The Famous Lord Who Lost an Eye

Though Lord Horatio Nelson lost an eye and an arm in battle and shocked public sensibilities by having a public affair, the dashing officer eventually became so beloved by the British public that bystanders burst into tears of admiration when he passed through the streets.

Lord Nelson

Nelson had risen through the ranks to gain command of his own ship by age 20 in 1778; and he didn’t gain that position by playing it safe.  Always leading in the thick of battle, the 30-year-old lost an eye at a battle in Corsica when cannon fire hit a sandbag filled with rocks and sand, sending debris into his face.  Later in life at the Battle of Copenhagen Nelson intentionally raised his telescope to his blind eye and turned to his aide, honestly remarking that he had not seen any signal to retreat—and so he ordered an attack.

At age 40 in the battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, a musket ball hit his right arm and required its amputation.  A half hour after the surgery, he returned to duty in the fight.

Early in this meteoric career, while Nelson served duty in the West Indies, he met and married Frances Nesbit.  The couple became estranged over time and Nelson fell in love with Emma Hamilton.  Frances issued an ultimatum that he must choose between his wife and his lover; he chose Emma and had a daughter with her. His open affair sat uneasy with his peers; and after his death they gave her no financial assistance, causing her to flee debtors with her daughter Horatia. During his lifetime, though, Nelson was so wildly popular that his personal life went virtually unchallenged.

Nelson defeated Napoleon’s eastern fleet at the Battle of the Nile, but it was Nelson’s spectacular strategy in the Battle of Trafalgar that sealed his fame. The battle had huge implications:  if Nelson could not defeat the Franco-Spanish navy, Napoleon would certainly invade and perhaps conquer Britain.  From the deck of his flagship HMS Victory, Nelson sent his armada a phrase that became legendary in naval history–“England expects that every man will do his duty”—and engaged the enemy.

The Victory is preserved and on display in Portsmouth Harbor, England. You can still sometimes meet descendants of Horatio and Emma when you visit this remarkable warship.

The battle was won, Britain was saved, but Nelson himself was killed by the bullet of a marksman who recognized Nelson’s rank displayed on his uniform.  The brilliant admiral was 47 years old. To preserve his body for burial, his body was placed in a cask of brandy and returned to Gibraltar where he was placed in a coffin filled with wine. Finally, the body was transported back to England where, after a 4-hour service attended by thousands, he was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral in a sarcophagus originally carved for Cardinal Wolsey.


By 1835 his admirers placed his statue atop a column in a London plaza.  This is, of course, the famous Trafalgar Square.

Trafalgar Column


Next time:  Walking to Tea in Grantchester


Photo credits:  Open Sources

Castle Howard–A Brideshead Worth Revisiting

If you are lucky to be old enough, for eleven weeks in a row in 1981 you could settle in with your popcorn in front of the tv set and watch young actors Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews in an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited.  The story was a poignant look at an aristocratic family in the soft twilight of Edwardian England.  The story ended with everyone miserable, and I loved it.  The family house, named Brideshead, was the first stately home I had ever seen, and it took my breath away.

I much later learned that this home was not a movie set but an actual country house:  Castle Howard.

If you drive north from London into the countryside of Yorkshire and about 15 miles northeast of the cathedral city of York, you will discover this residence that has been in the Howard family for over 300 years. No, it’s a great country house rather than a castle, but that doesn’t stop it from impressing.  Its art collection rivals that of many small museums, and the house was once so prominent that it even had its own railway station. In its heyday–at 13,000 acres–this family’s estate measured 20 square miles.

But what you should do is take a picnic, sit across the lake, and let yourself study this jewel of art that situates itself as a home. It is stunning and as pleasing as looking at a beautiful painting.CH castle adjusted

After your picnic lunch, you should wander the grounds to find the follies.  Most of us with gardens have small decorative elements in them—fairy houses, St. Francis statues, suncatchers. Great houses have follies: pieces of architecture to decorate the grounds.  Each folly has been placed to draw your eyes around the view as though you actually are viewing a painting.  Try looking at the picture below:  you can’t help but feel your eyes being drawn around the view.

Castle Howard bridge

The folly below is called Temple of the Four Winds, and its name plus its Palladian style fulfill another job of a folly:  to capture your imagination and make you wonder about what this place has witnessed or who has been here.

Castle Howard Folly

It took me 29 years to make my way on a bus tour to Castle Howard, and I only had an hour there.

But it was worth it. My personal Brideshead Revisited.


Next time:  The Famous Lord Who Lost An Eye

Photo credits:  Nancy Parrish

The English Mourning of World War I

“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.  At the going down of the sun and in the morning, we will remember them.”—Robert Laurence Binyon (September 1914)

We humans are naturally most aware of the great tragedies occurring during our lifetime. In Vietnam the US suffered 60,000 fatal casualties; 36,000 were killed or wounded in Iraq; 23,000 were killed or wounded in Afghanistan.  However, even by these standards, “The Great War”—World War I—shattered the entire world with a new type of warfare creating carnage on a heretofore unimagined scale. The British had over 3 million dead or wounded. Russia had over 9 million. Those left grieving counted in the millions upon millions. Survivors were left disoriented, bewildered, untethered from all that had once seemed good and dependable. Gertrude Stein would name this a “lost generation.”

World War I bunker and water-filled bomb sites near Ypres, Belgium

In 1915 after the Second Battle of Ypres (in Belgium), Canadian physician John McCrae wrote the poem “In Flanders Fields” which said, in part:

In Flanders fields the poppies blow

Between the crosses, row on row. . .

If ye break faith with us who die

We shall not sleep, though poppies grow

In Flanders fields.

This poem held the kernel of what survivors would cling to: they would never forget those who had died.

Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium

Today in Ypres, Belgium, you can see this emotional commitment in statues such as the bas relief memorial  showing a dead British soldier flanked by women mourning his death, the British lion roaring its grief. Ascending heavenward like Christ, this soldier is accompanied by an angel carrying a sword and a laurel crown, signaling immortality and reward for his bravery in battle.

British Memorial for World War I, Ypres, Belgium

You can attend the evening ceremony there at the Menin Gate that has taken place—with only a handful of exceptions—every day for over a hundred years: a poem of remembrance is read; a mournful trumpet sounds its salute; fresh flowers are laid.

A practical aspect of the memorials was that they offered the only focal point possible when the fallen were never recovered or never properly identified. In the heat of battle, army chaplains could only write a soldier’s name on a slip of paper, slip it into a bottle at the burial site, and hope the location might later be marked by a wooden cross.* The British government undertook to establish an Imperial War Graves Commission (IWGC) to take whatever action necessary to insure a respectful grave or remembrance for each soldier from the British Commonwealth. The Tyne Cot cemetery near Ypres, Belgium is only one of the hundred of WWI cemeteries holding carefully tended graves planted with flowers.

Grave to an unknown soldier at Tyne Cot Cemetery, Belgium

The British government also commissioned famous architect Edwin Lutyens to design an empty tomb as a poignant reminder of the soldiers who would never return to their homeland. And the government very intentionally chose to place this Cenotaph in the middle of Whitehall, London’s busiest street. On November 11, 1920—the second anniversary of the Armistice–when King George V unveiled the monument and tossed “a handful of the soil from a Flanders battlefield into the grave,”* the entire nation was silent and no noise could be heard except for the sound of sobbing women.** For decades, buses would literally stop in London on November 11—Remembrance Day–at the eleventh hour and stand quiet for two minutes.

Cenotaph London

Even 100 years after the war—in 2014-2018–the British affirmed their faithful remembrance with ceremonies, conferences, and art displays such as the famous ceramic poppies cascading like bleeding tears down the Tower of London:


This war haunted England.  They remember.

Next Time:  Castle Howard–why “Brideshead” should be Revisited

*The Countess of Carnarvon, Lady Almina and The Real Downton Abbey:  The Lost Legacy of Highclere Castle, (New York: Broadway Paperbacks, 2011), 239.

**Adam. Hochschild, To End All Wars:  A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918. (Boston:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011), 348.

Photo credits:

Tower of London and Cenotaph images—Open sources

Ypres memorials—Nancy Parrish



A Wee Bit of the Irish

When St. Patrick’s Day comes around, most Americans think of the bridges and pubs of Dublin, shamrocks curled atop foaming pints of Guinness, and bad jokes. (You know you have.  Remember the one whose answer is “Patty O’Furniture”?!).

Well, when you think of going to the Republic of Ireland, consider landing on the west coast (at Shannon) rather than the east (at Dublin).    Everywhere, everywhere are wee villages and byways where you’ll find yourself smiling as you watch the shepherd slowly move wooly sheep down the road in front of you. Small pubs will tempt you with the creamiest, most luxuriant Irish coffee you’ve ever tasted.  The Dingle Peninsula has a shore road that will give you a day’s worth of stunning coastal views.  And Killarney has lakes that seem intent on delighting you with brief, soft rains followed by rainbows.

However, the view I’d very much like you to see are the Cliffs of Moher in County Clare, an hour north of Shannon.  You’ve probably caught a glimpse of them if you’ve seen The Princess Brideor Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince; but nothing will prepare you for the jaw-dropping beauty of the cliff themselves.

As you drive up to the orientation center, you’ll smile:  they’ve nestled it into a hillside so that it looks just like a Hobbit home.  The center is truly informative, and one of the most crucial things they will say is to observe the barriers on the hillside:  these barriers will truly protect you from being swept over to the Aran Islands by the west winds.

Moher visitor center

Safely behind the fencing, then let yourself stare.  These 700-foot-high cliffs extend for nearly five miles and seem the embodiment of what a rugged, handsome Irish coast should be.

And that’s no Blarney.  If you go, make sure you see them.

Evening light on the Cliffs of Moher
Cliffs of Moher, County Clare, Ireland

Next Time:  The Unusual Mourning by the English of World War I

Photo credits:  Killarney (, Moher visitor center (arup), Cliffs of Moher (

“’Whenever I see the words “Peer’s Daughter” in a headline…I know it’s going to be something about one of you children’”–Sydney Mitford, Lady Redesdale* (Part 2 of 2)

Conversations about the Mitford dinner table had to be unusual if the adult lives of the children offered any proof.

Unity Unity Mitford

Daughter Unity Mitford (b. 1914) became fascinated by Nazi political philosophy and absolutely worshipped Adolf Hitler.  When she finally had the chance to live in Germany, she essentially stalked Hitler by placing herself at his favorite restaurants. In 1935, her plan succeeded: Hitler noticed the statuesque blond and invited her to join him for a meal.  It was the beginning of a friendship that brought Unity to Nazi parties and rallies.

Unity still loved England, and she became so distraught over the tensions between England and Germany that she swore she would shoot herself if the countries went to war.  On the afternoon of Sunday, September 3, 1939—the day England declared war with Germany–Unity walked into the English Garden in Munich, put her pearl-handled 6.35 Walther pistol to her head, and shot herself.  She survived, and Hitler paid her medical expenses and costs for her return to England where she was bitterly hated. She survived in a mentally diminished state and died nearly nine years later.**

Jessica         Jessica Mitford

Unity’s younger sister Jessica (b. 1917) was diametrically opposed to Unity’s politics:  despite her privileged social status, she believed in Communism.  Her cousin Esmond Romilly had fought for the Communists in the Spanish Civil War, and she determined to fall in love with him because of it.  After knowing him only a few days, she eloped with him to fight in Spain. Her father never forgave her for this elopement; and though he lived for twenty more years, he never saw her again.

The Romillys moved to America where—ironically–Jessica used her social connections to meet and become friends with powerbrokers such as Katherine Graham (whose father owned the Washington Post) and the poet Maya Angelou. Esmond was killed in the war, and Jessica moved to California where she remarried and became deeply involved in the civil rights movement. Later she researched and wrote The American Way of Death, an explosive exposé of exploitative funeral home practices.  She died in Oakland, California in 1996 and had her ashes scattered at sea.

Deborah       Deborah Mitford                                                                                                                                   Unlike her sisters, the youngest Mitford–Deborah (b. 1920)—believed in the traditional values and politics of England.  She met and married Andrew Cavendish, the second son of the Duke of Devonshire.  Andrew’s brother William was married to Kathleen (“Kick”) Kennedy and was destined to become the 11thDuke of Devonshire.  When William was killed during World War II, Andrew became the heir to an estate that was taxed at 80% of its value upon his father’s death.

Deborah’s practical sense and managerial skills made possible the survival of the Devonshire estates, homes, and art.  She began a Duchess of Devonshire line of products and made shrewd decisions drawing more visitors to their great country house Chatsworth.

Even while their fortunes slowly improved, they enjoyed society with Prince Charles, his wife Camilla, and the elite circle of English social life.  In these respects, she was the wealthiest and most proudly English of her siblings. Deborah died in 2014 and was buried on the Chatsworth estate.

If you at all enjoy biography so startling that it reads like fiction, consider reading the Mary S. Lovell biography noted below.

Next time:  A Wee Bit of the Irish around St. Patrick’s Day

*Mitford, Jessica.  Hons and Rebels.  U. K.: Phoenix, p. 10.

**Lovell, Mary S.  The Sisters:  The Saga of the Mitford Family.  New York: W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001: 181, 223)

Photo credits: Portraits are from open sources.  Landscape of the water feature at Chatsworth and Chatsworth House itself by Nancy Parrish.

The Astonishing Mitfords (Part 1 of 2)*

Nancy m

Nancy Mitford (b. 1904)

Nancy Mitford’s hilarious novels had her friends in stitches and her family in constant embarrassment. The smart set of the 1920s—called the Bright Young Things—roared over the adventures of a quirky English family living in the country who were easily recognized as the Mitfords themselves. Everything from the time their father transported a pony in a cab to the fact that their parents allowed  daughter Unity to eat nothing but mashed potatoes for two years found their way into Nancy’s writing or conversations.

Her gossip about her six siblings was worth hearing.


  Pamela Mitford.  Her sister Pamela (b. 1907) had an affair with brilliant physicist, horseman, millionaire Derek Ainslie Jackson.


 Tom Mitford.   Her brother Tom (b. 1909), a handsome ladies’ man, skated with Olympic skater Sonja Henie and charmed the journalist Sheilah Graham (later the lover of F. Scott Fitzgerald).


 Diana Mitford.  But beginning with her swipes at sister Diana (b. 1910), Nancy’s comments on her remaining sisters became acid. Diana, considered the most beautiful woman in England of her time, was at the heart of English aristocracy when she married beer heir Bryan Guinness.  In a few years, though, she shocked that same society by becoming the lover of fascist leader Sir Oswald Mosley.  Shock piled upon shock.  When Moseley’s wife died of peritonitis, Diana and Mosley married in Germany–with Hitler as a guest. Upon their return to England, Nancy wrote a secret letter to the British government and—partly because of this letter– the Mosleys were imprisoned for most of World War II.  Diana never knew of this letter until after Nancy’s death.

Next time:  “’Whenever I see the words “Peer’s Daughter” in a headline…I know it’s going to be something about one of you children’”

*Apologies for the recent lapse in blogs, but I just finished my book about English aristocrats and their great houses which I will be publishing later this year. Look for Flight of the English Gods:  Great Houses, Churchills and Mitfords!

Primary Source:  Lovell, Mary S.  The Sisters:  The Saga of the Mitford Family.  New York:

                                                  W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2001: 31, 61, 131, 144, 214, 215.

Photo credits:  Portraits are from open sources. Pub photo of the tea room owned by the youngest Mitford sibling (Deborah) is by Nancy Parrish

Aristocrats at Play (possibly you?)

While you are nestled in your country estate for the winter, why not take some tips from the English nobles for planning summer outings?

 In June you might mark your social calendar for the Derby and Royal Ascot races. Ladies, remember that if you’re watching from the Royal Enclosure, you’ll need a dress at least knee-length or longer with shoulder straps at least an inch in width.  Gentlemen, don’t forget your waistcoat, tie, top hat and black shoes.


In mid-June you might grab an $800 ticket to attend the opening party of the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition.  You can carry your cocktails and canapés around the ice sculptures and live music to study the decidedly avant-garde art that will surprise you and put a sizable dent in your credit card should you wish to purchase some.

At the start of July you will want to watch the five days of the Henley Royal Regatta.  This rowing event on the River Thames draws international crews—and you and your elegantly-dressed friends.  July could also find you drifting southward for yacht-racing at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.  Cowes, like Helen of Troy, launches at least 1,000 boats during its week of racing.  However, should the tang of salt air and the vision of hundreds of white sails skimming across the water tire you, just take your tailored white cotton shirt and blue chinos to one of the bouquets of jazz concerts and cocktail parties that line the harbor.

Saturated by nautical life, you and your friends can fly to Scotland to begin shooting on the “Glorious 12th” of August—the opening of grouse season.  In 1911, the Tatler magazine reported that $65 billion was spent on shooting alone.*   The speed with which servants could re-load guns allowed the group with Lord Burnham and George V to bag a record of nearly 4,000 grouse in one day in 1913. **

Perhaps you are sympathetic to the grouse and wish to avoid this blood sport?  Easily done.  Focus on the “Saturday to Mondays” (not weekends) for teas, lawn sports, and elegant dinners. If you are a lady, do bring twenty-five changes of clothing. *** If you are hosting, be sure to have “plenty of coal in the grate, fresh ribbons threaded through the hems of sheets, clean blotting paper, new pens, a full ink bottle and various sizes of writing paper at the desk; fresh flowers, perhaps corsages for the ladies (a speciality at the Sackville’s Knole)” and reading matter gauged to your guests’ taste.+  Insure that your maids unpack everyone’s clothing carefully as they place it in drawers and closets.++


Probably, though, you will want to spend a good bit of summer on horseback.  Polo, preserving some elements of the calvary charge, has divisions called chukkers.  Point-to-point racing evolved from steeplechasing, the challenge to race from one church towards another distant church steeple, leaping over walls, ditches, or any other obstacles in the way.  Perhaps the most elegant equestrian event is fox-hunting with its hunting pinks (actually coats that were red in color and evolved from military uniforms), yelping hounds, and the clarion call of the horn.  No actual fox may be involved with this event now but, instead, a scent that has been dragged over hill and dale. Enthusiasts still “ride to hounds” five or six times a week.  The Duke of Rutland’s family could always tell whether their chaplain was hunting that day by the speed of his morning prayers and the fact that he might be wearing boots and spurs under his cassock. Horse folk are nothing if not dedicated.  On the final day of her life, Lord Salisbury’s grandmother–eighty-five years old and nearly blind–had herself lashed onto her horse and was accompanied by a groom who called as she approached a fence, “’Jump, dammit, my Lady, jump.’” +++ 

Your summer, alas, will come to an end.  Fortunately this unhappy realization is eased by the fact that in late August you can return to the south of England to cheer at the sunset event of The Season, the races at Goodwood.  Gentlemen, remember your cravats or silk ties and ladies, your fascinators.  The Gordon Prosecco Package might be just the thing to ease the thought of autumn’s approach.

So settle in before the winter’s fire with a glass of hot mulled wine and plan away.

Next Time:  Finding The Astonishing Mitfords



Photo credits:  Nancy Parrish

*2016 conversion; Warwick, Sarah.  Upstairs and Downstairs.  London:  Carlton Publishing

            Group, 2011: 82.

* Aslet, Clive.  The Last Country Houses.  New Haven and London:  Yale University 

Press, 1982: Aslet 71.

** Aslet, Clive.  The Last Country Houses.  New Haven and London:  Yale University 

Press, 1982: 58

+ MacColl, Gail and Carol McD. Wallace.  To Marry an English Lord: Tales of Weath and

 Marriage, Sex and Snobbery.   New York:  Workman Publishing Company, Inc., 

1989, 2012: 294.

++Smith, Sally Bedell.  Reflected Glory:  The Life of Pamela Churchill Harriman. 

 New York:  Simon & Schuster, 1996: 45.

+++Tuchman, Barbara.  The Proud Tower:  A Portrait of the World Before the War, 

1890-1914.   The Library of America, 1962; 2012: 591.