Saturday, November 18, 2017

The Secrets of Mary Jane Kelly, the Ripper's Last Victim

by Nancy Bilyeau

On the morning of Nov. 9th, 1888, James Whitehead, a 54-year-old merchant who'd made a successful second career in politics, was the star of the Lord Mayor's Show, a London tradition that was always held on this date. As the city's new mayor, Whitehead, a champion of reform, had desired a more stately procession than the circus-like Mayor's parade, famous since the 16th century. But, heedless of Whitehead's embarrassment, crowds gathered along the Gresham Street to Guildhall route, with many police called upon to patrol and control.

It was perhaps a welcome distraction from the horror.

For the past six months, London had been transfixed and terrorized by the murders of a series of women in the Whitechapel District of the East End. The last of the horrific slayings--dubbed the "Double Event" as two prostitutes, Elizabeth Stride and Catherine Eddowes, had their throats cut within two hours of each other--was on Sunday, September 30th.

The stereotypical image of Jack the Ripper.
In reality, to blend in on Dorset Street and the rest of Spitalfields,
the murderer would have had to appear much less posh.

Although the police had interviewed at least 2,000 people, they had not zeroed in on the man responsible, the same one who may or may not have written taunting letters to the newspapers signed "Jack the Ripper." There was some hope the killing spree was over, since more than a month had passed. The Lord Mayor's Show was an occasion to forget fear and try to celebrate.

One person not hurrying to the parade was Jack McCarthy, landlord of many properties in Whitechapel occupied by the destitute, ranging from the respectable working poor to thieves, gamblers, hopeless alcoholics and "Unfortunates," the Victorian euphemism for prostitutes. As always, McCarthy had money on his mind. Around 10:30 am, McCarthy told his assistant, Thomas Bowyer, to try to collect the rent in arrears at No. 13 Miller's Court, a ground-floor room on a narrow 20-foot-long cul de sac of Dorset Street.

Even within Spitalfields, an overcrowded East End parish infamous for its poverty, crime and filth, Dorset Street was in a class all its own. Part of the "wicked quarter mile," it was a 130-yard-long street almost entirely occupied by common lodging houses and pubs. In 1901, the Daily Mail, under the headline "The Worst Street in London," would publish an article saying, "...The lodging houses of Dorset Street and of the district around are the head centers of the shifting criminal population of London... the common thief, the pickpocket, the area meak, the man who robs with violence, the unconvicted murderer..."

As grim as these lodgings were, the alternative--"sleeping rough"--was worse. Many of the poor struggled on a daily basis to pay for their "doss house" bed.  The September 8th victim of Jack the Ripper, 47-year-old Annie Chapman, was murdered while trying to earn enough money on the streets to pay the nightly charge at her common lodging house at 35 Dorset Street.

Dorset Street, dubbed "the worst street in London"

At 10:45 a.m. Thomas Bowyer knocked on the door of 13 Miller's Court. In April of that year a Billingsgate Market fish porter, Joseph Barnett, and his pretty young companion, Mary Jane Kelly, had moved into the room, costing 4s/6d a week. It was 10-foot-square with two small windows, a bed, two tables and a fireplace. In Spitalfields, this was a home better than the average.

But Barnett lost his job. He moved out after quarreling with Mary on October 30. She was living there alone, a common sight in the neighboring pubs, drinking with friends. Although she told those friends she was afraid of Jack the Ripper, Mary had turned to prostitution to support herself. It was not her first time earning her living as an "Unfortunate."

Pre-Raphaelite artist Dante Gabriel Rossetti began Found,
his painting depicting a prostitute, in 1855 and worked on it
on and off until a year before his death in 1881.

No one answered the knock on the door. The small window next to the door had been broken weeks earlier by Barnett or Mary and was blocked by a heavy material hanging from the inside.  Bowyer pushed aside the material to see inside. Seconds later, sickened and horrified, he ran to fetch landlord McCarthy.

The law on Ripper Street

The series Ripper Street centers on the ingenuity of late 19th century East End police. The reality was different. An inspector joined the men at the Miller's Court window but did not provide initiative. The group summoned a doctor. The doctor had the presence of mind to call for a photographer. But the door was locked--McCarthy had no key--and the group waited outside, first for trail-sniffing bloodhounds that never showed up and then for someone to make the decision on how to enter the room. At 1:30 pm, McCarthy finally broke through the door with a pickax. This delay made it even harder to set the time of death, which is hotly debated to this day. Some put it as early as 1 a.m., others say it was as late as 8 a.m., with the murderer taking advantage of police being preoccupied with the Lord Mayor's Show.

Two days later, Mary Jane Kelly was formally identified at the mortuary by Joseph Barnett, who was questioned and cleared of suspicion. As the city responded with panic and revulsion, doctors performed their post-mortem and police gathered what information they could. It had been a cold night of drizzling rain. No one had seen or heard anything suspicious besides a soft female cry of "Oh, murder" at about 3:30 am. That cry was ignored.

It seemed incredible--even supernatural--that she'd been killed in such a crowded area. Despite the presence of hundreds of people nearby, sleeping fitfully, coming and going all night, men in and out of pubs and prostitutes returning to their rooms to warm up before going back on the streets,  no man was seen leaving Mary's room, covered with blood or otherwise, although Miller's Court was just a little over a yard wide and lit by a gas lamp. Mary herself was seen and heard by neighbors throughout the preceding day and sporadically that night as she looked for business. Just before midnight, a neighbor saw Mary lead a man with a "blotchy" face and a thick "carrot" mustache to her room. At 2 a.m., an acquaintance spotted Mary with a man on Commercial Street, 5 foot 7 or so, in his 30s, "respectable appearance." After sharing a laugh and a kiss, they walked together to Dorset Street and toward her home. Was either of these men her killer?

Although an elaborate mythology has grown up of dark involvement by the Royal Family--particularly Prince Albert Victor--nothing in these theories has any connection to fact. Far from being indifferent to the Whitechapel murders, Queen Victoria was upset and concerned.

Queen Victoria in 1885

On November 10th, the day after the murder, she sent a telegram to Prime Minister Lord Salisbury: "This new most ghastly murder shows the absolute necessity for some very decided action. All these courts must be lit, & our detectives improved. They are not what they should be. You promised, when the 1st murders took place to consult with your colleagues about it." Three days later, Her Majesty sent her ideas to the Home Secretary of what the detectives should focus on, including "The murderer's clothes must be saturated with blood and must be kept somewhere!"

As for the persistent association of Queen Victoria's grandson, Prince Albert Victor Christian Edward, the Duke of Clarence to the public and Prince Eddy to friends, with the crimes, the prince was unquestionably not prowling the East End at the time of the murders. Documentation has placed him far away from London. On the night of the "double event," Prince Eddy was at Balmoral. To account for this inconvenient fact, subsequent theories have his doctor or trusted aide killing off prostitutes to cover up a secret marriage or as vengeance for syphilis. These are fantasies.

Although he was not a man fond of learning, Prince Eddy's reputation for depravity is undeserved. A new theory is that some people in the 20th century confuse the reputation of Eddy, who died of influenza at age 28, with another royal heir, Rudolf, Crown Prince of Austria, who died in a murder-suicide with his teenage mistress in 1889. Shy, insecure and partially deaf, Eddy during his short life is known to have hurt no one. His greatest crime was possibly boring people.

So where did all of this come from? In 1970 a retired British physician, Dr. Thomas Stowell, published an article in The Criminologist suggesting Prince Eddy was involved, based on documents he claimed to have seen (and no one else has unearthed). Dr. Stowell, rather eerily, died days after the controversial article was published. His son burned his papers shortly afterward. The hook, however, was baited. All sorts of feverish theories followed, including the one outlined in the 1979 film Murder By Decree: That Prince Eddy's doctor and friends slaughtered the five prostitutes because they knew he had secretly married an East End woman named Annie Crook. The case is solved by Sherlock Holmes. :)

Prince Eddy, whose reputation has been linked to the Jack the Ripper killings.

One of the reasons there was so much fascination with Mary Kelly, then and now, is she was young and pretty. She was "fair as a lily" and had "blue eyes and a very fine head of hair which reached nearly to her waist." She "was on pleasant terms with everybody," one contemporary said. Her landlord McCarthy said she was "a very quiet woman when sober but noisy when in drink."

Barnett testified as to his dead lover's background:

Mary Kelly has been portrayed in many films and
TV series such as From Hell's Heather Graham.
The real Kelly was not photographed,
except for the shocking pictures of her corpse.
"She said she was born in Limerick and went when very young to Wales. She did not say how long she lived there, but that she came to London about four years ago. Her Father's name was John Kelly, a gaffer or a foreman in an ironworks in Carnarvonshire or Carmarthen. She said she had one sister, who was respectable, who traveled  from market place to market place. This sister was very fond of her. There were six brothers in London and one in the Army. One of them was named Henry. I never saw her brothers. She said she was married when very young to a collier in Wales. I think the name was Davis or Davies. She said she lived with him until he was killed in an explosion.
After her husband's death she went to Cardiff to a cousin. She was following a bad life with her cousin, who, as I often told her, was her downfall. She was in a gay house [brothel] in the West End, but in what part she did not say. A gentleman came there to her and asked her if she would like to go to France... She did not remain long..."

A friend confirmed that Mary said she was originally from Ireland. She talked of receiving letters from a beloved mother and hoping to reunite with her and live there.

Nonetheless, in the 137 years since her death, no fact about Mary Jane Kelly's background has been verified. * Despite the efforts of many Ripper scholars, there are no records of her birth or marriage or residency in Ireland or Wales or France. No member of her family attended her funeral or came forward after her murder; no one could find evidence of the young husband's life or death. There is not a trace of her to be found before she came to London. This was not the case for the other four women thought certain to have been killed by the Ripper--known to Ripperologists as the Canonical Five. Researchers have records of birth and marriage, employment, even a wedding photo of one woman.

It is possible that Mary Jane Kelly used a false name the entire time Barnett and their friends knew her and invented all the details and names of family and husband. If so, will anyone ever discover her real identity? Because she was the last agreed-upon victim of Jack the Ripper, the youngest, the most horribly murdered and the most mysterious, she maintains an inescapable grip on the imagination of those obsessed with the crimes, unsolved to this day.

On Monday November 19th, 1888, the woman known as Mary Jane Kelly was buried at St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery in Leytonstone. Barnett and her friends could not pay for her funeral; the expenses were met by a sexton of Shoreditch. Thousands attended the six-mile-long procession, some straining to touch her coffin. Men removed their hats; women called out, "God forgive her." Two mourning carriages followed carrying Barnett and five women friends. The coffin was carried to an open grave listed as No. 16, Row 67.

The entrance to St. Patrick's Catholic Cemetery

On the night of her murder, neighbors on Miller's Court had heard Mary Jane Kelly singing in her room one of her favorite songs, over and over, for about a half hour between midnight and 1 a.m.. The song was "A Violet From Mother's Grave," written circa 1881.

 Scenes of my childhood arise before my gaze
Bringing recollections of bygone happy days.
When down in the meadows in childhood I would roam,
No one's left to cheer me now within that good old home,
Father and Mother, they'd have pass'd away;
Sister and brother, now lay beneath the clay.
But while life does remain to cheer me, I'll retain
This small violet I pluck'd from mother's grave.

Only a violet I pluck'd when but a boy,
And oft' time when I'm sad at heart this flow'r has giv'n me joy;
So whole life does remain in memoriam I'll retain,
This small violet I pluck'd from mother's grave.

Well I remember my dear old mother's smile,
As she used to free me when I returned from toil,
Always knitting in the old arm chair,
Father used to sit and read for all us children there,
But now all is silent around the good old home;
They all have left me in sorrow here to roam,
But while life does remain, in memoriam I'll retain
This small violet I pluck'd from mother's grave

* A recent book, 'The Real Mary Kelly,' makes the claim that she was killed by her former husband, a reporter covering the Ripper murders.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~


Nancy Bilyeau is the author of an award-winning trilogy of historical thrillers published by Simon & Schuster in North America, the United Kingdom, Germany and Spain. The first, The Crown, was an Oprah selection and short listed for the Crime Writers' Association's Ellis Peters Historical Dagger Award. The third in the series, The Tapestry, was published in March 2015.


The Chalice, winner of Best Historical Mystery of the Year from RT Reviews, is discounted to .99 as an ebook for the month of November. Go here for more info.


Cyber Sale on Tudor novel THE CHALICE



The publisher has discounted the ebook of THE CHALICE to 99 cents on both Amazon and Barnes & Noble. I'm pretty sure this is the cheapest it's ever been!



The Chalice is the second book in my trilogy set in the reign of Henry VIII. You don't need to have  read the first book, The Crown, to follow what is happening. It can stand alone. My main character, Joanna Stafford, is a Dominican novice whose way of life has been destroyed by Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries. In The Chalice, Joanna risks everything to defy the most powerful authorities, fulfill a prophecy, and preserve the future of Christendom.

I'll share two reviews.

Parade magazine: "English history buffs and mystery fans alike will revel in Nancy Bilyeau's richly detailed novel."

The Romantic Times Book Reviews gave The Chalice the prize of Best Historical Mystery of the Year, and I went to New Orleans for the first time in my life to accept the award. It was a blast!

From the RT "Top Pick" review: 

"This novel is riveting, and provides fascinating insight into the lives of displaced nuns and priests during the tumultuous Tudor period. Bilyeau creates fully realized characters, with complex actions and emotions, driving the machinations of these historic personages...."


To read the full review, go here.

And to order from Amazon, go here. Barnes & Noble link is here.


Tuesday, November 14, 2017

News: A Publisher Bought My 4th Novel, THE BLUE



I have some tremendous news. I’ve written a fourth historical thriller and I have a new publisher for it. With this novel, I’m jumping to another century, one I’ve long been fascinated by … the 18th! With THE BLUE, the question becomes: What would you do for the most beautiful color in the world?

With this novel, the world of Hogarth replaces that of Holbein in my fiction!

The year is 1758, and a headstrong woman artist, 24-year-old Genevieve Planche, is caught up in a high-stakes competition to discover the ultimate color that threatens to become as deadly as it is lucrative. The story sweeps readers from the worlds of the silk-weaving Huguenot refugees of London’s Spitalfields and the luxury-obsessed drawing rooms of Grosvenor Square to the secretive porcelain factory of Derby and, finally, magnificent Sevres Porcelain, in the shadow of Versailles. And running through it all: the captivating history and dangerous allure of the color blue.

The publisher is Endeavour Press, which will be putting out the book in print and digital formats, in the UK and the United States. Endeavour is committed to historical fiction as well as all kinds of literature, and the imprint publishing my novel, Endeavour Ink, is going forward with authors such as Beryl Kingston, Michael Jecks, and Imogen Robertson. You can read a story on the publisher
here.




Saturday, November 11, 2017

Interview with Alison Weir on "Queens of the Conquest: England's Medieval Queens"

By Nancy Bilyeau

Alison Weir's new book of nonfiction, Queens of the Conquest: England's Medieval Queens, is nothing short of sensational. I've been a steady reader of Alison's since I devoured The Six Wives of Henry VIII, and while she has written essential books on the Tudors, I love it when she writes about people who lived even earlier, from The Princes in the Tower to The Mistress of the Monarchy: The Life of Kathryn Swynford, Duchess of Lancaster.

Alison has traveled even further back in time to write Queens of the Conquest. I knew little about Matilda of Flanders, wife of William the Conqueror; Matilda of Scotland, wife of Henry I; Adeliza of Louvain, the second wife of Henry I; Mathilda of Boulogne, wife of King Stephen; and Empress Maud, England's first female ruler. Now, thanks to this meticulously researched and engrossing book, I feel as if they are flesh-and-blood, very distinct women.



I had to know more about how she pulled this off, and I reached out to Alison with some questions, which she graciously answered for me amid her book tour.


You wrote an excellent biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine, "Queens of the Conquest," which ends with the reign of Eleanor and her husband, Henry II. When you were writing about Eleanor, did you think of taking a closer look at the earlier queens someday or did the idea come much more recently?

Alison Weir: Back in the 1970s, having written the original version of my book The Six Wives of Henry VIII, I researched all the medieval queens of England, with a view--somewhat ambitious, perhaps!--to becoming the new Agnes Strickland! In 1991, when The Six Wives of Henry VIII was finally published, a reader wrote urging me to write about Eleanor of Aquitaine. I got out the research and realised I had enough for a biography, but it took me years to persuade my publishers to commission it. I have long wanted to publish my research on the other medieval queens--some of it has appeared in my biographies of Isabella of France and Elizabeth of York, and in my books on the Wars of the Roses--and I'm delighted to have been commissioned to write four books on the subject. I need that scope to do it properly. It was originally going to be one book, but you can't do justice to the subject in a single volume.


I was thrilled by how much you were able to relay about the queens' lives in order to tell their stories, there was a wealth of rich detail. I was under the impression that there wasn't a great deal of original material on these women, and yet it's possible that that is a false assumption of mine? Is there more in contemporary documents about these queens than is commonly understood?


AW: The sources are patchy. There's very little on Adeliza of Louvain, for example, and a lot on the Empress Matilda. In places, I found I was trying to weave fragments of information into a cohesive text; and in others I was able to write a sweeping narrative. Fortunately, there are excellent chronicles for the period, and a surprising number of letters written by the queens.


The life of Matilda of Flanders, the wife of William the Conqueror, was fascinating. She was quite strong--do you think another common assumption is that these queens were submissive and very much in their husband's shadow?


AW: Yes, I do. I was startled to find that the Norman queens were regarded as 'sharers in the royal dominion', and almost as queens regnant. They exercised real power, compared to later queens. I am fascinated by the development of English queenship, and that is an over-arching theme in the book.


I found the life of Matilda of Scotland very moving. The political situation was such that she had to hide in a convent for protection, but that really haunted her during her whole life--that she was a nun who broke her vows to marry, which was just not true. Were you sympathetic to her?

AW: I admire her as another tough lady of integrity who knew her own mind and had great abilities - more than we are aware of. I think posterity was unfair to her.


Is there any queen of England more complex that Maud?


AW: Anne Boleyn? It's tempting to regard Maud from a modern, feminist perspective and take a more sympathetic view, but she lost the throne because of her appalling lack of political judgement. No one complained that a woman had no right to rule - you will search in vain for evidence that they did - and at one point Maud carried almost the whole kingdom with her. If she had shown herself conciliatory and bountiful, her arrogance would have been forgiven.


Do you think King Henry I was a pleasant husband for either of his wives? Or was he pretty much what most wives would have to deal with in that century?



AW: He was considerate towards them, and did not demur when Matilda of Scotland decided she wanted no more children. Certainly he relied on her to rule as regent while he was abroad, which argues a high degree of respect for her. And he was careful not to blame Adeliza of Louvain for her failure to bear him an heir, and even sensitive to her embarrassment and sense of failure when he had publicly to make alternative plans for the succession. But he was serially unfaithful to both wives, although there is no record of either of them complaining, and they accepted the presence of his bastards at court. They must have been aware that he could be cruel and ruthless, but he never displayed such behaviour towards them.



I wanted to switch to your novel of Anne Boleyn, which was extremely interesting as well. Do you think the key to understanding her is that she never loved Henry VIII or even found him physically attractive?


AW: Thank you! Yes, I think her story makes more sense if you go with George Wyatt's statement that ‘she imagined that there was less freedom in her union with her lord and King than with one more agreeable to her’, which suggests that Henry the man was not particularly agreeable to her. But she was the product of an ambitious family, and it is likely that the prospect of becoming queen outweighed all other considerations.


Can you tell us anything about your perspective on Jane Seymour, the book that is next in that series of the novels of the wives of Henry VIII?



AW: I can only say that the novel is built on exciting new research! Jane is an enigma. Historians endlessly debate whether or not she was the demure and virtuous willing instrument of an ambitious family and an ardent and powerful king; or whether she was as ambitious as her relations and played a pro-active part in bringing down the Queen whom she served. I hope I've offered a credible reading of her. I found some interesting evidence about her obstetric history. But the most startling development was in regard to her death. Traditionally, it has been assumed that Jane died from puerperal fever, yet when I studied the sources for her final illness, and looked at the chronology, an anomaly emerged. I got a team of medical experts on the case, and they all said the same thing. But it's under wraps until the book comes out!

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Stafford Castle: The Stronghold of the Family Too Close to the Throne



By Nancy Bilyeau


The protagonist of my trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry, Joanna Stafford, is fictional but the family was quite real. The Staffords played an important part in the War of the Roses, fighting on the side of Lancaster. But through a royal marriage and aggressive acquiring of land and titles, the Staffords had became too rich and powerful as far as the reigning monarchs were concerned.


First the Yorks and then the Tudor monarchs had trouble with the Staffords. Richard III had Henry Stafford, 2nd duke of Buckingham, executed for treason. A generation later, Henry VIII ordered the death of Edward Stafford, 3rd duke of Buckingham, also for treason.

Edward Stafford, 3rd duke of Buckingham

The family's rise and fall is inextricably linked to Stafford Castle, in Staffordshire, the west midlands. All that is left is remains of this once proud medieval castle, which stands tall against the sky on the edge of a ridge.




In the 1070s a Norman lord raised a wooden building on the hill, worried about the rebellious Saxon population. In 1347, Ralph de Stafford, a supporter of Edward III and founding member of the Order of the Garter, built a stone castle on the same site. Ralph was a tough, ambitious and ruthless soldier, still leading troops when he was 60 years old. After his first wife had died, he abducted a wealthy young heiress and married her, ignoring the outrage of her parents. When the girl's family turned to Edward III for justice, he refused to order Stafford to give up his bride. Instead, he gave the girl's parents more titles.


The great-grandson of this roughly made union was Humphrey Stafford, first duke of Buckingham. Stafford Castle's heyday was during the life of Duke Humphrey, who built a massive rectangular stone keep, a tower in each corner.
The castle's "interior," today

Carole Rawcliffe, in the book The Staffords, wrote:

"The first Duke of Buckingham's household was an itinerant body which accompanied him from one lordship to another as he toured his estates or executed official business....The oldest and in many ways the most impressive was Stafford Castle, where Duke Humphrey kept a large stable with a resident staff of over forty yeomen and grooms. The castle, dominating the town and its environs, provided an ideal recruitment centre and assembly point for his retainers in Cheshire, Staffordshire and the Welsh March."
Duke Humphrey died in the Battle of Northampton, leading the Lancastrian army at the age of 58. Before the battle in support of King Henry VI he had informed the Yorkist side via messenger: "The Earl of Warwick shall not come to the king's presence and if he comes he shall die." The duke was not able to keep that promise; he was slain by Yorkist soldiers outside Henry VI's tent, defending his king to his last breath.
Humphrey Stafford


The second Duke of Buckingham also exhibited the family's taste for bravado. He helped Richard, Duke of Gloucester, take possession of the teenage Edward V, conveying him to the Tower of London. But then he turned against Richard once he became king, led a rebellion and was beheaded for his betrayal.


As for the third duke, a man of "harsh and acquisitive disposition," he was an early victim of Henry VIII's paranoia about relatives who could try to take his throne. There was little proof of treason introduced at Edward Stafford's trial except for testimony that he'd met with a monk who prophesied the future of Henry VIII--how long would he live and whether he'd have a son. To the Tudors, this was more than enough.


The family never recovered from the execution of Buckingham in 1521. Although Stafford Castle was the family seat, the duke had lived most of the time in such grand homes as Thornbury Castle. But all of this property was seized by the crown after Buckingham's death and his widow and children were left with nothing at first. After a couple of years, Henry VIII returned one home--Stafford Castle--to the devastated clan. It was all that remained of their vast holdings across the kingdom.



The oldest son, Henry, Lord Stafford, lived at the castle with his wife, Ursula, and their 14 children for the rest of his life. Fearful of drawing attention, he played no part in politics and rarely attended court. He spent pleasurable hours in his private library, which included at least 300 books, translating works from Latin and dabbling in writing himself. He was in some ways the anti-Stafford.


But he had a problem: he owned almost no land beyond the immediate vicinity of the castle, and his need for money was intense.


That is why on April 27, 1536, Lord Stafford wrote this craven letter to Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of Henry VIII:

"Though I am least able to serve you, yet the comfort you gave me makes me bold to write to you. I beg you will use means with the King that I may have the farm of the abbey of Rantone, if it be dissolved. It is within four miles of my house and reaches my park pale, and I will give as much for it as any man. I heard that the Queen had moved the King to have me in remembrance for it, and he was content, saying it was alms to help me, having so many children on my hands. I heard that Geo. Blunt endeavours to obstruct my suit. By the last act of the Lords Marchers my income will be 20l. a year less. In the matter which I showed you of my lord of Wiltshire's motion, pray make my humble submission to the King."


The queen in question was Anne Boleyn and the "lord of Wiltshire" her father. Apart from the fact that it was unlikely that the Reform-minded queen would support the cause of an old Catholic disenfranchised aristocratic family, there was a sensational scandal at court that put Stafford's request at the bottom of any list. Cromwell was interrogating suspected lovers of the queen at the end of April. Anne Boleyn would be arrested and beheaded in May. Poor Henry Stafford had made his desperate plea for patronage of the wrong faction at the wrong time.




Henry Stafford had better luck when Catholic Mary Tudor succeeded to the throne. He petitioned the queen for financial assistance in 1554 and was made a chamberlain of the exchequer, a position that brought him 50 pounds a year.

Lord Stafford died in his bed at the age of 62. With little income to draw on, the castle continued to crumble, and his grandson referred to it as "my rotten castle of Stafford" in 1603.

Which brings us to Lady Isabel Stafford. When the Civil War broke out, the family still held the castle, though how is hard to imagine. They had the dusty prestige of the name "Stafford," but the dukedom of Buckingham had been given away to favorites of the Stuart monarchy long ago.

Nonetheless, Lady Isabel showed the same fire as the first Staffords. The town near the castle sided with the forces trying to topple Charles I. But Isabel, being a determined Royalist, held the castle as a siege against Parliamentarian forces in May of 1643.



A Colonel Brereton approached the castle with his men and called on her to surrender. Isabel refused. The men set fire to some of the wooden buildings outlying the castle "to work their spirits to any relenting." Far from relenting, it led the Stafford force within to fire shots from the castle. The fires started in earnest then, "to provoke a serious revenge." But they could not damage the main castle, and in frustration retreated.

A Royalist relief force arrived and Lady Isabel left. But later that summer the garrison that was left to defend Stafford Castle fled when a large Parliamentarian army approached. On December 22nd, the Parliamentarian Committee of Stafford ordered "the castle shall be forthwith demolished" so that it could never again serve as a defendable source of opposition. And so it was.

The great Stafford Castle was no more. A traveler riding by wrote "the castle is now ruinated." The glory of the family and the castle that bore its name was finally over.




In 1813, a new family tried to rebuild Stafford Castle in the Gothic Revival Style but ran out of money. The keep, however, was occupied up until the 20th century by caretaker families who offered tours and served tea. In 1961, a member of the Stafford family, worried about public safety, gave the keep to the local authorities.



This castle has an unqualified happy ending, however. Stafford Castle has a thriving visitor centre today, running many education programs and for years has served as an inspiring backdrop for Shakespearean plays. Seeing that a few Staffords have appeared as characters in the plays of the Bard, this seems fitting indeed.

Summer Shakespeare, at Stafford Castle


To learn more about Stafford Castle today, go here.

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Nancy Bilyeau is the author of the award winning trilogy The Crown, The Chalice, and The Tapestry. The Crown was an Oprah pick, and The Tapestry a finalist for the Daphne du Maurier Award for Best Historical Suspense.

Touchstone Books has discounted The Chalice to .99 as an ebook in the U.S. Go here.