The origin of the Christmas card is, fortunately for its future historians, not lost in the mists of antiquity, that popular hiding place for all sorts of origins; but as clearly fixed as Archbishop Usher’s date of Creation – B.C. 4004 – with more trustworthy evidence to support it. In 1846, Sir Henry Cole (then plain Mr) suggested the idea of a specially designed form of greeting to send to friends at Christmas. Mr J. C. Horley, R.A., acting on the hint, produced a design of a trellis of rustic-work, in the Germanesque style, divided into a centre and two side panels. In the panels are figures representing two of the acts of charity, “feeding the hungry” and “clothing the naked;” in the centre is a picture of a merry family party, including three generations, grandparents to grandchildren, quaffing draughts of wine.
It was evident that some such individual, whether called buyer or commercial traveller, comes between the manufacturer and the retailer in almost every instance. Not only has this personage to reckon with the taste of shop-keepers, which varies from the best to the worst, with a tendency to the latter, but he has also his own standard to defend. Hence he sells most readily not only those goods the average retail trader is most likely to choose for himself, but a great many others which, since they approve themselves to the vendor, he can recommend with sincerity. It is strange that this needle’s eye, through which so much Applied Art has to pass ere it reaches the public, is not more often recognised as the chief obstacle to its progress. The public should not be held responsible for declining to purchase goods which never came under its eyes; the manufacturer should not be held blameworthy for the poor level of the Art he offers, when, possibly, he has tried and tried in vain to induce his travellers and the trade buyers to support his efforts to produce good designs.
Although 1846 has been so far accepted as the undisputed date of the first card, just before going to press, Mr Jonathan King, the owner of the largest collection, has called my attention to a paragraph in a journal of some standing, where a Mr Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, is said to be the real inventor of the Christmas card, seeing that a year or two before the above date he issued one, with a laughing face, and the motto “A Gude New Year to Ye.” Whether this be the card which is elsewhere said to have been engraved on a copper- plate by a workman, Daniel Aikman, in 1840 or 1841 and published with a Scotch motto, I am unable to prove. Should either of these statements be accurate, although one might, without special pleading, claim that a New Year secular greeting is not quite the same as one marking a religious festival, it would be best to give later inventors equal credit, and assume, what would be probably correct, that neither knew of the doings of the others.
So, too, the statement that engravers’ apprentices of Northumberland or Yorkshire (the stories differ, and one questions if such a class of artists exists in either place in sufficient numbers to found a custom), are in the habit of sending specimens of their own work to friends at Christmas, and have done so for a long period, may or may not be true, but is hardly likely to have been the source whence the card was derived. Equally difficult is it to obtain any details of Messrs Goodall’s cards in 1862 (or 1864, authorities vary,) which were probably the first issued to the ordinary trade. Despite a former sentence crediting Messrs Goodall with the honour of being the first publishers of Christmas cards, (always excepting the Sir Henry Cole card of 1846,) and, notwithstanding the fact that several of their cards, issued in 1864 and 1865, from designs by C. H. Bennett, are reproduced here, it is possible that other candidates might put forward reasonable claims.
It seems probable that ornamented note paper and envelopes appeared just before the cards, that the designs in relief, identical with those on the stationery named, were either simultaneously or very shortly after stamped in the centre of a card, which had its edges coloured or embossed. Certain it is that T. Sulman was very early in the field with relief-decorated paper and cards, and with lithographed designs. Leighton, of Fleet Street, and Mansell, of Red Lion Square, are also amongst the first, while R. Canton, (who started Valentine and Birthday card production in 1840,) and Dean & Sons issued many of their publications with special Christmas mottoes. The innovation of stamping reliefs in two ormore colours is dated to 1858. The introduction of foreign “chromo-lithograph pictures,” to replace those hitherto coloured by hand, or by stencil, is traced to Elliott, of Bucklesbury, in 1850, and to Scheffer and Scheiper, (I have but the phonetic spelling of these names,) in 1851. This item in the preparation of “made-up” Birthday Cards and Valentines had hitherto been very rudely prepared by colouring plain embossed relief with a brush, or stencilling lithographs, afterwards embossed and cut out.
With Messrs Marcus Ward & Co., who started the production of Christmas cards as early as 1867, coincidentally with the opening of their London house, however, we come to a very different class of manufacturers. Here is a house, one of the earliest in production, with a record that reaches the highest level of decorative excellence ever touched by the Christmas card. This firm for awhile monopolised the whole of the better-class trade. Beginning with the use of German ” chromos,” usually mounted on card with lithographed borders in gold and colours, of home manufacture, they soon issued reproductions of original designs by artists of repute, and gained a position where they stood without rivals. It was, I believe, owing to the acute perception of one of the partners of this firm, Mr. William H. Ward, that Miss Kate Greenaway was “discovered” as a designer. At the earliest “Black and White” Exhibition at the Dudley Gallery Mr. Ward’s attention was drawn to Miss Greenaway’s work; and recognising that her special talent was in the direction of costume figures and dainty colours, he induced her to design for the firm.
by Victoria Hinshaw
In 1781, Mary sat for a portrait by Thomas Gainsborough, commissioned by the Prince. In this version of the painting in the Wallace Collection above (another is in the Royal Collection), Mary holds a miniature of the Prince in her right hand.
Mary had only a brief time in the limelight of the London demi-monde. Only a few year later, she was reported to be “desperately ill.” Various explanations for her condition have been suggested, but the causes of her maladies remain mysterious. In May of 1791, she published a book of poems, “a small but handsomely bound volume with marbeled end papers,” made possible by sums raised by 600 subscribers, including the Prince of Wales, the Duke of York, the Duke of Clarence and many other luminaries.
In 2010, Kristine and Victoria, along with Kristine’s daughter, Brooke, visited with Hester Davenport in Windsor, here at the Castle.
Hester Davenport chronicles the reception Mary’s book received. Readers seem to ask, “How was it possible to connect the frivolous woman of 1780s gossip with a writer of pensive odes, elegies and sonnets?” That Mary acquired the title ‘The English Sappho,’ possibly at her own instigation, may have added to the this (seductive) sense of being wooed.
Mary lived only a few more years, dying in 1800, having never recovered her health. She had, however, continued to write poetry as well as her memoirs, several novels, plays and feminist essays.
As an endorsement of the value of her literary work, the painting of Mary Robinson by Hoppner, above, was acquired for the Chawton House Library, where it is displayed prominently. Many works by Mary Robinson are available from their website. Her biography is here.
We all hope that future scholars will pay attention to this fascinating woman and her body of work. In the epilogue of her biography, Hester Davnport writes, “Mary Robinson was dead: the talented actress, spectacular Cyprian, accomplished and industrious author, committed feminist and radical, charming and witty hostess, spendthrift, devoted daughter and mother, compassionate, sensitive and sometimes spikily difficult woman. A genius? Perhaps only in her extraordinary versatility, but not undeserving of the ‘One little laurel wreath,’ she craved.”
Anyone who knows the Brits knows at least these two things.
1. No one does ceremony as well or for as many events as them.
2. No one assigns specific places to specific events as well as they do.
What else might account for the existence of specific routes known as corpse roads recorded from as early as the medieval era? In fact, some research indicates they might well have been assigned and traveled from a time as far past as the Neolithic period. But more about that later.
These paths were known by a variety of names and whilst many are lost and long forgotten, some are still apparent and even marked by signs. Their names included:
Corpse road Burial road
Coffin road Lyke road or way
Bier road Funeral way
Lych road or way Church way
NOTE: Lych is the Old English word for corpse.
Now that we have the “what” out of the way, let us discuss the “why.”
Up until the late 16th to early 17th centuries the larger mother churches in England reserved the right to conduct burials for themselves. And for a very good reason. Burials brought in money to the church’s coffers. As a result, many people who died in rural villages or any distance from a mother church had to be conveyed to these churches for a proper burial. Most of these people were poor. Many did not own a horse or a cart, and if they did, these equipages could not be spared for the long trip to one of these churches. They had work to do at home.
Therefore, more often than not, the dead person had to be carried by men from home or from their home village great distances on foot to be afforded the aforementioned proper burial. Generally the party consisted of eight men who worked in teams of four in a procession that might consist of simply those eight men or might include those members of the family and even friends who could afford to take the time to attend. However, most of the time, the body was conveyed separately over the corpse road whilst the mourners traveled a more direct route.
It is important to remember that quite a few people during these eras could not afford a coffin. Many villages and most mother churches had a coffin that was used to convey a body from home to the church. It would then be left at the church for the next person to use. This multi-use casket could be made of wood or could be made of wicker, a large human-sized wicker basket with two handles on each side. In these cases, bodies were buried in shrouds.
A few logistics when it comes to corpse roads…
Corpse roads could be as short as five or six miles and as long as ten to sixteen miles. The corpse road from Keld to Grinton in Yorkshire, known as the Swaledale Corpse Way is every bit of sixteen miles.
Corpse roads were not a strictly British tradition. There were and are corpse roads all over Europe. Most of these, however, are lost to history. As late as the 19th century Ordinance Survey maps in Britain still documented 42 of these funerary ways.
The directions and locations of corpse roads were determined by a few factors. Some of these factors were practical. Some, frankly, were deeply seated in tradition and superstition.
1. The corpse roads tended to go immediately away from the village. No one wanted a corpse carried by their front door.
2. There was a bit of folklore about corpse roads that declared any road by which a corpse traveled became a public right of way. There is no legal evidence to support this, but even 19th century landowners still posted signs that forbade any funeral processions from crossing their property. This meant large swaths of land were removed from the possible route of a corpse road.
3. There were two schools of thought on the actual path of a corpse road. Some parts of Britain held the belief that spirits of the dead could only travel in a straight line. Therefore routes were planned in a straight line from a particular village to the mother church in order to ensure the spirit traveled with the corpse all the way to the burial ground. They didn’t want him hanging about in fields or worse in taverns along the way because he got lost and couldn’t find his way to his own funeral.
There was also a theory that a coffin sterilized the land along the way it was carried because the dead were forced to walk that path until their soul was purged. Those who believed this made certain the corpse road was a straight route which meant the way passed over whatever terrain was in the way in order to achieve that straight line.
The other school of thought was that since spirits could only travel in a straight line, the corpse road needs must be a meandering path to ensure the spirit did not find its way back home. This accounts for some of the wandering, twisting turning aspects of some corpse roads. As much as one might love the dearly departed, one certainly did not want him showing up at the supper table two weeks after the funeral.
The tradition of the straight line is rooted in those ancient burial routes mentioned at the beginning of this post. Neolithic earthen avenues called cursuses linked burial mounds. In fact, these routes ran for miles, and as seen especially from the air are straight, or straight in segments, connecting funerary sites. There is even one just outside Stonehenge.
4. In aid of keeping that straight line route, corpse roads passed over every sort of terrain imaginable with little to no thought as to the effort it might take to haul a corpse over said terrain. A section of the Pennine Way follows the historic corpse road from Garrigill to Kirkland over Alston Moor and over Cross Fell, a height of 893 meters. In the 16th century, one funeral party, overcome by a snowstorm, reputedly abandoned the coffin on the fell for a fortnight.
5. All corpse roads were set to cross water at some point in the journey. Whether it be a stream, a brook, or a river the path had to take the party carrying the corpse over water. Why? Because spirits supposedly could not cross over water. Once the body crossed water there was no way a spirit could find his or her way back home.
6. Routes often were extended in order to avoid passing over farmers’ fields. This was due to the belief that should a corpse pass across a farmer’s field that field would be soured and never again produce good crops. Anyone traveling in the UK today will often see an unploughed strip of land along the edge of fields wide enough for two men to walk abreast. These strips were left deliberately so that the corpse road could travel along the fields without crossing and souring the land.
As one can perhaps imagine, there are a great many superstitions associated with corpse roads. Some had explanations. Some defied explanation, but they were held steadfastly by those who were raised to believe them. Which accounts for some of the odd quirks associated with traveling and reaching one’s final destination on a corpse road.
1. Throughout the route, the corpse is carried feet first to the graveyard. In other words the body must be carried with the feet pointed away from the departed’s home. Why? To prevent him from finding his or her way home.
2. The coffin was never to be placed on the ground for the coffin-bearers to rest. Why? Apparently there was a chance if the coffin touched the earth the spirit of the departed might wander off. Therefore, flat stones, known as coffin rests or corpse crosses, were established along the corpse road so the bearers might place the coffin there and rest before continuing on their way. This was often where the team of bearers would switch out so as not to tire themselves along the way.
These coffin stones were usually found in lonely places away from any houses or villages. Many had their own legends attached to them. The one found on the corpse road between Keld and Muker in Yorkshire lies on Kisdon Fell just over Ivelet Bridge. It is said to be haunted by the ghost of a headless black dog. No explanation. Just a headless black dog hanging about the coffin rest.
As you can see, the coffin rest came in a variety of styles, but they all served the same purposes – to give the bearers a rest and to keep the departed from wandering off on the way to his or her funeral.
3. The corpse candle is another tradition associated with the corpse road, especially in Wales, the land of my ancestors. This was a mysterious light that supposedly was seen traveling a corpse road the night before a death. The light would be seen traveling from the churchyard to the front door of the person destined to die and then back to the churchyard. This was the spirit of the soon to be departed tracing the route they were about to take.
The light would travel close to the ground and disappear into the ground where the burial was to take place. Some said the lights were the spirits of the dead trying to lead travelers astray. Other legends declared them to be the spirits of unbaptized or stillborn babies caught between heaven and hell.
4. Crossroads were considered the most dangerous part of a corpse road. According to superstition, crossroads were where the veil between this world and the next and this world and the underworld was at its thinnest. It was believed the devil could appear at a crossroads. Crosses were placed at these intersections (hence the name) to protect travelers from the devil and any wayward spirits who were lost on their way to the graveyard. Other talismans called witch balls were also hung at crossroads. A witch ball consisted of a bottle or enclosed glass vessel which contained threads and charms. The threads were there specifically to ensnare passing spirits thus trapping any evil or negative energy and keeping the way safe for the living.
The final stop
Once the bearers reached the mother church there was one last tradition that marked the end of the corpse road. The bearers would take their burden to a specific door or gate at the church and wait for the clergy to come and assume responsibility for the body. Members of the clergy and their staff would be in charge of making final preparations to the body for burial. Here was also where the community coffin would be left for the next person in need of it.
These doors were often called leper doors and the gate was called the lych gate. (Remember, lych was the Old English word for corpse.) Again these gates might be very simple or quite elaborate. My first encounter with a lych gate was in the village of Kelsale in Suffolk where I lived for three years as a child.
For more about lych gates check out our earlier post on the subject.
Corpse Roads Today
As stated at the beginning of this post, many of these corpse roads are still known and visible today. In fact, hikers include these pathways on their lists of places to hike throughout the UK. There are, in fact, road signs that will direct hikers to these roads when possible. Some of the most popular are:
Ambleside to Grasmere, Cumbria
Black Mountain, Carmarthenshire
Lych Way, Devon
Coffin Route, Outer Hebrides
Buttermere Corpse Road, Cumbria
Garrigill to Cross Fell, Cumbria
Swaledale Corpse Way, North Yorkshire
The obligatory ghost story
Of course there are ghost stories aplenty associated with nearly every corpse road in England. Along the Elksdale Corpse Road there is the story of the family who made the mistake of carrying their departed son on horseback to the mother church. Crossing Burnmoor the mist was thick and eerie. Something spooked the horse which took off with the coffin and body strapped on his back. The party searched and searched but found neither the horse nor the son.
The news of what had happened to her son’s corpse so devastated his mother that she collapsed and died. Low and behold, the funeral party had not learned their lesson. The horse on which they conveyed her body took fright and bolted as well. In their search for her they found the son’s horse, alive, body and coffin still strapped to his back. However, no matter how far and wide they looked they never found the mother or her horse.
To this day there are reports of a ghostly horse with a coffin strapped to its back appearing out of nowhere to frighten the wits out of anyone foolish enough to follow the Elksdale Corpse Road.
Some advice? Don’t hike the corpse roads at night. Even the locals won’t do that. Just in case.
“Now it is that time of night, that the graves all gaping wide, every one lets forth his sprite, in the church-way paths to glide.”
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Called The Mad Marquess or, less frequently, the Dancing Marquess, Henry Cyril Paget, 5th Marquess of Angelsey, could not have been more different from his illustrious ancestor, Henry William Paget, the 1st Marquess, if he’d tried. Whilst the 1st Marquess lost his leg at Waterloo, the 5th lost a fortune on a lavish, over-the-top lifestyle that nearly bankrupted the estate. The 5th Marquess collected clothing and jewels with gusto and had his motor car fitted with pipes that issued wafts of perfume instead of exhaust fumes. The 5th Marquess’s excesses scandalized the locals who lived near Plas Newydd, the Angelsey home of the Paget family, as they did the entire nation, but the final straw came when he had the family chapel converted into his own private theatre.
The Marquess was described by Clough Williams-Ellis as “a sort of apparition – a tall, elegant and bejeweled creature, with wavering elegant gestures, reminding one rather of an Aubrey Beardsley illustration come to life.” An Omaha newspaper described him thus: “He is a thoroughly effeminate looking young fellow and he may be seen when in Paris walking around with a toy terrier under his arm, the pet being heavily scented and bedizened with bangles and bows. The fingers of the marquis fairly blaze with rings. He presents the characteristics of the Gypsy type.”
As I said, the 1st and 5th Marquess’s couldn’t be more different, although they do appear to share the same smile. Viv Gardner, Professor of Theatre Studies at the University of Manchester, is recognized as an expert on the life and times of the 5th Marquess and so we turn to her article on the subject that appeared in The Guardian in 2007 for more background information:
More information on the 5th Marquess can be found at the irreverant and most amsuing site, Bizarre Victoria and in this article written by a National Trust intern, intriguingly titled The Emerald Encrusted Wiff-Waff Jacket. Finally, you can listen to a half hour radio programmed on the 5th Marquess and all his eccentricities here at the BBC Radio 4 site.
We’ll be visiting Plas Newydd in Angelsey on Number One London’s Welsh Castles Tour, May 2025. Complete itinerary and further details can be found here.
Had she lived, Charlotte would have been Queen of the United Kingdom. Princess Charlotte Augusta of Wales was the only daughter of George IV, then Prince of Wales, and his wife and first cousin, Caroline of Brunswick, who loathed one another and who separated soon after Charlotte’s birth, never to live together, nor indeed be civil to one another, again.
The question could only have been put in a bantering spirit. He saw something was amiss, but he did did not trouble to inquire further, and soon after took the Prince away, as they had an engagement to dine in the City.
The child was born at nine o’clock, and apparently the mother was going on fairly well, but towards midnight Croft became alarmed and went for Stockmar, telling him the Princess was dangerously ill and that the Prince must be informed. Leopold knew that the child was dead, but he did not realise the nature of the impending calamity. It was all over when he set out for her room, and on his way he sank on a chair overwhelmed. Recovering himself, he staggered on, reached the bedside, and kneeling down kissed the cold hands—” those beautiful hands which at the last while she was talking to others seemed always to be looking out for mine,” were his pathetic words—and amid the stillness of death the falling curtain closed upon the tragedy.
“The Regent is terribly shook by this blow; so unexpected that he was completely overset when he was told of it. He had left Sudboum upon hearing of the protracted labour, but was in London informed that the child was dead and she remarkably well.”
|This memorial to Princess Charlotte and her son stands in St. George’s Chapel, Windsor