During the third series of Poldark, historian and advisor to the show Hannah Greig explored the real history behind each episode for History Extra.
Here’s a recap of what happened in Poldark series three – from Ross’s trip to Republican France to the rotten boroughs of 18th-century Cornwall…
Warning: this article contains spoilers for series three of Poldark
In the first episode of series three, we’re immediately swept up with the stories of our lead characters. Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner), his wife Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson), his childhood sweetheart Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and enemy George Warleggan (Jack Farthing) remain locked in complex ties of love, lust, loyalty, ambition and conflict. The episode sees Doctor Dwight Enys and Caroline Penvenen finally married, though the doctor is called away from his wedding night to assist the birth of Elizabeth’s baby, which arrives apparently early after Elizabeth manufactures a fall. Though the baby Valentine is delivered safely, suspicions abound as to the timing of the birth.
We meet a few new characters too, with the arrival of Demelza’s brothers, Drake and Sam Carne, and Elizabeth’s cousin, Morwenna Chynoweth, who joined Elizabeth’s family as a governess. What was the situation like for a girl such as Morwenna in the 18th century?
“She was socially superior to other domestic servants,” explains Hannah Greig, “closer to the family in rank than to those ‘below stairs’ but nonetheless still a servant herself, dependent on her employer for everything – her income, board and lodging, working conditions, lifestyle and social connections.”
The Carne brothers and 18th-century Methodists
“Oo be this, then?” Prudie asks in episode two, spotting Demelza’s brother, Drake Carne, striding towards Nampara. The arrival of the Carne brothers causes a stir in the mining community: both are young, good-looking, unmarried men; and both are Methodists.
Soon after their arrival, both brothers invite the wrath of George Warleggan. Drake catches the eye of new governess Morwenna, while the elder Carne, Sam, captures attention from many of the mine workers with his charismatic Methodist preaching.
Why did the Methodist style of informal preaching strike a particular chord with poorer and working communities, including those the centred around the Cornish mines? Hannah Greig explains in her episode two blog…
Poldark visits Republican France
In episode three, the action leaves the Cornish coast for foreign shores as Ross pays a visit across the English Channel to Roscoff to search for his missing friend Dwight Enys. Ross believes Dwight to have been captured and imprisoned following a sea battle.
Eighteenth-century Brittany was a dangerous place to be: the French Revolution of 1789 had led to the removal and eventual execution of the country’s monarchy and the establishment of a new French republic. Though Ross and his companions find that Dwight is alive in a French prison, they are forced to flee before they attract dangerous suspicion and the doctor remains imprisoned.
What was the political situation between Britain and France in the 18th century? Hannah investigates the realities of Ross’s treacherous journey in her episode three blog.
George Warleggan becomes a magistrate
The fourth episode sees George Warleggan flexing his new-found power as a local magistrate. As the effects of a poor harvest are felt in the region and riots and disorder flare in Cornwall, George stockpiles grain while punishing those who steal food. Meanwhile, the “reptilian” Reverend Osborne ‘Ossie’ Whitworth courts Morwenna with George’s encouragement; Ross clashes with George over efforts to feed his starving workers; and Demelza gives birth to another child.
How accurate is Winston Graham’s depiction of the power that local magistrates held?
“A Justice of the Peace (JP) was a local magistrate who sat at the heart of 18th-century local government and the country’s complex criminal justice system,” Hannah explains. “He was expected to manage local law and order by arbitrating on a whole range of disputes, from pub brawls and swearing in the street to disagreements between employers and servants.”
France’s Quimper prison and a dramatic rescue
Episode five finds Ross back in France, this time staging a daring prison break to rescue Dwight Enys. The prison in question is Quimper, a real prison in western Brittany which was notorious in the 18th century for its terrible conditions.
Back in Cornwall, George Warleggan continues his attempts to win political favour, while Drake and Morwenna grow closer – though Reverend Whitworth looms large in his intentions towards the young governess.
When researching and writing about Quimper prison in his Poldark novels, Winston Graham used first-person reports, says Hannah. In Poldark’s Cornwall – a companion to the Poldark novels – Graham recalls using a letter by one Lady Anne Fitzroy which outlined the horrendous conditions at the French prison…
Aunt Agatha and the position of an 18th-century ‘spinster’
In episode six, romances are challenged as Dwight and Caroline struggle to reconnect after his prison ordeal, and there’s no happy resolution for Drake and Morwenna. After Drake is imprisoned following a prank involving a basketful of toads on Trenwith land, George seeks revenge by engineering a cruel bargain: the governess is forced to marry Reverend Whitworth in exchange for Drake’s freedom.
Elsewhere, Aunt Agatha looks ahead to her 100th birthday. Acerbic, ancient and fortune-telling, Aunt Agatha has guided the viewers through plot twists since the first episode of Poldark, and she’s been locking horns with George throughout series three. “She’s also a favourite character of mine,” says Hannah, “because she draws our attention to a figure whose place in 18th-century society is all too easily ignored: the lifelong, single woman.”
The stereotypes associated with spinsterhood were certainly brutal, writes Hannah. What kind of life might someone like Aunt Agatha have lived? Hannah speculates in her episode six blog…
The real 18th-century history behind Poldark
Episode seven sees some characters mourning the death of Aunt Agatha, while others fear for the safety of Morwenna in her unfortunate marriage to Whitworth. Elsewhere, Demelza is pursued by Hugh Armitage, while Dwight Enys once more displays his modern medical skill by treating young Valentine’s rickets with a dose of Vitamin D. Meanwhile, George sets his sights on securing one of the 44 seats in Westminster filled by Cornish MPs – an opportunity dismissed by Ross.
So, are any of Winston Graham’s storylines based on real 18th-century experiences, or is such high drama the stuff of fiction alone?
In her episode seven blog, Hannah explains that much of what Graham’s Poldark characters encounter is – perhaps surprisingly – inspired by ‘true stories’ the author uncovered in 18th-century newspapers, personal letters, diaries and autobiographies…
The ‘rotten boroughs’ of 18th-century Cornwall
Episode eight sees two of Poldark’s women grappling with the advances of men, as poor Morwenna further suffers at the hands of her husband shortly after giving birth, while Demelza finds it increasingly difficult to avoid the amorous intentions of Hugh Armitage.
Meanwhile, all eyes turn to parliament as George Warleggan is elected MP for the district. His election presents the perfect chance for Hannah to explore a fundamental characteristic of Cornwall’s 18th-century past: the ‘rotten boroughs’ that led to the region becoming famously over-represented in parliament. By 1790, it was returning 44 MPs to Westminster (home to a total of 558 members) – far more than anywhere else in the country and “a melancholy proof of the present great inequality of representation”, according to one contemporary observer. But what led to this corrupt system of ‘rotten boroughs’?
Love and marriage in 18th-century England
“Love, lust, sex and marriage are at the heart of Winston Graham’s Poldark series, both in his original pages and in on-screen adaptation,” says Hannah. But how much of the love and intrigue that we find in Poldark is timeless and how much speaks to the particularities of the 18th century?
Graham’s central relationship – between the gentlemanly Ross Poldark and Demelza Carne, an illiterate young kitchen maid – is highly unusual, as it contravened most social and cultural norms of the day. But was there a real ‘Ross and Demelza’ in history? Hannah investigates…
Hannah Greig is author of The Beau Monde: Fashionable Society in Georgian London (OUP, 2013) and is a historical advisor on the BBC One drama series Poldark. Series four of Poldark begins on Sunday 10 June 2018. More information can be found here and you can read more about what to expect from series four at Radiotimes.com.
Watch the trailer for series four of Poldark below: