Six men entered into the tent to have intercourse with the girl…the angel of death [an old woman] put a rope around her neck and while two men pulled the rope, the old woman stabbed the girl between the ribs with a knife”. This is pretty horrific stuff by anyone’s account. My point is not that we should condemn the past – perhaps this act was considered honourable; perhaps the community believed that the girl’s sacrifice would bring her great happiness in the afterlife. But it’s when reading about things like this that I realise just how differently people in the past could act and think.

The gap between us and the past is both bridgeable and impassable. History is the attempt to get nearer to the past, to understand, yet at the same time we have to realise that we can never fully enter in the minds and hearts of people in ages gone by. Our ingrained worldviews are too different. But it’s this challenge to understand which I love about history. It’s that heady mixture of differences and similarities between today’s world and the past which fascinates me, and which I want to highlight in this blog.

Next up:
Murder, treason, and criminal conversation in late 18th century London: the real cases behind the (excellent) TV series Garrow’s Law.