The Raid on the Medway: an eyewitness account

Dutch Attack on the Medway by Pieter Cornelisz van Soest, painted c. 1667.

While most of us are familiar with stories of the Plague (1665) and the Great Fire of London (1666), few are acquainted with the third catastrophe that hit England in 1667.

On 9 June, the Dutch fleet led by the renowned Admirable De Ruyter, launched audacious attacks on the Medway and the Thames that threatened to wipe out the royal fleet and bring London to its knees.

Having begun in 1665 with a number of English victories, the second Anglo-Dutch war between England and its trading rival Holland ended in a humiliating episode which the diarist John Evelyn described as “a dishonour never to be wiped off”.

Being both a courtier and a minor official, Evelyn was well-placed to observe the impact of the Dutch attack that summer. It is clear from his account, that the English were unprepared for the raids.

While Parliament had granted the Crown £2.5 million to prosecute the war in 1665, both the plague and the fire of London had had a devastating effect on resources. With much of the City’s financial sector destroyed by fire, it became impossible for the Crown to raise sufficient money to continue an effective campaign.

Due to this lack of funds, the fleet was laid up at Chatham providing a sitting target for the Dutch who fell upon it “by a most audacious enterprise … doing us not only disgrace but incredible mischief in burning several of our best Men of War, lying at anchor and moored there”.

Evelyn makes it clear that the British response was too little, too late. Despite the despatch of land forces, the fortification of Upnor castle, and the laying of chains and bombs across the Medway, the Dutch managed to break through “and set fire on our ships”.

He tells how he saw the smoking carcasses of the warships Royal Oake, James and London just outside Chatham and how “now when the mischief was done, we were making trifling forts on the brink of the river”.

But the raid on the Medway was only part of the Dutch attack. Evelyn describes how “triumphantly their [the Dutch] whole fleet, lay within the very mouth of the Thames, all from North-Foreland, Margate, even to the Buoy of the Noore”.

Evelyn describes it as: “A dreadful spectacle as ever an English men saw.” His intensity of emotion was probably sharpened by fear for his own possessions. Evelyn’s home, Sayes Court, was located near Deptford and a further incursion up the Thames could have proved disastrous. For this reason, Evelyn “sent away my best goods, plate etc from my house to another place”.

Both the county and the city were stricken with “a panic fear and consternation such as I hope I shall never see more: for everybody were flying, none [knew] why or whither”.

The Dutch blockade of the Thames also caused other problems. With this vital artery blocked, the city and surrounding area had begun to run out of fuel. The price of coal rose from 15s to 140s a ton. Evelyn, along with a number of other officials, was tasked by King Charles II to search for alternative sources of peat or turf.

As part of this project, Evelyn – a founder member of the Royal Society – was invited to explain his recipe for a new type of fuel made from charcoal dust and loam. Although Evelyn claimed that the fuel burned “without smoke or ill smell”, it does not appear to have been put to use on this occasion.

While the raid on the Medway was effectively over by 14 June, the blockade of London continued into July. Finally, at the end of the month, the war was brought to an end by the Treaty of Breda.

According to Evelyn: “Now did his Majesty again dine in the Presence, in ancient State, with music and all the court ceremonies, which had been interrupted since the late war.”

Evelyn was ordered to free the prisoners of war in his charge who had been held at Leeds castle. With obvious relief, he records “peace being now proclaimed according to usual form by the Heralds at Arms”.

However, the humiliation suffered by the English did not end there.

As if the burning of the ships in the Medway was not enough, the warship Royal Charles had been captured and taken back to Holland where it was exhibited in Amsterdam as a trophy of war. For the price of a few guilders, members of the public were able to climb aboard and explore. It was an insult that added to the injury already inflicted on the British fleet.

Stern section of The Royal Charles in the Rijksmuseum

Featuring the royal coat-of-arms supported by a lion and a unicorn, the stern section of the Royal Charles can still be seen in the Rijksmuseum.

Of the hat-trick of historical disasters that afflicted England in the mid-17th century, the Dutch raid on the Medway is – not surprisingly – the least well-known. While the first two were Acts of God, the last was man-made and largely self-inflicted.

According to Evelyn’s succinct summary: “All this through the unaccountable negligence of our delay in setting out our fleet in due time.”

Further reading:

The Diary of John Evelyn published by Everyman’s Library

A Monarchy Transformed: Britain 1603 – 1714 by Mark Kishlansky

Click here for The Historic Dockyard Chatham


Click here for 10 days of events celebrating the 350th anniversary of the raid

Posted in Charles II, History, John Evelyn, Kent, Medway, Raid on the Medway, Thames, Travel | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inspiration and Writers’ Block: Fact or Fallacy?

Some hints from the gurus

Some hints from the gurus

The tags ‘inspiration’ and ‘writers’ block’ strike terror into the hearts of writers. However, it is possible to debunk these myths with a little common sense.

It is a fallacy that you sit around waiting for inspiration. If we all did that, no-one would write anything.

The other toxic path to literary paralysis is ‘Writers’ block’.

But just ask yourself a couple of questions:

Do journalists skip deadlines because they have ‘writers’ block’ or lack inspiration?

Have you ever heard of ‘painters’ block’?

The answer to both is a resounding “No!”

In both cases, what we are really talking about is discipline – or a lack of it.

In order to write, you must make time to sit down in front of your PC and produce something. No matter what, no matter how foggy your brain feels (and mine is often filled with cold porridge). Just make the time and you will be surprised at the results.

If musicians or dancers do not practice regularly, their skills become rusty. The same is true of any artist, including writers. We are no different to anyone else.

You may have no idea of what you are going to write before you start but the very act of writing – whatever it is – will unlock ideas. Themes will develop and new characters will step out of the page. Just give them the chance.

Do not be afraid of the blank page. Fear of this is what many people wrongly describe as ‘writers’ block’. Artists sometimes have the same experience when confronted with a blank canvas. They deal with this by covering a fresh canvas with a wash of colour. Writers can do the same with a free-writing exercise. How does this work?

Here are some tips:

  1. Jot down some ideas. It doesn’t matter what. Just play around on the page. This is not meant to be the finished article. You may even reject it later, but writing something down on the page will rid you of that ‘blank canvas’ feeling.
  2. I find that it helps to use a different font and always write my drafts in italics. Because it looks less formal, it helps me to relax when I am writing. A voice in my head says: “Don’t worry. It’s just a draft. You can come back and edit it later.”
  3. Finish the first draft and leave it for several days or weeks before you begin to edit. It will be much easier to spot mistakes and discrepancies when it has gone cold.
  4. Develop your editing skills. Editing is a crucial and much underestimated part of the writer’s art. It is what makes sense of your ideas, however chaotic they may be in early drafts. Like artists who paint over a section of canvas that they don’t like, you can edit any text that does not work. As writers we have a unique privilege, we can edit as many times as we like. No book is complete at first draft stage. It can take many drafts – at least ten – before you have anything that resembles the finished article.
  5. Forget the big ideas. Start small. Keep a notebook and jot down events, places or conversations that strike you as interesting. You may not have the idea for a novel, but you may have a scene or short story.
  6. Stay fresh. Experiment with another genre. Write a short story, poem or article.
  7. Hone your powers of observation and keep your eyes, ears and mind switched on.

Edna O’Brien described writers as being constantly ‘open’ to what is going on around them. In one case, she used an observation made by her son as the starting point for one of her stories.

Your mission is to cultivate that quality of openness and the discipline that gets you to sit down in front of the PC even when you don’t feel like it.

And please, please forget the myths of ‘inspiration’ and ‘writers’ block’. They are just convenient excuses for avoiding the hard slog.

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What Makes a Great Ghost Story? 10 Tips for a Rattling Good Read

The Scream by Edvard Munch

The Scream by Edvard Munch

Introducing the story: Ghost stories often begin as a fireside entertainment, usually in winter at Christmas or New Year. The narrator is sometimes reluctant to tell his/her story because it is not mere light-hearted entertainment, but the account of a gruesome or disturbing event that would be best forgotten. (Cambridge don and celebrated writer of ghost stories M.R. James wrote his first spine-chilling tales as part of a Christmas entertainment for his friends).

First person narrative: This is a good way for the storyteller to carry the reader with her/him. This is a common device used by many authors. The narrator does not have to communicate directly with the audience. Sometimes their story may consist of a written account set down some years previously and ‘discovered’ by a second narrator who feeds the story to the audience.

Atmosphere: Good examples are the period settings provided by Susan Hill in The Woman in Black and The Mist in the Mirror. In most novels, you need to keep descriptive passages to a minimum or you lose the reader. However, with ghost stories you can let your imagination off the leash. Descriptive scene-setting is used to create atmosphere and build tension. Locations often consist of derelict houses or buildings in remote locations such as islands, moors or woods where the protagonist is cut off from help and humanity.

Unfamiliar surroundings: The sense of psychological disturbance is often created by the protagonist finding her/himself isolated in unfamiliar surroundings. For instance, the governess in The Turn of the Screw takes up a new post; James Monmouth in The Mist in The Mirror returns to Britain from many years abroad; Arthur Kipps in The Woman in Black travels to an unfamiliar part of the country to perform an official duty.

Warnings of disaster: These can be conveyed by other characters or by signs communicated to the narrator/protagonist. However, they should not reveal the full story, but merely create a sense of deep unease about a certain subject – a place or person. Instead of protecting the story’s protagonist, such warnings create a tantalising hook, increasing the protagonist’s curiosity to a point where he/she is determined to discover the truth despite all warnings of danger.

Mystery: This drives the plot and is often linked to the warnings/signs of disaster mentioned above. It may consist of unexplained remarks, strange happenings or sightings.

Pathos: This is a frequent element in ghost stories which engages the reader’s emotions. Look for the character that compels compassion and draws the reader into the story. Despite his initial unpleasantness, Scrooge captivates the reader and wins their sympathy. In The Woman in Black, the narrator is drawn in by his sympathy for the mysterious woman.

A distorted sense of reality: Is there really a ghost or are the terrifying events simply a manifestation of a disturbed mind? The best ghost stories have a strong psychological element and some may leave the reader wondering whether the strange happenings really took place or were a figment of the protagonist’s imagination.

Sensation: The sign of a good ghost story is the thrill or spine-tingling effect. The reader must experience a heightened state of anxiety and fear, experiencing the events through the eyes of the protagonist or characters in the story. A lingering sense of uncertainty about the facts or the ending itself helps to heighten the effect.

Length: Long enough to provide a meaty read but something you can finish in one sitting (preferably in front of a roaring fire with the curtains closed). This helps to maintain the tension.

Note: Further blogs related to writing the supernatural, sinister and unexpected will follow shortly.

Posted in Books, Charles Dickens, ghost stories, Halloween, Henry James, M.R. James, Susan Hill, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | 5 Comments

Leeds Castle: the tragic romance of a medieval duchess

Leeds Castle where Duchess Eleanor was imprisoned

Leeds Castle where Duchess Eleanor was imprisoned

Leeds Castle has been linked with a number of royal love-affairs, most notably that of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn. But there is another tale – less well-known, but equally poignant.

The marriage of Henry V’s brother, Duke Humphrey of Gloucester and his wife, Eleanor of Cobham was a love-match doomed to failure. Their story features as a secondary theme in the recent Hollow Crown series of Shakespeare’s historical plays and is worthy of a plot-line in Game of Thrones.

Eleanor of Cobham was born at Sterborough Castle, near Lingfield c. 1400. The daughter of a knight, she was of respectable, but lowly, birth. Described as beautiful, intelligent and ambitious, Eleanor caught the eye of Duke Humphrey when she joined the entourage of his wife. She became Humphrey’s mistress, then his wife, after his first marriage was annulled. From humble origins, Eleanor had ascended into the social stratosphere.

Duke Humphrey was the younger brother of warrior-king, Henry V, who died unexpectedly leaving an infant son (later Henry VI). Humphrey lost no time in assuming the mantle of regent with all its attendant powers. With Eleanor, he established his own, splendid court and was a patron of the arts. He also enriched himself and his followers with royal lands which, if he died first, would revert, not to the Crown, but to Eleanor. Moreover, if the child-king died, Humphrey would succeed to the throne and Eleanor would be his queen.

The long regency proved fatal to the stability of England. Court and country were torn apart by aristocratic in-fighting as noble families jostled for power. Humphrey headed a group that wished to pursue war with France; but he was opposed by an equally powerful faction which favoured peace. As the young king approached adulthood, Humphrey’s hold on power became more tenuous. Eleanor – the woman he had married for love – was his Achilles heel.

Possibly driven by her husband’s growing insecurity, Eleanor consulted two astrologers, requiring them to draw up a horoscope for the youthful king with a view to predicting her own fortunes. Unfortunately, the astrologers predicted that the king would soon fall seriously ill. Rumours began to spread until finally, they reached the court. The astrologers were arrested and charged with necromancy and heresy. The instruments of their trade were “openly showed to all men at the Cross” in St Paul’s churchyard upon a purpose-built scaffold along with one of the accused, Roger Bolingbroke.

Terrified, Eleanor sought sanctuary at Westminster before fleeing to the castle at Lesnes, near Erith. When questioned, Bolingbroke named Eleanor as the instigator of a treasonous plot. Her innocent pursuit of a horoscope was swiftly translated into a conspiracy to poison the king and she was incarcerated at Leeds Castle.

Her terror can only be imagined as, friendless and alone, stripped of power and deprived of the companionship of her husband, she awaited trial. Potentially, necromancy, heresy or treason meant execution – and some methods were even more terrible than others. Just 40 years previously, a new statute had introduced death at the stake for heretics.

At trial, Eleanor protested her innocence. While admitting that she had procured various potions from Margery Jourdemayne (the witch of Eye), she insisted that these were only to help her conceive a child. Yet she was unable to save her associates. Margery was burned at Smithfield; Bolingbroke was hanged, drawn and quartered at Tyburn and Eleanor’s chaplain, one of the two astrologers, “died in the Tower for sorrow”.

While Eleanor escaped with her life, her enemies were bent on revenge. She was forcibly divorced from Humphrey and made to do public penance, walking bare-footed and carrying a lighted taper through London to pray at various churches. She was then condemned to life-long imprisonment, being moved around the country from one remote gaol to another until she died, lonely and forgotten, eleven years later.

As for Humphrey, although a loyal servant of the Crown, he was charged with treason. He died while awaiting trial, probably from a stroke although many, including Shakespeare, believed his death to have been due to more sinister forces; a murder arranged by his political enemies.

Click here for my previous blog ‘The Devil’s Advocate? Witches vs The Law’ for more on Eleanor and Queen Joan of  Navarre who was also accused of witchcraft.

Click here for my website.





Posted in Castles, Eleanor of Cobham, Henry V, Henry VI, History, Kent, Leeds Castle, Plantagenets, Shakespeare, Wars of the Roses, Witches | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Publishing: what I learned from the gurus

Some hints from the gurus

Some hints from the gurus

Self-publishing has come of age. According to one respected academic, it is now just another arm of the publishing industry.

This is one of the inspiring messages that I brought away from the recent Matador self-publishing conference.

In this third blog on the subject, I thought it would be of interest to list some of the comments and tips from two experts whose lectures I attended.

Professor Alison Baverstock of Kingston University, the academic referred to above, has a background in the traditional publishing industry and has taught and written about the subject for many years. Her research reveals some fascinating facts which challenge many of the old preconceptions about self-publishing.

One such is that self-publishing is for sub-standard, uneducated writers.

However, Professor Baverstock’s research debunks this supposition. She revealed that 32% of self-publishers interviewed by her had a degree while 44% had a higher degree. (See her blog for the Guardian for more on this subject)

The results of her survey also show that 65% of self-publishers are female.

While this is encouraging, I suspect that the high preponderance of female self-publishers may also highlight a darker side to the publishing industry: that is, a distinct gender-bias. This continuing inequality in the traditional literary and publishing industry is the topic of frequent research by the American-based organisation, VIDA: Women in Literary Arts

My suspicion is, that finding themselves largely excluded from a traditional publishing industry which seems to focus heavily on crime-writing and romantic fiction (traditional genres for female writers), many women with original ideas are turning to self-publishing.

The advantage of this is that female authors such as Kit Berry have begun to invent their own genres. Once successful, they have a route into traditional publishing houses and, because of their strong commercial position, are more likely to be able to dictate the terms of their contracts.

Helen Lewis, Director, Literally PR discussed the secrets of running a successful book launch. This is a tiger-trap for many debut authors (including me!) who are so keen to get their first book published that they forget to plan any form of advance PR. It’s simple, really. If you don’t tell anyone your book is out there, how will they find it?

Firstly, consider whether you really need a book launch. Launches cost money and this could be spent more usefully on a publicity campaign

Calculate the total cost. Factor in items such as: the cost of a venue, building your guest list, food and drink, goody bags, décor and entertainment.

If you decide on a book launch, set a date and allow at least 5 months to organise it. Work on your mailing lists and social media to create a buzz. Give journalist invitees 3 – 6 months advance notice of the launch.

Consider filming your launch (and the preparations for it) and posting clips on YouTube.

And for all those authors (most of us, I think) who get hung up about the subject of bookshop signings, here’s a pearl of wisdom. Don’t bother. Bookshops are not expert at creating publicity and the press are unlikely to attend.

Phew! That’s one less thing to worry about.

Click here for my website 



Posted in Books, conferences, publishing, self-publishing, women self-publishers, women writers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Self-Publishing: 7 ways to get the most from a conference

Write up conference notes asap!

Write up conference notes asap!

Having recently attended Matador’s conference on self-publishing, I thought it would be useful to jot down a list of essentials to help you to get the most from a conference whatever the topic.

Prep your questions in advance. Why are you going? What do you want to learn? Which lectures would help you most? Try to identify the gaps in your knowledge.

Take lots of writing materials. You always need more. Write up notes asap. It will be fresh in your mind so you should still be able to decipher illegible text.

Remember your business cards. You will get through a stack of these at an event. If you haven’t got them, then get some quick. You will regret it if you don’t. Always remember to get other people’s cards. They can provide a valuable follow-up.

Make friends. You can learn a lot from speaking to other people. At the self-publishing conference, I met a couple who had started their own self-publishing business, a lady who was ghost-writing the story of a disabled celebrity and a fisherman who was planning to crowd-fund his book. Most pertinent to my interests was a former Reuter’s correspondent who had worked in Ceylon in 1956, the year that provided a turbulent setting for my historical novel The Devil Dancers.

Share concepts without giving away unique information. A lady behind me in the lunch queue was describing the intricacies of her novel’s plot to a complete stranger (and anyone else within earshot). A very bad idea. Most people are honest but, as a young and inexperienced freelance journalist, I had a raft of ideas stolen by a national magazine. It was extremely galling to see my story ideas being written by staff writers without a penny paid to me. There is no copyright in ideas so your only recourse is to rant to thin air.

Keep an open mind. Even if you think you know a subject inside out, there is always something new to learn. Try to let go of prejudices. Things are done very differently in this media-savvy age. While it may be galling for a vlogger who can hardly string a sentence together to be offered a book deal, it’s because he/she has a large following. Don’t get sniffy. Get down with the kids and follow their example. Traditional publishers are no longer able to give long-term nurturing to the next generation of great writers. They can’t afford to. Margins are too tight. What counts now is the bottom line. If you can show commercial nous – and a healthy media following – you have a better chance of both getting your work accepted and selling it once it is published.

Ask for advice. Don’t be shy. No question is silly. You’re here to learn. Speak up and you will find that there are lots of other people wrestling with similar problems.

Next: Self-publishing: What I learned from the gurus

Click here for my website


Posted in book festivals, Books, Ceylon, conferences, Copyright, Fiction, History, publishing, self-publishing, The Devil Dancers, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Self-publishing? Take a tip from Leicester

Be a self-publishing warrior!

Be a self-publishing warrior!

On the same day that Leicester celebrated its Premier League win, the city also hosted Matador’s annual self-publishing conference.

A tenuous connection? Perhaps. But there are similarities between the trials of the football team and the tribulations of the self-publisher.

Both stories have a David-and-Goliath quality. A few years ago, success in either case both would have been unthinkable.

Just six years ago, when I attended the London Book Fair, self-publishing was still synonymous with ‘vanity’ publishing. The disdain shown by agents, booksellers and traditional publishers was tangible.

The fact that Matador’s annual conference is only in its 4th year is testament both to the growing importance of self-publishing and the willingness of the industry to take it seriously.

Self-publishers are now giving the industry a serious run for its money, challenging preconceptions and business models. Unlike their counterparts in the behemoths of the publishing industry, they are all-rounders; IT literate, technically-skilled and both business and media savvy.

So what does a self-publishing conference offer?

  • It can provide novices with a clear plan of action. The problem today is not that there is too little information on this subject, but too much. It can be daunting for the beginner.
  • It can help those with more experience to identify gaps in their skills and keep them up to date with changes in the market. For example, choosing the right book-cover is a tricky exercise. A few years ago, a glossy cover was acceptable. Today, it is not.
  • Writers also benefit from attending self-publishing conferences. They will get an idea of what services are available, who can provide them and how much they can do themselves within a restricted budget. Crucially, they will also get advice on PR – either doing it all themselves or buying in help from an expert.

While writers tend to be a retiring by nature, there has never been a greater need for them to promote their own work. This is true, not just of self-published authors, but also of those who are traditionally-published. Unless you are one of the big names (e.g. a celebrity or blogger with a huge following), it is unlikely that publishers will provide any money for your marketing – if at all.

This was borne out a few years ago when I attended a joint book promotion with a number of other authors. One was a debut author with a traditional publisher who had not been instructed to arrange her own publicity or organise her campaign in advance. She sat forlornly at her stall without completing a single signing while her desperate parents canvassed us for advice. What should she do?

I did not have the heart to tell them that it was too late, that her book would probably be remaindered within a matter of weeks because, without pre-publicity, it could never achieve the sales required by a traditional bookseller during its limited shelf-life (about 12 weeks).

These days, no writer is an island. Whether famous or not, they must all take an active part in publicity and the planning of their pre-launch campaign.

In this respect, self-published authors have an advantage over those who are traditionally-published. They are free to continue promoting their books and selling them through whichever media best suits them. Slow-burning, long-tail sales may be frustrating but they eventually bring rewards and extend the life of a book.

As a self-published author, you have more control over your work. If you are traditionally-published and the book does not sell, you are spared tedious negotiations with the publisher to re-acquire the rights to your material.

And what will you do with your manuscript once it has been reclaimed?

Why, self-publish, of course!

Next: 7 ways to get the most from a conference

To find out more about my books and interests, click here for my website

Posted in Books, publishing, self-publishing, writing, Writing Advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments