Tudor treasure

Tudor treasure stolen in England

On Friday last week, a set of gold rosary beads carried by Mary Queen of Scots to her execution were stolen from Arundel Castle. Thieves smashed open a display cabinet and took the rosary plus other gold and silver items dating back to the Tudor period. This included coronation cups given by Mary to the Earl Marshal.

Mary had a tragic life. She became Queen of Scotland as a baby and spent her childhood in France while others ruled on her behalf. Once an adult, Mary returned to Scotland but her Catholic faith brought her into conflict with the rising Protestant faith and its leading Scottish firebrand, John Knox.

Her personal life was stormy to put it mildly. She married her first cousin, Lord Darnley, in what seems to have been a passionate liaison. But it turned sour and Darnley died after a very suspicious explosion at a house where he was staying and was found dead in the grounds, most likely smothered to death.

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Mary had a legitimate claim to the throne of England – which naturally concerned Elizabeth the First – who just happened to be the Queen of England! These two women, who never actually met, were set on a collision course. For English Protestants, Elizabeth was the defender of their faith while Mary was a French-raised Catholic who had to be crushed.

And crushed she was. Firstly by her own Scottish aristocracy who turned on Mary. Then she was abducted and imprisoned for nearly two decades by cousin Elizabeth. Initially, Mary thought Elizabeth might help her regain the Scottish throne. But when it became clear that was not going to happen, Mary took to plotting against Elizabeth.

A course of action that led with grim inevitability to the executioner’s block. The beheading was the subject of lurid tales from those present on that tragic day. Apparently it took more than one blow of the axe to take off her head. Then the executioner held up her head by the hair only to discover it was a wig – and her head fell to the wooden stage and rolled along.

And then a claim that for up to quarter of an hour, Mary’s lips continued to move. Plus a small dog emerged from under her skirts after the execution. So – quite a scene.

Tudor treasure – the gold rosary beads of Mary Queen of Scots

Very sad that the rosary beads she clutched on the way to her death should have been stolen by some total low life. The metal value is very low according to Arundel Castle. Let’s hope then that they haven’t been melted down. I will confess this kind of crime boils my blood. The thieves are lucky we don’t inflict Tudor-style punishments today for these kind of offences.

The Spanish Inquisition – what was it really like?

What was it like to be a prisoner of the notorious Spanish Inquisition? Well, I got a unique insight in 2019 when I visited what had been a Spanish Inquisition prison in the Sicilian capital of Palermo.

You might ask – what was the Spanish Inquisition doing in the Sicilian capital, Palermo? Isn’t that part of Italy?

And the answer is that Sicily was ruled by Spain from the 15th to the 18th century. With Spanish rule came the Spanish Inquisition and that meant imprisonment, torture and burning at the stake for those who didn’t accept the authority of the Roman Catholic church.

Spanish Inquisition gets to work in Sicily

In Palermo, people suspected of being ‘heretics’ – in opposition to Catholic teaching – were arrested and taken to a very severe looking building. They were crammed into dark cells from which they only emerged to be beaten and cruelly tortured.

But what is astonishing is that during their dreadful captivity, the prisoners used a mixture of dirt from the floor and their urine to paint religious art on the walls.

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This art was lost for centuries and only fully rediscovered in the last twenty years. Some of it seems to be a plea for mercy while other drawings are clearly intended to tell the Inquisition to sling its hook. There’s even one depiction of an inquisitor riding a donkey which is defecating.

I was genuinely affected by my visit to this Spanish Inquisition prison. It still holds the ability to terrify, though you have to use a bit of imagination to visualise it at the height of its operation. But frankly, anybody with a modicum of historical knowledge should be able to do that.

A visit is definitely recommended and – yes – you could take youngsters too. I suspect they’ll love it!

Discovering my US Cavalry ancestor on Ancestry.com

Ancestry.com allowed me to discover that an ancestor of mine – falsely identified as a police officer in the NYPD – was actually a US Cavalry lieutenant who fought in the Spanish American war.

In a pile of old photos from the Irish side of my family (Dad is from the Emerald Isle), there’s always been a couple of photos that confused us. A moustachioed gentleman in some kind of uniform in the early 20th century. Who was he? What was the uniform?

Ancestry.com identifies Lieutenant Francis McEnhill

Well, the mystery has been solved thanks to doing some work on Ancestry.com – which I’ve become horribly addicted to. It has given us a very full picture of an interesting guy.

Some of my relatives talked about an Uncle Francis who emigrated to the United States from County Tyrone, in what’s now Northern Ireland. They speculated that he might have become a police officer in the NYPD because of the uniform in the photo.

If he had been aware of their musings, Francis might have been deeply offended.

Because Uncle Francis, it transpires, was in the US Cavalry! An immigrant to the US, he married the daughter of a senior New York military officer James Joseph Butler (1832-1910) who had fought alongside a future US president, Chester Arthur, in the American civil war – with the Union, not the Confederacy. This familial connection seems to have smoothed the path for Irish-born Francis to join the US cavalry.

War record revealed on Ancestry.com

And what a time to have joined! Lt Francis McEnhill (born 1872) was very soon in Cuba and then the Philippines fighting with American forces against Spain – the colonial ruler of these two countries. From 1898, President William McKinley used various pretexts and a fevered press campaign to justify attacking what was then Spanish colonial territory.

This heralded America’s arrival on the world stage. Spain was a declining imperial power and these countries were sad remnants of a once huge empire that covered all of central and Latin America. The war, begun by McKinley and continued by Teddy Roosevelt, led to the US annexation of Cuba, the Philippines, Guam and Puerto Rico.

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Ancestry.com reveals the sad death of Francis McEnhill

Francis enjoyed the military life. But he seems to have picked up some bug in the Philippines that destroyed his health. Tropical disease was rife and did impact the cavalry. Whatever he contracted led to encephalitis. This was a death sentence back in those days.

Poor Francis ended up in a hospital in Philadelphia where he died in 1909. Thanks to Ancestry I’ve even found the bill sent to his widow for the coffin, transfer of the body back to New York state and things like the silk Stars and Stripes to be draped over his casket. Also through Ancestry, I now know that he’s buried at Sacket’s Harbour – which was once a major military base.

It’s a quirk of the digital age that I know more about Uncle Francis than my Irish granny, who was his niece, did in the 1970s. She only had sketchy details about him to share. But through the power of the internet and Ancestry.com, I have a surprisingly detailed picture of my dashing ancestor.

As a postscript, I discovered his military chest on Craigslist where a young man had bought it in a house sale. The name Francis McEnhill was on the side of the large wooden crate and documents relating to the widow’s pension were found inside with the gold cavalry insignia you can see on his uniform in the photo.

I offered this young man a very generous price but he chose to give it to a local military museum. I guess it’s gone to a good enough home!

Lieutenant Francis McEnhill – Born 10 June, 1872 in County Tyrone, Ireland. Died 3 June, 1909 in Philadelphia, buried in Sacket’s Harbor