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American Merchant, Unsung Hero and Spy 1813

This essay is based upon my Author’s notes from my historical Romance novel, C1PHER, which is available as an ebook from Amazon, Barnes and Noble and from the publisher, The Wild Rose Press. 

C1PHER is a work of historical fiction, with the tale carefully straddling history and storytelling, but there are times that truth is stranger than fiction. Writing Historical Fiction is like making a fresh loaf of bread. Kneading facts into the story mix must be leavened with a healthy dose of imagination. If there is too much fact or fiction, it becomes something else: fantasy, alternate history, biography, creative non-fiction, etc.

The story begins for me in 1978, when I moved into a house located directly across the street from the Raynham Hall Museum in Oyster Bay, Long Island, New York, about thirty miles east of Manhattan. Over the years I never forgot my fascination with, and my visits to, the old house.

Originally, the property of six acres ran from the shoreline of Oyster Bay to the hill where Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe later rebuilt an old fort with the stolen wood from the trees of the prized Townsend apple orchard. The property included a four room house and was purchased in 1738 by Robert’s father, Samuel Townsend. He expanded the home to eight rooms, calling it “the Homestead.”

In the 1850s, Samuel’s descendant, Solomon Townsend, again expanded and refurbished the house in the then-current Victorian style, complete with a tower, renaming it “Raynham Hall” after the ancient Norfolk, England seat of the Townsend family. History had come full circle. The house was deeded to the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1933. In 1941, the house was given outright to the DAR. In 1947 the DAR offered the house to the Town of Oyster Bay, and the Town restored the building to its Colonial proportions during the early 1950s. Raynham Hall has been recently restored again and open to the public, and the grounds include an Educational building.

Robert Townsend and Mary Banvard were actual people who lived in New York during the American Revolution.

Robert was born in Oyster Bay in 1753, the third child, and the third son, of eight children. Though nominally a Quaker (a member of the Society of Friends), he was the product of his parents’ influence— his father was a liberal (aka: political) Quaker and his mother, Sarah Stoddard, was an Episcopalian (Anglican). This background gave me the freedom to make Robert a man of a wider worldview.

Religious Quakers often used the archaic thee or thou in their speech, refused to use titles because they were in contradiction of the concept of equality of all people, which the Friends held so dear in their religious precepts. These Quakers wore plain clothing, rejected bright colors and adornment with lace, gold or silver, and they did not wear jewelry. Other Quakers, those of more liberal thought, saw no need to forgo the luxuries of life. Though a Quaker, Robert seemed to be a man who appreciated nice things, though he was neither ostentatious nor pretentious in his dress or his manner.

Quakers were sometimes slaveholders. Census records show that Samuel Townsend, Robert’s father, and the later Townsends at the Homestead, owned at least seventeen slaves between 1749 and 1795, who were housed in the Homestead’s attic. I do not know if Robert held slaves either in New York City, or when he moved back to Oyster Bay. I also have found no information as to whether or not Robert’s cousin, Peter Townsend, held slaves, but it worked in the storyline, so there it is. I apologize to him and his descendants if I have maligned his character by calling him a slaveholder.

The effort to end Quaker slaveholding began in the mid-seventeenth century. Eventually, those Quakers who remained slaveholders were given a choice: slaveholding or their religion. Most opted to free their slaves. In 1785, a delegation of freed slaves, led by the black abolitionist and former slave, Olauidah Equiano, thanked the Quakers for their efforts to stop slavery in the New World. With the inclusion of the characters of Dwayne, Tillie, and their sons, I wanted to show slavery in practice in Colonial America, even by Quakers, despite the practice was becoming very controversial in the Society of Friends by that time.

The Culper Gang was based on fact. (Many of you may be familiar with the Gang from the AMC television series TURN: Washington’s Spies.) Washington was desperate to get information from New York City, once the British took the city in 1776.

Robert Townsend was originally a pacifist but became influenced by another Quaker, Thomas Paine, whose pamphlet, Common Sense, spoke to the conflict of spirit Robert must have felt upon seeing the damage to his family’s property, the open flirting of the officers with his younger sisters, the loyalty oaths imposed upon the family, and the various insults suffered by his family while “hosting” Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe and his cohorts. Though Robert wished to help the Patriot cause, he could not become a combatant due to his Quaker beliefs.

Operating a dry goods business in the red-light district—ironically called “Holy Ground”—and working as a businessman and freelance journalist in British-occupied New York City, Robert was ideally situated to gather information for the leaders of the rebellious Colonial army. Beginning in June 1778, and working with several other native Long Islanders who were interrelated by friendship and family ties, Townsend passed his information in code, and/or invisible ink, to others in the chain, which eventually made its way to General Washington. It was the information discovered by Robert that revealed the truth about Major Andre, Benedict Arnold, and the plot to sell the fort at West Point to the British.

Toward the end of the war, Townsend made a special request of his handler, Colonel Benjamin Talmadge, to never reveal his identity either to Washington or the public. Spying was not considered respectable, no matter the importance of the cause. The secret of Culper Junior’s identity may never have been discovered, but fate intervened, as it so often does. In 1929, a request was made of Morton Pennypacker, a local state historian, to examine some papers discovered during a repair of Raynham Hall. A handwriting expert compared Robert Townsend’s handwriting with that of the more familiar hand of Culper, Jr., and Pennypacker realized Townsend and Culper were one and the same. He contacted a handwriting expert to confirm the findings. General George Washington’s most important spy, Samuel Culper, Junior, aka: Agent 723, was quiet, unassuming Robert Townsend.

On Mary Banvard there is considerably less information. She was not born of a noble or notable family, but instead, she was a Canadian-born housekeeper at Robert’s New York City apartment, which Robert shared with his brother William and another relative. Mary is attributed to be the mother of Robert’s natural son, Robert, Jr. Others believe William was the actual father of the child, but Robert accepted responsibility, gave the child his name, and paid for his schooling.

Another woman said to possibly be Robert Jr.’s mother was the mysterious female spy, Agent 355, who worked with Robert. Others say Agent 355 is simply the code book designation for a “Lady,” or a “woman of means,” as opposed to 701, an ordinary woman. After the Revolutionary War, somehow the stories about Townsend and 355 became conflated, suggested that a female agent 355 worked for Robert Townsend, bore his child, was arrested as a spy, and was confined, then died, on the British prison ship Jersey. A dramatic story, but questionable for many. So far we do not know the answer, which made the writing of my heroine, Mary, that much more fun.

My Mary is a highly educated, liberated, Twenty-first Century woman who made curiosity her sacrament. Her favorite question is why, and no matter what, she is strong enough to keep her feet moving forward, despite the odds. In the end gets her man and discovers some new things about herself.

In the story, Robert’s fiancée Mary was also strong, but she seems opinionated, narrow, unkind, selfish, and spoiled. I wanted to make the two Marys as opposite as I could. Of course, we are all hoping that twenty-first century Mary bonds with, and then falls in love with Robert, so they get their Happily-Ever-After (HEA).

Though we never meet her, I wonder what happened to Colonial Mary. Did she end up in the twenty-first century and find her own HEA? I hope she does.

One final note. The Townsend orchard eradicator and friend of Major John Andre, Lieutenant Colonel John Graves Simcoe, is said to be the author of the first American Valentine, which he gave to Sally (Sarah) Townsend, one of Robert’s sisters. No wonder Robert was so unhappy with the British camped out in the Homestead.

Though a brute in his iron-fisted control over Oyster Bay, and throughout his other postings in the American Colonies, Lieutenant Colonel Simcoe returned to England at the end of the War for Independence. He was a Member of Parliament and later appointed as the first Governor of Upper Canada. He founded the City of York (later: Toronto), abolished slavery in Upper Canada, and established the English traditions such as trial by jury. He is revered in Canada as a great patriot and in the United States he is remembered as a barbarian.

I hope you enjoy reading C1PHER as much as I enjoyed researching and writing it. I’m sad to say farewell to Mary and Robert for now, but there is always a possibility of another story.

Information on the history of Raynham Hall was based on the RaynhamHall Museum website (


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NUANCES OF SHADE: Sofonisba Anguissola and her Art Placing her in Context

This essay is based on my research on Italian Renaissance painter Sofonisba Anguissola, who is the protagonist in my novel (in progress), An Illustrious Woman.

NUANCES OF SHADE: Sofonisba Anguissola and her Art
Placing her in Context

By: Monica E. Spence

There are men and women who put their stamp on a particular subject because of their work: Sofonisba Anguissola is one such woman. Sofie watched Michelangelo’s muscular Mannerist style of the late Renaissance transform into the intricate, decorative style of Van Dyck’s Baroque period[1]. Each style blended into the other, and yet was visually, subjectively and contextually different from the styles established since the Thirteenth Century by Cimabue and Giotto.

A pioneer in the art of realistic portraiture, Sofie did what few other painters had ever done— she single-handedly introduced two sub-genres of painting. In 1555, The Chess Game(Illustration 1), her quadruple portrait of three of her sisters playing chess while their servant looks on from the side of the canvas, shows liveliness and glee ever before seen in paintings.[2] During the 1570s, she painted a Portrait of a Lady wearing a ropa[3] or zimarra[4] with gold embroidery and holding a vase of flowers (Illustration 2). It was one of the first 16th Century paintings to combine a still life with a portrait.[5]

In Sofie’s long series of self-portraits, she consistently shows herself to be a woman of serious demeanor[6] (Illustration 3). In more than one of her early self-portraits, she proudly announces herself as a virgin, the state regarded at the time as a woman’s only possession of worth. The Council of Trent (1545- 1564) restated, “…virginity was still a more blessed state than marriage.”[7] In her art Sofie surrounds herself with the trappings a well-educated woman who is skilled in many of the Arts: painting (Illustration 4), music (Illustration 5), and reading and learning (Illustration 6). In her self-portraits, her clothing is unusually subdued for a lady of her rank: she is usually seen wearing a black doublet (sleeveless jacket) over a brown or dark plum gown, her white chemise (blouse) peeking from her sleeves and neckline, her hair braided about her head and encased in a black snood, and wearing no jewelry. She is a study of a virtuous and studious young woman of the Renaissance.


Illustration 1:
The Chess Game
Sofonisba Anguissola
Museum Narodowe


Illustration 2:
Portrait of a Lady
Sofonisba Anguissola
St. Petersburg: Hermitage


Illustration 3:
Self-Portrait in Miniature
Sofonisba Anguissola
Boston: Museum of Fine Arts
Inscribed: Sophonisba Anguissola Vir(go) IpshusManuex (s)peculoDepictum Cremona. (Sophonisba Anguissola, Maiden, painted this by using a mirror.) Note that she has spelled her name in the manner of Hannibal’s Carthaginian niece.


Illustration 4:
Sofonisba Anguissola (1556)
Self-portrait at an Easel
Lancut: Museum Zamek


Illustration 5:
Sofonisba Anguissola
Self-portrait playing the Clavichord (1556-57)
Naples: Museo di Capodimonte

Continue reading NUANCES OF SHADE: Sofonisba Anguissola and her Art Placing her in Context

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Duke Cosimo de I Medici of Florence and Duchess Eleonora of Toledo of Florence

Cosimo I de Medici,
Second Duke of Florence By: Bronzino
Eleonora de Toledo Duchess of Florence By: Alessandro Allori

This Bibliography was taken from a handout provided at my lecture about Eleonora of Toledo (Eleonora de Toledo) at the Society for Creative Anachronism’s (SCA) Pennsic War, as well as newly available sources.


Duke Cosimo de I Medici of Florence and 

Duchess Eleonora of Toledo of Florence:  

A Selected Bibliography

Anquetil, Jacques: Silk. New York: Flammarion. 1996

Arnold, Janet: Patterns of Fashion: The Cut and Construction of Clothes for Men and Women 1560-1620. New York: Drama Books. 1985.
________ Preliminary Investigation into the Medici Grave Clothes. Il    Costume nell’ etas’ del  Rinascimento. (No publisher available) Florence: 1988.
________ A personal letter to Monica E. Spence, 1992.

Arnold, Janet, Roberta Orsi Landini, et al: Moda alla corte dei Medici: gli abiti restaurati di Cosimo, Eleonora e don Garzia, Firenze: Centro Di della Edifimi slr. 1993.

Baccheschi, Edi: L’Opera Completa del Bronzino. Milan: Rizzoli. 1973.

Barolsky, Paul: Infinite Jest: Wit and Humor in Italian Renaissance Art. Columbia (Missouri): University of Missouri Press. 1978.

Brion, Marcel: The Medici, A Great Florentine Family. New York: Crown Publishers Inc. 1969.

Bruckner, Gene: Florence: The Golden Age – 1138-1737. Berkley: University of California Press. 1998.

Calloway, Steven and Jones, Steven: Royal Style: Five Centuries of Influence and Fashion. Boston: Little Brown and Company. 1991.

Campbell, Lorne: Renaissance Portraits. New Haven: Yale University Press. 1990.

Caneva, Caterina, et al.: The Uffizi Guide to the Collections and Catalogue of All Paintings. Florence: Becocci/Scala. 1986.

Cecci, Alessandro: Bronzino. New York: Riverside Book Company. 1996.

Cellini, Benvenuto: The Autobiography of Benvenuto Cellini. Edited and abridged by Charles Hope and Alessandro Nova from the Translation by J.A. Symonds. Oxford: Phaidon Press. 1983.

Cochrane, Eric: Florence in the Forgotten Centuries 1527-1800. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1973.

Cleugh, James: The Medici: A Tale of Fifteen Generations. New York: Dorset Press. 1975.

Cox-Rearick, Janet: Bronzino’s Chapel of Eleonora in the Palazzo Vecchio. Berkley: University of California Press. 1993.
_________Bronzino’s Young Woman with Her Little Boy. Studies in the History of Art Volume #12. Washington: National Gallery of Art. 1982.
_________Dynasty and Destiny in Medici Art: Pontormo, Leo and the Two Cosimos. Princeton: Princeton University Press. 1984.

Currie, Elizabeth: Fashion and Masculinity in Renaissance Florence. London: Bloomsbury. 2016.

Davenport, Millia: The Book of Costume. New York: Crown Publishers. 1948.

Feinberg, Larry J.: From Studio to Studiolo: Florentine Draftsmanship Under the First Medici Grand Dukes. Seattle: Marquand Books. 1991.

Ferrai, Luigi A.: Cosimo de Medici. (No publisher given) Bologna: 1882.

Fox, Linda R.: Portraits of Eleonora of Toledo (Part I) Costumers Newsletter (Seams Like Old Times. Volume #2. Bloomington (Indiana): 1983.
_______Portraits of Eleonora of Toledo (Part II) Costumers Newsletter (Seams Like Old Times) Volume #5. Bloomington (Indiana) 1983.

Gregori, Mina: Paintings in the Uffizi and Pitti Galleries. Boston: Little Brown and Company. 1994.

Hibbert, Christopher: Florence the Biography of a City. New York: W.W. Norton and Co. Inc. 1993.

_______The House of Medici: Its Rise and Fall. New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks. 1980.

Joyce, Kristin and Addison Shellei: Pearls: Ornament and Obsession. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1993.

Landini, Roberta and Bruna Niccoli, Moda a Firenze: 1540-1580, Lo stile di Eleonora di Toledo e la sua influenza. Firenze: Edizioni Polistampa: 2005.

Landini, Roberta, Moda a Firenze: 1540-1580, Lo stile di Cosimo I de’ Medici’s style/ Lo stile di Cosimo I de’Medici. Firenze, Edizioni Polistampa: 2011.

Lees, Dorothy N. (trans.): Florence. Novara: Instituto Geografico de Agostini. 1955.

Levey, Michael: Florence: A Portrait. Cambridge: Harvard University Press. 1996
_______Painting at Court: the Wrightman Lectures. NY: New York University Press. 1971.

Langedijk, Karla: The Portraits of the Medici (2 vol.). Florence: Studio per Edizioni Scelte. 1981.

Luchinat, Christina A. (ed.): Treasures of Florence: the Medici Collection 1400- 1700. New York: Prestel. 1997.

Marinis, Fabrizio de’ (ed.): Velvet. New York: Idea Books. 1994.

Massinelli, Anna Maria and Tuera, Filipo: Treasures of the Medici. New York: Vendome Press. 1992.

McCorquodale, Charles: Bronzino. London: Jupiter Books. 1981

Micheletti, Emma: Le Donna dei Medici. Florence: Sansoni. 1983.

Minor, Andrew C. and Mitchell, Bonner: A Renaissance Entertainment: Festivities for the Marriage of Cosimo I, Duke of Florence in 1539. Columbia (Missouri): University of Missouri Press. 1968.

Regoli, Gigetta, et al: Uffizi/Florence: Great Museums of the World. New York: Newsweek. 1968.

Rud, Einer: Vasari’s Life and Lives. Princeton: D. Van Nostrand Co. Inc. 1963.

Ruskin, Ariane: Art of the High Renaissance. New York: McGraw Hill Book Company. 1968.

Strehl, Melinda: Knitting Eleonora of Toledo’s Stockings. Tournaments Illuminated, Issue #126, Spring. Milpitas (California): Society for Creative Anachronism. 1998.

Tinagli, Paola: Women in Italian Renaissance Art: Gender, Representation, Identity. New York: St. Martin’s Press. 1997.

Vasari, Giorgio: Lives of the Artists (2 vol.). Tr. by George Bull. New York: Viking Penguin Press. 1987.

Young, G.F.: The Medici (2 vol.). New York: E.P. Dutton and Company. 1920.

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Clothing for the Middle and Lower Classes in the Late 16th and Early 17th Century: Historical Overview

  This essay was taken from a handout provided at my lecture given at the Society for Creative Anachronism’s (SCA) Pennsic War.

                  Clothing for the Middle and Lower Classes in the
Late 16th and Early 17th Century: 
 Historical Overview

The study of middle and lower class garments is something that must be approached a little differently from our usual study of court garb. Because the middle and lower classes did not change their clothing style as quickly as did the nobility, it is often difficult to tell the dating of a style based on its silhouette.

The lower classes were not usually painted or drawn in the formal portrait genre. That is, a person of the middle or lower class was unlikely to be found sitting for a portrait in order to immortalize himself or herself for posterity. Yes, artists painted and drew their relatives as a source of practice subjects. They were also known to draw upon the lower classes as pictorial examples for admiration or caricature. However, true portraiture was the bailiwick of the nobility. These people wanted to be remembered by history because of their own personal accomplishments or because of family ties. They spent money to be remembered. This was not an accident. It was a conceit of the class of which they belonged.

Where we find a surprising presence of the lower classes is in the engravings of the period and in the new “still life” genre. And it is in the middle class that such historical re-enactment sites as Williamsburg (Virginia) and Plymouth (Massachusetts) devote such care to reconstruct. It is from such sources that one can extrapolate information regarding middle and lower class life.

The study of clothing begins with the nobility. If you see and understand what was worn by the noble class, then you realize that the clothing of the lower classes was ultimately a simpler and less sophisticated continuation of the same styles. The clothing of the Middle and Lower classes “aped their betters”. For example, you will find a ruff or a falling band on a chemise (smock) of the under classes. However it took longer for the trickle-down effect of fashion to arrive and once it was established, it took much longer for the style to change. Also, fashion changed slowly for people as they got older. The style you find on a person of twenty years old differs greatly from that of the fashions of a fifty-year-old.

Sumptuary laws attempted to restrict the styles of fashion with varying degrees of success. The lower class could not obtain certain items, such as lace, silver and gold trim or cloth of gold, simply because of the excessive cost. However, to a wealthy merchant with money to spend, clothing was often the source of stiff penalties in the form of fines. The result: the Crown’s coffers were enriched when the fine was paid. But the merchant class continued to wear their rich clothing, despite the outrage of the nobility and the condemnations from the pulpit. And the merchant class was satisfied with the arrangement because, despite the cost of the fine, the fine clothes that they wore allowed them to look prosperous, successful and noteworthy. It also allowed the merchant class to, visually if not actually, reach beyond their station.

We must remember that the late 16th and early 17th Centuries were tumultuous times in England. Though it was not a time of war, there were political pressures abounding. The waning years of Elizabeth’s reign exacerbated the debate and fears fueled by her lack of a successor. The selection of James VI of Scotland may seem to be a logical choice to us 400 years in retrospect. But at the time there was much opposition from the populace to a “foreign” King ruling England. Not since the unfortunate days of Queen Mary I had a foreigner been titled King of England. Philip I of Spain, despite his desires to the contrary, had little personal power under the agreement that forged the marriage between Catholic Mary and himself. After her death, five years into the marriage, he lost all power he had ever had over England. This reverted entirely to Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth. So, England, by the time of Elizabeth’s death in 1603, had been ruled by an Englishwoman for the entirety of most peoples’ lives. It struck fear into the hearts of many that a Scot, despite his clear English lineage, would come to be called King.

James knew of these feelings. His personal wardrobe included heavily padded doublets that protected him from assassination attempts. His progress from Scotland to England to take possession of the English throne brought a gleam to his eyes when he saw the peaceful, prosperous land that had been Elizabeth’s legacy to him. Since he had been raised to think of himself as an absolute monarch (a Stuart failing), he saw and perceived it to be “all his”.

During this time, actually a holdover from the later dark days of Henry VIII, Elizabeth’s father, the political climate became uncomfortable for those who disagreed with the Royal Opinion – especially in matters of religion. We in the Twenty-first Century really cannot conceive of the importance that religion held in the minds and hearts of the people in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Religion started their lives, from the day that they were baptized, and religion ended their lives when they received Last Rites and were buried under the rites of the Church. The names of the religions might have changed and the ceremonies altered, but the importance of religion in the daily lives of the Englishman never faded. It was during this period of time that the concept of a “personal religion” came to the forefront. We of this century have filled our lives with a new philosophy, that of humanism. It was this humanism that began to take shape in the late 16th Century – contemporaneous with the eras of Henry, Elizabeth and later Charles, James’ son and heir.

But what does religion and politics have to do with the clothing, you might ask? Everything. A man or woman, of whatever status or class, was immediately identified and categorized by what he or she wore. The simple elegance of the Puritan was as much a statement as the lace-encrusted foppishness of the Cavalier courtier. Their philosophies and their politics and their personal wealth were reflected in their clothing. Truly clothes made the man (and woman)!

With this brief historical overview, I encourage you to continue your study into the clothing of the middle and lower classes in England of the late 16th and early 17th centuries using the Bibliography below.


Burgers, Jacqueline: Wenceslaus Hollar: Seventeenth Century Prints from the Museum Boymans-Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. Alexandria: Art Services International, 1994.

Jones, Jeanne: Family Life in Shakespeare’s England: Stratford- upon Avon 1570 – 1630. Phoenix Mill: Sutton Publishing, 1996.

Hibbert, Christopher: Charles I. New York: Harper and Row, 1968.

McLeod, Kirsty: Drums and Trumpets: The House of Stuart. London: Andre Deutsch Ltd., 1977.

Schneider, Norbert: Still Life. Loln: Taschen, 1994.

Sim, Alison: The Tudor Housewife. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1996.

Walters, Kate: Samuel Eaton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Boy. New York: Scholastic Publishers 1993.

Walters, Kate: Sara Morton’s Day: A Day in the Life of a Pilgrim Girl.New York: Scholastic Publishers, 1989.

Watson, D.R.: The Life and Times of Charles I. London: Book Club Associates, 1972.