Spies Like Us

Robert Skead author photoRelevant History welcomes Robert J. Skead, with Robert A. Skead, authors of YA historical fiction. Their ancestor, Lamberton Clark, one of the main characters in Patriots, Redcoats & Spies, fought in the Revolutionary War as a member of the Connecticut Militia and the Continental Army. Patriots, Redcoats & Spies includes many historical facts about the war and features events that took place in 1777 in Bergen County, New Jersey, where the Skeads live. To learn more about their books, visit their web site, and follow them on Facebook and Pinterest.


The best part about writing Patriots, Redcoats & Spies, an American Revolutionary War adventure, was living in 1777—and becoming a teenage spy. You see, our protagonists were twin teenage boys, John and Ambrose Clark. And key to making their adventure real for the reader was the research involved, particularly involving the Culper Spy Ring.

The twins’ father, Lamberton, is a spy/courier for the Culper Ring, and when he is shot by British soldiers while on a mission, he has only two hopes of getting the secret message he’s carrying to General George Washington: his 14-year-old twin boys John and Ambrose.

The boys accept their mission without a clue about what they may be up against. They set off from Connecticut to New Jersey to find General Washington, but the road to the commander-in-chief of the Continental Army is full of obstacles—including the man who shot their father, who is hot on their trail.

I had plenty of help in the research about the Culper Spy Ring in the form of my father, Robert A. Skead (now 89-years-old and a member of the Sons of the American Revolution), who crafted the story with me. In the story, all the twins know is that the letter they carry is from Culper Jr. and is written in invisible ink—and that it’s imperative they trust no one and place that letter in the general’s hand, fast.

Culper Jr.’s real name was Robert Townsend. He operated in New York City, gathering information about British troop movements for General Washington. He made his fellow spy Abraham Woodhull, also known as Samuel Culper, pledge never to tell his name to anyone, not even to George Washington. Townsend posed as a Tory coffee shop owner and society reporter, which helped him gain information from British loyalists and soldiers at fellowship gatherings.

Invisible ink did exist during colonial times, and was used by the Culper Spy Ring with their messaging. The ink was developed by James and John (future chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court) Jay. It was made of a mixture of water and ferrous sulfate, and could be read when activated by heat or when in contact with a reagent. Secret sentences were often crafted between the lines of real letters. That is the device we used in our story.

Tremendous success and secret codes
Patriot spiesThe Culper Spy Ring operated in the New York City tri-state area for five years, and they were very successful—no spy was ever unmasked. Washington himself didn’t know their identities. To protect his spies identities, Major Benjamin Tallmadge, whom Washington appointed as head of the intelligence-gathering operation (the Culper Spy Ring), used a number system and pseudonyms in documents rather than their real names. The numbers pertained to words only discernable if one had the codebook divulging them.

Tallmadge used John Entick’s New Latin and English Dictionary (1771). Only four copies of the codebook were made—one for him, one for Washington, and the others for the Culpers. His codes, for example, included General Washington as 711, Culper Jr. was 723, and 727 was used for New York. Overall, more than 760 numbers were used in his codebook.

Ben becomes a central character in our sequel story Submarines, Secrets and a Daring Rescue, which launches on 4 August 2015. Tallmadge’s spy team was comprised of schoolmates from Long Island where he grew up. Other names of members included Sarah Townsend, Austin Roe, and Abraham Woodhull.

Petticoats and Benedict Arnold
Secret drop points, locations where messages would be hidden, were part of the spy ring’s operations. Anna Strong, a member of the secret team, would hang a black petticoat on her clothesline, signaling another operative (Caleb Brewster) to retrieve the message. We used the black petticoat in the sequel adventure as well.

The Culper Spy Ring was also behind the capturing of the British spy Major John Andre, and had that not occurred, the British might have taken control of our fort at West Point through the traitorous efforts of Benedict Arnold.

So, right now, you know more about the Culper Spy Ring than the boys in Patriots, Redcoats & Spies. All they know is they have a mission to accomplish and that they have to somehow find a way to do it, which isn’t easy because one of the boys, John, isn’t quite sold on the concept that a cause can be worth dying for. He likes his life as it is. But the reality is none of our lives would be as they are now were it not for the brave men and women who operated as spies in the Culper Spy Ring and were it not for the wisdom of General George Washington, who understood the importance of intelligence and deception to win the war.

We had the pleasure of being spies in this operation, even if only in our imaginations, which was more than historical—it was quite an adventure.


Patriots, Redcoats & Spies book coverA big thanks to Robert Skead. He’ll give away a hardback copy of Patriots, Redcoats & Spies to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available in the US only.


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The Winner of Roses in the Tempest

Warren Bull has won a copy of Roses in the Tempest by Jeri Westerson. Congrats to Warren Bull!

Thanks to Jeri Westerson for showing us another angle on the Anne Boleyn/Henry VIII story. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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How Come We Can’t Get Away From Anne Boleyn?

Jeri Westerson author photoRelevant History welcomes back Los Angeles native and award-winning author Jeri Westerson. She writes the critically acclaimed Crispin Guest Medieval Noir mysteries, historical novels, paranormal novels, and GLBT mysteries. To date, her medieval mysteries have garnered twelve industry award nominations. The Historical Novel Society Review said of her latest historical novel Roses in the Tempest, “It is a wonderful, utterly involving performance—very strongly recommended.” Jeri is former president of the SoCal chapter of Mystery Writers of America and frequently guest lectures on medieval history at local colleges and museums. To learn about Jeri’s books and find discussion guides, videos, and more, check out her web site.


I think whenever anyone hears the name “Tudor” we think of two things: Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn.

150616-Anne BoleynAnne, Anne, Anne. I’m a little sick of her, but no one else seems to be. Why is she so important to the story of Henry VIII (who had four more wives after her)? And why is she important to my newly released novel of historical fiction Roses in the Tempest?

Let’s back up a bit to Prince Arthur Tudor. He was the elder brother to Henry VIII, slated to be King Arthur. Way back in 1497 he was betrothed—by proxy—to one Katherine of Aragon of Spain. The reason it was by proxy was because he and his betrothed were too young, but a treaty between England and Spain was desired by monarchs of both countries and so the kids were connected early on. They even had a wedding by proxy because they didn’t meet until October of 1501 when it was deemed they were finally old enough to get married in the flesh.

The deed was done and not long thereafter, Arthur fell ill. In fact, he died short of his 16th birthday.

Now enter the young Henry. Suddenly, he’s heir to the throne. And elder King Henry didn’t want all that dowry money to go back to Spain so he insisted on young Henry marrying his sister-in-law. But when Henry turned 14 he said no!

In 1509 at the ripe old age of eighteen, Henry succeeded to the throne of England. And he looked at his accounting books and decided that thousands of pounds worth of dowry was probably a good thing to have when starting a reign, not to mention keeping the Spanish treaties intact. But this was his brother’s widow. Didn’t he need papal dispensation to marry her? It’s just a little bit incesty. But the pope said no problem. You only need a dispensation if the marriage was consummated, and Katherine swore devoutly that it was not. She and Arthur were 15 years old and married for twenty weeks but didn’t consummate their legal marriage. Well, there’s this bridge I’d like to sell you, too.

“There is no more lovely, friendly and charming a relationship, communion or company than a good marriage.” –Martin Luther, 1569
150616-Henry VIII's "Defense of the Seven Sacraments"Henry and Katherine were happy in the beginning. But it soon turned sour. She gave birth to a stillborn girl, then she gave birth to a boy, Henry, but he died after seven weeks. Then she gave birth to the Princess Mary (who was to become Queen Mary I, otherwise known as “Bloody Mary.”) During this time, Henry was catting around with all sorts of women. But he was also a devout Catholic. So much so that in 1521 he wrote his “Defense of the Seven Sacraments” a direct argument against the protestant reforms of Martin Luther. Pope Leo X named Henry “Defender of the Faith” for that bestseller.

But by 1525, Henry was getting impatient for a legitimate male heir and certain courtiers were beginning to whisper in his ear—courtiers like Cardinal Wolsey and his secretary the commoner Thomas Cromwell. Leviticus 20:21 says that “if a man shall take his brother’s wife it is an unclean thing: they shall be childless.” Though Henry was far from childless, he preferred to interpret the text to mean “sonless.” On this basis, Wolsey sought an annulment. The pope said nope.

Henry was getting all excited that this would work, that he could divorce his wife and marry—wait for it—Anne Boleyn, with whom he had been carrying on a chaste affair after having a not-so-chaste affair with Anne’s sister Mary (talk about incesty) who gave birth to yet another dead child. He got pretty pissed off with Wolsey, trumped up some charges, had him arrested, took over his just-finished manor house estate (that became Hampton Court) and was ready to put him on trial when he had the decency to die before that. Now Cromwell moved up and still had the king’s ear.

“The less prudent the prince the more his deeds oppress.” –Proverbs 28:16
Cromwell’s plan was to reform the Church, and since the pope wasn’t cooperating with Henry’s need for this divorce, why not break away from the Church of old and reform it into the Church of England? And who but the monarch was fit to rule that? Henry then gave himself a divorce, declared his daughter a bastard, and married Anne Boleyn, who, after all that, didn’t give him the son he wanted, but another princess, Elizabeth.

Henry’s taking over the province of the Church in England meant that he could get rid of all those corrupted and wealthy monasteries where all that expensive land was just sitting there when instead it could be sold and the revenue fill his coffers. And so that’s what he did. Cromwell was in charge of collecting officers with the cover story that they were inspecting the monasteries to root out corruption…but while they were there, they took an inventory of all the goods, too.

And that’s how Anne Boleyn becomes an intimate part of my story. The two main protagonists—Thomas Giffard, a knight of the court, and Isabella Launder the daughter of a yeoman farmer, who becomes a prioress in a tiny priory, two people that really did exist—are imminently affected by events at court. I thought it was a story seldom told, what happens when the rich and powerful make their decisions and how it trickles down the line. It makes my novel unique in that we get a glimpse of court and its machinations, but spend equal time down and dirty in the trenches. And though there are sad moments, it is not a sad tale. For because this is a true tale of real people, there is a dusting off of hands, a rising up, and stoically going on.


Roses in the Tempest book coverA big thanks to Jeri Westerson. She’ll give away a paperback or ebook copy of Roses in the Tempest to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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The Winner of Aurelia

Sandra has won a copy of Aurelia by Alison Morton. Congrats to Sandra!

Thanks to Alison Morton for showing us about world building in alternate history. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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Alternating History?

Alison Morton author photoRelevant History welcomes alternate history author Alison Morton. Raised by a feminist mother and an ex-military father, it never occurred to Alison that women couldn’t serve their country in the armed forces. After six years, she left as a captain, having done all sorts of interesting and exciting things she can’t talk about, even now. Fascinated by the complex, power and value-driven Roman civilisation since childhood, she wondered what a modern Roman society would be like if run by strong women. Now, she lives in France and writes award-winning Roman-themed alternate history thrillers with tough Praetorian heroines—Inceptio, Perfiditas, Successio, and (her latest) Aurelia. To learn more about Alison’s books, check out her blog, and follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.


“Only if you know your history well, can you attempt to alternate it.” Not a saying by anybody famous, but something I wrote five years ago in my first blog post about writing in an alternate timeline environment. And I still stand by it today.

My fourth Roma Nova alternate history thriller, Aurelia, out last month, is set in the late 1960s partly in an alternative Germany consisting of small states rather than one whole nation. Although Germany was the subject of my history masters’ degree, I had to research the real small states of a pre-unification Germany in some depth as well as the 1960s social revolution before I typed one single word.

What is alternate history?
CapitolineWith history and science fiction as parents, alternate (or alternative) history stories are a type of speculative fiction set in a world where historical events have developed differently from the way they did in our timeline. What if Julius Caesar had taken notice of the warning that assassins wanted to murder him on the Ides of March? Or if Elizabeth I had married and had children to succeed her? If Washington hadn’t crossed the Delaware River on Christmas night in 1776?

Modern alternate historical fiction favourites of mine include Robert Harris’s Fatherland, Keith Roberts’ Pavane, and C J Sansom’s Dominion, but alternate history itself stretches back a long way. Roman historian Livy writing in the 1st century AD suggests that the Romans would have beaten Alexander the Great if he had lived beyond 324 BC and turned west to attack the Roman Republic (Book IX, sections 17-19 Ab urbe condita libri [The History of Rome], Titus Livius). Louis Geoffroy’s Histoire de la Monarchie universelle: Napoléon et la conquête du monde (1812–1832) imagines Napoleon’s French Empire succeeded in invading Russia in 1811 and England in 1814, later unifying the world under Bonaparte’s rule.

What defines alternate history?
There are three key characteristics to alternate history stories. Firstly, the event that turned history from the path we know—the point of divergence, or PoD—must be in the past; in my Roma Nova series set in the modern period, the PoD was in AD 395. Secondly, the new timeline follows a different path forever—there is no going back. Thirdly, stories should show the ramifications of the divergence and how the new reality functions.

The world can partially resemble our timeline or be very different. Sometimes there are documented historical characters, sometimes entirely fictional ones or a mixture of both. In no case are alternate history stories parallel or secret histories such as The Da Vinci Code.

But is all alternate history credible?
Alternate history varies in “hardness,” based on how plausible the alternation is when measured against historical reality.

Type I, Hard Alternate History: Well-researched work based on historical sources and trends, and that projects changes that flow logically from the PoD. This follows strict standards in its plausibility. Most historical counterfactuals fall into this category.
Type II, Hard/Soft Alternate History: Usually well researched with historical logic and methodology, but which allows some escapist elements.
Type III, Soft Alternate History: Here, setting up a world that fits the writer’s creative objectives is more important than the setting’s alternate history. Research is minimal to moderate and plausibility will take a back seat.
Type IV, Utterly Implausible Alternate History: Works so implausible as to be effectively impossible. Often, authors prioritise their own ideology at the expense of research, historic details, or sensible logistics.
Type X, Fantastical Alternate History: In contrast with Type IV, these works are deliberately designed as pure fantasy.

Perception is, of course, subjective, but I’ve positioned my Roma Nova thrillers at the historical end of the alternate history scale, probably Type II above with elements of Type I.

World building
Golden clockIf a writer sets the story in a different country, they can visit the places the characters would live in, smell the sea, touch the plants, walk under the hot blue sky, or freeze in a biting wind. Historical fiction writers can visit buildings and gardens, explore costume, watch or partake in reenactions. Tasting food cooked to Roman recipes, including the (in)famous garum fish sauce, was certainly an education for me! But inventing a country means their imagination has to spread wide and walk hand-in-hand with solid research. Humans are creative beings; we have all imagined alternative realities since we were children and that drives world building.

No country can survive without a functioning government, an economic, social, and political system, food, law and order, and income. Readers and fans will expect the creator of an imagined world to have worked all that out and also be able to talk about every aspect from costume, social philosophy and weapons to food, transport and childcare provision. (Yes, I was asked about childcare in Roma Nova at the launch of my second book, Perfiditas!)

Plausibility and consistency are, as in all historical fiction, the key guidelines so that the reader is not lost or alienated. Local colour and period detail are essential, but only where necessary and when relevant.

Characters should act, think and feel like real people, whatever language they speak or however they’re dressed. The most credible ones live naturally within their world, i.e. consistently reflecting their unique environment and the prevailing social attitudes. But it makes a stronger story if the permissions and constraints of their world make additional trouble and conflict for them.

What use is alternate history?
Alternate history fiction enables us to explore the consequences of even a small change in history, sometimes known as the “butterfly effect” from chaos theory, or the “nail of the horseshoe” effect after the popular verse dating back to the 14th century. Further, it lets us speculate on transgressive, over-optimistic, morally controversial, or even frightening situations from the safety of our armchair. More than that, it allows us to ask “what if”, to exercise our imaginations and assess our modern situation in an entirely different light.


Aurelia book coverA big thanks to Alison Morton. She’ll give away a copy of Aurelia in either signed trade paperback form or .pdf ebook form to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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The Winners of Regina Jeffers’s Books

Happy Memorial Day to all my visitors in the United States!

The winners of Regina Jeffers’s books are as follow:

Pam Hunter—Darcy’s Passions: Pride and Prejudice Retold Through His Eyes

Ruth Telford—Captain Frederick Wentworth’s Persuasion: Austen’s Classic Retold Through His Eyes

Lou Ann LaJeunesse—Elizabeth Bennet’s Deception: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary

M. Louisa Locke—Mr. Darcy’s Fault: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary Novella

Congrats to all!

Thanks to Regina Jeffers for the brief history of post-traumatic stress disorder. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History last week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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Soldier’s Heart: Defining PTSD

Regina Jeffers author photoRelevant History welcomes Regina Jeffers, an award-winning author of cozy mysteries, Austenesque sequels and retellings, and Regency era romances. A teacher for thirty-nine years, she often serves as a consultant for Language Arts and Media Literacy programs. With multiple degrees, Regina has been a Time Warner Star Teacher, Columbus (OH) Teacher of the Year, and a Martha Holden Jennings Scholar. With five new releases coming out in 2015, she is considered one of publishing’s most prolific authors. Her novels include Darcy’s Passions, Captain Frederick Wentworth’s Persuasion, The Mysterious Death of Mr. Darcy, and The First Wives’ Club. To learn more about Regina’s books, check out her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy's Cousin book coverOne of my upcoming releases (The Prosecution of Mr. Darcy’s Cousin) uses Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder as part of the plot line, but as my book is set in the Regency period (1811-1820) in England, when no such distinction was made for the disease, it was important to treat the disorder’s presence in the main character’s life with a large dose of research. There are references to what we now term “PTSD” in the Bible (story of Job comes to mind), the writings of the Greek historian Herotodus (i.e., his description of the Spartan leader Leonidas—the guy from “300”), the Mahabharata, Homer’s description of Ajax’s madness, and Shakespeare’s descriptions (via Lady Percy) of Harry Percy’s nightmares and delusions, as well as the accounts of Macbeth. Samuel Pepys’s diary holds references to the trauma many experienced after the Great Fire of London. Charles Dickens wrote of the “weakness” he experienced after a train wreck that killed ten people and injured nearly fifty.

Over the years, PTSD was known as nostalgia, homesickness, ester root, neurasthenia, hysteria, compensation sickness, railway spine, shell shock, combat exhaustion, soldier’s heart, irritable heart, stress response syndrome, etc. In my story, I use the word “melancholia” for research into the disorder did not occur until well after the Regency period. Needless to say, the many wars of the late 1700s and early 1800s (American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Napoleonic Wars) in England brought this issue to a head. (For more on the many terms used for PTSD, see “From Irritable Heart to ‘Shellshock’: How Post-Traumatic Stress Became a Disease,” by Charlie Jane Anders, 4 April 2012.)

Jacob Mendez Da CostaDuring the American Civil War, the study of “soldier’s heart” fell into the lap of Jacob Mendez Da Costa, who took up the study of the condition and advanced what we now know of the disease. Da Costa was a well-trained and observant clinician. He held the reputation of an excellent clinical teacher and served as Chairman of Medicine at the Jefferson Medical College (now Thomas Jefferson University) for nineteen years, as well as president of the College of Physicians of Philadelphia in 1884 and again in 1895; Da Costa was one of the original members of the Association of American Physicians and its president in 1897.

In the years of the Civil War, Da Costa served as assistant surgeon in the U.S. Army and at Turner’s Lane Hospital, Philadelphia. As such, he studied a type of cardiac malady (neurocirculatory asthenia) plaguing soldiers. He described the disorder in his 1871 paper “On Irritable Heart: A Clinical Study of a Form of Functional Cardiac Disorder and Its Consequences,” a landmark study in clinical medicine. The malady was soon to be known as Da Costa’s syndrome—an anxiety disorder combining effort fatigue, left-sided chest pains, breathlessness, dyspnea, a sighing respiration, palpitations, and sweating.

In the mid-20th Century, the syndrome was thought to be a form of neurosis. It is now classified as a “somatoform autonomic dysfunction.” Earl de Grey presented four reports on British soldiers with these symptoms between 1864 and 1868. He attributed the symptoms to the heavy equipment being carried by the soldiers in knapsacks strapped to their chests. Earl de Grey asserted that the constriction of the knapsack affected the heart’s ability to function. Henry Harthorme described the Civil War soldiers who suffered with similar symptoms as being exhausted and poorly nourished. The soldier’s heart complaints were assigned as lack of sleep and bad food. In 1870, Arthur Bowen Myers of the Coldstream Guards (the Foot Guards regiments of the British Army) regarded the accouterments as the source of neurocirculatory asthenia and cardiovascular neurosis.

“J. M. Da Costa’s study of 300 soldiers reported similar findings in 1871 and added that the condition often developed and persisted after a bout of fever or diarrhea. He also noted that the pulse was always greatly and rapidly influenced by position, such as stooping or reclining. A typical case involved a man who was on active duty for several months or more and contracted an annoying bout of diarrhea or fever, and then, after a short stay in the hospital, returned to active service. The soldier soon found that he could not keep up with his comrades in the exertions of a soldier’s life as he would become out of breath, and would get dizzy, and have palpitations and pains in his chest, yet upon examination some time later he appeared generally healthy. In 1876 surgeon Arthur Davy attributed the symptoms to military drill where ‘over-expanding the chest, caused dilatation of the heart, and so induced irritability.’”


Darcy's Passions book coverCaptain Frederick Wentworth's Persuasion book coverElizabeth Bennet’s Deception book coverMr. Darcy’s Fault book cover





A big thanks to Regina Jeffers. She’ll give away one of the four ebooks pictured above to four people: Darcy’s Passions: Pride and Prejudice Retold Through His Eyes, Captain Frederick Wentworth’s Persuasion: Austen’s Classic Retold Through His Eyes, Elizabeth Bennet’s Deception: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary, and Mr. Darcy’s Fault: A Pride and Prejudice Vagary Novella. I’ll choose the winners from among those who contribute a comment on my blog this week by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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Not So Fast: Virginia’s Gradual Embrace of Independence

Mike Cecere author photoRelevant History welcomes Mike Cecere, who was raised in Maine but moved to Virginia in 1990, where he discovered a passion for American History. Mr. Cecere teaches U.S. History courses for Fairfax County Public Schools and Northern Virginia Community College. He was recognized by the Virginia Society of the Sons of the American Revolution as their 2005 Outstanding Teacher of the Year and is an avid Revolutionary War reenactor who lectures throughout the country on the American Revolution. Mr. Cecere is the author of eleven books on the American Revolution. His books focus primarily on the role that Virginians played in the Revolution. For more information, email him at umfspock87 [at] cs [dot] com.


The famous, “shot heard around the world,” fired on Lexington Green on 19 April 1775 is universally acknowledged as the starting point of the Revolutionary War and ultimately, American independence. The argument goes that an unstoppable force was unleashed when the Massachusetts militia challenged a British raid to seize gunpowder and arms in Concord. The bloodshed of Lexington and Concord propelled Britain and her American colonies into a full-blown war, a war that fifteen months later resulted in America’s Declaration of Independence.

More to the Story
What is overlooked by this view of the origins of the Revolutionary War is that for the colonies outside of New England, many months passed before blood was shed within their borders. It was far from a foregone conclusion after Lexington and Concord that the colonies outside of New England would participate in a war against Great Britain, much less declare independence from the mother county. The mid-Atlantic and southern colonies moved towards conflict with the mother country at their own pace, largely separated from the events unfolding in New England.

Hand on the Trigger
Williamsburg powder magazineJust two days after the bloodshed of Lexington and Concord, Virginia experienced its own crisis when its royal governor, Lord Dunmore, ordered a supply of gunpowder removed from the powder magazine in the center of Williamsburg to a British warship in the James River. A large, angry crowd gathered in Williamsburg and hundreds of militia from the surrounding countryside prepared to march on the capital to demand the powder’s return. Three weeks earlier, Patrick Henry, Virginia most famous orator and politician, had declared, “Give Me Liberty or Give Me Death” in an effort to strengthen Virginia’s militia. He had predicted war with Britain, and in late April and early May of 1775 it looked to many Virginians that Henry’s prediction had come true. More moderate voices, led by Peyton Randolph, the Speaker of the House of Burgesses, managed to defuse the crisis and disburse the militia, but tensions remained.

While Virginia’s delegates to the Second Continental Congress supported a proposal in June to form a continental army and appoint a fellow Virginian, George Washington, to command it, the Virginia House of Burgesses pleaded with Governor Dunmore, who had fled to a British warship in early June, to return to the capital so the business of governing could resume. Weeks of stalemate passed in Virginia while in Massachusetts, the bloody battle of Bunker Hill occurred, and the British army in Boston was besieged by New England militia.

By the end of the summer, hundreds of militia had gathered in Williamsburg, and Virginia’s leaders had taken steps to significantly strengthen the colony’s military forces (with militia battalions and two regiments of full time “regular” troops), but blood had yet to be shed in the Old Dominion.

The Gloves Come Off
This finally changed six months after the battle of Lexington and Concord when a small squadron of ships under Captain Matthew Squire of the H.M.S. Otter sailed into the Hampton River in late October to burn Hampton. This was a retaliatory raid against the town, punishment for the destruction of a British tender that had washed ashore in a storm in September near Hampton and been destroyed by the townspeople. Captain Squire’s ships struggled to reach Hampton up the river channel, which was obstructed by the Virginians with sunken vessels. Heavy small-arms fire from the Virginians onshore drew a response from the British, and blood was shed on both sides. The British received the worst of it and reluctantly withdrew, sparing Hampton of destruction.

Lord DunmoreThree weeks later in November, Lord Dunmore used a successful skirmish against the Princess Anne militia as a platform to raise the King’s standard and call on all loyal Virginians to rally to his, and the King’s, cause. Dunmore also offered freedom to any slave or indentured servant of a rebel who took up arms for him. Hundreds stepped forward to do so, and for a time it looked as if the royal governor just might re-establish royal authority in Virginia.

Alas, Dunmore’s decisive defeat at the Battle of Great Bridge in early December was a turning point in his efforts to maintain control of southern Virginia. Forced to abandon Norfolk and seek shelter aboard ships in the Elizabeth River, Dunmore and his supporters spent the first six months of 1776 little more than refugees in Norfolk harbor.

It’s Gone Too Far
By the spring of 1776, Virginia’s movement towards independence from Great Britain appeared unstoppable, and calls echoed throughout the colony to “Cast off the British Yoke.” The Fifth Virginia Convention voted unanimously to do so on 15 May 1776, and instructions were sent to Virginia’s delegates in the Continental Congress to offer a resolution on independence on behalf of all the colonies. While debate on this proposal occurred in Philadelphia, the Fifth Virginia Convention drafted a new state constitution and a Declaration of Rights, adopting both before independence was formally voted on in Congress.

The path to American independence was far more complicated than is widely known. Virginia’s journey is a fascinating tale. The story of Virginia’s movement to independence is the focus of my new book, Cast Off the British Yoke: The Old Dominion and American Independence, 1763-1776. The book chronicles the key events that led to Virginia’s entry into the Revolutionary War in October 1775 and its eventual support for independence from Great Britain in the spring of 1776.


Cast Off the British Yoke book coverA big thanks to Mike Cecere.


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The Winner of a “Sea Witch Voyages” Book

Richard Sutton has won his choice of a title from Helen Hollick’s “Sea Witch Voyages” series. Congrats to Richard Sutton!

Thanks to Helen Hollick for a brief, entertaining history of whiskey. Thanks, also, to everyone who visited and commented on Relevant History this week. Watch for another Relevant History post, coming soon.


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The Water of Life…or Whisky to you and me

Helen Hollick author photoRelevant History welcomes Helen Hollick, who lives on a thirteen-acre farm in North Devon, England. Born in North-East London, Helen started writing pony stories as a teenager, moved onto science fiction and fantasy, and then discovered historical fiction. Published in the UK with her Arthurian Trilogy, and the era of 1066, she was selected for publication by Sourcebooks Inc in the US, and became a USA Today best seller with Forever Queen. She also writes the “Sea Witch Voyages” series, nautical pirate-based fantasy adventures. As a supporter of Independent Authors she is Managing Editor for the Historical Novel Society Indie Reviews, and inaugurated the HNS Indie Award. To learn more about Helen’s books, check out her web site and blog, and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


My forthcoming novel, the fifth ‘Sea Witch Voyage,’ On The Account, has my ex-pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne being offered an illegal sideline of smuggling…something. I was going to use brandy, but wanted something different. After some research I decided whisky would be the perfect solution.

So what is whiskey?
‘Whisky’ (‘whiskey’ in Ireland and US) comes from Gaelic Uisge beatha meaning ‘Water of Life.’ Uisge beatha became uisge, then ooshki and finally whisky.

WhiskeyModern whisky is made with barley: Scotch barley is dried over peat fires giving a distinct smoky taste, while Irish is dried in closed ovens where a lack of smoke makes a smoother taste. Scotch is usually distilled twice, Irish, three times. Both by today’s laws are required to mature for at least three years.

Irish whiskey was recorded in 1405, being distilled in the 12th century, the technique brought from the Mediterranean around 1000 A.D. Scotch whisky (just called ‘Scotch’ today) was made from malted barley with earliest records dating to 1494 in the Exchequer Rolls—the tax records of the day. (So I was quite safe for On The Account, set in 1719.)

In these early lists for Scotland it is recorded that ‘Eight bolls of malt’ went to ‘Friar John Cor at Lindores Abbey, Fife to make aqua vitae.’ This would have produced 1,500 bottles. A ‘boll’ is a measure of not more than six bushels—one bushel equivalent to 25.4 kilograms.

The quality and purity of the water used is an integral part of making a fine whisky today, but originally it was a way of using up rain-soaked barley. It is a highly potent spirit. By the 16th and 17th centuries the skill of production had greatly improved. Mostly, as with Friar John Cor, monks were responsible for spreading the distillation skills. Initially whisky was consumed for its medicinal uses, prescribed for good health, long life and the relief of colic and smallpox. Indeed, if I have a cold, hot water, honey, lemon and a dram (or two) often sees it off!

From Tudor times
The dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII contributed to the spread of distilleries as many of the monks had to find alternative uses for their skills—whisky and the knowledge of how to produce it spread.

Dated to 1618 there is a reference to ‘uiskie’ in the funeral account of a Highland laird, and a letter to the Earl of Mar from 1622 mentions the spirit. Written by Sir Duncan Campbell of Glenorchy, he reported that officers sent to Glenorchy had been given the best entertainment, for they ‘wantit not [for] wine nor aquavite.’

Aquavitae formed part of the rent paid for Highland farms and became an intrinsic part of life, appreciated during long winters, and providing an offered welcome to guests.

However, popularity attracted the attention of the Scottish Parliament. The first taxes were introduced in 1644, fixing the duty at 2/8d (13p) per pint, (the Scots pint being approximately one third of a gallon.) This, inevitably, resulted in a rise of distilling illicit whisky.

Part of the agreement of the Union between Scotland and England in 1707 was that English taxes would not be enforced north of the border, but in 1724 Parliament introduced a tax, which caused riots in Scotland, and distillers were driven further underground. Distillers and smugglers saw no reason to pay for making whisky, especially with such a lucrative and relatively easy market for selling it at a profit. These markets were taverns and big houses: agents were confiscating around 10,000 stills per annum. A lot of money was being made from non-collected taxes!

By 1780 there were eight legal distilleries and over four hundred illegal ones. Smugglers organised signalling systems to warn of approaching excise men. Smuggling whisky had become a standard practice for over 150 years. (Ideal for my pirate!) Every conceivable storage space was used to hide illicit liquor, including using coffins for transportation.

This eventually prompted the Duke of Gordon, on whose land some of the finest illicit whisky in Scotland was being distilled, to propose in the House of Lords that it should be made profitable to produce whisky legally. In 1823 the Excise Act eased the restrictions on licensed distilleries while making it harder for illegal stills to operate. It sanctioned the distilling of whisky in return for a licence fee of £10, and a set payment per gallon. Smuggling almost completely died out as it was no longer profitable. Many present-day distilleries occupy sites of original illicit stills.

American rye
In the Colonies, whisky (or whiskey) distilleries emerged with the rum business, an integral part of the slave trade. Dispatched by ship to Africa, rum was traded for slaves who were transported to the West Indies to grow sugar, to make molasses, to make more rum.

More whiskeyWhisky appeared occasionally in Colonial taverns before the American Revolution, but approximately 250,000 Scotch/Irish settlers migrated to America in the fifty years before Independence in 1776. When the British blockade of American ports cut off the molasses trade, rum distillers produced whisky instead. Rye became an all-American drink, being made in America from American grain, unlike imported beverages, which were heavily taxed. Frontier farmers who had an excess of rye distilled whisky from the surplus. A bushel made approximately three gallons and was worth more as liquor than as corn.

In 1789 Virginian farmers began making whisky with corn instead of rye, making it distinctive by aging it. They had discovered that charring the inside of oak barrels gave a better flavour and a darker colour. By 1792, western Virginia became the State of Kentucky and in the 19th century, Kentucky Corn Whiskey began to be called Bourbon.

I think Captain Acorne can smuggle whisky to a Virginian Tavern or two with historical accuracy, although not safely if excise men or the British Navy get to hear of it.



Sea Witch book coverA big thanks to Helen Hollick. She’ll give away a trade paperback copy of any currently released title in her “Sea Witch Voyages” series to someone who contributes a comment on my blog this week. I’ll choose the winner from among those who comment by Friday at 6 p.m. ET. Delivery is available worldwide.


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