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“The rooms are high and hung with beautiful tapestries […] [and] the staircases are built with peculiar comfort: after every five steps there is a landing so that one can rest and does not get out of breath.”
Johann Ernst von Sachsen-Weimar about Audley End

Audley End in EssexThis past weekend, I went on a short trip to London to meet up with online friends. And what does a historically-minded person do when in Britain? Visit a stately home of course! This time around the stately home in question was Audley End in Essex, which in many ways is an excellent example of the varied history of British country houses.

The current house is built on the foundations of a 12th-century Benedictine monastery, Walden Abbey, which fell to the Crown during Henry VIII’s dissolution of monasteries in the wake of his break from the Church of Rome. Henry gifted the house and its environs to one of his most trusted advisors (and a man who knew enough of courtly politics to keep his head low), Lord Audley, who converted the monastery into a home for his family.

It was his grandson, Thomas Howard, 1st Earl of Suffolk, who transformed the house into a splendid palace, quite literally fit for a king: in 1614 James I came for a visit. This Jacobean version of Audley End was one of the most ambitious building projects of its time. According to T.K. Cromwell in his Excursions in the County of Essex (vol. 1, 1818), the house

“was deemed equal to the palaces of Hampton Court, Nonsuch, and Richmond. […] Audley House, when first completed, consisted of various ranges of building, surrounding two quadrangular courts. That to the west was very spacious, and was approached through a grand entrance gateway, between four round towers.”

18th-century print of the Jacobean palace Audley End

“Audeley End Palace in Essex, as it was in it’s Splendor,” 18th-century print, Wikipedia

But such a vast palace was difficult to upkeep, and thus various wings and buildings were demolished in the course of the early 18th century as the house passed through various different branches of the Howard family (who had some problems producing an adequate number of heirs). It finally ended up in the possession of Elizabeth Griffin, Countess of Portsmouth, who bought the house in 1751 and had it remodelled and altered in the Jacobean style. While she didn’t have any children either, she solved that particular problem by naming her nephew as her heir on the condition that he change his surname to Griffin.

Not only did Sir John Griffin Griffin continue the alterations of the house, e.g. by having a new range of detached kitchen buildings erected on the north side of the house, but he also employed Capability Brown to transform the grounds around Audley End into a landscape garden, with buildings designed by Robert Adam. Alas, soon, Sir John and his garden architect quarelled bitterly—over the completion of the project (not on time) and added costs (way too high), but perhaps also because Sir John took a very decided interest in the remodelling and apparently wished to be very, very, very closely involved in it. The contract with Brown was eventually terminated, and the remodelling of the garden was entrusted to the otherwise unknown Joseph Hicks.

The grounds feature all the typical elements of a  landscape garden: wide, sweeping views from the house with neo-classical follies acting as focal points, a stretch of water spanned by a neo-classical bridge, and a pleasing arrangement of various groups of trees.

Audley End, Palladian Bridge

The Palladian Bridge, designed by Robert Adam in 1782

However, in its current form, the house most closely reflects the taste of its owners in the 19th century, when once again due to the lack of a direct heir, the house passed to yet another branch of the family. And finally, in 1820, a nursery was established at Audley End. As the family of the 3rd Lord Baybrooke expanded, the nursery eventually moved to a larger set of rooms, which have recently been restored and opened to the public.

It was perhaps this nursery which surprised me most of all the things to see at Audley End: I had always thought of a nursery as a plain white-washed room, perhaps two, somewhere on the top floor of a great house. The nursery at Audley End not only consists of several rooms, but it is also large and comfortable with large windows that let in the light. There’s also a large doll house, filled with both bought items and homemade elements as is typical for dollhouses of this era. (Taking photos is forbidden inside the Audley End, hence no pretty pictures of the interiors.)

The nursery was run by a governess, who oversaw three nursery maids and, if necessary, a wet nurse. Mirabel, the eldest daughter of the house, loved doing watercolors, and apparently large parts of the nursery were restored based on her sketches and paintings. She never married, and remained life-long friends with her old governess. Richard, the eldest son of the family, had a keen interest in archaeology and taxidermy (with a special interest in birds). Today his fossils and stuffed birds (especially the stuffed birds) fill two galleries of the house and make you think you’ve accidentally stepped into a natural history museum.

While the displays in the big house focus on the family who lived here, the displays in the service areas and the stable block focus on the servants who worked here, with photographs of estate workers from the turn to the 20th century. And thus, a nice balance is achieved between “upstairs” and “downstairs.”

The Kitchen Garden of Audley End

The Kitchen Garden

Office of the Head Gardener at Audley End

Office of the Head Gardener

Training Horses for the Hunt with Birds of Prey

Training Horses for the Hunt with Birds of Prey

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sotterleyI went on a field trip yesterday with a bunch of museum/history geeks to Sotterley Plantation, in Hollywood. (No, not that Hollywood. The one in Maryland.) It’s on the Patuxent River and is the only tidewater plantation open to the public, and is over four hundred years old.

Did I mention how old it is? I did. The land was first colonized by James Bowles in 1699, who built a modest two room a few redyears after, which forms the core of the house. It’s possible to date it so accurately because dendochronology has determined that the cypress posts used in construction date to 1703. This extremely red room, apparently a highly popular color in the period, is the oldest part of the house. There’s a dark rectangle to the right of the notice on the door which is actually a hole cut in the woodwork to reveal the original cypress post.

chinesestaircaseNaturally subsequent owners began to make expansions and improvements, and suddenly,  later in the century, Chinoiserie became all the rage. Hence this extraordinary staircase in the expansion of the house undertaken by George Plater III (lots of Georges in this family). He also became a governor of the State of Maryland, and, eew, I cannot get this out of my head: he married a 13 year old who had their first baby when she was 14, and who became, according to the Sotterly website, “a political and social asset to her husband.” Gawd.

yellowA pretty yellow parlor was added in this period and the shell alcoves in the room are original (built with help from Mt. Vernon’s slaves).

Note the picture over the mantelpiece. This is an amazing bit of Colonial Revival kitsch. Colonial Revival was a big hit in the second half of the nineteenth century. There was a sudden burst of interest in the noble patriots of the revolution, gentlemen and landowners (and that meant slave owners. Mr. Bowles bought over 200 slaves when he arrived in 1799, and so it continued). Given Maryland’s geographical location, the division during the Civil War, and the reluctance of the state to free its slaves, the colonial period seemed a lot safer. The Colonial Revival movement presented an imaginary version of the good old days, in terms not only of interior design and decoration, but also in interpreting uncomfortable history. So a late 19th century artist was moved to paint this (pardon my assymetry):


Wow. Is it Tara? Is it … well goodness only knows, but the artist had apparently never visited this house in Suffolk, Sotterley Hall, which it’s meant to depict:


The Platers believed they were descended from a Thomas Playter who owned Sotterley Hall in the fifteenth century (they weren’t), hence the name of the plantation.

And here’s a pic of a view from the gardens of the house, looking out over the Patuxent:


Are you planning to visit any historical sites, or have you been to any recently? Plans for the summer?

a picture of the main gate to the Saalburg

Saalburg: Porta Praetoria (the main gate)

As I have surely already mentioned in an earlier post, one of the settings of my upcoming Roman romance EAGLE’S HONOR: RAVISHED is based on a real fort at the Upper German-Raetian limes: the Saalburg, which today is a renowned open air museum with reconstructions of several of the Roman buildings and fortifications. As I was preparing the Author’s Note for my novel, it struck me how many lives this Roman fort has had – and not just in the Roman period.

The first fort on this site was built in timber, but was soon replaced by a larger fort built in timber and stone.  A few years later, that fort was expanded and its defenses strengthened. Finally, at some point in the early 270s, the Romans gave up this stretch of the border and withdrew across the Rhine. The fort was abandoned and fell into ruins.

The Germanic people who moved into the area didn’t have much use for stone buildings, but from the Middle Ages onward, the stones from the fort were used for various building projects in the region. The original Roman name of the fort was forgotten; indeed, the very fact that this used to be a Roman fort was forgotten as well. The modern name, Saalburg, dates to the early 17th century and suggests people took the walls to be the remains of an early medieval castle.

It was only in 1723 when a stone altar bearing the name of Caracalla was found that people realized the Saalburg was actually a Roman ruin. But at that point only antiquarians (who were generally considered to be really strange people anyway) were interested in musty ruins, and so the Saalburg continued to be used as a most convenient stone quarry until 1818.

In the early 19th century archaelogy was still in its infancy, carried out by interested amateurs. In England William Cunnington, who started to do excavations of prehistoric sites in Wiltshire in about 1798, revolutionized the methods of archaeology, e.g., by carefully recording digs and finds. But it would take another few decades before archaeology became professionalised.

The increasing professionalisation of archaeology becomes also apparent when we look at the history of excavations of the Saalburg: from 1870 onward, the excavations were state-funded, and the men overseeing the digs aimed at using scientific methods and presenting their findings in a scientific way.

And when plans were made to not just excavate the remains of the fort, but also to reconstruct key buildings such as the principia (the headquarters building), the latest archaeological and historical findings were employed to make the reconstruction as faithful to reality as possible. This first phase of reconstruction work lasted ten years, from 1897 to 1907, and received support from Kaiser Wilhelm II himself.

a sketch of the military standards at the Saalburg

The military standards at the Saalburg

While this support was no doubt beneficial, it also meant that the Kaiser took an active interest in the project and in some cases influenced the way the reconstruction was done. The most obvious example of this is the presence of an eagle standard in the shrine of the standards in the principia. In Roman times, only legions fought under the eagle standard, and the Saalburg never housed a legion, but only ever auxiliary troops. However, due to the imperial symbolism of the eagle, the Kaiser insisted that the eagle standard was included.

Moreover, in the years since 1900, new research into Roman military architecture has revealed that parts of the early reconstruction are incorrect, for example, the walls surrounding the fort would have been white-washed and the towers of the main gate wokuld have had been higher. Further reconstructions from the 2000s reflect these newer findings.

The Saalburg today thus presents itself as a fascinating hotchpotch of visions of what a Roman fort might have looked like, and it represents yet another phase of that old Roman fort that was first built in this place in the early 2nd century.

Would the soldiers who were stationed here during the reign of Emperor Hadrian recognize their old home in the Saalburg. Bits of it, perhaps. Though I’m not quite sure what they would make of the eagle standard in their shrine…

I’m currently on vacation in Oxford (and I’m typing this on my phone so that should be… er… interesting. Now when you think of Oxford, there are of course the colleges…

Christ Church

Christ Church

…and Radcliffe Camera (part of the ginormous Bodleian Library)….

Radcliffe Camera

Radcliffe Camera

…and the Bridge of Sighs, which links the two halves of Hertford College.

The Bridge of Sighs

The Bridge of Sighs

But what I found most impressing are the grazing sites that have been in use for hundreds of years. There is Christ Church Meadow, which as the name suggests is part of the college grounds – and it’s also home to the college’s herd of longhorn cattle.

Christ Church Meadow with the college cattle

Christ Church Meadow with the college cattle

The view across the meadow with the college in the background

And then there’s Port Meadow, where I took a long, long, oh-gosh-my-feet-hurt walk today. It is mentioned as a piece of common land in the Domesday Book, a survey of English landholdings comissioned by William the Conqueror after the Norman Conquest in the eleventh century. And since then, Port Meadow has been in continuous use as grazing grounds.

Port Meadow

Port Meadow

Indeed, it was used as common grazing grounds ever since Alfred the Great granted all freemen of Oxford the right to use this piece of land as a reward for their bravery against the vikings. But even before that time, the land hadn’t been ploughed for thousands of years.

How intriuguing to imagine the seemingly endless stream of generation upon generation of cows that have grazed here!


The small village of Binsey to the west of Port Meadow

The small village of Binsey to the west of Port Meadow

The history of the English countryside is not necessarily something that features heavily in our books, so walking across Port Meadow today served as a nice reminder of the importance of that history and how it has helped to shape the country we all love so much!


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I’m a bit late with my post today as I spent the day at the Rhine with friends. And since I’ve already written about 19th-century travels on the Rhine, I thought it might be nice to share pictures of our day trip and add to them some descriptions from guidebooks from the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Koblenz with the "German Corner," where the rivers Rhine and Mosel meet

View of Koblenz with the “German Corner,” where the rivers Rhine and Mosel meet

We visited Koblenz, which Murray’s Handbook for Travellers on the Continent: Northern Germany of 1845 describes thus:

“Coblenz is a strongly fortified town on the left bank of the Rhine, and right of the Mosel. It received from the Romans the name Confluentes, modernised into Coblenz, from its situation at the confluence of these 2 rivers. It is the capital of the Rhenish provinces of Prussia, and its population, together with that of Ehrenbreitstein, including the garrison, is about 25,000.”



Right across the Rhine from Koblenz lies the Ehrenbreitstein. Murray’s tells us the following about the fortress:

“Ehrenbreitstein (honour’s broad stone), the Gibraltar of the Rhine, connected with Coblenz by a bridge of boats. In order to enter it, it is necessary to have permission from the military commandant residing in Coblenz, which a valet-de-place will easily procure, on merely presenting the passport, or a card with the name of the applicant upon it.”

The garrison was destroyed by the French in 1801, but was rebuilt by the Prussians between 1817-1828 and, together with Koblenz on the other side of the river, was meant to protect the Middle Rhine.

Deutsches Eck

Deutsches Eck

One of the most famous sights of Koblenz is the so-called German Corner (Deutsches Eck), where the river Mosel meets the Rhine. After Kaiser Wilhelm’s death in 1888, a colossal equestrian statue was erected here in commemorate the Kaiser who had brought about the German unification of 1871. The statue was finished in 1897.

Electoral Palace, Koblenz

Electoral Palace

Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide from 1913 has the following to say about other sights of Koblenz:

“The beautiful Rhein Anlagen (gardens and promenade) extends along the river front a little south of the boat bridge. Above and behind the Anlagen is the Schloss [i.e., the Electoral Palace], formerly a favourite residence of the German Imperial family; the royal apartments may be seen.”

Prussian government building and Koblenzer Hof

Government Palace and the hotel Koblenzer Hof

Bradshaw’s also mentions “the imposing Regierungspalast (Government office) with square peaked towers” as well as the “[n]ew first class hotel” right next to it, the Grand Hotel Belle Vue – Coblenzer Hof, which had just opened in spring 1913. The ad in the guidebook proudly points out that there’s “running water in every room.” 🙂

ad for Coblenzer Hof in 1913 guidebook

Ad from Bradshaw’s Continental Railway Guide (1913)

But not just the buildings along the Rhine are particularly nice, you can also find beautiful buildings when you walk through the town itself.

pretty houses in Koblenz

Pretty houses in Koblenz

And oodles of churches like the Liebfrauenkirche, which is dedicated to Mary.

Liebfrauenkirche, Koblenz

Liebfrauenkirche, Koblenz

As you can see I had a truly wonderful day! 🙂 And I also had something to celebrate, namely the re-launch of my debut novel, The Lily Brand, which was published ten years ago by Dorchester. Here’s the blurb & the pretty new cover. Until the end of this week, you can still snatch it up for the launch price of $2.99.

Troy Sacheverell, fifth earl of Ravenhurst, was captured in France. He’d gone to fight Napoleon, but what he found was much more sinister. Dragged from prison to an old French manor on the outskirts of civilization, he was purchased by a rich and twisted widow. And more dangerous still was the young woman who claimed him.

Lillian had not chosen to live with Camille, her stepmother, but nobody escaped the Black Widow’s web. And on her nineteenth birthday, Lillian became Camille’s heir. Her gift was a plaything: a man to end her naiveté, a man perfect in all ways but his stolen freedom. Yet even as Lillian did as she was told, marked that beautiful flesh and branded it with the flower of her name, all she desired was escape. In another place, in another world, she’d desired love. Now, looking into burning blue eyes, she knew there was no place to run. No matter if should she flee, no matter where she might go, she and this man were prisoners of passion, inextricably linked by the lily brand.

And while her heart remained locked in ice, his burnt with hate. Would they ever find true happiness?

Get it on Amazon or Kobo

cover of Sandra Schwab's The Lily Brand

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