Wednesday, 13 June 2018

The Beauty of Croome

North Front

History of Croome

Croome Court, situated at Croome D’Abitot near Pershore in the heart of Worcestershire, has been the seat of the Coventry family for six hundred years. While the heart of the mansion dates from the 1640s, the house seen today was down to George William, 6th Earl of Coventry. When he inherited the estate in 1751, following the death of his older brother Thomas, he set out to create a ‘place of beauty and artistry’.

The 6th Earl of Coventry by Allan Ramsay Photo © Heather King

In 1752, he married the celebrated Maria Gunning, elder of the two famous actress sisters who took fashionable London by storm because of their incredible beauty, and in spite of coming from Dublin and being dreadfully poor. Maria was so popular, she was mobbed whenever she appeared in public. Tragically, she died when only 28, poisoned by the lead in the make-up she used.

Maria Gunning married the 6th Earl of Coventry
Courtesy Wikimedia

However, the history of Croome starts long before the eighteenth century. The Domesday Book records that the manorial rights and much of the land at Croome belonged to the Bishop of Worcester. According to this entry, Croome consisted of one hide of land, three carucates (both measures being equal to about one hundred acres, though accounts differ on this) and Oderic, who held the land for the Bishop, also possessed three villans or slaves for working the land and five bordars, upper domestic servants who waited at their master’s board in addition to other ‘less ignoble offices’. There were also ‘twenty-four acres of meadow and three quarantines [roods] of woodland’. The value was estimated at forty shillings.

I wonder how many thousands of pounds it is worth now!

Following the Norman invasion, the estate passed to Urso D’Abitot, after whom the village was named. William the Conqueror granted Urso forty hides – about four thousand acres – in Worcestershire, besides other manors elsewhere. He was also appointed hereditary sheriff and constable of the royal castles in this beautiful county. Cursed by the Bishop of York (who had previously lost his right to Worcester), for various incursions against the monks of that city, Urso died not long after the building of his castle, his only son following him soon after. Croome therefore passed into the hands of the Earls of Warwick via the marriage of Urso’s daughter, Emma to Walter de Beauchamp.

Held by one Osbern D’Abitot in 1283, the estate then passed through various owners until it came into the possession, via marriage again, of Simon Clare of Kidderminster. It was from Sir Ralph Clare Bart. that Sir Thomas Coventry purchased the property and thus the association of the Coventry family with Croome began.

To return, then, to the 6th Earl’s vision for Croome, George commissioned Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, not only to landscape the parkland, the capacity for which he was known, but also as architect for the house. Sanderson Miller, responsible for Hagley Hall and possibly also involved at Croome, given the similarity between the two, introduced Brown to the Earl. Later – after 1760 – the young Robert Adam was employed in the design of interiors and furnishings.

Successive holders of the title were all named George William and from the 7th Earl onwards also held the title of Viscount Deerhurst. However, crippling taxes forced the 9th Earl, who wished to keep the estate intact and not sell part to reduce the burden, to pass the estate into the management of the Croome Estate Trust – which he inaugurated – in 1921. All records prior to this date are held at the Worcestershire Records Office. The 9th Earl (born 1838) was so proud of Croome he did not alter any part of it, although he did keep a stable of sixty horses. He also bred them and won the Grand National in successive years, with full sisters Emblem in 1863 and Emblematic in 1864. George William, son of the 9th Earl, died in 1927 and did not inherit the title, which passed to his son, the 9th Earl’s grandson, also George William. The 10th Earl died during the Second World War, at the Battle of Givenchy in 1940, and was buried there. In effect, his death spelled the end of the Coventry family’s association with Croome, for the Court was requisitioned by the Ministry of Works and leased to the Dutch Government for a year – a possible for refuge from the Nazis for Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands – and part of the estate was developed into RAF Defford. The estate was then sold in 1948.

Along with 38 acres, Croome was sold to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Birmingham and was turned into St. Joseph’s Special School for boys. In 1979, it was taken over by the Hare Krishna movement and it was during their occupation that the Dining Room was repainted. They left the house in 1984, when various owners with various schemes – golf course, hotel, restaurant, conference centre etcetera – took on custodianship. In 1996, the National Trust took over the landscape park and set about the arduous task of restoration. With this aim, the park was opened to the public.

Then, in 1999, the house returned to being a private family home again when bought by Lawrence Bilton.

Finally – and the old house must have breathed a huge sigh of relief – the Croome Heritage Trust bought the mansion in October 2007. It is leased to the National Trust for 999 years and an extensive programme of restoration has begun. Six rooms, including the Saloon, had been restored, at a hefty cost of £400,000 when Croome Court opened to the public in September 2009. The attached service wing, built of red brick and with the upper floor converted into a private suite of apartments for Lord Coventry in 1799 (by James Wyatt), was then empty and in desperate need of refurbishment and repair. The ‘Red Wing’ is now weather-proof and structurally sound, but still requires a great deal of work to restore it to practical use. Hopefully, one day it will once more be used as a service wing to the main house as originally envisaged by Capability Brown.

North Front, Red Wing and Stables

In the next post(s), I will look at the house and park. Croome is a wonderful place to visit and all the staff friendly and helpful.

Unless otherwise stated, all photos © Heather King

Tuesday, 17 April 2018

Why I Love Historical Romantic Fiction

Cupid & Psyche, Edward Burne-Jones

There are many reasons why I love reading and writing historical novels. Firstly, I love history. Secondly, I am just a big softie and like nothing better than a Happy Ever After ending.

I began by making a list of things which draw me to my favourite era, the Regency. As it grew, just for fun I thought I would make it a Romantic Fiction ABC. Here, then, is my Top Twenty of why I love Historical Romance novels.

A is for Architecture

I just love Georgian architecture, whether as a London town house or a beautiful country mansion. There is something hugely romantic about the arrangement and shape of windows, pediments and porticoes; of marbled floors and the symmetry of rooms around a central entrance hall; of rococo plaster work on ceilings and mantelpieces, and – far from least – the glorious richness of murals and ceiling paintings.

Berrington Hall, Herefordshire

B is for Breeches and Top-boots

Some ladies find attraction in Giorgio Armani, Gucci and Boss. Not so this romantic author. For me, men in breeches, neckcloths and elegant coats, with top-boots or Hessians, have a swoon factor the half-naked men depicted on some modern covers just don’t have (not that I don’t appreciate a manly chest, you understand!) The sight of Richard Armitage’s Mr. Thornton will always win the heart over his be-stubbled Guy of Gisburne. Although… ahem.

Mr. Darcy's ensemble from 1995 adaptation of Pride & Prejudice

C is for Carriages

There is just something about a four-in-hand and a beautifully turned out equipage that modern cars cannot emulate. Although they were nowhere near as comfortable to travel in (and I appreciate many will disagree with me), cars have nothing to compare with the jingle of harness, the stamp of a shod hoof, the snort of the proud ‘cattle’ poled up. Flying feathers, tossing manes, swinging tails; the glorious, pungent smell of sweat glistening on warm equine hides… ah, sweet bliss to the horse fan!

The Edinburgh - London Royal Mail,
J.F. Herring Snr.

D is for Dresses and Drawers

What can be more romantic than beautiful gowns with frills and flounces? I will confess they have never been my idea of comfortable clothing, but I love to see them and certainly wouldn’t mind possessing an elegant riding habit. I love to read a book where the author has taken the trouble to describe what characters are wearing. For me, that is part of the magic of historical fiction – to be carried away to another time, to escape reality for a while. I hope I succeed in sweeping my readers away to the world my characters inhabit.


E is for Elegance

The Georgian era is renowned for its elegance. Georgette Heyer’s heroes appreciate a well-turned ankle, do not leer over some Page 3 girl. Beautiful porcelain, cut glass and tableware; delicate fans, with their own discreet language; pretty frills and fichus; embroidery, lace and silks; the smooth rotation of a perfect waltz… the instances are many. When I have time, reading a well-written novel or watching an historical drama takes me away from the ordinariness of everyday 21st Century life and allows me the illusion such elegant living has not gone for good.


F is for Furniture

Having longed for a Hygena bedroom in my youth, I now appreciate the beauty of hand-crafted wood and especially that of the Georgian age. I love most old furniture, even utility stuff made during WWII. I should love to have a big kitchen with Welsh dressers, solid oak tables and cupboards. Part of the romance of the Regency era, though, is the elegant mahogany and marquetry you find in many a National Trust property. One day, I have promised myself, I will have Georgian-style winged armchairs and elegant side-tables!

G is for Georgette Heyer

Georgette Heyer is the reason I am writing this blog. Had it not been for discovering her books when I was about eleven or twelve, I probably would not be where I am today. She is the Queen of Regency and although she dismissed her novels as ‘fluff’, you would be hard put to find better written romantic novels. I love her style and wit, her masterly descriptions and the sense of fun her novels convey. When you laugh out loud at a book, it can only be a winner. May I proffer humble thanks, ma’am.


H is for Horses

One of the best things about historical novels is the horses. Although they are probably more revered today, being much-loved by millions of adoring owners throughout the world, in bygone times they were a necessity. Without horses, Knights could not have ridden into battle, stage-coaches could not have carried passengers and other items, and produce could not have been carried about the country. I have spent my equestrian hours riding astride and much of that time in the pursuit of dressage perfection, the most elegant of equestrian pursuits. Nevertheless, there is no more elegant sight than a lady in a beautiful habit, riding side-saddle. Horses in themselves are romantic. Even the lowliest Dobbin has his own grace and majesty. Take those most noble of Georgian breeds, the Arabian and the Thoroughbred, and you have fire, beauty, courage, loyalty and intelligence besides. And I’m not just saying that because I love horses.

The Horse by Ronald Duncan

Where in this wide world can man find nobility without pride,
Friendship without envy,
Or beauty without vanity?
Here, where grace is served with muscle
And strength by gentleness confined
He serves without servility; he has fought without enmity.
There is nothing so powerful, nothing less violent.
There is nothing so quick, nothing more patient.
England's past has been borne on his back.
All our history is in his industry.
We are his heirs, he our inheritance.

Lord Grosvenor's Arabian Stallion with a Groom
George Stubbs

H is for HEA

I admit it. I am a sucker for a happy ending. While there can be an emotional satisfaction in a sad conclusion to a story, if that is what the plot demands, I do like to see my characters happily settled at the end of a novel and I prefer to read books with either a happy ‘ah’ ending or a witty one. Georgette Heyer was particularly adept at the latter and it always left me with a warm feeling. I try to do that with my own stories, because romantic historical fiction should be about escapism. We have enough reality in this modern world.

I is for Interiors

I love visiting a stately home and seeing a room decorated as it would have been in eras gone by. It is fascinating, especially when it is done in Regency style. Old buildings have an amazing atmosphere. Although a ruin, Witley Court in Worcestershire has the most wonderful feel of secrets and ghosts from times long past. Many years ago I was lucky enough to visit Salzburg in Austria, where the fortress is alive with the spirits of previous centuries. (No, I’m no madder than any other writer, honest!) I try and convey this to my readers through my writing, because for me, romance is not only about the love story.

Ballroom, Witley Court

J is for Jane Austen

What Regency author doesn’t love Jane Austen’s works? She was, of course, writing about her own time and did not invent the Regency genre. Georgette Heyer can be credited with that. However, Jane has bequeathed us so many gems of insight, custom and historical detail. From her works we know the modern delight in contracting words in dialogue (one of my bête noirs in historical novels) is not accurate. She gave us the wicked romp in Lydia and the serene beauty in Jane. She gave us the intelligent, independently minded heroine in Elizabeth and the interfering one in Emma. She also gave us the toe-curling Mr. Collins, the wonderful Colonel Brandon and the worst marriage proposal in English literature! Thanks to Auntie Beeb and Andrew Davies, though, I can no longer read Pride and Prejudice without thinking of Colin Firth and that scene…

Darcy's shirt

L is for Losing myself in another world 

As I’ve already mentioned, one of the beauties of reading or writing historical fiction is the opportunity to become so immersed in another era that time loses all meaning and everyday pressures and worries cease to exist – at least while you are in that world. If a book can do that for me, it is a true romance in the best tradition.

L is for LOVE

Love. One of the strongest emotions, it comes in so many forms: Love of life, a subject, a place, a view; love of family, of friends, of pets… and of that one special person in your life. Love is all you need sang the Beatles and they weren’t far wrong. Love makes the world go round. Within the pages of novels from the Circulating Libraries, ladies of the Regency found solace from their humdrum lives and loveless marriages. Nowadays, we buy romance novels by the zillion, just for the sheer pleasure of that perfect, joyful connection with another person. There are few more satisfying feelings than reaching the end of a wonderful book with a happy ending. That warm, fuzzy sensation is love in itself.

M is for Manners and Courtesy

I am a traditionalist, and appreciate it when a gentleman holds open a door for me or a child says please and thank you. I’m aware I am a dying breed and yes, I am perfectly capable of opening my own door, but it is nice to have it done for me. It is nice when a gentleman helps you out of a car (or down from a carriage!) It is nice to be escorted on a proffered arm and treated with old-fashioned courtesy. It is particularly nice when the gentleman next door mows your front verge with his ride-on mower to save you having to struggle with your old electric one! I love that about Regency novels, that even when people were insulting each other, it was couched in such a manner as to be civil, rather than screaming abuse heavily littered with profanity.


N is for Names

There have been lots of great names throughout the centuries which are now virtually obsolete. Joscelin, for a man, is one of my favourites and finally found its owner in the hero of Carpet of Snowdrops. There is a certain romantic beauty in many old names, I feel… although perhaps not Godfrey, Wat or Alf!


O is for Original

Heroines must have something about them. They must be strong and engaging and preferably have some trait or quirk which makes them unique. That strength need not mean they are independent and headstrong, but that they can deal with whatever ‘life’ throws at them in a fashion which is enjoyable to read. They must also behave in a manner befitting the era they live in. If a Regency heroine talks and behaves in the manner of a modern miss, it throws me out of the story. It is part of the charm and romance of an historical novel to discover how the heroine can claim her hero without overstepping the bounds and mores of the time.

P is for Posting Houses and Coaching Inns

I just love old inns, especially if they still have their original stable yards! I am fascinated by the history of them; the stories of past landlords and noble (or well-known) patrons, of smugglers and highwaymen, of ghosts and crimes. I am also fascinated by the growth of such buildings and how they became famous. Romance comes in so many forms.

Yard at Bull and Mouth, St. Martin's le Grand,
George Shepherd 1817


R is for Rakes and Rogues

What reader of historical romance doesn’t love a rake or a rogue? This article would not be complete without them! I admit I do have a soft spot for one – provided he has some redeeming features, loves his lady and is reformed (or at least faithful) by the end of the book. He must be tender as well as masterful and recognize his shortcomings. After all, a gentleman with experience is better set to please his bride! Perhaps my favourite literary rake is Damerel in Georgette Heyer’s Venetia.


S is for Social History

Well-written and well-researched novels are a fascinating window on the way people lived in a previous time – and what a great way to learn! This is one of the best of the many facets of Georgette Heyer and Jane Austen novels: the historical detail. I love to know what people ate, drank, slept in, sat on, used, wore and did for recreation and entertainment. I’m just a nosey so-and-so!

S is for Stables

Horsemastership has essentially changed very little over the centuries. With the advent of the motor car, however, many country houses reduced their stabling or converted into garaging. During the Victorian era, traditional stalls were lost, with loose boxes becoming more prevalent. The now-accustomed ‘half door’ looking on to a quadrangle was yet to become the norm, so beware, authors of Georgian and Regency fiction! Most horses of those times were stabled in stalls, the size dependent on the animal’s breeding and status. Nothing, however, can be more romantic, in an equestrian sense, than a line of heads looking out on to a cobbled yard, ears pricked and nickering (not whickering, that’s American) for breakfast.

The Stables and Two Famous Running Horses,
James Seymour

T is for Tattersall’s

As a horse lover, a visit to London isn’t complete without a look-in at Hyde Park Corner and a walk down Rotten Row. The most famous horse sales and bloodstock agency in the world began life here, founded in the 1770s by Richard Tattersall. The Duke of Kingston’s former groom and trainer rented land behind St. George’s Hospital, close to the Corner. It quickly became the place to be seen among gentlemen with an interest in equestrian matters, as well as the place to buy and sell horses. A weekly sale was held and ‘Black Monday’ became the not always humorous nomenclature for Settling Day. It meant the ruin of many an aristocratic name. Tattersall’s is one of the must-see places for young Johnny Raws from the country in any Regency novel.

Tattersalls, Hyde Park Corner, 1842

V is for Vauxhall Gardens

What can be more romantic than a trip down the river to Vauxhall for the characters in an historical novel? Picture the shadowed paths, the tree-lined walks, the music playing and figures bedecked in their finery, flitting like butterflies and chattering like sparrows. It is the perfect setting for a clandestine meeting, a risqué masquerade or an elegant concert followed by supper and a romantic walk along the lantern-lit paths. Such intrigues can be envisaged, such dastardly actions performed, and all for the stroke of pen or press of keypad… Vauxhall was made for romantic fiction!


W is for Witty Dialogue

Of all the elements of good Regency fiction, possibly the one I like best is the witty dialogue. While Jane Austen had an acerbic wit, Georgette Heyer was the grande dame of the concept in her novels. I laugh aloud when I am reading her books and that does not happen with many authors. I love it when I find someone who writes with that same sense of humour. Of course, beside JA and GH, the rest of we poor mortals can but aspire.

This is one of my favourite quotes and comes from Faro's Daughter, first published by Wm. Heinemann Ltd. in 1941.

"You will find it very inconvenient to keep me in your cellar indefinitely, I imagine, but I must warn you I have not the smallest intention of leaving it, except upon my own terms."

"But you cannot let the race go like that!" cried Deborah, aghast.

"Oh, have you backed me to win?" he said mockingly. "So much the worse for you, my girl!"

© Heather King

All photographs © Heather King
Other images Public Domain



Sunday, 1 April 2018

Happy Easter!

Wherever you are in the world, whether you celebrate Easter as a religious festival or just enjoy chocolate, I should like to wish all my lovely readers and blog visitors

A Very Happy Easter!

A little pictorial flavour of Easter. I'm sorry I have been quiet lately but I am currently working on the next release, which will be published soon!

May you all have a lovely, peaceful and restful time.


All pictures are in the public domain.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

St. Valentine's Day


The Lover's Letter Box, George Baxter

Although the custom of giving lace-edged, heart-shaped cards to sweethearts and lovers is Victorian in origin, the association of the fourteenth of February with romance goes back a lot further than that. In Roman times it was the eve of Lupercalia, a pagan festival of youth and fertility. During the festival, those taking part chose their sweethearts by way of a lottery. Stripped naked, the young men ‘chastised’ their chosen women on the bottom with goat or dog-skin whips. This was supposed to improve fertility!

While actually unconnected with the celebrations and traditions of the day, St. Valentine – who was renowned for his chastity as well as supporting love and marriage – was martyred on this same date. In about AD 197, Valentine of Terni, a Christian and Bishop of Interamna (now Terni) was, it is thought, imprisoned for his faith on the orders of a Roman called Placid Furius (yes, really!) and tortured before being beheaded on the Via Flaminia in Rome. Legend has it he was executed on the fourteenth of February; in all probability, however, somebody thought it was too good an opportunity to miss.

In the reign of Emperor Claudius (about AD 289) another priest called Valentine, also a Christian, seems to have been arrested for giving relief to prisoners. Sundry, improbable, stories are attached to his name, where he variously converted his jailer to Christianity by healing the sight of the man’s daughter; fell in love with the daughter and sent her a love letter ‘From your Valentine’; and, when Claudius supposedly banned marriage among young men to make them better soldiers, Valentine was purported to have continued to perform weddings, thus leading to his arrest. Valentine of Rome is also said to have died on the fourteenth of February.

Approaching two hundred years later, in about AD 496, Gelasius, the Pope of that time, ordered that 14 February was to be a Christian feast day and would be named St. Valentine’s Day. This smacks rather strongly of the later claiming of the day following All Hallows’ Eve (Hallowe’en) by the Church as All Saints’ Day somewhere around 835. Originally introduced in May, to commemorate martyrs without a particular feast day, it was moved to the first of November to counteract paganism. The last day of the Celtic calendar, the 31st October was the date when the ancient ritual of Samhain was celebrated. Samhain thus became overshadowed by All Hallows' Eve and the Church took back an edge of control. Claim a pagan rite as your own and you not only save face, you can keep the people under your thumb!

It would seem that the connection with the giving of (generally) anonymous love-tokens stems from the belief held in medieval England and France, that the beginning of the second fortnight of the second month of the year was when the birds began to mate. In 1382, Chaucer wrote, in respect of the betrothal of Richard II to Anne of Bohemia, ‘For this was on St. Valentine's Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.’ In the liturgical calendar of Valentine of Genoa, however, the saint’s day was the second of May – a more appropriate time for birds to mate in England. This is considered the first connection of St. Valentine’s Day with romantic love, nevertheless.

By 1601, the feast day was enough of an entity for the Bard himself to have Ophelia lament, ‘For this was on St. Valentine's Day/ When every fowl cometh there to choose his mate.’ Two hundred and fifty years later, love-notes had become popular, and in 1797 was published The Young Man’s Valentine Writer, a guide to messages and verse for the aspiring lover.

As with all such festivals, traditions and customs have become synonymous with the occasion. The Roman introduction of chance into the choosing of a partner can be seen in the custom whereby the first member of the opposite sex one sees on the fourteenth is then said to be one’s Valentine.

Another custom slowly being lost in the mists of time is that where young girls put bay leaves beneath their pillows before going to bed on St. Valentine’s Day, in the hopes of dreaming of future husbands. Other games of divination included this popular one: Name(s) of the favoured one(s) were written on slips of paper, enclosed in balls of moist clay and then dropped into a bowl of water. The first piece of paper thus named to rise to the surface would reveal the future sweetheart. Once a girl had chosen her Valentine, he was honour bound to present her with a lover’s gift.


An Illicit Letter, Vittoio Reggianini


In the Regency era, lovers of all walks of life might exchange little hand-written billets doux or poems, and gentlemen would present posies of flowers to their sweethearts. Little gifts, of ribbons, lace, a book or perhaps a favourite sweetmeat, were considered unexceptionable tokens of affection, although these were not confined to St. Valentine’s Day. That custom had begun to fade as far previously as the mid eighteenth century, although still continued in parts of Northern England. Nonetheless, as the nineteenth century progressed and postal distribution became more accessible to ordinary folk, anonymous cards were possible. Manufactories began to mass-produce tokens for St. Valentine’s Day, and the downward spiral into commercialism had begun. 

All pictures Public Domain

© Heather King