Protests and fake news during the Regency era: The Peterloo Massacre

Lately, when we open a newspaper or turn on the television, we’re frequently presented with images of people taking to the streets in protest. And while this might feel like a relatively modern phenomenon, people banning together to try to fight an injustice goes back centuries, if not thousands of years.  Today, I’m going to talk to you about one of the most memorable protests in British history, the Peterloo Massacre.

The protest that became known as the Peterloo Massacre took place in Manchester, England in 1819. But before I tell you about the events of that day, I need to take you back a few years earlier to March of 1817. That’s when newspapers reported that 30,000 men marched into Manchester and seized the North Mail, demolished two factories, and set fire to an entire street of buildings. However, this was Regency era propaganda or as some people might refer to it today, fake news. It simply wasn’t true and the Manchester Mercury, the local paper for the area, set the record straight. One reason the piece of propaganda might have been created was that Manchester did not possess a volunteer force of yeomanry cavalry that existed in other smaller towns in Britain. It was defenseless against unruly mobs of people and, at that time in British history, there had been social and political unrest. So, not long after this story was released in the papers advertisements were posted for volunteers to form a unit and by September of 1818 the Manchester and Salford Yeomanry cavalry was formed. The Manchester Cavalry assisted the civil power in the area and was under the leadership of Major-Commandant Thomas Joseph Trafford, Esq. This group of men wrote themselves into history less than one year later.

Unrest had been growing among working people in manufacturing areas since the end of the Napoleonic war. When the war ended, these people had hoped their lives would improve, however they still were faced with high taxes, rising food prices, and unemployment. They first tried to address this with angry riots. Journalist William Cobbett wrote pieces that explained that misgovernment was responsible for these problems and helped them see that parliamentary reform was the key to improving their situation. People sympathetic to reform began to organize into local clubs. They wanted less waste of public money by both the government and the Church of England, fair taxation, and an end to restrictions on trade. In order to do that, they knew they needed to have a voice in government with workers’ interests represented in Parliament. At the time, Manchester did not have representation in the House of Commons. They knew they needed to change that.

In July of 1819, a notice went out in Manchester announcing a meeting that would be held in St Peter’s Field on August 9th. The point of the meeting was “to take into consideration, the most speedy and effectual mode of obtaining radical reform in the Commons House of Parliament and to consider the propriety of the unrepresented inhabitants of Manchester electing a person to represent them in Parliament.” The local magistrates feared they would have a riot and posted a notice banning the meeting, stating it was an illegal meeting. Reformers discovered the only illegal aspect of the meeting was the intention to elect a representative, so they proposed another meeting on August 16th. This time the intention was to determine what were the legal and effectual means of obtaining reform in the House of Commons. With the removal of the election, the meeting was not contested.

The meeting was to be chaired by Mr. Henry Hunt, the famous radical speaker. Mr. Samuel Bamford (1788-1872), who was another leading radical, wrote about his experiences that day in his memoirs and recounted that Mr. Hunt advised them that the meeting should be as morally upright as possible. He stated that this time they would disarm their opponents with a display of cleanliness, sobriety, and decorum. “In short, we would deserve their respect by showing that we respected ourselves.”

The people planning on attending this meeting met on evenings and Sundays on local moors to practice walking in time with each other so that they would arrive at St Peter’s Field in an orderly manner. This was to be a peaceful assembly where, according to Mr. Bamford, those that brought sticks were told to leave them behind. Some of the working-class radicals who were seeking reform had frequently been taunted by the press about their ragged, dirty appearances. Men, women, and even children walked together to the Field that day wearing some of their best clothes. Women who were active in trying to bring about reform were often ridiculed and called whores for being involved in something that wasn’t their business. On this day, many decided to wear white as a sign of purity of character and motive. It was to be a pleasant summer outing. At a number of trials that took place afterwards both objective and radical observers recalled that the crowd had been peaceful until the Manchester cavalry rode in. It was then that this peaceful assembly took a horrible, deadly turn.

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“Britons Strike Home!!” Illustration by George Cruikshank, 1819. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Mr. Bamford wrote about the day in his memoir, Passages in the Life of a Radical. This is his account of what took place.

“In about half an hour after our arrival the sounds of music and reiterated shouts proclaimed the near approach of Mr. Hunt and his party; and in a minute or two they were seen coming from Deansgate, preceded by a band of music and several flags.

Their approach was hailed by one universal shout from probably 80,000 persons. They threaded their way slowly past us and through the crowd, which Hunt eyed, I thought, with almost as much of astonishment as satisfaction. This spectacle could not be otherwise in his view than solemnly impressive. Such a mass of human beings he had not beheld till then. His responsibility must weigh on his mind. The task was great, and not without its peril. The meeting was indeed a tremendous one.

Mr. Hunt, stepping towards the front of the stage, took off his white hate, and addressed the people. We had got to nearly the outside of the crowd, when a noise and strange murmur arose towards the church. Some persons said with was the Blackburn people coming, and I stood on tiptoe and looked in the direction whence the noise proceeded, and saw a party of cavalry in blue and white uniform come trotting, sword in hand, round the corner of a garden wall, and to the front of a row of new houses, where they reined up in a line.

‘The soliders are here,’ I said; ‘we must go back and see what this means.’ ‘Oh,’ someone made reply, ‘they are only come to be ready if there should be any disturbance in the meeting.’ ‘Well, let us go back,’ I said, and we forced our way towards the colours. 

On the cavalry drawing up they were received with a shout of goodwill, as I understood it. They shouted again, waving their sabres over their heads; and then, slackening rein, and striking spur into their steeds, they dashed forward and began cutting the people…

‘Stand fast,’ I said, ‘they are riding upon us; stand fast.’

The cavalry were in confusion: they evidently could not, with all the weight of man and horse, penetrate that compact mass of human beings and their sabres were pied to hew a way through naked held-up hands and defenceless heads; and then chopped limbs and wound-gaping skulls were seen; and groans and cries were mingled with the din of that horrid confusion.

Many females appeared as the crowd opened; and striplings or mere youths also were found. Their cries were piteous and heart-rendering, and would, one might have supposed, have disarmed any human resentment: but here their appeals were in vain.

In ten minutes from the commencement of the havoc, the field was an open and almost deserted space. The sun looked down through sultry and motionless air. The curtains and blinds of the windows within view were all closed.

The hustings remained, with a few broken and hewed flag-staves erect, and a torn and gashed banner or two dropping; whilst over the whole field were strewn caps, bonnets, hats, shawls, and shoes, and other parts of male and female dress, trampled, torn, and bloody.

Several mounds of human beings still remained where they had fallen, crushed down and smothered. Some of these still groaning, others with staring eyes, were gasping for breath, and others would never breathe more.”

I found conflicting reports on the number of people killed that day. The numbers ranged from 10 to 20 people that were killed and there were approximately 654 people injured. After being horrified by the events, John Cam Hobhouse, a politician and friend of Lord Byron, joined efforts with other radicals and established the Metropolitan and Central Committee to financially assist those who were injured or lost the bread winners of their families. The pamphlet they put out to help them solicit donations listed the deceased as follows: John Ashton and John Ashworth were sabred and then trampled on by the crowd. William Bradshaw and Joshua Whitworth were shot. Thomas Buckley was sabred and stabbed with a bayonet. Robert Campbell was a Special Constable and was killed by a mob in Newton Lane. Mary Heys, James Crompton, and William Evans were trampled on by the cavalry. John Lees, Margaret Downes, and Edmund Dawson died from sabre wounds. William Dawson was sabred, crushed, and killed on the spot. Two-year-old William Fildes was ridden over by cavalry when his mother was carrying him across the road when she was struck by a trooper of the cavalry galloping towards St. Peters Field. Sarah Jones was killed and had a bruise to her head. Arthur Neil was inwardly crushed. And, Martha Partington was thrown into a cellar and killed on the spot.

Samuel Bamford was imprisoned that day for inciting a riot along with Mr Hunt, Joseph Johnson, Mr. Knight, Mr. Saxton, Dr. Healey, Mr. Jones, Mr. Swift, Mr. Wilde, Mrs. Gaunt, and Mrs. Hargreaves. He remained in prison for one year.

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Mr. Samuel Bamford led a group from his native Middleton to St. Peter’s Field. Following his imprisonment, he emerged as a prominent voice for radical reform. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

After all that bloodshed, the magistrates and the cavalry gave justification to the Home Office for their actions and faced no consequences from the British government who believed they were justified in using military force. In January of 1820 new laws were introduced that banned any meeting of more than 50 people without the consent of the local magistrate. But as news of the massacre spread, people across Britain were outraged of the indiscriminate killing of men, women and children. Even George Cruikshank, who had once mocked the female radicals, now created cartoons highlighting sympathy for those who gathered together to stand up for fair treatment by the British government.

*****

 

My story ideas often come from historical events and the Peterloo Massacre played a part in the plot of ONE WEEK TO WED, the first book in The Sommersby Brides Regency romance series. This is the story of widowed Lady Charlotte Gregory who believes you can’t fall in love twice in a lifetime. But that belief is tested when she meets the dangerous Lord Andrew Pearce and he brings her respectable, lonely world back to life. One night, they find themselves alone and give in to their desires only to find their secret passion leads to shock, scandal

…and a sudden marriage of convenience.

You can pick up ONE WEEK TO WED at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, iBooks, and kobo.

Resources and more information:

Bamford, Samuel, Passages in the Life of a Radical. (1844)

Hobson, James, Dark Days of Georgian Britain. (2018)

Anonymous, The Metropolitan and Central Committee Pamphlet. (1820)

Sarah Irving has done some great research on Women at the Peterloo Massacre. You can read about her findings here on the Manchester’s Radical History Blog.

The Regency Era Wedding Gown of Princess Charlotte of Wales

Since there has been a lot of speculation on Meghan Markle’s royal wedding dress, I thought I’d show you the oldest royal wedding dress that still exists and, appropriately enough, it dates back to the Regency era. It is the wedding gown of Princess Charlotte of Wales, who was the only child of the Prince Regent (later George IV) and Caroline of Brunswick. She was born on August 7, 1796 and married Leopold of Saxe-Coburg at Carlton House in London on May 2, 1816.

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Her wedding dress was made up of a white and silver petticoat that was worn under a net dress that was embroidered with silver lame. The neck and the sleeves of the gown were trimmed with Brussels lace while her train was the same silver and white material as her underdress. The gown was made by Mrs. Triaud of Bolton Street and reported to have cost £10,000. For her wedding, Charlotte wore a headdress of rosebuds and leaves made out of diamonds and a pair of large drop earrings.

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Princess Charlotte and her husband, Leopold of Saxe-Coburg. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

An interested fact about Charlotte and Leopold’s wedding is that this was the first royal wedding that had commemorative souvenirs that were widely available for people to purchase. Sadly, Charlotte’s life did not end happily. On November 6, 1817, the Princess died in childbirth at the age of twenty-one.

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An engraving based on a portrait of Princess Charlotte done by Sir Thomas Lawrence completed not long before she passed away. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

This is my favorite royal wedding gown. When I was writing An Unsuitable Duchess, I based my heroine’s wedding gown on Princess Charlotte’s.

* * *

AN UNSUITABLE DUCHESS

For American Katrina Vandenberg, the rules of London society are stifling. So, when a rare moment of solitude at a particularly tedious ball is interrupted, she’s disappointed…until she lays eyes on a very handsome stranger!

Julian Carlisle, Duke of Lyonsdale, is destined for a dull marriage of convenience, and Katrina couldn’t be further from the aristocratic British bride he needs. Following his heart should be easy, except he’s one of the first English noblemen to fall for an American. Is he willing to risk his political career and family’s standing to make this highly unsuitable woman his perfect duchess after all?

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Reference used:

Arch, Nigel and Marschner, Joanna, Royal Wedding Dresses. 2011.

A Regency Era Christmas Parlor Game You Might NOT Want to Try at Home

Discovering the Christmas traditions of the early 19th century is one of the fun things about writing a Regency Christmas story. While I was looking into ways families would entertain themselves on Christmas Eve, I discovered one game that took me by surprise. It’s called Snapdragon and was a winter parlor game played around Christmas.

Snapdragon was played between the 16th and 19th centuries, first in England and eventually in the United States, as well. In Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language published in 1755, Snapdragon is described as “a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them”. This was not a game for the faint of heart and it took a brave person to participate.

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Christmas celebration with people playing Snapdragon in the lower right corner. Engraving by T. Hollis after R.W. Buss, curtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

 

To play Snapdragon, you fill a large shallow bowl with brandy and place it in the middle of a table. Then you toss in raisins and light the brandy on fire. The effect is similar to burning brandy over a Christmas pudding. The brandy does not burn at a high enough temperature to turn the raisins to ash, and they almost appear as small wicks. The raisins were called snapdragons, giving the game its name.

The object of Snapdragon is to snatch a raisin out of the flaming bowl and pop it into your mouth. Back then, all the candles in the room would be snuffed out, so you could easily see the blue flame burning in the bowl. If raisins weren’t available, you could use almonds, currants, figs, grapes, or plums. It was believed that the brave soul who took the most snapdragons out of the burning brandy would meet their true love within a year. What really surprised me was that in almost all of the illustrations I found of the game, small children were taking part. Just looking at the illustration below, with the little boy reaching into the bowl, makes me nervous that his sleeve is going to catch on fire.

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Snapdragon by Charles Keene, 1858. This illustration appeared in the Illustrated London News.

The game of Snapdragon is mentioned in Old Christmas by Washington Irving, and Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. In my book An Unexpected Countess, both my hero and heroine are very daring people and have a highly competitive relationship. I could just picture Hart and Sarah challenging each other to a game of Snapdragon.

Nominated for Harlequin's 2017 Hero of the Year!-3

 

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to pick up a copy of this Regency romance today.

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A Look at St. James’s Park in London: Then and Now

Strolling through St. James’s Park has become one of my favorite things to do whenever I visit London. And each time I’m there, I can’t help but stop on the footbridge to admire the view. But did you know that this lovely bit of heaven in a great metropolis didn’t always look the way it does today?

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

St. James’s Park is the oldest royal park in London and was originally a marshy meadow. In 1532, King Henry VIII acquired the land as a deer park and built St. James’s Palace adjacent to the land. James I was the first one to have the park landscaped, but it was King Charles II who hired French garden designer Andre Mollet to create a more formal look to the park similar to the French gardens he saw when he was in exile. The redesign included a straight long canal, lawns, and walkways. Charles opened the park to the public and was frequently seen there amongst his subjects. In 1664, the Russian ambassador gifted Charles with a colony of pelicans which he had placed in the park and whose decedents occupy the park today.

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Andre Mollet’s plan for St. James’s Park. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Beginning in the late 17th century, cows grazed on the fields of the park and up until 1925, you could visit the park and purchase a fresh cup of milk directly from the cows via the milkmaids.

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The Mall in St. James’s Park by Thomas Gainsborough, 1783. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

When George IV, then the Prince Regent, wanted to celebrate the end of the war with France in 1814 with Allied sovereigns, he invited them to London. Various events were scheduled in and around the royal parks. A Chinese-style bridge was constructed to span the canal in St. James’s Park, and on top of it was a striking seven storey pagoda. Although the bridge remained until 1825, the pagoda caught fire during the celebratory fireworks and was sadly destroyed.

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Chinese-style bridge with pagoda in St. James’s Park, 1814. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

In 1825, St. James’s Park went through a major change when George IV commissioned renowned architect John Nash to redesign the park in a more romantic style. The shape of the long canal was altered into the shape the lake takes today and many flowering plants and shrubs were installed.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

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Photo of St. James’s Park by Laurie Benson.

If you venture into St. James’s Park today, you step back in time to a piece of early nineteenth century London and can thank John Nash and George IV for the beauty that surrounds you. I am so fond of this park, I included it as a key location in An Unexpected Countess.

An Unexpected CountessAn Unexpected Countess is out now!

Sarah Forrester is an American diplomat’s daughter who must locate the fabled Sancy Diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent with finding the diamond. Little does he know that the feisty woman he meets on a roof top is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

Available in print and ebook. Click on the links below to get your copy:

Amazon
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iBooks
Kobo

 

 

An Unexpected Countess is out now and here’s a chance to win a signed copy!

My third regency romance book, An Unexpected Countess, is out now and I’m excited to share the news!  Since you’ve been along on my journey while I did my research for this book, I’m happy to give subscribers to this blog a chance to win two signed paperback copies! To enter, simply send me an email here and let me know you want me to enter your name in my Cozy Drawing Room Giveaway. Two winners will be chosen at random on Sunday, June 11 2017 and notified by email. You have to be a subscriber to this blog to enter, so if you haven’t subscribed yet, now is the perfect time.

Delightfully unexpected plot twists, with lively dialogue and witty repartee, this adventure and treasure hunt romance is a charmer. Benson pits an independent American heroine with a

This is what An Unexpected Countess is about:

Miss Sarah Forrester, an American diplomat’s daughter, must locate the fabled Sancy diamond or her family will be ruined by a mysterious blackmailer. But the Earl of Hartwick has also been tasked by the Prince Regent to find the diamond. Little does he know the feisty young lady he met on a rooftop is his competition. As they each follow the clues hidden in a bracelet, Sarah and Hart realize they will have to work as a team. Being together may be as dangerous to their hearts as the hunt is to their lives…and finding the jewel is only the beginning.

To read an excerpt, click here.

An Unexpected Countess is available now in paperback and ebook from these fine retailers:

Amazon

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iBooks

Kobo

 

The Allied Sovereigns’ Visit to England in 1814

It’s my pleasure to welcome back Joanne Major and Sarah Murden to my cozy drawing room today. Joanne and Sarah have recently released their second book, A Right Royal Scandal: Two Marriages That Changed History. I was thrilled to receive an advanced reader copy of this book and highly recommend it. If you enjoy reading biographies about fascinating people from the 19th century, you should check it out.

So without further ado, take it away Joanne and Sarah.

Thanks for having us, Laurie. We thought this tidbit about the Regency era might interest your readers. The Prince Regent was the figurehead for the visit of the allied sovereigns to England during the Napoleonic Wars. The Tsar of Russia, the King of Prussia and other European sovereigns landed at Dover on the 6th of June 1814 to celebrate the Peace of Paris and the abdication of Napoléon Bonaparte, who had been exiled to Elba. Lord Charles Bentinck who was the prince’s friend, equerry, and putative former son-in-law was a constant presence throughout the festivities and was often found at the prince’s side. This painting of the visit shows the young Prince Augustus of Prussia (on the left hand side of the portrait) turning his head to speak to Lord Charles who is standing directly behind him.

The Allied Sovereigns at Petworth, 24th June 1814 by Thomas Phillips, National Trust, Petworth House.

Lord Charles Bentinck was a widower. His late wife Georgiana Augusta Frederica Seymour was the daughter of the infamous eighteenth-century courtesan, Grace Dalrymple Elliott and–reputedly–the young Prince of Wales, later George IV. The prince certainly thought Georgiana was his daughter and privately–if not publicly–acknowledged her as such. The Bentincks had one young daughter. Tragically Georgiana had died in December 1813 following complications after a fall when once again pregnant.

Lady Charles Bentinck, formerly Georgiana Augusta Frederica Seymour by Mrs Joseph Mee, 1813. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017

When the ship carrying the sovereigns docked at Dover and the crowned heads of state were met by Lord Yarmouth, the Earl of Rosslyn and Lord Charles Bentinck, who escorted their guests, together with a detachment of the Scots Greys, to a nearby house marked for their reception while the guard of honour discharged their cannons. The Prince Regent’s younger brother, William, Duke of Clarence (later William IV) was also in attendance and gave a sumptuous banquet. The next day the retinue started for London and more celebrations. Lord Charles played a role in coordinating the festivities, particularly looking after the Prussian delegation led by King Frederick William III for whom he was appointed the temporary chamberlain. At the ensuing court at Carlton House, the Prussian king and his family were conducted to the regent’s side by Lord Charles Bentinck.

The Banquet given by the Corporation of London to the Prince Regent, the emperor of Russia and the King of Prussian, 18th June 1814 by Luke Clennell. Guildhall Art Gallery. Could that possibly be Lord Charles Bentinck seated second from the left on the left-hand side table?

There were banquets, state visits and jaunts to the racecourse at Ascot, and all the while Lord Charles danced attendance on the Prussian party until finally the sovereigns arrived at Portsmouth ready to embark on board their ship to return to mainland Europe. The Duke of Wellington, who looked extremely well, if a little thin and sunburnt following months of campaigning on the battlefields of Spain and France, arrived in a coach and four to the sound of a band playing See the Conquering Hero Comes and shouts of ‘Long live Wellington’. Before the Prussian king left England, he presented Lord Charles with a boxed set of diamonds worth £500 in gratitude for his attendance as chamberlain upon him.

Lady Abdy as a Bacchante, painted in 1813 by Mrs Joseph Mee for George IV when Prince Regent. Royal Collection Trust/© Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II 2017.

Perhaps, in time, these diamonds were worn by the second Lady Charles Bentinck? A year later Lord Charles was conducting a clandestine affair with the married Lady Abdy who was thought to resemble his first wife. Her husband, Sir William Abdy, was reputedly the richest commoner in England but he was no match for his spirited wife. Anne, Lady Abdy and née Wellesley, was the niece of the Duke of Wellington. Her father was Wellington’s elder brother, Richard, Marquess Wellesley and her mother a former Parisian opera dancer, Hyacinthe Gabrielle née Rolland, who had been Wellesley’s mistress for many years; he had only married her after the birth of their five children. When Lord Charles Bentinck and Lady Abdy eloped in 1815, only a short time after Wellington’s victory at Waterloo, the gossips whispered that it was no wonder Lady Abdy had behaved as she did…

Thanks, ladies, for introducing us to Lord Charles Bentinck and his scandalous life. As an aside, when Tsar Alexander I came to England for the celebration, he stayed with his sister Catherine Pavlovna, the Grand Duchess Oldenburg, at the Pulteney Hotel in Piccadilly. If you’re interested in finding out more about the hotel, I wrote an article about it. Just click on the name of the hotel to read it.

More about Joanne and Sarah:

Almost two books in one, A Right Royal Scandal recounts the fascinating history of the irregular love matches contracted by two successive generations of the Cavendish-Bentinck family, ancestors of the British Royal Family. The first part of this intriguing book looks at the scandal that erupted in Regency London, just months after the Battle of Waterloo, when the widowed Lord Charles Bentinck eloped with the Duke of Wellington’s married niece. A messy divorce and a swift marriage followed, complicated by an unseemly tug-of-war over Lord Charles’ infant daughter from his first union. Over two decades later and while at Oxford University, Lord Charles’ eldest son, known to his family as Charley, fell in love with a beautiful gypsy girl, and secretly married her. He kept this union hidden from his family, in particular his uncle, William Henry Cavendish-Scott-Bentinck, 4th Duke of Portland, upon whose patronage he relied. When his alliance was discovered, Charley was cast adrift by his family, with devastating consequences.

A love story as well as a brilliantly researched historical biography, this is a continuation of Joanne and Sarah’s first biography, An Infamous Mistress, about the eighteenth-century courtesan Grace Dalrymple Elliott, whose daughter was the first wife of Lord Charles Bentinck. The book ends by showing how, if not for a young gypsy and her tragic life, the British monarchy would look very different today.

For more information about Joanne and Sarah’s books, just click these links.

 

The Connection Between a Favorite Drink of Regency Era Gentlemen and the Great Comet of 1811.

I’m writing the third book in my Secrets of the Ton trilogy and my hero, the Earl of Hartwick, is a man who appreciates fine brandy. I love creating personal details about my characters and wanted to include the name of Hart’s favorite brandy in my story. When I started my research, I thought I’d simply get the name of a notable brandy from 1819. What I discovered, gave me insight into the cognac I drink today and I thought you might find it interesting as well.

First let me explain the difference between the terms brandy and cognac. Brandy is made by distilling wine and aging it in barrels. Cognac is brandy which comes from the Cognac region in France.

During the Regency era, the finest brandy was produced during 1811 in France. The interesting thing is, still to this day, that vintage is considered to be one of the greatest in history. And the reason behind it is tied to a comet.

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The Great Comet of 1811, as drawn by William Henry Smith. Curtesy of Wikimedia.

In March of 1811, the Flaugergues comet began its trek across the sky in the Northern Hemisphere. Although the comet was visible to astronomers for 17 months, during September and October of  that year, it was visible to the naked eye. Accounts of the time describe the comet as illuminating the night sky and at one point it exceeded the diameter of the sun.

It’s believed the presence of the comet contributed to optimal growing conditions, particularly in France. The long hot summer and warm dry autumn of that year led to an abundant harvest of perfectly ripe grapes. People soon realized that the cognac, wine, and champagne of this vintage were exceptional. Even today, you can find bottles of cognac in your local liquor store that have stars on the labels. This isn’t a ranking. The stars are there as a tribute to the 1811 vintage, known as “The Comet Vintage”.

If you’re familiar with Courvoisier cognac, you’re probably aware it’s known as “Le Cognac de Napoleon”. According to the company’s website, not long after they were founded in 1809, the reputation of their cognac grew quickly among brandy connoisseurs and Napoleon visited their warehouse in Bercy to try it. He started giving a ration of cognac to his artillery companies to lift their morale during the Napoleonic Wars. When he was exiled to St. Helena, legend has it that he chose several casks of Courvoisier cognac to take with him as one of the luxury items he was granted by the British. The British officers on board the HMS Northumberland, who were tasked with transporting Napoleon, appreciated the cognac their prisoner shared with them and referred to it as “the brandy of Napoleon”.

And in case you’re curious which brandy the Earl of Hartwick favors in my upcoming book An Unexpected Countess, it’s an 1811 Croizet B. Léon cognac, which currently is selling for €25,000 for one bottle.

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References:

http://courvoisier.com/us/history

http://www.forbes.com/sites/sethporges/2013/10/10/6-things-you-probably-didnt-know-about-cognac/#3b2df53b7bf5

http://www.oldliquors.com/cognac-1811-croizet-b-léon-4837

The Daily Cognac: 1811 The Comet Vintage