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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

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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.