Tag Archives: History

Something you know a lot about – 31 days of writing prompts!

Pre and Post Norman English history, up until the Wars of The Roses.

I loved learning about history in school, but the earliest we ever studied was 1066 and the invasion of England by William the Conqueror, one of only three kings of England that have a sobriquet. (The other two are Alfred the Great, and Edward the Confessor, two pre-Norman kings.) I think that a lot of British people think that history started in 1066, because that’s such an important date and we never get taught about anything earlier. The syllabus of history exams is focused quite heavily on 20th Century events, with a side-trip to the Tudors for A-level students now.

When I got to university, I was randomly placed in a seminar group focusing on Anglo-Saxon and Norman history for the first semester, which was called The History of War. Lectures spanning from the Romans to the first Gulf War were offered; you could go to any of them you wanted, but you had to attend the ones that informed you about your seminar topics. I had intended on going to all of the lectures, but I stopped after the Anglo-Saxon ones. Well, they were on at 9am! Students shouldn’t have to cope with such an anti-social time of day!

I was really pleased to be placed in this group  – I wanted to learn about something new, and although I had the basics of 1066 in the back of my brain, I knew nothing about what had come before it: how Edward the Confessor was more Norman than English, and how the politicking of the noble Godwinson family had brought about a stale, childless marriage (seriously, George R R Martin clearly got a few character notes for Tywin and Cersei Lannister from Earl Godwin and his daughter Edith) that opened the door for a sly invitation for Duke William to take the throne after his death.

I had a vague idea that the death of Harold left the country without an English king, so William, who had trounced the English at Hastings, had nobody to compete with for the crown. Well, that was wrong. Chuck a rock about in October 1066 and you’d hit an English noble with a good claim to throne.

I learned that there were kings before Edward, that several of them were Norwegian, that many of them had the pre-fix Aethel before their name and the country was a patchwork of tribal areas that are still visible on the map of England today. I learned that the England that William conquered had a sophisticated system of laws and coinage, traded with countries all over the world and had a language that still provides us with some of our most basic words we use in English today. (No, not those words. Well, not just those words!)

I also found out that despite pre-Conquest England being as patriarchal as the post-Conquest country that denied Empress Matilda her rightful crown as Queen of England, it still produced women like Aethelflaed, who ruled most of what we today think of as the Midlands and helped her brothers and nephew stitch together all those patchwork petty kingdoms into one solid country of England.

I learned about monasteries and the Vikings, continental politics and the confusing but important genealogies that brought about the next few hundred years of fighting between England and France. I learned that the English Civil War we all know about between the Roundheads and the Cavaliers was actually at least the third civil war in Britain, the first being between the iron-willed Matilda and the little sneak Stephen. I wouldn’t want to be trapped in a lift with her, but by God, there was a woman who could have ruled a medieval country. Abseiling down castle towers and escaping from armed guards in a white cloak over snowy fields was the least of what she got up to!

I think the thing I learned the most was that we tend to have a very straight line idea about history – we know X happened, so it must have been because of Y. In reality, X happening was because Z didn’t happen, A died young and B was stuck in a bog in Mercia and missed the battle completely. History is layered with subtleties and we can’t trust the stories that we’re given. They were written by the victors, after all. The reason that I didn’t know much history pre-1066 is because the English lost the Battle of Hastings, and the Normans won. Their story became more important to the national story, and the men and women that provided a stable and thriving country for the Normans to plunder faded into the darkness.

So, I can tell you why Aethelred wasn’t actually Unready, and where the hell the Danelaw was. I know why the Bayeux Tapestry isn’t actually a) a tapestry, b)made in Bayeux or c) a trustworthy primary source for the era. I can tell you why Harold Godwinson, the last Anglo-Saxon king, was really pissed off with his brother Tostig and why the whole arrow in the eye thing isn’t really all it’s cracked up to be.

I can tell you, objectively, which of the Plantagenet kings was the best, and which should have taken a vow of chastity after the obligatory heir and spare were born. I know which king loved his wife the most and which had the most gruesome burial you could possible imagine.

None of this knowledge is remotely useful in real life, of course, but I’m awfully glad I learned it!


Journal prompts: your academics



I know that the academic world isn’t for everybody, but I loved every minute of my experience learning things. I’m on the other side of that equation now, and while it’s something that I’ve always wanted to do, I do miss learning.

My GCSE grades were pretty good; A*s, As and Bs. My B in Maths was my proudest exam result as I found that by far the hardest. I always struggled with maths, and if it wasn’t for my patient father coaxing me through the curriculum I would have failed.

My A Levels were more of a mixed bag. An A, in Sociology; my tutor for the Lower Sixth may have turned into a convicted rapist in his later years, but by God, I got a thorough grounding in Marxism, Functionalism and Symbolic Interactionalism. Add a healthy amount of bullshitting in my final exam, and I flew through that one. A B in English Literature, which I found a little disappointing as I loved that subject so much. I really did poorly, by my standards, in my History; only a C grade. That was a real disappointment, but deserved. I found coping with the stress of exams so difficult that didn’t revise enough. I also got an AS Level in General Studies, which is as useless as it sounds. I talked about it briefly in this post where I talked about role models. I took an S Level  – a step above A Level – in English too, and passed that, although not with any particular distinction.

Back then, the UCAS points system awarded ten points for an A, eight for a B, six for a C, etc. I needed something like twenty two points to get into the university course I wanted, and somehow in my head I convinced myself that because that was what I needed, that was what I would get. When I actually saw my results I was thrown because my brain couldn’t process the number of points I received. I had cleared that goal with just my A Levels, but with the other qualifications too I was closer to thirty than twenty. My old Maths teacher was there on results day as she was also the Exams Officer, and mistook my confusion for horror. I had to thrust the slip into her hand and ask her to tell me if I had the points I needed for university. The look of exasperation she gave me is forever etched into my memory!

I went to the University of Wales, Aberystwyth, which is now just Aberystwyth University. It’s a beautiful small town on the west coast of Wales, with dolphins in the bay, a ruined castle next to the nineteenth century campus and a wonderful feeling of warmth and safety. I read English and History, with a focus on Anglo-Saxon and Norman history. To this day I consider myself half a historian. There I finally found academic freedom and it was the happiest three years of my life. I would have loved to continue on to an MA, and even a PhD, but there just wasn’t the money available. Instead, I took a one year PGCE course and qualified as a teacher. I’ve just recently achieved a Graduate Diploma in Professional Development (Leadership), which was a draining and painful experience. I don’t think it’s possible for me to juggle my day job, writing and earning any more professional qualifications – it’s just too much.

Should I ever win the lottery and give up work, I think I’d go back into full time education. I love teaching, but I love learning more and there’s just so much I don’t know!

Fucking hysterical!



Early gynecology exam. Doesn’t she look happy, ladies?

I was doing some research yesterday for my next book and while reading this book by Rachel Maines on the history of vibrators I found some very interesting pictures!

Vibrators were developed to save the fingers of doctors who were treating women, both married and unmarried, for ‘hysteria’ – a catch-all diagnosis that covered any and all symptom a woman could name. It was discovered that orgasm, or ‘paroxysm’ would clear up a woman’s general malaise. Marriage was a recommended cure for hysteria, but when that was not possible, or the woman was not receiving strong enough attention from her husband, it fell to the doctor to provide the necessary stimulation. In a purely medical setting, of course!

(I’m not going to go into how ridiculous it was that women’s sexuality was being medicalised, or that how orgasm was supposed to be both distasteful for a woman and yet necessary for her mental and physical health. They didn’t seem to understand that clitoral stimulation is needed for the vast majority of women to achieve orgasm.Hell, they hadn’t bothered to delineate the clitoris from the vulva or the labia until the late eighteenth century. I’m appalled at what nineteeth century women had to go through, and my inner feminist is raring to get going at this manuscript and give the doctor-hero what for on behalf of women everywhere.)

However, doctors (always male, naturally) found manipulating women to orgasm difficult and somewhat distasteful, so the use of hydrotherapy, electrotherapy and primitive vibrators was considered better than manual massage for their patients.

Hydrotherapy – sounds almost relaxing, doesn’t it?


That…that does not look relaxing to me. When you consider that was often cold water, too, I think I’d pass, thank you very much.

Electrotherapy often involved the deliberate collection of static electricity and its application to sensitive areas, using small rollers. When you consider how new the application of electricity to everyday objects was back then, I think that I’d sidestep the electrotherapy too. Weird fact, though: the electric powered vibrator was available for home purchase well before the electric vacuum cleaner or electric iron. I guess women knew what was important back then, even if men didn’t!

This mighty beast is called The Manipulator, and is only a tiny fraction of the actual machine. It was powered by a steam engine (!) which was kept in the next room.

early vibrator


manipulator part 2


You hook it up to the underside of an examination table, which has a convenient piece cut out and off you go – modern, steam-powered orgasms.

Men, of course, were treated for nervous conditions too, but the numbers of men requiring this kind of stimulation were nowhere near the number of women who went through it.

All very interesting food for thought for The Ruttingdon Series Book 4!